Thursday, July 26, 2012

Off-the-list summer reading

Best book to stretch out over each morning's coffee while on vacation: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

I've read this book every summer at my parent's house since I discovered it in 2008, and I've written about it almost every year and it has landed on my Top Ten books of the year a few times.  I've always found it to be a book about safety: not the bike helmet or seatbelt kind of safety, but the kind where everything in life feels like it is in the perfect place: that all things good are protected for a few moments.  This time around, I started the book on our porch in Louisville while my mom was making breakfast, my dad was reading the paper and my brother was on his way down.  We kept door open to let the air in, everything was in the right place and I wanted to freeze it.

Best book to read when your hour and a half direct flight becomes a 9 hour traveling day:
Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson

My cousin has been raving about this book every time I've seen her the past few months, saying that it was funnier than Tina Fey's Bossypants and Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?. I was doubtful, but since those two books were so great, I was pretty excited to read it.  Luckily, the last person she lent it to gave it back just in time for her to hop a plane to visit my family in Louisville.  I've been reading a book that is much more dense than I anticipated, so I didn't think I'd be able to get to this one for about a week.

Then, on the way to the airport to head back to New York, we got emails and at least 3 automated phone calls that our flight had been cancelled.  So, because air travel is frustrating and we were now looking at a layover in Atlanta (which we barely made), I decided I needed something to keep me entertained and laughing.  It worked.  I had 40 pages to go the next morning, so I took it to the back garden at Park Slope's Starbucks.  Interestingly, it wasn't quite the same vibe as the outdoor space at my parents' house.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

a kindred article on reading from the NYT.

{Julia Kuo for the NYT, 7/30/11}
In my morning internet reading, I ran across a link to an opinion piece from last summer in the New York Times called Reading and its Rewards.  The author, Maile Meloy, writes about the summer she was ten and her dad decided that before she could have a ten speed bicycle she needed to read ten novels more serious than her diet of Trixie Belden and Archie comics and write about each one.  She did it, returned for a while to the stellar books written for kids like Narnia and The Westing Game and Madeleine L'Engle and then moved on, on her own accord, back to more challenging titles.

I completely related to the idea of reading toward a goal.  My childhood summers were spent picking out books at the library, carting home a big bag and then getting my summer reading map stamped by the librarian upon return, working towards the small prizes that the Centerville Public Library had cooked up for us right before school started.  As the type A person that I was, watching my card fill up with stamps was incredibly gratifying. Ha. My hometown library still sponsors this program, which I love.

Meloy's piece also got me reminiscing about other reading traditions I had growing up: it was household rule for my brother and I to read for at least a half an hour before we went to bed.  This requirement soon became a part of our daily rhythms and we both still read every night to this day.  And, especially in line with my thoughts about the book A Short History of Women, I love that my best book recommendations come from family members: cousins, aunts, my mom, my brother.  Reading is one of the best ways to bring people together.  

And, of course I loved her descriptions of the bicycle that eventually accompanied her adventures.  Her article was not just about reading, but about growing up.  It is worth reading, if you, too grew up as a reader.  All that to say, I would love to hear about other people's reading habits: do you have a summer reading list each year? What kinds of books did you read when you were younger? Did your library have a similar summer reading program? These are the kinds of rhythms I can only hope my students either keep or eventually rediscover.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On beauty and rebuilding from brokenness.

This has been a summer of devouring books.  All I want to do is sit and read.  The other morning I walked to get some breakfast and a coffee and took it up to Prospect Park with about half of Simon Van Booy's Everything Beautiful Began After.  I thought that I would stay for a half hour or so, but I got so lost that I remained on my shady bench for almost two hours and finished the book.  It left me a bit speechless and heartbroken, so I was glad to have been in the park and have a walk home to begin to process.

I did some research, as I usually do, on Van Booy when I finished the book and learned that he has dealt with tremendous loss in his life prior to publishing this story, which made what the characters went through feel more weighty to me.  This interview also provided some sweet insight into Van Booy as a person and I was able to understand his style of writing a bit more.  

The story begins with a prologue from the voice of a ten year old girl, simple and poetic; she is a newcomer to thinking about life.  She hopes to hear her parents' love story at dinner and the prologue ends with: "All she knows is that someone fell, and that everything beautiful began after," (7).  Then the story begins and the reader is left not knowing which characters are the parents to this child.

The book is set in Athens and the three main characters all went there in an attempt to escape not necessarily their lives, but the pain they have long carried with them.  Rebecca has left her job as a flight attendant to pursue painting.  George is there to study ancient languages.  Henry is there as a archaeologist.  The friendship and love that follows is beautiful and unexpected.  Then the story is wrought with tragedy, in the city of ancient Greek tragedy.  It is clear that this is a story not just about these characters, but about the coping and living with brokenness that people have done for all of time.  The second half follows how the characters try to pick up the pieces:

"A man on an upside-down bucket is selling small tubes of glue from a folding table.  On the table are things glued together.  He doesn't know where the museum is but asks if anything you have is broken.  'Everything,' you say in Greek.  He puts a tube of glue in your hands.  You hold out a few coins, but he pushes them away," (293).  

Slowly, the characters, like the city they find themselves in, begin to rebuild.  None of them is able to forget and each of them is forever changed and they attempt to find the balance of remembering the beauty of what was and continuing to look for beauty in a world that is capable of crumbling.  This always resonates with me and I've written about it quite a bit.  Every conversation I have with friends in the midst of heartbreak, or even just in talking about what the definition of good living, is grounded in paying attention to the small, simple pieces of beauty in the world, past or present, which is why I loved the metaphor of what Henry became: "He is a curator. He reconstructs scenes from the past to illustrate their beauty and significance."  He didn't try to completely forget the moments of beauty from his past, but rather recognize their worth. "He is enchanted by the beauty of small things: hot coffee, wind through an open window, the tapping of rain, a passing bicycle, the desolation of snow on a winter's day," (401). That is how I want to live. 

The end of the book comes back to the girl from the prologue and I found myself thinking about how in her story, everything beautiful began after people born before her experienced great pain.  That switch in perspective is beautiful in and of itself.

Monday, July 9, 2012

a short history of women.

The title of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women tells just that, depending on how you read the title.  The story is told non-linearly through narrators of 5 different generations of the Townsend family, beginning in England in 1898 and ending in New York in 2007.  As Walbert writes the story, the reader gets not only the family history, but also a window into some of the unique struggles of women over the last 110 years--which doesn't seem so long at first glance, but really is, especially considering that there weren't more than three generations alive at once in the story.  It was fascinating to see as the reader the connections these women shared 100 years apart and at the same time a bit heartbreaking that the characters weren't able to see them the way a reader could.

I have a huge extended family on both sides, and for almost two decades we were able to see four generations of my dad's family in the same room and on my mom's side we are going on 12 or so.  When my grandma passed away last summer, my dad and one of my uncles were reminiscing and I heard so many stories that I had never heard before, which was surprising because I hail from a story telling family.  It was a bit surreal at her burial because we were also standing here in Brooklyn amidst Robbins headstones dating back to the 1800s.  Like usual, I felt a part of something bigger, but there was also a twinge of sadness that there are some stories that passed with my grandma.

The same thing happens when I hear the handful of stories I know about my great grandmother on my mom's side.  Because I am the story lover nostalgic that I am, I often find myself wishing that I could go back and visit with her about when she moved to New York from Ireland.  I always wish I knew more about the threads of similarities that I share with the women in my family tree or that my aunts and cousins share.  While talking with one of my aunts this spring who is a retired teacher, I learned that she used to dedicate a day to celebrate the Super Bowl in her classroom, just like I do with the Ohio State/Michigan game.  My family is so big that sometimes it is easy to miss those kinds of connections.

All that to say, reading about the Townsend women in this book was really thought provoking, especially when some of the stories are placed side by side: the 1914 suffragette in England and the granddaughter she never met garnering strength from her memory, the mom in post 9/11 New York dealing with her panic and her own mother embarking on a new life at the end of it.  It makes me wish I could have a collection of the narratives of the women in my family.

{four generations of robbins: my grandma, one of my aunts, 2 of her daughters, another cousin and her daughter and I.  Oh, and FNL and The OC.}

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tree of Codes: an exercise in interpretation

Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer was on my radar for a long time.  It was published in late 2010, but I knew that I wanted to read it with other people because it's die-cut structure, taken from Bruno Schultz's The Street of Crocodiles, is so unique (see picture.  He removed text and his story is what remains).  What he has left his readers with is like a heightened, poetic literary experience that feels almost universal because they barely know the narrator.  Its publishing house, Visual Editions, says that "books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell." Luckily I have some kindred readers in my life, so we finally got to it after purchasing it at least six months ago.   We had our book discussion last week and realized that we wanted to nerd out, reread it, and reconvene in August for further conversation.   This interview from the New York Times further explains how this book is unique.

One of the most significant parts of our conversation came from looking at the book as a whole and the gaps in between the words: that perhaps they were a metaphor for what we know of people's stories.  If we only get a small part of the text, what do we do with that information? Do we try to fill in the gaps? Accept that they are there? It made us think about whether we can we ever know the entire story of anything be it a historical event, a person's life, or anything in between.

What pulled this together, though, was a statement in the middle of the story: "We find ourselves in the tree of codes."  I am still thinking through what the "tree of codes" actually is, but I keep connecting it to the narrative of life: that there are stories and moments that we are left to interpret and seek out some kind of meaning.  A few pages later it says, "the last secret of the tree of codes is that nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion."  This, of course, reminded me of reading--how one can read between the lines and take things away from the story, but how in art, and in turn life, interpretations may vary.

The biggest question from the text came on the third page from the end: "what was there to save us?" Having read The Street of Crocodiles after I initially read Tree of Codes, I know the deeper story of the original narrative; that there was a named conflict and that this question was practical.  In Foer's version, when the conflict and story is more general and open, the question feels even more weighty.  It leads me to think about the different things that people need to be saved from in this life.  It makes me think about hope.  It makes me think about what matters and where beauty and truth and words fall into the picture. It also conjures up feelings of sadness that can surround beauty, as well, and nostalgia, and the wondering if it will all ever fit together.

So, if you want to, find a copy of this book.  It will take you no longer than an hour to read and will provide you with seemingly endless fodder for mid summer thinking if you have been left in a haze of humidity and discussions revolving solely around the weather.  I'll be back with some continued thoughts in August.