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Archive for June, 2012

After visiting England in May, it was hard not to get caught up in the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in June, especially since I was already a fan of the royal family. So in addition to a hodge-podge of other books, I read a couple of biographies of Her Majesty, recommended in the Jubilee edition of Tatler, which I read on the plane home.

First, I read Elizabeth the Queen: the Life of a Modern Monarch by Sally Bedell SmithTatler suggested this book as “anecdotal” and “entertaining,” but I learned some things as well, particularly about the monarch’s constitutional role and her family history. But Tatler is right, it is also a dishy book (as much as one can dish on an ultra-discreet person like Queen Elizabeth), providing all sorts of tidbits about Elizabeth’s everyday life, down to the tupperware cereal containers on her breakfast table and the painful details about family troubles over the years.

Even though I’ve more or less followed the royals from afar since I was a teen, many details in this thorough book surprised me. Bedell Smith quotes from some very poignant letters Prince Philip and Diana exchanged as he tried to help her deal with her marital troubles. Also, I knew the Queen is into horses but didn’t realize the extent of her enormous business breeding, training, and racing them, nor did I know that she pretty much put the original “Horse Whisperer,” a trainer named Monty Roberts, on the map when she decided her trainers would adopt his methods after a demonstration. Bedell Smith’s tone is mostly admiring; where she critiques, she is very gentle.

Andrew Marr’s biography, The Real Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, is shorter and looks a little harder at the monarchy itself, and spends time speculating on what may be in store under King Charles (or whatever royal moniker he chooses). Marr, according to Tatler, “turned monarchist” during this project, which also resulted in a three-part BBC documentary. His tone, while no less respectful and admiring of the Queen herself, is slightly more skeptical of royalty than Bedell Smith’s. Marr seems to be concerned that Charles has too many personal agendas to rule with the dignity and detachment his mother has mastered. Marr portrays him as an opinionated person surrounded by “yes” men who are chafing a the bit to run Buckingham Palace their way.

But it’s no tell-all; Marr’s book is elegant, his tone a little like listening to a favorite college professor, as he reaches into culture, history politics, and current affairs to illuminate his points. He argues that the monarchy is “a kind of release valve” for British society, and that the current Queen is aware that it is her position that is special, not herself. He points to this humble devotion as the reason she is both popular and effective.  Marr explains that her longevity, which represents continuity through all political seasons and whims, provides the British people with a democratic figurehead. The Queen, he believes, is someone who truly represents all the British, no matter who they vote for, no matter what they believe.

Bedell Smith does cover politics but mainly from a historical/biographical point of view.  Her book looks in more detail at the personal and emotional life of the Queen and the way she has held up over years of tireless work on behalf of her country. Both books are very interesting and each in their own way offer an excellent insiders view of the workings of palace life.

Before we leave Britain behind, I just read one of the poetry books I won in a Cinnamon Press mini contest last year, Daniel Healy‘s Facsimiles.  I really enjoyed it. These are short poems, mostly in stanzas of two or three lines.

Healy uses strong images, often with a figurative punchline, as in “Impression.” The poem reads, “Light rain/at the harbour/a cold wind/catches the nets/a woman’s hair/black with water/the cut of waves/mapping the air.”  For the first six lines, a clear, vivid, imagistic poem, and then those last two lines, “the cut of waves/mapping the air” take the poem to a more imaginative level.

In some cases Healy leans more heavily on metaphor, as in  “Vista” “For once/the sky is perfect,/a collage/ of half-remembered/images turning/the right/shade of blue.” That’s lovely, the idea that the sky is made of our memories, and in this poem, they fall into place. A poem to ponder in a hammock, perhaps?

I really like the way Healy’s poems combine simplicity with koan-like wisdom, presented as a small puzzle to unlock. For example, “Twilight” “In the orchard/dark lines/against the grey/the scent of a branch/fresh-cut/sweeter/than the fruit.” I sometimes use a title as a sort of first line or part of the first line, and I think it’s effective here.

Like all of Cinnamon Press’s books, Facsimiles is a nicely designed volume, with an evocative cover and clean layout. It’s well edited — the poems belong together. You’d do well to see the poems on the page because my parsing leaves out the stanzas which are part of the way the poems unfurl.

From Britain to France. A co-worker at Gibson’s suggested I read Sacre Bleu, by Christopher Moore. I read Lamb a few years ago and really liked it, and had always intended to try another Moore, so I happily borrowed her copy. What an imagination Moore has. He’s a real storyteller.

Sacre Bleu is about a mysterious Colorman whose most tempting pigment, the sacre bleu of Mary’s robes in Renasisance art, seems to have a strange effect on painters. A baker and aspiring painter, Lucien Lessard, who has his own brush with the bewitching blue paint and the Colorman’s companion, Juliette, decides to get learn who this mysterious man is and why his colors seem to make artists go mad. His friend, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, helps him investigate the pigment’s properties and the identity of both the Colorman and Juliette, who seems to share certain qualities with a beautiful laundress Henri once loved, as well the muses and mistresses of a number of their other artist friends.

It’s a wild ride and the breadth of Moore’s research into the time period (the 1890’s), the artists, Paris (and specifically, Montmartre), painting, baking, and the other gorgeous details of the book make the rollicking story that much more interesting. Even without all the research, this would be a fun read. But you’ll learn tidbits about Renoir, Manet, Monet, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Whistler, Pissarro, (but not Degas — Moore tells readers in his author’s note, Degas was too much of a jerk in real life to include in the book).

Plus, Moore is one of the funniest writers around. Lest you think all that time spent researching makes his humor highbrow, keep in mind he has Bleu (Juliette’s real name — I don’t want to give away how she changes identity but its both grim and brilliantly conceived) refer to the Colorman as “Poopstick,” syphilis plays a major part in the Colorman’s evil machinations, and Moore uses the “f” word liberally. If it were a film, it would be R rated. Still Moore is funny and I think the mystery at the heart of the book is quite smartly done. I loved the historical aspects of the book, and I always like a book that incorporates magical realism.

Also set in Paris, in the months before the Iraq War began, is the book I read for the Europa Challenge this month, Alexander Maksik‘s You Deserve Nothing.  This was a much-hyped title when it came out last year, one of the first in Europa’s Tonga imprint. It’s about a popular teacher at an international high school in Paris who has an affair with a student. Maksik tells the story from the point of view of that student, Marie, another student, Gilad, and Will, the teacher.

Maksik is a cinematic writer — a scene where Gilad and Colin, a tougher student, show up at an Iraq War protest and watch it turn ugly and sectarian is particularly vivid, as is a scene where a disturbed homeless man pushes a commuter in front of a train in the Metro. As I read, I could see the streets of Paris, Will’s bleak apartment, the cafes and parks that Gilad frequents. The moody world Will and his adolescent students occupy comes to life in Maksik’s skilled hands.

Will is known to his adoring students as “dude” and “Mr. S.” He’s an archetype of the cool-smart teacher who is passionate, pushing the envelope and disdaining administrative blather because he’s all about setting his students’ hearts and minds on fire. Students say he changes their lives.

Except, the reader is uncomfortable with him almost immediately. Maksik lets us know Will isn’t quite as great as his students think. His best friend at the school, a woman named Mia who is also a good teacher but perhaps not as flamboyantly admired as Will, puts up with his distance, his silence, his inconsiderate behavior. There’s an uncomfortable scene where they are having dinner at her apartment with French friends who mistakenly assume Mia and Will are a couple. Will comes across as emotionally frozen, or indifferent. It’s hard to tell.

As the book proceeds, we learn bits and pieces about Will — he left his wife, apparently with little explanation, after his parents died. He teaches Sartre, Faulkner, Keats, Thoreau, Shakespeare, Camus. He talks a good game to his students about courage, about “the distance between desire and action,” encouraging them to “encounter” themselves, to engage with the world and each other, to argue their points in his class.

Meanwhile, Maksik portrays him as someone who is mostly just going through the motions, who does things to please himself, and who cares about other people only to a point. Will spends his life talking about how to live, but he mostly seems to live in his own little bubble; his interior monologue is quite focused on what he is seeing and experiencing, as if his mind is its own cinematographer, seeking the most beautiful way to capture the scenes he’s seeing. When he considers others it seems to be only slightly.

I didn’t like Will, and Maksik’s portrayal of Paris is pretty grim, as a place hard for outsiders (and almost every character in this book is an outsider in some way) to fit into, beautiful but distant (kind of like Will). I admired Mia, and some of the students at the school; Gilad is everything Will can’t seem to get around to being. His father beats his mother, he’s never felt at home anywhere, but Gilad is transformed by what he’s reading in Will’s class and is able to speak to his parents openly, to be true to his beliefs and his feelings as he comes to understand himself and them. I felt bad for Marie, whose mother is obsessed with her daughter’s appearance and who seems to just want to be loved, but she is one dimensional — we hear only about her affair and her toxic mean-girl friendship with Ariel, another student, and her distant parents, but little else.

Even though the book is uncomfortable and the characters, especially Will, somewhat unsympathetic, I think in the end it’s a “good” book because it forces readers to think about the questions it poses about morality, conviction, courage, charisma, friendship, love.  How should we live? What is our responsibility to ourselves and to each other? What does it mean to take a stand? How do we know what’s worth risking ourselves for) How can we tell what we can and can’t change? How should we judge ourselves and others? What’s heroism and not just hubris? It’s a hard book to describe because I admired it without really enjoying it.

But it did one thing I feel all great writing does: led me to another book. As an English and Spanish major at a liberal arts college, I’d read most of the authors Will teaches in You Deserve Nothing. But I’d never read The Stranger by Albert Camus, so picked that up next. I don’t really think I can write about it well in a few sentences, but I really enjoyed it. Camus’ prose reminded me of Hemingway’s — spare, compact, unadorned, with nothing extravagant or unnecessary. Like multiple adjectives!  The story of Meursault is in some ways reflected in Will’s life. His mother dies, he is alone like Will, and without much thought he engages in an act of passion (in his case murder) that will change his life.

Meursault is not as charismatic as Will, he doesn’t preach an examined life or anything else to anyone, and he seems strangely detached. He agrees to marry his girlfriend (also Marie), to be friends with Raymond (whose tangled life connects him with the eventual murder), to make career decisions, with no emotion. Meursault repeatedly says this or that event or possibility or person mean nothing to him one way or another. But Camus lets us in on the way Meurseault’s crime changes him, how he begins to think in jail, to understand himself. One of the most unsatisfying things about You Deserve Nothing is that we have no idea how Will deals with being caught, fired, and disgraced.

Both books explore existential ideas – that we are human, but that doesn’t mean anything by itself, each of us by living our lives define the essence of human existence for ourselves. If we live true to our own essence rather than according to other people’s expectations and ideas, we will be truly human. But we exercise our free will in a world without any meaning other than our own existence and so our freedom to act and our responsibility to try to understand ourselves is in constant tension with other people’s similar efforts.  It’s been a long time since I studied philosophy and I never got past an intro. course in college, so I may be missing something. But I think that’s the gist.

Anyway, existential heroes in books are hard to understand because we aren’t in their heads so from an observer’s perspective, their actions might seem self-absorbed to the point of sociopathy — murdering someone, sleeping with a student. Trying to understand them is challenging and maybe impossible. So if you like wrestling with ideas or considering philosophical questions, The Stranger will be fun. If you find all of this aggravating and want a more straightforward, black-and-white understanding of a book you read, it’s probably not going to be your cup of tea.

Before we leave French thinkers and writers, I read a little book I picked up at Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank, Time for Outrage by French Resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Stephane Hessel. Hessel also helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has devoted his life to its ideals. This essay, printed as a pamphlet, has been an international best-seller.

Hessel exhorts younger people (pretty much everyone, as he’s in his 90’s) to remember the things his generation fought for during and after the war: freedom, equality, and a fairer, safer, more economically just society. He cautions against indifference and consumerism, and insists that even today’s overwhelming problems can be overcome by engaged activism. He cites Sartre, who was “an older schoolmate” as inspiration, because he taught a libertarian responsibility — “people must commit themselves in terms of their personal, individual human responsibility.” A far more positive take on existentialism than I had before I read Time for Outrage.

Hessel says this lesson stayed with him as he fought fascism and later, opposes totalitarian communist regimes. He grants that climate change, the loss of rights in a world dealing with terrorism and sectarianism, and the Great Recession are daunting but calls on people to support the Occupy movements and other nonviolent protest, to work for change, and to remember the victories of the last several decades: the defeat of Nazi Germany, the rise of democracy in former communist countries, the fall of apartheid, to name three. He ends his pamphlet with a sort of manifesto/blessing/koan “to you who will create the twenty-first century”: “TO CREATE IS TO RESIST. TO RESIST IS TO CREATE.”

The rest of my reading was not so philosophical, although you could argue that the underlying myths that The Song of Achilles is based on are tales steeped in philosophy. Author Madeline Miller won the Orange Prize for this re-telling, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his companion Patroclus.  Miller says that as she studied The Iliad, she “discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.” She sets out to give him — Patroclus — his due and to tell the love story she found in her studies.

It’s an atmospheric book; Miller is both a classicist and a dramatist and she makes Ancient Greece real for readers. I’m not sure I agree with a literary prize going to a re-telling (although I know some would argue that there are no original stories but only those that have been with humankind since the beginning), but this is certainly a masterful re-telling. It’s a very sensual read, full of the blood and sweat of a world at war. And it’s a beautiful love story, which brought me to tears. The image conjured by the last two lines of the book — which I don’t want to give away — is as romantic as anything you’ll read anywhere.

Miller explores the character flaws that make Achilles a difficult hero to love; he’s petulant, self-centered, arrogant, all the pitfalls of being anointed a golden boy from birth. Patroclus, who grows up in Achilles shadow, sees himself as weaker, less clever, a lucky follower incapable of inspiring or leading. But Miller shows him growing into a wise, smart, diplomatic man, a healer, a counselor, and a rock not just for Achilles but for many of the Greeks.

Miller writes beautifully about the minor characters in this story as well — Chiron, the centaur who teaches Achilles and Patroclus; Thetis, the willful sea goddess who is Achilles’ mother; Briseis, the Trojan woman whose capture aggravates the feud between  Achilles and Agamemnon and who sees Patroclus for the fine man that he is. Song of Achilles is a very entertaining read, and Miller has written a story anyone, whether they know the Iliad or not, can enjoy.

It’s staff pick time at Regina Library where I am a nocturnal librarian during the academic year. My choice is another prize winner, the 2011 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman. If you’ve never heard of Edith Pearlman, you’re not alone. It’s probably her chosen genre — short fiction — that keeps her from attaining fame, but she is very well respected among her peers. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, she’s won the Pushcart and O. Henry prizes, and her three earlier story collections, Vaquita, Love Among the Greats, and How to Fail won prizes.

Binocular Vision includes twenty-one previously published and thirteen new stories set in many places and featuring characters from different walks of life and various cultures and time periods. While she sometimes surprises readers, Pearlman’s writing is clear and resonant and never flashy, and her plots are straightforward, never hyper-dramatic. This is evocative, detailed, even painterly prose; she creates vivid people and places readers know intimately in just a few pages. She can write from the point of view of men and women, young and old, about a range of emotions and experiences.

Pearlman’s subject matter varies but her themes are classic — friendship and family, identity, courage, aging, facing illness, the search for meaning, the importance of love and conviction. Certain ideas appear in several stories; Pearlman examines the ways children view the adult world in “Inbound,” “Home Schooling,” “Binocular Vision,” “Girl in Blue with Brown Bag,” and “Aunt Telephone,” for instance. A series of stories, “If Love Were All,” “Purim Night,” and “The Coat” feature Sonya, an American who works for a relief agency in London aiding escaping Jews during WWII, then moves to a camp in Europe to help resettle Holocaust victims after the war, and finally returns to New York. A number of stories deal with whether we ever really know each other completely.

One of my favorites, “Jan Term,” is a story told in two letters and a term paper written by a young woman about her work in an antique shop. It’s funny, wise, thoughtful, and moving. Another story I loved is “The Story,” about the parents of a young couple having dinner together; in one scene, Pearlman paints a vivid picture of these very different people brought together by marriage, and the ending is exquisitely poignant. Bookconscious regulars know I am a fan of short fiction, and Pearlman is a master of the form.

For the Mindful Reader column this month, I began with two books helpful to New England staycationers: New Hampshire Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Granite State by photographer Jennifer Smith-Mayo and author Matthew P. Mayo, and New England’s Natural Wonders: An Explorer’s Guide by John S. Burke.

In their introduction, the Mayos head off complaints about possible overlooked icons, but they don’t explain their selection process or the order in which they present the essentials of our state like moose, Motorcycle Week, and Mack’s Apples.  New Hampshire Icons is a tribute to “the rich and amazing historic, geographic, and cultural breadth” of New Hampshire.  Each two page spread includes photos and information in a friendly, conversational tone. One improvement would have been  to list websites in one line instead of squeezed into hard-to-read insets.

New England’s Natural Wonders is organized by type: waterfalls, monadnocks (a kind of mountain as well as the name of one here in New Hampshire), bogs,  etc.  Burke provides an overview of New England’s natural landscapes, and each section also includes a brief introduction. His detailed entries for each wonder offer geologic and human history, notable flora and fauna, directions and visitor information. New England’s Natural Wonders is a coffee table sized book full of photos, not a portable guide.  If you want to know more about the breadth of natural wonders in our region, including twenty-three in New Hampshire, it’s a readable reference.

If you’re heading to the beach, any of the novels I read this month for the column would be a great read. Massachusetts author Cathi Hanauer’s Gone is one you’ll have trouble putting down. Eve Adams and her husband Eric have been married fourteen years. She’s supported Eric’s art career and adapted her own as a nutritionist through a move and motherhood.  He’s in a creative slump, but she’s just published a book.

Eric takes her out to celebrate and afterwards drives the babysitter home. But he doesn’t come back. When she sees he’s using their credit card on gas and hotels, Eve realizes he’s safe but gone. She tries to smooth things over for her kids, keep the family afloat, and deal with her own feelings. She also has to care for her clients, including a group of wealthy older women trying not to get fat, a teen mom, and an obese man who is literally eating himself to death.

Gone’s  hard look at long marriage, parenting adolescents, finding oneself midcareer and perhaps only mid-way to one’s life goals, is all compelling reading. I found Eve’s internal monologue on nutrition somewhat distracting from the rest of the story. That said, Gone’s probing of midlife as a time to reassess and of imperfection as part of life’s messy beauty is worth the occasional rant about processed foods. I admired the way Eve gets on with her life even as everything familiar seems to be changing but would have enjoyed hearing more of Eric’s story; what Hanauer does reveal of him makes for a fuller picture of Eve and their family.

Betsy Woodman is a native of New Hampshire who lived in India as a child. Her debut novel, first in a planned series, will fill you with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of her fictional hill station town, Hamara Nagar, in 1960. Her heroine, Jana Bibi, inherits her grandfather’s home, the Jolly Grant House. She’s widowed with one grown child living in Scotland, but she feels more Indian than Scottish herself. She decides to go and live in the house with her multilingual parrot, Mr. Ganguly, and her housekeeper, Mary. Soon after they’re settled, they learn that much of the town will be underwater if a planned government dam is built.

Along with the local newspaper editor and a shopkeeper from the bazar, Jana Bibi works to put Hamara Nagar on the map so the dam will be relocated. Among the characters who play a role in this funny, endearing story are the students at a nearby multinational boarding school, an introspective Muslim tailor, his singer nephew who dreams of film star fame, an American diplomat who is writing a guidebook, a power-tripping police commissioner, and a variety of people who come to work for Jana Bibi, including a Ghurka bagpiper who scares away monkeys and a messenger boy.

Woodman touches on serious topics like Partition, (when India and Pakistan were split) political corruption, and the challenges of a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse society, but she handles all of this with a light touch. The novel is tender but not treacly, the many characters and plot twists fit together pleasantly but not predictably.

If you like Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky, atmospheric novels or you enjoyed The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes will appeal to you with its international charms, multigenerational characters, philosophical bent, and gentle intrigue. The book includes discussion questions, a glossary of Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic terms, and an interesting essay about Woodman and how she came to write this novel.

Finally, a friend suggested I read Ben H. WintersThe Last Policeman, set in Concord. I hesitated. Why would I want to read a dystopian mystery by an author who parodied my beloved Jane Austen? Because Detective Hank Palace is a delightfuly quirky hero, and Winters’ premise is compelling: a giant asteroid is on track to collide with earth, so why solve a murder?

I really had no idea how much I enjoy a good mystery until recently. I guess because so many mysteries these days veer into thriller/crime dramas with shocking plots and gory details, and I’m not a fan of reading (or watching) violent or creepy stuff. My grandmother always told me that mysteries were the best stress busters, and the best antidote to the news. It’s true they are easy to get lost in.  A good one will entertain and challenge you, but not in a my-brain-hurts-and-my-soul-will-soon-too  way (like novels with existential heroes!).

I enjoyed following Palace as he cracked his case. He’s a lovable loser sort of a hero, a guy who hasn’t gotten around to decorating his apartment, pines for an old girlfriend (who is smart and nice, not just beautiful), eats the same thing at a neighborhood greasy spoon all the time.  And I loved the detailed references to Concord; Winters did his homework.  He’s a witty writer, and the minor characters in The Last Policeman are intriguing. A woman key to Palace’s investigation works in insurance but is trying to write the perfect villanelle before the world ends. Nico, Palace’s younger sister, seems like a mess but Winters leaves readers wondering if she’s smarter and craftier than we realized. I’m looking forward to the next Hank Palace book.

Up next? I have 4 or 5 books to read for the August Mindful Reader, I really want to get to Richard Mason’s History of a Pleasure Seeker, and I may break down and get myself Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam, which I swore I wasn’t buying until I finish my to-reads but would be part of my Europa Challenge. I heard another great review of it on Fresh Air and also listened to a clip of the wise Nora Ephron in an interview talking about how we should eat our last meal now rather than waiting, because you never know. Same with books.

I’m a little over halfway through The Library Book, which I am loving. I want to read so many other things, and I am not making much progress on my goal of setting aside an afternoon a week to get lost in a book. But having a full, busy life isn’t a bad thing, and Teen the Elder is home for a few precious weeks before he goes off to college, so I am going to enjoy every day and read when I can. I hope you do, too!

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I spent most of the first three weeks of May traveling, which is something I love. First of all, it’s exciting to go someplace different, try new things, see new places. Even if its somewhere I’ve been before, it’s never the same as home, and never the same as the last time I visited. Second, for a person who sees narrative and image everywhere, it’s great fun to insert myself into my imagination for a change – travel makes me think of how my own story might be different if I lived where I’m visiting or visited where I live. So it’s a creativity boost.

And there’s the bonus that long plane or train trips are perfect reasons to read a book in a sitting or two, one of my favorite things to do but one I rarely allow myself in everyday life. It’s a goal, although not one I really expect I’ll keep, to let myself have one afternoon a week to get lost in a book.

As in April, my May reading was partly focused on England, where we were meeting up with Teen the Elder to celebrate the end of his Gap Year. We spent a week and a half and visited London, Bletchley Park, Paris, Bath, Hayward’s Heath and Brighton. It was great fun.

Before we left I read Susan Allen Toth‘s My Love Affair With England. Part travel book, part memoir, this book is about her visits to England over thirty years, as a student, a professor, and a professed Anglophile. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Toth writes with candor and affection and she’s a very thoughtful traveler, not only enjoying herself but examining her experiences, synthesizing them with her life, analyzing what makes England a pleasure for her. I love the way she writes with such insight, clarity, and intelligence. She reminds me of one of my favorite college professors.

She captures the culture, warts and all, and one chapter had me calling the Computer Scientist over so I could read aloud about her daughter’s experience with a host family in college, because it was eerily familiar. She definitely made me want to visit more of the English countryside, the North, which I didn’t see at all this time, and National Trust houses (yes, this book fit the Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness of Reading because Toth mentions visiting Fellbrigg Hall, where Mary MacKie and her husband lived and worked as I mentioned when I read MacKie’s book last month).

In London we rented a flat in Holland Park, which amplified my wild inner narrative of an alternate life in which I’m a Londoner. It also made my reading of Queen of the Tambourine, by one of my favorite authors, Jane Gardam, that much more atmospheric. This was my fifth Europa Editions book of 2012, on my way to my goal of reading twelve for the Europa Challenge.

Gardam is such an amazing writer that I can’t really do her justice in a few sentences. This book is such an incredible read . I was enjoying the writing so much I didn’t see what was coming, even though the blurbs refer to the main character, Eliza Peabody, dealing with “manic delusions.” Gardam writes with such humanity and humor, her characters are so rich and full, that it never mattered to me how little actually happens in this story, plot-wise. A great deal happens in Eliza’s interior life.

Eliza is writing to a friend, Joan, who as far as we know has taken off for the East, traveling around England’s former colonies and leaving her husband, nearly grown children, dog, and lovely home. As the book progresses the reality of Eliza’s “observations” and Joan’s identity become clearer, but slowly. You get to know Eliza and the people in her life very well, until every small thing that happens matters terribly, and you are longing for this very kind but very troubled woman to make it through.

One of the things I love most about Gardam is that in her books there is nothing minor about the minor characters. She brings every one of them to life in three dimensions, even those who only appear in a scene or two. Barry, an AIDS patient Eliza visits in hospice, will go down as one of my favorite supporting characters in contemporary literature — he is Eliza’s foil and muse and shadow self, all in one complicated package. Lucien, a twelve year old boy who we only meet a few times very briefly, is a voice of wisdom and plays a key part in bringing about Eliza’s renewal and healing. As Eliza says, “Oh, all the different kinds of love –”

The emotional and psychological depth of everyday life is so vivid in Queen of the Tambourinethat it’s left me considering people I know only casually, wondering what is going on in their minds, how they are seeing our shared experience. That’s really what this book is about; the way that perception is shaded by our psyches as much as our senses. And the way our psyches are filled with the bits and pieces of our lifetimes’ experiences.

Gardam fits each shard of Elizabeth’s psyche together, showing us how they are cemented into place by her childhood, her young adulthood, her loves and friendships and losses and aging and even all the little moments in each day. But we don’t see the author working this all out, it just happens beautifully and naturally as the book unfolds. Which is what makes Queen of the Tambourine so lovely and True with a capital T.

Another of my favorite English writers is Alan Bennett. In a small bookshop in Bath I bought his memoir A Life Like Other People’s. This is mainly the story of his family, especially his parents and his mother’s family. Like the fiction and essays of Bennett’s I’ve read, it’s sad and beautiful, observant and unflinching.

Like many books I love, there’s more to it as well. It’s also an interesting view of England’s postwar decades. And it’s a touching examination of adult childhood, a time when many people re-experience their early lives even as they must assume more and more responsibility for their parents. An added bonus: for those who’ve read The Lady In the Van, Miss Shepherd makes an appearance in A Life Like Other People’s when she discusses Bennett’s parents with him.

My final literary trip into England was a book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale, Angela Thirkell‘s Coronation Summer. I admit I have Diamond Jubilee fever. This weekend and next Tuesday, I plan to park on the couch in front of BBC America, and eat scones with a small jar of clotted cream we bought in Heathrow, coronation chicken, and trifle.

Coronation Summer is a novel about a young woman recalling the weeks of celebration in London in 1838 around Queen Victoria’s coronation. It’s a very funny novel of manners, somewhat reminiscent of Jane Austen but a little bit less subtle. I found it very entertaining and fun to read at the end of long days spent exploring London. We visited Kensington Palace and saw the wonderful exhibit about Victoria, so that added to my enjoyment.

When we got back from England, I finished reading a book I started in the week before we left, The Moral Underground: How Ordinary Americans Subvert an Unfair Economy, by Lisa Dodson. I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Dodson speak at Rivier College in the spring. Her research on the ways average people all over the country are consciously acting to oppose economic injustice in large and small ways, often at great personal risk, is inspiring.

In The Moral Underground, Dodson reports on eight years of research into three crossroads of socioeconomic classes in America: workplaces, schools, and health care. She specifically examines the ways middle class people are reacting to the desperate struggles of poor Americans they come into contact with in those settings. Her focus is on the working poor — people who are following the “rules” our culture has set for success that are supposed to bring about the American dream.

Just this morning I heard Mitt Romney on the radio summarizing these rules: get an education (i.e. don’t drop out of public school; college has only recently been encouraged as part of this dream), get a job and work hard, and you will have a good life because America is about opportunity. The problem, as Dodson explains with example after example, is that in today’s economy, that equation is out of balance. Millions of Americans are working and following the path they were told would lead to a good life but are not able to provide a stable living for themselves and their families.

Dodson uses school, healthcare and workplaces to illuminate the issues around this problem because most Americans of all economic levels ineract in these places. She discovered the response to poor people’s chaotic or difficult lives fell into two broad categories. First, there are teachers, health care providers, and bosses (and I think politicians and policy makers, too) who think poor people are lazy, stupid, or of poor character and therefore to blame for their situations; some of these people take their disapproval to authorities and report what they see as neglect or irresponsibilty at the cost of people losing their jobs or being referred to social services. Others simply withhold the benefit of the doubt.

The second group, who form a moral underground, have decided that working and still not being able to adequately feed, clothe, shelter, and care for your family is wrong, and that they are not going to stand back and watch it happen. This group feels no one wants to be poor, no one wants their kids to struggle in school or be sick, no one wants to not be able to provide the trappings of middle class life — camps, proms, college preparation, extra curricular activities — for their families; no one wants to fall behind in their bills or miss work or have to choose between showing up for a teacher conference or losing their job for an unexcused absence.

Of course in between are all kinds of people who empathize with one of the above views and don’t do anything either way. But this book focuses on the people who feel compelled to act. I already knew that Dodson empathizes and identifies with the second group, and to be honest, so do I. I don’t know what the macro answer is — the people Dodson talks with about their actions in the moral underground are solving individual problems, not reforming the entire economy. She does touch on some broad policy shifts that would begin to transform our economic culture, but I don’t hold out much hope that there will be a dramatic shift.

I don’t think that caring for one’s children (or other people’s) will ever be highly valued in our economy, that workplace laws will prioritize people (which is not diametrically opposed to prioritizing profit — Dodson profiles some workplaces which are thriving BECAUSE a boss has decided to treat people well, to care about their home lives, to never make their employees choose work over family needs), that healthcare will become universally affordable, that schools where poor kids go will all be as good as those where the wealthy learn, or that public transportation will become cheap and ubiquitous everywhere the working poor live. But this book gives me enormous hope that all around us, in ways we don’t see, people are quietly (because they are breaking rules and risking their own jobs) making other people’s lives easier.

Dodson explains how teachers and administrators fudge paperwork to make it possible for kids to get meals or medicines, to qualify them for after-school care or even to stay in a school district if their family loses their home or has to move. She illustrates ways doctors and nurses treat whole families when only a child qualifies for health insurance, or get people into studies and trials because it’s the only way they’ll get treatment. And ways bosses create off the books schedules that let people pick up kids from school or make appointments rather than have absences. Or funnel unsold stock to struggling employees. Or find creative financing for continued training and education for employees who can’t afford it themselves.

Dodson compares this underground to the abolitionists who helped free, educate, or protect slaves and the people who quietly worked to end child labor. At the end of the book Dodson relates her conversations with college students about how they want to live, and reports that for most of them, knowing about economic injustice changes their views and potentially, their lives. The Moral Underground would be a really good community or college-wide read. I’m sure it would incite heated conversations, since the few people I’ve discussed it with it had visceral and immediate reactions, even without reading it for themselves.

For my Mindful Reader column this month, I read four books — there are a large number of New England authors with summer releases — including three I probably would not have picked up had it not been for this gig. I continue to be amazed by the abundance of writers in New Hampshire or nearby.

New Hampshire author Jeremy Robinson has written a page turner, SecondWorld. I’d forgotten how fun thrillers are, especially in the hands of an imaginative storyteller like Robinson. In Secondworld’s prologue, a strange German science experiment in 1945 liquefies a group of prisoners. A high ranking Nazi tells the researchers that although the war is lost, they should offer their services to America and wait. “We will rise from the ashes,” he declares.

Flash to 2012: in Miami, Tel Aviv, and Tokyo, an otherworldly attack robs cities of their oxygen and signals the rise of SecondWorld. Vacationing Navy criminal investigator Lincoln Miller manages to escape the Miami devastation, so the President calls on his expertise.

Miller has seven days before the entire world will fall. Robinson incorporates history (Operation Paperclip, Nazi Antarctic exploration), science (cryonics, physics) and a very entertaining supporting cast to aid Miller. Robinson must have done a lot of research, because the few things I Googled (occupational hazard; reference librarians like to check facts) checked out and I am not sure I could explain the science behind the oxygen depletion or the strange Nazi weapon, but it’s in the book. You’ll want to block off a couple of evenings to find out what happens as a small band of good guys fight to save the world, battling wits with Nazi conspirators and gutting out impossible situations.

Grit and wits are integral to the second book I read for the column this month, The Day the World Discovered the Sun, by Massachusetts author Mark Anderson. The subtitle says it all: “An extraordinary story of the 18th century scientific adventure and race to track the transit of Venus.” In this rare occurrence, the planet passes between sun and earth, appearing as a dark spot crossing the sun. Anderson’s book was timed to coincide with the June 5, 2012 Venus transit.

Calculations based on observations of the 1769 event would unlock the universe’s dimensions, making longitudinal measurements, essential to navigation at the time, more accurate. In his book, Anderson explores the personalities and politics behind the transit observation expeditions, melding history and science in a fascinating story of the first large-scale international scientific effort.

Like experts at the time, Anderson focuses on three of the over 150 observers of the 1769 transit. He details French astronomer Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche’s journey to San Jose del Cabo in today’s Baja California, Mexico; Hungarian priest-astronomer Maximilian Hell’s trip to a Norwegian island (then part of Denmark)where he also discovered that the language of Lapland’s Sami people is related to Hungarian; and English Naval Capt. James Cook’s voyage with Royal Society astronomer Charles Green to Tahiti (and by secret order of the British government, to explore a rumored southern continent after observing Venus).

Anderson makes each expedition come alive; the challenges and detours, hopes and hubris. These small groups of explorers and scientists went places even modern travelers find hard to reach, from the arctic circle to the tropics, in search of perfect viewing. They knew success would be elusive. Some had failed to observe a similar event in 1761, foiled by weather or in at least one case, disappearing forever. Political and economic conditions impacted the expeditions as well and Anderson adroitly fills in these details along with the science behind the missions.

Anderson also illuminates the post-transit struggle to measure the universe. Newspapers published around 600 calculations based on the 1769 transit. French astronomer Jerome Lalande was widely viewed as the authority on transit data, but was affronted that Hell hadn’t sent his results immediately, so downplayed their accuracy. English mathematician/astronomer Thomas Hornsby came extremely close to calculating the correct distance from the earth to the sun and relative distance of the planets. French Astronomer Royal Cesar-Francois Cassini de Thury predicted the next really useful Venus transit would be in 2012. Whether you like science or political intrigue, space or human nature, or simply want to marvel at what these men accomplished, Anderson delivers.

For a celebration of contemporary human ingenuity as manifested in loggers, farmers, librarians, town-meeting leaders, and other inhabitants of the North Country, read Nessa Flax’s collection Voices In the Hills: Collected Ramblings from a Rural Life. Flax has written “Rambling Reflections,” a weekly column for the Bradford, Vermont, Journal Opinion, since 1995. Her book collects 126 of those columns.

Flax, a transplant living in Ryegate Corner, Vermont, near the New Hampshire border, writes lovingly of the pleasures and lessons of country life. You’ll recognize her neighbors, who embody the self-reliance, quiet warmth, wisdom and good humor of northern New England. Flax writes of ordinary things, with a conversational style that gives readers the feeling they’re sitting down with a friend.

This is a book to dip into; you could pick it up and choose an essay about the season or something happening in your life – missing a loved one, gardening challenges, trouble co-existing with wildlife – and find a sympathetic and delightful rendering of just that situation as Flax sees it. A minor quibble: some of the columns overlap.

Lives overlap in Massachusetts author Nichole Bernier’s debut The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. Imagine your best friend dies in a plane crash and leaves you her journals dating back to adolescence, “because she’s fair and sensible and would know what should be done with them.” When this taut, moving novel opens, this is Kate Spenser’s situation.

Headed to a beach cottage for the summer with her family, Kate stops at Elizabeth’s home for the journals. Elizabeth’s widower is unnerved by the bequest and he’s read just enough to suspect his wife was unfaithful. Kate spends seven weeks learning she only knew one facet of her friend. Her discoveries make her examine her own life, the secrets everyone keeps, and the roles we play.

Plumbing friendship and marriage and the balance between parenting and work, this book stayed with me long after I finished, and left me with the same feeling as a good cry. Elizabeth has unfulfilled personal and professional goals, a tragic childhood loss, and a genetic curse to deal with, and Kate is haunted by fear in the post 9/11 world. In Bernier’s hands, it isn’t too much. A book club could discuss this novel for hours.

After England, Teen the Younger and I traveled by train to Washington DC, to care for her young cousins who live in Alexandria while their parents got away to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Riding the train for hours is quite pleasant, especially compared with driving. I enjoyed the scenery but also enjoyed reading. On the way down I read most of The Day the World Discovered the Sun and on the way back, I read The Expats by Chris Pavone.

As I mentioned earlier it’s a great pleasure for me to read a book in just about a sitting. Maybe it conjures childhood memories of summer days spent reading a good book for hours. And this book is terrific for such a day, because it’s very entertaining and I wanted to find out what happened. It’s a spy thriller, but different than action-film sorts of thrillers (like SecondWorld). Instead, Pavone has written a LeCarre style book with labyrinthine plot, whip-smart heroine (and hero, as her husband may be in your view, as he is in mine), array of potential villains, and international setting. It’s a fun, interesting debut.

Teen the Younger brought along magazines (I tried Tatler on the plane ride home and loved it) and The Hobbit. She is enjoying it. She’s currently writing an essay about Lord of the Flies which we finished before our trips and we have planned to read Fahrenheit 451 as our next family read.

The Computer Scientist experimented with downloading books onto his phone for the trip — out-of-copyright classics like Dracula. He is enjoying Bram Stoker’s gothic icon. All three of us are huge fans of the BBC series Sherlock and before we left he read some of the stories in The Complete Sherlock Holmes.

Teen the Elder is in the Seattle area these days, hanging out with his uncle, learning to drive stick-shift in a Mini Cooper, volunteering as the roadie for ukelele band The Castaways, possibly usability testing video games, and playing soccer with the Crossfire PDL. He too read magazines on the road (Top Gear, The Economist). If he’s reading books he has’t said but he will be: St. Michael’s College freshmen are all reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

Next up? I have a library e-book about Queen Elizabeth on my iPad, and I’m reading Christpher Moore’s Sacre Bleu. I have four books for my July Mindful Reader column and a huge pile of “to-reads.” Here’s hoping I do get to spend an afternoon a week reading this summer.

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