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Archive for May, 2009

It’s rainy and cool here in New Hampshire as I start this post, perfect weather for getting into pajamas after supper and curling up with a good book. I have somewhere to be, however. It’s a place I’ve mentioned several times on bookconscious: Gibson’s Bookstore. Tonight will be different: I’m the new events coordinator for the store!

I admit I’ve been in a more or less constant state of panicky excitement since accepting the job. “Cool, I’m going to meet so many authors! Aagghh, when will I write? It’s nice to have someone be so confident I’ll do a good job. Ack, what if I can’t figure out how to organize more events, increase attendance etc.? Oh stop worrying, you’ll do fine!”

Despite the interruptions from this annoying internal dialogue, I have managed to read most evenings, and the rest of the family, who are all utterly unruffled by my new status as an employed person, have all kinds of good books going. So without further ado, here’s what we’re reading in the bookconscious household.

The preteen is back to reading Royal Diairies, which she enjoys because they are historical fiction accounts of famous women’s girlhoods.  She’s also reading Live Free and Eat Pie, which I recommended, because the Computer Scientist took her and her best friend to one of Rebecca Rule’s storytelling evenings. They all thought it was hilarious fun, and apparently, he entertained them on the way there with an amusing anecdote about getting a cocktail straw stuck up his nose at a swanky party at the Superintendent’s house when he was a midshipman first class at the Naval Academy.

The teenager continues to read and study T.S. Eliot. He’s analyzing “What the Thunder Said,” which is the final section of The Waste Land, in order to write an essay. Next we’re going to read and discuss “The Four Quartets.”  He asked me the other day if we can keep reading poetry for our literary discussion group, instead of going back to novels. He’s also reading Instant Physics: From Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond, because he’s started a physics course and wanted to supplement it with a good read. Kid after my own heart.

The Computer Scientist is reading T.S. Eliot along with us, and is also digging into Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle, which is the second in a planned trilogy about WWII. He’s also got a bookmark in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Like me, he often has more than one book going. The other one on his nightstand with a bookmark in it is A Place on Water, which is a book of essays by three friends — Wesley McNair, Bill Roorbach, and Robert Kimber — who have “camps” (New England lingo for cabins) on a pond in Maine.

I just started a book set in Maine, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s the Gibson’s book club June selection, and it also just won the Pulitzer Prize.  I’ve just read the first of the book’s thirteen linked stories, called “Pharmacy,” and I really enjoyed it. The title character wasn’t the focus of the first story, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she pops up throughout the book. My first impression of  Strout’s writing is that it’s not predictable, and by the end of the first story I really adored the main character, Henry.  “Pharmacy” is an emotionally rich tale without being overblown or gooey with sentimentality.

Another writer whose work I enjoyed in May who is far from “gooey,” or as they might say in England, “treacly” about emotional topics, is Carol Ann Duffy. Like Strout, her writing packs a strong emotional punch. When I read about her selection as poet laureate of England, I checked the local library for her books. They have two of her books for young readers, The Tear Thief, and Queen Munch and Nibble, which the Preteen pronounced, “really cool stories to read to younger children, with cool illustrations, especially in The Tear Thief.”

Unfortunately, I had to order Duffy’s poetry collections on inter-library loan, but that takes no time here in New Hampshire, and I soon read two: The World’s Wife and Feminine Gospels. Both were amazing. It’s a bit humbling to imagine the intellect and creativity behind these poems.

The poems in The World’s Wife are told from the point of view of women in famous men’s lives throughout history and mythology, while Feminine Gospels deals more generally with themes of womanhood and female experience.  Both are full of powerful personalities that come alive. In both books I was impressed with Duffy’s poem craft — the way the language sings in her hands, her inclusion of rhythm, rhyme and near rhyme in thoroughly modern ways, the way she weaves voices and narratives. Lovely.

In May I read two other poetry books. One caught my eye in February, when it was Darwin’s 200th birthday: Darwin: A Life In Poems, by Ruth Padel. Padel happens to be Darwin’s great great granddaughter, but she is also a scholar, poet, BBC radio presenter, musician, and writer of acclaimed nonfiction books on everything from Greek views on the inner life of humans to tiger conservation. She’s led a fascinating life, and it’s the reading public’s good fortune that she is a talented writer who shares her experiences on the page.

Darwin was interesting because Padel used a variety of poetic forms, but also wrote in fairly contemporary style, with lots of enjambment (lines that wrap around), natural rhythm, and near rhyme rather than formal rhyme and meter. The stories of Darwin’s life told in the poems were also interesting — I’ve never read much about him beyond what one learns in history or science classes, and in the myriad magazine articles that appeared this year. The family stories, and Padel’s portrait of the Darwins’ marriage, were particularly fascinating. Interesting, too, to have these poems so recently in my mind as I began Olive Kitteridge, because Strout’s stories look closely at marriage.

The other poetry I read in May was a book I heard about on the Knopf poem-a-day newsletter in April, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young. In his introduction, Young acknowledges earlier translators of the great Chinese poet’s work, as well as other poets who encouraged Young as he worked on the new translations, including Charles Simic, who referred to Du Fu as “a swell guy.”

I’d had a taste of Du Fu, or Tu Fu as he is sometimes known, when the kids and I learned about China. I enjoy many kinds of Asian poetry, especially Chinese classical poems and Japanese forms including senryu, haiku, and haibun. Young’s book is not only enjoyable poetry, but also informative translation and editing — his frequent notes provide historical, cultural, and biographical context that enriches the poems. It’s especially interesting reading Du Fu today because he wrote as a “golden” time in China was descending into upheaval.

Upheaval is a major theme in Fields of Light:A Son Remembers His Heroic Father by Joseph Hurka.  Bookconscious readers know I took a workshop from Hurka at NH Writers’ Project’s Writer’s Day this year, and read his novel last month. I enjoyed this memoir even more. Hurka visited his aunt in the Czech Republic in 1993, shortly after the fall of communism. He visits places important both to Czech history and his own family’s history, and tries to deepen his understanding of his father as well as the country.

Hurka’s writing is beautiful — evocative but uncluttered. As my grandmother would say, (and this is the highest praise she gives a book) there’s not one extra word.  Most of all, I loved Fields of Light because of the way Hurka seeks connections between what he knows and what he is discovering as he immerses himself in his journey. As an added bonus, I learned a great deal about Czech history, too.

Last month, I learned about Irish history around the time of WWI while reading the Gibson’s book club selection, A Long Long Way. Author Sebastian Barry gives readers another glimpse into Ireland’s past in his more recent novel, The Secret Scripture. This time, the book is set mostly in Ireland, and is told through two diaries the main characters are writing. One is a psychiatrist, and the other is a patient in an asylum which is being closed. The doctor is trying to asses whether the  patient, a 100 year old woman, can be discharged or should be moved to the new facility.

I enjoyed the story, although like his earlier book, Barry goes to the bone emotionally, and parts of The Secret Scripture were painful to read. The language was strikingly different — perhaps more modern, certainly less musical than the prose of A Long Long Way. The ending caught me off guard. I’m not sure if it was because I had less time to read this month and stayed up far too late, so just wasn’t alert to the clues, or if it really was an unexpected twist.

One reason I had less time to read other books was that I promised a friend I’d read both Concord Reads 2009 selections. Bookconscious fans know I chaired last year’s CR, which is our town’s “one book, one community” program. This year, the committee selected two books: Pay It Forward, a novel (and it turns out, not the first novel to use the phrase “pay it forward” and The Soloist, a nonfiction book. Both are well known as films, and both are about someone making a difference.

I won’t go into much detail now, because I am going to be leading book discussions about both titles in the fall, and I’ll be interested to report then whether other readers shared my initial impressions. Also, I’ll re-read the books before then and perhaps come up with some new thoughts.

I enjoyed Pay It Forward (although I thought the ending was fairly predictable and disappointing). The author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, employs a shifting point of view that was engaging. By the end of the book, I cared about the three main characters, and some of the minor characters were very interesting. Towards the end of the book, although I had guessed the outcome, I was intrigued by some of the turns in the plot.

I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy The Soloist, which I hope means I’ll lead a good discussion because I’ll add a bit of dissent. The story itself is interesting, and Nathaniel Ayers and all the other people dealing with mental illness deserve the attention and help that’s come their way as a result of Steve Lopez‘s columns.

I gave the book an “okay” on Goodreads, mainly because I got the impression it was not so much a well crafted book as a bunch of columns looking for a more lucrative deal and a bigger spotlight. In fairness, there may be good reasons for Lopez to seek those things — as he reminds readers repeatedly, the attention he brought to Skid Row in L.A. caught the eye of people in power who could bring about change.

Every book I read this month was chuck full of promises — made, kept, broken, bent, modified, renegotiated. From Du Fu’s lament over imperial posts that never worked out to Darwin’s struggle with his wife’s wishes that he resolve religion and science in his work, to Barry’s and Hyde’s fictional betrayals and Lopez’s struggle to get Nathaniel Ayers off the street, promises everywhere, many of them unfulfilled or unfulfilling.

Eliot explores the way people don’t remain true to each other or to any kind of lasting belief system in the Wasteland and end up leading empty lives. Carol Ann Duffy and Elizabeth Strout look at tough women able to varying degrees to navigate all the treachery the world might throw at them without totally losing it. Hurka faces the extent to which his father’s generation dealt with communism’s false, cruel promises after the long struggle against fascism.

But despite all the disappointment, deceit, treachery, selfishness, betrayal — each one of these books leaves at least a tiny pinhole for hope to fill. In every case, the characters I read about this month looked around at their imperfect, broken world and all the people hurting each other and letting each other down and found a way to survive. In fact, the common thread seems to be that even if they often do the wrong thing, humans are almost all gifted with the ability to go on, get up, try again, right their lives and make them work.

And that, when you think about it, is one of the reasons literature exists, to remind us that no matter how bad things get, we’ll get by. Even Eliot’s dark Waste Land ends with “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” — which his note says is like “the peace which passeth all understanding,” beyond our human capacity to process, but with us, abiding in us and carrying us through, regardless of our frailty and our endless capacity to fail. Something bigger than any of us helps us transcend the worst in us.

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April turned out to be a busy month, but I did find time to read. I suspect that the author of one of the books I finished, Walden, would not think much of either my hectic schedule or my eclectic reading. I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about Thoreau and friends.  I ended up setting it aside, not only because I had other things to read, but also because Thoreau is a bit of a scold, and I wasn’t in the mood for his lectures.

After our visit to Concord in March, I decided to pick it up again. I tried to tune out the lecturing tone, and managed to finish the book. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, and I think Thoreau was an incredible thinker and writer. I enjoyed Walden overall. It’s just that when Thoreau gets on his high horse about certain topics — including reading — he sounds a bit like a modern day television pundit, railing about a manufactured controversy. Even when I agree, maybe especially when I agree, I hate it when someone makes his or her points by disdaining opposing views.

I can generally identify with many of the things Thoreau gets hot and bothered about, like people not noticing how their “stuff” is ruling their lives, or how they are rushing along through life without really needing to, or missing out on the serenity and even maybe the sacredness of the natural world as they hurry up and “improve” the land for man’s purposes. It’s amazing actually, that Thoreau was asking questions in his time that we have still not answered for ourselves as a society today, and that many of us don’t ever answer for ourselves personally.

But even though I admire him and believe there is a much to learn from Walden and from his essays, Thoreau sometimes aggravates me with his harping. The chapter of Walden on reading irked me the most, even though I think Thoreau makes some very good points. It bothers him that some people haven’t read the “ancient classics in the language in which they were written,” (at the time, he tells us, there aren’t any translations of Homer, Aeschylus, or Virgil into English), and laments that his fellow citizens read the Bible but don’t even know other cultures have sacred scriptures, let alone what they teach.

OK, Henry, I’m with you so far. Sure, the classics are an amazing repository of human thought and beauty (although I can’t say much about reading them in the original, because I’ve only read translations). And I’m a big fan of learning about other belief systems, and learning from them about the universality of human experience, especially the seeking we all do for meaning, ethics, and purpose.

But Thoreau isn’t content just to long for a more broadly educated populous, steeped in the classics and comparative religion. He is also offended that not enough people are intellectuals. “Most men learned to read to serve a paltry convenience,” he grouses, “of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing, yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to while the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Good grief, this makes me cringe.

He also complains, “Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted of the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.”  And if that’s not bad enough, “The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell.”  By now I was muttering to myself.

The  librarian in me chuckled a bit at Thoreau’s distress over the light reading material available at Concord’s library, such as novels. Some things never change —  library’s today still deal with patron complaints about what a library has in its collection (or doesn’t). Thoreau adds with disgust, “We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate, and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsmen who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.” Kind of makes you want to wrap your beach read in a towel, doesn’t it?

Thoreau has good intentions, beyond all this complaining. He believes that people would be better for reading good books, explaining, “The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones . . . . Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality.”  I have to agree with his underlying premise, that understanding our lives in the context of man’s universal, timeless quest for wisdom would expand our minds, improve us and our world.

He is disgusted that school ends when one is grown, and calls for universal life learning: “It is time we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women.” As an autodidact trying to raise kids who know that learning isn’t a kids’ activity that happens in particular buildings during particular times, I couldn’t agree more.

But I have to say that I occasionally enjoy “chick lit,” I thought Nanny Diaries was hilarious social commentary, and I firmly believe what my Grandmother taught me: when times are tough, take comfort in a nice Agatha Christie mystery or maybe a Mrs. Pollifax spy adventure.  I don’t think telling people they are wasting their minds if they read for fun is fair. Who knows what connections they’re making? It’s like junk food in my mind — it’s not good for you, and you don’t need it, but a little bit isn’t going to kill you. And no one likes being around someone who stands next to the chips and dip at a party and lectures everyone within earshot about the dangers of fat and salt.

I encourage my family to read good books, and if you’ve followed bookconscious you know we’ve even discussed what makes a “great” book. A little bit of my schooled mind cringes, like Thoreau’s, when I see them reading comic strips instead of something I would classify as literature. But I am not a book snob, and I’ve learned that there’s philosophy in Calvin and Hobbes, and Foxtrot frequently illustrates the Computer Scientist’s contention that “math is life.” As a former librarian and life long “libraryologist” as the C.S. calls me, I’ve come to believe that if kids are reading something they love, it doesn’t matter what it is. Offer them a varied reading diet and they’ll get enough fruits and vegetables, but don’t deny them cheese puffs or candy in moderation.

I fear Thoreau would scold librarians for adding graphic novels to their collections, or featuring movie tie-in books. But I feel a little better knowing that even back in 19th century Concord, a place overflowing with writers and intellectuals and a well-read population, a place where many a farmer had learned a little Latin or Greek in his youth, where there was no television or world wide web or massively multiplayer online role-playing games, someone was already wringing his hands over the End of Reading. Because it didn’t happen then, and I don’t believe it will happen now. Writers will keep writing, and readers, reading.

In fact, despite the tanking economy, I’ve read recently that bookstores and libraries are reporting more patrons than ever. Reading is inexpensive entertainment, it lasts, and it can be a social event. I’ve invited my neighbor to come along on Monday, when Gibson’s book club will be discussing our May book, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

Barry is a playwright and poet as well as a novelist. The protagonist of A Long, Long Way is Willie Dunn, brother of Annie Dunn, title character of Barry’s earlier novel. Annie Dunn also appears in Barry’s award winning play, The Steward of Christendom. That play, in turn, was based in part on Barry’s own great-grandfather. In an interview Barry mentions other experiences and family stories that made their way into A Long, Long Way. It’s a beautiful example of the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness.

A Long, Long Way is, first of all, gorgeous. Barry’s language is so poetic, I could hear the book in my head as I read. As a novel, it’s tight and well crafted. The story is hard — Willie Dunn serves in the trenches of WWI, and as the war goes on not only does he deal with the horror but also with the political and social turmoil brewing in Ireland, and the fact that his service in the war will bring him personal troubles. Even when you want to turn away, the book’s terrible beauty holds you.

Like Willie Dunn and the men he comes to know in war, the reader can’t help but wonder how anyone growing up can possibly sort through the world’s propaganda and the things we’re told in childhood, on the long way towards figuring out what not only who we are but what is real and true and how to think independently. Willie leaves Ireland sure of what he knows and loves and believes, and experiences disillusionment but also transformation. We see him come of age, bringing the core of himself through the terror, making his way, finding family in his comrades at arms.

I won’t spoil the plot for you by telling anymore. I will add that I am so taken with Barry’s prose that I plan to check out The Secret Scripture and Annie Dunn in the future, and to try to track down his poetry on inter-library loan. The rhythm and lilt of his sentences reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s poems.

Speaking of WWI and of poetry, you may recall that the Teenager requested we read T.S. Eliot in April for our lit crit circle. He was struck by the quote on the National Poetry Month poster: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” So far we’ve read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the first two parts of “The Waste Land.” Last weekend as we discussed “The Burial of the Dead,” and “A Game of Chess,” the Teenager pronounced Eliot a snob. All those literary references — he just has to rub his smarty-pants knowledge in our faces. Of course, Thoreau might point out that if we’d had the kind of classical education he urges, and stayed away from novels and comics, we’d be in a better position to understand.

And yet, The Teenager doesn’t dislike “The Waste Land,” nor did he dislike “Prufrock,” at least not entirely. He’s impressed by the language. It’s also somewhat satisfying to try and penetrate what seems like such utter bloody weirdness on first glance. The Computer Scientist and I let him know that we too are somewhat irritated by the know-it-all obscurity of the references and the hoity toity tone of the notes — where Eliot makes it clear he expects his readership to be as well read as he is. But we are persevering because we all want to know what made this poem so influential, and to understand it as best we can.

A number of secondary sources are helping us, including From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough, which Eliot mentions in his notes, and some annotated hypertext versions of the poem online. Essays on “The Waste Land” are easy to find, including a collection at the Modern American Poetry site, hosted by University of Illinois.

I also picked up some books at Ohrstrom Library: The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, edited and annotated by Lawrence Rainey; The Waste Land: A Poem of Memory and Desire by Nancy K. Gish; and Valerie Eliot’s The Wasteland: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. We probably won’t read any of these cover to cover, but referring to them and then discussing what we’ve learned helps unlock the poem.

Before the Dogs’ Night Out poetry reading I read Sharon Olds’ The Wellspring and Philip Schultz’s failure. Both poets write about family and love, life in a time of catastrophes, connections we seek. I go into more detail about their poems in my post on the reading.

On impulse one day at the library, I grabbed Contemporary Poetry of New England, an anthology edited by Jay Parini, from the poetry month display as I was about to check out. It’s an interesting collection, with some poems and poets new to me and others quite familiar. I was mystified that any collection of recent New England poetry could omit Donald Hall, but otherwise, I enjoyed it. Anthologies are great fun, and often lead me to seek out more of a particular poet.

After NH Writers’ Project Writers Day, I read Taking Down the Angel, a poetry collection by Jeff Friedman and Before, a novel by Joseph Hurka, because I took their workshops. Friedman’s poems in Taking Down the Angel are narrative, a little like Wesley NcNair’s, and I especially enjoyed his midrashic poems — pieces that enter a bibical story and add a new perspective, that serve as poetic commentary on the meaning and mystery of stories we think we know, telling them in new ways.

Hurka’s novel was not one I would normally have gravitated towards. I am a wimp when it comes to crime and suspense, and I tend to avoid anything that’s as scary as the newspaper. I’m glad I read Before, even though I didn’t care for the creepiest parts. Hurka’s writing is piercing. He must do scads of research, because the details of the characters’ lives are extremely fine tuned.

The main characters in Before are fascinating people — a former Czech resistance fighter and holocaust survivor living both in the present and in his memories as he undergoes therapy after a stroke and writes what he remembers, a college student struggling with her own losses as she tries to make life and art, and a disturbed criminal haunted by abuse who was once a very successful businessman.

Even the minor characters are vivid. Before is a short book, but dense. Through his interesting characters and a tense plot, Hurka explores memory and unconscious and the ways our interactions with other people are informed by what’s come before. I’ve got Hurka’s nonfiction book, Fields of Light: A Son Remembers His Heroic Father, on inter-library loan and I’m looking forward to it.

I haven’t started it yet because I had a couple of new books out of the library that I needed to finish first, since they have shorter loan periods. I’ve nearly finished Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel, who is not only a well known British poet but also Charles Darwin’s great-great grandaughter. The book is fascinating, as the poems tell Darwin’s life story, and Padel’s notes include family details she learned in letters and other research. I’m finding the structure of the book a bit overwhelming — in order to keep up with the story, you have to keep reading, but reading several poems in a row feels rushed.

The other new book I finished last week was a quick read. A few weeks ago on the way to Concord, Massachusetts, we heard Scott Simon interview Jeffrey Archer on Weekend Edition Saturday. They were talking about Archer’s new novel, Paths of Glory, which is a ficitonalized biography of George Mallory and an account of the British effort to summit Mt. Everest. The interview picqued my interest — Simon’s interviews have led me to many a new book — so I reserved Paths of Glory.

Thoreau would likely not approve. Archer’s book was a fun, easy read. He did a great deal of research but the book didn’t require me to stand on tip-toe or flex my intellectual muscles. What it required — what much reading requires — was a suspension of reality for the duration of the book, an escape into another world, fictional or real. No one knows for sure whether George Mallory made it to the top of Everest. But he led a fascinating life before he died on the mountain that had bewitched him since his youth. I’m never going to summit Everest, and it was a great deal of fun going along with Archer as he imagines what may or may not have happened.

Archer’s book was a great escape into history, adventure, and romance. And like A Long, Long Way, “The Waste Land,” and Before, Paths of Glory illuminated the utter waste of war, which wrecks lives and leaves whole cultures unalterably damaged. Authors since Thoreau’s beloved Homer have explored the ways men and women survive war and either heal themselves and each other or succumb to their wounds for the rest of their lives. No matter the form — poetry or prose, classic epic or best seller, highbrow literary masterpiece or mass market phenomenon, readers benefit from probing the ideas each author unearths and making connections for themselves.

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