There are a lot of new books that interest me but lately I’ve turned to the “to be read” shelves to try to chip away at the endless piles of books I have been meaning to get to. Part defense mechanism to keep the Computer Scientist from “tidying” the bookshelves? Maybe. Also, there is comfort in the familiar, and often books I buy are by favorite authors or on favorite topics.  Lately I’ve been reading Margaret Drabble’s The Middle Ground.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Drabble. This was no exception, even though it was a little bit depressing. First of all it’s a novel set in the early 80’s and many of the socio-political issues Drabble mentions are still prevalent — wars, middle east conflicts, economic disparity, cultural misunderstanding, lack of equal opportunity for women, and so on. Also this is a novel about a circle of London friends in middle age, and they’re all a damn sight more successful than I am.

But they are people I’d want to know. Kate Armstrong is a writer specializing in women’s issues. She’s a single mother in London, living what seems to be a fairly charmed life. Except for the hate mail she gets, and the person she thinks it’s from. And several other stressful things. One of the biggest is the end of her long relationship with her best friend Evelyn’s husband, Ted. When Evelyn ends up in the hospital, caught in the midst of a domestic dispute in her job as a social worker, Kate sits with the children until Ted can get home. Then she sits with Ted, talking, and thinks, “They would gaze at one another forever, good friends perhaps, old allies, old enemies, across this impossible void, trying new voices, new gestures, making true efforts to hear, to listen, to understand.But hopelessly, hopelessly.”

She goes on a few sentences later, “Men and women can never be close. They can hardly speak to one another in the same language. But they are compelled, forever, to try, and therefore even in defeat there is no peace.” Drabble looks at that question, of whether men and women speak the same language, through Kate’s complicated web of family and friends, and through Hugo’s and Evelyn’s perspectives as well. The Middle Ground may be about middle age but it’s also about the space between people, even people who are very close.

Drabble makes this very complex thing crystalize in small moments. Her characters and their thoughts drive the novel; to me this is far more compelling than a page turner (although I sometimes crave those as well) even if it’s harder to read a book like this is tiny snippets before bed. I love immersing myself in imagined lives, messy and meaningful as my own is, entirely unrecognizable and simultaneously entirely recognizable. To paraphrase Paul Harding, Drabble’s work is true in a way I’ve always known to be true, but written in a way I’ve never read before.

When I read Drabble’s fiction I am left feeling a little better about the world and little bit expanded, in heart and mind. Which is why I read. Also on my to-be-read shelf, Drabble’s memoir, A Pattern in the Carpet, which was a birthday gift from a book-loving friend. I look forward to reading it soon.

This week’s column covers two books that celebrate what’s all around us: The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You by Clare Walker Leslie and New Hampshire Women Farmers: Pioneers of the Local Food Movement by Helen Brody, photographed by Leslie Tuttle.

Here’s a bit about each – read the rest here.

Clare Walker Leslie’s gorgeous “The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You” is designed to help grown-ups reconnect with nature. Leslie writes, “Consider this book a companion. Leave it by your window to remind you to look outside. Take it to work for when you need a break.”

Author Helen Brody and photographer Leslie Tuttle collaborated on “New Hampshire Women Farmers: Pioneers of the Local Food Movement.” This is another visually pleasing book, celebrating farms around the state and the women who work on them. Many places and faces will be familiar if you frequent markets, farm stands, or pick-your-own orchards, but the stories behind these women and their family enterprises may be new to you. Brody and Tuttle also shed light on the growing importance of agritourism in New Hampshire and the movement to teach younger generations not only where their food comes from, but how they can produce their own.

Yes, bookconscious readers, I finished a book! For fun!

Ana of California, which is “inspired*” by Anne of Green Gables is both familiar and fresh. Ana Cortez is an orphan from Boyle Heights in East L.A. She’s almost 16, the age when she can “emancipate” out of the foster system. In the meantime, she’s in trouble for telling off her latest foster mother. Her social worker suggests Garber Farm in northern California, owned by brother and sister Emmett and Abbie. Ana knows nothing about plants, and has never been out of Los Angeles, but she’s willing to go to avoid a group home.

What Ana learns on the farm goes beyond how to tell parsley from weeds, make compost, and pick beans. In the small rural town of Hadley, she finds it hard to explain the violence that has defined her life. But she connects with new friends and coworkers, and with Emmett and Abbie, over music and books, food, and art, and humor. There are enough nods to Anne to please fans of L.M. Montgomery’s heroine, but Ana is her own unique character, feisty and strong, vulnerable and big-hearted. Teran renders her setting richly, making Hadley, with its funky shops, redwood forests, harvest festival, and quirky inhabitants, a character in its own right. Her writing is evocative: “They drove toward town, sunshine machine-gunning through the pines. Ana closed her eyes and let the light ricochet off her forehead. ‘Gorgeous day,’ Abbie said. ‘I’ve lived in perfect weather all my life-doesn’t fool me for a second,’ Ana replied.” Ana of California isn’t just about surviving a terrible childhood, it’s about the ways people misunderstand each other, and how little it takes to overcome those deficits. 

Much to think about and to enjoy, in a book that carries readers back to pre-texting adolescence.

*Note that doesn’t say it’s an adaptation — some reviews I read were critical of perceived inaccuracies in the novel, but it isn’t supposed to be a remake.

Two weeks and no posts about pleasure reading? See my previous entry on not finishing books . . .  maybe I’ll write soon about applying the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (sort of) to my cookbook collection.

In this week’s Mindful Reader column I review two books: a beautiful photography collection by Becky Field about New Hampshire’s newest Americans, particularly our refugee neighbors, and Stephen P. Kiernan’s latest novel, The Hummingbird.

Here’s a bit about each; read the entire column here.

Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan’s new novel, The Hummingbird, is about Deborah, a hospice nurse whose husband, Michael, has severe post-traumatic stress disorder after three deployments to Iraq. Their marriage is suffering and she not sure what to do. Her latest patient is Barclay Reed, a grouchy former history professor whose career ended over accusations of academic dishonesty.


“I love the American people because they respect all people and give them their rights without exception.” That’s a quote from Nakaa Nassir, an Iraqi woman in Manchester, which appears in photographer Becky Field’s new book, Different Roots, Common Dreams.

In this week’s column in the New Hampshire Sunday News, I review Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything by Stefany Shaheen with Mark Dagostino. It’s an interesting read about an important topic — but I wish Coach had played a greater role in the book, and that the authors had written more about medic alert animals. Here’s the beginning of my review:

Stefany Shaheen’s “Elle & Coach: Diabetes, the Fight for My Daughter’s Life, and the Dog Who Changed Everything,” written with Mark Dagostino, is 226 pages long. Coach, the dog in the title, appears fleetingly in the preface, then not again until page 133. Most of the book is about how Shaheen’s family coped when Elle, just 8 years old, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which causes a person’s immune system to stop the pancreas from producing insulin. Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed in childhood or young adulthood and is neither preventable nor curable. If it’s not managed carefully, it can be fatal.

Take the link above to see the rest, and thanks for reading!

Vacation reading 2015

We took a shorter summer vacation this year, just a couple of days off work for each of us for a long weekend in the White Mountains, before both of our offspring embark on senior years (Senior the Elder left today to head back to college, Senior the Younger starts her last year of high school tomorrow).

One of the days it rained, which helped me to read three books in three days — The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor LipmanA Dresser of Sycamore Trees by Garrett Keizer, and Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey. I also started How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton.

Carey’s book was the last I finished. It’s a short nonfiction book about his son’s interest in manga and anime and their trip to Japan together. Which Carey notes he took as much to write this book, and therefore be able to have the trip expenses covered as he did to take his son to Japan. Somehow that bothered me as a reader — I felt as if the book wasn’t about a trip a father and son took as much as a trip a father produced around his son’s interest in order to publish a little nonfiction book between novels. Maybe that’s just jealousy? Carey is certainly a good writer and his willingness to admit when he was frustrated, lost, worried, or just wrong in his preconceived ideas is refreshing. Since my own teenager also liked anime and manga at one point — now she is more interested in American comics — I found the narrative interesting and informative. For one thing, it reminded me that in Japan adults read and watch manga and anime, but Senior the Younger associates those interests with her younger self, and sees them as something she’s grown out of. So it was a decent poolside read on the one truly sunny day of the trip, but nothing I’d read again.

A Dresser of Sycamore Trees, on the other hand, I will read again someday, possibly soon. I realized this is the third summer in a row in which I read a book by Garrett Keizer on my time off. The previous two were for the Mindful Reader column — Privacy and Getting SchooledIn the past I’ve referred to Keizer as “whip smart,” “thoughtful, curious, intelligent, and respectful” and “what every child deserves in a teacher.”  He’s also funny too, in my favorite way — gently, kindly. What I didn’t realize is that he’s also what every human being deserves as a preacher. In fact when I finished A Dresser of Sycamore Trees I immediately looked up how long it would take to get from our house in New Hampshire to the church where Keizer was first a lay vicar and later a full Episcopal priest. Sadly, he seems to no longer be serving there (or anywhere that I could find), although writing is a ministry of its own.

A Dresser of Sycamore Trees addresses what it means to have faith, what ministry means, how a person can really live his or her convictions, and how humble, open-hearted, intelligent discourse can lead someone closer to an understanding of what it is to be a good person and also perhaps how to trust in God, or what that trust looks like. Keizer is unapologetically liberal (in the sense of the word that indicates someone who would like to liberate mankind from injustice) but he has equal criticism for lazy thinking, selfishness, and hypocrisy in those on both the left and the right, (If you want to see what I mean, read this article on values, which I found on his website as I was looking for what he’s up to these days).

What I love about Keizer’s writing is how very good it is. He’s an original thinker, and his prose is muscular but clean – every word matters. Here he describes a bishop’s voice: “The best I can do is to say that his voice was that of a male lion, with his great clawed paw resting as delicately as possible on the arm of a couch as he proposed marriage to a dubious lamb.” And this, on listening as a divine gift: “More and more I see God as the Almighty Listener. More and more I see how preoccupied we are with the ‘answers’ to our prayers, never acknowledging the utterly omnipotent and compassionate act of God’s hearing them. . . . Ironically I have sometimes been granted a share of that divine gift through being so mortal. In some conversations on some evenings I am simply too exhausted, flabbergasted, unqualified, or inexperienced to do much besides listen.”

I’ve had a very “not-sure heart,” for some time now, and found this book intriguing. “Sometimes we resolve to do without an evil or harmful thing, and Grace enables us to do without it. But sometimes we also resolve to do without a good thing . . . . and Grace gives it to us anyway.” That will stay with me.

If you’ve been reading bookconscious for a long time you’ll know I also very much admire Elinor Lipman, who is also whip smart and funny. The Inn at Lake Devine is about a young woman, Natalie Marx, only 12 when the book opens, and her fascination with a Vermont inn whose proprietress responds to her mother’s request for information that gentiles are the “guests who feel most comfortable here.” In a clever but not ever pat story, Lipman, like Jane Austen, turns her formidable wit on the society of her novel: the anti-Semitic innkeeper, summer camp, over-bearing parents, adult childhood friends, Catskills resorts, and much else. There is young love, an untimely death, missed connections, strategic alliances, wrongs righted, and loose ends tidied, as in a Shakespearean comedy. The Inn at Lake Devine is both delightfully entertaining and thought provoking. Forget frothy “beach reads” – try Elinor Lipman on your next vacation.

The Mindful Reader ran in today’s New Hampshire Sunday News. This time I review Cold Hard News, a debut mystery by Maureen Milliken, and Lessons from Tara, a memoir about life with lots of large rescue dogs by David Rosenfelt.

Here’s a taste: “Like Milliken, Bernie O’Dea writes and edits a paper in a small Maine town, Redimere. In “Cold Hard News,” Bernie can’t shake a story that troubles her — a body turns up in a melting snowbank, and it turns out to be Vietnam vet and town eccentric Stanley Weston. The more Bernie uncovers, the more questions she has, and even though she bought the Peaks Weekly Watcher from her first boss, she’s “from away,” so answers aren’t always easy to get.”

“n “Lessons from Tara,” Rosenfelt uses self-deprecating humor to recount what he’s learned about life, love, humans and dogs over the years. Remarkably, Rosenfelt and his wife have rescued more than 4,000 dogs, almost all large, many older, some also sick or injured. They have “been living with between 20 and 40 dogs for almost 19 years.”

You can read the whole column here. Thanks for stopping by!


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