Thursday, August 1, 2013

What I read on my summer vacation

I am rediscovering the pleasures of the essay.

It's nothing like the grievous drudgery students often feel at an English teacher's request for three pages on the use of symbolism in "Jude the Obscure" (which request, I confess, never seemed to bring me down as it did my classmates). Nor is it about Ralphie's sly ambition, hoping that a school writing assignment will fortify his case when asking for a particular Christmas present.

I'm talking about the simple joy of listening deeply to another person speak fully about something/one that matters to them, or about an event or place they've astutely observed, or about a question pressed hard against their heart/mind/spirit. (Listening as you are now, Gentle Reader. Thank you for your generosity.)

Anyway, as you know, there's joy to be found in making that quiet connection, in reflecting on what binds us, on our common experience, our shared pain, our human aspiration. I've laughed and cried with Anne Lamott often, and chuckled at the mordant Bill Bryson; however, I've always thought of myself as a fiction reader. One of those limiting labels, I guess.

I've serendipitously been nudged toward three particular literary features in the last couple of weeks, and each of them has moved me deeply. They're not just non-fiction; they're about what's true.

First, NPR correspondent Scott Simon's Twitter feed this last week, which comprised the last days of his mother's life. Simultaneously aching, gorgeous and tender, they're like grief haikus. For all its strengths and influence, I never thought of Twitter as a vehicle for beauty, until now. Read them; you'll see what I mean.

Secondly, my fiction-junkie side has been aware of Chris Bohjalian for years; I've enjoyed many of his novels, including (last month) The Sandcastle Girls, which takes place during the Armenian genocide in Syria in the early part of the 20th century. It was a great read, and it led me to look for more Bohjalian I found Idyll Banter. It's a compendium of his columns for the Burlington Free Press between 1992 and 2004--observations of life in small-town Vermont. Part history, part social commentary, all of it his lens on his life and the lives of those nearest him. One of these pieces, "Losing the Library," was particularly touching to me. His small-town library was drowned by the overflowing New Haven River during a storm. In eight short pages, he packs town history, literary history, meteorology, and reporting...all tinged with grief at the loss of a beloved town resource and the hope that underlies its rebuilding:
By their very nature, libraries are generationally democratic. They cater to everyone. School and work or classes and clubs may separate us, segregating us by interest and age. But libraries remain one of the few places in this world that still bring us together...on the morning after the waters had drenched much of the library and the town gathered to try to save what remained, I saw dazed adults crying softly as they worked...not for the roads or the bridges that had been lost...but they did cry for their books...

Stories like this are generously augmented with lighter pieces such as "Dead Cluster Flies Serve As Window Insulation for the Inept" and "Surly Cow Displays No Remorse," in which he and his wife, driving on a country road near their house, are pinned down by a herd of cows. They try to chase them back toward their corral, and
a number of times I even explained that I was a vegetarian, but obviously these cows were female, and they knew they were in no danger of becoming Quarter Pounders.
His columns are condensed generosity, humor and honesty, fortified with interesting reporting and observation. Well worth a look!

Finally, and most auspiciously for me as I plan for a new choir season, I found Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others." Author Stacy Horn is a 20-year veteran soprano in the Choral Society of Grace Church, NYC. For the most part, each chapter is grounded in a major choral work; within that frame, she explores her life, the history of choral singing, the foibles of a community choir and its directors, her soprano psyche...
Jesus Christ. How am I supposed to count this? It's in seven. Is that even rhythmically allowed? 
...and the magic of finding such beauty and shared humanity in the simple act of opening your mouth and making a sound.

I actually read most of a chapter aloud to my wife, who grinned at Horn's horror-turned-to-wonder as her conductor switched her from soprano 1 (melody) to soprano 2 (harmony): after some disorientation and paddling around in the music,
I was feeling harmony. Not just singing it, but physically feeling it. It was a rush. You don't experience this when you're singing the melody. I was completely in the power of the sound we were making together and I just stood there, afraid to move, thinking, Don't end, don't end, don't end. And it took nothing. A couple of notes. A D against a B flat. That's it. Two notes and I went from a state of complete misery and lonesomeness to such an astonishing sense of communion it was like I'd never sung with the choir before.
If you've ever sung in a choir, read this book. You'll grin in lots of places, learn some things and generally enjoy the ride.  If you haven't, read this book. You'll be auditioning for choir by the weekend...and I have some openings! :-)


Diane said...

Horn's book makes me wish I was still singing in a choir. Love your writing.

Stacy Horn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stacy Horn said...

I've been googling my name and my book, trying to get a sense of the response. Thank you so much for this fantastic feedback! I worked especially hard on that section, just because it was so challenging to describe just what it was I was feeling. It was such a revelation. And it was so great to read your post! Thank you so much for this great review.


Choralgirl said...

Stacy, thanks so much for writing! Can't tell you how much I'm enjoying your book; normally a "swallow it whole" kind of reader, I've been limiting myself to a chapter a day, to savor instead of inhale. :-)

The way you wrote that section lifted me into a similar, particularly vivid choir moment that I had a dozen years ago; you captured it perfectly.

Crimson Rambler said...

Looking at your quotation about libraries I wonder if you've also encountered Alberto Manguel, "The Library at Night"? I've just finished it -- found much to refresh the spirit and on almost the very last page an anecdote about something Northrop Frye said (50 years ago but who's counting) -- and I actually with these mine ears heard him say it! Live! So m feeling tremendously bucked up. It's lovely to see you blogging gain, and I rejoice at your good news and happy prospect!

Jodi Gustafson said...

Thanks, Crimson! I just checked into the Manguel book; it looks delicious!