As I type I’m listening to leaves rustling outside the screened porch, watching my cat Maple, who is fully present to the susurrus and to myriad small sounds and movements I can’t even begin to notice. Susurrus, I learned last night from the OED, is “a low soft sound as of whispering,” which is what the trees are doing on this late September afternoon. I looked the word up when I came across it in Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which I am reading.
As I reflect on the books I read in September, another autumn leaves image comes to mind: scattered. So far no Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness theme comes to mind; perhaps the connections will be clearer as I write this post.
When the month began, I had a stack of eight library books and a son on an airplane, Teen The Elder. He is in Bolton, England for his gap year. Bookconscious readers may recall we sent him off with his own set of Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, hidden in his luggage for him to find. He wrote to me a couple of days ago that he’d finished re-reading The Hobbit and that it made him wish he was in the book, in the woods, living the story. Great books do that.
Few writers describe the earth shaking influence their reading has had on them with such passion and humilty as Pat Conroy. My in-laws gave me his book My Reading Life for my birthday; I’ve only read one Conroy novel, Beach Music, which I recommended my library book club read many years ago in Washington, when Teen the Younger was still a glimmer in my eye. The club hated it, and I was incapacitated with not-just-morning-sickness and missed the discussion and my chance to explain why I enjoyed Conroy’s writing: it’s passionate.
Conroy’s self-effacing honesty in My Reading Life is refreshing in a publishing superstar. He tells readers his every doubt and fear as a writer, which is sort of heartening to someone else who writes. His description of the books he’s read since childhood and the way they shaped him not only as a reader and writer but a human being is just a delight for a fellow bibliophile. And his admiration — even love — for the librarians, teachers, editors, bookstore owners, and sales reps. he’s met, as well as his appreciation of their influence (and his family’s) on his reading and writing life, are very entertaining.
He writes of them with the same honest appraisal he applies to himself: everyone in this book is whole, no one is perfect. I wished I could have visited The Old New York Book Shop in its heyday and the sections on Paris and Rome made me want to pack my bags. One minor quibble: the publisher could have included a reading list at the back of the book.
In the stack of library books I checked out as Teen the Elder was leaving were a number of British novels. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’d never read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, and I thought it was delightful. t’s a lovely little slice of pre-war England, brief but beautifully drawn.
I couldn’t get over the skillfulness with which Watson sketches the characters and tangles and untangles the hilarious plot in such a brief book (I read it in one evening). If you haven’t read it either, curl up with this book some night, and enjoy the coming to life of a failed governess who is suddenly thrust into a glamorous new circle of friends. Her touching surprise at being treated with kindness and appreciated as something other than a shabby middle aged woman is just a delight.
Written at about the same time, and also hilarious, is Evelyn Waugh‘s Scoop. Waugh’s humor is a little more biting, but just as Watson casts a spotlight on the socioeconomic troubles of being a down-on-her-luck woman in 1930’s London, Waugh shines a bright light on the vagaries of the press. I’m a big fan of novesl as social commentary, and I loved the sharp wit in Waugh’s tale of mistaken identity and foolishness among a band of foreign correspondents covering a “conflict” in an African country. Despite the fact that the newspaper sends the wrong man to get the scoop, he manages to do just that, unwittingly. I got a big kick out of Waugh’s innocent hero and the bumbling cast of characters who make the book a first class farce.
Alexander McCall Smith‘s humor is more along the lines of Alan Bennett or Jane Austen — he pokes fun at society but in a gentle way that feels more self-effacing than scathing. The prolific McCall Smith writes a number of different series, and in September I read the first book set in Corduroy Mansions, an apartment building in London occupied by people whose lives form the many narrative strands of the book. Another quick read, I appreciated the book for McCall Smith’s wit and eye for detail, and for the great humanity with which he portrays even the least empathetic of characters.
Another book of great humanity (maybe that’s the theme that connects my reading this month) is The Giver by Lois Lowry. I’m a huge fan of Number the Stars, which is an amazing story well told. Lowry was speaking at Gibson’s — hers was one the last events I set up before I left the events coordinator position — and I realized I’d never read The Giver. Teen the Younger is reading it too. It’s a very interesting story about a boy chosen to receive the memories of his people in a future where most of the population has no memories and only carefully managed feelings, by design.
Lowry explained when she spoke that she follows her curiosity when she writes: she notices something or wonders about something, and writes her way to understanding or answering. Many writers talk about this as their process, but I think it’s rare that a writer’s talent in shaping words into living breathing characters and compelling stories is paired with Lowry’s terrific imagination and enormous capacity for capturing the essentials of humanity. Bad things happen in her books, but strong, courageous, smart characters deal with these wrongs, and Lowry gives children the power to be those talented agents of change.
Max Barry is another author who explores both the limits of evil in his book Jennifer Government. Barry reminds me of Jasper Fforde in some ways, perhaps because Jennifer Government, like Thursday Next, is an agent unafraid of working slightly outside of operational standards to nail her bad guys. Also like FForde, Barry gleefully skewers corporations, greed, the shallowness of consumer culture, and the absurdity of the advertising world. In the world of Jennifer Government, your surname is the place you work, everyone belongs to one or another shoppers’ loyalty plans, and only a few counter-cultural types care that the world is more or less run by corporate giants and the NRA. It’s a rollicking read; one thing I wished is that I got to know the characters a little better.
An author whose books plumb the absolute depth and breadth of her characters’ humanity, baring every foible, every wound, until she exposes the core goodness beneath slightly cracked but stolid exteriors is Jane Gardam. I am absolutely in awe of her powers. I read God On the Rocks last winter, and thought it was magnificent. In September I read Old Filth and The Man In the Wooden Hat and I think Gardam accomplishes in two short volumes what it takes Anthony Powell twelve books to say in A Dance to the Music of Time. (Not that I discount the beauty, majesty, and genius of this great work — I am just saying Gardam is absolutely as good and these two books blew me away).
I’d really recommend you read Old Filth and God On the Rocks together, because they are parts of a whole story of the marriage of Sir Edward Feathers, a raj-orphan (child of parents serving the Empire in Asia, shipped to England as a very small boy to be schooled) and Betty Feathers, who survived the occupation of Hong Kong during WWII. Gardam’s novels capture their marriage in large and small details, their friendships, their tragedies, their indiscretions. The books are also a portrait of those faithful servants of the British Empire who matured in the post-war years as everything they knew, everything they’d been raised to inherit and rule, was changing.
As with all great literature, the beauty of Gardam’s books is that you don’t have to be a part of the culture she’s talking about to identify with these characters, to admire and love them, to find yourself sympathizing tremendously. One thing that’s especially remarkable about this pair of novels is that I found myself ultimately siding with both Edward and Betty, if there was any side-taking. And Gardam repeats some scenes in the both books, from different perspectives, so I wonder if in fact she too was rooting for both of them and felt she needed to tell both stories?
Another hallmark of a great book for me is that not only are the main characters alive as I read, but also the minor characters. These books are filled with an intriguing supporting cast, and even when a character appears only briefly, Gardam makes him or her walk right off the page into your mind’s eye. The range of human experience and emotion she covers is amazing — family identity and expectation, social standing, national and cultural identity, post-war and then post-modern cultural change, the influence of early childhood in shaping the psyche, longing to belong, longing for love, the jumble of love and commitment and duty and habit that is a long marriage, maternal instinct or its lack, friendship and rivalry, the impact of retirement and old age, the quirky criss-cross and parallel ramblings of shared memories. I simply loved these books.
I also loved a poetry book I read this month: Happy Life by David Budbill. I reviewed Budbill’s previous collection, Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse last spring. He is one of my favorite poets, and the new collection is wonderful. Budbill is the perfect model for my ideal of a life learner; his life and work as he writes about it are seamless, he is learning all the time, his work on the mountain homestead he has made for himself informs his work as a writer, his study influences the work he chooses to do. These poems describe a happy life lived in harmony and balance.
There is much to love in this collection. I sent this poem to my faraway son the week of 9/11: “Everything” after 9/11/21001 –“Milkweed pods/cracked open/seeds dishevel/fall/ Everything/ sweeter and/more fragile/now.” So true and beautiful and simple. I also really admire the spareness of “A Certain Slant of Light” — “A certain slant/of light/ this time of year says more than/color in the hills/or chill air/that fall/is here.”
In the NH Writers’ Project Book Club for Poets we discussed Kay Ryan’s work, and our moderator, Martha Carlson-Bradley, commented that it takes a good deal of bravery to write poems with few words. The sounds, colors, sensations, and sensibility of Budbill’s poems far outweigh the number of words. Budbill writers longer poems as well — I enjoyed “Summer Blues” and “Three Days In New York: A Blues In B♭,” which are two of the longest poems in this book. But I feel a real connection with something essential in the shorter poems, as if Budbill has excavated the core of what poetry is.
Also this month, I read a book that gets to the core of what makes us human: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I read this in order to participate in 1book140. I have to admit, as much as a love the idea of a Twitter-wide book club, I found it hard to engage in conversation in that medium. But it was serendipitous that I read the book anyway, because I discovered that the Hooksett Public Library’s book club was discussing it on the same night that Teen the Younger wanted to go to their anime club. The club’s discussion of Skloot’s book was fascinating, more so because a woman who works in a lab brought in catalogs of cells lines and showed us numerous photos of HeLa cells. I really enjoyed the conversation and plan to go back to the book club.
As for the book itself, I was torn. It’s a story I’d never heard — that one poor black woman’s cells are responsible for the success of countless medical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to AIDS research, and that her family was unaware her cells were taken and cultivated. Skloot tells that portion of the book well.
Some of the family story is so harsh and difficult, and both the book club and the Twitter group felt that The Immortal Life occasionally went too far in exposing the family’s tragedies — the scientist in the book club disagreed and saw the book as the story of the humanity behind the cells. I don’t know if Skloot went too far or if it just was beyond my own comfort level. I do think the book exposes very important social justice and ethical issues.
Finally to the book that lent a word to my post title this month: Gilead. Ever since hearing Paul Harding talk about his deep admiration for Marilynne Robinson and her influence on him, I’ve been wanting to read her work, and this was on the library shelf. I found it entrancing — her prose is serious and also very lovely, even transcendent, I would say. If you don’t know the story, the book is written from the perspective of John Ames, a minister who has been told he doesn’t have long to live and is writing to his seven year old son.
He writes about his love for the boy and his mother, the surprise he felt at having a family after many years as a widower, his lifelong friendship with another minister named Boughton, the history of Gilead, Iowa, and of his family, and the powerful and strange relationship he has had with Boughton’s son Jack. During the course of writing this long letter to his boy, Jack returns to Gilead, and Ames tries to reconcile his feelings with the realities of Jack’s life, to decide how much and when to share Jack’s troubled past with his young wife, and to determine why Jack has come home and why he is going away again.
Robinson fills the book with scripture, theology, history, philosophy, and the stark, simple beauty of the small prairie town she’s created. It’s an unbelievably deep read — one to be savored slowly. I found myself re-reading some passages immediately, and turning back to others when I took the book up again the next day. I also copied down a number of words in my poetry journal: susurrus, irrefrragable, crepuscular, disjunction, unreposeful, covetise. Looking back over the book, I’d say it’s not just word choice but cadence, sentence structure, sound, that make this prose so special. I would love to hear it read aloud.
Besides The Giver and assorted manga, Teen the Younger is reading a book about Japanese history and culture, A Geek In Japan, by Hector Garcia. This is an interesting book because it was a bestseller in Spain, and now it’s been translated into eight languages. It’s a Spanish ex-pat’s view of Japan. She’s also reading a “business history” of Nintendo called Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, by Jeff Ryan. In September she took part in the Southeast Review’s Young Writers’ Regimen, which looked like so much fun that I signed up for the adult version for October.
The Computer Scientist recently suggested he was going to dismantle the entire teetering pile of books on his nightstand and start fresh. He is reading Steig Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So far he’s enjoying it.
Up next? I’m spoiled for choices. Tune in next month to see which titles floated to the top of my pile.