An Unusual Read and Happiness

Again I was blog trolling and found something interesting posed at Scobberlotch:

“What was the most unusual (for you) book you ever read? Either because the book itself was completely from out in left field somewhere, or was a genre you never read, or was the only book available on a long flight… whatever? What (not counting school textbooks, though literature read for classes counts) was furthest outside your usual comfort zone/familiar territory?”

The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. That’s my answer. In this case, it’s because of the subject matter — orchid poaching, orchid poachers, and orchid collecting. It has to be one of the most unusual subjects anyone might write about, but Orlean pulls it off so well. Her reportage is excellent, detailed, suspenseful. It’s the writing, the reporting that makes such an usual subject become worth reading about.

Orlean comments in the Reader’s Guide in the back of my edition that the subject matter of orchids and orchid collecting was unfamiliar territory for her and she started out detached from the subject, but became much more invested in the subject matter as she wrote. “[T]he process of writing is the journey to understanding,” she says, and that’s how I approached this book. Orchids, orchid collecting were completely unfamiliar territory for me as a reader, but once I became involved with Orlean’s writing, I wanted to keep journeying through the book to understanding.

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Writer, editor, and teacher Shelly Lowenkopf posted a wonderful essay on happiness that is definitely worth reading. Here is the link: Shelly Lowenkopf’s Blog

Fall Into Reading

There really isn’t anything like a list to make you feel as if you’re writing: Some writers make a habit of listing. (For some reason I’m thinking of Anne Beattie, but I could be wrong.) Tonight, while blog trolling, I found a link to Fall Into Reading 2008, and, so I’ve decided to participate (there’s the possibility of prizes).

My list is short — these days I tend to read slowly, and there some thick books on the list as well — and it’s apt to change, especially with the Texas Book Festival coming up in November (Nov. 1-2, to be exact). I never know what treasures I’ll wind up with there. Last year it was Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, which was the spur that dug in the urge to write nonfiction again.

OK, so here’s the list, already:

1. Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life by Rebecca Lawton and Jordan Rosenfeld

I’m sort of cheating here because I’m in the process of reading this book now, but won’t be finished for at least a few more weeks. There are writing exercises involved so the reading is slow, but pleasant.

2. Swimming in the Volcano by Bob Shacochis

I bought this book about 3-4 years ago when, at the same time, I was encountering and reading a lot of Shacochis’s journalism, mostly in Harper’s. I also liked the title, which I thought was an allusion to the novel Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, a book I started reading but never finished. I learned about Lowry in Donald W. Goodwin’s Alcohol and the Writer, an insightful exploration of the use and abuse of alcohol by writers. Though booze wasted a lot of writer’s lives (think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner) Goodwin isn’t necessarily condemning alcohol’s use: he’s exploring why alcoholism seems particularly prevalent in writers.

Anyhow, my interest in Shacochis was renewed after reading an essay of his in the premiere issue of Mayborn magazine. It was a powerful piece, and now I want to tackle some of his fiction. Given that this novel is 518 pages in paperback, it’ll probably take me through October to read it.

3. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind

I’m sort of cheating on this, too, because I’ve been reading the essays in this collection since at least August. Again, though, it’ll be some time toward the end of October or later that I’ll finish this book.

4. Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I should probably pick this novel up some time in November. Supposedly, I read this in graduate school.

5. Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman

This will be the last on my list, because I figure I’ll pick this one up by December, and even though it’s short, it may make take some time to finish. Again, this all depends on the Texas Book Festival.

Let’s Get Biblical

Today I was reading the L.A. Times’s review of critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works and ran across this term, a rhetorical term, I suppose: Biblical polysyndeton, “a series of conjunctions, making for torrential sentences.” I didn’t know there was an actual term for such a device.

Immediately, I was reminded of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, especially that first chapter, and sentences like this:

In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

And I was reminded again of how influential the King James Bible was on my favorite writers, not only their moral and intellectual themes, their metaphors and allusions, but the rhythms of their sentences. Hemingway and Faulkner and now contemporaries like Cormac McCarthy, all have that Authorized Version biblical rhythm, the torrential sentences that you want to go on and on and on, like the river and the leaves falling, as if those sentences came from Old Testament sages:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

The Knickerbocker Rule

One of my favorite books about writing is Richard Rhodes’s How to Write, a resource I recommend any writer: Reassuring like an oasis’ pool, it also readily supplies you for the laden march when the wasteland crunches under your feet.

Of late I’ve been having trouble writing. Not so much writer’s block, but writer’s blah, a Bill-the-Cat-Ack blah (now that’s an obscure reference for some of you). Finding something to write about. A subject. A topic. A sentence. A word. A story.

I’ve written in my journal. But that only sort of feels like writing. I don’t have any freelance articles to write: I haven’t really pursued freelance in some time. (My last published piece was in December. You can read it here.) There’s an essay I want to shape up, or should take a look at again. I started an essay last Monday, but set it aside: a late-week emotional uncoiling and the words kerplunked.

As for fiction … don’t ask. Fiction seems remote at the moment.

And until this moment, blog posts have been sparse.

One of the things I do when I’ve hit the blahs like this is surf my favorite blogs, and hope I can steal an idea and make it my own (we’ll steal from our own grandmother, eh Mr. Faulkner?). At the very least, I’ll comment on a post. (Are comments writing?) Anyhow, today I was reading a new favorite, Sophisticated Dorkiness, and was reminded of Rhodes’s Knickerbocker Rule.

Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize winner, once wrote for the Hallmark PR department and he relates an anecdote (I almost wrote “little anecdote” but that would be redundant) about approaching his boss, Conrad Knickerbocker, who had begun to have some successes writing, publishing book reviews and fiction. Rhodes asked Knickerbocker how to become a writer. Knickerbocker said, “‘Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.'”

Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness mentions Sunday Salon, which she wants to participate in as an impetus to blog more.

And to blog more means to write more. Which is a good thing. Because I need to write more. I read the Sunday Salon introduction and it sounds like it may very well be worth participating in, if only to get myself writing something on Sunday (especially tough this time of year since football season has started), and thus apply the Knickerbocker Rule.