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Posts Tagged ‘haiku’

This week I finished a couple of inter-library loans, each about a prominent woman whose work was of the highest caliber but whose accomplishments are always discussed in terms of their gender. Marie Curie is one of the greatest scientists of all time, Chiyo-ni is one of the greats of Japanese literature. Each is generally spoken of as a woman who exceeded expectations, not just as an accomplished person.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Falloutby Lauren Redniss, is a beautiful book, a graphic biography with cyanotype art, a glow in the dark cover, and more than the usual life story of Marie Curie. Redniss portrays Marie & Pierre’s great love for each other and for their work, Marie’s second Nobel prize and the scandal around her relationship (as a widow) with a married colleague, the redemption of her reputation as she provided dozens of mobile and field x-ray units during WWI, and her post-war celebrity, as well as the incredible legacies of her life, including children and grandchildren who became prominent scientists.

Through art (including a custom font she created for the book) and text, Redniss also explores the “fallout” of the Curies’ work: nuclear weapons, radiation treatment, and nuclear energy, including interviews with a victim of Hiroshima, a man who grew up watching bomb tests in Utah, and a scientist studying Chernobyl, photos of mutant flowers growing near Three Mile Island, and an interview with a couple who regularly visit a radon spa in Montana. It’s a lovely, moving, thought provoking, and fascinating book.

Chiyo-Ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi is part biography, part anthology of a hundred of Chiyo-Ni’s haiku, arranged by season, as well as examples of her haibun (prose with haiku, a form made famous by Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North) and renga (linked forms, where two or more poets write haiku to form a longer work). Chiyo-ni published two poetry collections (a rare feat at the time) and her work appeared in a stunning 120+ anthologies in her lifetime (1703-1775). She became a Pure Land Buddhist nun at age 52, and her poems are known for their enlightened clarity. She wrote one of her most famous,

a hundred gourds
from the heart
of one vine

at age 24, when a Buddhist master asked her to compose a poem on sankai, “desire, form, and nonform.” As the story goes, he was stunned when she spontaneously wrote the gourd poem, which illustrated that “everything arises from the mind.” But, in her time and ours, she’s been called a woman poet, not just one of the greatest poets in Japanese literature. Do we call Basho a man poet?

I am intensely curious about why human beings feel the need to label each other and why women are viewed as doing something especially remarkable if they excel in a “male” field. It still happens today. The Computer Scientist shared this video with me and our teens this week, showing female “geeks” (gaming, comic, and anime/manga fans) who’ve experienced sexist attitudes about their interests, which are already disparaged in mainstream culture (hence the nickname “geeks”).

I just heard a piece on NPR about the Women’s British Open, where Inbee Park could win a 4th major this year (a feat no golfer, male or female, has accomplished). The reporter said he hoped Park would “get her due” if she wins. He went on to note that the LPGA tends to promote “sex appeal” rather than “great golf” and Park isn’t a “glam girl.” Why wouldn’t sports fans be at least as impressed with Park as they were with Phil Mickelson, who finally won the men’s British Open after many attempts? He’s no glam girl either.

Before you hit the comment button, I’m not saying men and women are the same, I know there are differences. But can’t we judge people’s actions and accomplishments on their merits without dwelling on labeling them by gender or race or age or any other label? I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, but it can’t hurt to try.

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February is a short month, and yet I read a baker’s dozen books.  Many of them were quick reads; brief books or books that focus an author’s talents on a small flash of human experience, a moment in history, a idea, a window into one place, time, or family. I’ll admit, the Computer Scientist was away a few times, and without him tossing and turning to remind me I needed to get to sleep, it was easy to stay up too late reading.

I started the month by reading a new release whose advance copy was in my to-read pile for months: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. I’ve groused before that a few “it” titles suck all the oxygen out of the book publicity world, leaving many worthy titles to debut with little fanfare. This was one of those books deserving of much more attention. It got plenty of pre-pub reviews, but I have seen very little since it came out in January.

Benaron’s story is about a Tutsi boy in Rwanda who dreams of running in the Olympics. That’s probably all I have to say for you to know that it’s going to be a tough story about the 1994 genocide.  The book actually starts a few years earlier and through her hero’s life, Benaron portrays the events that led to it.  I won’t say it helps the reader understand — I think it’s impossible for most people to actually understand how genocide happens.

This book is a very compelling look at how the undercurrents of civil strife eventually grew into violent conflict . It’s also a love story in a few different ways, and a book about coming of age, dealing with loss, finding friends. The boy’s coach is a particularly strange character, who loves him and protects him but also hurts him unimaginably, all in the name of a cause that is ultimately a house of cards even for its most fervent believers.

There are a pair of idealistic ex-pats, the only characters I thought were not very interesting, and Hutus who stand up against the atrocities. The scene on the night when the genocide hits home for the book’s characters is incredibly chilling.  Benaron’s details — the way mobs form in the street, the night raids by people familiar to the victims, the government controlled radio announcing the names of people they want killed — will keep you glued to the page. The redemptive power of her character’s rebuilt lives will satisfy you as well.

Bitter violence and redemption also feature in three books I read in one weekend while the Computer Scientist was away: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. If you’ve not heard, these young adult titles have been wildly popular and are being made into a film series. The first one is out soon. Teen the Younger has been recommending I read these for awhile, as had several other friends of all ages.

While I haven’t read a great deal of YA fiction, I’ve read some that has been fairly dumbed down.  Collins, to her credit, writes pretty well; the books are not simple. I was definitely hooked and enjoyed reading them straight through a weekend, even though I lost sleep doing so. I have a weakness for a good dystopian story and this definitely fits the bill.

The trilogy is set in a future America that has been divided into thirteen districts subjugated by a powerful and hedonistic Capitol. Every year each district has to send one girl and one boy — culled at a “reaping” ceremony televised live throughout the land — to the Capitol for the Hunger Games. Their mission? Become the champion by remaining the last person alive in the arena.

Yes, Collins makes several overt allusions to Rome – in one book there is even a feast at which characters excuse themselves to vomit so they can eat more. And she taps into the cultural obsession with reality shows; I am sure if I’d read more slowly I would have picked up other references.

Perhaps these allusions could have been more subtle, but I liked the intent. Collins clearly hoped to get young people thinking about power, culture, and the importance of independent critical thinking. I appreciated that she has something to say besides just telling a thrilling story. I like the fact that kids reading these books could ponder some of life’s big questions.

Collins also writes the requisite love story into her books (are there any YA books without a romantic angle?) but makes that a more complicated story than simply boy-meets-girl-meets-boy. There’s a fair bit of psychological drama.

Teen the Younger complained at first that she thought the love story was superfluous to the second book. She hates token romance thrown into stories (as do I, as did her great-grandmother). But on reflection even she agrees it’s an important part of the heroine’s understanding of what she must do.

The characters are edgy and interesting, even if they occasionally veer close to stock roles. Collins respects her readers enough that just when you think you have one of the main characters figured out, he or she does something you aren’t expecting. I do think that some of the minor characters came across as a little flat or undeveloped.

But overall, The Hunger Games series were excellent reads. I just don’t know if I am brave enough to see the movies. Teen the Younger says she will go first and make sure I can handle it.

One night as I was arriving at the reference desk my colleague who worked the previous shift handed me a book and said she’d read it in an hour and highly recommended it. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston, took me more than an hour, because I was poring over every page.  This book defies genre, much as Brian Selznik’s books do.

It’s not really a graphic novel, it’s a scrapbook novel, told from Frankie’s point of view from her high school graduation in Cornish, NH in 1920 through college and adventures in New York and Paris before she returns to Cornish. It’s fascinating, and Frankie is an appealing aspiring-writer heroine somewhat reminiscent of Skeeter in The Help, although her story is much different.

Preston has written a lovely essay about how her highly original and very beautiful book came to be. I am very impressed that she created the scrapbook from vintage ephemera along with writing the novel. And I’m excited she’s already at work on another scrapbook novel. I think Preston has created a really interesting way to write historical novels and the fact that her background as an archivist inspired her work is a wonderful example of the spontaneous way life can inform art.

A nonfiction book I read this month was inspired by art in another way. DaVinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester‘s latest book, is the story of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous sketch “Vitruvian Man.” Lester writes in an engaging way about every aspect of science, art, and culture that led to the drawing over centuries. In lesser hands, the story might be dry, but Lester can make everything from Renaissance politics to frog anatomy seem relevant and interesting. He’s simply a terrific story-teller. And he makes Leonardo seem like a real person, not a remote historical genius.

It is interesting that Leonardo’s drawing isn’t just an example of his own curiosity about movement, art, and the human form. Lester unpacks the philosophical idea that the ideal human form inside the circle inside the square of Vitruvian Man represents the harmonious proportions of all creation — the universe as everyone from the Greeks to the Renaissance thinkers of Leonardo’s time understood it. As I say, the best part is that Lester makes this all come alive in a very entertaining way.

Another book that is very close in spirit and style to DaVinci’s Ghost is The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction last year. This is the story of one cultural icon as well: a poem packed with scientific theories and philosophical ideas by an obscure Roman named Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things.” The Swerve is an interesting, if sometimes discouraging, read.

Greenblatt can’t really tell us much about the poet, because no one knows much about him. He focuses instead on an Italian book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered “On the Nature of Things” in a remote German monastery in 1417. Bracciolini worked as secretary for a succession of popes.  The discouraging parts of this story have to do with the corruption of the Vatican and the horrors it inflicted on people during the Inquisition.

Greenblatt also touches on the poem itself, its Epicurean inspiration, and the people in later centuries who were influenced by “On the Nature of Things.” Overall, it’s a well written, entertaining story, if slightly drier than DaVinci’s Ghost.

Similarly fascinating and discouraging is Novels In Three Lines by Felix Feneon. These are actual three line pieces Feneon wrote for a French newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Many reviewers describe the pieces as Twitter-like.  Here are some examples (I didn’t preserve the three line format, but the book does):

“At census time the mayor of Montirat, Tarn, nudged the figures upward. His eagerness to govern a multitude cost him his job.”

“Once again people have been stealing telephone cables: in Paray, Athis-Mons, and Morangis, 36,000 feet; in Longjumeau, 10 miles.”

“Colics are tormenting 18 inhabitants of Matha, Charente-Inferieure; they ate some mushrooms that were much too lovely.”

“M. Usuello and M. Crespi were very cold (30 below) at 18,000 feet aboard the Milano, taking off from Milan and landing at Aix-en Savoie.”

and the whimsical:

“V. Kaiser, 14, was headed to Mont-Saint-Martin, Meurthe-et-Moselle, to see her father. Then the satyr of the woods rose up before her . . . .”

But these are only a few of the hundreds that are about suicide, despair, murder, or other crimes, horrors or hardships. I found the book to be a bit too much read all in one go. It might have been less unsettling in smaller bites.

The introduction is excellent and explains a great deal about Feneon and his work. Besides writing these brief pieces for Le Matin, he was Rimbaud‘s editor, he helped discover Seurat, hired Debussy to be a music critic for a journal he edited, and was a frequent attendee at Mellarme‘s weekly salon. And he was an anarchist and “Trial of Thirty” defendant. So the book is interesting albeit depressing and I learned a fair bit from digging into the author’s background.

Perhaps I was drawn to the idea of novels in three lines because I’m a fan of poetry in a similar form. Bookconscious readers know I read and write haiku and other Japanese forms. Haiku really isn’t about the form so much as the aesthetic, despite what you may have learned in fourth grade.

February is NaHaiWriMo – National Haiku Writing Month – which is fun. I usually write haiku daily anyway, and I try to read haiku daily as well. This month I also decided to pick up a book I’d had on my nightstand for a long time: one of Stephen Addis‘s beautiful books, Haiku Landscapes.

Like the other haiku books he has shepherded, this one is a collection of poems by Japanese masters with English translations by Fumiko Y. Yamamoto and Akira Y. Yamamoto. The poems are matched with woodblock prints and paintings by great Japanese artists. The combination is just gorgeous. I’d love to get some of the other books in the series.

In fiction, short stories are fairly well known but hardly anyone talks about novellas. That may be in part because no one is really certain what a novella is. Sure, it’s a small novel. But when is a novella a novel and when is it a long short story? That’s a subject open to debate.

I’ll wade in: I read two short books in February that I feel venture into novella territory. Bookconscious readers know I loved Stewart O’Nan‘s last book, Emily Alone. I’d heard good things about his new book, The Odds.

Let me say that I think Stewart O’Nan is masterful. This is a really heart-breakingly sharp look at a long-married couple, Art and Marion, on a last pre-divorce weekend fling in Niagara Falls. They are facing bankruptcy, a loss on the sale of their house, and past indiscretions, known and unknown. Readers are privy to the entire mess through long interior passages.

But it’s one of those books I admired but didn’t enjoy as I read. In retrospect, it’s really complicated, impressively so. Between the financial and the personal entanglements, O’Nan packs a tremendous amount of psychological drama and tension into a small package. But it is so sad, which isn’t what I look for in pleasure reading.

He does reward the reader with a very hopeful, possibly even redemptive ending. It’s grown on me since I finished it. Plus, there are fascinating little facts about the odds of various things happening at the beginning of each chapter — a pleasing touch that appealed to my inner fact junkie.

I had a similar problem with my Europa Challenge read this month. It’s a novella by Alfred Hayes, The Girl on the Via Flaminia. I read that the author adapted this book into a play, and I could immediately understand why — I actually envisioned characters entering and exiting the scenes as I read it. I have no quibble with the writing, but this book wasn’t my cup of tea.

Again I think the subject matter is the issue: this is a distressing story, and even worse, I got no sense that the characters would be released from their troubles as I did with the end of The Odds.

The book is about an Italian girl who stays in a pseudo-brothel with an American serviceman at the end of WWII because she’s hungry. But she really doesn’t want to, and he really wants more than a prostitute. They’re both miserable; just about everyone in the book is miserable.

This was one of those books I read to the end because it felt like it should develop into something I’d eventually love, but it didn’t. But I may have just reached my limit for sadness this month.

A book which opened with sorrow but developed into joy much later is The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen.  First in the prologue, a bear makes it to the shore of a Scottish island after a harrowing swim. We only know it’s a bear because a little picture of a bear signals his story. Then in the opening chapter, a recently bereaved mother and three children are driving to the same island, and they are clearly and understandably each a mess, in different ways.

Through the eyes of these five characters (including the bear), the novel unfolds. Slowly we learn that until recently the family lived in Cold War Bonn, and the father worked for the British embassy.  The government thinks he killed himself because he was a spy; his wife doesn’t want to believe it but finds what she thinks is incriminating evidence, and each of the children is unsure what to think.

And the bear? The boy is sure it’s his father, come back to help him. Pollen spins a page-turning tale with such fabulous characters, such sensory detail, such emotional depth, and such unexpected turns, I couldn’t put it down. A handful of moments, a handful of personal interactions, made the whole story fit, and I really enjoyed how seamlessly it all happened.

Finally a book of very brief essays, Delight: Taking Pleasure in the Small Things in Life by J. B. Priestly, which I read only because it was also on my nightstand with a bookmark perhaps ten pages in, under Haiku Landscapes. When it rose to the top I decided to pick it up again and finish it. It was, well, delightful.

Some of Priestly’s small things are not mine and never will be — he lived in a different era in a different culture. But his delight is infectious. This isn’t a feel-good book. Some of his musings take a serious tone, even as he describes his delight. But it’s an erudite little tour of the way an attitude of delight can make even hard things more pleasant.

So, a book about taking pleasure in small things, a number of books devoted to small forms, a big novel that turned on small moments, another novel that shines a light on one terrible time, and two nonfiction books focused, respectively, on one drawing and one poem. That did it or me this month. As for the rest of the bookconscious household . . .

. . . Teen the Younger finished The Help, continued to read Sherlock Holmes stories here and there, and wasn’t particularly interested in my grilling her about what she thought about her reading.  She ventured that she likes the character of Mae Mobley in The Help. I’d rather she read without feeling badgered, so I did not press for more details.

The Computer Scientist sent me such a nice thorough description of his reading that I quote it nearly in its entirety:

“I read The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak. I found this to be an enjoyable historically based story told with great prose. I loved following the characters along their troublesome and humanistic path. I honestly couldn’t put this down, in part because I was stuck in a window seat on a long flight. To be honest, though, I really didn’t want to put it down, either. I highly recommend this book. (bookconscious note: I wrote about  how much I loved The Sojourn here.)

On a separate long flight, I made serious progress on The Social Animal by David Brooks. Despite his political proclivities, Brooks is thoughtful writer from whom I’ve learned much about the wiring of people within the social structures in which they exist. I left the copy with Teen the Elder because it was so fantastic and topical for him, and I look forward to finishing it in the near future.

Finally, I’m nearly finished with the first installation of The Hunger Games trilogy. An interesting story concept that is well paced, but I find it lacking in depth when compared to other authors considered peers of Suzanne Collins. It’s to the point and enjoyable, but I find myself reading it to just finish it more than being compelled by the story.”

Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. So that’s the story here at the bookconscious house. Stay tuned for more books and musings.

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It’s hot, our second over-90 degree heat spell already this year, and it’s only June 8th as I start this draft. For those of you in warm parts of the world, that might not sound like much, but for New Hampshire, it feels wrong. I don’t like these wild weather swings — just three weekends ago, the weather was so cool our heat came on at night.

I’ve been struggling to make time for this month’s post in part because all I want to do is recline in a room with the shades drawn, reading. Something about hot days takes me instantly back to my childhood summers, trips to the various libraries in my life (Leola and Lancaster, PA; South Haven & Allegan, MI).  The hot, sticky air outside, contrasting with the cool library. The stacks where I could roam for as long as I wanted, browsing. The feel of a heavy pile of books in my arms. The delightful freedom of waking up in the morning knowing I could read all day if I wanted.

My reading in May included several literary wild rides.  I enjoyed several fiction titles that were innovative in some way, and a memoir about revisiting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work as an adult, and visiting places she lived.  I also read a book about making peace with time (so getting off the wild ride that is our contemporary view of time and busyness), and two poetry collections.

Let’s begin there, with poetry.  Both writing and reading poetry can be a wild ride; I often begin with just an idea of what I want a poem to say and end with something I hardly recognize, or begin to write with no real idea of where I’m headed and find the way surer as I go. And when I read poetry, I find my favorites are poems that lead me down a path I didn’t see as I began, or that surprise me with an “aha!” moment of some sort.  That may be why I am such a fan of both reading and writing Japanese forms (like haiku, senryu, and haibun), because achieving an “aha!” is challenging and rewarding.

In May I finished reading Robert Pinksy‘s Selected Poems which includes some of my favorites,  like “Rhyme,” and “Samurai Song,” both of which sound and feel perfect on the tongue, are pleasing to the eye, and are koan-like with briefly stated wisdom. I wasn’t as familiar with some of the earlier poems in the collection, like the lovely “First Early Mornings Together.”

There are many longer poems in this collection as well, and two I keep returning to are “Shirt,” which invokes both the many parts of a tailored shirt and the Triangle Fire, and “From the Childhood of Jesus,” a narrative poem in couplets that imagines the boy Jesus in all his strange, wild power.  I will continue to revisit Pinsky’s work; he’s the kind of master whose poems continue to unpack their secrets as you re-read them.

Check out this wonderful interview on the Newshour, where you can hear Pinsky talk about his work and what informs him, and get a sense of what a warm, real person he is. I’ve heard him in person and via Skype, and one thing that makes his writing so rich and meaningful is that he isn’t an ivory tower kind of poet. He lives in the real world and invokes it in his writing right alongside more erudite references to art, literature, and history.

The other collection of poems I read recently is the most recent BOA Editions prize winner, Walking the Dog’s Shadow, by Deborah Brown. Brown will be reading at Gibson’s with her friend Maxine Kumin on June 23.  As I read the book I jotted some notes to myself about phrases and ideas Brown weaves through many of the poems: physics and space (from subatomic particles to time and heavenly bodies), dogs (real and artistic renderings), grief, the heart and its capacity for pain, literature and art, current affairs and culture, war, family history, and juxtapositions.

Among my favorite poems are the title piece, which imagines grief as a black dog; “Don’t Ask,” which includes the line, “How do you know what you’ve left out of any story you tell?”; “Listen,” which posits, “Stars lie to each other, that’s why they/flicker. We tell stories, try to love,/try to make sense and end up on a swing/ kicking the air out from underneath ourselves.”  Also “The Scarlett Letter Law Struck Down in Massachusetts, Spring 2003,” with its lush description of Hester Prynne’s embroidered “A” and “Elegy for My Sister,” which calls cancer “another dark winter,” and marvels that “The tide of the mind is ruthless too,/if a poem can find some pleasure in a death.”

I think that seems to sum up what I likes about Brown’s poems in this collection — we see the poet’s mind ruthlessly gathering disparate strands, from BlackBerries and car bombs to chiarascuro and Latin verbs. The gathered strands weave together to bring readers surprising connections even out of war or pain. In “The Trap,” for example we travel from a trail on Mt. Sunapee where a dog is inadvertently caught in a hunter’s trap to British train passengers in an old film watching Muslim-Hindu unrest.

In nonfiction, I finished The Wilder Life, Wendy McClure‘s memoir of her quest to revisit both the Little House books and their author and the places where Wilder’s stories took place.  It’s an interesting book because it’s not simply about Wilder, or about McClure’s passionate research. She connects her interest in all things Wilder to her feelings about childhood and her decision not to have children of her own.

Her own feelings add to the quest though, and other than a few places where I wish she hadn’t dabbled in stereotypes of homeschoolers (which in fairness was due in part to the homeschoolers she met), I found the book interesting, well written, and thoughtful. Fair warning, though, if you want to maintain a kind of dreamy, happy vision of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family, this book might disappoint you, because McClure gets into the reality of their lives.

I didn’t mind. I’ve actually always thought it would be fun to visit the sites and this was the perfect armchair travel for someone who can’t or won’t be driving all over the mid-West and plains tracking the Ingalls/Wilder sites. I enjoyed reading about McClure’s research. And I was fascinated that McClure asked what I myself had wondered — why would the Ingalls leave the Big Woods, and the Wilders leave Farmer Boy‘s home, when they were so happy and well-provisioned? Read The Wilder Life and wonder along with McClure.

Bookconscious readers may recall that I met Rye Barcott at a booksellers’ conference last winter and brought home his book, It Happened On the Way to War: a Marine’s Path to Peace, which the Computer Scientist read. I caught up myself ahead of Rye’s visit to Gibson’s last week. The book is part memoir, part nonprofit creation tale.  Rye started Carolina for Kibera when he was still an undergraduate at UNC, and managed to keep working with his friends in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa, during his time on active duty as a Marine.

I enjoyed the book for some of the same reasons the Computer Scientist did — the story is inspiring, and Rye doesn’t hide the things he struggled with personally or professionally. We asked the Teens to come hear Rye speak, and I was glad. He talked about learning things for oneself, connecting with people who are “other” in authentic ways, and putting yourself “out there” in pursuing dreams and finding mentors.  If you have a teen or college student looking for something to read this summer, or if you want to read a book that erases the pain you’re feeling over the Three Cups of Tea scandal, check out It Happened On the Way to War.

From war to intrigue — two novels I read this month were irreverent, funny, wild reads.  Jasper Fforde‘s latest Thursday Next tale, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, was challenging for me to get into but then picked up, and didn’t disappoint in terms of Fforde’s zany, utterly original portrayal of Jurisfiction, the Book World, and a futuristic Britain in which an evil mega-corporation (Goliath) wields more power than the government and you can’t be sure who’s written and who’s real.  If you’re new to Thursday Next’s story, you’d do well to begin with the first book, and if you like Fforde, don’t miss his brilliant Shades of Grey, a very imaginative dystopian novel of manners.

The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine, Alina Bronsky‘s novel out in May from Europa Editions, isn’t set in a fictional world, but in the late Soviet Union and in newly reunified Germany. Bronsky’s detailed description of both places brings out the strange and wacky in each. The book is a fascinating fictional snapshot into recent history. Bronsky’s main character, Rosa, a matriarch straight out of a comic nightmare, is both hilarious and terrifying.

The other characters form a cast nearly as kooky as Rosa, but with enough tragic humanity to act as a foil to her endless plotting. From the first pages, when Rosa’s daughter claims to have become pregnant in a dream, to the end of the novel, when we get a  final glimpse of the baby, now grown and leading a wild and very public life, Bronsky keeps readers laughing, raging, and turning pages.

When I decided I’d better read this year’s Pulitzer prize winner for fiction, Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad, I also decided to try e-books. I downloaded the book from the library and read it on my I-pad. I’d just like to say, this affirms my suspicion — e-books are not so exciting. At least for me, I can’t see what the thrill is all about. It was convenient to download the book, but in every other way, I found the medium less satisfying than a real book. Perhaps it’s the reader I’m using (Overdrive), but I don’t get the appeal.

Then I was confused by what exactly I was reading. Is A Visit From the Goon Squad a novel? Linked stories? A “novel-in-stories,” as I saw one reviewer call it?  I’d read about a third of the book when I went online and noodled around review sites trying to understand what I had gotten myself into. I’m still not sure, and I think that’s part of the book’s novelty — it’s hard to say what genre it is.  There’s also the famously novel use of Power Point in one of the chapters. I was skeptical, but it works very well with the story in that chapter, and it left me feeling I’d connected with the characters.

So other than the fact that it’s an “it” book, what do I think?  A Visit From the Goon Squad is a wild ride, of that I’m certain. I enjoyed some of the stories very much, and others only somewhat; that said, one mark of an extraordinary book is that it lingers in the reader’s mind, and this book does that, popping up as I read other things and asking me to re-examine what I think I know about storytelling.

It’s also the product of a writer fully in command of her craft, and I admire Egan’s skill and the research she either did or imagined (I was sure Paul Harding had done a lot of research on epilepsy for Tinkers and he says he didn’t really research it at all, but wrote what he thought it would be like).  I loved the end, which flirts with the kind of dystopian futuristic imaginings I enjoy.  I can understand what captured the Pulitzer committee’s imagination.

This week I finished another novel that took me to new places: Kyung-Sook Shin‘s Please Look After Mom.   As bookconscious regulars know, I am a big fan of reading books in translation (and I was remiss in not mentioning that The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine is translated from German).  Kyun-Shook Shin is one of Korea’s best-known authors, and she was a young sensation there, publishing her first book when she was in her early 20’s.

She’s written fourteen books, some of which were translated into German, French, Japanese, and/or Chinese, but Please Look After Mom is the first to be translated into English.  I hope the book’s success will encourage her publisher to bring out more of her books here. Please Look After Mom is original, thought provoking, and sad.

Many authors employ the technique of telling a story from different characters’ points of view, and Shin does this to great effect, with four perspectives.  What’s unusual is that Shin uses the 2nd person most of the time, which is a point of view not often found in a novel. The story centers on Mom, who disappears in a subway station in Seoul, and the novel unravels her life story, bit by bit.  Her daughter and son each know some things, her husband other things, and Mom herself tells part of the story.

The book captures several classic conflicts. Mom grew up and has lived most of her adult life in a rural village, she was married as a teen, and she’s led a life of hard work, illiteracy, and deprivation, as well as great change.  She observes traditional seasonal rites, honors ancestors, but also encourages her kids to pursue careers in Seoul and asks a friend to read her daughter’s novel aloud to her.   She shows her love for her family mostly through food, even to the point of offering rice to her wayward husband when he returns home from an affair. Her children live lives she has trouble understanding.

An NPR reviewer took issue with the “guilt trip” aspect of the book — the characters, understandably, react to Mom’s disappearance with varying levels of guilt and distress, and readers learn that none of them really appreciated Mom, they all took her hard work for granted, and never really considered her happiness. We see that her husband has no idea that he loves her until she’s gone. That her children only now realize she can’t read. I think the book examines an extreme example of something that really goes on in families, and the reviewer missed the relevance of the emotional narrative.

Mom has been kind of an embarrassment, a nag, and a reminder of the past for her family. She’s the kind of person who wants to please others and who is fiercely protective of her family. Rather than draw attention to things she can’t do, like read, she compensates by doing more of what she’s good at — growing, storing, and preparing food, making sure her kids get educated.

So, does anyone reading this know an older adult who is like this?  Maybe not illiterate, but certainly of a generation where women did most of the hard stuff with regards to homemaking and child rearing, and kept their own needs/wants to themselves?  Where adult children are perhaps embarrassed, or at least mildly annoyed, by what they perceive as guilt trips, judgement by the older generation, or nagging?  Where the mother manages to hide her frailty or failing health until a crisis occurs? Where old, reliable mom is taken for granted by her husband and grown children?

Yeah, I thought so. The NPR reviewer is off base in suggesting this book is “weepy” and “melodramatic,” — it’s set in another culture, it showcases the clash of traditional culture and modern life in a place where both are still relevant, and it examines the role of women not unlike that of just a few generations ago here in America. I imagine there are women whose experiences aren’t too far different from Mom’s in various places around the world today. And the role of parents and children in each other’s lives is as classic a literary theme as they come.

In fact, the critically acclaimed The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine examines a mother’s intrusion in her offspring’s life. She’s just so comically monstrous (and selfish), that perhaps she strikes a chord in a world where everyone can be the center of attention for at least a little while, on social media, YouTube, etc.  Mom, on the other hand, makes some reviewers squirm, perhaps because she is considered anti-feminist. But despite her lack of education, her limited opportunities, her self-sacrifice for her family, and her distant husband, Mom speaks her mind and does many things she wants to do (traveling to see her children alone, for example, volunteering at an orphanage, ensuring her children are educated).  She just happens to also be completely devoted to supporting her family.

In other reviews, there is criticism of the images of the Virgin Mary, but Mom has attended Mass, she asked her daughter for a rosary, so Mary’s appearance in the novel isn’t entirely out of the clear blue.  Try Please Look After Mom for yourself. At the very least, enjoy the interesting point of view and the perspective on contemporary Korea.  And consider whether a book dealing with the gap between rural parents and city children and the clash of traditional family roles with contemporary life would have been more widely acclaimed in the U.S. forty or fifty years ago.

Finally this month, I read Buddha Standard Time: Awakening to the Infinite Possibilities of Now, by Lama Surya Das. I first read Das’s work about ten years ago, when during a period of great change in our lives, a friend recommended Awakening the Buddha Within.   Ever since, I’ve worked on being more mindful, at times diligently, at other times, less so.

This book really struck me as useful — Surya Das, who the Dalai Lama calls “the Western Lama,” is no guru on a mountain top. He’s thoroughly versed in the real experience of living in the world today, so his recommendations are very practical and take into consideration things like our obsession with gadgets and the over-scheduling of children.  With reflections on real people’s experiences re-inventing their relationship with time and busyness, and brief, accessible exercises and practices for becoming more mindful and less stressed out, Buddha Standard Time is a book anyone, of any spiritual background, could find useful.  The Buddhist beliefs Das outlines are presented in clear layman’s language, and he’s very ecumenical in addressing spiritual practice.

Teen the Elder, who is officially done with high school, is reading The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes. I heard Holmes on Radiolab, and suggested the book since science history is one of Teen the Elder’s favorite subjects.  He continues to read an enormous amount of soccer reporting from around the world. I witnessed the fruits of that study when he was able to comment extensively on the players for both the U.S. (including some new to the National Team and others just on the coaches’ radar who aren’t even in training camp yet) and Spain, when I took him to see the two teams practice ahead of their international friendly match last Friday.

Teen the Younger is still reading several books at once, including the 3rd of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books, Mockingjay (which she’d set aside in order to finish some other things) and a bunch of Manga series, plus a book about the periodic table (The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom In the Universe).

The Computer Scientist is deep into Townie by Andre Dubus III, who is one of the kindest, warmest authors I’ve ever met, just a wonderful person who makes everyone in a room feel included and at ease.  His readings at Gibson’s are some of our customers’ favorites. The book is a tough memoir about his upbringing and how writing saved him from violence and anger. The C.S. is enjoying it very much.

On my piles?  I started Ann Beattie‘s The New Yorker Stories, which is terrific but will take me ages to read a bit at a time (which is fun, so I don’t mind). I’m reading Maeve Binchy‘s latest at the moment, Minding Frankie, and I have Alexander McCall Smith‘s most recent Botswana mystery out from the library as well, The Saturday Big Tent Wedding. I told my neighbor today that I am anxious to read Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower, which is about a librarian, so I love it already. Wish I was young and carefree this summer — I have the long hot days and stacks of books, all I need now is whole days for reading!

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On World AIDS Day, the bookconscious household attended our community’s interfaith service. Our friend and deacon, Brother Charles Edward (or B.C.E., as he’s known), pointed out that when the AIDS pandemic began, people lived in the shadow of death, but now, we’re living in the light of hope. I thought that was beautiful.

Just the night before, I set up a BeadforLife table at the Songweavers annual “pahty,” where we eat, raise money for the Songweavers scholarship fund, and sing.  The last song of the evening, which I’ve been singing fragments of ever since, was the South African hymn Siyahamba, which spread around the world when the Swedish choral group Fjedur recorded it in 1978. The chorus in English is “We are marching (or walking) in the light of God.”  So I had one of those moments as I listened to B.C.E., where  interconnectedness hummed through my brain.

When I sat down two nights ago, after several long days of chores, projects, and activities related to this season of light, to look at the books I read in November and contemplate this month’s bookconscious post, I realized that much of my reading fits this Big Idea of walking into light, leaving darkness, whether literal or metaphorical, behind. I wouldn’t say this was a conscious choice, as my reading pile is often in flux and usually eclectic. But it’s possible I was seeking connections after a very hectic fall; I probably needed a Big Idea to quiet the scattering of thoughts that B.C.E. reminded us we all deal with, what Buddhism calls “monkey mind.”

Poets have dealt with this theme for as long as there has been poetry. Two collections I read this month include excellent examples of the human need to get through darkness and return to light.  In Kay Ryan’s The Best of It: New & Selected Poems, “Cloud” describes the experience of walking the woods when a cloud engulfs the treetops. Ryan writes, “From inside the/forest it seems/like an interior/matter, something/wholly to do/with trees, a color/passed from one/to another, a/requirement/to which they/submit unflinchingly/like soldiers or/brave people/getting older.”  The dimming of light is something bigger than us, like war or aging.

But Ryan’s poems are often hopeful, and “Cloud” ends with these matter-of-fact lines: “Then the sun/comes back and/it’s totally over.”    “The Fourth Wise Man,” is a topic that’s a literary staple, and Ryan’s pictures him as one who “. . . far preferred/to be inside in solitude/to contemplate the star/that had been getting/so much larger . . .”  Too much light is as challenging to the status quo as too little.  And in “A Cat/A Future,” Ryan compares a cat’s ability to “. . .draw/the blinds/behind her eyes . . .”  to the way “a future can occlude:/still sitting there/doing nothing rude.”  We’re going to be in the dark sometimes, and that’s life.

In Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison, Ted Kooser is literally starting in darkness writing poems, as his doctor tells him to avoid the sun while he’s undergoing cancer treatment. In the introduction to the book, he explains that this was a time of emotional darkness as well, but that pre-dawn walks and the quiet poems he wrote afterward helped him heal.

Each of the hundred poems in this book is dated, and each begins with a title that describes the weather that morning, like “Clear and Cool,” or “Sunny and Milder.” This structure, along with the brevity of poems written to fit on postcards, and the common setting (the roads and fields around Kooser’s home in early morning) make the collection very cohesive. Some of the poems are just a few lines, and others are only one sentence. The idea of a poem just a few breaths long is appealing to me, because I love Japanese forms, and although Kooser doesn’t include any haiku here, many pieces have the same aesthetic as the prose portion of a haibun.

While darkness and light run all through Winter Morning Walks, a couple of images really struck me. “december 2 Clear and cool,” begins, “Walking in darkness, in awe/beneath a billion indifferent stars,” and goes on a few lines later to show us the path Kooser walks: “. . . the gravel/that, faintly lit, looks to be little more/than a contrail of vapor,/so thin, so insubstantial it could,/on a whim, let me drop through it/and out of the day. . . .”

The real light of the stars is cold and awe inspiring, “indifferent” to human activity. The imagined light, the “contrail” of the barely visible gravel path, makes walking on solid ground seem as tenuous an activity as falling through vapor. Kooser concludes this powerful poem with the sound of his own feet as he walks, “in noisy confidence/as if each morning might be trusted,/as if the sounds I make might buoy me up.” His body, once frail with illness, tells him he’s alive.

In “March 10 Quiet and cold at 6am,” Kooser observes: “At dawn, in the roadside churchyard/the recent, polished headstones glance and flash/as if the newly dead were waving pink placards/protesting the loss of their influence./But the soft old marbles, grainy from weather/and losing their names, have a steady glow/like paper bags with candles lit inside,/lining a path, an invitation.”  A lovely, haunting little poem. I admire the freshness of these images. Kooser’s suggestion that eventually, the dead grow used to their worldly light having gone out, and that in death we might encounter a different “steady glow” is comforting.

There’s a lot of death and darkness in the other books I read this month; all of them ultimately suggest a kind of carrying-on-in-spite-of-it-all sensibility.  Milena Agus‘s novel, From the Land of the Moon, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, is due out in January. Agus’s narrator tells readers the story of her grandmother, a Sardinian woman who gets married in the midst of WWII.  Grandmother is an exuberant woman, and she has loomed large in the narrator’s life.

As her granddaughter tells it, Grandmother’s life has been difficult, she longs for a lost love, her husband married her out of a sense of duty, and her deep passion has gone unrequited. She’s dealt with darkness, but she’s managed to make a life worth living anyway. Towards the end of the novel (and I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t give the details), we learn that Grandmother’s daughter-in-law, the narrator’s mother, has always known more about Grandmother, but protected her secrets. Once Grandmother is dead, the narrator learns the rest of her story, and later finds her Grandmother’s notebook, which illuminates her life even more.

If I’m being too obscure, let me say that From the Land of the Moon is a beautiful story about how families keep secrets and invent stories to cover them, how memory can be infused with desire until two people might have very different perceptions of something that happened, how appearances might cover dramatically different inner lives. It’s also a book that explores the role of imagination in life, and the blending of imagination and reality into a person’s interior world. In a way, it’s a tribute to the ability of writing to lift someone out of despair.

I don’t know much about Sardinia or about Italy in WWII and the post-war period, so I enjoyed the cultural history Agus provides. Reading literature in translation expands one’s worldview, and I appreciate that.  So far I’ve been impressed with the Europa editions fiction I’ve read and I hope they continue to produce such an interesting list.

Another book that prods the dark corners of perception, misunderstanding, and imagination and comes up with a mostly hopeful view of mankind muddling through into lighter days is Jay Atkinson‘s short story collection Tauvernier Street.  I enjoyed just about all of the stories in the book; when I look at the three I didn’t care for as much I see that they stray from the setting of most of the others, Tauvernier Street or similar surroundings.  Perhaps the book would have been tighter without those three stories, or maybe I was too much in the mood for a distinct thread — my monkey mind liked settling down.

The stories set in gritty New England neighborhoods (or anchored there, even if the characters venture farther afield) examine all manner of human foibles through a wide array of characters. Atkinson comes up with some very fresh, imaginative situations — “The God of This World” is about a terror attack on the real heart of America, the big box home improvement store.  “The Philosophy Shop” is about a man who opens the shop of the title after his father’s death, and tries to seek truth.

Other stories are more straightforward but no less perceptive, and I especially enjoyed “The Art of War,” “God’s Work,” “The Tex Cameron Show,” “Sages,” “The Messenger,” “Radio Call,” and “The Thorndikes of Tauvernier Street.” Atkinson looks at the way people perceive race, class, religion, and culture. Along with the usual emotional conflict between characters that are the bread and butter of short fiction writers, he manages to focus on the small moments of real understanding people are capable of.  These flashes of light — candle flames in the vast darkness of the human psyche — make for good reading.

A master of capturing these slivers of insight and of creating unforgettable characters is Alice Hoffman. I thoroughly enjoyed The Red Garden, due out in January. The chapters of this book take readers from the founding of Blackwell, Massachusetts in 1750, where we meet the indomitable founding mother Hallie Brady, to contemporary times in the town. Some include glimpses of real historical figures, like Emily Dickinson. Others bring ghosts and touches of magical realism, something Hoffman does so very well.

I’m not sure I could choose a favorite chapter of The Red Garden. In each piece, Hoffman introduces characters who are fully drawn in a just few pages, and subtly, quietly, ties each story, each life, to those that came before.  Some characters literally show up in later chapters as they grow older, others reappear in Blackwell town lore, others are present in what they have left behind in the physical and emotional landscape of the place and its people.

It’s fascinating to see how Hoffman wove American history into the book; everything from colonial era homesteading to the Civil War, the 1918 flu epidemic, the Great Depression and Vietnam appear.  Hoffman makes cultural references as well as historical ones — in the chapter set in the 1980’s, for example, there are vials of Valium in one character’s medicine chest and a Prince song on a juke box. The dialogue also evolves as Hoffman moves through the decades. There are other books that use the march of time as a plot device, but few that do it so well, and thanks to Hoffman’s masterful use of historical details.

The Red Garden is more than historical fiction. Hoffman examines the way we are connected; people change the human story just, as my grandmother used to say, by being themselves. The world, and in particular Blackwell, is a richer place because of the briefest of encounters between the town’s inhabitants and those passing through, the scantest conscious connections between generations. The town’s earlier citizens work through the later character’s lives by informing their decisions as traces of collective memory, or as real presences, in story and artifact, to their descendants.

Hallie Brady’s spirit and intelligence seems to streak through the town’s figurative DNA.  She walks confidently out of the dark struggle to survive the first winter in Blackwell and into the light of hope; future Blackwellians follow in their own ways. This book will remind you that as we stride around acting (we think) independent and smart and modern, memory, history, and myth are working within us all, in ways we may not even realize.

Jennifer Donnelly‘s fantastic new YA novel Revolution was another page-turning read this month. Like Hoffman, she clearly did a great deal of research.  I have to say right now, I would probably never have picked the book up, since I generally avoid YA titles because of their obsession with presenting kids dealing with all manner of Issues, and this one is no exception. But Gibson’s Random House rep. for young people’s books recommended it, and I am grateful she did.

The main character in Revolution, Andi, is not exactly representative of your average kid. She’s a senior at an exclusive private school, her parents and friends are all fabulously wealthy or famous or both, and she is dealing with the psychological aftermath of her younger brother’s death and her parents’ divorce. Hence my usual “Issue alert” was on — I find this kind of piling on of what I consider to be unrealistic amounts of problems and backstory to be a major detractor that turns me off to a fair bit of YA literature (I didn’t even mention the drugs, relationship problems, and enormous pressure to get into a top college; Andi is also a gifted musician).

Just give teens a good story, I usually gripe. About a kid they can relate to, who isn’t either a basket case dealing with more troubles than a Telenovela queen or burdened with so many talents she can’t quite work out whether to be a genius scientist or a famous musician. This book doesn’t meet any of those criteria. But, our rep. gave it such a glowing recommendation that I decided I’d give it a try, figuring at the least, I’d have a current YA book to talk about with holiday shoppers at Gibson’s.

And I thoroughly enjoyed Revolution. I am very impressed with the complexity of the story and the rich details Donnelly used to bring Andi’s world alive, as well as the world of Alexandrine, another teenaged girl whose life Andi becomes fascinated with when she finds her diary, written during the French Revolution. Andi may not be representative of the average American teen but I grew to love her.  Many of the minor characters are also memorable — everyone from Andi’s best friend, Vijay, to an 18th century French composer (of Donnelley’s imagination, I was sad to learn; he seemed so real) named Malherbeau comes off the page in vivid, living color. Andi’s family friend, G, a French historian, her Holocaust survivor music teacher in Brooklyn, and the strict librarian at a historical archives in Paris are all wonderfully drawn. Even a scary flea market vendor who deals in bones from Paris’s catacombs is creepily realistic.

And the story is very intriguing. As Andi is drawn into Alexandrine’s story, and her research for her senior thesis progresses, their two worlds go from having some parallels to actually colliding. Donnelly, like Hoffman, has written a terrific story saturated in historical details, and like Hoffman dabbles with the supernatural. I don’t think this book should be limited to YA exposure. It’s a good read for adults as well.

One of my favorite things about Revolution is that Andi undergoes a transformation despite all the evidence in her world and Alexandrine’s that the world is brutal and people will never stop being awful to each other. We see her go from a sullen, suicidally depressed kid who’s veering towards disaster (she takes too many of the drugs her psychiatrist prescribes, skips school, and lashes out at the adults who are trying to help her) to a young woman who is able to put her brother’s tragic death to rest, and to help herself heal. But none of this is handled formulaicly — Donnelly delivers this classic theme of troubled adolescent getting her life together with a little help from her friends in a fresh new way. And while there’s a love story (more than one, really, and more than just romantic love), it’s also not cliched.

So, I hereby apologize for writing off most YA fiction and I look forward to finding more good books like Revolution. Which, if you’re keeping score, is very much in keeping with my November reading thread — Andi literally walks out of the darkness of underground Paris and her own psychological and emotional darkness and lives in the light of hope.

Another book that came my way this month and turned out to be just what I wanted to read was Andrew Krivak’s forthcoming novel The Sojourn. This one’s not due out until May, and it’s being published by Bellevue Literary Press, the same small press that published Paul Harding’s Tinkers.  Like From the Land of the Moon, The Sojourn is a book that deals with a piece of history I didn’t know much about.

The Sojourn opens in Colorado, where a young immigrant family is struggling to make a life in America. After his wife dies in an accident (protecting her infant son in her last seconds), the widower returns to his village in Austria-Hungary. He raises the boy, Jozef, to be a shepherd, and takes in a distant cousin’s son, Marian, known as Zlee.  Jozef and Zlee grow up together, and when World War I comes, they go off to fight for the Emperor.

Because of their years of spotting and shooting in defense of their flock and as hunters, they are singled out as a sharpshooting team. This aspect of Word War I was not one I’d read about (quick aside; for a breathtaking novel of life in WWI’s trenches, read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way which I discussed in a bookconscious post a couple of springs ago.)  Most of what I know about WWI, other than what I learned in history classes, I read in Vera Brittain‘s wonderful diaries and memoirs, which my grandmother encouraged me to read when I traveled to England as a college student.

What little I know about the Italian front I read in A Farewell to Arms, and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything from the point of view of the Austro-Hungarians before The Sojourn.  Krivak captures many of the same depressing aspects of war that others before him have: the futility of defending trenches and attacking out of them, the nationalism among troops fighting for the same cause who are suspicious of each other’s cultures, the cluelessness and egotism of some of the officers, the brutality of war, the filth and degredation, hunger and illness.

But The Sojourn is also a psychological study — Jozef reflects on his upbringing, the family tensions he recalls from boyhood (especially resentment and greed on the part of his stepmother and her thuggish sons). His embarrassment over his father’s low stature in their village and family aggravates him as a young man. His father is a well read independent thinker, who teaches Jozef and Zlee English by reading aloud Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, and the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. But in their village, he’s the man who went to America and came back, and therefore a failure.

Like many an adolescent Jozef struggles with knowing this isn’t true, knowing his father’s real worth, and feeling the sting of social embarrassment. When war comes and his father, who reads English newspapers as well, doesn’t believe in the cause of the Hapsburgs, Jozef ignores him and goes to enlist.  Despite his love and respect for his father, Jozef leaves, even as he sees the anguish it causes. Well-tread ground in literature, but Krivak makes it fresh; the characters are unique and believable and you fall under the spell of the story, the way we are lulled into believing our own experiences are unique when we’re having them.

All of this coming-of-age material builds up the narrative, and then Krivak takes his young hero to war. I think this portion of the novel is very well done, even though Krivak continues to deal with familiar territory:  impressionable young soldiers going off to fight, full of confidence and well trained in body and spirit to defend the homeland, becoming disillusioned by the reality of war and finding a way through this struggle into transformation. Perhaps because of the strangeness of sharpshooting — young men trained to hunt other young men — the writing is chilling and sometimes even beautiful.

Again I don’t want to spoil anything, but the final third of the book, with the post-war resolution, Jozef’s coming to terms with the killing he’s done and the losses he’s experienced, and his long journey home, take the book to another level. As fascinating as Jozef’s unorthodox upbringing and sharpshooter experiences are, his slow recovery from the trauma of war and return to everyday humanity is Krivak’s finest accomplishment in the novel.

Small acts of kindness in each part of Jozef’s story, and his lingering vision of his mother as a kind of angel, nourish him, and sustain readers through the bitterest parts of the book. Love —  not only romantic love (which is done well — there is a remarkable, searing love story towards the end of the book, which ties together many of Krivak’s themes of longing and belonging, home and identity), but as in Revolution, love in all its many forms and nuances — restore both Jozef’s and the reader’s confidence that all shall be well again. Krivak takes us through the dark night of the soul and back into the light of hope. I didn’t want it to end.

And The Sojourn has what I consider the perfect ending: hopeful, but not so neatly tied up that you aren’t left with a lingering trace of the book in your mind for several days.  I hope you know just what I mean. In my view, the best books stay with you, working on your own stored memory, fusing themselves with all you’ve read and all you’ve been, incorporating themselves into what you’ll be. Books that last are books that make meaning, that consciously or unconsciously change the way you view the next thing you read, the next idea you consider, the next response you have to the world.  The Sojourn is that kind of book.

Finally, last weekend as Advent began, I started re-reading a collection of essays and poems called Watch for the Light. It’s challenging at this time of year to add to my daily routine, but keeping an advent discipline, I’ve found, is good grounding before the over-abundance of Christmas. This book gathers some of the greatest spiritual writers from several centuries, and some of it is very challenging both to read and to digest. Some of it, I think, may not be digestable; a point that appears in many of the book’s entries is that certain mysteries, such Christmas, are nearly impenetrable.

So it’s seasonal, but I wouldn’t call this book uplifting. Like so many of the other things I’ve read lately, it’s a reminder that dark, uncertain, even troubling thoughts are a part of the human experience and have been forever. So are hope, and more rarely perhaps, joy.  Living is about continuing to help each other through the shadowy bits, so we can all make it into the light.  I’m very glad we live in a world where excellent reading is a part of that, and where it’s possible to excavate an inner world in the midst of a wide community because of writers and readers.

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Looking over my list of December books in my Goodreads page, I wonder how I read so much in a traditionally busy month? Like many families, we had a pretty quiet Christmas, with no travel and no visitors. Also, I got a lot of reading done while waiting for the Teenager.

He is now a proud member of Seacoast United Soccer Club. Driving kids around (and waiting for them) is a condition of modern middle class life in America, where few after school activities are accessible on foot — and you’d be suspected of neglect if you sent the darlings on public transportation, assuming you actually live where there is any public transportation (we don’t). One of my favorite NYT columnists, Michelle Slatalla, wrote a very amusing piece on parents making the best of kids’ busy schedules last fall.

December was also pretty slow for events at the store — it’s been a few weeks since we had any. Things are heating back up, though. Take a look at all the authors we have coming in January and February. I’m booking well into the spring.  There are many small tasks to perform for each event, and one thing I’ve discovered I enjoy is creating posters, like these two I’ve done this week:

One of the best things about my job has to be receiving advance copies of books. Ron Koltnow at Random House gave me a copy of Alice I Have Been: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin when he came to the store for Holiday Gift Book night. I just revised Alice from 4 stars to 5 in Goodreads, because I realized today that I have thought about this book every day since Jan. 1, when I read it in one evening.  I also keep telling my family about it — always a sign of book passion!

The Alice of the title is Alice Liddell, the real girl who inspired Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) to write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I thoroughly enjoyed the way Benjamin combined history, literary back-story, and compelling storytelling. Victorian times were tough for girls and women, and days after I put the book down I’m still feeling a combination of empathy and indignation.

Bookconscious regulars know I love to be transported when I read, and Alice I Have Been succeeds in carrying readers to another place and time. It left me curious to know more about Alice and some of the other real people who appear in the novel, too. And like all of the books I love best, Alice fits the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness — my belief in the collective wisdom writers and readers share across cultures, times, and places.

One reason I fell so hard for the heroine of this book is that I can imagine walking in her shoes. Benjamin made her come alive, but she also made me see myself as a part of the greater story — the story of humans yearning to use their minds to the fullest, to live purposefully, to love wholeheartedly, and to make a home in the world that will sustain their children.

Ron also recommended Alan Bennett’s The Clothes They Stood Up In.  I loved The Common Reader, so I checked this out of the library over the holidays. Bennett’s story is about a British couple who come home from the opera to find everything in their apartment is gone, down to the toilet paper roll.  Not far into the story I had a sense of where it might be headed, but Bennett writes well and the details kept me engaged.  A couple of twists surprised me as well. A fun little read.

When I checked out Bennett’s book, I was at the library picking up Mennonite In A Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen’s memoir. Several customers at the store asked for it in the past few months, and both the review and an article in the New York Times intrigued me as well.  I loved this book.

It might help that I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and lived later in an area of Georgia with a sizable Mennonite population, so I was picturing people I’ve known as I read.  Or that Janzen’s admiration of her mother and father is lovely without being cloying. Her tone is just right, too : a little breezy and familiar (think Elizabeth Gilbert’s “girlfriend” voice), very smart, fairly bare-all without being maudlin or mean. The Times review calls her “reliable,” and “a good sport” — she tells it like it is, but she is fair and affectionate about it. No whining, and no superiority.

I shook my head from time to time, but I also laughed out loud.  While this is a memoir, Janzen also writes about her family;  Mennonite faith, culture, and history; and friendships. It’s nice when an author moves beyond “all about me,” especially here, where Janzen’s messy marriage and medical problems are material enough that she could easily have focused on her own problems.

I enjoyed her ability to celebrate the good stuff — her sister, her pals, her parents, even “oldsters,” her mother visits, classic hymns,and Mennonite cooking. Janzen also probes around the edges of the topic of her next book, which will be about her return to a faith community. I can’t wait to read it.

I also plan to look for Janzen’s book of poetry. I read a good bit of poetry in December, in part because the Teenager gave me two books, That Little Something by Charles Simic and Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu, introduced and translated by Keith Holyoak. I enjoyed both books very much. I think Simic might have gotten along fine with the two Chinese poets. I see some similarity in the way he writes about human experience with history’s framework always hanging around the edges.

The Teenager reports that he chose the classical Chinese poets because the poems reminded him in some ways of haiku. And he knows Charles Simic’s work — I hung up several of Simic’s poems in the kitchen when he became poet laureate, and we took the kids to hear Simic read at the Concord Auditorium with Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall a couple of years ago. The teenager remembers fondly that Simic read a poem which included the “f” word.

I also read The Battlefield Guide by Rodger Martin. This themed collection has appeared in earlier forms, including Martin’s live performances of poetry and music with singer Tim Mowry. This edition, which is coming out from Hobblebush Books soon, includes three sections: Harpers Ferry, Antietam, and Gettysburg. The collection is informed by Martin’s visits to these places over many years.

I found the book very moving and the poems resonant on several levels. As history, as a sort of poetry guidebook, as social commentary on the ugliness of war, as noble portraiture of some of the doomed men of the Civil War, as personal touchstones of the poet, these pieces speak to readers and perhaps to ghosts. Martin is clearly moved himself, and in the introduction he explains how this project has its roots in battlefield visits of his youth. These places and their history, he tells readers, helped form how we see ourselves as a nation, and he’s felt compelled to write about them for a long time.

It’s a book I’d like leaders to read. How could anyone send young people off to maim and kill and be maimed and die after reading, “On that man-silent September sunrise/nature still spoke freely to itself;/but, by day’s end, even the birds — struck so dumb –/ refused to sing, nor would they return next spring.” (from “Dunker’s Church,” in the Antietam section). Martin’s helpful footnotes include one indicating that no one is sure whether the birds of Sharpsburg were killed or just settled elsewhere. Martin’s book is not just history, it’s unfortunately timely as well.

Another timely poetry book I read is Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs. Scrooge: A Christmas Poem. I first read Duffy’s work last spring, when she became England’s poet laureate. Both the Preteen and I got a kick out of Mrs. Scrooge. It’s a fun addition to our collection of holiday books. One of my first bookconscious posts considered our annual read-aloud tradition during advent. I look forward to revisiting Mrs. Scrooge in years to come; it will remind me of what the world was like in 2009.

A few novels rounded out my December reading. This week at Gibson’s Robin Antalek will be reading from her debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart. This emotionally riveting book covers a range of family issues — a wrecked marriage, multigenerational substance abuse, sibling rivalries, adult children coming to terms with their upbringing and making their ways (or really screwing up) through their own relationships.

As rough as all this sounds, the book ends on a redemptive note. But it’s real — no sappy ending, just enough hope that you won’t turn away in despair. Also to Antalek’s credit, she covers a range of  issues but this book never feels like she’s trying to hit for the cycle of  “it” topics. I hate books like that, and I admit my radar was on as I began reading.  But Antalek impressed me; everything in her story belonged. And I loved two of the siblings, and cared grudgingly about what was going to happen to the other two — read the book and see if you can figure out which ones are which!

My next door neighbor gave me two books to read over the summer, and I sheepishly admit I only just got to them in December! Both are books I’d heard a lot about: The Alchemist, by Paolo Coehlo, which several people have recommended; and The Beach House, by Jane Green.  It’s hard to read books with an open mind when you’ve heard about them from a variety of people over a period of time, but I tried.

I liked both of these books, for different reasons. The Alchemist is hard to peg — it’s kind of a novel length parable. A little on the sweet side, but not brain freeze sweet. A little new-agey, but not channeling ancient beings new-agey. I enjoyed the story, which felt fresh, but comfortably in the wisdom tale genre. I was expecting The Alchemist to be treacly or woo-woo or both, so I was pleasantly surprised to find it entertaining, gentle, and sage. I recommended it to both kids.

The Beach House is chic lit, and every once in awhile, I love a good chic lit novel. This one is indeed good — packed with delightful characters, story lines, love interests, and complications. Green’s pacing is perfect, her characters likable and interesting, and the plot twists smart, sometimes funny, and not too far fetched. You’ll want to go to Nantucket when you’re done reading.

December’s book club read at Gibson’s was The Age of Innocence. I really enjoy Edith Wharton, who is masterfully witty. Like Dickens, she doesn’t miss a speck on the tablecloth or a scent in the bouquets when she sets a scene. Revisiting The Age of Innocence, which I read a long time ago, was fun. I also watched the film, which is very faithful to the novel, and just gorgeous.

I adore a good costume drama. In fact, I also read one of Elizabeth Gaskell‘s Cranford books this month, Mr. Harrison’s Confessions, because I was happy to catch the third part of the Masterpiece series based on the book, which I missed last season. Masterpiece is bringing more Cranford stories to the screen this winter, and I am very glad. Gaskell’s work is very funny, and like Wharton, she calls attention to social mores and inequalities in a very entertaining fashion.

Gaskell and Wharton write very well about times close to their own. Melanie Benjamin, in Alice I Have Been, and wrote about a time so long ago she could not rely on first hand knowledge or memories, or talk to anyone who was there. Benjamin is also American, writing about Victorian England. Have I mentioned how much I loved her book?

Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Piano Teacher, set her novel in Hong Kong, where she grew up, but her book begins just before WWII and ends a few years after the war. I’m looking forward to meeting Lee later this month, when she comes to the store. I’d like to know if she interviewed anyone who lived through the war in Hong Kong when she researched the book. Her descriptions of the privations and numbing terror of the Japanese occupation are chilling.

As the story unfolded I found myself trying to guess who the villains are — it’s not completely clear. I really liked the protagonist, Claire,  and I enjoyed the way Lee weaves her story with that of a woman who disappeared during the war, Trudy. The connection between the women is a man, and his story is interesting, too. Lee doesn’t make it easy on readers, and there are several questions left fairly open to interpretation, which makes The Piano Teacher an ideal book club selection.

While I was steadily reducing my bedside pile, the Computer Scientist was reading a short stack of his own. He read  Joe Hill’s Horns, which will be out next month, and very much admired Hill’s creativity. He says the book is original and the plot gripping and a bit twisted (in a good way). He also read Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy, and said it was a “difficult but rewarding read,” classic Palahniuk. He says the two authors are comparably entertaining (and that’s a compliment to them both).

He also recently finished E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley, and said he compares Doctorow to Fitzgerald in terms of his graceful economy of words. Besides admiring the writing, he thought the story was an interesting interpretation of the known facts about the Collyer brothers and their relationship to the world and each other. He put the book in my pile, which is always a good sign.

What’s on our nightstands (or floor, in my case)? I gave him Ursula LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven for Christmas, and he gave me Proust’s Days of Reading. I also have Lev Grossman’s The Magicians out from the library, and I have many books by authors coming to Gibson’s in the next couple of months. I still plan to read Wes McNair’s A Place On Water soon, too.

The Teenager told me today he is enjoying The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation, which he got back into after the holiday break. He’s also reading Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey–and Even Iraq–Are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport. St. Nicholas brought him this book, which was fitting since this year The Teenager left one of his cleats out for him to fill — aren’t my kids kind to me? Anyway, the jolly old saint thought this book seemed both interesting and educational, or so I heard.

The Preteen read Half Magic, which she vaguely remembers my reading aloud years ago. She also found a book in her sequined Converse from St. Nick — Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty. Kalman is one of her favorite author/illustrators.

Like me, the Preteen has a stack of books — holiday gifts including Save the Cat: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need and Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts; books I pulled from the shelves when she was looking for something to read before Christmas (I included a pile of Jane Austen novels, as well as The Guernsey Literary and Sweet Potato Pie Society), and some books of her own that she hasn’t yet read, including Girl In A Cage, which Jane Yolen signed for her when she visited Gibson’s in early December. She told me this evening that Guernsey is what she’ll read next, which is great — I’m going to re-read it for the Gibson’s Book Club this month as well.

We’re fortunate, in the New Year, to be well stocked with new books to read, a good bookstore, a couple of good libraries, and shelves that still hold a few unread treasures. I’m off now to come up with suggestions for must reads in 2010 for the local arts and culture weekly, The Concord Insider. Stay tuned.

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Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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March flew past. I meant to savor it, mindfully. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied that I had some mindful moments and keep practicing. Mindfulness is a way of being aware in the present — hard if you are someone who multitasks, and hard in our culture, that values being busy.

For me being mindful also means being aware of the connections between what I’m thinking, doing, or reading and all that has come before and will come after. It’s probably no surprise to those of you who’ve read my monthly musings here that I equate mindfulness with finding  interconnectedness.

That may not be “real” mindfulness, but it works for me, because one of the my goals in practicing mindfulness is perspective — awareness of what one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer calls “the changes and chances of this life.”  Mindfulness for me is about being more fully present with the people and experiences I’m having, not racing ahead in my mind to the next ten things I need to do. At the same time, mindfulness, and other meditation practices, remind me to rest in God’s “eternal changelessness.” (from the same prayer in BCP).

Two books I read this month inspired me to work on mindfulness in my writing and in life. Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart reminded me of all the reasons I love haiku. Really good haiku is not necessarily the 5-7-5 poem you learned about in elementary school (some good haiku use this form, but the majority don’t). An excellent haiku is a little “aha” moment — a glimpse into the poet’s mindfulness, because writing great haiku requires the poet to distill a moment of awareness into a few words.

Donegan adds annotations to each poem in this collection, which includes work by both classic and contemporary poets. Her own background as a poet and scholar, as well as a student of meditation and a colleague of Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute, inform her insightful commentary.

This isn’t straight up literary criticism — while Donegan calls attention to each poem’s beauty, her criteria for including poems in this collection had as much to do with content as craft, as the subtitle indicates. In fact, I was interested in reading the book not only because I love haiku, but also because I want to “cultivate awareness and open (my) heart.”

One reason I am on a quest towards mindfulness is that I see it as a crucial part of being a good parent. To that end, I’d been meaning to read Jon and Maya Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings:The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Over the years I have read a large number of books on being a parent.

The Computer Scientist likes to tell people that when we brought our older child home from the hospital, he hid the books on top of a tall bookcase so that I would relax and rest with the new baby. Our children howl with laughter when we describe administering our son’s first bath: I read the directions, step by step, from a parenting manual, and the Computer Scientist followed them.

Everyday Blessings is not a prescriptive manual, and you won’t get step by step advice from the authors. But it is an important guide, and one of the most honest parenting books I’ve come across. Rather than setting up perfect parenting examples and talking about the wonderful experiences the authors have had in applying their stellar techniques, the Kabat-Zinns provide hope and encouragement but also tell it like it is: parenting is not easy, kids are not always easy to live with, and you’re going to lose it at some point.

But mindfulness can offer perspective, can help people through challenges, and can foster peace when emotional storms have passed. The Kabat-Zinns open their home to readers and share their own parenting experiences, but they also don’t claim to have all the answers, and frequently let readers know that parenting is a judgement call, and it’s alright to not always know what to do.

As a mother of a preteen and teen, I found that comforting. When I was younger and wanted “how to” information I might not have appreciated it as much. I found myself sharing bits of this book with the Computer Scientist and also with the kids. One thing I shared with them is that the Kabat-Zinns quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” several times in Everyday Blessings. This impressed the Teenager — you’ll find out why later in this essay. I was fascinated to connect Eliot’s poetry with mindfulness.

Everyday Blessings points out that being mindful in relationships is enormously helpful — it may not be the key to determining how to handle every parenting challenge, but it will help you to know whether there really is a challenge. So often there isn’t; one or the other person is simply overwhelmed by emotions — in our house we call it “reacting to stimuli.”  Being aware of what is happening, rather than half paying attention while doing three other tasks, can make a huge difference in accepting, understanding, and responding fully.

A novella I read this month addresses the full horror of humans not taking the time to be aware and accepting of each other: Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo.  It’s a book about slavery and colonialism, but it reverses history, and makes Europeans slaves of African overlords. An interesting concept, realized in a fast paced story.

Racism is racism, no matter who perpetrates it. Slavery was barbaric. None of this is new, but Evaristo’s twisted history forces readers to consider man’s inhumanity to man in a fresh way. It was an interesting read, with a page turning plot.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, reading a novel set in South Africa inspired me to pick up Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders, by Jason Carter, about his time in the Peace Corps. He lived there during the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. As President Carter’s grandson, he got to meet Mandela, and he writes about what a phenomenal experience that was. During the rest of his tour, he worked in a small town near the Swaziland border.

Power Lines is not just a book about Carter’s time volunteering, although he does explain the frustrations and challenges of Peace Corps work. Because he lived in South Africa at such a seminal moment, as the country began to recover from apartheid and enter a new democratic era, he also tells readers about the history of the area where he worked, the changes taking place, and the racial attitudes he encountered.

As a person who spent five years as an outsider in a small southern town, I felt that much of what he wrote about was eerily familiar. Because I grew up fairly insulated from the civil rights era struggles, I was surprised by the ongoing misunderstanding and mistrust between blacks and whites in the small town where we lived. I had the ignorant impression, before we lived in the south, that race issues were a thing of the past in America.

One thing that I was unaware of, naive as it may sound, is that racial mistrust goes both ways — and even within races. Carter really describes vividly the ways that people judging each other, rather than seeking to know each other as individuals, hurts communication and understanding. Of course, this goes on wherever humans, of any race or culture, are together.

In Power Lines, Carter touches on the very thing my family and I learned: economic discrimination and stereotyping is a major factor in racism.  Lack of educational resources and jobs meant that some of the South Africans he met had less hope about the future than others, and that in turn often influenced their attitudes about race. Some of the whites he met were able to make friends with other city dwelling, professional people of either race, but routinely he met whites who were afraid of poorer blacks, and cautioned him against riding in black taxis or hitchhiking.

He also found it frustrating that many of the educators he worked with routinely told him that they couldn’t do something because they were black, or asked his advice in areas that were well beyond his expertise, simply because as a white man, they believed he knew better than they did. Around the time Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, a fellow librarian in the southern town where we were living told me that several African American women on the library staff believed that Obama must be a foreigner because of the way he spoke. I suspect that racial stereotypes will be around for a very long time in South Africa, as they are here.

Carter’s book was also intriguing because he openly doubts his own idealistic views and the value of his work, which I think is realistic.  Anyone who spends significant time volunteering is likely to have his or her idealism crushed by the system at one point or another. The only other Peace Corps memoir I’ve read, Dear Exile, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery, also addressed disillusionment.

I’ve experienced it myself, when I found that many of my fellow volunteers at an ecumenical food pantry mistrusted the clients and were more concerned with The Rules than with ending hunger. And when I realized the obvious: that food handouts probably have little to do with solving the problem of hunger. Hard to swallow, because I wanted to be Making a Difference. Turns out I was having a Thoreauvian epiphany, I just didn’t know it yet. Hang on, we’ll get to that.

Straight talk about doubts and fears makes Power Lines an interesting read, one that could foster discussions about the of the pros and cons of volunteer programs. Carter also shares the few negative experiences he had, and the societal problems he saw, such as alcoholism and organized crime. At the same time it’s clear he loved the people he came to know, he loved what he was doing, and he did make a difference. I’m glad he didn’t leave out the challenges and struggles.

Carter’s  honest appraisal made the book vivid and informative, and timely as our government talks about ramping up American volunteerism.  The book reinforced my belief that the experience of living in another culture, making friends, and trying to understand the world and one’s place in it, is life changing not only for the people volunteers meet and work with, but also for the volunteers themselves. Person to person understanding is valuable regardless of how well the actual work of a volunteering mission goes.

Last night I sat down to read a bit of Walden — more on why in a moment — and in the way it so often does, what I read connected to my prior reading. Just as I had been reflecting that Jason Carter’s examination of the motive, purpose, and impact of the work he is in South Africa to do are the most thought provoking passages in Power Lines, I discovered that Thoreau covers this same territory in Walden.

Thoreau writes that rather than doing good, people should focus on being good, and that instead of throwing money at the poor, philanthropists would be better off solving the societal problems that cause poverty: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

In other words, handing out food at the food pantry isn’t going to end hunger. Working to help people be self reliant so that they can feed themselves, might. Living your own life so that your actions aren’t making someone else hungry (even if that’s not what you intend), is probably the best option.

As my family and I have learned about social justice and been involved with nonprofits (the Computer Scientist worked for a large international NGO while we lived in the South), we’ve spent time debating this very idea, of how best to make a difference. We tend to support the work of nonprofits like Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity, which help people change their own lives. My 95 year old grandmother has always told me she thinks handouts are no good because they take away a person’s dignity — a legacy of living through the Great Depression. Habitat’s motto is “a hand up, not a hand out.”

The private development world has moved in this direction, towards sustainable aid, local control of projects, microlending, and partnership. But recent discussions of development, and particuarly government aid, on public radio programs Speaking of Faith and Word of Mouth would sound familiar to Thoreau, and many developing world economists and writers are saying much the same thing that he did: attack the root, not the branches, and above all, don’t throw money at the tree.

I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about the famous 19th century residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  I picked it up again, along with The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 by Van Wyck Brooks, because a couple of weekends ago we finally visited Concord, so I’ve set aside some other “to read” books and am revisiting Concord’s literary heritage.

We walked around Walden Pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. We also saw the homes where the Alcotts, Hawthornes, and Emersons lived. At the Concord Museum, which is well worth a visit if you are interested in the town’s famous residents, the Computer Scientist and I each found some really cool books for planning future outings: R. Todd Felton’s A Journey Into Transcendentalist New England and Susan Wilson’s The Literary Trail of Greater Boston. So far I’ve only dipped into each of these, but they are both beautiful and fascinating.

Museum bookshops are one of my favorite places to browse, and a few weeks ago we visited an entire museum exhibit devoted to the work of a man whose books are often found in museum shops: David Macaulay. The exhibit features the drawings and paintings he’s done as he’s illustrated books as well as models he built for Mosque, journals from some of the research trips he’s done, and the books themselves.

The Computer Scientist thought Underground was really cool, and I chose Angelo for our nieces and nephew, who are visiting at Easter. The Teenager and his younger sister liked seeing the art from The New The Way Things Work, and we were inspired to check out several Macaulay titles from the library after the museum visit, including a couple of really innovative picture books, Shortcut and Black and White.

Another book that multiple family members enjoyed recently is How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. Both the Computer Scientist and the Teenager think this is an intriguing book. Foer delves into the sociopolitical lessons of soccer, which he says is  “further along in the globalization game than any other economy on the planet.”

Our book discussion group with the Teenager is chugging along. So far we’ve read, discussed, and journaled about The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men. Our focus is 20th century American authors.  Not the most uplifting bunch of stories, so far, but the Teenager seems to find validation for his own angsty outlook. For example, he commented that Steinbeck doesn’t appear to believe that it’s worth having a dream, based on the fact that the characters who dream of better lives are all thwarted in Of Mice and Men.

If you look at the current events he’s known so far, you might understand why he just shrugged and said, “but that’s life.” I tried being mindful, and told him I thought we actually have it pretty good, really. He’s not really as pessimistic as he’d like people to think, and acknowledged that I’m right, just before asking cheerfully what’s for dinner. It’s good to be young. So far it’s not that bad being middle aged, either. And it’s interesting having a teenager’s perspective on books, and life.

I put up a poster for National Poetry Month last week and the Teenager did a double take. “Who wrote that?” he asked. “That’s really powerful.” I immediately tracked down two copies of The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. Granted, he’s usually grouped with 20th century English writers, but he was born American, so that’s what we’ll read next for our book group. I felt like Eliot was calling to me — first in Everyday Blessings, where I enjoyed the references to “The Four Quartets,” then in my son’s immediate, forceful reaction to the poster.

Eliot came up at an event I attended last weekend — a one day conference on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, put on by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. One of the speakers, Diana Durham, has written a book on the grail myth, and her presentation at the conference, “The Poet As Shaman,” included a discussion of the way Eliot conjures up the spiritual desolation of 1920’s London in “The Wasteland,” but then heals the wounds, twenty years later, in the completed “Four Quartets.” Her talk was very interesting, and reinforced my Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading.

Another author whose work fit nicely into everything else I read this month is Mary Oliver. I was at Ohrstrom library checking out books by Dorianne Laux, who I’ve heard is coming to the campus. On their new book shelves, I saw The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays.

Oliver is a master of mindful awareness of her surroundings, and her poems are haiku-like not in their form, but in their immediacy, their descriptive power, and the way they capture the extraordinary in everyday experience. I also find her poems transformative — you can so clearly see what she sees that it’s easy to feel what she feels, too. This collection is mostly made up of previously published poems, all relating to animals, and in many cases, our connection to the natural world.

A final note on connections. The Pre-teen is reading a book I picked up on a book store sale table a few years ago, We Just Want To Live Here: A Palestinian Teenager, An Israeli Teenager — an Unlikely Friendship. It’s the true story of Odelia and Amal, girls who meet on a trip designed to bring Israeli and Palenstinian teens together to learn about each other’s lives. They become friends and stay in touch. Through their letters, readers get an idea of the huge gulf in understanding the girls try to overcome.

I enjoyed this book when I bought it, and the Pre-teen likes reading about girls in other countries. I attended a very moving talk given by two members of Combatants for Peace last month, and shared what I heard about person to person peace efforts in the Middle East, so maybe that is what led her to choose this now. When she browsed our shelves and came across We Just Want To Live Here, I knew that even if it means having to stack books on the floor someday, I’ll resist weeding — you never know when a book will be right for someone, and I love sharing reading connections with my family.

In my “to read” pile if I finish Walden and The Flowering of New England in April? I watched a re-run of Masterpiece Theater’s David Copperfield and decided I’d like to read the book (which was waiting on my shelves), and I’ve pulled out an old Powell’s Books  find called Beyond the Sky and the Earth: Journey Into Bhutan, because I am volunteering with refugee resettlement, and the family I’m helping welcome are Bhutanese. They’ve lived in a camp in Nepal for 18 years — so what I read about Bhutan will be clouded by what I know of their experience. But I’m curious nonetheless.

I also bought a copy of Krista Tippett‘s Speaking of Faith, which she signed, when I went to hear her interviewed by NHPR’s Virginia Prescott last week. I’ve read it before, but Ive left it out to dip back into. I’ve been slowly reading The Making of a Sonnet, a Norton anthology, and I’m up to the 19th century (perfect as I read about the same time period in New England’s literary scene). And of course, I’ll be reading T. S. Eliot with the Computer Scientist and the Teenager.

I also plan to read poems by three amazing poets who are coming together for a reading next week. Mike Pride, retired editor of the Concord Monitor and a poetry fan, sent me a note this afternoon because he saw my bookconscious post on last year’s fantastic Poets’ Three reading.

Mike says, “Dogs’ Night Out: Three Great Poets, will be held next Friday (April 17, 2009) at the Concord City Auditorium. The poets are Wesley McNair, Sharon Olds and 2008 Pulitzer prize winner Philip Schultz. They’re all terrific, accessible poets, and it should be a fun night. In tomorrow’s Monitor (April 9) and in the online Monitor, there will be profile-interviews of the three poets, along with a sample of their work.”

Tickets for Dogs’ Night Out are $10, and any proceeds above costs will go to local homeless charities. The time is 7 p.m., and tickets are available at the Monitor, at concordmonitor.com, at Gibson’s and at the box office. Thanks, Mike.  The Computer Scientist and I have our tickets, and we’ll see you there!

So I’ve got quite a pile “to read” (my kids are relieved that I no longer stack books on my nightstand — when they were younger and when we lived in tornado country, they used to fret that the stack would fall on me in the night). But no matter how many books I browse, I will read one thing at a time.  Mindfully.

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