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Posts Tagged ‘Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading’

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 and 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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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m off this week, and I am enjoying extra reading time. First, I finished a book the former “Teen the Elder” (longtime bookconscious readers may be surprised to learn he is now in his twenties; take the links to see what he’s up to now) recommended, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. An extended version of a piece Junger wrote for Vanity Fair, this book explores the ways in which human nature is best suited to tribal life. In other words, life in a close knit community where members are committed to looking after each other’s basic needs — food and safety. It’s an interesting book.

Junger isn’t the first to argue that the deep malaise of modern life is caused by the lack of opportunity for most people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. His focus is on the way warfare and disasters bring people together and reduce crime, mental illness, and even suicide in the immediate aftermath.  He also argues that PTSD, which is diagnosed (as well as misdiagnosed) at higher rates in the US than anywhere else, is not necessarily  caused by trauma, but re-entry into society.

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy.” A few pages on, Junger continues, ” A modern soldier returning from combat . . . goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society — and they’re nearly miraculous — the individualizes lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

I couldn’t help but think of something I read recently about pharmaceutical companies pathologizing normal if unpleasant aspects of human existence in order to profit from “curing” them with prescriptions. Junger found that we treat the response to trauma or violence that way too, which “creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” I don’t think people should just “get over it” and neither does Junger, but I wonder if by making a lot of things our ancestors treated as unfortunate but natural parts of life as maladies that need treatment, we are possibly making things worse?

Junger doesn’t really have a solution in mind; he points out that the current conflict between liberal and conservative views on poverty and social well being in the U.S. are actually not at odds according to our evolutionary instincts (abhorrence of freeloaders who were a threat to overall wellbeing and a communal caring for the genuinely needy). If these theories were considered as equally important (as he argues they were in traditional societies) and applied together, we’d be in good shape, but he (and most people) doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. When he asked a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital how we could unify our society she says something very simple: ” . . . underscore your shared humanity.”

I feel as if there are many opportunities on a local level to do that  — volunteering, belonging to a church or temple or mosque, joining a club, having lunch with a new coworker, taking cookies to a new neighbor, etc. — and while we may be appear to be failing on a macro level, there is hope in the fact that many people are trying to make their own communities more caring, close-knit places. For example, these neighbors, honored by the Boston Globe in their annual roundup of Bostonians making a difference. Everyone benefits when we act altruistically — research seems to indicate that helping others makes people happier. So maybe there’s hope? Even if you think our society is entirely self-interested, sometimes that self-interest can lead to greater good.

The novel The Association of Small Bombs deals with the same questions and issues  as Tribe (or at least I saw it that way, reading them right after each other – the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness at work). It’s a novel set primarily in Delhi, and it’s about the lives impacted by a terrorist bombing in a market. We meet two of the Kashmiri Muslim separatists, one an ideas man and the other a bomb maker, and also the parents of two boys who died in the blast. Their friend, Mansoor, who is Muslim himself, survives, but his young life is deeply impacted. He gets involved with an NGO working to bring attention to the accused bombers who languish in jail for years while the corrupt police and justice system often miss the real terrorists. Through the NGO he comes to meet Ayub, another Muslim, who ends up being drawn into an extremist group, and meets the very bomb maker whose blast injured Mansoor and killed his friends.

That these people would be drawn together in an interlocking set of storylines in one of the most populous cities in the world seems slightly improbable, but Mahajan makes it relatively believable. On the surface, all of the main characters lead relatively purposeless lives; even those who think they are acting out of conviction turn out to be making very little difference. Ayub thinks, “In the end, his role was so small, he felt foolish about the buildup, the training, the wating . . . . Some people will die, he thought, that’s true. But they’ll expand the market’s security after the blast. . . . No — I’m only doing the inevitable . . . . I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”

I’m still processing that. It’s an interesting way to consider terror. The cooperative society Junger refers to exists in this novel among the terrorists and among the young people in the NGO but doesn’t appear sustainable in either case. The other adults who are not in either group lead the kinds of alienated lives that Junger describes; even their families don’t provide a sustained sense of shared humanity. It’s an eye-opening novel with a bleak view of humankind. I admired it, I think it’s an important book that deals with vital questions, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it very much.

 

 

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Yesterday afternoon I was running errands with Teen the Younger. She had earbuds in so I switched off the car radio in order to think. I was considering an audio essay I’d listened to earlier, a “This I Believe” piece by Holocaust survivor Jay Frankston, who believes that if more people — especially those with influence, like the Pope — had reacted to the Holocaust the way the Danes did (a national act of collective resistance, something my children & I learned of when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars together) millions of lives might have been saved, and Hitler’s policies would have failed. He said that when he speaks in schools, he reminds children they “must speak up against wrongs, however small.”

I had recently had a conversation with the Computer Scientist about a workplace incident  in which someone was rude without recognizing it — the person was focused on getting the answer she wanted to complete something the way she preferred and not on consensus or consideration. I suggested that schools and workplaces would benefit from conflict resolution training, maybe also mindfulness training so people learn not to react immediately to the triggers that tend to set us all off. It seems we need remedial training to be in community with each other. We decided it was impossible to know what would solve the epidemic of self-absorption in contemporary culture.  As my grandmother used to say, you can only do your best yourself and hope others do too. (An update: today the Computer Scientist sent me a quote he finds helpful, if challenging:  “Life becomes easier if you learn to accept an apology you never get.”)

As I thought about these things in the car, I imagined a post in which I’d discuss an Op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times which made me feel sick and heartbroken and outraged. It was written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the estimated 40 (40!) people currently on hunger strike in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a man who contends he has never done what he was suspected of (but has never been formally charged with) when he was captured and brought to the prison camp* 11 years ago. I was thinking that despite Guantanamo being a divisive and unpopular topic, by Jay Frankston’s humane standard, I must speak up. And that by doing so I’d  be encouraging the awareness of others that is so often lacking.

Then my phone rang as I stood in line at the local Goodwill store. It was my mother, calling as she often does when tragic events happen, to ask if I’d heard about Boston. Before we hung up she said, “Give everyone a hug. I’m glad you’re safe.” This wasn’t a reference to any of my family being at the scene — none of us had plans to attend the Boston Marathon yesterday. She was just stating a common response to senseless violence, relief that our loved ones are safe.

In the evening, I checked our local Patch.com site for news of local runners. I was disgusted to see in the comments section of the story another kind of response, vitriolic posts about gun control, President Obama, etc. I vented on Facebook that surely human history shows hate isn’t a good response to conflict. Two people who were among my closest college friends replied almost immediately that while that may be, hate and anger are easier responses to make and also the default for adults in our culture.

While I agree they’ve become the default, I don’t believe anger is easier than empathy. Loving kindness and empathy come easily to children. Anger grows as a habitual response to the unending stream of negative stimuli we are bombarded with. Like the woman who was blind to rudeness because of her own insecurities in the workplace, the Patch commenters didn’t think about the hurtfulness of their response. If you asked them why they felt it was right to focus on their own opinions at a time when severely injured people lay in hospital beds fighting for their lives, they would probably be shocked and argue they weren’t doing so.

This morning another Op-ed in the New York Times, this one by Jonathan Rieder about Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous anger, caught my eye and led me to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’d only read excerpts before and I’d never considered the letter in the way Rieder did. In line with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading, it turns out that just before I finally turned off the radio and went to bed last night, heartsick as all of us are over the bombings, I’d texted with Teen the Elder at college about his own response to the day: anger.

At first I counseled against anger. But when he replied that this kind of news makes him want to be out of college and working in some way to make the world better, I realized, and told him, that righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice as long as we avoid becoming bitter or hateful and channel it into right action. And when I read Jonathan Rieder’s piece and King’s words this morning I realized this is just what my son was feeling, and just what the world needs, along with people who are unafraid to speak up.

If you’ve never read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do. It’s a response to eight white clergy who had issued a statement condemning the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely.” It’s a remarkable piece, a reminder of the King’s gifts not only as a leader but as a thinker and writer.

Consider his words carefully and it will be hard to read the news: that gays should “wait” for marriage equality, prisoners should “wait” for justice, bullied children should “wait” for life to get better, ” the homeless should “wait” for year round shelters, college students should “wait” for a time when debt doesn’t shackle them for a lifetime, the uninsured should “wait” to not be bankrupted by medical bills, the elderly should wait for care that doesn’t require giving up a lifetime’s assets. U.S. citizens should “wait” for campaigns and voting to be fair and for politicians to engage in thoughtful work for the common good instead of partisan bickering, kids should “wait” while adults ban dodgeball and books in schools but allow assault weapons and high capacity magazines that make school shootings easier, low wage workers  should”wait” for a decent living, women should “wait” for equal pay, the mentally ill should “wait” for access to treatment, innocents caught in drone attacks should “wait” for the war on terror to end . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But King’s letter will also give you hope that Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, Jay Frankston, and countless others —  people just like those who ran towards the scene of the explosions yesterday to help the wounded, and just like those who opened their homes to stranded runners and their families in Boston, and just like all the people who take time every day to advocate for the voiceless and powerless, and just like Teen the Elder who feels fired up to join the ongoing march of humanity towards a just and peaceful world — are ready to lift hands and hearts and voices to that work.

*Also worth a read, a piece on the results of a nonpartisan report that without any access to classified materials concludes the U.S. engaged in torture after 9-11 and criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the lawyers and doctors who abandoned the core principles of their professions — upholding justice and not doing harm — to justify torture.

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I have blogged about books for nearly eight years. I’m a voracious reader, a librarian and a book reviewer with a monthly newspaper column. I was an English major, I write poetry, and I like thinking about, discussing, and writing about books. But I hit a philosophical wall a couple of weeks ago: does what I think about what I’m reading really matter? Or more specifically, what is the point of blogging about it?

In the midst of this existential mid-life angst I was pining a bit for my old “citizen blogger” gig at New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth. From December 2008-September 2011 I wrote 61 posts on new ideas in science, culture, the arts, and society. (If you’re curious, I think the pieces are archived on the NHPR website). It was a terrific gig. I wrote about whatever caught my eye as long as it fit the show’s editorial focus. That tended to be things that gave me hope.

Two stories I can’t get out of my head are the opposite of hopeful. First, teacher and author Peter Brown Hoffmeister spoke out about Huffington Post ignoring and dismissing him. What he’d done was submit a piece suggesting it would be a good idea to study the effect of violent video games on isolated teens who exhibit other risk factors for violence, and to offer socially disaffected kids an alternative to fantasy violence, such as getting outside.

Hoffmeister was himself a teen with violent tendencies and says, “the outdoors helped saved my life.” He writes with uncommon humbleness and uncertainty, unafraid to admit what he personally and we as a society don’t know about what makes shooters act. He doesn’t demonize guns, video games, or teens.

Second, yesterday I read Emily Bazelon’s piece on Slate about Rehtaeh Parsons and Steubenville, and today learned the hacker group Anonymous solved the Parsons case in 2 hours despite the police saying there was “no evidence” of rape. Every part of this story makes me churn.

Last week I read about Desmond Tutu receiving the Templeton Prize. I cherish his wisdom, and I turn to him when I am heartsick over the news. He’s a model for experiencing joy in the midst of our hurting world, for reconciling the broken pieces to find wholeness whether it’s in a form we recognize and understand or not.

“A person is a person through other persons,” Tutu says. I can’t stop thinking that therefore I am me through Rehtaeh Parsons, and her mother, and the Anonymous hackers who said she deserved justice, and Peter Brown Hoffmeister, caring for the boys in the school where he teaches who compare notes on their virtual killing. But if this is so I am somehow also me through the boys who would dehumanize and wreck a girl so heartlessly and the investigators who were complicit in that heartlessness, the editor who refused to let a story of vulnerability and healing appear on a popular website likely supported by corporations that profit from violent media, and the shooters who kill innocent victims.

And I am me though the authors I read and write about. I’ll probably still write about books. But I’m going to try to write some posts on the conscious side of bookconscious. I am a strong believer in the power of literature to connect and transform us as individuals and sometimes as a culture. But in the mire of media that saturates our lives, there are also stories, hopeful or not, that remind me we are persons through other persons. And I hope to write about those as well.

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I loved this book. I’ll get to why in a second, but first, a moment of bookconscious interconnectedness. Last night during the State of the Union the President said something that is nonpartisan and true not only for the politicians he was addressing but for any of us: “We were not sent here to be perfect, we were sent here to make what difference we can.”

I immediately thought that Fin Dolan, the hero of Truth in Advertising by John Kenney, would agree. Fin is a copy writer. He’s working on a last minute Super Bowl commercial for a new totally biodegradable, nontoxic, flushable diaper for one of his firm’s biggest clients, who end up deciding their revolutionary diaper is not really any of those things.

Fin knows his job requires saying things that either are untrue or make no sense in order to sell stuff people don’t necessarily want or need. But he is stuck not knowing what else to do. When he hears from his older brother that their father, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in years, is dying in a nursing home on Cape Cod, Fin has to figure out how to respond, and why.

Fin pictures his own life in scripted scenes to deal with his horrible childhood and the rat race and to keep himself and his friends laughing. When his father turns up, he tries to reconcile the reel in his head with reality, to not suck as a son, a brother, a co-worker, a friend. To figure out why he feels so adrift even though he’s writing his own script. The themes aren’t new, but Kenney captures contemporary angst so well, we can’t help rooting for Fin.

Kenney’s writing manages to be both hilarious and tender. The characters are a little typecast — the gay art director sidekick, the tough woman in the office who has a tender heart, the beautiful best friend we all know Fin is in love with, the older brother who is terrified of becoming their father, the hard-ass boss, the fellow troubled son who appears right when Fin needs him and helps him see what to do. But given that Fin sees life on a screen in his head, this works.

I thought the way Fin evolved from a self-deprecating wise-ass to a softer, more fragile version of the same was lovely. Towards the end of the book he remembers reading and agreeing with Thoreau in college: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Fin now sees him as a “pompous asshole.” (I had much the same reaction when I read Walden a few years ago.) He thinks, “The simple truth is that we know nothing about the inner life of the person sitting next to us . . . unless we choose to listen. Quiet desperation? What about quiet resilience. Quiet courage. Quiet hope.” Fin realizes he doesn’t have to prove himself to the voices in his head. He just has to do the best he can at being who he is.

So that’s why I loved this book. Kenney’s given us a contemporary myth. The scene: the heart of the advertising industry that has our collective emotions squeezed in its gold-plated grip. The hero: A young man given a series of tasks that shake his psyche. Through these he discovers his strengths: to make real connections with people, to live a decent life, not doing great or heroic things, not even necessarily knowing what to do, just doing his best, every day. I know so many people who can identify with that, or who could benefit from realizing it. Life is not as complicated as we make it. We are here not to be perfect, but to make what difference we can.

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Last night I finished a brief but very wise, warm, funny book by Anne LamottHelp Thanks Wow: the Three Essential Prayers.  I’d highly recommend it for people of any faith (or none — she points out that even atheists say these same three instinctual things at the appropriate moments). Lamott is so endearing because she is so free to admit her own imperfection, and she isn’t afraid to write what other people are probably thinking but don’t have the guts to admit.

If you’re thinking, “yeah, yeah, prayer is for other (i.e. religious) people, why would I want to read this book?” as many people I know might be, I’ll let Ms. Lamott speak to the simple but revelatory truth of her book, since I can’t hope to say it as well as she does:

“We are too often distracted by the need to burnish our surfaces, to look good so that other people won’t know what screwed-up messes we, or our mate or kids or finances, are. But if you gently help yourself back to the present moment, you see how life keeps stumbling along and how you may actually find your way through another ordinary or impossible day. Details are being revealed, and they will take you out of yourself, which is heaven, and you will have a story to tell, which is salvation that again and again saves us, the way Jesus saves some people, or the way sobriety does. Stories to tell or hear — either way it’s medicine. The Word.”

See what I mean? There’s a way into this conversation Lamott invites us to join, no matter your beliefs. And she is right, prayer is just another narrative form, a version of telling and listening, and heaven is taking ourselves out of ourselves and waking up to the present moment. Amen, sister. It won’t prevent us from burnishing our surfaces all the time, but any time it does, and we are more ourselves, and more able to see that being ourselves is not only ok but better for us and for the world, there’s hope.

My neighbor Priscilla recently passed away. She was a really interesting lady, who reminded me in some ways of my grandmother. She was 88 and had cancer, so her death was not unexpected. Even so she is mourned, and I’m always a little unsure what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one. Her daughter kindly invited me over to pick out some books — Priscilla was very well read and we always talked about what we were each reading. I thought “help” as I tried to make small talk with her daughter and bungled it, “thanks” because I was remembering the times Priscilla had invited me herself to “see what you’d like, I have so many books!” And “wow” when I chose some and could hear her voice in my head, saying what I heard her say often, “I’ve been lucky really.”

I came home with a book she’d recommended to me several times, The Peabody Sisters, as well as short story collections by Wallace Stegner (and also his excellent Crossing to Safety) and Muriel Spark, as well as Deborah Mitford’s memoir Wait for Me!,  a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, and Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. The bookconscious theory of the interconnectedness of reading was at work: Stegner was someone I’d only just read recently and loved, and I was glad to hear Priscilla had been re-reading him lately. Ditto Spark, who I only just read for the first time last fall. My dad recently discovered Margaret Drabble and recommended her books. My daughter is studying American history and we’ve just hit the period when the Peabody sisters lived. I’ve had They Came Like Swallows on my to-read list for a long time.

So help thanks wow, Priscilla.

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The 1980’s references in Carol Rifka Brunt‘s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, are thick and resonant. A Holly Hobby wallpaper border. Gunne Sax dresses. “99 Luftballoons,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the diner jukebox. Suzanne Vega on Saturday Night Live.Those skinny black rubber bracelets we wore by the dozens. Ryan White. Reagan’s speech on AIDS. Kids playing D&D after school.

I was nineteen in late 1986 when this book opens. The teenaged sisters at the center of the story, June and Greta, are a little younger, but their world felt oh-so-familiar to me. Even the woods June hangs out in behind her school were similar to woods I went to behind my own neighborhood school.

But if this setting isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry. Rifka Brunt gives readers meaty details on every page. The smell of the stew in the crock pot, the scent of June’s uncle on his wool coat and of Greta’s Jean Nate, the howling June hears in the woods, a jar of guitar picks, a neon orange lighter, Greta singing, Toby’s hacking cough and his “thick and gurgly” breathing.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home evokes these specific kids of sights and smells and sounds, making it possible to enter the story sensually. But it also evokes such primal and universal feelings and experiences that I couldn’t help also being very emotionally drawn in. Siblings changing as teens and and not really understanding what’s happening. Trying to figure out one’s place in both the miniature world of one’s family and the larger world. Experiencing a death in the family for the first time. Learning about your parents as people, and as younger versions of themselves.

Without giving too much away, here’s the gist of the story. June is a quirky kid, into medieval history, mad about Mozart’s Requiem, feeling like a misfit as her childhood world gives way and her old friends, including Greta, seem to grow up and away from her. She has a rich inner life, imagining herself in other times and places. Her Uncle Finn is the only person she feels really understands her.

When the novel opens Finn is dying of AIDS. He’s also painting a portrait of June and Greta. Not long after he dies June finds out Finn has had a partner, living in the apartment she visited every week, for nine years and she never knew anything about him. This man, Toby, contacts her and begins to share things he says Finn wanted her to have. Among them, a note asking her to look after Toby.

As June starts to unravel the things her family has hidden from her, she’s also negotiating her tricky relationship with her sister, who is at turns cruel and tender. Rifka Brunt really nails that adolescent weirdness of sometimes forgetting yourself with your siblings and parents, allowing yourself to be the kid you often still feel like, and then catching that happening and trying to be the separate young adult you also often feel like.

June is a fantastic character who manages to be a unique and fully drawn person and also a symbol of adolescence in all its glorious mess. Greta, Finn, and Toby are fully themselves even though they are the satellites to June’s star, and even Ben, a minor but occasionally important character, makes an impression as a full person. I thought June and Greta’s parents — especially their mother, whose role in June’s new understanding of family dynamics is key — were somewhat less fully formed.

But overall I found Tell the Wolves I’m Home to be a very satisfying and enjoyable read. If you like your novels character-driven and full of redemption and growth, this is for you. It’s beautifully evocative, the dialogue felt true, and the writing is real, for lack of a better word. This is the second book I’ve read lately with a very interesting, strong teen girl setting the quarrelsome or misguided adults straight —Where’d You Go, Bernadette being the other. If this is a trend, I like it.

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Over the summer I posted my review of Nichole Bernier‘s debut, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., which was also in one of my first Mindful Reader columns. Last week, Nichole came to Concord to read at Gibson’s. During her post-reading Q&A, I asked what she’d read lately. She had several recommendations, but Crossing to Safety stood out because author Wallace Stegner is one of those literary lights I hadn’t yet read. Yes, even English majors/writers/librarians haven’t read everyone.

As Nichole said, this is a beautiful book. In a bit of bookconscious interconnectedness, the Modern Library edition has an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams, another author I hadn’t read until recently. I just mentioned Williams in my post about The Book of Mormon Girl.  I love these kind of links. Williams’ assessment is lovely and true: “The personal in Stegner’s fiction becomes the universal. Impatience turns to patience. Reservations become possibilities of transformation.”

Crossing to Safety is about Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang, friends who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in 1938 when Larry and Sid are both young English professors. It’s about their respective marriages and their friendships, and it’s also about ambition and dreams, hardships and how to live. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, WWII, and the culturally turbulent years after, it’s also very much an American novel, examining two paths to success in our country — influence and ingenuity.

Larry and Sally are Westerners (Sally a first generation American) with no money or family pedigrees. Charity and Sid are wealthy, well-connected Easterners. Charity insists Sid “publish or perish” even if it means abandoning poetry and his dreams of a simpler life in their rural compound in Vermont; Larry pursues his literary ambitions rather than chasing tenure.

Charity’s plans don’t always come to fruition, but the Langs’ landing is always soft. Larry succeeds as an author on his own merit but his road is made smooth by Charity and Sid’s largess and their connections.  He doesn’t seem to resent this situation, only to relate it.

The Morgans’ friendship with the Langs dazzles them: “We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull . . . .” A few sentences later he adds,”Both of us were particularly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.” Later in the book, Larry notes, “They worried about us more than we had sense to worry about ourselves. What they had, and they had so much, was ours before we could envy it or ask for it.”

And despite the imbalance, each couple benefits from the friendship. Charity is a matriarch who manages and bosses everyone. But she’s not unkind. Larry says, “She is often right. She is also capable of a noble generosity, and of cramming it on the head of the recipient like a crown of thorns.” Sally and Larry offer their friends a deep well of goodness and shared experience; they know them and love them, just as they are.

The book’s structure is a circle; it opens with the Morgans arriving in Vermont in 1972, summoned by Charity, who is ill. From there, Larry reflects on a lifetime of memories, on the meaning of success and failure, morality and its measure, friendship and marriage. In the end, we’re back where we began, feeling a little wiser for having gotten to know these remarkable characters.

Larry tells us,”. . . if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe time is circular, not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving.” A few sentences later he adds, “Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.” Reading Crossing to Safety felt just like that. Stegner’s luminous, sometimes searing writing makes this novel thoughtful, moving, and a very great pleasure to read.

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This month my reading ranged from  Belle Époque Holland to contemporary Cuba, 1990’s Boston to ancient Rome, a mysterious jinn city to a future America, from a Maine isle to US Navy vessels before, during, and after D-Day. If this sounds like too much variety for me to tie together with a theme, remember the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: one book will almost always lead us to another, as our mind seeks connections in what we’ve read.

And also know this: humans seem to have boundless capacity for inhumanity. We can’t resist labeling each other, mostly for the purpose of feeling entitled to treat each other with contempt or even cruelty or to wage war. Sadly, that seems to be what my July reading has in common, along with hope that we also have endless capacity to recover from and transcend inhumanity.

I read four novels this month. First, Richard Mason‘s History of a Pleasure Seeker.  I heard Mason on Nancy Pearl‘s podcast last spring. This book is his latest, but he first came to prominence when he was still at Oxford and published his first novel, The Drowning People.

History of a Pleasure Seeker is about a young man, Piet Barol, who is well educated but poor, whose late mother gave him a hunger for the finer things in life and prepared him to rise above his humble beginnings. When the novel begins, he’s interviewing for a job as tutor to Egbert, the youngest child and only son of hotel baron Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts and his wife Jacobina. It’s not an ordinary job, because Egbert refuses to go outside and the last few tutors have failed.

Piet loves sensual pleasure — excellent food and drink, good music and art, fine clothing and furnishings, and yes, sex. With beautiful women or men (this book is quite explicit, but I’ll grant that the sex is part of the story). Piet’s not purely hedonistic. He does want to help Egbert,whose phobias and terrors Mason draws with convincing detail, and he comes to value the friendships he makes with both the family and the other servants.  As tutor, he is able to move freely in both worlds, which gives readers access to both “upstairs” and “downstairs” dramas in the household. Among which are the ways people are willing to stab each other in the back when they are afraid, angry, or prejudiced.

I won’t give away plot details, but I will say the book’s period details are fascinating, and Mason ties the fate of his characters’ lives to historical events. He is also a beautiful writer. Every sentence is a small jewel, cut and polished, perfectly showing off both natural beauty and craft.  But this isn’t intrusive, you don’t sense the writer working hard, it’s just a lovely novel whose language enhances the story and makes the characters three dimensional. Piet is fascinating because he is so self-interested and yet also has a conscience. I am very interested in reading Mason’s other work.

Another historical novel I read this month was Cecilia, a Europa Editions novel by Linda Ferri. The title character is a young noble woman in ancient Rome whose mother has lost all of her other children and who is increasingly obsessed with a goddess cult. Her father is an official in the emperor’s government, but was previously a farmer. He has given his daughter an education, but she is also expected to dutifully marry according to her parents’ wishes.

Cecilia continues studying, playing music, and writing a diary while trying to please her parents, understand her friends as they enter the adult world, and deal with the deaths of her siblings and a young slave she played with at her parents’ country villa.  She is a thinking person but her role is to be compliant. After a Christian wise man heals her, she joins their community where her nurse has secretly worshiped.

Cecilia is troubled by her family’s tragedies and her mother’s possible madness. She has difficulty reconciling her yearning for truth and her role in a superficial society that only wants her to look nice and be a good hostess for her ambitious husband, and in her troubles she turns to the Christian faith. But, the other new adherents aren’t a very nice bunch. In fact the men in the group are as domineering and judgmental as the other Roman men in the story.

The divergence into Cecilia’s diary and dreams confused me a bit early on, but when the novel rushed through her conversion, conviction, and imprisonment I was frustrated. I understand the poetic license necessary to write about someone who lived so long ago (the book is based on St. Cecilia), but I didn’t think Ferri made her conversion or her willingness to die for the faith convincing in the novel, even if it was meant to be understood.

From the past to the future: I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This book is set in the near future, in a time when the earth’s rotation slows and thus days and nights no longer correspond to a 24 hour period. It’s a fascinating idea for a novel. Walker chooses Julia, who is 11 when the book opens, to narrate. She’s an interesting and observant narrator.

But she’s a kid, so many of her concerns have to do with fitting in at middle school, getting a particular boy to notice her, and worrying about her parents and grandfather in the slightly clueless way of adolescence. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a smart character, but because of her age there is much she has to guess at, which leaves readers guessing too. And I don’t think her language is representative of an actual eleven year old, but is more what an adult might say or think. I think if Julia had been in her late teens, the book would read better. As it is, I was distracted by incongruities.

That quibble aside, I did like the book very much. Julia’s neighbors turn on the two households that try to continue living by sun time instead of the now arbitrary clock time. People seem to mostly act in fear and mistrust or succumb to “end time” attitudes, having lavish parties and indulging their desires before it’s too late. Julia’s family represents a kind of middle way — her mother hoards food and water, they try to protect themselves from excessive sun exposure, but they mostly try to get by, living as normally as possible. I enjoyed the way Walker shows readers a variety of human responses to the scary new reality of a slower earth.

Walker veers into a “young love” subplot but it’s quirky rather than sappy, and does have to do with the slowing. The Age of Miracles would be an interesting book club read, with plenty to discuss. It’s a pretty good read flaws and all, and definitely made me wonder how my own neighborhood would respond to such a strange turn of events.

Speaking of strange, Alif the Unseen is strange in all the best ways. Longtime bookconscious readers know I love books that dip into magical realism, where magic and the real world intersect. Jasper Fforde, Nick Harkaway, and Lev Grossman are masters of this, and to that list I can now add G. Willow Wilson. Her novel is one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking I’ve read this year.

Alif of the title is a cyber-security expert, a geek extraordinaire who protects anyone who’ll pay him — communists, Islamists, Arab spring activists, dissidents, all are his online clients. He lives in a decent but shabby neighborhood in a city state run by an emir, with a couple dozen princes in the line of succession. Alif is his computer handle, and his neighbor Dina is one of the few people in the book who knows his real name.

Soon after we meet Alif, he finds out the girl he loves is betrothed to someone in the royal family and she’s ending things with Alif. He writes an elaborate “bot” program that can identify her based on her keystroke patterns and language, so that they can never see each other online (their paths don’t usually cross in person since he is of mixed “desi”/Arab origin and not in her social class).

But the Hand, a government operative who has been after Alif and his hacker/revolutionary crowd for years, co-opts Alif’s technology and in a fit of panic, he severs ties with his clients and flees. As he feels the Hand (who turns out to have a personal beef with him as well) and state security closing in on him, Alif flees with Dina and they end up turning to Vikram, a jinn (genie).  Along the way Alif relies on Vikram’s sister (who he’s known as a cat for a long time) and his associates in the jinn world to help protect him, Dina, and an American woman who is a student and Muslim convert.

It’s as wild as it sounds, but it’s also a page turning thriller, as Alif implicates an elderly imam when he seeks refuge in the City’s main mosque, finds himself imprisoned and is later sprung by a hacker prince he’s only ever known online as New Quarter.  Dina turns out to be one of the strongest, wisest characters and Alif to his credit comes to see that he’s underestimated her.

Best of all for word geeks (and programmers, I’d guess, although I can’t speak for them) is that Dina’s involvement in the story begins when she delivers a package for the jilted Alif and returns with a book sent by the aristocrat who has dumped him. It turns out to be one of the only surviving copies of a jinn masterpiece, “The Thousand and One Days,” and Alif realizes that its secret wisdom is the power of language, and his favorite language is computer code. He manages to write a program that defeats the Hand before he’s betrayed and taken into custody.

When he makes it back to the City after escaping prison and reuniting with Dina in the jinn’s world, the revolution he and his online friends have long dreamed of is in progress. The Hand has broken the City’s internet infrastructure in his battle to beat Alif, and the people have risen up. Wilson’s humor seems born of outrage, and the book’s fantasy elements and forays into the worlds of supernatural beings and storytelling are excellent foils for sociopolitical critique.

Yes, it’s a novel with something to say, a good read that is fun but also meaningful, that can make you laugh and perhaps also feel indignant. Wilson captures the frustrations and idealism of the Arab Spring, the power of online communities, the strength and yes, even perhaps magic of language, whether its human, jinn, or computer.  She also challenges stereotypes with in-your-face examples of men and women, human and jinn, rich and poor who break out of the boundaries society wants to keep them in. I loved this book.

I read five nonfiction books as well this month. Yes, I know. More on how crazy that is later.

First, from New Hampshire’s Bauhan Publishing, Waltzing With Bracey: A Long Reach Home by Brenda Gilchrist. When the book opens, Gilchrist reacts to inheriting a home on Deer Isle: “It’s always been an anchor of sorts, throughout my rootless life. But it’s big, old, and reeks of history, custom, forebears.”

Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (Henry’s nephew) designed the house. Gilchrist’s great-grandfather counted Charles Darwin, John Stewart Mill, and Frederick Law Olmstead among his friends. Harriet Beecher Stowe based characters on Gilchrist’s family of reformers, abolitionists, writers, people  “long on summers and pedigree, short on money.” Gilchrist “. . . can’t help being impressed by these people, yet they suffocate me.”

As a child, this diplomat’s daughter spent summers in Maine. When her aunt dies she’s forty-eight and editing a book series for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. Expat and city life have made her nomadic. She knows nothing about home ownership.

But she learns, renovating both the house and her life, coming to terms with family ghosts and her place among them. Bracey, her corgi, provides the unconditional love only a dog can give. He’s instrumental in helping Gilchrist come home in every sense of the word.

Bauhan’s hallmark is excellent design, and this beautiful book is filled with photos, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings that illustrate Gilchrist’s emotional journey. If you’ve lived in an old house or by the sea, loved a dog or reconciled yourself to your family’s legacy, you’ll find much to identify with here. Gilchrist’s writing is open-hearted, reflective, and spirited.

For a book club, I read The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. This book tells the story of the theft of several priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, and of author Boser’s growing obsession with the crime and with unraveling the tangled threads of the most probable leads in the case.  It was an interesting read, which reminded me a bit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because of the way the author became so involved in the story.

Boser also tells the story of Garder’s obsession with art, the significance of her collection, and the meticulous way she planned and built her museum. And he describes the heist in as much detail as possible. He describes the way the case was handled (and mishandled) over the years, especially by the FBI, and the many connections to prominent criminals in the Boston area, including the notorious Whitey Bulger.

Those sections of the book were hard to read, because of the violence and cruelty Boser details. I enjoyed the sections about art, the world of art theft and recovery, and Gardner more. Overall it’s an interesting read and I wondered if the theft will ever be solved or the art ever restored to the museum. And it’s a hopeful sign that not only is Bulger now in custody, but also the FBI appears to be over its years of corruption in Boston.

A book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale that caught my eye in July is My War: A Love Story in Letters and Drawings by Tracy Sugarman.  Sugarman was an Ensign for most of his service in WWII, and was at Utah Beach for D-Day and after. This book is excerpts from his letters home to his wife June and from his sketchbooks, where he drew and painted what he was experiencing.

It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking book. Sugarman’s letters are full of youthful optimism, fury at the boorish or prejudiced behavior he witnesses among his fellow servicemen, awe at their bravery and hard work, frustration at the tedium and senselessness of war. He explains that most of June’s replies were lost, but includes one letter that survived. He also tells readers that she died in his arms in 1998, two years before the book was published. They’d been married 55 years.

As a personal account and a work of art, the book is beautiful. It’s also interesting historically as a primary source from a time which we remember mostly with fondness these days, a proud moment in American history. Sugarman balances well deserved pride in service, sacrifice, and courage with righteous anger at racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, and other cultural scourges.

Which of course got me to thinking about whether we can ever truly overcome those things — I was reading this book while the overheated and often distorted election year rhetoric swirled in the background. And as a woman in Congress questioned the service of a woman at the State Department in a shamefully prejudiced way. And as people flocked to either eat at a fast food chain or boycott it, over the biased remarks of the man who owns it. And as the Olympics were tainted by racist remarks and crass commercialism.

But I digress. Two other books I read this month — both for the Mindful Reader column — left me similarly torn between admiration and quiet fury.

Privacy brings Garret Keizer’s spirited, reflective, whip-smart and incisive analysis to this far-ranging yet elusive concept. Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and writes frequently on “matters of politics, religion, and justice.” In Privacy, Keizer delivers a sharp, thorough, witty exploration of “the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don’t; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.”

Keizer explains his book is an “introduction,” not an “airtight definition” of privacy.  He probes the concept in history, law, economics, the media, philosophy and social justice, popular culture and daily life, illuminating privacy’s “basis in the bodily integrity of human beings and in their spiritual needs.”  Keizer considers whether privacy is a universal value and investigates the ways it has eroded recently. He combines intellect and clarity to make this complex and somewhat fuzzy topic lucid, skewering sloppy or misleading reasoning no matter the source. Public discourse would benefit if more of it were this thoughtful and impartial.

In light of persistent lying/cheating scandals and over-heated, often deceptive election rhetoric, Keizer’s conclusion, “. . . privacy may amount to little more, and rest on no firmer basis, than the promises we make to one another” is depressing.  And yet, Keizer reminds us, “Privacy being what it is, they are kept more often than we know.” Let’s hope.

Another book that left me torn between hope and distress is New Hampshire author William Craig’s Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantánamo. Craig’s book is a searing combination of reporting, history, and personal reflection that covers U.S. foreign policy in Cuba since 1898, and Cuban history from its first hopes for independence to the present.

Craig visited Cuba for the first time in 2001, reporting on a tour by The Feminine Tone chorus. His return trip in 2005 provides the framework for Yankee Come Home. Craig is anxious to see Guantánamo and also to unpack the history of the Spanish-American-Cuban War. He’s motivated by post 9-11 angst and family legend regarding  his great-grandfather’s time with the “rough riders.” Craig and The Feminine Tone are trying to enter Cuba via a U.S. embargo loophole, “with a fundamentalist pastor licensed to lead missionaries.”

But Reverend Esau ditches them in a Jamaican airport, short on cash due to an unexpected “charter tax” and without the permits Craig will need to continue traveling once the chorus returns to New Hampshire. They go anyway, and we go along, meeting ordinary Cubans (among them many relatives of The Feminine Tones’ director Maricel Lucero Keniston) and learning a great deal. Including that Craig’s family legend may be just that.

Craig’s thorough observations, reflections, and sensory details bring his narrative to life. As in other countries where revolutionary promises of freedom, justice and equality devolved into an oppressive regime, Cuba is a place where daily life requires navigating hope and fear, beauty and decay, personal ingenuity and institutional corruption. Craig captures the indomitable spirit, warmth, and faith of the Cubans who befriend him, and the ugliness, suspicion, and ideological tension in his brushes with Cuban officialdom.

Cuba is a challenging, sometimes dangerous place to travel, and Craig shares the full gamut of his experiences with readers. He concludes that American foreign policy troubles are rooted in our “wielding money and guns to control what isn’t ours” in Cuba over a century ago. And that what Cubans admire about the U.S. (including the Declaration of Independence, which influenced revolutionaries) reflects “a vision of the peace we could have known if we’d stuck to our founding principles.

Which brings me full circle to the first pessimistic paragraphs of this post. Yes, each of these books seems to shed light on the myriad ways we humans mistreat each other. But thankfully (or I might not have been able to even reflect on these ideas) we are also able to help each other, to reform or repent, to make up for our errors. I guess that sums up the human condition, in literature and life — we screw up, and we fix it.

Books help us make sense of all this. We can learn about grace even from a fictional tutor who feels remorse for the emotional damage he causes,  a bumbling hero who acts selfishly and spitefully when jilted but risks his life to do the right thing for his  fictional world and the friends who stand by him, writers who tell us stories — real or imagined — that remind us our best selves are always within reach. This is one of the reasons I read.

You may have noticed I read a bit less this month.  A couple of years ago I heard Paul Harding talk about how he’d rather read one book well than read a pile of books. I’ve been reading a pile of books every month for a long time now, and it’s taking its toll. I read less this month in part because I spent more evenings with the Computer Scientist, Teens the Elder & Younger, and friends. And because I took on less, said no to a few books for the column. Teen the Younger has taught me that life is too short to read books I don’t care for.

I reflected on the tyranny of summer reading lists and realized I’ve been forcing myself into various reading “lists” for quite a while —  as an indie bookstore events coordinator and book club member, as Europa Challenge participant and book reviewer.  I’d hoped to get through my “to-read” piles this summer but all I’ve done is get them off the floor by spending an entire afternoon reorganizing shelves and lightly weeding.

So I’m hoping to change. I’m taking a break from reading challenges and clubs, and I’m learning that saying no to some books means I have more time and thought to give to the ones I’d like to share with my fellow readers. Like a student who’s had her love of learning diminished with busy work, I have let goals and obligations detract from the thing I love — reading for pleasure.

So for serendipity’s sake, I started a book this week because someone asked me about it and I remembered that I’d wanted to read it for awhile too.  I’m still discussing books I love — I did so last night at a dinner party and wrote down a couple of suggestions from the guest seated across from me.  I’ll still be making a “to-read” list or adding to my shelves, but only because a book intrigues.  Stay tuned. And happy reading.

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