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Archive for November, 2009

It’s halfway through November, which means I’ve written 25,000+ words in the last two weeks, in this year’s NaNoWriMo novel. This is the second year in a row that the Preteen and I are both writing. She’s participating in the Young Writers’ Program, as are several of her friends. This means she can set her own word count. Grown ups all aim for 50,000 words in a month. Thirty days, into the fictional wild.

Some skeptics have asked me why I would do such a thing (for the fourth time, no less). It is a little crazy — November was always notoriously busy, and this year it’s even busier, with the Preteen in rehearsals for two one act plays, the Teenager trying out for soccer clubs, and my own work at Gibson’s. The added chaos in our family schedule convinced me that I had to give it a try again, so that I could figure out how to work daily writing time back into my life.

My 2009 novel is as yet untitled, but I’m really having fun with it. The ideas aren’t coming quickly; I’m trying to listen to my characters, and let them have and solve problems in their lives. NaNoWriMo is brilliant in many ways, but one of my favorite things about it is that the weekly pep talks (from both NaNoWriMo staff and an array of well known authors) emphasize that freedom to create is paramount in this wilderness.

So what’s the point of NaNoWriMo? Giving oneself permission to spend time writing, to see what creative possibilities are lurking unconsciously while your conscious life is occupying all your time, is worth the effort. Knowing you are doing so in community with thousands of other people around the world is kind of fun, too.

Making the effort, even when you are so tired that you doze off over the keyboard, to observe a fictional world sharpens the ability to observe the real one. But it’s not conducive to getting much else done. For example, I started this post a week ago!  So with no further delay, on to what we read around here recently.

The Teenager finished the first paper he had to turn in to someone else — Oxford University. Not a bad place to start your academic career. He’s mostly enjoying the online course on Vikings he’s taking there. The tutor is helpful and responsive, too. Although he’s still reading The Poetic Edda with us, he has mostly been reading textbooks on Vikings, the Science of Soccer (he has pronounced his physiology textbook boring, so it’s time to shake things up),  and American history and government.

He finished reading Freedom: A History of US, which is Joy Hakim‘s one volume version of her history series. We read the whole series aloud a few years ago, and he also loved her The Story of Science series. He’s now reading The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.

The Preteen is re-reading favorites as she is wont to do. She started The Hobbit but seems to have set it aside. As I mentioned, she’s been rehearsing for two plays and writing a novel, so hasn’t had much time to get lost in a book. But she is a voracious reader of magazines — American Girl, Muse, Calliope, Cricket, Nintendo Power and New Moon. Since the Computer Scientist and I get half a dozen or so magazines ourselves, she probably comes by this honestly.

Besides keeping up with what comes through the mail slot, the Computer Scientist also read Stephen King’s new tome, Under the Dome, in less than a week.  He says it’s the most intricate of King’s books — and he’s read them all. But even though he liked the complexity and found the story very interesting, he felt that one key thing wasn’t entirely clear: what caused the dome to descend in the first place? The Computer Scientist notes that it might have been interesting if this aspect of the story were more fully developed.

I read a number of books in the last few weeks. I finished my Nicholson Baker binge with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. The Mezzanine takes place during the main character’s lunch hour and is a long riff on a variety of things that cross his mind, from shoelaces to ties to the layout of the drugstore and the office dynamics of restroom use. The book features numerous footnotes. You probably will either love or hate that. I happened to enjoy it — footnotes appeal to my inner geek. One of my all time favorite books is Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, which features abundant footnotes.

Room Temperature is also a novel limited to a slice of life — the time it takes the main character to give his infant daughter a bottle. What goes through his mind as he does this makes up the content of the book. I am again in awe of Baker’s creativity, and of the way his fiction seems to reveal the human condition in a stream of consciousness that most of us probably have going on but don’t even notice. So far, my favorite of Baker’s books is The Anthologist. This may be because I read it first, or because it deals with a subject I love (poetry), but there was also something about the protagonist that has stayed with me.

Before David Schmahmann visited Gibson’s in October, I read his first novel, Empire Settings. I loved this book. I’ve read other books set in South Africa, including The Syringa Tree, which is also told from a white South African’s point of view. Empire Settings is similar to The Syringa Tree in that the main character is grown and living in the United States, remembering his childhood.  It’s different in that we get to know Danny the grown man as well as learning about the events and relationships of his youth that haunt him still.

The writing is vivid and also very emotionally rich. The family dynamics — the way the grown siblings relate to each other and to their mother, Helga, and step-father; the way Helga, a woman who was a strong voice for justice during the apartheid era, is now a dependent wife; and the unfolding of Danny’s complicated relationship with his American wife and with the mixed race love of his youth — are all fascinating.

Layered into the story is the political and economic history of modern South Africa.  And the plot culminates in Danny’s struggle over whether to go back to Durban and illegally spirit the  family’s money out of the country, and what it will mean for him to return. I’m happy to report that David is working on a new novel that will be out next fall, and I very much look forward to it!

The Lazarus Project, by Alexsandar Hemon, is another novel of immigrant experience. This time, the main character, Brik, is from Bosnia, and he is writing about an early 20th century Jewish immigrant who was framed as an anarchist after he was killed while trying to deliver a message to Chicago’s chief of police. We read this for Gibson’s Book Club, and most of the group didn’t like it because the main character is rather whiny.

While Brik is impossible to warm up to, his story, of seeking to prove himself as a writer, of trying to understand why his marriage to an American wife isn’t as happy as he thinks it should be, of trying to know who is is and where he comes from, is haunting.  Hemon writes beautifully; his work is doubly impressive because English is not his first language. I think the novel succeeds because I felt Brik’s despair, his unspecified loss, his perpetual sense of being an outsider, as I read. Brik’s emotional wilderness is hard to take, but thankfully, the reader is only visiting.

Two more books I read this month are set in war torn places.  Baking Cakes in Kigali is set in Rwanda, in an apartment compound populated mostly by aid workers, academics, and others rebuilding the nation a few years after the genocide. Many of the characters in the book tell Angel, the cake baking protagonist, about the impact Rwanda’s conflict has had on their lives.  AIDS, too, is an enormous force in the book. But despite the horrors — and author Gaile Parkin does not shy away from telling some gripping stories of shattered lives — the book is a tribute to the redemptive power of community.

Angel is a remarkable woman, and I loved this book not only because it took me somewhere I’m not likely to go anytime soon (Kigali) but also because it introduced me to a woman I’d like to know better. More than a matriarch, Angel is a survivor, but she isn’t entirely healed herself, even as she works to help people around her. Parkin’s prose gives readers all the rich detail they need to see and hear, taste and smell Angel’s world.

One tiny quibble I have is that like many contemporary novels, Baking Cakes in Kigali touches on a series of “issues.” Editors seem to want authors to include everything readers may have heard on the news. So we meet a former child soldier, victims of AIDS and war, former sex workers, orphans, adulterers, even a girl whose father wants her circumcised.

While many of their stories are compelling, and Angel listens to them as a natural part of the plot, it felt a little forced at times, although ultimately, I think it worked because Angel’s community is such a hodgepodge of cultures. What I enjoyed is that even the characters who have suffered the most are helping themselves and each other, living and moving on, one way or another. That made this fictional wild a very fine place to linger.

After Baking Cakes In Kigali, I read Katherine Towler‘s latest novel. The final volume of her Snow Island trilogy, Island Light, comes out this winter. She’ll be coming to Gibson’s to read, and I got a pre-publication copy. Like her earlier books, this one features another generation of islanders, and revisits some of the older characters as well.

Island Light is set in the early 1990’s, as the Persian Gulf War is about to begin. One of the main characters, Nick, is a Vietnam veteran who has trouble dealing with the build-up to war and turns to drugs and alcohol. Several characters struggle with family relationships. There are two Lesbian couples in the novel, and Nick is having an affair with a married woman.

Perhaps because the previous two Snow Island books dealt with the insular island community’s secrets, I didn’t get the feeling that any of these problems were worked in — the plot unfolded naturally, and this didn’t seem like an “issues” book.  My favorite character is Ruth, and I enjoyed the passages dealing with her struggle over what her photography means to her — is it work that will earn her a living or is it art that will bring her joy and meet a need nothing else can? I also enjoyed the glimpses of Alice (who still runs the store) and George Tibbets, characters from the previous two novels.

Another thing I love about Towler’s books is the island. Bookconscious fans know I love books that take me places, and I will miss visiting Snow Island.

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Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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