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I first meant to read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen when it came out to rave reviews, and then again when The Readers chose it as a book discussion book. What finally got me to move it up to the top of the “to be read” list is that I’m going to hear the author next week. It’s a very powerful read, and a well written book, but it left me with confused feelings. I liked much of it, I learned a great deal about Vietnam and its wars, but the brutality is hard to take (how many times have I said that lately here? I need to read something less appalling, soon!) and very vivid. Chapter 21, in which the main character, The Captain/Sympathizer, is tortured until he recalls in vivid detail a female comrade’s torture, is probably one of the most horrifying depictions of inhumanity I’ve ever read.

That aside, the book is fascinating, and the Captain is an intriguing character. He has two best friends from his school days, one, Man, who is a high ranking communist revolutionary in Vietnam, and the other, Bon, who works with the Captain for a South Vietnamese general and the CIA. So the Captain is the Sympathizer — he sympathizes with communism, to the point of spying for the North, even as he works for the other side. He also admires many things about America and loves and respects both his friends. He’s an orphan, the bastard child of a French priest whose mother was the priest’s maid and had him when she was a young teen, and Man and Bon are family as much as friends to him. The Captain’s outsider status — neither fully American nor Vietnamese, neither fully Occidental or Oriental, neither fully a refugee (legally yes, but he knows California from attending college there) neither fully a soldier nor fully an intellectual, allows him to move within these worlds comfortably as no other character can.

The book begins on the last day before Saigon falls, as the Captain, the General, and their chosen family and associates escape and make their way to America as refugees. It ends with the Captain and Bon in Vietnam as well. In between, we watch the Captain try to adapt to isolation from Man and his comrades, to his refugee status, to his postwar roles serving the General and the CIA and Man, and to his responsibility towards Bon, who has suffered great losses. We also watch his developing realization that post-war Vietnam is not the revolutionary paradise that was promised.

Towards the end of the book, the Captain has wrestled with the meaning of his country’s long struggle against imperialism and is left with questions: “What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing?” Just as it’s important to face the brutal inhumanity of warfare (open or covert), it’s important to remember this novel isn’t just about war, but about its aftermath. It’s also a book about love, both philia, or “brotherly” love, and agape, or charity, the love that inspires concern for the greater good of mankind. The Sympathizer is unique in this book because he relates to — sympathizes with, and I’d say loves — everyone who has suffered, even, finally, those he made suffer. That he’s haunted by both innocents and his own loss of innocence makes him a sympathetic character.

Still, this book is not for the faint hearted, and was maybe not the best choice after Evicted, which also describes soul-sapping inhumanity.

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I broke my “read only Europa Editions ’til the end of the year” streak this week, because my local bookstore, Gibson’s, hosted Abdi Nor Iftin on Friday, so I wanted to read his book and hear him speak. Call Me American is the story of his growing up in Somalia, living through years of war and violence, and coming to America. Things are definitely not ideal in America right now, but if you want a fuller appreciation for why people around the world still look to us as a place to come and live in peace and freedom, you should read this book. If he’s touring near you, go hear him speak, too; there is nothing like hearing someone’s story in person.

I cannot imagine, nor can anyone I know imagine, what it was like for Iftin growing up in Mogadishu. Between the expectation that even as a small child, he must get water and food for his family, the requirement that he attend a madrassa where he was beaten when he didn’t do well enough or had done something considered evil (like watch American movies) out of a belief that this would make him a good Muslim, and the fact that he could not get an education (beyond memorizing the Koran) or a job and had to create his own, I was amazed with each chapter. Iftin didn’t even just survive, he survived with faith, hope and compassion intact. He still supports the imam who beat him, because he feels grateful that he knows the Koran and he understands the man sincerely believed he was doing right by the children he beat. Incredible!

So I have no doubt that Iftin is an extraordinary person, not to mention a very good storyteller, and that is part of what makes this memoir appealing. But in the back of my mind as I read, I thought about the grave injustice that our world flocks to the Iftins and abandons those who don’t have the charisma, grace, and strength he does. In fact, the only reason he is where he is today is because he made opportunities for himself at every turn — teaching himself English, introducing himself to a white man he saw on a balcony who turned out to be a reporter, and then working for both NPR and the BBC telling the story of life under warlords and Islamic fundamentalists. And it is right that people who heard his story through their speakers thousands of miles and a culture away rallied to help him and get him out.

But so many others are still living with the danger, fear, and deprivation that he grew up with and on the whole, Americans are fairly happy feeling good about stories like Iftin’s and then going back to our comfortable lives. We may give to charity and write to Congress when things seem really bad, but how often do we do any more than that? And what more can and should we do? In many regards, there is literally nothing we can do because the power systems in the world are completely aligned against the powerless and most governments adhere to a fear-based immigration system.

Maybe it’s a small thing, but one thing we can do is learn people’s stories. Learn about the systems that are hurting people and ironically building up the very extremism they are meant to protect against. I had no idea that Somalis in Kenya can’t work — I thought that the international refugee resettlement system was fairly consistent everywhere, and that if you are recognized as a refugee, you can start a resettled life. Iftin’s brother has been living in limbo for fifteen years in Nairobi, officially a refugee but not allowed to legally live there, or anywhere. That is the situation for Somalis — and there are refugees from dozens of other places, so it’s likely there are millions more who are not on the smooth path to resettlement. Especially now that the U.S. has decided to take thousands fewer refugees each year.

What can I do with this knowledge? I’m not sure. For starters I can keep contacting my elected officials and telling them I want America to remain a welcoming place for those who need a new home. I can learn about the places they come from, beyond the headlines. I can also make sure that beyond just saying hello when I hear someone whose accent reveals they are from somewhere else, I can tell them I’m glad they are here, and ask how things are going. That doesn’t seem like enough though. I don’t have answers. I just know this book made the world smaller for me. One thing I can do is write about how powerful it is and ask you to do read it. You’ll be glad you did and your view of the world will not be the same.

 

 

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I first heard about the graphic memoir The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui from reading Bill Gates‘ list of the best books he read last year, and I also heard about it from one of my favorite readers at my last library. Now my book club picked it and I finally got it off my “to be read” list! This was the first book I’ve read using Hoopla. It wasn’t a bad read that way — I downloaded it to my iPad. It beat either paying for it (although I might want to own it someday) or waiting for an ILL.

I loved this book, even though it was a tough subject. The art is wonderful — beautiful, expressive, and somehow both detailed and subtle. It’s a story that lends itself to the genre perfectly. How many times have you read a memoir and found yourself picturing various scenes? With a graphic memoir, the pictures take you into the story.

And this story is both particular and universal. Thi Bui writes about her parents, who are each shaped by the events of mid-20th century Vietnamese history, which they lived through. As a young adult, as she tried to understand her family’s history, Bui discovered the country’s as well, and I have to say, I had only the barest of understandings, so that was interesting to learn. The experiences of her parents and the particulars of their lives are specific to their stories. The universal human experiences, of loss, generational misunderstandings, changing roles and cultural shifts, fears about parenting, about raising a family well, growing up, functioning as both an adult and your parents’ child, understanding parents as people and not just parents, these themes are not only important to Thi Bui’s life and family, but to readers’ own lives and families. As Mohsin Hamid said when I hear him speak recently in Manchester about Exit West, “We all lose everything, eventually.”

He was talking about why authors write about things like the refugee crisis (the subject of Exit West). He also said, and Thi Bui says this in her introduction, that writers often write to answer for themselves some fundamental questions about life and the world. The Best We Could Do describes how we all come to realize as adults that is all anyone can do — our best. And it won’t always work out well, it won’t always solve every problem, we might face challenges and setbacks, but in the end, we love each other as best we can, and go on.

The book ends with Thi Bui reflecting on her relationship with her son. She remarks, “I see a life bound with mine quite by coincidence.” When you think about it, that’s what families are, and this beautiful book is a reflection on family and how we grow to understand those whose lives are bound to ours.

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I got to know a small but lovely independent bookstore this summer, Belmont Books, and one Saturday I spied on their staff picks display Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I had heard about the book when it first came out — although clearly I didn’t remember much, as you’ll soon see — and who doesn’t love that title? Not this librarian.

Only it turns out, it’s only partly about the librarians and a good bit about extremist jihadis and their takeover of Mali. I’ll grant that a good bit of the beginning of the book explores Mali’s history and the personal story of the incredible librarian, scholar and conservationist Abdel Kader Haidara. His story and that of the manuscripts of Timbuktu weave throughout the book. But Joshua Hammer also writes in great detail about why the manuscripts needed saving.

Haidara, son of a scholar whose family treasures included a very large collection of medieval manuscripts, was only seventeen when his father died and he was named the heir of the family library. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, established by UNESCO and the Malian government in the 70’s, sought Haidara out and asked him to come work for them. At the time, they had only about 2,500 manuscripts in their collection. Nine years later, thanks almost entirely to Haidara’s personal efforts, the collection had grown by 16,500, “one of the largest public collections of Arabic handwritten books in the world.”

Haidara wasn’t done. He went on to establish a private library to house his family’s collection, and he also established Savama-DCI, an organization of other families in Timbuktu with manuscripts. With his own library housing around 50,000 manuscripts, and the growing number of private libraries he had influenced, Haidara had been a huge force in re-establishing Timbuktu as a cultural center, and in reminding the world of the city’s long heritage of scholarship.

All of that is very inspiring. What is amazing is that as Hammer tells readers, Haidara’s hard work had only just begun. Despite these accomplishments and his successful fundraising (many prominent foundations from around the world supported his work and that of his colleagues), the most challenging tasks were still to come.

And this is where I had a harder time reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of  Timbuktu. Hammer spares no grisly details as he describes the rise of radical Islam in the Sahara and the Sahel. I admit part of my discomfort came from realizing that even though I try to pay attention to news from around the world, I don’t recall hearing much about the civil war in Mali and the jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country. And part of my discomfort is because I don’t usually read accounts of brutality as detailed as Hammer’s.

Faced with a growing fear that the jihadis would destroy Timbuktu’s manuscripts, as they had smashed Sufi shrines, broken and burned musical instruments and threatened Mali’s other cultural treasure — musicians — with disfigurement if they continued to play or sing, Haidara, knew he had to do something. So together with an American woman in Mali, known in the book as Emily Brady, he once again raised funds and worked to evacuate the manuscripts. Like the gripping story of his collecting them in the first place, the story of Haidara’s rescue is uplifting and mind-boggling.

They gathered trunks, recruited donkey carts, trucks, and boats, recruited families to hide manuscripts in Timbuktu and then recruited them again, to evacuate the trunks. Despite the dangers and expense, they succeeded. Around 377,000 manuscripts survived. Hammer tells the story well. Just be prepared for a fair bit of geopolitics and out and out horror if you read this book — well written, but hard to stomach.

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First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

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Three years ago I wrote here about Life After Life, Kate Atkinson‘s brilliant puzzle of a novel which featured Ursula Todd, who seemed to be born again and again into the same life, lived a little differently each time. I’ve just finished the novel Atkinson calls a companion, rather than a sequel, the story of Ursula’s younger brother Teddy.

A God In Ruins, unlike Life After Life, is mainly concerned with the characters’ adult lives. There’s a chapter in which Teddy is a child, but most of the remaining 400 some pages are about Teddy’s WWII service as a bomber pilot, and then his postwar life. In 2012, he is dying in a nursing home.

We learn of his time piloting Halifaxes out of a base in Yorkshire, the crews he serves with, and his several tours of duty. “Well, the job isn’t finished yet,” he writes in a letter when his family wonders why he went back to flying, instead of staying out of danger once he’d done his part. “The truth was, there was nothing else he wanted to do, could do. Flying on bombing raids had become him. Who he was.”

Just as Life After Life was, among many other things, about the wartime experience of civilians in England who risked their own lives to aid people during the Blitz, A God In Ruins is about the men who flew for England, carrying our raids that were, for the first time, targeting civilians, firebombing cities, in the name of bringing the German war machine to its knees.

Teddy meets Ursula in London on leave, and they have a conversation about this “area bombing.” She asks, “Indiscriminate attacks. The civilian population considered to be a legitimate target — innocent people. It doesn’t make you feel . . . uncomfortable?” Teddy responds defensively, pointing out that Germany started the war, to which Ursula says, “I rather think we started it at Versailles.”

Teddy sees her points. He is in a difficult position, walking a line, as so many people do, between day-to-day truths and “big T” Truth. And he knows it. He says he wishes he could go back in time and kill Hitler, and Ursula says, “you could keep going back, unpicking history all the way, until you arrived at Cain and Abel.” Teddy responds, “Or the apple.”

And that, I think, is one of the things this book is about. Could mankind really turn out differently? Or are we destined to wage war, and is that a struggle against our very selves at heart? What makes us turn away from innocence and beauty  (this book is full of lovely countryside, meadows, birds, and plants) and choose instead to destroy each other, and ourselves?

But these questions, about human nature and goodness, our capacity to be kind or cruel, to love or not in the name of gain (our own or some other, perhaps national) are all part of the story, and certainly a continuation of Life After Life, but are in a way subverted in the end by an even greater question. Atkinson says in the author’s note: “And of course, there is a great conceit hidden at the heart of the book to do with fiction and the imagination . . . .” I can’t explain this without giving too much away. I had no idea what was coming, I must say, until the last fifty pages, and even then I wasn’t sure I was fully understanding what was happening. Atkinson gets at the heart of what is real and what is imagined, pushing the fictional envelope while also writing what is in many ways a much more traditional novel than it’s companion.

Teddy turns out to be every bit as marvelous a character as his sister, and the writing is also both keen and lovely. I wish I’d had a long stretch to really immerse myself in this novel, because it deserves to be read that way. Even in snatches before bed, it was a book I didn’t really want to end. And when it did I was left sitting, thinking, absorbing, and holding what I’d just felt. Atkinson makes clear the full marvel — for good or ill — of being human and the strange mixture of pleasure and pain that living brings. A God in Ruins is in a way a tribute to the capacity of the human mind. If you haven’t felt amazed by what you’ve read lately, this may be the book for you.

Should you read Life After Life first? I think this book could easily stand alone, but as a pair they definitely compliment each other.

 

 

 

 

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It’s been a busy month in the bookconscious household, preparing the Teenager to make big decisions about college admissions and to complete the process, and helping him and his sister to chart their courses for a new year of life learning. Despite earlier efforts to separate the idea of a school year from their educations, and my reminders that brains don’t stop learning during the summer, we’ve been swept into the cultural mainstream with regards to planning, and they start afresh in the fall.

I always enjoyed this time of year as a child, and not only because I liked fall’s cool breezes and colors, new clothes, and holidays.  Perhaps because  I was chronically sensitive to the way teachers and peers perceived me (I was both an overachiever and a social misfit) fall gave me hope that I could start fresh.  Most of all I was happy to have new books, new classes, new projects — I loved learning.  I loved getting lost in new ideas, daydreaming about historical time periods and achievements or the things I might someday do myself.

As I planned and prepared with the Teenager and the Preteen (this is the last month I can write of her in that way!) much of my reading centered on books with themes of seeking, dreaming, and reconciling hopefulness with practicality.  I haven’t let my inner seeker and dreamer get out much this year, as I’ve turned my back on many creative pursuits and “free time.”  In August, my seeker and dreamer told me to get a life, and got on with her own. As I look at the books I read these last few weeks, I can see her banging her small fists against my “to do list.”

At the end of my last post, I was finishing 52 Loaves by William Alexander. I’ve heard some criticism that this book was just another contrived year-long project (Alexander bakes a loaf a bread a week in a year-long quest to recreate the perfect loaf he once enjoyed) designed to entice a publisher into a contract. I don’t really care if that’s how it was conceived or not; 52 Loaves was a delight.

I love books that reveal the interconnectedness of ideas, and Alexander masterfully ties science, culinary art, agriculture, history, sociology, and even spirituality into his story. In a style that reminded me of A.J. Jacobs, Alexander tries a series of projects aimed at getting to the essence of good bread – growing wheat, building a brick oven, harvesting his own wild yeast. And in the end, he generously shares recipes.

Alexander is also funny, and like many of my favorite writers, he doesn’t hesitate to direct some of the laughs at himself. Like Bill Bryson, Alexander manages to be humorous but also uber-informative, covering a wide range of subjects as he tries to understand the science required to master bread baking. What surprised me, and what I felt was the best part of the book, was the spiritual turn his quest took, as he stayed in a French monastery teaching some of the monks what he’d learned. 

52 Loaves isn’t just about flour and  yeast, ovens and mills, it’s a story of a man figuring out what’s essential. Alexander perfectly captures that combination of  practical knowledge and hopeful seeking that to my mind makes creative nonfiction creative. He also reawakened my own curiosity about a quiet retreat in a cloistered community, something I one day hope to try.

Something else I enjoyed vicariously through 52 Loaves was travel. Alexander went to France and also Morocco and Canada in the course of his year long exploration of bread. Another book that took me places in August was Dreaming In Hindi, by Katherine Russell Rich.  Rich writes about her efforts to learn Hindi in India, a place that has long fascinated me. We were fortunate to hear her at the final Tory Hill Readers Series reading of the summer.

Dreaming In Hindi is an ambitious book, and Rich veers from memoir to cultural observation to neuroscience and linguistics as she researches language acquisition and also tells of her own experiences. In some ways the book was a bit too ambitious — I had trouble tracking what happened when, as the sections dealing with her research are not necessarily part of the same chronology as her trip to India. What is clear, and very appealing, is her portrayal of the struggle to master a new language, to understand and be understood, culturally as well as linguistically.

I thought Rich was very honest about the culture shock and discomfort that comes with immersion language learning in another country, and that was interesting as we consider the Teenager’s potential plans to spend a year in Germany. And I found many of her observations fascinating, especially regarding the ways language and culture are deeply interrelated — she writes that the way we think of things has much to do with the language we are equipped with.

For example, she points out that ownership isn’t something that is easy to describe in Hindi — words describing the proximity of an object to a person indicates who has it, instead. And in Mandarin, tenses are not the same as in English, making it hard for a native English speaker to say when something happened. I can see how these differences go way beyond mere words to a shift in perspective.

I’ve learned that people can get really hung up on wanting to believe that human beings are pretty much the same everywhere. In some basic ways that may be true, but cultural differences exist and are important; they also make literature richer.  In Gibson’s Book Club a few months back, my suggestion that Per Petterson‘s characters’ emotional reserve seemed culturally accurate sounded like a stereotype to some discussion participants.

But I maintain that the way people who share a language and a cultural outlook express themselves is somewhat collective (albeit with endless personal variations), and literature is a way into understanding societal tendencies or traditions. Expecting everyone who is Norwegian to be reserved would be stereotyping; looking for patterns in the literature of a great Norwegian author to understand Norwegian sensibilities is not.

Another example of how language  informs and is informed by the culture it is part of is poetry.  I recently fell out of my habit of regularly reading poetry as well as fiction and nonfiction, but in August I read The Shadow of Sirius, by W.S. Merwin.  Merwin, like Donald Hall and other poets of his generation, has gone through many changes in form and style in his long career. The Shadow of Sirius, a fairly recent collection, is less formal than his earlier work, but no less masterful. I had read a few individual poems of Merwin’s, but had never sat down with an entire collection, and I am glad I did.

I especially enjoyed “Nocturne II,” which describes our tiny place in the universe through the narrator’s awareness of the Perseids falling even though he is lying in the dark and it’s raining; and “Grace Note,” which seems to me to be a poem about mindfulness as the narrator listens for a “feathered breath,” a sound that “I seem to have heard before I/was listening but by the time/I hear it now it is gone.”

Another poem that seems to be about seeking meaning, “Lake Shore In Half Light,” finds the narrator reflecting on an elusive but familiar question,  letting both questions and answers come in mindfulness rather than hunting them down.   “Into October” considers “the dry stems and the umbers of October/the secret season that appears on its own/a recognition without sound.” Isn’t that lovely, and isn’t that what humans often yearn for? “A recognition without sound . . . .”

So, resolved, more poetry. Now, before I venture into the list of excellent novels I read in August, two more nonfiction reads: Robert Darnton‘s  The Case for Books, and Todd Farley‘s Making the Grades: My Misadventures In the Standardized Testing Industry. Darnton came to the store in August, and I highly recommend hearing him in person; he is not just erudite and interesting, but a very warm, spontaneous speaker.

As a book historian and the head of Harvard’s library system, Darnton has both the long view of books and a contemporary view of the rush to digitize vast amounts of literature.  He’s both a champion of open access to academic research and a believer in the book as the perfect technology for conveying the written word.  He also maintains a healthy skepticism about placing our literary heritage in the hands of a large corporation (Google) for digital preservation. The Case for Books gathers some of his previously published work on these topics; I did find that some of the pieces seemed to repeat ideas, in an attempt to catch up any readers who haven’t followed the story of Google Books. But overall, a very compelling read from a great thinker.

I spent loads of time just thinking as a child of the pre-digital age (we watched television, but I didn’t sit in front of the TV as much as some kids, as I later learned when I had no idea what my peers were talking about as they discussed old shows).  I always managed to get good grades despite so much time left to “daydream.” I also was fortunate to have both ample time to read for pleasure and parents who modeled that habit and took me to the library as often as I wanted.  But I wasn’t a stellar standardized tester.

The Teenager is generally put off by such tests for the same reason I always was: we see many ways of answering a question, all of them partially right in their own way. For some time I’d had Todd Farley’s memoir, Making the Grades, in my to-read pile. As the Teenager registered for the ACT, not for admissions purposes, but to jump through the NCAA’s hoops, I pulled it out.

Farley’s account is eye opening and should be embarrassing to both the testing industry and the education industry. Because that’s what they are — big businesses, trying to process kids through the system in a standardized way. The stories  Farley relates of testing employees coming up with ingenious work-arounds to make test scores come out the way their employers and clients expected them to is sickening.  He himself is disgusted, but he returns several times because he makes a lot of money doing relatively easy work, until finally he decides to quit and write.

Making the Grades is a little rough around the edges; it’s a memoir, but Farley doesn’t do much self-examination other than to tell us he’s fed up and aware of the ludicrous nature of his work a few times. And some parts of the book are a little repetitive. That said, the effect is to dull the senses a bit the way taking a several hours long standardized test does. And overall, I think it’s an interesting and important read.

Making the Grades solidified my belief that just as industrial agriculture and giant banks and huge electricity grids and giant bureaucracies are all vulnerable to massive failure, so is industrial education. Homespun tales of small community schools that worked well, when kids of different ages learned together, teachers knew and helped students individually, and communities were closely invested in the success of the town school may not be perfectly accurate in their rosiness (I am thinking of the Little House and Anne of Green Gables books as well as the British example of Miss Read, and also Jimmy Carter’s memoirs of his boyhood in the Plains, GA schools), but they certainly point to some things that worked well.  And certainly one of the things not working well in today’s giant government industrial education complex is standardized testing.

I am realizing as I write that some of the fiction I read this month includes characters for whom the standardized approach to education doesn’t work. First, I read Jenna Blum’s The Stormchasers, which I have on good authority (from a customer living with bipolar disorder) is one of the most compassionate, well written accounts of a bipolar person in fiction. Charles, the bipolar character, is definitely not well served by school, where he does poorly despite his brilliant scientific mind and his uncanny ability to track storms.  I enjoyed the novel, and Jenna talked a great deal at her reading about her writing process, which was really interesting. Her website is one of the best author sites I’ve seen, and you can learn more about her there.

The Stormchasers is about relationships, and the way families need each other, even as its members act in ways that are selfish or damaging.  Jenna’s characters aren’t perfect, and the twins who are at the center of the book harbor more than just the usual childhood hurts; they also share a terrible secret that is eventually resolved in the novel.  Yet the book ends on a hopeful but realistic note — you suspect that while everyone’s relatively happy right now, they’ll probably screw up again soon. But somehow, they’ll stick with each other.

The same themes of guilt, love, and redemption came up in some of the other fiction I read as well. Anita Diamant‘s Day After Night is the story of women friends in a British internment camp in Palestine after WWII — each of them has her own form of survivors’ guilt, each has lived through a different but awful wartime experience, but their friendships help them begin to heal.  I loved that even the minor characters, camp guards and clinic staff, some of the men in the camp — are multidimensional people, and I did not know about the internment camps where Jewish survivors of the war ended up because the British didn’t know how to handle their immigration to Palestine.

Another historical novel I read also dealt with how survivors handle the trauma of war, in this case by forgetting. The Gendarme is a new novel by Mark T. Mustain, an attorney turned author. I enjoyed the structure of the book, which moves back and forth between the main character’s dreams and the present. Emmit/Ahmet is an old man, and he lost his memory when he was injured during WWI.  He begins to dream after he’s diagnosed with a tumor, and eventually he realizes the dreams are his returning memories.

Mustain covers a lot of ground in this book — not least of which is the vivid depiction of the Armenian genocide that make some of the book hard to read. He handles this deftly, though, offering enough detail to enable readers to understand the trauma but also giving a full picture of the complexity of the situation, with some Armenians selling out their fellows and some Turks protecting their prisoners.  There are also several examples of misunderstandings between the characters about race, culture, and religion, which would make for interesting book club discussions.

The Gendarme is also an examination of love — agape, eros, philio, and storge — as a redemptive force, as a check on our baser instincts as humans, and as a corruption of itself. The passages that take place in the mental institution where Emmit’s daughter places him are fascinating.  With the friendship of a fellow patient, a widow who comes to visit him, and his longtime buddy and fellow war veteran to buoy him, Emmit deals with his memories, learns how to survive his commitment, and formulates a plan to find out what happened to his wartime love (and victim) Araxie.

I was fascinated to read Mustain’s author’s note and learn that he did not travel to the places he writes about in the book until he had completed several drafts.  He also talks about his own ancestry, and his lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide (which led to reading, which led to this book). And one last personal note: the book takes place in a small town in southern Georgia, and for me, that was very interesting, since the bookconscious household lived in the same area for five years.

The Gendarme dealt with death and loss, and the way people’s memories take on added importance during the final portion of their lives. Tinkers, Paul Harding’s Pulitzer award winning novel, masterfully covers the melding of memory and presence at the end of a man’s life. Paul Harding is coming to Gibson’s on Sept. 16, and our book club is discussing the book that week as well.

Tinkers imagines the final thoughts of a dying man named George in the last days of his life. His family has gathered in his home, where he is lying in a hospital bed in the living room. With meticulous, sensuous detail and prose that is cinematic (you see the whole scene and the closely focused details at once) and poetic (not just full of memorable imagery but also rhythmic, flowing, measured), Harding paints the interior life of the dying man, exploring the way his life flashes past, not as a continuous filmstrip might, but in fits and starts, memories of his own life and scenes from his father’s, moments of lucidity in the present where he interacts briefly with his assembled loved ones, glimpses of generational links that the readers senses will continue to be passed on.

I’m not always impressed with prize winning books — sometimes I wonder what the heck the judges were thinking. And I was especially cautious given the heartwarming back story behind Harding’s rise from near obscurity to fame and critical acclaim . That sequence of events is so delightful that I was afraid it would color my reading of Tinkers. But the book is really that good. And really that unique — I’ve truly never read anything like it.  I look forward to hearing Paul Harding at the store.

I read another novel with a death a great deal more sudden and a plot a great deal more rollicking: the second Flavia de Luce book by Alan Bradley, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag.  This is an old fashioned “body book” as my good friend YeVette would say. I wrote about Flavia’s first adventure, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in bookconscious last year. Delightfully detailed, quirky and smart, these mysteries are period pieces set in 1950’s England and Flavia is a bright eleven year old heroine who loves chemistry (the better for studying poisons) and is also a clever amateur detective. High end palate cleansing mind candy (I mean that as a compliment), well written and entertaining.

So, I’ve covered death and dreams, what about Freedom?  Yes, that Freedom, the one that landed Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time, on President Obama’s nightstand, and on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, among other places.  Although I enjoyed The Corrections, this is another book I opened with trepidation. I wanted to like it very much (as I did his book of essays, How To Be Alone, which I wrote about here last month). But the hype put me off.  And the constant worry over having a great event this week — we are one of the stops on the Freedom tour, which even now, I can hardly believe.

But I am happy to say I forgot the hype and worry and just enjoyed this very good book. A story of our times as well as our culture; a novel of depth and complexity; a tale of the impact freedom (to pursue love, happiness, fulfillment, success, greed, friendship, filial duty, marital tranquility, good causes) on the human psyche — all true. You can read the reviews.

My own take? How beautiful that in the end, despite the mess they’ve made of their lives, Walter and Patty, the central characters in Freedom, are getting it together, making a life as best they can, having reconciled more or less with each other, their children, their other family members, their friend Richard, nearly everyone they’ve hurt or failed. It’s a hopeful ending, one that has quietly resonated with me for the many days since I closed the book for the last time. And a perfect reconciliation of hope and reality — nothing is perfect, and in fact many things are permanently scarred, but all is well.

It’s a good message — that it’s within us to choose a good life, that we’re free to love well, to solve our problems, to reconcile past hurts, to be on good terms as parents and children even if we’ve driven each other crazy — in an unnerving time at the bookconscious house.  The Teenager and the Computer Scientist hit the road this evening on their way to the Teenager’s first college admissions interview.  Despite our best efforts to keep this process low-stress and no pressure, it’s become neither. I tell him (and myself) that it’s like moving. It will suck until it’s over, and then it will be good.

To unwind in August, the Teenager continued reading “The Human Story.”  He enjoys history and says this book is interesting, and offers a different voice than other history books he has read. He recommends it as fun to read in one’s spare time.  I cheered silently that he realizes, in the midst of his own busy life, that he needs spare time. Of course he also reads copious amounts of soccer news, which keeps him informed as he watches all the matches he can and blogs over at The Beautiful Game.

The Computer Scientist also keeps up with soccer news, and he read One Mountain Thousand Summits, by Freddie Wilkinson,  this month. He’s read a lot of climbing narratives, and he says One Mountain is “The best book of its kind that I’ve read. Freddie did a great job researching and challenging the reader with different perspectives. I like that he looked at it from the Sherpa perspective instead of sticking strictly to the outsiders’ perspectives. I also enjoyed that his structure did not follow the traditional (and tired) narrative ‘this then this then this’ style. If you’re interested in high-altitude climbing books, read this one for sure.”

He and the Preteen also continue to read manga. He read some Anima this month and says he can see the Preteen’s personality in the story. The Preteen read more Fruits Basket (there are twenty-some installments and she is nearly done). She also read Naruto, which she says is about a kid who is training to be a ninja, and who has a nine tailed fox spirit enter him during an attack in his village. OK, then. And Fullmetal Alchemist, which the Computer Scientist has also read, and which the Preteen just told me is about “Alchemists, mom. They’re doing alchemy.” (insert sigh here)

Ahem. Anyway, in addition to all the manga, she also read The Melancholy of Haruhi Suziyama, which she says is a Japanese novel about aliens. When I asked her to elaborate, she went on to tell me that the title character is a girl who turns out to be the god/creator of the world, and she is involved with a club that finds things that are out of the ordinary, whose members turn out to be aliens. She said the book’s dialog is too long in some parts, which made it hard to follow and less enjoyable.

So, in a way, everybody read something about freedom, death, and dreams — which along with love, are arguably the most common themes in human storytelling.  Up next?  The Preteen is reading some nonfiction books about food, and has more Manga and a stack of novels to pick from. I’ve seen an Iraq war memoir on the Computer Scientist’s nightstand. The Teenager is reading about Shakespeare, among other things.  And I am about halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone, and have too many things to list in my “to read” piles.

But tonight, in the midst of the hurrying back from a soccer game to get the men on the road for the Teenager’s interview tomorrow, preparations for a very busy week for both kids and for the Computer Scientist and me, chores on my to do list, etc., I took a few moments to sit on the screened porch, cat in my lap, watching the gloaming, trying to be mindful, letting my inner seeker have her moment of really free time.  It was peaceful. I’ll try to do it more.

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