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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

I lent The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the former Teen the Elder and borrowed it back when I visited him recently. He kindly left me some margin notes, as did the first owner of the book! I found this book on the sale shelves at Adelynrood last summer.

In the introduction, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a scholar in her own right, explains that for her father, the Sabbath, in the sense of “holiness in time” defined Judaism. Heschel examines our definitions of time and space, of our identity within these concepts, and of the philosophical understanding of goodness versus the religious understanding of holiness. Yet for all these nuanced ideas, The Sabbath is a quick, and in many ways, a simple read.

It’s particularly poignant to think about the time when Heschel wrote as the backdrop of his thinking. This book was published in 1951 when the full revelation of the extent of the Holocaust was still fairly fresh. In the chapter, “A Palace In Time,” Heschel writes, “Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” Despite the incredible horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people only a few years earlier, Heschel focuses on the eternal, and celebrates the gift of a day set apart for its eternal peace.

I see that contrast in this passage: “But the Sabbath as experienced by man cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger among days of profanity. It needs the profanity of all other days . . . . For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.” The Sabbath brings us back to our being what we are meant to be — God’s people. Or, as Heschel says, much more beautifully, “On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time.”

Heschel’s observations of human weakness also remind readers that the problems of the world are not new or unique to our present anxious time:

“Nothing is as hard to suppress as the will to be a slave to one’s own pettiness. Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, man must fight for inner liberty.  Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people. There are many who have acquired a high degree of political and social liberty, but only very few are not enslaved to things. This is our constant problem — how to live with people and remain free, how to live with things and remain independent.”

Really, that about sums it up!

I’m using a guide to Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poetry as part of my Lent reading this year, which is what reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read The Sabbath. The challenge of setting aside and honoring time, whether a day or part of several days, to remember ourselves does not come naturally in this world. I’ve tried to observe the sabbath in various ways over the years, mainly as a time to slow down, recharge, and be ready to bring my best self to the rest of the week. But I think the sense of sabbath that Heschel teaches, as “the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man,” and as a “foretaste” of eternity, that “raises our minds above accustomed thoughts” goes far deeper than a mere day of rest.

I am going to try to think of sabbath as “Spirit in the form of time” as Heschel affirms, and to rest in the sabbath rather than on the sabbath.

 

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

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I’ve written before about my admiration for Exterminating Angel Press, including Snotty Saves the Daythe first book in the History of Arcadia series. Report to Megalopolis is the fourth. Tod Davies runs the press and wrote this series, and full disclosure: I really enjoy her work and she knows it, and sent me a copy of this book.

You can read Report to Megalopolis without having read the other books in the History of Arcadia (although why wouldn’t you?). It’s meant to be the writings of Aspern Grayling, a sort of combination mad scientist politician. Aspern is reporting to Livia, a witch who rules Megalopolis behind the scenes, via a council. Aspern grew up in Arcadia and had a love hate relationship with his brilliant colleague Devindra Vale. When he hatches a plan to take over Arcadia, he uses cloning and genetic engineering to impregnate Devindra’s daughter Merope with triplets, but only one survives — Pavo, Aspern’s “son” and creation, his “god,” “made through the chemical manipulation of the human genome.”

Aspern’s story reflects back on this history and tells also of Pavo’s attempted conquest of Arcadia and his desire to rule the whole world. But his report is also the story of Aspern’s reckoning with all that he has done. It’s not a pleasant tale — there is incest, rape, war, maiming and killing, and a great deal of misogyny. The people of Arcadia, ruled by queens who value scholarship and fairy tales, art and nature, peace and justice, offer some hope that the kind of lust for power Pavo represents cannot dominate goodness. But some Arcadians are swayed by Aspern’s calculated campaign to “cultivate the seeds of vanity and ego, of putting the ‘I’ before all else, and of fascination with godly risk rather than the puling weakness of self-preservation.” Men swayed by this and by Aspern’s efforts to foster “unrest” through “desire for growth beyond the limits of what Arcadia could provide” join Pavo’s band of power thirsty followers.

Sound familiar? Aspern reminisces that he and Livia discussed the danger of “independent thought,” recalling that they agreed that “Even one moment of independent thought can overturn years of centralized power.” Ah, the hope. Aspern knows, “Independent thought, independent life, independent story — this was the complete teaching of Devindra Vale.” Will these survive?

I won’t give away how it all turns out, but I’ll tell you I stayed up late trying to find out what happened. Just as I’ve said before, this series is for readers who like their fantasy injected with a good dose of ethics and philosophy. There’s plenty to discuss about the parallels between this story and other great tales of the struggle between political systems, value systems, and world views, from Frankenstein to Star Wars, not to mention the world we live in.

I’ll leave you this thought: reading a book from a small press like Exterminating Angel, supporting independent publishing, local bookstores, your library, all of this is a strike against the Megalopoleis (I declare that the plural of Megalopolis) of our own world, and a source of strength for our own Arcadias. And I’ll leave with you with this image, found in the a note from of Isabel the Scholar, friend of Shanti Vale (Devindra’s granddaughter) , and founder of the “Evolutionary Movement” at the end of this book:

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During the time that I worked as the events coordinator at my local indie bookstore (Gibson’s in Concord) and then wrote a book review column (for the Concord Monitor and later for the New Hampshire Union Leader) I had the pleasure of getting to correspond with authors of all kinds of books, and their publicists. A few stand out as real people, the kind of people who like to connect as humans and so chat a bit in an email, or before an event. Even rarer are the ones who wrote me later to say they appreciated my reading and caring about their work, or who helped me feel as if my own writing was making the world a very slightly better place. Today I bring you some of the loveliest of those people and their latest books.

First, even though her book will be published last of the three, Tod Davies. It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned her and her wonderful Exterminating Angel Press but longtime readers of bookconcious may recall my review of Jam Today Too and even farther back, Snotty Saves the Day (both of which came to my attention because of another really lovely person in the literary world, Molly Mikolowski). Well Tod remembered too, and sent me an email with an e-galley of her new revised edition of Jam Today: a Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got. Confession time: last year around this time I finally bought myself a print copy of the first edition of Jam Today and . . . it’s still on my “to read” shelf. So I decided Tod’s email was a sign that it was high time I read it. I don’t love reading e-books, but needs must.

One more aside before we go on — Tod and Molly were two of the kindest people when I was working on finding a publisher for my debut (and still unpublished) poetry collection, and they, along with Erika Goldman, the thoughtful publisher at Bellevue Literary Press, took time out of their busy lives to give me advice, even though they knew it was probably unlikely I’d ever get that book published unless I wanted to pay for it myself. The publishing world needs more people like these three wonderful women, who probably don’t even remember the emails they sent me, but who helped me see that being a bookless poet wasn’t the end of the world.

Ok, enough digressing already, let’s eat!

Jam Today is part cookbook — in a nontraditional this-is-how-you-do-it rather than a here’s-a-list-of-recipes way — part memoir and part philosophy book. I say that because right from the first pages readers find out that for Tod Davies, the way we think about food, not just the way we acquire or grow and prepare and eat it, is “direct political action.” She says in the book’s opening section, “Why I Love Food:” “If you’re well fed — if you’re well loved — well, that makes it easier to do just about anything. And if you have an entire population that is well fed — and well loved — and believes it can do just about anything . . . this may not be good for those who would rather lull and manipulate us into doing what they think best. But it’s definitely good for us and our world.”

Throughout the book, Tod’s advice is to pay attention; “. . . every moment of everyday life is what our world is made of . . . . Paying attention to what’s right in front of you is what life is about. No other way.” And “. . . food feeds both my physical and my spiritual selves.” She goes on to address what she means by spiritual and that she believes there is a “basic set of principles that all human beings can discover . . . indeed that I think all human beings are trying to discover.” Amen, sister. If only we set aside our quibbling about spiritual matters by focusing on this truth, that we all seek “the Good!” How and in what way wouldn’t matter so much if we all really tried to be, in the moment, human to, and open to the human in, each other.

And, I loved the way she addresses the way coming back home after visiting at the holidays we need to “heal up from the holidays.” And how a meal she made “was absolute crap” after a friend died, “I could see my body running away from the basic facts of my life, because those basic facts killed my friend and would kill me.” Do you see what I mean? This isn’t just recipes — although those are mouth watering — it’s a manifesto, a statement of faith, a guide to living intentionally and loving life and each other, while eating well. Also, she is complimentary towards Millennials (admiring the way “they’ve got this trend going of getting by with as few possessions as possible”) which as a mother and manager of millennials I appreciate. Too many people write off that generation without looking for the Good.

I haven’t tried cooking any of these recipes, but I’ve made paella from Jam Today Too and followed the spirit of Tod’s cooking in many other ways, although lately we’ve been just making food and not feeding ourselves and Jam Today was a good reminder that when we feel we are least able to make cooking a big deal si probably when we most need to. Tod’s spirit of intentionality is inspiring. That’s the key to keeping calm in difficult times, I think, being intentional, living deliberately, sharing love. I wish I lived closer because I’d invite her over for a meal — and you’ll want to do that too, when you’re done reading this delightful book.

If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s and/or Sy Montgomery‘s books you know they have much in common and that they refer to each other (and each other’s animals) in their writing. What I didn’t know until I read Vicki Constantine Croke‘s forward to Tamed & Untamed: Close Encounters of the Animal Kind is that they became friends when one of Sy’s ferrets bit Thomas.  Croke explains, “The essays here are mostly collected and adapted from their joint column in The Boston Globe . . . .” Croke goes on to say, “They are, one might say, the kettle corn of nature writers,” by which she means they are “sweet” but share “a real saltiness to their skepticism.”

Whether you’ve read some of these essays before or not, this spirit, which Croke alludes to and which shines through both women’s writing, is a pleasure to encounter or re-encounter. Their lovingly writing on everything from snakes to dogs is accepting of animals as our equals in many ways (and our betters, as Sy explains, in others. Can you re-grow a limb?), and yet they are ready to zap irrational human arguments about mistreating or disrespecting animals. Both Thomas and Sy deploy warmth and wit, philosophy and science. They share stories of animals they have observed or loved, and they question much of the habits of thought and misinformation that lead us to flawed human-animal relations.

Thomas writes, “Our species is just one in 8.7 million. How many of these can we name? How many do we know or understand?” If you read this collection you will know about some of them, you will learn to look at things through animal eyes, and you may be less quick to judge (or misjudge, really) what seems like contrary or mis-behavior but which is understandable if you try to think from the animals’ perspectives. And if you love animals you will feel a kindred sense of understanding with these authors who have between them done so much to advance human understanding of both the wild and domestic creatures we are so fortunate to share this planet with. You’ll also be amazed — even the most devoted naturalist is going to learn something from this book. Have you ever heard of water bears? Me neither. And now I am dying to know more! Did you know that rats laugh, we just can’t hear the frequency? Me neither, but it makes me want to re-read Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was brilliant in many ways but I wonder if he was tuned into rat frequency?

Finally, Sy Montgomery’s husband Howard Mansfield also has a new book out, from the wonderful New Hampshire small press Bauhan PublishingSummer Over Autumn: a Small Book of Small Town Life. Most of these essays were new to me, but are collected from Howard’s writing for magazines and the Boston Globe. He is one of those writers who is not only gracious to bookstore staff and part time book reviewers (and probably everyone else) and whose writing is warm and funny but also, as they say in these parts, wicked smart. He’s a kind of a people’s intellectual, whose cultural and historical knowledge sparkles on the page but whose ability to read other human beings, and not surprisingly since he is married to Sy, animals, infuses his essays with a generosity that makes you feel like you’re sharing in his brilliance, not having it bestowed upon you, the lowly reader. 

Plus, he’s writing about one of my favorite topics: New Hampshire. The Computer Scientist and I tell people this is the only place we’ve lived twice on purpose. It feels like home — for no good reason, since neither of us is “from” here, nor as far as we know are any ancestors. Besides sharing an outsider’s love of our adopted home, I just really admire the way Howard takes ordinary things like yard sales or his local garage and creates something beautiful on the page not only because he notices things and writes well but because he cares about people’s stories. In “On Going Late to Yard Sales,” for example, he writes about the “puzzles that are left when the boxes are nearly empty,” and the way the sellers seem to have “watched themselves scatter to the winds.” Something I had never really thought about, but I recognized when I read his essay.

It’s a good time to read this book as we’re in what Howard refers to in the title essay: “Summer Over Autumn isn’t a season. It’s a glimpse, the moment when we see the skull beneath the skin, the death that is always a part of life.” A few leaves are changing, but it’s still warm, even sometimes hot during the day. Evenings and mornings are chilly enough to cause us to think about a coat was we rush to the car. There are both wonderful tomatoes and wonderful apples at the Farmers’ Market. There is both observation and deep human truth in Howard’s essays.

So, this Summer Over Autumn afternoon you could’t go wrong reading any of these books. Or more importantly sharing time with people who care not only about the books they write, but also the people they ask to be a part of bringing those books into the world. Enjoy!

 

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This amazing novel, recommended by a friend, is about an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Ruth Ozeki, the author of this amazing novel, is an author named Ruth who lives on an island off the west coast of Canada with her husband, Oliver. Trippy? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

The book opens with a diary entry: “Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you. A time being  is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is or was, or ever will be.”

We soon learn that Nao is a teenager in Japan, and that her diary washed up on the beach near Ruth’s and Oliver’s home, in a plastic bag, wrapped up with a watch, a parcel of letters, and another diary, written in French. As the novel unfolds, we learn about Ruth’s life and Nao’s. It’s a tough read, full of deeply important questions of human decency, purpose, belief, and meaning. Ozeki touches on an array of subjects as she tells her story —  First Peoples mythology, botany & ecology, meteorology & geography, Western philosophy, Zen Buddhism, quantum physics, computing and technology, consumerism, contemporary education, pop culture, and the relationship between people and cats, to name several.

Nao is terribly unhappy, but her father introduces her to her great-grandmother, who is 104 and lives at a temple where she is a Buddhist nun. From the start, Ruth is concerned about Nao’s well being, not only because she is troubled, but also because the diary appears on the beach after the 2011 Tsunami. Ruth wonders if Nao and her family are still alive. She becomes so wrapped up in determining what became of them that her own work suffers. Her interest teeters on obsession and possibly even madness, when she swears that Nao’s diary is missing words. Separately, she pursues tracking down Nao and her father, and finds out just enough to leave readers intrigued to the last pages.

Oliver, is sort of a modern Renaissance man, part artist, part scientist, part philosopher, and fully capable of wrestling the tricky generator they rely on when storms ravage the island, digging clams and oysters, and chopping firewood. He’s also Ruth’s counterbalance, a partner who supports her curiosity but also challenges it at times. The rest of the island gets involved too, once word gets out about their find. Much of what is in the two diaries is had to read — Ozeki captures man’s inhumanity to man pretty vividly. But it’s worth reading because A Tale for the Time Being is both a good story with a mystery at its heart and an incredible amalgamation of Eastern and Western culture and ideas. It’s a trip, full of heart, and a good read, and did I mention?  There’s a cat (and Schrödinger’s cat as well).

 

 

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I was looking for recent nonfiction to review for my library’s “beyond the bestsellers” guide when I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and the Computer Scientist and I have had many conversations with our teenagers over the past couple of years about happiness — how to define it, whether it’s possible to pursue it, whether it comes and goes, whether we can choose to be happy, why some people seem to be happier than others, what external and internal factors make happiness possible, etc.

I wish instead I’d had this book to hand them or quote from.  Here’s what I wrote for the library, adapted slightly:

Oliver Burkeman has written a handbook for what the English Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or living with “uncertainties, mysteries, (and) doubts” without feeling miserable. Burkeman neatly explains why positive psychology often backfires and what philosophy and psychology have to say about the “negative path to happiness.” From Stoicism to Eckhart Tolle, Buddhist non-attachment to the Museum of Failure, Burkeman explores a range of ideas and practices. In the tradition of other recent “immersion journalists” (like A. J. Jacobs) Burkeman actually visits his subjects when possible and tries the practices he writes about. For example, he takes a week long silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, recreates psychologist Albert Ellis’s “subway-station exercise” on the London Underground, and visits a cemetery in a Mexican village to experience The Day of the Dead. In the final chapter he offers “an interim status report” to explain how these experiences and approaches worked in his own life.

One of the reasons this book is so delightful is that Burkeman reveals his own doubts, and then admits when something works or makes more sense than he’d first suspected. Unsurprising for a reporter for The Guardian with a weekly column (This Column Will Save Change Life) he’s also an excellent writer, clear and smart and spot on. I think a cynical teenager would probably identify with his very modern, slightly skeptical point of view. It lends Burkeman’s conclusions a greater authority, because if someone bright and observant like him has been won over by Echkart Tolle’s “palpable stillness, which seeped into the corners of the small Vancouver apartment and by the end of an afternoon’s conversation, into me” than perhaps Tolle’s not just some Oprah-anointed guru nutter.

Burkeman has convinced me to work on my negative capability. Read this book and you’ll probably want to as well.

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After visiting England in May, it was hard not to get caught up in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, especially since I was already a fan of the royal family. So in addition to a hodge-podge of other books, I read a couple of biographies of Her Majesty, recommended in the Jubilee edition of Tatler, which I read on the plane home.

First, I read Elizabeth the Queen: the Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell SmithTatler suggested this book as “anecdotal” and “entertaining,” but I learned some things as well, particularly about the monarch’s constitutional role and her family history. But Tatler is right, it is also a dishy book (as much as one can dish on an ultra-discreet person like Queen Elizabeth), providing all sorts of tidbits about Elizabeth’s everyday life, down to the tupperware cereal containers on her breakfast table and the painful details about family troubles over the years.

Even though I’ve more or less followed the royals from afar since I was a teen, many details in this thorough book surprised me. Bedell Smith quotes from some very poignant letters Prince Philip and Diana exchanged as he tried to help her deal with her marital troubles. Also, I knew the Queen is into horses but didn’t realize the extent of her enormous business breeding, training, and racing them, nor did I know that she pretty much put the original “Horse Whisperer,” a trainer named Monty Roberts, on the map when she decided her trainers would adopt his methods after a demonstration. Bedell Smith’s tone is mostly admiring; where she critiques, she is very gentle.

Andrew Marr’s biography, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is shorter and looks a little harder at the monarchy itself, and spends time speculating on what may be in store under King Charles (or whatever royal moniker he chooses). Marr, according to Tatler, “turned monarchist” during this project, which also resulted in a three-part BBC documentary. His tone, while no less respectful and admiring of the Queen herself, is slightly more skeptical of royalty than Bedell Smith’s. Marr seems to be concerned that Charles has too many personal agendas to rule with the dignity and detachment his mother has mastered. Marr portrays him as an opinionated person surrounded by “yes” men who are chafing a the bit to run Buckingham Palace their way.

But it’s no tell-all; Marr’s book is elegant, his tone a little like listening to a favorite college professor, as he reaches into culture, history politics, and current affairs to illuminate his points. He argues that the monarchy is “a kind of release valve” for British society, and that the current Queen is aware that it is her position that is special, not herself. He points to this humble devotion as the reason she is both popular and effective.  Marr explains that her longevity, which represents continuity through all political seasons and whims, provides the British people with a democratic figurehead. The Queen, he believes, is someone who truly represents all the British, no matter who they vote for, no matter what they believe.

Bedell Smith does cover politics but mainly from a historical/biographical point of view.  Her book looks in more detail at the personal and emotional life of the Queen and the way she has held up over years of tireless work on behalf of her country. Both books are very interesting and each in their own way offer an excellent insiders view of the workings of palace life.

Before we leave Britain behind, I just read one of the poetry books I won in a Cinnamon Press mini contest last year, Daniel Healy‘s Facsimiles.  I really enjoyed it. These are short poems, mostly in stanzas of two or three lines.

Healy uses strong images, often with a figurative punchline, as in “Impression.” The poem reads, “Light rain/at the harbour/a cold wind/catches the nets/a woman’s hair/black with water/the cut of waves/mapping the air.”  For the first six lines, a clear, vivid, imagistic poem, and then those last two lines, “the cut of waves/mapping the air” take the poem to a more imaginative level.

In some cases Healy leans more heavily on metaphor, as in  “Vista” “For once/the sky is perfect,/a collage/ of half-remembered/images turning/the right/shade of blue.” That’s lovely, the idea that the sky is made of our memories, and in this poem, they fall into place. A poem to ponder in a hammock, perhaps?

I really like the way Healy’s poems combine simplicity with koan-like wisdom, presented as a small puzzle to unlock. For example, “Twilight” “In the orchard/dark lines/against the grey/the scent of a branch/fresh-cut/sweeter/than the fruit.” I sometimes use a title as a sort of first line or part of the first line, and I think it’s effective here.

Like all of Cinnamon Press’s books, Facsimiles is a nicely designed volume, with an evocative cover and clean layout. It’s well edited — the poems belong together. You’d do well to see the poems on the page because my parsing leaves out the stanzas which are part of the way the poems unfurl.

From Britain to France. A co-worker at Gibson’s suggested I read Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore. I read Lamb a few years ago and really liked it, and had always intended to try another Moore, so I happily borrowed her copy. What an imagination Moore has. He’s a real storyteller.

Sacre Bleu is about a mysterious Colorman whose most tempting pigment, the sacre bleu of Mary’s robes in Renasisance art, seems to have a strange effect on painters. A baker and aspiring painter, Lucien Lessard, who has his own brush with the bewitching blue paint and the Colorman’s companion, Juliette, decides to get learn who this mysterious man is and why his colors seem to make artists go mad. His friend, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, helps him investigate the pigment’s properties and the identity of both the Colorman and Juliette, who seems to share certain qualities with a beautiful laundress Henri once loved, as well the muses and mistresses of a number of their other artist friends.

It’s a wild ride and the breadth of Moore’s research into the time period (the 1890’s), the artists, Paris (and specifically, Montmartre), painting, baking, and the other gorgeous details of the book make the rollicking story that much more interesting. Even without all the research, this would be a fun read. But you’ll learn tidbits about Renoir, Manet, Monet, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Whistler, Pissarro, (but not Degas — Moore tells readers in his author’s note, Degas was too much of a jerk in real life to include in the book).

Plus, Moore is one of the funniest writers around. Lest you think all that time spent researching makes his humor highbrow, keep in mind he has Bleu (Juliette’s real name — I don’t want to give away how she changes identity but its both grim and brilliantly conceived) refer to the Colorman as “Poopstick,” syphilis plays a major part in the Colorman’s evil machinations, and Moore uses the “f” word liberally. If it were a film, it would be R rated. Still Moore is funny and I think the mystery at the heart of the book is quite smartly done. I loved the historical aspects of the book, and I always like a book that incorporates magical realism.

Also set in Paris, in the months before the Iraq War began, is the book I read for the Europa Challenge this month, Alexander Maksik‘s You Deserve Nothing.  This was a much-hyped title when it came out last year, one of the first in Europa’s Tonga imprint. It’s about a popular teacher at an international high school in Paris who has an affair with a student. Maksik tells the story from the point of view of that student, Marie, another student, Gilad, and Will, the teacher.

Maksik is a cinematic writer — a scene where Gilad and Colin, a tougher student, show up at an Iraq War protest and watch it turn ugly and sectarian is particularly vivid, as is a scene where a disturbed homeless man pushes a commuter in front of a train in the Metro. As I read, I could see the streets of Paris, Will’s bleak apartment, the cafes and parks that Gilad frequents. The moody world Will and his adolescent students occupy comes to life in Maksik’s skilled hands.

Will is known to his adoring students as “dude” and “Mr. S.” He’s an archetype of the cool-smart teacher who is passionate, pushing the envelope and disdaining administrative blather because he’s all about setting his students’ hearts and minds on fire. Students say he changes their lives.

Except, the reader is uncomfortable with him almost immediately. Maksik lets us know Will isn’t quite as great as his students think. His best friend at the school, a woman named Mia who is also a good teacher but perhaps not as flamboyantly admired as Will, puts up with his distance, his silence, his inconsiderate behavior. There’s an uncomfortable scene where they are having dinner at her apartment with French friends who mistakenly assume Mia and Will are a couple. Will comes across as emotionally frozen, or indifferent. It’s hard to tell.

As the book proceeds, we learn bits and pieces about Will — he left his wife, apparently with little explanation, after his parents died. He teaches Sartre, Faulkner, Keats, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Camus. He talks a good game to his students about courage, about “the distance between desire and action,” encouraging them to “encounter” themselves, to engage with the world and each other, to argue their points in his class.

Meanwhile, Maksik portrays him as someone who is mostly just going through the motions, who does things to please himself, and who cares about other people only to a point. Will spends his life talking about how to live, but he mostly seems to live in his own little bubble; his interior monologue is quite focused on what he is seeing and experiencing, as if his mind is its own cinematographer, seeking the most beautiful way to capture the scenes he’s seeing. When he considers others it seems to be only slightly.

I didn’t like Will, and Maksik’s portrayal of Paris is pretty grim, as a place hard for outsiders (and almost every character in this book is an outsider in some way) to fit into, beautiful but distant (kind of like Will). I admired Mia, and some of the students at the school; Gilad is everything Will can’t seem to get around to being. His father beats his mother, he’s never felt at home anywhere, but Gilad is transformed by what he’s reading in Will’s class and is able to speak to his parents openly, to be true to his beliefs and his feelings as he comes to understand himself and them. I felt bad for Marie, whose mother is obsessed with her daughter’s appearance and who seems to just want to be loved, but she is one dimensional — we hear only about her affair and her toxic mean-girl friendship with Ariel, another student, and her distant parents, but little else.

Even though the book is uncomfortable and the characters, especially Will, somewhat unsympathetic, I think in the end it’s a “good” book because it forces readers to think about the questions it poses about morality, conviction, courage, charisma, friendship, love.  How should we live? What is our responsibility to ourselves and to each other? What does it mean to take a stand? How do we know what’s worth risking ourselves for) How can we tell what we can and can’t change? How should we judge ourselves and others? What’s heroism and not just hubris? It’s a hard book to describe because I admired it without really enjoying it.

But it did one thing I feel all great writing does: led me to another book. As an English and Spanish major at a liberal arts college, I’d read most of the authors Will teaches in You Deserve Nothing. But I’d never read The Stranger by Albert Camus, so picked that up next. I don’t really think I can write about it well in a few sentences, but I really enjoyed it. Camus’ prose reminded me of Hemingway’s — spare, compact, unadorned, with nothing extravagant or unnecessary. Like multiple adjectives!  The story of Meursault is in some ways reflected in Will’s life. His mother dies, he is alone like Will, and without much thought he engages in an act of passion (in his case murder) that will change his life.

Meursault is not as charismatic as Will, he doesn’t preach an examined life or anything else to anyone, and he seems strangely detached. He agrees to marry his girlfriend (also Marie), to be friends with Raymond (whose tangled life connects him with the eventual murder), to make career decisions, with no emotion. Meursault repeatedly says this or that event or possibility or person mean nothing to him one way or another. But Camus lets us in on the way Meurseault’s crime changes him, how he begins to think in jail, to understand himself. One of the most unsatisfying things about You Deserve Nothing is that we have no idea how Will deals with being caught, fired, and disgraced.

Both books explore existential ideas – that we are human, but that doesn’t mean anything by itself, each of us by living our lives define the essence of human existence for ourselves. If we live true to our own essence rather than according to other people’s expectations and ideas, we will be truly human. But we exercise our free will in a world without any meaning other than our own existence and so our freedom to act and our responsibility to try to understand ourselves is in constant tension with other people’s similar efforts.  It’s been a long time since I studied philosophy and I never got past an intro. course in college, so I may be missing something. But I think that’s the gist.

Anyway, existential heroes in books are hard to understand because we aren’t in their heads so from an observer’s perspective, their actions might seem self-absorbed to the point of sociopathy — murdering someone, sleeping with a student. Trying to understand them is challenging and maybe impossible. So if you like wrestling with ideas or considering philosophical questions, The Stranger will be fun. If you find all of this aggravating and want a more straightforward, black-and-white understanding of a book you read, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea.

Before we leave French thinkers and writers, I read a little book I picked up at Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank, Time for Outrage by French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Stephane Hessel. Hessel also helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has devoted his life to its ideals. This essay, printed as a pamphlet, has been an international best-seller.

Hessel exhorts younger people (pretty much everyone, as he’s in his 90’s) to remember the things his generation fought for during and after the war: freedom, equality, and a fairer, safer, more economically just society. He cautions against indifference and consumerism, and insists that even today’s overwhelming problems can be overcome by engaged activism. He cites Sartre, who was “an older schoolmate” as inspiration, because he taught a libertarian responsibility — “people must commit themselves in terms of their personal, individual human responsibility.” A far more positive take on existentialism than I had before I read Time for Outrage.

Hessel says this lesson stayed with him as he fought fascism and later, opposes totalitarian communist regimes. He grants that climate change, the loss of rights in a world dealing with terrorism and sectarianism, and the Great Recession are daunting but calls on people to support the Occupy movements and other nonviolent protest, to work for change, and to remember the victories of the last several decades: the defeat of Nazi Germany, the rise of democracy in former communist countries, the fall of apartheid, to name three. He ends his pamphlet with a sort of manifesto/blessing/koan “to you who will create the twenty-first century”: “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”

The rest of my reading was not so philosophical, although you could argue that the underlying myths that The Song of Achilles is based on are tales steeped in philosophy. Author Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for this re-telling, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his companion Patroclus.  Miller says that as she studied The Iliad, she “discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.” She sets out to give him — Patroclus — his due and to tell the love story she found in her studies.

It’s an atmospheric book; Miller is both a classicist and a dramatist and she makes Ancient Greece real for readers. I’m not sure I agree with a literary prize going to a re-telling (although I know some would argue that there are no original stories but only those that have been with humankind since the beginning), but this is certainly a masterful re-telling. It’s a very sensual read, full of the blood and sweat of a world at war. And it’s a beautiful love story, which brought me to tears. The image conjured by the last two lines of the book — which I don’t want to give away — is as romantic as anything you’ll read anywhere.

Miller explores the character flaws that make Achilles a difficult hero to love; he’s petulant, self-centered, arrogant, all the pitfalls of being anointed a golden boy from birth. Patroclus, who grows up in Achilles shadow, sees himself as weaker, less clever, a lucky follower incapable of inspiring or leading. But Miller shows him growing into a wise, smart, diplomatic man, a healer, a counselor, and a rock not just for Achilles but for many of the Greeks.

Miller writes beautifully about the minor characters in this story as well — Chiron, the centaur who teaches Achilles and Patroclus; Thetis, the willful sea goddess who is Achilles’ mother; Briseis, the Trojan woman whose capture aggravates the feud between  Achilles and Agamemnon and who sees Patroclus for the fine man that he is. Song of Achilles is a very entertaining read, and Miller has written a story anyone, whether they know the Iliad or not, can enjoy.

It’s staff pick time at Regina Library where I am a nocturnal librarian during the academic year. My choice is another prize winner, the 2011 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman. If you’ve never heard of Edith Pearlman, you’re not alone. It’s probably her chosen genre — short fiction — that keeps her from attaining fame, but she is very well respected among her peers. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, she’s won the Pushcart and O. Henry prizes, and her three earlier story collections, Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, and How to Fail won prizes.

Binocular Vision includes twenty-one previously published and thirteen new stories set in many places and featuring characters from different walks of life and various cultures and time periods. While she sometimes surprises readers, Pearlman’s writing is clear and resonant and never flashy, and her plots are straightforward, never hyper-dramatic. This is evocative, detailed, even painterly prose; she creates vivid people and places readers know intimately in just a few pages. She can write from the point of view of men and women, young and old, about a range of emotions and experiences.

Pearlman’s subject matter varies but her themes are classic — friendship and family, identity, courage, aging, facing illness, the search for meaning, the importance of love and conviction. Certain ideas appear in several stories; Pearlman examines the ways children view the adult world in “Inbound,” “Home Schooling,” “Binocular Vision,” “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag,” and “Aunt Telephone,” for instance. A series of stories, “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” and “The Coat” feature Sonya, an American who works for a relief agency in London aiding escaping Jews during WWII, then moves to a camp in Europe to help resettle Holocaust victims after the war, and finally returns to New York. A number of stories deal with whether we ever really know each other completely.

One of my favorites, “Jan Term,” is a story told in two letters and a term paper written by a young woman about her work in an antique shop. It’s funny, wise, thoughtful, and moving. Another story I loved is “The Story,” about the parents of a young couple having dinner together; in one scene, Pearlman paints a vivid picture of these very different people brought together by marriage, and the ending is exquisitely poignant. Bookconscious regulars know I am a fan of short fiction, and Pearlman is a master of the form.

For the Mindful Reader column this month, I began with two books helpful to New England staycationers: New Hampshire Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Granite State by photographer Jennifer Smith-Mayo and author Matthew P. Mayo, and New England’s Natural Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide by John S. Burke.

In their introduction, the Mayos head off complaints about possible overlooked icons, but they don’t explain their selection process or the order in which they present the essentials of our state like moose, Motorcycle Week, and Mack’s Apples.  New Hampshire Icons is a tribute to “the rich and amazing historic, geographic, and cultural breadth” of New Hampshire.  Each two page spread includes photos and information in a friendly, conversational tone. One improvement would have been  to list websites in one line instead of squeezed into hard-to-read insets.

New England’s Natural Wonders is organized by type: waterfalls, monadnocks (a kind of mountain as well as the name of one here in New Hampshire), bogs,  etc.  Burke provides an overview of New England’s natural landscapes, and each section also includes a brief introduction. His detailed entries for each wonder offer geologic and human history, notable flora and fauna, directions and visitor information. New England’s Natural Wonders is a coffee table sized book full of photos, not a portable guide.  If you want to know more about the breadth of natural wonders in our region, including twenty-three in New Hampshire, it’s a readable reference.

If you’re heading to the beach, any of the novels I read this month for the column would be a great read. Massachusetts author Cathi Hanauer’s Gone is one you’ll have trouble putting down. Eve Adams and her husband Eric have been married fourteen years. She’s supported Eric’s art career and adapted her own as a nutritionist through a move and motherhood.  He’s in a creative slump, but she’s just published a book.

Eric takes her out to celebrate and afterwards drives the babysitter home. But he doesn’t come back. When she sees he’s using their credit card on gas and hotels, Eve realizes he’s safe but gone. She tries to smooth things over for her kids, keep the family afloat, and deal with her own feelings. She also has to care for her clients, including a group of wealthy older women trying not to get fat, a teen mom, and an obese man who is literally eating himself to death.

Gone’s  hard look at long marriage, parenting adolescents, finding oneself midcareer and perhaps only mid-way to one’s life goals, is all compelling reading. I found Eve’s internal monologue on nutrition somewhat distracting from the rest of the story. That said, Gone’s probing of midlife as a time to reassess and of imperfection as part of life’s messy beauty is worth the occasional rant about processed foods. I admired the way Eve gets on with her life even as everything familiar seems to be changing but would have enjoyed hearing more of Eric’s story; what Hanauer does reveal of him makes for a fuller picture of Eve and their family.

Betsy Woodman is a native of New Hampshire who lived in India as a child. Her debut novel, first in a planned series, will fill you with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of her fictional hill station town, Hamara Nagar, in 1960. Her heroine, Jana Bibi, inherits her grandfather’s home, the Jolly Grant House. She’s widowed with one grown child living in Scotland, but she feels more Indian than Scottish herself. She decides to go and live in the house with her multilingual parrot, Mr. Ganguly, and her housekeeper, Mary. Soon after they’re settled, they learn that much of the town will be underwater if a planned government dam is built.

Along with the local newspaper editor and a shopkeeper from the bazar, Jana Bibi works to put Hamara Nagar on the map so the dam will be relocated. Among the characters who play a role in this funny, endearing story are the students at a nearby multinational boarding school, an introspective Muslim tailor, his singer nephew who dreams of film star fame, an American diplomat who is writing a guidebook, a power-tripping police commissioner, and a variety of people who come to work for Jana Bibi, including a Ghurka bagpiper who scares away monkeys and a messenger boy.

Woodman touches on serious topics like Partition, (when India and Pakistan were split) political corruption, and the challenges of a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society, but she handles all of this with a light touch. The novel is tender but not treacly, the many characters and plot twists fit together pleasantly but not predictably.

If you like Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky, atmospheric novels or you enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes will appeal to you with its international charms, multigenerational characters, philosophical bent, and gentle intrigue. The book includes discussion questions, a glossary of Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic terms, and an interesting essay about Woodman and how she came to write this novel.

Finally, a friend suggested I read Ben H. WintersThe Last Policeman, set in Concord. I hesitated. Why would I want to read a dystopian mystery by an author who parodied my beloved Jane Austen? Because Detective Hank Palace is a delightfuly quirky hero, and Winters’ premise is compelling: a giant asteroid is on track to collide with earth, so why solve a murder?

I really had no idea how much I enjoy a good mystery until recently. I guess because so many mysteries these days veer into thriller/crime dramas with shocking plots and gory details, and I’m not a fan of reading (or watching) violent or creepy stuff. My grandmother always told me that mysteries were the best stress busters, and the best antidote to the news. It’s true they are easy to get lost in.  A good one will entertain and challenge you, but not in a my-brain-hurts-and-my-soul-will-soon-too  way (like novels with existential heroes!).

I enjoyed following Palace as he cracked his case. He’s a lovable loser sort of a hero, a guy who hasn’t gotten around to decorating his apartment, pines for an old girlfriend (who is smart and nice, not just beautiful), eats the same thing at a neighborhood greasy spoon all the time.  And I loved the detailed references to Concord; Winters did his homework.  He’s a witty writer, and the minor characters in The Last Policeman are intriguing. A woman key to Palace’s investigation works in insurance but is trying to write the perfect villanelle before the world ends. Nico, Palace’s younger sister, seems like a mess but Winters leaves readers wondering if she’s smarter and craftier than we realized. I’m looking forward to the next Hank Palace book.

Up next? I have 4 or 5 books to read for the August Mindful Reader, I really want to get to Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker, and I may break down and get myself Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam, which I swore I wasn’t buying until I finish my to-reads but would be part of my Europa Challenge. I heard another great review of it on Fresh Air and also listened to a clip of the wise Nora Ephron in an interview talking about how we should eat our last meal now rather than waiting, because you never know. Same with books.

I’m a little over halfway through The Library Book, which I am loving. I want to read so many other things, and I am not making much progress on my goal of setting aside an afternoon a week to get lost in a book. But having a full, busy life isn’t a bad thing, and Teen the Elder is home for a few precious weeks before he goes off to college, so I am going to enjoy every day and read when I can. I hope you do, too!

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