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At work we’ve started a “RivRecommends” (short for Rivier University) cart where library patrons can put a slip in a recently returned book or DVD they enjoyed and suggest it to the community. One of my co-workers recommended Soft in the Head. It’s a French novel about a man, Germain, whose mother has always told him he was a mistake, who never learned to read properly, who is very tall and is often the butt of his friends’ jokes. Germain lives in a trailer in the back yard of his mother’s house, where he can keep an eye on his garden, he works at a temp agency mostly on manual labor jobs, and he likes counting pigeons in the park. One day he sits on a bench with Margueritte, an elderly woman as small as he is large.

Margueritte doesn’t find it odd that Germain counts the pigeons. She seems to enjoy his company. Eventually, she reads to him. They talk about all sorts of things. As Germain puts it, “. . . I thought that sooner or later she’d end up treating me like a pathetic moron. But she always talked to me like I was a person. And you see, that can change a man.”

Germain narrates the book, which keeps it from being a sappy story; my co-worker calls it charming, and I think that’s a good description. Regular bookconscious readers know I have a soft spot for books in translation. I feel like they take a reader somewhere new even more than books set in unfamiliar places but written in one’s native language.

I’ve also always liked books about unusual friendships, and Margueritte and Germain are terrific characters. This was a nice book to keep my mind occupied in this, our first week of being empty nesters — yes, Teen the Younger has gone off to college. And a good book for reading in the sun on a well-earned three day weekend.

 

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I’ve been wanting to read Brooklyn for some time but like many other books that slip down my to read list, I’d sort of forgotten it. Then it was found several shelves away from it where it was supposed to be after having gone missing in the library, and so when it turned up, I was reminded, and checked it out.

Brooklyn  is the story of Eilis, a young woman in a small town in Ireland in the 1950’s, whose sister Rose arranges her passage to America with a priest, Father Flood, visiting from Brooklyn. Rose and Father Flood set the plan in motion and soon Eilis has a job at Bartocci’s department store and a room at Mrs Kehoe’s boarding house. Eilis isn’t sure this is really the life she wants, but she lets the plans proceed rather than hurt her mother or Rose.

The novel follows her on the voyage, her first days in Brooklyn, her life among the women at work and at Mrs. Kehoe’s. We see her grow into her new life, taking courses in accounting, having a serious boyfriend. It’s a quiet book, closely examining her feelings and observations.

Even though I sometimes wanted to take Eilis aside and tell her to make up her mind, there were things about her that felt familiar and evoked my empathy. The way she did not quite know how to deal with men’s attentions, and how she wanted to be careful of other people’s feelings, for example. Still, even though she grows up a little, she mostly lets life happen to her, unless someone else brings pressure to bear, and then she is redirected.

The ending did leave a few things unpleasantly unresolved — I am not after a tidy ending every time, with i’s dotted and t’s crossed, but Brooklyn ends with several characters lives about to be impacted, and I wanted to know more. I enjoyed the historical details, and the atmospheric feel to the novel, enough to want to see the movie. A diverting, well written book, satisfying enough for a couple of nights.

 

When I was looking for nonfiction for a summer reading display at work last month, The Forgiveness Project caught my eye. The subtitle, Stories for a Vengeful Age, seemed very timely in a summer of violent act after violent act being beamed to us constantly. I read it this weekend and it is terrific.

Cantacuzino includes forewords by Desmond Tutu (longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of this prophet of our times), and Alexander McCall Smith, whose work I also admire. Tutu writes, “To forgive is not just to be altruistic; in my view it is the best form of self-interest. The process of forgiving does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. When I talk of forgiveness I mean the ability to let go of the right to revenge and to slip the chains of rage that bind you to the person who harmed you.”

McCall Smith notes that his interest in forgiveness came about from his work in criminal law, and later as he wrote novels featuring Precious Ramotswe, a lady detective in Botswana who would “often forgive those whose misdeeds she had unmasked.” He was surprised that readers did not seem to mind this, despite the fact that it was an unconventional approach to crime writing.

Cantacuzino explains in her introduction that she felt a need to make sense of the world in 2003, as Britain marched towards war in Iraq despite massive protests. Within a short time she saw a photo of an Iraqi boy shell shocked by the war (much like the photos we see now of Syrian children) and a man on television embrace and forgive the doctor whose mistake had killed his small daughter. It hit her, as a journalist, that people trying to deal with the former might really need stories like that of the former, of people who were overcoming pain and suffering by letting it go. She used her skills as a journalist to get to work gathering such stories.

When she was through she named her collection “The F Word,” because she found “forgiveness seemed to inspire and affront in equal measure.” She created an exhibit and showed it at a gallery in London. It was so successful it led to Cantacuzino’s nonprofit, The Forgiveness Project, and this book.

Each short chapter is someone’s first person story. Some were perpetrators of violence and hatred, some were victims. All had experienced the transformation brought on by forgiveness, whether granted informally, person to person, or through a reconciliation or restorative justice program. I was delighted to see stories from members of Combatants for Peace; I wrote in March 2009 about having gone to see two members of this group speak here in Concord. One of the men I heard speak, Bassam Aramin, is featured in The Forgiveness Project. 

A man named Oshea Israel who was only 16 when he committed murder says “I have learnt that if you hold on to pain it grows and grows, but if you forgive you start to starve that pain and it dies. Forgiveness is pretty much saying I give up holding on to that pain. Hurt people usually haven’t forgiven and have so much pain they end up causing even greater pain.”

I’ll let you sit with that a moment.

I’m not sure what is most striking about this book. That there are so many people who are willing to undergo the process of trying to forgive, or that we almost never hear about it? That there are so many people who recognize that children are not born murderers or white supremacists or  suicide bombers and that we therefore must learn what damaged them, or that damage of that nature continues to occur?

I think what’s really gripping is that there is no right answer anywhere here — Cantacuzino makes it clear that forgiveness isn’t neat or simple. The only universal is that it seems to radically change the people involved. I highly recommend this book, but I would advise you not take it all in at once like I did. Keep it around and dip into it. Discuss it with people you love, people you don’t know well, people you don’t get along with.

 

This book caught my eye as I was ordering fiction at the library. It absolutely lived up to the prepublication reviews. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read. The protagonist, Carleen Kepper, has recently been paroled after twenty some years in prison when the novel opens. We find out she’s living in a halfway house in New York, working as a dog walker and trainer, and is trying to reconnect with the daughter she bore in prison but who was immediately taken way from her, Pony, now called Batya.

As the novel progresses, the reader learns about Carleen’s early life. Born Ester Rosenthal, she was an artistic prodigy, a sought after and wealthy painter by her teens. But despite her promising future and the friendship of  David, a famous artist visiting the college, she got caught up in drugs and petty crime. All that spiraled into a final botched heist, and she ended up sentenced to life in prison, even though she was underaged when it happened. Elizabeth Swados writes vividly about prison life — beatings, rapes, intimidation, conspiracy, and torture. Power trips by wardens, guards, and other prisoners. Throughout these years, Carleen cycles in and out of madness and violence, sessions in solitary confinement and prison clinics. Just before the worst of her criminal mischief and drug addiction, she had married a man named Leonard, and when he is finally allowed to see her in the second prison she lands in, she gets pregnant during the visit.

Towards the end of her incarceration, Carleen is given a puppy who will be a guide dog who she must train. She shows such affinity for the work that she ends up starting a prison puppy training program with the woman who first brought her this work. Somewhere alone the line a young lawyer reads her case and realizes that Carleen should never have been sentenced to life and gets her paroled, and the work with dogs is her lifeline when she gets out.

I won’t tell you how things turn out, but I will say this was one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. The prison bits are stomach turning but perspective shattering. Carleen is an incredible character. She believes there’s something wrong with her emotional reactions, but it’s hard to know if it is a result of physical and psychological injury from the extensive beatings or, as she tells her daughter late in the book, “I think I was born this way. I’m like a clock that’s set wrong. Or I have lifelong jet lag.” But the people who get to know her well love her — people whose dogs she walks, David, and Elisheva, Batya’s bat mitzvah tutor. She enters prison an artist and that is taken from her; the dogs seemed to me to represent all the good parts of Carleen, and her ability to tame them and earn their complete trust and love is how she is slowly finding and saving her true self.

The glimpses of a loving human we see as she works with dogs is in a constant struggle with the “fragments of a criminal” that are deeply embedded in her psyche. This book is about Ester/Carleen but it’s also about what makes us human and whole, what causes dysfunction to morph into psychosis, and whether the things that make us who we are can also make us crazy. It’s also a shocking portrait of the systematic inhumanity visited upon prisoners. Walking The Dog  gets inside your head and your heart and stays there.

It was too hot to do anything more taxing than turn a page last night. So I read. Howard Mansfield is one of my favorite writers, and his latest book, Sheds is a kind of visual companion to the previous one, Dwelling In Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter.  Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the staff photographer at the MacDowell Colony, a famous artists retreat in southern New Hampshire, took the photos of all kinds of sheds — from covered bridges and meeting houses to work sheds.

This is a beautiful book to spend an hour with, but I highly recommend you also read Dwelling In Possibility. Mansfield is an excellent writer. In Sheds he provides just a taste of his philosophy of the soul of shelter: “Sheds are utilitarian. Sheds contain small things — wood and tools — and big: summers, winters, solitude, festivity. The smallest sheds can be liberating: a bob house on a frozen lake, a summer cabin. The can shelter dreams.”  And this passage, on why people seek out covered bridges. Yes, partly for nostalgia, “But the strongest appeal of covered bridges, I think, lies in the surprising feeling of shelter they arouse in people. Passing into the bridge’s shadows, a traveler is enclosed and suspended, and in many bridges, open to the water — looking through the trusses or windows, or down through the boards of the roadway. This sudden enclosure and suspension reawakens the senses.”

We recently walked on the bridge in Littleton, and it’s very true. Mansfield has a way of writing that evokes a sense of recognition in readers; you read his books and continually think, “yes, that’s it exactly,” even though previously you weren’t really conscious of thinking whatever his words has awakened in your mind.

 

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Sheds and Dwelling in Possibility would make a great gift, for yourself or someone else. Don’t miss either.

Sometimes I just want to read something I can finish in one sitting, and last night Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fit the bill. I won’t go into much detail — I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. I enjoyed it, even though the script format is not as much fun to read as a novel. It’s a decent story, although nowhere near as good, or as in depth, as the first seven Harry Potter books — but could anything be? It was interesting to imagine Harry and his friends as people only a little younger than I am now. The focus is much more on what the characters think and feel than on the action, although there’s enough action — and magic — that I can’t imagine how complicated it must be to stage.

The way people look back on what happened nineteen years earlier is interesting too. You get the impression that Harry kind of misses the bad old days, that he’s a bit bored with mid-life. There are a lot of references to the characters and events in the earlier books, possibly meant to orient new readers, but those feel neither informative enough for someone who may not know the stories well nor subtle enough not to annoy those who do. There are also some absolutely clunky scenes — Act 4, Scene 7, for example, where Hermione is bullying Ron into making nice with Draco and Ron actually says “Fine. I um, I think you’ve got really nice hair. Draco.” And Hermione replies, “Thank you, husband.” Grown-ups just don’t act or sound like that.

Most disappointing is that without the build-up of a novel, the story doesn’t feel very likely. Why would nothing much have happened for nineteen years? What happened to all the people who fought on Voldemort’s side? Was there a process of reconciling the wizarding world, post-Voldemort? It seems likely that wouldn’t have been perfectly smooth, but readers are asked to believe that the hardest thing that’s happened is fathers and sons not having great relationships. That said, I definitely wanted to know how things were going to turn out. If you’re nostalgic for the days when you devoured the latest Harry Potter book because you could not put it down, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will remind you, somewhat, of that time, even if it’s not quite the same.

 

 

The university where I work selected The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore as the book all incoming freshmen are reading this summer. Since Convocation Day is just under four weeks away, I decided it was time to read it. If you haven’t heard of it, the book is written by a man who heard in college of the fate of another man with the same name, who’d been convicted of killing an off duty police officer during a robbery. The author, stuck by their same name and similar early childhood circumstances, eventually wrote to the convicted man, later visited, got to know him, and after a few years wrote a book about their two lives.

Wes Moore the author and Wes Moore the convicted man were both boys in Baltimore with single mothers. Both got into trouble early in life, although the author’s mother tried more drastic steps to prevent her son from wrecking his life, first moving the young family to the Bronx to live with her parents in her childhood home, then sending Wes away to military boarding school when he appeared to be headed in the wrong direction.

It paid off. Military school led to an Army commission, then to Johns Hopkins, the Rhodes scholarship, a White House fellowship, a Wall Street career, a book deal. The other Wes Moore got into increasingly more dire situations, including selling drugs, and had four children by the time he was twenty. When he watched the mother of two of his children succumb to addiction he couldn’t face his own part in it. He found out about Job Corps, got his GED in a very short time, and trained as a carpenter. Back in Baltimore, he could only get low paying unskilled jobs and under continued financial pressure as he tried to support his family, he went back to dealing drugs.

The Other Wes Moore juxtaposes these two stories, focusing primarily on the first 20 years of each Wes’s life. It’s a telling portrait of life for poor, young black Americans, and it’s also a heart-breaking look at what happens when society does not fulfill its promises fully — Wes the convict is smart, but he never graduates from school and if anyone tries to help him there it goes unmentioned. His mother was in college (ironically, at Johns Hopkins) and also working to support herself and her kids when Pell grants were cancelled and she was forced to drop out. When Wes made it through Job Corps he was prepared to live a new life, but was not given a chance with a living wage or even a job where he could apply his skills, and he turned back to crime.

Yes, the author’s mother managed to keep her kids safe, and sacrificed to get him first to private school in the Bronx and then military school, and yes, people have free will, and should be able to take responsibility for their actions. Still, I was really struck by how different things could have been if the convicted Wes had just had a couple of things go differently in his life. But there was something that bothered me even more: he claimed he wasn’t even at the robbery, and therefore could not have participated in the murder. Wes the author mentions this, but does not pursue it, or even spend more than a sentence or two on it. In the introduction to the book he writes,”Wes, it should never be forgotten, is in prison for his participation in a heinous crime.” So I guess he just doesn’t question the verdict, even though he’s come to know the man who claims he wasn’t there.

It seems to me that a man who has become devoutly religious while serving a life sentence who still maintains his innocence deserves more than a passing reference to his contention that he didn’t do it. He was young black man with a record, and I don’t know if I have enough faith in the justice system to believe his conviction was definitely just. That really bothers me, but it’s true. Society had given up on him long before and had sentenced him to a life of despair. So it’s not much of a leap to wonder if society would even think twice about locking him up. The community was demanding justice for a police officer. In light of all the recent attention given to the endemic police bias in Baltimore, I can’t help but wonder. Would that bias trickle into the justice system? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t.

As a memoir, The Other Wes Moore is compelling, but there were some stylistic choices I had a hard time with. I’ve never been a fan of reconstructed dialogue, which Moore employs not only in the sections about his own life and family (at least he was there) but also those about the other Wes. The author is a good storyteller though, and when I was reading the book those sections didn’t bother me. So maybe it was my overall discomfort that made me think twice as I looked back at the book when I was finished. Is it a good choice for a community-wide read? Absolutely — there is a great deal to discuss about race, economic and social inequality, education, family, personal responsibility, even the power of books and stories to change lives.

But I remain disquieted nonetheless.

 

I read a pre-publication review of this debut novel by Swan Huntley and thought it sounded different. It is. It’s the story of Catherine West, a wealthy, bored forty-three year old woman from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been engaged twice, and wants desperately to be married. Her sister Caroline is married to a pediatrician and has three kids. Their mother, Elizabeth, a somewhat stereotypical cold rich woman with strong opinions, has Alzheimer’s and lives in a swanky assisted living facility. Catherine lives on her trust fund, although she owns a small store selling expensive art greeting cards. Her best friend, Susan, is also wealthy and owns a small bonsai store.

If this all sounds boring, it seemed that way to me too at first. But in the opening pages, Katherine meets William Stockton, and her life seems to finally head in the direction she’s always wanted. He’s marriage material, she can tell, and before long they’re engaged. She seems to notice that she has deeper conversations with her masseuse and her wedding planner than with William, but she’s willing to deal with it.

But her mother has an immediate reaction to the news that she is dating William. He tells Catherine he broke an expensive, irreplaceable vase once, as a child, when he was at their apartment with his parents. But Catherine suspects there is more to the story. As the novel unfolds, she tries to understand why her mother can’t stand the idea of William being her son-in-law, and readers learn the secret her parents kept for decades.

That part is interesting, and I enjoyed the mystery of it, even though the secret turns out to be pretty awful. But I also really liked watching Catherine begin to grow up, finally, as she goes through the discovery and eventual emotional fallout. She is trying to be as good a person as she can be, even if her way of being that isn’t terribly well informed. She tells herself she’s not an awful rich person because she provides her housekeeper health insurance, for example, and works in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Most of the time she is still completely out of touch with reality, but by the end of the book she’s working on being vulnerable emotionally with someone instead of awkwardly aware of how her wealth separates her from others. I also really enjoyed the way Huntley writes about Catherine’s relationship with Caroline, and the way the sisters interact with their mother, who has never shown either of them much love.

The story isn’t new — money can’t buy happiness, you have to make your own way in the world, even if your family gives you every advantage, etc. Catherine thinks to herself, towards the end of the novel, “I had thought that beauty was in the flashy, pretty things you acquired to prove that you were happy.” But she has figured out, “Our lives could be beautiful in the quietest ways, and already were.” In some ways it’s hard to understand why she didn’t know that all along, but when you consider her family life, maybe it’s not. We Could Be Beautiful is a fun, entertaining read, but not weightless — I’m still thinking a couple of days later about the characters and their lives.