Literature is often a way to look at the big questions, the same questions philosophers, theologians, and ordinary humans have wrestled with forever. In December the books I read dealt with how one can find happiness in life; each book has a slightly different take, and only a couple of them address the search for happiness directly. But as I so often discover when I reflect on a month’s worth of reading, I gravitated towards a theme, unconsciously or not, or I see a theme after the fact that threads through the month’s book pile.
Before I get carried away discussing the pursuit of happiness, I want to mention what the rest of the bookconscious household read — something I never got to in my last post. December is one of the two busiest months of the year for the Computer Scientist. He works in development, and lots of people give at the end of the year. So he was hard pressed to make time to read, but he did finish Tinkers and is enjoying Citizens of London. I blogged about Citizens last spring, and I noticed he’s been reading it more frequently since we went to see The King’s Speech.
Since I’ve spent a lot of time and word count praising Tinkers I’ll quote the Computer Scientist and leave it at that. He says, “The threaded story structure and beautiful descriptive language made Tinkers a very good read. The book is short enough to read straight-through and that might be a better approach than a “here and there” read as keeping the threads straight is a fun challenge of the book. I especially like how Harding uses similar imagery across the story for different characters and situations.”
Teen the Elder spent the first three weeks of December pondering and writing about ambition in Macbeth, comparing Macbeth’s ambition with Hitler’s. He read several pieces of literary criticism and chapters of history books on Hitler, and started reading Kate L. Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers. I implored him to read for fun; other than the poem of the week, soccer blogs, articles on the Guardian, New York Times, and Fox Soccer sites, he mostly read academic tomes and textbooks (including the door-stopping Handbook of Bird Biology).
Quick aside: for Christmas, I gave the Computer Scientist and the Teens two books by Salman Rushdie to share: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life. I sincerely hope that will be soul-feeding, enjoyable reading for all of them. I thoroughly enjoyed Haroun when I read it a few years ago, and I look forward to Luka.
Teen the Younger continued reading Manga. She read further volumes of Naruto and Full Metal Alchemy as well as Gakuen Alice. She also tried a new series called Bleach, in which the hero meets a soul reaper who feels sorry for him when monsters called hollows attack his family. The soul reaper shares her power with him so he can save his family, who then don’t remember the monsters, but instead think a truck hit their house. Like all Manga, this is just the beginning — there are several additional volumes.
She also read most of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. When I asked how these were, Teen the Younger told me that after Harry Potter, nothing is really good reading. (Her brother says Lord of the Rings is the only thing that ever satisfied him after HP, although he developed a fondness for T.S. Eliot’s poetry later). She thought Hunger Games was okay, and has asked for the next book in the series, but she didn’t rave about it.
Her critique of The Lost Hero vindicates my earlier criticism of YA fiction. She also told me, “Much of The Lost Hero is about teen angst, and while that’s probably realistic, it’s kind of annoying to have to read it over and over.” She went on to say that even Percy Jackson, which she enjoyed, got repetitive in the later books of the series. She asked me why so many authors write in series instead of a single good book, since they end up repeating themselves.
A good question. She doesn’t seem to have this complaint about Manga. When I asked her why, she said it’s because Manga are a continuing story, without much repetition. Since they are serialized, readers understand from the first that the story will be told in parts. Perhaps some novels that are meant to both sell as standalone stories and fit into a series don’t manage the same continuity?
Like Teen the Younger (and Teen the Elder, if he would lighten up a bit), I like a well told story and interesting characters. Even more I like a book that give me something to think about (they do too, although they might not put it that way). Jane Gardam‘s God On the Rocks provides all of that.
Even though the story centers on a young girl, God On the Rocks deals with complex problems and issues,– family and romantic relationships, religion, the impact of war on a society, class, gender roles, parenting. Gardam packs so much into this small gem of a novel; but it all unfolds naturally. There is nothing forced or contrived. And it’s a good story, one that surprised and delighted me, gave me pause, and stayed with me after I reached the ending. It’s really a perfectly constructed, wonderful book.
Margaret, the girl in the story, is just right; Gardam is one of those writers who hasn’t lost the voice of childhood. The adult characters too are multi-dimensional and fully drawn; even bit players, like the parish priest, are rendered vividly. I am still not sure how Gardam managed this — it’s a short book — and I think it would be worth re-reading to study her writing more closel
The characters in God On the Rocks are all trying to find out who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to live. Margaret watches, listens, and feels — and we see her trying to work things out in her mind, as the adults struggle along. Everything happens during one summer between the two world wars. Without tying everything up neatly in a bow, Gardam provides closure as the characters gather many years later at the end of the book. Again, she does this subtly, respecting the reader’s intelligence and leaving some things open to discussion, even as she resolves others.
Another novel I read this month leaves more questions than answers at the end. The Calligrapher’s Secret, by Syrian born German author Rafik Schami, is a fascinating read. Schami brings the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Syria alive in his writing. I thought of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as I read, because just as the political, religious, and cultural backdrop of the Partition are key to that book, Syrian history, politics, culture, and religion make The Calligrapher’s Secret tick.
On one level this book is a delightful coming of age tale, weaving together the stories of a Christian boy (Salman) and a Muslim girl(Noura), from different socio-economic backgrounds, as they grow up in Damascus and eventually fall in love. Each of them faces difficulties in their families and in society, but their intelligence and pluck, and the resilience of the human spirit, see them through. Their stories carry the novel along, with frequent digressions into fascinating subplots and rich sensory detail.
But there is so much more going on in The Calligrapher’s Secret than the coming of age and love stories; Schami spins a sprawling, entrancing tale and peoples it with a vast cast of characters. As with a Rushdie novel, the density of Schami’s writing and the cultural depth makes for slow but ultimately satisfying reading. True to the title, there are many secrets in the plot, some of which are never completely resolved, but that’s how life works, too.
I was so entranced by the vivid portrayal of Damascus that I requested Stephanie Saldana’s memoir of her time in Syria, The Bread of Angels, on inter-library loan; I look forward to reading more about this complicated, ancient place.
Another place I enjoyed reading about in December is much more familiar. In Lisa Genova‘s new novel, Left Neglected, the main character and her family have a home in rural Vermont. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Vermont but I enjoy it, and the family’s simple, pleasant home in a small town sounds very appealing.
In Left Neglected, Vermont is where the power couple main characters spend weekends, if they can get away from their busy lives in the Boston suburbs. Sarah and Bob have it all, including three children (whose names, believe it or not, are Lucy, Charlie, and Linus — a whimsical detail, but one that works), a wonderful nanny, and as I mentioned, high powered jobs. Only Bob is afraid he’ll be losing his, and Sarah is multi-tasking her way through life, telling herself she’s perfectly happy, but challenging Bob to “rock, paper, scissors” to see who gets to drive straight to work without having to drop off the kids on the way.
Then Sarah has a car accident (while dialing her phone — scary), and wakes up without being aware of her left side anymore. It’s still functioning, but her brain isn’t able to tell. Left doesn’t exist. Imagine that — half of you, half of the world, unrecognizable. To go from on top of the world to almost helpless in an instant, it’s almost impossible to think about.
But Genova writes movingly of the post-crash adjustment, as Sarah’s have-it-all life grinds to a halt. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what would happen next. It sounds cliched to say that Sarah re-examines her life, her priorities, and her relationships in light of the accident, but she does — and who wouldn’t?
I don’t want to give away too much, so I won’t tell you how it all works out. But I will say that one of the things I liked best about Left Neglected is the depth of detail about Sarah’s condition, left neglect. Genova did a great deal of research, and it shows. One amazing organization that helped her, New England Handicapped Sports Association, plays a big part in Left Neglected‘s dénouement, and I am pleased to add that a portion of book sales at Lisa Genova’s reading at Gibson’s on Jan. 20 will benefit NEHSA.
Another book that deals with prioritizing what’s important in life is Alan Bennett‘s The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady In The Van. I read and blogged about Clothes last winter. Gibson’s book club discussed the edition that also includes Lady this past Monday. We spent a lot of time pondering why Bennett put the two pieces together — he says in the introduction that there isn’t a particular connection he was trying to make. But we came up with some of our own.
The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella, and our group decided it’s a very theatrical one; most of us could visualize the book as a play or movie. It concerns a middle aged, childless couple, the Ransomes, who are burgled so thoroughly that even the toilet paper is gone. They eventually find out their entire apartment has been reassembled meticulously in a storage facility. Mrs. Ransome begins to examine her life, after the trauma of the break-in and the strangeness of the aftermath, while Mr. Ransome seems unchanged. Much more occurs, but I don’t like to spoil plots here.
The Lady In the Van is nonfiction, and it’s the story of Miss Shepherd, who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s garden for many years. She is eccentric, perhaps even mentally ill, but she is irrepressibly independent. Most of our book club members found her appealing; despite the hardships of her life, she lived exactly as she chose, and her indomitable spirit is admirable.
Despite the sadness and seriousness which tinges both stories, Bennett’s writing is sharp and often quite funny. Our book club had a good time talking about the possible parallels and obvious contrasts between the fictional Ransomes and the real Miss S. We also talked about Bennett’s honest portrayal of his own involvement — while he let Miss S. park on his property, treated her kindly, and was protective of her, he limited her use of his bathroom, and admits he sometimes watched her without offering assistance.
What I believe ties the two pieces together is dignity. Bennett can be biting and he openly dislikes Mr. Ransome, inserting himself into the text to tell readers that he could have softened the character a bit but didn’t. He’s also quite up front about Mrs. S’s faults. But he treats Mrs. Ransome respectfully, as he did his unconventional neighbor. As a result, Bennett portrays each woman as a person seeking whatever small happiness she can find in this crazy world, and he forgives their foibles.
It seems to me that Bennett admires these two flawed women, one real and one imagined, for the way they each maintain their dignity in the face of unusual circumstances. Bennett shows us that happiness may not look like what we’d expect, but that it can blossom in strange ways in our lives. I found this book very hopeful reading as another year of recession and war came to a close, and as we put the emotional turmoil of early college admissions behind us in the bookconscious house.
(I know you’re dying to know: Teen the Elder was accepted at a couple of wonderful colleges and was offered scholarships at both. Stay tuned.)
Another author who considers happiness and finds dignity in all her subjects is Maira Kalman. I’ve always admired her work, and I gave the bookconscious household Kalman’s new book, And the Pursuit of Happiness, for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with Kalman, I recommend this interview with NHPR’s Virginia Prescott on Word of Mouth. You can also check out her blog.
And the Pursuit of Happiness is as quirky and colorful as Kalman’s other work; I can’t think of many other authors who can write whimsical, admiring prose about a sewage treatment plant. But she approaches that topic (and visits said plant in Brooklyn) the same way she approaches a town meeting in Vermont, and visits to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Fort Campbell, and the Supreme Court. Also school gardens and the Capitol’s bipartisan bathrooms. And much more.
Kalman writes about democracy, history, and pie. Her penchant for cleaning and Lincoln’s possibly cross-eyed dog. Immigration, New York’s City Hall, and museums. Obama’s inauguration and Jefferson’s slaves. Each of the twelve chapters of the book (one per month, for a year of jaunts in “pursuit of happiness”) is illustrated with Kalman’s exuberant, rich paintings and an occasional photograph. Not everyone will warm to her style, but I love it. Reading Kalman’s books makes me want to sit down with her over a pot of tea and plate of delicious goodies and talk.
Around mid-December I was pretty sure I was done buying books for Christmas but a small volume caught my eye at Gibson’s: Christmas Poems, a pocket sized anthology published by New Directions. This little book is a gem. Plenty of familiar poems, including Clement’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” and Hardy’s “The Oxen,” and lots of poems I wasn’t familiar with, by poets I hadn’t thought of in terms of their holiday work. Creeley, Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Whitman, and Rilke, to name a few. A thoughtful, interesting little collection.
I’ve saved the two most serious books for last, the two that overtly wrestle with meaning, truth, and the pursuit of the kind of unselfish happiness that makes the world a better place. One is a primarily a memoir, the other a manual, but each has a bit of both in it. One is by a man who almost became a priest, the other by a woman who is a former nun. If you’re in the mood for a deeply intelligent, finely crafted, searching read, you can’t go wrong with either.
One of the most moving books I read in 2010 won’t be out until May 2011, The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak. In December I read his memoir, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, which is the story of his time with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. He spent eight years learning, working, praying, and living in Jesuit communities before leaving the order.
The Long Retreat is a tribute to the mentally, spiritually, physically arduous journey to priesthood. It’s also a love letter to the faith and those who devote their lives to it. The book is also an appreciation of the mystery of beauty, as manifested in literature, liturgy, the natural world, and the world of ideas. And it’s a young man’s exploration of his roots as well as his potential, an intellectual coming of age story.
So it’s complicated. Dense. Riveting, even a bit painful. Krivak doesn’t whitewash his own journey or minimize the challenges. He’s a very fine writer and thinker, and in The Long Retreat readers learn that he was a graduate of a “great books” college, St. John’s in Annapolis, and of Columbia University’s MFA program, before he entered the Jesuits. If you’ve wanted to understand what it is to live an examined life, to become spiritually disciplined, to seek with all your heart and soul towards a committed life of service, or to fulfill a deep thirst for beauty, The Long Retreat will inspire you.
Krivak infuses both the The Sojourn and The Long Retreat with a strong sense of agape, the compassionate love C. S. Lewis describes as an unselfish, devoted commitment to others, and the King James Bible translators called “charity.” In both his novel and his memoir, Krivak writes of people who make others’ lives better through their loving kindness, whether for a moment or a lifetime. It seems to me (and perhaps I’ll get to ask him about this in the spring) that Krivak’s writing explores the human potential for compassion. Some of the people in his books rise to that call and engage in it, others are caught up in pettiness, selfishness, or hubris.
All of which are also part of human potential — and Karen Armstrong writes, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that we can choose to strengthen our compassionate mental and spiritual response by exercising our hearts and minds the way we can strengthen our body by exercising our muscles. I read Armstrong’s latest book on New Year’s Day evening, and signed onto the Charter for Compassion. I plan to encourage the rest of the bookconscious household to read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I’ve already begun to go back through each chapter slowly, with a mind to strengthening my own compassion.
Armstrong is a fine writer and historian, and she opens Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a review of the role of compassion in the tenets and traditions of the major world religions. Throughout the book, she writes of her own life experience and uses her own struggles as an example to those who might find her suggestions daunting. In this way the book is both wise and grounded, as Armstrong’s writing generally is. I can think of no other contemporary writer who distills the big questions and ideas of mankind’s quest for Truth into such clear prose.
After the survey of compassion in history and religion, Armstrong provides clear steps, one chapter at a time, that individuals or groups can follow to become more compassionate. They are practical, sensible, and doable — although challenging. From learning about compassion to thinking, speaking, and acting in mindful awareness of those around us, Armstrong believes we are all capable of letting go of our preconceptions, our misunderstandings, and our bad habits and learning to love even our enemies. Mindfulness is hard in and of itself, as I’ve often written here. But with as capable a guide as Armstrong leading the way, the path to compassionate living seems fairly straightforward.
So I’ll keep re-reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I have a few more entries left in Watch for the Light; last night’s reading was T.S Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” which alternately makes me smile and shudder. Also in my to read pile: new books I received for Christmas from the Computer Scientist and the Teens, including Oxfam’s Ox-Tales short story collection. I started the Earth volume and am enjoying the stories very much. I have three piles of books by the side of the bed, and a couple of piles in other places. Here’s to a new year of books!