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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

NoViolet Bulawayo grew up in Zimbabwe, where her 2013 debut novel, We Need New Names, opens. Darling, a ten year old girl, spends her days with a small group of friends, stealing guavas in wealthy neighborhoods, playing games in the dust of Paradise, the collection of shacks where their families started over after their middle class neighborhood was bulldozed. Darling can remember their previous life, when her parents had jobs, and she went to school. It’s the early 2000’s; the children play “Find bin Laden,” and one character who dies in political unrest has a sign on his grave that lists his date of death as 2008. The story follows Darling for a few years, from Paradise, where her grandmother turns to God as interpreted by a preacher named Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro, to Michigan, where her mother’s twin sister, Aunt Fostalina, lives.

I chose this book from a display at my library of books with yellow covers, one of the categories in our summer reading program’s book bingo. I usually like novels about places I haven’t been and lives I haven’t experienced.  Although it’s fiction, this book is firmly rooted in reality, and for a privileged white reader, it’s pretty uncomfortable. People from NGOs and the BBC watch and photograph Darling and her friends and their families, as if they are an exotic species. Americans are clueless and judgmental about African countries and cultures. And of course, our immigration system denies people the new life they hope for; even as various people feel sorry for what’s happening in Zimbabwe, the African immigrants in the book work menial jobs, regardless of how educated they are. They can’t go home, because without official resident status they won’t be allowed to come back to their homes and work — and their American born children. The way Bulawayo portrayed whites caused me to feel as if I didn’t really even deserve to be reading Darlings’s story.

Although reading about the poverty, violence, and pain of Darling’s early childhood is tough — she has a friend her age whose grandfather rapes and impregnates her, her own father returns from South Africa, where he went to try and find work, when he is in the final stages of AIDS, Darling and her friends watch a group of young black men smash up a wealthy white couple’s home — the despair she feels in America is worse. Her family in Zimbabwe pressures her to tell her aunt they need money for a satellite dish; they are living in a nice house now, that Aunt Fostalina has purchased by working two jobs and getting herself into credit card debt. Darling has begun working two low wage jobs herself. Towards the end of the book, she tries to Skype with her mother and the only person home seems to be her old friend Chipo, who named her baby after Darling, but who scorns her now, telling her Zimbabwe is not her country because she left.

Of course, Darling didn’t choose, her mother and aunt decided she would go to America, and in America, adults — either those she knows or those who created the laws and cultural norms that influence her young life — decide much of what she does. The ending is a flashback to a painful memory seared in Darling’s mind, from her early days in Paradise. This has the effect of illustrating what a circle of futility Darling’s life has been to this point. She thinks she has not been at home since the time when her family was stable and safe. She is not home in the place that was meant to offer a new beginning. She can’t go back to the home she left, where her heart seems to remain.

Bulawayo conveys all that longing and unfulfilled promise and the geopolitical and cultural mess the adults in Darling’s world have unthinkingly unleashed upon her generation. She writes Darling’s voice as a small girl and then as a young adolescent and finally as the book ends, as a young woman. Darling, like many children, often thinks figuratively, as in this passage describing mourners at a political activist’s funeral, who had only recently been praying after the election: “They were awesome to see, and when they were in full form, their noise lit Fambeki like a burning bush, songs and chants and sermons and prayers rising to the heavens before tumbling down the mountain like rocks, mauling whoever happened to pass by. And when afterwards no change came, the voices of the worshipers folded like a butterfly’s wings, and the worshippers trickled down Fambeki like broken bones and dragged themselves away, but now they are back like God didn’t even ignore them that time.” A book I’m glad I read for the same reason I exercise — I know it’s good for me, even when it’s hard.

 

 

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I’m participating in my local library’s winter reading program, which is a book bingo card. One of the squares I needed to get my first “bingo” (five squares in a row) was “A book set in a place you’d like to visit.” I thought of Iceland, and came across Names for the Sea. It’s the story of novelist and literature professor Sarah Moss‘s year teaching at the University of Iceland, and her family’s life in Reykjavik.

They arrived in 2009, shortly after Iceland’s financial crisis led to widespread hardship for Icelanders — and seriously eroded her own family’s income, since she’d be paid in krona. She and her husband and two small boys ended up in a brand new apartment with triple glazed windows and heated floors in an otherwise empty building. Being English and thus, as far as I can tell, having a penchant for mild suffering and inconvenience so long as there’s tea and biscuits afterwards, they try to live without a car, and soon discover that outside the tourist center, Reykjavik isn’t designed for walking. (The Computer Scientist is half English; although he rarely drinks tea he does prefer to “suck it up” more than is strictly necessary, especially when it comes to walking in cities. I’d say he frequently manifests a sort of an Americanized stiff upper lip attitude that is admirable at times, but can often lead to blisters and sunburn.) Moss actually purchases a bike and cycles to work even once the weather is so cold she can’t feel her face. But once she describes driving in Iceland, readers can’t really blame her for wanting to walk or bike.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a personal essay in a small, sadly now out of print journal for stay-at-home parents (mostly mothers, at the time) called Welcome Home. The essay was titled “Winter Escapes for Moms,” and it was about surviving Seattle winters (long, wet, and grey) with two small children by reading this genre — books about people who up and move to a new country. I’ve read a fair number of this kind of book, and I can say that Names for the Sea is wonderful for several reasons.

First, Moss is quite honest about the pitfalls of life in Iceland and the depth of her feeling foreign for most of the year. She actually knows enough Icelandic to get by, but describes feeling helpless: “I still can’t say the Icelandic words I have in my head, and still can’t bear the arrogance of asking people to speak English for me, and still, therefore, mutter and smile as if I had no language at all.” She’s also honest when she is baffled by certain cultural differences, such as the lack of any second hand market for clothes or furniture, despite the economic downturn. And instead of raving about culinary adventures as some travel writers do, she is honest about how much her family misses fruit and vegetables and how difficult it is to feed children in a strange land where whale meat and split sheep’s heads are in the grocery store.

Moss is also intensely curious about Iceland. She writes beautifully about her experiences talking to Icelanders about all kinds of things — life in the country pre-WWII, what it was like in Vestmannaeyjar when the Eldfell volcano erupted, burying some houses in lava and others in ash right up to the ceilings. Finding out about Icelandic knitting, fiction, and film. Learning about crime rates, gender roles, parenting styles, cars and road safety, the presence of elves, what life is like for foreigners who marry Icelanders, what long daylight and long darkness and the many levels of cold are like. How the economy impacts people (or not) and how Icelanders feel about inequality. All of this is interesting in Moss’s thoughtful hands, and she is respectful even when she cannot understand her adopted home or agree with its inhabitants’ views. Also, she and her family go back for a summer holiday the year after they return to the UK, and the final chapter offers her appreciation for Iceland a year on, and insights into some changes she observes once the economic recovery seems to be underway, which is interesting.

Names for the Sea manages to be both enchanting, as all winter escape reading should be, and also unvarnished. I liked it very much, and I’m curious to seek out Moss’s fiction and her other nonfiction; on her website I found that each one of her books sounds interesting to me, and it’s been some time since I’ve found myself wanting to read everything someone has written. Her blog is also interesting.

 

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I’d heard so many rave reviews of this book that I was both curious and skeptical. But I’ve spent the last couple of weeks reading it and it didn’t disappoint. The Nix is a debut novel, which makes it’s complexity and success even more of a wonder. If you’ve followed this blog you know my highest praise consists of one of three things: that a book uses no extra words, that it is a well-told story, and that it says something “Big T” True that makes me think, to paraphrase Paul Harding, “I’ve always known that to be true but I’ve never heard it said it quite the same way.”  The Nix hit the sweet spot on all three of those criteria.

It’s a wild story. Samuel is a college professor although his heart’s not in it, and he escapes into Elfscape, a game much like World of Warcraft. He is escaping his increasingly unsatisfying job, but also trying to forget the book he is years overdue on; his mother, Faye, who abandoned him and his father; and his first and only love, a famous violinist. He hasn’t seen Faye since he was 11, but one day he realizes that she is the “Packer Attacker” on the news — an older woman who has thrown gravel at a gun-toting Presidential candidate in Chicago. What he hears on the news is that she was a sixties radical arrested during the 1968 Chicago protests, but this doesn’t line up with what he thinks he knows about her. Then he hears from his editor/publisher that he’s about to be sued for never writing a book he received an advance for.

Samuel sees an out– he’ll write a tell all book, an estranged son’s view of his mother’s story. He just has to learn what her story is, first. The novel unfolds around this quest, supported by very well-drawn characters who illuminate both Samuel’s and Faye’s childhoods. Through their dual coming of age stories, and the lives theirs are tangled up with, Hill spins a story that isn’t just about Samuel and Faye and their family and friends, but about growing up, choosing a path, leaving a mark in the world, being with others. In other words, he writes about the experience of being human in a world of impermanence and finding reality among the shadows. Particularly the shadows of the stories families tell.

Towards the end of the book, reflecting on what one of his Elfscape friends told him, “that the people in your life are either enemies, obstacles, puzzles, or traps,” Samuel thinks “. . . you cannot endure this world alone . . . and if you choose to see people as puzzles, and if you see yourself as a puzzle, then you will be constantly delighted, because eventually, if you dig deep enough into anybody, if you really look under the hood of someone’s life, you will find something familiar. This is more work, of course, than believing they are enemies. Understanding is always harder than plain hatred. But it expands your life. You will feel less alone.”

I loved this book, for the three reasons I mentioned above, for the way it weaves social history and culture and folklore together with the story of people and their relationships with one another, and for the lovely writing. Also for the humor, a pleasant surprise in a book about large and serious themes. Hill is willing to see a little bit of brilliance in both poetry and MMOs, political protest and advertising. He sees the humans behind inhumane things, the complications and impurities of anything so sprawling as a “movement,” and he is fair to it all. Even the deplorably manipulative student who has Samuel fired gets some grudging credit — she is a creature of our culture, and she’s good at what she does, in her way.

If you’re looking for a book that will keep you entertained and also make you think, and will take more than a couple of nights to read, you can’t go wrong with The Nix.

 

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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 picked up The Polish Boxer expecting excellent literary fiction — it’s published by Bellevue Literary Press. What I got was that and much more; a semi-autobiographical tale of a Guatemalan Jew, a trip around the world, insight into Balkan cultural fragmentation, jazz and the nature of improvisation, Gypsy music and culture particularly in Belgrade, the meaning of fiction and its place in reality, the preservation of Holocaust stories,the human psyche’s adaptation of beliefs and mythology/storytelling as a way to reconcile daily life with universal truths . . . . I could go on, but it would be better if you would just read this genre-bending novel for yourself.

In publicity materials and interviews, Eduardo Halfon has described the book as semi-autobiographical, and he’s said, “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”  The book felt to me like a novel-in-stories, especially in the early chapters, which follow the main character (also called Eduardo) from his literature classes at a Guatelmalan university to literary conferences in North Carolina and Portugal to the streets of Belgrade, where he is looking for a half-Serbian, half-Roma pianist he met at an arts festival in Guatemala.

We meet his lover, Lia, his musician friend Milan, and an eminent Twain scholar who recognizes Eduardo’s b.s. at a conference and chooses to tell jokes when it is his turn to speak. We also meet Eduardo’s grandfather, Leon. Leon is an Auschwitz survivor whose story of a fellow Pole, a boxer, coaching him to survive his trial becomes truth to Eduardo, until he reads another version of the story in a newspaper interview Leon gives shortly before his death. In the new version, there is no Polish boxer; Leon survives by other means.

This revelation causes Eduardo to say, in his speech at a conference in Portugal on how “Literature Tears Through Reality,” “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He recounts the ending of an Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, and explains, “That is exactly what literature is like. As we write we know there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.”

I’ve only just finished The Polish Boxer so I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it’s said to me about reality. But it’s a book full of sex, smoking and drinking, language, music, friendship, culture and identity. It’s about loss — the kind you feel without really understanding what it is that’s missing, only knowing it’s not there.

It’s about whether or not a Gypsy pirouetting means anything, and what it means, and what meaning means. It’s about the ways people in a Belgrade slum and a Guatemalan village and a Polish neighborhood and Brooklyn and a million other places live and love and get by the same as you and I. It’s about love, not just between lovers, but love of family and love of place, love of tribe (by birth or by art), love of humanity and the way love is the humanity between us, even at times when hate is the currency of power.

It’s about the need to write, to tell what urgently needs to be told, or to sing it or play it. It’s about poetry, which in the Mayan language Cakchikel  is “a braid of words . . . an embroidered blouse of words.”  That’s it too: The Polish Boxer is an embroidered blouse of words. And a tattoo on on old man’s arm,of his number at Auschwitz, the one he told his grand-kids was a phone number. And it’s the patterns we fall into, in loving and judging each other. In defining the world around us. In making reality and writing it into our consciousness.

Confused? Don’t be. I can’t do this book justice. Get yourself to your local bookstore or your library and ask for Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer. Get comfortable — the most frustrating thing about reading this book was that I didn’t have a good long stretch to read it in one sitting. Pour yourself a drink. Put on some music — jazz, gypsy, or whatever inspires your heart to longing. And enjoy this magical, unreal trip through reality.

 

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It’s hot, our second over-90 degree heat spell already this year, and it’s only June 8th as I start this draft. For those of you in warm parts of the world, that might not sound like much, but for New Hampshire, it feels wrong. I don’t like these wild weather swings — just three weekends ago, the weather was so cool our heat came on at night.

I’ve been struggling to make time for this month’s post in part because all I want to do is recline in a room with the shades drawn, reading. Something about hot days takes me instantly back to my childhood summers, trips to the various libraries in my life (Leola and Lancaster, PA; South Haven & Allegan, MI).  The hot, sticky air outside, contrasting with the cool library. The stacks where I could roam for as long as I wanted, browsing. The feel of a heavy pile of books in my arms. The delightful freedom of waking up in the morning knowing I could read all day if I wanted.

My reading in May included several literary wild rides.  I enjoyed several fiction titles that were innovative in some way, and a memoir about revisiting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work as an adult, and visiting places she lived.  I also read a book about making peace with time (so getting off the wild ride that is our contemporary view of time and busyness), and two poetry collections.

Let’s begin there, with poetry.  Both writing and reading poetry can be a wild ride; I often begin with just an idea of what I want a poem to say and end with something I hardly recognize, or begin to write with no real idea of where I’m headed and find the way surer as I go. And when I read poetry, I find my favorites are poems that lead me down a path I didn’t see as I began, or that surprise me with an “aha!” moment of some sort.  That may be why I am such a fan of both reading and writing Japanese forms (like haiku, senryu, and haibun), because achieving an “aha!” is challenging and rewarding.

In May I finished reading Robert Pinksy‘s Selected Poems which includes some of my favorites,  like “Rhyme,” and “Samurai Song,” both of which sound and feel perfect on the tongue, are pleasing to the eye, and are koan-like with briefly stated wisdom. I wasn’t as familiar with some of the earlier poems in the collection, like the lovely “First Early Mornings Together.”

There are many longer poems in this collection as well, and two I keep returning to are “Shirt,” which invokes both the many parts of a tailored shirt and the Triangle Fire, and “From the Childhood of Jesus,” a narrative poem in couplets that imagines the boy Jesus in all his strange, wild power.  I will continue to revisit Pinsky’s work; he’s the kind of master whose poems continue to unpack their secrets as you re-read them.

Check out this wonderful interview on the Newshour, where you can hear Pinsky talk about his work and what informs him, and get a sense of what a warm, real person he is. I’ve heard him in person and via Skype, and one thing that makes his writing so rich and meaningful is that he isn’t an ivory tower kind of poet. He lives in the real world and invokes it in his writing right alongside more erudite references to art, literature, and history.

The other collection of poems I read recently is the most recent BOA Editions prize winner, Walking the Dog’s Shadow, by Deborah Brown. Brown will be reading at Gibson’s with her friend Maxine Kumin on June 23.  As I read the book I jotted some notes to myself about phrases and ideas Brown weaves through many of the poems: physics and space (from subatomic particles to time and heavenly bodies), dogs (real and artistic renderings), grief, the heart and its capacity for pain, literature and art, current affairs and culture, war, family history, and juxtapositions.

Among my favorite poems are the title piece, which imagines grief as a black dog; “Don’t Ask,” which includes the line, “How do you know what you’ve left out of any story you tell?”; “Listen,” which posits, “Stars lie to each other, that’s why they/flicker. We tell stories, try to love,/try to make sense and end up on a swing/ kicking the air out from underneath ourselves.”  Also “The Scarlett Letter Law Struck Down in Massachusetts, Spring 2003,” with its lush description of Hester Prynne’s embroidered “A” and “Elegy for My Sister,” which calls cancer “another dark winter,” and marvels that “The tide of the mind is ruthless too,/if a poem can find some pleasure in a death.”

I think that seems to sum up what I likes about Brown’s poems in this collection — we see the poet’s mind ruthlessly gathering disparate strands, from BlackBerries and car bombs to chiarascuro and Latin verbs. The gathered strands weave together to bring readers surprising connections even out of war or pain. In “The Trap,” for example we travel from a trail on Mt. Sunapee where a dog is inadvertently caught in a hunter’s trap to British train passengers in an old film watching Muslim-Hindu unrest.

In nonfiction, I finished The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure‘s memoir of her quest to revisit both the Little House books and their author and the places where Wilder’s stories took place.  It’s an interesting book because it’s not simply about Wilder, or about McClure’s passionate research. She connects her interest in all things Wilder to her feelings about childhood and her decision not to have children of her own.

Her own feelings add to the quest though, and other than a few places where I wish she hadn’t dabbled in stereotypes of homeschoolers (which in fairness was due in part to the homeschoolers she met), I found the book interesting, well written, and thoughtful. Fair warning, though, if you want to maintain a kind of dreamy, happy vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, this book might disappoint you, because McClure gets into the reality of their lives.

I didn’t mind. I’ve actually always thought it would be fun to visit the sites and this was the perfect armchair travel for someone who can’t or won’t be driving all over the mid-West and plains tracking the Ingalls/Wilder sites. I enjoyed reading about McClure’s research. And I was fascinated that McClure asked what I myself had wondered — why would the Ingalls leave the Big Woods, and the Wilders leave Farmer Boy‘s home, when they were so happy and well-provisioned? Read The Wilder Life and wonder along with McClure.

Bookconscious readers may recall that I met Rye Barcott at a booksellers’ conference last winter and brought home his book, It Happened On the Way to War: a Marine’s Path to Peace, which the Computer Scientist read. I caught up myself ahead of Rye’s visit to Gibson’s last week. The book is part memoir, part nonprofit creation tale.  Rye started Carolina for Kibera when he was still an undergraduate at UNC, and managed to keep working with his friends in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa, during his time on active duty as a Marine.

I enjoyed the book for some of the same reasons the Computer Scientist did — the story is inspiring, and Rye doesn’t hide the things he struggled with personally or professionally. We asked the Teens to come hear Rye speak, and I was glad. He talked about learning things for oneself, connecting with people who are “other” in authentic ways, and putting yourself “out there” in pursuing dreams and finding mentors.  If you have a teen or college student looking for something to read this summer, or if you want to read a book that erases the pain you’re feeling over the Three Cups of Tea scandal, check out It Happened On the Way to War.

From war to intrigue — two novels I read this month were irreverent, funny, wild reads.  Jasper Fforde‘s latest Thursday Next tale, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, was challenging for me to get into but then picked up, and didn’t disappoint in terms of Fforde’s zany, utterly original portrayal of Jurisfiction, the Book World, and a futuristic Britain in which an evil mega-corporation (Goliath) wields more power than the government and you can’t be sure who’s written and who’s real.  If you’re new to Thursday Next’s story, you’d do well to begin with the first book, and if you like Fforde, don’t miss his brilliant Shades of Grey, a very imaginative dystopian novel of manners.

The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky‘s novel out in May from Europa Editions, isn’t set in a fictional world, but in the late Soviet Union and in newly reunified Germany. Bronsky’s detailed description of both places brings out the strange and wacky in each. The book is a fascinating fictional snapshot into recent history. Bronsky’s main character, Rosa, a matriarch straight out of a comic nightmare, is both hilarious and terrifying.

The other characters form a cast nearly as kooky as Rosa, but with enough tragic humanity to act as a foil to her endless plotting. From the first pages, when Rosa’s daughter claims to have become pregnant in a dream, to the end of the novel, when we get a  final glimpse of the baby, now grown and leading a wild and very public life, Bronsky keeps readers laughing, raging, and turning pages.

When I decided I’d better read this year’s Pulitzer prize winner for fiction, Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I also decided to try e-books. I downloaded the book from the library and read it on my I-pad. I’d just like to say, this affirms my suspicion — e-books are not so exciting. At least for me, I can’t see what the thrill is all about. It was convenient to download the book, but in every other way, I found the medium less satisfying than a real book. Perhaps it’s the reader I’m using (Overdrive), but I don’t get the appeal.

Then I was confused by what exactly I was reading. Is A Visit From the Goon Squad a novel? Linked stories? A “novel-in-stories,” as I saw one reviewer call it?  I’d read about a third of the book when I went online and noodled around review sites trying to understand what I had gotten myself into. I’m still not sure, and I think that’s part of the book’s novelty — it’s hard to say what genre it is.  There’s also the famously novel use of Power Point in one of the chapters. I was skeptical, but it works very well with the story in that chapter, and it left me feeling I’d connected with the characters.

So other than the fact that it’s an “it” book, what do I think?  A Visit From the Goon Squad is a wild ride, of that I’m certain. I enjoyed some of the stories very much, and others only somewhat; that said, one mark of an extraordinary book is that it lingers in the reader’s mind, and this book does that, popping up as I read other things and asking me to re-examine what I think I know about storytelling.

It’s also the product of a writer fully in command of her craft, and I admire Egan’s skill and the research she either did or imagined (I was sure Paul Harding had done a lot of research on epilepsy for Tinkers and he says he didn’t really research it at all, but wrote what he thought it would be like).  I loved the end, which flirts with the kind of dystopian futuristic imaginings I enjoy.  I can understand what captured the Pulitzer committee’s imagination.

This week I finished another novel that took me to new places: Kyung-Sook Shin‘s Please Look After Mom.   As bookconscious regulars know, I am a big fan of reading books in translation (and I was remiss in not mentioning that The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine is translated from German).  Kyun-Shook Shin is one of Korea’s best-known authors, and she was a young sensation there, publishing her first book when she was in her early 20’s.

She’s written fourteen books, some of which were translated into German, French, Japanese, and/or Chinese, but Please Look After Mom is the first to be translated into English.  I hope the book’s success will encourage her publisher to bring out more of her books here. Please Look After Mom is original, thought provoking, and sad.

Many authors employ the technique of telling a story from different characters’ points of view, and Shin does this to great effect, with four perspectives.  What’s unusual is that Shin uses the 2nd person most of the time, which is a point of view not often found in a novel. The story centers on Mom, who disappears in a subway station in Seoul, and the novel unravels her life story, bit by bit.  Her daughter and son each know some things, her husband other things, and Mom herself tells part of the story.

The book captures several classic conflicts. Mom grew up and has lived most of her adult life in a rural village, she was married as a teen, and she’s led a life of hard work, illiteracy, and deprivation, as well as great change.  She observes traditional seasonal rites, honors ancestors, but also encourages her kids to pursue careers in Seoul and asks a friend to read her daughter’s novel aloud to her.   She shows her love for her family mostly through food, even to the point of offering rice to her wayward husband when he returns home from an affair. Her children live lives she has trouble understanding.

An NPR reviewer took issue with the “guilt trip” aspect of the book — the characters, understandably, react to Mom’s disappearance with varying levels of guilt and distress, and readers learn that none of them really appreciated Mom, they all took her hard work for granted, and never really considered her happiness. We see that her husband has no idea that he loves her until she’s gone. That her children only now realize she can’t read. I think the book examines an extreme example of something that really goes on in families, and the reviewer missed the relevance of the emotional narrative.

Mom has been kind of an embarrassment, a nag, and a reminder of the past for her family. She’s the kind of person who wants to please others and who is fiercely protective of her family. Rather than draw attention to things she can’t do, like read, she compensates by doing more of what she’s good at — growing, storing, and preparing food, making sure her kids get educated.

So, does anyone reading this know an older adult who is like this?  Maybe not illiterate, but certainly of a generation where women did most of the hard stuff with regards to homemaking and child rearing, and kept their own needs/wants to themselves?  Where adult children are perhaps embarrassed, or at least mildly annoyed, by what they perceive as guilt trips, judgement by the older generation, or nagging?  Where the mother manages to hide her frailty or failing health until a crisis occurs? Where old, reliable mom is taken for granted by her husband and grown children?

Yeah, I thought so. The NPR reviewer is off base in suggesting this book is “weepy” and “melodramatic,” — it’s set in another culture, it showcases the clash of traditional culture and modern life in a place where both are still relevant, and it examines the role of women not unlike that of just a few generations ago here in America. I imagine there are women whose experiences aren’t too far different from Mom’s in various places around the world today. And the role of parents and children in each other’s lives is as classic a literary theme as they come.

In fact, the critically acclaimed The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine examines a mother’s intrusion in her offspring’s life. She’s just so comically monstrous (and selfish), that perhaps she strikes a chord in a world where everyone can be the center of attention for at least a little while, on social media, YouTube, etc.  Mom, on the other hand, makes some reviewers squirm, perhaps because she is considered anti-feminist. But despite her lack of education, her limited opportunities, her self-sacrifice for her family, and her distant husband, Mom speaks her mind and does many things she wants to do (traveling to see her children alone, for example, volunteering at an orphanage, ensuring her children are educated).  She just happens to also be completely devoted to supporting her family.

In other reviews, there is criticism of the images of the Virgin Mary, but Mom has attended Mass, she asked her daughter for a rosary, so Mary’s appearance in the novel isn’t entirely out of the clear blue.  Try Please Look After Mom for yourself. At the very least, enjoy the interesting point of view and the perspective on contemporary Korea.  And consider whether a book dealing with the gap between rural parents and city children and the clash of traditional family roles with contemporary life would have been more widely acclaimed in the U.S. forty or fifty years ago.

Finally this month, I read Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now, by Lama Surya Das. I first read Das’s work about ten years ago, when during a period of great change in our lives, a friend recommended Awakening the Buddha Within.   Ever since, I’ve worked on being more mindful, at times diligently, at other times, less so.

This book really struck me as useful — Surya Das, who the Dalai Lama calls “the Western Lama,” is no guru on a mountain top. He’s thoroughly versed in the real experience of living in the world today, so his recommendations are very practical and take into consideration things like our obsession with gadgets and the over-scheduling of children.  With reflections on real people’s experiences re-inventing their relationship with time and busyness, and brief, accessible exercises and practices for becoming more mindful and less stressed out, Buddha Standard Time is a book anyone, of any spiritual background, could find useful.  The Buddhist beliefs Das outlines are presented in clear layman’s language, and he’s very ecumenical in addressing spiritual practice.

Teen the Elder, who is officially done with high school, is reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. I heard Holmes on Radiolab, and suggested the book since science history is one of Teen the Elder’s favorite subjects.  He continues to read an enormous amount of soccer reporting from around the world. I witnessed the fruits of that study when he was able to comment extensively on the players for both the U.S. (including some new to the National Team and others just on the coaches’ radar who aren’t even in training camp yet) and Spain, when I took him to see the two teams practice ahead of their international friendly match last Friday.

Teen the Younger is still reading several books at once, including the 3rd of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, Mockingjay (which she’d set aside in order to finish some other things) and a bunch of Manga series, plus a book about the periodic table (The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom In the Universe).

The Computer Scientist is deep into Townie by Andre Dubus III, who is one of the kindest, warmest authors I’ve ever met, just a wonderful person who makes everyone in a room feel included and at ease.  His readings at Gibson’s are some of our customers’ favorites. The book is a tough memoir about his upbringing and how writing saved him from violence and anger. The C.S. is enjoying it very much.

On my piles?  I started Ann Beattie‘s The New Yorker Stories, which is terrific but will take me ages to read a bit at a time (which is fun, so I don’t mind). I’m reading Maeve Binchy‘s latest at the moment, Minding Frankie, and I have Alexander McCall Smith‘s most recent Botswana mystery out from the library as well, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding. I told my neighbor today that I am anxious to read Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, which is about a librarian, so I love it already. Wish I was young and carefree this summer — I have the long hot days and stacks of books, all I need now is whole days for reading!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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