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Archive for January, 2012

January flew past in the bookconscious house.  We saw Teen the Elder off to England for the second half of his gap year. Began some new things in Teen the Younger’s life learning, and investigated more options for her coming (soon!) high school years.  Prepared for speaking gigs (I gave a talk on working with libraries and bookstores at NH Writers’ Project Author School, The Computer Scientist is speaking at a development conference in San Francisco). Generally succumbed to that new year, new plans, new goals kind of mindset that can be both invigorating and disruptive.

We’re all moving in interesting and exciting directions, with plans for better eating/exercising/time management/writing/studying. All of the thinking and planning that went with the collective turning over of new leaves ate into my reading time this month. And my reading was focused on one large goal related to Teen the Younger’s educational plans this season: I re-read all the Harry Potter books.

Several students at the college library where I work mentioned a course that looks into the literary origins of Harry Potter; I’ve heard several students gripe about (or plan shortcuts around) the required reading or re-reading of all seven volumes. When I mentioned this to Teen the Younger, she was quick to point out that she’s been asking me for years to re-read them, mainly so I would quit asking her what happened in which book, or what’s different in the movies. And she liked the idea of our discussing the books in the context of the influences J.K. Rowling mentions on her website or in interviews, or what we see ourselves.

Re-reading the books took me a few weeks.  I was struck by a) how much I enjoyed re-reading them b) how little I’d retained in terms of the small details and plot twists and c) how long it took me to read what I’d expected to breeze right through. Granted I haven’t read them in many years.  But I was surprised by how fresh the stories were even though I knew the basics of what was going to happen. And I was impressed anew with how really good and quite meaty these books are.

When Teen the Elder was seven, we’d spent a few months reading the first four Harry Potter books (all that were out at that point) aloud. We moved to New Hampshire and he was begging me to start reading them over again. He was a good reader but lacked confidence; he wanted me to sit beside him as he read even simple chapter books, so he could verify he was getting it right. I told him I had to unpack the kitchen, but he could start reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone himself.

He disappeared with the book, and came back downstairs later, absolutely delighted with himself. He was reading it!  I wasn’t surprised but was pleased he felt so good about it. What did surprise me was that in about a month and a half, he read all four books himself, big thick books full of complicated twists and new words, and he never once asked for help. I knew he understoof what he read, because he told me all about his favorite bits and how badly he wished it was all real.

I decided then and there that J.K. Rowling was a genius and felt forever grateful to her for helping him see he could read anything. The boy who’d been hesitant went on to read whatever he wanted, selecting books he thought were interesting without any regard for “reading level.” Harry Potter had given him the belief that thick books were a delight, not a chore.

We learned fairly quickly that there were families who were anti-Harry. I’ve never understood that point of view. Many of the best stories from mythology to the present explore the same themes, and many people who fear Harry approve of other stories with magical elements, like the Narnia series.  People who claimed that the Harry Potter would confuse kids or dupe them into believing in magic especially baffled me, since I knew that my own two were highly disappointed that it was all a story, and often wished there really was a Hogwarts and they could really go. I’ve never met a child who didn’t realize Harry Potter’s world is fictional.

But it is a very rich fictional world, and I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in it for a few weeks. Re-reading allowed me to notice some things I don’t remember making as big an impression the first time. Like how very well Rowling writes of the pain of being an adolescent who feels like an outsider, and how searingly she captures Harry’s isolation when most of Hogwarts and the wizarding world turn against him. I really felt his pain this time.

I was also impressed anew with the complexity of the books. Rowling manages to weave several generations of tales into Harry’s story: his own, his parents’, Tom Riddle’s, and Dumbledore’s.  I found myself asking Teen the Younger questions, just to make sure I was clear (she and her brother have each re-read the books many times). It’s impressive how Rowling incorporated certain magical objects’ histories into the tales as well.

And the magic — wow. Everything from the nuts and bolts of magic at Hogwarts — charms, spells, potions, transfiguration, history of magic, divination, care of magical creatures,the dorms and dungeons and towers and owl post and ghosts and magical food — to the way the wizarding world works, the places and traditions, the gardening and housework, the transportation and career choices, even the jokes and sports, are so very, very richly detailed. How much fun it must have been to invent it all, and how complicated to keep it all straight during the writing.

Another thing I noticed this time, perhaps because I read the books with an eye towards discussing them in a greater depth, are the historical and political overtones. The anti-muggle agenda of the Death Eaters has obvious parallels in Nazism, but I also thought of more recent history: apartheid, racism in America and Europe, the rise and fall of various totalitarian governments.  Spying, propaganda, state control of the press, and underground resistance all factor into the stories.

These issues were already on my mind as I read, because my Harry Potter reading fell between other books that dealt with racism and power. First, the Hooksett Library Book Club discussed The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines in January, a novel I’d never read. It’s a painful book, so I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed it. I think it does a good job of replicating autobiography’s idiosyncracies — Miss Jane’s narrative rambles a bit, it isn’t perfectly chronological and it emphasizes seemingly small incidents that seem historically unimportant to the reader. I sometimes felt lost in the tangle of names and relationships.

But I found it very interesting to consider that the civil rights movement, which we all learn about as a historical progression towards equality, was itself somewhat tangled, had its fits and starts over many decades, and wasn’t always welcomed by those who were its intended beneficiaries. Some of Miss Jane Pittman’s friends just want to live their lives in peace and don’t welcome what they see as hot-headed young people agitating for things like integrated water fountains.

The book is a reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing people as part of broad groups that were one side or the other of historical events, but in reality, life is far more nuanced and messy. A good thing to keep in mind today as we read about political points of view of various demographic groups, or people whose countries at war. Humans aren’t easily pigeonholed.

After Harry Potter, I turned to a book I’d checked out weeks ago at work: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Ms. Kay is a well-known and prolific poet and fiction writer in England. Unfortunately, until I saw this memoir on the shelf, I’d never read her work. I suspect it’s because she came to prominence after I left college, so I missed learning about her work there, and she’s not as well known here in the U.S. (neither the college library nor my public library have any of her poetry books). I always feel a broad sense of loss when I come across an author I’ve never heard of; how many more are out there, unknown to me but important and beautiful? How will I find them?

Kay’s personal history lends itself to great story-telling and I really enjoyed Red Dust Road. She is the adopted daughter of progressive parents (political activists, Polaris protesters, anti-apartheid marchers who write Christmas cards to political prisoners) in Glasgow, Scotland. Her family is strong and loving and her mother depicts her birth parents — a Highland mother and Nigerian father who met as students — as brave victims of the society of their times.

When she’s grown and becoming a mother herself, Kay begins to investigate her origins, and Red Dust Road is about that physical and emotional journey. I found it fascinating and enlightening. I’d never heard of the British Movement, a fascist group that gained a fair bit of popular sympathy while stirring up racist sentiments in the UK. I never knew how widespread racism was (and by some accounts, still is) in the UK, where officially at least, it was never as blatant as in the Jim Crow South. I didn’t know much about Nigeria’s geography, and Kay brings it alive, as she does a small Scottish village and the town of Milton Keynes in England.

Besides being informative, I found Red Dust Road beautiful. Kay’s voice is honest and warm and friendly, funny and open-hearted and kind. Her tenderness towards the two very imperfect people who brought her into the world is amazing; both her birth parents have been unable to share her existence with her half-siblings, her mother faces Alzheimers and family problems, her father can’t reconcile his young self with the born-again figure he has become and sees her as a reminder of his past sins. She faces all of this with spirit and patience.

But her tenderness towards her actual parents, the bold, strong, loving people who raised her, is deeply moving.  This book deserves wide reading as social history, as memoir, as poetic tribute to the real meaning of family, as gorgeous witness to love’s power to heal and writing’s power to transform. I can’t wait to track down some of her poetry and catch up on this amazing writer’s work.

Bookconscious regulars know I am in my second year of the Europa Challenge. In 2012 I plan to read one book from Europa Editions every month. I started the year with Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, a novel first published in Italy.  This book includes many of my favorite things: social commentary, sharp wit, a strong-but-quirky heroine, and elements of magical realism.

Margherita of the title is a teenager, overweight, creative and acutely observant, especially when it comes to the foibles of her family. She has a younger brother who reminds me of Jason in Foxtrot (a math genius, mad about video games), an older brother who prides himself on being a soccer hooligan, a father who tinkers with old bikes, cars, and other junk in a shed in the yard; a grandfather who claims to enjoy telepathic communication with the younger brother and dances with a ghost several nights a week; a mother who lives for her soap opera and is an avid green stamp collector and frugal cook who can recycle anything into her meatloaf; and a smelly, funny looking mutt named Sleepy.

When the book opens Margherita observes a mystery: where the open skies once allowed her a view of constellations of her own design, all is dark. Something is blocking her view. It turns out to be a black cube — the high tech futuristic home of her new neighbors. As the family gets to know the neighbors strange things happen: her older brother cleans up his act, switches soccer allegiances, and fawns over the beautiful daughter; her dad’s junk disappears and he goes into what Margherita suspects is nefarious business with the new neighbor; Mamma gets beauty treatments and gives up her beloved green stamps; Grandpa is an accident and moves to a care home; and Margherita discovers the new family has an unstable son they’d rather keep hidden.

To add to her troubles, the Dust Girl, a war ghost who lives in the meadow behind Margherita’s home, seems agitated; Margherita falls for the mysterious son and finds the secret behind all the changes in her family’s life. With her younger brother’s help, she tries to investigate the “business” and find out why a farmer has died, an immigrant friend is in danger, and the gypsies have disappeared. The book’s climactic ending is anything but tidy.  In fact I sat in stunned silence for several minutes, contemplating what had just happened. Benni tells a wicked funny story, but in a chilling way.

I’m realizing as I look over this that I read about Patrollers in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (vigilante groups terrorizing newly freed slaves during Reconstruction), Snatchers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (vigilantes rounding up “mudbloods” to turn in to Voldemort’s puppets at the Ministry of Magic), British Movement thugs in Red Dirt Road (thugs sympathetic to British Movement fascism who terrorized people of color in the UK), and Rage of God (an anti-immigrant anti-Roma vigilante group and DB International (a government contractor that sows fear of terrorism in order to drive demand for its work) in Margherita Dolce Vita. Perhaps it’s time for some more uplifting reading?

Around the bookconscious household, Teen the Elder is reading up on places to go in England and beyond during the spring term and after his gap year ends. Teen the Younger has spent a lot of time reading books with film connections and seeing the films — we saw Hugo together (we both read The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December) and she also saw Tintin, which caused her to pull out our entire collection of the books and re-read them. She’s also reading Kathryn Stockett‘s The Help after enjoying the movie.

The Computer Scientist just finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King. He says he enjoyed the excellent character development and fascinating story that made him stop and think: “While the JFK event is the central point, there is so much more to the story than that…classic SK.”

Up next? I am trying to decide which Europa book to read in February. My theory of the interconnectedness of reading — the way I seem to read books with something in common — is holding up as I started another book confronting racism and nationalism last night, Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. So far it’s very good, tempting me to set aside my to-do list and curl up with the cat to read this afternoon.  I have my ever-present to-read piles beside the bed, and I’ve requested Stewart O’Nan‘s latest book, The Odds, at the library. Feel free to leave me reading suggestions in the comments. I’m always collecting ideas!

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As I prepared to write my first post of 2012, I thought I hadn’t read much in December; I was too busy, surely? I returned to Gibson’s Bookstore as a holiday bookseller, continued working as a nocturnal reference librarian, did all the usual holiday prep, enjoyed time with Teen the Elder home from England. Plus, we hosted my brother for a visit, had a couple of dinners with friends, and celebrated the holidays and our anniversary.

Somehow, I read ten books as well. I can chalk that up in part to the lack of reference questions at the end of the term at the college where I work. I got a lot of reading done in between answering questions about printers and flash drives.

One notable thing about my December reading was that of the ten books, half were short story collections, and another was an art book with very short essays. These were the perfect books for a month when my “to-do” lists were always in flux and there seemed to be more to bake, cook, or prepare every day.

I’ve always enjoyed short fiction and essays for the same reason I love short forms of poetry.  It’s very satisfying to read a work that is beautiful and complex but also compact, completing the work of convincing the reader of its merits with fewer words.  I like a nice thick novel, an exhaustive work of nonfiction, or a meaty epic poem. But the shorter forms never fail to impress me more for working so well within their structural limitations.

I confess, another reason I focused on short stories in December was my sheepish realization that there were still a few of last Christmas’s gift books in my “to read” pile. Among those were three of the four books of Ox-Tales. I read and reviewed Earth last January. In December I read Air, Fire, and Water. These collections are original stories or excerpts from longer work- in-progress from well known writers, commissioned to benefit Oxfam’s development work.

In Air, I especially enjoyed “Still Life” by Alexander McCall Smith, about a woman living in a remote home on a loch in the Scottish Highlands and her encounter with one of the vistors who comes to hunt there; “Suddenly Dr. Cox” by DBC Pierre, about a drifter in Trinidad and his remarkable life; and “The Desert Torso” by Kamila Shamsie, about a man smuggling a Buddha statue through the Pakistani desert to India, and how the experience impacts him.

My favorite story in Air is “Goodnight Children Everywhere” by Beryl Bainbridge, about a boy who finds himself drawn to an old radio in his grandmother’s house. As the story proceeds, readers discover the radio is playing a jumble of old and current broadcasts. I loved the mysterious twists in this brief tale, and the dramatic ending.

In Water, I liked David Park‘s “Crossing the River,” a modern Styx story; William Boyd‘s humorous and touching story of a young actress and the crazy film set where she’s working, “Bethany-Next-the-Sea;” Joanna Trollope‘s “The Piano Man,” because I just love her writing; and Michael Morpurgo‘s “Look at Me, I Need a Smile,” which drew me in despite the fact that I didn’t want to like a story about a boy whose soldier dad has died, and who is about to be caught up in another tragedy.

My favorites in Fire were Geoff Dyer‘s “Playing With, which is a slight but deeply philosophical story about the choices we make and the possibly random outcomes they generate; John LeCarre‘s brilliant political fable, “The King Who Never Spoke;” and Ali Smith‘s marvelous story “Last,” a lovely piece whose protagonist is fascinated with words. More on Smith’s latest novel shortly.

When “Last” opens, we read, the main character’s thoughts are bleak:  “I had reached the end of my tether.” But after a strange experience helping a wheelchair bound woman on an empty train,”I felt myself become substantial.” In between she notes, “and now, background-murmuring through my head again, for the first time in ages, was a welcome sound, the sound of the long thin never-ending-seeming rolling-stock of words, the sound of life and industry, word after word after word coupled to each other by tough iron joists, travelling from the past through the present to the future like rolling stones that gather moss after all.” Sounds to me like the feeling a writer has after a dry spell.

The New Yorker Stories is a much larger collection, 500 pages, and it includes stories Ann Beattie published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006.  While I’d read a few of her pieces in the magazine from time to time, it was interesting to read such a dense collection.  Reading work from different decades on the same themes, a sort of fictional cultural history of America unfolds.

Beattie tinkers with the same subjects over and over but every story is unique. She writes mostly of relationships — marriage and friendship, love and family.  Her characters are often overcoming something — war wounds, divorce, addiction, disappointment, estrangement and loss. Some of the best pieces include a child’s perspective on the strange world of adult interactions.

Beattie manages to make each short piece highly specific and polished, transporting readers with myriad sensory details, descriptions of meals, weather, sounds, rooms. And she weaves in details that place the stories in specific times and locations.  I admire her skill — she’s an amazingly effective writer, and every story is deft and impactful. But the stories themselves are a stark reminder of human flaws.  Read in such quantity they left me feeling somewhat haunted.

Another book full of sensory detail and human flaws that really carried me away was  Comfort and Joy by India Knight. At first glance it’s a light chick-lit kind of book; a quick, fun, seasonal read. But I found it entertaining and sneakily wise. And I was left very much wanting to be friends with the main character, Clara.

Telling the story of three Christmas’s (and flashing back to some childhood ones) at Clara’s, Knight explores what holds family and friends together and why Christmas seems to bring out all the longings people have the rest of the year.  She peppers the story with very funny, very spot-on observations about relationships, friendships,and dealing with life’s ups and downs.

Speaking of funny, I also read the third Gerald Samper book by James Hamilton-Paterson, Rancid Pansies. This one seemed as if it wasn’t going to be so funny when it opened — Gerald is living in England with friends, recovering from the loss of his Italian home in an earthquake. After getting good news about the sale of film rights for his last book, he prepares one of his horrid (and horrifying) gourmet conconctions for a dinner party and ends up inadvertantly poisoning the guests.

Shamed and distressed, he returns to Italy, along the way deciding his next project will be to write the libretto for an opera about Princess Diana. Whose name can be anagrammed into Rancid Pansies. His old neighbor Marta is back (her disappearance in the previous novel, Amazing Disgrace, was due to a gig writing a movie score in Hollywood) and agrees to write the opera’s music. Several other characters from the earlier books appear as the hilarious plot unfolds.

I thought this was the most satisfying plot of the three Samper novels, again a  farce, but with a tighter story line that really moved along.  It may also have been the funniest, although I thought Cooking With Fernet Branca and Amazing Disgrace were also very funny. The scene in which Gerald has a cameo in the opening night of the opera playing Prince Phillip had me laughing out loud.  And wishing the BBC would produce a  mini series if they haven’t already.

The Samper trilogy were from Europa Editions, and was the thirteenth book in my 2011 Europa Challenge.  I was going for fourteen, which was the Ami level.  I reached my goal with another story collection, The Woman With the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. I liked the first story in the book, “The Dreamer of Ostend,” a love story with a mystery, in which the narrator isn’t sure what’s real and what’s fiction.  And the title piece, which tells the story of a nurse who blossoms into her true self only after a blind patient convinces her she is beautiful.

For the 2012 Europa Challenge I’m aiming for Cafe Luongo Level, which means reading twelve Europa Editions.  I have my first of the year, Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, checked out of the library and am looking forward to getting started.

Speaking of libraries, last January I had the pleasure of visiting the Library of Congress when I attended the ABA Winter Institute. It was a quick visit, but absolutely delightful. Last summer I visited the LOC mobile exhibit when it came to Concord.

For Christmas I received On These Walls: Inscriptions & Quotations in the Library of Congress, by John Colefrom my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and our nieces and nephew. I spent some time on Christmas evening reading it.  If you don’t live near the LOC, this is the armchair tour for you. It’s a beautiful book and brief essays give readers an overview of the library’s history, art, and architecture as well as its awesome mission. Cole is the founding director of the Center for the Book at the LOC.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to read a book in one sitting, but the last Sunday of the semester was exceptionally slow at the library, and I saw There But for the on the new book shelf. I’d just read a review in The Atlantic so I decided to give it a try. By the end of my five hour shift, I’d read the entire thing, which is a very satisfying way to read.  If I had my druthers, I’d read more novels that way.

Smith presents a funny and also disturbing problem: a man in Greenwich, England who is the guest of a guest at a dinner party excuses himself from the table. He goes into a spare bedroom and never comes out. Months go by, and he is lauded as some kind of prophetic folk hero by crowds who gather outside.

Each part of the book is told by four people from the party who knew the man just a little bit. As it turns out, each knows something that adds to what the reader has already learned so that by the end of the book things are less murky.

My favorite of the four guests is a precocious ten year old girl who is smart but lonely, and more comfortable among adults and inside her own inner world than other children. She manages to slip in and out among the other characters, thereby helping the reader tie things together. But all of the sections are marvelous and I really enjoyed the way Smith wove history, science, philosophy, and social commentary into the novel.

Watching each person involved in the drama react, and also seeing how society responds to the man in the room, I thought about how we all see and remember things from a slightly different angle. It’s an idea I enjoyed playing with as I read, that all the little interactions a person has in the world leave scraps of perception that together make up a kind of mosaic view. In fact, it was a book that led to a lengthy musing afterwards, another sign of an excellent read.

What’s time? How does it pass and how do we mark it? What do we fill it with? How do we impact each other by what we remember and forget? How do we miss, or see, the intersections of our lives with others?  And what can result from even the most minor encounter with another person? Is it possible to be truly alone in this world, or are even people who close themselves off connected somehow with others, whether they want to be or not? These are the things I wondered as I read There But for the and as I drove home that evening.  Heavenly, to have a book for company.

And to share books with the company you most love to keep. Both Teen the Younger and I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December, intending to go see Hugo, which we haven’t done yet. I liked it very much, mostly because of the way Brian Selznik weaves history and magic into the story but also because of the interesting intersection of art and story — it’s not a graphic novel, it’s not a picture book, it’s kind of a category of its own.

As I wrote last month, Teen the Younger liked the art.  Since we both enjoyed it so much, I bought Brian Selznik’s new book, Wonderstruck, which is in our to-read piles.  She also read a new Gakuen Alice manga.

Teen the Elder read Inheritance, the fourth book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. He enjoyed it very much. He says Paolini finished the story very well, and “dragons kick ass.”  What can I say, he’s an adult now. He has a pile of books to take back to England with him, so perhaps from time to time I’ll mention what he’s reading. Over the first term there he re-read The Hobbit and all three Lord of the Rings books, which are his favorite books ever (so far).

The Computer Scientist got some books for Christmas but December is one of the two busiest months of the year for him, especially the final week of the year when everyone is making charitable donations.  So he has an even taller to-read pile.

What’s up for me? I have a few books out of the library and I plan to peruse my other piles. Last night I told the Computer Scientist we need to move to a remote location without a bookstore or library for a year, so that I could read all the books I’ve been meaning to get to without distraction from new titles or shelf browsing.

Since the week before Christmas, I’ve hardly had time to read anything. I started two books that I didn’t care for, and following the wise counsel of Teen the Younger, abandoned them. Hopefully I’ll settle into something good soon. In 2012 I hope to continue reading the Hooksett Book Club selections as well, so I’m now reading the January title, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines. What are you reading?

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