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Lauren Groff is coming to my local bookstore tomorrow, so yesterday at work I decided to check out Fates and Furies, which we happened to have. I read Arcadia several years ago and had always meant to read more of her work. I’d heard this book was about a marriage, so I think I was expecting something a little more down to earth. This is no novel about a mundane marriage. The people in this book are quite beyond anyone you know. And the telling is, too.

Which isn’t usually my thing, I realized as I read it today. It’s not that I dislike reading about the unusual — in this case, Lotto, heir to a fortune, disowned by his unhinged mother for marrying Mathilde, who Lotto believes to be the purest most virtuous person he knows. Lotto, it turns out, is the genius his mother always thought he’d be, and becomes a famous playwright. Mathilde, it turns out, has a number of unsavory secrets. But ordinarily I’m not very interested in stories about wealth and fame and privilege, even with a dash of tragedy thrown in.

And yet, I spent my holiday reading this book to the end, and couldn’t stop. Not only because I wondered what craziness would come next, but because Groff is just the kind of writer who compels the reader onward. Her writing is also intriguing. Sentences like “The sun shifted to reclining. It was eight at night.” And, “Hot milk of a world, with its skin of morning fog in the window.”And, “For a long time afterward, Mathilde was clammy on the inside. A grayish clay, crumbling on its surface.” Somehow these interesting ways of describing things didn’t slow me down, they made me curious to see where they were leading.

So, a good read, full of too many twists to reveal, with characters I enjoyed very much. The good and the bad aren’t caricatured, even when they could have been; you’ll probably find something to admire and loathe in most of the characters. The little details — Lotto’s sister Rachel and her wife have matching turnip tattoos, for example — give them three dimensions, warm breath. And the perspective, one part of the book showing the marriage as Lotto sees it, one part showing it as Mathilde does, is intriguing.

I’ve had it on good authority (several people in my book club!) that The Monsters of Templeton is fantastic, and I still remember listening to Richard Russo, who was in town for an author event, say that one of the best things he’d read was Delicate Edible Birds. It’s nice when you enjoy an author’s work to know there is still more to read.

Back to the 19th century and Adam Bede!

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I had this theory I wrote more about in the early days of bookconscious which I dubbed the “Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading” (if you’re interested search for that in the blog and you’ll see where I’ve written about it before). On a basic level I think it’s what leads us from book to book, sometimes making subtle connections, sometimes just thinking as we put one book down that it reminds us of another we’ve been meaning to read. On a more complicated level, as I wrote here in 2009, it’s about “the ways that we interpret ourselves through what we read, and the work interprets us, as we interact with it. In the process, we make connections for ourselves and with other people not just in reading, but in thinking about, writing about, discussing, reading reviews, and otherwise processing what we’ve read and placing it in our own mind map of what we know, believe, and love.”

What does this have to do with Smoking Kills? Well on the simpler level, I chose it because I had just finished The Scapegoat and had drawn a parallel between Du Maurier’s writing about men who looked identical Antoine Laurain‘s writing about the same idea. But on the deeper level, Fabrice, Laurain’s hero in Smoking Kills, made me stop and think about why it is that certain memories, especially those relating to our interests and pleasures, and to what may have reinforced those interests and pleasures in our lives, disappear to us on a conscious level and may need probing to find again later? And even if those memories are not consciously on our minds, how are they working invisibly to reinforce the pleasure we take in our interests now?

I’m not a smoker, but I’ve been called out for being addicted to reading. I probably am. Reading about Fabrice’s undergoing hypnosis to revisit the time just before he started smoking, the incidence of his first cigarette, and the reinforcing experiences that make smoking one of his greatest pleasures made me wonder what those memories and experiences are for me, with regards to reading? That said, reflection is all I want — watching Get Out and reading Smoking Kills, I’ll never undergo hypnosis!

So, the gist of this very intriguing and thought provoking novel, which is brilliant, by the way, is that Fabrice is a successful executive headhunter, married to Sidonie, the editor of a contemporary art magazine, and she wants him to stop smoking. They hear of a friend who used hypnosis to stop, Fabrice goes to the same hypnotist, and his pleasure in cigarettes is gone. But unfortunately for him, the hypnotist was not actually trained and the therapy he underwent had a very strange effect on him . . . he still likes to smoke, but only under one condition. He has to kill someone first.

As well as this page turning plot, there is so much more to ponder in Smoking Kills. Fabrice does not understand, appreciate, or even like much of the contemporary art Sidonie champions. So he spends time telling readers what he finds problematic and what he wonders about art. He also notes, “Having no opinions whatsoever in common with the person whose life you share is risky business. Even, I would say, impossible. . . .  After many years together, I would pay a heavy price for our aesthetic differences.”

How fascinating, even if no one in a relationship develops a murderous tendency! There are indications that Fabrice and Sidonie are still compatible, if not aesthetically. But what if you and your partner completely disagreed about something that one of you valued so much that you devoted your life’s work to it?

So, another wonderful book, less light-hearted and more introspective than some of Laurain’s other books but equally entertaining. And it has led me to pick up another book I recently bought at the new Manchester bookstore The Bookery. More on that soon!

*** I should point out that I read an arc; I thought the book was out next week but that’s the UK edition, and it comes out in August in the US. Worth the wait, however! ***

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I read this book on the recommendation of a friend and because it fulfilled the “book with a non-human character” square on my book bingo card. Here’s the review I wrote for the library:

Have you ever listened to squirrels chattering and felt it sounded almost like words? Veblen Amundsen-Hovda is pretty sure she understands them. Her fiancée, Paul Vreeland, wants to trap the squirrels in her attic. The Portable Veblen is the story of Paul and Veblen. He’s a doctor whose invention, the Pneumatic Skull Punch, could prevent the damage that occurs from swelling after a traumatic brain injury. He’s been courted by a mega-pharmaceutical company and is about to oversee a trial at a VA hospital. Veblen is a volunteer translator with the Norwegian Diaspora Project. She loves the work of the economist she’s named for (as you may know, he invented the phrase “conspicuous consumption”) and lives in a simple cottage that was so ramshackle it was uninhabitable when she found it. He wants a house and a boat.

They have in common dysfunctional childhoods – he’s the son of hippies whose guilt over their disabled older child prevented them from really being present for Paul, she’s the daughter of an institutionalized Vietnam vet and a severe hypochondriac. Growing up, he took solace in science, she in words: “When you entered the cavern of another language, you could leave certain people behind, for they had no interest in following you in.” Can Paul and Veblen survive their engagement? Will things implode when their families meet? What is the squirrel saying? A quirky love story, for fans of The Silver Linings Playbook. As a bonus, readers get a crash course in Thorstein Veblen.

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The digital world is smaller than the physical. Annika Milisic-Stanley contacted me via Twitter in December, to let me know about her new novel The Disobedient Wife. I don’t usually pursue unsolicited author enquiries, but it turned out we had Cinnamon Press in common. I’ve long admired the work of Jan Fortune and her family, who run this very fine small press in Wales and bring interesting books to the world, and my poetry has appeared in Envoi a few times. So when Jan got in touch with a review copy, I trusted this was going to be a good read.

And it was. I’ve never read a book set in Tajikistan and I’ll bet most of you haven’t either. Milisic-Stanley is a terrific writer, and she brings the beautiful and the bleak alive in equal measure, as in the opening line of the novel, “In the early hours snow fell, covering grey high rises, broken pavements and potholed roads, transforming the city into a winter fairyland.”

More importantly, she vividly portrays the lives of Nargis, a widow and mother of three working as a nanny, and Harriet, her expat employer. Harriet is a young Englishwoman and mother of two, married to a wealthy Belgian diplomat, Henri. Through her journal entries we learn that she feels useless and lonely in Dushanbe. Henri is never around, he expects her to entertain when groceries are scarce and power cuts are frequent, and he berates her for showing any interest in Nargis’s life.

Nargis, meanwhile, appears to be the disobedient one. She was married at sixteen to a man who loved her and treated her well, bore him two children, and watched him die of a cancerous throat tumor when only in his twenties. Her parents made her remarry and her second husband beat her son, ordered his mother to feed the children only bread, and eventually attacked Nargis. She left, but he took their infant son. She visits the child at her in-laws apartment, and mostly doesn’t have to see her husband, because he works in Russia a good part of the year like many other young Tajiks.

When the book opens we learn that Nargis is the only adult working in her household for the time being, and is supporting herself, her parents, her brother, and her children. Stretched thin, she wants to buy a small shop to increase her income. Just reading about her life was painful. Her family and neighbors consider her to be in the wrong for leaving her husband because most Tajiks seem to think that an abused wife deserves it. So she’s scorned both in her neighborhood and in Harriet’s world, where locals are seen as potential servants or criminals.

But Nargis is not the only disobedient wife. Harriet begin to sense that her life isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. In fact, even though she’s not physically abused and she’s wealthy, there is an imbalance in Harriet’s marriage that is odious in its own way. The more she gets to know Nargis and to empathize with her, the more she considers what she really wants for herself and her children. Harriet also wants to help, and that’s another interesting part of the book — Nargis doesn’t want to have to humble herself or be indebted but she desperately wants a better life, and Milisic-Stanley makes that easy to understand.

The book doesn’t paint the expat, missionary, and NGO communities in the best light, although again, Milisic-Stanley doesn’t make anything too cut and dry — there are some people who are better than others. There’s a definite ugly American, which was a little painful to read, but there are ugly Europeans too. The same goes for Tajiks — some are good people, some are not. Milisic-Stanley lived in Tajikistan and several other placed after graduating from SOAS in London, so she probably based her characters on people she’d met. There are definitely a lot of socio-political aspects to the story as well as economic, so it’s both an entertaining novel and a book that will make you think.

I won’t tell you what happens to either woman, but to Milisic-Stanley’s credit, there isn’t a pat ending for Harriet or Nargis — we get an idea of what direction things are going, but she doesn’t tie everything up in a neat bow. The Disobedient Wife is a thought provoking, mind-expanding book that offers views of lives so fundamentally different and yet at heart, exactly like ours; people everywhere just want to be safe, have enough food and health care and education for their kids, and security for their families. How we can get there is such a mess, and this book really shows how complicated and precarious it is, especially when the balance of power and wealth in the world is so lopsided.

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Over the summer I posted my review of Nichole Bernier‘s debut, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., which was also in one of my first Mindful Reader columns. Last week, Nichole came to Concord to read at Gibson’s. During her post-reading Q&A, I asked what she’d read lately. She had several recommendations, but Crossing to Safety stood out because author Wallace Stegner is one of those literary lights I hadn’t yet read. Yes, even English majors/writers/librarians haven’t read everyone.

As Nichole said, this is a beautiful book. In a bit of bookconscious interconnectedness, the Modern Library edition has an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams, another author I hadn’t read until recently. I just mentioned Williams in my post about The Book of Mormon Girl.  I love these kind of links. Williams’ assessment is lovely and true: “The personal in Stegner’s fiction becomes the universal. Impatience turns to patience. Reservations become possibilities of transformation.”

Crossing to Safety is about Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang, friends who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in 1938 when Larry and Sid are both young English professors. It’s about their respective marriages and their friendships, and it’s also about ambition and dreams, hardships and how to live. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, WWII, and the culturally turbulent years after, it’s also very much an American novel, examining two paths to success in our country — influence and ingenuity.

Larry and Sally are Westerners (Sally a first generation American) with no money or family pedigrees. Charity and Sid are wealthy, well-connected Easterners. Charity insists Sid “publish or perish” even if it means abandoning poetry and his dreams of a simpler life in their rural compound in Vermont; Larry pursues his literary ambitions rather than chasing tenure.

Charity’s plans don’t always come to fruition, but the Langs’ landing is always soft. Larry succeeds as an author on his own merit but his road is made smooth by Charity and Sid’s largess and their connections.  He doesn’t seem to resent this situation, only to relate it.

The Morgans’ friendship with the Langs dazzles them: “We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull . . . .” A few sentences later he adds,”Both of us were particularly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.” Later in the book, Larry notes, “They worried about us more than we had sense to worry about ourselves. What they had, and they had so much, was ours before we could envy it or ask for it.”

And despite the imbalance, each couple benefits from the friendship. Charity is a matriarch who manages and bosses everyone. But she’s not unkind. Larry says, “She is often right. She is also capable of a noble generosity, and of cramming it on the head of the recipient like a crown of thorns.” Sally and Larry offer their friends a deep well of goodness and shared experience; they know them and love them, just as they are.

The book’s structure is a circle; it opens with the Morgans arriving in Vermont in 1972, summoned by Charity, who is ill. From there, Larry reflects on a lifetime of memories, on the meaning of success and failure, morality and its measure, friendship and marriage. In the end, we’re back where we began, feeling a little wiser for having gotten to know these remarkable characters.

Larry tells us,”. . . if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe time is circular, not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving.” A few sentences later he adds, “Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.” Reading Crossing to Safety felt just like that. Stegner’s luminous, sometimes searing writing makes this novel thoughtful, moving, and a very great pleasure to read.

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It’s rainy and cool here in New Hampshire as I start this post, perfect weather for getting into pajamas after supper and curling up with a good book. I have somewhere to be, however. It’s a place I’ve mentioned several times on bookconscious: Gibson’s Bookstore. Tonight will be different: I’m the new events coordinator for the store!

I admit I’ve been in a more or less constant state of panicky excitement since accepting the job. “Cool, I’m going to meet so many authors! Aagghh, when will I write? It’s nice to have someone be so confident I’ll do a good job. Ack, what if I can’t figure out how to organize more events, increase attendance etc.? Oh stop worrying, you’ll do fine!”

Despite the interruptions from this annoying internal dialogue, I have managed to read most evenings, and the rest of the family, who are all utterly unruffled by my new status as an employed person, have all kinds of good books going. So without further ado, here’s what we’re reading in the bookconscious household.

The preteen is back to reading Royal Diairies, which she enjoys because they are historical fiction accounts of famous women’s girlhoods.  She’s also reading Live Free and Eat Pie, which I recommended, because the Computer Scientist took her and her best friend to one of Rebecca Rule’s storytelling evenings. They all thought it was hilarious fun, and apparently, he entertained them on the way there with an amusing anecdote about getting a cocktail straw stuck up his nose at a swanky party at the Superintendent’s house when he was a midshipman first class at the Naval Academy.

The teenager continues to read and study T.S. Eliot. He’s analyzing “What the Thunder Said,” which is the final section of The Waste Land, in order to write an essay. Next we’re going to read and discuss “The Four Quartets.”  He asked me the other day if we can keep reading poetry for our literary discussion group, instead of going back to novels. He’s also reading Instant Physics: From Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond, because he’s started a physics course and wanted to supplement it with a good read. Kid after my own heart.

The Computer Scientist is reading T.S. Eliot along with us, and is also digging into Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle, which is the second in a planned trilogy about WWII. He’s also got a bookmark in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Like me, he often has more than one book going. The other one on his nightstand with a bookmark in it is A Place on Water, which is a book of essays by three friends — Wesley McNair, Bill Roorbach, and Robert Kimber — who have “camps” (New England lingo for cabins) on a pond in Maine.

I just started a book set in Maine, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s the Gibson’s book club June selection, and it also just won the Pulitzer Prize.  I’ve just read the first of the book’s thirteen linked stories, called “Pharmacy,” and I really enjoyed it. The title character wasn’t the focus of the first story, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she pops up throughout the book. My first impression of  Strout’s writing is that it’s not predictable, and by the end of the first story I really adored the main character, Henry.  “Pharmacy” is an emotionally rich tale without being overblown or gooey with sentimentality.

Another writer whose work I enjoyed in May who is far from “gooey,” or as they might say in England, “treacly” about emotional topics, is Carol Ann Duffy. Like Strout, her writing packs a strong emotional punch. When I read about her selection as poet laureate of England, I checked the local library for her books. They have two of her books for young readers, The Tear Thief, and Queen Munch and Nibble, which the Preteen pronounced, “really cool stories to read to younger children, with cool illustrations, especially in The Tear Thief.”

Unfortunately, I had to order Duffy’s poetry collections on inter-library loan, but that takes no time here in New Hampshire, and I soon read two: The World’s Wife and Feminine Gospels. Both were amazing. It’s a bit humbling to imagine the intellect and creativity behind these poems.

The poems in The World’s Wife are told from the point of view of women in famous men’s lives throughout history and mythology, while Feminine Gospels deals more generally with themes of womanhood and female experience.  Both are full of powerful personalities that come alive. In both books I was impressed with Duffy’s poem craft — the way the language sings in her hands, her inclusion of rhythm, rhyme and near rhyme in thoroughly modern ways, the way she weaves voices and narratives. Lovely.

In May I read two other poetry books. One caught my eye in February, when it was Darwin’s 200th birthday: Darwin: A Life In Poems, by Ruth Padel. Padel happens to be Darwin’s great great granddaughter, but she is also a scholar, poet, BBC radio presenter, musician, and writer of acclaimed nonfiction books on everything from Greek views on the inner life of humans to tiger conservation. She’s led a fascinating life, and it’s the reading public’s good fortune that she is a talented writer who shares her experiences on the page.

Darwin was interesting because Padel used a variety of poetic forms, but also wrote in fairly contemporary style, with lots of enjambment (lines that wrap around), natural rhythm, and near rhyme rather than formal rhyme and meter. The stories of Darwin’s life told in the poems were also interesting — I’ve never read much about him beyond what one learns in history or science classes, and in the myriad magazine articles that appeared this year. The family stories, and Padel’s portrait of the Darwins’ marriage, were particularly fascinating. Interesting, too, to have these poems so recently in my mind as I began Olive Kitteridge, because Strout’s stories look closely at marriage.

The other poetry I read in May was a book I heard about on the Knopf poem-a-day newsletter in April, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young. In his introduction, Young acknowledges earlier translators of the great Chinese poet’s work, as well as other poets who encouraged Young as he worked on the new translations, including Charles Simic, who referred to Du Fu as “a swell guy.”

I’d had a taste of Du Fu, or Tu Fu as he is sometimes known, when the kids and I learned about China. I enjoy many kinds of Asian poetry, especially Chinese classical poems and Japanese forms including senryu, haiku, and haibun. Young’s book is not only enjoyable poetry, but also informative translation and editing — his frequent notes provide historical, cultural, and biographical context that enriches the poems. It’s especially interesting reading Du Fu today because he wrote as a “golden” time in China was descending into upheaval.

Upheaval is a major theme in Fields of Light:A Son Remembers His Heroic Father by Joseph Hurka.  Bookconscious readers know I took a workshop from Hurka at NH Writers’ Project’s Writer’s Day this year, and read his novel last month. I enjoyed this memoir even more. Hurka visited his aunt in the Czech Republic in 1993, shortly after the fall of communism. He visits places important both to Czech history and his own family’s history, and tries to deepen his understanding of his father as well as the country.

Hurka’s writing is beautiful — evocative but uncluttered. As my grandmother would say, (and this is the highest praise she gives a book) there’s not one extra word.  Most of all, I loved Fields of Light because of the way Hurka seeks connections between what he knows and what he is discovering as he immerses himself in his journey. As an added bonus, I learned a great deal about Czech history, too.

Last month, I learned about Irish history around the time of WWI while reading the Gibson’s book club selection, A Long Long Way. Author Sebastian Barry gives readers another glimpse into Ireland’s past in his more recent novel, The Secret Scripture. This time, the book is set mostly in Ireland, and is told through two diaries the main characters are writing. One is a psychiatrist, and the other is a patient in an asylum which is being closed. The doctor is trying to asses whether the  patient, a 100 year old woman, can be discharged or should be moved to the new facility.

I enjoyed the story, although like his earlier book, Barry goes to the bone emotionally, and parts of The Secret Scripture were painful to read. The language was strikingly different — perhaps more modern, certainly less musical than the prose of A Long Long Way. The ending caught me off guard. I’m not sure if it was because I had less time to read this month and stayed up far too late, so just wasn’t alert to the clues, or if it really was an unexpected twist.

One reason I had less time to read other books was that I promised a friend I’d read both Concord Reads 2009 selections. Bookconscious fans know I chaired last year’s CR, which is our town’s “one book, one community” program. This year, the committee selected two books: Pay It Forward, a novel (and it turns out, not the first novel to use the phrase “pay it forward” and The Soloist, a nonfiction book. Both are well known as films, and both are about someone making a difference.

I won’t go into much detail now, because I am going to be leading book discussions about both titles in the fall, and I’ll be interested to report then whether other readers shared my initial impressions. Also, I’ll re-read the books before then and perhaps come up with some new thoughts.

I enjoyed Pay It Forward (although I thought the ending was fairly predictable and disappointing). The author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, employs a shifting point of view that was engaging. By the end of the book, I cared about the three main characters, and some of the minor characters were very interesting. Towards the end of the book, although I had guessed the outcome, I was intrigued by some of the turns in the plot.

I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy The Soloist, which I hope means I’ll lead a good discussion because I’ll add a bit of dissent. The story itself is interesting, and Nathaniel Ayers and all the other people dealing with mental illness deserve the attention and help that’s come their way as a result of Steve Lopez‘s columns.

I gave the book an “okay” on Goodreads, mainly because I got the impression it was not so much a well crafted book as a bunch of columns looking for a more lucrative deal and a bigger spotlight. In fairness, there may be good reasons for Lopez to seek those things — as he reminds readers repeatedly, the attention he brought to Skid Row in L.A. caught the eye of people in power who could bring about change.

Every book I read this month was chuck full of promises — made, kept, broken, bent, modified, renegotiated. From Du Fu’s lament over imperial posts that never worked out to Darwin’s struggle with his wife’s wishes that he resolve religion and science in his work, to Barry’s and Hyde’s fictional betrayals and Lopez’s struggle to get Nathaniel Ayers off the street, promises everywhere, many of them unfulfilled or unfulfilling.

Eliot explores the way people don’t remain true to each other or to any kind of lasting belief system in the Wasteland and end up leading empty lives. Carol Ann Duffy and Elizabeth Strout look at tough women able to varying degrees to navigate all the treachery the world might throw at them without totally losing it. Hurka faces the extent to which his father’s generation dealt with communism’s false, cruel promises after the long struggle against fascism.

But despite all the disappointment, deceit, treachery, selfishness, betrayal — each one of these books leaves at least a tiny pinhole for hope to fill. In every case, the characters I read about this month looked around at their imperfect, broken world and all the people hurting each other and letting each other down and found a way to survive. In fact, the common thread seems to be that even if they often do the wrong thing, humans are almost all gifted with the ability to go on, get up, try again, right their lives and make them work.

And that, when you think about it, is one of the reasons literature exists, to remind us that no matter how bad things get, we’ll get by. Even Eliot’s dark Waste Land ends with “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” — which his note says is like “the peace which passeth all understanding,” beyond our human capacity to process, but with us, abiding in us and carrying us through, regardless of our frailty and our endless capacity to fail. Something bigger than any of us helps us transcend the worst in us.

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