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Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

The subtitle of Bacon & Aphramor’s book is What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail to Understand About Weight. An acquaintance who is a nutritionist recommended an article about body respect on Aphramor’s site Disruptive Women (yes, she had me at Disruptive Women) because she knows I have a teen daughter. I was so taken with the ideas in the article that I got the book on inter-library loan.

You’ve probably noticed that so-called sacred truths of dietary advice are frequently debunked. A widely discussed recent example was the Time magazine article last winter that examined why fat had been demonized when it turns out it’s not so bad. And dieting? Dieting, it turns out can make you fatter. Exercise? It won’t necessarily help you lose weight. I could go on, but you get the idea. This book is mind-blowing. And at heart, quite practical. We all have a “setpoint” — basically, a natural weight we settle at when we aren’t worrying about our weight. What Aphramor and Bacon suggest instead of dieting and following an exercise regimen is — get this — listening to your body.

They admit it isn’t easy, and it will take time to get used to, but they offer step-by-step plans to enjoy “Health at Every Size,” by respecting oneself and cultivating that respect through eating well, moving (their term for exercising) in ways that are satisfying and fun, and paying attention to emotional well being. All of which requires mindful awareness and a willingness to be open minded and try new things.

Why is that so hard? We’re conditioned to believe we should look a particular way, and to associate fatness with laziness, lack of willpower, or bad habits.We live in a sizeist society. Just yesterday, the BBC reported “fat shaming” on the Tube and around London. Aphramor and Bacon touch on the social justice aspect of this argument by noting there’s a great deal of evidence that people who are poor or who lack a “sense of agency” in their lives tend to have more health problems and to be stigmatized for them.

Body Respect notes that living in a world where being fat is “bad” not only stigmatizes people, it also causes our cultural obsession with body shape and size. Almost everyone has or is exposed to disordered thoughts about eating. Obesity is associated with disease and death, even though in many cases, other health and genetic factors are more debilitating than someone’s weight. If that’s not challenging enough to the status quo, Bacon and Aphramor go on to ask readers to let go of notions of “overweight” altogether.

I’ve read things along these lines before — I’ve written here about many mindfulness books, and I’ve read several articles in Atlantic Monthly about faulty scientific studies and the diet industry. I know that most of the diets Americans follow are not effective, that exercise should be enjoyable to be maintained. But Bacon and Aphramor say what I know to be true in a way I’ve never heard it said before — something Paul Harding says is a hallmark of good writing. He was referring to fiction, but good nonfiction can do the same thing.

Today I let my colleague who orders nonfiction know that this is an important read. It’s going to be on order at our library soon.

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Yesterday afternoon I was running errands with Teen the Younger. She had earbuds in so I switched off the car radio in order to think. I was considering an audio essay I’d listened to earlier, a “This I Believe” piece by Holocaust survivor Jay Frankston, who believes that if more people — especially those with influence, like the Pope — had reacted to the Holocaust the way the Danes did (a national act of collective resistance, something my children & I learned of when we read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars together) millions of lives might have been saved, and Hitler’s policies would have failed. He said that when he speaks in schools, he reminds children they “must speak up against wrongs, however small.”

I had recently had a conversation with the Computer Scientist about a workplace incident  in which someone was rude without recognizing it — the person was focused on getting the answer she wanted to complete something the way she preferred and not on consensus or consideration. I suggested that schools and workplaces would benefit from conflict resolution training, maybe also mindfulness training so people learn not to react immediately to the triggers that tend to set us all off. It seems we need remedial training to be in community with each other. We decided it was impossible to know what would solve the epidemic of self-absorption in contemporary culture.  As my grandmother used to say, you can only do your best yourself and hope others do too. (An update: today the Computer Scientist sent me a quote he finds helpful, if challenging:  “Life becomes easier if you learn to accept an apology you never get.”)

As I thought about these things in the car, I imagined a post in which I’d discuss an Op-ed that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times which made me feel sick and heartbroken and outraged. It was written by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, one of the estimated 40 (40!) people currently on hunger strike in the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, a man who contends he has never done what he was suspected of (but has never been formally charged with) when he was captured and brought to the prison camp* 11 years ago. I was thinking that despite Guantanamo being a divisive and unpopular topic, by Jay Frankston’s humane standard, I must speak up. And that by doing so I’d  be encouraging the awareness of others that is so often lacking.

Then my phone rang as I stood in line at the local Goodwill store. It was my mother, calling as she often does when tragic events happen, to ask if I’d heard about Boston. Before we hung up she said, “Give everyone a hug. I’m glad you’re safe.” This wasn’t a reference to any of my family being at the scene — none of us had plans to attend the Boston Marathon yesterday. She was just stating a common response to senseless violence, relief that our loved ones are safe.

In the evening, I checked our local Patch.com site for news of local runners. I was disgusted to see in the comments section of the story another kind of response, vitriolic posts about gun control, President Obama, etc. I vented on Facebook that surely human history shows hate isn’t a good response to conflict. Two people who were among my closest college friends replied almost immediately that while that may be, hate and anger are easier responses to make and also the default for adults in our culture.

While I agree they’ve become the default, I don’t believe anger is easier than empathy. Loving kindness and empathy come easily to children. Anger grows as a habitual response to the unending stream of negative stimuli we are bombarded with. Like the woman who was blind to rudeness because of her own insecurities in the workplace, the Patch commenters didn’t think about the hurtfulness of their response. If you asked them why they felt it was right to focus on their own opinions at a time when severely injured people lay in hospital beds fighting for their lives, they would probably be shocked and argue they weren’t doing so.

This morning another Op-ed in the New York Times, this one by Jonathan Rieder about Martin Luther King Jr.’s righteous anger, caught my eye and led me to read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’d only read excerpts before and I’d never considered the letter in the way Rieder did. In line with the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading, it turns out that just before I finally turned off the radio and went to bed last night, heartsick as all of us are over the bombings, I’d texted with Teen the Elder at college about his own response to the day: anger.

At first I counseled against anger. But when he replied that this kind of news makes him want to be out of college and working in some way to make the world better, I realized, and told him, that righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice as long as we avoid becoming bitter or hateful and channel it into right action. And when I read Jonathan Rieder’s piece and King’s words this morning I realized this is just what my son was feeling, and just what the world needs, along with people who are unafraid to speak up.

If you’ve never read the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” do. It’s a response to eight white clergy who had issued a statement condemning the Birmingham demonstrations as “untimely.” It’s a remarkable piece, a reminder of the King’s gifts not only as a leader but as a thinker and writer.

Consider his words carefully and it will be hard to read the news: that gays should “wait” for marriage equality, prisoners should “wait” for justice, bullied children should “wait” for life to get better, ” the homeless should “wait” for year round shelters, college students should “wait” for a time when debt doesn’t shackle them for a lifetime, the uninsured should “wait” to not be bankrupted by medical bills, the elderly should wait for care that doesn’t require giving up a lifetime’s assets. U.S. citizens should “wait” for campaigns and voting to be fair and for politicians to engage in thoughtful work for the common good instead of partisan bickering, kids should “wait” while adults ban dodgeball and books in schools but allow assault weapons and high capacity magazines that make school shootings easier, low wage workers  should”wait” for a decent living, women should “wait” for equal pay, the mentally ill should “wait” for access to treatment, innocents caught in drone attacks should “wait” for the war on terror to end . . . I could go on, but you get the idea.

But King’s letter will also give you hope that Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel, Jay Frankston, and countless others —  people just like those who ran towards the scene of the explosions yesterday to help the wounded, and just like those who opened their homes to stranded runners and their families in Boston, and just like all the people who take time every day to advocate for the voiceless and powerless, and just like Teen the Elder who feels fired up to join the ongoing march of humanity towards a just and peaceful world — are ready to lift hands and hearts and voices to that work.

*Also worth a read, a piece on the results of a nonpartisan report that without any access to classified materials concludes the U.S. engaged in torture after 9-11 and criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the lawyers and doctors who abandoned the core principles of their professions — upholding justice and not doing harm — to justify torture.

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Regular bookconscious readers know that the Teenager is a serious soccer player — last year at this time we were preparing for his trip to Germany to play with SQ Quelle Furt.  This summer’s soccer has been mostly in the U.S. (plus one game in Canada), but in a few New England states. Instead of a vacation or even a staycation, we had a couple of “playcations” — we drove around to wherever his Super Y team, the Seacoast Wanderers, were playing.

One week in July, the Computer Scientist determined we put 1084 miles on the car.  Really. That week started with a day at home. I rarely have a day at home with unplanned hours; I read two books and finished a third. Really!

The Preteen had been recommending books by Wendy Mass, and she left Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life on my “to read” pile. Ok, technically, there are three piles, plus a few assorted “to read” shelves, but I digress. The point is, my daughter recommended I read Jeremy Fink and I did, and I loved it!  I see now what the Preteen means when she admired the interesting story and “cool, unique characters.”  I found myself exploring Mass’s website and am using her outlining technique to try start a new writing project.

Among the things I admired about Jeremy Fink were the equally strong male and female characters, the plot that was unusual but seemed to be just exactly what should happen to these characters and how they should respond, and the combination of serious (even somewhat philosophical) ideas with very funny writing.  I can certainly understand why my daughter liked it. I did try to draw her into a conversation about the meaning of life, and I can see revisiting that conversation again. As you can imagine, at 12 3/4, she isn’t always open to a deep conversation with her mother.

The other two books from my playcation stay-at-home day were Kinship Theory by Hester Kaplan and In the Age of Love by Michael Stein, and I read them because the Computer Scientist and I have been attending the Tory Hill Readers Series, where both Kaplan and Stein were slated to read on 7/24. I chose these books because the library had them on the shelf when I went looking.

This experiment proved to me that going to hear authors in person is key to understanding their work. I had a hard time getting into Kinship Theory, which is a book about a woman who seems too clueless to be real. She is on the verge of wrecking her relationships with her best friend and her grown daughter, is divorced, is mean for no good reason to a widower she goes on a date with,  seems to be losing her grip on her excellent job, and has a tenuous relationship with her mother. And  — here is the part that was just too “eeew” for me — she is  a surrogate mother, carrying her daughter’s child.

Not only is the main character’s story riddled with life-altering disasters, but other characters in the book also act out in improbably destructive ways. But, when I heard Kaplan read from a forthcoming book, The Tell,  in Warner, I was able to hear aloud how beautiful her writing is, and during the question and answer session, she said something that made Kinship Theory click into place: her writing tends to explore the ways people think they know each other, but really don’t have a clue.  The book made more sense in light of this. Kaplan also revealed that the idea for the surrogacy plot came from a news article she read.

Stein’s In the Age of Love is a lovely, one sitting read. Had I only read that book, and not heard him read from his powerful nonfiction book, The Addict, I might have felt that his writing was just pleasant, with a hint of social consciousness (the protagonists in In the Age of Love are both educators dedicated to working with children in difficult situations).  Hearing him read from The Addict I realized another dimension of Stein’s work — close observation finely wrought in tough, smart prose that kept the audience leaning forward in their seats.

During Stein’s Q&A, the Computer Scientist, who has a screenplay partially written himself, asked a very good question: how is it that a person can be a doctor, a parent, a teacher and researcher at Brown, and a writer who’s been nominated for the Pulitzer and won other prizes?  Stein replied that he writes daily, but only for thirty minutes. This has stayed with me, echoing in my head every single day since. I mentioned this to a friend and she challenged me earlier this week to keep each other on track writing 30 minutes a day all month.  So far, so good.

Did I mention that Tory Hill also features live jazz after the readings, and fantastic desserts? Look up the reading series at your local indie bookstore or library and go hear authors!   I plan to continue working my way through Stein’s and Kaplan’s books. I also read Five Thousand Days Like This One by Jane Brox, who is reading with David Elliott this coming weekend. I’m now reading her new book, Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.

Brox has a distinctive prose style — packed with detail, backed with dense information, supported by research she seems to relish, but also very beautiful, with a clear, lyrical quality that is very pleasing to read. I enjoy the way her thoughts and observations lead into each other often from the personal to the sociological and historical and back; for example, writing about her family’s history in Five Thousand Days Like This One leads her to write about immigration, which leads to the history of mills and farms in her native Merrimack Valley and also into specific details like the meaning of food in her own family and the history of apple farming in her parents’ lifetime.

Brilliant is less ruminative, since Brox’s personal observations aren’t part of the prose (so far – I’m about 2/3 through), but it is fascinating, and Brox still explores her subjects broadly and deeply. I didn’t suspect before I began this book that kerosene would be a compelling topic, but I also had no idea where it comes from, how long it’s been in use, and why it works well for lamps. Even familiar history, like Ben Franklin’s experimentation with electricity, are fresh in Brox’s hands, and she brings a very thought provoking view of the socioeconomic history of light to readers as well. I never really considered before how different lighting has been through history for the haves and the have nots.

I look forward to hearing Brox, and David Elliott, who is one of my very favorite authors for young people. His books are funny for kids and for the adults who read to them, but funny with a backbone; you get a sense that kids who read these books might come away feeling they’ve met a kindred spirit, someone who gets what a challenge it is to grow up but trusts they’ll become their best selves. Whether you have a kid or not, try his books — your inner little kid will thank you.

I also finished three other novels during playcation month: Leah Hager Cohen‘s  House Lights, Farahad Zama‘s The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, and a book from Europa editions, The Companion, by Lorcan Roche. Cohen read during the Tory Hill series’ opening night, and I’d never read any of her books. House Lights is a coming of age novel about a young woman who wants to be an actress, and the way she discovers her budding talent during the same summer she begins to untangle the drama in her own family. It was a good read, and I’m curious to read some of Cohen’s nonfiction as well.

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People is a delight. Longtime bookconscious readers know that one of my highest forms of praise is to compare an author to Jane Austen. Zama’s book comes closer to Miss Austen in spirit as well as plot than anything I’ve read lately.  Mr. Ali, the main character who opens a marriage bureau, and Aruna, a young woman who comes to work for him, are two of the most delightful main characters I’ve met in a while. I gave the book four stars on Goodreads because it transported me to another place, it was a page turning read, and it was just plain fun.

The only thing that kept me from giving this charming novel five stars were some distracting asides which Zama interjects in order to help Western readers understand India culture and Hindu and Muslim practices and traditions.  I loved his descriptions of wedding ceremonies, of food (oh, the food!), even of the unbearable summer heat. Mrs. Ali sprays the cool stone floors of her home with water on a scorching day — I was wishing we had cool stone floors here in New Hampshire during the recent heat wave! But sometimes the vivid descriptions lapsed into “telling” instead of “showing,” and once or twice that was tedious.

But, I am going to recommend this book to the Preteen and any other young people who might like a charming novel of manners set in another country; it’s a book I would share with anyone of any age.  Zama makes very astute observations about human nature through the people who come to the marriage bureau, and he exposes some of the problems but also some of the joys of traditional arranged marriages. If you liked Baking Cakes in Kigali, or Alexander McCall Smith’s books set in Botswana, you’ll enjoy The Marriage Bureau for Rich People.

The third novel I read in July was The Companion, by Lorcan Roche. Not one I would recommend to any teen or preteen, nor would it pass the “Grandmother” test (would I suggest it to my grandmother?). It’s graphic and even perverse in places. But I didn’t want to set it aside, even when it made me squirm; this was one of the most tautly drawn stories I’ve read in awhile.

Roche carries readers down two paths at once: the story of Trevor, the main character, caring kindly and well  for a young muscular dystrophy patient, Ed, in New York City; and the story of Trevor’s  and Ed’s families. Just when readers think they know the truth about each story line, Roche introduces a series of strange and hard to sort out remembrances of Trevor’s life in Ireland, and by the end of the novel, it’s hard to know what the truth was.  It was a deeply unsettling and thought provoking read; I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I admire the skill it took to conceive it and write it.

Several of the other books I read this month were Gibson’s events books. In mid-July, we hosted Linda Greenlaw, and I read her newest fishing yarn, Seaworthy, ahead of her visit. I was looking forward to meeting her not only because of her larger than life tales of life as a sword fishing captain (she’s fearless, daring, smart, and capable, able to withstand the Perfect Storm, boat troubles, sharks, and unruly crew members), but also because of her book about life on the island where she makes her home, The Lobster Chronicles.

Seaworthy gave me the impression that Greenlaw is mellowing — she is still fit and strong and smarter than ever, but  she reveals a softer edge, honed by experience and also by the patience and calm she herself seems surprised to have developed. The book is a memoir about returning to sea to fish after ten years.  It’s interesting, fast paced, and yet also more introspective than I expected.

Greenlaw is a sharp writer, and she also puts on a good show for fans who come out to hear her read. We had a packed house, and she took her time answering questions  (some of which she’s been asked dozens of times — she had been out on tour for a few by the time she came to Gibson’s), telling stories, and signing for a long line.

I also read ahead for two coming events at Gibson’s: a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen, who will be the first writer in our new Writers In the Spotlight series at Capitol Center for the Arts in September; and a history book by Toby Lester, who will be in Concord next week. His reading will be at Red River Theatres, where he’ll be able to do justice to the digital slide show he’s prepared.

I have the advance reader copy of Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, which he’ll be reading from at our event. But I haven’t gotten to it yet, and perhaps because I was feeling somewhat intimidated at the notion of meeting an Important Writer, an Major American Novelist, the author of the National Book Award winning novel The Corrections, I was drawn to my friend Shawn’s suggestion to pick up How to Be Alone and read it first. I’m glad I did.

Franzen comes across not as an inaccessible, ivory tower intellectual, but as a regular guy who is a little freaked out by all the attention he’s had. I feel like I now understand much more about why he writes and why he loves to read. And I got a real kick out of his self-deprecating introduction, in which he admits feeling a little embarrassed at some of the things his younger self said in print about literature.  Who among us doesn’t look back and feel a bit squeamish about the way we might have come across when we were younger and “knew” everything?

How to Be Alone is not a memoir, it’s a collection of essays, some of which are about literary life, and some of which are quite personal. The pieces on his family’s experience of his father’s Alzheimer’s are heart-wrenching. His writing about his own struggles with being a writer, living purposefully, and trying to stay married are tender, but not sentimental.  I laughed at the piece describing the events leading up to his un-invitation from Oprah, and I found the straight creative nonfiction to be very fine journalism. The essays on “super max” prisons, privacy and disappearance in American culture, politics, and the “sex-advice industry” are absorbing and masterful.

Am I still a little intimidated to meet Franzen? Of course. But I feel slightly more prepared. I plan to look for The Discomfort Zone (a “tale of growing up in his own uber-sensitive skin” according to Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. I grew up in uber-sensitive skin myself), and I am really looking forward to Freedom, which will be at the top of the “to read” for work pile very soon.

I finished Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World last weekend, after an aborted attempt to read it aloud to my kids. I love to read aloud. I do it all the time, reading bits of whatever fascinating thing I’ve found in the New York Times or the Economist at the beach yesterday, for example, or sharing a passage of whatever book I’m reading with whichever sentient being is in the room at the time.

I have to pause here and say a word of thanks to the Concord Monitor, which ran a front page photo of Hampton Beach crammed with people yesterday. The Teenager took one look  and asked me if I had an alternative in mind for our planned beach outing. We went to a quiet beach somewhat north of Hampton, where there were far fewer people even after lunch, and we had a lovely day. No, I’m not telling you where. It won’t be so uncrowded if I tell everyone, will it?

Not too far into Lester’s book, we learned that medieval monks read aloud, too.  My kids had a laugh wondering if I am somehow descended from a read-aloud monk.  I wonder if there is a monastery anywhere today that offers “read aloud retreats” the way many cloistered communities offer silent ones?  If so, I’m there.

This is just a taste of the level of detail in Lester’s writing. I absolutely loved The Fourth Part of the World. It’s everything a good nonfiction book should be: packed with facts told in a compelling narrative that neither leaves anything out nor diverges into unnecessary fluff. The cover says it’s “the epic story of the map that gave America it’s name,” and Lester really leads readers all over the globe and through the mathematical, scientific, cultural, historical, and sociological developments that led to the exploration of the New World and our record of that exploration. I happen to love geography and maps, so that is a contributing factor, but even if you don’t, I promise this book reads like a highly informative adventure tale.  I am very much looking forward to this event — if you’re in the area, don’t miss it!

I’m hoping the Computer Scientist, Teenager, and Preteen will join me at some of these upcoming events. Authors are excellent models of life learning and passionate inquiry into topics of interest, after all, which is our educational philosophy. Meanwhile, they’ve been reading things that interest them; I wish that were the case for all kids (and adults), not just in summer but all the time.

Several times lately I’ve helped customers at Gibson’s locate a “summer reading” book from a list someone else says is good for them. I can tell you that the enthusiasm for such lists isn’t very high, based on my unscientific random sample. I helped a college student last week who is on her way to Roger Williams University and needed the Common Reading selection. She was irritated that the book cost $16 and told me she doesn’t like to read and really doesn’t want to read something “because she has to” over the summer.

Aside from questioning the wisdom of attending a liberal arts college if you hate reading, I felt sad that someone would enter into reading Tracy Kidder’s fantastic Mountains Beyond Mountains — a book I consider one of the best I’ve ever read — with such a negative view of what the experience will be like. Why? Because she feels forced to read something she didn’t choose. A piece in the New York Times science section this week backs up my belief that people benefit most from reading what they themselves select.

So what are the bookconscious kids reading? The Preteen, who just took a week of Manga drawing at Kimball Jenkins Art School and had very good time drawing and being with other kids who like Manga, has been reading two series: Fruits Basket and Gakuen Alice.  She says she likes the strong girl characters and interesting stories in the  Alice books; everyone has a special “Alice” or power. And she thinks Fruits Basket is funny, with a unique story (people are possessed by Zodiac animals and turn into them when hugged).  She’s also been devouring issues of her favorite magazines: Nintendo Power, Muse, and New Moon Girls (in no particular order).

The Teenager said he wanted to read something light and fun this summer. He chose The Human Story: Our History from the Stone Age to Today by James C. Davis.  A good sign that his interest in possibly being a history major reflects what he likes to learn. He also picked up a book at the library: DK Ultimate Spy: Inside the Secret World of Espionage. This brought back many fond memories of he and the Preteen immersing themselves in all things spy. They even enrolled in Spy University, a series of books and activities from Scholastic, and they both pored over the Usborne Spy’s Guidebook.

The Computer Scientist finished Baseball Codes, which he describes as a “technical and detailed book that is a good read for baseball aficionados. I felt on more than one occasion that the detail to prove the Codes was a bit overwhelming and overkill, but the anecdotal style made for a pleasant read.”  He also read Doctor On Everest: Emergency Medicine at the Top of the World, and said while it wasn’t the best written book he’s ever read, “the description of what it’s like to be in a supporting role for some of the largest egos on the planet was great, and his struggle with not summiting himself really put a personal touch to the book. Having read what I can about the 1996 Everest disaster, it was interesting to see it from such a different and fairly objective perspective.”  He also read some Star Wars “mind candy” while staying in the dorms at Dartmouth for the CASE summer institute last week.

Speaking of dorms, the Teenager and I are going on a last college visit trip this weekend, and then we’ll have seen eight schools. He expects to narrow that down to 3-4 to revisit and likely apply to. We’re deep into discussing the kids’ fall educational plans; the Teenager is probably going to study Shakespeare, he’s taking German and studying pre-calculus and thinks Precolumbian history of Latin America is an intriguing possibility. He’s still considering science subjects and senior project ideas, and is looking forward to the high school soccer season.

The Preteen is considering a Japanese class, and wants to study food history/culture/sociology — inspired by Muse. She’s studying pre-algebra and perhaps robotics and both kids will read and write across the disciplines.  They’ll each pursue their favorite forms of art — photography and drawing.

As much as I wish our original goal of learning all the time without thinking in terms of a “school year” had stuck as they got older (both kids consider summer “time off” — although I cannot resist pointing out they are learning whether they want to or not), I have to admit I really like this planning time. It’s so exciting, compiling reading lists and resources and exploring all the possibilities together.

When it’s time to stop making lists, I turn to my own reading, which right now includes finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander, as well as Brilliant, and Dreaming In Hindi by another Tory Hill author, Katherine Russell Rich. I’ve also started The Case for Books by Robert Darnton and will read Day After Night by Anita Diamant — both authors coming to Gibson’s soon. I’m a little sad to see the Playcation summer end, because it brings us one step closer to the Teenager’s next adventures beyond our home.   Hopefully August will bring a few more beach days, a few more stay-at-home days, and some hammock time.

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Sometime towards the end of April, the Computer Scientist said something that stopped me cold. He noticed my frantic checking of how many pages were left in whatever book I was trying to finish ahead of an event at Gibson’s or a library due date, and he said, “Reading isn’t even fun for you anymore, it’s just another deadline.”

Then he pointed out the stacks of books beside my bed, the pile of magazines in my favorite chair, and the many sections of the New York Times at my place at the kitchen table and said, “You don’t enjoy what you’re reading, you just see it as what you have to finish, and it stresses you out.” Have I mentioned he has a reputation for giving direct and insightful feedback?

As you can imagine, my immediate reaction wasn’t to say, “Thank you for your searingly honest critique, darling, I’ll change my frenzied behavior at once.” Instead, I probably made a face, and I likely said something defensive and possibly a bit rude, although I refuse to confirm or deny that.  Unruffled by my response, the Computer Scientist rolled over and went blissfully to sleep. I obsessed.

And you know what? He’s right. After this conversation, we had a couple of whirlwind weeks chock full of children’s activities, a visit from his parents, and my own visit with my mom in South Carolina. I had less time to read (except on the four airplanes and airports I passed through, in which I read four books), so I was forced to make hard choices.  I came to a series of editorial decisions about my reading.

First of all, when it comes to periodicals, I am going to let go of my inherited belief that if you pay for something, you’d better get your money’s worth by using it all up — when it comes to the Times or Economist or all of the monthly magazines we get, I am going to allow myself not to read every last article. Yes, they are expensive. But we subscribe to many of them in part because we believe in their existence and wish to express our support. I am still getting plenty of value for my money even if I only read the parts I find most interesting or appealing.

Second, I simply have to admit that it’s impossible for me to read every event book at Gibson’s, especially as our schedule fills.  If it’s something I would want to read anyway or feel curious about, I’ll read it; if not, I will outsource my pre-event reading to family members, friends, or co-workers.

And if none of them has read the book before the event, I’ll rely on the tools I already use as a reader: Goodreads and the many excellent book blogs that are just a Google search away. A quick shout out to my father-in-law — he wrote a very helpful brief  on Walking to Gatlinburg, which I had no time to read. Thanks!

I also came to realize, after my own mother told me I looked “tired” (code for “wow, those are some bags under your eyes, honey”) in the family Easter pictures, that I have to face the biological facts. I am past the age where I can stay up until 2 am finishing a book and/or writing a blog post, especially two or three nights in a row, and still feel (and look) human. No more all-nighters. Unless a book is so darn fantastic I can’t help myself . . . .

Of course, all of these decisions came at the end of the month. So I actually read fourteen books since my last post about a month ago. The last one which I stayed up until all hours finishing was The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which I was reading in a hurry so I could mail it back to my aunt, who lent it to me and had a list of friends waiting for it. I loved this book. I wanted to be friends with both Skeeter and Aibileen.

I’ve read the criticism — the plot is too obvious, the whites too one dimensional and typecast — but I think the people who are bothered by The Help are squeamish at one of two things: either they are uncomfortable with how truthful Stockett is, or they hate to admit that a number one best seller isn’t mind candy.  I’d rather look at the total package — and I think this book  is well written and delivers a great story, memorable and fully formed characters, and page turning entertainment.

Just as not everyone in 19th century England was as mean-spirited or good as Dickens’  villains or heroes, Stockett doesn’t intend to say that all 1960’s Southerners fell into her characters’ molds, either.  The Help is a rollicking good read as well as thought provoking social commentary, packaged in a populist style —  just like Dickens. Kathryn, if you are ever in New England, I’ll drop everything to have you at Gibson’s!

Another novel that manages to be both social commentary and hilarious fun is Co-Opted, by Joan Bigwood. Joan’s sister, Kate, is my friend and rector at St. Paul’s church here in Concord. Her novel follows the transformation of a stylish and successful New York City mom, Francesca Wilson, as her family moves to Palo Alto in the dot.com era. Facing an abrupt lifestyle change, as well as worries about her aging parents, Francesca finds herself becoming involved in a co-op preschool. She discovers talents she never knew she had, and a community to help her through some difficult times. It’s a gentle book, and it’s funny.

Those same words also describe Carl Lennertz‘s delightful memoir, Cursed By A Happy Childhood: Tales of Growing Up, Then and Now.  This charming book is both a tribute to his own happy childhood in what was then a small, sleepy town on Long Island and a reminder to today’s parents that we shouldn’t over think so much. The book is a series of short pieces Lennertz wrote to his daughter as she was approaching the teen years — around the age of my own Preteen.

Even though his family’s life in Manhattan is different in many ways than my own family’s life in New Hampshire (and all the many other places we’ve lived), the book resonated with me. Lennertz writes about things we have all experienced as kids and parents — getting really into certain music, enjoying sweet corn, trying not to seem uncool, swearing (I chuckled over the swear jar — something we tried a few years ago to no effect) and even deciding what will define us as adults.  Both as a lesson in thoughtful reflection and a slice of childhood and parenting in contemporary America, Cursed By A Happy Childhood is welcome relief from both didactic parenting tomes and painful memoirs of unhappy childhoods. This book would be a great Fathers’ Day or new dad gift.

I read five other nonfiction books, including two books by authors who came to the store (Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, and Eaarth, by Bill McKibben), another book recommended by my rector, and two other books of essays: A Place on Water, which I gave the Computer Scientist a couple of years ago for his birthday, and How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley, which is coming out in June.

I read A Place on Water because Wes McNair was one of three poets reading at the Concord Audi at this year’s April poetry event, and he wrote one of the the three essays in the book. And, I adore his work — there’s no other way to describe it. His two neighbors on Drury Pond in Maine, Bill Roorbach and Robert Kimber, wrote the other two essays. This is a gorgeous book — really, each piece is so beautifully wrought, and yet feels as effortless as floating in a perfect little pond on a summer day. You’ll want a camp in Maine, badly, when you’re through reading.

Sloane Crosley is brilliant. I read the advance copy of How Did You Get This Number on a plane, and people stared at me as I laughed out loud. She is everything I love in an essayist — funny, smart, wickedly observant, interesting, and relevant. Her book is a little hip and edgy —  you might feel a teensy bit like you’re not worthy of her Manhatttan lifestyle (I did), but she also writes about her childhood and you’ll realize she is just like you, only cooler, when you read those parts. I’m definitely going back to read I Was Told There’d Be Cake, soon (update: I picked it up today at the library). It’s been on my “to-read list” (that pesky thing just multiplies like some kind of feral animal) for a long time, and Cake has been bumped to the top.

I enjoyed Birdology, although I was taken aback by some of the brutality — the chapter on birds of prey is not for the squeamish, or for quail fans (quick aside:  my in-laws were in town for Sy’s event, and my father-in-law is particularly fond of the quail in their backyard in California; unfortunately some quail meet their demise in the book). Sy is an indefatigable researcher, which is something I admire in a person, and she writes with such passion that even someone like me who is only mildly interested in birds can’t help being fascinated.

I was left with a deep admiration for hummingbird rehabilitators, chickens (they’re not dumb, it turns out), and parrot research that has led to breakthroughs in the understanding of language acquisition. My daughter came away from Sy’s event with a new phrase to torment her brother with: “cut the crap,” which one of the parrots Sy met said with relish. We now spend soccer games daring each other to yell that.

Eaarth is that rare volume that is not only an Important Book but is also humorous, instructive, and somehow even a bit upbeat, even though we’re more or less screwed if we keep adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Bill McKibben is one of the great men of our times — and we just had around 150 people in the store to hear him last night. Have I mentioned lately how much I love Concord?  I visited my mother in Columbia, SC, a university town of around 50,000, twice that if you include Ft. Jackson. Their indie bookstore closed. Concord, you rock.

As Hillary Nelson, one of my favorite freelance writers, said in her review in Thursday’s Concord MonitorEaarth is also a “hopeful and, well, patriotic book, a testament to the durability and flexibility of American democracy. Only a writer as good as McKibben could pull off this feat.”  It’s true — and in person he is every bit as graceful and spellbinding as he is in print. Check out his work at 350.org. Join. Really, what are you waiting for?

Kate, my aforementioned rector at St. Paul’s Church, has been very supportive of our parish’s work welcoming refugees to our community. She told me her mother welcomed refugees in New England many years ago, and recommends This Flowing Towards Me by Marilyn Lacey, to anyone engaged in this ministry. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lacey alternates between telling her own story of discovering her call to serve in refugee camps in Thailand and refugee resettlement in the U.S., and the stories of some of the remarkable people she has known.

Lacey takes her title from a Rumi poem; besides being a memoir of working with refugees, Lacey’s book also explores her personal experience of God “flowing” towards her in many ways, from a bulletin board notice to poetry to a church sign that caught her eye. She is an example of a person living a mindful life, open to the flow of spirituality, and willing to put her faith into action. But the book is not preachy — she tells it how it is for her, and if you’re not religious, you’ll still find plenty to admire and learn from in her travels to Sudan, Thailand, and many other places.

Poetry is certainly a door to inspiration for me — I felt so lifted by my close reading of the latest books from Maxine Kumin, Donald Hall, and WesMcNair (who were all brilliant, by the way — the reading was great fun, and the Computer Scientist came away an even more devoted Hall disciple), that I vowed to read poetry more regularly. I pulled two books off the “to read” shelf and dove in: Earthlight, by Hannah Stein, and Miracle Fair, by Wislawa Szymborska, translated by Joanna Trzeciak.

Earthlight inspired me to pull out a few of my own poems and get back in the saddle — I hadn’t sent work out for a long time, in part because I was tired of “hopeful” rejection letters that either told me the review in question wasn’t really looking at new work (despite guidelines to the contrary) or that my poems were “close.” And in part because David Alpaugh’s article “The New Math of Poetry” is enough to end anyone’s literary aspirations.

My favorite of Hannah Stein’s poems in Earthlight were “This Time, This Place,” about the poet’s experience of a Monet exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago; “Grace,” with my favorite lines in this collection, “The sky has hoarded brightness/like armfuls of lilac;” “Loving a Mathematician,” which makes the list of my favorite marriage poems, and is a lovely tribute to right brain/left brain partners; and “All But the Blackberries Themselves,” a poetic tribute to greed but also just a delightful poem about summer’s abundance and the way it lures us.

Wislawa Szymborska, and for that matter Joanna Trzeciak, are on another plane. A Nobel laureate whose work is not well known outside poetry circles and readers of Polish, Szymborska writes with a wry humor and a searing eye for truth. Poetry can be a window into the meaning of life — you could read poetry to study philosophy, if you were dedicated and maybe a little bit mad.

Szymborska could be your gatekeeper, your guide, your boatman. Whether she is writing about something as simple as a drop of water on her finger (“Water”) or boundless as the concept of zero (“A Poem In Honor Of”), these poems require multiple readings to enjoy their nuance and depth. I want to wallow in this glorious collection for a long time. Translation, as I have mentioned in previous bookconscious posts, is an incredible art. I’m so grateful for the talented Trzeciak and other literary translators who bring this kind of work to their own languages.

While we’re discussing translation, I finally got around to reading a delightful little book I’ve had in my “to-read” pile for awhile now, Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. This was another airport read. Despite its brevity, this was a perfect little book, witty and wacky and True with a capitol T. I have great admiration for both contemporary and classical Japanese literature — what a marvelous world we live in, that I, who have no Japanese at all, can enjoy Murasaki Shikibu, Haruki Murakami, Basho, Shiki, and others, whenever I like.

But I digress. Kitchen is a book I plan to keep around for when the Preteen is a bit older and interested in relationships. I think Yoshimoto is almost Jane Austen-like in the way she delves into the society of her characters and probes their expectations, pride, and yes, prejudices. She writes at once about Japanese culture that feels exotic and mysterious to Western readers, and about universal emotions that connect us all as human beings: love, grief, friendship, family, coming of age. Read this book. It won’t take you long, and you’ll feel richer for it.

Speaking of Jane Austen, you get the feeling that Tracy Chevalier was channeling Jane when she wrote Remarkable Creatures. I haven’t enjoyed any of her books as well as this one since Girl With the Pearl Earring. I think I was drawn to this Remarkable Creatures because I’ve always been fascinated by Mary Anning.

I never knew about her complicated friendship with Elizabeth Philpot (I guess I’d read only very brief overviews of Anning’s fossil hunting until now), and her even messier relationships with many of the leading men of science in England and France.  Chevalier’s novel is just what I look for in historical fiction — detailed, intriguing, and well drawn, with enough facts to pique my curiosity and a plot to keep me reading.  I’d like to read The Fossil Hunter, by Shelley Emling, to fill in the rest of the facts.

On Monday, Gibson’s Book Club will be discussing Per Petterson‘s Out Stealing Horses.  I read it before my recent travels, and then I took his next book (due out in August in the U.S.), I Curse The River of Time, along for the plane rides. I really enjoyed both, but I had my reservations about the ending of the forthcoming book. In fact, I read it over three times on the way home, hoping somehow that it might get better. I’m afraid it didn’t. Still, I enjoyed Petterson’s writing very much, and I maintain that like the other books in translation I’ve explored these past few months, my reading life is richer for having made connections with literature from other countries.

Out Stealing Horses is a good book club choice, and I’m looking forward to hearing what our group has to say about it. It’s a somewhat poignant book, with a protagonist who is looking back in old age at a series of events in his youth that impacted him profoundly. Set at the end of World War II and in contemporary times, the novel takes a hard look at many of the universal questions I found myself drawn to in the rest of this month’s books  — who are our family, and how do we relate to them and to our real and remembered selves at different stages in our life? Are our memories trustworthy? What is trust? Is absence a form of love?

While I was busily buried in books, making connections, and likely driving my family crazy with my book light, baggy eyes, and absent-minded lost-in-thought musings, my family was also busy reading. The Preteen continued to read manga, including +Anima and Gakuen Alice 2. She’s reading Through the Looking Glass, and she and the Computer Scientist are each re-reading Harry Potter books.

I remembered that we have The Cartoon History of the United States by Larry Gonick, and the Preteen is enjoying that. We read aloud the entire eleven volume A History of US by Joy Hakim a few years ago, but I figured given her long interest in comic drawing, this might be appealing.  She likes it enough that I pointed out Gonick’s A Cartoon History of the Universe, Volumes 1-7, and she carried that off to her reading nook.

The reading nook is actually a corner of her closet — she has a much larger closet than the rest of us, and it’s well lit. She’s decorated it with all kinds of cool things on the walls and ceiling, and she has a big comfy chair in there, next to some shelves where she can keep books and display artwork and other items. It’s a very cool place. But she’s not in there as much these days because a) the weather is nicer so she can get outside and b) she’s adopted a pair of gerbils, and she spends more time playing with them. She also read Gerbils: The Complete Guide to Gerbil Care by Donna Anastasi this month, which Jammin’ Gerbils recommends as the definitive guide.

The Teenager finished The Edible History of Humanity, which he enjoyed tremendously (he keeps reminding us that hunting and gathering worked well)  and decided to see what else I had on the history shelves. He’s been reading A History of Knowledge by Charles Van Doren. He told me he likes how in-depth it is for a book that covers so much time. This book has reminded him how much he’s always enjoyed learning about ancient history, and has led him to consider colleges with classics departments.

Meanwhile, he’s not quite made up his mind whether to go straight to college (he’s a junior right now) or take a year off. Especially since his once-a-reference-librarian-always-a-reference-librarian mother keeps giving him more information to consider. Right now he has The Gap Year Book from Lonely Planet and Kristin White‘s The Complete Guide to the Gap Year on inter-library loan. Makes me wish I was young again.

The Computer Scientist read Steve Almond‘s Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and he says, “Very enjoyable read for anyone that’s ever caught themselves a little too into a rock and roll band. Funny and insightful.” He also pronounced Steve Almond’s event the most hilarious author event he’s attended at Gibson’s.  Now he’s reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London, which bookconscious readers know I loved and recommended.  He’s considering a Star Wars read-a-palooza for summer.

What’s in my pile? I’m halfway through Jay Atkinson‘s Paradise Road, which is great fun so far, and I plan to read Peter Hessler’s Country Driving because his writing is brilliant and it was in at the library when I picked up the gap year books, and Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake for the same reasons. I also have Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, and a book of Ted Kooser’s poems, and another of Donald Hall’s essays, plus a few interesting choices in the coming events books: The Boy Who Would Be Shakespeare and I Thought You Were Dead, to name two.

So, Computer Scientist, if you’re reading this? You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for (thanks, Billy Joel).

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In February, the Teenager and the Computer Scientist took a trip to England. I traveled to England through books, as well as to Greece, Russia, Israel, Peru, China, India, Morocco, Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria, plus Virginia and New York. Sounds like a poor substitute for actual travel, but I made it to more places. I’ve always enjoyed vicarious travel through books, especially in the long gray months of winter. I love traveling, but in the mean time, books are a good way to get away.

While the boys were in London, I was reading Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London. Gibson’s co-hosted her reading at the NH Historical Society library last week. Her book is amazing — I’ve read a fair bit about WW II, but she tells stories I’d never heard before. In particular, she writes about the crucial role the American Ambassador to Great Britain, John Gilbert Winant, played in forging and maintaining the Anglo-American alliance.

It is a real shame that Winant is mostly forgotten today. He was a politician, but one whose ideals trumped party loyalty. He was a man with a privileged background in a position of power and influence, but he walked the streets of London during the blitz, lending a hand and asking people how they were doing. He was both a great thinker — his vision for a more just postwar world inspired everyone from cabinet ministers to striking coalminers — and a humble public servant. He eschewed luxurious quarters for a simple flat and made a habit of seeing ordinary people without appointments, while “important” visitors cooled their heels outside his office.

Olson brings Winant to life, along with Averell Harriman, Edward R. Murrow, and a host of lesser known Americans who worked to support England in her “darkest, finest hour,” to bring America into the war, and to defeat fascism. Some of Olson’s stories about America looking out for its own interests while London burned made me sick. I had read a bit about how desperately Churchill pleaded for America to enter the war in Paul Johnson’s book, Churchill. I did not know Truman cut off food aid to Britain after the war, nor was I aware that England didn’t finish paying off its American war debt until 2006.

Roosevelt doesn’t come out looking very good in Olson’s book — nor had he in Paul Johnson’s biography of Churchill, which I read last month. But Harriman’s story is fascinating, as Olson shows him growing into a real diplomat after manipulating his way into politics as a rich, ambitious business man. Some of the minor characters Olson introduces are also very interesting, like Tommy Hitchcock. He popularized polo in the U.S., was a model for two of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, and a leading figure in saving the allied bomber program during WWII.  Until Hitchcock, Winant, and others finally prevailed on war planners to send fighter pilots to escort our bombers, they were regularly shot down.

If all of this sounds dry, it’s not in Olson’s talented hands. She manages to make relatively obscure, potentially boring historical topics like the Lend Lease program and the intricate bureaucracy of the Allies’ war planning come alive with good storytelling and fascinating characters.  Olson also tells personal stories of wartime romances between Churchill’s daughter Sarah and Winant, and Churchill’s daughter-in-law Pamela and both Harriman and Murrow.  And, as Olson told the audience at her reading, despite the bombing and deprivation, London was the most vibrant place in the world during the war. Olson certainly makes it vibrant with her descriptive, vivid passages about wartime life.

Another book set in England, this time contemporary England, that I enjoyed this month was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson.  This novel struck me as a sort of twist on the aga saga; Major Pettigrew is the main character, and we also meet his son and some of his friends, but he faces classic “aga saga” issues, like mourning a spouse, getting along with his grown child, seeking companionship in his twilight years, finding ways to make a difference, and getting involved in local issues after many years of being otherwise occupied. Simonson addresses classism, racism, consumerism, and religious discrimination with empathy and humor, in a novel that might amuse Jane Austen with its gentle social skewering.

But Major Pettigrew manages to be more than a contemporary novel of village manners. Simonson delves into the tensions British citizens of South Asian descent feel when they are mistaken for foreigners, the age old problem of belonging to two cultures, and even the struggle of honoring religious faith without veering into extremism.  She also weaves a subplot around development versus land preservation, without making either side seem villainous (an ensuring both have a shot at acting ridiculous).  And the book’s love story is tender and realistic, and like the Major, charming.

Joe Hill was at Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago and as we chatted but what we’d each been reading, he recommended City of Thieves by David Benioff.  At the beginning of the book a young man sits with his grandparents and asks what it was like in the war, during the siege of Leningrad. The rest of the story is what the grandfather tells him. It’ll keep you turning those pages even after you realize you’ve stayed up too late.

Like Simonson, Benioff deals with serious issues via comedy, but his humor is much darker. He also introduces characters which could easily become cartoonishly “typed” — the Nazi SS officer, the wealthy Russian colonel whose family feasts while Leningrad starves, the young heroes — Benioff gives them each personality and none of them falls flat. I enjoyed the historical details worked into the story, as well as Benioff’s delightful dialogue and his main character Lev’s inner monologue.  It’s a quirky, well told tale.

Another quirky, quick read I enjoyed this month is Zachary Mason‘s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Mason re-imagines many of Odysseus’s adventures in shards and fragments, which are meant to be newly discovered versions of the stories, left out of the “official” Odyssey. Like pieces of broken Greek pottery, some scenes are easier to make out than others.

I especially enjoyed a story in which two Odysseus’s converse — and you have to concentrate to follow which is the real one, and which the imposter. A fresh take on the Cyclops’ tale, told from his perspective as Odysseus’s victim, was also intriguing. Mason makes readers wonder if stories, like geometric models, might hold their shape but look different from each perspective —  the way the juncture of an angle look different when rotated, a flat face offers one view straight on and another one seen from above.

This idea that perspective changes the story is true in The Caliph’s House: A Year In Casablanca by Tahir Shah. Shah left London a few years ago to move his family to a large, crumbling villa in Casablanca. Although he’d visited Morocco, living there brings a series of challenges, cultural and philosophical, as he tries to renovate the house without angering its resident Jinns, settle his young family, get along with the neighbors (some of whom don’t seem to want him there), and learn about his beloved grandfather‘s final years in Morocco.  Ultimately his wife tells him if he wants to put all these demons behind him, he has to “be like a Moroccan.” The book is exotic and fascinating, and I’d like to read more of Shah’s books.

Last Friday, Ted Conover came to Gibson’s to discuss his new book, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.  Conover traveled around the world to tell the story of six roads in places as different as tropical Peru and Palestine. In each place he got out on the road with locals, so the stories he tells are not just of his own travels but of the lives of the people he meets.  Conover manages to be both a fan of roads and a fair observer of both the troubles they bring, and the benefits. I liked that he didn’t give pat analysis but left readers to ponder the balance of progress and problems, both human and ecological. This is a book with heart.

Earlier in February, I enjoyed a novel that also examined “progress” and how we deal with it, socially, culturally, and technologically. I’m a huge fan of Jasper Fforde‘s mind bending literary thriller series, especially his Thursday Next books. But in Shades of Grey, Fforde outdoes himself.

Set in Chromatacia, a dystopian society in what was once England, this novel is wacky, rollicking fun with serious undertones. Chromatacia is divided along color lines. The colors people can see determine their status, work, and mate. This highly regimented society arose after the fall of our own, which is preserved only in artifacts and ruins; Fforde alludes to a disaster, but it’s not clear what happened.

As in his other books, Fforde pokes fun at government bureaucracy, class consciousness, and human nature; he is wickedly funny, even as he addresses issues that are often depressing in real life. Fforde’s imagined new world is so detailed and nuanced, I am simply in awe of his creativity. But he isn’t just imaginative, he’s also a good storyteller, who makes you root for and against the zany cast he’s assembled, and wish the book wouldn’t end. Luckily, a sequel is already in the works.

Another book that left me hoping to hear more from the author in the future is In An Uncharted Country, by Clifford Garstang. He’s coming to the store this week to read from this collection of linked stories set in Rugglesville, Virginia, a small Appalachian town. A customer recommended we invite him, and since then I’ve learned March is Small Press month, so it’s a good time to welcome a talented small press author.

I enjoyed the way Garstang wove different generations’ stories together. I especially liked the way “Flood, 1978,” “The Hand Painted Angel,” and “The Red Peony,” worked together.  But I also enjoyed “William and Frederick,” which was less directly related to the other stories, and “The Nymph and the Woodsman,” which is simply beautiful, and tragic. Actually, there wasn’t any story I didn’t care for, and I can’t remember the last time I read a collection where at least one story didn’t disappoint.

While the boys were away, I took the Preteen to browse Manga. We’d tried looking online, but it’s difficult to pick books that way. She is not interested in Manga with “lovey dovey” storylines, instead preferring stories of magic, hold the kissing. She ended up with Hollow Fields, Hibiki’s Magic, Big Adventures of Majoko, and Tokyo Mew Mew. She liked Hollow Fields the best, by far — lots of mad scientists, robots, and flashbacks in time. She’s taking a Manga class and that has piqued her interest in the genre.

We took her to see the new Alice In Wonderland movie, so she is reading Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, in a pretty illustrated version we found at the library. She also read a fun graphic novel called Wonderland, by Tommy Kovac, which is about Mary Ann, the White Rabbit’s maid. And I found another library book she hasn’t started yet called The Other Alice, all about Alice Liddell. I also cut out this great op-ed from the NYT called “Algebra In Wonderland.”

The Teenager took a couple of books on the trip, but ended up having such full days that he went straight to bed. He has a cold, which morphed into “Atypical Pneumonia.” So he’s laid low all week. On the first morning after the antibiotics began to make him feel better, I found him with a pile of photography books, including a Eliot Porter: The Color of Wildness and Porter‘s In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World (thanks, Grandpa and Jan) and The National Geographic Ultimate Field Guide to Photography. He took some awesome photos on the trip, which you can see at his Flickr stream.

He also picked up Three Steps to the Universe: From the Sun to Black Holes to the Mystery of Dark Matter. He was telling me today that he’s always been fascinated by space and astronomy. In fact, while he was gone, the Preteen and I watched some home videos (she had a cold, too, and that’s something she likes to do when she’s not feeling well), and I got a kick out of seeing the scale drawings of the planets we made, colored, and hung across the playroom walls when they were small. We also enjoyed seeing his diaper box space shuttle, with soup can exhaust pipes. It’s nice to see him continuing to enjoy his interests, with a good read.

The Computer Scientist also took books on the trip. He read another Dennis Lehane novel, Shutter Island. He said it was captivating enough that he thought about it between reads, and enjoyed the way Lehane kept readers guessing right up to the end. He also read some graphic novels recently, including an adaptation from one his all time favorite books, The Stand, and The Ghost In the Shell.

While in England, the boys visited Blenheim Palace, home of the Duke of Marlborough, and birthplace of Winston Churchill.  He took Paul Johnson’s Churchill along, and enjoyed that it was concise but gave him a complete overview. He also bought a book of Churchillian witticisms at the War Cabinet Rooms and Churchill Museum.

What books are we all looking forward to? The Preteen went on another Manga foraging trip last weekend and has a few new titles.  The Teenager has some British soccer magazines stockpiled. The Computer Scientist has a couple of books I recommended (including Citizens of London and City of Thieves). I see a few books on his nightstand, too.

I have more books from authors coming to Gibson’s soon, like Ben Hewitt’s The Town That Food Saved, and I’ve requested a couple of the books at the library, including The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.  In April the Gibson’s Book Club is discussing Robert Pinsky’s translation of The Inferno — with Mr. Pinsky joining us via Skype at Red River Theatres — so I need to read that. I also have an intriguing memoir in my stack, Making the Grades, about the author’s experiences in the standardized test industry, and an advance copy of a new novel due in April about a summer in Louisa May Alcott’s life.

I’d better go dig in.

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When I began bookconscious we were still living in a small town in the Deep South. I missed the four seasons, and one of the things we enjoy about being back in New Hampshire is winter. Really!  Lots of people ask how we can stand the long winters here. In most of the places we’ve lived, winter was a drag. Wet, gray, dreary, without fluffy clean snow and bright sunshine to break up the monotony.

In New England, winter is like the other seasons — gorgeous and changeable. It may be gray and slushy on occasion, but the next day may be postcard lovely. As I write, it’s snowing lightly but the sun is breaking through, so the flakes look like mylar confetti.  It’s cold but not bone-chilling today, and the wind is calm. The bare branches look fetching with a sparkly new coating of snow.

In fairness, even where winter is pretty and bright, it gets dark early, and there is the post-holiday let down when you’ve made it through New Year’s and the promise of spring is a long way off. There’s nothing like a good fire and a good book to fight off the melancholy effect of winter’s darkness, or to revel in the long nights  if you find them cozy.

I started 2010 with a book I’d wanted to read for some time, Lev Grossman‘s The Magicians. Billed as a sort of Harry Potter for grownups, this novel opens with a young man named Quentin receiving his call to Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  The novel follows him from those first confusing hours through his graduation and into the world(s) — ours, and the world where a series of children’s fantasy novels is set.

The Magicians is a dark look at how magic might co-exist with our world.  It’s also a coming of age novel, complete with sex and drugs. And an engrossing read that considers the impact our favorite children’s books have on our worldviews, our characters, our psyches.

Fascinating stuff for a mother in the Harry Potter era, when critics of Hogwarts’ intoxicating charms warn that J.K. Rowling has dangerously blurred children’s notions of fantasy and reality. My kids both went through phases of wishing fervently that Hogwarts were real (heck, so did I). Grossman gives us a peek at what might happen if it were, and if kids with magical powers grew up into adults with those powers.

Like The Magicians, Kate Morton‘s The Forgotten Garden was on my library list for a number of months. Morton is Australian and the book is set in Australia and England. I enjoyed the shifting setting as well as the shifting time — as the protagonist researches her mysterious family history, she reads a notebook her grandmother left. These notes tell about the previous generation, in the late Victorian and Edwardian period.

Since I’d just read Alice I Have Been, which is also set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I enjoyed the connection. Morton is a good storyteller, and once I got into The Forgotten Garden, I tore right through it.  It didn’t stay with me for days after, the way Alice did.  But I’m planning to read Morton’s other books.

A fascinating story that did stay with me for a long while after I reached the end is one I gave the Computer Scientist for Christmas: Ursala LeGuin‘s The Lathe of Heaven. We both really enjoyed the premise of LeGuin’s fascinating story: a man’s dreams impact reality.  She wrote the book in the 1970’s about the future, but the book felt fresh and even timely, as climate change and war in the Middle East both factor into the story.

Many books I’ve read recently are set during wars. At last month’s Gibson’s  book club discussion, a new participant who had also read The Piano Teacher suggested Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford. I read it fairly quickly, and again enjoyed the connection to my other reading, as the novel took place both around the time of WWII and decades later, just as The Forgotten Garden spans much of the twentieth century. Because we lived in the Seattle area for awhile, I was interested in the details about the homefront in the Pacific Northwest.

Ford explores the meaning of ethnicity and identity as well as family relationships and loyalties in Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I enjoyed many of the minor characters — a cafeteria lady who gruffly looks after the protagonist who is bullied at school; a jazz musician who befriends the boy; his mother, who is caught between her love for her son and her loyalty to her domineering husband. Some of these relationships could be better developed, but it was a fun, interesting read and would be an interesting book club pick.

Speaking of book discussions, I joined a new series at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on world religions. Their first selection was a book I’d bought at a library sale somewhere along the line and had been meaning to read, Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Living Buddha, Living Christ. Bookconscious fans know I’ve been trying to study mindfulness for a few years, and I’ve read his books The Miracle of Mindfulness and Peace Is Every Step. Both are powerful books to dip into again and again, rather than digest all at once.

This book is different, though — Hanh veers away from teaching mindfulness to explore Christ as his own “spiritual ancestor.” He finds parallels in the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. I’ve always found the interconnectedness of faiths very interesting, and his insights are thought provoking. Hanh’s writing is simple and clear, and you’re bound to come away from reading any of his work with only a glimpse of what it might mean. A few days later, the glimpse might expand a bit until you’re seeing the whole horizon.

Speaking of a book that will expand your horizon — go read The Power of Half by Kevin and Hannah Salwen. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in one sitting (while waiting for the Teenager at the indoor soccer facility where he trains). The book reads like a long piece in a good newspaper, which makes sense, since Kevin Salwen wrote for the Wall Street Journal. It’s the story of the Salwen family’s decision to sell their grand Atlanta home and give half the proceeds to a nonprofit.

The Salwens worked together, kids and parents each weighing in, to decide how best to donate the money.  Kevin writes well, and his observations about how development aid works best were enlightening, even though I have read a great deal about aid and agreed with where he was starting from (helping people help themselves is better than telling them what help they need). I like a book that teaches me something new about something I already know about. I also appreciate the way he shares the things that went poorly.

Hannah’s parts of the book are also enjoyable, and she’s an inspiring kid. She writes about her experiences volunteering, and she offers young readers exercises to help them identify ways they can make the world a better place. This makes the book much more than a memoir about one family’s giving – anyone could pick up The Power of Half and get practical ideas and support for making an impact in their community and the world. I can’t wait to meet Kevin and Hannah at Gibson’s in a couple of weeks — they are doing an event at the store and an event at an area school, both of which will benefit Capitol Region Habitat for Humanity.

Another author I look forward to meeting is Susan Hand Shetterly, who is coming to the store this week. Her book, Settled In the Wild, is a beautiful book about the resilience of the wild, as well as a reminder of the interconnectedness of the human and natural worlds. Unlike some naturalist writing, Settled neither scolds nor romanticizes.

I think the balance Hand strikes between explaining her deeply felt connection to the wild all around us and the need for humans to coexist responsibly with nature is just right. Shetterly’s thoughtful writing, graceful perception, and admirable powers of observation, along with her affectionate portrayal of her human neighbors and her own experiences making a life in small town Maine, makes this an enjoyable book for fans of memoir as well as nature lovers.

Shetterly’s book is about achieving a well-lived life as much as it’s about nature. It’s enjoyable to reflect on the role of everyday people in history — something most history books can’t or don’t cover. But it’s also inspiring to revisit the lives of those larger than life historical figures whose impact is widely known. Paul Johnson‘s Churchill is one of the most delightful biographies I’ve read, because Johnson treats his subject both as a historical figure and as an individual who lived his life well.

Johnson effectively reviews Churchill’s basic biographical details in a compact book, but he also writes eloquently of the pivotal moments when Churchill’s brilliance manifested itself. He manages to give a full picture of the great man of history (including those rare things he got wrong) and the friend, husband, and father; the statesman and the painter; the orator and the bricklayer.  Because Johnson met Churchill and those who knew him, he sprinkles the book with personal anecdotes and quotes from their conversations as well, which gives the book an amiable feel. I liked the combination of  Johnson’s masterful political and historical analysis and his convivial celebration of Churchill’s humanity.

Another astute observer of her subjects’ humanity is Edwidge Danticat. Her piece in the New Yorker about her cousin Maxo, who died in the earthquake in Haiti, is a lovely description of the impact of his short life, a life that would have gone unnoticed by most of the world, were it not for this tragedy. But she manages, in roughly 1,000 words, to present him as fully human. In The Dew Breaker, she manages to present as fully human a character who is a torturer in the regime of Haitian dictator Francois Duvalier.  I’d never read Danticat, and I thoroughly enjoyed her rich writing and the psychological depth of her storytelling.

I picked up Danticat’s book at the library because like so many people, my knowledge of Haitian culture is limited. I’ve read about Partners In Health‘s work there, and learned a little about Haiti reading Tracy Kidder‘s Mountains Beyond Mountains. But like many Americans, my exposure to world literature is not as thorough as it could be. I’d heard of Danticat, and know the work of some African and Indian writers, because they write in English.

In an effort to expand my literary horizons I read a wonderful anthology, Words Without Borders, which brings readers a selection of work in translation, selected by well known authors.  I took a workshop on literary translation last spring, and this collection made me admire that complicated art even more. I’m thrilled that this anthology is a project of Words Without Borders online magazine, where even more work in translation is available.

Most of the book is fiction, with some poetry and essays. My favorite stories were the hilarious “The Scripture Read Backward,” by Bengali writer Parashuram; “The Uses of English,” by Nigerian Akinwumi Isola; and “Swimming at Night,” by Argentinian Juan Forn. I also loved the selections by Polish poet Bronislaw Maj.  Reading this anthology was like taking an extended trip around the world. Just the thing for a dark winter’s evening.

The Computer Scientist and I have been sharing some books this winter.  Besides The Lathe of Heaven, the Computer Scientist also read The Battlefield Guide. We share similar tastes in poetry and literature, but he also likes grittier stuff, like Dennis Lehane‘s Mystic River, which he read recently. He enjoys Lehane’s direct but descriptive writing and noted the suspenseful clash between different socioeconomic segments in Mystic River.  He is still working on Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle and has started reading Churchill as well.

The Teenager is reading Profiles In Courage.  I know he’s enjoying it because when we passed the New Hampshire state house a couple of days ago, he pointed to Daniel Webster‘s statue and said, “That guy was a genius.” I asked him what caused him to suddenly feel so strongly about NH’s native son, and he said he’d read about him in Profiles.

I know he’s gotten something out of his recent American history reading, especially the graphic novel edition of the constitution, because he told me a week or so ago that our government is amazing, it’s just the people in it who are self-centered and stupid. 🙂  He knows that’s not true across the board, but he gets that the pre-occupation with gaining and holding office is interfering with the incredible idea that is America.

The Preteen has been reading the Manga series Tokyo Mew Mew. She likes the art; she’s been interested in this style of drawing for a while now and is taking a manga class. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that her favorite part is when the characters battle aliens.

The Preteen has also enjoyed the benefits of having a mother who works in a bookstore this month. She’s read a couple of books that aren’t out yet, including The Night Fairy by Laura Amy Schlitz, (due out in Feb.), and started The False Princess, by Eilis O’Neal, (it doesn’t come out until July). She’s also reading The Purloined Boy, by Mortimus Clay, which I picked up for her at the New England Independent Booksellers’ Association trade show. Of the three, she likes the Purloined Boy the most.

All three are fantasy, and it’s hard to impress her in the fantasy department, since she is a devoted fan of Harry Potter and also of the Percy Jackson series (as I write she is enjoying Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Ultimate Guide), Ursula LeGuin’s Catwings books, as well as some very good stand alone books like Ella Enchanted. We also read aloud all of the Narnia and Prydain books and Susan Cooper‘s Dark Is Rising sequence when she was younger. So she’s grown up with high standards, and is often disappointed. She keeps returning to the fantasy genre though, and sometimes she finds a new favorite, like The Amaranth Enchantment.

I’ve experienced the same thing, occasionally picking up some book I’ve been looking forward to and feeling let down. Reading leads us to new places we haven’t yet explored, and one reason I love it so much is that sense of anticipation a new book offers. Will it be a book I can’t forget? Will it enrich something I’ve recently read, making connections that lead me on to even more wonderful books? Sure there’s a chance it will let me down, but even then, I’ve added to my experience as a reader. Finding words wanting is better than not finding them at all. Besides, that new favorite is out there, just waiting for me to crack it open.


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Two nonfiction books I read this month also took me on journeys. First, I read However Tall the Mountain, by Awista Ayub. Ayub, an Afghan American, founded an exchange program for Afghan girls, and her book tells of her efforts, and of the lives of eight girls who played soccer through her program. It’s the girls’ stories that will grab you, as well as the author’s candid, unvarnished description of her experiences and theirs.

Then, I picked up Marek Bennett’s Nicaragua: Comics Travel Journal. Marek will be discussing this book at Gibson’s in January. While However Tall the Mountain touches less on the physical journey and more on the mental and emotional distance the girls traverse, Marek’s book is a travel journal, all about his trip to San Ramon, Nicaragua on a comics exchange.

I enjoy his storytelling through drawings. Like Awista Ayub, Marek is admirably forthright about the good as well as the bad, and their honesty makes both of these books good reads. I’d be suspicious of stories of Americans riding into a developing nation and changing lives exactly according to plan with no worries or unpleasant experiences.

Speaking of honestly assessing the good and the bad, last week I read Barbara Ehrenreich‘s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. If you’ve ever had someone tell you, when you were dealing with something really difficult and upsetting, that it might be a “blessing in disguise,” or pointed out a “silver lining,” or worse, suggested that if only you stay positive, things would turn around, this is the book for you. Ehrenreich, whose writing is clear and persuasive and always backed up with excellent research, not only points out the inanity of such “bright-sidedness,” but also illuminates the dangers of accepting positive thinking as the cure all for everything from health to economic well being.

I was particularly disgusted with the examples of ministers preaching a sort of motivational speaker version of Christianity.  A recent Atlantic article explores the connection between the prosperity gospel and the housing bubble and subprime mortgage disaster. Ehrenreich traces the historical roots of prosperity preaching and its development alongside “positive psychology,” and shows that in the spiritual and the secular, America has become a nation that prizes blind optimism over critical thinking.

She visits motivational speakers at conferences, career coaches and preachers, psychologists and medical professionals. I found the passages exposing the shaky scientific evidence of positive thinking’s impact on health and well being particularly interesting. And I got vicariously angry reading about Ehrenreich’s experiences as a cancer patient. Angry and exhausted from advocating for herself and dealing with cancer, she was told she needed help so she could be more positive. She points out that this “blame the victim” psychology only makes people who are genuinely angry or grieving over an illness feel like they are partly the cause of their own misery.

As I read, I realized that one reason I struggled with The Artist’s Way last winter is that I didn’t believe that changing my attitude would bring me success, so the book made me feel like a failure. My “morning pages” didn’t open up untapped creative veins. And I wasn’t willing to undertake some of Cameron’s advice about imagining your way to a new life, because I would rather be happy with reality. In fairness, The Artist’s Way isn’t only positive thinking, but the stuff that made me rebel as I tried to follow the book is all based in the same psychology Ehrenreich critiques in Bright-sided.

The Teenager just made an elite soccer club in our area — on his second try.  He worked hard to earn a spot this year. Reading Bright-sided made me squirm a bit as I realized we’ve told him, each time he’s faced a disappointment such as being cut or sitting on the bench, to keep working hard, but also to have a positive attitude. We never actually counseled that his goals would be realized through positive thinking, but we definitely encouraged it.

We’ve always struggled with this; all parents do. How much do you encourage your kids to “dream big” and when should you point out that much of the world’s game is rigged, and that for the average person, the odds are not very high that fame and fortune await? Only in the last year did it dawn on us to just tell him that in some cases, he probably never had a chance, because a coach already knew who he wanted on a team, or something else kept him off a squad — size, position, or even just random bad luck. Not to mention not very well-connected parents.

I discussed the book a bit at the dinner table, and pointed out that I hoped both kids could see that sometimes, it’s not whether you’re good enough, or hope hard enough for things to go your way, but that other factors entirely beyond your control might keep you from achieving something you really want.  We talked about not giving up, figuring out what incremental steps might get you to your goal, accepting responsibility and working hard, but also accepting that life isn’t always fair.

Sometimes chance or politics get in the way, and all the positive thinking in the world can’t help. Critical thinking might, as could a little rabble rousing on behalf of a just cause. Conscious acceptance that despite the odds, you want to keep trying is fine, too, maybe even brave or admirable.

I got the “duh mom” reaction so I guess my kids are less susceptible to being “bright-sided” than I feared. I suspect that their early exposure to a mother fired up by social justice issues helped them understand at a far tenderer age than I that what Bono sings is true, “Where you live should not decide whether you live or whether you die.” They also saw through Habitat’s work that sometimes a change in circumstances can make all the difference. Plentiful access to reading material can help people go places, I’d say . . . .

I finished four other books this month: Haiku the Sacred Art, by Margaret McGhee; All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma; and two poetry collections by poets who will be at Gibson’s in December for The Gift of Poetry — an evening featuring many poets from NH. I read Jim Schely‘s As When, In Season and Jennifer Militello‘s Flinch of Song.

McGhee’s book arrived in the mail and I tried to figure out why for a couple of days before I came across one of my own poems in her text and realized “Ah ha! This is my contributor’s copy!” It’s an interesting look at poetry writing as a meditative, spiritual experience. Haiku is still one of my favorite forms, and this book helped me remember why.

Schley and Militello are both very talented wordsmiths. Flinch of Song is brainy and rich, the poems are full of mystery and have an incantatory quality. Militello’s subject matter is mainly the internal world, but her poems are full of external images. This creates a wild (and beautiful) ride for the reader — you never quite know where you are, as you grasp at what’s real and what’s imaginary. These poems are mind blowing, and I’m in awe of Militello’s powers.

Schley’s book also explores relationships and the creative process (including a section of odes to the muses). My favorites in this volume are “Daughter,” “My Father’s Whistle,”  and “Devotional,” which are moving tributes to the beauty of small moments in a life.

I also enjoyed “Autumn Equinox” — Schley manages to convey what Frost called a “lovers’ quarrel with the world,” in this case, the poet’s distress over war, but he does it with such subtle skill, and in such a lovely poem, that it doesn’t hit you over the head with the “issue.” War poems are hard to do well, and this one is marvelous. Schley’s talent is in weaving a quiet spell, while Militello’s fiery work is like a blast from a wizard’s wand. Both were a treat.

Ma’s book won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. It’s a collection of ten stories featuring Chinese American characters. A Gibson’s customer recommended it.  Ma’s writing is strong, original, and detailed. Her stories are tight, complex, and well drawn. That said, they are mostly depressing; some of the stories offer more redemption or transformation for the characters than others. My favorites were “Second Child,”  “The Scottish Play,” “For Sale By Owner,” and “Mrs. Zhao and Mrs. Wu.”

I’m about halfway through  The Fortune Cookie Chronicles — thanks, Mom! I’m fascinated by Jennifer 8 Lee’s curiosity — she seems to be a fellow traveler on the life learning road — and I admire the way she pursues her questions about Chinese food (the All American version) all over the globe. Lee comes across as warm and funny, and her book is interesting and well written. It made me curious, although not quite brave enough to ask, where the proprietors of my family’s favorite Chinese restaurant are from, what brought them here, and what they think of American Chinese food.

We ordered Chinese food on Thanksgiving Eve — I’d been cooking and baking all day, and it was a treat. Now it’s the day after Thanksgiving. Fueled up on our traditional turkey eggs, turkey salad, and turkey soup (okay, and some leftover pie), I’m entering the final laps of NaNoWriMo — you can watch the counter on my bookconscious page turn over to the “Winner” badge when I cross 50,000 words (probably Sunday or Monday).

As always, I have a pile of books waiting for me. My neighbor lent me a couple of novels, and I still have books Jan passed on to me, as well as a stack of books by authors I’ve scheduled to come to Gibson’s. I’m ready for winter, with plenty to read squirreled away!

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