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Posts Tagged ‘classics’

I picked up Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather because as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been listening to The Readers, and earlier this summer Thomas recommended it. Believe it or not I’ve never read Willa Cather before, and my library had this book, so I thought I’d give it a try. It took me a couple of weeks because of everything else going on in our lives right now, and because it’s a slower read as any classics are. But I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Shadows on the Rock is set in colonial Quebec city (or town as it was then), for one thing; the events in the book take place between 1697-1713, with some backstory referring to even earlier times in France. I can definitely say this isn’t a time or place I’ve read about before. Some of Cather’s characters are real historical figures, including Bishop Laval and the Count who served as governor of New France, Comte de Frontenac. As far as I could tell the main characters, the count’s apothecary Euclide Auclair and his daughter Cecile, who is twelve when the book opens, are fictional.

Cecile is a devout and compassionate girl who looks out for Jacques, the neglected little boy whose mother is poor and disreputable. Cecile also cares for Blinker, a cross-eyed man who helps with chores at the Auclair’s home and works for the baker next door, providing him food and drink as her late mother did. In fact she has taken on her mother’s role as homemaker, cleaning and cooking for her father, and helping him in his shop. Euclide studies Canadian plants’ medicinal use and considers himself a progressive man of science; his refusal to bleed patients doesn’t sit well with the town barber/surgeon or some of the colonists.

Cather paints a picture of the hardship people faced living in New France, especially outside of Montreal and Quebec in the wilderness, where priests were dispatched to convert the native people. She portrays the natural beauty of the place as well, and the colonists’ dependence on the successful arrival of ships from France to bring staples and luxuries alike. I’m very intrigued and would like to read more about colonial life and also would like to visit Quebec City.

I definitely would recommend this and I do also want to read more Willa Cather!

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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

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Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.

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The “good book” (as I affectionately call my trusty compact OED) tells me that flaky means “consisting of flakes,” or “to come away or off in flakes.” It further reports that “flake” can refer to snow, fluff, ignited matter from a fire, or a small piece of material that has exfoliated, fractured, peeled, or otherwise loosened itself. Flake can also refer to a layer, as in an oyster shell, or a loose sheet of ice from a floe.

There’s a kind of carnation called a flake (it’s striped) and the word is part of brand names for several kinds of flaky products (like the Cadbury chocolate bar called Flake, which is quite crumbly).  Finally, OED points out that as a verb, flake can mean to fall in flakes (as it is now doing outside my window), to break off, or to fragment.

When I think back over January 2011, it’s flaky. We went from practically no snow at Christmas to so much snow we are running out of places to throw it (the banks on either side of the driveway are several feet high). Our local newspaper reported that we had 38 inches in January (the most for Jan. in 20 years) and February is already off to a roaring start with another 16+ inches in the first two days.

And my reading was fractured, layered, loose. I picked up what I could when I could, in between shoveling, getting the bookconscious household back into a routine post-holidays, and traveling to my first ever American Booksellers Association Winter Institute. I read some books I wanted to read, some I have booked for events at Gibson’s, some forthcoming titles, and others that are bookconscious life learning choices.

The perfect reading for someone who is starting and stopping frequently is a collection of short stories ( a poetry collection works well, too). I read two wonderful collections this month. The Teens and the Computer Scientist gave me Oxfam’s Ox Tales for Christmas.  In January I read Earth. I absolutely loved this collection, and I really look forward to the others in the series.

The stories in Ox Tales Earth are all loosely related to the theme of land rights and farming.  “The Jester of Astrapovo,” by Rose Tremain, opens the book, and I found it especially intriguing because I enjoyed the film The Last Station, which was about the final part of Tolstoy’s life and his dramatic death at a remote train station.  Tremain writes from the station master’s perspective, and the story is far less sympathetic to Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofya, than the film was.  Tremain’s story is a well cut gem; in just 31 pages, she provides fascinating characters, an intriguing plot, a clearly drawn setting that comes alive in her hands, a transformation, and enough left unsaid to allow the readers’ imaginations to play.

Marti Leimbach, author of “Boys In Cars,” paints a poignant sketch of a mother and her autistic son, creating tension in their relationships with his father and in the boy’s attempt to deal with a birthday party invitation. I teared up, and admired the fictional mother very much. “Lucky We Live Now,” by Kate Atkinson is a fantastic dystopian story with magical-realism elements that made me laugh out loud.   And I also found “The Importance of Having Warm Feet,” by Marina Lewycka very compelling; it takes place mostly in the narrator’s memory as she sits at her mother’s death bed, and it’s another beautiful, tightly written, emotionally weighty piece. I could go on, but the point is, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I received Siohban Fallon‘s new book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, from her publicist, and I’m grateful. This debut is a collection of loosely linked short stories set mostly at Fort Hood (although one of my favorites takes place in Iraq), featuring a combat unit and the family members they leave behind.  It’s a terrific read, and one I hope many people will try; it’s a very good portrait of military life.

While it’s been twenty years since the Gulf War, and seventeen since the Computer Scientist’s last long deployment with the Marine Corps (seven months in Japan & Thailand while I was back in Hawaii, expecting Teen the Elder), I found this book weirdly familiar. Deployments have changed (for one thing, much to the Teens’ amusement, we couldn’t email our deployed loved ones back then; we wrote — gasp — letters!); the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan are also very different than the Gulf War. But Fallon’s book brought back the spouse support dynamics, both official and unofficial. Her stories recalled the frustration, stress, camaraderie, and gossip families deal with, and I found myself thinking about situations and people I haven’t thought of in years.

Fallon writes with authority born of experience — she is a military spouse herself, and lived at Fort Hood. As I looked back over the book to tell you about my favorite stories, I found there’s something compelling about each of them. Fallon’s writing isn’t fancy or cutting edge. Her style is simple, clear, but full of vitality.  As I read I felt like recognized her characters, not because I’d read about similar ones in another book, but because I felt as if I’d met them.

I imagine that even people who haven’t experienced military life will have the experience I had, because Fallon has an uncanny ability to evoke a haunting familiarity in her stories. Even if you haven’t been through deployment, you know someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or whose teenager is suddenly acting like someone else, or you’ve listened to someone whose marriage is falling apart or who suspects it is.  You’ve been, or known, a person who suddenly, inexplicably, experiences something that causes a subtle shift in perspective, or maybe rocks your world.

None of this is new emotional territory, but what makes the book so striking is that on every page you’re reminded that the people in these stories are just like the real people who have gone to Iraq & Afghanistan or stayed home while the people they loved went. So even though the universal nature of Fallon’s themes  make the book accessible to anyone, You Know When the Men Are Gone is at its core a stark reminder of what a portion of America is living with all the time as long as we are at war.

In addition to this great short fiction, I read a few novels in January.  The best was Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie’s follow up to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  It’s brilliant. Rushdie creates a heroic adventure for Luka, who is the younger son of Rashid Khalifa, the storyteller from Haroun. Funny, smart, imaginative, utterly original — there aren’t adequate adjectives for this book. Rushdie spins his usual complex, rich, fabulous prose, he’s very funny, and he keeps you turning the pages.

Luka is set in a magical world that works like a video game, so I can’t wait for the Teens to read it, because I think they’ll be amused that Luka has to advance through increasingly challenging levels, like a game. The way Rushdie manages these contemporary, fresh images alongside references to classical mythology and his own imaginary flourishes is very entertaining. And it’s a classic adventure tale, with a young hero having to prove himself through a series of tests so that he can vanquish evil forces and rescue his father. Very good reading, in every sense.

I read The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna, after seeing Pico Iyer’s review in the Wall Street Journal.  Iyer wrote the forward, too. I expected to love this book. Bookconscious readers know I’m a fan of works in translation.  And I like quirky premises such as a man deciding to completely change his life — leaving his wife, his job, his home, everything — because he rescues a hare that’s been hit by a car.

I did love about 3/4 of The Year of the Hare. The original conceit was convincing, the story compelling, the people and situations interesting.  The way the main character, Vatanen, seems to happen upon opportunities, meet people, and influence the outcome of situations reminded me of Forrest Gump.  But the last part of the book was too erratic and unbelievable for me, even for a tale that had taken great leaps earlier.

Another book I admired but didn’t love is Finny, by Justin Kramon. Justin came to Gibson’s at the invitation of a local book club.  He’s a talented young writer, whose future work I look forward to. The characters in Finny are unforgettably original — I think Poplan and Menalcus are about as fantastic as two supporting characters can be. I loved that Justin wrote from the point of view of a woman so empathetically and so well.  And I liked the happy-ish ending; satisfying without being treacly.

But I felt that overall, Finny suffered from too much information. For example, too many scenes in which the characters acted thoughtlessly towards each other. This was at least effective in evoking the social squeamishness that existed as the young characters grew up, crossed paths, and fell in and out of favor with each other.  A surfeit of these situations was distracting but seemed characteristic of long term friendships formed in youth, even when they seemed improbable.

But sometimes there was just too much detail that dragged the story down or were unwieldy.  Eventually the scenes where characters hurt each other once again were beyond believability — it struck me that real people wouldn’t keep returning to relationships that were so dysfunctional.  And yet, the book has stayed with me, and one of the book club members told me that they discussed it at great length, both indications that Justin is a compelling writer. Stay tuned.

One final note on fiction before I move on to drama and nonfiction: I’m almost finished with the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring Without Mustard, which comes out next week. As I’ve said before, I am a huge Flavia fan — she’s one of my favorite characters, ever.  I’m not a regular mystery reader, but I also love the way Flavia’s creator, Alan Bradley, keeps me guessing; I’ve never seen how his mysteries will be solved until the end. 

Red Herring is every bit as fresh, funny, and fascinating as the earlier books in the series. Who knew chemistry could be so interesting (it’s Flavia’s passion).  Great reading, and as my grandmother always said, nothing is better for unsettling moments than a good mystery. Rising gas prices? Instability in the Middle East? Another blizzard?  Curl up with Flavia and you’ll feel better.

Along with Teen the Elder, I read Shakespeare’s Henry V in January. Having read a fictional book about war families and a nonfiction book full of the atrocities humans perpetrate against each other (more on that in a moment), I found myself impatient with King Henry’s patriotic speeches and the youthful excitement of both the French and English as they prepared to kill each other. But Shakespeare is eternally entertaining, and who can resist his hilarious English lesson for the French princess? Or the way the formerly rebellious Prince Hal has grown into a leader, unflinching and decisive? Good stuff, and interesting to discuss with the boy. He admired the speeches.

The book I read that reveals the atrocities of war in mind-boggling breadth is Human Cargo: A Journey Among RefugeesCaroline Moorehead, a British human rights journalist, lays out the history of refugees and resettlement in the 20th and 21st centuries. I volunteer with refugee resettlement in our town, so I have a good working knowledge of contemporary refugee issues, but Moorehead’s clear writing gave me a better overall understanding of the politics, past and present.  She also explores the sociological motivations of governments who promote resettlement but simultaneously make life as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and migrants.

While Moorehead is clearly a humanitarian and doesn’t hide her feelings about the people she meets, the injustices she exposes, or the dysfunction of the international system meant to help displaced people, I found the book to be fair. I am firmly on her side, however — I think the treatment of refugees in most of the world is morally reprehensible, I find the justification most governments give for rejecting economic migrants hypocritical, and I think even the best intended governments are often culturally clueless and politically hamstrung when it comes to resettlement.

Examples: refugee “camps” (sounds nice, right, rustic, but safe?) are nearly universally unsafe, understaffed, and inadequate for preparing displaced people to lead healthy, productive lives outside the camps.  The argument that illegal immigrant labor harms consumers and workers often comes from the very powerful people who make it legal and economically desirable for corporations to either use migrant workers anyway or outsource their factories in order to keep their products cheap for consumers.  And as Moorehead so poignantly describes in her chapter profiling some African refugees now living near the Arctic circle in Finland, resettled refugees are sometimes stuck in climates and cultures that are almost impossibly unfamiliar, with restrictions on or barriers to employment, education, and movement. This makes adjusting, even in a country that welcomes them, overwhelming.

But, I still found Human Cargo uplifting, despite the horrific stories Moorehead shares, and the disheartening systemic failures she exposes.  Why? Because first of all, Ms. Moorehead, like Nicholas Kristof in the Unites States, carries on a fine journalistic tradition of shining light on the darkest of human conditions. And like Kristof, she meets and shares the stories of ordinary people who are quietly defying official indifference and insensitivity, who are heroically performing simple acts of welcome and friendship, who are making a difference in the most profound way possible, one person at a time.

The best example of what I mean are Moorehead’s chapters on the Australian government’s recent actions against asylum seekers, and her profiles of some British asylum seekers.  In both cases, the refugee stories, and the government policy and actions, made me feel physically ill and kept me awake wondering if there any worse invention in human history than bureaucracy (I think it’s a three-way tie with warfare and torture). But in those same chapters, Moorehead introduces people who are reaching out to those who are suffering in their midst, people who with very few resources and extraordinary reserves of patience, compassion, and goodness are offering whatever aid and solace they can. Many of these people are just ordinary folks trying to be neighborly.

Another highly compelling read this month was Stephanie Saldana‘s The Bread of Angels.  I picked this up at the library after reading The Calligrapher’s Secret in December and wanting to know more about Syria. Saldana was a Fulbright scholar learning Arabic in Damascus, and this book is about that year. I’d read an excerpt in the Modern Love column of the New York Times.

Bookconcious regulars know that last month I read Andrew Krivak’s memoir, The Long Retreat.  Krivak and Saldana are kindred spirits (and kindred seekers — Saldana underwent the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at the desert monastery Deir Mar Musa, just as Krivak did on retreat as a Jesuit). Both books are about seeking, about love (divine and human), and about finding one’s way by examining life through the cultural lenses of faith, history and family. Saldana’s book also describes being an American abroad in a time of war, and living in the heart of a place your government has declared evil.

I found myself wishing I could discuss this book with my grandmother, who would have liked hearing about it. Saldana studies with a female imam, which Grandmother would have found interesting, and she lives in the Christian quarter of Damascus in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse, crumbling old apartment building. She’s taken under the wing of a grandfatherly Armenian Christian she calls The Baron who loves Italian shoes and lived for a long time in Lebanon.

She meets an Israeli Jew studying Arabic and trying to remain anonymous, an Iraqi refugee artist, a Damascan carpet seller. She undergoes a crisis as she tries to discern whether she’s called to a religious vocation. And, as I read in the Times excerpt, she falls in love with a monk.

Saldana’s honest portrayal of the psychological impact of  her family history helps readers understand why she’s seeking not only fluency in Arabic but also spiritual and emotional education. I found the book very moving and like The Long Retreat, sometimes draining to read. Saldana and Krivak both reveal the deepest human longings at work in their lives, and neither flinches from sharing low points.  Ultimately I found The Bread of Angels redemptive, lovely reading. Saldana is also a poet, and her writing is lyrical and deeply suffused with emotion.

The ABA’s Winter Institute 6 (WI6), in Washington, DC, was a jam packed two days of learning, networking with other indie booksellers, and finding out about new books.  Since my return, I’ve read three books by authors I went to dinner with, and I brought back a stack of forthcoming books tall enough that our cat has to stretch to rub her chin on it.

On my first evening at dinner, I met Sophie Blackall, illustrator of the delightful Ivy & Bean series and many other wonderful children’s books (take the link, her website is amazing). Sophie was at WI6 to promote her gorgeously illustrated edition of Alduous Huxley‘s The Crows of Pearblossom. Yes, that Alduous Huxley.

We chatted about our daughters, and Sophie kindly signed her book for Teen the Younger, whose own art astonishes me. I’d mentioned her penchant for dystopian fiction, and Sophie’s inscription points out that Huxley’s tale is “ever so slightly dark.”  Her vivid paintings, drenched in color, detail, and expression, are a perfect compliment to this classic tale.

Also that evening I met Tom Angleberger, author of the wildly popular The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, whose new book is Horton Halfpott, Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset. I loved, loved, loved this book.  I read it in a couple of nights and tapped into that lovely feeling I had as a kid, of finding a wonderful book at the library and wanting to devour it. Tom manages two things every writer of books for children should, perfectly.

First, he grants his readers dignity by writing intelligent fiction, thereby promising them that he understands they are smart and will respect that by not talking down to them. Second, he achieves the balance of humor and humanity that I remember wanting as a voracious young reader. I didn’t like books that seemed to be funny on the surface but really just exhibited the author’s belief that kids are silly. And I liked books that appealed to my inner sense of justice and fairness — kids feel that so strongly, I think especially in the “middle grade” years Tom writes for.

Horton Halfpott is a fine hero, a “lowly kitchen boy” who is hard working, humble, honest, caring, a good friend and son, and a kid who loves books and learning.  But Tom also gives readers a strong heroine, Celia, a girl who is sensible, smart, capable, considerate, and kind to Horton even though she’s an heiress and he’s a servant.

I don’t want to say anything about the plot that might spoil things, but the story opens with the “loosening” referred to in the title, which sets off a general loosening around Smugwick Manor.  There are mysterious thefts, plans for a ball, a celebrity detective, bumbling reporters, pirates, and Horton’s friends the stable boys, Bump, Blight, and Blemish. And Tom drew a terrific map and caricature style sketches of the characters.

On my second evening at WI6, I met Jennifer Sattler, whose new book, The Pig Kahuna, is coming out in May. This is an absolutely adorable picture book; I dare you to find more expressive pigs in contemporary children’s literature. They’re hilarious. The story is sweet with just a dash of adventure, perfect for little ones.  And quite funny for the adults reading it over and over.

You’ll hear more about books I picked up and authors I met at WI6 over the next few months!

Next week, Stephen Amidon, a novelist, and his brother, Dr. Thomas Amidon, a cardiologist, are coming to Gibson’s to read from and discuss their amazing new book, The Sublime Engine; A Biography of the Human Heart.  I finished reading it last weekend, and it’s one of the most unique works of nonfiction I’ve read. The brothers apply their combined expertise to tell the history of the human heart from both a scientific and a cultural perspective.

Starting with ancient times and ending a short time in the future, they trace our understanding of the physiology of the heart, our metaphysical or religious view of its importance, and the heart’s role in human culture, especially literature. A book that combines scientific and cultural history is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me: if there is any book that is an example of The Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness, this is it!  I have been telling the Teens for years that educational “subjects” are artificially divided and packaged for schools’ convenience, but that the real story of human knowledge is interdisciplinary. Everything is connected to something else and no discipline sprung up in isolation from the others.

The Amidon brothers prove my point — medical history has often been  informed not only by science but by the predominant religious and philosophical views of the times, and literature was often influenced by breakthroughs in science.  Each part worked with the others, sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds.  This book is a fascinating, informative, and a delightful read.

Did you know that Hippocrates diagnosed coronary artery disease as a “blockage” and recommended a healthy diet and more rest to those suffering from it? Or that some medieval theologians believed God’s word might be literally written into someone’s heart?  Or that we owe the ubiquitous heart symbol found on valentines and “I heart NY” t-shirts to an extinct root from ancient North Africa that was considered an aphrodisiac?  Or that Mary Shelley kept her dead husband’s heart in her desk drawer?  I didn’t. Nor did I know that the history of cardiology is filled with colorful and even heroic characters.

The Sublime Engine isn’t just a collection of obscure facts, though, nor is it a dry medical history. It’s a well written narrative, one that made me think about taking better care of my heart (I gave it a good work out this week, shoveling). I can’t wait to meet Stephen and Tom next week.

I’m recommending The Sublime Engine to the rest of the Bookconscious household. In January, both the Computer Scientist and Teen the Elder read books I’d recommended ages ago, which proves that raving about a book and leaving it out where it can entice can be effective.  I’m telling myself that the piles of books around the house aren’t a mess, they’re an incubator for potential life learning.

Teen the Elder is reading Paul Johnson’s terrifically compact, insightful biography, Churchill, which I reviewed in bookconscious last winter.  He’s working on an essay about English patriotism in Henry V, and Churchill was quite taken with the play.  He also read some issues of FourFourTwo, a British magazine devoted to his main passion, soccer.

He’s also developing a newer passion for music. He’s teaching himself musical notation  and theory using all sorts of online resources along with Edley’s Musical Theory for Practical People by Ed Roseman and Music Theory Made Easy by David Harp. He’s been fiddling with a demo version of FL Studio, and this week we got him “fruity” edition, for composing and arranging digital music. He works with Garage Band on his sister’s Mac when he can, as well. I’m psyched to see him pursuing this passion.

Speaking of passion, Teen the Younger continues to spend a great deal of time drawing both on her Mac with a tablet her grandpa got her for her birthday and in sketchbooks. She still devours Manga, and this month started a few new series as well as re-reading some old favorites.

She started Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games last month, and is on the second book, Catching Fire. She reports that the “angst” she previously expressed a distaste for is a complicated part of the plot, and that she is enjoying Catching Fire even more than the first book.

Another book she’s been dipping into (and I’ve looked at too) is Theodore Gray‘s The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom In the Universe. It’s an amazing book — scientific eye candy, on the one hand, but packed with interesting information, too. And since Teen the Elder is a photographer, I figured they’d both like it. It’s on an end table in the living room, handy for browsing for a few moments. Teen the Younger is planning to read it straight through, eventually.

The Computer Scientist finished Lynne Olson’s excellent Citizens of London and says, “The tragic tale of Gil Winant, a largely unknown player in most historical examinations of WW II, is told with wonderful depth. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the political and physical pre-cursors to committing a nation to military operations as well as the challenges the US government faces into its continuing political discourse with our allies in Western Europe, even today.” I loved this book as well, and hope to re-read it someday.

He also read Full Dark No Stars, which he’s had since November. This is highly unusual — he generally devours a new Stephen King book within a day or two of receiving it. But he said he’d reward himself with this book when he finished something on his nightstand, which is full of books he’d started or planned to start, so he waited until he’d read Citizens of London. His take?  “Some real SK home runs in this collection of four short stories. All four novellas are outstanding and refresh my enjoyment of SK’s storytelling.”  He says his favorite of the four (longish) short stories is “Fair Extension.”

So what’s ahead?  I have Handing One Another Along, by Robert Coles, out from the library, and I suspect it will cause me to hit the shelves at home and at the library to read or re-read some of the literature Coles writes about. There are any number of events books awaiting me, as well as the terrific stack of galleys from WI6.  I’m still enjoying my slow re-reading and study of Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life. Sure as the snow will fall, the bookconscious household will find fascinating reads in the coming weeks. Happy reading!


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Literature is often a way to look at the big questions, the same questions philosophers, theologians, and ordinary humans have wrestled with forever. In December the books I read dealt with how one can find happiness in life; each book has a slightly different take, and only a couple of them address the search for happiness directly. But as I so often discover when I reflect on a month’s worth of reading, I gravitated towards a theme, unconsciously or not, or I see a theme after the fact that threads through the month’s book pile.

Before I get carried away discussing the pursuit of happiness, I want to mention what the rest of the bookconscious household read — something I never got to in my last post. December is one of the two busiest months of the year for the Computer Scientist. He works in development, and lots of people give at the end of the year. So he was hard pressed to make time to read, but he did finish Tinkers and is enjoying Citizens of London. I blogged about Citizens last spring, and I noticed he’s been reading it more frequently since we went to see The King’s Speech.

Since I’ve spent a lot of time and word count praising Tinkers I’ll quote the Computer Scientist and leave it at that. He says, “The threaded story structure and beautiful descriptive language made Tinkers a very good read. The book is short enough to read straight-through and that might be a better approach than a “here and there” read as keeping the threads straight is a fun challenge of the book. I especially like how Harding uses similar imagery across the story for different characters and situations.”

Teen the Elder spent the first three weeks of December pondering and writing about ambition in Macbeth, comparing Macbeth’s ambition with Hitler’s. He read several pieces of literary criticism and chapters of history books on Hitler, and started reading Kate L. Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers.  I implored him to read for fun; other than the poem of the week, soccer blogs, articles on the Guardian, New York Times, and Fox Soccer sites, he mostly read academic tomes and textbooks (including the door-stopping Handbook of Bird Biology).

Quick aside: for Christmas, I gave the Computer Scientist and the Teens two books by Salman Rushdie to share: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life. I sincerely hope that will be soul-feeding, enjoyable reading for all of them. I thoroughly enjoyed Haroun when I read it a few years ago, and I look forward to Luka.

Teen the Younger continued reading Manga. She read further volumes of Naruto and Full Metal Alchemy as well as Gakuen Alice. She also tried a new series called Bleach, in which the hero meets a soul reaper who feels sorry for him when monsters called hollows attack his family. The soul reaper shares her power with him so he can save his family, who then don’t remember the monsters, but instead think a truck hit their house. Like all Manga, this is just the beginning — there are several additional volumes.

She also read most of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  When I asked how these were, Teen the Younger told me that after Harry Potter, nothing is really good reading. (Her brother says Lord of the Rings is the only thing that ever satisfied him after HP, although he developed a fondness for T.S. Eliot’s poetry later). She thought Hunger Games was okay, and has asked for the next book in the series, but she didn’t rave about it.

Her critique of The Lost Hero vindicates my earlier criticism of YA fiction. She also told me, “Much of The Lost Hero is about teen angst, and while that’s probably realistic, it’s kind of annoying to have to read it over and over.” She went on to say that even Percy Jackson, which she enjoyed, got repetitive in the later books of the series. She asked me why so many authors write in series instead of a single good book, since they end up repeating themselves.

A good question. She doesn’t seem to have this complaint about Manga. When I asked her why, she said it’s because Manga are a continuing story, without much repetition.  Since they are serialized, readers understand from the first that the story will be told in parts. Perhaps some novels that are meant to both sell as standalone stories and fit into a series don’t manage the same continuity?

Like Teen the Younger (and Teen the Elder, if he would lighten up a bit), I like a well told story and interesting characters.  Even more I like a book that give me something to think about (they do too, although they might not put it that way).  Jane Gardam‘s God On the Rocks provides all of that.

Even though the story centers on a young girl, God On the Rocks deals with complex problems  and issues,– family and romantic relationships, religion, the impact of war on a society, class, gender roles, parenting. Gardam packs so much into this small gem of a novel; but it all unfolds naturally. There is nothing forced or contrived. And it’s a good story, one that surprised and delighted me, gave me pause, and stayed with me after I reached the ending.  It’s really a perfectly constructed, wonderful book.

Margaret, the girl in the story, is just right; Gardam is one of those writers who hasn’t lost the voice of childhood.  The adult characters too are multi-dimensional and fully drawn; even bit players, like the parish priest, are rendered vividly. I am still not sure how Gardam managed this — it’s a short book — and I think it would be worth re-reading  to study her writing more closel

The characters in God On the Rocks are all trying to find out who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to live. Margaret watches, listens, and feels — and we see her trying to work things out in her mind, as the adults struggle along. Everything happens during one summer between the two world wars. Without tying everything up neatly in a bow, Gardam provides closure as the characters gather many years later at the end of the book. Again, she does this subtly, respecting the reader’s intelligence and leaving some things open to discussion, even as she resolves others.

Another novel I read this month leaves more questions than answers at the end. The Calligrapher’s Secret, by Syrian born German author Rafik Schami, is a fascinating read. Schami brings the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Syria alive in his writing. I thought of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as I read, because just as the political, religious, and cultural backdrop of the Partition are key to that book, Syrian history, politics, culture, and religion make The Calligrapher’s Secret tick.

On one level this book is a delightful coming of age tale, weaving together the stories of a Christian boy (Salman) and a Muslim girl(Noura), from different socio-economic backgrounds, as they grow up in Damascus and eventually fall in love. Each of them faces difficulties in their families and in society, but their intelligence and pluck, and the resilience of the human spirit, see them through. Their stories carry the novel along, with frequent digressions into fascinating subplots and rich sensory detail.

But there is so much more going on in The Calligrapher’s Secret than the coming of age and love stories; Schami spins a sprawling, entrancing tale and peoples it with a vast cast of characters. As with a Rushdie novel, the density of Schami’s writing and the cultural depth makes for slow but ultimately satisfying reading. True to the title, there are many secrets in the plot, some of which are never completely resolved, but that’s how life works, too.

I was so entranced by the vivid portrayal of Damascus that I requested Stephanie Saldana’s memoir of her time in Syria, The Bread of Angels, on inter-library loan; I look forward to reading more about this complicated, ancient place.

Another place I enjoyed reading about in December is much more familiar. In Lisa Genova‘s new novel,  Left Neglected, the main character and her family have a home in rural Vermont. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Vermont but I enjoy it, and the family’s simple, pleasant home in a small town sounds very appealing.

In Left Neglected, Vermont is where the power couple main characters spend weekends, if they can get away from their busy lives in the Boston suburbs. Sarah and Bob have it all, including three children (whose names, believe it or not, are Lucy, Charlie, and Linus — a whimsical detail, but one that works), a wonderful nanny, and as I mentioned, high powered jobs. Only Bob is afraid he’ll be losing his, and Sarah is multi-tasking her way through life, telling herself she’s perfectly happy, but challenging Bob to “rock, paper, scissors” to see who gets to drive straight to work without having to drop off the kids on the way.

Then Sarah has a car accident (while dialing her phone — scary), and wakes up without being aware of her left side anymore. It’s still functioning, but her brain isn’t able to tell. Left doesn’t exist. Imagine that — half of you, half of the world, unrecognizable. To go from on top of the world to almost helpless in an instant, it’s almost impossible to think about.

But Genova writes movingly of the post-crash adjustment, as Sarah’s have-it-all life grinds to a halt. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what would happen next. It sounds cliched to say that Sarah re-examines her life, her priorities, and her relationships in light of the accident, but she does — and who wouldn’t?

I don’t want to give away too much, so I won’t tell you how it all works out. But I will say that one of the things I liked best about Left Neglected is the depth of detail about Sarah’s condition, left neglect. Genova did a great deal of research, and it shows. One amazing organization that helped her, New England Handicapped Sports Association, plays a big part in Left Neglected‘s dénouement, and I am pleased to add that a portion of book sales at Lisa Genova’s reading at Gibson’s on Jan. 20 will benefit NEHSA.

Another book that deals with prioritizing what’s important in life is Alan Bennett‘s The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady In The Van.  I read and blogged about Clothes last winter. Gibson’s book club discussed the edition that also includes Lady this past Monday. We spent a lot of time pondering why Bennett put the two pieces together — he says in the introduction that there isn’t a particular connection he was trying to make. But we came up with some of our own.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella, and our group decided it’s a very theatrical one; most of us could visualize the book as a play or movie. It concerns a middle aged, childless couple, the Ransomes, who are burgled so thoroughly that even the toilet paper is gone. They eventually find out their entire apartment has been reassembled meticulously in a storage facility.  Mrs. Ransome begins to examine her life, after the trauma of the break-in and the strangeness of the aftermath, while Mr. Ransome seems unchanged. Much more occurs, but I don’t like to spoil plots here.

The Lady In the Van is nonfiction, and it’s the story of Miss Shepherd, who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s garden for many years. She is eccentric, perhaps even mentally ill, but she is irrepressibly independent.  Most of our book club members found her appealing; despite the hardships of her life, she lived exactly as she chose, and her indomitable spirit is admirable.

Despite the sadness  and seriousness which tinges both stories, Bennett’s writing is sharp and often quite funny. Our book club had a good time talking about the possible parallels and obvious contrasts between the fictional Ransomes and the real Miss S. We also talked about Bennett’s honest portrayal of his own involvement — while he let Miss S. park on his property, treated her kindly, and was protective of her, he limited her use of his bathroom, and admits he sometimes watched her without offering assistance.

What I believe ties the two pieces together is dignity. Bennett can be biting and he openly dislikes Mr. Ransome, inserting himself into the text to tell readers that he could have softened the character a bit but didn’t. He’s also quite up front about Mrs. S’s faults. But he treats Mrs. Ransome respectfully, as he did his unconventional neighbor.  As a result, Bennett portrays each woman as a person seeking whatever small happiness she can find in this crazy world, and he forgives their foibles.

It seems to me that Bennett admires these two flawed women, one real and one imagined, for the way they each maintain their dignity in the face of unusual circumstances.  Bennett shows us that happiness may not look like what we’d expect, but that it can blossom in strange ways in our lives. I found this book very hopeful reading as another year of recession and war came to a close, and as we put the emotional turmoil of early college admissions behind us in the bookconscious house.

(I know you’re dying to know: Teen the Elder was accepted at a couple of wonderful colleges and was offered scholarships at both. Stay tuned.)

Another author who considers happiness and finds dignity in all her subjects is Maira Kalman. I’ve always admired her work, and I gave the bookconscious household Kalman’s new book,  And the Pursuit of Happiness, for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with Kalman, I recommend this interview with NHPR’s Virginia Prescott on Word of Mouth. You can also check out her blog.

And the Pursuit of Happiness is as quirky and colorful as Kalman’s other work; I can’t think of many other authors who can write whimsical, admiring prose about a sewage treatment plant.  But she approaches that topic (and visits said plant in Brooklyn) the same way she approaches a town meeting in Vermont, and visits to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Fort Campbell, and the Supreme Court. Also school gardens and the Capitol’s bipartisan bathrooms. And much more.

Kalman writes about democracy, history, and pie. Her penchant for cleaning and Lincoln’s possibly cross-eyed dog. Immigration, New York’s City Hall, and museums. Obama’s inauguration and Jefferson’s slaves. Each of the twelve chapters of the book (one per month, for a year of jaunts in  “pursuit of happiness”) is illustrated with Kalman’s exuberant, rich paintings and an occasional photograph. Not everyone will warm to her style, but I love it. Reading Kalman’s books makes me want to sit down with her over a pot of tea and plate of delicious goodies and talk.

Around mid-December I was pretty sure I was done buying books for Christmas but a small volume caught my eye at Gibson’s: Christmas Poems, a pocket sized anthology published by New Directions. This little book is a gem.  Plenty of familiar poems, including Clement’s  “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” and Hardy’s “The Oxen,” and lots of poems I wasn’t familiar with, by poets I hadn’t thought of in terms of their holiday work.  Creeley, Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Whitman, and Rilke, to name a few.  A thoughtful, interesting little collection.

I’ve saved the two most serious books for last, the two that overtly wrestle with meaning, truth, and the pursuit of the kind of unselfish happiness that makes the world a better place. One is a primarily a memoir, the other a manual, but each has a bit of both in it. One is by a man who almost became a priest, the other by a woman who is a former nun. If you’re in the mood for a deeply intelligent, finely crafted, searching read, you can’t go wrong with either.

One of the most moving books I read in 2010 won’t be out until May 2011, The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak.  In December I read his memoir, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, which is the story of his time with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.  He spent eight years learning, working, praying, and living in Jesuit communities before leaving the order.

The Long Retreat is a tribute to the mentally, spiritually, physically arduous journey to priesthood. It’s also a love letter to the faith and those who devote their lives to it.  The book is also an appreciation of the mystery of beauty, as manifested in literature, liturgy, the natural world, and the world of ideas. And it’s a young man’s exploration of his roots as well as his potential, an intellectual coming of age story.

So it’s complicated. Dense. Riveting, even a bit painful. Krivak doesn’t whitewash his own journey or minimize the challenges. He’s a very fine writer and thinker, and in The Long Retreat readers learn that he was a graduate of a “great books” college, St. John’s in Annapolis, and of Columbia University’s MFA program, before he entered the Jesuits. If you’ve wanted to understand what it is to live an examined life, to become spiritually disciplined, to seek with all your heart and soul towards a committed life of service, or to fulfill a deep thirst for beauty, The Long Retreat will inspire you.

Krivak infuses both the The Sojourn and The Long Retreat with a strong sense of agape, the compassionate love C. S. Lewis describes as an unselfish, devoted commitment to others, and the King James Bible translators called “charity.” In both his novel and his memoir, Krivak writes of people who make others’ lives better through their loving kindness, whether for a moment or a lifetime. It seems to me (and perhaps I’ll get to ask him about this in the spring) that Krivak’s writing explores the human potential for compassion. Some of the people in his books rise to that call and engage in it, others are caught up in pettiness, selfishness, or hubris.

All of which are also part of human potential — and Karen Armstrong writes, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that we can choose to strengthen our compassionate mental and spiritual response by exercising our hearts and minds the way we can strengthen our body by exercising our muscles. I read Armstrong’s latest book on New Year’s Day evening, and signed onto the Charter for Compassion. I plan to encourage the rest of the bookconscious household to read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I’ve already begun to go back through each chapter slowly, with a mind to strengthening my own compassion.

Armstrong is a fine writer and historian, and she opens Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a review of the role of compassion in the tenets and traditions of the major world religions. Throughout the book, she writes of her own life experience and uses her own struggles as an example to those who might find her suggestions daunting. In this way the book is both wise and grounded, as Armstrong’s writing generally is. I can think of no other contemporary writer who distills the big questions and ideas of mankind’s quest for Truth into such clear prose.

After the survey of compassion in history and religion, Armstrong provides clear steps, one chapter at a time, that individuals or groups can follow to become more compassionate. They are practical, sensible, and doable — although challenging.  From learning about compassion to thinking, speaking, and acting in mindful awareness of those around us, Armstrong believes we are all capable of letting go of our preconceptions, our misunderstandings, and our bad habits and learning to love even our enemies.  Mindfulness is hard in and of itself, as I’ve often written here.  But with as capable a guide as Armstrong leading the way, the path to compassionate living seems fairly straightforward.

So I’ll keep re-reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I have a few more entries left in Watch for the Light; last night’s reading was T.S  Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” which alternately makes me smile and shudder. Also in my to read pile: new books I received for Christmas from the Computer Scientist and the Teens, including Oxfam’s Ox-Tales short story collection. I started the Earth volume and am enjoying the stories very much.  I have three piles of books by the side of the bed, and a couple of piles in other places.  Here’s to a new year of books!

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I’ve been humming “Travelin’ Shoes,” a piece Songweavers are performing in our South Church concert (to benefit homeless initiatives) on 11/20, and the verses begin “Death came a knockin’,” which got me to thinking that death knocks on the door of a lot of good literature. In October, death featured in almost every book I read. I suppose if you’re an author looking for drama, conflict, redemption, transformation, even humor — themes that make for good reading — you can’t really go wrong working death into the picture.

Two books that deal with death to great effect are Hans Keilson‘s Comedy In A Minor Key, and The Death of the Adversary. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux brought Keilson’s work to American readers this year in beautifully designed editions. I read a review in August by Francine Prose, and I agree with her assessment: “‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.”

Both books are set during WWII; most of The Death of the Adversary takes place in Nazi Germany, and Comedy In a Minor Key is set in occupied Holland. Keilson was born in Germany. Like the protagonist in The Death of the Adversary, he came to understand, as a young man, that he was no longer German under the Nazi regime, he was Jewish and therefore did not belong.

The novel follows Hitler’s rise to power even though Hitler’s name never appears. The protagonist goes about his life trying to be normal, trying to ignore the growing infatuation his age-mates have with the “adversary.”  He describes a young German telling friends about participating in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, and I don’t think I’ve come across a more vivid, evocative, soul-searing description of the senselessness of violence in any novel.  You understand as you read this passage how it might be that ordinary people are swept up in the brutality of war, and what it might feel like know that your community is the target of such blind, ugly rage. Even the protagonist feels the power of the adversary’s rhetoric — he is caught up in it himself, albeit in a different way.

Particularly in light of recent attention to nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, and the new Hitler exhibit in Berlin, The Death of the Adversary was a moving, fascinating read. Some of it is darkly humorous;  a scene where the young man is at a hotel and realizes that the adversary is speaking in the hall and he and the proprietor of the hotel and some other guests are listening over a sound system seemed farcical to me. Other sections are tender to the point of being heartbreaking: the young man remembering being deliberately targeted with violent fouls in a soccer match, despite his being very skilled; another remembered scene where his mother made other boys play with him; the moment he realizes a good friend has been taken in by the adversary’s strong speeches and they will part ways.

Even more heartbreaking is the way the protagonist describes his parents’ preparing to flee, the way they are in denial for a long time, and then finally each tries to look out for the other, the way the young man eventually realizes he won’t see them again. Both in the novel and in life, aging parents ignore warnings and are taken away; the young man escapes but feels strongly that he “left them to their fate.”  Keilson, in interviews, feels the same way about his own parents. When the novel ended, (an ending so beautiful and sad I thought about it for days), I felt the same aching emptiness I feel after a good cry.

Comedy In a Minor Key is about a Dutch couple who are hiding a Jewish man in their house.  When Keilson left Germany he became a member of the Dutch resistance, so again the novel draws on the author’s own experiences. And again, whether you’ve read a similar story or not, you’ll be hard pressed to come across such a beautiful telling. The earnest young couple and their secret guest struggle to establish a “normal” relationship, and Keilson portrays the range of emotions and the logistical difficulties  poignantly, including the Jewish man’s untimely (but natural) death and the consequences of the young couple’s trying to dispose of the body.

This is a short novel, but vivid and tense — you feel the danger, the drudgery, and the maddening sense that both the refugee and his rescuers are trapped, that their lives are stuck in an endless loop as they try to determine who they can trust, and try to know how to live together. In both books, power and freedom play an enormous roles — who has and doesn’t have each, how people act when they are either powerless or free, what brings these ethical forces to bear as people try to make sense of war, occupation, fear. The earnestness of the characters is stark; there is no  sentimentalism, just the naked anguish of trying to be good, to face evil , to survive and not destroy yourself or anyone else in the process.

Genocide is not specifically named in either book. In fact, if you weren’t aware of the circumstances of Hitler’s rise to power and of the Holocaust, you may think The Death of the Adversary was simply about war and extremism at any time and place.  Comedy In a Minor Key is a little more explicit about the historical context, but is still a book that transcends its setting. Both are haunting reminders of how thin the line between discrimination and persecution is, how easily humanity has slipped over that line and can again.

Another book in which lines are crossed, despite people’s better intentions and with the direst of consequences, is last year’s National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I’m still digesting this book a couple of weeks or so after I read it.   McCann traces the lives of several characters in New York City around the time of Phillipe Petit‘s walking a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

When I wrote about Tinkers I said I often don’t get what prize committees were thinking, and I’m afraid that’s how I feel about Let the Great World Spin. It’s a decent read, but I felt it was uneven enough not to merit being singled out for the National Book Award. In fairness to the committee, I haven’t read the other finalists from that year, so maybe it was the best of the bunch.

I think what I didn’t like is that the structure of the book got in the way of the telling.  I’m also not sure I could say what the book is about — it’s about many things, but no one thing stands out.   I heard an NPR piece about La Dolce Vita today and Martin Scorsese described it as “episodic,” rather than plot driven. I guess that’s the case with Let the Great World Spin.

Some of the characters whose stories are part of Let the Great World Spin are not fully developed — they are more than extras, but not quite minor characters. The main characters — a pair of Irish brothers, a hooker, and a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam — are also not people readers get to know very well. The thread that ties the disparate pieces of the narrative together is Phillipe Petit‘s walk on the wire between the twin towers. There are further connections; some  made late in the book seemed hasty.

I don’t mind fortuitous connections in a novel, but I like to see them developing earlier.  The scant sections on Phillipe Petit were tantalizing but fleeting — perhaps because he’s a living person, it was hard for McCann to spend much time on him in the novel, but if that’s the case, why have any chapters devoted to him?  Similarly, a character who ends up marrying one of the brothers after being involved in crash in which the other brother dies shows up in a couple of chapters, but we never get a real sense of her.

If the main characters were more fully developed, the comparative slimness of the others wouldn’t stand out to me as much, but even those four didn’t come alive for me. McCann writes beautifully in places (in others, some of his figurative language felt disjointed); the idea of the novel is lovely, and the intersections of the lives poignant. I wondered when I  finished if I might have felt differently if he’d written linked stories, telling each character’s bit separately and leaving readers to knit them together.

Part of the problem for me was that I began reading knowing this was a National Book Award winner — the prize impacted my expectations. But another book I read this month was a Pulitzer winner, and it did not disappoint: Delights and Shadows by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Kooser came to Concord to accept the first Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry in October.

The audience included two other former poet laureates: Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin, as well as Wes McNair and Sharon Olds. Those are the “local” poets around here — one reason I love New Hampshire!  Both teens (including one who didn’t want to go) enjoyed Kooser’s reading; Teen the Elder says Kooser is now his second favorite poet (Donald Hall is first).

Although I’d included his work in our “poem of the week” display in the kitchen for a number of weeks, Ted Kooser wasn’t a poet the family felt very familiar with before the reading; they all thought hearing him really made his work more appealing. The Computer Scientist had been reading Flying At Night in preparation for the evening, which bookconscious readers may recall I wrote about in June.

Kooser read a number of poems from Delights and Shadows.  “Mother,” is one of my favorites. It’s an elegiac poem, a letter to his mother in the first spring after her death.  It ends with some of the loveliest lines in American poetry: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look/at the world, to see the life in play in everything,/I would have to be lonely forever.”

Another gorgeous poem is “A Box of Pastels,” which Kooser also read — it describes Mary Cassatt’s box of pastels, and he told the back story about visiting with the person who owned this box and feeling so awed to hold it.  This poem ends, “I touched/the warm dust of those colors, her tools,/and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.” As a Cassatt fan, I can imagine that feeling, and he captures the essence of her art — light — beautifully, in the mundane colored dust that rubbed off.

Many of Kooser’s poems are remembrances, either of people or of earlier times, and Delights and Shadows includes a number of outstanding examples: “Ice Cave,” “Memory,” “Dishwater,” and “Depression Glass,” stand out for me.  Kooser read two longer, narrative poems that reminded me very much of Wes NcNair’s work: “Pearl,” and “The Beaded Purse.” Like McNair, Kooser can spin a yarn in his poems that makes you feel as if you’re hearing voices from the past.

Also like McNair, Kooser captures a certain slice of America in his work. In Kooser’s case, it’s mid-western life in small towns and farms, especially of his parents’ generation, in the early 20th century.  These poems are like paintings of a particular time and place and yet also deal with timeless, universal human experience. In “The Beaded Purse,” for example, a father tucks money into his dead daughter’s bag “for her mother to find,” so she won’t worry that the girl was living hand to mouth.  If I was putting together a class on 20th century American history, Kooser and McNair would be on the syllabus – their poems are every bit as much history as literature.

One of my favorite authors of all time is similarly of equal value as both a historian who recorded a precise slice of her country’s cultural history and a supremely talented writer whose work has earned a place in the canon of great English literature. Yes, Jane Austen. The Computer Scientist gave me a membership in JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) for my birthday. When I took Teen the Elder to Ohrstrom library to find Pre-Columbia history books and visit the Shakespeare room, and saw Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World on the shelf, I knew I had to read it.

Claire Harman traces Jane Austen’s fame from the time she was writing to the present.  For those of you who’ve heard that she wasn’t much of a success during her lifetime or that since she published anonymously, she wasn’t well known, this book is eye-opening. That’s a nice urban legend, but in fact, Austen was pretty successful, though some books did better than others.  She was also very much aware of both her sales and her reviews, and thanks to her brother and some family friends talking openly about her authorship, she was not entirely anonymous.

Those details were interesting, but it’s Harman’s in depth coverage of Austen’s posthumous fame that I found even more fascinating. One could say that the cult of Jane Austen,like that of Shakespeare, was an early example of celebrity worship. Perhaps because I live with an Austen skeptic, I had no idea that in England some people promoted her as an equal to Shakespeare in terms of importance to England’s literary heritage.  I saw parallels to modern celebrity in the way that her descendants attempted to control Austen’s image as well.

I was fortunate to have a college professor, Laurie Kaplan, who was herself a “Janeite” (she is even past editor of JASNA’s journal) as Harman describes Austen devotees.  Kaplan really opened the books up for her students, particularly on wonderful trips to England where we literally walked in the novel’s landscapes and locations. But even once I became aware of JASNA, I assumed Janeites were a small, devoted, and literary bunch. Harman points out that in postwar England, the Austen society was more about national pride than literary appreciation, and some of its officers didn’t even read Austen’s books!

Jane’s Fame is detailed and well researched, if a bit dry and probably mainly of interest to serious devotees or history buffs.  My favorite book for budding Janeites and casual fans is still The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler — it’s not serious literary criticism or careful history (Harman is definitely an excellent historian and writer), but it’s fun and readable, and would appeal to young fans just getting into Jane. Better still, read Austen’s books if you want to remember why she’s brilliant, and why classic books have something to say to every generation.

Classic in another way is the work of Leonard Koren.  Last month I wrote about his book on wabi-sabi; this month I read The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty, and Tenderness In a Commercial Setting.  This was the only book I read in October with no death in it — although it is about Blumenkraft, a flower shop in Vienna where Koren found solace after his marriage ended in 2003, so it was inspired by the aftermath of a relationship’s death.

The Flower Shop is a fascinating read, a kind of manifesto of what a good place of work can be. Blumenkraft is a creative, customer and employee friendly, unique, consciously smart, aesthetically aware, and well-designed business. Koren explores how it began, what sets it apart, what its employees think of working there, and what appeals to its customers.

The spare text is set in small blocks and accompanied by lovely sepia and black & white photos.  The impact of the book’s design is that it compliments Blumenkraft’s aesthetic — it’s different, you can see as soon as you open The Flower Shop that this is not an ordinary book, and neither is its subject an ordinary florist.  A refreshing, spirit-lifting book. You’ll want to visit Blumenkraft. You might wish you worked there.

Another book concerned with aesthetics is A Homemade Life.  Part memoir, part cookbook, Molly Wizenberg’s first book grew out of her other food writing:  her well known blog, Orangette, and later her column in Bon Apetit and pieces for NPR and PBS.  She’s young, and has lived a mostly charmed life, which can be hard to read in large doses. But the passages about her father, his short battle with cancer and his death, and her coming to terms with the loss definitely adds depth to A Homemade Life. I’m looking forward to trying some recipes.

On the evening that I felt inspired to make ginger pancakes for supper (after reading that Molly Wizenberg likes one of my favorite cookbooks, Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book, which includes that recipe), I also stayed up late finishing Charles Elton‘s Mr. Toppit.  Does anyone else out there stay up ridiculously late when his/her spouse is traveling? I don’t know why, but I do, even though in general I’ve gotten better about going to bed at a more reasonable time (if midnight can be considered reasonable).

This book has been out in the UK since last year, but is just appearing in the U.S.  I enjoyed it very much, although it had what I considered some extra fluff here and there that seemed to serve as mere titillation, without much real impact on the plot.  Mr. Toppit of the title is the villain in a series of Narnia-like children’s books written by Arthur Hayman, who dies early on in the novel. A vacationing American, Laurie, happens to witness the accident that kills him and comforts him in his last moments.

Laurie ends up getting to know Arthur’s family, including the son who shares a name with his father’s young protagonist. Through her continued contact with the Haymans and a series of serendipitous events, Laurie is partially responsible for making his books famous in the U.S. As she pursues her own ambitions, she ignites a global craze for Arthur Hayman’s books, and becomes a famous television host in the process. Meanwhile Hayman’s children grow up and deal with the fallout of fame and loss. Since Elton worked as a literary agent and one of his clients was A.A. Milne’s estate, it’s interesting to ponder how much he borrowed from life.

What I liked about Mr. Toppit was the fully developed characters, even minor ones; a clear structure; interesting tangential story lines that enhanced the main plot; themes readers could really mull over; cultural references that placed the book without dating it.  I would say that in some ways, Elton has Austen-esque overtones to his work. His characters are concerned with sense and sensibility, with good taste and good manners, some are hoping to better themselves and others are hoping just to live up to their families expectations.

Mr. Toppit is also funny in that classically dry, British way, and Elton exposes some of the sillier aspects of both American and British culture, particularly with regards to fame, fortune, and family relations, class, culture, and celebrity. His wicked skewering of the “remembered memory” phenomenon that was in fashion in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s takes the form of another goofy cultural touchstone, the annual Christmas letter. While some of the social barbs seem a little cliched (there’s an obese American, a harried television producer who stretches the truth to nail a deal, a matriarch who is chilly and shabbily genteel), generally I found the book to be clever, and bitingly funny.

Finally in October, I read a book that begins with war and death and ends with the author’s exhortation to be “aware that just this is the great, dynamic, lively dancing life.”  Soko Morinaga was only a teenager when both his parents died and he was drafted into the Japanese army at the end of WWII.  Although he survived, he was alone and adrift, so he went to a Zen monastary and asked to become a novice.

Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson In the Extent of My Own Stupidity is Morinaga’s memoir of forty years as a Zen monk. If you have an image of Buddhism as a peaceful, nonviolent religion you might be shocked by the physical hardship novice monks undergo, including being hit with a big stick and subjected to sleep deprivation and under-nourishment. I enjoyed this brief, inspiring, occasionally bracing memoir. That such austerity and hardship can produce a wise master who is moved by a five year old’s contention that God is in everything and everyone is a mystery I don’t fully understand.

Speaking of mysteries, I will never fully comprehend ever changing teen-aged moods, and now I have two sets of them to try to fathom.  Teen the Elder is officially an applicant to college; that has somewhat lowered his stress level and improved his emotional equilibrium. He still has his moments.  I suggested that some reading for pleasure might be a welcome respite, and brought him an advance copy of a book I thought he’d love: The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick. He’s been enjoying it very much — the history of science is a particular interest he’s pursued throughout his teen years.

Another book he says he really enjoyed in October was The Aztec World by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, which he read as part of his Pre-Columbian history study. Brumfiel & Feinman wrote the book to accompany an exhibit at the Field Museum, which they co-curated with three Mexican colleagues.  Teen the Elder was very impressed with what he read about Tenochtitlan; the current issue of National Geographic happens to include an article on recent excavations near the site of the Templo Mayor.

The same issue, lying on an end table in our living room, has a beautifully photographed article on Japanese sea life. Teen the Younger, who is a big fan of the great Japanese filmaker/animator Hayao Miyazaki recently watched Ponyo with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. Since Teen the Younger is loving her Japanese class and is a devoted fan of manga and anime, I was happy to expand her horizons to non-animated Japanese creatures as well.

Teen the Younger is still devouring manga and enjoying weekly trips to the library to pick up new titles. She’s also reading Funny In Farsi. Last week we met author Firoozeh Dumas, who told the large Concord Reads audience that she was in New Hampshire all because of bookconscious. My post on her books two years ago, which she found thanks to a web aggregator tool her brother signed her up for, opened a correspondence between us. I did suggest her books to the Concord Reads committee, which did a great job bringing her here and presenting terrific programs.

While I think Teen the Younger picked up the books (which, like National Geographic, I set out like bait on a side table) because Firoozeh made her laugh, she told me that what she finds interesting is how Firoozeh describes America through an immigrant’s eyes. That’s exactly why Concord Reads picked the books, and why so many people enjoy them.

The Computer Scientist, when he’s not crafting uber Halloween accessories like Xion’s keyblade (I have aches, pains, and blisters from raking all massive amounts of leaves in our yard in time for the annual street pickup, but I wouldn’t trade chores for a second!), has been hair-on-fire busy at work. But he has read a couple of interesting things recently.

A friend and former co-worker sent him an article from a blog called RandsInRepose on nerd characteristics. I read it too. If you have a nerd in your life you’ll read it and weep, or at least sniffle. I sighed particularly loudly when I got to the section that begins,”Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head.” This is an elaborate explanation of why nerds hear “blah, blah, blah,” when people are talking to them, kind of the way Charlie Brown hears his teacher’s voice in Peanuts films.

He also read the advance copy of a book by an author who is coming to Gibson’s in February, who is also a St. Paul’s School grad. and former teacher there (and current sociology professor at Columbia), Shamus Rahman Khan. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School will be out in early 2011, and the Computer Scientist says it’s a “good in-depth examination of St. Paul’s School students and culture.” He found Khan’s writing “authentic and honest in his analysis.”

When I booked the event, I was worried the book might not be well received at St. Paul’s. The Computer Scientist told me he had the same incorrect first impression — we both feel the title has negative connotations that are easily misinterpreted. But he says, “after thoroughly reading and digesting the book, I’m appreciative of Shamus’ candor and reflections and encourage those interested in boarding schools to read this insightful book.” It’s in my to-read pile now. I’m looking forward to it, as I found what the Computer Scientist learned about Khan’s distinction between privilege and entitlement very interesting.

Up next?  The Computer Scientist is back to reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London (which I loved and wrote about here last spring) and he has Dennis Lehane‘s Moonlight Mile (the tour kicks off right here in Concord on Wednesday!) and Andre Dubus III‘s memoir, Townie, on his nightstand. I picked up some advance copies (like Teen the Elder’s science history and the Dubus title) at a fall sales rep. recommendations night in Hadley, MA, sponsored by New England Independent Booksellers’ Association.  Teen the Younger has Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes on her library pile, thanks to my notes from that evening.

I was intrigued by a New York Times article on Gary Shteyngart’s recent trip to Russia and checked out Super Sad True Love Story today. I also have Kay Ryan’s “new and selected” poetry collection, The Best of It out of the library, and there are many more interesting selections on my “to read” pile(s).  Like the leaves, these piles move around but never really seem to get smaller!

 

The Clockwork Universe

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick

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