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Posts Tagged ‘cultures’

The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours snow fell, covering grey high rises, broken pavements and potholed roads, transforming the city into a winter fairyland.”

More importantly, she vividly portrays the lives of Nargis, a widow and mother of three working as a nanny, and Harriet, her expat employer. Harriet is a young Englishwoman and mother of two, married to a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Henri. Through her journal entries we learn that she feels useless and lonely in Dushanbe. Henri is never around, he expects her to entertain when groceries are scarce and power cuts are frequent, and he berates her for showing any interest in Nargis’s life.

Nargis, meanwhile, appears to be the disobedient one. She was married at sixteen to a man who loved her and treated her well, bore him two children, and watched him die of a cancerous throat tumor when only in his twenties. Her parents made her remarry and her second husband beat her son, ordered his mother to feed the children only bread, and eventually attacked Nargis. She left, but he took their infant son. She visits the child at her in-laws apartment, and mostly doesn’t have to see her husband, because he works in Russia a good part of the year like many other young Tajiks.

When the book opens we learn that Nargis is the only adult working in her household for the time being, and is supporting herself, her parents, her brother, and her children. Stretched thin, she wants to buy a small shop to increase her income. Just reading about her life was painful. Her family and neighbors consider her to be in the wrong for leaving her husband because most Tajiks seem to think that an abused wife deserves it. So she’s scorned both in her neighborhood and in Harriet’s world, where locals are seen as potential servants or criminals.

But Nargis is not the only disobedient wife. Harriet begin to sense that her life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. In fact, even though she’s not physically abused and she’s wealthy, there is an imbalance in Harriet’s marriage that is odious in its own way. The more she gets to know Nargis and to empathize with her, the more she considers what she really wants for herself and her children. Harriet also wants to help, and that’s another interesting part of the book — Nargis doesn’t want to have to humble herself or be indebted but she desperately wants a better life, and Milisic-Stanley makes that easy to understand.

The book doesn’t paint the expat, missionary, and NGO communities in the best light, although again, Milisic-Stanley doesn’t make anything too cut and dry — there are some people who are better than others. There’s a definite ugly American, which was a little painful to read, but there are ugly Europeans too. The same goes for Tajiks — some are good people, some are not. Milisic-Stanley lived in Tajikistan and several other placed after graduating from SOAS in London, so she probably based her characters on people she’d met. There are definitely a lot of socio-political aspects to the story as well as economic, so it’s both an entertaining novel and a book that will make you think.

I won’t tell you what happens to either woman, but to Milisic-Stanley’s credit, there isn’t a pat ending for Harriet or Nargis — we get an idea of what direction things are going, but she doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. The Disobedient Wife is a thought provoking, mind-expanding book that offers views of lives so fundamentally different and yet at heart, exactly like ours; people everywhere just want to be safe, have enough food and health care and education for their kids, and security for their families. How we can get there is such a mess, and this book really shows how complicated and precarious it is, especially when the balance of power and wealth in the world is so lopsided.

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I didn’t read Teen the Elder’s summer required reading, The Shallows. The Computer Scientist read a bit aloud to me about libraries’ computer & internet service and that was enough (I blogged about that at Nocturnal Librarian). But when Teen the Elder was home for mid-term break he mentioned how much he’s enjoying his first-year seminar, and suggested I might enjoy one of the books for that class, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants by Jaed Coffin.

He was right. Coffin’s mother is Thai, and he decided to go to her village in Thailand before his senior year in college to become a Buddhist monk. He’s very honest about not being sure of his own motives, of being a little confused about what he got out of the experience, and of being unsure how to apply what he did learn. Towards the end of the book he lets readers in on his re-entry into American life, his final year of college and what came next. But his memoir doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, which is nice. He leaves us wondering about some of the things he experienced and how they might impact his life, just as he wondered.

I like Coffin’s unvarnished voice — he doesn’t shy away from critical self-reflection. He has a good eye for small details that made the book vibrant and interesting. I wondered about some of the dialogue, given the distance he had when he wrote the book, but I know there is a theory that memoirs are meant to be representative of remembered experience, not journalist renderings of absolute detail. And maybe he had good notes, or just a better (younger) memory than I have.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is a young man’s story, a story about a person on the edge of adulthood, undergoing a rite of passage (in Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend time in a monastery), and trying to understand his role in life. Coffin captures the essence of that feeling beautifully. When he and one of his fellow monks, Narong, travel into the forest to visit another temple, Coffin tries to convince him that the Buddha is everywhere, in everything around them. They travel up the river seeking Buddha and meeting villagers, and when they return to the forest temple, the Luang Pa (sort of like the abbot of a western monastery) speaks with them.

He asks what they’ve been doing. Here’s a lovely passage that captures their exchange:

“I looked for an answer in the spaces between the trees and in the distant valley. It began to rain in heavy, cumbersome drops that looked like snow. A light wind came up too, pushing at the trunks of several bamboo trees and making a hollow clicking sound.  ‘The Buddha is everywhere,’ I told the Luang Pa.”

The Luang Pa tells him he is wrong:

“‘The Buddha is in the heart. He is in your mind. He is in the heart that is always mai nae jai.’ The Luang Pa’s face softened and became more gentle and sympathetic. I held the phrase in my mind until it made sense. Mai nae jai: not sure heart.”

That’s what this book is about. A boy, nearly a man, with a not sure heart. He goes to Thailand looking for half his life, half his being, he reacquaints himself with his mother’s family and the world she grew up in, and then he takes his mai nae jai heart back to America, which he realizes is more his home (in no small part because it’s become his mother’s home as well). And fortunately for the rest of us, he decides that the way to live with a not sure heart is to write.

I didn’t come to know my own not sure heart until later in life, and reading and writing, rather than a physical retreat, have taken me on a seeker’s journey that may never be complete. I’m grateful to people like Coffin for sharing their stories. I look forward to talking more about the book with Teen the Elder and comparing our responses to it. I’m also grateful that in a time when the most opinionated, self-assured voices seem to take up most of the public oxygen, my son’s college assigns books about the not sure.

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If any of you read my new blog The Nocturnal Librarian you know October saw the bookconscious household hosting the Computer Scientist’s aunt and uncle, who are English. We tried to give them a real taste of New England, with a day in Boston, a drive to Mt. Kearsarge (Rollins State Park in Warner offers quite a vista of the surrounding hills, lakes and towns), a trip to Nubble light house at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and shorter jaunts around our town. New England really is beautiful in every season, fall being perhaps the most spectacular.

It’s also touts itself as the birthplace of America — the country, but also the idea, of freedom from tyrrany. As we visited Boston I was reading Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. Seeing the Freedom Trail sites with British relatives got me thinking about the way history changes entirely depending on the lens through which you view it. Blum considers that idea in her novel.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a German American history professor, Trudy, and her mother, Anna. At the beginning of the book, Trudy’s father has died; you immediately sense her strained relationship with Anna, and as the book unfolds you learn why Anna is so taciturn.  Blum alternates between Anna’s story and Trudy’s efforts to understand German war experiences generally, and her mother in particular.

Anna’s wartime life included a forbidden love affair with a Jewish doctor, his imprisonment around the time of her pregnancy, and work in a bakery and with the German resistance. After the baker is killed on a mission, the Obersturmfuhrer from Buchenwald begins visiting Anna, making her his mistress. Trudy wonders how Germans could live with what the Nazis were doing, and is haunted by fleeting memories of a Nazi visiting her mother. Anna stays utterly silent about with what she did in order to stay alive and feed Anna, about Anna’s real father, and all she lost during the war.  As the novel progresses, Blum deftly illustrates how history is not only a meta-narrative but millions of personal stories, each hinging on individual circumstances. I enjoyed it very much.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, looks at a different historical time and place: a derelict neighborhood in 19060’s Boston. The title character’s views on the bookstore he lives above, the brilliant but troubled writer he befriends, and the deteriorating neighborhood about to be bulldozed in the name of stamping out urban blight is unique because Firmin is a rat.  Savage manages to make this lowly creature a truly empathetic character, one who ponders human nature, cruelty, beauty, and the meaning of a well lived life. Oh, and he can read, and educates himself  by reading his way through the shop, as well as observing people.

It’s a tragicomedy about literature, friendship, and how to live, and if you’re in doubt you should just read it and see for yourself. Yes, Firmin is a rat, but he’s also one of the most imaginative, self-aware, thoughtful characters I’ve come across in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am grateful to Poets & Writers magazine’s profile of Savage in the September issue, where I learned about his work. I hope to track down his other books, all published by Coffee House Press.

A co-worker at Regina Library talks about what he’s reading with me, and when I was explaining I like books that entertain while also probing Big Ideas he asked if I’d ever read The Prophet byKhalil Gibran.  I hadn’t, so he lent me his copy.  Given its wild popularity, I figured I should see for myself why people seem to love it or hate it.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I admire the idea: it’s a book of philosophical prose poems, told from the point of view of a man who is leaving a place of exile to return to his homeland. He’s clearly beloved by people in his adopted country, and they seek his wisdom before he departs. So from a literary point of view, combining a story with philosophy told in poetic language and a creative form is interesting. Some of the book is quite beautiful.

But I read a biographical piece on Gibran in the New Yorker that made me question whether he was a genius as so many believe or an egomaniac.  So it was hard to take the book at face value after that. Read as interesting literature, rather than spiritual wisdom, I liked The Prophet; that said, there are worse things than to try to live by principles gleaned from a book, no matter the ego of the author.

Another author who interfered with my enjoyment of his book was Florent Chauvouet. His book, Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhood is visually amazing. His hand-drawn maps and sketches of people and places around Tokyo are whimsical and engaging. But readers should note it’s a book by a person who came to Japan for six months and clearly took issue with some aspects of Japanese life. Which is his prerogative — and maybe I would have some of the same feelings if I were to live there — but not what I want to read. Maybe I’m just being crank. The Computer Scientist loved this book, and he’s actually been to Japan a few times.

I visited two other countries via books in October: France and Iran.  Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a fascination with Iran; it’s a place with a rich culture and history, but its people have really lost out in the leadership lottery.  One regime after another has made modern Iran hell for at least some of the people, all of the time. Politics aside, it’s a shame, because there is so much to love about Persian literature, art, and food. I’ve learned to love Iranian culture mostly through memoirs.

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart In an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan is a memoir deeply interested in Iran’s food. Bijan is a chef who knew growing up that cooking was her passion. Her parents, a doctor and a nurse who were both larger than life characters who worked tirelessly to help their patients, had to flee Iran at the time of the Revolution.  In America, Bijan’s father was daunted by the prospect of becoming a doctor all over again in his 60’s and eventually returned to Iran to re-open his hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse in California and supported Bijan’s dream of training in France to become a chef.

The family’s stories are fascinating, and Bijan tells them well, while also examining her own path in light of her family history. Like other good memoirs, Maman’s Homesick Pie is much more than a family narrative. Bijan explores cultural identity, the role of women in her two countries, marriage, and finding one’s true calling in life.

The book did make me hungry; Bijan includes recipes, which I haven’t tried.  She cooked for Bono and his wife when they visited her San Francisco with their baby many years ago. How cool is that?  Her descriptions of French restaurant life are fascinating as well; her own story is sort of a  memoir within a memoir.

Speaking of France, I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody.  This book quietly grew on me.  If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building  is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens.  As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.

Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.

I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.”  Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”

In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.

Another novel that takes a hard look at “knowing why” is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, the author of Mudbound.  This twist on The Scarlet Letter is set in a dystopian future America where conservative religious leaders have taken power in the wake of terror attacks and a rampant STD scourge that has left many women barren. Our heroine, Hannah, is convicted of having an abortion, refuses to name the man who got her pregnant (her mega-church pastor), and is sentenced to being a “red” — she is “chromed” or genetically altered to turn her skin red, which marks her as a murderer.

The book reads like a thriller, in which Hannah and a friend she meets in prison are rescued from a cultish religious vigilante group by another cultish group who run a sort of Underground Railroad to spirit women like them to Canada. Jordan makes it more emotionally complicated than straight up good versus evil though, as Hannah grows out of her sheltered upbringing into a thinking, questioning adult.

The people Hannah meets do occasionally veer into stock characters: her rescuers speak French, which it seems to me is a little too caricatured of sneering at American politics; a spoiled wealthy southern white man in a grand old house is a turncoat; an Episcopal priest representative of the “Via Media” offers Hannah shelter in a storm.

This is a small quibble though, and may be my own perspective. Overall, I couldn’t put down When She Woke. Jordan addresses important questions of personal conduct and public approbation, and the danger of dominant culture or even the government in expressing public sentiment. She also champions critical thinking and individual actions, and examines how morality and belief can morph into extremism, especially when people are scared, uneducated, or both. In fact, one of the important themes of When She Woke is that mature belief grows as much from questions as from accepted truths.

Collecting personal statements of belief for public reading, listening, and discussion, is the fascinating work of This I Believe.org.  In October I read This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ahead of the What Do you Believe? event at Regina Library next week.  First year students at Rivier read this book as part of their entry into college life, and the college Writing and Resource Center is co-sponsoring the event. I love the idea of a community read that has a writing component.

This I Believe II, like all of the organization’s books,  is a collection of essays from all kinds of people — young, old, men, women, successful, struggling, famous, unknown — about their personal philosophies.  The essays examine belief  in everything from the Golden Rule to baking.  I tried reading some of the essays aloud, but the Computer Scientist pointed out they are much better heard in the voices of the people who wrote them. You can listen or read on the website, or subscribe to the podcast.

Either way, it’s heartening to know that so many people have spent time considering their deeply held beliefs and writing them down, and thousands have shared those personal manifestos. Some of the beliefs are easy to understand, others are not. Some contradict each other.  I made a list of favorites from this volume; I hope to re-read them and think about why those ideas resonated with me. Maybe I’ll write my own essay some day. It would probably start with “I believe in reading.”

Or maybe, “I believe in poetry.” I attended a talk on some themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came after a screening of Answer This! and a Q&A with Professor Ralph Williams (who acted in the film) and director Christopher Farah.  Prof. Williams told the audience that beauty and the ravages of time were much on the minds of Elizabethans, but that even as we live longer today, beauty can serve the same purposes: to perpetuate love, and to help us deal evil. Reading poetry is one of the best ways I know of unplugging from the world’s bad news; some of my favorite poets address what’s evil or unpleasant head on.

Maxine Kumin’s poems on torture, for example. Or, in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary TimeMarie Howe‘s poems that face inequality (“The Star Market,” “What We Would Give Up,” domestic violence (“Non-Violence” and “The Tree Fort”) and terrorism (“Non-violence 2”). She writes with searing beauty, she writes of horrible things; these are not mutually exclusive.  I heard Howe on Fresh Air, where she addressed writing about grief and loss, and checked for her work at the library that night.

Howe’s poems on faith are some of my favorites. “Easter” imagines Jesus re-entering his own broken body: “And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill./ He came into it two ways:/ From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants./ And from the center — suddenly all at once.”  Wow. Have you ever even tried to imagine this? I hadn’t.

“Prayer” may be the simplest, most direct explanation of the human tendency to avoid opening ourselves to the divine and  mysterious I’ve read in any form. “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath/ Why do I flee from you?/ My days and nights pour through me like complaints/and become a story I forgot to tell.”

And “Annunciation,” from a sequence called “Poems From the Life of Mary” describes motherhood’s jolting, almost unbearable essence: “a tilting within myself;” Mary is “only able to endure it by being no one and so/ specifically myself I thought I’d die/from being loved like that.”

A poetry professor at Rivier had the library staff pull a variety of poetry books to keep handy on a cart for students. I had just finished Howe’s book and heard Prof. Williams discuss sonnets and I was hungry for more poetry. So I browsed the cart.

Also, it was the Thursday before Halloween (Thursdays already being slow in the library, due to something called Thirsty Thursday which, as the mother of future college students, I don’t want to think about.) I read a fantastic book, Linda Pastan‘s Traveling Light, in one sitting. I love this book, I cannot believe I’ve made it to this point in my life without reading Linda Pastan, I want to go back and read every single poems she’s ever written.

Ever have that kind of reaction to an author? I scribbled notes as I read, marking both sides of a sheet of scrap paper at the reference desk. Lines I loved.  Poems that struck me.

Such as: “In the end we are no more than our own stories:/ mine a few brief passages in the Book,/no further trace of plot or dialogue” from a poem called “Eve on Her Deathbed.” The poem goes on to trace Eve’s remembrances.

“Lilacs,” blew me away in part because a poem I was working on last week includes lilacs, as does another poem of mine, “Remembering Lilacs.” Pastan writes more beautifully what I know to be true of these flowers: “their leaves as heart-shaped/as memory itself.”

Pastan looks to the color of spring with both hope and bittersweet acceptance of time and its ravages of beauty in “April.”   “A whole new freshman class/ of leaves has arrived/ on the dark twisted branches/ we call our woods, turning/ green now — color of/ anticipation. In my 76th year,/ I know what time and weather/ will do to every leaf.”

She takes a patiently humorous view of age in “Q & A” — a student in the poem asks “Did you write/your Emily Dickinson poem/because you like her work,/ or did you know her personally?” and Pastan writes of the audience’s laughter, the girl’s embarrassment, and her own response: “Surprise, like love, can catch/ our better selves unawares./ ‘I’ve visited her house,’ I said./ ‘I may have met her in my dreams.'”

I could go on and on — my notes include admiration for Pastan’s bold use of rhyme in “Bronze Bells of Autumn” and “Ash.”  For the questions she opens up in “In the Har-Poen Tea Garden,” and “The Flood, 2005.” For the gorgeous “In the Forest,” which tells why poetry heals a broken world, because it gives us words to “Praise what is left.” My advice? Find this book and read it.

Tonight I will no doubt stay up too late, because I’m reading one of those novels I wish I could actually be in, even though it’s full of war and hardship: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I’ve written about Hoffman’s ability to create characters I’d like to know before: her book The Red Garden was one of my favorite reads last year.

Doverkeepers is a page-turning saga. It’s the story of several women who have made their ways to Masada around 71 C.E., when the Romans have destroyed the Temple and Jews have fled Jerusalem. Hoffman tells each woman’s story, weaving their lives together so that the reader feels a part of the circle. As in many of her other books, there is a magical aspect to the story, but this is also a historical novel and there is an incredible amount of rich sensory detail that makes the time and place come alive.

I received this book as a review copy before I left the bookstore, and the word was that this is Hoffman’s “big book.”  It certainly goes to the heart of many ideas present in other books of hers that I’ve read, with a depth and grace that surpasses her earlier work. That said, I haven’t read all of her books.   Identity, family, faith, transformation, love — this book explores Big Ideas even as Hoffman tells stories that entrance not only for their imaginative power, but the sense of  Truth in the voices of these women.

If I had to boil down what The Dovekeepers is about, I’d say it’s the story of being a woman. Together the protagonists represent a composite of all the roles women have filled over the centuries and in many ways still do, even in a world far different than that of first century Judea. Well, hang on; terrorism, violence, inequality, poverty, religious intolerance, culture wars, famine, drought and flooding, environmental degradation, invasions, world powers dominating smaller nations with their military and economic might, gender stereotyping, fear for the future. Maybe things aren’t so different in some ways.

Speaking of things that are the same: it’s November, so I am NaNoWriMo-ing. I’ve done this before (four times, in fact) but took last year off. I wasn’t going to try to squeeze writing 50,000 words in a month into my life this year either, but two things changed my mind. First, I wrote about NaNoWriMo over at my other blog and remembered all the reasons it’s brilliant. Second, I read this article on simplifying.  I cut some RSS feeds from my Google Reader, and decided there were other ways I could trim excess from my schedule.

Plus, I had some time yesterday evening, between a staff meeting and my reference desk shift, to write. So I dove in and came up for air 5,057 words later. I’m off and writing. It’s exhilarating to be working on a big messy project, when I usually work in the tight constraints of line breaks and poetic forms.

The  Computer Scientist started reading a large messy book recently, or so it appears to an outside observer: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. He’d been on a reading sabbatical, with coaching and other things demanding more of his time. Stay tuned. He did tell me that the Atlantic article on the NCAA by Taylor Branch was one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing he’d read in a long time.

Teen the Younger says the best thing she read in October was the rest of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which she pronounced  “intense.”  She told me that the novel went along at a steady pace and right near the end, picked up and got a lot more exciting.  She’s currently reading volume one of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

What’s next for me?  Hooksett Library book group is reading Loving Frank, and I have a collection of short stories about libraries, In the Stacks, which I’d like to read soon.  And, I’m reading Migrations, a poetry collection by Anne Cluysenaar published by Cinnamon Press. Happy reading!

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This week and last have been strange. We’re getting ready to send Teen the Elder off to England for his gap year. I’ve been cooking by day (all his favorites) and reading by night, filling us both up with memories, seeking comfort in the solid beginning, middle and end of books as I deal with the fact that I am the mother of an eighteen year old who is about to head into the world. I’m thrilled for him, of course, but also feeling many other things, mostly a huge sense of difference: this is not like anything else our family has experienced, one of us moving out, at least for awhile, preparing to live in another country, while the rest of us try to carry on as normal. Next week, I expect, will be even stranger.

It’s also been a time of transition professionally, as I handed over the Events Coordinator position at Gibson’s and began training for my new reference librarian job. I’m excited, but also find myself suddenly able to read whatever I want without having to make time for events books, and so I checked out eight novels the last time I stopped at the library. Eight!  I felt like a kid again, wending my way out to the car with my teetering stack of books.

This month I started by reading books recommended to me, including a staff pick at the Rivier Library — 22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson.  I’ve read several novels set in or after WWII, many from the points of view of displaced people; this one is highly original. Hodgkinson’s skillful use of different points of view enhances the telling of this story about a Polish couple separated during WWII and reunited in England after.

Janusz and Silvana are trying to put together the pieces of their lives and live normally with their son, but there is much that they each kept hidden in wartime that is hard to reveal or admit in peacetime, even to themselves.  They have both experienced trauma and loss, and Silvana and Aurek, the boy, have experienced the very worst of man’s inhumanity as they hid in the woods of Poland. The novel alternates between the present and each family member’s remembered experiences.  Readers meet the people they knew during the war and the people in their new life.

Some readers might find the shifting perspectives confusing, but I think it’s perfect as a way to show the difficulty of pulling together fragmented lives after a period of complete turmoil.  It’s also just the right way to present people who are missing parts of their relationship — they find it difficult to pick up where they left off, because of the damage done, the secrets kept, the traumas felt.  Readers get a taste of this as the narrative shifts.

Hodgkinson is a talented writer who conjures a real sense of the strangeness not only of displacement but also of re-entry into society for veterans and civilian victims of war. She is very good at using small details to paint a vivid scene, like turns of phrase as the couple try to speak in a more British way, descriptions of the garden Janusz creates to try to rebuild a sense of normal family life, the second-hand clothes and shoes the family wears.

Left to guess about each other’s experiences, Silvana and Janusz make a mess of things, and then try to undo the tangle and put the family back together again — although I won’t give away how it ends, I will say it’s a pleasantly ambiguous denouement which will offer book clubs plenty to discuss. Hodkinson presents their story with gorgeous, cinematic scenes and vivid details that will keep you glued to the page. Aurek’s sections will break your heart. 22 Britannia Road is a searing, evocative book about the aftermath of war, the resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to love and trust when everything one has known has been destroyed.

Another heart-breaker is Ivory From Paradise. (Are you wondering about my choice of sad books?  Crying is cathartic, remember.) This one had been on my “to read” list. David Schmahmann revisists the characters from his earlier novel, Empire Settings, although I wouldn’t call this a sequel. When Ivory From Paradise opens, the grown children, Danny and Bridget, are dealing with their mother Helga’s final illness.  They end up in a legal battle with their stepfather over their father’s African artifacts, which Helga brought to London from the family home in Durban after both children fled during apartheid (you can read about those events in Empire Settings).

They end up deciding to return to Durban to hold a memorial service for Helga, who was an anti-apartheid activist and politician. As always I won’t give too much away, but do read these books if you’d like a different view of apartheid and especially post-Mandela South Africa. For Eben, the son of Bridget and Danny’s black nurse, and for several other characters, free South Africa isn’t holding up to its promise, and Danny, whose voice is the most dominant  in the novel, it’s bittersweet to return, to learn what’s happened to his family’s wealth, and to find out about his father’s collection and its provenance.

Like all of Schmahmann’s books, this novel is not only a story, but also a literary exploration of human nature, this time about the legacy a family’s secrets have, the ties we feel towards those who’ve come before and the ways family history can take on mythical status it doesn’t deserve. It’s also a meditation on loss — of childhood, of the reality we paint for ourselves in our memories when we face its real life counterpart, of the childish belief in one’s parents invincibility.  And like Schmahmann’s other work, it’s sad but also quite lovely. You may cry but you’ll feel better for it, and also feel better for having considered the ideas he brings to bear in the novel.

One more tragedy I read this month on the recommendation of a friend: Robin Black’s story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This.   Black writes beautifully and her virtuosity is clear — her stories are told from the point of view of characters of various ages, different sexes, and a variety of circumstances, and the range is impressive. I enjoyed several of the stories very much: “Immortalizing John Parker,” about an artist trying to paint a portrait of a man who is beginning to succumb to dementia,  and “The History of the World,” about adult twins on a trip to Italy are two favorites.

But as I told the friend who suggested I read the book, I felt “tragedy fatigue” as I read this collection; there was just too much suffering for me in one volume (although in fairness perhaps because of the other books I’d already read in August). I read a blurb about this book that said a little of it goes a long way, and I think that would be the best way to read it, with time and space between the stories. Black writes so tangibly of her characters’ pain that I felt myself rushing through to be able to put some of that behind me.

Another book I rushed to finish, but for different reasons, is Why Jane Austen by Rachel Brownstein. I wanted to finish the book before Brownstein’s visit to Concord — she read at Gibson’s, and since I invited her after meeting her last spring at JASNA Massuchusetts Region’s final meeting of the season, I wanted to be sure to attend. With the eventful summer, and the big changes going on in the bookconscious household, I had to read more quickly than I would have liked, and I plan to go back and re-read this book.

Brownstein’s book is what she describes as “associative criticism” — part criticism, part memoir, as she ties much of what she has learned about Austen’s longstanding widespread appeal to her own life and experiences.  At Gibson’s Brownstein told the audience that she has always admired Austen’s “precision of language.”  She also noticed over her years of teaching that Lionel Trilling’s belief that what’s said about Jane Austen is almost as interesting as the author and her work seems to be as true today as when he wrote it. Why Jane Austen is a lovely book about those two things: Austen’s enduring and self-perpetuating popularity and and what it is about the works that make people so wild about Jane.

One of the most interesting things Brownstein discusses is the sense of belonging Austen’s work fosters in readers. Austen’s writing style, her intimate way of addressing readers as if the are her “secret friends,” makes people feel like they are on a first name basis with Jane. Brownstein also points out  the beauty of Austen’s “tissue of words.” For example, Brownstein describes reading aloud from Emma in a deliberately enunciated fashion so that her students can “savour the slow, gradual elongation of the “e” from the  short indeterminate grunt . . . to the long emphatic screech.” (Go on, open your copy of Emma and check it out.)

She also discusses the way Austen’s books offer new things upon every reading: Brownstein’s son noticed something funny in the carriage ride conversation between Elizabeth Bennett and Maria Lucas in Pride and Prejudice that she herself had never caught.  And she admires how Austen tapped into the instinctive human desire to be “in the know” — Brownstein writes of her mother’s inviting a social outcast to tea in their home in Vermont in part so she could learn why the woman is shunned, just as many Austen characters trade in neighborhood stories.

Reading Why Jane Austen is like sitting down with a very smart, very well spoken friend who gently reminds you of how much more there is to learn about even our favorite books. And how important close, careful (and slow) reading is to our understanding of literature. Brownstein makes clear that a great writer like Austen incites conversation among readers of every generation, as the characters’  lives open into our own, no matter the differences between us.  Inspired by Brownstein’s wonderful answers to the question in her title, I’ve suggested a Jane Austen book discussion for the Computer Scientist, Teen the Younger, and I. Stay tuned.

I read two books of poetry this month.  I’ll start with Crave Radiance, by Elizabeth Alexander. If  her name is familiar, it may be because she wrote a poem in honor of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and read it as part of the ceremonies.  That poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a fine example of what I like most about Alexander’s work: it is deeply musical, well structured, and filled with references to familiar, ordinary people and experiences.

But that is only one kind of poem in this collection. Many others are devoted to historical figures and events in America’s past, particularly African American history. Some are sequences, like the poems in Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.  Others are individual poems such as “Affirmative Action Blues,” which is about, among other things, the Rodney King civil rights trial, and several poems address the AIDS epidemic.

Alexander also writes a great deal about her family history, and those are some of my favorite poems. “Fried Apples” is about how she recalled her grandfather “standing at the stove, cooking/ a pan of fried apples for us,” and  “began to take his measure.”  And sections of “Fugue,” a sequence of poems about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, are about her parents. In “1971,” for example, Alexander conjures her young self walking with her father, an adviser to President Johnson: “Sometimes a poem remembers small things, like/’Hey Blood.’ My father still says that sometimes.”

The title of the book comes from the poem “Allegiance,” part of the Miss Crandall series.  It’s one of  my favorites, and also one that seems to sum up Alexander’s themes: when Prudence Crandall receives letters telling her “how brave,/ how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast” she is to run a school for colored girls, we are told, “Work, she says, there is always work to do,/ not in the name of self but in the name,/ the water-clarity of what is right./ We crave radiance in his austere world,/ light in the spiritual darkness.” Alexander believes in that water-clarity, and her poems ring with it.

Where does Alexander place her faith?  Where Prudence Crandall did: “Learning is the one perfect religion,/ its path correct, narrow, certain, straight./ At its end blossoms and billows/ into vari-coloured polyphony:/ the sweet infinity of true knowledge.”  It’s an old idea told well and beautifully: ignorance is the real evil, learning will free hearts and minds.

The other book of poems I read is by my friend and editor at the NH Writer, Martha Carlson-Bradley (who patiently whittles down my long Publishing Trends columns).   Longtime booksconscious fans may recall I wrote about one of her earlier books, Season We Can’t Resist, in 2009.  Carlson-Bradley’s new collection is a chapbook from Adastra Press, beautifully hand-set, printed, and stitched, called If I Take You Here. I read the book and then went to hear her read from it at Gibson’s. I was glad I did, because as is so often the case, her authorial asides really shed light on the book.

I knew from earlier conversations that these poems came out of Carlson-Bradley’s reflection that the farmhouse where her mother grew up and where she visited her grandparents exists only in memory now. At the reading, she explained that she was inspired in part by hearing Donald Hall describe his grandparents’ farm (where he has lived for many years) as a place where poems grow; she ventured to make her grandparents’ farm such a place, even though it’s been torn down. The book is a long sequence, and the individual poems don’t have titles. They’re meant to be read in order and in one sitting, which I was glad to hear, because I had instinctively read the book straight through.

In the opening poem, Carlson-Bradley invites readers to follow her as she enters the memory of her grandparents’ farm as if it is a physical place one can go, “The spring on the screen door/ stretching out/plays its taut,/ascending scale.” In the second poem, Carlson-Bradley tells us the house is not in the shape it once was: “The outer edges the first to go,/ the place that memory makes/ has trouble staying whole –”

You really should read this haunting and lovely poem for yourself, and see what Carlson-Bradley calls the “crumbling left margin,” a visual clue to what she’s found as she enters the farm house. The poem’s left justification is very uneven, with indentation varying line to line, alluding to that roughened outer edge. She told the audience at Gibson’s that she was deliberate in her use of visual structure, centering those poems which spoke to “eternal things,” such as the garden, and deliberately employing variegated indentation to represent her sense that visiting a memory as a physical place is a disorientation of time.  I can’t think of another book of poems whose structure so brilliantly compliments the theme.

In some poems, the language itself leads readers farther into the maze of memory — for example the poem which starts “Incessant, the wind/” has lovely repetition of sounds. In the first stanza, incessant, wind, and inside all share a short “i.” Later, “t’s” and “m’s” repeat, offering very different but similarly soothing accompaniment.  Further along “w’s” and longer o’s and “u’s” smooth the poem’s exit. It’s a very auditory poem, beautiful on the tongue and the ear.

Other favorites of mine are “A young woman’s face,” which describes an old photo fading, and “What I can’t imagine/ he can’t have,” which is one of the poems that best characterizes the relationship between memories and everyday realities, lost forever save in snatches we can remember. Someone in the audience asked how much of the detail in this book, including descriptions of many items from the house, are real and what Carlson-Bradley invented. Her reply: “Even when the facts weren’t right, it’s emotionally true.”  This reverberated with me as aesthetically similar to Danny’s experience in Ivory From Paradise — Schmahmann leads his main character to emotional truths even as he shatters the accepted beliefs Danny holds about his childhood in the novel.

If I Take You Here is about finding the truths in our memories of earlier generations, of people and places that were important to us. Just as Elizabeth Alexander writes of the way she takes the measure of her grandfather by recalling a moment in his kitchen, Martha Carlson-Bradley calls forth her grandfather in images — packing his dead wife’s things, preserving the fruits of his garden, calling out to his daughter.  As she shared her work, she said these poems “create a kind of anteroom between the living and the dead.”   There’s a sense of loss, but also a sense of what endures: lightning, autumn leaves, peepers’ calls, the sound in a shell, the smell of leaf mold or peonies, snow, stars, heat, and light.  Treat yourself to this gorgeous, handmade, heartfelt book. Or better, treat your library, so people in your community can read it too.

Finally this month, I began participating in a fun project: The Europa Challenge. One of my favorite people on Twitter and the blogosphere, The Boston Bibliophile, co-founded this blog, dedicated to challenging participants to read more books from the fantastic Europa Editions. Since I am already a fan of their books, I decided to dive in and read 4 Europa books (Ami level challenge) or perhaps 7 books (Haver level) by the end of 2011.  Since I’d already read The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine in 2011, I figured I had a head start.

In August I’ve read three more Europa Editions, so I’ve become an Ami!  First, I finished Concerto to the Memory of An Angel, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I received a preview of at ABA’s Winter Institute last January. I absolutely loved this book and want to read the rest of Schmitt’s translated work (he’s French). Concerto is a book of four novellas, with a wonderful section at the end called “A Writer’s Logbook,” where the author includes anecdotes about his creative process and some of the backstory behind his book. For the same reason I love hearing an author talk about his or her work, I really enjoyed the logbook section.  And, I found it charming that Schmitt welcomes the reader into his process, in a way.

I had the sense as I read that the stories, while not linked explicitly (no common characters or settings), were linked in spirit and theme. In fact, one thing I really like about Concerto is that it’s a story collection that really has its own over-riding narrative arc — everything fits, no story seems to be out of place, and they tell a bigger story when read all together. The logbook confirms that these stories share, for one thing, “Rita, the Madonna of lost causes, saint of the impossible . . . .” Schmitt says, “Saint Rita tells no stories, but through her, stories are told. ” Schmitt writes of the power memories and secrets have to harden or transform people, the redemptive effect of love and human understanding, the “ambiguity of goodness: what appears good to one individual provokes the misfortune of another. . . .”

I enjoyed all four novellas, but my favorite is “The Return,” about a man who finds out at sea that one of his daughters has died, but not which one. The rest of the story is almost entirely his thoughts as he deals with the news,and his intentional analysis of himself as a father.  While each story is tinged with sadness or anger or fear, every one of them includes some sort of redemption that makes the collection an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit.

Amara Lakhous‘s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio is also a book about the way the same experience can impact people differently; it’s a book about perceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. Both funny and sad, this short novel takes places in an Italian apartment building and nearby. Different characters tell their sides of the story when one of the residents is murdered. Identity, character, and culture shift before our eyes as we meet the neighbors through different narrative threads.

This book reminded me of an art house film — I could picture the characters addressing the camera with their stories and grievances. Lakhous blends social criticism with humor and a dash of mystery as the book reveals the ways people judge and misjudge each other, the assumptions they make, the things they misread, even when they think they know each other well. While Clash is an interesting look at multicultural contemporary Italy (intriguing to read as Europeans struggle to decide whether multiculturalism is a failure), it’s also a book with universal appeal because of the comedic misunderstandings.  Even the characters felt universal — some of you may know an old lady who is overly attached to her little dog. Or a mico-managing tenant who leaves notes in the elevator about civilized behavior.

Finally, I read the absolutely brilliant Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon. Set in 2013, the novel imagines a world that has gone through a series of financial disasters (not only the Recession, but also the Bite), causing massive cultural and civic upheaval so that England is now run by NUG (the National Unity Government, made up of sociologists and shrinks), whose main task is to keep the ever shabbier populace fed.

The heroine of Chalcot Crescent is Fay Weldon’s actual sister, Frances, who her mother miscarried.  Fay Weldon imagines her as having lived a long, successful life as a feminist novelist. Frances is matriarch of a complicated family brewing with resentments and issues. As the book opens, her grandson is sitting with her as she avoids the bailiffs, who are knocking on her door, presumably to repossess the house. Or are they?

In the course of the book, Frances writes a hybrid fiction/memoir manuscript, as she speculates about what is going on — right in her own house — when several of her grandchildren and her best friend’s grandchild meet in Chalcot Crescent to plan a coup as part of an underground protest movement. Meanwhile, her son-in-law is rising in prominence in NUG in part because of his skills as a stem cell researcher (NUG has to create National Meat Loaf somehow), and Frances also writes about her daughters’ relationships with men and with her.  The reader is never sure what Frances has worked out and what she is fabricating — at one point, neither is she.

Frances reflects on her own life with humor and grace and a fair dose of attitude, from her childhood in New Zealand to teen years in post-war London, through the turbulent decades of her adulthood, filled with personal drama and public success.  The book is scary in that the dystopian aspects don’t seem all that far fetched.  The absurdity of the situation — an old woman trapped in her home, which she can no longer afford because of the collapse of the consumer driven economy, while her grandchildren dart through the community potato patch in order to elude government cameras, is delicious.  I hope to read more of Weldon’s work soon, perhaps the epistolary novel Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.

Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger spent August hanging out with each other and with friends, traveling (Teen the Elder spent a few days with his uncle in Seattle), and visiting with my dad when he came to New Hampshire. Teen the Younger continued to read manga and magazines (including the manga magazine Shonen Jump) and she did a lot of planning for her upcoming year of life learning. She has some interesting things in her “to read” pile: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a book about Japanese history and culture, and several books on the art, design, and history of video games.

Teen the Elder finished a book about English culture, Rules Britannia, and he is reading a lot of instructional material for Logic Studio music writing/recording/editing/mixing software. The manual is 1300 pages long, and he intends to read it! He has mentioned several times that he’d like to re-read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books, which are some of his favorite reading of all times (Want in on a secret? The Computer Scientist and I are planning to hide a set of the books in his luggage for him to find when he unpacks in England).

The Computer Scientist has been doing several people’s worth of work at his job — he’s had a team member out on maternity leave, another has moved on to a new position elsewhere, and various vacation and hurricane related absences — and he is now coaching a 3rd & 4th grade boys’ soccer team (you can learn why over at his blog, The Grumpy Footballer).  So he also had a fairly light reading month in August. He’s still enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks.

As for me, I have five more library books waiting (all novels, two of which are Europa Editions by Jane Gardham, whose God On the Rocks I read last winter), plus David Budbill’s latest poetry collection, Happy Life and a book about Carl Sandburg and his wife Lilian Steichen that my father lent me. Plus all the books already in my to-read pile. So, happily, I’ll get through the next few days and that first strange week of our whole new stage of life reading alongside Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist, and knowing Teen the Elder is well supplied with books, too.

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As I look over what I read in June, I realize a common theme is characters who come to terms (with varying degrees of success) with life as it is, rather than life as a series of expectations and desires, met or unmet. I found this thread despite the variety of books I read, which seems to me to prove the Bookconcious Theory of Interconnectedness — that any examined reading list will reveal connections. I’m never sure if I gravitate towards books which really have a common theme or if I find things in common among them. Regardless, I enjoy contemplating such things.

In June, I revisited favorite authors of popular fiction (Maeve Binchy & Alexander McCall Smith), and also read a new book by a literary talent who deserves far greater recognition (David Schmahmann), as well as one whose new book received widespread praise (Geraldine Brooks). Rebecca Makkai‘s debut novel and Abraham Verghese‘s first novel (thought not his first book) were both interesting reads, as was Ann Joslin Williams‘ much anticipated new novel. And I read a forthcoming work by Christian McEwen on creativity and slowing down which is a well written, sensible, very thorough book that will appeal to a many writers and artists and also felt like a personal message from the universe telling me to act on the mindful advice McEwen offers.

I’ll begin with Binchy & McCall Smith. Both of their new books re-visit old locations and feature familiar characters. Binchy’s book, Minding Frankie, is set in Dublin and mentions some of the fictional businesses and restaurants, and a few characters, that have featured in her earlier novels. The main character, Noel, is a young man descending into alcoholism when the book opens. He’s in a dead end job, with no prospects and little hope, and his relationship with his devout parents is dysfunctional. Then he learns he’s going to be a father, and the mother is dying, and through his determination to be a good dad to baby Frankie, he turns his life around.

Binchy’s book is filled with a host of minor characters, as well as the kind of no nonsense middle aged woman who so often helps right the paths of her characters’  lives. Emily, Noel’s American cousin, plays that role, and she manages to transform the lives of everyone she meets when she comes to Dublin to see where he father grew up. Emily is perpetually optimistic — she can look at the least promising situations and see potential. Her can-do attitude and the natural affection she feels for everyone, even a neurotic social worker who threatens to undo Noel’s progress, brings out the best in people.

Noel can’t see past his mire of unfulfilled expectations when Minding Frankie opens. Another character can’t see that the playboy restaurateur she’s pinning all her personal and professional hopes on is unreliable. Moira, the social worker with her own baggage, is clouded by her cold upbringing and some fairly stereotyped feelings about the kinds of people she is supposed to be helping. As in her other books, Binchy draws readers in and then offers a few surprises as the characters’ develop. Some of the plot twists are a bit predictable, and there are readers who think Binchy’s books are too full of uplifting plot lines, but there are a few unredeemed jerks sprinkled among the reformed alcoholics and wisened-up career girls, and Binchy’s Dublin is a pleasant place to spend an evening.

I’m not a rabid mystery fan, but I’ve always enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The newest title, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, was interesting, because it contained a mystery which Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s famous lady detective, doesn’t really solve. This is partly because the people involved each have a different view of the situation, and their perspectives muddle the truth. Precious muses that regardless of what happened, some situations are best resolved with a little bit of diplomacy and a lot of compassion. I enjoyed the  ambiguity. I also love the feeling of armchair travel I get when reading this series as well — Botswana comes to life on the page.

An armchair roadtrip in a novel, The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai is a thought provoking look at cultural perceptions, and a fun read. Lucy, a children’s librarian, and Ian, a ten year old library regular, have an unlikely adventure when Ian runs away from home and they accidentally embark on a car trip together. A quirky story, rich with memorable characters, The Borrower combines humor, social commentary, and plenty of references to favorite children’s books.

As Lucy tries to understand how Ian is impacted by his family’s strict beliefs, she also examines how her own family history is informing her young adulthood. Makkai delivers a well-written, entertaining read with an interesting look at the kaleidoscope of contemporary American culture. She deftly explores the ways family stories are often told and re-told differently, and the ways childhood memories of family lore can add another layer of perception that may color the truth at their core. Lucy openly muses that what’s real and true may depend on how you look at a story, and who’s doing the looking.

Cutting for Stone is another book full of misunderstandings based on the assumptions people make about each other, and the way different points of view can slant the story. It’s also a very detailed novel rich in descriptions of life in an Ethiopian charity hospital. The characters, setting, and medical procedures make this novel teem with sensory texture. It’s also a fascinating story, a bit fantastic at times, but compelling.

Abraham Verghese writes beautifully, and as a doctor who grew up in Ethiopia, he is able to show readers exactly what his characters are going through. In fact, a few times it was too much for me, and I’ve told the Computer Scientist he can never read this book (he nearly fainted at the sight of the needle when Teen the Younger was on her way and an anesthesiologist gave me an epidural). Still, this is not medical voyeurism — the book is about doctors, and the work they do, and the detail enriches the reader’s view into their world. It’s also about family and home, love and belonging, and the ways that even in a strange place under challenging circumstances, we can make those things for each other.

Another novel that really brings hardship into sharp focus is Caleb’s Crossing. Geraldine Brooks has written wonderfully researched historical novels before. This one really made me appreciate the incredible challenges to survival early American settlers faced. Brooks also does a marvelous job of bringing to life a Native American (the Caleb of the title, based on a real young man) who grew up trying to keep one foot in both his own culture and the newly dominant settler world. I was intrigued by the details about opposing theological viewpoints between ministers on Martha’s Vinyard and the mainland, and the peek into 17th century Harvard. As in earlier books, Brooks presents readers with a complex, intelligent heroine. I was fascinated by Bethia Mayfield’s imagined life.

Despite her hardships, Bethia Mayfield leads a mostly happy life. Not so the hero of David Schmahmann’s new novel, The Double Life of Alfred Buber. I’ve enjoyed two of Schmahmann’s earlier books (and reviewed Empire Settings and Nibble & Kuhn), and have a 3rd on my to-read list. Nothing prepared me for Buber. This book is literary fiction at it’s best — taut, well crafted, lovely prose, thoroughly engaging, which draws you into the character’s strange new world and leaves your reading landscape forever altered.

Alfred Buber is living inside his own head.  Throughout the book, which is written in the first person from his point of view, the reader can’t quite tell what’s really happening or what he is imagining. His perceptions and his idea of how others perceive him weave in and out with the actual arc of events until the end of the book, when he muses, “If there is penance to be made for anything it may rest in the exposure of my frailty, and in my invitation to you to look deep into the breach and to see and make of it what you will. I regret everything and I regret nothing. I am a man, simply that, and you will either understand or you will not.”

Buber has had what a news report would call a “difficult childhood,” and he becomes a self-made man, pursuing his education, working his way up to the height of power in a stodgy law firm, building himself a magnificent home. But all of the exterior evidence of his success hides a lonely, insecure, socially inept life lived in the shadow of his professional persona.  Part of his secret life includes a penchant for illicit sex which leads him to an obsession with a prostitute in Asia. He draws her into his imagined life, where he struggles to understand his own capacity for love and meaning.  His fantasy world brings him to a breaking point just as the rest of his carefully groomed world is falling apart.

Buber isn’t a very sympathetic hero.  But somehow Schmahmann makes us care what happens to him, makes us consider the victim and the victimized in another light, makes us wonder how an emotionally broken person can ever grow into a healthy one. There are some plot twists I don’t want to give away, but as a teaser I’ll say the book is meant to be Buber’s attempt to put his story down on paper for a person important to his identity, to redeem himself by telling the truth as best he knows how.  It’s a brilliant way of bringing this tragic figure into the faintest light of hope.

The last novel I read this month is Down from Cascom Mountain, by Ann Joslin Williams. Much of the press surrounding this debut novel mentions Williams’ decision to locate her story in the same fictional world as her late father’s work, including his National Book Award winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux. I haven’t read that book (yet, it’s in my to-read pile), but I enjoyed Down From Cascom Mountain on its own merits.  The fictional mountain is in New Hampshire, and the story centers on Mary Hall, a newlywed who is widowed not long after returning to her childhood home hear Cascom.

Through her interactions with the summer staff at the hiking lodge nearby, and a family she knows from childhood, Mary processes her brief but happy relationship, her grief, and her way forward. Several of the characters seemed to me to have the potential to stand alone in their own stories, so I look forward to asking Williams if she imagines she’ll revisit them in future books.  She definitely brings the landscape to life, and anyone familiar with New England mountains will find much to recognize.  Down from Cascom Mountain is a thoughtful, emotionally taut examination of grief, friendship, and human chemistry.  It would prompt interesting discussion for a book club.

Finally this month, I read a book that won’t be out until September but which I highly recommend already, Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down.  It felt like I was receiving a divine message to stay mindful when this book arrived unbidden in my mailbox not long after I heard Lama Surya Das talk and read his book (buddha standard time).  McEwen writes beautiful, sinuous prose, and her research is a delight — the reading lists for each chapter could supply a person with “to-read” piles for life.  She quotes writers and artists to support her thesis that “slow creativity,” like slow food, is about appreciating the process and releasing the cultural admonition to “do it all, now.”

Each chapter ends with a couple of quotes and some ideas for ways to implement the slowing down process as a creative tool.  I’m keeping this book on my nightstand where I can draw on its wise council whenever I need to.  Like many good books I love, this one made me feel I was sitting down over a cup of tea with a friend who knows my quirks and likes me anyway.

The Computer Scientist finished reading Townie by Andre Dubus III and he says it is a “gritty memoir that I found insightful and honest. Dubus tells the difficult tale of growing up in Southie without shying away from the details. I especially felt that the strong narrative matured in style as Dubus himself started to get his life sorted as he wanted. Any fan of Dubus’ writing will want to read this book.”  Also, Gibson’s customers know, Andre is the nicest man in the publishing world.  We’ve had him to the store twice since I’ve been there, and he’s just a warm, kind person, and wicked smart.

Teen the Elder spent his first month as a grad reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. He says he enjoyed it because it was  a biography of the scientists as well as a history of their work. His sister gave him a pile of books about English culture and British language, which I imagine he’ll read as the departure for his gap year approaches.  This week he’s mostly read visa application instructions. I believe I heard him refer to those today as “gobbledygook.”

Teen the Younger is facing the consequences of reading several books at once — she’s still reading them. But she did devour another large stack of Manga this month, including a number of volumes of Vampire Knight.  She reads Shonen Jump, New Moon, Muse, American Girl, and Cicada, too, so she’s also inherited her parents’ affection for periodicals.

In our reading piles?  I can’t speak for the rest of the bookconscious household, who are actually all asleep as I type. But I’ve started Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy, and I’ve got several other books lined up. In fact, I have multiple “to-read” piles, if I’m honest. A friend recently told me about a vacation she and her husband took before they had children in which she read seven books in seven days. I tried to imagine such a thing. And to stay in the moment, here, in my busy, messy life where I snatch reading time when I can.

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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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