Family reunion reading: TransAtlantic

It occurred to me it would be fun if all the book lovers attending our extended family reunion this summer read the same book. Similar to what we do here in Rochester, NY once a year: “If all of Rochester read the same book,” a great project started by librarian Nancy Pearl in Seattle.

At the reunion, we could have an optional, one-time-only gathering to talk about the book.

Wouldn’t it would be interesting, I thought, to read a book that explored my husband’s family’s Irish heritage?

Easier said than done, because we all know what great storytellers the Irish are. When I asked for book suggestions on the family reunion Facebook page, the list got longer and longer.  I hoped no one would suggest James Joyce.

Fortunately, no one did. (Librarian and former book editor that I am, I haven’t read a single book by James Joyce. Like every other avid reader in the universe, I intend to. Someday.)

Angela’s Ashes was on the list, of course. But with all due respect to Frank McCourt, his ship sailed some time ago, and we have to make way for younger authors.

I’m no good at conducting family polls and other administrative tasks, so I made an executive decision. I chose Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, because it’s hot off the presses, getting lots of attention, and Irish through and through.

Transatlantic book cover

I hope my husband’s family doesn’t mind I made this unilateral call, especially since I don’t have one ounce of Irish blood.

One of the things I most admire about my husband is his unshakeable sense of justice and fairness. I’ve seen this in my in-laws, too. In fact, I’ve seen it in many members of the family I was so fortunate to marry into. This is not just something they give lip service to. In many different ways, they live their beliefs.

Maybe being Irish has something to do with it.

I work directly across the street from Mount Hope Cemetery where former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a prominent figure in the history of Rochester and our nation, is buried. There is a riveting scene in TransAtlantic that captures the essence of Douglass’s trip to Ireland in 1845.  I hadn’t realized Douglass had traveled to Ireland. That made TransAtlantic, for me, all the more relevant.

Members of our extended family have married or plan to marry into families from Nicaragua, Thailand, Saint Lucia, and other countries I can’t name simply because there are too many relatives to keep track of. (They are, after all, Irish.) If you’ve read my blog, you know I’m fascinated with the idea we may inherit from our ancestors a unique sensibility and way of looking at the world. I’m also intrigued by the wonderful new possibilities that may arise with the union of different cultures, possibilities inherent in the children who will be coming to our reunion.

Upcoming post on Transatlantic

In my next post, thoughts about Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, as well as his Let the Great World Spin. which won the National Book Award.

Here is a link to an interview with Colum McCann on Charlie Rose.

If you’ve read either of these books, tell us what you think in the comments. Are there books that speak to your own family’s ancestry?  Let us know!

 

IRISH FAMILY REUNION READING

The Sea, by John Banville

Circle of Friends, by Maeve Binchy (and other titles)

My Left Foot, by Christy Brown

Ireland, by Frank Delaney (and other titles)

The Gathering, by Anne Enright

The Wild Colonial Boy, by James Hynes

Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt

‘Tis, by Frank McCourt

Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott

The Mammy; The Granny; The Chisellers, all by Brendan O’Carroll

Trinity, by Leon Uris

Bestsellers Tell What Possesses Us – Telegraph Avenue

This past fall and early winter there was a perfect storm of top authors publishing new books. I wanted to read a handful of them to see what possesses some of our best creative minds and our popular culture. I wanted to break out of old habits and venture to new places I wouldn’t normally find on my own.

I didn’t get to as many books as I’d planned, but I did read:

  • Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver
  • San Miguel, by T.C. Boyle
  • This Is How You Lose Her; and a previously published book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
  • Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon
  • Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

Most difficult of all was acclimating to the world of Telegraph Avenue. I almost gave up on it. I couldn’t keep Chabon’s characters straight, I was clueless about the endless blaxploitation and 1970s cultural allusions, even though that was my coming-of-age time, and I sometimes struggled with the rich, complex (and masterful) prose. The great librarian Nancy Pearl has a Rule of 50: Stop reading after 50 pages if you don’t like the book, and if you’re over 50 you can subtract your age from 100 and stop there. So I was well within my rights to stop before 50 pages, but I kept going with Telegraph Avenue, and it was worth it.

Telegraph Avenue book coverTo me, Telegraph Avenue and Junot Diaz’s books are similar in that I entered completely unfamiliar hearts, minds, and worlds. I’m unlikely to stop by a used record store in Oakland, California any time soon, or meet the kinds of characters (and I mean that in more than one sense of the word) who might hang out there.  In Telegraph Avenue, Archy (who is black) and Nat (who is white) are best friends, vinyl record shop business partners, and musicians struggling to make a living in a neighborhood that’s seen better days.

For one reason or another – race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, changing times – the characters in Telegraph Avenue are outsiders or has-beens or both: former blaxploitation and martial arts stars, connoiseurs of soul and jazz and long-forgotten record albums, fine musicians in their own right. Many are regulars at Archy and Nat’s Brokeland Records, which reminded me of the bar in the TV show “Cheers.” I grew to like and care about these characters in large part because of their passion for music and devotion to their art. My godfather was a jazz pianist, and I dated a jazz musician. I remember how both lived and breathed jazz, in the same way Archy, Nat, and others do in Telegraph Avenue. Music shaped their lives, and when they were playing a gig, they had an aura of dignity and charisma others envied.

Yet, both my godfather and the musician I dated played the kind of jazz that was seen by many as antiquated in the 1960s and 70s when music was reinventing itself. There is the same sense of this passing away of art forms in Telegraph Avenue, and of people being rushed headlong into the future while trying to preserve what shouldn’t be lost.

If you’ve read Telegraph Avenue, what did you think? Please comment!

I’d like to give equal time to new, lesser known, and independent authors, so I plan in the coming months to read a sampling of fiction by some of these writers. If you have a book to suggest please do in the comments.

I found enlightenment in the Pacific Northwest

In May, I happily stumbled on the secret to enlightenment when I attended the Medical Library Association (MLA) annual meeting in Seattle and vacationed with my family in the Cascades.

It all started with MLA speaker and best-selling author Steven Johnson, who told us about a theory he encountered while researching his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.  (Steven is a great speaker, not to mention that he reminds me of one of my favorite Downton Abbey characters.)

Some believe the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment occurred, in part, when the middle class switched from alcohol to coffee and tea as their beverage of choice. With clean drinking water scarce, people drank ale or wine, even for breakfast. When coffee and tea imports became available, many switched from alcohol – a depressant – to caffeine, a stimulant.

Coffeehouses, where “ideas [could] spill from one mind to another,” became popular, according to Johnson. “The coffeehouse was a multidisciplinary space.” (So are libraries, he said, in a nod to his audience.) People from all walks of life who normally would not encounter one another engaged in “a diversity of conversations.”

So, coffee and tea led people to a kind of hyperactive exchange of ideas, which in turn led to innovation.

Johnson predicts that the internet and social media are a new kind of global, virtual coffeehouse spawning another great age of innovation.

I experienced coffee and coffeehouses on an entirely new level during my stay in Washington. In Rochester, New York, we don’t have drive-through espresso kiosks as in the Pacific Northwest. They are ubiquitous in the Seattle area, even on the edge of wilderness. Up in the Cascades, if you need a dentist, quick, or someone who knows how to repair a transmission, you may be out of luck – but you can almost always find a cup of coffee.

My theory is, there is so little sunshine people need the caffeine to keep going.

At any rate, I also noticed that the Pacific Northwest has thriving literary communities. People here really appreciate books, and they love coffee, and they love combining the two.

For me, the combination of exceptional coffee, great bookstores, access to the internet and, last but certainly not least, absolutely stunning scenery and fresh, mountain air, was so invigorating. I felt the ideas flowing. Like I was on the verge of my own personal enlightenment.

The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle

The Elliott Bay Book CompanyWe spent several hours visiting The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle’s largest independent bookstore, which also has (of course) great coffee. Elliott Bay has a full roster of book signings and author readings, and a terrific blog. Here is what I bought there:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, by Karen Armstrong

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugen Herrigel

Pearl Street Books & Gifts in Ellensburg, WA. Pearl Street Books & Gifts

I wanted to see the high desert on the eastern side of the Cascades, so we drove to Ellensburg, WA, where we discovered the delightful Pearl Street Books & Gifts. Owner Michele Bradshaw is passionate about books and literature.  She and I talked about our reading interests. Michele enjoys making recommendations, and it’s obvious she puts a lot of thought into creative, customer-responsive bookselling.

I liked the Magic Table, a display of enticing best-sellers and high quality fiction and nonfiction. Quality is apparent on every shelf and surface in the shop, where carefully chosen books are displayed cover side up. Michele has put together a number excellent book collections, including young adult, children’s, fiction, memoir/biography, and Pacific Northwest authors.

Pearl Street Books & Gifts also hosts 11 book clubs, a tea club, a knitting club, and yoga workouts.

While I was there, I bought:

The White Cascade: The Great Northern Railway Disaster and America’s Deadliest Avalanche, by Gary Krist

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America, by Timothy Egan

Booklust to Go, by Nancy Pearl

Queen Anne Books

Cover of Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott

Climb, climb, climb Queen Anne Avenue in Seattle and you’ll be rewarded at the top of the hill with tree-lined streets and all manner of shops, including Queen Anne Books. On the shelves are literally hundreds of hand-written staff recommendations, the sign of a great bookstore. Here, Windee recommends Anne Lamott’s latest book about her new grandson, Some Assembly Required.


Seattle Central Library

The Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a local architectural firm.

I had a great time this spring walking the Pacific Crest Trail with Cheryl Strayed (who has just inspired Oprah Winfrey to revive her book club!), sailing the waters off British Columbia with M. Wylie Blanchet and her children, clearing forest trails with Ana Maria Spagna, and observing life through the eyes of the characters in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.

In June: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

“Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them.”

This is the opening line of The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (first-time, best-selling novelist making her debut at age 57, wrote novels in secret for 25 years when the kids were at school), which I’ll be reading in June.

Highlights from the jacket copy: 1914. A bride on her honeymoon. Adrift on the Atlantic Ocean. Not enough to go around. A power struggle. Choosing sides.

Will you read it with me?

Quote from: The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2012.

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