In between following campaign hooey, congressional shenanigans, stock market dives, and the intricate schedules of the four members of the bookconscious household, I took comfort in fiction and poetry this month. I suppose much of what passes for news is at least semi-fictional these days as well, although pundits refer to that kind of fiction as “spin,” but when the current events fiction gets to be too much, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book for a little while.
I also find that lengthy nonfiction doesn’t lend itself to reading in brief snatches of time — when I’m waiting for my daughter to get out of art class, for example, or I’ve arrived at my son’s soccer game a little early. A chapter of a novel or a poem is a pleasant diversion when I find myself waiting. I admit I am the kind of person who finds it hard to sit and do nothing if I have a spare ten or fifteen minutes, and I almost always leave the house with a book, a poetry journal, and an issue of one of the magazines I read regularly (The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, Science News, or Cooking Light).
In a summer post I mentioned taking Jon Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are with me on vacation. I’m still reading it, bit by bit, and I sometime actually just sit and try to be mindful when I am waiting. But I admit, I still bring reading wherever I go — wherever I am, there I read.
Last spring, I attended the NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day, and one of the sessions I took was called “Zen and the Writing Marathon,” given by Katherine Towler. I enjoyed her practical, mindful advice, and made a note to read her novels. This month I read the first two in her trilogy (the third won’t be out until 2009), Snow Island and Evening Ferry. It was interesting to read these books after hearing the author talk about writing them.
Snow Island is set in the 1940’s, and the events of the book lead up to America’s entry into the war. At the end of the novel, we know the post-war fate of a couple of characters. The book centers around a young woman, one of three kids about to graduate from her tiny island school, Alice. Besides trying to find her way as she reaches adulthood, Alice is running the store her widowed mother can’t handle alone, offering new ideas like delivery and fresh produce to her customers.
While Alice is the central character, we get to know the other year round island families and my favorite thing about Towler’s writing is that every character, no matter how minor, is visible to me as I read. Same goes for the settings — both the island and the mainland town that is so nearby but in many ways almost foreign to the islanders are easy for me to see. I don’t want to give away the plot of the book, so I won’t go into much detail, but if you like historical fiction or coming of age stories, Snow Island is simple but beautiful, true without being overbearing in its “truthiness,” and satisfying but not in any way sappy.
I went back to the library for Evening Ferry even before I finished Snow Island. I remember as a child checking out a stack of books by the same author, like the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, or a series like Madeleine L’Engle‘s Time Quartet, and enjoying the feeling that even as I savored one book, the other was right there waiting for me. When my own kids were little, I remember finishing one Narnia book and hurrying to the library for the next, checking out two at a time so we would be able to keep reading.
As a grown up, I went through a long dry spell of not reading much (believe it or not!) and when I returned to books, I read the John LeCarre Smiley novels all in a row, complements of my Grandmother. Not too long after, I decided to read the entire A Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell — twelve novels — checking out 2-4 volumes at a time so I wouldn’t ever find myself at the end of one without the next one on my nightstand. Somehow knowing the story won’t end without my being able to pick up the next thread is very satisfying, and was one of the worst things about falling in love with the Harry Potter books as J.K. Rowling was still writing them; the kids and I would feel mournful knowing we had a couple of years to wait and see how the problem at the end of each volume would resolve itself in the next!
Thankfully, Snow Island and Evening Ferry don’t end in cliffhangers, and the emotional resolution of each novel is tidy enough to allow the reader some closure without being pat or forced. So I can wait patiently until the third book is published. One reason I enjoyed Evening Ferry so much was that is didn’t follow a neat “sequel” pattern. Towler revisits Snow Island and brings back some of the characters from the first novel, but Alice is a minor character this time, and the main character is of another generation.
Evening Ferry is also set against the backdrop of war, this time Vietnam. Towler’s focus, however, is Rachel’s struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with the turmoil of her own life, as a divorced woman returning to the island to care for her injured father. It’s a book about relationships, religion, and growing up, as well as a historical novel, but while Snow Island dealt with the transition from youth to adulthood, Evening Ferry describes the awkward growing up adults do when they reverse caregiving roles with their parents.
Towler also nails the uncomfortable process of looking back at childhood through adult eyes. As a novelist looks through her character’s eyes, so Rachel looks through her mother’s eyes as she reads her journals, and later looks through her father’s eyes as she begins to order her own memories and her mother’s. Towler doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook — she bares all of their flaws. But they are characters easy to like and empathize with, and I look forward to finding out about another generation of Snow islanders in her next book.
For my birthday in late September, Steve and the kids gave me a new book I was looking forward to: the latest collection by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, called Ballistics. I enjoyed it very much and shared one of my favorites, called “Hippos on Holiday,” with my brother and sister-in-law, whose online home is dozinghippo. “Ornithography,” which speculates on the messages in birds’ prints on the snow, is another I really liked. Several poems in this collection are about writing and language, and no one makes a wry observation as poetically as Collins does. In my poembound blog, I wrote about workshops with teenagers, and found that Collins is one poet every kid responds to — he just gets life so perfectly, and tells it truthfully in a way that hits you as both timelessly wise and entirely new.
Collins and Donald Hall, who has a new memoir out, were on the Diane Rehm show recently. I heard Hall read from his new book at Gibson’s in Concord a couple of weeks ago. I last saw Hall at the Poets Three reading last fall, and he told the audience about a difficult period he’d only recently emerged from, during which he could not write poems. He seemed tired then, and to hear him read this time, in fine spirits and as eloquent as I remembered from earlier readings, was a delight.
Isn’t that one of the reasons we read: to be delighted? Chaim Potok is a writer whose work rings with delight — no matter the struggle of his characters, they are vividly alive, and you know that the author who brought them to life took pleasure in knowing them. I read The Chosen last year, and recently read Old Men at Midnight, a book of three novellas, linked by a common character. Each of the three stories could stand alone, but together they build powerfully, each piece adding another layer of observation, until the reader sees that Potok’s book is as much about story as a primal human experience as it is about particular human characters in places and historical moments.
A book that is centered on people living with the challenges of our time, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, caught my eye at my public library a few weeks ago. Father Michael’s Lottery wasn’t a great novel; the midsection dragged along enough that I actually skipped a few chapters. But I didn’t put it aside, because I was fascinated by the main character, a doctor named Morgan who is a Hawkeye type renegade, putting patients before administrative rules or cost benefit analysis. You wouldn’t think a novel about such a depressing real life topic could be funny, but this one is, which added to its charm.
Author Johan Steyn is a doctor in Botswana, and his descriptions put me there in the hallways with his doctors, or in the bush with Morgan as he tries to let his anger at what his patients are suffering go. This vivid detail is one of the book’s best assets, as well as the humanity and warmth of the characters. The reader has a sense of where the story is headed, but I was surprised nonetheless by some of the details and without giving much away, I hope that since Steyn wrote the book some of the figures he had in mind have changed, especially the cost of anti-retroviral treatment. Steyn could have headed for a clear cut happy ending, but instead lets the book close on a hopeful but not overly tidy note, which seemed far more effective than if he’d wrapped up such a serious topic with complete closure.
Speaking of closure, I am slogging my way through American Bloomsbury. I would have put it down by now, except I really like Gibson’s book club and it’s the next selection we’re discussing. I enjoy the subject matter — the community of writers and thinkers living in Concord, MA in the mid 1800’s. In fact, the kids and I learned about Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott last spring and still intend to visit Concord to see where these amazing Americans lived and worked. So, why am I finding it hard to finish this book?
It dawned on me last night, as I forced my way through another of the short chapters between the end of the final presidential debate and the beginning of The Daily Show. American Bloomsbury is just like the infuriating campaign news coverage. Plenty of sound bites, plenty of speculative punditry, little bits of facts spun into a picture that looks complete if you don’t look too closely and see where it’s unraveling.
Author Susan Cheever tells readers right up front she is going to revisit events over and over because she wants to tell us about them from different people’s perspectives, but the effect is that you feel the book is never moving forward. A combination of the choppy style and overt projections of the author’s views or experiences on the historical narrative, marked by Cheever’s gossipy questions, add to the disjointed feeling. The final straw was reading that Plymouth, NH, is at the “head” of Squam Lake, when in fact it’s not on the lake at all. When a book contains such a silly error, it’s hard not to wonder what other facts went unchecked.
If I want unchecked facts, I can just tune in for three more weeks to campaign hooey. But in the interest of sleeping well, I think instead I’ll keep reading books.