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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The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination

Mad-Scientist-Cvr_091312Black Friday shopping? What could be better than a guide to world domination!? A perfect gift for the evil or ethically shady scientist and/or science fiction fan in your social circles.

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius. John Joseph Adams, Ed. New York: Tor, 2013. MP3.

Genre: Anthology, science fiction

Summary: A collection of 22 positively witty and wicked short stories from a slew of talented authors including Harry Turtledove, Diana Gabaldon, Carrie Vaughn, and Austin Grossman, to name only a few.

Critique: Throughout the collection, stories explore an intriguing hypothetical to its inevitably surprising conclusion.

What if your girlfriend discovers and breaches your your super-secret underground evil genius laboratory? Do you forgive the violation of your private space and adult autonomy (not to mention countless passwords) or do you seal her up and doom her to a cruel atomic death?

What if you are the success coach and motivational speaker to some of the world’s worst bad guys? You know, the really inept ones who just can’t get their evil sh*t together and make a decent headline? Do you suffer under a crummy 15% commission for those rarely successful heists or do you steal every trick of the trade and turn yourself into the Mother of All Things Evil?

Or, what if you’re the personal assistant to a super evil genius who totally neglects to appreciate all that you do while the superhero’s personal assistant gets flowers on her birthday and regular salary increases? Would you sell out your boss and botch his next evil plan to take over the world?

Count on each story to take a fresh approach to modern villainy. Depend upon your heartstrings getting plucked and your thoughtomaton brain to purr with rumination more than once as tough interpersonal and ethical issues are dealt out and duked over. Most especially, expect to laugh out loud a lot!

For best results: read (or listen) to this book in a crowded public place!

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae

Warning: this book may induce wild dancing and self-acceptance!

Andreae, Giles. Giraffes Can’t Dance. Illus. Guy Parker-Rees. New York: Orchard Books, 1999. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: Gerald the giraffe wants to be like all the other animals and join the jungle dance, but his long legs make him too clumsy.

Critique: The illustrations are bright, colorful, and energetic. Parker-Rees makes the difficult seem easy by depicting a giraffe in graceful pirouettes, assertive disco spears, and acrobatic back flips!

Caution to parents or librarians reading this book aloud: the rhythm of Andreae’s rhyming text is likely to spur dancing.

Thematically, the text seems spot on, imparting to readers that you can’t dance to the beat of other creature’s drums. The best tune is the one already inside you. In other words, the real you is already inside and all you have to do is let it out.

I doubt Thich Nhat Hahn could argue with that!

Happy With Me by Leo Timmers

A comic strip artist employs a clever visual tactic to establish the perfect bedtime reading pace.

Timmers, Leo. Happy with Me. Los Angeles, CA: Smallfellow Press, 2002. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A wistful boy spends his bedtime fantasizing about being other animals. Elephants, penguins, octopi—each creature leads readers off on whimsical and silly adventures as the boy weighs the pros and cons of each transformation. Being big vs squashing everything. Swimming lots vs icy waters. Multitasking vs tangled arms.

Critique: Although the text is not written to rhyme, Timmers employs plenty of alliteration and consonance. As a result, the texture is soft, delicate, tender—perfect for bedtime reading.

The Belgian comic strip artist also employs a unique visual strategy, placing a small picture snippet beneath the text. This circle captures some small tidbit of the illustration on the neighboring page. It functions much like a periscope or porthole—a little window providing a limited view. Readers are invited to linger on each spread, spending extra moments locating exactly what the “periscope” sees. What a perfect pace for sleepy time storytelling!

Best of all, Timmers concludes his story with a very clever, very evocative image of the boy setting off to face a new day and a trail of feathers spilling from his pajamas. Readers rest easy knowing, at their core, they really are whatever they long to be.

Spoon by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

This book invites the imagination to scoop more out of the world building.

Rosenthal, Amy Krouse. Spoon. Illus. Scott Magoon. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.

Genre: picture book

Summary: A young spoon wishes he could do some of the cool tasks other utensils tackle. Cut bread like knives. Lasso spaghetti like forks. Tweeze sushi like chopsticks. Meanwhile, all the other utensils admire little Spoon and all the amazing meals he dives into!

Critique: Magoon’s illustrations are straightforward in their approach to anthropomorphizing kitchen utensils. Step one: draw a utensil. Step two: draw lines for arms, hands, legs, feet, and faces. Luckily, the world building is much more creative. Particularly giggle-worthy is the full spread depicting Spoon’s entire family—sooo many spoons cleverly assembled, representing diversity in age, gender, and culture!

Rosenthal’s text is likewise straightforward as it ladles out Spoon’s experiences. What struck me most was how Spoon never gets the scoop on how the entire utensil community admires him as much as he does them. In some ways, that is an important life lesson. Be happy with what you are regardless of whether or not other beings approve or disapprove (…unless you are a budding Jeffrey Dahmer or a Bernie Madoff…).

When Spoon’s existential distress keeps him up at night, his loving parents invite him to bed to…er…spoon. Which, when you consider from a world building point of view is kinda weird. Imagine having your son Wilber come to bed to, well, wilber with you.

Ultimately, the story seems to have sprung exclusively from that one spread: a distressed spoon spoons other spoons! awwww! Usually, stories are constructed so the end justifies the means, but this one attempts to the work the equation in the opposite direction. The resulting narrative feels a tad measured, maybe even strained, but not well rounded.