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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.

 

 

If you’re a regular here at bookconscious you know I’m a fan of fiction in translation. Over the past few nights I’ve enjoyed The Red Notebook by French author Antoine Laurain. As the book opens, we see Laure Valadier being mugged. A few pages later, Laurent Latellier, owner of Le Cahier Rouge (The Red Notebook) bookstore, notices a handbag on top of a garbage bin.

With the wallet and phone missing, Laurent can’t see who it belongs to. He tries his local police station but they are too busy to help. Still, he can’t bring himself to give up on finding the owner. So he goes through the contents. In the purse he finds . . . a red notebook.

And much more, including a copy of Patrick Modiano‘s Accident Nocturne, signed, “For Laure, in memory of our meeting in the rain.” Laurent is stunned. “Modiano, the most elusive of French authors. Who hadn’t done any book signings for years. . . .” Laurent remembers that another bookseller has seen the Nobel laureate walking in Luxumbourg Garden. He goes for two mornings, waiting to run into the great man, and is rewarded with a description of the woman whose bag he found.

I don’t want to give away any more of the investigation, but you get the idea. Laurent’s headstrong teenaged daughter Chloe plays a part, and so do another author who visits Le Cahier Rouge and Laure’s friend and coworker William. It’s not a straightforward matter of finding the purse’s owner and all living happily after. Laure has her own part to play, her own mystery to solve.

Reading this book was like watching a beautifully done foreign film — I wanted to be in the scenes, eating Laurent’s pot-au-feu, stopping in the cafe’s, riding the “lift” in Laure’s building, “The kind of museum piece found only in old Parisian apartment blocks . . . ” to the “left-hand apartment . . . dimly lit by a tulip-shaped lamp on the landing.” Charming, but not saccharine.

I not only wanted to be in Paris, I wished I was friends with Laure, with William, with Laurent. I wanted to meet the cats in the book, and the people in the gilding workshop where William and Laure work. Just reading about people gilding things for a living transported me to a more exotic life. The Red Notebook is not a flimsy escapist read, though. It’s a thoughtful book. A gentle mystery, but also a reflection on what is mysterious. A romantic story that examines what we reveal to others, even those closest to us, and what we keep hidden.

I liked it so much I’m going to go back and read Antoine Laurain’s previous book, The President’s Hat, next.

I heard about this book on Morning Edition a couple of weeks ago, during one of Nancy Pearl’s chats with Steve Inskeep. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is Emma Hooper‘s debut novel, and it’s one of those books that had such buzz (it’s being published in eighteen languages right off the bat, it seems to be everywhere you look, it was starred in every major review journal in the U.S.) that I was skeptical. But it’s an incredibly good read, and unlike anything I’ve read.

Etta, Otto, and Russell grow up on the prairie in Saskatchewan. Otto comes from a large family, and Russell is an only child whose father dies during the Great Depression and whose mother takes him to live with a childless aunt and uncle, neighbors of Otto’s family. He is absorbed into the mob of siblings, and he and Otto take turns going to school and tending to farm work. Etta takes a job as teacher in their one room schoolhouse, even though she’s about the same age as Otto and Russell, right about the time most men — and older boys, like Otto — are leaving for the war.

When the novel opens they are in their 80’s. Otto wakes up one day and finds a note from Etta, “I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back. Yours (always), Etta. Beneath the letter she’s left him recipe cards, so he can eat while she’s away.

The rest of the book alternates between the present, as Etta walks, and Otto tries to get by without her, and Russell gets angry that Otto hasn’t stopped her and goes looking for her, and the past, when the three were growing up, and when Otto went to war. I don’t want to give too many details away about the story. I do want to say that the movement back and forth in time and place in the narrative is seamless and I was never lost. And that Otto’s sister Winnie is as intriguing a minor character as I’ve come across in a while — even in a book full of intriguing minor characters — and I sincerely hope she is marching around in Hooper’s brain demanding a book of her own.

Hooper writes beautifully, her prose is very clear but also has a musical or poetic quality. Things happen as they would in real life but also as they might in a dream. If you’ve noticed that I don’t say who James is, it’s because I think you’ll have more fun finding out for yourself.

I didn’t care much for The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry, which was also about an older person taking an impractical journey by foot, seeking. Hooper gets at so much more in this novel, and does it with much more evocative language. Here’s a bit where Otto is home on leave. He and Etta are in the schoolteacher’s cottage, and it’s his last evening, “It was windy outside and the wind blew dust up against the windows, coating them so thick all you could see from inside was the glow of late-day sun. From there, they could pretend they didn’t notice it dimming.”

Hooper references dust often, and dust advances her narrative more than once. But what I really love about that brief passage, beyond the dust, is how much is there — you’re transported to a languid afternoon, two people in love, snug in a house with the world pressing in. So much is about to happen in their lives, but for this moment, they are content to pretend that all they have in the world is each other.

At the library people often want me to tell them what a book is about. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is about what all good books are about — what it is to be human, to love and to hurt, to thrive and to suffer, to create and to deplete, to seek after the very puzzle of all of this, looking for what’s true, living as if life is a quest and the prize is knowing your own heart. This book isn’t for you if you like a neat ending to a clear-cut story. But if you want to wallow in the muddled, holy mess of life, pick up Hooper’s debut and give it a try.

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