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Posts Tagged ‘magical realism’

If you’ve read bookconscious for a long time you know I was a regular listener of the podcast Books on the Nightstand. As they were preparing to go off the air, Michael and Ann recommended other podcasts for their fans and one was The Readers. I listened to Episode 171 a few weeks ago, in which Simon and Thomas were sharing their summer reading plans. I was especially intrigued by Simon’s description of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I decided it to check it out, and I am so glad I did — I loved it. So much so that I suggested it to my new book group on Monday, and happily, they chose it for our August read.

Exit West is the story of Saeed and Nadia, young people in a city that is beginning to fall under the influence of militants as the book opens. Nadia, scandalously for a young woman in her city, has broken with her family and lives alone, while Saeed lives with his parents. As the various parts of the city fall and services are cut off, they find it harder to see each other. I don’t want to give away everything, so I won’t say how everyone in their city gets on, but eventually, Nadia and Saeed decide to leave.

What intrigued me is that the way to leave the city is through doors. Ordinary doors. Saeed and Nadia leave through one in a dentist’s and end up in Mykonos. Eventually they get to London, which has been overrun, “some said by a million migrants, some said by twice that.” People not just from Saeed and Nadia’s country but many other places, drawn by reports from other migrants living in places with better opportunities, move through doors to try and make a better life. “That summer it seemed to Saeed and Nadia that the whole planet was on the move  . . . .”

Exit West is certainly about human migration, the refugee crisis, and what happens when people must choose to leave their homes.  But it’s also the story of Saeed and Nadia’s relationship. Some of what they go through brings them closer, but they guard their feelings about some experiences, and find themselves less able to share them, or even to talk lightly. I don’t think I’ve read a lovelier description of a couple growing apart.

The book is also an examination of faith, which Saeed never loses. He prays, as his mother taught him when he was a boy, and when he and Nadia are finally settled he is drawn to a “place of worship” — Hamid never says mosque, although there are indications that Saeed is Muslim (he and his father go to Friday prayers together, for example). The preacher at Saeed’s new place of worship is African American. Here is how Hamid writes about that: “While this layer of nativeness was not vast in proportion to the rest, it had vast importance, for society had been shaped in reaction to it, and unspeakable violence had occurred in relation to it, and yet it endured, fertile, a stratum of soil that perhaps made possible all future transplanted soils, and to which Saeed in particular was attracted, since at a place of worship where he had gone one Friday the communal prayer was led by a man who came from this tradition and spoke of this tradition, and Saeed had found . . . this man’s words to be full of soul-soothing wisdom.”

At my book club (discussing The Underground Railroad) we got into a conversation about why people suffering at the hands of other people seem to turn to religion. One person suggested religion preys on the downcast and oppressed, but I countered that in my view, religion offers a vision of justice and peace that isn’t fully manifest in the world yet, but is possible. I should have added, that hope can be magnified in the acts of love carried out by believers who represent all that’s possible, and conversely, crushed by fundamentalism and intolerance. In Exit West Saeed and Nadia lose the place they love to militant fundamentalism and Saeed finds his way in a community run by a preacher who “worked to feed and shelter his congregants and teach them English.”

And he prays: “Saeed . . . valued the discipline of it, the fact that it was a code, a promise he had made, and that he stood by.” Now as a refugee in a strange country, “Saeed prayed even more, several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” That slayed me, but Hamid goes on:

“When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in each other, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia, that he did not know how to express this to Nadia, this mystery that prayer linked him to . . . .”

I find that very beautiful. As I typed it I realized it’s also a style that may not to be everyone’s taste — a sentence that takes up nearly a whole page of this small book. But even if you are usually a fan of tidier prose, give this book a chance. It’s short but expansive. A simple story but one that provides a great deal to ponder when you get to the end. I’ve been thinking about refugees and and how things could be better and whether where we live makes us who we are, and what it takes to get to that sense of shared humanity through prayer that Saeed has, and whether humans really have potential to build a better world or when starting over are they doomed to repeat the same patterns that shattered their communities in the first place, and why some people can change and others can’t, and whether the African American experience “made possible all future transplanted soils” and why anyone becomes fundamentalist or even listens to fundamentalists . . . . And I haven’t looked at a door the same way since, either. Wouldn’t it be so cool to go through one and end up elsewhere?

I’ve read some good books so far this summer but this may be the best.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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