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Some of you may already know Tom Holt‘s work, but it was new to me when I picked up Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Sausages from a pile of books I’d just checked in at the circulation desk in my library. I order fiction, so I like to see what patrons are reading, and this book looked well loved.

The cover calls it a “comedy of transdimensional tomfoolery,” and Holt’s work reminded me of the great Douglas Adams. He’s witty in that sharp English way. This book features a successful businessman, Mr. Huos, whose riches rely on a strange ring, which is part of his even stranger origin story. A pair of sisters who are lawyers with brothers who are musicians and a “weirdness expert” named Mr. Gogerty, along with a flock of clever chickens and some intelligent pigs, all help solve the madcap multidimenional mysteries in the novel. How does Huos build so many housing tracts in bucolic Norton St. Edgar? Who is drinking Polly Mayer’s coffee? Where has the dry cleaners on Clevedon Road gone? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Polly’s stream of thought towards the end of the book: “She couldn’t be scared, because something like this couldn’t have happened. Fear needs belief. This was just silly, and silliness only made her irritable.”  Holt’s work hits the sweet spot of piquing the reader’s curiosity without being either scary or dumbed down. He’s entertaining in a way that makes readers think, which I enjoy very much.

If you like offbeat humor, urban fantasy, a puzzling mystery, or all things English, you’ll enjoy Tom Holt. He’s written a slew of books, so I look forward to trying more of them.

My column ran today — it’s not online yet, and the print version cut off the last sentence and part of the 2nd to last, so I’ve pasted it here instead.  Enjoy!

In The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, Alfie Kohn uses some of his previous theories on the problem with rewards, homework, and competition to debunk the prevailing view that “kids today” are over-indulged, over-protected narcissists , and that their helicopter parents made them that way. Given his earlier research, Kohn wondered what evidence supported such anecdotes?

He notes that many of the criticisms are contradictory: recent articles in such respected publications as Atlantic and The New Yorker note children are pushed to compete from a young age for elite accomplishments and are also shielded from competition by “everyone gets a trophy” policies. Similarly, parents are accused of being both too involved in their kids’ lives and too oblivious to anything but their smartphones. In an attempt to untangle these inconsistent allegations, Kohn searched for data to support criticisms of modern parenting and found none. Instead he contends that the often repeated concerns are driven by  “a traditionalist viewpoint” about children’s place in society, opinions presented as fact. And that logical fallacies and a lack of statistical evidence flaw many widely reported generational  issues.

Kohn proceeds to analyze each of the most common complaints about kids and parenting. His conclusion? “The real alternative to narcissistic self-absorption is not mindless obedience but reflective rebelliousness,” and “intellectual progress (that) demands we refuse to take things at face value or accept everything we’ve been told.”  In other words, the best thing we can do for our kids, and ourselves, is teach them to question what they hear and read, starting with reports about their own alleged self-importance and the mistakes their parents are making. A provocative, important read.

Eve O. Schaub lives in an area of Vermont where specialized eating habits, like locavorism, aren’t uncommon. But in her book Year of No Sugar she relates how people react to her family’s effort to stop eating foods with added sugar, “. . . it’s not just with waitstaff and counter people but friends, relatives, acquaintances; I can pinpoint almost the exact moment when the other person’s face changes. . . .” Although most people are tactful, their dismay is clear. Inspired by Dr. Robert Lustig’s obesity research and David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison, Schaub embarked on a year of no sugar, (with certain exceptions, like monthly family desserts) and her husband and kids joined her. Her memoir, inspired by the blog of the same name, tells the story of what she learned and how they managed when much of the food we purchase, even organic and natural versions, includes some kind of sugar. I found the book interesting and the facts about sugar’s impact on our health and well-being  compelling, albeit somewhat limited – Schaub cites few sources beyond Gillespie and Lustig. The book’s excessive use of italics for emphasis, perhaps intended to convey a conversational tone, is visually disruptive. But Schaub writes with passion and personality and I hope her experience inspires others to learn more about the ubiquitous sweeteners we consume.

Holly Robinson’s Beach Plum Island is a family novel with plenty of emotional punch. Sisters Ava and Elaine have very different reactions to their father’s death. Resentful of his much younger second wife Katy and disdainful of their half-sister Gigi, Elaine appears to be a polished professional  and volunteers for a suicide hotline, but escapes on the weekends into binge drinking and hookups. Ava, a potter and teacher with teen sons, reaches out to Gigi. Together they decide to pursue mysterious clues their father gave in his last days about a brother they never knew existed. Robinson weaves each sister’s story into a tale of grief and love that explores the ways women adapt to expectations, the consequences when those become too much to bear, and the healing power of love.  Along the way, she includes details that bring every scene to life – like this description of the sisters’ Great Aunt Finley’s living room, furnished with  “. . .a plaid recliner with cat-scratched fabric  . . .a sagging brown tweed couch and a coffee table with so many water rings on its surface, it looked like a deliberate helix design. There was a wooden lamp, its base carved like an owl, and magazines were stacked all over the floor and on top of every horizontal surface.”  Vivid details like this, as well as the particulars of Ava’s art, Elaine’s work, and Gigi’s horseback riding and fully fleshed out secondary characters, bring Beach Plum Island into deep focus as the story unfolds. An uplifting but not overly bow-tied ending makes for satisfying reading.

For some reason I’ve always been a sucker for letters. I love sending and receiving them, and I love reading them — not only family letters, but also collections of letters from historical figures and fictional letters in epistolary novels like Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. It’s a love story about a poet, Elspeth, who lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland and receives a fan letter from an Illinois college student, David, in 1912. They begin a faithful correspondence and through their letters, fall in love. When David volunteers for ambulance service (before America formally enters WWI), they finally meet.

Naturally it’s a star-crossed love — Elspeth is married, for one thing, and she has never left Skye because she’s terrified of being in a boat. Other plot twists I won’t reveal conspire to separate the lovers. The book alternates between their letters and those of Elspeth’s daughter Margaret and her fiancee Paul, a pilot in WWII. Margaret discovers her mother’s wartime romance when a bomb reveals the letters, hidden away in their Edinburgh home for years. Elspeth’s reaction to the bombing is to go to London. In the face of this unexpected behavior, Margaret decides to learn about her mother’s life before she was born.

As Margaret reconnects with Elspeth’s family in Skye and discovers a side of her mother she has never known, Elspeth writes letter after letter trying to track down what happened to David. By the end of the book the mystery is solved, once again entirely through letters.

This was a quick read, and I enjoyed it well enough, but the ending was a bit tidy for my liking. I think I would have enjoyed the physical look of the letters on the page more than I did the e-book, which I downloaded from my library. But if you like epistolary or historical novels and/or Scotland, you will probably find Letters from Skye appealing.

 

In early 2010 I read  The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I really liked it and wanted to read the sequel when it came out but never got to it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Indianapolis for the Public Library Association conference, and ironically found myself without any recreational reading.

I turned to NH Downloadable books, our state library e-book consortium, and tried as best I could to reproduce the serendipity of the stacks on my iPad. A few minutes later, I was downloading The Magician King.

When I describe these books to potential readers I usually mention that Grossman alludes heavily to Harry Potter — the first book opens when Quentin Coldwater is called to Brakebills, a secret magic college — and to the Narnia chronicles. Quentin’s favorite books as a child are set in a magical world called Fillory.

They are very much grown up books – The Magician is not just a fantasy, but a coming of age story, gloriously messy and tangled. Full of sex and drugs, and full as well of the longing for something real that marks every awakening into mature consciousness. How are we to live? Who can we count on? What is True with a capital T? Which is why I loved it.

Not only that, but it’s also a book set in urban contemporary America that was as magically complex and fascinating as Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellThe Magicians was one of the most satisfying books I read in the last few years. So I was absolutely delighted that The Magician King did not let me down.

You know the feeling — you start a sequel and realize ten pages out of the gate that the conceit just doesn’t work in the second book the way it did in the first and you already don’t care where it’s heading. Or worse, you like it and then it fizzles out. But not so this time.

When The Magician King opens Quentin is bored. He’s enjoys being a king and he’s mostly recovered from the events that preceded his ascendance. But something deep inside him is agitated, even more so after a simple outing in the forest near the castle goes awry. He makes a rash decision to sail East on an errand and in the way of fantasies, that decision unlocks a series of events that lead to ever greater magical challenges. Everything Quentin thinks he’s ever wanted is on the line, and whenever it looks like a resolution is in reach, things slip away from him again.

As much as The Magician King is Quentin’s story it’s also Julia’s. Julia Wicker grew up with Quentin in Brooklyn but failed the Brakebills entrance exam. When her examiners “erased” her memory, they failed, and she is haunted by what could have been. In The Magician King we learn what happened to her while Quentin was at Brakebills and what it is that she has been longing for — and whether Quentin can help her.

Once again Grossman is writing just as much about the human psyche as magic. What makes us tic and what keeps us going when everything else in life has headed south? What’s fundamental to our humanity? Why do we let each other down? What’s left to rely on when we find ourselves alone? Which are, after all, the subjects of all good books. I love the magical stagecraft, but I stay for the great read. I’m really excited that the 3rd book, The Magician’s Land, is due out in August.

 

Welcome to my first bookconscious on-the-fly post. I’m quite literally about to fly, and since Manchester Boston airport has free Wifi (and no hoops to jump through to connect), I decided to write about the book I finished this morning after taking Teen the Younger to school.

The Guest Cat, by poet Takashi Hiraide, is a quiet, meditative book, small and polished and lovely. It’s a novel in which the narrator is writing the novel, a literary technique that reminds me of one of those wooden box puzzles you open only to find more to unlock in the next layer.

The narrator and his wife and most of the other human characters (other than poets, interestingly enough) remain nameless, which made the story feel like a fable, with universal lessons for readers to plumb. Chibi, the guest of the title, and several other cats who make briefer but nonetheless important appearances, all have names.

The narrator and his wife have recently come to live and work (they write and edit) in a guesthouse in the garden of an old fashioned Tokyo house owned by an elderly couple. Chibi belongs to a family in the house next door on “Lightening Alley,” but begins to visit the couple every day, even sleeping there at night. They feed her, play with her, observe her, and begin to find their way in a new life.

The translators notes discuss the theme of outsiderness in The Guest Catthe couple are not part of the family or even longtime residents of their neighborhood, but Chibi gives them a sense of belonging. Through the little cat they find connection in an otherwise changing, isolating world.

It’s a deceptively simple story on the surface, but philosophical as it’s settles in your mind, which is my favorite kind of read. Like other translated work I’ve read, The Guest Cat made me aware all over again of how similar human consciousness and emotion are, even in a culture as foreign (to me) as Japan’s. And I absolutely love the cover art.

Reading Hiraide’s novel felt like meditating does when I actually manage to be still. A good way to settle my heart and mind before a trip.

The Mindful Reader ran in today’s Concord Monitor.

From the start, readers know something is amiss with Arthur Winthrop, because he’s wandering naked in Central Park. In winter. As he speaks with the police, we learn about his life, spent almost entirely at Lancaster, an elite New England boarding school, where his father was headmaster before him. He talks about his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, who enlisted after Sept. 11 and is in Iraq instead of following the family path to Yale.

Arthur also talks about a student, Betsy, who he is passionately attracted to, not just physically: “She is not like other students, you see. Her eyes are more open to the world, and perhaps this is why I am so taken with her. She has a sense of who she is that is usually earned over decades and decades of having your heart broken by the ceaseless beat of time.” That sentence stayed with me.

In the second half of the book, we hear the story from Elizabeth’s perspective – and this is where it gets very interesting. Greene manages to draw readers in without making the book’s many intrigues predictable; an accomplishment, since this isn’t the first book about a boarding school, marriage or the uncertain footing of middle age. The Headmaster’s Wife is all that and more: a meditation on longing in all of life’s stages, a literary mystery, and a novel with much for book clubs to untangle.

From fictional intrigue to intriguing nonfiction: for his new book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, Belfast, Maine, author Murray Carpenter tracked the story of caffeine and how it has become the most socially acceptable, widespread drug in the world. He visited coffee plantations, Central American pozol stands, cacao farms, a Beijing teashop, a largely unregulated Chinese synthetic caffeine plant, the largest decaffeinated coffee factory in North America, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and the offices of energy product companies, scientists and regulators, trying to understand how much caffeine is too much and why we love it.

Carpenter traces the story of caffeinated beverages, legendary and true, from ancient cultures in Asia and the Americas to contemporary energy shots and gels. From the early 20th century trial that allowed American soft drink companies nearly unfettered freedom to caffeinate as they saw fit to contemporary examples of caffeine’s questionable place as an athletic supplement and a dangerous component of underage partying, he explores this substance’s physiological, social, historical, economic and psychological affect on human life. If the book reminds you of long-form journalism, it should: Carpenter has written for newspapers and magazines, including the New York TimesWired and National Geographic.

After reading about how much of the caffeine in American soda is made you may never want to quaff a Coke again. But even your beloved morning coffee or tea will seem different after you learn about the way our bodies metabolize caffeine. Carpenter is good at providing both the pros and cons – there are optimal levels of caffeination that can actually enhance a person’s outlook and productivity, for example, but caffeine addiction is in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For the perplexed he offers wise counsel: “We don’t need to be whipsawed by the findings, alternatively reassured and freaked out; we just need to understand that caffeine is a complicated drug that can affect us in strange ways.” Caffeinated is a readable guide to this ubiquitous but misunderstood substance.

When Hoopoes Go to Heaven is the sequel to Gaile Parkin’s international best seller, Baking Cakes in Kigali. The Tungaraza family has moved to Swaziland, and ten year old Benedict, the “eldest son,” isn’t sure about all the changes going on around him. His mama, Angel, can’t find customers for her cakes. His brothers prefer kicking balls and his sisters like spending time with the girls next door; he wishes he had someone who enjoyed exploring nature with him.

But the unsettling things in Benedict’s life are beyond his family; he feels “like water that somebody had sent a stone skipping across.” There is an illness no one likes to speak of, and it’s killing a lot of people; a strange report of planes flying into buildings in America; a teacher at the high school who seems to be frightening his friend. Benedict hears all of it, and many other things he doesn’t quite understand, even though Mama sends him out when she and Baba discuss grown up things.

I enjoyed the way Parkin explored societal challenges – drugs, crime, epidemics, inequality, discrimination, gender issues, and even just ordinary family problems – through a child’s eyes. It made me reflect on what unsettling things my own kids heard snippets of growing up. And as in her first book, Parkin brings Africa alive with vivid descriptions that help the reader see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what Benedict is seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting. I like a book that takes me not only into someone else’s life, but also to places I’ve never been.

Evenings in the bookconscious house are for catching up with each other these days, so I’m finding myself with less time to read. I would probably have enjoyed When Hoopoes Go to Heaven more if I’d read in longer stretches than 10 minutes here or there.

How do you read when your time is limited?

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