synchronicity: Teaser Tuesdays: The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, as rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

story

Is it a double-synchronicity if it’s a synchronicity about synchronicity?

Fair warning: I will be raving about this little book when it gets published and I’m allowed to do so. But for now… this is Brooke Williams, in one of his commentaries following a chapter of Jefferies’s 1883 work.

Jefferies was in conversation with me as I was in conversation with Jung. Jung also used “soul” and “psyche” interchangeably. The psyche, I’ve learned, is the complete human mind – conscious as well as unconscious. What intrigues me most is Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious – that part of the psyche every human shares, that evolved as our cells evolved, through natural selection, consisting of “mnemonic deposits accruing from the experience of our ancestors.”

Randomly discovering a book I’d never heard of and reading a passage about psyche and soul – concepts I’d been struggling to understand – was for me a “meaningful coincidence,” Jung’s definition for synchronicity.

Synchronicity is, according to Ira Progroff, “at the frontal edge of life where evolution is occurring.”

In parallel, you know I’ve used the word synchronicity here before. What you don’t know is that I had some trouble selecting the word I wanted to use to communicate the concept: of coincidence, but more than coincidence. Clearly (at least according to the definitions given above) I got it right. Thanks, Pops, for helping me to get it.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

on picking up another book by Marilyn Johnson

overdueThree people simultaneously bought me Marilyn Johnson’s previous book, This Book Is Overdue!, as I graduated from library school. (Possibly they are reading this now – sorry! I don’t even remember who they were.) I didn’t make it even halfway through. Was it uninspiring, or was it I who was uninspired? worn out from study? It’s a fine question about the intersection of book, reader, time and place; a good reading experience requires a happy meeting of all four. Maybe I would love the book now.

livesI’m rather encouraged to try again. The first pages of Johnson’s latest work, Lives in Ruins, reference librarians immediately – and beer too, twice in three pages; a funny story about the apocalypse is credited to a graduate student, and during an economic depression, “Dublin was running, as far as I could tell, on what spilled out of the pockets of Brits during their bachelor parties.” Johnson is self-deprecating and irreverent, and also serious and passionate about her subject (in this case, archaeologists). What’s not to love?

May have to try This Book Is Overdue! again. Perhaps three well-meaning graduation present givers were right after all.

getting rich writing book reviews


Warning! Long post follows. Sorry.

I have found myself commenting several times lately on the richness of my hobby-and-part-time-job, of reading books and then writing about them. I thought it was time I put this into a coherent statement for you here.

I was always a steady reader, as a child, and through school. I always loved to read. (In one of those blogging memes that went around some time ago, a self-interview sort of thing, I was supposed to give my favorite book as a child. I couldn’t remember, so I asked my mom. Her response was something like, “are you kidding! There was a new one daily!”) As a new librarian, I took a readers advisory class that recommended keeping a book blog as one way of recording one’s reading for reference later on. And that’s how we got to pagesofjulia; and that in turn is how I was able to apply to write for Shelf Awareness, a year or two down the road.

So I’ve always been a reader. And I had some fine English classes (and other social sciences) that trained me to take notes while reading, and to look for themes, leitmotif, stylistic quirks, and the like. But only since becoming a book blogger and paid book reviewer have I really begun to hone the skills of close reading – not for a class assignment (I knew how to do that), but to record my personal reactions, or the qualities that a prospective reader would want to know about. (I also began reading with an eye as to how a book might be improved. But that’s a different topic. Perhaps.)

Another result of reading for the sake of writing about what I’ve read, has been the growing diversity of the books I pick up. My reading volume has increased, is ever increasing, and I need the variety to keep from getting bored. If I read nothing but thrillers, at the present rate, it would be difficult to say something new about each one. And I want to better serve my editor by contributing diverse material. But also, as my reading has expanded, so have my interests, which then expand my reading, and there we have the most delightful self-perpetuating cycle you could imagine.

In the past several years, I have read widely in fiction (lots of mysteries and thrillers, as ever, but a little romance, fantasy, sci fi, historical and literary fiction, classics, and some odd formats, outliers and oddities) and nonfiction (sports and nature, as ever, but also science, history, biography, essays, politics, journalism, and literary criticism). I have tended to read for what I can learn from the book, myself, but also with a wider readership in mind, so that I can write a sale-able review. And a magical thing has come of this wide reading diversity.

I have never learned so much, so richly, as in reading this way. I attended a very fine public high school with a highly regarded International Baccalaureate program, and then a college Honors program, from which I graduated summa cum laude. I have a master’s degree. But I’ve never experienced such an interdisciplinary curriculum as this: read eclectically. Take notes.

The area of my reading that has most surprised me is in science. I never considered myself as having a scientific mind, and I was generally lukewarm on science classes (with a notable exception for chemistry); but with such magnetic titles as The Drunken Botanist and A Garden of Marvels, and biographies of Rachel Carson and Hali Felt, not to mention Annie Dillard‘s breathtaking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek… well, I found it easy and even natural to grow in that direction. (As a flower toward the sun, if you’ll excuse the simile.)

And when I began reading more widely, and repeatedly reading in areas new to me – like science – I noticed another magical thing: I started recognizing concepts. I have written before on what I’m calling synchronicity, the seeming coincidence of discovering a newly learned fact or area of study again and again in a short time. The more I think about it, the more I think my friend Liz is right: it’s not that things actually come to me in threes, but rather that when I’ve recently learned something, I am more able to see it the next few times it crosses my desk (book, mind). These are opportunities to relearn a new concept or fact; and they are opportunities to cross-reference within other disciplines, to reinforce knowledge, to gain a fuller understanding of what a concept or a fact means in historical, cultural, political context.

One area in which I am not an expert is education (or educational theory or design), so I’ll try not to get too far off-track here. But I think we’re probably doing something wrong in our formal education system regarding interdisciplinary learning. I’ve never felt so richly instructed as I do by simply spending all the time I can find in reading, widely and with both eyes wide open. And while a steady diet of bodice-ripping romance novels or pulp might not do it, notice that I’m not recommending reading a bunch of scholarly works, or even all nonfiction. (And some pulp is always welcome, just as you can probably eat a few M&Ms alongside your healthy diet.)

Fiction has a great deal to offer: entertainment, yes, but also the opportunity to get inside someone else’s head, to understand their processes and motivations; or to travel to another time or experience another culture, and likewise to better understand the workings of that time or place or culture. And these are valuable lessons to learn for the important everyday work of being human: the ability to empathize, or to understand or even imagine the motivations of others, makes us better people. (There have been some studies on this. See for example the Guardian here and here.) Fiction is good: I’ve said this before.

To say that reading nonfiction is education is a much more familiar concept; you learn new facts from nonfiction, right? (We could actually argue over this point, but let’s not do it here and now.) But again, I think that reading lots – fiction or non – is far more than the sum of the parts, of having read all those individual books. The more you read, the more you learn, not only from what you’ve read, but from the combined and compounded effects of varied reading. I feel more intellectually stimulated now than I did in high school, college or graduate school. It’s not just that I read a lot of books; I read lots of different kinds of books. Some are silly or pulpy, but as I scan this list, I can’t pick out even one that didn’t teach me something. Some are weird (for example). But put them all together, and they make for a fine education.

Read eclectically. Take notes.

to date: best books of 2014

I was trying to hold off til the end of this calendar year, but I’ve been asked several times recently for book recommendations, and have sent this list privately to a few friends. So why not share? Below you will find the best books I’ve read this year, so far. Hopefully there will be more in these last few months!

Some reviews haven’t even posted yet, but here you are, getting a sneak peek at my ratings.

Those that received a rating of 10:

Those that received a rating of 9:

* = audiobooks.

There have been lots of 8s, too, including for example the latest from Stephen King and James Lee Burke; this lovely novel; a little literary history (oh and here’s another); some plants*; and two that are still to come: We Make Beer, and Older, Faster, Stronger.

What have you read so far this year that’s blown you away?

from Orion: “Raptorous” by Brian Doyle

The other day, Pops emailed me:

You MUST read this. It is a work of literary richness in a mere page, informative & inspiring, on a subject you will appreciate. I read it twice – I love his word-use here; would you blog about a single-page essay?

I would, Pops!

He added, “notice who & where he is.” From Orion,

Brian Doyle is the editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine in Oregon. His most recent book is The Plover, from St. Martin’s Press.

And the article in question is here.

I certainly agree with the lovely words. How many times could you happily read “hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal”? (Many times.) Muscles on their muscles! I thought first about my Husband, who loves birds (and has rescued several in and around our backyard). I think Doyle is right that many of us are addled, absorbed, haunted and maniacal about, particularly, birds of prey; but beyond them, as well, I certainly hope.

I also think it’s interesting to consider the etymology of the words “rapture” and “raptor.” I had never given conscious thought to their link, although it’s obvious at a glance, isn’t it? I think of rapture as having a religious connotation; but there’s much more to it than that. Just a few links here. I had not considered the more sinister connection to rape.

Birds and rapture have a place in my own little bird-world, too. Our backyard has been very active with the birds this summer. Because we’re growing delicious fruits back there, we’ve seen more, and more diverse birds than every before. (The bird bath doesn’t hurt either in dry Houston summers.) We have had lots of grapes growing along the back fence: 10301452_10203853874376171_9205261055523974740_n
and lots of figs:
10453468_10204111061085678_3107840873699884198_n
and a mama with her babies in our young oak tree:
10497046_10204088767568354_5612090893893219405_o
(Of course none of these are birds of prey. I’m being generous in my interpretation of Doyle’s writing, which is clearly about birds of prey specifically. But I think we can appreciate them all… and our little bird farm is encircled by hawks…)

All of this was joined a few years ago by a lovely piece by my aunt Janet, the sculptor. Its title is Rapture, and it was displayed in her home in Austin:
rapture austin
before joining us here in Houston:
rapture houston
to become a part of our backyard landscape (full of birds, although none are pictured here):
10306253_10203808143952939_4179928191057459515_n
(There is a little dog hidden in there, Where’s-Waldo-style, if you look closely.)

Brian Doyle’s ‘raptorous’ writing is well appreciated this season. Thanks, Pops.

bookish musings: pressures and impulses to read more, or read less

Just a little general reading for you today. (Ha.)

What’s new: I have been steadily increasing the reading & reviewing I do for Shelf Awareness. (Don’t know if you’d noticed.) I have also taken on reviewing responsibilities for ForeWord, so keep your eyes open for some reviews to come in that publication as well.

What this means: my “required reading” is ever-increasing. I love the work I do for Shelf Awareness; my relationship with my editor, Marilyn, has been excellent, and I am learning new things all the time, which might be the definition of happiness. I am far from complaining; I have sought out this additional work. But the days of my reading books of my own choice seem to be on hold for now. My audiobook time is still by my own choice, but the print books I read are 100% assigned lately.

The thing is, the more good books I read (for example, in the last few days: So We Read On), the more I find I want to read. That is, the more specific titles I discover that I want to put on my shelf. Good reading of the last year or so has yielded, among others, these additions to my shelves:


earthAmerican Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, edited by Bill McKibben (from my general and increasing interest in nature writings)

forestsFallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781-1924 by Karen L. Kilcup (as above, plus obviously women)

fun homeFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (because Are You My Mother? was so great)

zelda clineZelda Fitzgerald: The Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess by Sally Cline (after my disappointment with Z, which whetted my appetite

zelda milfordZelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford (and another: Milford’s, I understand, is the authoritative Zelda work)

perkinsMax Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg (thanks to So We Read On for the specific recommendation; but of course as a Hemingway fan I was ripe for this suggestion)

To be clear: these are only a few of the books I have obtained in recent months, that now sit physically on shelves in what Husband calls my book room, waiting for me to find time to read them. And this, as my time to read books I choose is ever-decreasing. The more I read, the more I want to read. Good problems to have??

I am simultaneously thrilled to be expanding my book-review work, and sorry to lose my “free” reading time. I have been saying for years that if I ever want to clear my shelves of these books waiting patiently for me to find the time, I will need a 6- or 12-month sabbatical (from the day job as well as the reviewing work)… at least. Stay tuned for how I will work that out… and I will as well.

vocabulary lessons: The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

If you’re interested: see other vocabulary lessons as well.


fish forestAs you know, I found the salmon’s story in The Fish in the Forest simply mesmerizing. I also learned a lot – and not just about salmon. Here are some vocabulary words I had to look up.

epiphytes attach to their host plants for support and as a means to reach more sunlight… but are traditionally classified as non-parasitic”: “There are epiphytic plants that grow on trunks and branches high in the forest canopy…”

relict, “a surviving species of an otherwise extinct group of organisms”: “The present salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest stem from relict populations that have been extant since the last ice age…” (I suspected a typo here for “relic” – this being a pre-publication proof edition, typos would not surprise. But no, I learned something new here. “Relict” is perfectly appropriate.)

trophically, “of or relating to nutrition”: “Even when not preying on salmon directly, humpbacks are linked to them trophically because they feed on fishes that compete with salmon for food.” Further explained a little later on within the book itself: “The troph in heterotroph and autotroph implies nourishment…” In other words, what we’re talking about here (in context) is organisms that are linked on the food chain, or the food web. They are trophically linked.(Another that looked like a possible typo; except that “tropically” would have made no sense in context!)

collocate, “to occur in conjunction with something”: “The other two races have overlapping ranges along the coast but seldom interact or collocate.”

semelparous, “reproducing or breeding only once in a lifetime” (or, to put it more bluntly, once they breed, they die): “Their life history of anadromy and semelparity transports millions of tons of salmon flesh into nutrient-poor freshwaters that then shape the entire Salmon Forest.”

gestalt, “the general quality or character of something”: “All living things possess a unique gestalt…”

I had previously come across the concept of anadromy (I don’t recall where) and looked it up (defined: “ascending rivers from the sea for breeding”); but finding it repeatedly in this book made me curious about the pronunciation of anadromous: “…the critical return to freshwater to spawn is called an anadromous life history…”

I like a good vocabulary lesson alongside a fine reading experience – don’t you? Or does reaching for the dictionary frustrate you?

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