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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Journey by Starlight by Ian Flitcroft

With the holidays fast approaching, I’ll spend several posts sharing my top gift picks, fics, nonfics, and everything in between to titillate the book lovers, knowledge hunters, and idea crafters in your life.

Flitcroft, Ian. Journey by Starlight: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Illus. Britt Spencer. Long Island City, NY: One Piece Books, 2013. Print.

Genre: nonfiction graphic novel

Summary: Super-genius extraordinaire, Albert Einstein ushers the curious and the confused on a revelatory journey through the universe. Along the way he clears up those oft-pesky matters such as relativity, quantum mechanics, gravity, black holes, dark matter and anything else you likely forgot (or never learned) in school.

Critique: When I was in high school and college, I roamed feral with the artsy crowds. Creative types who could not tell an ion from an isotope. After a brutal public shaming in an algebra class, I avoided the deepest halls of science. Now, because the universe is a strange, through-the-looking-glass place, I work as a children’s writer focused mostly on…science.

Consequently, I am always on the watch for good resources. I falcon anything that illuminates, explains, and entertains. Swoop! Snatch! Mine!

I came across this book while researching the nuclear arms race. I intended to read only the parts related to my own project, but eagerly devoured the whole text, cover-to-cover. The graphic novel format welcomed me into the very halls I had previously skirted.

Technically, this book should be classified as nonfiction-ish. Of course Albert Einstein did not really serve as a science tour guide á la Neil deGrasse Tyson (but wouldn’t it have been nifty if he had?). Nonetheless, readers will allow the narrative conceit not only because the Einstein character Britt Spencer illustrates is so charming and funny, but also because the information presented is so engaging and clear. Credit for this feature goes to Dr. Ian Flitcroft who developed much of the books’ content on a popular blog by the same name.

By day, Flitcroft operated as a surgeon at a children’s hospital in Ireland. By night, he wrote. His knack for addressing young people shines in a style that is witty, trustworthy, and disarming. The terminology never meanders into jargon. He erodes complexities down to digestible fundamentals. He pokes fun, snarks, and teases.

I learned volumes from this book and have repeatedly returned to it as a quick and easy reference.  If you know a young person who is either an avid or a timid science fan, gift them this book. It will open doors that ought not ever close.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Traveling at speeds upwards of 80 mph, across one and a quarter states over 400 miles in a day, I was on a mission and the Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York was coming with me!

Tyson, Neil deGrasse. Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2017. MP3.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Acting in part as a poet and as a five-star chef, Neil deGrasse Tyson serves up a condensed yet comprehensive portion of the incredibly dense and complex world of astrophysics.

Critique: I am no chef and, therefore, feel no obligation to serve my readers any kind of compliment sandwich. I must kick off this critique with my most salient complaint: this book was too short! I nabbed the CD version from the library, fed a disc to my car, then hit the road. It was only after the first disc concluded and I scavenged the passenger seat for the next that I realized I was already 1/3 of the way through the book.

Three discs. That’s it. Maybe 45 tracks in total. With over 300 miles to travel — to say nothing of the long drive back home!

But in those three discs, Mr. Tyson…er eh…Mr. deGrasse…urm…The-One-And-Only-Neil serves up an entire smorgasbord of rich and enticing information. His overview of the origins and ongoing goals of astrophysics is devastatingly concise. Get me talking about the field I love (writing/literature) and I’ll ramble on for days. Sheesh!

He also runs through all the startling, innovative ways scientists have learned/are still learning to do more than simply “see” the universe. How they managed to touch it, taste it, hear it, and yes, smell it without ever physically leaving the confines of Earth.

Most importantly, with his characteristic passion, Neil maps out the elements composing every human body and discloses their origins: straight from the blazing hearts of stars. That’s right. We all come from the intrepid fires that illuminate a mysterious, possibly limitless and multiversed cosmos — an ideal torch to light our way through the tragic shadows cast by Charlottesville’s recent banner headlines.

N-fomaniacs

(Migrated post. Content originally appeared 10/2013 on jennifermichellemason.blogspot.com.)

Now that I’m finally done with the whole “I’m-gonna-do-two-Masters-degrees-in-two-countries” thing, I have time to read all the really juicy books on my must-read list. All the ones that stacked up as research reading and critical reading had to get done. All the ones that beckoned to me from bookstore and library shelves.

Read us! You know you’d much rather read us than Ball’s theories on mise-en-abyme, or Ron’s counterarguments on embedded narratives.

Well, those siren books weren’t wrong. And now I am indulging. Mostly in nonfiction.

charles-and-emma3

I just got through Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City and (for a second time) Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith.

I think for the purposes of this discussion, we can forget that these books were written for two different audiences. Heiligman crafted her work for young adults while Larson was targeting adults (historically knowledgeable adults, at that).

On the most basic levels, both books are simply creative nonfiction — that is to say, nonfiction crafted to read like a fiction novel. Unlike textbooks, which present researched facts assembled from various primary sources iDWCityn a dry and unbiased tone, creative nonfiction seeks to render mood, tension, and stakes out of its sources so that facts come alive and the story electrifies the reader!

To do that, creative nonfiction writers are sworn to never make anything up. If they deploy descriptions of settings loaded with descriptive adjectives, then by golly, those adjectives had better come from actual sources and not the imaginative warehouse of the writer’s brain.

Both authors can be trusted to present only factual details; however, both authors do not exert the same pressures on those details to make them relevant, startling, surprising, and compelling. In other words, one book suffocated under the weight of its factoids. It choked on its own research, failing to properly cut the information into bite-size, digestible bits. The author fell victim to research and became a festering, throbbing, unrelenting n-infomaniac.

And I am sympathetic. With more than a decade of research and nonfiction writing under my belt, I can attest to the seductive lure of information. The more you find, the more you crave. Uncover one lost, but juicy tidbit, and that’s all it takes to set the writer off in pursuit of more tender fact morsels.

devil-details

Artwork by Molly Crabapple.

But the devil is in the details.

And Heiligman faces the devil down. She executes her story with more restraint. Undoubtedly, her research churned up countless gems of unknown secrets lost to time and obscurity. Did she share them all? Nope. Share shared only what the reader needed to understand and love the personal story of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma.

Heiligman strikes a comfortable balance between her sources and her story. She relies heavily on the personal correspondance of Charles and Emma Darwin, but she puts these letters to work in a storycrafting sense. Quotes from letters come alive as if they were dialogue being spoken. She achieves banter and repartee. Other times, Heiligman pulls out notes from Charles Darwin’s notebooks. These she uses like thoughts he is having, in media res.

And in every chapter, Heiligman establishes stakes. In one chapter, Charles privately debates on a sheet of paper whether or not to get married. Why should that matter? Oh, no reason — except that to not get married would mean a lonely lifetime in a grimy London apartment, while to get married might keep him from pursuing research that will eventually upend the foundations of science into the foreseeable future.

No biggie.

Larson, on the other hand, sets out with a provocative hook: compare the builder of the 1893 World’s Fair to the psychopathic serial killer who murdered many of the fair goers. Essentially, the dust jacket would have you believe that Larson was going to compare a man who built a fantasy-land (Daniel Burnham) with another man who constructed a hotel-of-horror (H.H. Holmes).

Like Heiligman, Larson attempts to have personal correspondence masquerade as dialogue and live-action thought. In reality, the book flounders under a menagerie of alternating viewpoints. Chapters flip between Burnham, Burnham’s partner, other World’s Fair designers, Holmes, the then-mayor of Chicago, one of the mayor’s staffers, to a quack-nut named Prendergrast (who will go on to assassinate the mayor), a police officer, and on and on the list goes. The effect is like an ensemble-cast Love Actually filmed with an attention deficite camera that keeps wandering away from the Emma Thompson’s and Colin Firth’s to follow up with the blurry extras in the background.

And because of the text’s wayward narrative lens, Larson is not able to sustain the ominous mood and skin-rippling suspense one expects from a book involving psychopathic torture alongside monumental architectural achievement. (Okay, maybe I’m the only one with those expectations…) The slow-yet-sudden pattern of revelation throughout the book winds up feeling like a Hitchcock movie where the director teases viewers with a slow pan up into a box of macabre delight only to suddenly kick the box over and spill all of its sinister secrets.

information-overload-on-the-internet-5-23-121In the end, the lesson for writers and storycrafters: avoid temptation and descend not into the murky depths of n-infomania!