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Archive for October, 2009

It’s been over five weeks since my last bookconscious post. In that time, I only finished reading four books, although I’ve got three others started and have dipped into several volumes of poetry. Two of the books I’m currently reading are all about grounding oneself in the quiet within an ordinary day.  I can’t seem to focus on that goal, despite a deep longing for it.

My writing life is in complete disarray. Yesterday I went out in the car to run an errand or convey various members of my household to various places 8 or 9 times (I lost track). While making a cake for my father-in-law’s 68th birthday, I had to start over after adding the wrong ingredients. In short, I’m in need of a rest or a re-balancing of some sort, although I don’t see one on near horizon.

One of the books I’ll be reading for months to come is Paul Wilson’s Finding the Quiet. This book caught my eye at Gibson’s, and after checking it out at the library, I decided it was one I should own. I have to be more careful about my book purchases, because I now have three piles of books beside my nightstand, another pile on the nightstand, and two more piles beside my desk, plus the ongoing “library list” of books I plan to check out.

Many of these are books I purchased at the Five Colleges Book sale last spring or picked up at the store or at the New England Independent Booksellers Association trade show — publishers provide booksellers with advance reader copies so we will get excited about the books. I came home from the NEIBA show very excited — with two huge bags of books! I am looking forward to reading the stacks (and to inviting several of the authors to Gibson’s to do readings) once I get through my current library pile. But I digress.

In Finding the Quiet, Wilson manages to condense much of what I’ve read in other books about meditation into very clear, bullet-pointed directions. Some people who are seriously into a particular school of meditation, or who have studied with a master, might find the book a little too basic or pared down. But I’m to the point where I’ve read a great deal of theory and am not making progress, so I want, and perhaps even need, a step-by-step meditation guide. Finding the Quiet is simple in the way an uncluttered but well designed floral arrangement is simple — there is plenty to study, plenty of detail to notice, but the basic lines are clean and clear.

Wilson actually advises readers to stop about 100 pages into the book and try the first practice he suggests for a couple of weeks. I’m at that point, and have already slipped in and out of regular practice, forgotten or misremembered half of the pointers, and even have fallen into the cold weather trap of convincing myself that I can meditate on my back underneath the down comforter if I try hard enough (it doesn’t work, I fall back to sleep). I’m determined to start fresh and stick with it, and stop my mind from racing the moment my eyes open.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of welcoming an author who writes eloquently about the importance of those first quiet early morning moments. Katrina Kenison‘s Mitten Strings for God is one of those touchstones of my early mothering years. A  friend recommended it when my children were small and I was feeling very outside the mainstream in the suburbs of Seattle.

Many people I knew had their young children in foreign language, chess, swimming, computer, gymnastics, dance, music, and any number of other lessons. The neighbor children were so busy at ages 2 &4 that they had to schedule play dates with my kids instead of just coming over. My kids and I liked to play baseball in the back yard, sit in the tree fort the Computer Scientist built for them in the secret space between two enormous cedars, go to what they called the “Poohsticks” park (where there was a bridge perfect for dropping sticks into the stream and then hurrying to see them come out on the other side), or stay in bed on a rainy morning with a bag stuffed full of library books, reading and snuggling. If it was sunny, we often decided at breakfast to pack a picnic and head to the zoo.

I felt torn in those days, worried that I was denying my kids all the “enrichment” the culture around me was pushing for younger and younger kids, and yet knowing in my heart I didn’t care to give up our spontaneous, joyful time together. Mitten Strings for God made me feel like I had a wise friend reassuring me that snuggling, baking together, and pretending to pitch a wiffle ball to the entire Mariners lineup (whose many pre-batting rituals my son could mimic precisely) was good for them, and for me as a mother, and I should listen to my heart.

I was very excited when I found out that Kenison’s new book, The Gift of An Ordinary Day, is about the changes she faced and worked through as her sons became teenagers. I’m a little over halfway through, but it’s proving to be, once again, the wisdom I need for this point in my mothering journey.She writes about the ways that motherhood has helped her truly grow up — something I’ve told my own kids for years. I didn’t ever truly consider what I value, what is real and true and good in the world, and what I was just doing on autopilot because it’s what I’d been conditioned to do, until I had children, and faced the prospect of discussing life with them.

Now as I read Kenison’s new book, I have a child who is contemplating a different path than his mainstream peers — a year or more off before college to pursue a dream, and perhaps skipping the SAT’s, which so many people accept as an inevitable rite of passage.  I’m about to get into the section of the book where Kenison describes her own son’s decision not to take the SAT’s, and writes about the enormous pressures of the college application process, and how challenging it is for parents to resist worry and involvement. I can’t wait to find an afternoon to sit down and finish the book.

One reason I didn’t read as many books in September is that I was slogging my way through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I wanted to finish, because I was leading the Gibson’s Book Club brown bag discussion. After nearly setting it down for good, I managed to get through it. Although I like magical realism, and I love a meaty, challenging book, this one wasn’t my cup of tea. I found many of the devices that make it a unique piece of literature distracting.

I wanted to know much more about the Midnight Children, especially Parvati and Shiva, and how their magical powers manifested themselves.  Certain long sections of the novel, such as the description of Saleem’s time in the jungle,  lost me. And I didn’t like keeping track of so many possible sub-plots which were just story-alleys that didn’t really lead anywhere. Much of the difficulty I had is due to the fact that I have limited time to read and trying to pick up where I left off in such a complex novel was unsettling. I loved Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and I want to try Rushdie again when I have the time to devote to understanding his work better.

By the time I finished Midnight’s Children, it was nearly time to start the next Gibson’s Book Club book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbary. Certain sections of this deceptively quick read are as challenging to penetrate as Rushdie’s most erudite prose. Barbary is a philosophy professor, and in our book club discussion I saw more clearly that she managed to express her views on aesthetics and the meaning of ethical living through the two main characters, Renee and Paloma, and to a lesser extent, through Mr. Ozu.

The group also discussed one of the things I didn’t care for when I first thought about the book — it’s scant plot — as a characteristic of the novel of manners, or in this case, a novel of philosophy and manners. When I considered it in that light, I liked it better. I’m still not crazy about the ending, but again, the book club helped me see that there wasn’t a great alternative.  We all agreed that the characters are well drawn, and that The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a tremendously witty novel. We concluded that this book would make a great film.

Speaking of film, I took time out last week, even though I really didn’t feel like I had time to spare, to go to Red River Theatres to see Bright Star. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it brought Keats and Fanny Brawne alive so vividly that I am feeling compelled to add Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats to my “to-read” list.

Back to my current book pile: I’m in the midst of a Nicholson Baker read-a-palooza. I’ve got three of his earlier novels out on inter-library loan, and I’m currently reading The Everlasting Story of Nory. It’s wild — like being nine all over again, or being inside a nine year old’s stream of consciousness.  Baker must be a wonderful father, or else he vividly remembers the emotional complexity and creative chaos of his own childhood mind, because he doesn’t miss a thing in the inner life of his child protagonist.  I’ve also got Room Temperature and The Mezzanine checked out.

A few weeks ago, Nicholson Baker was in Concord to appear on my favorite radio program, NHPR’s “Word of Mouth.” We invited him to come to the store to sign books — we weren’t able to book him for a regular evening event, but the publisher was willing to send him over for an informal signing. Baker is an Important Writer, a serious literary star, and he turns out to also be very gracious and kind, clearly one of the book tribe (some authors, believe it or not, seem to belong to the marketing tribe, or even worse, the all-about-me tribe, instead), who was eager to see what poetry books we had on hand and seemed genuinely happy to be visiting the store.

I read his new book, The Anthologist and got a foreshadowing of what a down-to-earth, generous soul Baker is when I read his positive description of a small turnout for his protagonist’s poetry reading in an independent bookstore. Having recently dealt with an author nowhere near as talented who was insulted that very few people showed up for his reading, I’ve decided Nicholson Baker is “good people,” as my boss would say. Kindness aside, he’s also a genius.

In some ways, The Anthologist is like The Elegance of the Hedgehog, in that both Baker and Barbary are projecting a philosophy of aesthetics through their protagonists. In Baker’s case, it’s a defense of formal poetry, which his main character, Paul Chowder, is trying to get down on paper for the introduction to an anthology. Chowder is such a richly wrought character — you feel like you know him well by the end of this short book. The Anthologist is cerebral — there are plenty of musings on poetics, literary history, and human nature — but it is also funny, warm, and compassionate. There was something about it that made me feel as if I’d had a long satisfying discussion with an old friend when I got to the last page.

Part of my delight in The Anthologist was due to the fact that I wasn’t actually expecting to enjoy it so much. I was a little fearful, in the wake of Midnight’s Children, that I wasn’t up to the task of reading another Important Writer. Baker, after all, is known for the mind-blowingly new kind of novel he created with his debut, The Mezzanine. After enjoying The Anthologist so thoroughly, I had the confidence to read another book I wasn’t expecting to relate to easily, John Manderino‘s The Man Who Once Played Catch With Nellie Fox.

This time, my reticence was simple to source: this novel screamed “guy book.” I enjoy baseball (although not so much this October, with the Red Sox out of the playoffs), and the book received nice reviews when it came out in hardcover, but I wasn’t sure it would be a story I could get into. I was wrong.

Manderino, like Baker, creates a main character you want to root for.  Hank is struggling in his personal life,  and he’s at the end of a long and not terribly successful baseball career, playing for a  less than minor league team. Manderino leads readers through the final games of the season, and Hank’s ups and downs as he tries to make things right with his fiancee and her son, and sets out to better himself at the public library. What’s not to love about an author who sends his hero to the library? As he tells the story, Manderino weaves in multiple points of view. Even the librarian gets her say towards the end of the novel, and although she’s a minor character, I thought that was a lovely touch.

But it was also fitting. Despite the rough ballplayers and their seriously flawed social lives, this isn’t a jock book. The baseball action is interesting, but the meat of the novel is Hank’s crisis: is he washed up? Has he failed his fiancee? Can he reach her angry boy? Can he ever be the man he wants to be, the man who was once an innocent boy, full of dreams and potential, playing catch with Nellie Fox? Does his memory of that day, which he calls The Story, have any basis in reality, or has he relived it into something it wasn’t?

John Manderino is coming to Gibson’s on November 12, and I look forward to meeting him. The Man Who Once Played Catch With Nellie Fox is a dense little book, busting at the seams with longing, and with the difficult work of living out the ordinary in light of bigger dreams. Hank and his friends seem to me to represent the simple victory of choosing to be true to oneself and to the people in one’s life, even as life offers the temptations of self indulgence, self pity, or despair. Manderino’s characters are vivid and the story moves along. It’s an entertaining read.

Which is how the Computer Scientist described The 13th Hour by Richard Doetsch: an entertaining read. I brought it back from NEIBA, and knew it was the kind of book he’d enjoy. He said the concept — a man traveling back in time at set increments of time to try and save his wife from being murdered — was intriguing, and it’s a good thriller. It was fun to get him in on the advance reading. I’ll be able to hand sell this book now that I know something about it.

The Teenager joined us in reading some intriguing Norse literature last month.  Together, we chose some sagas to read as he was waiting for his Oxford University distance education course on viking archaeology to begin. I decided, when he first mentioned that he wanted to explore Norse works for our literary circle, to contact his Oxford tutor, David Beard, as well as a Harvard professor, Stephen Mitchell, whose website I found as I searched for Norse resources.

Both professors very generously shared their recommended reading lists for great Norse literature, and both also suggested the best translations. We ended up hunting down used copies of The Vinland Sagas, in the translation by Magnusson and Palsson, as well as Njals Saga. Bookconscious fans know the Teenager got very into T.S. Eliot last spring, so he also requested we get the Poetic Edda.  At Mr. Beard’s suggestion, I ordered Norse Myths by Raymond Page on inter-library loan. We each began exploring the Raymond Page book but have not yet discussed it. After a brief hiatus while grandparents visit, we’ll get into the Poetic Edda.

In September, the Computer Scientist, the Teenager, and I read and discussed The Vinland Sagas. We enjoyed those very much, and the Teenager said he found it interesting to compare the two (Saga of Erik the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders). He’s attracted to Norse literature in part because he is a Tolkien fan, and he found some sections of the sagas felt very familiar to him as grand, heroic adventure tales. He also noted that despite the age of these texts, they are enjoyable reads — debunking the idea that teenagers don’t respond to classics.

One other thing he noted was that the Vikings had no better relations with the Native Americans than later explorers did. Kids have a natural sense of justice, and mine have always been disgusted at the way native people around the world have been exploited or exterminated in the name of progress.  They didn’t need any “politically correct” text to figure this out. Eddie Izzard helped, however. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve discussed a historical event (or a more recent one, like international squabbling over rights to polar waters), and one of the kids has said, “No flag, no country.” The Preteen hasn’t seen Izzard’s dvd’s in their entirety, but she knows the gist of this piece.

The Preteen read a heap of books in September. She’s a big re-reader, and she often revisits entire series, especially Harry Potter, but also Tintin, Time Warp Trio, and some of the Royal Diaries series this month. Another of the Preteen’s favorite re-reads in September, and she said yesterday perhaps her favorite book, period, was The Amaranth Enchantment, by Julie Berry.

A friend recommended she read the first four Sisters 8 books, which are another set of stories about orphan siblings, (why are there so many orphans in literature, anyway?) each of whom discovers she possesses a special “power and a gift.” My favorite thing about this series is that the authors’ eight year old daughter is credited as their co-author. The Preteen enjoys the artwork as well as the stories, and I hope to host this talented family at Gibson’s when the fifth book comes out next spring.

The Preteen also read The Demi-God Files, by Rick Riordan, which is a supplementary volume to the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. We just gave her the boxed set for her birthday, and she is psyched to finally get to read The Last Olympian, which she has had on request at two different libraries since late August. Popular books. Now she’s got her own set, plus a nifty map, all in a treasure chest. And the Teenager gave her a copy of The Demo-God Files, to complete the collection.

She also got an American Girl book called Earth Smart Crafts, and the two books about 2009’s “Girl of the Year,” Chrissa. Until recently, I would have told you she didn’t need to read about bullying. Some recent stories from friends about rampant meanness among middle grade and teen schoolgirls makes me wonder if it’s not a bad idea to know this is out there.  Generally speaking, I’ve found the American Girl books to be mostly practical, fun, and wholesome stuff, if a bit on the fluffy side, and my daughter loves them. I recently told a customer at the store that if you need a book for a young girl facing puberty, you can’t go wrong with The Care and Keeping of You.

I’ve written before about something I really admire in my daughter – the ability to put down a book that’s not interesting to her. This month, for her, that was The Graveyard Book. She did read Coraline, also by Neil Gaiman, and enjoyed that better, but still said it was a tad too creepy for her taste. I just about always force myself to read to the end, even if I’m not enjoying a book. But really, why do that?

We’ve been encouraging her to read history through literature, and in addition to the Royal Diaries, she also read Tomie dePaola’s For the Duration, the latest installment in his autobiographical 26 Fairmount Avenue series for kids. This one covers WWII, and the Preteen thought it was sad, but well done. She can read these books in one sitting at this point, but still finds them interesting.  We’ve often seen or heard something about the 30’s and 40’s or visited someplace and she’ll remember a detail from dePaola’s books. He is such a gifted storyteller, as well as one of my all time favorite illustrators. I’m glad she doesn’t feel she’s outgrown his stories. I haven’t, and I don’t plan to!

In Finding the Quiet, one of the techniques Wilson suggests novice meditators use is called “instant replay posture.” There’s a drawing that shows how to hold one’s hands and use that posture to trigger a psychological response and bring oneself into a peaceful, relaxed state. As I think over this month’s reading, and the calm, all’s-well-in-the-world feeling I get when I’ve read a really satisfying book or enjoyed a good conversation about books with friends or family, I see that the “quiet” is there for me even in the midst of what feels like a life that’s too full right now.

Conjuring peace is simple enough if I let myself feel like I’ve just finished The Anthologist, or a Jane Austen book, or a really good poem. All I need it to notice that gift, as Kenison suggests, that is in the ordinary day-in, day-out family life, even when life’s busier than I’d like. It’s there when I talk with my children and husband, or when we just sit near each other, reading. It’s not exactly the same as when they were small and snuggled close, asking me to read a favorite story again as soon as we got to the last page, but then, I’m not the same as I was then either (thank goodness). Books have been a constant for all of us, and that’s the quiet I’ll focus on.

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