Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finding Water by Julia Cameron

Finding Water by Julia Cameron is the third of what she calls “The Artist’s Way Trilogy.”  I have not read the second book, Walking in the World, but I have read, more than once, The Artist’s WayMy mother gave me this book after we read the seminal first book but I’ve never read the second.  I mention this because this review will only be a comparison between the two books.

In The Artist’s Way, Cameron described a few basic artistic practices, including daily Morning Pages, weekly Artist’s Dates, and walking.  Each chapter ended with a reflection on the week’s practices (assessing whether or not you did each and how often, etc.).  Each chapter also ended with a list of other tasks, so many that one could not reasonably do them in the single week’s time that each chapter is supposed to cover.  For this reason, The Artist’s Way invited the reader to read the book more than once, to return to those tasks that were left undone,  to live with the book beyond the twelve weeks and twelve chapters.

In Finding Water, there are once again twelve chapters to be read over a period of twelve weeks.  There are a few journaling exercises in which you make lists or write something similarly simple, not affording room for much reflection unless you yourself choose to write more and longer.  The book also encourages the reader to reach out to other artists, friends who can offer support to your creative path. 

In both books, Cameron steeps her ideas in spiritual rhetoric.  However, the former is perhaps more vague.  Or it may be my own memory of the text that is vague.  In Twelve-Step programs, the third step refers to a Higher Power, a “god as we understood him” in vague terms.  In the second book, any ambiguity seems to be gone and Cameron speaks of God, not the Divine or Spirit or other abstractions.  I’ve read accusations in reviews for the former book where readers were offended because it was too “New Age,” typically from Christians who saw the word “spiritual” in the title and hoped for something different and I’ve read reviews from others saying that the book is “too Christian.”  I never felt either way—that the book was “too New Age” or “too Christian.”  This book, on the others hand, feels far more Christian because only the rare euphemism used for God, who is also specifically engendered as masculine.   

If the more strongly Christian rhetoric was unexpected, the 12-step rhetoric is not.  Maybe it is just as endemic in both books.  After all, each is divided into twelve chapters and I’ve no doubt that this is intentional.  Whether it is truly more prevalent or not, I found it more tedious this time, a monotone note that is reiterated so frequently that one wonders whether there is anything new on these pages.  Perhaps if I had read this third book first, I’d have found one this more inspiring.  But why would anyone choose to read the third book before reading the first?  Odds are, nobody would, and in the end this book adds nothing to the first.  It’s good but not nearly as good and in setting her own bar so high with The Artist’s Way, Cameron simply fails to measure up in any of the books I’ve read that followed.

As for her rhetorical style in general, I offer the following paragraph as an example:
The tree beneath my writing-room window is a mystery to me.  It has four-cornered leaves and large yellow flowers that are gold to the swarm of yellow jackets that feed and cruise and feed again amid its branches.  This is the first summer that I have stayed on in New York rather than going on out to Taos, New Mexico.  It is the first season when the tree has become a part of my story. I write at an IMB Selectric typewriter set on a small Chinese desk, up against a large window.  The bees come to the window.  They are large yellow jackets and they soar menacingly close.  I remind myself that there is a pane of glass between them and me. I am grateful for the window.   (212)
Let me just say it:  I loathe this paragraph.  The prose is ponderous, tedious, and dull.  Previously in the book she mentions her decision to stay home in New York rather than take her usual trip to New Mexico, a decision she obviously thinks the reader won’t remember from one week to the next because she repeats this sacrifice over and over again.  It’s not only that.  There’s something so clunky about this paragraph.  Or at least so it seems in my eyes.  I can’t imagine that I would have read, let alone reread more than once, The Artist’s Way if her prose were this mind-numbing to read.  One would assume a writer’s talent would grow over time.  I suppose there are exceptions to every rule.

I can honestly say, after reading this third book, I have no desire to read the second book.  It would take someone I love urging me to read it to make me even consider the possibility.  Even then, he or she would have to assure me they would read it with me.  And even then, I would want to make sure that they had not read The Artist’s Way already because I wouldn’t want to experience the disappointment and let-down multiplied through the shared experience. 
As I said before, I’d only recommend this book to someone who has never read The Artist’s Way but even then I’d really urge them to just read the other book and skip this one altogether.  As it is, now I have to decide if I want to bother reading The Vein of Gold or just forego it.  I’ve had it for a while, considered reading it ages and ages ago, was prepared to add it to my Fifteen in 2012 list.  But how many more times do I have to give Cameron a second chance before I give up altogether?  

This is one of the Fifteen in 2011 books and also a Book I Should Have Read by Now.  Only two more days to vote in the poll to help me choose of the books I'll be adding to the Fifteen in 2012 list.  A special thank you to those who have taken the time to vote.  I truly appreciate it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Check It Out, Over There Please

Most of you already know I have another blog (where I post my quotes). Right now there's a poll there for help choosing one  of the Fifteen in 2012 books. There are five books on writing and I realized that maybe some of you here would like to vote over there.

So here's the post about the poll and you'll see the poll easily from there.

Thanks in advance for chiming in with your choice.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver

Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Poetry by Mary Oliver is a companion to her Poetry Handbook.  In this book she looks at formal poetry, whereas in the other she looks at poetry in general.  Because of this focus, her examples in Rules for the Dance are more traditional and less contemporary.

I love to read books that try to explain scansion because I always hold some modicum of hope that this time it will make sense to me.  (If you, dear reader, are one of my former students, the truth is out.  I know nothing about scansion and whatever I taught you was right but I don’t know why.  They say that those who can do, and those who can’t teach.  I am the poster child for that cliché when it comes to scansion.)  Unfortunately, I can honestly say that I am still unsure about scansion.  I just don’t get it and no matter who explains it, I can’t seem to make sense of any of it.  I read the rules and they just slip through my fingers. Not like sand, because it isn’t about my trying to hold them. They slip through like air, insubstantial, meaningless.  Even Oliver’s explanation did not shed any light on my ignorance.

I just don’t get it.

But that’s me.  In spite of my ongoing incomprehension, I recommend this book with enthusiasm. Oliver accomplishes, in few pages, what many others take two or three times more to try to teach:  explaining the different forms, the ways rhyme, alliteration, and sound are all used to create poetry, the “how” of reading and writing metrical verse.  That the author manages to condense so much content in so few pages does not surprise me.  In her previous book, she managed to do so much and in this book she proves once again her facility for making her point.  What’s more, the book also includes a brief anthology, a collection of poems from which she quotes, allowing the reader to explore the ideas she’s taught.  Everything from assonance to consonance, from end rhyme to feminine rhyme, is touched upon and reflected both in the text and in the collected poems.

The truth is, with these two books by Mary Oliver, anyone who wants to better appreciate poetry can learn all that needs to be known.  The poet seeking to improve and the reader aspiring to appreciate can both do no better than to begin and end here.  As for me, I may never understand scansion but if that should change, I’ll be sure to give praise where praise is due.

I read The Poetry Handbook way back in 1999 and have wanted to read this book ever since.  So this book is another of the Books I Should Have Read By Now Challenge.  I'm about to finish another which will round out November with 3 books read for the challenge.  Yes, I didn't add any to October but I had read four and even five (if memory serves) in previous months so I'm still on target with my personal goal.  Yaaaaaaay!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman is a first novel from an author who is not afraid to challenge her readers by using a non-traditional narrative style that includes reports from social worker’s files, fractured story-telling, and even mathematical story problems that serve as metaphors, layering more meaning into what is being told than a simpler narrative style could possibly achieve.  Even chapters that on the surface seem irrelevant work as metaphors that give the primary story a subtext so that nothing is wasted.

Ambitious throughout, the story of Rory Dawn reads like a prose poem; but a brutal one, lyrical in the way that a well-phrased rap song can be, infused with anger and brutality and a raw honesty that bleeds on every page.  Although it is a compelling story and I found myself aching for the protagonist, I also found myself putting this book down easily, too emotionally exhausted by what I was reading to read even another chapter.  And most of the chapters are very short so it wasn’t the length that daunted me.  Hassman doesn’t need a lot of pages to say a lot and so much can happen in very few pages that to not put the book down was simply impossible.  

At no point does the author pander to her audience although she does have an agenda.  However, she is light handed with her “lesson” and creates a solid enough narrative that the moral of the story never feels shoved into the story.  Nor does she provide a convenient or trite ending to the story—unlike another novel I reviewed some time past. 

Masterfully told, this novel is nonetheless relentless and so I highly recommend it but with caution.  In some ways, this is a disturbing novel, as well it should be.  To dismiss this is to denigrate the protagonist’s experience which, while told through an intelligently formed fiction, is rooted in too much honesty to not be honored.  And Hassman is nothing if not honest in the story she has chosen to tell and the manner in which she has created to tell it.   

Monday, November 21, 2011

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver

Liesl & Po by Lauren Oliver is a young adult (middle grades) novel with three protagonists—an orphan girl locked in an attic, an orphan boy who serves as an apprentice to an alchemist, and a ghost whose stories are inexorably bound together as circumstances converge to a conclusion that is gratifying even if it is, let’s face it, oh so predictable.

Liesl is the little girl in the attic and it is her artistic ability that draws (no pun intended) a ghost to cross over from the other side.  Liesl’s drawings come into play later in the story.  In the meantime, Will, who is running errands for his abusive alchemist master, makes a mistake in his exhaustion that has a domino effect.  Each piece in the puzzle falls into place and the disparate characters—the alchemist, the archetypical evil-stepmother, and others—all come together at the end.

The entire time I was reading this novel I could easily see it being translated to film, one of those “fun for the entire family” type films that has a boy, a girl, and even a gender neutral ghost to appeal to all younger audience members.  If handled well, it would very likely be a hit and if the children who see the movie then chose to read the book, it would truly be a winner all around. 

I liked this book.  I didn’t love it but it was a much needed and pleasant distraction.  And now, I shall move it to the Bibi’s Future Box so that when she is older she can read and maybe she will like it or even love it.   

Friday, November 18, 2011

Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene

Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene is a nonfiction book that takes place in rural Georgia during the 1970s.  In McIntosh County, the Civil Rights Movement hasn’t had much of a ripple effect and the Sheriff still holds a lot of power, controlling the drugs, gambling, and even prostitution that moves through his county along with the northerners who drive through on their way to Florida or back from a vacation. 

But the media that does reach the community, telling about the events that are occurring beyond the borders of the county and one man begins to see that things are wrong.  And another man who returns home after serving in the military and on the New York City police force.  There are also young men and women, inspired by President John F Kennedy’s call to “ask what I can do for my country,” fresh out of law school and eager to make a difference in the world. 

Together, with other members, things begin to change and the African American community begins to confront the long standing issues that have allowed the status quo.  Each small step leads to another and yet another until the power is, if not shifted, at least no longer so single handed.

Unfortunately, with real life, happy endings are no guaranteed and heroes, even when they are successful, can be terribly, if not tragically, flawed.  One almost wishes that the Greene had chosen to stop the book after part two because what occurs in part three is disheartening.  Not terribly surprising but nonetheless saddening.

Greene's prose is almost as well-crafted, filled with metaphors and nearly poetic descriptions, as it is in her later books.  While I may not have enjoyed this book as much as I did The Temple Bombing, I do recommend it as an interesting and not often told story that gives some insight into just how deeply rooted racial issues were in our country long after Emancipation was supposed to fix things.  And an intelligent or insightful reader will realize that some things still haven’t changed.  Or haven’t changed enough.  But we have come, if not a long way, part of the way.

This book is part of the BISHRBN Challenge as well as one of my Fifteen in 2011.  And keep an eye out for me to be announcing a reading challenge of my own for 2012.  Oh boy!  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J K Rowling was tied for last place in the series, along with the first book which, as you all know, is now bumped up to really liked a lot, surprisingly better than I remembered it. So naturally I wondered if the second book would likewise improve upon a rereading and the answer is . . . nope.

There is nothing remarkably bad about the book or even inferior.  However, it is not uncommon in novel series for there to be one volume that is, by comparison, the weakest and for me this novel is the weakest in the series. It serves its purpose—introducing several characters and themes that will reappear in later volumes.  Also, the final conflict/confrontation is amped higher, warning the reader that there is more to come.  More danger.  More complications. 

So on that level, the book works.  Harry’s returning to the home of the Dursley’s and his feelings about being isolated from the magical world over the summer break, Dobby the house elf, Aragog (who becomes a critical turning point in a later volume), the Whomping Willow (which become crucial in the next volume), etc. 

Just as she did in the first book of the series, Rowling lays a foundation for the rest of the series in this book.  Where this book fails slightly by comparison to the first is that the first introduces us to characters we don’t know, establishes so many of the ideas and themes that will continue for the next six books but this book only brings minor things onto the “stage” and if the characters develop somewhat they do not surprise. 

And yet, there is the climax and something that doesn’t seem so significant happens that later is crucial beyond even any of the other things.  I also appreciate the fact that Rowling allowed things to be more intense in this novel.  It is because, I suppose, I love these books for that very reason, the way each story evolves into a darker place each volume, maturing with the reader.  I’ve “warned” parents that they should be careful with the upcoming books with their younger children.  When these books were being published, Rowling’s readership was growing and the pace at which the books hit the shelves left enough time for many readers to be mature enough to emotionally cope with what was inevitably coming in the later novels.

I say “inevitably” because there are certain heroic themes which are undeniably predictable.  So I can give Rowling some forgiveness, knowing that she is not the first to write a weaker novel in a longer series of very good novels.  And I can appreciate some of the things that emerge in this book which will become more significant as the stories continue to grow with the reader.

At this point, the rankings of the novels are:

It’s possible that as I continue to reread the series, one or more books will flip from one place to another.  But I’m guessing that what is now #1 will slip in the rankings and #2 will very likely be #7 when all is said and done.

And now, onto the next book.  Yay!
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