Sometime towards the end of April, the Computer Scientist said something that stopped me cold. He noticed my frantic checking of how many pages were left in whatever book I was trying to finish ahead of an event at Gibson’s or a library due date, and he said, “Reading isn’t even fun for you anymore, it’s just another deadline.”
Then he pointed out the stacks of books beside my bed, the pile of magazines in my favorite chair, and the many sections of the New York Times at my place at the kitchen table and said, “You don’t enjoy what you’re reading, you just see it as what you have to finish, and it stresses you out.” Have I mentioned he has a reputation for giving direct and insightful feedback?
As you can imagine, my immediate reaction wasn’t to say, “Thank you for your searingly honest critique, darling, I’ll change my frenzied behavior at once.” Instead, I probably made a face, and I likely said something defensive and possibly a bit rude, although I refuse to confirm or deny that. Unruffled by my response, the Computer Scientist rolled over and went blissfully to sleep. I obsessed.
And you know what? He’s right. After this conversation, we had a couple of whirlwind weeks chock full of children’s activities, a visit from his parents, and my own visit with my mom in South Carolina. I had less time to read (except on the four airplanes and airports I passed through, in which I read four books), so I was forced to make hard choices. I came to a series of editorial decisions about my reading.
First of all, when it comes to periodicals, I am going to let go of my inherited belief that if you pay for something, you’d better get your money’s worth by using it all up — when it comes to the Times or Economist or all of the monthly magazines we get, I am going to allow myself not to read every last article. Yes, they are expensive. But we subscribe to many of them in part because we believe in their existence and wish to express our support. I am still getting plenty of value for my money even if I only read the parts I find most interesting or appealing.
Second, I simply have to admit that it’s impossible for me to read every event book at Gibson’s, especially as our schedule fills. If it’s something I would want to read anyway or feel curious about, I’ll read it; if not, I will outsource my pre-event reading to family members, friends, or co-workers.
And if none of them has read the book before the event, I’ll rely on the tools I already use as a reader: Goodreads and the many excellent book blogs that are just a Google search away. A quick shout out to my father-in-law — he wrote a very helpful brief on Walking to Gatlinburg, which I had no time to read. Thanks!
I also came to realize, after my own mother told me I looked “tired” (code for “wow, those are some bags under your eyes, honey”) in the family Easter pictures, that I have to face the biological facts. I am past the age where I can stay up until 2 am finishing a book and/or writing a blog post, especially two or three nights in a row, and still feel (and look) human. No more all-nighters. Unless a book is so darn fantastic I can’t help myself . . . .
Of course, all of these decisions came at the end of the month. So I actually read fourteen books since my last post about a month ago. The last one which I stayed up until all hours finishing was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which I was reading in a hurry so I could mail it back to my aunt, who lent it to me and had a list of friends waiting for it. I loved this book. I wanted to be friends with both Skeeter and Aibileen.
I’ve read the criticism — the plot is too obvious, the whites too one dimensional and typecast — but I think the people who are bothered by The Help are squeamish at one of two things: either they are uncomfortable with how truthful Stockett is, or they hate to admit that a number one best seller isn’t mind candy. I’d rather look at the total package — and I think this book is well written and delivers a great story, memorable and fully formed characters, and page turning entertainment.
Just as not everyone in 19th century England was as mean-spirited or good as Dickens’ villains or heroes, Stockett doesn’t intend to say that all 1960’s Southerners fell into her characters’ molds, either. The Help is a rollicking good read as well as thought provoking social commentary, packaged in a populist style — just like Dickens. Kathryn, if you are ever in New England, I’ll drop everything to have you at Gibson’s!
Another novel that manages to be both social commentary and hilarious fun is Co-Opted, by Joan Bigwood. Joan’s sister, Kate, is my friend and rector at St. Paul’s church here in Concord. Her novel follows the transformation of a stylish and successful New York City mom, Francesca Wilson, as her family moves to Palo Alto in the dot.com era. Facing an abrupt lifestyle change, as well as worries about her aging parents, Francesca finds herself becoming involved in a co-op preschool. She discovers talents she never knew she had, and a community to help her through some difficult times. It’s a gentle book, and it’s funny.
Those same words also describe Carl Lennertz‘s delightful memoir, Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now. This charming book is both a tribute to his own happy childhood in what was then a small, sleepy town on Long Island and a reminder to today’s parents that we shouldn’t over think so much. The book is a series of short pieces Lennertz wrote to his daughter as she was approaching the teen years — around the age of my own Preteen.
Even though his family’s life in Manhattan is different in many ways than my own family’s life in New Hampshire (and all the many other places we’ve lived), the book resonated with me. Lennertz writes about things we have all experienced as kids and parents — getting really into certain music, enjoying sweet corn, trying not to seem uncool, swearing (I chuckled over the swear jar — something we tried a few years ago to no effect) and even deciding what will define us as adults. Both as a lesson in thoughtful reflection and a slice of childhood and parenting in contemporary America, Cursed By A Happy Childhood is welcome relief from both didactic parenting tomes and painful memoirs of unhappy childhoods. This book would be a great Fathers’ Day or new dad gift.
I read five other nonfiction books, including two books by authors who came to the store (Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, and Eaarth, by Bill McKibben), another book recommended by my rector, and two other books of essays: A Place on Water, which I gave the Computer Scientist a couple of years ago for his birthday, and How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley, which is coming out in June.
I read A Place on Water because Wes McNair was one of three poets reading at the Concord Audi at this year’s April poetry event, and he wrote one of the the three essays in the book. And, I adore his work — there’s no other way to describe it. His two neighbors on Drury Pond in Maine, Bill Roorbach and Robert Kimber, wrote the other two essays. This is a gorgeous book — really, each piece is so beautifully wrought, and yet feels as effortless as floating in a perfect little pond on a summer day. You’ll want a camp in Maine, badly, when you’re through reading.
Sloane Crosley is brilliant. I read the advance copy of How Did You Get This Number on a plane, and people stared at me as I laughed out loud. She is everything I love in an essayist — funny, smart, wickedly observant, interesting, and relevant. Her book is a little hip and edgy — you might feel a teensy bit like you’re not worthy of her Manhatttan lifestyle (I did), but she also writes about her childhood and you’ll realize she is just like you, only cooler, when you read those parts. I’m definitely going back to read I Was Told There’d Be Cake, soon (update: I picked it up today at the library). It’s been on my “to-read list” (that pesky thing just multiplies like some kind of feral animal) for a long time, and Cake has been bumped to the top.
I enjoyed Birdology, although I was taken aback by some of the brutality — the chapter on birds of prey is not for the squeamish, or for quail fans (quick aside: my in-laws were in town for Sy’s event, and my father-in-law is particularly fond of the quail in their backyard in California; unfortunately some quail meet their demise in the book). Sy is an indefatigable researcher, which is something I admire in a person, and she writes with such passion that even someone like me who is only mildly interested in birds can’t help being fascinated.
I was left with a deep admiration for hummingbird rehabilitators, chickens (they’re not dumb, it turns out), and parrot research that has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of language acquisition. My daughter came away from Sy’s event with a new phrase to torment her brother with: “cut the crap,” which one of the parrots Sy met said with relish. We now spend soccer games daring each other to yell that.
Eaarth is that rare volume that is not only an Important Book but is also humorous, instructive, and somehow even a bit upbeat, even though we’re more or less screwed if we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Bill McKibben is one of the great men of our times — and we just had around 150 people in the store to hear him last night. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord? I visited my mother in Columbia, SC, a university town of around 50,000, twice that if you include Ft. Jackson. Their indie bookstore closed. Concord, you rock.
As Hillary Nelson, one of my favorite freelance writers, said in her review in Thursday’s Concord Monitor, Eaarth is also a “hopeful and, well, patriotic book, a testament to the durability and flexibility of American democracy. Only a writer as good as McKibben could pull off this feat.” It’s true — and in person he is every bit as graceful and spellbinding as he is in print. Check out his work at 350.org. Join. Really, what are you waiting for?
Kate, my aforementioned rector at St. Paul’s Church, has been very supportive of our parish’s work welcoming refugees to our community. She told me her mother welcomed refugees in New England many years ago, and recommends This Flowing Towards Me by Marilyn Lacey, to anyone engaged in this ministry. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lacey alternates between telling her own story of discovering her call to serve in refugee camps in Thailand and refugee resettlement in the U.S., and the stories of some of the remarkable people she has known.
Lacey takes her title from a Rumi poem; besides being a memoir of working with refugees, Lacey’s book also explores her personal experience of God “flowing” towards her in many ways, from a bulletin board notice to poetry to a church sign that caught her eye. She is an example of a person living a mindful life, open to the flow of spirituality, and willing to put her faith into action. But the book is not preachy — she tells it how it is for her, and if you’re not religious, you’ll still find plenty to admire and learn from in her travels to Sudan, Thailand, and many other places.
Poetry is certainly a door to inspiration for me — I felt so lifted by my close reading of the latest books from Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and WesMcNair (who were all brilliant, by the way — the reading was great fun, and the Computer Scientist came away an even more devoted Hall disciple), that I vowed to read poetry more regularly. I pulled two books off the “to read” shelf and dove in: Earthlight, by Hannah Stein, and Miracle Fair, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak.
Earthlight inspired me to pull out a few of my own poems and get back in the saddle — I hadn’t sent work out for a long time, in part because I was tired of “hopeful” rejection letters that either told me the review in question wasn’t really looking at new work (despite guidelines to the contrary) or that my poems were “close.” And in part because David Alpaugh’s article “The New Math of Poetry” is enough to end anyone’s literary aspirations.
My favorite of Hannah Stein’s poems in Earthlight were “This Time, This Place,” about the poet’s experience of a Monet exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago; “Grace,” with my favorite lines in this collection, “The sky has hoarded brightness/like armfuls of lilac;” “Loving a Mathematician,” which makes the list of my favorite marriage poems, and is a lovely tribute to right brain/left brain partners; and “All But the Blackberries Themselves,” a poetic tribute to greed but also just a delightful poem about summer’s abundance and the way it lures us.
Wislawa Szymborska, and for that matter Joanna Trzeciak, are on another plane. A Nobel laureate whose work is not well known outside poetry circles and readers of Polish, Szymborska writes with a wry humor and a searing eye for truth. Poetry can be a window into the meaning of life — you could read poetry to study philosophy, if you were dedicated and maybe a little bit mad.
Szymborska could be your gatekeeper, your guide, your boatman. Whether she is writing about something as simple as a drop of water on her finger (“Water”) or boundless as the concept of zero (“A Poem In Honor Of”), these poems require multiple readings to enjoy their nuance and depth. I want to wallow in this glorious collection for a long time. Translation, as I have mentioned in previous bookconscious posts, is an incredible art. I’m so grateful for the talented Trzeciak and other literary translators who bring this kind of work to their own languages.
While we’re discussing translation, I finally got around to reading a delightful little book I’ve had in my “to-read” pile for awhile now, Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. This was another airport read. Despite its brevity, this was a perfect little book, witty and wacky and True with a capitol T. I have great admiration for both contemporary and classical Japanese literature — what a marvelous world we live in, that I, who have no Japanese at all, can enjoy Murasaki Shikibu, Haruki Murakami, Basho, Shiki, and others, whenever I like.
But I digress. Kitchen is a book I plan to keep around for when the Preteen is a bit older and interested in relationships. I think Yoshimoto is almost Jane Austen-like in the way she delves into the society of her characters and probes their expectations, pride, and yes, prejudices. She writes at once about Japanese culture that feels exotic and mysterious to Western readers, and about universal emotions that connect us all as human beings: love, grief, friendship, family, coming of age. Read this book. It won’t take you long, and you’ll feel richer for it.
Speaking of Jane Austen, you get the feeling that Tracy Chevalier was channeling Jane when she wrote Remarkable Creatures. I haven’t enjoyed any of her books as well as this one since Girl With the Pearl Earring. I think I was drawn to this Remarkable Creatures because I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning.
I never knew about her complicated friendship with Elizabeth Philpot (I guess I’d read only very brief overviews of Anning’s fossil hunting until now), and her even messier relationships with many of the leading men of science in England and France. Chevalier’s novel is just what I look for in historical fiction — detailed, intriguing, and well drawn, with enough facts to pique my curiosity and a plot to keep me reading. I’d like to read The Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling, to fill in the rest of the facts.
On Monday, Gibson’s Book Club will be discussing Per Petterson‘s Out Stealing Horses. I read it before my recent travels, and then I took his next book (due out in August in the U.S.), I Curse The River of Time, along for the plane rides. I really enjoyed both, but I had my reservations about the ending of the forthcoming book. In fact, I read it over three times on the way home, hoping somehow that it might get better. I’m afraid it didn’t. Still, I enjoyed Petterson’s writing very much, and I maintain that like the other books in translation I’ve explored these past few months, my reading life is richer for having made connections with literature from other countries.
Out Stealing Horses is a good book club choice, and I’m looking forward to hearing what our group has to say about it. It’s a somewhat poignant book, with a protagonist who is looking back in old age at a series of events in his youth that impacted him profoundly. Set at the end of World War II and in contemporary times, the novel takes a hard look at many of the universal questions I found myself drawn to in the rest of this month’s books — who are our family, and how do we relate to them and to our real and remembered selves at different stages in our life? Are our memories trustworthy? What is trust? Is absence a form of love?
While I was busily buried in books, making connections, and likely driving my family crazy with my book light, baggy eyes, and absent-minded lost-in-thought musings, my family was also busy reading. The Preteen continued to read manga, including +Anima and Gakuen Alice 2. She’s reading Through the Looking Glass, and she and the Computer Scientist are each re-reading Harry Potter books.
I remembered that we have The Cartoon History of the United States by Larry Gonick, and the Preteen is enjoying that. We read aloud the entire eleven volume A History of US by Joy Hakim a few years ago, but I figured given her long interest in comic drawing, this might be appealing. She likes it enough that I pointed out Gonick’s A Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-7, and she carried that off to her reading nook.
The reading nook is actually a corner of her closet — she has a much larger closet than the rest of us, and it’s well lit. She’s decorated it with all kinds of cool things on the walls and ceiling, and she has a big comfy chair in there, next to some shelves where she can keep books and display artwork and other items. It’s a very cool place. But she’s not in there as much these days because a) the weather is nicer so she can get outside and b) she’s adopted a pair of gerbils, and she spends more time playing with them. She also read Gerbils: The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care by Donna Anastasi this month, which Jammin’ Gerbils recommends as the definitive guide.
The Teenager finished The Edible History of Humanity, which he enjoyed tremendously (he keeps reminding us that hunting and gathering worked well) and decided to see what else I had on the history shelves. He’s been reading A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. He told me he likes how in-depth it is for a book that covers so much time. This book has reminded him how much he’s always enjoyed learning about ancient history, and has led him to consider colleges with classics departments.
Meanwhile, he’s not quite made up his mind whether to go straight to college (he’s a junior right now) or take a year off. Especially since his once-a-reference-librarian-always-a-reference-librarian mother keeps giving him more information to consider. Right now he has The Gap Year Book from Lonely Planet and Kristin White‘s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year on inter-library loan. Makes me wish I was young again.
The Computer Scientist read Steve Almond‘s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and he says, “Very enjoyable read for anyone that’s ever caught themselves a little too into a rock and roll band. Funny and insightful.” He also pronounced Steve Almond’s event the most hilarious author event he’s attended at Gibson’s. Now he’s reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London, which bookconscious readers know I loved and recommended. He’s considering a Star Wars read-a-palooza for summer.
What’s in my pile? I’m halfway through Jay Atkinson‘s Paradise Road, which is great fun so far, and I plan to read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving because his writing is brilliant and it was in at the library when I picked up the gap year books, and Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake for the same reasons. I also have Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and a book of Ted Kooser’s poems, and another of Donald Hall’s essays, plus a few interesting choices in the coming events books: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare and I Thought You Were Dead, to name two.
So, Computer Scientist, if you’re reading this? You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for (thanks, Billy Joel).