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Archive for the ‘book buying’ Category

As I prepared to write my first post of 2012, I thought I hadn’t read much in December; I was too busy, surely? I returned to Gibson’s Bookstore as a holiday bookseller, continued working as a nocturnal reference librarian, did all the usual holiday prep, enjoyed time with Teen the Elder home from England. Plus, we hosted my brother for a visit, had a couple of dinners with friends, and celebrated the holidays and our anniversary.

Somehow, I read ten books as well. I can chalk that up in part to the lack of reference questions at the end of the term at the college where I work. I got a lot of reading done in between answering questions about printers and flash drives.

One notable thing about my December reading was that of the ten books, half were short story collections, and another was an art book with very short essays. These were the perfect books for a month when my “to-do” lists were always in flux and there seemed to be more to bake, cook, or prepare every day.

I’ve always enjoyed short fiction and essays for the same reason I love short forms of poetry.  It’s very satisfying to read a work that is beautiful and complex but also compact, completing the work of convincing the reader of its merits with fewer words.  I like a nice thick novel, an exhaustive work of nonfiction, or a meaty epic poem. But the shorter forms never fail to impress me more for working so well within their structural limitations.

I confess, another reason I focused on short stories in December was my sheepish realization that there were still a few of last Christmas’s gift books in my “to read” pile. Among those were three of the four books of Ox-Tales. I read and reviewed Earth last January. In December I read Air, Fire, and Water. These collections are original stories or excerpts from longer work- in-progress from well known writers, commissioned to benefit Oxfam’s development work.

In Air, I especially enjoyed “Still Life” by Alexander McCall Smith, about a woman living in a remote home on a loch in the Scottish Highlands and her encounter with one of the vistors who comes to hunt there; “Suddenly Dr. Cox” by DBC Pierre, about a drifter in Trinidad and his remarkable life; and “The Desert Torso” by Kamila Shamsie, about a man smuggling a Buddha statue through the Pakistani desert to India, and how the experience impacts him.

My favorite story in Air is “Goodnight Children Everywhere” by Beryl Bainbridge, about a boy who finds himself drawn to an old radio in his grandmother’s house. As the story proceeds, readers discover the radio is playing a jumble of old and current broadcasts. I loved the mysterious twists in this brief tale, and the dramatic ending.

In Water, I liked David Park‘s “Crossing the River,” a modern Styx story; William Boyd‘s humorous and touching story of a young actress and the crazy film set where she’s working, “Bethany-Next-the-Sea;” Joanna Trollope‘s “The Piano Man,” because I just love her writing; and Michael Morpurgo‘s “Look at Me, I Need a Smile,” which drew me in despite the fact that I didn’t want to like a story about a boy whose soldier dad has died, and who is about to be caught up in another tragedy.

My favorites in Fire were Geoff Dyer‘s “Playing With, which is a slight but deeply philosophical story about the choices we make and the possibly random outcomes they generate; John LeCarre‘s brilliant political fable, “The King Who Never Spoke;” and Ali Smith‘s marvelous story “Last,” a lovely piece whose protagonist is fascinated with words. More on Smith’s latest novel shortly.

When “Last” opens, we read, the main character’s thoughts are bleak:  “I had reached the end of my tether.” But after a strange experience helping a wheelchair bound woman on an empty train,”I felt myself become substantial.” In between she notes, “and now, background-murmuring through my head again, for the first time in ages, was a welcome sound, the sound of the long thin never-ending-seeming rolling-stock of words, the sound of life and industry, word after word after word coupled to each other by tough iron joists, travelling from the past through the present to the future like rolling stones that gather moss after all.” Sounds to me like the feeling a writer has after a dry spell.

The New Yorker Stories is a much larger collection, 500 pages, and it includes stories Ann Beattie published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006.  While I’d read a few of her pieces in the magazine from time to time, it was interesting to read such a dense collection.  Reading work from different decades on the same themes, a sort of fictional cultural history of America unfolds.

Beattie tinkers with the same subjects over and over but every story is unique. She writes mostly of relationships — marriage and friendship, love and family.  Her characters are often overcoming something — war wounds, divorce, addiction, disappointment, estrangement and loss. Some of the best pieces include a child’s perspective on the strange world of adult interactions.

Beattie manages to make each short piece highly specific and polished, transporting readers with myriad sensory details, descriptions of meals, weather, sounds, rooms. And she weaves in details that place the stories in specific times and locations.  I admire her skill — she’s an amazingly effective writer, and every story is deft and impactful. But the stories themselves are a stark reminder of human flaws.  Read in such quantity they left me feeling somewhat haunted.

Another book full of sensory detail and human flaws that really carried me away was  Comfort and Joy by India Knight. At first glance it’s a light chick-lit kind of book; a quick, fun, seasonal read. But I found it entertaining and sneakily wise. And I was left very much wanting to be friends with the main character, Clara.

Telling the story of three Christmas’s (and flashing back to some childhood ones) at Clara’s, Knight explores what holds family and friends together and why Christmas seems to bring out all the longings people have the rest of the year.  She peppers the story with very funny, very spot-on observations about relationships, friendships,and dealing with life’s ups and downs.

Speaking of funny, I also read the third Gerald Samper book by James Hamilton-Paterson, Rancid Pansies. This one seemed as if it wasn’t going to be so funny when it opened — Gerald is living in England with friends, recovering from the loss of his Italian home in an earthquake. After getting good news about the sale of film rights for his last book, he prepares one of his horrid (and horrifying) gourmet conconctions for a dinner party and ends up inadvertantly poisoning the guests.

Shamed and distressed, he returns to Italy, along the way deciding his next project will be to write the libretto for an opera about Princess Diana. Whose name can be anagrammed into Rancid Pansies. His old neighbor Marta is back (her disappearance in the previous novel, Amazing Disgrace, was due to a gig writing a movie score in Hollywood) and agrees to write the opera’s music. Several other characters from the earlier books appear as the hilarious plot unfolds.

I thought this was the most satisfying plot of the three Samper novels, again a  farce, but with a tighter story line that really moved along.  It may also have been the funniest, although I thought Cooking With Fernet Branca and Amazing Disgrace were also very funny. The scene in which Gerald has a cameo in the opening night of the opera playing Prince Phillip had me laughing out loud.  And wishing the BBC would produce a  mini series if they haven’t already.

The Samper trilogy were from Europa Editions, and was the thirteenth book in my 2011 Europa Challenge.  I was going for fourteen, which was the Ami level.  I reached my goal with another story collection, The Woman With the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. I liked the first story in the book, “The Dreamer of Ostend,” a love story with a mystery, in which the narrator isn’t sure what’s real and what’s fiction.  And the title piece, which tells the story of a nurse who blossoms into her true self only after a blind patient convinces her she is beautiful.

For the 2012 Europa Challenge I’m aiming for Cafe Luongo Level, which means reading twelve Europa Editions.  I have my first of the year, Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, checked out of the library and am looking forward to getting started.

Speaking of libraries, last January I had the pleasure of visiting the Library of Congress when I attended the ABA Winter Institute. It was a quick visit, but absolutely delightful. Last summer I visited the LOC mobile exhibit when it came to Concord.

For Christmas I received On These Walls: Inscriptions & Quotations in the Library of Congress, by John Colefrom my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and our nieces and nephew. I spent some time on Christmas evening reading it.  If you don’t live near the LOC, this is the armchair tour for you. It’s a beautiful book and brief essays give readers an overview of the library’s history, art, and architecture as well as its awesome mission. Cole is the founding director of the Center for the Book at the LOC.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to read a book in one sitting, but the last Sunday of the semester was exceptionally slow at the library, and I saw There But for the on the new book shelf. I’d just read a review in The Atlantic so I decided to give it a try. By the end of my five hour shift, I’d read the entire thing, which is a very satisfying way to read.  If I had my druthers, I’d read more novels that way.

Smith presents a funny and also disturbing problem: a man in Greenwich, England who is the guest of a guest at a dinner party excuses himself from the table. He goes into a spare bedroom and never comes out. Months go by, and he is lauded as some kind of prophetic folk hero by crowds who gather outside.

Each part of the book is told by four people from the party who knew the man just a little bit. As it turns out, each knows something that adds to what the reader has already learned so that by the end of the book things are less murky.

My favorite of the four guests is a precocious ten year old girl who is smart but lonely, and more comfortable among adults and inside her own inner world than other children. She manages to slip in and out among the other characters, thereby helping the reader tie things together. But all of the sections are marvelous and I really enjoyed the way Smith wove history, science, philosophy, and social commentary into the novel.

Watching each person involved in the drama react, and also seeing how society responds to the man in the room, I thought about how we all see and remember things from a slightly different angle. It’s an idea I enjoyed playing with as I read, that all the little interactions a person has in the world leave scraps of perception that together make up a kind of mosaic view. In fact, it was a book that led to a lengthy musing afterwards, another sign of an excellent read.

What’s time? How does it pass and how do we mark it? What do we fill it with? How do we impact each other by what we remember and forget? How do we miss, or see, the intersections of our lives with others?  And what can result from even the most minor encounter with another person? Is it possible to be truly alone in this world, or are even people who close themselves off connected somehow with others, whether they want to be or not? These are the things I wondered as I read There But for the and as I drove home that evening.  Heavenly, to have a book for company.

And to share books with the company you most love to keep. Both Teen the Younger and I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December, intending to go see Hugo, which we haven’t done yet. I liked it very much, mostly because of the way Brian Selznik weaves history and magic into the story but also because of the interesting intersection of art and story — it’s not a graphic novel, it’s not a picture book, it’s kind of a category of its own.

As I wrote last month, Teen the Younger liked the art.  Since we both enjoyed it so much, I bought Brian Selznik’s new book, Wonderstruck, which is in our to-read piles.  She also read a new Gakuen Alice manga.

Teen the Elder read Inheritance, the fourth book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. He enjoyed it very much. He says Paolini finished the story very well, and “dragons kick ass.”  What can I say, he’s an adult now. He has a pile of books to take back to England with him, so perhaps from time to time I’ll mention what he’s reading. Over the first term there he re-read The Hobbit and all three Lord of the Rings books, which are his favorite books ever (so far).

The Computer Scientist got some books for Christmas but December is one of the two busiest months of the year for him, especially the final week of the year when everyone is making charitable donations.  So he has an even taller to-read pile.

What’s up for me? I have a few books out of the library and I plan to peruse my other piles. Last night I told the Computer Scientist we need to move to a remote location without a bookstore or library for a year, so that I could read all the books I’ve been meaning to get to without distraction from new titles or shelf browsing.

Since the week before Christmas, I’ve hardly had time to read anything. I started two books that I didn’t care for, and following the wise counsel of Teen the Younger, abandoned them. Hopefully I’ll settle into something good soon. In 2012 I hope to continue reading the Hooksett Book Club selections as well, so I’m now reading the January title, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines. What are you reading?

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I have spent a great deal of time and life energy on the Beautiful Game lately.  I’ve mentioned before that we spend a lot of time driving to and sitting beside pitches near (as near as a few blocks away) and far (the farthest we’ve been is Ottawa; yes, the one in Canada) where the Teenager is playing.  Bookconscious readers know that I’m a big advocate for toting a portable “to-read” pile in the car. Soccer enables my reading habit.

A tournament, for example, is a good place to get some reading done. There are all those breaks between games, long enough to return to a nice cool hotel room but not long enough to allow for anything as ambitious as sightseeing. Ditto long car rides to away matches, which are conducive to catching up on magazines and simultaneously sneaking in some reading aloud — a habit I adore and my family mostly endures. “Say, did you know pomegranate rinds are anti-microbial? Listen to this . . . .” Generally there is a good deal of surreptitious ear bud insertion at that point. Sometimes the Computer Scientist listens, but other times I’ll ask, “You don’t really want me to keep reading, do you?” And he’ll say, “That’s right.”  Sighing doesn’t solve this, I’ve found.

Interestingly enough, I am not alone in this tendency. Freelance writer Hillary Nelson explained that she reads choice bits aloud to her family too, in a piece she wrote for the Concord Monitor on the fantastic memoir, Coop, by Michael Perry. Nelson’s family, like mine, didn’t stop me when I read aloud from Coop on one of our soccer road trips. In fact all three of them guffawed at some of Perry’s hilarious and heartfelt memoir.

Then, all three of them (and my brother, who was visiting from Seattle) made it to Perry’s event at Gibson’s, which was a blast. If Perry tours near you, don’t miss him. He does a very entertaining reading, and like a good rock star, he reads oldies for die-hard fans and newbies who want to feel like they were there at the inception, and just enough new work to leave readers wanting to know what happens next. It’s easy to wonder, because even though Perry’s subjects are simple —  home, farm, family, friendship, growing up, finding (and losing and seeking again) faith, parenting, balancing to-do lists with living — he gives each vignette the full narrative treatment.

If you don’t think kidney stones are funny, you haven’t been to a Mike Perry reading. I loved Coop because it felt so real; as I read, I imagined Perry telling the stories in the memoir. Now that I’ve heard, him, I don’t have to imagine anymore. His voice on the page is strong, sensitive, smart, and often so funny I had to put the book down and catch my breath from laughing. In person, he’s all that as well. I plan to become a die hard and read the whole Perry back list, eventually.

Another book I read during a tournament weekend in Vermont was Mrs. Somebody Somebody, by Tracy Winn. Unfortunately, Tracy had to cancel her event at Gibson’s due to a health problem — we hope she is better soon. The book is wonderful, and just right for a vacation, when you may be setting your reading down frequently. Each of the linked stories in the book is set in Lowell, near a mill.  Some of the characters are mill workers, others are relatives of the mill owners, some just live and work nearby. Winn is a powerful writer — my grandmother would say she uses no extra words. The stories are rich and riveting.

On our trip to Ottawa, I took along Allegra Goodman‘s new novel, The Cookbook Collector.  It was an interesting read, but flawed. Neither of the two main characters seemed entirely plausible to me, and there were too many lesser characters passing in and out of the main storyline without becoming fully realized individuals.  Goodman writes well, so it was particularly frustrating to see glimpses of intriguing subplot go undeveloped, or find myself wishing she’d given readers more of a particular minor character’s views.

The story is set during the .com boom and bust of the late 1990’s, when the Computer Scientist was working for both a very large (the largest) software company and then a smaller one, so perhaps my quibbles are compounded by my familiarity with some of Goodman’s subject matter. The collector of the title is also mostly absent from the story, although his collection appears, in some chapters, in detail, and in others, not so much. Uneven is probably the best one word summary of this novel. The parts I liked, I liked very much, which made the rest that much more frustrating.

Traveling for soccer enables me to read during times when I would likely be doing household chores if were were home. But The World Cup has cut into my reading time, as I’ve been glued to the television with the rest of my soccer mad family. My daughter observed it’s the most time I’ve spent downstairs — typically, the domain of the Computer Scientist and the kids — all year. Even though the U.S. went out (something we watched in a pub in Ottawa with a few other American fans and a bunch of Ghana fans), the Teenager has an encyclopedic knowledge of the remaining teams and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the tournament together. Well, he keeps up with it and tells me what I’ve missed or misunderstood. I’ve enjoyed his blog posts for Word of Mouth, as well as his own Beautiful Game blog.

Before the  World Cup started, I finished David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I’d read Black Swan Green, and enjoyed Mitchell’s very fine writing. One of Gibson’s Random House sales reps gave me the advance reader copy of Jacob de Zoet, with the words, “you like weird books, don’t you?”

I didn’t get a chance to ask him in what way Mitchell’s book was weird and just dove in. I’d say now that it’s weird because Mitchell is one of the most praised writers of contemporary fiction, but he chose to deal with an obscure slice of Sino-Dutch history in a sprawling tome. Most highly lauded fiction writers, especially those known for mind-blowing innovations in form (Ghostwritten, number9dream, and Cloud Atlas were all noted for being structurally creative) don’t turn to relatively straightforward storytelling (although Black Swan Green was fairly linear).

But Mitchell isn’t most writers and never was. So why so why wouldn’t such a masterful writer be capable of writing any novel he sets his mind to?  And anyway, who cares? What’s important, it seems to me, is not whether this book is unusual as compared to his earlier books, but whether it’s any good.

And it is.  Jacob de Zoet is a wonderful main character, and so are the many other characters — many, but fully developed and each carrying his or her own weight in the story.  Japan on the cusp of the 19th century is fascinating, and makes an excellent location for Mitchell’s exploration of mankind’s tendency toward sloth, greed, power, and dishonesty. The many Japanese and Dutch officials who try to cheat and trample their way to the top are as compelling as any Dickensian villains, and honest Jacob, plucky Orito Aibagawa, honorable magistrate Shiroyama, gruff but good Dr. Marinus, all represent the better side of human nature.

But this book isn’t simplistic, even if it’s sweeping and cinematic.  Mitchell manages to keep readers in suspense, and to me, at least, the resolution was not obvious. I enjoyed the rich historical details, including a strong sense of the physical challenge of living in the late 1700’s. And I do like a novel that is also a well told tale, which this is, mostly.

The only part that lost me was the section in which Orito’s family sells her to a shadowy cult. I found myself turning back to try and understand why this happened (classic father dies, evil stepmother sells her up the river scenario, but hard to grasp at first).  It wasn’t really clear what was going on in the strange temple where Orito ended up, and who knew what about it. This was, perhaps, a deliberate mysteriousness meant to make the shrine’s wacko leader seem even more unhinged, illogical, and evil. It any rate I enjoyed the book enough that this murky bit didn’t bother me too much, and I definitely want to go back and read the rest of Mitchell’s work.

Another novel I read this month dealt with characters sometimes acting in illogical or even delusional ways — but not towards evil ends. Tom Rachman‘s The Imperfectionists was a terrific read. I admit I sought it out on the strength of one review by Christopher Buckley.  The review didn’t let me down — I loved this book. It’s the story of some of the people who put out an English language newspaper in Rome, over the course of the paper’s history.

Each chapter is a story about one of the characters, including one reader and a number of the reporters, editors, and staff.  I think the reason this is a novel and not a collection of linked stories is because the paper is the link; the links between characters are sometimes very loose, because some of them don’t even work for the paper at the same time.  A few characters return in later chapters as supporting cast, and the paper’s founding family appear, with each generation slowly screwing up the place. The overarching story is the newspaper’s fate in the hands of this odd cast.

It’s hard to put my finger on what I liked here — Rachman’s writing is excellent, and the novel’s structure is unique without being gimmicky. There’s something classically romantic about journalism, and also something endearingly quirky about some journalists; Rachman plays up both of these characteristics.  No one part of the book floored me, but The Imperfectionists was just thoroughly entertaining. One way of comparing it to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Mitchell’s book would make a three hour sweeping costume drama, and The Imperfectionists would be a ninety minute indie film hit, with a lot of hip dialogue and a sketchy plot. You’d love them both, different as they may be.

One chapter of The Imperfectionists is set in Africa, where two other books I read in June take place. The Price of Stones is part memoir, part non-profit chronicle. Author Twesigye Jackson Kaguri comes from a small village in rural Uganda. As a boy, he heard about human rights and found a calling — he went on to Makarere University and then Columbia University and worked in human rights advocacy. But he never forgot the way his older brother returned to help people in the village, and as soon as he could, he did the same. He also began to learn about the scourge of HIV/AIDS as it tore through Uganda, the village, and even Kaguri’s family.

On one of his visits to the village with his wife, Kaguri realized that what he really wanted was to make a longer-lasting investment in his village than he could manage through emergency loans handed out as needed. Education had given him the life he felt blessed to be living, and education might also be the key to preventing HIV/AIDS. He told his wife, and then a few friends, that he wanted to build a school.

The Price of Stones is Jackson’s story, and the story of his founding the school and the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project, which today includes support for the grandmothers who care for so many of the orphans, community programs like wells, a library, health programs, and an agricultural and vocational center, and scholarships for Nyaka School graduates to continue their educations.  One terrific thing about the book is that Jackson seems as awed by his own good fortune and the amazing success of Nyaka as anyone else. He is humble, but he is also a man of faith and he gives credit not only to earthly influences, like his siblings and mother, but also to God, from whom, he feels, all good things come.

I’ve always wondered how some people who are dealing with extreme hardship or tragedy curse God and others keep the faith. I met a woman on the porch of her tornado ravaged home a few years ago when the Computer Scientist and I, a good friend, and our children handed out sack lunches we’d made.  This woman had clearly been living in poverty before the tornado, and now her house was damaged. Glass, metal, and power lines twisted around her yard. But she raised up her arms, palms heavenward, and told me she was blessed, I was blessed, were were all blessed, right that moment, by a good God.  I was floored, and still am by that kind of abiding faith.

Jackson’s faith is challenged but never wavers, as he deals with village politics, a difficult father, and honest mistakes. But he manages to overcome loss of loved ones and friends, difficulties with bureaucracy and corruption, and discouraging words from some of the very people who will ultimately benefit from his nonprofit, and you get the sense that he will prevail, even though Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project is a relatively new nonprofit. I admire the way Kaguri mentions the hard stuff alongside the successes, and by the end of the book, you’d have to be pretty hard hearted not to be pulling for Jackson and the staff and kids.

Hearing Jackson Kaguri’s story in person was great — he came to Gibson’s. The Teenager had a game that night, so I suggested I might ask for the night off, but he wisely pointed out that there would be (many) other games, but only one chance, perhaps, to meet someone making such a difference in the world. True.

Talking to Jackson, like selling simple jewelry for BeadforLife, reminded me of how soul-satisfying it is to be in close contact with the source of a nonprofit. Large organizations often lose their founding passion and become a business like many others. Nyaka is small enough that when I donated some birthday money to their work, I got a personal email within 24 hours from Jackson, saying how glad he was to meet me in Concord and thanking me for getting involved in the project.

And you know what? I feel invested, like my small gift might really help a kid make it. I admire some large nonprofits, like Heifer Project and Habitat, but my donations to a place like that seem more likely to keep the lights on in a corporate headquarters than to really touch a life. I get that corporate headquarters need light to do their work. But my soul wants to hear a child laugh with delight when she opens a new notebook in a school in Africa, not hear a fluorescent fixture hum in an office in corporate America.

Speaking of Africa, I finished West With the Night by Beryl Markham last weekend. Gibson’s book club is discussing it on Monday.  I’d never read it before; it was on my long term reading list, because I’d seen it recommended many times over the years.  It was really something, mainly because Markham was really something.  Her unusual childhood seems both charming and alarming to modern sensibilities, but it clearly made her the fearless adventurer that she became.  The world she moved in was both privileged and primitive — many of her friends were quite wealthy, she worked with racehorses and airplanes, yet she lived in huts and stables and “roughed it” beyond most people’s comfort zones.

Hemingway famously wrote a letter to Maxwell Perkins telling him he had to read West With the Night, because he felt it “a bloody wonderful book,” and said Markham “can write wrings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.”  You can see what he means in passages like, “The forest had fallen back, giving ground with the grim dignity of a respected enemy, and fields were cleaned of the rocks and bush that had lent the the character of wilderness for centuries;” and “Like all seaports of the East, Benghazi is blatant and raw; it is weary and wise.”

One thing contemporary readers may find interesting is that Markham’s memoir has very few details of her personal life, especially as an adult. There’s no mention that Tom Black, who was her flying instructor and friend, was also her lover.  The book doesn’t mention three husbands, or other affairs.  Nor does it offer any glimpse of  how others may have viewed her unusual life, other than a brief mention of the press coverage of her trans-Atlantic flight in 1936.  This is a refreshing contrast with today’s tell-all, marketing soaked world, where even people whose 15 minutes of fame is due to some scandal have publicist spin doctors to sell their lurid stories.

A book that critiques the 24 hour bombardment of media and advertising in its own way is Sudden Anthem, which is Matthew Guenette’s first full length poetry collection.  Guenette is a NH native who will be reading at Gibson’s on August 5.  Sudden Anthem is a witty, sharp book, and the poems are tense with love/hate fervor for media, popular culture, and consumer/corporate culture. At least that’s my take — poetry is of course, a dance between reader and poet, but here’s my reader’s view:

“Li Poem” imagines classical Chinese poet Li Po ruminating on the meaning of executives letting off steam with office pranks (don’t trust the suits, Guenette seems to say, slyly), “Remember to Watch”  critiques a culture that values advertising over poems,  “Vortex: Super-Sized Supermarket” describes the ways a giant box store is a very strange place which offers “these false dichotomies we pretend to/pretending to us in a discourse/of freezing and thawing,/cleaning and pre-heating–paper of plastic.”

I also admired the tongue-in-cheek “Brief History of the Home Gym ” and “Interview,” a hilarious take on both questions and answers which asks, “What do on ramps gain from area codes?/Specifically, fair market value/for cupcakes . . .”  Other favorites among the hard hitting humor poems in the collection: “The Today Show,” which imagines Katie Couric in the middle of a war zone; and “Acknowledgments,” a hilarious send up of the ubiquitous page where poets bow down to the high and mighty editors of the Literary Establishment who have deigned to give them a leg up by publishing their poems in impenetrable journals.

A couple of Guenette’s poems surprised me with their softer, more introspective tone, and I liked those very much as well: “Metamorphoses,” reads a bit like an avant-garde film, full of small flashes of imagery paired with little brush strokes of figurative language; “Poem,” seems like it’s going to be as wacky and swaggering as some of Guenette’s other work but has an underlying longing that makes it quieter; and the title poem looks gently into the childhood of a poet.

Speaking of childhood, there’s an urgent sense around here that childhood is short-lived. We’ve been on our first college visit with the Teenager since my last bookconscious post, and we have seven more planned. Gap Year possibilities are also the subject of intense research and discussion. It’s all somewhat overwhelming.

A little bit of me wants to ask if I can get off this ride, but I know the Teenager is not ours to keep, no matter how much we enjoy his company. I wrote his transcript this week. If you’re new to bookconscious, this is because we are life learners; neither the Teen nor the Preteen have gone to school in the traditional sense, although the Teenager has taken a couple of college classes and is considering another for fall (German, in preparation for the aforementioned Gap Year).

The transcript writing was eye opening. When the Computer Scientist and I embarked on this alternative educational plan for our kids, we wanted them to feel free to learn in the world, and not be constrained by the narrowness of school — who’s to say what any one person should learn, in the vast body of human knowledge? We wanted to equip them with the basic tools —  literacy and numeracy, critical thinking, time and space to become themselves — and then see them soar to heights of creative inquiry we never had the chance to reach ourselves.

In reality, sometimes they just want to sit on the couch and play video games, or climb a tree, or hang out, like any other kids. But looking at the big picture of how the Teenager has found his passions and preferred learning styles/methods and then diligently pursued them has kind of bowled me over with gratitude that we could afford him that opportunity.  The transcript he has introduces who he is, what he cares about, not just what he knows.

Of course, we live in a world that wants to package students into quantifiable data. While we don’t grade our kids (instead, we ask them to return to anything they don’t understand until they’ve worked out the difficulties, which we feel is what they’ll have to do in the real world, anyway), I did quantify his autodidactic life into categories, course descriptions, and credits (representations of the amount of time he spent learning, which is ludicrous if the goal is to view life as a seamless learning experience). And I listed the books and other resources he used to guide his learning.

This month the Teenager was pretty focused on watching the World Cup and following the foreign and domestic press coverage. He also finished reading a book on the mental aspect of soccer called Playing Out of Your Mind. He says it’s really interesting stuff, and applicable to life, not just soccer. Although some could argue that in his life, there isn’t much separation between the two!

The Preteen has been warily watching all of this college planning from the sidelines, but she seems mildly interested, mostly because she admires her brother. She’s a little tired of the driving around for soccer, but she liked Ottawa, and she got to pick out a stack of books to take along. She’s also continued bi-weekly library trips.  Among her choices this month were some more Fruits Basket manga, and several books by Wendy Mass.

It’s fun to watch her find an author whose books she likes enough to read in succession. I’ve done that myself, many times. These days I mostly vow to read all of an author’s books but actually end up just adding them to the never-ending, always-expanding “to read” list. In the Preteen’s case, she read Mass’s A Mango Shaped Space several months ago, and noticed another Wendy Mass book on the shelf at the library, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life.  She enjoyed both so she went back and got Every Soul a Star and Finally.

Of all of these, she liked Jeremy Fink the best, although she adds that she liked them all (evidence of that is that she finished them all; unlike her mother, the Preteen is able to set down a book she doesn’t like and move on). She thought Jeremy Fink was “kind of  an interesting story” with “really cool, unique characters.”  From a kid who has a t-shirt that says “I’m unique” and who is a pretty severe critic of the sameness of popular culture directed at people her age, that’s high praise.

She’s several books in her reading pile — Margaret Peterson Haddix‘s Found and Among the Hidden, and The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  That’s the sequel to Life As We Knew It, which describes a meteor knocking the moon out or orbit, with very serious consequences for Earth. The Preteen often starts a book and then starts a few more, and dips back into them at will. I used to be able to read several books at once but have found that as my life has become busier (and maybe as I’ve crept up on middle age), it’s too complicated to keep them all straight.

I also can’t seem to read more than a few pages when it’s horrendously hot, without falling asleep face down in my book. In contrast, the Computer Scientist has been reading more this past week. Last month he read another Star Wars book, The Rule of Two.  He said it was enjoyable enough, but he seems to have placed the Star Wars reading project on hold. He also read Blockade Billy, by Stephen King, which he said was well written but not among his favorite of King’s work. He liked the first part, which he said clearly exhibits King’s passion for baseball, better than the second. He’s currently reading (and has almost finished, in the comfort of our shiny new room air conditioner) Baseball Codes and Doctor on Everest. His to-read pile is in flux, but he plans to read Coop, since he enjoyed Perry’s reading so much, and to finish some books he’s started and then set aside.

I’ve just barely started The Companion, by Lorcan Roche, which Europa editions refers to as “subversive comic extravaganza,” and I have requested a couple of books by W.S. Merwin, because I always like to read or re-read the new poet laureate‘s work.   And my friend Shawn, who chairs Concord Reads, recommended Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone, which I have out from the library. But in June I never got to the two books I had pulled to the top of my bedside pile, Novice to Master and Raising Demons, so I’m trying to be mindful and just enjoy what’s in front of me without worrying too much about what’s next!

And for now, that means signing off so I can go eat lunch with the Teenager (and maybe the Preteen; it’s hard to tell when she’ll be feeling sociable). And possibly with the Cat Who Adopted Us — complete with dramatic firefighter rescue from 35+ feet up a tree.  We haven’t taken her to the vet or named her yet, but no one has responded to our “FOUND — CAT” posters nor newspaper ad, and she keeps meowing at us and climbing endearingly into our laps, so it’s possible she’s ours, or we’re hers, anyway. She seems to like books — she purrs happily when I’m reading beside her on the screened porch. So she may as well stay.

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Sometime towards the end of April, the Computer Scientist said something that stopped me cold. He noticed my frantic checking of how many pages were left in whatever book I was trying to finish ahead of an event at Gibson’s or a library due date, and he said, “Reading isn’t even fun for you anymore, it’s just another deadline.”

Then he pointed out the stacks of books beside my bed, the pile of magazines in my favorite chair, and the many sections of the New York Times at my place at the kitchen table and said, “You don’t enjoy what you’re reading, you just see it as what you have to finish, and it stresses you out.” Have I mentioned he has a reputation for giving direct and insightful feedback?

As you can imagine, my immediate reaction wasn’t to say, “Thank you for your searingly honest critique, darling, I’ll change my frenzied behavior at once.” Instead, I probably made a face, and I likely said something defensive and possibly a bit rude, although I refuse to confirm or deny that.  Unruffled by my response, the Computer Scientist rolled over and went blissfully to sleep. I obsessed.

And you know what? He’s right. After this conversation, we had a couple of whirlwind weeks chock full of children’s activities, a visit from his parents, and my own visit with my mom in South Carolina. I had less time to read (except on the four airplanes and airports I passed through, in which I read four books), so I was forced to make hard choices.  I came to a series of editorial decisions about my reading.

First of all, when it comes to periodicals, I am going to let go of my inherited belief that if you pay for something, you’d better get your money’s worth by using it all up — when it comes to the Times or Economist or all of the monthly magazines we get, I am going to allow myself not to read every last article. Yes, they are expensive. But we subscribe to many of them in part because we believe in their existence and wish to express our support. I am still getting plenty of value for my money even if I only read the parts I find most interesting or appealing.

Second, I simply have to admit that it’s impossible for me to read every event book at Gibson’s, especially as our schedule fills.  If it’s something I would want to read anyway or feel curious about, I’ll read it; if not, I will outsource my pre-event reading to family members, friends, or co-workers.

And if none of them has read the book before the event, I’ll rely on the tools I already use as a reader: Goodreads and the many excellent book blogs that are just a Google search away. A quick shout out to my father-in-law — he wrote a very helpful brief  on Walking to Gatlinburg, which I had no time to read. Thanks!

I also came to realize, after my own mother told me I looked “tired” (code for “wow, those are some bags under your eyes, honey”) in the family Easter pictures, that I have to face the biological facts. I am past the age where I can stay up until 2 am finishing a book and/or writing a blog post, especially two or three nights in a row, and still feel (and look) human. No more all-nighters. Unless a book is so darn fantastic I can’t help myself . . . .

Of course, all of these decisions came at the end of the month. So I actually read fourteen books since my last post about a month ago. The last one which I stayed up until all hours finishing was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which I was reading in a hurry so I could mail it back to my aunt, who lent it to me and had a list of friends waiting for it. I loved this book. I wanted to be friends with both Skeeter and Aibileen.

I’ve read the criticism — the plot is too obvious, the whites too one dimensional and typecast — but I think the people who are bothered by The Help are squeamish at one of two things: either they are uncomfortable with how truthful Stockett is, or they hate to admit that a number one best seller isn’t mind candy.  I’d rather look at the total package — and I think this book  is well written and delivers a great story, memorable and fully formed characters, and page turning entertainment.

Just as not everyone in 19th century England was as mean-spirited or good as Dickens’  villains or heroes, Stockett doesn’t intend to say that all 1960’s Southerners fell into her characters’ molds, either.  The Help is a rollicking good read as well as thought provoking social commentary, packaged in a populist style —  just like Dickens. Kathryn, if you are ever in New England, I’ll drop everything to have you at Gibson’s!

Another novel that manages to be both social commentary and hilarious fun is Co-Opted, by Joan Bigwood. Joan’s sister, Kate, is my friend and rector at St. Paul’s church here in Concord. Her novel follows the transformation of a stylish and successful New York City mom, Francesca Wilson, as her family moves to Palo Alto in the dot.com era. Facing an abrupt lifestyle change, as well as worries about her aging parents, Francesca finds herself becoming involved in a co-op preschool. She discovers talents she never knew she had, and a community to help her through some difficult times. It’s a gentle book, and it’s funny.

Those same words also describe Carl Lennertz‘s delightful memoir, Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now.  This charming book is both a tribute to his own happy childhood in what was then a small, sleepy town on Long Island and a reminder to today’s parents that we shouldn’t over think so much. The book is a series of short pieces Lennertz wrote to his daughter as she was approaching the teen years — around the age of my own Preteen.

Even though his family’s life in Manhattan is different in many ways than my own family’s life in New Hampshire (and all the many other places we’ve lived), the book resonated with me. Lennertz writes about things we have all experienced as kids and parents — getting really into certain music, enjoying sweet corn, trying not to seem uncool, swearing (I chuckled over the swear jar — something we tried a few years ago to no effect) and even deciding what will define us as adults.  Both as a lesson in thoughtful reflection and a slice of childhood and parenting in contemporary America, Cursed By A Happy Childhood is welcome relief from both didactic parenting tomes and painful memoirs of unhappy childhoods. This book would be a great Fathers’ Day or new dad gift.

I read five other nonfiction books, including two books by authors who came to the store (Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, and Eaarth, by Bill McKibben), another book recommended by my rector, and two other books of essays: A Place on Water, which I gave the Computer Scientist a couple of years ago for his birthday, and How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley, which is coming out in June.

I read A Place on Water because Wes McNair was one of three poets reading at the Concord Audi at this year’s April poetry event, and he wrote one of the the three essays in the book. And, I adore his work — there’s no other way to describe it. His two neighbors on Drury Pond in Maine, Bill Roorbach and Robert Kimber, wrote the other two essays. This is a gorgeous book — really, each piece is so beautifully wrought, and yet feels as effortless as floating in a perfect little pond on a summer day. You’ll want a camp in Maine, badly, when you’re through reading.

Sloane Crosley is brilliant. I read the advance copy of How Did You Get This Number on a plane, and people stared at me as I laughed out loud. She is everything I love in an essayist — funny, smart, wickedly observant, interesting, and relevant. Her book is a little hip and edgy —  you might feel a teensy bit like you’re not worthy of her Manhatttan lifestyle (I did), but she also writes about her childhood and you’ll realize she is just like you, only cooler, when you read those parts. I’m definitely going back to read I Was Told There’d Be Cake, soon (update: I picked it up today at the library). It’s been on my “to-read list” (that pesky thing just multiplies like some kind of feral animal) for a long time, and Cake has been bumped to the top.

I enjoyed Birdology, although I was taken aback by some of the brutality — the chapter on birds of prey is not for the squeamish, or for quail fans (quick aside:  my in-laws were in town for Sy’s event, and my father-in-law is particularly fond of the quail in their backyard in California; unfortunately some quail meet their demise in the book). Sy is an indefatigable researcher, which is something I admire in a person, and she writes with such passion that even someone like me who is only mildly interested in birds can’t help being fascinated.

I was left with a deep admiration for hummingbird rehabilitators, chickens (they’re not dumb, it turns out), and parrot research that has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of language acquisition. My daughter came away from Sy’s event with a new phrase to torment her brother with: “cut the crap,” which one of the parrots Sy met said with relish. We now spend soccer games daring each other to yell that.

Eaarth is that rare volume that is not only an Important Book but is also humorous, instructive, and somehow even a bit upbeat, even though we’re more or less screwed if we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Bill McKibben is one of the great men of our times — and we just had around 150 people in the store to hear him last night. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord?  I visited my mother in Columbia, SC, a university town of around 50,000, twice that if you include Ft. Jackson. Their indie bookstore closed. Concord, you rock.

As Hillary Nelson, one of my favorite freelance writers, said in her review in Thursday’s Concord MonitorEaarth is also a “hopeful and, well, patriotic book, a testament to the durability and flexibility of American democracy. Only a writer as good as McKibben could pull off this feat.”  It’s true — and in person he is every bit as graceful and spellbinding as he is in print. Check out his work at 350.org. Join. Really, what are you waiting for?

Kate, my aforementioned rector at St. Paul’s Church, has been very supportive of our parish’s work welcoming refugees to our community. She told me her mother welcomed refugees in New England many years ago, and recommends This Flowing Towards Me by Marilyn Lacey, to anyone engaged in this ministry. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lacey alternates between telling her own story of discovering her call to serve in refugee camps in Thailand and refugee resettlement in the U.S., and the stories of some of the remarkable people she has known.

Lacey takes her title from a Rumi poem; besides being a memoir of working with refugees, Lacey’s book also explores her personal experience of God “flowing” towards her in many ways, from a bulletin board notice to poetry to a church sign that caught her eye. She is an example of a person living a mindful life, open to the flow of spirituality, and willing to put her faith into action. But the book is not preachy — she tells it how it is for her, and if you’re not religious, you’ll still find plenty to admire and learn from in her travels to Sudan, Thailand, and many other places.

Poetry is certainly a door to inspiration for me — I felt so lifted by my close reading of the latest books from Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and WesMcNair (who were all brilliant, by the way — the reading was great fun, and the Computer Scientist came away an even more devoted Hall disciple), that I vowed to read poetry more regularly. I pulled two books off the “to read” shelf and dove in: Earthlight, by Hannah Stein, and Miracle Fair, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak.

Earthlight inspired me to pull out a few of my own poems and get back in the saddle — I hadn’t sent work out for a long time, in part because I was tired of “hopeful” rejection letters that either told me the review in question wasn’t really looking at new work (despite guidelines to the contrary) or that my poems were “close.” And in part because David Alpaugh’s article “The New Math of Poetry” is enough to end anyone’s literary aspirations.

My favorite of Hannah Stein’s poems in Earthlight were “This Time, This Place,” about the poet’s experience of a Monet exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago; “Grace,” with my favorite lines in this collection, “The sky has hoarded brightness/like armfuls of lilac;” “Loving a Mathematician,” which makes the list of my favorite marriage poems, and is a lovely tribute to right brain/left brain partners; and “All But the Blackberries Themselves,” a poetic tribute to greed but also just a delightful poem about summer’s abundance and the way it lures us.

Wislawa Szymborska, and for that matter Joanna Trzeciak, are on another plane. A Nobel laureate whose work is not well known outside poetry circles and readers of Polish, Szymborska writes with a wry humor and a searing eye for truth. Poetry can be a window into the meaning of life — you could read poetry to study philosophy, if you were dedicated and maybe a little bit mad.

Szymborska could be your gatekeeper, your guide, your boatman. Whether she is writing about something as simple as a drop of water on her finger (“Water”) or boundless as the concept of zero (“A Poem In Honor Of”), these poems require multiple readings to enjoy their nuance and depth. I want to wallow in this glorious collection for a long time. Translation, as I have mentioned in previous bookconscious posts, is an incredible art. I’m so grateful for the talented Trzeciak and other literary translators who bring this kind of work to their own languages.

While we’re discussing translation, I finally got around to reading a delightful little book I’ve had in my “to-read” pile for awhile now, Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. This was another airport read. Despite its brevity, this was a perfect little book, witty and wacky and True with a capitol T. I have great admiration for both contemporary and classical Japanese literature — what a marvelous world we live in, that I, who have no Japanese at all, can enjoy Murasaki Shikibu, Haruki Murakami, Basho, Shiki, and others, whenever I like.

But I digress. Kitchen is a book I plan to keep around for when the Preteen is a bit older and interested in relationships. I think Yoshimoto is almost Jane Austen-like in the way she delves into the society of her characters and probes their expectations, pride, and yes, prejudices. She writes at once about Japanese culture that feels exotic and mysterious to Western readers, and about universal emotions that connect us all as human beings: love, grief, friendship, family, coming of age. Read this book. It won’t take you long, and you’ll feel richer for it.

Speaking of Jane Austen, you get the feeling that Tracy Chevalier was channeling Jane when she wrote Remarkable Creatures. I haven’t enjoyed any of her books as well as this one since Girl With the Pearl Earring. I think I was drawn to this Remarkable Creatures because I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning.

I never knew about her complicated friendship with Elizabeth Philpot (I guess I’d read only very brief overviews of Anning’s fossil hunting until now), and her even messier relationships with many of the leading men of science in England and France.  Chevalier’s novel is just what I look for in historical fiction — detailed, intriguing, and well drawn, with enough facts to pique my curiosity and a plot to keep me reading.  I’d like to read The Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling, to fill in the rest of the facts.

On Monday, Gibson’s Book Club will be discussing Per Petterson‘s Out Stealing Horses.  I read it before my recent travels, and then I took his next book (due out in August in the U.S.), I Curse The River of Time, along for the plane rides. I really enjoyed both, but I had my reservations about the ending of the forthcoming book. In fact, I read it over three times on the way home, hoping somehow that it might get better. I’m afraid it didn’t. Still, I enjoyed Petterson’s writing very much, and I maintain that like the other books in translation I’ve explored these past few months, my reading life is richer for having made connections with literature from other countries.

Out Stealing Horses is a good book club choice, and I’m looking forward to hearing what our group has to say about it. It’s a somewhat poignant book, with a protagonist who is looking back in old age at a series of events in his youth that impacted him profoundly. Set at the end of World War II and in contemporary times, the novel takes a hard look at many of the universal questions I found myself drawn to in the rest of this month’s books  — who are our family, and how do we relate to them and to our real and remembered selves at different stages in our life? Are our memories trustworthy? What is trust? Is absence a form of love?

While I was busily buried in books, making connections, and likely driving my family crazy with my book light, baggy eyes, and absent-minded lost-in-thought musings, my family was also busy reading. The Preteen continued to read manga, including +Anima and Gakuen Alice 2. She’s reading Through the Looking Glass, and she and the Computer Scientist are each re-reading Harry Potter books.

I remembered that we have The Cartoon History of the United States by Larry Gonick, and the Preteen is enjoying that. We read aloud the entire eleven volume A History of US by Joy Hakim a few years ago, but I figured given her long interest in comic drawing, this might be appealing.  She likes it enough that I pointed out Gonick’s A Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-7, and she carried that off to her reading nook.

The reading nook is actually a corner of her closet — she has a much larger closet than the rest of us, and it’s well lit. She’s decorated it with all kinds of cool things on the walls and ceiling, and she has a big comfy chair in there, next to some shelves where she can keep books and display artwork and other items. It’s a very cool place. But she’s not in there as much these days because a) the weather is nicer so she can get outside and b) she’s adopted a pair of gerbils, and she spends more time playing with them. She also read Gerbils: The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care by Donna Anastasi this month, which Jammin’ Gerbils recommends as the definitive guide.

The Teenager finished The Edible History of Humanity, which he enjoyed tremendously (he keeps reminding us that hunting and gathering worked well)  and decided to see what else I had on the history shelves. He’s been reading A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. He told me he likes how in-depth it is for a book that covers so much time. This book has reminded him how much he’s always enjoyed learning about ancient history, and has led him to consider colleges with classics departments.

Meanwhile, he’s not quite made up his mind whether to go straight to college (he’s a junior right now) or take a year off. Especially since his once-a-reference-librarian-always-a-reference-librarian mother keeps giving him more information to consider. Right now he has The Gap Year Book from Lonely Planet and Kristin White‘s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year on inter-library loan. Makes me wish I was young again.

The Computer Scientist read Steve Almond‘s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and he says, “Very enjoyable read for anyone that’s ever caught themselves a little too into a rock and roll band. Funny and insightful.” He also pronounced Steve Almond’s event the most hilarious author event he’s attended at Gibson’s.  Now he’s reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London, which bookconscious readers know I loved and recommended.  He’s considering a Star Wars read-a-palooza for summer.

What’s in my pile? I’m halfway through Jay Atkinson‘s Paradise Road, which is great fun so far, and I plan to read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving because his writing is brilliant and it was in at the library when I picked up the gap year books, and Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake for the same reasons. I also have Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and a book of Ted Kooser’s poems, and another of Donald Hall’s essays, plus a few interesting choices in the coming events books: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare and I Thought You Were Dead, to name two.

So, Computer Scientist, if you’re reading this? You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for (thanks, Billy Joel).

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August was a tough month in the bookconscious household. We went through vicarious ups and downs with the Teenager as he traveled alone to Europe and back (although a German customs agent didn’t think he was old enough to return home alone, but that’s another story), turned 16, went through public high school soccer tryouts, and ended up switching to a smaller private school team.  We got busy with both kids planning our not-back-to-school life — looking into interests, choosing resources, figuring out who needs to be where, when, as their fall activities began.  And I unexpectedly traveled to Chicago for my grandmother’s funeral.

Mary Levin Harris was 96, and until only a couple of months ago was a voracious reader. Recently she could no longer comfortably hold up the phone. But over years and years of conversations, no matter what else we discussed, we always made sure to tell each other about whatever we were reading. I’ll miss that very much.

She was a librarian and an English teacher, including a stint in an experimental school in Chicago with glass-walled classrooms.  When we first decided not to send the kids to school, I was a little nervous about telling her, and at first, she really didn’t understand why we’d do such a thing. I tried explaining, but I was still figuring it out for myself. I recall telling her it was just what seemed like the right thing to me, to free them to learn all the time, anyplace, rather than raise them to think that learning happens in a place called school during school hours on school days.

My grandmother believed in me the way grandparents tend to, unwaveringly, and she spared me the scathing disapproval she was capable of dishing out — disproportionately to male members of the family, but also to public officials when she wanted them to right a wrong, and to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, which she read faithfully, when she felt the paper had unfairly disrespected a sitting president (Clinton). But I knew she didn’t really like the idea of her great-grandchildren being unschooled.

That changed one day in the late 1990’s, when she was in her 80’s. The woman who was cutting her hair told her about her son, who had been put on Ritalin. My grandmother was dismayed, especially when the woman told her it was quite common. When she got home she called to ask me whether I’d heard that “children are being drugged,” and told me in her day, if a student acted up, the teacher and the principal discussed how they were failing the child, and what to do about it. She told me it was probably a good thing I was not subjecting the kids to school if this is what it had come to.

From then on, she was very supportive of our homeschooling, and even told me I was doing a marvelous job. Once she moved to Atlanta and actually got to know the kids — we were fortunate to visit her once a month or so for just over two years — she told them in person how bright and beautiful and wonderful she thought they were, so they got to bask in the steadfast approbation that I enjoyed for so long.

They often talked to her about something they were learning, and were amazed by her sharp memory. Once they told her we’d read the Gettysburg address and she recited it cold (by then she was over 90). Another time they asked her what it was like to live during the Depression., and she said the New Deal helped her go to college. She frequently asked them questions, too — about what things cost, how their digital cameras worked, what they were reading.

So I’ve been feeling a little low, knowing I can’t share what they’re up to with her anymore. She was fascinated with the way they pursued their interests. I know she would chuckle to hear that the Preteen is exploring animal behavior with a kit that teaches one how to train a pet fish. And she’d find it interesting, if a bit hard to imagine, that all of the Teenager’s homework in his college French class has to be done online in a virtual computer lab.

Most of all, she’d love hearing about the books we’d all been reading. So I’ll get on with telling you, dear readers, and hope that Grandmother, or GGM as she signed her letters and cards, is reading over my shoulder, in a way.

While the Teenager was in Germany, his younger sister and I planned for not-back-to-school. She chose a new math resource. After watching her brother work on Algebra II, she decided on the same publisher for her book —  Teaching Textbooks, which are designed for self-directed learners. Both kids seem to be actually enjoying using these, and the Computer Scientist thinks they are great.  The Preteen also chose some science kits, including the aforementioned R2 Fish School, and checked out a stack of books about Vikings at the library.

She’d recently read most of the Percy Jackson books, so she needed a new pile of reading materials, and chose a Royal Diaries book about a Mesoamerican princess in 749, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which won the Newbury Award. She liked Percy Jackson’s adventures and event got out our well-loved copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths to brush up on the gods and goddesses. In fact, we ended up buying D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths, to enjoy along with Viking history.

The Preteen discusses books with her friends more than the Teenager ever has, and in August she read the first of the Sisters Eight books on the recommendation of a good friend. She also came to a middle grade author event at Gibson’s, and came home with three books — The Amaranth Enchantment, Carolina Harmony, and Also Known As Harper.  She enjoyed hearing the authors in person, and I think it’s unlikely she would have picked these books otherwise. So, if you live where you can go hear an author in person, go, and take your kids!

The Teenager’s oldest friend gave him a new soccer book, When Saturday Comes, for his birthday. On the trip he finished Magnificent Sevens, about five great Manchester United players who’ve worn number 7. He’s begun French class at the community college and in October will begin a Viking history class at Oxford University (online). In the meantime, we wrote a syllabus for his science exploration, based loosely on a class we found in MIT’s open courseware site.

We’re calling his studies “Soccer: The Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, Physics, and Psychology of the Beautiful Game.” We found three great books for him to use as he delves into the science behind his beloved game: Science and Soccer; edited by Tom Reilly, Fitness Training in Soccer: A Scientific Approach, by famous Danish coach Jens Bangsbo; and The Physiology of Sport and Exercise, a textbook we thought would provide interesting reference materials.

Some of you may be wondering, “Aren’t you unschoolers? What’s with the math books and the texts?” We’re life learners, and we use whatever works. We’re not anti-textbooks, although the Teenager and I are not enjoying the disconnect between his college French text and the website that has the labs/homework.

Although our motive in encouraging him to take this class was to help him see what college is like, I’m finding myself agreeing with him that the model isn’t all that different than what we’ve tried to avoid by learning on our own: we’re left feeling that the student is supposed to sit back and be told what to learn when. I told him there must be some logic to the homework, but today one of his classmates asked about the apparent lack of context with the text, and the teacher acknowledged it’s a problem but didn’t have a solution!

It’s causing us to waste time trying to figure out what lab goes with which portion of the book, which is unfortunate. Hopefully it will get easier (this is only the second week). Meanwhile, I wish I’d just gotten him the French editions of Harry Potter — the preteen is learning German that way. But I do think there’s nothing like speaking a language with other people, and so far none of our informal plans for that have panned out, so I’ll probably encourage her to take a class, eventually.

At the Preteen’s urging, the Computer Scientist is reading the whole Harry Potter series (in English), and last month I mentioned he was on the third book. He’s not deep into the seventh. He seems to be enjoying them and also has fun chatting with both kids, who love to pop in and ask him, “Where are you? What’s happening?” I think given all the heavy stuff he’s read this year, he’s having a good time with Harry Potter. Although I maintain that H.P. can be an avenue to some thought provoking conversation, and it’s not just fluff.

I read a book set in England last month, though not in the wizarding world. Helen HumphreysThe Frozen Thames is a lovely little book, made up of forty brief stories, each one set during one of the times between 1142 and 1895 that the Thames froze over. The concept of the book is an entertaining as Humphrey’s fine writing. The author’s website lists this as a work of creative nonfiction, but it reads like a collection of linked stories.

While Humphrey bends genres, Nick Harkaway bends time, reality, and life as we know it in his amazing debut novel, The Gone-Away World. This is the best book I’ve read all year. Part action novel; part philosophical commentary on economics, warfare, and ethics; part mind-boggling alternative reality, part futuristic thriller — and also very funny, very well written, and so smart it’s kept me busy wondering what in the hell happened at the end for several weeks.

One thing I loved about this book is that while the plot deals with awful things, there was no passage so horrible I wanted to turn away. Harkaway writes searingly without the over-the-top explicitly graphic prose that seems to garner so much critical acclaim these days. As I said, the end was so mind-blowingly hard to grapple with that I continue to think about it. And despite the fact that it’s a long book, I never got bogged down. As far as I’m concerned Harkaway’s a genius and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

Another humorous novel I read this month, Nibble & Kuhn by David Schmahmann, is not nearly as apocalyptic as The Gone Away World, but is also concerned with the impact human enterprise has on the quality of human life.  Schmahmann’s skewering of law firm life is wickedly funny, but his main character, Derek, struck me as a whole person, who doesn’t always act in predictable ways, and who manages to be both irritating and endearing, just like most real people.

It’s easy with satire to lapse into caricatures, but I found myself empathizing with Derek and definitely wanting to know how the hopeless case he is stuck with will turn out. The romance in the novel is unbelievable, but it’s meant to be — Derek is dumbstruck when he finds out who he’s fallen in love with as well.  But it’s not simply a satire with a romance, it’s also a story that examines human resilience and the tension between motives and actions when getting ahead might be at odds with getting things right. Schmahmann will be  reading at Gibson’s; I’m looking forward to meeting him, and to reading his earlier, award winning novel, Empire Settings.

For a bleaker, but very personal look at human nature, our impact on each other, and the survival of the human spirit even when it’s dragged through the deepest pain, you can’t do much better than to read essays by Andre Dubus. His son, Andre Dubus III, is coming to Gibson’s in October, and I happened to see Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair at the library, so I checked them out. Last year I spent a lot of time studying personal essays. These are some of the most moving I’ve read.

Dubus lived through several emotional traumas and a very serious accident that put him in a wheelchair. He’s probably better known for his fiction, but I enjoy his nonfiction style, which is very straightforward and unembellished. His range, from the simple beauty of time spent with friends to the agony of losing the use of his legs and the pain of living with his children only part time, is somewhat gut wrenching. You can’t read very many of his essays at a time. But despite all the difficult things Dubus lived through and explores in his writing, he work is never self-pitying.

On the plane to Chicago, I read Rilke‘s Letters to a Young Poet. Here is another gifted man who dealt with illness, writers’ block, personal strife, the unrest and disillusionment of the early 20th century, but rather than feeling sorry for himself, he shared what he’d learned in the struggle to be an artist. The letters in this book are his responses to a nineteen year old who he knew only through this unsolicited correspondence. Yet they are deep, open, and personal. I have a book of Rilke’s poems in my “to read” pile for this month.

Another book that had been in my “to read” pile since April was The Half-Inch Himalayas, by Agha Shahid Ali. Many of his poems are concerned with ancestry, family history, and place, all subjects I am deeply curious about, and which I spend time thinking about in the context of my own family. “Snowmen,” a poem both surreal and heartfelt, strikes me as a beautiful piece of writing as well as poignant cry of both longing for and struggle with one’s own history.

Both the poetry book and Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning by Gary Eberle were books I discovered at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Eberle explores the history of human time, which is interesting in itself, he also probes the spiritual aspect of our relationship with time, and tells of his own return to living in sacred time, as manifested in the seasons and the church year.

I enjoyed the book, although it made me somewhat frustrated with myself. I’d been doing very well for a long time at keeping a sabbath — a day of little to no work and no computers, but of real recreation and rejuvenation. Lately I’ve been unable to keep that sacred time for myself. As a result of my overly busy life and my lack of respite, I’m not writing much right now.  Eberle’s book was a strong reminder to get myself back in balance.

One aspect of my sabbath is reconnecting with faraway family by phone. Even before my grandmother’s last weeks, our weekly conversations had grown shorter, and sometimes she was not feeling up to talking. I was fortunate to be able to talk to her just about weekly for my entire adult life, as well as during my childhood.

And yet, there was so much more I wanted to ask. I have a box of letters she and her brother wrote to each other, and they left me wondering even more about family stories. By the time I’d puzzled through some of them, she was less interested in speaking of the past — her mind was on the end of her own story, having outlived nearly everyone who was a part of it. At dinner the night before her burial, as my cousins told stories, I realized how differently even the same events seem through the prism of each of our lives, our experiences, our hearts. How different we each were through her eyes than our own vision reveals.

Everything I read this month reminds me in some way of how universally humans seek to understand ourselves, each other, and our lives in relation to each other.  The novel I’m reading now, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is an epic tale dealing with that same problem — finding out who we are, who we’ve come from, how our story fits into the greater human story. I’m also reading Joseph Cambell’s and Bill Moyer’s conversations about the human search for meaning through story, The Power of Myth. Both are excellent so far.

Seeking meaning — in story, in sacred time, in relationship with people who came before me and those I live with now —  feeds my poetry writing. Grandmother was always thrilled when I had something published, no matter how small or obscure the journal. She also liked to recite poetry, and she read A.A. Milne to me with great relish when I was very young. I leave you with “Disobedience,” in her memory.

Soccer: the Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, Physics, and Psychology of The Beautiful Game

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It’s been one of the rainiest summers on record here, and last week we had a spell of sticky heat. The towels never dry properly, and it’s hard to keep mildew at bay. As July dripped on, the combination of wet weather, a plumbing issue that blossomed into a partial bathroom remodel (that is still in progress), and preparations for sending the Teenager halfway around the world alone led me to that mainstay of reading for fretful times: mysteries.

A couple of customers at Gibson’s asked about Alexander McCall Smith titles this month, which made me realize I’d fallen behind in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I caught up with Miracle At Speedy Motors and Teatime for the Traditionally Built. Like the Miss Read books, I find this series totally absorbing and transporting. When I’m reading them, I’m in Botswana, in the world of these characters.  It’s a world that works according to a code of decency and goodness — with a few bad apples to provide the famous lady detective with cases. I would like to sit down to some bush tea with Mma Ramotswe.

I’d heard good things about another female detective, Flavia de Luce, the protagonist of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. This British mystery set in 1950 combines history, social criticism, chemistry, and stamp collecting to create a complex but fascinating story. Flavia is a very clever girl, and an amatuer chemist, and her personality is spunky and yet endearing.  I could picture the rest of the characters clearly as well as the setting — a crumbling old “great house” in 1950’s Britain, the nearby village, and a traditional boys’ boarding school.

I like a book whose setting plays nearly as important a role in the story as the characters, and I think not enough writers do both well. Author Alan Bradley won the Debut Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and he has several further adventures planned for Flavia.  There were more bodies in this book than I usually like (I prefer my mysteries to be long on puzzle solving and short on murder), but I enjoyed it very much.

I also read Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane last month. I was intrigued by the premise of the novel — a woman doing research for her PhD reconnects with a long line of female ancestors as she tries to locate a lost book that she thinks will reveal the truth about witchcraft in colonial Massachusetts. Overall, I enjoyed the story, but there were a few distractions: a love interest that didn’t really advance the plot except in a fairly contrived way, and a villain who is more annoying than evil, and whose dastardly deed seems very far fetched.

Also Connie, the main character, is fairly dim for a woman who is supposed to be a brilliant talent in the Harvard history department, and is kind of  a whiner. I was rooting to like the book, both because I was trying to get the author to come to the store and because I read that Howe wrote the book for NaNoWriMo, which I love.  I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t fantastic.

A book I read in July that was fantastic was Man Gone Down, which I read about in the New York Times after author Michael Thomas won the  International Impac Dublin Literary Award. What made this a great book? I’ll never be black or male, but Thomas dragged me into the emotional turmoil of his protagonist, who is both, and made it possible for me to identify with him even though we have almost no life experiences in common.

I woke up at night wondering about things that happen in the book.  I fell asleep thinking about what might happen next. The writing was emotionally raw but also incredibly compelling.  I could see every scene vividly. And in a way, this novel was a psychological mystery, because until the final scene, I wasn’t sure how things were going to turn out. Wow. Please write more, Mr. Thomas.

The Teenager read more about David Beckham, finishing most of  The Beckham Experiment, which his sister gave him for his “fake birthday” (an early celebration we had before he departed for Germany, where next week, he will turn sixteen).  He said it was a very intriguing book, which verified what he’d come to suspect — Beckham not only hasn’t transformed American soccer, he acted more like a typical spoiled superstar than a team player who’d come to lift all boats. He took along another soccer book to read on the plane, The Magnificent 7’s, which is about the men who’ve worn number 7 for Manchester United.

The preteen and I read The Serial Garden, which I was reading aloud, until she once again insisted she doesn’t care to be read to. I absolutely adored this book, which reminded me of all the reasons I love Joan Aiken, as well as Edward Eager and Roald Dahl — writers whose child protagonists are smart, capable, and independent and who have all kinds of adventures in large part because they believe then can. It was a fine choice of reading just before sending one’s first born halfway around the world alone, because the kids in The Serial Garden manage every challenge quite well.

The Preteen is now on the fourth of the Books of Ember, and says so far the first one, City of Ember, and the third, People of Sparks, are her favorites of the series. She also read Life As We Knew It, which she pronounced “ok.” She’s been noodling around the Harry Potter books, after attending the midnight opening of the latest movie (she stayed awake, and only had to poke me once).

The Computer Scientist is reading Harry Potter for the first time. He’s on the third book and seems to be enjoying them.  He was tired of never fully understanding conversations with the Preteen, who lives and breathes all things Potter. We finished reading Farenheit 451 in our literary criticism circle before the Teenager left.  We all really enjoyed it and had some good conversations. The Teenager requested we read “something ancient” in the fall.

I mulled this request and started looking into Greek literature, wondering where to begin. Then, plans for his other fall studies began to coalesce, and he signed up for an Oxford University online course on Vikings. He suggested we read Norse literature as a perfect complement to his historical interests. I’m now digging into ideas for where to begin there. Any Norse lit. experts who wish to make suggestions, please do! Naturally I’m thrilled to watch him carry out my bookconscious theory of interconnectedness — one interesting book leads to another, and our interests in life lead us to more reading.

In fact, one book literally led me another this month on the public library’s sale shelf: The Human Story by James C. Davis. It looked like a readable world history survey, but I didn’t buy it the first time I saw it. I thought about it for a couple of days, asked the kids, both of whom expressed mild interest, and looked for it again the next time I went to the library. When I went back I pulled the book from the sale shelf and discovered it was right next to The Moon Is Always Female, by Marge Piercy. So I got that, too, glad the shelf had granted me a gift for not impulsively buying The Human Story the first time.

I’ve been a Marge Piercy fan for awhile. Her poetry is amazing — readable but with a depth that offers more upon each re-reading. The novels I’ve read are similar — good stories well told, which are intricate, deep, and mind-expanding as well. The poems in The Moon Is Always Female didn’t disappoint. Piercy explains the sections of the book here.

I enjoyed both sections. One poem that exemplifies how Piercy takes an ordinary thing and makes magic with it is “The Damn Cast.” A poem about wearing a cast? Not only is it descriptive, capturing the feeling of dragging around in a cast, but also by the end of the poem, Piercy has touched on disability and the human capacity for a range of pain and pleasure. And Piercy is funny — another poem, called “Attack of the squash people,” describes an overabundance of zucchini in a way that will amaze you as both familiar and brilliantly original.

Next up at the bookconscious household? I’m currently reading The Frozen Thames and enjoying it, and checked out three books by Andre Dubus — two collections of essays and one of stories. I find that as my mind travels over the sea to my elder child, it’s easier to bring it back home by coaxing it to read a finite thing — one story, one essay, one article. I also have a big thick novel on hand — The Gone Away World. In fact, if it wasn’t for the damn chores (bathroom project, errands, laundry, etc.), I’d plan to spend all weekend in the hammock, wallowing in missing my child and reading good books.

To be clear, the trouble with the Teenager being gone isn’t so much his physical absence — after all, I’m really thrilled for him and delighted he can have this experience. It’s just really hit the Computer Scientist and I hard to have our firstborn venture off to train with a German soccer club and have a European adventure, handling airport security and customs alone, managing a credit card, and generally letting us know he’s practically grown up.

I did bring home a couple of books about German history from the Ohrstrom Library before he left, and I’ve dipped in to those here and there. And I’m keeping up with the New York Times and the usual pile of magazines and journals besides all these books.  But nothing I read has been able to distract me from the looming facts: our elder child is going to be leaving for longer, at least semi-permanent periods of time in the not so far away future. The Preteen will only be a few years behind.

I’m off to read myself to sleep.

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My family knows I have a sixth sense that spots used book stores and sniffs out library sales. My inner reading deals beacon honed in on a brief notice about the Five Colleges Book Sale in The Concord Monitor’s “Livewell” insert several weeks ago. The sale, which has run since 1961 and raises money for scholarships, features 35,000-40,000 used books! To paraphrase Kevin Henkes’ picture book, Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse, all I could say was “Wow!”

Which is why I was up at 6:30 am last Saturday. I removed all non-essentials from my purse in order to save my arm and shoulder strength for bags of books, ate a good breakfast, packed a granola bar, and drove about an hour to Lebanon, NH. Then I waited in line, chatting with my fellow book nuts, for another hour. It’s easy to chat with fellow members of the book tribe — the young woman in front of me was thrilled that I recognized the Finnish characters on her handmade tote bag: Moomins.  We were all in a state of giddy anticipation, and by the time the doors opened at 9 am, the line wrapped back around the school. And oh, was it worth the wait!

The Five Colleges Book Sale is by far the best sale I have ever attended, anywhere. The folks who run the sale have thought of everything. There’s an ample supply of boxes in case your tote bags prove to be too heavy, and plenty of space to take boxes to sort. They even offer a box storage area so that if you have so many books you can’t easily push them around, you can leave your boxes while you continue to browse.

Roving volunteers constantly straighten the tables of books, restock from clearly marked tables where people can return any books they’ve had second thoughts about, and even offer express checkout for those people with only a few books. All of these efforts reduce the impact of dealers on the individual shopper, and I found the whole atmosphere pleasant and the volunteers knowledgeable and helpful. Even the dealers — who were there in large numbers, because this is the largest sale in New England, were polite to individual buyers, and I saw no cut-throat grabbing of prized titles, which happened at all the sales I attended in a large metropolis in the Northwest where the Computer Scientist once worked for a large software company.

Ahead of the sale, the website tantalized with a list of this year’s sale highlights. In fact, this list pushed me over the top — I was wavering, considering staying home with my family on Saturday to enjoy our strange taste of summer weather (we had record setting heat). But when I saw this list, I could not resist.  And we’re all glad I went.

I bought 36 books, and spent $50.50, for an average of $1.40 per book. I concentrated on nonfiction, but I have to admit there were whole tables I never looked at — cookbooks, architecture, and psychology come to mind. With so much to look at, I had to be ruthless in considering a book’s appeal to the rest of the bookconscious household, so I put back anything I wavered over. I also tried hard to resist books I know I can get at the library.

I found books of poems and essays, a number of science and nature books that I knew would appeal to the Teenager and Pre-teen, as well as a book on mystics, another on sacred time, one on cultural memory and another on geography. Also, a book of Gerald Durrell’s essays and a collection of early work by Jane Austen. No doubt some of these will turn up in future bookconscious posts.

When I got back and unpacked my bags of treasure, the whole family gathered on the screened porch to see what I’d found. None of them think I’m crazy for spending a lovely Saturday lugging bags of books around a gym, bless them. And I’ve noticed them “grazing” on new books I’ve left on end tables to catch someone’s interest. The teenager even thanked me for finding him a new book on the universe, and the Computer Scientist grilled supper so I could focus on blogging. What a great day in paradise!

Quick aside: I carried my books around in two tote bags, one of which was a felted bag my friend Tricia made. You can check out her hand knit items and handspun wool at her etsy shop.

The final event in my April in paradise was Book Club Evening at Gibson’s. Wine, delicious appetizers from Concord Cooperative Market, fantastic desserts from Bread and Chocolate, and three publishing reps (Ron Koltnow and Lesley Vasilio of Random House and Ann Wachur, with Penguin) who each talked up about a dozen titles newly out in paperback. They even gave out book party favors (including advance reading copies) and raffled off tote bags. I sat between my next door neighbor and a fellow Songweaver. There’s good company in paradise.

I didn’t win any raffle items, but I can report that the food was delicious, and I noted a number of books for my “to read” list. Koltnow, Vasilio, and Wachur each talked about books they love, and as we visited around the store, lots of people were chatting up their favorite reads as well. I managed to limit myself to one purchase, Olive Kitteridge, which Gibson’s book club is discussing in June.

I was tempted to buy a memoir that sounds very interesting, Twenty Chickens for a Saddle, but I resisted, in part because I’ve got 36 new-to-me books from the sale. I will probably give in to temptation and go back and get it, eventually! Unless some other member of the bookconscious household is reading this and would like to know what to give his or her mother for Mothers’ Day . . . tell Dad Gibson’s gives 30% off to anyone parked in the garage — just show your ticket!

There are only two more days left in April, and I still haven’t written about the books I’ve read this month. Stay tuned for the next bookconscious post, which I’ll try to publish next week, for a peek at what we’ve been reading around here, in between fabulous literary events. And if you’re free next April, I recommend your spend your spring break here in paradise.

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