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Posts Tagged ‘poet laureate’

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

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Looking over what I read in March, I realized that most of the books, fiction or nonfiction were about saving something or someone. Am I seeking a metaphysical bailout through books? Possibly. As I’ve mentioned before, I am an unabashed fan of escaping into my reading pile when the world is too much with me.

As has been the case since last June, my reading list this month was informed by the events schedule at Gibson’s. Yesterday I realized we’ve had 89 events since I started. Phew! No wonder I’m tired. You can see a list of upcoming events here, and see what you missed here (scroll down to Past Events).

Last week we had two fantastic events. Ben Hewitt came to discuss The Town That Food Saved and we had a really great crowd of local food champions, CSA organizers, nature educators, farmers, gardeners, and people who like eating well. Ben is a really interesting guy and we could have talked all night. One thing I like about Ben and his book is that he creates space for questions and conversation, rather than claiming to have all the answers.

His book is about Hardwick, Vermont, and the entrepreneurs who have come together in the area around local, sustainable businesses. He delves into the sticky issues of whether profitability and sustainability can co-exist, profiles movers and shakers in the local food scene, and talks with old timers in the Hardwick area who aren’t impressed by the fuss. I was excited that NHPR’s Word of Mouth had Ben and Ton Stearns of High Mowing Organic Seeds on the show. Ben even brought seeds to share with folks at the book signing table at Gibson’s.

Last Saturday, Adrienne Martini came to talk about her memoir, Sweater Quest. Whether you knit or not, this book is a blast. Adrienne’s writing is smart, funny, and sharp.  The book traces a year Adrienne spent knitting an Alice Starmore sweater design called Mary Tudor.

Along the way, Adrienne tells readers about the Shetland islands, fair isle sweaters, knitting techniques, and the history and sociology of knitting. She also introduces some of the main characters in the Knitterati: movers and shakers in both the virtual and bricks and mortar communities of knitters, designers, and yarn shops. But this is also a book about the nature of of friendship, the challenge of being ourselves as well as being mothers, daughters, and wives, and the meaning of goals and their completion. Adrienne even touches on why knitting can save your sanity.

Reading Sweater Quest is like sitting down with a good friend. Adrienne’s tone is warm, conversational as well as wicked smart. I loved this book, and admit that it makes me wish I had time to take up knitting — I’ve tried it a few times, without much success.  But even without that in common, I can admire Adrienne’s excellent writing and her ability to make me feel at home in a world I know little about. Plus, I really want to know the secret of her ability to hold two teaching jobs, mother two children, spend time with her husband, and still have time to write (and knit one of the hardest sweater patterns out there).

Another book I read for work is No Good Deed By Dr. Lewis Mitchell Cohen.  This is a good example of a book I would not likely have picked up on my own, but I am glad I read. Cohen discusses end-of-life care and the medical and ethical issues surrounding it, through the stories of two nurses at Baystate Medical Center (where he also works) who were accused of murder by a fellow staff member.

Delving into history, religious and cultural beliefs, ethical and legal issues, and the personal, heart-breaking stories of patients, families and medical staff, No Good Deed is eye-opening, thought provoking, and at times, alarming. While the nurses at Baystate ended up cleared of wrongdoing, the book relates a number of other cases that ended badly for doctors or nurses. Through it all, Cohen manages to be very even-handed, and his empathy for all parties, even those he doesn’t necessarily agree with, is one of the book’s strengths. I admire his willingness to not only express his own views as a doctor of thirty years’ experience, but to also give fair treatment to other viewpoints.

I was struck by how many of the cases, from all over the world, hinged on misunderstanding, especially on the part of prosecutors, lawyers, and juries. Cohen’s book is troubling but also moving, and left me with a better sense of the complex issues surrounding palliative care, and the importance of communication between family members, medical staff, and those who are ill.  It seems that as in so many other situations in contemporary culture, there are many choices and considerations, but one heartening message of No Good Deed is that the staff who provide palliative care are often among the most dedicated and caring people you’d ever meet.

The rest of my reading in March was much lighter, although still relatively dark, fiction. In fact, each of the novels I read had a streak of danger, madness, hubris, or evil in it. Most of them managed to be funny as well. What does that say about contemporary culture? We’re think we’re doomed but we’ll go down laughing? Maybe, we take ourselves too seriously. If you want to lighten up, read on.

I picked up The Poison Eaters: And Other Stories, by Holly Black in part because Joe Hill mentioned Small Beer Press when he came to Gibson’s, and I enjoyed his other recommendation (City of Thieves).  In a Twitter post about it, I called this collection “creepy, in a good way.” But it’s recommended for 14 and up, and I’d suggest older than that, personally.

I don’t get the appeal of encouraging kids to read about sex, drugs, and violence by marketing it as YA literature. Of course, some people would say that I’m being naive, and kids are actually doing those things, so what harm can stories do? But I’m not so sure that argument makes sense. First of all, not all kids are, and second of all, why should literature join the fray? Good books can deal with really rough coming of age issues without being painfully graphic — look at Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, for example.

That said, Holly is a great writer, and her stories transcend creepy fantasy to explore human nature, culture, and community, among other themes. Her stories are  smart, funny, and thoughtful, as well as very entertaining.  Some of her characters manage to save themselves, some save each other. If you’re still a bit intrigued by unicorns and fairies but want something edgier, check out The Poison Eaters. And perhaps an older teen would enjoy this book — I just wanted to rant a bit about the general trend towards YA fiction that seems, to me, too harsh and in-your-face, and not quite hopeful enough.

Speaking of in-your-face fiction, I read Solar, by Ian McEwan last week. You’ve probably read the reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Bits that were probably meant to be funny rubbed me the wrong way; maybe I just have a hard time laughing about climate change skeptics, status freak scientists, and investors who just want to milk the next green thing for as much return on the dollar (or pound or euro) as possible. I think if I hadn’t just read this week that about half the television weather reporters in the U.S. doubt climate change and a majority of Americans trust those same weather-casters more than other sources to tell them the truth about climate change, I might have chuckled more.

Also, McEwan works so hard to make Solar‘s main character, Nobel winner Michael Beard, a creep that it was hard to care much about what happened to him. Just about every character has a chance to save a bad situation or make a better choice and then don’t. I don’t need a happy ending every time, but I like to feel there’s something redeeming about someone or something in a novel, and this one left me feeling adrift. It was hard to tell if anything good could come of any of the people you’d just spent a few nights getting to know. I need at least a shred of hope.

An example of the kind of book I’m talking about — one that gives the reader hope in humankind, or at least hope in the transformative power of good storytelling, is The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow. I was torn about whether I wanted to read it, because I’d heard enough about the plot to know that awful things happen to the main character when she’s a child.  I generally decide that if I want to be depressed about man’s inhumanity to man, I could just read the newspaper.

Durrow doesn’t hold anything back — in that regard, her writing is like Holly Black’s.  But like Black, she also lets her characters figure out that the bad stuff is only one part of this world.  Durrow’s troubled characters, especially Rachel and Brick, don’t just make you cringe when they screw up, they make you yearn for them to catch a break, and quietly urge them on.  By the end of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, readers regret the painful things these characters have been through but know their world (and by association, ours) will, in the end, be alright.

Another novel I adored this month was First Contact, Or, It’s Later Than You Think by Evan Mandery.  Much gentler in many ways than the other fiction I read — even though the story involves the end of the world, preceded by a near miss with inter-planetary nuclear war — First Contact is zany satire.  Mandery manages to skewer everything from politics to PTA’s, and has fun with himself, too, by writing a “recursion” into the story after a child gives a scathing critique of First Contact when his mother reads it as a bedtime story.

I enjoyed the goofy jokes, the aliens who love Bundt cake, and the important roles Mandery grants raccoons in driving his plot.  But I also liked Mandery’s quiet hero, Ralph, and his idealistic girlfriend, Jessica. In fact, many of Mandery’s minor characters, including Jessica , some of the White House staff, and several of the Rigelians, are vivid enough to admire or empathize with. Or laugh at. It’s a sign of a good book when event the supporting characters are richly imagined.

Jessica and Ralph fall deeply in love, and they’re relationship resonated with me, because like Steve and I when we first met, they are reduced to phone calls because they are apart. (I know you want to know why — go read the book.) Perhaps because I associate this kind of deep conversation — wanting to tell the other person everything but also to listen and know everything the other thinks, feels, and dreams — with lasting, true love, I didn’t find the lack of passionate love scenes problematic. In fact, I thought many of the relationships in First Contact were lovely.

Besides, I got plenty of steamy passion in The Swimming Pool, a first novel by Holly LeCraw. LeCraw has tension and emotional drama down pat. Her depiction of one character’s postpartum depression makes you want to shake the other characters and yell, “Get her some help!” And the tragedy that haunts her characters is compelling enough to keep you turning pages without being melodramatic.

I could have done with a little less information in some of the sex scenes, however. My basic rule of thumb is, if you wouldn’t discuss it with your grandmother, it’s over the top. Don’t get me wrong. As Bookconscious readers know, my grandmother was very well read, and she happened to also have nursed a decades long soap opera addiction. (Days of Our Lives. I admit, I followed it too, for a few years.) So she knew from sex scenes.

But when we talked books, Grandmother and I both admired stories that made you sense the passion lovers shared without making you feel like you were actually watching. For example, no one doubts that Romeo and Juliet want to consummate their relationship, but Shakespeare didn’t need to describe intimate parts of Juliet’s anatomy to get his audience on board.

I know I’m hopelessly old fashioned in this regard. Another well written debut novel, The Summer We Fell Apart, had its share of lusty scenes as well. So perhaps this is just a literary trend I’m not hip to? (The fact that I just used the phrase, “hip to,” may be a clue — no one who is actually hip says that, right?)

Anyway, The Swimming Pool is part mystery, part tragedy, part love story, and maybe my problem is that the sex is extraneous to the emotional drama. There are some seriously hurting characters here, and I liked it best when the book focused on those stories, and the ways the characters began to heal. The affair distracts two of them, nearly to the brink of disaster, from the people they most need to help. LeCraw bails them out in the end, and again, while this book’s ending isn’t exactly happy, it left me satisfied.

Last night, I read the new-to-me parts of Maxine Kumin‘s Where I Live and Wesley McNair‘s Lovers of the Lost. Kumin, McNair, and Donald Hall are on the bill for this year’s poetry reading at the Concord Audi on April 21, put together by Mike Pride (retired editor of the Concord Monitor).  Both books are “new and selected” poetry collections, so I read the new, and skimmed the selected.

Before I started at Gibson’s I was working on what I thought of as an independent MFA — time and cash poor, busy with other committments, and generally wanting to avoid the grad schools churning out writers glutting literary markets with submissions, I sought my own study, reading both creative nonfiction and poetry, as well as fiction. Lately, I haven’t taken the time to read poetry as carefully — I read a poem most days, but I’m often in a hurry. Sitting down with Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live reminded me of how much poetry offers, and how much I love being mindfully immersed in it.

Both books contain wonderful surprises, new and old.  I’ve gushed about both McNair’s and Kumin’s poetry here before, and one of my favorite things about living in New Hampshire is being able to hear such fine poets in person. We’ve also enjoyed hearing Donald Hall a few times over the past several years, as well as Charles Simic and Sharon Olds.

Donald Hall can really electrify a crowd. My favorite Hall moment was at Gibson’s several years ago, when he read “Her Garden”  with it’s other-wordly refrain, “let if go, let it go,” in his deep, emotive voice. Kumin and McNair (and also Olds and Simic) read in what I’d call a more even toned, conversational style, but their words are certainly no less powerful.

Among Maxine Kumin’s new poems, I especially enjoyed  “The Victorian Obsession With the Preservation of Hair,” with stanzas shaped like beards cloaking the sad story of Longfellow’s attempt to save his wife from the fire that killed her as she was sealing enveloped with clippings of her children’s hair.  And among the “selected” — well, there are just too many favorites for me to do justice to them all.

I love that Kumin often plays with traditional forms, like sestinas and sonnets, but none of her poems are stuffy or unfathomable. On the surface, they are about utterly recognizable subjects, like marriage, gardens, animals, people. She makes these ordinary things into the very essence of being human, through beautiful language. Her work is sometimes playful (as in “The Domestic Arrangement” and “Almost Spring, Driving Home, Reciting Hopkins,” and “Seven Caveats In May”), sometimes thoughtful, ( “Sonnet In So Many Words,” and “Mulching”), sometimes reverent, (“Jack”), sometimes matter-of-fact, “John Green Takes His Warner, New Hampshire Neighbor to a Red Sox Game”), or piercing (“Waterboarding, Restored,” and “Extraordinary Rendition.”

Similarly, McNair writes of ordinary Americans, ordinary experiences, but his poems make these things wonders to behold. “First Snowfall,” for example, is one of the new poems in Lovers of the Lost. McNair paints a scene of fresh snow on a rundown rural town.  But he points us beyond the old semi trailers and collapsed barns, opens our eyes to this: “a snowplow/holding a small light/ahead of itself opening the street/that vanishes in the long drift and dream/of it, coming down/over the whole town/where everyone/ under every/last, lost/roof is now far away/and all gone/and good night.”  Gorgeous.

Another of my favorites among the new poems is “Love Story,” a funny, but also very poignant poem in which the narrator is pushing a car with four children and a dog inside it, the battery is dead, and he’s trying to get his wife to take her foot off the clutch at the right moment so the car will start. Their timing is off, until McNair reveals, “What was the moment/in the midst of our despair/when the engine suddenly caught/and you roared away and came back/for me, I got in by the soda can/on the floor and the dog now sitting/between us on the emergency brake,/the whole family smiling/as the trees broke apart faster and faster/over our heads — what, but a blessing?”

McNair’s breadth and depth is amazing. I don’t have space to go into them all, but among the “selected” poems I love “Small Towns Passing, “The Life,” “Glass Night,” “Why We Need Poetry,” “How I Became a Poet,” “The Rules of the New Car,” “Driving North In Winter,” and “The Man He Turned Into.”  I hope to hear many of the poems from Lovers of the Lost and Where I Live, as well as Donald Hall’s poems, on April 21.

It’s late and we’re all tired, dear readers, but there isn’t much more for me to tell. The Computer Scientist has picked up a couple of books here and there, but says he’s on a reading fast. Although, like me, he reads two newspapers and numerous magazines. He raves about Harper’s and says if he had to whittle our subscriptions down to one, that would be it.

I know he read Gakuen Alice with the Preteen this month. (For those who are keeping track, I officially have six months left to come up with another psuedonym for her. Heaven help me.) This is a manga set at a school for kids who have special talents — so the two of them went around discussing what their “Alice” talents might be. I love that they had a dad/daughter manga shopping trip and swap titles.  The Computer Scientist is also reading some manga the Preteen finished last month, Hollow Fields.

She is also still reading Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which I got her in one volume, and she started another manga, Nabari No Ou set in modern times, but with ninjas. She decorated one of our Easter eggs with “ninja egg” written in wax, because, as she pointed out, the egg would be hidden. Like a ninja, mom (insert sigh and special look reserved for mothers of preteens, when they are at their most dense).

She also enjoys several magazines, and her favorite lately is Muse, because it is mostly about science and is “random,” which is something she and her best friend aspire to be. And even when the ennui around here is thick enough for a ninja to slice through, the Preteen likes the New York Times science section, which she reads most weeks.

The Teenager went through a pensive stage post-pneumonia; in last month’s post I described how he spent time thinking about things he’s enjoyed since he was little, like space, and photography.  He’s also been revisiting his interest in food — he’s always loved to cook as well as to eat. Several years ago, he read a thick book about the history, science, and art of woks and stir frying. Lately he’s been enjoying The Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage, who happens to be an editor at one of the his favorite magazines to browse through, The Economist.  He also got a big kick out of Rachel Mead’s profile of cashmere designer and life learner Brunello Cucinelli in last week’s New Yorker.

Most of the time, the Teenager is reading about heavy topics like the Big Bang, the chemical composition of athletic clothing or the physics principles behind a good shot on goal — or he’s reading about the latest injuries to plague his favorite players ahead of the World Cup. So I’m glad to see him reading for pleasure. I can tell when something has really caught his attention because he either thanks me for leaving it out for him (the New Yorker piece) or tells us something about what he’s read at dinner. Such as, that in some ways we’d be better off if we’d stuck to hunting and gathering.

Well, I have to bake our traditional homemade cinnamon rolls, which are rising overnight, and hide ninja eggs early tomorrow, so I’d better wrap this up. On my reading pile? I’m about halfway through The Help, thanks to my Aunt Dina, who lent it to me because the library list is lengthy. Today I picked up Remarkable Creatures because I have enjoyed some of Tracy Chevalier’s books (especially Girl With the Pearl Earring) and I’ve always admired the story of Mary Anning.

And I also picked up Cursed By a Happy Childhood on ILL, because Carl Lennertz sent me First Contact to review, and because Evan Mandery praises it in his acknowledgements — I’d never come across a note in which an author commends a book by his editor to readers, so I figured it was Not To Be Missed. And my two bedside stacks of coming events books and tasty looking advance copies (like Sloane Crosley‘s latest book of essays) are heaped with goodies.

I’m set, come what may — life can throw what it wants at me, but I’ll have plenty of books at the end of the day. May books be your bailout, too.

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It’s rainy and cool here in New Hampshire as I start this post, perfect weather for getting into pajamas after supper and curling up with a good book. I have somewhere to be, however. It’s a place I’ve mentioned several times on bookconscious: Gibson’s Bookstore. Tonight will be different: I’m the new events coordinator for the store!

I admit I’ve been in a more or less constant state of panicky excitement since accepting the job. “Cool, I’m going to meet so many authors! Aagghh, when will I write? It’s nice to have someone be so confident I’ll do a good job. Ack, what if I can’t figure out how to organize more events, increase attendance etc.? Oh stop worrying, you’ll do fine!”

Despite the interruptions from this annoying internal dialogue, I have managed to read most evenings, and the rest of the family, who are all utterly unruffled by my new status as an employed person, have all kinds of good books going. So without further ado, here’s what we’re reading in the bookconscious household.

The preteen is back to reading Royal Diairies, which she enjoys because they are historical fiction accounts of famous women’s girlhoods.  She’s also reading Live Free and Eat Pie, which I recommended, because the Computer Scientist took her and her best friend to one of Rebecca Rule’s storytelling evenings. They all thought it was hilarious fun, and apparently, he entertained them on the way there with an amusing anecdote about getting a cocktail straw stuck up his nose at a swanky party at the Superintendent’s house when he was a midshipman first class at the Naval Academy.

The teenager continues to read and study T.S. Eliot. He’s analyzing “What the Thunder Said,” which is the final section of The Waste Land, in order to write an essay. Next we’re going to read and discuss “The Four Quartets.”  He asked me the other day if we can keep reading poetry for our literary discussion group, instead of going back to novels. He’s also reading Instant Physics: From Aristotle to Einstein, and Beyond, because he’s started a physics course and wanted to supplement it with a good read. Kid after my own heart.

The Computer Scientist is reading T.S. Eliot along with us, and is also digging into Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle, which is the second in a planned trilogy about WWII. He’s also got a bookmark in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Like me, he often has more than one book going. The other one on his nightstand with a bookmark in it is A Place on Water, which is a book of essays by three friends — Wesley McNair, Bill Roorbach, and Robert Kimber — who have “camps” (New England lingo for cabins) on a pond in Maine.

I just started a book set in Maine, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. It’s the Gibson’s book club June selection, and it also just won the Pulitzer Prize.  I’ve just read the first of the book’s thirteen linked stories, called “Pharmacy,” and I really enjoyed it. The title character wasn’t the focus of the first story, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she pops up throughout the book. My first impression of  Strout’s writing is that it’s not predictable, and by the end of the first story I really adored the main character, Henry.  “Pharmacy” is an emotionally rich tale without being overblown or gooey with sentimentality.

Another writer whose work I enjoyed in May who is far from “gooey,” or as they might say in England, “treacly” about emotional topics, is Carol Ann Duffy. Like Strout, her writing packs a strong emotional punch. When I read about her selection as poet laureate of England, I checked the local library for her books. They have two of her books for young readers, The Tear Thief, and Queen Munch and Nibble, which the Preteen pronounced, “really cool stories to read to younger children, with cool illustrations, especially in The Tear Thief.”

Unfortunately, I had to order Duffy’s poetry collections on inter-library loan, but that takes no time here in New Hampshire, and I soon read two: The World’s Wife and Feminine Gospels. Both were amazing. It’s a bit humbling to imagine the intellect and creativity behind these poems.

The poems in The World’s Wife are told from the point of view of women in famous men’s lives throughout history and mythology, while Feminine Gospels deals more generally with themes of womanhood and female experience.  Both are full of powerful personalities that come alive. In both books I was impressed with Duffy’s poem craft — the way the language sings in her hands, her inclusion of rhythm, rhyme and near rhyme in thoroughly modern ways, the way she weaves voices and narratives. Lovely.

In May I read two other poetry books. One caught my eye in February, when it was Darwin’s 200th birthday: Darwin: A Life In Poems, by Ruth Padel. Padel happens to be Darwin’s great great granddaughter, but she is also a scholar, poet, BBC radio presenter, musician, and writer of acclaimed nonfiction books on everything from Greek views on the inner life of humans to tiger conservation. She’s led a fascinating life, and it’s the reading public’s good fortune that she is a talented writer who shares her experiences on the page.

Darwin was interesting because Padel used a variety of poetic forms, but also wrote in fairly contemporary style, with lots of enjambment (lines that wrap around), natural rhythm, and near rhyme rather than formal rhyme and meter. The stories of Darwin’s life told in the poems were also interesting — I’ve never read much about him beyond what one learns in history or science classes, and in the myriad magazine articles that appeared this year. The family stories, and Padel’s portrait of the Darwins’ marriage, were particularly fascinating. Interesting, too, to have these poems so recently in my mind as I began Olive Kitteridge, because Strout’s stories look closely at marriage.

The other poetry I read in May was a book I heard about on the Knopf poem-a-day newsletter in April, Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young. In his introduction, Young acknowledges earlier translators of the great Chinese poet’s work, as well as other poets who encouraged Young as he worked on the new translations, including Charles Simic, who referred to Du Fu as “a swell guy.”

I’d had a taste of Du Fu, or Tu Fu as he is sometimes known, when the kids and I learned about China. I enjoy many kinds of Asian poetry, especially Chinese classical poems and Japanese forms including senryu, haiku, and haibun. Young’s book is not only enjoyable poetry, but also informative translation and editing — his frequent notes provide historical, cultural, and biographical context that enriches the poems. It’s especially interesting reading Du Fu today because he wrote as a “golden” time in China was descending into upheaval.

Upheaval is a major theme in Fields of Light:A Son Remembers His Heroic Father by Joseph Hurka.  Bookconscious readers know I took a workshop from Hurka at NH Writers’ Project’s Writer’s Day this year, and read his novel last month. I enjoyed this memoir even more. Hurka visited his aunt in the Czech Republic in 1993, shortly after the fall of communism. He visits places important both to Czech history and his own family’s history, and tries to deepen his understanding of his father as well as the country.

Hurka’s writing is beautiful — evocative but uncluttered. As my grandmother would say, (and this is the highest praise she gives a book) there’s not one extra word.  Most of all, I loved Fields of Light because of the way Hurka seeks connections between what he knows and what he is discovering as he immerses himself in his journey. As an added bonus, I learned a great deal about Czech history, too.

Last month, I learned about Irish history around the time of WWI while reading the Gibson’s book club selection, A Long Long Way. Author Sebastian Barry gives readers another glimpse into Ireland’s past in his more recent novel, The Secret Scripture. This time, the book is set mostly in Ireland, and is told through two diaries the main characters are writing. One is a psychiatrist, and the other is a patient in an asylum which is being closed. The doctor is trying to asses whether the  patient, a 100 year old woman, can be discharged or should be moved to the new facility.

I enjoyed the story, although like his earlier book, Barry goes to the bone emotionally, and parts of The Secret Scripture were painful to read. The language was strikingly different — perhaps more modern, certainly less musical than the prose of A Long Long Way. The ending caught me off guard. I’m not sure if it was because I had less time to read this month and stayed up far too late, so just wasn’t alert to the clues, or if it really was an unexpected twist.

One reason I had less time to read other books was that I promised a friend I’d read both Concord Reads 2009 selections. Bookconscious fans know I chaired last year’s CR, which is our town’s “one book, one community” program. This year, the committee selected two books: Pay It Forward, a novel (and it turns out, not the first novel to use the phrase “pay it forward” and The Soloist, a nonfiction book. Both are well known as films, and both are about someone making a difference.

I won’t go into much detail now, because I am going to be leading book discussions about both titles in the fall, and I’ll be interested to report then whether other readers shared my initial impressions. Also, I’ll re-read the books before then and perhaps come up with some new thoughts.

I enjoyed Pay It Forward (although I thought the ending was fairly predictable and disappointing). The author, Catherine Ryan Hyde, employs a shifting point of view that was engaging. By the end of the book, I cared about the three main characters, and some of the minor characters were very interesting. Towards the end of the book, although I had guessed the outcome, I was intrigued by some of the turns in the plot.

I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy The Soloist, which I hope means I’ll lead a good discussion because I’ll add a bit of dissent. The story itself is interesting, and Nathaniel Ayers and all the other people dealing with mental illness deserve the attention and help that’s come their way as a result of Steve Lopez‘s columns.

I gave the book an “okay” on Goodreads, mainly because I got the impression it was not so much a well crafted book as a bunch of columns looking for a more lucrative deal and a bigger spotlight. In fairness, there may be good reasons for Lopez to seek those things — as he reminds readers repeatedly, the attention he brought to Skid Row in L.A. caught the eye of people in power who could bring about change.

Every book I read this month was chuck full of promises — made, kept, broken, bent, modified, renegotiated. From Du Fu’s lament over imperial posts that never worked out to Darwin’s struggle with his wife’s wishes that he resolve religion and science in his work, to Barry’s and Hyde’s fictional betrayals and Lopez’s struggle to get Nathaniel Ayers off the street, promises everywhere, many of them unfulfilled or unfulfilling.

Eliot explores the way people don’t remain true to each other or to any kind of lasting belief system in the Wasteland and end up leading empty lives. Carol Ann Duffy and Elizabeth Strout look at tough women able to varying degrees to navigate all the treachery the world might throw at them without totally losing it. Hurka faces the extent to which his father’s generation dealt with communism’s false, cruel promises after the long struggle against fascism.

But despite all the disappointment, deceit, treachery, selfishness, betrayal — each one of these books leaves at least a tiny pinhole for hope to fill. In every case, the characters I read about this month looked around at their imperfect, broken world and all the people hurting each other and letting each other down and found a way to survive. In fact, the common thread seems to be that even if they often do the wrong thing, humans are almost all gifted with the ability to go on, get up, try again, right their lives and make them work.

And that, when you think about it, is one of the reasons literature exists, to remind us that no matter how bad things get, we’ll get by. Even Eliot’s dark Waste Land ends with “Shantih, Shantih, Shantih” — which his note says is like “the peace which passeth all understanding,” beyond our human capacity to process, but with us, abiding in us and carrying us through, regardless of our frailty and our endless capacity to fail. Something bigger than any of us helps us transcend the worst in us.

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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!

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