I just finished The Universe Within by Neil Shubin and I’m about halfway through The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean.
These are excellent companion books. Dip into one for a while, then dive into the other. They’re both well written in a conversational tone and often read like good mysteries. Unveiled in these books are the big who-dun-its: the mysteries of life. From how the universe likely began and how it will end to who discovered DNA. In school, I was never drawn in much by my science classes. I’m fairly certain this was due mainly to my inadequacies and flighty attention, but I do wonder: had I been handed books such as these then, would I have been a more engaged student? Probably not. More likely, I was a mope who needed a lifetime to become this curious.
I still struggle to picture how DNA protein G combines with C, and T with A, but Kean does a nice job of creating wonder about how scientists discovered this. For example, Gregor Mendel had nervous breakdowns during tests in school, yet he persevered at matters that were more important to him: understanding the expression of dominant and recessive traits. Another giant in the field, Sturtevant, blew off homework altogether. Darwin hated math. Fruit fly scientists apparently have a great sense of humor, naming their flies after their attributes: “Male coitus interruptus mutants spend just ten minutes having sex (the norm is twenty).” And Sister Miriam Michael Stimson, a nun who invented Preparation H, was discouraged from pursuing science at all, but her research methods helped inspire other DNA researchers.
In Shubin’s book, you’ll learn why today is longer than yesterday. Why the size of Jupiter and its distance from Earth helped to create life here. Why and how changes in the universe affected the evolution of our bodies. This is a mind-dazzling book that I can’t recommend highly enough. I need to read it again. And again. When people casually maintain that we’re all connected, they don’t quite understand the extent of their claim. Shubin lays this all out, puzzle piece by puzzle piece. My mind is still reeling.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while or if you are familiar with Fremd High School, then you know about Writers Week, our annual literary festival. Writers from around the country converge on our campus to read and celebrate their work. Students and faculty also share their work. For a full week. Every period of the day. Forty sessions.
Since I retired from Fremd last year, I wasn’t as involved in the planning as I usually am, which made me a little sad. But mostly I was proud. Like seeing one of your kids graduate and continue to do good in this world. And I witnessed so much good. Students, about 100 of them, writing about love and despair and obstacles and joy. Teachers, fifteen of them, offering polished essays and stories, some of them worthy of a TED talk. A group of FANBOYS teachers playing their annual concert. And a dozen visiting writers giving generously of their time and heart.
Our fabulous tech crew arranged to stream the week live, and you can find the archived feed here: WW LIVE. If this link changes, just go to Ustream and search Fremd High School Writers Week 2013.
While the videos may help provide keener insight than any words I can offer here, I’d maintain (sorry) that you had to be there. Which is why I took off the entire week from subbing at another school to attend. I’m guessing our graduates can identify with this. During the week, we hear from many of them, wishing us well, wishing they could be there, tuning in to the live stream. But they know they’re missing out, missing the intensity of the audience, the give and take between presenter and listener, especially as audience members storm the stage after each session. My good friend and colleague, Gary Anderson, and I have attended national conferences the past several years, urging other teachers to host their own Writers Week, and there are about a dozen schools across the country that now run some version. And we’ve heard these teachers echo the same sentiment about the intensity and goodwill that Writers Week fosters.
While writing is the focus, the week is more about the generosity that accompanies the impulse to commit words to a page. Writers share their innermost fears and wishes, their regrets and hopes, they share their lyrics and stories and joy, all of which requires risk and changes lives. In a phrase, people’s best emerges during this week.
On another note. I’ve been subbing at Lake Park for seven weeks. When I returned to Fremd last week, I kept thinking I was seeing my current Lake Park students, which would be impossible. I realized immediately that this was the one of those stupid leaps the brain makes: perceiving things we’re primed to perceive. If this leap can happen after only seven weeks, I thought, Why not intentionally fill our brains with good stuff, which would prompt us to seek out and find other good stuff? Maybe this is why teachers bring in good literature and complex music and rich historical stories. They want to fill students’ brains with good stuff to crowd out some of the trash they inevitably encounter in this strange world we live in.
Back in the late 50s, when television began to broadcast quality teleplays, writers and many readers worried that television would kill novels. Viewers could get their story fixes in front of the tube instead of the page. I’ve always loved television and never shared this worry. I especially don’t worry when I can flip through 200 channels and still not find anything to watch. Books and television shows can coexist quite nicely, I think. In fact, I want to recommend some new shows.
But first, a note about old shows. Don’t you find it reassuring when you come across a program you once watched to discover that the program has held up well? I was dozing off one night and switched channels to The Fugitive, which was well acted and paced with smart dialogue. I suspect Mannix, another show I always watched, would not hold up as well. I recently tuned into Gunsmoke, which was excellent, but Bonanza was awful and amateurish. I don’t recall making this distinction when I was kid.
New shows, and some not so new, that I recommend:
Elementary. A modern day Sherlock Holmes living in NY battles drug addiction, assisted by a female Watson. I was hoping this would be good, and it’s brilliant. The plots are clever, the dialogue doesn’t insult viewers, and the production quality is superior. CBS dramas have a certain look about them that I don’t care for, but this one is an exception. Seems like a cable production.
Monday Mornings. As of this post, only two episodes have aired, but it’s gripping. It’s a medical show that highlights the meetings surgeons have to discuss cases that have not gone smoothly, produced by David Kelley, who knows a thing or two about television.
Newsroom. This Aaron Sorkin show on HBO got some bad press, which I don’t understand. The show is funny and provocative and topical.
Louis C.K. This show is better than his stand-up, which is funny but raunchier and less nuanced than the program. While his show is thirty minutes, it’s not a sit-com, not a drama. I’m not sure how to categorize it. Just a glimpse into Louis C.K.’s mind since he writes and edits every episode, which is hard to fathom.
Breaking Bad. This might be my favorite of all these shows and I can’t wait for the final eight episodes in July. There’s been so much written about this show, so if you haven’t watched or read anything about it, you’re missing something most suspenseful and chilling and funny, too.
I’d love to hear your recommendations.
I don’t recall how this came up, but in class today I told students I was a hobosexual.
Wait, you say. In class? Didn’t you retire? Well, I took over for a maternity leave in the fall and now am in the middle of a second one. I guess I need a tutorial on how to actually retire. I’ll elaborate next time on how it feels to work when I don’t need to work.
But yes, I am a hobosexual. It’s a term I created several years ago when I first heard about metrosexuals, referring to heterosexual men who are meticulous in their grooming and who dress with a certain pizazz. You know, the guys who spend the equivalent of a car payment on a pair of jeans. The guys who enjoy shopping for scarves and silk shirts and cologne. I am the opposite of this. I am a hobosexual. The guy who hates shopping and grabs whatever t-shirt happens to be on top of the pile in the dresser drawer. The guy who wears gym shoes for nearly any occasion. The guy who owns a single sports jacket that I wear for both school open houses and funerals.
I’m not proud to be a hobosexual, and a part of me envies guys who can pull off the metro look. But I don’t think I can do it. My head is too big, my legs are too short, my posture is too stooped. Granted, I’m not as pathetic as I once was. Marriage saved me from looking like a homeless person. To offer one example, when I was a kid, guys commonly wore high, striped athletic socks. It wasn’t uncommon for me, even as a young man, to pull two unmatched striped socks and wear them with shorts, which I’m sure were equally hideous. (Imagine tight and too short.) Having daughters who have not inherited my high style has helped too. On my birthdays, they sometimes present me with shirts or pants or, god help me, sandals, that will push my boundaries. And I try. At times, I try. But I feel like an imposter. And so self-conscious. Like I’m betraying some core personality trait.
The reason I’ve mentioned the term in class over the years? I like the term. I think it’s apt. I think it’s a word that could catch on and perhaps provide consolation to other hobosexuals out there. You don’t need to be ashamed anymore. Come out of the closet—because there’s nothing worth wearing in there anyway.
I told my students about my mission to spread the word, encouraging them to start using it. Savvy as they are, they said, Well, why don’t you just tweet about it? They were not shocked that I hadn’t thought of this. They were shocked that I have a Twitter account, and within seconds, one of them tweeted about my hobo ways.
Right now in my word processing program, that squiggly red line appears under hobosexual to indicate a misspelling. Pass this post along, spread the word, and together, maybe we can erase that unstylish red line.
It might take a while, but I really need to find an old photograph.
I’ve written a few times about the state of publishing today, which stinks. The reasons aren’t mysterious, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. What nobody knows is tomorrow.
Fortunately, writers continue to write and continue to find ways to get their work to readers. Check out one such remarkable and inspiring story about Roland Merullo. He has a new book out, a follow-up to his fine novel, Breakfast with Buddha.
Click on LUNCHWITHBUDDHA.COM to order the book.
Click on PRESS RELEASE to download the story about his publishing journey.
For fuller reviews of these books, click on Books in Categories on bottom right and scroll. May have to click Previous to get to some of these.
Van Gogh: The Life
Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith
BEST BIO (Tie)
Passage of Power
BEST STORY COLLECTION
The Temple of Air
MOST SATISFYING READ
The Sense of an Ending
BEST DAMN WRITTEN BOOK
MOST LIKELY TO CHANGE YOUR PERCEPTION OF YOURSELF OR SOMEONE CLOSE TO YOU
BEST YA BOOK
The Fault in Our Stars
BEST LOVE / WAR NOVEL
The Coldest Night
BEST PSYCHOLOGY BOOK or
MOST LIKELY TO MAKE YOU FEEL WISER
Thinking, Fast and Slow
MOST TOUCHING BOOK
The Talk-Funny Girl
A couple of weeks ago I got an email from writer and friend, Patty McNair, who teaches at Columbia College, inviting me to join her in “The Next Big Thing,” a literary tag. She shares her insights on the project she’s working on, tags me and other writers, we share what we’re working on, and we tag other writers to do the same. All of us answer the same questions.
To give you a sample, here's a post from writer Michael Downs, who tagged Patty: http://greatestshow.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-next-big-thing.html. And you can find Patty’s responses here: http://patriciaannmcnair.com/blog/
If you go to my May 22, 2012 post, you can find my review of Patty’s fine collection of stories, The Temple of Air.
Now that I am IT, here are my reflections. I’ll preface all this by saying upfront that I hate discussing the book I’m working on. Such a task is akin to writing down your dreams, which seem luminous and magical in your head but sound incomplete or artificial once the dreams leave that dark place and are compressed into summary. I hated writing summaries of books when I was a kid, so I guess not much has changed. If my answers below sound equivocal, please forgive me.
1. What is the working title of your novel?
I usually have no clue about this until well after the novel has been written, but for some reason, I think I know: Before You Say, I Do.
2. Where did the idea for the novel come from?
I never know where ideas come from, just like you probably can’t pinpoint where most of your nighttime dreams come from. I suppose all my ideas come from eavesdropping and noticing and reading and paying attention to the things that annoy me or thrill me or frighten me, anything that leaves its mark on me from this moment to the next.
3. What genre?
I would usually have a hard time with this question, but I intend this novel to be a young adult novel, abbreviated proudly as YA. I don’t read much YA, which I think is a good thing. I can be original without playing off what’s already out there because I’m not sure what’s out there. I have done a little “research,” reading a few books regarded as YA, which I’ve written about in earlier posts, how that label is a little confounding. I don’t think I’m writing any differently. I do admit though that I feel more playful and am more willing to break convention. For example, I might be more willing to include a one-word paragraph. Seems to me that YA writers make good use of white space.
4. What other books would you compare yours to in this genre?
5. Which actor would you choose to play one of your characters?
By the time a book of mine made it to the screen, the actors would be too old, I’m afraid. But I do picture the lead girl in Hunger Games playing my main character.
6. What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A newly rich guy moves to West Egg to be close to the girl he loves. Wait, no, that’s not it. A young girl transfers to a new school and studies what love means.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m not done, but it’s taking about a month to finish 40 pages. Not sprint fast, but fast enough for me. I often wonder, when the sentences are coming slow, if I would have thought of the ideas I ended up coming up with had I written more speedily. In other words, so-called writer’s block is a beneficial thing. You don’t know what comes next, but by not knowing, this forces you to mull and scratch and agonize, and then, Yes, a perfect idea strikes you that seems inevitable. But, again, how would this perfect idea have been born without the sluggish pace? I usually alternate between a brisk and a ponderous pace. Regardless of pace, though, I think it’s important to sit down every day to keep a connection with your characters so that the dream doesn’t grow cold. It’s the same with reading a book you put down. If you’re away too long, the trance is broken.
8. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Actually, this is a book I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but I envisioned it as a work of nonfiction. When I told my wife about a few new ideas I was kicking around for a novel, she assumed I meant that nonfiction book. Rather than dismiss her, which is never a good idea for any husband, I took hold of her “mistake” and realized that I could twist my original idea for a nonfiction book into a plot. Sometimes good ideas stem from odd sources (no, my wife is not odd)—from unexpected places, and the key, I think, is to pay attention.
9. What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?
If you go to my October 31 post, you can hear me narrate the first chapter. How’s that for a full service author?
While browsing through books at Goodwill the other day, I pulled out Killing Time by Caleb Carr. I’d never read anything by him, but his book, The Alienist, had gotten a lot of attention when it came out. Tucked into the book was a greeting card with two majestic bears on the front peering out at something with great interest. I opened the card and read the greeting: Happy Father’s Day, Papa Bear. And written below that in black ink:
Some dads are too hard.
Some dads are too soft.
You, dad, are just right.
I was about to place the book back on the shelf, but after reading that note, I felt like the book and card needed a home.
Don’t you love when you finish a great book by an author you’ve never read before and then peek at the first page to see that the author has written many other books? This has happened to me twice in the past week, first with Julian Barnes, who I reviewed last time, and now John Banville with his newest book, Ancient Light, which I devoured. And he also writes under the pseudonym, Benjamin Black. Happy holidays to me.
What drew my attention to Banville recently was a long review in the New Yorker. I’m wondering if others read reviews the way I do. If after a few paragraphs, I begin to decide I probably won’t read the book, I’ll slow down and read the review quite carefully, which earns me the modest satisfaction of having dipped into the main themes and maybe learned something along the way about the subject. If on the other hand I decide I want more than a dip and think I may read the book, my eyes will begin to gloss over, and I’ll begin to skim, especially where plot is revealed, which explains why I don’t delve into summaries of the books I review, which maybe makes them not so much reviews as reactions? Call them what you like.
I’m especially reluctant to reveal even the barest of plot details about Ancient Light because I know I won’t do the book justice. Besides, the plot may scare some readers off, which would be a shame. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that this is one of the best books of the year. Open the novel to any page and you will be awed by the precision of the description, which always serves to richly complement the narrator’s interior world. Not everyone agrees, as I found out through a quick search. Some think he’s merely showing off, that the language he employs is unnecessarily flowery or archaic or dense or whatever. In a lesser writer, this probably would be true, like a 98-pound weakling flexing his bony arms. But Banville has the muscle and heft to achieve what he sets out to achieve, which is substantial.
When you read something this well crafted, the sentences draw you into a sort of dream state, which may not be saying much in my case since I’m there often. And an illusion persists: that the writing is effortless. So I was gratified to learn that Banville spends many hours at his desk that looks out on nothing worth noting, and that 200 words is a good day for him. You sense this dedication and discipline on every page of this fine, fine book.