We took a shorter summer vacation this year, just a couple of days off work for each of us for a long weekend in the White Mountains, before both of our offspring embark on senior years (Senior the Elder left today to head back to college, Senior the Younger starts her last year of high school tomorrow).
One of the days it rained, which helped me to read three books in three days — The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman, A Dresser of Sycamore Trees by Garrett Keizer, and Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey. I also started How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton.
Carey’s book was the last I finished. It’s a short nonfiction book about his son’s interest in manga and anime and their trip to Japan together. Which Carey notes he took as much to write this book, and therefore be able to have the trip expenses covered as he did to take his son to Japan. Somehow that bothered me as a reader — I felt as if the book wasn’t about a trip a father and son took as much as a trip a father produced around his son’s interest in order to publish a little nonfiction book between novels. Maybe that’s just jealousy? Carey is certainly a good writer and his willingness to admit when he was frustrated, lost, worried, or just wrong in his preconceived ideas is refreshing. Since my own teenager also liked anime and manga at one point — now she is more interested in American comics — I found the narrative interesting and informative. For one thing, it reminded me that in Japan adults read and watch manga and anime, but Senior the Younger associates those interests with her younger self, and sees them as something she’s grown out of. So it was a decent poolside read on the one truly sunny day of the trip, but nothing I’d read again.
A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, on the other hand, I will read again someday, possibly soon. I realized this is the third summer in a row in which I read a book by Garrett Keizer on my time off. The previous two were for the Mindful Reader column — Privacy and Getting Schooled. In the past I’ve referred to Keizer as “whip smart,” “thoughtful, curious, intelligent, and respectful” and “what every child deserves in a teacher.” He’s also funny too, in my favorite way — gently, kindly. What I didn’t realize is that he’s also what every human being deserves as a preacher. In fact when I finished A Dresser of Sycamore Trees I immediately looked up how long it would take to get from our house in New Hampshire to the church where Keizer was first a lay vicar and later a full Episcopal priest. Sadly, he seems to no longer be serving there (or anywhere that I could find), although writing is a ministry of its own.
A Dresser of Sycamore Trees addresses what it means to have faith, what ministry means, how a person can really live his or her convictions, and how humble, open-hearted, intelligent discourse can lead someone closer to an understanding of what it is to be a good person and also perhaps how to trust in God, or what that trust looks like. Keizer is unapologetically liberal (in the sense of the word that indicates someone who would like to liberate mankind from injustice) but he has equal criticism for lazy thinking, selfishness, and hypocrisy in those on both the left and the right, (If you want to see what I mean, read this article on values, which I found on his website as I was looking for what he’s up to these days).
What I love about Keizer’s writing is how very good it is. He’s an original thinker, and his prose is muscular but clean – every word matters. Here he describes a bishop’s voice: “The best I can do is to say that his voice was that of a male lion, with his great clawed paw resting as delicately as possible on the arm of a couch as he proposed marriage to a dubious lamb.” And this, on listening as a divine gift: “More and more I see God as the Almighty Listener. More and more I see how preoccupied we are with the ‘answers’ to our prayers, never acknowledging the utterly omnipotent and compassionate act of God’s hearing them. . . . Ironically I have sometimes been granted a share of that divine gift through being so mortal. In some conversations on some evenings I am simply too exhausted, flabbergasted, unqualified, or inexperienced to do much besides listen.”
I’ve had a very “not-sure heart,” for some time now, and found this book intriguing. “Sometimes we resolve to do without an evil or harmful thing, and Grace enables us to do without it. But sometimes we also resolve to do without a good thing . . . . and Grace gives it to us anyway.” That will stay with me.
If you’ve been reading bookconscious for a long time you’ll know I also very much admire Elinor Lipman, who is also whip smart and funny. The Inn at Lake Devine is about a young woman, Natalie Marx, only 12 when the book opens, and her fascination with a Vermont inn whose proprietress responds to her mother’s request for information that gentiles are the “guests who feel most comfortable here.” In a clever but not ever pat story, Lipman, like Jane Austen, turns her formidable wit on the society of her novel: the anti-Semitic innkeeper, summer camp, over-bearing parents, adult childhood friends, Catskills resorts, and much else. There is young love, an untimely death, missed connections, strategic alliances, wrongs righted, and loose ends tidied, as in a Shakespearean comedy. The Inn at Lake Devine is both delightfully entertaining and thought provoking. Forget frothy “beach reads” – try Elinor Lipman on your next vacation.
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