What Kind of Book is A Little More Beautiful?

The wait is over. The book, A Little More Beautiful is out!

No publisher would take it. So she began her own publishing company. Sarah Mackenzie, who founded and runs Read-Aloud Revival, an expert in what makes a picture book a work of art, is now a published author. A Little More Beautiful began arriving at houses in March. 

Seven months ago they set a goal to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter to fund the project. Within hours it passed $100,000 and by the time the window closed raised $200,000 towards published. 

Now the book is out with another book by Waxwing publishers in the works. Waxwing is a boutique publishing company, meaning the team will publish a small number of, I gather, remarkable books if this first book is any indication.

A Little More Beautiful does everything Mackenzie has prized a good read-aloud picture book for.

It clearly grounds the reader in a sense of place and time with a remarkably minimal amount of words with the same clarity as Virginia Lee Burton, in The Little House.

It uses the poetic repetition that makes excellent read-aloud picture books so delicious with the same ear as Robert McCloskey, in Burt Dow, Deep Water Man or Make Way for Ducklings.

A Little More Beautiful moves perfectly from storytelling with words, introducing readers to place and characters, before shifting to storytelling with pictures, actively engaging the reader’s imagination. The reader sees the story unfold, like Mac Barnett, particularly in Sam and Dave Dig A Hole. And for the finale, she deftly brings the reader back to just enough words, with the imagination fully engaged, holding the weight of what those words mean throughout the story. 

Mackenzie did not just set out to write a good book.

Knowing that when all the pieces of a picture book work together, we sink into the whole experience. Children’s literature is an art unto itself. 

Like Mac Barnett, she uses the size and shape and layout of the book to emphasize the story. Mackenzie did not do this alone but hired book designer Cara Llewellyn to lay out the words and pages in their artful attire. 

Breezy Brookshire illustrated A Little More Beautiful in soft watercolors. The beauty is breathtaking. It’s no wonder they offered these as art prints in the bonus purchases on Kickstarter.

But as much as Mackenzie takes the absolute best of children’s literature techniques to craft the story, there is something much deeper here. 

The theme of A Little More Beautiful tells the story of the need to be connected. We are interpersonal beings and need relationships. We can connect through books, as Mackenzie has done with thousands of people in her podcast and community of read-aloud revival premium members. Mackenzie teaches that the love of literature is often born in the connection of occurs in the shared experience of reading aloud. 

Yet, we connect over all different kinds of mediums. We see this bond in the two main characters of A Little More Beautiful. She also connects with Lou Alice in a shared love of flowers. We influence each other from afar.

The material good we bring about is good, but it is not enough.

Something is missing if we do not have relationships.

How many of us have left a place and been forgotten about, or feared that would be the case? What will our legacy be without social media to capture it or something concrete to show us?

That will not complete us, and the world would be lacking something if we stopped there. If we stopped at the human connection and left those who have lost the ability to live independently, who are too often seen as burdens on society or their family. It isn’t so. 

I think back to the conversations I had with Cindy Morphy in August last year during National Night Out. “It’s okay for any of us when you see neighbors that you talk to them, but you also need to say, where is the neighbor that’s not here? I think we need to make neighbors aware of neighbors and who’s missing and how we can help those there might need love. We need to know our neighbors,” Morphy said. 

Not every story needs to moralize.

Mackenzie shows and does not tell us the good we can do when we remember one another, and when we act on that impulse to give. The little girl in the story, breezes through the book with the vitality of youth, bursting in with a gift of love. She is innocent and good, not inhibited by the message too many in our world receive, “don’t worry about it, let someone else take care of it.” The book reminds us that no, you have a gift to give. You are needed. And you can make the world a little more beautiful.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Poetry from the Muses / A Review of Meet Me At the Lighthouse

Meet Me at the Lighthouse

Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a new collection of poems by former poet-laureate Dana Gioia, released February 9 by Graywolf Press.

The collection offers a style for everyone, capturing what Gioia says —with a nod to Robert Frost— poetry is meant to do, utilizing poetry as “the most concise, expressive, moving and memorable way of articulating what it means to be human” to remember that which it “would impoverish us to forget.”

These lessons from Gioia, through his interviews and teaching, come to the fore in this little bound book of poems. Through the five sections, Meet Me at the Lighthouse presents us with his reminiscences, a ballad recalling the adventure and death of his great-grandfather, and a long poem that references the greatest poets and myths of history, illustrating the journey through death.

An Exercise of Memory

To be sure, as others have said, Meet Me at the Lighthouse is nostalgic. But even more, this work explores what Gioia so often speaks about, that this ancient art of poetry is an exercise of memory. That does not mean the sort of memory that dryly recalls the facts and figures of a city’s population growth, but the sweet feeling of recalling stories and children swallowing the stories whole recounted in “The Ancient Ones.”

In a series of teaching videos on YouTube, Gioia explains “No people can know where to go into the future without knowing where they came from in the past” and so here in this work he honors his past, not only his familial ancestors and their stories, but the poets who came before him, as in “Three Drunk Poets” when Gioia with two friends walk the nighttime streets reciting poetry.

Poetry goes still further.

When answering “What is Poetry?” Gioia states, it is

“not merely communication, poetry is a kind of enchantment that desires covertly or overtly to transform the world.”

Reading Meet Me at the Lighthouse I felt this in no place more deeply than in the section of modern psalms and laments for Los Angeles.

Here, Gioia taps into the Judeo-Christian consciousnesses as he recalls with heartache, longing, love, and righteous anger the place of his youth. It is beautiful. By tapping that shared culture of those who have read the psalms, the poet takes a shortcut to the vulnerable places of the hearts of those who mediated on those words, “How can I forget you, O Jerusalem?”

What does all this looking back do for the reader or listener of such poems?

I wondered where that attachment or nostalgic feeling was for me. What places did I love so dearly?

Those were the college days, my golden age. Transplanted to that world of snow, in those days, as Gioia wrote, we felt immortal.

And what about ancient ones who share their stories?

The ancient ones at the general store 100 years ago? The matriarchs and patriarchs of families at Thanksgiving? More accessible to me is our small town historical society. I see what Gioia describes: the little ones —my daughters— entranced, the older ones distracted with their tales, the absence of middle age.

What if our families are not storytellers?

Because the poet, whatever else he has taken in, must turn it around inside his mind, perceive it and make something of it.

We make the memories by soaking in the moment, by being willing to look back and let our imagination run wild while we recall the story.

And this is how we capture the beauty.

Gioia brings an earthiness to his poetry that might mean you don’t read them aloud to your children at night, but the feelings are true, beautiful, sad and transcendent — all the best things that poetry can be.

Three of the poems are set to music by Helen Sung, in a remarkable collaboration that takes me back, nostalgically so, to those college days of mine, driving downtown on a Saturday night to The Artist’s Quarter, buying drinks, then sobering up in the Minnesota chill while we grab a hamburger from Mickey’s, before driving home.

Meet Me at the Lighthouse is grounded in time and place, which makes the poetry more real, more transporting. He comes the neighborhood of Pulp Fiction and his odes to that metropolis exercise my empathy, as I imagine how someone could actually feel that way about a place I dislike so much. Poetry has that power too, it erases the exterior differences and gets to the heart of it.

This small volume can be consumed quickly, and feel free to do that, like browsing the buffet before you settle in to savor it, but please do savor it, and pick up a copy of Meet Me at the Lighthouse.

As Gioia says,

“Lean back relax and listen. Clear your mind of the clutter of the 21st century. Open your imagination and poetry will do the rest.”

Cover of Meet Me at the Lighthouse by Dana Gioia

Valentine’s Day Movie Recommendations

I’m a sucker for Valentine’s Day, so let’s talk about movies!

Read on for my list of romantic movie recommendations for the whole family this Valentine’s Day.

It Happened One Night

Classic movie poster for It Happened One Night

For one of the best in the romantic comedies, It Happened One Night. It Happened One Night is a 1934 pre-Code American romantic comedy film and “road film” in which we watch two main characters travel to their destination. Frank Capra directed it, the same director of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. It has all the goodness and none of the gravitas as It’s a Wonderful Life. Watch pampered heiress (Claudette Colbert) try to escape her father’s domineering plans for her life by running off to rejoin her husband. Clark Gable plays a roguish reporter who helps her in exchange for the exclusive. You can guess what happens next.

Make Way for Tomorrow

Classic movie poster for Make Way for Tomorrow

If you want more emotion, less fluff, try the romantic tear-jerker, Make Way for Tomorrow. It’s a sadder take on love, but one of the truest. Make Way for Tomorrow is a 1937 American drama film directed by Leo McCarey. Victor Moore star as Barkley “Pa” Cooper and Beulah Bondi as Lucy “Ma” Cooper, an elderly couple that has run out of luck and money. With their home foreclosed, they turned to their five grown children for help. But none of their children will take them both. Directed by Leo McCarey with a screenplay by Viña Delmar, this heartbreaking story is beautiful all the same.

City Lights

Classic movie poster for City Lights

For something old, see City Lights. Who would have thought one of the sweetest romantic movies would be a Charlie Chaplin flick? City Lights from 1931 is a silent romantic comedy film written, produced, directed by, and starring Chaplin. In it, Chaplin falls in love with a blind girl played by Virginia Cherrill. The sad, sweet ending is a treasure in cinema.


movie poster for Brooklyn

For something new, a romantic period drama, Brooklyn. The 2015 film, Brooklyn is directed by John Crowley and written by Nick Hornby, based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín. It stars Saoirse Ronan, an Irish immigrant who comes to America because no work can be found at home. She falls in love with Tony Fiorello, played by Emory Cohen. The movie is slow and quiet, grounded in time and place, with beautiful cinematography.

The African Queen

Classic movie poster for The African Queen

If you like the drama but want bigger drama against a world backdrop, visit The African Queen. The African Queen is a 1951 British-American adventure film adapted from the 1935 novel of the same name by C. S. Forester and directed by John Huston. Filmed on location, viewers are treated to real footage of African animals, while an older Humphrey Bogart as Charlie Allnut and Katherine Hepburn as Rose Sayer fall in love while navigating the river and seeking to destroy a Nazi warship. Heroic and hopeful, we see all the things you want in a romantic story, clashes of personality, a shared mission, and how true and worthy love motivates the best in us. 

The Lady Eve

Classic movie poster for The Lady Eve

Done with serious topics? A screwball comedy may be what you need. In that case, check out The Lady Eve. This screwball comedy is that type of comedy where the modern viewer thinks repeatedly, “This could never happen. In the 1941 film, written and directed by Preston Sturges, based on a story by Monckton Hoffe, cardsharp Barbara Stanwyck and rich fool Henry Fonda fall in love. Stanwyck plays off the boyish charm of Fonda perfectly. 

Since You Went Away

Classic movie poster for Since You Went Away

For a contrast of young love with the lasting love of a long marriage, see Since You Went Away. John Cromwell directed this 1944 American epic drama film about the American home front during World War II. It stars Claudette Colbert as Mrs. Anne Hilton, Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple as her daughters. We never see the object of Anne Hilton’s love, but we see the steadfast faithfulness in it, and sometimes, that’s all you need.


Classic movie poster for Paterson

For another slow and quiet new-ish film, watch Paterson, a 2016 drama film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. Paterson stars Adam Driver as a bus driver and poet named Paterson, and Golshefteh Farahani as his artistic, eccentric and loving wife. The movie takes us through one, semi-eventful week. There is no major crisis, only a small one. Rather, it shows the stability of the love and routine that shapes the bigger and arguably the better part of our love stories.

Desk Set

Classic movie poster for Desk Set

For one more zany love story, with a period backdrop of the beginning of the computer age, and phenomenal acting, see Desk Set. I like this 1957 American romantic comedy film, directed by Walter Lang, written by Phoebe Ephron, and starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, as a Christmas movie because of the outrageous Christmas party near the end. But the love, subtle jokes, perfect timing of Hepburn and Tracy is something to behold. The movie shows us the turmoil a computer in the 1950s can cause. 

And if you just need one more after Valentine’s Day has past, check out the nearly perfect movie, The Princess Bride at the Denair Gaslight Theater on February 25.

Finding the Arts in a Rural Community

I‘m always looking for more opportunities and experiences for the arts, whether for myself or my children. And after so many years of searching, it surprising to sit back and look at just how much there is going on where we live.

Shakespeare 4 All

Photo by Deniz Demirci on Unsplash

This will be a new experience for us. For three weeks out of the year I’ll shuttle my daughter back and forth nightly from Modesto to rehearse for and participate in a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare 4 All creates a community opportunity for people of any experience level to participate in a Shakespearean play. My daughter has thus far only performed in home theatrics but loves to memorize poetry. Her little heart came alive when we held our first family Midsummer Night’s Festival at our house. For years, she’s sustained an interest in the stage, and now she is old enough for me to feed that.

Opera Modesto Reader Performances

The Reader Performances with Opera Modesto’s Story Into Song Literacy Initiative mean I can bring my multiple children to the productions I report on. We are already reading poetry and studying music, now they can see poery and music combined, performed by professionals and pre-professionals, including young women like Darby Schmidt who starred in “Annabel” as the titular character. Schmidt is from Oakdale and grew up operatically through the Summer Opera Institute program with Opera Modesto. She now studies at Eastman School of Music.

Homeschool Co-op Classes

Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

Organized homeschool community activities are very important to a homeschooling community, creating educational extra-curricular opportunities for our students. With aging children, I now have one old enough to participate in ballroom dancing. Learning to dance not only ensures a good time at weddings but can help create some really good awkward moments once self-consciousness sets in. Class will be once a week for six weeks.

Art Classes at Carnegie Arts Center

I have three children signed up for classes this spring with the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock. Those classes include painting, stop-motion animation and print-making. One child reports she would like to be an artist. Another draws dynamic figures at war. We visit exhibits often, primarily their opening nights which offer free admission and often have the artists present and available to answer questions. I relish opportunities for my children to meet working artists to hear what is like and to be encouraged.

Aileen Jaffa Poetry Contest

Contests are important. The thrill of competition comes with the idea that, if I apply myself, maybe I could win. It’s an exciting proposition. Last year my eldest wrote a riddle-poem about our chicken egg basket, my first-born son rhymed his way through a goblin attack, and my middle child played with words sounds in a poem about spring. Contests help us draw up what we’ve learned and apply it in a concerted effort, often with very surprising and entertaining results.

A Cèilidh

A few years ago, gentleman came and washed our windows. While filling his bucket, he overhead my husband’s soundtrack of Celtic music. They got to talking and Mr. Derek Sturke of “I Can See Clearly Now” Window Cleaning invited my husband to participate with a group of musicians in a monthly meet up to play those good ol’ Irish tunes called a “cèilidh.” This last month I came along with the children for the first hour. Nothing quite beats hearing our 7-year-old belt out the chorus from “Wild Rover”.

Whatever my children choose for a career, I hope that the love of beauty and the practice of making the world a more beautiful place will be a part of their lives, however it may look. I hope will be for you, too.

If any of these things appeal to you, check them out.

There are more out there include ballet thorough the Juline School or Central West Ballet, theater at Prospect Theater and Gaslight Theater, Gallo Center performances, plays by the performing arts departments in the high schools and colleges. There is so much to enjoy in our neck of the woods, we just have to dig a little.

And if you find a little something you love, please considering supporting these groups that work so hard.

Many of the educational opportunities are made possible to a large family through the generous scholarship programs offered by local non-profits and teachers. If you have been supporting these programs with your donations, thank you. On behalf of a family for whom it might not otherwise be possible, thank you.

Do You Know Poe?

Pizza and Poe Trivia Party

I tend to avoid trivia games. It has always been that way. Name that tune was naught but an embarrassment for me. Yet, I have a knack for remembering stories, characters and their author’s biographical information so the idea of a Pizza and Poe Trivia Party in the maker’s room at the Modesto Library was tempting.

My daughters came with me. We studied the timeline of a children’s biography of Poe in the car. We were ready to win.

Author trivia is so challenging when you’ve read a tiny fraction of the author’s works. Nevertheless, we ended in 4th place, respectable considering I sat beside a mathematician and a woman from a Shakespeare non-profit was in the room. The best moments were when my 9-year-old made guesses that were absolutely correct. How did she know Rue Morgue was a street in Paris? I’m so proud. Those Portuguese classes and Latin lessons must be paying off.

The take away, beyond the competition and camaraderie, was that Poe is not who I thought Poe was.

Do you know Poe?

I knew him from Tiny Tunes’ rendition of “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

But Poe? I do not know Poe.

I thought he was a tortured soul, torturing readers with his tales of terror.

Not Poe.

Poe was a poet.

Poe was an editor.

Poe was a literary critic.

Poe also has a fan base of people who like to wear black, read spooky things and cosplay with Victorian steam punk attire. But beyond the black, that is not me.

Hillari DeSchane, co-chair for the upcoming PoeCon recognized this gothic attraction. In looking to expand the Story into Song Literacy Initiative’s January production into another conference to rival 2020’s JaneCon, DeSchane knew Poe fit the bill.

But is he just for the goth at heart?

No. DeSchane explains, “Poe has broad appeal across age groups, educational levels, gender and life experience. He’s a perennial favorite for personal reading, and look at the myriad of adaptations into other formats, including pop art and culture! … in the last several decades Poe has been undergoing a critical reappraisal, of both his work and his life. He is increasingly acknowledged as a consummate craftsman, an incisive critic, a prolific practitioner of multiple genres, is almost unanimously acknowledged as the father of the modern detective genre, and—he’s wittily and wickedly funny, too! In his personal life, his reputation as a drink- and drug-addled wreck is now known to have been the smear campaign of a jealous contemporary. This is an author who’s been resurrected, if you will.”

For all his macabre, Poe it still relevant today.

DeSchane explains, “EAP’s fiction examines the core fears and crises of the human existence: love, loss, fear, pain. He also, I believe, explores the consequences of unbridled, undisciplined emotion, of living as if one’s own needs are the only consideration. The battle between ‘I want’ and ‘others need’ is certainly current, and the consequences of selfism—alienation, unhappiness, disfunction, disintegration—are current too.”

It sounds heady, but as I saw with the Launch Party and Trivia, the events are family-friendly, which means I can immerse my children in a study of something that has become part of our American cultural canon. They can meet others who love to read just as much as they.

Poe knew sadness.

His father abandoned the family when he was one, his mother died when he was two. His foster father never really showed love to him and his foster mother died when he was still young. He was deeply devoted to the mother of a friend and she also died. He married and his wife, Virginia, died, too. Times were tough in the 1800s. Times are tough, in their own way, always.

Poe explains in his essay “On the Philosophy of Composition,” that his creative process was intelligible. David Gosselin writes in The Imaginative Conservative, “He begins by recognizing the universal sentiment, the “immortal instinct” found in each individual. From that universal, he then details what themes, subjects, and images he thought would be most conductive to affect the desired outcome on a reader.”

Death was the answer. And what was the most melancholy topic that was likewise be the most poetic? The death of a beautiful woman. A melancholy Poe knew inside and out.

So there we have it.

There is more to know about Poe than the reputation that precedes him.

Check him out at PoeCon January 13-15, 2023. For more info, visit modestopoecon.com.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Yesterday’s Books is Closing

An Ode to Good Bookstores

“It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other, and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterward in the hope of being in paradise again.”

Jeff Deutsch, In Praise of Good Bookstores, 58

In Praise of Good Bookstores published in April 2022 by Princeton University Press explores the important social-cultural role of the local bookstore. While it appears on the surface to follow the usual mold of commerce where inventory is stocked, sold at a profit and stocked again, the local bookstore, beyond this veneer, is a markedly different animal.

The store goes beyond a commodity sold. Deutsch runs the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago, the first-ever non-profit bookstore that exclusively sells books. In his book, Deutsch distinguishes between “the economy of the gift” and the “economy of the commodity.” Most booksellers, cannot turn a great profit, or sometimes any profit at all, unless they stock their shelves with bookmarks, socks, notebooks, calendars and the like, alongside books.

Books are expensive to produce and so the profit margin is relatively small.

It seems natural that large-scale booksellers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon exist. Buying in bulk means being able to sell at a discount. Selling books marked 30% off shifts the buyer’s perception of the value of the book.

Our perceptions further shifted when Amazon, the unavoidable elephant in the world of bookselling, shifted books to a loss leader, intentionally taking a loss on their sales to attract traffic towards more profitable items.

Add inflation. Add the higher cost of living. Add all the things that make us shudder at spending $14.99. We order, we reserve, and we’ve lost the art of browsing.

A necessary art

When browsing we slow down, meander the stacks and discover something unexpected. The art of the bookseller is stocking one or two copies of different titles and organizing them for that serendipitous find. The shelves cannot hold everything. The best bookseller will have a mix of new and old, cutting-edge and classic. The best bookseller stocks curated shelves.

Yesterday’s Books

Before there was Lightly Used Books, our only local, secular bookstore was Yesterday’s Books. I was in junior high when my father began taking me there.

In college, friends and I looked for low-cost destinations. For that, there were bookstores, and so I dated my husband and Yesterday’s Books. I told this to Paula Kiss, the woman who has owned Yesterdays Books for nearly 15 years. After working there for 17 years, she purchased it from Larry and Kathleen Dorman, the original owners.

On October 26, 2022, Kiss informed the public that she has decided to close Yesterday’s Books, a result of rising operating costs and lost sales that never returned to pre-Covid levels. Immediately, “overwhelming loving” responses of “shock and sadness” poured in, which Kiss said she is ‘hoarding those little stories like a dragon horse their jewels.”

Through social media comments, emails and in-person conversations people are sharing those stories with her. One patron told Kiss how she and her daughter would come in, shut their eyes and pick a book at random to purchase. Kiss never met them before hearing this story, but remembers seeing them in the act more than once.

The closure of Yesterday’s Books, one of the few books stores left in Stanislaus County, is a loss to the community.

When asked what Kiss thinks a bookstore brings to the community, she responded at first by saying, “everything.”

“We have generations of people that come. I have people telling me, ‘this is where I would come, when I was feeling anxiety, feeling stressed because it was calm, and I could come and sit and, get lost in the stacks.’” Kiss continued, “I think books are friends.”

Kiss sees a community bookstore as a safe space, a source of friendship and love. 

How can we ensure these spaces are not lost in our community?

I propose, just by making the drive. It’s easier to order online. It’s easier to order used online than ever. But when we drive to our local bookshop, browse the stacks and stay a while, we slow down, contemplate, and discover. It’s an art that we need more in life, where the stacks are low and the rewards are high. It’s healing, it’s creative, and it builds relationships.

We may not be able to save Yesterday’s Books. But if you have a story, reach out to Kiss and share it with her.

When you visit a new town, see if there is a bookstore you can visit and make a purchase.

Consider shopping locally before online.

And see what a difference it can make.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Next Steps on this Poetic Journey

How poetry came to be to me

From love poems to horses to angsty free verse poetry to rhyming poems about the faith, my journey into poetry began at a young age, slept during the years of fiction and college essay writing, and awoke only briefly in my AP English class in high school. “The Gray Squirrel”, a bit of Shakespeare, “Little Elegy” all from one teacher. If there were more I cannot remember them. I encountered none in college.

In college, G.K. Chesterton introduced me to Gabriel Gale and taught me the definition of a poet in The Poet and the Lunatics. “Genius oughtn’t to be eccentric!” he cried in some excitement.

Cover of The Poet and the Lunatics by G.K. Chesterton

“Genius ought to be centric. It ought to be in the core of the cosmos, not on the revolving edges.” The poet sees not only the material before him, but sees into its inner meaning and its connectedness to the rest of the world. It is musing on this and inner light of things that brings about the burst of words called poetry.

Next steps in poetry

This year I learned who Dana Gioia is. Former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and California poet laureate, Gioia is teaching me about poetry through articles and podcast interviews. Gioia made the case in a 1991 article for The Atlantic “Can Poetry Matter?” that, for various reasons, poetry became to be seen as the purview of the elite, something the regular man or woman could not “understand.” It was a pedagogical error that most approaches toward poetry were based on analytical, asking always, “what does this mean?” “What concepts does the poet express?”

Gioia explained,

“But, poetry is not conceptual thought. If you are writing a poem, you’re using language fundamentally differently from how an economist would use it. You are using things in a semi-abstract language to make it absolutely clear about a general case. But, poetry, even if it’s about big issues, is always about a particular case. And so, a poet uses words in such a way that they don’t address primarily your intellect. They simultaneously address your intellect, your emotions, your physical senses, your memory, your intuition in a way which does not ask you to divide them.”

 It is not intended to be unfolded into an essay, but for the listener to step into the moment of wonder or musing with the poet. Gioia explains elsewhere that the muses, referred to as one’s inspiration, stem from the idea of goddess of inspiration. According to Hesiod’s account, the Nine Muses were the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (i.e., “Memory” personified).

The poem captures a moment and a sense or feeling like calling up a memory, if not a connection of our own, than one of humanity.

For the past year or two I have been buying up poetry books in the hopes that I would then begin to read poetry. I occasionally encountered a poem that moved me, but little else in the collection around it. “My Heart and I” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, for example, or “Lead, Kindly Light” and “The Two Worlds” by John Henry Newman found in A Newman Reader.

A Newman Reader, which includes poetry by John Henry Newman

And now, introducing Czeslaw Milosz

I tried The Collected Poems of John Donne, apparently in the original English lacking standardized spelling, another vintage compilation of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poetry, Poems Every Catholic Should Know, and more, but nothing stuck.

I listened to Professors Jennifer Frey and Thomas Pfau discussed the work and world of Czeslaw Milosz on the podcast “Sacred and Profane Love”, Episode 36. More and more I heard about this man who lived many years in Berkeley. To be honest, the first time I remember hearing his name was in the film Under the Tucson Sun.

The protagonist tells a Polish contractor,

“Czeslaw Milosz – I like him”

In the podcast interview, they read and referenced his works and I was spellbound.

I owned the book already, 1931-2004 Selected Poems Czeslaw Milosz having discovered it in the stacks at Lightly Used Books.

Cover of Selected Poems by Czeslaw Milosz

It took me back to the poetry that moved my heart and stirred my imagination in middle school. Milosz captures something, lets the words glaze over and over the center, piecing together the whole picture.

One life. One life is not enough.

I would like to live twice in this sad world.

My senses have to be fully alert to understand any of it. As I read, my eyes light up as sparks flit in my brain, dancing from image to image of the poem, stringing the meaning together into one coherent whole.

I understand why I could not read this stuff when I was drunk tired from life or baby care. It wasn’t the season.

Now tides have changed and I welcome it. One more step on the journey. One new area to learn about. One new step unfolding the mystery of all there is to discover here in life.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

“Sweep” swept my heart away

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Book Cover of Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster

Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster (May 5, 2020) written by Jonathan Auxier is one of those remarkable, read-aloud books for all ages. Sarah Mackenzie, the host of the Read-Aloud Revival described Sweep as having “won a place in my all-time tippy top favorite books” and rightly so. She described it thus,

“He’s large and lovable and Nan, our heroine will raise him almost like her own child. He is in the end, her protector. Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is a book by Jonathan Auxier… It’s a Charles Dickens-like adventure about the everlasting gifts of friendship and wonder. The deep moments reflect the reality and nature of parenting and the wonder we experience when we see the world through the wonder of our child’s eyes.”

Mackenzie’s description, her incredible taste in good books, and the interview with the author pushed this book to the top of my list. I immediately reserved it at the library. The Saturday after it came, we settled down in the living room ready for me to read aloud. I have read only one other chapter book to my children, the name of which escapes me because I yawned through it and disliked the ending so much. It was not the ending it should have had, not the one the story led up to, and so it cheapened the emotions the author drew out of the reader.

Sweep does not do this at all.

The ending is joyful but did not come cheaply or without difficult things happening without which it never would have been possible.

C.S Lewis wrote

“To love is to be vulnerable.”

So all love will come with some sacrifice, some pain.

Auxier knows this and the vulnerability of love, for which one gives of himself or herself, is at the heart of this book. He writes, through his characters,

“We save ourselves by saving others.”

This is the gift of self through which we can truly find who we are, as Pope Paul VI wrote about in “Guadium et Spes.”

We can try to hold onto what we love by asking them to promise never to help others, never to give of themselves, but this is wrong. It is wrong to desire others to not sacrifice themselves because you want to see them preserved at all costs.

It means a great deal to me when an author will not shy away from the full nature of love.

In an interview, poet Dana Gioia told Russ Roberts,

“’There is no holiday without ghosts.’ And, I think that’s true. As you get older and you lose people, every joy you have is qualified by your losses. But, in a weird way, that amplifies your joy and makes your memory bearable.”

It isn’t the darkness of the book that matters to me. It is the willingness of the author to allow loss to amplify joy. This is when I find real life on the pages. And I found that realness of life in Sweep.

Indeed, in the end notes, the author wrote his daughter has down syndrome and was born with a congenital heart defect that required open heart surgery,

“I had to make a choice to love someone who I knew could very likely break my heart beyond repair.”

And so we read Sweep aloud.

While the above reflections span the deep, we laughed a lot during the book.

Every scene counts. The structure is perfect. We read chapters that represent “before” and my daughter points out to me that these always come following a chapter end in which she goes to sleep. These are her dreams, they are not merely flashbacks inserted here and there.

The book is divided into two parts, “Innocence” and “Experience,” taken from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and draws in Blake’s work through two poems both titled, “The Chimney Sweeper.”

The last chapters of the book perfectly recall the past, where we have been through all these chapters. Reading aloud brought out the impact of this.

The dialogue and language throughout are wonderful. The dialogue offers some regional subtleties that are there for those with ears to hear, but not so much that it distracts us. The characters are utterly consistent and true to their nature.

The villain is real. For the secondary villain, we are given a glimpse of how one can actually become a monster. We are allowed to see how Charlie could become a monster. Auxier references Frankenstein here – the novel – which addresses this lesson exactly. The man and monster formed in his custody, the lessons taught to the naïve monster, the question of who is the real monster. Roger is in Crudd’s custody. Charlie is in Nan’s.

Busy hands stopped to listen as I read on and we bonded in the discovery of what came next.

Sweep is recommended for ages 8-12 years old but this is a mere measure of literacy. As a read-aloud, I found my husband, children, ages 6-12 years, and myself captivated.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What Flannery Recommends: Non-fiction and Catholicism

Part 4: Non-fiction and Catholic works that Flannery O’Connor recommends

“I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike.” 

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’ Connor p. 241

In The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (August 1, 1988) edited by Sally Fitzgerald, lovers literature and students of literature are treated to a rare treat, this 640 volume that contains her passing comments, recommendations and critiques on over 100 titles.

  • For books on the craft of writing that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
  • For the authors that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
  • For the novels and short stories Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.
What Flannery Recommends, author recommendations from The Habit of Being

Word of God and the Word of Man

Barth, Karl.

About the trials of Biblical scholars since about 1880. Very enlightening to me. It’s certainly easier to be a Bible reader in 1962 than in 1904.

Three Mystic

Bruno, Father De J. M.

Highly enjoying the beautiful book

The Eclipse of God

Buber, Martin.

these boys have got a lot to offer us/I think this book you sent me is wonderful…Buber is an antidote to the prevailing tenor of Catholic philosophy which…is often apologetic rather than dialogic. Buber is an artist. That is one thing. Thomism usually comes in a hideous wrapper, but Buber’s thought is cast in a form that is always readable.

The Phenomenon of Man

de Chardin, Teilherd.

this is a scientific age and Teilhard’s direction is to face it toward Christ. / I might suggest you look into some of the works off…

(Book on Fenelon)

Fenelon, François.

Born Catholics

Frank Sheed.

Forced on me…I found it more interesting than I had thought as there are many and diverse degrees of experience in it

The Unity of Philosophical Experience

Gilson, Etienne.

A book that might help you

History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages

Gilson, Etienne.

I surprised to come across various answers to Simone Weil’s questions to Fr. Perrin.

The Unity of Philosophical Experience

Gilson, Etienne.

I am an admirer of

Religious and the Psychology of Jung

Goldbrunner, Josef.

Jung is with the uncles and not the great uncles; which is not to condemn him. I admire him…to my way of thinking, Goldbrunner has used Jung in the only way that I think he can be used, which is in helping the person face his own psychic realities, or those realities that the great mystics have always faced and that the Church teaches (in spite of Jung’s insistence that she does not) we must face. Goldbrunner can do this because he believes in the objective reality of God.

Christian Thought and Action

Graham, Dom Aelred.

A very good book, heathen friend – amazed a Catholic writer could be so flexible

The Faith and Modern Man

Guardini, Romano.

The Lord

Guardini, Romano.

Very fine/there is nothing like [it] anywhere, certainly not in this country.

The Virgin Mary

Guitton, Jean.

Have had considerable light thrown on the subject for me

The Reformation in England

Hughes, Philip.

Certainly am enjoying…I feel like I was at it

The Lives of the English Poets

Johnson, Samuel.

Modern Man in Search of the Soul

Jung, Carl.

I am conscious in a general way of the world’s present historical position, which according to Jung is unhistorical. I am afraid I got this concept from…

The Conservative Mind

Kirk, Russell.

Which I admire


Lewis, C.S.

Which is very fine. Deceptively simple. You really need to read every sentence twice.

On Prayer

Lewis, C.S.

This book is a good one but I don’t like to pray any better for reading it.

Christ and Apollo

Lynch, Fr. William S.J.

Has some good answers to the question of what-are-you-saying.

Art and Scholasticism

Maritain, Jacques.

The book I cut my aesthetic teeth on, though I think even some of the things he says get soft at times. He is a philosopher and not an artist but he does have a great understanding of the nature of art, which he gets from St. Thomas. / your freshmen may be improved by a look at [it]…he dwells on St. Thomas’s definition of art as a virtue of the practical intellect, etc.

The Mystery of Being

Marcel, Gabriel

are readable

God and Mammon

Mauriac, François.

References for writing advice

Mémoires Intérieurs

Mauriac, François.

I am going to send it to you to read what he says about Emily Bronte. He sounds so much like you he might be you. He also has some good things to say about Hawthorne.

a book on Greece

Miller, Henry.

Very fine

The Grammar of Assent

Newman, John Henry.

On the Theology of Death

Rahner, Karl.

It is great but difficult to read.

Two Portraits of St. Thérèse of Liseuix

Robo, Fr. Etienne.

He does away with all the roses, little flowers, and other icing. The book has greatly increased my devotion to her.

Interior Castle

Theresa of Avila.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. It is a mine of information

Israel and Revelation

Voegelin, Eric.

He gets away from the Spengler-Toynbee business very effectively and instead of seeing history as civilizational cycles sees it as an exodus from civilization.

The World of The Polis

Voegelin, Eric.

2nd volume on the Greek polis, a masterful analyses of the Illad & of Aeschylys but other hunks and dull and over my head/parts were very exciting but for the most part you need to be a Greek scholar to read it.

Essays and Addresses

Von Hugal, Baron.

I like the book very much.

God and the Unconscious

White, Victor, O.P.

Know the terrific pleasure these books are going to give me / I think it is full of psychological explanations of dogmas and rituals, which requires that he ignore the accepted meanings of them.

What Flannery Recommends: Fiction

Part 3: Fiction works that Flannery O’Connor recommends

“I suffer from generalized admiration or generalized dislike.” 

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’ Connor p. 241

In The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (August 1, 1988) edited by Sally Fitzgerald, lovers and students of literature are treated to a rare treat, this 640 volume that contains her passing comments, recommendations and critiques on over 100 titles.

  • To read which authors Flannery O’Connor recommends, click here.
  • For books on the craft of writing that Flannery O’Connor recommends reading, click here.

We are sharing those recommendations with you now.

What Flannery Recommends, author recommendations from The Habit of Being

Diary of a Country Priest

Bernanos, George.

So far it seems to be only a slight framework of a novel to hang Bernanos’ religious reflections on. The diary form gives him leave to do this, otherwise he would have a hard time…Bernanos stands very high with Catholics, at least with the ones who read.

Cary, Joyce. Herself Surprised. The Horse’s Mouth. To be a Pilgrim. I must have liked them or I wouldn’t have read three…it must have been the most interesting one. He has gusto.

The Lament

Chekhov, Anton.

I Choose to Die

Cheney, Brainard.

I like it all but the song and dance.

Secret Agent

Conrad, Joseph.

Under Western Eyes

Conrad, Joseph.

I don’t have one perception about the novels, but I keep reading them hoping they’ll affect my writing without my being bothered knowing how.

A Sea Change

Dennis, Nigel.

A wonderful novel

Gothic Tales

Dinesen, Isak.

Some of them I like right much…I can’t take too much of her at one time

Murder in the Cathedral (play)

Elliot, T. S..

A marvelous play



More to my taste (compared to Alcestis…It’s a pretty untragic play with only 1 dead body & that eventually brought back from the shades of Heracles)

Poor Harriet

Fenwick Way, Elizabeth.

I enjoyed her and also my mamma enjoyed her

The Simple Truth

Fenwick, Elizabeth.

I liked it…Elizabeth is a lot better writer than she gets credit for

Oedipus Rex

Fitzgerald, Robert with Fitts, Dudley.

A very fine translation/I’m much taken with it…I think it must be the best, and it certainly very beautiful.

The Odyssey

Fitzgerald, Robert.

Arrived to my great improvement, I look forward to carnage at the end

Passage to India

Forster, E. M.

Still my favorite

Lord of the Flies

Golding, William.

I think you would like it

Summer Dust

Gordon, Caroline.

Impressionistic story. You read it and then you have to sit back and let your mind blend it together…She is a great student of Flaubert and is great on getting things there so concretely that they can’t possibly escape…this is real mastery doing, and nobody does it better than Caroline. You walk through her stories like you were walking through a complete world. And watch how the meaning comes from the things themselves and not from her imposing anything. Right when you finish reading that story, you don’t think you’ve read anything, but the more you think about it the more it grows.

The Malefactors

Gordon, Caroline.

With all my usual admiration for everything she writes. I look at it from the underside, thinking how difficult all this was to do because I know nothing harder than making good people believable.

The Tin Drum

Grass, Gunter.

I’m enjoying…That Grass is really something. I’ll be all year reading it…

The Simple Truth

Hardwick, Elizabeth.

I think she’s a mighty good writer

The Lime Twig

Hawkes, John

It came last Sunday and I read that afternoon and evening in a sitting that was unwillingly interrupted once or twice. The action seems to take place at that point where dreams are lightest (and fastest?), just before you wake up. It seems to me that you have retained all the virtues of the other books in this once, but added something that will hold the reader to the reading I can’t make any intelligent comments about this book an more than I could about the others; but I can register my sensations. You suffer this like a dream. It seems to be something that is happening to you, that you want ot escape from but can’t. It’s quire remarkable…Meanwhile, my admiration is 90% awe and wonder.

The Story Hour

Hay, Sara Henderson

I enjoyed them thoroughly—the poems— and thought the illustrations were funny too.

The Disinherited Mind

Heller, Erich.

I like, essays on Goethe, Nietzsche, Rilke, Spengler, Kafka and a few others


Heller, Joseph.

I enjoyed reading…I think it gets funnier after page 36.

The Old Man and the Sea

Hemingway, Ernest.

[Faulkner] says that Hemingway discovered God in the Creator in this one. What part I like in that was where the fish’s eye was like a saint in a procession; it sounded to me like he was discovering something new maybe for him.

The Living Novel, a Symposium

Hicks, Granville (ed).

I like the book very much and am glad to find myself in it/nine others in it of varying degrees of sense

A High Wind in Jamaica

Hughes, Richard.

Small enough to be perfect

The Fox in the Attic

Hughes, Richard.

(Implied it is as good as A High Wind in Jamaica) this other thing is part of something larger and can’t be judged by such standards

Portrait of a Lady

James, Henry.

You have to judge James by this book.

The Dead

Joyce, James.

The Dubliners

Joyce, James.

Study these stories, you can learn an awful lot from them

The Odyssey: a Modern Sequel

Kazantzakis, Nikos.

a wonderful book, just finished Book I and felt I was in the presence of something

The Lotus and The Robot

Koestler, Arthur.

I recommend it highly

The Velvet Horn

Lytle, Andrew.

I was entirely taken with it. I didn’t follow all the intricacies of the symbolism but it had its effect without working it all out/very readable. I usually can’t read a book that long.

The End of Pity

Macauley, Robie.

I want you to see…Not all the stories in this one are good but the good ones are as good as anybody’s

The Legend of Two Swimmers

Macauley, Robie.

The Chevigny Man

Macauley, Robie.

The Good Soldier

Maddox Ford, Ford.

I like…

The Assistant

Malamud, Bernard.

I don’t like his novel as well as his stories but it’s still a good novel

The Magic Barrel

Malamud, Bernard.

I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself. / The stories deal with Jews and they are the real thing. Really spiritual and very funny.

The more I read it the better I like it.

The Voices of Silence

Malraux, Andre.

I am working my way through it slowly. It is really fine.

The Mechanical Bride

Marshall, Herbert.

Has to be read completely and slowly…I appreciate the book…the meat is in the text and has to be read carefully

The Book of Knowledge

Mee, Arthur.

the only good things I read when I was a child were the Greek and Roman myths which I got out of a set of child’s encyclopedia

The Wandering of Desire

Montgomery, Marion.

Wonderful. 100% solid and alive throughout. The Southern writer can outwrite anybody in the country because he has the Bible and a little history, but you’ve got more of both than most and a splendid gift besides. IT all adds up to a really fine novel and I’ll be proud to say the same or something similar to … all I can say is you’ve done it.

Under the Net

Murdoch, Iris.

Well written but I don’t remember it

Bend Sinister

Nabokov, Vladimir.

I Have always like Nabokov, I have forgotten everything about it except that I was impressed, even possibly influenced

The Real Life of Sebastian Knight

Nabokov, Vladimir.

If you don’t know Nabokov, you ought to

Dr. Zhivago

Pasternak, Boris.

Really something/it is a great book.

Lanterns on the Levee

Percy, Walker.

Percy’s masterpiece…now in its 16th printing


Pirandello, Luigi.

Ship of Fools

Porter, Katherine Ann

May not be a great book but it is in many ways a fine one. It has a sculptural quality. I admire the bulldog in it the same way I would admire a bulldog carved to perfection. Essence of bulldog…

Humorous Tales

Poe, Edgar Allen.

These were mighty humorous…this is an influence I would rather not think about

Morte d’Urban

Powers, J. F.

[The review] was so favorable someone might have thought I was in your employ. I chiefly said that it was a novel and all the people who said otherwise were nuts. I thought it really hung together as a whole piece and that it was worth holding onto for ten years or however long you held on to it.

Prince of Darkness

Powers, J. F.


The Presence of Grace

Powers, J.F.

I admire your stories better than any of the others I know of even in spite of the cat who, if my prayers have been attended to, has already been run down

Remembrance of Things Past

Proust, Marcel.

I am eating through it like a mole. I think it would make good Iceland reading for either you or the Caption. Maybe you could keep him quiet with it.

The Leopard

Purdy, James.

this is very fine.

The Nephew

Purdy, James.

I really think it is quite a good book, on a small scale

(Title not given)

Ripley, Dillon.

I certainly have enjoyed his book and if you are speaking with him, tell him he has one ardent fan in the state of Georgia.

They Don’t Dance Much

Ross, James.

Very fine book

Troilus and Cressida

Shakespeare, William.

His clotted, odd, inspired…

The Girls of Slender Means

Sparks, Muriel.

Which came at 12 o’clock noon and I finished before I went to bed. I really did like it, better than the others.

The Foundling

Spellman, Cardinal Francis.

If we must have trash this is the kind of trash we ought to have.

Lie Down in Darkness

Styron, William.

I find it very impressive so far

much too much the long tedious Freudian case history, though the boy can write and there were overtones of better things in it.

The Man of Letters in the Modern World

Tate, Allen.

A Meridian book worth reading—that I think is very fine.

A Long Fourth

Taylor, Peter.


The Straight and Narrow Path

Tracy, Honor.

Too long but better sustained than most funny books

Domestic Manners of the Americans

Trollope, Frances Milton.

I like [Anthony] Trollope. Have you ever read his mother’s account of her visit to American in the 1830s? Shouldn’t be missed.

Kristin Lavransdatter

Undset, Sigrid

Remember being much gripped with that love and that writing, although in those days I wasn’t thinking of it as writing…could she have done it without returning to the 13th century

All the King’s Men

Warren, Robert Penn.

I suggest you read…

The Loved One

Waugh, Evelyn.

Right length for that kind of book.

Sword of Honor

Waugh, Evelyn.

I really liked this last one…of Waugh’s best.

Check back next week for the round-up of authors that Flannery O’Connor recommends.