I’m big on self-improvement and trying to lead an examined life. In early April I re-organized some books, in part because I spilled a cup of coffee all over my “to-read” piles (yes, gasps of horror all around). In cleaning up, I found that I have somewhere between 40-50 “to-read.”
So one project ahead this summer is to get through that pile. I also worked on clearing out the garage with the Computer Scientist, cleaned out my closet and drawers quite ruthlessly, rededicated myself to trying to meditate daily (thanks to my favorite fellow blogger, Leo Babauta), and vowed to work on communicating better. It’s easy for introspective readers/writers to develop bad habits of communication when our favorite exchanges are words we can re-read or re-write.
And in light of now writing both a quarterly column (Publishing Trends for NH Writers’ Project) and a monthly one (The Mindful Reader for the Concord Monitor), plus aiming for various deadlines for other writing projects and helping Teen the Younger’s year of life learning come to fruition, I worked on managing my time better. Next I can work on writing shorter sentences.
Several of the books I read this month fit my mood of self-examination and improvement. First among them is the ever-excellent A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy. I’ve read his other books, The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, and I absolutely love his style of immersion journalism. Reviewers who call it “schtick lit” are missing Jacob’s warmth and intelligence. This book is about Jacobs’ quest to try head-to-toe health advice in order to become as healthy as possible.
Much of the advice is easily applied to anyone’s life — reduce stress, eat less, move more, for example. Other things he tried are less likely to work for me, intriguing as they may be, like using a treadmill desk. Mostly I love Jacob’s writing and the open, good humored approach he has. He meets some pretty way out people doing various extreme things in the name of health and he’s never disrespectful.
The book is about getting to the scientific facts behind health advice, so Jacobs is also smart and thorough, and regularly consults experts. I also love the way he writes in a gently self-deprecating way about the things he struggles with (something I can relate to) and the way his family has to put up with his experiments. From taking stairs more often to trying to eat more slowly and deliberately to reducing stress and meditating more, I am working on trying some of his advice.
In other nonfiction, I read a memoir for The Mindful Reader (the column will be published May 13), Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure by Patricia Ellis Herr. Herr and her five-year-old daughter Alex hiked to the top of NH’s forty-eight mountains over 4,000 feet. If you’re about to say that’s too much for a five-year-old, that reaction is what Herr heard on the trail and online a fair bit, and the book addresses her family’s attempt to march to their own drummer.
This is partly a parenting memoir. Herr shares her worries, frustrations, and mistakes, which make reading about their incredible accomplishments more realistic. She also writes about the way that her kids sometimes surprise her with insights and wisdom beyond their years one moment only to act like little kids the next. So even though we’ve never done anything like peakbag forty-eight mountains, Up reminded me in some ways of our own experiences with Teens the Younger and Elder.
Herr writes with passion about the choices she and her husband have made in raising their daughters; like us, they are homeschooling. I could definitely relate to the challenges of following a relatively uncharted path in a world where most people don’t want to even get out of the fast lane. As I was reading, the latest salvos about who is a working mom were flying around the media; Herr addresses the isolation she felt when her friends in academia disagreed with her choices to stay home and to educate her kids outside the mainstream.
I also found the hiking stories enjoyable; Herr’s obvious pleasure in being outside with her daughter stands out when so many memoirs are about more unpleasant experiences. It was also interesting to read about our beautiful state and it’s residents, both human and animal. It’s unlikely after reading about rotting snow and mad grouse that we’ll be peakbagging, but the Computer Scientist and I would like to hike more.
Another memoirist very much influenced by the natural world, Terry Tempest Williams, has a new book out, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. This book is hard to describe. It’s partly about Tempest Williams’ attempt to make sense of her mother’s journals, which are blank. It’s partly an examination of faith and politics and their intersection in the hope of things unseen.
It’s partly a reflection on how she found her voice, as a human being and a writer, and how important the women (and a couple of men) in her family were to that process. And it’s partly a meditation on the importance of listening to nature’s voice as each of us makes our way into full humanity, and the joy of having a partner who understands that journey and is willing to join it and sometimes, to let her walk alone.
It’s a beautiful book, some of the most poetic prose you’ll ever read. On why the ocean has such a strong meaning for her, Tempest Williams writes, “Water is nothing if not ingemination, an encore to the tenacity of life. Life held in the sea is surface and depth, what we see and what we imagine.” Wow. Read that over a few times and you’ll have a sense of the evocative power of the writing in this book.
Are You My Mother: a Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel is a much darker memoir. It’s a graphic memoir (like a graphic novel in form), which is fascinating. And it’s a thoroughly intellectual, emotionally gobsmacking self-analysis of the author’s many years of therapy.
Readers experience her hard work a Bechdel heals herself by re-visiting her life’s seminal moments and relationships, the work of Virginia Woolf and the psycholanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and above all, her mother’s (and to some extent her father’s but he gets another book) influence on her emotional life. It’s a gripping book. The art is powerful too — emotionally visceral, and wrought entirely in shades of black, grey, white, and purplish red that reminded me of blood.
A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith is a series of short reflections paired with poems. Nineteen poets (some you’ll be familiar with, others perhaps not) spoke with or corresponded with editors Katherine Towler (author of the superb Snow Island trilogy) and Ilya Kaminsky about faith and its importance in their work. Each section ends with a poem related to something in the reflective essay.
One thing that impressed me is the depth of each short essay. It is clear the editors really engaged their subjects skillfully in order to draw out their intimate, deeply held beliefs. I enjoyed reading meditations on meaning, spirituality, the life of ideas, the crossroads (again) of politics and faith, the presence of poetry in prayer and prayer in poetry, and the deep influence of belief on writers no matter their religious affiliations or personal creeds.
In a time when religion seems to divide people or at least polarize our public discourse, I was struck by themes I found threaded through God In the House. For one thing, what we experience as children has a huge influence on the way we respond to ritual and belief as adults. This seems to be true even though the responses vary widely.
Also mystical experience, by which I mean the personal perception of the transcendent, is related to creativity (for example in unexpected inspiration), even for writers who don’t see their work in relation to divinity or divine inspiration, and several of the poets affirm that in this book.
I was also struck that many of the poets referred to the work of Emily Dickinson in their reflections. I’m planning to read her work more closely this summer. I’d also like to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum.
A God in the House is also a beautifully produced book. In fact, its the one from my to-read pile that I really wish I hadn’t spilled coffee on. Tupleo Press makes aesthetically as well as intellectually pleasing books.
The Europa Challenge book I read this month, The Nun, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby, addresses the importance of faith and literature in the heroine’s life. When the book opens, Agata is a young teen in Messina, a town at the tip of Sicily nearest mainland Italy’s toe. It’s 1839, and Europe is rumbling with what will become the revolutionary fevor that swept the continent a decade later. Agata’s fever is more localized — she’s in love with a neighbor.
As a young woman from a “good” family met with hard times, her life is completely out of her hands however. Her father dies and her mother takes the family to Naples to try to use her connections to keep her family afloat. The passage is significant as Agata meets an English Navy officer, James Garson.
One of her mother’s machinations is to offer Agata to a convent. The unwilling young woman is isolated from her relatives and the temptations of the world as her mother wrangles a position. Hornby paints an unflattering but very detailed view of the Church in nineteenth century Italy; corruption is rampant, positions are bought and sold, political influence trumps religious fervor.
Hornby fills her descriptions with words and images I found very evocative: a Japanese camellia, Oki no Nami, in the convent garden; paperoles, small, elaborate devotional images made of paper, bits of glass, and other decorative elements; incredible pastries baked as favors, treats, and for sale (each convent has a specialty); hebdomedary, the weekly cycle of tasks in the convent; cenoby, the establishment of a religious community; vespertine, of the evening.
Agata undergoes cycles of resignation and rebellion in the convent. She tries to bury herself in the order of convent life: prayer, work, service, devotion. She learns to bake and to tend the gardens, becomes a skilled herbalist, and tries hard to find her vocation. Meanwhile the world spins on outside the cloistered walls, and when she can receive mail, she begins corresponding with James Garson, who sends her novels (she reads Jane Austen, which I found very poignant, given her dashed hopes for marriage).
In the end, after more introspection and self-examination than most people undergo in a lifetime, Agata has had enough. She realizes she belongs in the world, not the convent, which can’t offer the spiritual solace and purity she hoped to take refuge in when first consigned there. She unravels her mother’s maneuverings and sees her earlier love and even her sisters as they really are. Eventually, she also realizes that James Garson can offer her love based not in fantasy but real emotional and intellectual understanding.
I won’t tell you what she does or whether she realizes her hopes, but I will say that if you like historical fiction, The Nun brings nineteenth century Italy to life. Agata is a complicated, passionate, and interesting heroine. I’d like to go back and re-read the novels James Garson sends her.
Set around the same time, April Bernard‘s Miss Fuller features another passionate and interesting heroine, Margaret Fuller. When the novel begins, Henry Thoreau travels to Fire Island, New York to identify the bodies of Margaret Fuller, her Italian husband, and their toddler after a shipwreck. Henry’s fictional younger sister Anne recalls hearing Miss Fuller lecture in Boston; she remembers adults discussing Fuller’s “excessive education” and speculating that it made her “goggle-eyed and very odd.”
Thoreau finds Fuller’s small writing desk washed ashore, and hopes to recover the manuscript of her forthcoming book on the Roman republic. Instead he find a letter for Sophie Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne tells him to burn it, citing Fuller’s “irregular life.” After reading it himself, Thoreau, clearly disturbed, puts the letter back in the desk.
In the fictional letter, Fuller pours out her financial struggles, the excitement of being on assignment for the New York Tribune in Europe (covering, in part, the revolution in Italy), her firm belief that she’s the intellectual and professional equal of any man and her frustration that most people can’t accept that. The letter details her loves and disappointments and the way maternal love shocks her “like a thunder-clap.”
Margaret Fuller was controversial. Progressive Concord did not embrace feminism, as Louisa May Alcott’s satire Transcendental Wild Oats reveals to hilarious effect. The American press and even Fuller’s friends – Thoreau, Emerson, and the Hawthornes among them – questioned the propriety of her unusual marriage (her husband was not only Italian, but Catholic and much younger). They also gossiped about its validity, and about alleged earlier liaisons, both of which Bernard explores in Miss Fuller.
Fuller’s impatience with those who would free slaves but treat women as inferior offended many. She also knew society wasn’t prepared to accept her model of independent womanhood. Bernard’s imagined letter reflects how painful that must have been.
In the final section of Miss Fuller Anne finally reads the letter, thirty years later. She does some research, and learns that posthumous memoirs (gathered by Emerson) and fiction (by Hawthorne) were inaccurate and unflattering. The last chapter is lovely, as Anne grasps Fuller’s imperfect but astonishing legacy. Bernard’s choice of an invented champion for Fuller illuminates how few she had in her lifetime.
This year’s Booker prize for fiction went to Julian Barnes for A Sense of an Ending. I’d read Barnes before and not found his writing to my taste but this book is a knockout. As April Bernard explores the gap between perception and reality in Margaret Fuller’s private life, Julian Barnes blows that gap wide open in this book.
Tony Webster reflects on his first serious relationship in college from the distance of middle age, and on the suicide of a brilliant member of his circle. The catalyst for his revisiting these events is a strange bequest from his former girlfriend’s mother after she dies.
Barnes gives the impression that despite a very cordial relationship with his ex-wife and grown daughter, Tony isn’t a very self-reflective guy, just a relatively successful ordinary man living a quiet and uninteresting life. It seems incongruous that such a benign man is rather rude in his attempt to get to the bottom of his mysterious gift, until his reflections on the events decades earlier reveal his capacity for spiteful bitterness.
I really can’t give too many specifics or I’ll ruin the story, but suffice to say that what he learns is heartbreaking and surprising. I sometimes don’t agree with prize choices, but A Sense of an Ending combines superb writing with intense emotional and psychological drama. It’s quite a story as well. As Tony says, “History isn’t the lives of the victors . . . I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors,most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” Which is what this novella is as well.
That same description aptly fits another English novel I read, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison. It’s also fraught with psychological tension that wreaks havoc with the loves and losses of its characters. Ms. Alison explains in her author’s note that a cousin of her father’s, Sir Clifford Norton, and his wife Peter inspired the book, along with photos of young London evacuees at a “great house” in the English countryside.
The book begins with two seminal moments: the Nazis invade Poland and the British government offers an evacuation scheme for London’s children. We meet eight-year-old Anna Sands and her mother Roberta, out in Kensington buying what she’ll need to travel to the country. Anna hopes for the seaside. Roberta senses “the spontaneous rise of her daughter’s soul,” and is overcome with love. Anna too feels that it’s a turning point: “In the years to come she would remember that fragile day, its touchless light, their quiet elations.”
The Nortons, who were at the British Embassy in Warsaw, are fleeing Poland and trying to aid those about to be caught in the maw of the Nazi machine. In life as in the novel, they aided refugees of WWII and later the Greek Civil War. This brave and unflappable couple appear at intervals in the book as friends of Thomas Ashton, last heir of Ashton Park, an estate in Yorkshire.
Thomas has had a tragic life — distant parents, two brothers lost in the Great War, and his own life nearly ended by polio, which leaves him wheelchair bound. He’s a diplomat, but he (and Norton, both in the book and in real life) cannot in good conscience work for the Nazi-appeasing government so before WWII begins, he retreats to Yorkshire with his very beautiful young wife Elizabeth, to translate classics.
Elizabeth wants a child, and begins a series of impersonal affairs with artists — the real Peter Norton was a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and had a gallery in London that was among the first to show surrealists’ and avante garde artists’ work in England. Through Peter she lives a double life but Elizabeth soon realizes it’s she who is barren, not Thomas.
When the evacuation begins, she and Thomas see an opportunity to restore life to Ashton Park and they open a school, accepting dozens of children from London. Little Anne ends up there. She’s from an entirely different world and is enchanted by the grand house and its glamorous occupants.
She also comes to love and admire a young literature teacher, Ruth Weir, and she thrives under Ruth’s and Thomas’s patient and caring tutelage. You can sense her growing distance from her father, a soldier in North Africa, and mother, who is experiencing her own new lease on life as a woman alone embarking on a new career at the BBC in war-torn London.
As the war grinds on, Alison spins her characters farther apart, deftly connecting their stories in her fictional web — Elizabeth Ashton and Roberta Sands visit the same pubs in London as they turn away from their husbands, for example, and the Ashton’s London home is in the same neighborhood where decades later the grown-up Anna has a breakdown.
After the war, Anna goes back to London, to her father, but Ashton Park never leaves her. She studies at Oxford – unthinkable before the war, given her class and local schooling – and becomes an acquiring editor at a publishing house. And she is an emotional basket case, unable to love the way she yearns to, unsure why.
Again I can’t say much more without spoiling the book for you, but it’s very interesting the way Alison heals her heartbroken main characters, Thomas and Anna. This book will add depth and gravity to your Great House lust if you’re a Downton Abbey fan (I am), as you read about what happens to Ashton Park when Thomas dies heirless. And the impact of a war on people far from the front, even into subsequent generations, is also a powerful theme of The Very Thought of You.
War or its memories impact the characters in a novel-in-stories I read in April, Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz. Set in Tel Ilan, a fictional Israeli pioneer village, the stories touch on the seen and unseen in a small community, with a thread of strange or unexplainable events working as the book’s connective tissue.
In “Heirs,” a mysterious sweating visitor claims to be related to an old woman and her son. He invites himself into the house and begins to presume involvement in intimate decisions relating to her care and to the eventual sale of her assets. The story ends on a very weird, discordant note.
“Relations” finds the village doctor missing her nephew, who was due on the bus. The driver tells her, “Don’t worry, Dr. Steiner, whoever didn’t arrive this evening will certainly turn up tomorrow morning, and whoever doesn’t arrive tomorrow morning will come tomorrow at lunchtime. Everyone gets here sooner or later.”
In “Digging,” Rachel, a widow, lives with her father, father, a bitter old man obsessed with politics. Adel, an Arab student rents a cottage on the property. Both tell Rachel they hear digging in the night. She can’t hear it. Adel gives the mayor of Tel Ilan, Benny, a note from his wife that says only “Don’t worry about me,” in “Waiting;” Benny walks around town wondering where she is.
These slightly unreal, slightly sad stories of people surviving their everyday existence resonate with a deep sense of place — the village memorial garden, cypress hedges, the school, the library, the bus all appear and reappear in the stories. People are hot, bothered, (there is a lot of sweat and body odor in the these stories), slightly or deeply troubled. Death is never far; there are widows and grieving parents, the dead and the dying.
But it’s also a kind of universal cast of characters, even though they are particularly Israeli. The villagers gather for social events, they gossip, they speculate on what will happen to real estate, they work teaching each other’s children, caring for each other, they grow old, they are suspicious of newcomers even as they protest that they are not.
Oz makes all these small tensions build into one larger tug between old and new. His characters map the terrain of longing and possibility, lives lived and moments lost. They reflect on what they could have done differently. But in the end they get on with their days.
I read a bit more about England as Teen the Elder wraps up his Gap Year there and prepares for the next phase of his adventures (Eight weeks in Kirkland, outside Seattle, which, by the way, is where Teen the Younger was born. But I digress).
I realized as I read novels set in England that I was a bit shaky on some of the details of English history; I had them once, but they were in the shadowy recesses of my brain. So I read Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November): Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About British History with All the Boring Bits Taken Out by Judy Parkinson. This brief volume gives a small page each to seminal events and is a decent review, albeit a scanty one.
In a similar vein, I read Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of National Trust House to get an overview of the behind-the-scenes care and keeping of a home like Ashford Park. Author Mary MacKie‘s husband is hired as Houseman at Fellbrigg Hall, and she becomes “Assistant Drain-Clearer, Doorbell-Answerer, Flower Arranger, and Rodent Exterminator.” It’s an interesting, if somewhat staid, look at a year in the life of a house’s upkeep and the way the National Trust operates.
On a much wilder note, I’ll end this month’s post with a thriller. Not my usual reading, but the author, James Tabor, is from Vermont, so I’m reviewing it for The Mindful Reader. Tabor is the author of the nonfiction book about extreme caving, Blind Descent, and he returns to otherworldly super caves in his novel, The Deep Zone.
I admire his two heroines: Lenora Stillwell, maverick Army doctor, who faces a mutated acinetobacter, or ACE, “super bug” killing patients in an Afghan field hospital; and Hallie Leland, cave explorer scientist, who was framed and fired from her government research job but is called back to work on an antibiotic to counter ACE. To do that she has to harvest organic material found only in a Mexican super cave in narco-traffickers’ territory.
Tabor’s plot was inspired by an ACE outbreak among U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as well as his cave research. His plot is wild but plausible, with shadowy operatives working for corporate overlord and loads of technical caving details and futuristic military gear. The novel’s supporting characters are interesting and well-drawn. The Deep Zone is a good read, if one that might keep you awake at night worrying about mutant bacteria.
The Computer Scientist didn’t get much reading done this month but he participated in World Book Night, handing out one of his favorite books, Stephen King’s The Stand. He had mixed response to walking around Concord handing out free books, but was glad he did it. King’s new book, The Wind Through the Keyhole (part of the Dark Tower sequence) is on top of his to-read pile.
He and Teen the Younger and I finished Lord of the Flies by William Golding this month; Teen the Younger told him on a father-daughter outing that she thinks it has ruined “teen lit” for her because the writing is so amazing. Teen the Elder went through a similar experience with The Lord of the Rings. I had never read Lord of the Flies and really enjoyed our conversations — it’s a very intense book and we had fun showing Teen the Younger how to unpack the symbolism, allegory, and meaning beneath the story. We’ve made a list of other novels with socio-political themes but haven’t yet chosen our next family read yet.
Teen the Younger, like her mother, has decided summer would be a good time to tame said piles. I resisted purchasing a new Europa Editions printing of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter at Gibson’s last week and vowed I can only have it when I get through my own piles. A feat that might defeat me. But I can try. I have another Gardam/Europa Edition on top: The Queen of the Tambourine.