If any of you read my new blog The Nocturnal Librarian you know October saw the bookconscious household hosting the Computer Scientist’s aunt and uncle, who are English. We tried to give them a real taste of New England, with a day in Boston, a drive to Mt. Kearsarge (Rollins State Park in Warner offers quite a vista of the surrounding hills, lakes and towns), a trip to Nubble light house at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and shorter jaunts around our town. New England really is beautiful in every season, fall being perhaps the most spectacular.
It’s also touts itself as the birthplace of America — the country, but also the idea, of freedom from tyrrany. As we visited Boston I was reading Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. Seeing the Freedom Trail sites with British relatives got me thinking about the way history changes entirely depending on the lens through which you view it. Blum considers that idea in her novel.
Those Who Save Us is the story of a German American history professor, Trudy, and her mother, Anna. At the beginning of the book, Trudy’s father has died; you immediately sense her strained relationship with Anna, and as the book unfolds you learn why Anna is so taciturn. Blum alternates between Anna’s story and Trudy’s efforts to understand German war experiences generally, and her mother in particular.
Anna’s wartime life included a forbidden love affair with a Jewish doctor, his imprisonment around the time of her pregnancy, and work in a bakery and with the German resistance. After the baker is killed on a mission, the Obersturmfuhrer from Buchenwald begins visiting Anna, making her his mistress. Trudy wonders how Germans could live with what the Nazis were doing, and is haunted by fleeting memories of a Nazi visiting her mother. Anna stays utterly silent about with what she did in order to stay alive and feed Anna, about Anna’s real father, and all she lost during the war. As the novel progresses, Blum deftly illustrates how history is not only a meta-narrative but millions of personal stories, each hinging on individual circumstances. I enjoyed it very much.
Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, looks at a different historical time and place: a derelict neighborhood in 19060’s Boston. The title character’s views on the bookstore he lives above, the brilliant but troubled writer he befriends, and the deteriorating neighborhood about to be bulldozed in the name of stamping out urban blight is unique because Firmin is a rat. Savage manages to make this lowly creature a truly empathetic character, one who ponders human nature, cruelty, beauty, and the meaning of a well lived life. Oh, and he can read, and educates himself by reading his way through the shop, as well as observing people.
It’s a tragicomedy about literature, friendship, and how to live, and if you’re in doubt you should just read it and see for yourself. Yes, Firmin is a rat, but he’s also one of the most imaginative, self-aware, thoughtful characters I’ve come across in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am grateful to Poets & Writers magazine’s profile of Savage in the September issue, where I learned about his work. I hope to track down his other books, all published by Coffee House Press.
A co-worker at Regina Library talks about what he’s reading with me, and when I was explaining I like books that entertain while also probing Big Ideas he asked if I’d ever read The Prophet byKhalil Gibran. I hadn’t, so he lent me his copy. Given its wild popularity, I figured I should see for myself why people seem to love it or hate it.
I fell somewhere in the middle. I admire the idea: it’s a book of philosophical prose poems, told from the point of view of a man who is leaving a place of exile to return to his homeland. He’s clearly beloved by people in his adopted country, and they seek his wisdom before he departs. So from a literary point of view, combining a story with philosophy told in poetic language and a creative form is interesting. Some of the book is quite beautiful.
But I read a biographical piece on Gibran in the New Yorker that made me question whether he was a genius as so many believe or an egomaniac. So it was hard to take the book at face value after that. Read as interesting literature, rather than spiritual wisdom, I liked The Prophet; that said, there are worse things than to try to live by principles gleaned from a book, no matter the ego of the author.
Another author who interfered with my enjoyment of his book was Florent Chauvouet. His book, Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhood is visually amazing. His hand-drawn maps and sketches of people and places around Tokyo are whimsical and engaging. But readers should note it’s a book by a person who came to Japan for six months and clearly took issue with some aspects of Japanese life. Which is his prerogative — and maybe I would have some of the same feelings if I were to live there — but not what I want to read. Maybe I’m just being crank. The Computer Scientist loved this book, and he’s actually been to Japan a few times.
I visited two other countries via books in October: France and Iran. Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a fascination with Iran; it’s a place with a rich culture and history, but its people have really lost out in the leadership lottery. One regime after another has made modern Iran hell for at least some of the people, all of the time. Politics aside, it’s a shame, because there is so much to love about Persian literature, art, and food. I’ve learned to love Iranian culture mostly through memoirs.
Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart In an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan is a memoir deeply interested in Iran’s food. Bijan is a chef who knew growing up that cooking was her passion. Her parents, a doctor and a nurse who were both larger than life characters who worked tirelessly to help their patients, had to flee Iran at the time of the Revolution. In America, Bijan’s father was daunted by the prospect of becoming a doctor all over again in his 60’s and eventually returned to Iran to re-open his hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse in California and supported Bijan’s dream of training in France to become a chef.
The family’s stories are fascinating, and Bijan tells them well, while also examining her own path in light of her family history. Like other good memoirs, Maman’s Homesick Pie is much more than a family narrative. Bijan explores cultural identity, the role of women in her two countries, marriage, and finding one’s true calling in life.
The book did make me hungry; Bijan includes recipes, which I haven’t tried. She cooked for Bono and his wife when they visited her San Francisco with their baby many years ago. How cool is that? Her descriptions of French restaurant life are fascinating as well; her own story is sort of a memoir within a memoir.
Speaking of France, I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody. This book quietly grew on me. If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens. As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.
Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.
I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.” Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”
In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.
Another novel that takes a hard look at “knowing why” is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, the author of Mudbound. This twist on The Scarlet Letter is set in a dystopian future America where conservative religious leaders have taken power in the wake of terror attacks and a rampant STD scourge that has left many women barren. Our heroine, Hannah, is convicted of having an abortion, refuses to name the man who got her pregnant (her mega-church pastor), and is sentenced to being a “red” — she is “chromed” or genetically altered to turn her skin red, which marks her as a murderer.
The book reads like a thriller, in which Hannah and a friend she meets in prison are rescued from a cultish religious vigilante group by another cultish group who run a sort of Underground Railroad to spirit women like them to Canada. Jordan makes it more emotionally complicated than straight up good versus evil though, as Hannah grows out of her sheltered upbringing into a thinking, questioning adult.
The people Hannah meets do occasionally veer into stock characters: her rescuers speak French, which it seems to me is a little too caricatured of sneering at American politics; a spoiled wealthy southern white man in a grand old house is a turncoat; an Episcopal priest representative of the “Via Media” offers Hannah shelter in a storm.
This is a small quibble though, and may be my own perspective. Overall, I couldn’t put down When She Woke. Jordan addresses important questions of personal conduct and public approbation, and the danger of dominant culture or even the government in expressing public sentiment. She also champions critical thinking and individual actions, and examines how morality and belief can morph into extremism, especially when people are scared, uneducated, or both. In fact, one of the important themes of When She Woke is that mature belief grows as much from questions as from accepted truths.
Collecting personal statements of belief for public reading, listening, and discussion, is the fascinating work of This I Believe.org. In October I read This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ahead of the What Do you Believe? event at Regina Library next week. First year students at Rivier read this book as part of their entry into college life, and the college Writing and Resource Center is co-sponsoring the event. I love the idea of a community read that has a writing component.
This I Believe II, like all of the organization’s books, is a collection of essays from all kinds of people — young, old, men, women, successful, struggling, famous, unknown — about their personal philosophies. The essays examine belief in everything from the Golden Rule to baking. I tried reading some of the essays aloud, but the Computer Scientist pointed out they are much better heard in the voices of the people who wrote them. You can listen or read on the website, or subscribe to the podcast.
Either way, it’s heartening to know that so many people have spent time considering their deeply held beliefs and writing them down, and thousands have shared those personal manifestos. Some of the beliefs are easy to understand, others are not. Some contradict each other. I made a list of favorites from this volume; I hope to re-read them and think about why those ideas resonated with me. Maybe I’ll write my own essay some day. It would probably start with “I believe in reading.”
Or maybe, “I believe in poetry.” I attended a talk on some themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came after a screening of Answer This! and a Q&A with Professor Ralph Williams (who acted in the film) and director Christopher Farah. Prof. Williams told the audience that beauty and the ravages of time were much on the minds of Elizabethans, but that even as we live longer today, beauty can serve the same purposes: to perpetuate love, and to help us deal evil. Reading poetry is one of the best ways I know of unplugging from the world’s bad news; some of my favorite poets address what’s evil or unpleasant head on.
Maxine Kumin’s poems on torture, for example. Or, in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Marie Howe‘s poems that face inequality (“The Star Market,” “What We Would Give Up,” domestic violence (“Non-Violence” and “The Tree Fort”) and terrorism (“Non-violence 2”). She writes with searing beauty, she writes of horrible things; these are not mutually exclusive. I heard Howe on Fresh Air, where she addressed writing about grief and loss, and checked for her work at the library that night.
Howe’s poems on faith are some of my favorites. “Easter” imagines Jesus re-entering his own broken body: “And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill./ He came into it two ways:/ From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants./ And from the center — suddenly all at once.” Wow. Have you ever even tried to imagine this? I hadn’t.
“Prayer” may be the simplest, most direct explanation of the human tendency to avoid opening ourselves to the divine and mysterious I’ve read in any form. “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath/ Why do I flee from you?/ My days and nights pour through me like complaints/and become a story I forgot to tell.”
And “Annunciation,” from a sequence called “Poems From the Life of Mary” describes motherhood’s jolting, almost unbearable essence: “a tilting within myself;” Mary is “only able to endure it by being no one and so/ specifically myself I thought I’d die/from being loved like that.”
A poetry professor at Rivier had the library staff pull a variety of poetry books to keep handy on a cart for students. I had just finished Howe’s book and heard Prof. Williams discuss sonnets and I was hungry for more poetry. So I browsed the cart.
Also, it was the Thursday before Halloween (Thursdays already being slow in the library, due to something called Thirsty Thursday which, as the mother of future college students, I don’t want to think about.) I read a fantastic book, Linda Pastan‘s Traveling Light, in one sitting. I love this book, I cannot believe I’ve made it to this point in my life without reading Linda Pastan, I want to go back and read every single poems she’s ever written.
Ever have that kind of reaction to an author? I scribbled notes as I read, marking both sides of a sheet of scrap paper at the reference desk. Lines I loved. Poems that struck me.
Such as: “In the end we are no more than our own stories:/ mine a few brief passages in the Book,/no further trace of plot or dialogue” from a poem called “Eve on Her Deathbed.” The poem goes on to trace Eve’s remembrances.
“Lilacs,” blew me away in part because a poem I was working on last week includes lilacs, as does another poem of mine, “Remembering Lilacs.” Pastan writes more beautifully what I know to be true of these flowers: “their leaves as heart-shaped/as memory itself.”
Pastan looks to the color of spring with both hope and bittersweet acceptance of time and its ravages of beauty in “April.” “A whole new freshman class/ of leaves has arrived/ on the dark twisted branches/ we call our woods, turning/ green now — color of/ anticipation. In my 76th year,/ I know what time and weather/ will do to every leaf.”
She takes a patiently humorous view of age in “Q & A” — a student in the poem asks “Did you write/your Emily Dickinson poem/because you like her work,/ or did you know her personally?” and Pastan writes of the audience’s laughter, the girl’s embarrassment, and her own response: “Surprise, like love, can catch/ our better selves unawares./ ‘I’ve visited her house,’ I said./ ‘I may have met her in my dreams.'”
I could go on and on — my notes include admiration for Pastan’s bold use of rhyme in “Bronze Bells of Autumn” and “Ash.” For the questions she opens up in “In the Har-Poen Tea Garden,” and “The Flood, 2005.” For the gorgeous “In the Forest,” which tells why poetry heals a broken world, because it gives us words to “Praise what is left.” My advice? Find this book and read it.
Tonight I will no doubt stay up too late, because I’m reading one of those novels I wish I could actually be in, even though it’s full of war and hardship: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I’ve written about Hoffman’s ability to create characters I’d like to know before: her book The Red Garden was one of my favorite reads last year.
Doverkeepers is a page-turning saga. It’s the story of several women who have made their ways to Masada around 71 C.E., when the Romans have destroyed the Temple and Jews have fled Jerusalem. Hoffman tells each woman’s story, weaving their lives together so that the reader feels a part of the circle. As in many of her other books, there is a magical aspect to the story, but this is also a historical novel and there is an incredible amount of rich sensory detail that makes the time and place come alive.
I received this book as a review copy before I left the bookstore, and the word was that this is Hoffman’s “big book.” It certainly goes to the heart of many ideas present in other books of hers that I’ve read, with a depth and grace that surpasses her earlier work. That said, I haven’t read all of her books. Identity, family, faith, transformation, love — this book explores Big Ideas even as Hoffman tells stories that entrance not only for their imaginative power, but the sense of Truth in the voices of these women.
If I had to boil down what The Dovekeepers is about, I’d say it’s the story of being a woman. Together the protagonists represent a composite of all the roles women have filled over the centuries and in many ways still do, even in a world far different than that of first century Judea. Well, hang on; terrorism, violence, inequality, poverty, religious intolerance, culture wars, famine, drought and flooding, environmental degradation, invasions, world powers dominating smaller nations with their military and economic might, gender stereotyping, fear for the future. Maybe things aren’t so different in some ways.
Speaking of things that are the same: it’s November, so I am NaNoWriMo-ing. I’ve done this before (four times, in fact) but took last year off. I wasn’t going to try to squeeze writing 50,000 words in a month into my life this year either, but two things changed my mind. First, I wrote about NaNoWriMo over at my other blog and remembered all the reasons it’s brilliant. Second, I read this article on simplifying. I cut some RSS feeds from my Google Reader, and decided there were other ways I could trim excess from my schedule.
Plus, I had some time yesterday evening, between a staff meeting and my reference desk shift, to write. So I dove in and came up for air 5,057 words later. I’m off and writing. It’s exhilarating to be working on a big messy project, when I usually work in the tight constraints of line breaks and poetic forms.
The Computer Scientist started reading a large messy book recently, or so it appears to an outside observer: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. He’d been on a reading sabbatical, with coaching and other things demanding more of his time. Stay tuned. He did tell me that the Atlantic article on the NCAA by Taylor Branch was one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing he’d read in a long time.
Teen the Younger says the best thing she read in October was the rest of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which she pronounced “intense.” She told me that the novel went along at a steady pace and right near the end, picked up and got a lot more exciting. She’s currently reading volume one of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.
What’s next for me? Hooksett Library book group is reading Loving Frank, and I have a collection of short stories about libraries, In the Stacks, which I’d like to read soon. And, I’m reading Migrations, a poetry collection by Anne Cluysenaar published by Cinnamon Press. Happy reading!