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Posts Tagged ‘fantasy’

Like the first two books in this series, The Magician’s Land had me hooked from page one. Quentin Coldwater, misunderstood misfit magician king, shows up at a bookstore in a strip mall in New Jersey on a rainy March night, because he received a letter inviting him to do so. From then on it’s  a – ahem – spell-binding ride as readers learn what happened to Quentin since the ram god Ember kicked him out of Fillory, and what he’ll do next. Will he recover from the disgraces he’s suffered in Fillory and on Earth? What secret does Plum, a former Brakebills student, have that might help her help Quentin? Can Quentin save Alice from spending the rest of eternity as a niffin? What are Eliot, Josh, Poppy, and Julia doing back in Fillory and why are things so strange there? What really happened to the Chatwin children, whose adventures in Fillory are memorialized in beloved story books?  Was there a dark side to the books’ author, Christopher Plover? Is there, indeed, a dark side to Fillory?

If you’re thinking you don’t like fantasy so this isn’t your cup of tea, think again. Grossman’s subject isn’t magic, or even purely good versus evil, although that is certainly important in his books. His subject is really humanity, in all its rich variety. And love. And truth. And growing up. And becoming who you’re meant to be. Everything that makes great fiction stick, in a fun, smart, thought-provoking, and yes, fantastic wrapping. I told friends over the weekend that The Magicians trilogy is a cross between Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, but with sex and drugs.

If you’re looking for stories to get lost in this winter, I highly recommend these well written, entertaining, and soulful books. Give me The Magicians over any “problem” novel or confessional memoir, any day. Grossman packs as much truth and love and pain and heartfelt conflict into his stories, with none of the guilt, over-sharing, or voyeurism. Plus, he writes about wicked cool magic. In a series that is very contemporary, which manages to reference traditional fantasy in a very charming way. The jacket flap says this is the series’ conclusion, but I fervently hope Grossman changes his mind about that.

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This month’s lead review features Susan Stinson‘s Spider In a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakening which is incredibly interesting and vivid literary historical fiction. I also review Lies You Wanted to Hear, a debut ripped-from-the-headlines novel by James Whitfield Thomson, and Archimedes Nesselrodewhich Justine (Mel) Graykin calls “humorous romantic fantasy” “for adults who are weary of adult books.”

The Mindful Reader column appears in the Concord Monitor books page on the 2nd Sunday of each month, so look for it on 11/10/13.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed maps. We have several cool maps hanging up around our house as art and reference, we own a number of atlases, and I keep a basket full of maps from places we’ve been or have learned about.  At my family’s insistence, I’ve recently learned how to use a GPS and have a wary respect for the fact that all the maps one could theoretically need are there for the digital asking.

But the nostalgic Luddite in me still feels like there’s nothing better than unfolding a map, tracing out a route, folding to the square you need, and then hitting the road, watching the scenery go by and knowing you’re steadily progressing up the highlighted line, and eventually, over the fold. From childhood, I’ve liked following along. My own kids experienced several epic road trips when we lived in Georgia and would travel back to New England each summer for a visit, stopping along the way in Atlanta, South Carolina, and New York to see family. They’re both good with maps.

My reading this month very much appealed to the map loving road tripper in me. When I wrapped up last month’s post, I was halfway through Jay Atkinson’s Paradise Road , a buddy travel tribute to Jack Kerouac’s travels. Atkinson writes about Kerouac’s work, the Beats’ travels, and his own trips to some of the same places Kerouac and friends visited.  His narrative is both descriptive and reflective, taking the reader along for the ride with plenty of sensory details, and also synthesizing Atkinson’s travels with his relationships — with the friends and loved ones he travels with and leaves behind, and with Kerouac’s On the Road and other work.

In contrast to Atkinson, who traveled with friends most of the time, Peter Hessler writes about  his many solo road trips in China in Country Driving. I’ve read Hessler’s other two books on China and I always recommend them to anyone looking for a contemporary account of the country. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what I like best. He writes beautiful prose, natural and also erudite, streamlined and also painterly, showing readers the people and places he’s been in vivid detail that rolls off the page smoothly. And he is an enthusiastic guide, embracing China and translating his experiences for an American audience.

These are thoughtful, insightful books but Hessler doesn’t get wrapped up in showing his intellectual prowess — he is perceptive without being overly clever or egotistical. I also admire the way Hessler puts himself squarely in the story, generously sharing his views, his experiences, his friendships, and his difficulties, allowing his emotions to show but never to excessive dramatic effect.  I open each new book he writes with a bit of trepidation, wondering whether it will be as good as the last.

Hessler has never disappointed. If you haven’t read his books, River Town is the chronicle of Hessler’s stint as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, on the Yangtze River, and his introduction to China; Oracle Bones covers his experience as a journalist living in Beijing, traveling around the country, getting to know China through both its history and its people; and Country Driving is about Hessler’s own road trips, life in the village where he rents a place to live and write away from Beijing’s mad rush, and the impact of increasing numbers of cars and drivers on Chinese society. I highly recommend all three.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Hessler talks about moving back to the U.S.  I look forward to whatever he writes next.  And I appreciate his pointing me towards another outstanding book on contemporary Chinese culture: Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang; Hessler mentions Chang and her book at the end of his, because she is his wife.

Factory Girls describes the life of villagers who “go out” to work in factory towns from a very young age (many below 18, the legal working age, and barely out of middle school), far from their families. Chang got to know two girls in Dongguan, and through their stories and the story of Chang’s own family’s history, she paints a vivid portrait of the rapid changes taking place in Chinese culture today. Chang’s juxtaposition of 20th and 21st century cultural upheavals in China is very interesting.  She draws on her experiences in modern China to get past history and politics and understand the social psychology that contributed to the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists and later, to the Cultural Revolution.

Chang also examines factory life from the point of view of young workers, an interesting perspective in light of recent headlines about strikes and suicides in giant Chinese factories. Her observations about the relentless pursuit of self-improvement, the power that new money affords younger generations, and the struggle to find happiness in the midst of mass changes in traditional family structures are astute and incisive.

I found some similarities in Chang’s and Hessler’s work beyond the subject matter. (Hessler looked at factory life in Oracle Bones). They are both very smart, clear, vivid writers and people who seem to be at once comfortable with themselves and their places in the world and also open, curious, loyal friends who genuinely care for their subjects. I look forward to more books from both of them.

Last month I wrote about a second book I really enjoyed, How Did You Get This Number, and vowed to read the first book by the same author, Sloane Crosley. That book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, was enjoyable but I think Crosley’s second book is better.  My favorite part of Cake was a description of summer camp in NH when Crosley was a child — hilarious.  The rest of the book didn’t live up to that promising beginning, or to the second book, although a piece on losing her wallet repeatedly, and always getting it back, came close.  That said, Crosley is a terrific writer, and it’s a good trend to be better with each subsequent book.

Another second book I read this month was The Map of True Places, by Brunonia Barry. I haven’t read her first, The Lace Reader, but I enjoyed this one. I read it because Barry was coming to Gibson’s (despite my vow to read fewer event books, I read more of those than anything else this month).  Map is about a woman who seems to have her life together watching it all unravel, and deciding whether that’s for the best or not. As a reference librarian at heart, I enjoyed the masterful way Barry wove interesting subjects into the story — celestial navigation, 19th century American literature, psychology, and Wiccan herbology to name a few.

Barry’s characters are finely detailed and fully fleshed out, and this book is a tale well told. I’d recommend it for a day when you want to be carried away by a story — at the beach, on a plane, or in a hammock, for example, or by the fire if you’re reading this months from now. And if you’re wondering what a best-selling author is like in person, know this: Barry is one of the least pretentious, warmest, friendliest authors I’ve met. You know I’m segueing into a bookstore plug: if you’re a passionate reader like I am, don’t pass up the opportunity to meet authors, especially if you live near an independent bookstore.

Soapbox over. I read three other novels this month, all for events. Pete Nelson visited Gibson’s last week, to read from his Indiebound hit I Thought You Were Dead. The character who utters those lines, Stella, is a dog. If you don’t think dialogue between a man and his dog can be done well, go get this book. If you’re looking for a male Jane Austen for our times, read Pete Nelson. I mean that as a compliment. On his website he calls this novel a “tragi-comic romance.”  He draws an accurate and amusing portrait of late 20th century American society as well, from yoga to DIY investing.

I Thought You Were Dead is also a novel of adulthood in contemporary America. The protagonist, Paul, is living in the Northeast but his parents and siblings are back in Minnesota. His father has just had a stroke and Paul needs to find a way to help from a distance (they end up instant messaging, and the keystrokes are part of his father’s therapy), but he’s a bit intimidated by his successful siblings. He’s a divorced writer who drinks too much, and who’s trying to have a relationship with a woman who is also dating a doctor.  Paul is trying to understand all of these various kinds of love, and Stella is his foil and his philosopher. Sounds hokey, but I thought it was excellent.

The other two novels I read are by authors coming to Gibson’s second annual Summer Reading Kickoff on June 17th. I met Chris Wiley, aka Mortimus Clay, last fall at the NEIBA fall conference. He started his own press to publish The Purloined Boy; you can read about the end of this process at his blog.  I admire what he’s done, and I enjoyed the book.

The Purloined Boy is a fantasy with many familiar characteristics — the protagonist, Trevor, realizes there’s more to his world than what’s immediately obvious, there are monstrous villains and a Merlin-like figure. Trevor has a mysterious, magical helper and a smart friend who want to help him. He is struggling to understand his role — is he to follow the longing he feels for “home,” a place he only vaguely remembers, or is he to stay where he is and help defeat the system that’s taken children from their homes in the first place?

Besides the moral dilemma, Trevor also faces the confusion of not knowing where he really belongs, and which world he’s lived in is real.  While it’s true to the genre, The Purloined Boy is also an original story with interesting details. It would make an excellent book club pick – plenty to discuss.

I also read Nature Girl, the debut novel by Jane Kelley, who’ll be at the Summer Reading Kickoff as well. This novel for tweens is about a city girl, Megan, stuck in Vermont for the summer with well-meaning, but to her mind clueless, parents and an annoying older sister. She’d been planning to spend summer vacation with her best friend, whose mother has cancer, and in the course of the book she makes a spontaneous decision to hike to Massachusetts to see her friend.

I admire the way Kelley injects some reality into the far fetched parts of the story — Megan makes it on the Appalachian trail not only because of her own determination and spunk, but also because an adult hiker (the delightfully cranky Trail Blaze Betty) keeps an eye on her. Megan is a regular kid, trying to set a course in the unsettling world of early adolescence, wanting to enjoy the same kid fun she’s always had with her best friend but struggling to be more grown up, too.  The story moves along at a good pace, and Megan learns from her experiences but the novel doesn’t end on a saccharine or preachy note.  Nature Girl is a gentle but contemporary story with an exuberant, realistic heroine, for adventurous and couch-loving girls alike.

Just as I enjoy fiction without an obvious message or sticky sweet ending, I prefer my poetry spare and direct. My favorite poems are imaginative but relatively minimalist. Ted Kooser’s work fits that description, and this month I read Flying at Night, his collection covering twenty years of poems (1965-1985).  From hiking (“Visiting Mountains”) to lying awake listening to a dripping sink (“The Leaky Faucet”) or the sounds of the “Furnace,” Kooser deals with everyday experience. I found Flying at Night to be a very cohesive collection, with no obvious misfits among the selected poems.

Kooser’s poems are brimming with plains imagery — abandoned farmhouses, prairies, humid Midwestern summers, a snow fence — and with ordinary Americans, including his newspaper carrier (“Myrtle”) and many of his own relatives. In this way his work reminds me of Wes McNair’s, but Kooser writes mostly shorter, sparser poems than McNair does.  His tone is less optimistic — McNair’s work feels more hopeful and exuberant to me, whereas some of Kooser’s poems feel like dirges (“Shooting a Farmhouse,” “Tillage Marks”).  And yet even these sad poems are beautiful.

I hang a poem up in the kitchen, next to the sink, every week. We used to rotate this duty, but when I sensed it becoming a chore, I relieved the children of the selection process so that poetry would remain a pleasure in their lives, and not another item on the “to do” list.  I’m about to put Kooser’s “At the Center” up for this week: “In Kansas, on top/of an old piano,/a starfish, dry/as a fancy pastry/left sitting there/during a wedding,/spreads its brown arms/over the foam/of a white lace doily,/reaching for water/in five directions.” Many of his poems use the title this way – it’s almost its own line, rather than a word taken from the body of the poem.

Besides the Poem of the Week, the kids both continued to follow their interests in their reading this month. The Preteen enjoyed the latest books in two series she’s been reading for a few years: Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes and Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm.  Both are mysteries featuring strong girl protagonists. The Preteen reports that the new books in each series were both great.

She also read Rick Riordan‘s new book, The Red Pyramid. Riordan is the author of the wildly popular and very entertaining Percy Jackson series, which re-ignited the Preteen’s childhood interest in mythology. She reports that The Red Pyramid is full of Egyptian mythology, which is “kind of cool.” She also likes the characters in the new book — a brother and sister with an Egyptologist father. Riordan’s website notes that The Red Pyramid is the first in a series, so she’ll have more to look forward to.  I like the way Riordan’s books spur kids to make connections with history and myths. All good books do this — add to our mental map of the world.

Meanwhile, she also read more manga (further episodes of +Anima and few of the Fruits Basket series).  We’re enjoying our new Hooksett library card, which is a bargain at $25 a year for non-residents. Both kids have been using the library’s link to Mango languages, and the PreTeen really likes the YA room in the library, where she can browse manga titles and look for other books.   On our last visit, she picked up a few non-Manga books: Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, a volume in the Royal Diaries which she hadn’t read before (Kristina, the Girl King), and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass, whose book A Mango Shaped Space she really enjoyed. I’m really happy to see her browsing for books at a library.

The Teenager is wrapped up in all things World Cup. His pleasure reading these days is almost entirely football related — he has an absolutely encyclopedic grasp of the 32 teams in the tournament and if I think I have a scrap of news about an injury or anything else, he has heard it already. Today, his first guest post appeared on NHPR’s Word of Mouth blog — he’s writing about the World Cup for them. He follows the BBC, the Guardian, Fox Soccer, Sky Sports, and US Soccer websites and probably more that I can’t keep up with, and we’ve all been enjoying daily World Cup coverage in the New York Times.

When I asked him what he’d read this month that I should mention in bookconscious, he immediately referred me to this week’s New York Times Magazine article by Michael Sokolove, on the Dutch club Ajax’s youth soccer system. Soccer development is a topic near and dear to the Teenager’s heart, and he has strong opinions on the state of the U.S. system.  He’s also participated in two of the paths to the National Team — Olympic Development Program (ODP) and SuperY (he’s playing for Seacoast Wanderers now). He actually sent the Computer Scientist and I the NYT magazine article last week, ahead of its print publication.

The Teenager’s take: he admired the thoroughness of the article, and said it was clear Sokolove had really taken time to get to know his subject. He also thought it was spot on, in terms of critiquing the difference between the American soccer development system (or systems, really) and the way the rest of the world prepares youngsters for the pros.  Unfortunately for his parents, this piece only confirmed what the Teenager already suspected — the path to his dream of playing soccer professionally is more than likely going to lead him across the pond.

As a favor, the Teenager and the Computer Scientist  read World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics ahead of tonight’s Gibson’s event with father-son authors Steven and Harrison Stark. I’ve read bits and pieces of it, because that’s the kind of book it is — one to have by the remote while you’re watching the World Cup, so you can brush up on the teams and learn some amusing and strange facts, too. We’ve had this kind of book for past World Cups and one thing I admire about World Cup 2010 is that it’s full of information and commentary, rather than eye candy. I’m really looking forward to having the Starks at the store; everyone in our house is very excited for the World Cup to start on Friday.

The Computer Scientist began his Star Wars summer reading project. He read Star Wars: Cloak of Deception ( a prequel to The Phantom Menace) and Darth Bane: Path of Destruction (Darth Bane being a Sith Lord who lived 1,000 years  or so before the time of the films). He enjoyed those, but hasn’t had time to keep his Goodreads page current.

He has a stack of books to read on his nightstand, but this is the last month of the fiscal year and therefore, his hair is on fire at work.  He got several books for his birthday: The Pacific, by Hugh Ambrose,  a couple of Fate of the Jedi books, and Jason Turbow’s The Baseball Codes.  So he’s set for reading as soon as he finds time!

My to-read pile includes David Mitchell‘s forthcoming novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I’ve been reading for a week now. I’m not sure what I’ll read after that, but we do have some road trips coming up (to Burlington and Ottawa, for soccer games) so I’ll pack books. I might take Shirley Jackson‘s Raising Demons to Vermont, since I like to match my reading material to the place I’m traveling when possible. Novice to Master floated to the top of the pile recently and is calling out to me.  My preferred hammock reading is fiction, and I’ve got several forthcoming novels to choose from. Until next month, happy reading!

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Looking over what I read in March, I realized that most of the books, fiction or nonfiction were about saving something or someone. Am I seeking a metaphysical bailout through books? Possibly. As I’ve mentioned before, I am an unabashed fan of escaping into my reading pile when the world is too much with me.

As has been the case since last June, my reading list this month was informed by the events schedule at Gibson’s. Yesterday I realized we’ve had 89 events since I started. Phew! No wonder I’m tired. You can see a list of upcoming events here, and see what you missed here (scroll down to Past Events).

Last week we had two fantastic events. Ben Hewitt came to discuss The Town That Food Saved and we had a really great crowd of local food champions, CSA organizers, nature educators, farmers, gardeners, and people who like eating well. Ben is a really interesting guy and we could have talked all night. One thing I like about Ben and his book is that he creates space for questions and conversation, rather than claiming to have all the answers.

His book is about Hardwick, Vermont, and the entrepreneurs who have come together in the area around local, sustainable businesses. He delves into the sticky issues of whether profitability and sustainability can co-exist, profiles movers and shakers in the local food scene, and talks with old timers in the Hardwick area who aren’t impressed by the fuss. I was excited that NHPR’s Word of Mouth had Ben and Ton Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds on the show. Ben even brought seeds to share with folks at the book signing table at Gibson’s.

Last Saturday, Adrienne Martini came to talk about her memoir, Sweater Quest. Whether you knit or not, this book is a blast. Adrienne’s writing is smart, funny, and sharp.  The book traces a year Adrienne spent knitting an Alice Starmore sweater design called Mary Tudor.

Along the way, Adrienne tells readers about the Shetland islands, fair isle sweaters, knitting techniques, and the history and sociology of knitting. She also introduces some of the main characters in the Knitterati: movers and shakers in both the virtual and bricks and mortar communities of knitters, designers, and yarn shops. But this is also a book about the nature of of friendship, the challenge of being ourselves as well as being mothers, daughters, and wives, and the meaning of goals and their completion. Adrienne even touches on why knitting can save your sanity.

Reading Sweater Quest is like sitting down with a good friend. Adrienne’s tone is warm, conversational as well as wicked smart. I loved this book, and admit that it makes me wish I had time to take up knitting — I’ve tried it a few times, without much success.  But even without that in common, I can admire Adrienne’s excellent writing and her ability to make me feel at home in a world I know little about. Plus, I really want to know the secret of her ability to hold two teaching jobs, mother two children, spend time with her husband, and still have time to write (and knit one of the hardest sweater patterns out there).

Another book I read for work is No Good Deed By Dr. Lewis Mitchell Cohen.  This is a good example of a book I would not likely have picked up on my own, but I am glad I read. Cohen discusses end-of-life care and the medical and ethical issues surrounding it, through the stories of two nurses at Baystate Medical Center (where he also works) who were accused of murder by a fellow staff member.

Delving into history, religious and cultural beliefs, ethical and legal issues, and the personal, heart-breaking stories of patients, families and medical staff, No Good Deed is eye-opening, thought provoking, and at times, alarming. While the nurses at Baystate ended up cleared of wrongdoing, the book relates a number of other cases that ended badly for doctors or nurses. Through it all, Cohen manages to be very even-handed, and his empathy for all parties, even those he doesn’t necessarily agree with, is one of the book’s strengths. I admire his willingness to not only express his own views as a doctor of thirty years’ experience, but to also give fair treatment to other viewpoints.

I was struck by how many of the cases, from all over the world, hinged on misunderstanding, especially on the part of prosecutors, lawyers, and juries. Cohen’s book is troubling but also moving, and left me with a better sense of the complex issues surrounding palliative care, and the importance of communication between family members, medical staff, and those who are ill.  It seems that as in so many other situations in contemporary culture, there are many choices and considerations, but one heartening message of No Good Deed is that the staff who provide palliative care are often among the most dedicated and caring people you’d ever meet.

The rest of my reading in March was much lighter, although still relatively dark, fiction. In fact, each of the novels I read had a streak of danger, madness, hubris, or evil in it. Most of them managed to be funny as well. What does that say about contemporary culture? We’re think we’re doomed but we’ll go down laughing? Maybe, we take ourselves too seriously. If you want to lighten up, read on.

I picked up The Poison Eaters: And Other Stories, by Holly Black in part because Joe Hill mentioned Small Beer Press when he came to Gibson’s, and I enjoyed his other recommendation (City of Thieves).  In a Twitter post about it, I called this collection “creepy, in a good way.” But it’s recommended for 14 and up, and I’d suggest older than that, personally.

I don’t get the appeal of encouraging kids to read about sex, drugs, and violence by marketing it as YA literature. Of course, some people would say that I’m being naive, and kids are actually doing those things, so what harm can stories do? But I’m not so sure that argument makes sense. First of all, not all kids are, and second of all, why should literature join the fray? Good books can deal with really rough coming of age issues without being painfully graphic — look at Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, for example.

That said, Holly is a great writer, and her stories transcend creepy fantasy to explore human nature, culture, and community, among other themes. Her stories are  smart, funny, and thoughtful, as well as very entertaining.  Some of her characters manage to save themselves, some save each other. If you’re still a bit intrigued by unicorns and fairies but want something edgier, check out The Poison Eaters. And perhaps an older teen would enjoy this book — I just wanted to rant a bit about the general trend towards YA fiction that seems, to me, too harsh and in-your-face, and not quite hopeful enough.

Speaking of in-your-face fiction, I read Solar, by Ian McEwan last week. You’ve probably read the reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Bits that were probably meant to be funny rubbed me the wrong way; maybe I just have a hard time laughing about climate change skeptics, status freak scientists, and investors who just want to milk the next green thing for as much return on the dollar (or pound or euro) as possible. I think if I hadn’t just read this week that about half the television weather reporters in the U.S. doubt climate change and a majority of Americans trust those same weather-casters more than other sources to tell them the truth about climate change, I might have chuckled more.

Also, McEwan works so hard to make Solar‘s main character, Nobel winner Michael Beard, a creep that it was hard to care much about what happened to him. Just about every character has a chance to save a bad situation or make a better choice and then don’t. I don’t need a happy ending every time, but I like to feel there’s something redeeming about someone or something in a novel, and this one left me feeling adrift. It was hard to tell if anything good could come of any of the people you’d just spent a few nights getting to know. I need at least a shred of hope.

An example of the kind of book I’m talking about — one that gives the reader hope in humankind, or at least hope in the transformative power of good storytelling, is The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. I was torn about whether I wanted to read it, because I’d heard enough about the plot to know that awful things happen to the main character when she’s a child.  I generally decide that if I want to be depressed about man’s inhumanity to man, I could just read the newspaper.

Durrow doesn’t hold anything back — in that regard, her writing is like Holly Black’s.  But like Black, she also lets her characters figure out that the bad stuff is only one part of this world.  Durrow’s troubled characters, especially Rachel and Brick, don’t just make you cringe when they screw up, they make you yearn for them to catch a break, and quietly urge them on.  By the end of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, readers regret the painful things these characters have been through but know their world (and by association, ours) will, in the end, be alright.

Another novel I adored this month was First Contact, Or, It’s Later Than You Think by Evan Mandery.  Much gentler in many ways than the other fiction I read — even though the story involves the end of the world, preceded by a near miss with inter-planetary nuclear war — First Contact is zany satire.  Mandery manages to skewer everything from politics to PTA’s, and has fun with himself, too, by writing a “recursion” into the story after a child gives a scathing critique of First Contact when his mother reads it as a bedtime story.

I enjoyed the goofy jokes, the aliens who love Bundt cake, and the important roles Mandery grants raccoons in driving his plot.  But I also liked Mandery’s quiet hero, Ralph, and his idealistic girlfriend, Jessica. In fact, many of Mandery’s minor characters, including Jessica , some of the White House staff, and several of the Rigelians, are vivid enough to admire or empathize with. Or laugh at. It’s a sign of a good book when event the supporting characters are richly imagined.

Jessica and Ralph fall deeply in love, and they’re relationship resonated with me, because like Steve and I when we first met, they are reduced to phone calls because they are apart. (I know you want to know why — go read the book.) Perhaps because I associate this kind of deep conversation — wanting to tell the other person everything but also to listen and know everything the other thinks, feels, and dreams — with lasting, true love, I didn’t find the lack of passionate love scenes problematic. In fact, I thought many of the relationships in First Contact were lovely.

Besides, I got plenty of steamy passion in The Swimming Pool, a first novel by Holly LeCraw. LeCraw has tension and emotional drama down pat. Her depiction of one character’s postpartum depression makes you want to shake the other characters and yell, “Get her some help!” And the tragedy that haunts her characters is compelling enough to keep you turning pages without being melodramatic.

I could have done with a little less information in some of the sex scenes, however. My basic rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t discuss it with your grandmother, it’s over the top. Don’t get me wrong. As Bookconscious readers know, my grandmother was very well read, and she happened to also have nursed a decades long soap opera addiction. (Days of Our Lives. I admit, I followed it too, for a few years.) So she knew from sex scenes.

But when we talked books, Grandmother and I both admired stories that made you sense the passion lovers shared without making you feel like you were actually watching. For example, no one doubts that Romeo and Juliet want to consummate their relationship, but Shakespeare didn’t need to describe intimate parts of Juliet’s anatomy to get his audience on board.

I know I’m hopelessly old fashioned in this regard. Another well written debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, had its share of lusty scenes as well. So perhaps this is just a literary trend I’m not hip to? (The fact that I just used the phrase, “hip to,” may be a clue — no one who is actually hip says that, right?)

Anyway, The Swimming Pool is part mystery, part tragedy, part love story, and maybe my problem is that the sex is extraneous to the emotional drama. There are some seriously hurting characters here, and I liked it best when the book focused on those stories, and the ways the characters began to heal. The affair distracts two of them, nearly to the brink of disaster, from the people they most need to help. LeCraw bails them out in the end, and again, while this book’s ending isn’t exactly happy, it left me satisfied.

Last night, I read the new-to-me parts of Maxine Kumin‘s Where I Live and Wesley McNair‘s Lovers of the Lost. Kumin, McNair, and Donald Hall are on the bill for this year’s poetry reading at the Concord Audi on April 21, put together by Mike Pride (retired editor of the Concord Monitor).  Both books are “new and selected” poetry collections, so I read the new, and skimmed the selected.

Before I started at Gibson’s I was working on what I thought of as an independent MFA — time and cash poor, busy with other committments, and generally wanting to avoid the grad schools churning out writers glutting literary markets with submissions, I sought my own study, reading both creative nonfiction and poetry, as well as fiction. Lately, I haven’t taken the time to read poetry as carefully — I read a poem most days, but I’m often in a hurry. Sitting down with Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live reminded me of how much poetry offers, and how much I love being mindfully immersed in it.

Both books contain wonderful surprises, new and old.  I’ve gushed about both McNair’s and Kumin’s poetry here before, and one of my favorite things about living in New Hampshire is being able to hear such fine poets in person. We’ve also enjoyed hearing Donald Hall a few times over the past several years, as well as Charles Simic and Sharon Olds.

Donald Hall can really electrify a crowd. My favorite Hall moment was at Gibson’s several years ago, when he read “Her Garden”  with it’s other-wordly refrain, “let if go, let it go,” in his deep, emotive voice. Kumin and McNair (and also Olds and Simic) read in what I’d call a more even toned, conversational style, but their words are certainly no less powerful.

Among Maxine Kumin’s new poems, I especially enjoyed  “The Victorian Obsession With the Preservation of Hair,” with stanzas shaped like beards cloaking the sad story of Longfellow’s attempt to save his wife from the fire that killed her as she was sealing enveloped with clippings of her children’s hair.  And among the “selected” — well, there are just too many favorites for me to do justice to them all.

I love that Kumin often plays with traditional forms, like sestinas and sonnets, but none of her poems are stuffy or unfathomable. On the surface, they are about utterly recognizable subjects, like marriage, gardens, animals, people. She makes these ordinary things into the very essence of being human, through beautiful language. Her work is sometimes playful (as in “The Domestic Arrangement” and “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins,” and “Seven Caveats In May”), sometimes thoughtful, ( “Sonnet In So Many Words,” and “Mulching”), sometimes reverent, (“Jack”), sometimes matter-of-fact, “John Green Takes His Warner, New Hampshire Neighbor to a Red Sox Game”), or piercing (“Waterboarding, Restored,” and “Extraordinary Rendition.”

Similarly, McNair writes of ordinary Americans, ordinary experiences, but his poems make these things wonders to behold. “First Snowfall,” for example, is one of the new poems in Lovers of the Lost. McNair paints a scene of fresh snow on a rundown rural town.  But he points us beyond the old semi trailers and collapsed barns, opens our eyes to this: “a snowplow/holding a small light/ahead of itself opening the street/that vanishes in the long drift and dream/of it, coming down/over the whole town/where everyone/ under every/last, lost/roof is now far away/and all gone/and good night.”  Gorgeous.

Another of my favorites among the new poems is “Love Story,” a funny, but also very poignant poem in which the narrator is pushing a car with four children and a dog inside it, the battery is dead, and he’s trying to get his wife to take her foot off the clutch at the right moment so the car will start. Their timing is off, until McNair reveals, “What was the moment/in the midst of our despair/when the engine suddenly caught/and you roared away and came back/for me, I got in by the soda can/on the floor and the dog now sitting/between us on the emergency brake,/the whole family smiling/as the trees broke apart faster and faster/over our heads — what, but a blessing?”

McNair’s breadth and depth is amazing. I don’t have space to go into them all, but among the “selected” poems I love “Small Towns Passing, “The Life,” “Glass Night,” “Why We Need Poetry,” “How I Became a Poet,” “The Rules of the New Car,” “Driving North In Winter,” and “The Man He Turned Into.”  I hope to hear many of the poems from Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live, as well as Donald Hall’s poems, on April 21.

It’s late and we’re all tired, dear readers, but there isn’t much more for me to tell. The Computer Scientist has picked up a couple of books here and there, but says he’s on a reading fast. Although, like me, he reads two newspapers and numerous magazines. He raves about Harper’s and says if he had to whittle our subscriptions down to one, that would be it.

I know he read Gakuen Alice with the Preteen this month. (For those who are keeping track, I officially have six months left to come up with another psuedonym for her. Heaven help me.) This is a manga set at a school for kids who have special talents — so the two of them went around discussing what their “Alice” talents might be. I love that they had a dad/daughter manga shopping trip and swap titles.  The Computer Scientist is also reading some manga the Preteen finished last month, Hollow Fields.

She is also still reading Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I got her in one volume, and she started another manga, Nabari No Ou set in modern times, but with ninjas. She decorated one of our Easter eggs with “ninja egg” written in wax, because, as she pointed out, the egg would be hidden. Like a ninja, mom (insert sigh and special look reserved for mothers of preteens, when they are at their most dense).

She also enjoys several magazines, and her favorite lately is Muse, because it is mostly about science and is “random,” which is something she and her best friend aspire to be. And even when the ennui around here is thick enough for a ninja to slice through, the Preteen likes the New York Times science section, which she reads most weeks.

The Teenager went through a pensive stage post-pneumonia; in last month’s post I described how he spent time thinking about things he’s enjoyed since he was little, like space, and photography.  He’s also been revisiting his interest in food — he’s always loved to cook as well as to eat. Several years ago, he read a thick book about the history, science, and art of woks and stir frying. Lately he’s been enjoying The Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage, who happens to be an editor at one of the his favorite magazines to browse through, The Economist.  He also got a big kick out of Rachel Mead’s profile of cashmere designer and life learner Brunello Cucinelli in last week’s New Yorker.

Most of the time, the Teenager is reading about heavy topics like the Big Bang, the chemical composition of athletic clothing or the physics principles behind a good shot on goal — or he’s reading about the latest injuries to plague his favorite players ahead of the World Cup. So I’m glad to see him reading for pleasure. I can tell when something has really caught his attention because he either thanks me for leaving it out for him (the New Yorker piece) or tells us something about what he’s read at dinner. Such as, that in some ways we’d be better off if we’d stuck to hunting and gathering.

Well, I have to bake our traditional homemade cinnamon rolls, which are rising overnight, and hide ninja eggs early tomorrow, so I’d better wrap this up. On my reading pile? I’m about halfway through The Help, thanks to my Aunt Dina, who lent it to me because the library list is lengthy. Today I picked up Remarkable Creatures because I have enjoyed some of Tracy Chevalier’s books (especially Girl With the Pearl Earring) and I’ve always admired the story of Mary Anning.

And I also picked up Cursed By a Happy Childhood on ILL, because Carl Lennertz sent me First Contact to review, and because Evan Mandery praises it in his acknowledgements — I’d never come across a note in which an author commends a book by his editor to readers, so I figured it was Not To Be Missed. And my two bedside stacks of coming events books and tasty looking advance copies (like Sloane Crosley‘s latest book of essays) are heaped with goodies.

I’m set, come what may — life can throw what it wants at me, but I’ll have plenty of books at the end of the day. May books be your bailout, too.

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When I began bookconscious we were still living in a small town in the Deep South. I missed the four seasons, and one of the things we enjoy about being back in New Hampshire is winter. Really!  Lots of people ask how we can stand the long winters here. In most of the places we’ve lived, winter was a drag. Wet, gray, dreary, without fluffy clean snow and bright sunshine to break up the monotony.

In New England, winter is like the other seasons — gorgeous and changeable. It may be gray and slushy on occasion, but the next day may be postcard lovely. As I write, it’s snowing lightly but the sun is breaking through, so the flakes look like mylar confetti.  It’s cold but not bone-chilling today, and the wind is calm. The bare branches look fetching with a sparkly new coating of snow.

In fairness, even where winter is pretty and bright, it gets dark early, and there is the post-holiday let down when you’ve made it through New Year’s and the promise of spring is a long way off. There’s nothing like a good fire and a good book to fight off the melancholy effect of winter’s darkness, or to revel in the long nights  if you find them cozy.

I started 2010 with a book I’d wanted to read for some time, Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians. Billed as a sort of Harry Potter for grownups, this novel opens with a young man named Quentin receiving his call to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  The novel follows him from those first confusing hours through his graduation and into the world(s) — ours, and the world where a series of children’s fantasy novels is set.

The Magicians is a dark look at how magic might co-exist with our world.  It’s also a coming of age novel, complete with sex and drugs. And an engrossing read that considers the impact our favorite children’s books have on our worldviews, our characters, our psyches.

Fascinating stuff for a mother in the Harry Potter era, when critics of Hogwarts’ intoxicating charms warn that J.K. Rowling has dangerously blurred children’s notions of fantasy and reality. My kids both went through phases of wishing fervently that Hogwarts were real (heck, so did I). Grossman gives us a peek at what might happen if it were, and if kids with magical powers grew up into adults with those powers.

Like The Magicians, Kate Morton‘s The Forgotten Garden was on my library list for a number of months. Morton is Australian and the book is set in Australia and England. I enjoyed the shifting setting as well as the shifting time — as the protagonist researches her mysterious family history, she reads a notebook her grandmother left. These notes tell about the previous generation, in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Since I’d just read Alice I Have Been, which is also set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I enjoyed the connection. Morton is a good storyteller, and once I got into The Forgotten Garden, I tore right through it.  It didn’t stay with me for days after, the way Alice did.  But I’m planning to read Morton’s other books.

A fascinating story that did stay with me for a long while after I reached the end is one I gave the Computer Scientist for Christmas: Ursala LeGuin‘s The Lathe of Heaven. We both really enjoyed the premise of LeGuin’s fascinating story: a man’s dreams impact reality.  She wrote the book in the 1970’s about the future, but the book felt fresh and even timely, as climate change and war in the Middle East both factor into the story.

Many books I’ve read recently are set during wars. At last month’s Gibson’s  book club discussion, a new participant who had also read The Piano Teacher suggested Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. I read it fairly quickly, and again enjoyed the connection to my other reading, as the novel took place both around the time of WWII and decades later, just as The Forgotten Garden spans much of the twentieth century. Because we lived in the Seattle area for awhile, I was interested in the details about the homefront in the Pacific Northwest.

Ford explores the meaning of ethnicity and identity as well as family relationships and loyalties in Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I enjoyed many of the minor characters — a cafeteria lady who gruffly looks after the protagonist who is bullied at school; a jazz musician who befriends the boy; his mother, who is caught between her love for her son and her loyalty to her domineering husband. Some of these relationships could be better developed, but it was a fun, interesting read and would be an interesting book club pick.

Speaking of book discussions, I joined a new series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on world religions. Their first selection was a book I’d bought at a library sale somewhere along the line and had been meaning to read, Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Bookconscious fans know I’ve been trying to study mindfulness for a few years, and I’ve read his books The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step. Both are powerful books to dip into again and again, rather than digest all at once.

This book is different, though — Hanh veers away from teaching mindfulness to explore Christ as his own “spiritual ancestor.” He finds parallels in the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. I’ve always found the interconnectedness of faiths very interesting, and his insights are thought provoking. Hanh’s writing is simple and clear, and you’re bound to come away from reading any of his work with only a glimpse of what it might mean. A few days later, the glimpse might expand a bit until you’re seeing the whole horizon.

Speaking of a book that will expand your horizon — go read The Power of Half by Kevin and Hannah Salwen. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in one sitting (while waiting for the Teenager at the indoor soccer facility where he trains). The book reads like a long piece in a good newspaper, which makes sense, since Kevin Salwen wrote for the Wall Street Journal. It’s the story of the Salwen family’s decision to sell their grand Atlanta home and give half the proceeds to a nonprofit.

The Salwens worked together, kids and parents each weighing in, to decide how best to donate the money.  Kevin writes well, and his observations about how development aid works best were enlightening, even though I have read a great deal about aid and agreed with where he was starting from (helping people help themselves is better than telling them what help they need). I like a book that teaches me something new about something I already know about. I also appreciate the way he shares the things that went poorly.

Hannah’s parts of the book are also enjoyable, and she’s an inspiring kid. She writes about her experiences volunteering, and she offers young readers exercises to help them identify ways they can make the world a better place. This makes the book much more than a memoir about one family’s giving – anyone could pick up The Power of Half and get practical ideas and support for making an impact in their community and the world. I can’t wait to meet Kevin and Hannah at Gibson’s in a couple of weeks — they are doing an event at the store and an event at an area school, both of which will benefit Capitol Region Habitat for Humanity.

Another author I look forward to meeting is Susan Hand Shetterly, who is coming to the store this week. Her book, Settled In the Wild, is a beautiful book about the resilience of the wild, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of the human and natural worlds. Unlike some naturalist writing, Settled neither scolds nor romanticizes.

I think the balance Hand strikes between explaining her deeply felt connection to the wild all around us and the need for humans to coexist responsibly with nature is just right. Shetterly’s thoughtful writing, graceful perception, and admirable powers of observation, along with her affectionate portrayal of her human neighbors and her own experiences making a life in small town Maine, makes this an enjoyable book for fans of memoir as well as nature lovers.

Shetterly’s book is about achieving a well-lived life as much as it’s about nature. It’s enjoyable to reflect on the role of everyday people in history — something most history books can’t or don’t cover. But it’s also inspiring to revisit the lives of those larger than life historical figures whose impact is widely known. Paul Johnson‘s Churchill is one of the most delightful biographies I’ve read, because Johnson treats his subject both as a historical figure and as an individual who lived his life well.

Johnson effectively reviews Churchill’s basic biographical details in a compact book, but he also writes eloquently of the pivotal moments when Churchill’s brilliance manifested itself. He manages to give a full picture of the great man of history (including those rare things he got wrong) and the friend, husband, and father; the statesman and the painter; the orator and the bricklayer.  Because Johnson met Churchill and those who knew him, he sprinkles the book with personal anecdotes and quotes from their conversations as well, which gives the book an amiable feel. I liked the combination of  Johnson’s masterful political and historical analysis and his convivial celebration of Churchill’s humanity.

Another astute observer of her subjects’ humanity is Edwidge Danticat. Her piece in the New Yorker about her cousin Maxo, who died in the earthquake in Haiti, is a lovely description of the impact of his short life, a life that would have gone unnoticed by most of the world, were it not for this tragedy. But she manages, in roughly 1,000 words, to present him as fully human. In The Dew Breaker, she manages to present as fully human a character who is a torturer in the regime of Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier.  I’d never read Danticat, and I thoroughly enjoyed her rich writing and the psychological depth of her storytelling.

I picked up Danticat’s book at the library because like so many people, my knowledge of Haitian culture is limited. I’ve read about Partners In Health‘s work there, and learned a little about Haiti reading Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains. But like many Americans, my exposure to world literature is not as thorough as it could be. I’d heard of Danticat, and know the work of some African and Indian writers, because they write in English.

In an effort to expand my literary horizons I read a wonderful anthology, Words Without Borders, which brings readers a selection of work in translation, selected by well known authors.  I took a workshop on literary translation last spring, and this collection made me admire that complicated art even more. I’m thrilled that this anthology is a project of Words Without Borders online magazine, where even more work in translation is available.

Most of the book is fiction, with some poetry and essays. My favorite stories were the hilarious “The Scripture Read Backward,” by Bengali writer Parashuram; “The Uses of English,” by Nigerian Akinwumi Isola; and “Swimming at Night,” by Argentinian Juan Forn. I also loved the selections by Polish poet Bronislaw Maj.  Reading this anthology was like taking an extended trip around the world. Just the thing for a dark winter’s evening.

The Computer Scientist and I have been sharing some books this winter.  Besides The Lathe of Heaven, the Computer Scientist also read The Battlefield Guide. We share similar tastes in poetry and literature, but he also likes grittier stuff, like Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River, which he read recently. He enjoys Lehane’s direct but descriptive writing and noted the suspenseful clash between different socioeconomic segments in Mystic River.  He is still working on Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle and has started reading Churchill as well.

The Teenager is reading Profiles In Courage.  I know he’s enjoying it because when we passed the New Hampshire state house a couple of days ago, he pointed to Daniel Webster‘s statue and said, “That guy was a genius.” I asked him what caused him to suddenly feel so strongly about NH’s native son, and he said he’d read about him in Profiles.

I know he’s gotten something out of his recent American history reading, especially the graphic novel edition of the constitution, because he told me a week or so ago that our government is amazing, it’s just the people in it who are self-centered and stupid. 🙂  He knows that’s not true across the board, but he gets that the pre-occupation with gaining and holding office is interfering with the incredible idea that is America.

The Preteen has been reading the Manga series Tokyo Mew Mew. She likes the art; she’s been interested in this style of drawing for a while now and is taking a manga class. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that her favorite part is when the characters battle aliens.

The Preteen has also enjoyed the benefits of having a mother who works in a bookstore this month. She’s read a couple of books that aren’t out yet, including The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, (due out in Feb.), and started The False Princess, by Eilis O’Neal, (it doesn’t come out until July). She’s also reading The Purloined Boy, by Mortimus Clay, which I picked up for her at the New England Independent Booksellers’ Association trade show. Of the three, she likes the Purloined Boy the most.

All three are fantasy, and it’s hard to impress her in the fantasy department, since she is a devoted fan of Harry Potter and also of the Percy Jackson series (as I write she is enjoying Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Ultimate Guide), Ursula LeGuin’s Catwings books, as well as some very good stand alone books like Ella Enchanted. We also read aloud all of the Narnia and Prydain books and Susan Cooper‘s Dark Is Rising sequence when she was younger. So she’s grown up with high standards, and is often disappointed. She keeps returning to the fantasy genre though, and sometimes she finds a new favorite, like The Amaranth Enchantment.

I’ve experienced the same thing, occasionally picking up some book I’ve been looking forward to and feeling let down. Reading leads us to new places we haven’t yet explored, and one reason I love it so much is that sense of anticipation a new book offers. Will it be a book I can’t forget? Will it enrich something I’ve recently read, making connections that lead me on to even more wonderful books? Sure there’s a chance it will let me down, but even then, I’ve added to my experience as a reader. Finding words wanting is better than not finding them at all. Besides, that new favorite is out there, just waiting for me to crack it open.


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Maybe when you picture paradise, it’s someplace warm enough to sustain palm trees, or to support a brisk business in cocktail umbrellas.  I picture barely leafed out trees, mud studded with boot prints, boulders baring their lichen patched shoulders to the sun after months of snow cover.  In New Hampshire, April may or may not mean pleasant weather, but it does mean the rich literary landscape of my adopted home awakens as towns come alive with events celebrating poetry, libraries, and books.  I was able to get to two conferences, two poetry readings, an enormous book sale, and a book club publishers’ preview, so I thought I’d give bookconscious readers a taste of my April in paradise.

A few weekends ago, I spent a Saturday reveling in the mysteries of the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic poem. This fascinating program, put on by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, caught my eye for two reasons. First, I had been trying to figure out what to do for a day long “artist’s date” for The Artists’ Way, and second, the Kalevala conference was free, thanks to sponsors and a grant from The NH Humanities Council.

The conference took place at an inn in Rochester, NH, near the seacoast. Driving over, I considered what I already knew about the Kalevala: it grew out of folk poetry and stories, which Elias Lonnrot compiled into an epic during a time of emerging Finnish cultural awareness after Finland gained independence in the first half of the 19th century. This much I knew from learning about Finland last year with my kids. From the pre-conference emails outlining the talks, I knew that the epic influenced Tolkien. That was about it.

The morning opened with a talk on Tolkien and the fantasy genre. Much of this material was familiar to me, having studied fantasy and mythology before I wrote a novel for young people (as yet unpublished), The Last Unicorns of Georgia. Quick aside to any editors reading this: it’s a middle grade novel about a New England girl whose family moves to the Deep South, where she finds that a small group of unicorns are living in the dense woods behind her house. At the urging of the unicorns’ matriarch, she uncovers a plot to harvest unicorn horns for use as a masking agent for athletes’ performance enhancing drugs.

My novel isn’t purely fantasy — it’s more of an eco-mystery which happens to hinge on unicorn mythology, but as I prepared to write it, I read several great fantasy books aloud with my kids, and I also read fantasy theory, such as Ursula LeGuin’s The Language of the Night, some of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and a number of essays in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. I read about Tolkien, but I admit that although the Computer Scientist and the Teenager have both read his books, I haven’t (they are on my long term “to read” list).

Besides Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy — which bookconscious fans know the Teenager claims are so good they have made it impossible for him to find other books that hold up to the Tolkien standard of storytelling — some of our family favorites are the Harry Potter series, the Narnia books, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, Half Magic and other titles by Edward Eager, and the Eragon cycle.

So the talk on fantasy was appealing to me, if not exactly unknown territory.  The speaker, Clia Goodwin, gave a good presentation on “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Uses of Fantasy,” but didn’t add much about the Kalevala, except to say that Tolkien read the epic as a young man, Finnish was one of many languages he learned, and there is evidence he was influenced by the poem.  That said, Goodwin’s talk was very interesting, and later speakers built a bit on what she said about Tolkien’s views on the cultural rewards of fantasy — recovery, escape, and consolation  —  in terms of explaining the role of epic poetry and the Kalevala specifically in Finnish culture.

The next speaker, Diana Durham, is a poet as well as an Arthurian legend specialist who has written about the grail myth as a path to our inner selves. She gave an intriguing talk on “The Poet as Shaman.”  Durham opened with her thoughts on what poetry and mythology share — a reliance on symbolism to transform not only words, but the way the reader experiences words, and assimilates that experience into personal meaning or even healing. As an example, she read “Postscript,” by Seamus Heaney.

The rest of  her talk focused on the grail myth and how story, song, and poetry draw people out of their ordinary lives into the place where inner and outer worlds connect. She used Bernard Chandler’s photograph of the chalice well cover in Glastonbury as a visual metaphor for this idea, and referred to T.S. Eliot’s poetry, which happens to be what we’re reading for our book discussion with the Teenager this month. Like Goodwin, Durham spoke only peripherally about the Kalevala, but her presentation was fascinating. I am still thinking through her ideas on the way poetry and myth make meaning that transcends time and place.

Much of my “bookconscious theory on interconnectedness” has to do with the ways that we interpret ourselves through what we read, and the work interprets us, as we interact with it. In the process, we make connections for ourselves and with other people not just in reading, but in thinking about, writing about, discussing, reading reviews, and otherwise processing what we’ve read and placing it in our own mind map of what we know, believe, and love.  How many times have you read something written in another place and time and felt as if you belonged there? I don’t think that’s coincidence. We somehow identify ourselves in writing or music or art because in some primal sense we know those creations deep in our beings.

After a break for lunch, during which I let my head swim with thoughts of interconnectedness, the Kalevala conference re-convened, and Borje Vahamaki, a professor of Finnish studies, language and literature scholar, translator, and publisher, spoke on “Language and Meaning in the Kalevala.” He is in the process of recording audio CD’s of the poem, mostly in English but with a bit of Finnish to give listeners a sense of the original. Having heard him read just an excerpt, I’d guess the CD’s are fabulous.

Vahamaki is a Kalevala expert, and his passion came through in his talk, which was a quick introduction to Finnish history and language as well as a crash course in the Kalevala itself. Dr. Vahamaki made suggestions for delving more deeply into the Kalevala, and pointed out that the epic has inspired other writers, like Longfellow, and composers, most notably Sibelius, which perfectly illustrates the ideas we’d already heard about the impact of myth and poetry, and my theories that reading creates connections we carry into the rest of our lives.

The last speaker, Sarah Cummings Ridge, is a Maine resident of Finnish descent, whose father gave her a type of Finnish folk harp called a kantele as a wedding gift. In the Kalevala, the hero makes and plays a kantele made from a pike bone. Cummings Ridge said she had no idea when she received her father’s gift that it would change her life. She now leads The Maine Kanteles, and the group played a number of songs to end the conference.

The Kalevala event was one of the many activities of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. Recently the group moved their monthly readings and open mic night to one of my favorite places: Gibson’s, Concord’s independent bookstore. April’s reading featured two New Hampshire poets familiar to bookconscious readers: Martha Carlson- Bradley and Alice Fogel. I was getting over a nasty virus, but I dragged myself out to hear these two wonderful poets read. Next time I am going to stay for the open mic (and maybe even sign up to try reading myself).

I was struck again by Fogel’s amazing use of language.  I mentioned in my post last year about her book Be That Empty that she also makes clothing — Lyric Couture is her fashion company, and it’s tag is “collaged fashions from reprised goods.”  Filtering the sound of her poetry through my somewhat illness addled mind, I was struck by how similar the two arts are — poetry and the creation of fashions. In both cases Fogel is piecing together things that at first may not seem to fit:  images and words, parts of other articles of clothing. Stitched together, the final product, whether verbal or visual, is beautiful.

I hadn’t heard Carlson-Bradley read before, but I read her book Season We Can’t Resist a few months ago.  I commented then that Carlson-Bradley has an eye for fine detail, and listening to her poems as she read, I noticed her observations of nature are scientific as well as artistic. In fact, both she and Fogel mentioned science as big influences in their work. Carlson-Bradley write poems rich in sensory detail that bring the reader right into the natural world near her home here in New Hampshire. If you’re not convinced by my contention that NH is a kind of paradise, read Carlson-Bradley’s poems and you’ll see our flora and fauna rival any old tropical rain forest, at least in their literary value.

Readings are a good reminder that poetry is an oral tradition as well as a written one, and hearing Carlson-Bradley read highlighted the way she beautifully connects human nature with the physical environment we live in. Poetry is an art especially prone to creating connections, and to exploring our connection to each other, and many poets have explored the man/nature continuum. I find Carlson-Bradley’s work particularly evocative because she writes about things many of us probably pass by in cars or even on paths in the woods, without noticing them or reflecting on their — and our — place in the world.

Check out “April In Paradise, Part II,” which I’ll post in the next couple of days, to hear about the rest of this amazing literary month.

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Two of us here at the bookconscious household were NaNoWriMo winners this year — which means we wrote a novel each in November. As I noted last month, it’s absolutely nuts of me to try and write 50,000 words in November, especially 50,000 words that should make sense in some kind of compelling way. My daughter did the Young Writers Program, which allowed her to set her own word count.  She sensibly set it low and exceeded her goal, and took plenty of days off.

Although I finished, it took a lot more effort than I recall expending on my last NaNoWriMo. Yet I still enjoyed struggling through to the end, which made me reflect on something interesting about my enjoyment of reading. Post-novel writing, I realized that part of my reading pleasure derives from sharing a sense of the struggle, either on the part of the author or the characters, that brought the story to fruition. For me, a good read is a vicarious quest.

A great example of a recent book that drew me in that way is Brisingr. Of course I have very little idea of the effort involved in a part human, part elf Dragon Rider’s struggle to master all he needs to learn with his dragon to save his world from an evil overlord while dealing with interracial conflicts, personal issues, spiritual confusion, and coming of age.  But I can feel for Eragon because author Christopher Paolini makes his hero so alive, drawing on emotions and thoughts that I can easily identify with.

Despite the challenging language (Paolini invented several languages for his book cycle, and even with the glossary I have trouble keeping words and names straight), the difficulty of remembering what happened in the earlier books, and the complexity of Alagaesia, the fantasy world where the stories are set, the Eragon books are enthralling because of Paolini’s mastery — not just in writing well, which he does, but in portraying universal human struggles, even in characters that aren’t human. He makes elves, dwarves, urgals, etc. distinct, but he makes every race a reflection of some aspect of humanity, a mirror we can look into, sometimes happily, sometimes a bit uncomfortably. For me, this makes the reading absorbing.

One thing about Eragon that is so endearing to me is his constant thirst to learn and to understand. He seeks not only information — Who are his parents? What must he learn to defeat the enemy? — but also meaning. What is the purpose of his life’s work? Why do we love, and what does love do to us? Why do different races in his world have different gods? Should he pray to any or all, and how?  In an autodidactic household where each of us is on our own life learning journey, these questions make Eragon seem like one of us. This kind of book feeds my imagination and I’d even say, my soul.

The question of souls, and how to feed them, brings me to A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, which describes the author’s struggle to follow rules for living from the bible as closely as possible. Jacobs is a terrific writer whose earlier book, The Know-It-All, was a delight, especially for those of us who would like to indulge in prolonged reference book reading ourselves.  I’ve been meaning to read The Year of Living Biblically, and when my son’s best friend told me he was reading it, I figured it was a good time to go check it out.  I’m glad I did.

In nonfiction, I’m drawn to the same appealing factor that I look for in novels and stories: a sense of connectedness with what I’m reading. Whether it’s the writer or the subject of the writing that engages me, I get into a book or article I can feel caught up in. Jacobs writes endearingly of his own imperfections — much as another of my favorite nonfiction authors, Bill Bryson, does — and this makes his writing feel conversational. The Year of Living Biblically is arranged by month, so that the reader is carried along on the year’s adventure, which adds to the “we’re all in this together” feeling.

Jacobs is an excellent observer. He doesn’t just decide to try keeping the Sabbath (and admits, endearingly, that he can’t keep his hands off his keyboard and creates little exceptions so he can check his email anyway), he explains how his efforts begin to make a change in him, to create an awareness of the benefit of slowing down. I really enjoyed his observation that cleaning up his language helped him feel more peaceful, less angry about whatever he would ordinarily swear about. And his descriptions of each biblical adventure made it easy to see what he was seeing.

As with his first book, this one is not only about his own exploration of a subject, but what impact his devotion to  immersion journalism has on his family. For example, his struggle to be biblical includes growing a really big beard — which can be off-putting to strangers, not to mention his wife. He also writes candidly about he and his wife experiencing infertility and their pursuit of treatment so that they can have a second child.  With a small child, a wife and an extended family, work, and the trappings of modern life all around him, Jacobs tries to reconcile his life and his quest to understand biblical living, in a way that gives his project context for readers.

Two other things made this one of my favorite books of the year: Jacobs writes beautifully about being a dad, struggling to do the right thing, to be a contemporary parent caught up in timeless worries, and to even process the overwhelming love and concern a parent feels. So many other authors whose writing is fine, whose work is interesting, whose books I otherwise enjoy absolutely turn me off when they write authoritatively about their excellent children and their fantastic parenting. Makes me want to put the book down with a hearty “Puhlease!”

Not so with Jacobs. He tells us, candidly, about what works, what doesn’t, what he worries about when it comes to his son, what he wants to be as a parent. In real life, parents do that — question, wonder, hope, and yes, even pray, that we’re doing our best. So I love his honesty, and it makes his books more like sitting down with a friend and laughing over life’s speedbumps than sitting in a lecture hall and hearing how Informed, Enlightened Authors do things.

If you’re wondering whether Jacobs just puts on the kindly dad persona in the book, and whether he’s actually a conceited famous author in person, let me share a quick personal aside.  Late in The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs discusses a fringe fundamentalist Christian group and explains why they alarm him. So far, so good. Then he mentions they were important to the rise of homeschooling!

Aghast, I labored over an email that would politely inform Mr. Jacobs of the diversity of background, belief, and educational philosophy that makes homeschoolers too vast and varied a group to stereotype, and would let him know that homeschooling wasn’t founded by extremists. He wrote me back very soon after I took a deep breath and hit send, and he was kind, understanding, and gracious.

When it comes to accepting that no one person or group has a lock on the best way to do things, Jacobs also excels. His exploration of biblical correctness included a circle of both Jewish and Christian advisers, and he tries to consider various perspectives. He also tells readers where he’s coming from: he’s an agnostic, a secular Jew, curious about religion but not convinced.

I appreciated that perspective as he shares what he finds transformative or doesn’t, what he learns that seems credible and what’s incredible, what appeals and what revolts. He’s fair, finding something good in just about everyone he meets in the book. And he’s gentle in the conclusions department — he doesn’t make any grand declarations about Truth and Meaning, but he explains, simply, what’s changed in his life and what he learned.

Life changing experiences come in many degrees of impact, and fortunately, most of us will never experience what Nastaran Kherad has.  After growing up in Shiraz, Iran, with her maternal grandmother, who she called Bibi, she was arrested on false political charges when she was only 18. While she was in prison, her beloved brother, Mohammed, was executed, in part for his efforts to be supportive of other prisoners. In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up In Revolutionary Iran describes the author’s upbringing and her family, and life in Iran for a working class family during the period just before and in the early part of the Iranian revolution.

Bookconscious readers know that last spring, I blogged about a couple of books I’d read about travel and life in Iran. I received a review copy of In the House of My Bibi as a result of my blogging.  Like Jasmine and Stars, whose author also grew up in Shiraz, In the House of My Bibi is a book that brings Iran to life. Kherad’s book deals only with her childhood memories, because she hasn’t been back since she fled Iran twenty some years ago. So the book doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about what was happening politically and socially in the country. Instead, it gives readers a view of growing up there, of living an ordinary childhood.

Other Iranian memoirs I’ve read, including Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis, are the stories of people whose family or social circle were well off or well educated, or both. Kherad’s grandmother and mother are both widows, and both work to feed the family. Her grandmother works in a pickle factory and is illiterate, and her mother was married to an older man when she was still a teenager. Kherad writes clearly and simply, without analyzing, letting the reader come to conclusions she was struggling to sort out herself as an adolescent.

Besides Bibi, Kherad’s most caring relative is Mohammed, who takes his little sister to get a library card and introduces her to the ideas he is exploring as a young man. She describes him as a person with great empathy for the poor and for his fellow political prisoners.  The reader can guess, when the young Kherad tells her brother she wants to be a writer when she grows up, he won’t be there to read her work.

I enjoyed the book, and I think Kherad succeeds not only in helping show another facet of her country, but also in writing fairly about the things that were good in her life there. The bad is obvious; she writes vividly about her imprisonment. But she does not fully explain events leading to her arrest in one section of the book, and I found myself backtracking to try and get a clear picture.

Kherad portrays poverty and wealth, tradition and modernization under the Shah’s regime. But perhaps because she tells the book from her own perspective and she was still very young, I got no sense of when the revolution took place in her narrative and how it changed life for her family at first, before the arrests. There are hints — her brothers argue about whether Iran needs a monarchy, her Bibi admires the Shah, and Mohammed is disillusioned that the Islamic Revolution does not bring about compassionate social justice. It’s understandable that a child would only piece this information together in bits, but the telling is a bit disjointed.

In the final chapter, when she is about to leave Iran, she reconciles the strained relationship she has with her mother, but there is little closure, since we never hear much about Bibi once Kherad enters prison. On the whole, I thought the writing was vivid and considering the difficulty of revisiting these memories, the book is remarkably detailed. But I felt lost from time to time — perhaps that was intentional? Since she has spent nearly her entire adult life as an exile, the sketchiness of some parts of her childhood may be an authentic part of her memoir, rather than a weakness in the book’s structure.

While the other books I read this month touched on journeys of understanding, searching, and remembrance, my favorite recent purchase is Theories of Everything: Selected  Collected and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006. For a mere $6, in a labyrinthine used bookshop in Manchester, I bought this volume, which may hold the secret to life somewhere within its magical pages. For those unfamiliar with Roz Chast, a staff cartoonist at the New Yorker, I recommend you go to the library and request this book. Chast has a knack for putting her finger on just what people wonder about, and spinning a humorous view of life’s mysteries and humanity’s foibles. Her humor is quirky and gentle even when it’s pointed, and her artwork is distinctive and delightful.

Next up a the bookconscious house? The teenager has begun Fever Pitch, which I picked up at the Audubon society book sale, and has also been poring over How to Photograph Absolutely Everything. His sister is reading The Great Santa Search but also — Hallelujah! — browsed the library shelves today. Has anyone else noticed that kids tend to search online for books, rather than losing themselves in the library stacks? I have such warm memories of several different libraries’ shelves, and myself in front of them pulling out book after book, choosing a pile, and anticipating many happy hours of reading. Online searching is convenient, but not nearly as much fun as serendipitous shelf browsing. Anyway, she found a couple of books that way and I hope to encourage more browsing.

We were at the library so I could pick up The Journal of Helene Berr, a  WWII era diary of a young French woman, newly published in English, which I heard reviewed on a BBC radio program. I’m also reading  Bleak House, which Gibson’s book group is discussing in January. As snow falls on the bookconscious house it’s time for making both Christmas cookies and latkes (my recipe is from a favorite picture book: The Miracle of the Potato Latkes), and I’m planning to dig into our selection of holiday books this weekend. Happy Holidays, and I hope all of you are the pleased recipients of good books this month!

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