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Posts Tagged ‘graphic novels’

I absolutely loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette,  so I was excited to read Maria Semple‘s latest novel, Today Will Be Different. Eleanor Flood, the protagonist, was the animation director on an edgy TV show. She does freelance illustration in Seattle; she has a book deal for a graphic novel (which is embedded in Today Will Be Different) based on her childhood, but it’s eight years overdue. Her husband, Joe, is a famous hand surgeon who works with the Seahawks. They have a son, Timby, who applies makeup when he thinks his mother isn’t looking, and a dog, Yo-Yo. She knows her life would be the envy of most people, but she’s at loose ends, feeling middle aged, useless, and lost.

For one thing, she hasn’t seen her sister Ivy in years, because of her controlling, unhinged brother-in-law. For another, she gets the sense that Joe is up to something. On a morning when she vows that her day will be different — she’ll be her “best self” — she instead ends up on a madcap adventure around Seattle, with Timby, who says he has a stomach ache but is really being bullied at school, and Yo-Yo, at least part of the time, in tow.

It’s impossible not to root for Eleanor — who among us hasn’t meant to be our best selves, and found it perpetually impossible? And if you enjoyed Semple’s gentle but persistent humorous critique of upper middle class privileged angst in her earlier work, you’ll laugh at it again here. But Today Will Be Different, like Where’d You Go Bernadette, isn’t just wacky and fun, it has a deep vein of emotional, and this time even spiritual, truth to explore. It’s a book about love in many forms, and about being who we are in a world that constantly tempts us to be otherwise. And in Eleanor’s case, it’s about healing from a past that comes back to stir up her psyche no matter how much she tries to let it go, or sometimes, to banish it.

“Deep down, Eleanor knew she must have been born a warmer soul. She wasn’t meant to be so self reliant.” And deep down we know that as much as we may giggle at her exploits, and roll our eyes at some of the ridiculous ways people in this book act, Eleanor’s warm soul will lift her out of the funk she’s in. We get the sense that Eleanor will let herself rely on Timby and Joe and even Yo-Yo, who love her and know they can count on her even when she’s “mean,” one of Timby’s frequent complaints. I won’t tell you the plot twists or how things end, but I will say that despite everything, readers come to the final page feeling love can prevail over just about anything, even Eleanor Flood. And don’t we all need a little reminding of that?

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I read Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh to fill the “a graphic novel or comic book” square on my book bingo card. And because my daughter finds some of it hysterical and some of it wise. And a young, smart colleague at work said it was one of the most helpful things she’d read when a friend was depressed, because it helped her see what that was like. And I am simultaneously admiring and jealous of bloggers whose work is published in books — Hyperbole and a Half was (and still is) a blog before it became a book.

When I brought it home, my daughter wanted to read two sections to me — I LOVE being read to, and I can’t even think of the last time that happened. She chose “The God of Cake,” and “The Party,” and by the time she got to the end of each she was laughing so hard she could barely catch her breath and was almost in tears, and that made me ridiculously, thoroughly happy.

I read the rest myself but she frequently came in and asked where I was and commented.

My take? Both my daughter and my young smart colleague are correct — it’s hysterical, and wise, and helpful. It’s also scary and maybe even a little painful. “Identity Part One” and “Identity Part Two” are so packed with observant insights into human nature and the philosophy of the self — or  is that just my identity, thinking I’m smart and wanting to feel special by saying things like that? Eek.

In “Depression, Part Two,”  Brosh writes (and draws), “And even if everything still seems like hopeless bullshit, maybe it’s just pointless bullshit or weird bullshit or possibly not even bullshit.

I don’t know.
But when you’re concerned that the miserable, boring wasteland in front of you might stretch all the way into forever, not knowing feels strangely hope-like.”

Wow. This is hard, funny, amazing stuff and I loved it, even when it made me uncomfortable. Tonight as I was looking at the blog, I read a comment that said “Oh my….this sort of hurt to read yet, I feel oddly connected to you.”  Yes. That, exactly. And bonus points because you make my daughter laugh.

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It’s been very busy in the bookconscious house, and changes are afoot. Many of you know that Teen the Elder is getting ready to leave for his gap year.  We had an unexpected (in timing, expense, and fun) trip to New York last week to get his visa. We’re down to a month or so before he leaves, and suddenly the brevity of our time as a family of four is stark.

As if that wasn’t enough tumult, I’ve accepted a new job, and will be returning to the library world. It’s a part time reference job, with hours mainly at night, so I’ll have my days free for Teen the Younger and her life learning adventures. Hopefully, I’ll also return to more disciplined writing time. I’m very excited — libraries have been among my favorite places all my life, and reference is my favorite aspect of librarianship.

In the midst of all of this upheaval, I found myself reading books about the normalcy of transition in human experience. If anything stays the same, it’s change. Ubiquitous as it may be, change is something many of us don’t handle all that well. The books I read this month introduced me to people (real and imagined) in the throes of personal and societal change, which was oddly comforting as I faced major changes myself.

When I signed off last month I was reading Kosher Chinese, a delightful memoir by Michael Levy about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Bookconscious regulars know I am a big admirer of Peter Hessler, whose first book, River Town was also a Peace Corps memoir set in China. Levy’s book is quite different, but also wonderful.

I was struck by Levy’s perceptive commentary on the struggle of  “China’s other billion,” the people he met in the heartland of China in the mid 2000’s. It’s a poignant look at the universal need for something to believe in, someone to share life’s ups and downs with. It’s an interesting meditation on personal and cultural identity in the midst of change — not only Levy’s immersion in Chinese culture, but also his Chinese friends’ various struggles to find their places in a country where change is constant.

I’ll admit up front one reason I admired Kosher Chinese is that Levy pays tribute to his mother. Anyone who writes fondly of his mother is alright by me. But I also liked that Levy wrote from a fresh perspective, not about factory workers or migrants or cmmunists (although all got a nod) but about ordinary Chinese in an area the West doesn’t pay much attention to, who are not really sure whether “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”  will make their lives better.

His experiences eating strange foods,dealing with new living conditions, playing basketball, leading (at his Chinese friends’ insistence) a Jewish club, and playing Santa at a Chinese Wal-mart are both hilarious and thoughtful. Read Kosher Chinese and you’ll learn something about China, and also about humanity.  Levy is honest about his desire to help his friends and also about the ineffectiveness of most of his efforts to intervene in their lives.

Peace Corps work is somewhat passive activism — hard work, to be sure, but volunteers are meant to promote peace and friendship and foster understanding, not foment change. A very intense book-length poem I read this month, One With Others, by C.D. Wright, examines a more active agitator, a white woman in civil rights era Arkansas, who joined a black protest march and ended up losing her comfortable life in a small town.   The poem’s language shifts from delicate, patterned, “poetic” sections to others that are more fragmented, improvisational. I’m usually a fan of short poetic forms, but this book won me over to the possibilities of length.

One With Others is elegaic, sometimes stark, often beautiful. But it’s also a deep reflection on the idea of universal human values; do we have them? If so why do some people fail to see them, perpetrating horrible hardships or even violence against the “other,” as we’ve seen throughout history, and continue to see in the news every day? What makes someone reject that “otherness” in a close knit community and walk firmly on the side of “one?”  The poem doesn’t offer answers so much as opportunity to reflect on these ideas, and on the life of the unlikely, imperfect heroine V., who in real life was Margaret Kaelin McHugh.

Speaking of unlikely heroes, when was the last time you considered decorative hermits? Author Steve Himmer‘s The Bee-Loud Glade is a novel whose narrator is silent for most of the book. When he spoke at Gibson’s last week Himmer said that was the challenge he set himself, writing from the point of view of someone who couldn’t speak, and when he came across information about decorative hermits he knew he was on to something.

This novel has many things I love — social commentary, dystopian references, a very original story, and philosophical overtones. Finch, the hermit, is a “brand awareness manager” — he writes fake blogs to sell people on Second Nature Modern Greenery fake plants, until a new “submanager” at his company figures out he’s just making up stories all day and fires him.

After “weeks on the couch doing nothing,” he responds to an online job ad without really knowing what the job is.  He’s chauffered in a limo to meet Mr. Crane, a super rich businessman (or in today’s parlance, a job creator) who explains he wants a hermit for his gardens.  Finch takes the job.

The entire book is about Finch’s efforts to “meet it and live it” as Thoreau wrote, making the best of his life even when things look miserable.  I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that at first Finch is a passive agent, dealing with change only by following routines and instructions.  Outsiders — some known, some mysterious and perhaps even figments of his imagination — direct his choices. Eventually, through Finch’s own revelations as well as external circumstances, he comes to understand his life as more than a string of actions and responses.

The Bee-Loud Glade is an entertaining read that examines self-reliance in a world that values instant gratification, and looks at our idea of “nature” in a time when people see animals on a screen more often than outside.  Several contemporary themes impact the book’s characters: globalization, the gulf between executives and workers, financial excess, the influence of marketing, hubris in molding the natural world to our purposes. Himmer writes well, his book is thought provoking, and he leaves readers with much to ponder.  Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this novel.

I read Himmer’s book, as well as David Schmahmann’s latest, last month because they were coming to Gibson’s to read. Frederick Reiken joined them, and read from his book, Day For Night, a 2010 LA Times book prize finalist for fiction. This was the most complicated of the three novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like Schmahmann and Himmer, Reiken writes beautifully, and he provides a complex, intriguing story, told through ten first person narratives.

You read that right: ten. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve read many other books told from different points of view and few are as deftly managed as this one. Reiken also makes each intersecting life rich in detail: there is a chapter in which a woman discovers her newly purchased house is full of toxic mold, and another in which a mysterious woman rescues a young man who is a victim of ritual abuse; still another character is determined to figure out what happened to her father, one of a group of 500 Jewish intellectuals who disappeared in Kovno, Lithuania during WWII; two other chapters deal with marine biology and desert zoology.  Another character is a Jungian analyst.

Reiken told listeners at Gibson’s that many of the pieces of information he used in the book came to him through life experiences — he has a background in biology, his wife worked with ritual abuse victims, he once had a house full of toxic mold.  Other information he came across and wanted to wrestle with, like the true story of the 500 Jewish intellectuals.  He also told us that one editor asked if he could change the book to a straightforward 3rd person point of view.  I’m very glad he held fast to his vision.

Day for Night is not hard to follow, but it is delightfully shadowy; the links between the many characters are for readers to discover. Reiken could have made things more obvious as he went along — in fact it must have been a little tempting to write the equivalent of “See? See how it all fits?!”   But as he draws the book together, the pleasure of untangling and analyzing connections falls entirely to the reader.

Interestingly, he set the book in a pre-email, texting, messaging, cell phone world, where the characters work things out mostly on paper and in person, not on computers. As they do, as they draw closer to long wondered-about truths, as they confront the unfolding mysteries of their lives, there is none of the sense of hyper-driven news cycles of today, none of the frenzy of the internet. It’s kind of a novel about slow communication.

Day For Night also presents a group of characters who are living with the aftermath of war, occupation, and displacement; in a few cases they have had direct experience, but in others they are the children and grandchildren of a generation of refugees and victims of war. It was interesting to read Outcasts United after this novel.  Author Warren St. John moved to Atlanta to document the lives of a number of refugee families in Clarkston, Georgia, and to profile a woman who is making a marked impact in their lives through soccer.

I’d read the beginning of the book last winter, and skimmed some other sections, as Concord Reads was choosing this year’s community wide read. We ended up choosing Outcasts United, and I am very much looking forward to leading a brown bag discussion of the book as part of our programming.  I’ve been a volunteer with the local refugee resettlement agency, and I think St. John does a good job of outlining the challenging issues facing refugees and the people tasked with helping them start over in America.

But that’s not entirely what Outcasts United is about. It’s mostly about a truly remarkable woman, Luma Mufleh, who accidentally became one of the most effective advocates in Clarkston for young refugees, through her passion for soccer. The book follows Luma and some of her players, describing the horrors they’ve left behind and those they are still facing, even in their new home.

St. John is clearly sympathetic to his subjects, and I imagine that some of the residents of Clarkston are probably not thrilled at the way their town appears in the book. Having lived in a small town in Georgia myself, I recognized the forces at work in Clarkston — longstanding tradition, conservative (in the sense of resisting change, not in the political sense) values, provincialism, cronyism, and plain old inexperience with other cultures, along with a dose of intolerance (racial, cultural, and/or religious) from some residents. And yet, right alongside, some willingness to embrace the “other” and to improvise in ways that small towns often do.

The boys on Luma’s soccer teams will break your heart, as will their families’ stories.  In January’s post I wrote about Caroline Moorhead’s excellent book Human Cargo, so I was familiar with much of what the refugee population is escaping. But as with any conflict, the individual situations magnify the horror of the whole, and St. John definitely helps readers see what these children are dealing with.

On top of their pasts, many of them face violence, discrimination, continuing poverty, and family separation even once they are safely resettled in the U.S., and they tend to have much more responsibility than their schoolmates, watching younger children, cooking meals, and interpreting for their parents. Luma believes that responsibility is good for them and will help them survive, and she offers tough love and mandatory tutoring, as well as firm coaching and plenty of running.

Ultimately Outcasts United is about the Fugees, as her teams are known, and Luma’s enormous work, establishing the teams, getting them equipped, finding somewhere for them to play, working out the many small logistical problems any sports club must work out. But it’s also about her completely selfless dedication to the families she gets to know. And about Clarkston’s growing pains, and the individuals who try to maintain the status quo, as well as those who see change and go out to “meet it and live it.”

One issue I have with the book is that some of these small town heroes and villains seem a bit predictable and “stock” — but in fairness to St. John, I have no way of knowing if I would feel that way if I hadn’t met some people very much like them during my own time in Georgia.  He may also have simply gotten to know Luma and her players better than he did the townspeople; I think Luma in particular comes across as a much more multi-dimensional character in the book. At any rate, there is much to discuss, especially in light of New Hampshire’s own struggle to absorb refugees into small communities.

Finally, as stress relief around the time I was interviewing for a new job and working with Teen the Elder on the highly convoluted student visa application process, I decided I needed a nice thick novel. At the recommendation of a fellow Gibson’s staff member, I chose Kate Morton‘s The Distant Hours. I read The Forgotten Garden two winters ago, and enjoyed that. The Distant Hours was also an entertaining read.

The characters are appealing, and the story deals with the main character learning some unexpected things about her mother’s wartime experiences and girlhood. There’s a bit of a mystery, some of it literary, and there’s a moldering old castle where three elderly sisters keep secrets from the world and each other.  The Distant Hours is a good read, and another look at the way World War II disrupted lives and plans, and impacted families even beyond the generations that lived during those times.

All of the reading I did about people facing great challenges and difficulties coupled with all the news lately — drought in the U.S., famine in Africa, continuing high rates of unemployment, austerity measures in Greece and elsewhere, the debt debate — made me feel fortunate, if not downright privileged. The Computer Scientist and I and the Teens are healthy, safe, and secure. We are able to send Teen the Elder off into the world to have a gap year before college. We were able to treat the family to a mini vacation in New York while securing his visa.

While there, Teen the Younger took the Computer Scientist to some of her favorite places from our last trip, such as Forbidden Planet near Union Square, and we saw a couple of fantastic shows: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and War Horse (such bookconscious shows — How to Succeed is about a young man who gets ahead in part by reading a book, and War Horse is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo).  We also got to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that has been one of the hottest attractions in New York this summer: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Teen the Younger was thoroughly impressed, even though we had to squeeze through the packed galleries. Teen the Elder also enjoyed the exhibit. The Computer Scientist waited on a bench. We managed to avoid the two hour wait by getting a membership to the Met, but that got the member (me) and two additional guests into the exhibit ahead of the line.  I had every intention of bringing The Computer Scientist in after I took the kids in (as recommended by a Met staffer), but that proved impossible, as it took us two hours to wind our way through.  He didn’t mind, and Teen the Younger asked for the exhibit book, which is amazing, and which provides the Computer Scientist a look at what we saw.

Teen the Younger continues to read manga. Lately it’s been Vampire Knight, although thanks to cuts to the NH State Library budget, she has recently been waiting over two weeks for the next book in the series to arrive at our branch via the state’s inter-library van service.  I asked her last night what she thinks of them (she’s read about ten of the series so far).  I was taken aback by her response: she said that the story is on the boring side, the characters are a little “twilightish” (although she hasn’t read the Twilight series, she knows of them and says this is not a compliment), that other than the main character, they haven’t got much personality and are apathetic.

When I asked why on earth she is continuing to read them, especially in light of the difficulty we are having in getting the next book, she said she likes the art. Considering how much time she spends drawing and how absorbed she was in the Alexander McQueen exhibit, I am not surprised that this would be appealing enough for her to slog though the stories.  I am also impressed that she is a critical reader. But I hope she enjoys a good read soon. Her brother suggested she read Tolkien, and I saw her with The Hobbit the other day.

Teen the Elder spent the first part of the month slogging through something else entirely — visa application documentation. Once we presented ourselves at the consulate in NYC to complete the process, we learned that many of his fellow applicants had spent even more time (or their parents had) reading the minutia of bureaucratic policy guidance. Or, as Teen the Elder himself put it, “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a room full of worry.”  Turns out in retrospect we’d guessed properly when the directions seemed confusing or obscure, and he easily obtained his visa. And that it’s not us, the directions are indeed confusing and obscure.

For graduation, his sister presented him with several books on British English and UK culture. He’s reading Rules Britannia, by Toni Summers Hargis and periodically amuses us with language  he’s culled from his dictionaries of Britishisms, such as “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”  This is now on my desktop, as The Computer Scientist used the phrase in the “OK Go x Philobus All Is Not Lost video dance messenger” and then saved it as a screen shot. If you have no idea what I am talking about, take the link (I believe you have to be in the Chrome browser to make it work) and enter your own phrase.   Although you are welcome to try “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”

The Computer Scientist has been reading slowly this summer; it’s hot, for one thing, and he’s awfully busy, for another. But he’s really enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks. He says that he’s very impressed with the research that went into the book, and the depth, given that Brooks is also cranking out punditry several times a week.

On my to-read piles?  I’ve started The Man Who Loved China, by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Simon Winchester. It’s actually on loan to me from my father, who recommended it. I set it aside to read a couple of library books I’d requested, including 22 Britannia Road, which I heard about during my job interview.

So far I’m enjoying both of those. There are any number of books stacked beside my bed and next to my desk and near my favorite chair that I have been meaning to read and haven’t yet.  On my desk, there is a list of books friends have recommended, and a pile of clippings from reviews I found appealing. It’s one of the things that doesn’t change, thankfully — there are always too many good books to choose from. I hope you’ll check back here at bookconscious and share them with me.

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As I look over what I read in June, I realize a common theme is characters who come to terms (with varying degrees of success) with life as it is, rather than life as a series of expectations and desires, met or unmet. I found this thread despite the variety of books I read, which seems to me to prove the Bookconcious Theory of Interconnectedness — that any examined reading list will reveal connections. I’m never sure if I gravitate towards books which really have a common theme or if I find things in common among them. Regardless, I enjoy contemplating such things.

In June, I revisited favorite authors of popular fiction (Maeve Binchy & Alexander McCall Smith), and also read a new book by a literary talent who deserves far greater recognition (David Schmahmann), as well as one whose new book received widespread praise (Geraldine Brooks). Rebecca Makkai‘s debut novel and Abraham Verghese‘s first novel (thought not his first book) were both interesting reads, as was Ann Joslin Williams‘ much anticipated new novel. And I read a forthcoming work by Christian McEwen on creativity and slowing down which is a well written, sensible, very thorough book that will appeal to a many writers and artists and also felt like a personal message from the universe telling me to act on the mindful advice McEwen offers.

I’ll begin with Binchy & McCall Smith. Both of their new books re-visit old locations and feature familiar characters. Binchy’s book, Minding Frankie, is set in Dublin and mentions some of the fictional businesses and restaurants, and a few characters, that have featured in her earlier novels. The main character, Noel, is a young man descending into alcoholism when the book opens. He’s in a dead end job, with no prospects and little hope, and his relationship with his devout parents is dysfunctional. Then he learns he’s going to be a father, and the mother is dying, and through his determination to be a good dad to baby Frankie, he turns his life around.

Binchy’s book is filled with a host of minor characters, as well as the kind of no nonsense middle aged woman who so often helps right the paths of her characters’  lives. Emily, Noel’s American cousin, plays that role, and she manages to transform the lives of everyone she meets when she comes to Dublin to see where he father grew up. Emily is perpetually optimistic — she can look at the least promising situations and see potential. Her can-do attitude and the natural affection she feels for everyone, even a neurotic social worker who threatens to undo Noel’s progress, brings out the best in people.

Noel can’t see past his mire of unfulfilled expectations when Minding Frankie opens. Another character can’t see that the playboy restaurateur she’s pinning all her personal and professional hopes on is unreliable. Moira, the social worker with her own baggage, is clouded by her cold upbringing and some fairly stereotyped feelings about the kinds of people she is supposed to be helping. As in her other books, Binchy draws readers in and then offers a few surprises as the characters’ develop. Some of the plot twists are a bit predictable, and there are readers who think Binchy’s books are too full of uplifting plot lines, but there are a few unredeemed jerks sprinkled among the reformed alcoholics and wisened-up career girls, and Binchy’s Dublin is a pleasant place to spend an evening.

I’m not a rabid mystery fan, but I’ve always enjoyed Alexander McCall Smith’s series, The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. The newest title, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, was interesting, because it contained a mystery which Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s famous lady detective, doesn’t really solve. This is partly because the people involved each have a different view of the situation, and their perspectives muddle the truth. Precious muses that regardless of what happened, some situations are best resolved with a little bit of diplomacy and a lot of compassion. I enjoyed the  ambiguity. I also love the feeling of armchair travel I get when reading this series as well — Botswana comes to life on the page.

An armchair roadtrip in a novel, The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai is a thought provoking look at cultural perceptions, and a fun read. Lucy, a children’s librarian, and Ian, a ten year old library regular, have an unlikely adventure when Ian runs away from home and they accidentally embark on a car trip together. A quirky story, rich with memorable characters, The Borrower combines humor, social commentary, and plenty of references to favorite children’s books.

As Lucy tries to understand how Ian is impacted by his family’s strict beliefs, she also examines how her own family history is informing her young adulthood. Makkai delivers a well-written, entertaining read with an interesting look at the kaleidoscope of contemporary American culture. She deftly explores the ways family stories are often told and re-told differently, and the ways childhood memories of family lore can add another layer of perception that may color the truth at their core. Lucy openly muses that what’s real and true may depend on how you look at a story, and who’s doing the looking.

Cutting for Stone is another book full of misunderstandings based on the assumptions people make about each other, and the way different points of view can slant the story. It’s also a very detailed novel rich in descriptions of life in an Ethiopian charity hospital. The characters, setting, and medical procedures make this novel teem with sensory texture. It’s also a fascinating story, a bit fantastic at times, but compelling.

Abraham Verghese writes beautifully, and as a doctor who grew up in Ethiopia, he is able to show readers exactly what his characters are going through. In fact, a few times it was too much for me, and I’ve told the Computer Scientist he can never read this book (he nearly fainted at the sight of the needle when Teen the Younger was on her way and an anesthesiologist gave me an epidural). Still, this is not medical voyeurism — the book is about doctors, and the work they do, and the detail enriches the reader’s view into their world. It’s also about family and home, love and belonging, and the ways that even in a strange place under challenging circumstances, we can make those things for each other.

Another novel that really brings hardship into sharp focus is Caleb’s Crossing. Geraldine Brooks has written wonderfully researched historical novels before. This one really made me appreciate the incredible challenges to survival early American settlers faced. Brooks also does a marvelous job of bringing to life a Native American (the Caleb of the title, based on a real young man) who grew up trying to keep one foot in both his own culture and the newly dominant settler world. I was intrigued by the details about opposing theological viewpoints between ministers on Martha’s Vinyard and the mainland, and the peek into 17th century Harvard. As in earlier books, Brooks presents readers with a complex, intelligent heroine. I was fascinated by Bethia Mayfield’s imagined life.

Despite her hardships, Bethia Mayfield leads a mostly happy life. Not so the hero of David Schmahmann’s new novel, The Double Life of Alfred Buber. I’ve enjoyed two of Schmahmann’s earlier books (and reviewed Empire Settings and Nibble & Kuhn), and have a 3rd on my to-read list. Nothing prepared me for Buber. This book is literary fiction at it’s best — taut, well crafted, lovely prose, thoroughly engaging, which draws you into the character’s strange new world and leaves your reading landscape forever altered.

Alfred Buber is living inside his own head.  Throughout the book, which is written in the first person from his point of view, the reader can’t quite tell what’s really happening or what he is imagining. His perceptions and his idea of how others perceive him weave in and out with the actual arc of events until the end of the book, when he muses, “If there is penance to be made for anything it may rest in the exposure of my frailty, and in my invitation to you to look deep into the breach and to see and make of it what you will. I regret everything and I regret nothing. I am a man, simply that, and you will either understand or you will not.”

Buber has had what a news report would call a “difficult childhood,” and he becomes a self-made man, pursuing his education, working his way up to the height of power in a stodgy law firm, building himself a magnificent home. But all of the exterior evidence of his success hides a lonely, insecure, socially inept life lived in the shadow of his professional persona.  Part of his secret life includes a penchant for illicit sex which leads him to an obsession with a prostitute in Asia. He draws her into his imagined life, where he struggles to understand his own capacity for love and meaning.  His fantasy world brings him to a breaking point just as the rest of his carefully groomed world is falling apart.

Buber isn’t a very sympathetic hero.  But somehow Schmahmann makes us care what happens to him, makes us consider the victim and the victimized in another light, makes us wonder how an emotionally broken person can ever grow into a healthy one. There are some plot twists I don’t want to give away, but as a teaser I’ll say the book is meant to be Buber’s attempt to put his story down on paper for a person important to his identity, to redeem himself by telling the truth as best he knows how.  It’s a brilliant way of bringing this tragic figure into the faintest light of hope.

The last novel I read this month is Down from Cascom Mountain, by Ann Joslin Williams. Much of the press surrounding this debut novel mentions Williams’ decision to locate her story in the same fictional world as her late father’s work, including his National Book Award winning novel, The Hair of Harold Roux. I haven’t read that book (yet, it’s in my to-read pile), but I enjoyed Down From Cascom Mountain on its own merits.  The fictional mountain is in New Hampshire, and the story centers on Mary Hall, a newlywed who is widowed not long after returning to her childhood home hear Cascom.

Through her interactions with the summer staff at the hiking lodge nearby, and a family she knows from childhood, Mary processes her brief but happy relationship, her grief, and her way forward. Several of the characters seemed to me to have the potential to stand alone in their own stories, so I look forward to asking Williams if she imagines she’ll revisit them in future books.  She definitely brings the landscape to life, and anyone familiar with New England mountains will find much to recognize.  Down from Cascom Mountain is a thoughtful, emotionally taut examination of grief, friendship, and human chemistry.  It would prompt interesting discussion for a book club.

Finally this month, I read a book that won’t be out until September but which I highly recommend already, Christian McEwen’s World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down.  It felt like I was receiving a divine message to stay mindful when this book arrived unbidden in my mailbox not long after I heard Lama Surya Das talk and read his book (buddha standard time).  McEwen writes beautiful, sinuous prose, and her research is a delight — the reading lists for each chapter could supply a person with “to-read” piles for life.  She quotes writers and artists to support her thesis that “slow creativity,” like slow food, is about appreciating the process and releasing the cultural admonition to “do it all, now.”

Each chapter ends with a couple of quotes and some ideas for ways to implement the slowing down process as a creative tool.  I’m keeping this book on my nightstand where I can draw on its wise council whenever I need to.  Like many good books I love, this one made me feel I was sitting down over a cup of tea with a friend who knows my quirks and likes me anyway.

The Computer Scientist finished reading Townie by Andre Dubus III and he says it is a “gritty memoir that I found insightful and honest. Dubus tells the difficult tale of growing up in Southie without shying away from the details. I especially felt that the strong narrative matured in style as Dubus himself started to get his life sorted as he wanted. Any fan of Dubus’ writing will want to read this book.”  Also, Gibson’s customers know, Andre is the nicest man in the publishing world.  We’ve had him to the store twice since I’ve been there, and he’s just a warm, kind person, and wicked smart.

Teen the Elder spent his first month as a grad reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. He says he enjoyed it because it was  a biography of the scientists as well as a history of their work. His sister gave him a pile of books about English culture and British language, which I imagine he’ll read as the departure for his gap year approaches.  This week he’s mostly read visa application instructions. I believe I heard him refer to those today as “gobbledygook.”

Teen the Younger is facing the consequences of reading several books at once — she’s still reading them. But she did devour another large stack of Manga this month, including a number of volumes of Vampire Knight.  She reads Shonen Jump, New Moon, Muse, American Girl, and Cicada, too, so she’s also inherited her parents’ affection for periodicals.

In our reading piles?  I can’t speak for the rest of the bookconscious household, who are actually all asleep as I type. But I’ve started Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy, and I’ve got several other books lined up. In fact, I have multiple “to-read” piles, if I’m honest. A friend recently told me about a vacation she and her husband took before they had children in which she read seven books in seven days. I tried to imagine such a thing. And to stay in the moment, here, in my busy, messy life where I snatch reading time when I can.

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I went to a JASNA Massachusetts meeting last weekend and heard Rachel M. Brownstein, author of the forthcoming book, Why Jane Austen? speak.  She said several things that really struck me: that we’re interested in Jane Austen (and in wedding announcements and neighborhood news) because in these stories we are able to consider our own lives in relation to others.   That when she taught undergraduates, she found that they hadn’t had much experience discussing the moral implications of interpersonal relations, and of course Austen’s books lend themselves to that perfectly.  That Austen is an author “of complicity” who makes readers feel they are in on the characters’ lives.  That we read (not only Austen) in order to see ourselves reflected in books — to look for ourselves even in people very different from ourselves.

I felt immediately that Brownstein is a kindred spirit — I have made some of the same observations about reading here at bookconscious. The Computer Scientist & I frequently try to engage Teen the Elder & Teen the Younger in discussions about what we’re all reading that go beyond “this happened and then this happened,” or “I liked it,” but delve into “Would this really happen this way?” “Why do we feel so sympathetic towards this character?” “Would you like to be like her?”  “Would you like to be his friend?” “What part of the story did you feel most strongly about?”

Before you feel badly about your own conversations around the dinner table, be assured we usually get little response and/or dramatic eye rolls or other teen-like expressions; we have a little more success asking them their thoughts on the ethical, social, or cultural impact of current events, but only if we catch them at a good time. But we initiate these conversation because we enjoy wrestling with ideas and want the Teens to at least consider them (some day they may even admit enjoying such discussions).

And I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Brownstein that we enjoy books (and all storytelling) because we are able to find a way into a fictional world, and perhaps even imagine ourselves there, or we make connections between fictional realities and our actual lives.  This month, thinking about my reading led me to consider the ways fiction and poetry in particular offers readers the chance to try out emotional situations, to perceive and understand things we might not otherwise come across in our daily lives, to develop emotional intelligence.

Interestingly, two of my favorite reads this month featured characters whose difficulties relating to others led me to think about emotional intelligence just before I heard Rachel Brownstein speak — the bookconscious theory of reading interconnectedness strikes again.  Over the weekend I was re-reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and I was struck this time by a couple of things I don’t remember focusing on the first time I read it. I rarely take time to re-read, but I’d like to do it more often.

Small Island is about two married couples, one who are English (Queenie & Bernard) and one who are Jamaican (Hortense & Gilbert) but  move to England after WWII. Hortense, the Jamaican woman, seems to be so emotionally unaware that she can’t sense when she’s said something insensitive or inappropriate.  Bernard, the English man, is also fairly clueless about other people’s feelings for much of the novel. Interestingly, during the Gibson’s Book Club discussion on Monday evening, I noticed something else — all four characters are raised in emotionally distant or dysfunctional families.

One of the things I love about Small Island is that none of the characters, even the most likable ones (Gilbert & Arthur, Bernard’s father, are my favorites), are perfect. They’re whole, real people, who do both good and bad things.  And all of them develop and grow; I think it would be nearly impossible not to be transformed by the experiences of war and emigration that are the backdrop of these characters’ stories, so this feels real as well. Levy beautifully captures historical details and the unique voices of each character (one reviewer notes that she’s as good at accurately rendering English speech of the time as she is with Jamaican English).

Hortense’s clueless, snobbish belief that she is a lady and a well trained teacher and is therefore better than common, uneducated people sets her up for a rude awakening when she finds her Jamaican teaching credentials are no good in England. And worse, that plenty of people can’t see past her skin, which she thinks is golden, but some just see as black.  Her high expectations of Gilbert, who faces the same discrimination and of shabby, dreary post-war England are brought low as well, until she begins to see potential in both. Queenie has accomplished her girlhood dream of leaving her parents’ farm and butchery, but finds life in London no more satisfying until she begins to help Blitz victims and get to know her father-in-law better.

Both women’s perceptions, formed in large part by the formative moments of their childhoods, get in the way of their ability to accurately read and understand other people, until their engagement with the real world opens their eyes. Watching that happen is lovely; Levy has a light touch, in that there’s no “Oh, here’s where she finally gets it” moment, no clunking machinery of the novel in view. Just a good story and well developed (and developing) characters.

When Bernard comes back from serving in Burma and India believing he has to face the consequences his wartime dalliance, he eventually learns that Queenie has her own secrets. All four characters struggle to deal with cultural and societal pressures, as well as the upheaval of war, and Levy touches on economic and racial discrimination as well as the resilience of human dreams and hopes. Small Island is a great read, with much to discuss, so if your book club is looking for a new title, check it out.

Just as Hortense’s sheltered and unusual upbringing contributes to her insensitivity and makes her less able to read social situations, the heroine of  Jael McHenry’s The Kitchen Daughter, Ginny, has been brought up protected by her parents to the point that when they die, her sister Amanda is convinced she is unable to live alone. From the first pages of this fantastic debut novel, the reader knows something is very different about Ginny.  McHenry doesn’t tell us right away what her condition is, but when she slips into the closet during her parents’ funeral and also cooks up a batch of ribollita to calm herself, it’s clear she’s unique.

Through a small cast of minor characters (who are some of the most interesting supporting cast I’ve met in a novel recently), and through Amanda’s increasing frustration with Ginny, we begin to see the whole picture. Part of which is that Ginny & Amanda’s parents, though well meaning, have brought them up with no tools to really understand each other. Despite their good intentions, what they’ve done is paper over everyone’s awareness of Ginny’s differences. Even Ginny herself struggles daily to convince herself she’s “normal,” in an attempt to keep everything the way it is.

Bookconscious readers know I don’t like to give too much of a story away, so I’m being cryptic. I will say that Ginny’s deeply felt passion for food leads her to discover what she needs to do to move on from her parents’ death and to finally get a life in her late 20’s.  McHenry uses a touch of magical realism to create a series of encounters between her heroine and deceased characters — when Ginny cooks certain recipes, the ghosts of those who wrote them appear and she can speak with them. If you think this sounds improbable, read the book.

McHenry’s depiction of Ginny figuring out her gift for summoning spirits is so well done I actually looked to see if I had any recipes written out by my grandmother.  Not that I think she’ll show up in my kitchen — I don’t. And I’m not sure it’s important to know whether the ghosts in The Kitchen Daughter are really appearing to Ginny or if she just wants so badly to resolve the questions she has about her childhood and her life that she believes they are there. The point is, through her own resolve, she finds answers to a number of questions about herself and her family.

But the book made me yearn for some kind of transcendent communication of my own.  Even though I am nothing like Ginny, I wanted to bring the novel into my real life, and I empathized with her need to connect to those she loved who are gone.  All credit to McHenry, who has truly created a fresh, unique voice in Ginny, and whose story drew me in so thoroughly.  Ginny challenges readers to reconsider their perception of  “normal” as she tries to make her sister see her as a person and not a problem.

The other terrific thing about The Kitchen Daughter is that there is no Hollywood ending, but there is just enough resolution to satisfy, and both Ginny and Amanda are somewhat transformed by their experiences.  And yes, by the novel’s end, they’ve developed a great deal of emotional intelligence.  McHenry even includes recipes (she’s a cook and food blogger as well as novelist).  I haven’t tried any yet but I intend to.

The third novel I read this month is The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.  You’ve no doubt heard of this book because it’s getting a great deal of press.  One of the things that makes it a media magnet is the unique form; the book is fiction, but the narrator, also called Arthur Phillips, tells his life story in the first section, and tells readers he’s writing it down as the introduction to a lost Shakespeare play (which he comes to believe is fake, but others believe is real) called, “The Tragedy of Arthur.” If you’re already somewhat confused about which Arthur is real and which is fake, fear not. That’s the point.

As an examination of the veracity of truth and fiction, The Tragedy of Arthur (the novel, not the play) is clever. I kept reading even though I found several aspects of the story unlikeable, and even though I began to mistrust the narrator (which, in fairness, seems to be the author’s intent). The part that bothered me the most is Arthur’s relationship with his twin sister.  Much of his remembrance of his childhood hinges on the closeness he feels for his twin sister Dana  — he refers more than once to the way he feels complete with her, that he can truly be himself when she’s around, and that her unconditional and exceptional twin love gets him through every dark time. So far, so good.

But then as an adult, he just about ruins her life.  Ruining his own life seemed like a plot twist I could dislike but understand. Ruining a friend’s life, a spouse’s, even a parent’s, would be unpleasant but likely for this poor man whose life has been one long series of deceptions and confusions over what he can trust and what he cannot. Even screwing his agent and publisher seemed like something Arthur might do, given his growing fear that the play his ex-con father gave him is fake. (Note: in another bold but confusing authorial move, Arthur Phillips the author names Arthur Phillips the protagonist’s agent and editor after his real life agent and editor.)

But messing up the one person he’s spent hundreds of pages saying is the  source of the only good in his life?  And really not being terribly sorry about it? In fact, right up to the end, trying to figure out how he can have his cake and eat it too? More implausible than this reader could take. In light of my reflections on perception and awareness, especially emotional, I couldn’t see how Arthur Phillips the character could possibly be such a dolt.

I was so irritated by the time I finished the “introduction” (and by then, I’d read all these glowing reviews that didn’t seem to take any issue with Arthur’s treatment of Dana, so I was feeling like a grumpy freak reader), I couldn’t bring myself to do more than scan the fake Shakespeare play, which is included in full.  Several reviews say it’s good fake Shakespeare.  That’s a challenge most people wouldn’t bother with. I’m impressed with the real Arthur Phillips’ virtuosity — he’s very creative and a fine writer — but this book wasn’t for me. But it might be for you, especially if you like smoke and mirrors.

I just finished reading a collection of short fiction, The Architect of Flowers, by William Lychack.  My colleague at the bookstore, Devon Mozdierz (remember that name, she’s a young artist, and someday you can say you heard about her here first), pointed out that one of the benefits of reading short stories is that if you come across one you don’t like, you don’t have to decide whether to read 400 more pages to see if you’ll like it after all. Here, here. Lychack will be at Gibson’s on Thurs., May 12.

Unlike some recent short fiction collections I’ve read, this one isn’t linked stories — they all stand alone. Lychack’s writing is evocative and dreamy in some places, intimate and conversational in others,  and in all of the stories, clear and beautiful.  His subjects and characters range in age, gender, and experience, but Lychack convincingly channels kids and adults, men and women, people in the midst of a crisis and those who are recalling happier times. This virtuosity is impressive.

I especially enjoyed “A Stand of Fables,” which imagines the origins of a town’s beloved longtime teacher, “Calvary,” about a boy visiting his mother’s grave, and both “Chickens,” and “Hawkins.” In these last two, I could easily imagine myself trying to do something I know nothing about, seeing it through even once I realize I’m hopeless at it. The woman in “Chickens” turns to books to help her figure out why her flock isn’t laying — something anyone who knows me would say is my m.o. whenever I try something new.

“Love Is  Temper” is an immigrant story, again one I felt a kinship with. Whether our political leaders are willing to acknowledge it or not, immigration is part of America’s cultural DNA, and most of us can really empathize with arrival stories and their many-colored tragedies.  “The Ghostwriter” is a fascinating, quietly touching piece about a man whose job is to write up people’s inspirational stories for a magazine, that left me wondering how much of that genre is gently reworked by faceless ghostwriters.

Many of the stories in The Architect of Flowers deal with death and grieving.  But the collection isn’t dreary or maudlin; grieving manifests itself as an inner dialog in at least two of the stories, and I like the idea that this might be a way to deal with grief myself some day.  The title story and a couple of others veer slightly into magical realism, and I love that; Lychack uses this very subtly, but it’s effective.  I’m impressed with his range, and I look forward to his reading.

In nonfiction this month, I read Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid, by Wendy Williams. Wendy came to Gibson’s in late April. This is an example of a book I enjoyed well enough that was enhanced enormously by meeting the author and hearing her read from and talk about her book — as I’ve mentioned before, an author event can take a book to another level. Find your local indie here, and check out their events schedule!

Ok, soapbox over. Back to Kraken.  I had no idea that cephalopods were so interesting, so smart and sometimes even personable. And the scientists who study them? Fascinating people.  What I liked most about Wendy’s book is that she asked some philosophical questions about how humans perceive other species, and whether we can really understand non-human intelligence. If you think science is dry and slightly boring, read Kraken for a lively look at creatures we often demonize as sea monsters, and at the people who are devoting their life’s work to learning about them.

A person whose life work I admire very much is Billy Collins. The Teens really enjoy his poems, and many of them have been among our “weekly poem” selections, posted in the bookconscious kitchen for the family’s enjoyment and edification. I treated myself to Collins’ new collection, out for National Poetry Month, Horoscopes for the Dead.

One reason I think Billy Collins is so popular with young people (as well as people who don’t think they’ll like poetry) is that he’s got a very appealing wit. His poems often take an ordinary cultural object and come at it from an unexpected perspective. The title poem is a good example — the narrator applies horoscopes printed in the daily newspaper to a person who has died, with asides like “I can’t imagine you ever facing a new problem/ with a positive attitude, but you will definitely not/ be doing that, or anything like that, on this weekday in March.”  There are several poems dealing with loss, age, long relationships, and the like.  Poems  that let the reader get inside a particular emotional moment and try it out from someone else’s point of view.

I particularly enjoyed “The Meatball Department,” which references a spouse who reads in bed with an annoying light; “The Guest,” with tulips drooping as each day of a visit passes, measuring the time the guest should stay; “Good News,” about hearing that a dog doesn’t have cancer and finding wonder even in a ordinary cheese grater; “Hell,” which imagines that Dante would have included a mattress store in hell’s circles if they’d existed in his lifetime; “A Question About Birds,” which wonders whether birds of different species need a translator to understand each other; ” and “Vocation,” where the narrator invents a pig constellation and admits his “true vocation –/keeping an eye on things/whether they exist or not,/recumbent under the random stars.”

I for one am grateful Billy Collins is keeping an eye on things whether they exist or not, and writing about them for all of us to read. I think that’s one of the most succinct and apt descriptions of the writing life I’ve ever come across. “Vocation” is going up on the kitchen white board today as the bookconscious poem of the week.

Besides enjoying a few of these poems themselves, the Teens enjoyed their own reading as well. Teen the Elder, who bookconscious fans know is a science history buff, is enjoying Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. In a familial example of bookconscious interconnectedness, both his uncle and his grandpa are reading it as well.

Teen the Elder has long been a Bryson fan. He says he just really enjoys his writing style, which is smart, clear, and funny.  And, Teen the Elder continues to find scientists and scientific discovery very interesting. Lately he’s been regaling me with  stories of the dire ways geology could kill us.  Entertaining!

Teen the Younger, her oldest friend, and the Computer Scientist attended Anime Boston Easter weekend.  She says it was awesome, and next year, instead of staying up too late with a friend the night before, she’ll get more rest, because there was so much to see. She looked awesome as well, dressed up as Hotaru from Gakuen Alice.

In addition to continuing to read Vlad Tod and several manga series I’ve mentioned here before, Teen the Younger got herself the first book in a new (to her) manga series, Code Geass, and the convention.  She says the reason she likes this story is that as in Death Note, the main character is an overachieving kid who wants to use his special power to change the world for the better. Said hero, LeLouch, is a citizen of the “Holy Empire of Britannia,” which is ruling Japan. Japan has been renamed Area 11.  He figures out he can use this power, “Geass,” to control other people’s minds.

The Computer Scientist enjoyed Anime Boston as well, and he was finally feeling better. We all got sick in April, but he had was really feeling puny there for awhile. Usually when he’s sick he re-reads The Stand. Yes, a tough choice when you’re sick, but it’s his tradition. This time, because we’d done a massive book re-org., he found Thomas Harris’s The Red Dragon (which I mentioned in last month’s post) and Silence of the Lambs were nearby, so he re-read those.

He says of Silence of the Lambs, “I know every nook and cranny of this text, and yet re-read it still leads to wonderful emotions of surprise, fear, and horror.” Once he was feeling better, he finished Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which I recommended and wrote about here. The Computer Scientist’s take: “I especially like the “deathless man” sections. For a first effort, Obreht clearly establishes herself as a outstanding writer with a great sense of storytelling.

What’s up in the bookconscious house? I’m almost done with Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life and I have Jasper Fforde’s latest Thursday Next book out from the library. I’ve also started Robert Pinsky’s Selected Poems.  I have a pile of nonfiction I want to read as well, and some novels. I’m happy to say my efforts to write more regularly are bearing fruit and I have some poems of my own to work on. Teen the Elder is planning to read the highly lauded science history by Richard Holmes,  Age of Wonder.

Teen the Younger has large “currently reading” and “to read” piles. Recently she paid me what I considered a great compliment: “Mom, I’m turning into you. I’m reading three books and drinking lots of tea.”  On that note, on this Mother’s Day, stay tuned for more thoughts on bookconscious reading.


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Many of the books I read this month deal with hunger, literal or figurative.  I love good food, literal or literary, and often pick up what I’m craving — more poetry, for example, or a novel to get lost in.  I had a varied diet of books this month, so let’s dig in. (Pause for audible groans and an appreciative grin from my dad, who gave me the pun gene, which he inherited from his uncle.)

I was over at the beautiful Ohrstrom Library with Teen the Elder, who was doing research for his Shakespeare essay. I love perusing their new books shelf, where I picked up Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection, by Robert Coles.  In this amazing text, Coles asks readers to consider the moral education we receive by examining others’ lives and our own through reading.

Based on his Harvard course, the book is a combination of insightful commentary on art, literature, and music as it reflects our culture and society, and reflections on Coles’ long academic and literary career. He’s known a wide range of cultural giants, from William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy to Paul Tillich and Ruby Bridges.

Coles has explored spirituality, sociology, psychology, and culture in a wide range of writing and editing, with much of his work examining class, age, and gender in the context of whatever subject he addresses (such as his books on morality, spirituality, and political thought in children).  He’s very prolific and very well read, so the book is packed with thoughts and references. I wished as I read that I had time to do all of the recommended reading for each chapter.

This isn’t light reading, it’s a series of lectures by one of America’s great thinkers, and it merits re-reading sometime when I can really delve into it.  For someone like me who loves the way reading creates and encourages connections, this is a book to savor; it will feed your soul and your heart, as well as your mind. One thing I took away from Handing One Another Along is that I am a happier reader when I take time to read thoughtfully, to reflect on ideas — meaning, truth, aesthetics, ethics — as I read.

Three novels I read this month use the art of fiction to explore what makes us human, what we mean to each other, and what our choices do to us and to our society, for good or ill.  They all deal with our human longing for love. All three are books I picked up at WI6.

I met Rachel Simon, author of a number of books, including Riding the Bus With My Sister, at the WI6 author reception. Her novel The Story of Beautiful Girl is coming out in May. It’s a thought provoking read, one you will probably want to devour in a night or two, as I did. Simon reveals the terrible history of institutionalizing the disabled by telling a story so compelling and beautiful, so heart-breaking yet also heartening, you will not be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens next.

The book begins in 1968, on a rainy night in the Pennsylvania countryside, where we meet the girl of the title, Lynnie, and the man she loves, Homan, as they try to escape the institution where they’ve both lived since childhood. In a few swift pages, Simon sets the scene — these two are desperate not for their own well being, but for the baby Lynnie has just delivered. They choose (for a reason that readers learn later) to knock on the door of a widowed schoolteacher, Martha, who hides the baby as the police close in.

From there, the book traces the lives of the baby, Julia, and Martha, whose life changes entirely because of her promise on that one confusing night, as well as Lynnie, who is taken back to the institution, and Homan, who remains on the run.  The people who help or harm these four central characters, the ways their lives turn on small moments that set them on new courses, and the way they each deal with the uncertainty life deals them make the novel a page turner.  And the undercurrent of the entire novel is the social history of institutionalizing the disabled in America.

Both of the other novels I read were set in other countries. More on that in a moment. The Tiger’s Wife, due out next week, is by Tea Obreht, who has the distinction of being the youngest  person on the New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” list. She was also at WI6. She’s certainly an amazing talent. I thought to myself several times as I read, “She’s in her 20’s! How did she write something this complex, this nuanced, this richly imagined already?”

I’m a fan of magical realism — perhaps because as a Spanish and English double major, I took a contemporary Latin American literature class in college and got a taste of some of the early masters of this literary technique (In Spanish!  I marvel at that now).  I especially enjoy elements of magical realism that blend with political and social history.  I would like to make a bold statement here and say that The Tiger’s Wife is among the best examples of this kind of writing I have ever read.

Set in a Balkan country after the war of the 1990’s, the story is told by a young doctor, Natalia. Through Natalia’s recollections, readers learn about her beloved grandfather, himself a doctor, who has recently died alone in a town now part of a different country. Through the stories he told her as a child and the things she learns as she searches for clues to his solitary death and possible last encounter with a mysterious man who seems immortal, Natalia pieces together a story from her grandfather’s boyhood, one he never told her.

There’s no way I can do justice to this phenomenal novel in a few sentences. The writing is excellent — vivid, but clean, and as my grandmother would say, there’s not one thing that doesn’t belong.  The story is incredible; full of cultural and historical detail, fully imagined, and as I said before, complex and nuanced.

By the end of the novel you feel as if you’ve finished a complicated puzzle, or solved a hard cross-word, or stitched the pieces of a pattern perfectly so that not a thread is out of place, and the seams match exactly as they should. Everything falls into place, but artfully, subtly; there are no clanking gears (one critique of Simon’s book is that her book’s pieces fit together rather noisily).

The Tiger’s Wife is about human experience. It’s about love, about family and war and inhumanity and suffering and finally, hope. It’s a book about memory and myth and their intersection, time and mortality and healing. But it’s also a good yarn — a story (several interwoven stories, really) you could read aloud by the fireside, if you were so inclined. I suspect anyone listening would beg you to go on a little longer.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement (which will be out in a couple of weeks) might make you hungry as you read; there are vivid descriptions of pho, because the book centers on the story of an elderly Vietnamese man, Hung, who has been a pho vendor since childhood.  Author Camilla Gibb tells the story of a young Vietnamese American woman, Maggie, who has moved to Hanoi to curate the art collection of a fancy hotel. She has returned to her birth country in part because she wants to learn what happened to her father, a Vietnamese artist who sent her and her mother to America during the war and never rejoined them.

Through Hung’s & Maggie’s memories, and through the observations of a tour guide of Maggie’s generation, Tu, who grew up in Vietnam, Gibb manages to sympathetically expose the idealistic roots of the Vietnamese communist movement. She painfully portrays the betrayal of those who believed (as did their counterparts in many other countries) that communism would bring equality, economic justice, and freedom from social constraints. She shines light on the brave intellectuals, writers, and artists who realized these promises would not be kept but stood firm under enormous pressure, and in many cases imprisonment, torture, or death.

Gibb also describes in heart breaking detail the suffering of ordinary Vietnamese in the post-war years. Hung remembers living in squalor in unwanted land near a pond, and making noodles for his pho out of pond weeds and whatever else he could scavenge. Maggie’s family started in America as refugees do, with nothing, and despite her educational and economic success, she feels she’s lost not only her father, but also her cultural bearings.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a fairly quick read, fascinating, and soulful.  I enjoyed the escapism of reading about another culture and the vivid details that brought the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Hanoi alive in the novel. Tu, Hung, Maggie, and the host of minor characters, living and remembered, are well drawn and sympathetic characters. The story is interesting, if not particularly complex. I’d like to read Gibbs’ other books, and I think this one would make an excellent read to take along on a trip or to the beach, as would The Story of Beautiful Girl.

One perk of reviewing books and working in a bookstore is that sometimes, publishers and authors send me books. I have to pinch myself, really, at my good fortune — books arriving unbidden. Too good to be true!  One that landed on my front step this month is a very unique, very interesting sort of YA novel, Snotty Saves the Day, from a small press, Exterminating Angel.

I say sort of YA because this is a “crossover” book, in my opinion in both directions. I think a mature, well read pre-adolescent reader might like it, and there is some adult appeal here too, especially for fans of Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Susanna Clark, or Lev Grossman  (and no doubt others I’m forgetting). Snotty is a boy (or is he?) who lives a hard life in a rough neighborhood. On one fateful evening after completing a drug deal, Snotty falls down a rabbit hole.  From there, he undergoes a series of strange experiences and challenges and must decide, through his choices, whether to accept his destiny (and which version of his destiny is real).

Like Susanna Clark’s magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one of my favorite books, and many works by Nicholson Baker, Snotty Saves the Day features fictional footnotes that add another layer to the novel.  Author Tod Davies, through the voice of Prof. Devindra Vale, explains the history of a country called Arcadia, its long political conflict with neighboring Megalopolis, and the  history and cultural significance of fairy tales in the two places. Between Snotty’s adventures and the footnotes, several themes emerge.

Davies touches on assumptions about childhood, social standing, and gender, the importance of fantasy and fairy tales (and the lack of respect given to these), the nature of conflict, poverty’s impact on the imagination — all very Big Ideas. She explores habitual thought — the way we believe something because that’s what we’ve been told, rather than noticing what is right before our eyes.

But these themes are wrapped in wonders such as a mysterious 7th garden on a street with 6 houses,  soldier gnomes, giant teddy bears, magical castles, talking animals, and so forth.  What could have been simply “messagey” is a romp, and an original one at that.  When Snotty Saves the Day comes out in May, give it to a smart, precocious young person in your life, read it yourself, and see what kind of interesting conversation develops.

My effort to read poetry more regularly was aided by a wonderful reading at Gibson’s in February, part of the monthly series organized by Don Kimball and the Poetry Society of NH. Don brought the first two poets in the Hobblebush Granite State Poetry series to the store. Publisher (and fellow poet) Sid Hall introduced the poets, Charles Pratt and Becky Sakellariou.

Sakellariou’s book, Earth Listening is full of light and beauty, like Greece, where she’s spent much of her life and where many of these poems are set. One poem begins, “The words in my mouth/are the tides and sands/of the Ionian Sea.” Even poems set in New Hampshire are luminous landscapes. “Intermittent Observations” opens with, “The tangle of the autumn moon/licks the lines of the Contoocook River . . . .”

Earth Listening is full of poems tied to land and sky, sea, plants, earth. But it’s also a book filled with people, dead and alive. Sakellariou writes of the “women of my tribes,” of New England and Europe (besides Greece, she has spent time in Bulgaria and Albania). She writes of longing and love, of mystery and meaning, of faiths and of finding her way.  I found the poems in this collection prism-like — turn them one way, and you see one color, one pattern of light, turn them another, and some other bright gleam catches your eye.  In her poems I sense an old soul. She also writes sensuously of food, from paximadia after a funeral to luscious fruits, herbs, and a poem called, “The Avocado.”

Pratt’s book, From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, is different in style and sensibility, but equally enjoyable. Pratt slips rhyme and formalism into thoroughly contemporary work.  His use of structure and rhyme doesn’t impede the poems from falling naturally across the page or the tongue — he is usually so subtle and skilled in his use of form that it is an organic part of his writing.  Only one or two poems felt deliberately rhymed.

Many of the poems in this collection reflect Pratt’s many years tending his apple orchard in southern New Hampshire.  “November: Sparing the Old Apples,” for example, is about choosing not to cut down the old trees, which he describes as “Cracked urns of air, broken-winged umbrellas,/Black seabirds drying angular wings on a rock –”  Many of the poems describe the apple trees in interesting ways, as in “Interlude,”  which tells of a farmer sledding in the first snow, “While orderly ranks of apples stand appalled,/Black-robed widows, blurring with your speed . . . .”

One of my favorites is “Into Place,” which is about Pratt seeing the farm for sale and finding himself it’s new proprietor, “. . . something less than owner, more than guest. You fertilize and mow, attend the slow/Growth of apples readying for harvest,/And settle into place like leaves or snow,/Unfold like a letter delivered as addressed.”  That’s a really wonderful image.  I hear a koan or a bit of poetic philosophy — be at home where you are —  in those lines.

There are poems about marriage and family, memories and travel in this book, but the orchard poems stand out.  I think they exemplify Pratt’s quiet, lyrical skill. Sid Hall and Rodger Martin (whose book The Battlefield Guide I reviewed here last year) have done a marvelous job with the new series. The books are also beautifully designed, inside and out. I look forward to future volumes.

Last weekend I finished Margaret Roach’s lovely memoir, and I shall have some peace there: trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road. Roach is coming to Gibson’s on Tues., March 8, and I can’t wait to meet her. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It asks the questions Eat, Pray, Love meant to– what happens when a person is faced with enormous changes in social identity? How can a person be at peace in an uncertain world and during personal uncertainty? What about love, if you’re alone?

Roach asks more than she answers, and is honest about how messy it is to live with questions as your constant companions, to reflect, to work on becoming who you’re  meant to be. This memoir is light years wiser and smarter than other books I’ve read in this milieu.  In fact, my one quibble with Roach is that she doesn’t give herself enough credit.

She mentions more than once that she has an “incomplete education,” even though she worked for some of the most successful, far-reaching media companies around (the New York Times and Martha Stewart Omnimedia, to name two), she is widely read and has a deep and broad knowledge of the natural world and gardening.  She’s created her own blog, a way to garden, and The Sister Project. And the memoir is very much about her spritual/psychological/emotional seeking — she is very self-aware and has explored her own inner world more deeply than most people ever will.

It’s hard to say what I liked best about and I shall have some peace there. The fact that I can identify with many things Roach addresses (facing fears, seeking a genuine life, figuring out what that means, understanding oneself, finding a true identity beyond what you do and who you’re with, letting your inner cat person emerge after years of being a non-cat person), even though our lives are wildly disparate? The way that Roach writes both gracefully and deeply?  Her unique style, full of little asides to herself, that lends the book a one-woman-show feeling? Or the fantastic words she uses? (I kept a list in my journal: senescence, diapause, shamanic, liminal, crepuscular, volition)

Perhaps the summary is that this is a memoir and she keeps it personal, but Roach also writes in a way that trusts readers to be fellow travelers — she writes about big things she is working out, but understands that as human beings, we’re all on the same path in our own lives. There’s no “shock and awe” here, which to me is a terrible trend in memoirs. Roach writes in way that makes her feel like the friend you’ve lost touch with and are catching up with.

I’m going to be brief with the rest of the bookconscious household, because they were brief in their descriptions of what they read. One aside — I find the current cultural conversation about the “princessification” of girls very interesting, because one of my first bookconscious posts (from 2007, when Teen the Younger was only 10) concerned her frustration with Disney Princesses and her desire to read about strong girls (princesses or not).

That child is now Teen the Younger.  She recently marched into a salon with a copy of one of her favorite Manga, Gakuen Alice, opened it to a drawing of Hotaru, and told the stylist that’s how she wanted her hair. She’s had long hair most of her life, but had no doubts, no wavering. And no second guessing later. She didn’t get that from me! Did a steady diet of strong female characters in literature help her be confident in herself?

That’s probably not the only source of her strength, but it had to have helped. Still even though we’ve always talked to our kids about being aware that they’re being marketed to, she’s looking to pop culture to inform her style. Manga, instead of princesses, but someone else’s aesthetic. I worry that despite our precautions she’s over-exposed to commercialism. But I know she’s at an age where it’s common to try on style identities, and at least she’s choosing for herself.  I admire her decisiveness!

One of Teen the Younger’s favorite manga this month is Nabari No Ou.   She says it reminds her of another favorite, Naruto, except the story is more complex. The main character is a boy who discovers he has his village’s secret ninja technique inside him. Other villages have their own secret techniques. Rivalry and trouble ensues. At least, as near as I can tell from the bits she shared with me.

Teen the Elder finished Paul Johnson‘s Churchill. He really enjoyed Johnson’s language, which is true to my grandmother’s admonition to make sure that every word counts, with nothing left out and nothing extra.  He also reads an enormous amount of news — not only of the sports world, but current affairs. I can’t tell you how often I say, “did you hear . . . ” and he finishes the sentence with whatever breaking news I was about to discuss.

When he was younger he was into weather (which he still checks more frequently than I do), now it’s news as well. He likes to be informed, as did Churchill, who read multiple newspapers every day.  And what Teen can resist the idea of working from the comfort of one’s bed, another famous Churchill habit? Actually, this one. Even when he is sick, he has a hard time staying in bed.  But he did recommend that I work in bed when I was sick this month.

The Computer Scientist hit the graphic novels this month. He read V for Vendetta and Ghost In the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface. He says both of them are in depth stories with great illustrations. He was checking out dystopian tales since that seems to be Teen the Younger’s taste these days. He recently shared The Matrix and Inception with her, and Ghost In the Shell was one of the influences on the creators of The Matrix.  He likes trippy, philosophically complex stories — these stories and films explore human identity, consciousness, reality, and illusion. I think he’d love The Tiger’s Wife, which explores some of the same ideas.

One thing that makes us human is that hunger to know more, to understand more, to push our minds farther, to seek the existence and nature of our souls.  Books are not the only sustenance for this kind of hunger nor even other arts — I’d say nature, friendship, love, and spiritual practice are all food for seeking minds.  But without books, we’d surely be malnourished.

What’s on my to-read pile next? I’ve nearly through with Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell — very good history, with a tinge of smartly dressed humor. It reminds me of a Bill Bryson book; much denser than you expect given how much fun the author seems to be having. I look forward to meeting Sarah on March 24. I’ve also got Caitlin Shetterly‘s Made for You and Me and a thick stack of books coming out in April.  Another book I found at Ohstrom is Made for Goodness, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu.  I’ve been working my way through The Making of  a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology for a couple of years and the end is in sight, and I’ve also got Jeff Friedman‘s new collection, Working In Flour.

Too many books? Perhaps, but what sweet indulgence.

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Literature is often a way to look at the big questions, the same questions philosophers, theologians, and ordinary humans have wrestled with forever. In December the books I read dealt with how one can find happiness in life; each book has a slightly different take, and only a couple of them address the search for happiness directly. But as I so often discover when I reflect on a month’s worth of reading, I gravitated towards a theme, unconsciously or not, or I see a theme after the fact that threads through the month’s book pile.

Before I get carried away discussing the pursuit of happiness, I want to mention what the rest of the bookconscious household read — something I never got to in my last post. December is one of the two busiest months of the year for the Computer Scientist. He works in development, and lots of people give at the end of the year. So he was hard pressed to make time to read, but he did finish Tinkers and is enjoying Citizens of London. I blogged about Citizens last spring, and I noticed he’s been reading it more frequently since we went to see The King’s Speech.

Since I’ve spent a lot of time and word count praising Tinkers I’ll quote the Computer Scientist and leave it at that. He says, “The threaded story structure and beautiful descriptive language made Tinkers a very good read. The book is short enough to read straight-through and that might be a better approach than a “here and there” read as keeping the threads straight is a fun challenge of the book. I especially like how Harding uses similar imagery across the story for different characters and situations.”

Teen the Elder spent the first three weeks of December pondering and writing about ambition in Macbeth, comparing Macbeth’s ambition with Hitler’s. He read several pieces of literary criticism and chapters of history books on Hitler, and started reading Kate L. Turabian Student’s Guide to Writing College Papers.  I implored him to read for fun; other than the poem of the week, soccer blogs, articles on the Guardian, New York Times, and Fox Soccer sites, he mostly read academic tomes and textbooks (including the door-stopping Handbook of Bird Biology).

Quick aside: for Christmas, I gave the Computer Scientist and the Teens two books by Salman Rushdie to share: Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life. I sincerely hope that will be soul-feeding, enjoyable reading for all of them. I thoroughly enjoyed Haroun when I read it a few years ago, and I look forward to Luka.

Teen the Younger continued reading Manga. She read further volumes of Naruto and Full Metal Alchemy as well as Gakuen Alice. She also tried a new series called Bleach, in which the hero meets a soul reaper who feels sorry for him when monsters called hollows attack his family. The soul reaper shares her power with him so he can save his family, who then don’t remember the monsters, but instead think a truck hit their house. Like all Manga, this is just the beginning — there are several additional volumes.

She also read most of Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  When I asked how these were, Teen the Younger told me that after Harry Potter, nothing is really good reading. (Her brother says Lord of the Rings is the only thing that ever satisfied him after HP, although he developed a fondness for T.S. Eliot’s poetry later). She thought Hunger Games was okay, and has asked for the next book in the series, but she didn’t rave about it.

Her critique of The Lost Hero vindicates my earlier criticism of YA fiction. She also told me, “Much of The Lost Hero is about teen angst, and while that’s probably realistic, it’s kind of annoying to have to read it over and over.” She went on to say that even Percy Jackson, which she enjoyed, got repetitive in the later books of the series. She asked me why so many authors write in series instead of a single good book, since they end up repeating themselves.

A good question. She doesn’t seem to have this complaint about Manga. When I asked her why, she said it’s because Manga are a continuing story, without much repetition.  Since they are serialized, readers understand from the first that the story will be told in parts. Perhaps some novels that are meant to both sell as standalone stories and fit into a series don’t manage the same continuity?

Like Teen the Younger (and Teen the Elder, if he would lighten up a bit), I like a well told story and interesting characters.  Even more I like a book that give me something to think about (they do too, although they might not put it that way).  Jane Gardam‘s God On the Rocks provides all of that.

Even though the story centers on a young girl, God On the Rocks deals with complex problems  and issues,– family and romantic relationships, religion, the impact of war on a society, class, gender roles, parenting. Gardam packs so much into this small gem of a novel; but it all unfolds naturally. There is nothing forced or contrived. And it’s a good story, one that surprised and delighted me, gave me pause, and stayed with me after I reached the ending.  It’s really a perfectly constructed, wonderful book.

Margaret, the girl in the story, is just right; Gardam is one of those writers who hasn’t lost the voice of childhood.  The adult characters too are multi-dimensional and fully drawn; even bit players, like the parish priest, are rendered vividly. I am still not sure how Gardam managed this — it’s a short book — and I think it would be worth re-reading  to study her writing more closel

The characters in God On the Rocks are all trying to find out who they are, who they want to be, and how they want to live. Margaret watches, listens, and feels — and we see her trying to work things out in her mind, as the adults struggle along. Everything happens during one summer between the two world wars. Without tying everything up neatly in a bow, Gardam provides closure as the characters gather many years later at the end of the book. Again, she does this subtly, respecting the reader’s intelligence and leaving some things open to discussion, even as she resolves others.

Another novel I read this month leaves more questions than answers at the end. The Calligrapher’s Secret, by Syrian born German author Rafik Schami, is a fascinating read. Schami brings the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Syria alive in his writing. I thought of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as I read, because just as the political, religious, and cultural backdrop of the Partition are key to that book, Syrian history, politics, culture, and religion make The Calligrapher’s Secret tick.

On one level this book is a delightful coming of age tale, weaving together the stories of a Christian boy (Salman) and a Muslim girl(Noura), from different socio-economic backgrounds, as they grow up in Damascus and eventually fall in love. Each of them faces difficulties in their families and in society, but their intelligence and pluck, and the resilience of the human spirit, see them through. Their stories carry the novel along, with frequent digressions into fascinating subplots and rich sensory detail.

But there is so much more going on in The Calligrapher’s Secret than the coming of age and love stories; Schami spins a sprawling, entrancing tale and peoples it with a vast cast of characters. As with a Rushdie novel, the density of Schami’s writing and the cultural depth makes for slow but ultimately satisfying reading. True to the title, there are many secrets in the plot, some of which are never completely resolved, but that’s how life works, too.

I was so entranced by the vivid portrayal of Damascus that I requested Stephanie Saldana’s memoir of her time in Syria, The Bread of Angels, on inter-library loan; I look forward to reading more about this complicated, ancient place.

Another place I enjoyed reading about in December is much more familiar. In Lisa Genova‘s new novel,  Left Neglected, the main character and her family have a home in rural Vermont. I’ve only spent a bit of time in Vermont but I enjoy it, and the family’s simple, pleasant home in a small town sounds very appealing.

In Left Neglected, Vermont is where the power couple main characters spend weekends, if they can get away from their busy lives in the Boston suburbs. Sarah and Bob have it all, including three children (whose names, believe it or not, are Lucy, Charlie, and Linus — a whimsical detail, but one that works), a wonderful nanny, and as I mentioned, high powered jobs. Only Bob is afraid he’ll be losing his, and Sarah is multi-tasking her way through life, telling herself she’s perfectly happy, but challenging Bob to “rock, paper, scissors” to see who gets to drive straight to work without having to drop off the kids on the way.

Then Sarah has a car accident (while dialing her phone — scary), and wakes up without being aware of her left side anymore. It’s still functioning, but her brain isn’t able to tell. Left doesn’t exist. Imagine that — half of you, half of the world, unrecognizable. To go from on top of the world to almost helpless in an instant, it’s almost impossible to think about.

But Genova writes movingly of the post-crash adjustment, as Sarah’s have-it-all life grinds to a halt. I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what would happen next. It sounds cliched to say that Sarah re-examines her life, her priorities, and her relationships in light of the accident, but she does — and who wouldn’t?

I don’t want to give away too much, so I won’t tell you how it all works out. But I will say that one of the things I liked best about Left Neglected is the depth of detail about Sarah’s condition, left neglect. Genova did a great deal of research, and it shows. One amazing organization that helped her, New England Handicapped Sports Association, plays a big part in Left Neglected‘s dénouement, and I am pleased to add that a portion of book sales at Lisa Genova’s reading at Gibson’s on Jan. 20 will benefit NEHSA.

Another book that deals with prioritizing what’s important in life is Alan Bennett‘s The Clothes They Stood Up In and The Lady In The Van.  I read and blogged about Clothes last winter. Gibson’s book club discussed the edition that also includes Lady this past Monday. We spent a lot of time pondering why Bennett put the two pieces together — he says in the introduction that there isn’t a particular connection he was trying to make. But we came up with some of our own.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is a novella, and our group decided it’s a very theatrical one; most of us could visualize the book as a play or movie. It concerns a middle aged, childless couple, the Ransomes, who are burgled so thoroughly that even the toilet paper is gone. They eventually find out their entire apartment has been reassembled meticulously in a storage facility.  Mrs. Ransome begins to examine her life, after the trauma of the break-in and the strangeness of the aftermath, while Mr. Ransome seems unchanged. Much more occurs, but I don’t like to spoil plots here.

The Lady In the Van is nonfiction, and it’s the story of Miss Shepherd, who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s garden for many years. She is eccentric, perhaps even mentally ill, but she is irrepressibly independent.  Most of our book club members found her appealing; despite the hardships of her life, she lived exactly as she chose, and her indomitable spirit is admirable.

Despite the sadness  and seriousness which tinges both stories, Bennett’s writing is sharp and often quite funny. Our book club had a good time talking about the possible parallels and obvious contrasts between the fictional Ransomes and the real Miss S. We also talked about Bennett’s honest portrayal of his own involvement — while he let Miss S. park on his property, treated her kindly, and was protective of her, he limited her use of his bathroom, and admits he sometimes watched her without offering assistance.

What I believe ties the two pieces together is dignity. Bennett can be biting and he openly dislikes Mr. Ransome, inserting himself into the text to tell readers that he could have softened the character a bit but didn’t. He’s also quite up front about Mrs. S’s faults. But he treats Mrs. Ransome respectfully, as he did his unconventional neighbor.  As a result, Bennett portrays each woman as a person seeking whatever small happiness she can find in this crazy world, and he forgives their foibles.

It seems to me that Bennett admires these two flawed women, one real and one imagined, for the way they each maintain their dignity in the face of unusual circumstances.  Bennett shows us that happiness may not look like what we’d expect, but that it can blossom in strange ways in our lives. I found this book very hopeful reading as another year of recession and war came to a close, and as we put the emotional turmoil of early college admissions behind us in the bookconscious house.

(I know you’re dying to know: Teen the Elder was accepted at a couple of wonderful colleges and was offered scholarships at both. Stay tuned.)

Another author who considers happiness and finds dignity in all her subjects is Maira Kalman. I’ve always admired her work, and I gave the bookconscious household Kalman’s new book,  And the Pursuit of Happiness, for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with Kalman, I recommend this interview with NHPR’s Virginia Prescott on Word of Mouth. You can also check out her blog.

And the Pursuit of Happiness is as quirky and colorful as Kalman’s other work; I can’t think of many other authors who can write whimsical, admiring prose about a sewage treatment plant.  But she approaches that topic (and visits said plant in Brooklyn) the same way she approaches a town meeting in Vermont, and visits to Mount Vernon, Monticello, Fort Campbell, and the Supreme Court. Also school gardens and the Capitol’s bipartisan bathrooms. And much more.

Kalman writes about democracy, history, and pie. Her penchant for cleaning and Lincoln’s possibly cross-eyed dog. Immigration, New York’s City Hall, and museums. Obama’s inauguration and Jefferson’s slaves. Each of the twelve chapters of the book (one per month, for a year of jaunts in  “pursuit of happiness”) is illustrated with Kalman’s exuberant, rich paintings and an occasional photograph. Not everyone will warm to her style, but I love it. Reading Kalman’s books makes me want to sit down with her over a pot of tea and plate of delicious goodies and talk.

Around mid-December I was pretty sure I was done buying books for Christmas but a small volume caught my eye at Gibson’s: Christmas Poems, a pocket sized anthology published by New Directions. This little book is a gem.  Plenty of familiar poems, including Clement’s  “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” and Hardy’s “The Oxen,” and lots of poems I wasn’t familiar with, by poets I hadn’t thought of in terms of their holiday work.  Creeley, Levertov, Ferlinghetti, Whitman, and Rilke, to name a few.  A thoughtful, interesting little collection.

I’ve saved the two most serious books for last, the two that overtly wrestle with meaning, truth, and the pursuit of the kind of unselfish happiness that makes the world a better place. One is a primarily a memoir, the other a manual, but each has a bit of both in it. One is by a man who almost became a priest, the other by a woman who is a former nun. If you’re in the mood for a deeply intelligent, finely crafted, searching read, you can’t go wrong with either.

One of the most moving books I read in 2010 won’t be out until May 2011, The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak.  In December I read his memoir, A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life, which is the story of his time with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits.  He spent eight years learning, working, praying, and living in Jesuit communities before leaving the order.

The Long Retreat is a tribute to the mentally, spiritually, physically arduous journey to priesthood. It’s also a love letter to the faith and those who devote their lives to it.  The book is also an appreciation of the mystery of beauty, as manifested in literature, liturgy, the natural world, and the world of ideas. And it’s a young man’s exploration of his roots as well as his potential, an intellectual coming of age story.

So it’s complicated. Dense. Riveting, even a bit painful. Krivak doesn’t whitewash his own journey or minimize the challenges. He’s a very fine writer and thinker, and in The Long Retreat readers learn that he was a graduate of a “great books” college, St. John’s in Annapolis, and of Columbia University’s MFA program, before he entered the Jesuits. If you’ve wanted to understand what it is to live an examined life, to become spiritually disciplined, to seek with all your heart and soul towards a committed life of service, or to fulfill a deep thirst for beauty, The Long Retreat will inspire you.

Krivak infuses both the The Sojourn and The Long Retreat with a strong sense of agape, the compassionate love C. S. Lewis describes as an unselfish, devoted commitment to others, and the King James Bible translators called “charity.” In both his novel and his memoir, Krivak writes of people who make others’ lives better through their loving kindness, whether for a moment or a lifetime. It seems to me (and perhaps I’ll get to ask him about this in the spring) that Krivak’s writing explores the human potential for compassion. Some of the people in his books rise to that call and engage in it, others are caught up in pettiness, selfishness, or hubris.

All of which are also part of human potential — and Karen Armstrong writes, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, that we can choose to strengthen our compassionate mental and spiritual response by exercising our hearts and minds the way we can strengthen our body by exercising our muscles. I read Armstrong’s latest book on New Year’s Day evening, and signed onto the Charter for Compassion. I plan to encourage the rest of the bookconscious household to read Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I’ve already begun to go back through each chapter slowly, with a mind to strengthening my own compassion.

Armstrong is a fine writer and historian, and she opens Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life with a review of the role of compassion in the tenets and traditions of the major world religions. Throughout the book, she writes of her own life experience and uses her own struggles as an example to those who might find her suggestions daunting. In this way the book is both wise and grounded, as Armstrong’s writing generally is. I can think of no other contemporary writer who distills the big questions and ideas of mankind’s quest for Truth into such clear prose.

After the survey of compassion in history and religion, Armstrong provides clear steps, one chapter at a time, that individuals or groups can follow to become more compassionate. They are practical, sensible, and doable — although challenging.  From learning about compassion to thinking, speaking, and acting in mindful awareness of those around us, Armstrong believes we are all capable of letting go of our preconceptions, our misunderstandings, and our bad habits and learning to love even our enemies.  Mindfulness is hard in and of itself, as I’ve often written here.  But with as capable a guide as Armstrong leading the way, the path to compassionate living seems fairly straightforward.

So I’ll keep re-reading Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, and I have a few more entries left in Watch for the Light; last night’s reading was T.S  Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” which alternately makes me smile and shudder. Also in my to read pile: new books I received for Christmas from the Computer Scientist and the Teens, including Oxfam’s Ox-Tales short story collection. I started the Earth volume and am enjoying the stories very much.  I have three piles of books by the side of the bed, and a couple of piles in other places.  Here’s to a new year of books!

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