The Abundance by Annie Dillard

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Growing up, did you have that slick and sneaky friend who lured you through the slit chain-link fences or the windows left unlocked, into restricted zones, behind the STAY OUT signs, into the smoky dim rooms packed with music so loud it turned your senses sideways? Annie Dillard is that friend.

Dillard, Annie. The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. New York: Ecco, 2016. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (essay collection)

Summary: The collection mixes and mingles Dillard’s classics, such as “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” with newer narrative sojourns. Every essay delivers on abundance. Profuse ideas. Overflowing sensory experiences. So much world and so much life to experience and notice and not always fully understand.

Critique: Reading Dillard is a lot like trailing that trickster friend. The bad boy or girl who—with nothing more than a casual c’mon shoulder flick—convinced you to abandon your good sense and go on a reckless adventure. Back then, you would have kept this friend around to piss off your parents. These days, you likely need someone like Dillard to free you from reality’s constraints. Her prose white rabbits you down a dark tunnel where space and air run out. Suddenly, you’re twisted into impossible positions and too disoriented to find your way out. Here, and only here, can you begin to reconstruct your life, reconfiguring your self’s shape to suit the alternate universes floating around you at all times.

For example, in the opening essay, “Total Eclipse,” Dillard escorts the reader up a hillside to watch the sun disappear from the sky. The next thing you know, she’s oiled you into a sideways experience of the eclipse. The sky doesn’t go dark, it saturates. The surface colors of all things go platinum or bronze plate about to peel. Then Dillard peels time. She scrapes off the present moment because the world is now a patina’d photograph, evidence of a civilization long gone. The whole framework of the essay shifts and the reader is no longer in a familiar contemporary setting—the typical and common reality—but some prehistoric time warp.

To be fair, Dillard warned the readers about the tilt when she explained, “seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him….” One event may precede the other, but it doesn’t prepare you for the second.

Some critics like to tout how Dillard is a nut. She’s crazy and thus her prose go crazy (see the “Forward” to The Abundance…er, don’t actually. It is academic treacle and will give your brain a tummy ache.) I agree that Dillard’s perspective is skewed. All her dials her cranked to “bizarre.” But, I also think Dillard gives voice to the mad-hatter moments we all encounter but then keep pocketed, far far away from our social media status updates. She is willing to admit that reality bears side doors—all of them unlocked.

“The Weasel” illustrates this common, momentary madness. Dillard and a weasel startle each other in the woods. Both freeze. They examine each other, assessing the threat level. In that instance of scrutiny, their brains merge…or more accurately, trade places. But then a blink severs them. The weasel darts into a burrow. Anyone who has had an encounter with a wild animal (not in a zoo, but actually out in the wild) knows this exchange, but only Dillard is willing to admit it happens. She even wishes she’d had the instincts to lock her jaws around the weasel’s throat because one can learn from the wild animals “something of the purity of living in the physical senses.” And from the encounter, she formulates a glorious maxim for how to be truly alive:

The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse.

She goes on, “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part.”

Oh boy, if that isn’t fine advice for anyone running down a dream!

Dillard returns to this notion of the fearless, dauntless lifestyle in “A Writer in the World.” She coaches all writers to “Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”

Why?

“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you.”

True to her word, Dillard delivers. Like any good, slick, trickster friend, she gives countless opportunities to shirk the norm. The Abundance is replete with fresh ways to see and experience the world. Every essay is an invitation from Dillard to slip past the caution tape and delight the senses. Not only that, but to develop entirely new senses streamlined for stalking, sneaking, and fully soul’ing your existence to life’s varied realities.

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Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

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At last—the recipe for limitless, lifelong learning (and remembering) is here! Ingredients include: bean bags, buckets, Mark Twain, England’s monarchs, and some elbow grease.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Writer Peter Brown translates the science into laymen terms as the experts combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.

Critique: Despite roaming through complex fields like neurology and psychology, this book never feels dense or esoteric. In arranging the content for each chapter, the co-authors also cleverly employ the optimal learning methods they discover. As a result, information snowballs. The reader re-encounters and continually retains more and more of the book’s core concepts. Done poorly, this technique can become a broken record. Here, it always arrives fresh as Farmer’s Market produce.

The authors’ primary goal is to upend the “golden rules” about how we think we learn. Conventionally, we believe that learning anything “the hard way” is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.

The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.

Why?

Image by Bryce Miller. (CC BY 2.0)

Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.

The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.

How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.

“Tossing the Bean Bag” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.

Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.

How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.

So, how do Mark Twain and England’s monarchs factor into durable learning? You’ll see (and likely never forget) when you read the book.

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

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Imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother…

Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Young Readers, 2016. Print.

Summary: A doddering witch rescues the sacrificial babies abandoned in the woods. Normally, she feeds them starlight before adopting them out to new families. But on one occasion, she feeds a child moonlight, thereby creating a new witch and consequently kicking off an avalanche of other troubles.

Critique: Even though this is a middle grade text (and the 2017 Newbery winner to boot), the narrative primarily shares the parental perspective. That is to say, rather than tell yet another story of a young child coming of age with magic powers, this story examines what it is to be a step-mother…er eh, a step-witch to an adopted and accidentally enmagicked child. Also, what it is to be the godparent…uh er, god-swamp monster to that child. And what it is to be the mother who went mad when her child was taken for sacrifice. And finally, what it is to be the boy who sees the mother go mad and then grow up to have his own sacrificial child.

I guess imagine Harry Potter as told by Professor McGonagall, Petunia Dursley, Hedwig, and Neville Longbottom’s grandmother with Harry getting his own say somewhere in the last quarter of the story.

Ultimately, any budding Terry Pratchett fans will appreciate Barnhill’s wink-and-nod magic rules and fantasy world building. Nascent Patrick Rothfuss or Lev Grossman fans will find the convenient inconsistencies and glaring contradictions frustrating.

Most consistent throughout is that inspiring and unyielding sense of familial love.

Felicity by Mary Oliver

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Was the 2 a.m. emergency room really the best place to tease open the knots life ties between love and loss? I had no choice. I could not be anywhere else.

Oliver, Mary. Felicity. New York: Penguin, 2015. Print.

Genre: poetry

Summary: Mary Oliver’s poetry and essay collections normally focus on nature. She lays bare her raptures and heartaches shared with grasshoppers, wild geese, or murk-water fishes. But in the collection, she presents the raptures and heartaches inevitable when loving both the self and another person.

Critique: I was, as I mentioned, in the emergency room as I grappled with Oliver’s collection of love poems. Specifically, I was in the waiting room while my friend was back in the exam room. Her bout with food poisoning required me to drive while she tipped her head in a bucket the way a honeybee tips down a pistil, hunting for nectar. When my friend texted to explain her soggy-verging-on-foamy, prostrate predicament, I calmly grabbed the essentials: purse, books, water bottle, car keys.

While the docs hooked my friend to an IV drip that would quell her nausea and rehydrate her cells, I settled in for some poetry.

The books I brought along were both by Mary Oliver, but they were separated by over a decade, with Owls and Other Fantasies published back in 2003. Comparing the two, I was struck by the brevity of the poems in Felicity. Oliver has always been able to go for the jugular, but in the latest work, she seemed to have given up stalking the reader in a slow, supple way. Her writing in Felicity is both ruthless and mercifully instantaneous.

Google Mary Oliver and you’ll find a lot of synopses curtailing her work to the keen description of nature. Be warned. Describe is not what Oliver does. You could say she teaches us how to experience and love the world for the first time.

You may think that in your daily life you’ve tousled your hair in some fling or flirtation with your external environment, but then you read Oliver and you realize all you’ve known is surface friction. External penetrates internal and vice versa and you are intimately aware that you had never seen the world like that. Until Oliver, you had never seen a storm as a “shaggy, howling sky-beast” or lightning as a “printed…sizzling unreadable language.”

But now your eyes are wide open and you are madly in love with this world and quite certain it is madly in love with you.

And so the most accurate way to articulate Oliver’s craft is to say that she virgins the world for us.

Felicity is a different assortment. Rather than write about nature, Oliver opens our eyes (and bodies) to that blissful parachuteless skydive that is love and its nature. The first section of the collection, The Journey, assembles experiences and observations that I read as learning to love the world and yourself in it. “The point is,” Oliver concludes, “you’re you, and that’s for keeps.”

Acquiring the skill and fervor required to love yourself above all else–not in petty selfishness, but rather infinite downy kindness–is what opens the door to truly loving another (and being loved in return), which becomes the focus of the second section, Love. And just as you might not, on your own, see a storm as a shaggy sky-beast, you might not have considered kissing to be like the opening of a flower, only faster. Like a fearless journalist, Oliver shares with readers the full spectrum, from love’s nascent, bottle-rocket budding to its unavoidable, withered snuffing.

Yes, we must acknowledge the loss. Is it really love if you can’t lose it?

Mug Collection.” CC BY 2.0

Love is not steadfast like your coffee mug collection. Nor is it sensible like a sweater or a wallet. It is fleeting–even if you get to love someone, The One, for more decades than there are toes on your feet. The One, your one, will one day die. But that is no excuse not to love with all you’re made of. As Oliver explains, “There is nothing more pathetic than caution/ when headlong might save a life,/ even, quite possibly, your own.”

Which brings the collection to its third and final section, Felicity. Bearing only one poem, this section seems to conclude that the key to everlasting and ever-expanding bliss boils down to a few simple elements: notice the world, welcome the difficult, unanswerable questions, and have a person in your life whose hand you best like to hold.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck

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Imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux.

Peck, Richard. The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail. Illus. Kelly Murhpy. New York: Puffin Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: middle grade historical fiction

Summary: Days before Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a nameless mouse runs away from the bullies at school. From then on, he is swept into a misadventure maelstrom. The book jacket will tell you he has a plan to speak with the Queen and that he goes on an epic adventure, but do not believe it…

Critique: At first, I thought I’d adore the nameless mouse whose tail kinked into a question mark shape. He was cheeky, mouthing off to bullies and overly disciplinarian adults. But as the narrative continued, I could not fathom how such a mouse could lack so much gumption. Once the catalyst shoots him out of his A-world and into the B-world, the little mouse does next to nothing unless another character tells him to. He either whines about his miserable circumstances or he watches the world pass by.

According to the text, his observant nature stems from that tail. He’s curious. He’s full of questions, like why doesn’t he have a name and who were his parents and wouldn’t Queen Victoria know the answers because wise monarchs who have sat on the thrown for 60 years ought to know everything?

The mouse formulates this last notion in chapter 3 and the book jacket would have you believe that his yearning to see the Queen is what sparks an “epic adventure.” But as I warned you, don’t believe it. The ensuing larks around and in Buckingham Palace are not the result of his deliberate actions or choices to fulfill the desire. Instead, he travels about like a staticky sock, clinging to whatever (or whomever) happens to be closest. He attaches to a cat in the stables, then a horse out for a ride, then palace guard mice capture him and enlist him in service, then bats capture him, and then andthenandthen…

He remembers his “desire” to see the queen on page 88 and not again until somewhere around page 146. He is what screenwriter Blake Snyder calls a Johnny Entropy. A lead character with no lead.

Writers, beware this protagonist. You’ll know when one has snuck into your story because all the other characters will have to luggage him around or tell him what to do, when he ought to know, with a bottle rocket’s urgency, what he wants.

Not wishing to be disingenuous, I should also point out that the nameless mouse could not have exerted much agency or autonomy even if he tried because he lives like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Everyone watches him always. Everyone is in on a secret and, thus, allows no harm to come to the mouse. They keep him on their chosen path and prevent any and all goings astray. Why? No spoilers here. They just do.

And its that cloistering the smallest individual from independence that makes me wonder how young readers respond to this book. Their entire lives resemble a sort of Truman Show. Always watched and passed from one to the next adult sentinel. They follow a predetermined script. Do they resonate with the nameless mouse or do they wish he’d rebel, elude his keepers and truly strike out on his own, as Truman does.

Which leads us back to the opening prompt: imagine a children’s book that combines The Truman Show with The Tale of Desperaux for it is one worth writing.