Tag Archives: books

Comfort Books

11 Sep

I don’t have comfort food. I have comfort books. There are certain books which, if I’m feeling ill or weary, I’ll go to on the shelves. The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter. (Obviously there’s a theme to my comfort books!) Just the title, “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” makes me feel happy. That book, plus a cup of coffee with just a tad bit of cream…well, what more could a girl ask for?

I’ve loved books for as long as I can remember. I had shelves along three walls of my bedroom growing up – not the entire walls, and there were just three shelves, but there were so many books that I sort of grew up in a library. If I sneezed, I knew the Kleenexes were located between C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. It was a handy thing to know.

The living room in the house I grew up in had (surprise!) four walls: one wall had the fireplace, one was a huge sliding glass door out to the deck, one was floor to ceiling windows (and it was a cathedral ceiling, so yeah, a lot of glass) and the last wall was floor to ceiling book shelves.

In other words, my parents had a lot of books.

When it came time for us to move out of that house, the ratio of boxes of books to boxes of everything else was pretty humorous. I’d wager that the ratio was about equal, actually, though I might be wrong. There might have been more boxes of books.

Over the years I have come to follow in my parent’s footsteps. Though, I admit, this hasn’t always been a good thing. Especially when, combined with my husband’s appreciation of the written word, it means that the bookshelves in the playroom (yes, books belong in the playroom) are three-deep, resulting in our Ikea shelving giving way over the summer and revealing a terrible truth: we needed to thin out our library.

And so began a process which is almost done – I say almost because really, it must continue if I’m ever going to buy more books…which of course I am. We started sorting and the piles grew higher and higher: piles for give-away. Piles for the library book sale. Piles for nieces and nephews. As the process went on, it became easier and easier to ditch certain books. You know: the ones that weren’t mine.

But when it came to my books…oy, that wasn’t so easy. I mean, maybe I don’t want to read it ever again, but maybe my kids will someday? And hey, this is a classic, we can’t get rid of this. And my old college anthologies will come in useful someday. You know…when our kids go off to college and maybe find themselves doing research into late 1980’s textbooks…

Okay, okay. I know. I still have some work to do. But for now, the shelves are fixed. The books are neat. Everything fits. And who knows? Maybe when I bring the biggest box of all to the Bookshop in Sioux Falls to sell, they’ll give me so much money for them that I can shop to my heart’s content and get a whole lot of new books? Won’t that be fun?

Trouble is, my husband says that we need to have a new goal of getting rid of one book for every new one we buy.

(Why do you think I kept all those anthologies?)

Okay. Gotta go. I’ve got some book readin’ to do.

No Man – or Girl – is an Island

26 Mar

I have been struck anew, this past week, over the tenderheartedness of my two daughters. Though, to be sure, their emotions are shown in different ways.

Boo, age 6, was watching The Lion King the other day. She came up to me, scared, but dry-eyed, when Mufasa the king was thrown off the cliff to his death by his own brother, Scar. I held her, and together we weathered the injustice of the jungle out there.

The Lion King

But her indignation at Scar’s behavior was not done. Later, at the end of the movie, as Scar is trying to convince a young Simba that it is his, Simba’s fault, that Mufasa died, Boo suddenly shouted from her place on the couch. “Dummy head! Double Dummy head!”

That, to Boo, is high abuse indeed.

I must say, I loved that what came out of her mouth in that moment of unguarded behavior was something so benign…and yet so full of truth.

She knew, though perhaps could not articulate, that the “jungle out there” is, truly, the jungle we all live in every day.

I couldn’t help but think of our other daughter, now age 11, who behaved much the same way when she was Boo’s age.

She and I were watching A Little Princess, a nicely-done movie based on the book by Francis Hodgson Burnett.

A little princess

She was sick that day, as I recall. She liked the movie, followed it along, understood – for the most part – what was going on. But every so often she would turn to me and ask, “Why is that woman so mean? What did Sara do to deserve that?”

I suppose I said something about injustice in the world. About bad people. About things not always working out the way we wish.

But then came the end – the part where Miss Minchin lies and denies that the amnesiac man is Sara’s father. And our daughter stood up on the couch and cried, “NO! NO! He is her father!” And she cried and cried and cried and could not be consoled.

Her tender heart has not changed over the years. Just now, at age 11, she came upstairs in tears. It’s well after bedtime, but she’s caught up in her book, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, and Beth, the sweet, kind sister, just died.

Little Women

“Why do we care so much about storybook characters?” she asked me through her tears.

Because we love them, my sweet girl. Because books have power to change our lives. Because you have a kind and gentle heart and when you cry over injustice and sorrow and sadness in the books you read, you are really crying over the things in this world you have not yet faced, but you know are real. You know they could happen, and you weep for those they have happened, and will happen, to. You weep for the imperfections of the world. You weep because you are not an island. You are a part of the continent, a piece of the main.*

Never send to know, my darling girl, for whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for thee.

*John Donne, Meditation 17

The Most Surreal Moment of my Life

2 Aug

I adore beaches. This is Eastsound Bay...

My sister has brought me to see the new library. I am in the town where I grew up, Eastsound, Orcas Island, Washington. The old library, where I knew every nook and cranny, where I came for story time, for puppet shows, for the Library Fair, is closed; has become a real estate office, or insurance, or some other such place where the stories they weave are more fiction than fact but no one ever admits it.

We walk into the new building and it smells of paint and printing, and, inexplicably in this modern time, paste. (Perhaps that’s all just in my mind.) It holds the old books, housed on new, honey-colored shelves, but not the old feelings. Nor do I find the marble statue of David, complete with fig leaves. I never looked at that thing without blushing.

I wonder, is new always better than old? Is large always better than small? Well, in the case of books, more is better than less, this I must admit. But it feels, somehow, wrong. As if I don’t belong here. As if I am a tourist. I remember, suddenly, the bumper sticker, popular in this tourist town when I was a child, “I’m not a tourist, I live here.” I was never quite sure why a person would want to advertise this. Now I understand better. To live here is to belong. Sadly, I no longer do.

Quintessential Orcas Island beach scene: sea weed and starfish and jagged rocks!

I wander around, admiring the lay-out, the picture windows, the local author’s section. “Will I ever be shelved there?” I wonder, I long. I see the children’s section and am drawn to the books I love best. I see the bean-bag chairs, the colorful painted walls, the smiling stuffed Madelines, Pooh Bears, and chubby ducks, packaged together with their corresponding books, hanging on convenient racks.

I run my hand along a shelf, randomly grab a volume – with a title I do not recognize – and heft it in my hand. Clearly, this book was carted over from the former building. No brilliant illustration graces its linen cover, no plastic dust jacket is folded and taped with precise and crinkly splendor, to protect it from greasy fingers, little brothers. I open the book, compelled.

There, in affirmation of its age, is a cream-colored pocket, complete with card, proving its pre-computer derivation. I pull out the card, intrigued by this reminder of what libraries used to be: written proof of a person’s interests. It has not been checked out very often; only half a dozen names grace its lines. The most recent date is some 10 years previous, the oldest more like 20. I glance at the names, some penciled in childish printing, some in a mother’s neater cursive. Suddenly, my heart skips a beat as my eyes take in the second name on the list, just one certain scribbled name: Gretchen Wendt.

Here, I, on the road to independence, was allowed to sign my name, was allowed to leave my mark, the proof of my existence. Frozen in a moment of time that I have long since forgotten, this card holds a story. Now I have found it, here, where I have never before been…and yet, somehow, I have.

Perhaps I’m not a tourist after all.

I'm the smallest one...probably not too long before writing my name on a certain library card...

(Those of you who know me may be wondering…no…I’m not on Orcas right now! I’ve tried several times in the past to write about this incident – which took place probably 15 years ago – but have never been satisfied with what I wrote. Today, writing it in the present tense, it finally came. I guess it took an epiphany…)

Writing is Not a Group Effort

5 Jul

I spy...5 Baltimore Orioles! This is my view from my computer. Makes for some inspired writing!

I got a book in the mail today. The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner. Its subtitle is “an editor’s advice to writers” (Riverhead books, New York, revised 2010). I’ve been waiting with slightly worried breath for the mail-lady (the best and nicest mail person I’ve ever met) to drive dustily down our dirt road and deliver this nugget of wisdom to me. Today she came through…even sooner than Amazon.com said she would.

 
I opened the box. I took out the book, feeling slightly nauseous. I sat down with the book on the couch, legs curled up, coffee at hand. Now allow me to explain something here. I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction books. I don’t curl up and devour them the way I do fiction. Typically, I avoid non-fiction like the plague…which happens to be a huge topic of the most recent non-fiction tome I checked out of the library (677 pages, including index). I’ve skimmed 37 pages…not sure I can take any more. (Yes, I was trying to broaden my horizons. Trouble is, my horizons have a way of tunneling my vision until all I can see is the new Alexander McCall Smith novel on the end-table, tantalizing me with its Scottish dry wit.) I find the middle ages – and its plagues, excesses, and sins – to be a fascinating topic. I often do enjoy history…but I just can’t sit down and read it. It’s not cozy reading. And, to me, that’s what reading is all about.

 
Reading non-fiction makes me feel like I’m back in school. Yes, I liked school. I even voluntarily went back for more of it after the mandatory 12 years. 4 years of college PLUS 3 years of grad school. I’VE HAD ENOUGH TEXT BOOKS TO LAST ME THE REST OF MY LIFE, and that’s what non-fiction feels like to me: an assigned book which I have to write a report on, and nothing else is as good at stealing your book-reading joy than having to write a report on it. Yes, I enjoyed the topics of my degrees. No, I’ll never get my PhD. Enough already.

 
SO…imagine my amazement at finding that this book I bought as a type of research towards selling my book (hence my nausea at opening the box) is actually proving to be FUN to read! I’ve been researching how to write a query letter/book proposal, should I get an agent or not, which publisher should I begin with, etc….this is not exactly titillating reading. Not for me, anyway. Colin, my husband – he’s a researcher. He enjoys this stuff. I ask him, “What’s the population of such and such?” and, rather than giving me an off-hand guess, he finds out…right then. (Ah, the power of the internet.) Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy research from time to time. HOWEVER…the definition of hell in my book (figuratively speaking!!! Ha!)…or, at least one of the definitions in the book of Gretchen, would be to be stuck in front of a pile of dry research material at 3:00 in the afternoon with no coffee.

 
So, anyway, this new book…I’m only on page 37 and I have already had all sorts of, well, epiphanies! Here’s one of the most profound, to date (I may write on more in the future!): writing is lonely work…but it is done with the ultimate intent of sharing. (Note, I am not quoting her directly as I’m not entirely clear on the legality of doing so. I hope my summary is clear!) My first thought upon reading this concept: YES! I write in isolation, things that I hope to share with the masses. Writing is NOT a group effort (I HATED group projects in college!) – I mean, people can collaborate…but the actual writing of a thing comes from ONE head at a time. It’s a lonely event. It’s a solo.

 
AND YET…the whole point of writing anything down is for it to then be read by someone else…for it to COMMUNICATE ideas with people other than the writer. For it to be read and enjoyed/debated/appreciated. I do concede that there are types of writing that are private. These are written to clarify something to yourself/to exorcise ideas/to journal one’s private thoughts – though doesn’t any journal-keeper find themselves wondering at some point, “What will someone think if they ever read this?” But, these private diaries aside, we write for others. At least, people in my “profession” do. (I’m trying to think of myself as a professional…it’s a bit of a stretch, I know, but it all begins with attitude, yes?!)
We sit and write in secret…but with the purpose of later sharing those ideas together. In other words, leave me alone while I’m writing!!!! BUT PLEASE, pay a lot of attention to me once my book comes out.

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