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Archive for March, 2011

Many of the books I read this month deal with hunger, literal or figurative.  I love good food, literal or literary, and often pick up what I’m craving — more poetry, for example, or a novel to get lost in.  I had a varied diet of books this month, so let’s dig in. (Pause for audible groans and an appreciative grin from my dad, who gave me the pun gene, which he inherited from his uncle.)

I was over at the beautiful Ohrstrom Library with Teen the Elder, who was doing research for his Shakespeare essay. I love perusing their new books shelf, where I picked up Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection, by Robert Coles.  In this amazing text, Coles asks readers to consider the moral education we receive by examining others’ lives and our own through reading.

Based on his Harvard course, the book is a combination of insightful commentary on art, literature, and music as it reflects our culture and society, and reflections on Coles’ long academic and literary career. He’s known a wide range of cultural giants, from William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy to Paul Tillich and Ruby Bridges.

Coles has explored spirituality, sociology, psychology, and culture in a wide range of writing and editing, with much of his work examining class, age, and gender in the context of whatever subject he addresses (such as his books on morality, spirituality, and political thought in children).  He’s very prolific and very well read, so the book is packed with thoughts and references. I wished as I read that I had time to do all of the recommended reading for each chapter.

This isn’t light reading, it’s a series of lectures by one of America’s great thinkers, and it merits re-reading sometime when I can really delve into it.  For someone like me who loves the way reading creates and encourages connections, this is a book to savor; it will feed your soul and your heart, as well as your mind. One thing I took away from Handing One Another Along is that I am a happier reader when I take time to read thoughtfully, to reflect on ideas — meaning, truth, aesthetics, ethics — as I read.

Three novels I read this month use the art of fiction to explore what makes us human, what we mean to each other, and what our choices do to us and to our society, for good or ill.  They all deal with our human longing for love. All three are books I picked up at WI6.

I met Rachel Simon, author of a number of books, including Riding the Bus With My Sister, at the WI6 author reception. Her novel The Story of Beautiful Girl is coming out in May. It’s a thought provoking read, one you will probably want to devour in a night or two, as I did. Simon reveals the terrible history of institutionalizing the disabled by telling a story so compelling and beautiful, so heart-breaking yet also heartening, you will not be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens next.

The book begins in 1968, on a rainy night in the Pennsylvania countryside, where we meet the girl of the title, Lynnie, and the man she loves, Homan, as they try to escape the institution where they’ve both lived since childhood. In a few swift pages, Simon sets the scene — these two are desperate not for their own well being, but for the baby Lynnie has just delivered. They choose (for a reason that readers learn later) to knock on the door of a widowed schoolteacher, Martha, who hides the baby as the police close in.

From there, the book traces the lives of the baby, Julia, and Martha, whose life changes entirely because of her promise on that one confusing night, as well as Lynnie, who is taken back to the institution, and Homan, who remains on the run.  The people who help or harm these four central characters, the ways their lives turn on small moments that set them on new courses, and the way they each deal with the uncertainty life deals them make the novel a page turner.  And the undercurrent of the entire novel is the social history of institutionalizing the disabled in America.

Both of the other novels I read were set in other countries. More on that in a moment. The Tiger’s Wife, due out next week, is by Tea Obreht, who has the distinction of being the youngest  person on the New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” list. She was also at WI6. She’s certainly an amazing talent. I thought to myself several times as I read, “She’s in her 20’s! How did she write something this complex, this nuanced, this richly imagined already?”

I’m a fan of magical realism — perhaps because as a Spanish and English double major, I took a contemporary Latin American literature class in college and got a taste of some of the early masters of this literary technique (In Spanish!  I marvel at that now).  I especially enjoy elements of magical realism that blend with political and social history.  I would like to make a bold statement here and say that The Tiger’s Wife is among the best examples of this kind of writing I have ever read.

Set in a Balkan country after the war of the 1990’s, the story is told by a young doctor, Natalia. Through Natalia’s recollections, readers learn about her beloved grandfather, himself a doctor, who has recently died alone in a town now part of a different country. Through the stories he told her as a child and the things she learns as she searches for clues to his solitary death and possible last encounter with a mysterious man who seems immortal, Natalia pieces together a story from her grandfather’s boyhood, one he never told her.

There’s no way I can do justice to this phenomenal novel in a few sentences. The writing is excellent — vivid, but clean, and as my grandmother would say, there’s not one thing that doesn’t belong.  The story is incredible; full of cultural and historical detail, fully imagined, and as I said before, complex and nuanced.

By the end of the novel you feel as if you’ve finished a complicated puzzle, or solved a hard cross-word, or stitched the pieces of a pattern perfectly so that not a thread is out of place, and the seams match exactly as they should. Everything falls into place, but artfully, subtly; there are no clanking gears (one critique of Simon’s book is that her book’s pieces fit together rather noisily).

The Tiger’s Wife is about human experience. It’s about love, about family and war and inhumanity and suffering and finally, hope. It’s a book about memory and myth and their intersection, time and mortality and healing. But it’s also a good yarn — a story (several interwoven stories, really) you could read aloud by the fireside, if you were so inclined. I suspect anyone listening would beg you to go on a little longer.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement (which will be out in a couple of weeks) might make you hungry as you read; there are vivid descriptions of pho, because the book centers on the story of an elderly Vietnamese man, Hung, who has been a pho vendor since childhood.  Author Camilla Gibb tells the story of a young Vietnamese American woman, Maggie, who has moved to Hanoi to curate the art collection of a fancy hotel. She has returned to her birth country in part because she wants to learn what happened to her father, a Vietnamese artist who sent her and her mother to America during the war and never rejoined them.

Through Hung’s & Maggie’s memories, and through the observations of a tour guide of Maggie’s generation, Tu, who grew up in Vietnam, Gibb manages to sympathetically expose the idealistic roots of the Vietnamese communist movement. She painfully portrays the betrayal of those who believed (as did their counterparts in many other countries) that communism would bring equality, economic justice, and freedom from social constraints. She shines light on the brave intellectuals, writers, and artists who realized these promises would not be kept but stood firm under enormous pressure, and in many cases imprisonment, torture, or death.

Gibb also describes in heart breaking detail the suffering of ordinary Vietnamese in the post-war years. Hung remembers living in squalor in unwanted land near a pond, and making noodles for his pho out of pond weeds and whatever else he could scavenge. Maggie’s family started in America as refugees do, with nothing, and despite her educational and economic success, she feels she’s lost not only her father, but also her cultural bearings.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a fairly quick read, fascinating, and soulful.  I enjoyed the escapism of reading about another culture and the vivid details that brought the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Hanoi alive in the novel. Tu, Hung, Maggie, and the host of minor characters, living and remembered, are well drawn and sympathetic characters. The story is interesting, if not particularly complex. I’d like to read Gibbs’ other books, and I think this one would make an excellent read to take along on a trip or to the beach, as would The Story of Beautiful Girl.

One perk of reviewing books and working in a bookstore is that sometimes, publishers and authors send me books. I have to pinch myself, really, at my good fortune — books arriving unbidden. Too good to be true!  One that landed on my front step this month is a very unique, very interesting sort of YA novel, Snotty Saves the Day, from a small press, Exterminating Angel.

I say sort of YA because this is a “crossover” book, in my opinion in both directions. I think a mature, well read pre-adolescent reader might like it, and there is some adult appeal here too, especially for fans of Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Susanna Clark, or Lev Grossman  (and no doubt others I’m forgetting). Snotty is a boy (or is he?) who lives a hard life in a rough neighborhood. On one fateful evening after completing a drug deal, Snotty falls down a rabbit hole.  From there, he undergoes a series of strange experiences and challenges and must decide, through his choices, whether to accept his destiny (and which version of his destiny is real).

Like Susanna Clark’s magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one of my favorite books, and many works by Nicholson Baker, Snotty Saves the Day features fictional footnotes that add another layer to the novel.  Author Tod Davies, through the voice of Prof. Devindra Vale, explains the history of a country called Arcadia, its long political conflict with neighboring Megalopolis, and the  history and cultural significance of fairy tales in the two places. Between Snotty’s adventures and the footnotes, several themes emerge.

Davies touches on assumptions about childhood, social standing, and gender, the importance of fantasy and fairy tales (and the lack of respect given to these), the nature of conflict, poverty’s impact on the imagination — all very Big Ideas. She explores habitual thought — the way we believe something because that’s what we’ve been told, rather than noticing what is right before our eyes.

But these themes are wrapped in wonders such as a mysterious 7th garden on a street with 6 houses,  soldier gnomes, giant teddy bears, magical castles, talking animals, and so forth.  What could have been simply “messagey” is a romp, and an original one at that.  When Snotty Saves the Day comes out in May, give it to a smart, precocious young person in your life, read it yourself, and see what kind of interesting conversation develops.

My effort to read poetry more regularly was aided by a wonderful reading at Gibson’s in February, part of the monthly series organized by Don Kimball and the Poetry Society of NH. Don brought the first two poets in the Hobblebush Granite State Poetry series to the store. Publisher (and fellow poet) Sid Hall introduced the poets, Charles Pratt and Becky Sakellariou.

Sakellariou’s book, Earth Listening is full of light and beauty, like Greece, where she’s spent much of her life and where many of these poems are set. One poem begins, “The words in my mouth/are the tides and sands/of the Ionian Sea.” Even poems set in New Hampshire are luminous landscapes. “Intermittent Observations” opens with, “The tangle of the autumn moon/licks the lines of the Contoocook River . . . .”

Earth Listening is full of poems tied to land and sky, sea, plants, earth. But it’s also a book filled with people, dead and alive. Sakellariou writes of the “women of my tribes,” of New England and Europe (besides Greece, she has spent time in Bulgaria and Albania). She writes of longing and love, of mystery and meaning, of faiths and of finding her way.  I found the poems in this collection prism-like — turn them one way, and you see one color, one pattern of light, turn them another, and some other bright gleam catches your eye.  In her poems I sense an old soul. She also writes sensuously of food, from paximadia after a funeral to luscious fruits, herbs, and a poem called, “The Avocado.”

Pratt’s book, From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, is different in style and sensibility, but equally enjoyable. Pratt slips rhyme and formalism into thoroughly contemporary work.  His use of structure and rhyme doesn’t impede the poems from falling naturally across the page or the tongue — he is usually so subtle and skilled in his use of form that it is an organic part of his writing.  Only one or two poems felt deliberately rhymed.

Many of the poems in this collection reflect Pratt’s many years tending his apple orchard in southern New Hampshire.  “November: Sparing the Old Apples,” for example, is about choosing not to cut down the old trees, which he describes as “Cracked urns of air, broken-winged umbrellas,/Black seabirds drying angular wings on a rock –”  Many of the poems describe the apple trees in interesting ways, as in “Interlude,”  which tells of a farmer sledding in the first snow, “While orderly ranks of apples stand appalled,/Black-robed widows, blurring with your speed . . . .”

One of my favorites is “Into Place,” which is about Pratt seeing the farm for sale and finding himself it’s new proprietor, “. . . something less than owner, more than guest. You fertilize and mow, attend the slow/Growth of apples readying for harvest,/And settle into place like leaves or snow,/Unfold like a letter delivered as addressed.”  That’s a really wonderful image.  I hear a koan or a bit of poetic philosophy — be at home where you are —  in those lines.

There are poems about marriage and family, memories and travel in this book, but the orchard poems stand out.  I think they exemplify Pratt’s quiet, lyrical skill. Sid Hall and Rodger Martin (whose book The Battlefield Guide I reviewed here last year) have done a marvelous job with the new series. The books are also beautifully designed, inside and out. I look forward to future volumes.

Last weekend I finished Margaret Roach’s lovely memoir, and I shall have some peace there: trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road. Roach is coming to Gibson’s on Tues., March 8, and I can’t wait to meet her. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It asks the questions Eat, Pray, Love meant to– what happens when a person is faced with enormous changes in social identity? How can a person be at peace in an uncertain world and during personal uncertainty? What about love, if you’re alone?

Roach asks more than she answers, and is honest about how messy it is to live with questions as your constant companions, to reflect, to work on becoming who you’re  meant to be. This memoir is light years wiser and smarter than other books I’ve read in this milieu.  In fact, my one quibble with Roach is that she doesn’t give herself enough credit.

She mentions more than once that she has an “incomplete education,” even though she worked for some of the most successful, far-reaching media companies around (the New York Times and Martha Stewart Omnimedia, to name two), she is widely read and has a deep and broad knowledge of the natural world and gardening.  She’s created her own blog, a way to garden, and The Sister Project. And the memoir is very much about her spritual/psychological/emotional seeking — she is very self-aware and has explored her own inner world more deeply than most people ever will.

It’s hard to say what I liked best about and I shall have some peace there. The fact that I can identify with many things Roach addresses (facing fears, seeking a genuine life, figuring out what that means, understanding oneself, finding a true identity beyond what you do and who you’re with, letting your inner cat person emerge after years of being a non-cat person), even though our lives are wildly disparate? The way that Roach writes both gracefully and deeply?  Her unique style, full of little asides to herself, that lends the book a one-woman-show feeling? Or the fantastic words she uses? (I kept a list in my journal: senescence, diapause, shamanic, liminal, crepuscular, volition)

Perhaps the summary is that this is a memoir and she keeps it personal, but Roach also writes in a way that trusts readers to be fellow travelers — she writes about big things she is working out, but understands that as human beings, we’re all on the same path in our own lives. There’s no “shock and awe” here, which to me is a terrible trend in memoirs. Roach writes in way that makes her feel like the friend you’ve lost touch with and are catching up with.

I’m going to be brief with the rest of the bookconscious household, because they were brief in their descriptions of what they read. One aside — I find the current cultural conversation about the “princessification” of girls very interesting, because one of my first bookconscious posts (from 2007, when Teen the Younger was only 10) concerned her frustration with Disney Princesses and her desire to read about strong girls (princesses or not).

That child is now Teen the Younger.  She recently marched into a salon with a copy of one of her favorite Manga, Gakuen Alice, opened it to a drawing of Hotaru, and told the stylist that’s how she wanted her hair. She’s had long hair most of her life, but had no doubts, no wavering. And no second guessing later. She didn’t get that from me! Did a steady diet of strong female characters in literature help her be confident in herself?

That’s probably not the only source of her strength, but it had to have helped. Still even though we’ve always talked to our kids about being aware that they’re being marketed to, she’s looking to pop culture to inform her style. Manga, instead of princesses, but someone else’s aesthetic. I worry that despite our precautions she’s over-exposed to commercialism. But I know she’s at an age where it’s common to try on style identities, and at least she’s choosing for herself.  I admire her decisiveness!

One of Teen the Younger’s favorite manga this month is Nabari No Ou.   She says it reminds her of another favorite, Naruto, except the story is more complex. The main character is a boy who discovers he has his village’s secret ninja technique inside him. Other villages have their own secret techniques. Rivalry and trouble ensues. At least, as near as I can tell from the bits she shared with me.

Teen the Elder finished Paul Johnson‘s Churchill. He really enjoyed Johnson’s language, which is true to my grandmother’s admonition to make sure that every word counts, with nothing left out and nothing extra.  He also reads an enormous amount of news — not only of the sports world, but current affairs. I can’t tell you how often I say, “did you hear . . . ” and he finishes the sentence with whatever breaking news I was about to discuss.

When he was younger he was into weather (which he still checks more frequently than I do), now it’s news as well. He likes to be informed, as did Churchill, who read multiple newspapers every day.  And what Teen can resist the idea of working from the comfort of one’s bed, another famous Churchill habit? Actually, this one. Even when he is sick, he has a hard time staying in bed.  But he did recommend that I work in bed when I was sick this month.

The Computer Scientist hit the graphic novels this month. He read V for Vendetta and Ghost In the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface. He says both of them are in depth stories with great illustrations. He was checking out dystopian tales since that seems to be Teen the Younger’s taste these days. He recently shared The Matrix and Inception with her, and Ghost In the Shell was one of the influences on the creators of The Matrix.  He likes trippy, philosophically complex stories — these stories and films explore human identity, consciousness, reality, and illusion. I think he’d love The Tiger’s Wife, which explores some of the same ideas.

One thing that makes us human is that hunger to know more, to understand more, to push our minds farther, to seek the existence and nature of our souls.  Books are not the only sustenance for this kind of hunger nor even other arts — I’d say nature, friendship, love, and spiritual practice are all food for seeking minds.  But without books, we’d surely be malnourished.

What’s on my to-read pile next? I’ve nearly through with Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell — very good history, with a tinge of smartly dressed humor. It reminds me of a Bill Bryson book; much denser than you expect given how much fun the author seems to be having. I look forward to meeting Sarah on March 24. I’ve also got Caitlin Shetterly‘s Made for You and Me and a thick stack of books coming out in April.  Another book I found at Ohstrom is Made for Goodness, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu.  I’ve been working my way through The Making of  a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology for a couple of years and the end is in sight, and I’ve also got Jeff Friedman‘s new collection, Working In Flour.

Too many books? Perhaps, but what sweet indulgence.

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