Posts Tagged ‘grail quest’

I read a variety of books this month,  but I noticed as I looked over the list that many of them, fiction and nonfiction alike, featured food prominently. Location mattered, too, as I gravitated towards books set near and far, from Seattle to New England, from New York to Paris, to the mountains of Bhutan. I guess I was craving a virtual getaway. The rest of the household stuck to some familiar themes. I’ll start with their reading.

The Computer Scientist, who is a former Marine, enjoyed The Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan. He says it’s a great read for anyone interested in the dynamics and challenges of Special Forces and what they faced in Afghanistan. He also read I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, because Stephen King cites Matheson as an influence in his writing. He found the stories enjoyable and says some are intriguing enough to re-read.

The Preteen just read an Enola Holmes book by Nancy Springer, The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline. She pronounces this latest mystery featuring Sherlock’s younger sister, “great.” She says she likes Enola because she “sticks up for herself.”  She enjoyed the Summer Reading Kickoff at Gibson’s, and started reading a series Nancy Keane recommended, the Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau.

Bookconscious regulars know the Teenager lives and breathes soccer. His summer reading, and writing, is focused on the beautiful game. He recently read Soccer in a Football World and Beckham: Both Feet on the Ground: An Autobiography. He’s also been enjoying the New York Times. We recently restarted our home delivery of the paper, and he’s been impressed with the soccer coverage, the business section, and the paper’s global scope.

We  finished reading T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” in our literary circle. In an earlier bookconscious post, I explained that the Teenager requested Eliot and we’ve been reading our way through some of his major poems since April. He found “The Four Quartets” very appealing because he felt it was a little easier to penetrate than “The Waste Land,” but still full of intriguing language and fascinating imagery. When we talked about “Little Gidding” he said he liked the storytelling voice that seemed to take over the poem.

I enjoyed “The Four Quartets” very much myself. I liked the way Eliot refers back to some of his own earlier work and gives readers of “The Waste Land” a sense of completion — many of the disturbing spiritual and emotional disconnect is restored and reconnected in the later poem. As a not very accomplished student of mindfulness, I think Eliot masterfully describes the trouble with the human tendency to look backwards and forwards, rather than seeing what’s happening right now in this moment

Eliot also clearly values literary history and is very concerned with war and its inevitable connections to both the past and future. I think his poetry reflects a mindfulness influenced by his Western perspectives, recognizing the suffering our attachments and desires cause us, scrutinizing our historical mistakes, and trying to carry the best of human experience (including great literature) with us as we move into the future.

The way Eliot synthesizes so many influences — grail mythology, Hindu texts, Buddhist philosophy, Christian spirituality and mysticism, and literature from ancient to modern — makes his work endlessly intriguing. He’s definitely an example of the bookconscious theory of interconnectedness. It sometimes feels like he puts everything he’s ever read, and everywhere he’s ever been or thought of going (as well as a few imagined locations) into his work.

The Computer Scientist found some useful secondary sources at Ohrstrom Library that helped us untangle the layers of meaning in “The Four Quartets.” Two were The Composition of the Four Quartets by Helen Gardner and T.S. Eliot: The Longer Poems: The Wasteland, Ash Wednesday, Four Quartets by Derek Traversi. He also found artist David Finn’s inviting book of paintings, Evocations of Four Quartets, from Ohrstrom library, which added a whole new dimension to our Eliot explorations. I would love to see these works in person.

Another artist whose work I admired this month is Brian Andreas. I picked up Volume 5, Hearing Voices, in his series of “Mostly True Stories and Drawings” at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Andreas writes in his introduction that his creative process is about listening: “Every line is a whisper of memory, of my life at that moment.” He suggests, “There may be answers hidden in the quick connections of this book. Or maybe they’re just beyond the edges, waiting for us to hear.”

An example of the stories in Hearing Voices is Invention. Story or art? You decide. I took this book to the beach (one of the only days in June that it didn’t rain) and both kids thought it was funny and strange.

Eliot’s poems and Andreas’s stories were the two things I read that had nothing to with food. One book I very much enjoyed focused on what animals eat, specifically deer, wild turkeys, and other New Hampshire wildlife. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has a new book coming out in September, The Hidden Life of Deer: Lessons From the Natural World. It’s the first “ARC” or advanced reading copy, I’ve read as events coordinator at Gibson’s Bookstore. I’m working on setting up a date for Thomas to come read from the book and sign at the store. Watch our events calendar, because she’ll be coming in the fall.

In The Hidden Life of Deer, Thomas writes about what she learned as she fed deer and turkeys near her home after the  the oaks failed to produce their usual crop of acorns a few years ago. It turns out there is a very good reason for the dearth of acorns, which Thomas explains. She decided to help her animal neighbors avoid starvation, and she doesn’t shy away from discussing the arguments against putting out corn, the possibility that when she fed the wildlife she was “meddling” with nature, and why she chose to do so.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is that although Thomas writes beautifully and presents a great deal of very specific scientific information, you get the feeling she’s just telling you the story as you sit with her. I liked hearing about her interactions with a hunter neighbor and the NH Fish and Game Department, as well as her observations about the deer’s family groups.

Thomas’s knowledge and exploration of the natural world began when she was just a girl, and she shares some of the formative experiences that have fed her interest in animals and plants and their symbiotic relationships. She has a beautiful way of elucidating these interdependencies, both among flora and fauna and between humans and the wild.

I found these passages fascinating and educational.  Thomas talks about inadvertently destroying a “refugium of flies” in her shed, something I’d never heard of.  And her distress over the chain reaction she accidentally set off when ridding her office of rats gave me pause.

Thomas’s musings on ethics, history, and biology, and her deep curiosity and keen observations, make The Hidden Life of Deer so much more than a well written, thoughtfully researched book on deer. How many people have ever heard a mouse sing? Who else has written about it? Thomas has a gift for this kind of remarkable detail. Look for her book this fall.

From a book that’s not yet in stores, to one I’ve had for years but left in the to-read pile until recently: Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa. I’ve recently become friends with a refugee family from Bhutan, who’ve spent years in a camp in Nepal waiting to either go home or be resettled. I remembered that I had the book on my shelf after we talked about their leaving Bhutan.

Zeppa arrived in the country just before the unrest. She was there as a volunteer teacher with a Canadian NGO. Beyond Earth and Sky is her memoir of moving to Bhutan, overcoming culture shock, embracing Buddhism, teaching in an elementary school and then in a college English department, and falling in love.

Beyond the Sky and the Earth provides an honest look at what many international volunteers go through as they not only adapt to their new surroundings, but also feel differently about their native culture.  I enjoyed reading about Zeppa’s personal transformation, especially because she was honest about the setbacks she experienced as well as the discoveries. If you liked Eat, Pray, Love, but felt like it was a little unrealistic, try Beyond the Sky and the Earth.

Zeppa’s  descriptions of Bhutanese food, culture, and landscape transported me away from rainy New Hampshire, and helped me figure out what I’ve been eating at my friends’ house. But the book that made me hungriest this month was Giulia Melucci ‘s I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. Melucci is coming to Gibson’s on August 5th, for a reading sponsored by the Women’s Fund of New Hampshire.

Her memoir of life as a young professional in New York, looking for love and loving to cook, is a fun read. Melucci writes fondly of her family and friends and even some of her exes, but my favorite part of the book is the mouth watering meal descriptions and recipes. I dare you not to nosh while reading this book — I went through large bowls of popcorn, myself.

Both Zeppa and Melucci not only describe great meals, but also write beautifully about places they love — Bhutan and Canada, New York and Connecticut.  Even though Melucci’s locations aren’t as exotic, she manages to bring them to life. I could see all the places these talented women described, from Brooklyn neighborhoods to mountain trails, and I really love a book that can take me somewhere, whether it’s familiar or faraway.

Seattle is a relatively familiar place, since we lived in the area for five years. The Computer Scientist worked for a large software company located in nearby Redmond, Washington. Seattle region has long been a foodie paradise. Matthew Amster-Burton’s memoir, Hungry Monkey, describes his determination that fatherhood was not going to end his forays into Seattle’s many markets and restaurants.

I enjoyed some of this book, but ended up skimming the rest, mainly because it reminded me of many reasons that our five years in Seattle were some of the loneliest and most frustrating of my life. It’s not Amster-Burton’s fault, personally. But everything from his hyphenated name to his trendy eating habits (I suspect that even the little ethnic hole in the walls he slums in are hot spots with other slumming urbanites) brought back bad memories. I suppose I should be thankful, because our time in Seattle brought us “home” to New Hampshire.

Also, I had such a hard time fitting in with young hip parents in the Northwest that I found my way into my first ever book group, which met a local branch library. I was the youngest member by at least a dozen years or more, but those women eased my loneliness and helped me find my tribe: book people. Which led me, eventually, to feel so at home in New Hampshire, a place brimming with book people.

New Hampshire was more like Seattle this month, as we had one of the grayest, rainiest Junes on record. I spent many a late night curled up listening to rain on the roof and reading a novel. I also finished Olive Kitteridge and discussed it with Gibson’s Book Club. We talked for a couple of hours straight about Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer winning linked story collection.

While I enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge, I had a hard time with all of the “issues” — every story featured something appalling straight out of the headlines. It felt like too much to me. A linked story collection, also set in Maine, that I liked better was Monica Wood’s Ernie’s Ark.

I also read Adiga Aravind’s The White Tiger, Alice Hoffman’s The Story Sisters, and Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man. I enjoyed all three, for entirely different reasons.  Like the nonfiction I gravitated towards this month, these three novels depend on a strong sense of place and feature mouth watering descriptions of food.

The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize last year. Set in India, the novel follows the progress of a young man, Balram Halwai, from his village to the city as a servant to the son of one of the “big men” who control politics and business back in “The Darkness,” as Balram calls the countryside. Balram tells the story in a series of letters to Wen Jiabao (the Chinese premier) written over seven nights after he has found freedom.

Like Slumdog Millionaire, The White Tiger presents the cavernous divide between the rich and poor in contemporary India, as well as the ongoing tension between Hindus and Muslims and the corruption that taints all levels of government. Balram calls his story “The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian,” in reference to his unfinished education and limited opportunities.  Balram ultimately pulls himself out of poverty, but his tale is far from uplifting or inspiring, although it was hard to put down.

Adiga, who was a journalist for many years, recently told NHPR’s Virginia Prescott that “India is mind bogglingly complex” and that he sets out to to portray the “social complexity of life in India” in his fiction. His prose not only brings the narrative to life, but also gives readers who’ve never been to India the sights, sounds, and smells his characters are experiencing in vivid detail. He certainly tells a compelling story.

Both The Story Sisters and The Family Man are well written, entertaining, good old fashioned yarns. The Story Sisters is the more complex of the two books, with snippets of a fair tale interwoven with the story of three sisters growing up with a single mother in Long Island, and a grandmother in Paris. After a traumatic experience as a young girl, the passionately imaginative eldest sister creates the fairy tale world the sisters escape into, and her yearning for an alternate reality ultimately leads her into a troubled adolescence.

While the novel is a story of her coming of age and the impact it has on the rest of the family, Hoffman also gives attention to the other sisters, their mother, and an array of secondary characters in a series of intense subplots. It’s a haunting, layered book that emphasizes human resilience and the power of love, without becoming maudlin or spiraling into cliche.

Hoffman brought Long Island, Manhattan, Paris, and the New Hampshire North Country to life. And like Giulia Melucci cooking for the men she dates in New York, the youngest Story sister cooks first for an elderly couple who find love late in life, and then for a family friend she eventually falls in love with. You’ll want to go to Paris when you finish this book. Or at least cook something French.

The Family Man is also set in New York and is the story of a newly retired lawyer, Henry, who reconnects with his step-daughter after his ex-wife is widowed, and also finds a partner after nearly giving up on love. Lipman’s book is as astutely observant of social mores and as subtly hilarious as a Jane Austen novel. The ex-wife is a funny but humane send-up of wealthy New York society wives. She’s also the catalyst for the novel’s narrative, which brings together a lovable cast of characters in a narrative full of crazy twists and turns and an “all’s well that ends well” sensibility. If you like social comedy, try The Family Man.

Last week I finished Mudbound, ahead of schedule (it’s the Gibson’s Book Club July selection. Join us July13 at 7 pm or August 17 at noon to discuss it).  I really enjoyed the shifting point of view Hillary Nelson employs in telling the story. That said, I would have liked to hear more from some of the six characters who speak, and I think it would have been interesting to hear the racist father-in-law’s perspective.

Mudbound is set in postwar Mississippi, where the characters are dealing with the financial and physical challenges of farming, as well as racism, the social dynamic of sharecropping, and post war trauma. A dramatic book, Mudbound relies on personalities and perceptions as much as plot. The land itself, from the muddy Delta cotton country to the battlefields of WWII, has a starring role.

I’ve begun reading Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. Yesterday I read one of the most creative running scenes I’ve ever come across anywhere. I’m really enjoying the prose, and I pointed out to the Teenager this afternoon that  “The Four Quartets” figures in the story. The bookconscious literary circle is discussing the first third of Farenheit 451 this week. I clipped this photo of Ray Bradbury and hung it near the kitchen sink, and I’m happy to be re-reading one of my favorite books.

A final thought on connections and the nourishment of books. My kids had eschewed my reading aloud for months. They came to my first preschool story time this week at Gibson’s, and this evening my son told the Computer Scientist he’d forgotten how much fun my story times are. My daughter agreed. The entire exchange lasted maybe thirty seconds, but I sensed an opening.

A few days ago, I’d brought home The Serial Garden from the library. I loved Joan Aiken’s books when I was young. However, since I suggested it, the Preteen glanced skeptically at the cover and said, “maybe,” in that special terse tone of voice she reserves just for me. But this evening, as the busy weekend drew to a close, and fireflies flickered in the deepening dark, I began to read aloud. They both listened. Stories, good ones, take us away even from our selves, into a place where it doesn’t matter how old we are, how we’re feeling, how awkward and uncomfortable the world seems, how grown up we want to be.

Share a book with someone tonight, or with yourself. Let it fill you up.

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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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