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.