This month my reading ranged from Belle Époque Holland to contemporary Cuba, 1990’s Boston to ancient Rome, a mysterious jinn city to a future America, from a Maine isle to US Navy vessels before, during, and after D-Day. If this sounds like too much variety for me to tie together with a theme, remember the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: one book will almost always lead us to another, as our mind seeks connections in what we’ve read.
And also know this: humans seem to have boundless capacity for inhumanity. We can’t resist labeling each other, mostly for the purpose of feeling entitled to treat each other with contempt or even cruelty or to wage war. Sadly, that seems to be what my July reading has in common, along with hope that we also have endless capacity to recover from and transcend inhumanity.
I read four novels this month. First, Richard Mason‘s History of a Pleasure Seeker. I heard Mason on Nancy Pearl‘s podcast last spring. This book is his latest, but he first came to prominence when he was still at Oxford and published his first novel, The Drowning People.
History of a Pleasure Seeker is about a young man, Piet Barol, who is well educated but poor, whose late mother gave him a hunger for the finer things in life and prepared him to rise above his humble beginnings. When the novel begins, he’s interviewing for a job as tutor to Egbert, the youngest child and only son of hotel baron Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts and his wife Jacobina. It’s not an ordinary job, because Egbert refuses to go outside and the last few tutors have failed.
Piet loves sensual pleasure — excellent food and drink, good music and art, fine clothing and furnishings, and yes, sex. With beautiful women or men (this book is quite explicit, but I’ll grant that the sex is part of the story). Piet’s not purely hedonistic. He does want to help Egbert,whose phobias and terrors Mason draws with convincing detail, and he comes to value the friendships he makes with both the family and the other servants. As tutor, he is able to move freely in both worlds, which gives readers access to both “upstairs” and “downstairs” dramas in the household. Among which are the ways people are willing to stab each other in the back when they are afraid, angry, or prejudiced.
I won’t give away plot details, but I will say the book’s period details are fascinating, and Mason ties the fate of his characters’ lives to historical events. He is also a beautiful writer. Every sentence is a small jewel, cut and polished, perfectly showing off both natural beauty and craft. But this isn’t intrusive, you don’t sense the writer working hard, it’s just a lovely novel whose language enhances the story and makes the characters three dimensional. Piet is fascinating because he is so self-interested and yet also has a conscience. I am very interested in reading Mason’s other work.
Another historical novel I read this month was Cecilia, a Europa Editions novel by Linda Ferri. The title character is a young noble woman in ancient Rome whose mother has lost all of her other children and who is increasingly obsessed with a goddess cult. Her father is an official in the emperor’s government, but was previously a farmer. He has given his daughter an education, but she is also expected to dutifully marry according to her parents’ wishes.
Cecilia continues studying, playing music, and writing a diary while trying to please her parents, understand her friends as they enter the adult world, and deal with the deaths of her siblings and a young slave she played with at her parents’ country villa. She is a thinking person but her role is to be compliant. After a Christian wise man heals her, she joins their community where her nurse has secretly worshiped.
Cecilia is troubled by her family’s tragedies and her mother’s possible madness. She has difficulty reconciling her yearning for truth and her role in a superficial society that only wants her to look nice and be a good hostess for her ambitious husband, and in her troubles she turns to the Christian faith. But, the other new adherents aren’t a very nice bunch. In fact the men in the group are as domineering and judgmental as the other Roman men in the story.
The divergence into Cecilia’s diary and dreams confused me a bit early on, but when the novel rushed through her conversion, conviction, and imprisonment I was frustrated. I understand the poetic license necessary to write about someone who lived so long ago (the book is based on St. Cecilia), but I didn’t think Ferri made her conversion or her willingness to die for the faith convincing in the novel, even if it was meant to be understood.
From the past to the future: I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This book is set in the near future, in a time when the earth’s rotation slows and thus days and nights no longer correspond to a 24 hour period. It’s a fascinating idea for a novel. Walker chooses Julia, who is 11 when the book opens, to narrate. She’s an interesting and observant narrator.
But she’s a kid, so many of her concerns have to do with fitting in at middle school, getting a particular boy to notice her, and worrying about her parents and grandfather in the slightly clueless way of adolescence. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a smart character, but because of her age there is much she has to guess at, which leaves readers guessing too. And I don’t think her language is representative of an actual eleven year old, but is more what an adult might say or think. I think if Julia had been in her late teens, the book would read better. As it is, I was distracted by incongruities.
That quibble aside, I did like the book very much. Julia’s neighbors turn on the two households that try to continue living by sun time instead of the now arbitrary clock time. People seem to mostly act in fear and mistrust or succumb to “end time” attitudes, having lavish parties and indulging their desires before it’s too late. Julia’s family represents a kind of middle way — her mother hoards food and water, they try to protect themselves from excessive sun exposure, but they mostly try to get by, living as normally as possible. I enjoyed the way Walker shows readers a variety of human responses to the scary new reality of a slower earth.
Walker veers into a “young love” subplot but it’s quirky rather than sappy, and does have to do with the slowing. The Age of Miracles would be an interesting book club read, with plenty to discuss. It’s a pretty good read flaws and all, and definitely made me wonder how my own neighborhood would respond to such a strange turn of events.
Speaking of strange, Alif the Unseen is strange in all the best ways. Longtime bookconscious readers know I love books that dip into magical realism, where magic and the real world intersect. Jasper Fforde, Nick Harkaway, and Lev Grossman are masters of this, and to that list I can now add G. Willow Wilson. Her novel is one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking I’ve read this year.
Alif of the title is a cyber-security expert, a geek extraordinaire who protects anyone who’ll pay him — communists, Islamists, Arab spring activists, dissidents, all are his online clients. He lives in a decent but shabby neighborhood in a city state run by an emir, with a couple dozen princes in the line of succession. Alif is his computer handle, and his neighbor Dina is one of the few people in the book who knows his real name.
Soon after we meet Alif, he finds out the girl he loves is betrothed to someone in the royal family and she’s ending things with Alif. He writes an elaborate “bot” program that can identify her based on her keystroke patterns and language, so that they can never see each other online (their paths don’t usually cross in person since he is of mixed “desi”/Arab origin and not in her social class).
But the Hand, a government operative who has been after Alif and his hacker/revolutionary crowd for years, co-opts Alif’s technology and in a fit of panic, he severs ties with his clients and flees. As he feels the Hand (who turns out to have a personal beef with him as well) and state security closing in on him, Alif flees with Dina and they end up turning to Vikram, a jinn (genie). Along the way Alif relies on Vikram’s sister (who he’s known as a cat for a long time) and his associates in the jinn world to help protect him, Dina, and an American woman who is a student and Muslim convert.
It’s as wild as it sounds, but it’s also a page turning thriller, as Alif implicates an elderly imam when he seeks refuge in the City’s main mosque, finds himself imprisoned and is later sprung by a hacker prince he’s only ever known online as New Quarter. Dina turns out to be one of the strongest, wisest characters and Alif to his credit comes to see that he’s underestimated her.
Best of all for word geeks (and programmers, I’d guess, although I can’t speak for them) is that Dina’s involvement in the story begins when she delivers a package for the jilted Alif and returns with a book sent by the aristocrat who has dumped him. It turns out to be one of the only surviving copies of a jinn masterpiece, “The Thousand and One Days,” and Alif realizes that its secret wisdom is the power of language, and his favorite language is computer code. He manages to write a program that defeats the Hand before he’s betrayed and taken into custody.
When he makes it back to the City after escaping prison and reuniting with Dina in the jinn’s world, the revolution he and his online friends have long dreamed of is in progress. The Hand has broken the City’s internet infrastructure in his battle to beat Alif, and the people have risen up. Wilson’s humor seems born of outrage, and the book’s fantasy elements and forays into the worlds of supernatural beings and storytelling are excellent foils for sociopolitical critique.
Yes, it’s a novel with something to say, a good read that is fun but also meaningful, that can make you laugh and perhaps also feel indignant. Wilson captures the frustrations and idealism of the Arab Spring, the power of online communities, the strength and yes, even perhaps magic of language, whether its human, jinn, or computer. She also challenges stereotypes with in-your-face examples of men and women, human and jinn, rich and poor who break out of the boundaries society wants to keep them in. I loved this book.
I read five nonfiction books as well this month. Yes, I know. More on how crazy that is later.
First, from New Hampshire’s Bauhan Publishing, Waltzing With Bracey: A Long Reach Home by Brenda Gilchrist. When the book opens, Gilchrist reacts to inheriting a home on Deer Isle: “It’s always been an anchor of sorts, throughout my rootless life. But it’s big, old, and reeks of history, custom, forebears.”
Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (Henry’s nephew) designed the house. Gilchrist’s great-grandfather counted Charles Darwin, John Stewart Mill, and Frederick Law Olmstead among his friends. Harriet Beecher Stowe based characters on Gilchrist’s family of reformers, abolitionists, writers, people “long on summers and pedigree, short on money.” Gilchrist “. . . can’t help being impressed by these people, yet they suffocate me.”
As a child, this diplomat’s daughter spent summers in Maine. When her aunt dies she’s forty-eight and editing a book series for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. Expat and city life have made her nomadic. She knows nothing about home ownership.
But she learns, renovating both the house and her life, coming to terms with family ghosts and her place among them. Bracey, her corgi, provides the unconditional love only a dog can give. He’s instrumental in helping Gilchrist come home in every sense of the word.
Bauhan’s hallmark is excellent design, and this beautiful book is filled with photos, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings that illustrate Gilchrist’s emotional journey. If you’ve lived in an old house or by the sea, loved a dog or reconciled yourself to your family’s legacy, you’ll find much to identify with here. Gilchrist’s writing is open-hearted, reflective, and spirited.
For a book club, I read The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. This book tells the story of the theft of several priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, and of author Boser’s growing obsession with the crime and with unraveling the tangled threads of the most probable leads in the case. It was an interesting read, which reminded me a bit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because of the way the author became so involved in the story.
Boser also tells the story of Garder’s obsession with art, the significance of her collection, and the meticulous way she planned and built her museum. And he describes the heist in as much detail as possible. He describes the way the case was handled (and mishandled) over the years, especially by the FBI, and the many connections to prominent criminals in the Boston area, including the notorious Whitey Bulger.
Those sections of the book were hard to read, because of the violence and cruelty Boser details. I enjoyed the sections about art, the world of art theft and recovery, and Gardner more. Overall it’s an interesting read and I wondered if the theft will ever be solved or the art ever restored to the museum. And it’s a hopeful sign that not only is Bulger now in custody, but also the FBI appears to be over its years of corruption in Boston.
A book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale that caught my eye in July is My War: A Love Story in Letters and Drawings by Tracy Sugarman. Sugarman was an Ensign for most of his service in WWII, and was at Utah Beach for D-Day and after. This book is excerpts from his letters home to his wife June and from his sketchbooks, where he drew and painted what he was experiencing.
It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking book. Sugarman’s letters are full of youthful optimism, fury at the boorish or prejudiced behavior he witnesses among his fellow servicemen, awe at their bravery and hard work, frustration at the tedium and senselessness of war. He explains that most of June’s replies were lost, but includes one letter that survived. He also tells readers that she died in his arms in 1998, two years before the book was published. They’d been married 55 years.
As a personal account and a work of art, the book is beautiful. It’s also interesting historically as a primary source from a time which we remember mostly with fondness these days, a proud moment in American history. Sugarman balances well deserved pride in service, sacrifice, and courage with righteous anger at racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, and other cultural scourges.
Which of course got me to thinking about whether we can ever truly overcome those things — I was reading this book while the overheated and often distorted election year rhetoric swirled in the background. And as a woman in Congress questioned the service of a woman at the State Department in a shamefully prejudiced way. And as people flocked to either eat at a fast food chain or boycott it, over the biased remarks of the man who owns it. And as the Olympics were tainted by racist remarks and crass commercialism.
But I digress. Two other books I read this month — both for the Mindful Reader column — left me similarly torn between admiration and quiet fury.
Privacy brings Garret Keizer’s spirited, reflective, whip-smart and incisive analysis to this far-ranging yet elusive concept. Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and writes frequently on “matters of politics, religion, and justice.” In Privacy, Keizer delivers a sharp, thorough, witty exploration of “the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don’t; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.”
Keizer explains his book is an “introduction,” not an “airtight definition” of privacy. He probes the concept in history, law, economics, the media, philosophy and social justice, popular culture and daily life, illuminating privacy’s “basis in the bodily integrity of human beings and in their spiritual needs.” Keizer considers whether privacy is a universal value and investigates the ways it has eroded recently. He combines intellect and clarity to make this complex and somewhat fuzzy topic lucid, skewering sloppy or misleading reasoning no matter the source. Public discourse would benefit if more of it were this thoughtful and impartial.
In light of persistent lying/cheating scandals and over-heated, often deceptive election rhetoric, Keizer’s conclusion, “. . . privacy may amount to little more, and rest on no firmer basis, than the promises we make to one another” is depressing. And yet, Keizer reminds us, “Privacy being what it is, they are kept more often than we know.” Let’s hope.
Another book that left me torn between hope and distress is New Hampshire author William Craig’s Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantánamo. Craig’s book is a searing combination of reporting, history, and personal reflection that covers U.S. foreign policy in Cuba since 1898, and Cuban history from its first hopes for independence to the present.
Craig visited Cuba for the first time in 2001, reporting on a tour by The Feminine Tone chorus. His return trip in 2005 provides the framework for Yankee Come Home. Craig is anxious to see Guantánamo and also to unpack the history of the Spanish-American-Cuban War. He’s motivated by post 9-11 angst and family legend regarding his great-grandfather’s time with the “rough riders.” Craig and The Feminine Tone are trying to enter Cuba via a U.S. embargo loophole, “with a fundamentalist pastor licensed to lead missionaries.”
But Reverend Esau ditches them in a Jamaican airport, short on cash due to an unexpected “charter tax” and without the permits Craig will need to continue traveling once the chorus returns to New Hampshire. They go anyway, and we go along, meeting ordinary Cubans (among them many relatives of The Feminine Tones’ director Maricel Lucero Keniston) and learning a great deal. Including that Craig’s family legend may be just that.
Craig’s thorough observations, reflections, and sensory details bring his narrative to life. As in other countries where revolutionary promises of freedom, justice and equality devolved into an oppressive regime, Cuba is a place where daily life requires navigating hope and fear, beauty and decay, personal ingenuity and institutional corruption. Craig captures the indomitable spirit, warmth, and faith of the Cubans who befriend him, and the ugliness, suspicion, and ideological tension in his brushes with Cuban officialdom.
Cuba is a challenging, sometimes dangerous place to travel, and Craig shares the full gamut of his experiences with readers. He concludes that American foreign policy troubles are rooted in our “wielding money and guns to control what isn’t ours” in Cuba over a century ago. And that what Cubans admire about the U.S. (including the Declaration of Independence, which influenced revolutionaries) reflects “a vision of the peace we could have known if we’d stuck to our founding principles.
Which brings me full circle to the first pessimistic paragraphs of this post. Yes, each of these books seems to shed light on the myriad ways we humans mistreat each other. But thankfully (or I might not have been able to even reflect on these ideas) we are also able to help each other, to reform or repent, to make up for our errors. I guess that sums up the human condition, in literature and life — we screw up, and we fix it.
Books help us make sense of all this. We can learn about grace even from a fictional tutor who feels remorse for the emotional damage he causes, a bumbling hero who acts selfishly and spitefully when jilted but risks his life to do the right thing for his fictional world and the friends who stand by him, writers who tell us stories — real or imagined — that remind us our best selves are always within reach. This is one of the reasons I read.
You may have noticed I read a bit less this month. A couple of years ago I heard Paul Harding talk about how he’d rather read one book well than read a pile of books. I’ve been reading a pile of books every month for a long time now, and it’s taking its toll. I read less this month in part because I spent more evenings with the Computer Scientist, Teens the Elder & Younger, and friends. And because I took on less, said no to a few books for the column. Teen the Younger has taught me that life is too short to read books I don’t care for.
I reflected on the tyranny of summer reading lists and realized I’ve been forcing myself into various reading “lists” for quite a while — as an indie bookstore events coordinator and book club member, as Europa Challenge participant and book reviewer. I’d hoped to get through my “to-read” piles this summer but all I’ve done is get them off the floor by spending an entire afternoon reorganizing shelves and lightly weeding.
So I’m hoping to change. I’m taking a break from reading challenges and clubs, and I’m learning that saying no to some books means I have more time and thought to give to the ones I’d like to share with my fellow readers. Like a student who’s had her love of learning diminished with busy work, I have let goals and obligations detract from the thing I love — reading for pleasure.
So for serendipity’s sake, I started a book this week because someone asked me about it and I remembered that I’d wanted to read it for awhile too. I’m still discussing books I love — I did so last night at a dinner party and wrote down a couple of suggestions from the guest seated across from me. I’ll still be making a “to-read” list or adding to my shelves, but only because a book intrigues. Stay tuned. And happy reading.
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