What I'm Reading

In my never-ending quest to keep my books contained, the books are winning. They are strewn about the house, pile after pile. I've given up on the on-my-nightstand framework, at least for now. Instead, I'll just fill you in on what I've been reading these days. All of these books are likely to be available at your local library or bookstore, except the Jim Moore poems which might be more available near South of the River than elsewhere.

But first, a disclaimer: I've been working on this post on and off for a week, sneaking away from my family responsibilities for three minutes at a time. So if it seems choppy and inarticulate, don't hold it against me -- I'm just a mom trying to write this week!

1. The Story of English by Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil

This book traces the development of the English language, from a tribal tongue confined to Northwest Europe, to a worldwide language spoken by hundreds of millions of people. The book is a companion to the nine-part BBC series chronicling the same story. Being a word-lover, the topic is fascinating to me. If you're a Word Person (you know who you are), I would recommend it, although it feels like a book that might be nice to pick up once in a while and read at a leisurely pace, rather than to try to have to push through in time to return in to the library by its due date (which is what I'm doing).

2. Lightning At Dinner: Poems by Jim Moore

Jim Moore is a local poet, fairly well-known, I think, in our little literary scene around here. This is his sixth book of poems, and the first of his work that I've read. Unlike some other poetry collections I have read recently, I wouldn't say these poems address a specific theme or idea. Instead they touch on various elements of life: death of a loved one, growing older, cultural differences, war, natural beauty, and existential pondering. There are a couple of dog poems as well, for all you dog lovers out there. One of my favorite in the collection is "At Night We Read Aloud The Aeneid." Here's an excerpt:

Each night, the boat of our voices
carries us toward our dreams
on the dissolving tide of a world
both strange and bloody. A world
in which love does not matter,
though our love makes of it
a place we can bear to live.

3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days by Jeff Kinney

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid is bent on world domination." Thus says Time Magazine. The way The Bean devoured it, I am not in a position to doubt this. After watching him become so absorbed, and hearing him shriek in laughter every few pages, I just had to see what all the fuss was about (well....... ok...... I confess, I read it to see if I thought it was "appropriate," the word all kids hate).

Basically, this book is about a kid who spends his summer derailing his mother's attempts to engage him in activities she deems constructive (reading clubs, summer jobs, trips to the water park); except that he is totally innocent in his derailment of her plans -- he doesn't try to do it, he's just self-absorbed and would rather be shut in his room playing video games all summer. It dawned on me that the reason kids love these books is that Greg says exactly what most kids are thinking. For example: "Every time I have a friend (birthday) party, Mom invites HER friends' kids, so I end up with a bunch of people at my party I barely even know. And those kids don't buy the gifts, their MOMS do. So even if you get something like a video game, it's not a video game you'd actually want to play. (Illus: Froggy and Ruff Learn About Sharing video game)." I guess you could call it escapist literature for kids. And, I guess I can live with it.

4. The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester

This is the story of the making of the revered OED (Oxford English Dictionary). The OED is the most comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and each entry includes pronunciations, definitions, etymologies, and quotations (in my dream world, I would own the whole 20-volume set; in my real life I am saving up for the compact edition with reading glass). The project to develop the OED began in 1858 and took seventy years to complete. Although it's an interesting book on an interesting topic, it's not spellbinding (is that too much to ask -- to be spellbound by every book I read?).

5. Songs Without Words by Anne Packer

Have you read The Dive From Claussen's Pier, Anne Packer's first novel? If yes, then you can skip this one. Life-altering medical emergency? Check. Relationship on the rocks? Check. Creatively-inclined main character who has a breakdown? Check. Mentally ill mother? Check. Unsatisfying resolution? Check.

It wasn't terrible, but it felt so similar to her first book that I was disappointed in it, and wish I would've spent my precious time reading something else. Also, I kept waiting for the great big beautiful metaphor to come into play: you know, Songs Without Words? The series of piano pieces by Mendelssohn? I thought the title of the book came from the Mendelssohn music, but either I missed it in a sleepy-eyed daze, or the grand link between the two works with the same title never came. (Note to self: always google the title you plan to use for a book).

6. Medieval Myths, Norma Lorre Goodrich, ed.

This is a collection of myths from medieval times, including Beowulf, Tristan and Isolde, and El Cid. I always love the oldest stories, and I have a hunch (or perhaps a superstition) that if I read them at night they will make poems grow while I'm asleep. So I've been making my way through these for bedtime reading.

7. Migration: New and Selected Poems by W.S. Merwin

I picked this up because one time, a long time ago, someone told me I should read W. S. Merwin because our writing styles are similar: incantatory, with little punctuation. I've been picking through it (the reading equivalent to picking at your food), and, well, the thing is I do use punctuation, a lot more than this guy does! I think you have to work a little harder to read poems when there are no cues, other than line breaks, for pacing; indeed, the lines move right along in Merwin's work, which can be exhilarating, but not easy. I think I should have tried a slimmer volume of his poems for starters; the new and selected feels like too much to digest without knowing more of his work and feeling already familiar with it. That being said, there are some really good poems in the collection. Here are some excerpts from "Thanks":

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions


with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out of us like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

8. The Book of Ruth from the Old Testament

You know this one: "Wither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy god my God." It's the Old Testament story of Ruth, a young Moabite widow, who goes with her mother-in-law, Naomi back to Naomi's home of Bethlehem to try to start a new life. As a Moabitess, Ruth would be considered an outsider (pagan, unclean, and any number of other less-than-complimentary adjectives) in Bethlehem, but she goes anyway, and eventually is rewarded for her fidelity to Naomi.

I am a little bit obsessed by the Book of Ruth right now. Or, at the very least, intrigued. I've been reading various translations of it a few times a week for the last few weeks, and letting the story and the words sink in. I have a strong sense that there are lots of untold stories between the lines of the text. Maybe I will try to write a few of them someday.

9. Beowulf retold by Nicky Raven, illustrated by John Howe

The boys saw the cover illustration on the Medieval Myths book (above), and so we got to talking about Beowulf. They decided we should go immediately to the library and check out a children's version of the story, which we did. This version is very well done with beautiful language and vivid illustrations. So vivid, in fact, that the illustration of Grendel's mother completely freaked out The Bean, to the point where he was afraid to go outside by himself for a couple of days. Meanwhile, AJ marveled at the drawings: "Hey, let me look at that picture again. Yeah, that's awesome!" Both of them loved the story.

10. Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Robert Byrd

Picked this one up at the school book fair. Amidst all the Dora, Clifford, Spongebob, and Ben 10 books, I found this little gem. It is a series of dramatic monologues written from the perspective of various children in a medieval village--"varlets, vermin, simpletons, saints" says the jacket text--from the Lord of the Manor's son, to the crippled daughter of the blacksmith. Throughout the book there are also short background pieces on various aspects of medieval life, e.g., pilgrimage, the three-field system, towns and the freedom they offered. The author is a school librarian who wrote the pieces for her students to perform. I thought I was buying the book mostly for me, but the kids have really enjoyed it, too. As a writer, I think the author did a great job of creating distinctive voices and characters in each short sketch.

11. How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman

Okay, truth: I am not actually reading this book. I started reading it, but when I came to the part about how cooking vegetarian is not just about coming up with meatless entrees, it's about a whole new way of cooking and a whole new way about thinking of food, I closed the book, dragged myself down the hall to my bedroom, and crept under the covers, where I plan to stay until I can afford hire a personal chef to convert us to vegetarianism. So, basically, if you need me, that's where I'll be.


CitricSugar said...

I hear the word vegetarianism and I hide under the covers, too! I'm not opposed to meatless meals and have more of them than meat-full (?) meals but the gospel of it gets to me in an unpleasant way.

And El Cid is one of my favourites. I'll have to check out of your stack out when I managed to plow through mine.... Good luck!

shaunms said...

What a fun post!

So glad you have the Story of English book. I really enjoyed it too. And I am glad you have Good Masters Sweet Ladies -- I think that book was somewhat maligned as inaccessible when it won the Newberry. I think people underestimate kids -- my kids liked it!

Regarding vegetarianism -- I think that enthusiastic description of "a whole new way to cook" is supposed to make you feel good about what you are getting rather than bad about giving something up. And it really is a new way to cook -- having gone back and forth, I know that meat-eater meals are most often organized around the meat. Take it out, and you need a new way of thinking about meals.

Spoken like a former, and enthusiastic, vegetarian, I know.

Too bad my little one is such a devoted carnivore -- she has subverted us all!