Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sense, Sensibility and Sisters

Last week, on a quiet afternoon, I was tempted to watch the Emma Thompson  version of Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen loved sisters. Her two most widely known books - Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility – are more about sisters than the love interests they develop. In both books, the one truly significant relationship in the life of the heroine is the one she has with her sister.

In the climactic scene in S&S, Elinor sits by her sister’s sickbed, believing her to be fading fast.  Her panic is overwhelming – “Anxiety and hope now oppressed her in equal degrees.”  In the movie version, Elinor is more transparent: “Try, Marianne, try.  I don’t know what I should do without you.”

I love that version because she can’t resist being the big sister even in this moment of life and death – telling her to “try.” And really, in general big sisters can’t resist being big sisters. Trust me, I have four of them. 

Here we are,  several years ago (ahem). You can see that Ginger is actively big sistering me.

As I go through life, I have found that I collect sisters: my college roommates, friends from an old job, local friends, book club, sisters-and-cousins-in-law. I seek them out because my “sisters” provide the framework on which I make judgements about my world, vent frustrations, and learn what I’m supposed to do.  They help make sense of the world and give me the sensible answer, and respond with sensibility, whether I am right or wrong.

Mostly, though, when I am with my sisters, I laugh. And laugh.  I am my most entertaining, my silliest, my most fun self when surrounded by sisters. I feel most appreciated, most “Helen.” And let me tell you, my sisters (all of you), I appreciate you back.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

How To Read

When I was about six or seven years old, I went to my reading coach (my big sister, Anne), and asked her advice. I wanted to read big books – chapter books, but it seemed a daunting task. Never one to sugar-coat, she gave it to me straight.

“You have to just read every second you can – when you are waiting for something, in the car, before dinner and after. Carry your book with you and just read anytime you can.”

Her advice did not end with the how. She also suggested the first book I should read. “Little House in the Big Woods.” I loved the image of the children all falling asleep on one big bed when the family gathered for Christmas, and the detailed renderings of life, seen through the eyes of a small child. I loved the illustration and the cover of Laura holding her doll.

I jumped in. It worked, and I was hooked. I read and read and read – in the car, under my covers, while walking to school. I read while others were in conversation all around me. I read every one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beautiful and quintessentially American books.

I wonder, now, if I would have been able to read so deeply in today’s environment, with so many distractions. I am prone to them myself, reading much less now than I used to. Sometimes I feel guilty when reading – as if I am wasting time and need to sneak off to read. I can't seem to find all those little moments, or if I do, there is a task that must fill it. 

In the summer, when we travel to my husband’s family in Greece, I spend time planning the books I will bring, and generally alternate – serious, light, serious, light. And I fall back into that all-consuming pleasure, that reverie of reading from which nothing can rouse me.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Listening to Books

 For several years, I drove my son to school about twenty minutes away. Our drives started when he was about eleven years old and ended this year when, at sixteen, he returned to the local public school.

The drives were a nervous time for him, during which his nameless dread of school would build. We figured early on that a distraction was needed. Hence our discovery of Books-on-tape. This was magic.

We began with Harry Potter, of course, and if you haven’t listened to Jim Dale with his manifold voices, you have missed out on something special. Each character came alive with his delicious skill, declaiming each scene drawn to perfection with J.K. Rowling’s vivid prose. Those books became our staple, and could fill in any time we finished one book without another in the wings.

I began haunting the audio book section of the bookstores and libraries. Series, as always, were most enticing, although it drove us crazy to discover a new series and have to wait months and months between installments.

From Rick Riordan we heard modern versions of the Greek myths through the eyes of Percy Jackson and, in time, discovered the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt with the long-suffering Carter Kane and his annoying little sister Sadie (who defines British “spunk”).

Over time we developed an ear and became quite critical of the actors chosen to read books. We actually stopped listening to a couple of books because the actors just seemed so uninterested in the books themselves.

Occasionally my son would have the hard copy of a book and read it in between listening – during school reading times, for example.
And sometimes I became so involved with the story that I would listen ahead while he was in school. This was a tricky activity, as I had to be able to put the tape back to the exact point at which we had stopped together. I’m ashamed to admit that when we began the Hunger Games trilogy I secretly bought the books and read all three in one big, clandestine gulp.

It was interesting to me as a parent that my son was equally interested in dark YA novels as light middle grades. I often worried that some of the sadder scenes would increase the anxiety, but they didn’t. Once or twice, though, getting out of the car was more difficult because something exciting was happening.

Those twenty-minute blocks of time together are among my favorites during some tough years. Unique and gratifying, they gave us a gift of magic, of other worlds to take us out of our own and fly away. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I do, I have a problem

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem. 

You may even share my guilty pleasure... Its the Kid's section of the book store. 

Don't get me wrong -- I belong to a book group. I even started it- but I started it because I knew I would never read grown-up books if I didn’t. As a result I feel reasonably well read and can hold up my end of a cocktail party conversation. I’m even glad to have read each book (even the ones I hate) after I’ve finished. 

But when I walk into a bookstore, I go straight to the back, where the kids books are.

It took me a long time to admit to my vice. I really would rather read a book intended for a 12-year-old than any other. There is something wonderful about magic, making friends, navigating school days, loving pets. I love the re-telling of old tales. I love the mind of innocence discovering the dualities of the world.

I want to share the world I love. 

On this blog I'll share my own work – maybe chapters or short pieces.  I'll tell you about books I love. I’ll write about things that inspire me, and I might even share a poem or two of my own (see my other blog – “A Desk of My Own” ). I also might wind up posting a lot about Kudzu – a crazy vine that grows in the southern U.S. and is the framework of my own story about a kingdom that exists behind the veil of kudzu. 

But I also want to catch other people's work. I'd like to do guest posts from kids I know (or kids I'd like to meet!)  - illustrations, poetry, story ideas, I'd like to show off illustrations from some of my artist friends. 

Join me -- Bzzzz

The Bee Catcher

Why do we condemn them, poor things, to this terrible fate?
A few stings, an annoying buzz around our food, and we set our traps.

The sweet smell of coca cola entices them,
draws them toward the opening in the bottom of the trap.

Once there they fly delightedly around the small supposed paradise,
anticipating a full meal of sugar.

But then they fly too low, realize too late that
There is no place to alight, other than in that beautiful dark liquid.

Caught now, they still hope.
Surely the goodness all around cannot bring with it their demise?

How we have tricked them, who merely sought to do the bidding of their Queen,
yet strayed too irritatingly into our human orbit.

Fly away, then, poor bees, you’ll find no harvest here - 
Certain doom awaits you at our breakfast table.