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Posts Tagged ‘book groups’

I went to a JASNA Massachusetts meeting last weekend and heard Rachel M. Brownstein, author of the forthcoming book, Why Jane Austen? speak.  She said several things that really struck me: that we’re interested in Jane Austen (and in wedding announcements and neighborhood news) because in these stories we are able to consider our own lives in relation to others.   That when she taught undergraduates, she found that they hadn’t had much experience discussing the moral implications of interpersonal relations, and of course Austen’s books lend themselves to that perfectly.  That Austen is an author “of complicity” who makes readers feel they are in on the characters’ lives.  That we read (not only Austen) in order to see ourselves reflected in books — to look for ourselves even in people very different from ourselves.

I felt immediately that Brownstein is a kindred spirit — I have made some of the same observations about reading here at bookconscious. The Computer Scientist & I frequently try to engage Teen the Elder & Teen the Younger in discussions about what we’re all reading that go beyond “this happened and then this happened,” or “I liked it,” but delve into “Would this really happen this way?” “Why do we feel so sympathetic towards this character?” “Would you like to be like her?”  “Would you like to be his friend?” “What part of the story did you feel most strongly about?”

Before you feel badly about your own conversations around the dinner table, be assured we usually get little response and/or dramatic eye rolls or other teen-like expressions; we have a little more success asking them their thoughts on the ethical, social, or cultural impact of current events, but only if we catch them at a good time. But we initiate these conversation because we enjoy wrestling with ideas and want the Teens to at least consider them (some day they may even admit enjoying such discussions).

And I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Brownstein that we enjoy books (and all storytelling) because we are able to find a way into a fictional world, and perhaps even imagine ourselves there, or we make connections between fictional realities and our actual lives.  This month, thinking about my reading led me to consider the ways fiction and poetry in particular offers readers the chance to try out emotional situations, to perceive and understand things we might not otherwise come across in our daily lives, to develop emotional intelligence.

Interestingly, two of my favorite reads this month featured characters whose difficulties relating to others led me to think about emotional intelligence just before I heard Rachel Brownstein speak — the bookconscious theory of reading interconnectedness strikes again.  Over the weekend I was re-reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and I was struck this time by a couple of things I don’t remember focusing on the first time I read it. I rarely take time to re-read, but I’d like to do it more often.

Small Island is about two married couples, one who are English (Queenie & Bernard) and one who are Jamaican (Hortense & Gilbert) but  move to England after WWII. Hortense, the Jamaican woman, seems to be so emotionally unaware that she can’t sense when she’s said something insensitive or inappropriate.  Bernard, the English man, is also fairly clueless about other people’s feelings for much of the novel. Interestingly, during the Gibson’s Book Club discussion on Monday evening, I noticed something else — all four characters are raised in emotionally distant or dysfunctional families.

One of the things I love about Small Island is that none of the characters, even the most likable ones (Gilbert & Arthur, Bernard’s father, are my favorites), are perfect. They’re whole, real people, who do both good and bad things.  And all of them develop and grow; I think it would be nearly impossible not to be transformed by the experiences of war and emigration that are the backdrop of these characters’ stories, so this feels real as well. Levy beautifully captures historical details and the unique voices of each character (one reviewer notes that she’s as good at accurately rendering English speech of the time as she is with Jamaican English).

Hortense’s clueless, snobbish belief that she is a lady and a well trained teacher and is therefore better than common, uneducated people sets her up for a rude awakening when she finds her Jamaican teaching credentials are no good in England. And worse, that plenty of people can’t see past her skin, which she thinks is golden, but some just see as black.  Her high expectations of Gilbert, who faces the same discrimination and of shabby, dreary post-war England are brought low as well, until she begins to see potential in both. Queenie has accomplished her girlhood dream of leaving her parents’ farm and butchery, but finds life in London no more satisfying until she begins to help Blitz victims and get to know her father-in-law better.

Both women’s perceptions, formed in large part by the formative moments of their childhoods, get in the way of their ability to accurately read and understand other people, until their engagement with the real world opens their eyes. Watching that happen is lovely; Levy has a light touch, in that there’s no “Oh, here’s where she finally gets it” moment, no clunking machinery of the novel in view. Just a good story and well developed (and developing) characters.

When Bernard comes back from serving in Burma and India believing he has to face the consequences his wartime dalliance, he eventually learns that Queenie has her own secrets. All four characters struggle to deal with cultural and societal pressures, as well as the upheaval of war, and Levy touches on economic and racial discrimination as well as the resilience of human dreams and hopes. Small Island is a great read, with much to discuss, so if your book club is looking for a new title, check it out.

Just as Hortense’s sheltered and unusual upbringing contributes to her insensitivity and makes her less able to read social situations, the heroine of  Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter, Ginny, has been brought up protected by her parents to the point that when they die, her sister Amanda is convinced she is unable to live alone. From the first pages of this fantastic debut novel, the reader knows something is very different about Ginny.  McHenry doesn’t tell us right away what her condition is, but when she slips into the closet during her parents’ funeral and also cooks up a batch of ribollita to calm herself, it’s clear she’s unique.

Through a small cast of minor characters (who are some of the most interesting supporting cast I’ve met in a novel recently), and through Amanda’s increasing frustration with Ginny, we begin to see the whole picture. Part of which is that Ginny & Amanda’s parents, though well meaning, have brought them up with no tools to really understand each other. Despite their good intentions, what they’ve done is paper over everyone’s awareness of Ginny’s differences. Even Ginny herself struggles daily to convince herself she’s “normal,” in an attempt to keep everything the way it is.

Bookconscious readers know I don’t like to give too much of a story away, so I’m being cryptic. I will say that Ginny’s deeply felt passion for food leads her to discover what she needs to do to move on from her parents’ death and to finally get a life in her late 20’s.  McHenry uses a touch of magical realism to create a series of encounters between her heroine and deceased characters — when Ginny cooks certain recipes, the ghosts of those who wrote them appear and she can speak with them. If you think this sounds improbable, read the book.

McHenry’s depiction of Ginny figuring out her gift for summoning spirits is so well done I actually looked to see if I had any recipes written out by my grandmother.  Not that I think she’ll show up in my kitchen — I don’t. And I’m not sure it’s important to know whether the ghosts in The Kitchen Daughter are really appearing to Ginny or if she just wants so badly to resolve the questions she has about her childhood and her life that she believes they are there. The point is, through her own resolve, she finds answers to a number of questions about herself and her family.

But the book made me yearn for some kind of transcendent communication of my own.  Even though I am nothing like Ginny, I wanted to bring the novel into my real life, and I empathized with her need to connect to those she loved who are gone.  All credit to McHenry, who has truly created a fresh, unique voice in Ginny, and whose story drew me in so thoroughly.  Ginny challenges readers to reconsider their perception of  “normal” as she tries to make her sister see her as a person and not a problem.

The other terrific thing about The Kitchen Daughter is that there is no Hollywood ending, but there is just enough resolution to satisfy, and both Ginny and Amanda are somewhat transformed by their experiences.  And yes, by the novel’s end, they’ve developed a great deal of emotional intelligence.  McHenry even includes recipes (she’s a cook and food blogger as well as novelist).  I haven’t tried any yet but I intend to.

The third novel I read this month is The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.  You’ve no doubt heard of this book because it’s getting a great deal of press.  One of the things that makes it a media magnet is the unique form; the book is fiction, but the narrator, also called Arthur Phillips, tells his life story in the first section, and tells readers he’s writing it down as the introduction to a lost Shakespeare play (which he comes to believe is fake, but others believe is real) called, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” If you’re already somewhat confused about which Arthur is real and which is fake, fear not. That’s the point.

As an examination of the veracity of truth and fiction, The Tragedy of Arthur (the novel, not the play) is clever. I kept reading even though I found several aspects of the story unlikeable, and even though I began to mistrust the narrator (which, in fairness, seems to be the author’s intent). The part that bothered me the most is Arthur’s relationship with his twin sister.  Much of his remembrance of his childhood hinges on the closeness he feels for his twin sister Dana  — he refers more than once to the way he feels complete with her, that he can truly be himself when she’s around, and that her unconditional and exceptional twin love gets him through every dark time. So far, so good.

But then as an adult, he just about ruins her life.  Ruining his own life seemed like a plot twist I could dislike but understand. Ruining a friend’s life, a spouse’s, even a parent’s, would be unpleasant but likely for this poor man whose life has been one long series of deceptions and confusions over what he can trust and what he cannot. Even screwing his agent and publisher seemed like something Arthur might do, given his growing fear that the play his ex-con father gave him is fake. (Note: in another bold but confusing authorial move, Arthur Phillips the author names Arthur Phillips the protagonist’s agent and editor after his real life agent and editor.)

But messing up the one person he’s spent hundreds of pages saying is the  source of the only good in his life?  And really not being terribly sorry about it? In fact, right up to the end, trying to figure out how he can have his cake and eat it too? More implausible than this reader could take. In light of my reflections on perception and awareness, especially emotional, I couldn’t see how Arthur Phillips the character could possibly be such a dolt.

I was so irritated by the time I finished the “introduction” (and by then, I’d read all these glowing reviews that didn’t seem to take any issue with Arthur’s treatment of Dana, so I was feeling like a grumpy freak reader), I couldn’t bring myself to do more than scan the fake Shakespeare play, which is included in full.  Several reviews say it’s good fake Shakespeare.  That’s a challenge most people wouldn’t bother with. I’m impressed with the real Arthur Phillips’ virtuosity — he’s very creative and a fine writer — but this book wasn’t for me. But it might be for you, especially if you like smoke and mirrors.

I just finished reading a collection of short fiction, The Architect of Flowers, by William Lychack.  My colleague at the bookstore, Devon Mozdierz (remember that name, she’s a young artist, and someday you can say you heard about her here first), pointed out that one of the benefits of reading short stories is that if you come across one you don’t like, you don’t have to decide whether to read 400 more pages to see if you’ll like it after all. Here, here. Lychack will be at Gibson’s on Thurs., May 12.

Unlike some recent short fiction collections I’ve read, this one isn’t linked stories — they all stand alone. Lychack’s writing is evocative and dreamy in some places, intimate and conversational in others,  and in all of the stories, clear and beautiful.  His subjects and characters range in age, gender, and experience, but Lychack convincingly channels kids and adults, men and women, people in the midst of a crisis and those who are recalling happier times. This virtuosity is impressive.

I especially enjoyed “A Stand of Fables,” which imagines the origins of a town’s beloved longtime teacher, “Calvary,” about a boy visiting his mother’s grave, and both “Chickens,” and “Hawkins.” In these last two, I could easily imagine myself trying to do something I know nothing about, seeing it through even once I realize I’m hopeless at it. The woman in “Chickens” turns to books to help her figure out why her flock isn’t laying — something anyone who knows me would say is my m.o. whenever I try something new.

“Love Is  Temper” is an immigrant story, again one I felt a kinship with. Whether our political leaders are willing to acknowledge it or not, immigration is part of America’s cultural DNA, and most of us can really empathize with arrival stories and their many-colored tragedies.  “The Ghostwriter” is a fascinating, quietly touching piece about a man whose job is to write up people’s inspirational stories for a magazine, that left me wondering how much of that genre is gently reworked by faceless ghostwriters.

Many of the stories in The Architect of Flowers deal with death and grieving.  But the collection isn’t dreary or maudlin; grieving manifests itself as an inner dialog in at least two of the stories, and I like the idea that this might be a way to deal with grief myself some day.  The title story and a couple of others veer slightly into magical realism, and I love that; Lychack uses this very subtly, but it’s effective.  I’m impressed with his range, and I look forward to his reading.

In nonfiction this month, I read Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams. Wendy came to Gibson’s in late April. This is an example of a book I enjoyed well enough that was enhanced enormously by meeting the author and hearing her read from and talk about her book — as I’ve mentioned before, an author event can take a book to another level. Find your local indie here, and check out their events schedule!

Ok, soapbox over. Back to Kraken.  I had no idea that cephalopods were so interesting, so smart and sometimes even personable. And the scientists who study them? Fascinating people.  What I liked most about Wendy’s book is that she asked some philosophical questions about how humans perceive other species, and whether we can really understand non-human intelligence. If you think science is dry and slightly boring, read Kraken for a lively look at creatures we often demonize as sea monsters, and at the people who are devoting their life’s work to learning about them.

A person whose life work I admire very much is Billy Collins. The Teens really enjoy his poems, and many of them have been among our “weekly poem” selections, posted in the bookconscious kitchen for the family’s enjoyment and edification. I treated myself to Collins’ new collection, out for National Poetry Month, Horoscopes for the Dead.

One reason I think Billy Collins is so popular with young people (as well as people who don’t think they’ll like poetry) is that he’s got a very appealing wit. His poems often take an ordinary cultural object and come at it from an unexpected perspective. The title poem is a good example — the narrator applies horoscopes printed in the daily newspaper to a person who has died, with asides like “I can’t imagine you ever facing a new problem/ with a positive attitude, but you will definitely not/ be doing that, or anything like that, on this weekday in March.”  There are several poems dealing with loss, age, long relationships, and the like.  Poems  that let the reader get inside a particular emotional moment and try it out from someone else’s point of view.

I particularly enjoyed “The Meatball Department,” which references a spouse who reads in bed with an annoying light; “The Guest,” with tulips drooping as each day of a visit passes, measuring the time the guest should stay; “Good News,” about hearing that a dog doesn’t have cancer and finding wonder even in a ordinary cheese grater; “Hell,” which imagines that Dante would have included a mattress store in hell’s circles if they’d existed in his lifetime; “A Question About Birds,” which wonders whether birds of different species need a translator to understand each other; ” and “Vocation,” where the narrator invents a pig constellation and admits his “true vocation –/keeping an eye on things/whether they exist or not,/recumbent under the random stars.”

I for one am grateful Billy Collins is keeping an eye on things whether they exist or not, and writing about them for all of us to read. I think that’s one of the most succinct and apt descriptions of the writing life I’ve ever come across. “Vocation” is going up on the kitchen white board today as the bookconscious poem of the week.

Besides enjoying a few of these poems themselves, the Teens enjoyed their own reading as well. Teen the Elder, who bookconscious fans know is a science history buff, is enjoying Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. In a familial example of bookconscious interconnectedness, both his uncle and his grandpa are reading it as well.

Teen the Elder has long been a Bryson fan. He says he just really enjoys his writing style, which is smart, clear, and funny.  And, Teen the Elder continues to find scientists and scientific discovery very interesting. Lately he’s been regaling me with  stories of the dire ways geology could kill us.  Entertaining!

Teen the Younger, her oldest friend, and the Computer Scientist attended Anime Boston Easter weekend.  She says it was awesome, and next year, instead of staying up too late with a friend the night before, she’ll get more rest, because there was so much to see. She looked awesome as well, dressed up as Hotaru from Gakuen Alice.

In addition to continuing to read Vlad Tod and several manga series I’ve mentioned here before, Teen the Younger got herself the first book in a new (to her) manga series, Code Geass, and the convention.  She says the reason she likes this story is that as in Death Note, the main character is an overachieving kid who wants to use his special power to change the world for the better. Said hero, LeLouch, is a citizen of the “Holy Empire of Britannia,” which is ruling Japan. Japan has been renamed Area 11.  He figures out he can use this power, “Geass,” to control other people’s minds.

The Computer Scientist enjoyed Anime Boston as well, and he was finally feeling better. We all got sick in April, but he had was really feeling puny there for awhile. Usually when he’s sick he re-reads The Stand. Yes, a tough choice when you’re sick, but it’s his tradition. This time, because we’d done a massive book re-org., he found Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon (which I mentioned in last month’s post) and Silence of the Lambs were nearby, so he re-read those.

He says of Silence of the Lambs, “I know every nook and cranny of this text, and yet re-read it still leads to wonderful emotions of surprise, fear, and horror.” Once he was feeling better, he finished Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I recommended and wrote about here. The Computer Scientist’s take: “I especially like the “deathless man” sections. For a first effort, Obreht clearly establishes herself as a outstanding writer with a great sense of storytelling.

What’s up in the bookconscious house? I’m almost done with Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life and I have Jasper Fforde’s latest Thursday Next book out from the library. I’ve also started Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems.  I have a pile of nonfiction I want to read as well, and some novels. I’m happy to say my efforts to write more regularly are bearing fruit and I have some poems of my own to work on. Teen the Elder is planning to read the highly lauded science history by Richard Holmes,  Age of Wonder.

Teen the Younger has large “currently reading” and “to read” piles. Recently she paid me what I considered a great compliment: “Mom, I’m turning into you. I’m reading three books and drinking lots of tea.”  On that note, on this Mother’s Day, stay tuned for more thoughts on bookconscious reading.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I have spent a great deal of time and life energy on the Beautiful Game lately.  I’ve mentioned before that we spend a lot of time driving to and sitting beside pitches near (as near as a few blocks away) and far (the farthest we’ve been is Ottawa; yes, the one in Canada) where the Teenager is playing.  Bookconscious readers know that I’m a big advocate for toting a portable “to-read” pile in the car. Soccer enables my reading habit.

A tournament, for example, is a good place to get some reading done. There are all those breaks between games, long enough to return to a nice cool hotel room but not long enough to allow for anything as ambitious as sightseeing. Ditto long car rides to away matches, which are conducive to catching up on magazines and simultaneously sneaking in some reading aloud — a habit I adore and my family mostly endures. “Say, did you know pomegranate rinds are anti-microbial? Listen to this . . . .” Generally there is a good deal of surreptitious ear bud insertion at that point. Sometimes the Computer Scientist listens, but other times I’ll ask, “You don’t really want me to keep reading, do you?” And he’ll say, “That’s right.”  Sighing doesn’t solve this, I’ve found.

Interestingly enough, I am not alone in this tendency. Freelance writer Hillary Nelson explained that she reads choice bits aloud to her family too, in a piece she wrote for the Concord Monitor on the fantastic memoir, Coop, by Michael Perry. Nelson’s family, like mine, didn’t stop me when I read aloud from Coop on one of our soccer road trips. In fact all three of them guffawed at some of Perry’s hilarious and heartfelt memoir.

Then, all three of them (and my brother, who was visiting from Seattle) made it to Perry’s event at Gibson’s, which was a blast. If Perry tours near you, don’t miss him. He does a very entertaining reading, and like a good rock star, he reads oldies for die-hard fans and newbies who want to feel like they were there at the inception, and just enough new work to leave readers wanting to know what happens next. It’s easy to wonder, because even though Perry’s subjects are simple —  home, farm, family, friendship, growing up, finding (and losing and seeking again) faith, parenting, balancing to-do lists with living — he gives each vignette the full narrative treatment.

If you don’t think kidney stones are funny, you haven’t been to a Mike Perry reading. I loved Coop because it felt so real; as I read, I imagined Perry telling the stories in the memoir. Now that I’ve heard, him, I don’t have to imagine anymore. His voice on the page is strong, sensitive, smart, and often so funny I had to put the book down and catch my breath from laughing. In person, he’s all that as well. I plan to become a die hard and read the whole Perry back list, eventually.

Another book I read during a tournament weekend in Vermont was Mrs. Somebody Somebody, by Tracy Winn. Unfortunately, Tracy had to cancel her event at Gibson’s due to a health problem — we hope she is better soon. The book is wonderful, and just right for a vacation, when you may be setting your reading down frequently. Each of the linked stories in the book is set in Lowell, near a mill.  Some of the characters are mill workers, others are relatives of the mill owners, some just live and work nearby. Winn is a powerful writer — my grandmother would say she uses no extra words. The stories are rich and riveting.

On our trip to Ottawa, I took along Allegra Goodman‘s new novel, The Cookbook Collector.  It was an interesting read, but flawed. Neither of the two main characters seemed entirely plausible to me, and there were too many lesser characters passing in and out of the main storyline without becoming fully realized individuals.  Goodman writes well, so it was particularly frustrating to see glimpses of intriguing subplot go undeveloped, or find myself wishing she’d given readers more of a particular minor character’s views.

The story is set during the .com boom and bust of the late 1990’s, when the Computer Scientist was working for both a very large (the largest) software company and then a smaller one, so perhaps my quibbles are compounded by my familiarity with some of Goodman’s subject matter. The collector of the title is also mostly absent from the story, although his collection appears, in some chapters, in detail, and in others, not so much. Uneven is probably the best one word summary of this novel. The parts I liked, I liked very much, which made the rest that much more frustrating.

Traveling for soccer enables me to read during times when I would likely be doing household chores if were were home. But The World Cup has cut into my reading time, as I’ve been glued to the television with the rest of my soccer mad family. My daughter observed it’s the most time I’ve spent downstairs — typically, the domain of the Computer Scientist and the kids — all year. Even though the U.S. went out (something we watched in a pub in Ottawa with a few other American fans and a bunch of Ghana fans), the Teenager has an encyclopedic knowledge of the remaining teams and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the tournament together. Well, he keeps up with it and tells me what I’ve missed or misunderstood. I’ve enjoyed his blog posts for Word of Mouth, as well as his own Beautiful Game blog.

Before the  World Cup started, I finished David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I’d read Black Swan Green, and enjoyed Mitchell’s very fine writing. One of Gibson’s Random House sales reps gave me the advance reader copy of Jacob de Zoet, with the words, “you like weird books, don’t you?”

I didn’t get a chance to ask him in what way Mitchell’s book was weird and just dove in. I’d say now that it’s weird because Mitchell is one of the most praised writers of contemporary fiction, but he chose to deal with an obscure slice of Sino-Dutch history in a sprawling tome. Most highly lauded fiction writers, especially those known for mind-blowing innovations in form (Ghostwritten, number9dream, and Cloud Atlas were all noted for being structurally creative) don’t turn to relatively straightforward storytelling (although Black Swan Green was fairly linear).

But Mitchell isn’t most writers and never was. So why so why wouldn’t such a masterful writer be capable of writing any novel he sets his mind to?  And anyway, who cares? What’s important, it seems to me, is not whether this book is unusual as compared to his earlier books, but whether it’s any good.

And it is.  Jacob de Zoet is a wonderful main character, and so are the many other characters — many, but fully developed and each carrying his or her own weight in the story.  Japan on the cusp of the 19th century is fascinating, and makes an excellent location for Mitchell’s exploration of mankind’s tendency toward sloth, greed, power, and dishonesty. The many Japanese and Dutch officials who try to cheat and trample their way to the top are as compelling as any Dickensian villains, and honest Jacob, plucky Orito Aibagawa, honorable magistrate Shiroyama, gruff but good Dr. Marinus, all represent the better side of human nature.

But this book isn’t simplistic, even if it’s sweeping and cinematic.  Mitchell manages to keep readers in suspense, and to me, at least, the resolution was not obvious. I enjoyed the rich historical details, including a strong sense of the physical challenge of living in the late 1700’s. And I do like a novel that is also a well told tale, which this is, mostly.

The only part that lost me was the section in which Orito’s family sells her to a shadowy cult. I found myself turning back to try and understand why this happened (classic father dies, evil stepmother sells her up the river scenario, but hard to grasp at first).  It wasn’t really clear what was going on in the strange temple where Orito ended up, and who knew what about it. This was, perhaps, a deliberate mysteriousness meant to make the shrine’s wacko leader seem even more unhinged, illogical, and evil. It any rate I enjoyed the book enough that this murky bit didn’t bother me too much, and I definitely want to go back and read the rest of Mitchell’s work.

Another novel I read this month dealt with characters sometimes acting in illogical or even delusional ways — but not towards evil ends. Tom Rachman‘s The Imperfectionists was a terrific read. I admit I sought it out on the strength of one review by Christopher Buckley.  The review didn’t let me down — I loved this book. It’s the story of some of the people who put out an English language newspaper in Rome, over the course of the paper’s history.

Each chapter is a story about one of the characters, including one reader and a number of the reporters, editors, and staff.  I think the reason this is a novel and not a collection of linked stories is because the paper is the link; the links between characters are sometimes very loose, because some of them don’t even work for the paper at the same time.  A few characters return in later chapters as supporting cast, and the paper’s founding family appear, with each generation slowly screwing up the place. The overarching story is the newspaper’s fate in the hands of this odd cast.

It’s hard to put my finger on what I liked here — Rachman’s writing is excellent, and the novel’s structure is unique without being gimmicky. There’s something classically romantic about journalism, and also something endearingly quirky about some journalists; Rachman plays up both of these characteristics.  No one part of the book floored me, but The Imperfectionists was just thoroughly entertaining. One way of comparing it to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Mitchell’s book would make a three hour sweeping costume drama, and The Imperfectionists would be a ninety minute indie film hit, with a lot of hip dialogue and a sketchy plot. You’d love them both, different as they may be.

One chapter of The Imperfectionists is set in Africa, where two other books I read in June take place. The Price of Stones is part memoir, part non-profit chronicle. Author Twesigye Jackson Kaguri comes from a small village in rural Uganda. As a boy, he heard about human rights and found a calling — he went on to Makarere University and then Columbia University and worked in human rights advocacy. But he never forgot the way his older brother returned to help people in the village, and as soon as he could, he did the same. He also began to learn about the scourge of HIV/AIDS as it tore through Uganda, the village, and even Kaguri’s family.

On one of his visits to the village with his wife, Kaguri realized that what he really wanted was to make a longer-lasting investment in his village than he could manage through emergency loans handed out as needed. Education had given him the life he felt blessed to be living, and education might also be the key to preventing HIV/AIDS. He told his wife, and then a few friends, that he wanted to build a school.

The Price of Stones is Jackson’s story, and the story of his founding the school and the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project, which today includes support for the grandmothers who care for so many of the orphans, community programs like wells, a library, health programs, and an agricultural and vocational center, and scholarships for Nyaka School graduates to continue their educations.  One terrific thing about the book is that Jackson seems as awed by his own good fortune and the amazing success of Nyaka as anyone else. He is humble, but he is also a man of faith and he gives credit not only to earthly influences, like his siblings and mother, but also to God, from whom, he feels, all good things come.

I’ve always wondered how some people who are dealing with extreme hardship or tragedy curse God and others keep the faith. I met a woman on the porch of her tornado ravaged home a few years ago when the Computer Scientist and I, a good friend, and our children handed out sack lunches we’d made.  This woman had clearly been living in poverty before the tornado, and now her house was damaged. Glass, metal, and power lines twisted around her yard. But she raised up her arms, palms heavenward, and told me she was blessed, I was blessed, were were all blessed, right that moment, by a good God.  I was floored, and still am by that kind of abiding faith.

Jackson’s faith is challenged but never wavers, as he deals with village politics, a difficult father, and honest mistakes. But he manages to overcome loss of loved ones and friends, difficulties with bureaucracy and corruption, and discouraging words from some of the very people who will ultimately benefit from his nonprofit, and you get the sense that he will prevail, even though Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project is a relatively new nonprofit. I admire the way Kaguri mentions the hard stuff alongside the successes, and by the end of the book, you’d have to be pretty hard hearted not to be pulling for Jackson and the staff and kids.

Hearing Jackson Kaguri’s story in person was great — he came to Gibson’s. The Teenager had a game that night, so I suggested I might ask for the night off, but he wisely pointed out that there would be (many) other games, but only one chance, perhaps, to meet someone making such a difference in the world. True.

Talking to Jackson, like selling simple jewelry for BeadforLife, reminded me of how soul-satisfying it is to be in close contact with the source of a nonprofit. Large organizations often lose their founding passion and become a business like many others. Nyaka is small enough that when I donated some birthday money to their work, I got a personal email within 24 hours from Jackson, saying how glad he was to meet me in Concord and thanking me for getting involved in the project.

And you know what? I feel invested, like my small gift might really help a kid make it. I admire some large nonprofits, like Heifer Project and Habitat, but my donations to a place like that seem more likely to keep the lights on in a corporate headquarters than to really touch a life. I get that corporate headquarters need light to do their work. But my soul wants to hear a child laugh with delight when she opens a new notebook in a school in Africa, not hear a fluorescent fixture hum in an office in corporate America.

Speaking of Africa, I finished West With the Night by Beryl Markham last weekend. Gibson’s book club is discussing it on Monday.  I’d never read it before; it was on my long term reading list, because I’d seen it recommended many times over the years.  It was really something, mainly because Markham was really something.  Her unusual childhood seems both charming and alarming to modern sensibilities, but it clearly made her the fearless adventurer that she became.  The world she moved in was both privileged and primitive — many of her friends were quite wealthy, she worked with racehorses and airplanes, yet she lived in huts and stables and “roughed it” beyond most people’s comfort zones.

Hemingway famously wrote a letter to Maxwell Perkins telling him he had to read West With the Night, because he felt it “a bloody wonderful book,” and said Markham “can write wrings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.”  You can see what he means in passages like, “The forest had fallen back, giving ground with the grim dignity of a respected enemy, and fields were cleaned of the rocks and bush that had lent the the character of wilderness for centuries;” and “Like all seaports of the East, Benghazi is blatant and raw; it is weary and wise.”

One thing contemporary readers may find interesting is that Markham’s memoir has very few details of her personal life, especially as an adult. There’s no mention that Tom Black, who was her flying instructor and friend, was also her lover.  The book doesn’t mention three husbands, or other affairs.  Nor does it offer any glimpse of  how others may have viewed her unusual life, other than a brief mention of the press coverage of her trans-Atlantic flight in 1936.  This is a refreshing contrast with today’s tell-all, marketing soaked world, where even people whose 15 minutes of fame is due to some scandal have publicist spin doctors to sell their lurid stories.

A book that critiques the 24 hour bombardment of media and advertising in its own way is Sudden Anthem, which is Matthew Guenette’s first full length poetry collection.  Guenette is a NH native who will be reading at Gibson’s on August 5.  Sudden Anthem is a witty, sharp book, and the poems are tense with love/hate fervor for media, popular culture, and consumer/corporate culture. At least that’s my take — poetry is of course, a dance between reader and poet, but here’s my reader’s view:

“Li Poem” imagines classical Chinese poet Li Po ruminating on the meaning of executives letting off steam with office pranks (don’t trust the suits, Guenette seems to say, slyly), “Remember to Watch”  critiques a culture that values advertising over poems,  “Vortex: Super-Sized Supermarket” describes the ways a giant box store is a very strange place which offers “these false dichotomies we pretend to/pretending to us in a discourse/of freezing and thawing,/cleaning and pre-heating–paper of plastic.”

I also admired the tongue-in-cheek “Brief History of the Home Gym ” and “Interview,” a hilarious take on both questions and answers which asks, “What do on ramps gain from area codes?/Specifically, fair market value/for cupcakes . . .”  Other favorites among the hard hitting humor poems in the collection: “The Today Show,” which imagines Katie Couric in the middle of a war zone; and “Acknowledgments,” a hilarious send up of the ubiquitous page where poets bow down to the high and mighty editors of the Literary Establishment who have deigned to give them a leg up by publishing their poems in impenetrable journals.

A couple of Guenette’s poems surprised me with their softer, more introspective tone, and I liked those very much as well: “Metamorphoses,” reads a bit like an avant-garde film, full of small flashes of imagery paired with little brush strokes of figurative language; “Poem,” seems like it’s going to be as wacky and swaggering as some of Guenette’s other work but has an underlying longing that makes it quieter; and the title poem looks gently into the childhood of a poet.

Speaking of childhood, there’s an urgent sense around here that childhood is short-lived. We’ve been on our first college visit with the Teenager since my last bookconscious post, and we have seven more planned. Gap Year possibilities are also the subject of intense research and discussion. It’s all somewhat overwhelming.

A little bit of me wants to ask if I can get off this ride, but I know the Teenager is not ours to keep, no matter how much we enjoy his company. I wrote his transcript this week. If you’re new to bookconscious, this is because we are life learners; neither the Teen nor the Preteen have gone to school in the traditional sense, although the Teenager has taken a couple of college classes and is considering another for fall (German, in preparation for the aforementioned Gap Year).

The transcript writing was eye opening. When the Computer Scientist and I embarked on this alternative educational plan for our kids, we wanted them to feel free to learn in the world, and not be constrained by the narrowness of school — who’s to say what any one person should learn, in the vast body of human knowledge? We wanted to equip them with the basic tools —  literacy and numeracy, critical thinking, time and space to become themselves — and then see them soar to heights of creative inquiry we never had the chance to reach ourselves.

In reality, sometimes they just want to sit on the couch and play video games, or climb a tree, or hang out, like any other kids. But looking at the big picture of how the Teenager has found his passions and preferred learning styles/methods and then diligently pursued them has kind of bowled me over with gratitude that we could afford him that opportunity.  The transcript he has introduces who he is, what he cares about, not just what he knows.

Of course, we live in a world that wants to package students into quantifiable data. While we don’t grade our kids (instead, we ask them to return to anything they don’t understand until they’ve worked out the difficulties, which we feel is what they’ll have to do in the real world, anyway), I did quantify his autodidactic life into categories, course descriptions, and credits (representations of the amount of time he spent learning, which is ludicrous if the goal is to view life as a seamless learning experience). And I listed the books and other resources he used to guide his learning.

This month the Teenager was pretty focused on watching the World Cup and following the foreign and domestic press coverage. He also finished reading a book on the mental aspect of soccer called Playing Out of Your Mind. He says it’s really interesting stuff, and applicable to life, not just soccer. Although some could argue that in his life, there isn’t much separation between the two!

The Preteen has been warily watching all of this college planning from the sidelines, but she seems mildly interested, mostly because she admires her brother. She’s a little tired of the driving around for soccer, but she liked Ottawa, and she got to pick out a stack of books to take along. She’s also continued bi-weekly library trips.  Among her choices this month were some more Fruits Basket manga, and several books by Wendy Mass.

It’s fun to watch her find an author whose books she likes enough to read in succession. I’ve done that myself, many times. These days I mostly vow to read all of an author’s books but actually end up just adding them to the never-ending, always-expanding “to read” list. In the Preteen’s case, she read Mass’s A Mango Shaped Space several months ago, and noticed another Wendy Mass book on the shelf at the library, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life.  She enjoyed both so she went back and got Every Soul a Star and Finally.

Of all of these, she liked Jeremy Fink the best, although she adds that she liked them all (evidence of that is that she finished them all; unlike her mother, the Preteen is able to set down a book she doesn’t like and move on). She thought Jeremy Fink was “kind of  an interesting story” with “really cool, unique characters.”  From a kid who has a t-shirt that says “I’m unique” and who is a pretty severe critic of the sameness of popular culture directed at people her age, that’s high praise.

She’s several books in her reading pile — Margaret Peterson Haddix‘s Found and Among the Hidden, and The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  That’s the sequel to Life As We Knew It, which describes a meteor knocking the moon out or orbit, with very serious consequences for Earth. The Preteen often starts a book and then starts a few more, and dips back into them at will. I used to be able to read several books at once but have found that as my life has become busier (and maybe as I’ve crept up on middle age), it’s too complicated to keep them all straight.

I also can’t seem to read more than a few pages when it’s horrendously hot, without falling asleep face down in my book. In contrast, the Computer Scientist has been reading more this past week. Last month he read another Star Wars book, The Rule of Two.  He said it was enjoyable enough, but he seems to have placed the Star Wars reading project on hold. He also read Blockade Billy, by Stephen King, which he said was well written but not among his favorite of King’s work. He liked the first part, which he said clearly exhibits King’s passion for baseball, better than the second. He’s currently reading (and has almost finished, in the comfort of our shiny new room air conditioner) Baseball Codes and Doctor on Everest. His to-read pile is in flux, but he plans to read Coop, since he enjoyed Perry’s reading so much, and to finish some books he’s started and then set aside.

I’ve just barely started The Companion, by Lorcan Roche, which Europa editions refers to as “subversive comic extravaganza,” and I have requested a couple of books by W.S. Merwin, because I always like to read or re-read the new poet laureate‘s work.   And my friend Shawn, who chairs Concord Reads, recommended Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone, which I have out from the library. But in June I never got to the two books I had pulled to the top of my bedside pile, Novice to Master and Raising Demons, so I’m trying to be mindful and just enjoy what’s in front of me without worrying too much about what’s next!

And for now, that means signing off so I can go eat lunch with the Teenager (and maybe the Preteen; it’s hard to tell when she’ll be feeling sociable). And possibly with the Cat Who Adopted Us — complete with dramatic firefighter rescue from 35+ feet up a tree.  We haven’t taken her to the vet or named her yet, but no one has responded to our “FOUND — CAT” posters nor newspaper ad, and she keeps meowing at us and climbing endearingly into our laps, so it’s possible she’s ours, or we’re hers, anyway. She seems to like books — she purrs happily when I’m reading beside her on the screened porch. So she may as well stay.

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Sometime towards the end of April, the Computer Scientist said something that stopped me cold. He noticed my frantic checking of how many pages were left in whatever book I was trying to finish ahead of an event at Gibson’s or a library due date, and he said, “Reading isn’t even fun for you anymore, it’s just another deadline.”

Then he pointed out the stacks of books beside my bed, the pile of magazines in my favorite chair, and the many sections of the New York Times at my place at the kitchen table and said, “You don’t enjoy what you’re reading, you just see it as what you have to finish, and it stresses you out.” Have I mentioned he has a reputation for giving direct and insightful feedback?

As you can imagine, my immediate reaction wasn’t to say, “Thank you for your searingly honest critique, darling, I’ll change my frenzied behavior at once.” Instead, I probably made a face, and I likely said something defensive and possibly a bit rude, although I refuse to confirm or deny that.  Unruffled by my response, the Computer Scientist rolled over and went blissfully to sleep. I obsessed.

And you know what? He’s right. After this conversation, we had a couple of whirlwind weeks chock full of children’s activities, a visit from his parents, and my own visit with my mom in South Carolina. I had less time to read (except on the four airplanes and airports I passed through, in which I read four books), so I was forced to make hard choices.  I came to a series of editorial decisions about my reading.

First of all, when it comes to periodicals, I am going to let go of my inherited belief that if you pay for something, you’d better get your money’s worth by using it all up — when it comes to the Times or Economist or all of the monthly magazines we get, I am going to allow myself not to read every last article. Yes, they are expensive. But we subscribe to many of them in part because we believe in their existence and wish to express our support. I am still getting plenty of value for my money even if I only read the parts I find most interesting or appealing.

Second, I simply have to admit that it’s impossible for me to read every event book at Gibson’s, especially as our schedule fills.  If it’s something I would want to read anyway or feel curious about, I’ll read it; if not, I will outsource my pre-event reading to family members, friends, or co-workers.

And if none of them has read the book before the event, I’ll rely on the tools I already use as a reader: Goodreads and the many excellent book blogs that are just a Google search away. A quick shout out to my father-in-law — he wrote a very helpful brief  on Walking to Gatlinburg, which I had no time to read. Thanks!

I also came to realize, after my own mother told me I looked “tired” (code for “wow, those are some bags under your eyes, honey”) in the family Easter pictures, that I have to face the biological facts. I am past the age where I can stay up until 2 am finishing a book and/or writing a blog post, especially two or three nights in a row, and still feel (and look) human. No more all-nighters. Unless a book is so darn fantastic I can’t help myself . . . .

Of course, all of these decisions came at the end of the month. So I actually read fourteen books since my last post about a month ago. The last one which I stayed up until all hours finishing was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which I was reading in a hurry so I could mail it back to my aunt, who lent it to me and had a list of friends waiting for it. I loved this book. I wanted to be friends with both Skeeter and Aibileen.

I’ve read the criticism — the plot is too obvious, the whites too one dimensional and typecast — but I think the people who are bothered by The Help are squeamish at one of two things: either they are uncomfortable with how truthful Stockett is, or they hate to admit that a number one best seller isn’t mind candy.  I’d rather look at the total package — and I think this book  is well written and delivers a great story, memorable and fully formed characters, and page turning entertainment.

Just as not everyone in 19th century England was as mean-spirited or good as Dickens’  villains or heroes, Stockett doesn’t intend to say that all 1960’s Southerners fell into her characters’ molds, either.  The Help is a rollicking good read as well as thought provoking social commentary, packaged in a populist style —  just like Dickens. Kathryn, if you are ever in New England, I’ll drop everything to have you at Gibson’s!

Another novel that manages to be both social commentary and hilarious fun is Co-Opted, by Joan Bigwood. Joan’s sister, Kate, is my friend and rector at St. Paul’s church here in Concord. Her novel follows the transformation of a stylish and successful New York City mom, Francesca Wilson, as her family moves to Palo Alto in the dot.com era. Facing an abrupt lifestyle change, as well as worries about her aging parents, Francesca finds herself becoming involved in a co-op preschool. She discovers talents she never knew she had, and a community to help her through some difficult times. It’s a gentle book, and it’s funny.

Those same words also describe Carl Lennertz‘s delightful memoir, Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now.  This charming book is both a tribute to his own happy childhood in what was then a small, sleepy town on Long Island and a reminder to today’s parents that we shouldn’t over think so much. The book is a series of short pieces Lennertz wrote to his daughter as she was approaching the teen years — around the age of my own Preteen.

Even though his family’s life in Manhattan is different in many ways than my own family’s life in New Hampshire (and all the many other places we’ve lived), the book resonated with me. Lennertz writes about things we have all experienced as kids and parents — getting really into certain music, enjoying sweet corn, trying not to seem uncool, swearing (I chuckled over the swear jar — something we tried a few years ago to no effect) and even deciding what will define us as adults.  Both as a lesson in thoughtful reflection and a slice of childhood and parenting in contemporary America, Cursed By A Happy Childhood is welcome relief from both didactic parenting tomes and painful memoirs of unhappy childhoods. This book would be a great Fathers’ Day or new dad gift.

I read five other nonfiction books, including two books by authors who came to the store (Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, and Eaarth, by Bill McKibben), another book recommended by my rector, and two other books of essays: A Place on Water, which I gave the Computer Scientist a couple of years ago for his birthday, and How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley, which is coming out in June.

I read A Place on Water because Wes McNair was one of three poets reading at the Concord Audi at this year’s April poetry event, and he wrote one of the the three essays in the book. And, I adore his work — there’s no other way to describe it. His two neighbors on Drury Pond in Maine, Bill Roorbach and Robert Kimber, wrote the other two essays. This is a gorgeous book — really, each piece is so beautifully wrought, and yet feels as effortless as floating in a perfect little pond on a summer day. You’ll want a camp in Maine, badly, when you’re through reading.

Sloane Crosley is brilliant. I read the advance copy of How Did You Get This Number on a plane, and people stared at me as I laughed out loud. She is everything I love in an essayist — funny, smart, wickedly observant, interesting, and relevant. Her book is a little hip and edgy —  you might feel a teensy bit like you’re not worthy of her Manhatttan lifestyle (I did), but she also writes about her childhood and you’ll realize she is just like you, only cooler, when you read those parts. I’m definitely going back to read I Was Told There’d Be Cake, soon (update: I picked it up today at the library). It’s been on my “to-read list” (that pesky thing just multiplies like some kind of feral animal) for a long time, and Cake has been bumped to the top.

I enjoyed Birdology, although I was taken aback by some of the brutality — the chapter on birds of prey is not for the squeamish, or for quail fans (quick aside:  my in-laws were in town for Sy’s event, and my father-in-law is particularly fond of the quail in their backyard in California; unfortunately some quail meet their demise in the book). Sy is an indefatigable researcher, which is something I admire in a person, and she writes with such passion that even someone like me who is only mildly interested in birds can’t help being fascinated.

I was left with a deep admiration for hummingbird rehabilitators, chickens (they’re not dumb, it turns out), and parrot research that has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of language acquisition. My daughter came away from Sy’s event with a new phrase to torment her brother with: “cut the crap,” which one of the parrots Sy met said with relish. We now spend soccer games daring each other to yell that.

Eaarth is that rare volume that is not only an Important Book but is also humorous, instructive, and somehow even a bit upbeat, even though we’re more or less screwed if we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Bill McKibben is one of the great men of our times — and we just had around 150 people in the store to hear him last night. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord?  I visited my mother in Columbia, SC, a university town of around 50,000, twice that if you include Ft. Jackson. Their indie bookstore closed. Concord, you rock.

As Hillary Nelson, one of my favorite freelance writers, said in her review in Thursday’s Concord MonitorEaarth is also a “hopeful and, well, patriotic book, a testament to the durability and flexibility of American democracy. Only a writer as good as McKibben could pull off this feat.”  It’s true — and in person he is every bit as graceful and spellbinding as he is in print. Check out his work at 350.org. Join. Really, what are you waiting for?

Kate, my aforementioned rector at St. Paul’s Church, has been very supportive of our parish’s work welcoming refugees to our community. She told me her mother welcomed refugees in New England many years ago, and recommends This Flowing Towards Me by Marilyn Lacey, to anyone engaged in this ministry. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lacey alternates between telling her own story of discovering her call to serve in refugee camps in Thailand and refugee resettlement in the U.S., and the stories of some of the remarkable people she has known.

Lacey takes her title from a Rumi poem; besides being a memoir of working with refugees, Lacey’s book also explores her personal experience of God “flowing” towards her in many ways, from a bulletin board notice to poetry to a church sign that caught her eye. She is an example of a person living a mindful life, open to the flow of spirituality, and willing to put her faith into action. But the book is not preachy — she tells it how it is for her, and if you’re not religious, you’ll still find plenty to admire and learn from in her travels to Sudan, Thailand, and many other places.

Poetry is certainly a door to inspiration for me — I felt so lifted by my close reading of the latest books from Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and WesMcNair (who were all brilliant, by the way — the reading was great fun, and the Computer Scientist came away an even more devoted Hall disciple), that I vowed to read poetry more regularly. I pulled two books off the “to read” shelf and dove in: Earthlight, by Hannah Stein, and Miracle Fair, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak.

Earthlight inspired me to pull out a few of my own poems and get back in the saddle — I hadn’t sent work out for a long time, in part because I was tired of “hopeful” rejection letters that either told me the review in question wasn’t really looking at new work (despite guidelines to the contrary) or that my poems were “close.” And in part because David Alpaugh’s article “The New Math of Poetry” is enough to end anyone’s literary aspirations.

My favorite of Hannah Stein’s poems in Earthlight were “This Time, This Place,” about the poet’s experience of a Monet exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago; “Grace,” with my favorite lines in this collection, “The sky has hoarded brightness/like armfuls of lilac;” “Loving a Mathematician,” which makes the list of my favorite marriage poems, and is a lovely tribute to right brain/left brain partners; and “All But the Blackberries Themselves,” a poetic tribute to greed but also just a delightful poem about summer’s abundance and the way it lures us.

Wislawa Szymborska, and for that matter Joanna Trzeciak, are on another plane. A Nobel laureate whose work is not well known outside poetry circles and readers of Polish, Szymborska writes with a wry humor and a searing eye for truth. Poetry can be a window into the meaning of life — you could read poetry to study philosophy, if you were dedicated and maybe a little bit mad.

Szymborska could be your gatekeeper, your guide, your boatman. Whether she is writing about something as simple as a drop of water on her finger (“Water”) or boundless as the concept of zero (“A Poem In Honor Of”), these poems require multiple readings to enjoy their nuance and depth. I want to wallow in this glorious collection for a long time. Translation, as I have mentioned in previous bookconscious posts, is an incredible art. I’m so grateful for the talented Trzeciak and other literary translators who bring this kind of work to their own languages.

While we’re discussing translation, I finally got around to reading a delightful little book I’ve had in my “to-read” pile for awhile now, Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. This was another airport read. Despite its brevity, this was a perfect little book, witty and wacky and True with a capitol T. I have great admiration for both contemporary and classical Japanese literature — what a marvelous world we live in, that I, who have no Japanese at all, can enjoy Murasaki Shikibu, Haruki Murakami, Basho, Shiki, and others, whenever I like.

But I digress. Kitchen is a book I plan to keep around for when the Preteen is a bit older and interested in relationships. I think Yoshimoto is almost Jane Austen-like in the way she delves into the society of her characters and probes their expectations, pride, and yes, prejudices. She writes at once about Japanese culture that feels exotic and mysterious to Western readers, and about universal emotions that connect us all as human beings: love, grief, friendship, family, coming of age. Read this book. It won’t take you long, and you’ll feel richer for it.

Speaking of Jane Austen, you get the feeling that Tracy Chevalier was channeling Jane when she wrote Remarkable Creatures. I haven’t enjoyed any of her books as well as this one since Girl With the Pearl Earring. I think I was drawn to this Remarkable Creatures because I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning.

I never knew about her complicated friendship with Elizabeth Philpot (I guess I’d read only very brief overviews of Anning’s fossil hunting until now), and her even messier relationships with many of the leading men of science in England and France.  Chevalier’s novel is just what I look for in historical fiction — detailed, intriguing, and well drawn, with enough facts to pique my curiosity and a plot to keep me reading.  I’d like to read The Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling, to fill in the rest of the facts.

On Monday, Gibson’s Book Club will be discussing Per Petterson‘s Out Stealing Horses.  I read it before my recent travels, and then I took his next book (due out in August in the U.S.), I Curse The River of Time, along for the plane rides. I really enjoyed both, but I had my reservations about the ending of the forthcoming book. In fact, I read it over three times on the way home, hoping somehow that it might get better. I’m afraid it didn’t. Still, I enjoyed Petterson’s writing very much, and I maintain that like the other books in translation I’ve explored these past few months, my reading life is richer for having made connections with literature from other countries.

Out Stealing Horses is a good book club choice, and I’m looking forward to hearing what our group has to say about it. It’s a somewhat poignant book, with a protagonist who is looking back in old age at a series of events in his youth that impacted him profoundly. Set at the end of World War II and in contemporary times, the novel takes a hard look at many of the universal questions I found myself drawn to in the rest of this month’s books  — who are our family, and how do we relate to them and to our real and remembered selves at different stages in our life? Are our memories trustworthy? What is trust? Is absence a form of love?

While I was busily buried in books, making connections, and likely driving my family crazy with my book light, baggy eyes, and absent-minded lost-in-thought musings, my family was also busy reading. The Preteen continued to read manga, including +Anima and Gakuen Alice 2. She’s reading Through the Looking Glass, and she and the Computer Scientist are each re-reading Harry Potter books.

I remembered that we have The Cartoon History of the United States by Larry Gonick, and the Preteen is enjoying that. We read aloud the entire eleven volume A History of US by Joy Hakim a few years ago, but I figured given her long interest in comic drawing, this might be appealing.  She likes it enough that I pointed out Gonick’s A Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-7, and she carried that off to her reading nook.

The reading nook is actually a corner of her closet — she has a much larger closet than the rest of us, and it’s well lit. She’s decorated it with all kinds of cool things on the walls and ceiling, and she has a big comfy chair in there, next to some shelves where she can keep books and display artwork and other items. It’s a very cool place. But she’s not in there as much these days because a) the weather is nicer so she can get outside and b) she’s adopted a pair of gerbils, and she spends more time playing with them. She also read Gerbils: The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care by Donna Anastasi this month, which Jammin’ Gerbils recommends as the definitive guide.

The Teenager finished The Edible History of Humanity, which he enjoyed tremendously (he keeps reminding us that hunting and gathering worked well)  and decided to see what else I had on the history shelves. He’s been reading A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. He told me he likes how in-depth it is for a book that covers so much time. This book has reminded him how much he’s always enjoyed learning about ancient history, and has led him to consider colleges with classics departments.

Meanwhile, he’s not quite made up his mind whether to go straight to college (he’s a junior right now) or take a year off. Especially since his once-a-reference-librarian-always-a-reference-librarian mother keeps giving him more information to consider. Right now he has The Gap Year Book from Lonely Planet and Kristin White‘s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year on inter-library loan. Makes me wish I was young again.

The Computer Scientist read Steve Almond‘s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and he says, “Very enjoyable read for anyone that’s ever caught themselves a little too into a rock and roll band. Funny and insightful.” He also pronounced Steve Almond’s event the most hilarious author event he’s attended at Gibson’s.  Now he’s reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London, which bookconscious readers know I loved and recommended.  He’s considering a Star Wars read-a-palooza for summer.

What’s in my pile? I’m halfway through Jay Atkinson‘s Paradise Road, which is great fun so far, and I plan to read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving because his writing is brilliant and it was in at the library when I picked up the gap year books, and Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake for the same reasons. I also have Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and a book of Ted Kooser’s poems, and another of Donald Hall’s essays, plus a few interesting choices in the coming events books: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare and I Thought You Were Dead, to name two.

So, Computer Scientist, if you’re reading this? You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for (thanks, Billy Joel).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s halfway through November, which means I’ve written 25,000+ words in the last two weeks, in this year’s NaNoWriMo novel. This is the second year in a row that the Preteen and I are both writing. She’s participating in the Young Writers’ Program, as are several of her friends. This means she can set her own word count. Grown ups all aim for 50,000 words in a month. Thirty days, into the fictional wild.

Some skeptics have asked me why I would do such a thing (for the fourth time, no less). It is a little crazy — November was always notoriously busy, and this year it’s even busier, with the Preteen in rehearsals for two one act plays, the Teenager trying out for soccer clubs, and my own work at Gibson’s. The added chaos in our family schedule convinced me that I had to give it a try again, so that I could figure out how to work daily writing time back into my life.

My 2009 novel is as yet untitled, but I’m really having fun with it. The ideas aren’t coming quickly; I’m trying to listen to my characters, and let them have and solve problems in their lives. NaNoWriMo is brilliant in many ways, but one of my favorite things about it is that the weekly pep talks (from both NaNoWriMo staff and an array of well known authors) emphasize that freedom to create is paramount in this wilderness.

So what’s the point of NaNoWriMo? Giving oneself permission to spend time writing, to see what creative possibilities are lurking unconsciously while your conscious life is occupying all your time, is worth the effort. Knowing you are doing so in community with thousands of other people around the world is kind of fun, too.

Making the effort, even when you are so tired that you doze off over the keyboard, to observe a fictional world sharpens the ability to observe the real one. But it’s not conducive to getting much else done. For example, I started this post a week ago!  So with no further delay, on to what we read around here recently.

The Teenager finished the first paper he had to turn in to someone else — Oxford University. Not a bad place to start your academic career. He’s mostly enjoying the online course on Vikings he’s taking there. The tutor is helpful and responsive, too. Although he’s still reading The Poetic Edda with us, he has mostly been reading textbooks on Vikings, the Science of Soccer (he has pronounced his physiology textbook boring, so it’s time to shake things up),  and American history and government.

He finished reading Freedom: A History of US, which is Joy Hakim‘s one volume version of her history series. We read the whole series aloud a few years ago, and he also loved her The Story of Science series. He’s now reading The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.

The Preteen is re-reading favorites as she is wont to do. She started The Hobbit but seems to have set it aside. As I mentioned, she’s been rehearsing for two plays and writing a novel, so hasn’t had much time to get lost in a book. But she is a voracious reader of magazines — American Girl, Muse, Calliope, Cricket, Nintendo Power and New Moon. Since the Computer Scientist and I get half a dozen or so magazines ourselves, she probably comes by this honestly.

Besides keeping up with what comes through the mail slot, the Computer Scientist also read Stephen King’s new tome, Under the Dome, in less than a week.  He says it’s the most intricate of King’s books — and he’s read them all. But even though he liked the complexity and found the story very interesting, he felt that one key thing wasn’t entirely clear: what caused the dome to descend in the first place? The Computer Scientist notes that it might have been interesting if this aspect of the story were more fully developed.

I read a number of books in the last few weeks. I finished my Nicholson Baker binge with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. The Mezzanine takes place during the main character’s lunch hour and is a long riff on a variety of things that cross his mind, from shoelaces to ties to the layout of the drugstore and the office dynamics of restroom use. The book features numerous footnotes. You probably will either love or hate that. I happened to enjoy it — footnotes appeal to my inner geek. One of my all time favorite books is Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, which features abundant footnotes.

Room Temperature is also a novel limited to a slice of life — the time it takes the main character to give his infant daughter a bottle. What goes through his mind as he does this makes up the content of the book. I am again in awe of Baker’s creativity, and of the way his fiction seems to reveal the human condition in a stream of consciousness that most of us probably have going on but don’t even notice. So far, my favorite of Baker’s books is The Anthologist. This may be because I read it first, or because it deals with a subject I love (poetry), but there was also something about the protagonist that has stayed with me.

Before David Schmahmann visited Gibson’s in October, I read his first novel, Empire Settings. I loved this book. I’ve read other books set in South Africa, including The Syringa Tree, which is also told from a white South African’s point of view. Empire Settings is similar to The Syringa Tree in that the main character is grown and living in the United States, remembering his childhood.  It’s different in that we get to know Danny the grown man as well as learning about the events and relationships of his youth that haunt him still.

The writing is vivid and also very emotionally rich. The family dynamics — the way the grown siblings relate to each other and to their mother, Helga, and step-father; the way Helga, a woman who was a strong voice for justice during the apartheid era, is now a dependent wife; and the unfolding of Danny’s complicated relationship with his American wife and with the mixed race love of his youth — are all fascinating.

Layered into the story is the political and economic history of modern South Africa.  And the plot culminates in Danny’s struggle over whether to go back to Durban and illegally spirit the  family’s money out of the country, and what it will mean for him to return. I’m happy to report that David is working on a new novel that will be out next fall, and I very much look forward to it!

The Lazarus Project, by Alexsandar Hemon, is another novel of immigrant experience. This time, the main character, Brik, is from Bosnia, and he is writing about an early 20th century Jewish immigrant who was framed as an anarchist after he was killed while trying to deliver a message to Chicago’s chief of police. We read this for Gibson’s Book Club, and most of the group didn’t like it because the main character is rather whiny.

While Brik is impossible to warm up to, his story, of seeking to prove himself as a writer, of trying to understand why his marriage to an American wife isn’t as happy as he thinks it should be, of trying to know who is is and where he comes from, is haunting.  Hemon writes beautifully; his work is doubly impressive because English is not his first language. I think the novel succeeds because I felt Brik’s despair, his unspecified loss, his perpetual sense of being an outsider, as I read. Brik’s emotional wilderness is hard to take, but thankfully, the reader is only visiting.

Two more books I read this month are set in war torn places.  Baking Cakes in Kigali is set in Rwanda, in an apartment compound populated mostly by aid workers, academics, and others rebuilding the nation a few years after the genocide. Many of the characters in the book tell Angel, the cake baking protagonist, about the impact Rwanda’s conflict has had on their lives.  AIDS, too, is an enormous force in the book. But despite the horrors — and author Gaile Parkin does not shy away from telling some gripping stories of shattered lives — the book is a tribute to the redemptive power of community.

Angel is a remarkable woman, and I loved this book not only because it took me somewhere I’m not likely to go anytime soon (Kigali) but also because it introduced me to a woman I’d like to know better. More than a matriarch, Angel is a survivor, but she isn’t entirely healed herself, even as she works to help people around her. Parkin’s prose gives readers all the rich detail they need to see and hear, taste and smell Angel’s world.

One tiny quibble I have is that like many contemporary novels, Baking Cakes in Kigali touches on a series of “issues.” Editors seem to want authors to include everything readers may have heard on the news. So we meet a former child soldier, victims of AIDS and war, former sex workers, orphans, adulterers, even a girl whose father wants her circumcised.

While many of their stories are compelling, and Angel listens to them as a natural part of the plot, it felt a little forced at times, although ultimately, I think it worked because Angel’s community is such a hodgepodge of cultures. What I enjoyed is that even the characters who have suffered the most are helping themselves and each other, living and moving on, one way or another. That made this fictional wild a very fine place to linger.

After Baking Cakes In Kigali, I read Katherine Towler‘s latest novel. The final volume of her Snow Island trilogy, Island Light, comes out this winter. She’ll be coming to Gibson’s to read, and I got a pre-publication copy. Like her earlier books, this one features another generation of islanders, and revisits some of the older characters as well.

Island Light is set in the early 1990’s, as the Persian Gulf War is about to begin. One of the main characters, Nick, is a Vietnam veteran who has trouble dealing with the build-up to war and turns to drugs and alcohol. Several characters struggle with family relationships. There are two Lesbian couples in the novel, and Nick is having an affair with a married woman.

Perhaps because the previous two Snow Island books dealt with the insular island community’s secrets, I didn’t get the feeling that any of these problems were worked in — the plot unfolded naturally, and this didn’t seem like an “issues” book.  My favorite character is Ruth, and I enjoyed the passages dealing with her struggle over what her photography means to her — is it work that will earn her a living or is it art that will bring her joy and meet a need nothing else can? I also enjoyed the glimpses of Alice (who still runs the store) and George Tibbets, characters from the previous two novels.

Another thing I love about Towler’s books is the island. Bookconscious fans know I love books that take me places, and I will miss visiting Snow Island.

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