Easy to be hard

There aren’t nearly enough books out there about reading comprehension. In fact, I always seem to wind up thinking about the same one. Whenever someone has obviously misunderstood something he’s read — or I’ve done it myself — sooner or later, I always think, “Dinner for two and a picture of King Kong — not dinner for two with King Kong.”

Arthur's Prize ReaderThat’s a tag line from one of the books I used to read my daughters, Arthur’s Prize Reader, one of a series of “I Can Read” books about a brash young chimpanzee whose unassuming little sister, Violet, is always stealing his thunder. The books are by Lillian Hoban, who started the series around the same time Marc Brown began his series of books about an aarvark named Arthur. Brown’s series went on to be the basis of a super-successful public television series.

Hoban’s Arthur is a lot of fun, too, though, and in Arthur’s Prize Reader, he sets out to win a contest sponsored by Super Chimp Comics, because according to his hasty reading of the rules, the prize, thrillingly, is dinner for two with King Kong. Violet keeps telling Arthur that’s not what the ad for the contest says — the prize is actually dinner for two and a picture of King Kong — but Arthur is certain she must be wrong, because she’s just learning to readWhat ensues is a wacky adventure on a rainy Saturday, as Arthur and Violet go door to door, trying to sell enough subscriptions to Super Chimp Comics to win the prize.

Meanwhile Violet, who’s in the first grade, has entered a reading contest at school. Arthur pooh-poohs her chances: “You can’t read hard words.” But Violet pays attention where Arthur does not, she talks back to her brother — “I can read hard words” — and she’s the one who wins a treat for the two of them, an outing to an ice cream parlor.

It isn’t always the hard words that are the problem. Sometimes even the easy words get away from us.

Yiyun Li

My writing groups have been reading the work of the Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li since last fall — her two novels, The Vagrants and Kinder Than Solitude, and her short-story collections, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy Emerald Girl.

Yiyun Li

Yiyun Li

Last Saturday, we got to spend a good part of the day with Li, listening to her talk about her work. Fred Shafer teaches these amazing classes, and this is the third writer I have studied with these groups — the others were Kate Walbert and Colm Toibin. I have learned so much from reading all of them, and it has been a real joy to hear them talk about writing.

Li recently won the Sunday Times of London EFG Short Story Award for “A Sheltered Woman,” which first appeared in The New Yorker. The prize is £30,000, the world’s richest for a single short story. Li was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010. Here is a passage from her story “The Princess of Nebraska”:

 He looked up at her, and she saw a strange light in his eyes. They reminded her of a wounded sparrow she had once kept during a cold Mongolian winter. Sparrows were an obstinate species that would never eat and drink once they were caged, her mother told her. Sasha did not believe it. She locked up the bird for days, and it kept bumping into the cage until its head started to go bald. Still she refused to release it, mesmerized by its eyes, wild but helplessly tender, too. She nudged the little bowl of soaked millet closer to the sparrow, but the bird was blind to her hospitality. Cheap birds, a neighbor told her; only cheap birds would be so stubborn. Have a canary, the neighbor said, and she would be singing for you every morning by now.

Photo Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Wikimedia Commons

Strike force

Hum, by Jamaal MayI had a bunch of things to do today. What I did instead was read poetry.

The poem I liked best was Jamaal May’s “Hum for the Bolt,” which takes us to a World of Warcraft landscape to consider the “bolt,” a blunt, potent word, in a setting where it might be a weapon, a spell, a quantity of silk.

But the narrator decides he would rather be the kind of bolt that can

…eat the dark,

draw shadows in quick strokes across wall

and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.

Aunt Marian, a dame and a writer

One thing I love about the Internet is the way new information sometimes bubbles up from sources that have lain quietly for decades and then are suddenly digitized. My mother’s sister’s name, Marian O’Hearn, popped up recently in a context I had never seen it in before.

Another Girl's BrandI never met Aunt Marian — she was a lot older than my mom, and I am the youngest in my family — but I knew she earned her living as a writer at a time when that was rare for a woman. She wrote for Rangeland Romances and other pulp magazines, and was a minor figure among the pioneering female noir writers.

But now it turns out Aunt Marian was also a “sporting editor” for the Denver Express newspaper, which was around from 1906 to 1926. Her “pithy comments on matters fistic, baseball, football and athletics in general appear under her writing name of Judy O’Hearn,” according to an item in a 1918 publication of Editor & Publisher. That seems amazing to me, given the times.

Everybody in my mom’s poor, immigrant family in north Denver, Colorado, wanted to be a writer, but Marian actually did it. Mom was a terrific writer, but she never published much. She was always sniffy about Aunt Marian’s work in western pulps, but I thought she might have been a little jealous, too. If she knew you could buy one of Aunt Marian’s stories on iTunes today, like “Another Girl’s Brand,” pictured here, I think Mom would be very jealous indeed.

Aunt Marian was born in western Massachusetts, probably Williamstown. I’m not sure when. The family moved to Denver before my mom, Eileen O’Hearn, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1911. One of Mom’s  brothers, Charles O’Hearn, was dangerously asthmatic, and doctors at the time often prescribed the dry Colorado climate for lung diseases.

I should say, we have long generations in my family. If you get a few forebears having children into their 40s, and you happen to be at the tail end of the family yourself, in no time you get a long telescope of living memory going back into some interesting history.

“Marian O’Hearn” is sometimes listed as a pseudonym for a writer named “Anita Allen.” I have no idea what that’s about. Maybe one of these days the Internet will kick up some more information that will clear up that mystery.

Roses are red….

I spent some time this month at the headquarters of the Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior in Chicago. It’s a lovely building, spare, not especially welcoming, but very pleasant once you get inside. (You might say that about some poems, too.)

Poetry Foundation Logo BlackThe Poetry Foundation was created in 2003, but its roots go back to Poetry magazine, which was established here in Chicago in 1912, by Harriet Monroe, with the goal of publishing the best contemporary English poetry. The magazine, which bills itself as “the oldest monthly devoted to verse in the English-speaking world,” published early works from  T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Carl Sandburg, and many others.

In the 1970s, the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly submitted some poems to magazine, but received only rejections from the editor at the time, Joseph Parisi. As The New York Times put it, “evidently she did not take the rejections to heart,” because on her death in 2002, Lilly left $100 million to Poetry, which the Times characterized at the time as “a struggling journal little known outside literary circles.”

Despite going from rags to riches overnight, the foundation has maintained an admirable focus on Poetry‘s mission of getting the word out about poetry, creating rich prizes for poets, hosting events, and making all sorts of poetry and related material available free and in full through its website.

You can even sign up to have a poem sent daily to your email, like today’s poem, “Harlan County,” by Kate Buckley.

Until Sept. 12, an exhibition of artist Tony Fitzpatrick’s Secret Birds drawings will be up in the lobby of the Poetry Foundation.

The gift of awareness

It’s getting to be the end of graduation season, and I have been checking out this year’s speeches, thinking I would post my favorite. But it turns out the one I want to post is nine years old, the late  David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005.

“It’s hard to stay alert and attentive,” Wallace tells the audience.

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

The gift of a liberal arts education is “simple awareness,” Wallace says, “awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us.…”

Your Inner Fish

A growing drumbeat in science these days involves the importance of communication: How can the people who do the work that is changing our world, and our understanding of it, get their message out to the public?

Your Inner FishNeil Shubin, a University of Chicago paleontologist and anatomist, is an excellent role model in this regard. Shubin was part of the team that in 2006 discovered Tiktaalik roseae, a so-called “fishapod” that might have been one of the first vertebrates to crawl out of the water onto dry land. He wrote a best-selling 2008 book, Your Inner Fish, about what Tiktaalik can tell us about evolution.

Now, Shubin has transformed the message of that book into a three-part series that begins airing on PBS  at 9 p.m. CDT on April 9. Not only that, but he appeared on Thursday at a Science on the Screen event at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on the U. of C. campus in Hyde Park to talk about Your Inner Fish. Science on the Screen is an occasional series the U. of C. sponsors that showcases its world-class scientists talking about feature and documentary films that deal with various aspects of science.

Shubin’s story is pretty thrilling. He and his colleagues spent four summers over six years searching in an exposed layer of rock in the Arctic that dates from the Devonian period, searching for fossils that could show how fish managed to adapt body parts that allowed them to walk out onto land. The researchers could only work during the few snow-free months of the summer, and they had to carry guns, because polar bears were a very real threat. Shubin told the Science on the Screen audience that his group found polar bear tracks in their camp when they got up in the morning.

A sizable chunk of the audience on Thursday was composed of children — I brought my younger daughter, a high school student. One of the fascinating bits we heard in Your Inner Fish is that Tiktaalik shared the basic limb structure (coming down from the shoulder, say) of “big bone, two bones, lots of little bones, digits” that various land vertebrates have diversified into wings, legs that end in paws and, in the case of primates, arms that end in hands.

The Pew Research Center recently found that about one-third of Americans reject the truth of evolution, often on religious grounds: The Bible says God created the earth in six days. Or, they buy the argument that evolution is just a theory about how the world began, of equal weight with creationism, say. One of the children in the audience asked Shubin how he feels about that. He said that what he likes about Your Inner Fish is that it presents evidence for evolution, and that evidence has the power to convince open-minded people of scientific truth.

Not every scientist has Shubin’s charisma — he is a lot of fun to watch in Your Inner Fish — but as I said above, he’s a great role model. The two other segments in the series are Your Inner Reptile and Your Inner Monkey, scheduled to air on April 16 and April 23. The series is part of Think Wednesday, a three-hour block of programming on nature, science and technology PBS began in January.

Alexandria Quartet villa may come down

Practically everything I know about Alexandria, Egypt, I learned from Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, so I am sad to see that the house that inspired the books is in bad shape, and may be coming down.

The Alexandria QuartetThe Guardian is reporting that the neglected Villa Ambron may be torn down to make way for a condo development. Durrell, a British writer who mostly lived in Asia and the Near East, lived in the villa in the mid-1940s with his girlfriend, later his second wife, Eve Cohen. Durell wrote Prospero’s Cell in a tower writing room in the villa, and  took notes for Justine, the first book of the quartet. The character of Justine was based on Cohen, and Durrell reportedly took many details for the quartet from his time at Villa Ambron. The other books were  Balthazar, Mount Olive and Clea. The Alexandria Quartet is Durrell’s best-known work.

The present owner of Villa Ambron has apparently intended to develop the property for years, but has been foiled repeatedly by preservationists and Durrell’s fans. It’s an unstable time in Egypt, though, and many of the old villas from Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past, which are supposed to be protected, are toppling.

I was taking night classes in Modern Greek at the University of Chicago when I read The Alexandria Quartet. At the time, I was interested in everything about that part of the world. I recall the books being lush and romantic, but ultimately preposterous, to me, anyway. I remember telling a friend the characters would have a lot fewer problems if they all just got jobs. (That says more about me than about the story, I know.)

Still, I wrote this passage from Justine down in a little notebook I kept at the time. I guess it’s set in Villa Ambron:

That was the first time I saw the great house of Nessim with its statues and palm loggias, its Courbets and Bonnards — and so on. It was both beautiful and horrible. Justine hurried up the great staircase, pausing only to transfer her olive-pit from the pocket of her coat to a Chinese vase, calling all the time to Nessim. We went from room to room, fracturing the silences. He answered at last from the great studio on the roof and racing to him like a gun-dog she metaphorically dropped me at his feet and stood back, wagging her tail. She had achieved me.

I still know some Greek, by the way. It’s a great language for a writer. I don’t have a Greek keyboard, so I’ll have to go with something I can paste in here. How about Καλή χρονιά! Happy New Year!

Junie B. Jones author Barbara Park has died

Sad news this week: Barbara Park, author of the Junie B Jones books, has died of ovarian cancer in Scottsdale, Ariz., at age 66.

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly BusI interviewed Park in 2005, when I had an eight-year-old daughter, and had read all of Junie B.’s adventures to date, aloud, at bedtime. Park didn’t like to do interviews, but I caught her during a period when she was thinking she should get out there more, she told me. Park wrote 28 Junie B. Jones books in all, a total of 55 million sold to date just in North America. We were contemporaries, and as girls we both had cats named Pudgy and loved Scrooge McDuck comic books. Park was a lovely, funny, down-to-earth woman. Even though we only talked an hour on the phone, she was one of my very favorite interviews ever.

Here is that story from the Chicago Sun-Times, June 5, 2005:

An Endearing Little Troublemaker

By Delia O’Hara

When neither you nor your publisher are confident you can write a a series of four books for children just beginning to read, even though you’re a successful writer for kids who already can, what do you do? You invent a new authorial persona: the irrepressible Junie B. Jones, originally 5, now 6.

Her linguistically adventurous accounts of everyday exploits have vaulted to the top of the children’s-series best seller lists with the likes of Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket. A series of four books? Try 24 and counting, with 25 million copies in print, hardcover and softcover.

Barbara Park had made her mark with humorous books for middle-school children in the early 1990s when Random House asked her to create a series of four chapter books for the finger-paint set. So began the career of Junie B. Jones. And what a career it is! Junie’s readers “would like her story to be their story,” Park said in a recent phone interview.

On its face Junie’s life is ordinary. She’s an energetic kid with two working parents and a baby brother. Her maternal grandparents watch the children before and after school. Still, an ordinary day of Junie B.’s is often worth a book of its own — and a very funny book at that — because any unexpected development can set her off.

“Her parents don’t know what to do with her half the time,” Park said. The same could be said for the occupants of the pleasant school that serves as the primary setting for most of the books.

Junie B.’s adventures began on her first day of kindergarten, when she hid in a cupboard rather than face the homeward journey on The Stupid Smelly Bus. So far the highjinks have carried her through Halloween of first grade, when a classmate convinced her that some of the scary-looking trick-or-treaters were real witches and monsters (Boo…and I Mean It).  Boo, which came out last August, has sold 350,000 copies at $11.95 in hardcover.

While it may be Junie B.’s voice we hear in the books, Park already had figured out how to distill her own youthful class-clown experiences into print for her pre-Junie books. The strategy that paid off quickly with the publication of Park’s first book, Operation: Dump the Chump.  (Her own favorite is Mick Harte Was Here, a seriocomic book that, she says, took all the skill she possessed to achieve the right balance.)

But the Junie books are high in her estimation. “I like her independence,” Park said. “She’s always just a little off-center.”

Denise Brunkus’ illustrations in all the books have established Junie B. as a wiry, exuberant girl with a strong fashion sense and a good number of cowlicks.

As young readers might hope, “Junie B. is a lot like me,” says Park, who grew up in New Jersey. “I was not a shy kid.  I always thought I was a lot funnier than the teachers did.” Her experience as a parent of two grown sons also informs the books, but obliquely.  “Subconsciously, this is the way I parent,” she says.

Like much popular children’s entertainment — think of Finding Nemo — the Junie B. books are written on two levels, and parents may find themselves laughing as hard as the children, although perhaps in different spots.  When, because of Junie’s antics, her kindergarten teacher “has to take an aspirin, parents get it on a different level,” Park says.

Not every parent loves Junie B., though.  Not only does she mangle the English language, but she’s also “not cherubic in any sense,” Park says.  In Cheater Pants, Junie B. cheats not once but twice before she finally learns that the rule against cheating is more than a suggestion. And when she doesn’t like something, she “hates” it and calls it “stupid.”

Some parents won’t buy the books because of this attitude, Park says.  The Junie books are “pretty high up on the challenged-book list, although most of the time, it’s by one parent.”

But when it comes to the way Junie B. talks, “The teachers get it and the kids get it. She’s 5. It would be ridiculous for her to speak the queen’s English.”

The bottom line for Park is that the books are supposed to be fun. If they’re fun, she reasons, they will encourage children to read. And Junie B. is always a decent kid. In first grade she has already become more mature, more self-aware than she was in kindergarten — and more adept at getting her verb tenses lined up correctly.

“She is a work in progress,”  Park says. “I am not an author who believes in a big, heavy moral.  I think it’s a little insulting.”

How old will Junie B. grow during the series?

“I don’t know,” Park says.  “What we love about her is that she is so silly and spontaneous.  Some of that would have to go.  Children start becoming ‘cool’ in 5th and 6th grades.  I don’t want her to be cool.”

Junie B. is a hit with girls, but she also has many fans who are boys, Park says.  “She’s not a girly girl.  I could change her to Johnny B. Jones and the stories would not change that much.”

Park, who lives in Arizona with her husband, typically writes two Junie B. books each year.  She doesn’t do promotion tours and allows few interviews.  She does write the scripts for the wildly successful “Stupid Smelly Bus Tour,” a live traveling performance with New York-based actors conducted out of a hot pink bus at bookstores all around the country. The tour kicked off its secondyear at Borders bookstore in Geneva last month.

Park says she leads a boring life, even now that Junie B. has “improved my bank account.”  She still cleans her own house and works in the yard.  “I work at home.  I have a few hours.  I can tidy up,” she says.

She does have one dream, though.  While she became a book reader fairly late, in high school, she grew up reading comic books — lots of them. Disney’s Scrooge McDuck was one of her favorites. That wealthy miser had a money room, a vault filled with all valuables — money, jewels, gold bullion — where he liked to swim in his riches.

That sounds good to Park.  “I’d like to build a money room,” she said, laughing.

Photo by Pamela Tidswell

Alice Munro’s stories ring the bell

It’s pretty terrific that the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, because she is a wonderful writer. The Nobel committee called her “master of the contemporary short story,” and a number of well-regarded writers responded to the news with glee.

Alice MunroIn The New Yorker, James Wood called the choice “deliriously incredible.” Wood wrote, “…Many of Munro’s readers had sadly concluded that she was not, somehow, the kind of writer that the Nobel committee seemed to like…. We were wrong, and for once it was wonderful to be wrong.”

Margaret Atwood, who might reasonably have hoped she would be the Canadian woman who would win the world’s most prestigious literary award, wrote a true and generous appreciation of Munro’s work in The Guardian.

“The road to the Nobel wasn’t an easy one for Munro,” Atwood wrote:

“Munro found herself referred to as ‘some housewife,’ and was told that her subject matter, being too ‘domestic,’ was boring. A male writer told her she wrote good stories, but he wouldn’t want to sleep with her. ‘Nobody invited him,’ said Munro tartly.”

The 82-year-old writer recently announced that she will retire, that her recent collection, Dear Life, will be her last. Here is a link to “Amundsen,” a story from that collection from The New Yorker, where many of Munro’s stories have run. If this is your first taste of Munro’s work, you are in for a treat.