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QUINTESSENCE

Freedom of Appreciation

It's been said a million times before, but it is still true: no one finishes a book the same person as when they started, whether filled with a new understanding or just happier for the hours lost a good story.
- excerpted from the introductary remarks included on each WBN selection by Carl Lennertz, Executive Director, and Anna Quindlen, National Chairperson, WBN, U.S.
(A few reader pictures of WBN posted on my website Events Page)

World Book Night in America for 2012 distributed books from a list of 30 titles including classic serious fiction of the likes of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and books that step into cultural divides, such as Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Some books on the list introduce us to dystopias - the imaginary worlds of The Hunger Games, and Ender's Game, or drop us into strange, even shocking points of view, like narrator of The Lovely Bones. Many of the books on this year's list culled by librarians and critics are straightforward, compelling, enjoyable reads. Some are fiction with a nuance of differentness that as a good spice livens a dish, makes the book stand out - like a personal favorite, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Some stories might be difficult, challenging reads because of what the author has to say, which may be in opposition to our own cultural and political understanding, or expressed in a narrative manner we find difficult to embrace.

I picked Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as my giveaway book for WBN, U.S. It is a book I value. Yesterday I received an email from one of the anonymous readers who received this book (I included my contact information for feedback). This reader reminded me that the value of a book is a complex thing. We value literature for many things - for originality or beauty of prose, for cultural veracity, for the degree to which the author stands in witness to human truth. There is the impact of the story, the characters, and the degree to which we as readers feel the story meets our expectations for a good read - are we expecting to be pleased, to like the ending, be moved to tears, educated, shocked, scared witless, left musing? Does the reader of Stephen King's The Stand expect the same thing from a book as the reader of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake? The fluid reminder is that we read subjectively: We value, praise, and reflect on what speaks to us as individuals. There is no one book for everyone.

These comments from a WBN reader gave me pause for thought - "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is not an easy book to summarize. Not an easy book to even define. It’s not even easy book to say 'I like it' or 'I don’t like it' I know that the profanity , throughout the book, is part of the story, part of the culture and place of the book. The brutality, the hopelessness, the graphic destruction of humans is not easy to read or understand. I do understand the world can be an awful place, and lives are thrown away for the basest of reasons. But Oscar’s life is tossed away so he can finally get laid. That is not very wondrous to me, his life did not seem ‘wondrous’ at all. A nerd trapped in a very large body. Most of the book is not even about Oscar but his mother, sister and “aunt”. Maybe I don’t understand this book. I certainly do not understand why it was awarded a Pulitzer or was a best seller or why it is included in the World Book Night. It is a very difficult read, English to Spanish, footnotes to explain cultural and historical references, profanity and violence. Not the type of book I would give to a casual or non-book reader to entice them to read again. The Poisonwood Bible, which is also on the WBN list, is a book to entice a new reader, it too has conflict and uncertainty but it teaches about cultural differences and how peoples viewpoints can be so misunderstood because of not learning about the cultural basis of those viewpoints. Oscar Wao makes no effort to bridge a cultural gap, instead it describes people trapped by their culture and unable to escape it. Perhaps this book is well written, but I can’t get a grip the ‘why’ of the book. Why this story, why the acclaim, why should I want to know these people?... With all that written, I am glad that I read it. It is good for my brain to be confused."

This reader reminds me that meaning and value are subjective, and that books are part of this marketplace of ideas in which we pick and choose from the offerings of authors who give us the full benefit of their originality and differentness. I have learned as much about myself from books I hated as those books I loved. The discovery of emotional limits, of values so core it hurt to read them violated, even in fiction. I have learned there are places in imagination rough to go, journalism exposing harsh truths difficult to read - and I am the better human for it. I have learned empathy as a reader; aware of the great divide between my personal world and the world of those whose personal limits are stretched, broken, and routinely violated every day both in the real world or expressed and translated in fiction. Reading, they say, opens not just minds but tolerance.

Yet. It is not for me, the WBN committee, nor any other voice to determine what is important or not important, or meaningful or not meaningful in books. We are each of us, as readers, the judge of a book's worth. This is the great truth of books - an author puts out what a reader electively chooses to read. The reader values the book, and that's as it should be, in my humble opinion.
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World Book Night, April 23, 2012

CROSSING THE ALASKA RANGE
Fractured rivers of time
Descend from the ice fields:
Lifeless black and white
Yield to color
And the hope of a second chance.

- Gregory Miller

Books are about chances. Circumstances, happenstance, accident, and serendipity all cross paths in literature. When you open a book, you open yourself to the possibility of surprise. Somehow our imaginations yield from black and white to color.

World Book Night was a terrific adventure in meeting people who love books, those with a passing familiarity, and those whose last book might have been part of a school homework assignment. As I was traveling from Spokane to Maui over this period, I had the opportunity to place the book of my choice, Junot Diaz' Pulitzer Prize winner, "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," in the hands of an optician, a beautician, a hydrologist from Elko, a Hawaiian hotel maid, a tourist on an airplane, an Army soldier on leave from Iraq, a med student in the airport, a busy concierge at an Asian Travel Services desk, several harried physicians at a regional hospital, and an engineering student from MIT. Not your usual readers, all surprised and curious. We talked about World Book Night in America, and I suggested they continue the gift of a free book by passing it on to someone they knew when finished.

I was struck by several things in this process: the degree to which people love books and are delighted to hold one in their hands; the reality of how our increasingly busy lives have cut us off from the pleasure of reading; and the way that everyone I stopped to talk with appreciated not just the gift of a good book, but the encouragement to drop out of the work world of email and into the pages of a story.

I'm on travel until the end of the week, but when I return, I will post pictures from my adventures with World Book Night, USA. Stay tuned.
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Azure World

Maui shore
THE EAGLE

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

- fragment, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I'm about to embark on a holiday to my favorite place in the world, the Island of Maui, Hawaii. This island is both beautiful and sacred to me, a temple of nature rising green and blue from the sheen of the Pacific. Ringed by white beaches, steep volcanic mountains and emerald valleys, Maui is a place unlike any other. On Maui I find myself thinking more spaciously, abundantly, leaning into to a farther horizon. I usually find both restoration, peace and vision on the island. I have actually made most of my life's major goals standing on Maui's western shore by this one gray wind-twisted tree, a survivor bent and smoothed by the trade winds, an ancient of nature rooted into the cool surf that invites me to lean on its sturdy trunk as I sort out my life and reset my inner compass. O, I am looking forward to touching its smooth branches! To my toes talking with the sand and the sea life. To see if I can't become bigger than what life usually makes of me, or I of life. Bigger dreams, more courage, the thunderbolt that falls.

It is important we have our own sacred place in life; an earthly cathedral, a physical touchstone of the deeper self we can carry in our hearts as we go about our daily compressed lives. A personal square of this wondrous planet that speaks to the hugeness of what life is and who we are in our own much more humble existence. A place of wonder. Of memory. A sounding board that helps us navigate forward into the next journey. Return, regroup, refresh, renew.

I promise to drop in with a note this week in the Pacific. In the meantime, Aloha from Maui.
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A Mouthful of Language

PEACHES
A mouthful of language to swallow:
stretches of beach, sweet clinches,
breaches in walls, pleached branches;
britches hauled over haunches;
hunched leeches, wrenched teachers.
What English can do: ransack
the warmth that chuckles beneath
fuzzed surfaces, sooth velvet
richness, plashy juices.
I beseech you, peach,
clench me into the sweetness
of your reaches.

-Peter Davison

This poem is a delight to read, to say aloud, to chisel out slim tickles of visual context and meaning. Peaches, a humorous ode to the inside-out of adjectives, but then the poet's own elegant rebuttal: descriptions sensual, true, and robust. Do these words that describe the indescribable fail or surpass? Surely Davison amuses us with his riddle of the peach, asking "What is?" in syllables that roll around and off the tongue - of the peach, but not the peach. And then, finally, just the peach. Aren't words grand? As much to love as the stories they tell?

As we approach World Book Night, this great free literature giveaway, I invite you to think about what language speaks to you in its rhymes, prose, sometimes raw and roughhewn power. Give thought to your favorite books and why they remain important and significant to you. Without words would the more subtle and puzzling elements of life elude us? Are words the play we make with the strange experience life is? Stories are organic to life lived and imagined - made of peaches and fires and galaxies, horses pounding through dust over a distant plain. Somewhere, long ago, it was no longer enough to merely watch the prairie lightning, it must be painted on the rock walls. Described in stories of the peoples' exodus, added to the Great Hunt. Words...palaces of frozen time we wonder at again and again.

Celebrate World Book Night on April 23. Open your favorite book and delve into starfish, stairways, deserts, balls of lava, poisoned cake, Cossacks and Caribbean nights, the myths of Rome, plots of Shakespeare, three geese crossing a midnight moon... Enjoy a mouthful of language!
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Where I Have to Go

Theodore Roethke
THE WAKING
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near,
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

- Theodore Roethke

I love this poem by Theodore Roethke, written in the mid-twentieth century, when the shining new edges of science and technology assured us the world was a moldable and directed environment; nature was there to be conjured into the inventions and shiny objects of our imaginations. And yet this poem calls us to the mysteries of nature: to the tree, the worm, the ground we stand on. I love the phrase, "I hear my being dance from ear to ear." Can you not also feel your consciousness within your skin? Indeed, especially when you wake, and take it slow? There are many lines in this poem that are there to ponder as single enormous questions: What is there to know? What falls away is always? And is near?

Yet often I wake to the morning, "and take my waking slow." There is a thin boundary of loose connections at first waking. As though consciousness slips through both physical and nonphysical realms with the ease of a night shade. Sleep walking, where have we gone? Back in this anchored reality, where is this? Are we meant to explore everything, to wander thus loosely within body and mind? The last line of the poem makes a fourth line finish to a three-line stanza pattern poem. It is a repeated phrase, used in THE WAKING four times; but at the end, almost as a coda to emphasize the openness of thought, the trusting willingness of the poet to discover his life by a reverent attention to living. I learn by going where I have to go. Perhaps as a writer, I live by listening to what life must say. And you? How do you navigate?

We think by feeling, the poet tells us. Quietly, I agree. This shaking keeps me steady.
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Rest Me There

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper

SIREN. Come, worthy Greek, Ulysses, come,
Possess these shores with me;
The winds and seas are troublesome,
And here we may be free.
Here may we sit and view their toil
That travail in the deep,
And joy the day in mirth the while,
And spend the night in sleep.

ULYSSES. Fair nymph, if fame or honor were
To be attained with ease,
Then would I come and rest me there,
And leave such toils as these.
But here it dwells, and must I
With danger seek it forth;
To spend the time luxuriously
Becomes not men of worth.

- from "Ulysses and the Siren," by Samuel Daniel

I was mulling over a recent essay in a blog I read on the idea, oft promoted by self-help and self-actualization experts, that all that is required of us as modern human beings is to dial into our abundant natural talents, and success and happiness will flow forth. That much of our frustration and unhappiness is from pursuits of work and relationships that are not in harmony with our intrinsic natures. There is of course a nugget of wisdom in this idea. We are most usually happiest at what we are good at, and vice versa. The "right life is the sweet life" might be the ideal of today's modern men and women. But as I read in the poetry of Samuel Daniel this morning, an English poet who lived from 1562- 1619, a decidedly un-easy period of world history, I was struck by the last two lines of Ulysses' reply to the siren in Daniel's poem Ulysses and the Siren- "To spend the time luxuriously/Becomes not men of worth." This classic idea of struggle and merit are entwined throughout Homer's Odyssey, from which Daniel's poem draws, but is not often mentioned these days.

I do not necessarily hold that the worthy is by definition difficult, but it has often been so in my personal experience. Self-sacrifice, determination, endeavor, commitment, completion...all are worthy attributes which describe goals and choices anchored by unflagging effort. There is a saying in my friend Patricia's family, "If it were easy, anyone could do it." The most common denominator in human behavior is usually the easiest default option or behavior. What is uncommon is extraordinary effort. Ulysses speaks from a time when the heroic was much admired, noteworthy and difficult, and, if a true choice of courage and will, viewed as a measure of noble character. To be worthy was to be capable of great self-sacrifice and determination.

In my corner of the 21st Century, today is the first sunny warm spring day in months. Robins are plucking at the hyacinth along the walkway, a squirrel naps on the fence rail in a patch of sun. As I sit in front of my laptop twiddling through excuses to avoid an honest day's work, thinking Well, I could wait until I feel truly motivated...I realize I am indulging in the wrong kind of thinking. What I really need is not the Siren in my ear, but a good ol' kick in the pants from Ulysses. The most ordinary fame and honor, as our hero puts it, does not reside in the easy and the comfortable but out there, in the travails of the deep. Beyond the blinking cursor. Knew that. But somedays it helps to be reminded.
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Express Yourself

The Solitary Reader by Popeyee
The Left Coast Crime Mystery Writers conference I attended in Sacramento was a new experience for me. This conference is what is called a "fan conference," meaning the attendees are not just writers and authors, but include the fans of mystery books. It is their chance to meet and listen to their favorite authors speak about writing. What a refreshing element! That passion for a good read is a dynamite zing. At the mystery awards banquet I was lucky enough to be seated next to two engaging women from Silicon Valley. Smart, educated, professional - and avid readers. I absorbed a great deal on what elements frustrate readers about the novels of their favorite authors, and what aspects made them favorites to begin with. Thank you Colleen and Mary!

I noticed, however, the general extraordinary shyness and reserve of the majority of writers present. One young man from New Mexico, newly published, seemed to always be off by himself in a corner of the business office of the conference center. It was as if he were feeling the centrifuge of attention pull him apart in uncomfortable ways and needed to duck away to regroup. Boy, did I recognize that feeling. We are, as my friend and blogger Lindsey Mead Russell put it in her blog today on A DESIGN SO VAST (www.adesignsovast.com), introverts in an extrovert world. Social media has added smokin' hot spotlights. Lindsey explores Susan Cain's book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking," and writes about her own experience in a "noisy" world. Lindsey made the finals for an essay award and knew she needed to ask for fan support, (find a link to Lindsey's blog and her essay "Close to the Surface" for the Notes & Words competition under "Places and Persons of Interest" under my Book Club tab) which for introverts like Lindsey and I, is like asking people to leave their bedroom doors open. Privacy of thought and opinion is the final frontier of privacy. I get you, mystery writer in the blue polo hunched in that chair alone behind the copier. I get you Lindsey, wishing your work could just find fans on its own, no push from any inner "stage mom."

But this is not a world of "accidental discovery" any more (itself a separate essay on the loss of adventure and exploration), but a world of people with less time on any given day than the day before. We need to find what we're looking for, and find it fast. Who has the time to surf through junk seeking the gem? The element of fan enthusiasm is key to leveraging critical weight. What is good will always stand on its own, but saying what is good gets the word out. Talent needs to be heard above the media din.

So my dear fans, let us know if you love the work! Let us know what you hated about it. We care, we actually do. I myself write fan letters to authors I admire - I know firsthand how hard it is to get the pages out there. I am absolutely in awe of the reach and power of the written word. Books connect us from one end of the globe to the other.

Now I need to thank the reader from Queensland for her email last night. Made my day!
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