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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

A somewhat good adventure among elephant drivers in wartime Burma

This is the fourth in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. In writing about Elephant Run by Roland Smith, I’m stretching that profile a bit: the main character here is English. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Mike Baginski, recently retired from a longtime teaching career at Main Street Middle School in Montpelier, Vermont.

Elephant Run has an admirable intent: soon after the outbreak of World War II, send readers into a village deep in the interior of British-colonial Burma with Nick Freestone, the teenage son of an Englishman who oversees this community of elephant drivers, or mahouts, from Hawk’s Nest, a grand home built by his late father, the indomitable Sergeant Major. When Japanese troops occupy the village and make Hawk’s Nest their headquarters, Nick becomes a prisoner and a forced laborer, while his father is taken off to an unsure fate.
      The plot, as they say, thickens. There’s a a haiku-composing Japanese sergeant, and a growing conflict of loyalties among the elephant drivers who had hoped the invaders would be their liberators, but turn out to be brutal on a new level. There’s Mya, a very attractive Burman girl who’s being menaced by a mahout allied with the Japanese; and there’s Hilltop, a mysterious, elderly Buddhist monk whom all the villagers revere and, for that reason, the occupiers can’t touch. And within Hawk’s Nest, it turns out there’s a secret catacomb of passageways, listening posts, and food and armament stores.
      Will Nick survive? Can he protect the beautiful Mya, and somehow find and rescue his dad? And what about Hannibal, the dangerous rogue elephant who’s been hidden on a tangled island from the occupiers?
      It’s an inventive plot, a good story, but somehow there’s a flatness. The characters don’t feel three-dimensional. The storytelling is mechanical, and the dialogue is, too. The writing often feels rushed, and the landscape and culture of the interior, which should be fascinating, never really come to life.
      I’m not a critic and I don’t like critiquing another author, especially one who’s taken on a gutsy adventure like taking us all at once into traditional mahout culture, the last violent throes of the colonial era, and a teenager’s experience of a rarely chronicled theater of the Second World War. For all those reasons, Elephant Run is worth reading. I just wish — sorry, Roland — that I had enjoyed it more.

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Going deeply into Vietnam, with a girl who doesn’t want to

     This is the third in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to Dr. Genene Meli, curriculum coordinator at Frankford Township School in Branchville, NJ.
     We experience Listen, Slowly through the eyes, emotions and — oh, definitely — the attitude of Mai/Mia. She’s Mai at home in California with her Vietnam-native parents, and Mia at school and with best friend Montana, who has boobs when Mia doesn’t and whose crises are about lip gloss and hair braids. Mia wants only to spend the summer orbiting near on a certain boy she’s never actually spoken to, whom she describes only as HIM.
      But instead, at the start of summer vacation, author Thanhha Lai transports Mai to Vietnam to accompany her grandmother on a quest to learn the fate of her grandfather, who disappeared during what Mai calls THE WAR. On the plane where we meet Mai, the attitude is at a sulking peak. On this journey with her, we can hope, and it seems possible, that Mai/Mia will open up to her family’s native culture, and that — since THE WAR is involved — she might discover some deep new dimensions of life.
      In grandmother Bá’s home village in the north near Hanoi, Bá and Mai are welcomed with feasting and warm, embracive hospitality. Mai responds by teaching local girls how to cut their panties into thongs, even though she herself — “a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab” — doesn’t like thongs. She just doesn’t want to be there, she wants to go home. And whenever she possibly can, she’s texting and Facebook-checking back home, where the busty Montana is full-court-pressing HIM.
      The storytelling here isn’t as strong as the cultural immersion, which is quite detailed and very engaging. We can almost taste all the fresh food specialties that Mai eats, and enjoys more and more. But gradually, eventually, Mai, her grandmother and we discover what happened to her grandfather. It is horrifying. A grotesque, unfathomable circle of hell.
      We never quite understand, at least I didn't, which side her grandfather was fighting on in the WAR ... but as his awful fate is slowly uncovered, Mai makes a local friend. She comes to appreciate the subtleties of the language. And finally — mostly — she shrugs off the drama and opens herself up to being the companion, helper and granddaughter that Bá needs as the two of them ultimately, heartbreakingly uncover the truth.
      Is Mai/Mia transformed? That will unfold over time, in her life. Is she more the whole, bicultural young person she has a right to be? Oh yes.

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HABIBI: Heartache and Humanity inside Palestinian Jerusalem

This is the second in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to my good friend Elizabeth Bluemle at the Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt.

Today’s NY Times has an oped on how Palestinians view next week’s elections in Israel — basically, without much hope. Or with crushed hopes and resignation. The writer is a Palestinian attorney and author who wearily sums up the latest, largest ways official Israel has eroded those hopes. It’s a point of view Americans don’t see, or hear, or feel very often. Which brings me to Habibi.

This YA novel by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian-American poet and novelist, came out in 1997 but is every bit as unsettling and powerful today — the more so because it’s a poet’s novel. Central character Liyana is an observant teenager whose own poetics are just rising in her notebooks. Like the author, she has a Palestinian dad and an American mom, and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized, injustice-ridden Jerusalem.

This is a poet’s novel in the softly eloquent ways Nye conveys Liyana’s new world through her impressions of it. One short chapter, “What You Can Buy in Jerusalem,” is a soft tumult of images: little gray Arabic notebooks, rich and shiny brocade cloth, roasted chickpeas, vials of water from the Jordan River, “gooey, sticky, honey-dipped, date-stuffed fabulous Arabic desserts,” and much more.

Sometimes the impressions overwhelm the characters and narrative; but gradually and with many personal interactions, Nye builds more than a simple story. Habibi gives us Jerusalem and its surroundings from the Palestinian side, bringing that community and its traditions, frustrations and shattering losses to life. But then the novel introduces a young Israeli guy to whom Liyana is strongly drawn — and things get complicated, as it seems they inevitably do in this place of complexities that are both age-old and ever-present.

As Liyana and Omer grow close, the story opens into one that’s broader, deeper, and honestly challenging. The only real answer, Habibi seems to insist, is our own humanity. Its final chapter, “Doors,” begins with this epigram: “There is a door in the heart that has no lock on it.”

For me, at least, this unusual novel opened that door just a little wider.

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Visiting family in Iran, an American kid finds acceptance & connection

This is the first in a series of posts about novels for young readers that transport American characters into other cultures and countries. For suggesting this book, thanks to Jessica Storch and Greg Symon at Frankford Township School, Branchville, NJ.

Adib Korram’s Darius the Great Is Not Okay has a faraway setting and interior goals. Awkward, unconfident Darius is a “fractional Persian” — his mom is Iranian, while his blue-eyed dad is not — and he accompanies his parents and younger sister on a trip from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. Darius’s grandfather is there with a brain tumor, and there Darius discovers friendship, an ancestral culture with great food, and a sense of belonging and mattering for the first time in his life.

It’s not a novel of dramatic events. Darius makes a friend in Yazd, the family meets relatives and neighbors and eat a lot, they visit sights, some painful things happen, and Darius is sorry to leave. But on the inside the story grows deeper and more meaningful. Khorram conveys a culture in its place — a Zoroastrian, Muslim and Bahá’í community in central Iran — in a really human, unromantic way; at the same time, he gives us an experience of gradually letting down your personal walls.

Darius struggles with depression. When we meet him, he’s bullied at school and he’s defensive and isolated. Then Yazd doesn’t overwhelm him; he sees it mostly as a place with plain, low buildings the color of khaki, and with some people that he likes and some he doesn’t. But people start to reach out for the unconfident kid, and Darius finds himself fitfully, awkwardly, then generously opening up. That doesn’t happen without setbacks. But it happens.

It’s a good story. The author aims to share the experience of depression, stripping it of shaming and easy answers; this works well, and he includes some resources at the end. I also loved how Khorram makes a very different culture both distinctive and ordinary — the food is exotic and appealing, but the people are just people, some small-minded but most kind and generous. When Darius makes a friend who has a deep struggle too, their opening to each other is not simple. Neither is being Persian; he doesn’t even speak the language. But as he learns to embrace more of who he is, depression and all, we see and feel — and understand, in the end — that there’s a whole lot more he can be.

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Finding fiction that encounters other cultures through an American kid's eyes

The new Voyages Issue of the New York Times Magazine has a profile of Rick Steves, host of a public TV series on traveling in Europe. The article’s subhead is: “The travel guru believes the tiniest exposure to other cultures will change Americans’ entire lives.”

I believe that too; it was true in my life. And right now in the world of middle-grade and YA fiction, there’s strong and growing interest in exposing American young readers to novels that create this sort of cultural exposure through a story. I myself think one especially strong way to do that is by finding and sharing good novels, for young readers, that transport an American main character into another country.

To encounter another culture through the eyes and emotions of someone like yourself — that’s a bridge that is relatively easy and inviting to cross. So I have a project. Last weekend I emailed my mailing list of over 400 teachers, librarians, principals and others that I’ve worked with in schools, and I asked this question: Can you recommend a good middle-grade or YA novel in which an American main character encounters another, preferably foreign culture?

I got quite a few responses — and from them I whittled down the list to recommended novels that fit this specific profile. I left off one or two that looked to be using a foreign locale as just a stage setting for a romance. That’s fine to do, of course, but it’s not what I’m looking for.

I will read these books, over the coming weeks — and I will blog about each one. Here is my list:

Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram (Iran)
Habibi, Naomi Shihab Nye (Palestine)
Nowhere Boy, Katherine Marsh (Belgium/Syria)
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai (Vietnam)
Moving Target, Christina Diaz Gonzalez (Rome)
Small Damages, Beth Kephart (Spain)
The Astonishing Color of After, Emily X.R. Pan (Taiwan)
First Descent, Pam Withers (Colombia)
Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa, Micol Ostow (Puerto Rico)
Wanderlove, Kristin Hubbard (Central America)
Love and Gelato, Jenna Evans Welch (Tuscany)
Laugh With the Moon, Shana Burg (Malawi)
Endangered, Eliot Schrefer (Congo)
The Carnival at Bray, Jessie Ann Foley (Ireland)
The Shells of Mersing, Sharon Himsl (Malaysia)

If you have a title to add, please email me!

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Writing, music, and community

In this part of Vermont’s Champlain Valley, I’m lucky enough to play music in a couple of local bands — and recently, a bandmate got an email from a friend. The friend’s wife and their family had just gone through a serious health scare, and listening to our music had helped them get through it. Hearing this touched us all, and it got me thinking about music, books, and community.

Writing is lonely. It’s solitary, and you can work for years on a book that never sees print. That’s just how it is, and I’ve done this work as a fulltime freelancer and writer of books, published and not, for over 30 years. Making music in groups is newer for me, I’ve done it for about half that time — and when you do that in front of people, you often see they’re having fun and they’re happy. People like your stuff. They come to see you, and maybe your music even matters in their lives. In local music, I’ve found, the community that develops doesn’t have to be huge to be matter and be satisfying. Why can’t book-writing have a similar aim?

Traditional book publishing has been taken over by huge corporations. Foreign-owned multinationals control all of the “Big Five,” the corporate houses that have absorbed nearly all the long-standing publishers. Unless they see you as a bestseller, it’s extremely hard to get these houses to pick up your manuscript — but at the same time, there’s been a profusion of small, independent publishers, of hybrid publishers where the author helps pay the cost of bringing out a book, and of self-publishing efforts. For those of us who’ve taken “indie” paths, it’s not terribly realistic to hope for a big bestseller — but in this connected time, when people of similar tastes and interests can find each other, we can hope to build a community. It can even be worldwide.

And why not? You won’t get rich this way, but very very few writers ever have. Can I find or help build a community of people who like a book I’ve done, and can we be supportive of each other? That, I think, would be a solid form of success. I've even seen it happen: there's a nationwide, even international, community of people, mostly in middle schools, who have worked with and cared about The Revealers. That book didn't make me rich, but it helped me earn a living and keep on writing, and it made me a whole lot of friends. So I’ve seen how much that can mean — and honestly and truly, it makes all the solitary work worthwhile.

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Putting down the damn phone

The Subaru I recently traded in — I didn’t get much for it, but they took it — had a vivid sign of my phone addiction. Well, “addiction” might be strong — I have hardly any apps on the phone, I’ve never tweeted once, and my phone isn’t even linked to the Facebook account I barely ever use. But the old car had a deep scratch across the driver’s-side windows, reminding me of the pre-dawn moment when, driving in a blizzard to the airport for a school-visit trip, at a spot where two lanes narrowed into one and a semi truck was crowding me on the right, I felt it was a good time to check my text messages.

I know. And the corner of the traffic sign that raked all down the side of my then-pristine car ... well, that was a message. And one that I’m trying, finally, to heed.

The addiction aspect, for me, is that the phone urges you to check it all the time. In the checkout line at the supermarket. During dinner with family. While driving, which I’m finally really trying not to do. So I’m drawn to articles about breaking this dependence, about learning to put ... down ... the phone. There was a good one in the New York Times the other day: “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain.”

The writer’s problem was, I feel smugly, far worse than mine. He did much more to break the habit, and had much more to say. For me, this is mainly about discovering that an urge is just an urge. Responding is very often just an empty experience — yet if I do, the urges get stronger. So when I’m driving and the urge to check email rises inside, I’m finding I can let it rise, then watch it fade. And wait to check the damn phone at a rest stop. Or a traffic light. I can do this.

I’m trying. I’m also, I notice, reading a lot more. And my new-to-me Subaru ... well, it carries no ugly reminders. I’m hoping to keep it that way.

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Leaving space between the words

I’ve been rereading the novel that turned me on to writing, in ninth grade. It’s The Human Comedy, a 1943 book about wartime life in a town in California that centers on the adventures of twelve-year-old Homer, a messenger boy for the Postal Telegraph who must deliver to parents the telegrams of death from the War Department, and his four-year-old brother Ulysses, who watches and appreciates everything.

Saroyan wrote in a liberating way that carried original energy. He called it jumping into the river and starting to swim, and he opened me up to what writing could do. And his work was simple, simple, simple: there was space between the words.

I was a gawky unpopular kid who liked to read, and that year I swallowed everything that I could find by Saroyan — especially My Name Is Aram, his 1940 volume of gracefully lucid stories about growing up Armenian in Fresno, his home town that became the model for Ithaca in The Human Comedy. I took in the plain, humane clarity in these stories and thought, “I can do that!” But Saroyan’s simplicity is as deceptive as a great outfielder’s; it looks easy until you try it. Yet the writer left so much in the space between his words, so much to feel and connect with, that I’ve kept on trying to do it ever since.

I read both those books again this week, and Saroyan isn’t always perfect. He couldn’t work with editors, and The Human Comedy loses air in bursts of windy philosophizing that should have been trimmed back — but then consider this. It’s possibly the writer’s greatest sentence, from the opening chapter of The Human Comedy, describing how Ulysses finds an egg:

He looked at it a moment, picked it up, brought it to his mother and very carefully handed it to her, by which he meant what no man can guess and no child can remember to tell.

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Why did two fine stories leave me flat?

I had the flu. So I read. This is one redeeming thing about the flu.

When I’m sick I want either comic novels or good suspenseful stories — mysteries, spy novels. I also like historical fiction, and I love to get taken to different places in the world. So this time I read one spy novel, then another, by a well-known and very skilled writer, who set both books in 1945 at the end of the war, one in Berlin, the other in Istanbul.

The stories were excellent, deeply researched and finely crafted. I was happily immersed in their time and place ... yet at the end, I didn’t much care. Close to the end of the second, I almost didn’t even finish it. Didn’t seem to matter, really. Yet the writer did such a good job, in so many ways ... why did I not think about the stories after? Why did I not care?

Then I understood: I never came to care about the characters.

I should have, right? I mean, a dark time in deep settings, lots of moral complexity, struggling with serious evil ... and the characters were complex. They made mistakes. But ... I just didn’t care.

And that’s something to notice. A novel can’t be great or even really that good if the characters don’t come to life. They don’t have to be good, but they can’t be empty. Or leave you empty. If they do, then nothing else can really matter that much.

There’s no formula, no trick, no technique for this. It’s alchemy, I guess. Paul McCartney teaches songwriting to young people sometimes, and he starts by saying, “I really don’t know how to do this.” I doubt that any writer could tell another person how to make characters that connect with readers, I know I couldn’t ... but I think of the Harry Potter books. I think of Nick Hornby’s novels about rock ’n’ roll and soccer and guys, I think of John LeCarre’s spy stories. These are all so different, but their characters are alive.

I think that’s we’re looking for most of all. Good stories grow out of good characters, not from plotting or anything else mechanical or contrived. Great novels have life because their characters have life. I don’t know how you could ever teach that. But you know it when it happens, because inside you it is real.

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Spotting the Snow Leopard

I’m revisiting books that have meant something to me over the years, and I can’t remember if I ever finished The Snow Leopard. I don’t think I did. But it sort of changed my life anyway.

This time I did finish it. That’s not totally easy to do; Peter Mathiessen’s most famous book, for which he won the National Book Award, is brave and deep but also dense, intensely serious. I read it the first time, or most of it, in my late 20s as a weekly newspaper editor secretly preparing to leave my job and travel in Muslim and Buddhist Asia, hoping to write a revealing personal narrative as Mathiessen did. That he could get to such depth with such economy and precision was as inspiring to me as the courage of his journey — and so I set off on a journey of my own. (I did write my book, my first one, which nobody would publish. That’s another story.) 

Not long after losing his wife to cancer, Matthiessen joined the wildlife biologist George Schaller on a long, risky hike through the Himalayas in western Nepal, in late autumn with winter threatening, to explore the ancient Buddhist landscape of Dolpo beyond the mountains. Schaller hoped to learn about a rare breed of sheep, and maybe see the rarer snow leopard; Matthiessen hoped, surely, to get a good book out of the quest.

He surely did. Reading it again, the acuteness of his observation awes me as much as the depth of his phrasing. The man took incredible notes, but even more, he achieved, and conveys, incredible presence. And that in essence is what The Snow Leopard is about — the quest for true presence, genuine awareness beyond the cell of self. He almost, almost gets there. And then he has to start home. He never does see the snow leopard; but he does glimpse what he's truly searching for.

“What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments,” Matthiessen writes as he begins the journey back: “... In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us.”

So there you go. There, and back again.

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Stories to Treasure: My Christmas Books

We like to do the tree at Christmas. Our boys come back from their grownup lives and we put up the ornaments that Cary and I each brought to the marriage, and we tell the stories behind them and laugh. More quietly each year, I also put out and arrange the Christmas books. Nobody else pays much attention, but I would never want not to have them there.

There’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, with Dylan Thomas’s magical tumbling of words and memories: All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find.

I love Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, about an orphan boy and his childlike aunt, and the years before life divided them that they would fill a baby carriage with windfall pecans, pull out an ancient bead purse with their carefully assembled Fruitcake Fund, and put together 31 cakes that went out as far, believe it or not, as the White House.

In Willem Lange’s Favor Johnson: A Christmas Story, fruitcake is central too. Favor is a lonely, old-time Vermonter whose wounded dog is saved on Christmas Eve by a newcomber neighbor who’s a vet; and each Christmas Eve afterward, Favor hand-delivers his own fruitcakes to everyone in his village, in his old blue pickup. “And the village responded. Now, all through the Christmas season there are cars in his dooryard, and his kitchen is piled high with gifts that he enjoys all through the long winter.”

I still have, after all these years, The Animals’ Merry Christmas. The front cover is gone, it was that well-loved when we were little. My secret favorite was the first story, “The Terrible Teddy Bear,” about a boy who was so difficult he doesn’t really deserve anything. But Santa finds just the right gift — a teddy bear who’s just as nearly impossible. And Teddy gets his secret wish.

Whatever holidays you celebrate, I hope yours are warm and happy. And I hope you have stories that you treasure, too.

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Meeting Ignatius J. Reilly in the Rain

It was pouring on Canal Street. I was hobbled in New Orleans on a foot I didn’t know how I’d hurt, struggling back to my hotel from giving a TED talk at an anti-bullying conference, and it was getting dark and the storm had opened up ferociously. I ducked under a hotel awning, by the corner of Bourbon Street ... and there he was.

Beneath the clock he waited for his momma. Both flaps of his ridiculous hunting cap turned up, he was “studying the crowd of people for signs of bad taste in dress. Several of the outfits, Ignatius noticed, were new enough and expensive enough to be properly considered offenses against taste and decency.”

At the base of the statue, a placard said this had indeed been the site of D.H. Holmes, the department store where we meet Ignatius J. Reilly in the opening scene of A Confederacy of Dunces, the funniest American novel ever written.

I’d never before been to New Orleans; but because I’d read the novel two or three times many years ago, I had already bought wine cakes for Ignatius inside Holmes with well-meaning Irene Reilly. I had ducked into the Night of Joy, the French Quarter’s least reputable club, with ill-paid porter Burma Jones; and I had ridden up St. Charles Avenue under a canopy of ancient trees with hapless Patrolman Mancuso, “undercover” in shorts, t-shirt and long fake red beard.

It’s central to the legend of A Confederacy of Dunces that its author, John Kennedy Toole, having failed to get his book published, committed suicide in 1969. His mother finally persuaded famed Southern novelist Walker Percy to read the manuscript. Percy was awestruck, but it took even him four more years to convince a small publisher to bring out the book, in 1980. Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize, and has since sold 1.5 million copies.

I think it’d be impossible to get this novel published today. It so celebrates Ignatius’s outlandish insensitivity, and its gay and African-American characters are at the same time stereotypical and strikingly human; the former aspect would sink the book. Nobody would touch it. But it’s with us forever, now — and like that statue in the rain, to run into it is to rediscover an old friend. To laugh at the memories. To have again, for a little while at least, a shelter from the storm.

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The practice of the pause

After a long holiday weekend, we start back wondering if we can stay relaxed. Somehow.

It wasn't easy to get relaxed, for me by Saturday, our company had moved on and I'd been looking forward to slowing down, but mostly I snacked and twitched and realized how tense and tight I was. Finally by the end of Sunday, after a real effort (ironic? oh, at least), I had pretty much relaxed. But that goodness will evaporate by mid-morning this Monday ... right?

Well ... probably. But does it have to?

I like to read about mindfulness and meditation practice, and there I find the concept of the pause. In her book Radical Acceptance, which is a really good one, therapist and meditation teacher Tara Brach calls it the sacred pause. The idea is simple: At times during your day, pause and take three conscious breaths. That's all. It's often not simple to remember to do ... but that's all it is.

In his new book pause breathe smile, Gary Gach uses the concept of pausing to embrace the whole notion of intent that we make an ongoing effort to live with more care and awareness. He frames pausing as one of three intersecting spheres of mindfulness practice; the others are 'breathe', which includes the sitting meditation, and 'smile', which embraces an attitude of kindness that can open into insight.

That's a lot to think about, on a Monday morning, but it does bring me back to a good place to start. With the pause.

The more I try to remember to do this, the more I do. It really is simple: pause, wherever I am, and take three conscious breaths. The mind can wander far and away even after the first in-and-out! But the key is not to judge, just to come back. And the more I remember to do this little thing, here and there in my day, the less I do keep the the chance to open up to the day itself. Tension is a closing-up. Conscious breathing, in contrast, relaxes.

Really ... that's it.

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Back to Gettysburg, To the Turning Point

My son and I went to Gettysburg, and walked the fields of Pickett's Charge.

I had done this once before, in 1993 when Brad was six and I was researching Gunfire at Gettysburg, one of my Choose Your Own Adventure books. Walking then the long, broad, gentle slope of farmland where 12,000 Confederates made the final failed assault on the Union line that finished the battle on its third awful day, I was thinking about a story. This time I was thinking about us. All of us.

Back then, the divisions between us that could not be reconciled without violence led to war that cost 70,000 dead and wounded, just on those three days. Now again hatred, violence and division are a rising tide. Tuesday's elections can turn us on a pivot toward a new birth of freedom, in the phrase Lincoln gave us after the battle. Or they can keep us on the course to cataclysm.

As we came down the long field, we were reversing the path of the terrible charge. Brad got angry that the great statue of Robert E. Lee stood mounted on Traveler at the bottom, where Lee said 'This has all been my fault' to those of his soldiers who survived the slaughter. Brad said of the statue, It's a monument to white supremacy. It should come down.

I walked along the low wooded ridge, reading stone monuments to the units stationed that were stationed there that afternoon, each marker headed 'C.S.A.'. When I turned around, Brad was taking photos for an interracial group of Virginians who stood on the steps of Lee's statue. They had handed my son their cameras. Now a man wearing a rebel uniform, carrying the stars-and-bars battle flag, walked down the path, tracing the terrible retreat.

This is where we are. I wonder which way we will go.

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Through Rafflecopter, the publisher Chooseco is giving away signed copies of my newest book, Snake Invasion, an interactive novel for young readers that I think is pretty scarey — and that could really happen! Here is the link to the giveaway … and here’s the story of the story:

There’s nothing more fun, when you’re in the right mood, than a good creature feature.
    I remember hiding under couch pillows, thrilled by terror, as Saturday night TV’s “Chiller Theater,” hosted by Zacherly the Cool Ghoul on New York City’s Channel 11 in the 60s, showed classics like “King Kong vs. Godzilla” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
    So last year when the publishers of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, for which I’d written nine previous interactive novels, asked me to try a new project tentatively titled Snake Attack, I said heck yes! And I read some books like Nathaniel Benchley’s Beast (whoa), and watched some newer films like “Anaconda.”    
    And I had fun! I think you will too, if you check out my newest “Choose” book, Snake Invasion (we made the title more creepily realistic), which just came out this spring.
    Whether books or films, creature features work best when they’re built on a premise that's just believable enough to make it hard to sleep at night. So our concept for Snake Invasion is that you — the Choose books always center on “you,” a main character through whose choices the multi-ending story unfolds — are a kid living in a giant new subdivision that was built on a filled-in edge of Florida’s Everglades.
    What you don’t know at first, and neither does anyone else, is that the gigantic Burmese pythons, an invasive species that really is overrunning the Everglades (some estimates are that half a million of the creatures may be living there, with no natural enemies) have eaten all the wild prey in the world’s largest wetland.
    So now they are coming for the pets.
    And among the first two disappear is your little dog Zelda, who is snatched by a ten-foot python from her invisible-fenced pen in your backyard.
    You and your best friend Jackson, who spots the huge snake slithering toward the water with Zelda in its jaws, set out on a quest. Searching for your beloved pet leads you into a brace of moonlight adventures and scary predicaments, out in the gator-infested wetland at night — and among pet-attacking pythons by day.
    I won’t tell you what happens, but Snake Invasion has 13 different endings — and I had a great time researching what really might happen, if (as some experts predict) the huge, hungry snakes do clean the Everglades out of its raccoons, opossums, bird eggs and other vulnerable species, and come looking in nearby neighborhoods for more living food.
    If this sounds like a story for you, or for a young reader you know, the publisher Chooseco has just extended a Snake Invasion book giveaway through Rafflecopter. Here again is the link!
    Each copy is signed by me. I hope you’ll win one. And if you read Snake Invasion … I do hope you’ll survive.

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

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Watching Bernie, from way back

I first met and interviewed Bernie Sanders when I’d become a Boston Globe correspondent covering Vermont from Montpelier, and he’d just been re-elected mayor of Burlington. Over the years I’ve spoken with him a number of times and seen him many more — and like most all of us here in Vermont, I’ve always seen him in the same damn shirt.

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Words from another age of fear

“I am a member of a party of one, and I live in an age of fear.”

That’s how the writer E.B. White began a still-celebrated letter to the New York Herald Tribune on November 29, 1947. Ten men from the world of filmmaking — screenwriters, directors and/or producers — had just been convicted of contempt of Congress, and given jail terms, for supposedly sneaking Communist propaganda into their work. In levying the charges, the House Unamerican Activities Committee had given no supporting evidence.

White was worried, much as many of us are worried today.

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A president, a ball ... and a book

Early on in in Alexander Wolff’s new book The Audacity of Hoop — Basketball and the Age of Obama, there’s a photo of a ten-year-old boy and his dad. The setting is San Francisco airport. This is the last time Barack Obama will ever see his father, who abandoned the family when his son was an infant and had only now come back, to visit, for Christmas.

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What to tell a young teen who wants to write?

Because I’m lucky enough to do a lot of author visits to middle schools, I very often meet young people who are seriously, intently interested in writing — and often are writing; a sixth grader I met this week told me he’s working on a 500-page novel. (Whoa!) On almost every school visit I’ll get asked what advice I can offer.

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