86 years and counting …

The NPR reviewer who critiqued Iain Pears’ Stone’s Fall last spring found it hard to put this nearly 600-pager down. And while I DID finally find it difficult to put down, it took a few days for the novel to work its magic. The historical novel is vast, starting in 1953 with the death of Madame Robillard (aka Lady Ravenscliff, Elizabeth, Virginie, and Countess Von Futak). The list of Lady Ravenscliff’s aliases alone should give warning to just how complex is the storyline.

Stone’s Fall is really three books–the same story is told by three different characters in three different time periods: London,1909; Paris, 1890; and Venice, 1867. All three stories revolved in some way around the death or life of John Stone, an English business magnate who controlled armament production for much of Europe. Part One, which took place immediately following Stone’s death, followed a young journalist as he tried to make sense of Stone’s business holdings and banking practices of the day. Admittedly, this bored me to death. Stock options, bank trusts, and Fleet Street machinations are not the stuff of fiction for me! By Part Two is was evident that, although the book’s title was Stone’s Fall, is was really the story of his wife, Elizabeth. As Countess Von Futak, she ruled the salon’s of Paris–and how she came to that position was revealed in Part Three. I often found myself  paging back through the previous sections to determine whether or not I had “met” a character before, and under what circumstances. I also longed for a  timeline to unravel the characters’ connections to each other.

Poverty, prostitution, espionage, suicide, and insanity reared their ugly heads in Stone’s Fall–all the dirty laundry that make up the best reads. But it was the unraveling of Stone’s death that satisfied the most.The novel’s ending was powerful, if not by the last ten pages, predictable. No need for a HUGE spoiler alert here–I won’t spill any details–but suffice it to say I’m curious about the number of novels that include incest as a plot device. I was also pleased as a reader that Elizabeth, the character whom I thought I had figured out, turned out to be more complex than I presumed–and, in fact, wasn’t the woman I thought I knew. And for me, that is a good ending!

A young Odysseus

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
by Reif Larsen

I had no idea when I opened this beautiful, quirky, and imaginative novel what awaited me–every page is embellished with hand-drawn maps, drawings, schematics, sidebars, and footnotes that follow up on some reference in the narrative. Supposedly the story of twelve-year-old T.S. (Tecumseh Sparrow) Spivet, map maker extraordinaire, the novel follows T.S. on his hobo trip from Montana to Washington, D.C. to collect the coveted Baird Award from the Smithsonian Museum. But the tale is so outlandish, so unbelievable, it holds all the power of an epic. And perhaps in the end, it is best to read the book that way.

All epic heroes come from a homeland that shaped and molded him or her and T.S. is not different. T.S. and his family live on the Coppertop, a ranch nestled against the Great Divide. T.S’s mother, Dr. Claire, is a dedicated scientist (and distracted mother) who seeks the never-seen tiger beetle. Dad is a throwback to the Old West–a man who speaks cowboy-ese, drinks whiskey, and watches old westerns in the settin’ room. T.S. has two siblings … or had. For the death of his younger brother Layton looms like a dark shadow over the Spivet’s lives. Gracie, his teenaged sister, tolerates her odd family–barely.

What sets T.S. apart is his genius for diagramming and mapping nearly every aspect of life. Some of his maps are ordinary–Scratch of the Nib, Walking Chart, Concentration of Litter in Chicago–; some, sublime–Identification of Cow Path Tiger Beetle Subspecies, Sound Drawing of Brahm’s Hungarian Dance No. 10. T.S.’s mentor, Dr. Terrance Yorn, has been submitting his work to the Smithsonian for some time and T.S.’s work has been published in journals such as Science and Scientific American–no one, however, suspects that the elegant graphics were drawn by a twelve-year-old.  The labyrinth of T.S.’s mind (that’s another map!) is amazing (pun intended). He is curious and insightful–surely a genius. And perhaps this super human feat is what points in the direction of an epic reading of his story.

After first refusing the Baird, T.S. decides to set off on his own to claim the prize, certain that his family is better off without him: Dr. Claire is preoccupied, his father ashamed of him, sister Gracie is, well, a teenager, and Layton dead in a freak shooting accident. T.S. jumps (or rather grabs on by his fingernails) loaded with an unwieldy suitcase filled with mapping pens, notebooks, a sparrow skeleton, and other non-sequiturs. Almost magically, T.S. finds that the car on which he has stowed away hauls a motor home. And it is from the relative comfort of the camper that T.S. makes his way across country.

The trip is a series of misadventures that could (or could not) be true: T.S. enters a worm hole on the Great Plains; he discovers a  Hobo Hotline number that is one easy phone call away from the destination of any railroad train in the U.S.; he encounters a ranting homeless man who wounds him severely; he joins the secretive Megatherium club; he is invited to the President’s State of the Union Address–only to skip out on it. This could all be simple fun, an unabashed rollick of a story … or these could be adventures every bit as significant as Odysseus’ encounters with the Cyclops, Scylla and Charibydis, and the Sirens. That just takes a little more effort than I was willing to on a hot and humid summer day … so perilous adventure tale it was.

Just started: Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears (And it’s good already after only a chapter.)

Summer daze

Uglies
by Scott Westerfield

It was during a classroom discussion of Fahrenheit 451 that one of my students said, “This is just like the Uglies.” What followed was a rather confusing rush of plot tidbits from two or three of the girls. I’m not sure the novel even sounded interesting to me at that point, but I made the promise to read it this summer–just as I did last summer with Twilight.

Uglies is a dystopian young adult novel (a kind of Giver for teens) about a world divided into groups based on looks and age: littlies, uglies, new-Pretties, mid-Pretties, and finally, Crumblies. At age sixteen everyone undergoes an operation to become a Pretty–bones are lengthened or shortened, skin removed, iris’ implanted, cheekbones sculpted, eyes widened. Pretties are then segregated into Pretty Town where they party wildly and indulge their passions.

As the story opens, Tally Youngblood is lonely, having lost her best friend Peris a few months before when he “turned”. Once prettified, Pretties no longer associate with Uglies. Then Tally meets Shay and the two Uglies become fast friends. Shay, however, has plans to escape her turning–she claims not to want the operation–and has made a few inroads with runaways who live in the Smoke. While Tally tries to convince Shay not to run, Shay is true to her word and disappears only days before her turning. Though saddened at the loss of yet another friend, Tally is still eager for her own operation.

Special Operations, however, has other plans. Tally is blackmailed into leading the authorities to Shay and the Smoke–her refusal would mean she would stay ugly forever. Tally eventually makes her way to Shay and is intrigued by life in the secret settlement. In the Smoke she reads magazines in the library and sees that hundreds of years in the past everyone was ugly–weight, height, eye and skin color all differed from person t0 person. Tally finds satisfaction in the Smoke, and falls in love with David, an ugly who has never lived in a city. A twist of fate brings down the Smoke and the rest of the book sees Tally trying to free those captured by Special Operations (such a blatant pun!)–and in the process Tally discovers the awful secret David’s parents had uncovered.

[spoiler alert]

Westerfield attacks our preoccupation with outer beauty and touches on the idea of lookism. Teens who are bombarded (and often overwhelmed) by media and social pressure to measure up to a certain standard of beauty will find the novel compelling. And while I rarely read the second volume of these teen trilogies, I found myself wondering … what will happen to Tally after her operation? Will she remember the promise she made to find a cure …

… to be continued?! Whatever the case, on a cloudy summer afternoon I was pleased to find myself in that reading fog that only comes from reading for hours and hours–oblivious to the demands of the everyday. It is truly summer.

Chicks on Books

The first ever meeting of the Chicks on Books book club met today at M’s! A great group with strong opinions and never at a loss for words–what could be better?!(In fact, how does one know if the discussion is too animated?) I am looking forward to the summer books we’ll read … and also a bit surprised that the initial books, anyway, are non-fiction. Who knew? Always an avid reader, I’ve only just started reading non-fiction myself in the past several years–really with the advent of my AP class. I would have thought that the bent would have gone towards fiction, my all-time favorite get-away.

We’ve checked off The Glass Castle today. July’s read will be Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Janzen; August will see us reading Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. Can’t wait!

Mindfulness

Savor
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Having read Living Buddha, Living Christ and skimmed Hanh’s Meditations on Mindfulness, I was pleasantly surprised by the time I finished Savor, co-written with Dr. Lilian Cheung. The practice of yoga first introduced me to the idea of living in the moment several years ago, and Thich Nhat Hanh writes compellingly about the practice. Yet I had always thought of mindfulness as a spiritual practice–a means to deepen my relationship with self, others, and the Divine.

The opening chapters of Savor were a primer on the practice of mindfulness, and I so skimmed much of them. Then followed some information about the necessity of healthful eating and exercise for weight reduction–and anyone who has gone through years of Weight Watchers as I have knows the score on that front. So it is probably safe to say that for the book’s first half I was a bit disappointed.

Until, that is, I came to Hanh’s idea of habit energy–the idea that many of our harmful eating patterns are no more than a habit, and that habit exerts an energy that often governs our behavior. The way around the habit energy of poor eating are the Seven Practices of a Mindful Eater. Now this was a little more food for thought (pun intended): honor the food, engage all six senses, serve in modest portions, savor small bites, eat slowly, don’t skip meals, and eat a plant-based diet. Pretty basic, but at least a fresh look at what I already should know. And since we’re finally entering the summer season, the idea of honoring food when I shop at the farmer’s market is easy, as is engaging all senses.

But it was the Mindful Living Plan that more fully incorporated the idea of mindfulness and made the practice … well, practical (would you believe I just now noted the root of the two words is the same?)! Hanh’s plan is composed of three components: InEating, InMoving, and InBreathing. Each of these practices incorporates the mindfulness breathing technique–“I breathe in … I breathe out …” InMoving has me walking mindfully, becoming aware of my feet and focusing on their contact with the ground–walking in the moment, no “to-do list” racing through my head. InBreathing is given the most consideration, with breathing meditations for everything from teeth brushing to emailing to traffic jams. The thought of applying mindfulness to brushing my teeth seemed both ridiculous … and sublime. Of course this is mindfulness, and at its purest.

In the end, I would recommend Savor to anyone who wants to deal with poor eating and exercise habits in a more holistic manner. Those who are familiar with the practice of mindfulness can skim through the first half of the book; those who are new to the idea will find it easy to understand and accessible.