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Posts Tagged ‘Europa Challenge’

I looked around at the library last week for a Europa Editions book, giving myself permission not to choose one if there wasn’t something that interested me. Laurence Cosse‘s An Accident In August looking appealing, so I decided to try it and keep up with the 2012 Europa Challenge.

I’m glad I did. For the first time in a few months I can say I really liked my challenge book. When the novel opens, Lou (short for Louise), has just pulled into her garage in her white Fiat Uno, and she is very shaken. She’s just been part of an accident in Paris in the Alma tunnel; a Mercedes barreled into the tunnel behind her at top speed and scraped her car before crashing spectacularly into a pillar. She had reacted in a panic, driving straight out of the tunnel and home. Lou is trying to calm down and deal with the fact that she should have stopped, and that she could be charged with failure to assist at the scene of the crash.

Then she turns on her radio in the bathroom and realizes not only was she involved in a horrible crash, but also the victims of the incident are none other than Lady Diana and Dodi Fayed and their driver. What was already upsetting becomes Lou’s obsession. She gets through the rest of the weekend pretending to be ill, and then takes her car to a different town on Monday to have the taillight and paint repaired.

But even with the Fiat patched up she is unable to think about anything else. She’s afraid she’ll be arrested and that the press will make a spectacle of her. She tries to just go on, but can’t stop thinking about getting rid of the car and running away. Her employer and her boyfriend both notice how strange she’s acting; she finally feels she really has to act.

She’s about to leave her apartment, with a somewhat amateur plan to ditch the Fiat and go away, when a mechanic from the garage appears. He’s put two and two together and he wants a cut of the money and fame Lou could achieve selling her story to the press. He kidnaps her, telling Lou he has all the evidence that her car needed repairs just a couple of days after the crash, and she has to do what he says.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, but will just say it wasn’t what I expected. An Accident In August succeeds as a psychological thriller even though I could not really understand why Lou didn’t just come forward immediately, tell the police the car hit her and that she was so startled she drove off, in shock. Given the details in the news — that there were hordes of paparazzi in several cars — she could probably have escaped serious prosecution if she simply admitted being afraid.

At any rate, Cosse wrote an interesting tale, and it made for entertaining reading. The setting in and around Paris and the fact that I remember the general and widespread hysteria surrounding Diana’s death added to my enjoyment of the book, not because I liked reading about the tragedy, but because I can recall a person I knew who followed every detail of the crash and investigation, like one of Lou’s co-workers. Also in May when we met up with Teen the Elder after his gap year, I saw the Dodi & Diana memorial at Harrod‘s and a display in Kensington Palace about Diana’s dresses, so I’d actually thought about her death again recently.

I’d recommend An Accident In August as a light but well-written thriller with a strong psychological aspect to the plot.

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This month my reading ranged from  Belle Époque Holland to contemporary Cuba, 1990’s Boston to ancient Rome, a mysterious jinn city to a future America, from a Maine isle to US Navy vessels before, during, and after D-Day. If this sounds like too much variety for me to tie together with a theme, remember the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: one book will almost always lead us to another, as our mind seeks connections in what we’ve read.

And also know this: humans seem to have boundless capacity for inhumanity. We can’t resist labeling each other, mostly for the purpose of feeling entitled to treat each other with contempt or even cruelty or to wage war. Sadly, that seems to be what my July reading has in common, along with hope that we also have endless capacity to recover from and transcend inhumanity.

I read four novels this month. First, Richard Mason‘s History of a Pleasure Seeker.  I heard Mason on Nancy Pearl‘s podcast last spring. This book is his latest, but he first came to prominence when he was still at Oxford and published his first novel, The Drowning People.

History of a Pleasure Seeker is about a young man, Piet Barol, who is well educated but poor, whose late mother gave him a hunger for the finer things in life and prepared him to rise above his humble beginnings. When the novel begins, he’s interviewing for a job as tutor to Egbert, the youngest child and only son of hotel baron Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts and his wife Jacobina. It’s not an ordinary job, because Egbert refuses to go outside and the last few tutors have failed.

Piet loves sensual pleasure — excellent food and drink, good music and art, fine clothing and furnishings, and yes, sex. With beautiful women or men (this book is quite explicit, but I’ll grant that the sex is part of the story). Piet’s not purely hedonistic. He does want to help Egbert,whose phobias and terrors Mason draws with convincing detail, and he comes to value the friendships he makes with both the family and the other servants.  As tutor, he is able to move freely in both worlds, which gives readers access to both “upstairs” and “downstairs” dramas in the household. Among which are the ways people are willing to stab each other in the back when they are afraid, angry, or prejudiced.

I won’t give away plot details, but I will say the book’s period details are fascinating, and Mason ties the fate of his characters’ lives to historical events. He is also a beautiful writer. Every sentence is a small jewel, cut and polished, perfectly showing off both natural beauty and craft.  But this isn’t intrusive, you don’t sense the writer working hard, it’s just a lovely novel whose language enhances the story and makes the characters three dimensional. Piet is fascinating because he is so self-interested and yet also has a conscience. I am very interested in reading Mason’s other work.

Another historical novel I read this month was Cecilia, a Europa Editions novel by Linda Ferri. The title character is a young noble woman in ancient Rome whose mother has lost all of her other children and who is increasingly obsessed with a goddess cult. Her father is an official in the emperor’s government, but was previously a farmer. He has given his daughter an education, but she is also expected to dutifully marry according to her parents’ wishes.

Cecilia continues studying, playing music, and writing a diary while trying to please her parents, understand her friends as they enter the adult world, and deal with the deaths of her siblings and a young slave she played with at her parents’ country villa.  She is a thinking person but her role is to be compliant. After a Christian wise man heals her, she joins their community where her nurse has secretly worshiped.

Cecilia is troubled by her family’s tragedies and her mother’s possible madness. She has difficulty reconciling her yearning for truth and her role in a superficial society that only wants her to look nice and be a good hostess for her ambitious husband, and in her troubles she turns to the Christian faith. But, the other new adherents aren’t a very nice bunch. In fact the men in the group are as domineering and judgmental as the other Roman men in the story.

The divergence into Cecilia’s diary and dreams confused me a bit early on, but when the novel rushed through her conversion, conviction, and imprisonment I was frustrated. I understand the poetic license necessary to write about someone who lived so long ago (the book is based on St. Cecilia), but I didn’t think Ferri made her conversion or her willingness to die for the faith convincing in the novel, even if it was meant to be understood.

From the past to the future: I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This book is set in the near future, in a time when the earth’s rotation slows and thus days and nights no longer correspond to a 24 hour period. It’s a fascinating idea for a novel. Walker chooses Julia, who is 11 when the book opens, to narrate. She’s an interesting and observant narrator.

But she’s a kid, so many of her concerns have to do with fitting in at middle school, getting a particular boy to notice her, and worrying about her parents and grandfather in the slightly clueless way of adolescence. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a smart character, but because of her age there is much she has to guess at, which leaves readers guessing too. And I don’t think her language is representative of an actual eleven year old, but is more what an adult might say or think. I think if Julia had been in her late teens, the book would read better. As it is, I was distracted by incongruities.

That quibble aside, I did like the book very much. Julia’s neighbors turn on the two households that try to continue living by sun time instead of the now arbitrary clock time. People seem to mostly act in fear and mistrust or succumb to “end time” attitudes, having lavish parties and indulging their desires before it’s too late. Julia’s family represents a kind of middle way — her mother hoards food and water, they try to protect themselves from excessive sun exposure, but they mostly try to get by, living as normally as possible. I enjoyed the way Walker shows readers a variety of human responses to the scary new reality of a slower earth.

Walker veers into a “young love” subplot but it’s quirky rather than sappy, and does have to do with the slowing. The Age of Miracles would be an interesting book club read, with plenty to discuss. It’s a pretty good read flaws and all, and definitely made me wonder how my own neighborhood would respond to such a strange turn of events.

Speaking of strange, Alif the Unseen is strange in all the best ways. Longtime bookconscious readers know I love books that dip into magical realism, where magic and the real world intersect. Jasper Fforde, Nick Harkaway, and Lev Grossman are masters of this, and to that list I can now add G. Willow Wilson. Her novel is one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking I’ve read this year.

Alif of the title is a cyber-security expert, a geek extraordinaire who protects anyone who’ll pay him — communists, Islamists, Arab spring activists, dissidents, all are his online clients. He lives in a decent but shabby neighborhood in a city state run by an emir, with a couple dozen princes in the line of succession. Alif is his computer handle, and his neighbor Dina is one of the few people in the book who knows his real name.

Soon after we meet Alif, he finds out the girl he loves is betrothed to someone in the royal family and she’s ending things with Alif. He writes an elaborate “bot” program that can identify her based on her keystroke patterns and language, so that they can never see each other online (their paths don’t usually cross in person since he is of mixed “desi”/Arab origin and not in her social class).

But the Hand, a government operative who has been after Alif and his hacker/revolutionary crowd for years, co-opts Alif’s technology and in a fit of panic, he severs ties with his clients and flees. As he feels the Hand (who turns out to have a personal beef with him as well) and state security closing in on him, Alif flees with Dina and they end up turning to Vikram, a jinn (genie).  Along the way Alif relies on Vikram’s sister (who he’s known as a cat for a long time) and his associates in the jinn world to help protect him, Dina, and an American woman who is a student and Muslim convert.

It’s as wild as it sounds, but it’s also a page turning thriller, as Alif implicates an elderly imam when he seeks refuge in the City’s main mosque, finds himself imprisoned and is later sprung by a hacker prince he’s only ever known online as New Quarter.  Dina turns out to be one of the strongest, wisest characters and Alif to his credit comes to see that he’s underestimated her.

Best of all for word geeks (and programmers, I’d guess, although I can’t speak for them) is that Dina’s involvement in the story begins when she delivers a package for the jilted Alif and returns with a book sent by the aristocrat who has dumped him. It turns out to be one of the only surviving copies of a jinn masterpiece, “The Thousand and One Days,” and Alif realizes that its secret wisdom is the power of language, and his favorite language is computer code. He manages to write a program that defeats the Hand before he’s betrayed and taken into custody.

When he makes it back to the City after escaping prison and reuniting with Dina in the jinn’s world, the revolution he and his online friends have long dreamed of is in progress. The Hand has broken the City’s internet infrastructure in his battle to beat Alif, and the people have risen up. Wilson’s humor seems born of outrage, and the book’s fantasy elements and forays into the worlds of supernatural beings and storytelling are excellent foils for sociopolitical critique.

Yes, it’s a novel with something to say, a good read that is fun but also meaningful, that can make you laugh and perhaps also feel indignant. Wilson captures the frustrations and idealism of the Arab Spring, the power of online communities, the strength and yes, even perhaps magic of language, whether its human, jinn, or computer.  She also challenges stereotypes with in-your-face examples of men and women, human and jinn, rich and poor who break out of the boundaries society wants to keep them in. I loved this book.

I read five nonfiction books as well this month. Yes, I know. More on how crazy that is later.

First, from New Hampshire’s Bauhan Publishing, Waltzing With Bracey: A Long Reach Home by Brenda Gilchrist. When the book opens, Gilchrist reacts to inheriting a home on Deer Isle: “It’s always been an anchor of sorts, throughout my rootless life. But it’s big, old, and reeks of history, custom, forebears.”

Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (Henry’s nephew) designed the house. Gilchrist’s great-grandfather counted Charles Darwin, John Stewart Mill, and Frederick Law Olmstead among his friends. Harriet Beecher Stowe based characters on Gilchrist’s family of reformers, abolitionists, writers, people  “long on summers and pedigree, short on money.” Gilchrist “. . . can’t help being impressed by these people, yet they suffocate me.”

As a child, this diplomat’s daughter spent summers in Maine. When her aunt dies she’s forty-eight and editing a book series for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. Expat and city life have made her nomadic. She knows nothing about home ownership.

But she learns, renovating both the house and her life, coming to terms with family ghosts and her place among them. Bracey, her corgi, provides the unconditional love only a dog can give. He’s instrumental in helping Gilchrist come home in every sense of the word.

Bauhan’s hallmark is excellent design, and this beautiful book is filled with photos, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings that illustrate Gilchrist’s emotional journey. If you’ve lived in an old house or by the sea, loved a dog or reconciled yourself to your family’s legacy, you’ll find much to identify with here. Gilchrist’s writing is open-hearted, reflective, and spirited.

For a book club, I read The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. This book tells the story of the theft of several priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, and of author Boser’s growing obsession with the crime and with unraveling the tangled threads of the most probable leads in the case.  It was an interesting read, which reminded me a bit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because of the way the author became so involved in the story.

Boser also tells the story of Garder’s obsession with art, the significance of her collection, and the meticulous way she planned and built her museum. And he describes the heist in as much detail as possible. He describes the way the case was handled (and mishandled) over the years, especially by the FBI, and the many connections to prominent criminals in the Boston area, including the notorious Whitey Bulger.

Those sections of the book were hard to read, because of the violence and cruelty Boser details. I enjoyed the sections about art, the world of art theft and recovery, and Gardner more. Overall it’s an interesting read and I wondered if the theft will ever be solved or the art ever restored to the museum. And it’s a hopeful sign that not only is Bulger now in custody, but also the FBI appears to be over its years of corruption in Boston.

A book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale that caught my eye in July is My War: A Love Story in Letters and Drawings by Tracy Sugarman.  Sugarman was an Ensign for most of his service in WWII, and was at Utah Beach for D-Day and after. This book is excerpts from his letters home to his wife June and from his sketchbooks, where he drew and painted what he was experiencing.

It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking book. Sugarman’s letters are full of youthful optimism, fury at the boorish or prejudiced behavior he witnesses among his fellow servicemen, awe at their bravery and hard work, frustration at the tedium and senselessness of war. He explains that most of June’s replies were lost, but includes one letter that survived. He also tells readers that she died in his arms in 1998, two years before the book was published. They’d been married 55 years.

As a personal account and a work of art, the book is beautiful. It’s also interesting historically as a primary source from a time which we remember mostly with fondness these days, a proud moment in American history. Sugarman balances well deserved pride in service, sacrifice, and courage with righteous anger at racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, and other cultural scourges.

Which of course got me to thinking about whether we can ever truly overcome those things — I was reading this book while the overheated and often distorted election year rhetoric swirled in the background. And as a woman in Congress questioned the service of a woman at the State Department in a shamefully prejudiced way. And as people flocked to either eat at a fast food chain or boycott it, over the biased remarks of the man who owns it. And as the Olympics were tainted by racist remarks and crass commercialism.

But I digress. Two other books I read this month — both for the Mindful Reader column — left me similarly torn between admiration and quiet fury.

Privacy brings Garret Keizer’s spirited, reflective, whip-smart and incisive analysis to this far-ranging yet elusive concept. Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and writes frequently on “matters of politics, religion, and justice.” In Privacy, Keizer delivers a sharp, thorough, witty exploration of “the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don’t; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.”

Keizer explains his book is an “introduction,” not an “airtight definition” of privacy.  He probes the concept in history, law, economics, the media, philosophy and social justice, popular culture and daily life, illuminating privacy’s “basis in the bodily integrity of human beings and in their spiritual needs.”  Keizer considers whether privacy is a universal value and investigates the ways it has eroded recently. He combines intellect and clarity to make this complex and somewhat fuzzy topic lucid, skewering sloppy or misleading reasoning no matter the source. Public discourse would benefit if more of it were this thoughtful and impartial.

In light of persistent lying/cheating scandals and over-heated, often deceptive election rhetoric, Keizer’s conclusion, “. . . privacy may amount to little more, and rest on no firmer basis, than the promises we make to one another” is depressing.  And yet, Keizer reminds us, “Privacy being what it is, they are kept more often than we know.” Let’s hope.

Another book that left me torn between hope and distress is New Hampshire author William Craig’s Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantánamo. Craig’s book is a searing combination of reporting, history, and personal reflection that covers U.S. foreign policy in Cuba since 1898, and Cuban history from its first hopes for independence to the present.

Craig visited Cuba for the first time in 2001, reporting on a tour by The Feminine Tone chorus. His return trip in 2005 provides the framework for Yankee Come Home. Craig is anxious to see Guantánamo and also to unpack the history of the Spanish-American-Cuban War. He’s motivated by post 9-11 angst and family legend regarding  his great-grandfather’s time with the “rough riders.” Craig and The Feminine Tone are trying to enter Cuba via a U.S. embargo loophole, “with a fundamentalist pastor licensed to lead missionaries.”

But Reverend Esau ditches them in a Jamaican airport, short on cash due to an unexpected “charter tax” and without the permits Craig will need to continue traveling once the chorus returns to New Hampshire. They go anyway, and we go along, meeting ordinary Cubans (among them many relatives of The Feminine Tones’ director Maricel Lucero Keniston) and learning a great deal. Including that Craig’s family legend may be just that.

Craig’s thorough observations, reflections, and sensory details bring his narrative to life. As in other countries where revolutionary promises of freedom, justice and equality devolved into an oppressive regime, Cuba is a place where daily life requires navigating hope and fear, beauty and decay, personal ingenuity and institutional corruption. Craig captures the indomitable spirit, warmth, and faith of the Cubans who befriend him, and the ugliness, suspicion, and ideological tension in his brushes with Cuban officialdom.

Cuba is a challenging, sometimes dangerous place to travel, and Craig shares the full gamut of his experiences with readers. He concludes that American foreign policy troubles are rooted in our “wielding money and guns to control what isn’t ours” in Cuba over a century ago. And that what Cubans admire about the U.S. (including the Declaration of Independence, which influenced revolutionaries) reflects “a vision of the peace we could have known if we’d stuck to our founding principles.

Which brings me full circle to the first pessimistic paragraphs of this post. Yes, each of these books seems to shed light on the myriad ways we humans mistreat each other. But thankfully (or I might not have been able to even reflect on these ideas) we are also able to help each other, to reform or repent, to make up for our errors. I guess that sums up the human condition, in literature and life — we screw up, and we fix it.

Books help us make sense of all this. We can learn about grace even from a fictional tutor who feels remorse for the emotional damage he causes,  a bumbling hero who acts selfishly and spitefully when jilted but risks his life to do the right thing for his  fictional world and the friends who stand by him, writers who tell us stories — real or imagined — that remind us our best selves are always within reach. This is one of the reasons I read.

You may have noticed I read a bit less this month.  A couple of years ago I heard Paul Harding talk about how he’d rather read one book well than read a pile of books. I’ve been reading a pile of books every month for a long time now, and it’s taking its toll. I read less this month in part because I spent more evenings with the Computer Scientist, Teens the Elder & Younger, and friends. And because I took on less, said no to a few books for the column. Teen the Younger has taught me that life is too short to read books I don’t care for.

I reflected on the tyranny of summer reading lists and realized I’ve been forcing myself into various reading “lists” for quite a while —  as an indie bookstore events coordinator and book club member, as Europa Challenge participant and book reviewer.  I’d hoped to get through my “to-read” piles this summer but all I’ve done is get them off the floor by spending an entire afternoon reorganizing shelves and lightly weeding.

So I’m hoping to change. I’m taking a break from reading challenges and clubs, and I’m learning that saying no to some books means I have more time and thought to give to the ones I’d like to share with my fellow readers. Like a student who’s had her love of learning diminished with busy work, I have let goals and obligations detract from the thing I love — reading for pleasure.

So for serendipity’s sake, I started a book this week because someone asked me about it and I remembered that I’d wanted to read it for awhile too.  I’m still discussing books I love — I did so last night at a dinner party and wrote down a couple of suggestions from the guest seated across from me.  I’ll still be making a “to-read” list or adding to my shelves, but only because a book intrigues.  Stay tuned. And happy reading.

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I spent most of the first three weeks of May traveling, which is something I love. First of all, it’s exciting to go someplace different, try new things, see new places. Even if its somewhere I’ve been before, it’s never the same as home, and never the same as the last time I visited. Second, for a person who sees narrative and image everywhere, it’s great fun to insert myself into my imagination for a change – travel makes me think of how my own story might be different if I lived where I’m visiting or visited where I live. So it’s a creativity boost.

And there’s the bonus that long plane or train trips are perfect reasons to read a book in a sitting or two, one of my favorite things to do but one I rarely allow myself in everyday life. It’s a goal, although not one I really expect I’ll keep, to let myself have one afternoon a week to get lost in a book.

As in April, my May reading was partly focused on England, where we were meeting up with Teen the Elder to celebrate the end of his Gap Year. We spent a week and a half and visited London, Bletchley Park, Paris, Bath, Hayward’s Heath and Brighton. It was great fun.

Before we left I read Susan Allen Toth‘s My Love Affair With England. Part travel book, part memoir, this book is about her visits to England over thirty years, as a student, a professor, and a professed Anglophile. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Toth writes with candor and affection and she’s a very thoughtful traveler, not only enjoying herself but examining her experiences, synthesizing them with her life, analyzing what makes England a pleasure for her. I love the way she writes with such insight, clarity, and intelligence. She reminds me of one of my favorite college professors.

She captures the culture, warts and all, and one chapter had me calling the Computer Scientist over so I could read aloud about her daughter’s experience with a host family in college, because it was eerily familiar. She definitely made me want to visit more of the English countryside, the North, which I didn’t see at all this time, and National Trust houses (yes, this book fit the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness of Reading because Toth mentions visiting Fellbrigg Hall, where Mary MacKie and her husband lived and worked as I mentioned when I read MacKie’s book last month).

In London we rented a flat in Holland Park, which amplified my wild inner narrative of an alternate life in which I’m a Londoner. It also made my reading of Queen of the Tambourine, by one of my favorite authors, Jane Gardam, that much more atmospheric. This was my fifth Europa Editions book of 2012, on my way to my goal of reading twelve for the Europa Challenge.

Gardam is such an amazing writer that I can’t really do her justice in a few sentences. This book is such an incredible read . I was enjoying the writing so much I didn’t see what was coming, even though the blurbs refer to the main character, Eliza Peabody, dealing with “manic delusions.” Gardam writes with such humanity and humor, her characters are so rich and full, that it never mattered to me how little actually happens in this story, plot-wise. A great deal happens in Eliza’s interior life.

Eliza is writing to a friend, Joan, who as far as we know has taken off for the East, traveling around England’s former colonies and leaving her husband, nearly grown children, dog, and lovely home. As the book progresses the reality of Eliza’s “observations” and Joan’s identity become clearer, but slowly. You get to know Eliza and the people in her life very well, until every small thing that happens matters terribly, and you are longing for this very kind but very troubled woman to make it through.

One of the things I love most about Gardam is that in her books there is nothing minor about the minor characters. She brings every one of them to life in three dimensions, even those who only appear in a scene or two. Barry, an AIDS patient Eliza visits in hospice, will go down as one of my favorite supporting characters in contemporary literature — he is Eliza’s foil and muse and shadow self, all in one complicated package. Lucien, a twelve year old boy who we only meet a few times very briefly, is a voice of wisdom and plays a key part in bringing about Eliza’s renewal and healing. As Eliza says, “Oh, all the different kinds of love –”

The emotional and psychological depth of everyday life is so vivid in Queen of the Tambourinethat it’s left me considering people I know only casually, wondering what is going on in their minds, how they are seeing our shared experience. That’s really what this book is about; the way that perception is shaded by our psyches as much as our senses. And the way our psyches are filled with the bits and pieces of our lifetimes’ experiences.

Gardam fits each shard of Elizabeth’s psyche together, showing us how they are cemented into place by her childhood, her young adulthood, her loves and friendships and losses and aging and even all the little moments in each day. But we don’t see the author working this all out, it just happens beautifully and naturally as the book unfolds. Which is what makes Queen of the Tambourine so lovely and True with a capital T.

Another of my favorite English writers is Alan Bennett. In a small bookshop in Bath I bought his memoir A Life Like Other People’s. This is mainly the story of his family, especially his parents and his mother’s family. Like the fiction and essays of Bennett’s I’ve read, it’s sad and beautiful, observant and unflinching.

Like many books I love, there’s more to it as well. It’s also an interesting view of England’s postwar decades. And it’s a touching examination of adult childhood, a time when many people re-experience their early lives even as they must assume more and more responsibility for their parents. An added bonus: for those who’ve read The Lady In the Van, Miss Shepherd makes an appearance in A Life Like Other People’s when she discusses Bennett’s parents with him.

My final literary trip into England was a book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale, Angela Thirkell‘s Coronation Summer. I admit I have Diamond Jubilee fever. This weekend and next Tuesday, I plan to park on the couch in front of BBC America, and eat scones with a small jar of clotted cream we bought in Heathrow, coronation chicken, and trifle.

Coronation Summer is a novel about a young woman recalling the weeks of celebration in London in 1838 around Queen Victoria’s coronation. It’s a very funny novel of manners, somewhat reminiscent of Jane Austen but a little bit less subtle. I found it very entertaining and fun to read at the end of long days spent exploring London. We visited Kensington Palace and saw the wonderful exhibit about Victoria, so that added to my enjoyment.

When we got back from England, I finished reading a book I started in the week before we left, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy, by Lisa Dodson. I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Dodson speak at Rivier College in the spring. Her research on the ways average people all over the country are consciously acting to oppose economic injustice in large and small ways, often at great personal risk, is inspiring.

In The Moral Underground, Dodson reports on eight years of research into three crossroads of socioeconomic classes in America: workplaces, schools, and health care. She specifically examines the ways middle class people are reacting to the desperate struggles of poor Americans they come into contact with in those settings. Her focus is on the working poor — people who are following the “rules” our culture has set for success that are supposed to bring about the American dream.

Just this morning I heard Mitt Romney on the radio summarizing these rules: get an education (i.e. don’t drop out of public school; college has only recently been encouraged as part of this dream), get a job and work hard, and you will have a good life because America is about opportunity. The problem, as Dodson explains with example after example, is that in today’s economy, that equation is out of balance. Millions of Americans are working and following the path they were told would lead to a good life but are not able to provide a stable living for themselves and their families.

Dodson uses school, healthcare and workplaces to illuminate the issues around this problem because most Americans of all economic levels ineract in these places. She discovered the response to poor people’s chaotic or difficult lives fell into two broad categories. First, there are teachers, health care providers, and bosses (and I think politicians and policy makers, too) who think poor people are lazy, stupid, or of poor character and therefore to blame for their situations; some of these people take their disapproval to authorities and report what they see as neglect or irresponsibilty at the cost of people losing their jobs or being referred to social services. Others simply withhold the benefit of the doubt.

The second group, who form a moral underground, have decided that working and still not being able to adequately feed, clothe, shelter, and care for your family is wrong, and that they are not going to stand back and watch it happen. This group feels no one wants to be poor, no one wants their kids to struggle in school or be sick, no one wants to not be able to provide the trappings of middle class life — camps, proms, college preparation, extra curricular activities — for their families; no one wants to fall behind in their bills or miss work or have to choose between showing up for a teacher conference or losing their job for an unexcused absence.

Of course in between are all kinds of people who empathize with one of the above views and don’t do anything either way. But this book focuses on the people who feel compelled to act. I already knew that Dodson empathizes and identifies with the second group, and to be honest, so do I. I don’t know what the macro answer is — the people Dodson talks with about their actions in the moral underground are solving individual problems, not reforming the entire economy. She does touch on some broad policy shifts that would begin to transform our economic culture, but I don’t hold out much hope that there will be a dramatic shift.

I don’t think that caring for one’s children (or other people’s) will ever be highly valued in our economy, that workplace laws will prioritize people (which is not diametrically opposed to prioritizing profit — Dodson profiles some workplaces which are thriving BECAUSE a boss has decided to treat people well, to care about their home lives, to never make their employees choose work over family needs), that healthcare will become universally affordable, that schools where poor kids go will all be as good as those where the wealthy learn, or that public transportation will become cheap and ubiquitous everywhere the working poor live. But this book gives me enormous hope that all around us, in ways we don’t see, people are quietly (because they are breaking rules and risking their own jobs) making other people’s lives easier.

Dodson explains how teachers and administrators fudge paperwork to make it possible for kids to get meals or medicines, to qualify them for after-school care or even to stay in a school district if their family loses their home or has to move. She illustrates ways doctors and nurses treat whole families when only a child qualifies for health insurance, or get people into studies and trials because it’s the only way they’ll get treatment. And ways bosses create off the books schedules that let people pick up kids from school or make appointments rather than have absences. Or funnel unsold stock to struggling employees. Or find creative financing for continued training and education for employees who can’t afford it themselves.

Dodson compares this underground to the abolitionists who helped free, educate, or protect slaves and the people who quietly worked to end child labor. At the end of the book Dodson relates her conversations with college students about how they want to live, and reports that for most of them, knowing about economic injustice changes their views and potentially, their lives. The Moral Underground would be a really good community or college-wide read. I’m sure it would incite heated conversations, since the few people I’ve discussed it with it had visceral and immediate reactions, even without reading it for themselves.

For my Mindful Reader column this month, I read four books — there are a large number of New England authors with summer releases — including three I probably would not have picked up had it not been for this gig. I continue to be amazed by the abundance of writers in New Hampshire or nearby.

New Hampshire author Jeremy Robinson has written a page turner, SecondWorld. I’d forgotten how fun thrillers are, especially in the hands of an imaginative storyteller like Robinson. In Secondworld’s prologue, a strange German science experiment in 1945 liquefies a group of prisoners. A high ranking Nazi tells the researchers that although the war is lost, they should offer their services to America and wait. “We will rise from the ashes,” he declares.

Flash to 2012: in Miami, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo, an otherworldly attack robs cities of their oxygen and signals the rise of SecondWorld. Vacationing Navy criminal investigator Lincoln Miller manages to escape the Miami devastation, so the President calls on his expertise.

Miller has seven days before the entire world will fall. Robinson incorporates history (Operation Paperclip, Nazi Antarctic exploration), science (cryonics, physics) and a very entertaining supporting cast to aid Miller. Robinson must have done a lot of research, because the few things I Googled (occupational hazard; reference librarians like to check facts) checked out and I am not sure I could explain the science behind the oxygen depletion or the strange Nazi weapon, but it’s in the book. You’ll want to block off a couple of evenings to find out what happens as a small band of good guys fight to save the world, battling wits with Nazi conspirators and gutting out impossible situations.

Grit and wits are integral to the second book I read for the column this month, The Day the World Discovered the Sun, by Massachusetts author Mark Anderson. The subtitle says it all: “An extraordinary story of the 18th century scientific adventure and race to track the transit of Venus.” In this rare occurrence, the planet passes between sun and earth, appearing as a dark spot crossing the sun. Anderson’s book was timed to coincide with the June 5, 2012 Venus transit.

Calculations based on observations of the 1769 event would unlock the universe’s dimensions, making longitudinal measurements, essential to navigation at the time, more accurate. In his book, Anderson explores the personalities and politics behind the transit observation expeditions, melding history and science in a fascinating story of the first large-scale international scientific effort.

Like experts at the time, Anderson focuses on three of the over 150 observers of the 1769 transit. He details French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche’s journey to San Jose del Cabo in today’s Baja California, Mexico; Hungarian priest-astronomer Maximilian Hell’s trip to a Norwegian island (then part of Denmark)where he also discovered that the language of Lapland’s Sami people is related to Hungarian; and English Naval Capt. James Cook’s voyage with Royal Society astronomer Charles Green to Tahiti (and by secret order of the British government, to explore a rumored southern continent after observing Venus).

Anderson makes each expedition come alive; the challenges and detours, hopes and hubris. These small groups of explorers and scientists went places even modern travelers find hard to reach, from the arctic circle to the tropics, in search of perfect viewing. They knew success would be elusive. Some had failed to observe a similar event in 1761, foiled by weather or in at least one case, disappearing forever. Political and economic conditions impacted the expeditions as well and Anderson adroitly fills in these details along with the science behind the missions.

Anderson also illuminates the post-transit struggle to measure the universe. Newspapers published around 600 calculations based on the 1769 transit. French astronomer Jerome Lalande was widely viewed as the authority on transit data, but was affronted that Hell hadn’t sent his results immediately, so downplayed their accuracy. English mathematician/astronomer Thomas Hornsby came extremely close to calculating the correct distance from the earth to the sun and relative distance of the planets. French Astronomer Royal Cesar-Francois Cassini de Thury predicted the next really useful Venus transit would be in 2012. Whether you like science or political intrigue, space or human nature, or simply want to marvel at what these men accomplished, Anderson delivers.

For a celebration of contemporary human ingenuity as manifested in loggers, farmers, librarians, town-meeting leaders, and other inhabitants of the North Country, read Nessa Flax’s collection Voices In the Hills: Collected Ramblings from a Rural Life. Flax has written “Rambling Reflections,” a weekly column for the Bradford, Vermont, Journal Opinion, since 1995. Her book collects 126 of those columns.

Flax, a transplant living in Ryegate Corner, Vermont, near the New Hampshire border, writes lovingly of the pleasures and lessons of country life. You’ll recognize her neighbors, who embody the self-reliance, quiet warmth, wisdom and good humor of northern New England. Flax writes of ordinary things, with a conversational style that gives readers the feeling they’re sitting down with a friend.

This is a book to dip into; you could pick it up and choose an essay about the season or something happening in your life – missing a loved one, gardening challenges, trouble co-existing with wildlife – and find a sympathetic and delightful rendering of just that situation as Flax sees it. A minor quibble: some of the columns overlap.

Lives overlap in Massachusetts author Nichole Bernier’s debut The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Imagine your best friend dies in a plane crash and leaves you her journals dating back to adolescence, “because she’s fair and sensible and would know what should be done with them.” When this taut, moving novel opens, this is Kate Spenser’s situation.

Headed to a beach cottage for the summer with her family, Kate stops at Elizabeth’s home for the journals. Elizabeth’s widower is unnerved by the bequest and he’s read just enough to suspect his wife was unfaithful. Kate spends seven weeks learning she only knew one facet of her friend. Her discoveries make her examine her own life, the secrets everyone keeps, and the roles we play.

Plumbing friendship and marriage and the balance between parenting and work, this book stayed with me long after I finished, and left me with the same feeling as a good cry. Elizabeth has unfulfilled personal and professional goals, a tragic childhood loss, and a genetic curse to deal with, and Kate is haunted by fear in the post 9/11 world. In Bernier’s hands, it isn’t too much. A book club could discuss this novel for hours.

After England, Teen the Younger and I traveled by train to Washington DC, to care for her young cousins who live in Alexandria while their parents got away to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Riding the train for hours is quite pleasant, especially compared with driving. I enjoyed the scenery but also enjoyed reading. On the way down I read most of The Day the World Discovered the Sun and on the way back, I read The Expats by Chris Pavone.

As I mentioned earlier it’s a great pleasure for me to read a book in just about a sitting. Maybe it conjures childhood memories of summer days spent reading a good book for hours. And this book is terrific for such a day, because it’s very entertaining and I wanted to find out what happened. It’s a spy thriller, but different than action-film sorts of thrillers (like SecondWorld). Instead, Pavone has written a LeCarre style book with labyrinthine plot, whip-smart heroine (and hero, as her husband may be in your view, as he is in mine), array of potential villains, and international setting. It’s a fun, interesting debut.

Teen the Younger brought along magazines (I tried Tatler on the plane ride home and loved it) and The Hobbit. She is enjoying it. She’s currently writing an essay about Lord of the Flies which we finished before our trips and we have planned to read Fahrenheit 451 as our next family read.

The Computer Scientist experimented with downloading books onto his phone for the trip — out-of-copyright classics like Dracula. He is enjoying Bram Stoker’s gothic icon. All three of us are huge fans of the BBC series Sherlock and before we left he read some of the stories in The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Teen the Elder is in the Seattle area these days, hanging out with his uncle, learning to drive stick-shift in a Mini Cooper, volunteering as the roadie for ukelele band The Castaways, possibly usability testing video games, and playing soccer with the Crossfire PDL. He too read magazines on the road (Top Gear, The Economist). If he’s reading books he has’t said but he will be: St. Michael’s College freshmen are all reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

Next up? I have a library e-book about Queen Elizabeth on my iPad, and I’m reading Christpher Moore’s Sacre Bleu. I have four books for my July Mindful Reader column and a huge pile of “to-reads.” Here’s hoping I do get to spend an afternoon a week reading this summer.

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I’m big on self-improvement and trying to lead an examined life. In early April I  re-organized some books, in  part because I spilled a cup of coffee all over my “to-read” piles (yes, gasps of horror all around). In cleaning up, I found that I have somewhere between 40-50 “to-read.”

So one project ahead this summer is to get through that pile.  I also worked on clearing out the garage with the Computer Scientist, cleaned out my closet and drawers quite ruthlessly, rededicated myself to trying to meditate daily (thanks to my favorite fellow blogger, Leo Babauta), and vowed to work on communicating better. It’s easy for introspective readers/writers to develop bad habits of communication when our favorite exchanges are words we can re-read or re-write.

And in light of now writing both a quarterly column (Publishing Trends for NH Writers’ Project) and a monthly one (The Mindful Reader for the Concord Monitor), plus aiming for various deadlines for other writing projects and helping Teen the Younger’s year of life learning come to fruition, I worked on managing my time better. Next I can work on writing shorter sentences.

Several of the books I read this month fit my mood of self-examination and improvement. First among them is the ever-excellent A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy. I’ve read his other books, The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, and I absolutely love his style of immersion journalism. Reviewers who call it “schtick lit” are missing Jacob’s warmth and intelligence. This book is about Jacobs’ quest to try head-to-toe health advice in order to become as healthy as possible.

Much of the advice is easily applied to anyone’s life — reduce stress, eat less, move more, for example. Other things he tried are less likely to work for me, intriguing as they may be, like using a treadmill desk. Mostly I love Jacob’s writing and the open, good humored approach he has. He meets some pretty way out people doing various extreme things in the name of health and he’s never disrespectful.

The book is about getting to the scientific facts behind health advice, so Jacobs is also smart and thorough, and regularly consults experts. I also love the way he writes in a gently self-deprecating way about the things he struggles with (something I can relate to) and the way his family has to put up with his experiments. From taking stairs more often to trying to eat more slowly and deliberately to reducing stress and meditating more, I am working on trying some of his advice.

In other nonfiction, I read a memoir for The Mindful Reader (the column will be published May 13), Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure by Patricia Ellis Herr. Herr and her five-year-old daughter Alex hiked to the top of NH’s forty-eight mountains over 4,000 feet. If you’re about to say that’s too much for a five-year-old, that reaction is what Herr heard on the trail and online a fair bit, and the book addresses her family’s attempt to march to their own drummer.

This is partly a  parenting memoir. Herr shares her worries, frustrations, and mistakes, which make reading about their incredible accomplishments more realistic. She also writes about the way that her kids sometimes surprise her with insights and wisdom beyond their years one moment only to act like little kids the next.  So even though we’ve never done anything like peakbag forty-eight mountains, Up reminded me in some ways of our own experiences with Teens the Younger and Elder.

Herr writes with passion about the choices she and her husband have made in raising their daughters; like us, they are homeschooling.  I could definitely relate to the challenges of following a relatively uncharted path in a world where most people don’t want to even get out of the fast lane. As I was reading, the latest salvos about who is a working mom were flying around the media; Herr addresses the isolation she felt when her friends in academia disagreed with her choices to stay home and to educate her kids outside the mainstream.

I also found the hiking stories enjoyable; Herr’s obvious pleasure in being outside with her daughter stands out when so many memoirs are about more unpleasant experiences. It was also interesting to read about our beautiful state and it’s residents, both human and animal.  It’s unlikely after reading about rotting snow and mad grouse that we’ll be peakbagging, but the Computer Scientist and I would like to hike more.

Another memoirist very much influenced by the natural world, Terry Tempest Williams, has a new book out, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. This book is hard to describe. It’s partly about Tempest Williams’ attempt to  make sense of her mother’s journals, which are blank. It’s partly an examination of faith and politics and their intersection in the hope of things unseen.

It’s partly a reflection on how she found her voice, as a human being and a writer, and how important the women (and a couple of men) in her family were to that process. And it’s partly a meditation on the importance of listening to nature’s voice as each of us makes our way into full humanity, and the joy of having a partner who understands that journey and is willing to join it and sometimes, to let her walk alone.

It’s a beautiful book, some of the most poetic prose you’ll ever read. On why the ocean has such a strong meaning for her, Tempest Williams writes, “Water is nothing if not ingemination, an encore to the tenacity of life. Life held in the sea is surface and depth, what we see and what we imagine.” Wow. Read that over a few times and you’ll have a sense of the evocative power of the writing in this book.

Are You My Mother: a Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel is a much darker memoir.  It’s a graphic memoir (like a graphic novel in form), which is fascinating. And it’s a thoroughly intellectual, emotionally gobsmacking self-analysis of the author’s many years of therapy.

Readers experience her hard work a Bechdel heals herself by re-visiting her life’s seminal moments and relationships, the work of Virginia Woolf and the psycholanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and above all, her mother’s (and to some extent her father’s but he gets another book) influence on her emotional life.  It’s a gripping book. The art is powerful too — emotionally visceral, and wrought entirely in shades of black, grey, white, and purplish red that reminded me of blood.

A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith is a series of short reflections paired with poems. Nineteen poets (some you’ll be familiar with, others perhaps not) spoke with or corresponded with editors Katherine Towler (author of the superb Snow Island trilogy) and Ilya Kaminsky about faith and its importance in their work.  Each section ends with a poem related to something in the reflective essay.

One thing that impressed me is the depth of each short essay. It is clear the editors really engaged their subjects skillfully in order to draw out their intimate, deeply held beliefs. I enjoyed reading meditations on meaning, spirituality, the life of ideas, the crossroads (again) of politics and faith, the presence of poetry in prayer and prayer in poetry, and the deep influence of belief on writers no matter their religious affiliations or personal creeds.

In a time when religion seems to divide people or at least polarize our public discourse, I was struck by themes I found threaded through God In the House. For one thing, what we experience as children has a huge influence on the way we respond to ritual and belief as adults. This seems to be true even though the responses vary widely.

Also mystical experience, by which I mean the personal perception of the transcendent, is related to creativity (for example in unexpected inspiration), even for writers who don’t see their work in relation to divinity or divine inspiration, and several of the poets affirm that in this book.

I was also struck that many of the poets referred to the work of Emily Dickinson in their reflections. I’m planning to read her work more closely this summer. I’d also like to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum.

A God in the House is also a beautifully produced book. In fact, its the one from my to-read pile that I really wish I hadn’t spilled coffee on. Tupleo Press makes aesthetically as well as intellectually pleasing books.

The Europa Challenge book I read this month, The Nun, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby, addresses the importance of faith and literature in the heroine’s life. When the book opens, Agata is a young teen in Messina, a town at the tip of Sicily nearest mainland Italy’s toe. It’s 1839, and Europe is rumbling with what will become the revolutionary fevor that swept the continent a decade later. Agata’s fever is more localized — she’s in love with a neighbor.

As a young woman from a “good” family met with hard times, her life is completely out of her hands however. Her father dies and her mother takes the family to Naples to try to use her connections to keep her family afloat. The passage is significant as Agata meets an English Navy officer, James Garson.

One of her mother’s machinations is to offer Agata to a convent. The unwilling young woman is isolated from her relatives and the temptations of the world as her mother wrangles a position. Hornby paints an unflattering but very detailed view of the Church in nineteenth century Italy; corruption is rampant, positions are bought and sold, political influence trumps religious fervor.

Hornby fills her descriptions with words and images I found very evocative: a Japanese camellia, Oki no Nami, in the convent garden; paperoles, small, elaborate devotional images made of paper, bits of glass, and other decorative elements; incredible pastries baked as favors, treats, and for sale (each convent has a specialty); hebdomedary, the weekly cycle of tasks in the convent; cenoby, the establishment of a religious community; vespertine, of the evening.

Agata undergoes cycles of resignation and rebellion in the convent. She tries to bury herself in the order of convent life: prayer, work, service, devotion. She learns to bake and to tend the gardens, becomes a skilled herbalist, and tries hard to find her vocation. Meanwhile the world spins on outside the cloistered walls, and when she can receive mail, she begins corresponding with James Garson, who sends her novels (she reads Jane Austen, which I found very poignant, given her dashed hopes for marriage).

In the end, after more introspection and self-examination than most people undergo in a lifetime, Agata has had enough.  She realizes she belongs in the world, not the convent, which can’t offer the spiritual solace and purity she hoped to take refuge in when first consigned there. She unravels her mother’s maneuverings and sees her earlier love and even her sisters as they really are. Eventually, she also realizes that James Garson can offer her love based not in fantasy but real emotional and intellectual understanding.

I won’t tell you what she does or whether she realizes her hopes, but I will say that if you like historical fiction, The Nun brings nineteenth century Italy to life. Agata is a complicated, passionate, and interesting heroine. I’d like to go back and re-read the novels James Garson sends her.

Set around the same time, April Bernard‘s Miss Fuller features another passionate and interesting heroine, Margaret Fuller.  When the novel  begins, Henry Thoreau travels to Fire Island, New York to identify the bodies of Margaret Fuller, her Italian husband, and their toddler after a shipwreck. Henry’s fictional younger sister Anne recalls hearing Miss Fuller lecture in Boston; she remembers adults discussing Fuller’s “excessive education” and speculating that it made her “goggle-eyed and very odd.”

Thoreau finds Fuller’s small writing desk washed ashore, and hopes to recover the manuscript of her forthcoming book on the Roman republic. Instead he find a letter for Sophie Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne tells him to burn it, citing Fuller’s “irregular life.” After reading it himself, Thoreau, clearly disturbed, puts the letter back in the desk.

In the fictional letter, Fuller pours out her financial struggles, the excitement of being on assignment for the New York Tribune in Europe (covering, in part, the revolution in Italy), her firm belief that she’s the intellectual and professional equal of any man and her frustration that most people can’t accept that. The letter details her loves and disappointments and the way maternal love shocks her “like a thunder-clap.”

Margaret Fuller was controversial. Progressive Concord did not embrace feminism, as Louisa May Alcott’s satire Transcendental Wild Oats reveals to hilarious effect. The American press and even Fuller’s friends – Thoreau, Emerson, and the Hawthornes among them – questioned the propriety of her unusual marriage (her husband was not only Italian, but Catholic and much younger). They also gossiped about its validity, and about alleged earlier liaisons, both of which Bernard explores in Miss Fuller.

Fuller’s impatience with those who would free slaves but treat women as inferior offended many. She also knew society wasn’t prepared to accept her model of independent womanhood. Bernard’s imagined letter reflects how painful that must have been.

In the final section of Miss Fuller Anne finally reads the letter, thirty years later. She does some research, and learns that posthumous memoirs (gathered by Emerson) and fiction (by Hawthorne) were inaccurate and unflattering. The last chapter is lovely, as Anne grasps Fuller’s imperfect but astonishing legacy. Bernard’s choice of an invented champion for Fuller illuminates how few she had in her lifetime.

This year’s Booker prize for fiction went to Julian Barnes for A Sense of an Ending. I’d read Barnes before and not found his writing to my taste but this book is a knockout. As April Bernard explores the gap between perception and reality in Margaret Fuller’s private life, Julian Barnes blows that gap wide open in this book.

Tony Webster reflects on his first serious relationship in college from the distance of middle age, and on the suicide of a brilliant member of his circle. The catalyst for his revisiting these events is a strange bequest from his former girlfriend’s mother after she dies.

Barnes gives the impression that despite a very cordial relationship with his ex-wife and grown daughter, Tony isn’t a very self-reflective guy, just a relatively successful ordinary man living a quiet and uninteresting life. It seems incongruous that such a benign man is rather rude in his attempt to get to the bottom of his mysterious gift, until  his reflections on the events decades earlier reveal his capacity for spiteful bitterness.

I really can’t give too many specifics or I’ll ruin the story, but suffice to say that what he learns is heartbreaking and surprising. I sometimes don’t agree with prize choices, but A Sense of an Ending combines superb writing with intense emotional and psychological drama. It’s quite a story as well. As Tony says, “History isn’t the lives of the victors . . . I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors,most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” Which is what this novella is as well.

That same description aptly fits another English novel I read, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison.  It’s also fraught with psychological tension that wreaks havoc with the loves and losses of its characters. Ms. Alison explains in her author’s note that a cousin of her father’s, Sir Clifford Norton, and his wife Peter inspired the book, along with photos of young London evacuees at a “great house” in the English countryside.

The book begins with two seminal moments: the Nazis invade Poland and the British government offers an evacuation scheme for London’s children. We meet eight-year-old Anna Sands and her mother Roberta, out in Kensington buying what she’ll need to travel to the country. Anna hopes for the seaside. Roberta senses “the spontaneous rise of her daughter’s soul,” and is overcome with love. Anna too feels that it’s a turning point: “In the years to come she would remember that fragile day, its touchless light, their quiet elations.”

The Nortons, who were at the British Embassy in Warsaw, are fleeing Poland and trying to aid those about to be caught in the maw of the Nazi machine. In life as in the novel, they aided refugees of WWII and later the Greek Civil War.  This brave and unflappable couple appear at intervals in the book as friends of Thomas Ashton, last heir of Ashton Park, an estate in Yorkshire.

Thomas has had a tragic life — distant parents, two brothers lost in the Great War, and his own life nearly ended by polio, which leaves him wheelchair bound. He’s a diplomat, but he (and Norton, both in the book and in real life) cannot in good conscience work for the Nazi-appeasing government so before WWII begins, he retreats to Yorkshire with his very beautiful young wife Elizabeth, to translate classics.

Elizabeth wants a child, and begins a series of impersonal affairs with artists — the real Peter Norton was a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and had a gallery in London that was among the first to show surrealists’ and avante garde artists’ work in England. Through Peter she lives a double life but Elizabeth soon realizes it’s she who is barren, not Thomas.

When the evacuation begins, she and Thomas see an opportunity to restore life to Ashton Park and they open a school, accepting dozens of children from London. Little Anne ends up there. She’s from an entirely different world and is enchanted by the grand house and its glamorous occupants.

She also comes to love and admire a young literature teacher, Ruth Weir, and she thrives under Ruth’s and Thomas’s patient and caring tutelage. You can sense her growing distance from her father, a soldier in North Africa, and mother, who is experiencing her own new lease on life as a woman alone embarking on a new career at the BBC in war-torn London.

As the war grinds on, Alison spins her characters farther apart, deftly connecting their stories in her fictional web — Elizabeth Ashton and Roberta Sands visit the same pubs in London as they turn away from their husbands, for example, and the Ashton’s London home is in the same neighborhood where decades later the grown-up Anna has a breakdown.

After the war, Anna goes back to London, to her father, but Ashton Park never leaves her. She studies at Oxford – unthinkable before the war, given her class and local schooling – and becomes an acquiring editor at a publishing house.  And she is an emotional basket case, unable to love the way she yearns to, unsure why.

Again I can’t say much more without spoiling the book for you, but it’s very interesting the way Alison heals her heartbroken main characters, Thomas and Anna. This book will add depth and gravity to your Great House lust if you’re a Downton Abbey fan (I am), as you read about what happens to Ashton Park when Thomas dies heirless. And the impact of a war on people far from the front, even into subsequent generations,  is also a powerful theme of The Very Thought of You.

War or its memories impact the characters in a novel-in-stories I read in April, Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz. Set in Tel Ilan, a fictional Israeli pioneer village, the stories touch on the seen and unseen in a small community, with a thread of strange or unexplainable events working as the book’s connective tissue.

In “Heirs,” a mysterious sweating visitor claims to be related to an old woman and her son. He invites himself into the house and begins to presume involvement in intimate decisions relating to her care and to the eventual sale of her assets. The story ends on a very weird, discordant note.

“Relations” finds the village doctor missing her nephew, who was due on the bus. The driver tells her, “Don’t worry, Dr. Steiner, whoever didn’t arrive this evening will certainly turn up tomorrow morning, and whoever doesn’t arrive tomorrow morning will come tomorrow at lunchtime. Everyone gets here sooner or later.”

In “Digging,” Rachel, a widow, lives with her father, father, a bitter old man obsessed with politics. Adel, an Arab student rents a cottage on the property. Both tell Rachel they hear digging in the night. She can’t hear it. Adel gives the mayor of Tel Ilan, Benny, a note from his wife that says only “Don’t worry about me,” in “Waiting;” Benny walks around town wondering where she is.

These slightly unreal, slightly sad stories of people surviving their everyday existence resonate with a deep sense of place — the village memorial garden, cypress hedges, the school, the library, the bus all appear and reappear in the stories. People are hot, bothered, (there is a lot of sweat and body odor in the these stories), slightly or deeply troubled. Death is never far; there are widows and grieving parents, the dead and the dying.

But it’s also a kind of universal cast of characters, even though they are particularly Israeli. The villagers gather for social events, they gossip, they speculate on what will happen to real estate, they work teaching each other’s children, caring for each other, they grow old, they are suspicious of newcomers even as they protest that they are not.

Oz makes all these small tensions build into one larger tug between old and new. His characters map the terrain of longing and possibility, lives lived and moments lost. They reflect on what they could have done differently. But in the end they get on with their days.

I read a bit more about England as Teen the Elder wraps up his Gap Year there and prepares for the next phase of his adventures (Eight weeks in Kirkland, outside Seattle, which, by the way, is where Teen the Younger was born. But I digress).

I realized as I read novels set in England that I was a bit shaky on some of the details of English history; I had them once, but they were in the shadowy recesses of my brain. So I read Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November): Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About British History with All the Boring Bits Taken Out by Judy Parkinson. This brief volume gives a small page each to seminal events and is a decent review, albeit a scanty one.

In a similar vein, I read Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of National Trust House to get an overview of the behind-the-scenes care and keeping of a home like Ashford Park. Author Mary MacKie‘s husband is hired as Houseman at Fellbrigg Hall, and she becomes “Assistant Drain-Clearer, Doorbell-Answerer, Flower Arranger, and Rodent Exterminator.” It’s an interesting, if somewhat staid, look at a year in the life of a house’s upkeep and the way the National Trust operates.

On a much wilder note, I’ll end this month’s post with a thriller. Not my usual reading, but the author, James Tabor, is from Vermont, so I’m reviewing it for The Mindful Reader. Tabor is the author of the nonfiction book about extreme caving, Blind Descent, and he returns to otherworldly super caves in his novel, The Deep Zone.

I admire his two heroines: Lenora Stillwell, maverick Army doctor, who faces a mutated acinetobacter, or ACE, “super bug” killing patients in an Afghan field hospital; and Hallie Leland, cave explorer scientist, who was framed and fired from her government research job but is called back to work on an antibiotic to counter ACE. To do that she has to harvest organic material found only in a Mexican super cave in narco-traffickers’ territory.

Tabor’s plot was inspired by an ACE outbreak among U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as well as his cave research. His plot is wild but plausible, with shadowy operatives working for corporate overlord and loads of technical caving details and futuristic military gear. The novel’s supporting characters are interesting and well-drawn. The Deep Zone is a good read, if one that might keep you awake at night worrying about mutant bacteria.

The Computer Scientist didn’t get much reading done this month but he participated in World Book Night, handing out one of his favorite books, Stephen King’s The Stand. He had mixed response to walking around Concord handing out free books, but was glad he did it. King’s new book, The Wind Through the Keyhole (part of the Dark Tower sequence) is on top of his to-read pile.

He and Teen the Younger and I finished Lord of the Flies by William Golding this month; Teen the Younger told him on a father-daughter outing that she thinks it has ruined “teen lit” for her because the writing is so amazing. Teen the Elder went through a similar experience with The Lord of the Rings. I had never read Lord of the Flies and really enjoyed our conversations — it’s a very intense book and we had fun showing Teen the Younger how to unpack the symbolism, allegory, and meaning beneath the story. We’ve made a list of other novels with socio-political themes but haven’t yet chosen our next family read yet.

Teen the Younger, like her mother, has decided summer would be a good time to tame said piles. I resisted purchasing a new Europa Editions printing of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter at Gibson’s last week and vowed I can only have it when I get through my own piles. A feat that might defeat me. But I can try. I have another Gardam/Europa Edition on top: The Queen of the Tambourine.

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February is a short month, and yet I read a baker’s dozen books.  Many of them were quick reads; brief books or books that focus an author’s talents on a small flash of human experience, a moment in history, a idea, a window into one place, time, or family. I’ll admit, the Computer Scientist was away a few times, and without him tossing and turning to remind me I needed to get to sleep, it was easy to stay up too late reading.

I started the month by reading a new release whose advance copy was in my to-read pile for months: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. I’ve groused before that a few “it” titles suck all the oxygen out of the book publicity world, leaving many worthy titles to debut with little fanfare. This was one of those books deserving of much more attention. It got plenty of pre-pub reviews, but I have seen very little since it came out in January.

Benaron’s story is about a Tutsi boy in Rwanda who dreams of running in the Olympics. That’s probably all I have to say for you to know that it’s going to be a tough story about the 1994 genocide.  The book actually starts a few years earlier and through her hero’s life, Benaron portrays the events that led to it.  I won’t say it helps the reader understand — I think it’s impossible for most people to actually understand how genocide happens.

This book is a very compelling look at how the undercurrents of civil strife eventually grew into violent conflict . It’s also a love story in a few different ways, and a book about coming of age, dealing with loss, finding friends. The boy’s coach is a particularly strange character, who loves him and protects him but also hurts him unimaginably, all in the name of a cause that is ultimately a house of cards even for its most fervent believers.

There are a pair of idealistic ex-pats, the only characters I thought were not very interesting, and Hutus who stand up against the atrocities. The scene on the night when the genocide hits home for the book’s characters is incredibly chilling.  Benaron’s details — the way mobs form in the street, the night raids by people familiar to the victims, the government controlled radio announcing the names of people they want killed — will keep you glued to the page. The redemptive power of her character’s rebuilt lives will satisfy you as well.

Bitter violence and redemption also feature in three books I read in one weekend while the Computer Scientist was away: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. If you’ve not heard, these young adult titles have been wildly popular and are being made into a film series. The first one is out soon. Teen the Younger has been recommending I read these for awhile, as had several other friends of all ages.

While I haven’t read a great deal of YA fiction, I’ve read some that has been fairly dumbed down.  Collins, to her credit, writes pretty well; the books are not simple. I was definitely hooked and enjoyed reading them straight through a weekend, even though I lost sleep doing so. I have a weakness for a good dystopian story and this definitely fits the bill.

The trilogy is set in a future America that has been divided into thirteen districts subjugated by a powerful and hedonistic Capitol. Every year each district has to send one girl and one boy — culled at a “reaping” ceremony televised live throughout the land — to the Capitol for the Hunger Games. Their mission? Become the champion by remaining the last person alive in the arena.

Yes, Collins makes several overt allusions to Rome – in one book there is even a feast at which characters excuse themselves to vomit so they can eat more. And she taps into the cultural obsession with reality shows; I am sure if I’d read more slowly I would have picked up other references.

Perhaps these allusions could have been more subtle, but I liked the intent. Collins clearly hoped to get young people thinking about power, culture, and the importance of independent critical thinking. I appreciated that she has something to say besides just telling a thrilling story. I like the fact that kids reading these books could ponder some of life’s big questions.

Collins also writes the requisite love story into her books (are there any YA books without a romantic angle?) but makes that a more complicated story than simply boy-meets-girl-meets-boy. There’s a fair bit of psychological drama.

Teen the Younger complained at first that she thought the love story was superfluous to the second book. She hates token romance thrown into stories (as do I, as did her great-grandmother). But on reflection even she agrees it’s an important part of the heroine’s understanding of what she must do.

The characters are edgy and interesting, even if they occasionally veer close to stock roles. Collins respects her readers enough that just when you think you have one of the main characters figured out, he or she does something you aren’t expecting. I do think that some of the minor characters came across as a little flat or undeveloped.

But overall, The Hunger Games series were excellent reads. I just don’t know if I am brave enough to see the movies. Teen the Younger says she will go first and make sure I can handle it.

One night as I was arriving at the reference desk my colleague who worked the previous shift handed me a book and said she’d read it in an hour and highly recommended it. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston, took me more than an hour, because I was poring over every page.  This book defies genre, much as Brian Selznik’s books do.

It’s not really a graphic novel, it’s a scrapbook novel, told from Frankie’s point of view from her high school graduation in Cornish, NH in 1920 through college and adventures in New York and Paris before she returns to Cornish. It’s fascinating, and Frankie is an appealing aspiring-writer heroine somewhat reminiscent of Skeeter in The Help, although her story is much different.

Preston has written a lovely essay about how her highly original and very beautiful book came to be. I am very impressed that she created the scrapbook from vintage ephemera along with writing the novel. And I’m excited she’s already at work on another scrapbook novel. I think Preston has created a really interesting way to write historical novels and the fact that her background as an archivist inspired her work is a wonderful example of the spontaneous way life can inform art.

A nonfiction book I read this month was inspired by art in another way. DaVinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester‘s latest book, is the story of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous sketch “Vitruvian Man.” Lester writes in an engaging way about every aspect of science, art, and culture that led to the drawing over centuries. In lesser hands, the story might be dry, but Lester can make everything from Renaissance politics to frog anatomy seem relevant and interesting. He’s simply a terrific story-teller. And he makes Leonardo seem like a real person, not a remote historical genius.

It is interesting that Leonardo’s drawing isn’t just an example of his own curiosity about movement, art, and the human form. Lester unpacks the philosophical idea that the ideal human form inside the circle inside the square of Vitruvian Man represents the harmonious proportions of all creation — the universe as everyone from the Greeks to the Renaissance thinkers of Leonardo’s time understood it. As I say, the best part is that Lester makes this all come alive in a very entertaining way.

Another book that is very close in spirit and style to DaVinci’s Ghost is The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction last year. This is the story of one cultural icon as well: a poem packed with scientific theories and philosophical ideas by an obscure Roman named Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things.” The Swerve is an interesting, if sometimes discouraging, read.

Greenblatt can’t really tell us much about the poet, because no one knows much about him. He focuses instead on an Italian book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered “On the Nature of Things” in a remote German monastery in 1417. Bracciolini worked as secretary for a succession of popes.  The discouraging parts of this story have to do with the corruption of the Vatican and the horrors it inflicted on people during the Inquisition.

Greenblatt also touches on the poem itself, its Epicurean inspiration, and the people in later centuries who were influenced by “On the Nature of Things.” Overall, it’s a well written, entertaining story, if slightly drier than DaVinci’s Ghost.

Similarly fascinating and discouraging is Novels In Three Lines by Felix Feneon. These are actual three line pieces Feneon wrote for a French newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Many reviewers describe the pieces as Twitter-like.  Here are some examples (I didn’t preserve the three line format, but the book does):

“At census time the mayor of Montirat, Tarn, nudged the figures upward. His eagerness to govern a multitude cost him his job.”

“Once again people have been stealing telephone cables: in Paray, Athis-Mons, and Morangis, 36,000 feet; in Longjumeau, 10 miles.”

“Colics are tormenting 18 inhabitants of Matha, Charente-Inferieure; they ate some mushrooms that were much too lovely.”

“M. Usuello and M. Crespi were very cold (30 below) at 18,000 feet aboard the Milano, taking off from Milan and landing at Aix-en Savoie.”

and the whimsical:

“V. Kaiser, 14, was headed to Mont-Saint-Martin, Meurthe-et-Moselle, to see her father. Then the satyr of the woods rose up before her . . . .”

But these are only a few of the hundreds that are about suicide, despair, murder, or other crimes, horrors or hardships. I found the book to be a bit too much read all in one go. It might have been less unsettling in smaller bites.

The introduction is excellent and explains a great deal about Feneon and his work. Besides writing these brief pieces for Le Matin, he was Rimbaud‘s editor, he helped discover Seurat, hired Debussy to be a music critic for a journal he edited, and was a frequent attendee at Mellarme‘s weekly salon. And he was an anarchist and “Trial of Thirty” defendant. So the book is interesting albeit depressing and I learned a fair bit from digging into the author’s background.

Perhaps I was drawn to the idea of novels in three lines because I’m a fan of poetry in a similar form. Bookconscious readers know I read and write haiku and other Japanese forms. Haiku really isn’t about the form so much as the aesthetic, despite what you may have learned in fourth grade.

February is NaHaiWriMo – National Haiku Writing Month – which is fun. I usually write haiku daily anyway, and I try to read haiku daily as well. This month I also decided to pick up a book I’d had on my nightstand for a long time: one of Stephen Addis‘s beautiful books, Haiku Landscapes.

Like the other haiku books he has shepherded, this one is a collection of poems by Japanese masters with English translations by Fumiko Y. Yamamoto and Akira Y. Yamamoto. The poems are matched with woodblock prints and paintings by great Japanese artists. The combination is just gorgeous. I’d love to get some of the other books in the series.

In fiction, short stories are fairly well known but hardly anyone talks about novellas. That may be in part because no one is really certain what a novella is. Sure, it’s a small novel. But when is a novella a novel and when is it a long short story? That’s a subject open to debate.

I’ll wade in: I read two short books in February that I feel venture into novella territory. Bookconscious readers know I loved Stewart O’Nan‘s last book, Emily Alone. I’d heard good things about his new book, The Odds.

Let me say that I think Stewart O’Nan is masterful. This is a really heart-breakingly sharp look at a long-married couple, Art and Marion, on a last pre-divorce weekend fling in Niagara Falls. They are facing bankruptcy, a loss on the sale of their house, and past indiscretions, known and unknown. Readers are privy to the entire mess through long interior passages.

But it’s one of those books I admired but didn’t enjoy as I read. In retrospect, it’s really complicated, impressively so. Between the financial and the personal entanglements, O’Nan packs a tremendous amount of psychological drama and tension into a small package. But it is so sad, which isn’t what I look for in pleasure reading.

He does reward the reader with a very hopeful, possibly even redemptive ending. It’s grown on me since I finished it. Plus, there are fascinating little facts about the odds of various things happening at the beginning of each chapter — a pleasing touch that appealed to my inner fact junkie.

I had a similar problem with my Europa Challenge read this month. It’s a novella by Alfred Hayes, The Girl on the Via Flaminia. I read that the author adapted this book into a play, and I could immediately understand why — I actually envisioned characters entering and exiting the scenes as I read it. I have no quibble with the writing, but this book wasn’t my cup of tea.

Again I think the subject matter is the issue: this is a distressing story, and even worse, I got no sense that the characters would be released from their troubles as I did with the end of The Odds.

The book is about an Italian girl who stays in a pseudo-brothel with an American serviceman at the end of WWII because she’s hungry. But she really doesn’t want to, and he really wants more than a prostitute. They’re both miserable; just about everyone in the book is miserable.

This was one of those books I read to the end because it felt like it should develop into something I’d eventually love, but it didn’t. But I may have just reached my limit for sadness this month.

A book which opened with sorrow but developed into joy much later is The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen.  First in the prologue, a bear makes it to the shore of a Scottish island after a harrowing swim. We only know it’s a bear because a little picture of a bear signals his story. Then in the opening chapter, a recently bereaved mother and three children are driving to the same island, and they are clearly and understandably each a mess, in different ways.

Through the eyes of these five characters (including the bear), the novel unfolds. Slowly we learn that until recently the family lived in Cold War Bonn, and the father worked for the British embassy.  The government thinks he killed himself because he was a spy; his wife doesn’t want to believe it but finds what she thinks is incriminating evidence, and each of the children is unsure what to think.

And the bear? The boy is sure it’s his father, come back to help him. Pollen spins a page-turning tale with such fabulous characters, such sensory detail, such emotional depth, and such unexpected turns, I couldn’t put it down. A handful of moments, a handful of personal interactions, made the whole story fit, and I really enjoyed how seamlessly it all happened.

Finally a book of very brief essays, Delight: Taking Pleasure in the Small Things in Life by J. B. Priestly, which I read only because it was also on my nightstand with a bookmark perhaps ten pages in, under Haiku Landscapes. When it rose to the top I decided to pick it up again and finish it. It was, well, delightful.

Some of Priestly’s small things are not mine and never will be — he lived in a different era in a different culture. But his delight is infectious. This isn’t a feel-good book. Some of his musings take a serious tone, even as he describes his delight. But it’s an erudite little tour of the way an attitude of delight can make even hard things more pleasant.

So, a book about taking pleasure in small things, a number of books devoted to small forms, a big novel that turned on small moments, another novel that shines a light on one terrible time, and two nonfiction books focused, respectively, on one drawing and one poem. That did it or me this month. As for the rest of the bookconscious household . . .

. . . Teen the Younger finished The Help, continued to read Sherlock Holmes stories here and there, and wasn’t particularly interested in my grilling her about what she thought about her reading.  She ventured that she likes the character of Mae Mobley in The Help. I’d rather she read without feeling badgered, so I did not press for more details.

The Computer Scientist sent me such a nice thorough description of his reading that I quote it nearly in its entirety:

“I read The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak. I found this to be an enjoyable historically based story told with great prose. I loved following the characters along their troublesome and humanistic path. I honestly couldn’t put this down, in part because I was stuck in a window seat on a long flight. To be honest, though, I really didn’t want to put it down, either. I highly recommend this book. (bookconscious note: I wrote about  how much I loved The Sojourn here.)

On a separate long flight, I made serious progress on The Social Animal by David Brooks. Despite his political proclivities, Brooks is thoughtful writer from whom I’ve learned much about the wiring of people within the social structures in which they exist. I left the copy with Teen the Elder because it was so fantastic and topical for him, and I look forward to finishing it in the near future.

Finally, I’m nearly finished with the first installation of The Hunger Games trilogy. An interesting story concept that is well paced, but I find it lacking in depth when compared to other authors considered peers of Suzanne Collins. It’s to the point and enjoyable, but I find myself reading it to just finish it more than being compelled by the story.”

Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. So that’s the story here at the bookconscious house. Stay tuned for more books and musings.

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January flew past in the bookconscious house.  We saw Teen the Elder off to England for the second half of his gap year. Began some new things in Teen the Younger’s life learning, and investigated more options for her coming (soon!) high school years.  Prepared for speaking gigs (I gave a talk on working with libraries and bookstores at NH Writers’ Project Author School, The Computer Scientist is speaking at a development conference in San Francisco). Generally succumbed to that new year, new plans, new goals kind of mindset that can be both invigorating and disruptive.

We’re all moving in interesting and exciting directions, with plans for better eating/exercising/time management/writing/studying. All of the thinking and planning that went with the collective turning over of new leaves ate into my reading time this month. And my reading was focused on one large goal related to Teen the Younger’s educational plans this season: I re-read all the Harry Potter books.

Several students at the college library where I work mentioned a course that looks into the literary origins of Harry Potter; I’ve heard several students gripe about (or plan shortcuts around) the required reading or re-reading of all seven volumes. When I mentioned this to Teen the Younger, she was quick to point out that she’s been asking me for years to re-read them, mainly so I would quit asking her what happened in which book, or what’s different in the movies. And she liked the idea of our discussing the books in the context of the influences J.K. Rowling mentions on her website or in interviews, or what we see ourselves.

Re-reading the books took me a few weeks.  I was struck by a) how much I enjoyed re-reading them b) how little I’d retained in terms of the small details and plot twists and c) how long it took me to read what I’d expected to breeze right through. Granted I haven’t read them in many years.  But I was surprised by how fresh the stories were even though I knew the basics of what was going to happen. And I was impressed anew with how really good and quite meaty these books are.

When Teen the Elder was seven, we’d spent a few months reading the first four Harry Potter books (all that were out at that point) aloud. We moved to New Hampshire and he was begging me to start reading them over again. He was a good reader but lacked confidence; he wanted me to sit beside him as he read even simple chapter books, so he could verify he was getting it right. I told him I had to unpack the kitchen, but he could start reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone himself.

He disappeared with the book, and came back downstairs later, absolutely delighted with himself. He was reading it!  I wasn’t surprised but was pleased he felt so good about it. What did surprise me was that in about a month and a half, he read all four books himself, big thick books full of complicated twists and new words, and he never once asked for help. I knew he understoof what he read, because he told me all about his favorite bits and how badly he wished it was all real.

I decided then and there that J.K. Rowling was a genius and felt forever grateful to her for helping him see he could read anything. The boy who’d been hesitant went on to read whatever he wanted, selecting books he thought were interesting without any regard for “reading level.” Harry Potter had given him the belief that thick books were a delight, not a chore.

We learned fairly quickly that there were families who were anti-Harry. I’ve never understood that point of view. Many of the best stories from mythology to the present explore the same themes, and many people who fear Harry approve of other stories with magical elements, like the Narnia series.  People who claimed that the Harry Potter would confuse kids or dupe them into believing in magic especially baffled me, since I knew that my own two were highly disappointed that it was all a story, and often wished there really was a Hogwarts and they could really go. I’ve never met a child who didn’t realize Harry Potter’s world is fictional.

But it is a very rich fictional world, and I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in it for a few weeks. Re-reading allowed me to notice some things I don’t remember making as big an impression the first time. Like how very well Rowling writes of the pain of being an adolescent who feels like an outsider, and how searingly she captures Harry’s isolation when most of Hogwarts and the wizarding world turn against him. I really felt his pain this time.

I was also impressed anew with the complexity of the books. Rowling manages to weave several generations of tales into Harry’s story: his own, his parents’, Tom Riddle’s, and Dumbledore’s.  I found myself asking Teen the Younger questions, just to make sure I was clear (she and her brother have each re-read the books many times). It’s impressive how Rowling incorporated certain magical objects’ histories into the tales as well.

And the magic — wow. Everything from the nuts and bolts of magic at Hogwarts — charms, spells, potions, transfiguration, history of magic, divination, care of magical creatures,the dorms and dungeons and towers and owl post and ghosts and magical food — to the way the wizarding world works, the places and traditions, the gardening and housework, the transportation and career choices, even the jokes and sports, are so very, very richly detailed. How much fun it must have been to invent it all, and how complicated to keep it all straight during the writing.

Another thing I noticed this time, perhaps because I read the books with an eye towards discussing them in a greater depth, are the historical and political overtones. The anti-muggle agenda of the Death Eaters has obvious parallels in Nazism, but I also thought of more recent history: apartheid, racism in America and Europe, the rise and fall of various totalitarian governments.  Spying, propaganda, state control of the press, and underground resistance all factor into the stories.

These issues were already on my mind as I read, because my Harry Potter reading fell between other books that dealt with racism and power. First, the Hooksett Library Book Club discussed The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines in January, a novel I’d never read. It’s a painful book, so I’m not sure I can say I enjoyed it. I think it does a good job of replicating autobiography’s idiosyncracies — Miss Jane’s narrative rambles a bit, it isn’t perfectly chronological and it emphasizes seemingly small incidents that seem historically unimportant to the reader. I sometimes felt lost in the tangle of names and relationships.

But I found it very interesting to consider that the civil rights movement, which we all learn about as a historical progression towards equality, was itself somewhat tangled, had its fits and starts over many decades, and wasn’t always welcomed by those who were its intended beneficiaries. Some of Miss Jane Pittman’s friends just want to live their lives in peace and don’t welcome what they see as hot-headed young people agitating for things like integrated water fountains.

The book is a reminder that it’s easy to fall into the trap of categorizing people as part of broad groups that were one side or the other of historical events, but in reality, life is far more nuanced and messy. A good thing to keep in mind today as we read about political points of view of various demographic groups, or people whose countries at war. Humans aren’t easily pigeonholed.

After Harry Potter, I turned to a book I’d checked out weeks ago at work: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Ms. Kay is a well-known and prolific poet and fiction writer in England. Unfortunately, until I saw this memoir on the shelf, I’d never read her work. I suspect it’s because she came to prominence after I left college, so I missed learning about her work there, and she’s not as well known here in the U.S. (neither the college library nor my public library have any of her poetry books). I always feel a broad sense of loss when I come across an author I’ve never heard of; how many more are out there, unknown to me but important and beautiful? How will I find them?

Kay’s personal history lends itself to great story-telling and I really enjoyed Red Dust Road. She is the adopted daughter of progressive parents (political activists, Polaris protesters, anti-apartheid marchers who write Christmas cards to political prisoners) in Glasgow, Scotland. Her family is strong and loving and her mother depicts her birth parents — a Highland mother and Nigerian father who met as students — as brave victims of the society of their times.

When she’s grown and becoming a mother herself, Kay begins to investigate her origins, and Red Dust Road is about that physical and emotional journey. I found it fascinating and enlightening. I’d never heard of the British Movement, a fascist group that gained a fair bit of popular sympathy while stirring up racist sentiments in the UK. I never knew how widespread racism was (and by some accounts, still is) in the UK, where officially at least, it was never as blatant as in the Jim Crow South. I didn’t know much about Nigeria’s geography, and Kay brings it alive, as she does a small Scottish village and the town of Milton Keynes in England.

Besides being informative, I found Red Dust Road beautiful. Kay’s voice is honest and warm and friendly, funny and open-hearted and kind. Her tenderness towards the two very imperfect people who brought her into the world is amazing; both her birth parents have been unable to share her existence with her half-siblings, her mother faces Alzheimers and family problems, her father can’t reconcile his young self with the born-again figure he has become and sees her as a reminder of his past sins. She faces all of this with spirit and patience.

But her tenderness towards her actual parents, the bold, strong, loving people who raised her, is deeply moving.  This book deserves wide reading as social history, as memoir, as poetic tribute to the real meaning of family, as gorgeous witness to love’s power to heal and writing’s power to transform. I can’t wait to track down some of her poetry and catch up on this amazing writer’s work.

Bookconscious regulars know I am in my second year of the Europa Challenge. In 2012 I plan to read one book from Europa Editions every month. I started the year with Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, a novel first published in Italy.  This book includes many of my favorite things: social commentary, sharp wit, a strong-but-quirky heroine, and elements of magical realism.

Margherita of the title is a teenager, overweight, creative and acutely observant, especially when it comes to the foibles of her family. She has a younger brother who reminds me of Jason in Foxtrot (a math genius, mad about video games), an older brother who prides himself on being a soccer hooligan, a father who tinkers with old bikes, cars, and other junk in a shed in the yard; a grandfather who claims to enjoy telepathic communication with the younger brother and dances with a ghost several nights a week; a mother who lives for her soap opera and is an avid green stamp collector and frugal cook who can recycle anything into her meatloaf; and a smelly, funny looking mutt named Sleepy.

When the book opens Margherita observes a mystery: where the open skies once allowed her a view of constellations of her own design, all is dark. Something is blocking her view. It turns out to be a black cube — the high tech futuristic home of her new neighbors. As the family gets to know the neighbors strange things happen: her older brother cleans up his act, switches soccer allegiances, and fawns over the beautiful daughter; her dad’s junk disappears and he goes into what Margherita suspects is nefarious business with the new neighbor; Mamma gets beauty treatments and gives up her beloved green stamps; Grandpa is an accident and moves to a care home; and Margherita discovers the new family has an unstable son they’d rather keep hidden.

To add to her troubles, the Dust Girl, a war ghost who lives in the meadow behind Margherita’s home, seems agitated; Margherita falls for the mysterious son and finds the secret behind all the changes in her family’s life. With her younger brother’s help, she tries to investigate the “business” and find out why a farmer has died, an immigrant friend is in danger, and the gypsies have disappeared. The book’s climactic ending is anything but tidy.  In fact I sat in stunned silence for several minutes, contemplating what had just happened. Benni tells a wicked funny story, but in a chilling way.

I’m realizing as I look over this that I read about Patrollers in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (vigilante groups terrorizing newly freed slaves during Reconstruction), Snatchers in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (vigilantes rounding up “mudbloods” to turn in to Voldemort’s puppets at the Ministry of Magic), British Movement thugs in Red Dirt Road (thugs sympathetic to British Movement fascism who terrorized people of color in the UK), and Rage of God (an anti-immigrant anti-Roma vigilante group and DB International (a government contractor that sows fear of terrorism in order to drive demand for its work) in Margherita Dolce Vita. Perhaps it’s time for some more uplifting reading?

Around the bookconscious household, Teen the Elder is reading up on places to go in England and beyond during the spring term and after his gap year ends. Teen the Younger has spent a lot of time reading books with film connections and seeing the films — we saw Hugo together (we both read The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December) and she also saw Tintin, which caused her to pull out our entire collection of the books and re-read them. She’s also reading Kathryn Stockett‘s The Help after enjoying the movie.

The Computer Scientist just finished 11/22/63 by Stephen King. He says he enjoyed the excellent character development and fascinating story that made him stop and think: “While the JFK event is the central point, there is so much more to the story than that…classic SK.”

Up next? I am trying to decide which Europa book to read in February. My theory of the interconnectedness of reading — the way I seem to read books with something in common — is holding up as I started another book confronting racism and nationalism last night, Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. So far it’s very good, tempting me to set aside my to-do list and curl up with the cat to read this afternoon.  I have my ever-present to-read piles beside the bed, and I’ve requested Stewart O’Nan‘s latest book, The Odds, at the library. Feel free to leave me reading suggestions in the comments. I’m always collecting ideas!

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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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