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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.

Vacation reading, 2014

We just got back from a week in Isle la Motte, one of the Champlain Islands in northern Vermont. Even though this year we spent a day in Montreal, I still somehow read eight books and finished a 9th (and nearly a 10th):

I finished Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer, which I’m reviewing in September’s Mindful Reader column, and which I loved — Keizer writes about a year in which he returned to teaching high school after 14 years. He recounts a bit about his earlier years teaching, his writing career, and the changes he observes, culturally and in the world of education, in his small Northeast Kingdom town. And the day we were leaving I was up early and very nearly finished Every Day in Tuscanby Frances Mayes. She writes about post-fame life in Cortona and includes recipes as well.

I read (in no particular order)

Ben Winters’ World of Trouble, the 3rd in the Last Policeman trilogy. A friend told me before I left for vacation that it was the best of the three and she is right. She also warned me it’s sad; also very true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ending, which could have been awful, but Winters write it beautifully. One spoiler: it’s not set in Concord, NH, like the first two in the series. But Hank Palace is still the last policeman, and I continue to admire his heart and dedication, his refusal to quit in the face of ridiculous odds, and his selfless pursuit of the truth.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This book is a “big” novel from a “big” author (his latest book, out in September is already on the longlist for the Booker Prize). Various reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby and referred to it as a 9/11 novel, an immigrant novel, a great American novel, and a post-colonial novel. I thought it was an interesting story, well told, but I was a little doubtful about the marital problems of the main character, Hans van den Broek, and his wife Rachel. Basically she is so rude to him that I had a hard time believing he’d keep wanting to work it out, but I suppose love is strange. When the book opens, Hans has learned that an old friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket referee and businessman with dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York, was found murdered. He reflects on how his friendship with Chuck developed after 9-11 when Rachel moved back to London with their son.  If I had to boil down what I thought Netherland was about I’d say it’s about isolation.

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I loved Impunity Jane when I read it to my daughter years ago, and this book had been calling to me from the used book section at Gibson’s for weeks when I finally bought it. When the book begins, Louise Poole and her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, have arrived in India where Charles Poole has been living, estranged from his wife and alone for many years. As the novel unfolds, readers learn more about the troubled family as well as the agricultural college Charles has helped build. We meet Narayan Das, a veterinarian, who scorns traditional Hindu beliefs and traditions and despises the caste system. And Anil, a Brahmin student who is only studying agriculture because his father insists, but really prefers writing poetry. When Emily’s dog dies, all of these characters’ play a role in the drama; most of them experience an epiphany of some sort. A satisfying, evocative read, which left me with much to ponder.

Marrying Off Mother and other Stories by Gerald Durrell. Longtime bookconscious readers know I adore Durrell. My Family and Other Animals remains of my favorite memoirs ever.This collection of stories is based in fact; some of the pieces have the same tone as his memoirs. Durrell is a unique writer, whose work is suffused with his love of the natural world as well as his warmth and the joy he seems to take in his unusual life. He also has a terrific sense of pacing; I always imagine it would be best to hear his work aloud.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Another story collection, some of them linked, about people and their relationships with each other and with society. I liked it — not too dark, not too light, interesting characters. Kane’s stories remind me a bit of Ann Beatty’s. This is fiction about feelings, heavier on interactions than actions. But you don’t come away feeling like humanity sucks when you’re through reading this collection, which is good for a vacation read.

And the best for last:

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardamone of my favorite authors.  I was really looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Gardam’s writing is exquisite and this story really grabbed me. Gardam captures adolescence beautifully, and her main character, Jessica Vye, reminded me of myself in some ways — feeling different than everyone else and being both glad of it and repulsed by it. Every character is interesting, and not a word is misspent. I am not sure I can even put into words what it is about Gardam that I love so much; I always wish her books would never end.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Like a long, cool drink of water on a hot day.  Spufford is witty and clear, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless writes about contemporary faith in a way that is both reassuring and challenging. This book is his answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it would convince atheists to change their minds (at least not the ones I know) but it might convince them to allow that not all believers are mindless idiots, and that alone makes it a great contribution.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you’ve seen the BBC series, his is the first of three memoirs by the real Jennie in the series. She writes with great affection about the community of nurses and nuns where she lived and worked in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It was a perfect book to read after enjoying Alan Johnson’s This Boy. I intend to find and read Worth’s other books as well. She was a remarkable lady and her writing is vivid, cheerful, clear, and reflective.

 

 

 

 

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.

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