Looking over my list of December books in my Goodreads page, I wonder how I read so much in a traditionally busy month? Like many families, we had a pretty quiet Christmas, with no travel and no visitors. Also, I got a lot of reading done while waiting for the Teenager.
He is now a proud member of Seacoast United Soccer Club. Driving kids around (and waiting for them) is a condition of modern middle class life in America, where few after school activities are accessible on foot — and you’d be suspected of neglect if you sent the darlings on public transportation, assuming you actually live where there is any public transportation (we don’t). One of my favorite NYT columnists, Michelle Slatalla, wrote a very amusing piece on parents making the best of kids’ busy schedules last fall.
December was also pretty slow for events at the store — it’s been a few weeks since we had any. Things are heating back up, though. Take a look at all the authors we have coming in January and February. I’m booking well into the spring. There are many small tasks to perform for each event, and one thing I’ve discovered I enjoy is creating posters, like these two I’ve done this week:
One of the best things about my job has to be receiving advance copies of books. Ron Koltnow at Random House gave me a copy of Alice I Have Been: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin when he came to the store for Holiday Gift Book night. I just revised Alice from 4 stars to 5 in Goodreads, because I realized today that I have thought about this book every day since Jan. 1, when I read it in one evening. I also keep telling my family about it — always a sign of book passion!
The Alice of the title is Alice Liddell, the real girl who inspired Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Benjamin combined history, literary back-story, and compelling storytelling. Victorian times were tough for girls and women, and days after I put the book down I’m still feeling a combination of empathy and indignation.
Bookconscious regulars know I love to be transported when I read, and Alice I Have Been succeeds in carrying readers to another place and time. It left me curious to know more about Alice and some of the other real people who appear in the novel, too. And like all of the books I love best, Alice fits the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness — my belief in the collective wisdom writers and readers share across cultures, times, and places.
One reason I fell so hard for the heroine of this book is that I can imagine walking in her shoes. Benjamin made her come alive, but she also made me see myself as a part of the greater story — the story of humans yearning to use their minds to the fullest, to live purposefully, to love wholeheartedly, and to make a home in the world that will sustain their children.
Ron also recommended Alan Bennett’s The Clothes They Stood Up In. I loved The Common Reader, so I checked this out of the library over the holidays. Bennett’s story is about a British couple who come home from the opera to find everything in their apartment is gone, down to the toilet paper roll. Not far into the story I had a sense of where it might be headed, but Bennett writes well and the details kept me engaged. A couple of twists surprised me as well. A fun little read.
When I checked out Bennett’s book, I was at the library picking up Mennonite In A Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen’s memoir. Several customers at the store asked for it in the past few months, and both the review and an article in the New York Times intrigued me as well. I loved this book.
It might help that I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and lived later in an area of Georgia with a sizable Mennonite population, so I was picturing people I’ve known as I read. Or that Janzen’s admiration of her mother and father is lovely without being cloying. Her tone is just right, too : a little breezy and familiar (think Elizabeth Gilbert’s “girlfriend” voice), very smart, fairly bare-all without being maudlin or mean. The Times review calls her “reliable,” and “a good sport” — she tells it like it is, but she is fair and affectionate about it. No whining, and no superiority.
I shook my head from time to time, but I also laughed out loud. While this is a memoir, Janzen also writes about her family; Mennonite faith, culture, and history; and friendships. It’s nice when an author moves beyond “all about me,” especially here, where Janzen’s messy marriage and medical problems are material enough that she could easily have focused on her own problems.
I enjoyed her ability to celebrate the good stuff — her sister, her pals, her parents, even “oldsters,” her mother visits, classic hymns,and Mennonite cooking. Janzen also probes around the edges of the topic of her next book, which will be about her return to a faith community. I can’t wait to read it.
I also plan to look for Janzen’s book of poetry. I read a good bit of poetry in December, in part because the Teenager gave me two books, That Little Something by Charles Simic and Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu, introduced and translated by Keith Holyoak. I enjoyed both books very much. I think Simic might have gotten along fine with the two Chinese poets. I see some similarity in the way he writes about human experience with history’s framework always hanging around the edges.
The Teenager reports that he chose the classical Chinese poets because the poems reminded him in some ways of haiku. And he knows Charles Simic’s work — I hung up several of Simic’s poems in the kitchen when he became poet laureate, and we took the kids to hear Simic read at the Concord Auditorium with Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall a couple of years ago. The teenager remembers fondly that Simic read a poem which included the “f” word.
I also read The Battlefield Guide by Rodger Martin. This themed collection has appeared in earlier forms, including Martin’s live performances of poetry and music with singer Tim Mowry. This edition, which is coming out from Hobblebush Books soon, includes three sections: Harpers Ferry, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The collection is informed by Martin’s visits to these places over many years.
I found the book very moving and the poems resonant on several levels. As history, as a sort of poetry guidebook, as social commentary on the ugliness of war, as noble portraiture of some of the doomed men of the Civil War, as personal touchstones of the poet, these pieces speak to readers and perhaps to ghosts. Martin is clearly moved himself, and in the introduction he explains how this project has its roots in battlefield visits of his youth. These places and their history, he tells readers, helped form how we see ourselves as a nation, and he’s felt compelled to write about them for a long time.
It’s a book I’d like leaders to read. How could anyone send young people off to maim and kill and be maimed and die after reading, “On that man-silent September sunrise/nature still spoke freely to itself;/but, by day’s end, even the birds — struck so dumb –/ refused to sing, nor would they return next spring.” (from “Dunker’s Church,” in the Antietam section). Martin’s helpful footnotes include one indicating that no one is sure whether the birds of Sharpsburg were killed or just settled elsewhere. Martin’s book is not just history, it’s unfortunately timely as well.
Another timely poetry book I read is Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs. Scrooge: A Christmas Poem. I first read Duffy’s work last spring, when she became England’s poet laureate. Both the Preteen and I got a kick out of Mrs. Scrooge. It’s a fun addition to our collection of holiday books. One of my first bookconscious posts considered our annual read-aloud tradition during advent. I look forward to revisiting Mrs. Scrooge in years to come; it will remind me of what the world was like in 2009.
A few novels rounded out my December reading. This week at Gibson’s Robin Antalek will be reading from her debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart. This emotionally riveting book covers a range of family issues — a wrecked marriage, multigenerational substance abuse, sibling rivalries, adult children coming to terms with their upbringing and making their ways (or really screwing up) through their own relationships.
As rough as all this sounds, the book ends on a redemptive note. But it’s real — no sappy ending, just enough hope that you won’t turn away in despair. Also to Antalek’s credit, she covers a range of issues but this book never feels like she’s trying to hit for the cycle of “it” topics. I hate books like that, and I admit my radar was on as I began reading. But Antalek impressed me; everything in her story belonged. And I loved two of the siblings, and cared grudgingly about what was going to happen to the other two — read the book and see if you can figure out which ones are which!
My next door neighbor gave me two books to read over the summer, and I sheepishly admit I only just got to them in December! Both are books I’d heard a lot about: The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo, which several people have recommended; and The Beach House, by Jane Green. It’s hard to read books with an open mind when you’ve heard about them from a variety of people over a period of time, but I tried.
I liked both of these books, for different reasons. The Alchemist is hard to peg — it’s kind of a novel length parable. A little on the sweet side, but not brain freeze sweet. A little new-agey, but not channeling ancient beings new-agey. I enjoyed the story, which felt fresh, but comfortably in the wisdom tale genre. I was expecting The Alchemist to be treacly or woo-woo or both, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it entertaining, gentle, and sage. I recommended it to both kids.
The Beach House is chic lit, and every once in awhile, I love a good chic lit novel. This one is indeed good — packed with delightful characters, story lines, love interests, and complications. Green’s pacing is perfect, her characters likable and interesting, and the plot twists smart, sometimes funny, and not too far fetched. You’ll want to go to Nantucket when you’re done reading.
December’s book club read at Gibson’s was The Age of Innocence. I really enjoy Edith Wharton, who is masterfully witty. Like Dickens, she doesn’t miss a speck on the tablecloth or a scent in the bouquets when she sets a scene. Revisiting The Age of Innocence, which I read a long time ago, was fun. I also watched the film, which is very faithful to the novel, and just gorgeous.
I adore a good costume drama. In fact, I also read one of Elizabeth Gaskell‘s Cranford books this month, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, because I was happy to catch the third part of the Masterpiece series based on the book, which I missed last season. Masterpiece is bringing more Cranford stories to the screen this winter, and I am very glad. Gaskell’s work is very funny, and like Wharton, she calls attention to social mores and inequalities in a very entertaining fashion.
Gaskell and Wharton write very well about times close to their own. Melanie Benjamin, in Alice I Have Been, and wrote about a time so long ago she could not rely on first hand knowledge or memories, or talk to anyone who was there. Benjamin is also American, writing about Victorian England. Have I mentioned how much I loved her book?
Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Piano Teacher, set her novel in Hong Kong, where she grew up, but her book begins just before WWII and ends a few years after the war. I’m looking forward to meeting Lee later this month, when she comes to the store. I’d like to know if she interviewed anyone who lived through the war in Hong Kong when she researched the book. Her descriptions of the privations and numbing terror of the Japanese occupation are chilling.
As the story unfolded I found myself trying to guess who the villains are — it’s not completely clear. I really liked the protagonist, Claire, and I enjoyed the way Lee weaves her story with that of a woman who disappeared during the war, Trudy. The connection between the women is a man, and his story is interesting, too. Lee doesn’t make it easy on readers, and there are several questions left fairly open to interpretation, which makes The Piano Teacher an ideal book club selection.
While I was steadily reducing my bedside pile, the Computer Scientist was reading a short stack of his own. He read Joe Hill’s Horns, which will be out next month, and very much admired Hill’s creativity. He says the book is original and the plot gripping and a bit twisted (in a good way). He also read Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy, and said it was a “difficult but rewarding read,” classic Palahniuk. He says the two authors are comparably entertaining (and that’s a compliment to them both).
He also recently finished E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, and said he compares Doctorow to Fitzgerald in terms of his graceful economy of words. Besides admiring the writing, he thought the story was an interesting interpretation of the known facts about the Collyer brothers and their relationship to the world and each other. He put the book in my pile, which is always a good sign.
What’s on our nightstands (or floor, in my case)? I gave him Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven for Christmas, and he gave me Proust’s Days of Reading. I also have Lev Grossman’s The Magicians out from the library, and I have many books by authors coming to Gibson’s in the next couple of months. I still plan to read Wes McNair’s A Place On Water soon, too.
The Teenager told me today he is enjoying The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, which he got back into after the holiday break. He’s also reading Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey–and Even Iraq–Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. St. Nicholas brought him this book, which was fitting since this year The Teenager left one of his cleats out for him to fill — aren’t my kids kind to me? Anyway, the jolly old saint thought this book seemed both interesting and educational, or so I heard.
The Preteen read Half Magic, which she vaguely remembers my reading aloud years ago. She also found a book in her sequined Converse from St. Nick — Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty. Kalman is one of her favorite author/illustrators.
Like me, the Preteen has a stack of books — holiday gifts including Save the Cat: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts; books I pulled from the shelves when she was looking for something to read before Christmas (I included a pile of Jane Austen novels, as well as The Guernsey Literary and Sweet Potato Pie Society), and some books of her own that she hasn’t yet read, including Girl In A Cage, which Jane Yolen signed for her when she visited Gibson’s in early December. She told me this evening that Guernsey is what she’ll read next, which is great — I’m going to re-read it for the Gibson’s Book Club this month as well.
We’re fortunate, in the New Year, to be well stocked with new books to read, a good bookstore, a couple of good libraries, and shelves that still hold a few unread treasures. I’m off now to come up with suggestions for must reads in 2010 for the local arts and culture weekly, The Concord Insider. Stay tuned.