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Archive for August, 2011

It’s been very busy in the bookconscious house, and changes are afoot. Many of you know that Teen the Elder is getting ready to leave for his gap year.  We had an unexpected (in timing, expense, and fun) trip to New York last week to get his visa. We’re down to a month or so before he leaves, and suddenly the brevity of our time as a family of four is stark.

As if that wasn’t enough tumult, I’ve accepted a new job, and will be returning to the library world. It’s a part time reference job, with hours mainly at night, so I’ll have my days free for Teen the Younger and her life learning adventures. Hopefully, I’ll also return to more disciplined writing time. I’m very excited — libraries have been among my favorite places all my life, and reference is my favorite aspect of librarianship.

In the midst of all of this upheaval, I found myself reading books about the normalcy of transition in human experience. If anything stays the same, it’s change. Ubiquitous as it may be, change is something many of us don’t handle all that well. The books I read this month introduced me to people (real and imagined) in the throes of personal and societal change, which was oddly comforting as I faced major changes myself.

When I signed off last month I was reading Kosher Chinese, a delightful memoir by Michael Levy about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Bookconscious regulars know I am a big admirer of Peter Hessler, whose first book, River Town was also a Peace Corps memoir set in China. Levy’s book is quite different, but also wonderful.

I was struck by Levy’s perceptive commentary on the struggle of  “China’s other billion,” the people he met in the heartland of China in the mid 2000’s. It’s a poignant look at the universal need for something to believe in, someone to share life’s ups and downs with. It’s an interesting meditation on personal and cultural identity in the midst of change — not only Levy’s immersion in Chinese culture, but also his Chinese friends’ various struggles to find their places in a country where change is constant.

I’ll admit up front one reason I admired Kosher Chinese is that Levy pays tribute to his mother. Anyone who writes fondly of his mother is alright by me. But I also liked that Levy wrote from a fresh perspective, not about factory workers or migrants or cmmunists (although all got a nod) but about ordinary Chinese in an area the West doesn’t pay much attention to, who are not really sure whether “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”  will make their lives better.

His experiences eating strange foods,dealing with new living conditions, playing basketball, leading (at his Chinese friends’ insistence) a Jewish club, and playing Santa at a Chinese Wal-mart are both hilarious and thoughtful. Read Kosher Chinese and you’ll learn something about China, and also about humanity.  Levy is honest about his desire to help his friends and also about the ineffectiveness of most of his efforts to intervene in their lives.

Peace Corps work is somewhat passive activism — hard work, to be sure, but volunteers are meant to promote peace and friendship and foster understanding, not foment change. A very intense book-length poem I read this month, One With Others, by C.D. Wright, examines a more active agitator, a white woman in civil rights era Arkansas, who joined a black protest march and ended up losing her comfortable life in a small town.   The poem’s language shifts from delicate, patterned, “poetic” sections to others that are more fragmented, improvisational. I’m usually a fan of short poetic forms, but this book won me over to the possibilities of length.

One With Others is elegaic, sometimes stark, often beautiful. But it’s also a deep reflection on the idea of universal human values; do we have them? If so why do some people fail to see them, perpetrating horrible hardships or even violence against the “other,” as we’ve seen throughout history, and continue to see in the news every day? What makes someone reject that “otherness” in a close knit community and walk firmly on the side of “one?”  The poem doesn’t offer answers so much as opportunity to reflect on these ideas, and on the life of the unlikely, imperfect heroine V., who in real life was Margaret Kaelin McHugh.

Speaking of unlikely heroes, when was the last time you considered decorative hermits? Author Steve Himmer‘s The Bee-Loud Glade is a novel whose narrator is silent for most of the book. When he spoke at Gibson’s last week Himmer said that was the challenge he set himself, writing from the point of view of someone who couldn’t speak, and when he came across information about decorative hermits he knew he was on to something.

This novel has many things I love — social commentary, dystopian references, a very original story, and philosophical overtones. Finch, the hermit, is a “brand awareness manager” — he writes fake blogs to sell people on Second Nature Modern Greenery fake plants, until a new “submanager” at his company figures out he’s just making up stories all day and fires him.

After “weeks on the couch doing nothing,” he responds to an online job ad without really knowing what the job is.  He’s chauffered in a limo to meet Mr. Crane, a super rich businessman (or in today’s parlance, a job creator) who explains he wants a hermit for his gardens.  Finch takes the job.

The entire book is about Finch’s efforts to “meet it and live it” as Thoreau wrote, making the best of his life even when things look miserable.  I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that at first Finch is a passive agent, dealing with change only by following routines and instructions.  Outsiders — some known, some mysterious and perhaps even figments of his imagination — direct his choices. Eventually, through Finch’s own revelations as well as external circumstances, he comes to understand his life as more than a string of actions and responses.

The Bee-Loud Glade is an entertaining read that examines self-reliance in a world that values instant gratification, and looks at our idea of “nature” in a time when people see animals on a screen more often than outside.  Several contemporary themes impact the book’s characters: globalization, the gulf between executives and workers, financial excess, the influence of marketing, hubris in molding the natural world to our purposes. Himmer writes well, his book is thought provoking, and he leaves readers with much to ponder.  Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this novel.

I read Himmer’s book, as well as David Schmahmann’s latest, last month because they were coming to Gibson’s to read. Frederick Reiken joined them, and read from his book, Day For Night, a 2010 LA Times book prize finalist for fiction. This was the most complicated of the three novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like Schmahmann and Himmer, Reiken writes beautifully, and he provides a complex, intriguing story, told through ten first person narratives.

You read that right: ten. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve read many other books told from different points of view and few are as deftly managed as this one. Reiken also makes each intersecting life rich in detail: there is a chapter in which a woman discovers her newly purchased house is full of toxic mold, and another in which a mysterious woman rescues a young man who is a victim of ritual abuse; still another character is determined to figure out what happened to her father, one of a group of 500 Jewish intellectuals who disappeared in Kovno, Lithuania during WWII; two other chapters deal with marine biology and desert zoology.  Another character is a Jungian analyst.

Reiken told listeners at Gibson’s that many of the pieces of information he used in the book came to him through life experiences — he has a background in biology, his wife worked with ritual abuse victims, he once had a house full of toxic mold.  Other information he came across and wanted to wrestle with, like the true story of the 500 Jewish intellectuals.  He also told us that one editor asked if he could change the book to a straightforward 3rd person point of view.  I’m very glad he held fast to his vision.

Day for Night is not hard to follow, but it is delightfully shadowy; the links between the many characters are for readers to discover. Reiken could have made things more obvious as he went along — in fact it must have been a little tempting to write the equivalent of “See? See how it all fits?!”   But as he draws the book together, the pleasure of untangling and analyzing connections falls entirely to the reader.

Interestingly, he set the book in a pre-email, texting, messaging, cell phone world, where the characters work things out mostly on paper and in person, not on computers. As they do, as they draw closer to long wondered-about truths, as they confront the unfolding mysteries of their lives, there is none of the sense of hyper-driven news cycles of today, none of the frenzy of the internet. It’s kind of a novel about slow communication.

Day For Night also presents a group of characters who are living with the aftermath of war, occupation, and displacement; in a few cases they have had direct experience, but in others they are the children and grandchildren of a generation of refugees and victims of war. It was interesting to read Outcasts United after this novel.  Author Warren St. John moved to Atlanta to document the lives of a number of refugee families in Clarkston, Georgia, and to profile a woman who is making a marked impact in their lives through soccer.

I’d read the beginning of the book last winter, and skimmed some other sections, as Concord Reads was choosing this year’s community wide read. We ended up choosing Outcasts United, and I am very much looking forward to leading a brown bag discussion of the book as part of our programming.  I’ve been a volunteer with the local refugee resettlement agency, and I think St. John does a good job of outlining the challenging issues facing refugees and the people tasked with helping them start over in America.

But that’s not entirely what Outcasts United is about. It’s mostly about a truly remarkable woman, Luma Mufleh, who accidentally became one of the most effective advocates in Clarkston for young refugees, through her passion for soccer. The book follows Luma and some of her players, describing the horrors they’ve left behind and those they are still facing, even in their new home.

St. John is clearly sympathetic to his subjects, and I imagine that some of the residents of Clarkston are probably not thrilled at the way their town appears in the book. Having lived in a small town in Georgia myself, I recognized the forces at work in Clarkston — longstanding tradition, conservative (in the sense of resisting change, not in the political sense) values, provincialism, cronyism, and plain old inexperience with other cultures, along with a dose of intolerance (racial, cultural, and/or religious) from some residents. And yet, right alongside, some willingness to embrace the “other” and to improvise in ways that small towns often do.

The boys on Luma’s soccer teams will break your heart, as will their families’ stories.  In January’s post I wrote about Caroline Moorhead’s excellent book Human Cargo, so I was familiar with much of what the refugee population is escaping. But as with any conflict, the individual situations magnify the horror of the whole, and St. John definitely helps readers see what these children are dealing with.

On top of their pasts, many of them face violence, discrimination, continuing poverty, and family separation even once they are safely resettled in the U.S., and they tend to have much more responsibility than their schoolmates, watching younger children, cooking meals, and interpreting for their parents. Luma believes that responsibility is good for them and will help them survive, and she offers tough love and mandatory tutoring, as well as firm coaching and plenty of running.

Ultimately Outcasts United is about the Fugees, as her teams are known, and Luma’s enormous work, establishing the teams, getting them equipped, finding somewhere for them to play, working out the many small logistical problems any sports club must work out. But it’s also about her completely selfless dedication to the families she gets to know. And about Clarkston’s growing pains, and the individuals who try to maintain the status quo, as well as those who see change and go out to “meet it and live it.”

One issue I have with the book is that some of these small town heroes and villains seem a bit predictable and “stock” — but in fairness to St. John, I have no way of knowing if I would feel that way if I hadn’t met some people very much like them during my own time in Georgia.  He may also have simply gotten to know Luma and her players better than he did the townspeople; I think Luma in particular comes across as a much more multi-dimensional character in the book. At any rate, there is much to discuss, especially in light of New Hampshire’s own struggle to absorb refugees into small communities.

Finally, as stress relief around the time I was interviewing for a new job and working with Teen the Elder on the highly convoluted student visa application process, I decided I needed a nice thick novel. At the recommendation of a fellow Gibson’s staff member, I chose Kate Morton‘s The Distant Hours. I read The Forgotten Garden two winters ago, and enjoyed that. The Distant Hours was also an entertaining read.

The characters are appealing, and the story deals with the main character learning some unexpected things about her mother’s wartime experiences and girlhood. There’s a bit of a mystery, some of it literary, and there’s a moldering old castle where three elderly sisters keep secrets from the world and each other.  The Distant Hours is a good read, and another look at the way World War II disrupted lives and plans, and impacted families even beyond the generations that lived during those times.

All of the reading I did about people facing great challenges and difficulties coupled with all the news lately — drought in the U.S., famine in Africa, continuing high rates of unemployment, austerity measures in Greece and elsewhere, the debt debate — made me feel fortunate, if not downright privileged. The Computer Scientist and I and the Teens are healthy, safe, and secure. We are able to send Teen the Elder off into the world to have a gap year before college. We were able to treat the family to a mini vacation in New York while securing his visa.

While there, Teen the Younger took the Computer Scientist to some of her favorite places from our last trip, such as Forbidden Planet near Union Square, and we saw a couple of fantastic shows: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and War Horse (such bookconscious shows — How to Succeed is about a young man who gets ahead in part by reading a book, and War Horse is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo).  We also got to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that has been one of the hottest attractions in New York this summer: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Teen the Younger was thoroughly impressed, even though we had to squeeze through the packed galleries. Teen the Elder also enjoyed the exhibit. The Computer Scientist waited on a bench. We managed to avoid the two hour wait by getting a membership to the Met, but that got the member (me) and two additional guests into the exhibit ahead of the line.  I had every intention of bringing The Computer Scientist in after I took the kids in (as recommended by a Met staffer), but that proved impossible, as it took us two hours to wind our way through.  He didn’t mind, and Teen the Younger asked for the exhibit book, which is amazing, and which provides the Computer Scientist a look at what we saw.

Teen the Younger continues to read manga. Lately it’s been Vampire Knight, although thanks to cuts to the NH State Library budget, she has recently been waiting over two weeks for the next book in the series to arrive at our branch via the state’s inter-library van service.  I asked her last night what she thinks of them (she’s read about ten of the series so far).  I was taken aback by her response: she said that the story is on the boring side, the characters are a little “twilightish” (although she hasn’t read the Twilight series, she knows of them and says this is not a compliment), that other than the main character, they haven’t got much personality and are apathetic.

When I asked why on earth she is continuing to read them, especially in light of the difficulty we are having in getting the next book, she said she likes the art. Considering how much time she spends drawing and how absorbed she was in the Alexander McQueen exhibit, I am not surprised that this would be appealing enough for her to slog though the stories.  I am also impressed that she is a critical reader. But I hope she enjoys a good read soon. Her brother suggested she read Tolkien, and I saw her with The Hobbit the other day.

Teen the Elder spent the first part of the month slogging through something else entirely — visa application documentation. Once we presented ourselves at the consulate in NYC to complete the process, we learned that many of his fellow applicants had spent even more time (or their parents had) reading the minutia of bureaucratic policy guidance. Or, as Teen the Elder himself put it, “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a room full of worry.”  Turns out in retrospect we’d guessed properly when the directions seemed confusing or obscure, and he easily obtained his visa. And that it’s not us, the directions are indeed confusing and obscure.

For graduation, his sister presented him with several books on British English and UK culture. He’s reading Rules Britannia, by Toni Summers Hargis and periodically amuses us with language  he’s culled from his dictionaries of Britishisms, such as “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”  This is now on my desktop, as The Computer Scientist used the phrase in the “OK Go x Philobus All Is Not Lost video dance messenger” and then saved it as a screen shot. If you have no idea what I am talking about, take the link (I believe you have to be in the Chrome browser to make it work) and enter your own phrase.   Although you are welcome to try “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”

The Computer Scientist has been reading slowly this summer; it’s hot, for one thing, and he’s awfully busy, for another. But he’s really enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks. He says that he’s very impressed with the research that went into the book, and the depth, given that Brooks is also cranking out punditry several times a week.

On my to-read piles?  I’ve started The Man Who Loved China, by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Simon Winchester. It’s actually on loan to me from my father, who recommended it. I set it aside to read a couple of library books I’d requested, including 22 Britannia Road, which I heard about during my job interview.

So far I’m enjoying both of those. There are any number of books stacked beside my bed and next to my desk and near my favorite chair that I have been meaning to read and haven’t yet.  On my desk, there is a list of books friends have recommended, and a pile of clippings from reviews I found appealing. It’s one of the things that doesn’t change, thankfully — there are always too many good books to choose from. I hope you’ll check back here at bookconscious and share them with me.

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