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East First Street in South Boston on Monday morning (my studio is on the right)


Ice lace on my studio wall

The highlight of that infamous genre, The Christmas Letter (which is, let’s face it, a mixed bag) for me is the yearly book recommendations that arrive from my long time friends Mary Pat and Michael. Both are intelligent and thoughtful readers, and their recommendations provide a reliable compass for my book stack. (Michael is a professor of literature at College of New Jersey and author of Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples, and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature.

Here are their recommendations from 2010. And with a storm like the one we have had here in Boston, curling up with a great book is the most appropriate response. These all sound delicious to me.

Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Okay, so we’re a little late in our discovery of this novel, which was published in 1974. But it’s the most powerful book we’ve read in years. The Dispossessed is science fiction, but that’s like saying Moby-Dick is a fishing book. This novel set on an earth-like planet and its moon is as profound a meditation on democracy as the Declaration of Independence; it’s about the challenges of building a more just and equal society. Plus, it’s a terrific read, with spaceships and aliens and sex.

David Malouf, Ransom

You may remember the episode in The Iliad when Priam leaves Troy at night, steals into the Greek camp, and begs Achilles for his son Hector’s body. Out of these few lines from Homer, Malouf, an Australian poet, has spun a brief, beautiful, perfect book.

Ian McEwan, Solar

Michael Beard, the protagonist of this new novel by one of our favorite writers, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a complete scoundrel. Reading about his downfall, we kept laughing out loud. We bet that you will too.

Lynn Powell, Framing Innocence: A Mother’s Photographs, a Prosecutor’s Zeal, and a Small Town’s Response

Powell, a prize-winning poet, lives in the college town of Oberlin, Ohio. Ten years ago, her friend and neighbor Cynthia Stewart was led out of the house in handcuffs, charged with child pornography for having taking pictures of her daughter in the bathtub. This terrific legal thriller is both scary (there’s a this-could-happen-to-anybody feel to the story) and uplifting (the community’s defense of Cynthia, a much-loved schoolbus driver, is very moving). This year’s if-you-read-only-one-book pick.

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

The latest novel by this brilliant satirist is set in the dystopian near future, in a New York City filled with the callous rich and the desperate poor, a world of casual sex and shallow connections, where young people obsessively check their mobile devices instead of actually, like, talking with one another. Witty and deeply disturbing.

And as a postscript: Michael emailed me the following addition to his list which I include here as well:

Since writing them, Mary Pat and I have discovered our new Favorite Author: David Mitchell. I’ve only read Cloud Atlas, which is generally held to be his masterpiece. It’s simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I have to get Number Nine Dream, and I want to listen to his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, on CD. Mary Pat is currently reading Black Swan Green, which she says is terrific; as soon as she’s done, I’ll begin it.

Wise beyond her years, my friend Nicole wrote these words to me today:

Loving people is impossible. We shine our weakly powered headlamps into the jungles of each other and the light never seems to penetrate to the heart as we desire. It just can not get there. I suppose that’s the wisdom of praying to be lit from within.

Lit from within. This image has been with me all morning. In the midst of a frigid January (Accuweather predicts that the “Real Feel” in Brookline tonight—which I hope to miss altogether by being safely in bed next to the warm body of my favorite squeeze—will be -26) I am also struck by what it means to be in a winter phase of one’s life. Hibernative. Internal. Slowed down. The appearance of nothing happening.

But the “appearance of nothing happening” is not the complete picture. I reread this passage from Ralph Blum’s The Book of Runes—his description for casting Isa—the rune of standstill, “that which impedes”, ice. Maybe some of his words will speak to you as well:

The winter of the spiritual life is upon you. You may find yourself entangled in a situation to whose implications you are, in effect, blind. You may be powerless to do anything except submit, surrender, even sacrifice some long-cherished desire. Be patient, for this is the period of gestation that precedes a rebirth.

Positive accomplishment is unlikely now. There is a freeze on useful activity, all your plans are on hold. You may be experiencing an unaccustomed drain on your energy and wonder why: A chill wind is reaching you over the ice floes of old outmoded habits.

Trying to hold on can result in shallowness of feeling, a sense of being out of touch with life. Seek to discover what it is you are holding onto that keeps this condition in effect, and let go. Shed, release, cleanse away the old. That will bring on the thaw.

Usually Isa requires a sacrifice of the personal, the “I”. And yet there is no reason for anxiety. Submit and be still, for what you are experiencing is not necessarily the result of your actions or habits, but of the conditions of the time against which you can do nothing. What has been full must empty; what has increased must decrease. This is the way of Heaven and Earth. To surrender is to display courage and wisdom.

At such a time, do not hope to rely on help or friendly support. In your isolation exercise caution and do not stubbornly persist in attempting to work your will. Remain mindful that the seed of the new is present in the shell of the old, the seed of unrealized potential, the seed of the good. Trust your own process, and watch for signs of spring.

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Isa

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Spring Thaw in South Hadley

Old snows locked under glass
by last night’s ice storm left
curatorial Winter, in
whose hands alone we’d hope
to find the keys,
jangling them in the trees—.

not merely in these pine
needles by the fistful
gloved in crystal, but,
from their boughs, the self-
invented digits of
icicles addressed

(in a manner reminiscent
of the insubstantial
finger of a sundial)
less to a point in space
than effectively to Time,
the frozen moment.

By noon, the ice as thin
as an eggshell veined to show
life seeping yellow,
one’s boots sink in
with a snap; the sap
underrunning everything

may be nothing but water, yet
there’s a sacramental
joy in how, converting
to its liquid state,
it’s anything but gentle.
A crash from Abbey Chapel—

who cut the string
that sent the white sheets falling?
Nothing but the long
scissors of the sun
unwraps such thunder. Even
a modest A-frame

in a muffled instant sheds
its wrinkling roofs of snow:
black butterfly below.
As if to make
one more clean break above,
the sky—seconds ago

one continent of cloud—
follows the drift of Spring,
splits and refits like Ming
porcelain. The plate
tectonics alternate:
white and blue, blue and white.

–Mary Jo Salter

This poem is a worthy paen to the power of weather systems, appropriately posted right before I head back to the warmer clime of San Francisco for a few days. I’m hungry for that sound of spring breaking through that I hear, crystalline, in this poem. The éclat of the changing from winter to warmth.

I am also moved by many of Salter’s phrases, like “curatorial Winter,” “a sacramental/joy in how, converting/to its liquid state,/it’s anything but gentle,” “Nothing but the long/scissors of the sun/unwraps such thunder.”

(Salter and her poetry resurfaced for me after reading a review of her latest volume, A Phone Call to the Future, in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday. An excerpt of that review is posted on Slow Painting.)

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Brookline Massachusetts, December 14th

amoryw.jpg
View from my front door

Yesterday was the first snowstorm of this winter season. I love the quality of the light, the way the sound of a city changes, the disruption of life, the patterns of tires and feet, the way a neighborhood becomes unfamiliar and redefined, how everything is conjoined in a commonality.

Snowstorms remind me why I felt comfortable leaving my childhood home in California to spend my adult life on the East Coast. Snow is a powerful reminder of our wee human role in the grand scope of things. Nature speaks, and the only sensible response is to go inside and relish the simple gifts of a roof and warmth. It also alludes to one of my favorite themes in mythology, that small things can change everything. In the Sumerian story of Queen Inanna, she is saved from her imprisonment in hell by fingernail clippings. Because they are small and insignificant, they can get past the gates of Hell unnoticed and return her to her earthly throne. Once again, a billion tiny flakes of frozen water can stop the flow of life for millions of people. To quote one of my favorite bloggers, Will Owen of Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye, humility is a very complex virtue.

There are two poems I love on days like this. The Stevens poem is probably the most famous short poem (and only one sentence) in the English language. Even memorized, I marvel at its complexity. The poem by Strand is simple but profound. Enjoy.

The Snowman

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

–Wallace Stevens

Snowfall

Watching snow cover the ground, cover itself,
cover everything that is not you, you see
it is the downward drift of light
upon the sound of air sweeping away the air,
it is the fall of moments into moments, the burial
of sleep, the down of winter, the negative of night.

–Mark Strand