Friday, April 29, 2016

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Instead of the crazy lady in the SUV who thinks I’m the “b%*&h” who stole her boyfriend in junior high….

My encounter with the strange neighbor was foremost in my mind as I picked up Peter Lovenheim’s book In the Neighborhood. As he writes, it is rare for most Americans to know their neighbors. Even with social media apps trying to fill the gap (my Next Door update just informed me there is a “Creepy guy at 160th & meridian Little Ceasers”),  we are clueless as to who might be living a few doors down. He aptly observes that it often takes a natural disaster or tragedy to bring people out from behind closed doors.

I’ve experienced this first hand when it took a flood to meet my neighbors in Japan. More recently, a mild winter snowstorm brought the neighborhood kids out to shovel sidewalks and gave my kids an introduction to our latest neighborhood in Washington.

Lovenheim’s premise is that it shouldn’t take a tragic event or extreme weather for us to meet those living in close proximity. In fact, he wonders that if neighbors do know one another better they could be instrumental in providing a haven before tragedy strikes.

Lovenheim, going through his own separation, was influenced by a murder down the street to set out to meet his neighbors. Not only did he meet them, he even convinced some of them to let him spend the night and observe a day in their lives. His book is an account of those encounters as well as a brief examination of the influence our suburban lifestyles have on isolating ourselves from those around us.

In reaching out to his neighbors, not only did he benefit from finding friendship, he was able to connect others who had much in common. His book teaches us that nodding to the woman who walks her dog every evening is a start, but not an end. 

So even though I am now avoiding eye contact with anyone driving an SUV on my street, I probably will be braver about saying hello to the dog walkers and stroller moms I see on my afternoon walk. And maybe soon this "housing community" will actually start feeling like a community. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

"A palimpsest of old logging roads and game trails"

I met a lumberjack once. He lived in Oregon, sported an impressive beard, and ate vegan store brand Oreo’s. He recounted the dangers of his job - among them the brutal exposure to the elements on a daily basis.  

Peter Geye captures the brutality and desperation of men who worked in the lumber camps at the turn of the century. His novel The Lighthouse Road is set in 1890s and 1920s Minnesota. It follows the immigration of a young woman from Norway who finds work as a cook in the lumber camp.  She gives birth to a son. After her death, her son Odd is adopted by the town. When he’s older, he supports himself as a fisherman.  Odd falls in love with a woman who knew his mother and eventually learns the truth behind her death even as he’s facing the reality of raising his own son alone.

In the tradition of books by Annie Proulx, Jim Harrison, Charles Frazier, and Jeffrey Lent, The Lighthouse Road explores the effects of one’s environment on family, identity, and survival.  Its characters build boats by hand, travel by dog sled, fight wolves, and survive Atlantic crossings on one jar of sheep’s milk. With a spare yet vivid writing style, Geye captures a harsh reality that is both appalling and appealing. 

Not unlike a vegan Oreo. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

"Think of me with my nose in a book"

It has taken several weeks, but I have completed the challenge of reading a book over 500 pages long. It’s accompanied me on Sunday rainy afternoon reading sprees, flights to and from Chicago, kept me occupied on sick bed stints (as watcher and watchee), and been a constant companion at myriad baseball practices.  

In Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, we go back to nineteenth century England. The Napoleonic Wars are raging and the politicians are wringing their hands. Enter Mr. Norrell, a magician with not only a formidable library, but practical powers as well.  After being introduced to London’s social scene, he quickly becomes a celebrity.

Meanwhile Jonathan Strange has also been mastering the dark arts. Inevitably, as the only two real magicians left in England, the men cross paths and Strange is taken under the wing of Norrell as a pupil. However, as Strange’s powers increase, he parts ways with Norrell. Whose brand of magic will win out without destroying everyone in their inner circle?

At 1024 pages, this is certainly not a book for reading in one sitting. However, every time I opened it, I was surprised, horrified, or fascinated by the next turn of events in these two men’s lives. Clarke breaks up the potential monotony of battle scenes and drawing room intrigues with wry humor and clever twists. This book transports the reader to another time, place, and even dimension, and proves a pleasant distraction from that delayed flight or overzealous little league coach. 

Friday, April 8, 2016

We are Family

Taking a break from my reading challenge, I delved into a few books recently that made me ponder the various permutations of family.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson examines the consequences of growing up with performance artist parents.

After Birth by Elisa Albert is an honest look at the shock and awe of having a baby.

Spinster by Kate Bolick reports on the women who helped shaped her life and the passion to be found in remaining single.

Swing Low: A Life by Miriam Toews lovingly describes the life of her father and ruminates on his last days and death.