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Archive for the ‘myth’ Category

As I look over what I read in June, I realize a common theme is characters who come to terms (with varying degrees of success) with life as it is, rather than life as a series of expectations and desires, met or unmet. I found this thread despite the variety of books I read, which seems to me to prove the Bookconcious Theory of Interconnectedness — that any examined reading list will reveal connections. I’m never sure if I gravitate towards books which really have a common theme or if I find things in common among them. Regardless, I enjoy contemplating such things.

In June, I revisited favorite authors of popular fiction (Maeve Binchy & Alexander McCall Smith), and also read a new book by a literary talent who deserves far greater recognition (David Schmahmann), as well as one whose new book received widespread praise (Geraldine Brooks). Rebecca Makkai‘s debut novel and Abraham Verghese‘s first novel (thought not his first book) were both interesting reads, as was Ann Joslin Williams‘ much anticipated new novel. And I read a forthcoming work by Christian McEwen on creativity and slowing down which is a well written, sensible, very thorough book that will appeal to a many writers and artists and also felt like a personal message from the universe telling me to act on the mindful advice McEwen offers.

I’ll begin with Binchy & McCall Smith. Both of their new books re-visit old locations and feature familiar characters. Binchy’s book, Minding Frankie, is set in Dublin and mentions some of the fictional businesses and restaurants, and a few characters, that have featured in her earlier novels. The main character, Noel, is a young man descending into alcoholism when the book opens. He’s in a dead end job, with no prospects and little hope, and his relationship with his devout parents is dysfunctional. Then he learns he’s going to be a father, and the mother is dying, and through his determination to be a good dad to baby Frankie, he turns his life around.

Binchy’s book is filled with a host of minor characters, as well as the kind of no nonsense middle aged woman who so often helps right the paths of her characters’  lives. Emily, Noel’s American cousin, plays that role, and she manages to transform the lives of everyone she meets when she comes to Dublin to see where he father grew up. Emily is perpetually optimistic — she can look at the least promising situations and see potential. Her can-do attitude and the natural affection she feels for everyone, even a neurotic social worker who threatens to undo Noel’s progress, brings out the best in people.

Noel can’t see past his mire of unfulfilled expectations when Minding Frankie opens. Another character can’t see that the playboy restaurateur she’s pinning all her personal and professional hopes on is unreliable. Moira, the social worker with her own baggage, is clouded by her cold upbringing and some fairly stereotyped feelings about the kinds of people she is supposed to be helping. As in her other books, Binchy draws readers in and then offers a few surprises as the characters’ develop. Some of the plot twists are a bit predictable, and there are readers who think Binchy’s books are too full of uplifting plot lines, but there are a few unredeemed jerks sprinkled among the reformed alcoholics and wisened-up career girls, and Binchy’s Dublin is a pleasant place to spend an evening.

I’m not a rabid mystery fan, but I’ve always enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The newest title, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, was interesting, because it contained a mystery which Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s famous lady detective, doesn’t really solve. This is partly because the people involved each have a different view of the situation, and their perspectives muddle the truth. Precious muses that regardless of what happened, some situations are best resolved with a little bit of diplomacy and a lot of compassion. I enjoyed the  ambiguity. I also love the feeling of armchair travel I get when reading this series as well — Botswana comes to life on the page.

An armchair roadtrip in a novel, The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai is a thought provoking look at cultural perceptions, and a fun read. Lucy, a children’s librarian, and Ian, a ten year old library regular, have an unlikely adventure when Ian runs away from home and they accidentally embark on a car trip together. A quirky story, rich with memorable characters, The Borrower combines humor, social commentary, and plenty of references to favorite children’s books.

As Lucy tries to understand how Ian is impacted by his family’s strict beliefs, she also examines how her own family history is informing her young adulthood. Makkai delivers a well-written, entertaining read with an interesting look at the kaleidoscope of contemporary American culture. She deftly explores the ways family stories are often told and re-told differently, and the ways childhood memories of family lore can add another layer of perception that may color the truth at their core. Lucy openly muses that what’s real and true may depend on how you look at a story, and who’s doing the looking.

Cutting for Stone is another book full of misunderstandings based on the assumptions people make about each other, and the way different points of view can slant the story. It’s also a very detailed novel rich in descriptions of life in an Ethiopian charity hospital. The characters, setting, and medical procedures make this novel teem with sensory texture. It’s also a fascinating story, a bit fantastic at times, but compelling.

Abraham Verghese writes beautifully, and as a doctor who grew up in Ethiopia, he is able to show readers exactly what his characters are going through. In fact, a few times it was too much for me, and I’ve told the Computer Scientist he can never read this book (he nearly fainted at the sight of the needle when Teen the Younger was on her way and an anesthesiologist gave me an epidural). Still, this is not medical voyeurism — the book is about doctors, and the work they do, and the detail enriches the reader’s view into their world. It’s also about family and home, love and belonging, and the ways that even in a strange place under challenging circumstances, we can make those things for each other.

Another novel that really brings hardship into sharp focus is Caleb’s Crossing. Geraldine Brooks has written wonderfully researched historical novels before. This one really made me appreciate the incredible challenges to survival early American settlers faced. Brooks also does a marvelous job of bringing to life a Native American (the Caleb of the title, based on a real young man) who grew up trying to keep one foot in both his own culture and the newly dominant settler world. I was intrigued by the details about opposing theological viewpoints between ministers on Martha’s Vinyard and the mainland, and the peek into 17th century Harvard. As in earlier books, Brooks presents readers with a complex, intelligent heroine. I was fascinated by Bethia Mayfield’s imagined life.

Despite her hardships, Bethia Mayfield leads a mostly happy life. Not so the hero of David Schmahmann’s new novel, The Double Life of Alfred Buber. I’ve enjoyed two of Schmahmann’s earlier books (and reviewed Empire Settings and Nibble & Kuhn), and have a 3rd on my to-read list. Nothing prepared me for Buber. This book is literary fiction at it’s best — taut, well crafted, lovely prose, thoroughly engaging, which draws you into the character’s strange new world and leaves your reading landscape forever altered.

Alfred Buber is living inside his own head.  Throughout the book, which is written in the first person from his point of view, the reader can’t quite tell what’s really happening or what he is imagining. His perceptions and his idea of how others perceive him weave in and out with the actual arc of events until the end of the book, when he muses, “If there is penance to be made for anything it may rest in the exposure of my frailty, and in my invitation to you to look deep into the breach and to see and make of it what you will. I regret everything and I regret nothing. I am a man, simply that, and you will either understand or you will not.”

Buber has had what a news report would call a “difficult childhood,” and he becomes a self-made man, pursuing his education, working his way up to the height of power in a stodgy law firm, building himself a magnificent home. But all of the exterior evidence of his success hides a lonely, insecure, socially inept life lived in the shadow of his professional persona.  Part of his secret life includes a penchant for illicit sex which leads him to an obsession with a prostitute in Asia. He draws her into his imagined life, where he struggles to understand his own capacity for love and meaning.  His fantasy world brings him to a breaking point just as the rest of his carefully groomed world is falling apart.

Buber isn’t a very sympathetic hero.  But somehow Schmahmann makes us care what happens to him, makes us consider the victim and the victimized in another light, makes us wonder how an emotionally broken person can ever grow into a healthy one. There are some plot twists I don’t want to give away, but as a teaser I’ll say the book is meant to be Buber’s attempt to put his story down on paper for a person important to his identity, to redeem himself by telling the truth as best he knows how.  It’s a brilliant way of bringing this tragic figure into the faintest light of hope.

The last novel I read this month is Down from Cascom Mountain, by Ann Joslin Williams. Much of the press surrounding this debut novel mentions Williams’ decision to locate her story in the same fictional world as her late father’s work, including his National Book Award winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux. I haven’t read that book (yet, it’s in my to-read pile), but I enjoyed Down From Cascom Mountain on its own merits.  The fictional mountain is in New Hampshire, and the story centers on Mary Hall, a newlywed who is widowed not long after returning to her childhood home hear Cascom.

Through her interactions with the summer staff at the hiking lodge nearby, and a family she knows from childhood, Mary processes her brief but happy relationship, her grief, and her way forward. Several of the characters seemed to me to have the potential to stand alone in their own stories, so I look forward to asking Williams if she imagines she’ll revisit them in future books.  She definitely brings the landscape to life, and anyone familiar with New England mountains will find much to recognize.  Down from Cascom Mountain is a thoughtful, emotionally taut examination of grief, friendship, and human chemistry.  It would prompt interesting discussion for a book club.

Finally this month, I read a book that won’t be out until September but which I highly recommend already, Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down.  It felt like I was receiving a divine message to stay mindful when this book arrived unbidden in my mailbox not long after I heard Lama Surya Das talk and read his book (buddha standard time).  McEwen writes beautiful, sinuous prose, and her research is a delight — the reading lists for each chapter could supply a person with “to-read” piles for life.  She quotes writers and artists to support her thesis that “slow creativity,” like slow food, is about appreciating the process and releasing the cultural admonition to “do it all, now.”

Each chapter ends with a couple of quotes and some ideas for ways to implement the slowing down process as a creative tool.  I’m keeping this book on my nightstand where I can draw on its wise council whenever I need to.  Like many good books I love, this one made me feel I was sitting down over a cup of tea with a friend who knows my quirks and likes me anyway.

The Computer Scientist finished reading Townie by Andre Dubus III and he says it is a “gritty memoir that I found insightful and honest. Dubus tells the difficult tale of growing up in Southie without shying away from the details. I especially felt that the strong narrative matured in style as Dubus himself started to get his life sorted as he wanted. Any fan of Dubus’ writing will want to read this book.”  Also, Gibson’s customers know, Andre is the nicest man in the publishing world.  We’ve had him to the store twice since I’ve been there, and he’s just a warm, kind person, and wicked smart.

Teen the Elder spent his first month as a grad reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. He says he enjoyed it because it was  a biography of the scientists as well as a history of their work. His sister gave him a pile of books about English culture and British language, which I imagine he’ll read as the departure for his gap year approaches.  This week he’s mostly read visa application instructions. I believe I heard him refer to those today as “gobbledygook.”

Teen the Younger is facing the consequences of reading several books at once — she’s still reading them. But she did devour another large stack of Manga this month, including a number of volumes of Vampire Knight.  She reads Shonen Jump, New Moon, Muse, American Girl, and Cicada, too, so she’s also inherited her parents’ affection for periodicals.

In our reading piles?  I can’t speak for the rest of the bookconscious household, who are actually all asleep as I type. But I’ve started Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy, and I’ve got several other books lined up. In fact, I have multiple “to-read” piles, if I’m honest. A friend recently told me about a vacation she and her husband took before they had children in which she read seven books in seven days. I tried to imagine such a thing. And to stay in the moment, here, in my busy, messy life where I snatch reading time when I can.

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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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Many of the books I read this month are about making a life.  As Teen the Elder draws nearer to setting off on his own adventures, I’ve been thinking about the life we’ve made as a family.   It may seem strange to track that through books, but we recently went down to Ikea to get the last bookcase we needed to fill out the wall in our living room and finally get the piles of books up off the floor.

This project  required reorganizing all our books– which are shelved for usability rather than in a particular order, in loose subject grouping and by size and distance from the floor for those of us who are height challenged.  I had a good time looking back at the passions the kids have pursued over the years, from spies to Ancient Egypt to birds to maps to the many books of history, science, and art projects we worked on together.  And I enjoyed re-shelving many favorite books I read aloud. For our family, making a good life together has meant learning together, sharing our interests, exploring new ones. Books have been an important piece of that life, and my newly arranged shelves serve as a kind of memory album.

So with all of this on my mind, perhaps it’s no coincidence that as I read this month, I was considering the way we humans make our way in the world.  Most of us are seeking to live together as best we can, making our lives meaningful in some way, often through our connections with one another. Some people are of course more deliberate about this than others, to the point of feeling they know what’s best for others as well as themselves.

In her new book Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell examines some very determined folks who set out to make Hawaii part of America.  Since we lived there for three years (both the Computer Scientist and Teen the Elder were born in Hawaii while their fathers were stationed there with the Navy & Marine Corps, respectively), I also found myself reminiscing about our time there but also reflecting on the tensions that still exist between native Hawaiians and “haoles.”

Vowell traces the many forces that led to the annexation of the islands, from the first New England missionaries, who were sure that a good life meant converting Hawaiians to Christianity and de-heathenizing their culture, to the wealthy sugar plantation owners and politicians who weren’t content with cultural “improvements” and wanted Hawaii to be American mainly so they could avoid tariffs and gain a good spot to park Navy ships.   I really enjoyed her smart but cheeky tone, and found the history fascinating. Vowell’s observation that the missionaries and the Hawaiian royals were actually both “traditionalists” at odds over the best way for Hawaiians to live is particularly interesting and insightful.

I read Vowell’s book because she came to Concord on her book tour.  Another author who stopped by Gibson’s in March is Caitlin Shetterly, for her book Made for You and Me. Shetterly’s book is a memoir about her experience moving to LA with her husband  Dan and their pets, discovering she was pregnant, then slowly watching her husband’s freelance photography work dry up as the recession hit, and ultimately deciding to move back home with her mother in Maine.  Shetterly writes with humor and great affection, sharing the best and worst of their experiences without shying away from occasionally poking fun at herself.

Caitlin told fans at the store that she thinks of Made for You and Me as a love story as well as a story about what happens to a man who believes in the American Dream when it falls apart. It’s also a book about making a new American dream, one in which building community, sharing lives with family and friends, and living simply become hallmarks of success, rather than making it “big.”  Not that financial success is bad — we’d all like to be secure and provide for our families, and have some luxuries.

Caitlin and Dan became part of a new community virtually; friends and eventually strangers all over the country responded when she began blogging about their experiences and recording a “recession diary” for NPR.  They also found to their surprise that coming home with unrealized dreams led to many unexpected joys.  My favorite parts of the book — the moments where I felt like I was part of their tribe, too — are the tender moments they share with their newborn or their pets. In a world where I’m constantly feeling the tug between wanting to be mindful, wanting to spend more time just being with my family and friends, and needing to meet many obligations, Made for You and Me was a nice break and a reminder than I should listen to the mindful voice.

You could not ask for a better book about living well by caring for one another than Desmond Tutu’s  Made for Goodness, which he wrote with his daughter, Mpho. This a book to re-read and study.  Part memoir, part theology, part manual for living intentionally, this is a brilliant little book.  Bishop Tutu explains why, after all of the hardship, misery, and horror he has seen and experienced, he believes that we humans are indeed “made for goodness.”  In simple but lovely language, he explains how we can release guilt, worry, and fear of not living up to our potential so that we can forgive, live compassionately, and make lives filled with meaningful, loving relationships with our fellow human beings.

If this sounds very “airy fairy,” it’s not. Tutu has seen the worst in people, and he’s also seen what reconciliation can do. His points are gentle, but rooted in strong faith and deep wisdom. He’s also very much a man living in the world and not in an ivory tower — when he talks about people being tough on their kids, or about marriage, or dealing with difficult situations at work, or being impatient with the world, he offers examples from his own life, and his daughter’s.  I definitely plan to get this book and take time reflecting more carefully on what it means to be good and how to purposefully seek goodness.

Before I turn to fiction and poetry, I read one more memoir this month, Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo.  This is another fascinating book set in the Middle East (bookconscious regulars know I’ve worked my way through books about Iran, Israel, & Syria in the last year or so), this time in Lebanon and Iraq, where Ciezadlo and her husband, Mohammed, are journalists.  She begins in New York, where she and Mohammed meet, and traces their moves to Beirut and Baghdad, their work there, and the way she tries to find community in food, friends and family. The descriptions of food will make you hungry, but Ciezadlo provides recipes in the back of the book.

From the first time she and Mohammed go out, they bond over food, even though they have somewhat different tastes. Later, when she meets his family, she gets to know siblings and friends in Beirut as they go out to eat, and connects with her mother-in-law by asking her to teach her to prepare Lebanese home-cooking. In hotels rooms, Ciezadlo rigs kitchens out of hotplates & mini fridges and shops in neighborhood markets, trying to create a normal life in an otherwise chaotic situation.

Both as memoir — examining her own life and dreams and her struggle to make a home in the middle of war zones — and as a journalist’s examination of  war, Day of Honey is enthralling.  Ciezadlo’s observations about the Iraq war, sectarian violence there, and the people she meets in Iraq, are unlike anything I’ve read about the war; both more personal and more universal. Her accounts of the end of a relatively peaceful time in Lebanon brought on by the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Cedar Revolution, and the Hezbollah-Israel war are also incredible — through her eyes and the eyes of her Lebanese friend and family we see sectarianism,  the chaos of war, and the senseless destruction of homes and lives.  It’s depressing to see so clearly what human beings wreak upon one another.

But there is also much hope, much beauty, and much humor in Day of Honey.  You get the sense that even in horrible times, people are resilient and more look out for each other than not. I felt outraged that Hezbollah influences people with handouts and disaster relief, but heartened that they don’t actually do it all that well, and that many ordinary Lebanese reject their ideas when they can speak freely.  As my grandmother would say, people just want to live, raise their families, make a life. We often discussed the Middle East together, and agreed that the partisan old men need to go before real peace can be made there.

Anyway, Day of Honey is a wonderful book.  I enjoyed the excellent writing as well as the insightful reflection on places of conflict, what home means and how we can make ourselves a home in even the most challenging situations. I also admired the way Mohammed’s family embraced their new American member and laughed out loud at some of the ways they didn’t see eye to eye. Ciezadlo is gracious though, and writes quite tenderly of her extended family.

Which brings me to a novel of family, friendship, and home — Minding Ben.  Author Victoria Brown was at WI6 in Washington, where I met her.  The novel is about a teenager from Trinidad who leaves home alone to move to New York and make a new life. From the beginning, when her cousin doesn’t show up at the airport, her American Dream is nothing like she’d expected. Another example of the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: this book, like Made for You and Me, addresses the idea of chasing the American Dream and shaping it to fit a new reality.

Grace wants to further her education, work, and make something of herself. What she finds is that without papers she can’t make much progress, and that jobs are hard to come by. Working as a nanny for a stereotypical neurotic New York power couple, trying to help her cousin Sylvia get her apartment re-painted when the youngest child, who can’t speak, test positive for lead poisoning, navigating the immigrant social scene with her best friend, Grace lives up to her name.  You’ll love her for it.

Readers can’t help but admire Grace as she helps everyone in her life who needs it, puts up with her obnoxious employers, and does her best to keep in touch with her mother and sister in Trinidad, where her father is ill and getting worse. This is a contemporary urban novel of manners, with Grace the plucky heroine who represents all that is right in the world. As in a Dickens novel, or Austen, you can tell which people are Good and which are not. But Brown makes it more complex — a few characters are just conflicted or overwhelmed, like real people.

Brown touches on the disparity in health care and living standards between the rich and the poor, the unfortunate fact that illegal immigration provides domestic help for wealthy Americans, the differences between America’s image abroad as a place of plenty and the reality immigrants find when they arrive. Her insights into the pecking order among a building’s nannies and the strange social climbing of Grace’s employer are witty and entertaining. But the novel is best at the points where we see Grace becoming who she wanted to be — a self-reliant, strong, capable young woman who finally gets a break towards the end of the book. I’ll leave it at that for those who want to read it.

From a novel of manners to a novel of interiors — Emily Alone, by Stewart O’Nan.  This is a follow up to Wish You Were Here; O’Nan told the New York Time’s The New Old Age blog he had “unfinished business” with the “irrepressible” Emily Maxwell. Most of Emily Alone takes place in Emily’s house in Pittsburgh. She’s a widow, and the last of her group of friends still living in her neighborhood.  As the book progresses, she attends funerals for a couple of her contemporaries. The person she talks to and sees most often is her sister-in-law Arlene, with whom she’s always had a difficult relationship.

As I read, I was so impressed with the depth of this book; O’Nan plumbs every detail of Emily’s day to day life — the way she makes lists and notes in her calendar to make sure she doesn’t forget anything, the way she returns to driving after Arlene is hospitalized, her thought process as she buys a new car, as she prepares for a Christmas visit with her daughter and grandchildren. Everything from her breakfast buffet coupons to her thoughts on music, her reflections on her own parents, and the way she sees her changing neighborhood is lovingly crafted on the page for readers to absorb. Even her thoughts on her dog and Arlene’s fish, or the weather’s impact on her moods — these small details add up to portrait of Emily that you can turn in your mind like a prism, enjoying each glint of color and light.

And this is a book to absorb. Lately I’ve  been wishing I had more time to savor books, instead of having so many to read and limited time.  Emily Alone would be the perfect book to read in small bites, with a cup of tea, stopping to gaze out at my own neighborhood, and to ponder what my life might be like when I’m in my late 70’s.

It’s a book to muse on. Why do we sometimes have challenging relationships even with those we’re closely related to (especially by marriage)? Why do people who grew up in the same household turn out to be such different adults? Why does our culture expect us to leave our kids alone when they’re adults, when so many other cultures live multi-generationally and put the advice of elders ahead of other considerations?

Listening to Stewart O’Nan when he visited Gibson’s was fascinating. I’ve mentioned before how much author readings have added to my reading life; Caitlin Shetterly posed the same question during her reading, about why Americans don’t have intergenerational households. Sarah Vowell shared many insights, including what she admires about missionaries (in Hawaii, they created a written version of Hawaiian and wrote a number of books which are still used today to keep that language alive). Stewart shared a little about how he researches books.

Unlike people who say “write what you know,” Stewart writes what he wants to find out about. He told us he asked older people at library readings what they thought about their neighborhoods changing. He asked them about gardening; why they did it, what they enjoyed, how they thought about it in the winter. You can see all of this in Emily Alone — all of Emily’s thoughts, her happiness digging in the flower beds, the way her summer is organized around her garden, her sadness looking back at neighborhood cookouts and parties. Her minor irritations with slowing down in old age.

The result is a book that feels like a life. Stewart has made Emily so thoroughly real, so recognizable, that I feel sure I’ve known her (twice) in the real world. And a couple of weeks after I’ve finished the book, I am still thinking about her.  I plan to go back and read Wish You Were Here soon, and I think Emily Alone would make a really good community-wide read.

Interestingly, Stewart mentioned two other books I read recently: The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht (which I wrote about here last month), and Touch by Alexi Zentner.  It turns out these books, or their kernels at least, came out of the same workshop. I just finished Touch and I can see how it shares certain sensibilities with The Tiger’s Wife — both are stories told by an adult grandchild, incorporating stories the grandparent told, and both novels are tinged with myth and magic. Both novelists look at death and what we tell ourselves about those who’ve died. And both are beautifully told, beautifully written stories. But Touch has much to recommend it on its own.

Touch is a quiet book.  Almost all of the action happens in the small village of Sawgamet in Western Canada, where the main character, Stephen, has come home to serve as pastor of the Anglican church.   His mother is dying, and he sits in the study of the home she shared with him and his step-father, remembering events from his boyhood, and earlier stories told by his father and grandfather about the family before he was born.

The soft tone of the novel, like the snow which frequently falls in Sawgamet, masks the depth of the tragedies which people in this little village have experienced. Fires, logging accidents, deadly blizzards, and the strange death of Stephen’s grandfather on the night he believes he’s found his long dead wife alive in the woods are background for the central sorrow of Stephen’s life. When he was a boy, his sister fell through the river ice while skating and died, along with his father, who was trying to save her.

But all of this, while key to the book, is not the point of Touch. The novel is about love and loss and the mystery of death, and it’s about history carrying into the present through generations, but it’s also about making our lives whole. Those who can do so in Sawgamet manage it by facing the difficult stories, picking themselves up, and creating new stories of their own in their families, homes, and work. Those who, like Stephen’s grandfather, have a foothold somewhat too strong in the magical, awful stories of the past never manage to make their lives whole in the present.

I think this is true even for those of us who don’t live in a place with a strong sense of fable. Our cultural and familial stories can something have such a strong grasp on us that we fail to thrive in our present lives, caught by the invisible hands of those who suffered before us.  And yet, often in the same family, there’s someone (or several people) who manages to make it. It’s a curious conundrum. And it happens, even in families with no tragic past. Sometimes people are caught up in their families’ past successes just as badly.

My own musings aside, I found Touch just beautiful, and Stephen is one of my new favorite characters in literature. The strength he exudes just quietly sitting at his desk, reflecting on not just the past but on his daughters and his wife, his stepfather and mother, is inspiring. The generous amount of empathy with which he tells readers of his family’s past horrors is admirable. He’s a compassionate, intelligent, and impartial narrator.

Which is also how I hear the voice of poet David Budbill. I read Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse this month. I love the way these poems tell readers that the poet is torn between wishing to live a reclusive literary life close to the land and wanting to be a rock star poet, speaking to packed halls and selling lots of books. Because who wouldn’t like to have both?

And in some ways, Budbill does. No poet really packs halls these days, or sells as many books as a popular novelist, but Budbill has become well known for his poetry, novel, children’s book, essays, commentary, and plays. His poems are funny, wise, and natural; nothing you can’t understand on the first reading, plenty to learn from each subsequent reading.

Many of the poems in Moment to Moment describe Budbill’s mountain home in Vermont and the birds and animals who live there. Another favorite topic is Chinese art and poetry.  One of my favorites, ” On the Way to Buddhahood,” which I have had hanging in my kitchen for a couple of years, is about the poet’s spiritual path:  “Ever plainer. Ever simpler./Ever more ordinary./My goal is to become a simpleton./And from what everybody tells me/I am making real progress.”

Another poem I like is a curmudgeonly look at contemporary America’s obsession with self-help gurus, “Trying To Be Who I Already Am.”  He quotes a 4th century Chinese nature poet, “My nature comes of it itself. It isn’t something/you can force into line” and then he continues, ” So, please, leave me alone./I don’t want your advice./I’m just trying to be/who I already am.”

Some of the poems are koan-like in their double edged simplicity/complexity. For example, “You False Masters of Serenity,” which to me sums up the enormous struggle I have with mindfulness in the modern world: “Damn all you/false masters of serenity,/gurus of happy./Struggle/is what it means/ to be alive and free.”

I’ve read that one over and over, and rolling it around my brain. In light of the revolutions taking place in North Africa and the Middle East, the sectarian struggles in many other places, the nuclear and post-tsunami/earthquake recovery in Japan, the ongoing problems in Haiti, and even the protests in the U.S. over budgets and bargaining rights, Budbill seems to have boiled the essence of humanity into a short simple, somewhat humorous poem.  Struggle is what it means to be alive and free. Wow.

There are many more that I love in this collection, and I look forward to Budbill’s forthcoming book, Happy Life. Another poetry book I read this month is Working In Flour, by New Hampshire poet Jeff Friedman. I took a wonderful workshop with Jeff at NH Writers’ Project’s Writer’s Day a couple of years ago, and read Taking Down the Angel.

Many of the poems I liked best in that book are midraschic.  In Working In Flour, “Ladder,” in Jacob’s voice, is a beautiful and disturbing re-imagining Jacob’s dream of the ladder descending from heaven. “Ararat” is the only literature I’ve ever seen that deal with post-flood realities that seem eerily like the aftermath of a tsunami: “The dove never came back./Everywhere we looked there were dead bodies,/piles of wood, shards of glass,/ shreds of fabric, fragments of roofs,/jewelry glinting in sand.” And “The Binding,” tells the story of Abraham’s sacrifice from Isaac’s perspective.

Other poems I enjoyed in Working In Flour are the title poem, about an inept would-be bakery worker, who screws everything up so much on his first day that he’s told on the second, “I liked you better as a customer.”  “Luna Moth,” in which, “. . . the luna moth scudded through our bedroom, reading/my horoscope on the dust of the blinds.”  And “The War On Fat, Frontenac Plaza,” which made me laugh.

I finally finished The Making of  a Sonnet this month, the excellent anthology from Norton, edited by Edward Hirsch and Eavan Boland. It took a couple of years, but I really enjoyed this comprehensive look at the sonnet through the ages, around the world, and in variations. It would be fruitless to try recall all the poems I especially liked over such a long time, but I came across one recently as I came near the end of the book which was new to me, “History,” by another New Hampshire poet, Charles Simic.

As for the rest of the family, Teen the Younger is reading vampire books — no, not Twilight, but The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod by Heather Brewer. She says she likes them because the typical school drama stuff isn’t prominent, but instead there’s a real story. She’s also reading all kinds of Manga. I realized recently that she’s read nearly 50 volumes of Naruto alone.

After we watched Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show, she  picked up Unfamiliar Fishes and vanished into her room with it. And because her Grandpa is reading Bill Bryson, Teen the Younger is reliving happy childhood memories re-reading I’m A Stranger Here Myself, which for years was a road trip staple in our house. I’d read it aloud, or, when the kids and I would make our epic summer drives from south Georgia to New Hampshire, we’d listen to the audio book.

As I’ve mentioned before, Mr. Bryson is a bookconscious household hero. My kids are convinced there’s no wittier man on earth, and our presence in New Hampshire is at least partly due to my reading I’m A Stranger Here Myself around the time the Computer Scientist and I were circling potential place to live on a U.S. map. And now my dad is reading the entire Bryson oeuvre as well.

Teen the Elder read Twelfth Night last month and said it’s his favorite of the three Shakespeare plays he’s read and others he’s seen. He liked the complexity of the play with its many sub-plots.  He’s thoroughly wrapped up in music these days, creating his own tunes in FL Studio (and now on Garage Band on our new hand-me-down IPad) and listening to all kinds of things, and reported that other than the play, everything else he read in March was “pretty boring.” Sigh.

The Computer Scientist started The Tiger’s Wife and and re-read The Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris. He says, “I’ve always enjoy the Hannibal Lecter line of stories and this one is no exception. Gory details and gritty story open a window to psychopaths that Harris describes so well. If you at all found Silence of the Lambs interesting, I definitely recommend you read all the stories.”

He also read a book I picked up for both of us at WI6, whose author, I am excited to say, is coming to Gibson’s June 2:  It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine’s Path to Peace, by Rye Barcott. As a former Marine himself, the Computer Scientist has this to say about Rye and his work:

“Rye Barcott is an amazing human with unbelievable energy and drive. While only a college student on the path to service as a Marine Officer, Rye envisions and launches a grass-roots non-profit in one of the most challenging locations in all of Africa: the Kibera slums in Kenya. He tells his story of navigating the complexities of governmental organizations and the military, balancing his studies and personal life, and overcoming challenges that would cause most to simply quit. I especially appreciate Rye’s honest description of the disappointments in his life without letting them slow him down. Rye’s story is one that every person could benefit from hearing.” I can’t wait to read the book myself, and hear Rye at Gibson’s.

I’ve started Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams, who is coming to Gibson’s on April 21, and so far it’s fascinating. I want to read all  kinds of things; my bedside piles continue to overflow, plus I’ve re-discovered some to-reads on the shelves as I re-organized.  For Lent, I’m reading Opening To You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms, by Norman Fischer, which I found at the St. Michael’s library book sale shelf.

On April 23, I am planning to attend the Five Colleges Book Sale once again, and I can’t wait to see what treasures I’ll find. And now that I have an IPad, I am probably going to have to see what the e-book fuss is all about, so I’ll be able to discuss physical versus e-books intelligently. Stay tuned!

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed maps. We have several cool maps hanging up around our house as art and reference, we own a number of atlases, and I keep a basket full of maps from places we’ve been or have learned about.  At my family’s insistence, I’ve recently learned how to use a GPS and have a wary respect for the fact that all the maps one could theoretically need are there for the digital asking.

But the nostalgic Luddite in me still feels like there’s nothing better than unfolding a map, tracing out a route, folding to the square you need, and then hitting the road, watching the scenery go by and knowing you’re steadily progressing up the highlighted line, and eventually, over the fold. From childhood, I’ve liked following along. My own kids experienced several epic road trips when we lived in Georgia and would travel back to New England each summer for a visit, stopping along the way in Atlanta, South Carolina, and New York to see family. They’re both good with maps.

My reading this month very much appealed to the map loving road tripper in me. When I wrapped up last month’s post, I was halfway through Jay Atkinson’s Paradise Road , a buddy travel tribute to Jack Kerouac’s travels. Atkinson writes about Kerouac’s work, the Beats’ travels, and his own trips to some of the same places Kerouac and friends visited.  His narrative is both descriptive and reflective, taking the reader along for the ride with plenty of sensory details, and also synthesizing Atkinson’s travels with his relationships — with the friends and loved ones he travels with and leaves behind, and with Kerouac’s On the Road and other work.

In contrast to Atkinson, who traveled with friends most of the time, Peter Hessler writes about  his many solo road trips in China in Country Driving. I’ve read Hessler’s other two books on China and I always recommend them to anyone looking for a contemporary account of the country. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what I like best. He writes beautiful prose, natural and also erudite, streamlined and also painterly, showing readers the people and places he’s been in vivid detail that rolls off the page smoothly. And he is an enthusiastic guide, embracing China and translating his experiences for an American audience.

These are thoughtful, insightful books but Hessler doesn’t get wrapped up in showing his intellectual prowess — he is perceptive without being overly clever or egotistical. I also admire the way Hessler puts himself squarely in the story, generously sharing his views, his experiences, his friendships, and his difficulties, allowing his emotions to show but never to excessive dramatic effect.  I open each new book he writes with a bit of trepidation, wondering whether it will be as good as the last.

Hessler has never disappointed. If you haven’t read his books, River Town is the chronicle of Hessler’s stint as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, on the Yangtze River, and his introduction to China; Oracle Bones covers his experience as a journalist living in Beijing, traveling around the country, getting to know China through both its history and its people; and Country Driving is about Hessler’s own road trips, life in the village where he rents a place to live and write away from Beijing’s mad rush, and the impact of increasing numbers of cars and drivers on Chinese society. I highly recommend all three.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Hessler talks about moving back to the U.S.  I look forward to whatever he writes next.  And I appreciate his pointing me towards another outstanding book on contemporary Chinese culture: Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang; Hessler mentions Chang and her book at the end of his, because she is his wife.

Factory Girls describes the life of villagers who “go out” to work in factory towns from a very young age (many below 18, the legal working age, and barely out of middle school), far from their families. Chang got to know two girls in Dongguan, and through their stories and the story of Chang’s own family’s history, she paints a vivid portrait of the rapid changes taking place in Chinese culture today. Chang’s juxtaposition of 20th and 21st century cultural upheavals in China is very interesting.  She draws on her experiences in modern China to get past history and politics and understand the social psychology that contributed to the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists and later, to the Cultural Revolution.

Chang also examines factory life from the point of view of young workers, an interesting perspective in light of recent headlines about strikes and suicides in giant Chinese factories. Her observations about the relentless pursuit of self-improvement, the power that new money affords younger generations, and the struggle to find happiness in the midst of mass changes in traditional family structures are astute and incisive.

I found some similarities in Chang’s and Hessler’s work beyond the subject matter. (Hessler looked at factory life in Oracle Bones). They are both very smart, clear, vivid writers and people who seem to be at once comfortable with themselves and their places in the world and also open, curious, loyal friends who genuinely care for their subjects. I look forward to more books from both of them.

Last month I wrote about a second book I really enjoyed, How Did You Get This Number, and vowed to read the first book by the same author, Sloane Crosley. That book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, was enjoyable but I think Crosley’s second book is better.  My favorite part of Cake was a description of summer camp in NH when Crosley was a child — hilarious.  The rest of the book didn’t live up to that promising beginning, or to the second book, although a piece on losing her wallet repeatedly, and always getting it back, came close.  That said, Crosley is a terrific writer, and it’s a good trend to be better with each subsequent book.

Another second book I read this month was The Map of True Places, by Brunonia Barry. I haven’t read her first, The Lace Reader, but I enjoyed this one. I read it because Barry was coming to Gibson’s (despite my vow to read fewer event books, I read more of those than anything else this month).  Map is about a woman who seems to have her life together watching it all unravel, and deciding whether that’s for the best or not. As a reference librarian at heart, I enjoyed the masterful way Barry wove interesting subjects into the story — celestial navigation, 19th century American literature, psychology, and Wiccan herbology to name a few.

Barry’s characters are finely detailed and fully fleshed out, and this book is a tale well told. I’d recommend it for a day when you want to be carried away by a story — at the beach, on a plane, or in a hammock, for example, or by the fire if you’re reading this months from now. And if you’re wondering what a best-selling author is like in person, know this: Barry is one of the least pretentious, warmest, friendliest authors I’ve met. You know I’m segueing into a bookstore plug: if you’re a passionate reader like I am, don’t pass up the opportunity to meet authors, especially if you live near an independent bookstore.

Soapbox over. I read three other novels this month, all for events. Pete Nelson visited Gibson’s last week, to read from his Indiebound hit I Thought You Were Dead. The character who utters those lines, Stella, is a dog. If you don’t think dialogue between a man and his dog can be done well, go get this book. If you’re looking for a male Jane Austen for our times, read Pete Nelson. I mean that as a compliment. On his website he calls this novel a “tragi-comic romance.”  He draws an accurate and amusing portrait of late 20th century American society as well, from yoga to DIY investing.

I Thought You Were Dead is also a novel of adulthood in contemporary America. The protagonist, Paul, is living in the Northeast but his parents and siblings are back in Minnesota. His father has just had a stroke and Paul needs to find a way to help from a distance (they end up instant messaging, and the keystrokes are part of his father’s therapy), but he’s a bit intimidated by his successful siblings. He’s a divorced writer who drinks too much, and who’s trying to have a relationship with a woman who is also dating a doctor.  Paul is trying to understand all of these various kinds of love, and Stella is his foil and his philosopher. Sounds hokey, but I thought it was excellent.

The other two novels I read are by authors coming to Gibson’s second annual Summer Reading Kickoff on June 17th. I met Chris Wiley, aka Mortimus Clay, last fall at the NEIBA fall conference. He started his own press to publish The Purloined Boy; you can read about the end of this process at his blog.  I admire what he’s done, and I enjoyed the book.

The Purloined Boy is a fantasy with many familiar characteristics — the protagonist, Trevor, realizes there’s more to his world than what’s immediately obvious, there are monstrous villains and a Merlin-like figure. Trevor has a mysterious, magical helper and a smart friend who want to help him. He is struggling to understand his role — is he to follow the longing he feels for “home,” a place he only vaguely remembers, or is he to stay where he is and help defeat the system that’s taken children from their homes in the first place?

Besides the moral dilemma, Trevor also faces the confusion of not knowing where he really belongs, and which world he’s lived in is real.  While it’s true to the genre, The Purloined Boy is also an original story with interesting details. It would make an excellent book club pick – plenty to discuss.

I also read Nature Girl, the debut novel by Jane Kelley, who’ll be at the Summer Reading Kickoff as well. This novel for tweens is about a city girl, Megan, stuck in Vermont for the summer with well-meaning, but to her mind clueless, parents and an annoying older sister. She’d been planning to spend summer vacation with her best friend, whose mother has cancer, and in the course of the book she makes a spontaneous decision to hike to Massachusetts to see her friend.

I admire the way Kelley injects some reality into the far fetched parts of the story — Megan makes it on the Appalachian trail not only because of her own determination and spunk, but also because an adult hiker (the delightfully cranky Trail Blaze Betty) keeps an eye on her. Megan is a regular kid, trying to set a course in the unsettling world of early adolescence, wanting to enjoy the same kid fun she’s always had with her best friend but struggling to be more grown up, too.  The story moves along at a good pace, and Megan learns from her experiences but the novel doesn’t end on a saccharine or preachy note.  Nature Girl is a gentle but contemporary story with an exuberant, realistic heroine, for adventurous and couch-loving girls alike.

Just as I enjoy fiction without an obvious message or sticky sweet ending, I prefer my poetry spare and direct. My favorite poems are imaginative but relatively minimalist. Ted Kooser’s work fits that description, and this month I read Flying at Night, his collection covering twenty years of poems (1965-1985).  From hiking (“Visiting Mountains”) to lying awake listening to a dripping sink (“The Leaky Faucet”) or the sounds of the “Furnace,” Kooser deals with everyday experience. I found Flying at Night to be a very cohesive collection, with no obvious misfits among the selected poems.

Kooser’s poems are brimming with plains imagery — abandoned farmhouses, prairies, humid Midwestern summers, a snow fence — and with ordinary Americans, including his newspaper carrier (“Myrtle”) and many of his own relatives. In this way his work reminds me of Wes McNair’s, but Kooser writes mostly shorter, sparser poems than McNair does.  His tone is less optimistic — McNair’s work feels more hopeful and exuberant to me, whereas some of Kooser’s poems feel like dirges (“Shooting a Farmhouse,” “Tillage Marks”).  And yet even these sad poems are beautiful.

I hang a poem up in the kitchen, next to the sink, every week. We used to rotate this duty, but when I sensed it becoming a chore, I relieved the children of the selection process so that poetry would remain a pleasure in their lives, and not another item on the “to do” list.  I’m about to put Kooser’s “At the Center” up for this week: “In Kansas, on top/of an old piano,/a starfish, dry/as a fancy pastry/left sitting there/during a wedding,/spreads its brown arms/over the foam/of a white lace doily,/reaching for water/in five directions.” Many of his poems use the title this way – it’s almost its own line, rather than a word taken from the body of the poem.

Besides the Poem of the Week, the kids both continued to follow their interests in their reading this month. The Preteen enjoyed the latest books in two series she’s been reading for a few years: Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes and Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm.  Both are mysteries featuring strong girl protagonists. The Preteen reports that the new books in each series were both great.

She also read Rick Riordan‘s new book, The Red Pyramid. Riordan is the author of the wildly popular and very entertaining Percy Jackson series, which re-ignited the Preteen’s childhood interest in mythology. She reports that The Red Pyramid is full of Egyptian mythology, which is “kind of cool.” She also likes the characters in the new book — a brother and sister with an Egyptologist father. Riordan’s website notes that The Red Pyramid is the first in a series, so she’ll have more to look forward to.  I like the way Riordan’s books spur kids to make connections with history and myths. All good books do this — add to our mental map of the world.

Meanwhile, she also read more manga (further episodes of +Anima and few of the Fruits Basket series).  We’re enjoying our new Hooksett library card, which is a bargain at $25 a year for non-residents. Both kids have been using the library’s link to Mango languages, and the PreTeen really likes the YA room in the library, where she can browse manga titles and look for other books.   On our last visit, she picked up a few non-Manga books: Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, a volume in the Royal Diaries which she hadn’t read before (Kristina, the Girl King), and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass, whose book A Mango Shaped Space she really enjoyed. I’m really happy to see her browsing for books at a library.

The Teenager is wrapped up in all things World Cup. His pleasure reading these days is almost entirely football related — he has an absolutely encyclopedic grasp of the 32 teams in the tournament and if I think I have a scrap of news about an injury or anything else, he has heard it already. Today, his first guest post appeared on NHPR’s Word of Mouth blog — he’s writing about the World Cup for them. He follows the BBC, the Guardian, Fox Soccer, Sky Sports, and US Soccer websites and probably more that I can’t keep up with, and we’ve all been enjoying daily World Cup coverage in the New York Times.

When I asked him what he’d read this month that I should mention in bookconscious, he immediately referred me to this week’s New York Times Magazine article by Michael Sokolove, on the Dutch club Ajax’s youth soccer system. Soccer development is a topic near and dear to the Teenager’s heart, and he has strong opinions on the state of the U.S. system.  He’s also participated in two of the paths to the National Team — Olympic Development Program (ODP) and SuperY (he’s playing for Seacoast Wanderers now). He actually sent the Computer Scientist and I the NYT magazine article last week, ahead of its print publication.

The Teenager’s take: he admired the thoroughness of the article, and said it was clear Sokolove had really taken time to get to know his subject. He also thought it was spot on, in terms of critiquing the difference between the American soccer development system (or systems, really) and the way the rest of the world prepares youngsters for the pros.  Unfortunately for his parents, this piece only confirmed what the Teenager already suspected — the path to his dream of playing soccer professionally is more than likely going to lead him across the pond.

As a favor, the Teenager and the Computer Scientist  read World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics ahead of tonight’s Gibson’s event with father-son authors Steven and Harrison Stark. I’ve read bits and pieces of it, because that’s the kind of book it is — one to have by the remote while you’re watching the World Cup, so you can brush up on the teams and learn some amusing and strange facts, too. We’ve had this kind of book for past World Cups and one thing I admire about World Cup 2010 is that it’s full of information and commentary, rather than eye candy. I’m really looking forward to having the Starks at the store; everyone in our house is very excited for the World Cup to start on Friday.

The Computer Scientist began his Star Wars summer reading project. He read Star Wars: Cloak of Deception ( a prequel to The Phantom Menace) and Darth Bane: Path of Destruction (Darth Bane being a Sith Lord who lived 1,000 years  or so before the time of the films). He enjoyed those, but hasn’t had time to keep his Goodreads page current.

He has a stack of books to read on his nightstand, but this is the last month of the fiscal year and therefore, his hair is on fire at work.  He got several books for his birthday: The Pacific, by Hugh Ambrose,  a couple of Fate of the Jedi books, and Jason Turbow’s The Baseball Codes.  So he’s set for reading as soon as he finds time!

My to-read pile includes David Mitchell‘s forthcoming novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I’ve been reading for a week now. I’m not sure what I’ll read after that, but we do have some road trips coming up (to Burlington and Ottawa, for soccer games) so I’ll pack books. I might take Shirley Jackson‘s Raising Demons to Vermont, since I like to match my reading material to the place I’m traveling when possible. Novice to Master floated to the top of the pile recently and is calling out to me.  My preferred hammock reading is fiction, and I’ve got several forthcoming novels to choose from. Until next month, happy reading!

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