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Archive for the ‘life learning’ Category

January flew past in the bookconscious house.  We saw Teen the Elder off to England for the second half of his gap year. Began some new things in Teen the Younger’s life learning, and investigated more options for her coming (soon!) high school years.  Prepared for speaking gigs (I gave a talk on working with libraries and bookstores at NH Writers’ Project Author School, The Computer Scientist is speaking at a development conference in San Francisco). Generally succumbed to that new year, new plans, new goals kind of mindset that can be both invigorating and disruptive.

We’re all moving in interesting and exciting directions, with plans for better eating/exercising/time management/writing/studying. All of the thinking and planning that went with the collective turning over of new leaves ate into my reading time this month. And my reading was focused on one large goal related to Teen the Younger’s educational plans this season: I re-read all the Harry Potter books.

Several students at the college library where I work mentioned a course that looks into the literary origins of Harry Potter; I’ve heard several students gripe about (or plan shortcuts around) the required reading or re-reading of all seven volumes. When I mentioned this to Teen the Younger, she was quick to point out that she’s been asking me for years to re-read them, mainly so I would quit asking her what happened in which book, or what’s different in the movies. And she liked the idea of our discussing the books in the context of the influences J.K. Rowling mentions on her website or in interviews, or what we see ourselves.

Re-reading the books took me a few weeks.  I was struck by a) how much I enjoyed re-reading them b) how little I’d retained in terms of the small details and plot twists and c) how long it took me to read what I’d expected to breeze right through. Granted I haven’t read them in many years.  But I was surprised by how fresh the stories were even though I knew the basics of what was going to happen. And I was impressed anew with how really good and quite meaty these books are.

When Teen the Elder was seven, we’d spent a few months reading the first four Harry Potter books (all that were out at that point) aloud. We moved to New Hampshire and he was begging me to start reading them over again. He was a good reader but lacked confidence; he wanted me to sit beside him as he read even simple chapter books, so he could verify he was getting it right. I told him I had to unpack the kitchen, but he could start reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone himself.

He disappeared with the book, and came back downstairs later, absolutely delighted with himself. He was reading it!  I wasn’t surprised but was pleased he felt so good about it. What did surprise me was that in about a month and a half, he read all four books himself, big thick books full of complicated twists and new words, and he never once asked for help. I knew he understoof what he read, because he told me all about his favorite bits and how badly he wished it was all real.

I decided then and there that J.K. Rowling was a genius and felt forever grateful to her for helping him see he could read anything. The boy who’d been hesitant went on to read whatever he wanted, selecting books he thought were interesting without any regard for “reading level.” Harry Potter had given him the belief that thick books were a delight, not a chore.

We learned fairly quickly that there were families who were anti-Harry. I’ve never understood that point of view. Many of the best stories from mythology to the present explore the same themes, and many people who fear Harry approve of other stories with magical elements, like the Narnia series.  People who claimed that the Harry Potter would confuse kids or dupe them into believing in magic especially baffled me, since I knew that my own two were highly disappointed that it was all a story, and often wished there really was a Hogwarts and they could really go. I’ve never met a child who didn’t realize Harry Potter’s world is fictional.

But it is a very rich fictional world, and I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in it for a few weeks. Re-reading allowed me to notice some things I don’t remember making as big an impression the first time. Like how very well Rowling writes of the pain of being an adolescent who feels like an outsider, and how searingly she captures Harry’s isolation when most of Hogwarts and the wizarding world turn against him. I really felt his pain this time.

I was also impressed anew with the complexity of the books. Rowling manages to weave several generations of tales into Harry’s story: his own, his parents’, Tom Riddle’s, and Dumbledore’s.  I found myself asking Teen the Younger questions, just to make sure I was clear (she and her brother have each re-read the books many times). It’s impressive how Rowling incorporated certain magical objects’ histories into the tales as well.

And the magic — wow. Everything from the nuts and bolts of magic at Hogwarts — charms, spells, potions, transfiguration, history of magic, divination, care of magical creatures,the dorms and dungeons and towers and owl post and ghosts and magical food — to the way the wizarding world works, the places and traditions, the gardening and housework, the transportation and career choices, even the jokes and sports, are so very, very richly detailed. How much fun it must have been to invent it all, and how complicated to keep it all straight during the writing.

Another thing I noticed this time, perhaps because I read the books with an eye towards discussing them in a greater depth, are the historical and political overtones. The anti-muggle agenda of the Death Eaters has obvious parallels in Nazism, but I also thought of more recent history: apartheid, racism in America and Europe, the rise and fall of various totalitarian governments.  Spying, propaganda, state control of the press, and underground resistance all factor into the stories.

These issues were already on my mind as I read, because my Harry Potter reading fell between other books that dealt with racism and power. First, the Hooksett Library Book Club discussed The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines in January, a novel I’d never read. It’s a painful book, so I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed it. I think it does a good job of replicating autobiography’s idiosyncracies — Miss Jane’s narrative rambles a bit, it isn’t perfectly chronological and it emphasizes seemingly small incidents that seem historically unimportant to the reader. I sometimes felt lost in the tangle of names and relationships.

But I found it very interesting to consider that the civil rights movement, which we all learn about as a historical progression towards equality, was itself somewhat tangled, had its fits and starts over many decades, and wasn’t always welcomed by those who were its intended beneficiaries. Some of Miss Jane Pittman’s friends just want to live their lives in peace and don’t welcome what they see as hot-headed young people agitating for things like integrated water fountains.

The book is a reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing people as part of broad groups that were one side or the other of historical events, but in reality, life is far more nuanced and messy. A good thing to keep in mind today as we read about political points of view of various demographic groups, or people whose countries at war. Humans aren’t easily pigeonholed.

After Harry Potter, I turned to a book I’d checked out weeks ago at work: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Ms. Kay is a well-known and prolific poet and fiction writer in England. Unfortunately, until I saw this memoir on the shelf, I’d never read her work. I suspect it’s because she came to prominence after I left college, so I missed learning about her work there, and she’s not as well known here in the U.S. (neither the college library nor my public library have any of her poetry books). I always feel a broad sense of loss when I come across an author I’ve never heard of; how many more are out there, unknown to me but important and beautiful? How will I find them?

Kay’s personal history lends itself to great story-telling and I really enjoyed Red Dust Road. She is the adopted daughter of progressive parents (political activists, Polaris protesters, anti-apartheid marchers who write Christmas cards to political prisoners) in Glasgow, Scotland. Her family is strong and loving and her mother depicts her birth parents — a Highland mother and Nigerian father who met as students — as brave victims of the society of their times.

When she’s grown and becoming a mother herself, Kay begins to investigate her origins, and Red Dust Road is about that physical and emotional journey. I found it fascinating and enlightening. I’d never heard of the British Movement, a fascist group that gained a fair bit of popular sympathy while stirring up racist sentiments in the UK. I never knew how widespread racism was (and by some accounts, still is) in the UK, where officially at least, it was never as blatant as in the Jim Crow South. I didn’t know much about Nigeria’s geography, and Kay brings it alive, as she does a small Scottish village and the town of Milton Keynes in England.

Besides being informative, I found Red Dust Road beautiful. Kay’s voice is honest and warm and friendly, funny and open-hearted and kind. Her tenderness towards the two very imperfect people who brought her into the world is amazing; both her birth parents have been unable to share her existence with her half-siblings, her mother faces Alzheimers and family problems, her father can’t reconcile his young self with the born-again figure he has become and sees her as a reminder of his past sins. She faces all of this with spirit and patience.

But her tenderness towards her actual parents, the bold, strong, loving people who raised her, is deeply moving.  This book deserves wide reading as social history, as memoir, as poetic tribute to the real meaning of family, as gorgeous witness to love’s power to heal and writing’s power to transform. I can’t wait to track down some of her poetry and catch up on this amazing writer’s work.

Bookconscious regulars know I am in my second year of the Europa Challenge. In 2012 I plan to read one book from Europa Editions every month. I started the year with Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, a novel first published in Italy.  This book includes many of my favorite things: social commentary, sharp wit, a strong-but-quirky heroine, and elements of magical realism.

Margherita of the title is a teenager, overweight, creative and acutely observant, especially when it comes to the foibles of her family. She has a younger brother who reminds me of Jason in Foxtrot (a math genius, mad about video games), an older brother who prides himself on being a soccer hooligan, a father who tinkers with old bikes, cars, and other junk in a shed in the yard; a grandfather who claims to enjoy telepathic communication with the younger brother and dances with a ghost several nights a week; a mother who lives for her soap opera and is an avid green stamp collector and frugal cook who can recycle anything into her meatloaf; and a smelly, funny looking mutt named Sleepy.

When the book opens Margherita observes a mystery: where the open skies once allowed her a view of constellations of her own design, all is dark. Something is blocking her view. It turns out to be a black cube — the high tech futuristic home of her new neighbors. As the family gets to know the neighbors strange things happen: her older brother cleans up his act, switches soccer allegiances, and fawns over the beautiful daughter; her dad’s junk disappears and he goes into what Margherita suspects is nefarious business with the new neighbor; Mamma gets beauty treatments and gives up her beloved green stamps; Grandpa is an accident and moves to a care home; and Margherita discovers the new family has an unstable son they’d rather keep hidden.

To add to her troubles, the Dust Girl, a war ghost who lives in the meadow behind Margherita’s home, seems agitated; Margherita falls for the mysterious son and finds the secret behind all the changes in her family’s life. With her younger brother’s help, she tries to investigate the “business” and find out why a farmer has died, an immigrant friend is in danger, and the gypsies have disappeared. The book’s climactic ending is anything but tidy.  In fact I sat in stunned silence for several minutes, contemplating what had just happened. Benni tells a wicked funny story, but in a chilling way.

I’m realizing as I look over this that I read about Patrollers in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (vigilante groups terrorizing newly freed slaves during Reconstruction), Snatchers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (vigilantes rounding up “mudbloods” to turn in to Voldemort’s puppets at the Ministry of Magic), British Movement thugs in Red Dirt Road (thugs sympathetic to British Movement fascism who terrorized people of color in the UK), and Rage of God (an anti-immigrant anti-Roma vigilante group and DB International (a government contractor that sows fear of terrorism in order to drive demand for its work) in Margherita Dolce Vita. Perhaps it’s time for some more uplifting reading?

Around the bookconscious household, Teen the Elder is reading up on places to go in England and beyond during the spring term and after his gap year ends. Teen the Younger has spent a lot of time reading books with film connections and seeing the films — we saw Hugo together (we both read The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December) and she also saw Tintin, which caused her to pull out our entire collection of the books and re-read them. She’s also reading Kathryn Stockett‘s The Help after enjoying the movie.

The Computer Scientist just finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King. He says he enjoyed the excellent character development and fascinating story that made him stop and think: “While the JFK event is the central point, there is so much more to the story than that…classic SK.”

Up next? I am trying to decide which Europa book to read in February. My theory of the interconnectedness of reading — the way I seem to read books with something in common — is holding up as I started another book confronting racism and nationalism last night, Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. So far it’s very good, tempting me to set aside my to-do list and curl up with the cat to read this afternoon.  I have my ever-present to-read piles beside the bed, and I’ve requested Stewart O’Nan‘s latest book, The Odds, at the library. Feel free to leave me reading suggestions in the comments. I’m always collecting ideas!

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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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Many of the books I read this month are about people who are actually a little bit happy being miserable. I think we all know people like that; we may all be somewhat prone to this. Sometimes lamenting life’s little annoyances feels good, and reading about someone else’s gripes can be very amusing. More on this in a moment.

I read a little less this month in part because I was writing more. Yesterday I “won” NaNoWriMo by finishing a novel of just over 50,000 words, written entirely in November. You can learn more about this crazy endeavor at The Nocturnal Librarian.  I also have a new obsession: zentangle.

My interest is zentangling caused me to request The Mandala Book: Patterns of the Universe by Lori Bailey Cunningham, on interlibrary loan.  This is one of those books that really excited the life learner in me. It full of gorgeous photos of all kinds of designs that occur naturally: shapes, mathematical patterns, branching, and more. Brief essays expand on the ideas presented in the photos. I really enjoyed the way Cunningham joins math, science, spirituality, and aesthetics to celebrate the beauty and mystery of our world. And I found inspiration for tangling!

Next, another book that isn’t about my proposed theme of enjoying a good gripe. It’s a book by an author I’ve mentioned on bookconscious before: David Rubel. His new picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift got a nice shout-out in the New York Times book review’s children’s holiday issue. David sent me a copy and I absolutely adore it — it will have a place of honor among my growing collection of holiday reads.

The Carpenter’s Gift tells the story of a little boy, Henry, who goes with his father to sell Christmas trees in New York City in 1931.  At the end of the day, they give away the leftover trees to some construction workers who’d helped them set up. They decorate the tallest of the trees at the site — Rockefeller Center. Henry makes a wish for a warm house to live in, and takes a pine cone from the tree home with him.

The construction workers turn up the next day with some extra wood and offer to build the struggling family a home. Henry helps a bit and is thrilled to have a warm place to live. When his parents throw a party to thank the men, Frank, the man who helped with the Christmas trees, gives Henry a hammer. Henry plants his pine cone and treasures the gift.

Flash forward, Henry has grown up, his tree is enormous, and along comes a man looking for a Christmas tree for Rockefeller Center. What seals the deal is that the man tells him the tree will be made into lumber for a house for a family in need — built by Habitat for Humanity. When the now gray-haired Henry attends the tree lighting, he sees a little girl picking up a pinecone from his tree.

Henry has the chance to complete the circle and share a very special gift. What? Did you think I was going to tell you the whole story? You’ll have to go get the book and find out what happens.

The story and its lovely illustrations by Jim LaMarche are perfect for curling up on a December evening and reading with a child. I love that the book incorporates history, holiday traditions, and the spirit of giving that can tranform this season into more than just making merry.

David also subtly touches on Habitat’s mission, which is to partner with people in need of decent housing (Habitat homeowners help build their own homes) and to bring people together to eradicate poverty housing. The impact of Habitat’s work is not only to build houses but to “transform the lives of volunteers,” as Rubel writes in the afterword, and his story really shows how that happens.

One more book before I get to the love of misery. Cinnamon Press, a terrific indie publisher in the UK, sent me Migrations by Anne Cluysenaar to review. Migrations is a collection of poems that are insightful, thoughtful,veined with wisdom, and also well crafted. Cluysenaar writes not only of human experience with feeling and skill, but also of human and natural history, literature, and philosophy.

The musical language in “Eels,” a poem in the section called “On the Farm,” is lovely, with interesting letter combinations such as the “gl” and “sh” along with “o” sounds as in the first stanza: “Glasseels, that in open ocean/passed for glints or ripples,/nose into rainflow freshness./Their gills flush crimson.” This reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s lilting poems.

“Through Time” is a series of poems that evoke the wonder of geological time and our human awe of it, and the poems’ shapes are jagged-edged like the shorelines, causeways, quarries, stream beds, shear zones, valleys, and other features Cluysenaar explores. She muses on things such as tiny prehistoric creatures who left “. . . delicate pale arabesques/on the stones at my feet” noting, “This was all beyond my/reach this flow –/independent ongoing life,/things quite unknown,/unconscious minds/feeding from tide to tide,/doodling grey stone.” There’s something almost liturgical in this language, and I love the image of an ancient chain of life leading to a person walking along the shore.

“Clay” is a long poem inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh and by the author’s discovery that an ancestress of hers lived 10,000 years ago in what is now Syria. The poem alternates between the ancient and the remembered present, as in this passage reflecting on a young scribe marking a clay tablet: “But what if he knows we’ll look down/on that river (still flowing), our steps/and our thoughts, like his, still restless?/I see his young hand, ghostly,/making strokes for the word life –/life that enforces a journey./My own, typing the word./Text upon text upon text./And thoughts’ unwriteable palimpset.” Shivery stuff, that ancient hand writing alongside today’s poet.

“As a wind or an echo rebounds,” a poem whose title is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus, is shorter but still a few pages long. It is a very poignant reflection on the death of a loved one: “. . . the terror/of love about to flow between us.”

The final section of the book, “Migrations,” joins poems which reflect that theme but are varied in subject matter, point of view, and setting. I particularly enjoyed “Late-night London. The Tube” which describes a singing panhandler, “It was a round bin, strapped,” about a sort of drop box for books traded between the narrator and a homeless person who annotates the margins. “No I can’t remember his words,” “Waiting for tests,” “Mere canvas – flat, timeless,” and “A metaphor for this earth” are also particularly strong, lovely poems.

One more in this final section actually made me squirm: “Soft as water, my finger-tips,”about a salmon’s experience as someone lifts it out of a stream, is so evocative that I felt as if I was experiencing what the fish was: “. . . the air clasps round,/harsh with heat, the floating/surface below him broken,/ no water to breathe, nothing/against which to brace his fins.”

Cinnamon Press is an independent source of original voices and fresh talent in a world in which large publishers’ marketing and sales departments often determine what the public reads. You can’t go wrong with any of their high quality titles, and I recommend Migrations wholeheartedly.

Ok, on to the griping already! First, a book I really didn’t enjoy. I almost never blog about books I didn’t like, but this one got so much hype when it came out that I am going to do a bit of complaining myself and ask: what is the appeal of Loving Frank?

As I told the Hooksett Library Book Club, which discussed the novel in October, I am willing to have an open mind and try to appreciate a novel that is either about people I don’t particularly like or a story I’m not drawn into, but not both. I’d argue that a novelist has to convince readers to get behind either the characters or what happens to them, or ideally, both. But in this case, I got all the way to the end without caring about either the characters or the plot. I wished I’d followed Teen the Younger’s advice to quit reading a book that isn’t appealing.

Rant over. On to the better kind of griping, that of writers who are perceptive and funny as they whinge. First up, Another Bad-Dog Book by Joni B. Cole. I laughed out loud throughout this warm and endearingly grumpy essay collection. I’ve mentioned before that I get a kick out of books that make me wish I could sit down and have a cup of tea with the author. This one makes me want to sit down and share a bottle of wine and swap favorite Kate Middleton style blogs with the author.

Cole wouldn’t think less of me for ogling royal fashions. And, she is a hilarious griper. She sends up not only her family and friends and herself, but also all the many things that comprise “neurotic human behavior” as her subtitle says. But these essays aren’t just about self-deprecating humor or skewering the crazy things she observes.

Cole’s insights are thoughtful, bittersweet, and intelligent. She is not preachy or didactic, and she’s kind, even when she writes about things that make her miserable.  She writes about experiences many people can identify with: feeling insecure about one’s looks or at a professional conference, dealing with illness or caring for aging parents, parenting, finding out an old friend on Facebook is a ranting nut-case, facing one’s own foibles. This was a delightful read, one that made me tear up at least once (see if you can read “Oh, Didn’t I Tell You?” without reaching for a tissue)  in addition to laughing out loud.

Here’s an example of Cole at her best, writing about her best friend in college: “Jeff always said I was the funniest girl I knew, and so I was funny. After he told me he was gay, he assumed I was a decent human being, and so I decided to act like one.” Coming out in the 80’s, even to a friend, was risky, and her friend saw the best in her. You will too as you laugh along with Cole and enjoy her wisdom and sharp wit.

I’m getting close to my goal of reading fourteen Europa Editions books by the end of 2011 for the Europa Challenge. In November I read another short story collection by Eric-Emannuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World. I read Concerto to the Memory of an Angel earlier this year.

Schmitt’s stories are full of grumpy people who serve as foils for the grateful human beings who bring his themes to fruition.  And I think his theme in The Most Beautiful Book In the World is that what we humans spend an awful lot of time yearning for what we actually already have.  If we’d quit complaining and look around, we’d see it. Miserable people aren’t very mindful, but in Schmitt’s hands they are generally entertaining.

My favorite stories in this collection include: “The Intruder,” which is just heartbreaking; “The Barefoot Princess,” ditto; “Odette Toulemonde,” which the author adapted from his film of the same name; “The Forgery,” which kept me guessing; and the title story, about a gift women in a gulag make for their daughters.

Schmitt endears and amuses, his characters stumble and fumble and delude themselves but nearly every tale includes redemption or realization as well. A few stories aren’t about people who are miserable out of habit or character but really have an illness or other trauma. Even those are hopeful. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to another Schmitt collection in my “to read” pile: The Woman With the Bouquet.

Another Europa editions book I read in November was Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb.  This is a quirky short novel about a Belgian girl who becomes engaged to a Japanese boy while living in Tokyo. It touches on the oddities (to Westerners) of Japanese culture, the formalities and rules which dictate social and even family life there, and the strangeness of being an ex-pat.

The girl, also named Amelie, enjoys the boy’s attentions and his romantic, almost chivalrous delight in her, but doesn’t really want to get married. In the middle of a lot of romantic wooing, the book veers into a touch of magical realism in two separate mountain scenes. I won’t spoil it but I will say I found it slightly confusing and wasn’t always clear on why Amelie was miserable.

She’s not a loveable protagonist but in this case, that didn’t ruin the book for me. Because she’s young and somewhat impetuous, I could believe the story; one thing that confused me is that while this is fiction, the main character not only shares the author’s name, but also bits of her biography. Both are Belgian but born in Japan, and at the end of the book Amelie flies to Japan for a book tour for what was Amelie Nothomb’s first novel.

So is this autobiography, fiction, or some hybrid thereof? Does it matter? It kind of did to me — somehow it would be different if a real person had the experiences Amelie did. On the other hand, I had heard the ending would surprise and it didn’t. To me it seemed that Amelie did exactly what the book had been leading her to do.

So, I enjoyed this strange little novel on the whole, but was left wondering what I’d just read.  Except that this book was about someone who was miserable being happy in the conventional boy-meets-girl-they-fall-in-love sense. But ends up happy all the same. Got it?

I’d been waiting for French Leave by Anna Gavalda, also from Europa Editions, to be available on interlibrary loan. This was a quick read, sweet and funny and True, in that Gavalda really captured soemthing of the essence of being human. It’s the story of adult siblings who play hooky from a family wedding and visit their brother who wasn’t able to attend.

They spend the day and night remembering together (and I love how they don’t all remember childhood the same way, which is one of those little details that rings so true to life), hanging out, being silly, leaving their relationships, work, and responsibilities behind. I really enjoyed this book about letting the cares of the world go and being a family.

The family dynamics, the tensions and dramas, are finely rendered.  It’s a touching read. It’s pitch perfect — I could picture Garance, the sibling who tells the story, as she spoke, young, a little bit wild and flip, messy but pretty. Carine, the sister-in-law, is a classic I’m-not-happy-unless-I’m-miserable type who badgers everyone around her. And, there is a loveable stray mutt who plays a role in the story — making a furry friend is always a good way to leave your troubles behind.

I’m now reading the Gerald Samper books by James Hamilton-Paterson (all three are from Europa). I read Cooking With Fernet Branca last weekend and laughed aloud.  I’m about halfway through Amazing Disgrace and am wondering exactly where our hapless hero is going to end up next.

Gerald Samper is a British ex-pat author of sports biographies. He lives on a hill in Tuscany where he creates foul sounding gourmet dishes he is inordinately proud of, and sings opera (again a point of great pride) very badly.  He is forever grousing about his Voynovian neighbor Marta, who turns out to be a composer who parodies his yowling, and complaining heartily about the narcissistic, vapid subjects of his biographies.

Samper loves himself and loves to complain, and he’s the perfect male lead for these farces.  In the first book, he blames Marta for making him drink Fernet Branca, a strong Italian liqueur, but in her chapters, she blames him.  Their back and forth, including a wacky scene in which Samper nails himself to the fence he is trying to build between their properties, and their parallel struggles with their creative work and the crazy people they have to deal with are hilarious.

The minor characters in Cooking With Fernet Branca include a great Italian film director who seems a little loopy, his sports car driving son, a fast-talking realtor, Marta’s Voynovian family members, including a brother who lands an attack helicopter on her hillside, and the leader of a “boy band” who visits Samper and turns out to believe in UFO’s. Hamilton-Paterson is that perfect combination: avery good writer who also does comedy well, and I am really enjoying these books.

Teen the Younger read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik last month, after seeing Martin Scorsese on The Daily Show. We hope to catch the film soon. She really liked the illustrations, and said she found the story interesting and liked how it all fit together. She is also reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes and must be enjoying it, since as we’ve discussed, she doesn’t finish books she doesn’t like.

I’m hoping to finish the Gerald Samper books (after Amazing Disgrace comes Rancid Pansies) and the other Schmitt story collection, and I have the next Hooksett Book Club selection out from the library (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I’ve read and loved). I hope to reduce the piles beside my bed to perhaps one small stack over the holidays. Don’t I say that every month?

But meanwhile, I am trying to slow down in advent while also preparing for the holidays. So, I hope to reduce my griping (and my to-do lists) with literary humor and wisdom and find happiness even in the life’s aggravations. Like a woodpecker destroying the siding on the back wall of our house. We humans like to gripe, but we also like to laugh. I hope you find stories that offer both in the coming month.

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This week and last have been strange. We’re getting ready to send Teen the Elder off to England for his gap year. I’ve been cooking by day (all his favorites) and reading by night, filling us both up with memories, seeking comfort in the solid beginning, middle and end of books as I deal with the fact that I am the mother of an eighteen year old who is about to head into the world. I’m thrilled for him, of course, but also feeling many other things, mostly a huge sense of difference: this is not like anything else our family has experienced, one of us moving out, at least for awhile, preparing to live in another country, while the rest of us try to carry on as normal. Next week, I expect, will be even stranger.

It’s also been a time of transition professionally, as I handed over the Events Coordinator position at Gibson’s and began training for my new reference librarian job. I’m excited, but also find myself suddenly able to read whatever I want without having to make time for events books, and so I checked out eight novels the last time I stopped at the library. Eight!  I felt like a kid again, wending my way out to the car with my teetering stack of books.

This month I started by reading books recommended to me, including a staff pick at the Rivier Library — 22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson.  I’ve read several novels set in or after WWII, many from the points of view of displaced people; this one is highly original. Hodgkinson’s skillful use of different points of view enhances the telling of this story about a Polish couple separated during WWII and reunited in England after.

Janusz and Silvana are trying to put together the pieces of their lives and live normally with their son, but there is much that they each kept hidden in wartime that is hard to reveal or admit in peacetime, even to themselves.  They have both experienced trauma and loss, and Silvana and Aurek, the boy, have experienced the very worst of man’s inhumanity as they hid in the woods of Poland. The novel alternates between the present and each family member’s remembered experiences.  Readers meet the people they knew during the war and the people in their new life.

Some readers might find the shifting perspectives confusing, but I think it’s perfect as a way to show the difficulty of pulling together fragmented lives after a period of complete turmoil.  It’s also just the right way to present people who are missing parts of their relationship — they find it difficult to pick up where they left off, because of the damage done, the secrets kept, the traumas felt.  Readers get a taste of this as the narrative shifts.

Hodgkinson is a talented writer who conjures a real sense of the strangeness not only of displacement but also of re-entry into society for veterans and civilian victims of war. She is very good at using small details to paint a vivid scene, like turns of phrase as the couple try to speak in a more British way, descriptions of the garden Janusz creates to try to rebuild a sense of normal family life, the second-hand clothes and shoes the family wears.

Left to guess about each other’s experiences, Silvana and Janusz make a mess of things, and then try to undo the tangle and put the family back together again — although I won’t give away how it ends, I will say it’s a pleasantly ambiguous denouement which will offer book clubs plenty to discuss. Hodkinson presents their story with gorgeous, cinematic scenes and vivid details that will keep you glued to the page. Aurek’s sections will break your heart. 22 Britannia Road is a searing, evocative book about the aftermath of war, the resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to love and trust when everything one has known has been destroyed.

Another heart-breaker is Ivory From Paradise. (Are you wondering about my choice of sad books?  Crying is cathartic, remember.) This one had been on my “to read” list. David Schmahmann revisists the characters from his earlier novel, Empire Settings, although I wouldn’t call this a sequel. When Ivory From Paradise opens, the grown children, Danny and Bridget, are dealing with their mother Helga’s final illness.  They end up in a legal battle with their stepfather over their father’s African artifacts, which Helga brought to London from the family home in Durban after both children fled during apartheid (you can read about those events in Empire Settings).

They end up deciding to return to Durban to hold a memorial service for Helga, who was an anti-apartheid activist and politician. As always I won’t give too much away, but do read these books if you’d like a different view of apartheid and especially post-Mandela South Africa. For Eben, the son of Bridget and Danny’s black nurse, and for several other characters, free South Africa isn’t holding up to its promise, and Danny, whose voice is the most dominant  in the novel, it’s bittersweet to return, to learn what’s happened to his family’s wealth, and to find out about his father’s collection and its provenance.

Like all of Schmahmann’s books, this novel is not only a story, but also a literary exploration of human nature, this time about the legacy a family’s secrets have, the ties we feel towards those who’ve come before and the ways family history can take on mythical status it doesn’t deserve. It’s also a meditation on loss — of childhood, of the reality we paint for ourselves in our memories when we face its real life counterpart, of the childish belief in one’s parents invincibility.  And like Schmahmann’s other work, it’s sad but also quite lovely. You may cry but you’ll feel better for it, and also feel better for having considered the ideas he brings to bear in the novel.

One more tragedy I read this month on the recommendation of a friend: Robin Black’s story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This.   Black writes beautifully and her virtuosity is clear — her stories are told from the point of view of characters of various ages, different sexes, and a variety of circumstances, and the range is impressive. I enjoyed several of the stories very much: “Immortalizing John Parker,” about an artist trying to paint a portrait of a man who is beginning to succumb to dementia,  and “The History of the World,” about adult twins on a trip to Italy are two favorites.

But as I told the friend who suggested I read the book, I felt “tragedy fatigue” as I read this collection; there was just too much suffering for me in one volume (although in fairness perhaps because of the other books I’d already read in August). I read a blurb about this book that said a little of it goes a long way, and I think that would be the best way to read it, with time and space between the stories. Black writes so tangibly of her characters’ pain that I felt myself rushing through to be able to put some of that behind me.

Another book I rushed to finish, but for different reasons, is Why Jane Austen by Rachel Brownstein. I wanted to finish the book before Brownstein’s visit to Concord — she read at Gibson’s, and since I invited her after meeting her last spring at JASNA Massuchusetts Region’s final meeting of the season, I wanted to be sure to attend. With the eventful summer, and the big changes going on in the bookconscious household, I had to read more quickly than I would have liked, and I plan to go back and re-read this book.

Brownstein’s book is what she describes as “associative criticism” — part criticism, part memoir, as she ties much of what she has learned about Austen’s longstanding widespread appeal to her own life and experiences.  At Gibson’s Brownstein told the audience that she has always admired Austen’s “precision of language.”  She also noticed over her years of teaching that Lionel Trilling’s belief that what’s said about Jane Austen is almost as interesting as the author and her work seems to be as true today as when he wrote it. Why Jane Austen is a lovely book about those two things: Austen’s enduring and self-perpetuating popularity and and what it is about the works that make people so wild about Jane.

One of the most interesting things Brownstein discusses is the sense of belonging Austen’s work fosters in readers. Austen’s writing style, her intimate way of addressing readers as if the are her “secret friends,” makes people feel like they are on a first name basis with Jane. Brownstein also points out  the beauty of Austen’s “tissue of words.” For example, Brownstein describes reading aloud from Emma in a deliberately enunciated fashion so that her students can “savour the slow, gradual elongation of the “e” from the  short indeterminate grunt . . . to the long emphatic screech.” (Go on, open your copy of Emma and check it out.)

She also discusses the way Austen’s books offer new things upon every reading: Brownstein’s son noticed something funny in the carriage ride conversation between Elizabeth Bennett and Maria Lucas in Pride and Prejudice that she herself had never caught.  And she admires how Austen tapped into the instinctive human desire to be “in the know” — Brownstein writes of her mother’s inviting a social outcast to tea in their home in Vermont in part so she could learn why the woman is shunned, just as many Austen characters trade in neighborhood stories.

Reading Why Jane Austen is like sitting down with a very smart, very well spoken friend who gently reminds you of how much more there is to learn about even our favorite books. And how important close, careful (and slow) reading is to our understanding of literature. Brownstein makes clear that a great writer like Austen incites conversation among readers of every generation, as the characters’  lives open into our own, no matter the differences between us.  Inspired by Brownstein’s wonderful answers to the question in her title, I’ve suggested a Jane Austen book discussion for the Computer Scientist, Teen the Younger, and I. Stay tuned.

I read two books of poetry this month.  I’ll start with Crave Radiance, by Elizabeth Alexander. If  her name is familiar, it may be because she wrote a poem in honor of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and read it as part of the ceremonies.  That poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a fine example of what I like most about Alexander’s work: it is deeply musical, well structured, and filled with references to familiar, ordinary people and experiences.

But that is only one kind of poem in this collection. Many others are devoted to historical figures and events in America’s past, particularly African American history. Some are sequences, like the poems in Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.  Others are individual poems such as “Affirmative Action Blues,” which is about, among other things, the Rodney King civil rights trial, and several poems address the AIDS epidemic.

Alexander also writes a great deal about her family history, and those are some of my favorite poems. “Fried Apples” is about how she recalled her grandfather “standing at the stove, cooking/ a pan of fried apples for us,” and  “began to take his measure.”  And sections of “Fugue,” a sequence of poems about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, are about her parents. In “1971,” for example, Alexander conjures her young self walking with her father, an adviser to President Johnson: “Sometimes a poem remembers small things, like/’Hey Blood.’ My father still says that sometimes.”

The title of the book comes from the poem “Allegiance,” part of the Miss Crandall series.  It’s one of  my favorites, and also one that seems to sum up Alexander’s themes: when Prudence Crandall receives letters telling her “how brave,/ how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast” she is to run a school for colored girls, we are told, “Work, she says, there is always work to do,/ not in the name of self but in the name,/ the water-clarity of what is right./ We crave radiance in his austere world,/ light in the spiritual darkness.” Alexander believes in that water-clarity, and her poems ring with it.

Where does Alexander place her faith?  Where Prudence Crandall did: “Learning is the one perfect religion,/ its path correct, narrow, certain, straight./ At its end blossoms and billows/ into vari-coloured polyphony:/ the sweet infinity of true knowledge.”  It’s an old idea told well and beautifully: ignorance is the real evil, learning will free hearts and minds.

The other book of poems I read is by my friend and editor at the NH Writer, Martha Carlson-Bradley (who patiently whittles down my long Publishing Trends columns).   Longtime booksconscious fans may recall I wrote about one of her earlier books, Season We Can’t Resist, in 2009.  Carlson-Bradley’s new collection is a chapbook from Adastra Press, beautifully hand-set, printed, and stitched, called If I Take You Here. I read the book and then went to hear her read from it at Gibson’s. I was glad I did, because as is so often the case, her authorial asides really shed light on the book.

I knew from earlier conversations that these poems came out of Carlson-Bradley’s reflection that the farmhouse where her mother grew up and where she visited her grandparents exists only in memory now. At the reading, she explained that she was inspired in part by hearing Donald Hall describe his grandparents’ farm (where he has lived for many years) as a place where poems grow; she ventured to make her grandparents’ farm such a place, even though it’s been torn down. The book is a long sequence, and the individual poems don’t have titles. They’re meant to be read in order and in one sitting, which I was glad to hear, because I had instinctively read the book straight through.

In the opening poem, Carlson-Bradley invites readers to follow her as she enters the memory of her grandparents’ farm as if it is a physical place one can go, “The spring on the screen door/ stretching out/plays its taut,/ascending scale.” In the second poem, Carlson-Bradley tells us the house is not in the shape it once was: “The outer edges the first to go,/ the place that memory makes/ has trouble staying whole –”

You really should read this haunting and lovely poem for yourself, and see what Carlson-Bradley calls the “crumbling left margin,” a visual clue to what she’s found as she enters the farm house. The poem’s left justification is very uneven, with indentation varying line to line, alluding to that roughened outer edge. She told the audience at Gibson’s that she was deliberate in her use of visual structure, centering those poems which spoke to “eternal things,” such as the garden, and deliberately employing variegated indentation to represent her sense that visiting a memory as a physical place is a disorientation of time.  I can’t think of another book of poems whose structure so brilliantly compliments the theme.

In some poems, the language itself leads readers farther into the maze of memory — for example the poem which starts “Incessant, the wind/” has lovely repetition of sounds. In the first stanza, incessant, wind, and inside all share a short “i.” Later, “t’s” and “m’s” repeat, offering very different but similarly soothing accompaniment.  Further along “w’s” and longer o’s and “u’s” smooth the poem’s exit. It’s a very auditory poem, beautiful on the tongue and the ear.

Other favorites of mine are “A young woman’s face,” which describes an old photo fading, and “What I can’t imagine/ he can’t have,” which is one of the poems that best characterizes the relationship between memories and everyday realities, lost forever save in snatches we can remember. Someone in the audience asked how much of the detail in this book, including descriptions of many items from the house, are real and what Carlson-Bradley invented. Her reply: “Even when the facts weren’t right, it’s emotionally true.”  This reverberated with me as aesthetically similar to Danny’s experience in Ivory From Paradise — Schmahmann leads his main character to emotional truths even as he shatters the accepted beliefs Danny holds about his childhood in the novel.

If I Take You Here is about finding the truths in our memories of earlier generations, of people and places that were important to us. Just as Elizabeth Alexander writes of the way she takes the measure of her grandfather by recalling a moment in his kitchen, Martha Carlson-Bradley calls forth her grandfather in images — packing his dead wife’s things, preserving the fruits of his garden, calling out to his daughter.  As she shared her work, she said these poems “create a kind of anteroom between the living and the dead.”   There’s a sense of loss, but also a sense of what endures: lightning, autumn leaves, peepers’ calls, the sound in a shell, the smell of leaf mold or peonies, snow, stars, heat, and light.  Treat yourself to this gorgeous, handmade, heartfelt book. Or better, treat your library, so people in your community can read it too.

Finally this month, I began participating in a fun project: The Europa Challenge. One of my favorite people on Twitter and the blogosphere, The Boston Bibliophile, co-founded this blog, dedicated to challenging participants to read more books from the fantastic Europa Editions. Since I am already a fan of their books, I decided to dive in and read 4 Europa books (Ami level challenge) or perhaps 7 books (Haver level) by the end of 2011.  Since I’d already read The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine in 2011, I figured I had a head start.

In August I’ve read three more Europa Editions, so I’ve become an Ami!  First, I finished Concerto to the Memory of An Angel, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I received a preview of at ABA’s Winter Institute last January. I absolutely loved this book and want to read the rest of Schmitt’s translated work (he’s French). Concerto is a book of four novellas, with a wonderful section at the end called “A Writer’s Logbook,” where the author includes anecdotes about his creative process and some of the backstory behind his book. For the same reason I love hearing an author talk about his or her work, I really enjoyed the logbook section.  And, I found it charming that Schmitt welcomes the reader into his process, in a way.

I had the sense as I read that the stories, while not linked explicitly (no common characters or settings), were linked in spirit and theme. In fact, one thing I really like about Concerto is that it’s a story collection that really has its own over-riding narrative arc — everything fits, no story seems to be out of place, and they tell a bigger story when read all together. The logbook confirms that these stories share, for one thing, “Rita, the Madonna of lost causes, saint of the impossible . . . .” Schmitt says, “Saint Rita tells no stories, but through her, stories are told. ” Schmitt writes of the power memories and secrets have to harden or transform people, the redemptive effect of love and human understanding, the “ambiguity of goodness: what appears good to one individual provokes the misfortune of another. . . .”

I enjoyed all four novellas, but my favorite is “The Return,” about a man who finds out at sea that one of his daughters has died, but not which one. The rest of the story is almost entirely his thoughts as he deals with the news,and his intentional analysis of himself as a father.  While each story is tinged with sadness or anger or fear, every one of them includes some sort of redemption that makes the collection an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit.

Amara Lakhous‘s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio is also a book about the way the same experience can impact people differently; it’s a book about perceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. Both funny and sad, this short novel takes places in an Italian apartment building and nearby. Different characters tell their sides of the story when one of the residents is murdered. Identity, character, and culture shift before our eyes as we meet the neighbors through different narrative threads.

This book reminded me of an art house film — I could picture the characters addressing the camera with their stories and grievances. Lakhous blends social criticism with humor and a dash of mystery as the book reveals the ways people judge and misjudge each other, the assumptions they make, the things they misread, even when they think they know each other well. While Clash is an interesting look at multicultural contemporary Italy (intriguing to read as Europeans struggle to decide whether multiculturalism is a failure), it’s also a book with universal appeal because of the comedic misunderstandings.  Even the characters felt universal — some of you may know an old lady who is overly attached to her little dog. Or a mico-managing tenant who leaves notes in the elevator about civilized behavior.

Finally, I read the absolutely brilliant Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon. Set in 2013, the novel imagines a world that has gone through a series of financial disasters (not only the Recession, but also the Bite), causing massive cultural and civic upheaval so that England is now run by NUG (the National Unity Government, made up of sociologists and shrinks), whose main task is to keep the ever shabbier populace fed.

The heroine of Chalcot Crescent is Fay Weldon’s actual sister, Frances, who her mother miscarried.  Fay Weldon imagines her as having lived a long, successful life as a feminist novelist. Frances is matriarch of a complicated family brewing with resentments and issues. As the book opens, her grandson is sitting with her as she avoids the bailiffs, who are knocking on her door, presumably to repossess the house. Or are they?

In the course of the book, Frances writes a hybrid fiction/memoir manuscript, as she speculates about what is going on — right in her own house — when several of her grandchildren and her best friend’s grandchild meet in Chalcot Crescent to plan a coup as part of an underground protest movement. Meanwhile, her son-in-law is rising in prominence in NUG in part because of his skills as a stem cell researcher (NUG has to create National Meat Loaf somehow), and Frances also writes about her daughters’ relationships with men and with her.  The reader is never sure what Frances has worked out and what she is fabricating — at one point, neither is she.

Frances reflects on her own life with humor and grace and a fair dose of attitude, from her childhood in New Zealand to teen years in post-war London, through the turbulent decades of her adulthood, filled with personal drama and public success.  The book is scary in that the dystopian aspects don’t seem all that far fetched.  The absurdity of the situation — an old woman trapped in her home, which she can no longer afford because of the collapse of the consumer driven economy, while her grandchildren dart through the community potato patch in order to elude government cameras, is delicious.  I hope to read more of Weldon’s work soon, perhaps the epistolary novel Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.

Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger spent August hanging out with each other and with friends, traveling (Teen the Elder spent a few days with his uncle in Seattle), and visiting with my dad when he came to New Hampshire. Teen the Younger continued to read manga and magazines (including the manga magazine Shonen Jump) and she did a lot of planning for her upcoming year of life learning. She has some interesting things in her “to read” pile: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a book about Japanese history and culture, and several books on the art, design, and history of video games.

Teen the Elder finished a book about English culture, Rules Britannia, and he is reading a lot of instructional material for Logic Studio music writing/recording/editing/mixing software. The manual is 1300 pages long, and he intends to read it! He has mentioned several times that he’d like to re-read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books, which are some of his favorite reading of all times (Want in on a secret? The Computer Scientist and I are planning to hide a set of the books in his luggage for him to find when he unpacks in England).

The Computer Scientist has been doing several people’s worth of work at his job — he’s had a team member out on maternity leave, another has moved on to a new position elsewhere, and various vacation and hurricane related absences — and he is now coaching a 3rd & 4th grade boys’ soccer team (you can learn why over at his blog, The Grumpy Footballer).  So he also had a fairly light reading month in August. He’s still enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks.

As for me, I have five more library books waiting (all novels, two of which are Europa Editions by Jane Gardham, whose God On the Rocks I read last winter), plus David Budbill’s latest poetry collection, Happy Life and a book about Carl Sandburg and his wife Lilian Steichen that my father lent me. Plus all the books already in my to-read pile. So, happily, I’ll get through the next few days and that first strange week of our whole new stage of life reading alongside Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist, and knowing Teen the Elder is well supplied with books, too.

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It’s been very busy in the bookconscious house, and changes are afoot. Many of you know that Teen the Elder is getting ready to leave for his gap year.  We had an unexpected (in timing, expense, and fun) trip to New York last week to get his visa. We’re down to a month or so before he leaves, and suddenly the brevity of our time as a family of four is stark.

As if that wasn’t enough tumult, I’ve accepted a new job, and will be returning to the library world. It’s a part time reference job, with hours mainly at night, so I’ll have my days free for Teen the Younger and her life learning adventures. Hopefully, I’ll also return to more disciplined writing time. I’m very excited — libraries have been among my favorite places all my life, and reference is my favorite aspect of librarianship.

In the midst of all of this upheaval, I found myself reading books about the normalcy of transition in human experience. If anything stays the same, it’s change. Ubiquitous as it may be, change is something many of us don’t handle all that well. The books I read this month introduced me to people (real and imagined) in the throes of personal and societal change, which was oddly comforting as I faced major changes myself.

When I signed off last month I was reading Kosher Chinese, a delightful memoir by Michael Levy about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Bookconscious regulars know I am a big admirer of Peter Hessler, whose first book, River Town was also a Peace Corps memoir set in China. Levy’s book is quite different, but also wonderful.

I was struck by Levy’s perceptive commentary on the struggle of  “China’s other billion,” the people he met in the heartland of China in the mid 2000’s. It’s a poignant look at the universal need for something to believe in, someone to share life’s ups and downs with. It’s an interesting meditation on personal and cultural identity in the midst of change — not only Levy’s immersion in Chinese culture, but also his Chinese friends’ various struggles to find their places in a country where change is constant.

I’ll admit up front one reason I admired Kosher Chinese is that Levy pays tribute to his mother. Anyone who writes fondly of his mother is alright by me. But I also liked that Levy wrote from a fresh perspective, not about factory workers or migrants or cmmunists (although all got a nod) but about ordinary Chinese in an area the West doesn’t pay much attention to, who are not really sure whether “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”  will make their lives better.

His experiences eating strange foods,dealing with new living conditions, playing basketball, leading (at his Chinese friends’ insistence) a Jewish club, and playing Santa at a Chinese Wal-mart are both hilarious and thoughtful. Read Kosher Chinese and you’ll learn something about China, and also about humanity.  Levy is honest about his desire to help his friends and also about the ineffectiveness of most of his efforts to intervene in their lives.

Peace Corps work is somewhat passive activism — hard work, to be sure, but volunteers are meant to promote peace and friendship and foster understanding, not foment change. A very intense book-length poem I read this month, One With Others, by C.D. Wright, examines a more active agitator, a white woman in civil rights era Arkansas, who joined a black protest march and ended up losing her comfortable life in a small town.   The poem’s language shifts from delicate, patterned, “poetic” sections to others that are more fragmented, improvisational. I’m usually a fan of short poetic forms, but this book won me over to the possibilities of length.

One With Others is elegaic, sometimes stark, often beautiful. But it’s also a deep reflection on the idea of universal human values; do we have them? If so why do some people fail to see them, perpetrating horrible hardships or even violence against the “other,” as we’ve seen throughout history, and continue to see in the news every day? What makes someone reject that “otherness” in a close knit community and walk firmly on the side of “one?”  The poem doesn’t offer answers so much as opportunity to reflect on these ideas, and on the life of the unlikely, imperfect heroine V., who in real life was Margaret Kaelin McHugh.

Speaking of unlikely heroes, when was the last time you considered decorative hermits? Author Steve Himmer‘s The Bee-Loud Glade is a novel whose narrator is silent for most of the book. When he spoke at Gibson’s last week Himmer said that was the challenge he set himself, writing from the point of view of someone who couldn’t speak, and when he came across information about decorative hermits he knew he was on to something.

This novel has many things I love — social commentary, dystopian references, a very original story, and philosophical overtones. Finch, the hermit, is a “brand awareness manager” — he writes fake blogs to sell people on Second Nature Modern Greenery fake plants, until a new “submanager” at his company figures out he’s just making up stories all day and fires him.

After “weeks on the couch doing nothing,” he responds to an online job ad without really knowing what the job is.  He’s chauffered in a limo to meet Mr. Crane, a super rich businessman (or in today’s parlance, a job creator) who explains he wants a hermit for his gardens.  Finch takes the job.

The entire book is about Finch’s efforts to “meet it and live it” as Thoreau wrote, making the best of his life even when things look miserable.  I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that at first Finch is a passive agent, dealing with change only by following routines and instructions.  Outsiders — some known, some mysterious and perhaps even figments of his imagination — direct his choices. Eventually, through Finch’s own revelations as well as external circumstances, he comes to understand his life as more than a string of actions and responses.

The Bee-Loud Glade is an entertaining read that examines self-reliance in a world that values instant gratification, and looks at our idea of “nature” in a time when people see animals on a screen more often than outside.  Several contemporary themes impact the book’s characters: globalization, the gulf between executives and workers, financial excess, the influence of marketing, hubris in molding the natural world to our purposes. Himmer writes well, his book is thought provoking, and he leaves readers with much to ponder.  Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this novel.

I read Himmer’s book, as well as David Schmahmann’s latest, last month because they were coming to Gibson’s to read. Frederick Reiken joined them, and read from his book, Day For Night, a 2010 LA Times book prize finalist for fiction. This was the most complicated of the three novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like Schmahmann and Himmer, Reiken writes beautifully, and he provides a complex, intriguing story, told through ten first person narratives.

You read that right: ten. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve read many other books told from different points of view and few are as deftly managed as this one. Reiken also makes each intersecting life rich in detail: there is a chapter in which a woman discovers her newly purchased house is full of toxic mold, and another in which a mysterious woman rescues a young man who is a victim of ritual abuse; still another character is determined to figure out what happened to her father, one of a group of 500 Jewish intellectuals who disappeared in Kovno, Lithuania during WWII; two other chapters deal with marine biology and desert zoology.  Another character is a Jungian analyst.

Reiken told listeners at Gibson’s that many of the pieces of information he used in the book came to him through life experiences — he has a background in biology, his wife worked with ritual abuse victims, he once had a house full of toxic mold.  Other information he came across and wanted to wrestle with, like the true story of the 500 Jewish intellectuals.  He also told us that one editor asked if he could change the book to a straightforward 3rd person point of view.  I’m very glad he held fast to his vision.

Day for Night is not hard to follow, but it is delightfully shadowy; the links between the many characters are for readers to discover. Reiken could have made things more obvious as he went along — in fact it must have been a little tempting to write the equivalent of “See? See how it all fits?!”   But as he draws the book together, the pleasure of untangling and analyzing connections falls entirely to the reader.

Interestingly, he set the book in a pre-email, texting, messaging, cell phone world, where the characters work things out mostly on paper and in person, not on computers. As they do, as they draw closer to long wondered-about truths, as they confront the unfolding mysteries of their lives, there is none of the sense of hyper-driven news cycles of today, none of the frenzy of the internet. It’s kind of a novel about slow communication.

Day For Night also presents a group of characters who are living with the aftermath of war, occupation, and displacement; in a few cases they have had direct experience, but in others they are the children and grandchildren of a generation of refugees and victims of war. It was interesting to read Outcasts United after this novel.  Author Warren St. John moved to Atlanta to document the lives of a number of refugee families in Clarkston, Georgia, and to profile a woman who is making a marked impact in their lives through soccer.

I’d read the beginning of the book last winter, and skimmed some other sections, as Concord Reads was choosing this year’s community wide read. We ended up choosing Outcasts United, and I am very much looking forward to leading a brown bag discussion of the book as part of our programming.  I’ve been a volunteer with the local refugee resettlement agency, and I think St. John does a good job of outlining the challenging issues facing refugees and the people tasked with helping them start over in America.

But that’s not entirely what Outcasts United is about. It’s mostly about a truly remarkable woman, Luma Mufleh, who accidentally became one of the most effective advocates in Clarkston for young refugees, through her passion for soccer. The book follows Luma and some of her players, describing the horrors they’ve left behind and those they are still facing, even in their new home.

St. John is clearly sympathetic to his subjects, and I imagine that some of the residents of Clarkston are probably not thrilled at the way their town appears in the book. Having lived in a small town in Georgia myself, I recognized the forces at work in Clarkston — longstanding tradition, conservative (in the sense of resisting change, not in the political sense) values, provincialism, cronyism, and plain old inexperience with other cultures, along with a dose of intolerance (racial, cultural, and/or religious) from some residents. And yet, right alongside, some willingness to embrace the “other” and to improvise in ways that small towns often do.

The boys on Luma’s soccer teams will break your heart, as will their families’ stories.  In January’s post I wrote about Caroline Moorhead’s excellent book Human Cargo, so I was familiar with much of what the refugee population is escaping. But as with any conflict, the individual situations magnify the horror of the whole, and St. John definitely helps readers see what these children are dealing with.

On top of their pasts, many of them face violence, discrimination, continuing poverty, and family separation even once they are safely resettled in the U.S., and they tend to have much more responsibility than their schoolmates, watching younger children, cooking meals, and interpreting for their parents. Luma believes that responsibility is good for them and will help them survive, and she offers tough love and mandatory tutoring, as well as firm coaching and plenty of running.

Ultimately Outcasts United is about the Fugees, as her teams are known, and Luma’s enormous work, establishing the teams, getting them equipped, finding somewhere for them to play, working out the many small logistical problems any sports club must work out. But it’s also about her completely selfless dedication to the families she gets to know. And about Clarkston’s growing pains, and the individuals who try to maintain the status quo, as well as those who see change and go out to “meet it and live it.”

One issue I have with the book is that some of these small town heroes and villains seem a bit predictable and “stock” — but in fairness to St. John, I have no way of knowing if I would feel that way if I hadn’t met some people very much like them during my own time in Georgia.  He may also have simply gotten to know Luma and her players better than he did the townspeople; I think Luma in particular comes across as a much more multi-dimensional character in the book. At any rate, there is much to discuss, especially in light of New Hampshire’s own struggle to absorb refugees into small communities.

Finally, as stress relief around the time I was interviewing for a new job and working with Teen the Elder on the highly convoluted student visa application process, I decided I needed a nice thick novel. At the recommendation of a fellow Gibson’s staff member, I chose Kate Morton‘s The Distant Hours. I read The Forgotten Garden two winters ago, and enjoyed that. The Distant Hours was also an entertaining read.

The characters are appealing, and the story deals with the main character learning some unexpected things about her mother’s wartime experiences and girlhood. There’s a bit of a mystery, some of it literary, and there’s a moldering old castle where three elderly sisters keep secrets from the world and each other.  The Distant Hours is a good read, and another look at the way World War II disrupted lives and plans, and impacted families even beyond the generations that lived during those times.

All of the reading I did about people facing great challenges and difficulties coupled with all the news lately — drought in the U.S., famine in Africa, continuing high rates of unemployment, austerity measures in Greece and elsewhere, the debt debate — made me feel fortunate, if not downright privileged. The Computer Scientist and I and the Teens are healthy, safe, and secure. We are able to send Teen the Elder off into the world to have a gap year before college. We were able to treat the family to a mini vacation in New York while securing his visa.

While there, Teen the Younger took the Computer Scientist to some of her favorite places from our last trip, such as Forbidden Planet near Union Square, and we saw a couple of fantastic shows: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and War Horse (such bookconscious shows — How to Succeed is about a young man who gets ahead in part by reading a book, and War Horse is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo).  We also got to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that has been one of the hottest attractions in New York this summer: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Teen the Younger was thoroughly impressed, even though we had to squeeze through the packed galleries. Teen the Elder also enjoyed the exhibit. The Computer Scientist waited on a bench. We managed to avoid the two hour wait by getting a membership to the Met, but that got the member (me) and two additional guests into the exhibit ahead of the line.  I had every intention of bringing The Computer Scientist in after I took the kids in (as recommended by a Met staffer), but that proved impossible, as it took us two hours to wind our way through.  He didn’t mind, and Teen the Younger asked for the exhibit book, which is amazing, and which provides the Computer Scientist a look at what we saw.

Teen the Younger continues to read manga. Lately it’s been Vampire Knight, although thanks to cuts to the NH State Library budget, she has recently been waiting over two weeks for the next book in the series to arrive at our branch via the state’s inter-library van service.  I asked her last night what she thinks of them (she’s read about ten of the series so far).  I was taken aback by her response: she said that the story is on the boring side, the characters are a little “twilightish” (although she hasn’t read the Twilight series, she knows of them and says this is not a compliment), that other than the main character, they haven’t got much personality and are apathetic.

When I asked why on earth she is continuing to read them, especially in light of the difficulty we are having in getting the next book, she said she likes the art. Considering how much time she spends drawing and how absorbed she was in the Alexander McQueen exhibit, I am not surprised that this would be appealing enough for her to slog though the stories.  I am also impressed that she is a critical reader. But I hope she enjoys a good read soon. Her brother suggested she read Tolkien, and I saw her with The Hobbit the other day.

Teen the Elder spent the first part of the month slogging through something else entirely — visa application documentation. Once we presented ourselves at the consulate in NYC to complete the process, we learned that many of his fellow applicants had spent even more time (or their parents had) reading the minutia of bureaucratic policy guidance. Or, as Teen the Elder himself put it, “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a room full of worry.”  Turns out in retrospect we’d guessed properly when the directions seemed confusing or obscure, and he easily obtained his visa. And that it’s not us, the directions are indeed confusing and obscure.

For graduation, his sister presented him with several books on British English and UK culture. He’s reading Rules Britannia, by Toni Summers Hargis and periodically amuses us with language  he’s culled from his dictionaries of Britishisms, such as “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”  This is now on my desktop, as The Computer Scientist used the phrase in the “OK Go x Philobus All Is Not Lost video dance messenger” and then saved it as a screen shot. If you have no idea what I am talking about, take the link (I believe you have to be in the Chrome browser to make it work) and enter your own phrase.   Although you are welcome to try “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”

The Computer Scientist has been reading slowly this summer; it’s hot, for one thing, and he’s awfully busy, for another. But he’s really enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks. He says that he’s very impressed with the research that went into the book, and the depth, given that Brooks is also cranking out punditry several times a week.

On my to-read piles?  I’ve started The Man Who Loved China, by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Simon Winchester. It’s actually on loan to me from my father, who recommended it. I set it aside to read a couple of library books I’d requested, including 22 Britannia Road, which I heard about during my job interview.

So far I’m enjoying both of those. There are any number of books stacked beside my bed and next to my desk and near my favorite chair that I have been meaning to read and haven’t yet.  On my desk, there is a list of books friends have recommended, and a pile of clippings from reviews I found appealing. It’s one of the things that doesn’t change, thankfully — there are always too many good books to choose from. I hope you’ll check back here at bookconscious and share them with me.

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It’s hot, our second over-90 degree heat spell already this year, and it’s only June 8th as I start this draft. For those of you in warm parts of the world, that might not sound like much, but for New Hampshire, it feels wrong. I don’t like these wild weather swings — just three weekends ago, the weather was so cool our heat came on at night.

I’ve been struggling to make time for this month’s post in part because all I want to do is recline in a room with the shades drawn, reading. Something about hot days takes me instantly back to my childhood summers, trips to the various libraries in my life (Leola and Lancaster, PA; South Haven & Allegan, MI).  The hot, sticky air outside, contrasting with the cool library. The stacks where I could roam for as long as I wanted, browsing. The feel of a heavy pile of books in my arms. The delightful freedom of waking up in the morning knowing I could read all day if I wanted.

My reading in May included several literary wild rides.  I enjoyed several fiction titles that were innovative in some way, and a memoir about revisiting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work as an adult, and visiting places she lived.  I also read a book about making peace with time (so getting off the wild ride that is our contemporary view of time and busyness), and two poetry collections.

Let’s begin there, with poetry.  Both writing and reading poetry can be a wild ride; I often begin with just an idea of what I want a poem to say and end with something I hardly recognize, or begin to write with no real idea of where I’m headed and find the way surer as I go. And when I read poetry, I find my favorites are poems that lead me down a path I didn’t see as I began, or that surprise me with an “aha!” moment of some sort.  That may be why I am such a fan of both reading and writing Japanese forms (like haiku, senryu, and haibun), because achieving an “aha!” is challenging and rewarding.

In May I finished reading Robert Pinksy‘s Selected Poems which includes some of my favorites,  like “Rhyme,” and “Samurai Song,” both of which sound and feel perfect on the tongue, are pleasing to the eye, and are koan-like with briefly stated wisdom. I wasn’t as familiar with some of the earlier poems in the collection, like the lovely “First Early Mornings Together.”

There are many longer poems in this collection as well, and two I keep returning to are “Shirt,” which invokes both the many parts of a tailored shirt and the Triangle Fire, and “From the Childhood of Jesus,” a narrative poem in couplets that imagines the boy Jesus in all his strange, wild power.  I will continue to revisit Pinsky’s work; he’s the kind of master whose poems continue to unpack their secrets as you re-read them.

Check out this wonderful interview on the Newshour, where you can hear Pinsky talk about his work and what informs him, and get a sense of what a warm, real person he is. I’ve heard him in person and via Skype, and one thing that makes his writing so rich and meaningful is that he isn’t an ivory tower kind of poet. He lives in the real world and invokes it in his writing right alongside more erudite references to art, literature, and history.

The other collection of poems I read recently is the most recent BOA Editions prize winner, Walking the Dog’s Shadow, by Deborah Brown. Brown will be reading at Gibson’s with her friend Maxine Kumin on June 23.  As I read the book I jotted some notes to myself about phrases and ideas Brown weaves through many of the poems: physics and space (from subatomic particles to time and heavenly bodies), dogs (real and artistic renderings), grief, the heart and its capacity for pain, literature and art, current affairs and culture, war, family history, and juxtapositions.

Among my favorite poems are the title piece, which imagines grief as a black dog; “Don’t Ask,” which includes the line, “How do you know what you’ve left out of any story you tell?”; “Listen,” which posits, “Stars lie to each other, that’s why they/flicker. We tell stories, try to love,/try to make sense and end up on a swing/ kicking the air out from underneath ourselves.”  Also “The Scarlett Letter Law Struck Down in Massachusetts, Spring 2003,” with its lush description of Hester Prynne’s embroidered “A” and “Elegy for My Sister,” which calls cancer “another dark winter,” and marvels that “The tide of the mind is ruthless too,/if a poem can find some pleasure in a death.”

I think that seems to sum up what I likes about Brown’s poems in this collection — we see the poet’s mind ruthlessly gathering disparate strands, from BlackBerries and car bombs to chiarascuro and Latin verbs. The gathered strands weave together to bring readers surprising connections even out of war or pain. In “The Trap,” for example we travel from a trail on Mt. Sunapee where a dog is inadvertently caught in a hunter’s trap to British train passengers in an old film watching Muslim-Hindu unrest.

In nonfiction, I finished The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure‘s memoir of her quest to revisit both the Little House books and their author and the places where Wilder’s stories took place.  It’s an interesting book because it’s not simply about Wilder, or about McClure’s passionate research. She connects her interest in all things Wilder to her feelings about childhood and her decision not to have children of her own.

Her own feelings add to the quest though, and other than a few places where I wish she hadn’t dabbled in stereotypes of homeschoolers (which in fairness was due in part to the homeschoolers she met), I found the book interesting, well written, and thoughtful. Fair warning, though, if you want to maintain a kind of dreamy, happy vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, this book might disappoint you, because McClure gets into the reality of their lives.

I didn’t mind. I’ve actually always thought it would be fun to visit the sites and this was the perfect armchair travel for someone who can’t or won’t be driving all over the mid-West and plains tracking the Ingalls/Wilder sites. I enjoyed reading about McClure’s research. And I was fascinated that McClure asked what I myself had wondered — why would the Ingalls leave the Big Woods, and the Wilders leave Farmer Boy‘s home, when they were so happy and well-provisioned? Read The Wilder Life and wonder along with McClure.

Bookconscious readers may recall that I met Rye Barcott at a booksellers’ conference last winter and brought home his book, It Happened On the Way to War: a Marine’s Path to Peace, which the Computer Scientist read. I caught up myself ahead of Rye’s visit to Gibson’s last week. The book is part memoir, part nonprofit creation tale.  Rye started Carolina for Kibera when he was still an undergraduate at UNC, and managed to keep working with his friends in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa, during his time on active duty as a Marine.

I enjoyed the book for some of the same reasons the Computer Scientist did — the story is inspiring, and Rye doesn’t hide the things he struggled with personally or professionally. We asked the Teens to come hear Rye speak, and I was glad. He talked about learning things for oneself, connecting with people who are “other” in authentic ways, and putting yourself “out there” in pursuing dreams and finding mentors.  If you have a teen or college student looking for something to read this summer, or if you want to read a book that erases the pain you’re feeling over the Three Cups of Tea scandal, check out It Happened On the Way to War.

From war to intrigue — two novels I read this month were irreverent, funny, wild reads.  Jasper Fforde‘s latest Thursday Next tale, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, was challenging for me to get into but then picked up, and didn’t disappoint in terms of Fforde’s zany, utterly original portrayal of Jurisfiction, the Book World, and a futuristic Britain in which an evil mega-corporation (Goliath) wields more power than the government and you can’t be sure who’s written and who’s real.  If you’re new to Thursday Next’s story, you’d do well to begin with the first book, and if you like Fforde, don’t miss his brilliant Shades of Grey, a very imaginative dystopian novel of manners.

The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky‘s novel out in May from Europa Editions, isn’t set in a fictional world, but in the late Soviet Union and in newly reunified Germany. Bronsky’s detailed description of both places brings out the strange and wacky in each. The book is a fascinating fictional snapshot into recent history. Bronsky’s main character, Rosa, a matriarch straight out of a comic nightmare, is both hilarious and terrifying.

The other characters form a cast nearly as kooky as Rosa, but with enough tragic humanity to act as a foil to her endless plotting. From the first pages, when Rosa’s daughter claims to have become pregnant in a dream, to the end of the novel, when we get a  final glimpse of the baby, now grown and leading a wild and very public life, Bronsky keeps readers laughing, raging, and turning pages.

When I decided I’d better read this year’s Pulitzer prize winner for fiction, Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I also decided to try e-books. I downloaded the book from the library and read it on my I-pad. I’d just like to say, this affirms my suspicion — e-books are not so exciting. At least for me, I can’t see what the thrill is all about. It was convenient to download the book, but in every other way, I found the medium less satisfying than a real book. Perhaps it’s the reader I’m using (Overdrive), but I don’t get the appeal.

Then I was confused by what exactly I was reading. Is A Visit From the Goon Squad a novel? Linked stories? A “novel-in-stories,” as I saw one reviewer call it?  I’d read about a third of the book when I went online and noodled around review sites trying to understand what I had gotten myself into. I’m still not sure, and I think that’s part of the book’s novelty — it’s hard to say what genre it is.  There’s also the famously novel use of Power Point in one of the chapters. I was skeptical, but it works very well with the story in that chapter, and it left me feeling I’d connected with the characters.

So other than the fact that it’s an “it” book, what do I think?  A Visit From the Goon Squad is a wild ride, of that I’m certain. I enjoyed some of the stories very much, and others only somewhat; that said, one mark of an extraordinary book is that it lingers in the reader’s mind, and this book does that, popping up as I read other things and asking me to re-examine what I think I know about storytelling.

It’s also the product of a writer fully in command of her craft, and I admire Egan’s skill and the research she either did or imagined (I was sure Paul Harding had done a lot of research on epilepsy for Tinkers and he says he didn’t really research it at all, but wrote what he thought it would be like).  I loved the end, which flirts with the kind of dystopian futuristic imaginings I enjoy.  I can understand what captured the Pulitzer committee’s imagination.

This week I finished another novel that took me to new places: Kyung-Sook Shin‘s Please Look After Mom.   As bookconscious regulars know, I am a big fan of reading books in translation (and I was remiss in not mentioning that The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine is translated from German).  Kyun-Shook Shin is one of Korea’s best-known authors, and she was a young sensation there, publishing her first book when she was in her early 20’s.

She’s written fourteen books, some of which were translated into German, French, Japanese, and/or Chinese, but Please Look After Mom is the first to be translated into English.  I hope the book’s success will encourage her publisher to bring out more of her books here. Please Look After Mom is original, thought provoking, and sad.

Many authors employ the technique of telling a story from different characters’ points of view, and Shin does this to great effect, with four perspectives.  What’s unusual is that Shin uses the 2nd person most of the time, which is a point of view not often found in a novel. The story centers on Mom, who disappears in a subway station in Seoul, and the novel unravels her life story, bit by bit.  Her daughter and son each know some things, her husband other things, and Mom herself tells part of the story.

The book captures several classic conflicts. Mom grew up and has lived most of her adult life in a rural village, she was married as a teen, and she’s led a life of hard work, illiteracy, and deprivation, as well as great change.  She observes traditional seasonal rites, honors ancestors, but also encourages her kids to pursue careers in Seoul and asks a friend to read her daughter’s novel aloud to her.   She shows her love for her family mostly through food, even to the point of offering rice to her wayward husband when he returns home from an affair. Her children live lives she has trouble understanding.

An NPR reviewer took issue with the “guilt trip” aspect of the book — the characters, understandably, react to Mom’s disappearance with varying levels of guilt and distress, and readers learn that none of them really appreciated Mom, they all took her hard work for granted, and never really considered her happiness. We see that her husband has no idea that he loves her until she’s gone. That her children only now realize she can’t read. I think the book examines an extreme example of something that really goes on in families, and the reviewer missed the relevance of the emotional narrative.

Mom has been kind of an embarrassment, a nag, and a reminder of the past for her family. She’s the kind of person who wants to please others and who is fiercely protective of her family. Rather than draw attention to things she can’t do, like read, she compensates by doing more of what she’s good at — growing, storing, and preparing food, making sure her kids get educated.

So, does anyone reading this know an older adult who is like this?  Maybe not illiterate, but certainly of a generation where women did most of the hard stuff with regards to homemaking and child rearing, and kept their own needs/wants to themselves?  Where adult children are perhaps embarrassed, or at least mildly annoyed, by what they perceive as guilt trips, judgement by the older generation, or nagging?  Where the mother manages to hide her frailty or failing health until a crisis occurs? Where old, reliable mom is taken for granted by her husband and grown children?

Yeah, I thought so. The NPR reviewer is off base in suggesting this book is “weepy” and “melodramatic,” — it’s set in another culture, it showcases the clash of traditional culture and modern life in a place where both are still relevant, and it examines the role of women not unlike that of just a few generations ago here in America. I imagine there are women whose experiences aren’t too far different from Mom’s in various places around the world today. And the role of parents and children in each other’s lives is as classic a literary theme as they come.

In fact, the critically acclaimed The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine examines a mother’s intrusion in her offspring’s life. She’s just so comically monstrous (and selfish), that perhaps she strikes a chord in a world where everyone can be the center of attention for at least a little while, on social media, YouTube, etc.  Mom, on the other hand, makes some reviewers squirm, perhaps because she is considered anti-feminist. But despite her lack of education, her limited opportunities, her self-sacrifice for her family, and her distant husband, Mom speaks her mind and does many things she wants to do (traveling to see her children alone, for example, volunteering at an orphanage, ensuring her children are educated).  She just happens to also be completely devoted to supporting her family.

In other reviews, there is criticism of the images of the Virgin Mary, but Mom has attended Mass, she asked her daughter for a rosary, so Mary’s appearance in the novel isn’t entirely out of the clear blue.  Try Please Look After Mom for yourself. At the very least, enjoy the interesting point of view and the perspective on contemporary Korea.  And consider whether a book dealing with the gap between rural parents and city children and the clash of traditional family roles with contemporary life would have been more widely acclaimed in the U.S. forty or fifty years ago.

Finally this month, I read Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now, by Lama Surya Das. I first read Das’s work about ten years ago, when during a period of great change in our lives, a friend recommended Awakening the Buddha Within.   Ever since, I’ve worked on being more mindful, at times diligently, at other times, less so.

This book really struck me as useful — Surya Das, who the Dalai Lama calls “the Western Lama,” is no guru on a mountain top. He’s thoroughly versed in the real experience of living in the world today, so his recommendations are very practical and take into consideration things like our obsession with gadgets and the over-scheduling of children.  With reflections on real people’s experiences re-inventing their relationship with time and busyness, and brief, accessible exercises and practices for becoming more mindful and less stressed out, Buddha Standard Time is a book anyone, of any spiritual background, could find useful.  The Buddhist beliefs Das outlines are presented in clear layman’s language, and he’s very ecumenical in addressing spiritual practice.

Teen the Elder, who is officially done with high school, is reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. I heard Holmes on Radiolab, and suggested the book since science history is one of Teen the Elder’s favorite subjects.  He continues to read an enormous amount of soccer reporting from around the world. I witnessed the fruits of that study when he was able to comment extensively on the players for both the U.S. (including some new to the National Team and others just on the coaches’ radar who aren’t even in training camp yet) and Spain, when I took him to see the two teams practice ahead of their international friendly match last Friday.

Teen the Younger is still reading several books at once, including the 3rd of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, Mockingjay (which she’d set aside in order to finish some other things) and a bunch of Manga series, plus a book about the periodic table (The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom In the Universe).

The Computer Scientist is deep into Townie by Andre Dubus III, who is one of the kindest, warmest authors I’ve ever met, just a wonderful person who makes everyone in a room feel included and at ease.  His readings at Gibson’s are some of our customers’ favorites. The book is a tough memoir about his upbringing and how writing saved him from violence and anger. The C.S. is enjoying it very much.

On my piles?  I started Ann Beattie‘s The New Yorker Stories, which is terrific but will take me ages to read a bit at a time (which is fun, so I don’t mind). I’m reading Maeve Binchy‘s latest at the moment, Minding Frankie, and I have Alexander McCall Smith‘s most recent Botswana mystery out from the library as well, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding. I told my neighbor today that I am anxious to read Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, which is about a librarian, so I love it already. Wish I was young and carefree this summer — I have the long hot days and stacks of books, all I need now is whole days for reading!

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I went to a JASNA Massachusetts meeting last weekend and heard Rachel M. Brownstein, author of the forthcoming book, Why Jane Austen? speak.  She said several things that really struck me: that we’re interested in Jane Austen (and in wedding announcements and neighborhood news) because in these stories we are able to consider our own lives in relation to others.   That when she taught undergraduates, she found that they hadn’t had much experience discussing the moral implications of interpersonal relations, and of course Austen’s books lend themselves to that perfectly.  That Austen is an author “of complicity” who makes readers feel they are in on the characters’ lives.  That we read (not only Austen) in order to see ourselves reflected in books — to look for ourselves even in people very different from ourselves.

I felt immediately that Brownstein is a kindred spirit — I have made some of the same observations about reading here at bookconscious. The Computer Scientist & I frequently try to engage Teen the Elder & Teen the Younger in discussions about what we’re all reading that go beyond “this happened and then this happened,” or “I liked it,” but delve into “Would this really happen this way?” “Why do we feel so sympathetic towards this character?” “Would you like to be like her?”  “Would you like to be his friend?” “What part of the story did you feel most strongly about?”

Before you feel badly about your own conversations around the dinner table, be assured we usually get little response and/or dramatic eye rolls or other teen-like expressions; we have a little more success asking them their thoughts on the ethical, social, or cultural impact of current events, but only if we catch them at a good time. But we initiate these conversation because we enjoy wrestling with ideas and want the Teens to at least consider them (some day they may even admit enjoying such discussions).

And I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Brownstein that we enjoy books (and all storytelling) because we are able to find a way into a fictional world, and perhaps even imagine ourselves there, or we make connections between fictional realities and our actual lives.  This month, thinking about my reading led me to consider the ways fiction and poetry in particular offers readers the chance to try out emotional situations, to perceive and understand things we might not otherwise come across in our daily lives, to develop emotional intelligence.

Interestingly, two of my favorite reads this month featured characters whose difficulties relating to others led me to think about emotional intelligence just before I heard Rachel Brownstein speak — the bookconscious theory of reading interconnectedness strikes again.  Over the weekend I was re-reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and I was struck this time by a couple of things I don’t remember focusing on the first time I read it. I rarely take time to re-read, but I’d like to do it more often.

Small Island is about two married couples, one who are English (Queenie & Bernard) and one who are Jamaican (Hortense & Gilbert) but  move to England after WWII. Hortense, the Jamaican woman, seems to be so emotionally unaware that she can’t sense when she’s said something insensitive or inappropriate.  Bernard, the English man, is also fairly clueless about other people’s feelings for much of the novel. Interestingly, during the Gibson’s Book Club discussion on Monday evening, I noticed something else — all four characters are raised in emotionally distant or dysfunctional families.

One of the things I love about Small Island is that none of the characters, even the most likable ones (Gilbert & Arthur, Bernard’s father, are my favorites), are perfect. They’re whole, real people, who do both good and bad things.  And all of them develop and grow; I think it would be nearly impossible not to be transformed by the experiences of war and emigration that are the backdrop of these characters’ stories, so this feels real as well. Levy beautifully captures historical details and the unique voices of each character (one reviewer notes that she’s as good at accurately rendering English speech of the time as she is with Jamaican English).

Hortense’s clueless, snobbish belief that she is a lady and a well trained teacher and is therefore better than common, uneducated people sets her up for a rude awakening when she finds her Jamaican teaching credentials are no good in England. And worse, that plenty of people can’t see past her skin, which she thinks is golden, but some just see as black.  Her high expectations of Gilbert, who faces the same discrimination and of shabby, dreary post-war England are brought low as well, until she begins to see potential in both. Queenie has accomplished her girlhood dream of leaving her parents’ farm and butchery, but finds life in London no more satisfying until she begins to help Blitz victims and get to know her father-in-law better.

Both women’s perceptions, formed in large part by the formative moments of their childhoods, get in the way of their ability to accurately read and understand other people, until their engagement with the real world opens their eyes. Watching that happen is lovely; Levy has a light touch, in that there’s no “Oh, here’s where she finally gets it” moment, no clunking machinery of the novel in view. Just a good story and well developed (and developing) characters.

When Bernard comes back from serving in Burma and India believing he has to face the consequences his wartime dalliance, he eventually learns that Queenie has her own secrets. All four characters struggle to deal with cultural and societal pressures, as well as the upheaval of war, and Levy touches on economic and racial discrimination as well as the resilience of human dreams and hopes. Small Island is a great read, with much to discuss, so if your book club is looking for a new title, check it out.

Just as Hortense’s sheltered and unusual upbringing contributes to her insensitivity and makes her less able to read social situations, the heroine of  Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter, Ginny, has been brought up protected by her parents to the point that when they die, her sister Amanda is convinced she is unable to live alone. From the first pages of this fantastic debut novel, the reader knows something is very different about Ginny.  McHenry doesn’t tell us right away what her condition is, but when she slips into the closet during her parents’ funeral and also cooks up a batch of ribollita to calm herself, it’s clear she’s unique.

Through a small cast of minor characters (who are some of the most interesting supporting cast I’ve met in a novel recently), and through Amanda’s increasing frustration with Ginny, we begin to see the whole picture. Part of which is that Ginny & Amanda’s parents, though well meaning, have brought them up with no tools to really understand each other. Despite their good intentions, what they’ve done is paper over everyone’s awareness of Ginny’s differences. Even Ginny herself struggles daily to convince herself she’s “normal,” in an attempt to keep everything the way it is.

Bookconscious readers know I don’t like to give too much of a story away, so I’m being cryptic. I will say that Ginny’s deeply felt passion for food leads her to discover what she needs to do to move on from her parents’ death and to finally get a life in her late 20’s.  McHenry uses a touch of magical realism to create a series of encounters between her heroine and deceased characters — when Ginny cooks certain recipes, the ghosts of those who wrote them appear and she can speak with them. If you think this sounds improbable, read the book.

McHenry’s depiction of Ginny figuring out her gift for summoning spirits is so well done I actually looked to see if I had any recipes written out by my grandmother.  Not that I think she’ll show up in my kitchen — I don’t. And I’m not sure it’s important to know whether the ghosts in The Kitchen Daughter are really appearing to Ginny or if she just wants so badly to resolve the questions she has about her childhood and her life that she believes they are there. The point is, through her own resolve, she finds answers to a number of questions about herself and her family.

But the book made me yearn for some kind of transcendent communication of my own.  Even though I am nothing like Ginny, I wanted to bring the novel into my real life, and I empathized with her need to connect to those she loved who are gone.  All credit to McHenry, who has truly created a fresh, unique voice in Ginny, and whose story drew me in so thoroughly.  Ginny challenges readers to reconsider their perception of  “normal” as she tries to make her sister see her as a person and not a problem.

The other terrific thing about The Kitchen Daughter is that there is no Hollywood ending, but there is just enough resolution to satisfy, and both Ginny and Amanda are somewhat transformed by their experiences.  And yes, by the novel’s end, they’ve developed a great deal of emotional intelligence.  McHenry even includes recipes (she’s a cook and food blogger as well as novelist).  I haven’t tried any yet but I intend to.

The third novel I read this month is The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.  You’ve no doubt heard of this book because it’s getting a great deal of press.  One of the things that makes it a media magnet is the unique form; the book is fiction, but the narrator, also called Arthur Phillips, tells his life story in the first section, and tells readers he’s writing it down as the introduction to a lost Shakespeare play (which he comes to believe is fake, but others believe is real) called, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” If you’re already somewhat confused about which Arthur is real and which is fake, fear not. That’s the point.

As an examination of the veracity of truth and fiction, The Tragedy of Arthur (the novel, not the play) is clever. I kept reading even though I found several aspects of the story unlikeable, and even though I began to mistrust the narrator (which, in fairness, seems to be the author’s intent). The part that bothered me the most is Arthur’s relationship with his twin sister.  Much of his remembrance of his childhood hinges on the closeness he feels for his twin sister Dana  — he refers more than once to the way he feels complete with her, that he can truly be himself when she’s around, and that her unconditional and exceptional twin love gets him through every dark time. So far, so good.

But then as an adult, he just about ruins her life.  Ruining his own life seemed like a plot twist I could dislike but understand. Ruining a friend’s life, a spouse’s, even a parent’s, would be unpleasant but likely for this poor man whose life has been one long series of deceptions and confusions over what he can trust and what he cannot. Even screwing his agent and publisher seemed like something Arthur might do, given his growing fear that the play his ex-con father gave him is fake. (Note: in another bold but confusing authorial move, Arthur Phillips the author names Arthur Phillips the protagonist’s agent and editor after his real life agent and editor.)

But messing up the one person he’s spent hundreds of pages saying is the  source of the only good in his life?  And really not being terribly sorry about it? In fact, right up to the end, trying to figure out how he can have his cake and eat it too? More implausible than this reader could take. In light of my reflections on perception and awareness, especially emotional, I couldn’t see how Arthur Phillips the character could possibly be such a dolt.

I was so irritated by the time I finished the “introduction” (and by then, I’d read all these glowing reviews that didn’t seem to take any issue with Arthur’s treatment of Dana, so I was feeling like a grumpy freak reader), I couldn’t bring myself to do more than scan the fake Shakespeare play, which is included in full.  Several reviews say it’s good fake Shakespeare.  That’s a challenge most people wouldn’t bother with. I’m impressed with the real Arthur Phillips’ virtuosity — he’s very creative and a fine writer — but this book wasn’t for me. But it might be for you, especially if you like smoke and mirrors.

I just finished reading a collection of short fiction, The Architect of Flowers, by William Lychack.  My colleague at the bookstore, Devon Mozdierz (remember that name, she’s a young artist, and someday you can say you heard about her here first), pointed out that one of the benefits of reading short stories is that if you come across one you don’t like, you don’t have to decide whether to read 400 more pages to see if you’ll like it after all. Here, here. Lychack will be at Gibson’s on Thurs., May 12.

Unlike some recent short fiction collections I’ve read, this one isn’t linked stories — they all stand alone. Lychack’s writing is evocative and dreamy in some places, intimate and conversational in others,  and in all of the stories, clear and beautiful.  His subjects and characters range in age, gender, and experience, but Lychack convincingly channels kids and adults, men and women, people in the midst of a crisis and those who are recalling happier times. This virtuosity is impressive.

I especially enjoyed “A Stand of Fables,” which imagines the origins of a town’s beloved longtime teacher, “Calvary,” about a boy visiting his mother’s grave, and both “Chickens,” and “Hawkins.” In these last two, I could easily imagine myself trying to do something I know nothing about, seeing it through even once I realize I’m hopeless at it. The woman in “Chickens” turns to books to help her figure out why her flock isn’t laying — something anyone who knows me would say is my m.o. whenever I try something new.

“Love Is  Temper” is an immigrant story, again one I felt a kinship with. Whether our political leaders are willing to acknowledge it or not, immigration is part of America’s cultural DNA, and most of us can really empathize with arrival stories and their many-colored tragedies.  “The Ghostwriter” is a fascinating, quietly touching piece about a man whose job is to write up people’s inspirational stories for a magazine, that left me wondering how much of that genre is gently reworked by faceless ghostwriters.

Many of the stories in The Architect of Flowers deal with death and grieving.  But the collection isn’t dreary or maudlin; grieving manifests itself as an inner dialog in at least two of the stories, and I like the idea that this might be a way to deal with grief myself some day.  The title story and a couple of others veer slightly into magical realism, and I love that; Lychack uses this very subtly, but it’s effective.  I’m impressed with his range, and I look forward to his reading.

In nonfiction this month, I read Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams. Wendy came to Gibson’s in late April. This is an example of a book I enjoyed well enough that was enhanced enormously by meeting the author and hearing her read from and talk about her book — as I’ve mentioned before, an author event can take a book to another level. Find your local indie here, and check out their events schedule!

Ok, soapbox over. Back to Kraken.  I had no idea that cephalopods were so interesting, so smart and sometimes even personable. And the scientists who study them? Fascinating people.  What I liked most about Wendy’s book is that she asked some philosophical questions about how humans perceive other species, and whether we can really understand non-human intelligence. If you think science is dry and slightly boring, read Kraken for a lively look at creatures we often demonize as sea monsters, and at the people who are devoting their life’s work to learning about them.

A person whose life work I admire very much is Billy Collins. The Teens really enjoy his poems, and many of them have been among our “weekly poem” selections, posted in the bookconscious kitchen for the family’s enjoyment and edification. I treated myself to Collins’ new collection, out for National Poetry Month, Horoscopes for the Dead.

One reason I think Billy Collins is so popular with young people (as well as people who don’t think they’ll like poetry) is that he’s got a very appealing wit. His poems often take an ordinary cultural object and come at it from an unexpected perspective. The title poem is a good example — the narrator applies horoscopes printed in the daily newspaper to a person who has died, with asides like “I can’t imagine you ever facing a new problem/ with a positive attitude, but you will definitely not/ be doing that, or anything like that, on this weekday in March.”  There are several poems dealing with loss, age, long relationships, and the like.  Poems  that let the reader get inside a particular emotional moment and try it out from someone else’s point of view.

I particularly enjoyed “The Meatball Department,” which references a spouse who reads in bed with an annoying light; “The Guest,” with tulips drooping as each day of a visit passes, measuring the time the guest should stay; “Good News,” about hearing that a dog doesn’t have cancer and finding wonder even in a ordinary cheese grater; “Hell,” which imagines that Dante would have included a mattress store in hell’s circles if they’d existed in his lifetime; “A Question About Birds,” which wonders whether birds of different species need a translator to understand each other; ” and “Vocation,” where the narrator invents a pig constellation and admits his “true vocation –/keeping an eye on things/whether they exist or not,/recumbent under the random stars.”

I for one am grateful Billy Collins is keeping an eye on things whether they exist or not, and writing about them for all of us to read. I think that’s one of the most succinct and apt descriptions of the writing life I’ve ever come across. “Vocation” is going up on the kitchen white board today as the bookconscious poem of the week.

Besides enjoying a few of these poems themselves, the Teens enjoyed their own reading as well. Teen the Elder, who bookconscious fans know is a science history buff, is enjoying Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. In a familial example of bookconscious interconnectedness, both his uncle and his grandpa are reading it as well.

Teen the Elder has long been a Bryson fan. He says he just really enjoys his writing style, which is smart, clear, and funny.  And, Teen the Elder continues to find scientists and scientific discovery very interesting. Lately he’s been regaling me with  stories of the dire ways geology could kill us.  Entertaining!

Teen the Younger, her oldest friend, and the Computer Scientist attended Anime Boston Easter weekend.  She says it was awesome, and next year, instead of staying up too late with a friend the night before, she’ll get more rest, because there was so much to see. She looked awesome as well, dressed up as Hotaru from Gakuen Alice.

In addition to continuing to read Vlad Tod and several manga series I’ve mentioned here before, Teen the Younger got herself the first book in a new (to her) manga series, Code Geass, and the convention.  She says the reason she likes this story is that as in Death Note, the main character is an overachieving kid who wants to use his special power to change the world for the better. Said hero, LeLouch, is a citizen of the “Holy Empire of Britannia,” which is ruling Japan. Japan has been renamed Area 11.  He figures out he can use this power, “Geass,” to control other people’s minds.

The Computer Scientist enjoyed Anime Boston as well, and he was finally feeling better. We all got sick in April, but he had was really feeling puny there for awhile. Usually when he’s sick he re-reads The Stand. Yes, a tough choice when you’re sick, but it’s his tradition. This time, because we’d done a massive book re-org., he found Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon (which I mentioned in last month’s post) and Silence of the Lambs were nearby, so he re-read those.

He says of Silence of the Lambs, “I know every nook and cranny of this text, and yet re-read it still leads to wonderful emotions of surprise, fear, and horror.” Once he was feeling better, he finished Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I recommended and wrote about here. The Computer Scientist’s take: “I especially like the “deathless man” sections. For a first effort, Obreht clearly establishes herself as a outstanding writer with a great sense of storytelling.

What’s up in the bookconscious house? I’m almost done with Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life and I have Jasper Fforde’s latest Thursday Next book out from the library. I’ve also started Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems.  I have a pile of nonfiction I want to read as well, and some novels. I’m happy to say my efforts to write more regularly are bearing fruit and I have some poems of my own to work on. Teen the Elder is planning to read the highly lauded science history by Richard Holmes,  Age of Wonder.

Teen the Younger has large “currently reading” and “to read” piles. Recently she paid me what I considered a great compliment: “Mom, I’m turning into you. I’m reading three books and drinking lots of tea.”  On that note, on this Mother’s Day, stay tuned for more thoughts on bookconscious reading.


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The “good book” (as I affectionately call my trusty compact OED) tells me that flaky means “consisting of flakes,” or “to come away or off in flakes.” It further reports that “flake” can refer to snow, fluff, ignited matter from a fire, or a small piece of material that has exfoliated, fractured, peeled, or otherwise loosened itself. Flake can also refer to a layer, as in an oyster shell, or a loose sheet of ice from a floe.

There’s a kind of carnation called a flake (it’s striped) and the word is part of brand names for several kinds of flaky products (like the Cadbury chocolate bar called Flake, which is quite crumbly).  Finally, OED points out that as a verb, flake can mean to fall in flakes (as it is now doing outside my window), to break off, or to fragment.

When I think back over January 2011, it’s flaky. We went from practically no snow at Christmas to so much snow we are running out of places to throw it (the banks on either side of the driveway are several feet high). Our local newspaper reported that we had 38 inches in January (the most for Jan. in 20 years) and February is already off to a roaring start with another 16+ inches in the first two days.

And my reading was fractured, layered, loose. I picked up what I could when I could, in between shoveling, getting the bookconscious household back into a routine post-holidays, and traveling to my first ever American Booksellers Association Winter Institute. I read some books I wanted to read, some I have booked for events at Gibson’s, some forthcoming titles, and others that are bookconscious life learning choices.

The perfect reading for someone who is starting and stopping frequently is a collection of short stories ( a poetry collection works well, too). I read two wonderful collections this month. The Teens and the Computer Scientist gave me Oxfam’s Ox Tales for Christmas.  In January I read Earth. I absolutely loved this collection, and I really look forward to the others in the series.

The stories in Ox Tales Earth are all loosely related to the theme of land rights and farming.  “The Jester of Astrapovo,” by Rose Tremain, opens the book, and I found it especially intriguing because I enjoyed the film The Last Station, which was about the final part of Tolstoy’s life and his dramatic death at a remote train station.  Tremain writes from the station master’s perspective, and the story is far less sympathetic to Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofya, than the film was.  Tremain’s story is a well cut gem; in just 31 pages, she provides fascinating characters, an intriguing plot, a clearly drawn setting that comes alive in her hands, a transformation, and enough left unsaid to allow the readers’ imaginations to play.

Marti Leimbach, author of “Boys In Cars,” paints a poignant sketch of a mother and her autistic son, creating tension in their relationships with his father and in the boy’s attempt to deal with a birthday party invitation. I teared up, and admired the fictional mother very much. “Lucky We Live Now,” by Kate Atkinson is a fantastic dystopian story with magical-realism elements that made me laugh out loud.   And I also found “The Importance of Having Warm Feet,” by Marina Lewycka very compelling; it takes place mostly in the narrator’s memory as she sits at her mother’s death bed, and it’s another beautiful, tightly written, emotionally weighty piece. I could go on, but the point is, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I received Siohban Fallon‘s new book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, from her publicist, and I’m grateful. This debut is a collection of loosely linked short stories set mostly at Fort Hood (although one of my favorites takes place in Iraq), featuring a combat unit and the family members they leave behind.  It’s a terrific read, and one I hope many people will try; it’s a very good portrait of military life.

While it’s been twenty years since the Gulf War, and seventeen since the Computer Scientist’s last long deployment with the Marine Corps (seven months in Japan & Thailand while I was back in Hawaii, expecting Teen the Elder), I found this book weirdly familiar. Deployments have changed (for one thing, much to the Teens’ amusement, we couldn’t email our deployed loved ones back then; we wrote — gasp — letters!); the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan are also very different than the Gulf War. But Fallon’s book brought back the spouse support dynamics, both official and unofficial. Her stories recalled the frustration, stress, camaraderie, and gossip families deal with, and I found myself thinking about situations and people I haven’t thought of in years.

Fallon writes with authority born of experience — she is a military spouse herself, and lived at Fort Hood. As I looked back over the book to tell you about my favorite stories, I found there’s something compelling about each of them. Fallon’s writing isn’t fancy or cutting edge. Her style is simple, clear, but full of vitality.  As I read I felt like recognized her characters, not because I’d read about similar ones in another book, but because I felt as if I’d met them.

I imagine that even people who haven’t experienced military life will have the experience I had, because Fallon has an uncanny ability to evoke a haunting familiarity in her stories. Even if you haven’t been through deployment, you know someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or whose teenager is suddenly acting like someone else, or you’ve listened to someone whose marriage is falling apart or who suspects it is.  You’ve been, or known, a person who suddenly, inexplicably, experiences something that causes a subtle shift in perspective, or maybe rocks your world.

None of this is new emotional territory, but what makes the book so striking is that on every page you’re reminded that the people in these stories are just like the real people who have gone to Iraq & Afghanistan or stayed home while the people they loved went. So even though the universal nature of Fallon’s themes  make the book accessible to anyone, You Know When the Men Are Gone is at its core a stark reminder of what a portion of America is living with all the time as long as we are at war.

In addition to this great short fiction, I read a few novels in January.  The best was Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie’s follow up to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  It’s brilliant. Rushdie creates a heroic adventure for Luka, who is the younger son of Rashid Khalifa, the storyteller from Haroun. Funny, smart, imaginative, utterly original — there aren’t adequate adjectives for this book. Rushdie spins his usual complex, rich, fabulous prose, he’s very funny, and he keeps you turning the pages.

Luka is set in a magical world that works like a video game, so I can’t wait for the Teens to read it, because I think they’ll be amused that Luka has to advance through increasingly challenging levels, like a game. The way Rushdie manages these contemporary, fresh images alongside references to classical mythology and his own imaginary flourishes is very entertaining. And it’s a classic adventure tale, with a young hero having to prove himself through a series of tests so that he can vanquish evil forces and rescue his father. Very good reading, in every sense.

I read The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna, after seeing Pico Iyer’s review in the Wall Street Journal.  Iyer wrote the forward, too. I expected to love this book. Bookconscious readers know I’m a fan of works in translation.  And I like quirky premises such as a man deciding to completely change his life — leaving his wife, his job, his home, everything — because he rescues a hare that’s been hit by a car.

I did love about 3/4 of The Year of the Hare. The original conceit was convincing, the story compelling, the people and situations interesting.  The way the main character, Vatanen, seems to happen upon opportunities, meet people, and influence the outcome of situations reminded me of Forrest Gump.  But the last part of the book was too erratic and unbelievable for me, even for a tale that had taken great leaps earlier.

Another book I admired but didn’t love is Finny, by Justin Kramon. Justin came to Gibson’s at the invitation of a local book club.  He’s a talented young writer, whose future work I look forward to. The characters in Finny are unforgettably original — I think Poplan and Menalcus are about as fantastic as two supporting characters can be. I loved that Justin wrote from the point of view of a woman so empathetically and so well.  And I liked the happy-ish ending; satisfying without being treacly.

But I felt that overall, Finny suffered from too much information. For example, too many scenes in which the characters acted thoughtlessly towards each other. This was at least effective in evoking the social squeamishness that existed as the young characters grew up, crossed paths, and fell in and out of favor with each other.  A surfeit of these situations was distracting but seemed characteristic of long term friendships formed in youth, even when they seemed improbable.

But sometimes there was just too much detail that dragged the story down or were unwieldy.  Eventually the scenes where characters hurt each other once again were beyond believability — it struck me that real people wouldn’t keep returning to relationships that were so dysfunctional.  And yet, the book has stayed with me, and one of the book club members told me that they discussed it at great length, both indications that Justin is a compelling writer. Stay tuned.

One final note on fiction before I move on to drama and nonfiction: I’m almost finished with the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring Without Mustard, which comes out next week. As I’ve said before, I am a huge Flavia fan — she’s one of my favorite characters, ever.  I’m not a regular mystery reader, but I also love the way Flavia’s creator, Alan Bradley, keeps me guessing; I’ve never seen how his mysteries will be solved until the end. 

Red Herring is every bit as fresh, funny, and fascinating as the earlier books in the series. Who knew chemistry could be so interesting (it’s Flavia’s passion).  Great reading, and as my grandmother always said, nothing is better for unsettling moments than a good mystery. Rising gas prices? Instability in the Middle East? Another blizzard?  Curl up with Flavia and you’ll feel better.

Along with Teen the Elder, I read Shakespeare’s Henry V in January. Having read a fictional book about war families and a nonfiction book full of the atrocities humans perpetrate against each other (more on that in a moment), I found myself impatient with King Henry’s patriotic speeches and the youthful excitement of both the French and English as they prepared to kill each other. But Shakespeare is eternally entertaining, and who can resist his hilarious English lesson for the French princess? Or the way the formerly rebellious Prince Hal has grown into a leader, unflinching and decisive? Good stuff, and interesting to discuss with the boy. He admired the speeches.

The book I read that reveals the atrocities of war in mind-boggling breadth is Human Cargo: A Journey Among RefugeesCaroline Moorehead, a British human rights journalist, lays out the history of refugees and resettlement in the 20th and 21st centuries. I volunteer with refugee resettlement in our town, so I have a good working knowledge of contemporary refugee issues, but Moorehead’s clear writing gave me a better overall understanding of the politics, past and present.  She also explores the sociological motivations of governments who promote resettlement but simultaneously make life as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and migrants.

While Moorehead is clearly a humanitarian and doesn’t hide her feelings about the people she meets, the injustices she exposes, or the dysfunction of the international system meant to help displaced people, I found the book to be fair. I am firmly on her side, however — I think the treatment of refugees in most of the world is morally reprehensible, I find the justification most governments give for rejecting economic migrants hypocritical, and I think even the best intended governments are often culturally clueless and politically hamstrung when it comes to resettlement.

Examples: refugee “camps” (sounds nice, right, rustic, but safe?) are nearly universally unsafe, understaffed, and inadequate for preparing displaced people to lead healthy, productive lives outside the camps.  The argument that illegal immigrant labor harms consumers and workers often comes from the very powerful people who make it legal and economically desirable for corporations to either use migrant workers anyway or outsource their factories in order to keep their products cheap for consumers.  And as Moorehead so poignantly describes in her chapter profiling some African refugees now living near the Arctic circle in Finland, resettled refugees are sometimes stuck in climates and cultures that are almost impossibly unfamiliar, with restrictions on or barriers to employment, education, and movement. This makes adjusting, even in a country that welcomes them, overwhelming.

But, I still found Human Cargo uplifting, despite the horrific stories Moorehead shares, and the disheartening systemic failures she exposes.  Why? Because first of all, Ms. Moorehead, like Nicholas Kristof in the Unites States, carries on a fine journalistic tradition of shining light on the darkest of human conditions. And like Kristof, she meets and shares the stories of ordinary people who are quietly defying official indifference and insensitivity, who are heroically performing simple acts of welcome and friendship, who are making a difference in the most profound way possible, one person at a time.

The best example of what I mean are Moorehead’s chapters on the Australian government’s recent actions against asylum seekers, and her profiles of some British asylum seekers.  In both cases, the refugee stories, and the government policy and actions, made me feel physically ill and kept me awake wondering if there any worse invention in human history than bureaucracy (I think it’s a three-way tie with warfare and torture). But in those same chapters, Moorehead introduces people who are reaching out to those who are suffering in their midst, people who with very few resources and extraordinary reserves of patience, compassion, and goodness are offering whatever aid and solace they can. Many of these people are just ordinary folks trying to be neighborly.

Another highly compelling read this month was Stephanie Saldana‘s The Bread of Angels.  I picked this up at the library after reading The Calligrapher’s Secret in December and wanting to know more about Syria. Saldana was a Fulbright scholar learning Arabic in Damascus, and this book is about that year. I’d read an excerpt in the Modern Love column of the New York Times.

Bookconcious regulars know that last month I read Andrew Krivak’s memoir, The Long Retreat.  Krivak and Saldana are kindred spirits (and kindred seekers — Saldana underwent the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at the desert monastery Deir Mar Musa, just as Krivak did on retreat as a Jesuit). Both books are about seeking, about love (divine and human), and about finding one’s way by examining life through the cultural lenses of faith, history and family. Saldana’s book also describes being an American abroad in a time of war, and living in the heart of a place your government has declared evil.

I found myself wishing I could discuss this book with my grandmother, who would have liked hearing about it. Saldana studies with a female imam, which Grandmother would have found interesting, and she lives in the Christian quarter of Damascus in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse, crumbling old apartment building. She’s taken under the wing of a grandfatherly Armenian Christian she calls The Baron who loves Italian shoes and lived for a long time in Lebanon.

She meets an Israeli Jew studying Arabic and trying to remain anonymous, an Iraqi refugee artist, a Damascan carpet seller. She undergoes a crisis as she tries to discern whether she’s called to a religious vocation. And, as I read in the Times excerpt, she falls in love with a monk.

Saldana’s honest portrayal of the psychological impact of  her family history helps readers understand why she’s seeking not only fluency in Arabic but also spiritual and emotional education. I found the book very moving and like The Long Retreat, sometimes draining to read. Saldana and Krivak both reveal the deepest human longings at work in their lives, and neither flinches from sharing low points.  Ultimately I found The Bread of Angels redemptive, lovely reading. Saldana is also a poet, and her writing is lyrical and deeply suffused with emotion.

The ABA’s Winter Institute 6 (WI6), in Washington, DC, was a jam packed two days of learning, networking with other indie booksellers, and finding out about new books.  Since my return, I’ve read three books by authors I went to dinner with, and I brought back a stack of forthcoming books tall enough that our cat has to stretch to rub her chin on it.

On my first evening at dinner, I met Sophie Blackall, illustrator of the delightful Ivy & Bean series and many other wonderful children’s books (take the link, her website is amazing). Sophie was at WI6 to promote her gorgeously illustrated edition of Alduous Huxley‘s The Crows of Pearblossom. Yes, that Alduous Huxley.

We chatted about our daughters, and Sophie kindly signed her book for Teen the Younger, whose own art astonishes me. I’d mentioned her penchant for dystopian fiction, and Sophie’s inscription points out that Huxley’s tale is “ever so slightly dark.”  Her vivid paintings, drenched in color, detail, and expression, are a perfect compliment to this classic tale.

Also that evening I met Tom Angleberger, author of the wildly popular The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, whose new book is Horton Halfpott, Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset. I loved, loved, loved this book.  I read it in a couple of nights and tapped into that lovely feeling I had as a kid, of finding a wonderful book at the library and wanting to devour it. Tom manages two things every writer of books for children should, perfectly.

First, he grants his readers dignity by writing intelligent fiction, thereby promising them that he understands they are smart and will respect that by not talking down to them. Second, he achieves the balance of humor and humanity that I remember wanting as a voracious young reader. I didn’t like books that seemed to be funny on the surface but really just exhibited the author’s belief that kids are silly. And I liked books that appealed to my inner sense of justice and fairness — kids feel that so strongly, I think especially in the “middle grade” years Tom writes for.

Horton Halfpott is a fine hero, a “lowly kitchen boy” who is hard working, humble, honest, caring, a good friend and son, and a kid who loves books and learning.  But Tom also gives readers a strong heroine, Celia, a girl who is sensible, smart, capable, considerate, and kind to Horton even though she’s an heiress and he’s a servant.

I don’t want to say anything about the plot that might spoil things, but the story opens with the “loosening” referred to in the title, which sets off a general loosening around Smugwick Manor.  There are mysterious thefts, plans for a ball, a celebrity detective, bumbling reporters, pirates, and Horton’s friends the stable boys, Bump, Blight, and Blemish. And Tom drew a terrific map and caricature style sketches of the characters.

On my second evening at WI6, I met Jennifer Sattler, whose new book, The Pig Kahuna, is coming out in May. This is an absolutely adorable picture book; I dare you to find more expressive pigs in contemporary children’s literature. They’re hilarious. The story is sweet with just a dash of adventure, perfect for little ones.  And quite funny for the adults reading it over and over.

You’ll hear more about books I picked up and authors I met at WI6 over the next few months!

Next week, Stephen Amidon, a novelist, and his brother, Dr. Thomas Amidon, a cardiologist, are coming to Gibson’s to read from and discuss their amazing new book, The Sublime Engine; A Biography of the Human Heart.  I finished reading it last weekend, and it’s one of the most unique works of nonfiction I’ve read. The brothers apply their combined expertise to tell the history of the human heart from both a scientific and a cultural perspective.

Starting with ancient times and ending a short time in the future, they trace our understanding of the physiology of the heart, our metaphysical or religious view of its importance, and the heart’s role in human culture, especially literature. A book that combines scientific and cultural history is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me: if there is any book that is an example of The Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness, this is it!  I have been telling the Teens for years that educational “subjects” are artificially divided and packaged for schools’ convenience, but that the real story of human knowledge is interdisciplinary. Everything is connected to something else and no discipline sprung up in isolation from the others.

The Amidon brothers prove my point — medical history has often been  informed not only by science but by the predominant religious and philosophical views of the times, and literature was often influenced by breakthroughs in science.  Each part worked with the others, sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds.  This book is a fascinating, informative, and a delightful read.

Did you know that Hippocrates diagnosed coronary artery disease as a “blockage” and recommended a healthy diet and more rest to those suffering from it? Or that some medieval theologians believed God’s word might be literally written into someone’s heart?  Or that we owe the ubiquitous heart symbol found on valentines and “I heart NY” t-shirts to an extinct root from ancient North Africa that was considered an aphrodisiac?  Or that Mary Shelley kept her dead husband’s heart in her desk drawer?  I didn’t. Nor did I know that the history of cardiology is filled with colorful and even heroic characters.

The Sublime Engine isn’t just a collection of obscure facts, though, nor is it a dry medical history. It’s a well written narrative, one that made me think about taking better care of my heart (I gave it a good work out this week, shoveling). I can’t wait to meet Stephen and Tom next week.

I’m recommending The Sublime Engine to the rest of the Bookconscious household. In January, both the Computer Scientist and Teen the Elder read books I’d recommended ages ago, which proves that raving about a book and leaving it out where it can entice can be effective.  I’m telling myself that the piles of books around the house aren’t a mess, they’re an incubator for potential life learning.

Teen the Elder is reading Paul Johnson’s terrifically compact, insightful biography, Churchill, which I reviewed in bookconscious last winter.  He’s working on an essay about English patriotism in Henry V, and Churchill was quite taken with the play.  He also read some issues of FourFourTwo, a British magazine devoted to his main passion, soccer.

He’s also developing a newer passion for music. He’s teaching himself musical notation  and theory using all sorts of online resources along with Edley’s Musical Theory for Practical People by Ed Roseman and Music Theory Made Easy by David Harp. He’s been fiddling with a demo version of FL Studio, and this week we got him “fruity” edition, for composing and arranging digital music. He works with Garage Band on his sister’s Mac when he can, as well. I’m psyched to see him pursuing this passion.

Speaking of passion, Teen the Younger continues to spend a great deal of time drawing both on her Mac with a tablet her grandpa got her for her birthday and in sketchbooks. She still devours Manga, and this month started a few new series as well as re-reading some old favorites.

She started Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games last month, and is on the second book, Catching Fire. She reports that the “angst” she previously expressed a distaste for is a complicated part of the plot, and that she is enjoying Catching Fire even more than the first book.

Another book she’s been dipping into (and I’ve looked at too) is Theodore Gray‘s The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom In the Universe. It’s an amazing book — scientific eye candy, on the one hand, but packed with interesting information, too. And since Teen the Elder is a photographer, I figured they’d both like it. It’s on an end table in the living room, handy for browsing for a few moments. Teen the Younger is planning to read it straight through, eventually.

The Computer Scientist finished Lynne Olson’s excellent Citizens of London and says, “The tragic tale of Gil Winant, a largely unknown player in most historical examinations of WW II, is told with wonderful depth. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the political and physical pre-cursors to committing a nation to military operations as well as the challenges the US government faces into its continuing political discourse with our allies in Western Europe, even today.” I loved this book as well, and hope to re-read it someday.

He also read Full Dark No Stars, which he’s had since November. This is highly unusual — he generally devours a new Stephen King book within a day or two of receiving it. But he said he’d reward himself with this book when he finished something on his nightstand, which is full of books he’d started or planned to start, so he waited until he’d read Citizens of London. His take?  “Some real SK home runs in this collection of four short stories. All four novellas are outstanding and refresh my enjoyment of SK’s storytelling.”  He says his favorite of the four (longish) short stories is “Fair Extension.”

So what’s ahead?  I have Handing One Another Along, by Robert Coles, out from the library, and I suspect it will cause me to hit the shelves at home and at the library to read or re-read some of the literature Coles writes about. There are any number of events books awaiting me, as well as the terrific stack of galleys from WI6.  I’m still enjoying my slow re-reading and study of Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life. Sure as the snow will fall, the bookconscious household will find fascinating reads in the coming weeks. Happy reading!


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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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I’ve been humming “Travelin’ Shoes,” a piece Songweavers are performing in our South Church concert (to benefit homeless initiatives) on 11/20, and the verses begin “Death came a knockin’,” which got me to thinking that death knocks on the door of a lot of good literature. In October, death featured in almost every book I read. I suppose if you’re an author looking for drama, conflict, redemption, transformation, even humor — themes that make for good reading — you can’t really go wrong working death into the picture.

Two books that deal with death to great effect are Hans Keilson‘s Comedy In A Minor Key, and The Death of the Adversary. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux brought Keilson’s work to American readers this year in beautifully designed editions. I read a review in August by Francine Prose, and I agree with her assessment: “‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.”

Both books are set during WWII; most of The Death of the Adversary takes place in Nazi Germany, and Comedy In a Minor Key is set in occupied Holland. Keilson was born in Germany. Like the protagonist in The Death of the Adversary, he came to understand, as a young man, that he was no longer German under the Nazi regime, he was Jewish and therefore did not belong.

The novel follows Hitler’s rise to power even though Hitler’s name never appears. The protagonist goes about his life trying to be normal, trying to ignore the growing infatuation his age-mates have with the “adversary.”  He describes a young German telling friends about participating in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, and I don’t think I’ve come across a more vivid, evocative, soul-searing description of the senselessness of violence in any novel.  You understand as you read this passage how it might be that ordinary people are swept up in the brutality of war, and what it might feel like know that your community is the target of such blind, ugly rage. Even the protagonist feels the power of the adversary’s rhetoric — he is caught up in it himself, albeit in a different way.

Particularly in light of recent attention to nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, and the new Hitler exhibit in Berlin, The Death of the Adversary was a moving, fascinating read. Some of it is darkly humorous;  a scene where the young man is at a hotel and realizes that the adversary is speaking in the hall and he and the proprietor of the hotel and some other guests are listening over a sound system seemed farcical to me. Other sections are tender to the point of being heartbreaking: the young man remembering being deliberately targeted with violent fouls in a soccer match, despite his being very skilled; another remembered scene where his mother made other boys play with him; the moment he realizes a good friend has been taken in by the adversary’s strong speeches and they will part ways.

Even more heartbreaking is the way the protagonist describes his parents’ preparing to flee, the way they are in denial for a long time, and then finally each tries to look out for the other, the way the young man eventually realizes he won’t see them again. Both in the novel and in life, aging parents ignore warnings and are taken away; the young man escapes but feels strongly that he “left them to their fate.”  Keilson, in interviews, feels the same way about his own parents. When the novel ended, (an ending so beautiful and sad I thought about it for days), I felt the same aching emptiness I feel after a good cry.

Comedy In a Minor Key is about a Dutch couple who are hiding a Jewish man in their house.  When Keilson left Germany he became a member of the Dutch resistance, so again the novel draws on the author’s own experiences. And again, whether you’ve read a similar story or not, you’ll be hard pressed to come across such a beautiful telling. The earnest young couple and their secret guest struggle to establish a “normal” relationship, and Keilson portrays the range of emotions and the logistical difficulties  poignantly, including the Jewish man’s untimely (but natural) death and the consequences of the young couple’s trying to dispose of the body.

This is a short novel, but vivid and tense — you feel the danger, the drudgery, and the maddening sense that both the refugee and his rescuers are trapped, that their lives are stuck in an endless loop as they try to determine who they can trust, and try to know how to live together. In both books, power and freedom play an enormous roles — who has and doesn’t have each, how people act when they are either powerless or free, what brings these ethical forces to bear as people try to make sense of war, occupation, fear. The earnestness of the characters is stark; there is no  sentimentalism, just the naked anguish of trying to be good, to face evil , to survive and not destroy yourself or anyone else in the process.

Genocide is not specifically named in either book. In fact, if you weren’t aware of the circumstances of Hitler’s rise to power and of the Holocaust, you may think The Death of the Adversary was simply about war and extremism at any time and place.  Comedy In a Minor Key is a little more explicit about the historical context, but is still a book that transcends its setting. Both are haunting reminders of how thin the line between discrimination and persecution is, how easily humanity has slipped over that line and can again.

Another book in which lines are crossed, despite people’s better intentions and with the direst of consequences, is last year’s National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I’m still digesting this book a couple of weeks or so after I read it.   McCann traces the lives of several characters in New York City around the time of Phillipe Petit‘s walking a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

When I wrote about Tinkers I said I often don’t get what prize committees were thinking, and I’m afraid that’s how I feel about Let the Great World Spin. It’s a decent read, but I felt it was uneven enough not to merit being singled out for the National Book Award. In fairness to the committee, I haven’t read the other finalists from that year, so maybe it was the best of the bunch.

I think what I didn’t like is that the structure of the book got in the way of the telling.  I’m also not sure I could say what the book is about — it’s about many things, but no one thing stands out.   I heard an NPR piece about La Dolce Vita today and Martin Scorsese described it as “episodic,” rather than plot driven. I guess that’s the case with Let the Great World Spin.

Some of the characters whose stories are part of Let the Great World Spin are not fully developed — they are more than extras, but not quite minor characters. The main characters — a pair of Irish brothers, a hooker, and a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam — are also not people readers get to know very well. The thread that ties the disparate pieces of the narrative together is Phillipe Petit‘s walk on the wire between the twin towers. There are further connections; some  made late in the book seemed hasty.

I don’t mind fortuitous connections in a novel, but I like to see them developing earlier.  The scant sections on Phillipe Petit were tantalizing but fleeting — perhaps because he’s a living person, it was hard for McCann to spend much time on him in the novel, but if that’s the case, why have any chapters devoted to him?  Similarly, a character who ends up marrying one of the brothers after being involved in crash in which the other brother dies shows up in a couple of chapters, but we never get a real sense of her.

If the main characters were more fully developed, the comparative slimness of the others wouldn’t stand out to me as much, but even those four didn’t come alive for me. McCann writes beautifully in places (in others, some of his figurative language felt disjointed); the idea of the novel is lovely, and the intersections of the lives poignant. I wondered when I  finished if I might have felt differently if he’d written linked stories, telling each character’s bit separately and leaving readers to knit them together.

Part of the problem for me was that I began reading knowing this was a National Book Award winner — the prize impacted my expectations. But another book I read this month was a Pulitzer winner, and it did not disappoint: Delights and Shadows by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Kooser came to Concord to accept the first Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry in October.

The audience included two other former poet laureates: Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin, as well as Wes McNair and Sharon Olds. Those are the “local” poets around here — one reason I love New Hampshire!  Both teens (including one who didn’t want to go) enjoyed Kooser’s reading; Teen the Elder says Kooser is now his second favorite poet (Donald Hall is first).

Although I’d included his work in our “poem of the week” display in the kitchen for a number of weeks, Ted Kooser wasn’t a poet the family felt very familiar with before the reading; they all thought hearing him really made his work more appealing. The Computer Scientist had been reading Flying At Night in preparation for the evening, which bookconscious readers may recall I wrote about in June.

Kooser read a number of poems from Delights and Shadows.  “Mother,” is one of my favorites. It’s an elegiac poem, a letter to his mother in the first spring after her death.  It ends with some of the loveliest lines in American poetry: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look/at the world, to see the life in play in everything,/I would have to be lonely forever.”

Another gorgeous poem is “A Box of Pastels,” which Kooser also read — it describes Mary Cassatt’s box of pastels, and he told the back story about visiting with the person who owned this box and feeling so awed to hold it.  This poem ends, “I touched/the warm dust of those colors, her tools,/and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.” As a Cassatt fan, I can imagine that feeling, and he captures the essence of her art — light — beautifully, in the mundane colored dust that rubbed off.

Many of Kooser’s poems are remembrances, either of people or of earlier times, and Delights and Shadows includes a number of outstanding examples: “Ice Cave,” “Memory,” “Dishwater,” and “Depression Glass,” stand out for me.  Kooser read two longer, narrative poems that reminded me very much of Wes NcNair’s work: “Pearl,” and “The Beaded Purse.” Like McNair, Kooser can spin a yarn in his poems that makes you feel as if you’re hearing voices from the past.

Also like McNair, Kooser captures a certain slice of America in his work. In Kooser’s case, it’s mid-western life in small towns and farms, especially of his parents’ generation, in the early 20th century.  These poems are like paintings of a particular time and place and yet also deal with timeless, universal human experience. In “The Beaded Purse,” for example, a father tucks money into his dead daughter’s bag “for her mother to find,” so she won’t worry that the girl was living hand to mouth.  If I was putting together a class on 20th century American history, Kooser and McNair would be on the syllabus – their poems are every bit as much history as literature.

One of my favorite authors of all time is similarly of equal value as both a historian who recorded a precise slice of her country’s cultural history and a supremely talented writer whose work has earned a place in the canon of great English literature. Yes, Jane Austen. The Computer Scientist gave me a membership in JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) for my birthday. When I took Teen the Elder to Ohrstrom library to find Pre-Columbia history books and visit the Shakespeare room, and saw Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World on the shelf, I knew I had to read it.

Claire Harman traces Jane Austen’s fame from the time she was writing to the present.  For those of you who’ve heard that she wasn’t much of a success during her lifetime or that since she published anonymously, she wasn’t well known, this book is eye-opening. That’s a nice urban legend, but in fact, Austen was pretty successful, though some books did better than others.  She was also very much aware of both her sales and her reviews, and thanks to her brother and some family friends talking openly about her authorship, she was not entirely anonymous.

Those details were interesting, but it’s Harman’s in depth coverage of Austen’s posthumous fame that I found even more fascinating. One could say that the cult of Jane Austen,like that of Shakespeare, was an early example of celebrity worship. Perhaps because I live with an Austen skeptic, I had no idea that in England some people promoted her as an equal to Shakespeare in terms of importance to England’s literary heritage.  I saw parallels to modern celebrity in the way that her descendants attempted to control Austen’s image as well.

I was fortunate to have a college professor, Laurie Kaplan, who was herself a “Janeite” (she is even past editor of JASNA’s journal) as Harman describes Austen devotees.  Kaplan really opened the books up for her students, particularly on wonderful trips to England where we literally walked in the novel’s landscapes and locations. But even once I became aware of JASNA, I assumed Janeites were a small, devoted, and literary bunch. Harman points out that in postwar England, the Austen society was more about national pride than literary appreciation, and some of its officers didn’t even read Austen’s books!

Jane’s Fame is detailed and well researched, if a bit dry and probably mainly of interest to serious devotees or history buffs.  My favorite book for budding Janeites and casual fans is still The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler — it’s not serious literary criticism or careful history (Harman is definitely an excellent historian and writer), but it’s fun and readable, and would appeal to young fans just getting into Jane. Better still, read Austen’s books if you want to remember why she’s brilliant, and why classic books have something to say to every generation.

Classic in another way is the work of Leonard Koren.  Last month I wrote about his book on wabi-sabi; this month I read The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty, and Tenderness In a Commercial Setting.  This was the only book I read in October with no death in it — although it is about Blumenkraft, a flower shop in Vienna where Koren found solace after his marriage ended in 2003, so it was inspired by the aftermath of a relationship’s death.

The Flower Shop is a fascinating read, a kind of manifesto of what a good place of work can be. Blumenkraft is a creative, customer and employee friendly, unique, consciously smart, aesthetically aware, and well-designed business. Koren explores how it began, what sets it apart, what its employees think of working there, and what appeals to its customers.

The spare text is set in small blocks and accompanied by lovely sepia and black & white photos.  The impact of the book’s design is that it compliments Blumenkraft’s aesthetic — it’s different, you can see as soon as you open The Flower Shop that this is not an ordinary book, and neither is its subject an ordinary florist.  A refreshing, spirit-lifting book. You’ll want to visit Blumenkraft. You might wish you worked there.

Another book concerned with aesthetics is A Homemade Life.  Part memoir, part cookbook, Molly Wizenberg’s first book grew out of her other food writing:  her well known blog, Orangette, and later her column in Bon Apetit and pieces for NPR and PBS.  She’s young, and has lived a mostly charmed life, which can be hard to read in large doses. But the passages about her father, his short battle with cancer and his death, and her coming to terms with the loss definitely adds depth to A Homemade Life. I’m looking forward to trying some recipes.

On the evening that I felt inspired to make ginger pancakes for supper (after reading that Molly Wizenberg likes one of my favorite cookbooks, Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book, which includes that recipe), I also stayed up late finishing Charles Elton‘s Mr. Toppit.  Does anyone else out there stay up ridiculously late when his/her spouse is traveling? I don’t know why, but I do, even though in general I’ve gotten better about going to bed at a more reasonable time (if midnight can be considered reasonable).

This book has been out in the UK since last year, but is just appearing in the U.S.  I enjoyed it very much, although it had what I considered some extra fluff here and there that seemed to serve as mere titillation, without much real impact on the plot.  Mr. Toppit of the title is the villain in a series of Narnia-like children’s books written by Arthur Hayman, who dies early on in the novel. A vacationing American, Laurie, happens to witness the accident that kills him and comforts him in his last moments.

Laurie ends up getting to know Arthur’s family, including the son who shares a name with his father’s young protagonist. Through her continued contact with the Haymans and a series of serendipitous events, Laurie is partially responsible for making his books famous in the U.S. As she pursues her own ambitions, she ignites a global craze for Arthur Hayman’s books, and becomes a famous television host in the process. Meanwhile Hayman’s children grow up and deal with the fallout of fame and loss. Since Elton worked as a literary agent and one of his clients was A.A. Milne’s estate, it’s interesting to ponder how much he borrowed from life.

What I liked about Mr. Toppit was the fully developed characters, even minor ones; a clear structure; interesting tangential story lines that enhanced the main plot; themes readers could really mull over; cultural references that placed the book without dating it.  I would say that in some ways, Elton has Austen-esque overtones to his work. His characters are concerned with sense and sensibility, with good taste and good manners, some are hoping to better themselves and others are hoping just to live up to their families expectations.

Mr. Toppit is also funny in that classically dry, British way, and Elton exposes some of the sillier aspects of both American and British culture, particularly with regards to fame, fortune, and family relations, class, culture, and celebrity. His wicked skewering of the “remembered memory” phenomenon that was in fashion in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s takes the form of another goofy cultural touchstone, the annual Christmas letter. While some of the social barbs seem a little cliched (there’s an obese American, a harried television producer who stretches the truth to nail a deal, a matriarch who is chilly and shabbily genteel), generally I found the book to be clever, and bitingly funny.

Finally in October, I read a book that begins with war and death and ends with the author’s exhortation to be “aware that just this is the great, dynamic, lively dancing life.”  Soko Morinaga was only a teenager when both his parents died and he was drafted into the Japanese army at the end of WWII.  Although he survived, he was alone and adrift, so he went to a Zen monastary and asked to become a novice.

Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson In the Extent of My Own Stupidity is Morinaga’s memoir of forty years as a Zen monk. If you have an image of Buddhism as a peaceful, nonviolent religion you might be shocked by the physical hardship novice monks undergo, including being hit with a big stick and subjected to sleep deprivation and under-nourishment. I enjoyed this brief, inspiring, occasionally bracing memoir. That such austerity and hardship can produce a wise master who is moved by a five year old’s contention that God is in everything and everyone is a mystery I don’t fully understand.

Speaking of mysteries, I will never fully comprehend ever changing teen-aged moods, and now I have two sets of them to try to fathom.  Teen the Elder is officially an applicant to college; that has somewhat lowered his stress level and improved his emotional equilibrium. He still has his moments.  I suggested that some reading for pleasure might be a welcome respite, and brought him an advance copy of a book I thought he’d love: The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick. He’s been enjoying it very much — the history of science is a particular interest he’s pursued throughout his teen years.

Another book he says he really enjoyed in October was The Aztec World by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, which he read as part of his Pre-Columbian history study. Brumfiel & Feinman wrote the book to accompany an exhibit at the Field Museum, which they co-curated with three Mexican colleagues.  Teen the Elder was very impressed with what he read about Tenochtitlan; the current issue of National Geographic happens to include an article on recent excavations near the site of the Templo Mayor.

The same issue, lying on an end table in our living room, has a beautifully photographed article on Japanese sea life. Teen the Younger, who is a big fan of the great Japanese filmaker/animator Hayao Miyazaki recently watched Ponyo with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. Since Teen the Younger is loving her Japanese class and is a devoted fan of manga and anime, I was happy to expand her horizons to non-animated Japanese creatures as well.

Teen the Younger is still devouring manga and enjoying weekly trips to the library to pick up new titles. She’s also reading Funny In Farsi. Last week we met author Firoozeh Dumas, who told the large Concord Reads audience that she was in New Hampshire all because of bookconscious. My post on her books two years ago, which she found thanks to a web aggregator tool her brother signed her up for, opened a correspondence between us. I did suggest her books to the Concord Reads committee, which did a great job bringing her here and presenting terrific programs.

While I think Teen the Younger picked up the books (which, like National Geographic, I set out like bait on a side table) because Firoozeh made her laugh, she told me that what she finds interesting is how Firoozeh describes America through an immigrant’s eyes. That’s exactly why Concord Reads picked the books, and why so many people enjoy them.

The Computer Scientist, when he’s not crafting uber Halloween accessories like Xion’s keyblade (I have aches, pains, and blisters from raking all massive amounts of leaves in our yard in time for the annual street pickup, but I wouldn’t trade chores for a second!), has been hair-on-fire busy at work. But he has read a couple of interesting things recently.

A friend and former co-worker sent him an article from a blog called RandsInRepose on nerd characteristics. I read it too. If you have a nerd in your life you’ll read it and weep, or at least sniffle. I sighed particularly loudly when I got to the section that begins,”Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head.” This is an elaborate explanation of why nerds hear “blah, blah, blah,” when people are talking to them, kind of the way Charlie Brown hears his teacher’s voice in Peanuts films.

He also read the advance copy of a book by an author who is coming to Gibson’s in February, who is also a St. Paul’s School grad. and former teacher there (and current sociology professor at Columbia), Shamus Rahman Khan. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School will be out in early 2011, and the Computer Scientist says it’s a “good in-depth examination of St. Paul’s School students and culture.” He found Khan’s writing “authentic and honest in his analysis.”

When I booked the event, I was worried the book might not be well received at St. Paul’s. The Computer Scientist told me he had the same incorrect first impression — we both feel the title has negative connotations that are easily misinterpreted. But he says, “after thoroughly reading and digesting the book, I’m appreciative of Shamus’ candor and reflections and encourage those interested in boarding schools to read this insightful book.” It’s in my to-read pile now. I’m looking forward to it, as I found what the Computer Scientist learned about Khan’s distinction between privilege and entitlement very interesting.

Up next?  The Computer Scientist is back to reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London (which I loved and wrote about here last spring) and he has Dennis Lehane‘s Moonlight Mile (the tour kicks off right here in Concord on Wednesday!) and Andre Dubus III‘s memoir, Townie, on his nightstand. I picked up some advance copies (like Teen the Elder’s science history and the Dubus title) at a fall sales rep. recommendations night in Hadley, MA, sponsored by New England Independent Booksellers’ Association.  Teen the Younger has Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes on her library pile, thanks to my notes from that evening.

I was intrigued by a New York Times article on Gary Shteyngart’s recent trip to Russia and checked out Super Sad True Love Story today. I also have Kay Ryan’s “new and selected” poetry collection, The Best of It out of the library, and there are many more interesting selections on my “to read” pile(s).  Like the leaves, these piles move around but never really seem to get smaller!

 

The Clockwork Universe

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick

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