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Archive for the ‘war’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On World AIDS Day, the bookconscious household attended our community’s interfaith service. Our friend and deacon, Brother Charles Edward (or B.C.E., as he’s known), pointed out that when the AIDS pandemic began, people lived in the shadow of death, but now, we’re living in the light of hope. I thought that was beautiful.

Just the night before, I set up a BeadforLife table at the Songweavers annual “pahty,” where we eat, raise money for the Songweavers scholarship fund, and sing.  The last song of the evening, which I’ve been singing fragments of ever since, was the South African hymn Siyahamba, which spread around the world when the Swedish choral group Fjedur recorded it in 1978. The chorus in English is “We are marching (or walking) in the light of God.”  So I had one of those moments as I listened to B.C.E., where  interconnectedness hummed through my brain.

When I sat down two nights ago, after several long days of chores, projects, and activities related to this season of light, to look at the books I read in November and contemplate this month’s bookconscious post, I realized that much of my reading fits this Big Idea of walking into light, leaving darkness, whether literal or metaphorical, behind. I wouldn’t say this was a conscious choice, as my reading pile is often in flux and usually eclectic. But it’s possible I was seeking connections after a very hectic fall; I probably needed a Big Idea to quiet the scattering of thoughts that B.C.E. reminded us we all deal with, what Buddhism calls “monkey mind.”

Poets have dealt with this theme for as long as there has been poetry. Two collections I read this month include excellent examples of the human need to get through darkness and return to light.  In Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New & Selected Poems, “Cloud” describes the experience of walking the woods when a cloud engulfs the treetops. Ryan writes, “From inside the/forest it seems/like an interior/matter, something/wholly to do/with trees, a color/passed from one/to another, a/requirement/to which they/submit unflinchingly/like soldiers or/brave people/getting older.”  The dimming of light is something bigger than us, like war or aging.

But Ryan’s poems are often hopeful, and “Cloud” ends with these matter-of-fact lines: “Then the sun/comes back and/it’s totally over.”    “The Fourth Wise Man,” is a topic that’s a literary staple, and Ryan’s pictures him as one who “. . . far preferred/to be inside in solitude/to contemplate the star/that had been getting/so much larger . . .”  Too much light is as challenging to the status quo as too little.  And in “A Cat/A Future,” Ryan compares a cat’s ability to “. . .draw/the blinds/behind her eyes . . .”  to the way “a future can occlude:/still sitting there/doing nothing rude.”  We’re going to be in the dark sometimes, and that’s life.

In Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser is literally starting in darkness writing poems, as his doctor tells him to avoid the sun while he’s undergoing cancer treatment. In the introduction to the book, he explains that this was a time of emotional darkness as well, but that pre-dawn walks and the quiet poems he wrote afterward helped him heal.

Each of the hundred poems in this book is dated, and each begins with a title that describes the weather that morning, like “Clear and Cool,” or “Sunny and Milder.” This structure, along with the brevity of poems written to fit on postcards, and the common setting (the roads and fields around Kooser’s home in early morning) make the collection very cohesive. Some of the poems are just a few lines, and others are only one sentence. The idea of a poem just a few breaths long is appealing to me, because I love Japanese forms, and although Kooser doesn’t include any haiku here, many pieces have the same aesthetic as the prose portion of a haibun.

While darkness and light run all through Winter Morning Walks, a couple of images really struck me. “december 2 Clear and cool,” begins, “Walking in darkness, in awe/beneath a billion indifferent stars,” and goes on a few lines later to show us the path Kooser walks: “. . . the gravel/that, faintly lit, looks to be little more/than a contrail of vapor,/so thin, so insubstantial it could,/on a whim, let me drop through it/and out of the day. . . .”

The real light of the stars is cold and awe inspiring, “indifferent” to human activity. The imagined light, the “contrail” of the barely visible gravel path, makes walking on solid ground seem as tenuous an activity as falling through vapor. Kooser concludes this powerful poem with the sound of his own feet as he walks, “in noisy confidence/as if each morning might be trusted,/as if the sounds I make might buoy me up.” His body, once frail with illness, tells him he’s alive.

In “March 10 Quiet and cold at 6am,” Kooser observes: “At dawn, in the roadside churchyard/the recent, polished headstones glance and flash/as if the newly dead were waving pink placards/protesting the loss of their influence./But the soft old marbles, grainy from weather/and losing their names, have a steady glow/like paper bags with candles lit inside,/lining a path, an invitation.”  A lovely, haunting little poem. I admire the freshness of these images. Kooser’s suggestion that eventually, the dead grow used to their worldly light having gone out, and that in death we might encounter a different “steady glow” is comforting.

There’s a lot of death and darkness in the other books I read this month; all of them ultimately suggest a kind of carrying-on-in-spite-of-it-all sensibility.  Milena Agus‘s novel, From the Land of the Moon, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is due out in January. Agus’s narrator tells readers the story of her grandmother, a Sardinian woman who gets married in the midst of WWII.  Grandmother is an exuberant woman, and she has loomed large in the narrator’s life.

As her granddaughter tells it, Grandmother’s life has been difficult, she longs for a lost love, her husband married her out of a sense of duty, and her deep passion has gone unrequited. She’s dealt with darkness, but she’s managed to make a life worth living anyway. Towards the end of the novel (and I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t give the details), we learn that Grandmother’s daughter-in-law, the narrator’s mother, has always known more about Grandmother, but protected her secrets. Once Grandmother is dead, the narrator learns the rest of her story, and later finds her Grandmother’s notebook, which illuminates her life even more.

If I’m being too obscure, let me say that From the Land of the Moon is a beautiful story about how families keep secrets and invent stories to cover them, how memory can be infused with desire until two people might have very different perceptions of something that happened, how appearances might cover dramatically different inner lives. It’s also a book that explores the role of imagination in life, and the blending of imagination and reality into a person’s interior world. In a way, it’s a tribute to the ability of writing to lift someone out of despair.

I don’t know much about Sardinia or about Italy in WWII and the post-war period, so I enjoyed the cultural history Agus provides. Reading literature in translation expands one’s worldview, and I appreciate that.  So far I’ve been impressed with the Europa editions fiction I’ve read and I hope they continue to produce such an interesting list.

Another book that prods the dark corners of perception, misunderstanding, and imagination and comes up with a mostly hopeful view of mankind muddling through into lighter days is Jay Atkinson‘s short story collection Tauvernier Street.  I enjoyed just about all of the stories in the book; when I look at the three I didn’t care for as much I see that they stray from the setting of most of the others, Tauvernier Street or similar surroundings.  Perhaps the book would have been tighter without those three stories, or maybe I was too much in the mood for a distinct thread — my monkey mind liked settling down.

The stories set in gritty New England neighborhoods (or anchored there, even if the characters venture farther afield) examine all manner of human foibles through a wide array of characters. Atkinson comes up with some very fresh, imaginative situations — “The God of This World” is about a terror attack on the real heart of America, the big box home improvement store.  “The Philosophy Shop” is about a man who opens the shop of the title after his father’s death, and tries to seek truth.

Other stories are more straightforward but no less perceptive, and I especially enjoyed “The Art of War,” “God’s Work,” “The Tex Cameron Show,” “Sages,” “The Messenger,” “Radio Call,” and “The Thorndikes of Tauvernier Street.” Atkinson looks at the way people perceive race, class, religion, and culture. Along with the usual emotional conflict between characters that are the bread and butter of short fiction writers, he manages to focus on the small moments of real understanding people are capable of.  These flashes of light — candle flames in the vast darkness of the human psyche — make for good reading.

A master of capturing these slivers of insight and of creating unforgettable characters is Alice Hoffman. I thoroughly enjoyed The Red Garden, due out in January. The chapters of this book take readers from the founding of Blackwell, Massachusetts in 1750, where we meet the indomitable founding mother Hallie Brady, to contemporary times in the town. Some include glimpses of real historical figures, like Emily Dickinson. Others bring ghosts and touches of magical realism, something Hoffman does so very well.

I’m not sure I could choose a favorite chapter of The Red Garden. In each piece, Hoffman introduces characters who are fully drawn in a just few pages, and subtly, quietly, ties each story, each life, to those that came before.  Some characters literally show up in later chapters as they grow older, others reappear in Blackwell town lore, others are present in what they have left behind in the physical and emotional landscape of the place and its people.

It’s fascinating to see how Hoffman wove American history into the book; everything from colonial era homesteading to the Civil War, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression and Vietnam appear.  Hoffman makes cultural references as well as historical ones — in the chapter set in the 1980’s, for example, there are vials of Valium in one character’s medicine chest and a Prince song on a juke box. The dialogue also evolves as Hoffman moves through the decades. There are other books that use the march of time as a plot device, but few that do it so well, and thanks to Hoffman’s masterful use of historical details.

The Red Garden is more than historical fiction. Hoffman examines the way we are connected; people change the human story just, as my grandmother used to say, by being themselves. The world, and in particular Blackwell, is a richer place because of the briefest of encounters between the town’s inhabitants and those passing through, the scantest conscious connections between generations. The town’s earlier citizens work through the later character’s lives by informing their decisions as traces of collective memory, or as real presences, in story and artifact, to their descendants.

Hallie Brady’s spirit and intelligence seems to streak through the town’s figurative DNA.  She walks confidently out of the dark struggle to survive the first winter in Blackwell and into the light of hope; future Blackwellians follow in their own ways. This book will remind you that as we stride around acting (we think) independent and smart and modern, memory, history, and myth are working within us all, in ways we may not even realize.

Jennifer Donnelly‘s fantastic new YA novel Revolution was another page-turning read this month. Like Hoffman, she clearly did a great deal of research.  I have to say right now, I would probably never have picked the book up, since I generally avoid YA titles because of their obsession with presenting kids dealing with all manner of Issues, and this one is no exception. But Gibson’s Random House rep. for young people’s books recommended it, and I am grateful she did.

The main character in Revolution, Andi, is not exactly representative of your average kid. She’s a senior at an exclusive private school, her parents and friends are all fabulously wealthy or famous or both, and she is dealing with the psychological aftermath of her younger brother’s death and her parents’ divorce. Hence my usual “Issue alert” was on — I find this kind of piling on of what I consider to be unrealistic amounts of problems and backstory to be a major detractor that turns me off to a fair bit of YA literature (I didn’t even mention the drugs, relationship problems, and enormous pressure to get into a top college; Andi is also a gifted musician).

Just give teens a good story, I usually gripe. About a kid they can relate to, who isn’t either a basket case dealing with more troubles than a Telenovela queen or burdened with so many talents she can’t quite work out whether to be a genius scientist or a famous musician. This book doesn’t meet any of those criteria. But, our rep. gave it such a glowing recommendation that I decided I’d give it a try, figuring at the least, I’d have a current YA book to talk about with holiday shoppers at Gibson’s.

And I thoroughly enjoyed Revolution. I am very impressed with the complexity of the story and the rich details Donnelly used to bring Andi’s world alive, as well as the world of Alexandrine, another teenaged girl whose life Andi becomes fascinated with when she finds her diary, written during the French Revolution. Andi may not be representative of the average American teen but I grew to love her.  Many of the minor characters are also memorable — everyone from Andi’s best friend, Vijay, to an 18th century French composer (of Donnelley’s imagination, I was sad to learn; he seemed so real) named Malherbeau comes off the page in vivid, living color. Andi’s family friend, G, a French historian, her Holocaust survivor music teacher in Brooklyn, and the strict librarian at a historical archives in Paris are all wonderfully drawn. Even a scary flea market vendor who deals in bones from Paris’s catacombs is creepily realistic.

And the story is very intriguing. As Andi is drawn into Alexandrine’s story, and her research for her senior thesis progresses, their two worlds go from having some parallels to actually colliding. Donnelly, like Hoffman, has written a terrific story saturated in historical details, and like Hoffman dabbles with the supernatural. I don’t think this book should be limited to YA exposure. It’s a good read for adults as well.

One of my favorite things about Revolution is that Andi undergoes a transformation despite all the evidence in her world and Alexandrine’s that the world is brutal and people will never stop being awful to each other. We see her go from a sullen, suicidally depressed kid who’s veering towards disaster (she takes too many of the drugs her psychiatrist prescribes, skips school, and lashes out at the adults who are trying to help her) to a young woman who is able to put her brother’s tragic death to rest, and to help herself heal. But none of this is handled formulaicly — Donnelly delivers this classic theme of troubled adolescent getting her life together with a little help from her friends in a fresh new way. And while there’s a love story (more than one, really, and more than just romantic love), it’s also not cliched.

So, I hereby apologize for writing off most YA fiction and I look forward to finding more good books like Revolution. Which, if you’re keeping score, is very much in keeping with my November reading thread — Andi literally walks out of the darkness of underground Paris and her own psychological and emotional darkness and lives in the light of hope.

Another book that came my way this month and turned out to be just what I wanted to read was Andrew Krivak’s forthcoming novel The Sojourn. This one’s not due out until May, and it’s being published by Bellevue Literary Press, the same small press that published Paul Harding’s Tinkers.  Like From the Land of the Moon, The Sojourn is a book that deals with a piece of history I didn’t know much about.

The Sojourn opens in Colorado, where a young immigrant family is struggling to make a life in America. After his wife dies in an accident (protecting her infant son in her last seconds), the widower returns to his village in Austria-Hungary. He raises the boy, Jozef, to be a shepherd, and takes in a distant cousin’s son, Marian, known as Zlee.  Jozef and Zlee grow up together, and when World War I comes, they go off to fight for the Emperor.

Because of their years of spotting and shooting in defense of their flock and as hunters, they are singled out as a sharpshooting team. This aspect of Word War I was not one I’d read about (quick aside; for a breathtaking novel of life in WWI’s trenches, read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way which I discussed in a bookconscious post a couple of springs ago.)  Most of what I know about WWI, other than what I learned in history classes, I read in Vera Brittain‘s wonderful diaries and memoirs, which my grandmother encouraged me to read when I traveled to England as a college student.

What little I know about the Italian front I read in A Farewell to Arms, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from the point of view of the Austro-Hungarians before The Sojourn.  Krivak captures many of the same depressing aspects of war that others before him have: the futility of defending trenches and attacking out of them, the nationalism among troops fighting for the same cause who are suspicious of each other’s cultures, the cluelessness and egotism of some of the officers, the brutality of war, the filth and degredation, hunger and illness.

But The Sojourn is also a psychological study — Jozef reflects on his upbringing, the family tensions he recalls from boyhood (especially resentment and greed on the part of his stepmother and her thuggish sons). His embarrassment over his father’s low stature in their village and family aggravates him as a young man. His father is a well read independent thinker, who teaches Jozef and Zlee English by reading aloud Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. But in their village, he’s the man who went to America and came back, and therefore a failure.

Like many an adolescent Jozef struggles with knowing this isn’t true, knowing his father’s real worth, and feeling the sting of social embarrassment. When war comes and his father, who reads English newspapers as well, doesn’t believe in the cause of the Hapsburgs, Jozef ignores him and goes to enlist.  Despite his love and respect for his father, Jozef leaves, even as he sees the anguish it causes. Well-tread ground in literature, but Krivak makes it fresh; the characters are unique and believable and you fall under the spell of the story, the way we are lulled into believing our own experiences are unique when we’re having them.

All of this coming-of-age material builds up the narrative, and then Krivak takes his young hero to war. I think this portion of the novel is very well done, even though Krivak continues to deal with familiar territory:  impressionable young soldiers going off to fight, full of confidence and well trained in body and spirit to defend the homeland, becoming disillusioned by the reality of war and finding a way through this struggle into transformation. Perhaps because of the strangeness of sharpshooting — young men trained to hunt other young men — the writing is chilling and sometimes even beautiful.

Again I don’t want to spoil anything, but the final third of the book, with the post-war resolution, Jozef’s coming to terms with the killing he’s done and the losses he’s experienced, and his long journey home, take the book to another level. As fascinating as Jozef’s unorthodox upbringing and sharpshooter experiences are, his slow recovery from the trauma of war and return to everyday humanity is Krivak’s finest accomplishment in the novel.

Small acts of kindness in each part of Jozef’s story, and his lingering vision of his mother as a kind of angel, nourish him, and sustain readers through the bitterest parts of the book. Love —  not only romantic love (which is done well — there is a remarkable, searing love story towards the end of the book, which ties together many of Krivak’s themes of longing and belonging, home and identity), but as in Revolution, love in all its many forms and nuances — restore both Jozef’s and the reader’s confidence that all shall be well again. Krivak takes us through the dark night of the soul and back into the light of hope. I didn’t want it to end.

And The Sojourn has what I consider the perfect ending: hopeful, but not so neatly tied up that you aren’t left with a lingering trace of the book in your mind for several days.  I hope you know just what I mean. In my view, the best books stay with you, working on your own stored memory, fusing themselves with all you’ve read and all you’ve been, incorporating themselves into what you’ll be. Books that last are books that make meaning, that consciously or unconsciously change the way you view the next thing you read, the next idea you consider, the next response you have to the world.  The Sojourn is that kind of book.

Finally, last weekend as Advent began, I started re-reading a collection of essays and poems called Watch for the Light. It’s challenging at this time of year to add to my daily routine, but keeping an advent discipline, I’ve found, is good grounding before the over-abundance of Christmas. This book gathers some of the greatest spiritual writers from several centuries, and some of it is very challenging both to read and to digest. Some of it, I think, may not be digestable; a point that appears in many of the book’s entries is that certain mysteries, such Christmas, are nearly impenetrable.

So it’s seasonal, but I wouldn’t call this book uplifting. Like so many of the other things I’ve read lately, it’s a reminder that dark, uncertain, even troubling thoughts are a part of the human experience and have been forever. So are hope, and more rarely perhaps, joy.  Living is about continuing to help each other through the shadowy bits, so we can all make it into the light.  I’m very glad we live in a world where excellent reading is a part of that, and where it’s possible to excavate an inner world in the midst of a wide community because of writers and readers.

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It’s been a busy month in the bookconscious household, preparing the Teenager to make big decisions about college admissions and to complete the process, and helping him and his sister to chart their courses for a new year of life learning. Despite earlier efforts to separate the idea of a school year from their educations, and my reminders that brains don’t stop learning during the summer, we’ve been swept into the cultural mainstream with regards to planning, and they start afresh in the fall.

I always enjoyed this time of year as a child, and not only because I liked fall’s cool breezes and colors, new clothes, and holidays.  Perhaps because  I was chronically sensitive to the way teachers and peers perceived me (I was both an overachiever and a social misfit) fall gave me hope that I could start fresh.  Most of all I was happy to have new books, new classes, new projects — I loved learning.  I loved getting lost in new ideas, daydreaming about historical time periods and achievements or the things I might someday do myself.

As I planned and prepared with the Teenager and the Preteen (this is the last month I can write of her in that way!) much of my reading centered on books with themes of seeking, dreaming, and reconciling hopefulness with practicality.  I haven’t let my inner seeker and dreamer get out much this year, as I’ve turned my back on many creative pursuits and “free time.”  In August, my seeker and dreamer told me to get a life, and got on with her own. As I look at the books I read these last few weeks, I can see her banging her small fists against my “to do list.”

At the end of my last post, I was finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I’ve heard some criticism that this book was just another contrived year-long project (Alexander bakes a loaf a bread a week in a year-long quest to recreate the perfect loaf he once enjoyed) designed to entice a publisher into a contract. I don’t really care if that’s how it was conceived or not; 52 Loaves was a delight.

I love books that reveal the interconnectedness of ideas, and Alexander masterfully ties science, culinary art, agriculture, history, sociology, and even spirituality into his story. In a style that reminded me of A.J. Jacobs, Alexander tries a series of projects aimed at getting to the essence of good bread – growing wheat, building a brick oven, harvesting his own wild yeast. And in the end, he generously shares recipes.

Alexander is also funny, and like many of my favorite writers, he doesn’t hesitate to direct some of the laughs at himself. Like Bill Bryson, Alexander manages to be humorous but also uber-informative, covering a wide range of subjects as he tries to understand the science required to master bread baking. What surprised me, and what I felt was the best part of the book, was the spiritual turn his quest took, as he stayed in a French monastery teaching some of the monks what he’d learned. 

52 Loaves isn’t just about flour and  yeast, ovens and mills, it’s a story of a man figuring out what’s essential. Alexander perfectly captures that combination of  practical knowledge and hopeful seeking that to my mind makes creative nonfiction creative. He also reawakened my own curiosity about a quiet retreat in a cloistered community, something I one day hope to try.

Something else I enjoyed vicariously through 52 Loaves was travel. Alexander went to France and also Morocco and Canada in the course of his year long exploration of bread. Another book that took me places in August was Dreaming In Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich.  Rich writes about her efforts to learn Hindi in India, a place that has long fascinated me. We were fortunate to hear her at the final Tory Hill Readers Series reading of the summer.

Dreaming In Hindi is an ambitious book, and Rich veers from memoir to cultural observation to neuroscience and linguistics as she researches language acquisition and also tells of her own experiences. In some ways the book was a bit too ambitious — I had trouble tracking what happened when, as the sections dealing with her research are not necessarily part of the same chronology as her trip to India. What is clear, and very appealing, is her portrayal of the struggle to master a new language, to understand and be understood, culturally as well as linguistically.

I thought Rich was very honest about the culture shock and discomfort that comes with immersion language learning in another country, and that was interesting as we consider the Teenager’s potential plans to spend a year in Germany. And I found many of her observations fascinating, especially regarding the ways language and culture are deeply interrelated — she writes that the way we think of things has much to do with the language we are equipped with.

For example, she points out that ownership isn’t something that is easy to describe in Hindi — words describing the proximity of an object to a person indicates who has it, instead. And in Mandarin, tenses are not the same as in English, making it hard for a native English speaker to say when something happened. I can see how these differences go way beyond mere words to a shift in perspective.

I’ve learned that people can get really hung up on wanting to believe that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. In some basic ways that may be true, but cultural differences exist and are important; they also make literature richer.  In Gibson’s Book Club a few months back, my suggestion that Per Petterson‘s characters’ emotional reserve seemed culturally accurate sounded like a stereotype to some discussion participants.

But I maintain that the way people who share a language and a cultural outlook express themselves is somewhat collective (albeit with endless personal variations), and literature is a way into understanding societal tendencies or traditions. Expecting everyone who is Norwegian to be reserved would be stereotyping; looking for patterns in the literature of a great Norwegian author to understand Norwegian sensibilities is not.

Another example of how language  informs and is informed by the culture it is part of is poetry.  I recently fell out of my habit of regularly reading poetry as well as fiction and nonfiction, but in August I read The Shadow of Sirius, by W.S. Merwin.  Merwin, like Donald Hall and other poets of his generation, has gone through many changes in form and style in his long career. The Shadow of Sirius, a fairly recent collection, is less formal than his earlier work, but no less masterful. I had read a few individual poems of Merwin’s, but had never sat down with an entire collection, and I am glad I did.

I especially enjoyed “Nocturne II,” which describes our tiny place in the universe through the narrator’s awareness of the Perseids falling even though he is lying in the dark and it’s raining; and “Grace Note,” which seems to me to be a poem about mindfulness as the narrator listens for a “feathered breath,” a sound that “I seem to have heard before I/was listening but by the time/I hear it now it is gone.”

Another poem that seems to be about seeking meaning, “Lake Shore In Half Light,” finds the narrator reflecting on an elusive but familiar question,  letting both questions and answers come in mindfulness rather than hunting them down.   “Into October” considers “the dry stems and the umbers of October/the secret season that appears on its own/a recognition without sound.” Isn’t that lovely, and isn’t that what humans often yearn for? “A recognition without sound . . . .”

So, resolved, more poetry. Now, before I venture into the list of excellent novels I read in August, two more nonfiction reads: Robert Darnton‘s  The Case for Books, and Todd Farley‘s Making the Grades: My Misadventures In the Standardized Testing Industry. Darnton came to the store in August, and I highly recommend hearing him in person; he is not just erudite and interesting, but a very warm, spontaneous speaker.

As a book historian and the head of Harvard’s library system, Darnton has both the long view of books and a contemporary view of the rush to digitize vast amounts of literature.  He’s both a champion of open access to academic research and a believer in the book as the perfect technology for conveying the written word.  He also maintains a healthy skepticism about placing our literary heritage in the hands of a large corporation (Google) for digital preservation. The Case for Books gathers some of his previously published work on these topics; I did find that some of the pieces seemed to repeat ideas, in an attempt to catch up any readers who haven’t followed the story of Google Books. But overall, a very compelling read from a great thinker.

I spent loads of time just thinking as a child of the pre-digital age (we watched television, but I didn’t sit in front of the TV as much as some kids, as I later learned when I had no idea what my peers were talking about as they discussed old shows).  I always managed to get good grades despite so much time left to “daydream.” I also was fortunate to have both ample time to read for pleasure and parents who modeled that habit and took me to the library as often as I wanted.  But I wasn’t a stellar standardized tester.

The Teenager is generally put off by such tests for the same reason I always was: we see many ways of answering a question, all of them partially right in their own way. For some time I’d had Todd Farley’s memoir, Making the Grades, in my to-read pile. As the Teenager registered for the ACT, not for admissions purposes, but to jump through the NCAA’s hoops, I pulled it out.

Farley’s account is eye opening and should be embarrassing to both the testing industry and the education industry. Because that’s what they are — big businesses, trying to process kids through the system in a standardized way. The stories  Farley relates of testing employees coming up with ingenious work-arounds to make test scores come out the way their employers and clients expected them to is sickening.  He himself is disgusted, but he returns several times because he makes a lot of money doing relatively easy work, until finally he decides to quit and write.

Making the Grades is a little rough around the edges; it’s a memoir, but Farley doesn’t do much self-examination other than to tell us he’s fed up and aware of the ludicrous nature of his work a few times. And some parts of the book are a little repetitive. That said, the effect is to dull the senses a bit the way taking a several hours long standardized test does. And overall, I think it’s an interesting and important read.

Making the Grades solidified my belief that just as industrial agriculture and giant banks and huge electricity grids and giant bureaucracies are all vulnerable to massive failure, so is industrial education. Homespun tales of small community schools that worked well, when kids of different ages learned together, teachers knew and helped students individually, and communities were closely invested in the success of the town school may not be perfectly accurate in their rosiness (I am thinking of the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books as well as the British example of Miss Read, and also Jimmy Carter’s memoirs of his boyhood in the Plains, GA schools), but they certainly point to some things that worked well.  And certainly one of the things not working well in today’s giant government industrial education complex is standardized testing.

I am realizing as I write that some of the fiction I read this month includes characters for whom the standardized approach to education doesn’t work. First, I read Jenna Blum’s The Stormchasers, which I have on good authority (from a customer living with bipolar disorder) is one of the most compassionate, well written accounts of a bipolar person in fiction. Charles, the bipolar character, is definitely not well served by school, where he does poorly despite his brilliant scientific mind and his uncanny ability to track storms.  I enjoyed the novel, and Jenna talked a great deal at her reading about her writing process, which was really interesting. Her website is one of the best author sites I’ve seen, and you can learn more about her there.

The Stormchasers is about relationships, and the way families need each other, even as its members act in ways that are selfish or damaging.  Jenna’s characters aren’t perfect, and the twins who are at the center of the book harbor more than just the usual childhood hurts; they also share a terrible secret that is eventually resolved in the novel.  Yet the book ends on a hopeful but realistic note — you suspect that while everyone’s relatively happy right now, they’ll probably screw up again soon. But somehow, they’ll stick with each other.

The same themes of guilt, love, and redemption came up in some of the other fiction I read as well. Anita Diamant‘s Day After Night is the story of women friends in a British internment camp in Palestine after WWII — each of them has her own form of survivors’ guilt, each has lived through a different but awful wartime experience, but their friendships help them begin to heal.  I loved that even the minor characters, camp guards and clinic staff, some of the men in the camp — are multidimensional people, and I did not know about the internment camps where Jewish survivors of the war ended up because the British didn’t know how to handle their immigration to Palestine.

Another historical novel I read also dealt with how survivors handle the trauma of war, in this case by forgetting. The Gendarme is a new novel by Mark T. Mustain, an attorney turned author. I enjoyed the structure of the book, which moves back and forth between the main character’s dreams and the present. Emmit/Ahmet is an old man, and he lost his memory when he was injured during WWI.  He begins to dream after he’s diagnosed with a tumor, and eventually he realizes the dreams are his returning memories.

Mustain covers a lot of ground in this book — not least of which is the vivid depiction of the Armenian genocide that make some of the book hard to read. He handles this deftly, though, offering enough detail to enable readers to understand the trauma but also giving a full picture of the complexity of the situation, with some Armenians selling out their fellows and some Turks protecting their prisoners.  There are also several examples of misunderstandings between the characters about race, culture, and religion, which would make for interesting book club discussions.

The Gendarme is also an examination of love — agape, eros, philio, and storge — as a redemptive force, as a check on our baser instincts as humans, and as a corruption of itself. The passages that take place in the mental institution where Emmit’s daughter places him are fascinating.  With the friendship of a fellow patient, a widow who comes to visit him, and his longtime buddy and fellow war veteran to buoy him, Emmit deals with his memories, learns how to survive his commitment, and formulates a plan to find out what happened to his wartime love (and victim) Araxie.

I was fascinated to read Mustain’s author’s note and learn that he did not travel to the places he writes about in the book until he had completed several drafts.  He also talks about his own ancestry, and his lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide (which led to reading, which led to this book). And one last personal note: the book takes place in a small town in southern Georgia, and for me, that was very interesting, since the bookconscious household lived in the same area for five years.

The Gendarme dealt with death and loss, and the way people’s memories take on added importance during the final portion of their lives. Tinkers, Paul Harding’s Pulitzer award winning novel, masterfully covers the melding of memory and presence at the end of a man’s life. Paul Harding is coming to Gibson’s on Sept. 16, and our book club is discussing the book that week as well.

Tinkers imagines the final thoughts of a dying man named George in the last days of his life. His family has gathered in his home, where he is lying in a hospital bed in the living room. With meticulous, sensuous detail and prose that is cinematic (you see the whole scene and the closely focused details at once) and poetic (not just full of memorable imagery but also rhythmic, flowing, measured), Harding paints the interior life of the dying man, exploring the way his life flashes past, not as a continuous filmstrip might, but in fits and starts, memories of his own life and scenes from his father’s, moments of lucidity in the present where he interacts briefly with his assembled loved ones, glimpses of generational links that the readers senses will continue to be passed on.

I’m not always impressed with prize winning books — sometimes I wonder what the heck the judges were thinking. And I was especially cautious given the heartwarming back story behind Harding’s rise from near obscurity to fame and critical acclaim . That sequence of events is so delightful that I was afraid it would color my reading of Tinkers. But the book is really that good. And really that unique — I’ve truly never read anything like it.  I look forward to hearing Paul Harding at the store.

I read another novel with a death a great deal more sudden and a plot a great deal more rollicking: the second Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  This is an old fashioned “body book” as my good friend YeVette would say. I wrote about Flavia’s first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in bookconscious last year. Delightfully detailed, quirky and smart, these mysteries are period pieces set in 1950’s England and Flavia is a bright eleven year old heroine who loves chemistry (the better for studying poisons) and is also a clever amateur detective. High end palate cleansing mind candy (I mean that as a compliment), well written and entertaining.

So, I’ve covered death and dreams, what about Freedom?  Yes, that Freedom, the one that landed Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time, on President Obama’s nightstand, and on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, among other places.  Although I enjoyed The Corrections, this is another book I opened with trepidation. I wanted to like it very much (as I did his book of essays, How To Be Alone, which I wrote about here last month). But the hype put me off.  And the constant worry over having a great event this week — we are one of the stops on the Freedom tour, which even now, I can hardly believe.

But I am happy to say I forgot the hype and worry and just enjoyed this very good book. A story of our times as well as our culture; a novel of depth and complexity; a tale of the impact freedom (to pursue love, happiness, fulfillment, success, greed, friendship, filial duty, marital tranquility, good causes) on the human psyche — all true. You can read the reviews.

My own take? How beautiful that in the end, despite the mess they’ve made of their lives, Walter and Patty, the central characters in Freedom, are getting it together, making a life as best they can, having reconciled more or less with each other, their children, their other family members, their friend Richard, nearly everyone they’ve hurt or failed. It’s a hopeful ending, one that has quietly resonated with me for the many days since I closed the book for the last time. And a perfect reconciliation of hope and reality — nothing is perfect, and in fact many things are permanently scarred, but all is well.

It’s a good message — that it’s within us to choose a good life, that we’re free to love well, to solve our problems, to reconcile past hurts, to be on good terms as parents and children even if we’ve driven each other crazy — in an unnerving time at the bookconscious house.  The Teenager and the Computer Scientist hit the road this evening on their way to the Teenager’s first college admissions interview.  Despite our best efforts to keep this process low-stress and no pressure, it’s become neither. I tell him (and myself) that it’s like moving. It will suck until it’s over, and then it will be good.

To unwind in August, the Teenager continued reading “The Human Story.”  He enjoys history and says this book is interesting, and offers a different voice than other history books he has read. He recommends it as fun to read in one’s spare time.  I cheered silently that he realizes, in the midst of his own busy life, that he needs spare time. Of course he also reads copious amounts of soccer news, which keeps him informed as he watches all the matches he can and blogs over at The Beautiful Game.

The Computer Scientist also keeps up with soccer news, and he read One Mountain Thousand Summits, by Freddie Wilkinson,  this month. He’s read a lot of climbing narratives, and he says One Mountain is “The best book of its kind that I’ve read. Freddie did a great job researching and challenging the reader with different perspectives. I like that he looked at it from the Sherpa perspective instead of sticking strictly to the outsiders’ perspectives. I also enjoyed that his structure did not follow the traditional (and tired) narrative ‘this then this then this’ style. If you’re interested in high-altitude climbing books, read this one for sure.”

He and the Preteen also continue to read manga. He read some Anima this month and says he can see the Preteen’s personality in the story. The Preteen read more Fruits Basket (there are twenty-some installments and she is nearly done). She also read Naruto, which she says is about a kid who is training to be a ninja, and who has a nine tailed fox spirit enter him during an attack in his village. OK, then. And Fullmetal Alchemist, which the Computer Scientist has also read, and which the Preteen just told me is about “Alchemists, mom. They’re doing alchemy.” (insert sigh here)

Ahem. Anyway, in addition to all the manga, she also read The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama, which she says is a Japanese novel about aliens. When I asked her to elaborate, she went on to tell me that the title character is a girl who turns out to be the god/creator of the world, and she is involved with a club that finds things that are out of the ordinary, whose members turn out to be aliens. She said the book’s dialog is too long in some parts, which made it hard to follow and less enjoyable.

So, in a way, everybody read something about freedom, death, and dreams — which along with love, are arguably the most common themes in human storytelling.  Up next?  The Preteen is reading some nonfiction books about food, and has more Manga and a stack of novels to pick from. I’ve seen an Iraq war memoir on the Computer Scientist’s nightstand. The Teenager is reading about Shakespeare, among other things.  And I am about halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone, and have too many things to list in my “to read” piles.

But tonight, in the midst of the hurrying back from a soccer game to get the men on the road for the Teenager’s interview tomorrow, preparations for a very busy week for both kids and for the Computer Scientist and me, chores on my to do list, etc., I took a few moments to sit on the screened porch, cat in my lap, watching the gloaming, trying to be mindful, letting my inner seeker have her moment of really free time.  It was peaceful. I’ll try to do it more.

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Looking over my list of December books in my Goodreads page, I wonder how I read so much in a traditionally busy month? Like many families, we had a pretty quiet Christmas, with no travel and no visitors. Also, I got a lot of reading done while waiting for the Teenager.

He is now a proud member of Seacoast United Soccer Club. Driving kids around (and waiting for them) is a condition of modern middle class life in America, where few after school activities are accessible on foot — and you’d be suspected of neglect if you sent the darlings on public transportation, assuming you actually live where there is any public transportation (we don’t). One of my favorite NYT columnists, Michelle Slatalla, wrote a very amusing piece on parents making the best of kids’ busy schedules last fall.

December was also pretty slow for events at the store — it’s been a few weeks since we had any. Things are heating back up, though. Take a look at all the authors we have coming in January and February. I’m booking well into the spring.  There are many small tasks to perform for each event, and one thing I’ve discovered I enjoy is creating posters, like these two I’ve done this week:

One of the best things about my job has to be receiving advance copies of books. Ron Koltnow at Random House gave me a copy of Alice I Have Been: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin when he came to the store for Holiday Gift Book night. I just revised Alice from 4 stars to 5 in Goodreads, because I realized today that I have thought about this book every day since Jan. 1, when I read it in one evening.  I also keep telling my family about it — always a sign of book passion!

The Alice of the title is Alice Liddell, the real girl who inspired Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Benjamin combined history, literary back-story, and compelling storytelling. Victorian times were tough for girls and women, and days after I put the book down I’m still feeling a combination of empathy and indignation.

Bookconscious regulars know I love to be transported when I read, and Alice I Have Been succeeds in carrying readers to another place and time. It left me curious to know more about Alice and some of the other real people who appear in the novel, too. And like all of the books I love best, Alice fits the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness — my belief in the collective wisdom writers and readers share across cultures, times, and places.

One reason I fell so hard for the heroine of this book is that I can imagine walking in her shoes. Benjamin made her come alive, but she also made me see myself as a part of the greater story — the story of humans yearning to use their minds to the fullest, to live purposefully, to love wholeheartedly, and to make a home in the world that will sustain their children.

Ron also recommended Alan Bennett’s The Clothes They Stood Up In.  I loved The Common Reader, so I checked this out of the library over the holidays. Bennett’s story is about a British couple who come home from the opera to find everything in their apartment is gone, down to the toilet paper roll.  Not far into the story I had a sense of where it might be headed, but Bennett writes well and the details kept me engaged.  A couple of twists surprised me as well. A fun little read.

When I checked out Bennett’s book, I was at the library picking up Mennonite In A Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen’s memoir. Several customers at the store asked for it in the past few months, and both the review and an article in the New York Times intrigued me as well.  I loved this book.

It might help that I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and lived later in an area of Georgia with a sizable Mennonite population, so I was picturing people I’ve known as I read.  Or that Janzen’s admiration of her mother and father is lovely without being cloying. Her tone is just right, too : a little breezy and familiar (think Elizabeth Gilbert’s “girlfriend” voice), very smart, fairly bare-all without being maudlin or mean. The Times review calls her “reliable,” and “a good sport” — she tells it like it is, but she is fair and affectionate about it. No whining, and no superiority.

I shook my head from time to time, but I also laughed out loud.  While this is a memoir, Janzen also writes about her family;  Mennonite faith, culture, and history; and friendships. It’s nice when an author moves beyond “all about me,” especially here, where Janzen’s messy marriage and medical problems are material enough that she could easily have focused on her own problems.

I enjoyed her ability to celebrate the good stuff — her sister, her pals, her parents, even “oldsters,” her mother visits, classic hymns,and Mennonite cooking. Janzen also probes around the edges of the topic of her next book, which will be about her return to a faith community. I can’t wait to read it.

I also plan to look for Janzen’s book of poetry. I read a good bit of poetry in December, in part because the Teenager gave me two books, That Little Something by Charles Simic and Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu, introduced and translated by Keith Holyoak. I enjoyed both books very much. I think Simic might have gotten along fine with the two Chinese poets. I see some similarity in the way he writes about human experience with history’s framework always hanging around the edges.

The Teenager reports that he chose the classical Chinese poets because the poems reminded him in some ways of haiku. And he knows Charles Simic’s work — I hung up several of Simic’s poems in the kitchen when he became poet laureate, and we took the kids to hear Simic read at the Concord Auditorium with Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall a couple of years ago. The teenager remembers fondly that Simic read a poem which included the “f” word.

I also read The Battlefield Guide by Rodger Martin. This themed collection has appeared in earlier forms, including Martin’s live performances of poetry and music with singer Tim Mowry. This edition, which is coming out from Hobblebush Books soon, includes three sections: Harpers Ferry, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The collection is informed by Martin’s visits to these places over many years.

I found the book very moving and the poems resonant on several levels. As history, as a sort of poetry guidebook, as social commentary on the ugliness of war, as noble portraiture of some of the doomed men of the Civil War, as personal touchstones of the poet, these pieces speak to readers and perhaps to ghosts. Martin is clearly moved himself, and in the introduction he explains how this project has its roots in battlefield visits of his youth. These places and their history, he tells readers, helped form how we see ourselves as a nation, and he’s felt compelled to write about them for a long time.

It’s a book I’d like leaders to read. How could anyone send young people off to maim and kill and be maimed and die after reading, “On that man-silent September sunrise/nature still spoke freely to itself;/but, by day’s end, even the birds — struck so dumb –/ refused to sing, nor would they return next spring.” (from “Dunker’s Church,” in the Antietam section). Martin’s helpful footnotes include one indicating that no one is sure whether the birds of Sharpsburg were killed or just settled elsewhere. Martin’s book is not just history, it’s unfortunately timely as well.

Another timely poetry book I read is Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs. Scrooge: A Christmas Poem. I first read Duffy’s work last spring, when she became England’s poet laureate. Both the Preteen and I got a kick out of Mrs. Scrooge. It’s a fun addition to our collection of holiday books. One of my first bookconscious posts considered our annual read-aloud tradition during advent. I look forward to revisiting Mrs. Scrooge in years to come; it will remind me of what the world was like in 2009.

A few novels rounded out my December reading. This week at Gibson’s Robin Antalek will be reading from her debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart. This emotionally riveting book covers a range of family issues — a wrecked marriage, multigenerational substance abuse, sibling rivalries, adult children coming to terms with their upbringing and making their ways (or really screwing up) through their own relationships.

As rough as all this sounds, the book ends on a redemptive note. But it’s real — no sappy ending, just enough hope that you won’t turn away in despair. Also to Antalek’s credit, she covers a range of  issues but this book never feels like she’s trying to hit for the cycle of  “it” topics. I hate books like that, and I admit my radar was on as I began reading.  But Antalek impressed me; everything in her story belonged. And I loved two of the siblings, and cared grudgingly about what was going to happen to the other two — read the book and see if you can figure out which ones are which!

My next door neighbor gave me two books to read over the summer, and I sheepishly admit I only just got to them in December! Both are books I’d heard a lot about: The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo, which several people have recommended; and The Beach House, by Jane Green.  It’s hard to read books with an open mind when you’ve heard about them from a variety of people over a period of time, but I tried.

I liked both of these books, for different reasons. The Alchemist is hard to peg — it’s kind of a novel length parable. A little on the sweet side, but not brain freeze sweet. A little new-agey, but not channeling ancient beings new-agey. I enjoyed the story, which felt fresh, but comfortably in the wisdom tale genre. I was expecting The Alchemist to be treacly or woo-woo or both, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it entertaining, gentle, and sage. I recommended it to both kids.

The Beach House is chic lit, and every once in awhile, I love a good chic lit novel. This one is indeed good — packed with delightful characters, story lines, love interests, and complications. Green’s pacing is perfect, her characters likable and interesting, and the plot twists smart, sometimes funny, and not too far fetched. You’ll want to go to Nantucket when you’re done reading.

December’s book club read at Gibson’s was The Age of Innocence. I really enjoy Edith Wharton, who is masterfully witty. Like Dickens, she doesn’t miss a speck on the tablecloth or a scent in the bouquets when she sets a scene. Revisiting The Age of Innocence, which I read a long time ago, was fun. I also watched the film, which is very faithful to the novel, and just gorgeous.

I adore a good costume drama. In fact, I also read one of Elizabeth Gaskell‘s Cranford books this month, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, because I was happy to catch the third part of the Masterpiece series based on the book, which I missed last season. Masterpiece is bringing more Cranford stories to the screen this winter, and I am very glad. Gaskell’s work is very funny, and like Wharton, she calls attention to social mores and inequalities in a very entertaining fashion.

Gaskell and Wharton write very well about times close to their own. Melanie Benjamin, in Alice I Have Been, and wrote about a time so long ago she could not rely on first hand knowledge or memories, or talk to anyone who was there. Benjamin is also American, writing about Victorian England. Have I mentioned how much I loved her book?

Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Piano Teacher, set her novel in Hong Kong, where she grew up, but her book begins just before WWII and ends a few years after the war. I’m looking forward to meeting Lee later this month, when she comes to the store. I’d like to know if she interviewed anyone who lived through the war in Hong Kong when she researched the book. Her descriptions of the privations and numbing terror of the Japanese occupation are chilling.

As the story unfolded I found myself trying to guess who the villains are — it’s not completely clear. I really liked the protagonist, Claire,  and I enjoyed the way Lee weaves her story with that of a woman who disappeared during the war, Trudy. The connection between the women is a man, and his story is interesting, too. Lee doesn’t make it easy on readers, and there are several questions left fairly open to interpretation, which makes The Piano Teacher an ideal book club selection.

While I was steadily reducing my bedside pile, the Computer Scientist was reading a short stack of his own. He read  Joe Hill’s Horns, which will be out next month, and very much admired Hill’s creativity. He says the book is original and the plot gripping and a bit twisted (in a good way). He also read Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy, and said it was a “difficult but rewarding read,” classic Palahniuk. He says the two authors are comparably entertaining (and that’s a compliment to them both).

He also recently finished E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, and said he compares Doctorow to Fitzgerald in terms of his graceful economy of words. Besides admiring the writing, he thought the story was an interesting interpretation of the known facts about the Collyer brothers and their relationship to the world and each other. He put the book in my pile, which is always a good sign.

What’s on our nightstands (or floor, in my case)? I gave him Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven for Christmas, and he gave me Proust’s Days of Reading. I also have Lev Grossman’s The Magicians out from the library, and I have many books by authors coming to Gibson’s in the next couple of months. I still plan to read Wes McNair’s A Place On Water soon, too.

The Teenager told me today he is enjoying The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, which he got back into after the holiday break. He’s also reading Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey–and Even Iraq–Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. St. Nicholas brought him this book, which was fitting since this year The Teenager left one of his cleats out for him to fill — aren’t my kids kind to me? Anyway, the jolly old saint thought this book seemed both interesting and educational, or so I heard.

The Preteen read Half Magic, which she vaguely remembers my reading aloud years ago. She also found a book in her sequined Converse from St. Nick — Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty. Kalman is one of her favorite author/illustrators.

Like me, the Preteen has a stack of books — holiday gifts including Save the Cat: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts; books I pulled from the shelves when she was looking for something to read before Christmas (I included a pile of Jane Austen novels, as well as The Guernsey Literary and Sweet Potato Pie Society), and some books of her own that she hasn’t yet read, including Girl In A Cage, which Jane Yolen signed for her when she visited Gibson’s in early December. She told me this evening that Guernsey is what she’ll read next, which is great — I’m going to re-read it for the Gibson’s Book Club this month as well.

We’re fortunate, in the New Year, to be well stocked with new books to read, a good bookstore, a couple of good libraries, and shelves that still hold a few unread treasures. I’m off now to come up with suggestions for must reads in 2010 for the local arts and culture weekly, The Concord Insider. Stay tuned.

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Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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April turned out to be a busy month, but I did find time to read. I suspect that the author of one of the books I finished, Walden, would not think much of either my hectic schedule or my eclectic reading. I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about Thoreau and friends.  I ended up setting it aside, not only because I had other things to read, but also because Thoreau is a bit of a scold, and I wasn’t in the mood for his lectures.

After our visit to Concord in March, I decided to pick it up again. I tried to tune out the lecturing tone, and managed to finish the book. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, and I think Thoreau was an incredible thinker and writer. I enjoyed Walden overall. It’s just that when Thoreau gets on his high horse about certain topics — including reading — he sounds a bit like a modern day television pundit, railing about a manufactured controversy. Even when I agree, maybe especially when I agree, I hate it when someone makes his or her points by disdaining opposing views.

I can generally identify with many of the things Thoreau gets hot and bothered about, like people not noticing how their “stuff” is ruling their lives, or how they are rushing along through life without really needing to, or missing out on the serenity and even maybe the sacredness of the natural world as they hurry up and “improve” the land for man’s purposes. It’s amazing actually, that Thoreau was asking questions in his time that we have still not answered for ourselves as a society today, and that many of us don’t ever answer for ourselves personally.

But even though I admire him and believe there is a much to learn from Walden and from his essays, Thoreau sometimes aggravates me with his harping. The chapter of Walden on reading irked me the most, even though I think Thoreau makes some very good points. It bothers him that some people haven’t read the “ancient classics in the language in which they were written,” (at the time, he tells us, there aren’t any translations of Homer, Aeschylus, or Virgil into English), and laments that his fellow citizens read the Bible but don’t even know other cultures have sacred scriptures, let alone what they teach.

OK, Henry, I’m with you so far. Sure, the classics are an amazing repository of human thought and beauty (although I can’t say much about reading them in the original, because I’ve only read translations). And I’m a big fan of learning about other belief systems, and learning from them about the universality of human experience, especially the seeking we all do for meaning, ethics, and purpose.

But Thoreau isn’t content just to long for a more broadly educated populous, steeped in the classics and comparative religion. He is also offended that not enough people are intellectuals. “Most men learned to read to serve a paltry convenience,” he grouses, “of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing, yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to while the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Good grief, this makes me cringe.

He also complains, “Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted of the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.”  And if that’s not bad enough, “The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell.”  By now I was muttering to myself.

The  librarian in me chuckled a bit at Thoreau’s distress over the light reading material available at Concord’s library, such as novels. Some things never change —  library’s today still deal with patron complaints about what a library has in its collection (or doesn’t). Thoreau adds with disgust, “We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate, and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsmen who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.” Kind of makes you want to wrap your beach read in a towel, doesn’t it?

Thoreau has good intentions, beyond all this complaining. He believes that people would be better for reading good books, explaining, “The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones . . . . Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality.”  I have to agree with his underlying premise, that understanding our lives in the context of man’s universal, timeless quest for wisdom would expand our minds, improve us and our world.

He is disgusted that school ends when one is grown, and calls for universal life learning: “It is time we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women.” As an autodidact trying to raise kids who know that learning isn’t a kids’ activity that happens in particular buildings during particular times, I couldn’t agree more.

But I have to say that I occasionally enjoy “chick lit,” I thought Nanny Diaries was hilarious social commentary, and I firmly believe what my Grandmother taught me: when times are tough, take comfort in a nice Agatha Christie mystery or maybe a Mrs. Pollifax spy adventure.  I don’t think telling people they are wasting their minds if they read for fun is fair. Who knows what connections they’re making? It’s like junk food in my mind — it’s not good for you, and you don’t need it, but a little bit isn’t going to kill you. And no one likes being around someone who stands next to the chips and dip at a party and lectures everyone within earshot about the dangers of fat and salt.

I encourage my family to read good books, and if you’ve followed bookconscious you know we’ve even discussed what makes a “great” book. A little bit of my schooled mind cringes, like Thoreau’s, when I see them reading comic strips instead of something I would classify as literature. But I am not a book snob, and I’ve learned that there’s philosophy in Calvin and Hobbes, and Foxtrot frequently illustrates the Computer Scientist’s contention that “math is life.” As a former librarian and life long “libraryologist” as the C.S. calls me, I’ve come to believe that if kids are reading something they love, it doesn’t matter what it is. Offer them a varied reading diet and they’ll get enough fruits and vegetables, but don’t deny them cheese puffs or candy in moderation.

I fear Thoreau would scold librarians for adding graphic novels to their collections, or featuring movie tie-in books. But I feel a little better knowing that even back in 19th century Concord, a place overflowing with writers and intellectuals and a well-read population, a place where many a farmer had learned a little Latin or Greek in his youth, where there was no television or world wide web or massively multiplayer online role-playing games, someone was already wringing his hands over the End of Reading. Because it didn’t happen then, and I don’t believe it will happen now. Writers will keep writing, and readers, reading.

In fact, despite the tanking economy, I’ve read recently that bookstores and libraries are reporting more patrons than ever. Reading is inexpensive entertainment, it lasts, and it can be a social event. I’ve invited my neighbor to come along on Monday, when Gibson’s book club will be discussing our May book, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

Barry is a playwright and poet as well as a novelist. The protagonist of A Long, Long Way is Willie Dunn, brother of Annie Dunn, title character of Barry’s earlier novel. Annie Dunn also appears in Barry’s award winning play, The Steward of Christendom. That play, in turn, was based in part on Barry’s own great-grandfather. In an interview Barry mentions other experiences and family stories that made their way into A Long, Long Way. It’s a beautiful example of the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness.

A Long, Long Way is, first of all, gorgeous. Barry’s language is so poetic, I could hear the book in my head as I read. As a novel, it’s tight and well crafted. The story is hard — Willie Dunn serves in the trenches of WWI, and as the war goes on not only does he deal with the horror but also with the political and social turmoil brewing in Ireland, and the fact that his service in the war will bring him personal troubles. Even when you want to turn away, the book’s terrible beauty holds you.

Like Willie Dunn and the men he comes to know in war, the reader can’t help but wonder how anyone growing up can possibly sort through the world’s propaganda and the things we’re told in childhood, on the long way towards figuring out what not only who we are but what is real and true and how to think independently. Willie leaves Ireland sure of what he knows and loves and believes, and experiences disillusionment but also transformation. We see him come of age, bringing the core of himself through the terror, making his way, finding family in his comrades at arms.

I won’t spoil the plot for you by telling anymore. I will add that I am so taken with Barry’s prose that I plan to check out The Secret Scripture and Annie Dunn in the future, and to try to track down his poetry on inter-library loan. The rhythm and lilt of his sentences reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s poems.

Speaking of WWI and of poetry, you may recall that the Teenager requested we read T.S. Eliot in April for our lit crit circle. He was struck by the quote on the National Poetry Month poster: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” So far we’ve read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the first two parts of “The Waste Land.” Last weekend as we discussed “The Burial of the Dead,” and “A Game of Chess,” the Teenager pronounced Eliot a snob. All those literary references — he just has to rub his smarty-pants knowledge in our faces. Of course, Thoreau might point out that if we’d had the kind of classical education he urges, and stayed away from novels and comics, we’d be in a better position to understand.

And yet, The Teenager doesn’t dislike “The Waste Land,” nor did he dislike “Prufrock,” at least not entirely. He’s impressed by the language. It’s also somewhat satisfying to try and penetrate what seems like such utter bloody weirdness on first glance. The Computer Scientist and I let him know that we too are somewhat irritated by the know-it-all obscurity of the references and the hoity toity tone of the notes — where Eliot makes it clear he expects his readership to be as well read as he is. But we are persevering because we all want to know what made this poem so influential, and to understand it as best we can.

A number of secondary sources are helping us, including From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough, which Eliot mentions in his notes, and some annotated hypertext versions of the poem online. Essays on “The Waste Land” are easy to find, including a collection at the Modern American Poetry site, hosted by University of Illinois.

I also picked up some books at Ohrstrom Library: The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, edited and annotated by Lawrence Rainey; The Waste Land: A Poem of Memory and Desire by Nancy K. Gish; and Valerie Eliot’s The Wasteland: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. We probably won’t read any of these cover to cover, but referring to them and then discussing what we’ve learned helps unlock the poem.

Before the Dogs’ Night Out poetry reading I read Sharon Olds’ The Wellspring and Philip Schultz’s failure. Both poets write about family and love, life in a time of catastrophes, connections we seek. I go into more detail about their poems in my post on the reading.

On impulse one day at the library, I grabbed Contemporary Poetry of New England, an anthology edited by Jay Parini, from the poetry month display as I was about to check out. It’s an interesting collection, with some poems and poets new to me and others quite familiar. I was mystified that any collection of recent New England poetry could omit Donald Hall, but otherwise, I enjoyed it. Anthologies are great fun, and often lead me to seek out more of a particular poet.

After NH Writers’ Project Writers Day, I read Taking Down the Angel, a poetry collection by Jeff Friedman and Before, a novel by Joseph Hurka, because I took their workshops. Friedman’s poems in Taking Down the Angel are narrative, a little like Wesley NcNair’s, and I especially enjoyed his midrashic poems — pieces that enter a bibical story and add a new perspective, that serve as poetic commentary on the meaning and mystery of stories we think we know, telling them in new ways.

Hurka’s novel was not one I would normally have gravitated towards. I am a wimp when it comes to crime and suspense, and I tend to avoid anything that’s as scary as the newspaper. I’m glad I read Before, even though I didn’t care for the creepiest parts. Hurka’s writing is piercing. He must do scads of research, because the details of the characters’ lives are extremely fine tuned.

The main characters in Before are fascinating people — a former Czech resistance fighter and holocaust survivor living both in the present and in his memories as he undergoes therapy after a stroke and writes what he remembers, a college student struggling with her own losses as she tries to make life and art, and a disturbed criminal haunted by abuse who was once a very successful businessman.

Even the minor characters are vivid. Before is a short book, but dense. Through his interesting characters and a tense plot, Hurka explores memory and unconscious and the ways our interactions with other people are informed by what’s come before. I’ve got Hurka’s nonfiction book, Fields of Light: A Son Remembers His Heroic Father, on inter-library loan and I’m looking forward to it.

I haven’t started it yet because I had a couple of new books out of the library that I needed to finish first, since they have shorter loan periods. I’ve nearly finished Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel, who is not only a well known British poet but also Charles Darwin’s great-great grandaughter. The book is fascinating, as the poems tell Darwin’s life story, and Padel’s notes include family details she learned in letters and other research. I’m finding the structure of the book a bit overwhelming — in order to keep up with the story, you have to keep reading, but reading several poems in a row feels rushed.

The other new book I finished last week was a quick read. A few weeks ago on the way to Concord, Massachusetts, we heard Scott Simon interview Jeffrey Archer on Weekend Edition Saturday. They were talking about Archer’s new novel, Paths of Glory, which is a ficitonalized biography of George Mallory and an account of the British effort to summit Mt. Everest. The interview picqued my interest — Simon’s interviews have led me to many a new book — so I reserved Paths of Glory.

Thoreau would likely not approve. Archer’s book was a fun, easy read. He did a great deal of research but the book didn’t require me to stand on tip-toe or flex my intellectual muscles. What it required — what much reading requires — was a suspension of reality for the duration of the book, an escape into another world, fictional or real. No one knows for sure whether George Mallory made it to the top of Everest. But he led a fascinating life before he died on the mountain that had bewitched him since his youth. I’m never going to summit Everest, and it was a great deal of fun going along with Archer as he imagines what may or may not have happened.

Archer’s book was a great escape into history, adventure, and romance. And like A Long, Long Way, “The Waste Land,” and Before, Paths of Glory illuminated the utter waste of war, which wrecks lives and leaves whole cultures unalterably damaged. Authors since Thoreau’s beloved Homer have explored the ways men and women survive war and either heal themselves and each other or succumb to their wounds for the rest of their lives. No matter the form — poetry or prose, classic epic or best seller, highbrow literary masterpiece or mass market phenomenon, readers benefit from probing the ideas each author unearths and making connections for themselves.

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Sweatshirt weather, soccer season, maples beginning to blush, and my daughter’s lone pumpkin turning orange in the garden. It’s September, and this year marks the 11th anniversary of our decision not to send our first child to kindergarten, but instead to begin our life learning adventures.

One reason we chose this educational alternative is that we wanted our kids to see learning as a seamless part of their existence, not a thing you do in a certain building, during scheduled hours, on particular calendar days. Even though we learn all the time, I do enjoy the feeling of starting fresh in the fall. Along with apple picking, soup making, and jumping up and down to stay warm on the sidelines, I associate autumn with newly sharpened pencils, clean notebooks ready to fill with ideas, and of course, new books.

We plan our kids’ educational endeavors together with them, and they both take advantage of having a book nut for a mother by asking for my help in selecting titles. My daughter and I stopped by both the library and a used bookstore to restock her reading shelves recently. She selected the Worst Witch series by Jill Murphy, about a girl’s misadventures at witches’ school; Half Magic by Edward Eager, and Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton at the bookstore.

I loved these last two myself, and read Half Magic aloud to the children several years ago — so long ago that my daughter cannot remember. She also visited her brother’s bookshelves and chose Hatching Magic by Ann Downer. We call his room the monk cell because he keeps very little stuff, so those books he has saved must have been good.

While fantasy is her fiction genre of choice right now, my daughter also checked out several books about Alaska at the library, because one of her plans for fall is to learn about as many states as possible. She decided to start a “states notebook” in which she plans to jot down interesting people, animals, foods, etc. from each place she learns about. I am hoping she decides to cook the interesting foods for us. Her choice was entirely non-political, by the way. She picked Alaska as a starting point because of the unique wildlife found there.

I am also reading aloud All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot. I’ve always liked his books myself, and although the kids aren’t too sure they still want a read aloud, I thought I’d give it a try. They both laughed as I read the first two chapters, so I think we’ll keep it up for now. As we drive to my son’s away soccer games and her many living history and art classes, my daughter and I have been listening to books checked out on our library’s website via NH Downloadable Audio Books. We finished a book about women’s history last week and started a book about artists today. Both are from Kathleen Krull’s “Lives of” series.

As we discussed his fall plans, my son told me that he finds Renaissance history interesting, especially the story of scientific discoveries of the time. I went to the bookshelves and pulled down a book that was my grandmother’s, William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire. He started that last week and pronounced it interesting. When he’s finished, he wants to read more about Galileo. He also started the fantasy series Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, because he asked for a book like Lord of the Rings. This is mostly to tide him over until Brisingr comes out on in a couple of weeks.

Steve, who suggested the Brooks trilogy because he enjoyed them when he was in high school, has been reading war stories. Before our August vacation, he read Band of Brothers, a library book sale find. He decided he was unimpressed given all the hype. During our trip, he found another Ambrose book, Citizen Soldiers, in a used book store and says it is much better than Band of Brothers.

Like Band, Citizen is about WWII, but the focus is broader, with anecdotes from those serving in many units all over Europe. He also recently took Generation Kill out of the library, which is a book by journalist Evan Wright, who was embedded with one of the Marine Corps units that led the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As some of you know, Steve was a Marine Corps artillery officer in what our children refer to as “the old guy war with Iraq,” more widely known as the Persian Gulf War. He says Generation Kill is a very accurate portrayal of Marines.

If you want to know more about how our country was led into the current war in Iraq, as well as what exactly was going on in the government and the media after 9/11 and during the Katrina aftermath, Steve also recommends The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina by Frank Rich, which a co-worker lent him in audiobook form. We listened to the beginning of it together while driving back from my cousin’s wedding a few weeks ago, and it was depressing. He says it hasn’t gotten any more uplifting but is very well written and eye opening.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, as well as The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction, by Stephen Koch. I’ve had this book for awhile, picking it up after my first try at National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) a few Novembers ago, and revisited it after reading a review of a more recent book on the same topic. It’s an enjoyable, illuminating book about good writing and the writing life, and I am finding it helpful, even though I am not currently writing fiction.

In my last post, I mentioned starting to read World Made By Hand by James Howard Kuntsler, which I finished on vacation. This was my favorite summer read — a fun, thought provoking book, creative and fresh. It’s one of those novels that makes you stop and think about a particular scene or two long after you’ve finished. I’ve been dwelling on Kuntsler’s imagined future, and wondering how we’d fare in it, personally and collectively.

How would we provide for ourselves if the infrastructure we all rely on — for distribution of goods and services, utilities, even basic law and order — broke down? What if everyone had to be self reliant, and rebuild community systems for helping each other, without any of the modern communication tools or amenities we are used to? Listening to Frank Rich’s book so soon after finishing this novel certainly influenced how I viewed it. The idea of our society imploding after a natural disaster, epidemic, or terrorist attack isn’t as far fetched as it might sound. A colossal failure of leadership could be the catalyst, and we are experiencing climate change we don’t really know how to handle, and probably won’t respond to quickly.

Growing my own large garden this summer for the first time with decidedly mixed results gave me pause — my family would be pretty hungry and probably malnourished if we had to provide for ourselves. Fortunately, though, we have a lot of books (including one on homesteading, which we picked up when we once considered buying some land) for when the power grid fails and there is no television or computers to entertain anyone. I practiced being partially unplugged on vacation (no computers, anyway), and found lots of time to read.

We were in Maine, so I read some of the short stories of Sara Orne Jewett, which I enjoyed for their quiet atmosphere and rich portraits of people and society. Jewett deserves to be as widely read as other writers of her time; through her fiction, she comments on society, culture, and human nature as well as Henry James or Edith Wharton, and I find her writing strong, evocative, and beautiful.

I also read Monica Wood’s linked story collection, Ernie’s Ark, set in contemporary Maine in a town where the paper mill workers go on strike. I was completely drawn in and read the book in a couple of days. The characters were real and interesting, the emotions felt true, and Wood’s writing neither left things out nor over-worked her stories. Several of the stories were just plain lovely. The cohesion of the collection made it read like a novel.

I enjoyed it so much I came home and found another of Wood’s books at the library, Any Bitter Thing. This novel had a plot I found hard to accept, and yet I still enjoyed the book. I can see why it’s been popular with book clubs, because Wood opens the door to many interesting discussions about the Catholic church, the priest sexual abuse scandal, and the perceptions of truth in a small town, where gossip becomes reality for many people. Wood is a compelling writer and seems very comfortable addressing the uncomfortable ways we humans tread on each other’s emotions. Somehow she manages to leave readers feeling hopeful despite the honest portrayals of human nature.

Two other novels I read recently both had implausible plots — one that just never took off for me, and one that I enjoyed despite the wild ride. Plausibility isn’t necessary to my enjoyment of a book — after all, World Made By Hand seems utterly unreal at first, and is placed in a future time I had never imagined, and I loved it — but a lack of it can add to the disjointedness if it’s not a great read.

The Secret of Lost Things, by Sheridan Hay, I finished but didn’t really like. I gave it two stars on Goodreads, which means “it was ok.” I had a hard time deciding when the story was supposed to be taking place — maybe in the 80’s? The 90’s? It didn’t feel really contemporary, and some of the characters felt very out of place. Perhaps that was the point — the characters are a strange group — but I always felt I was missing something. The story revolves around a used bookshop in New York and a possible lost Melville manuscript, but I had a hard time caring about the main character, and I never felt the sense of urgency a good mystery creates.

Tod Wodicka’s All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well: A Novel had a somewhat improbable plot but was essentially a book about a man who feels as if he doesn’t belong in the modern world, and I could empathize with him and his family and see how the wild events in the book might unfold. Take away the renaissance reenactment and you still have a story about family, about people trying to live with emotional discomfort, and about the breaking point in relationships.

Wodicka’s writing also struck me as absolutely perfect for the novel — his tone and style added cohesion to the story and characters. In fact, I guess fans of tell-all talk shows where dysfunctional families bare their secrets might not even find the plot too crazy. Plus, I learned some things and felt curious about others, and I always admire a book that urges me to look something up or read something else, because whether it’s not back to school time or any other time, I am as much a life learner as my kids. More on that in part II.

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