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Archive for December, 2010

On World AIDS Day, the bookconscious household attended our community’s interfaith service. Our friend and deacon, Brother Charles Edward (or B.C.E., as he’s known), pointed out that when the AIDS pandemic began, people lived in the shadow of death, but now, we’re living in the light of hope. I thought that was beautiful.

Just the night before, I set up a BeadforLife table at the Songweavers annual “pahty,” where we eat, raise money for the Songweavers scholarship fund, and sing.  The last song of the evening, which I’ve been singing fragments of ever since, was the South African hymn Siyahamba, which spread around the world when the Swedish choral group Fjedur recorded it in 1978. The chorus in English is “We are marching (or walking) in the light of God.”  So I had one of those moments as I listened to B.C.E., where  interconnectedness hummed through my brain.

When I sat down two nights ago, after several long days of chores, projects, and activities related to this season of light, to look at the books I read in November and contemplate this month’s bookconscious post, I realized that much of my reading fits this Big Idea of walking into light, leaving darkness, whether literal or metaphorical, behind. I wouldn’t say this was a conscious choice, as my reading pile is often in flux and usually eclectic. But it’s possible I was seeking connections after a very hectic fall; I probably needed a Big Idea to quiet the scattering of thoughts that B.C.E. reminded us we all deal with, what Buddhism calls “monkey mind.”

Poets have dealt with this theme for as long as there has been poetry. Two collections I read this month include excellent examples of the human need to get through darkness and return to light.  In Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New & Selected Poems, “Cloud” describes the experience of walking the woods when a cloud engulfs the treetops. Ryan writes, “From inside the/forest it seems/like an interior/matter, something/wholly to do/with trees, a color/passed from one/to another, a/requirement/to which they/submit unflinchingly/like soldiers or/brave people/getting older.”  The dimming of light is something bigger than us, like war or aging.

But Ryan’s poems are often hopeful, and “Cloud” ends with these matter-of-fact lines: “Then the sun/comes back and/it’s totally over.”    “The Fourth Wise Man,” is a topic that’s a literary staple, and Ryan’s pictures him as one who “. . . far preferred/to be inside in solitude/to contemplate the star/that had been getting/so much larger . . .”  Too much light is as challenging to the status quo as too little.  And in “A Cat/A Future,” Ryan compares a cat’s ability to “. . .draw/the blinds/behind her eyes . . .”  to the way “a future can occlude:/still sitting there/doing nothing rude.”  We’re going to be in the dark sometimes, and that’s life.

In Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser is literally starting in darkness writing poems, as his doctor tells him to avoid the sun while he’s undergoing cancer treatment. In the introduction to the book, he explains that this was a time of emotional darkness as well, but that pre-dawn walks and the quiet poems he wrote afterward helped him heal.

Each of the hundred poems in this book is dated, and each begins with a title that describes the weather that morning, like “Clear and Cool,” or “Sunny and Milder.” This structure, along with the brevity of poems written to fit on postcards, and the common setting (the roads and fields around Kooser’s home in early morning) make the collection very cohesive. Some of the poems are just a few lines, and others are only one sentence. The idea of a poem just a few breaths long is appealing to me, because I love Japanese forms, and although Kooser doesn’t include any haiku here, many pieces have the same aesthetic as the prose portion of a haibun.

While darkness and light run all through Winter Morning Walks, a couple of images really struck me. “december 2 Clear and cool,” begins, “Walking in darkness, in awe/beneath a billion indifferent stars,” and goes on a few lines later to show us the path Kooser walks: “. . . the gravel/that, faintly lit, looks to be little more/than a contrail of vapor,/so thin, so insubstantial it could,/on a whim, let me drop through it/and out of the day. . . .”

The real light of the stars is cold and awe inspiring, “indifferent” to human activity. The imagined light, the “contrail” of the barely visible gravel path, makes walking on solid ground seem as tenuous an activity as falling through vapor. Kooser concludes this powerful poem with the sound of his own feet as he walks, “in noisy confidence/as if each morning might be trusted,/as if the sounds I make might buoy me up.” His body, once frail with illness, tells him he’s alive.

In “March 10 Quiet and cold at 6am,” Kooser observes: “At dawn, in the roadside churchyard/the recent, polished headstones glance and flash/as if the newly dead were waving pink placards/protesting the loss of their influence./But the soft old marbles, grainy from weather/and losing their names, have a steady glow/like paper bags with candles lit inside,/lining a path, an invitation.”  A lovely, haunting little poem. I admire the freshness of these images. Kooser’s suggestion that eventually, the dead grow used to their worldly light having gone out, and that in death we might encounter a different “steady glow” is comforting.

There’s a lot of death and darkness in the other books I read this month; all of them ultimately suggest a kind of carrying-on-in-spite-of-it-all sensibility.  Milena Agus‘s novel, From the Land of the Moon, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is due out in January. Agus’s narrator tells readers the story of her grandmother, a Sardinian woman who gets married in the midst of WWII.  Grandmother is an exuberant woman, and she has loomed large in the narrator’s life.

As her granddaughter tells it, Grandmother’s life has been difficult, she longs for a lost love, her husband married her out of a sense of duty, and her deep passion has gone unrequited. She’s dealt with darkness, but she’s managed to make a life worth living anyway. Towards the end of the novel (and I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t give the details), we learn that Grandmother’s daughter-in-law, the narrator’s mother, has always known more about Grandmother, but protected her secrets. Once Grandmother is dead, the narrator learns the rest of her story, and later finds her Grandmother’s notebook, which illuminates her life even more.

If I’m being too obscure, let me say that From the Land of the Moon is a beautiful story about how families keep secrets and invent stories to cover them, how memory can be infused with desire until two people might have very different perceptions of something that happened, how appearances might cover dramatically different inner lives. It’s also a book that explores the role of imagination in life, and the blending of imagination and reality into a person’s interior world. In a way, it’s a tribute to the ability of writing to lift someone out of despair.

I don’t know much about Sardinia or about Italy in WWII and the post-war period, so I enjoyed the cultural history Agus provides. Reading literature in translation expands one’s worldview, and I appreciate that.  So far I’ve been impressed with the Europa editions fiction I’ve read and I hope they continue to produce such an interesting list.

Another book that prods the dark corners of perception, misunderstanding, and imagination and comes up with a mostly hopeful view of mankind muddling through into lighter days is Jay Atkinson‘s short story collection Tauvernier Street.  I enjoyed just about all of the stories in the book; when I look at the three I didn’t care for as much I see that they stray from the setting of most of the others, Tauvernier Street or similar surroundings.  Perhaps the book would have been tighter without those three stories, or maybe I was too much in the mood for a distinct thread — my monkey mind liked settling down.

The stories set in gritty New England neighborhoods (or anchored there, even if the characters venture farther afield) examine all manner of human foibles through a wide array of characters. Atkinson comes up with some very fresh, imaginative situations — “The God of This World” is about a terror attack on the real heart of America, the big box home improvement store.  “The Philosophy Shop” is about a man who opens the shop of the title after his father’s death, and tries to seek truth.

Other stories are more straightforward but no less perceptive, and I especially enjoyed “The Art of War,” “God’s Work,” “The Tex Cameron Show,” “Sages,” “The Messenger,” “Radio Call,” and “The Thorndikes of Tauvernier Street.” Atkinson looks at the way people perceive race, class, religion, and culture. Along with the usual emotional conflict between characters that are the bread and butter of short fiction writers, he manages to focus on the small moments of real understanding people are capable of.  These flashes of light — candle flames in the vast darkness of the human psyche — make for good reading.

A master of capturing these slivers of insight and of creating unforgettable characters is Alice Hoffman. I thoroughly enjoyed The Red Garden, due out in January. The chapters of this book take readers from the founding of Blackwell, Massachusetts in 1750, where we meet the indomitable founding mother Hallie Brady, to contemporary times in the town. Some include glimpses of real historical figures, like Emily Dickinson. Others bring ghosts and touches of magical realism, something Hoffman does so very well.

I’m not sure I could choose a favorite chapter of The Red Garden. In each piece, Hoffman introduces characters who are fully drawn in a just few pages, and subtly, quietly, ties each story, each life, to those that came before.  Some characters literally show up in later chapters as they grow older, others reappear in Blackwell town lore, others are present in what they have left behind in the physical and emotional landscape of the place and its people.

It’s fascinating to see how Hoffman wove American history into the book; everything from colonial era homesteading to the Civil War, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression and Vietnam appear.  Hoffman makes cultural references as well as historical ones — in the chapter set in the 1980’s, for example, there are vials of Valium in one character’s medicine chest and a Prince song on a juke box. The dialogue also evolves as Hoffman moves through the decades. There are other books that use the march of time as a plot device, but few that do it so well, and thanks to Hoffman’s masterful use of historical details.

The Red Garden is more than historical fiction. Hoffman examines the way we are connected; people change the human story just, as my grandmother used to say, by being themselves. The world, and in particular Blackwell, is a richer place because of the briefest of encounters between the town’s inhabitants and those passing through, the scantest conscious connections between generations. The town’s earlier citizens work through the later character’s lives by informing their decisions as traces of collective memory, or as real presences, in story and artifact, to their descendants.

Hallie Brady’s spirit and intelligence seems to streak through the town’s figurative DNA.  She walks confidently out of the dark struggle to survive the first winter in Blackwell and into the light of hope; future Blackwellians follow in their own ways. This book will remind you that as we stride around acting (we think) independent and smart and modern, memory, history, and myth are working within us all, in ways we may not even realize.

Jennifer Donnelly‘s fantastic new YA novel Revolution was another page-turning read this month. Like Hoffman, she clearly did a great deal of research.  I have to say right now, I would probably never have picked the book up, since I generally avoid YA titles because of their obsession with presenting kids dealing with all manner of Issues, and this one is no exception. But Gibson’s Random House rep. for young people’s books recommended it, and I am grateful she did.

The main character in Revolution, Andi, is not exactly representative of your average kid. She’s a senior at an exclusive private school, her parents and friends are all fabulously wealthy or famous or both, and she is dealing with the psychological aftermath of her younger brother’s death and her parents’ divorce. Hence my usual “Issue alert” was on — I find this kind of piling on of what I consider to be unrealistic amounts of problems and backstory to be a major detractor that turns me off to a fair bit of YA literature (I didn’t even mention the drugs, relationship problems, and enormous pressure to get into a top college; Andi is also a gifted musician).

Just give teens a good story, I usually gripe. About a kid they can relate to, who isn’t either a basket case dealing with more troubles than a Telenovela queen or burdened with so many talents she can’t quite work out whether to be a genius scientist or a famous musician. This book doesn’t meet any of those criteria. But, our rep. gave it such a glowing recommendation that I decided I’d give it a try, figuring at the least, I’d have a current YA book to talk about with holiday shoppers at Gibson’s.

And I thoroughly enjoyed Revolution. I am very impressed with the complexity of the story and the rich details Donnelly used to bring Andi’s world alive, as well as the world of Alexandrine, another teenaged girl whose life Andi becomes fascinated with when she finds her diary, written during the French Revolution. Andi may not be representative of the average American teen but I grew to love her.  Many of the minor characters are also memorable — everyone from Andi’s best friend, Vijay, to an 18th century French composer (of Donnelley’s imagination, I was sad to learn; he seemed so real) named Malherbeau comes off the page in vivid, living color. Andi’s family friend, G, a French historian, her Holocaust survivor music teacher in Brooklyn, and the strict librarian at a historical archives in Paris are all wonderfully drawn. Even a scary flea market vendor who deals in bones from Paris’s catacombs is creepily realistic.

And the story is very intriguing. As Andi is drawn into Alexandrine’s story, and her research for her senior thesis progresses, their two worlds go from having some parallels to actually colliding. Donnelly, like Hoffman, has written a terrific story saturated in historical details, and like Hoffman dabbles with the supernatural. I don’t think this book should be limited to YA exposure. It’s a good read for adults as well.

One of my favorite things about Revolution is that Andi undergoes a transformation despite all the evidence in her world and Alexandrine’s that the world is brutal and people will never stop being awful to each other. We see her go from a sullen, suicidally depressed kid who’s veering towards disaster (she takes too many of the drugs her psychiatrist prescribes, skips school, and lashes out at the adults who are trying to help her) to a young woman who is able to put her brother’s tragic death to rest, and to help herself heal. But none of this is handled formulaicly — Donnelly delivers this classic theme of troubled adolescent getting her life together with a little help from her friends in a fresh new way. And while there’s a love story (more than one, really, and more than just romantic love), it’s also not cliched.

So, I hereby apologize for writing off most YA fiction and I look forward to finding more good books like Revolution. Which, if you’re keeping score, is very much in keeping with my November reading thread — Andi literally walks out of the darkness of underground Paris and her own psychological and emotional darkness and lives in the light of hope.

Another book that came my way this month and turned out to be just what I wanted to read was Andrew Krivak’s forthcoming novel The Sojourn. This one’s not due out until May, and it’s being published by Bellevue Literary Press, the same small press that published Paul Harding’s Tinkers.  Like From the Land of the Moon, The Sojourn is a book that deals with a piece of history I didn’t know much about.

The Sojourn opens in Colorado, where a young immigrant family is struggling to make a life in America. After his wife dies in an accident (protecting her infant son in her last seconds), the widower returns to his village in Austria-Hungary. He raises the boy, Jozef, to be a shepherd, and takes in a distant cousin’s son, Marian, known as Zlee.  Jozef and Zlee grow up together, and when World War I comes, they go off to fight for the Emperor.

Because of their years of spotting and shooting in defense of their flock and as hunters, they are singled out as a sharpshooting team. This aspect of Word War I was not one I’d read about (quick aside; for a breathtaking novel of life in WWI’s trenches, read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way which I discussed in a bookconscious post a couple of springs ago.)  Most of what I know about WWI, other than what I learned in history classes, I read in Vera Brittain‘s wonderful diaries and memoirs, which my grandmother encouraged me to read when I traveled to England as a college student.

What little I know about the Italian front I read in A Farewell to Arms, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from the point of view of the Austro-Hungarians before The Sojourn.  Krivak captures many of the same depressing aspects of war that others before him have: the futility of defending trenches and attacking out of them, the nationalism among troops fighting for the same cause who are suspicious of each other’s cultures, the cluelessness and egotism of some of the officers, the brutality of war, the filth and degredation, hunger and illness.

But The Sojourn is also a psychological study — Jozef reflects on his upbringing, the family tensions he recalls from boyhood (especially resentment and greed on the part of his stepmother and her thuggish sons). His embarrassment over his father’s low stature in their village and family aggravates him as a young man. His father is a well read independent thinker, who teaches Jozef and Zlee English by reading aloud Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. But in their village, he’s the man who went to America and came back, and therefore a failure.

Like many an adolescent Jozef struggles with knowing this isn’t true, knowing his father’s real worth, and feeling the sting of social embarrassment. When war comes and his father, who reads English newspapers as well, doesn’t believe in the cause of the Hapsburgs, Jozef ignores him and goes to enlist.  Despite his love and respect for his father, Jozef leaves, even as he sees the anguish it causes. Well-tread ground in literature, but Krivak makes it fresh; the characters are unique and believable and you fall under the spell of the story, the way we are lulled into believing our own experiences are unique when we’re having them.

All of this coming-of-age material builds up the narrative, and then Krivak takes his young hero to war. I think this portion of the novel is very well done, even though Krivak continues to deal with familiar territory:  impressionable young soldiers going off to fight, full of confidence and well trained in body and spirit to defend the homeland, becoming disillusioned by the reality of war and finding a way through this struggle into transformation. Perhaps because of the strangeness of sharpshooting — young men trained to hunt other young men — the writing is chilling and sometimes even beautiful.

Again I don’t want to spoil anything, but the final third of the book, with the post-war resolution, Jozef’s coming to terms with the killing he’s done and the losses he’s experienced, and his long journey home, take the book to another level. As fascinating as Jozef’s unorthodox upbringing and sharpshooter experiences are, his slow recovery from the trauma of war and return to everyday humanity is Krivak’s finest accomplishment in the novel.

Small acts of kindness in each part of Jozef’s story, and his lingering vision of his mother as a kind of angel, nourish him, and sustain readers through the bitterest parts of the book. Love —  not only romantic love (which is done well — there is a remarkable, searing love story towards the end of the book, which ties together many of Krivak’s themes of longing and belonging, home and identity), but as in Revolution, love in all its many forms and nuances — restore both Jozef’s and the reader’s confidence that all shall be well again. Krivak takes us through the dark night of the soul and back into the light of hope. I didn’t want it to end.

And The Sojourn has what I consider the perfect ending: hopeful, but not so neatly tied up that you aren’t left with a lingering trace of the book in your mind for several days.  I hope you know just what I mean. In my view, the best books stay with you, working on your own stored memory, fusing themselves with all you’ve read and all you’ve been, incorporating themselves into what you’ll be. Books that last are books that make meaning, that consciously or unconsciously change the way you view the next thing you read, the next idea you consider, the next response you have to the world.  The Sojourn is that kind of book.

Finally, last weekend as Advent began, I started re-reading a collection of essays and poems called Watch for the Light. It’s challenging at this time of year to add to my daily routine, but keeping an advent discipline, I’ve found, is good grounding before the over-abundance of Christmas. This book gathers some of the greatest spiritual writers from several centuries, and some of it is very challenging both to read and to digest. Some of it, I think, may not be digestable; a point that appears in many of the book’s entries is that certain mysteries, such Christmas, are nearly impenetrable.

So it’s seasonal, but I wouldn’t call this book uplifting. Like so many of the other things I’ve read lately, it’s a reminder that dark, uncertain, even troubling thoughts are a part of the human experience and have been forever. So are hope, and more rarely perhaps, joy.  Living is about continuing to help each other through the shadowy bits, so we can all make it into the light.  I’m very glad we live in a world where excellent reading is a part of that, and where it’s possible to excavate an inner world in the midst of a wide community because of writers and readers.

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