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Mindful Reader

In today’s Mindful Reader column in the New Hampshire Sunday News I review Holly LeCraw’s The Half Brother and Dr. H. Gilbert Welch’s Less Medicine, More Health.

I found LeCraw’s novel complex and original, and if you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with a chronic or serious condition or is approaching retirement, Dr. Welch’s book is eye opening and thought provoking.

Take the link (it’s free) and thank you for reading!

 

 

Between getting organized for my now twice-monthly column (stay tuned for tomorrow’s edition) and taking a few days off to go to NYC with Teen the Younger, I haven’t had as much time to read for pleasure, unless you count restaurant reviews, which are pleasurable in their own way, and Playbills.

But this week I finished a book I’d started before our trip, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  There’s plenty to like right away in this book — it opens on a ferry, and I love ferries. It takes place on a small New England island with a bookstore and I love small New England islands and bookstores. And the story moves along quickly at first.

A.J. Fikry is the somewhat curmudgeonly owner, Amelia Loman is a publishing sales rep., en route to pitch the winter list. Amelia is a “bright-sider” by nature, but the meeting doesn’t go well. Readers quickly learn that Fikry’s wife died, and he’s drinking himself into oblivion. But one night Fikry’s copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane – a very rare book — is stolen while he’s in a stupor. A short time later, a two-year old, Maya, is left in the bookstore with a note saying “I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things.” Fikry and his new friend, Chief Lambiase, try to figure out how a bachelor running a “persnickety bookstore” who knows nothing about children might take care of Maya.

As the book goes on readers find out what happens to Fikry, Maya, Amelia, and Lambiase, as well as Fikry’s former sister-in-law, Ismay. Each chapter opens with a note about a story Fikry wants Maya to know about, with references to some of the other characters’ reading taste, and these little introductions relate in some way to the plot. They are also excellent primers on some terrific short fiction, sure to lead to further reading.The whole thing taken together makes for a pleasant read about reading, about life, about the fictions we believe and those we tell. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is also about family, and the way “shared sensibility” can build bonds even stronger than blood ties. And of course it’s a story of love in its many forms.

If I sound a little less than enthusiastic it’s because I liked it but didn’t love it. Some of the twists were too obvious, some of the story was maudlin, some of the characters a little too much to type. When Zevin allows them to be a little more flawed, a little more human, they’re more interesting than when she paints them into the quirky sales rep., the gruff but kindhearted police chief, the cranky store owner, the precocious child loved by all, etc. But I’d still recommend this novel to readers willing to overlook some flaws. Lambiase in particular is a wonderful supporting character. And this book is ultimately both warm-blooded and True, which is what all fiction should be.

The Mindful Reader ran in the New Hampshire Sunday News today. Good news for longtime readers: you can take a link to the paper and read the article for free, with no restrictions on how many times you can visit the site in a month. Which is good, because the column will appear every other Sunday.

Here’s this week’s lead, so I can entice you a bit:

“I
n the acknowledgements of his book “Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever,” John Marshall thanks his ninth-grade English teacher at Manchester High School Central, Mrs. Singer, in whose class he says “a whole new world opened up for me” which led to his becoming a writer. We can all be grateful to Mrs. Singer, because Marshall’s memoir is an interesting, inspiring read. ”

I also review SNUH MFA grad Kenneth Butler’s debut novel Holy Fool. Take the link. Check out the column. Let me know what you think!

Here’s a brief review I wrote for the library. Look for this book, it’s a nice uplifting story from a dark period of history.

When the CPL Book Club recently discussed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, one reader mentioned an NPR interview with Molly Guptill Manning. She tells the story of the Armed Services Editions, including the importance of Smith’s novel to the program, in When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II. It’s an inspiring tale that starts with the horrifying mass burnings and banning of books in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe.

American librarians launched a massive nationwide book drive to help stock training camp libraries and get books into the hands of millions of newly drafted U.S. servicemen. Although the drive was successful, donated books were sometimes too large, heavy, outdated, or uninteresting. In 1942, various members of the publishing industry came together to form The Council on Books in Wartime, and adopted the slogan, “Books are weapons in the war of ideas.” That sounds Orwellian, but the council was a force for good. 1,200 titles, classics and contemporary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, were produced in small, lightweight paperbacks called Armed Services Editions, around 120 million copies in all, shipped wherever Americans served around the world. Along the way, the council championed authors banned at home and abroad, navigated the politics of a presidential election, and promoted lifelong learning and a love of reading. At the end of the war, they produced a series of Overseas Editions and shipped 3.6 million of them to war-torn, book-starved Europe.

Manning tells what could have been a dry story with aplomb, quoting from dozens of letters servicemen wrote to the council and to authors. Her narrative includes enough history to provide context to those who haven’t studied WWII in a long time, and she includes photos and a complete list of ASE titles. Highly recommended for book lovers and history buffs.

You’ve no doubt heard of this book, which was on just about every “best books of the year” list for 2014. After all the rave reviews, I was quite curious to see whether All the Light We Cannot See would live up to the hype. It sort of does. I definitely enjoyed it, and I think Doerr’s writing is wonderful — rich in detail, fine, lyrical:

“He has tried every test he can think of without involving another soul,” for example. And ” . . . her existence has become tolerable. At least, out on the beaches, her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light.” And “To men like that time was a surfeit, a barrel they watched slowly drain. When really, he thinks, it’s a glowing puddle you carry in your hands; you should spend all your energy protecting it.”

The story is unique but also timeless. Two young people, Werner and Marie-Laure, growing up in countries that will soon be at war, who are connected by a mysterious radio broadcast. One hears it, one is the grandchild of the man who recorded it. Doerr sets their lives spinning and throughout the book, directs their orbits closer and closer, until, as WWII draws to an end, they cross. The novel’s structure, passing back and forth between these two characters, and back and forth in time, matches its narrative arc, which bobs and weaves.

But, lovely and interesting as it is — full of all the little pieces of Werner’s and Marie-Laure’s lives, all the supporting characters who flesh out their stories, all the historical background, all the science — the book is too long, and in places, too slow to develop. I had to work to get through it in two weeks, and in the middle the only thing that kept me going was knowing that a good portion of the book world loved it.  Some of the characters’ lives take turns that are deeply unsatisfying, but that is true of life as well. Some portions of the story are improbable and even perhaps a little too tidy, but I was able to suspend disbelief. Doerr doesn’t tie up the ending with a neat bow, he leaves a little mystery, a little for the reader to puzzle over, which I like.

So although I’m glad I read it and I can’t say I disliked it, I wasn’t wowed. I am sure many of you will disagree with me, so if you loved this book on every single page, leave a comment and tell me why.

 

Thank you again to all of you who have responded to “On Being ‘Discontinued.'” The support I’ve received from all over the world has been quite surprising and gratifying. I’m happy to report The Mindful Reader will have a new home in print and online beginning Sunday, Feb. 15 in the New Hampshire Sunday News. My column will run twice a month in the paper’s new NH Life section. I’ll still be covering New Hampshire and northern New England authors and my goal will be to review books readers might not hear about elsewhere, or by authors who are visiting a bookstore nearby. Only nearby will now mean statewide. All of you from large states, stop snickering.

On to reading. This week as we waited for our firstborn’s passport to return from its tour of embassies in Washington and New York (he needed two visas for his upcoming study abroad semester, and he departs next week so the waiting was nerve-wracking), I needed an escapist book. When I was a young mother, we lived in Seattle and I fought the winter doldrums by reading about people chucking it all to live in a new place, often a ramshackle old home in a foreign country. At the library recently I came across Castles In the Air: the Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion by Judy Corbett. Here’s my CPL Book of the Week review:

In 1995, Judy Corbett and her fiancée Peter were looking for an old house to restore in Wales, where Judy grew up. When they heard that Gwydir Castle, an aristocratic home dating back to around 1500, might be for sale, they visited, only to find two astonishing things: it was the very house Judy admired as a child in a sepia photograph at her neighbor’s house, and it was a wreck. Part of the house had been turned into an underground nightclub, the rest had been left to crumble and rot. Judy and Peter were not only undeterred; they were smitten.

Judy & Peter shared Gwydir with all manner of flora and fauna when they moved in. Their wedding was nearly called off because of a haunting. They learned that some of the home’s original furnishings were in a Metropolitan Museum of Art warehouse (by way of Hearst Castle) and set about trying to repatriate them. Castles in the Air is part memoir, part history, part ghost story, and entirely delightful.Throughout the story of their “adventures” Judy focuses on her home’s wild beauty, “Sometimes it seems to me as though it had been conjured out of the damp earth by sorcery.” Reflecting on the lives of Tudor women who lived at Gwydir she notes, “I click the same latch and feel the heavy mass of oak drop slightly on the swing of the same strap hinges. To me, the continuity of such things is reassuring. I am reminded that we are the future the past looked forward to . . . .” A lovely book and a fascinating story told with warmth, humor, and good cheer.

 

A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

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