reading: Caleb’s Crossing

It makes for a happy, little winter project when you find a writer you like who has a manageable backlog of titles.  This year, I was introduced to Geraldine Brooks’ particular brand of feminist historical fiction when gifted People of the Book this past Christmas.  I finished it with a surprisingly rapid pace, and was struck by Brooks’ imaginative interpretation of the distant past while still maintaining the measured, conservative analysis of ‘what it must have been like’ back then.

The format of People of the Book was all over the place, by design, since the story relates the life of a religious text over the course of 600 years in a handful of countries.  Caleb’s Crossing, however, meditatively focuses on the inner thoughts of one young woman living in colonial Martha’s Vineyard.  Bethia (the main character) is quite progressive for her time, stealing Latin and bible lessons by overhearing her father and brother’s daily discourse while she does her woman’s work.  In this way she also learns Wopanaotaok, the native language of the tribe that already lived on Martha’s Vineyard before it was even called that, and excels at it even over her learned father.  Her grasp of the language opens doors to her that are inherently forbidden for a woman and 17th century Christian.

The relationships of the people set out early in the novel grow and develop throughout its pages which is interesting enough, but what is really fascinating is the portrait Brooks’ paints of a woman during this time who should dare to use her mind, even just a little.  Bethia eventually finds herself working in the buttery (what the heck is that?  Sounds delicious…) at the newly founded Harvard College, stealing lessons once again through the adjoining window from president and professors while she attends to scrubbing pewter tankards with sand and baking bread, which these characters eat endlessly, as if nothing else exists in Puritan Massachusetts which, to be fair, is probably true.

I’m a skeptic, so when I read historical fiction I view the ‘historical’ part of the genre as a guideline the author uses and nothing more — though Brooks has made intensive research on all aspects of her novel. Imbuing historical truths (i.e. a Wampanoag man attending Harvard in the 1600s, which is by all accounts and documents true) can lead to confusion if the reader doesn’t have an active awareness that ‘this didn’t really happen’ but, oh look, ‘this actually did.’  Brooks does an excellent job of clearing up the solid truths, inspirational stories and out-and-out fabrications at the end of the book, which I totally appreciated.

The really positive part of reading historical fiction is that it has made me want to pursue more works of non-fiction on this story, the historical figures mentioned, and what Massachusetts was like 400 years ago.  I lived in Boston for 6 years but couldn’t have given a wharf rat’s ass about history (I actually lived right down the street from Paul Revere’s house, who is a whippersnapper compared to these characters) but Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing has ignited the learning spark.  Thank you!

Next time I find myself at the book store I’m seeking out Year of Wonder which I have been saving for last (I won’t be reading March, since I haven’t read Little Women and really don’t feel like doing so) since plague, disease and trauma are one of my favorite things to read about.  No joke!

Breeding Reading

Thank goodness.  You know when there’s something you care about but you keep on forgetting to be enthusiastic about it because you’re so damn tired from being enthusiastic about 50 other things?  I learned, this morning, that for me that thing was reading.  Not reading like “Oh, here’s a book by my pillow, I’ll read that as a substitute tranquilizer,” but reading like “Why are my hands glued to this book?  I can’t put it down!  I love to read its pages!!”  That kind.  Fabulous Allie from Broke207 wrote this post about LibraryThing based in Portland, Maine.  Wahoo!  I read her post, clicked the link, half-heartedly signed up and then saw what the website had to offer.  All of a sudden, I remembered how much I like to read, learn about new authors, new lifestyles, cry irrationally at bad romance novels and laugh (and snort) obnoxiously at short stories while boyfriend is trying to cook dinner, play video games, write a song, etc.

In addition to offering conversation forums on any and everything book-y, LibraryThing lists local events and has a library feature where you can list ‘your books’ which at this point I’m just starting with January and tracking my bookwormy progress through the apple of literary selections throughout the year.  Some genius obsessive compulsive candidates on there have fantastic numerical goals for this year:  “75 books in 2011!”  “13 books this month!”  “I’m going to read 5 books today!”  You… inspiring… asses.  Let’s just say I’m going to read a MILLIONTY books this year and if I don’t make it then at least I will have read very close to a millionty books.  LibraryThing (in addition to all its other offerings) will be the visual progress to this end.  Let’s bring it full circle and say I’ll even try to write a little about them here on my L.E.D. blog so that you all know I don’t just hide in my attic like Bart’s Twin Brother hunched over a workbench and bottle caps all the time.

Outside Lies Magic, by John Stilgoe.

Wow.  I’ve literally been reading this book for 5 years.  And it’s not even that long, page-wise.  Here’s the scoop:  John Stilgoe is a Harvard professor who teaches ‘wandering.’  Which is a pretty ding dong damn hard subject for a bunch of 18-year-old over-achieving pencil pushers to wrap their steel-trap minds around.  (Settle down, I love Harvard AND her crazy students who don’t know how to look both ways in while jaywalking). Hard for them mostly because it involves unlocking the door on the steel trap.  Stilgoe explores the methods of observation while wandering and elaborates on histories as they relate to infrastructure: railroads, the interstate, fences, power lines ad infinitum.  Or so it seems – this book is seriously less than 150 pages but every time I finish a few pages I have to think for a long time about the implications of its content.  I’ve fully digested most of this and am about 10 pages away from finishing (and probably starting again).

How did I come to know about this book?  My sophomore or junior year in college our teacher assigned it as required reading for the class as the subject matter really speaks true to photographers and artists, if no one else.  I spent the entire four years of secondary education as a Wandering Major.  I remember a keen sense of time/space as I walked Huntington Avenue my first weeks in Boston – to look up and catch a woman shaking a white blouse out of her window (wrinkled?  freshening up?) against a dark gray rain-wet roof and pale gray sky.  Trains intersecting as a stranger in a red coat walks towards me.  Photographer on a walk without a camera:  sad.  This is what Stilgoe starts to get at but he approaches it in a much more Harvard-y history way.  Can’t blame the guy for playing to his audience!

Slow Eddie, by Bruce Jones

You may have seen me drooling uncontrollably about this book before.  Thank you, Kate Sullivan-Jones‘ Dad, for writing a book that combines all the things I love about serious, thoughtful novels that contemplate overarching lifelong concepts AND soap operas a la Twin Peaks.  The book starts off by piquing the intellectual’s interests in very compelling ways (suicide, lust, longing) and finishes with some serious “Oh yes!  I love romance and cute things!” without going Danielle Steele on me.  It turns out, Kate says, that his Dad is secretly a teenage girl.  Awright!  Once when I went over to my father’s house and saw the really fantastic mess he’d created he said he was regressing to age 9 for awhile (awright!) but nothing as juicy as regressing to a 17 year old girl.  That is unique, and that person should be a writer.

In addition to being well-written and introducing characters that you become really invested in, Slow Eddie takes place on the Cape and in my book that’s local, so I love it.

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That’s it for now.  Kate lent me The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  It’s a murder mystery that takes place in Sweden and that’s really all you need to know for now.  I’m excited because this book is huge, or huge-ish so it will make me look smart when I read it in public places, which I plan to, because that is what being a Booky McGee is all about.