Archive for June, 2009


I think I have always been a fan of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.  I can remember being in sixth grade and finding out that President Reagan had nominated a woman as Supreme Court Justice.  We must have talked about it at school, because the memory is attached to my classroom (shout-out to Mr. Brown’s sixth grade, Iditarod Elementary!).   She’s been a fabulous role model and has written some wonderful decisions that make clear (to me at least) how the law protects individuals from government intervention.  I recently read two books of hers – Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest (with her brother H. Alan Day) and The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice.

I saw Justice O’Connor on Charlie Rose years ago (I believe in support of Lazy B) and was so impressed with her class and poise.   Rose – hardly a pushy interviewer – had asked her to comment on her fellow justices (Clarence Thomas, in particular – a rather mild question regarding his lack of decision writing during his tenure on the Court) and she told him, very calmly and politely, that she would not discuss her colleagues.  When he asked another question similar to the first, she just sat – dignified and attentive – waiting for the next question.  Not sullen, not defensive, not angry or even irritated.  She had already answered him and was very comfortable sitting in silence until he asked a new question worth answering.  It was so cool!  My respect for her leaped higher.

I tend to be a passionate defender of women’s rights and the feminist perspective.  Justice O’Connor is a calm, reasoned defender of the inherent rights in all persons, defended in this country by the Constitution and the three branches of government created by that fabulous document.  I get riled up about women getting paid less and treated as sex objects; she deliberates quietly about what the Bill of Rights says, how men and women have used the Rule of Law to defend themselves against unjust actions.  When I read what she’s written, I remember that what provokes my – often emotional – response can also be defended by citing law and reason.  I’m glad she’s around to do it for us, because I certainly do not have that kind of poise and equanimity.

That interview was 7 years ago, but I just finally read Lazy B, as well as The Majesty of the Law.  Neither of these books is terribly exciting or plot-driven.  Lazy B – written with her brother – is the story of their childhood on a ranch which cut across the border between Arizona and New Mexico.   Lazy B reads more like an essay or a biography – but not of a person, but rather a place and way of life.  It follows the lives of the people who lived and worked that ranch – their parents, cowhands and others – and how a great deal of self-confidence and self-sufficiency was necessary to keep it running profitably.  Anyone interested in ranching life in the Southwest during the first half of this century would enjoy it, as well as those who were interested in Justice O’Connor’s early life. Anyone looking for juicy details about O’Connor (or her family) will be disappointed.  She brings the same sense of decorum to the book as she does to other aspects of her demeanor.

The Majesty of the Law is what to read if you are looking for insight into the mind of O’Connor.  Again, not a personal or exciting book, but filled with what influenced her in the past and interests her now regarding the law in the U.S. and beyond.  She looks at the creation of the Supreme Court and its authority, how the Court has changed, and influential Justices over the last 200 years.  She also discusses her views on way to improve the current system (revamp the jury system, reintroduce ethics into the legal profession) and the spread of the Rule of Law throughout the world.  All of this with a thoroughly reasoned approach that makes it clear that she has facts, figures, history and law to back up her conclusions.

I wonder if she was chosen as Supreme Court Justice because of her grace, or being a Supreme Court Justice caused her to become so refined.  Either way, it makes me sad that she no longer sits with those who are looking out for us.

My sister is a big fan of the historical bodice-ripper, but People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, is my kind of historical fiction. As soon as I saw the title, there was no question that I would have to seriously consider purchasing this book.  The blurb on the back did nothing to discourage me.  As much as the title sounds like a cheesy take on low-rent historical novels, what’s inside is a fabulous read by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Brooks (whom I’ve never read before).

Hanna is a specialist in text preservation, sent to Sarajevo to authenticate and restore a 500-year-old, illustrated Jewish prayer book, known as the Sarajevo Haggadah (which really exists).  As Hanna examines and rebinds the book, we learn the history of the book through those who created, sheltered and used the book throughout its history.   Much of the history Brooks shares is accurate (with names and details changed) and much is invented, but the result is a tribute to those who put what is right above what is safe.  Part detective novel, part human drama, part history lesson – this novel contains the best and worst of human behavior in all its glory.

As we follow the book through its travels, we visit places where – contrary to the current public discourse – Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in harmony as well as close quarters.  And yes, that was places – plural.  Seville, Vienna and Sarajevo are among the cities where people lived together, putting their parallels as human beings above their disparities as believers.  None of these golden ages lasted forever – nothing is certain but change.  I revel in these examples of places and times when people realized that – regardless of upbringing or faith – we all have something to learn and share with each other.  The things we have in common are more important and numerous than the things we do not.  I’m sure that comes across as simplistic and sappy – but that doesn’t mean it is false.  That is what I believe, and what keeps me going in the face of a negative world.  It is nice to spend time with someone who shares my view, and includes evidence of whole communities who agreed.  Those of us who wish to build a future of diversity and understanding can be encouraged by past successes.

Regardless of whether or not this theme is important to you, the story is gripping, the character of Hanna is interesting, and any fan of the CSI shows will find lots of scientific exploration to entertain them.  The writing is not top-notch, but well-done and moves at a nice pace. I thought the frame story of Hanna’s life was a bit thin, but the story of the book is well-executed and a great read.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is the story of one person’s life as she experiences the 20th century (primarily) in North America. There are wars, depression, children, love, work, illness, death and everything else in-between.   One of the first books I discussed here was Happenstance, also by Shields.  I liked it, but had expected more.  TSD was everything I expected from a Shields novel – well-written, surprising, technically impressive and full of interesting commentary on the human condition.    Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it – it won a Pulitzer Prize, the Governor General’s Award (Canada) and National Book Critics Circle Award.

This is the good stuff.  Every detail speaks to every other detail, and there are layers underneath the layers.   One example: the title – The Stone Diaries – works on several levels.  The book is a ‘diary’ of Daisy’s life – and her mother’s maiden name is Stone (though we know nothing about Mercy Stone’s family).  Daisy’s father and father-in-law were both stone cutters in rural Canada in the early 1900s, and her father eventually made his fortune selling a popular limestone in Indiana.  After Daisy’s mother dies, her father constructs a tower of stone around her grave.  The tower becomes so big that it attracts tourists to the area.  He also starts a stone pyramid in Bloomington after returning from a trip to Egypt, but never finishes it.  These are only the references to stone I can immediately recall – there are dozens more.

The book has an interesting structure.  It is written as a biography or journal – including letters from relatives and supposed family pictures – but is a work of fiction.  The book is separated into different sections – Childhood, Love, Ease, Death, etc.  Each section is presented differently.  For instance, the section where we learn of the unusual circumstances of Daisy’s birth is narrated by an omniscient Daisy.  Daisy tells how she imagines her birth (and the mother she never knew) based on the facts she’s been given.  This is the only section where we truly get a first-person account of Daisy’s life – the part she had no personal recollection of.

After her husband dies, she writes a column for the local newspaper. This section is presented via letters written to Daisy – nothing written by Daisy herself or even any events narrated in a third-person.  She is writing for a living, but we don’t see any of her writing.  I am certain this is a deliberate attempt to illustrate her powerlessness, she has a ‘voice’ in her writing, but in the end she is ‘let go’ so a man could have the job.

There is a different form for each section, but it is never choppy or a case of style interfering with story-telling.  I never lost interest and was always wondering what was coming on the next page.  Shields is a master at conveying not just events, but experiences.  This one goes in the permanent collection.

I think the best literature is that which attempts to bring the basic human experience to light.  I know that there is a different story for every individual person on this big ball of dirt, but the inner workings of all 6.5 million of them are not terribly different – only the circumstances.  We all love, hate, cry, laugh, eat, sleep and struggle.  The best writers can tell you things about yourself and your fellow human beings that you didn’t know you already knew.  On Beauty by Zadie Smith is one of those.

On Beauty is the story of a family.   There are lots of details about this family I could tell you – the mother is a black Americanwoman from the south and the father is a white Englishman.  The husband is a professor of Art Criticism who is very cerebral, the wife is a hospital administrator who is very emotional. They have three children who are smart and funny and very, very different.  They live in the Boston area.  The children are all in their late teens-early 20s.  The marriage is going through a rough patch.

But those are just facts.  They are sharply depicted but merely the backdrop on which this novel is painted.  The title is On Beauty, and that beauty comes in lots of flavors here, but they ultimately lead back to the central beauty – love.  Not sappy romantic love – real-life, hard-core, everyday all day love.  Husbands, wives, children, siblings, parents, family, friends.  The love that ties them together, causes them pain and heals their wounds.  It wrenches the heart and makes it new.  Smith shows us how love looks – how it cannot exist without pain and forgiveness and clarity and commitment.

In case I’ve been unclear up to this point, let me just state for the record – I love this book. I love it for a dozen reasons – the writing is fabulous, the family dynamics are powerfully and painfully accurate in detail and texture.  It takes place on a college campus full of over-educated brainiacs who use the ‘cancer of their intellect’ to avoid facing their emotions (as I did for much of my life).  All its characters are beautifully flawed human beings.  But the reason this book will remain on my shelf forever (now that I finally own it) is because of one passage.

I read this book several years ago (it was published in 2005) and wrote this passages down in a journal I have for quotes that resonate powerfully within me.  This one is a favorite out of those – one that, while I can’t quote it word-for-word, I never forget is in there.

The three siblings in the book (aged 16 to 22) have just bumped into each other serendipitously on a street corner, and to celebrate they go have coffee together.  The oldest brother, Jerome – just back from college for the holidays – is basking in the happy glow of being with his siblings:

Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel – before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets.  After a few years, Levi arrived: space was made for him; it was as if he had always been.  Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth.  He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.

Makes me tear up every time I read it.  This passage made me feel guilty for not giving my son siblings.  It makes me want to pick up the phone and call my sisters and tell them I love them.  I’ve never read anything that comes close to portraying how being a sibling feels to me.  And I want to thank Zadie Smith for that gift, and share it with all of you.

I was just going to skip the write-up on Arresting god in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay, mostly because it doesn’t take many words to say “the writing was okay, but I didn’t get the point of any of its short stories.”  Instead, I decided it was an opportunity to discuss how I chose the books I end up reading.

Several things led to my picking up AgiK, none of them very scientific (must be the lit major in me).  I have several beloved authors that are Indian (Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arundhati Roy), and this author comes from the same area of the world.  I read ‘Nepal’ and my brain said ‘Tibet’ (again, same part of the world, I believe they maybe even be adjacent to each other, although I have not verified that). So I was thinking ‘the same country as the Dalai Lama’.  But of course, that couldn’t have been true, because one of the other things that intrigued me was that Samrat Upadhyay is supposedly ‘the first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West.’  And we all know that the Dalai Lama has published several books – but maybe he doesn’t write in English?  You see how I was tricked?

And that title – Arresting god (note small g) in Kathmandu – how cool does that sound?  I’m a sucker for the obscure title (Five Quarters of an Orange? quarter=four, how did they get five?).  Smacks of questioning religion (a particular area of interest for me), exotic places (who even knows where Kathmandu is?  Or how to pronounce it correctly?).   And in practical terms – as my roommate pointed out – what do you do, put handcuffs on him?  How exactly does one arrest a deity? (I’m sure Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman would have a few ideas).

In the case of Away by Amy Bloom, I already mentioned that I picked it up because of 1) the title, and 2) it mentioned Alaska on the back.  In addition, the edition I have has a close-up of a fancy fruit bowl/centerpiece with a background of a stream through the wilderness.  Having picked up Blackberry Wine on the same shopping trip (with its associations with Five Quarters of an Orange), I imagined it would be similar to something by Joanne Harris so I finally picked it up.  Turned out, not so much.

It doesn’t surprise me that people stick with authors they know – if you’ve read previous books and enjoyed them, it is a safer bet to buy another of their books than to try someone you’ve never read.  That makes it tough for new authors, but there it is.  For those of us with an ever-voracious appetite for something new and exciting to read, there are resources out there to get more information on the latest book.  I have an email subscription to the weekly Powell’s newsletter, and in it they discuss upcoming releases and do tons of reviews/interviews/whatnot on their website as well.  I picked up Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, Population: 485 by Michael Perry, and bonk by Mary Roach (which I have not read yet) based on information I read in those newsletters.

There are also independent bookseller associations (such as indiebound.org) that distribute information on new releases that are less about making the publishers happy and more about telling readers about great writing. In stores like Title Wave, you’ll find cards placed in front of new releases with recommendations from the American Booksellers Association (a trade association of independent booksellers) and, like Powell’s, hand-written notes with recommendations from staff members. (In case y’all haven’t picked up on it yet, I’m a big fan of the independent bookstore ).

Obviously, you can check the best seller lists and book reviews in sources such as The New York Times and your local paper, but people like books for very different reasons, and you don’t always get a good sense of the book from a review.  I mean, seriously, some of you may have already decided that I have no idea what I’m talking about because you loved Away and have devoured everything Amy Bloom has read.  And it’s a tough world out there, I hate wasting my money on a book that wastes my time.  Thankfully, the world also invented the used bookstore.

I love spending half as much on a book – whether I love it or hate it – and having the option of getting at least half my money back (or like credit for future books) for a book that suckered me in with a cool title and a completely inaccurate synopsis.  I just add those to the pile, and next time I go to Powell’s (until recently, Title Wave) I take those duds with me and let the fine people at the store credit me for the junk I don’t want while I spend all that credit and more before they’ve even had a chance to look at them.  And of course, when the budget has been stretched beyond its limit, and the credit is all burned up – there’s always the library (whew!)

So get out there!  Take a chance!  Read a book!  That’s an order.