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1000 Black Lines

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3 books, 3 reviews & a curve ball

[ 1 & 2 ]

Teaching A Stone to Talk
Published almost 24 years ago, Teaching A Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard has recently crossed my path.

In her essay/chapter "Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos" she writers: "Darwinism today is more properly called neo-Darwinism. It is organic evolutionary theory informed by the spate of new data ... In the larger sense, neo-Darwinism also lacks ... sheer plausibility ... Many things are unexplained, many discrepancies unaccounted for." She continues, "Social Darwinists seized Herbert Spencer's phase 'the survival of the fittest,' applied it to capitalism and used it to sanction ruthless and corrupt business practices ... social Darwinism is ... not a religion but a way of life ... where ever people seek power: that the race is to the swift ... and the reward is its own virtue."

In her essay "Sojourner" she uses a beautiful metaphor that Earth is a sojourner heading through the universe "east of Hercules, like east of Eden." This book is actually a collection of several well-written essays.

Dillard sprinkles each essay with scientific facts like the planet "is moving in orbit at 68,400 miles an hour." It is not light reading and more often than not I had to put the book down for several days. Maybe this is due to the fact that I would read one essay and put the book down for a week or two and would resume my reading when I felt like reading the next essay. Finally, I decided to force my way through it on an out of town business trip and found that it wasn't difficult to read at all.

When I shared that I had read Teaching A Stone to Talk with a group of writers I know, there was a mixed response. One poet/writer commented how Annie Dillard brilliantly struggles with God in a most violent manner--almost obsessively. In less than a minute two writers said "that's f---ed up" as if to courageously affront Dillard's observation that God's Tooth is a new island on the horizon.

Holy the Firm
But I'm getting ahead of myself. God's Tooth is a reference to the other Annie Dillard book I finished, Holy the Firm.

The book has three chapters that covers three consecutive days. Throughout Holy the Firm Annie refers to observing uncharted islands from a window of her seaside shack as she ponders the reality of time and truth and God. After an island tragedy, plane crash, she discovers a new island beyond the others and names it God's Tooth.

Back to the writers' reaction to Annie's literary work. Spiritual struggle with God is not on their map and so as God's Tooth appears as a reality their response is bold disbelief. That's not supposed to be there, they may think or say. Now that it is they must deal with its reality and that's "f---ed up."

My take away: Somewhere between Annie Dillard, Donald Miller and Kent Nerburn is where I would like to be with my non-fiction prose. I was planning on taking a writing class called "True Stories" taught by Sebastian Matthews, but the class filled and they returned my application and moneys. Forget about it. Why do I need a class if there are good books to teach me? Further, creative non-fiction prose is not simply writing from observation. Annie clearly does a lot of research before composing an essay.

[ 3 ]

Simple Truths
Kent Nerburn's book Simple Truths offers small chapters on the big issues of life.

On education he expresses the importance of formal and experiential learning. He writes, "formal education ... has been sought and revered by all people and all cultures at all times." He balances this chapter with this: "Still, formal education will not inform your spirit and make you full. So, along with knowledge, you must seek wisdom." Knowledge is multiple, wisdom is singular. Knowledge is words, wisdom is silence ... No person can be whole without both dimensions of learning."

His chapter on work can be summarized like this: chose your work well or it will choose you. "By giving a job your time," he writes. "You are giving it your consciousness. Eventually it will fill your life with the reality that it presents." If you don't like where you're working it "will become your prison rather than the vehicle of your dreams. And a person without dreams is only half alive." Nerburn relates that the word "vocation comes from the Latin word for calling, ... voice." And he ends the chapter with this thought: "Find what it is that burns in your heart and do it. Choose a vocation, not a job and your life will have meaning and your days will have peace."

Simple Truths offers short eloquent chapters with that kind of wisdom. Kent Nerburn explores everything from love to death to silence and loneliness to money to parenting with great insight. Like I said, it is a small book with very readable chapters about life's big issues. Maybe this resonates with me because Nerburn writes with an Upper Midwestern sensibility. Since I'm a stranger in Dixie, it is nice to read someone who knows the roar and silence of the prairie. Thomas Rain Crowe considers this "bioregional" writing. Similarly, the silence of the mountains after the wind disappears is equally majestic in its vastness.

In contrast to Annie Dillard, Kent Nerburn presents an approachable prose; one that doesn't weigh with academic sobriety, but offers an intimate monologue. Both writers are well educated but approach their prose with a unique style.

My take away: Again, why do I need to pay for a writing class if there are good books like Simple Truths to teach me? When I examine the order of Simple Truths it reminds me a bit like Gibran's The Prophet. The book is composed as a series of epistles from a father to a son. What better motivation to write than to leave your children a book of maxims. In Nerburn's words: "You must offer your highest vision of good, and a sense of moral purpose, and a healthy vision of the world outside." This motivates me to re-examine my writings.

[ curve ball ]

Milk Cartons & Dog Biscuits
Stonehaven: Milk Cartons & Dog Biscuits by Kevin Tinsley and Phil Singer presents a graphic novel about a rogue werewolf loose in a NYC-type metropolis called Stonehaven. It is a pleasant mix between detective pulp fiction, mafia crime story and a fantasy tale set in a modern city. There are half-elves, Chinatown mafia, an ogre landlord and a country cop searching for his runaway daughter.

My take away: Stonehaven: Milk Cartons & Dog Biscuits can easily be read on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The art is good for an indie release, but the creative team relies too heavily on computer-generated backgrounds. I suspect amateurs who are dangerous with advanced technology that affords them to produce this graphic novel create Stonehaven. Given a bigger budget they may be able to hire a better artist and colorist. Overall, a good read, but does not convince me to read their other publications.

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  1. Anonymous jeremy | 3:14 PM, May 17, 2006 |  

    If you haven't yet read him, I recommend my second favorite (behind Natalie Kusz, my thesis advisor) writing teacher, John McPhee. You can start with the first McPhee Reader, or if you want to jump right into a book, go with Pieces of the Frame and then The Pine Barrens.

    He is the master.

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