Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Fifty-Word Book Review

Special Post
for Michigan State University
Professor Anita Skeen’s Creative Workshop (RCAH 291): Writing Miniatures.
(but you non-student readers are welcome, too)

Below you will find a sampling of 50-Word Book Reviews originally posted for fun on my Facebook. I wanted to generate more book talk among my bookie friends. But I think the original impulse arose when I realized my Book List notebook was inadequate. For years I’ve kept track of books I’ve read, noting the date, biblio-info, and a few words of response, plus a five star rating. In 2007 I read Winter’s Bone and gave it a full five. I loved that book. I wished I had written a bit more than…yeah for the strong female protagonist. Now that the movie is out, I’m going to reread it and write a decent review…but in only fifty words.

The fifty words is purely arbitrary but I’ve found it makes the task more interesting and, like poetry, makes every word do some work. And, since I was posting these into Facebook Notes, I respected the fact that Friends wanted to read quick and move on. A possible add-on feature outside the fifty word limit was sometimes a list of words I didn’t know (WIDK) and a favorite quote. Perhaps this is just a way to use my reading notes, but pulling pertinent language out of the text provides a little teaser.

As you will see, my approach is to write in a familiar voice as though talking to a friend. I usually had a hundred words in a first draft and began whittling down from there, looking for more judicious ways to express the thought. I also tried to capture something of the tone of the book into the review. How to do this, I’m not sure. Upon finishing a book, I have the author’s voice in my head and I always wrote immediately after reading while I was still surrounded by the world of that book.

I hope you enjoy this assignment. I find it a good practice for a reader/writer, keeping the reader a writer and the writer always in conversation with other readers. I look forward to reading your fifty words, and if you and Professor Skeen agree, I would love to post your reviews here on my blog.

Sample of my 50-Word Book Reviews
Too Long a Solitude: poems by James Ragan (University of Oklahoma Press)
First, you want to hold it: the cover a pearly sky above icy ocean; book bound the size of a fat sympathy card. It does in thirty-five neo-Wordsworthian poems what such a greeting ought to do: help you see the world so close you want to live and trust again.
WIDK(words I didn’t know) merle, supernal, heliopause, whimbrels, kittiwakes
QUOTE If for each of us a rope/could swing us/ long and light across a widening trough /I would want to land upon the Isle of Echo/

2. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet/A novel by Reif Larsen (Penguin, 2009)

If you’re one who tends to quit a novel early, read to about page 275. You’ll have enjoyed T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow)’s post-traumatic fascinating lists, graphs, numerations, but you won’t have to wonder why the author let some adolescent child (?) finish the heretofore beautifully wrought backwards-train-ride of a story. Mr. Larsen, please!

Cutting for Stone: a novel by Abraham Verghese (Knopf, 2009)
Marion/Shiva, conjoined twins severed at birth, are little gods at the center of this Ethiopian saga. Love and doctoring in a mission hospital: no chapter anemic, characters fully fleshed, politically sobering, spiritually and sexually lavish. So many ways to go under the knife. Instructive. Terrifying. Beautiful to the last page.
WIDK: Tizita, injura, kitfo, krar, fistula (I’d head of but didn’t fully understand)
QUOTE: We are all fixing what is broken. It is the work of a lifetime.

4. Gate at the Stairs: a novel by Lorrie Moore. (Knopf, 2009)
Always a wizard of wit, Moore’s jokey pen runs amok. Her farm-girl freshman spouts academic acerbity while looking for a focus: marriage/birth, class/race, terrorism. Dark . Funny. Billed coming-of-age, I think not: someone’s too self-satisfied. And after so much death, she ends too easily with an adolescent quip, dear reader.

5. ZOOM/ a wordless picture book illustrated by the artist Istvan Banyai (Picture Puffin, 1998)
Cataloged “visual perception -fiction,” zoom is pencil-dynamically psycho-cosmically true. Who doesn’t want to zoom, divine the world? First, a red landscape turns into the comb of a barnyard cock, then zooms out to two children who, like us, think they know place and distance. Each page asks, is this it?

6. FACE: Poetry by Sherman Alexie (Hanging Loose Press, 2009)
Face: courageously confront; a look we’re born with.
Born encephalitic, exaggerated, imbalanced (big eye, small eye), Alexie takes given forms, mashes them with rez/runaway Indian speak. In Vilify, (villanelle defining Native American poetry as funny grief) he considers history’s lyric and footnote, refusing carved stone. Face! a declaration of victory.

Friday, August 6, 2010

At Cottonwood, The Ghost Ranch Library

(This essay was written a few years ago. The library now has an online catalog and wifi is available...sometimes.)

Cottonwood, like almost every old library, has a ticking clock that quietly marks time in the background of your reading. This one is simple and accurate. Nine o’clock. The wood carved Spanish clock chimes softly as it hangs in the reading room above the fifty-drawer oak card catalog. Yes, only fifty drawers! Small, this five-room adobe library, small and sheltering, old and trusting.

I love the circulation counter, a mere trestle table with pens and a box in which to toss the check-out card when you decide to take a book beyond the building. It’s modern in one way, though. It is open 24/7. The sign says to leave the light on at the entrance but please switch off the others if you’re the last one out. Conserving energy. Conserving years of southwest history, particularly of this Piedra Lumbre, Valley of Shining Stone as it’s called.

Here is a quiet conservatory of stories: anthropology, theology, myth, poetry, fiction and the vast arts of New Mexico’s High Desert. The collection reflects the reading habits over time of those who’ve lived and summered here for fifty years.

Ghost Ranch is comparable in size to the island of Manhattan, just as storied, but perhaps more haunted. The oldest structure on the Ranch is Ghost House, but this biblio-casita just a few yards further down the dusty road was christened Cottonwood when it became the library. Its ghosts are not the shades of rustlers or rustlers’ enemies thrown into a nearby well or hung in the huge and gnarly cottonwoods. In these few rooms live the lucky ghosts of writers who were inspired by other spirits to write their stories down, to map their knowledge in paper and ink. Paper and ink is what a library lives on, what it smells like, how it generates. In libraries such as these, the printed word still hangs on the pages of long gone trees. Nothing has yet been digitized. There is an outlet for your laptop. There is a little alcove with a Smith-Corona electric typewriter you can use when no one else is reading in that area. (an unspoken rule of courtesy.) I’ve typed out many poems in that corner when I used to come to the Ranch sans this handy Dell.

At 2:00 a.m. when the place is draped in starlight-cluster black, when it seem an empty bowl for coyotes to sing into, you can sit at a carrel at the end of a row of music and drama. Above is a tall narrow window and a hanging lamp with tin-worked shade sending a quadrilateral of light down on your page. In this spot you can write a litany of complaint, a letter to your distant father, or a lyric note to the most secret love you’ve ever had. I think one could write a shopping list and be pleased that pen met paper in this hour of night.

You can also pull the silver chain and douse the manmade light and sit in the dark with only a hint of your own reflection; only the outline of kitchen mesa there for you to ponder. In such a quiet hour, you might be visited by the memory of the ones who built this structure as their home in 1932. Robert Wood and Maggie Johnson were fleeing the increasing threat of child abduction after their friends, the Lindberghs, lost their little son to a murderous kidnapper. One of the Johnson & Johnson brothers, Seward, took his family to hide in the Bahamas, but Robert knew the Packs who then owned Ghost Ranch and offered it as a getaway for many easterners and others fascinated by these pueblo lands. So, in distress, the Johnsons came and brought their fears, their finances, their little daughter, Sheila, her nanny and her burly body guard. They built the first and only two-story adobe dwelling on the place. The Johnsons only stayed a year or so but they made a footprint on the land. They left this safe house, now a book house, still sitting cozy among the rabbits, lizards, and Hollyhocks in summer.

Sometimes during drought a deer comes down at night from the surrounding mesas. I saw one once hidden in the tamarisk fronds, looking in the western window of the library. For a wandering doe the patch of light might have signaled danger. For me, this cool adobe space always says don’t be afraid to go a little deeper, consider further, consider, just consider.

The Ghost Ranch library has a Reference Room with massive dictionaries, atlases, oversized art and photo books of Ansell Adams, Walker Evans, Georgia O’Keefe, Eliot Porter and a fine collection of Pueblo arts of every era. Past the References, the newspapers (yes, they have the New York Times) and the thirty current periodicals, is a central reading room. Tucked behind is an almost hidden children’s room with bean bag chairs. Just now a little boy is nearly swallowed up in a bag of blue intent on his Nintendo. Alas. He could be reading about the dinosaurs found here a few decades ago. Ceoleophysis, a small chicken dinosaur, is practically a mascot at the Ranch. But never mind. No one here tells you what to read or do. Perhaps the young boy needs a moment to himself making things happen the way he wants them to, even if it’s only on a tiny screen.

Off the central reading room is what I think must have been a bedroom. One step down and through a low-slung door is what I call the ‘God Collection.” Anything that falls into the BL/BX call numbers is shelved together in this special alcove. Two stuffed chairs with ottomans, plus one wood-hewn reading table with four wide and leather-seated chairs await the reader. When sitting at the table, you can almost reach the books shelved on the walls to your left and to your right. I know by now that at my right elbow sits religions of the East, and to my right I can feel the heat coming off the Desert Fathers. This room is where I love to be. If I could read every page of these 2,000 wisdom books I think I might just levitate. I might fly like a nightingale out the crank-out window like a saint in a bright retablo. But now I have to rise and close the window because a storm is coming in like Jesus off the mesa. When it storms the library is a lovely place to be. It can get crowded as folks duck in to wait it out and watch the lightening from the portal shelter.

A library should always be a refuge. I think all libraries should have a couch, and Cottonwood has two in the adjacent lounge where, daytime, writing classes gather. I’ve come into the foyer in the early morning to make a cup of tea and see there on the sofa a mom and little girl arm in arm, curled up together. Sometimes when kids can’t sleep the parent and child schlep over to the library to read Goodnight Moon, or come just to escape the snoring closeness of the family packed into one 4-bunk room all week.

In this hour of early morning I engage my personal library ritual: to pull a book at random off the shelf and read a sentence from the middle, digging like an archeologist for something I’ve not seen or known before. I lift the phrases out like ribbons of lost breath, mystery from someone else’s mouth, a spark that once lit another human brain and now lights mine.

Today my pick is initially disappointing: some man named Thomas Odan interpreting First and Second Timothy and Titus. Uh-oh. I’m not really up to speed in Bible. I confess I know not Thomas, Tim or Titus. On this page the author speaks of duty. Immediately I want to choose another book, at least, another page. I see the scholar strains to find a right interpretation, to do his job. My job, my practice is to gather language and fold it back into a body, the body of my notebook, the body of my day, perhaps the body of a poem. The quote my eyes rest on: be ready for any honest work. My work, my task this year is to find and mine the hidden libraries left in the ever- changing landscape of the book. I start here. And if you are in the area, wonder into Cottonwood, pick up a book, opening randomly. There are voices here. Perhaps they want to speak to you as well.