Writing & Reading

A St. Patrick’s Day Feast of Tasty Irish Writing

2017-03-17 Christ Church Cathedral St. Patrick's Window (Dublin) | A St. Patrick's Day Feast of Tasty Irish Writing | dianaklein.com

The Gluten Free Irish Soda Bread Muffins are in the oven, so while I wait to please my gustatory senses, I thought I’d use the time to share a few yummy bits of writing—passages that feed my reader’s soul—I have found whilst reading Irish authors.  And boy, is there a plethora of delectable stuff from which to choose.

Especially from Oscar Wilde, who was nothing if not quotable. I opted for this one because it’s probably one the first from him I ever heard, and I like to think about making my diary much as this character’s is!

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.  – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

This one is from A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy—a prolific author, famous for weaving together the stories of disparate characters.  I like this one because, it’s just so true to life—and just for the sake of clarity let me tell you that Gloria is a cat and Chicky is a human.

Within seconds, Gloria appeared, looking hopeful, wound herself around Chicky’s legs, then sat down for some urgent leg-washing. – Maeve Binchy, A Week in Winter

I’ll admit that I haven’t yet had the guts to tackle James Joyce’s Ulysses, but I have enjoyed some of his short stories, including those in the collection called Dubliners.  My favorite is “The Dead” which ends with this gorgeous and haunting passage:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight . . . It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

– James Joyce, “The Dead”

Okay, so these last two—both from Eoin Colfer—best known for the Artemis Fowl series—are a bit on the course side, but I think they’re still worth reading, even if you’re not into that sort of thing. The first is from Half Moon Investigations, a delightful middle grade version of a noir detective story.  The second is from Screwed, which is, I suppose also a noir detective story, just of the adult variety.  Anyway, I absolutely love the grossly accurate description in the first one and the funny imagery in the second.  Oh, and they’re that much better if you imagine them in an Irish accent:

Unfortunately, when I say Doobie was snot-nosed, it’s not just a turn of phrase. Doobie never went anywhere without a couple of green yo-yo’s hanging from his nostrils, which he then snorted back up so hard that they wrapped around his brain.

– Eoin Colfer, Half Moon Investigations

This room has no windows and only one door, which is blocked by two buttery cops, so I’m gonna have to go through the wall.

Go through the wall?

Even thinking it sounds ridiculous. Nevertheless it’s either that or the aforementioned ball slicing. I crab roll onto the bed with just enough momentum to come to my feet.

“Hey,” burbles Fortz through the blood. “Stop! Police!”

In the words of the sweatband-wearing fuzzy legend J. McEnroe: “You cannot be serious!”

I bet McEnroe said “fucking” all the time off camera. You can just imagine it coming out of his face. – Eoin Colfer, Screwed

There are so many more wonderful Irish writers to quote (which ones do you like?), but my soda bread muffins are out of the oven and simply begging to be eaten with a steaming cup of Irish Breakfast Tea, so I’ll simply say, Happy St. Patrick’s Day and may there be many yummy books (Irish and not) in your near future!


Sickness & Health, Writing & Reading

Saying Yes with Shonda Rhimes

Year of Yes  Saying Yes with Shonda Rhimes | dianaklein.com

I am ridiculously late getting on the Shonda Rhimes bandwagon—about 11 years late.  I blame the TV promos for shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal.  What I saw when I watched those promos is how much I was going to have to swoon over Dr. McDreamy and how often I was going to gasp at the actions of a gorgeous woman in gorgeous clothes having an affair with the president.  Those promos told me nothing of the girl power, the total badassery (it’s a word, just ask Shonda’s spell check) I would get to experience by watching those shows.  They did not tell me that I would get to see stories about people who are, like me, “dark and twisty” and loveable.  Those promos didn’t say a word about a short African-American super hero named Dr. Bailey.  They did not mention that the shows would explore the many double standards women and girls face in the workplace and at home.  Or that those shows would talk about the fact that some women don’t want children—not because they have shriveled up prune hearts, but because they want to give everything to their careers—and that’s okay. 


In spite of all this misinformation, one day last year, Netflix recommended Scandal to my mom, and I happened to wander in during the third episode.  The rest is . . . well, A LOT of binge watching and a lot of feeling proud and gratified that a woman is standing up in television and telling stories, in particular women’s stories, in a way they never have been told before. 


Suffice it to say, I enjoy her work and I had already taken to “dancing things out” (in my underwear, when necessary) when I picked up her 2015 book Year of Yes.  I got about 50 pages in before I realized that I could not keep this fabulous writing, this humor, this wisdom to myself.  I needed to read this book aloud.  I needed to hear Shonda’s personal, conversational style floating on the air, dancing like dust motes in the sunshine.  As in so many cases, my mother became my audience for this.  We laughed and cheered our way through the book.  We nodded and said, “Amen”.  We had a great time. 


            Much as the title states, Shonda (I use her first name in this piece not out of any kind of disrespect, but out of the sense of camaraderie I feel.  Read the book, and I think you’ll agree that Shonda would be okay with it.) finds herself committing to saying yes to everything that scares her for a year.  She’s not happy about it.  She’s not the least bit excited about it.  But she recognizes that she’s not enjoying her life and things aren’t going to get better if she does not take action.  She tells funny, touching stories about her life, her career, her family.  She talks about saying yes, and she encourages the reader—me—to say yes, too. 


She reminds me that the best way to handle confrontations is not to back down and crawl into a hole, but ALSO not to become aggressive.  It’s to calmly, neutrally ask what a person means by what they are saying.


She tells me to stop brushing off compliments as though I did nothing to merit them and instead, simply smile and say, ”Thank you”.


She informs me that no one is doing it all perfectly.  No one can do it all, not her, not me, not anyone.  That is not how life works.  That is an impossibility.  There is always a tradeoff.


She reveals to me that she has realized she had been saying yes to a detrimental nutritional lifestyle for years and that she now she is saying yes to a healthy body.


Suffice it to say (again), I recommend this book.  I particularly recommend enjoying it with someone else—either reading it aloud or reading it concurrently with someone with whom you can say, “Amen”.  And with whom you can laugh (I’ll never hear anyone talk about meeting their client without an inner giggle ever again). 


Since I started reading Year of Yes, I’ve been trying to see where in my life I need to say yes more.  In a way, it’s much more basic than that though.  It’s not really about saying yes to one particular thing or other.  It’s about saying yes to me—to all of me.  To stop thinking that I am better or worse than I am.  To be honest about what I want, what I can do, and what I am living for—to say yes to all of that.  And to follow through on being who I already am.




Writing & Reading

The Books That Changed My Life (or at least some of them)

The books that changed my life: My Name is Asher Lev, The Complete Works of O. Henry, Beloved, The HItchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | dianaklein.com

This week I was searching in my local library’s web catalog for a book by Alice Hoffman.  They didn’t have what I was looking for, but instead I found The Book That Changed My Life.  Don’t you love that about libraries?  Whether you’re online or in the stacks, you can look for one thing and discover gems you didn’t even know existed.  Of course, that usually means that by the time I get to the circulation desk, my arms are overflowing with items that I will never get a chance to consume in the time they are allotted to me.  No matter.

The Book That Changed My Life, edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen, is a collection of essays from celebrated authors (mostly of fiction) about the book, you guessed it, that changed their lives.  This got me thinking two things: a) How, on God’s green earth, can anyone choose only one book?  And b) To which book would I assign that distinction?  As I dipped into the essays, I found that several of the authors couldn’t limit it to one choice either, so there’s that mystery solved.  But I was surprised to find that not all of them designated novels as their book of choice.  There have been a number of nonfiction texts that have made a huge difference in my life—many of them spiritual or philosophical—but they would never be at the top of the list that jumped to mind when I asked myself the question.  I have learned so much from novels—about the world, the past, myself, that I suppose I think of them as the best textbooks for the school of life.

My sister (eleven years older than I) started reading The Complete Works of O. Henry to me when I was seven.  This book pretty much ruined me for just about all other short stories.  I loved that there was always a kicker at the end, ironic or not.  We never finished a tale with me thinking “Okay, so what’s your point?” which often happens when I read short fiction now.  My favorite story was Springtime a la Carte mostly because it begins:

It was a day in March. 

Never, never begin a story this way when you write one.  No opening could possibly be worse  It is unimaginative, flat, dry, and likely to consist of mere wind.  But in this instance it is allowable. 

It changed my life because it was funny and irreverent and it felt like a personal invitation—as though this man from almost a century earlier was holding out his hand and saying, “C’mon, Diana.  It’ll be fun.”  I think that’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer—not that I thought I could or would ever be good at it, but that, even if I wasn’t ready to admit it to anyone (least of all myself) this was where some part of my passion lay.

I still wasn’t ready to commit to my creativity when I read My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok in my early twenties.  It’s the story of an observant Jew who can’t stop himself from becoming an artist, and further, cannot turn away from the path his art is determined to take—which, in part, is to paint a portrait of his mother entitled The Brooklyn Crucifixion—despite the injury it will cause to his relationship with his community.  I love this book because the protagonist is earnest and really wants to do the right thing, but he knows he has follow his path, despite the difficult consequences—to do otherwise is to be false in the deepest kind of way, and, in a fashion, to turn away from God.  I love the description of Judaism, the rituals such as praying over a simple glass of orange juice.  I love how the book starts.  It’s as though you are walking into a room and hear a snatch from the middle of a fascinating conversation, and you can’t help but want to go back to the beginning and get the whole story.  This book changed my life because it taught me about how close artistry can be to spirituality (or even the same thing?).  It whispered to me about things I might like to do with my life—true things, literary things, small, but powerful things—and it wouldn’t stop whispering.

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first came into my life as an abridged book on tape.  I think I was about ten, and this science fiction masterpiece blew the roof straight off my mind.  It was as though Adams had given me a crystal, and instructed me on how to hold it and take it in.  Instead of just admiring one side, I was meant to turn it—just a little—and then consider it from this new angle.  And I was meant to do this again and again, over and over, becoming aware of how unfixed an idea or a reality might be.  The book was also really funny.

I read and re-read Beloved by Toni Morrison when I was 16.  Its story about an escaped female slave several years after the Civil War taught me about beauty and horror.  There was a lot I didn’t “get”, but that didn’t bother me.  When I read an earthy and lovely passage about the main character kneading bread, I found a porthole into the life of a woman whose experience had been so different from mine and I wanted to hold her.  I didn’t know books could do that.  I was glad to learn.

What book(s) changed your life?  How?  Why?


Writing & Reading

Doerr & Dillard: All the Light We Cannot See and The Writing Life

I was lucky enough to finish reading two books this week.  The first was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.  I don’t remember why I picked it up, but when I found out it was set in Europe during World War II, I was a little reluctant to go through with reading it.  As the author himself pointed out in a podcast interview with Aspen Public Radio’s First Draft, there are already plenty of stories—particularly memoirs about this era.  And many of them are difficult to read for those of us with strong empathetic streaks.  Yet, in telling the almost independent stories of two children, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, Doerr skillfully brings the horrors of the time alive, without making me want to throw up every five seconds.  I found the boy, Werner’s desire to be seen and make use of his innate brilliance, even at the cost of lying to himself about the cause into which he is being initiated, to be particularly compelling and moving.  I like the way Doerr uses various aspects of the natural world (the sea, snails, birds, physics) to propel the story forward in a meaningful way.  I found the language and style to be lovely, and I enjoyed the book’s optimism, which, far from being cockeyed, is founded in reality.

The other book I read was a slim volume probably familiar to many writers: The Writing Life by Pulitzer Prize winner, Annie Dillard (described by Amazon as a gregarious recluse!).  I love her rich, poignant prose that is also somehow matter of fact and no-nonsense.  I am not sure I have the bravery to write like that—or perhaps I am just working up to it.  She imparts advice that isn’t really advice, just what she knows to be true and you can take it or leave it.  Here is a small part of it as I received it:

1) Mostly, writers write slowly; deal with it.  It’s only rare outliers who write super fast.

2) No one really needs a writer’s work.  There are plenty of great manuscripts out there already—enough for everyone to savor for lifetimes.

3) A person’s job as a writer is way less important than that of a shoe salesman—no one will miss the writer if she doesn’t show up to work, but people will definitely be upset if they can’t buy shoes.

4) Writers (and all artists) have a tendency to hold onto the parts of their work into which they have poured the most blood—even if those parts are lousy or (even more painfully) are quite good, but don’t serve the work as a whole and should be discarded.

I feel as though much of this truth should be disheartening, but I found her words somehow cleansing and relief-giving.  I am not completely sure why.  Maybe it has something to do with the idea that it’s okay not to get it right, because nobody gets it right—or at least not all the time.  And, I like the fact that Dillard’s writing makes me chuckle and tell myself, “Jeez, don’t take yourself so seriously, man.  Really.”

Thank you for reading. 🙂

Reading, Writing, Writing & Reading

Writing Wrongs

    I had no idea I was born to be a rabble-rouser.  I didn’t rebel during my adolescence; I had no desire to make war where a tasteless facsimile of peace had reigned for so long.  I wanted to be quiet and good.  I idolized people who loved the world unconditionally, who willingly swallowed sorrow, pain, and anger, and whose knowing and enigmatic smile was their only condemnation of the senseless acts of those around them. 

    But as I began reading Burn This Book, a collection of essays written in support of PEN—the world’s oldest literary and human rights organization—by the likes of Updike, Morrison, and Rushdie, I felt my spirit pick up its head like a bird who, after sleeping for a great age, senses something in the air that makes it want to fly. 

    Like most people who have enjoyed any lifelong privilege, I hadn’t given too much consideration to the idea that reading and writing are human rights—ones that are still too frequently curtailed.  But as I contemplate it now, I can’t imagine not being allowed to read.  I can never remember a time when I was banned from reading anything.  My childhood home was crammed with books and, to the best of my knowledge, I had access to them all.  I never had any notion that books could be dangerous or in any way evil.  They might be poorly written, possess errant storylines, foul language, discouraging errata, explicit sex—but they were just words on paper; they couldn’t hurt you.  I don’t know at what age I found out about the banning of books, or when I first saw movie footage of poor, little, innocent books being burned.  But I do remember that the former occurrence baffled me and the latter made me physically ill. 

    It’s not just the great enjoyments I’ve gotten from books or the large, mind-altering things I’ve learned from them that inspires me so much.  It’s the little ones too—the fact that even the tiniest morsel of the written word can have a lasting impact.  It thrills me to realize that subtle aspects of books I read as a child still remain poignant to me—and not just the classics, all of them.  I remember the lovely variances of the many cultures on display in Around the World Fairy Tales retold by Vratislav Sťovíček.  The opening sentences of “Springtime à la Carte” from The Complete Works of O. Henry, still make me smile and encourage my fearlessness and irreverence.  I have no idea why, but, even now, I think of the four girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women acting out Pilgrim’s Progress, making up bundles, beginning their trek in the cellar, and journeying to the attic.  The primer in cellular biology I received from Madeleine L’Engle in A Wind in the Door has never left my side.  The President’s Daughter by Ellen Emerson White provided me with a lasting education of what it means to run for office and opened my imagination to the notion of a female president (still waiting . . .).  The Sweet Valley High books created by Francine Pascal informed me about the Sing it Yourself Messiah and eyebrow-plucking.  The Iceberg Hermit by Arthur Roth taught me that alcohol makes you warm.  The Night of the Whale by Jerry Spinelli showed me the terrible sorrow of beached whales.  Barthe DeClements’ and Christopher Greimes’ book Double Trouble gave me my first look at astral bodies and auras.  The King of the Dollhouse by Patricia Clapp taught me how to dust properly.  Biographies of Lafayette and Robert Perry informed of me of what mottoes were in general and what these men’s were in particular (“Why not?” and “I shall find a way or make one”, respectively).  And all this before I had entered middle school.

    Now, when I hear about the high rate of illiteracy among women in Afghanistan and other places—when I think of all that I have been given access to and all that they have been denied, I get choked up.  And a few months ago, when Iranians were again told to shut up and accept their newly “elected” president, when their safeties were threatened for writing anything to oppose him or the legitimacy of his election—either on posters or the internet. . . I felt a sorrow and helplessness I can’t adequately describe.

    I can’t imagine not being able to write.  Actually, I take that back—I too have been the victim of censorship—my own.  There used to be things I thought I couldn’t write about.  And there were things that I would write about, but refused to share with others.  No good, I thought, could come from my voicing certain beliefs, relating certain tales.  They could only hurt.  I was wholly interested in being responsible—not seeing that responsibility may take a different form in the hands of an artist.  According to Salman Rushdie “A poet’s work is to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, to start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.”  But it could be argued (and it often has been by me) that writers use this type of rationale to write whatever they want, for whatever selfish reason they want, and get away with it.  I have been loathe to fall into this category and, as a result, have bent over backward to be fair, to question my motives, to consider the feelings of others—even though my mother frequently tells me “that’s not your job”.

    “A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”  When a statement like this comes out of Toni Morrison’s mouth, it sounds completely reasonable and wholly accurate.  I don’t care whether you loved or hated Beloved; we needed her to write that book.  But when I take Ms. Morrison’s quote to heart and apply it to myself, I run into a little trouble.  Are these words I write truly necessary?  How about these?  Again, such quotes may lead us into self-indulgence and over permissiveness: “The world needs to hear my opinion about everything from emotional abuse to M&Ms to flatulence, so I will write it all down and consequences be damned!”  And yet, when I think of people not being allowed to write and not being allowed to read, I start to feel that even the most inane jabbering on Facebook becomes a glorious thing.  Is it right to announce someone’s wrongdoings to the world?  I don’t know.  But sometimes, it is definitely necessary.

    So as it turns out, I am not a “sit quietly and take the world as it is” kind of gal.  (Really, my red hair should have been a clue right off the bat.)  I am nice and loving and kind.  But I am also opinionated and intelligent, and I refuse to yield to any fear that tells me not to use my brain, my voice, or my pen, because doing so would be to disgrace those who have given their very selves for my right to read and write; it would be to unforgivably dishonor those people who, even now, are fighting with their mighty pens to be heard.


For more information about PEN go here: http://pen.org/

For a closer look at Burn This Book go here: http://browseinside.harpercollins.com/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061774003