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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Over the past few weeks things have been chaotic in the world and in my family. I read another Sophie KinsellaMy Not So Perfect Life, about a young woman, Katie, trying to break into marketing who has a boss, Demeter, she both envies and finds overbearing and inconsiderate. it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, just what I needed in the midst of my chaos. As the story unfolds Katie figures out that she isn’t the only one spinning her social media life, and that Demeter isn’t as witchy as she once thought. As she’s figuring this out, Katie is also helping her father and stepmother open a glamping concern on the farm where she grew up in Somerset. The book left me a) wanting to go to London, b) wanting to go glamping and c) feeling ever so slightly at peace as I went to sleep, although only ever so slightly. I find Kinsella’s writing to be a pleasure, and her books tend to offer some social commentary that is interesting to contemplate as you’re enjoying the storytelling.

When I finished that I was fishing around for something else to download from my library that same night — I don’t care to try sleeping without disappearing into a book first these days — and I came across a book that caught my eye when it came out last year We Are Not Such Things by Justine van der Leun. It’s a book about the Amy Biehl murder in a Cape Town township in August, 1993 (the same year my son was born). Biehl was my age, born in 1967. She was on a Fullbright scholarship studying in Cape Town (where my son has spent time) when she died at the hands of a mob, and her story made international headlines because while the killing was racially and politically motivated, Biehl was actually an ANC supporter and was studying the rights of women, especially black women.

Van der Leun’s book is not really about the murder, or at least not only. It’s primarily about the legacy, both in terms of how Biehl’s family, who had never been to Africa, became involved in Cape Town, founding a foundation in their daughter’s name and getting to know South African luminaries as well as their Biehl’s killers, and about the way the murder impacted those who were there, innocent bystander or violent mob member, and their families as well. In particular van der Leun examines the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, known around the world as a bright example of hope, peace, and nonviolent resolution to centuries of oppression, violence, and racism. I’ve never read such a measured discussion of the TRC. Van der Leun openly admires the ideal, but points out the many flaws in the process itself. For example, the wrongly convicted could not apply for pardon without claiming guilt , which meant innocent people (possibly some of Biehl’s convicted killers among them) had to admit to things they didn’t do to get out of prison. Truth seemed to be missing, to van der Luen, and reconciliation seemed a little discordant.

What I admired most is that van der Luen spent years getting to know all the people she writes about, Easy, one of the convicted killers whose reconciliation with Biehl’s parents made him a celebrity, Mzi, a Buddhist who was a militant member of the PAC, who helps her track down some of the other men implicated in the attack on Biehl, and many of their friends and family members. Van der Leun spends hours, day after day, in Gugulethu, the township where Biehl died and where most of the people involved still live. She gets to know many former gang and PAC members and talks to them about their lives pre and post apartheid and the violence they perpetrated. It’s a side of the struggle we outside of Africa often don’t hear about — we hold up the peacemakers, Mandela and Tutu, but we don’t think much about the violence that was a daily part of life. Nor do most of us think about the racism that is so steeped in South African culture that it remains an open part of life for many of the people van der Leun knows, black and white, rich and poor. No, thinking about racism in South Africa might lead to thinking about racism here in America, and no one wants that. (sarcasm) Truly, it’s human nature to avoid what’s hard and flock to the story we can feel good about.

We Are Not Such Things is, like all my favorite books, about being human. It’s about longing for identity and place, family and community, about the falsity of freedom if you’re poor or marginalized, and the myriad ways people hurt each other. It’s about hope, but it’s mainly about reality, which is, if not hopeless is somewhat less than hopeful most days, for most people. South Africa today certainly embodies that. There is a beauty in the broken world she describes, but not the voyeuristic outsider view of someone who just visited it to write about it. Van der Leun moved to South Africa to be with her fiancee, who grew up there. She openly writes about her discomfort living in the privileged white Cape Town and being more at home in Gugulethu, being an English speaker struggling with Xhosa, being a woman who fits in more with former gangster men than with their wives and sisters. Above all We Are Not Such Things is about the very human condition of discomfort, which is very familiar to me right now. Perhaps that is why I spent two weeks slowly reading it, and why I find myself still thinking about it now.

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Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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March flew past. I meant to savor it, mindfully. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied that I had some mindful moments and keep practicing. Mindfulness is a way of being aware in the present — hard if you are someone who multitasks, and hard in our culture, that values being busy.

For me being mindful also means being aware of the connections between what I’m thinking, doing, or reading and all that has come before and will come after. It’s probably no surprise to those of you who’ve read my monthly musings here that I equate mindfulness with finding  interconnectedness.

That may not be “real” mindfulness, but it works for me, because one of the my goals in practicing mindfulness is perspective — awareness of what one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer calls “the changes and chances of this life.”  Mindfulness for me is about being more fully present with the people and experiences I’m having, not racing ahead in my mind to the next ten things I need to do. At the same time, mindfulness, and other meditation practices, remind me to rest in God’s “eternal changelessness.” (from the same prayer in BCP).

Two books I read this month inspired me to work on mindfulness in my writing and in life. Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart reminded me of all the reasons I love haiku. Really good haiku is not necessarily the 5-7-5 poem you learned about in elementary school (some good haiku use this form, but the majority don’t). An excellent haiku is a little “aha” moment — a glimpse into the poet’s mindfulness, because writing great haiku requires the poet to distill a moment of awareness into a few words.

Donegan adds annotations to each poem in this collection, which includes work by both classic and contemporary poets. Her own background as a poet and scholar, as well as a student of meditation and a colleague of Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute, inform her insightful commentary.

This isn’t straight up literary criticism — while Donegan calls attention to each poem’s beauty, her criteria for including poems in this collection had as much to do with content as craft, as the subtitle indicates. In fact, I was interested in reading the book not only because I love haiku, but also because I want to “cultivate awareness and open (my) heart.”

One reason I am on a quest towards mindfulness is that I see it as a crucial part of being a good parent. To that end, I’d been meaning to read Jon and Maya Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings:The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Over the years I have read a large number of books on being a parent.

The Computer Scientist likes to tell people that when we brought our older child home from the hospital, he hid the books on top of a tall bookcase so that I would relax and rest with the new baby. Our children howl with laughter when we describe administering our son’s first bath: I read the directions, step by step, from a parenting manual, and the Computer Scientist followed them.

Everyday Blessings is not a prescriptive manual, and you won’t get step by step advice from the authors. But it is an important guide, and one of the most honest parenting books I’ve come across. Rather than setting up perfect parenting examples and talking about the wonderful experiences the authors have had in applying their stellar techniques, the Kabat-Zinns provide hope and encouragement but also tell it like it is: parenting is not easy, kids are not always easy to live with, and you’re going to lose it at some point.

But mindfulness can offer perspective, can help people through challenges, and can foster peace when emotional storms have passed. The Kabat-Zinns open their home to readers and share their own parenting experiences, but they also don’t claim to have all the answers, and frequently let readers know that parenting is a judgement call, and it’s alright to not always know what to do.

As a mother of a preteen and teen, I found that comforting. When I was younger and wanted “how to” information I might not have appreciated it as much. I found myself sharing bits of this book with the Computer Scientist and also with the kids. One thing I shared with them is that the Kabat-Zinns quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” several times in Everyday Blessings. This impressed the Teenager — you’ll find out why later in this essay. I was fascinated to connect Eliot’s poetry with mindfulness.

Everyday Blessings points out that being mindful in relationships is enormously helpful — it may not be the key to determining how to handle every parenting challenge, but it will help you to know whether there really is a challenge. So often there isn’t; one or the other person is simply overwhelmed by emotions — in our house we call it “reacting to stimuli.”  Being aware of what is happening, rather than half paying attention while doing three other tasks, can make a huge difference in accepting, understanding, and responding fully.

A novella I read this month addresses the full horror of humans not taking the time to be aware and accepting of each other: Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo.  It’s a book about slavery and colonialism, but it reverses history, and makes Europeans slaves of African overlords. An interesting concept, realized in a fast paced story.

Racism is racism, no matter who perpetrates it. Slavery was barbaric. None of this is new, but Evaristo’s twisted history forces readers to consider man’s inhumanity to man in a fresh way. It was an interesting read, with a page turning plot.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, reading a novel set in South Africa inspired me to pick up Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders, by Jason Carter, about his time in the Peace Corps. He lived there during the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. As President Carter’s grandson, he got to meet Mandela, and he writes about what a phenomenal experience that was. During the rest of his tour, he worked in a small town near the Swaziland border.

Power Lines is not just a book about Carter’s time volunteering, although he does explain the frustrations and challenges of Peace Corps work. Because he lived in South Africa at such a seminal moment, as the country began to recover from apartheid and enter a new democratic era, he also tells readers about the history of the area where he worked, the changes taking place, and the racial attitudes he encountered.

As a person who spent five years as an outsider in a small southern town, I felt that much of what he wrote about was eerily familiar. Because I grew up fairly insulated from the civil rights era struggles, I was surprised by the ongoing misunderstanding and mistrust between blacks and whites in the small town where we lived. I had the ignorant impression, before we lived in the south, that race issues were a thing of the past in America.

One thing that I was unaware of, naive as it may sound, is that racial mistrust goes both ways — and even within races. Carter really describes vividly the ways that people judging each other, rather than seeking to know each other as individuals, hurts communication and understanding. Of course, this goes on wherever humans, of any race or culture, are together.

In Power Lines, Carter touches on the very thing my family and I learned: economic discrimination and stereotyping is a major factor in racism.  Lack of educational resources and jobs meant that some of the South Africans he met had less hope about the future than others, and that in turn often influenced their attitudes about race. Some of the whites he met were able to make friends with other city dwelling, professional people of either race, but routinely he met whites who were afraid of poorer blacks, and cautioned him against riding in black taxis or hitchhiking.

He also found it frustrating that many of the educators he worked with routinely told him that they couldn’t do something because they were black, or asked his advice in areas that were well beyond his expertise, simply because as a white man, they believed he knew better than they did. Around the time Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, a fellow librarian in the southern town where we were living told me that several African American women on the library staff believed that Obama must be a foreigner because of the way he spoke. I suspect that racial stereotypes will be around for a very long time in South Africa, as they are here.

Carter’s book was also intriguing because he openly doubts his own idealistic views and the value of his work, which I think is realistic.  Anyone who spends significant time volunteering is likely to have his or her idealism crushed by the system at one point or another. The only other Peace Corps memoir I’ve read, Dear Exile, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery, also addressed disillusionment.

I’ve experienced it myself, when I found that many of my fellow volunteers at an ecumenical food pantry mistrusted the clients and were more concerned with The Rules than with ending hunger. And when I realized the obvious: that food handouts probably have little to do with solving the problem of hunger. Hard to swallow, because I wanted to be Making a Difference. Turns out I was having a Thoreauvian epiphany, I just didn’t know it yet. Hang on, we’ll get to that.

Straight talk about doubts and fears makes Power Lines an interesting read, one that could foster discussions about the of the pros and cons of volunteer programs. Carter also shares the few negative experiences he had, and the societal problems he saw, such as alcoholism and organized crime. At the same time it’s clear he loved the people he came to know, he loved what he was doing, and he did make a difference. I’m glad he didn’t leave out the challenges and struggles.

Carter’s  honest appraisal made the book vivid and informative, and timely as our government talks about ramping up American volunteerism.  The book reinforced my belief that the experience of living in another culture, making friends, and trying to understand the world and one’s place in it, is life changing not only for the people volunteers meet and work with, but also for the volunteers themselves. Person to person understanding is valuable regardless of how well the actual work of a volunteering mission goes.

Last night I sat down to read a bit of Walden — more on why in a moment — and in the way it so often does, what I read connected to my prior reading. Just as I had been reflecting that Jason Carter’s examination of the motive, purpose, and impact of the work he is in South Africa to do are the most thought provoking passages in Power Lines, I discovered that Thoreau covers this same territory in Walden.

Thoreau writes that rather than doing good, people should focus on being good, and that instead of throwing money at the poor, philanthropists would be better off solving the societal problems that cause poverty: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

In other words, handing out food at the food pantry isn’t going to end hunger. Working to help people be self reliant so that they can feed themselves, might. Living your own life so that your actions aren’t making someone else hungry (even if that’s not what you intend), is probably the best option.

As my family and I have learned about social justice and been involved with nonprofits (the Computer Scientist worked for a large international NGO while we lived in the South), we’ve spent time debating this very idea, of how best to make a difference. We tend to support the work of nonprofits like Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity, which help people change their own lives. My 95 year old grandmother has always told me she thinks handouts are no good because they take away a person’s dignity — a legacy of living through the Great Depression. Habitat’s motto is “a hand up, not a hand out.”

The private development world has moved in this direction, towards sustainable aid, local control of projects, microlending, and partnership. But recent discussions of development, and particuarly government aid, on public radio programs Speaking of Faith and Word of Mouth would sound familiar to Thoreau, and many developing world economists and writers are saying much the same thing that he did: attack the root, not the branches, and above all, don’t throw money at the tree.

I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about the famous 19th century residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  I picked it up again, along with The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 by Van Wyck Brooks, because a couple of weekends ago we finally visited Concord, so I’ve set aside some other “to read” books and am revisiting Concord’s literary heritage.

We walked around Walden Pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. We also saw the homes where the Alcotts, Hawthornes, and Emersons lived. At the Concord Museum, which is well worth a visit if you are interested in the town’s famous residents, the Computer Scientist and I each found some really cool books for planning future outings: R. Todd Felton’s A Journey Into Transcendentalist New England and Susan Wilson’s The Literary Trail of Greater Boston. So far I’ve only dipped into each of these, but they are both beautiful and fascinating.

Museum bookshops are one of my favorite places to browse, and a few weeks ago we visited an entire museum exhibit devoted to the work of a man whose books are often found in museum shops: David Macaulay. The exhibit features the drawings and paintings he’s done as he’s illustrated books as well as models he built for Mosque, journals from some of the research trips he’s done, and the books themselves.

The Computer Scientist thought Underground was really cool, and I chose Angelo for our nieces and nephew, who are visiting at Easter. The Teenager and his younger sister liked seeing the art from The New The Way Things Work, and we were inspired to check out several Macaulay titles from the library after the museum visit, including a couple of really innovative picture books, Shortcut and Black and White.

Another book that multiple family members enjoyed recently is How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. Both the Computer Scientist and the Teenager think this is an intriguing book. Foer delves into the sociopolitical lessons of soccer, which he says is  “further along in the globalization game than any other economy on the planet.”

Our book discussion group with the Teenager is chugging along. So far we’ve read, discussed, and journaled about The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men. Our focus is 20th century American authors.  Not the most uplifting bunch of stories, so far, but the Teenager seems to find validation for his own angsty outlook. For example, he commented that Steinbeck doesn’t appear to believe that it’s worth having a dream, based on the fact that the characters who dream of better lives are all thwarted in Of Mice and Men.

If you look at the current events he’s known so far, you might understand why he just shrugged and said, “but that’s life.” I tried being mindful, and told him I thought we actually have it pretty good, really. He’s not really as pessimistic as he’d like people to think, and acknowledged that I’m right, just before asking cheerfully what’s for dinner. It’s good to be young. So far it’s not that bad being middle aged, either. And it’s interesting having a teenager’s perspective on books, and life.

I put up a poster for National Poetry Month last week and the Teenager did a double take. “Who wrote that?” he asked. “That’s really powerful.” I immediately tracked down two copies of The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. Granted, he’s usually grouped with 20th century English writers, but he was born American, so that’s what we’ll read next for our book group. I felt like Eliot was calling to me — first in Everyday Blessings, where I enjoyed the references to “The Four Quartets,” then in my son’s immediate, forceful reaction to the poster.

Eliot came up at an event I attended last weekend — a one day conference on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, put on by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. One of the speakers, Diana Durham, has written a book on the grail myth, and her presentation at the conference, “The Poet As Shaman,” included a discussion of the way Eliot conjures up the spiritual desolation of 1920’s London in “The Wasteland,” but then heals the wounds, twenty years later, in the completed “Four Quartets.” Her talk was very interesting, and reinforced my Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading.

Another author whose work fit nicely into everything else I read this month is Mary Oliver. I was at Ohrstrom library checking out books by Dorianne Laux, who I’ve heard is coming to the campus. On their new book shelves, I saw The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays.

Oliver is a master of mindful awareness of her surroundings, and her poems are haiku-like not in their form, but in their immediacy, their descriptive power, and the way they capture the extraordinary in everyday experience. I also find her poems transformative — you can so clearly see what she sees that it’s easy to feel what she feels, too. This collection is mostly made up of previously published poems, all relating to animals, and in many cases, our connection to the natural world.

A final note on connections. The Pre-teen is reading a book I picked up on a book store sale table a few years ago, We Just Want To Live Here: A Palestinian Teenager, An Israeli Teenager — an Unlikely Friendship. It’s the true story of Odelia and Amal, girls who meet on a trip designed to bring Israeli and Palenstinian teens together to learn about each other’s lives. They become friends and stay in touch. Through their letters, readers get an idea of the huge gulf in understanding the girls try to overcome.

I enjoyed this book when I bought it, and the Pre-teen likes reading about girls in other countries. I attended a very moving talk given by two members of Combatants for Peace last month, and shared what I heard about person to person peace efforts in the Middle East, so maybe that is what led her to choose this now. When she browsed our shelves and came across We Just Want To Live Here, I knew that even if it means having to stack books on the floor someday, I’ll resist weeding — you never know when a book will be right for someone, and I love sharing reading connections with my family.

In my “to read” pile if I finish Walden and The Flowering of New England in April? I watched a re-run of Masterpiece Theater’s David Copperfield and decided I’d like to read the book (which was waiting on my shelves), and I’ve pulled out an old Powell’s Books  find called Beyond the Sky and the Earth: Journey Into Bhutan, because I am volunteering with refugee resettlement, and the family I’m helping welcome are Bhutanese. They’ve lived in a camp in Nepal for 18 years — so what I read about Bhutan will be clouded by what I know of their experience. But I’m curious nonetheless.

I also bought a copy of Krista Tippett‘s Speaking of Faith, which she signed, when I went to hear her interviewed by NHPR’s Virginia Prescott last week. I’ve read it before, but Ive left it out to dip back into. I’ve been slowly reading The Making of a Sonnet, a Norton anthology, and I’m up to the 19th century (perfect as I read about the same time period in New England’s literary scene). And of course, I’ll be reading T. S. Eliot with the Computer Scientist and the Teenager.

I also plan to read poems by three amazing poets who are coming together for a reading next week. Mike Pride, retired editor of the Concord Monitor and a poetry fan, sent me a note this afternoon because he saw my bookconscious post on last year’s fantastic Poets’ Three reading.

Mike says, “Dogs’ Night Out: Three Great Poets, will be held next Friday (April 17, 2009) at the Concord City Auditorium. The poets are Wesley McNair, Sharon Olds and 2008 Pulitzer prize winner Philip Schultz. They’re all terrific, accessible poets, and it should be a fun night. In tomorrow’s Monitor (April 9) and in the online Monitor, there will be profile-interviews of the three poets, along with a sample of their work.”

Tickets for Dogs’ Night Out are $10, and any proceeds above costs will go to local homeless charities. The time is 7 p.m., and tickets are available at the Monitor, at concordmonitor.com, at Gibson’s and at the box office. Thanks, Mike.  The Computer Scientist and I have our tickets, and we’ll see you there!

So I’ve got quite a pile “to read” (my kids are relieved that I no longer stack books on my nightstand — when they were younger and when we lived in tornado country, they used to fret that the stack would fall on me in the night). But no matter how many books I browse, I will read one thing at a time.  Mindfully.

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In February 2008, I began tracking my reading at Goodreads. As of today, I’ve added 106 books to my lists there. Four of those are on my “currently reading” shelf. I’ve read 102 books in the past 13 months, which may explain why I am often sleep deprived.

Goodreads is a social networking site for readers. You can keep track of what you’ve read, see what friends are reading, and read reviews of books. It’s a helpful tool for me, but I have to admit I haven’t done much social networking with it. I’m a little shy about sending my friends invitations to join stuff online. But I do use Goodreads to help me write each month’s musings here at bookconscious.

Last month I mentioned that I’m reading The Artist’s Way, a twelve week program to revitalize creativity.  Last week the exercise I was supposed to do was give up reading for the whole week.  It was one of those weeks where a lot of things went wrong (sick kids, worn out tires, broken stove, gray skies), so I wasn’t in the mood to have a book tell me to quit reading, but I also just can’t conceive of such a thing.

My Goodreads list breaks down to an average of 8 books a month in the last year. I also try to read the numerous magazines that pass through the bookconscious household (many due to airline mile subscriptions). At one time or another over the last year that’s included New Yorker, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, Wired, Time, The Economist, National Geographic, and Science News;  also Cooking Light, Bon Apetit, Episcopal Life, and a number of nonprofits’ publications, like Nature Conservancy Magazine); writing and literary journals (The Writer, Poets & Writers, Frogpond, bottle rockets, Modern Haiku, Isotope, Envoi, the Poet’s Touchstone); a local daily newspaper, and a few New York Times articles a day.

Maybe I am addicted to reading. Maybe, as the author of The Artists’s Way suggests, reading is blocking me from accomplishing my life’s work. But I’m more of a “glass half full” kind of gal, so I have another thought: maybe reading is my life’s work. It seems to me that reading informs not just my writing, but my life. I am what I read.

Reading has been important to me for as long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I loved getting a new issue of a magazine in the mail, loved checking out a stack of library books, loved curling up with a book at my grandmother’s house that she’d left on the bed for me. Reading is why one of my favorite places at college was my study carrel at Julia Rogers Library, why I went to graduate school to become a librarian, why I love helping a friend or a child find something good to read, why I tend to chat with fellow library patrons and bookstore goers.

So, for now, the “reading fast” is not happening.  I understand the point — take a break from reading and see what else happens if your life — but I’m not really looking for a reading replacement, because I see reading as a source of creativity, not a distraction. As a guest blogger for NHPR’s Word of Mouth, I find ideas by reading widely. A number of my poems have grown out of something that struck me in a magazine or a book I’ve read. Reading feeds me.

I told the computer scientist I thought it would be more relevant to find out what would happen in my life if I gave up cleaning the house. Or falling down the Internet rabbit hole when I check email. So instead of cutting back on reading, I’m cutting back on chores.

I’m only going to dust, vacuum, and mop every other week, and I’ve vowed to let it go if the kids forget to clean their rooms or the family room (instead of doing it myself — they either do it or they live with dust). I’ve also unsubscribed from a number of email lists that were sapping more energy than they were creating. I’m anticipating creative sparks and more reading time

With that I am going to get on with telling you what the bookconscious household has been reading.

The computer scientist finished a book he got for Christmas, Stephen King‘s Just After Sunset. He’s a huge King fan, and he says this collection includes “classic Stephen King” stories and “re-readers” — one thing I’ve noticed is that I can tell if something’s bothering my better half or if he’s getting sick, because out come the old reliable Stephen King books. In fact, he re-reads The Stand during every major illness. I’m not going to try and analyze that, but it’s a good way to tell if he’s really feeling poorly.

He also just finished Dennis Lehane‘s The Given Day, which his mother recommended. He said it was enjoyable. It’s a popular book at the library with a long reserve list, so while he was waiting, he tried Lehane’s collection of short stories, Coronado. On his Goodreads review he says the “character relationships were excellently developed and thoroughly believable.”

We’re reading The Great Gatsby in our lit crit circle with the teenager. I told my grandmother, a former teacher who still discusses books with me at 95, that although I’m pretty sure I read Gatsby in high school, I don’t remember the beautiful language.  She chuckled and said that getting her students to read Gatsby was like pulling teeth, and assured me it’s perfectly normal that the teenager isn’t enjoying it as much as his parents are.

The computer scientist and I both noted this passage: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” The teenager admitted this was very nice, but was aggravated that each of the first three chapters of Gatsby seems to introduce a different story, and said it’s hard for him to be excited about the selfish people doing boring things in this book. But he’s hanging in there to see what happens.

More to the teenager’s taste lately was The Ultimate Hitchiker’s Guide to the Universe, which he called “weird,” but which held his attention for over 800 pages. He also finished Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby‘s memoir about football fandom in the UK and Hornby’s own passion for Arsenal. The teenager’s first real jersey was from Arsenal, and he once asked, when he was going through puberty and was having one of those alter-ego fits of angst, why we couldn’t have raised him in England so he could be steeped in real football from infancy.  He says Fever Pitch is “eye opening” and that it describes what it really means to be a fan.

Europe is on his mind right now, because he’s going to Freiburg, Germany this summer (on a soccer exchange, to train with the youth team of a semi-pro club). He  just started Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC-AD 1000, which he asked for after reading a review in Atlantic Monthly. The teenager is a big history fan, and he’s also enjoying The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. He finds the story of science very interesting, and says he likes that it’s not quite as political as other aspects of history.

If all that seems a bit heavy, don’t worry. He’s also reading Bill Bryson‘s Neither Here Nor There, because it’s about Bryson’s travels in Europe, and because as far as either of my children is concerned Bill Bryson is the wittiest man on the planet. In fact, we can drive for hours in complete peace and tranquility, with no sound save spontaneous outbursts of laughter, if we’ve got a Bryson audio book playing. My daughter has entire passages of I’m a Stranger Here Myself memorized.

She read a couple of Fairy Chronicles this month and started Carl Hiassen‘s latest children’s book, Scat. This wise child is the person who taught me to put down a book if I’m not feeling excited to get to the end, and that’s how she felt about this one.

On her brother’s recommendation, she’s reading The Amulet of Samarkand, which is book one in the Bartimaeus Trilogy. She says she enjoys the “remarks” Bartimaeus makes, because he’s funny. She is also a huge comics fan, and has been enjoying a couple of Foxtrot compendiums (quick aside — comic strips have taught my kids everything from history to vocabulary, algebra to physics, and usually without their feeling “taught to”).

Maybe because so much of the news is unpleasant, I’ve been seeking humor in my reading as well. Like the kids, I enjoy subtle wit as much as laugh out loud hilarity.  The Uncommon Reader is a delightfully witty novella which opens with Queen Elizabeth II discovering that a mobile library visits Buckingham Palace every week. She begins to read and to discuss books with the young man she meets in the bookmobile, who she promotes from working in the palace kitchens. Author Alan Bennett imagines what the reading life might do for the Queen, and if you love books and reading, you’ll find his ideas both reasonable and fun. And you may occasionally disturb your partner’s sleep by laughing out loud; I did.

Less humorous, but more helpful for burrowing through some of the impenetrably illogical nonsense that sometimes passes for news, is Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking. This handy little book is a short introduction to argumentation, and I enjoyed it so much, and found the explanations so clear, that I’ve ordered it in paperback to have around the house. If more people learned to argue logically, rather that shout soundbites or quarrel, our society might be more civil. As my grandmother has always said, “you can’t change everything, but you can do your best.” So I’m making good thinking a goal and I’m going to encourage it in my family!

Both Being Logical and The Uncommon Reader are books that were on my “to read” list. But I also sometimes peruse the new book shelves, particularly at Ohrstrom Library at Saint Paul’s School, where I worked last summer.  I found two great reads there recently.

Early in the month I picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. This short memoir has a unique focus — the author’s life as a runner, and how running and writing intersect in his life. I am not a runner and have no desire to be, but I loved the book, in part because of its novelty; reading a book from another culture is a vicarious vacation from one’s status quo.

But cultural appeal aside, I also liked Murakami’s perceptions, and the fact that he’s a life learner. You get the sense that he’s always trying to improve, which I can identify with. He pursues his interests passionately, and he seems to embrace his own curiosity. And he writes about his sense of human interconnectedness, which is something I like to think about, too.

I was so intrigued by the memoir that I went back and checked out the first of his novels that appeared in English: The Wild Sheep Chase. It’s so unlike anything else I’ve read recently, or maybe ever, that I am not sure how to even do it justice here. The story is mysterious and its conclusion blew me away.

And yet it’s not just a mystery. I’d say there’s a philosophical slant to it, a love story, and an examination of friendship, loyalty, and even patriotism. The computer scientist has been to Japan several times, and he says it’s a mind blowing experience, because absolutely everything is overwhelmingly foreign to a non-native.  The Wild Sheep Chase felt that way. I’ve checked out another of Murakami’s books which I am going to start tonight.

Also on Ohrstrom’s new book shelves, I found P.F. Kluge‘s Gone Tomorrow. This one is also a mystery of sorts, but instead of a missing body, the protagonist is looking for a missing manuscript. He finds himself named literary executor to a famous author he’s met only a few times on the campus of the small college where they both teach.

He comes across one manuscript, which turns out to be a memoir of the author’s final year at the college. But despite multiple references to “The Beast” — the novel this author has allegedly been working on for decades — no one knows where the great man’s great work is, or if it even exists.

My only beef is that the women in Gone Tomorrow seem like stock characters. But if you’re looking for a unique page turner, check it out. Both Kluge and Murakami are authors who draw you in with local color, interesting characters who are not perfect people, and intriguing possibilities. Both Gone Tomorrow and The Wild Sheep Chase keep readers guessing without screaming “mystery.” I really enjoyed both authors and I plan to work my way through the rest of their books.

But first, I wanted to read the March selection for Gibson’s book discussion group: The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien. It’s unusual in that Gien wrote it as a play first, before turning it into a novel. In fact she also performed it as a one woman show.

Set in South Africa around the time that Nelson Mandela is beginning to rile authorities, it’s the story of a girl growing up with a mentally ill mother and a doctor father who is a very good man, but frequently absent. One of the constants in the girl’s life is her nanny, Salamina. The Syringa Tree is a dramatic story set in a dramatic time, and a book I stayed up late trying to finish because I was anxious to know how things would turn out.

Gien wrote the play after a story telling exercise in an acting workshop. A couple of The Syringa Tree‘s key events, which really happened in Gien’s childhood, came back to her in the workshop. As a writer, I find that trigger both inspiring and a little awesome — what might I remember that could feed me this way? I don’t think anything in my childhood was as dramatic as Gien’s experiences, but it’s helpful to hear, as I plug away at my narrative time line, about another author’s experience mining memory.

My poetry reading this month was inspired by a workshop I took at St. Paul’s School in late January with Joseph Millar. I read both of his books, Overtime and Fortune, so I’d have an idea of where he might be coming from. I’d describe his poetry as masculine, gritty, but in many ways also delicately crafted. I picked up some interesting ideas in his workshop, such as looking at a draft and assuming the first line isn’t really at the literal first line you’ve written, but deeper in the poem somewhere.

After the workshop I read poems by Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, and Jack Gilbert, all of whom Millar recommended. He used Levine’s “Grandmother In Heaven” as an example of a poetic character sketch, and he referred to Lowell and Gilbert as other examples of poets whose characters stand out.  I read Lowell’s Life Studies and Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven, and also read poems online. The poetry tool is a great place to find biographical information as well as poems.

I’ve got a few poetry journals on my reading pile, as well as Haruki Murakami’s The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. After reading The Syringa Tree I dug out Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders by Jason Carter, who is President Carter’s grandson. It’s a book I bought at a library sale some time ago, and it’s about the author’s stint in the Peace Corps, which began just as Nelson Mandela finished his term as president  of South Africa. I’ve only read the beginning but so far it’s fascinating.

And isn’t that why we read? Fascinating nonfiction, page-turning fiction, poetic prose and poems that feature well crafted characters — there’s so much to learn, so much to absorb, and so much to discuss or write about, so many reasons to stay up late, laughing and crying. One man who thought kids’ books ought to be all of that instead of boring and didactic, who helped change children’s literature forever, was Dr. Seuss.

It’s his birthday today, and the kids and I learned that addition to enlivening “beginning readers,”  Dr. Seuss sent his friend Art Buchwald a special version of Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!, which Buchwald ran in his column on July 30, 1974.Take a look and you’ll see it’s a piece of Americana. Nixon resigned on August 8th. I wonder if he read the column?

My daughter and I chatted about Dr. Suess’s stories this afternoon, and the way they are incredibly fun but also often include a philosophy to live by, like caring for the earth (The Lorax), being truthful (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street), and caring about each other rather than about how much stuff we have (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Obviously he’s fairly heavy handed about the “message,” but for some reason the stories are incredibly appealing nonetheless. My daughter is usually quick to put down “preachy” books, but she said she likes Suess.

So we hung out by the fire on a snowy March day, and I read aloud, both the historical version of Marvin K. Mooney and, by request, The Lorax. Even the teenager listened with amusement. You’re never too old to for Dr. Suess. And I can’t change everything, but I can do my best. Books will guide my way.

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