I read too many books to rave about many of them wholeheartedly. Sometimes I simply cull bits and pieces I want to share here, often when a book helps make a point about creativity.
Here, then, are a few reflections on some books you shouldn't (or might want to) miss, and why.
Descriptions of flow states turn up everywhere, once you pay attention. Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being, wrote this excellent description of the flow and non-flow of a distracted writer's mind:
Time interacts with attention in funny ways. At one extreme, when Ruth was gripped by the compulsive mania and hyperfocus of an Internet search, the hours seemed to aggregate and swell like a wave, swallowing huge chunks of her day. At the other extreme, when her attention was disengaged and fractured, she experienced time at its most granular, wherein moments hung around like particles, diffused and suspended in standing water.
There used to be a middle way, too, when her attention was focused but vast, and time felt like a limpid pool, ringed by sunlit ferns. An underground spring fed the pool from deep below, creating a gentle current of words that bubbled up, while on the surface, breezes shimmered and played. This blissful state was one that Ruth seemed to recall enjoying, once upon a time, when she’d been writing well.
Now, no matter how hard she tried, that Eden eluded her. The spring had dried up, the pool was clogged and stagnant. She blamed the Internet. She blamed her hormones. She blamed her DNA. She pored over websites, collecting information on ADD, ADHD, bipolar disorder, dissociative identity disorder, parasites, and even sleeping sickness, but her biggest fear was Alzheimer’s.
The writing in White Horse, a post-apocalypse novel by Alex Adams, is mostly fine and fresh, but when I reached this section about 100 pages in, I stopped. Was the author, speaking through her narrator, spouting the same absurd claims made by the climate-change deniers (and all the others who have claimed that doing science is "playing God")?
The beginning of the end comes because of the weather, just like Daniel, my blind date, said it would. Only, he’s wrong about the culprit: it isn’t China, it’s us. So we’re both right. The end begins in hurricane season, although in truth the seeds had been sown much earlier with mass filing of patents and theories about how the weather could be controlled with man’s hand and a whole lot of funding. Weather modification. Playing God. Modern man couldn’t conquer death, had a flimsy grip on disease control, so he turned to another lost cause. Scientists scream, but they’re soon silenced with money stuffed down the throats of their pet research projects. Which leaves the entrepreneurs, the government, and their nodding stable of scientists to tinker with the weather.
I did keep reading until the end, and I enjoyed the book, but I doubt I'll look for the planned sequel.
Gods of Mischief: My Undercover Vendetta to Take Down the Vagos Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, by George Rowe, is an enlightening tale. The acknowledgments mention a KC Franks "who gave me a voice and helped tell it the way it was." That's got to be a pseudonym for someone who can really write, as this memoir reads like fiction, in a consistently conversational tone, with rich detail and very little effort, so far as I could see, to make the narrator into the saint he never was. There are black and white photos throughout, of both the cops and the outlaws.
What's most compelling to me in this fast-paced story is how anyone who goes undercover, when it's not his sworn duty to do so, risks so very much. Rowe, now under the protection of the U.S. Witness Security Program along with his addict wife and their child, spent three years as an undercover informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to take down the Vagos motorcycle gang in Hemet, California.
His stated goal was to make the streets safe for law-abiding citizens, and, ironically, he had to leave that town behind along with his identity, his few real friends, and even his personal photos. Those who he helped put behind bars are now out, and he feels, probably accurately, forever hunted by them. I still wonder if he was exploited by those who seemed to be offering him a measure of redemption for his own crimes.
If, when you think of self-esteem theory, what comes to mind is the way the term "self esteem" was used and perhaps misused a generation or two ago, it's time for an update. With my own interest in positive psychology (including how the term is sometimes mis-applied), I read with interest the fourth edition of Self-Esteem and Positive Psychology: Research, Theory, and Practice, by Christopher J. Mruk (Springer).
The book is comprehensive, integrated, and up-do-date. Defining self-esteem has never been simple. Here's the definition proposed by Mruk (with a whole chapter of explanation as to why this is the most comprehensive one available): Self-esteem is a relationship between competence and worthiness.
A major paradox in the field is whether self-esteem is an independent or dependent variable. Does self-esteem matter because it has an impact on behavior, or is self-esteem only a by-product? Causality has to be factored into any theory.
Here are two books from the same publisher, Princeton Architectural Press, that are both very unusual and inspirational for readers open to combining forms.
Lia Kirwin's Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art contains a fascinating variety of archived scraps that can be called lists. Each is given a full page, with "selected transcriptions and translations" gathered in the back of the book to make better sense of all the handwritten bits. As with journal or notebook keeping, there are no rules for making lists. And as these are artists whose bits of paper have been saved, expect the visual to dominate many of them. These are lists as cultural history.
A few examples: In a letter, H.L. Mencken lists several of his personal opinions and attributes ("I love the obscene, but it must have wit in it," "If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself.") Grant Wood's list of economic depressions, compiled in 1931. painter Reginald Marsh's "Expenses in the Pursuit of Art" from 1934 (studio rent $30, model $2.50), a handwritten note by Picasso listing recommendations for the 1913 show at The Armory, painter Arturo Rodriquez's ca. 1978 list of paintbrushes with illustrations, Alexander Calder's ca. 1942 inventory with illustrations of hanging things.
Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon features a collection of more than 100 imaginative maps that show how creativity can be applied in unexpected ways. Real and imaginary worlds seduce readers into the sometimes bizarre mindsets of their creators.
From religious to ironic, serious to surreal, personal to universal, this is a mind-bending two-century selection of map-like imagery that widens one's perception of what geography is. There are maps of the heart, poem-maps, an "expedition through the alimentary canal," a delightfully artistic redrawing of the world using forms borrowed from comics and puzzles, and such amusing drawings as "A Dog's Idea of the Ideal Country Estate: An Imaginative Map" by John Held, Jr. (1920s). Explanatory introductions and notes are a helpful aid.
Kiss Me First, by Lottie Moggach (July 9, Doubleday), is an intensely suspenseful and insightfully psychological debut novel from a journalist. Eventually you realize you're dealing with a highly unreliable narrator, an isolated computer expert who has been asked to take over someone's identity. The author is superb at using intellectual arguments to play with our sympathies.
Norwegian by Night, by Derek B. Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a rare comedic (plus!) gem that is so special I don't want to risk undermining it with banal description. I'm not being lazy, really, but this one is dark, moving, meaningful, absolute fun to read, and a thriller to boot. The Norwegian setting is a bonus.
The Curiosity, by Stephen P. Kiernan (HarperCollins, July 9), features a female doctor/explorer, a man discovered long-buried in Arctic ice, and the quandary: is there a chance for them to enjoy a life together? At what cost? With some of the elements that make me love time travel stories – though this isn't quite that--this scientifically-undergirded love story-cum-thriller is a fun reading experience.
One quote: "But my science, if I ran the world, would never lose sight of the other part of the equation. The beauty." (Religious nuts run around insisting that we shouldn't play God, which is realistic enough, but why does the main scientist always have to be without ethics or a conscience? (But okay, he's actually a fairly balanced character by the end.)
Ten White Geese, by Gerbrand Bakker (Penguin), is translated excellently from the Dutch. This quiet yet increasingly tense novel won me over. A bit more scenery than I usually prefer, but the surprises and the psychological acuity and spareness drew me in and held me tight.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry
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