It’s dark here in northern New England in November. Evening comes early — the sun is going down by four o’clock. One of my favorite poems of all time is “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon, which I always think of at this time of year, as the dark hours increase. Kenyon writes, “God does not leave us comfortless,” and I like to think one of the chief comforts at any time, but especially in darkness (whether physical, spiritual, or emotional), is reading.
As the final weeks of campaigning came to a close, I read a couple of funny books to help balance the negativity. I wrote a few months ago about visiting a terrific used bookstore in Maine. One of my purchases there was a pair of paperbacks by Shirley Jackson.
My grandmother first recommended Jackson’s memoir, Life Among the Savages, when I had a three year old and a seven year old and had just moved into a 132 year old house in New Hampshire. I was still in that anxious phase of early motherhood, and I was also a bit overwhelmed by the house. Mostly my husband and I became of aware of how little we really knew about houses, despite having been homeowners before. An old house will humble you. Even though it was in many ways the coolest house we’ve ever lived in, I felt like we were in a power struggle, that house and I. The house won, but that’s another story.
Jackson writes about moving to an old house in Vermont from New York City with her husband and two young children. While she doesn’t know much more about the maintenance and upkeep of an old house than we did, she makes use of her inexperience by writing a hilarious memoir. Between her observations of the nature of very young children and anecdotes about things going wrong with her house and car, I laughed out loud. So when I saw it this summer in the used bookshop for $ .50, along with its companion, Raising Demons, I snapped them up.
Rereading Life Among the Savages, I was struck by how funny it still is, even though we’ve moved twice and now live in a house that’s only thirty something years old. My toddler and young son are now a preteen and a very tall kid who eats a great deal and is three months from being legally able to learn to drive. Despite being older, more experienced (notice I didn’t say wiser), and a great deal more relaxed, I still laughed out loud. Jackson manages to write about things that are so easy for any parent or former child to identify with that it doesn’t matter that the books were written in the late 1940’s.
Jackson’s book is all the more appealing to me for its New England setting. Rebecca Rule’s Live Free and Eat Pie! A Storyteller’s Guide to New Hampshire is a funny but affectionate look at the bookconscious family’s adopted home. Arranged like a guidebook, Live Free pokes fun at New Hampshire culture, but also fills readers in on history, people, and places around the state. While she enjoys pointing out the state’s quirks, Rule clearly loves New Hampshire, and revels in her role as collector of its tradition and lore. She writes that many of her best stories come from her own storytelling audiences, and I’m hoping to be in the audience when she comes to Concord in December.
At Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago, I went to hear D. Quincy Whitney read from her new book, Hidden History of New Hampshire. This little book grew out of Whitney’s work preparing New Hampshire “firsts and bests” for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Rather than putting her information in chronological order, Whitney organizes the book into thematic collections of stories, such as “Home, Town, and Community,” “Seasons: Work and Recreation,” “Creativity and Culture,” or “Ingenuity and Enterprise.” I found the groupings creative and conducive to browsing — when was the last time you picked up a history book and found a chapter on “Sea, Lake, and Sky,” or “Forests and Mountains?”
The pieces themselves are short and engaging. You may have recently heard references to Bretton Woods in the news, and this book will tell you the story behind the location of the conference and preparations for world leaders to come to remote NH. As always, hearing the author talk about her work really enhanced my appreciation for the final product, and it was interesting to hear about her travels. Whitney’s research led her to all kinds of fascinating places, like a unique monument to women who have lost their lives serving their country, which is decorated with reliefs Norman Rockwell designed.
Whitney doesn’t leave out familiar famous Granite staters, like Robert Frost and Christa McAuliffe, but she also writes about lesser known people who have achieved extraordinary things. And kids of all ages will enjoy hearing about notable sports achievements, including New Hampshire’s illustrious skiing history. It’s a well written, interesting little book enhanced by a great selection of historical photographs, and I’ve left it out where I hope the rest of the family will browse through it.
The kids have been reading some interesting fiction. My son tried The Sand Reckoner, by Gillian Bradshaw, who writes marvelously detailed historical fiction and is one of my favorite authors. As you can tell by the title, taken from his famous treatise on large numbers, The Sand Reckoner is about Archimedes, and Gregory found it interesting as well as entertaining. His sister is reading an Enola Holmes mystery, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, and she also just read Ivy and Bean and The Magic Half. The mystery features Sherlock’s little sister, and is part of a series by Nancy Springer my daughter really enjoys. The other two books are by Annie Barrows.
Annie Barrows is also the co-author, with her aunt, of a book I just finished last week and loved: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This was one of those books I didn’t want to end. A few years ago I watched Island at War on Masterpiece Theatre. I’d never really heard much about the occupation of the Channel Islands until then, and found it really interesting. Given all the hype about Barrows’ book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s written almost entirely as a series of letters between the protagonist and other main characters, which sounds hokey. But instead it was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was torn between wanting to know the heroine, Juliet, and wanting to be Juliet.
Another story I thoroughly enjoyed was The Blue Star, by Tony Earley. This novel is a sequel to Earley’s successful and critically acclaimed Jim the Boy. Both books are evidence that a person can write a good book for adults that is neither graphic nor shocking nor steeped in the latest pop psychology nor dripping with dramatic twists lifted from tell all talk shows and gossip rags. Earley’s setting, a small town in the South in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, feels vibrant and real. His characters are good without being sappy or cloying. Difficult things happen, especially in The Blue Star, but the books don’t titillate, taunt, or tire the reader. I wish there were more novels like these.
Which brings me to a book I didn’t enjoy that much, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. This was one of those books reviewers raved about that just didn’t appeal to me. I felt like it would have made a better movie or television drama. Nothing much happens in the book, but at the same time, there are so many characters that you don’t really get to know them, either. Maybe the main character, Manny, is the only one O’Nan meant for readers to care about, but despite his obvious good qualities, I found Manny fairly boring as characters go.
O’Nan’s writing is vivid, cinematic, I’d call it. His descriptions of restuarant work brought back vivid memories of a summer I spent busing tables, and I could picture the Lobster easily as I read. I didn’t hate the book, but I just felt there was not much to the story, and characters I couldn’t really get excited about — which are two things I’m really looking for in a novel.
When it comes to nonfiction, I often read about subjects I’m exploring with the kids. We’re learning about Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, because my dad and his wife are traveling there right now, and I just finished The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed reading it, but it was good read. The subject matter was disturbing: this book tells the story of Bashir, who was born in the house his father built in Ramla, with a lemon tree in the garden; and Dalia, the daughter of Bulgarian Jews who moved into the house after Bashir’s family and most other Arabs were expelled from Ramla when Israel became a country. Tolan tells, in spare, clean language, what happens after the two meet in their late teens, when Bashir comes to see the house and Dalia lets him in.
No matter your politics, this book will probably make you angry as well as horrified. The thing that struck me most was something Dalia noticed when she was still a little girl: the children of European Jews in Israel managed to dehumanize and mistreat people who were “other,” despite the experience of the Holocaust. I stayed awake wondering how that could be possible. The stories of Dalia and Bashir and what becomes of the house with the lemon tree are gripping, and Tolan fills in historical detail without bogging down readers or losing sight of the bigger picture. Tolan also manages to maintain an impartial tone throughout the book. When I was finishing the last chapter, Israel was blocking UN food aid deliveries in Gaza. After reading this book, I wonder if the situation can ever be fully resolved.
After such a heavy read, coming right after a novel I didn’t really enjoy, I’m going to read something I’m pretty certain I’ll find entertaining next: Brisingr, Christopher Paolini’s latest book in his Inheritance cycle. First of all, how cool would it be, as an author, to have written a series known as a “cycle” — as in The Epic Cycle, or the Arthurian Cycle? My son read Brisingr as soon as it came out, put in on my nightstand, and promised I would love it. I think it will be just the thing to sustain and inspire me as I crank through the 30,000 word mark this week.
Yes, crazy as it is, I am doing NaNoWriMo again this year. In case you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is the insanity of thousands of people around the world each writing a 50,000 word novel in November. A month in which I will spend hours in the car, taking the boy to a series of soccer tryouts some distance from our house and the girl to a weekly drama class where she is memorizing lines for an early December play, and to several art classes a week. We are also preparing for visiting relatives I am looking forward to spending time with, and Thanksgiving, which is one of our favorite holidays and which would result in mutiny if it did not include the traditional bountiful and somewhat time consuming menu.
In short, it’s not a month in which I really ought to be committing to 1667 words per day. But for some inexplicable reason, I love NaNoWriMo. Especially since I am ahead on my word count today. Talk to me tomorrow. You can follow my progress with that nifty word count meter in the side bar here at bookconscious.