Listen, children, to a story …

(Hmm … realizing just how many of my post titles come from songs. I don’t suppose this is surprising, given how central a role music plays in my life, but it’s funny that I haven’t really noticed or called it out before.)

I’m in a book club. I think it’s fair to say that I’m the laziest member of this club. Sometimes I read the books. Sometimes I even read them all the way to the end. I wouldn’t say I do either of these things even fifty percent of the time. I enjoy the group, and I always intend to do better, but … well, the world is always and always getting in the way of me and my reading goals.

The group has been meeting a long time, but it wasn’t until about two years ago that I began listening to some of our book selections instead of reading them. I realized I could download audiobooks from the library onto my phone and listen during my commute or while doing housework, and it was suddenly far more likely that I’d see my way through to the end of book picks I wasn’t passionate about.

That was my secret: listen to the books I didn’t think I’d like so I could do something else at the same time and feel productive. (Yes, this is obnoxious. I know. I know.)

For the most part, this has worked pretty well. There have been some notable exceptions. I managed to suffer through the recording of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens despite an awful, awful reader who drove me nuts through the whole book. And then there was the total fail of The Plot Against America. Something about Ron Silver’s voice and the utter creepiness of the book in relationship to our current political climate made listening impossible, almost nightmare-inducing. I shut that down right away.

The success of audiobooks really lies in the reader’s voice and reading style choices. A bad voice and I can’t concentrate. Wacky decisions about how to pronounce things or changing the voice for different characters, and you’ve lost me. I hate all those made up voices. Just read. Let me fill in the character distinctions. That was the problem with the Good Omens reader. He made really irksome voices for the characters when he should have just told me the story.

It has turned out that I’ve actually loved many of the books I thought I wouldn’t. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction is depressing and enraging, but amazing and interesting and well-written. I enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath so much it set me to listening to all of his books. And it’s interesting that the Gladwell audiobooks work for me. I don’t like Gladwell’s voice. But he reads his work so perfectly, that he’s the only person I’d want to hear reading, and he makes the books that much more interesting.

The book we’ll be discussing next weekend is Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat. I really can’t articulate how much I loved this book … except to say that I’m about the start my third listen. Seriously. I loved it that much. In part because the book is great, but also because I love Edward Herrmann as the reader. I wish he had recorded all books I might ever want to listen to. He was a fine, fine reader.

But also, Brown has written a wonderful book. He does some things as a writer that I find comical and eventually annoying, but mostly, the book is gold. The story is compelling, the people are likable, he got me interested in a subject — crew racing — that I have given just about no thought to. I’m sure reading this book is also enjoyable, but I’d actually recommend listening because of Herrmann’s excellent recording.

I know I’m not only a lazy book-clubber but also super late to the table when it comes to audiobooks. I should have known that I would like listening to books. I love to be read to. Love, love, love it. So naturally, a good audiobook would please me.

And thank goodness I’ve made this happy discovery. My new commute is always very crowded. The train doors open, and there’s barely enough room to squeeze myself into the throng, definitely no room for pulling out a book. Being able to disappear through my headphones makes that sardine-can ride so much easier to manage.

Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or not like about them? Do you have particular kinds of books you prefer to listen to rather than read, or particular readers you’ve come to love?


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

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Giant-slaying

Spent my afternoon talking about David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. This is the first Malcolm Gladwell book I’ve read … well, heard. I didn’t read it, I listened to it. About three and a half times. It’s another book club pick I thought I wouldn’t enjoy, so I borrowed it as an audiobook from the library.

“Enjoy” doesn’t seem like the right word at this point, as I work my way through listen number 4.

Book group met for hours today … and it wasn’t enough time to talk through everything we wanted to talk about in this book. We had a great discussion, and we still couldn’t fit the whole book in. I, for one, would have been happy to talk for a few more hours so we could discuss all the things. Well … not really, but I am sorry I won’t get to hear those aspects of the book examined by the smart ladies in my book group.

Have you read this book? Which section(s) did you find most compelling? Have you read others of Gladwell’s books? Which would you recommend I pick up next?



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

When Life Doesn’t Imitate Art

I am making my way for the second time through Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. This isn’t a book I would ever have chosen to read, but it’s the January pick for my book group, and so. As much as I was sorry to see this book win the group’s vote, I’m so glad it did. This is a stunning, well-written book that needs reading and heeding. I suspect it will get much more of the first than the second.

When my mentee, Sophia, and I had our pair session this week, I told her about the book, told her I hadn’t wanted to read it because I knew it would depress the mess out of me and be really frustrating. We talked about the history of mass extinctions and the sad fact that humans are causing this current die-off. And we talked about animals that have been lost …

And then this question happened:

“Mammoths are still alive, right?”

It froze me for a second because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that anyone would imagine that we still had Mammoths running around somewhere on earth. But it was a sincere question. So I put on my serious face and answered: “No honey, not for … um … thousands of years.”

This was the wrong answer, of course. She was so unhappy! We went online for verification of my “thousands of years” and talked about how cool it would be if Mammoths were still around (but would it be cool?). And then:

“What about Saber-tooth Tigers? They’re still around, right?”

Sophia is young, it’s true, but I’m still surprised. Aren’t these extinctions well-enough known to be the fauna equivalent of canon?

I broke the news about the tigers, feeling more and more sorry for bringing up Kolbert’s book with every second. Sophia was really hit by this information, and I was so unprepared for our conversation, I didn’t do a good job of helping her through it. This isn’t covered in the mentor’s handbook!

We talk more. I talked about some of the animals Kolbert highlights in her book, particularly the Great Auk, whose story really broke my heart. We looked at pictures of a bunch of extinct animals and talked about when they lived and what caused their extinctions … and about the fact that the cause was so often humans. We took a look at the Saber-tooths for nostalgia’s sake … and that’s when it all became clear:

“Because, you know, Ice Age is my favorite movie. I guess I just thought they must all still be here.”

Because … oh.

Sophia has seen this movie many (MANY) times. And I totally get having a favorite show really change how you see the world. I have a hard time remembering that George Washington wasn’t a big, handsome Black man who sings like Christopher Jackson. (No, really.) But I’m still thrown by this. Maybe I’m thrown because I wonder what gets covered in earth science classes? Maybe. I think it’s more wonder at the beauty and sweetness that is Sophia’s ability to believe in living Mammoths and Saber-tooth Tigers. And sadness that I crushed them, that I’m suddenly the villain who made them all extinct with one casual response.

Sigh. Well, I am human, after all. And we’re all definitely the villains in Kolbert’s book, villains of the unsightly drama that’s been playing out for decades but moving faster and faster in recent years. The Sixth Extinction should be required reading. Yes, to make sure you know that we no longer have Mastodons and Mammoths (not related to each other, by the way!), but also to understand the loss of the Great Auks, and now Panamanian Golden Frogs. But, more importantly, I’d hope this book could force us to come to terms with the destruction we’re wreaking across the globe. Yes. In a perfect world.

But, if we lived in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have pushed the earth to this point, would we?

Coming Clean

Well Read

I confess. I never finished Moby Dick. Couldn’t. Didn’t want to. Never read more of Faulkner than “Barn Burning.” Refused to stick with Finnegan’s Wake. I managed to slog through Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, Beowulf, The Golden Notebook. Weeks of my life I can never get back. I confess. These are iceberg-tip lists. I could make lit professors weep with all I haven’t forced myself to swallow. I confess. I don’t find that I’ve ever had much time to be concerned with THE CANON, with what’s considered classic. I’m not throwing shade. I’m just saying. I read Ulysses. Twice. And War and Peace, August 1914, Crime and Punishment. Oh yes. Give me Russians. Give me Russians any day. Not because they’re in the literary canon, but because they speak to me. I confess. I am more interested in my pleasure, in stories that resonate, than in faking passion. I confess … but I’m not repentant.

I think I’ve gone off course with these prose poems, lost what little hold I had on how they’re supposed to work. Time to go back to my crib sheets and get reacquainted with this form.


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Are you writing poems this month? Where can I see them? Let’s share this craziness!

As I did last year, I’ll be following along with the Poem-A-Day challenge at Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides Blog. Today’s prompt is to write a confession poem. You can post your daily poems on Brewer’s page. The top poem from each day will be included in an anthology later this year!

Silence Broken

Tonight I went to the New York launch of Lisa Factora-Borchers’ anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. There was a great introduction/process description and reading — including a recording sent from Belgium — and a Q&A.  My time and my calendar said I shouldn’t go, couldn’t go, but I had to ignore them.  And I’m so very glad I did.   I haven’t read this book yet, but I’m going to say that all of us should.  This is a conversation we need to be having, work we need to be doing.  I’m so grateful to Lisa and all of the writers in the anthology who were brave enough to share their stories, and I’m grateful to the women in the audience who stepped up with the same bravery during the discussion afterward.

Tonight’s Arun.  It didn’t quite do what I wanted, but I felt less hampered that single-syllable line tonight.  Not sure why that might have been true. The Poetic Asides writing prompt for the day is to write a message poem. And so:

Girl,
your voice —
broken-glass
nails on chalkboard —
needles through my brain.
You
have words
no one wants.
Words that open
doors, that open wounds,
fly
in faces,
tell the truth:
lifting all boats
from pain to praisesong.

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

A Willow Tree Grows in Brooklyn

I saw them again! The lovely mother and daughter from my Cat in the Hat post the other day! We were on the bus again, heading downtown. This time, the mom was doing the reading.  Her daughter was curled up against her, listening intently.  Mom was reading The Wind in the Willows. Put a smile on my face that she had chosen a classic.

The bigger smile on my face came from watching and listening to the way the mom read the story — thinking out loud after she read certain lines so that her daughter could see the way she thought about what she was reading, pausing and asking her daughter to predict what might happen next, etc.  I love how invested the mom clearly is in her daughter’s literacy, how patiently she waited for her daughter’s answers and talked through them with her, how cute they looked snuggled up together on the bus seat, deep in their story, deep in that book.

They made my morning.  And I wonder what I’ll get to hear them read next time!

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Check out all of the slices on Two Writing Teachers!

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Petal Pushers

Just spent a lovely, lovely evening with friends catching up, laughing, sharing a meal and discussing The Language of Flowers.

My friends and I (my book club), alternate month to month between fiction and nonfiction. A little something for everyone. And this month’s options were down to me. I gave the group a handful of titles to choose from, and — while I’ll admit that I was hoping Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe would win — I wanted to read all of the books I put up for the vote, so I was happy enough when Diffenbaugh’s book won.

I’d chosen not to read the more spoiler-y reviews, so I didn’t know what to expect, but the premise interested me: Victoria ages out of foster care … life ensues.

Language reads so easily, totally passed my “has it drawn me in” test by making me almost miss my stop on the subway and bus, and by having a number of moments that made me close the book because I couldn’t bear to see what Victoria would do next … and then open it again immediately because I couldn’t bear not knowing.  The characters feel real (mostly), and the writing is good.  I had problems with some of the choices the author made, some of the character inconsistencies that I found jarring.  I had problems with the ending — the “how” of it, not the “what.”

Maybe what moved me most of all in reading this book, is that it made me think of my grandmother, Mom.  I’ve written here at least once about the fact that she was a foster parent for decades.  Thinking about the way Victoria grew up, and thinking about the difference having a long-term foster home meant for many of the kids who came Mom’s way.  Thinking about the ones who thrived, and thinking about the ones who couldn’t stay, as much as they needed to.  Thinking about the one’s whose families stayed connected to them and came back for them, and thinking about the ones whose families couldn’t be those families.  Wondering what happened to the ones who didn’t stay in our family after leaving Mom’s house.

Victoria would never have been one of Mom’s kids — social services only brought her the brown babies — but page after page after page, I found myself wishing that she could have been.

Like Victoria, my grandmother had an amazing skill with plants.  I have no idea if she ever bothered to learn anything about the language of flowers, but she certainly knew how to grow just about anything.  She didn’t spend a lot of time on flowers — they were in the outdoor garden, but were more casual decoration, not for picking and gracing a dining table or night stand.  She grew vegetables and she grew non-flowering plants.  Her indoor garden was amazing, filling shelf after shelf after shelf in lush, many-hued leaves and fronds.

I don’t know anything about the language of flowers, either … I mean, I didn’t before I read the book.  I knew it existed, but I hadn’t ever thought about it.  Now, I’m itching to send coded messages through the seemingly casual combination of blossoms.  A year ago, I started buying myself flowers at the start of every weekend (thank you, Apartment Therapy, for making that a new habit!), and I love choosing them.  The man I buy from knows me now — what I like, my price range, how much I like to be surprised by something I haven’t seen before.  I wonder what he’d say if I asked him what each flower means. Perhaps it’s time to take our floral relationship to the next level.

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To see all of today’s slices, head over to Two Writing Teachers!

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