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Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

The subtitle of Bacon & Aphramor’s book is What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight. An acquaintance who is a nutritionist recommended an article about body respect on Aphramor’s site Disruptive Women (yes, she had me at Disruptive Women) because she knows I have a teen daughter. I was so taken with the ideas in the article that I got the book on inter-library loan.

You’ve probably noticed that so-called sacred truths of dietary advice are frequently debunked. A widely discussed recent example was the Time magazine article last winter that examined why fat had been demonized when it turns out it’s not so bad. And dieting? Dieting, it turns out can make you fatter. Exercise? It won’t necessarily help you lose weight. I could go on, but you get the idea. This book is mind-blowing. And at heart, quite practical. We all have a “setpoint” — basically, a natural weight we settle at when we aren’t worrying about our weight. What Aphramor and Bacon suggest instead of dieting and following an exercise regimen is — get this — listening to your body.

They admit it isn’t easy, and it will take time to get used to, but they offer step-by-step plans to enjoy “Health at Every Size,” by respecting oneself and cultivating that respect through eating well, moving (their term for exercising) in ways that are satisfying and fun, and paying attention to emotional well being. All of which requires mindful awareness and a willingness to be open minded and try new things.

Why is that so hard? We’re conditioned to believe we should look a particular way, and to associate fatness with laziness, lack of willpower, or bad habits.We live in a sizeist society. Just yesterday, the BBC reported “fat shaming” on the Tube and around London. Aphramor and Bacon touch on the social justice aspect of this argument by noting there’s a great deal of evidence that people who are poor or who lack a “sense of agency” in their lives tend to have more health problems and to be stigmatized for them.

Body Respect notes that living in a world where being fat is “bad” not only stigmatizes people, it also causes our cultural obsession with body shape and size. Almost everyone has or is exposed to disordered thoughts about eating. Obesity is associated with disease and death, even though in many cases, other health and genetic factors are more debilitating than someone’s weight. If that’s not challenging enough to the status quo, Bacon and Aphramor go on to ask readers to let go of notions of “overweight” altogether.

I’ve read things along these lines before — I’ve written here about many mindfulness books, and I’ve read several articles in Atlantic Monthly about faulty scientific studies and the diet industry. I know that most of the diets Americans follow are not effective, that exercise should be enjoyable to be maintained. But Bacon and Aphramor say what I know to be true in a way I’ve never heard it said before — something Paul Harding says is a hallmark of good writing. He was referring to fiction, but good nonfiction can do the same thing.

Today I let my colleague who orders nonfiction know that this is an important read. It’s going to be on order at our library soon.

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I’ve written before here at bookconscious about my longtime effort to practice mindfulness and my frustrations therein. Over the years I’ve realized I am mindful in my everyday life in many ways. I’m much better at being in the present moment, and at recognizing that emotions, both good and bad, will pass. I’m still not very good about meditating regularly and I’m really bad at being mindful in the face of strong emotions or stress. Which I guess isn’t so unusual, but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating.

Recently I wanted to try to reintroduce the idea of meditating to Teen the Younger (I’ve tried to interest both her and her older brother several times), and get myself back into a regular practice. I found Sit Like A Buddha: a Pocket Guide to Meditation by Lodro Rinzler very helpful. It’s a compact book, easy to slip into a purse or pocket, but it’s packed with helpful information. I’ve read a number of meditation and mindfulness books, many of which are long and go into a great deal of explanation. That’s fine and even interesting, but for someone starting or re-starting a meditation practice, basic may be better.

Sit Like a Buddha is pleasantly brief and straightforward. Rinzler covers the why and how of meditation as well as the obstacles and benefits in short chapters outlining what he identifies as ten steps to becoming a regular meditation practitioner. The steps are sensible, from figuring out why you want to do this (intention) to relaxing. The instruction is light rather than pedantic, and sets achievable goals for readers.

Rinzler is in his early 30’s, lives in New York, wears bow ties and stylish glasses, and includes situations like going to bars and fantasizing about attractive people in his writing about Buddhism and mindfulness. He also doesn’t try to separate meditation and mindfulness from Buddhist teachings, as some writers do. So I got what he was saying but as a middle-aged non-Buddhist some of the book felt like it wasn’t addressed to me.

However, near the end of Sit Like a Buddha Rinzler notes, “When I ask you to relax with who you already are, I am asking you to be you. . . . That is the point here. Meditation is just a tool to let you be you: to bring a sense that you are actually good enough, worthy enough, and kind, strong, and smart enough to handle whatever arises.” Which anyone of any age or background could benefit from. I am hopeful that this book will help me make meditation a more established habit and that it will appeal to my family.

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When I drove to Vermont to collect Teen the Elder (in less than two months I have to call him something else!) from college, I caught up on some podcasts, including Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust interview with Jacqueline Winspear. I’d heard of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, but mostly avoid mysteries. I’m a wimp when it comes to blood and guts and I hate thinking about crimes and criminal intent.

But I love history, and Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist and I watched The Bletchley Circle on PBS recently. The series is about four women friends who were code breakers at Bletchley Park who work together to nab a serial killer in London a few years after the war. The murders made me squeamish, but the period details were terrific and I enjoyed the brilliant female characters.

So when I heard Winspear’s conversation with Nancy Pearl I was intrigued. Last weekend the Computer Scientist and I visited an inn on the southern Maine coast, and a mystery seemed perfect to take along. I loved it! Maisie is a very compelling character, a working class girl who goes into service and can’t resist her employers’ library. When she’s catches Maisie reading in the wee hours, Lady Rowan Compton realizes the girl’s remarkable intellect deserves developing, and she asks her friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, to tutor Maisie.

When the first book in the series opens, Maisie has opened her own office as a “psychologist  and investigator” in London, and Dr. Blanche is retired. As the book unfolds we learn about her life thus far and the training, study, and experiences that have shaped her, including studying “moral sciences” at Cambridge and serving as a nurse in Frace during WWI. Under Dr. Blanche’s careful tutelage, Maisie learned to take careful notes, think deeply, and meditate regularly. This combination of awareness and contemplation really struck me.

That’s what I’ve been working on myself — mindfulness and lately, contemplative prayer. I’ve tried meditation for years and have had mixed results. In a small group discussion of Jerry Aaker’s A Spirituality of Service and a Lenten series on types of prayer, contemplative or centering prayer appealed to me as a practice similar to meditation but less focused on breathing. Phil Fox Rose offers a nice “how to” on this kind of meditation. Contemplative awareness in Maisie Dobb’s world and our own is about compassionate insight into the messy, the broken, and the beautiful alike.

Why bother with this? Why not say a quick prayer if you pray, and get on with the day? Well, Maisie meditates for mental clarity. Regular practitioners swear by that, and as I mentioned in my review of Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, meditation  helps strengthen our “negative capability” as Keats called it, the capacity to live comfortably with uncertainty. Or to grasp a mystery, fictional or real. Such as trying to take in catastrophes like bombings or murders or natural disasters, or to be a witness to injustice (plenty of opportunity to do that lately, as our state argued about whether to fund essential services via casino gambling and a judge decides soon whether our town’s homeless people have a right to camp when there’s no shelter space).

I’m not sure if those skills will help me figure out what Maisie Dobbs is solving as I read the rest of Jacqueline Winspear’s series, but I plan to do that, as well as to hone my own contemplative and mindful awareness. 

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I finished Alexandra Horowitz‘s On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes last night, and earlier this week finished a book for next month’s column, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s A Million Years With You: A Memoir of a Life Observed.  Thomas is an amazing woman, who learned at an early age the value of being fully present (both to people and animals) and observing closely. More on her book in the column. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist specializing in animals — both women wrote very popular books about dogs. But her latest book looks at what we humans don’t see, hear or sense in our everyday environments.

On Looking is about Horowitz walking her own block and other city streets with eleven experts: her toddler son, a blind woman, an insect tracker, one of the foremost raccoon experts in the world, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a typographer, a physician, a public space specialist, a sound engineer, and her dog. On each walk Alexander immersed herself in the specialty of the person (or dog) she was with. By identifying signs that other creatures were nearby (or what lettering or types of stone reveal), understanding how the blind (or a toddler, an artist, a dog) experience the world, and so on with each of her walk-mates, she considered the unique perspectives of her experts, and all that was there to explore in plain sight.

All of us have experienced — at work, at home, in friendships and with our families —  the way differences of perception color our everyday experiences. What we each notice and what even those closest to us notice is not always aligned. But Horowitz reveals that not only do humans perceptions vary, but beyond that, we don’t give our full attention to what’s right in front of us. As a longtime (and very unskilled) student of mindfulness I knew this, but Horowitz’s book examines this phenomenon beautifully.

She finds as she walks around her block at the start of her project, “What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see . . . .” Throughout her fascinating research, walking with people who guided her beyond the familiar, Horowitz discovered “the unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe.” She writes with humor and very accessible intelligence, as well as curiosity and admiration for her fellow walkers.

Will I ever be as attentive as she is? My monkey mind gets in my way all the time, and I’m not sure I can ever wrangle my synapses’ high capacity magazine with a mindfulness trigger lock. I recently read that creative types and “sensitive” introverts have overly active brains so maybe fighting the way my brain works is counterproductive, but some stillness and attentiveness has got to be better than none. I don’t expect to reach Horowitz’s level of attention on my next walk, but she’s given me a great deal more to notice.

Which brings me to the seeing part of the post: thanks to an attentive friend, I heard about and attended the rally in our town on Monday in support of our homeless community, who’ve been evicted from both public and private land and had their belongings seized, including donated tents handed out by a number of churches and social organizations when winter shelters closed. At the rally I noticed that one of the problems facing the homeless is perception: people see someone rough around the edges and assume mental illness or addiction. But the only accurate definition of someone who is homeless is that he or she has no home.

If you or I had nowhere to rest, clean up, or be safe, we’d look a little rough. As my friend Kellie’s sign said: poverty is not a crime. Treating it as such isn’t productive. Refusing to see the homeless will not make the problem of homelessness disappear. Thank God telling them to get out of sight won’t put them out of mind of the concerned citizens who were present on Monday. I’m thankful for those that not only see but also do, who are providing legal representation, practical support, and loving kindness to people who have little else in this world.

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Yesterday afternoon I was running errands with Teen the Younger. She had earbuds in so I switched off the car radio in order to think. I was considering an audio essay I’d listened to earlier, a “This I Believe” piece by Holocaust survivor Jay Frankston, who believes that if more people — especially those with influence, like the Pope — had reacted to the Holocaust the way the Danes did (a national act of collective resistance, something my children & I learned of when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars together) millions of lives might have been saved, and Hitler’s policies would have failed. He said that when he speaks in schools, he reminds children they “must speak up against wrongs, however small.”

I had recently had a conversation with the Computer Scientist about a workplace incident  in which someone was rude without recognizing it — the person was focused on getting the answer she wanted to complete something the way she preferred and not on consensus or consideration. I suggested that schools and workplaces would benefit from conflict resolution training, maybe also mindfulness training so people learn not to react immediately to the triggers that tend to set us all off. It seems we need remedial training to be in community with each other. We decided it was impossible to know what would solve the epidemic of self-absorption in contemporary culture.  As my grandmother used to say, you can only do your best yourself and hope others do too. (An update: today the Computer Scientist sent me a quote he finds helpful, if challenging:  “Life becomes easier if you learn to accept an apology you never get.”)

As I thought about these things in the car, I imagined a post in which I’d discuss an Op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times which made me feel sick and heartbroken and outraged. It was written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the estimated 40 (40!) people currently on hunger strike in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a man who contends he has never done what he was suspected of (but has never been formally charged with) when he was captured and brought to the prison camp* 11 years ago. I was thinking that despite Guantanamo being a divisive and unpopular topic, by Jay Frankston’s humane standard, I must speak up. And that by doing so I’d  be encouraging the awareness of others that is so often lacking.

Then my phone rang as I stood in line at the local Goodwill store. It was my mother, calling as she often does when tragic events happen, to ask if I’d heard about Boston. Before we hung up she said, “Give everyone a hug. I’m glad you’re safe.” This wasn’t a reference to any of my family being at the scene — none of us had plans to attend the Boston Marathon yesterday. She was just stating a common response to senseless violence, relief that our loved ones are safe.

In the evening, I checked our local Patch.com site for news of local runners. I was disgusted to see in the comments section of the story another kind of response, vitriolic posts about gun control, President Obama, etc. I vented on Facebook that surely human history shows hate isn’t a good response to conflict. Two people who were among my closest college friends replied almost immediately that while that may be, hate and anger are easier responses to make and also the default for adults in our culture.

While I agree they’ve become the default, I don’t believe anger is easier than empathy. Loving kindness and empathy come easily to children. Anger grows as a habitual response to the unending stream of negative stimuli we are bombarded with. Like the woman who was blind to rudeness because of her own insecurities in the workplace, the Patch commenters didn’t think about the hurtfulness of their response. If you asked them why they felt it was right to focus on their own opinions at a time when severely injured people lay in hospital beds fighting for their lives, they would probably be shocked and argue they weren’t doing so.

This morning another Op-ed in the New York Times, this one by Jonathan Rieder about Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous anger, caught my eye and led me to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’d only read excerpts before and I’d never considered the letter in the way Rieder did. In line with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading, it turns out that just before I finally turned off the radio and went to bed last night, heartsick as all of us are over the bombings, I’d texted with Teen the Elder at college about his own response to the day: anger.

At first I counseled against anger. But when he replied that this kind of news makes him want to be out of college and working in some way to make the world better, I realized, and told him, that righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice as long as we avoid becoming bitter or hateful and channel it into right action. And when I read Jonathan Rieder’s piece and King’s words this morning I realized this is just what my son was feeling, and just what the world needs, along with people who are unafraid to speak up.

If you’ve never read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do. It’s a response to eight white clergy who had issued a statement condemning the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely.” It’s a remarkable piece, a reminder of the King’s gifts not only as a leader but as a thinker and writer.

Consider his words carefully and it will be hard to read the news: that gays should “wait” for marriage equality, prisoners should “wait” for justice, bullied children should “wait” for life to get better, ” the homeless should “wait” for year round shelters, college students should “wait” for a time when debt doesn’t shackle them for a lifetime, the uninsured should “wait” to not be bankrupted by medical bills, the elderly should wait for care that doesn’t require giving up a lifetime’s assets. U.S. citizens should “wait” for campaigns and voting to be fair and for politicians to engage in thoughtful work for the common good instead of partisan bickering, kids should “wait” while adults ban dodgeball and books in schools but allow assault weapons and high capacity magazines that make school shootings easier, low wage workers  should”wait” for a decent living, women should “wait” for equal pay, the mentally ill should “wait” for access to treatment, innocents caught in drone attacks should “wait” for the war on terror to end . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But King’s letter will also give you hope that Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, Jay Frankston, and countless others —  people just like those who ran towards the scene of the explosions yesterday to help the wounded, and just like those who opened their homes to stranded runners and their families in Boston, and just like all the people who take time every day to advocate for the voiceless and powerless, and just like Teen the Elder who feels fired up to join the ongoing march of humanity towards a just and peaceful world — are ready to lift hands and hearts and voices to that work.

*Also worth a read, a piece on the results of a nonpartisan report that without any access to classified materials concludes the U.S. engaged in torture after 9-11 and criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the lawyers and doctors who abandoned the core principles of their professions — upholding justice and not doing harm — to justify torture.

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Many of the books I read this month are about people who are actually a little bit happy being miserable. I think we all know people like that; we may all be somewhat prone to this. Sometimes lamenting life’s little annoyances feels good, and reading about someone else’s gripes can be very amusing. More on this in a moment.

I read a little less this month in part because I was writing more. Yesterday I “won” NaNoWriMo by finishing a novel of just over 50,000 words, written entirely in November. You can learn more about this crazy endeavor at The Nocturnal Librarian.  I also have a new obsession: zentangle.

My interest is zentangling caused me to request The Mandala Book: Patterns of the Universe by Lori Bailey Cunningham, on interlibrary loan.  This is one of those books that really excited the life learner in me. It full of gorgeous photos of all kinds of designs that occur naturally: shapes, mathematical patterns, branching, and more. Brief essays expand on the ideas presented in the photos. I really enjoyed the way Cunningham joins math, science, spirituality, and aesthetics to celebrate the beauty and mystery of our world. And I found inspiration for tangling!

Next, another book that isn’t about my proposed theme of enjoying a good gripe. It’s a book by an author I’ve mentioned on bookconscious before: David Rubel. His new picture book, The Carpenter’s Gift got a nice shout-out in the New York Times book review’s children’s holiday issue. David sent me a copy and I absolutely adore it — it will have a place of honor among my growing collection of holiday reads.

The Carpenter’s Gift tells the story of a little boy, Henry, who goes with his father to sell Christmas trees in New York City in 1931.  At the end of the day, they give away the leftover trees to some construction workers who’d helped them set up. They decorate the tallest of the trees at the site — Rockefeller Center. Henry makes a wish for a warm house to live in, and takes a pine cone from the tree home with him.

The construction workers turn up the next day with some extra wood and offer to build the struggling family a home. Henry helps a bit and is thrilled to have a warm place to live. When his parents throw a party to thank the men, Frank, the man who helped with the Christmas trees, gives Henry a hammer. Henry plants his pine cone and treasures the gift.

Flash forward, Henry has grown up, his tree is enormous, and along comes a man looking for a Christmas tree for Rockefeller Center. What seals the deal is that the man tells him the tree will be made into lumber for a house for a family in need — built by Habitat for Humanity. When the now gray-haired Henry attends the tree lighting, he sees a little girl picking up a pinecone from his tree.

Henry has the chance to complete the circle and share a very special gift. What? Did you think I was going to tell you the whole story? You’ll have to go get the book and find out what happens.

The story and its lovely illustrations by Jim LaMarche are perfect for curling up on a December evening and reading with a child. I love that the book incorporates history, holiday traditions, and the spirit of giving that can tranform this season into more than just making merry.

David also subtly touches on Habitat’s mission, which is to partner with people in need of decent housing (Habitat homeowners help build their own homes) and to bring people together to eradicate poverty housing. The impact of Habitat’s work is not only to build houses but to “transform the lives of volunteers,” as Rubel writes in the afterword, and his story really shows how that happens.

One more book before I get to the love of misery. Cinnamon Press, a terrific indie publisher in the UK, sent me Migrations by Anne Cluysenaar to review. Migrations is a collection of poems that are insightful, thoughtful,veined with wisdom, and also well crafted. Cluysenaar writes not only of human experience with feeling and skill, but also of human and natural history, literature, and philosophy.

The musical language in “Eels,” a poem in the section called “On the Farm,” is lovely, with interesting letter combinations such as the “gl” and “sh” along with “o” sounds as in the first stanza: “Glasseels, that in open ocean/passed for glints or ripples,/nose into rainflow freshness./Their gills flush crimson.” This reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s lilting poems.

“Through Time” is a series of poems that evoke the wonder of geological time and our human awe of it, and the poems’ shapes are jagged-edged like the shorelines, causeways, quarries, stream beds, shear zones, valleys, and other features Cluysenaar explores. She muses on things such as tiny prehistoric creatures who left “. . . delicate pale arabesques/on the stones at my feet” noting, “This was all beyond my/reach this flow –/independent ongoing life,/things quite unknown,/unconscious minds/feeding from tide to tide,/doodling grey stone.” There’s something almost liturgical in this language, and I love the image of an ancient chain of life leading to a person walking along the shore.

“Clay” is a long poem inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh and by the author’s discovery that an ancestress of hers lived 10,000 years ago in what is now Syria. The poem alternates between the ancient and the remembered present, as in this passage reflecting on a young scribe marking a clay tablet: “But what if he knows we’ll look down/on that river (still flowing), our steps/and our thoughts, like his, still restless?/I see his young hand, ghostly,/making strokes for the word life –/life that enforces a journey./My own, typing the word./Text upon text upon text./And thoughts’ unwriteable palimpset.” Shivery stuff, that ancient hand writing alongside today’s poet.

“As a wind or an echo rebounds,” a poem whose title is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus, is shorter but still a few pages long. It is a very poignant reflection on the death of a loved one: “. . . the terror/of love about to flow between us.”

The final section of the book, “Migrations,” joins poems which reflect that theme but are varied in subject matter, point of view, and setting. I particularly enjoyed “Late-night London. The Tube” which describes a singing panhandler, “It was a round bin, strapped,” about a sort of drop box for books traded between the narrator and a homeless person who annotates the margins. “No I can’t remember his words,” “Waiting for tests,” “Mere canvas – flat, timeless,” and “A metaphor for this earth” are also particularly strong, lovely poems.

One more in this final section actually made me squirm: “Soft as water, my finger-tips,”about a salmon’s experience as someone lifts it out of a stream, is so evocative that I felt as if I was experiencing what the fish was: “. . . the air clasps round,/harsh with heat, the floating/surface below him broken,/ no water to breathe, nothing/against which to brace his fins.”

Cinnamon Press is an independent source of original voices and fresh talent in a world in which large publishers’ marketing and sales departments often determine what the public reads. You can’t go wrong with any of their high quality titles, and I recommend Migrations wholeheartedly.

Ok, on to the griping already! First, a book I really didn’t enjoy. I almost never blog about books I didn’t like, but this one got so much hype when it came out that I am going to do a bit of complaining myself and ask: what is the appeal of Loving Frank?

As I told the Hooksett Library Book Club, which discussed the novel in October, I am willing to have an open mind and try to appreciate a novel that is either about people I don’t particularly like or a story I’m not drawn into, but not both. I’d argue that a novelist has to convince readers to get behind either the characters or what happens to them, or ideally, both. But in this case, I got all the way to the end without caring about either the characters or the plot. I wished I’d followed Teen the Younger’s advice to quit reading a book that isn’t appealing.

Rant over. On to the better kind of griping, that of writers who are perceptive and funny as they whinge. First up, Another Bad-Dog Book by Joni B. Cole. I laughed out loud throughout this warm and endearingly grumpy essay collection. I’ve mentioned before that I get a kick out of books that make me wish I could sit down and have a cup of tea with the author. This one makes me want to sit down and share a bottle of wine and swap favorite Kate Middleton style blogs with the author.

Cole wouldn’t think less of me for ogling royal fashions. And, she is a hilarious griper. She sends up not only her family and friends and herself, but also all the many things that comprise “neurotic human behavior” as her subtitle says. But these essays aren’t just about self-deprecating humor or skewering the crazy things she observes.

Cole’s insights are thoughtful, bittersweet, and intelligent. She is not preachy or didactic, and she’s kind, even when she writes about things that make her miserable.  She writes about experiences many people can identify with: feeling insecure about one’s looks or at a professional conference, dealing with illness or caring for aging parents, parenting, finding out an old friend on Facebook is a ranting nut-case, facing one’s own foibles. This was a delightful read, one that made me tear up at least once (see if you can read “Oh, Didn’t I Tell You?” without reaching for a tissue)  in addition to laughing out loud.

Here’s an example of Cole at her best, writing about her best friend in college: “Jeff always said I was the funniest girl I knew, and so I was funny. After he told me he was gay, he assumed I was a decent human being, and so I decided to act like one.” Coming out in the 80’s, even to a friend, was risky, and her friend saw the best in her. You will too as you laugh along with Cole and enjoy her wisdom and sharp wit.

I’m getting close to my goal of reading fourteen Europa Editions books by the end of 2011 for the Europa Challenge. In November I read another short story collection by Eric-Emannuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World. I read Concerto to the Memory of an Angel earlier this year.

Schmitt’s stories are full of grumpy people who serve as foils for the grateful human beings who bring his themes to fruition.  And I think his theme in The Most Beautiful Book In the World is that what we humans spend an awful lot of time yearning for what we actually already have.  If we’d quit complaining and look around, we’d see it. Miserable people aren’t very mindful, but in Schmitt’s hands they are generally entertaining.

My favorite stories in this collection include: “The Intruder,” which is just heartbreaking; “The Barefoot Princess,” ditto; “Odette Toulemonde,” which the author adapted from his film of the same name; “The Forgery,” which kept me guessing; and the title story, about a gift women in a gulag make for their daughters.

Schmitt endears and amuses, his characters stumble and fumble and delude themselves but nearly every tale includes redemption or realization as well. A few stories aren’t about people who are miserable out of habit or character but really have an illness or other trauma. Even those are hopeful. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to another Schmitt collection in my “to read” pile: The Woman With the Bouquet.

Another Europa editions book I read in November was Tokyo Fiancee by Amelie Nothomb.  This is a quirky short novel about a Belgian girl who becomes engaged to a Japanese boy while living in Tokyo. It touches on the oddities (to Westerners) of Japanese culture, the formalities and rules which dictate social and even family life there, and the strangeness of being an ex-pat.

The girl, also named Amelie, enjoys the boy’s attentions and his romantic, almost chivalrous delight in her, but doesn’t really want to get married. In the middle of a lot of romantic wooing, the book veers into a touch of magical realism in two separate mountain scenes. I won’t spoil it but I will say I found it slightly confusing and wasn’t always clear on why Amelie was miserable.

She’s not a loveable protagonist but in this case, that didn’t ruin the book for me. Because she’s young and somewhat impetuous, I could believe the story; one thing that confused me is that while this is fiction, the main character not only shares the author’s name, but also bits of her biography. Both are Belgian but born in Japan, and at the end of the book Amelie flies to Japan for a book tour for what was Amelie Nothomb’s first novel.

So is this autobiography, fiction, or some hybrid thereof? Does it matter? It kind of did to me — somehow it would be different if a real person had the experiences Amelie did. On the other hand, I had heard the ending would surprise and it didn’t. To me it seemed that Amelie did exactly what the book had been leading her to do.

So, I enjoyed this strange little novel on the whole, but was left wondering what I’d just read.  Except that this book was about someone who was miserable being happy in the conventional boy-meets-girl-they-fall-in-love sense. But ends up happy all the same. Got it?

I’d been waiting for French Leave by Anna Gavalda, also from Europa Editions, to be available on interlibrary loan. This was a quick read, sweet and funny and True, in that Gavalda really captured soemthing of the essence of being human. It’s the story of adult siblings who play hooky from a family wedding and visit their brother who wasn’t able to attend.

They spend the day and night remembering together (and I love how they don’t all remember childhood the same way, which is one of those little details that rings so true to life), hanging out, being silly, leaving their relationships, work, and responsibilities behind. I really enjoyed this book about letting the cares of the world go and being a family.

The family dynamics, the tensions and dramas, are finely rendered.  It’s a touching read. It’s pitch perfect — I could picture Garance, the sibling who tells the story, as she spoke, young, a little bit wild and flip, messy but pretty. Carine, the sister-in-law, is a classic I’m-not-happy-unless-I’m-miserable type who badgers everyone around her. And, there is a loveable stray mutt who plays a role in the story — making a furry friend is always a good way to leave your troubles behind.

I’m now reading the Gerald Samper books by James Hamilton-Paterson (all three are from Europa). I read Cooking With Fernet Branca last weekend and laughed aloud.  I’m about halfway through Amazing Disgrace and am wondering exactly where our hapless hero is going to end up next.

Gerald Samper is a British ex-pat author of sports biographies. He lives on a hill in Tuscany where he creates foul sounding gourmet dishes he is inordinately proud of, and sings opera (again a point of great pride) very badly.  He is forever grousing about his Voynovian neighbor Marta, who turns out to be a composer who parodies his yowling, and complaining heartily about the narcissistic, vapid subjects of his biographies.

Samper loves himself and loves to complain, and he’s the perfect male lead for these farces.  In the first book, he blames Marta for making him drink Fernet Branca, a strong Italian liqueur, but in her chapters, she blames him.  Their back and forth, including a wacky scene in which Samper nails himself to the fence he is trying to build between their properties, and their parallel struggles with their creative work and the crazy people they have to deal with are hilarious.

The minor characters in Cooking With Fernet Branca include a great Italian film director who seems a little loopy, his sports car driving son, a fast-talking realtor, Marta’s Voynovian family members, including a brother who lands an attack helicopter on her hillside, and the leader of a “boy band” who visits Samper and turns out to believe in UFO’s. Hamilton-Paterson is that perfect combination: avery good writer who also does comedy well, and I am really enjoying these books.

Teen the Younger read The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznik last month, after seeing Martin Scorsese on The Daily Show. We hope to catch the film soon. She really liked the illustrations, and said she found the story interesting and liked how it all fit together. She is also reading The Complete Sherlock Holmes and must be enjoying it, since as we’ve discussed, she doesn’t finish books she doesn’t like.

I’m hoping to finish the Gerald Samper books (after Amazing Disgrace comes Rancid Pansies) and the other Schmitt story collection, and I have the next Hooksett Book Club selection out from the library (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I’ve read and loved). I hope to reduce the piles beside my bed to perhaps one small stack over the holidays. Don’t I say that every month?

But meanwhile, I am trying to slow down in advent while also preparing for the holidays. So, I hope to reduce my griping (and my to-do lists) with literary humor and wisdom and find happiness even in the life’s aggravations. Like a woodpecker destroying the siding on the back wall of our house. We humans like to gripe, but we also like to laugh. I hope you find stories that offer both in the coming month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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