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This was another of the books I bought with my job leaving gift card. Bookconscious regulars will know I read another of Russell Hoban’s novels, Linger Awhile, not too long ago. I’d had Turtle Diary in mind for a while. Incidentally, this is another New York Review of Books classics title.

This short novel is about two Londoners in their 40s, William G. and Neaera H., and is set in the 1970s. William is a divorced former advertising executive who works in a bookstore and rents a room in a house, thinking to himself, as he cleans up after the other male tenant before he can use the shared bath and kitchen, “I’d had a whole life, a house and a family!” Neaera H. is a children’s book author and illustrator, successful by most measures, but lonely, and stuck, not just with writer’t block, but life block.

Their lives intersect because they both have an interest in the sea turtles at London Zoo. Unknown to each other at first, they each think the turtles deserve to be freed into the ocean, and each talk to George, the keeper in the aquarium area of the zoo. Through George they realize they are both thinking the same thing, and are drawn together. As William notes, “Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts.” How can they not join forces? The story is told in alternating chapters from William’s or Neaera’s point of view, and sometimes their thoughts are worded nearly identically.

Besides this central story, Hoban writes beautifully of the pain of being lonely, unhappy, stuck, perhaps a little more sensitive to things than others. Both William and Neaera are close observers, who notice more than other  people do in the world — the letters and numbers on a manhole in his neighborhood (K257) is to William the number of Mozart’s Credo Mass in C. Neaera notices, as she passes a train, “the sky successively framed by each window as the carriages passed.Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.”

Or do they notice more? William, towards the end of the story realizes he’s been too much in his own head, “I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in some else’s.” And that, to me is what Turtle Diary is about: getting out of ourselves and into the world enough to see, as both of them think in almost identical words: “I didn’t mind being alive at the moment. After all who knew what might happen?”

Getting through the dark times, the shark in the waters times as Neaera imagines them, requires getting out of our  heads. The way forward, Hoban seems to say, is to step away from our private way of tending the thoughts that keep our minds buzzing. I don’t know if he was interested in meditation — there is a scene where William goes with his coworker Harriet, to an “Original Therapy” demonstration with an American woman in a bikini holding eager volunteers in wrestling scissors holds until they experience the “primordial soup” or their own rebirth, that seems to be Hoban laughing a bit at the New Agey. But mindfulness is all about not allowing distracting thoughts to preoccupy you so much that you miss what’s right here now, in this moment.

William and Neaera get there, in their ways, in Turtle Diary without calling it mindfulness. It’s a lovely, wise book full of literary and musical references and myriad little details about London, and the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It was the perfect read on my last day of vacation, sitting in a comfy chair looking out at the sea, not thinking of what lurks within, but just noticing the sun and the birds and the way the wind leaves itself behind on the sand.

 

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I was at a coffee shop/used bookstore yesterday, picked up Graham Swift‘s Last Orders from a sale cart, and thought it sounded like a good read, sort of a male version of the kind of English social novel I like. When I got home and looked through it more closely I realized I’ve read it before, although a quick search of bookconscious seems to indicate I read it before I started the blog, so prior to 2007. I decided I’d read it anyway, and I’m glad I did. Re-reading is something I don’t do often, but have intended to do from time to time. Like during a week when I have a lot of time to read.

Last Orders is about a butcher, Jack Dodds, and the men (and a few women) in his life, in Bermondsey, London. Although not the hip, White Cube Bermondsey of today; it never says exactly, but I think the book is set in the late 80’s, because four of the men, including Jack, are WWII veterans. When the book opens, Jack’s friends and Vince, the man he raised as his son after his family was killed by a bomb, are gathered in their pub, preparing to carrying out Jack’s final wish: that they spread his ashes in the sea at Margate.

The main arc of the story takes place all on that day, with different sections looking back on the men’s lives at different ages. We hear about their wives and daughters, and Jack’s widow, Amy, and Vince’s wife, Mandy, tell bits of their own stories, but most of the book is about and from the perspective of the men. It’s one of those books where most of what’s important to the character’s lives happened earlier, but the events of the book are a kind of climax, emotionally, in their lives.

It’s a lovely book, about long friendship, love, disappointment, unfulfilled dreams, finding what you’re good at, living your life as best you can. There aren’t a lot of novels that go into the emotional lives of men, I think, or else I don’t usually read those. Here’s a bit from a scene when Jack’s in the hospital, and he’s asked to see Vince, who has been thinking that even unwell there is something about the way Jack looks, “. . . it only makes the main thing show through better, like someone’s turned on a little light inside.” As they sit there together, Vince goes on thinking:

“He looks right into my face like he’s looking for a little light too, like he’s looking for his own face in mine, and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow, like I’m empty, that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones, his way of holding his jaw and looking straight at you without so much as a bleeding blink. . . .  It’s like I’m not real, I ain’t ever been real. But Jack’s real, he’s realler than every. Though he ain’t going to be real much longer.”

So, I re-read, no regrets — although I have loads of books I haven’t read yet, I’m really glad I re-visited this one. Chime in and let me know: do you re-read? How often? How do you decide what gets a second read or more? I’ve heard of some people re-reading a particular favorite annually. The Computer Scientist used to read The Stand every time he was sick. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

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I picked up The Enchanted April from a library book sale shop in South Carolina. I knew it would be a fun read and it was. I’d never even heard of Elizabeth von Arnim (I had missed the reference in Downton Abbey). But I’ve read other New York Review of Books Classics titles, like Lolly Willowes and loved them, so I knew it was a good bet.

Now I want to track down other books by von Arnim. I loved The Enchanted April. It’s a simple story, but full of the trenchant observations about people and society that make many British novels so endearing. Von Arnim reminds me, in all the best ways, of Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, and Jane Gardam: authors whose close (sometimes sharp) observations and skilled dialogue make the domestic situations they bring to life so vivid, so gently funny, and so easy to slip into, even if you’ve never been in the same situations.

In this novel, everything starts with the absolutely wonderful Lotty Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins lives a desperately quiet existence in Hampstead, wife of Mellersh Wilkins, a “family solicitor” whose main interest in her is taking her to church, for the purpose of meeting old ladies in need of solicitors. The marriage is dreary, and Mrs. Wilkins’ life is dreary, and one very dreary, rainy day, she notices two things at her women’s club in London: an ad for a monthlong stay in April in a medieval Italian castle addressed: “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” and a Hampstead resident she recognizes from church, a Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot. In a sudden burst of bravery, Lotty approaches Rose and before long, they are planning to rent the castle.

But being women of modest means — Lotty will be spending a fair bit of her “nest egg” saved from being thrifty with a clothing allowance — they determine that the most sensible thing would be to place their own ad, soliciting two more ladies to join their party. And that is how Lady Caroline Dester, a socialite tired of people admiring her, and Mrs. Fisher, a window in her sixties who is very proper and very cranky, end up sharing San Salvatore with Lotty and Rose for a month. Lotty has the sense that a holiday will help them be happy, something she perceives they need because “You wouldn’t believe, how terribly good Rose and I have been for years without stopping, and how much we now need a perfect rest.”

The imperious Mrs. Fisher and the aloof and conceited Lady Caroline are no match for Lotty’s infectious ideas. When Rose is thinking of her author husband, who has been estranged, although amiably, from her for some time, Lotty tells her, “You mustn’t long in heaven . . . . You’re supposed to be quite complete there. And it is heaven, isn’t it, Rose? See how everything has been let in together — the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher — all welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves.” When rose protests that Mrs. Fisher isn’t happy, Lotty predicts she will be — that even Mrs. Fisher can’t resist being happy in such a place.

You won’t be able to resist this happy little novel either, which had me laughing out loud in places. Von Arnim entertains, but she also slips in some social criticism, including a little feminism. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon, or a sunny day with wisteria — or whatever is blooming near you — in sight.

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When I read A Tale for the Time Being I knew I’d want to read more of Ruth Ozeki’s work. The friends whose house I’m staying at this week happened to have My Year of Meats on their shelves, so I decided that was sign. Also, the protagonist is a documentary filmmaker, which sort of segues from the previous two books I read, which both had something to do with the contemporary art scene.  Looking at the rest of the pile of books I’ve brought I’m not sure I can keep spooling out these connections, but we’ll see.

Anyway, My Year of Meats was Ozeki’s debut novel, and it’s stunning in more ways than one. Jane, the protagonist, is a Japanese American who is hired to film a series of programs promoting American beef, called “My American Wife!” The series will feature “real” American families and their beef recipes. Jane and her Japanese crew set off across America but Jane’s documentarian streak rebels at her remit and she keeps veering slightly off course, in ways that annoy the beef promotion syndicate’s boss, Joichi Ueno (“You get it? ‘John Wayno’!” Ueno asks in a Mississippi church). For example, Jane features lesbian vegetarians from Northampton in one of her episodes.

In the course of the story, Jane hears from Ueno’s wife, Akiko, who asks her about another issue that came to light in Jane’s research: whether hormones in the meat industry are contributing to lower fertility rates. This deeply impacts Jane, as she is a DES daughter — someone whose mother was prescribed DES to prevent miscarriage. when Jane realizes she has come across a feedlot in Colorado that is using the banned hormone, she risks everything — her job, her relationship, and even her health — to get her crew in to film before Ueno can arrive from Japan to foil her plan.

The book has a second set of storylines as strong as that one. Jane’s relationship with a musician named Sloan and her own fertility issues, and Akiko’s relationship with Ueno and parallel issues. Both Jane and Akiko are fans of Shonagon and her Pillow Book, which Ozeki quotes between chapters. The women make contact, initially, via faxes, which others read with various complications. It is charming and a little strange, to think that a few short years after the time of this novel, intercepted faxes would no longer be a viable plot twist.

This is in some ways a brutal read; there are horrible domestic violence scenes and the final filming Jane and her crew do in a slaughterhouse is awful. But despite the brutality the book is about truth and is also in many ways a celebration of love, and about the strength of these to overcome ignorance and pain. It’s also a philosophical study of collective ignorance.

Ozeki writes in Jane’s voice, “. . . ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence. I would like to think of my ‘ignorance’ less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend, an example of doubling, of psychic numbing, that characterizes the end of the millennium. If we can’t act on knowledge, then we can’t survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even.” This in a book written in 1998, set in 1992. Look where ignorance, and our cultural cultivation of it, has taken us.

Anyway, this isn’t a light read, but it’s a page turner. I really wanted to know what was going to happen to Jane, to Akiko, to the women in My American Wife!, to Jane’s crew and her mom and Sloan, so I tore through it. If you’re looking for a smart, challenging beach read this summer, this would be a good choice!

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When my reading buddy and I visited the new bookstore in Manchester, The Bookery, we decided we’d each buy a book to help the fledgling store. As a librarian I am not usually short on books, so I wanted to go for something unusual that wouldn’t be easily obtained at a library. I chose Grayson Perry‘s Playing to the GalleryHaving just read a novel, Smoking Kills in which the protagonist says, “I have always, I admit, been impervious to contemporary art” I decided my next read had to be this one, with the subtitle: “Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood.”

I like art, and frequently visit museums. I don’t always get contemporary art, and have certainly had my moments of looking at something in a gallery that seems like an ordinary object in a glass case and wondering “Why is this art?” Or viewing a painting of a square, and thinking “Hmm, couldn’t most people with a ruler do that?” So I figured I needed this book.

Perry doesn’t give hard and fast definitions or explanations, but he does write clearly about possible ways to consider, assess, and define art, particularly contemporary art. The chapters are short, he infuses them with humor (including funny illustrations of some of his points), and he addresses the major questions someone might have, like how people decide if art is “good,” whether anything is new (or shocking) anymore, etc. It’s a book full of challenging issues, like whether artists speed the gentrification of cities, or whether art and beauty are necessarily related, and mind-bending ideas, such as that in Perry’s view there is no avant-garde today, and that art’s “most important role is to make meaning,” yet “An artist’s job is to make new cliches.”

I’m not sure I totally get it, which is fitting since I’m not sure I totally get art. Probably I need to let the ideas sink in a bit more. I enjoyed reading it, especially as it related to the book I’d just read. Probably it would be good to re-read before my next museum trip.

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I had this theory I wrote more about in the early days of bookconscious which I dubbed the “Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading” (if you’re interested search for that in the blog and you’ll see where I’ve written about it before). On a basic level I think it’s what leads us from book to book, sometimes making subtle connections, sometimes just thinking as we put one book down that it reminds us of another we’ve been meaning to read. On a more complicated level, as I wrote here in 2009, it’s about “the ways that we interpret ourselves through what we read, and the work interprets us, as we interact with it. In the process, we make connections for ourselves and with other people not just in reading, but in thinking about, writing about, discussing, reading reviews, and otherwise processing what we’ve read and placing it in our own mind map of what we know, believe, and love.”

What does this have to do with Smoking Kills? Well on the simpler level, I chose it because I had just finished The Scapegoat and had drawn a parallel between Du Maurier’s writing about men who looked identical Antoine Laurain‘s writing about the same idea. But on the deeper level, Fabrice, Laurain’s hero in Smoking Kills, made me stop and think about why it is that certain memories, especially those relating to our interests and pleasures, and to what may have reinforced those interests and pleasures in our lives, disappear to us on a conscious level and may need probing to find again later? And even if those memories are not consciously on our minds, how are they working invisibly to reinforce the pleasure we take in our interests now?

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve been called out for being addicted to reading. I probably am. Reading about Fabrice’s undergoing hypnosis to revisit the time just before he started smoking, the incidence of his first cigarette, and the reinforcing experiences that make smoking one of his greatest pleasures made me wonder what those memories and experiences are for me, with regards to reading? That said, reflection is all I want — watching Get Out and reading Smoking Kills, I’ll never undergo hypnosis!

So, the gist of this very intriguing and thought provoking novel, which is brilliant, by the way, is that Fabrice is a successful executive headhunter, married to Sidonie, the editor of a contemporary art magazine, and she wants him to stop smoking. They hear of a friend who used hypnosis to stop, Fabrice goes to the same hypnotist, and his pleasure in cigarettes is gone. But unfortunately for him, the hypnotist was not actually trained and the therapy he underwent had a very strange effect on him . . . he still likes to smoke, but only under one condition. He has to kill someone first.

As well as this page turning plot, there is so much more to ponder in Smoking Kills. Fabrice does not understand, appreciate, or even like much of the contemporary art Sidonie champions. So he spends time telling readers what he finds problematic and what he wonders about art. He also notes, “Having no opinions whatsoever in common with the person whose life you share is risky business. Even, I would say, impossible. . . .  After many years together, I would pay a heavy price for our aesthetic differences.”

How fascinating, even if no one in a relationship develops a murderous tendency! There are indications that Fabrice and Sidonie are still compatible, if not aesthetically. But what if you and your partner completely disagreed about something that one of you valued so much that you devoted your life’s work to it?

So, another wonderful book, less light-hearted and more introspective than some of Laurain’s other books but equally entertaining. And it has led me to pick up another book I recently bought at the new Manchester bookstore The Bookery. More on that soon!

*** I should point out that I read an arc; I thought the book was out next week but that’s the UK edition, and it comes out in August in the US. Worth the wait, however! ***

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of New Hamsphire authors Sy Montgomery and Howard Mansfield. I’ve written about their work several times on the blog and in the Mindful Reader column. Recently my good friend and fellow book lover Juliana gifted me with The Good Good Pig: the Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. We each had piles of books in our arms in the checkout line of The Five Colleges Booksale and when I exclaimed over her finding Sy’s book, she let me buy it instead of buying it herself. If that’s not friendship I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading my own “to read” books instead of library books lately, partly because I bought a lot of books this spring, and partly because I was changing jobs, and thus libraries. Last week was kind of an unsettled one, with some stressful stuff happening (such as becoming a library director) at work and at home, so I wanted a book I knew would feed my soul, and given that, I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Sy!

The only problem with The Good Good Pig is that I want to move to Hancock, New Hampshire, and since Concord is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose (we lived in Oklahoma twice, but only because the USMC sent us there both times) and The Computer Scientist says he is not moving any more boxes ever again, but instead will live here until he is the one being moved in a box (he has a morbid sense of humor), that’s not likely to happen. Really I just want to be Sy’s and Howard’s neighbor.

So, The Good Good Pig isn’t just about Christopher Hogwood, the runt piglet they adopted who lived to be fourteen and a valued member of their community. It’s about the many ways Christopher taught the people in his life all kinds of things — how to play, how to savor the sunlight and grass on a nice day, how to truly enjoy delicious foods, and simply, as one of Sy’s former neighbors explains, “how to love.” Sy notes that by living a long life, Christopher Hogwood showed everyone who knew him that “We need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate have written for us.”

This is not just a fascinating book about animals, peppered with interesting anecdotes about some of the many creatures Sy has loved, researched, communed with, written about, and felt an affinity towards, from pink dolphins to tarantulas and man eating tigers. It’s also a book about two people who fell in love with each other and the writing life and created for themselves a home and a community that fully embraced them and their work. And it’s a book about family in many forms — not only in the traditional sense of the people we come from and often find ourselves challenged by, but the family we make for ourselves, human and inter-species. Sy’s writing about her relationship with her mother is moving and inspiring — she is a model of radical acceptance even in the face of challenges, and the world would be a better place if more people were able to love their way through hurts the way Sy does.

The Good Good Pig  was just the book I hoped, soul filling, life affirming, smart, and thoughtful. We have so much to learn from animals, and although I can’t claim I am as connected to other creatures as Sy is (not many people are!) I am often impressed that my cats are so tuned into my feelings. For creatures who get a bad rap for being aloof, they can be remarkably supportive when I need it, especially the small grey tabby who will curl up against me or on me if she can sense I need her calming presence. As my Facebook friends know, she is also my zen master, running to the meditation cushion after dinner to remind me it’s time to sit and joining me as I meditate. So I totally understand how a pig could be “a big Buddha master” to his friends and neighbors.

I leave you with two peaceful cat pictures, because how could I not? They’re no 750 pound pig, but I think there are probably city ordinances against hog husbandry in Concord anyway.

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