September is a blur. Beyond the usual tumult of kids’ activities ramping up, a new academic year, and my own busy life working at Gibson’s and volunteering for Concord Reads, refugee ministry, and other sundry causes, I am also caught up in The Teenager’s college application process.
When you homeschool, you’re the school on the Common App, so there are parts of it the Computer Scientist and I have to write. We’ve also been corralling other loose ends, like ordering transcripts from NHTI and Oxford, following up on recommendation letter requests, and preparing the boy to interview (we’re guidance counselors this fall). The Computer Scientist took him to each interview as well, and that meant holding down the fort here while they traveled. None of this is inherently hard, and some of it is even enjoyable, but it adds up to a busier than usual month.
Quick aside in the “time flies” department: I’m down to less than two weeks in which I can refer to my second born as The Preteen. I think it’s a little too Seussian to call them Teen 1 and Teen 2, so I’ll have to work on that.
On to books — first, I met my goal of reading more poetry. I read Seamus Heaney‘s The Spirit Level, which I bought over the summer on our travels, and Vera Pavlova‘s If There Is Something to Desire, which I received as a birthday gift. Heaney is a poet I admire as much for the sound of his poems as the content. You’d think all good poetry would sound good — and some critics argue that it should — but especially with contemporary poetry, that’s not always true. Heaney’s poetry sounds lovely read aloud.
I picked up The Spirit Level because it includes one of my favorite poems, “Postscript.” Bookconscious readers may recall that I heard New Hampshire poet and Arthurian legend specialist Diana Durham discuss about this poem in a talk on “Poet as Shaman” at an interesting mini-conference on the Kalevala. She used it as an example of what myth and poetry share — the ability to transform readers as they assimilate the words on the page (or through the voice) into their own personal sense of meaning. Certainly any art carries that power — music, art, literature can all change us if we are open to experiencing and also synthesizing them into what we already carry.
The rest of The Spirit Level was a satisfying read. Aesthetically, the poems are true to Heaney’s style, thick in the mouth, so full of sound they practically burst. The subject matter roams from Caedmon (an Anglo Saxon monk and the earliest English poet whose work survives) to airplane travel to ancient Mycenae to a patch of mint.
But even a simple, earthy topic like mint delivers much more than a pastoral scene, becoming loaded with meaning in Heaney’s hands: “Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless/Like inmates liberated in that yard./ Like the disregarded ones we turned against/ Because we’d failed them by our disregard.” A clump of mint leads the reader to contemplate prisoners (perhaps political prisoners in Northern Ireland, but the reader can imagine other literal or figurative prisoners), forgotten by the free. Powerful stuff.
While Heaney writes in English there’s a slightly foreign feel to his poems because they are so infused with Irish sounds and places. Vera Pavlova’s poems are translated from her native Russian by her husband, Steven Seymour. They don’t sound innately foreign to me; although they are clearly poems in a strong female voice, they don’t strike me as significantly different than poems originally written in English. Perhaps that just indicates they are well translated, or maybe Pavlova’s themes are universal enough to feel natural in whatever language they appear.
The title poem in this collection, “If There Is Something to Desire,” is a tricky piece of wordsmithing. The end words in each line form a tightly controlled pattern. There are eight lines, and only three end words — desire, regret, and recall. They repeat like this: desire, regret, regret, recall, recall, regret, regret, desire. The only other words in the entire poem are: if, there, is, will, be, was, something, nothing. This had to be terribly hard to translate in such a way as to create the pattern that makes this such a strong, circular piece, and still maintain Pavlova’s original meaning.
The hundred poems in this book are a fraction of Pavlova’s prodigious output. She is highly popular in Russia, and her poems are short, witty, sometimes punch-you-in-the-gut observant. Pavlova deals with love, sex, motherhood, memory. Her language deals with minute detail and broad strokes of human emotion and experience. In “My Craft Is Not Stringing Lyres,” she succinctly captures her philosophy of a poet’s work: “Patient cutting of facets/on tears unshed, that is my craft.” She anticipates what her reader will feel but isn’t trying to manipulate them: “Not for the sake of a gleam in the eye,/but to leave a trace behind . . . . ”
Another book in translation that floated to the top of the “to read” pile is Days of Reading, one of Penguin’s “Great Ideas” series, which the Computer Scientist gave me last Christmas. I have to admit I haven’t read much Proust — a gap in my reading life list I’d like to fill more completely someday when I am not reading in during snatches of time. Paul Harding mentioned Proust when he came to the store to discuss Tinkers, which reminded me I’d been meaning to read Days of Reading.
Another aside: if Paul is coming to a bookstore in your area, I cannot recommend highly enough that you go hear him. He’s a very warm, smart, funny writer, and I got the sense he’s a wonderful writing teacher. His reading and talking about Tinkers only made me love the book more, and helped crystalize some of the things I’d struggled to say when Gibson’s book group discussed it. For example, I love that there are multiple points of view that are not always clearly delineated, and he explained a little bit about how and why he wrote the book that way. If you haven’t read Tinkers, do.
Anyway, Proust. Much of what I’d heard about him — that his sentences are very long, that he is deeply informed by his own studious reading (in Days of Reading he mentions Ruskin, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Moliere, Schopenhauer), that he is erudite almost to the point of being intimidating to the ordinary reader — is true. Yet despite the fact that you can tell Proust was on another plane of intelligence (and I daresay, I had this same feeling listening to both Jonathan Franzen and Paul Harding speak, and reading Howard Mansfield’s Turn & Jump, which I’ll get to in a moment), he doesn’t talk down to readers. You kind of feel that if you could sit down with Proust and have a drink or a meet him for tea and pastries, he’d blow you away but he’d share everything he knows, willingly, because he believes intensely in the importance of ideas, the value of aesthetics, the contribution of art to humanity.
I found myself identifying with his observations about things like the remembrance of childhood days immersed in a good book, and the difference between a reader who is a “literary man,” amassing books read without assimilating them, and the “thinkers” who synthesize new reading differently, so that it is “reduced to its element of reality, to the portion of life it contains.” So I was really channeling Proust when I came up with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: that what we read is valuable not by itself, but in relation to everything we’ve read before and will read.
Often when I hear people discussing what they’ve been reading, they say that a book “did nothing” for them, or that it wasn’t enjoyable because they didn’t see what point the author was making. Proust writes, in a passage too lengthy to quote here, that authors don’t give readers “conclusions,” they give us “incitements.” He believes:
“For as long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place, when the truth no longer appears to us as an ideal, which we can realize only by the intimate progress of our own thought and the efforts of our own heart, but as something material, deposited between the leaves of books . . . .”
So a book isn’t supposed to do something for you, and it’s not up to the author alone to make a point. Examining our own “personal life of the mind,” synthesizing what we’re reading with our experiences, our conscious and unconscious remembrance of other books, our values and ideas, are what makes reading a discovery, an incitement to seek truth, to understand ourselves, our world. Proust’s ideas caused me to reflect on what Paul Harding said about Tinkers — he’s not writing to tell people what to believe. Franzen gently asked someone who asked a question at his reading in Concord to read Freedom and decide — great authors don’t feed us fast food; they give us the ingredients to prepare our own feast.
In an interview, Harding says when he writes he strips away “the material clutter of current life, just so things quiet down a bit and I can hear the sound of a mind in counsel with itself.” He talked about the lyric quality of his writing too, and said that whether he has drumsticks or a pen in his hand, he’s letting what’s coming through him flow into music or writing. I hope when I am at my best, I am allowing my mind to be in counsel with itself. Ideally, whatever we take in, be it reading or conversation or silence or nature or art can be what Heaney describes in the last lines of “Postscript” — “a hurry through which known and strange things pass/As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
When I saw a New York Times feature on Leonard Koren recently, I was curious about his ideas on aesthetics, so I requested Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers on inter-library loan. It’s a fascinating little book that was perfect to read as I was mulling the idea of known and strange things passing, catching us off guard, and blowing open our hearts. In the first sentence, Koren lays out his thesis: “Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”
For someone relentlessly critical of herself and always pursuing paths to improvement, that’s a comfort. Once you think about wabi-sabi, you see if everywhere — in art, design, music, food, even just the way some people live. My life is probably a little too busy right now, but I see wabi-sabi in the way it’s an organic family journey, changing and imperfect but beautiful. Koren says later in the book that to achieve a wabi-sabi aesthetic in art and life, one should, “pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.” Simple but incredibly difficult, and a quality of much of my favorite literature.
I would say that Howard Mansfield is one author who achieves that balance perfectly. He’s coming to Gibson’s to talk about Turn & Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart. Mansfield’s writing is lyrical and figurative, but clear and simple. On describing the town of Turners Falls, MA, where British colonists massacred Native Americans in 1676, and where the falls where salmon once spawned were dammed, Mansfield writes, “Turners Falls is divorced from deep time, from the true history of the land. For thousands of years this place kept time by the salmon leaping the falls and the Indians fathering to fish.” He tells readers he realizes why he was uncomfortable there: “What I had felt on my first visit was the pain of divorce.”
This synthesis of history, sociology, and personal reflection makes Turn & Jump both contemplative (like wabi, which Koren tells us “refers to the inward, the subjective”) and informative (like sabi, which “refers to the outward, the objective”). Ranging from vaudeville (where the title comes from) to outlet damn on a small lake in New Hampshire to a family store in a small town, covering everything from the standardization of time to suit railroad schedules to the nonlinear view of time held by native peoples, Mansfield guides readers along routes of inquiry well researched but never dry. Mansfield is a great writer, and a great thinker. Read his book and you’ll feel as if you’re talking with your smartest friend.
Another terrific book I read ahead of an event at Gibson’s is The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by Dr. David A. Kessler, former FDA commissioner. This is an important book, looking at teh root cause — overeating — of one of the worst threats to public health in America — obesity. Kessler is cerebral and meticulous, but explains the science behind the food industry’s manipulation of our appetites so clearly that even this English major got it. In person he is terrific — he spoke to a standing room crowd at Gibson’s this week, without notes, and really helped us see what we’re up against. I highly recommend this eye-opening, thoughtful book.
Another thoughtful, thought provoking book I read this month that literally kept me up at night as I read it was Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof. This is a powerful, disturbing read. Some of the stories of women and girls who are victims of trafficking and violence will shake you to the core. Some of the disturbing information you may already know — women in many places perpetuate oppression against girls and other women, for example; and some well-intended but poorly planned/executed aid programs fail when local people aren’t involved. But Kristof and WuDunn also share stories of what’s working, and what’s getting better, and even though I was aware of some of the problems they write about in the book, I have a more thorough understanding of how educating and empowering women works to lift communities out of poverty.
Last aside, I promise: I’m hosting a brown bag discussion of Half the Sky for the Women’s Fund of NH at Gibson’s on Oct. 21 at noon, as part of the Concord Literary Festival. The Women’s Fund will host discussions of the book at a number of locations around New Hampshire all month, and you can see the schedule here.
Half the Sky made me grateful for many things, especially that my daughter is growing up in a country where women enjoy a relatively high level of equality and safety, and that she and her brother are getting well rounded educations. Which brings me to what the rest of the family read this month.
The Preteen first — in her final appearance as Preteen. She continues to really enjoy the Hooksett Public Library, so let me just give all the staff there a shout out, especially Library Director Heather Shumway. Heather is a champion of indie bookstores like Gibson’s, and she’s doing a great job with the library as well, in a small town in a state where libraries are funded town by town. The Preteen loves the YA room there, and the great selection of Manga titles. I enjoy the prompt inter-library loan, and the helpful staff (like Mat, who worked with me over the phone to troubleshoot the Mango language learning system, which the kids couldn’t log into last week) who are very customer service oriented and just plain nice.
The Preteen has been checking Manga out in large stacks since early last summer when we got a card at Hooksett (we have a card in our own town, and I love our library, too, but it’s not as teen-friendly, and we wanted access to Mango). She hasn’t checked out any duplicates, and we go every other week. In September she read more installments of Naruto, which she points out is about a boy who has a nine-tailed fox spirit sealed inside him as a baby — I apparently gave a somewhat different account here at bookconscious last month.
She also continued reading Fullmetal Alchemist, and yes, they’re still about alchemists, doing alchemy. She read a new series called The Dreaming, which is about twins having the same creepy dreams/nightmares, and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which is about a “dude named Sora” who is friends with Disney characters, such as Goofy and Daffy Duck. Sora and his cartoon friends are on an adventure, trying to find his friends. They keep going inside their memories, which complicates things. I’m somewhat disturbed that she’s reading something with marketing materials inserted into the story in the form of licensed characters, but she is very aware of the Disneyfication of our culture. One of my first bookconscious musings was on princesses, and the Preteen’s thoughts on the matter were astute even then.
On the nonfiction front, she’s reading Chew On This. She hasn’t had much to say about it so far, but one evening we were discussing the importance of understanding world religions (The Computer Scientist & I both heard a great piece on this topic on Here and Now last week), and in the course of discussing dietary rules and religion, the Preteen mentioned an anecdote from Chew On This about McDonald’s offending vegetarians by not disclosing the beef fat they used in preparing their fries. She has a stack of other food culture/history books in her reading nook.
I got the family a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. It’s a small, straightforward book synthesizing Pollan’s more in depth food writing into 64 rules to eat by. I read a bit of it aloud and got smiles from both kids. What’s not to like about a book that says you shouldn’t eat food a third grader can’t pronounce? It’s a palatable way to read some hard truths about our food industry.
The Teenager is, like many seniors, highly busy. He is in the midst of soccer season, college applications, and now, Drivers’ Ed. He’s not had the time or inclination to take Drivers’ Ed. before, but finally decided it was time to get it over with. He was pleasantly surprised by the first couple of classes.
But like many teens, he is reading mostly for his educational pursuits, even though in the bookconscious household those meld with our life. His pleasure reading is mainly Sports Illustrated and the New York Times sports section, the BBC, New York Times, and Guardian sites online, and numerous soccer blogs and news sites. At least he is fairly well informed.
The Teenager is often seen around the house buried in books on the Maya and other early Mexican civilizations or the massive Handbook of Bird Biology from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In September we also read and watched Macbeth; I read an old copy I already owned and the Teenager chose the Royal Shakespeare Company paperback edition. I checked out a dvd of an RSC performance, starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellan. It was a powerful performance. We also checked out a terrific little book from Ohstrom Library this week, which I hope he’ll enjoy, called Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life, by Fintan O’Toole. I started it last night and it is very interesting.
The Preteen and the Computer Scientist joined us to watch Macbeth. We were all struck by how much of the language was familiar — even for the Preteen, who hadn’t read the play. The Teenager read Bill Bryson’s Shakespare: The World As Stage and he was very interested in the way Shakespeare added so much to the English language and in the scant historical record. Plus, both the Teen and the Preteen are convinced anything Bill Bryson says is brilliant.
The Computer Scientist read a couple of war narratives in September: Shannon Meehan’s Beyond Duty: Life On the Frontline In Iraq and Sebastian Junger’s War. Some of you know The Computer Scientist is also a former jarhead (Marine), and he served in what the kids affectionately call the Old Guy Gulf War. He enjoyed Meehan’s account, calling it a “wrenching narrative of a junior officer’s maturity through fire. Meehan’s tale is a sad one, told in an extremely authentic voice.” He says it was a good account of “the complicated and horrific nature of combat.”
War made even more of an impression; the Computer Scientist rarely gives 5 stars to a book on Goodreads, but War earned that rating. He says, “This is the best combative narrative I’ve read since Dispatches. Junger perfectly captures the essence of men in combat and went well beyond the call in getting the story.” If you’re looking for an excellent book on contemporary warfare, The Computer Scientist/Jarhead recommends this one.
What’s on our to-read piles? The Preteen has a new stack of Manga and also the sequel to Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It (dsytopian YA fiction), The Dead and the Gone. She also has her food book stash and Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss — a brilliant book, which I highly recommend. The kids have the picture book edition, but someone recently gave us the original and it’s the most fun you’ll ever have reading about punctuation.
The Computer Scientist has started Shamus Rahman Khan’s Privilege, and plans to read The End of Overeating. I’ve started At Home, by Bill Bryson, which I’m enjoying (even though mostly I keep thinking about how I begged to have an event for him at Gibson’s and didn’t get one — occupational hazard). I also started Clare Harman’s history of Jane Austen, Jane’s Fame, and Hans Keilson’s Death of the Adversary. I’m also picking up another book by Leonard Koren today at the library: The Flower Shop, which is touted as “an intimate look at the people and ideas that make the most beautiful flower shop in the world,” on Koren’s website.
Too many books? No, just not enough time. Which brings me to More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, by Stephanie O’Dea. The advance copy of this book made my life much easier in September. The Computer Scientist is pretty skeptical of new slow cooker recipes — but we’ve tried several from this book and all but one was great. That one probably suffered more from my over-enthusiastic use of garlic than anything else. O’Dea organizes the book by cost per meal — a nice feature for people planning to send their firstborn off to college soon. And the recipes call for very few items that contain things a third grader can’t pronounce; mostly just real food, cooked slowly. Look for this book when it hits stores this winter.