Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘novella’

Bookconscious readers know I try to read a selection of new books at the library where I work part time. I’d heard good things about Sebastian Faulks and hadn’t read anything by him, so I requested his new book A Possible Life: a Novel in Five Parts.  I enjoyed each of the five parts alluded to in the subtitle. But I don’t think together they make a novel.

The book’s parts are five stories: “Geoffrey”, set in 1938; “Billy,” set in 1859; “Elena,” set in 2029; “Jeanne,” set in 1822; and “Anya” (which to me really should have been called Jack), set in 1971. The first and last stories are 80 and 90 pages each, so novellas really. As you can see they are not told in chronological order.  I’m not sure the reason(s) for the order they are in.

I’m not really sure of anything about this book. I didn’t dislike it. I did find the ending of “Jeanne” strange — Faulks writes Jeanne’s whole life story and then revisits a seminal moment from her youth, tacking it on after she dies as if it was an afterthought, even though it was formative. “Elena” seemed to go on a little longer than it needed to as well. But overall they are well crafted stories peopled by interesting characters struggling with engaging problems.

I admit I turned to reviews to try to make sense of what Faulks is saying with these disparate parts. Even after reading what others had to say about it I had a hard time believing the tenuous threads made for a cohesive whole. There is a thematic ribbon to tie the narratives together: each of the protagonists imagines at one point or another what things might be like if their lives had not gone the way they had.  Certain ideas do appear in the stories over and over: questions about faith, war, love, family, identity, and self-awareness.

So, a good read, with plenty to discuss. In fact, I’d probably have enjoyed this more with a book group. But if anyone can explain to me what makes this novel, I’d appreciate it.

Read Full Post »

I’ve been humming “Travelin’ Shoes,” a piece Songweavers are performing in our South Church concert (to benefit homeless initiatives) on 11/20, and the verses begin “Death came a knockin’,” which got me to thinking that death knocks on the door of a lot of good literature. In October, death featured in almost every book I read. I suppose if you’re an author looking for drama, conflict, redemption, transformation, even humor — themes that make for good reading — you can’t really go wrong working death into the picture.

Two books that deal with death to great effect are Hans Keilson‘s Comedy In A Minor Key, and The Death of the Adversary. Farrar, Straus, & Giroux brought Keilson’s work to American readers this year in beautifully designed editions. I read a review in August by Francine Prose, and I agree with her assessment: “‘The Death of the Adversary’ and ‘Comedy in a Minor Key’ are masterpieces, and Hans Keilson is a genius.”

Both books are set during WWII; most of The Death of the Adversary takes place in Nazi Germany, and Comedy In a Minor Key is set in occupied Holland. Keilson was born in Germany. Like the protagonist in The Death of the Adversary, he came to understand, as a young man, that he was no longer German under the Nazi regime, he was Jewish and therefore did not belong.

The novel follows Hitler’s rise to power even though Hitler’s name never appears. The protagonist goes about his life trying to be normal, trying to ignore the growing infatuation his age-mates have with the “adversary.”  He describes a young German telling friends about participating in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery, and I don’t think I’ve come across a more vivid, evocative, soul-searing description of the senselessness of violence in any novel.  You understand as you read this passage how it might be that ordinary people are swept up in the brutality of war, and what it might feel like know that your community is the target of such blind, ugly rage. Even the protagonist feels the power of the adversary’s rhetoric — he is caught up in it himself, albeit in a different way.

Particularly in light of recent attention to nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany, and the new Hitler exhibit in Berlin, The Death of the Adversary was a moving, fascinating read. Some of it is darkly humorous;  a scene where the young man is at a hotel and realizes that the adversary is speaking in the hall and he and the proprietor of the hotel and some other guests are listening over a sound system seemed farcical to me. Other sections are tender to the point of being heartbreaking: the young man remembering being deliberately targeted with violent fouls in a soccer match, despite his being very skilled; another remembered scene where his mother made other boys play with him; the moment he realizes a good friend has been taken in by the adversary’s strong speeches and they will part ways.

Even more heartbreaking is the way the protagonist describes his parents’ preparing to flee, the way they are in denial for a long time, and then finally each tries to look out for the other, the way the young man eventually realizes he won’t see them again. Both in the novel and in life, aging parents ignore warnings and are taken away; the young man escapes but feels strongly that he “left them to their fate.”  Keilson, in interviews, feels the same way about his own parents. When the novel ended, (an ending so beautiful and sad I thought about it for days), I felt the same aching emptiness I feel after a good cry.

Comedy In a Minor Key is about a Dutch couple who are hiding a Jewish man in their house.  When Keilson left Germany he became a member of the Dutch resistance, so again the novel draws on the author’s own experiences. And again, whether you’ve read a similar story or not, you’ll be hard pressed to come across such a beautiful telling. The earnest young couple and their secret guest struggle to establish a “normal” relationship, and Keilson portrays the range of emotions and the logistical difficulties  poignantly, including the Jewish man’s untimely (but natural) death and the consequences of the young couple’s trying to dispose of the body.

This is a short novel, but vivid and tense — you feel the danger, the drudgery, and the maddening sense that both the refugee and his rescuers are trapped, that their lives are stuck in an endless loop as they try to determine who they can trust, and try to know how to live together. In both books, power and freedom play an enormous roles — who has and doesn’t have each, how people act when they are either powerless or free, what brings these ethical forces to bear as people try to make sense of war, occupation, fear. The earnestness of the characters is stark; there is no  sentimentalism, just the naked anguish of trying to be good, to face evil , to survive and not destroy yourself or anyone else in the process.

Genocide is not specifically named in either book. In fact, if you weren’t aware of the circumstances of Hitler’s rise to power and of the Holocaust, you may think The Death of the Adversary was simply about war and extremism at any time and place.  Comedy In a Minor Key is a little more explicit about the historical context, but is still a book that transcends its setting. Both are haunting reminders of how thin the line between discrimination and persecution is, how easily humanity has slipped over that line and can again.

Another book in which lines are crossed, despite people’s better intentions and with the direst of consequences, is last year’s National Book Award winner, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. I’m still digesting this book a couple of weeks or so after I read it.   McCann traces the lives of several characters in New York City around the time of Phillipe Petit‘s walking a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

When I wrote about Tinkers I said I often don’t get what prize committees were thinking, and I’m afraid that’s how I feel about Let the Great World Spin. It’s a decent read, but I felt it was uneven enough not to merit being singled out for the National Book Award. In fairness to the committee, I haven’t read the other finalists from that year, so maybe it was the best of the bunch.

I think what I didn’t like is that the structure of the book got in the way of the telling.  I’m also not sure I could say what the book is about — it’s about many things, but no one thing stands out.   I heard an NPR piece about La Dolce Vita today and Martin Scorsese described it as “episodic,” rather than plot driven. I guess that’s the case with Let the Great World Spin.

Some of the characters whose stories are part of Let the Great World Spin are not fully developed — they are more than extras, but not quite minor characters. The main characters — a pair of Irish brothers, a hooker, and a grieving mother whose son died in Vietnam — are also not people readers get to know very well. The thread that ties the disparate pieces of the narrative together is Phillipe Petit‘s walk on the wire between the twin towers. There are further connections; some  made late in the book seemed hasty.

I don’t mind fortuitous connections in a novel, but I like to see them developing earlier.  The scant sections on Phillipe Petit were tantalizing but fleeting — perhaps because he’s a living person, it was hard for McCann to spend much time on him in the novel, but if that’s the case, why have any chapters devoted to him?  Similarly, a character who ends up marrying one of the brothers after being involved in crash in which the other brother dies shows up in a couple of chapters, but we never get a real sense of her.

If the main characters were more fully developed, the comparative slimness of the others wouldn’t stand out to me as much, but even those four didn’t come alive for me. McCann writes beautifully in places (in others, some of his figurative language felt disjointed); the idea of the novel is lovely, and the intersections of the lives poignant. I wondered when I  finished if I might have felt differently if he’d written linked stories, telling each character’s bit separately and leaving readers to knit them together.

Part of the problem for me was that I began reading knowing this was a National Book Award winner — the prize impacted my expectations. But another book I read this month was a Pulitzer winner, and it did not disappoint: Delights and Shadows by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Kooser came to Concord to accept the first Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Prize in American Poetry in October.

The audience included two other former poet laureates: Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin, as well as Wes McNair and Sharon Olds. Those are the “local” poets around here — one reason I love New Hampshire!  Both teens (including one who didn’t want to go) enjoyed Kooser’s reading; Teen the Elder says Kooser is now his second favorite poet (Donald Hall is first).

Although I’d included his work in our “poem of the week” display in the kitchen for a number of weeks, Ted Kooser wasn’t a poet the family felt very familiar with before the reading; they all thought hearing him really made his work more appealing. The Computer Scientist had been reading Flying At Night in preparation for the evening, which bookconscious readers may recall I wrote about in June.

Kooser read a number of poems from Delights and Shadows.  “Mother,” is one of my favorites. It’s an elegiac poem, a letter to his mother in the first spring after her death.  It ends with some of the loveliest lines in American poetry: “Were it not for the way you taught me to look/at the world, to see the life in play in everything,/I would have to be lonely forever.”

Another gorgeous poem is “A Box of Pastels,” which Kooser also read — it describes Mary Cassatt’s box of pastels, and he told the back story about visiting with the person who owned this box and feeling so awed to hold it.  This poem ends, “I touched/the warm dust of those colors, her tools,/and left there with light on the tips of my fingers.” As a Cassatt fan, I can imagine that feeling, and he captures the essence of her art — light — beautifully, in the mundane colored dust that rubbed off.

Many of Kooser’s poems are remembrances, either of people or of earlier times, and Delights and Shadows includes a number of outstanding examples: “Ice Cave,” “Memory,” “Dishwater,” and “Depression Glass,” stand out for me.  Kooser read two longer, narrative poems that reminded me very much of Wes NcNair’s work: “Pearl,” and “The Beaded Purse.” Like McNair, Kooser can spin a yarn in his poems that makes you feel as if you’re hearing voices from the past.

Also like McNair, Kooser captures a certain slice of America in his work. In Kooser’s case, it’s mid-western life in small towns and farms, especially of his parents’ generation, in the early 20th century.  These poems are like paintings of a particular time and place and yet also deal with timeless, universal human experience. In “The Beaded Purse,” for example, a father tucks money into his dead daughter’s bag “for her mother to find,” so she won’t worry that the girl was living hand to mouth.  If I was putting together a class on 20th century American history, Kooser and McNair would be on the syllabus – their poems are every bit as much history as literature.

One of my favorite authors of all time is similarly of equal value as both a historian who recorded a precise slice of her country’s cultural history and a supremely talented writer whose work has earned a place in the canon of great English literature. Yes, Jane Austen. The Computer Scientist gave me a membership in JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America) for my birthday. When I took Teen the Elder to Ohrstrom library to find Pre-Columbia history books and visit the Shakespeare room, and saw Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World on the shelf, I knew I had to read it.

Claire Harman traces Jane Austen’s fame from the time she was writing to the present.  For those of you who’ve heard that she wasn’t much of a success during her lifetime or that since she published anonymously, she wasn’t well known, this book is eye-opening. That’s a nice urban legend, but in fact, Austen was pretty successful, though some books did better than others.  She was also very much aware of both her sales and her reviews, and thanks to her brother and some family friends talking openly about her authorship, she was not entirely anonymous.

Those details were interesting, but it’s Harman’s in depth coverage of Austen’s posthumous fame that I found even more fascinating. One could say that the cult of Jane Austen,like that of Shakespeare, was an early example of celebrity worship. Perhaps because I live with an Austen skeptic, I had no idea that in England some people promoted her as an equal to Shakespeare in terms of importance to England’s literary heritage.  I saw parallels to modern celebrity in the way that her descendants attempted to control Austen’s image as well.

I was fortunate to have a college professor, Laurie Kaplan, who was herself a “Janeite” (she is even past editor of JASNA’s journal) as Harman describes Austen devotees.  Kaplan really opened the books up for her students, particularly on wonderful trips to England where we literally walked in the novel’s landscapes and locations. But even once I became aware of JASNA, I assumed Janeites were a small, devoted, and literary bunch. Harman points out that in postwar England, the Austen society was more about national pride than literary appreciation, and some of its officers didn’t even read Austen’s books!

Jane’s Fame is detailed and well researched, if a bit dry and probably mainly of interest to serious devotees or history buffs.  My favorite book for budding Janeites and casual fans is still The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler — it’s not serious literary criticism or careful history (Harman is definitely an excellent historian and writer), but it’s fun and readable, and would appeal to young fans just getting into Jane. Better still, read Austen’s books if you want to remember why she’s brilliant, and why classic books have something to say to every generation.

Classic in another way is the work of Leonard Koren.  Last month I wrote about his book on wabi-sabi; this month I read The Flower Shop: Charm, Grace, Beauty, and Tenderness In a Commercial Setting.  This was the only book I read in October with no death in it — although it is about Blumenkraft, a flower shop in Vienna where Koren found solace after his marriage ended in 2003, so it was inspired by the aftermath of a relationship’s death.

The Flower Shop is a fascinating read, a kind of manifesto of what a good place of work can be. Blumenkraft is a creative, customer and employee friendly, unique, consciously smart, aesthetically aware, and well-designed business. Koren explores how it began, what sets it apart, what its employees think of working there, and what appeals to its customers.

The spare text is set in small blocks and accompanied by lovely sepia and black & white photos.  The impact of the book’s design is that it compliments Blumenkraft’s aesthetic — it’s different, you can see as soon as you open The Flower Shop that this is not an ordinary book, and neither is its subject an ordinary florist.  A refreshing, spirit-lifting book. You’ll want to visit Blumenkraft. You might wish you worked there.

Another book concerned with aesthetics is A Homemade Life.  Part memoir, part cookbook, Molly Wizenberg’s first book grew out of her other food writing:  her well known blog, Orangette, and later her column in Bon Apetit and pieces for NPR and PBS.  She’s young, and has lived a mostly charmed life, which can be hard to read in large doses. But the passages about her father, his short battle with cancer and his death, and her coming to terms with the loss definitely adds depth to A Homemade Life. I’m looking forward to trying some recipes.

On the evening that I felt inspired to make ginger pancakes for supper (after reading that Molly Wizenberg likes one of my favorite cookbooks, Marion Cunningham’s The Breakfast Book, which includes that recipe), I also stayed up late finishing Charles Elton‘s Mr. Toppit.  Does anyone else out there stay up ridiculously late when his/her spouse is traveling? I don’t know why, but I do, even though in general I’ve gotten better about going to bed at a more reasonable time (if midnight can be considered reasonable).

This book has been out in the UK since last year, but is just appearing in the U.S.  I enjoyed it very much, although it had what I considered some extra fluff here and there that seemed to serve as mere titillation, without much real impact on the plot.  Mr. Toppit of the title is the villain in a series of Narnia-like children’s books written by Arthur Hayman, who dies early on in the novel. A vacationing American, Laurie, happens to witness the accident that kills him and comforts him in his last moments.

Laurie ends up getting to know Arthur’s family, including the son who shares a name with his father’s young protagonist. Through her continued contact with the Haymans and a series of serendipitous events, Laurie is partially responsible for making his books famous in the U.S. As she pursues her own ambitions, she ignites a global craze for Arthur Hayman’s books, and becomes a famous television host in the process. Meanwhile Hayman’s children grow up and deal with the fallout of fame and loss. Since Elton worked as a literary agent and one of his clients was A.A. Milne’s estate, it’s interesting to ponder how much he borrowed from life.

What I liked about Mr. Toppit was the fully developed characters, even minor ones; a clear structure; interesting tangential story lines that enhanced the main plot; themes readers could really mull over; cultural references that placed the book without dating it.  I would say that in some ways, Elton has Austen-esque overtones to his work. His characters are concerned with sense and sensibility, with good taste and good manners, some are hoping to better themselves and others are hoping just to live up to their families expectations.

Mr. Toppit is also funny in that classically dry, British way, and Elton exposes some of the sillier aspects of both American and British culture, particularly with regards to fame, fortune, and family relations, class, culture, and celebrity. His wicked skewering of the “remembered memory” phenomenon that was in fashion in America in the 1980’s and 1990’s takes the form of another goofy cultural touchstone, the annual Christmas letter. While some of the social barbs seem a little cliched (there’s an obese American, a harried television producer who stretches the truth to nail a deal, a matriarch who is chilly and shabbily genteel), generally I found the book to be clever, and bitingly funny.

Finally in October, I read a book that begins with war and death and ends with the author’s exhortation to be “aware that just this is the great, dynamic, lively dancing life.”  Soko Morinaga was only a teenager when both his parents died and he was drafted into the Japanese army at the end of WWII.  Although he survived, he was alone and adrift, so he went to a Zen monastary and asked to become a novice.

Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson In the Extent of My Own Stupidity is Morinaga’s memoir of forty years as a Zen monk. If you have an image of Buddhism as a peaceful, nonviolent religion you might be shocked by the physical hardship novice monks undergo, including being hit with a big stick and subjected to sleep deprivation and under-nourishment. I enjoyed this brief, inspiring, occasionally bracing memoir. That such austerity and hardship can produce a wise master who is moved by a five year old’s contention that God is in everything and everyone is a mystery I don’t fully understand.

Speaking of mysteries, I will never fully comprehend ever changing teen-aged moods, and now I have two sets of them to try to fathom.  Teen the Elder is officially an applicant to college; that has somewhat lowered his stress level and improved his emotional equilibrium. He still has his moments.  I suggested that some reading for pleasure might be a welcome respite, and brought him an advance copy of a book I thought he’d love: The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World by Edward Dolnick. He’s been enjoying it very much — the history of science is a particular interest he’s pursued throughout his teen years.

Another book he says he really enjoyed in October was The Aztec World by Elizabeth M. Brumfiel and Gary M. Feinman, which he read as part of his Pre-Columbian history study. Brumfiel & Feinman wrote the book to accompany an exhibit at the Field Museum, which they co-curated with three Mexican colleagues.  Teen the Elder was very impressed with what he read about Tenochtitlan; the current issue of National Geographic happens to include an article on recent excavations near the site of the Templo Mayor.

The same issue, lying on an end table in our living room, has a beautifully photographed article on Japanese sea life. Teen the Younger, who is a big fan of the great Japanese filmaker/animator Hayao Miyazaki recently watched Ponyo with a friend who hadn’t seen it before. Since Teen the Younger is loving her Japanese class and is a devoted fan of manga and anime, I was happy to expand her horizons to non-animated Japanese creatures as well.

Teen the Younger is still devouring manga and enjoying weekly trips to the library to pick up new titles. She’s also reading Funny In Farsi. Last week we met author Firoozeh Dumas, who told the large Concord Reads audience that she was in New Hampshire all because of bookconscious. My post on her books two years ago, which she found thanks to a web aggregator tool her brother signed her up for, opened a correspondence between us. I did suggest her books to the Concord Reads committee, which did a great job bringing her here and presenting terrific programs.

While I think Teen the Younger picked up the books (which, like National Geographic, I set out like bait on a side table) because Firoozeh made her laugh, she told me that what she finds interesting is how Firoozeh describes America through an immigrant’s eyes. That’s exactly why Concord Reads picked the books, and why so many people enjoy them.

The Computer Scientist, when he’s not crafting uber Halloween accessories like Xion’s keyblade (I have aches, pains, and blisters from raking all massive amounts of leaves in our yard in time for the annual street pickup, but I wouldn’t trade chores for a second!), has been hair-on-fire busy at work. But he has read a couple of interesting things recently.

A friend and former co-worker sent him an article from a blog called RandsInRepose on nerd characteristics. I read it too. If you have a nerd in your life you’ll read it and weep, or at least sniffle. I sighed particularly loudly when I got to the section that begins,”Your nerd has built an annoyingly efficient relevancy engine in his head.” This is an elaborate explanation of why nerds hear “blah, blah, blah,” when people are talking to them, kind of the way Charlie Brown hears his teacher’s voice in Peanuts films.

He also read the advance copy of a book by an author who is coming to Gibson’s in February, who is also a St. Paul’s School grad. and former teacher there (and current sociology professor at Columbia), Shamus Rahman Khan. Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School will be out in early 2011, and the Computer Scientist says it’s a “good in-depth examination of St. Paul’s School students and culture.” He found Khan’s writing “authentic and honest in his analysis.”

When I booked the event, I was worried the book might not be well received at St. Paul’s. The Computer Scientist told me he had the same incorrect first impression — we both feel the title has negative connotations that are easily misinterpreted. But he says, “after thoroughly reading and digesting the book, I’m appreciative of Shamus’ candor and reflections and encourage those interested in boarding schools to read this insightful book.” It’s in my to-read pile now. I’m looking forward to it, as I found what the Computer Scientist learned about Khan’s distinction between privilege and entitlement very interesting.

Up next?  The Computer Scientist is back to reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London (which I loved and wrote about here last spring) and he has Dennis Lehane‘s Moonlight Mile (the tour kicks off right here in Concord on Wednesday!) and Andre Dubus III‘s memoir, Townie, on his nightstand. I picked up some advance copies (like Teen the Elder’s science history and the Dubus title) at a fall sales rep. recommendations night in Hadley, MA, sponsored by New England Independent Booksellers’ Association.  Teen the Younger has Lemonade Mouth by Mark Peter Hughes on her library pile, thanks to my notes from that evening.

I was intrigued by a New York Times article on Gary Shteyngart’s recent trip to Russia and checked out Super Sad True Love Story today. I also have Kay Ryan’s “new and selected” poetry collection, The Best of It out of the library, and there are many more interesting selections on my “to read” pile(s).  Like the leaves, these piles move around but never really seem to get smaller!

 

The Clockwork Universe

Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World

Edward Dolnick

Read Full Post »

March flew past. I meant to savor it, mindfully. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied that I had some mindful moments and keep practicing. Mindfulness is a way of being aware in the present — hard if you are someone who multitasks, and hard in our culture, that values being busy.

For me being mindful also means being aware of the connections between what I’m thinking, doing, or reading and all that has come before and will come after. It’s probably no surprise to those of you who’ve read my monthly musings here that I equate mindfulness with finding  interconnectedness.

That may not be “real” mindfulness, but it works for me, because one of the my goals in practicing mindfulness is perspective — awareness of what one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer calls “the changes and chances of this life.”  Mindfulness for me is about being more fully present with the people and experiences I’m having, not racing ahead in my mind to the next ten things I need to do. At the same time, mindfulness, and other meditation practices, remind me to rest in God’s “eternal changelessness.” (from the same prayer in BCP).

Two books I read this month inspired me to work on mindfulness in my writing and in life. Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart reminded me of all the reasons I love haiku. Really good haiku is not necessarily the 5-7-5 poem you learned about in elementary school (some good haiku use this form, but the majority don’t). An excellent haiku is a little “aha” moment — a glimpse into the poet’s mindfulness, because writing great haiku requires the poet to distill a moment of awareness into a few words.

Donegan adds annotations to each poem in this collection, which includes work by both classic and contemporary poets. Her own background as a poet and scholar, as well as a student of meditation and a colleague of Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute, inform her insightful commentary.

This isn’t straight up literary criticism — while Donegan calls attention to each poem’s beauty, her criteria for including poems in this collection had as much to do with content as craft, as the subtitle indicates. In fact, I was interested in reading the book not only because I love haiku, but also because I want to “cultivate awareness and open (my) heart.”

One reason I am on a quest towards mindfulness is that I see it as a crucial part of being a good parent. To that end, I’d been meaning to read Jon and Maya Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings:The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Over the years I have read a large number of books on being a parent.

The Computer Scientist likes to tell people that when we brought our older child home from the hospital, he hid the books on top of a tall bookcase so that I would relax and rest with the new baby. Our children howl with laughter when we describe administering our son’s first bath: I read the directions, step by step, from a parenting manual, and the Computer Scientist followed them.

Everyday Blessings is not a prescriptive manual, and you won’t get step by step advice from the authors. But it is an important guide, and one of the most honest parenting books I’ve come across. Rather than setting up perfect parenting examples and talking about the wonderful experiences the authors have had in applying their stellar techniques, the Kabat-Zinns provide hope and encouragement but also tell it like it is: parenting is not easy, kids are not always easy to live with, and you’re going to lose it at some point.

But mindfulness can offer perspective, can help people through challenges, and can foster peace when emotional storms have passed. The Kabat-Zinns open their home to readers and share their own parenting experiences, but they also don’t claim to have all the answers, and frequently let readers know that parenting is a judgement call, and it’s alright to not always know what to do.

As a mother of a preteen and teen, I found that comforting. When I was younger and wanted “how to” information I might not have appreciated it as much. I found myself sharing bits of this book with the Computer Scientist and also with the kids. One thing I shared with them is that the Kabat-Zinns quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” several times in Everyday Blessings. This impressed the Teenager — you’ll find out why later in this essay. I was fascinated to connect Eliot’s poetry with mindfulness.

Everyday Blessings points out that being mindful in relationships is enormously helpful — it may not be the key to determining how to handle every parenting challenge, but it will help you to know whether there really is a challenge. So often there isn’t; one or the other person is simply overwhelmed by emotions — in our house we call it “reacting to stimuli.”  Being aware of what is happening, rather than half paying attention while doing three other tasks, can make a huge difference in accepting, understanding, and responding fully.

A novella I read this month addresses the full horror of humans not taking the time to be aware and accepting of each other: Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo.  It’s a book about slavery and colonialism, but it reverses history, and makes Europeans slaves of African overlords. An interesting concept, realized in a fast paced story.

Racism is racism, no matter who perpetrates it. Slavery was barbaric. None of this is new, but Evaristo’s twisted history forces readers to consider man’s inhumanity to man in a fresh way. It was an interesting read, with a page turning plot.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, reading a novel set in South Africa inspired me to pick up Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders, by Jason Carter, about his time in the Peace Corps. He lived there during the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. As President Carter’s grandson, he got to meet Mandela, and he writes about what a phenomenal experience that was. During the rest of his tour, he worked in a small town near the Swaziland border.

Power Lines is not just a book about Carter’s time volunteering, although he does explain the frustrations and challenges of Peace Corps work. Because he lived in South Africa at such a seminal moment, as the country began to recover from apartheid and enter a new democratic era, he also tells readers about the history of the area where he worked, the changes taking place, and the racial attitudes he encountered.

As a person who spent five years as an outsider in a small southern town, I felt that much of what he wrote about was eerily familiar. Because I grew up fairly insulated from the civil rights era struggles, I was surprised by the ongoing misunderstanding and mistrust between blacks and whites in the small town where we lived. I had the ignorant impression, before we lived in the south, that race issues were a thing of the past in America.

One thing that I was unaware of, naive as it may sound, is that racial mistrust goes both ways — and even within races. Carter really describes vividly the ways that people judging each other, rather than seeking to know each other as individuals, hurts communication and understanding. Of course, this goes on wherever humans, of any race or culture, are together.

In Power Lines, Carter touches on the very thing my family and I learned: economic discrimination and stereotyping is a major factor in racism.  Lack of educational resources and jobs meant that some of the South Africans he met had less hope about the future than others, and that in turn often influenced their attitudes about race. Some of the whites he met were able to make friends with other city dwelling, professional people of either race, but routinely he met whites who were afraid of poorer blacks, and cautioned him against riding in black taxis or hitchhiking.

He also found it frustrating that many of the educators he worked with routinely told him that they couldn’t do something because they were black, or asked his advice in areas that were well beyond his expertise, simply because as a white man, they believed he knew better than they did. Around the time Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, a fellow librarian in the southern town where we were living told me that several African American women on the library staff believed that Obama must be a foreigner because of the way he spoke. I suspect that racial stereotypes will be around for a very long time in South Africa, as they are here.

Carter’s book was also intriguing because he openly doubts his own idealistic views and the value of his work, which I think is realistic.  Anyone who spends significant time volunteering is likely to have his or her idealism crushed by the system at one point or another. The only other Peace Corps memoir I’ve read, Dear Exile, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery, also addressed disillusionment.

I’ve experienced it myself, when I found that many of my fellow volunteers at an ecumenical food pantry mistrusted the clients and were more concerned with The Rules than with ending hunger. And when I realized the obvious: that food handouts probably have little to do with solving the problem of hunger. Hard to swallow, because I wanted to be Making a Difference. Turns out I was having a Thoreauvian epiphany, I just didn’t know it yet. Hang on, we’ll get to that.

Straight talk about doubts and fears makes Power Lines an interesting read, one that could foster discussions about the of the pros and cons of volunteer programs. Carter also shares the few negative experiences he had, and the societal problems he saw, such as alcoholism and organized crime. At the same time it’s clear he loved the people he came to know, he loved what he was doing, and he did make a difference. I’m glad he didn’t leave out the challenges and struggles.

Carter’s  honest appraisal made the book vivid and informative, and timely as our government talks about ramping up American volunteerism.  The book reinforced my belief that the experience of living in another culture, making friends, and trying to understand the world and one’s place in it, is life changing not only for the people volunteers meet and work with, but also for the volunteers themselves. Person to person understanding is valuable regardless of how well the actual work of a volunteering mission goes.

Last night I sat down to read a bit of Walden — more on why in a moment — and in the way it so often does, what I read connected to my prior reading. Just as I had been reflecting that Jason Carter’s examination of the motive, purpose, and impact of the work he is in South Africa to do are the most thought provoking passages in Power Lines, I discovered that Thoreau covers this same territory in Walden.

Thoreau writes that rather than doing good, people should focus on being good, and that instead of throwing money at the poor, philanthropists would be better off solving the societal problems that cause poverty: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

In other words, handing out food at the food pantry isn’t going to end hunger. Working to help people be self reliant so that they can feed themselves, might. Living your own life so that your actions aren’t making someone else hungry (even if that’s not what you intend), is probably the best option.

As my family and I have learned about social justice and been involved with nonprofits (the Computer Scientist worked for a large international NGO while we lived in the South), we’ve spent time debating this very idea, of how best to make a difference. We tend to support the work of nonprofits like Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity, which help people change their own lives. My 95 year old grandmother has always told me she thinks handouts are no good because they take away a person’s dignity — a legacy of living through the Great Depression. Habitat’s motto is “a hand up, not a hand out.”

The private development world has moved in this direction, towards sustainable aid, local control of projects, microlending, and partnership. But recent discussions of development, and particuarly government aid, on public radio programs Speaking of Faith and Word of Mouth would sound familiar to Thoreau, and many developing world economists and writers are saying much the same thing that he did: attack the root, not the branches, and above all, don’t throw money at the tree.

I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about the famous 19th century residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  I picked it up again, along with The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 by Van Wyck Brooks, because a couple of weekends ago we finally visited Concord, so I’ve set aside some other “to read” books and am revisiting Concord’s literary heritage.

We walked around Walden Pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. We also saw the homes where the Alcotts, Hawthornes, and Emersons lived. At the Concord Museum, which is well worth a visit if you are interested in the town’s famous residents, the Computer Scientist and I each found some really cool books for planning future outings: R. Todd Felton’s A Journey Into Transcendentalist New England and Susan Wilson’s The Literary Trail of Greater Boston. So far I’ve only dipped into each of these, but they are both beautiful and fascinating.

Museum bookshops are one of my favorite places to browse, and a few weeks ago we visited an entire museum exhibit devoted to the work of a man whose books are often found in museum shops: David Macaulay. The exhibit features the drawings and paintings he’s done as he’s illustrated books as well as models he built for Mosque, journals from some of the research trips he’s done, and the books themselves.

The Computer Scientist thought Underground was really cool, and I chose Angelo for our nieces and nephew, who are visiting at Easter. The Teenager and his younger sister liked seeing the art from The New The Way Things Work, and we were inspired to check out several Macaulay titles from the library after the museum visit, including a couple of really innovative picture books, Shortcut and Black and White.

Another book that multiple family members enjoyed recently is How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. Both the Computer Scientist and the Teenager think this is an intriguing book. Foer delves into the sociopolitical lessons of soccer, which he says is  “further along in the globalization game than any other economy on the planet.”

Our book discussion group with the Teenager is chugging along. So far we’ve read, discussed, and journaled about The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men. Our focus is 20th century American authors.  Not the most uplifting bunch of stories, so far, but the Teenager seems to find validation for his own angsty outlook. For example, he commented that Steinbeck doesn’t appear to believe that it’s worth having a dream, based on the fact that the characters who dream of better lives are all thwarted in Of Mice and Men.

If you look at the current events he’s known so far, you might understand why he just shrugged and said, “but that’s life.” I tried being mindful, and told him I thought we actually have it pretty good, really. He’s not really as pessimistic as he’d like people to think, and acknowledged that I’m right, just before asking cheerfully what’s for dinner. It’s good to be young. So far it’s not that bad being middle aged, either. And it’s interesting having a teenager’s perspective on books, and life.

I put up a poster for National Poetry Month last week and the Teenager did a double take. “Who wrote that?” he asked. “That’s really powerful.” I immediately tracked down two copies of The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. Granted, he’s usually grouped with 20th century English writers, but he was born American, so that’s what we’ll read next for our book group. I felt like Eliot was calling to me — first in Everyday Blessings, where I enjoyed the references to “The Four Quartets,” then in my son’s immediate, forceful reaction to the poster.

Eliot came up at an event I attended last weekend — a one day conference on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, put on by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. One of the speakers, Diana Durham, has written a book on the grail myth, and her presentation at the conference, “The Poet As Shaman,” included a discussion of the way Eliot conjures up the spiritual desolation of 1920’s London in “The Wasteland,” but then heals the wounds, twenty years later, in the completed “Four Quartets.” Her talk was very interesting, and reinforced my Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading.

Another author whose work fit nicely into everything else I read this month is Mary Oliver. I was at Ohrstrom library checking out books by Dorianne Laux, who I’ve heard is coming to the campus. On their new book shelves, I saw The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays.

Oliver is a master of mindful awareness of her surroundings, and her poems are haiku-like not in their form, but in their immediacy, their descriptive power, and the way they capture the extraordinary in everyday experience. I also find her poems transformative — you can so clearly see what she sees that it’s easy to feel what she feels, too. This collection is mostly made up of previously published poems, all relating to animals, and in many cases, our connection to the natural world.

A final note on connections. The Pre-teen is reading a book I picked up on a book store sale table a few years ago, We Just Want To Live Here: A Palestinian Teenager, An Israeli Teenager — an Unlikely Friendship. It’s the true story of Odelia and Amal, girls who meet on a trip designed to bring Israeli and Palenstinian teens together to learn about each other’s lives. They become friends and stay in touch. Through their letters, readers get an idea of the huge gulf in understanding the girls try to overcome.

I enjoyed this book when I bought it, and the Pre-teen likes reading about girls in other countries. I attended a very moving talk given by two members of Combatants for Peace last month, and shared what I heard about person to person peace efforts in the Middle East, so maybe that is what led her to choose this now. When she browsed our shelves and came across We Just Want To Live Here, I knew that even if it means having to stack books on the floor someday, I’ll resist weeding — you never know when a book will be right for someone, and I love sharing reading connections with my family.

In my “to read” pile if I finish Walden and The Flowering of New England in April? I watched a re-run of Masterpiece Theater’s David Copperfield and decided I’d like to read the book (which was waiting on my shelves), and I’ve pulled out an old Powell’s Books  find called Beyond the Sky and the Earth: Journey Into Bhutan, because I am volunteering with refugee resettlement, and the family I’m helping welcome are Bhutanese. They’ve lived in a camp in Nepal for 18 years — so what I read about Bhutan will be clouded by what I know of their experience. But I’m curious nonetheless.

I also bought a copy of Krista Tippett‘s Speaking of Faith, which she signed, when I went to hear her interviewed by NHPR’s Virginia Prescott last week. I’ve read it before, but Ive left it out to dip back into. I’ve been slowly reading The Making of a Sonnet, a Norton anthology, and I’m up to the 19th century (perfect as I read about the same time period in New England’s literary scene). And of course, I’ll be reading T. S. Eliot with the Computer Scientist and the Teenager.

I also plan to read poems by three amazing poets who are coming together for a reading next week. Mike Pride, retired editor of the Concord Monitor and a poetry fan, sent me a note this afternoon because he saw my bookconscious post on last year’s fantastic Poets’ Three reading.

Mike says, “Dogs’ Night Out: Three Great Poets, will be held next Friday (April 17, 2009) at the Concord City Auditorium. The poets are Wesley McNair, Sharon Olds and 2008 Pulitzer prize winner Philip Schultz. They’re all terrific, accessible poets, and it should be a fun night. In tomorrow’s Monitor (April 9) and in the online Monitor, there will be profile-interviews of the three poets, along with a sample of their work.”

Tickets for Dogs’ Night Out are $10, and any proceeds above costs will go to local homeless charities. The time is 7 p.m., and tickets are available at the Monitor, at concordmonitor.com, at Gibson’s and at the box office. Thanks, Mike.  The Computer Scientist and I have our tickets, and we’ll see you there!

So I’ve got quite a pile “to read” (my kids are relieved that I no longer stack books on my nightstand — when they were younger and when we lived in tornado country, they used to fret that the stack would fall on me in the night). But no matter how many books I browse, I will read one thing at a time.  Mindfully.

Read Full Post »

In February 2008, I began tracking my reading at Goodreads. As of today, I’ve added 106 books to my lists there. Four of those are on my “currently reading” shelf. I’ve read 102 books in the past 13 months, which may explain why I am often sleep deprived.

Goodreads is a social networking site for readers. You can keep track of what you’ve read, see what friends are reading, and read reviews of books. It’s a helpful tool for me, but I have to admit I haven’t done much social networking with it. I’m a little shy about sending my friends invitations to join stuff online. But I do use Goodreads to help me write each month’s musings here at bookconscious.

Last month I mentioned that I’m reading The Artist’s Way, a twelve week program to revitalize creativity.  Last week the exercise I was supposed to do was give up reading for the whole week.  It was one of those weeks where a lot of things went wrong (sick kids, worn out tires, broken stove, gray skies), so I wasn’t in the mood to have a book tell me to quit reading, but I also just can’t conceive of such a thing.

My Goodreads list breaks down to an average of 8 books a month in the last year. I also try to read the numerous magazines that pass through the bookconscious household (many due to airline mile subscriptions). At one time or another over the last year that’s included New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Wired, Time, The Economist, National Geographic, and Science News;  also Cooking Light, Bon Apetit, Episcopal Life, and a number of nonprofits’ publications, like Nature Conservancy Magazine); writing and literary journals (The Writer, Poets & Writers, Frogpond, bottle rockets, Modern Haiku, Isotope, Envoi, the Poet’s Touchstone); a local daily newspaper, and a few New York Times articles a day.

Maybe I am addicted to reading. Maybe, as the author of The Artists’s Way suggests, reading is blocking me from accomplishing my life’s work. But I’m more of a “glass half full” kind of gal, so I have another thought: maybe reading is my life’s work. It seems to me that reading informs not just my writing, but my life. I am what I read.

Reading has been important to me for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I loved getting a new issue of a magazine in the mail, loved checking out a stack of library books, loved curling up with a book at my grandmother’s house that she’d left on the bed for me. Reading is why one of my favorite places at college was my study carrel at Julia Rogers Library, why I went to graduate school to become a librarian, why I love helping a friend or a child find something good to read, why I tend to chat with fellow library patrons and bookstore goers.

So, for now, the “reading fast” is not happening.  I understand the point — take a break from reading and see what else happens if your life — but I’m not really looking for a reading replacement, because I see reading as a source of creativity, not a distraction. As a guest blogger for NHPR’s Word of Mouth, I find ideas by reading widely. A number of my poems have grown out of something that struck me in a magazine or a book I’ve read. Reading feeds me.

I told the computer scientist I thought it would be more relevant to find out what would happen in my life if I gave up cleaning the house. Or falling down the Internet rabbit hole when I check email. So instead of cutting back on reading, I’m cutting back on chores.

I’m only going to dust, vacuum, and mop every other week, and I’ve vowed to let it go if the kids forget to clean their rooms or the family room (instead of doing it myself — they either do it or they live with dust). I’ve also unsubscribed from a number of email lists that were sapping more energy than they were creating. I’m anticipating creative sparks and more reading time

With that I am going to get on with telling you what the bookconscious household has been reading.

The computer scientist finished a book he got for Christmas, Stephen King‘s Just After Sunset. He’s a huge King fan, and he says this collection includes “classic Stephen King” stories and “re-readers” — one thing I’ve noticed is that I can tell if something’s bothering my better half or if he’s getting sick, because out come the old reliable Stephen King books. In fact, he re-reads The Stand during every major illness. I’m not going to try and analyze that, but it’s a good way to tell if he’s really feeling poorly.

He also just finished Dennis Lehane‘s The Given Day, which his mother recommended. He said it was enjoyable. It’s a popular book at the library with a long reserve list, so while he was waiting, he tried Lehane’s collection of short stories, Coronado. On his Goodreads review he says the “character relationships were excellently developed and thoroughly believable.”

We’re reading The Great Gatsby in our lit crit circle with the teenager. I told my grandmother, a former teacher who still discusses books with me at 95, that although I’m pretty sure I read Gatsby in high school, I don’t remember the beautiful language.  She chuckled and said that getting her students to read Gatsby was like pulling teeth, and assured me it’s perfectly normal that the teenager isn’t enjoying it as much as his parents are.

The computer scientist and I both noted this passage: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The teenager admitted this was very nice, but was aggravated that each of the first three chapters of Gatsby seems to introduce a different story, and said it’s hard for him to be excited about the selfish people doing boring things in this book. But he’s hanging in there to see what happens.

More to the teenager’s taste lately was The Ultimate Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe, which he called “weird,” but which held his attention for over 800 pages. He also finished Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby‘s memoir about football fandom in the UK and Hornby’s own passion for Arsenal. The teenager’s first real jersey was from Arsenal, and he once asked, when he was going through puberty and was having one of those alter-ego fits of angst, why we couldn’t have raised him in England so he could be steeped in real football from infancy.  He says Fever Pitch is “eye opening” and that it describes what it really means to be a fan.

Europe is on his mind right now, because he’s going to Freiburg, Germany this summer (on a soccer exchange, to train with the youth team of a semi-pro club). He  just started Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000, which he asked for after reading a review in Atlantic Monthly. The teenager is a big history fan, and he’s also enjoying The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. He finds the story of science very interesting, and says he likes that it’s not quite as political as other aspects of history.

If all that seems a bit heavy, don’t worry. He’s also reading Bill Bryson‘s Neither Here Nor There, because it’s about Bryson’s travels in Europe, and because as far as either of my children is concerned Bill Bryson is the wittiest man on the planet. In fact, we can drive for hours in complete peace and tranquility, with no sound save spontaneous outbursts of laughter, if we’ve got a Bryson audio book playing. My daughter has entire passages of I’m a Stranger Here Myself memorized.

She read a couple of Fairy Chronicles this month and started Carl Hiassen‘s latest children’s book, Scat. This wise child is the person who taught me to put down a book if I’m not feeling excited to get to the end, and that’s how she felt about this one.

On her brother’s recommendation, she’s reading The Amulet of Samarkand, which is book one in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. She says she enjoys the “remarks” Bartimaeus makes, because he’s funny. She is also a huge comics fan, and has been enjoying a couple of Foxtrot compendiums (quick aside — comic strips have taught my kids everything from history to vocabulary, algebra to physics, and usually without their feeling “taught to”).

Maybe because so much of the news is unpleasant, I’ve been seeking humor in my reading as well. Like the kids, I enjoy subtle wit as much as laugh out loud hilarity.  The Uncommon Reader is a delightfully witty novella which opens with Queen Elizabeth II discovering that a mobile library visits Buckingham Palace every week. She begins to read and to discuss books with the young man she meets in the bookmobile, who she promotes from working in the palace kitchens. Author Alan Bennett imagines what the reading life might do for the Queen, and if you love books and reading, you’ll find his ideas both reasonable and fun. And you may occasionally disturb your partner’s sleep by laughing out loud; I did.

Less humorous, but more helpful for burrowing through some of the impenetrably illogical nonsense that sometimes passes for news, is Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. This handy little book is a short introduction to argumentation, and I enjoyed it so much, and found the explanations so clear, that I’ve ordered it in paperback to have around the house. If more people learned to argue logically, rather that shout soundbites or quarrel, our society might be more civil. As my grandmother has always said, “you can’t change everything, but you can do your best.” So I’m making good thinking a goal and I’m going to encourage it in my family!

Both Being Logical and The Uncommon Reader are books that were on my “to read” list. But I also sometimes peruse the new book shelves, particularly at Ohrstrom Library at Saint Paul’s School, where I worked last summer.  I found two great reads there recently.

Early in the month I picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. This short memoir has a unique focus — the author’s life as a runner, and how running and writing intersect in his life. I am not a runner and have no desire to be, but I loved the book, in part because of its novelty; reading a book from another culture is a vicarious vacation from one’s status quo.

But cultural appeal aside, I also liked Murakami’s perceptions, and the fact that he’s a life learner. You get the sense that he’s always trying to improve, which I can identify with. He pursues his interests passionately, and he seems to embrace his own curiosity. And he writes about his sense of human interconnectedness, which is something I like to think about, too.

I was so intrigued by the memoir that I went back and checked out the first of his novels that appeared in English: The Wild Sheep Chase. It’s so unlike anything else I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I am not sure how to even do it justice here. The story is mysterious and its conclusion blew me away.

And yet it’s not just a mystery. I’d say there’s a philosophical slant to it, a love story, and an examination of friendship, loyalty, and even patriotism. The computer scientist has been to Japan several times, and he says it’s a mind blowing experience, because absolutely everything is overwhelmingly foreign to a non-native.  The Wild Sheep Chase felt that way. I’ve checked out another of Murakami’s books which I am going to start tonight.

Also on Ohrstrom’s new book shelves, I found P.F. Kluge‘s Gone Tomorrow. This one is also a mystery of sorts, but instead of a missing body, the protagonist is looking for a missing manuscript. He finds himself named literary executor to a famous author he’s met only a few times on the campus of the small college where they both teach.

He comes across one manuscript, which turns out to be a memoir of the author’s final year at the college. But despite multiple references to “The Beast” — the novel this author has allegedly been working on for decades — no one knows where the great man’s great work is, or if it even exists.

My only beef is that the women in Gone Tomorrow seem like stock characters. But if you’re looking for a unique page turner, check it out. Both Kluge and Murakami are authors who draw you in with local color, interesting characters who are not perfect people, and intriguing possibilities. Both Gone Tomorrow and The Wild Sheep Chase keep readers guessing without screaming “mystery.” I really enjoyed both authors and I plan to work my way through the rest of their books.

But first, I wanted to read the March selection for Gibson’s book discussion group: The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. It’s unusual in that Gien wrote it as a play first, before turning it into a novel. In fact she also performed it as a one woman show.

Set in South Africa around the time that Nelson Mandela is beginning to rile authorities, it’s the story of a girl growing up with a mentally ill mother and a doctor father who is a very good man, but frequently absent. One of the constants in the girl’s life is her nanny, Salamina. The Syringa Tree is a dramatic story set in a dramatic time, and a book I stayed up late trying to finish because I was anxious to know how things would turn out.

Gien wrote the play after a story telling exercise in an acting workshop. A couple of The Syringa Tree‘s key events, which really happened in Gien’s childhood, came back to her in the workshop. As a writer, I find that trigger both inspiring and a little awesome — what might I remember that could feed me this way? I don’t think anything in my childhood was as dramatic as Gien’s experiences, but it’s helpful to hear, as I plug away at my narrative time line, about another author’s experience mining memory.

My poetry reading this month was inspired by a workshop I took at St. Paul’s School in late January with Joseph Millar. I read both of his books, Overtime and Fortune, so I’d have an idea of where he might be coming from. I’d describe his poetry as masculine, gritty, but in many ways also delicately crafted. I picked up some interesting ideas in his workshop, such as looking at a draft and assuming the first line isn’t really at the literal first line you’ve written, but deeper in the poem somewhere.

After the workshop I read poems by Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, and Jack Gilbert, all of whom Millar recommended. He used Levine’s “Grandmother In Heaven” as an example of a poetic character sketch, and he referred to Lowell and Gilbert as other examples of poets whose characters stand out.  I read Lowell’s Life Studies and Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and also read poems online. The poetry tool is a great place to find biographical information as well as poems.

I’ve got a few poetry journals on my reading pile, as well as Haruki Murakami’s The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. After reading The Syringa Tree I dug out Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders by Jason Carter, who is President Carter’s grandson. It’s a book I bought at a library sale some time ago, and it’s about the author’s stint in the Peace Corps, which began just as Nelson Mandela finished his term as president  of South Africa. I’ve only read the beginning but so far it’s fascinating.

And isn’t that why we read? Fascinating nonfiction, page-turning fiction, poetic prose and poems that feature well crafted characters — there’s so much to learn, so much to absorb, and so much to discuss or write about, so many reasons to stay up late, laughing and crying. One man who thought kids’ books ought to be all of that instead of boring and didactic, who helped change children’s literature forever, was Dr. Seuss.

It’s his birthday today, and the kids and I learned that addition to enlivening “beginning readers,”  Dr. Seuss sent his friend Art Buchwald a special version of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, which Buchwald ran in his column on July 30, 1974.Take a look and you’ll see it’s a piece of Americana. Nixon resigned on August 8th. I wonder if he read the column?

My daughter and I chatted about Dr. Suess’s stories this afternoon, and the way they are incredibly fun but also often include a philosophy to live by, like caring for the earth (The Lorax), being truthful (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street), and caring about each other rather than about how much stuff we have (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Obviously he’s fairly heavy handed about the “message,” but for some reason the stories are incredibly appealing nonetheless. My daughter is usually quick to put down “preachy” books, but she said she likes Suess.

So we hung out by the fire on a snowy March day, and I read aloud, both the historical version of Marvin K. Mooney and, by request, The Lorax. Even the teenager listened with amusement. You’re never too old to for Dr. Suess. And I can’t change everything, but I can do my best. Books will guide my way.

Read Full Post »

January always gets me thinking about new beginnings.  This year is even more conducive to forward thinking: as Will I Am sings far more eloquently than I can say, “It’s a New Day,” and President Obama reminded American in his inaugural address that in hard times, we can “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again . . . .”  Inspiring stuff, on the heels of a National Day of Service on MLK Day. What a beginning!

The bookconscious household has long been interested in serving our community, both local and global, and this week we renewed our commitment to doing our part, looking for a place to volunteer together in the New Year, and in my case, ordering the Mothers Acting Up calendar.  But a conversation with a friend and fellow writer before the holidays, and her unexpected gift, gave me inspiration of a more personal sort, and reading material to help me dust off my writing synapses.

Some bookconscious fans know I am a poet. I went through a dry spell last fall, as well as a spate of rejection letters and a rebellion against using my already limited time seeking new markets that will mostly reject my work. This perfect storm of limiting factors forced me to rehash the existential argument with myself most writers have from time to time: why am I doing this? Am I writing to write or to publish?  I came to the conclusion after a few months of feeling miserable (and quite possibly making those dearest to me miserable as well) that the answer, for me, is a version of the former — thank heavens, because if it were the latter, I may have quit for good!

I write to be me, to work out what I see in the world. Like many who feel this compulsion, I don’t know of a time when I didn’t do this; even as a little girl, I wrote and I had imaginary internal dialogues when I couldn’t write. One of my oldest and dearest friends, a fellow writer I’ll call Khrushchev (even though I adore her) sent me The Vein of Gold, by Julia Cameron, which has prompted me to remember writing’s place in my life.

Due to an amazon.com shipping mishap, I got this book without it’s predecessor, The Artist’s Way, on the second to last day of 2008, not long after I spoke to Chev about my poetry blues.  The Artist’s Way arrived this week, and since Cameron refers frequently to The Artist’s Way in Vein of Gold, I’m now a bit confused as to which would be the more helpful to read first. Either way, Khrushchev’s thoughtful gift has helped me commit myself to a creative reboot.

Both books are intended to help artists reconnect with their core creativity. They are books to read slowly and to interact with. So far, I’ve incorporated Cameron’s idea of “morning pages” into my routine. I’ve tried to take walks, which she also recommends, but it was -20 something one morning last week, so I’ve sometimes substituted snow shoveling or walking indoors in a gym with a lovely view of some woods for the real deal. I’m having trouble taking a weekly “artist’s date” exactly as Cameron recommends; I intend to keep trying.

But I am muscling my way through a narrative time line, which Cameron recommends early in Vein of Gold, and that got me thinking about why I write and how I’ve always felt a need to. So thanks, Chev. I’ll keep reading and working, and I’ll remember to give myself permission to adjust Cameron’s program to my life when necessary.

Early January also brought the first Gibson’s book club meeting of 2009. We talked about Bleak House, which we’d given ourselves two months to read instead of the usual one. I’ve read Hard Times and Great Expectations, but Bleak House was new to me. If you’ve never read Dickens, I highly recommend it. It was the most enjoyable classic I’ve read in a long time. All of us at the meeting loved it, and it inspired some discussion of what makes a book “great.”

Endurance was one characteristic we came up with, but why does a work endure? Of course we didn’t come to any grand far reaching conclusions, but for Bleak House, the things we kept returning to were it’s masterful plot and fascinating characters.  It’s simply brilliant, but even better, it’s fun — entertaining and humorous and full of small delights.

It’s a massive, complicated book, but it never plods, never bores, and despite its length, also never loses or confuses the reader. I’ve heard people complain that Dickens is too wordy, but once you get into the book, the style blends with the story. Bleak House is part social satire, part mystery, part love story, part parable — but you won’t feel preached to, and the connections between the characters are never forced, the outcome of the various twists and mysteries are neither overly foreshadowed nor too sudden or pat.

I couldn’t get over how familiar the people in Bleak House are — you’ll think of modern characters or real people who seem much like Lady Dedlock (Dickens would have had fun with Lady Diana), Skimpole (unfortunately, Bernard Madoff comes to mind), Richard (the 30 something who just won’t grow up), Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle (today they’d forward campaigns to join and petitions to sign online).

I could go on, but there are so many characters, I won’t. Besides, half the fun is making your own connections. Treat yourself to Bleak House — you’ll feel proud of yourself for reading such a brick of a book (930 pages in paperback), and if it’s below zero, pouring, or snowing where you are, you won’t have to go out again anytime soon for something else to read.

In an effort to intrigue the teenager and his younger sister, I brought up the idea of  defining “great” literature or any other art at the dinner table a couple of weeks ago. A friend suggested that what’s “great” is what you love; my 11 year old immediately said she disagreed with this, citing her love of The Secrets of Droon, a paperback series that she doesn’t think kids will read in a hundred years (we’d already discussed great books’ long lives), but she enjoys enough to ask me to buy each new volume, and even to re-read.

Both kids felt that a great book should appeal to people of many ages and cultures, even if it’s rooted in particulars. For me, a great book is also a “total package” — beautifully written, with excellent story telling, finely drawn characters and images that bring the whole thing to life.  We didn’t solve the problem around our dinner table, but agreed that the concept of “great” art is probably a blend of the esoteric (think Harold Bloom and college lit crit classes) and the earthy (love = classic).

Bookconscious is a blog about what we’re reading and how our reading resonated with us (or didn’t), rather than a place for literary criticism.  But we did decide to try our own version of a lit crit circle at the bookconscious house. The Computer Scientist suggested that we read “classics” that often turn up on reading lists for the college bound, and discuss them as if we are a literature seminar class. The teenager actually agreed to this, and we’ve started The Old Man and the Sea.

The idea is to introduce him to talking about books the way college classes do —  taking a book apart and examining its parts, then commenting on their colors and textures, where and how they were created, and the way they work together, and hopefully remembering how to put everything back where it was without wrecking the whole thing.  Not long after he read the first part we planned to discuss, the teenager asked, in true New England style, “Why are we reading a book that compliments the damn Yankees? You didn’t tell me Hemingway was a Yankees fan!”

We had our first discussion about the beginning of the novella, up to: “But today is eighty-five days, and I should fish the day well.”  My contribution was some feminist analysis of Hemingway’s analogy that the sea, when it acts up, is like a woman affected by the moon.  We’re planning to discuss the author, his views (even the cranky ones), inspirations and influences, when we get to the end and don’t risk reading a  spoiler. Discussing women and cycles of the moon did seem to make the Computer Scientist slightly cranky, in a playful kind of way.

Is there anything that makes a reader crankier than anticipating a book by a favorite author only to dislike the new offering? I didn’t even finish Unaccustomed Earth, even though I really liked Jhumpa Lahiri’s earlier books. All the characters in the stories I made it through are struggling with pain, addiction, dysfunction, or some other crisis, and I just found it too much of a downer right now.

In fairness, the quality of the writing didn’t disappoint me, it was the content I couldn’t get into. And actually in the first few stories, the theme was the same — Bengali immigrant has generation gap with older immigrant parents and also doesn’t’ fully fit into mainstream American or British culture either, and therefore suffers emotional pain. I like a little more variety, even allowing for the fact that most authors have favorite themes.

I’m still interested in essays and memoir, even though I also enjoy reading fiction and my writing goal these days is to get my poetry mojo back. So I read a memoir I’ve been thinking of picking up for awhile, David M. Carroll’s Self-Portrait With Turtles. Carroll lives in nearby Warner, and has been on my radar since reading about him in the local paper.

Reading this book, in which Carroll traces his lifelong passions for turtles and art and how he made them his life’s work, was particularly interesting as I write about my childhood for the narrative time line exercise in Vein of GoldSelf-Portrait With Turtles also confirmed my belief that in an ideal world, kids would be free to learn as they explore their interests, rather than in classrooms where they must set aside their interests in order to prepare to take a standardized test or regurgitate facts.

In keeping with following my own interests, I read three books of poetry recently: Elephant Rocks, by U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan; Last Island, by former Portsmouth poet laureate Mimi White; and Season We Can’t Resist, by NH poet Martha Carlson-Bradley. I’d seen reviews of the first two books when I was working at St. Paul’s School as the interim reference librarian last fall. I found the third book on my local public library’s new books shelf.  I enjoyed all three.

Ryan’s poems are like those little wooden puzzles you can play with but never manage to get back together — I prefer to enjoy them whole, acknowledging I may never really figure out what makes her words fit in such a curious and complicated way, or how they start out as ordinary words and become beautiful, mind bending poems. White, whose poetic perseverance is inspiring and uplifting for someone struggling with publishing, writes with broad metaphoric brushstrokes. Carlson-Bradley impressed me with her eye for the finest detail.

None of these women writes poems that are merely lovely or masterful; each uses language and craft to wend her way through truth as well as beauty.  Poems often tell a reader something about herself once she’s gotten know them better, and good poems make the reader want to take the time to go beyond a handshake and really get acquainted. I felt that way in the company of several selections from all of these books.

And I felt that way upon hearing Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day.” I was pleased to read it here —  poetry is a visual as well as an oral art form, so I was happy to find the poem in the form Alexander wrote it, rather than just as a transcript on a news site.

Besides poems and the Julia Cameron texts on creativity, I have several other books in progress on my reading pile. The kids and I are all enjoying Philip Reeve’s latest Larklight book, Mothstorm. What a clever, imaginative, thoroughly delightful yarn Reeve spins! Fun for all of us, including the teenager. If you’ve missed reading aloud but your kids think they’re too old for it, crack open one of these books and see if they don’t come lounge in a nearby chair and listen (even if they may pretend all the while to be studiously ignoring you). You’ll feel the way you did when, as a child, you lost yourself in a fantastic book, flopped on your belly in the grass or on your bed on a rainy day, and you won’t want to stop reading.

I do *need* to catch up on Old Man and the Sea so I’ll be ready for this weekend’s chat — we’re reading up to the midst of the old man’s struggle with the big fish. And I picked up a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories, edited and with commentary by his biographer, Matthew Bruccoli. I was curious to read the original The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, but I am really enjoying Fitzgerald’s other stories, and Brucolli provides a brief  introduction to each piece, which are interesting. I’m thinking of continuing to read short fiction, since I tend to have a few books going at once, on the theory that it’s easier to finish one story and set the book aside than it is to re-enter a novel.

A work of fiction I’m enjoying while I read but am having trouble re-entering is The Life and Times of Horatio Hornblower, on loan from my father-in-law. We’re both fans of C.S. Forrester’s Hornblower books, but either because it’s been awhile since I read the series or because it’s somewhat confusing to read a fictional character’s biography, I keep feeling lost. I probably ought to sit down and read it through.

If you like the satisfaction of finishing a book., two books I found at Ohrstrom library’s graphic novel display recently are easy to finish in a sitting: Robot Dreams by Sara Varon, which is a wordless book about a friendship between a dog and a robot; and Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino.  Porcellino’s book is actually a  graphic biography.  Both are excellent. If you’ve tried Bleak House or read a lot of poems and your head feels full, either of these books will sweep you clean, refresh your reading spirit, and make you eager for more books.

Until next month, all good reading to you!

Read Full Post »

In between following campaign hooey, congressional shenanigans, stock market dives, and the intricate schedules of the four members of the bookconscious household, I took comfort in fiction and poetry this month. I suppose much of what passes for news is at least semi-fictional these days as well, although pundits refer to that kind of fiction as “spin,” but when the current events fiction gets to be too much, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book for a little while.

I also find that lengthy nonfiction doesn’t lend itself to reading in brief snatches of time — when I’m waiting for my daughter to get out of art class, for example, or I’ve arrived at my son’s soccer game a little early. A chapter of a novel or a poem is a pleasant diversion when I find myself waiting. I admit I am the kind of person who finds it hard to sit and do nothing if I have a spare ten or fifteen minutes, and I almost always leave the house with a book, a poetry journal, and an issue of one of the magazines I read regularly (The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, National Geographic, Science News, or Cooking Light).

In a summer post I mentioned taking Jon Kabat Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are with me on vacation. I’m still reading it, bit by bit, and I sometime actually just sit and try to be mindful when I am waiting. But I admit, I still bring reading wherever I go — wherever I am, there I read.

Last spring, I attended the NH Writers’ Project Writers’ Day, and one of the sessions I took was called “Zen and the Writing Marathon,” given by Katherine Towler. I enjoyed her practical, mindful advice, and made a note to read her novels. This month I read the first two in her trilogy (the third won’t be out until 2009), Snow Island and Evening Ferry. It was interesting to read these books after hearing the author talk about writing them.

Snow Island is set in the 1940’s, and the events of the book lead up to America’s entry into the war. At the end of the novel, we know the post-war fate of a couple of characters. The book centers around a young woman, one of three kids about to graduate from her tiny island school, Alice. Besides trying to find her way as she reaches adulthood, Alice is running the store her widowed mother can’t handle alone, offering new ideas like delivery and fresh produce to her customers.

While Alice is the central character, we get to know the other year round island families and my favorite thing about Towler’s writing is that every character, no matter how minor, is visible to me as I read. Same goes for the settings — both the island and the mainland town that is so nearby but in many ways almost foreign to the islanders are easy for me to see. I don’t want to give away the plot of the book, so I won’t go into much detail, but if you like historical fiction or coming of age stories, Snow Island is simple but beautiful, true without being overbearing in its “truthiness,” and satisfying but not in any way sappy.

I went back to the library for Evening Ferry even before I finished Snow Island. I remember as a child checking out a stack of books by the same author, like the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, or a series like Madeleine L’Engle‘s Time Quartet, and enjoying the feeling that even as I savored one book, the other was right there waiting for me. When my own kids were little, I remember finishing one Narnia book and hurrying to the library for the next, checking out two at a time so we would be able to keep reading.

As a grown up, I went through a long dry spell of not reading much (believe it or not!) and when I returned to books, I read the John LeCarre Smiley novels all in a row, complements of my Grandmother. Not too long after, I decided to read the entire A Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell — twelve novels — checking out 2-4 volumes at a time so I wouldn’t ever find myself at the end of one without the next one on my nightstand. Somehow knowing the story won’t end without my being able to pick up the next thread is very satisfying, and was one of the worst things about falling in love with the Harry Potter books as J.K. Rowling was still writing them; the kids and I would feel mournful knowing we had a couple of years to wait and see how the problem at the end of each volume would resolve itself in the next!

Thankfully, Snow Island and Evening Ferry don’t end in cliffhangers, and the emotional resolution of each novel is tidy enough to allow the reader some closure without being pat or forced. So I can wait patiently until the third book is published. One reason I enjoyed Evening Ferry so much was that is didn’t follow a neat “sequel” pattern. Towler revisits Snow Island and brings back some of the characters from the first novel, but Alice is a minor character this time, and the main character is of another generation.

Evening Ferry is also set against the backdrop of war, this time Vietnam. Towler’s focus, however, is Rachel’s struggle to reconcile her religious upbringing with the turmoil of her own life, as a divorced woman returning to the island to care for her injured father. It’s a book about relationships, religion, and growing up, as well as a historical novel, but while Snow Island dealt with the transition from youth to adulthood, Evening Ferry describes the awkward growing up adults do when they reverse caregiving roles with their parents.

Towler also nails the uncomfortable process of looking back at childhood through adult eyes. As a novelist looks through her character’s eyes, so Rachel looks through her mother’s eyes as she reads her journals, and later looks through her father’s eyes as she begins to order her own memories and her mother’s. Towler doesn’t let any of the characters off the hook — she bares all of their flaws. But they are characters easy to like and empathize with, and I look forward to finding out about another generation of Snow islanders in her next book.

For my birthday in late September, Steve and the kids gave me a new book I was looking forward to: the latest collection by one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, called Ballistics. I enjoyed it very much and shared one of my favorites, called “Hippos on Holiday,” with my brother and sister-in-law, whose online home is dozinghippo. “Ornithography,” which speculates on the messages in birds’ prints on the snow, is another I really liked. Several poems in this collection are about writing and language, and no one makes a wry observation as poetically as Collins does. In my poembound blog, I wrote about workshops with teenagers, and found that Collins is one poet every kid responds to — he just gets life so perfectly, and tells it truthfully in a way that hits you as both timelessly wise and entirely new.

Collins and Donald Hall, who has a new memoir out, were on the Diane Rehm show recently. I heard Hall read from his new book at Gibson’s in Concord a couple of weeks ago. I last saw Hall at the Poets Three reading last fall, and he told the audience about a difficult period he’d only recently emerged from, during which he could not write poems. He seemed tired then, and to hear him read this time, in fine spirits and as eloquent as I remembered from earlier readings, was a delight.

Isn’t that one of the reasons we read: to be delighted? Chaim Potok is a writer whose work rings with delight — no matter the struggle of his characters, they are vividly alive, and you know that the author who brought them to life took pleasure in knowing them. I read The Chosen last year, and recently read Old Men at Midnight, a book of three novellas, linked by a common character. Each of the three stories could stand alone, but together they build powerfully, each piece adding another layer of observation, until the reader sees that Potok’s book is as much about story as a primal human experience as it is about particular human characters in places and historical moments.

A book that is centered on people living with the challenges of our time, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, caught my eye at my public library a few weeks ago. Father Michael’s Lottery wasn’t a great novel; the midsection dragged along enough that I actually skipped a few chapters. But I didn’t put it aside, because I was fascinated by the main character, a doctor named Morgan who is a Hawkeye type renegade, putting patients before administrative rules or cost benefit analysis. You wouldn’t think a novel about such a depressing real life topic could be funny, but this one is, which added to its charm.

Author Johan Steyn is a doctor in Botswana, and his descriptions put me there in the hallways with his doctors, or in the bush with Morgan as he tries to let his anger at what his patients are suffering go. This vivid detail is one of the book’s best assets, as well as the humanity and warmth of the characters. The reader has a sense of where the story is headed, but I was surprised nonetheless by some of the details and without giving much away, I hope that since Steyn wrote the book some of the figures he had in mind have changed, especially the cost of anti-retroviral treatment. Steyn could have headed for a clear cut happy ending, but instead lets the book close on a hopeful but not overly tidy note, which seemed far more effective than if he’d wrapped up such a serious topic with complete closure.

Speaking of closure, I am slogging my way through American Bloomsbury. I would have put it down by now, except I really like Gibson’s book club and it’s the next selection we’re discussing. I enjoy the subject matter — the community of writers and thinkers living in Concord, MA in the mid 1800’s. In fact, the kids and I learned about Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott last spring and still intend to visit Concord to see where these amazing Americans lived and worked. So, why am I finding it hard to finish this book?

It dawned on me last night, as I forced my way through another of the short chapters between the end of the final presidential debate and the beginning of The Daily Show. American Bloomsbury is just like the infuriating campaign news coverage. Plenty of sound bites, plenty of speculative punditry, little bits of facts spun into a picture that looks complete if you don’t look too closely and see where it’s unraveling.

Author Susan Cheever tells readers right up front she is going to revisit events over and over because she wants to tell us about them from different people’s perspectives, but the effect is that you feel the book is never moving forward. A combination of the choppy style and overt projections of the author’s views or experiences on the historical narrative, marked by Cheever’s gossipy questions, add to the disjointed feeling. The final straw was reading that Plymouth, NH, is at the “head” of Squam Lake, when in fact it’s not on the lake at all. When a book contains such a silly error, it’s hard not to wonder what other facts went unchecked.

If I want unchecked facts, I can just tune in for three more weeks to campaign hooey. But in the interest of sleeping well, I think instead I’ll keep reading books.

Read Full Post »