Tag Archives: Roald Dahl

The Belated Summer Reading List

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” –William Styron

Hello friend,

You know those Summer Reading Lists you see in the magazines and on websites around Memorial Day? I love those lists! You know the ones: they assume you have unlimited time in the Summer, so they tell you all the cool books to read by the beach or pool as you chill your way through the season. They give you some hot new authors and some literary giants, some fiction and some nonfiction. Everyone has one of these lists: Oprah, Amazon, Goodreads, The Washington Post, PBS, you name it. They always get me so excited about my favorite thing: books!

Well, I am sorry to say that you will not find one of those great Summer Book Lists on this page next May!

I have never been one to plan my reading. I go by intuition. When I finish one book, I just scour the shelves and the lists and choose the one that feels right to me. Before I look, I cannot tell you if I will be choosing a title in Teen Fiction, New Age, Classics, Self-Help, History, Humor, or Memoir. I find something to love in all of them as long as I trust my gut in the choosing.

So, my apologies for not providing you with yet another prescription for your Summer reading. Because guess what: September is here, and Autumn is knocking!

Thus, the best I can do for you is to tell you about all the great stuff I read over the Summer. Like the usual lists, I have a mix of genres for you and a mix of authors new and old. So, lets get started!

I came into the Summer reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I had seen the movie years ago when it came out, not knowing it had been a book. Thankfully, though, by the time I got around to the book, I had no recollection of the movie, except a few of the stunning visual images. I always enjoy a book that has something of the spiritual woven into the story, so this was a good start to my Summer reading. It also helped that much of it took place in hot climates and on the water, which put my mind in the right spot for the season.

Alongside my personal reading, I also read every night at bedtime with my daughter, who just turned nine during the course of the Summer. Our very first book of the season was Roald Dahl’s Matilda, which was fun. We then moved into the complex web of people and places in Middle Earth with J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings. The book is enormous and not exactly in my genre wheelhouse, so I was relieved when we finished the second of the six “books” in the book—enough to get us through what would have been the first of the three movies—and my daughter decided we should move on to something different. Maybe some day we will return for the rest. It won’t bother me if we don’t.

The next book for me was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain. I had recently watched the magnificent and moving documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro”, and was eager to get into his writing. I knew he was famous for his nonfiction essays and his fiction, and though I figured the nonfiction would be just my speed—I was drawn to The Fire Next Time–I decided on this more famous novel. I should have gone with my gut. Though I certainly appreciated his writing and very much liked certain chapters, the subject matter just didn’t hold me very well. I was ready for something new.

It was not lost on me that perhaps I was striking out because I was trying out novels. Though I enjoy all genres, my go-to areas tend to be autobiographies and nonfiction (self-help, spiritual, or anything that expands my knowledge). I generally spread out my fiction attempts.   For whatever reason, though, I was in the mood for more fiction.

After these misses and with my determination to find a novel that I loved, I was beginning to wonder if my Summer reading was going to be a giant FAIL. How wrong I was!

It was just at that moment of doubt that I struck literary gold (er, purple). It was Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. I had seen the film version many years before—it is my wife’s favorite movie—but had forgotten most of it (which I always think is a godsend). It was brilliant on so many fronts and I was completely moved by the story and the complications of social injustice. It is a true masterpiece for any season.

I thank Alice Walker for starting my Summer hot streak, because I came into some wonderful words after that one. I always love when someone gives me a book, because I know it is, quite literally, meant for me. So it was with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, a book about keeping curiosity and artistic expression in your life forever. I don’t know if everyone would connect to this book, but I surely did. It helped me to put my writing habit/passion into perspective with my bigger life. Truly, it changed my thinking. Behold, the power of books!

As I read that one, I also started a novel recommended to me by my teenage nieces: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now. It may have taken me a couple of chapters to warm up to it, but then I was in. It is books like that one (probably aimed at early teens) and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars (both categorized as Teen Fiction) that prove to me that “great books for kids” are truly great books for adults. I will read Okay For Now with my daughter in a couple years, no doubt.

Speaking of my daughter, we moved from The Lord of the Rings to Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was interesting, not mind-blowing. Then we went to the Deep South with perhaps America’s signature novel, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I had last read it in high school and—surprise, surprise—had forgotten what the story was all about. Though we both liked it, in hindsight I would have also waited a couple more years to read this one with her. It forced some discussions that would be better suited for the light of day rather than in a dark room at bedtime. But still, a great book.

While that was going on, I was engrossed in an absolute gem of a book, Between the World and Me. Written in the form of a letter from the author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his teenage son, this book is simultaneously enlightening and devastatingly sad. And the quality of the writing is unparalleled. It is an essential read for anyone trying to deepen their empathy, and particularly trying to understand what it feels like to be a Black man in America. It gripped me completely and remains with me weeks later.

So grateful for this beautiful stretch of reading, I moved into the final days of Summer with three of my pet topics: death, religion/spirituality, and the Holocaust.

My niece, also a student of religions, gave me a copy of Peter Rollins’s The Orthodox Heretic, a book of modern parables and commentary. It touches on a topic that often riles me up, which is the incongruity between the teachings of Jesus and the actions of his followers. I am plodding slowly through this one and am only halfway there, but I quite like all of the things it stirs in me. It is wonderful fodder for journal entries.

I happen to have a perhaps-unhealthy fascination (maybe obsession) with death, especially “premature” death and how to come to grips with it. With that, I selected Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which tracked the strange tricks her mind played on her in the year following her husband’s sudden death. I came away with more empathy for those who have lost loved ones and a greater understanding of the enormous power, longevity, and unpredictability of grief.

Staying with the Death theme, I moved to Tell My Sons, by Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber. I was drawn to it because it was written as a letter of advice and guidance from a father who was dying of cancer to his three sons. That is the kind of thing I imagine myself doing if such a dreadful diagnosis arrives at my doorstep. I am still in the middle of it, but it has already led to lots of morbid daydreaming.

The last book on my Summer list, which I will finish today, is Number the Stars, by Lois Lowry. I am reading it with my daughter, as the protagonist is a girl only a year older, whose family is helping their friends, a Jewish family, to escape the Nazis during World War II. It is well done, another “kid book” that is appropriate for adults.

That’s it! That was my Summer of Reading! Well, of course, I read hundreds of articles to keep me informed on the madness that is our world today, too, but I love the books so much more. I learned from each one and would recommend each (but to different people). If you made me choose the ones that impressed me the most, I would go with The Color Purple and Between the World and Me, for both their ideas and the quality of the writing.

I don’t know why I chose so many fiction titles—nine of the fourteen—compared to my usual pace. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, the way those Summer Book List articles glamorize the “page-turner” novels as poolside reads. I don’t regret it, though. It was fun! I don’t have a clue as to what I will read and suggest to you for next Summer. Tell you what: I’ll let you know next Fall!

How about you? What have you been reading all Summer? Open up your journal and make a timeline and some book reports. What is on your list? Did you read mostly fiction or nonfiction? Is that normal for you? How did you decide what to read? Did you take any recommendations from the “Hot Books for Summer” lists from the magazines or websites? Did you use your social media community? I always love when I see a post where one of my friends asks for book recommendations, because I then scour the Comments section for ideas. Did any of your books open your eyes to the way other people live and see the world—The Color Purple and Between the World and Me did this for me—or change the way you look at the big things in your normal life, like Big Magic did for me? What else did your Summer books do for you? Give you an escape? Teach you a new skill or idea? Remind you of what is important? Make you treat yourself better? Make you treat others better? Frighten you? Inspire you?  Which will you recommend the most?  Which is your favorite?  Aren’t books just totally amazing??? I love them! Is there something different about Summer reading? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Summer Reading List?

Live a thousand lives,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. Let’s get our lists together!

Other People’s Children (And Other Things I Can’t Stand)

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” –Roald Dahl, Matilda 

Hello friend,

It is VERY easy for me to see why people who don’t have kids look at the other schmucks, like me, parenting and think how unappealing (maybe even awful) it seems.

You know what I mean? Say you don’t have kids, and you get together with these family folks occasionally. The only time you might notice the kids (unless you are really into kids) is when they are getting scolded or needing their diaper changed or spilling on your clothes or breaking your electronics or screaming or crying or swallowing your loose change and trinkets. And you think to yourself, “That looks like CONSTANT WORK! And NOT fun. And these poor suckers are stuck with these kids for like 20 YEARS!” And it all just seems so other-focused. Your “own time” falls away, and you can’t do whatever you want all the time.

I can see how this looks like a bad gig. The truth, however—and this is something you only learn by having them—is that the appearances were almost completely wrong.

Sure, parenting is totally exhausting and often frustrating, but it is also infinitely rewarding, soul-stirring, and heart-filling. And once you have your own kids, you are thinking, “This feels like CONSTANT LOVE! And SO fun. And I get them FOREVER!” 

It actually comes to be seen by the parent as a rather one-sided trade: “All I had to give up was some ‘freedom’ (which I wasn’t actually using very well) for a lifetime of love and connection, of family. That’s a steal!” 

At least that is sort of how it worked for me. Sort of.

I never wanted kids. Though I always liked hanging out with the kids rather than the parents at family gatherings and other social events, I never imagined having any of my own. I think it was because I never imagined myself “settling down” and getting married. If I wasn’t ever getting married, I surely was not ever having kids.

I never really had the “Those poor suckers…” thoughts about parents, though. I guess I never realized how challenging it is, so I never felt bad for them. The parents I knew seemed happy to be doing it, but like I said, I knew it wasn’t going to be for me. The path I imagined for myself was much, much different.

Of course, you know how that turned out! It’s amazing what meeting an amazing woman can do to shake up a world and a plan. Once I finally surrendered to the idea of becoming a husband, it was a given that I was also going to be a father. It was a bargain I understood going in, and once I agreed, I was all-in. I knew my limit for kids was two, and that was not negotiable. But I was going to give those two kids every bit of my love, my time, and my patience.

And I have. It has been rewarding beyond anything I could have imagined and beyond anything I have the words to describe to you.

I know it sounds so condescending to people without kids—and I apologize for that–but I really think it is one of those things you cannot understand unless you go though it. Unless you have waited for that child to come into your life. Unless you have rocked that sick baby to sleep and fed her on your chest. Unless you have encouraged those first steps and held onto that bicycle seat until you knew he was ready for you to let go. Unless you have shared your ice cream cone and held her hand on her first steps into the ocean. Unless you have been the only one who can make him feel better when he gets hurt on the playground or scared by a nightmare. Unless you have heard those joyful squeals and seen those eyes filled with sheer delight as they run to you upon hearing you come through the door.

Without the accumulation of these moments and a million more just like them, I think it is difficult to understand. But that doesn’t matter. My point is the same: in return for making the difficult decision to give up my single and childless life, I got this little window with these few people to make an unfathomably beautiful brand of magic. And though I admit to occasional wistful thoughts about the old days of blissful solitude, I would not trade this beautiful window for anything.

Including more of it.

Earlier this year, I came home one day and my wife asked me if I was willing to adopt an orphaned baby whom she had heard about that day. “Not in a million years!” was my automatic reply. It took no thought, and even when I did think about it, my sentiment was exactly the same. No chance.

Then last week, I got two babies dumped on my doorstep along with all of the paraphernalia to raise them for a few days. I had known it was coming for a while, and “dread” is not too strong of a word to describe my anticipation of the weekend. The kids belonged to my brother-in-law: one was seven months old, the other two-and-a-half years. An infant and a toddler. Oi!

I could not begin to imagine what was inside my wife’s head when she agreed to babysit for multiple nights for such creatures. Whatever it was—saintliness or insanity–I was buried in babies for the duration of their stay. It was exhausting! Even though my kids are only a handful of years past that stage, how quickly I had forgotten how absolutely NONSTOP it is with babies and toddlers. Constant vigilance. Constant play. Constant laundry. Messes everywhere. It is a crazy lifestyle.

And even though I grumbled in my head about being volunteered for this duty, I had vowed to myself that I would not take that out on the children. I would be present and joyful and engaged. I was, too. We all had a good time.

But. (There just had to be a “but”.) But I could only stomach it knowing that it was all going to end in a couple of days. I can’t imagine actually parenting like that, half the time thinking two major thoughts: “I am too old for this!” and “When are they leaving?”

I thought about my brother-in-law, who had two kids when he was in his twenties with his first wife, raised them to teenagehood and certainly figured he was done, then divorced, married a younger woman, and now has a second pair of babies in his mid-forties. Is he not constantly muttering, “I am too old for this stuff!”? He is not the only person I know who has had two distinct rounds of kids, either married to the same spouse or a different one. I have seen some who seem to resent the younger ones—or at least resent the grind of raising them–and are less engaged than they could be because, in their heads, they were done with their duties after the first round of kids. That’s not good for anyone involved.

I guess you have to decide on your limit and your window for having kids, then dive in head-first and enjoy the exhausting-but-wildly-rewarding ride, and then just chill until grandparenthood comes along. Have you noticed how people love grandparenthood? I am quite sure I will be ready by that time to go all-in on my grandkids, if I am so blessed.

But babysitting? Especially multi-day babysitting? At this point, I am just not there. I have no patience for their demands, quirks, and messes, even if they are just a different version of my kids’ issues. Play dates are the same, and now especially that my daughter has begun sleepovers. It is just not in me. Grrr.

Maybe it is because I had to initially grapple with the idea of having my own kids in the first place before finally embracing the plan fully, but it feels like by going completely all-in with them, I have somehow reduced my tolerance for the challenges of other people’s children. I have to smile through my grinding teeth during certain play dates when the other kid is acting up, and I would be quick to pass on any babysitting opportunity. At the same time, I am still completely patient and engaged with my own kids’ development, including when they are acting up.

It’s like my window for all of this stuff was only so big, and I have already squeezed every inch of my kid tolerance into it with my own pair of rugrats. As I wrote into my journal on the final afternoon of babysitting, “Two days is about 1 ½ days too many.”

I hope my brother-in-law is thrilled with his life choice. It is plainly not for me, though. I will gleefully pilot my two kids all the way to adulthood, but there is definitely no Round Two in my future. See you in grandparenthood, friend! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

How about you? How tolerant are you of other people’s children? Open up your journal and take yourself through your recent experiences with kids. How would you categorize your patience level with them? How closely related to you were they? Is your tolerance level directly proportional to how closely related you are to the children (or at least how much you care for their parents)? If you have kids of your own, do you find yourself to be pretty accepting of their quirks and issues? How much different is it with other kids? Are you more or less tolerant with other kids? In your most private moments, do you wish you had fewer kids than you do? More? If you could give your younger self advice on how many children to have in order to achieve the right balance for your personality, what is that number? How much does that number differ from your significant other’s number? Who compromised the most? Do the effects of that compromise ever show themselves –e.g. lack of patience—in interactions with the kids? Do you like babysitting? How open would you be to my situation of taking on an infant and a toddler for a few days? Could a child’s story be told to you that would be compelling enough to adopt a child(ren) or become a foster parent? Are there other things in life that you sign on for, accept all of the frustrations and issues that come with it, but have no tolerance for beyond what you signed up for? Pets? Yard work? I used to deal with tons of financial figures at an old job to the point that I could not so much as open a bill at home. Similarly, I worked for years in service industries and had to not only tolerate but smile through just about every level of human nonsense imaginable, and I think I hit my quota and have lost my lifetime’s allocation of tolerance for pettiness, narrow-mindedness, and superficiality. How is your tolerance for those? I just had a revelation! I think this is the foundation of me as a grumpy old man. In recent years I have come to much greater understanding about what I love and what serves my soul and my greater good. Along with that comes clarity about what doesn’t. I have no time and patience for those things anymore, and I imagine my impatience for them will only grow as I age and refine my tastes. Thus, the grumpy old man. What do you think? Do you tolerate less and less as you age? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are the limits of your patience?

Smile at Life,

William

P.S. If something in today’s letter hits home with you, I hope you will share it. Peace to you.

Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

DSC_0381“Life is more fun if you play games.” —Roald Dahl, My Uncle Oswald

Hello friend,

Last night, I took my kids to visit some family at a nearby hotel. As we made our way through the labyrinth of hallways, they raced each other to every turn at top speed. At their cousin’s room, they immersed themselves in playing with her and her books, consumed by the novelty of the situation. Then came the main attraction: the swimming pool! They could hardly wait to put their life jackets on so they could cannonball off the side and into the action of beach balls, floaty noodles, and swim races. Oh, and a million more jumps off the side into the water, each one more daring and more exuberant than the previous. In watching them throughout—and of course in participating, because they demand that I be every bit as involved as they are—I couldn’t help but be swept into the conclusion that the whole evening was, for them, simply a celebration of FUN and PLAY.

And then they woke up this morning at home and started that celebration again. “Can we rake up a leaf pile to jump into?” “Watch me do some cartwheels, Dad!” “Race me up the stairs: Ready, Set, GO!!!!” “Watch me be a cheetah!” “Daddy, can you spin us on the tree swing?” “Let’s dino-fight! I’ll be Triceratops, and you be Deinonychus. RAAWWWRRRR!!!” And on and on and on. It is amazing on so many levels. And even though they include me in almost all of their wide wonder, I often find myself wishing I could trade places with them. Of course, I am envious of the sheer volume of energy they have. I think of all that I could accomplish if I could go as hard as they do all day. I would also do anything for their presence. They live completely in the moment. Of course, that makes the day quite a rollercoaster of drama, but it is entirely authentic and marvelous. Within that presence and authenticity is a beautiful open-heartedness. They share themselves and their love freely and completely in a way that we would all do well to learn from.

But the quality that completely captivated me—and stirred my envy up to a frothing boil—was their zest for FUN, their zeal for PLAY. Every game or challenge I joined in—racing them down the hall and down the pool, or throwing them in the water, or playing catch—simply tickled my soul and made me feel so full of Joy. I couldn’t help but think, “Why don’t I do this more often?” I just felt so full of energy and life. So playful. So present. So free. So childlike.

What happens to us adults that we lose this playfulness, this willingness to be free and open-hearted and in-the-moment? At what point does it become uncool? We get so serious as grown-ups, so self-judgmental about allowing ourselves to do things like jumping in the leaves or doing cannonballs into the pool, things that we wholeheartedly sought out and celebrated as kids. It seems that the term “childish” has only a negative connotation. We use it derisively when we talk about people who are acting selfish or petty. It may be derogatory in those contexts, but I don’t think it needs to be that way when it comes to activities, to play.

When I look at the things my kids like to do—playing at the playground, sports of all sorts, riding bikes and scooters, tag, sledding, swimming, building snowmen, running through the sprinkler, the tree swing, creating imaginary stories with their toys, racing each other wherever they go, painting pictures, making bracelets for each other, dressing up as superheroes or princesses and acting out the roles, practicing cartwheels and somersaults, jumping on the trampoline, diving off the dock at the lake, tubing, making leaf piles to dive in, building forts out of sofa cushions, hide-and-seek, piggyback and shoulder rides, trick-or-treating, singing songs, and dancing—they are all born out of a quest for FUN. To quote Shakespeare totally out of context, “The PLAY is the thing….” And it really is.

I could go for just about every single one of those things on that list right now. I am envious of them as I think about it. On the other hand, I am so glad that having these guys gives me the excuse to do this fun stuff, to “act like a kid” again. But why should I need them for the excuse? Why don’t we adults just DO this stuff? Why don’t we just PLAY??? No apologies or excuses required. Play for play’s sake. Just because it is so silly and liberating and creative and energizing and FUN. We need that, don’t we? I know that I do, and the people I meet sure seem like they could use some, too.

Charles Dickens said, “To a young heart everything is fun.” I can testify to that. I see it every day in my children. The challenge I am putting to myself is that, no matter how old my body gets, I will keep my heart young by doing what the kids do: seeking out play. Sure, I know that is going to become more challenging in a few years when the kids are not as young and don’t want to include Dad in the fun anymore. Will I still load up the sled and drive over to the big hill? Will I still get behind the boat on the tube and be whipped around? Will I still do cartwheels on the lawn and run through the sprinkler on a hot day? Will I still build forts out of the sofa cushions and ride my Rip-Stik around the block? Will I still jump in the pile of leaves before I bag them? Or, will I find new ways to play, or focus more on the kinds that don’t require a young body, like singing or making up stories? I sure hope so. All of these things are so much fun, and I am always rejuvenated after I do them. Rejuvenated equals “made young again”. Yeah, that works for me. I am ready to play!

How about you? Do you still play? Get out your journal and think about all of the things you do that are purely for FUN, that make you feel like a kid again. What are they? I have already mentioned dozens of things that my kids get me to do that are deeply rejuvenating for me. Do these things work for you, too? What is different about your list from mine? How self-conscious do you feel when you do these activities? Do you feel like people look at you oddly, as though you are doing something that is only socially acceptable for kids to do? I always get looks when I ride my Rip-Stik or go do down the waterslide at the pool. Are you the parent or adult who takes the kids to the sledding hill—or waterslide or bounce house–and only watches the kids as they have all the fun? Would you—do you–do these things alone, or at least without kids? Maybe it’s time to give yourself permission. On a scale of one to ten, how playful are you? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you want to build a snowman? 

Put yourself out there,

William