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Two people told me about this book recently, one who loved it and one who did not even like it. I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did. I think it is an important story, one that touches on important issues in our culture and also tells a compelling story. It’s heart-wrenching, but there is also a redemptive piece that makes it more lovely than sad.  wouldn’t say it’s a hopeful book, however, given the realities of our country.

Sing Unburied Sing is set in coastal Mississippi, and it’s the story of JoJo, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his mother Leonie (although she isn’t always there) and her parents, Pop and Mam, as well as his toddler sister, Kayla. His father, Michael, is in a prison called Parchman, the same prison where Pop was sent as a young man, back when Jim Crow still ran the South. Pop tells JoJo stories about his time at Parchman, and they all feature a boy around JoJo’s age, Richie, who was a prisoner with Pop.

Michael is white, and his parents, especially his father, think of Leonie as a “nigger bitch.” They have nothing to do with her or their grandchildren. Pop and Mam are poor, but Pop grows a garden and tends animals and keeps his family well fed. Mam has been a healer all her life, making herbal remedies and praying to a mixture of Catholic and Voodoo saints. Mostly, they provide the children love and a kind of stability.

The book follows these characters through a period of just a few tumultuous days, as Michael is released from prison, Leonie takes the children and her friend Misty to go pick him up, and Mam’s cancer reaches a critical stage. But even though the action only takes up a short time, we learn a tremendous amount about the characters. How Given, Leonie’s older brother, and Richie, the boy Pop knew at Parchman haunt them. How Leonie and JoJo each deal with those hauntings. How addiction and mass incarceration and systemic racism and the long shadow of lynchings and police brutality and more everyday violence and the hard work of being poor impact them all, deeply, generationally, indelibly.

The hauntings and the faith in VooDoo comforts like a gris-gris bag Pop gives JoJo and the stones Mam asks Leonie to gather from the cemetery as her life withers away make this book more than a straight up narrative; there is a sense of mysticism to it. Somehow Ward makes the characters seem both concrete and symbolic, people with real lives and also people who represent millions of lives, millions of souls touched by the myriad harms of being poor and black in America.

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A friend whose reading tastes I trust went out of her way earlier this fall to tell me she had a book recommendation for me: The River Why. I had not heard of the book nor its author, David James Duncan, but now that I’ve read it I’m filled with the usual sense I have after “discovering” an author whose writing I admire: regret that it’s taken me this long to find their work and anticipation as I consider reading everything else they’ve written.

It’s hard to say what this novel is about. I was trying to explain it to coworkers when I was less than halfway through and said it was a character driven coming of age novel that is also about fishing, but not really just about fishing but about becoming so adept at something that it becomes not a pastime but a part of your being. Now that I’ve finished I’d add that it’s about being a son, a brother, and a friend. It’s about yearning for solitude but needing community. It’s about getting so focused on something — in the protagonist, Gus’s case, water and fish — that you miss the bigger picture until someone wiser — Gus’s brother, Bill Bob — reveals what’s been right in front of you all along. It’s about realizing there is something yearning in you for something that yearns back towards you, and figuring out those are your soul and what Gus comes to think of as “the Friend.” And it’s about love.

Gus is the child of a snobbish fly fishing legend and and a down to earth bait fisher and as he gets older he grows impatient with both. After a meltdown that results in the destruction of a treasured family trophy, Gus moves out of the family home in Portland, Oregon, renting a cabin to go and live out his dream of fishing more hours than he sleeps. It doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s been deluded by his own ambitions and that the life he thought he wanted to lead isn’t what he really wants. He hikes with his much younger brother Bill Bob, who shows him that the Tamanawis river near his home is shaped like the word “Why” when viewed from above. Then he encounters two very different mysterious strangers (that’s all I’ll say, so as not to reveal too much) one of whom leads him to meet Titus, a friend who initiates him into a world of ideas. He also meets neighbors, and as he examines his own way of being he learns from theirs.

I’m not really doing the book justice. It’s strange — especially if you have no idea, as I didn’t, about fishing.  It’s mysterious and funny, full of wonders like a garbage swilling fish, a singing mouse, and dog who likes rocking in his master’s chair and drinking teat. There are touches of native American, Eastern, and Western mythology, philosophy and religion, bits of poetry, and copious quotations from The Compleat Angler, a fishing tome from the 1600s. It’s about growing up and growing into yourself and yes, it’s about finding God. If you are looking for some substance and wisdom in your fiction, The River Why is for you.

 

 

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I read Moonglow for my book group this month and was excited to do so, because Michael Chabon is one of those authors I always meant to read and hadn’t yet. I enjoyed it — the writing is really rich and muscular and evocative. I like the layers of detail. The story — which some reviewers call genre bending fictional memoir and others say is just a novel with a protagonist named Michael Chabon — was hard to follow. If you don’t like non-linear narratives, time leaps, footnotes, and other prose calisthenics you might not like it. I did, eventually, but because I have less time to read these days I found it challenging to pick up in my patchy reading time.

Those minor quibbles aside I did enjoy the main character, “my grandfather,” and the historical backdrop of his life, growing up in pre-war Philadelphia, putting his low regard for rules and his uncanny ability to jerry-rig or repair anything to use during WWII in a unit devoted to finding V2 rockets after D-Day, uncovering a cache of documents hidden by Wernher von Braun, and going back to America to lead a colorful life on the periphery of America’s space race. I don’t want to give away the details but his marriage to the narrator’s grandmother is the real meat of the story, and the way that his grandfather sees loving her as his purpose: “From the first that was a part of his attraction to her: not her brokenness but her potential for being mended and, even more, the challenge that mending her would pose. He thought that if he took on the job of loving this broken woman, some measure of sense or purpose might be returned to his life.”

This pattern begins in the grandfather’s childhood — he’s always helping someone who is kind of a mess, in one way or another, and I found that very endearing even though he’s not a classically endearing guy at all. I also enjoyed reading about the narrator’s mother and would have liked to hear more of her life. My bookclub mostly didn’t like or finish the book — one person had read it twice but otherwise, no one who came to the meeting tonight had finished. I’m glad I read to the end. There is a gentleness to the latter pages of the book that I enjoyed. Moonglow is a wacky novel, for sure, replete with some strange twists that don’t quite make sense unless you’re willing to just suspend belief and go with the narrative flow, disjointed as it may be. If you feel like something different, give it a try. Maybe take it on a weekend away or a long plane ride, so you don’t have time to get lost.

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The adult formerly known on this blog as Teen the Younger (who will no longer be a teen later this month) suggested we get Furiously Happy: a Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson and both read it. As you can imagine I can’t pass up a suggestion like that even though I have stacks of books waiting for me around here.

As I was reading it I posted on Facebook that the most important takeaway is that people living with depression and/ or anxiety have brains that are lying to them. That resonated with me – honestly there is not a damn thing their loved ones can say when that is happening. The lies are too loud. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the person you love them and are with the them, you just can’t expect it to make any difference in the moment. That is both disturbing and reassuring.

I still feel that is the most important takeaway. Which makes me glad I read Furiously Happy even though I don’t think it’s necessarily my kind of humor or a topic I want to spend any more head space on than I already do. But it helped put words to some things I’ve been thinking about.

Last week I saw a story on Facebook that had been published in our local paper, about the parents of a recent suicide victim, and about how he was upset about a breakup but otherwise they had no idea and how he’d been talking about things he looked forward to doing and then killed himself. The article and the post both mentioned wanting to help prevent other families from going through this and other people from committing suicide. I get that desire. I really, really do.

But I think assuming that prevention is a matter of just saying the right thing is a lie, too, that people not living with mental illness but near it tell themselves. And it’s just as dangerous as the lies Lawson writes about. We can help people with mental illness know they are not alone. We can help them see there are options in the world, but we can’t help them see themselves in those options — yes, therapy can often give people tools to try to see, and medicine can potentially help thwart some of the lies enough to help therapy work, but ultimately, no one can stop someone else’s brain from lying. I think, and maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me, they can only be a steady presence for the person with mental illness, when their brains are lying or when they are not, and hope the person says they need help shutting out the lies when they get too loud.

In that way Furiously Happy isn’t totally bleak, because Lawson gives people a view into what that’s like, and provides hope for people who read her work thinking they alone feel as horrible as they do. Letting people see her life, Lawson says, led to affirmations that people were with her in her struggle, but also to  “thousands and thousands of people creeping to the edge and quietly admitting, “Me too. I thought it was just me.” It’s something we humans are very good at, especially at this time and place — we have the delusional view that our experience is unique, especially if it’s bad. Lawson helps people through her blog and her books see that other people are suffering but are also living. That’s great. But I think about that young man and his parents in my town, and I am sure, based on the story they told in the paper, that they did that too — let him know he was not alone, and that people had suffered and lived through what he was experiencing. The lies in his brain were too loud, too insistent for him.

And that’s what I hope science will figure out someday — how to keep the brain from ever lying so badly in the first place.

 

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The main characters in Our Souls at Night, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, are neighbors. They both live alone because their spouses died. Neither had a great marriage. Addie decides she doesn’t want to sleep alone anymore and invites Louis to sleep at her house. The town gossips about them. Kent Haruf lived in a small town in Colorado much like the one he writes about in Our Souls at Night. When I read that I realized much of my critique of the book has to go out the window — I found it unbelievable that there is anywhere in America where people, even older people, couldn’t have an adult relationship without whipping up gossip.

So I guess if he was writing about a town much like his own, I have to reconsider my disbelief. It’s a beautiful book, what I’d refer to as a quiet novel, just about these two people’s lives and how they get to know each other well after decades of just knowing each other in passing. They share their experiences, their marriages, the ways their lives didn’t turn out as they hoped or planned, and their concerns for their grown kids and Addie’s grandson. Their lives are ordinary but Haruf makes them seem special somehow, in their ordinariness. In their goodness.

It’s a short read, and if you like character driven novels, it’s a lovely little book. It’s a little sad, so be prepared for that, because it reveals human nature in all its brokenness. But it’s also a little hopeful. And a little funny — he even pokes fun at himself, as Addie and Louis read about a play from “that last book about Holt County,” and Louis scoffs that in the books are “made up,” and “improbable.”  I enjoyed it although I wasn’t really in the right mood for the brokenness.

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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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So I started a class, I as mentioned at the end of my last post, and have definitely not had as much time to read for pleasure. But I finished Britt-Marie Was Here last night. It’s a follow up to My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. It’s interesting because in that book, Britt-Marie was not a very sympathetic character. She was presented, as she herself describes in the follow up, as a “nag-bag.”

So it seemed brave to me that Backman chose to take his most annoying character and turn her into a heroine in her own right. And I think he absolutely succeeds. Britt-Marie is suffering from some of the events at the end of the previous book which I won’t give away here, and finds herself in a small rural town called Borg, which is struggling as a result of the global recession. She inadvertently becomes the soccer coach, even though she doesn’t know anything about it, and also bumbles her way into friendships, and finds herself helping people and even a rat. She’s able to reflect a bit on her life and through those thoughts she has, we learn why she’s so obsessed with cleaning and doing things properly.

I cried a fair bit, but it may be I was just in a good place for that right now. I suspect the Computer Scientist would call this book “sappy” — two recent films we’ve seen he’s referred to in that way (Hidden Figures and A United Kingdom). But like those films, these books deal with some serious issues in an accessible way, and I say any art that makes itself appealing but draws people into thinking and talking about things like race, class, community, family, and humanity are worthwhile, even if they tug at the heartstrings. And those of you who have read bookconscious for awhile know I am not a fan of stories that are overly sweet, so I would say if these were.

What do you think? Is there a book you’ve read that someone else criticized for being sappy?

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