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Archive for August, 2008

My mom sent me a news link today explaining why New Hampshire’s summer has been so wet. We are stuck, meteorologically speaking, in a “trough.” We’ve had so much rain that I haven’t had to water our huge (25′ x50′) community garden patch, which is nice. But the tomatoes won’t ripen and the zucchini are dying of some sort of rusty looking fungus. Repair work on the house and screened porch that started weeks ago is dragging along. And as the headline of the above link sums up, this weather “makes people grumpy.” I’ve been taking refuge from the liquid sunshine in books.

I worked in the very beautiful Ohrstrom Library this summer as reference librarian for St. Paul’s School’s ASP program, which brings 11th graders from all over NH to the boarding school for a five week intensive program that introduces them to campus life. While there, I realized my family is very fortunate to have access to this place all the time, thanks to Steve’s job as Director of Alumni and Development Operations at SPS. I also checked out some terrific books.

At the end of my last post I mentioned Firoozeh Dumas and her two memoirs, Funny In Farsi and Laughing Without an Accent. I read both in July, and they are the kind of books that restore your faith that the world is basically a good place made up of decent people. Dumas grew up in an Iranian family in both Iran and America. After the revolution, her family settled in the U.S.

She writes about Iran warmly, but not without acknowledging its problems. Mostly she writes about her family, and growing up, in a way that is frank, funny, and smart. She loves her parents but they can drive her nuts. She adores America but doesn’t get the strange foods we eat and the party hardy attitude of college students. She writes in a voice that is sensible, down to earth, kind, and oh yes — funny. The first book talks mostly about Dumas’ early years as an immigrant in America, and the second one ventures beyond memoir into “familiar essays” a la Anne Fadiman, about contemporary life in America, motherhood, education in Iran versus America, and meeting Kathryn Koob, one of the American hostages held for 444 days in Iran.

Most of the time when I read a memoir, I think, “well, that’s interesting, but this person isn’t real.” Either their experiences or the way they respond to them are too extraordinary for me to really identify with, no matter what the blurbs on the back of the book claim. But when I read Dumas, I not only identify with how she feels about the shared humanity of people of different cultures, her memory of realizing the whole library was free and available to her as a child, or her aversion to girls’ clothes with writing on the rear end — I also think, “I would love to sit down, have a cup of tea and talk with this woman.”

I’m not the only one who thinks Dumas is marvelous. Funny In Farsi is a big hit in Iran. Dumas opens Laughing Without an Accent by regaling readers with the perils of being translated in Iran today. After overcoming cultural misunderstandings — for example, her translator associated “va va va boom” with bombs, not romantic attraction — the manuscript went to the official Iranian censors.

Surprisingly, since she writes openly about her parents’ good life before and hardships after the Islamic Revolution, which cost her father his job, the censors changed only three items in her book. Two changes were small: she wasn’t allowed to write, “in my next life, I want to be Swedish,” or say that someone in the book “looked as if God had switched her nose with the beak of a toucan,” because in Islam there is no reincarnation and a good Muslim shouldn’t blame God for an ugly nose.

The third change she was most unhappy about: the censors cut a chapter in which she talks about her father explaining to her, when she was a girl and came home from religion class asking why he ate ham, “it does not matter what we eat or whether we are Muslim, Christian, or Jewish; it’s how we treat our fellow man that counts.” I agree with her — she calls that chapter “the soul of my book,” and it’s one of the things I immediately loved about her family when I read it. Her dad’s philosophy struck a chord with me, and it’s too bad readers in Iran were prevented from seeing that chapter.

Despite the changes, the Iranian edition of Funny In Farsi won a reader’s choice award from a magazine, and when Dumas asked the editor what made it so popular, he told her it was the way she compared Iran and America without depicting one as good and one bad. He asked her to tell Americans that Iranians don’t hate them. I think that’s a good thing to remember when most of what we Americans hear about Iran are political statements from leaders, not necessarily reflective of popular sentiment. I’d like our leaders to remember that the people they consider bombing are just like us in more ways than not, and Dumas illustrates that masterfully.

Dumas’ books definitely took me to sunnier places than rainy New Hampshire. When I finished, I decided to get even farther away by reading some fiction. A book that I’d been meaning to read for a long time was on the shelf at Ohrstrom, so I brought it home, curled up with the rain beating on the window behind me, and read it in one sitting: Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf. On the surface, it’s an account of the life of Flush, who was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, told from the dog’s point of view. Woolf makes social commentary fun in this little book, and I highly recommend it for a quick, delightful read that will also make you think, and may inspire you to go re-read Woolf’s other work.

Reading Flush was sort of like eating sorbet to cleanse the palate between Dumas and the next book on my stack. Venturing closer to home, I returned to memoir, picking up Ron Jager’s Last House on the Road. Jager is coming to Concord to be on a panel, Sustainable Living and the Art of Memoir, that will be the programming finale for Concord Reads 2008. I’m co-chairing Concord Reads (although I don’t have a co-chair), and I blogged about this year’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, last summer. If you haven’t read it, check out the book’s website for locavore ideas and recipes.

I wanted to read Jager’s book before I meet him. He was a philosophy professor at Yale when he and his wife bought an old farmhouse in Washington, NH, which eventually became their year round home. Last House on the Road also expands beyond memoir — it’s part history, part nature essay, part tribute to country life generally and small town New Hampshire life particularly, part home improvement journal, and part commentary on human nature. I enjoyed it, and I look forward to the panel, which will also include Maxine Kumin, Edie Clark, and Hilary Nelson.

Although a steady downpour always puts me in the mood for fiction, I’m currently reading two nonfiction books as well as a novel. I’m nearly finished with Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry, a collection of essays by poet Wesley McNair, who I was fortunate to hear and meet at a conference earlier this year. In Mapping the Heart, he writes about New England poets he’s studied, taught, and known, from Emily Dickinson to Charles Simic. McNair is wise without being stuffy or academic, and I’ve learned a great deal reading this book slowly, over several months.

McNair is also a Maine resident, and I’ve been gathering a pile of books by Maine authors in anticipation of the bookconscious family’s longed for August vacation. We’re soon off to Belfast, Maine, on Penobscot Bay. Here’s what I’ve collected to take with me: Sarah Orne Jewett‘s A Country Doctor and The Country of the Pointed Firs and Selected Short Fiction; a series of nine linked stories by Monica Wood called Ernie’s Ark, which I picked up at the Pembroke library book sale; and a history of Maine’s coast I found at the Concord library, Colin Woodard‘s The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for the Forgotten Frontier.

I’m a few pages into The Lobster Coast, but so far, it’s an enjoyable, interesting read. Reading a library book about Maine to the kids today (one of those social studies titles, not terribly creative but informative), I learned who rusticators were. See if you can guess before you click.

We’re only going for a week, so I doubt I’ll read all of these, but I like to be prepared. I’ve actually read The Country of the Pointed Firs, so I’ll probably read Jewett‘s and Wood’s stories and the history book and save A Country Doctor for later. My daughter has packed books for the trip too. Besides the two most recent Fairy Chronicles books (which are about girls who discover they have fairy powers), she has loaded all seven Harry Potter titles into a sturdy bag, and announced at supper last night that she plans to commit them to memory on vacation. Scary thing is, she probably could. I am a little jealous of her ability to remember in such detail. Mindfulness may help, so I am going to toss another book sale treasure, Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life into my bag.

The teenager reports he’s bringing the first two of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle (once projected to be a trilogy, but Paolini ‘s website reports there will be a 4th book). It’s been a couple of years since the second book, Eldest, came out, and we just pre-ordered the 3rd, Brisingr, which will be in stores September 20 — an auspicious date (my birthday). The kids made it a tradition around here to re-read the Harry Potter books before each new title came out, and my son wants to have Paolini’s richly detailed, incredible fantasy world fresh in his mind before Brisingr.

Quick plug for life learning — Paolini was homeschooled, and has mentioned in interviews that his self-directed education gave him the time and freedom to explore his ideas, hiking near his home, reading, thinking, even making his own chain mail. He wrote his first book, Eragon, when he was still a teen, having finished high school early. I enjoy his writing, although I have trouble keeping all the fantastical names straight. But I digress.

For a vacation from the rain, rain, rain, right here at home, I’m reading a novel, World Made By Hand, by James Howard Kuntlser. I’m really enjoying it, and Steve has been eyeing it — he told me that when I described it to friends recently, he thought it sounded similar to one of his all time favorite books, The Stand. Kuntsler writes about America in the near future, where the economy, government, and infrastructure have collapsed because of terror attacks, war, and epidemics. The main character is a former software company executive who now makes his living as a carpenter, because there’s no power, so no computers. Want a taste of this world? Check out the book’s really cool website.

One review of the book complained that Kuntsler, who describes America as Clusterf*** Nation on his website and has written extensively about “sprawlscape” and how the degradation of our physical and cultural environments have caused the crises of our times, is “didactic” in this novel. Another reviewer calls the book “a fictional account of The Long Emergency,” Kuntsler’s nonfiction book predicting a series of crises due in large part to the end of oil. I haven’t felt lectured so far, although I haven’t had time to sit down and get lost in World Made by Hand yet. I plan to do that just after supper.

Yes, those kids need to eat. I’ll go take a look at what we’ve got. It’s NH Eat Local Week. Eating locally may reduce our dependence on oil and our carbon footprint (food’s climate impact is complicated), and will definitely support local economies, topics found in Kuntlser’s work, and but also tastes delicious, which Barbara Kingsolver points out in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Dumas writes about food’s cultural importance in her books. In fact, there are interesting food scenes in Flush and in World Made by Hand, and The Lobster Coast looks at the importance of Maine’s best known delicacy (which I hear is actually a dollar a pound cheaper than last year at this time). So many bookconscious connections . . . until we meet again, good reading to you all, and I’ll write next time about reading (and maybe eating) locally in Maine.

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