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Posts Tagged ‘myth’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Many of the books I read this month deal with hunger, literal or figurative.  I love good food, literal or literary, and often pick up what I’m craving — more poetry, for example, or a novel to get lost in.  I had a varied diet of books this month, so let’s dig in. (Pause for audible groans and an appreciative grin from my dad, who gave me the pun gene, which he inherited from his uncle.)

I was over at the beautiful Ohrstrom Library with Teen the Elder, who was doing research for his Shakespeare essay. I love perusing their new books shelf, where I picked up Handing One Another Along: Literature and Social Reflection, by Robert Coles.  In this amazing text, Coles asks readers to consider the moral education we receive by examining others’ lives and our own through reading.

Based on his Harvard course, the book is a combination of insightful commentary on art, literature, and music as it reflects our culture and society, and reflections on Coles’ long academic and literary career. He’s known a wide range of cultural giants, from William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy to Paul Tillich and Ruby Bridges.

Coles has explored spirituality, sociology, psychology, and culture in a wide range of writing and editing, with much of his work examining class, age, and gender in the context of whatever subject he addresses (such as his books on morality, spirituality, and political thought in children).  He’s very prolific and very well read, so the book is packed with thoughts and references. I wished as I read that I had time to do all of the recommended reading for each chapter.

This isn’t light reading, it’s a series of lectures by one of America’s great thinkers, and it merits re-reading sometime when I can really delve into it.  For someone like me who loves the way reading creates and encourages connections, this is a book to savor; it will feed your soul and your heart, as well as your mind. One thing I took away from Handing One Another Along is that I am a happier reader when I take time to read thoughtfully, to reflect on ideas — meaning, truth, aesthetics, ethics — as I read.

Three novels I read this month use the art of fiction to explore what makes us human, what we mean to each other, and what our choices do to us and to our society, for good or ill.  They all deal with our human longing for love. All three are books I picked up at WI6.

I met Rachel Simon, author of a number of books, including Riding the Bus With My Sister, at the WI6 author reception. Her novel The Story of Beautiful Girl is coming out in May. It’s a thought provoking read, one you will probably want to devour in a night or two, as I did. Simon reveals the terrible history of institutionalizing the disabled by telling a story so compelling and beautiful, so heart-breaking yet also heartening, you will not be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens next.

The book begins in 1968, on a rainy night in the Pennsylvania countryside, where we meet the girl of the title, Lynnie, and the man she loves, Homan, as they try to escape the institution where they’ve both lived since childhood. In a few swift pages, Simon sets the scene — these two are desperate not for their own well being, but for the baby Lynnie has just delivered. They choose (for a reason that readers learn later) to knock on the door of a widowed schoolteacher, Martha, who hides the baby as the police close in.

From there, the book traces the lives of the baby, Julia, and Martha, whose life changes entirely because of her promise on that one confusing night, as well as Lynnie, who is taken back to the institution, and Homan, who remains on the run.  The people who help or harm these four central characters, the ways their lives turn on small moments that set them on new courses, and the way they each deal with the uncertainty life deals them make the novel a page turner.  And the undercurrent of the entire novel is the social history of institutionalizing the disabled in America.

Both of the other novels I read were set in other countries. More on that in a moment. The Tiger’s Wife, due out next week, is by Tea Obreht, who has the distinction of being the youngest  person on the New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” list. She was also at WI6. She’s certainly an amazing talent. I thought to myself several times as I read, “She’s in her 20’s! How did she write something this complex, this nuanced, this richly imagined already?”

I’m a fan of magical realism — perhaps because as a Spanish and English double major, I took a contemporary Latin American literature class in college and got a taste of some of the early masters of this literary technique (In Spanish!  I marvel at that now).  I especially enjoy elements of magical realism that blend with political and social history.  I would like to make a bold statement here and say that The Tiger’s Wife is among the best examples of this kind of writing I have ever read.

Set in a Balkan country after the war of the 1990’s, the story is told by a young doctor, Natalia. Through Natalia’s recollections, readers learn about her beloved grandfather, himself a doctor, who has recently died alone in a town now part of a different country. Through the stories he told her as a child and the things she learns as she searches for clues to his solitary death and possible last encounter with a mysterious man who seems immortal, Natalia pieces together a story from her grandfather’s boyhood, one he never told her.

There’s no way I can do justice to this phenomenal novel in a few sentences. The writing is excellent — vivid, but clean, and as my grandmother would say, there’s not one thing that doesn’t belong.  The story is incredible; full of cultural and historical detail, fully imagined, and as I said before, complex and nuanced.

By the end of the novel you feel as if you’ve finished a complicated puzzle, or solved a hard cross-word, or stitched the pieces of a pattern perfectly so that not a thread is out of place, and the seams match exactly as they should. Everything falls into place, but artfully, subtly; there are no clanking gears (one critique of Simon’s book is that her book’s pieces fit together rather noisily).

The Tiger’s Wife is about human experience. It’s about love, about family and war and inhumanity and suffering and finally, hope. It’s a book about memory and myth and their intersection, time and mortality and healing. But it’s also a good yarn — a story (several interwoven stories, really) you could read aloud by the fireside, if you were so inclined. I suspect anyone listening would beg you to go on a little longer.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement (which will be out in a couple of weeks) might make you hungry as you read; there are vivid descriptions of pho, because the book centers on the story of an elderly Vietnamese man, Hung, who has been a pho vendor since childhood.  Author Camilla Gibb tells the story of a young Vietnamese American woman, Maggie, who has moved to Hanoi to curate the art collection of a fancy hotel. She has returned to her birth country in part because she wants to learn what happened to her father, a Vietnamese artist who sent her and her mother to America during the war and never rejoined them.

Through Hung’s & Maggie’s memories, and through the observations of a tour guide of Maggie’s generation, Tu, who grew up in Vietnam, Gibb manages to sympathetically expose the idealistic roots of the Vietnamese communist movement. She painfully portrays the betrayal of those who believed (as did their counterparts in many other countries) that communism would bring equality, economic justice, and freedom from social constraints. She shines light on the brave intellectuals, writers, and artists who realized these promises would not be kept but stood firm under enormous pressure, and in many cases imprisonment, torture, or death.

Gibb also describes in heart breaking detail the suffering of ordinary Vietnamese in the post-war years. Hung remembers living in squalor in unwanted land near a pond, and making noodles for his pho out of pond weeds and whatever else he could scavenge. Maggie’s family started in America as refugees do, with nothing, and despite her educational and economic success, she feels she’s lost not only her father, but also her cultural bearings.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a fairly quick read, fascinating, and soulful.  I enjoyed the escapism of reading about another culture and the vivid details that brought the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Hanoi alive in the novel. Tu, Hung, Maggie, and the host of minor characters, living and remembered, are well drawn and sympathetic characters. The story is interesting, if not particularly complex. I’d like to read Gibbs’ other books, and I think this one would make an excellent read to take along on a trip or to the beach, as would The Story of Beautiful Girl.

One perk of reviewing books and working in a bookstore is that sometimes, publishers and authors send me books. I have to pinch myself, really, at my good fortune — books arriving unbidden. Too good to be true!  One that landed on my front step this month is a very unique, very interesting sort of YA novel, Snotty Saves the Day, from a small press, Exterminating Angel.

I say sort of YA because this is a “crossover” book, in my opinion in both directions. I think a mature, well read pre-adolescent reader might like it, and there is some adult appeal here too, especially for fans of Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Susanna Clark, or Lev Grossman  (and no doubt others I’m forgetting). Snotty is a boy (or is he?) who lives a hard life in a rough neighborhood. On one fateful evening after completing a drug deal, Snotty falls down a rabbit hole.  From there, he undergoes a series of strange experiences and challenges and must decide, through his choices, whether to accept his destiny (and which version of his destiny is real).

Like Susanna Clark’s magnificent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, one of my favorite books, and many works by Nicholson Baker, Snotty Saves the Day features fictional footnotes that add another layer to the novel.  Author Tod Davies, through the voice of Prof. Devindra Vale, explains the history of a country called Arcadia, its long political conflict with neighboring Megalopolis, and the  history and cultural significance of fairy tales in the two places. Between Snotty’s adventures and the footnotes, several themes emerge.

Davies touches on assumptions about childhood, social standing, and gender, the importance of fantasy and fairy tales (and the lack of respect given to these), the nature of conflict, poverty’s impact on the imagination — all very Big Ideas. She explores habitual thought — the way we believe something because that’s what we’ve been told, rather than noticing what is right before our eyes.

But these themes are wrapped in wonders such as a mysterious 7th garden on a street with 6 houses,  soldier gnomes, giant teddy bears, magical castles, talking animals, and so forth.  What could have been simply “messagey” is a romp, and an original one at that.  When Snotty Saves the Day comes out in May, give it to a smart, precocious young person in your life, read it yourself, and see what kind of interesting conversation develops.

My effort to read poetry more regularly was aided by a wonderful reading at Gibson’s in February, part of the monthly series organized by Don Kimball and the Poetry Society of NH. Don brought the first two poets in the Hobblebush Granite State Poetry series to the store. Publisher (and fellow poet) Sid Hall introduced the poets, Charles Pratt and Becky Sakellariou.

Sakellariou’s book, Earth Listening is full of light and beauty, like Greece, where she’s spent much of her life and where many of these poems are set. One poem begins, “The words in my mouth/are the tides and sands/of the Ionian Sea.” Even poems set in New Hampshire are luminous landscapes. “Intermittent Observations” opens with, “The tangle of the autumn moon/licks the lines of the Contoocook River . . . .”

Earth Listening is full of poems tied to land and sky, sea, plants, earth. But it’s also a book filled with people, dead and alive. Sakellariou writes of the “women of my tribes,” of New England and Europe (besides Greece, she has spent time in Bulgaria and Albania). She writes of longing and love, of mystery and meaning, of faiths and of finding her way.  I found the poems in this collection prism-like — turn them one way, and you see one color, one pattern of light, turn them another, and some other bright gleam catches your eye.  In her poems I sense an old soul. She also writes sensuously of food, from paximadia after a funeral to luscious fruits, herbs, and a poem called, “The Avocado.”

Pratt’s book, From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, is different in style and sensibility, but equally enjoyable. Pratt slips rhyme and formalism into thoroughly contemporary work.  His use of structure and rhyme doesn’t impede the poems from falling naturally across the page or the tongue — he is usually so subtle and skilled in his use of form that it is an organic part of his writing.  Only one or two poems felt deliberately rhymed.

Many of the poems in this collection reflect Pratt’s many years tending his apple orchard in southern New Hampshire.  “November: Sparing the Old Apples,” for example, is about choosing not to cut down the old trees, which he describes as “Cracked urns of air, broken-winged umbrellas,/Black seabirds drying angular wings on a rock –”  Many of the poems describe the apple trees in interesting ways, as in “Interlude,”  which tells of a farmer sledding in the first snow, “While orderly ranks of apples stand appalled,/Black-robed widows, blurring with your speed . . . .”

One of my favorites is “Into Place,” which is about Pratt seeing the farm for sale and finding himself it’s new proprietor, “. . . something less than owner, more than guest. You fertilize and mow, attend the slow/Growth of apples readying for harvest,/And settle into place like leaves or snow,/Unfold like a letter delivered as addressed.”  That’s a really wonderful image.  I hear a koan or a bit of poetic philosophy — be at home where you are —  in those lines.

There are poems about marriage and family, memories and travel in this book, but the orchard poems stand out.  I think they exemplify Pratt’s quiet, lyrical skill. Sid Hall and Rodger Martin (whose book The Battlefield Guide I reviewed here last year) have done a marvelous job with the new series. The books are also beautifully designed, inside and out. I look forward to future volumes.

Last weekend I finished Margaret Roach’s lovely memoir, and I shall have some peace there: trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road. Roach is coming to Gibson’s on Tues., March 8, and I can’t wait to meet her. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It asks the questions Eat, Pray, Love meant to– what happens when a person is faced with enormous changes in social identity? How can a person be at peace in an uncertain world and during personal uncertainty? What about love, if you’re alone?

Roach asks more than she answers, and is honest about how messy it is to live with questions as your constant companions, to reflect, to work on becoming who you’re  meant to be. This memoir is light years wiser and smarter than other books I’ve read in this milieu.  In fact, my one quibble with Roach is that she doesn’t give herself enough credit.

She mentions more than once that she has an “incomplete education,” even though she worked for some of the most successful, far-reaching media companies around (the New York Times and Martha Stewart Omnimedia, to name two), she is widely read and has a deep and broad knowledge of the natural world and gardening.  She’s created her own blog, a way to garden, and The Sister Project. And the memoir is very much about her spritual/psychological/emotional seeking — she is very self-aware and has explored her own inner world more deeply than most people ever will.

It’s hard to say what I liked best about and I shall have some peace there. The fact that I can identify with many things Roach addresses (facing fears, seeking a genuine life, figuring out what that means, understanding oneself, finding a true identity beyond what you do and who you’re with, letting your inner cat person emerge after years of being a non-cat person), even though our lives are wildly disparate? The way that Roach writes both gracefully and deeply?  Her unique style, full of little asides to herself, that lends the book a one-woman-show feeling? Or the fantastic words she uses? (I kept a list in my journal: senescence, diapause, shamanic, liminal, crepuscular, volition)

Perhaps the summary is that this is a memoir and she keeps it personal, but Roach also writes in a way that trusts readers to be fellow travelers — she writes about big things she is working out, but understands that as human beings, we’re all on the same path in our own lives. There’s no “shock and awe” here, which to me is a terrible trend in memoirs. Roach writes in way that makes her feel like the friend you’ve lost touch with and are catching up with.

I’m going to be brief with the rest of the bookconscious household, because they were brief in their descriptions of what they read. One aside — I find the current cultural conversation about the “princessification” of girls very interesting, because one of my first bookconscious posts (from 2007, when Teen the Younger was only 10) concerned her frustration with Disney Princesses and her desire to read about strong girls (princesses or not).

That child is now Teen the Younger.  She recently marched into a salon with a copy of one of her favorite Manga, Gakuen Alice, opened it to a drawing of Hotaru, and told the stylist that’s how she wanted her hair. She’s had long hair most of her life, but had no doubts, no wavering. And no second guessing later. She didn’t get that from me! Did a steady diet of strong female characters in literature help her be confident in herself?

That’s probably not the only source of her strength, but it had to have helped. Still even though we’ve always talked to our kids about being aware that they’re being marketed to, she’s looking to pop culture to inform her style. Manga, instead of princesses, but someone else’s aesthetic. I worry that despite our precautions she’s over-exposed to commercialism. But I know she’s at an age where it’s common to try on style identities, and at least she’s choosing for herself.  I admire her decisiveness!

One of Teen the Younger’s favorite manga this month is Nabari No Ou.   She says it reminds her of another favorite, Naruto, except the story is more complex. The main character is a boy who discovers he has his village’s secret ninja technique inside him. Other villages have their own secret techniques. Rivalry and trouble ensues. At least, as near as I can tell from the bits she shared with me.

Teen the Elder finished Paul Johnson‘s Churchill. He really enjoyed Johnson’s language, which is true to my grandmother’s admonition to make sure that every word counts, with nothing left out and nothing extra.  He also reads an enormous amount of news — not only of the sports world, but current affairs. I can’t tell you how often I say, “did you hear . . . ” and he finishes the sentence with whatever breaking news I was about to discuss.

When he was younger he was into weather (which he still checks more frequently than I do), now it’s news as well. He likes to be informed, as did Churchill, who read multiple newspapers every day.  And what Teen can resist the idea of working from the comfort of one’s bed, another famous Churchill habit? Actually, this one. Even when he is sick, he has a hard time staying in bed.  But he did recommend that I work in bed when I was sick this month.

The Computer Scientist hit the graphic novels this month. He read V for Vendetta and Ghost In the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface. He says both of them are in depth stories with great illustrations. He was checking out dystopian tales since that seems to be Teen the Younger’s taste these days. He recently shared The Matrix and Inception with her, and Ghost In the Shell was one of the influences on the creators of The Matrix.  He likes trippy, philosophically complex stories — these stories and films explore human identity, consciousness, reality, and illusion. I think he’d love The Tiger’s Wife, which explores some of the same ideas.

One thing that makes us human is that hunger to know more, to understand more, to push our minds farther, to seek the existence and nature of our souls.  Books are not the only sustenance for this kind of hunger nor even other arts — I’d say nature, friendship, love, and spiritual practice are all food for seeking minds.  But without books, we’d surely be malnourished.

What’s on my to-read pile next? I’ve nearly through with Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell — very good history, with a tinge of smartly dressed humor. It reminds me of a Bill Bryson book; much denser than you expect given how much fun the author seems to be having. I look forward to meeting Sarah on March 24. I’ve also got Caitlin Shetterly‘s Made for You and Me and a thick stack of books coming out in April.  Another book I found at Ohstrom is Made for Goodness, by Desmond Tutu and his daughter, Mpho Tutu.  I’ve been working my way through The Making of  a Sonnet: A Norton Anthology for a couple of years and the end is in sight, and I’ve also got Jeff Friedman‘s new collection, Working In Flour.

Too many books? Perhaps, but what sweet indulgence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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August was a tough month in the bookconscious household. We went through vicarious ups and downs with the Teenager as he traveled alone to Europe and back (although a German customs agent didn’t think he was old enough to return home alone, but that’s another story), turned 16, went through public high school soccer tryouts, and ended up switching to a smaller private school team.  We got busy with both kids planning our not-back-to-school life — looking into interests, choosing resources, figuring out who needs to be where, when, as their fall activities began.  And I unexpectedly traveled to Chicago for my grandmother’s funeral.

Mary Levin Harris was 96, and until only a couple of months ago was a voracious reader. Recently she could no longer comfortably hold up the phone. But over years and years of conversations, no matter what else we discussed, we always made sure to tell each other about whatever we were reading. I’ll miss that very much.

She was a librarian and an English teacher, including a stint in an experimental school in Chicago with glass-walled classrooms.  When we first decided not to send the kids to school, I was a little nervous about telling her, and at first, she really didn’t understand why we’d do such a thing. I tried explaining, but I was still figuring it out for myself. I recall telling her it was just what seemed like the right thing to me, to free them to learn all the time, anyplace, rather than raise them to think that learning happens in a place called school during school hours on school days.

My grandmother believed in me the way grandparents tend to, unwaveringly, and she spared me the scathing disapproval she was capable of dishing out — disproportionately to male members of the family, but also to public officials when she wanted them to right a wrong, and to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, which she read faithfully, when she felt the paper had unfairly disrespected a sitting president (Clinton). But I knew she didn’t really like the idea of her great-grandchildren being unschooled.

That changed one day in the late 1990’s, when she was in her 80’s. The woman who was cutting her hair told her about her son, who had been put on Ritalin. My grandmother was dismayed, especially when the woman told her it was quite common. When she got home she called to ask me whether I’d heard that “children are being drugged,” and told me in her day, if a student acted up, the teacher and the principal discussed how they were failing the child, and what to do about it. She told me it was probably a good thing I was not subjecting the kids to school if this is what it had come to.

From then on, she was very supportive of our homeschooling, and even told me I was doing a marvelous job. Once she moved to Atlanta and actually got to know the kids — we were fortunate to visit her once a month or so for just over two years — she told them in person how bright and beautiful and wonderful she thought they were, so they got to bask in the steadfast approbation that I enjoyed for so long.

They often talked to her about something they were learning, and were amazed by her sharp memory. Once they told her we’d read the Gettysburg address and she recited it cold (by then she was over 90). Another time they asked her what it was like to live during the Depression., and she said the New Deal helped her go to college. She frequently asked them questions, too — about what things cost, how their digital cameras worked, what they were reading.

So I’ve been feeling a little low, knowing I can’t share what they’re up to with her anymore. She was fascinated with the way they pursued their interests. I know she would chuckle to hear that the Preteen is exploring animal behavior with a kit that teaches one how to train a pet fish. And she’d find it interesting, if a bit hard to imagine, that all of the Teenager’s homework in his college French class has to be done online in a virtual computer lab.

Most of all, she’d love hearing about the books we’d all been reading. So I’ll get on with telling you, dear readers, and hope that Grandmother, or GGM as she signed her letters and cards, is reading over my shoulder, in a way.

While the Teenager was in Germany, his younger sister and I planned for not-back-to-school. She chose a new math resource. After watching her brother work on Algebra II, she decided on the same publisher for her book —  Teaching Textbooks, which are designed for self-directed learners. Both kids seem to be actually enjoying using these, and the Computer Scientist thinks they are great.  The Preteen also chose some science kits, including the aforementioned R2 Fish School, and checked out a stack of books about Vikings at the library.

She’d recently read most of the Percy Jackson books, so she needed a new pile of reading materials, and chose a Royal Diaries book about a Mesoamerican princess in 749, and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which won the Newbury Award. She liked Percy Jackson’s adventures and event got out our well-loved copy of D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths to brush up on the gods and goddesses. In fact, we ended up buying D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths, to enjoy along with Viking history.

The Preteen discusses books with her friends more than the Teenager ever has, and in August she read the first of the Sisters Eight books on the recommendation of a good friend. She also came to a middle grade author event at Gibson’s, and came home with three books — The Amaranth Enchantment, Carolina Harmony, and Also Known As Harper.  She enjoyed hearing the authors in person, and I think it’s unlikely she would have picked these books otherwise. So, if you live where you can go hear an author in person, go, and take your kids!

The Teenager’s oldest friend gave him a new soccer book, When Saturday Comes, for his birthday. On the trip he finished Magnificent Sevens, about five great Manchester United players who’ve worn number 7. He’s begun French class at the community college and in October will begin a Viking history class at Oxford University (online). In the meantime, we wrote a syllabus for his science exploration, based loosely on a class we found in MIT’s open courseware site.

We’re calling his studies “Soccer: The Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, Physics, and Psychology of the Beautiful Game.” We found three great books for him to use as he delves into the science behind his beloved game: Science and Soccer; edited by Tom Reilly, Fitness Training in Soccer: A Scientific Approach, by famous Danish coach Jens Bangsbo; and The Physiology of Sport and Exercise, a textbook we thought would provide interesting reference materials.

Some of you may be wondering, “Aren’t you unschoolers? What’s with the math books and the texts?” We’re life learners, and we use whatever works. We’re not anti-textbooks, although the Teenager and I are not enjoying the disconnect between his college French text and the website that has the labs/homework.

Although our motive in encouraging him to take this class was to help him see what college is like, I’m finding myself agreeing with him that the model isn’t all that different than what we’ve tried to avoid by learning on our own: we’re left feeling that the student is supposed to sit back and be told what to learn when. I told him there must be some logic to the homework, but today one of his classmates asked about the apparent lack of context with the text, and the teacher acknowledged it’s a problem but didn’t have a solution!

It’s causing us to waste time trying to figure out what lab goes with which portion of the book, which is unfortunate. Hopefully it will get easier (this is only the second week). Meanwhile, I wish I’d just gotten him the French editions of Harry Potter — the preteen is learning German that way. But I do think there’s nothing like speaking a language with other people, and so far none of our informal plans for that have panned out, so I’ll probably encourage her to take a class, eventually.

At the Preteen’s urging, the Computer Scientist is reading the whole Harry Potter series (in English), and last month I mentioned he was on the third book. He’s not deep into the seventh. He seems to be enjoying them and also has fun chatting with both kids, who love to pop in and ask him, “Where are you? What’s happening?” I think given all the heavy stuff he’s read this year, he’s having a good time with Harry Potter. Although I maintain that H.P. can be an avenue to some thought provoking conversation, and it’s not just fluff.

I read a book set in England last month, though not in the wizarding world. Helen HumphreysThe Frozen Thames is a lovely little book, made up of forty brief stories, each one set during one of the times between 1142 and 1895 that the Thames froze over. The concept of the book is an entertaining as Humphrey’s fine writing. The author’s website lists this as a work of creative nonfiction, but it reads like a collection of linked stories.

While Humphrey bends genres, Nick Harkaway bends time, reality, and life as we know it in his amazing debut novel, The Gone-Away World. This is the best book I’ve read all year. Part action novel; part philosophical commentary on economics, warfare, and ethics; part mind-boggling alternative reality, part futuristic thriller — and also very funny, very well written, and so smart it’s kept me busy wondering what in the hell happened at the end for several weeks.

One thing I loved about this book is that while the plot deals with awful things, there was no passage so horrible I wanted to turn away. Harkaway writes searingly without the over-the-top explicitly graphic prose that seems to garner so much critical acclaim these days. As I said, the end was so mind-blowingly hard to grapple with that I continue to think about it. And despite the fact that it’s a long book, I never got bogged down. As far as I’m concerned Harkaway’s a genius and I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

Another humorous novel I read this month, Nibble & Kuhn by David Schmahmann, is not nearly as apocalyptic as The Gone Away World, but is also concerned with the impact human enterprise has on the quality of human life.  Schmahmann’s skewering of law firm life is wickedly funny, but his main character, Derek, struck me as a whole person, who doesn’t always act in predictable ways, and who manages to be both irritating and endearing, just like most real people.

It’s easy with satire to lapse into caricatures, but I found myself empathizing with Derek and definitely wanting to know how the hopeless case he is stuck with will turn out. The romance in the novel is unbelievable, but it’s meant to be — Derek is dumbstruck when he finds out who he’s fallen in love with as well.  But it’s not simply a satire with a romance, it’s also a story that examines human resilience and the tension between motives and actions when getting ahead might be at odds with getting things right. Schmahmann will be  reading at Gibson’s; I’m looking forward to meeting him, and to reading his earlier, award winning novel, Empire Settings.

For a bleaker, but very personal look at human nature, our impact on each other, and the survival of the human spirit even when it’s dragged through the deepest pain, you can’t do much better than to read essays by Andre Dubus. His son, Andre Dubus III, is coming to Gibson’s in October, and I happened to see Broken Vessels and Meditations from a Movable Chair at the library, so I checked them out. Last year I spent a lot of time studying personal essays. These are some of the most moving I’ve read.

Dubus lived through several emotional traumas and a very serious accident that put him in a wheelchair. He’s probably better known for his fiction, but I enjoy his nonfiction style, which is very straightforward and unembellished. His range, from the simple beauty of time spent with friends to the agony of losing the use of his legs and the pain of living with his children only part time, is somewhat gut wrenching. You can’t read very many of his essays at a time. But despite all the difficult things Dubus lived through and explores in his writing, he work is never self-pitying.

On the plane to Chicago, I read Rilke‘s Letters to a Young Poet. Here is another gifted man who dealt with illness, writers’ block, personal strife, the unrest and disillusionment of the early 20th century, but rather than feeling sorry for himself, he shared what he’d learned in the struggle to be an artist. The letters in this book are his responses to a nineteen year old who he knew only through this unsolicited correspondence. Yet they are deep, open, and personal. I have a book of Rilke’s poems in my “to read” pile for this month.

Another book that had been in my “to read” pile since April was The Half-Inch Himalayas, by Agha Shahid Ali. Many of his poems are concerned with ancestry, family history, and place, all subjects I am deeply curious about, and which I spend time thinking about in the context of my own family. “Snowmen,” a poem both surreal and heartfelt, strikes me as a beautiful piece of writing as well as poignant cry of both longing for and struggle with one’s own history.

Both the poetry book and Sacred Time and the Search for Meaning by Gary Eberle were books I discovered at the Five Colleges Book Sale last spring. Eberle explores the history of human time, which is interesting in itself, he also probes the spiritual aspect of our relationship with time, and tells of his own return to living in sacred time, as manifested in the seasons and the church year.

I enjoyed the book, although it made me somewhat frustrated with myself. I’d been doing very well for a long time at keeping a sabbath — a day of little to no work and no computers, but of real recreation and rejuvenation. Lately I’ve been unable to keep that sacred time for myself. As a result of my overly busy life and my lack of respite, I’m not writing much right now.  Eberle’s book was a strong reminder to get myself back in balance.

One aspect of my sabbath is reconnecting with faraway family by phone. Even before my grandmother’s last weeks, our weekly conversations had grown shorter, and sometimes she was not feeling up to talking. I was fortunate to be able to talk to her just about weekly for my entire adult life, as well as during my childhood.

And yet, there was so much more I wanted to ask. I have a box of letters she and her brother wrote to each other, and they left me wondering even more about family stories. By the time I’d puzzled through some of them, she was less interested in speaking of the past — her mind was on the end of her own story, having outlived nearly everyone who was a part of it. At dinner the night before her burial, as my cousins told stories, I realized how differently even the same events seem through the prism of each of our lives, our experiences, our hearts. How different we each were through her eyes than our own vision reveals.

Everything I read this month reminds me in some way of how universally humans seek to understand ourselves, each other, and our lives in relation to each other.  The novel I’m reading now, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is an epic tale dealing with that same problem — finding out who we are, who we’ve come from, how our story fits into the greater human story. I’m also reading Joseph Cambell’s and Bill Moyer’s conversations about the human search for meaning through story, The Power of Myth. Both are excellent so far.

Seeking meaning — in story, in sacred time, in relationship with people who came before me and those I live with now —  feeds my poetry writing. Grandmother was always thrilled when I had something published, no matter how small or obscure the journal. She also liked to recite poetry, and she read A.A. Milne to me with great relish when I was very young. I leave you with “Disobedience,” in her memory.

Soccer: the Biology, Chemistry, Physiology, Physics, and Psychology of The Beautiful Game

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