28 April, 2014

Spring Reads: A List

After a long,
snowpocalypsed winter...
plus the eff-you,
thoroughly-unpredictable March climate notwithstanding...


[*Cue: Handel's Messiah "Hallelujah" chorus, and REVIVALIST-STYLE RELIEF HOWL*]

Spring is a time of fresh starts.
New beginnings, clean slates; when the last vestiges of grey sludge on the corner of February Lane and Desperation Boulevard melt away, and as the citizens sigh with relief (for they no longer have to consider 20ºF a sign that it's "getting warmer...") The farmer's market stands fill with flowers, the light lingers longer, the trees burst out with fresh green leaves, and one feels the need to clean the corners of their closet with a cotton swab...

It is time to start again. 
There’s just something about this season that makes us ready to let go of the past.

So after you drag 75% of the clothing you don't wear anymore to the nearest donation center, why not crack open a brand new book? For spring is the perfect time to shake off your crikeykillmenow winter funk and try something brand spankin' new.

What better to read, during this season of renewal, than great books about the bittersweet joys of starting over? Here is a curation of ideal seasonal reading, all with lush spring settings and inspiring themes that make one feel refreshed and energized. Even when chilly breezes blow, spring never loses its sense of possibility...

So curl up on a blanket, and enjoy these in the park on a sunny spring day...

* * *

1. These are my rivers by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Springtime is all about poetry. And American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is 'one of our ageless radicals and truebards.' In his peerless 'Everyman's' voice, Ferlinghetti combines a Whitman-esque celebration of the natural world with a deep bow to a surrealist tradition, and in "These are my rivers" has gathered over four decades of poetry with the added bonus of more than fifty pages of new work.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and founder of City Lights Books, blazed his way onto the literary scene with the 1958 publication of A Coney Island of the Mind, marking him as one of the first and greatest "Beat" poets (though his more refined poetic sensibility showed just how different he was from what "Beat" eventually came to mean.) What followed were numerous collections such as Pictures of the Gone World, and Wild Dreams of a New Beginning among others, all expertly drawn from everyday life.

These are my rivers is a compendium of work from throughout his entire career, including 27 new poems, and reveals an ongoing interest in matters political and sexual from an ever-maturing point of view. Unlike poet Allen Ginsberg, whose 'Collected Poems' showed an artist struggling with decline and decay, Ferlinghetti seems to maintain his calm in the face of age; as well as a recognition of his connection with readers.

Even though it first appeared in Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, These are my rivers is where I first discovered what I consider to be Ferlinghetti's greatest poem "Deep Chess."

2. The Griffin & Sabine

 Trilogy by Nick Bantock

Sometimes, when one reads a book, the experience goes beyond engaging storytelling, believable characters or impressive prose.

Sometimes? Reading gets personal.

Sometimes, a book reaches up through the pages, and grips you by the throat, and says
I know you... I am speaking to you...” 

And perhaps you would be a fool to listen to that voice. Perhaps a lot of things. But, as William Blake says, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” So persist I did.

When I was 16, I was introduced to author and visual artist Nick Bantock's trilogy of books (Griffin and Sabine, Sabine's Notebook and The Golden Mean), and was instantaneously moved by it in a way I had never been moved by a book before. 

The book is a boundless feast for the senses—visually stunning, emotionally stirring, mixing a touch of mystery, philosophy, mythology and even a dash of science fiction, upon the pages containing (simultaneously immaculate and chaotic) "mail art" artwork, all used to tell a story. This homage to the old fashioned post, combined with its phantasmagoric love story, were all created by Bantock himself, the product of his romantic and mischievous mind.

Depressed London artist Griffin Moss receives a postcard one day out of the blue from an unknwon South Pacific Island. It simply states:
Griffin: It's good to get in touch with you at last. Could I have one of your fish postcards? I think you were right the wine glass has more impact than the cup. —Sabine
But Griffin had never met a woman named Sabine. How did she know him? How did she know his artwork? Who is she?

Thus begins the strange and intriguing correspondence of Griffin and Sabine. Each letter they exchange is pulled directly from an envelope attached to the pages of the book, so the reader must engage in the delightful, forbidden sensation of reading someone else's mail. Come on: that's sexy stuff. 

I had never seen a book like it.
I had never seen a work of art like it. 

But my fascination went beyond that— I had to know what kind of a person had the capacity to create something like this. Something so stirring, and evocative and true.

For years I devoured every scrap of his work that I could get my hands on in an attempt to understand it, and truthfully, him, further.
I felt as though his books were speaking directly to me.  

I’m sure we’ve all felt something similar. 

Yet I had never even met him.

And then one day, I did meet Nick Bantock.

I was terrified, not because I felt intimidated, but because I was afraid I might be wrong about him. It is always crushing when an idol comes crashing down. So I was relieved to discover that I was exactly right. 
We have become very dear friends. 

Sometimes it truly is enough to know that people like him are real. 

They do exist.

3. Un abril encantado or, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

A recipe for happiness: four women, one medieval Italian castle, plenty of wisteria, and solitude as needed.

The women at the center of The Enchanted April are alike only in their dissatisfaction with their everyday lives. They find each other—and the castle of their dreams—through a classified ad in a London newspaper one rainy February afternoon. The ladies expect a pleasant holiday, but they don’t anticipate that the month they spend in Portofino will reintroduce them to their true natures and reacquaint them with joy.

Now, if the same transformation can be worked on their husbands and lovers, the enchantment will be complete.

The book is stunningly penned, but a faithful and glorious film adaptation was made in 1991 that certainly deserves a viewing of its very own.

4. Howards End by EM Forster

I first read Howards End under the expert inspirational tutelage of “Lady” Judy Chu, my high school British Literature teacher of such remarkable influence. I read it in the spring, when every blossom and glittering dappled leaf seemed to beckon me to the country estate. It is the perfect time of year to this classic. My work, lovingly thumbed high school copy still sits upon my adult bookshelf—complete with my 17-year-old scrawl penning such comments as:
"Well: London sounds dreary."
"Note to self: sign every letter 'BURN THIS...'"
and my favorite:
"Oh! All of this LOVE!"
Like all of Forster’s early novels, Howards End concerns itself with Edwardian society. As a member of the upper-middle class, Forster had keen insight into its attitudes and social mores, which he expertly rendered in the novel. But it was his profoundly humanistic values and interest in personal relationships that made all his books truly universal.

The major themes of Howards End are articulations of such philosophies: connection between the inner and outer life, between people, the future of England, and class conflicts; and above all connection-connection between private and public life, connection between individuals-and how difficult it is to create and sustain these connections. Howards End has been called a parable; indeed, its symbolism reaches almost mythic proportions at various points in the novel.

But the magic lies in the novel’s remarkable heroine Margaret Schlegel—without question the literary heroine I first “recognized,” and prayed resided within my own soul. Margaret is a font of love, intellectualism, imagination, and idealism, and the shimmering inner life of her mind is all shared with affection by the (charmingly biased) Narrator (quite probably the voice of Forster himself).

But it is Margaret’s “battle cry” that makes Howards End a masterpiece of the heart.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.”

4. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This, one of literature's greatest "children's novels" is among the most stirring tales of family, belonging and the healing powers of nature in the English speaking language.

Frances Hodgson Burnett was born in Manchester, England in 1849. Her father's work as a silversmith and master of decorative arts kept the Hodgsons in relative affluence until his death in 1854. The consequent decline in the family's fortunes only worsened in the ensuing years, as all of Manchester found itself suffering a severe depression brought about by the American Civil War. The Hodgsons, facing poverty in England, immigrated to America in 1865. There, they traveled to a small town near Knoxville, Tennessee, in search of a moneyed American uncle who had promised to support them. That help never materialized, however, and the family was forced to take shelter in an abandoned log cabin.

The move from industrial Manchester to rural America greatly affected young Frances, who was then only fifteen. Though she had always been captivated by storytelling, it was only in America that Burnett began to seriously consider writing in order to supplement her family's meager income. The cover letter she sent with her first published story, which appeared in Godey's Lady's Book, described her goal most succinctly:
"My object is remuneration." 
She received it: thirty-five dollars, which was, in 1868, a nearly princely sum. She became the family's chief means of support, writing five or six stories a month at a time when it was exceedingly rare for a woman to have a career.

Burnett was one of the most commercially successful and widely-read authors of her day. Her book Little Lord Fauntleroy was possibly responsible for keeping a generation of boys wearing ruffles and mauve velvet knee breeches. Her other novels (including The Little Princess) were wildly successful, but none was more instantly beloved than The Secret Garden, which was heralded as a classic upon its publication in 1909.

In The Secret Garden, the events of Mary Lennox's early childhood mirror those of Burnett's own:

The Secret Garden opens by introducing us to Mary Lennox, a sickly, foul-tempered, unsightly little girl who loves no one and whom no one loves. At the outset of the story, she is living in India with her parents—a dashing army captain and his frivolous, beautiful wife—but is rarely permitted to see them. They have placed her under the constant care of a number of native servants, as they find her too hideous and tiresome to look after. Mary's circumstances are cast into complete upheaval when an outbreak of cholera devastates the Lennox household, leaving no one alive but herself…

Mary is sent to live in Yorkshire with her maternal uncle, Archibald Craven. Misselthwaite Manor is a sprawling old estate with over one hundred rooms, all of which have been shut up by Master Craven who has been in a state of inconsolable grief ever since the death of his wife ten years before the novel begins. Shortly after arriving at Misselthwaite, Mary hears about a secret garden (that belonged to the late Mistress) from her good-natured Yorkshire maidservant Martha. After her death, Archibald locked the garden door and buried the key beneath the earth. Mary becomes intensely curious about the secret garden, and determines to find it…

Both Mary and Burnett experienced the death of their parents followed by a reversal of fortune, as well as a great sense of dislocation upon being taken from the country of their birth to one utterly foreign to them...

The novel is not merely autobiographical; it was written while Burnett was also very much under the influence of the ideas of the New Thought, theosophy and Christian Science movements; and Burnett's idiosyncratic fusion of these philosophies held that the Christian god was a kind of unified mind or spirit, with whom any person might commune. This spirit was held to be present everywhere, and especially in nature. Proponents of the New Thought also extolled the power of positive thinking (the fervent contemplation of what one hopes will happen), and held it to be a form of communion with the divine spirit. One could ostensibly cure oneself of illness through this kind of magical thinking, or change the character of one's fortunes.

Such ideas had a profound influence upon the writing of The Secret Garden—particularly as the inspiration for what Colin and Mary call "Magic." It is, of course, also visible in Burnett's depiction of the landscape (as represented by the garden and the moor) as having healing or restorative properties.

This book was deeply woven into my childhood (as was the almost perfect award-winning musical penned in the early 90s by Marsha Norman and Lucy Simon)— for the message of a young girl who, through nature, tenacity, and the power of her thoughts alone could heal the sick. A message probably more profoundly affective than I realized at the time—this story spoke to the displaced little girl, whose greatest and most fervent wish, was to heal her father of illness...
"Come spirit, come charm, come days that are warm. 
Come magical spell, come help him get well..."

5.   As You Like It by William Shakespeare

If you are to visit any single piece of Shakespeare in the spring, one should look no further than a visit to the Forest of Arden—the setting of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and chosen home of the banished daughter (of an equally banished Duke), the utterly sublime Rosalind.

Arguably Shakespeare’s greatest heroine, Rosalind is the woman whom scholar, Yale professor and literary critic Harold Bloom describes as “the first real lover in all of modern literature.” Rosalind is strong, sensitive, wise, raunchy, romantic, witty, profound and petty. She is the first to make fun of love, and also the first to let herself be fully embraced by all its joy. But perhaps her greatest quality is her wise, accepting, trenchant, and at times almost peaceful self-awareness. As Bloom says "Rosalind is unique […] in Western drama, because it is so difficult to achieve a perspective upon her that she herself does not anticipate and share."

In the spring of 2001, I played Rosalind as a final farewell to Interlochen Arts Academy—the location of, without a doubt, the happiest and most influential days of my life thus far. I was also desperately in love— with the young man that would become The Love of my Youth. I spoke Rosalind’s words to him from the deepest corners of my heart. And he spoke Orlando’s back to me. This was love at its purest, at its most innocent and delicate. Laced with trees, and warming light, and Shakespeare’s most romantic words.

It was everything that one ever hopes, and dreams,
and should ever be so lucky to have
when you are seventeen
and truly in love for the first time
and it is Spring.

Happy reading.

     Happy Spring. 

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