Posts Tagged ‘Lord of the Flies’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I’m big on self-improvement and trying to lead an examined life. In early April I  re-organized some books, in  part because I spilled a cup of coffee all over my “to-read” piles (yes, gasps of horror all around). In cleaning up, I found that I have somewhere between 40-50 “to-read.”

So one project ahead this summer is to get through that pile.  I also worked on clearing out the garage with the Computer Scientist, cleaned out my closet and drawers quite ruthlessly, rededicated myself to trying to meditate daily (thanks to my favorite fellow blogger, Leo Babauta), and vowed to work on communicating better. It’s easy for introspective readers/writers to develop bad habits of communication when our favorite exchanges are words we can re-read or re-write.

And in light of now writing both a quarterly column (Publishing Trends for NH Writers’ Project) and a monthly one (The Mindful Reader for the Concord Monitor), plus aiming for various deadlines for other writing projects and helping Teen the Younger’s year of life learning come to fruition, I worked on managing my time better. Next I can work on writing shorter sentences.

Several of the books I read this month fit my mood of self-examination and improvement. First among them is the ever-excellent A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy. I’ve read his other books, The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All, and I absolutely love his style of immersion journalism. Reviewers who call it “schtick lit” are missing Jacob’s warmth and intelligence. This book is about Jacobs’ quest to try head-to-toe health advice in order to become as healthy as possible.

Much of the advice is easily applied to anyone’s life — reduce stress, eat less, move more, for example. Other things he tried are less likely to work for me, intriguing as they may be, like using a treadmill desk. Mostly I love Jacob’s writing and the open, good humored approach he has. He meets some pretty way out people doing various extreme things in the name of health and he’s never disrespectful.

The book is about getting to the scientific facts behind health advice, so Jacobs is also smart and thorough, and regularly consults experts. I also love the way he writes in a gently self-deprecating way about the things he struggles with (something I can relate to) and the way his family has to put up with his experiments. From taking stairs more often to trying to eat more slowly and deliberately to reducing stress and meditating more, I am working on trying some of his advice.

In other nonfiction, I read a memoir for The Mindful Reader (the column will be published May 13), Up: A Mother and Daughter’s Peakbagging Adventure by Patricia Ellis Herr. Herr and her five-year-old daughter Alex hiked to the top of NH’s forty-eight mountains over 4,000 feet. If you’re about to say that’s too much for a five-year-old, that reaction is what Herr heard on the trail and online a fair bit, and the book addresses her family’s attempt to march to their own drummer.

This is partly a  parenting memoir. Herr shares her worries, frustrations, and mistakes, which make reading about their incredible accomplishments more realistic. She also writes about the way that her kids sometimes surprise her with insights and wisdom beyond their years one moment only to act like little kids the next.  So even though we’ve never done anything like peakbag forty-eight mountains, Up reminded me in some ways of our own experiences with Teens the Younger and Elder.

Herr writes with passion about the choices she and her husband have made in raising their daughters; like us, they are homeschooling.  I could definitely relate to the challenges of following a relatively uncharted path in a world where most people don’t want to even get out of the fast lane. As I was reading, the latest salvos about who is a working mom were flying around the media; Herr addresses the isolation she felt when her friends in academia disagreed with her choices to stay home and to educate her kids outside the mainstream.

I also found the hiking stories enjoyable; Herr’s obvious pleasure in being outside with her daughter stands out when so many memoirs are about more unpleasant experiences. It was also interesting to read about our beautiful state and it’s residents, both human and animal.  It’s unlikely after reading about rotting snow and mad grouse that we’ll be peakbagging, but the Computer Scientist and I would like to hike more.

Another memoirist very much influenced by the natural world, Terry Tempest Williams, has a new book out, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice. This book is hard to describe. It’s partly about Tempest Williams’ attempt to  make sense of her mother’s journals, which are blank. It’s partly an examination of faith and politics and their intersection in the hope of things unseen.

It’s partly a reflection on how she found her voice, as a human being and a writer, and how important the women (and a couple of men) in her family were to that process. And it’s partly a meditation on the importance of listening to nature’s voice as each of us makes our way into full humanity, and the joy of having a partner who understands that journey and is willing to join it and sometimes, to let her walk alone.

It’s a beautiful book, some of the most poetic prose you’ll ever read. On why the ocean has such a strong meaning for her, Tempest Williams writes, “Water is nothing if not ingemination, an encore to the tenacity of life. Life held in the sea is surface and depth, what we see and what we imagine.” Wow. Read that over a few times and you’ll have a sense of the evocative power of the writing in this book.

Are You My Mother: a Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel is a much darker memoir.  It’s a graphic memoir (like a graphic novel in form), which is fascinating. And it’s a thoroughly intellectual, emotionally gobsmacking self-analysis of the author’s many years of therapy.

Readers experience her hard work a Bechdel heals herself by re-visiting her life’s seminal moments and relationships, the work of Virginia Woolf and the psycholanalyst D.W. Winnicott, and above all, her mother’s (and to some extent her father’s but he gets another book) influence on her emotional life.  It’s a gripping book. The art is powerful too — emotionally visceral, and wrought entirely in shades of black, grey, white, and purplish red that reminded me of blood.

A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith is a series of short reflections paired with poems. Nineteen poets (some you’ll be familiar with, others perhaps not) spoke with or corresponded with editors Katherine Towler (author of the superb Snow Island trilogy) and Ilya Kaminsky about faith and its importance in their work.  Each section ends with a poem related to something in the reflective essay.

One thing that impressed me is the depth of each short essay. It is clear the editors really engaged their subjects skillfully in order to draw out their intimate, deeply held beliefs. I enjoyed reading meditations on meaning, spirituality, the life of ideas, the crossroads (again) of politics and faith, the presence of poetry in prayer and prayer in poetry, and the deep influence of belief on writers no matter their religious affiliations or personal creeds.

In a time when religion seems to divide people or at least polarize our public discourse, I was struck by themes I found threaded through God In the House. For one thing, what we experience as children has a huge influence on the way we respond to ritual and belief as adults. This seems to be true even though the responses vary widely.

Also mystical experience, by which I mean the personal perception of the transcendent, is related to creativity (for example in unexpected inspiration), even for writers who don’t see their work in relation to divinity or divine inspiration, and several of the poets affirm that in this book.

I was also struck that many of the poets referred to the work of Emily Dickinson in their reflections. I’m planning to read her work more closely this summer. I’d also like to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum.

A God in the House is also a beautifully produced book. In fact, its the one from my to-read pile that I really wish I hadn’t spilled coffee on. Tupleo Press makes aesthetically as well as intellectually pleasing books.

The Europa Challenge book I read this month, The Nun, by Simonetta Agnello Hornby, addresses the importance of faith and literature in the heroine’s life. When the book opens, Agata is a young teen in Messina, a town at the tip of Sicily nearest mainland Italy’s toe. It’s 1839, and Europe is rumbling with what will become the revolutionary fevor that swept the continent a decade later. Agata’s fever is more localized — she’s in love with a neighbor.

As a young woman from a “good” family met with hard times, her life is completely out of her hands however. Her father dies and her mother takes the family to Naples to try to use her connections to keep her family afloat. The passage is significant as Agata meets an English Navy officer, James Garson.

One of her mother’s machinations is to offer Agata to a convent. The unwilling young woman is isolated from her relatives and the temptations of the world as her mother wrangles a position. Hornby paints an unflattering but very detailed view of the Church in nineteenth century Italy; corruption is rampant, positions are bought and sold, political influence trumps religious fervor.

Hornby fills her descriptions with words and images I found very evocative: a Japanese camellia, Oki no Nami, in the convent garden; paperoles, small, elaborate devotional images made of paper, bits of glass, and other decorative elements; incredible pastries baked as favors, treats, and for sale (each convent has a specialty); hebdomedary, the weekly cycle of tasks in the convent; cenoby, the establishment of a religious community; vespertine, of the evening.

Agata undergoes cycles of resignation and rebellion in the convent. She tries to bury herself in the order of convent life: prayer, work, service, devotion. She learns to bake and to tend the gardens, becomes a skilled herbalist, and tries hard to find her vocation. Meanwhile the world spins on outside the cloistered walls, and when she can receive mail, she begins corresponding with James Garson, who sends her novels (she reads Jane Austen, which I found very poignant, given her dashed hopes for marriage).

In the end, after more introspection and self-examination than most people undergo in a lifetime, Agata has had enough.  She realizes she belongs in the world, not the convent, which can’t offer the spiritual solace and purity she hoped to take refuge in when first consigned there. She unravels her mother’s maneuverings and sees her earlier love and even her sisters as they really are. Eventually, she also realizes that James Garson can offer her love based not in fantasy but real emotional and intellectual understanding.

I won’t tell you what she does or whether she realizes her hopes, but I will say that if you like historical fiction, The Nun brings nineteenth century Italy to life. Agata is a complicated, passionate, and interesting heroine. I’d like to go back and re-read the novels James Garson sends her.

Set around the same time, April Bernard‘s Miss Fuller features another passionate and interesting heroine, Margaret Fuller.  When the novel  begins, Henry Thoreau travels to Fire Island, New York to identify the bodies of Margaret Fuller, her Italian husband, and their toddler after a shipwreck. Henry’s fictional younger sister Anne recalls hearing Miss Fuller lecture in Boston; she remembers adults discussing Fuller’s “excessive education” and speculating that it made her “goggle-eyed and very odd.”

Thoreau finds Fuller’s small writing desk washed ashore, and hopes to recover the manuscript of her forthcoming book on the Roman republic. Instead he find a letter for Sophie Hawthorne. Nathaniel Hawthorne tells him to burn it, citing Fuller’s “irregular life.” After reading it himself, Thoreau, clearly disturbed, puts the letter back in the desk.

In the fictional letter, Fuller pours out her financial struggles, the excitement of being on assignment for the New York Tribune in Europe (covering, in part, the revolution in Italy), her firm belief that she’s the intellectual and professional equal of any man and her frustration that most people can’t accept that. The letter details her loves and disappointments and the way maternal love shocks her “like a thunder-clap.”

Margaret Fuller was controversial. Progressive Concord did not embrace feminism, as Louisa May Alcott’s satire Transcendental Wild Oats reveals to hilarious effect. The American press and even Fuller’s friends – Thoreau, Emerson, and the Hawthornes among them – questioned the propriety of her unusual marriage (her husband was not only Italian, but Catholic and much younger). They also gossiped about its validity, and about alleged earlier liaisons, both of which Bernard explores in Miss Fuller.

Fuller’s impatience with those who would free slaves but treat women as inferior offended many. She also knew society wasn’t prepared to accept her model of independent womanhood. Bernard’s imagined letter reflects how painful that must have been.

In the final section of Miss Fuller Anne finally reads the letter, thirty years later. She does some research, and learns that posthumous memoirs (gathered by Emerson) and fiction (by Hawthorne) were inaccurate and unflattering. The last chapter is lovely, as Anne grasps Fuller’s imperfect but astonishing legacy. Bernard’s choice of an invented champion for Fuller illuminates how few she had in her lifetime.

This year’s Booker prize for fiction went to Julian Barnes for A Sense of an Ending. I’d read Barnes before and not found his writing to my taste but this book is a knockout. As April Bernard explores the gap between perception and reality in Margaret Fuller’s private life, Julian Barnes blows that gap wide open in this book.

Tony Webster reflects on his first serious relationship in college from the distance of middle age, and on the suicide of a brilliant member of his circle. The catalyst for his revisiting these events is a strange bequest from his former girlfriend’s mother after she dies.

Barnes gives the impression that despite a very cordial relationship with his ex-wife and grown daughter, Tony isn’t a very self-reflective guy, just a relatively successful ordinary man living a quiet and uninteresting life. It seems incongruous that such a benign man is rather rude in his attempt to get to the bottom of his mysterious gift, until  his reflections on the events decades earlier reveal his capacity for spiteful bitterness.

I really can’t give too many specifics or I’ll ruin the story, but suffice to say that what he learns is heartbreaking and surprising. I sometimes don’t agree with prize choices, but A Sense of an Ending combines superb writing with intense emotional and psychological drama. It’s quite a story as well. As Tony says, “History isn’t the lives of the victors . . . I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors,most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.” Which is what this novella is as well.

That same description aptly fits another English novel I read, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison.  It’s also fraught with psychological tension that wreaks havoc with the loves and losses of its characters. Ms. Alison explains in her author’s note that a cousin of her father’s, Sir Clifford Norton, and his wife Peter inspired the book, along with photos of young London evacuees at a “great house” in the English countryside.

The book begins with two seminal moments: the Nazis invade Poland and the British government offers an evacuation scheme for London’s children. We meet eight-year-old Anna Sands and her mother Roberta, out in Kensington buying what she’ll need to travel to the country. Anna hopes for the seaside. Roberta senses “the spontaneous rise of her daughter’s soul,” and is overcome with love. Anna too feels that it’s a turning point: “In the years to come she would remember that fragile day, its touchless light, their quiet elations.”

The Nortons, who were at the British Embassy in Warsaw, are fleeing Poland and trying to aid those about to be caught in the maw of the Nazi machine. In life as in the novel, they aided refugees of WWII and later the Greek Civil War.  This brave and unflappable couple appear at intervals in the book as friends of Thomas Ashton, last heir of Ashton Park, an estate in Yorkshire.

Thomas has had a tragic life — distant parents, two brothers lost in the Great War, and his own life nearly ended by polio, which leaves him wheelchair bound. He’s a diplomat, but he (and Norton, both in the book and in real life) cannot in good conscience work for the Nazi-appeasing government so before WWII begins, he retreats to Yorkshire with his very beautiful young wife Elizabeth, to translate classics.

Elizabeth wants a child, and begins a series of impersonal affairs with artists — the real Peter Norton was a founding member of the Institute of Contemporary Arts and had a gallery in London that was among the first to show surrealists’ and avante garde artists’ work in England. Through Peter she lives a double life but Elizabeth soon realizes it’s she who is barren, not Thomas.

When the evacuation begins, she and Thomas see an opportunity to restore life to Ashton Park and they open a school, accepting dozens of children from London. Little Anne ends up there. She’s from an entirely different world and is enchanted by the grand house and its glamorous occupants.

She also comes to love and admire a young literature teacher, Ruth Weir, and she thrives under Ruth’s and Thomas’s patient and caring tutelage. You can sense her growing distance from her father, a soldier in North Africa, and mother, who is experiencing her own new lease on life as a woman alone embarking on a new career at the BBC in war-torn London.

As the war grinds on, Alison spins her characters farther apart, deftly connecting their stories in her fictional web — Elizabeth Ashton and Roberta Sands visit the same pubs in London as they turn away from their husbands, for example, and the Ashton’s London home is in the same neighborhood where decades later the grown-up Anna has a breakdown.

After the war, Anna goes back to London, to her father, but Ashton Park never leaves her. She studies at Oxford – unthinkable before the war, given her class and local schooling – and becomes an acquiring editor at a publishing house.  And she is an emotional basket case, unable to love the way she yearns to, unsure why.

Again I can’t say much more without spoiling the book for you, but it’s very interesting the way Alison heals her heartbroken main characters, Thomas and Anna. This book will add depth and gravity to your Great House lust if you’re a Downton Abbey fan (I am), as you read about what happens to Ashton Park when Thomas dies heirless. And the impact of a war on people far from the front, even into subsequent generations,  is also a powerful theme of The Very Thought of You.

War or its memories impact the characters in a novel-in-stories I read in April, Scenes From Village Life by Amos Oz. Set in Tel Ilan, a fictional Israeli pioneer village, the stories touch on the seen and unseen in a small community, with a thread of strange or unexplainable events working as the book’s connective tissue.

In “Heirs,” a mysterious sweating visitor claims to be related to an old woman and her son. He invites himself into the house and begins to presume involvement in intimate decisions relating to her care and to the eventual sale of her assets. The story ends on a very weird, discordant note.

“Relations” finds the village doctor missing her nephew, who was due on the bus. The driver tells her, “Don’t worry, Dr. Steiner, whoever didn’t arrive this evening will certainly turn up tomorrow morning, and whoever doesn’t arrive tomorrow morning will come tomorrow at lunchtime. Everyone gets here sooner or later.”

In “Digging,” Rachel, a widow, lives with her father, father, a bitter old man obsessed with politics. Adel, an Arab student rents a cottage on the property. Both tell Rachel they hear digging in the night. She can’t hear it. Adel gives the mayor of Tel Ilan, Benny, a note from his wife that says only “Don’t worry about me,” in “Waiting;” Benny walks around town wondering where she is.

These slightly unreal, slightly sad stories of people surviving their everyday existence resonate with a deep sense of place — the village memorial garden, cypress hedges, the school, the library, the bus all appear and reappear in the stories. People are hot, bothered, (there is a lot of sweat and body odor in the these stories), slightly or deeply troubled. Death is never far; there are widows and grieving parents, the dead and the dying.

But it’s also a kind of universal cast of characters, even though they are particularly Israeli. The villagers gather for social events, they gossip, they speculate on what will happen to real estate, they work teaching each other’s children, caring for each other, they grow old, they are suspicious of newcomers even as they protest that they are not.

Oz makes all these small tensions build into one larger tug between old and new. His characters map the terrain of longing and possibility, lives lived and moments lost. They reflect on what they could have done differently. But in the end they get on with their days.

I read a bit more about England as Teen the Elder wraps up his Gap Year there and prepares for the next phase of his adventures (Eight weeks in Kirkland, outside Seattle, which, by the way, is where Teen the Younger was born. But I digress).

I realized as I read novels set in England that I was a bit shaky on some of the details of English history; I had them once, but they were in the shadowy recesses of my brain. So I read Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November): Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About British History with All the Boring Bits Taken Out by Judy Parkinson. This brief volume gives a small page each to seminal events and is a decent review, albeit a scanty one.

In a similar vein, I read Cobwebs and Cream Teas: A Year in the Life of National Trust House to get an overview of the behind-the-scenes care and keeping of a home like Ashford Park. Author Mary MacKie‘s husband is hired as Houseman at Fellbrigg Hall, and she becomes “Assistant Drain-Clearer, Doorbell-Answerer, Flower Arranger, and Rodent Exterminator.” It’s an interesting, if somewhat staid, look at a year in the life of a house’s upkeep and the way the National Trust operates.

On a much wilder note, I’ll end this month’s post with a thriller. Not my usual reading, but the author, James Tabor, is from Vermont, so I’m reviewing it for The Mindful Reader. Tabor is the author of the nonfiction book about extreme caving, Blind Descent, and he returns to otherworldly super caves in his novel, The Deep Zone.

I admire his two heroines: Lenora Stillwell, maverick Army doctor, who faces a mutated acinetobacter, or ACE, “super bug” killing patients in an Afghan field hospital; and Hallie Leland, cave explorer scientist, who was framed and fired from her government research job but is called back to work on an antibiotic to counter ACE. To do that she has to harvest organic material found only in a Mexican super cave in narco-traffickers’ territory.

Tabor’s plot was inspired by an ACE outbreak among U.S. soldiers in Iraq, as well as his cave research. His plot is wild but plausible, with shadowy operatives working for corporate overlord and loads of technical caving details and futuristic military gear. The novel’s supporting characters are interesting and well-drawn. The Deep Zone is a good read, if one that might keep you awake at night worrying about mutant bacteria.

The Computer Scientist didn’t get much reading done this month but he participated in World Book Night, handing out one of his favorite books, Stephen King’s The Stand. He had mixed response to walking around Concord handing out free books, but was glad he did it. King’s new book, The Wind Through the Keyhole (part of the Dark Tower sequence) is on top of his to-read pile.

He and Teen the Younger and I finished Lord of the Flies by William Golding this month; Teen the Younger told him on a father-daughter outing that she thinks it has ruined “teen lit” for her because the writing is so amazing. Teen the Elder went through a similar experience with The Lord of the Rings. I had never read Lord of the Flies and really enjoyed our conversations — it’s a very intense book and we had fun showing Teen the Younger how to unpack the symbolism, allegory, and meaning beneath the story. We’ve made a list of other novels with socio-political themes but haven’t yet chosen our next family read yet.

Teen the Younger, like her mother, has decided summer would be a good time to tame said piles. I resisted purchasing a new Europa Editions printing of Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter at Gibson’s last week and vowed I can only have it when I get through my own piles. A feat that might defeat me. But I can try. I have another Gardam/Europa Edition on top: The Queen of the Tambourine.

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