29 August 2010

Life Through a Lens

Books read:
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. New York: Picador (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 2006. M. bought it two? years ago. Finished 10 August 2010 (while I was an election judge at Minnesota's primary election).

Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. From the Saint Paul Public Library; finished 11 August.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico by Andrew L Kraut. Norman [Okla.]: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Read 18 August 2010 in Abiquiu, N.M.

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence. London & New York: Continuum, 2009, 2003. Rainy Days, 19 July. Finished 22 August.

The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher (Penguin), 2005. From SPPL, where I renewed it the maximum number of times, meaning I've had it out nine weeks. Finally finished it 29 August.

Still reading:
Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor by Tad Friend. New York: Little, Brown, 2009. Kindle edition.

Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia by Patricia Morrisroe. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010. Kindle edition.

Started:
The Little Stranger by Sarah Walters. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2009. From SPPL.

Turn & Jump: How Time & Place Fell Apart by Howard Mansfield. S.l.: Down East, 2010. From Amazon; bought after reading review in WSJ.

Not started yet:
The New Stranded Colorwork: Techniques & Patterns for Vibrant Knitwear by Mary Scott Huff. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 2009. Between Friends (Brainerd), 19 July.

Cable Confidence: A Guide to Textured Knitting by Sara Louise Harper. Woodinville, Wash.: Martingale, 2008. Between Friends, 19 July.

North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. Minneapolis: University if Minnesota Press, 2010. Bought at Book World in Baxter 22 July.

Myths from Mesapotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 1989. From Amazon, July 2010.

You could argue that all nonfiction is autobiography. This seems especially true in these early years of the 21st century, when many authors seem to be turning to memoir as a way of making sense of a lifelong obsession. Four books on my list this month — two Read, and two Still Reading — especially bring this point home, sometimes to ridiculous heights. I started reading them after my "Year in the Life" post, which of course colored my choices, but I still think we're on to a trend here.

The Stargazing Year is a life through a literal lens: a telescope. Charles Calia, who lives in Connecticut, sometimes thinks he's inherited the New England mantle of self-conscious pronouncements — he reminds us in the penultimate chapter that Robert Frost, too, was a passionate amateur astronomer. Hence, from p. 113:

The stars at night comfort us with reliability. For generations, people have looked up to wonder, argue, and plead. They have done this from caves, in the backs of pickups and on the backs of horses, in fields and on patios, in mansions and in huts. The stars demand our awe and respect, but they also require something else: that we look up. 'Some things are never clear,' writes Robert Frost, 'but the weather is clear tonight.' And there is no better call to arms for the backyard stargazer. A clearing sky, stars on the rise.

And so on. But Calia's enthusiasm and self-deprecating humor save us from being crushed by profundity. His book takes us through the year he decided to build a small observatory in his backyard; his best comic moments come from his own self-described inept carpentry, and his realization at the end (thanks to a one-upping friend) that what he has after a year's labor is essentially a leaky shed. But Calia gives us the stars' psychological pull as well as their scientific significance; ultimately his obsession is infectious.

Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is less engaging. I remember liking Meghan Daum's novel The Quality of Life Report a few years ago, but I found her persona in this memoir — life seen through the lens of her real-estate obsession — self-absorbed and whiny. I wanted it to be about me, not her: why are we all, as a nation, fixated on HGTV's "house porn"? Instead we get a woman who has enough cash to blow on lost "earnest money" for houses in New York, California, and (yes) Nebraska that she buys and drops like discarded boyfriends. She has enough self-knowledge to make the boyfriend connection (over & over, in fact), but not enough for anyone else (e.g. Me) to make the leap into empathy.

Other notes: The Pueblo Revolt of 1680. When M. and I toured the Taos Pueblo earlier this month and read the one-paragraph history in its brochure, we wondered: Why did the Indians destroy the pueblo's church during their short-lived rebellion at the end of the 17th century? This book is not the most dynamic history in the world, but it answered the question. The conquistadors used the Catholic church as a weapon against the Indians as they colonized the American Southwest. At best, priests were forced to play "good cop" against the Spanish King Philip IV's "bad cop" soldiers. It made me wonder if all modern science fiction, especially "Star Trek," is not a long atonement for the anguish and bloodshed when real Europeans encountered real Americans.

Becoming Jane Austen: A Life. This was exhausting to read at first, since the family tree that Jon Spence is at pains to describe is punctuated by half-siblings, stepchildren, marriages between cousins, and at least one adoption (Jane's brother Edward, who took his adoptive parents' name: Knight). But what emerges is a very human portrait of a writer who ends up using her novels to work out the problems of sexuality and affection that her family presented her with. I haven't seen the 2007 movie based on this book, but maybe I should.

The Echo Maker. This was the only fiction I read this month, and I loved it. Complicated, absorbing plot; great setting (Kearney, Neb.!). I've had this on my list since it won the 2006 National Book Award, and it was worth the wait. I agree with J.W. in my book group that it's overwritten at times, but when we're talking about issues of memory, loyalty, and family, who cares? For the coming month, Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger is well on its way to filling the fiction gap in my life; I've found it compelling from the very first page. Hooray!

06 August 2010

Feel-Good Reads

Books read:
The House of Arden: A Story for Children by E. Nesbit. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1923, 1908. Kindle edition. Finished 14 July 2010.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2009. From Rainy Days Books. Finished 18 July.
False Mermaid by Erin Hart. New York: Scribner, 2010. From Common Good Books. Finished 20 July.
Summer at Tiffany: A Memoir by Marjorie Hart. New York: Avon, 2010, 2007. Rainy Days, 18 July. Finished (read in one sitting) 21 July.
Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip by Matthew Algeo. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2009. Bought at Harry Truman historic site in Independence, Missouri. Finished 23 July 2010.
Hot (Broke) Messes: How to Have Your Latte and Drink It Too by Nancy Trejos. New York: Business Plus, 2010. Bought at Common Good. Finished 25 July.
The Quickening Maze by Adam Foults. New York: Penguin, 2009. Amazon. Read (in one sitting) 27 July.
Time at the Top by Edward Ormondroyd. Berkeley, Calif.: Parnassus Press, 1963. From the St. Paul Public Library. Read 28 July.
All in Good Time by Edward Ormondroyd. Berkeley, Calif.: Parnassus Press, 1975. Via inter-library loan from the University of Minnesota at Morris. Finished 4 August.

Purchased:
Summer at Tiffany [see above]
Becoming Jane Austen: A Life by Jon Spence. London & New York: Continuum, 2009, 2003. Rainy Days, 19 July.
The New Stranded Colorwork: Techniques & Patterns for Vibrant Knitwear by Mary Scott Huff. Loveland, Colo.: Interweave Press, 2009. Between Friends (Brainerd), 19 July.
Cable Confidence: A Guide to Textured Knitting by Sara Louise Harper. Woodinville, Wash.: Martingale, 2008. Between Friends, 19 July.
North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Bought at Book World in Baxter 22 July.
The Quickening Maze [see above].
Myths from Mesapotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Edited and translated by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 1989. From Amazon, July 2010.

Started:
Becoming Jane Austen [see above]
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. From the St. Paul Public Library.
Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. From the St. Paul Public Library. (Got halfway through with this before I learned that it is not August's pick for my book group. Apparently I talked everyone into The Echo Maker instead, then forgot I'd done so.)
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. New York: Picador, 2007.

Still Reading:
Germania: In Wayward Pursuit of the Germans and Their History by Simon Winder. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2010.
The Stargazing Year: A Backyard Astronomer's Journey Through the Seasons of the Night Sky by Charles Laird Calia. New York: Penguin, 2005. From the St. Paul Public Library.


As you can see, leisure time at the lake (or rather, as we say in Minnesota, at The Lake) worked its magic: Look at all the books I knocked off my list! You will notice, however, that I quickly filled in all the gaps I created by my industry — it turns out that there are three bookstores (and two libraries) within easy reach of The Lake. So I won't be running out of reading material anytime soon.

In between books, and swimming, and eating, I mused on the nature of literary happiness. After all, leisure reading is almost by definition books that make us feel good. Of course we all have different happiness triggers. I am not really a "thriller" fan, for instance, although, if you believe magazine book columns and airport-bookstore displays, that's supposed to be what all of America reaches for on the way to a beach vacation. Why? Who knows. I'm by no means immune to the page-turner, but I have a low tolerance for all but the most cartoonish violence. Reading about extreme human pain does not make me feel good (sorry, John Sandford). But that's just me.

I wrote a little bit ago about a friend who asked me to recommend books that would make her happy. Here you see some of the grocery-bag full of books that I lent her then: Jack Finney's Time and Again, Laurie Colwin's Happy All the Time, Laurel Doud's This Body, Elizabeth Jane Howard's The Light Years trilogy, Jane Hamilton's Laura Rider's Masterpiece, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, and mysteries by Josephine Tey and Jo Dereske. I barely remember the plots, but I will always remember how wonderful I felt while I was reading them. A Suitable Boy in particular was like a vacation in itself. We bought it (all 1,350 pages!) at Oslo's English-language bookstore the year we lived in Norway. My husband and I were so hungry for English words — you get that way when you're surrounded by a foreign language — that we devoured it like starving creatures. I think we even fought over whose turn it was to read it. Opening its pages was a direct doorway to Vikram Seth's world: a large Dickensian family in India whose problems and personalities became an extension of our own.

That trying on of different worlds is what makes a Great Escape for me. (What's the Emily Dickinson line? "A book is like a frigate"?) And my ability to be immersed in those worlds is probably what has kept me off drugs all these years. My father used to say, "If libraries were bars, you and your sisters would be drunks!" — which was more or less the literal truth. The public library was about halfway between my small-town high school and home, and after a particularly rough day I would stop there to find solace in Madeleine L'Engle or Agatha Christie. These were my double scotches, my Marlboros, my cocaine; I was lucky they were there.

I had to pause in the middle of this to look up the poem I was misremembering before. Here's the whole thing, number 1263 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960), edited by Thomas H. Johnson:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.