Longtime bookconscious readers know I used to take the Europa Challenge. I have so many books to read and other things going on in my life that I stopped doing it but I am still a big fan or Europa Editions, who bring some of the best European writers to American readers.

Time Present and Time Past, by Deirdre Madden, is a quiet, reflective book about a middle aged man, Fintan, whose prevailing quality is a “combination of high intelligence and an innocence so incorrigible that it can sometimes look like stupidity.” He is married to a very kind woman who even his tough old mother loves, and he has a warm relationship with his nearly grown sons and young daughter, as well as his sister, Martina, and beloved aunt, Beth.

Sounds boring, doesn’t it? But Madden explores Fintan’s inner life, and that of the other characters, in such a way that by the time you’ve turned to the last page you feel as if you’ve discovered what makes us human. Essentially, that is the topic of this novel: the human experience. From remembrances of childhood to reflections on old age, Madden explores what living feels like, and she does it without much of a plot or even much drama*, instead sticking with simple, familiar domestic scenes that are part of her readers’ shared experience — family meals, commuting to work, sitting in a cafe, speaking with a coworker, taking a child and her friend on an outing.

It’s Madden’s exquisite writing that makes this work. Riding with Martina to visit a cousin, Fintan begins to remember where he is: “. . . already something is beginning to wake in Fintan’s memory. He does not recognise any given house, field, or hill but he generality of them speak to him. They are all familiar in a visceral way, and he knows deep down that he has been here, or hereabouts, before now.” I’ve heard Paul Harding describe good prose as something which you always knew, and never heard anyone else put into words quite the same way before. That’s what’s beautiful about Time Present and Time Past.

* there is a very important and well-done subplot about a trauma Martina experienced that changed the course of her life that deserves special mention.

Here’s another brief review I wrote for the library.  I love Penelope Lively‘s writing, and I really enjoyed her memoir. It made me wish I could hear her speak, or even better, sit down and have a cup of tea (or glass of wine) with her.

Novelist Penelope Lively reflects on “old age,” “life and times,” “memory,” “reading and writing,” and “six things” – objects around her  house that hold special meaning for her – in this vivid and unique memoir. The book reads like a conversation with a wise older friend, and Lively’s nonlinear narrative and varied recollections make this a book you can dip into. For fans of Lively’s fiction, her descriptions of various stories’ origins are interesting and enlightening. For history buffs, there are remembrances of a WWII childhood in Egypt and as the war grew too close, Palestine and England. Throughout the book, Lively notes the importance of reading. “I can measure out my life in books. They stand along the way like signposts: the moments of absorption and empathy and direction and enlightenment and sheer pleasure.” I found all of these in Dancing Fish and Amonites.

The column ran today in The Concord Monitor.  Here it is:


The Mindful Reader: ‘Lightkeeper’s Wife’ strays from the ordinary

Cape Cod author Sarah Anne Johnson’s debut novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife begins as an ordinary work of historical fiction. In 1843, Hannah Snow is the lighthouse keeper’s wife on a treacherous stretch of coast. There’s a wreck one night when her husband, John, is away. Hannah makes a risky rescue attempt but manages to save just one passenger.

After he recovers from nearly drowning, Billy Pike stays on, helping Hannah. John’s horse turns up without him, and bucking convention, Hannah chooses to remain at her husband’s post tending the light. She loves her work. “What an exhilarating feeling, knowing that she could help a floundering ship navigate these waters.”

Things get very interesting as Johnson introduces Annie/Blue, a sea captain’s wife who suffers a loss and rebels against the rules and superstitions surrounding a woman’s presence at sea. When pirates raid her husband’s ship, Annie saves herself, proves her mettle and goes on to masquerade as a man, the pirate Blue.

Johnson spins these two stories and Billy’s into a page-turner with a hint of mystery, weaving in details from her considerable research into women’s maritime history. Several minor characters are also female, providing Johnson a broad palette from which to paint women’s roles in a small 19th-century New England community. This interesting angle, along with the story’s twists, nautical details and compelling characters, make The Lightkeeper’s Wife an intriguing read.

Puzzling whodunit

Michael Nethercott’s The Haunting Ballad is an old-fashioned mystery set in 1957 Greenwich Village, featuring a beat coffeehouse and a colorful cast of characters. Private eye Lee Plunkett and his Yeats-quoting sidekick Mr. O’Nelligan encounter, among others, a “ghost chanter” who receives songs from the afterworld, a blues guitarist, a 105-year-old Civil War drummer boy and a trio of Irish brothers as they investigate the death of a cantankerous folk “songcatcher.” “The woman seemed to flourish on conflict,” O’Nelligan notes as the investigation turns up a steady stream of possible perpetrators. Nethercott’s period details enhance the story, as does Plunkett and O’Nelligan’s banter. Although this is the second book in Nethercott’s series, I hadn’t read the first (The Séance Society) but had no trouble catching up with his characters. The Haunting Ballad features strong dialogue and a great deal of charm, as well as a puzzling whodunit.

With grace

Brattleboro, Vt., author Martha M. Moravec’s Magnificent Obesity: My Search for Wellness, Voice and Meaning in the Second Half of Life tells the story of her heart attack at age 55 and subsequent quest to “close the gap between where she is headed in life and the very different place she wants to be.” Moravec reflects on or confronts just about every issue anyone might be facing as they enter their senior years, all at once: childhood trauma, family dysfunction, unrealized dreams, under- or unemployment, health concerns (obesity, debilitating anxiety, diabetes, colitis and heart disease) and struggles with faith (she thinks of God as “The Man at My Elbow”). But this isn’t a “disaster memoir” – she isn’t mopey or maudlin. She repeatedly praises the “Angels We Can See,” who are “People whose desire to help was so genuine as to seem either genetic or divinely inspired.” She sums up her problems: “I was suffering from acute sensitivity to the fact that I had spent the past 30 years of my life circumventing my life. . . .” But by the time you travel with Moravec to the end of this honest self-examination, her “struggle to lose weight, calm down and find God” has led her “to seek a kind of truce and peace in what unalterably is . . .” and to “grow up in time to grow old with grace.”

Monastery is Eduardo Halfon‘s second novel (after The Polish Boxer, also from Bellevue Literary Press) about Eduardo Halfon. Yes, the author and his hero share a name. In interviews at the time The Polish Boxer came out, Halfon said “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”

My library hosted Thatcher Freund last night for a talk entitled, “Why Stories Matter.” He was addressing life stories, and he noted two things that resonated with me as I finished Monastery at lunch today. First, that memoirs are about the moments in our lives as we remember them. And second that the details of a story are what the person writing/telling it went through, but the truth of the story is what everyone went through. Halfon’s work is a tremendous example of that.

Halfon’s narrator grew up in a Jewish expat family of Polish and Lebanese origins in Guatemala and in Monastery he relates his travels. He visits his sister’s fiancee’s ultra Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, his grandfather’s boyhood neighborhood in Warsaw, the Dead Sea, a coffee cooperative in Guatemala and a border town near Belize, a jazz salon in the Paul Robeson Residence in New York, a former U-boat base on the French coast.

But whether we have experienced these things ourselves is irrelevant because the novel — which like The Polish Boxer reads like linked stories — is not really about the details, as interesting and enticing as those are. The novel is about family and love and confusion, about being together and alone, about identity and all that entails. It’s about having faith in who we are and in who we might be and even in who we (or others) might say we are. It’s about losing that faith or rediscovering it or worrying we’ll never have it. And all of us have experienced those things to some degree.

Halfon’s writing is rich. You may experience moments of dislocation or unease as you try to navigate the threads between chapters, which seem tenuous when you’re in the midst of them but grow stronger. But you’ll probably find yourself forgiving this because the book is beautiful and of course, True.

For example, the reader isn’t sure what’s going on when Eduardo hesitates outside the jazz salon, founded as an outlet for a grieving mother. He was looking for the place, so why doesn’t he just go in? He turns to the woman who helped him find his way, who is still in the elevator:

“The sound of the piano stopped, then silence, and gentle applause. She smiled at me with just her eyes. I held out my hand, a bit hurried and proud, perhaps wishing to defer the inevitable for a while longer. It took her a moment to understand, but then she also held out hers. And we stayed like that for a couple of seconds, maybe not even that, each of us on separate sides of the doors.”

Yes. Exactly. I’ve never been there in that moment but I’ve been there, in that moment.

Neil Gaiman thinks it does. Tomorrow evening my library’s new “Short & Sweet” group – devoted to reading & discussing a short story or essay each month – will talk about Gaiman’s talk, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming,” published as an essay in The Guardian. I  re-read it this morning to make some notes for the discussion. Gaiman proposes that our “common humanity” depends on reading for pleasure, especially reading fiction.

The beginning of the essay is about Gaiman’s belief that new readers (mostly, but sadly not always, kids) should be allowed to read whatever they want, that snobbery about “bad” books simply prevents people from reading, and that escapist reading gives people the chance to see their world differently.

But he goes on to note that fiction can teach empathy (something that scientists have studied). “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.” I’ve written here at bookconscious over the years that my ideal reading experience is to finish a book like that, one that acts on my mind and heart and stays with me.

Gaiman notes this can have an impact on society, “Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” Gaiman explains that Chinese officials welcomed Sci-Fi conventions in the last few years because they learned that many of the most creative, inventive people in the American high tech. industry read Sci-Fi as kids.

Fiction, Gaiman says, reveals “that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are.”  The best books, including many I’ve written about here, help us make our way in the world armed with that kind of Truth.

This is a little outside my usual reading; I needed to write a brief nonfiction review for work, and figured with so many kids playing this fall in rec. leagues and clubs and school teams, a soccer book might appeal to patrons who are spending all their free time on a sideline. And to people like The Computer Scientist, who plans his weekends around Liverpool on the telly. Don’t laugh — a larger and larger number of American fans do this. Plus, honestly, the library geek in me loves small esoteric reference books like this. And I do love the beautiful game as well.

Anyway, here’s my review of Who Invented the Bicycle Kick: Soccer’s Greatest Legends and Lore by Paul Simpson and Uli Hessi:

If you are one of the growing legion of soccer-mad Americans who follows the sport passionately, Who Invented the Bicycle Kick will fill in any gaps in your soccer history.  Simpson, who launched the magazine Four Four Two and currently edits UEFA’s Champions magazine, and Hesse, who has written a history of German soccer and is a prolific columnist for ESPN FC, have compiled detailed stories about soccer inventions, oddities, stars, gaffers (that’s coach in soccer-speak), records, and culture. I consider myself a fan, but this book convinced me that my knowledge was sadly limited. The curse of Los Gatos de Racing (seven dead cats buried in a Buenos Aires stadium to curse the home team); the origins of ads on jerseys, colored boots, and goalie gloves; the origins of total football, the stepover, and the sweeper-keeper; notable achievements, records, pre-match rituals, and more – you are sure to learn something new from this entertaining and accessible little book.




September Mindful Reader

My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  Here it is:

September 2014 Mindful Reader

by Deb Baker

Northeast Kingdom author Garret Keizer writes about his return, after 14 years, to teaching high school English in a small town in Vermont  in Getting Schooled: the Reeducation of an American Teacher.  Part memoir, part examination of recent trends in American education, Getting Schooled  is as beautifully written, carefully observed, and delightfully smart as Keizer’s previous book, Privacy. If you have ever wondered why things happen the way they do in a school, Keizer provides a behind the scenes – and sharply perceptive — view of both teaching and administration.

Noting contemporary educators’ (especially administrators) enthusiasm for the latest “methods” presented by consultants, Keizer admits he is doubtful himself but admires the source of his colleagues’ optimism. “The best teacher has already fallen for something  much more outlandish: the potential for magnificence in every human being.”  Rather than being cynical about this, Keizer embraces it, and his students notice.  In an essay one student reveals, “I learned that a good class with manners, respect and kindness to one another, you learn more and respect the subject more.”

Indeed, Keizer seems to spend a lot of his classroom time encouraging that kind of caring, cooperative atmosphere.  I found it telling that a junior in high school would only just be discovering that such an environment enhances learning. Keizer’s cultural observations are also fascinating; his explanation for the presence of Confederate flags in unlikely places like the Northeast Kingdom is particularly elucidating.

Keizer is thoughtful, curious, intelligent, and respectful, which is what every child deserves in a teacher. In Getting Schooled he teaches us what education, and small town life, is like in America today. He’s also one of the best nonfiction writers around, and I hope this large-hearted, clear-eyed, and thoroughly enjoyable read finds a large audience.

Accidents of Marriage, Randy Susan Meyers’ new novel, is about Maddy, a social worker, mother of three, and wife who suffers a brain injury in a car accident. Caused by her husband Ben, a public defender, driving like a maniac because he was angry.  Meyers uses this dramatic trigger to examine the details of a passionate marriage gone wrong , magnifying the many ways Maddy dealt with Ben’s anger over the years, her family and friends explained it away, and Ben himself justified it as the natural frustrations of a busy man with a disorganized wife. It’s a painful book, a bit like watching the coverage of a tragedy on the news. Meyers writes compellingly; Maddy’s recovery is detailed and wrenching, as are vivid portraits of the children’s reactions to their family’s turmoil. Maddy’s frustration, though, is the most vivid: “She looked out the window and watched the sun fall into the water, the airport, and the tiny distant skyline. Everything and nothing seemed familiar.” Accidents of Marriage ends on only a semi-hopeful note, with the suggestion that healing may be in store, but it won’t be easy for any of the characters.

Vermont author Sarah Healy’s novel House of Wonder is told from the point of view of Jenna, a single mom whose twin brother Warren is “more strange than quirky” and whose mother Silla’s house is full of  stuff she’s bought to counter the losses in her life. Jenna’s story alternates with Silla’s, a former Miss Texas whose own mother was “gone” when she was a very young child. Healy weaves together what happened then with why the neighbors are suspicious of Warren now, adding a love interest for Jenna and some drama surrounding Rose, her daughter. It’s a satisfying mix. Warren, who Jenna’s friend Maggie dryly notes is likely “on the spectrum,” is an interesting character, and I would have enjoyed hearing more of the story from his perspective.  Healy has a knack for realistic dialogue such as this exchange between Jenna and Maggie, “So . . . tell me more about Gabby’s daddy.” . . .”He’s just this guy I grew up with. . . . Stop staring at me with your shrink smile.” . . .”I think it’s great.” . . . “Maggie, it is so not like that. . . .” House of Wonder kept me reading late into the night, wondering how things would work out for these endearing characters. For fans of contemporary fiction and anyone who enjoys well-drawn characters who are much like people you know.

Randy Susan Meyers will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Sept. 24 at 7pm. and Bishop O’Connell  author of The Stolen, featured in August’s column, will be at Gibson’s on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 6pm.


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