Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Month of Letters: Is Your Postage Ready?

 February is tomorrow: are you ready?

More importantly, is your postage ready?

It appears the U.S. Postal Service is increasing the cost of mailing a letter by one cent. (Find out more here.) That means I'll be the person at the post office purchasing another pack of penny postage. Sigh.

Be that as it may, consider accepting the challenge: write and mail at least one piece of correspondence every day in February the U.S. Postal Service delivers mail. That's about two dozen letters, cards, postcards, photo postcards — can you dig it?

I'll be more than glad to exchange a letter or two with you in February (or beyond). E-mail me your address and we'll write to each other. If we wrote to each other before, send me your address again.

Write back atcha!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: The Raven, 168 Years Old Yesterday

artwork copyrighted by blog editor

First published on January 29, 1845
The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more."

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
"'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more."

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
"Sir," said I, "or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you"- here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortals ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, "Lenore?"
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, "Lenore!" -
Merely this, and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice:
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more."

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou," I said, "art sure no craven,
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the Nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning- little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blest with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast upon the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as "Nevermore."

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered- not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered, "other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said, "Nevermore."

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
"Doubtless," said I, "what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore
Of 'Never - nevermore'."

But the Raven still beguiling all my fancy into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird, and bust and door;
Then upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking "Nevermore."

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamplight gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamplight gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then methought the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose footfalls tinkled on the tufted floor.
"Wretch," I cried, "thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe, from thy memories of Lenore:
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted- tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Prophet!" said I, "thing of evil - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore."
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend," I shrieked, upstarting -
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!- quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamplight o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

by Edgar Allan Poe
(courtesy Famous Poets and Poems)
Read in the video above by James Earl Jones, accompanied by Midnight Sonata

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Get Ready: 'Month of Letters' Begins February 1

When was the last time you wrote a letter?

If you can't answer that question, consider joining me for A Month of Letters.

It's easy: send 23 letters in February. Okay, so it sounds daunting, but it really isn't. Send one letter every day there is postal service. Write back to everyone who writes to you.

Find those lovely notecards you were given that year for Christmas and use those. Drop a note in a friend's birthday card. Send a postcard. Print a few photographs and send them to someone who hasn't seen them. (And yes, you know at least one person who hasn't seen them.)

There are plenty of ways to participate. Give it a shot. You'll be glad you did.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

I love India.

Wait, let me clarify: I love what I know about India. I am sure I don't know enough about it, but some cultural elements fascinate me: Bollywood, daal, saris, Hinduism, bustling cities.

Each of these is a single idea — and Katherine Boo has replaced "ideas" with realities: real people, real situations, real dilemmas.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo reveals the private lives of some of the residents of Annawadi, a "slum" near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

It may be my own shortcoming, but the word slum connotes in my mind a certain surrender, as though people have resigned themselves to the inevitable. Those who live in Annawadi are a diverse lot, Hindu and Muslim, and some have seen the undercity as a way to make their mark, or to gain control. For others, it's a temporary place until they find their niche in the city. Others expect to use the system that has promised them a life very different than what they're living. Each person has her or his own dreams, fears, expectations and struggles.

The disregard society has for slumdwellers is as prevalent in India as it is anywhere else. They're invisible, worthless, in the way. Life is plentiful and, therefore, cheap. What happens to the injured man at the side of the road? Worse, what value do the destitute put on their own lives?

As noted in one of the blurbs, the book reads as a novel. The characters were painted in vivid colors — but at first I worried that I wouldn't be able to keep the "cast of characters" straight. I needn't have worried: as the book unfolded and they were introduced, even before I looked at the photos on her website, I knew these people. Sunil's despair that his younger sister was growing taller than he was palpable. The trial of Karam and Kehkasham's trial left me tense, then finally baffled. Manju's by-heart learning, and how she reinforced it, warmed me. The tales of success, daring, life and death, suicide and marriage kept me riveted.

I knew the — I nearly called them "villains," but they may not have been inherently evil. They were flawed people taking advantage of the system. Now, I have an opinion about whether or not one person breaking the rules is cause for abandoning the rules, but I also do not live in 100 square feet of house with 11 people. Would I skim the fat off the stew in the cauldron if I lived that close to a sewage lake? I may not throw people to the wolves, but I may not try to save them, either, if the choice was myself or them.

India has been in the news lately with pointed accusations of police corruption and disregard of human life and human value. Boo's book helped me see how this is possible — deplorable, but possible. She also helped me see this beautiful country with beautiful people in a way I could only have imagined.

Read this book. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: El Florida Room

Richard Blanco was chosen as the inaugural poet to write the poem for this year's Presidential and Vice Presidential inauguration. Click here to watch him read the poem at the celebration, and enjoy an older poem of his below.

El Florida Room

Not a study or a den, but El Florida

as my mother called it, a pretty name

for the room with the prettiest view 

of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up

against the windows, the tepid breeze 

laden with the brown-sugar scent 

of loquats drifting in from the yard. 

Not a sunroom, but where the sun 

both rose and set, all day the shadows 

of banana trees fan-dancing across

the floor, and if it rained, it rained

the loudest, like marbles plunking 

across the roof under constant threat 

of coconuts ready to fall from the sky.

Not a sitting room, but El Florida where 

I sat alone for hours with butterflies

frozen on the polyester curtains

and faces of Lladró figurines: sad angels,

clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed 

blue and gray, gazing from behind

the glass doors of the wall cabinet. 

Not a TV room, but where I watched

Creature Feature as a boy, clinging 

to my brother, safe from vampires

in the same sofa where I fell in love 

with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo 

watching westerns, or pitying women

crying in telenovelas with my Abuela. 

Not a family room, but the room where

my father twirled his hair while listening

to 8-tracks of Elvis, and read Nietzsche 

and Kant a few months before he died, 

where my mother learned to dance alone

as she swept, and I learned Salsa pressed 

against my Tía Julia's enormous breasts. 

At the edge of the city, in the company 

of crickets, beside the empty clothesline, 

telephone wires and the moon, tonight

my life is an old friend sitting with me  

not in the living room, but in the light

of El Florida, as quiet and necessary 

as any star shining above it.


Monday, January 21, 2013

When to Put Down a Book, the 'On the Beach' edition

Readers have two very important decisions to make: what books to read and what books to stop reading. What compels us to do either?

I used to read anything because I love books. I would drudge through the worst book because I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt. What if it got good and I didn't know it?

Then I picked up Water for Elephants. It had sat on my shelf for a year as I hemmed and hawed. "It's a tough read for animal lovers," I heard. "I don't know if you can finish it."

Then I read the first page. And kept reading. When I came up for air — thankfully at a decent hour of the evening — I called my friend Carole. She got no further than "Hel—"

"Oh, Carole, why didn't you tell me?"

I could feel her smile emanating from the other end of the phone. "I did."

That night, I made myself a promise: if a book didn't grab me, I would give myself permission to set it aside, possibly forever. I also wouldn't start a book that readers described with, "Once you get past the first 50 pages..."

I also promised myself I'd put down a book at any moment without regret — which I did last night.

Neville Shute's novel On the Beach has an interesting premise: in 1963, a nuclear war wiped out most of the planet. Australia, however, was not yet affected, and the novel introduces us to the people who are living with the understanding that a radioactive cloud will reach them in six months.

Wow, right?

Actually, On the Beach was a little boring. Shute thinks up good stories, but he tells them like an engineer. He's more fascinated with the technology than the people — and he overlooks some really incredible people in his books. I finished A Town Like Alice because I wanted to know what happened to Jean — and I nearly did that with On the Beach.

Until the author referred to a small girl child as "it."

I returned it to the library. I read the rest of the synopsis on Wikipedia, which was good enough for me. If the author doesn't respect his characters enough to use the proper pronoun, I won't invest any more of my time in her or his books.

Then there was Wild, a memoir hailed by people throughout the publishing and reading world as one of the best books of the year. My friend Kathy said she enjoyed it, the writing was great, but thought it may be a tough read for me.

Usually I follow Kathy's advice; she has an uncanny understanding of books and my psyche. And yet — I had to test it out. I borrowed it from the library, planning to finish it immediately after On the Beach. When the opportunity presented itself more quickly than I had planned, I launched into the book.

It was the howling that stopped me. Oh, and the surgical gloves filled with ice. I had been struggling with her suffering mother but thought there would be a noble, or at least self-expanding experience along the way. I thought I could handle it.

I wasn't. I powered down my Kindle and found something, anything else to read to put me to sleep. Anything but that. Kathy was right: the writing was amazing, but I couldn't take any more of Strayed's life — and apparently there was a lot more to come along the Pacific Coast Trail. I could live without it.

What has prompted you to put down a book?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: The Second Life of Christmas Trees

The Second Life of Christmas Trees

In frozen January, my friends and I
would drag discarded Christmas trees
from the sidewalks of our shivering town
to an empty lot. One match and fire
raced down a dry sprig like a spurt of life.
A puff of wind and the pile ignited,
flamed above our heads. Silk waves.
Spice of pitch and balsam in our nostrils.

We stood in a ring around the body of the fire—
drawn close as each boy dared,
our faces stinging from the heat and cold,
lash of that wild star burst on a winter night.

Courtesy of The Writer's Almanac

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Reading Stack: Library Loot and More

On Monday, I had one stack of books:

The e-reader was responsible for my first two pieces of library loot: Wild by Cheryl Strayed and On the Beach by Neville Shute. A friend had told me Wild was a great read, but I might find it a little difficult. On The Beach, a post-apocayptic novel published in 1957 included on a Web list of "interesting books."

I was excited and determined. I had chosen for my book club A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I had purchased months ago at the last library book sale. A Lion Among Men and The Gun Seller were gifts I had received much too long ago and had to be read tout de suite.
A Map of the Sky was a pleasant surprise from a last-minute stop at Barnes and Noble. Chi Running was a Goodwill find that would help me keep running from hurting as much as it has lately.

By Tuesday, my stack had changed:

The first two e-books didn't last long. I lost patience with Shute, whose writing was dispassionate to the point of apathy, as he fell in love with submarines and referred to an infant girl as "it." The beautifully written Wild included a description of loss was too much for me (and again proved Kathy's instincts flawless).

In their place went a new library book: The Night Circus, which I read last year and truly enjoyed — but I needed to re-read for my book club.

I had received a second library book: The Lucky Gourd Shop, the current book club book. (My choice, third from the bottom, won't be discussed until mid-February. I have a little time, thank heavens.)

Three new new books are stacked in the middle: The Woman Who Died a Lot, the latest Jasper Fforde Thursday Next novel I'm reading with Carole; Wolf Hall, so I may read her second prize-winning novel I received for Christmas; and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, recommended by my friend Stephanie.

How many have I started? Six.

However, since Tuesday, I have been actively reading only three: The Night Circus, The Lucky Gourd Shop and The Woman Who Died a Lot. Mostly The Woman Who Died a Lot. It's Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next — can you blame me?

I have one bit of delicious irony: I am using someone's discarded library card as a bookmark in Fforde's book. If you have read it, you will understand. (If you haven't read any of Fforde's Thursday Next novels, start immediately with The Eyre Affair, a fantastic book with the perfect first line. You're welcome.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: The Year

The Year 

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That's not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that's the burden of the year.

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Monday, January 7, 2013

Reading: Choose Your Media

Is the question of what you're reading as important as how you're reading?

Publishers and naysayers are whipping up a frenzy, comparing print books to parchment and printers to scribes. Paper is old-fashioned and print readers are out of touch with the times, they want to tell us.

Readers know better.

Naysayers need to let it go. There's a benefit to both e-readers and the printed book.

I have both and enjoy both. Some books I have in both formats, including some classics like A Christmas Carol and recently published books such as Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.

Then there are the inexpensive e-books that sounded too good to pass up, like Gregor the Overlander (by The Hunger Games author Susan Collins) and Random Harvest by James Hilton (author of Lost Horizons and Goodbye, Mr. Chips). With one click, I owned fascinating reads I could carry with me in my purse.

Also, there's the magazine advantage.  I can read The New Yorker anywhere now, and pretty soon the same will be said about National Geographic. Will the pictures of NatGeo be as incredible on the screen? I'll let you know.

Finally, there's the library option: just last week I figured out how to check out books from My Library. Frankly, I love actually going to my library and perusing the shelves, but when I can't get there, it's nice to know I have options. Also, there's something decadent about downloading a book to my Kindle when the library is closed, as though I'm part of a special club that doesn't have to wait for something as restrictive as "operating hours."

Does this mean I'm eschewing print? Not likely: after today's visits to Target and Barnes and Noble, where I walked out with a second copy of The Night Circus (because my copy was in Carole's hands) and my first (coveted) copy of The Wrath of Angels, I'd say I'm still entrenched in print.

The reasons are many. I like the feel of books in my hand. I can read a book anywhere, even when a plane is taking off and landing. I don't have to charge their batteries. I like to see illustrations and photos at full-size (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children comes to mind). When I drop them, rarely do they break. I don't have to upgrade them (although lately I've chosen to try to find better copies of some of the cheap paperbacks of my college days so their pages don't fly away along Dewey Beach, for example).

My main reason, however, is because I want to own the book. My digital purchase does not grant me ownership of the copy on my Kindle, but what Jonny Evans from Computer World called  "lifetime track rental." Although his description was for music, it could just as easily be applied to books.

Remember the 2009 brouhaha when Amazon removed 1984 from Kindles without seeking permission from the Kindle owners? Sure, the company refunded the purchase price and explained the reason behind it, but it didn't mollify readers. I suppose there's a way to create a permanent copy of a digital file, but it's not the same as walking into your own library and pulling your copy off the shelf.

Want to loan an e-book? Good luck. Publisher must establish loaning rights to a title, and e-books can be loaned once for 14 days. (Those are Kindle's rules. Nook just states that titles can be loaned between devices.) The good news is you always get it back. The bad news: your friends, family, acquaintances better read fast. (This might spell trouble for my use of library e-books, considering I regularly renew library books as many times as I can.)

In the end, there's room for print and electronic books on everyone's library shelves. Users can determine their own preferences and use accordingly — which may mean choosing both.

Do you have a preference? How do you read?

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: The Great Stink

London sewer. How exciting can a novel about that be?

Pretty exciting, it turns out.

First of all, there's the subtitle: A novel of corruption and murder beneath the streets of Victorian London.

Then there's the romance: a returned Army vet has a chance to affect one of the biggest infrastructure projects in London history — only murder gets in the way.

Then there's Lady.

William May survived the horrors of Crimea to return to his family only to experience more hor—

Okay, it was Lady that kept me reading. I even broke my own rule of reading ahead (skimming, really) to make sure I could continue reading. You see, I loved Lady almost as much as Tom did.

And that is how I knew I liked this book: I was too tense about one of its characters. Plus, it's about government: how much more cool could it be?

The other storylines were compelling, too: May's all-too-real experiences with war that caused him such pain, to return to his family a broken man hanging on by an unraveling thread, to wonder what is real and what is not, to discover there are worse things than death, oh yes, much worse...

Then there's Tom, a lonely man who knows the sewers better than his own heart. Only he gives it away when he finds his soulmate in the most unlikely place.

The story is exciting, the characters are realistic, the situations too real for fiction — all this and great writing should guide you to this book. I read another of author Clare Clark's novels, The Nature of Monsters, which frightening, compelling and very informative about life in 18th century London.

I recommend The Great Stink — and I hope that once you've finished it, you will, too.

And special thanks to my friend Karen for reading this with me; it had been on my shelf for way too long before I read the first page with her.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Poetry Wednesday: The Passing of the Year

Because sometimes you just can't wait until Wednesday...

The Passing of the Year 

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
     My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
     And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
     Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
     With much of blame, with little praise.

Old Year! upon the Stage of Time
     You stand to bow your last adieu;
A moment, and the prompter's chime
     Will ring the curtain down on you.
Your mien is sad, your step is slow;
     You falter as a Sage in pain;
Yet turn, Old Year, before you go,
     And face your audience again.

That sphinx-like face, remote, austere,
     Let us all read, whate'er the cost:
O Maiden! why that bitter tear?
     Is it for dear one you have lost?
Is it for fond illusion gone?
     For trusted lover proved untrue?
O sweet girl-face, so sad, so wan
     What hath the Old Year meant to you?

And you, O neighbour on my right
     So sleek, so prosperously clad!
What see you in that aged wight
     That makes your smile so gay and glad?
What opportunity unmissed?
     What golden gain, what pride of place?
What splendid hope? O Optimist!
     What read you in that withered face?

And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
     What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
     What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
     What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
     What see you in the dying year?

And so from face to face I flit,
     The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
     And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
     Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
     Old weary year! it's time to go.

My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
     My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
     And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that's true,
     For we've been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
     There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!