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Sometimes we read to enter into another life, an experience utterly unlike our own. I enjoyed Nick Hornby’s novels About a Boy and How to Be Good, so I decided to give High Fidelity a try, and it was just that sort of psychic field trip. Clearly, I will never know what it is like to be a thirty-something man who owns a record shop in London like Rob, the protagonist of High Fidelity. Yet Hornby’s gift is that for a few evenings while I read his book, I knew.

Rob’s recently split with his girlfriend Laura and he’s beginning to wonder if he’ll ever get over his earlier relationships and really be happy. His shop is struggling. His parents don’t seem to realize he’s grown up. He’s drifted away from many of his friends.

Rob narrates the book and we learn his thoughts on mix tapes, top five lists (episodes of TV shows, movies, songs, etc.), and all kinds of relationship theories and worries. If you’ve ever thought men aren’t as insecure about relationships or as worried about how they appear to others as women, this book should be illuminating. Rob is quirky but kind, and you can’t help rooting for him.

And Hornby has a real knack for packing emotional punch in Rob’s reflections. In a scene where Laura wants to be with Rob again after a brief stint with another man, Rob asks her about whether they had safe sex, and she cries, because “You were my partner just a few weeks ago. And now you’re worried I might kill you, and you’re entitled to worry.” In the next paragraph Rob speculates that it is unlikely Laura’s interim-lover put Laura or him at risk for AIDS, but notices, “. . . in truth it was the symbolism that interested me more than the fear. I wanted to hurt her, on this day of all days, just because it’s the first time since she left that I’ve been able to.” Just a few sentences, but they sum up all the tumult Rob and Laura are experiencing.

Still, I’ve enjoyed Hornby’s other books more. I especially recall loving How to Be Good. High Fidelity was enjoyable but not overly so. I’m curious about the movie now that I’ve read it though.

I’ve written before here at bookconscious about my longtime effort to practice mindfulness and my frustrations therein. Over the years I’ve realized I am mindful in my everyday life in many ways. I’m much better at being in the present moment, and at recognizing that emotions, both good and bad, will pass. I’m still not very good about meditating regularly and I’m really bad at being mindful in the face of strong emotions or stress. Which I guess isn’t so unusual, but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating.

Recently I wanted to try to reintroduce the idea of meditating to Teen the Younger (I’ve tried to interest both her and her older brother several times), and get myself back into a regular practice. I found Sit Like A Buddha: a Pocket Guide to Meditation by Lodro Rinzler very helpful. It’s a compact book, easy to slip into a purse or pocket, but it’s packed with helpful information. I’ve read a number of meditation and mindfulness books, many of which are long and go into a great deal of explanation. That’s fine and even interesting, but for someone starting or re-starting a meditation practice, basic may be better.

Sit Like a Buddha is pleasantly brief and straightforward. Rinzler covers the why and how of meditation as well as the obstacles and benefits in short chapters outlining what he identifies as ten steps to becoming a regular meditation practitioner. The steps are sensible, from figuring out why you want to do this (intention) to relaxing. The instruction is light rather than pedantic, and sets achievable goals for readers.

Rinzler is in his early 30’s, lives in New York, wears bow ties and stylish glasses, and includes situations like going to bars and fantasizing about attractive people in his writing about Buddhism and mindfulness. He also doesn’t try to separate meditation and mindfulness from Buddhist teachings, as some writers do. So I got what he was saying but as a middle-aged non-Buddhist some of the book felt like it wasn’t addressed to me.

However, near the end of Sit Like a Buddha Rinzler notes, “When I ask you to relax with who you already are, I am asking you to be you. . . . That is the point here. Meditation is just a tool to let you be you: to bring a sense that you are actually good enough, worthy enough, and kind, strong, and smart enough to handle whatever arises.” Which anyone of any age or background could benefit from. I am hopeful that this book will help me make meditation a more established habit and that it will appeal to my family.

In today’s column I review Lily Brooks-Dalton’s memoir Motorcycles I’ve Loved. Here’s a bit of the beginning:

It’s spring in New England, which means motorcycle engines are roaring back to life after a long winter. I’ve never been on a motorcycle, and I admit to being a little afraid of them, but Lily Brooks-Dalton’s memoir, “Motorcycles I’ve Loved,” helped me see them in a different light.

You can read the rest here, for free. When I checked this morning, my column was one of the rotating front page stories, which is pretty cool! I also read this inspiring piece about a woman who lost her son to PTSD and suicide after he came home from Iraq who has started a nonprofit that helps veterans adopt shelter pets. Reading that made my morning — Jo-Ann Clark is an amazing woman, to turn a personal tragedy into hope for others.

I feel like a bit of a Scrooge when I don’t love a book someone else has recommended to me as wonderful, and even more so when the rest of the book world has mostly raved about it too. Recently I felt that way about All the Light We Cannot See. It’s been a tough winter around here and I’ve been in a slight reading funk — several books I thought I’d like I didn’t even try getting through. But Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud was one I was sure I’d like, based on a library colleague’s hearty endorsement in a book chat session, so I stuck it out. It’s a novel featuring a real historical figure, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, over the course of several months in 1914. The novel’s narrator is Thomas Maggs, only surviving son of a pub owner who drinks too much. He’s got a lame foot and his mother wants him in school, since his foot will prevent him going to sea like so many other local boys.

There are some interesting things going on here — the real story of Mackintosh’s life, told as the boy learns it himself; the friendship between the misfit boy and the misunderstood artist, and the war with Germany creating paranoia and xenophobia in a small village on the Suffolk coast. Freud brings the atmosphere to life, as well as the country and seaside. That said, most of the characters just weren’t compelling enough for me to care what happened to them. Thomas’s family seemed like characters I’ve seen before — the tragically drunken father, the abused but long-suffering mother who protects the kids, one sister who goes into service and another who pines after her fiancee, presumed lost at sea. But doesn’t pine so much as to not get up to a little recreational fun with the soldiers billeted in the pub. Even Mackintosh and his wife, true though their story may be, seemed to be typecast in the midst of all this — foreigners (even though they’re only from Scotland) suspected of spying, the brilliant man whose rejection bruises his ego to the point of impacting his ability to work, the wife who carries him through.

My immediate reaction to the ending was to dislike it strongly. On reflection, half a day later, I still think it was rushed and unbelievable, but at least it felt fresh and new compared to the rest of the book. And yet — for some reason I spent my rare spare time with this book for several nights, and stayed with it through the end. Freud’s writing drew me on somehow.

Did you read this book? Did you like it more than I did? Leave a comment and tell me what I’ve missed.

Today’s Mindful Reader column features the New Hampshire poet laureate, Alice Fogel, and former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic. Here’s the beginning:

It’s almost April, and that means National Poetry Month.

If your immediate reaction to that statement is to roll your eyes, shake your head, or yawn, bear with me. And listen to the words of Charles Simic, Pulitzer Prize winner, former U.S. poet laureate, and longtime New Hampshire resident, who notes in “The Life of Images,” his new book of collected essays, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we recognize ourselves.”

So relax, forget everything you learned in school about poetry, and think of poems as what people shared before Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

– See more at: http://www.unionleader.com/article/20150329/LOCALVOICES/150329228#sthash.MXMIEGKu.dpuf

 

 

I heard a piece recently on NPR about The Millstone. I have loved other books by Margaret Drabble, most recently, The Pure Gold Baby, so I sent off for The Millstone on inter-library loan. It’s wonderful. Like much of Drabble’s work, this novel explores the inner life of a woman, in this case a young woman working on her PhD in Elizabethan poetry named Rosamund Stacey. It’s 1960’s London, she’s living in her parents’ flat not far from Broadcasting House, home of the BBC, and it is in that neighborhood that she gets to know George, a BBC radio announcer. George believes Rosamund is having two affairs, when in fact she is dating two men she doesn’t really like all that much but not sleeping with either of them. In fact, she’s a virgin.

She really likes George, and after one brief evening together, she hopes to hear from him again, but he doesn’t call. Shortly thereafter she finds herself pregnant. She considers her options and decides against an abortion. But she also decides against contacting George, “I still could not believe that I was going to get through it without telling him, but I could not see that I was going to tell him either.”

The rest of the book is about Rosamund’s determination to continue her scholarly work, to keep teaching private students who are preparing for university entrance, to try to live as independently as she can and to have her child. The sections about baby Octavia’s birth and the first months of Rosamund’s motherhood are really lovely. Her self-examined life, and her thoughts on her friendships and family relationships, are lucid and observant.

There’s a scene where the baby is in the hospital, and Rosamund sets herself to the task of getting past the old-fashioned Matron who believes mothers shouldn’t be allowed to visit their children, that is delicious. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what she does and who she meets, but this portion of the book is emotionally complex, tender, funny, sharp, and thoroughly entertaining to boot. All the scenes at St. Andrew’s Hospital – before and after Octavia’s birth, focus a sharp lens on women in 1960’s London society. Even the minor characters in these scenes, as well as Rosamund’s friend Lydia who moves in and both complicates and simplifies her life, and other characters we meet only seldom, are fully realized. Rosamund’s parents, who appear only in a letter they write home and in Rosamund’s remembrances of how they raised her, feel like people the reader knows enough about to recognize them.

Drabble writes such beautiful prose. Here Rosamund is taking Octavia home after she’s been in the hospital, “The air was bright and clear, and as we drove past the formal determined structure of the Crescent, ever-demolished, ever-renewed, I suddenly thought that perhaps I could take it and survive.” In that one sentence, the outer and inner worlds intersect, Rosamund notes with perception and tenderness her own resilience, the reader has a sense of her growth as a character and her potential.

Lovely, clear, and without extra words. Drabble is one of my favorite writers and I’m really grateful to NPR for running that piece, which reminded me of how much I love her work.

 

The title of my blog post is the New Hampshire Sunday News headline for my column today. You can read it here for free. This week I review Boston author Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head: the Making of a Carpenter, which is a terrific read and a really thought provoking look at the value of making tangible things instead of — ahem — stuff people read online.  If you know anyone about to graduate and confused about what to do, this would be a good gift.

I also review New Hampshire native Meredith Tate’s “dystopian New Adult romance,” Missing Pieces, which is also thought provoking in its own way, and fun to read.

Take the link and thanks for reading!

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