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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As I type I’m listening to leaves rustling outside the screened porch, watching my cat Maple, who is fully present to the susurrus and to myriad small sounds and movements I can’t even begin to notice. Susurrus, I learned last night from the OED, is “a low soft sound as of whispering,” which is what the trees are doing on this late September afternoon. I looked the word up when I came across it in Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which I am reading.

As I reflect on the books I read in September, another autumn leaves image comes to mind: scattered. So far no Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness theme comes to mind; perhaps the connections will be clearer as I write this post.

When the month began, I had a stack of eight library books and a son on an airplane, Teen The Elder.  He is in Bolton, England for his gap year. Bookconscious readers may recall we sent him off with his own set of Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, hidden in his luggage for him to find.  He wrote to me a couple of days ago that he’d finished re-reading The Hobbit and that it made him wish he was in the book, in the woods, living the story. Great books do that.

Few writers describe the earth shaking influence their reading has had on them with such passion and humilty as Pat Conroy. My in-laws gave me his book My Reading Life for my birthday; I’ve only read one Conroy novel, Beach Music, which I recommended my library book club read many years ago in Washington, when Teen the Younger was still a glimmer in my eye. The club hated it, and I was incapacitated with not-just-morning-sickness and missed the discussion and my chance to explain why I enjoyed Conroy’s writing: it’s passionate.

Conroy’s self-effacing honesty in My Reading Life is refreshing in a publishing superstar. He tells readers his every doubt and fear as a writer, which is sort of heartening to someone else who writes. His description of the books he’s read since childhood and the way they shaped him not only as a reader and writer but a human being is just a delight for a fellow bibliophile. And his admiration — even love — for the librarians, teachers, editors, bookstore owners, and sales reps. he’s met, as well as his appreciation of their influence (and his family’s) on his reading and writing life, are very entertaining.

He writes of them with the same honest appraisal he applies to himself: everyone in this book is whole, no one is perfect. I wished I could have visited The Old New York Book Shop in its heyday and the sections on Paris and Rome made me want to pack my bags. One minor quibble: the publisher could have included a reading list at the back of the book.

In the stack of library books I checked out as Teen the Elder was leaving were a number of British novels. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’d never read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, and I thought it was delightful.  t’s a  lovely little slice of pre-war England, brief but beautifully drawn.

I couldn’t get over the skillfulness with which Watson sketches the characters and tangles and untangles the hilarious plot in such a brief book (I read it in one evening).  If you haven’t read it either, curl up with this book some night, and enjoy the coming to life of a failed governess who is suddenly thrust into a glamorous new circle of friends. Her touching surprise at being treated with kindness and appreciated as something other than a shabby middle aged woman is just a delight.

Written at about the same time, and also hilarious, is Evelyn Waugh‘s Scoop. Waugh’s humor is a little more biting, but just as Watson casts a spotlight on the socioeconomic troubles of being a down-on-her-luck woman in 1930’s London, Waugh shines a bright light on the vagaries of the press. I’m a big fan of novesl as social commentary, and I loved the sharp wit in Waugh’s tale of mistaken identity and foolishness among a band of foreign correspondents covering a “conflict” in an African country.  Despite the fact that the newspaper sends the wrong man to get the scoop, he manages to do just that, unwittingly. I got a big kick out of Waugh’s innocent hero and the bumbling cast of characters who make the book a first class farce.

Alexander McCall Smith‘s humor is more along the lines of Alan Bennett or Jane Austen — he pokes fun at society but in a gentle way that feels more self-effacing than scathing. The prolific McCall Smith writes a number of different series, and in September I read the first book set in Corduroy Mansions, an apartment building in London occupied by people whose lives form the many narrative strands of the book. Another quick read, I appreciated the book for McCall Smith’s wit and eye for detail, and for the great humanity with which he portrays even the least empathetic of characters.

Another book of great humanity (maybe that’s the theme that connects my reading this month) is The Giver by Lois Lowry. I’m a huge fan of Number the Stars, which is an amazing story well told.  Lowry was speaking at Gibson’s  — hers was one the last events I set up before I left the events coordinator position — and I realized I’d never read The Giver. Teen the Younger is reading it too. It’s a very interesting story about a boy chosen to receive the memories of his people in a future where most of the population has no memories and only carefully managed feelings, by design.

Lowry explained when she spoke that she follows her curiosity when she writes: she notices something or wonders about something, and writes her way to understanding or answering.  Many writers talk about this as their process, but I think it’s rare that a writer’s talent in shaping words into living breathing characters and compelling stories is paired with Lowry’s terrific imagination and enormous capacity for capturing the essentials of humanity. Bad things happen in her books, but strong, courageous, smart characters deal with these wrongs, and Lowry gives children the power to be those talented agents of change.

Max Barry is another author who explores both the limits of evil in his book Jennifer Government.  Barry reminds me of Jasper Fforde in some ways, perhaps because Jennifer Government, like Thursday Next, is an agent unafraid of working slightly outside of operational standards to nail her bad guys.  Also like FForde, Barry gleefully skewers corporations, greed, the shallowness of consumer culture, and the absurdity of the advertising world.  In the world of Jennifer Government, your surname is the place you work, everyone belongs to one or another shoppers’ loyalty plans, and only a few counter-cultural types care that the world is more or less run by corporate giants and the NRA.  It’s a rollicking read; one thing I wished is that I got to know the characters a little better.

An author whose books plumb the absolute depth and breadth of her characters’ humanity, baring every foible, every wound, until she exposes the core goodness beneath slightly cracked but stolid exteriors is Jane Gardam. I am absolutely in awe of her powers.  I read God On the Rocks  last winter, and thought it was magnificent. In September I read Old Filth and The Man In the Wooden Hat and I think Gardam accomplishes in two short volumes what it takes Anthony Powell twelve books to say in A Dance to the Music of Time. (Not that I discount the beauty, majesty, and genius of this great work — I am just saying Gardam is absolutely as good and these two books blew me away).

I’d really recommend you read Old Filth and God On the Rocks together, because they are parts of a whole story of the marriage of Sir Edward Feathers, a raj-orphan (child of parents serving the Empire in Asia, shipped to England as a very small boy to be schooled) and Betty Feathers, who survived the occupation of Hong Kong during WWII.  Gardam’s novels capture their marriage in large and small details, their friendships, their tragedies, their indiscretions. The books are also a portrait of those faithful servants of the British Empire who matured in the post-war years as everything they knew, everything they’d been raised to inherit and rule, was changing.

As with all great literature, the beauty of Gardam’s books is that you don’t have to be a part of the culture she’s talking about to identify with these characters, to admire and love them, to find yourself sympathizing tremendously.  One thing that’s especially remarkable about this pair of novels is that I found myself ultimately siding with both Edward and Betty, if there was any side-taking. And Gardam repeats some scenes in the both books, from different perspectives, so I wonder if in fact she too was rooting for both of them and felt she needed to tell both stories?

Another hallmark of a great book for me is that not only are the main characters alive as I read, but also the minor characters. These books are filled with an intriguing supporting cast, and even when a character appears only briefly, Gardam makes him or her walk right off the page into your mind’s eye.  The range of human experience and emotion she covers is amazing — family identity and expectation, social standing, national and cultural identity, post-war and then post-modern cultural change, the influence of early childhood in shaping the psyche, longing to belong, longing for love, the jumble of love and commitment and duty and habit that is a long marriage, maternal instinct or its lack, friendship and rivalry, the impact of retirement and old age, the quirky criss-cross and parallel ramblings of shared memories. I simply loved these books.

I also loved a poetry book I read this month: Happy Life by David Budbill. I reviewed Budbill’s previous collection, Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse last spring.  He is one of my favorite poets, and the new collection is wonderful. Budbill is the perfect model for my ideal of a life learner; his life and work as he writes about it are seamless, he is learning all the time, his work on the mountain homestead he has made for himself informs his work as a writer, his study influences the work he chooses to do. These poems describe a happy life lived in harmony and balance.

There is much to love in this collection. I sent this poem to my faraway son the week of 9/11: “Everything” after 9/11/21001 –“Milkweed pods/cracked open/seeds dishevel/fall/ Everything/ sweeter and/more fragile/now.”  So true and beautiful and simple. I also really admire the spareness of “A Certain Slant of Light” — “A certain slant/of light/ this time of year says more than/color in the hills/or chill air/that fall/is here.”

In the NH Writers’ Project Book Club for Poets we discussed Kay Ryan’s work, and our moderator, Martha Carlson-Bradley, commented that it takes a good deal of bravery to write poems with few words.  The sounds, colors, sensations, and sensibility of Budbill’s poems far outweigh the number of words.  Budbill writers longer poems as well — I enjoyed “Summer Blues” and “Three Days In New York: A Blues In B♭,” which are two of the longest poems in this book. But I feel a real connection with something essential in the shorter poems, as if Budbill has excavated the core of what poetry is.

Also this month, I read a book that gets to the core of what makes us human: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I read this in order to participate in 1book140. I have to admit, as much as a love the idea of a Twitter-wide book club, I found it hard to engage in conversation in that medium. But it was serendipitous that I read the book anyway, because I discovered that the Hooksett Public Library’s book club was discussing it on the same night that Teen the Younger wanted to go to their anime club. The club’s discussion of Skloot’s book was fascinating, more so because a woman who works in a lab brought in catalogs of cells lines and showed us numerous photos of HeLa cells. I really enjoyed the conversation and plan to go back to the book club.

As for the book itself, I was torn. It’s a story I’d never heard — that one poor black woman’s cells are responsible for the success of countless medical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to AIDS research, and that her family was unaware her cells were taken and cultivated.  Skloot tells that portion of the book well.

Some of the family story is so harsh and difficult, and both the book club and the Twitter group felt that The Immortal Life occasionally went too far in exposing the family’s tragedies — the scientist in the book club disagreed and saw the book as the story of the humanity behind the cells. I don’t know if Skloot went too far or if it just was beyond my own comfort level.  I do think the book exposes very important social justice and ethical issues.

Finally to the book that lent a word to my post title this month: Gilead. Ever since hearing Paul Harding talk about his deep admiration for Marilynne Robinson and her influence on him, I’ve been wanting to read her work, and this was on the library shelf. I found it entrancing — her prose is serious and also very lovely, even transcendent, I would say. If you don’t know the story, the book is written from the perspective of John Ames, a minister who has been told he doesn’t have long to live and is writing to his seven year old son.

He writes about his love for the boy and his mother, the surprise he felt at having a family after many years as a widower, his lifelong friendship with another minister named Boughton, the history of Gilead, Iowa, and of his family, and the powerful and strange relationship he has had with Boughton’s son Jack. During the course of writing this long letter to his boy, Jack returns to Gilead, and Ames tries to reconcile his feelings with the realities of Jack’s life, to decide how much and when to share Jack’s troubled past with his young wife, and to determine why Jack has come home and why he is going away again.

Robinson fills the book with scripture, theology, history, philosophy, and the stark, simple beauty of the small prairie town she’s created. It’s an unbelievably deep read — one to be savored slowly.  I found myself re-reading some passages immediately, and turning back to others when I took the book up again the next day.  I also copied down a number of words in my poetry journal: susurrus, irrefrragable, crepuscular, disjunction, unreposeful, covetise. Looking back over the book, I’d say it’s not just word choice but cadence, sentence structure, sound, that make this prose so special.  I would love to hear it read aloud.

Besides The Giver and assorted manga, Teen the Younger is reading a book about Japanese history and culture, A Geek In Japan, by Hector Garcia. This is an interesting book because it was a bestseller in Spain, and now it’s been translated into eight languages. It’s a Spanish ex-pat’s view of Japan. She’s also reading a “business history” of Nintendo called Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, by Jeff Ryan. In September she took part in the Southeast Review’s Young Writers’ Regimen, which looked like so much fun that I signed up for the adult version for October.

The Computer Scientist recently suggested he was going to dismantle the entire teetering pile of books on his nightstand and start fresh. He is reading Steig Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  So far he’s enjoying it.

Up next?  I’m spoiled for choices. Tune in next month to see which titles floated to the top of my pile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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