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Posts Tagged ‘Thoreau’

I loved this book. I’ll get to why in a second, but first, a moment of bookconscious interconnectedness. Last night during the State of the Union the President said something that is nonpartisan and true not only for the politicians he was addressing but for any of us: “We were not sent here to be perfect, we were sent here to make what difference we can.”

I immediately thought that Fin Dolan, the hero of Truth in Advertising by John Kenney, would agree. Fin is a copy writer. He’s working on a last minute Super Bowl commercial for a new totally biodegradable, nontoxic, flushable diaper for one of his firm’s biggest clients, who end up deciding their revolutionary diaper is not really any of those things.

Fin knows his job requires saying things that either are untrue or make no sense in order to sell stuff people don’t necessarily want or need. But he is stuck not knowing what else to do. When he hears from his older brother that their father, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in years, is dying in a nursing home on Cape Cod, Fin has to figure out how to respond, and why.

Fin pictures his own life in scripted scenes to deal with his horrible childhood and the rat race and to keep himself and his friends laughing. When his father turns up, he tries to reconcile the reel in his head with reality, to not suck as a son, a brother, a co-worker, a friend. To figure out why he feels so adrift even though he’s writing his own script. The themes aren’t new, but Kenney captures contemporary angst so well, we can’t help rooting for Fin.

Kenney’s writing manages to be both hilarious and tender. The characters are a little typecast — the gay art director sidekick, the tough woman in the office who has a tender heart, the beautiful best friend we all know Fin is in love with, the older brother who is terrified of becoming their father, the hard-ass boss, the fellow troubled son who appears right when Fin needs him and helps him see what to do. But given that Fin sees life on a screen in his head, this works.

I thought the way Fin evolved from a self-deprecating wise-ass to a softer, more fragile version of the same was lovely. Towards the end of the book he remembers reading and agreeing with Thoreau in college: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Fin now sees him as a “pompous asshole.” (I had much the same reaction when I read Walden a few years ago.) He thinks, “The simple truth is that we know nothing about the inner life of the person sitting next to us . . . unless we choose to listen. Quiet desperation? What about quiet resilience. Quiet courage. Quiet hope.” Fin realizes he doesn’t have to prove himself to the voices in his head. He just has to do the best he can at being who he is.

So that’s why I loved this book. Kenney’s given us a contemporary myth. The scene: the heart of the advertising industry that has our collective emotions squeezed in its gold-plated grip. The hero: A young man given a series of tasks that shake his psyche. Through these he discovers his strengths: to make real connections with people, to live a decent life, not doing great or heroic things, not even necessarily knowing what to do, just doing his best, every day. I know so many people who can identify with that, or who could benefit from realizing it. Life is not as complicated as we make it. We are here not to be perfect, but to make what difference we can.

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It’s been very busy in the bookconscious house, and changes are afoot. Many of you know that Teen the Elder is getting ready to leave for his gap year.  We had an unexpected (in timing, expense, and fun) trip to New York last week to get his visa. We’re down to a month or so before he leaves, and suddenly the brevity of our time as a family of four is stark.

As if that wasn’t enough tumult, I’ve accepted a new job, and will be returning to the library world. It’s a part time reference job, with hours mainly at night, so I’ll have my days free for Teen the Younger and her life learning adventures. Hopefully, I’ll also return to more disciplined writing time. I’m very excited — libraries have been among my favorite places all my life, and reference is my favorite aspect of librarianship.

In the midst of all of this upheaval, I found myself reading books about the normalcy of transition in human experience. If anything stays the same, it’s change. Ubiquitous as it may be, change is something many of us don’t handle all that well. The books I read this month introduced me to people (real and imagined) in the throes of personal and societal change, which was oddly comforting as I faced major changes myself.

When I signed off last month I was reading Kosher Chinese, a delightful memoir by Michael Levy about his time as a Peace Corps volunteer. Bookconscious regulars know I am a big admirer of Peter Hessler, whose first book, River Town was also a Peace Corps memoir set in China. Levy’s book is quite different, but also wonderful.

I was struck by Levy’s perceptive commentary on the struggle of  “China’s other billion,” the people he met in the heartland of China in the mid 2000’s. It’s a poignant look at the universal need for something to believe in, someone to share life’s ups and downs with. It’s an interesting meditation on personal and cultural identity in the midst of change — not only Levy’s immersion in Chinese culture, but also his Chinese friends’ various struggles to find their places in a country where change is constant.

I’ll admit up front one reason I admired Kosher Chinese is that Levy pays tribute to his mother. Anyone who writes fondly of his mother is alright by me. But I also liked that Levy wrote from a fresh perspective, not about factory workers or migrants or cmmunists (although all got a nod) but about ordinary Chinese in an area the West doesn’t pay much attention to, who are not really sure whether “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”  will make their lives better.

His experiences eating strange foods,dealing with new living conditions, playing basketball, leading (at his Chinese friends’ insistence) a Jewish club, and playing Santa at a Chinese Wal-mart are both hilarious and thoughtful. Read Kosher Chinese and you’ll learn something about China, and also about humanity.  Levy is honest about his desire to help his friends and also about the ineffectiveness of most of his efforts to intervene in their lives.

Peace Corps work is somewhat passive activism — hard work, to be sure, but volunteers are meant to promote peace and friendship and foster understanding, not foment change. A very intense book-length poem I read this month, One With Others, by C.D. Wright, examines a more active agitator, a white woman in civil rights era Arkansas, who joined a black protest march and ended up losing her comfortable life in a small town.   The poem’s language shifts from delicate, patterned, “poetic” sections to others that are more fragmented, improvisational. I’m usually a fan of short poetic forms, but this book won me over to the possibilities of length.

One With Others is elegaic, sometimes stark, often beautiful. But it’s also a deep reflection on the idea of universal human values; do we have them? If so why do some people fail to see them, perpetrating horrible hardships or even violence against the “other,” as we’ve seen throughout history, and continue to see in the news every day? What makes someone reject that “otherness” in a close knit community and walk firmly on the side of “one?”  The poem doesn’t offer answers so much as opportunity to reflect on these ideas, and on the life of the unlikely, imperfect heroine V., who in real life was Margaret Kaelin McHugh.

Speaking of unlikely heroes, when was the last time you considered decorative hermits? Author Steve Himmer‘s The Bee-Loud Glade is a novel whose narrator is silent for most of the book. When he spoke at Gibson’s last week Himmer said that was the challenge he set himself, writing from the point of view of someone who couldn’t speak, and when he came across information about decorative hermits he knew he was on to something.

This novel has many things I love — social commentary, dystopian references, a very original story, and philosophical overtones. Finch, the hermit, is a “brand awareness manager” — he writes fake blogs to sell people on Second Nature Modern Greenery fake plants, until a new “submanager” at his company figures out he’s just making up stories all day and fires him.

After “weeks on the couch doing nothing,” he responds to an online job ad without really knowing what the job is.  He’s chauffered in a limo to meet Mr. Crane, a super rich businessman (or in today’s parlance, a job creator) who explains he wants a hermit for his gardens.  Finch takes the job.

The entire book is about Finch’s efforts to “meet it and live it” as Thoreau wrote, making the best of his life even when things look miserable.  I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that at first Finch is a passive agent, dealing with change only by following routines and instructions.  Outsiders — some known, some mysterious and perhaps even figments of his imagination — direct his choices. Eventually, through Finch’s own revelations as well as external circumstances, he comes to understand his life as more than a string of actions and responses.

The Bee-Loud Glade is an entertaining read that examines self-reliance in a world that values instant gratification, and looks at our idea of “nature” in a time when people see animals on a screen more often than outside.  Several contemporary themes impact the book’s characters: globalization, the gulf between executives and workers, financial excess, the influence of marketing, hubris in molding the natural world to our purposes. Himmer writes well, his book is thought provoking, and he leaves readers with much to ponder.  Book clubs will find plenty to discuss in this novel.

I read Himmer’s book, as well as David Schmahmann’s latest, last month because they were coming to Gibson’s to read. Frederick Reiken joined them, and read from his book, Day For Night, a 2010 LA Times book prize finalist for fiction. This was the most complicated of the three novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like Schmahmann and Himmer, Reiken writes beautifully, and he provides a complex, intriguing story, told through ten first person narratives.

You read that right: ten. If it sounds confusing, don’t worry. I’ve read many other books told from different points of view and few are as deftly managed as this one. Reiken also makes each intersecting life rich in detail: there is a chapter in which a woman discovers her newly purchased house is full of toxic mold, and another in which a mysterious woman rescues a young man who is a victim of ritual abuse; still another character is determined to figure out what happened to her father, one of a group of 500 Jewish intellectuals who disappeared in Kovno, Lithuania during WWII; two other chapters deal with marine biology and desert zoology.  Another character is a Jungian analyst.

Reiken told listeners at Gibson’s that many of the pieces of information he used in the book came to him through life experiences — he has a background in biology, his wife worked with ritual abuse victims, he once had a house full of toxic mold.  Other information he came across and wanted to wrestle with, like the true story of the 500 Jewish intellectuals.  He also told us that one editor asked if he could change the book to a straightforward 3rd person point of view.  I’m very glad he held fast to his vision.

Day for Night is not hard to follow, but it is delightfully shadowy; the links between the many characters are for readers to discover. Reiken could have made things more obvious as he went along — in fact it must have been a little tempting to write the equivalent of “See? See how it all fits?!”   But as he draws the book together, the pleasure of untangling and analyzing connections falls entirely to the reader.

Interestingly, he set the book in a pre-email, texting, messaging, cell phone world, where the characters work things out mostly on paper and in person, not on computers. As they do, as they draw closer to long wondered-about truths, as they confront the unfolding mysteries of their lives, there is none of the sense of hyper-driven news cycles of today, none of the frenzy of the internet. It’s kind of a novel about slow communication.

Day For Night also presents a group of characters who are living with the aftermath of war, occupation, and displacement; in a few cases they have had direct experience, but in others they are the children and grandchildren of a generation of refugees and victims of war. It was interesting to read Outcasts United after this novel.  Author Warren St. John moved to Atlanta to document the lives of a number of refugee families in Clarkston, Georgia, and to profile a woman who is making a marked impact in their lives through soccer.

I’d read the beginning of the book last winter, and skimmed some other sections, as Concord Reads was choosing this year’s community wide read. We ended up choosing Outcasts United, and I am very much looking forward to leading a brown bag discussion of the book as part of our programming.  I’ve been a volunteer with the local refugee resettlement agency, and I think St. John does a good job of outlining the challenging issues facing refugees and the people tasked with helping them start over in America.

But that’s not entirely what Outcasts United is about. It’s mostly about a truly remarkable woman, Luma Mufleh, who accidentally became one of the most effective advocates in Clarkston for young refugees, through her passion for soccer. The book follows Luma and some of her players, describing the horrors they’ve left behind and those they are still facing, even in their new home.

St. John is clearly sympathetic to his subjects, and I imagine that some of the residents of Clarkston are probably not thrilled at the way their town appears in the book. Having lived in a small town in Georgia myself, I recognized the forces at work in Clarkston — longstanding tradition, conservative (in the sense of resisting change, not in the political sense) values, provincialism, cronyism, and plain old inexperience with other cultures, along with a dose of intolerance (racial, cultural, and/or religious) from some residents. And yet, right alongside, some willingness to embrace the “other” and to improvise in ways that small towns often do.

The boys on Luma’s soccer teams will break your heart, as will their families’ stories.  In January’s post I wrote about Caroline Moorhead’s excellent book Human Cargo, so I was familiar with much of what the refugee population is escaping. But as with any conflict, the individual situations magnify the horror of the whole, and St. John definitely helps readers see what these children are dealing with.

On top of their pasts, many of them face violence, discrimination, continuing poverty, and family separation even once they are safely resettled in the U.S., and they tend to have much more responsibility than their schoolmates, watching younger children, cooking meals, and interpreting for their parents. Luma believes that responsibility is good for them and will help them survive, and she offers tough love and mandatory tutoring, as well as firm coaching and plenty of running.

Ultimately Outcasts United is about the Fugees, as her teams are known, and Luma’s enormous work, establishing the teams, getting them equipped, finding somewhere for them to play, working out the many small logistical problems any sports club must work out. But it’s also about her completely selfless dedication to the families she gets to know. And about Clarkston’s growing pains, and the individuals who try to maintain the status quo, as well as those who see change and go out to “meet it and live it.”

One issue I have with the book is that some of these small town heroes and villains seem a bit predictable and “stock” — but in fairness to St. John, I have no way of knowing if I would feel that way if I hadn’t met some people very much like them during my own time in Georgia.  He may also have simply gotten to know Luma and her players better than he did the townspeople; I think Luma in particular comes across as a much more multi-dimensional character in the book. At any rate, there is much to discuss, especially in light of New Hampshire’s own struggle to absorb refugees into small communities.

Finally, as stress relief around the time I was interviewing for a new job and working with Teen the Elder on the highly convoluted student visa application process, I decided I needed a nice thick novel. At the recommendation of a fellow Gibson’s staff member, I chose Kate Morton‘s The Distant Hours. I read The Forgotten Garden two winters ago, and enjoyed that. The Distant Hours was also an entertaining read.

The characters are appealing, and the story deals with the main character learning some unexpected things about her mother’s wartime experiences and girlhood. There’s a bit of a mystery, some of it literary, and there’s a moldering old castle where three elderly sisters keep secrets from the world and each other.  The Distant Hours is a good read, and another look at the way World War II disrupted lives and plans, and impacted families even beyond the generations that lived during those times.

All of the reading I did about people facing great challenges and difficulties coupled with all the news lately — drought in the U.S., famine in Africa, continuing high rates of unemployment, austerity measures in Greece and elsewhere, the debt debate — made me feel fortunate, if not downright privileged. The Computer Scientist and I and the Teens are healthy, safe, and secure. We are able to send Teen the Elder off into the world to have a gap year before college. We were able to treat the family to a mini vacation in New York while securing his visa.

While there, Teen the Younger took the Computer Scientist to some of her favorite places from our last trip, such as Forbidden Planet near Union Square, and we saw a couple of fantastic shows: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and War Horse (such bookconscious shows — How to Succeed is about a young man who gets ahead in part by reading a book, and War Horse is based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo).  We also got to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that has been one of the hottest attractions in New York this summer: Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

Teen the Younger was thoroughly impressed, even though we had to squeeze through the packed galleries. Teen the Elder also enjoyed the exhibit. The Computer Scientist waited on a bench. We managed to avoid the two hour wait by getting a membership to the Met, but that got the member (me) and two additional guests into the exhibit ahead of the line.  I had every intention of bringing The Computer Scientist in after I took the kids in (as recommended by a Met staffer), but that proved impossible, as it took us two hours to wind our way through.  He didn’t mind, and Teen the Younger asked for the exhibit book, which is amazing, and which provides the Computer Scientist a look at what we saw.

Teen the Younger continues to read manga. Lately it’s been Vampire Knight, although thanks to cuts to the NH State Library budget, she has recently been waiting over two weeks for the next book in the series to arrive at our branch via the state’s inter-library van service.  I asked her last night what she thinks of them (she’s read about ten of the series so far).  I was taken aback by her response: she said that the story is on the boring side, the characters are a little “twilightish” (although she hasn’t read the Twilight series, she knows of them and says this is not a compliment), that other than the main character, they haven’t got much personality and are apathetic.

When I asked why on earth she is continuing to read them, especially in light of the difficulty we are having in getting the next book, she said she likes the art. Considering how much time she spends drawing and how absorbed she was in the Alexander McQueen exhibit, I am not surprised that this would be appealing enough for her to slog though the stories.  I am also impressed that she is a critical reader. But I hope she enjoys a good read soon. Her brother suggested she read Tolkien, and I saw her with The Hobbit the other day.

Teen the Elder spent the first part of the month slogging through something else entirely — visa application documentation. Once we presented ourselves at the consulate in NYC to complete the process, we learned that many of his fellow applicants had spent even more time (or their parents had) reading the minutia of bureaucratic policy guidance. Or, as Teen the Elder himself put it, “Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a room full of worry.”  Turns out in retrospect we’d guessed properly when the directions seemed confusing or obscure, and he easily obtained his visa. And that it’s not us, the directions are indeed confusing and obscure.

For graduation, his sister presented him with several books on British English and UK culture. He’s reading Rules Britannia, by Toni Summers Hargis and periodically amuses us with language  he’s culled from his dictionaries of Britishisms, such as “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”  This is now on my desktop, as The Computer Scientist used the phrase in the “OK Go x Philobus All Is Not Lost video dance messenger” and then saved it as a screen shot. If you have no idea what I am talking about, take the link (I believe you have to be in the Chrome browser to make it work) and enter your own phrase.   Although you are welcome to try “the cat’s amongst the pigeons.”

The Computer Scientist has been reading slowly this summer; it’s hot, for one thing, and he’s awfully busy, for another. But he’s really enjoying The Social Animal by David Brooks. He says that he’s very impressed with the research that went into the book, and the depth, given that Brooks is also cranking out punditry several times a week.

On my to-read piles?  I’ve started The Man Who Loved China, by one of my favorite nonfiction writers, Simon Winchester. It’s actually on loan to me from my father, who recommended it. I set it aside to read a couple of library books I’d requested, including 22 Britannia Road, which I heard about during my job interview.

So far I’m enjoying both of those. There are any number of books stacked beside my bed and next to my desk and near my favorite chair that I have been meaning to read and haven’t yet.  On my desk, there is a list of books friends have recommended, and a pile of clippings from reviews I found appealing. It’s one of the things that doesn’t change, thankfully — there are always too many good books to choose from. I hope you’ll check back here at bookconscious and share them with me.

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April turned out to be a busy month, but I did find time to read. I suspect that the author of one of the books I finished, Walden, would not think much of either my hectic schedule or my eclectic reading. I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about Thoreau and friends.  I ended up setting it aside, not only because I had other things to read, but also because Thoreau is a bit of a scold, and I wasn’t in the mood for his lectures.

After our visit to Concord in March, I decided to pick it up again. I tried to tune out the lecturing tone, and managed to finish the book. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, and I think Thoreau was an incredible thinker and writer. I enjoyed Walden overall. It’s just that when Thoreau gets on his high horse about certain topics — including reading — he sounds a bit like a modern day television pundit, railing about a manufactured controversy. Even when I agree, maybe especially when I agree, I hate it when someone makes his or her points by disdaining opposing views.

I can generally identify with many of the things Thoreau gets hot and bothered about, like people not noticing how their “stuff” is ruling their lives, or how they are rushing along through life without really needing to, or missing out on the serenity and even maybe the sacredness of the natural world as they hurry up and “improve” the land for man’s purposes. It’s amazing actually, that Thoreau was asking questions in his time that we have still not answered for ourselves as a society today, and that many of us don’t ever answer for ourselves personally.

But even though I admire him and believe there is a much to learn from Walden and from his essays, Thoreau sometimes aggravates me with his harping. The chapter of Walden on reading irked me the most, even though I think Thoreau makes some very good points. It bothers him that some people haven’t read the “ancient classics in the language in which they were written,” (at the time, he tells us, there aren’t any translations of Homer, Aeschylus, or Virgil into English), and laments that his fellow citizens read the Bible but don’t even know other cultures have sacred scriptures, let alone what they teach.

OK, Henry, I’m with you so far. Sure, the classics are an amazing repository of human thought and beauty (although I can’t say much about reading them in the original, because I’ve only read translations). And I’m a big fan of learning about other belief systems, and learning from them about the universality of human experience, especially the seeking we all do for meaning, ethics, and purpose.

But Thoreau isn’t content just to long for a more broadly educated populous, steeped in the classics and comparative religion. He is also offended that not enough people are intellectuals. “Most men learned to read to serve a paltry convenience,” he grouses, “of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing, yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to while the while, but what we have to stand on tip-toe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.” Good grief, this makes me cringe.

He also complains, “Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted of the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading.”  And if that’s not bad enough, “The best books are not read even by those who are called good readers. What does our Concord culture amount to? There is in this town, with very few exceptions, no taste for the best or for very good books even in English literature, whose words all can read and spell.”  By now I was muttering to myself.

The  librarian in me chuckled a bit at Thoreau’s distress over the light reading material available at Concord’s library, such as novels. Some things never change —  library’s today still deal with patron complaints about what a library has in its collection (or doesn’t). Thoreau adds with disgust, “We are underbred and low-lived and illiterate, and in this respect I confess I do not make any very broad distinction between the illiterateness of my townsmen who cannot read at all, and the illiterateness of him who has learned to read only what is for children and feeble intellects.” Kind of makes you want to wrap your beach read in a towel, doesn’t it?

Thoreau has good intentions, beyond all this complaining. He believes that people would be better for reading good books, explaining, “The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones . . . . Moreover, with wisdom we shall learn liberality.”  I have to agree with his underlying premise, that understanding our lives in the context of man’s universal, timeless quest for wisdom would expand our minds, improve us and our world.

He is disgusted that school ends when one is grown, and calls for universal life learning: “It is time we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women.” As an autodidact trying to raise kids who know that learning isn’t a kids’ activity that happens in particular buildings during particular times, I couldn’t agree more.

But I have to say that I occasionally enjoy “chick lit,” I thought Nanny Diaries was hilarious social commentary, and I firmly believe what my Grandmother taught me: when times are tough, take comfort in a nice Agatha Christie mystery or maybe a Mrs. Pollifax spy adventure.  I don’t think telling people they are wasting their minds if they read for fun is fair. Who knows what connections they’re making? It’s like junk food in my mind — it’s not good for you, and you don’t need it, but a little bit isn’t going to kill you. And no one likes being around someone who stands next to the chips and dip at a party and lectures everyone within earshot about the dangers of fat and salt.

I encourage my family to read good books, and if you’ve followed bookconscious you know we’ve even discussed what makes a “great” book. A little bit of my schooled mind cringes, like Thoreau’s, when I see them reading comic strips instead of something I would classify as literature. But I am not a book snob, and I’ve learned that there’s philosophy in Calvin and Hobbes, and Foxtrot frequently illustrates the Computer Scientist’s contention that “math is life.” As a former librarian and life long “libraryologist” as the C.S. calls me, I’ve come to believe that if kids are reading something they love, it doesn’t matter what it is. Offer them a varied reading diet and they’ll get enough fruits and vegetables, but don’t deny them cheese puffs or candy in moderation.

I fear Thoreau would scold librarians for adding graphic novels to their collections, or featuring movie tie-in books. But I feel a little better knowing that even back in 19th century Concord, a place overflowing with writers and intellectuals and a well-read population, a place where many a farmer had learned a little Latin or Greek in his youth, where there was no television or world wide web or massively multiplayer online role-playing games, someone was already wringing his hands over the End of Reading. Because it didn’t happen then, and I don’t believe it will happen now. Writers will keep writing, and readers, reading.

In fact, despite the tanking economy, I’ve read recently that bookstores and libraries are reporting more patrons than ever. Reading is inexpensive entertainment, it lasts, and it can be a social event. I’ve invited my neighbor to come along on Monday, when Gibson’s book club will be discussing our May book, A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry.

Barry is a playwright and poet as well as a novelist. The protagonist of A Long, Long Way is Willie Dunn, brother of Annie Dunn, title character of Barry’s earlier novel. Annie Dunn also appears in Barry’s award winning play, The Steward of Christendom. That play, in turn, was based in part on Barry’s own great-grandfather. In an interview Barry mentions other experiences and family stories that made their way into A Long, Long Way. It’s a beautiful example of the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness.

A Long, Long Way is, first of all, gorgeous. Barry’s language is so poetic, I could hear the book in my head as I read. As a novel, it’s tight and well crafted. The story is hard — Willie Dunn serves in the trenches of WWI, and as the war goes on not only does he deal with the horror but also with the political and social turmoil brewing in Ireland, and the fact that his service in the war will bring him personal troubles. Even when you want to turn away, the book’s terrible beauty holds you.

Like Willie Dunn and the men he comes to know in war, the reader can’t help but wonder how anyone growing up can possibly sort through the world’s propaganda and the things we’re told in childhood, on the long way towards figuring out what not only who we are but what is real and true and how to think independently. Willie leaves Ireland sure of what he knows and loves and believes, and experiences disillusionment but also transformation. We see him come of age, bringing the core of himself through the terror, making his way, finding family in his comrades at arms.

I won’t spoil the plot for you by telling anymore. I will add that I am so taken with Barry’s prose that I plan to check out The Secret Scripture and Annie Dunn in the future, and to try to track down his poetry on inter-library loan. The rhythm and lilt of his sentences reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s poems.

Speaking of WWI and of poetry, you may recall that the Teenager requested we read T.S. Eliot in April for our lit crit circle. He was struck by the quote on the National Poetry Month poster: “Do I dare disturb the universe?” So far we’ve read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and the first two parts of “The Waste Land.” Last weekend as we discussed “The Burial of the Dead,” and “A Game of Chess,” the Teenager pronounced Eliot a snob. All those literary references — he just has to rub his smarty-pants knowledge in our faces. Of course, Thoreau might point out that if we’d had the kind of classical education he urges, and stayed away from novels and comics, we’d be in a better position to understand.

And yet, The Teenager doesn’t dislike “The Waste Land,” nor did he dislike “Prufrock,” at least not entirely. He’s impressed by the language. It’s also somewhat satisfying to try and penetrate what seems like such utter bloody weirdness on first glance. The Computer Scientist and I let him know that we too are somewhat irritated by the know-it-all obscurity of the references and the hoity toity tone of the notes — where Eliot makes it clear he expects his readership to be as well read as he is. But we are persevering because we all want to know what made this poem so influential, and to understand it as best we can.

A number of secondary sources are helping us, including From Ritual to Romance and The Golden Bough, which Eliot mentions in his notes, and some annotated hypertext versions of the poem online. Essays on “The Waste Land” are easy to find, including a collection at the Modern American Poetry site, hosted by University of Illinois.

I also picked up some books at Ohrstrom Library: The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose, edited and annotated by Lawrence Rainey; The Waste Land: A Poem of Memory and Desire by Nancy K. Gish; and Valerie Eliot’s The Wasteland: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound. We probably won’t read any of these cover to cover, but referring to them and then discussing what we’ve learned helps unlock the poem.

Before the Dogs’ Night Out poetry reading I read Sharon Olds’ The Wellspring and Philip Schultz’s failure. Both poets write about family and love, life in a time of catastrophes, connections we seek. I go into more detail about their poems in my post on the reading.

On impulse one day at the library, I grabbed Contemporary Poetry of New England, an anthology edited by Jay Parini, from the poetry month display as I was about to check out. It’s an interesting collection, with some poems and poets new to me and others quite familiar. I was mystified that any collection of recent New England poetry could omit Donald Hall, but otherwise, I enjoyed it. Anthologies are great fun, and often lead me to seek out more of a particular poet.

After NH Writers’ Project Writers Day, I read Taking Down the Angel, a poetry collection by Jeff Friedman and Before, a novel by Joseph Hurka, because I took their workshops. Friedman’s poems in Taking Down the Angel are narrative, a little like Wesley NcNair’s, and I especially enjoyed his midrashic poems — pieces that enter a bibical story and add a new perspective, that serve as poetic commentary on the meaning and mystery of stories we think we know, telling them in new ways.

Hurka’s novel was not one I would normally have gravitated towards. I am a wimp when it comes to crime and suspense, and I tend to avoid anything that’s as scary as the newspaper. I’m glad I read Before, even though I didn’t care for the creepiest parts. Hurka’s writing is piercing. He must do scads of research, because the details of the characters’ lives are extremely fine tuned.

The main characters in Before are fascinating people — a former Czech resistance fighter and holocaust survivor living both in the present and in his memories as he undergoes therapy after a stroke and writes what he remembers, a college student struggling with her own losses as she tries to make life and art, and a disturbed criminal haunted by abuse who was once a very successful businessman.

Even the minor characters are vivid. Before is a short book, but dense. Through his interesting characters and a tense plot, Hurka explores memory and unconscious and the ways our interactions with other people are informed by what’s come before. I’ve got Hurka’s nonfiction book, Fields of Light: A Son Remembers His Heroic Father, on inter-library loan and I’m looking forward to it.

I haven’t started it yet because I had a couple of new books out of the library that I needed to finish first, since they have shorter loan periods. I’ve nearly finished Darwin: A Life in Poems by Ruth Padel, who is not only a well known British poet but also Charles Darwin’s great-great grandaughter. The book is fascinating, as the poems tell Darwin’s life story, and Padel’s notes include family details she learned in letters and other research. I’m finding the structure of the book a bit overwhelming — in order to keep up with the story, you have to keep reading, but reading several poems in a row feels rushed.

The other new book I finished last week was a quick read. A few weeks ago on the way to Concord, Massachusetts, we heard Scott Simon interview Jeffrey Archer on Weekend Edition Saturday. They were talking about Archer’s new novel, Paths of Glory, which is a ficitonalized biography of George Mallory and an account of the British effort to summit Mt. Everest. The interview picqued my interest — Simon’s interviews have led me to many a new book — so I reserved Paths of Glory.

Thoreau would likely not approve. Archer’s book was a fun, easy read. He did a great deal of research but the book didn’t require me to stand on tip-toe or flex my intellectual muscles. What it required — what much reading requires — was a suspension of reality for the duration of the book, an escape into another world, fictional or real. No one knows for sure whether George Mallory made it to the top of Everest. But he led a fascinating life before he died on the mountain that had bewitched him since his youth. I’m never going to summit Everest, and it was a great deal of fun going along with Archer as he imagines what may or may not have happened.

Archer’s book was a great escape into history, adventure, and romance. And like A Long, Long Way, “The Waste Land,” and Before, Paths of Glory illuminated the utter waste of war, which wrecks lives and leaves whole cultures unalterably damaged. Authors since Thoreau’s beloved Homer have explored the ways men and women survive war and either heal themselves and each other or succumb to their wounds for the rest of their lives. No matter the form — poetry or prose, classic epic or best seller, highbrow literary masterpiece or mass market phenomenon, readers benefit from probing the ideas each author unearths and making connections for themselves.

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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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