Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Revisiting Best Sellers

I recently saw this link on another blog, and thought I'd share it here.  At, if you enter your birthdate, you can look up the top ten fiction and non-fiction best-sellers from that week.  Click here (note:  Americans, put in the date European-style, day/month/year). 

My list was like a personal chastisement; several authors on this list are ones that I, as an English major and writer, should probably be more familiar with.  I've always meant to read more John Updike, but just never got around to it.  Too many books, which one to choose?  William Styron.  Isn't it enough to have watched Sophie's Choice?  These are my shameful thoughts.  So I've ordered two books from my personal best-seller list, for the week of May 28, 1968. 

It makes sense that many of the books from that tumultuous year would have social implications. 

The first, The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron, won the author the Pulitzer Prize, but also widespread derision from blacks and whites alike.  The story is based on an extant document, the actual "confession" of Nat Turner to the white lawyer Thomas Gray. Styron has imagined the characters of the story and his imaginings are not often kind.  I'm really looking forward to reading this book that had such a cultural impact.

The second book I chose is by John Updike, entitled Couples.  The Publisher's Weekly blurb describes it as an "artful, seductive, savagely graphic portrait of love, marriage and adultery in America."  Apparently, the book was one of the first to blow the lid off the idea of suburban bliss.  Perhaps an early Revolutionary Road.

All of which leads me to this thought:  how much does the best sellers list really reveal about the population at any given time, anyway?  Out of curiosity I pulled up this week's list and was very proud to see that I have read two of those books.  My personal determination is that two books is sufficient, so I'm good there.  Definitely doing my part as a productive member of 2011.  As for non-fiction...maybe another post.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The boy in the white flannel gown

Halley’s Comet

by Stanley Kunitz
Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.
Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

For a variety of reasons, I haven’t been doing much reading or writing lately.  Life, with its myriad of methods, getting in the way.  I woke up this morning thinking about this poem and this is not to suggest that I’m a big reader of poetry.  Oh, I try.  I see a poem once in a while and am motivated to buy the book.  The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz (1910-2006) is the latest example of that.  Let’s face it:  poetry is not an “easy read.”  It makes you pause; it makes you think.  The poems in this collection are perhaps more accessible but nevertheless, masterful.

If I could write only one thing as good and true as “Halley’s Comet” in my life, I would be contented.  In several short stanzas, Kunitz touches on everything, doesn’t he?  The wonder of life, the insistence of religion, the simple existence of a boy:  his supper, his flannel gown, his throbbing lack of a father.  Kunitz’s own father committed suicide just six weeks before his birth.  His stepfather died when he was fourteen and these absences are a common touchstone in his work.  To me, that’s art.  Making personal the great mysteries, in such a way that they become a bit less mysterious to everyone else.  Even if just for a moment, just for the length of a novel.  Or a poem. 

I’m thinking this morning about what my “themes” are; what are the touchstones to which I return time and again for inspiration?  Can I tap into that awestruck child, his simple yearning as he waits for the streak of light in the sky?

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Room with Color

My husband and I started cohabitating in 1993 and in the eighteen years since then, we've moved eleven times.  Sometimes across the country, sometimes down the street.  We have owned homes and rented, have lived alone and shared space with roommates and for the past eight years, with four messy people who refuse to keep things as we have left them. 

We've just moved from a rental to a home that we mortgaged.  My first consideration always with such a large purchase is, of course, what colors to paint the walls!  This, in my opinion, is the most important benefit of buying vs. renting.  Tax credits - helpful; familiarity - breeds contempt, right?; a sense of stability - who needs it?  No, give me a purple wall and I'm happy. 

I've got a new workspace, with two big windows to my right showcasing freshly groomed trees, ready to expand with the Spring.  I've got my comfortable chair and a place for my tea cup.  The puppies are happy.  They used to sleep at my feet on a wooden floor while I worked; now, they recline in luxury on our bed.  The purple that surrounds me is calm and warm, like brown with a secret, like gray with a blush.  A lavender perhaps, only more serious.  Heirloom orchid says the paint card.

Color has always been a consideration of mine and it seems to be an inherited trait.  A short walk downstairs and I can find my ten-year-old son, gazing lovingly at his fuschia wall.  It was so important to him that his father and I quickly gave up our fight against it.  He is happy and I can certainly relate.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Resolution: Happiness

This is Franz Liszt, a German composer who spent twenty-six years composing his first piano concerto.  He began in 1830 while still a student and didn't complete it until 1856.  It's hard to say why it took him so long.  Certainly, he was occupied with other things.  A virtuoso pianist, he travelled Europe extensively as a young man, even stole Countess Marie d'Agoult from her family.  Liszt was a piano teacher who represented the influential Neudeutsche Schule (New German School) and a conductor who contributed greatly to the modern development of his art.  So he was busy.

Last week, I heard a story about New Year's resolutions.  I honestly can't remember where I heard this (see prior entry about the circuitous mess of my mind), but what has remained is something the person, who I believe was a psychologist, said.  Every resolution, she claimed, is basically a hope for the same thing:  happiness.  If I lose those ten pounds, I will be happier.  If I call my mother more frequently, I will feel better about myself and therefore, be happier.  If I save more money for vacations, I will travel and be happier.  If I finally get that project/work/creation/novel/clean-up/plastic surgery/exercise/concerto/fill-in-the-blank done, I will be so incredibly happy!

I wonder.  Liszt couldn't have known that soon after he completed the concerto, great sadness would enter his life with the deaths his two children.  He even entered a monastery for a few years.  But what I'm wondering is whether Liszt felt happiness with the completion of his long-labored concerto.  Or whether the creation of it was the cause of contentment and that's why he worked on it for so long.

So make those resolutions and complete those goals, but make sure you're enjoying what you're doing in the meantime.  You can hear a bit of Liszt's first piano concerto here.  I think it was worth the wait. 
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka