Why We Read: To Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go. ~Dr. Seuss

My absolute favorite books—fiction or nonfiction—are ones that transport me to another place. James Herriot’s Yorkshire. Ignatius J. Reilly’s New Orleans. Twain’s Mississippi. The authors brought these places to life and we remember them. It’s not only because these stories are classics. I’d venture to say that they are classics partly because they evoke the setting in a captivating way.

Setting is the Goldilocks element of any good story. It should find a nice balance between not too much, not too little, settling on just right. Selecting the right details pulls me into the characters’ world. Most readers want to find common emotional ground with the main character, and that is an important first step. But if I can imagine myself there—hiking the PCT alongside Cheryl Strayed or onboard the Wilhelm Gustloff as it sinks, I will remember specifics about that story for a long time to come.

The location informs the characters. People are not the same everywhere. The weather, landscape, architecture, foods, flora, and fauna all serve to inform the culture. It’s why you might feel comfortable in Amsterdam but not Alaska, Santa Fe, New Mexico but not Santa Fe, Argentina.

Come along as we travel at the invitation of three authors. First, Ann Patchett takes us to the Amazon in State of Wonder. 

9118135At dusk the insects came down in a storm, the hard-shelled and soft-sided, the biting and stinging, the chirping and buzzing and droning, every last one unfolded its paper wings and flew with unimaginable velocity into the eyes and mouths and noses of the only three humans they could find. Easter [the name of a character] slipped back inside his shirt while Dr. Swenson and Marina wrapped their heads like Bedouins in a storm. When it was fully dark only the misguided insects pelted themselves into the people on board while the rest chose to end their lives against the two bright, hot lights on either side of the boat. The night was filled with the relentless ping of their bodies hitting the glass.

 

Next, we stop at a tenement apartment in Brooklyn with eleven-year-old Kim and her mother, freshly arrived from China.

7362158A thick layer of dust covered the small kitchen table and wide sink, which was white and pitted. As I walked, I tried to avoid the brittle bodies of the dead roaches scattered here and there. They were huge, the thick legs delineated by the harsh shadows…

The walls were cracked, bulging in places as if they had swallowed something, and in some spots, the paint layer had flaked off altogether, exposing the bare plaster like flesh under the skin.

Despite its bareness, this room stank of old sweat. In the corner, a double mattress lay on the floor. It had blue and green stripes and was stained. There was also a low coffee table with one leg that didn’t match, on which I would later do my homework, and a dresser that was shedding its lime paint like dandruff. That was all.

I hugged myself with my arms. “Ma, I want to go home,” I said.

Lastly let’s go to Versailles with Alain Baraton, master gardener there for forty years, as he deals with the aftermath of a terrible storm.

18339812Two young beech trees I had recently planted had been among the first to go. They were now smothered under the mass of a fallen cherry tree. My trees, once so orderly and upright, were now tangled and piled up on one another in painful chaos. They lay in agony, their roots naked and suffering, exposed to the air in a position I couldn’t help but find shocking. The laws of nature, which usually seemed so clement and productive, had been swept away in a climactic upheaval that had lasted only a few hours. Another revolution had struck the subjects of Versailles, and those “subjects” (as we often refer to individual trees in French) were going to die. They had been taken away in the space of a night and there was nothing  I could do about it. Deprived of the garden’s protection, the palace itself suddenly seemed fragile.

Heart racing, I headed to Versailles’s botanical treasure chest, the Queen’s Hamlet. The surroundings had changed so dramatically that I had trouble finding my way. Nothing familiar had survived. The trees that once guided visitors through the garden were unrecognizable. Some of them lay on the ground; others had been displaced or crushed by their neighbors. Even the road was gone. In its place lay a field of mud where my boots sank to the calf.

 

Have books brought you to any memorable places recently?

Writers: I will be teaching an online seminar on setting and description this fall. More details to come soon. 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

Tourist in My Town: Conservatory Gardens

Last week I set out to do something off my beaten path. I hoofed it up to 105th Street to take in one of the loveliest gardens in Manhattan that’s not hidden behind a locked gate. (I’m looking at you, Grammercy Park.)

Conservatory Garden is in the upper right-hand corner of Central Park, and it’s free for all to enjoy. The garden is actually three gardens on six acres, each representing a different style.

The weather was perfect with not a cloud in the sky. I had some areas of the garden all to myself. I ended at the Harlem Meer under the shade of an elm. Well worth the trip!

 

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Crabapple trees in bloom. Image via Wikicommons.

Vanderbilt Gate

Vanderbilt Gate at the main entrance to the Conservatory Garden. These gates once stood at the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. When the mansion was torn down, the gates were moved here.

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The Vanderbilt Mansion. The magnificent carriage gates opened onto 58th Street — photo NYPL Collection

 

 

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This shaded colonnade overlooks the main fountain in the center garden.

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This reflecting pool commemorates the children’s book The Secret Garden. In the springtime, you can find water lilies in the pond.

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Love this archway and the white roses entwined. There are four of these archways. This section of the garden has rows of hedges clipped into complicated patterns.

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All archways lead to the Untermyer Fountain. The sculpture is called Three Dancing Maidens.

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Can someone please tell me the name of these flowers?

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The Harlem Meer. This pond widens out from this point at the northern edge of Central Park.

 

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These juvenile mallard ducks say thanks for stopping by.

 

Hope you enjoyed the tour. Have a great weekend, everyone! 

Nature Calls: Crows

Maybe you’re thinking that there is nothing redeeming about crows and their brethren. A group of crows—collectively called a murder (!) of crows—can pick crops clean. Their presence chases away charming songbirds. They eat carrion. In stories they are often harbingers of evil.

I hope to give you a new way to think about crows. Let’s start with one of the coolest discoveries: crows make and use tools. Enter Betty.

Brainiacs

Betty is shown a plastic tube containing a treat. She is given a piece of wire, but she can’t quite get the food. Watch what she does. (:41)

 

That Betty realized she had to modify her tool to get the treat is remarkable. There are some primates who cannot figure this out. Lest you think that Betty is the Einstein of the crow world, researchers have observed this behavior in other crows time and again.

To be fair, not all species of crows show this ability. There are about 40 species of crows and ravens from a family of more than 120 corvids, which includes blue jays and magpies. “There’s a fair bit of disparity between crow species,” says Matt Brown, a PhD student in crow cognition (yes, crow cognition) at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

Thus far, scientists have found the New Caledonian crow to be the most intelligent of its brethren. Some New Caledonian crows create tools from serrated palm fronds to dig out insects from crevasses of trees. A 2014 study published in Learning and Behavior showed them using a range different tools across different sites on the island.

 

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New Caledonian crow stripping a pandanus leaf to make a tool.

 

Social Intelligence

The question scientists usually ask after making such a discovery is  why?  Why did some crow species develop this ability? One theory is that crows that live in complex social groups need to be able to reason and problem solve better than those crows that lead solitary lives. (BTW — Similar theories abound about the rise of human intelligence.)

Many crows are cooperative breeders, meaning they stay near the area they were born and help raise the next generation of offspring by bringing food and defending territory.

 

A side effect of this kind of intelligence is their ability to keep track of their relationships with with each other. Dr. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, wondered if crows could use the same mental acuity to identify humans. He and his team trapped and banded crows (not harming them) while wearing a specific mask. When they returned to that location wearing the mask, the crows mobbed, scolded, and dive-bombed them. When not wearing the mask, the birds ignored them. And, get this: it wasn’t just the crows who had been trapped that mobbed them. Other non-banded crows started following suit. Apparently the crows who simply witnessed their cohorts being trapped responded in kind.

“Every so often Marzluff’s group retests the birds. It’s been 10 years, and not only have the crows not forgotten, the knowledge keeps spreading. When a crow sees other birds mobbing, it joins in, learning and remembering the identity of the villain.”

So the next time you shoo away a crow, remember: it’s making a mental note of the experience and may one day get its revenge.

 

Problem Solvers

What good is all that smarts if you can’t figure out how to solve the complexities that allow you to survive? Now for the pièce de résistance:

This New Caledonian crow, aptly named 007, solves an eight-stage puzzle he has never seen before to get to the food.

 

 

Bird Brain

How do crows manufacture and use tools, solve problems, understand words, recognize their own reflections and learn to predict human behaviors—despite having a brain the size of a walnut?

Crows and some parrots have nearly twice as many neurons in their brains than we do, when calculated by weight, according to new research published just last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

So the next time you use the term bird brain, think of it as a compliment!

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

Authorial Intrusion: Cherrypicking

What happens when a highly respected author and Wharton professor takes your words out of context to suit his point?

That didn’t happen to me, but it is a common problem in today’s cut-and-paste, Wikipedia world. Most often I think this is unintentional. Authors, researchers, and journalists are rushed to publish. They (or more likely their interns) find a cool quote that dovetails nicely with their position, but there’s a deadline and no time to consider the intention of the author’s words. Or the author is long gone so his or her words get muddled as in a game of telephone. How often has poor Mark Twain been misinterpreted?

On the other hand, sometimes it’s easier for an author or journalist to look the other way, to pretend that quote really does work to his or her advantage. If I just take these words out here and cut off the end of this quote with a few ellipses, wham-o, look how this perfectly supports my point. It’s not that the quote is wrong, it has been cherrypicked, plucked of original meaning.

This week, Adam Grant, aforementioned Wharton business school professor and author of Originals and Give and Take, did just that. His op/ed published in The New York Times, “Unless You’re Oprah, Why ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice,” shared a snippet of a quote from Brené Brown thereby changing the meaning of her words.

Look how easy it is for this to occur. Here is the sentence in its entirety from the op/ed piece linked above:

As Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, defines it, authenticity is “the choice to let our true selves be seen.”

And now you, the reader, believe that Brené Brown is in agreement with Adam Grant’s point that being authentic gives people license to say whatever pops into their minds, be it hurtful or antagonistic.

But Brené Brown’s full definition of authenticity is quite long and nuanced. Understandably she took umbrage at Grant’s oversimplified, soundbite definition. She wrote a response in a LinkedIn post. (And he commented on her post!)

Grant pulled nine words out of context. Why? Because using the central part of my definition of authenticity would have bankrupted his entire argument that authenticity is the mindless spewing of whatever you’re thinking regardless of how your words affect other people.

Authenticity

 

I’m not standing in favor or against the substance of the discussion, which in itself is quite compelling. I’m pointing out how easy it is to be mislead, even by a well-meaning author. A shade here or there. Words plucked for the sake of brevity. A rushed fact-checker. It can all lead to a misrepresentation of someone’s beliefs and values.  Worse, readers rarely witness the follow-up, so they’re left with the wrong impression.

It’s interesting that the conversation of setting boundaries around authenticity has led to a conversation about what it means to set authentic boundaries in writing.

Have you ever been misquoted? Have you ever been misled by a quote? 

Have a great weekend, everyone!

 

 

Why We Read: To Have Fun

Sometimes I don’t want a deep, thought-provoking read. Sometimes I don’t want to be challenged or need to research historical background. I just want to open the cover and enjoy.

Also, the onset of warmer weather encourages me to pick lighter subject matter. Sweeping epics like All the Light We Cannot See and Station Eleven feel stout, like a hearty bowl of stew. Good for curling up under a blanket on a winter’s day when the sun sets at 4:30. In the summer, I tend to gravitate toward the literary equivalent of flip-flops.

I recently read two books that were just plain fun. Just because these novels are entertaining doesn’t mean they don’t have well-rounded characters and an engaging plot. These books won’t ask a lot of you. They probably won’t change your worldview or evoke sympathy for others’ plights. You might not think about the characters long after you close the cover, but they will put a smile on your face.

16071745Someday, Someday, Maybe, by Lauren Graham

If you want to get yourself geared up for The Gilmore Girls episodes later this year, this will do the trick. Someday, Someday, Maybe feels like Bridget Jones meets The Gilmore Girls. It’s a new adult story of young Franny trying to land her first real gig as an actress in 1995 NYC. (A thinly veiled autobiography of Lauren Graham’s experience?) There’s plenty of witty banter, clever lines, and twenty-something angst.

We know how things are going to turn out for Franny, and in that respect, there isn’t much surprising about the story itself. There are no twists, turns or dark dealings. It’s a straight-forward tale about a time in our lives when we’re unsure of what is supposed to happen next, when all of life feels like a secret and we don’t know quite which way is up.  I listened to this as an audio book, which was the right call. Lauren Graham reads the story, and she’s perfect of course.

13538873Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Let me say that I have an unnatural attachment to novels about bookstores and libraries. I enjoyed The Storied Life of AJ Fikry and The Little Paris Bookshop. So I had a feeling I would like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I didn’t know how much!

There is a secret society, high-tech whiz kids, special fonts (yes, I said fonts), and a budding romance. The story is always moving forward, weaving an interesting group of twenty-somethings that circulate around the main character, Clay. I think it’s safe to say that Clay has a lot of “just right” connections—far more than I had at his age—which all fall into place perfectly. He knows how to get his friends on board to help him solve the curious situation he finds himself in since he started working at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore.

Robin Sloan did a nice job of describing these disparate worlds—the high tech Google cohort and the secret society members who surround themselves in ancient texts clad in flowing black robes. If you pick up a “carbon-based copy” (as Alice in A Window Opens calls paper books), you’re in for a fun treat: the cover glows in the dark!


I’d like to recommend one more read centering around twenty-somethings, though maybe not as light-hearted as the books mentioned above. It’s a short story by yours truly, published this week at The Cortland Review. “A Seductive Shortcut” is a modern retelling of an Aaron Copland composition. It takes place at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, and, yes, an Elvis tribute artist makes an appearance. I hope you enjoy it!

It was two a.m. They’d been up for nearly twenty-four hours. Married for four. Yet they stood at the edge of the lake, unable to tear themselves away and go into the hotel where one of those fancy high roller-rooms was waiting for them. Brian had booked it a few days ago when he’d had an inkling of this plan.

Can you recommend any fun reads?

Have a great weekend, everyone!