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Posts Tagged ‘Manga’

It’s been a busy month in the bookconscious household, preparing the Teenager to make big decisions about college admissions and to complete the process, and helping him and his sister to chart their courses for a new year of life learning. Despite earlier efforts to separate the idea of a school year from their educations, and my reminders that brains don’t stop learning during the summer, we’ve been swept into the cultural mainstream with regards to planning, and they start afresh in the fall.

I always enjoyed this time of year as a child, and not only because I liked fall’s cool breezes and colors, new clothes, and holidays.  Perhaps because  I was chronically sensitive to the way teachers and peers perceived me (I was both an overachiever and a social misfit) fall gave me hope that I could start fresh.  Most of all I was happy to have new books, new classes, new projects — I loved learning.  I loved getting lost in new ideas, daydreaming about historical time periods and achievements or the things I might someday do myself.

As I planned and prepared with the Teenager and the Preteen (this is the last month I can write of her in that way!) much of my reading centered on books with themes of seeking, dreaming, and reconciling hopefulness with practicality.  I haven’t let my inner seeker and dreamer get out much this year, as I’ve turned my back on many creative pursuits and “free time.”  In August, my seeker and dreamer told me to get a life, and got on with her own. As I look at the books I read these last few weeks, I can see her banging her small fists against my “to do list.”

At the end of my last post, I was finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I’ve heard some criticism that this book was just another contrived year-long project (Alexander bakes a loaf a bread a week in a year-long quest to recreate the perfect loaf he once enjoyed) designed to entice a publisher into a contract. I don’t really care if that’s how it was conceived or not; 52 Loaves was a delight.

I love books that reveal the interconnectedness of ideas, and Alexander masterfully ties science, culinary art, agriculture, history, sociology, and even spirituality into his story. In a style that reminded me of A.J. Jacobs, Alexander tries a series of projects aimed at getting to the essence of good bread – growing wheat, building a brick oven, harvesting his own wild yeast. And in the end, he generously shares recipes.

Alexander is also funny, and like many of my favorite writers, he doesn’t hesitate to direct some of the laughs at himself. Like Bill Bryson, Alexander manages to be humorous but also uber-informative, covering a wide range of subjects as he tries to understand the science required to master bread baking. What surprised me, and what I felt was the best part of the book, was the spiritual turn his quest took, as he stayed in a French monastery teaching some of the monks what he’d learned. 

52 Loaves isn’t just about flour and  yeast, ovens and mills, it’s a story of a man figuring out what’s essential. Alexander perfectly captures that combination of  practical knowledge and hopeful seeking that to my mind makes creative nonfiction creative. He also reawakened my own curiosity about a quiet retreat in a cloistered community, something I one day hope to try.

Something else I enjoyed vicariously through 52 Loaves was travel. Alexander went to France and also Morocco and Canada in the course of his year long exploration of bread. Another book that took me places in August was Dreaming In Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich.  Rich writes about her efforts to learn Hindi in India, a place that has long fascinated me. We were fortunate to hear her at the final Tory Hill Readers Series reading of the summer.

Dreaming In Hindi is an ambitious book, and Rich veers from memoir to cultural observation to neuroscience and linguistics as she researches language acquisition and also tells of her own experiences. In some ways the book was a bit too ambitious — I had trouble tracking what happened when, as the sections dealing with her research are not necessarily part of the same chronology as her trip to India. What is clear, and very appealing, is her portrayal of the struggle to master a new language, to understand and be understood, culturally as well as linguistically.

I thought Rich was very honest about the culture shock and discomfort that comes with immersion language learning in another country, and that was interesting as we consider the Teenager’s potential plans to spend a year in Germany. And I found many of her observations fascinating, especially regarding the ways language and culture are deeply interrelated — she writes that the way we think of things has much to do with the language we are equipped with.

For example, she points out that ownership isn’t something that is easy to describe in Hindi — words describing the proximity of an object to a person indicates who has it, instead. And in Mandarin, tenses are not the same as in English, making it hard for a native English speaker to say when something happened. I can see how these differences go way beyond mere words to a shift in perspective.

I’ve learned that people can get really hung up on wanting to believe that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. In some basic ways that may be true, but cultural differences exist and are important; they also make literature richer.  In Gibson’s Book Club a few months back, my suggestion that Per Petterson‘s characters’ emotional reserve seemed culturally accurate sounded like a stereotype to some discussion participants.

But I maintain that the way people who share a language and a cultural outlook express themselves is somewhat collective (albeit with endless personal variations), and literature is a way into understanding societal tendencies or traditions. Expecting everyone who is Norwegian to be reserved would be stereotyping; looking for patterns in the literature of a great Norwegian author to understand Norwegian sensibilities is not.

Another example of how language  informs and is informed by the culture it is part of is poetry.  I recently fell out of my habit of regularly reading poetry as well as fiction and nonfiction, but in August I read The Shadow of Sirius, by W.S. Merwin.  Merwin, like Donald Hall and other poets of his generation, has gone through many changes in form and style in his long career. The Shadow of Sirius, a fairly recent collection, is less formal than his earlier work, but no less masterful. I had read a few individual poems of Merwin’s, but had never sat down with an entire collection, and I am glad I did.

I especially enjoyed “Nocturne II,” which describes our tiny place in the universe through the narrator’s awareness of the Perseids falling even though he is lying in the dark and it’s raining; and “Grace Note,” which seems to me to be a poem about mindfulness as the narrator listens for a “feathered breath,” a sound that “I seem to have heard before I/was listening but by the time/I hear it now it is gone.”

Another poem that seems to be about seeking meaning, “Lake Shore In Half Light,” finds the narrator reflecting on an elusive but familiar question,  letting both questions and answers come in mindfulness rather than hunting them down.   “Into October” considers “the dry stems and the umbers of October/the secret season that appears on its own/a recognition without sound.” Isn’t that lovely, and isn’t that what humans often yearn for? “A recognition without sound . . . .”

So, resolved, more poetry. Now, before I venture into the list of excellent novels I read in August, two more nonfiction reads: Robert Darnton‘s  The Case for Books, and Todd Farley‘s Making the Grades: My Misadventures In the Standardized Testing Industry. Darnton came to the store in August, and I highly recommend hearing him in person; he is not just erudite and interesting, but a very warm, spontaneous speaker.

As a book historian and the head of Harvard’s library system, Darnton has both the long view of books and a contemporary view of the rush to digitize vast amounts of literature.  He’s both a champion of open access to academic research and a believer in the book as the perfect technology for conveying the written word.  He also maintains a healthy skepticism about placing our literary heritage in the hands of a large corporation (Google) for digital preservation. The Case for Books gathers some of his previously published work on these topics; I did find that some of the pieces seemed to repeat ideas, in an attempt to catch up any readers who haven’t followed the story of Google Books. But overall, a very compelling read from a great thinker.

I spent loads of time just thinking as a child of the pre-digital age (we watched television, but I didn’t sit in front of the TV as much as some kids, as I later learned when I had no idea what my peers were talking about as they discussed old shows).  I always managed to get good grades despite so much time left to “daydream.” I also was fortunate to have both ample time to read for pleasure and parents who modeled that habit and took me to the library as often as I wanted.  But I wasn’t a stellar standardized tester.

The Teenager is generally put off by such tests for the same reason I always was: we see many ways of answering a question, all of them partially right in their own way. For some time I’d had Todd Farley’s memoir, Making the Grades, in my to-read pile. As the Teenager registered for the ACT, not for admissions purposes, but to jump through the NCAA’s hoops, I pulled it out.

Farley’s account is eye opening and should be embarrassing to both the testing industry and the education industry. Because that’s what they are — big businesses, trying to process kids through the system in a standardized way. The stories  Farley relates of testing employees coming up with ingenious work-arounds to make test scores come out the way their employers and clients expected them to is sickening.  He himself is disgusted, but he returns several times because he makes a lot of money doing relatively easy work, until finally he decides to quit and write.

Making the Grades is a little rough around the edges; it’s a memoir, but Farley doesn’t do much self-examination other than to tell us he’s fed up and aware of the ludicrous nature of his work a few times. And some parts of the book are a little repetitive. That said, the effect is to dull the senses a bit the way taking a several hours long standardized test does. And overall, I think it’s an interesting and important read.

Making the Grades solidified my belief that just as industrial agriculture and giant banks and huge electricity grids and giant bureaucracies are all vulnerable to massive failure, so is industrial education. Homespun tales of small community schools that worked well, when kids of different ages learned together, teachers knew and helped students individually, and communities were closely invested in the success of the town school may not be perfectly accurate in their rosiness (I am thinking of the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books as well as the British example of Miss Read, and also Jimmy Carter’s memoirs of his boyhood in the Plains, GA schools), but they certainly point to some things that worked well.  And certainly one of the things not working well in today’s giant government industrial education complex is standardized testing.

I am realizing as I write that some of the fiction I read this month includes characters for whom the standardized approach to education doesn’t work. First, I read Jenna Blum’s The Stormchasers, which I have on good authority (from a customer living with bipolar disorder) is one of the most compassionate, well written accounts of a bipolar person in fiction. Charles, the bipolar character, is definitely not well served by school, where he does poorly despite his brilliant scientific mind and his uncanny ability to track storms.  I enjoyed the novel, and Jenna talked a great deal at her reading about her writing process, which was really interesting. Her website is one of the best author sites I’ve seen, and you can learn more about her there.

The Stormchasers is about relationships, and the way families need each other, even as its members act in ways that are selfish or damaging.  Jenna’s characters aren’t perfect, and the twins who are at the center of the book harbor more than just the usual childhood hurts; they also share a terrible secret that is eventually resolved in the novel.  Yet the book ends on a hopeful but realistic note — you suspect that while everyone’s relatively happy right now, they’ll probably screw up again soon. But somehow, they’ll stick with each other.

The same themes of guilt, love, and redemption came up in some of the other fiction I read as well. Anita Diamant‘s Day After Night is the story of women friends in a British internment camp in Palestine after WWII — each of them has her own form of survivors’ guilt, each has lived through a different but awful wartime experience, but their friendships help them begin to heal.  I loved that even the minor characters, camp guards and clinic staff, some of the men in the camp — are multidimensional people, and I did not know about the internment camps where Jewish survivors of the war ended up because the British didn’t know how to handle their immigration to Palestine.

Another historical novel I read also dealt with how survivors handle the trauma of war, in this case by forgetting. The Gendarme is a new novel by Mark T. Mustain, an attorney turned author. I enjoyed the structure of the book, which moves back and forth between the main character’s dreams and the present. Emmit/Ahmet is an old man, and he lost his memory when he was injured during WWI.  He begins to dream after he’s diagnosed with a tumor, and eventually he realizes the dreams are his returning memories.

Mustain covers a lot of ground in this book — not least of which is the vivid depiction of the Armenian genocide that make some of the book hard to read. He handles this deftly, though, offering enough detail to enable readers to understand the trauma but also giving a full picture of the complexity of the situation, with some Armenians selling out their fellows and some Turks protecting their prisoners.  There are also several examples of misunderstandings between the characters about race, culture, and religion, which would make for interesting book club discussions.

The Gendarme is also an examination of love — agape, eros, philio, and storge — as a redemptive force, as a check on our baser instincts as humans, and as a corruption of itself. The passages that take place in the mental institution where Emmit’s daughter places him are fascinating.  With the friendship of a fellow patient, a widow who comes to visit him, and his longtime buddy and fellow war veteran to buoy him, Emmit deals with his memories, learns how to survive his commitment, and formulates a plan to find out what happened to his wartime love (and victim) Araxie.

I was fascinated to read Mustain’s author’s note and learn that he did not travel to the places he writes about in the book until he had completed several drafts.  He also talks about his own ancestry, and his lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide (which led to reading, which led to this book). And one last personal note: the book takes place in a small town in southern Georgia, and for me, that was very interesting, since the bookconscious household lived in the same area for five years.

The Gendarme dealt with death and loss, and the way people’s memories take on added importance during the final portion of their lives. Tinkers, Paul Harding’s Pulitzer award winning novel, masterfully covers the melding of memory and presence at the end of a man’s life. Paul Harding is coming to Gibson’s on Sept. 16, and our book club is discussing the book that week as well.

Tinkers imagines the final thoughts of a dying man named George in the last days of his life. His family has gathered in his home, where he is lying in a hospital bed in the living room. With meticulous, sensuous detail and prose that is cinematic (you see the whole scene and the closely focused details at once) and poetic (not just full of memorable imagery but also rhythmic, flowing, measured), Harding paints the interior life of the dying man, exploring the way his life flashes past, not as a continuous filmstrip might, but in fits and starts, memories of his own life and scenes from his father’s, moments of lucidity in the present where he interacts briefly with his assembled loved ones, glimpses of generational links that the readers senses will continue to be passed on.

I’m not always impressed with prize winning books — sometimes I wonder what the heck the judges were thinking. And I was especially cautious given the heartwarming back story behind Harding’s rise from near obscurity to fame and critical acclaim . That sequence of events is so delightful that I was afraid it would color my reading of Tinkers. But the book is really that good. And really that unique — I’ve truly never read anything like it.  I look forward to hearing Paul Harding at the store.

I read another novel with a death a great deal more sudden and a plot a great deal more rollicking: the second Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  This is an old fashioned “body book” as my good friend YeVette would say. I wrote about Flavia’s first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in bookconscious last year. Delightfully detailed, quirky and smart, these mysteries are period pieces set in 1950’s England and Flavia is a bright eleven year old heroine who loves chemistry (the better for studying poisons) and is also a clever amateur detective. High end palate cleansing mind candy (I mean that as a compliment), well written and entertaining.

So, I’ve covered death and dreams, what about Freedom?  Yes, that Freedom, the one that landed Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time, on President Obama’s nightstand, and on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, among other places.  Although I enjoyed The Corrections, this is another book I opened with trepidation. I wanted to like it very much (as I did his book of essays, How To Be Alone, which I wrote about here last month). But the hype put me off.  And the constant worry over having a great event this week — we are one of the stops on the Freedom tour, which even now, I can hardly believe.

But I am happy to say I forgot the hype and worry and just enjoyed this very good book. A story of our times as well as our culture; a novel of depth and complexity; a tale of the impact freedom (to pursue love, happiness, fulfillment, success, greed, friendship, filial duty, marital tranquility, good causes) on the human psyche — all true. You can read the reviews.

My own take? How beautiful that in the end, despite the mess they’ve made of their lives, Walter and Patty, the central characters in Freedom, are getting it together, making a life as best they can, having reconciled more or less with each other, their children, their other family members, their friend Richard, nearly everyone they’ve hurt or failed. It’s a hopeful ending, one that has quietly resonated with me for the many days since I closed the book for the last time. And a perfect reconciliation of hope and reality — nothing is perfect, and in fact many things are permanently scarred, but all is well.

It’s a good message — that it’s within us to choose a good life, that we’re free to love well, to solve our problems, to reconcile past hurts, to be on good terms as parents and children even if we’ve driven each other crazy — in an unnerving time at the bookconscious house.  The Teenager and the Computer Scientist hit the road this evening on their way to the Teenager’s first college admissions interview.  Despite our best efforts to keep this process low-stress and no pressure, it’s become neither. I tell him (and myself) that it’s like moving. It will suck until it’s over, and then it will be good.

To unwind in August, the Teenager continued reading “The Human Story.”  He enjoys history and says this book is interesting, and offers a different voice than other history books he has read. He recommends it as fun to read in one’s spare time.  I cheered silently that he realizes, in the midst of his own busy life, that he needs spare time. Of course he also reads copious amounts of soccer news, which keeps him informed as he watches all the matches he can and blogs over at The Beautiful Game.

The Computer Scientist also keeps up with soccer news, and he read One Mountain Thousand Summits, by Freddie Wilkinson,  this month. He’s read a lot of climbing narratives, and he says One Mountain is “The best book of its kind that I’ve read. Freddie did a great job researching and challenging the reader with different perspectives. I like that he looked at it from the Sherpa perspective instead of sticking strictly to the outsiders’ perspectives. I also enjoyed that his structure did not follow the traditional (and tired) narrative ‘this then this then this’ style. If you’re interested in high-altitude climbing books, read this one for sure.”

He and the Preteen also continue to read manga. He read some Anima this month and says he can see the Preteen’s personality in the story. The Preteen read more Fruits Basket (there are twenty-some installments and she is nearly done). She also read Naruto, which she says is about a kid who is training to be a ninja, and who has a nine tailed fox spirit enter him during an attack in his village. OK, then. And Fullmetal Alchemist, which the Computer Scientist has also read, and which the Preteen just told me is about “Alchemists, mom. They’re doing alchemy.” (insert sigh here)

Ahem. Anyway, in addition to all the manga, she also read The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama, which she says is a Japanese novel about aliens. When I asked her to elaborate, she went on to tell me that the title character is a girl who turns out to be the god/creator of the world, and she is involved with a club that finds things that are out of the ordinary, whose members turn out to be aliens. She said the book’s dialog is too long in some parts, which made it hard to follow and less enjoyable.

So, in a way, everybody read something about freedom, death, and dreams — which along with love, are arguably the most common themes in human storytelling.  Up next?  The Preteen is reading some nonfiction books about food, and has more Manga and a stack of novels to pick from. I’ve seen an Iraq war memoir on the Computer Scientist’s nightstand. The Teenager is reading about Shakespeare, among other things.  And I am about halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone, and have too many things to list in my “to read” piles.

But tonight, in the midst of the hurrying back from a soccer game to get the men on the road for the Teenager’s interview tomorrow, preparations for a very busy week for both kids and for the Computer Scientist and me, chores on my to do list, etc., I took a few moments to sit on the screened porch, cat in my lap, watching the gloaming, trying to be mindful, letting my inner seeker have her moment of really free time.  It was peaceful. I’ll try to do it more.

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Regular bookconscious readers know that the Teenager is a serious soccer player — last year at this time we were preparing for his trip to Germany to play with SQ Quelle Furt.  This summer’s soccer has been mostly in the U.S. (plus one game in Canada), but in a few New England states. Instead of a vacation or even a staycation, we had a couple of “playcations” — we drove around to wherever his Super Y team, the Seacoast Wanderers, were playing.

One week in July, the Computer Scientist determined we put 1084 miles on the car.  Really. That week started with a day at home. I rarely have a day at home with unplanned hours; I read two books and finished a third. Really!

The Preteen had been recommending books by Wendy Mass, and she left Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life on my “to read” pile. Ok, technically, there are three piles, plus a few assorted “to read” shelves, but I digress. The point is, my daughter recommended I read Jeremy Fink and I did, and I loved it!  I see now what the Preteen means when she admired the interesting story and “cool, unique characters.”  I found myself exploring Mass’s website and am using her outlining technique to try start a new writing project.

Among the things I admired about Jeremy Fink were the equally strong male and female characters, the plot that was unusual but seemed to be just exactly what should happen to these characters and how they should respond, and the combination of serious (even somewhat philosophical) ideas with very funny writing.  I can certainly understand why my daughter liked it. I did try to draw her into a conversation about the meaning of life, and I can see revisiting that conversation again. As you can imagine, at 12 3/4, she isn’t always open to a deep conversation with her mother.

The other two books from my playcation stay-at-home day were Kinship Theory by Hester Kaplan and In the Age of Love by Michael Stein, and I read them because the Computer Scientist and I have been attending the Tory Hill Readers Series, where both Kaplan and Stein were slated to read on 7/24. I chose these books because the library had them on the shelf when I went looking.

This experiment proved to me that going to hear authors in person is key to understanding their work. I had a hard time getting into Kinship Theory, which is a book about a woman who seems too clueless to be real. She is on the verge of wrecking her relationships with her best friend and her grown daughter, is divorced, is mean for no good reason to a widower she goes on a date with,  seems to be losing her grip on her excellent job, and has a tenuous relationship with her mother. And  — here is the part that was just too “eeew” for me — she is  a surrogate mother, carrying her daughter’s child.

Not only is the main character’s story riddled with life-altering disasters, but other characters in the book also act out in improbably destructive ways. But, when I heard Kaplan read from a forthcoming book, The Tell,  in Warner, I was able to hear aloud how beautiful her writing is, and during the question and answer session, she said something that made Kinship Theory click into place: her writing tends to explore the ways people think they know each other, but really don’t have a clue.  The book made more sense in light of this. Kaplan also revealed that the idea for the surrogacy plot came from a news article she read.

Stein’s In the Age of Love is a lovely, one sitting read. Had I only read that book, and not heard him read from his powerful nonfiction book, The Addict, I might have felt that his writing was just pleasant, with a hint of social consciousness (the protagonists in In the Age of Love are both educators dedicated to working with children in difficult situations).  Hearing him read from The Addict I realized another dimension of Stein’s work — close observation finely wrought in tough, smart prose that kept the audience leaning forward in their seats.

During Stein’s Q&A, the Computer Scientist, who has a screenplay partially written himself, asked a very good question: how is it that a person can be a doctor, a parent, a teacher and researcher at Brown, and a writer who’s been nominated for the Pulitzer and won other prizes?  Stein replied that he writes daily, but only for thirty minutes. This has stayed with me, echoing in my head every single day since. I mentioned this to a friend and she challenged me earlier this week to keep each other on track writing 30 minutes a day all month.  So far, so good.

Did I mention that Tory Hill also features live jazz after the readings, and fantastic desserts? Look up the reading series at your local indie bookstore or library and go hear authors!   I plan to continue working my way through Stein’s and Kaplan’s books. I also read Five Thousand Days Like This One by Jane Brox, who is reading with David Elliott this coming weekend. I’m now reading her new book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.

Brox has a distinctive prose style — packed with detail, backed with dense information, supported by research she seems to relish, but also very beautiful, with a clear, lyrical quality that is very pleasing to read. I enjoy the way her thoughts and observations lead into each other often from the personal to the sociological and historical and back; for example, writing about her family’s history in Five Thousand Days Like This One leads her to write about immigration, which leads to the history of mills and farms in her native Merrimack Valley and also into specific details like the meaning of food in her own family and the history of apple farming in her parents’ lifetime.

Brilliant is less ruminative, since Brox’s personal observations aren’t part of the prose (so far – I’m about 2/3 through), but it is fascinating, and Brox still explores her subjects broadly and deeply. I didn’t suspect before I began this book that kerosene would be a compelling topic, but I also had no idea where it comes from, how long it’s been in use, and why it works well for lamps. Even familiar history, like Ben Franklin’s experimentation with electricity, are fresh in Brox’s hands, and she brings a very thought provoking view of the socioeconomic history of light to readers as well. I never really considered before how different lighting has been through history for the haves and the have nots.

I look forward to hearing Brox, and David Elliott, who is one of my very favorite authors for young people. His books are funny for kids and for the adults who read to them, but funny with a backbone; you get a sense that kids who read these books might come away feeling they’ve met a kindred spirit, someone who gets what a challenge it is to grow up but trusts they’ll become their best selves. Whether you have a kid or not, try his books — your inner little kid will thank you.

I also finished three other novels during playcation month: Leah Hager Cohen‘s  House Lights, Farahad Zama‘s The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, and a book from Europa editions, The Companion, by Lorcan Roche. Cohen read during the Tory Hill series’ opening night, and I’d never read any of her books. House Lights is a coming of age novel about a young woman who wants to be an actress, and the way she discovers her budding talent during the same summer she begins to untangle the drama in her own family. It was a good read, and I’m curious to read some of Cohen’s nonfiction as well.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is a delight. Longtime bookconscious readers know that one of my highest forms of praise is to compare an author to Jane Austen. Zama’s book comes closer to Miss Austen in spirit as well as plot than anything I’ve read lately.  Mr. Ali, the main character who opens a marriage bureau, and Aruna, a young woman who comes to work for him, are two of the most delightful main characters I’ve met in a while. I gave the book four stars on Goodreads because it transported me to another place, it was a page turning read, and it was just plain fun.

The only thing that kept me from giving this charming novel five stars were some distracting asides which Zama interjects in order to help Western readers understand India culture and Hindu and Muslim practices and traditions.  I loved his descriptions of wedding ceremonies, of food (oh, the food!), even of the unbearable summer heat. Mrs. Ali sprays the cool stone floors of her home with water on a scorching day — I was wishing we had cool stone floors here in New Hampshire during the recent heat wave! But sometimes the vivid descriptions lapsed into “telling” instead of “showing,” and once or twice that was tedious.

But, I am going to recommend this book to the Preteen and any other young people who might like a charming novel of manners set in another country; it’s a book I would share with anyone of any age.  Zama makes very astute observations about human nature through the people who come to the marriage bureau, and he exposes some of the problems but also some of the joys of traditional arranged marriages. If you liked Baking Cakes in Kigali, or Alexander McCall Smith’s books set in Botswana, you’ll enjoy The Marriage Bureau for Rich People.

The third novel I read in July was The Companion, by Lorcan Roche. Not one I would recommend to any teen or preteen, nor would it pass the “Grandmother” test (would I suggest it to my grandmother?). It’s graphic and even perverse in places. But I didn’t want to set it aside, even when it made me squirm; this was one of the most tautly drawn stories I’ve read in awhile.

Roche carries readers down two paths at once: the story of Trevor, the main character, caring kindly and well  for a young muscular dystrophy patient, Ed, in New York City; and the story of Trevor’s  and Ed’s families. Just when readers think they know the truth about each story line, Roche introduces a series of strange and hard to sort out remembrances of Trevor’s life in Ireland, and by the end of the novel, it’s hard to know what the truth was.  It was a deeply unsettling and thought provoking read; I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I admire the skill it took to conceive it and write it.

Several of the other books I read this month were Gibson’s events books. In mid-July, we hosted Linda Greenlaw, and I read her newest fishing yarn, Seaworthy, ahead of her visit. I was looking forward to meeting her not only because of her larger than life tales of life as a sword fishing captain (she’s fearless, daring, smart, and capable, able to withstand the Perfect Storm, boat troubles, sharks, and unruly crew members), but also because of her book about life on the island where she makes her home, The Lobster Chronicles.

Seaworthy gave me the impression that Greenlaw is mellowing — she is still fit and strong and smarter than ever, but  she reveals a softer edge, honed by experience and also by the patience and calm she herself seems surprised to have developed. The book is a memoir about returning to sea to fish after ten years.  It’s interesting, fast paced, and yet also more introspective than I expected.

Greenlaw is a sharp writer, and she also puts on a good show for fans who come out to hear her read. We had a packed house, and she took her time answering questions  (some of which she’s been asked dozens of times — she had been out on tour for a few by the time she came to Gibson’s), telling stories, and signing for a long line.

I also read ahead for two coming events at Gibson’s: a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen, who will be the first writer in our new Writers In the Spotlight series at Capitol Center for the Arts in September; and a history book by Toby Lester, who will be in Concord next week. His reading will be at Red River Theatres, where he’ll be able to do justice to the digital slide show he’s prepared.

I have the advance reader copy of Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, which he’ll be reading from at our event. But I haven’t gotten to it yet, and perhaps because I was feeling somewhat intimidated at the notion of meeting an Important Writer, an Major American Novelist, the author of the National Book Award winning novel The Corrections, I was drawn to my friend Shawn’s suggestion to pick up How to Be Alone and read it first. I’m glad I did.

Franzen comes across not as an inaccessible, ivory tower intellectual, but as a regular guy who is a little freaked out by all the attention he’s had. I feel like I now understand much more about why he writes and why he loves to read. And I got a real kick out of his self-deprecating introduction, in which he admits feeling a little embarrassed at some of the things his younger self said in print about literature.  Who among us doesn’t look back and feel a bit squeamish about the way we might have come across when we were younger and “knew” everything?

How to Be Alone is not a memoir, it’s a collection of essays, some of which are about literary life, and some of which are quite personal. The pieces on his family’s experience of his father’s Alzheimer’s are heart-wrenching. His writing about his own struggles with being a writer, living purposefully, and trying to stay married are tender, but not sentimental.  I laughed at the piece describing the events leading up to his un-invitation from Oprah, and I found the straight creative nonfiction to be very fine journalism. The essays on “super max” prisons, privacy and disappearance in American culture, politics, and the “sex-advice industry” are absorbing and masterful.

Am I still a little intimidated to meet Franzen? Of course. But I feel slightly more prepared. I plan to look for The Discomfort Zone (a “tale of growing up in his own uber-sensitive skin” according to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I grew up in uber-sensitive skin myself), and I am really looking forward to Freedom, which will be at the top of the “to read” for work pile very soon.

I finished Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World last weekend, after an aborted attempt to read it aloud to my kids. I love to read aloud. I do it all the time, reading bits of whatever fascinating thing I’ve found in the New York Times or the Economist at the beach yesterday, for example, or sharing a passage of whatever book I’m reading with whichever sentient being is in the room at the time.

I have to pause here and say a word of thanks to the Concord Monitor, which ran a front page photo of Hampton Beach crammed with people yesterday. The Teenager took one look  and asked me if I had an alternative in mind for our planned beach outing. We went to a quiet beach somewhat north of Hampton, where there were far fewer people even after lunch, and we had a lovely day. No, I’m not telling you where. It won’t be so uncrowded if I tell everyone, will it?

Not too far into Lester’s book, we learned that medieval monks read aloud, too.  My kids had a laugh wondering if I am somehow descended from a read-aloud monk.  I wonder if there is a monastery anywhere today that offers “read aloud retreats” the way many cloistered communities offer silent ones?  If so, I’m there.

This is just a taste of the level of detail in Lester’s writing. I absolutely loved The Fourth Part of the World. It’s everything a good nonfiction book should be: packed with facts told in a compelling narrative that neither leaves anything out nor diverges into unnecessary fluff. The cover says it’s “the epic story of the map that gave America it’s name,” and Lester really leads readers all over the globe and through the mathematical, scientific, cultural, historical, and sociological developments that led to the exploration of the New World and our record of that exploration. I happen to love geography and maps, so that is a contributing factor, but even if you don’t, I promise this book reads like a highly informative adventure tale.  I am very much looking forward to this event — if you’re in the area, don’t miss it!

I’m hoping the Computer Scientist, Teenager, and Preteen will join me at some of these upcoming events. Authors are excellent models of life learning and passionate inquiry into topics of interest, after all, which is our educational philosophy. Meanwhile, they’ve been reading things that interest them; I wish that were the case for all kids (and adults), not just in summer but all the time.

Several times lately I’ve helped customers at Gibson’s locate a “summer reading” book from a list someone else says is good for them. I can tell you that the enthusiasm for such lists isn’t very high, based on my unscientific random sample. I helped a college student last week who is on her way to Roger Williams University and needed the Common Reading selection. She was irritated that the book cost $16 and told me she doesn’t like to read and really doesn’t want to read something “because she has to” over the summer.

Aside from questioning the wisdom of attending a liberal arts college if you hate reading, I felt sad that someone would enter into reading Tracy Kidder’s fantastic Mountains Beyond Mountains — a book I consider one of the best I’ve ever read — with such a negative view of what the experience will be like. Why? Because she feels forced to read something she didn’t choose. A piece in the New York Times science section this week backs up my belief that people benefit most from reading what they themselves select.

So what are the bookconscious kids reading? The Preteen, who just took a week of Manga drawing at Kimball Jenkins Art School and had very good time drawing and being with other kids who like Manga, has been reading two series: Fruits Basket and Gakuen Alice.  She says she likes the strong girl characters and interesting stories in the  Alice books; everyone has a special “Alice” or power. And she thinks Fruits Basket is funny, with a unique story (people are possessed by Zodiac animals and turn into them when hugged).  She’s also been devouring issues of her favorite magazines: Nintendo Power, Muse, and New Moon Girls (in no particular order).

The Teenager said he wanted to read something light and fun this summer. He chose The Human Story: Our History from the Stone Age to Today by James C. Davis.  A good sign that his interest in possibly being a history major reflects what he likes to learn. He also picked up a book at the library: DK Ultimate Spy: Inside the Secret World of Espionage. This brought back many fond memories of he and the Preteen immersing themselves in all things spy. They even enrolled in Spy University, a series of books and activities from Scholastic, and they both pored over the Usborne Spy’s Guidebook.

The Computer Scientist finished Baseball Codes, which he describes as a “technical and detailed book that is a good read for baseball aficionados. I felt on more than one occasion that the detail to prove the Codes was a bit overwhelming and overkill, but the anecdotal style made for a pleasant read.”  He also read Doctor On Everest: Emergency Medicine at the Top of the World, and said while it wasn’t the best written book he’s ever read, “the description of what it’s like to be in a supporting role for some of the largest egos on the planet was great, and his struggle with not summiting himself really put a personal touch to the book. Having read what I can about the 1996 Everest disaster, it was interesting to see it from such a different and fairly objective perspective.”  He also read some Star Wars “mind candy” while staying in the dorms at Dartmouth for the CASE summer institute last week.

Speaking of dorms, the Teenager and I are going on a last college visit trip this weekend, and then we’ll have seen eight schools. He expects to narrow that down to 3-4 to revisit and likely apply to. We’re deep into discussing the kids’ fall educational plans; the Teenager is probably going to study Shakespeare, he’s taking German and studying pre-calculus and thinks Precolumbian history of Latin America is an intriguing possibility. He’s still considering science subjects and senior project ideas, and is looking forward to the high school soccer season.

The Preteen is considering a Japanese class, and wants to study food history/culture/sociology — inspired by Muse. She’s studying pre-algebra and perhaps robotics and both kids will read and write across the disciplines.  They’ll each pursue their favorite forms of art — photography and drawing.

As much as I wish our original goal of learning all the time without thinking in terms of a “school year” had stuck as they got older (both kids consider summer “time off” — although I cannot resist pointing out they are learning whether they want to or not), I have to admit I really like this planning time. It’s so exciting, compiling reading lists and resources and exploring all the possibilities together.

When it’s time to stop making lists, I turn to my own reading, which right now includes finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander, as well as Brilliant, and Dreaming In Hindi by another Tory Hill author, Katherine Russell Rich. I’ve also started The Case for Books by Robert Darnton and will read Day After Night by Anita Diamant — both authors coming to Gibson’s soon. I’m a little sad to see the Playcation summer end, because it brings us one step closer to the Teenager’s next adventures beyond our home.   Hopefully August will bring a few more beach days, a few more stay-at-home days, and some hammock time.

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I have spent a great deal of time and life energy on the Beautiful Game lately.  I’ve mentioned before that we spend a lot of time driving to and sitting beside pitches near (as near as a few blocks away) and far (the farthest we’ve been is Ottawa; yes, the one in Canada) where the Teenager is playing.  Bookconscious readers know that I’m a big advocate for toting a portable “to-read” pile in the car. Soccer enables my reading habit.

A tournament, for example, is a good place to get some reading done. There are all those breaks between games, long enough to return to a nice cool hotel room but not long enough to allow for anything as ambitious as sightseeing. Ditto long car rides to away matches, which are conducive to catching up on magazines and simultaneously sneaking in some reading aloud — a habit I adore and my family mostly endures. “Say, did you know pomegranate rinds are anti-microbial? Listen to this . . . .” Generally there is a good deal of surreptitious ear bud insertion at that point. Sometimes the Computer Scientist listens, but other times I’ll ask, “You don’t really want me to keep reading, do you?” And he’ll say, “That’s right.”  Sighing doesn’t solve this, I’ve found.

Interestingly enough, I am not alone in this tendency. Freelance writer Hillary Nelson explained that she reads choice bits aloud to her family too, in a piece she wrote for the Concord Monitor on the fantastic memoir, Coop, by Michael Perry. Nelson’s family, like mine, didn’t stop me when I read aloud from Coop on one of our soccer road trips. In fact all three of them guffawed at some of Perry’s hilarious and heartfelt memoir.

Then, all three of them (and my brother, who was visiting from Seattle) made it to Perry’s event at Gibson’s, which was a blast. If Perry tours near you, don’t miss him. He does a very entertaining reading, and like a good rock star, he reads oldies for die-hard fans and newbies who want to feel like they were there at the inception, and just enough new work to leave readers wanting to know what happens next. It’s easy to wonder, because even though Perry’s subjects are simple —  home, farm, family, friendship, growing up, finding (and losing and seeking again) faith, parenting, balancing to-do lists with living — he gives each vignette the full narrative treatment.

If you don’t think kidney stones are funny, you haven’t been to a Mike Perry reading. I loved Coop because it felt so real; as I read, I imagined Perry telling the stories in the memoir. Now that I’ve heard, him, I don’t have to imagine anymore. His voice on the page is strong, sensitive, smart, and often so funny I had to put the book down and catch my breath from laughing. In person, he’s all that as well. I plan to become a die hard and read the whole Perry back list, eventually.

Another book I read during a tournament weekend in Vermont was Mrs. Somebody Somebody, by Tracy Winn. Unfortunately, Tracy had to cancel her event at Gibson’s due to a health problem — we hope she is better soon. The book is wonderful, and just right for a vacation, when you may be setting your reading down frequently. Each of the linked stories in the book is set in Lowell, near a mill.  Some of the characters are mill workers, others are relatives of the mill owners, some just live and work nearby. Winn is a powerful writer — my grandmother would say she uses no extra words. The stories are rich and riveting.

On our trip to Ottawa, I took along Allegra Goodman‘s new novel, The Cookbook Collector.  It was an interesting read, but flawed. Neither of the two main characters seemed entirely plausible to me, and there were too many lesser characters passing in and out of the main storyline without becoming fully realized individuals.  Goodman writes well, so it was particularly frustrating to see glimpses of intriguing subplot go undeveloped, or find myself wishing she’d given readers more of a particular minor character’s views.

The story is set during the .com boom and bust of the late 1990’s, when the Computer Scientist was working for both a very large (the largest) software company and then a smaller one, so perhaps my quibbles are compounded by my familiarity with some of Goodman’s subject matter. The collector of the title is also mostly absent from the story, although his collection appears, in some chapters, in detail, and in others, not so much. Uneven is probably the best one word summary of this novel. The parts I liked, I liked very much, which made the rest that much more frustrating.

Traveling for soccer enables me to read during times when I would likely be doing household chores if were were home. But The World Cup has cut into my reading time, as I’ve been glued to the television with the rest of my soccer mad family. My daughter observed it’s the most time I’ve spent downstairs — typically, the domain of the Computer Scientist and the kids — all year. Even though the U.S. went out (something we watched in a pub in Ottawa with a few other American fans and a bunch of Ghana fans), the Teenager has an encyclopedic knowledge of the remaining teams and I’ve enjoyed keeping up with the tournament together. Well, he keeps up with it and tells me what I’ve missed or misunderstood. I’ve enjoyed his blog posts for Word of Mouth, as well as his own Beautiful Game blog.

Before the  World Cup started, I finished David Mitchell‘s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.  I’d read Black Swan Green, and enjoyed Mitchell’s very fine writing. One of Gibson’s Random House sales reps gave me the advance reader copy of Jacob de Zoet, with the words, “you like weird books, don’t you?”

I didn’t get a chance to ask him in what way Mitchell’s book was weird and just dove in. I’d say now that it’s weird because Mitchell is one of the most praised writers of contemporary fiction, but he chose to deal with an obscure slice of Sino-Dutch history in a sprawling tome. Most highly lauded fiction writers, especially those known for mind-blowing innovations in form (Ghostwritten, number9dream, and Cloud Atlas were all noted for being structurally creative) don’t turn to relatively straightforward storytelling (although Black Swan Green was fairly linear).

But Mitchell isn’t most writers and never was. So why so why wouldn’t such a masterful writer be capable of writing any novel he sets his mind to?  And anyway, who cares? What’s important, it seems to me, is not whether this book is unusual as compared to his earlier books, but whether it’s any good.

And it is.  Jacob de Zoet is a wonderful main character, and so are the many other characters — many, but fully developed and each carrying his or her own weight in the story.  Japan on the cusp of the 19th century is fascinating, and makes an excellent location for Mitchell’s exploration of mankind’s tendency toward sloth, greed, power, and dishonesty. The many Japanese and Dutch officials who try to cheat and trample their way to the top are as compelling as any Dickensian villains, and honest Jacob, plucky Orito Aibagawa, honorable magistrate Shiroyama, gruff but good Dr. Marinus, all represent the better side of human nature.

But this book isn’t simplistic, even if it’s sweeping and cinematic.  Mitchell manages to keep readers in suspense, and to me, at least, the resolution was not obvious. I enjoyed the rich historical details, including a strong sense of the physical challenge of living in the late 1700’s. And I do like a novel that is also a well told tale, which this is, mostly.

The only part that lost me was the section in which Orito’s family sells her to a shadowy cult. I found myself turning back to try and understand why this happened (classic father dies, evil stepmother sells her up the river scenario, but hard to grasp at first).  It wasn’t really clear what was going on in the strange temple where Orito ended up, and who knew what about it. This was, perhaps, a deliberate mysteriousness meant to make the shrine’s wacko leader seem even more unhinged, illogical, and evil. It any rate I enjoyed the book enough that this murky bit didn’t bother me too much, and I definitely want to go back and read the rest of Mitchell’s work.

Another novel I read this month dealt with characters sometimes acting in illogical or even delusional ways — but not towards evil ends. Tom Rachman‘s The Imperfectionists was a terrific read. I admit I sought it out on the strength of one review by Christopher Buckley.  The review didn’t let me down — I loved this book. It’s the story of some of the people who put out an English language newspaper in Rome, over the course of the paper’s history.

Each chapter is a story about one of the characters, including one reader and a number of the reporters, editors, and staff.  I think the reason this is a novel and not a collection of linked stories is because the paper is the link; the links between characters are sometimes very loose, because some of them don’t even work for the paper at the same time.  A few characters return in later chapters as supporting cast, and the paper’s founding family appear, with each generation slowly screwing up the place. The overarching story is the newspaper’s fate in the hands of this odd cast.

It’s hard to put my finger on what I liked here — Rachman’s writing is excellent, and the novel’s structure is unique without being gimmicky. There’s something classically romantic about journalism, and also something endearingly quirky about some journalists; Rachman plays up both of these characteristics.  No one part of the book floored me, but The Imperfectionists was just thoroughly entertaining. One way of comparing it to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: Mitchell’s book would make a three hour sweeping costume drama, and The Imperfectionists would be a ninety minute indie film hit, with a lot of hip dialogue and a sketchy plot. You’d love them both, different as they may be.

One chapter of The Imperfectionists is set in Africa, where two other books I read in June take place. The Price of Stones is part memoir, part non-profit chronicle. Author Twesigye Jackson Kaguri comes from a small village in rural Uganda. As a boy, he heard about human rights and found a calling — he went on to Makarere University and then Columbia University and worked in human rights advocacy. But he never forgot the way his older brother returned to help people in the village, and as soon as he could, he did the same. He also began to learn about the scourge of HIV/AIDS as it tore through Uganda, the village, and even Kaguri’s family.

On one of his visits to the village with his wife, Kaguri realized that what he really wanted was to make a longer-lasting investment in his village than he could manage through emergency loans handed out as needed. Education had given him the life he felt blessed to be living, and education might also be the key to preventing HIV/AIDS. He told his wife, and then a few friends, that he wanted to build a school.

The Price of Stones is Jackson’s story, and the story of his founding the school and the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project, which today includes support for the grandmothers who care for so many of the orphans, community programs like wells, a library, health programs, and an agricultural and vocational center, and scholarships for Nyaka School graduates to continue their educations.  One terrific thing about the book is that Jackson seems as awed by his own good fortune and the amazing success of Nyaka as anyone else. He is humble, but he is also a man of faith and he gives credit not only to earthly influences, like his siblings and mother, but also to God, from whom, he feels, all good things come.

I’ve always wondered how some people who are dealing with extreme hardship or tragedy curse God and others keep the faith. I met a woman on the porch of her tornado ravaged home a few years ago when the Computer Scientist and I, a good friend, and our children handed out sack lunches we’d made.  This woman had clearly been living in poverty before the tornado, and now her house was damaged. Glass, metal, and power lines twisted around her yard. But she raised up her arms, palms heavenward, and told me she was blessed, I was blessed, were were all blessed, right that moment, by a good God.  I was floored, and still am by that kind of abiding faith.

Jackson’s faith is challenged but never wavers, as he deals with village politics, a difficult father, and honest mistakes. But he manages to overcome loss of loved ones and friends, difficulties with bureaucracy and corruption, and discouraging words from some of the very people who will ultimately benefit from his nonprofit, and you get the sense that he will prevail, even though Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project is a relatively new nonprofit. I admire the way Kaguri mentions the hard stuff alongside the successes, and by the end of the book, you’d have to be pretty hard hearted not to be pulling for Jackson and the staff and kids.

Hearing Jackson Kaguri’s story in person was great — he came to Gibson’s. The Teenager had a game that night, so I suggested I might ask for the night off, but he wisely pointed out that there would be (many) other games, but only one chance, perhaps, to meet someone making such a difference in the world. True.

Talking to Jackson, like selling simple jewelry for BeadforLife, reminded me of how soul-satisfying it is to be in close contact with the source of a nonprofit. Large organizations often lose their founding passion and become a business like many others. Nyaka is small enough that when I donated some birthday money to their work, I got a personal email within 24 hours from Jackson, saying how glad he was to meet me in Concord and thanking me for getting involved in the project.

And you know what? I feel invested, like my small gift might really help a kid make it. I admire some large nonprofits, like Heifer Project and Habitat, but my donations to a place like that seem more likely to keep the lights on in a corporate headquarters than to really touch a life. I get that corporate headquarters need light to do their work. But my soul wants to hear a child laugh with delight when she opens a new notebook in a school in Africa, not hear a fluorescent fixture hum in an office in corporate America.

Speaking of Africa, I finished West With the Night by Beryl Markham last weekend. Gibson’s book club is discussing it on Monday.  I’d never read it before; it was on my long term reading list, because I’d seen it recommended many times over the years.  It was really something, mainly because Markham was really something.  Her unusual childhood seems both charming and alarming to modern sensibilities, but it clearly made her the fearless adventurer that she became.  The world she moved in was both privileged and primitive — many of her friends were quite wealthy, she worked with racehorses and airplanes, yet she lived in huts and stables and “roughed it” beyond most people’s comfort zones.

Hemingway famously wrote a letter to Maxwell Perkins telling him he had to read West With the Night, because he felt it “a bloody wonderful book,” and said Markham “can write wrings around all of us who consider ourselves writers.”  You can see what he means in passages like, “The forest had fallen back, giving ground with the grim dignity of a respected enemy, and fields were cleaned of the rocks and bush that had lent the the character of wilderness for centuries;” and “Like all seaports of the East, Benghazi is blatant and raw; it is weary and wise.”

One thing contemporary readers may find interesting is that Markham’s memoir has very few details of her personal life, especially as an adult. There’s no mention that Tom Black, who was her flying instructor and friend, was also her lover.  The book doesn’t mention three husbands, or other affairs.  Nor does it offer any glimpse of  how others may have viewed her unusual life, other than a brief mention of the press coverage of her trans-Atlantic flight in 1936.  This is a refreshing contrast with today’s tell-all, marketing soaked world, where even people whose 15 minutes of fame is due to some scandal have publicist spin doctors to sell their lurid stories.

A book that critiques the 24 hour bombardment of media and advertising in its own way is Sudden Anthem, which is Matthew Guenette’s first full length poetry collection.  Guenette is a NH native who will be reading at Gibson’s on August 5.  Sudden Anthem is a witty, sharp book, and the poems are tense with love/hate fervor for media, popular culture, and consumer/corporate culture. At least that’s my take — poetry is of course, a dance between reader and poet, but here’s my reader’s view:

“Li Poem” imagines classical Chinese poet Li Po ruminating on the meaning of executives letting off steam with office pranks (don’t trust the suits, Guenette seems to say, slyly), “Remember to Watch”  critiques a culture that values advertising over poems,  “Vortex: Super-Sized Supermarket” describes the ways a giant box store is a very strange place which offers “these false dichotomies we pretend to/pretending to us in a discourse/of freezing and thawing,/cleaning and pre-heating–paper of plastic.”

I also admired the tongue-in-cheek “Brief History of the Home Gym ” and “Interview,” a hilarious take on both questions and answers which asks, “What do on ramps gain from area codes?/Specifically, fair market value/for cupcakes . . .”  Other favorites among the hard hitting humor poems in the collection: “The Today Show,” which imagines Katie Couric in the middle of a war zone; and “Acknowledgments,” a hilarious send up of the ubiquitous page where poets bow down to the high and mighty editors of the Literary Establishment who have deigned to give them a leg up by publishing their poems in impenetrable journals.

A couple of Guenette’s poems surprised me with their softer, more introspective tone, and I liked those very much as well: “Metamorphoses,” reads a bit like an avant-garde film, full of small flashes of imagery paired with little brush strokes of figurative language; “Poem,” seems like it’s going to be as wacky and swaggering as some of Guenette’s other work but has an underlying longing that makes it quieter; and the title poem looks gently into the childhood of a poet.

Speaking of childhood, there’s an urgent sense around here that childhood is short-lived. We’ve been on our first college visit with the Teenager since my last bookconscious post, and we have seven more planned. Gap Year possibilities are also the subject of intense research and discussion. It’s all somewhat overwhelming.

A little bit of me wants to ask if I can get off this ride, but I know the Teenager is not ours to keep, no matter how much we enjoy his company. I wrote his transcript this week. If you’re new to bookconscious, this is because we are life learners; neither the Teen nor the Preteen have gone to school in the traditional sense, although the Teenager has taken a couple of college classes and is considering another for fall (German, in preparation for the aforementioned Gap Year).

The transcript writing was eye opening. When the Computer Scientist and I embarked on this alternative educational plan for our kids, we wanted them to feel free to learn in the world, and not be constrained by the narrowness of school — who’s to say what any one person should learn, in the vast body of human knowledge? We wanted to equip them with the basic tools —  literacy and numeracy, critical thinking, time and space to become themselves — and then see them soar to heights of creative inquiry we never had the chance to reach ourselves.

In reality, sometimes they just want to sit on the couch and play video games, or climb a tree, or hang out, like any other kids. But looking at the big picture of how the Teenager has found his passions and preferred learning styles/methods and then diligently pursued them has kind of bowled me over with gratitude that we could afford him that opportunity.  The transcript he has introduces who he is, what he cares about, not just what he knows.

Of course, we live in a world that wants to package students into quantifiable data. While we don’t grade our kids (instead, we ask them to return to anything they don’t understand until they’ve worked out the difficulties, which we feel is what they’ll have to do in the real world, anyway), I did quantify his autodidactic life into categories, course descriptions, and credits (representations of the amount of time he spent learning, which is ludicrous if the goal is to view life as a seamless learning experience). And I listed the books and other resources he used to guide his learning.

This month the Teenager was pretty focused on watching the World Cup and following the foreign and domestic press coverage. He also finished reading a book on the mental aspect of soccer called Playing Out of Your Mind. He says it’s really interesting stuff, and applicable to life, not just soccer. Although some could argue that in his life, there isn’t much separation between the two!

The Preteen has been warily watching all of this college planning from the sidelines, but she seems mildly interested, mostly because she admires her brother. She’s a little tired of the driving around for soccer, but she liked Ottawa, and she got to pick out a stack of books to take along. She’s also continued bi-weekly library trips.  Among her choices this month were some more Fruits Basket manga, and several books by Wendy Mass.

It’s fun to watch her find an author whose books she likes enough to read in succession. I’ve done that myself, many times. These days I mostly vow to read all of an author’s books but actually end up just adding them to the never-ending, always-expanding “to read” list. In the Preteen’s case, she read Mass’s A Mango Shaped Space several months ago, and noticed another Wendy Mass book on the shelf at the library, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life.  She enjoyed both so she went back and got Every Soul a Star and Finally.

Of all of these, she liked Jeremy Fink the best, although she adds that she liked them all (evidence of that is that she finished them all; unlike her mother, the Preteen is able to set down a book she doesn’t like and move on). She thought Jeremy Fink was “kind of  an interesting story” with “really cool, unique characters.”  From a kid who has a t-shirt that says “I’m unique” and who is a pretty severe critic of the sameness of popular culture directed at people her age, that’s high praise.

She’s several books in her reading pile — Margaret Peterson Haddix‘s Found and Among the Hidden, and The Dead and the Gone, by Susan Beth Pfeffer.  That’s the sequel to Life As We Knew It, which describes a meteor knocking the moon out or orbit, with very serious consequences for Earth. The Preteen often starts a book and then starts a few more, and dips back into them at will. I used to be able to read several books at once but have found that as my life has become busier (and maybe as I’ve crept up on middle age), it’s too complicated to keep them all straight.

I also can’t seem to read more than a few pages when it’s horrendously hot, without falling asleep face down in my book. In contrast, the Computer Scientist has been reading more this past week. Last month he read another Star Wars book, The Rule of Two.  He said it was enjoyable enough, but he seems to have placed the Star Wars reading project on hold. He also read Blockade Billy, by Stephen King, which he said was well written but not among his favorite of King’s work. He liked the first part, which he said clearly exhibits King’s passion for baseball, better than the second. He’s currently reading (and has almost finished, in the comfort of our shiny new room air conditioner) Baseball Codes and Doctor on Everest. His to-read pile is in flux, but he plans to read Coop, since he enjoyed Perry’s reading so much, and to finish some books he’s started and then set aside.

I’ve just barely started The Companion, by Lorcan Roche, which Europa editions refers to as “subversive comic extravaganza,” and I have requested a couple of books by W.S. Merwin, because I always like to read or re-read the new poet laureate‘s work.   And my friend Shawn, who chairs Concord Reads, recommended Jonathan Franzen’s How to Be Alone, which I have out from the library. But in June I never got to the two books I had pulled to the top of my bedside pile, Novice to Master and Raising Demons, so I’m trying to be mindful and just enjoy what’s in front of me without worrying too much about what’s next!

And for now, that means signing off so I can go eat lunch with the Teenager (and maybe the Preteen; it’s hard to tell when she’ll be feeling sociable). And possibly with the Cat Who Adopted Us — complete with dramatic firefighter rescue from 35+ feet up a tree.  We haven’t taken her to the vet or named her yet, but no one has responded to our “FOUND — CAT” posters nor newspaper ad, and she keeps meowing at us and climbing endearingly into our laps, so it’s possible she’s ours, or we’re hers, anyway. She seems to like books — she purrs happily when I’m reading beside her on the screened porch. So she may as well stay.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed maps. We have several cool maps hanging up around our house as art and reference, we own a number of atlases, and I keep a basket full of maps from places we’ve been or have learned about.  At my family’s insistence, I’ve recently learned how to use a GPS and have a wary respect for the fact that all the maps one could theoretically need are there for the digital asking.

But the nostalgic Luddite in me still feels like there’s nothing better than unfolding a map, tracing out a route, folding to the square you need, and then hitting the road, watching the scenery go by and knowing you’re steadily progressing up the highlighted line, and eventually, over the fold. From childhood, I’ve liked following along. My own kids experienced several epic road trips when we lived in Georgia and would travel back to New England each summer for a visit, stopping along the way in Atlanta, South Carolina, and New York to see family. They’re both good with maps.

My reading this month very much appealed to the map loving road tripper in me. When I wrapped up last month’s post, I was halfway through Jay Atkinson’s Paradise Road , a buddy travel tribute to Jack Kerouac’s travels. Atkinson writes about Kerouac’s work, the Beats’ travels, and his own trips to some of the same places Kerouac and friends visited.  His narrative is both descriptive and reflective, taking the reader along for the ride with plenty of sensory details, and also synthesizing Atkinson’s travels with his relationships — with the friends and loved ones he travels with and leaves behind, and with Kerouac’s On the Road and other work.

In contrast to Atkinson, who traveled with friends most of the time, Peter Hessler writes about  his many solo road trips in China in Country Driving. I’ve read Hessler’s other two books on China and I always recommend them to anyone looking for a contemporary account of the country. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what I like best. He writes beautiful prose, natural and also erudite, streamlined and also painterly, showing readers the people and places he’s been in vivid detail that rolls off the page smoothly. And he is an enthusiastic guide, embracing China and translating his experiences for an American audience.

These are thoughtful, insightful books but Hessler doesn’t get wrapped up in showing his intellectual prowess — he is perceptive without being overly clever or egotistical. I also admire the way Hessler puts himself squarely in the story, generously sharing his views, his experiences, his friendships, and his difficulties, allowing his emotions to show but never to excessive dramatic effect.  I open each new book he writes with a bit of trepidation, wondering whether it will be as good as the last.

Hessler has never disappointed. If you haven’t read his books, River Town is the chronicle of Hessler’s stint as a Peace Corps English teacher in Fuling, on the Yangtze River, and his introduction to China; Oracle Bones covers his experience as a journalist living in Beijing, traveling around the country, getting to know China through both its history and its people; and Country Driving is about Hessler’s own road trips, life in the village where he rents a place to live and write away from Beijing’s mad rush, and the impact of increasing numbers of cars and drivers on Chinese society. I highly recommend all three.

In a recent New Yorker piece, Hessler talks about moving back to the U.S.  I look forward to whatever he writes next.  And I appreciate his pointing me towards another outstanding book on contemporary Chinese culture: Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang; Hessler mentions Chang and her book at the end of his, because she is his wife.

Factory Girls describes the life of villagers who “go out” to work in factory towns from a very young age (many below 18, the legal working age, and barely out of middle school), far from their families. Chang got to know two girls in Dongguan, and through their stories and the story of Chang’s own family’s history, she paints a vivid portrait of the rapid changes taking place in Chinese culture today. Chang’s juxtaposition of 20th and 21st century cultural upheavals in China is very interesting.  She draws on her experiences in modern China to get past history and politics and understand the social psychology that contributed to the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists and later, to the Cultural Revolution.

Chang also examines factory life from the point of view of young workers, an interesting perspective in light of recent headlines about strikes and suicides in giant Chinese factories. Her observations about the relentless pursuit of self-improvement, the power that new money affords younger generations, and the struggle to find happiness in the midst of mass changes in traditional family structures are astute and incisive.

I found some similarities in Chang’s and Hessler’s work beyond the subject matter. (Hessler looked at factory life in Oracle Bones). They are both very smart, clear, vivid writers and people who seem to be at once comfortable with themselves and their places in the world and also open, curious, loyal friends who genuinely care for their subjects. I look forward to more books from both of them.

Last month I wrote about a second book I really enjoyed, How Did You Get This Number, and vowed to read the first book by the same author, Sloane Crosley. That book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, was enjoyable but I think Crosley’s second book is better.  My favorite part of Cake was a description of summer camp in NH when Crosley was a child — hilarious.  The rest of the book didn’t live up to that promising beginning, or to the second book, although a piece on losing her wallet repeatedly, and always getting it back, came close.  That said, Crosley is a terrific writer, and it’s a good trend to be better with each subsequent book.

Another second book I read this month was The Map of True Places, by Brunonia Barry. I haven’t read her first, The Lace Reader, but I enjoyed this one. I read it because Barry was coming to Gibson’s (despite my vow to read fewer event books, I read more of those than anything else this month).  Map is about a woman who seems to have her life together watching it all unravel, and deciding whether that’s for the best or not. As a reference librarian at heart, I enjoyed the masterful way Barry wove interesting subjects into the story — celestial navigation, 19th century American literature, psychology, and Wiccan herbology to name a few.

Barry’s characters are finely detailed and fully fleshed out, and this book is a tale well told. I’d recommend it for a day when you want to be carried away by a story — at the beach, on a plane, or in a hammock, for example, or by the fire if you’re reading this months from now. And if you’re wondering what a best-selling author is like in person, know this: Barry is one of the least pretentious, warmest, friendliest authors I’ve met. You know I’m segueing into a bookstore plug: if you’re a passionate reader like I am, don’t pass up the opportunity to meet authors, especially if you live near an independent bookstore.

Soapbox over. I read three other novels this month, all for events. Pete Nelson visited Gibson’s last week, to read from his Indiebound hit I Thought You Were Dead. The character who utters those lines, Stella, is a dog. If you don’t think dialogue between a man and his dog can be done well, go get this book. If you’re looking for a male Jane Austen for our times, read Pete Nelson. I mean that as a compliment. On his website he calls this novel a “tragi-comic romance.”  He draws an accurate and amusing portrait of late 20th century American society as well, from yoga to DIY investing.

I Thought You Were Dead is also a novel of adulthood in contemporary America. The protagonist, Paul, is living in the Northeast but his parents and siblings are back in Minnesota. His father has just had a stroke and Paul needs to find a way to help from a distance (they end up instant messaging, and the keystrokes are part of his father’s therapy), but he’s a bit intimidated by his successful siblings. He’s a divorced writer who drinks too much, and who’s trying to have a relationship with a woman who is also dating a doctor.  Paul is trying to understand all of these various kinds of love, and Stella is his foil and his philosopher. Sounds hokey, but I thought it was excellent.

The other two novels I read are by authors coming to Gibson’s second annual Summer Reading Kickoff on June 17th. I met Chris Wiley, aka Mortimus Clay, last fall at the NEIBA fall conference. He started his own press to publish The Purloined Boy; you can read about the end of this process at his blog.  I admire what he’s done, and I enjoyed the book.

The Purloined Boy is a fantasy with many familiar characteristics — the protagonist, Trevor, realizes there’s more to his world than what’s immediately obvious, there are monstrous villains and a Merlin-like figure. Trevor has a mysterious, magical helper and a smart friend who want to help him. He is struggling to understand his role — is he to follow the longing he feels for “home,” a place he only vaguely remembers, or is he to stay where he is and help defeat the system that’s taken children from their homes in the first place?

Besides the moral dilemma, Trevor also faces the confusion of not knowing where he really belongs, and which world he’s lived in is real.  While it’s true to the genre, The Purloined Boy is also an original story with interesting details. It would make an excellent book club pick – plenty to discuss.

I also read Nature Girl, the debut novel by Jane Kelley, who’ll be at the Summer Reading Kickoff as well. This novel for tweens is about a city girl, Megan, stuck in Vermont for the summer with well-meaning, but to her mind clueless, parents and an annoying older sister. She’d been planning to spend summer vacation with her best friend, whose mother has cancer, and in the course of the book she makes a spontaneous decision to hike to Massachusetts to see her friend.

I admire the way Kelley injects some reality into the far fetched parts of the story — Megan makes it on the Appalachian trail not only because of her own determination and spunk, but also because an adult hiker (the delightfully cranky Trail Blaze Betty) keeps an eye on her. Megan is a regular kid, trying to set a course in the unsettling world of early adolescence, wanting to enjoy the same kid fun she’s always had with her best friend but struggling to be more grown up, too.  The story moves along at a good pace, and Megan learns from her experiences but the novel doesn’t end on a saccharine or preachy note.  Nature Girl is a gentle but contemporary story with an exuberant, realistic heroine, for adventurous and couch-loving girls alike.

Just as I enjoy fiction without an obvious message or sticky sweet ending, I prefer my poetry spare and direct. My favorite poems are imaginative but relatively minimalist. Ted Kooser’s work fits that description, and this month I read Flying at Night, his collection covering twenty years of poems (1965-1985).  From hiking (“Visiting Mountains”) to lying awake listening to a dripping sink (“The Leaky Faucet”) or the sounds of the “Furnace,” Kooser deals with everyday experience. I found Flying at Night to be a very cohesive collection, with no obvious misfits among the selected poems.

Kooser’s poems are brimming with plains imagery — abandoned farmhouses, prairies, humid Midwestern summers, a snow fence — and with ordinary Americans, including his newspaper carrier (“Myrtle”) and many of his own relatives. In this way his work reminds me of Wes McNair’s, but Kooser writes mostly shorter, sparser poems than McNair does.  His tone is less optimistic — McNair’s work feels more hopeful and exuberant to me, whereas some of Kooser’s poems feel like dirges (“Shooting a Farmhouse,” “Tillage Marks”).  And yet even these sad poems are beautiful.

I hang a poem up in the kitchen, next to the sink, every week. We used to rotate this duty, but when I sensed it becoming a chore, I relieved the children of the selection process so that poetry would remain a pleasure in their lives, and not another item on the “to do” list.  I’m about to put Kooser’s “At the Center” up for this week: “In Kansas, on top/of an old piano,/a starfish, dry/as a fancy pastry/left sitting there/during a wedding,/spreads its brown arms/over the foam/of a white lace doily,/reaching for water/in five directions.” Many of his poems use the title this way – it’s almost its own line, rather than a word taken from the body of the poem.

Besides the Poem of the Week, the kids both continued to follow their interests in their reading this month. The Preteen enjoyed the latest books in two series she’s been reading for a few years: Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes and Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm.  Both are mysteries featuring strong girl protagonists. The Preteen reports that the new books in each series were both great.

She also read Rick Riordan‘s new book, The Red Pyramid. Riordan is the author of the wildly popular and very entertaining Percy Jackson series, which re-ignited the Preteen’s childhood interest in mythology. She reports that The Red Pyramid is full of Egyptian mythology, which is “kind of cool.” She also likes the characters in the new book — a brother and sister with an Egyptologist father. Riordan’s website notes that The Red Pyramid is the first in a series, so she’ll have more to look forward to.  I like the way Riordan’s books spur kids to make connections with history and myths. All good books do this — add to our mental map of the world.

Meanwhile, she also read more manga (further episodes of +Anima and few of the Fruits Basket series).  We’re enjoying our new Hooksett library card, which is a bargain at $25 a year for non-residents. Both kids have been using the library’s link to Mango languages, and the PreTeen really likes the YA room in the library, where she can browse manga titles and look for other books.   On our last visit, she picked up a few non-Manga books: Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman, a volume in the Royal Diaries which she hadn’t read before (Kristina, the Girl King), and Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life, by Wendy Mass, whose book A Mango Shaped Space she really enjoyed. I’m really happy to see her browsing for books at a library.

The Teenager is wrapped up in all things World Cup. His pleasure reading these days is almost entirely football related — he has an absolutely encyclopedic grasp of the 32 teams in the tournament and if I think I have a scrap of news about an injury or anything else, he has heard it already. Today, his first guest post appeared on NHPR’s Word of Mouth blog — he’s writing about the World Cup for them. He follows the BBC, the Guardian, Fox Soccer, Sky Sports, and US Soccer websites and probably more that I can’t keep up with, and we’ve all been enjoying daily World Cup coverage in the New York Times.

When I asked him what he’d read this month that I should mention in bookconscious, he immediately referred me to this week’s New York Times Magazine article by Michael Sokolove, on the Dutch club Ajax’s youth soccer system. Soccer development is a topic near and dear to the Teenager’s heart, and he has strong opinions on the state of the U.S. system.  He’s also participated in two of the paths to the National Team — Olympic Development Program (ODP) and SuperY (he’s playing for Seacoast Wanderers now). He actually sent the Computer Scientist and I the NYT magazine article last week, ahead of its print publication.

The Teenager’s take: he admired the thoroughness of the article, and said it was clear Sokolove had really taken time to get to know his subject. He also thought it was spot on, in terms of critiquing the difference between the American soccer development system (or systems, really) and the way the rest of the world prepares youngsters for the pros.  Unfortunately for his parents, this piece only confirmed what the Teenager already suspected — the path to his dream of playing soccer professionally is more than likely going to lead him across the pond.

As a favor, the Teenager and the Computer Scientist  read World Cup 2010: The Indispensable Guide to Soccer and Geopolitics ahead of tonight’s Gibson’s event with father-son authors Steven and Harrison Stark. I’ve read bits and pieces of it, because that’s the kind of book it is — one to have by the remote while you’re watching the World Cup, so you can brush up on the teams and learn some amusing and strange facts, too. We’ve had this kind of book for past World Cups and one thing I admire about World Cup 2010 is that it’s full of information and commentary, rather than eye candy. I’m really looking forward to having the Starks at the store; everyone in our house is very excited for the World Cup to start on Friday.

The Computer Scientist began his Star Wars summer reading project. He read Star Wars: Cloak of Deception ( a prequel to The Phantom Menace) and Darth Bane: Path of Destruction (Darth Bane being a Sith Lord who lived 1,000 years  or so before the time of the films). He enjoyed those, but hasn’t had time to keep his Goodreads page current.

He has a stack of books to read on his nightstand, but this is the last month of the fiscal year and therefore, his hair is on fire at work.  He got several books for his birthday: The Pacific, by Hugh Ambrose,  a couple of Fate of the Jedi books, and Jason Turbow’s The Baseball Codes.  So he’s set for reading as soon as he finds time!

My to-read pile includes David Mitchell‘s forthcoming novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, which I’ve been reading for a week now. I’m not sure what I’ll read after that, but we do have some road trips coming up (to Burlington and Ottawa, for soccer games) so I’ll pack books. I might take Shirley Jackson‘s Raising Demons to Vermont, since I like to match my reading material to the place I’m traveling when possible. Novice to Master floated to the top of the pile recently and is calling out to me.  My preferred hammock reading is fiction, and I’ve got several forthcoming novels to choose from. Until next month, happy reading!

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Sometime towards the end of April, the Computer Scientist said something that stopped me cold. He noticed my frantic checking of how many pages were left in whatever book I was trying to finish ahead of an event at Gibson’s or a library due date, and he said, “Reading isn’t even fun for you anymore, it’s just another deadline.”

Then he pointed out the stacks of books beside my bed, the pile of magazines in my favorite chair, and the many sections of the New York Times at my place at the kitchen table and said, “You don’t enjoy what you’re reading, you just see it as what you have to finish, and it stresses you out.” Have I mentioned he has a reputation for giving direct and insightful feedback?

As you can imagine, my immediate reaction wasn’t to say, “Thank you for your searingly honest critique, darling, I’ll change my frenzied behavior at once.” Instead, I probably made a face, and I likely said something defensive and possibly a bit rude, although I refuse to confirm or deny that.  Unruffled by my response, the Computer Scientist rolled over and went blissfully to sleep. I obsessed.

And you know what? He’s right. After this conversation, we had a couple of whirlwind weeks chock full of children’s activities, a visit from his parents, and my own visit with my mom in South Carolina. I had less time to read (except on the four airplanes and airports I passed through, in which I read four books), so I was forced to make hard choices.  I came to a series of editorial decisions about my reading.

First of all, when it comes to periodicals, I am going to let go of my inherited belief that if you pay for something, you’d better get your money’s worth by using it all up — when it comes to the Times or Economist or all of the monthly magazines we get, I am going to allow myself not to read every last article. Yes, they are expensive. But we subscribe to many of them in part because we believe in their existence and wish to express our support. I am still getting plenty of value for my money even if I only read the parts I find most interesting or appealing.

Second, I simply have to admit that it’s impossible for me to read every event book at Gibson’s, especially as our schedule fills.  If it’s something I would want to read anyway or feel curious about, I’ll read it; if not, I will outsource my pre-event reading to family members, friends, or co-workers.

And if none of them has read the book before the event, I’ll rely on the tools I already use as a reader: Goodreads and the many excellent book blogs that are just a Google search away. A quick shout out to my father-in-law — he wrote a very helpful brief  on Walking to Gatlinburg, which I had no time to read. Thanks!

I also came to realize, after my own mother told me I looked “tired” (code for “wow, those are some bags under your eyes, honey”) in the family Easter pictures, that I have to face the biological facts. I am past the age where I can stay up until 2 am finishing a book and/or writing a blog post, especially two or three nights in a row, and still feel (and look) human. No more all-nighters. Unless a book is so darn fantastic I can’t help myself . . . .

Of course, all of these decisions came at the end of the month. So I actually read fourteen books since my last post about a month ago. The last one which I stayed up until all hours finishing was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which I was reading in a hurry so I could mail it back to my aunt, who lent it to me and had a list of friends waiting for it. I loved this book. I wanted to be friends with both Skeeter and Aibileen.

I’ve read the criticism — the plot is too obvious, the whites too one dimensional and typecast — but I think the people who are bothered by The Help are squeamish at one of two things: either they are uncomfortable with how truthful Stockett is, or they hate to admit that a number one best seller isn’t mind candy.  I’d rather look at the total package — and I think this book  is well written and delivers a great story, memorable and fully formed characters, and page turning entertainment.

Just as not everyone in 19th century England was as mean-spirited or good as Dickens’  villains or heroes, Stockett doesn’t intend to say that all 1960’s Southerners fell into her characters’ molds, either.  The Help is a rollicking good read as well as thought provoking social commentary, packaged in a populist style —  just like Dickens. Kathryn, if you are ever in New England, I’ll drop everything to have you at Gibson’s!

Another novel that manages to be both social commentary and hilarious fun is Co-Opted, by Joan Bigwood. Joan’s sister, Kate, is my friend and rector at St. Paul’s church here in Concord. Her novel follows the transformation of a stylish and successful New York City mom, Francesca Wilson, as her family moves to Palo Alto in the dot.com era. Facing an abrupt lifestyle change, as well as worries about her aging parents, Francesca finds herself becoming involved in a co-op preschool. She discovers talents she never knew she had, and a community to help her through some difficult times. It’s a gentle book, and it’s funny.

Those same words also describe Carl Lennertz‘s delightful memoir, Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now.  This charming book is both a tribute to his own happy childhood in what was then a small, sleepy town on Long Island and a reminder to today’s parents that we shouldn’t over think so much. The book is a series of short pieces Lennertz wrote to his daughter as she was approaching the teen years — around the age of my own Preteen.

Even though his family’s life in Manhattan is different in many ways than my own family’s life in New Hampshire (and all the many other places we’ve lived), the book resonated with me. Lennertz writes about things we have all experienced as kids and parents — getting really into certain music, enjoying sweet corn, trying not to seem uncool, swearing (I chuckled over the swear jar — something we tried a few years ago to no effect) and even deciding what will define us as adults.  Both as a lesson in thoughtful reflection and a slice of childhood and parenting in contemporary America, Cursed By A Happy Childhood is welcome relief from both didactic parenting tomes and painful memoirs of unhappy childhoods. This book would be a great Fathers’ Day or new dad gift.

I read five other nonfiction books, including two books by authors who came to the store (Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, and Eaarth, by Bill McKibben), another book recommended by my rector, and two other books of essays: A Place on Water, which I gave the Computer Scientist a couple of years ago for his birthday, and How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley, which is coming out in June.

I read A Place on Water because Wes McNair was one of three poets reading at the Concord Audi at this year’s April poetry event, and he wrote one of the the three essays in the book. And, I adore his work — there’s no other way to describe it. His two neighbors on Drury Pond in Maine, Bill Roorbach and Robert Kimber, wrote the other two essays. This is a gorgeous book — really, each piece is so beautifully wrought, and yet feels as effortless as floating in a perfect little pond on a summer day. You’ll want a camp in Maine, badly, when you’re through reading.

Sloane Crosley is brilliant. I read the advance copy of How Did You Get This Number on a plane, and people stared at me as I laughed out loud. She is everything I love in an essayist — funny, smart, wickedly observant, interesting, and relevant. Her book is a little hip and edgy —  you might feel a teensy bit like you’re not worthy of her Manhatttan lifestyle (I did), but she also writes about her childhood and you’ll realize she is just like you, only cooler, when you read those parts. I’m definitely going back to read I Was Told There’d Be Cake, soon (update: I picked it up today at the library). It’s been on my “to-read list” (that pesky thing just multiplies like some kind of feral animal) for a long time, and Cake has been bumped to the top.

I enjoyed Birdology, although I was taken aback by some of the brutality — the chapter on birds of prey is not for the squeamish, or for quail fans (quick aside:  my in-laws were in town for Sy’s event, and my father-in-law is particularly fond of the quail in their backyard in California; unfortunately some quail meet their demise in the book). Sy is an indefatigable researcher, which is something I admire in a person, and she writes with such passion that even someone like me who is only mildly interested in birds can’t help being fascinated.

I was left with a deep admiration for hummingbird rehabilitators, chickens (they’re not dumb, it turns out), and parrot research that has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of language acquisition. My daughter came away from Sy’s event with a new phrase to torment her brother with: “cut the crap,” which one of the parrots Sy met said with relish. We now spend soccer games daring each other to yell that.

Eaarth is that rare volume that is not only an Important Book but is also humorous, instructive, and somehow even a bit upbeat, even though we’re more or less screwed if we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Bill McKibben is one of the great men of our times — and we just had around 150 people in the store to hear him last night. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord?  I visited my mother in Columbia, SC, a university town of around 50,000, twice that if you include Ft. Jackson. Their indie bookstore closed. Concord, you rock.

As Hillary Nelson, one of my favorite freelance writers, said in her review in Thursday’s Concord MonitorEaarth is also a “hopeful and, well, patriotic book, a testament to the durability and flexibility of American democracy. Only a writer as good as McKibben could pull off this feat.”  It’s true — and in person he is every bit as graceful and spellbinding as he is in print. Check out his work at 350.org. Join. Really, what are you waiting for?

Kate, my aforementioned rector at St. Paul’s Church, has been very supportive of our parish’s work welcoming refugees to our community. She told me her mother welcomed refugees in New England many years ago, and recommends This Flowing Towards Me by Marilyn Lacey, to anyone engaged in this ministry. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lacey alternates between telling her own story of discovering her call to serve in refugee camps in Thailand and refugee resettlement in the U.S., and the stories of some of the remarkable people she has known.

Lacey takes her title from a Rumi poem; besides being a memoir of working with refugees, Lacey’s book also explores her personal experience of God “flowing” towards her in many ways, from a bulletin board notice to poetry to a church sign that caught her eye. She is an example of a person living a mindful life, open to the flow of spirituality, and willing to put her faith into action. But the book is not preachy — she tells it how it is for her, and if you’re not religious, you’ll still find plenty to admire and learn from in her travels to Sudan, Thailand, and many other places.

Poetry is certainly a door to inspiration for me — I felt so lifted by my close reading of the latest books from Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and WesMcNair (who were all brilliant, by the way — the reading was great fun, and the Computer Scientist came away an even more devoted Hall disciple), that I vowed to read poetry more regularly. I pulled two books off the “to read” shelf and dove in: Earthlight, by Hannah Stein, and Miracle Fair, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak.

Earthlight inspired me to pull out a few of my own poems and get back in the saddle — I hadn’t sent work out for a long time, in part because I was tired of “hopeful” rejection letters that either told me the review in question wasn’t really looking at new work (despite guidelines to the contrary) or that my poems were “close.” And in part because David Alpaugh’s article “The New Math of Poetry” is enough to end anyone’s literary aspirations.

My favorite of Hannah Stein’s poems in Earthlight were “This Time, This Place,” about the poet’s experience of a Monet exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago; “Grace,” with my favorite lines in this collection, “The sky has hoarded brightness/like armfuls of lilac;” “Loving a Mathematician,” which makes the list of my favorite marriage poems, and is a lovely tribute to right brain/left brain partners; and “All But the Blackberries Themselves,” a poetic tribute to greed but also just a delightful poem about summer’s abundance and the way it lures us.

Wislawa Szymborska, and for that matter Joanna Trzeciak, are on another plane. A Nobel laureate whose work is not well known outside poetry circles and readers of Polish, Szymborska writes with a wry humor and a searing eye for truth. Poetry can be a window into the meaning of life — you could read poetry to study philosophy, if you were dedicated and maybe a little bit mad.

Szymborska could be your gatekeeper, your guide, your boatman. Whether she is writing about something as simple as a drop of water on her finger (“Water”) or boundless as the concept of zero (“A Poem In Honor Of”), these poems require multiple readings to enjoy their nuance and depth. I want to wallow in this glorious collection for a long time. Translation, as I have mentioned in previous bookconscious posts, is an incredible art. I’m so grateful for the talented Trzeciak and other literary translators who bring this kind of work to their own languages.

While we’re discussing translation, I finally got around to reading a delightful little book I’ve had in my “to-read” pile for awhile now, Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. This was another airport read. Despite its brevity, this was a perfect little book, witty and wacky and True with a capitol T. I have great admiration for both contemporary and classical Japanese literature — what a marvelous world we live in, that I, who have no Japanese at all, can enjoy Murasaki Shikibu, Haruki Murakami, Basho, Shiki, and others, whenever I like.

But I digress. Kitchen is a book I plan to keep around for when the Preteen is a bit older and interested in relationships. I think Yoshimoto is almost Jane Austen-like in the way she delves into the society of her characters and probes their expectations, pride, and yes, prejudices. She writes at once about Japanese culture that feels exotic and mysterious to Western readers, and about universal emotions that connect us all as human beings: love, grief, friendship, family, coming of age. Read this book. It won’t take you long, and you’ll feel richer for it.

Speaking of Jane Austen, you get the feeling that Tracy Chevalier was channeling Jane when she wrote Remarkable Creatures. I haven’t enjoyed any of her books as well as this one since Girl With the Pearl Earring. I think I was drawn to this Remarkable Creatures because I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning.

I never knew about her complicated friendship with Elizabeth Philpot (I guess I’d read only very brief overviews of Anning’s fossil hunting until now), and her even messier relationships with many of the leading men of science in England and France.  Chevalier’s novel is just what I look for in historical fiction — detailed, intriguing, and well drawn, with enough facts to pique my curiosity and a plot to keep me reading.  I’d like to read The Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling, to fill in the rest of the facts.

On Monday, Gibson’s Book Club will be discussing Per Petterson‘s Out Stealing Horses.  I read it before my recent travels, and then I took his next book (due out in August in the U.S.), I Curse The River of Time, along for the plane rides. I really enjoyed both, but I had my reservations about the ending of the forthcoming book. In fact, I read it over three times on the way home, hoping somehow that it might get better. I’m afraid it didn’t. Still, I enjoyed Petterson’s writing very much, and I maintain that like the other books in translation I’ve explored these past few months, my reading life is richer for having made connections with literature from other countries.

Out Stealing Horses is a good book club choice, and I’m looking forward to hearing what our group has to say about it. It’s a somewhat poignant book, with a protagonist who is looking back in old age at a series of events in his youth that impacted him profoundly. Set at the end of World War II and in contemporary times, the novel takes a hard look at many of the universal questions I found myself drawn to in the rest of this month’s books  — who are our family, and how do we relate to them and to our real and remembered selves at different stages in our life? Are our memories trustworthy? What is trust? Is absence a form of love?

While I was busily buried in books, making connections, and likely driving my family crazy with my book light, baggy eyes, and absent-minded lost-in-thought musings, my family was also busy reading. The Preteen continued to read manga, including +Anima and Gakuen Alice 2. She’s reading Through the Looking Glass, and she and the Computer Scientist are each re-reading Harry Potter books.

I remembered that we have The Cartoon History of the United States by Larry Gonick, and the Preteen is enjoying that. We read aloud the entire eleven volume A History of US by Joy Hakim a few years ago, but I figured given her long interest in comic drawing, this might be appealing.  She likes it enough that I pointed out Gonick’s A Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-7, and she carried that off to her reading nook.

The reading nook is actually a corner of her closet — she has a much larger closet than the rest of us, and it’s well lit. She’s decorated it with all kinds of cool things on the walls and ceiling, and she has a big comfy chair in there, next to some shelves where she can keep books and display artwork and other items. It’s a very cool place. But she’s not in there as much these days because a) the weather is nicer so she can get outside and b) she’s adopted a pair of gerbils, and she spends more time playing with them. She also read Gerbils: The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care by Donna Anastasi this month, which Jammin’ Gerbils recommends as the definitive guide.

The Teenager finished The Edible History of Humanity, which he enjoyed tremendously (he keeps reminding us that hunting and gathering worked well)  and decided to see what else I had on the history shelves. He’s been reading A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. He told me he likes how in-depth it is for a book that covers so much time. This book has reminded him how much he’s always enjoyed learning about ancient history, and has led him to consider colleges with classics departments.

Meanwhile, he’s not quite made up his mind whether to go straight to college (he’s a junior right now) or take a year off. Especially since his once-a-reference-librarian-always-a-reference-librarian mother keeps giving him more information to consider. Right now he has The Gap Year Book from Lonely Planet and Kristin White‘s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year on inter-library loan. Makes me wish I was young again.

The Computer Scientist read Steve Almond‘s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and he says, “Very enjoyable read for anyone that’s ever caught themselves a little too into a rock and roll band. Funny and insightful.” He also pronounced Steve Almond’s event the most hilarious author event he’s attended at Gibson’s.  Now he’s reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London, which bookconscious readers know I loved and recommended.  He’s considering a Star Wars read-a-palooza for summer.

What’s in my pile? I’m halfway through Jay Atkinson‘s Paradise Road, which is great fun so far, and I plan to read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving because his writing is brilliant and it was in at the library when I picked up the gap year books, and Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake for the same reasons. I also have Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and a book of Ted Kooser’s poems, and another of Donald Hall’s essays, plus a few interesting choices in the coming events books: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare and I Thought You Were Dead, to name two.

So, Computer Scientist, if you’re reading this? You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for (thanks, Billy Joel).

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In February, the Teenager and the Computer Scientist took a trip to England. I traveled to England through books, as well as to Greece, Russia, Israel, Peru, China, India, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, plus Virginia and New York. Sounds like a poor substitute for actual travel, but I made it to more places. I’ve always enjoyed vicarious travel through books, especially in the long gray months of winter. I love traveling, but in the mean time, books are a good way to get away.

While the boys were in London, I was reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London. Gibson’s co-hosted her reading at the NH Historical Society library last week. Her book is amazing — I’ve read a fair bit about WW II, but she tells stories I’d never heard before. In particular, she writes about the crucial role the American Ambassador to Great Britain, John Gilbert Winant, played in forging and maintaining the Anglo-American alliance.

It is a real shame that Winant is mostly forgotten today. He was a politician, but one whose ideals trumped party loyalty. He was a man with a privileged background in a position of power and influence, but he walked the streets of London during the blitz, lending a hand and asking people how they were doing. He was both a great thinker — his vision for a more just postwar world inspired everyone from cabinet ministers to striking coalminers — and a humble public servant. He eschewed luxurious quarters for a simple flat and made a habit of seeing ordinary people without appointments, while “important” visitors cooled their heels outside his office.

Olson brings Winant to life, along with Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow, and a host of lesser known Americans who worked to support England in her “darkest, finest hour,” to bring America into the war, and to defeat fascism. Some of Olson’s stories about America looking out for its own interests while London burned made me sick. I had read a bit about how desperately Churchill pleaded for America to enter the war in Paul Johnson’s book, Churchill. I did not know Truman cut off food aid to Britain after the war, nor was I aware that England didn’t finish paying off its American war debt until 2006.

Roosevelt doesn’t come out looking very good in Olson’s book — nor had he in Paul Johnson’s biography of Churchill, which I read last month. But Harriman’s story is fascinating, as Olson shows him growing into a real diplomat after manipulating his way into politics as a rich, ambitious business man. Some of the minor characters Olson introduces are also very interesting, like Tommy Hitchcock. He popularized polo in the U.S., was a model for two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, and a leading figure in saving the allied bomber program during WWII.  Until Hitchcock, Winant, and others finally prevailed on war planners to send fighter pilots to escort our bombers, they were regularly shot down.

If all of this sounds dry, it’s not in Olson’s talented hands. She manages to make relatively obscure, potentially boring historical topics like the Lend Lease program and the intricate bureaucracy of the Allies’ war planning come alive with good storytelling and fascinating characters.  Olson also tells personal stories of wartime romances between Churchill’s daughter Sarah and Winant, and Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela and both Harriman and Murrow.  And, as Olson told the audience at her reading, despite the bombing and deprivation, London was the most vibrant place in the world during the war. Olson certainly makes it vibrant with her descriptive, vivid passages about wartime life.

Another book set in England, this time contemporary England, that I enjoyed this month was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  This novel struck me as a sort of twist on the aga saga; Major Pettigrew is the main character, and we also meet his son and some of his friends, but he faces classic “aga saga” issues, like mourning a spouse, getting along with his grown child, seeking companionship in his twilight years, finding ways to make a difference, and getting involved in local issues after many years of being otherwise occupied. Simonson addresses classism, racism, consumerism, and religious discrimination with empathy and humor, in a novel that might amuse Jane Austen with its gentle social skewering.

But Major Pettigrew manages to be more than a contemporary novel of village manners. Simonson delves into the tensions British citizens of South Asian descent feel when they are mistaken for foreigners, the age old problem of belonging to two cultures, and even the struggle of honoring religious faith without veering into extremism.  She also weaves a subplot around development versus land preservation, without making either side seem villainous (an ensuring both have a shot at acting ridiculous).  And the book’s love story is tender and realistic, and like the Major, charming.

Joe Hill was at Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago and as we chatted but what we’d each been reading, he recommended City of Thieves by David Benioff.  At the beginning of the book a young man sits with his grandparents and asks what it was like in the war, during the siege of Leningrad. The rest of the story is what the grandfather tells him. It’ll keep you turning those pages even after you realize you’ve stayed up too late.

Like Simonson, Benioff deals with serious issues via comedy, but his humor is much darker. He also introduces characters which could easily become cartoonishly “typed” — the Nazi SS officer, the wealthy Russian colonel whose family feasts while Leningrad starves, the young heroes — Benioff gives them each personality and none of them falls flat. I enjoyed the historical details worked into the story, as well as Benioff’s delightful dialogue and his main character Lev’s inner monologue.  It’s a quirky, well told tale.

Another quirky, quick read I enjoyed this month is Zachary Mason‘s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Mason re-imagines many of Odysseus’s adventures in shards and fragments, which are meant to be newly discovered versions of the stories, left out of the “official” Odyssey. Like pieces of broken Greek pottery, some scenes are easier to make out than others.

I especially enjoyed a story in which two Odysseus’s converse — and you have to concentrate to follow which is the real one, and which the imposter. A fresh take on the Cyclops’ tale, told from his perspective as Odysseus’s victim, was also intriguing. Mason makes readers wonder if stories, like geometric models, might hold their shape but look different from each perspective —  the way the juncture of an angle look different when rotated, a flat face offers one view straight on and another one seen from above.

This idea that perspective changes the story is true in The Caliph’s House: A Year In Casablanca by Tahir Shah. Shah left London a few years ago to move his family to a large, crumbling villa in Casablanca. Although he’d visited Morocco, living there brings a series of challenges, cultural and philosophical, as he tries to renovate the house without angering its resident Jinns, settle his young family, get along with the neighbors (some of whom don’t seem to want him there), and learn about his beloved grandfather‘s final years in Morocco.  Ultimately his wife tells him if he wants to put all these demons behind him, he has to “be like a Moroccan.” The book is exotic and fascinating, and I’d like to read more of Shah’s books.

Last Friday, Ted Conover came to Gibson’s to discuss his new book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.  Conover traveled around the world to tell the story of six roads in places as different as tropical Peru and Palestine. In each place he got out on the road with locals, so the stories he tells are not just of his own travels but of the lives of the people he meets.  Conover manages to be both a fan of roads and a fair observer of both the troubles they bring, and the benefits. I liked that he didn’t give pat analysis but left readers to ponder the balance of progress and problems, both human and ecological. This is a book with heart.

Earlier in February, I enjoyed a novel that also examined “progress” and how we deal with it, socially, culturally, and technologically. I’m a huge fan of Jasper Fforde‘s mind bending literary thriller series, especially his Thursday Next books. But in Shades of Grey, Fforde outdoes himself.

Set in Chromatacia, a dystopian society in what was once England, this novel is wacky, rollicking fun with serious undertones. Chromatacia is divided along color lines. The colors people can see determine their status, work, and mate. This highly regimented society arose after the fall of our own, which is preserved only in artifacts and ruins; Fforde alludes to a disaster, but it’s not clear what happened.

As in his other books, Fforde pokes fun at government bureaucracy, class consciousness, and human nature; he is wickedly funny, even as he addresses issues that are often depressing in real life. Fforde’s imagined new world is so detailed and nuanced, I am simply in awe of his creativity. But he isn’t just imaginative, he’s also a good storyteller, who makes you root for and against the zany cast he’s assembled, and wish the book wouldn’t end. Luckily, a sequel is already in the works.

Another book that left me hoping to hear more from the author in the future is In An Uncharted Country, by Clifford Garstang. He’s coming to the store this week to read from this collection of linked stories set in Rugglesville, Virginia, a small Appalachian town. A customer recommended we invite him, and since then I’ve learned March is Small Press month, so it’s a good time to welcome a talented small press author.

I enjoyed the way Garstang wove different generations’ stories together. I especially liked the way “Flood, 1978,” “The Hand Painted Angel,” and “The Red Peony,” worked together.  But I also enjoyed “William and Frederick,” which was less directly related to the other stories, and “The Nymph and the Woodsman,” which is simply beautiful, and tragic. Actually, there wasn’t any story I didn’t care for, and I can’t remember the last time I read a collection where at least one story didn’t disappoint.

While the boys were away, I took the Preteen to browse Manga. We’d tried looking online, but it’s difficult to pick books that way. She is not interested in Manga with “lovey dovey” storylines, instead preferring stories of magic, hold the kissing. She ended up with Hollow Fields, Hibiki’s Magic, Big Adventures of Majoko, and Tokyo Mew Mew. She liked Hollow Fields the best, by far — lots of mad scientists, robots, and flashbacks in time. She’s taking a Manga class and that has piqued her interest in the genre.

We took her to see the new Alice In Wonderland movie, so she is reading Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, in a pretty illustrated version we found at the library. She also read a fun graphic novel called Wonderland, by Tommy Kovac, which is about Mary Ann, the White Rabbit’s maid. And I found another library book she hasn’t started yet called The Other Alice, all about Alice Liddell. I also cut out this great op-ed from the NYT called “Algebra In Wonderland.”

The Teenager took a couple of books on the trip, but ended up having such full days that he went straight to bed. He has a cold, which morphed into “Atypical Pneumonia.” So he’s laid low all week. On the first morning after the antibiotics began to make him feel better, I found him with a pile of photography books, including a Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness and Porter‘s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (thanks, Grandpa and Jan) and The National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Photography. He took some awesome photos on the trip, which you can see at his Flickr stream.

He also picked up Three Steps to the Universe: From the Sun to Black Holes to the Mystery of Dark Matter. He was telling me today that he’s always been fascinated by space and astronomy. In fact, while he was gone, the Preteen and I watched some home videos (she had a cold, too, and that’s something she likes to do when she’s not feeling well), and I got a kick out of seeing the scale drawings of the planets we made, colored, and hung across the playroom walls when they were small. We also enjoyed seeing his diaper box space shuttle, with soup can exhaust pipes. It’s nice to see him continuing to enjoy his interests, with a good read.

The Computer Scientist also took books on the trip. He read another Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island. He said it was captivating enough that he thought about it between reads, and enjoyed the way Lehane kept readers guessing right up to the end. He also read some graphic novels recently, including an adaptation from one his all time favorite books, The Stand, and The Ghost In the Shell.

While in England, the boys visited Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough, and birthplace of Winston Churchill.  He took Paul Johnson’s Churchill along, and enjoyed that it was concise but gave him a complete overview. He also bought a book of Churchillian witticisms at the War Cabinet Rooms and Churchill Museum.

What books are we all looking forward to? The Preteen went on another Manga foraging trip last weekend and has a few new titles.  The Teenager has some British soccer magazines stockpiled. The Computer Scientist has a couple of books I recommended (including Citizens of London and City of Thieves). I see a few books on his nightstand, too.

I have more books from authors coming to Gibson’s soon, like Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved, and I’ve requested a couple of the books at the library, including The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.  In April the Gibson’s Book Club is discussing Robert Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno — with Mr. Pinsky joining us via Skype at Red River Theatres — so I need to read that. I also have an intriguing memoir in my stack, Making the Grades, about the author’s experiences in the standardized test industry, and an advance copy of a new novel due in April about a summer in Louisa May Alcott’s life.

I’d better go dig in.

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When I began bookconscious we were still living in a small town in the Deep South. I missed the four seasons, and one of the things we enjoy about being back in New Hampshire is winter. Really!  Lots of people ask how we can stand the long winters here. In most of the places we’ve lived, winter was a drag. Wet, gray, dreary, without fluffy clean snow and bright sunshine to break up the monotony.

In New England, winter is like the other seasons — gorgeous and changeable. It may be gray and slushy on occasion, but the next day may be postcard lovely. As I write, it’s snowing lightly but the sun is breaking through, so the flakes look like mylar confetti.  It’s cold but not bone-chilling today, and the wind is calm. The bare branches look fetching with a sparkly new coating of snow.

In fairness, even where winter is pretty and bright, it gets dark early, and there is the post-holiday let down when you’ve made it through New Year’s and the promise of spring is a long way off. There’s nothing like a good fire and a good book to fight off the melancholy effect of winter’s darkness, or to revel in the long nights  if you find them cozy.

I started 2010 with a book I’d wanted to read for some time, Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians. Billed as a sort of Harry Potter for grownups, this novel opens with a young man named Quentin receiving his call to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  The novel follows him from those first confusing hours through his graduation and into the world(s) — ours, and the world where a series of children’s fantasy novels is set.

The Magicians is a dark look at how magic might co-exist with our world.  It’s also a coming of age novel, complete with sex and drugs. And an engrossing read that considers the impact our favorite children’s books have on our worldviews, our characters, our psyches.

Fascinating stuff for a mother in the Harry Potter era, when critics of Hogwarts’ intoxicating charms warn that J.K. Rowling has dangerously blurred children’s notions of fantasy and reality. My kids both went through phases of wishing fervently that Hogwarts were real (heck, so did I). Grossman gives us a peek at what might happen if it were, and if kids with magical powers grew up into adults with those powers.

Like The Magicians, Kate Morton‘s The Forgotten Garden was on my library list for a number of months. Morton is Australian and the book is set in Australia and England. I enjoyed the shifting setting as well as the shifting time — as the protagonist researches her mysterious family history, she reads a notebook her grandmother left. These notes tell about the previous generation, in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Since I’d just read Alice I Have Been, which is also set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I enjoyed the connection. Morton is a good storyteller, and once I got into The Forgotten Garden, I tore right through it.  It didn’t stay with me for days after, the way Alice did.  But I’m planning to read Morton’s other books.

A fascinating story that did stay with me for a long while after I reached the end is one I gave the Computer Scientist for Christmas: Ursala LeGuin‘s The Lathe of Heaven. We both really enjoyed the premise of LeGuin’s fascinating story: a man’s dreams impact reality.  She wrote the book in the 1970’s about the future, but the book felt fresh and even timely, as climate change and war in the Middle East both factor into the story.

Many books I’ve read recently are set during wars. At last month’s Gibson’s  book club discussion, a new participant who had also read The Piano Teacher suggested Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. I read it fairly quickly, and again enjoyed the connection to my other reading, as the novel took place both around the time of WWII and decades later, just as The Forgotten Garden spans much of the twentieth century. Because we lived in the Seattle area for awhile, I was interested in the details about the homefront in the Pacific Northwest.

Ford explores the meaning of ethnicity and identity as well as family relationships and loyalties in Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I enjoyed many of the minor characters — a cafeteria lady who gruffly looks after the protagonist who is bullied at school; a jazz musician who befriends the boy; his mother, who is caught between her love for her son and her loyalty to her domineering husband. Some of these relationships could be better developed, but it was a fun, interesting read and would be an interesting book club pick.

Speaking of book discussions, I joined a new series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on world religions. Their first selection was a book I’d bought at a library sale somewhere along the line and had been meaning to read, Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Bookconscious fans know I’ve been trying to study mindfulness for a few years, and I’ve read his books The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step. Both are powerful books to dip into again and again, rather than digest all at once.

This book is different, though — Hanh veers away from teaching mindfulness to explore Christ as his own “spiritual ancestor.” He finds parallels in the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. I’ve always found the interconnectedness of faiths very interesting, and his insights are thought provoking. Hanh’s writing is simple and clear, and you’re bound to come away from reading any of his work with only a glimpse of what it might mean. A few days later, the glimpse might expand a bit until you’re seeing the whole horizon.

Speaking of a book that will expand your horizon — go read The Power of Half by Kevin and Hannah Salwen. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in one sitting (while waiting for the Teenager at the indoor soccer facility where he trains). The book reads like a long piece in a good newspaper, which makes sense, since Kevin Salwen wrote for the Wall Street Journal. It’s the story of the Salwen family’s decision to sell their grand Atlanta home and give half the proceeds to a nonprofit.

The Salwens worked together, kids and parents each weighing in, to decide how best to donate the money.  Kevin writes well, and his observations about how development aid works best were enlightening, even though I have read a great deal about aid and agreed with where he was starting from (helping people help themselves is better than telling them what help they need). I like a book that teaches me something new about something I already know about. I also appreciate the way he shares the things that went poorly.

Hannah’s parts of the book are also enjoyable, and she’s an inspiring kid. She writes about her experiences volunteering, and she offers young readers exercises to help them identify ways they can make the world a better place. This makes the book much more than a memoir about one family’s giving – anyone could pick up The Power of Half and get practical ideas and support for making an impact in their community and the world. I can’t wait to meet Kevin and Hannah at Gibson’s in a couple of weeks — they are doing an event at the store and an event at an area school, both of which will benefit Capitol Region Habitat for Humanity.

Another author I look forward to meeting is Susan Hand Shetterly, who is coming to the store this week. Her book, Settled In the Wild, is a beautiful book about the resilience of the wild, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of the human and natural worlds. Unlike some naturalist writing, Settled neither scolds nor romanticizes.

I think the balance Hand strikes between explaining her deeply felt connection to the wild all around us and the need for humans to coexist responsibly with nature is just right. Shetterly’s thoughtful writing, graceful perception, and admirable powers of observation, along with her affectionate portrayal of her human neighbors and her own experiences making a life in small town Maine, makes this an enjoyable book for fans of memoir as well as nature lovers.

Shetterly’s book is about achieving a well-lived life as much as it’s about nature. It’s enjoyable to reflect on the role of everyday people in history — something most history books can’t or don’t cover. But it’s also inspiring to revisit the lives of those larger than life historical figures whose impact is widely known. Paul Johnson‘s Churchill is one of the most delightful biographies I’ve read, because Johnson treats his subject both as a historical figure and as an individual who lived his life well.

Johnson effectively reviews Churchill’s basic biographical details in a compact book, but he also writes eloquently of the pivotal moments when Churchill’s brilliance manifested itself. He manages to give a full picture of the great man of history (including those rare things he got wrong) and the friend, husband, and father; the statesman and the painter; the orator and the bricklayer.  Because Johnson met Churchill and those who knew him, he sprinkles the book with personal anecdotes and quotes from their conversations as well, which gives the book an amiable feel. I liked the combination of  Johnson’s masterful political and historical analysis and his convivial celebration of Churchill’s humanity.

Another astute observer of her subjects’ humanity is Edwidge Danticat. Her piece in the New Yorker about her cousin Maxo, who died in the earthquake in Haiti, is a lovely description of the impact of his short life, a life that would have gone unnoticed by most of the world, were it not for this tragedy. But she manages, in roughly 1,000 words, to present him as fully human. In The Dew Breaker, she manages to present as fully human a character who is a torturer in the regime of Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier.  I’d never read Danticat, and I thoroughly enjoyed her rich writing and the psychological depth of her storytelling.

I picked up Danticat’s book at the library because like so many people, my knowledge of Haitian culture is limited. I’ve read about Partners In Health‘s work there, and learned a little about Haiti reading Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains. But like many Americans, my exposure to world literature is not as thorough as it could be. I’d heard of Danticat, and know the work of some African and Indian writers, because they write in English.

In an effort to expand my literary horizons I read a wonderful anthology, Words Without Borders, which brings readers a selection of work in translation, selected by well known authors.  I took a workshop on literary translation last spring, and this collection made me admire that complicated art even more. I’m thrilled that this anthology is a project of Words Without Borders online magazine, where even more work in translation is available.

Most of the book is fiction, with some poetry and essays. My favorite stories were the hilarious “The Scripture Read Backward,” by Bengali writer Parashuram; “The Uses of English,” by Nigerian Akinwumi Isola; and “Swimming at Night,” by Argentinian Juan Forn. I also loved the selections by Polish poet Bronislaw Maj.  Reading this anthology was like taking an extended trip around the world. Just the thing for a dark winter’s evening.

The Computer Scientist and I have been sharing some books this winter.  Besides The Lathe of Heaven, the Computer Scientist also read The Battlefield Guide. We share similar tastes in poetry and literature, but he also likes grittier stuff, like Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River, which he read recently. He enjoys Lehane’s direct but descriptive writing and noted the suspenseful clash between different socioeconomic segments in Mystic River.  He is still working on Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle and has started reading Churchill as well.

The Teenager is reading Profiles In Courage.  I know he’s enjoying it because when we passed the New Hampshire state house a couple of days ago, he pointed to Daniel Webster‘s statue and said, “That guy was a genius.” I asked him what caused him to suddenly feel so strongly about NH’s native son, and he said he’d read about him in Profiles.

I know he’s gotten something out of his recent American history reading, especially the graphic novel edition of the constitution, because he told me a week or so ago that our government is amazing, it’s just the people in it who are self-centered and stupid. 🙂  He knows that’s not true across the board, but he gets that the pre-occupation with gaining and holding office is interfering with the incredible idea that is America.

The Preteen has been reading the Manga series Tokyo Mew Mew. She likes the art; she’s been interested in this style of drawing for a while now and is taking a manga class. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that her favorite part is when the characters battle aliens.

The Preteen has also enjoyed the benefits of having a mother who works in a bookstore this month. She’s read a couple of books that aren’t out yet, including The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, (due out in Feb.), and started The False Princess, by Eilis O’Neal, (it doesn’t come out until July). She’s also reading The Purloined Boy, by Mortimus Clay, which I picked up for her at the New England Independent Booksellers’ Association trade show. Of the three, she likes the Purloined Boy the most.

All three are fantasy, and it’s hard to impress her in the fantasy department, since she is a devoted fan of Harry Potter and also of the Percy Jackson series (as I write she is enjoying Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Ultimate Guide), Ursula LeGuin’s Catwings books, as well as some very good stand alone books like Ella Enchanted. We also read aloud all of the Narnia and Prydain books and Susan Cooper‘s Dark Is Rising sequence when she was younger. So she’s grown up with high standards, and is often disappointed. She keeps returning to the fantasy genre though, and sometimes she finds a new favorite, like The Amaranth Enchantment.

I’ve experienced the same thing, occasionally picking up some book I’ve been looking forward to and feeling let down. Reading leads us to new places we haven’t yet explored, and one reason I love it so much is that sense of anticipation a new book offers. Will it be a book I can’t forget? Will it enrich something I’ve recently read, making connections that lead me on to even more wonderful books? Sure there’s a chance it will let me down, but even then, I’ve added to my experience as a reader. Finding words wanting is better than not finding them at all. Besides, that new favorite is out there, just waiting for me to crack it open.


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