Friday, August 31, 2007

Azor 'Peach' Goodwin Writes 'If I Lived at Hogwarts'

Here's the winning entry from the recent NPL contest, "If I Lived at Hogwarts."

My name is Azor Peach. I’m a wizard who lives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I’m a fourth year student and I love to study Quiddich and flying. I live in the Gryffindor House and my roomates are Harry Potter, Charlie Weasley, Fred and George Weasley (the twins) and Percy “the Prefect” Weasley. My favorite class is Defense Against the Dark Arts. I love to study about counter-hexes and ways to make dark wizards stop being mean. My magical pet is a Saltwater Crocodile named Ironjaw. He’s not like other crocodiles because he can fly. Ironjaw can tell which wizards are bad and he helps me save people who are being cursed. This year I became a seeker on the Gryffindor Quiddich team. I’m a very good flyer and someday I hope to become a professional quiddich player.

There are 27 players on my team. Our captain is a seventh year student named Oliver Wood. I just got a new broom called the Jetbroom 9000. This is the fastest broom in the world! Our team color is green and Ironjaw is our mascot. He comes to all of our games. Last year Gryffindor won the house cup when Harry Potter was seeker. This year, I’m the seeker and I hope to win the cup again.

Our first match of the year is against Slytherin. Draco Malfoy is a Bludger on the Slytherin team. Draco Malfoy is a dark wizard. He cheats and uses the leglocker curse in the middle of games. Draco Malfoy is scared of Ironjaw because Ironjaw knows he’s bad news. Usually Ironjaw can’t catch Draco Malfoy in a match because we keep him on a leash. Today Fred and George, my roomates, took Ironjaw’s leash off to play a joke on Draco Malfoy. Just when I was about to catch the Golden Snitch, Draco Malfoy yelled “locomotor mortis” and sparks flew my way. Before the curse hit me, Ironjaw flew out of the stands and bit Draco Malfoy on the ankle. He crashed to the ground and the sparks went away. Draco Malfoy spent the next couple of days in the Hospital Ward and Gryffindor won the match.

Gryffindor won every game that season. I was the best seeker in Hogwarts history. Scouts from professional teams came to watch me. I was drafted to play on the Saint Louis Stifflebricks as soon as I finished my seventh year of school.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Amazing Grace

My heart is heavy today. It's bad enough to have lost Molly Ivins earlier this year. Now Grace Paley has departed the planet, or rejoined it, depending on your point of view. I can only hope a child is being born today to carry on.

If you have never read a short story (or twenty) by Grace Paley, one of life's great pleasures still awaits you. If you have read them, you'll doubtless want to read them again. Her output was dwarfed by her political activism; she nonetheless is undisputedly one of our greatest short story writers.

I first stumbled upon her writing when she was to be the featured speaker at a writing workshop I attended each summer on the Left Coast. She would be unable to make her original date, since she had to spend it in jail for pouring blood on the White House lawn.

When she did arrive, she charmed us all with a reading of her stories, which were equal parts witty, earthy, funny, and sad. Her voice was and is singular. I gobbled up her short story collections, The Little Disturbances of Man, Later that Same Day, and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. She had always said that poetry and short stories were kindred forms, and so it was that her next books would be collections of her poems, Begin Again and Leaning Forward. Her most recent publication was with her husband Robert Nichols, Two by Two.

Here's one of her poems:


Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that's who I wanted to be

at last a woman in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sliding
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that's my old man across the yard
he's talking to the meter reader
he's telling him the world's sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

When I left Santa Cruz and moved to Vermont, there was Grace. I would see her in the parking lot at the co-op, out in front of Lou's, on the Thetford green, at the puppet show in the art gallery. She was easy to spot in the community with that wonderful, soft mane of fluffy white hair. "Amazing Grace," I would say, loud enough for her to hear, then I would scurry shyly away. I have never been good at chatting up famous people.

Since the news of her passing reached us at the library today, the staff has been bustling about, pulling together words and pictures as a tribute--not merely for purposes of display, but out of deep love and respect for the writer and the person.

I comfort myself with the thought that her writing is a way for me to channel her wit, her wisdom, her inimitable voice for as long as I can read. But I'll sure miss that dear, fuzzy head.

Friday, August 3, 2007

In Praise of Listening

I was pleased to see another library-friendly item in the Style section of yesterday's New York Times. This one, if you follow the link in today's title, is about the "controversy" regarding listening to, rather than reading, books. Somehow, some members of some book groups insist, to listen to a book, rather than to read it, is to cheat.
After I laughed aloud, I felt a shiver of subversion. By denying the author my bifocal-assisted saccadic movements, I was Doing Something Naughty. At my age, this is a bigger thrill than you might imagine.

Then I felt annoyance. We are not talking about Cliff Notes. We are not even talking about the Reader's Digest Condensed Version. We are talking about a full text version, every nuance and graceful phrase included, only taken in auditorily rather than visually.

I don't like Book Cops. I am glad not to band together with them in judgmental little groups, though I never imagined that book groups would include book cops. Reading groups, I suppose, exist to reinforce reading, and though I think they are a dandy idea, it saddens me to hear that some people use them to feel superior to others.

We aren't a nation of great listeners, and to me, that's a pity. In my impressionable years, I had the good fortune to have an English teacher who taught values along with English. She emphasized listening, that most neglected of the language arts, or so she told us. I was so inspired by her example that I threw myself into paying close attention to what people had to say, developing a skill that has led to great personal and professional growth over the years. Later, as a reading specialist, I learned from students with disabilities, that lacking a sense of voice in print often lay at the foundation of comprehension problems.

Listening is a way in which we can help each other to be heard, quite literally, and perhaps made less lonely, to boot. Listening is giving the voice a rest so that we can hear the voices of others. And with excellent writing, often the most awe-inspiring aspect isn't the story being told as much as it is the authorial voice, that enabler of the magic fusion of art and idea.

NPL's audio collection is a fine one, growing all the time. Lots of busy people find time to experience books through their ears--as they drive, as they complete mostly manual tasks, as they prepare for sleep. Many children are availing themselves of the tome-like collection of Harry Potter CDs, and to me, they are not cheating. They are discovering the voice that sings in print.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Detainees Speak

Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnants of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world.
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the "protectors of peace."
--Jumah Al Dossari

In a genre known for its slim volumes, Poems from Guantanamo (University of Iowa Press), Marc Falkoff, ed., borders on skinny. There are only 31 poems. The Pentagon has confiscated and destroyed many more, 25,000 lines from one poet alone, holding that poetry presents "a special risk" to national security because of its "content and format." The translations that appear have been done by linguists with top secret clearances; Falkoff notes that the grace of phrasing in the originals has been sometimes lost.

Detainees were denied paper and pen for the first year of their incarceration. They wrote on styrofoam cups using pebbles for pens. Most poems ended up in the trash. Once they were granted writing materials, many of their poems met the fate of the cup poems. Many more poems are being stored at the Pentagon, which fears that the poems contain codes to be interpreted on the outside by terrorists.

Cup Poem

Handcuffs befit brave young men,
Bangles are for spinsters or pretty young ladies.

--Shaikh Abdurraheem Muslim Dost

It is interesting to note than only eight per cent of the detainees are accused of being al Qaeda fighters, and only five per cent were captured by U.S. forces on Afghanistan battlefields, and fewer than half are accused of committing a hostile act against the U.S. The author of the Cup Poem above was finally released in 2005 after being judged as not a threat to the U.S. When he and his brother began to publish their memoirs of his Guantanamo experience, he was picked up by Pakistani intelligence and hasn't been heard from since.

For one of the very few
possible glimpses of the detainees, do read this book.