It’s been a busy month in the bookconscious household, preparing the Teenager to make big decisions about college admissions and to complete the process, and helping him and his sister to chart their courses for a new year of life learning. Despite earlier efforts to separate the idea of a school year from their educations, and my reminders that brains don’t stop learning during the summer, we’ve been swept into the cultural mainstream with regards to planning, and they start afresh in the fall.
I always enjoyed this time of year as a child, and not only because I liked fall’s cool breezes and colors, new clothes, and holidays. Perhaps because I was chronically sensitive to the way teachers and peers perceived me (I was both an overachiever and a social misfit) fall gave me hope that I could start fresh. Most of all I was happy to have new books, new classes, new projects — I loved learning. I loved getting lost in new ideas, daydreaming about historical time periods and achievements or the things I might someday do myself.
As I planned and prepared with the Teenager and the Preteen (this is the last month I can write of her in that way!) much of my reading centered on books with themes of seeking, dreaming, and reconciling hopefulness with practicality. I haven’t let my inner seeker and dreamer get out much this year, as I’ve turned my back on many creative pursuits and “free time.” In August, my seeker and dreamer told me to get a life, and got on with her own. As I look at the books I read these last few weeks, I can see her banging her small fists against my “to do list.”
At the end of my last post, I was finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I’ve heard some criticism that this book was just another contrived year-long project (Alexander bakes a loaf a bread a week in a year-long quest to recreate the perfect loaf he once enjoyed) designed to entice a publisher into a contract. I don’t really care if that’s how it was conceived or not; 52 Loaves was a delight.
I love books that reveal the interconnectedness of ideas, and Alexander masterfully ties science, culinary art, agriculture, history, sociology, and even spirituality into his story. In a style that reminded me of A.J. Jacobs, Alexander tries a series of projects aimed at getting to the essence of good bread – growing wheat, building a brick oven, harvesting his own wild yeast. And in the end, he generously shares recipes.
Alexander is also funny, and like many of my favorite writers, he doesn’t hesitate to direct some of the laughs at himself. Like Bill Bryson, Alexander manages to be humorous but also uber-informative, covering a wide range of subjects as he tries to understand the science required to master bread baking. What surprised me, and what I felt was the best part of the book, was the spiritual turn his quest took, as he stayed in a French monastery teaching some of the monks what he’d learned.
52 Loaves isn’t just about flour and yeast, ovens and mills, it’s a story of a man figuring out what’s essential. Alexander perfectly captures that combination of practical knowledge and hopeful seeking that to my mind makes creative nonfiction creative. He also reawakened my own curiosity about a quiet retreat in a cloistered community, something I one day hope to try.
Something else I enjoyed vicariously through 52 Loaves was travel. Alexander went to France and also Morocco and Canada in the course of his year long exploration of bread. Another book that took me places in August was Dreaming In Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich. Rich writes about her efforts to learn Hindi in India, a place that has long fascinated me. We were fortunate to hear her at the final Tory Hill Readers Series reading of the summer.
Dreaming In Hindi is an ambitious book, and Rich veers from memoir to cultural observation to neuroscience and linguistics as she researches language acquisition and also tells of her own experiences. In some ways the book was a bit too ambitious — I had trouble tracking what happened when, as the sections dealing with her research are not necessarily part of the same chronology as her trip to India. What is clear, and very appealing, is her portrayal of the struggle to master a new language, to understand and be understood, culturally as well as linguistically.
I thought Rich was very honest about the culture shock and discomfort that comes with immersion language learning in another country, and that was interesting as we consider the Teenager’s potential plans to spend a year in Germany. And I found many of her observations fascinating, especially regarding the ways language and culture are deeply interrelated — she writes that the way we think of things has much to do with the language we are equipped with.
For example, she points out that ownership isn’t something that is easy to describe in Hindi — words describing the proximity of an object to a person indicates who has it, instead. And in Mandarin, tenses are not the same as in English, making it hard for a native English speaker to say when something happened. I can see how these differences go way beyond mere words to a shift in perspective.
I’ve learned that people can get really hung up on wanting to believe that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. In some basic ways that may be true, but cultural differences exist and are important; they also make literature richer. In Gibson’s Book Club a few months back, my suggestion that Per Petterson‘s characters’ emotional reserve seemed culturally accurate sounded like a stereotype to some discussion participants.
But I maintain that the way people who share a language and a cultural outlook express themselves is somewhat collective (albeit with endless personal variations), and literature is a way into understanding societal tendencies or traditions. Expecting everyone who is Norwegian to be reserved would be stereotyping; looking for patterns in the literature of a great Norwegian author to understand Norwegian sensibilities is not.
Another example of how language informs and is informed by the culture it is part of is poetry. I recently fell out of my habit of regularly reading poetry as well as fiction and nonfiction, but in August I read The Shadow of Sirius, by W.S. Merwin. Merwin, like Donald Hall and other poets of his generation, has gone through many changes in form and style in his long career. The Shadow of Sirius, a fairly recent collection, is less formal than his earlier work, but no less masterful. I had read a few individual poems of Merwin’s, but had never sat down with an entire collection, and I am glad I did.
I especially enjoyed “Nocturne II,” which describes our tiny place in the universe through the narrator’s awareness of the Perseids falling even though he is lying in the dark and it’s raining; and “Grace Note,” which seems to me to be a poem about mindfulness as the narrator listens for a “feathered breath,” a sound that “I seem to have heard before I/was listening but by the time/I hear it now it is gone.”
Another poem that seems to be about seeking meaning, “Lake Shore In Half Light,” finds the narrator reflecting on an elusive but familiar question, letting both questions and answers come in mindfulness rather than hunting them down. “Into October” considers “the dry stems and the umbers of October/the secret season that appears on its own/a recognition without sound.” Isn’t that lovely, and isn’t that what humans often yearn for? “A recognition without sound . . . .”
So, resolved, more poetry. Now, before I venture into the list of excellent novels I read in August, two more nonfiction reads: Robert Darnton‘s The Case for Books, and Todd Farley‘s Making the Grades: My Misadventures In the Standardized Testing Industry. Darnton came to the store in August, and I highly recommend hearing him in person; he is not just erudite and interesting, but a very warm, spontaneous speaker.
As a book historian and the head of Harvard’s library system, Darnton has both the long view of books and a contemporary view of the rush to digitize vast amounts of literature. He’s both a champion of open access to academic research and a believer in the book as the perfect technology for conveying the written word. He also maintains a healthy skepticism about placing our literary heritage in the hands of a large corporation (Google) for digital preservation. The Case for Books gathers some of his previously published work on these topics; I did find that some of the pieces seemed to repeat ideas, in an attempt to catch up any readers who haven’t followed the story of Google Books. But overall, a very compelling read from a great thinker.
I spent loads of time just thinking as a child of the pre-digital age (we watched television, but I didn’t sit in front of the TV as much as some kids, as I later learned when I had no idea what my peers were talking about as they discussed old shows). I always managed to get good grades despite so much time left to “daydream.” I also was fortunate to have both ample time to read for pleasure and parents who modeled that habit and took me to the library as often as I wanted. But I wasn’t a stellar standardized tester.
The Teenager is generally put off by such tests for the same reason I always was: we see many ways of answering a question, all of them partially right in their own way. For some time I’d had Todd Farley’s memoir, Making the Grades, in my to-read pile. As the Teenager registered for the ACT, not for admissions purposes, but to jump through the NCAA’s hoops, I pulled it out.
Farley’s account is eye opening and should be embarrassing to both the testing industry and the education industry. Because that’s what they are — big businesses, trying to process kids through the system in a standardized way. The stories Farley relates of testing employees coming up with ingenious work-arounds to make test scores come out the way their employers and clients expected them to is sickening. He himself is disgusted, but he returns several times because he makes a lot of money doing relatively easy work, until finally he decides to quit and write.
Making the Grades is a little rough around the edges; it’s a memoir, but Farley doesn’t do much self-examination other than to tell us he’s fed up and aware of the ludicrous nature of his work a few times. And some parts of the book are a little repetitive. That said, the effect is to dull the senses a bit the way taking a several hours long standardized test does. And overall, I think it’s an interesting and important read.
Making the Grades solidified my belief that just as industrial agriculture and giant banks and huge electricity grids and giant bureaucracies are all vulnerable to massive failure, so is industrial education. Homespun tales of small community schools that worked well, when kids of different ages learned together, teachers knew and helped students individually, and communities were closely invested in the success of the town school may not be perfectly accurate in their rosiness (I am thinking of the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books as well as the British example of Miss Read, and also Jimmy Carter’s memoirs of his boyhood in the Plains, GA schools), but they certainly point to some things that worked well. And certainly one of the things not working well in today’s giant government industrial education complex is standardized testing.
I am realizing as I write that some of the fiction I read this month includes characters for whom the standardized approach to education doesn’t work. First, I read Jenna Blum’s The Stormchasers, which I have on good authority (from a customer living with bipolar disorder) is one of the most compassionate, well written accounts of a bipolar person in fiction. Charles, the bipolar character, is definitely not well served by school, where he does poorly despite his brilliant scientific mind and his uncanny ability to track storms. I enjoyed the novel, and Jenna talked a great deal at her reading about her writing process, which was really interesting. Her website is one of the best author sites I’ve seen, and you can learn more about her there.
The Stormchasers is about relationships, and the way families need each other, even as its members act in ways that are selfish or damaging. Jenna’s characters aren’t perfect, and the twins who are at the center of the book harbor more than just the usual childhood hurts; they also share a terrible secret that is eventually resolved in the novel. Yet the book ends on a hopeful but realistic note — you suspect that while everyone’s relatively happy right now, they’ll probably screw up again soon. But somehow, they’ll stick with each other.
The same themes of guilt, love, and redemption came up in some of the other fiction I read as well. Anita Diamant‘s Day After Night is the story of women friends in a British internment camp in Palestine after WWII — each of them has her own form of survivors’ guilt, each has lived through a different but awful wartime experience, but their friendships help them begin to heal. I loved that even the minor characters, camp guards and clinic staff, some of the men in the camp — are multidimensional people, and I did not know about the internment camps where Jewish survivors of the war ended up because the British didn’t know how to handle their immigration to Palestine.
Another historical novel I read also dealt with how survivors handle the trauma of war, in this case by forgetting. The Gendarme is a new novel by Mark T. Mustain, an attorney turned author. I enjoyed the structure of the book, which moves back and forth between the main character’s dreams and the present. Emmit/Ahmet is an old man, and he lost his memory when he was injured during WWI. He begins to dream after he’s diagnosed with a tumor, and eventually he realizes the dreams are his returning memories.
Mustain covers a lot of ground in this book — not least of which is the vivid depiction of the Armenian genocide that make some of the book hard to read. He handles this deftly, though, offering enough detail to enable readers to understand the trauma but also giving a full picture of the complexity of the situation, with some Armenians selling out their fellows and some Turks protecting their prisoners. There are also several examples of misunderstandings between the characters about race, culture, and religion, which would make for interesting book club discussions.
The Gendarme is also an examination of love — agape, eros, philio, and storge — as a redemptive force, as a check on our baser instincts as humans, and as a corruption of itself. The passages that take place in the mental institution where Emmit’s daughter places him are fascinating. With the friendship of a fellow patient, a widow who comes to visit him, and his longtime buddy and fellow war veteran to buoy him, Emmit deals with his memories, learns how to survive his commitment, and formulates a plan to find out what happened to his wartime love (and victim) Araxie.
I was fascinated to read Mustain’s author’s note and learn that he did not travel to the places he writes about in the book until he had completed several drafts. He also talks about his own ancestry, and his lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide (which led to reading, which led to this book). And one last personal note: the book takes place in a small town in southern Georgia, and for me, that was very interesting, since the bookconscious household lived in the same area for five years.
The Gendarme dealt with death and loss, and the way people’s memories take on added importance during the final portion of their lives. Tinkers, Paul Harding’s Pulitzer award winning novel, masterfully covers the melding of memory and presence at the end of a man’s life. Paul Harding is coming to Gibson’s on Sept. 16, and our book club is discussing the book that week as well.
Tinkers imagines the final thoughts of a dying man named George in the last days of his life. His family has gathered in his home, where he is lying in a hospital bed in the living room. With meticulous, sensuous detail and prose that is cinematic (you see the whole scene and the closely focused details at once) and poetic (not just full of memorable imagery but also rhythmic, flowing, measured), Harding paints the interior life of the dying man, exploring the way his life flashes past, not as a continuous filmstrip might, but in fits and starts, memories of his own life and scenes from his father’s, moments of lucidity in the present where he interacts briefly with his assembled loved ones, glimpses of generational links that the readers senses will continue to be passed on.
I’m not always impressed with prize winning books — sometimes I wonder what the heck the judges were thinking. And I was especially cautious given the heartwarming back story behind Harding’s rise from near obscurity to fame and critical acclaim . That sequence of events is so delightful that I was afraid it would color my reading of Tinkers. But the book is really that good. And really that unique — I’ve truly never read anything like it. I look forward to hearing Paul Harding at the store.
I read another novel with a death a great deal more sudden and a plot a great deal more rollicking: the second Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag. This is an old fashioned “body book” as my good friend YeVette would say. I wrote about Flavia’s first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in bookconscious last year. Delightfully detailed, quirky and smart, these mysteries are period pieces set in 1950’s England and Flavia is a bright eleven year old heroine who loves chemistry (the better for studying poisons) and is also a clever amateur detective. High end palate cleansing mind candy (I mean that as a compliment), well written and entertaining.
So, I’ve covered death and dreams, what about Freedom? Yes, that Freedom, the one that landed Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time, on President Obama’s nightstand, and on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, among other places. Although I enjoyed The Corrections, this is another book I opened with trepidation. I wanted to like it very much (as I did his book of essays, How To Be Alone, which I wrote about here last month). But the hype put me off. And the constant worry over having a great event this week — we are one of the stops on the Freedom tour, which even now, I can hardly believe.
But I am happy to say I forgot the hype and worry and just enjoyed this very good book. A story of our times as well as our culture; a novel of depth and complexity; a tale of the impact freedom (to pursue love, happiness, fulfillment, success, greed, friendship, filial duty, marital tranquility, good causes) on the human psyche — all true. You can read the reviews.
My own take? How beautiful that in the end, despite the mess they’ve made of their lives, Walter and Patty, the central characters in Freedom, are getting it together, making a life as best they can, having reconciled more or less with each other, their children, their other family members, their friend Richard, nearly everyone they’ve hurt or failed. It’s a hopeful ending, one that has quietly resonated with me for the many days since I closed the book for the last time. And a perfect reconciliation of hope and reality — nothing is perfect, and in fact many things are permanently scarred, but all is well.
It’s a good message — that it’s within us to choose a good life, that we’re free to love well, to solve our problems, to reconcile past hurts, to be on good terms as parents and children even if we’ve driven each other crazy — in an unnerving time at the bookconscious house. The Teenager and the Computer Scientist hit the road this evening on their way to the Teenager’s first college admissions interview. Despite our best efforts to keep this process low-stress and no pressure, it’s become neither. I tell him (and myself) that it’s like moving. It will suck until it’s over, and then it will be good.
To unwind in August, the Teenager continued reading “The Human Story.” He enjoys history and says this book is interesting, and offers a different voice than other history books he has read. He recommends it as fun to read in one’s spare time. I cheered silently that he realizes, in the midst of his own busy life, that he needs spare time. Of course he also reads copious amounts of soccer news, which keeps him informed as he watches all the matches he can and blogs over at The Beautiful Game.
The Computer Scientist also keeps up with soccer news, and he read One Mountain Thousand Summits, by Freddie Wilkinson, this month. He’s read a lot of climbing narratives, and he says One Mountain is “The best book of its kind that I’ve read. Freddie did a great job researching and challenging the reader with different perspectives. I like that he looked at it from the Sherpa perspective instead of sticking strictly to the outsiders’ perspectives. I also enjoyed that his structure did not follow the traditional (and tired) narrative ‘this then this then this’ style. If you’re interested in high-altitude climbing books, read this one for sure.”
He and the Preteen also continue to read manga. He read some Anima this month and says he can see the Preteen’s personality in the story. The Preteen read more Fruits Basket (there are twenty-some installments and she is nearly done). She also read Naruto, which she says is about a kid who is training to be a ninja, and who has a nine tailed fox spirit enter him during an attack in his village. OK, then. And Fullmetal Alchemist, which the Computer Scientist has also read, and which the Preteen just told me is about “Alchemists, mom. They’re doing alchemy.” (insert sigh here)
Ahem. Anyway, in addition to all the manga, she also read The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama, which she says is a Japanese novel about aliens. When I asked her to elaborate, she went on to tell me that the title character is a girl who turns out to be the god/creator of the world, and she is involved with a club that finds things that are out of the ordinary, whose members turn out to be aliens. She said the book’s dialog is too long in some parts, which made it hard to follow and less enjoyable.
So, in a way, everybody read something about freedom, death, and dreams — which along with love, are arguably the most common themes in human storytelling. Up next? The Preteen is reading some nonfiction books about food, and has more Manga and a stack of novels to pick from. I’ve seen an Iraq war memoir on the Computer Scientist’s nightstand. The Teenager is reading about Shakespeare, among other things. And I am about halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone, and have too many things to list in my “to read” piles.
But tonight, in the midst of the hurrying back from a soccer game to get the men on the road for the Teenager’s interview tomorrow, preparations for a very busy week for both kids and for the Computer Scientist and me, chores on my to do list, etc., I took a few moments to sit on the screened porch, cat in my lap, watching the gloaming, trying to be mindful, letting my inner seeker have her moment of really free time. It was peaceful. I’ll try to do it more.