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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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If any of you read my new blog The Nocturnal Librarian you know October saw the bookconscious household hosting the Computer Scientist’s aunt and uncle, who are English. We tried to give them a real taste of New England, with a day in Boston, a drive to Mt. Kearsarge (Rollins State Park in Warner offers quite a vista of the surrounding hills, lakes and towns), a trip to Nubble light house at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, and shorter jaunts around our town. New England really is beautiful in every season, fall being perhaps the most spectacular.

It’s also touts itself as the birthplace of America — the country, but also the idea, of freedom from tyrrany. As we visited Boston I was reading Those Who Save Us, by Jenna Blum. Seeing the Freedom Trail sites with British relatives got me thinking about the way history changes entirely depending on the lens through which you view it. Blum considers that idea in her novel.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a German American history professor, Trudy, and her mother, Anna. At the beginning of the book, Trudy’s father has died; you immediately sense her strained relationship with Anna, and as the book unfolds you learn why Anna is so taciturn.  Blum alternates between Anna’s story and Trudy’s efforts to understand German war experiences generally, and her mother in particular.

Anna’s wartime life included a forbidden love affair with a Jewish doctor, his imprisonment around the time of her pregnancy, and work in a bakery and with the German resistance. After the baker is killed on a mission, the Obersturmfuhrer from Buchenwald begins visiting Anna, making her his mistress. Trudy wonders how Germans could live with what the Nazis were doing, and is haunted by fleeting memories of a Nazi visiting her mother. Anna stays utterly silent about with what she did in order to stay alive and feed Anna, about Anna’s real father, and all she lost during the war.  As the novel progresses, Blum deftly illustrates how history is not only a meta-narrative but millions of personal stories, each hinging on individual circumstances. I enjoyed it very much.

Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, by Sam Savage, looks at a different historical time and place: a derelict neighborhood in 19060’s Boston. The title character’s views on the bookstore he lives above, the brilliant but troubled writer he befriends, and the deteriorating neighborhood about to be bulldozed in the name of stamping out urban blight is unique because Firmin is a rat.  Savage manages to make this lowly creature a truly empathetic character, one who ponders human nature, cruelty, beauty, and the meaning of a well lived life. Oh, and he can read, and educates himself  by reading his way through the shop, as well as observing people.

It’s a tragicomedy about literature, friendship, and how to live, and if you’re in doubt you should just read it and see for yourself. Yes, Firmin is a rat, but he’s also one of the most imaginative, self-aware, thoughtful characters I’ve come across in fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and am grateful to Poets & Writers magazine’s profile of Savage in the September issue, where I learned about his work. I hope to track down his other books, all published by Coffee House Press.

A co-worker at Regina Library talks about what he’s reading with me, and when I was explaining I like books that entertain while also probing Big Ideas he asked if I’d ever read The Prophet byKhalil Gibran.  I hadn’t, so he lent me his copy.  Given its wild popularity, I figured I should see for myself why people seem to love it or hate it.

I fell somewhere in the middle. I admire the idea: it’s a book of philosophical prose poems, told from the point of view of a man who is leaving a place of exile to return to his homeland. He’s clearly beloved by people in his adopted country, and they seek his wisdom before he departs. So from a literary point of view, combining a story with philosophy told in poetic language and a creative form is interesting. Some of the book is quite beautiful.

But I read a biographical piece on Gibran in the New Yorker that made me question whether he was a genius as so many believe or an egomaniac.  So it was hard to take the book at face value after that. Read as interesting literature, rather than spiritual wisdom, I liked The Prophet; that said, there are worse things than to try to live by principles gleaned from a book, no matter the ego of the author.

Another author who interfered with my enjoyment of his book was Florent Chauvouet. His book, Tokyo On Foot: Travels in the City’s Most Colorful Neighborhood is visually amazing. His hand-drawn maps and sketches of people and places around Tokyo are whimsical and engaging. But readers should note it’s a book by a person who came to Japan for six months and clearly took issue with some aspects of Japanese life. Which is his prerogative — and maybe I would have some of the same feelings if I were to live there — but not what I want to read. Maybe I’m just being crank. The Computer Scientist loved this book, and he’s actually been to Japan a few times.

I visited two other countries via books in October: France and Iran.  Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a fascination with Iran; it’s a place with a rich culture and history, but its people have really lost out in the leadership lottery.  One regime after another has made modern Iran hell for at least some of the people, all of the time. Politics aside, it’s a shame, because there is so much to love about Persian literature, art, and food. I’ve learned to love Iranian culture mostly through memoirs.

Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart In an American Kitchen by Donia Bijan is a memoir deeply interested in Iran’s food. Bijan is a chef who knew growing up that cooking was her passion. Her parents, a doctor and a nurse who were both larger than life characters who worked tirelessly to help their patients, had to flee Iran at the time of the Revolution.  In America, Bijan’s father was daunted by the prospect of becoming a doctor all over again in his 60’s and eventually returned to Iran to re-open his hospital. Her mother worked as a nurse in California and supported Bijan’s dream of training in France to become a chef.

The family’s stories are fascinating, and Bijan tells them well, while also examining her own path in light of her family history. Like other good memoirs, Maman’s Homesick Pie is much more than a family narrative. Bijan explores cultural identity, the role of women in her two countries, marriage, and finding one’s true calling in life.

The book did make me hungry; Bijan includes recipes, which I haven’t tried.  She cooked for Bono and his wife when they visited her San Francisco with their baby many years ago. How cool is that?  Her descriptions of French restaurant life are fascinating as well; her own story is sort of a  memoir within a memoir.

Speaking of France, I revisited the charming apartment house brought to life by Muriel Barbery in The Elegance of the Hedgehog in her second novel, Gourmet Rhapsody.  This book quietly grew on me.  If you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, you may recall one of the residents of the Parisian building  is a restaurant critic, an influential but arrogant man named Pierre Athens.  As Gourmet Rhapsody opens, Monsieur Athens is dying, and he is maddened by the faint remembrance of a flavor he can’t quite identify.

Barbery cleverly tells the man’s life story through an interweaving of his own memories and the thoughts of his family, friends, and neighbors. Even a statue in his study weighs in, along with his favorite cat. Each chapter brings readers closer to discovering what Athens is trying to recall, of understanding his ego and the path of emotional destruction he has left in the wake of his hedonistic life. The shifting points of view are delightful; if the whole book were told in his voice, you’d want to toss it aside in in disgust.

I will say Barbery gives the man a way with words. Take for example this passage, in which he describes tasting sushi for the first time: “Yes, it is like a fabric: sashimi is velvet dust, verging on silk, or a bit of both, and the extraordinary alchemy of its gossamer essence allows it to preserve a milky density unknown even by clouds.”  Or later, “Life exists only by virtue of the osmosis of words and facts, where the former encase the latter in ceremonial grace.”

In other words, he tells the truth (or his perception of it) and tells it slant. Towards the end, Athens declares, “The question is not one of eating, nor is it one of living; the question is knowing why.” I think that would make a marvelous philosophy dissertation topic. If I ever go back to school, I’m on it.

Another novel that takes a hard look at “knowing why” is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, the author of Mudbound.  This twist on The Scarlet Letter is set in a dystopian future America where conservative religious leaders have taken power in the wake of terror attacks and a rampant STD scourge that has left many women barren. Our heroine, Hannah, is convicted of having an abortion, refuses to name the man who got her pregnant (her mega-church pastor), and is sentenced to being a “red” — she is “chromed” or genetically altered to turn her skin red, which marks her as a murderer.

The book reads like a thriller, in which Hannah and a friend she meets in prison are rescued from a cultish religious vigilante group by another cultish group who run a sort of Underground Railroad to spirit women like them to Canada. Jordan makes it more emotionally complicated than straight up good versus evil though, as Hannah grows out of her sheltered upbringing into a thinking, questioning adult.

The people Hannah meets do occasionally veer into stock characters: her rescuers speak French, which it seems to me is a little too caricatured of sneering at American politics; a spoiled wealthy southern white man in a grand old house is a turncoat; an Episcopal priest representative of the “Via Media” offers Hannah shelter in a storm.

This is a small quibble though, and may be my own perspective. Overall, I couldn’t put down When She Woke. Jordan addresses important questions of personal conduct and public approbation, and the danger of dominant culture or even the government in expressing public sentiment. She also champions critical thinking and individual actions, and examines how morality and belief can morph into extremism, especially when people are scared, uneducated, or both. In fact, one of the important themes of When She Woke is that mature belief grows as much from questions as from accepted truths.

Collecting personal statements of belief for public reading, listening, and discussion, is the fascinating work of This I Believe.org.  In October I read This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, ahead of the What Do you Believe? event at Regina Library next week.  First year students at Rivier read this book as part of their entry into college life, and the college Writing and Resource Center is co-sponsoring the event. I love the idea of a community read that has a writing component.

This I Believe II, like all of the organization’s books,  is a collection of essays from all kinds of people — young, old, men, women, successful, struggling, famous, unknown — about their personal philosophies.  The essays examine belief  in everything from the Golden Rule to baking.  I tried reading some of the essays aloud, but the Computer Scientist pointed out they are much better heard in the voices of the people who wrote them. You can listen or read on the website, or subscribe to the podcast.

Either way, it’s heartening to know that so many people have spent time considering their deeply held beliefs and writing them down, and thousands have shared those personal manifestos. Some of the beliefs are easy to understand, others are not. Some contradict each other.  I made a list of favorites from this volume; I hope to re-read them and think about why those ideas resonated with me. Maybe I’ll write my own essay some day. It would probably start with “I believe in reading.”

Or maybe, “I believe in poetry.” I attended a talk on some themes in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which came after a screening of Answer This! and a Q&A with Professor Ralph Williams (who acted in the film) and director Christopher Farah.  Prof. Williams told the audience that beauty and the ravages of time were much on the minds of Elizabethans, but that even as we live longer today, beauty can serve the same purposes: to perpetuate love, and to help us deal evil. Reading poetry is one of the best ways I know of unplugging from the world’s bad news; some of my favorite poets address what’s evil or unpleasant head on.

Maxine Kumin’s poems on torture, for example. Or, in her book The Kingdom of Ordinary TimeMarie Howe‘s poems that face inequality (“The Star Market,” “What We Would Give Up,” domestic violence (“Non-Violence” and “The Tree Fort”) and terrorism (“Non-violence 2”). She writes with searing beauty, she writes of horrible things; these are not mutually exclusive.  I heard Howe on Fresh Air, where she addressed writing about grief and loss, and checked for her work at the library that night.

Howe’s poems on faith are some of my favorites. “Easter” imagines Jesus re-entering his own broken body: “And the whole body was too small. Imagine/ the sky trying to fit into a tunnel carved into a hill./ He came into it two ways:/ From the outside, as we step into a pair of pants./ And from the center — suddenly all at once.”  Wow. Have you ever even tried to imagine this? I hadn’t.

“Prayer” may be the simplest, most direct explanation of the human tendency to avoid opening ourselves to the divine and  mysterious I’ve read in any form. “The mystics say you are as close as my own breath/ Why do I flee from you?/ My days and nights pour through me like complaints/and become a story I forgot to tell.”

And “Annunciation,” from a sequence called “Poems From the Life of Mary” describes motherhood’s jolting, almost unbearable essence: “a tilting within myself;” Mary is “only able to endure it by being no one and so/ specifically myself I thought I’d die/from being loved like that.”

A poetry professor at Rivier had the library staff pull a variety of poetry books to keep handy on a cart for students. I had just finished Howe’s book and heard Prof. Williams discuss sonnets and I was hungry for more poetry. So I browsed the cart.

Also, it was the Thursday before Halloween (Thursdays already being slow in the library, due to something called Thirsty Thursday which, as the mother of future college students, I don’t want to think about.) I read a fantastic book, Linda Pastan‘s Traveling Light, in one sitting. I love this book, I cannot believe I’ve made it to this point in my life without reading Linda Pastan, I want to go back and read every single poems she’s ever written.

Ever have that kind of reaction to an author? I scribbled notes as I read, marking both sides of a sheet of scrap paper at the reference desk. Lines I loved.  Poems that struck me.

Such as: “In the end we are no more than our own stories:/ mine a few brief passages in the Book,/no further trace of plot or dialogue” from a poem called “Eve on Her Deathbed.” The poem goes on to trace Eve’s remembrances.

“Lilacs,” blew me away in part because a poem I was working on last week includes lilacs, as does another poem of mine, “Remembering Lilacs.” Pastan writes more beautifully what I know to be true of these flowers: “their leaves as heart-shaped/as memory itself.”

Pastan looks to the color of spring with both hope and bittersweet acceptance of time and its ravages of beauty in “April.”   “A whole new freshman class/ of leaves has arrived/ on the dark twisted branches/ we call our woods, turning/ green now — color of/ anticipation. In my 76th year,/ I know what time and weather/ will do to every leaf.”

She takes a patiently humorous view of age in “Q & A” — a student in the poem asks “Did you write/your Emily Dickinson poem/because you like her work,/ or did you know her personally?” and Pastan writes of the audience’s laughter, the girl’s embarrassment, and her own response: “Surprise, like love, can catch/ our better selves unawares./ ‘I’ve visited her house,’ I said./ ‘I may have met her in my dreams.'”

I could go on and on — my notes include admiration for Pastan’s bold use of rhyme in “Bronze Bells of Autumn” and “Ash.”  For the questions she opens up in “In the Har-Poen Tea Garden,” and “The Flood, 2005.” For the gorgeous “In the Forest,” which tells why poetry heals a broken world, because it gives us words to “Praise what is left.” My advice? Find this book and read it.

Tonight I will no doubt stay up too late, because I’m reading one of those novels I wish I could actually be in, even though it’s full of war and hardship: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. I’ve written about Hoffman’s ability to create characters I’d like to know before: her book The Red Garden was one of my favorite reads last year.

Doverkeepers is a page-turning saga. It’s the story of several women who have made their ways to Masada around 71 C.E., when the Romans have destroyed the Temple and Jews have fled Jerusalem. Hoffman tells each woman’s story, weaving their lives together so that the reader feels a part of the circle. As in many of her other books, there is a magical aspect to the story, but this is also a historical novel and there is an incredible amount of rich sensory detail that makes the time and place come alive.

I received this book as a review copy before I left the bookstore, and the word was that this is Hoffman’s “big book.”  It certainly goes to the heart of many ideas present in other books of hers that I’ve read, with a depth and grace that surpasses her earlier work. That said, I haven’t read all of her books.   Identity, family, faith, transformation, love — this book explores Big Ideas even as Hoffman tells stories that entrance not only for their imaginative power, but the sense of  Truth in the voices of these women.

If I had to boil down what The Dovekeepers is about, I’d say it’s the story of being a woman. Together the protagonists represent a composite of all the roles women have filled over the centuries and in many ways still do, even in a world far different than that of first century Judea. Well, hang on; terrorism, violence, inequality, poverty, religious intolerance, culture wars, famine, drought and flooding, environmental degradation, invasions, world powers dominating smaller nations with their military and economic might, gender stereotyping, fear for the future. Maybe things aren’t so different in some ways.

Speaking of things that are the same: it’s November, so I am NaNoWriMo-ing. I’ve done this before (four times, in fact) but took last year off. I wasn’t going to try to squeeze writing 50,000 words in a month into my life this year either, but two things changed my mind. First, I wrote about NaNoWriMo over at my other blog and remembered all the reasons it’s brilliant. Second, I read this article on simplifying.  I cut some RSS feeds from my Google Reader, and decided there were other ways I could trim excess from my schedule.

Plus, I had some time yesterday evening, between a staff meeting and my reference desk shift, to write. So I dove in and came up for air 5,057 words later. I’m off and writing. It’s exhilarating to be working on a big messy project, when I usually work in the tight constraints of line breaks and poetic forms.

The  Computer Scientist started reading a large messy book recently, or so it appears to an outside observer: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. He’d been on a reading sabbatical, with coaching and other things demanding more of his time. Stay tuned. He did tell me that the Atlantic article on the NCAA by Taylor Branch was one of the best pieces of nonfiction writing he’d read in a long time.

Teen the Younger says the best thing she read in October was the rest of The Giver, by Lois Lowry, which she pronounced  “intense.”  She told me that the novel went along at a steady pace and right near the end, picked up and got a lot more exciting.  She’s currently reading volume one of The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

What’s next for me?  Hooksett Library book group is reading Loving Frank, and I have a collection of short stories about libraries, In the Stacks, which I’d like to read soon.  And, I’m reading Migrations, a poetry collection by Anne Cluysenaar published by Cinnamon Press. Happy reading!

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As I type I’m listening to leaves rustling outside the screened porch, watching my cat Maple, who is fully present to the susurrus and to myriad small sounds and movements I can’t even begin to notice. Susurrus, I learned last night from the OED, is “a low soft sound as of whispering,” which is what the trees are doing on this late September afternoon. I looked the word up when I came across it in Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, which I am reading.

As I reflect on the books I read in September, another autumn leaves image comes to mind: scattered. So far no Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness theme comes to mind; perhaps the connections will be clearer as I write this post.

When the month began, I had a stack of eight library books and a son on an airplane, Teen The Elder.  He is in Bolton, England for his gap year. Bookconscious readers may recall we sent him off with his own set of Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, hidden in his luggage for him to find.  He wrote to me a couple of days ago that he’d finished re-reading The Hobbit and that it made him wish he was in the book, in the woods, living the story. Great books do that.

Few writers describe the earth shaking influence their reading has had on them with such passion and humilty as Pat Conroy. My in-laws gave me his book My Reading Life for my birthday; I’ve only read one Conroy novel, Beach Music, which I recommended my library book club read many years ago in Washington, when Teen the Younger was still a glimmer in my eye. The club hated it, and I was incapacitated with not-just-morning-sickness and missed the discussion and my chance to explain why I enjoyed Conroy’s writing: it’s passionate.

Conroy’s self-effacing honesty in My Reading Life is refreshing in a publishing superstar. He tells readers his every doubt and fear as a writer, which is sort of heartening to someone else who writes. His description of the books he’s read since childhood and the way they shaped him not only as a reader and writer but a human being is just a delight for a fellow bibliophile. And his admiration — even love — for the librarians, teachers, editors, bookstore owners, and sales reps. he’s met, as well as his appreciation of their influence (and his family’s) on his reading and writing life, are very entertaining.

He writes of them with the same honest appraisal he applies to himself: everyone in this book is whole, no one is perfect. I wished I could have visited The Old New York Book Shop in its heyday and the sections on Paris and Rome made me want to pack my bags. One minor quibble: the publisher could have included a reading list at the back of the book.

In the stack of library books I checked out as Teen the Elder was leaving were a number of British novels. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’d never read Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, by Winifred Watson, and I thought it was delightful.  t’s a  lovely little slice of pre-war England, brief but beautifully drawn.

I couldn’t get over the skillfulness with which Watson sketches the characters and tangles and untangles the hilarious plot in such a brief book (I read it in one evening).  If you haven’t read it either, curl up with this book some night, and enjoy the coming to life of a failed governess who is suddenly thrust into a glamorous new circle of friends. Her touching surprise at being treated with kindness and appreciated as something other than a shabby middle aged woman is just a delight.

Written at about the same time, and also hilarious, is Evelyn Waugh‘s Scoop. Waugh’s humor is a little more biting, but just as Watson casts a spotlight on the socioeconomic troubles of being a down-on-her-luck woman in 1930’s London, Waugh shines a bright light on the vagaries of the press. I’m a big fan of novesl as social commentary, and I loved the sharp wit in Waugh’s tale of mistaken identity and foolishness among a band of foreign correspondents covering a “conflict” in an African country.  Despite the fact that the newspaper sends the wrong man to get the scoop, he manages to do just that, unwittingly. I got a big kick out of Waugh’s innocent hero and the bumbling cast of characters who make the book a first class farce.

Alexander McCall Smith‘s humor is more along the lines of Alan Bennett or Jane Austen — he pokes fun at society but in a gentle way that feels more self-effacing than scathing. The prolific McCall Smith writes a number of different series, and in September I read the first book set in Corduroy Mansions, an apartment building in London occupied by people whose lives form the many narrative strands of the book. Another quick read, I appreciated the book for McCall Smith’s wit and eye for detail, and for the great humanity with which he portrays even the least empathetic of characters.

Another book of great humanity (maybe that’s the theme that connects my reading this month) is The Giver by Lois Lowry. I’m a huge fan of Number the Stars, which is an amazing story well told.  Lowry was speaking at Gibson’s  — hers was one the last events I set up before I left the events coordinator position — and I realized I’d never read The Giver. Teen the Younger is reading it too. It’s a very interesting story about a boy chosen to receive the memories of his people in a future where most of the population has no memories and only carefully managed feelings, by design.

Lowry explained when she spoke that she follows her curiosity when she writes: she notices something or wonders about something, and writes her way to understanding or answering.  Many writers talk about this as their process, but I think it’s rare that a writer’s talent in shaping words into living breathing characters and compelling stories is paired with Lowry’s terrific imagination and enormous capacity for capturing the essentials of humanity. Bad things happen in her books, but strong, courageous, smart characters deal with these wrongs, and Lowry gives children the power to be those talented agents of change.

Max Barry is another author who explores both the limits of evil in his book Jennifer Government.  Barry reminds me of Jasper Fforde in some ways, perhaps because Jennifer Government, like Thursday Next, is an agent unafraid of working slightly outside of operational standards to nail her bad guys.  Also like FForde, Barry gleefully skewers corporations, greed, the shallowness of consumer culture, and the absurdity of the advertising world.  In the world of Jennifer Government, your surname is the place you work, everyone belongs to one or another shoppers’ loyalty plans, and only a few counter-cultural types care that the world is more or less run by corporate giants and the NRA.  It’s a rollicking read; one thing I wished is that I got to know the characters a little better.

An author whose books plumb the absolute depth and breadth of her characters’ humanity, baring every foible, every wound, until she exposes the core goodness beneath slightly cracked but stolid exteriors is Jane Gardam. I am absolutely in awe of her powers.  I read God On the Rocks  last winter, and thought it was magnificent. In September I read Old Filth and The Man In the Wooden Hat and I think Gardam accomplishes in two short volumes what it takes Anthony Powell twelve books to say in A Dance to the Music of Time. (Not that I discount the beauty, majesty, and genius of this great work — I am just saying Gardam is absolutely as good and these two books blew me away).

I’d really recommend you read Old Filth and God On the Rocks together, because they are parts of a whole story of the marriage of Sir Edward Feathers, a raj-orphan (child of parents serving the Empire in Asia, shipped to England as a very small boy to be schooled) and Betty Feathers, who survived the occupation of Hong Kong during WWII.  Gardam’s novels capture their marriage in large and small details, their friendships, their tragedies, their indiscretions. The books are also a portrait of those faithful servants of the British Empire who matured in the post-war years as everything they knew, everything they’d been raised to inherit and rule, was changing.

As with all great literature, the beauty of Gardam’s books is that you don’t have to be a part of the culture she’s talking about to identify with these characters, to admire and love them, to find yourself sympathizing tremendously.  One thing that’s especially remarkable about this pair of novels is that I found myself ultimately siding with both Edward and Betty, if there was any side-taking. And Gardam repeats some scenes in the both books, from different perspectives, so I wonder if in fact she too was rooting for both of them and felt she needed to tell both stories?

Another hallmark of a great book for me is that not only are the main characters alive as I read, but also the minor characters. These books are filled with an intriguing supporting cast, and even when a character appears only briefly, Gardam makes him or her walk right off the page into your mind’s eye.  The range of human experience and emotion she covers is amazing — family identity and expectation, social standing, national and cultural identity, post-war and then post-modern cultural change, the influence of early childhood in shaping the psyche, longing to belong, longing for love, the jumble of love and commitment and duty and habit that is a long marriage, maternal instinct or its lack, friendship and rivalry, the impact of retirement and old age, the quirky criss-cross and parallel ramblings of shared memories. I simply loved these books.

I also loved a poetry book I read this month: Happy Life by David Budbill. I reviewed Budbill’s previous collection, Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse last spring.  He is one of my favorite poets, and the new collection is wonderful. Budbill is the perfect model for my ideal of a life learner; his life and work as he writes about it are seamless, he is learning all the time, his work on the mountain homestead he has made for himself informs his work as a writer, his study influences the work he chooses to do. These poems describe a happy life lived in harmony and balance.

There is much to love in this collection. I sent this poem to my faraway son the week of 9/11: “Everything” after 9/11/21001 –“Milkweed pods/cracked open/seeds dishevel/fall/ Everything/ sweeter and/more fragile/now.”  So true and beautiful and simple. I also really admire the spareness of “A Certain Slant of Light” — “A certain slant/of light/ this time of year says more than/color in the hills/or chill air/that fall/is here.”

In the NH Writers’ Project Book Club for Poets we discussed Kay Ryan’s work, and our moderator, Martha Carlson-Bradley, commented that it takes a good deal of bravery to write poems with few words.  The sounds, colors, sensations, and sensibility of Budbill’s poems far outweigh the number of words.  Budbill writers longer poems as well — I enjoyed “Summer Blues” and “Three Days In New York: A Blues In B♭,” which are two of the longest poems in this book. But I feel a real connection with something essential in the shorter poems, as if Budbill has excavated the core of what poetry is.

Also this month, I read a book that gets to the core of what makes us human: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. I read this in order to participate in 1book140. I have to admit, as much as a love the idea of a Twitter-wide book club, I found it hard to engage in conversation in that medium. But it was serendipitous that I read the book anyway, because I discovered that the Hooksett Public Library’s book club was discussing it on the same night that Teen the Younger wanted to go to their anime club. The club’s discussion of Skloot’s book was fascinating, more so because a woman who works in a lab brought in catalogs of cells lines and showed us numerous photos of HeLa cells. I really enjoyed the conversation and plan to go back to the book club.

As for the book itself, I was torn. It’s a story I’d never heard — that one poor black woman’s cells are responsible for the success of countless medical breakthroughs, from the polio vaccine to AIDS research, and that her family was unaware her cells were taken and cultivated.  Skloot tells that portion of the book well.

Some of the family story is so harsh and difficult, and both the book club and the Twitter group felt that The Immortal Life occasionally went too far in exposing the family’s tragedies — the scientist in the book club disagreed and saw the book as the story of the humanity behind the cells. I don’t know if Skloot went too far or if it just was beyond my own comfort level.  I do think the book exposes very important social justice and ethical issues.

Finally to the book that lent a word to my post title this month: Gilead. Ever since hearing Paul Harding talk about his deep admiration for Marilynne Robinson and her influence on him, I’ve been wanting to read her work, and this was on the library shelf. I found it entrancing — her prose is serious and also very lovely, even transcendent, I would say. If you don’t know the story, the book is written from the perspective of John Ames, a minister who has been told he doesn’t have long to live and is writing to his seven year old son.

He writes about his love for the boy and his mother, the surprise he felt at having a family after many years as a widower, his lifelong friendship with another minister named Boughton, the history of Gilead, Iowa, and of his family, and the powerful and strange relationship he has had with Boughton’s son Jack. During the course of writing this long letter to his boy, Jack returns to Gilead, and Ames tries to reconcile his feelings with the realities of Jack’s life, to decide how much and when to share Jack’s troubled past with his young wife, and to determine why Jack has come home and why he is going away again.

Robinson fills the book with scripture, theology, history, philosophy, and the stark, simple beauty of the small prairie town she’s created. It’s an unbelievably deep read — one to be savored slowly.  I found myself re-reading some passages immediately, and turning back to others when I took the book up again the next day.  I also copied down a number of words in my poetry journal: susurrus, irrefrragable, crepuscular, disjunction, unreposeful, covetise. Looking back over the book, I’d say it’s not just word choice but cadence, sentence structure, sound, that make this prose so special.  I would love to hear it read aloud.

Besides The Giver and assorted manga, Teen the Younger is reading a book about Japanese history and culture, A Geek In Japan, by Hector Garcia. This is an interesting book because it was a bestseller in Spain, and now it’s been translated into eight languages. It’s a Spanish ex-pat’s view of Japan. She’s also reading a “business history” of Nintendo called Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, by Jeff Ryan. In September she took part in the Southeast Review’s Young Writers’ Regimen, which looked like so much fun that I signed up for the adult version for October.

The Computer Scientist recently suggested he was going to dismantle the entire teetering pile of books on his nightstand and start fresh. He is reading Steig Larsson‘s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  So far he’s enjoying it.

Up next?  I’m spoiled for choices. Tune in next month to see which titles floated to the top of my pile.

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This week and last have been strange. We’re getting ready to send Teen the Elder off to England for his gap year. I’ve been cooking by day (all his favorites) and reading by night, filling us both up with memories, seeking comfort in the solid beginning, middle and end of books as I deal with the fact that I am the mother of an eighteen year old who is about to head into the world. I’m thrilled for him, of course, but also feeling many other things, mostly a huge sense of difference: this is not like anything else our family has experienced, one of us moving out, at least for awhile, preparing to live in another country, while the rest of us try to carry on as normal. Next week, I expect, will be even stranger.

It’s also been a time of transition professionally, as I handed over the Events Coordinator position at Gibson’s and began training for my new reference librarian job. I’m excited, but also find myself suddenly able to read whatever I want without having to make time for events books, and so I checked out eight novels the last time I stopped at the library. Eight!  I felt like a kid again, wending my way out to the car with my teetering stack of books.

This month I started by reading books recommended to me, including a staff pick at the Rivier Library — 22 Britannia Road, by Amanda Hodgkinson.  I’ve read several novels set in or after WWII, many from the points of view of displaced people; this one is highly original. Hodgkinson’s skillful use of different points of view enhances the telling of this story about a Polish couple separated during WWII and reunited in England after.

Janusz and Silvana are trying to put together the pieces of their lives and live normally with their son, but there is much that they each kept hidden in wartime that is hard to reveal or admit in peacetime, even to themselves.  They have both experienced trauma and loss, and Silvana and Aurek, the boy, have experienced the very worst of man’s inhumanity as they hid in the woods of Poland. The novel alternates between the present and each family member’s remembered experiences.  Readers meet the people they knew during the war and the people in their new life.

Some readers might find the shifting perspectives confusing, but I think it’s perfect as a way to show the difficulty of pulling together fragmented lives after a period of complete turmoil.  It’s also just the right way to present people who are missing parts of their relationship — they find it difficult to pick up where they left off, because of the damage done, the secrets kept, the traumas felt.  Readers get a taste of this as the narrative shifts.

Hodgkinson is a talented writer who conjures a real sense of the strangeness not only of displacement but also of re-entry into society for veterans and civilian victims of war. She is very good at using small details to paint a vivid scene, like turns of phrase as the couple try to speak in a more British way, descriptions of the garden Janusz creates to try to rebuild a sense of normal family life, the second-hand clothes and shoes the family wears.

Left to guess about each other’s experiences, Silvana and Janusz make a mess of things, and then try to undo the tangle and put the family back together again — although I won’t give away how it ends, I will say it’s a pleasantly ambiguous denouement which will offer book clubs plenty to discuss. Hodkinson presents their story with gorgeous, cinematic scenes and vivid details that will keep you glued to the page. Aurek’s sections will break your heart. 22 Britannia Road is a searing, evocative book about the aftermath of war, the resilience of the human spirit, and the ability to love and trust when everything one has known has been destroyed.

Another heart-breaker is Ivory From Paradise. (Are you wondering about my choice of sad books?  Crying is cathartic, remember.) This one had been on my “to read” list. David Schmahmann revisists the characters from his earlier novel, Empire Settings, although I wouldn’t call this a sequel. When Ivory From Paradise opens, the grown children, Danny and Bridget, are dealing with their mother Helga’s final illness.  They end up in a legal battle with their stepfather over their father’s African artifacts, which Helga brought to London from the family home in Durban after both children fled during apartheid (you can read about those events in Empire Settings).

They end up deciding to return to Durban to hold a memorial service for Helga, who was an anti-apartheid activist and politician. As always I won’t give too much away, but do read these books if you’d like a different view of apartheid and especially post-Mandela South Africa. For Eben, the son of Bridget and Danny’s black nurse, and for several other characters, free South Africa isn’t holding up to its promise, and Danny, whose voice is the most dominant  in the novel, it’s bittersweet to return, to learn what’s happened to his family’s wealth, and to find out about his father’s collection and its provenance.

Like all of Schmahmann’s books, this novel is not only a story, but also a literary exploration of human nature, this time about the legacy a family’s secrets have, the ties we feel towards those who’ve come before and the ways family history can take on mythical status it doesn’t deserve. It’s also a meditation on loss — of childhood, of the reality we paint for ourselves in our memories when we face its real life counterpart, of the childish belief in one’s parents invincibility.  And like Schmahmann’s other work, it’s sad but also quite lovely. You may cry but you’ll feel better for it, and also feel better for having considered the ideas he brings to bear in the novel.

One more tragedy I read this month on the recommendation of a friend: Robin Black’s story collection If I Loved You I Would Tell You This.   Black writes beautifully and her virtuosity is clear — her stories are told from the point of view of characters of various ages, different sexes, and a variety of circumstances, and the range is impressive. I enjoyed several of the stories very much: “Immortalizing John Parker,” about an artist trying to paint a portrait of a man who is beginning to succumb to dementia,  and “The History of the World,” about adult twins on a trip to Italy are two favorites.

But as I told the friend who suggested I read the book, I felt “tragedy fatigue” as I read this collection; there was just too much suffering for me in one volume (although in fairness perhaps because of the other books I’d already read in August). I read a blurb about this book that said a little of it goes a long way, and I think that would be the best way to read it, with time and space between the stories. Black writes so tangibly of her characters’ pain that I felt myself rushing through to be able to put some of that behind me.

Another book I rushed to finish, but for different reasons, is Why Jane Austen by Rachel Brownstein. I wanted to finish the book before Brownstein’s visit to Concord — she read at Gibson’s, and since I invited her after meeting her last spring at JASNA Massuchusetts Region’s final meeting of the season, I wanted to be sure to attend. With the eventful summer, and the big changes going on in the bookconscious household, I had to read more quickly than I would have liked, and I plan to go back and re-read this book.

Brownstein’s book is what she describes as “associative criticism” — part criticism, part memoir, as she ties much of what she has learned about Austen’s longstanding widespread appeal to her own life and experiences.  At Gibson’s Brownstein told the audience that she has always admired Austen’s “precision of language.”  She also noticed over her years of teaching that Lionel Trilling’s belief that what’s said about Jane Austen is almost as interesting as the author and her work seems to be as true today as when he wrote it. Why Jane Austen is a lovely book about those two things: Austen’s enduring and self-perpetuating popularity and and what it is about the works that make people so wild about Jane.

One of the most interesting things Brownstein discusses is the sense of belonging Austen’s work fosters in readers. Austen’s writing style, her intimate way of addressing readers as if the are her “secret friends,” makes people feel like they are on a first name basis with Jane. Brownstein also points out  the beauty of Austen’s “tissue of words.” For example, Brownstein describes reading aloud from Emma in a deliberately enunciated fashion so that her students can “savour the slow, gradual elongation of the “e” from the  short indeterminate grunt . . . to the long emphatic screech.” (Go on, open your copy of Emma and check it out.)

She also discusses the way Austen’s books offer new things upon every reading: Brownstein’s son noticed something funny in the carriage ride conversation between Elizabeth Bennett and Maria Lucas in Pride and Prejudice that she herself had never caught.  And she admires how Austen tapped into the instinctive human desire to be “in the know” — Brownstein writes of her mother’s inviting a social outcast to tea in their home in Vermont in part so she could learn why the woman is shunned, just as many Austen characters trade in neighborhood stories.

Reading Why Jane Austen is like sitting down with a very smart, very well spoken friend who gently reminds you of how much more there is to learn about even our favorite books. And how important close, careful (and slow) reading is to our understanding of literature. Brownstein makes clear that a great writer like Austen incites conversation among readers of every generation, as the characters’  lives open into our own, no matter the differences between us.  Inspired by Brownstein’s wonderful answers to the question in her title, I’ve suggested a Jane Austen book discussion for the Computer Scientist, Teen the Younger, and I. Stay tuned.

I read two books of poetry this month.  I’ll start with Crave Radiance, by Elizabeth Alexander. If  her name is familiar, it may be because she wrote a poem in honor of President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and read it as part of the ceremonies.  That poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” is a fine example of what I like most about Alexander’s work: it is deeply musical, well structured, and filled with references to familiar, ordinary people and experiences.

But that is only one kind of poem in this collection. Many others are devoted to historical figures and events in America’s past, particularly African American history. Some are sequences, like the poems in Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color.  Others are individual poems such as “Affirmative Action Blues,” which is about, among other things, the Rodney King civil rights trial, and several poems address the AIDS epidemic.

Alexander also writes a great deal about her family history, and those are some of my favorite poems. “Fried Apples” is about how she recalled her grandfather “standing at the stove, cooking/ a pan of fried apples for us,” and  “began to take his measure.”  And sections of “Fugue,” a sequence of poems about growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, are about her parents. In “1971,” for example, Alexander conjures her young self walking with her father, an adviser to President Johnson: “Sometimes a poem remembers small things, like/’Hey Blood.’ My father still says that sometimes.”

The title of the book comes from the poem “Allegiance,” part of the Miss Crandall series.  It’s one of  my favorites, and also one that seems to sum up Alexander’s themes: when Prudence Crandall receives letters telling her “how brave,/ how visionary, how stare-down-the-beast” she is to run a school for colored girls, we are told, “Work, she says, there is always work to do,/ not in the name of self but in the name,/ the water-clarity of what is right./ We crave radiance in his austere world,/ light in the spiritual darkness.” Alexander believes in that water-clarity, and her poems ring with it.

Where does Alexander place her faith?  Where Prudence Crandall did: “Learning is the one perfect religion,/ its path correct, narrow, certain, straight./ At its end blossoms and billows/ into vari-coloured polyphony:/ the sweet infinity of true knowledge.”  It’s an old idea told well and beautifully: ignorance is the real evil, learning will free hearts and minds.

The other book of poems I read is by my friend and editor at the NH Writer, Martha Carlson-Bradley (who patiently whittles down my long Publishing Trends columns).   Longtime booksconscious fans may recall I wrote about one of her earlier books, Season We Can’t Resist, in 2009.  Carlson-Bradley’s new collection is a chapbook from Adastra Press, beautifully hand-set, printed, and stitched, called If I Take You Here. I read the book and then went to hear her read from it at Gibson’s. I was glad I did, because as is so often the case, her authorial asides really shed light on the book.

I knew from earlier conversations that these poems came out of Carlson-Bradley’s reflection that the farmhouse where her mother grew up and where she visited her grandparents exists only in memory now. At the reading, she explained that she was inspired in part by hearing Donald Hall describe his grandparents’ farm (where he has lived for many years) as a place where poems grow; she ventured to make her grandparents’ farm such a place, even though it’s been torn down. The book is a long sequence, and the individual poems don’t have titles. They’re meant to be read in order and in one sitting, which I was glad to hear, because I had instinctively read the book straight through.

In the opening poem, Carlson-Bradley invites readers to follow her as she enters the memory of her grandparents’ farm as if it is a physical place one can go, “The spring on the screen door/ stretching out/plays its taut,/ascending scale.” In the second poem, Carlson-Bradley tells us the house is not in the shape it once was: “The outer edges the first to go,/ the place that memory makes/ has trouble staying whole –”

You really should read this haunting and lovely poem for yourself, and see what Carlson-Bradley calls the “crumbling left margin,” a visual clue to what she’s found as she enters the farm house. The poem’s left justification is very uneven, with indentation varying line to line, alluding to that roughened outer edge. She told the audience at Gibson’s that she was deliberate in her use of visual structure, centering those poems which spoke to “eternal things,” such as the garden, and deliberately employing variegated indentation to represent her sense that visiting a memory as a physical place is a disorientation of time.  I can’t think of another book of poems whose structure so brilliantly compliments the theme.

In some poems, the language itself leads readers farther into the maze of memory — for example the poem which starts “Incessant, the wind/” has lovely repetition of sounds. In the first stanza, incessant, wind, and inside all share a short “i.” Later, “t’s” and “m’s” repeat, offering very different but similarly soothing accompaniment.  Further along “w’s” and longer o’s and “u’s” smooth the poem’s exit. It’s a very auditory poem, beautiful on the tongue and the ear.

Other favorites of mine are “A young woman’s face,” which describes an old photo fading, and “What I can’t imagine/ he can’t have,” which is one of the poems that best characterizes the relationship between memories and everyday realities, lost forever save in snatches we can remember. Someone in the audience asked how much of the detail in this book, including descriptions of many items from the house, are real and what Carlson-Bradley invented. Her reply: “Even when the facts weren’t right, it’s emotionally true.”  This reverberated with me as aesthetically similar to Danny’s experience in Ivory From Paradise — Schmahmann leads his main character to emotional truths even as he shatters the accepted beliefs Danny holds about his childhood in the novel.

If I Take You Here is about finding the truths in our memories of earlier generations, of people and places that were important to us. Just as Elizabeth Alexander writes of the way she takes the measure of her grandfather by recalling a moment in his kitchen, Martha Carlson-Bradley calls forth her grandfather in images — packing his dead wife’s things, preserving the fruits of his garden, calling out to his daughter.  As she shared her work, she said these poems “create a kind of anteroom between the living and the dead.”   There’s a sense of loss, but also a sense of what endures: lightning, autumn leaves, peepers’ calls, the sound in a shell, the smell of leaf mold or peonies, snow, stars, heat, and light.  Treat yourself to this gorgeous, handmade, heartfelt book. Or better, treat your library, so people in your community can read it too.

Finally this month, I began participating in a fun project: The Europa Challenge. One of my favorite people on Twitter and the blogosphere, The Boston Bibliophile, co-founded this blog, dedicated to challenging participants to read more books from the fantastic Europa Editions. Since I am already a fan of their books, I decided to dive in and read 4 Europa books (Ami level challenge) or perhaps 7 books (Haver level) by the end of 2011.  Since I’d already read The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine in 2011, I figured I had a head start.

In August I’ve read three more Europa Editions, so I’ve become an Ami!  First, I finished Concerto to the Memory of An Angel, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I received a preview of at ABA’s Winter Institute last January. I absolutely loved this book and want to read the rest of Schmitt’s translated work (he’s French). Concerto is a book of four novellas, with a wonderful section at the end called “A Writer’s Logbook,” where the author includes anecdotes about his creative process and some of the backstory behind his book. For the same reason I love hearing an author talk about his or her work, I really enjoyed the logbook section.  And, I found it charming that Schmitt welcomes the reader into his process, in a way.

I had the sense as I read that the stories, while not linked explicitly (no common characters or settings), were linked in spirit and theme. In fact, one thing I really like about Concerto is that it’s a story collection that really has its own over-riding narrative arc — everything fits, no story seems to be out of place, and they tell a bigger story when read all together. The logbook confirms that these stories share, for one thing, “Rita, the Madonna of lost causes, saint of the impossible . . . .” Schmitt says, “Saint Rita tells no stories, but through her, stories are told. ” Schmitt writes of the power memories and secrets have to harden or transform people, the redemptive effect of love and human understanding, the “ambiguity of goodness: what appears good to one individual provokes the misfortune of another. . . .”

I enjoyed all four novellas, but my favorite is “The Return,” about a man who finds out at sea that one of his daughters has died, but not which one. The rest of the story is almost entirely his thoughts as he deals with the news,and his intentional analysis of himself as a father.  While each story is tinged with sadness or anger or fear, every one of them includes some sort of redemption that makes the collection an uplifting affirmation of the human spirit.

Amara Lakhous‘s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio is also a book about the way the same experience can impact people differently; it’s a book about perceptions, prejudices, and stereotypes. Both funny and sad, this short novel takes places in an Italian apartment building and nearby. Different characters tell their sides of the story when one of the residents is murdered. Identity, character, and culture shift before our eyes as we meet the neighbors through different narrative threads.

This book reminded me of an art house film — I could picture the characters addressing the camera with their stories and grievances. Lakhous blends social criticism with humor and a dash of mystery as the book reveals the ways people judge and misjudge each other, the assumptions they make, the things they misread, even when they think they know each other well. While Clash is an interesting look at multicultural contemporary Italy (intriguing to read as Europeans struggle to decide whether multiculturalism is a failure), it’s also a book with universal appeal because of the comedic misunderstandings.  Even the characters felt universal — some of you may know an old lady who is overly attached to her little dog. Or a mico-managing tenant who leaves notes in the elevator about civilized behavior.

Finally, I read the absolutely brilliant Chalcot Crescent by Fay Weldon. Set in 2013, the novel imagines a world that has gone through a series of financial disasters (not only the Recession, but also the Bite), causing massive cultural and civic upheaval so that England is now run by NUG (the National Unity Government, made up of sociologists and shrinks), whose main task is to keep the ever shabbier populace fed.

The heroine of Chalcot Crescent is Fay Weldon’s actual sister, Frances, who her mother miscarried.  Fay Weldon imagines her as having lived a long, successful life as a feminist novelist. Frances is matriarch of a complicated family brewing with resentments and issues. As the book opens, her grandson is sitting with her as she avoids the bailiffs, who are knocking on her door, presumably to repossess the house. Or are they?

In the course of the book, Frances writes a hybrid fiction/memoir manuscript, as she speculates about what is going on — right in her own house — when several of her grandchildren and her best friend’s grandchild meet in Chalcot Crescent to plan a coup as part of an underground protest movement. Meanwhile, her son-in-law is rising in prominence in NUG in part because of his skills as a stem cell researcher (NUG has to create National Meat Loaf somehow), and Frances also writes about her daughters’ relationships with men and with her.  The reader is never sure what Frances has worked out and what she is fabricating — at one point, neither is she.

Frances reflects on her own life with humor and grace and a fair dose of attitude, from her childhood in New Zealand to teen years in post-war London, through the turbulent decades of her adulthood, filled with personal drama and public success.  The book is scary in that the dystopian aspects don’t seem all that far fetched.  The absurdity of the situation — an old woman trapped in her home, which she can no longer afford because of the collapse of the consumer driven economy, while her grandchildren dart through the community potato patch in order to elude government cameras, is delicious.  I hope to read more of Weldon’s work soon, perhaps the epistolary novel Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.

Teen the Elder and Teen the Younger spent August hanging out with each other and with friends, traveling (Teen the Elder spent a few days with his uncle in Seattle), and visiting with my dad when he came to New Hampshire. Teen the Younger continued to read manga and magazines (including the manga magazine Shonen Jump) and she did a lot of planning for her upcoming year of life learning. She has some interesting things in her “to read” pile: The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a book about Japanese history and culture, and several books on the art, design, and history of video games.

Teen the Elder finished a book about English culture, Rules Britannia, and he is reading a lot of instructional material for Logic Studio music writing/recording/editing/mixing software. The manual is 1300 pages long, and he intends to read it! He has mentioned several times that he’d like to re-read Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings books, which are some of his favorite reading of all times (Want in on a secret? The Computer Scientist and I are planning to hide a set of the books in his luggage for him to find when he unpacks in England).

The Computer Scientist has been doing several people’s worth of work at his job — he’s had a team member out on maternity leave, another has moved on to a new position elsewhere, and various vacation and hurricane related absences — and he is now coaching a 3rd & 4th grade boys’ soccer team (you can learn why over at his blog, The Grumpy Footballer).  So he also had a fairly light reading month in August. He’s still enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks.

As for me, I have five more library books waiting (all novels, two of which are Europa Editions by Jane Gardham, whose God On the Rocks I read last winter), plus David Budbill’s latest poetry collection, Happy Life and a book about Carl Sandburg and his wife Lilian Steichen that my father lent me. Plus all the books already in my to-read pile. So, happily, I’ll get through the next few days and that first strange week of our whole new stage of life reading alongside Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist, and knowing Teen the Elder is well supplied with books, too.

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