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My column ran in today’s Concord Monitor. I enjoyed reviewing Jessica Lander‘s Driving Backwards, Toby Ball‘s Invisible Streets, Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable and Stonlea: a Timeworn, Gilded Age Survivor Transformed by Peter W. Clement and Victoria Chave Clement, with an introduction by Stonlea‘s owner, Polly Guth.

Mindful Reader: Gilmanton, noir and ‘Perfectly Miserable’

Jessica Lander, author of Driving Backwards, was eight when her family bought a “two-century old house” on Stage Road in Gilmanton, a place to spend their summers. Their neighbors, David and Lizzie Bickford, kept them well-supplied with pies and stories. Lander writes, “It was not until I was a young woman that I began to listen more closely. . . . David’s stories drew me in.” Lander is 26 and David 99 when her book opens.

With David’s “humble recounting of a hundred years of life in small-town America” as a starting point, Lander tells stories of her own as well. She clearly delights in sharing the lives and work of the people who make Gilmanton a thriving rural community today, including a goat-cheese maker, blueberry and dairy farmers, volunteer librarians, and the woman who orchestrates the preparation of “Gilmanton Old Home Day Beanhole Beans.”

Lander also explores Gilmanton’s “great egg-carton landscape,” and the remains of a once thriving mill community along the Suncook. In sussing out the curious existence of the town’s dual villages – Gilmanton Iron Works and Gilmanton Four Corners – she writes of “Enmities . . . tilled into the soil so deeply that when David was a kid, teens of the two villages were forbidden to date one another.” And yes, she takes note of Gilmanton’s notorious former residents, serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, and Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. But mostly, Lander celebrates small-town New Hampshire.

Driving Backwards is a delightful read. Lander’s obvious pleasure in storytelling is sprinkled with history, both human and natural, and her curiosity and affection for her subjects is contagious. It’s a great book to read on a warm afternoon, as Lander lovingly describes bike rides and July Fourth parades, Old Home Days and abundant gardens, swimming holes and stargazing, when “the night sky is limitless, and by association, so too summer.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for more work from this talented young writer.

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I don’t usually read noir, but I’d heard a lot of good things about New Hampshire author Toby Ball’s dystopian crime novels. The latest, Invisible Streets, is set in the mid-1960s. Ball’s imagined city is grim, ripe for planner Nathan Canada’s New City Project, which will tear down decaying neighborhoods to create a massive business zone and Crosstown Expressway. A truckload of dynamite is missing from one of the project’s construction sites. Detective Torsten Grip, journalist Frank Frings and Canada’s right-hand man, Phil Dorman, all want to know who took it and why. Frings is also looking for a friend’s grandson, Sol Elia, who was a subject in secret hallucinogen studies as a student and may be part of a shadowy radical group, Kollectiv 61. Both a mystery and an examination of power and influence, Invisible Streets is an atmospheric, slow-burning book that illuminates the dehumanizing effects of uncompromising ideology and corruption. Frings is a thinking man’s hero whose patience pays, even when he wonders, “whether there was anyone left on his side – and what that side even was.”

Grip and Dorman are less admirable, but in Ball’s capable hands, they’re sympathetic characters. He takes you inside these men’s minds, out into the streets, and up on the girders of the City. If you’re looking for a smart, provocative crime novel, try Invisible Streets.

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 Sarah Payne Stuart is Perfectly Miserable. In her latest memoir, the Concord, Mass., native reflects on Guilt, God and Real Estate in her hometown. She has a love-hate relationship with her WASP family, with the formidable matrons of Concord, and with the 19th-century authors who put the town on the map. Stuart looks back not with nostalgia, but with her eyes open to the fact that she and her siblings could not wait to leave Concord, and yet she could not imagine raising her children anywhere else. Her self-depracating observations about parenting, being the daughter of aging parents, and being a grown-up in the place you were a child are funny, smart and thought-provoking. Even when she recalls painful incidents or patterns, Stuart’s tone is affectionate, even wistful: “And still I wish I could relive it all again.” With Perfectly Miserable, she and her readers do.

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Stonlea: a Timeworn, Gilded Age Survivor Transformed by Peter W. Clement and Victoria Chave Clement is, as Stonlea’s owner Polly Guth, says in the introduction, “the story of taking a Gilded Age grande dame of a summer house . . . and making it into a comfortable, year-round family house.” Guth felt the restoration was “a matter of stewardship,” and “continuity” – she wanted Stonlea to welcome her family and friends to Dublin to enjoy the beauty of lake and mountain just as its original owners did. She also set a very contemporary goal: net-zero energy, meaning that the home produces the energy it needs, through geothermal and solar technology. This gorgeous book, lavishly illustrated, shows Stonlea from start to finish. Even if you’re not an architecture buff or don’t own an old house yourself, the grand old summer houses in the Monadnack region are an interesting part of New Hampshire history, and this book is a vicarious entry into one such home.

When I read Edwidge Danticat‘s The Dew Breaker in early 2010, I wrote here at bookconscious that I admired “her rich writing and the psychological depth of her storytelling.” That remains true now that I’ve read Claire of the Sea Light. What a beautiful book.

Claire is a little girl born born in a shack near the sea in Ville Rose, a fictional Haitian town. Her father is a fisherman, her mother, who dies giving birth to her, washes and dresses the dead at the local funeral parlor. Danticat draws a vivid portrait of the town and its people, connecting them and drawing them close around Claire until a fateful night when she turns seven.

I won’t give away plot details, but what I really liked about this book is the way Danticat weaves the stories of people from different walks of life and situations, men and women, young and old, into one big story, the story of being human and longing for a connection with others, a place to be at home in the world. Danticat is at once a keen observer — the details about Haiti and about her characters are absorbing and illuminating — and a generous commentator on the human condition.

Even when she’s writing about poverty or violence or death, Danticat’s writing is musical; I found myself wanting to hear this book aloud. For example, in a scene describing Claire’s father receiving Madame Gaelle, a well to do woman who has also experienced tragic loss, in his shack:

“She was there but not really. At one moment, her mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. She seemed to be recalling things she could not put into words.

He, though, was concentrating on his modest surroundings, on the way his cot caved in slightly under her weight. On the way the lamp was fluttering between shadow and light. . . . Her insistence on staying made him ashamed of his lack of comforts, of the smallness and feeble nature of his world.”

If any book about human frailty can be described as delicate, Claire of the Sea Light is it.

 

Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a favorite literary publicist: Molly Mikolowski. She’s introduced me to so many wonderful books and authors over the years, sending me periodic packages of new gems that get me through low points in my reading life. You’ve probably had them yourself, especially if you work in a the book world — you’ve been obliged to read a stack of books that are not necessarily bad but don’t sing. Technically, the writers are sound, but they fail to light any soul-fires. Or to provoke any strong feeling at all. This results in reading ennui at best, or even fatigue.

Over the past couple of weeks, I self-medicated my reading fatigue with two of Molly’s finds: Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby, a novel about the grown daughter of an alpha blogger mommy, and Jam Today Too by Tod Davies.

I already knew I loved Tod’s writing from her wonderful Snotty Saves the Day. I’ve read a couple of cooking memoirs that were vaguely annoying and superior sounding, but I trust Molly and Tod, so I picked up Jam Today Too this morning and didn’t put it down until I got to the end, by which time my stomach was urging me forth into the kitchen.

Jam Today Too is an absolutely wonderful little book, full of delicious recipes and suggestions (Tod repeatedly assures readers, “you’ll have your own ideas”) but also good company. You know what I mean, it’s the kind of book that makes you wish you could be friends with the author, or maybe BE the author. I dare you to read this book and not be cheered immediately and tell yourself, “Well everything seems to have gone to shit in the world, but if people like Tod are in it, it can’t be all bad.”

I even read parts of the book aloud to my family, always a sign it’s one I’ll treasure. I shared Tod’s thoughts on feminism with my sixteen year old daughter who laments that people her age don’t like that word, and she loved this bit: “It can’t be just about doing what the boys do. It has to be about upholding the importance of what the girls do . . . . Girly stuff needs to be reclaimed as a ruling power in our culture . . . .”

Also, Tod suggests that dining alone on a dolled up bowl of popcorn (her topping: “melted butter, garlic salt, and Parmesan” in one’s bathrobe while reading a novel and drinking red wine is a lovely way to spend an evening. A book that makes you think “I thought I was the only one!” is always a delight. Read this book. Enjoy the vicarious pleasure of Tod’s meals with her “Beloved Vegetarian Husband” and dogs, and her graciously respectful good sense — it’s not a book that tells you what to do or how to eat, it’s a book that celebrates the pleasure of eating well your way.

As for Famous Baby, you’ve heard me lament that there are few new ideas in fiction. Karen Rizzo’s debut puts a refreshingly new twist on one of the oldest stories in the book: the mother-daughter love hate relationship. Abbie’s mother Ruth Sternberg refers to herself as the First Mother of Blogging. Abbie’s every move from babyhood to high school graduation is immortalized for millions of strangers in cyberspace. But Ruth can’t see how the constant examination is akin to exploitation, and Abbie moves out, under the guise of traveling before she goes to college.

When Ruth writes on her blog about preparing to bring her mother home from assisted living to die, Abbie kidnaps her grandma to prevent Ruth from exploiting her, too. This funny, touching book is about the discoveries Abbie, Ruth and Esther make as Ruth and her longtime agent track the women down in Tuscon and come crashing back into Abbie’s life, along with a passel of secrets revealed as the dust settles. It’s a novel with just the right combination of thoughtfulness and humor. Famous Baby would be a great choice for a book club.

I’ll leave you with this thought, from a conversation between Eric, a budding documentary filmmaker, and Abbie, “Maybe we’re never really who we think we are. You go around projecting a certain image that seems to make sense, and then something happens that scrambles that image . . . if you’re lucky, maybe you can make use of that moment.”

Books that interrupt your habitual thought patterns and give you those eyes-open moments make everything seem brighter, clearer, and better. And these are two of those books.

 

The column ran today, and here it is (headlines by the Concord Monitor):

The Mindful Reader: ‘Claremont Boy’ tells his tale with wry sense of humor

Joseph Steinfield wrote a column for the Monadnack Ledger-Transcript called “Looking Back,” where the short personal essays in his memoir Claremont Boy: My New Hampshire Roots and the Gift of Memory first appeared. Whether he’s writing about his childhood in Claremont, his career as a lawyer, his immigrant family or his interesting friends (including Julia and Paul Childs) and New Hampshire neighbors, Steinfield’s voice is what makes this book a gem. He’s a terrific storyteller with stellar pacing and a wry sense of humor.

One of my favorite pieces, “My Mother’s Hobby and Roosevelt Grier,” demonstrates this beautifully. He explains that as a child he thought his mother’s needlepoint was “. . . a waste of time. Nothing you could play with, or even wear.” When she announced in her late 50s that she planned to move to Boston and get a job, Steinfield was doubtful. She became Lord & Taylor’s “Needlepoint Lady” around the time Rosey Grier popularized the hobby. Steinfield concludes, “So much for having a know-it-all son.”

Whether he’s writing about small town life in the 1940s and ’50s, losing his wallet while traveling, learning his daughter is gay, or wishing he could be a professional baseball player, Steinfield’s warm, witty stories will keep you entertained and leave you a little wiser. Bauhan Publishing has done a beautiful job with the book design, incorporating photos and illustrations that enhance the essays.

Sensational novel

Set in New Hampshire but penned by a young Swiss author, Joel Dicker, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a unique thriller. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, was prominent author Harry Quebert’s student at a small college in Massachusetts. He visits his mentor at his Seacoast home after the wild success of his first novel leaves him paralyzed with writer’s block. When Nola Kellergan, missing for 30 years, is found buried in Harry’s yard, he’s arrested. Marcus moves into Harry’s house and vows to learn who really killed Nola. His publisher demands that Marcus write about the sensational story quickly, since he has failed to make his deadline on a promised second novel.

 The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a page-turning police procedural about Nola Kellergan’s murder. It’s also a study of how truth appears differently to different people. And it’s a novel about love in its many forms, and the lengths we’ll go to protect those we love, even to the point of madness. None of that is unusual for a thriller, but Dicker also examines artistic inspiration – sprinkled between the regular chapters are Harry’s rules for writing a great novel, which both Marcus and Harry aspire to, and there is an important subplot about a painter.

Some of the dialogue is a little odd. For example, librarian Ernie Pinkas says, “I would like to be listed in the Acknowledgements of your book. I would like you to mention my name on the last page, the way writers often do. I would like my name to be the first one. In big letters. Because I did help you get information, didn’t I? Do you think that will be possible? My wife would be proud of me. Her husband would have contributed to the huge success of Marcus Goldman, the famous writer.” I’m not sure whether the strangeness is caused by the author imagining the way people speak here or whether it’s a result of the translation. Regardless, this dramatic, original first novel has made Joel Dicker a famous writer in Europe, and may do so in America as well.

Water for the heart

Richard Hoffman’s love & fury is a memoir that examines the complexities of family relationships, especially those between fathers and sons. Written after his father’s death, and after his grandson’s father is imprisoned on dubious charges in a case exacerbated by Hoffman’s own very public advocacy for the young man, this book is bracing and touching, searing and tender all at once.

It’s not only a book about being a man, but also about being human and truly knowing each other. Hoffman’s cover quote sums the book up exactly: “When I have spoken of my family in the past, there is always someone who wants to know how such love and fury could coexist, and I don’t understand the question. Families seem to me to be made of love and fury. The world is mostly water; we are mostly water; but we don’t ask how such hydrogen and oxygen can coexist. We just drink it and live.”

Hoffman’s writing is water for the heart, words that will quench those struggling with self-examination, family reconciliation, or damage done by physical or societal ills.

I can’t quite remember how I heard about Matt Haig and his novel The Humans, but it arrived on the state library van as an interlibrary loan for me this week and it’s the first book that’s kept me up too late in a few months at least. I really didn’t want to put it down, and not just because I’d dropped the “blue card” with the circulation bar code on it in the dark and subsequently woke up repeatedly in the night worrying I’d have to return it sans card. (When I woke up the card was on my slippers).

The premise of the book is that the narrator, an alien assassin, has been sent to Earth from a planet many light years away to eliminate a maths professor, Andrew Martin,  at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam College because he has discovered the proof for the Riemann Hypothesis, the inhabitants of his planet believe humans aren’t ready for such progress.  The only problem is he arrives on earth with little knowledge of everyday human life and culture, and for some reason, arrives in Andrew Martin’s naked body on a dark country road.

Alien Andrew Martin has to convince his wife, Isobel, his troubled teenaged son Gulliver, and their dog, Newton, that he’s the same man they’ve always known, despite his powers (he can heal, for example), and what appear to them to be his mental lapses. Such as a complete lack of understanding of adultery. And, he has to kill them, since that’s what he was sent to do.

Instead, he begins to admire human life, and to understand it. He learns to like music: “The last thing I listened to was a tune called ‘Clare de Lune’ by Debussy. That was the closest representation of space I had ever heard, and I stood there, in the middle of the room, frozen with shock that a human could have made such a beautiful noise.” And he discovers poetry, especially Emily Dickinson. And peanut butter, which he shares with Newton. As he learns about being human, he becomes a vastly kinder, more considerate one than the real Andrew Martin ever was. Which is where the problems begin.

I don’t know why I am on a British witty urban scifi kick lately, but at risk of repeating myself, if you like Tom Holt or Daniel O’Malley or Douglas Adams or Nick Harkaway you’ll like this book, which is less showy in the bells and whistles of alien life, but funny in its own dry way, and lovely too, in the tenderness alien Andrew Martin learns. It’s a quick read, entertaining, but also thought provoking. Haig writes in the afterward that he recovered from panic disorder by reading, and by writing this book. How beautiful, that a novel about what it means to be truly human gave its author a sense of being comfortable with his own humanness.

 

In Grégoire Delacourt ‘s My Wish List, Jocelyne Guerbette lives in Arras, a small French city she calls “a gray place.” She runs a fabric shop, is married to Jocelyn, who works at the Haagen-Dazs factory, and has two grown children. Her mother died when she was young, her father had a stroke a year later and he forgets who she is every six minutes. Her third child was stillborn, a tragedy her she and Jo both struggled with.

But she has a good life, simple but satisfying. Her blog about sewing and knitting, tengoldfingers, has taken off, and she hears regularly from women who say it is making a difference in their lives. She has her friends and family, her work, summer camping trips and the relative comfort of a long marriage. “It’s not the life I dreamed of in my diary,” she explains, but it’s fine.

Her friends Daniele and Francoise play the lottery every week. One week they talk Jocelyne into playing too, and she wins. Eighteen million euros. But instead of celebrating, instead of cashing the check, she waits. And makes lists of what she’d like to do with the money — simple things, “a lamp for the hall table,” an iron, a flat screen tv for Jo, gifts to make her children’s lives easier. She waits, and thinks, and wonders if this change will open the cracks in her marriage once and for all.

Two things struck me about My Wish List — first, that a man wrote so beautifully in a woman’s voice. Jocelyne’s thoughts and feelings ring absolutely true. Second, it’s a brief book but so full. You know just about everything there is to know about Jocelyne in 163 pages. Her childhood dreams. The way her life has unfolded — moments of crisis and the moments of joy. What she fears. Even the way her husband smells, what he drinks, and what her favorite book is.  I really admire the way Delacourt writes so richly and so economically.

I won’t say what happens, but I will suggest you seek out this little book, perfect for a long afternoon in a lounge chair after your errands are done or the garden is weeded. If you’re a middle aged woman, prepare to squirm a bit — the way Jocelyne looks back on her younger self, examines her body, thinks about her life as it could have been and is may feel a bit more familiar than is comfortable. But also prepare to enjoy. Jo says, “I love words . . . . I love it when words sometimes hide what they’re saying, or say it in a new way.” Grégoire Delacourt has done that with My Wish List, much to the delight of readers around the world.

All Right Here

All Right Here, by Carre Armstrong Gardner, is published by Tyndale House, a Christian publisher. I buy fiction for my public library and I know “inspirational” (mainly Christian) fiction is big business. I figured the demand comes from a sizable segment of the reading public that doesn’t want much sex, violence, or bad language in a book.

But Armstrong includes some of each — sex, violence, and bad language, albeit very gently portrayed — along with adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, premarital sex, and abortion. Granted the abortion serves as a plot point to explain why one of the main characters is kind of a jerk to his wife. But I was pleasantly surprised that although Gardner’s characters frequently pray and mention their faith, their actions speak louder.

Ivy Darling and her husband Nick (he of the jerky behavior) are well rounded characters and I found myself thinking I’d like to hang out with Ivy. Despite her faith, Ivy’s not always sure what she should do or what’s happening in her life. Which I appreciated.

And which makes the book a lot like mainstream women’s fiction. All Right Here is about family and friendship, possibility and love, pain and forgiveness. When the book opens, Ivy is wondering who will live in the run down house next door. It turns out a woman moves in with three kids, and one day, Ivy finds them on their porch, their mother gone. She does not hesitate to take them in.

The kids are black and “from away,” and small town Maine, most especially Ivy’s in-laws, don’t exactly embrace this unorthodox turn of events. I loved Ivy’s unequivocal open hearted compassion for the kids, and her extended family’s similar response. I also liked Nick’s honest hesitation. Gardner addresses something I’ve never read about in mainstream fiction: infertility from the husband’s point of view. And I enjoyed the fact that the path to becoming a family isn’t smooth — Nick is not instantly in love with the kids, and isn’t even sure he likes them much, and that seemed very realistic to me. As did, unfortunately, the open racism the kids face.

An overtly religious point of view isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d recommend All Right Here to readers who like inspirational fiction. Gardner writes well, and despite a few “typecast” folks, her characters are interesting, especially Ivy. The kids are too, and although the musically talented Jada and athletic Hammer are a little predictable, the teenaged DeShaun turns out to be good at inventing fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. Which is just as quirky and charming as it sounds. I appreciated that Gardner didn’t just make him a tough guy or get him in trouble, which is where the book appeared to be heading at one point.

Gardner introduces Ivy’s and Nick’s siblings and parents, but I was more interested in their new family than in the subplots. The way the book ended, and the subtitle (A Darling Family Novel), indicate sequels are forthcoming and that the next one might focus on Laura, Ivy’s troubled twin sister who isn’t too thrilled with her large, close-knit family. That story didn’t interest me as much, but I’m curious enough to want to find out what happens to Jada, Hammer, & DeShaun that I’ll be looking for the next book.

 

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