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Posts Tagged ‘book discussion’

Bookconscious readers know I try to read a selection of new books at the library where I work part time. I’d heard good things about Sebastian Faulks and hadn’t read anything by him, so I requested his new book A Possible Life: a Novel in Five Parts.  I enjoyed each of the five parts alluded to in the subtitle. But I don’t think together they make a novel.

The book’s parts are five stories: “Geoffrey”, set in 1938; “Billy,” set in 1859; “Elena,” set in 2029; “Jeanne,” set in 1822; and “Anya” (which to me really should have been called Jack), set in 1971. The first and last stories are 80 and 90 pages each, so novellas really. As you can see they are not told in chronological order.  I’m not sure the reason(s) for the order they are in.

I’m not really sure of anything about this book. I didn’t dislike it. I did find the ending of “Jeanne” strange — Faulks writes Jeanne’s whole life story and then revisits a seminal moment from her youth, tacking it on after she dies as if it was an afterthought, even though it was formative. “Elena” seemed to go on a little longer than it needed to as well. But overall they are well crafted stories peopled by interesting characters struggling with engaging problems.

I admit I turned to reviews to try to make sense of what Faulks is saying with these disparate parts. Even after reading what others had to say about it I had a hard time believing the tenuous threads made for a cohesive whole. There is a thematic ribbon to tie the narratives together: each of the protagonists imagines at one point or another what things might be like if their lives had not gone the way they had.  Certain ideas do appear in the stories over and over: questions about faith, war, love, family, identity, and self-awareness.

So, a good read, with plenty to discuss. In fact, I’d probably have enjoyed this more with a book group. But if anyone can explain to me what makes this novel, I’d appreciate it.

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I’ve spent several days with Hilary Mantel‘s sequel to Wolf HallBring Up the Bodies. It’s interesting to me that both titles come from references made at the end of these long books, though that’s probably not significant. Just unusual, as is Mantel’s writing style, which takes readers right inside her main character’s head. I noticed she used personal pronoun “he” less in this book than in Wolf Hall, but she still writes in such a way that Thomas Cromwell’s interior life

I thoroughly enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies. On Saturday we were at dinner with friends and one of them had also recently finished Wolf Hall and was reading Bring Up the Bodies. He said he felt the novels are somewhat overrated because they don’t accomplish what he thought they ought to: delving into the major themes of the Tudor period, including the political and religious philosophies which shaped modern England. My friend is very smart and well spoken and we decided that if that is what he is looking for the books don’t meet his needs as a reader — a fair assessment.

But I countered that I don’t think Mantel’s intention is anything other than to present Cromwell as one of the most fascinating characters of the time. Cromwell is the first citizen statesman, not a nobleman, not a man who married into power. He becomes Henry’s right hand man because he is smart and thorough and an excellent reader of men. He trains the young men of his household for statecraft as well, and he treats people fairly — those who cross him and those who are crossed and need an advocate each receive their due.

Mantel herself says in her author’s note in Bring Up the Bodies: “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers. Meanwhile, Mr. Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie, but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”

That is what this trilogy is about, Mantel’s digging up of Cromwell’s mind and heart, the man that he was. She tells us in both broad and fine (and in my opinion brilliant) brushstrokes of the work he did to give his character context, but she is not trying to write history. Her novel is about Cromwell the character, and she uses historical events, sometimes altered a bit to fit her artistic purpose, to present him to readers and not the other way around.

That is not to say these books aren’t “true” — Mantel has done an incredible job in presenting her human drama in gorgeous period detail. And overall the story is accurate, if some of the details are by necessity fictional. Besides, these books are big “T” True in the very best way. Cromwell is fully human, by turns tender and terrible, formidable and even, sometimes, a bit afraid. Mantel makes him live and breathe and have his being: I’d know him anywhere. For me, that is the greatest accomplishment a fiction writer could hope to have.

So if you want a novel that is a careful rendering of historical facts and themes, this isn’t for you (I’d argue actually that fiction is not where you’ll find this at all; if you want facts, read nonfiction). But if you want incredibly rich writing (my aunt describes these books as “a full blown big screen movie running into your head”), a fresh voice like nothing you’ve read in fiction before, read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I’m very curious to read the final installment when it comes out, and also to try to find time to read some of Mantel’s other work.

This week, with Thanksgiving bringing Teen the Elder home from college, I’ll stick to shorter reads: I’ve got Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer out from the library. I’m mostly looking forward to hanging out together as a family, cooking, eating, and getting started on our holiday planning. Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading!

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I didn’t read Teen the Elder’s summer required reading, The Shallows. The Computer Scientist read a bit aloud to me about libraries’ computer & internet service and that was enough (I blogged about that at Nocturnal Librarian). But when Teen the Elder was home for mid-term break he mentioned how much he’s enjoying his first-year seminar, and suggested I might enjoy one of the books for that class, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants by Jaed Coffin.

He was right. Coffin’s mother is Thai, and he decided to go to her village in Thailand before his senior year in college to become a Buddhist monk. He’s very honest about not being sure of his own motives, of being a little confused about what he got out of the experience, and of being unsure how to apply what he did learn. Towards the end of the book he lets readers in on his re-entry into American life, his final year of college and what came next. But his memoir doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, which is nice. He leaves us wondering about some of the things he experienced and how they might impact his life, just as he wondered.

I like Coffin’s unvarnished voice — he doesn’t shy away from critical self-reflection. He has a good eye for small details that made the book vibrant and interesting. I wondered about some of the dialogue, given the distance he had when he wrote the book, but I know there is a theory that memoirs are meant to be representative of remembered experience, not journalist renderings of absolute detail. And maybe he had good notes, or just a better (younger) memory than I have.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is a young man’s story, a story about a person on the edge of adulthood, undergoing a rite of passage (in Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend time in a monastery), and trying to understand his role in life. Coffin captures the essence of that feeling beautifully. When he and one of his fellow monks, Narong, travel into the forest to visit another temple, Coffin tries to convince him that the Buddha is everywhere, in everything around them. They travel up the river seeking Buddha and meeting villagers, and when they return to the forest temple, the Luang Pa (sort of like the abbot of a western monastery) speaks with them.

He asks what they’ve been doing. Here’s a lovely passage that captures their exchange:

“I looked for an answer in the spaces between the trees and in the distant valley. It began to rain in heavy, cumbersome drops that looked like snow. A light wind came up too, pushing at the trunks of several bamboo trees and making a hollow clicking sound.  ‘The Buddha is everywhere,’ I told the Luang Pa.”

The Luang Pa tells him he is wrong:

“‘The Buddha is in the heart. He is in your mind. He is in the heart that is always mai nae jai.’ The Luang Pa’s face softened and became more gentle and sympathetic. I held the phrase in my mind until it made sense. Mai nae jai: not sure heart.”

That’s what this book is about. A boy, nearly a man, with a not sure heart. He goes to Thailand looking for half his life, half his being, he reacquaints himself with his mother’s family and the world she grew up in, and then he takes his mai nae jai heart back to America, which he realizes is more his home (in no small part because it’s become his mother’s home as well). And fortunately for the rest of us, he decides that the way to live with a not sure heart is to write.

I didn’t come to know my own not sure heart until later in life, and reading and writing, rather than a physical retreat, have taken me on a seeker’s journey that may never be complete. I’m grateful to people like Coffin for sharing their stories. I look forward to talking more about the book with Teen the Elder and comparing our responses to it. I’m also grateful that in a time when the most opinionated, self-assured voices seem to take up most of the public oxygen, my son’s college assigns books about the not sure.

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When Nichole Bernier visited Gibson’s Bookstore in September, I asked what she’s been reading. She raved about a novel that my friend Sandy at Gibson’s also recommended highly: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I love a book that moves me. And a story that makes me want to stay up just a little longer to find out what happens. This novel is both.

I am going to tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil the story. Here’s what I can tell you: Tom is a WWI veteran, haunted by the war and by memories of his lonely childhood and the loss of his mother. Tom’s also in the Commonwealth Lighthouse service, and he arrives in a small town, Partageuse, at the southwestern tip of Australia to take up his new post on a small island off the coast, Janus Rock, as keeper. In Partageuse he meets Isabel.

They have  a brief courtship, he starts his work on Janus, and they correspond when they can (a boat only comes every few months to resupply Janus Rock). They marry. Isabel has two miscarriages and a stillborn. And then one day the tide washes up a boat on Janus. On board? A baby, perfectly healthy. And a dead man. Boat, body, baby. What would you do?

And that is what the rest of this novel is about, what Tom and Isabel do, how it impacts their lives and everyone else’s. It’s an incredibly thought provoking book — this is perfect for a book club, because Stedman does an excellent job of making all the possibilities plausible and in evoking great empathy for all the characters. She also makes them whole — no one dimensional villains or heroes here.

Writing wise it’s also a beautiful book. Everything is vivid, from Tom’s dreadful childhood home to the lighthouse and everything in between. Stedman writes with rich detail, but as my Grandmother used to say, with no extra words. Stedman makes Tom’s life perfectly clear even to someone like me who knew exactly nothing about how a nineteenth century lighthouse works. Every detail she includes does its job, with no flowery extras.

Here’s an example:  “Outside, the metal gallery circled the tower, and a perilous ladder arched against the dome, up to the thin catwalk just below the weather vane that swung in the wind.” Or this: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Or a scene where a young man working in the town bakery helps a young lady with her shawl,”draping it around her in one fluid movement.”

I could go on but you should read this novel for yourself. Once you do you’ll want to talk about it with someone. Let me know what you think!

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I heard about The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, on Books on the Nightstand. It was the first library book I tried on the iPad’s Kindle app. I’m still not impressed with e-books, but I enjoyed this novel.

McCoy explores the trauma of war not only for soldiers but also for civilians. The cautionary tale? There’s no redemption in this story for soldiers who follow orders they know are wrong or make a bad situation worse. One main character, Elsie, has a fiancee, Josef, a Nazi officer wracked by psychosomatic migraines and insomnia; another, Reba, is the daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam vet suicide victim. Neither man deals adequately with the part he played in their respective wars. Both women live with their families’ war ghosts, both ultimately make their peace.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is Elsie’s ability to let her sorrows go. I don’t want to give too much away but she’s a very strong, interesting character who experiences real redemption and forgiveness and makes peace with all that happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Baker’s Daughter is set both in WWII Germany and present day Texas. Reba is a reporter in El Paso, with a troubled childhood and a fiancee, Riki, she isn’t sure she can commit to. Riki is the child of Mexican immigrants working for the U.S. Border Patrol, torn between his loyalty to America and its rule of law and his moral compass telling him that many of the people he deports are victims, not criminals. And that even those who try to enter illegally might be better served by compassion than scare tactics.

Reba meets Elsie and her grown daughter Jane at their bakery when she’s writing a magazine piece on Christmas traditions. Elsie doesn’t reveal all of her past in their interviews, but the book alternates between her life story — and that of her sister Hazel, who was a mother in the Lebensborn Program — and Reba’s, with brief forays into some of the other characters’ stories, especially Josef and Riki.

It was an interesting read, with characters facing many moral dilemmas and family secrets. The teenage Elsie begins to sense through her sister’s letters and her first Nazi social event with Josef that what Hitler’s Germany stands for is nothing like the ideal her father believes in. When an older SS officer assaults her, a Jewish boy who was made to sing at the party comes to her aid. He shows up outside her house hours later, begging for protection. Despite her extreme fear, she can’t turn him away. I loved this part of the story.

I also enjoyed the way the novel explores how people don’t know the whole story of an event as it’s happening. Riki and his fellow Border Patrol agents have to guess about the people they’re chasing. Elsie and her sister believe propaganda at first because it’s what they know, but the war begins to impact them in ways they never imagined and shades their understanding of the world. Josef is a young man who feels conflicted about carrying out his orders. When a younger Nazi gets carried away, Josef exacts his own justice, and is haunted by the event for the rest of his life. His story is echoed in that of Reba’s father who goes mad because of what he did in Vietnam.

Riki makes a different choice, following his conscience to find a different job.  All of these characters act within a community of family and friends; Reba and Elsie’s family represent those who love people living with hard choices. A book club could have fun hashing out the repercussions they all experience. There’s a particularly poignant scene between Reba and her sister when they discuss their parents.

McCoy presents several of Elsie’s secret Schmidt family bakery recipes in the back of the book. I copied down the recipe for “brotchen” which my son thinks are the rolls he ate when he went to Germany a few summers ago to play soccer. He called them “dope rolls,” which is teenager for “really good.” I hope I can do them justice!

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I’m going to start posting a list of books I’m covering in the Mindful Reader column about a week ahead of its publication in the Concord Monitor on the 2nd Sunday of the month. For the Sept. 9 column, I’m writing about Maryanne O’Hara’s novel Cascade and also doing shorter reviews of Rise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

I wanted to say a bit more about Park Songs. Bookconscious regulars know I’ve written about David Budbill’s work before. The combination of plain-spokeness, beauty, and koan-like wisdom in his poetry blows me away. It’s brilliant to me when a poem reads easily — it’s clear and understandable — and then makes you stop and think and see more to it than when you first read it. And even better, to see more in the world than before you read it.

Park Songs is genre-melding, but it’s completely accessible. It’s a book about people in a city park in the Midwest on a single day. There are three epigraphs:

“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” — Mark Twain

“Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” — Sophocles, Antigone

“We learn in a time of pestilence that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” — Albert Camus, The Plague

Those quotes would be an excellent start for a discussion of the book. Or a discussion of any kind. People who say “I don’t get poetry” could enjoy Park Songs. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s “absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. In a note to readers, Budbill points out that like his rural poems in Judevine, which became a play, this book could be staged in its entirety or in parts.

He suggests a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that the section called “Let’s Talk,” a dialogue between Fred and Judy, who are, respectively, lonely and wishing to be alone, could be a one act play. “Let’s Talk” is touching and funny and Budbill captures the essence of human communication– the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations—in one scene on a park bench.

Budbill says his father often told him “Stick up for the little guy, bud.”  The people in Park Songs are people who could benefit from having someone in their corner. But they are there for each other, even though like most people, they don’t always listen or understand each other. Two characters really grabbed me: Mr. C., “Would be poet, keeper, attendant and guardian of the Park.” and Haal, “Hangs Around A Lot.”

In “Haal’s Great Idea” they discuss Haal’s potential t-shirt business. He proposes “LIFE HURTS” for his first design and Mr. C. goes nuts: “God! Nobody wants that, Haal! Nobody wants to hear about or think about that pain and suffering thing. Take it from me, there’s no money in the suffering game, Haal . . . . And besides, that phrase, LIFE HURTS, it’s worse than poetry.”

I think Haal is on to something, because commercial fiction, Hollywood, and the glut of “pain-and-suffering” memoirs seem to indicate there IS money in it, as long as the product is marketed to the masses, which poetry is not. But I digress.

Haal comes back with, “Well then, how about GROWING OLD IS NOT FOR SISSIES.” Ouch. He goes on, “Yeah, and I got another one, too: SOME PEOPLE ARE SARCASTIC AND MEAN.”  Mr. C. realizes he’s been pretty harsh: “Haal! Hey wait a minute. What I meant was: it’s like poetry. It is poetry. Nobody wants it. People don’t care.”  Haal insists, “I think they do.” Oh, Haal. So do I!

There is much more to this beautiful, tragic-funny book than I can do justice to here. David Budbill’s writing is not just art, it’s a philosophical call to arms for readers to wake up to the world, to go ahead and risk feeling both the pain and the pleasure of being awake. Park Songs is an entertaining read and also one to make you think. It stayed with me and I can feel it connecting with other things I’ve read, helping me live with more heart, helping me notice things.

There’s not much more you could ask for from a book of any kind.

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In my last post I mentioned my plan to read differently, to say no to books I don’t really want to read, to be more serendipitous in my book selections, to read fewer books more intentionally. So in support of that goal, I’ve decided to also write about my reading differently, posting more frequently about what we’re reading at the bookconscious house, rather than writing one mammoth monthly post.

I finished David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas last week, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I blogged about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet two summers ago, and I also loved Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. A customer at Gibson’s recently asked for Cloud Atlas because he’d seen the movie trailer. Apparently so did a lot of other people, as the book has seen a spike in sales.

Mitchell impresses me with the emotional intensity of his characters’ inner lives. A lot of the action in his books happens inside people’s heads. The Thousand Autumns was also impressive for its historical detail. Cloud Atlas has both things — emotional intensity and historical detail — as well as mind-bending speculative fiction, philosophy, humor, and rip-roaring storytelling.

Mitchell tells the story of five main characters living in different times; I use the singular here because each piece belongs to a larger story. First we meet a 19th century San Francisco notary in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” His story of South Pacific adventure is told, as you might guess, in diary entries.

Next comes an aspiring English composer in inter-war Belgium, Robert Frobisher. He’s living in a crumbling great house working for an aging composer, as we learn through letters to his good friend (lover?) Sixsmith. Frobisher is reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

In “Half-Lives:The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” we learn that Rufus Sixsmith became a nuclear scientist. Luisa Rey, a young reporter, gets stuck in an elevator with him and learns that a nearby nuclear plant is unsafe and mired in corruption. She pursues the lead and in the process finds Sixsmith’s letters from Frobisher.

Luisa’s story turns up as a draft novel, sent to a vanity publisher in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” His story is a romping farce in which he’s chased by gangster relatives of his most successful client (an aging rock star who kills a book critic who panned his memoir), tricked into being admitted to a Dickensian nursing home, and sprung from said home with a little help from a pub full of Scottish soccer fans.

This cracker of a tale reappears as a movie (known as a “disney”) in “The Orison of Sonmi 451.” The title character asks to watch before she is executed. Sonmi 451 is a “fabricant” – a human cloned and engineered to slave in a futuristic world where corporations rule. Is Sonmi 451 a pawn in the power struggle between Unanimity and Union or an ascendant prophet, or both? Declarations, her “catechism” (or propaganda?) explains, “in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear . . . until the only ‘rights,’ the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.”

While on the run from a man who may be a Union spy or a Unanimity agent, Sonmi 451 meets the Abbess of a community refusing consumerist culture. In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After,” a character called The Abbess teaches Hawaiian islanders (who speak and live more like Appalachian dirt farmers) the divine Sonmi’s wisdom. Zachry, the main character in this section, asks “Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi . . . an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds.”

Sloosha’s Crossin’ is the hinge at the center of the book. Mitchell leads readers back through the other stories in reverse order, leaving a trail of literary breadcrumbs. The main characters share a strange birthmark (possibly in the shape of a cloud — they all describe it differently). Frobisher’s major work is “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey feels she’s heard the music before. Bridges and heights appear in each story. So do class and race divisions.

If this all seems a little too “pat,” it’s because I’m inadequately explaining — Mitchell is brilliant. His writing is brilliant. You never feel like a puppet master is pulling strings. And a strong thread of philosophy weaves the stories together. At the end of his journal, Adam Ewing writes:

“. . . history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts. What precipitates acts? Belief. Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.” He goes on to say that if mankind believes in nothing but inhumanity and strife, that’s what we’ll have.  If we believe instead in peace,  with “violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.” Imagine.

Ewing admits he’s describing “the hardest of worlds to make real” and that “torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.” This book came out in 2004; perhaps Mitchell was commenting on the world at the time but he could have been talking about any time. Cloud Atlas reminds us that a person who is fully awake to the world, who doesn’t just go through the motions in life, is a person who will notice beliefs and their outcomes.

My favorite blogger, Leo Babauta, wrote a great post on intentional life this week. This sort of thing happens in my reading life all the time; I read one thing and come across something else that speaks to it. I love that, and I love a book like Cloud Atlas that not only entertains me but charges all those connections in my brain, reminds me of the best things I’ve read and the thinking I’d like to spend more time doing, stays with me. For all those reasons it would be fun to discuss with other readers.

On a totally different note, last weekend I read The Art of Racing in the Rain. I mention in my post at The Nocturnal Librarian that a fellow dinner party guest recommended it a couple of weeks ago. It’s narrated by a dog, Enzo. He tells us the story of his master, Denny, an aspiring race car driver, and Denny’s wife Eve and daughter Zoe. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, and perhaps a little bit predictable, as Denny deals with very dramatic ups and downs. But sometimes that’s just what I want when I read: a book that’s emotional catharsis, not mental gymnastics.

Which is not to say there’s nothing to think about here. Enzo is a wonderful narrator, an “old soul.” I learned a great deal about race car driving. My brother, who is a big racing fan and lives in Seattle where the book is set, says author Garth Stein is big in “local car culture” there and agreed the racing sections were impressive.

Equally interesting was Enzo’s hope that a Mongolian belief that dogs can reincarnate as humans will be true for him. He comes to believe he is ready for that change as he reflects on human nature. You might never look at dogs the same way after spending time with Enzo. And there’s plenty to discuss in The Art of Racing in the Rain, including the cultural lenses that color our interpretation of stories.

Teen the Elder finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which is the Saint Michael’s College class of 2016 community read. He found the writing style “irritating” and the thesis “fear-mongering” and was pleasantly surprised to read some responses from professors who didn’t necessarily agree with Carr either. He’s writing his own response for his freshman seminar.

For fun, he also re-read some childhood favorites this summer, including the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz and Lloyd Alexander‘s Chronicles of PrydainAnd for those who are counting, he is now in his final year of being a teen; when I started writing bookconscious he was just becoming one.

At the moment I’m reading a book for The Mindful Reader, my monthly review column for the Concord Monitor. I will probably save that post for when the column comes out. So I’ll be back in a week or two with whatever I pick up after that . . . and happily, I haven’t decided what that will be yet.

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