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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If any of you read my new blog The Nocturnal Librarian you know October saw the bookconscious household hosting the Computer Scientist’s aunt and uncle, who are English. We tried to give them a real taste of New England, with a day in Boston, a drive to Mt. Kearsarge (Rollins State Park in Warner offers quite a vista of the surrounding hills, lakes and towns), a trip to Nubble light house at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and shorter jaunts around our town. New England really is beautiful in every season, fall being perhaps the most spectacular.

It’s also touts itself as the birthplace of America — the country, but also the idea, of freedom from tyrrany. As we visited Boston I was reading Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. Seeing the Freedom Trail sites with British relatives got me thinking about the way history changes entirely depending on the lens through which you view it. Blum considers that idea in her novel.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a German American history professor, Trudy, and her mother, Anna. At the beginning of the book, Trudy’s father has died; you immediately sense her strained relationship with Anna, and as the book unfolds you learn why Anna is so taciturn.  Blum alternates between Anna’s story and Trudy’s efforts to understand German war experiences generally, and her mother in particular.

Anna’s wartime life included a forbidden love affair with a Jewish doctor, his imprisonment around the time of her pregnancy, and work in a bakery and with the German resistance. After the baker is killed on a mission, the Obersturmfuhrer from Buchenwald begins visiting Anna, making her his mistress. Trudy wonders how Germans could live with what the Nazis were doing, and is haunted by fleeting memories of a Nazi visiting her mother. Anna stays utterly silent about with what she did in order to stay alive and feed Anna, about Anna’s real father, and all she lost during the war.  As the novel progresses, Blum deftly illustrates how history is not only a meta-narrative but millions of personal stories, each hinging on individual circumstances. I enjoyed it very much.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, looks at a different historical time and place: a derelict neighborhood in 19060’s Boston. The title character’s views on the bookstore he lives above, the brilliant but troubled writer he befriends, and the deteriorating neighborhood about to be bulldozed in the name of stamping out urban blight is unique because Firmin is a rat.  Savage manages to make this lowly creature a truly empathetic character, one who ponders human nature, cruelty, beauty, and the meaning of a well lived life. Oh, and he can read, and educates himself  by reading his way through the shop, as well as observing people.

It’s a tragicomedy about literature, friendship, and how to live, and if you’re in doubt you should just read it and see for yourself. Yes, Firmin is a rat, but he’s also one of the most imaginative, self-aware, thoughtful characters I’ve come across in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am grateful to Poets & Writers magazine’s profile of Savage in the September issue, where I learned about his work. I hope to track down his other books, all published by Coffee House Press.

A co-worker at Regina Library talks about what he’s reading with me, and when I was explaining I like books that entertain while also probing Big Ideas he asked if I’d ever read The Prophet byKhalil Gibran.  I hadn’t, so he lent me his copy.  Given its wild popularity, I figured I should see for myself why people seem to love it or hate it.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I admire the idea: it’s a book of philosophical prose poems, told from the point of view of a man who is leaving a place of exile to return to his homeland. He’s clearly beloved by people in his adopted country, and they seek his wisdom before he departs. So from a literary point of view, combining a story with philosophy told in poetic language and a creative form is interesting. Some of the book is quite beautiful.

But I read a biographical piece on Gibran in the New Yorker that made me question whether he was a genius as so many believe or an egomaniac.  So it was hard to take the book at face value after that. Read as interesting literature, rather than spiritual wisdom, I liked The Prophet; that said, there are worse things than to try to live by principles gleaned from a book, no matter the ego of the author.

Another author who interfered with my enjoyment of his book was Florent Chauvouet. His book, Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhood is visually amazing. His hand-drawn maps and sketches of people and places around Tokyo are whimsical and engaging. But readers should note it’s a book by a person who came to Japan for six months and clearly took issue with some aspects of Japanese life. Which is his prerogative — and maybe I would have some of the same feelings if I were to live there — but not what I want to read. Maybe I’m just being crank. The Computer Scientist loved this book, and he’s actually been to Japan a few times.

I visited two other countries via books in October: France and Iran.  Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a fascination with Iran; it’s a place with a rich culture and history, but its people have really lost out in the leadership lottery.  One regime after another has made modern Iran hell for at least some of the people, all of the time. Politics aside, it’s a shame, because there is so much to love about Persian literature, art, and food. I’ve learned to love Iranian culture mostly through memoirs.

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart In an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan is a memoir deeply interested in Iran’s food. Bijan is a chef who knew growing up that cooking was her passion. Her parents, a doctor and a nurse who were both larger than life characters who worked tirelessly to help their patients, had to flee Iran at the time of the Revolution.  In America, Bijan’s father was daunted by the prospect of becoming a doctor all over again in his 60’s and eventually returned to Iran to re-open his hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse in California and supported Bijan’s dream of training in France to become a chef.

The family’s stories are fascinating, and Bijan tells them well, while also examining her own path in light of her family history. Like other good memoirs, Maman’s Homesick Pie is much more than a family narrative. Bijan explores cultural identity, the role of women in her two countries, marriage, and finding one’s true calling in life.

The book did make me hungry; Bijan includes recipes, which I haven’t tried.  She cooked for Bono and his wife when they visited her San Francisco with their baby many years ago. How cool is that?  Her descriptions of French restaurant life are fascinating as well; her own story is sort of a  memoir within a memoir.

Speaking of France, I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody.  This book quietly grew on me.  If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building  is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens.  As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.

Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.

I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.”  Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”

In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.

Another novel that takes a hard look at “knowing why” is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, the author of Mudbound.  This twist on The Scarlet Letter is set in a dystopian future America where conservative religious leaders have taken power in the wake of terror attacks and a rampant STD scourge that has left many women barren. Our heroine, Hannah, is convicted of having an abortion, refuses to name the man who got her pregnant (her mega-church pastor), and is sentenced to being a “red” — she is “chromed” or genetically altered to turn her skin red, which marks her as a murderer.

The book reads like a thriller, in which Hannah and a friend she meets in prison are rescued from a cultish religious vigilante group by another cultish group who run a sort of Underground Railroad to spirit women like them to Canada. Jordan makes it more emotionally complicated than straight up good versus evil though, as Hannah grows out of her sheltered upbringing into a thinking, questioning adult.

The people Hannah meets do occasionally veer into stock characters: her rescuers speak French, which it seems to me is a little too caricatured of sneering at American politics; a spoiled wealthy southern white man in a grand old house is a turncoat; an Episcopal priest representative of the “Via Media” offers Hannah shelter in a storm.

This is a small quibble though, and may be my own perspective. Overall, I couldn’t put down When She Woke. Jordan addresses important questions of personal conduct and public approbation, and the danger of dominant culture or even the government in expressing public sentiment. She also champions critical thinking and individual actions, and examines how morality and belief can morph into extremism, especially when people are scared, uneducated, or both. In fact, one of the important themes of When She Woke is that mature belief grows as much from questions as from accepted truths.

Collecting personal statements of belief for public reading, listening, and discussion, is the fascinating work of This I Believe.org.  In October I read This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ahead of the What Do you Believe? event at Regina Library next week.  First year students at Rivier read this book as part of their entry into college life, and the college Writing and Resource Center is co-sponsoring the event. I love the idea of a community read that has a writing component.

This I Believe II, like all of the organization’s books,  is a collection of essays from all kinds of people — young, old, men, women, successful, struggling, famous, unknown — about their personal philosophies.  The essays examine belief  in everything from the Golden Rule to baking.  I tried reading some of the essays aloud, but the Computer Scientist pointed out they are much better heard in the voices of the people who wrote them. You can listen or read on the website, or subscribe to the podcast.

Either way, it’s heartening to know that so many people have spent time considering their deeply held beliefs and writing them down, and thousands have shared those personal manifestos. Some of the beliefs are easy to understand, others are not. Some contradict each other.  I made a list of favorites from this volume; I hope to re-read them and think about why those ideas resonated with me. Maybe I’ll write my own essay some day. It would probably start with “I believe in reading.”

Or maybe, “I believe in poetry.” I attended a talk on some themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came after a screening of Answer This! and a Q&A with Professor Ralph Williams (who acted in the film) and director Christopher Farah.  Prof. Williams told the audience that beauty and the ravages of time were much on the minds of Elizabethans, but that even as we live longer today, beauty can serve the same purposes: to perpetuate love, and to help us deal evil. Reading poetry is one of the best ways I know of unplugging from the world’s bad news; some of my favorite poets address what’s evil or unpleasant head on.

Maxine Kumin’s poems on torture, for example. Or, in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary TimeMarie Howe‘s poems that face inequality (“The Star Market,” “What We Would Give Up,” domestic violence (“Non-Violence” and “The Tree Fort”) and terrorism (“Non-violence 2”). She writes with searing beauty, she writes of horrible things; these are not mutually exclusive.  I heard Howe on Fresh Air, where she addressed writing about grief and loss, and checked for her work at the library that night.

Howe’s poems on faith are some of my favorites. “Easter” imagines Jesus re-entering his own broken body: “And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill./ He came into it two ways:/ From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants./ And from the center — suddenly all at once.”  Wow. Have you ever even tried to imagine this? I hadn’t.

“Prayer” may be the simplest, most direct explanation of the human tendency to avoid opening ourselves to the divine and  mysterious I’ve read in any form. “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath/ Why do I flee from you?/ My days and nights pour through me like complaints/and become a story I forgot to tell.”

And “Annunciation,” from a sequence called “Poems From the Life of Mary” describes motherhood’s jolting, almost unbearable essence: “a tilting within myself;” Mary is “only able to endure it by being no one and so/ specifically myself I thought I’d die/from being loved like that.”

A poetry professor at Rivier had the library staff pull a variety of poetry books to keep handy on a cart for students. I had just finished Howe’s book and heard Prof. Williams discuss sonnets and I was hungry for more poetry. So I browsed the cart.

Also, it was the Thursday before Halloween (Thursdays already being slow in the library, due to something called Thirsty Thursday which, as the mother of future college students, I don’t want to think about.) I read a fantastic book, Linda Pastan‘s Traveling Light, in one sitting. I love this book, I cannot believe I’ve made it to this point in my life without reading Linda Pastan, I want to go back and read every single poems she’s ever written.

Ever have that kind of reaction to an author? I scribbled notes as I read, marking both sides of a sheet of scrap paper at the reference desk. Lines I loved.  Poems that struck me.

Such as: “In the end we are no more than our own stories:/ mine a few brief passages in the Book,/no further trace of plot or dialogue” from a poem called “Eve on Her Deathbed.” The poem goes on to trace Eve’s remembrances.

“Lilacs,” blew me away in part because a poem I was working on last week includes lilacs, as does another poem of mine, “Remembering Lilacs.” Pastan writes more beautifully what I know to be true of these flowers: “their leaves as heart-shaped/as memory itself.”

Pastan looks to the color of spring with both hope and bittersweet acceptance of time and its ravages of beauty in “April.”   “A whole new freshman class/ of leaves has arrived/ on the dark twisted branches/ we call our woods, turning/ green now — color of/ anticipation. In my 76th year,/ I know what time and weather/ will do to every leaf.”

She takes a patiently humorous view of age in “Q & A” — a student in the poem asks “Did you write/your Emily Dickinson poem/because you like her work,/ or did you know her personally?” and Pastan writes of the audience’s laughter, the girl’s embarrassment, and her own response: “Surprise, like love, can catch/ our better selves unawares./ ‘I’ve visited her house,’ I said./ ‘I may have met her in my dreams.'”

I could go on and on — my notes include admiration for Pastan’s bold use of rhyme in “Bronze Bells of Autumn” and “Ash.”  For the questions she opens up in “In the Har-Poen Tea Garden,” and “The Flood, 2005.” For the gorgeous “In the Forest,” which tells why poetry heals a broken world, because it gives us words to “Praise what is left.” My advice? Find this book and read it.

Tonight I will no doubt stay up too late, because I’m reading one of those novels I wish I could actually be in, even though it’s full of war and hardship: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I’ve written about Hoffman’s ability to create characters I’d like to know before: her book The Red Garden was one of my favorite reads last year.

Doverkeepers is a page-turning saga. It’s the story of several women who have made their ways to Masada around 71 C.E., when the Romans have destroyed the Temple and Jews have fled Jerusalem. Hoffman tells each woman’s story, weaving their lives together so that the reader feels a part of the circle. As in many of her other books, there is a magical aspect to the story, but this is also a historical novel and there is an incredible amount of rich sensory detail that makes the time and place come alive.

I received this book as a review copy before I left the bookstore, and the word was that this is Hoffman’s “big book.”  It certainly goes to the heart of many ideas present in other books of hers that I’ve read, with a depth and grace that surpasses her earlier work. That said, I haven’t read all of her books.   Identity, family, faith, transformation, love — this book explores Big Ideas even as Hoffman tells stories that entrance not only for their imaginative power, but the sense of  Truth in the voices of these women.

If I had to boil down what The Dovekeepers is about, I’d say it’s the story of being a woman. Together the protagonists represent a composite of all the roles women have filled over the centuries and in many ways still do, even in a world far different than that of first century Judea. Well, hang on; terrorism, violence, inequality, poverty, religious intolerance, culture wars, famine, drought and flooding, environmental degradation, invasions, world powers dominating smaller nations with their military and economic might, gender stereotyping, fear for the future. Maybe things aren’t so different in some ways.

Speaking of things that are the same: it’s November, so I am NaNoWriMo-ing. I’ve done this before (four times, in fact) but took last year off. I wasn’t going to try to squeeze writing 50,000 words in a month into my life this year either, but two things changed my mind. First, I wrote about NaNoWriMo over at my other blog and remembered all the reasons it’s brilliant. Second, I read this article on simplifying.  I cut some RSS feeds from my Google Reader, and decided there were other ways I could trim excess from my schedule.

Plus, I had some time yesterday evening, between a staff meeting and my reference desk shift, to write. So I dove in and came up for air 5,057 words later. I’m off and writing. It’s exhilarating to be working on a big messy project, when I usually work in the tight constraints of line breaks and poetic forms.

The  Computer Scientist started reading a large messy book recently, or so it appears to an outside observer: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. He’d been on a reading sabbatical, with coaching and other things demanding more of his time. Stay tuned. He did tell me that the Atlantic article on the NCAA by Taylor Branch was one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing he’d read in a long time.

Teen the Younger says the best thing she read in October was the rest of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which she pronounced  “intense.”  She told me that the novel went along at a steady pace and right near the end, picked up and got a lot more exciting.  She’s currently reading volume one of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

What’s next for me?  Hooksett Library book group is reading Loving Frank, and I have a collection of short stories about libraries, In the Stacks, which I’d like to read soon.  And, I’m reading Migrations, a poetry collection by Anne Cluysenaar published by Cinnamon Press. Happy reading!

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It’s halfway through November, which means I’ve written 25,000+ words in the last two weeks, in this year’s NaNoWriMo novel. This is the second year in a row that the Preteen and I are both writing. She’s participating in the Young Writers’ Program, as are several of her friends. This means she can set her own word count. Grown ups all aim for 50,000 words in a month. Thirty days, into the fictional wild.

Some skeptics have asked me why I would do such a thing (for the fourth time, no less). It is a little crazy — November was always notoriously busy, and this year it’s even busier, with the Preteen in rehearsals for two one act plays, the Teenager trying out for soccer clubs, and my own work at Gibson’s. The added chaos in our family schedule convinced me that I had to give it a try again, so that I could figure out how to work daily writing time back into my life.

My 2009 novel is as yet untitled, but I’m really having fun with it. The ideas aren’t coming quickly; I’m trying to listen to my characters, and let them have and solve problems in their lives. NaNoWriMo is brilliant in many ways, but one of my favorite things about it is that the weekly pep talks (from both NaNoWriMo staff and an array of well known authors) emphasize that freedom to create is paramount in this wilderness.

So what’s the point of NaNoWriMo? Giving oneself permission to spend time writing, to see what creative possibilities are lurking unconsciously while your conscious life is occupying all your time, is worth the effort. Knowing you are doing so in community with thousands of other people around the world is kind of fun, too.

Making the effort, even when you are so tired that you doze off over the keyboard, to observe a fictional world sharpens the ability to observe the real one. But it’s not conducive to getting much else done. For example, I started this post a week ago!  So with no further delay, on to what we read around here recently.

The Teenager finished the first paper he had to turn in to someone else — Oxford University. Not a bad place to start your academic career. He’s mostly enjoying the online course on Vikings he’s taking there. The tutor is helpful and responsive, too. Although he’s still reading The Poetic Edda with us, he has mostly been reading textbooks on Vikings, the Science of Soccer (he has pronounced his physiology textbook boring, so it’s time to shake things up),  and American history and government.

He finished reading Freedom: A History of US, which is Joy Hakim‘s one volume version of her history series. We read the whole series aloud a few years ago, and he also loved her The Story of Science series. He’s now reading The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation.

The Preteen is re-reading favorites as she is wont to do. She started The Hobbit but seems to have set it aside. As I mentioned, she’s been rehearsing for two plays and writing a novel, so hasn’t had much time to get lost in a book. But she is a voracious reader of magazines — American Girl, Muse, Calliope, Cricket, Nintendo Power and New Moon. Since the Computer Scientist and I get half a dozen or so magazines ourselves, she probably comes by this honestly.

Besides keeping up with what comes through the mail slot, the Computer Scientist also read Stephen King’s new tome, Under the Dome, in less than a week.  He says it’s the most intricate of King’s books — and he’s read them all. But even though he liked the complexity and found the story very interesting, he felt that one key thing wasn’t entirely clear: what caused the dome to descend in the first place? The Computer Scientist notes that it might have been interesting if this aspect of the story were more fully developed.

I read a number of books in the last few weeks. I finished my Nicholson Baker binge with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature. The Mezzanine takes place during the main character’s lunch hour and is a long riff on a variety of things that cross his mind, from shoelaces to ties to the layout of the drugstore and the office dynamics of restroom use. The book features numerous footnotes. You probably will either love or hate that. I happened to enjoy it — footnotes appeal to my inner geek. One of my all time favorite books is Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, which features abundant footnotes.

Room Temperature is also a novel limited to a slice of life — the time it takes the main character to give his infant daughter a bottle. What goes through his mind as he does this makes up the content of the book. I am again in awe of Baker’s creativity, and of the way his fiction seems to reveal the human condition in a stream of consciousness that most of us probably have going on but don’t even notice. So far, my favorite of Baker’s books is The Anthologist. This may be because I read it first, or because it deals with a subject I love (poetry), but there was also something about the protagonist that has stayed with me.

Before David Schmahmann visited Gibson’s in October, I read his first novel, Empire Settings. I loved this book. I’ve read other books set in South Africa, including The Syringa Tree, which is also told from a white South African’s point of view. Empire Settings is similar to The Syringa Tree in that the main character is grown and living in the United States, remembering his childhood.  It’s different in that we get to know Danny the grown man as well as learning about the events and relationships of his youth that haunt him still.

The writing is vivid and also very emotionally rich. The family dynamics — the way the grown siblings relate to each other and to their mother, Helga, and step-father; the way Helga, a woman who was a strong voice for justice during the apartheid era, is now a dependent wife; and the unfolding of Danny’s complicated relationship with his American wife and with the mixed race love of his youth — are all fascinating.

Layered into the story is the political and economic history of modern South Africa.  And the plot culminates in Danny’s struggle over whether to go back to Durban and illegally spirit the  family’s money out of the country, and what it will mean for him to return. I’m happy to report that David is working on a new novel that will be out next fall, and I very much look forward to it!

The Lazarus Project, by Alexsandar Hemon, is another novel of immigrant experience. This time, the main character, Brik, is from Bosnia, and he is writing about an early 20th century Jewish immigrant who was framed as an anarchist after he was killed while trying to deliver a message to Chicago’s chief of police. We read this for Gibson’s Book Club, and most of the group didn’t like it because the main character is rather whiny.

While Brik is impossible to warm up to, his story, of seeking to prove himself as a writer, of trying to understand why his marriage to an American wife isn’t as happy as he thinks it should be, of trying to know who is is and where he comes from, is haunting.  Hemon writes beautifully; his work is doubly impressive because English is not his first language. I think the novel succeeds because I felt Brik’s despair, his unspecified loss, his perpetual sense of being an outsider, as I read. Brik’s emotional wilderness is hard to take, but thankfully, the reader is only visiting.

Two more books I read this month are set in war torn places.  Baking Cakes in Kigali is set in Rwanda, in an apartment compound populated mostly by aid workers, academics, and others rebuilding the nation a few years after the genocide. Many of the characters in the book tell Angel, the cake baking protagonist, about the impact Rwanda’s conflict has had on their lives.  AIDS, too, is an enormous force in the book. But despite the horrors — and author Gaile Parkin does not shy away from telling some gripping stories of shattered lives — the book is a tribute to the redemptive power of community.

Angel is a remarkable woman, and I loved this book not only because it took me somewhere I’m not likely to go anytime soon (Kigali) but also because it introduced me to a woman I’d like to know better. More than a matriarch, Angel is a survivor, but she isn’t entirely healed herself, even as she works to help people around her. Parkin’s prose gives readers all the rich detail they need to see and hear, taste and smell Angel’s world.

One tiny quibble I have is that like many contemporary novels, Baking Cakes in Kigali touches on a series of “issues.” Editors seem to want authors to include everything readers may have heard on the news. So we meet a former child soldier, victims of AIDS and war, former sex workers, orphans, adulterers, even a girl whose father wants her circumcised.

While many of their stories are compelling, and Angel listens to them as a natural part of the plot, it felt a little forced at times, although ultimately, I think it worked because Angel’s community is such a hodgepodge of cultures. What I enjoyed is that even the characters who have suffered the most are helping themselves and each other, living and moving on, one way or another. That made this fictional wild a very fine place to linger.

After Baking Cakes In Kigali, I read Katherine Towler‘s latest novel. The final volume of her Snow Island trilogy, Island Light, comes out this winter. She’ll be coming to Gibson’s to read, and I got a pre-publication copy. Like her earlier books, this one features another generation of islanders, and revisits some of the older characters as well.

Island Light is set in the early 1990’s, as the Persian Gulf War is about to begin. One of the main characters, Nick, is a Vietnam veteran who has trouble dealing with the build-up to war and turns to drugs and alcohol. Several characters struggle with family relationships. There are two Lesbian couples in the novel, and Nick is having an affair with a married woman.

Perhaps because the previous two Snow Island books dealt with the insular island community’s secrets, I didn’t get the feeling that any of these problems were worked in — the plot unfolded naturally, and this didn’t seem like an “issues” book.  My favorite character is Ruth, and I enjoyed the passages dealing with her struggle over what her photography means to her — is it work that will earn her a living or is it art that will bring her joy and meet a need nothing else can? I also enjoyed the glimpses of Alice (who still runs the store) and George Tibbets, characters from the previous two novels.

Another thing I love about Towler’s books is the island. Bookconscious fans know I love books that take me places, and I will miss visiting Snow Island.

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Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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Two of us here at the bookconscious household were NaNoWriMo winners this year — which means we wrote a novel each in November. As I noted last month, it’s absolutely nuts of me to try and write 50,000 words in November, especially 50,000 words that should make sense in some kind of compelling way. My daughter did the Young Writers Program, which allowed her to set her own word count.  She sensibly set it low and exceeded her goal, and took plenty of days off.

Although I finished, it took a lot more effort than I recall expending on my last NaNoWriMo. Yet I still enjoyed struggling through to the end, which made me reflect on something interesting about my enjoyment of reading. Post-novel writing, I realized that part of my reading pleasure derives from sharing a sense of the struggle, either on the part of the author or the characters, that brought the story to fruition. For me, a good read is a vicarious quest.

A great example of a recent book that drew me in that way is Brisingr. Of course I have very little idea of the effort involved in a part human, part elf Dragon Rider’s struggle to master all he needs to learn with his dragon to save his world from an evil overlord while dealing with interracial conflicts, personal issues, spiritual confusion, and coming of age.  But I can feel for Eragon because author Christopher Paolini makes his hero so alive, drawing on emotions and thoughts that I can easily identify with.

Despite the challenging language (Paolini invented several languages for his book cycle, and even with the glossary I have trouble keeping words and names straight), the difficulty of remembering what happened in the earlier books, and the complexity of Alagaesia, the fantasy world where the stories are set, the Eragon books are enthralling because of Paolini’s mastery — not just in writing well, which he does, but in portraying universal human struggles, even in characters that aren’t human. He makes elves, dwarves, urgals, etc. distinct, but he makes every race a reflection of some aspect of humanity, a mirror we can look into, sometimes happily, sometimes a bit uncomfortably. For me, this makes the reading absorbing.

One thing about Eragon that is so endearing to me is his constant thirst to learn and to understand. He seeks not only information — Who are his parents? What must he learn to defeat the enemy? — but also meaning. What is the purpose of his life’s work? Why do we love, and what does love do to us? Why do different races in his world have different gods? Should he pray to any or all, and how?  In an autodidactic household where each of us is on our own life learning journey, these questions make Eragon seem like one of us. This kind of book feeds my imagination and I’d even say, my soul.

The question of souls, and how to feed them, brings me to A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, which describes the author’s struggle to follow rules for living from the bible as closely as possible. Jacobs is a terrific writer whose earlier book, The Know-It-All, was a delight, especially for those of us who would like to indulge in prolonged reference book reading ourselves.  I’ve been meaning to read The Year of Living Biblically, and when my son’s best friend told me he was reading it, I figured it was a good time to go check it out.  I’m glad I did.

In nonfiction, I’m drawn to the same appealing factor that I look for in novels and stories: a sense of connectedness with what I’m reading. Whether it’s the writer or the subject of the writing that engages me, I get into a book or article I can feel caught up in. Jacobs writes endearingly of his own imperfections — much as another of my favorite nonfiction authors, Bill Bryson, does — and this makes his writing feel conversational. The Year of Living Biblically is arranged by month, so that the reader is carried along on the year’s adventure, which adds to the “we’re all in this together” feeling.

Jacobs is an excellent observer. He doesn’t just decide to try keeping the Sabbath (and admits, endearingly, that he can’t keep his hands off his keyboard and creates little exceptions so he can check his email anyway), he explains how his efforts begin to make a change in him, to create an awareness of the benefit of slowing down. I really enjoyed his observation that cleaning up his language helped him feel more peaceful, less angry about whatever he would ordinarily swear about. And his descriptions of each biblical adventure made it easy to see what he was seeing.

As with his first book, this one is not only about his own exploration of a subject, but what impact his devotion to  immersion journalism has on his family. For example, his struggle to be biblical includes growing a really big beard — which can be off-putting to strangers, not to mention his wife. He also writes candidly about he and his wife experiencing infertility and their pursuit of treatment so that they can have a second child.  With a small child, a wife and an extended family, work, and the trappings of modern life all around him, Jacobs tries to reconcile his life and his quest to understand biblical living, in a way that gives his project context for readers.

Two other things made this one of my favorite books of the year: Jacobs writes beautifully about being a dad, struggling to do the right thing, to be a contemporary parent caught up in timeless worries, and to even process the overwhelming love and concern a parent feels. So many other authors whose writing is fine, whose work is interesting, whose books I otherwise enjoy absolutely turn me off when they write authoritatively about their excellent children and their fantastic parenting. Makes me want to put the book down with a hearty “Puhlease!”

Not so with Jacobs. He tells us, candidly, about what works, what doesn’t, what he worries about when it comes to his son, what he wants to be as a parent. In real life, parents do that — question, wonder, hope, and yes, even pray, that we’re doing our best. So I love his honesty, and it makes his books more like sitting down with a friend and laughing over life’s speedbumps than sitting in a lecture hall and hearing how Informed, Enlightened Authors do things.

If you’re wondering whether Jacobs just puts on the kindly dad persona in the book, and whether he’s actually a conceited famous author in person, let me share a quick personal aside.  Late in The Year of Living Biblically, Jacobs discusses a fringe fundamentalist Christian group and explains why they alarm him. So far, so good. Then he mentions they were important to the rise of homeschooling!

Aghast, I labored over an email that would politely inform Mr. Jacobs of the diversity of background, belief, and educational philosophy that makes homeschoolers too vast and varied a group to stereotype, and would let him know that homeschooling wasn’t founded by extremists. He wrote me back very soon after I took a deep breath and hit send, and he was kind, understanding, and gracious.

When it comes to accepting that no one person or group has a lock on the best way to do things, Jacobs also excels. His exploration of biblical correctness included a circle of both Jewish and Christian advisers, and he tries to consider various perspectives. He also tells readers where he’s coming from: he’s an agnostic, a secular Jew, curious about religion but not convinced.

I appreciated that perspective as he shares what he finds transformative or doesn’t, what he learns that seems credible and what’s incredible, what appeals and what revolts. He’s fair, finding something good in just about everyone he meets in the book. And he’s gentle in the conclusions department — he doesn’t make any grand declarations about Truth and Meaning, but he explains, simply, what’s changed in his life and what he learned.

Life changing experiences come in many degrees of impact, and fortunately, most of us will never experience what Nastaran Kherad has.  After growing up in Shiraz, Iran, with her maternal grandmother, who she called Bibi, she was arrested on false political charges when she was only 18. While she was in prison, her beloved brother, Mohammed, was executed, in part for his efforts to be supportive of other prisoners. In the House of My Bibi: Growing Up In Revolutionary Iran describes the author’s upbringing and her family, and life in Iran for a working class family during the period just before and in the early part of the Iranian revolution.

Bookconscious readers know that last spring, I blogged about a couple of books I’d read about travel and life in Iran. I received a review copy of In the House of My Bibi as a result of my blogging.  Like Jasmine and Stars, whose author also grew up in Shiraz, In the House of My Bibi is a book that brings Iran to life. Kherad’s book deals only with her childhood memories, because she hasn’t been back since she fled Iran twenty some years ago. So the book doesn’t go into a great deal of detail about what was happening politically and socially in the country. Instead, it gives readers a view of growing up there, of living an ordinary childhood.

Other Iranian memoirs I’ve read, including Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis, are the stories of people whose family or social circle were well off or well educated, or both. Kherad’s grandmother and mother are both widows, and both work to feed the family. Her grandmother works in a pickle factory and is illiterate, and her mother was married to an older man when she was still a teenager. Kherad writes clearly and simply, without analyzing, letting the reader come to conclusions she was struggling to sort out herself as an adolescent.

Besides Bibi, Kherad’s most caring relative is Mohammed, who takes his little sister to get a library card and introduces her to the ideas he is exploring as a young man. She describes him as a person with great empathy for the poor and for his fellow political prisoners.  The reader can guess, when the young Kherad tells her brother she wants to be a writer when she grows up, he won’t be there to read her work.

I enjoyed the book, and I think Kherad succeeds not only in helping show another facet of her country, but also in writing fairly about the things that were good in her life there. The bad is obvious; she writes vividly about her imprisonment. But she does not fully explain events leading to her arrest in one section of the book, and I found myself backtracking to try and get a clear picture.

Kherad portrays poverty and wealth, tradition and modernization under the Shah’s regime. But perhaps because she tells the book from her own perspective and she was still very young, I got no sense of when the revolution took place in her narrative and how it changed life for her family at first, before the arrests. There are hints — her brothers argue about whether Iran needs a monarchy, her Bibi admires the Shah, and Mohammed is disillusioned that the Islamic Revolution does not bring about compassionate social justice. It’s understandable that a child would only piece this information together in bits, but the telling is a bit disjointed.

In the final chapter, when she is about to leave Iran, she reconciles the strained relationship she has with her mother, but there is little closure, since we never hear much about Bibi once Kherad enters prison. On the whole, I thought the writing was vivid and considering the difficulty of revisiting these memories, the book is remarkably detailed. But I felt lost from time to time — perhaps that was intentional? Since she has spent nearly her entire adult life as an exile, the sketchiness of some parts of her childhood may be an authentic part of her memoir, rather than a weakness in the book’s structure.

While the other books I read this month touched on journeys of understanding, searching, and remembrance, my favorite recent purchase is Theories of Everything: Selected  Collected and Health-Inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006. For a mere $6, in a labyrinthine used bookshop in Manchester, I bought this volume, which may hold the secret to life somewhere within its magical pages. For those unfamiliar with Roz Chast, a staff cartoonist at the New Yorker, I recommend you go to the library and request this book. Chast has a knack for putting her finger on just what people wonder about, and spinning a humorous view of life’s mysteries and humanity’s foibles. Her humor is quirky and gentle even when it’s pointed, and her artwork is distinctive and delightful.

Next up a the bookconscious house? The teenager has begun Fever Pitch, which I picked up at the Audubon society book sale, and has also been poring over How to Photograph Absolutely Everything. His sister is reading The Great Santa Search but also — Hallelujah! — browsed the library shelves today. Has anyone else noticed that kids tend to search online for books, rather than losing themselves in the library stacks? I have such warm memories of several different libraries’ shelves, and myself in front of them pulling out book after book, choosing a pile, and anticipating many happy hours of reading. Online searching is convenient, but not nearly as much fun as serendipitous shelf browsing. Anyway, she found a couple of books that way and I hope to encourage more browsing.

We were at the library so I could pick up The Journal of Helene Berr, a  WWII era diary of a young French woman, newly published in English, which I heard reviewed on a BBC radio program. I’m also reading  Bleak House, which Gibson’s book group is discussing in January. As snow falls on the bookconscious house it’s time for making both Christmas cookies and latkes (my recipe is from a favorite picture book: The Miracle of the Potato Latkes), and I’m planning to dig into our selection of holiday books this weekend. Happy Holidays, and I hope all of you are the pleased recipients of good books this month!

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It’s dark here in northern New England in November. Evening comes early — the sun is going down by four o’clock. One of my favorite poems of all time is “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon, which I always think of at this time of year, as the dark hours increase. Kenyon writes, “God does not leave us comfortless,” and I like to think one of the chief comforts at any time, but especially in darkness (whether physical, spiritual, or emotional), is reading.

As the final weeks of campaigning came to a close, I read a couple of funny books to help balance the negativity. I wrote a few months ago about visiting a terrific used bookstore in Maine. One of my purchases there was a pair of paperbacks by Shirley Jackson.

My grandmother first recommended Jackson’s memoir, Life Among the Savages, when I had a three year old and a seven year old and had just moved into a 132 year old house in New Hampshire. I was still in that anxious phase of early motherhood, and I was also a bit overwhelmed by the house. Mostly my husband and I became of aware of how little we really knew about houses, despite having been homeowners before. An old house will humble you. Even though it was in many ways the coolest house we’ve ever lived in, I felt like we were in a power struggle, that house and I. The house won, but that’s another story.

Jackson writes about moving to an old house in Vermont from New York City with her husband and two young children. While she doesn’t know much more about the maintenance and upkeep of an old house than we did, she makes use of her inexperience by writing a hilarious memoir. Between her observations of the nature of very young children and anecdotes about things going wrong with her house and car, I laughed out loud. So when I saw it this summer in the used bookshop for $ .50, along with its companion, Raising Demons, I snapped them up.

Rereading Life Among the Savages, I was struck by how funny it still is, even though we’ve moved twice and now live in a house that’s only thirty something years old. My toddler and young son are now a preteen and a very tall kid who eats a great deal and is three months from being legally able to learn to drive. Despite being older, more experienced (notice I didn’t say wiser), and a great deal more relaxed, I still laughed out loud. Jackson manages to write about things that are so easy for any parent or former child to identify with that it doesn’t matter that the books were written in the late 1940’s.

Jackson’s book is all the more appealing to me for its New England setting. Rebecca Rule’s Live Free and Eat Pie! A Storyteller’s Guide to New Hampshire is a funny but affectionate look at the bookconscious family’s adopted home. Arranged like a guidebook, Live Free pokes fun at New Hampshire culture, but also fills readers in on history, people, and places around the state. While she enjoys pointing out the state’s quirks, Rule clearly loves New Hampshire, and revels in her role as collector of its tradition and lore. She writes that many of her best stories come from her own storytelling audiences, and I’m hoping to be in the audience when she comes to Concord in December.

At Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago, I went to hear D. Quincy Whitney read from her new book, Hidden History of New Hampshire. This little book grew out of Whitney’s work preparing New Hampshire “firsts and bests” for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Rather than putting her information in chronological order, Whitney organizes the book into thematic collections of stories, such as “Home, Town, and Community,” “Seasons: Work and Recreation,” “Creativity and Culture,” or “Ingenuity and Enterprise.” I found the groupings creative and conducive to browsing — when was the last time you picked up a history book and found a chapter on “Sea, Lake, and Sky,” or “Forests and Mountains?”

The pieces themselves are short and engaging. You may have recently heard references to Bretton Woods in the news, and this book will tell you the story behind the location of the conference and preparations for world leaders to come to remote NH. As always, hearing the author talk about her work really enhanced my appreciation for the final product, and it was interesting to hear about her travels. Whitney’s research led her to all kinds of fascinating places, like a unique monument to women who have lost their lives serving their country, which is decorated with reliefs Norman Rockwell designed.

Whitney doesn’t leave out familiar famous Granite staters, like Robert Frost and Christa McAuliffe, but she also writes about lesser known people who have achieved extraordinary things. And kids of all ages will enjoy hearing about notable sports achievements, including New Hampshire’s illustrious skiing history. It’s a well written, interesting little book enhanced by a great selection of historical photographs, and I’ve left it out where I hope the rest of the family will browse through it.

The kids have been reading some interesting fiction. My son tried The Sand Reckoner, by Gillian Bradshaw, who writes marvelously detailed historical fiction and is one of my favorite authors. As you can tell by the title, taken from his famous treatise on large numbers, The Sand Reckoner is about Archimedes, and Gregory found it interesting as well as entertaining. His sister is reading an Enola Holmes mystery, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, and she also just read Ivy and Bean and The Magic Half. The mystery features Sherlock’s little sister, and is part of a series by Nancy Springer my daughter really enjoys. The other two books are by Annie Barrows.

Annie Barrows is also the co-author, with her aunt, of a book I just finished last week and loved: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This was one of those books I didn’t want to end. A few years ago I watched Island at War on Masterpiece Theatre. I’d never really heard much about the occupation of the Channel Islands until then, and found it really interesting. Given all the hype about Barrows’ book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s written almost entirely as a series of letters between the protagonist and other main characters, which sounds hokey. But instead it was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was torn between wanting to know the heroine, Juliet, and wanting to be Juliet.

Another story I thoroughly enjoyed was The Blue Star, by Tony Earley. This novel is a sequel to Earley’s successful and critically acclaimed Jim the Boy. Both books are evidence that a person can write a good book for adults that is neither graphic nor shocking nor steeped in the latest pop psychology nor dripping with dramatic twists lifted from tell all talk shows and gossip rags. Earley’s setting, a small town in the South in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, feels vibrant and real. His characters are good without being sappy or cloying. Difficult things happen, especially in The Blue Star, but the books don’t titillate, taunt, or tire the reader. I wish there were more novels like these.

Which brings me to a book I didn’t enjoy that much, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. This was one of those books reviewers raved about that just didn’t appeal to me. I felt like it would have made a better movie or television drama. Nothing much happens in the book, but at the same time, there are so many characters that you don’t really get to know them, either. Maybe the main character, Manny, is the only one O’Nan meant for readers to care about, but despite his obvious good qualities, I found Manny fairly boring as characters go.

O’Nan’s writing is vivid, cinematic, I’d call it. His descriptions of restuarant work brought back vivid memories of a summer I spent busing tables, and I could picture the Lobster easily as I read. I didn’t hate the book, but I just felt there was not much to the story, and characters I couldn’t really get excited about — which are two things I’m really looking for in a novel.

When it comes to nonfiction, I often read about subjects I’m exploring with the kids. We’re learning about Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, because my dad and his wife are traveling there right now, and I just finished The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed reading it, but it was good read. The subject matter was disturbing: this book tells the story of Bashir, who was born in the house his father built in Ramla, with a lemon tree in the garden; and Dalia, the daughter of Bulgarian Jews who moved into the house after Bashir’s family and most other Arabs were expelled from Ramla when Israel became a country. Tolan tells, in spare, clean language, what happens after the two meet in their late teens, when Bashir comes to see the house and Dalia lets him in.

No matter your politics, this book will probably make you angry as well as horrified. The thing that struck me most was something Dalia noticed when she was still a little girl: the children of European Jews in Israel managed to dehumanize and mistreat people who were “other,” despite the experience of the Holocaust. I stayed awake wondering how that could be possible. The stories of Dalia and Bashir and what becomes of the house with the lemon tree are gripping, and Tolan fills in historical detail without bogging down readers or losing sight of the bigger picture. Tolan also manages to maintain an impartial tone throughout the book. When I was finishing the last chapter, Israel was blocking UN food aid deliveries in Gaza. After reading this book, I wonder if the situation can ever be fully resolved.

After such a heavy read, coming right after a novel I didn’t really enjoy, I’m going to read something I’m pretty certain I’ll find entertaining next: Brisingr, Christopher Paolini’s latest book in his Inheritance cycle. First of all, how cool would it be, as an author, to have written a series known as a “cycle” — as in The Epic Cycle, or the Arthurian Cycle? My son read Brisingr as soon as it came out, put in on my nightstand, and promised I would love it. I think it will be just the thing to sustain and inspire me as I crank through the 30,000 word mark this week.

Yes, crazy as it is, I am doing NaNoWriMo again this year. In case you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is the insanity of thousands of people around the world each writing a 50,000 word novel in November. A month in which I will spend hours in the car, taking the boy to a series of soccer tryouts some distance from our house and the girl to a weekly drama class where she is memorizing lines for an early December play, and to several art classes a week. We are also preparing for visiting relatives I am looking forward to spending time with, and Thanksgiving, which is one of our favorite holidays and which would result in mutiny if it did not include the traditional bountiful and somewhat time consuming menu.

In short, it’s not a month in which I really ought to be committing to 1667 words per day. But for some inexplicable reason, I love NaNoWriMo. Especially since I am ahead on my word count today. Talk to me tomorrow. You can follow my progress with that nifty word count meter in the side bar here at bookconscious.

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