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Posts Tagged ‘death’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Full disclosure — I know Brady Carlson and his family, he thanks me and a colleague in charge of interlibrary loans and the rest of the library staff in his acknowledgements, and his publicist sent me a copy of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders. Regardless of these facts, I feel I can fairly review the book, because as a reviewer and a librarian, I’m patently opposed to people reading bad books.

And this is not one of those. Brady is a kick ass writer, which you can see for yourself by checking out his pieces on NHPR, a few of which have made the national NPR broadcast lately. Or by reading Dead Presidents, which I highly recommend. His tone reminds me a little bit of A.J. Jacobs — informative and funny, but in a very humane rather than biting or snarky way.

The thing I love most about Dead Presidents is how much Brady is into his subject. I knew this — for awhile several years ago we attended a meet-up of local media makers, and even when this project was in its formative stage, I had a sense that he was going to create something cool, because he has been interested in the presidents since childhood. In fact, in his introduction he notes that a book — Mr. President by George Sullivan — and a teacher who allowed him to conduct an “impromptu lesson” on presidential trivia in fifth grade were keys to his lifelong interest. I am a big fan of people pursuing what they love, and as a fellow member of the book tribe, I love this origin story.

(Aside: this is why cookie cutter curriculums are inferior. Imagine if Brady’s teacher was hamstrung teaching to the test or to “core competencies,” and couldn’t accommodate his budding interest?)

That genuine enthusiasm makes a topic that let’s face it, most of us probably don’t think sounds super exciting — dead presidents — come, dare I say it, alive. I couldn’t resist. Seriously though, the stories of places famous (like Grant’s tomb) and obscure (Grant’s cottage, where the former president finished his well known memoirs) are equally fascinating in Brady’s book. Did you know, for instance, that Grant was nearly moved from New York to Illinois, because the tomb site in Manhattan was so poorly cared for? Or for that matter, that several presidents’ remains have in fact been moved, sometimes a good distance?

Two of my favorite stories: in Plymouth, Vermont, you can see — and sample — one of the oldest cheesemaking operations in the U.S., where artisanal cheese is made just as it was when Calvin Coolidge’s father co-founded the place in the 1890’s. President Coolidge is buried nearby, in “the hilltop cemetery where his family had been buried for four generations.”

And there is a gathering of presidential descendants: “the Marshfield, Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame Celebration.” One of the people Brady meets there is George Cleveland, a grandson of Grover Cleveland who lives only about an hour from here. In his travels, Brady had seen photos of George in various other sites related to presidential history, like on the wall of the Founding Fathers Pub in Buffalo, where the proprietor was unable to stump Brady on presidential trivia (he didn’t know Brady taught his fifth grade class this stuff, after all).

The thread that ties all of the stories together is Brady’s admiration for the presidents — even those who didn’t do such a great job in office — and his illuminating, thoughtful insights into their work habits, interests, values, and post-presidential pursuits, as well as their deaths, burials, and legacies. I especially loved the way he debunked the popular opinion of Taft as “the Fat President” and his commentary on how our culture’s views of obesity influenced public opinion of Taft unfairly. It’s the way Brady combines the weird and the wonderful that makes Dead Presidents both entertaining and truly interesting.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Clockwork Universe

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

Edward Dolnick

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It’s been a busy month in the bookconscious household, preparing the Teenager to make big decisions about college admissions and to complete the process, and helping him and his sister to chart their courses for a new year of life learning. Despite earlier efforts to separate the idea of a school year from their educations, and my reminders that brains don’t stop learning during the summer, we’ve been swept into the cultural mainstream with regards to planning, and they start afresh in the fall.

I always enjoyed this time of year as a child, and not only because I liked fall’s cool breezes and colors, new clothes, and holidays.  Perhaps because  I was chronically sensitive to the way teachers and peers perceived me (I was both an overachiever and a social misfit) fall gave me hope that I could start fresh.  Most of all I was happy to have new books, new classes, new projects — I loved learning.  I loved getting lost in new ideas, daydreaming about historical time periods and achievements or the things I might someday do myself.

As I planned and prepared with the Teenager and the Preteen (this is the last month I can write of her in that way!) much of my reading centered on books with themes of seeking, dreaming, and reconciling hopefulness with practicality.  I haven’t let my inner seeker and dreamer get out much this year, as I’ve turned my back on many creative pursuits and “free time.”  In August, my seeker and dreamer told me to get a life, and got on with her own. As I look at the books I read these last few weeks, I can see her banging her small fists against my “to do list.”

At the end of my last post, I was finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I’ve heard some criticism that this book was just another contrived year-long project (Alexander bakes a loaf a bread a week in a year-long quest to recreate the perfect loaf he once enjoyed) designed to entice a publisher into a contract. I don’t really care if that’s how it was conceived or not; 52 Loaves was a delight.

I love books that reveal the interconnectedness of ideas, and Alexander masterfully ties science, culinary art, agriculture, history, sociology, and even spirituality into his story. In a style that reminded me of A.J. Jacobs, Alexander tries a series of projects aimed at getting to the essence of good bread – growing wheat, building a brick oven, harvesting his own wild yeast. And in the end, he generously shares recipes.

Alexander is also funny, and like many of my favorite writers, he doesn’t hesitate to direct some of the laughs at himself. Like Bill Bryson, Alexander manages to be humorous but also uber-informative, covering a wide range of subjects as he tries to understand the science required to master bread baking. What surprised me, and what I felt was the best part of the book, was the spiritual turn his quest took, as he stayed in a French monastery teaching some of the monks what he’d learned. 

52 Loaves isn’t just about flour and  yeast, ovens and mills, it’s a story of a man figuring out what’s essential. Alexander perfectly captures that combination of  practical knowledge and hopeful seeking that to my mind makes creative nonfiction creative. He also reawakened my own curiosity about a quiet retreat in a cloistered community, something I one day hope to try.

Something else I enjoyed vicariously through 52 Loaves was travel. Alexander went to France and also Morocco and Canada in the course of his year long exploration of bread. Another book that took me places in August was Dreaming In Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich.  Rich writes about her efforts to learn Hindi in India, a place that has long fascinated me. We were fortunate to hear her at the final Tory Hill Readers Series reading of the summer.

Dreaming In Hindi is an ambitious book, and Rich veers from memoir to cultural observation to neuroscience and linguistics as she researches language acquisition and also tells of her own experiences. In some ways the book was a bit too ambitious — I had trouble tracking what happened when, as the sections dealing with her research are not necessarily part of the same chronology as her trip to India. What is clear, and very appealing, is her portrayal of the struggle to master a new language, to understand and be understood, culturally as well as linguistically.

I thought Rich was very honest about the culture shock and discomfort that comes with immersion language learning in another country, and that was interesting as we consider the Teenager’s potential plans to spend a year in Germany. And I found many of her observations fascinating, especially regarding the ways language and culture are deeply interrelated — she writes that the way we think of things has much to do with the language we are equipped with.

For example, she points out that ownership isn’t something that is easy to describe in Hindi — words describing the proximity of an object to a person indicates who has it, instead. And in Mandarin, tenses are not the same as in English, making it hard for a native English speaker to say when something happened. I can see how these differences go way beyond mere words to a shift in perspective.

I’ve learned that people can get really hung up on wanting to believe that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. In some basic ways that may be true, but cultural differences exist and are important; they also make literature richer.  In Gibson’s Book Club a few months back, my suggestion that Per Petterson‘s characters’ emotional reserve seemed culturally accurate sounded like a stereotype to some discussion participants.

But I maintain that the way people who share a language and a cultural outlook express themselves is somewhat collective (albeit with endless personal variations), and literature is a way into understanding societal tendencies or traditions. Expecting everyone who is Norwegian to be reserved would be stereotyping; looking for patterns in the literature of a great Norwegian author to understand Norwegian sensibilities is not.

Another example of how language  informs and is informed by the culture it is part of is poetry.  I recently fell out of my habit of regularly reading poetry as well as fiction and nonfiction, but in August I read The Shadow of Sirius, by W.S. Merwin.  Merwin, like Donald Hall and other poets of his generation, has gone through many changes in form and style in his long career. The Shadow of Sirius, a fairly recent collection, is less formal than his earlier work, but no less masterful. I had read a few individual poems of Merwin’s, but had never sat down with an entire collection, and I am glad I did.

I especially enjoyed “Nocturne II,” which describes our tiny place in the universe through the narrator’s awareness of the Perseids falling even though he is lying in the dark and it’s raining; and “Grace Note,” which seems to me to be a poem about mindfulness as the narrator listens for a “feathered breath,” a sound that “I seem to have heard before I/was listening but by the time/I hear it now it is gone.”

Another poem that seems to be about seeking meaning, “Lake Shore In Half Light,” finds the narrator reflecting on an elusive but familiar question,  letting both questions and answers come in mindfulness rather than hunting them down.   “Into October” considers “the dry stems and the umbers of October/the secret season that appears on its own/a recognition without sound.” Isn’t that lovely, and isn’t that what humans often yearn for? “A recognition without sound . . . .”

So, resolved, more poetry. Now, before I venture into the list of excellent novels I read in August, two more nonfiction reads: Robert Darnton‘s  The Case for Books, and Todd Farley‘s Making the Grades: My Misadventures In the Standardized Testing Industry. Darnton came to the store in August, and I highly recommend hearing him in person; he is not just erudite and interesting, but a very warm, spontaneous speaker.

As a book historian and the head of Harvard’s library system, Darnton has both the long view of books and a contemporary view of the rush to digitize vast amounts of literature.  He’s both a champion of open access to academic research and a believer in the book as the perfect technology for conveying the written word.  He also maintains a healthy skepticism about placing our literary heritage in the hands of a large corporation (Google) for digital preservation. The Case for Books gathers some of his previously published work on these topics; I did find that some of the pieces seemed to repeat ideas, in an attempt to catch up any readers who haven’t followed the story of Google Books. But overall, a very compelling read from a great thinker.

I spent loads of time just thinking as a child of the pre-digital age (we watched television, but I didn’t sit in front of the TV as much as some kids, as I later learned when I had no idea what my peers were talking about as they discussed old shows).  I always managed to get good grades despite so much time left to “daydream.” I also was fortunate to have both ample time to read for pleasure and parents who modeled that habit and took me to the library as often as I wanted.  But I wasn’t a stellar standardized tester.

The Teenager is generally put off by such tests for the same reason I always was: we see many ways of answering a question, all of them partially right in their own way. For some time I’d had Todd Farley’s memoir, Making the Grades, in my to-read pile. As the Teenager registered for the ACT, not for admissions purposes, but to jump through the NCAA’s hoops, I pulled it out.

Farley’s account is eye opening and should be embarrassing to both the testing industry and the education industry. Because that’s what they are — big businesses, trying to process kids through the system in a standardized way. The stories  Farley relates of testing employees coming up with ingenious work-arounds to make test scores come out the way their employers and clients expected them to is sickening.  He himself is disgusted, but he returns several times because he makes a lot of money doing relatively easy work, until finally he decides to quit and write.

Making the Grades is a little rough around the edges; it’s a memoir, but Farley doesn’t do much self-examination other than to tell us he’s fed up and aware of the ludicrous nature of his work a few times. And some parts of the book are a little repetitive. That said, the effect is to dull the senses a bit the way taking a several hours long standardized test does. And overall, I think it’s an interesting and important read.

Making the Grades solidified my belief that just as industrial agriculture and giant banks and huge electricity grids and giant bureaucracies are all vulnerable to massive failure, so is industrial education. Homespun tales of small community schools that worked well, when kids of different ages learned together, teachers knew and helped students individually, and communities were closely invested in the success of the town school may not be perfectly accurate in their rosiness (I am thinking of the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books as well as the British example of Miss Read, and also Jimmy Carter’s memoirs of his boyhood in the Plains, GA schools), but they certainly point to some things that worked well.  And certainly one of the things not working well in today’s giant government industrial education complex is standardized testing.

I am realizing as I write that some of the fiction I read this month includes characters for whom the standardized approach to education doesn’t work. First, I read Jenna Blum’s The Stormchasers, which I have on good authority (from a customer living with bipolar disorder) is one of the most compassionate, well written accounts of a bipolar person in fiction. Charles, the bipolar character, is definitely not well served by school, where he does poorly despite his brilliant scientific mind and his uncanny ability to track storms.  I enjoyed the novel, and Jenna talked a great deal at her reading about her writing process, which was really interesting. Her website is one of the best author sites I’ve seen, and you can learn more about her there.

The Stormchasers is about relationships, and the way families need each other, even as its members act in ways that are selfish or damaging.  Jenna’s characters aren’t perfect, and the twins who are at the center of the book harbor more than just the usual childhood hurts; they also share a terrible secret that is eventually resolved in the novel.  Yet the book ends on a hopeful but realistic note — you suspect that while everyone’s relatively happy right now, they’ll probably screw up again soon. But somehow, they’ll stick with each other.

The same themes of guilt, love, and redemption came up in some of the other fiction I read as well. Anita Diamant‘s Day After Night is the story of women friends in a British internment camp in Palestine after WWII — each of them has her own form of survivors’ guilt, each has lived through a different but awful wartime experience, but their friendships help them begin to heal.  I loved that even the minor characters, camp guards and clinic staff, some of the men in the camp — are multidimensional people, and I did not know about the internment camps where Jewish survivors of the war ended up because the British didn’t know how to handle their immigration to Palestine.

Another historical novel I read also dealt with how survivors handle the trauma of war, in this case by forgetting. The Gendarme is a new novel by Mark T. Mustain, an attorney turned author. I enjoyed the structure of the book, which moves back and forth between the main character’s dreams and the present. Emmit/Ahmet is an old man, and he lost his memory when he was injured during WWI.  He begins to dream after he’s diagnosed with a tumor, and eventually he realizes the dreams are his returning memories.

Mustain covers a lot of ground in this book — not least of which is the vivid depiction of the Armenian genocide that make some of the book hard to read. He handles this deftly, though, offering enough detail to enable readers to understand the trauma but also giving a full picture of the complexity of the situation, with some Armenians selling out their fellows and some Turks protecting their prisoners.  There are also several examples of misunderstandings between the characters about race, culture, and religion, which would make for interesting book club discussions.

The Gendarme is also an examination of love — agape, eros, philio, and storge — as a redemptive force, as a check on our baser instincts as humans, and as a corruption of itself. The passages that take place in the mental institution where Emmit’s daughter places him are fascinating.  With the friendship of a fellow patient, a widow who comes to visit him, and his longtime buddy and fellow war veteran to buoy him, Emmit deals with his memories, learns how to survive his commitment, and formulates a plan to find out what happened to his wartime love (and victim) Araxie.

I was fascinated to read Mustain’s author’s note and learn that he did not travel to the places he writes about in the book until he had completed several drafts.  He also talks about his own ancestry, and his lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide (which led to reading, which led to this book). And one last personal note: the book takes place in a small town in southern Georgia, and for me, that was very interesting, since the bookconscious household lived in the same area for five years.

The Gendarme dealt with death and loss, and the way people’s memories take on added importance during the final portion of their lives. Tinkers, Paul Harding’s Pulitzer award winning novel, masterfully covers the melding of memory and presence at the end of a man’s life. Paul Harding is coming to Gibson’s on Sept. 16, and our book club is discussing the book that week as well.

Tinkers imagines the final thoughts of a dying man named George in the last days of his life. His family has gathered in his home, where he is lying in a hospital bed in the living room. With meticulous, sensuous detail and prose that is cinematic (you see the whole scene and the closely focused details at once) and poetic (not just full of memorable imagery but also rhythmic, flowing, measured), Harding paints the interior life of the dying man, exploring the way his life flashes past, not as a continuous filmstrip might, but in fits and starts, memories of his own life and scenes from his father’s, moments of lucidity in the present where he interacts briefly with his assembled loved ones, glimpses of generational links that the readers senses will continue to be passed on.

I’m not always impressed with prize winning books — sometimes I wonder what the heck the judges were thinking. And I was especially cautious given the heartwarming back story behind Harding’s rise from near obscurity to fame and critical acclaim . That sequence of events is so delightful that I was afraid it would color my reading of Tinkers. But the book is really that good. And really that unique — I’ve truly never read anything like it.  I look forward to hearing Paul Harding at the store.

I read another novel with a death a great deal more sudden and a plot a great deal more rollicking: the second Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  This is an old fashioned “body book” as my good friend YeVette would say. I wrote about Flavia’s first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in bookconscious last year. Delightfully detailed, quirky and smart, these mysteries are period pieces set in 1950’s England and Flavia is a bright eleven year old heroine who loves chemistry (the better for studying poisons) and is also a clever amateur detective. High end palate cleansing mind candy (I mean that as a compliment), well written and entertaining.

So, I’ve covered death and dreams, what about Freedom?  Yes, that Freedom, the one that landed Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time, on President Obama’s nightstand, and on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, among other places.  Although I enjoyed The Corrections, this is another book I opened with trepidation. I wanted to like it very much (as I did his book of essays, How To Be Alone, which I wrote about here last month). But the hype put me off.  And the constant worry over having a great event this week — we are one of the stops on the Freedom tour, which even now, I can hardly believe.

But I am happy to say I forgot the hype and worry and just enjoyed this very good book. A story of our times as well as our culture; a novel of depth and complexity; a tale of the impact freedom (to pursue love, happiness, fulfillment, success, greed, friendship, filial duty, marital tranquility, good causes) on the human psyche — all true. You can read the reviews.

My own take? How beautiful that in the end, despite the mess they’ve made of their lives, Walter and Patty, the central characters in Freedom, are getting it together, making a life as best they can, having reconciled more or less with each other, their children, their other family members, their friend Richard, nearly everyone they’ve hurt or failed. It’s a hopeful ending, one that has quietly resonated with me for the many days since I closed the book for the last time. And a perfect reconciliation of hope and reality — nothing is perfect, and in fact many things are permanently scarred, but all is well.

It’s a good message — that it’s within us to choose a good life, that we’re free to love well, to solve our problems, to reconcile past hurts, to be on good terms as parents and children even if we’ve driven each other crazy — in an unnerving time at the bookconscious house.  The Teenager and the Computer Scientist hit the road this evening on their way to the Teenager’s first college admissions interview.  Despite our best efforts to keep this process low-stress and no pressure, it’s become neither. I tell him (and myself) that it’s like moving. It will suck until it’s over, and then it will be good.

To unwind in August, the Teenager continued reading “The Human Story.”  He enjoys history and says this book is interesting, and offers a different voice than other history books he has read. He recommends it as fun to read in one’s spare time.  I cheered silently that he realizes, in the midst of his own busy life, that he needs spare time. Of course he also reads copious amounts of soccer news, which keeps him informed as he watches all the matches he can and blogs over at The Beautiful Game.

The Computer Scientist also keeps up with soccer news, and he read One Mountain Thousand Summits, by Freddie Wilkinson,  this month. He’s read a lot of climbing narratives, and he says One Mountain is “The best book of its kind that I’ve read. Freddie did a great job researching and challenging the reader with different perspectives. I like that he looked at it from the Sherpa perspective instead of sticking strictly to the outsiders’ perspectives. I also enjoyed that his structure did not follow the traditional (and tired) narrative ‘this then this then this’ style. If you’re interested in high-altitude climbing books, read this one for sure.”

He and the Preteen also continue to read manga. He read some Anima this month and says he can see the Preteen’s personality in the story. The Preteen read more Fruits Basket (there are twenty-some installments and she is nearly done). She also read Naruto, which she says is about a kid who is training to be a ninja, and who has a nine tailed fox spirit enter him during an attack in his village. OK, then. And Fullmetal Alchemist, which the Computer Scientist has also read, and which the Preteen just told me is about “Alchemists, mom. They’re doing alchemy.” (insert sigh here)

Ahem. Anyway, in addition to all the manga, she also read The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama, which she says is a Japanese novel about aliens. When I asked her to elaborate, she went on to tell me that the title character is a girl who turns out to be the god/creator of the world, and she is involved with a club that finds things that are out of the ordinary, whose members turn out to be aliens. She said the book’s dialog is too long in some parts, which made it hard to follow and less enjoyable.

So, in a way, everybody read something about freedom, death, and dreams — which along with love, are arguably the most common themes in human storytelling.  Up next?  The Preteen is reading some nonfiction books about food, and has more Manga and a stack of novels to pick from. I’ve seen an Iraq war memoir on the Computer Scientist’s nightstand. The Teenager is reading about Shakespeare, among other things.  And I am about halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone, and have too many things to list in my “to read” piles.

But tonight, in the midst of the hurrying back from a soccer game to get the men on the road for the Teenager’s interview tomorrow, preparations for a very busy week for both kids and for the Computer Scientist and me, chores on my to do list, etc., I took a few moments to sit on the screened porch, cat in my lap, watching the gloaming, trying to be mindful, letting my inner seeker have her moment of really free time.  It was peaceful. I’ll try to do it more.

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