Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘locavore’ Category

Looking over what I read in March, I realized that most of the books, fiction or nonfiction were about saving something or someone. Am I seeking a metaphysical bailout through books? Possibly. As I’ve mentioned before, I am an unabashed fan of escaping into my reading pile when the world is too much with me.

As has been the case since last June, my reading list this month was informed by the events schedule at Gibson’s. Yesterday I realized we’ve had 89 events since I started. Phew! No wonder I’m tired. You can see a list of upcoming events here, and see what you missed here (scroll down to Past Events).

Last week we had two fantastic events. Ben Hewitt came to discuss The Town That Food Saved and we had a really great crowd of local food champions, CSA organizers, nature educators, farmers, gardeners, and people who like eating well. Ben is a really interesting guy and we could have talked all night. One thing I like about Ben and his book is that he creates space for questions and conversation, rather than claiming to have all the answers.

His book is about Hardwick, Vermont, and the entrepreneurs who have come together in the area around local, sustainable businesses. He delves into the sticky issues of whether profitability and sustainability can co-exist, profiles movers and shakers in the local food scene, and talks with old timers in the Hardwick area who aren’t impressed by the fuss. I was excited that NHPR’s Word of Mouth had Ben and Ton Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds on the show. Ben even brought seeds to share with folks at the book signing table at Gibson’s.

Last Saturday, Adrienne Martini came to talk about her memoir, Sweater Quest. Whether you knit or not, this book is a blast. Adrienne’s writing is smart, funny, and sharp.  The book traces a year Adrienne spent knitting an Alice Starmore sweater design called Mary Tudor.

Along the way, Adrienne tells readers about the Shetland islands, fair isle sweaters, knitting techniques, and the history and sociology of knitting. She also introduces some of the main characters in the Knitterati: movers and shakers in both the virtual and bricks and mortar communities of knitters, designers, and yarn shops. But this is also a book about the nature of of friendship, the challenge of being ourselves as well as being mothers, daughters, and wives, and the meaning of goals and their completion. Adrienne even touches on why knitting can save your sanity.

Reading Sweater Quest is like sitting down with a good friend. Adrienne’s tone is warm, conversational as well as wicked smart. I loved this book, and admit that it makes me wish I had time to take up knitting — I’ve tried it a few times, without much success.  But even without that in common, I can admire Adrienne’s excellent writing and her ability to make me feel at home in a world I know little about. Plus, I really want to know the secret of her ability to hold two teaching jobs, mother two children, spend time with her husband, and still have time to write (and knit one of the hardest sweater patterns out there).

Another book I read for work is No Good Deed By Dr. Lewis Mitchell Cohen.  This is a good example of a book I would not likely have picked up on my own, but I am glad I read. Cohen discusses end-of-life care and the medical and ethical issues surrounding it, through the stories of two nurses at Baystate Medical Center (where he also works) who were accused of murder by a fellow staff member.

Delving into history, religious and cultural beliefs, ethical and legal issues, and the personal, heart-breaking stories of patients, families and medical staff, No Good Deed is eye-opening, thought provoking, and at times, alarming. While the nurses at Baystate ended up cleared of wrongdoing, the book relates a number of other cases that ended badly for doctors or nurses. Through it all, Cohen manages to be very even-handed, and his empathy for all parties, even those he doesn’t necessarily agree with, is one of the book’s strengths. I admire his willingness to not only express his own views as a doctor of thirty years’ experience, but to also give fair treatment to other viewpoints.

I was struck by how many of the cases, from all over the world, hinged on misunderstanding, especially on the part of prosecutors, lawyers, and juries. Cohen’s book is troubling but also moving, and left me with a better sense of the complex issues surrounding palliative care, and the importance of communication between family members, medical staff, and those who are ill.  It seems that as in so many other situations in contemporary culture, there are many choices and considerations, but one heartening message of No Good Deed is that the staff who provide palliative care are often among the most dedicated and caring people you’d ever meet.

The rest of my reading in March was much lighter, although still relatively dark, fiction. In fact, each of the novels I read had a streak of danger, madness, hubris, or evil in it. Most of them managed to be funny as well. What does that say about contemporary culture? We’re think we’re doomed but we’ll go down laughing? Maybe, we take ourselves too seriously. If you want to lighten up, read on.

I picked up The Poison Eaters: And Other Stories, by Holly Black in part because Joe Hill mentioned Small Beer Press when he came to Gibson’s, and I enjoyed his other recommendation (City of Thieves).  In a Twitter post about it, I called this collection “creepy, in a good way.” But it’s recommended for 14 and up, and I’d suggest older than that, personally.

I don’t get the appeal of encouraging kids to read about sex, drugs, and violence by marketing it as YA literature. Of course, some people would say that I’m being naive, and kids are actually doing those things, so what harm can stories do? But I’m not so sure that argument makes sense. First of all, not all kids are, and second of all, why should literature join the fray? Good books can deal with really rough coming of age issues without being painfully graphic — look at Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, for example.

That said, Holly is a great writer, and her stories transcend creepy fantasy to explore human nature, culture, and community, among other themes. Her stories are  smart, funny, and thoughtful, as well as very entertaining.  Some of her characters manage to save themselves, some save each other. If you’re still a bit intrigued by unicorns and fairies but want something edgier, check out The Poison Eaters. And perhaps an older teen would enjoy this book — I just wanted to rant a bit about the general trend towards YA fiction that seems, to me, too harsh and in-your-face, and not quite hopeful enough.

Speaking of in-your-face fiction, I read Solar, by Ian McEwan last week. You’ve probably read the reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Bits that were probably meant to be funny rubbed me the wrong way; maybe I just have a hard time laughing about climate change skeptics, status freak scientists, and investors who just want to milk the next green thing for as much return on the dollar (or pound or euro) as possible. I think if I hadn’t just read this week that about half the television weather reporters in the U.S. doubt climate change and a majority of Americans trust those same weather-casters more than other sources to tell them the truth about climate change, I might have chuckled more.

Also, McEwan works so hard to make Solar‘s main character, Nobel winner Michael Beard, a creep that it was hard to care much about what happened to him. Just about every character has a chance to save a bad situation or make a better choice and then don’t. I don’t need a happy ending every time, but I like to feel there’s something redeeming about someone or something in a novel, and this one left me feeling adrift. It was hard to tell if anything good could come of any of the people you’d just spent a few nights getting to know. I need at least a shred of hope.

An example of the kind of book I’m talking about — one that gives the reader hope in humankind, or at least hope in the transformative power of good storytelling, is The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. I was torn about whether I wanted to read it, because I’d heard enough about the plot to know that awful things happen to the main character when she’s a child.  I generally decide that if I want to be depressed about man’s inhumanity to man, I could just read the newspaper.

Durrow doesn’t hold anything back — in that regard, her writing is like Holly Black’s.  But like Black, she also lets her characters figure out that the bad stuff is only one part of this world.  Durrow’s troubled characters, especially Rachel and Brick, don’t just make you cringe when they screw up, they make you yearn for them to catch a break, and quietly urge them on.  By the end of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, readers regret the painful things these characters have been through but know their world (and by association, ours) will, in the end, be alright.

Another novel I adored this month was First Contact, Or, It’s Later Than You Think by Evan Mandery.  Much gentler in many ways than the other fiction I read — even though the story involves the end of the world, preceded by a near miss with inter-planetary nuclear war — First Contact is zany satire.  Mandery manages to skewer everything from politics to PTA’s, and has fun with himself, too, by writing a “recursion” into the story after a child gives a scathing critique of First Contact when his mother reads it as a bedtime story.

I enjoyed the goofy jokes, the aliens who love Bundt cake, and the important roles Mandery grants raccoons in driving his plot.  But I also liked Mandery’s quiet hero, Ralph, and his idealistic girlfriend, Jessica. In fact, many of Mandery’s minor characters, including Jessica , some of the White House staff, and several of the Rigelians, are vivid enough to admire or empathize with. Or laugh at. It’s a sign of a good book when event the supporting characters are richly imagined.

Jessica and Ralph fall deeply in love, and they’re relationship resonated with me, because like Steve and I when we first met, they are reduced to phone calls because they are apart. (I know you want to know why — go read the book.) Perhaps because I associate this kind of deep conversation — wanting to tell the other person everything but also to listen and know everything the other thinks, feels, and dreams — with lasting, true love, I didn’t find the lack of passionate love scenes problematic. In fact, I thought many of the relationships in First Contact were lovely.

Besides, I got plenty of steamy passion in The Swimming Pool, a first novel by Holly LeCraw. LeCraw has tension and emotional drama down pat. Her depiction of one character’s postpartum depression makes you want to shake the other characters and yell, “Get her some help!” And the tragedy that haunts her characters is compelling enough to keep you turning pages without being melodramatic.

I could have done with a little less information in some of the sex scenes, however. My basic rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t discuss it with your grandmother, it’s over the top. Don’t get me wrong. As Bookconscious readers know, my grandmother was very well read, and she happened to also have nursed a decades long soap opera addiction. (Days of Our Lives. I admit, I followed it too, for a few years.) So she knew from sex scenes.

But when we talked books, Grandmother and I both admired stories that made you sense the passion lovers shared without making you feel like you were actually watching. For example, no one doubts that Romeo and Juliet want to consummate their relationship, but Shakespeare didn’t need to describe intimate parts of Juliet’s anatomy to get his audience on board.

I know I’m hopelessly old fashioned in this regard. Another well written debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, had its share of lusty scenes as well. So perhaps this is just a literary trend I’m not hip to? (The fact that I just used the phrase, “hip to,” may be a clue — no one who is actually hip says that, right?)

Anyway, The Swimming Pool is part mystery, part tragedy, part love story, and maybe my problem is that the sex is extraneous to the emotional drama. There are some seriously hurting characters here, and I liked it best when the book focused on those stories, and the ways the characters began to heal. The affair distracts two of them, nearly to the brink of disaster, from the people they most need to help. LeCraw bails them out in the end, and again, while this book’s ending isn’t exactly happy, it left me satisfied.

Last night, I read the new-to-me parts of Maxine Kumin‘s Where I Live and Wesley McNair‘s Lovers of the Lost. Kumin, McNair, and Donald Hall are on the bill for this year’s poetry reading at the Concord Audi on April 21, put together by Mike Pride (retired editor of the Concord Monitor).  Both books are “new and selected” poetry collections, so I read the new, and skimmed the selected.

Before I started at Gibson’s I was working on what I thought of as an independent MFA — time and cash poor, busy with other committments, and generally wanting to avoid the grad schools churning out writers glutting literary markets with submissions, I sought my own study, reading both creative nonfiction and poetry, as well as fiction. Lately, I haven’t taken the time to read poetry as carefully — I read a poem most days, but I’m often in a hurry. Sitting down with Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live reminded me of how much poetry offers, and how much I love being mindfully immersed in it.

Both books contain wonderful surprises, new and old.  I’ve gushed about both McNair’s and Kumin’s poetry here before, and one of my favorite things about living in New Hampshire is being able to hear such fine poets in person. We’ve also enjoyed hearing Donald Hall a few times over the past several years, as well as Charles Simic and Sharon Olds.

Donald Hall can really electrify a crowd. My favorite Hall moment was at Gibson’s several years ago, when he read “Her Garden”  with it’s other-wordly refrain, “let if go, let it go,” in his deep, emotive voice. Kumin and McNair (and also Olds and Simic) read in what I’d call a more even toned, conversational style, but their words are certainly no less powerful.

Among Maxine Kumin’s new poems, I especially enjoyed  “The Victorian Obsession With the Preservation of Hair,” with stanzas shaped like beards cloaking the sad story of Longfellow’s attempt to save his wife from the fire that killed her as she was sealing enveloped with clippings of her children’s hair.  And among the “selected” — well, there are just too many favorites for me to do justice to them all.

I love that Kumin often plays with traditional forms, like sestinas and sonnets, but none of her poems are stuffy or unfathomable. On the surface, they are about utterly recognizable subjects, like marriage, gardens, animals, people. She makes these ordinary things into the very essence of being human, through beautiful language. Her work is sometimes playful (as in “The Domestic Arrangement” and “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins,” and “Seven Caveats In May”), sometimes thoughtful, ( “Sonnet In So Many Words,” and “Mulching”), sometimes reverent, (“Jack”), sometimes matter-of-fact, “John Green Takes His Warner, New Hampshire Neighbor to a Red Sox Game”), or piercing (“Waterboarding, Restored,” and “Extraordinary Rendition.”

Similarly, McNair writes of ordinary Americans, ordinary experiences, but his poems make these things wonders to behold. “First Snowfall,” for example, is one of the new poems in Lovers of the Lost. McNair paints a scene of fresh snow on a rundown rural town.  But he points us beyond the old semi trailers and collapsed barns, opens our eyes to this: “a snowplow/holding a small light/ahead of itself opening the street/that vanishes in the long drift and dream/of it, coming down/over the whole town/where everyone/ under every/last, lost/roof is now far away/and all gone/and good night.”  Gorgeous.

Another of my favorites among the new poems is “Love Story,” a funny, but also very poignant poem in which the narrator is pushing a car with four children and a dog inside it, the battery is dead, and he’s trying to get his wife to take her foot off the clutch at the right moment so the car will start. Their timing is off, until McNair reveals, “What was the moment/in the midst of our despair/when the engine suddenly caught/and you roared away and came back/for me, I got in by the soda can/on the floor and the dog now sitting/between us on the emergency brake,/the whole family smiling/as the trees broke apart faster and faster/over our heads — what, but a blessing?”

McNair’s breadth and depth is amazing. I don’t have space to go into them all, but among the “selected” poems I love “Small Towns Passing, “The Life,” “Glass Night,” “Why We Need Poetry,” “How I Became a Poet,” “The Rules of the New Car,” “Driving North In Winter,” and “The Man He Turned Into.”  I hope to hear many of the poems from Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live, as well as Donald Hall’s poems, on April 21.

It’s late and we’re all tired, dear readers, but there isn’t much more for me to tell. The Computer Scientist has picked up a couple of books here and there, but says he’s on a reading fast. Although, like me, he reads two newspapers and numerous magazines. He raves about Harper’s and says if he had to whittle our subscriptions down to one, that would be it.

I know he read Gakuen Alice with the Preteen this month. (For those who are keeping track, I officially have six months left to come up with another psuedonym for her. Heaven help me.) This is a manga set at a school for kids who have special talents — so the two of them went around discussing what their “Alice” talents might be. I love that they had a dad/daughter manga shopping trip and swap titles.  The Computer Scientist is also reading some manga the Preteen finished last month, Hollow Fields.

She is also still reading Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I got her in one volume, and she started another manga, Nabari No Ou set in modern times, but with ninjas. She decorated one of our Easter eggs with “ninja egg” written in wax, because, as she pointed out, the egg would be hidden. Like a ninja, mom (insert sigh and special look reserved for mothers of preteens, when they are at their most dense).

She also enjoys several magazines, and her favorite lately is Muse, because it is mostly about science and is “random,” which is something she and her best friend aspire to be. And even when the ennui around here is thick enough for a ninja to slice through, the Preteen likes the New York Times science section, which she reads most weeks.

The Teenager went through a pensive stage post-pneumonia; in last month’s post I described how he spent time thinking about things he’s enjoyed since he was little, like space, and photography.  He’s also been revisiting his interest in food — he’s always loved to cook as well as to eat. Several years ago, he read a thick book about the history, science, and art of woks and stir frying. Lately he’s been enjoying The Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage, who happens to be an editor at one of the his favorite magazines to browse through, The Economist.  He also got a big kick out of Rachel Mead’s profile of cashmere designer and life learner Brunello Cucinelli in last week’s New Yorker.

Most of the time, the Teenager is reading about heavy topics like the Big Bang, the chemical composition of athletic clothing or the physics principles behind a good shot on goal — or he’s reading about the latest injuries to plague his favorite players ahead of the World Cup. So I’m glad to see him reading for pleasure. I can tell when something has really caught his attention because he either thanks me for leaving it out for him (the New Yorker piece) or tells us something about what he’s read at dinner. Such as, that in some ways we’d be better off if we’d stuck to hunting and gathering.

Well, I have to bake our traditional homemade cinnamon rolls, which are rising overnight, and hide ninja eggs early tomorrow, so I’d better wrap this up. On my reading pile? I’m about halfway through The Help, thanks to my Aunt Dina, who lent it to me because the library list is lengthy. Today I picked up Remarkable Creatures because I have enjoyed some of Tracy Chevalier’s books (especially Girl With the Pearl Earring) and I’ve always admired the story of Mary Anning.

And I also picked up Cursed By a Happy Childhood on ILL, because Carl Lennertz sent me First Contact to review, and because Evan Mandery praises it in his acknowledgements — I’d never come across a note in which an author commends a book by his editor to readers, so I figured it was Not To Be Missed. And my two bedside stacks of coming events books and tasty looking advance copies (like Sloane Crosley‘s latest book of essays) are heaped with goodies.

I’m set, come what may — life can throw what it wants at me, but I’ll have plenty of books at the end of the day. May books be your bailout, too.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

As I explained in my earlier post, it’s not back to school time in the bookconscious household, but we are learning all the time. In fact, witnessing and supporting my children’s autonomous educations has reawakened the life learner in me, and helped both Steve and I recall that magical feeling of discovery we all felt in childhood when we learned something we really wanted to know, something interesting, maybe even mind boggling.

My own mind has been boggled as I have studied the issues surrounding a book I’ve blogged about before, because after months of planning, we kicked off Concord Reads 2008 with a book talk Monday night at the library, where we discussed Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am leading the brown bag book discussion of the same title at the library on Thursday, and I plan to play the devil’s advocate and challenge readers to discuss whether Kingsolver’s activist viewpoint causes her to oversimplify the “locavore” argument about food’s carbon footprint. And, whether the surging local food movement is really making a positive environmental impact. As a scientist (Kingsolver studied biology) shouldn’t she have made the scientific data on food miles clearer?

I have no doubt about her other arguments: that supporting local farmers and food producers builds community, helps consumers to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced, improves food security, increases nutrition (less travel and storage time means less deterioration), is healthier for farm workers (big agriculture isn’t known for its good working conditions), and even tastes better — anyone who has had just picked tomatoes from a garden or farm stand knows that. I think being informed is always better than the alternative, and knowing more about how food is raised might protect consumers from food borne illness, exposure to pesticides, or even just loss of knowledge about food traditions and regional growing seasons.

After all, when modern systems break down, as in World Made By Hand, having friends with dairy cows and chickens or knowing when to plant beans and whether your local climate is more favorable for corn or wheat may be essential to our survival! But I think in her sincere concern for the environment, Kingsolver does readers a disservice by glossing over the complexity of weighing the environmental cost of food choices. As I reread parts of the book to prepare for the discussion, I found the tone less nurturing and more didactic than I remembered.

Sure, Kingsolver says it’s ok to make exceptions and choose a few foods you can’t live without. But it had better not be bananas, which she writes about quite firmly as a bad food choice, environmentally speaking. Readers get the impression it is somehow virtuous to give up bananas. But as local writer Hillary Nelson, a panelist at an upcoming Concord Reads event, points out, not all bananas are bad for the earth, and there are even more complex ethical concerns involved. Like nearly everything else in our complicated world, measuring the environmental impact of food isn’t simple and may not be a matter of clear choices, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle occasionally strays a little too much into a black and white tone on a technicolor issue.

It’s an intriguing problem, because although Kingsolver by no means started the local food movement, she has given it enormous publicity, and like any movement, some people are jumping on the bandwagon without considering all the angles. The Greatest Story Ever Sold focuses on political journalism, but the behemoth media system that provides Americans with information manages to consume all kinds of stories, including environmental news, and spit them back out at us as dumbed down soundbites. Most of what I’ve read about local eating in the past few months has been that kind of simplified summary, cheering for a wholesome trend. But not all.

As bookconscious fans may remember, not long after I finished the book last summer, I read a New York Times op-ed challenging some of Kingsolver’s assertions about the environmental impact of local eating. Some recent scientific studies have confirmed what Frances Moore Lappe wrote almost 40 years ago in Diet for a Small Planet: meat consumption has a far worse impact on the environment, health, and world hunger than any other food choice. Articles in Salon, the New Yorker, the New York Times, and Environmental Science and Technology and its accompanying website are delving into the issue of food miles. I’m heartened that the broader picture is available and that some retailers are actually responding to consumer demand and trying to make information available so buyers can make more informed choices.

Nelson, in her column on bananas, also brings up social and ethical questions, and some readers raised similar concerns last night at the book discussion. Is this a movement that leaves out the poor? Is the environmental impact of locavores traipsing around the countryside in their cars individually tracking down fresh produce worse than that of produce trucked to a central distribution point? Do we have an ethical responsibility to support developing world farmers who feed our year-round fruit cravings? Is fair trade food shipped from far away less harmful to the planet than greenhouse grown equivalents grown nearby or food harvested across the country by migrant farmworkers who aren’t paid a living wage?

Will the energy behind the local food movement make a difference as it is channeled towards lobbying industrial agriculture to take steps to be more environmentally and socially caring? Can we even do that, or is a profit based food system beyond caring? Do we really have accurate ways to figure out the carbon footprints of our choices? Should we even be wasting our time on all of these small things when no less a source than Al Gore tells us it’s way past time for individual action, we need massive, government level changes if we want to reverse the impact of greenhouse gas emissions?

Despite my quibbles, I still felt upon rereading it that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a good read and an important book. Kingsolver is a great storyteller, and her writing is excellent. She has certainly caused more people to think about food and where it comes from. I appreciate the way she exposes government involvement in the industrialization of agriculture and food production and the subsidizing of high fructose corn syrup — which, despite the claims of an appallingly duplicitous advertising campaign coming to a tv near you is not only almost impossible to avoid (it’s in everything from yogurt to bread to cereal as well as the more obvious things like sweets and sodas) but also nutritionally bankrupt. And she encourages further inquiry, listing resources and suggesting ways to become more immersed in the issues and to make changes or take action.

However, all of this confusion makes me want to seek relief in another novel. The one I’ve started isn’t promising to be much comfort: The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud. I’m reading it for the Gibson’s book discussion group; I’ve passed on it up to now. It was certainly widely acclaimed, touted as a best book of 2006 by the New York Times, etc. But reading about self-absorbed not very successful thirty somethings in the context of 9/11 may not be what I’m up for at the moment, even though at least one of the characters has me very curious about what he’ll do next. I’m only a few chapters in though, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Besides, it’s bound to be better than campaign sound bites.

However, I’m also keeping two nonfiction books close at hand to peruse when both the fictional world and the real one overwhelm. Perhaps I was moved by the stories of strong women in history my daughter and I listened to in the car last week, because both are about women who are “firsts” in their field. Annie Griffiths Belt, (who it turns out is a friend of Barbara Kingsolver and also uses her photography to promote the work of Habitat for Humanity, where Steve worked for five years, providing this month’s moment of bookconscious interconnectedness) one of the first female photographers at National Geographic, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (or any other church in the Anglican Communion), have both written inspiring books.

A Camera, Two Kids, and A Camel is Belt’s photo memoir, describing her life and work and in particular her travel with her kids, who she brought along on assignment all over the world when they were growing up. Besides the gorgeous photos that, like National Geographic, illuminate cultures and places in ways mere words cannot, Belt’s story is interesting and entertaining. She showed her children the good in the world, and shares that with us in her book.

A Wing and a Prayer: Messages of Faith and Hope is the Presiding Bishop’s collection of homilies, released in part to introduce her to the world after her election. It’s not really about her, though you get some glimpses of her life (she is a pilot and was an oceanographer before she became a priest). Instead this collection is just what the subtitle says — encouragement and reassurance that love, understanding, justice, and faith do have a place in the world if we let them into our lives. Schori is coming to the Diocese of NH in a few weeks, and I hope to hear her in person.

These last two books remind me that come what may, people will generally work to be their best selves when given the chance. All of the books I’ve read lately touch on that idea of our basic humanity seeking the humanity in others, however messy that process may be. People go on caring about each other, seeking relationships, expressing themselves, trying to make the world better for their kids, and always, always, finding ways to tell their stories. For that, I am grateful.

Read Full Post »