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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For my book bingo square “a book on display in the library” I picked up All Together Now. I haven’t read Gill Hornby’s debut, The Hive, but I ordered both of these novels for the library based on their reviews. Now that I’ve looked up an interview with her, I’m a fan — anyone who says “I’d like to actually be Jane Austen” is my hero(ine). Also she is brave enough to write a novel when she is married to Robert Harris and her brother is Nick Hornby AND — and this is the most inspirational part — she didn’t publish until she was in her 50’s. I’d like to be her. I’d like to think I’m on my way. I’m not yet 50, but my kids are not needing me as much these days and as you all know, I was fired from my newspaper column last year.

Also, I really like books which are set somewhere totally different than where I live that remind me of what my grandmother always said: people are the same everywhere. Gill Hornby does that — her people are my people, even though I’ve never met anyone exactly like them. She has an excellent sense of the frustrations and small joys of everyday life.

In All Together Now the community choir in Bridgeford, a small town whose civic pride in in decline, and whose High Street shops are threatened by a proposed superstore on the edge of town. Through a cast of characters who sing in the choir, Hornby tells the story of the town trying to get back its vibrancy and the choir carrying on after their director is seriously injured in an accident. 

There’s Bennett, former choir schoolboy, who has also recently found himself formerly employed and formerly married. And Annie, the empty-nester librarian who feels something’s missing in her life. And Tracey, single mom with a secret. Jazzy, who has problems at home but fancies herself the next Adele. And many others, from various walks of life and backgrounds, who come together for various reasons to sing.

Without getting sappy or treacly, Hornby pulls all these lives together with the superstore drama and tells the mostly happy story of people finding themselves joined in a common purpose. Each of them also manages to learn something about their own happiness as well. It’s nice to see middle-aged characters whose midlife epiphanies are both ordinary and transforming – like many people, they are each trying to find their way in a changing world when it feels like just yesterday, they were the ones ready to change it. A charming, uplifting book. And you’ll want to play all the songs. 

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I love Jane Austen. I was very excited to read this new biography, The Real Jane Austen: a Life in Small Things, and author Paula Byrne’s innovative approach sounded intriguing. Rather than telling the story of Austen’s life directly, she takes nineteen objects from Austen’s time (and some from her actual possession) and weaves Austen’s story as well as relevant literary, social, cultural and political history from these seemingly disparate threads.

For example, in a chapter called “The Barouche,” Byrne covers Austen’s love of travel, the history of English travel writing, the social and economic aspects of travel in the Georgian era, and the significance of carriage and coach rides in Austen’s novels. In “The Theatrical Scenes,” Byrne writes of the Austen family’s great love of both amateur theatricals and professional theater, the theater scenes in London and Bath, some of the best-known actors and actresses of the day, and the influence of theater in Austen’s writing.

You get the idea. It’s lovely, and very interesting, and felt a great deal like visiting a museum and peering into cases with exceptionally well written displays. In fact, the book would be a terrific companion guide to an exhibit about the iconic items Byrne selected to portray key themes in Austen’s life.

First let me say that Byrne only reinforced my deep admiration for Austen as a deeply interesting, incredibly gifted, strong and brilliant woman and one of the best writers of all time. Byrne’s writing is excellent and she has, to my mind, the perfect touch when it comes to speculating on what we don’t know about Austen and what we can sensibly conclude — she never overreaches and is careful to be forthright with her readers when she veers into analysis rather than strict historical record. I wanted to love this book wholeheartedly as I love Jane Austen.

But because of the inventive format Byrne chooses, the narrative felt circuitous and choppy. Several anecdotes from Austen’s life are repeated across chapters. I found myself flipping back to check what I’d already read, or skimming parts that felt repetitive. I suppose the best way to avoid this feeling would have been to savor the chapters individually as essays, rather than reading the book in a few sittings straight through. In my case, that wasn’t an option — it’s a new book from the library so I had limited time to read it.

Still if you love Austen, you’ll find much to enjoy, and I’d also recommend The Real Jane Austen for anyone studying Georgia England, or interested in the period. If possible, just dip in, choosing a chapter that looks interesting, rather than reading it from beginning to end.

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September’s Mindful Reader column is up on the Concord Monitor** website. Check out my review of Cascade, by Maryanne O’HaraRise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

This weekend I read The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones  — a very fun romp. The book combines the social wit of Jane Austen with the eccentricity of Alan Bradley (author of the Flavia de Luce mysteries), a dash of Julian Fellowes, and a bit of wild stagecraft Shakespeare could love. In fact, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan pining for season three, this might be a quirky distraction.

The book opens at a crumbling great house, Sterne, in 1912, on the morning of Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Her mother is preoccupied with her stepfather Edward’s trip to Manchester, where he plans to ask an unpleasant business acquaintance for a loan to save Sterne. As the day unfolds there is a visit from a potential suitor, John, a self-made man who Emerald doesn’t really want but who has plenty of money. A telegram from her childhood best friend, Patience, whose mother has come down with influenza. And news of a terrible train crash on a branch line nearby, resulting in the uninvited guests, who the Torringtons must take in after their ordeal.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Trieves, and Emerald’s mother, Charlotte, are dismayed to find a man they once knew has crashed Emerald’s party, claiming to be the sole first class passenger among the train wreck victims. Everyone can see there is some sort of secret among these three. Meanwhile the eccentric little sister, Imogen, known as Smudge, takes advantage of the chaos to smuggle the family pony, Lady, into her room to sit for a portrait.

Emerald finds herself strangely drawn to her best friend’s brother Ernest, a medical student who has escorted his sister to Sterne in place of his mother, and Clovis finds that Patience, who he used to find annoying, is actually not anymore. As the party takes stranger and stranger turns. The finely dressed guests and hosts (except for Charlotte, who retires to her boudoir to sulk) end up serving the carefully prepared multi-course birthday feast to the train passengers.  They sit in their spoiled finery making a meal of the bits and pieces. And the strange “gentleman” entices them into a humiliating party game.

In the frenzy of emotion and tension that follows, all of the twists of the day resolve themselves and in Shakespearean fashion, many matches are made. The pony is led back downstairs. And in the morning, once the mess is cleared and the uninvited guests are gone (and their nature made clear), Edward returns with news of a strange turn of the family’s affairs.

If I’m being unspecific it’s to save you, dear readers, from a series of spoiled surprises. The Uninvited Guests is such a delightful literary romp that I don’t want to ruin the fun.  Just imagine an Edwardian house party with “dark surprises” as the jacket blurb surmises, plenty of social satire, and a rather arch look at human nature.

 

** Text if you can’t find it online:

Finding balance

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cascade, by Massachusetts author Maryanne O’Hara, grew out of three story ideas. O’Hara didn’t really know how the stories might connect but sensed they should. The result is a historical novel that focuses on Desdamona Hart, or Dez. She has come home to Cascade, Mass., in 1935 after art school in Boston and travel in Europe, determined to help her dying, bankrupt father save his Shakespearean playhouse. She marries Asa Spaulding, a pharmacist, who takes them in.

Her father thickens the plot by leaving the theater to Asa. Dez wants to paint and to keep her promises, so for a time she tries to ”have it all” as both a dutiful wife and an artist. She takes portrait commissions to resurrect the theater as her father asked. Anyone who has ever juggled responsibilities while trying to pursue work they love will understand her struggle.

Dez befriends Jacob, an artist and peddler, and their friendship sustains her as she tries to fit back into small town life. Meanwhile Asa is pressuring her to start a family and disapproves of another man spending time with his wife.

And Cascade is under persistent threat from the water authority, which plans to flood the town for a reservoir.

Her postcard series about Cascade’s possible destruction becomes a regular feature in The American Sunday Standard, whose editor invites her to illustrate for the magazine in New York. She and Jacob become the subject of town gossip when a man working on the reservoir plans is found dead on Asa’s land with Jacob’s truck nearby. Dez risks everything to clear his name, and Jacob leaves for New York and a job in a New Deal art program.

In the aftermath of this episode, Dez has to choose – stay with Asa, pursue Jacob, or simply follow her dream of a career in art, regardless of the men in her life. The burden of the playhouse, which she must persuade Asa to move before the town is flooded, weighs heavily. I found myself having nasty thoughts about her father, who appears to have cared more about his theater than his only child.

 O’Hara touches on issues familiar to contemporary readers, such as the conflicts surrounding public works projects and eminent domain, or the painful gossip and bigotry that sometimes plague small towns. She tells a very interesting story about an unsettling time in history as well, during the Depression and the run-up to World War II. And she tells a timeless one too, about a woman working to balance her promises and her passion. I enjoyed each aspect of this atmospheric novel.

Short fiction and a poem / play

I also read three short-story collections and a poem/play: Understories by Tim Horvath, Rise by L. Annette Binder, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Association Justice and other Stories by Jay Wexler, and Park Songs by David Budbill.

Horvath is a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The pieces in Understories not only share a philosophical, whimsical, darkly humorous aesthetic, but also seem to come from a world that resembles ours but is riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these evocative stories left me feeling slightly off-kilter.

The Conversations, which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse, and The Understory, about a German botany professor who escapes Hitler’s rise to power, settles in New Hampshire, and loses many of the trees on his land in the 1938 hurricane, are two of my favorites. Horvath doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds and souls of his characters.

Binder, a part-time New Hampshire resident, fills Rise with fantastical details: a giant woman who is half-angel and still growing in her 50s, a boy who sees shadow-like halos over the heads of people who will die soon, a child who only speaks dead languages. At the same time, her stories are about everyday realities, such as people dealing with illnesses or struggling to get along. Rise is a book about transcending life’s emotional and psychological turbulence.

Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, has written a zany collection of stories that had me laughing out loud. In one, Henry Clay advises a teen and her mother on college. Another is written as a script for a sitcom pilot about a prison’s death row.

Wexler hits on a number of brilliant ways to skewer government and politics, such as a story about a man filing a ”horn incident report,” and another in which Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing is conducted by the 1977 Kansas City Royals instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice is offbeat, absurdist and thought provoking.

Budbill is a Vermont poet and playwright whose work reflects his father’s advice, ”Stick up for the little guy, bud.” Despite its genre-bending, Park Songs: a Poem/Play is a very accessible book about people in a city park on a single day. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s ”absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. Budbill’s note to readers suggests that any parts of the book could be staged, that a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that ”Let’s Talk” could be its own one-act play. That section features very funny, touching banter between Fred, who is lonely, and Judy, who is reading in the park because she wants to be alone. Budbill captures the essence of human communication – the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations – in one scene on a park bench.

With fall around the corner you can curl up on a cool evening with any of these books and enjoy fictional worlds grounded in very realistic human hopes and struggles.

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I’ve been humming “Travelin’ Shoes,” a piece Songweavers are performing in our South Church concert (to benefit homeless initiatives) on 11/20, and the verses begin “Death came a knockin’,” which got me to thinking that death knocks on the door of a lot of good literature. In October, death featured in almost every book I read. I suppose if you’re an author looking for drama, conflict, redemption, transformation, even humor — themes that make for good reading — you can’t really go wrong working death into the picture.

Two books that deal with death to great effect are Hans Keilson‘s Comedy In A Minor Key, and The Death of the Adversary. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux brought Keilson’s work to American readers this year in beautifully designed editions. I read a review in August by Francine Prose, and I agree with her assessment: “‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.”

Both books are set during WWII; most of The Death of the Adversary takes place in Nazi Germany, and Comedy In a Minor Key is set in occupied Holland. Keilson was born in Germany. Like the protagonist in The Death of the Adversary, he came to understand, as a young man, that he was no longer German under the Nazi regime, he was Jewish and therefore did not belong.

The novel follows Hitler’s rise to power even though Hitler’s name never appears. The protagonist goes about his life trying to be normal, trying to ignore the growing infatuation his age-mates have with the “adversary.”  He describes a young German telling friends about participating in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, and I don’t think I’ve come across a more vivid, evocative, soul-searing description of the senselessness of violence in any novel.  You understand as you read this passage how it might be that ordinary people are swept up in the brutality of war, and what it might feel like know that your community is the target of such blind, ugly rage. Even the protagonist feels the power of the adversary’s rhetoric — he is caught up in it himself, albeit in a different way.

Particularly in light of recent attention to nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, and the new Hitler exhibit in Berlin, The Death of the Adversary was a moving, fascinating read. Some of it is darkly humorous;  a scene where the young man is at a hotel and realizes that the adversary is speaking in the hall and he and the proprietor of the hotel and some other guests are listening over a sound system seemed farcical to me. Other sections are tender to the point of being heartbreaking: the young man remembering being deliberately targeted with violent fouls in a soccer match, despite his being very skilled; another remembered scene where his mother made other boys play with him; the moment he realizes a good friend has been taken in by the adversary’s strong speeches and they will part ways.

Even more heartbreaking is the way the protagonist describes his parents’ preparing to flee, the way they are in denial for a long time, and then finally each tries to look out for the other, the way the young man eventually realizes he won’t see them again. Both in the novel and in life, aging parents ignore warnings and are taken away; the young man escapes but feels strongly that he “left them to their fate.”  Keilson, in interviews, feels the same way about his own parents. When the novel ended, (an ending so beautiful and sad I thought about it for days), I felt the same aching emptiness I feel after a good cry.

Comedy In a Minor Key is about a Dutch couple who are hiding a Jewish man in their house.  When Keilson left Germany he became a member of the Dutch resistance, so again the novel draws on the author’s own experiences. And again, whether you’ve read a similar story or not, you’ll be hard pressed to come across such a beautiful telling. The earnest young couple and their secret guest struggle to establish a “normal” relationship, and Keilson portrays the range of emotions and the logistical difficulties  poignantly, including the Jewish man’s untimely (but natural) death and the consequences of the young couple’s trying to dispose of the body.

This is a short novel, but vivid and tense — you feel the danger, the drudgery, and the maddening sense that both the refugee and his rescuers are trapped, that their lives are stuck in an endless loop as they try to determine who they can trust, and try to know how to live together. In both books, power and freedom play an enormous roles — who has and doesn’t have each, how people act when they are either powerless or free, what brings these ethical forces to bear as people try to make sense of war, occupation, fear. The earnestness of the characters is stark; there is no  sentimentalism, just the naked anguish of trying to be good, to face evil , to survive and not destroy yourself or anyone else in the process.

Genocide is not specifically named in either book. In fact, if you weren’t aware of the circumstances of Hitler’s rise to power and of the Holocaust, you may think The Death of the Adversary was simply about war and extremism at any time and place.  Comedy In a Minor Key is a little more explicit about the historical context, but is still a book that transcends its setting. Both are haunting reminders of how thin the line between discrimination and persecution is, how easily humanity has slipped over that line and can again.

Another book in which lines are crossed, despite people’s better intentions and with the direst of consequences, is last year’s National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I’m still digesting this book a couple of weeks or so after I read it.   McCann traces the lives of several characters in New York City around the time of Phillipe Petit‘s walking a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

When I wrote about Tinkers I said I often don’t get what prize committees were thinking, and I’m afraid that’s how I feel about Let the Great World Spin. It’s a decent read, but I felt it was uneven enough not to merit being singled out for the National Book Award. In fairness to the committee, I haven’t read the other finalists from that year, so maybe it was the best of the bunch.

I think what I didn’t like is that the structure of the book got in the way of the telling.  I’m also not sure I could say what the book is about — it’s about many things, but no one thing stands out.   I heard an NPR piece about La Dolce Vita today and Martin Scorsese described it as “episodic,” rather than plot driven. I guess that’s the case with Let the Great World Spin.

Some of the characters whose stories are part of Let the Great World Spin are not fully developed — they are more than extras, but not quite minor characters. The main characters — a pair of Irish brothers, a hooker, and a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam — are also not people readers get to know very well. The thread that ties the disparate pieces of the narrative together is Phillipe Petit‘s walk on the wire between the twin towers. There are further connections; some  made late in the book seemed hasty.

I don’t mind fortuitous connections in a novel, but I like to see them developing earlier.  The scant sections on Phillipe Petit were tantalizing but fleeting — perhaps because he’s a living person, it was hard for McCann to spend much time on him in the novel, but if that’s the case, why have any chapters devoted to him?  Similarly, a character who ends up marrying one of the brothers after being involved in crash in which the other brother dies shows up in a couple of chapters, but we never get a real sense of her.

If the main characters were more fully developed, the comparative slimness of the others wouldn’t stand out to me as much, but even those four didn’t come alive for me. McCann writes beautifully in places (in others, some of his figurative language felt disjointed); the idea of the novel is lovely, and the intersections of the lives poignant. I wondered when I  finished if I might have felt differently if he’d written linked stories, telling each character’s bit separately and leaving readers to knit them together.

Part of the problem for me was that I began reading knowing this was a National Book Award winner — the prize impacted my expectations. But another book I read this month was a Pulitzer winner, and it did not disappoint: Delights and Shadows by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Kooser came to Concord to accept the first Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry in October.

The audience included two other former poet laureates: Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin, as well as Wes McNair and Sharon Olds. Those are the “local” poets around here — one reason I love New Hampshire!  Both teens (including one who didn’t want to go) enjoyed Kooser’s reading; Teen the Elder says Kooser is now his second favorite poet (Donald Hall is first).

Although I’d included his work in our “poem of the week” display in the kitchen for a number of weeks, Ted Kooser wasn’t a poet the family felt very familiar with before the reading; they all thought hearing him really made his work more appealing. The Computer Scientist had been reading Flying At Night in preparation for the evening, which bookconscious readers may recall I wrote about in June.

Kooser read a number of poems from Delights and Shadows.  “Mother,” is one of my favorites. It’s an elegiac poem, a letter to his mother in the first spring after her death.  It ends with some of the loveliest lines in American poetry: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look/at the world, to see the life in play in everything,/I would have to be lonely forever.”

Another gorgeous poem is “A Box of Pastels,” which Kooser also read — it describes Mary Cassatt’s box of pastels, and he told the back story about visiting with the person who owned this box and feeling so awed to hold it.  This poem ends, “I touched/the warm dust of those colors, her tools,/and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.” As a Cassatt fan, I can imagine that feeling, and he captures the essence of her art — light — beautifully, in the mundane colored dust that rubbed off.

Many of Kooser’s poems are remembrances, either of people or of earlier times, and Delights and Shadows includes a number of outstanding examples: “Ice Cave,” “Memory,” “Dishwater,” and “Depression Glass,” stand out for me.  Kooser read two longer, narrative poems that reminded me very much of Wes NcNair’s work: “Pearl,” and “The Beaded Purse.” Like McNair, Kooser can spin a yarn in his poems that makes you feel as if you’re hearing voices from the past.

Also like McNair, Kooser captures a certain slice of America in his work. In Kooser’s case, it’s mid-western life in small towns and farms, especially of his parents’ generation, in the early 20th century.  These poems are like paintings of a particular time and place and yet also deal with timeless, universal human experience. In “The Beaded Purse,” for example, a father tucks money into his dead daughter’s bag “for her mother to find,” so she won’t worry that the girl was living hand to mouth.  If I was putting together a class on 20th century American history, Kooser and McNair would be on the syllabus – their poems are every bit as much history as literature.

One of my favorite authors of all time is similarly of equal value as both a historian who recorded a precise slice of her country’s cultural history and a supremely talented writer whose work has earned a place in the canon of great English literature. Yes, Jane Austen. The Computer Scientist gave me a membership in JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) for my birthday. When I took Teen the Elder to Ohrstrom library to find Pre-Columbia history books and visit the Shakespeare room, and saw Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World on the shelf, I knew I had to read it.

Claire Harman traces Jane Austen’s fame from the time she was writing to the present.  For those of you who’ve heard that she wasn’t much of a success during her lifetime or that since she published anonymously, she wasn’t well known, this book is eye-opening. That’s a nice urban legend, but in fact, Austen was pretty successful, though some books did better than others.  She was also very much aware of both her sales and her reviews, and thanks to her brother and some family friends talking openly about her authorship, she was not entirely anonymous.

Those details were interesting, but it’s Harman’s in depth coverage of Austen’s posthumous fame that I found even more fascinating. One could say that the cult of Jane Austen,like that of Shakespeare, was an early example of celebrity worship. Perhaps because I live with an Austen skeptic, I had no idea that in England some people promoted her as an equal to Shakespeare in terms of importance to England’s literary heritage.  I saw parallels to modern celebrity in the way that her descendants attempted to control Austen’s image as well.

I was fortunate to have a college professor, Laurie Kaplan, who was herself a “Janeite” (she is even past editor of JASNA’s journal) as Harman describes Austen devotees.  Kaplan really opened the books up for her students, particularly on wonderful trips to England where we literally walked in the novel’s landscapes and locations. But even once I became aware of JASNA, I assumed Janeites were a small, devoted, and literary bunch. Harman points out that in postwar England, the Austen society was more about national pride than literary appreciation, and some of its officers didn’t even read Austen’s books!

Jane’s Fame is detailed and well researched, if a bit dry and probably mainly of interest to serious devotees or history buffs.  My favorite book for budding Janeites and casual fans is still The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler — it’s not serious literary criticism or careful history (Harman is definitely an excellent historian and writer), but it’s fun and readable, and would appeal to young fans just getting into Jane. Better still, read Austen’s books if you want to remember why she’s brilliant, and why classic books have something to say to every generation.

Classic in another way is the work of Leonard Koren.  Last month I wrote about his book on wabi-sabi; this month I read The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty, and Tenderness In a Commercial Setting.  This was the only book I read in October with no death in it — although it is about Blumenkraft, a flower shop in Vienna where Koren found solace after his marriage ended in 2003, so it was inspired by the aftermath of a relationship’s death.

The Flower Shop is a fascinating read, a kind of manifesto of what a good place of work can be. Blumenkraft is a creative, customer and employee friendly, unique, consciously smart, aesthetically aware, and well-designed business. Koren explores how it began, what sets it apart, what its employees think of working there, and what appeals to its customers.

The spare text is set in small blocks and accompanied by lovely sepia and black & white photos.  The impact of the book’s design is that it compliments Blumenkraft’s aesthetic — it’s different, you can see as soon as you open The Flower Shop that this is not an ordinary book, and neither is its subject an ordinary florist.  A refreshing, spirit-lifting book. You’ll want to visit Blumenkraft. You might wish you worked there.

Another book concerned with aesthetics is A Homemade Life.  Part memoir, part cookbook, Molly Wizenberg’s first book grew out of her other food writing:  her well known blog, Orangette, and later her column in Bon Apetit and pieces for NPR and PBS.  She’s young, and has lived a mostly charmed life, which can be hard to read in large doses. But the passages about her father, his short battle with cancer and his death, and her coming to terms with the loss definitely adds depth to A Homemade Life. I’m looking forward to trying some recipes.

On the evening that I felt inspired to make ginger pancakes for supper (after reading that Molly Wizenberg likes one of my favorite cookbooks, Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book, which includes that recipe), I also stayed up late finishing Charles Elton‘s Mr. Toppit.  Does anyone else out there stay up ridiculously late when his/her spouse is traveling? I don’t know why, but I do, even though in general I’ve gotten better about going to bed at a more reasonable time (if midnight can be considered reasonable).

This book has been out in the UK since last year, but is just appearing in the U.S.  I enjoyed it very much, although it had what I considered some extra fluff here and there that seemed to serve as mere titillation, without much real impact on the plot.  Mr. Toppit of the title is the villain in a series of Narnia-like children’s books written by Arthur Hayman, who dies early on in the novel. A vacationing American, Laurie, happens to witness the accident that kills him and comforts him in his last moments.

Laurie ends up getting to know Arthur’s family, including the son who shares a name with his father’s young protagonist. Through her continued contact with the Haymans and a series of serendipitous events, Laurie is partially responsible for making his books famous in the U.S. As she pursues her own ambitions, she ignites a global craze for Arthur Hayman’s books, and becomes a famous television host in the process. Meanwhile Hayman’s children grow up and deal with the fallout of fame and loss. Since Elton worked as a literary agent and one of his clients was A.A. Milne’s estate, it’s interesting to ponder how much he borrowed from life.

What I liked about Mr. Toppit was the fully developed characters, even minor ones; a clear structure; interesting tangential story lines that enhanced the main plot; themes readers could really mull over; cultural references that placed the book without dating it.  I would say that in some ways, Elton has Austen-esque overtones to his work. His characters are concerned with sense and sensibility, with good taste and good manners, some are hoping to better themselves and others are hoping just to live up to their families expectations.

Mr. Toppit is also funny in that classically dry, British way, and Elton exposes some of the sillier aspects of both American and British culture, particularly with regards to fame, fortune, and family relations, class, culture, and celebrity. His wicked skewering of the “remembered memory” phenomenon that was in fashion in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s takes the form of another goofy cultural touchstone, the annual Christmas letter. While some of the social barbs seem a little cliched (there’s an obese American, a harried television producer who stretches the truth to nail a deal, a matriarch who is chilly and shabbily genteel), generally I found the book to be clever, and bitingly funny.

Finally in October, I read a book that begins with war and death and ends with the author’s exhortation to be “aware that just this is the great, dynamic, lively dancing life.”  Soko Morinaga was only a teenager when both his parents died and he was drafted into the Japanese army at the end of WWII.  Although he survived, he was alone and adrift, so he went to a Zen monastary and asked to become a novice.

Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson In the Extent of My Own Stupidity is Morinaga’s memoir of forty years as a Zen monk. If you have an image of Buddhism as a peaceful, nonviolent religion you might be shocked by the physical hardship novice monks undergo, including being hit with a big stick and subjected to sleep deprivation and under-nourishment. I enjoyed this brief, inspiring, occasionally bracing memoir. That such austerity and hardship can produce a wise master who is moved by a five year old’s contention that God is in everything and everyone is a mystery I don’t fully understand.

Speaking of mysteries, I will never fully comprehend ever changing teen-aged moods, and now I have two sets of them to try to fathom.  Teen the Elder is officially an applicant to college; that has somewhat lowered his stress level and improved his emotional equilibrium. He still has his moments.  I suggested that some reading for pleasure might be a welcome respite, and brought him an advance copy of a book I thought he’d love: The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick. He’s been enjoying it very much — the history of science is a particular interest he’s pursued throughout his teen years.

Another book he says he really enjoyed in October was The Aztec World by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, which he read as part of his Pre-Columbian history study. Brumfiel & Feinman wrote the book to accompany an exhibit at the Field Museum, which they co-curated with three Mexican colleagues.  Teen the Elder was very impressed with what he read about Tenochtitlan; the current issue of National Geographic happens to include an article on recent excavations near the site of the Templo Mayor.

The same issue, lying on an end table in our living room, has a beautifully photographed article on Japanese sea life. Teen the Younger, who is a big fan of the great Japanese filmaker/animator Hayao Miyazaki recently watched Ponyo with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. Since Teen the Younger is loving her Japanese class and is a devoted fan of manga and anime, I was happy to expand her horizons to non-animated Japanese creatures as well.

Teen the Younger is still devouring manga and enjoying weekly trips to the library to pick up new titles. She’s also reading Funny In Farsi. Last week we met author Firoozeh Dumas, who told the large Concord Reads audience that she was in New Hampshire all because of bookconscious. My post on her books two years ago, which she found thanks to a web aggregator tool her brother signed her up for, opened a correspondence between us. I did suggest her books to the Concord Reads committee, which did a great job bringing her here and presenting terrific programs.

While I think Teen the Younger picked up the books (which, like National Geographic, I set out like bait on a side table) because Firoozeh made her laugh, she told me that what she finds interesting is how Firoozeh describes America through an immigrant’s eyes. That’s exactly why Concord Reads picked the books, and why so many people enjoy them.

The Computer Scientist, when he’s not crafting uber Halloween accessories like Xion’s keyblade (I have aches, pains, and blisters from raking all massive amounts of leaves in our yard in time for the annual street pickup, but I wouldn’t trade chores for a second!), has been hair-on-fire busy at work. But he has read a couple of interesting things recently.

A friend and former co-worker sent him an article from a blog called RandsInRepose on nerd characteristics. I read it too. If you have a nerd in your life you’ll read it and weep, or at least sniffle. I sighed particularly loudly when I got to the section that begins,”Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head.” This is an elaborate explanation of why nerds hear “blah, blah, blah,” when people are talking to them, kind of the way Charlie Brown hears his teacher’s voice in Peanuts films.

He also read the advance copy of a book by an author who is coming to Gibson’s in February, who is also a St. Paul’s School grad. and former teacher there (and current sociology professor at Columbia), Shamus Rahman Khan. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School will be out in early 2011, and the Computer Scientist says it’s a “good in-depth examination of St. Paul’s School students and culture.” He found Khan’s writing “authentic and honest in his analysis.”

When I booked the event, I was worried the book might not be well received at St. Paul’s. The Computer Scientist told me he had the same incorrect first impression — we both feel the title has negative connotations that are easily misinterpreted. But he says, “after thoroughly reading and digesting the book, I’m appreciative of Shamus’ candor and reflections and encourage those interested in boarding schools to read this insightful book.” It’s in my to-read pile now. I’m looking forward to it, as I found what the Computer Scientist learned about Khan’s distinction between privilege and entitlement very interesting.

Up next?  The Computer Scientist is back to reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London (which I loved and wrote about here last spring) and he has Dennis Lehane‘s Moonlight Mile (the tour kicks off right here in Concord on Wednesday!) and Andre Dubus III‘s memoir, Townie, on his nightstand. I picked up some advance copies (like Teen the Elder’s science history and the Dubus title) at a fall sales rep. recommendations night in Hadley, MA, sponsored by New England Independent Booksellers’ Association.  Teen the Younger has Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes on her library pile, thanks to my notes from that evening.

I was intrigued by a New York Times article on Gary Shteyngart’s recent trip to Russia and checked out Super Sad True Love Story today. I also have Kay Ryan’s “new and selected” poetry collection, The Best of It out of the library, and there are many more interesting selections on my “to read” pile(s).  Like the leaves, these piles move around but never really seem to get smaller!

 

The Clockwork Universe

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick

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