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Posts Tagged ‘Five Colleges Book Sale’

At the Five Colleges Book Sale last April I got a Penguin Street Art edition of Armadillo by William Boyd. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Boyd nor read any of his work, but I was intrigued. I picked it up over the weekend and really enjoyed it. Dark humor, a bit of intrigue, a hero who wants to live and prosper as his own man yet is also deeply loyal, kind, and ethical — I devoured it.

Lorimer Black, said hero, is “a young man not much over thirty, tall — six feet plus and inch or two — with ink-dark hair and a serious-looking, fine-featured but pallid face, went to keep a business appointment and discovered a hanged man.” That’s the opening sentence. Lorimer, we learn, was born Milomre Blocj, youngest of five in a family of Transnistrian Rom (gypsies) whose parents emigrated to Fulham during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, having landed there during previous upheavals in Eastern Europe.  After a formative and “life changing” experience (too hilarious to give away here) at a Scottish Univerisity, young Milo makes a fresh start in the insurance business as Lorimer Black, the name he legally gives himself.

The dead man we meet on page one is proprietor of a factory that had suffered a fire, and Lorimer, who works as a loss adjustor was there on behalf of his employer. Lorimer is a fascinating character, who buys fresh flowers for his flat (but hates carnations), is partial to very old helmets and takes fashion advice from his antiques dealer, is part of a sleep study conducted by a man in his building, is sweet to an old lady and her dog who live downstairs, is in a relationship of sorts with a woman who owns a scaffolding company, and a strong moral code that leads him to life changing actions. The minor characters are also fascinating and even those with cameos — a surly waitress at Lorimer’s favorite “caff,” or the misogynist anti-tax flower seller whose kiosk Lorimer frequents, for example — come fully to life.

Throughout the book, Boyd includes excerpts from Lorimer/Milo’s diary, The Book of Transfiguration, where he muses on everything from revelations from the Institute of Lucid Dreams (where his sleep is analyzed) to the history of insurance to Milo’s personal history to words, literature, mythology. These shed even more light on Lorimer/Milo’s character. Between this very interesting hero and the other fascinating characters, the detailed settings (you can see, smell, and hear Lorimer’s world as you read) and the intriguing, black humor-laced plot, I could not put this down. The writing, too, kept me fully engaged. Here’s an example: ” . . . he gazed across the road through the porthole of clarity he had smeared in the condensation.” It’s the kind of book that you can’t read at breakfast, because it’ll make you late for work. The kind you might get a sunburn reading because you’ll forget to reapply sunblock.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find William Boyd’s work but I want to read more of it. I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but I think that’s because I’ve found a lot of interesting things to read this summer!

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I am a fan of New Hamsphire authors Sy Montgomery and Howard Mansfield. I’ve written about their work several times on the blog and in the Mindful Reader column. Recently my good friend and fellow book lover Juliana gifted me with The Good Good Pig: the Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood. We each had piles of books in our arms in the checkout line of The Five Colleges Booksale and when I exclaimed over her finding Sy’s book, she let me buy it instead of buying it herself. If that’s not friendship I don’t know what is.

Anyway, I’ve been reading my own “to read” books instead of library books lately, partly because I bought a lot of books this spring, and partly because I was changing jobs, and thus libraries. Last week was kind of an unsettled one, with some stressful stuff happening (such as becoming a library director) at work and at home, so I wanted a book I knew would feed my soul, and given that, I knew I couldn’t go wrong with Sy!

The only problem with The Good Good Pig is that I want to move to Hancock, New Hampshire, and since Concord is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose (we lived in Oklahoma twice, but only because the USMC sent us there both times) and The Computer Scientist says he is not moving any more boxes ever again, but instead will live here until he is the one being moved in a box (he has a morbid sense of humor), that’s not likely to happen. Really I just want to be Sy’s and Howard’s neighbor.

So, The Good Good Pig isn’t just about Christopher Hogwood, the runt piglet they adopted who lived to be fourteen and a valued member of their community. It’s about the many ways Christopher taught the people in his life all kinds of things — how to play, how to savor the sunlight and grass on a nice day, how to truly enjoy delicious foods, and simply, as one of Sy’s former neighbors explains, “how to love.” Sy notes that by living a long life, Christopher Hogwood showed everyone who knew him that “We need not accept the rules that our society or species, family or fate have written for us.”

This is not just a fascinating book about animals, peppered with interesting anecdotes about some of the many creatures Sy has loved, researched, communed with, written about, and felt an affinity towards, from pink dolphins to tarantulas and man eating tigers. It’s also a book about two people who fell in love with each other and the writing life and created for themselves a home and a community that fully embraced them and their work. And it’s a book about family in many forms — not only in the traditional sense of the people we come from and often find ourselves challenged by, but the family we make for ourselves, human and inter-species. Sy’s writing about her relationship with her mother is moving and inspiring — she is a model of radical acceptance even in the face of challenges, and the world would be a better place if more people were able to love their way through hurts the way Sy does.

The Good Good Pig  was just the book I hoped, soul filling, life affirming, smart, and thoughtful. We have so much to learn from animals, and although I can’t claim I am as connected to other creatures as Sy is (not many people are!) I am often impressed that my cats are so tuned into my feelings. For creatures who get a bad rap for being aloof, they can be remarkably supportive when I need it, especially the small grey tabby who will curl up against me or on me if she can sense I need her calming presence. As my Facebook friends know, she is also my zen master, running to the meditation cushion after dinner to remind me it’s time to sit and joining me as I meditate. So I totally understand how a pig could be “a big Buddha master” to his friends and neighbors.

I leave you with two peaceful cat pictures, because how could I not? They’re no 750 pound pig, but I think there are probably city ordinances against hog husbandry in Concord anyway.

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Cork Boat is one of the titles I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale. Yes, I am going to read The Scapegoat; it’s our June book club pick. It hadn’t arrived yet, anyway, so I decided this would be a good distraction from the various stressful things in my life. I was right.

John Pollack was a political speechwriter when, disgusted by the gridlock in Washington (sadly, about twenty years ago), he decided to take some time off to pursue a boyhood dream: building a boat made of corks. In Cork Boat he tells the story of how he organized dozens of people — friends, relatives, neighbors, and even strangers — to help him and his good friend Garth Goldstein bring the boat to life. Along the way, he took a job writing speeches at the Clinton White House, returning to his previous job working for Michigan Congressman David Bonior after the election, and even taking a job writing for an expedition to Antarctica. None of this kept him from pursuing his dream boat, and when it was finished, getting it shipped to Portugal where he and Goldstein and an assortment of friends and family members helped them travel from Barca d’Alva to Porto on the Douro River.

It’s an enjoyable book, one that might make you want to travel off the beaten path, or cause a little wistfulness for whatever you dreamed of as a child. It’s also a good reminder that in a world often fraught with conflict, hardship, struggle, and hardship, we could all benefit from paying attention to the cork boats in our lives. Maybe no one you know is doing something on this scale, but you probably know someone who is pursuing a hobby or past time just for the joy of it, or to prove to themself that they can reach a particular goal, or to bring people together around a common purpose. If you seek those stories, they’re out there to enjoy among the din of political rancor, intolerance, and human suffering. Cork Boat is a decent place to start.*

Quick aside: for May, my book club read Waking Up White by Debby Irving. It’s written in a style I didn’t enjoy — very brief chapters with questions at the end of each, which makes it kind of choppy and occasionally repetitive — but it was thought provoking, and led to a good discussion about white privilege and racism. We decided we’d recommend it to people who haven’t really explored these issues.

*Good News Network isn’t a bad place to look, either.

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Penelope Fitzgerald‘s The Bookshop is one of the books I bought at the Five Colleges Book Sale, and I read it yesterday afternoon while waiting to hear what you all suggest I read next (so far the consensus is The Scapegoat, as soon as it arrives). In keeping with how she appears to have been treated in her lifetime, as this appreciation by Julian Barnes suggests, I purchased two of Fitzgerald’s books accidentally, because I was thinking of Penelope Lively. As I told the Computer Scientist, it all worked out, because somehow, I’ve never read Fitzgerald and she’s marvelous.

The Bookshop is a brief but brilliant tribute to the difficulty of being “not from around here.” The heroine, Florence Green, decides to open a bookshop in a very small town on the coast of England in 1959. She’s a widow, and as the book opens “she had recently come to wonder whether she hadn’t a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right.” Having worked in a large book store in London, she decides that she’ll buy the derelict and aptly named Old House, damp and reportedly haunted by a “rapper” — a loud sort of poltergeist — and transform it into a bookshop.

In the course of 123 pages, Florence struggles to do so, encountering helpful Boy Scouts, a capable ten year old whose large family sends her to be a shop assistant, unhelpful and patronizing bankers and lawyers, and an assortment of customers. She also manages to meet and annoy the formidable Mrs. Gamart, who fancies herself a patron of the arts and has designs on the Old House, and Mr. Brundish, an elderly “descendent of one of the most ancient Suffolk families,” who becomes a friend of sorts, if an eccentric one in failing health. A young BBC employee, Milo, also seems to befriend Florence and the shop, although Florence can’t seem to get a read on him. All these characters and many minor ones march off the pages of this book, fully dimensional.

Florence fumbles her way, taking a big gamble on a new book, Lolita, and trying not to embarrass herself when her accountant comes around. Will she overcome her struggles and make a go of it? How will the town ultimately treat their outsider bookseller? What will become of her various friends, young and old? If you have a spare evening, you’ll soon learn. Fitzgerald writes in a way that portrays each scene vividly but with minimal words. For example, when General Gamart visits the bookshop to buy a war memoir, “He glanced about him as if on parole, and retreated with his parcel.” Fitzgerald succinctly shows us his discomfort. And to be clear, I shared that discomfort, by the end of this story, as Fitzgerald captures the pettiness of small towns everywhere. Still, I felt a ray of hope.

The other Fitzgerald I bought is apparently one of Barnes’ favorites, The Blue Flower. I look forward to it, and to deliberately hunting down more of her books at the next sale I attend.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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