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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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