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I review books by two Maine authors in this week’s Mindful Reader column in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Kate Braestrup’s new memoir is Anchor and Flares and Robert Klose’s hilarious send-up of campus politics is Long Live Grover Cleveland.

Here’s the first paragraph for each:

Kate Braestrup is chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. Her new memoir, “Anchor & Flares,” deals with all of the things she’s written about before – family, love, grief, faith – and also service. Ranging across topics as diverse as the condition of a body that has been decomposing under a frozen lake and a study of the qualities shared by Germans who rescued Jews rather than turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, Braestrup talks about hope and despair, joy and devastation. And she writes of these things in the context of her eldest son’s decision to enlist in the Marine Corps.

and

University of Maine biology professor Robert Klose’s novel “Long Live Grover Cleveland” is a delicious farce. Grover Cleveland is a small college in Maine, founded during the Vietnam war by a distant relative of President Cleveland as a haven for students – and some faculty – who want to avoid the draft. When the college’s founding president dies, he designates his nephew Marcus Cleveland, a used-car salesman in New Jersey, as his successor. Marcus is a good salesman who doesn’t seem entirely in touch with the world.

You can read the entire column here.

 

Artist Sue Anne Bottomley‘s book Colorful Journey: an Artist’s Adventure: Drawing Every Town in New Hampshire got me out of a reading funk. I’d lately found myself dissatisfied which much of what I tried to read for pleasure — something that seems to happen when work reading overwhelms. Reviewing books pile up, I have limited time to read, and I end up feeling very choosy. I liked the idea of this book — a project, born of an artist’s desire to get reacquainted with her home state after forty years. Following through on a project like this had to be challenging, and I admire Bottomley’s perseverance.

Colorful Journey is part art book, part travel diary, part guide to tidbits of New Hampshire history and culture. It took Bottomley two years to visit and draw all 234 towns and cities in the seven regions of our state, and the book gives a page to each, with the pencil/ink/watercolor pictures taking up most of the space. Her style is fluid and colorful, and in the text she calls attention to the way she composed her drawings, when she took artistic license, and what details drew her eye.

In the process, patterns emerge — there are many interestingly re-purposed meeting houses and railroad stations around the state, many cozy general stores, well laid out town centers, and decoratively designed libraries. A lot of New Hampshire’s steeples are topped with weather vanes. Mills abound as well, and it’s interesting to read about all the ways they are being used today and what they produced in their time.

The accompanying text adds even more local color, as Bottomley recalls what she saw as she sketched, what the weather was like, who she saw or met, and sometimes what she ate. For each town there is also a fact laid out in a different font and another set in larger, bolder font. I am usually not a fan of more than one font on a page, nor of such variety of type size and strength, but it really works in this book, and the design seems to add to the reading — you can just look at the art, catch the highlighted facts, and move on, or you can read more closely.

I love New Hampshire, where the Computer Scientist and I feel most at home of all the many places we’ve lived. I find that despite it’s small size, it’s hugely interesting, and this book reminded me of bits of history, geography and culture that make it that way. I also learned that most towns seem to have changed names as well as borders at one point, and one even declared itself a sovereign nation (The Republic of Indian Stream, now Pittsburg) when its people tired of being taxed by both the U.S. and Canada. And of course I loved that Bottomley visited and drew so many libraries.

Whether you live in New Hampshire, vacation here, or just want to learn about it — we are, after all, soon to be on the national stage again as the “first in the nation” presidential primary state — enjoy this beautiful, informative book.

This week in The Mindful Reader a terrific historical novel-police procedural by Lucretia Grindle. Here’s the beginning of the column, which ran in today’s New Hampshire Sunday News.

The Mindful Reader: Finding Italy in ‘The Lost Daughter’

Boston native Lucretia Grindle lives on the Maine coast as well as in England. In the afterword of her new novel, The Lost Daughter she explains that after 9/11, she and her husband talked about “what they would choose to do if the world were going to fly to pieces.” Grindle recalls saying, “I want to go to the Uffizi. If World War III is going to break out, let’s go to Florence.”

That decision turned out to be the first of many trips to Italy, which she calls “one of the most intellectually rich, vibrant, and contradictory countries in the world. . . .” Her extensive travel has inspired several novels.

“The Lost Daughter” is set in contemporary Florence and late 1960s-1970s Ferrara and Rome. It’s both a mystery and a historical novel, examining the years when Italy was in the grip of the Brigate Rosse, or Red Brigade, a militant leftist group. When the book opens, the story is focused on a 17-year-old American student, Kristin Carson, who’s studying art history in Florence and has a much older boyfriend she met online and knows only as Dante. When her prominent and well-connected orthopedic surgeon father and her stepmother fly to Italy for her 18th birthday, they learn she has disappeared.
You can read the rest here.

In today’s New Hampshire Sunday News, I review a self-published book and explain why I don’t review more.

Potential and flaws found in ‘Destiny’

People often ask me why I don’t review more self-published books.There are too many for me to read them all, and self-published books are often flawed. If I can’t get through a book, no matter how it was published, my column readers probably wouldn’t want to, either.

What’s lacking in self-published books? A skilled editor lets the author know what a good story needs to be great, what should be trimmed and honed. Most authors are too close to their own manuscripts to make that judgment.

New Hampshire author Carl Howe Hansen’s self-published novel “Destiny” is part family-saga, part environmental thriller set in part on a 140-acre island off the coast of Maine that has been in the Petersen family since the 1940’s. “Destiny” is both a theme of the novel and the name of their “heavy wooden schooner,” built by Olaf Petersen during World War I.
You can read the rest by taking this link. Don’t miss the paper’s interview with Donald Hall, also in today’s edition.

Here’s a preview of this week’s column. I review New Hampshire author Donna Decker’s novel Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You and Julia Bascom’s The Obsessive Joy of Autism.

The Mindful Reader: Novel explores true-life massacre and its impact

Franklin Pierce University professor Donna Decker is known for her seminars, including one on school shootings. Now she’s written a novel, “Dancing In Red Shoes Will Kill You,” about the Dec. 6, 1989, massacre of 14 women students at École Polytechnique in Montreal.

In her author’s note, Decker makes clear that the book is fiction, and the characters are her own, even if they are based on real lives. She explains she’d always intended to write a nonfiction book about the massacre, but hearing author Slavenka Drakulic discuss her novel about rape victims of the Bosnian war changed her mind. Like Drakulic, Decker wanted “to get at the emotional truth” of the women who died; most of the news coverage at the time focused on the shooter.

Decker’s novel centers on one of the engineering students who died, a feminist reporter whose name appeared on the killer’s list of targets, and a student at another Montreal university who experiences date rape in her first semester at college. Decker draws readers into her character’s lives by fleshing out their family and friends, and by showing readers that they are people with foibles and faults as well as dreams of the lives ahead of them.

Read the rest here.

I recently reviewed The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain, and I just finished his earlier book, The President’s Hat. Set towards the end of Francois Mitterrand’s presidency, the book opens with Daniel Mercier treating himself to a meal at a brasserie while his wife and son are away. President Mitterrand and his party are seated beside Daniel. He’s amazed by this brush with greatness, and when the president leaves his black felt Homburg hat, Daniel does the unthinkable — he takes it.

As the novel unfolds, three other characters end up with the president’s hat: a woman in an unhappy love affair, a famous perfumer who hasn’t been able to create anything new for years and is in a deep depression, and a wealthy man who has come to disdain all that his familiar world stands for. As each of them possesses the hat for a brief time, their lives are changed. Daniel gets a promotion. Fanny finds the gumption to leave her lover. Pierre rediscovers his creativity. Bernard thinks for himself, and discovers a passion for modern art.

Does the president get his hat back? You’ll have to read the book to see. Once again Laurain transports readers to Paris, brings each scene alive with little details like the “ramekin of shallot vinegar” served alongside the seafood platter Daniel orders. Or a scene in which Pierre describes an African fetish in his analyst’s office.

This story seems a little bit like a fable or fairy tale; there’s the implication that the hat has some sort of magic or power and is bringing changes to each of the characters’ lives, but Laurain never quite says, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. To me, that makes for better reading. There’s a discussion guide in the back; a book group might enjoy discussing the many social and cultural issues Laurain touches on as well as the charm of the novel itself.

The President’s Hat would be good vacation reading — thoughtful and well done, but not too taxing.

I enjoy my weekly shift on the circulation desk, because I check in dozens of books and get a good sense of what my library community is reading. Recently I checked in a new book, The World Is a Wedding, and it looked so intriguing that I looked up The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, which is the first of Wendy Jones’ novels about Wilfred Price, undertaker and funeral director in Narberth, a village in Wales, in the 1920’s.  Narberth, Jones writes, is a “small, very tightly bound, ancient corner of the world.” Narberth, incidentally, is a real place.

In her novels, Jones fills it with utterly engaging characters who are dealing with the deepest human emotions. Wilfred’s apprentice-master told him “no life without a wife,” and while on a picnic with the village doctor’s daughter, Grace, he finds himself proposing. He quickly realizes that’s not really what he wants. Determined to fix things, he tells her, but by then lots of people know. Meanwhile at a funeral he meets Flora and is overcome with a desire to know her better.

If this sounds pretty simple and “cozy,” it gets much deeper and even a little darker. By the end of The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, I was deeply interested in what would happen to Wilfred, Grace, and Flora. Wilfred wants very much to do what’s right in life, and he struggles to know what that is — as anyone should, who gives it any thought. Flora is still haunted by the death of her first love in WWI, and she wants very much to live fully again after years of wearying grief, but isn’t sure, precisely, what happiness will mean for her.

Grace is thrust into the world from her sheltered girlhood not by her own actions, but as she’s acted upon,but she’s no damsel in distress. She wants to take charge of her own destiny — she just needs a little kindness, even if she isn’t sure how to accept it yet. Her story develops more fully in the second novel, The World Is a Wedding. In one scene she’s at the National Gallery in London and she comes across a Rembrandt, “Self-portrait of the Artist Aged 63.” She looks at it for some time and Jones writes, “Across centuries his acceptance soothed her: what he knew of the world reassured her. . . . She had waited a long time in this city to find someone who was this human and who had nothing they wanted her to be.” That’s a passage with staying power, one I’ll return to as I think about this book again.

Jones’ fine writing and thoughtful observation of human nature give the book depth. A host of finely drawn, fully developed minor characters give it life, from Mrs. Prout, the village fortune teller, to Grace’s cold and proud mother Mrs. Reece, to Wilfred’s “da,” the local gravedigger. Narberth is easy to picture too, in Jones’ capable hands. But I may not have to imagine it forever — Downton Abbey’s production team have optioned the books for a mini-series.

It had been some time since I’d read a Europa Edition book and I thoroughly enjoyed these two. This is absorbing, thoughtful fiction that examines what people mean to each other, and how humankind’s flawed communication skills and propensity to misunderstand, and to lie to themselves and each other, can wreak havoc. It’s also about the healing power of friendship, family, and love. Highly recommended — just don’t plan to do much else when you start these, because you may want to read them over a handful of days.

 

 

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