Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Anguish of Modern Man

The front of my copy of Homo Faber by Max Frisch says:

"Max Frisch has captured that essential anguish of modern man which we find in the best of Camus."
--Saturday Review

Oh great, I think, as I open the book. The anguish of modern man. My favorite. And why do they have to mention Camus? We're not talking about Camus here! Can't they say a book is good with out comparing it to someone else who's good?

I've had enough of the anguish of modern man. Been there, done that. How bored I am of the perspective of white men!* How about the anguish of modern women? Can we have more of that please? Or better yet, no anguish at all? I've read Camus and Sartre, I've thoroughly enjoyed them and related to them and their words have resonated in my being, I've rolled about in my own anguish and depression, bladdy bladdy blah. Would it be unliterary and low-brow of me to say I want to read books that cultivate happiness? Well, I do. Our culture seems to divide into two courts these days: instant-gratification/artificial happiness or cynicism/stoicism/anguish of modern man.
Bullshit. Let's try cultivating a more sincere contentment and joy. Let's write and read books that reflect this.

Anyway, I actually quite liked Homo Faber.

*Is French Algerian considered white? Camus?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Conjunction Junction

Everyday Monday I gather in Stan's classroom/office to sit on couches and drink tea and read the spines of his many books, and of course, to discuss grammar and syntax.

Stan has taken to opening class with School House Rock.

I've had this song stuck in my head since I was ten. You know you love it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Something I've worried about is how my capacity for learning is going down as I get older. I'm glad I started learning Spanish when I was fifteen and my brain was malleable and responsive; learning other languages will not come as easily. The brain of a child is remarkable.

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley cuts down on these worries. It renews my confidence in the brain and its learning abilities; even the brains of seventy-year-olds grow new neurons. Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks. If you want to me amazed, I suggest you take a look at the book. For now, here is an excerpt that builds on the "meditation and happiness" series of posts I've been doing.

Conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the adult mammalian brain is fixed in two respects: no new neurons are born in it, and the functions of the structures that make it up are immutable...

The brain contains the physical embodiment of personality and knowledge, character and emotions, memories and beliefs. Even allowing for the acquisition of knowledge and memories over a lifetime, and for the maturation of personality and character, it did not seem reasonable that the brain could or would change in any significant way...

The doctrine of the unchanging human brain...led neurologists to assume that rehabilitation of adults who had suffered brain damage from a stroke was almost certainly a waste of time. It suggested that trying to alter the pathological brain wiring that underlies psychiatric diseases, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression, was a fool's errand. And it implied that other brain-based fixities, such as the happiness "set point" to which a person returns after the deepest tragedy or the greatest joy, are as unalterable as Earth's orbit.

But the dogma is wrong...The brain can indeed be rewired...It can quiet circuits that once crackled with the aberrant activity that characterizes depression and cut pathological connections that keep the brain in the oh-god-something-is-wrong state that marks obsessive-compulsive disorder. The adult brain, in short, retains mush of the plasticity of the developing brain, including the power to repair damaged regions, to grow new neurons, to rezone regions that performed one task and have them assume a new task, to change the circuity that weaves neurons into the networks that allow us to remember, feel, suffer, think, imagine, and dream...

A few findings suggest that brain changes can be generated by pure mental activity: merely thinking about playing the piano leads to a measurable, physical change in the brain's motor cortex, and thinking about thoughts in certain ways can restore mental health...Something as seemingly insubstantial as a thought has the ability to act back on the very stuff of the brain, altering neuronal connections in a way that can lead to recovery from mental illness and perhaps to a greater capacity for empathy and compassion.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Chocolate Chip Cookies

It's 7:30 AM. I have an essay, a rough draft of the big you-are-about-to-graduate paper, and a presentation due that day. I am baking giant vegan chocolate chip cookies for my meditation class. "Ah, Esme," I think to myself, "you are such a good person. Your meditation class is lucky."

It's 5:30 PM. The essay, the paper, and the presentation have been turned in or presented. I'm waiting for my meditation class to come over for a potluck so we can mindfully enjoy chocolate chip cookies.

"I will just make a fruit and cheese plate for them," I think. "I will just bring the fruit and cheese plate out to the balcony and begin Will Grayson, Will Grayson while waiting for the meditators to come over."

An hour later, fruit and cheese eaten, book and sunshine enjoyed, I decide no one is showing up. I remember I have an entire plate of chocolate chip cookies to myself. Ah, yes. Life is good.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Summer Reading

This summer I will be in a far distant land cut off from the world.*

Of course, your first response to that statement was "But how will you get books, Esme?"

I will tell you.

For one thing, they have a library. But I don't know what books they have there, other than a Mrs. Pollifax on which a bird once pooped while I was reading it. I will enjoy exploring this library, but I will also bring books. Preferably, books I already own or can borrow from Katie.

Summer Reading List!

100 Years of Solitude by GGM
P.G. Wodehouse (I have a collection of three of his novels)
Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams
American Indian myths and legends
For the Time Being by Annie Dillard
Walden's Pond

If I don't finish my spring reading list (and chances are I won't, seeing how busy I am with school) it will carry over into the summer.

Spring Reading List

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
Elizabeth Gaskell (I crave Gaskell in the spring)
Emily Dickinson
Line of Beauty
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Robert Frost
A biography of Emily Dickinson
A biography of Jane Austen

*Holden Village, WA

Monday, April 19, 2010

Happiness is not naive optimism or seeing life through rose-colored glasses

Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
Matthieu Ricard


Happiness is above all a love of life...

Changing the way we see the world does not imply naive optimism or some artificial euphoria designed to counterbalance adversity. So long as we are slaves to the dissatisfaction and frustration that arise from the confusion that rules our minds, it will be just as futile to tell ourselves "I'm happy! I'm happy!" over and over again as it would be to repaint a wall in ruins. The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind. It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality.

(In an upcoming post we'll get into how the mind works. Neurogenesis!)

Friday, April 16, 2010


I like this pattern I've set up of doing a post regarding meditation and then a post about a novel or poem, so expect more of that in the future. Today is a meditation day!

When people tell me there ultimate goal in life is NOT to find happiness, I find it hard to believe them. I think the main motivators or things people are looking for in life are survival, well-being, and happiness. If someone tells me they want to be in a position of power (cough cough Chris), I think what they mean is they believe power and influence and control will bring them a measure of happiness and satisfaction or otherwise promote their well-being. Same with saying you want a good job, a family, etc.

So here is an excerpt from Matthieu Ricard's book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill.

Is happiness a skill that, once acquired, endures through the ups and downs of life?

...For some people, talking about the search for happiness seems almost in bad taste. Protected by their armor of intellectual complacency, they sneer at it as they would at a sentimental novel.
How did such devaluation come about? Is it a reflection of the artificial happiness offered by the media? Is it a result of the failed efforts we use to find genuine happiness? Are we supposed to come to terms with unhappiness rather than make a genuine and intelligent attempt to untangle happiness from suffering?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Grad School

In August, I am going to grad school at the University of Idaho. I'm getting an MFA in creative writing with a focus in non-fiction.

I'm really excited. This woman from UI, Kim, keeps emailing telling me how she thinks my writing is great, and what the weather in Idaho is like, and how the group of non-fic students next year is really strong. And she got me an out-of-state fee waiver. Kim is so friendly and welcoming, I can't help but be excited.

I love that the MFA program encourages us to "cross-pollinate" among genres. My focus will be non-fic, but I'll get to study poetry and fiction and publishing. I refuse to be monogamous when it comes to genre.

My only concern is with the city of Moscow, ID itself. But getting out of my protected Bellingham bubble can only be good for me.

Hello from sunny Moscow!
-Kim Barnes; author; professor of fiction, non-fiction, and memoir

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams

is beautiful. It is not a book to take a highlighter to, to highlight all the best bits and most beautiful parts. I would highlight the entire thing. Refuge has made my cry multiple times. It has reminded me of the value of my community of women. It has made me decide to take a walk through the Arboretum or Outback Gardens or lie on the earth everyday, to be where I love and to cherish it before I move from Bellingham and find new land to love. It has made me laugh. It deepens my meditation practice, because it talks about appreciating every moment of life in the face of death. It is not a book that grabs you from the first sentence, but that slowly gains weight and beauty until you find yourself drowned in it, like the tide coming in.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Drinking Tea Mindfully Part III

The Miracle of Mindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh

In the morning, after you have cleaned and straightened up your house, and in the afternoon, after you have worked in the garden or watched clouds or gathered flowers, prepare a pot of tea to sit and drink in mindfulness. Allow yourself a good length of time to do this. Don't drink your tea like someone who gulps down a cup of coffee during a workbreak. Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves--slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Red Shoes

Terry Tempest Williams

I believe every woman should own at least one pair of red shoes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Drinking Tea Mindfully Part II

The Miracle of Mindfulness
Thich Nhat Hanh

When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you're drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. When you're using the toilet, let that be the most important thing in your life....Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony. Raising your cup of tea to your mouth is a rite.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Saturday Morning

Breakfast: White grape juice, strawberries, peach soygurt, toast with pomegranate jelly.
Weather: Blue skies, gentle sun. There's a flowering tree out my window, and then the neighbor's yard with mustard blooming yellow against the green of the grass. Frost in the shadows.

Bikram yoga, then Farmer's Market for one-dollar samosas, veggies for the week. Then to my love's to wake him up.


Terry Tempest Williams

Death is no longer what I imagined it to be. Death is earthy like birth, like sex, full of smells and sounds and bodily fluids. It is a confluence of evanescence and flesh.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Drinking Tea Mindfully

I have taken up the practice of mindfulness meditation, something I've been trying to do more or less for the last...let's say ten years. I'm reading Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness.
Thich Nhat Hanh keeps mentioning cups of tea. Of course, mindfulness is about more than drinking tea, one should be mindful and aware no matter what one is doing, yet this habit of Thich Nhat Hanh's can't help but endear his book to me and make me want to meditate more. While drinking tea. I find it difficult to be unhappy, or as Buddhists say, to have afflicted emotions, while drinking a hot cup of fragrant tea.

In short, I'm going to record all (or most) of the references to tea. Let's begin with Chapter One.

Anyone can wash [dishes] in a hurry, then sit down and enjoy a cup of tea afterwards....I usually wash the dishes after we've finished the evening meal, before sitting down and drinking tea with everyone else....If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not 'washing the dishes to wash the dishes....' If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Women's Studies

Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams is labeled as Women's Studies/Nature. My friend Cody and I are reading it for a class.

Esme: I kind of resent it being labeled Women's Studies. Does having a female author automatically make something Women's Studies?

Cody: But most of the characters are women.

Esme: If all the characters in a book are men, is it Men's Studies?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Pigeon Manifesto

The revolution will not begin in your backyard because you do not have a backyard...

To get to this poem, Michelle Tea's "Pigeon Manifesto," will take a slight amount of effort on your part, but it's worth it.

Go to this website, click contents at the top, click the third one down: Michelle Tea On Sister Spit 13.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Edibles You May Think of as Vegetables, But Are Secretly Fruit

Pepper (Bell, Jalapeno, etc.)

Edibles You May Think of as Fruit, But Are Secretly Nuts


Will Grayson, Will Grayson

You will all be exceedingly disappointed to learn I did not win a free copy of John Green and David Levithan's new book Will Grayson, Will Grayson.

If you have been wondering why I haven't posted lately, I will blame it on Spring Break. Surely, one cannot keep up on their blogs during Spring Break. Surely not.