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Archive for August, 2012

I’m going to start posting a list of books I’m covering in the Mindful Reader column about a week ahead of its publication in the Concord Monitor on the 2nd Sunday of the month. For the Sept. 9 column, I’m writing about Maryanne O’Hara’s novel Cascade and also doing shorter reviews of Rise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

I wanted to say a bit more about Park Songs. Bookconscious regulars know I’ve written about David Budbill’s work before. The combination of plain-spokeness, beauty, and koan-like wisdom in his poetry blows me away. It’s brilliant to me when a poem reads easily — it’s clear and understandable — and then makes you stop and think and see more to it than when you first read it. And even better, to see more in the world than before you read it.

Park Songs is genre-melding, but it’s completely accessible. It’s a book about people in a city park in the Midwest on a single day. There are three epigraphs:

“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” — Mark Twain

“Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” — Sophocles, Antigone

“We learn in a time of pestilence that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” — Albert Camus, The Plague

Those quotes would be an excellent start for a discussion of the book. Or a discussion of any kind. People who say “I don’t get poetry” could enjoy Park Songs. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s “absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. In a note to readers, Budbill points out that like his rural poems in Judevine, which became a play, this book could be staged in its entirety or in parts.

He suggests a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that the section called “Let’s Talk,” a dialogue between Fred and Judy, who are, respectively, lonely and wishing to be alone, could be a one act play. “Let’s Talk” is touching and funny and Budbill captures the essence of human communication– the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations—in one scene on a park bench.

Budbill says his father often told him “Stick up for the little guy, bud.”  The people in Park Songs are people who could benefit from having someone in their corner. But they are there for each other, even though like most people, they don’t always listen or understand each other. Two characters really grabbed me: Mr. C., “Would be poet, keeper, attendant and guardian of the Park.” and Haal, “Hangs Around A Lot.”

In “Haal’s Great Idea” they discuss Haal’s potential t-shirt business. He proposes “LIFE HURTS” for his first design and Mr. C. goes nuts: “God! Nobody wants that, Haal! Nobody wants to hear about or think about that pain and suffering thing. Take it from me, there’s no money in the suffering game, Haal . . . . And besides, that phrase, LIFE HURTS, it’s worse than poetry.”

I think Haal is on to something, because commercial fiction, Hollywood, and the glut of “pain-and-suffering” memoirs seem to indicate there IS money in it, as long as the product is marketed to the masses, which poetry is not. But I digress.

Haal comes back with, “Well then, how about GROWING OLD IS NOT FOR SISSIES.” Ouch. He goes on, “Yeah, and I got another one, too: SOME PEOPLE ARE SARCASTIC AND MEAN.”  Mr. C. realizes he’s been pretty harsh: “Haal! Hey wait a minute. What I meant was: it’s like poetry. It is poetry. Nobody wants it. People don’t care.”  Haal insists, “I think they do.” Oh, Haal. So do I!

There is much more to this beautiful, tragic-funny book than I can do justice to here. David Budbill’s writing is not just art, it’s a philosophical call to arms for readers to wake up to the world, to go ahead and risk feeling both the pain and the pleasure of being awake. Park Songs is an entertaining read and also one to make you think. It stayed with me and I can feel it connecting with other things I’ve read, helping me live with more heart, helping me notice things.

There’s not much more you could ask for from a book of any kind.

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I mentioned when I wrote about The Art of Racing in the Rain that I talked books at a dinner party. This week I read another book recommended at that dinner, The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. In fact I stayed up ridiculously late finishing this book, because I could not put it down.

Yes, it’s sold and cataloged in libraries as a YA (young adult) novel, but don’t let that scare you off. This book is a philosophical gem. I love the characters. As in, I want to know them, I want my kids to know them. I wish I was like them.

Hazel and Augustus, teenagers with cancer, are the antidote to everything negative you’ve read about teenagers (Check out a very astute blog post by Jan Fortune on that very topic.) Yes, they play video games and obsess over the opposite sex but they also read and talk and think.

To wit: Hazel posts on an online wall for mourners that a person I won’t reveal here “did not die after a lengthy battle with cancer. __ died after a lengthy battle with human consciousness, a victim — as you will be — of the universe’s need to make and unmake all that is possible.” Wow. She also quotes poetry and looks for the hamartia in people — yes, I had to look it up too. College was a long time ago.

Augustus likes to have a cigarette in his mouth but does not light up — “It’s a metaphor, see: You put the killing thing right between your teeth but you do not give it the power to do its killing.” Not long after Hazel meets him he explains a breakthrough he had shooting “existentially fraught” free throws before he had his leg partially amputated. Gus looks at shadows of trees on a sidewalk and says, “Such a good metaphor. . . The negative image of things blown together and then blown apart.” Did I say wow already? Wow.

Both Hazel’s and Gus’s parents are fascinating characters in very different ways, as is the Dutch-American author of Hazel’s favorite book, who has become a raving alcoholic. And Hazel and Augustus’s close friend Isaac, who believes fervently in true love. Even these minor characters, and others like Hazel’s wise-ass school friend Kaitlyn and the cancer support group leader Patrick contribute to readers’ understanding of Hazel and Gus.

Despite the main characters having cancer, this is an incredibly romantic story, and also very funny. And achingly, searingly sad. You may reach the end and wonder why on earth we haven’t made defeating cancer our moon-shot. You may rage inside that even now there are probably people as sensitive, smart, empathetic, and promising as these kids who are going to die young.

But this isn’t entirely a book about cancer and death, it’s a book about how to live. How to be one’s self in a world of expectations. How to make a life (or a death) mean something even if it’s not glorious or heroic or exceptional. How to live in relation to Meaning and Truth and Love and all the Big Questions, and to in relation to each other as fellow human beings, even when we don’t connect perfectly. Or when we do.

I can’t really do this novel justice in a blog post. I wish more YA fiction was this good. Heck, I wish more adult fiction was this good. Thanks, Gene, for the recommendation. And thanks John Green. I’ll add the rest of your books to my to-read list.

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This week I read Tim Horvath‘s first book, Understories, and it made me realize there are some excellent writers you’ve never heard of (nor have I). If it wasn’t for the fact that Horvath knows Rebecca Makkai, who I met last summer, I might not have heard him read from “Circulation” when they visited Gibson’s Bookstore in July (Rebecca was promoting the paperback of The Borrower). It’s entirely possible that what with books for my column, books I hear about at work, and books already around my house waiting for me to read (not to mention heavy media coverage of only a few “it” titles a month, but that’s another rant), I might have missed Understories.Which is maddening, because this is not a book I would want to miss.

Understories is a very satisfying short fiction collection because the stories not only share an aesthetic — writing that is philosophical, sometimes whimsical, darkly funny, thought provoking, intense, evocative — but seem to come from a world that is similar to ours but riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these stories left me feeling slightly off kilter.

Examples: the eight “Urban Planning” stories are each set in a strange city, such as one inhabited by the dead (new residents don’t always realize it at first). Another city has films constantly projected on its walls, and the main characters in that story are a projectioneer and his childhood friend who is in an anticinematic movement.

Some of the other stories that aren’t part of the “Urban Planning” series also dip into fantasy, like “The  Conversations,” which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse. Conversations (capital C) explode like terror attacks, leaving a strange mint scent in their wake. A philosopher determines that the opposite of Conversation is kismet, “meaning moments when people found common ground in an almost transcendent way.” He’s delusional and has spent a lot of time on his research: “the idea was to ingest as many and as various substances as he could track down, legal and illegal alike, and describe them.” He crashes a scientific summit convened to solve the problem of Conversations.

Even the stories set firmly in what we recognize as reality have a philosophical bent; Hovarth doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds, and souls of his characters. I was drawn to many of them — the main characters in “Runaroundandscreamalot” and “Circulation” are people living with a great deal of empathy, even as they struggle, respectively, with divorce and joblessness and a dying parent. They each have a fairly quirky relative – an inventor brother in one case, and the dying father in the other, a man whose life work (never finished) was a book called the Atlas of the Voyages of Things.  Both men are so kind to these misfit souls whose quests have impacted their families’ lives.

I also loved “The Understory” — what a beautiful story. Schoner, a botany professor at University of Freiburg where Heidegger is also teaching, gets to know the philosopher before fleeing Germany ahead of the war. In America he can’t teach because his English isn’t good enough, so he landscapes, and eventually buys a home with a small patch of forest in New Hampshire. The hurricane of 1938, closely followed by the hurricane of Hitler’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland, topples the trees Schoner loves, even as the war topples everything he’s known in Germany. His children want him to “clean up” the plot, cut paths through it, but he refuses because in it he sees all the people who he lost: “this plot preserves them.”

“The Discipline of Shadows,” about an “umbrologist” is both a playful jab at academic politics and a funny and strange story about a professor of shadows. In “Planetarium,” a man vacationing with his family in Glacier National Park runs into an old high school classmate and revisits the memory of a girl he knew, his giddy admiration of her, and her rejection of him. I’m summarizing poorly, but Hovarth captures that bittersweet sense of both the pleasure and pain of adolescence that can be easily triggered by a memory conjured after long dormancy.

This is not a quick read; it’s a book to read slowly and carefully, and to ponder between stories. But you’ll be glad you spent time in Tim Horvath’s rich, thoughtful, witty fiction. I was not surprised that Bellevue Literary Press published Understories. They bring readers this kind of thought provoking, beautiful book (like Tinkers and The Sojourn)Check out their titles, and maybe you will discover a book you might have missed.

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In my last post I mentioned my plan to read differently, to say no to books I don’t really want to read, to be more serendipitous in my book selections, to read fewer books more intentionally. So in support of that goal, I’ve decided to also write about my reading differently, posting more frequently about what we’re reading at the bookconscious house, rather than writing one mammoth monthly post.

I finished David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas last week, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I blogged about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet two summers ago, and I also loved Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. A customer at Gibson’s recently asked for Cloud Atlas because he’d seen the movie trailer. Apparently so did a lot of other people, as the book has seen a spike in sales.

Mitchell impresses me with the emotional intensity of his characters’ inner lives. A lot of the action in his books happens inside people’s heads. The Thousand Autumns was also impressive for its historical detail. Cloud Atlas has both things — emotional intensity and historical detail — as well as mind-bending speculative fiction, philosophy, humor, and rip-roaring storytelling.

Mitchell tells the story of five main characters living in different times; I use the singular here because each piece belongs to a larger story. First we meet a 19th century San Francisco notary in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” His story of South Pacific adventure is told, as you might guess, in diary entries.

Next comes an aspiring English composer in inter-war Belgium, Robert Frobisher. He’s living in a crumbling great house working for an aging composer, as we learn through letters to his good friend (lover?) Sixsmith. Frobisher is reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

In “Half-Lives:The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” we learn that Rufus Sixsmith became a nuclear scientist. Luisa Rey, a young reporter, gets stuck in an elevator with him and learns that a nearby nuclear plant is unsafe and mired in corruption. She pursues the lead and in the process finds Sixsmith’s letters from Frobisher.

Luisa’s story turns up as a draft novel, sent to a vanity publisher in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” His story is a romping farce in which he’s chased by gangster relatives of his most successful client (an aging rock star who kills a book critic who panned his memoir), tricked into being admitted to a Dickensian nursing home, and sprung from said home with a little help from a pub full of Scottish soccer fans.

This cracker of a tale reappears as a movie (known as a “disney”) in “The Orison of Sonmi 451.” The title character asks to watch before she is executed. Sonmi 451 is a “fabricant” – a human cloned and engineered to slave in a futuristic world where corporations rule. Is Sonmi 451 a pawn in the power struggle between Unanimity and Union or an ascendant prophet, or both? Declarations, her “catechism” (or propaganda?) explains, “in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear . . . until the only ‘rights,’ the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.”

While on the run from a man who may be a Union spy or a Unanimity agent, Sonmi 451 meets the Abbess of a community refusing consumerist culture. In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After,” a character called The Abbess teaches Hawaiian islanders (who speak and live more like Appalachian dirt farmers) the divine Sonmi’s wisdom. Zachry, the main character in this section, asks “Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi . . . an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds.”

Sloosha’s Crossin’ is the hinge at the center of the book. Mitchell leads readers back through the other stories in reverse order, leaving a trail of literary breadcrumbs. The main characters share a strange birthmark (possibly in the shape of a cloud — they all describe it differently). Frobisher’s major work is “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey feels she’s heard the music before. Bridges and heights appear in each story. So do class and race divisions.

If this all seems a little too “pat,” it’s because I’m inadequately explaining — Mitchell is brilliant. His writing is brilliant. You never feel like a puppet master is pulling strings. And a strong thread of philosophy weaves the stories together. At the end of his journal, Adam Ewing writes:

“. . . history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts. What precipitates acts? Belief. Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.” He goes on to say that if mankind believes in nothing but inhumanity and strife, that’s what we’ll have.  If we believe instead in peace,  with “violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.” Imagine.

Ewing admits he’s describing “the hardest of worlds to make real” and that “torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.” This book came out in 2004; perhaps Mitchell was commenting on the world at the time but he could have been talking about any time. Cloud Atlas reminds us that a person who is fully awake to the world, who doesn’t just go through the motions in life, is a person who will notice beliefs and their outcomes.

My favorite blogger, Leo Babauta, wrote a great post on intentional life this week. This sort of thing happens in my reading life all the time; I read one thing and come across something else that speaks to it. I love that, and I love a book like Cloud Atlas that not only entertains me but charges all those connections in my brain, reminds me of the best things I’ve read and the thinking I’d like to spend more time doing, stays with me. For all those reasons it would be fun to discuss with other readers.

On a totally different note, last weekend I read The Art of Racing in the Rain. I mention in my post at The Nocturnal Librarian that a fellow dinner party guest recommended it a couple of weeks ago. It’s narrated by a dog, Enzo. He tells us the story of his master, Denny, an aspiring race car driver, and Denny’s wife Eve and daughter Zoe. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, and perhaps a little bit predictable, as Denny deals with very dramatic ups and downs. But sometimes that’s just what I want when I read: a book that’s emotional catharsis, not mental gymnastics.

Which is not to say there’s nothing to think about here. Enzo is a wonderful narrator, an “old soul.” I learned a great deal about race car driving. My brother, who is a big racing fan and lives in Seattle where the book is set, says author Garth Stein is big in “local car culture” there and agreed the racing sections were impressive.

Equally interesting was Enzo’s hope that a Mongolian belief that dogs can reincarnate as humans will be true for him. He comes to believe he is ready for that change as he reflects on human nature. You might never look at dogs the same way after spending time with Enzo. And there’s plenty to discuss in The Art of Racing in the Rain, including the cultural lenses that color our interpretation of stories.

Teen the Elder finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which is the Saint Michael’s College class of 2016 community read. He found the writing style “irritating” and the thesis “fear-mongering” and was pleasantly surprised to read some responses from professors who didn’t necessarily agree with Carr either. He’s writing his own response for his freshman seminar.

For fun, he also re-read some childhood favorites this summer, including the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz and Lloyd Alexander‘s Chronicles of PrydainAnd for those who are counting, he is now in his final year of being a teen; when I started writing bookconscious he was just becoming one.

At the moment I’m reading a book for The Mindful Reader, my monthly review column for the Concord Monitor. I will probably save that post for when the column comes out. So I’ll be back in a week or two with whatever I pick up after that . . . and happily, I haven’t decided what that will be yet.

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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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