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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!

One of my library colleagues recommended The Miniaturist, which she describes as a gothic historical novel, so I thought I’d give it a try. Gothic has several connotations, but in this case I think she’s referring to the undertone of mystery and romance throughout the story. Set in the late 1600’s in Amsterdam, the novel centers on Petronella Brandt, the eighteen year old bride of a middle aged merchant whose fortune and influence have earned him a comfortable living and respect. His household is unusual in that his unmarried sister Marin lives there, and that his servants are an orphan and a black man, who Johannes Brandt took in as children and employed.

Despite his unconventional and rather swashbuckling life — he has traveled far and wide, when most people of his time never left their neighborhoods — Brandt must live according to the strictures of the Burgomasters who run Amsterdam and the zealous fire-and-brimstone clergy. Public piety and private hypocrisy run rampant. Brandt is set in his ways and unprepared for a young wife (for a variety of reasons he was happy remaining unmarried), but he tries to make her happy, giving her an elaborate cabinet which contains an ornate miniature model of their house.

Nella is baffled by the gift but searches for a craftsman to furnish it. She commissions a few pieces from a miniaturist listed in the city’s directory of artisans. Before long, she is receiving pieces she hasn’t commissioned, which reveal details of the house and its occupants that Nella herself is only just learning. How does the miniaturist know? Is there prophecy in the tiny dolls and objects? Magic? Or mere spying? Who is giving away the Brandts’ secrets? “You thought you were a locked box inside a locked box, Nella tells herself. But the miniaturist sees you — she sees us.”

The story goes beyond melodrama though. Nella comes into her own as a woman, wife, mistress of a prosperous home, sister-in-law, friend, and Amsterdamer. Raised in the country by a family with not much left but its good name, Nella has to learn the ins and outs of city life as well as of her strange new home. I enjoyed watching her catch on to business, politics, relationships, life. Nella tries to understand, but some of what she discovers — through the miniaturist’s gifts and her own expanding awareness — is either shocking or hard to fathom or both.The other characters are also interesting, although not as fully drawn. The details of seventeenth century Amsterdam are fascinating.

An absorbing read, well worth getting lost in for a few evenings.

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.

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