Feeds:
Posts
Comments

There are some changes going on at the Concord Monitor and in the midst of them, my column didn’t make it into last week’s Sunday book page. It’s slated to be in this week. Some of you have been asking about it so here’s a sneak peek:

August 2014 Mindful Reader column

New Hampshire author J.P. Francis revisits a little known part of our state’s history in a debut novel, The Major’s Daughter. Collie Brennan has left Smith College to assist her father, who is commanding officer of the WWII POW internment center, Camp Stark, near Berlin. In addition to helping in the office, she acts as a translator. Collie falls for August, an Austrian prisoner, who exchanges poems with her and plays Bach on the camp piano. She tries to fight her feelings, and confesses as much to her college friend Estelle, who is struggling with her own forbidden relationship – she has fallen for a Sikh who owns a flower shop in her Ohio hometown.

Francis tells the women’s stories, weaving more in about Estelle as the novel unfolds. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – young women growing into adulthood at a time when their choices are limited — but it is told with interesting historical detail. Some of Francis’ writing tries too hard, as in this passage describing a lively girl who befriends Collie: “She reminded Collie of a spatula leaping from one bowl to the next to stir ingredients.” And the men are a little typecast: the hard-drinking macho bad guy, the boring but reliable younger son, the country club eligible bachelor, the forbidden love who quotes poetry.

Despite these flaws, there was something about this book that compelled me to read to the end – which didn’t turn out as expected. The Major’s Daughter is a decent freshman effort and I hope J.P. Francis enjoys stronger editing next time around.

Manchester author Bishop O’Connell’s new novel The Stolen is billed as “an American Faerie Tale.”  It has some of the traditional aspects of fantasy – fae, goblins, and wizards, magic and ways to travel between worlds, for example – but with a healthy dose of action sequences. Caitlin, a single mom in New Hampshire, is attacked outside a bar. A strange man named Brendan, who turns out to be “an outcast Fian warrior,” intercedes and sees her home, where they discover that her little girl, Fiona, has been taken. Caitlin’s best friend Edward, it turns out, is really a wizard who put protective wards around her house, so when he realizes they’ve been breached, he shows up as well. The three of them, along with a “fae magister” named Dante, work together to find Fiona and overcome the evil forces behind the kidnapping. If you like urban fantasy, Celtic mythology, or page turning action, you’ll enjoy The Stolen. I liked the humor and the way O’Connell blurs the line between the magical and the mortal worlds.

A Year After Henry is Cathie Pelletier’s latest novel. Set in fictional Bixley, Maine, it’s the story of how Henry Munroe’s son, wife, ex-lover, and brother are doing a year after his premature death. Pelletier is a master of evoking small town northern New England, and one thing I appreciate about her work is that she tells stories of people and emotions we’re all familiar with. You’ll probably recognize Henry’s mother who takes casseroles to her daughter-in-law. And Evie, who is from away but wants to put down roots. Larry, who is recovering from a nasty divorce and just wants to see his son. And Jeanie, who married her high school sweetheart, didn’t live happily ever after, and is trying to start living again after his loss. It may seem strange to describe a book about grieving and betrayal as hopeful, but in Pelletier’s skilled hands, it is.

New Hampshire author Shannon Stacey’s new contemporary romance, Falling for Max, is also set in a small town in Maine. Stacey writes with heart and humor, and her characters are unique. Max in particular was not what I was expecting in a romantic lead, and that was refreshing. Falling for Max is as much about the community as it is about love interests Tori and Max, and I liked that. The town store, diner, and library all felt cozy and familiar, but not predictable. Tori is a graphic artist and Max paints “historically accurate model trains,” and they each work from home, which captures the dilemma young people face today in wanting to live near their extended families but needing to support themselves. The emotional conflict in the book was also familiar and realistic but freshly told, and not tied up in a neat bow by the end of the book. A good beach read.

A memoir about the postwar London childhood of a Labour party politician doesn’t necessarily sound like a page turner, but Alan Johnson‘s charming and moving tale, This Boy, was indeed just that. Johnson’s mother Lily, a Liverpudlian who moved to Notting Hill (at the time not posh at all) with her husband after the war, was a hardworking and sickly woman whose heart was damaged irreparably by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. She grew up with a cold and irritable father who refused to let her accept a scholarship to further her education.

Lily wanted more for her children and raised them to be polite, caring, studious and hardworking despite numbing poverty — Alan recalls being permanently hungry, and notes that he and  his sister Linda did not have an indoor toilet until 1964. Linda is the real heroine of the story, as she cared for Alan almost exclusively during their mother’s hospital stays, and became the family breadwinner at age 16 during Lily’s final illness. Her fierce love and support of both her mother and brother are inspiring.

That Alan remembers his childhood with any fondness at all is remarkable; more than that, he is generous in his recollections of friends and neighbors who were kind to them. He manages to credit his father with a few highlights in an otherwise despicable fatherhood. And he lavishes praise on his mother, his sister, and the closest friends who made his life bearable. As well as on two pastimes that soothed his soul: reading and music.

It’s amazing to read about how very different the world was only about half a century ago. I was absorbed in the detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s London, its war-scarred buildings and racial tension, neighborhood grocers and nearly car-free streets. From his work assisting a neighbor with paraffin oil delivery to his obsession with Queens Park Rangers, Mod style, and the Beatles, Johnson evokes his childhood in small stories that illuminate a time and place, as well as a particular life.

If you like well-told stories of love overcoming hardship, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or James McBride’s The Color of Water, you’ll enjoy This Boy.

Lately I’ve only made reading time for books for the column or books for the library. Among the most enjoyable of these “work” reads has been The Road Unsalted, whose author, Sonja Hakala, will be visiting the library in December to read from her new Carding novel.

Carding, Vermont is in many ways a northern version of Jan Karon‘s Mitford, North Carolina. It’s a small town in the mountains with a cast of interesting characters. Carding is home to a famous arts academy and a small but thriving ski area. Early in the book, one of the town’s prodigal daughters, Allie-O, as she has styled herself, slinks into town in impractical heels, shivers her way to her brother’s front door, and leaves her twelve year old daughter, Suzanne, with him. Ted is the postmaster, a man whose mother’s tragic death on the eve of his adulthood left him deeply scarred, and an inexperienced uncle. But in no time he realizes he wants to raise Suzanne where she belongs, among family and friends in Carding.

We learn about the town, the scheme on the part of Harry Brown to force Carding Academy to move (to spite his ex-wife Edie, the academy’s director), the philandering of Harry’s son Gideon, and much else via a blog called The Carding Chronicles which Edie’s grandson, Wil Bennett, aka Little Crow, starts as the novel opens. We also learn a bit about some of the characters from Edie’s dog Nearly. Even with such a busy fictional agenda, Hakala take time to make the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Carding come alive. I want to visit whatever bakery she based Carding’s on, as soon as possible!

This is a cozy novel minus the mystery — although there are puzzlements, and characters who must solve difficulties, there are no dead bodies. Hakala takes on a great deal in this series opener — she sets the stage by introducing a townful of characters, she addresses family drama in several Carding households, and she presents tension in the form of the pending town meeting, where the issue of whether the Academy will stay or go depends on a crucial vote.  At times it felt overly ambitious, but on the whole, it’s an entertaining read peppered with wit, wisdom, and a great deal of affection for small town New England. It’s fun, but there would be plenty for a book club to discuss. 

Also of note: this is a self-published novel, albeit by an author with plenty of experience writing for “traditional” publishing. I was, I admit, hesitant — I’ve had too many poor quality self-published work sent my way — but Hakala writes well, and she also had her work professionally edited. It shows. In fact, this novel is smoother than some “mainstream” books I’ve read recently. Which further muddles things for librarians and booksellers looking for a reliable way to determine what’s a good read.

 

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.

 ∎ ∎ ∎

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.

 ∎ ∎ ∎

 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.

 ∎ ∎ ∎

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 260 other followers