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Posts Tagged ‘essays’

During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!

 

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Several friends have recommended James Martin‘s Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter Into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity and one of them lent me his copy, so I took it along last weekend when we moved the man formerly known on this blog as Teen the Elder (he’s now 24!) to grad school. I read it in an evening and a morning. It is very thoughtful and interesting and should provoke fruitful conversations for interested groups of readers.

Martin explains at the beginning that it’s an expanded form of a talk he gave at New Ways Ministry, “a group that ministers to and advocates for LGBT Catholics.” There’s also a section of bible passages Martin has found especially relevant in his work on this topic, with reflection questions, and “A Prayer for When I Feel Rejected” which Martin wrote. Each section is interesting in its own way. The premise of the essay is found in the book’s subtitle — Martin calls on the church and the people in it, in particular the LGBT community and those who accompany them, to “enter into a relationship of respect, compassion and sensitivity.” The phrase comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church section on how Catholics should treat homosexuals, but the idea is to foster genuine mutual understanding.

It’s challenging to consider that Martin calls on LGBT people to treat the church the same way — some people would say that the church, as an institution, doesn’t deserve respect, compassion and sensitivity when it’s done so much psychological harm to LGBT people over the long term. Martin acknowledges this and suggests it’s still possible to build a bridge. He gives concrete examples, such as praying to see a person as God sees them when that person’s views or actions seem impossible to respect or feel compassionate towards. Martin also calls on church leaders to take a strong stand, through public statements as well as individual actions, against the mistreatment of LGBT people. He goes so far as to say this is a moral imperative, and he calls out by name the relatively few bishops who have spoken up in this way.

This brief book is sure to provoke both progressive and conservative people, but that’s the via media for you. Martin would have made a good Anglican. I like the metaphor of building a bridge and reminding people that reconciliation is a two way street. I found the bible study section, and the invitation to consider the scriptures through our imaginations in the Ignatian way, placing ourselves in the stories, very interesting. I hope this book makes a difference; I have my doubts that it will institutionally, but think it’s more likely to change hearts and minds on a person to person level.

 

 

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Last spring I read Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community  by MLK, Jr. This week I finished Why We Can’t Wait, which was written four years earlier. King recounts the momentous events of 1963, including the actions undertaken by civil rights leaders and ordinary citizens in Birmingham, the cruelty and violence that the white establishment in Alabama, especially under Bull Connor’s leadership, perpetrated on nonviolent protestors that galvanized national support for the movement, and the March on Washington. And he writes, as very few others can, of his hope for the future. Last spring I found that encouraging. It was harder to feel hopeful this year.

In 1963, King believed that with continued effort, the nonviolent resistance would not only prevail in bringing about equality for black Americans, but that it had the potential to help bring about an end to economic injustice and even war as well. In the final section of Why We Can’t Wait King writes of his belief that “In measuring the full implications of the of the civil-rights revolution, the greatest contribution may be in the area of world peace . . . . Nonviolence, the answer to the Negroes’ need, may become the answer to the most desperate need of all humanity.” He was talking specifically about not only ending nuclear proliferation, but he armed conflict altogether. A few years later he was struggling to remind his own movement of the benefits of nonviolence in the face of calls for armed resistance to institutionalized racism; that made it very painful to read his optimistic words here.

The other thing I found disheartening was King’s description of Congress in 1963. He described a “stranglehold” by a minority devoted to preserving the status quo  (wealth and power, at the expense of justice) and called for “the growth of an enlightened electorate” to break this hold. Clearly decades later there is still a minority — people wealthy and powerful enough to hold office, — strangling the legislative process in this country. Enlightened is not a word I’d use to describe the electorate.

King also called for “a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement” for the violation of African Americans’ human rights since the beginning of American history. He cited Nehru’s efforts in India to end mistreatment of the Untouchables as an example. But as recently as this summer, the mistreatment of Untouchables in India made international headlines, and around the world in many cultures, there are comparable groups who are treated as lacking in human dignity. Even in America various privileged groups (I say that as someone who is privileged) demonize and discriminate against various “others” like immigrants, young black men, poor women, the mentally ill, muslims, etc. Would restitution have prevented the further entrenchment of institutionalized racism in America? I doubt we’ll ever know.

I think it’s common around the national MLK holiday (still observed as Great Americans Day in Biloxi, Mississippi) to wonder what King would make of the  continuing racial injustice in America. I don’t dare speculate, as a privileged white woman, but I like to hope that he would still believe love can win. On good days, I still believe that too. But re-reading Letter From Birmingham Jail and then reading about the way our president-elect went after civil rights veteran and U.S. Congressman John Lewis this week on social media, I feel as if love and progress have their work cut out for them.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As I prepared to write my first post of 2012, I thought I hadn’t read much in December; I was too busy, surely? I returned to Gibson’s Bookstore as a holiday bookseller, continued working as a nocturnal reference librarian, did all the usual holiday prep, enjoyed time with Teen the Elder home from England. Plus, we hosted my brother for a visit, had a couple of dinners with friends, and celebrated the holidays and our anniversary.

Somehow, I read ten books as well. I can chalk that up in part to the lack of reference questions at the end of the term at the college where I work. I got a lot of reading done in between answering questions about printers and flash drives.

One notable thing about my December reading was that of the ten books, half were short story collections, and another was an art book with very short essays. These were the perfect books for a month when my “to-do” lists were always in flux and there seemed to be more to bake, cook, or prepare every day.

I’ve always enjoyed short fiction and essays for the same reason I love short forms of poetry.  It’s very satisfying to read a work that is beautiful and complex but also compact, completing the work of convincing the reader of its merits with fewer words.  I like a nice thick novel, an exhaustive work of nonfiction, or a meaty epic poem. But the shorter forms never fail to impress me more for working so well within their structural limitations.

I confess, another reason I focused on short stories in December was my sheepish realization that there were still a few of last Christmas’s gift books in my “to read” pile. Among those were three of the four books of Ox-Tales. I read and reviewed Earth last January. In December I read Air, Fire, and Water. These collections are original stories or excerpts from longer work- in-progress from well known writers, commissioned to benefit Oxfam’s development work.

In Air, I especially enjoyed “Still Life” by Alexander McCall Smith, about a woman living in a remote home on a loch in the Scottish Highlands and her encounter with one of the vistors who comes to hunt there; “Suddenly Dr. Cox” by DBC Pierre, about a drifter in Trinidad and his remarkable life; and “The Desert Torso” by Kamila Shamsie, about a man smuggling a Buddha statue through the Pakistani desert to India, and how the experience impacts him.

My favorite story in Air is “Goodnight Children Everywhere” by Beryl Bainbridge, about a boy who finds himself drawn to an old radio in his grandmother’s house. As the story proceeds, readers discover the radio is playing a jumble of old and current broadcasts. I loved the mysterious twists in this brief tale, and the dramatic ending.

In Water, I liked David Park‘s “Crossing the River,” a modern Styx story; William Boyd‘s humorous and touching story of a young actress and the crazy film set where she’s working, “Bethany-Next-the-Sea;” Joanna Trollope‘s “The Piano Man,” because I just love her writing; and Michael Morpurgo‘s “Look at Me, I Need a Smile,” which drew me in despite the fact that I didn’t want to like a story about a boy whose soldier dad has died, and who is about to be caught up in another tragedy.

My favorites in Fire were Geoff Dyer‘s “Playing With, which is a slight but deeply philosophical story about the choices we make and the possibly random outcomes they generate; John LeCarre‘s brilliant political fable, “The King Who Never Spoke;” and Ali Smith‘s marvelous story “Last,” a lovely piece whose protagonist is fascinated with words. More on Smith’s latest novel shortly.

When “Last” opens, we read, the main character’s thoughts are bleak:  “I had reached the end of my tether.” But after a strange experience helping a wheelchair bound woman on an empty train,”I felt myself become substantial.” In between she notes, “and now, background-murmuring through my head again, for the first time in ages, was a welcome sound, the sound of the long thin never-ending-seeming rolling-stock of words, the sound of life and industry, word after word after word coupled to each other by tough iron joists, travelling from the past through the present to the future like rolling stones that gather moss after all.” Sounds to me like the feeling a writer has after a dry spell.

The New Yorker Stories is a much larger collection, 500 pages, and it includes stories Ann Beattie published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006.  While I’d read a few of her pieces in the magazine from time to time, it was interesting to read such a dense collection.  Reading work from different decades on the same themes, a sort of fictional cultural history of America unfolds.

Beattie tinkers with the same subjects over and over but every story is unique. She writes mostly of relationships — marriage and friendship, love and family.  Her characters are often overcoming something — war wounds, divorce, addiction, disappointment, estrangement and loss. Some of the best pieces include a child’s perspective on the strange world of adult interactions.

Beattie manages to make each short piece highly specific and polished, transporting readers with myriad sensory details, descriptions of meals, weather, sounds, rooms. And she weaves in details that place the stories in specific times and locations.  I admire her skill — she’s an amazingly effective writer, and every story is deft and impactful. But the stories themselves are a stark reminder of human flaws.  Read in such quantity they left me feeling somewhat haunted.

Another book full of sensory detail and human flaws that really carried me away was  Comfort and Joy by India Knight. At first glance it’s a light chick-lit kind of book; a quick, fun, seasonal read. But I found it entertaining and sneakily wise. And I was left very much wanting to be friends with the main character, Clara.

Telling the story of three Christmas’s (and flashing back to some childhood ones) at Clara’s, Knight explores what holds family and friends together and why Christmas seems to bring out all the longings people have the rest of the year.  She peppers the story with very funny, very spot-on observations about relationships, friendships,and dealing with life’s ups and downs.

Speaking of funny, I also read the third Gerald Samper book by James Hamilton-Paterson, Rancid Pansies. This one seemed as if it wasn’t going to be so funny when it opened — Gerald is living in England with friends, recovering from the loss of his Italian home in an earthquake. After getting good news about the sale of film rights for his last book, he prepares one of his horrid (and horrifying) gourmet conconctions for a dinner party and ends up inadvertantly poisoning the guests.

Shamed and distressed, he returns to Italy, along the way deciding his next project will be to write the libretto for an opera about Princess Diana. Whose name can be anagrammed into Rancid Pansies. His old neighbor Marta is back (her disappearance in the previous novel, Amazing Disgrace, was due to a gig writing a movie score in Hollywood) and agrees to write the opera’s music. Several other characters from the earlier books appear as the hilarious plot unfolds.

I thought this was the most satisfying plot of the three Samper novels, again a  farce, but with a tighter story line that really moved along.  It may also have been the funniest, although I thought Cooking With Fernet Branca and Amazing Disgrace were also very funny. The scene in which Gerald has a cameo in the opening night of the opera playing Prince Phillip had me laughing out loud.  And wishing the BBC would produce a  mini series if they haven’t already.

The Samper trilogy were from Europa Editions, and was the thirteenth book in my 2011 Europa Challenge.  I was going for fourteen, which was the Ami level.  I reached my goal with another story collection, The Woman With the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. I liked the first story in the book, “The Dreamer of Ostend,” a love story with a mystery, in which the narrator isn’t sure what’s real and what’s fiction.  And the title piece, which tells the story of a nurse who blossoms into her true self only after a blind patient convinces her she is beautiful.

For the 2012 Europa Challenge I’m aiming for Cafe Luongo Level, which means reading twelve Europa Editions.  I have my first of the year, Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, checked out of the library and am looking forward to getting started.

Speaking of libraries, last January I had the pleasure of visiting the Library of Congress when I attended the ABA Winter Institute. It was a quick visit, but absolutely delightful. Last summer I visited the LOC mobile exhibit when it came to Concord.

For Christmas I received On These Walls: Inscriptions & Quotations in the Library of Congress, by John Colefrom my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and our nieces and nephew. I spent some time on Christmas evening reading it.  If you don’t live near the LOC, this is the armchair tour for you. It’s a beautiful book and brief essays give readers an overview of the library’s history, art, and architecture as well as its awesome mission. Cole is the founding director of the Center for the Book at the LOC.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to read a book in one sitting, but the last Sunday of the semester was exceptionally slow at the library, and I saw There But for the on the new book shelf. I’d just read a review in The Atlantic so I decided to give it a try. By the end of my five hour shift, I’d read the entire thing, which is a very satisfying way to read.  If I had my druthers, I’d read more novels that way.

Smith presents a funny and also disturbing problem: a man in Greenwich, England who is the guest of a guest at a dinner party excuses himself from the table. He goes into a spare bedroom and never comes out. Months go by, and he is lauded as some kind of prophetic folk hero by crowds who gather outside.

Each part of the book is told by four people from the party who knew the man just a little bit. As it turns out, each knows something that adds to what the reader has already learned so that by the end of the book things are less murky.

My favorite of the four guests is a precocious ten year old girl who is smart but lonely, and more comfortable among adults and inside her own inner world than other children. She manages to slip in and out among the other characters, thereby helping the reader tie things together. But all of the sections are marvelous and I really enjoyed the way Smith wove history, science, philosophy, and social commentary into the novel.

Watching each person involved in the drama react, and also seeing how society responds to the man in the room, I thought about how we all see and remember things from a slightly different angle. It’s an idea I enjoyed playing with as I read, that all the little interactions a person has in the world leave scraps of perception that together make up a kind of mosaic view. In fact, it was a book that led to a lengthy musing afterwards, another sign of an excellent read.

What’s time? How does it pass and how do we mark it? What do we fill it with? How do we impact each other by what we remember and forget? How do we miss, or see, the intersections of our lives with others?  And what can result from even the most minor encounter with another person? Is it possible to be truly alone in this world, or are even people who close themselves off connected somehow with others, whether they want to be or not? These are the things I wondered as I read There But for the and as I drove home that evening.  Heavenly, to have a book for company.

And to share books with the company you most love to keep. Both Teen the Younger and I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December, intending to go see Hugo, which we haven’t done yet. I liked it very much, mostly because of the way Brian Selznik weaves history and magic into the story but also because of the interesting intersection of art and story — it’s not a graphic novel, it’s not a picture book, it’s kind of a category of its own.

As I wrote last month, Teen the Younger liked the art.  Since we both enjoyed it so much, I bought Brian Selznik’s new book, Wonderstruck, which is in our to-read piles.  She also read a new Gakuen Alice manga.

Teen the Elder read Inheritance, the fourth book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. He enjoyed it very much. He says Paolini finished the story very well, and “dragons kick ass.”  What can I say, he’s an adult now. He has a pile of books to take back to England with him, so perhaps from time to time I’ll mention what he’s reading. Over the first term there he re-read The Hobbit and all three Lord of the Rings books, which are his favorite books ever (so far).

The Computer Scientist got some books for Christmas but December is one of the two busiest months of the year for him, especially the final week of the year when everyone is making charitable donations.  So he has an even taller to-read pile.

What’s up for me? I have a few books out of the library and I plan to peruse my other piles. Last night I told the Computer Scientist we need to move to a remote location without a bookstore or library for a year, so that I could read all the books I’ve been meaning to get to without distraction from new titles or shelf browsing.

Since the week before Christmas, I’ve hardly had time to read anything. I started two books that I didn’t care for, and following the wise counsel of Teen the Younger, abandoned them. Hopefully I’ll settle into something good soon. In 2012 I hope to continue reading the Hooksett Book Club selections as well, so I’m now reading the January title, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines. What are you reading?

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January always gets me thinking about new beginnings.  This year is even more conducive to forward thinking: as Will I Am sings far more eloquently than I can say, “It’s a New Day,” and President Obama reminded American in his inaugural address that in hard times, we can “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again . . . .”  Inspiring stuff, on the heels of a National Day of Service on MLK Day. What a beginning!

The bookconscious household has long been interested in serving our community, both local and global, and this week we renewed our commitment to doing our part, looking for a place to volunteer together in the New Year, and in my case, ordering the Mothers Acting Up calendar.  But a conversation with a friend and fellow writer before the holidays, and her unexpected gift, gave me inspiration of a more personal sort, and reading material to help me dust off my writing synapses.

Some bookconscious fans know I am a poet. I went through a dry spell last fall, as well as a spate of rejection letters and a rebellion against using my already limited time seeking new markets that will mostly reject my work. This perfect storm of limiting factors forced me to rehash the existential argument with myself most writers have from time to time: why am I doing this? Am I writing to write or to publish?  I came to the conclusion after a few months of feeling miserable (and quite possibly making those dearest to me miserable as well) that the answer, for me, is a version of the former — thank heavens, because if it were the latter, I may have quit for good!

I write to be me, to work out what I see in the world. Like many who feel this compulsion, I don’t know of a time when I didn’t do this; even as a little girl, I wrote and I had imaginary internal dialogues when I couldn’t write. One of my oldest and dearest friends, a fellow writer I’ll call Khrushchev (even though I adore her) sent me The Vein of Gold, by Julia Cameron, which has prompted me to remember writing’s place in my life.

Due to an amazon.com shipping mishap, I got this book without it’s predecessor, The Artist’s Way, on the second to last day of 2008, not long after I spoke to Chev about my poetry blues.  The Artist’s Way arrived this week, and since Cameron refers frequently to The Artist’s Way in Vein of Gold, I’m now a bit confused as to which would be the more helpful to read first. Either way, Khrushchev’s thoughtful gift has helped me commit myself to a creative reboot.

Both books are intended to help artists reconnect with their core creativity. They are books to read slowly and to interact with. So far, I’ve incorporated Cameron’s idea of “morning pages” into my routine. I’ve tried to take walks, which she also recommends, but it was -20 something one morning last week, so I’ve sometimes substituted snow shoveling or walking indoors in a gym with a lovely view of some woods for the real deal. I’m having trouble taking a weekly “artist’s date” exactly as Cameron recommends; I intend to keep trying.

But I am muscling my way through a narrative time line, which Cameron recommends early in Vein of Gold, and that got me thinking about why I write and how I’ve always felt a need to. So thanks, Chev. I’ll keep reading and working, and I’ll remember to give myself permission to adjust Cameron’s program to my life when necessary.

Early January also brought the first Gibson’s book club meeting of 2009. We talked about Bleak House, which we’d given ourselves two months to read instead of the usual one. I’ve read Hard Times and Great Expectations, but Bleak House was new to me. If you’ve never read Dickens, I highly recommend it. It was the most enjoyable classic I’ve read in a long time. All of us at the meeting loved it, and it inspired some discussion of what makes a book “great.”

Endurance was one characteristic we came up with, but why does a work endure? Of course we didn’t come to any grand far reaching conclusions, but for Bleak House, the things we kept returning to were it’s masterful plot and fascinating characters.  It’s simply brilliant, but even better, it’s fun — entertaining and humorous and full of small delights.

It’s a massive, complicated book, but it never plods, never bores, and despite its length, also never loses or confuses the reader. I’ve heard people complain that Dickens is too wordy, but once you get into the book, the style blends with the story. Bleak House is part social satire, part mystery, part love story, part parable — but you won’t feel preached to, and the connections between the characters are never forced, the outcome of the various twists and mysteries are neither overly foreshadowed nor too sudden or pat.

I couldn’t get over how familiar the people in Bleak House are — you’ll think of modern characters or real people who seem much like Lady Dedlock (Dickens would have had fun with Lady Diana), Skimpole (unfortunately, Bernard Madoff comes to mind), Richard (the 30 something who just won’t grow up), Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle (today they’d forward campaigns to join and petitions to sign online).

I could go on, but there are so many characters, I won’t. Besides, half the fun is making your own connections. Treat yourself to Bleak House — you’ll feel proud of yourself for reading such a brick of a book (930 pages in paperback), and if it’s below zero, pouring, or snowing where you are, you won’t have to go out again anytime soon for something else to read.

In an effort to intrigue the teenager and his younger sister, I brought up the idea of  defining “great” literature or any other art at the dinner table a couple of weeks ago. A friend suggested that what’s “great” is what you love; my 11 year old immediately said she disagreed with this, citing her love of The Secrets of Droon, a paperback series that she doesn’t think kids will read in a hundred years (we’d already discussed great books’ long lives), but she enjoys enough to ask me to buy each new volume, and even to re-read.

Both kids felt that a great book should appeal to people of many ages and cultures, even if it’s rooted in particulars. For me, a great book is also a “total package” — beautifully written, with excellent story telling, finely drawn characters and images that bring the whole thing to life.  We didn’t solve the problem around our dinner table, but agreed that the concept of “great” art is probably a blend of the esoteric (think Harold Bloom and college lit crit classes) and the earthy (love = classic).

Bookconscious is a blog about what we’re reading and how our reading resonated with us (or didn’t), rather than a place for literary criticism.  But we did decide to try our own version of a lit crit circle at the bookconscious house. The Computer Scientist suggested that we read “classics” that often turn up on reading lists for the college bound, and discuss them as if we are a literature seminar class. The teenager actually agreed to this, and we’ve started The Old Man and the Sea.

The idea is to introduce him to talking about books the way college classes do —  taking a book apart and examining its parts, then commenting on their colors and textures, where and how they were created, and the way they work together, and hopefully remembering how to put everything back where it was without wrecking the whole thing.  Not long after he read the first part we planned to discuss, the teenager asked, in true New England style, “Why are we reading a book that compliments the damn Yankees? You didn’t tell me Hemingway was a Yankees fan!”

We had our first discussion about the beginning of the novella, up to: “But today is eighty-five days, and I should fish the day well.”  My contribution was some feminist analysis of Hemingway’s analogy that the sea, when it acts up, is like a woman affected by the moon.  We’re planning to discuss the author, his views (even the cranky ones), inspirations and influences, when we get to the end and don’t risk reading a  spoiler. Discussing women and cycles of the moon did seem to make the Computer Scientist slightly cranky, in a playful kind of way.

Is there anything that makes a reader crankier than anticipating a book by a favorite author only to dislike the new offering? I didn’t even finish Unaccustomed Earth, even though I really liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s earlier books. All the characters in the stories I made it through are struggling with pain, addiction, dysfunction, or some other crisis, and I just found it too much of a downer right now.

In fairness, the quality of the writing didn’t disappoint me, it was the content I couldn’t get into. And actually in the first few stories, the theme was the same — Bengali immigrant has generation gap with older immigrant parents and also doesn’t’ fully fit into mainstream American or British culture either, and therefore suffers emotional pain. I like a little more variety, even allowing for the fact that most authors have favorite themes.

I’m still interested in essays and memoir, even though I also enjoy reading fiction and my writing goal these days is to get my poetry mojo back. So I read a memoir I’ve been thinking of picking up for awhile, David M. Carroll’s Self-Portrait With Turtles. Carroll lives in nearby Warner, and has been on my radar since reading about him in the local paper.

Reading this book, in which Carroll traces his lifelong passions for turtles and art and how he made them his life’s work, was particularly interesting as I write about my childhood for the narrative time line exercise in Vein of GoldSelf-Portrait With Turtles also confirmed my belief that in an ideal world, kids would be free to learn as they explore their interests, rather than in classrooms where they must set aside their interests in order to prepare to take a standardized test or regurgitate facts.

In keeping with following my own interests, I read three books of poetry recently: Elephant Rocks, by U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan; Last Island, by former Portsmouth poet laureate Mimi White; and Season We Can’t Resist, by NH poet Martha Carlson-Bradley. I’d seen reviews of the first two books when I was working at St. Paul’s School as the interim reference librarian last fall. I found the third book on my local public library’s new books shelf.  I enjoyed all three.

Ryan’s poems are like those little wooden puzzles you can play with but never manage to get back together — I prefer to enjoy them whole, acknowledging I may never really figure out what makes her words fit in such a curious and complicated way, or how they start out as ordinary words and become beautiful, mind bending poems. White, whose poetic perseverance is inspiring and uplifting for someone struggling with publishing, writes with broad metaphoric brushstrokes. Carlson-Bradley impressed me with her eye for the finest detail.

None of these women writes poems that are merely lovely or masterful; each uses language and craft to wend her way through truth as well as beauty.  Poems often tell a reader something about herself once she’s gotten know them better, and good poems make the reader want to take the time to go beyond a handshake and really get acquainted. I felt that way in the company of several selections from all of these books.

And I felt that way upon hearing Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” I was pleased to read it here —  poetry is a visual as well as an oral art form, so I was happy to find the poem in the form Alexander wrote it, rather than just as a transcript on a news site.

Besides poems and the Julia Cameron texts on creativity, I have several other books in progress on my reading pile. The kids and I are all enjoying Philip Reeve’s latest Larklight book, Mothstorm. What a clever, imaginative, thoroughly delightful yarn Reeve spins! Fun for all of us, including the teenager. If you’ve missed reading aloud but your kids think they’re too old for it, crack open one of these books and see if they don’t come lounge in a nearby chair and listen (even if they may pretend all the while to be studiously ignoring you). You’ll feel the way you did when, as a child, you lost yourself in a fantastic book, flopped on your belly in the grass or on your bed on a rainy day, and you won’t want to stop reading.

I do *need* to catch up on Old Man and the Sea so I’ll be ready for this weekend’s chat — we’re reading up to the midst of the old man’s struggle with the big fish. And I picked up a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, edited and with commentary by his biographer, Matthew Bruccoli. I was curious to read the original The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, but I am really enjoying Fitzgerald’s other stories, and Brucolli provides a brief  introduction to each piece, which are interesting. I’m thinking of continuing to read short fiction, since I tend to have a few books going at once, on the theory that it’s easier to finish one story and set the book aside than it is to re-enter a novel.

A work of fiction I’m enjoying while I read but am having trouble re-entering is The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower, on loan from my father-in-law. We’re both fans of C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower books, but either because it’s been awhile since I read the series or because it’s somewhat confusing to read a fictional character’s biography, I keep feeling lost. I probably ought to sit down and read it through.

If you like the satisfaction of finishing a book., two books I found at Ohrstrom library’s graphic novel display recently are easy to finish in a sitting: Robot Dreams by Sara Varon, which is a wordless book about a friendship between a dog and a robot; and Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino.  Porcellino’s book is actually a  graphic biography.  Both are excellent. If you’ve tried Bleak House or read a lot of poems and your head feels full, either of these books will sweep you clean, refresh your reading spirit, and make you eager for more books.

Until next month, all good reading to you!

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