Posts Tagged ‘Books’

I am thoroughly enjoying reading Jodie Picoult’s “Handle With Care”. I haven’t finished reading it yet so this is not a book review … And I shouldn’t say this, but after having read three quarters of it, I think it might be her best yet.  Picoult chooses some meaty subjects to write about but sometimes there seems to be something lacking, perhaps in character development, or something contrived. This time she’s seems to have nailed the complexity of  the issue, and the characters are real.

What’s bothering me is the metaphor Picoult uses to suggest that we grow in adversity.  One of her central characters is a baker and baking metaphors are used to introduce each new section of the story.  To paraphrase, a baker punches down the dough between proofing.  ” … in baking, and in life – the cost of growth is always a small act of violence.”

I prefer to compare growing in adversity with the forging of steel. It requires great heat. The imagery of fire and a forge implies sweat, hard work and hammering, but also suggests passion, determination and perseverance.

Punching dough suggests bruising and caving in. Bread suggests something light and airy.

Perhaps we are meant to think that this character is on the brink of giving in, but has the inner strength to carry on, that the cost of being able to persevere is a feeling of being battered and bruised and broken.

Growth should come with a feeling of triumph and victory.  Punching dough implies defeat, giving in, being moulded by someone else. We grow in adversity; the cost may be pain, hurt, struggle, humiliation, but we forge our victories, we transform ourselves under stress. Growing in adversity is the forging of steel.


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Years ago I discovered a world where art intersects with words. Two of my passions gave birth to a third passion, calligraphy. I call my version of calligraphy letter art, where there are no rules or limits to what can be created. I might feel like doing a water colour wash then add letters and words in one or more media applied with any sort of tool, from brush, nib, stick, card or finger. Or I might start by drawing letters in rubber then wash over the top, peeling off the rubber to reveal a message.

"Letter Art" in watercolour wash

Once, when I was at a party I became animated about how much I enjoy this. The next moment is etched in my memory. Some woman piped up “Next you’ll be doing cake decorating.” Initially I was shocked that she would mock me by comparing art with cake decorating, then I realised how judgemental I was being. I began to think about how creativity finds an outlet whatever, and that judging and comparing creativite outlets in an attempt to diminish one or both, is to demean the human urge to express ourselves, to interpret the world, to discover beauty, or do whatever.

I often return to that thought, that is, the legitimacy of the human urge to be creative, and that creativity has no boundaries. Whether writing poetry or prose, the writer has a message and uses literary devices to create something special. The artist can blend media, surface, technique and so on. Singing, playing a musical instrument, photography, sculpture are also conventionally regarded as being creative, so why not cake decorating, meal presentation, calligraphy, scrapbooking, dancing, dress design, furniture design, and so on. (incidentally, some of these latterly mentioned creative outlets are regarded as “feminine”, so perhaps there is some gender bias at work here.)

Creativity and imagination are related. Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. This inspires me to believe that human endeavour is at its finest when we apply creativity – to look for opportunities, to solve problems, to seek wisdom and understanding. It is through art, literature, music, any creative work or thinking that our spirits soar.

Einstein's "Imagination Is More Important Than Knowledge" in watercolour wash

So what is creativity? I’m not sure it can be defined or measured. What is art?. Where painting intersects with calligraphy, is it no longer art? Clearly that isn’t so, otherwise Colin Mc Cahon wouldn’t be regarded as one of New Zealand’s great artists. Does someone’s willingness to pay for artistic endeavour define a work as art? If someone will pay for a cake to be decorated does that mean that cake decorating is art? I believe it can be, and that it can certainly be an example of creativity.

Is literature only the work of great writers? If only the greatest writers were published, my reading world would be impoverished. I love reading “coming of age” novels (I have realized in the last few years that I have yet to come of age – will I ever grow up?). Barbara Kingsolver is perhaps best known for writing “The Poisonwood Bible” yet it’s “The Bean Trees” and “Pigs In Heaven” that I enjoyed the most. And I’d be a lesser person if I hadn’t read Billie Letz’ “The Honk and Holler Opening Soon”, “Where The Heart Is” and “Made In The USA”. And I find plenty to chew over in Marion Keyes novels.

And good things happen when creativity intersects with technology. I’ve discovered plenty of great writing on blogs. One of the best things I’ve learnt about blogging is that because it provides a great medium for writers it’s become a treasure trove for readers, and a fantastic forum for ideas. It’s a wonderful spark for creativity. It’s a great place to find poetry:

Julia Fehrenbacher of Painted Path writes wonderful poetry and prose.

This via kind over matter


When she slows
quietly down
instead of pushing
urgently forward
When she asks and listens
and receives
instead of talking and telling
and trying
When she bows
to this light-filled
instead of running
screaming away
It bows deeply back

and she feels herself

back into
the wide open
of Grace

People have always found ways to express themselves creatively, to feel their spirits soar and their hearts sing. Creativity is an essential part of who we are. It can’t be measured and it shouldn’t be compared or minimised, but rather celebrated and embraced, wherever it is found.

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A friend lent me “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. It took me a while to read it because I needed time to think about each piece that I chewed off. It’s a remarkable story told in a very unusual way and I think that it’s the way that it’s told that has made it difficult for me to stop thinking about it. To borrow a word from the book it is “haunting”. It’s set in Nazi Germany. The extraordinary is ordinary and the ordinary is extraordinary. There is triumph in death, despair in life, and the converse. It confirms the universality of human relationships and experiences. A great read.

“The Book Thief” is not your typical war story but,  even though it was set in Munich, I found myself constantly reminded of stories told by my mother who in 1939 was twenty (ten years older than the book thief) and living in London. Some of my mother’s stories I didn’t hear until she was telling them to my daughter. I think that it may have taken decades for my mother to accept that there is no sense to be made of war, only stories. My father was typical of his generation and never spoke at all of his experiences as a soldier. He had taken many photos while he was in North Africa, and had kept a diary. I recently electronically scanned his photos and as I did so I looked through them seeing for the first time a young man thoroughly enjoying being in an exotic world full of pyramids, camels and sand. He was a despatch rider and when he came off his motor bike he spent time first in hospital, then with an Egyptian family. The youngest daughter, only a few years old, apparently was already able to speak several languages.  This is the only story I remember him telling of his time in the war. My mother was considered part of an essential work force and so was kept in London. She sewed surgical dressings and had done so since she left school at thirteen. During the “blitz” she was a fire warden and was required to take shifts staying nights in warehouses and buildings watching out for fires from the bombings. My mother has always been shy and she said that at the time she was also timid and absolutely terrified of the rats that lived in these old buildings – far more scared of the rats than any fire hazards or bombs. She recalls when everyone was first given gas masks which they were required to wear during air raids. At first these masks were diligently worn, despite being horribly uncomfortable. Similarly, everyone went to the air raid shelters when the sirens went off. She said that it wasn’t long before the masks weren’t worn, and many people stopped going to the shelters, some of which were simply the underground railway stations. Food was rationed and my mother recalls always being hungry, yet it seems that the English government did a far better job of keeping food supplied to the people than the Germans did.

While reading “The Book Thief” I was constantly reminded of the ordinariness of people, and that we are at times little more than tools of governments. We have only to look at America in the last decade (and before) to be cynically and sickeningly reminded of this.

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