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Archive for April, 2010

Looking over what I read in March, I realized that most of the books, fiction or nonfiction were about saving something or someone. Am I seeking a metaphysical bailout through books? Possibly. As I’ve mentioned before, I am an unabashed fan of escaping into my reading pile when the world is too much with me.

As has been the case since last June, my reading list this month was informed by the events schedule at Gibson’s. Yesterday I realized we’ve had 89 events since I started. Phew! No wonder I’m tired. You can see a list of upcoming events here, and see what you missed here (scroll down to Past Events).

Last week we had two fantastic events. Ben Hewitt came to discuss The Town That Food Saved and we had a really great crowd of local food champions, CSA organizers, nature educators, farmers, gardeners, and people who like eating well. Ben is a really interesting guy and we could have talked all night. One thing I like about Ben and his book is that he creates space for questions and conversation, rather than claiming to have all the answers.

His book is about Hardwick, Vermont, and the entrepreneurs who have come together in the area around local, sustainable businesses. He delves into the sticky issues of whether profitability and sustainability can co-exist, profiles movers and shakers in the local food scene, and talks with old timers in the Hardwick area who aren’t impressed by the fuss. I was excited that NHPR’s Word of Mouth had Ben and Ton Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds on the show. Ben even brought seeds to share with folks at the book signing table at Gibson’s.

Last Saturday, Adrienne Martini came to talk about her memoir, Sweater Quest. Whether you knit or not, this book is a blast. Adrienne’s writing is smart, funny, and sharp.  The book traces a year Adrienne spent knitting an Alice Starmore sweater design called Mary Tudor.

Along the way, Adrienne tells readers about the Shetland islands, fair isle sweaters, knitting techniques, and the history and sociology of knitting. She also introduces some of the main characters in the Knitterati: movers and shakers in both the virtual and bricks and mortar communities of knitters, designers, and yarn shops. But this is also a book about the nature of of friendship, the challenge of being ourselves as well as being mothers, daughters, and wives, and the meaning of goals and their completion. Adrienne even touches on why knitting can save your sanity.

Reading Sweater Quest is like sitting down with a good friend. Adrienne’s tone is warm, conversational as well as wicked smart. I loved this book, and admit that it makes me wish I had time to take up knitting — I’ve tried it a few times, without much success.  But even without that in common, I can admire Adrienne’s excellent writing and her ability to make me feel at home in a world I know little about. Plus, I really want to know the secret of her ability to hold two teaching jobs, mother two children, spend time with her husband, and still have time to write (and knit one of the hardest sweater patterns out there).

Another book I read for work is No Good Deed By Dr. Lewis Mitchell Cohen.  This is a good example of a book I would not likely have picked up on my own, but I am glad I read. Cohen discusses end-of-life care and the medical and ethical issues surrounding it, through the stories of two nurses at Baystate Medical Center (where he also works) who were accused of murder by a fellow staff member.

Delving into history, religious and cultural beliefs, ethical and legal issues, and the personal, heart-breaking stories of patients, families and medical staff, No Good Deed is eye-opening, thought provoking, and at times, alarming. While the nurses at Baystate ended up cleared of wrongdoing, the book relates a number of other cases that ended badly for doctors or nurses. Through it all, Cohen manages to be very even-handed, and his empathy for all parties, even those he doesn’t necessarily agree with, is one of the book’s strengths. I admire his willingness to not only express his own views as a doctor of thirty years’ experience, but to also give fair treatment to other viewpoints.

I was struck by how many of the cases, from all over the world, hinged on misunderstanding, especially on the part of prosecutors, lawyers, and juries. Cohen’s book is troubling but also moving, and left me with a better sense of the complex issues surrounding palliative care, and the importance of communication between family members, medical staff, and those who are ill.  It seems that as in so many other situations in contemporary culture, there are many choices and considerations, but one heartening message of No Good Deed is that the staff who provide palliative care are often among the most dedicated and caring people you’d ever meet.

The rest of my reading in March was much lighter, although still relatively dark, fiction. In fact, each of the novels I read had a streak of danger, madness, hubris, or evil in it. Most of them managed to be funny as well. What does that say about contemporary culture? We’re think we’re doomed but we’ll go down laughing? Maybe, we take ourselves too seriously. If you want to lighten up, read on.

I picked up The Poison Eaters: And Other Stories, by Holly Black in part because Joe Hill mentioned Small Beer Press when he came to Gibson’s, and I enjoyed his other recommendation (City of Thieves).  In a Twitter post about it, I called this collection “creepy, in a good way.” But it’s recommended for 14 and up, and I’d suggest older than that, personally.

I don’t get the appeal of encouraging kids to read about sex, drugs, and violence by marketing it as YA literature. Of course, some people would say that I’m being naive, and kids are actually doing those things, so what harm can stories do? But I’m not so sure that argument makes sense. First of all, not all kids are, and second of all, why should literature join the fray? Good books can deal with really rough coming of age issues without being painfully graphic — look at Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, for example.

That said, Holly is a great writer, and her stories transcend creepy fantasy to explore human nature, culture, and community, among other themes. Her stories are  smart, funny, and thoughtful, as well as very entertaining.  Some of her characters manage to save themselves, some save each other. If you’re still a bit intrigued by unicorns and fairies but want something edgier, check out The Poison Eaters. And perhaps an older teen would enjoy this book — I just wanted to rant a bit about the general trend towards YA fiction that seems, to me, too harsh and in-your-face, and not quite hopeful enough.

Speaking of in-your-face fiction, I read Solar, by Ian McEwan last week. You’ve probably read the reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Bits that were probably meant to be funny rubbed me the wrong way; maybe I just have a hard time laughing about climate change skeptics, status freak scientists, and investors who just want to milk the next green thing for as much return on the dollar (or pound or euro) as possible. I think if I hadn’t just read this week that about half the television weather reporters in the U.S. doubt climate change and a majority of Americans trust those same weather-casters more than other sources to tell them the truth about climate change, I might have chuckled more.

Also, McEwan works so hard to make Solar‘s main character, Nobel winner Michael Beard, a creep that it was hard to care much about what happened to him. Just about every character has a chance to save a bad situation or make a better choice and then don’t. I don’t need a happy ending every time, but I like to feel there’s something redeeming about someone or something in a novel, and this one left me feeling adrift. It was hard to tell if anything good could come of any of the people you’d just spent a few nights getting to know. I need at least a shred of hope.

An example of the kind of book I’m talking about — one that gives the reader hope in humankind, or at least hope in the transformative power of good storytelling, is The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. I was torn about whether I wanted to read it, because I’d heard enough about the plot to know that awful things happen to the main character when she’s a child.  I generally decide that if I want to be depressed about man’s inhumanity to man, I could just read the newspaper.

Durrow doesn’t hold anything back — in that regard, her writing is like Holly Black’s.  But like Black, she also lets her characters figure out that the bad stuff is only one part of this world.  Durrow’s troubled characters, especially Rachel and Brick, don’t just make you cringe when they screw up, they make you yearn for them to catch a break, and quietly urge them on.  By the end of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, readers regret the painful things these characters have been through but know their world (and by association, ours) will, in the end, be alright.

Another novel I adored this month was First Contact, Or, It’s Later Than You Think by Evan Mandery.  Much gentler in many ways than the other fiction I read — even though the story involves the end of the world, preceded by a near miss with inter-planetary nuclear war — First Contact is zany satire.  Mandery manages to skewer everything from politics to PTA’s, and has fun with himself, too, by writing a “recursion” into the story after a child gives a scathing critique of First Contact when his mother reads it as a bedtime story.

I enjoyed the goofy jokes, the aliens who love Bundt cake, and the important roles Mandery grants raccoons in driving his plot.  But I also liked Mandery’s quiet hero, Ralph, and his idealistic girlfriend, Jessica. In fact, many of Mandery’s minor characters, including Jessica , some of the White House staff, and several of the Rigelians, are vivid enough to admire or empathize with. Or laugh at. It’s a sign of a good book when event the supporting characters are richly imagined.

Jessica and Ralph fall deeply in love, and they’re relationship resonated with me, because like Steve and I when we first met, they are reduced to phone calls because they are apart. (I know you want to know why — go read the book.) Perhaps because I associate this kind of deep conversation — wanting to tell the other person everything but also to listen and know everything the other thinks, feels, and dreams — with lasting, true love, I didn’t find the lack of passionate love scenes problematic. In fact, I thought many of the relationships in First Contact were lovely.

Besides, I got plenty of steamy passion in The Swimming Pool, a first novel by Holly LeCraw. LeCraw has tension and emotional drama down pat. Her depiction of one character’s postpartum depression makes you want to shake the other characters and yell, “Get her some help!” And the tragedy that haunts her characters is compelling enough to keep you turning pages without being melodramatic.

I could have done with a little less information in some of the sex scenes, however. My basic rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t discuss it with your grandmother, it’s over the top. Don’t get me wrong. As Bookconscious readers know, my grandmother was very well read, and she happened to also have nursed a decades long soap opera addiction. (Days of Our Lives. I admit, I followed it too, for a few years.) So she knew from sex scenes.

But when we talked books, Grandmother and I both admired stories that made you sense the passion lovers shared without making you feel like you were actually watching. For example, no one doubts that Romeo and Juliet want to consummate their relationship, but Shakespeare didn’t need to describe intimate parts of Juliet’s anatomy to get his audience on board.

I know I’m hopelessly old fashioned in this regard. Another well written debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, had its share of lusty scenes as well. So perhaps this is just a literary trend I’m not hip to? (The fact that I just used the phrase, “hip to,” may be a clue — no one who is actually hip says that, right?)

Anyway, The Swimming Pool is part mystery, part tragedy, part love story, and maybe my problem is that the sex is extraneous to the emotional drama. There are some seriously hurting characters here, and I liked it best when the book focused on those stories, and the ways the characters began to heal. The affair distracts two of them, nearly to the brink of disaster, from the people they most need to help. LeCraw bails them out in the end, and again, while this book’s ending isn’t exactly happy, it left me satisfied.

Last night, I read the new-to-me parts of Maxine Kumin‘s Where I Live and Wesley McNair‘s Lovers of the Lost. Kumin, McNair, and Donald Hall are on the bill for this year’s poetry reading at the Concord Audi on April 21, put together by Mike Pride (retired editor of the Concord Monitor).  Both books are “new and selected” poetry collections, so I read the new, and skimmed the selected.

Before I started at Gibson’s I was working on what I thought of as an independent MFA — time and cash poor, busy with other committments, and generally wanting to avoid the grad schools churning out writers glutting literary markets with submissions, I sought my own study, reading both creative nonfiction and poetry, as well as fiction. Lately, I haven’t taken the time to read poetry as carefully — I read a poem most days, but I’m often in a hurry. Sitting down with Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live reminded me of how much poetry offers, and how much I love being mindfully immersed in it.

Both books contain wonderful surprises, new and old.  I’ve gushed about both McNair’s and Kumin’s poetry here before, and one of my favorite things about living in New Hampshire is being able to hear such fine poets in person. We’ve also enjoyed hearing Donald Hall a few times over the past several years, as well as Charles Simic and Sharon Olds.

Donald Hall can really electrify a crowd. My favorite Hall moment was at Gibson’s several years ago, when he read “Her Garden”  with it’s other-wordly refrain, “let if go, let it go,” in his deep, emotive voice. Kumin and McNair (and also Olds and Simic) read in what I’d call a more even toned, conversational style, but their words are certainly no less powerful.

Among Maxine Kumin’s new poems, I especially enjoyed  “The Victorian Obsession With the Preservation of Hair,” with stanzas shaped like beards cloaking the sad story of Longfellow’s attempt to save his wife from the fire that killed her as she was sealing enveloped with clippings of her children’s hair.  And among the “selected” — well, there are just too many favorites for me to do justice to them all.

I love that Kumin often plays with traditional forms, like sestinas and sonnets, but none of her poems are stuffy or unfathomable. On the surface, they are about utterly recognizable subjects, like marriage, gardens, animals, people. She makes these ordinary things into the very essence of being human, through beautiful language. Her work is sometimes playful (as in “The Domestic Arrangement” and “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins,” and “Seven Caveats In May”), sometimes thoughtful, ( “Sonnet In So Many Words,” and “Mulching”), sometimes reverent, (“Jack”), sometimes matter-of-fact, “John Green Takes His Warner, New Hampshire Neighbor to a Red Sox Game”), or piercing (“Waterboarding, Restored,” and “Extraordinary Rendition.”

Similarly, McNair writes of ordinary Americans, ordinary experiences, but his poems make these things wonders to behold. “First Snowfall,” for example, is one of the new poems in Lovers of the Lost. McNair paints a scene of fresh snow on a rundown rural town.  But he points us beyond the old semi trailers and collapsed barns, opens our eyes to this: “a snowplow/holding a small light/ahead of itself opening the street/that vanishes in the long drift and dream/of it, coming down/over the whole town/where everyone/ under every/last, lost/roof is now far away/and all gone/and good night.”  Gorgeous.

Another of my favorites among the new poems is “Love Story,” a funny, but also very poignant poem in which the narrator is pushing a car with four children and a dog inside it, the battery is dead, and he’s trying to get his wife to take her foot off the clutch at the right moment so the car will start. Their timing is off, until McNair reveals, “What was the moment/in the midst of our despair/when the engine suddenly caught/and you roared away and came back/for me, I got in by the soda can/on the floor and the dog now sitting/between us on the emergency brake,/the whole family smiling/as the trees broke apart faster and faster/over our heads — what, but a blessing?”

McNair’s breadth and depth is amazing. I don’t have space to go into them all, but among the “selected” poems I love “Small Towns Passing, “The Life,” “Glass Night,” “Why We Need Poetry,” “How I Became a Poet,” “The Rules of the New Car,” “Driving North In Winter,” and “The Man He Turned Into.”  I hope to hear many of the poems from Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live, as well as Donald Hall’s poems, on April 21.

It’s late and we’re all tired, dear readers, but there isn’t much more for me to tell. The Computer Scientist has picked up a couple of books here and there, but says he’s on a reading fast. Although, like me, he reads two newspapers and numerous magazines. He raves about Harper’s and says if he had to whittle our subscriptions down to one, that would be it.

I know he read Gakuen Alice with the Preteen this month. (For those who are keeping track, I officially have six months left to come up with another psuedonym for her. Heaven help me.) This is a manga set at a school for kids who have special talents — so the two of them went around discussing what their “Alice” talents might be. I love that they had a dad/daughter manga shopping trip and swap titles.  The Computer Scientist is also reading some manga the Preteen finished last month, Hollow Fields.

She is also still reading Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I got her in one volume, and she started another manga, Nabari No Ou set in modern times, but with ninjas. She decorated one of our Easter eggs with “ninja egg” written in wax, because, as she pointed out, the egg would be hidden. Like a ninja, mom (insert sigh and special look reserved for mothers of preteens, when they are at their most dense).

She also enjoys several magazines, and her favorite lately is Muse, because it is mostly about science and is “random,” which is something she and her best friend aspire to be. And even when the ennui around here is thick enough for a ninja to slice through, the Preteen likes the New York Times science section, which she reads most weeks.

The Teenager went through a pensive stage post-pneumonia; in last month’s post I described how he spent time thinking about things he’s enjoyed since he was little, like space, and photography.  He’s also been revisiting his interest in food — he’s always loved to cook as well as to eat. Several years ago, he read a thick book about the history, science, and art of woks and stir frying. Lately he’s been enjoying The Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage, who happens to be an editor at one of the his favorite magazines to browse through, The Economist.  He also got a big kick out of Rachel Mead’s profile of cashmere designer and life learner Brunello Cucinelli in last week’s New Yorker.

Most of the time, the Teenager is reading about heavy topics like the Big Bang, the chemical composition of athletic clothing or the physics principles behind a good shot on goal — or he’s reading about the latest injuries to plague his favorite players ahead of the World Cup. So I’m glad to see him reading for pleasure. I can tell when something has really caught his attention because he either thanks me for leaving it out for him (the New Yorker piece) or tells us something about what he’s read at dinner. Such as, that in some ways we’d be better off if we’d stuck to hunting and gathering.

Well, I have to bake our traditional homemade cinnamon rolls, which are rising overnight, and hide ninja eggs early tomorrow, so I’d better wrap this up. On my reading pile? I’m about halfway through The Help, thanks to my Aunt Dina, who lent it to me because the library list is lengthy. Today I picked up Remarkable Creatures because I have enjoyed some of Tracy Chevalier’s books (especially Girl With the Pearl Earring) and I’ve always admired the story of Mary Anning.

And I also picked up Cursed By a Happy Childhood on ILL, because Carl Lennertz sent me First Contact to review, and because Evan Mandery praises it in his acknowledgements — I’d never come across a note in which an author commends a book by his editor to readers, so I figured it was Not To Be Missed. And my two bedside stacks of coming events books and tasty looking advance copies (like Sloane Crosley‘s latest book of essays) are heaped with goodies.

I’m set, come what may — life can throw what it wants at me, but I’ll have plenty of books at the end of the day. May books be your bailout, too.

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