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Posts Tagged ‘Manga’

This week and last have been strange. We’re getting ready to send Teen the Elder off to England for his gap year. I’ve been cooking by day (all his favorites) and reading by night, filling us both up with memories, seeking comfort in the solid beginning, middle and end of books as I deal with the fact that I am the mother of an eighteen year old who is about to head into the world. I’m thrilled for him, of course, but also feeling many other things, mostly a huge sense of difference: this is not like anything else our family has experienced, one of us moving out, at least for awhile, preparing to live in another country, while the rest of us try to carry on as normal. Next week, I expect, will be even stranger.

It’s also been a time of transition professionally, as I handed over the Events Coordinator position at Gibson’s and began training for my new reference librarian job. I’m excited, but also find myself suddenly able to read whatever I want without having to make time for events books, and so I checked out eight novels the last time I stopped at the library. Eight!  I felt like a kid again, wending my way out to the car with my teetering stack of books.

This month I started by reading books recommended to me, including a staff pick at the Rivier Library — 22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson.  I’ve read several novels set in or after WWII, many from the points of view of displaced people; this one is highly original. Hodgkinson’s skillful use of different points of view enhances the telling of this story about a Polish couple separated during WWII and reunited in England after.

Janusz and Silvana are trying to put together the pieces of their lives and live normally with their son, but there is much that they each kept hidden in wartime that is hard to reveal or admit in peacetime, even to themselves.  They have both experienced trauma and loss, and Silvana and Aurek, the boy, have experienced the very worst of man’s inhumanity as they hid in the woods of Poland. The novel alternates between the present and each family member’s remembered experiences.  Readers meet the people they knew during the war and the people in their new life.

Some readers might find the shifting perspectives confusing, but I think it’s perfect as a way to show the difficulty of pulling together fragmented lives after a period of complete turmoil.  It’s also just the right way to present people who are missing parts of their relationship — they find it difficult to pick up where they left off, because of the damage done, the secrets kept, the traumas felt.  Readers get a taste of this as the narrative shifts.

Hodgkinson is a talented writer who conjures a real sense of the strangeness not only of displacement but also of re-entry into society for veterans and civilian victims of war. She is very good at using small details to paint a vivid scene, like turns of phrase as the couple try to speak in a more British way, descriptions of the garden Janusz creates to try to rebuild a sense of normal family life, the second-hand clothes and shoes the family wears.

Left to guess about each other’s experiences, Silvana and Janusz make a mess of things, and then try to undo the tangle and put the family back together again — although I won’t give away how it ends, I will say it’s a pleasantly ambiguous denouement which will offer book clubs plenty to discuss. Hodkinson presents their story with gorgeous, cinematic scenes and vivid details that will keep you glued to the page. Aurek’s sections will break your heart. 22 Britannia Road is a searing, evocative book about the aftermath of war, the resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to love and trust when everything one has known has been destroyed.

Another heart-breaker is Ivory From Paradise. (Are you wondering about my choice of sad books?  Crying is cathartic, remember.) This one had been on my “to read” list. David Schmahmann revisists the characters from his earlier novel, Empire Settings, although I wouldn’t call this a sequel. When Ivory From Paradise opens, the grown children, Danny and Bridget, are dealing with their mother Helga’s final illness.  They end up in a legal battle with their stepfather over their father’s African artifacts, which Helga brought to London from the family home in Durban after both children fled during apartheid (you can read about those events in Empire Settings).

They end up deciding to return to Durban to hold a memorial service for Helga, who was an anti-apartheid activist and politician. As always I won’t give too much away, but do read these books if you’d like a different view of apartheid and especially post-Mandela South Africa. For Eben, the son of Bridget and Danny’s black nurse, and for several other characters, free South Africa isn’t holding up to its promise, and Danny, whose voice is the most dominant  in the novel, it’s bittersweet to return, to learn what’s happened to his family’s wealth, and to find out about his father’s collection and its provenance.

Like all of Schmahmann’s books, this novel is not only a story, but also a literary exploration of human nature, this time about the legacy a family’s secrets have, the ties we feel towards those who’ve come before and the ways family history can take on mythical status it doesn’t deserve. It’s also a meditation on loss — of childhood, of the reality we paint for ourselves in our memories when we face its real life counterpart, of the childish belief in one’s parents invincibility.  And like Schmahmann’s other work, it’s sad but also quite lovely. You may cry but you’ll feel better for it, and also feel better for having considered the ideas he brings to bear in the novel.

One more tragedy I read this month on the recommendation of a friend: Robin Black’s story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This.   Black writes beautifully and her virtuosity is clear — her stories are told from the point of view of characters of various ages, different sexes, and a variety of circumstances, and the range is impressive. I enjoyed several of the stories very much: “Immortalizing John Parker,” about an artist trying to paint a portrait of a man who is beginning to succumb to dementia,  and “The History of the World,” about adult twins on a trip to Italy are two favorites.

But as I told the friend who suggested I read the book, I felt “tragedy fatigue” as I read this collection; there was just too much suffering for me in one volume (although in fairness perhaps because of the other books I’d already read in August). I read a blurb about this book that said a little of it goes a long way, and I think that would be the best way to read it, with time and space between the stories. Black writes so tangibly of her characters’ pain that I felt myself rushing through to be able to put some of that behind me.

Another book I rushed to finish, but for different reasons, is Why Jane Austen by Rachel Brownstein. I wanted to finish the book before Brownstein’s visit to Concord — she read at Gibson’s, and since I invited her after meeting her last spring at JASNA Massuchusetts Region’s final meeting of the season, I wanted to be sure to attend. With the eventful summer, and the big changes going on in the bookconscious household, I had to read more quickly than I would have liked, and I plan to go back and re-read this book.

Brownstein’s book is what she describes as “associative criticism” — part criticism, part memoir, as she ties much of what she has learned about Austen’s longstanding widespread appeal to her own life and experiences.  At Gibson’s Brownstein told the audience that she has always admired Austen’s “precision of language.”  She also noticed over her years of teaching that Lionel Trilling’s belief that what’s said about Jane Austen is almost as interesting as the author and her work seems to be as true today as when he wrote it. Why Jane Austen is a lovely book about those two things: Austen’s enduring and self-perpetuating popularity and and what it is about the works that make people so wild about Jane.

One of the most interesting things Brownstein discusses is the sense of belonging Austen’s work fosters in readers. Austen’s writing style, her intimate way of addressing readers as if the are her “secret friends,” makes people feel like they are on a first name basis with Jane. Brownstein also points out  the beauty of Austen’s “tissue of words.” For example, Brownstein describes reading aloud from Emma in a deliberately enunciated fashion so that her students can “savour the slow, gradual elongation of the “e” from the  short indeterminate grunt . . . to the long emphatic screech.” (Go on, open your copy of Emma and check it out.)

She also discusses the way Austen’s books offer new things upon every reading: Brownstein’s son noticed something funny in the carriage ride conversation between Elizabeth Bennett and Maria Lucas in Pride and Prejudice that she herself had never caught.  And she admires how Austen tapped into the instinctive human desire to be “in the know” — Brownstein writes of her mother’s inviting a social outcast to tea in their home in Vermont in part so she could learn why the woman is shunned, just as many Austen characters trade in neighborhood stories.

Reading Why Jane Austen is like sitting down with a very smart, very well spoken friend who gently reminds you of how much more there is to learn about even our favorite books. And how important close, careful (and slow) reading is to our understanding of literature. Brownstein makes clear that a great writer like Austen incites conversation among readers of every generation, as the characters’  lives open into our own, no matter the differences between us.  Inspired by Brownstein’s wonderful answers to the question in her title, I’ve suggested a Jane Austen book discussion for the Computer Scientist, Teen the Younger, and I. Stay tuned.

I read two books of poetry this month.  I’ll start with Crave Radiance, by Elizabeth Alexander. If  her name is familiar, it may be because she wrote a poem in honor of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and read it as part of the ceremonies.  That poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a fine example of what I like most about Alexander’s work: it is deeply musical, well structured, and filled with references to familiar, ordinary people and experiences.

But that is only one kind of poem in this collection. Many others are devoted to historical figures and events in America’s past, particularly African American history. Some are sequences, like the poems in Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.  Others are individual poems such as “Affirmative Action Blues,” which is about, among other things, the Rodney King civil rights trial, and several poems address the AIDS epidemic.

Alexander also writes a great deal about her family history, and those are some of my favorite poems. “Fried Apples” is about how she recalled her grandfather “standing at the stove, cooking/ a pan of fried apples for us,” and  “began to take his measure.”  And sections of “Fugue,” a sequence of poems about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, are about her parents. In “1971,” for example, Alexander conjures her young self walking with her father, an adviser to President Johnson: “Sometimes a poem remembers small things, like/’Hey Blood.’ My father still says that sometimes.”

The title of the book comes from the poem “Allegiance,” part of the Miss Crandall series.  It’s one of  my favorites, and also one that seems to sum up Alexander’s themes: when Prudence Crandall receives letters telling her “how brave,/ how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast” she is to run a school for colored girls, we are told, “Work, she says, there is always work to do,/ not in the name of self but in the name,/ the water-clarity of what is right./ We crave radiance in his austere world,/ light in the spiritual darkness.” Alexander believes in that water-clarity, and her poems ring with it.

Where does Alexander place her faith?  Where Prudence Crandall did: “Learning is the one perfect religion,/ its path correct, narrow, certain, straight./ At its end blossoms and billows/ into vari-coloured polyphony:/ the sweet infinity of true knowledge.”  It’s an old idea told well and beautifully: ignorance is the real evil, learning will free hearts and minds.

The other book of poems I read is by my friend and editor at the NH Writer, Martha Carlson-Bradley (who patiently whittles down my long Publishing Trends columns).   Longtime booksconscious fans may recall I wrote about one of her earlier books, Season We Can’t Resist, in 2009.  Carlson-Bradley’s new collection is a chapbook from Adastra Press, beautifully hand-set, printed, and stitched, called If I Take You Here. I read the book and then went to hear her read from it at Gibson’s. I was glad I did, because as is so often the case, her authorial asides really shed light on the book.

I knew from earlier conversations that these poems came out of Carlson-Bradley’s reflection that the farmhouse where her mother grew up and where she visited her grandparents exists only in memory now. At the reading, she explained that she was inspired in part by hearing Donald Hall describe his grandparents’ farm (where he has lived for many years) as a place where poems grow; she ventured to make her grandparents’ farm such a place, even though it’s been torn down. The book is a long sequence, and the individual poems don’t have titles. They’re meant to be read in order and in one sitting, which I was glad to hear, because I had instinctively read the book straight through.

In the opening poem, Carlson-Bradley invites readers to follow her as she enters the memory of her grandparents’ farm as if it is a physical place one can go, “The spring on the screen door/ stretching out/plays its taut,/ascending scale.” In the second poem, Carlson-Bradley tells us the house is not in the shape it once was: “The outer edges the first to go,/ the place that memory makes/ has trouble staying whole –”

You really should read this haunting and lovely poem for yourself, and see what Carlson-Bradley calls the “crumbling left margin,” a visual clue to what she’s found as she enters the farm house. The poem’s left justification is very uneven, with indentation varying line to line, alluding to that roughened outer edge. She told the audience at Gibson’s that she was deliberate in her use of visual structure, centering those poems which spoke to “eternal things,” such as the garden, and deliberately employing variegated indentation to represent her sense that visiting a memory as a physical place is a disorientation of time.  I can’t think of another book of poems whose structure so brilliantly compliments the theme.

In some poems, the language itself leads readers farther into the maze of memory — for example the poem which starts “Incessant, the wind/” has lovely repetition of sounds. In the first stanza, incessant, wind, and inside all share a short “i.” Later, “t’s” and “m’s” repeat, offering very different but similarly soothing accompaniment.  Further along “w’s” and longer o’s and “u’s” smooth the poem’s exit. It’s a very auditory poem, beautiful on the tongue and the ear.

Other favorites of mine are “A young woman’s face,” which describes an old photo fading, and “What I can’t imagine/ he can’t have,” which is one of the poems that best characterizes the relationship between memories and everyday realities, lost forever save in snatches we can remember. Someone in the audience asked how much of the detail in this book, including descriptions of many items from the house, are real and what Carlson-Bradley invented. Her reply: “Even when the facts weren’t right, it’s emotionally true.”  This reverberated with me as aesthetically similar to Danny’s experience in Ivory From Paradise — Schmahmann leads his main character to emotional truths even as he shatters the accepted beliefs Danny holds about his childhood in the novel.

If I Take You Here is about finding the truths in our memories of earlier generations, of people and places that were important to us. Just as Elizabeth Alexander writes of the way she takes the measure of her grandfather by recalling a moment in his kitchen, Martha Carlson-Bradley calls forth her grandfather in images — packing his dead wife’s things, preserving the fruits of his garden, calling out to his daughter.  As she shared her work, she said these poems “create a kind of anteroom between the living and the dead.”   There’s a sense of loss, but also a sense of what endures: lightning, autumn leaves, peepers’ calls, the sound in a shell, the smell of leaf mold or peonies, snow, stars, heat, and light.  Treat yourself to this gorgeous, handmade, heartfelt book. Or better, treat your library, so people in your community can read it too.

Finally this month, I began participating in a fun project: The Europa Challenge. One of my favorite people on Twitter and the blogosphere, The Boston Bibliophile, co-founded this blog, dedicated to challenging participants to read more books from the fantastic Europa Editions. Since I am already a fan of their books, I decided to dive in and read 4 Europa books (Ami level challenge) or perhaps 7 books (Haver level) by the end of 2011.  Since I’d already read The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine in 2011, I figured I had a head start.

In August I’ve read three more Europa Editions, so I’ve become an Ami!  First, I finished Concerto to the Memory of An Angel, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I received a preview of at ABA’s Winter Institute last January. I absolutely loved this book and want to read the rest of Schmitt’s translated work (he’s French). Concerto is a book of four novellas, with a wonderful section at the end called “A Writer’s Logbook,” where the author includes anecdotes about his creative process and some of the backstory behind his book. For the same reason I love hearing an author talk about his or her work, I really enjoyed the logbook section.  And, I found it charming that Schmitt welcomes the reader into his process, in a way.

I had the sense as I read that the stories, while not linked explicitly (no common characters or settings), were linked in spirit and theme. In fact, one thing I really like about Concerto is that it’s a story collection that really has its own over-riding narrative arc — everything fits, no story seems to be out of place, and they tell a bigger story when read all together. The logbook confirms that these stories share, for one thing, “Rita, the Madonna of lost causes, saint of the impossible . . . .” Schmitt says, “Saint Rita tells no stories, but through her, stories are told. ” Schmitt writes of the power memories and secrets have to harden or transform people, the redemptive effect of love and human understanding, the “ambiguity of goodness: what appears good to one individual provokes the misfortune of another. . . .”

I enjoyed all four novellas, but my favorite is “The Return,” about a man who finds out at sea that one of his daughters has died, but not which one. The rest of the story is almost entirely his thoughts as he deals with the news,and his intentional analysis of himself as a father.  While each story is tinged with sadness or anger or fear, every one of them includes some sort of redemption that makes the collection an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit.

Amara Lakhous‘s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio is also a book about the way the same experience can impact people differently; it’s a book about perceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. Both funny and sad, this short novel takes places in an Italian apartment building and nearby. Different characters tell their sides of the story when one of the residents is murdered. Identity, character, and culture shift before our eyes as we meet the neighbors through different narrative threads.

This book reminded me of an art house film — I could picture the characters addressing the camera with their stories and grievances. Lakhous blends social criticism with humor and a dash of mystery as the book reveals the ways people judge and misjudge each other, the assumptions they make, the things they misread, even when they think they know each other well. While Clash is an interesting look at multicultural contemporary Italy (intriguing to read as Europeans struggle to decide whether multiculturalism is a failure), it’s also a book with universal appeal because of the comedic misunderstandings.  Even the characters felt universal — some of you may know an old lady who is overly attached to her little dog. Or a mico-managing tenant who leaves notes in the elevator about civilized behavior.

Finally, I read the absolutely brilliant Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon. Set in 2013, the novel imagines a world that has gone through a series of financial disasters (not only the Recession, but also the Bite), causing massive cultural and civic upheaval so that England is now run by NUG (the National Unity Government, made up of sociologists and shrinks), whose main task is to keep the ever shabbier populace fed.

The heroine of Chalcot Crescent is Fay Weldon’s actual sister, Frances, who her mother miscarried.  Fay Weldon imagines her as having lived a long, successful life as a feminist novelist. Frances is matriarch of a complicated family brewing with resentments and issues. As the book opens, her grandson is sitting with her as she avoids the bailiffs, who are knocking on her door, presumably to repossess the house. Or are they?

In the course of the book, Frances writes a hybrid fiction/memoir manuscript, as she speculates about what is going on — right in her own house — when several of her grandchildren and her best friend’s grandchild meet in Chalcot Crescent to plan a coup as part of an underground protest movement. Meanwhile, her son-in-law is rising in prominence in NUG in part because of his skills as a stem cell researcher (NUG has to create National Meat Loaf somehow), and Frances also writes about her daughters’ relationships with men and with her.  The reader is never sure what Frances has worked out and what she is fabricating — at one point, neither is she.

Frances reflects on her own life with humor and grace and a fair dose of attitude, from her childhood in New Zealand to teen years in post-war London, through the turbulent decades of her adulthood, filled with personal drama and public success.  The book is scary in that the dystopian aspects don’t seem all that far fetched.  The absurdity of the situation — an old woman trapped in her home, which she can no longer afford because of the collapse of the consumer driven economy, while her grandchildren dart through the community potato patch in order to elude government cameras, is delicious.  I hope to read more of Weldon’s work soon, perhaps the epistolary novel Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.

Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger spent August hanging out with each other and with friends, traveling (Teen the Elder spent a few days with his uncle in Seattle), and visiting with my dad when he came to New Hampshire. Teen the Younger continued to read manga and magazines (including the manga magazine Shonen Jump) and she did a lot of planning for her upcoming year of life learning. She has some interesting things in her “to read” pile: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a book about Japanese history and culture, and several books on the art, design, and history of video games.

Teen the Elder finished a book about English culture, Rules Britannia, and he is reading a lot of instructional material for Logic Studio music writing/recording/editing/mixing software. The manual is 1300 pages long, and he intends to read it! He has mentioned several times that he’d like to re-read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books, which are some of his favorite reading of all times (Want in on a secret? The Computer Scientist and I are planning to hide a set of the books in his luggage for him to find when he unpacks in England).

The Computer Scientist has been doing several people’s worth of work at his job — he’s had a team member out on maternity leave, another has moved on to a new position elsewhere, and various vacation and hurricane related absences — and he is now coaching a 3rd & 4th grade boys’ soccer team (you can learn why over at his blog, The Grumpy Footballer).  So he also had a fairly light reading month in August. He’s still enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks.

As for me, I have five more library books waiting (all novels, two of which are Europa Editions by Jane Gardham, whose God On the Rocks I read last winter), plus David Budbill’s latest poetry collection, Happy Life and a book about Carl Sandburg and his wife Lilian Steichen that my father lent me. Plus all the books already in my to-read pile. So, happily, I’ll get through the next few days and that first strange week of our whole new stage of life reading alongside Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist, and knowing Teen the Elder is well supplied with books, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Clockwork Universe

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

Edward Dolnick

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September is a blur. Beyond the usual tumult of kids’ activities ramping up, a new academic year, and my own busy life working at Gibson’s and volunteering for Concord Reads, refugee ministry, and other sundry causes, I am also caught up in The Teenager’s college application process.

When you homeschool, you’re the school on the Common App, so there are parts of it the Computer Scientist and I have to write. We’ve also been corralling other loose ends, like ordering transcripts from NHTI and Oxford, following up on recommendation letter requests, and preparing the boy to interview (we’re guidance counselors this fall). The Computer Scientist took him to each interview as well, and that meant holding down the fort here while they traveled.  None of this is inherently hard, and some of it is even enjoyable, but it adds up to a busier than usual month.

Quick aside in the “time flies” department: I’m down to less than two weeks in which I can refer to my second born as The Preteen. I think it’s a little too Seussian to call them Teen 1 and Teen 2, so I’ll have to work on that.

On to books — first, I met my goal of reading more poetry.  I read Seamus Heaney‘s The Spirit Level, which I bought over the summer on our travels, and Vera Pavlova‘s If There Is Something to Desire, which I received as a birthday gift.  Heaney is a poet I admire as much for the sound of his poems as the content. You’d think all good poetry would sound good — and some critics argue that it should — but especially with contemporary poetry, that’s not always true. Heaney’s poetry sounds lovely read aloud.

I picked up The Spirit Level because it includes one of my favorite poems, “Postscript.”  Bookconscious readers may recall that I heard New Hampshire poet and Arthurian legend specialist Diana Durham discuss about this poem in a talk on “Poet as Shaman” at an interesting mini-conference on the Kalevala.  She used it as an example of what myth and poetry share — the ability to transform readers as they assimilate the words on the page (or through the voice) into their own personal sense of meaning.  Certainly any art carries that power — music, art, literature can all change us if we are open to experiencing and also synthesizing them into what we already carry.

The rest of The Spirit Level was a satisfying read. Aesthetically, the poems are true to Heaney’s style, thick in the mouth, so full of sound they practically burst. The subject matter roams from Caedmon (an Anglo Saxon monk and the earliest English poet whose work survives) to airplane travel to ancient Mycenae to a patch of mint.

But even a simple, earthy topic like mint delivers much more than a pastoral scene, becoming loaded with meaning in Heaney’s hands: “Let the smells of mint go heady and defenceless/Like inmates liberated in that yard./ Like the disregarded ones we turned against/ Because we’d failed them by our disregard.”  A clump of mint leads the reader to contemplate prisoners (perhaps political prisoners in Northern Ireland, but the reader can imagine other literal or figurative prisoners), forgotten by the free. Powerful stuff.

While Heaney writes in English there’s a slightly foreign feel to his poems because they are so infused with Irish sounds and places. Vera Pavlova’s poems are translated from her native Russian by her husband, Steven Seymour. They don’t sound innately foreign to me; although they are clearly poems in a strong female voice, they don’t strike me as significantly different than poems originally written in English. Perhaps that just indicates they are well translated, or maybe Pavlova’s themes are universal enough to feel natural in whatever language they appear.

The title poem in this collection, “If There Is Something to Desire,” is a tricky piece of wordsmithing. The end words in each line form a tightly controlled pattern. There are eight lines, and only three end words — desire, regret, and recall. They repeat like this: desire, regret, regret, recall, recall, regret, regret, desire. The only other words in the entire poem are: if, there, is, will, be, was, something, nothing.  This had to be terribly hard to translate in such a way as to create the pattern that makes this such a strong, circular piece, and still maintain Pavlova’s original meaning.

The hundred poems in this book are a fraction of Pavlova’s prodigious output. She is highly popular in Russia, and her poems are short, witty, sometimes punch-you-in-the-gut observant. Pavlova deals with love, sex, motherhood, memory. Her language deals with minute detail and broad strokes of human emotion and experience.  In “My Craft Is Not Stringing Lyres,” she succinctly captures her philosophy of a poet’s work: “Patient cutting of facets/on tears unshed, that is my craft.”  She anticipates what her reader will feel but isn’t trying to manipulate them: “Not for the sake of a gleam in the eye,/but to leave a trace behind . . . . ”

Another book in translation that floated to the top of the “to read” pile is Days of Reading, one of Penguin’s “Great Ideas” series, which the Computer Scientist gave me last Christmas.  I have to admit I haven’t read much Proust — a gap in my reading life list I’d like to fill more completely someday when I am not reading in during snatches of time. Paul Harding mentioned Proust when he came to the store to discuss Tinkers, which reminded me I’d been meaning to read Days of Reading.

Another aside: if  Paul is coming to a bookstore in your area, I cannot recommend highly enough that you go hear him. He’s a very warm, smart, funny writer, and I got the sense he’s a wonderful writing teacher. His reading and talking about Tinkers only made me love the book more, and helped crystalize some of the things I’d struggled to say when Gibson’s book group discussed it. For example, I love that there are multiple points of view that are not always clearly delineated, and he explained a little bit about how and why he wrote the book that way.  If you haven’t read Tinkers, do.

Anyway, Proust. Much of what I’d heard about him — that his sentences are very long, that he is deeply informed by his own studious reading (in Days of Reading he mentions Ruskin, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Moliere, Schopenhauer), that he is erudite almost to the point of being intimidating to the ordinary reader — is true. Yet despite the fact that you can tell Proust was on another plane of intelligence (and I daresay, I had this same feeling listening to both Jonathan Franzen and Paul Harding speak, and reading Howard Mansfield’s Turn & Jump, which I’ll get to in a moment), he doesn’t talk down to readers. You kind of feel that if you could sit down with Proust and have a drink or a meet him for tea and pastries, he’d blow you away but he’d share everything he knows, willingly, because he believes intensely in the importance of ideas, the value of aesthetics, the contribution of art to humanity.

I found myself identifying with his observations about things like the remembrance of childhood days immersed in a good book, and the difference between a reader who is a “literary man,” amassing books read without assimilating them, and the “thinkers” who synthesize new reading differently, so that it is “reduced to its element of reality, to the portion of life it contains.”  So I was really channeling Proust when I came up with the Bookconscious Theory of the  Interconnectedness of Reading: that what we read is valuable not by itself, but in relation to everything we’ve read before and will read.

Often when I hear people discussing what they’ve been reading, they say that a book “did nothing” for them, or that it wasn’t enjoyable because they didn’t see what point the author was making. Proust writes, in a passage too lengthy to quote here, that authors don’t give readers “conclusions,” they give us “incitements.” He believes:

“For as long as reading is for us the instigator whose magic keys have opened the door to those dwelling   places deep within us that we would not have known how to enter, its role in our lives is salutary. It becomes dangerous on the other hand, when, instead of awakening us to the personal life of the mind, reading tends to take its place, when the truth no longer appears to us as an ideal, which we can realize only by the intimate progress of our own thought and the efforts of our own heart, but as something material, deposited between the leaves of books . . . .”

So a book isn’t supposed to do something for you, and it’s not up to the author alone to make a point. Examining our own “personal life of the mind,” synthesizing what we’re reading with our experiences, our conscious and unconscious remembrance of other books, our values and ideas, are what makes reading a discovery, an incitement to seek truth, to understand ourselves, our world.  Proust’s ideas caused me to reflect on what Paul Harding said about Tinkers — he’s not writing to tell people what to believe. Franzen gently asked someone who asked a question at his reading in Concord to read Freedom and decide — great authors don’t feed us fast food; they give us the ingredients to prepare our own feast.

In an interview, Harding says when he writes he strips away “the material clutter of current life, just so things quiet down a bit and I can hear the sound of a mind in counsel with itself.”  He talked about the lyric quality of his writing too, and said that whether he has drumsticks or a pen in his hand, he’s letting what’s coming through him flow into music or writing.  I hope when I am at my best, I am allowing my mind to be in counsel with itself. Ideally, whatever we take in, be it reading or conversation or silence or nature or art can be what Heaney describes in the last lines of “Postscript” —  “a hurry through which known and strange things pass/As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”

When I saw a New York Times feature on Leonard Koren recently, I was curious about his ideas on aesthetics, so I requested Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets, & Philosophers on inter-library loan.  It’s a fascinating little book that was perfect to read as I was mulling the idea of known and strange things passing, catching us off guard, and blowing open our hearts.  In the first sentence, Koren lays out his thesis: “Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”

For someone relentlessly critical of herself and always pursuing paths to improvement, that’s a comfort. Once you think about wabi-sabi, you see if everywhere — in art, design, music, food, even just the way some people live. My life is probably a little too busy right now, but I see wabi-sabi in the way it’s an organic family journey, changing and imperfect but beautiful. Koren says later in the book that to achieve a wabi-sabi aesthetic in art and life, one should, “pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry.”  Simple but incredibly difficult, and a quality of much of my favorite literature.

I would say that Howard Mansfield is one author who achieves that balance perfectly. He’s coming to Gibson’s to talk about Turn & Jump: How Time and Place Fell Apart. Mansfield’s writing is lyrical and figurative, but clear and simple. On describing the town of Turners Falls, MA, where British colonists massacred Native Americans in 1676, and where the falls where salmon once spawned were dammed, Mansfield writes, “Turners Falls  is divorced from deep time, from the true history of the land. For thousands of years this place kept time by the salmon leaping the falls and the Indians fathering to fish.” He tells readers he realizes why he was uncomfortable there: “What I had felt on my first visit was the pain of divorce.”

This synthesis of history, sociology, and personal reflection makes Turn & Jump both contemplative (like wabi, which Koren tells us “refers to the inward, the subjective”) and informative (like sabi, which “refers to the outward, the objective”).  Ranging from vaudeville (where the title comes from) to outlet damn on a small lake in New Hampshire to a family store in a small town, covering everything from the standardization of time to suit railroad schedules to the nonlinear view of time held by native peoples, Mansfield guides readers along routes of inquiry well researched but never dry. Mansfield is a great writer, and a great thinker. Read his book and you’ll feel as if you’re talking with your smartest friend.

Another terrific book I read ahead of an event at Gibson’s is The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by Dr. David A. Kessler, former FDA commissioner. This is an important book, looking at teh root cause — overeating — of one of the worst threats to public health in America — obesity. Kessler is cerebral and meticulous, but explains the science behind the food industry’s manipulation of our appetites so clearly that even this English major got it. In person he is terrific — he spoke to a standing room crowd at Gibson’s this week, without notes, and really helped us see what we’re up against. I highly recommend this eye-opening, thoughtful book.

Another thoughtful, thought provoking book I read this month that literally kept me up at night as I read it was Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof.  This is a powerful, disturbing read. Some of the stories of women and girls who are victims of trafficking and violence will shake you to the core. Some of the disturbing information you may already know  — women in many places perpetuate oppression against girls and other women, for example; and some well-intended but poorly planned/executed aid programs fail when local people aren’t involved.  But Kristof and WuDunn also share stories of what’s working, and what’s getting better, and even though I was aware of some of the problems they write about in the book, I have a more thorough understanding of how educating and empowering women works to lift communities out of poverty.

Last aside, I promise: I’m hosting a brown bag discussion of Half the Sky for the Women’s Fund of NH at Gibson’s on Oct. 21 at noon, as part of the Concord Literary Festival. The Women’s Fund will host discussions of the book at a number of locations around New Hampshire all month, and you can see the schedule here.

Half the Sky made me grateful for many things, especially that my daughter is growing up in a country where women enjoy a relatively high level of equality and safety, and that she and her brother are getting well rounded educations. Which brings me to what the rest of the family read this month.

The Preteen first — in her final appearance as Preteen. She continues to really enjoy the Hooksett Public Library, so let me just give all the staff there a shout out, especially Library Director Heather Shumway. Heather is a champion of indie bookstores like Gibson’s, and she’s doing a great job with the library as well, in a small town in a state where libraries are funded town by town. The Preteen loves the YA room there, and the great selection of Manga titles. I enjoy the prompt inter-library loan, and the helpful staff (like Mat, who worked with me over the phone to troubleshoot the Mango language learning system, which the kids couldn’t log into last week) who are very customer service oriented and just plain nice.

The Preteen has been checking Manga out in large stacks since early last summer when we got a card at Hooksett (we have a card in our own town, and I love our library, too, but it’s not as teen-friendly, and we wanted access to Mango). She hasn’t checked out any duplicates, and we go every other week. In September she read more installments of Naruto, which she points out is about a boy who has a nine-tailed fox spirit sealed inside him as a baby — I apparently gave a somewhat different account here at bookconscious last month.

She also continued reading Fullmetal Alchemist, and yes, they’re still about alchemists, doing alchemy. She read a new series called The Dreaming, which is about twins having the same creepy dreams/nightmares, and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which is about a “dude named Sora” who is friends with Disney characters, such as Goofy and Daffy Duck. Sora and his cartoon friends are on an adventure, trying to find his friends. They keep going inside their memories, which complicates things. I’m somewhat disturbed that she’s reading something with marketing materials inserted into the story in the form of licensed characters, but she is very aware of the Disneyfication of our culture. One of my first bookconscious musings was on princesses, and the Preteen’s thoughts on the matter were astute even then.

On the nonfiction front, she’s reading Chew On This. She hasn’t had much to say about it so far, but one evening we were discussing the importance of understanding world religions (The Computer Scientist & I both heard a great piece on this topic on Here and Now last week), and in the course of discussing dietary rules and religion, the Preteen mentioned an anecdote from Chew On This about McDonald’s offending vegetarians by not disclosing the beef fat they used in preparing their fries. She has a stack of other food culture/history books in her reading nook.

I got the family a copy of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.  It’s a small, straightforward book synthesizing Pollan’s more in depth food writing into 64 rules to eat by. I read a bit of it aloud and got smiles from both kids. What’s not to like about a book that says you shouldn’t eat food a third grader can’t pronounce?  It’s a palatable way to read some hard truths about our food industry.

The Teenager is, like many seniors, highly busy. He is in the midst of soccer season, college applications, and now, Drivers’ Ed. He’s not had the time or inclination to take Drivers’ Ed. before, but finally decided it was time to get it over with. He was pleasantly surprised by the first couple of classes.

But like many teens, he is reading mostly for his educational pursuits, even though in the bookconscious household those meld with our life. His pleasure reading is mainly Sports Illustrated and the New York Times sports section, the BBC, New York Times, and Guardian sites online, and numerous soccer blogs and news sites.  At least he is fairly well informed.

The Teenager is often seen around the house buried in books on the Maya and other early Mexican civilizations or the massive Handbook of Bird Biology from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In September we also read and watched Macbeth; I read an old copy I already owned and the Teenager chose the Royal Shakespeare Company paperback edition.  I checked out a dvd of an RSC performance, starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellan. It was a powerful performance.  We also checked out a terrific little book from Ohstrom Library this week, which I hope he’ll enjoy, called Shakespeare Is Hard, But So Is Life, by Fintan O’Toole. I started it last night and it is very interesting.

The Preteen and the Computer Scientist joined us to watch Macbeth.  We were all struck by how much of the language was familiar — even for the Preteen, who hadn’t read the play. The Teenager read Bill Bryson’s Shakespare: The World As Stage and he was very interested in the way Shakespeare added so much to the English language and in the scant historical record.  Plus, both the Teen and the Preteen are convinced anything Bill Bryson says is brilliant.

The Computer Scientist read a couple of war narratives in September: Shannon Meehan’s Beyond Duty: Life On the Frontline In Iraq and Sebastian Junger’s War.  Some of you know The Computer Scientist is also a former jarhead (Marine), and he served in what the kids affectionately call the Old Guy Gulf War. He enjoyed Meehan’s account, calling it a  “wrenching narrative of a junior officer’s maturity through fire. Meehan’s tale is a sad one, told in an extremely authentic voice.”  He says it was a good account of  “the complicated and horrific nature of combat.”

War made even more of an impression; the Computer Scientist rarely gives 5 stars to a book on Goodreads, but War earned that rating. He says, “This is the best combative narrative I’ve read since Dispatches. Junger perfectly captures the essence of men in combat and went well beyond the call in getting the story.”  If you’re looking for an excellent book on contemporary warfare, The Computer Scientist/Jarhead recommends this one.

What’s on our to-read piles?  The Preteen has a new stack of Manga and also the sequel to Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It (dsytopian YA fiction), The Dead and the Gone. She also has her food book stash and Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss — a brilliant book, which I highly recommend. The kids have the picture book edition, but someone recently gave us the original and it’s the most fun you’ll ever have reading about punctuation.

The Computer Scientist has started Shamus Rahman Khan’s Privilege, and plans to read The End of Overeating. I’ve started At Home, by Bill Bryson, which I’m enjoying (even though mostly I keep thinking about how I begged to have an event for him at Gibson’s and didn’t get one — occupational hazard). I also started Clare Harman’s history of Jane Austen, Jane’s Fame, and Hans Keilson’s Death of the Adversary.   I’m also picking up another book by Leonard Koren today at the library: The Flower Shop, which is touted as “an intimate look at the people and ideas that make the most beautiful flower shop in the world,” on Koren’s website.

Too many books?  No, just not enough time. Which brings me to More Make It Fast, Cook It Slow, by Stephanie O’Dea. The advance copy of this book made my life much easier in September. The Computer Scientist is pretty skeptical of new slow cooker recipes — but we’ve tried several from this book and all but one was great.  That one probably suffered more from my over-enthusiastic use of garlic than anything else. O’Dea organizes the book by cost per meal — a nice feature for people planning to send their firstborn off to college soon. And the recipes call for very few items that contain things a third grader can’t pronounce; mostly just real food, cooked slowly. Look for this book when it hits stores this winter.

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