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Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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Despite a shovel-able amount of snow on Thursday we were one of the only educational institutions  around here NOT to have a delay. Still, bingo beckoned, so I kept working on my squares this week. Actually over the past couple of weeks I’ve been working on the “An ebook or an audiobook” square, listening to Paris in Love by Eloisa James, a memoir about her family’s year living on Rue du Conservatoire. At first I didn’t like the format, because the chapters are so brief, but I got used to that. I enjoyed hearing the author read, and what’s not to like about Paris? It was hard not to be a little envious, knowing that a year in Paris would never be possible for my family. But the descriptions of shopping, eating, and exploring the City’s many museums are irresistible. James is the pen name of Shakespeare professor Mary Bly, daughter of Robert Bly. It seems unfair that one person is so successful at two careers — as an academic and a romance writer — and lives variously in New York, Paris, and Florence. Did I mention it was hard not to be envious? But the author’s tone is very down to earth. I enjoyed it.

For “A book with a number in the title, ” I decided to read a Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four. Besides the mystery at the heart of the plot, this book also tells the story of how John Watson and Mary meet and get engaged. I’m a big fan of Elementary (Best. Watson. Ever.) and have also watched other big and small screen versions of the great detective’s tales, and we visited 221B Baker Street when we went to London.But I’d never actually read any of the Sherlock stories or novels, even though I have a library discard copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two volumes.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and I can really see how well Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have incorporated things Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Sherlock into their portrayals of him.

For “A book about art or artists,” I am still reading Mrs. Jack but decided it’s really more about Isabella Stewart Gardner, so I read The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum which is the official collection guide. If you’ve never been, the ISGM is different than other museums in many ways, one of which is that there are no placards on the walls explaining what you’re looking at. There are laminated room guides but when we visited last, I decided I wanted to buy and read the guide before our next visit. It’s an interesting read, because it tells a fair bit about the artists and their works but also how ISG came to own each piece and how she decided what to put together in the different rooms. It was really enjoyable and I look forward to going back to ISGM soon, I hope.

For “A book from the Children’s Room,” I chose a New Hampshire Downloadable book version of the highly lauded Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, with illustrations by Christian Robinson. It’s a colorful portrayal of a boy and his grandma taking the bus from church to a soup kitchen where they volunteer. Along the way the boy, CJ, asks a LOT of questions, and his grandma gives interesting answers. for example: “How come that man can’t see?” “Boy, what do you know about seeing?” Nana told him. “Some people watch the world with their ears.” CJ and Nana are brown-skinned, and the people in the book are rendered in many shades, ages, sizes, and styles. CJ envies his friends who don’t have to go anywhere after church and don’t ride the bus, and some kids who get on listening to music through a set of shared earbuds. Nana has a reply to assuage each of his longings. It’s a beautiful book, although I was thinking that Nana may find in a few years it’s not so easy to try and explain the world to CJ, who clearly already has a sense of the disparities and disgraces of the world, “How come it’s always so dirty over here?” he asks, as he gets off the bus with Nana. She tells him, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” And they head in to serve lunch. A book that could lead to interesting conversations, for sure.

Feeling at loose ends for reading this weekend, at work I checked out a couple of Margaret Drabble novels I haven’t yet read, to choose one for “A book you haven’t read by an author you like,” and I started an audiobook memoir, Wesley the Owl: the Remarkable Story of an Owl and His Girl, for “A biography or memoir” on my commute today. That will leave me with “Any book in a series,” “Re-read an old favorite” and two “Reader’s Choice” squares before the deadline, March 3. Stay tuned!

 

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We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

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A coworker recommended The Circle back in the fall. It’s a cautionary tale about a tech company called The Circle that is run by a trio called “The Wise Men” and is growing exponentially, adding newer and more far-reaching applications every week to its near-monopoly on internet searching and commerce. It’s a company wealthy beyond imagining, with thousands of smart, idealistic young people like Mae Holland working there.

Mae is soon consumed with her work, caught up in and even authoring some of its slogans, including “secrets are lies,””sharing is caring,” and “privacy is theft.” To atone for a transgression — not telling her many social circle contacts inside and outside the company that she kayaks, not borrowing a kayak after hours from a rental company without paying, and not sharing any of her experience online — she agrees to become transparent, wearing a camera and being connected to her followers and watchers all the time, except when she’s in the bathroom or in bed.

Slowly the Circle nears “Completion” when the whole world will be a part of it, and no one anywhere will go untracked, unwatched, unknown. Secrets will be a thing of the past. The Circlers believe this will be utopia, with no crime and no unknowns, but there are a few people who seem to think things may be getting out of hand. Mae proposes a new tool that will make democracy “mandatory” and gets increasingly hounded by a mysterious man named Kalden who is trying to warn her off these plans. The higher she rises in the Circle the less contact she has with her family and her friend Annie, who helped her get hired. None of this seems to bother her, as she becomes thoroughly indoctrinated in the Circle’s ways.

Mae is an impossible character to like, and the whole book made me squeamish, but it still seemed like a good read. The story seems improbable, but so did a Trump presidency not long ago. It’s hard to imagine brilliant young people at a technology company making decisions that could impact the world — but then again, look at the way Facebook and Twitter let fake news and trolls proliferate, sure that these things would not matter. The Circle would be good to read with a book group, and to discuss the questions the book raises about the overreach of technology in our lives, and about privacy, freedom, transparency, safety, and the fine line between utopianism and totalitarianism.

 

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This amazing novel, recommended by a friend, is about an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Ruth Ozeki, the author of this amazing novel, is an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Trippy? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The book opens with a diary entry: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being  is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is or was, or ever will be.”

We soon learn that Nao is a teenager in Japan, and that her diary washed up on the beach near Ruth’s and Oliver’s home, in a plastic bag, wrapped up with a watch, a parcel of letters, and another diary, written in French. As the novel unfolds, we learn about Ruth’s life and Nao’s. It’s a tough read, full of deeply important questions of human decency, purpose, belief, and meaning. Ozeki touches on an array of subjects as she tells her story —  First Peoples mythology, botany & ecology, meteorology & geography, Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, computing and technology, consumerism, contemporary education, pop culture, and the relationship between people and cats, to name several.

Nao is terribly unhappy, but her father introduces her to her great-grandmother, who is 104 and lives at a temple where she is a Buddhist nun. From the start, Ruth is concerned about Nao’s well being, not only because she is troubled, but also because the diary appears on the beach after the 2011 Tsunami. Ruth wonders if Nao and her family are still alive. She becomes so wrapped up in determining what became of them that her own work suffers. Her interest teeters on obsession and possibly even madness, when she swears that Nao’s diary is missing words. Separately, she pursues tracking down Nao and her father, and finds out just enough to leave readers intrigued to the last pages.

Oliver, is sort of a modern Renaissance man, part artist, part scientist, part philosopher, and fully capable of wrestling the tricky generator they rely on when storms ravage the island, digging clams and oysters, and chopping firewood. He’s also Ruth’s counterbalance, a partner who supports her curiosity but also challenges it at times. The rest of the island gets involved too, once word gets out about their find. Much of what is in the two diaries is had to read — Ozeki captures man’s inhumanity to man pretty vividly. But it’s worth reading because A Tale for the Time Being is both a good story with a mystery at its heart and an incredible amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture and ideas. It’s a trip, full of heart, and a good read, and did I mention?  There’s a cat (and Schrödinger’s cat as well).

 

 

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I was chatting with a professor at work last week about what we’d each read over the holiday break and he mentioned Slade House. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve enjoyed several other titles by David Mitchell, and actually The Computer Scientist had pointed out Slade House to me when it first came out, so I went to the stacks and checked it out.

It’s a trip of a book, from it’s strange little format (in the hardcover edition we have at the library, which is square and has a cut-out cover exposing an Escher-esque maze of stairs) to the idea of the novel itself – that twins Norah and Jonah Grayer have learned the secret of immortality. Both “engifted” with psychic powers, they hone their mystical skills until they have perfected luring other unsuspecting engifteds, usually people who are misfits in the world, and take what they need from them to go on living (I don’t want to give away the whole story). You can guess that doesn’t end well for the victims.

The other premise of the book is that Slade House, where the twins’ strange and nasty work is done, doesn’t exist in the physical plane of the world, but in an “orison” of a house that was bombed in WWII. The door to reach the garden of the great old house appears every nine years in Slade Alley. So the victims are from different decades in each chapter.

It’s a short book (it took me a week because I’m also reading another book), and it feels like an over-grown short story to me. I understand that it’s related to The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t read. I enjoyed Slade House even though it left me wanting to know more about both Jonah and Norah (I would have liked to have read about their growing up, discovering their gifts, and honing them — we get all that as backstory told by another character) and their victims, who we meet only as they are lured into Slade House. Still, Mitchell is a good writer and he tells a compelling tale.

I like the kind of story that makes you look around and think “What if . . . ?” as in “What if there really were engifteds around here somewhere?” Let’s face it even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe in ghosts and never considers metaphysical questions, an awful lot of people do, and an awful lot of people claim to have experienced the presence of someone who is no longer in the physical world. I think as long as there have been stories, and as long as there are stories, people will place their hopes and fears about what happens when we die, whether a part of us (soul, spirit, ghost, or whatever you call it) goes on and if so where it goes, how existence works. So brief as it may be, Slade House, gets to the heart of that and its appeal is in this universal hope or fear (or both).

Back soon with the nonfiction book I’ve nearly finished.

 

 

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I’m off this week, and I am enjoying extra reading time. First, I finished a book the former “Teen the Elder” (longtime bookconscious readers may be surprised to learn he is now in his twenties; take the links to see what he’s up to now) recommended, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. An extended version of a piece Junger wrote for Vanity Fair, this book explores the ways in which human nature is best suited to tribal life. In other words, life in a close knit community where members are committed to looking after each other’s basic needs — food and safety. It’s an interesting book.

Junger isn’t the first to argue that the deep malaise of modern life is caused by the lack of opportunity for most people to be a part of something bigger than themselves. His focus is on the way warfare and disasters bring people together and reduce crime, mental illness, and even suicide in the immediate aftermath.  He also argues that PTSD, which is diagnosed (as well as misdiagnosed) at higher rates in the US than anywhere else, is not necessarily  caused by trauma, but re-entry into society.

“Studies from around the world show that recovery from war — from any trauma — is heavily influenced by the society one belongs to, and there are societies that make that process relatively easy.” A few pages on, Junger continues, ” A modern soldier returning from combat . . . goes from the kind of close-knit group that humans evolved for back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good. Even if he or she is part of a family, that is not the same as belonging to a group that shares resources and experiences almost everything collectively. Whatever the technological advances of modern society — and they’re nearly miraculous — the individualizes lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

I couldn’t help but think of something I read recently about pharmaceutical companies pathologizing normal if unpleasant aspects of human existence in order to profit from “curing” them with prescriptions. Junger found that we treat the response to trauma or violence that way too, which “creates an identity of victimhood that can delay recovery.” I don’t think people should just “get over it” and neither does Junger, but I wonder if by making a lot of things our ancestors treated as unfortunate but natural parts of life as maladies that need treatment, we are possibly making things worse?

Junger doesn’t really have a solution in mind; he points out that the current conflict between liberal and conservative views on poverty and social well being in the U.S. are actually not at odds according to our evolutionary instincts (abhorrence of freeloaders who were a threat to overall wellbeing and a communal caring for the genuinely needy). If these theories were considered as equally important (as he argues they were in traditional societies) and applied together, we’d be in good shape, but he (and most people) doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. When he asked a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital how we could unify our society she says something very simple: ” . . . underscore your shared humanity.”

I feel as if there are many opportunities on a local level to do that  — volunteering, belonging to a church or temple or mosque, joining a club, having lunch with a new coworker, taking cookies to a new neighbor, etc. — and while we may be appear to be failing on a macro level, there is hope in the fact that many people are trying to make their own communities more caring, close-knit places. For example, these neighbors, honored by the Boston Globe in their annual roundup of Bostonians making a difference. Everyone benefits when we act altruistically — research seems to indicate that helping others makes people happier. So maybe there’s hope? Even if you think our society is entirely self-interested, sometimes that self-interest can lead to greater good.

The novel The Association of Small Bombs deals with the same questions and issues  as Tribe (or at least I saw it that way, reading them right after each other – the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness at work). It’s a novel set primarily in Delhi, and it’s about the lives impacted by a terrorist bombing in a market. We meet two of the Kashmiri Muslim separatists, one an ideas man and the other a bomb maker, and also the parents of two boys who died in the blast. Their friend, Mansoor, who is Muslim himself, survives, but his young life is deeply impacted. He gets involved with an NGO working to bring attention to the accused bombers who languish in jail for years while the corrupt police and justice system often miss the real terrorists. Through the NGO he comes to meet Ayub, another Muslim, who ends up being drawn into an extremist group, and meets the very bomb maker whose blast injured Mansoor and killed his friends.

That these people would be drawn together in an interlocking set of storylines in one of the most populous cities in the world seems slightly improbable, but Mahajan makes it relatively believable. On the surface, all of the main characters lead relatively purposeless lives; even those who think they are acting out of conviction turn out to be making very little difference. Ayub thinks, “In the end, his role was so small, he felt foolish about the buildup, the training, the wating . . . . Some people will die, he thought, that’s true. But they’ll expand the market’s security after the blast. . . . No — I’m only doing the inevitable . . . . I’m pointing out the flaws in the system. Terror is a form of urban planning.”

I’m still processing that. It’s an interesting way to consider terror. The cooperative society Junger refers to exists in this novel among the terrorists and among the young people in the NGO but doesn’t appear sustainable in either case. The other adults who are not in either group lead the kinds of alienated lives that Junger describes; even their families don’t provide a sustained sense of shared humanity. It’s an eye-opening novel with a bleak view of humankind. I admired it, I think it’s an important book that deals with vital questions, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it very much.

 

 

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