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!

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