Monday, December 24, 2007

Just past the solstice

Winter arrived in Chicago well before the solstice, and now we're relieved that the hasty days of paltry sunlight squeezed between the great smothering arms of darkness are pushing back. In the meantime, I've been rereading a favorite poet, Edward Hirsch. This is from a treasured collection, Earthly Measures.


We couldn't tell if it was a fire in the hills
Or the hills themselves on fire, smoky yet
Incandescent, too far away to comprehend.
And all this time we were traveling toward
Something vaguely burning in the distance--
A shadow on the horizon, a fault line--
A blue and cloudy peak which never seemed
To recede or get closer as we approached.
And that was all we knew about it
As we stood by the window in a waning light
Or touched and moved away from each other
And turned back to our books. But it remained
Even so, like the thought of a coal fading
On the upper left-hand side of our chests,
A destination that we bore within ourselves.
And there were those--were they the lucky ones?--
Who were unaware of rushing toward it.
And the blaze awaited them, too.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Best of"

I want to praise good books book by book, and consequently I resist the reduction of end-of-year “best of” lists. The quantifying of quality. With winter comes the call for book critics’ favorites, a short list of top picks, an impossibly small number of books deemed better than all the others. I find this process painful and, in spite of solid critical criteria, arbitrary. It’s a game, a gamble, a shuffling of priorities and compromises. And so begins the reluctant dealing of the cards from a stacked deck, the required discards, the arranging and rearranging of the fanned hand in search of a winning combination, a feeling of being strong-armed, of bluffing, of hedging one’s bets.

I played this high-stakes game for six consecutive years as a National Book Critics Circle board member, seated at a long table with a large cast of passionate players. Now it’s a game of solitaire, but somehow I still seem to be facing a group, my various reading selves. The me that loves a poetry collection one day and finds it cryptic the next. The self that swoons over the pages of a novel, then, months later, realizes that somehow it is the response that is memorable, instead of the book. Or, conversely, my insatiable reading self who can’t bear to give up any of the year’s beloved titles. And the overworked editor who inevitably overlooks a deserving book. Winnowing down my true wish list of outstanding books to conform to a prescribed number is a form of editing, much like my daily sacrifice of prose to meet requisite word counts. Another surgical procedure, another steep climb in painfully tight shoes, another interrupted dream. But selecting the best is also an act of sharpening, of rigorous questioning, honing, pressing, testing. A study in necessity and essence. A test of time and resonance. A duel between the rapturous self and the critical mind. A letting go. A leap.

Here’s a poem from a collection I’ve chosen as one the “best” of 2007, Captivity by Laurie Sheck.

As when an otherwise opens

Now December strikes in with its own brittleness, as when an otherwise

Opens in the body, wrenching further into slant and hazard.

Past the covert operations of the state, past checkpoints and official access.

A crystal splits along the lines of its own cleavage.

Questions unshelter themselves harshly. Each war-zone of them flaring,

and radical with damage.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reading is living.

Readers and writers are by definition thoughtful people, reflective, questioning, analytical, sometimes anxious, often self-deprecating. One can’t help but question the entire enterprise of the life of the mind, especially when you realize that you’re happiest alone in a small room with a window, a book, and a sleeping cat. You don’t want to go anywhere in person, since you can go everywhere in your imagination. So one asks one’s self, is this healthy?

But some of us are lucky enough to share our passion with others, eye to eye. I had many such opportunities this autumn, and all were affirming and revelatory. Of course, some encounters were also nerve-wracking. It never fails to amaze me, what strangers will say. But you, know, if you accept invitations to moderate panels and speak, you are opening yourself to scrutiny and commentary.

And so it was one fine and chilly night when I spoke to a group of sharp-minded women in a beautifully restored old mansion on a college campus along Lake Michigan. The subject was one I was perhaps too ardent about: women, justice, and the environment. As always, I worked hard preparing for the talk, and brought along all kinds of notes and quotes and never once looked at them, which in this case, may have been a mistake. At any rate, I stumbled to a halt, and ask for questions. I enjoy this exchange, and on this night, my good listeners came up marvelously discerning queries. Pleased and relieved, I sat down, and signed books (such a many-faceted pleasure), and then found myself entangled in a rather thorny conversation with a skeptic. Frowning thoughtfully, she said that she couldn’t imagine spending so much time reading. Surely no woman with children (How did she know I have none, and how many does she have?) could do what I do day after day. And really, who would want to. Didn’t I feel cut off from real life? Wasn’t I even more distant from true experience than real writers because I was writing about writing, two levels away from breath and flesh and blood? Wasn’t it isolating? Artificial? Even, she seemed to imply, cowardly.

Who was this stranger who sensed the exact content of my own dark worries and fears? My own self-criticism, my own litany of failures. But because I’ve ruminated on this so much, I know that she is wrong. I know that reading opens you to life. Stories, poems, essays, history, science writing, and biography deepen your understanding of the living world, of humankind, of the cosmos. Reading engenders empathy, reveals hidden connections, gives words to inchoate feelings, breaks down the cell of the self, infuses daily chaos and tedium with meaning. You discover that many suffer the same doubt, fear, desire, anger, and hope that you do. You realize how fortunate you are when you read about the brutal lives and deaths of other. Reading extends your perception, stokes a sense of social responsibility, awakens compassion and appreciation for beauty, and provides a vessel for sorrow. Reading makes you a citizen of the world, a fuller, more conscious human being. I never feel completely alone, or at a loss, with books at hand. I know that I’m part of a great bright web of consciousness. The past is illuminated, as are countless ways of being and knowing, every conceivable sort of landscape, the wondrous world of animals, plants, stones, water, and sky. A reader contains multitudes.

My interlocutor was generous after all (and how knows the shade and shape of her regrets and unfulfilled yearning), and bought a copy of my anthology, In Our Nature. I signed it with a little frisson of mischievous pleasure: “Reading is living!”

Not many days later I heard the literary critic and writer Alan Cheuse speak to Scott Simon on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” I admire Cheuse for his intelligent and passionate response to books, and very much like his edgy fiction. Here’s my Booklist review of his new book, The Fires:

Book critic Cheuse, whose resonant commentaries are heard on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, returns to fiction after the essay collection Listening to the Page (2001). Cheuse ignites fire in the mind and in the heart in a pair of tightly written novellas (the dialogue volleys as smoothly as that of a play) that form a yin-yang of grief and healing. In the title story, a woman suffering the debilitating hot flashes of menopause journeys to Uzbekistan to collect the body of her husband, who died in a fiery accident, and finds herself participating in a Hindu cremation. In "The Exorcism," a man struggles with his own conflagration of sorrow after his ex-wife, a brilliant jazz musician, dies of a heroin overdose. He then offers sanctuary to their college-student daughter, whose mourning turns dangerously incendiary. Startlingly beautiful in their searing radiance and molten heat, Cheuse's poetic tales of pain and forgiveness, loss and remembrance stoke our age-old fascination with fire as a force of destruction and renewal.

But my high regard went up several notches after this exchange:

Scott Simon asked Cheuse how much he reads, and Cheuse answers, four or five books a week. (If someone asked me that, I would say six or more, depending on the books.) Simon continued:

“How does all that reading affect your writing; do you have to be careful?”

And booklover Cheuse answers without missing a beat:

“I think being careful is the worst thing you can possibly do to yourself as a writer. You need to read as much as you possibly can, and live as much as you possibly can, and write as much as you possibly can. Reading is as much a part of life as any part. It’s life itself and it allows us to live other lives that we might not have lived if we hadn’t picked up those books. So, it seems to me to be a good human being you must read as much as you can. And certainly if you want to be a good writer you should read as much of the good stuff as you can get your hands on.”

My hero.