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Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Category

Literature is often a way to look at the big questions, the same questions philosophers, theologians, and ordinary humans have wrestled with forever. In December the books I read dealt with how one can find happiness in life; each book has a slightly different take, and only a couple of them address the search for happiness directly. But as I so often discover when I reflect on a month’s worth of reading, I gravitated towards a theme, unconsciously or not, or I see a theme after the fact that threads through the month’s book pile.

Before I get carried away discussing the pursuit of happiness, I want to mention what the rest of the bookconscious household read — something I never got to in my last post. December is one of the two busiest months of the year for the Computer Scientist. He works in development, and lots of people give at the end of the year. So he was hard pressed to make time to read, but he did finish Tinkers and is enjoying Citizens of London. I blogged about Citizens last spring, and I noticed he’s been reading it more frequently since we went to see The King’s Speech.

Since I’ve spent a lot of time and word count praising Tinkers I’ll quote the Computer Scientist and leave it at that. He says, “The threaded story structure and beautiful descriptive language made Tinkers a very good read. The book is short enough to read straight-through and that might be a better approach than a “here and there” read as keeping the threads straight is a fun challenge of the book. I especially like how Harding uses similar imagery across the story for different characters and situations.”

Teen the Elder spent the first three weeks of December pondering and writing about ambition in Macbeth, comparing Macbeth’s ambition with Hitler’s. He read several pieces of literary criticism and chapters of history books on Hitler, and started reading Kate L. Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers.  I implored him to read for fun; other than the poem of the week, soccer blogs, articles on the Guardian, New York Times, and Fox Soccer sites, he mostly read academic tomes and textbooks (including the door-stopping Handbook of Bird Biology).

Quick aside: for Christmas, I gave the Computer Scientist and the Teens two books by Salman Rushdie to share: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life. I sincerely hope that will be soul-feeding, enjoyable reading for all of them. I thoroughly enjoyed Haroun when I read it a few years ago, and I look forward to Luka.

Teen the Younger continued reading Manga. She read further volumes of Naruto and Full Metal Alchemy as well as Gakuen Alice. She also tried a new series called Bleach, in which the hero meets a soul reaper who feels sorry for him when monsters called hollows attack his family. The soul reaper shares her power with him so he can save his family, who then don’t remember the monsters, but instead think a truck hit their house. Like all Manga, this is just the beginning — there are several additional volumes.

She also read most of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  When I asked how these were, Teen the Younger told me that after Harry Potter, nothing is really good reading. (Her brother says Lord of the Rings is the only thing that ever satisfied him after HP, although he developed a fondness for T.S. Eliot’s poetry later). She thought Hunger Games was okay, and has asked for the next book in the series, but she didn’t rave about it.

Her critique of The Lost Hero vindicates my earlier criticism of YA fiction. She also told me, “Much of The Lost Hero is about teen angst, and while that’s probably realistic, it’s kind of annoying to have to read it over and over.” She went on to say that even Percy Jackson, which she enjoyed, got repetitive in the later books of the series. She asked me why so many authors write in series instead of a single good book, since they end up repeating themselves.

A good question. She doesn’t seem to have this complaint about Manga. When I asked her why, she said it’s because Manga are a continuing story, without much repetition.  Since they are serialized, readers understand from the first that the story will be told in parts. Perhaps some novels that are meant to both sell as standalone stories and fit into a series don’t manage the same continuity?

Like Teen the Younger (and Teen the Elder, if he would lighten up a bit), I like a well told story and interesting characters.  Even more I like a book that give me something to think about (they do too, although they might not put it that way).  Jane Gardam‘s God On the Rocks provides all of that.

Even though the story centers on a young girl, God On the Rocks deals with complex problems  and issues,– family and romantic relationships, religion, the impact of war on a society, class, gender roles, parenting. Gardam packs so much into this small gem of a novel; but it all unfolds naturally. There is nothing forced or contrived. And it’s a good story, one that surprised and delighted me, gave me pause, and stayed with me after I reached the ending.  It’s really a perfectly constructed, wonderful book.

Margaret, the girl in the story, is just right; Gardam is one of those writers who hasn’t lost the voice of childhood.  The adult characters too are multi-dimensional and fully drawn; even bit players, like the parish priest, are rendered vividly. I am still not sure how Gardam managed this — it’s a short book — and I think it would be worth re-reading  to study her writing more closel

The characters in God On the Rocks are all trying to find out who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to live. Margaret watches, listens, and feels — and we see her trying to work things out in her mind, as the adults struggle along. Everything happens during one summer between the two world wars. Without tying everything up neatly in a bow, Gardam provides closure as the characters gather many years later at the end of the book. Again, she does this subtly, respecting the reader’s intelligence and leaving some things open to discussion, even as she resolves others.

Another novel I read this month leaves more questions than answers at the end. The Calligrapher’s Secret, by Syrian born German author Rafik Schami, is a fascinating read. Schami brings the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Syria alive in his writing. I thought of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as I read, because just as the political, religious, and cultural backdrop of the Partition are key to that book, Syrian history, politics, culture, and religion make The Calligrapher’s Secret tick.

On one level this book is a delightful coming of age tale, weaving together the stories of a Christian boy (Salman) and a Muslim girl(Noura), from different socio-economic backgrounds, as they grow up in Damascus and eventually fall in love. Each of them faces difficulties in their families and in society, but their intelligence and pluck, and the resilience of the human spirit, see them through. Their stories carry the novel along, with frequent digressions into fascinating subplots and rich sensory detail.

But there is so much more going on in The Calligrapher’s Secret than the coming of age and love stories; Schami spins a sprawling, entrancing tale and peoples it with a vast cast of characters. As with a Rushdie novel, the density of Schami’s writing and the cultural depth makes for slow but ultimately satisfying reading. True to the title, there are many secrets in the plot, some of which are never completely resolved, but that’s how life works, too.

I was so entranced by the vivid portrayal of Damascus that I requested Stephanie Saldana’s memoir of her time in Syria, The Bread of Angels, on inter-library loan; I look forward to reading more about this complicated, ancient place.

Another place I enjoyed reading about in December is much more familiar. In Lisa Genova‘s new novel,  Left Neglected, the main character and her family have a home in rural Vermont. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Vermont but I enjoy it, and the family’s simple, pleasant home in a small town sounds very appealing.

In Left Neglected, Vermont is where the power couple main characters spend weekends, if they can get away from their busy lives in the Boston suburbs. Sarah and Bob have it all, including three children (whose names, believe it or not, are Lucy, Charlie, and Linus — a whimsical detail, but one that works), a wonderful nanny, and as I mentioned, high powered jobs. Only Bob is afraid he’ll be losing his, and Sarah is multi-tasking her way through life, telling herself she’s perfectly happy, but challenging Bob to “rock, paper, scissors” to see who gets to drive straight to work without having to drop off the kids on the way.

Then Sarah has a car accident (while dialing her phone — scary), and wakes up without being aware of her left side anymore. It’s still functioning, but her brain isn’t able to tell. Left doesn’t exist. Imagine that — half of you, half of the world, unrecognizable. To go from on top of the world to almost helpless in an instant, it’s almost impossible to think about.

But Genova writes movingly of the post-crash adjustment, as Sarah’s have-it-all life grinds to a halt. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what would happen next. It sounds cliched to say that Sarah re-examines her life, her priorities, and her relationships in light of the accident, but she does — and who wouldn’t?

I don’t want to give away too much, so I won’t tell you how it all works out. But I will say that one of the things I liked best about Left Neglected is the depth of detail about Sarah’s condition, left neglect. Genova did a great deal of research, and it shows. One amazing organization that helped her, New England Handicapped Sports Association, plays a big part in Left Neglected‘s dénouement, and I am pleased to add that a portion of book sales at Lisa Genova’s reading at Gibson’s on Jan. 20 will benefit NEHSA.

Another book that deals with prioritizing what’s important in life is Alan Bennett‘s The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady In The Van.  I read and blogged about Clothes last winter. Gibson’s book club discussed the edition that also includes Lady this past Monday. We spent a lot of time pondering why Bennett put the two pieces together — he says in the introduction that there isn’t a particular connection he was trying to make. But we came up with some of our own.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella, and our group decided it’s a very theatrical one; most of us could visualize the book as a play or movie. It concerns a middle aged, childless couple, the Ransomes, who are burgled so thoroughly that even the toilet paper is gone. They eventually find out their entire apartment has been reassembled meticulously in a storage facility.  Mrs. Ransome begins to examine her life, after the trauma of the break-in and the strangeness of the aftermath, while Mr. Ransome seems unchanged. Much more occurs, but I don’t like to spoil plots here.

The Lady In the Van is nonfiction, and it’s the story of Miss Shepherd, who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s garden for many years. She is eccentric, perhaps even mentally ill, but she is irrepressibly independent.  Most of our book club members found her appealing; despite the hardships of her life, she lived exactly as she chose, and her indomitable spirit is admirable.

Despite the sadness  and seriousness which tinges both stories, Bennett’s writing is sharp and often quite funny. Our book club had a good time talking about the possible parallels and obvious contrasts between the fictional Ransomes and the real Miss S. We also talked about Bennett’s honest portrayal of his own involvement — while he let Miss S. park on his property, treated her kindly, and was protective of her, he limited her use of his bathroom, and admits he sometimes watched her without offering assistance.

What I believe ties the two pieces together is dignity. Bennett can be biting and he openly dislikes Mr. Ransome, inserting himself into the text to tell readers that he could have softened the character a bit but didn’t. He’s also quite up front about Mrs. S’s faults. But he treats Mrs. Ransome respectfully, as he did his unconventional neighbor.  As a result, Bennett portrays each woman as a person seeking whatever small happiness she can find in this crazy world, and he forgives their foibles.

It seems to me that Bennett admires these two flawed women, one real and one imagined, for the way they each maintain their dignity in the face of unusual circumstances.  Bennett shows us that happiness may not look like what we’d expect, but that it can blossom in strange ways in our lives. I found this book very hopeful reading as another year of recession and war came to a close, and as we put the emotional turmoil of early college admissions behind us in the bookconscious house.

(I know you’re dying to know: Teen the Elder was accepted at a couple of wonderful colleges and was offered scholarships at both. Stay tuned.)

Another author who considers happiness and finds dignity in all her subjects is Maira Kalman. I’ve always admired her work, and I gave the bookconscious household Kalman’s new book,  And the Pursuit of Happiness, for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with Kalman, I recommend this interview with NHPR’s Virginia Prescott on Word of Mouth. You can also check out her blog.

And the Pursuit of Happiness is as quirky and colorful as Kalman’s other work; I can’t think of many other authors who can write whimsical, admiring prose about a sewage treatment plant.  But she approaches that topic (and visits said plant in Brooklyn) the same way she approaches a town meeting in Vermont, and visits to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Fort Campbell, and the Supreme Court. Also school gardens and the Capitol’s bipartisan bathrooms. And much more.

Kalman writes about democracy, history, and pie. Her penchant for cleaning and Lincoln’s possibly cross-eyed dog. Immigration, New York’s City Hall, and museums. Obama’s inauguration and Jefferson’s slaves. Each of the twelve chapters of the book (one per month, for a year of jaunts in  “pursuit of happiness”) is illustrated with Kalman’s exuberant, rich paintings and an occasional photograph. Not everyone will warm to her style, but I love it. Reading Kalman’s books makes me want to sit down with her over a pot of tea and plate of delicious goodies and talk.

Around mid-December I was pretty sure I was done buying books for Christmas but a small volume caught my eye at Gibson’s: Christmas Poems, a pocket sized anthology published by New Directions. This little book is a gem.  Plenty of familiar poems, including Clement’s  “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” and Hardy’s “The Oxen,” and lots of poems I wasn’t familiar with, by poets I hadn’t thought of in terms of their holiday work.  Creeley, Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Whitman, and Rilke, to name a few.  A thoughtful, interesting little collection.

I’ve saved the two most serious books for last, the two that overtly wrestle with meaning, truth, and the pursuit of the kind of unselfish happiness that makes the world a better place. One is a primarily a memoir, the other a manual, but each has a bit of both in it. One is by a man who almost became a priest, the other by a woman who is a former nun. If you’re in the mood for a deeply intelligent, finely crafted, searching read, you can’t go wrong with either.

One of the most moving books I read in 2010 won’t be out until May 2011, The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak.  In December I read his memoir, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, which is the story of his time with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.  He spent eight years learning, working, praying, and living in Jesuit communities before leaving the order.

The Long Retreat is a tribute to the mentally, spiritually, physically arduous journey to priesthood. It’s also a love letter to the faith and those who devote their lives to it.  The book is also an appreciation of the mystery of beauty, as manifested in literature, liturgy, the natural world, and the world of ideas. And it’s a young man’s exploration of his roots as well as his potential, an intellectual coming of age story.

So it’s complicated. Dense. Riveting, even a bit painful. Krivak doesn’t whitewash his own journey or minimize the challenges. He’s a very fine writer and thinker, and in The Long Retreat readers learn that he was a graduate of a “great books” college, St. John’s in Annapolis, and of Columbia University’s MFA program, before he entered the Jesuits. If you’ve wanted to understand what it is to live an examined life, to become spiritually disciplined, to seek with all your heart and soul towards a committed life of service, or to fulfill a deep thirst for beauty, The Long Retreat will inspire you.

Krivak infuses both the The Sojourn and The Long Retreat with a strong sense of agape, the compassionate love C. S. Lewis describes as an unselfish, devoted commitment to others, and the King James Bible translators called “charity.” In both his novel and his memoir, Krivak writes of people who make others’ lives better through their loving kindness, whether for a moment or a lifetime. It seems to me (and perhaps I’ll get to ask him about this in the spring) that Krivak’s writing explores the human potential for compassion. Some of the people in his books rise to that call and engage in it, others are caught up in pettiness, selfishness, or hubris.

All of which are also part of human potential — and Karen Armstrong writes, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that we can choose to strengthen our compassionate mental and spiritual response by exercising our hearts and minds the way we can strengthen our body by exercising our muscles. I read Armstrong’s latest book on New Year’s Day evening, and signed onto the Charter for Compassion. I plan to encourage the rest of the bookconscious household to read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I’ve already begun to go back through each chapter slowly, with a mind to strengthening my own compassion.

Armstrong is a fine writer and historian, and she opens Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a review of the role of compassion in the tenets and traditions of the major world religions. Throughout the book, she writes of her own life experience and uses her own struggles as an example to those who might find her suggestions daunting. In this way the book is both wise and grounded, as Armstrong’s writing generally is. I can think of no other contemporary writer who distills the big questions and ideas of mankind’s quest for Truth into such clear prose.

After the survey of compassion in history and religion, Armstrong provides clear steps, one chapter at a time, that individuals or groups can follow to become more compassionate. They are practical, sensible, and doable — although challenging.  From learning about compassion to thinking, speaking, and acting in mindful awareness of those around us, Armstrong believes we are all capable of letting go of our preconceptions, our misunderstandings, and our bad habits and learning to love even our enemies.  Mindfulness is hard in and of itself, as I’ve often written here.  But with as capable a guide as Armstrong leading the way, the path to compassionate living seems fairly straightforward.

So I’ll keep re-reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I have a few more entries left in Watch for the Light; last night’s reading was T.S  Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” which alternately makes me smile and shudder. Also in my to read pile: new books I received for Christmas from the Computer Scientist and the Teens, including Oxfam’s Ox-Tales short story collection. I started the Earth volume and am enjoying the stories very much.  I have three piles of books by the side of the bed, and a couple of piles in other places.  Here’s to a new year of books!

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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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We decorate our house for Christmas in stages. On the first Sunday of advent, we take our homemade wreath and light the first candle at supper time. I like to get out one of our nativity sets, too, so that the kids can start moving the figures of Mary and Joseph a little bit each day, on their way to the stable and the animals. As I write, the kings and their camels are on top of a bookcase across the room from the manger, ready to start their journey.

Along with these first decorations, we take out the collection of Christmas books. This year, the kids weren’t as interested in some of their old favorites. But one book continues to be a part of our advent tradition: The Christmas Mystery by Jostein Gaarder. Throughout December, as we prepare for our holiday celebrations and try to avoid being swept up in the frenzy all around us, this book continues to delight and surprise.

Like an advent calendar, the book is divided into 24 chapters, one to read each day from December 1 to Christmas Eve. In the story, a boy is opening his own advent calendar, which contains a slip of paper for each day. As he reads the unfolding story, first alone and later with his parents, he begins to wonder if what he is reading is real or imagined. He and his parents try to find the man who made the calendar, and to unravel the mystery at the center of the story.

The story in the advent calendar leads readers back through history and across Europe to the Holy Land. It’s helpful to have an atlas and a history encyclopedia or time line handy while you read. The characters in The Christmas Mystery are life learners at heart — they ask questions, look things up, and talk about what they’ve read. And the story within the story is both entertaining and challenging, yet simple at its core: Christmas is about the birth of a baby, who came to teach all people to love one another.

The Christmas Mystery offers plenty of possibilities for “philosophy club” conversations — what our family calls the sorts of discussions that touch on Big Ideas and their meanings. The wise men of the nativity story lead the way for this kind of talk among the book’s characters, and as the boy in the book and the girl in the advent calendar story puzzle over these thoughts, so will you and your family.

Even if you are not sure what you believe yourself, or if you don’t feel equipped for a religious conversation with your children, try The Christmas Mystery. You’ll find that a book about a family reading together is a gentle, accessible way to enter into such deep and complicated ideas, and you may find yourself accessing some of the awe and simple acceptance you felt as a child, imagining a baby who came to bring peace to the world.

If you’re more confident in your own theological groundings, you will be able to talk about your own faith through the story if you wish; the book isn’t dogmatic. Either way, The Christmas Mystery will invite exploration not only of Christmas themes, history, and geography, but also of belief, imagination, truth, miracle, and mystery. Most of all, it will give you time each evening to snuggle on the couch with your family and connect with each other and with everyone else who has shared the Christmas story for more than two thousand years.

It’s almost time to pack up the holiday books and take down the decorations. For adults, this time of year is often considered a lot of fuss, with stress and effort sometimes eclipsing more pleasant aspects of the holiday. Gaarder reminds us that Christmas is at its heart mysterious, important, ancient, and hopeful, and invites us to sit quietly together with our children and ponder not only the story, but our place in it; not only the birth of Jesus, but also the historical and philosophical importance of his message; not only the religious, theological aspect of Christmas but also the sheer joy, peace, and wonder available to those who wish to seek it.

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