The Devil and Mrs. Bradley

I started Gladys Mitchell’s The Devil at Saxon Wall today. The opening chapters, about a timid young woman who marries a strange man on impulse and then begins to suspect that her new husband is using witchcraft on her, are really creepy and effective. I hit the end of my e-reader sample chapters and was all, “I CAN’T. I have to find out what will happen to this poor girl.”

Mitchell was a contemporary of Golden Age mystery writers like Sayers and Christie, but if you know her protagonist Mrs. Bradley today, it’s probably from the British television adaptation starring a very glam Diana Riggs as Bradley. The novels are much darker than the series and Mrs. Bradley is usually described as “reptilian,” rather than elegant. That’s one of the things I enjoy about period novels–characters are sometimes less likable than contemporary mystery protagonists and you read them in frustration and amusement rather than identification (this is a very fancy way of saying I find Nero Wolfe obnoxiously endearing!).  It looks like the Mrs. Bradley ebooks have been recently re-issued, since all I could find were used copies when I looked for them after watching one episode of the series on Netflix sometime last year.

 

 

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A fun discovery

Have you read anything from UC-Berkeley’s “Greater Good” center? Among their “core themes” of research and writing is happiness, as well as mindfulness and altruism. Explore here. Want something else fun to do this weekend? Take Keri Smith’s advice in the amazing How to Be An Explorer of the World  and uncover a mystery:

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Quote of the Day

“One lives in the naïve notion that later there will be more room than in the entire past.”
—Elias Canetti, The Human Province

*From Gretchen Rubin’s Happier At Home, which has an *incredible* appendix of happiness readings (I take back everything I said in the last post about Rubin being more Type-A than me, for her happiness resources alone!) which have me searching my library catalog for fun books and contemplating more book buying.

Happy New Year!

I’m having a relaxing New Year’s Eve, reading and listening to jazz. I have some yoga penciled in, too. What are your plans?

What I’m reading today:

Need an escape from the Mondays?

  • My Daily Muse column for New Year’s Eve, “What to Read on the Subway,” is a virtual vacation to Paris! Check out some of my favorite books and podcasts, like Amy Thomas’ Paris, My Sweet. 

Celebrating Fall: A List

The weather has been beautiful this week. The semester has started in earnest, so I’m back on-campus in the sunshine. I feel a little wistful because I’m not taking any classes–if money were no object, I’d take more art history, honestly. The department offers Egyptian art now!–but I’m using the free time to do more freelance work, paint, and read. Some fun things worth mentioning:

  • I got very brave and entered a local artists exhibition on campus. Very casual stuff, but I’m hoping I’ll be accepted. Fingers crossed!
  • Tutoring is off to a fantastic start this semester–my new tutoring coworkers are wonderful.
  • YD has a great post on meditation.
  • I really recommend Keri Smith’s How to Be An Explorer of the World. I caved & bought it, after talking about it a few posts ago. It has dozens of wonderful exercises for art and writing projects. In Smith’s words, “Anything can be a starting place. Begin where you are.” Yogic, right?
  • Also fun: Vivian Swift’s When Wanderers Cease to Roam. I received it as a Christmas gift and just started reading it recently. Swift, an artist & writer, traveled the world in her youth with the Peace Corps & has now settled down on Long Island Sound. Part memoir, part graphic novel, When Wanders Cease to Roam is organized by month and contains Swift’s memories of interesting things in her life and quirky daily observations. She does fantastic watercolor and line drawings. You can see an excerpt here on NPR’s website.
  • In a similar vein, this review over at Bill & Dave’s Cocktail Hour has me tempted to–what else?–buy more books! Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life sounds like an interesting project. {I’m diagnosing myself with “Sudden-Onset Book Lemming Disorder,” ladies & gentlemen.} Actually, I think Smith, Rosenthal, & Swift’s books could form the reading for a really fun elective on writing and craft–the intersections of memoir, everyday life, and craft projects. How cool would that be? I could envision students making their own art/memoir journals.
  • Just saw this post on Mason Jar Cakes from Niki Lowry at The Daily Muse. I’m a little klutzy at baking, but these are SO adorable. Mason jars are nifty; I saw a DIY project that repurposed them as  painted pendant lights recently too. My inner southern girl hearts mason jars.

Yoga Miscellanea

Miscellanea is a word, right? It’s one of those that seems made-up, I think. Some things I’ve been doing lately that fall under the general category of yogic hodge-podge:

    • I’ve just finished reading Lucy O’Brien’s Madonna: Like An Icon. That might not sound overly-yogic, but O’Brien looks at Madonna’s self-invention and influences, including yoga and eastern culture. It’s a solid biography because O’Brien, while sympathetic, isn’t afraid to reveal the inconsistencies in Madonna’s behavior. What’s interesting to me is how much Madonna typifies “complex personhood,” Avery F. Gordon’s description of how human beings will do things that contradict their stated intentions or seem counter-initutive. In Madonna’s case that means embracing yoga and mysticism, but also marrying the ultra-macho Guy Ritchie and subsequently taking on the very un-mystical and un-yogic persona of an English aristocrat and remaining a competitive businesswoman (among many other examples). But Madonna’s reasons for taking up yoga—at least according to O’Brien—leading to her  Ray of Light album are actually fairly relatable. O’Brien describes her as frazzled, frustrated by the reception of her previous work, tired of her current lifestyle, and looking for something settled and meaningful. Those are the same reason many women (and men) are drawn to yoga, even if they aren’t pop icons. The difference between Madonna and the rest of us seems to be the degree to  which she revamps her life in response to her frustrations–like Jane Fonda, another Hollywood icon of transformation–she seems deeply mutable. O’Brien pegs this as a sign of Madonna’s deep-seated insecurity stemming from her childhood, claims that are hard to dispute.
    • I’ve also been reading Christina Sell’s My Body is a Temple, which acts as a kind of meditation-slash-workbook for questions of wholeness, body image, and goals. While I’m not really a guru-oriented person like Sell seems to be {read: I don’t have a spiritual advisor or guru}, I think the questions she raises at the end of each section are fantastic what-if exercises that can help you, if you’re trying to figure out where you are in your beliefs, practices, and goals. Sell talks about her own struggles with body image, eating disorder, and how difficult it can be to remain consistent with your goals. She argues that sometimes you just aren’t ready until you’re ready–seeing it as a spiritual process–and that willpower alone sometimes isn’t enough, if you’re struggling with addiction. I haven’t finished the book yet, and will probably write more about the exercises later.
    • Rosie Molinary is doing a series of free exercises in August for her Shine program and Mara Glatzel (of Medicinal Marzipan fame) has retooled her website.
    • In my free time, I’ve been thinking about crafts, jewelry, and adornment. I have a PBS documentary from the library on body art that I want to watch this weekend that talks about tattoos on a spectrum of bodily art and adornment. I’m not quite brave enough for a tattoo {yet–maybe one day!}, but I do love jewelry. I made this little craft bracelet myself: 
    • I’ve also been writing a lot this month and listening to Krishna Das on Pandora. I’m particularly drawn to Om Namah Shivaya. I don’t know why it appeals to me more than other kirtan songs and mantras, but it does.

Nora Ephron has died

The Washington Post is reporting that Nora Ephron has died. I love Nora Ephron. I love When Harry Met Sally  and You’ve Got Mail. I love that she referenced Jane Austen and Julia Child’s memoirs in her books and movies, but also I love that she wrote about Bill Clinton, the popularity of the pepper grinder, and blonde highlights. I could read I Feel Bad About My Neck or I Remember Nothing  over and over. I even quoted her essay “On Maintenance” in my MFA thesis: “Where haircolor is concerned, being blonde is practically a career.”

You’ve Got Mail

My favorite Ephron essay might be “On Rapture,” from I Feel Bad About My Neck, originally published on Oprah.com. This is exactly how I feel about books.

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a deep-sea diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I resurface from a book. The book I’m currently resurfacing from—the one I mentioned at the beginning of this piece—is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. It’s about two men who create comic book characters—but it’s also about how artists create magical things from the events of everyday life…. I was almost dazed by the playfulness of the author and his ability to do something that has such a high degree of difficulty with such apparent ease. Chabon’s novel takes place in New York City in the 1940s, and though I finished reading it more than a week ago, I’m still there. I’m smoking Camels, and Salvador Dali is at a party in the next room. Eventually, I’ll have to start breathing the air in New York in 2002 again, but on the other hand, perhaps I won’t have to. I’ll find another book I love and disappear into it. Wish me luck.

Read more here.

The world is a little bit less wonderful in her absence.

PS: I love her parents’ writing, too; Henry & Phoebe Ephron wrote Desk Set, the Hepburn-Tracy film about corporate librarians. It’s lovely.

Body image & “The Triple Bind”

I have a new essay about going braless up at the body image website Adios Barbie. I confess: it is  slightly anxiety-inducing to talk about your body on the Internet. I’m taking deep breaths right now. Still, I wrote the essay because I think Susan Bordo’s work in Unbearable Weight is important and deserves to be grounded in lived experience and shared with others.

Also on my radar this week is psychologist Stephen Hinshaw’s The Triple Bind: Saving Our Teenage Girls from Today’s Pressures. Hinshaw argues that young women today are trapped in a set of competing pressures that are impossible to negotiate. Compellingly, he describes those binds: “Today’s girl know she’s supposed to fulfill all the ‘traditional’ girl expectations–look pretty, be nice, get a boyfriend–while excelling at the “girl skills” of empathy, cooperation, and relationship building” but  a “successful girl must also master [traditional] boy skills of assertion”  by getting straight-As, excelling in sports, and aiming for a top-flight career, all the while being “effortlessly” sexy and thin. Here’s a FORA talk he gave surrounding the book’s publication.

For anyone interested in these issues, I highly recommend The Triple Bind. I have to give more thought to Hinshaw’s work and what potential strategies young women can use to escape all these pressures. I suspect yoga may offer some alternatives ways of thinking about womanhood, body image, and competition, but I’m still thinking.

Namaste,
Hope

5 Things You Should Read About Yoga

So, there are many, many books about yoga in the world. But let’s say you don’t really want a yoga how-to manual, but a memoir or something more personal? These 5 books are for you. They range from spiritual to slapstick in tone, but all are about women who find something important in yoga.

1. Curvy Voices, the collection of personal essays gathered by Anna Guest-Jelley of Curvy Yoga.

You can download it for free here. These 30+ essays from real women describing how they came to yoga and their relationship with yoga practice is diverse, fascinating, and often funny. My favorite might be Noel Rozny’s “The Revolution Started with Yoga Pants.” But don’t miss essays by Mara Glatzel–of Medicinal Marzipan fame–or Melanie Klein’s fantastic “Feminism, Yoga & Body Image.”

2. Donna Farhi’s Bringing Yoga to Life: the Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living.

Farhi is a beautiful writer, exploring the potential of yoga practice to transform your thinking. A quote from her website: “When we realize that what we are advancing toward is not some physical form but an inward recognition of the truth of who we are, then we will not feel ourselves to be failing if we cannot attain difficult postures. “Advance” practice is any movement that brings us closer to this recognition of our true self.”

3. Kimberly Wilson’s Hip Tranquil Chick: A Guide to Life On and Off the Yoga Mat. 

Wilson’s style is breezy and fun; she’s the yoga writer for you if you also enjoy crafting, fashion, and style. The book contains several different sequences, which are playfully illustrated and full of Wilson’s anecdotes about how she left behind a legal job to teach yoga. Since I heart pink, I love this one and Wilson’s follow-up, Tranquilista, about creating a yoga-influenced work/life balance.

4. Lucy Edge’s Yoga School Dropout: A Hilarious, Hapless, and Desperate Quest for Mystic Indians and Tantric Bliss.  

Edge is sort of the Bridget Jones of yoga writing. An advertising professional, she decides to ditch her busy London life and go to an Indian ashram, ill-prepared for the culture shock, demanding regimen, or the ‘serious’ yoga practitioners she meets along the way. I thought she was incredibly funny, but if you can’t laugh at yourself, she may not be for you.

5. Claire Dederer’s Poser: A Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses.
Dederer’s writing, centered on her yoga practice and years of being a stay-at-home mom, will appeal to other yoga moms, particularly those who are frustrated with ‘serene motherhood’ stereotypes. Like Edge, she’s sarcastic and pokes fun at some of the seriousness of yoga culture.

On the Bookshelf: Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Revision

I’ve been thinking a lot about outlining and the writing process this week, since I re-read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a fantastic guide to non-fiction writing. Zinsser is a proponent of editing and revising for clarity. He actually provides examples of un-edited and edited text, making the book a great choice for visual learners. One of my favorite Zinsser techniques is Socratic:

“The writer must therefore constantly ask himself: What am I trying to say? Surprisingly often, he doesn’t know. Then he must look at what he has written and ask: Have I said it? Is it clear to someone encountering the subject for the first time? If it’s not, it is because some fuzz has worked its way into the machinery. The clear writer is a person clear-headed enough to see this stuff for what it is: fuzz.

I don’t mean that some people are born clear-headed and are therefore natural writers, whereas others are naturally fuzzy and will never write well. Thinking clearly is a conscious act that the writer must force upon himself, just as if he were embarking on any other project that requires logic: adding up a laundry list or doing an algebra problem. Good writing doesn’t come naturally, though most people obviously think it does… Good writing takes self-discipline and, very often, self-knowledge…”

 In my everyday life as a writing tutor, I ask students these kinds of questions constantly. When I begin a one-on-one tutoring session, I ask my tutee what they are most concerned about. Often, they’re worried about grammar, conclusion-writing, and “flow.” In the tutoring universe, “flow” is usually organization by another name. Students–like many aspiring authors, I’d imagine–are freaked out by organization. It’s big and scary and complicated. They don’t even want to go there. Flowbecomes the easier way to talk about organization.After talking about big concerns, I’ll ask the student to read their essay aloud or alternate reading paragraphs aloud with me. That helps identify little things–typos and shifting verb tenses–that the writer will have missed while writing. It’s really easy to miss many things, especially if you don’t use outlines to give yourself structure as you work. Usually, then I have a discussion with the writer about their goals for the essay and how to respond to the prompt, their ideas, and the current draft. Sometimes that means addressing something in the prompt they haven’t covered, or  it means switching paragraphs around. Every session is as unique as the work. My goal is to look at the work with new eyes–or beginner’s mind, for the yogis. That way, I help the students see their writing with new eyes.
More and more, I think revision ought to be praised, not treated as drudgery. Like Zinsser, I think those who write sans planning will need to go over their work closely for clarity. Especially asking themselves if all the paragraphs and sections make sense and are coherently organized–possibly even if the sentences transition well from one to another. Often, lack of a plan means that the writing has big holes in it, where the writer hasn’t conveyed all the information inside their heads. Maybe I could call that the “Swiss Chesese Syndrome”? Sound good?
Many people resist revision and end up with fuzzy machinery–I’m just as guilty as anyone else. A few years ago, I wrote something for workshop and failed to edit it clearly before turning it in. To my horror, I realized at the end of the workshop that I’d committed  a Freudian slip that ruined the  piece.I was telling a personal story about discovering that my grandmother had once misled me about something in the Bible. I was in elementary school and she was then opposed, as the Baptists say, to ‘the beverage use of alcohol,’ and told me that it was because “Jesus turned the wine into water at a wedding.” Only years later did I discover the Bible was the other way ’round–by seeing a ‘water-into-wine’ fountain in a circular!  Great story, right? Except, in writing this story down for workshop, I’d transcribed it correctly–Biblically, anyway– as “water-into-wine,” said Grandma. Whoops!
It would have been no big deal if I’d been a better editor of my work at the time and have caught it before workshop—but I wasn’t. So, let my mistake be a lesson to you: practice revision. Some useful steps:

  1. Read your work aloud. Adjust your word choices for voice & aim for a natural, pleasing sound. Eliminate repetitiveness.
  2. Check for typos and ‘water into wine’ moments.
  3. Outline your own essay. Does it include what you want it to include, per Zinsser?
  4. Can you explain the thesis or story in one sentence? I used to hate it when people asked me this question, but in retrospect, those were my fuzzy-thinking-writing moments.