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Archive for March, 2012

Serendipitous spring

In March, I wrote my 65th bookconscious post since the blog began in August, 2007. Longtime readers know I am also a poet and essayist; deadlines and word counts and form rejection letters are what drove me to start the blog. I wanted a place to be free of all that. Over the years, people told me I could make money blogging, which I never have.

But I can now say I got a job at least in part because of the blog. On April 8 my first Mindful Reader column will appear in the Concord MonitorI’ll be reviewing books by New Hampshire or New England authors (or books set or published here).

When she called to offer me the column, the Monitor’s editor mentioned she’d visited bookconscious.  So that was a pleasant surprise, and a validation of the familiar advice that you never know where following your passions might lead. Uncharacteristically, I accepted more or less immediately without worrying one bit about whether I had time to take on another responsibility.  My instincts told me this was an opportunity I would not want to miss.

O.E.D. defines serendipity: “The faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Also, the fact or an instance of such a discovery.”  Much of what I read in March seems to deal with the impact of accident or chance, of the twists and turns life throws in front of us as we are moving steadily along in a path we think is relatively straight.

I’ll start with a book of poems, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs. Andrew Merton is a longtime journalist and University of New Hampshire professor, and this is his first poetry collection. He writes with great warmth and humor about the human experience, even when his subject matter is difficult.

I loved the wry poem “Subjunctive,” “The timid grammarian,/unable to approach the object/of his unspoken proposition,/is destined to dwell forever/alone in the woulds.” English major humor!

Another delightful poem speaks to that feeling of not wanting to get back to real life after a trip, “Reluctant Return from England.” Merton writes, “I unpack slowly./On deserted roads/I drive on the left.”  That poem ends on a darker note, with the narrator unpacking a postcard “addressed to my dead mother.”

Another favorite which captures a moment of serendipity is “Rachel at Eight, (or, the News from Down Under)” which tells the story of children on a beach outing, and ends, “Madeline, there are colors you and I/have never heard of./When Madeline asks where,/Rachel says Australia.”

The whole collection captures that kind of quirky, wise view of the ordinary. More on this book in the Mindful Reader (I’ll post a link when it’s up).

Another book I cover in depth in my column but want to mention here is Fahim Speaks, by Fahim Fazli with Michael Moffett. Moffett is a retired Marine who met Fahim in Afghanistan. The book covers Fahim’s growing up and his family’s escape to America (they were in danger because of anti-communist affiliations), and also Fahim’s pursuit of an acting career. In the last four chapters, he tells readers about becoming an interpreter or “terp” and working with a Marine Corps unit in the Helmand Province.

Without the military section it’s a memoir about Fahim’s coming-of-age, his struggles to reconcile his old and new cultures, his difficult relationship with his parents, especially his father, and his efforts to improve their relationship. The parts about his service with the Marines is very interesting; it really helped me understand what America is trying to do in Afghanistan, besides ousting the Taliban. It’s definitely a book about the happy and unexpected discoveries Fahim makes.

Another memoir I read for the column is Howard Frank Mosher‘s The Great Northern ExpressI met Mosher last year at Gibson’s when he came to discuss his novel Walking to Gatlinburg.  He’s one of those people who envelopes a room with his stories — everyone there felt like a friend or a neighbor when he spoke.

His memoir is similarly engaging. Mosher writes in a friendly, self-deprecating tone and you feel you’re in the passenger seat. Or the back seat, since the passenger (or catbird) seat is often occupied, as Mosher explains, “You see, I still like to talk out loud to myself. And to the gallery of companions that my mother tells me I’ve had since I was two. I will rattle along for hours on end to relatives living and deceased, friends and adversaries, other writers, even some famous fictional characters . . . .”

The book is about his 20,000 mile road trip back and forth across America on a book tour. He visited around 150 independent bookstores (another reason to love him), and had all kinds of interesting (and yes, serendipitous) experiences. He embarked on the journey after completing radiation treatment for prostate cancer, and he talks very openly about his fears and his attempt to put the cancer behind him on the road.

The book is also a love story, a tribute to his long and beautiful marriage and his adopted hometown in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Just read it where you can laugh out loud, because you probably will.

On to the rest of my reading. I read two story collections this month. The first was a gift in the fall which has moved up the “to-read” pile slowly, In the Stacks: Short Stories About Libraries and Librariansedited by Michael Cart. It was a fun read for me since I’m also a librarian, and because it includes stories by many writers I admire: Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino, Ursula LeGuin, Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Munro. And some new to me: Lisa Kroger, Joanne Greenberg, and Sue Kaufman.

Among my favorite stories: a young librarian considering whether she has done the right thing staying in a small town to care for her ailing father in “The Retirement Party,” a military intervention to determine if the library contains subversive materials in “A General In the Library” and a mystery complete with library code in “QL 696. C9.”

As for serendipity, many of the stories include a discovery, but not all are happy. Good fiction is often about characters dealing with something life throws them, and this collection seems especially rife with unplanned occurrences or revelations.

Good short stories often surprise the reader as well. The other collection I read this month was Jane Gardam‘s The People on Privilege Hill. I read this as my March Europa Challenge book. Gardam is definitely one of my favorite authors and I’ve so far loved everything of hers I’ve read, including this collection. Many of the stories in this book went in directions I wasn’t expecting but thoroughly enjoyed. Many were quite funny, in a dry, smart way.

The title story revists Sir Edward Feathers and some of the other characters from Gardam’s Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden HatIt was nice to see them again, but it wasn’t my favorite story in the book. I loved “Babette,” about an author telling her reviewer about a long hidden stash of valuables in her old house. When the current renters turn the woman away, their hubris and greed, along with gravity, result in calamitous consequences.

I also enjoyed the terribly sad “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones,” about an old man who never outgrew being the baby of his genteel family and is accused of child molestation. What a sharp-eyed view of herd mentality and gentrification! Each of these stories, as well as “Pangbourne,” about a lonely woman who develops a unique relationship with a gorilla at a zoo, features a character who is an outsider in some way, an eccentric who the dominant culture can’t appreciate as anything more than an oddity. Which is a shame.

“Flight Path” is a historical story about a boy who visits London to interview for medical training during the Blitz. He goes to his mother’s relatives for the night, and they are ungracious. He goes to the local shelter with their servant and her daughter instead of staying. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I thought the boy’s observations were fascinating — Gardam perfectly captures a youth away from home for the first time, full of hopes and open to new experiences even in frightening circumstances.

A few stories venture into the surreal or supernatural, including “The Milly Ming,” which features a ghost whose presence tips off the main character to a serendipitous discovery, and “Waiting for a Stranger,” whose ghost lets the main character know he appreciates her hospitality. “The Virgins of Bruges” veers into the fantastical as a nun is caught up in strange occurrences on Christmas Eve when she’s stranded while trying to return to England after a family death.

“The Hair of the Dog” and “Dangers” are both very beautiful meditations on the hinge moments in a family’s history. Grown (or nearly) children do a poor job of appreciating their parents in “The Hair of the Dog” and “The Fledgling.”  In “Snap,” a woman panics after breaking her ankle the only time she is ever unfaithful to her husband, only to return home to a surprise.  Each of these stories brilliantly examines the flawed ways people relate to each other, particularly across generations, and the impossibility of ever completely understanding what someone else is thinking and feeling.

Four women meet again after forty years in “The Last Reunion” at their college, a poignant look at how things are not always as we remember, if we even can remember. On the whole this is a gorgeous collection, and I’m in awe of Gardam’s ability to conjure such complete, fascinating people and lives in such small spaces.

I read another smart, funny socially observant book by an English woman in March: Penelope Lively‘s How It All Began. This tightly woven novel explains the consequences one action, the mugging of a retired teacher named Charlotte, has on a host of other lives. An excellent examination of the interconnectedness most of us never stop to think about, Lively’s story is sometimes a bit sad, often very funny, and very smart.

A mugging isn’t exactly serendipity, more chance or random tragedy. The subsequent damage in other people’s lives — a teetering marriage, a potential infidelity, financial woes, work issues — totters along the edge of disaster but Lively brings each storyline back from the brink, allowing most everyone to end well. A thoroughly satisfying read, one that makes me want to search out her other work and read it all.

If you’re wondering why so many books set in England, many of you know that Teen the Elder has been there on a Gap Year. I also admit that when it comes to literature, I’ve always been an Anglophile. So when my reference work took me into the stacks recently a thin book caught my eye: The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. Yes, that Virginia Woolf. She wrote these five essays in the 1930’s and must have meant them to be published together in a book, since they refer to each other in places.

Her subjects? “The Docks of London,” “Oxford Street Tide, “Great Men’s Houses,” “Abbeys and Cathedrals,” and “This is the House of Commons.” The whole volume is only forty pages and I read it in a sitting. They are readable, but I do think some of Woolf’s London is beyond my view from 21st century New Hampshire. I loved “Great Men’s Houses,” and “Abbeys and Cathedrals” but the others, while interesting, didn’t capture my imagination. I do like the witty, breezy, almost conversational style of Woolf’s writing in this book.

A fascinating book combining essays with gorgeous illustrations that I read in March is Pantone: The 20th Century In Color by Leatrice Eiseman and Keith Recker. Pantone was founded in 1963 to solve the problem of standardizing color in the graphic arts industry. The company is known as the “color authority.” This book takes readers through each decade of the last century with essays explaining the dominant hues and their influences. It’s a fun reference and an interesting twist on history, with world events and cultural trends taken in the context of the colors they inspired.

Finally this month, I read three novels. At the beginning of March, I finally picked up a book that has languished in the to-read pile for a few years: Joe Coomer‘s Pocketful of Names. It started slowly, but once I got into it I didn’t want to put it down. When the book opens a dog washes up on a tiny island of only a few acres off the coast of Maine. The island is home to a reclusive artist named Hannah. The dog’s mysterious arrival is the first of a series of surprises, some pleasant, some decidedly not, that Hannah deals with over the course of a year.

There is a great deal of family drama — not usually my cup of tea — and some fascinating insights into both the art world and the territorial and closed society of Maine fishermen. What I found fascinating is that Hannah appears to be a very set character when the novel opens, someone who has no intention of changing, so set against it that she’s more or less barricaded herself from the world. Yet she ends up transformed by the changes that come to her island. Some of the plot twists seemed a bit of a stretch but overall this was an enjoyable and absorbing read. I even cried a bit towards the end.

Another book long on my to-read pile that I got to in March was E.L. Doctorow‘s Homer & Langley. What an interesting novel. Doctorow spins a story from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction lives of the Collyer brothers, reclusive, eccentric and in many ways brilliant hoarders who lived in New York in the early 1900’s.

Doctorow takes some fictional liberties with the Collyer’s biographical details but the story is what’s interesting, the relationship between the brothers and the ways Homer, who is blind, copes with each of Langley’s new obsessions.  I also loved the way Doctorow moves the story through the decades, incorporating the changing city into the brothers’ lives as well. A serendipitous visit from a French journalist, who intervenes so he isn’t hit by a car, precipitates Homer’s decision to get the story down before he dies, and readers hear the brothers’ life from his point of view.

A book in which the confusing point of view distracted me to the detriment of the story was The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.  There were parts of this novel I liked — some of the minor characters in particular were very likeable and real — but overall it listed slightly like an unbalanced ship.

First that point of view issue: there is a narrator who uses the possessive pronoun “we” but doesn’t seem to be one of the three sisters of the title, and that drove me crazy. I don’t like it when I have to be flipping back to see what I’ve missed while reading, especially if I haven’t actually missed something and the narrator is just anomalous. It was distracting and I never did figure out who was addressing the reader.

Several other things seemed a little off kilter to me as well. There’s a conversation about how the young Episcopal priest new to town might not approve of premarital sex — something I doubted would be the topic of conversation between a priest and a contemporary young woman. It seems unlikely anyone would feel a need to “confess” this (something uncommon in the Episcopal Church to begin with) and if there was such a confession, I am pretty sure the conversation would focus on grace and forgiveness, not the deed itself.

And one of the sisters, Cordy, has run off and lived for years in some kind of flashback hippy world. I admit to not being terribly tuned in to counter-cultural life, but if this book is set in the present, I wondered how accurate that was. Middle sibling Bean, meanwhile, embezzles an unspecified but large sum of money from a company in New York City and is dismissed without formal charges. That seemed pretty far-fetched and unlikely. Rose, the eldest, had the most realistic problem: she was the responsible sister who always picked up the pieces and took care of details, and it made her neurotic. That I could believe.

Anyway, many other small details that seemed either culturally incongruent or just unbelievable took away from what was otherwise a straightforward story of sibling rivalry, the impact of close and eccentric but also inattentive and indulgent parents on their grown children’s ability to form healthy relationships and function independently, and the coming to terms with reality of young adults who’ve lived an extended adolescence, selfishly enjoying themselves (or in Rose’s case, enabling that in others) and facing a reckoning when they’ve grown too old to get away with it anymore. Wow, that was a mouthful. I’m leaving, it because it illustrates how the book felt — a lot of ideas poking out every which way.

Finally this month, I just finished Marilynne Robinson‘s new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, ahead of her appearance with Paul Harding next week in the Writers In the Spotlight series here in Concord. This was the last event I booked before I stepped down as events coordinator at Gibson’s and I am looking forward to it very much; I could listen to Paul Harding read his grocery list and be enlightened, and the two of them together promises to be an amazing evening. I did notice today that the 92nd St. Y stole my idea of booking these two authors together. Ahem.

I admit, I found Robinson’s essays hard going. This book will take re-reading and digesting before I really feel I’ve understood it. She’s a brilliant thinker and writer and I loved Gilead. I find the essays in this collection fascinating and thought provoking. But I am not sure I’m equipped to summarize them here, at least not yet. I think when I hear her speak some of the veil will be lifted.

One thing I can explain is that Robinson is concerned with something that I’ve been wondering about for years, the cognitive dissonance in American discourse. Primarily, she lambastes the disconnect between the loud outcry condemning various views as unpatriotic or socialist or un-American (or God forbid, French) and the actual history of ideas that the loudest of loud talkers seem unaware of. Robinson reveals how examining American history and actually reading the figures quoted with cavalier confidence — like John Winthrop and his speech about the city upon a hill – makes clear that sloppy scholarship and political speechifying distort our intellectual heritage.

I knew before I read this collection that Robinson is an admirer of Calvin, and she also writes eloquently of how various of his teachings have been distorted, and of the ways that both the left and the right twist fundamentalism and Christian teaching in order to suit their pet arguments. She points out many grievous errors in popular liberal religious (and atheist) scholarship and many strange leaps of logic (or illogic) in conservative Christian social teaching. My son noticed when the Iraq war was about to start that many church signs stated “God bless our troops,” and at the tender age of 9 asked, “Doesn’t God bless everyone?” Robinson would agree with him.

Atheist scientists who refuse to acknowledge the mystery in what we don’t know earn her ire as well. I admire that Robinson spares no one in her quest to defend and promote clear thinking, good scholarship, and accurate discourse. She’s equally critical of those whose views she is more sympathetic to, and she gives those she mostly disagrees with credit where it’s due.

She is forthright about her own views as well, which I appreciate in an essayist — there’s no pretense at “impartiality,” which is one of the worst human conceits, I think. Who is really impartial? Is it even possible to be? Robinson is both intellectual and humble, not only marshaling every tool to disprove faulty logic but also stating that there is much that humans don’t and may never know.

Anyway, read Robinson in an atmosphere conducive to study and reflection, and if you’re in the area come hear her and Harding. It promises to be a fascinating evening with two of contemporary American fiction’s most beautiful minds. I guess if you’re in NYC, you can hear them warm up for Concord.

Teen the Elder was home briefly in March; he’d lined up a PDL trial and was working on nailing down his summer soccer plans, which will be taking him to Seattle. He left with Seal Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin and Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror by Matthew M. Aid. He finished the Seal Team book and seemed to enjoy it — he’s always admired people who are at the top of their game, and he remarked on the dedication it takes to be prepared to drop everything on a moment’s notice to attend to secret and almost always dangerous missions.

Teen the Younger is reading and writing about Lord of the Flies by William Golding, (I am as well — I’ve never read it). She’s also getting ready for Anime Boston with huge pile of Emily the Strange books (her cosplay costume is Emily), and I bought her Hyacinth Bucket’s Book of Etiquette for the Socially Less Fortunate at a Salvation Army store while we waited for Teen the Elder’s tryout to be over. She has many happy memories of Saturday evenings laughing together at Keeping Up Appearances.

The Computer Scientist has been catching up on The Social Animal by David Brooks – he started it and left his copy with Teen the Elder in January and I recently replaced it for him. He started the Hunger Games series at Teen the Younger’s request and wasn’t terribly impressed with the first one. Like me, he has a teetering “to-read” pile and not enough time to enjoy it.

Up next? I realized when I read Virginia Woolf’s essays that I am rusty on English history, so I’m currently reading Remember, Remember, the 5th of November by Judy Parkinson a very condensed review. I’ve got Scenes from Village Life by Amos Oz out from the library and I want to read The Nun by Simonetta Agnello Hornby for my next Europa Challenge book. I also look forward to A.J. Jacob’s new book, and I have three books cued up for my May Mindful Reader column.

What are you reading?

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