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A brief and amusing backstory to this book: I bought The Accidental Pilgrim by Maggi Dawn along with an embarrassingly tall stack of other really intriguing books at the Yale Divinity School Student Book Supply, which is a terrific independent bookstore at YDS, last February when we were visiting the former Teen the Elder. He was in class, and joined us for the completion of the purchase since he’s a member. We then proceeded to the Marquand chapel for worship, which that day was a baptist service with very beautiful music and a wonderful sermon. I was into it, I admit, and sang along where I could and moved with the music and clapped — especially to a South African song I’ve sung with Songweavers & Songhealers (Siyahamba/We Are Marching in the Light of God). A woman who seemed roughly of my generation was seated next to me and we exchanged smiles. She also seemed moved by the service and the music.

Afterwards we had lunch, and I was showing our son the books I bought. Two were by Maggi Dawn, and he remarked casually, “Oh that’s who you sat next to in chapel.” Oh. Gosh. And swayed and clapped like a  slightly awkward privileged white middle class woman (which I am). Ahem.

Anyway, The Accidental Pilgrim is one of those books. I read it over the past couple of days at a time when I’m feeling a little at loose ends. My family is on a journey not of our own choosing right now, and the summer has been very wrapped up in it. In the end it will have changed our lives (hopefully for the better) and strengthened us individually and collectively, will have changed the way we see the world and our place(s) in it, and will have helped us see who we are and how we want to live. I hadn’t thought of it as a pilgrimage, and I hadn’t thought I needed to read about pilgrims. When I picked this up, I was here in the house alone (the Computer Scientist was away at a conference) and I made myself a comfort food dinner (poached eggs and beet greens on toast) and browsed my bookshelves. One book after the next seemed not quite right until I landed on this one.

Dawn organizes The Accidental Pilgrim around three times in her life when she was a pilgrim of sorts: in graduate school at Cambridge when she went to the Holy Land on a summer study trip, when her young son was still in a pushchair (stroller to we Americans) and she was facing doubts about what she could and couldn’t do as a woman priest and a new mother, and when she was laid up by an illness just as she and her son were going to embark on a weeklong walk on the Camino. In none of these instances did she embark on what she consciously thought of as a pilgrimage, and in each that is what she came to see herself doing.

I loved this book, and it was, like the sermon I heard that day in Marquand chapel, just what I needed. Some passages resonated with me; others spoke to me like the sort of straight talking friend who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth when you’re resisting the inevitable. For example: “. . . such a journey not only removes you from home comforts, but also forces you into the constant company of others. . . . sometimes uncomfortably so, for some dither about while others stride ahead like sergeant-majors, barking instructions to others to keep up. . . . And of course, it doesn’t take long to realize that you yourself are being seen close up by others. Any false impressions of noblesse or spiritual maturity is soon whittled away until the true picture becomes visible, but more often than not, in the midst of this dose of human reality there emerges a deepening sense of affection for, and dependence upon, others.”

I’m partway through an experience like that, at the painful realization of being seen close up by others part. Anyone who has done something challenging (intellectually, emotionally, physically, spiritually, any which way) in community will recognize the truth in Dawn’s assessment. She writes beautifully and thoughtfully on the desert fathers, famous pilgrims and pilgrimages, “‘thin places’ where earth seems to touch heaven,” poetry, theology, travel, motherhood — all in a book that’s only 151 pages including notes. A smart book, a good read, and one that has given me plenty to think about.

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I first became familiar with Pádraig Ó Tuama and his work through an episode of On Being. The only word I can think of to describe how I felt listening to him was enchanted, in the sense of delight, not magic. Here was someone whose sense of faith and God and reconciliation and love is thoroughly grounded in the messy realities of this world but is also poetic and hope-filled. I heard him at a time when I needed to. I made a note to read his books.

Fast forward a number of months and he came along again, this time when I viewed the Trinity Institute at my church. I listened to him read during the Friday Eucharist and felt a kinship; we’re siblings alright, if we’re children of God, but here was someone who clearly feels as I feel reading in church. He felt the words, loved them, and shared that, which is how I try to read.

Enough already, I thought. Read his books! I got myself In the Shelter and intended it as my Lent reading; then my church had other offerings so I set it aside for Easter, and here I am. I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks. I finished it this morning and sadly, I accidentally gathered it up with my sheets and washed it. Fortunately it’s a pretty sturdy paperback, and I’m trying to let it dry out. It will want re-reading.

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I’m taking a class called Notes from a Seeker at church, about spiritual writing, and one of our assignments is to read spiritual memoirs. This is that — Pádraig (if he’s my brother, I’m calling him by name) shares in his writing his deep connection to God, a connection he’s had from an early age, one that he hung onto even when he was made to feel  less-than, even to the extreme of undergoing exorcisms and other un-caring treatment by fellow Christians, simply because he is gay.

Yet he also shares his delight in other humans (even when they’re not delightful, even when he’s not delighted with himself) and his love of language. He has a playful way with words (he’s also a poet), and an intellectual way, examining their meaning and exploring their nuances. I love this.

But his meaning is not playful, it’s serious, and he gets to the heart of some of the most challenging things around — otherness, fear, pain, self-loathing, uncertainty. I love this section, where he describes the dilemma of testimony — “the telling of the story of conversion, or re-conversion, of enlightenment or change.” In other words, so much of spiritual writing and talk. People hear this testimony and are impacted, for better or worse, as Pádraig explains:

“Upon whom is the burden of words? I don’t know. I don’t think there is an answer. I cannot dampen gladness because it will burden the unglad. But I cannot proclaim gladness as a promise that will only shackle the already bound. Faith shelters some, and it shadows others. It loosens some, and it binds others. Is this the judgement of the message or the messenger, the one praying or the prayer prayed? I don’t know.

Hello to what we do not know.

What I do know is that it can help to find the words to tell the truth of where you are now. If you can find the courage to name ‘here’ — especially in the place where you do not wish to be — it can help you be there. Instead of resenting another’s words of gladness or pain, it may be possible to hear it as simply another location. They are there and I am here.”

That is how I’ve prayed these last couple of weeks, “I am here.” It’s a contemplative practice anyone, or any faith or none at all can try. Name where you are. Even if you do not wish to be in that place. I can’t explain why, but it’s peaceful.

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winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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So after reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I decided to spend a little more reading time in San Francisco and chose a book Boston Bibliophile mentioned recently, San Francisco Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Marie wrote about this line from “Challenges to Young Poets:” “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” Good advice.

This little volume is the first in the San Francisco Poet Laureate series published by City Lights Foundation. I’m not a Ferlinghetti aficionado and I’ve never read a full collection of his work but I enjoyed this brief book. It opens with his inaugural address as the city’s poet laureate, a post he held from 1998-2000. It’s interesting that Ferlinghetti sees a city gentrifying and losing its culture, whereas Robin Sloan portrays San Francisco in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as plenty off-beat, artsy, & funky (albeit well-off).

The poems in this volume are like postcards, giving the reader small, intimate sketches of the city Ferlinghetti loves, and which has been his muse. I especially liked “The Changing Light,” about the beauty of the sun and fog and sea light in San Francisco; and “Dog,” in which a dog takes the reader on a tour of the city’s streets, “investigating everything/ without benefit of perjury/a real realist/with a real tale to tell/and a real tail to tell it with . . . .”

“Baseball Canto,” is probably the best baseball poem I’ve read and is also about race and class and the American Dream and the giving way of the old guard in literature to new voices that aren’t all male and white. Really. Read it, you’ll see what I mean. And “A North Beach Scene” is a painting in a poem, so vivid.

I got to wondering whether there are other book series devoted to poets laureate and I couldn’t find any. Nor did I find a consolidated list of cities with a poet laureate. I did learn on Wikipedia that not all U.S. states have one. And now I need to finish my lunchtime musings and get on with the rest of the day here in the bookconscious household. If anyone knows of links to poets laureate of cities please leave a comment.

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Poet Jeffrey Skinner has written a sort of insider’s guide to the “PoBiz,” The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: a Self-Help Memoir. He identifies the 6.5 practices of the title, quotes many excellent poets, pokes fun at certain self-important aspects of the poetry world, and attempts to encourage those who are inclined to throw up their hands in despair. While much of book is mostly of interest to writers, I’d recommend the memoir sections for anyone who enjoys personal essays.

Some of Skinner’s advice will be familiar to anyone who has read writing books or attended workshops. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. The final essay of the book, “The Family Guy,” is a thoughtful take on popular culture (yes, the title refers to the animated television show) and the place of poetry in it. He suggests poetry is not limited to the literary form, but can be “an immediate, intuitive grasp of meaning. . . confirmation that some measure of grace extends beyond the visible.”

Skinner challenges readers to “get right-sized about the place of poetry, the stuff we read and write, and to consider it as one particularly rich and complex example of wider poetry.” In other words, we shouldn’t “assume it is the only cathedral in the pines.” He exhorts readers to empathize with this wider poetry, not only in service to our own literary betterment but because “non-poets surround and vastly outnumber us.” (emphasis mine)

True. Maybe more people would read poetry if it was more widely understood in relation to poetry as Skinner defines it above. The same could be said for any art existing in tension with its commercial alter ego. Discuss.

Check out Skinner’s Periodic Table of Poetic Elements  (the section in the back of the book, The Noble Gases, is even better). Or, as he suggests, go bowling. Whatever you do, check out this book, which is one of the most original writing guides I’ve ever picked up.

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I’m going to start posting a list of books I’m covering in the Mindful Reader column about a week ahead of its publication in the Concord Monitor on the 2nd Sunday of the month. For the Sept. 9 column, I’m writing about Maryanne O’Hara’s novel Cascade and also doing shorter reviews of Rise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

I wanted to say a bit more about Park Songs. Bookconscious regulars know I’ve written about David Budbill’s work before. The combination of plain-spokeness, beauty, and koan-like wisdom in his poetry blows me away. It’s brilliant to me when a poem reads easily — it’s clear and understandable — and then makes you stop and think and see more to it than when you first read it. And even better, to see more in the world than before you read it.

Park Songs is genre-melding, but it’s completely accessible. It’s a book about people in a city park in the Midwest on a single day. There are three epigraphs:

“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” — Mark Twain

“Numberless are the world’s wonders, and none more wonderful than man.” — Sophocles, Antigone

“We learn in a time of pestilence that there is more to admire in men than to despise.” — Albert Camus, The Plague

Those quotes would be an excellent start for a discussion of the book. Or a discussion of any kind. People who say “I don’t get poetry” could enjoy Park Songs. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s “absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. In a note to readers, Budbill points out that like his rural poems in Judevine, which became a play, this book could be staged in its entirety or in parts.

He suggests a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that the section called “Let’s Talk,” a dialogue between Fred and Judy, who are, respectively, lonely and wishing to be alone, could be a one act play. “Let’s Talk” is touching and funny and Budbill captures the essence of human communication– the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations—in one scene on a park bench.

Budbill says his father often told him “Stick up for the little guy, bud.”  The people in Park Songs are people who could benefit from having someone in their corner. But they are there for each other, even though like most people, they don’t always listen or understand each other. Two characters really grabbed me: Mr. C., “Would be poet, keeper, attendant and guardian of the Park.” and Haal, “Hangs Around A Lot.”

In “Haal’s Great Idea” they discuss Haal’s potential t-shirt business. He proposes “LIFE HURTS” for his first design and Mr. C. goes nuts: “God! Nobody wants that, Haal! Nobody wants to hear about or think about that pain and suffering thing. Take it from me, there’s no money in the suffering game, Haal . . . . And besides, that phrase, LIFE HURTS, it’s worse than poetry.”

I think Haal is on to something, because commercial fiction, Hollywood, and the glut of “pain-and-suffering” memoirs seem to indicate there IS money in it, as long as the product is marketed to the masses, which poetry is not. But I digress.

Haal comes back with, “Well then, how about GROWING OLD IS NOT FOR SISSIES.” Ouch. He goes on, “Yeah, and I got another one, too: SOME PEOPLE ARE SARCASTIC AND MEAN.”  Mr. C. realizes he’s been pretty harsh: “Haal! Hey wait a minute. What I meant was: it’s like poetry. It is poetry. Nobody wants it. People don’t care.”  Haal insists, “I think they do.” Oh, Haal. So do I!

There is much more to this beautiful, tragic-funny book than I can do justice to here. David Budbill’s writing is not just art, it’s a philosophical call to arms for readers to wake up to the world, to go ahead and risk feeling both the pain and the pleasure of being awake. Park Songs is an entertaining read and also one to make you think. It stayed with me and I can feel it connecting with other things I’ve read, helping me live with more heart, helping me notice things.

There’s not much more you could ask for from a book of any kind.

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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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