Two of us here at the bookconscious household were NaNoWriMo winners this year — which means we wrote a novel each in November. As I noted last month, it’s absolutely nuts of me to try and write 50,000 words in November, especially 50,000 words that should make sense in some kind of compelling way. My daughter did the Young Writers Program, which allowed her to set her own word count. She sensibly set it low and exceeded her goal, and took plenty of days off.
Although I finished, it took a lot more effort than I recall expending on my last NaNoWriMo. Yet I still enjoyed struggling through to the end, which made me reflect on something interesting about my enjoyment of reading. Post-novel writing, I realized that part of my reading pleasure derives from sharing a sense of the struggle, either on the part of the author or the characters, that brought the story to fruition. For me, a good read is a vicarious quest.
A great example of a recent book that drew me in that way is Brisingr. Of course I have very little idea of the effort involved in a part human, part elf Dragon Rider’s struggle to master all he needs to learn with his dragon to save his world from an evil overlord while dealing with interracial conflicts, personal issues, spiritual confusion, and coming of age. But I can feel for Eragon because author Christopher Paolini makes his hero so alive, drawing on emotions and thoughts that I can easily identify with.
Despite the challenging language (Paolini invented several languages for his book cycle, and even with the glossary I have trouble keeping words and names straight), the difficulty of remembering what happened in the earlier books, and the complexity of Alagaesia, the fantasy world where the stories are set, the Eragon books are enthralling because of Paolini’s mastery — not just in writing well, which he does, but in portraying universal human struggles, even in characters that aren’t human. He makes elves, dwarves, urgals, etc. distinct, but he makes every race a reflection of some aspect of humanity, a mirror we can look into, sometimes happily, sometimes a bit uncomfortably. For me, this makes the reading absorbing.
One thing about Eragon that is so endearing to me is his constant thirst to learn and to understand. He seeks not only information — Who are his parents? What must he learn to defeat the enemy? — but also meaning. What is the purpose of his life’s work? Why do we love, and what does love do to us? Why do different races in his world have different gods? Should he pray to any or all, and how? In an autodidactic household where each of us is on our own life learning journey, these questions make Eragon seem like one of us. This kind of book feeds my imagination and I’d even say, my soul.
The question of souls, and how to feed them, brings me to A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, which describes the author’s struggle to follow rules for living from the bible as closely as possible. Jacobs is a terrific writer whose earlier book, The Know-It-All, was a delight, especially for those of us who would like to indulge in prolonged reference book reading ourselves. I’ve been meaning to read The Year of Living Biblically, and when my son’s best friend told me he was reading it, I figured it was a good time to go check it out. I’m glad I did.
In nonfiction, I’m drawn to the same appealing factor that I look for in novels and stories: a sense of connectedness with what I’m reading. Whether it’s the writer or the subject of the writing that engages me, I get into a book or article I can feel caught up in. Jacobs writes endearingly of his own imperfections — much as another of my favorite nonfiction authors, Bill Bryson, does — and this makes his writing feel conversational. The Year of Living Biblically is arranged by month, so that the reader is carried along on the year’s adventure, which adds to the “we’re all in this together” feeling.
Jacobs is an excellent observer. He doesn’t just decide to try keeping the Sabbath (and admits, endearingly, that he can’t keep his hands off his keyboard and creates little exceptions so he can check his email anyway), he explains how his efforts begin to make a change in him, to create an awareness of the benefit of slowing down. I really enjoyed his observation that cleaning up his language helped him feel more peaceful, less angry about whatever he would ordinarily swear about. And his descriptions of each biblical adventure made it easy to see what he was seeing.
As with his first book, this one is not only about his own exploration of a subject, but what impact his devotion to immersion journalism has on his family. For example, his struggle to be biblical includes growing a really big beard — which can be off-putting to strangers, not to mention his wife. He also writes candidly about he and his wife experiencing infertility and their pursuit of treatment so that they can have a second child. With a small child, a wife and an extended family, work, and the trappings of modern life all around him, Jacobs tries to reconcile his life and his quest to understand biblical living, in a way that gives his project context for readers.
Two other things made this one of my favorite books of the year: Jacobs writes beautifully about being a dad, struggling to do the right thing, to be a contemporary parent caught up in timeless worries, and to even process the overwhelming love and concern a parent feels. So many other authors whose writing is fine, whose work is interesting, whose books I otherwise enjoy absolutely turn me off when they write authoritatively about their excellent children and their fantastic parenting. Makes me want to put the book down with a hearty “Puhlease!”
Not so with Jacobs. He tells us, candidly, about what works, what doesn’t, what he worries about when it comes to his son, what he wants to be as a parent. In real life, parents do that — question, wonder, hope, and yes, even pray, that we’re doing our best. So I love his honesty, and it makes his books more like sitting down with a friend and laughing over life’s speedbumps than sitting in a lecture hall and hearing how Informed, Enlightened Authors do things.
If you’re wondering whether Jacobs just puts on the kindly dad persona in the book, and whether he’s actually a conceited famous author in person, let me share a quick personal aside. Late in The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs discusses a fringe fundamentalist Christian group and explains why they alarm him. So far, so good. Then he mentions they were important to the rise of homeschooling!
Aghast, I labored over an email that would politely inform Mr. Jacobs of the diversity of background, belief, and educational philosophy that makes homeschoolers too vast and varied a group to stereotype, and would let him know that homeschooling wasn’t founded by extremists. He wrote me back very soon after I took a deep breath and hit send, and he was kind, understanding, and gracious.
When it comes to accepting that no one person or group has a lock on the best way to do things, Jacobs also excels. His exploration of biblical correctness included a circle of both Jewish and Christian advisers, and he tries to consider various perspectives. He also tells readers where he’s coming from: he’s an agnostic, a secular Jew, curious about religion but not convinced.
I appreciated that perspective as he shares what he finds transformative or doesn’t, what he learns that seems credible and what’s incredible, what appeals and what revolts. He’s fair, finding something good in just about everyone he meets in the book. And he’s gentle in the conclusions department — he doesn’t make any grand declarations about Truth and Meaning, but he explains, simply, what’s changed in his life and what he learned.
Life changing experiences come in many degrees of impact, and fortunately, most of us will never experience what Nastaran Kherad has. After growing up in Shiraz, Iran, with her maternal grandmother, who she called Bibi, she was arrested on false political charges when she was only 18. While she was in prison, her beloved brother, Mohammed, was executed, in part for his efforts to be supportive of other prisoners. In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up In Revolutionary Iran describes the author’s upbringing and her family, and life in Iran for a working class family during the period just before and in the early part of the Iranian revolution.
Bookconscious readers know that last spring, I blogged about a couple of books I’d read about travel and life in Iran. I received a review copy of In the House of My Bibi as a result of my blogging. Like Jasmine and Stars, whose author also grew up in Shiraz, In the House of My Bibi is a book that brings Iran to life. Kherad’s book deals only with her childhood memories, because she hasn’t been back since she fled Iran twenty some years ago. So the book doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about what was happening politically and socially in the country. Instead, it gives readers a view of growing up there, of living an ordinary childhood.
Other Iranian memoirs I’ve read, including Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis, are the stories of people whose family or social circle were well off or well educated, or both. Kherad’s grandmother and mother are both widows, and both work to feed the family. Her grandmother works in a pickle factory and is illiterate, and her mother was married to an older man when she was still a teenager. Kherad writes clearly and simply, without analyzing, letting the reader come to conclusions she was struggling to sort out herself as an adolescent.
Besides Bibi, Kherad’s most caring relative is Mohammed, who takes his little sister to get a library card and introduces her to the ideas he is exploring as a young man. She describes him as a person with great empathy for the poor and for his fellow political prisoners. The reader can guess, when the young Kherad tells her brother she wants to be a writer when she grows up, he won’t be there to read her work.
I enjoyed the book, and I think Kherad succeeds not only in helping show another facet of her country, but also in writing fairly about the things that were good in her life there. The bad is obvious; she writes vividly about her imprisonment. But she does not fully explain events leading to her arrest in one section of the book, and I found myself backtracking to try and get a clear picture.
Kherad portrays poverty and wealth, tradition and modernization under the Shah’s regime. But perhaps because she tells the book from her own perspective and she was still very young, I got no sense of when the revolution took place in her narrative and how it changed life for her family at first, before the arrests. There are hints — her brothers argue about whether Iran needs a monarchy, her Bibi admires the Shah, and Mohammed is disillusioned that the Islamic Revolution does not bring about compassionate social justice. It’s understandable that a child would only piece this information together in bits, but the telling is a bit disjointed.
In the final chapter, when she is about to leave Iran, she reconciles the strained relationship she has with her mother, but there is little closure, since we never hear much about Bibi once Kherad enters prison. On the whole, I thought the writing was vivid and considering the difficulty of revisiting these memories, the book is remarkably detailed. But I felt lost from time to time — perhaps that was intentional? Since she has spent nearly her entire adult life as an exile, the sketchiness of some parts of her childhood may be an authentic part of her memoir, rather than a weakness in the book’s structure.
While the other books I read this month touched on journeys of understanding, searching, and remembrance, my favorite recent purchase is Theories of Everything: Selected Collected and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006. For a mere $6, in a labyrinthine used bookshop in Manchester, I bought this volume, which may hold the secret to life somewhere within its magical pages. For those unfamiliar with Roz Chast, a staff cartoonist at the New Yorker, I recommend you go to the library and request this book. Chast has a knack for putting her finger on just what people wonder about, and spinning a humorous view of life’s mysteries and humanity’s foibles. Her humor is quirky and gentle even when it’s pointed, and her artwork is distinctive and delightful.
Next up a the bookconscious house? The teenager has begun Fever Pitch, which I picked up at the Audubon society book sale, and has also been poring over How to Photograph Absolutely Everything. His sister is reading The Great Santa Search but also — Hallelujah! — browsed the library shelves today. Has anyone else noticed that kids tend to search online for books, rather than losing themselves in the library stacks? I have such warm memories of several different libraries’ shelves, and myself in front of them pulling out book after book, choosing a pile, and anticipating many happy hours of reading. Online searching is convenient, but not nearly as much fun as serendipitous shelf browsing. Anyway, she found a couple of books that way and I hope to encourage more browsing.
We were at the library so I could pick up The Journal of Helene Berr, a WWII era diary of a young French woman, newly published in English, which I heard reviewed on a BBC radio program. I’m also reading Bleak House, which Gibson’s book group is discussing in January. As snow falls on the bookconscious house it’s time for making both Christmas cookies and latkes (my recipe is from a favorite picture book: The Miracle of the Potato Latkes), and I’m planning to dig into our selection of holiday books this weekend. Happy Holidays, and I hope all of you are the pleased recipients of good books this month!