Archive for September, 2012

I’d been wanting to read Susan Cain’s Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking for months, but there has been a long waiting list at the library. I finally checked it out a little over a week ago, and I’ve been reading it slowly (for me anyway). It’s that kind of read.

It’s also one of those books that’s potentially life-changing. I had repeated “Ah ha!” moments as I read, mostly from recognizing the things Cain addresses in the people around me (including myself). A friend noted that “everything made so much more sense” after reading Quiet.

Cain has a very clear way of writing about the complicated human biology and psychology that makes people introverted, extroverted, or ambiverted. She explains how and why we communicate differently, work differently, and socialize differently, and how we can navigate these differences in order to get along better.  And how each of us can learn to recognize and honor these differences in each other.

She also introduces successful, sometimes famous introverts and provides plenty of reassurance for those trying to get along in an extroverted world.  Cain’s persuasive arguments are backed by evidence — concrete examples (anecdotal and scientific) of the many ways introvertedness can be a gift. One that, when appreciated and nurtured, can really benefit society. If society would shut-up and sit down and pay attention long enough to notice.

Ok, Cain didn’t say that, but I am. Because one thing Cain didn’t mention in this lovely, erudite, gentle book is that our culture today is dominated by mindless noise. Sometimes shouting seems like the main mode of communication. And what’s being communicated so loudly is often not contributing much value to the world. Those of us in the book world have repeatedly seen thoughtful, interesting books deserving of wide cultural acclaim and conversation under-appreciated while inexplicably popular titles (often unoriginal, poorly written, and/or trivial) dwarf them. I’m sure the same can be said of most everything, from cultural phenomena to political discourse.

Noise seems to dominate, even when we know it’s illogical or pointless to listen to it. I am hopeful that more introverts will get the appreciation they deserve as a result of this wonderful book. I’m grateful that Cain offers advice for how people can be themselves and also be confident, living harmonious, happy, balanced, successful lives. But in a world where noise rules even when we try not to hear it, and where ordinary shyness or anxiety is often medicated or counseled, I wonder whether the message of Quiet will prevail.

Let’s hope.


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I heard about The Baker’s Daughter, by Sarah McCoy, on Books on the Nightstand. It was the first library book I tried on the iPad’s Kindle app. I’m still not impressed with e-books, but I enjoyed this novel.

McCoy explores the trauma of war not only for soldiers but also for civilians. The cautionary tale? There’s no redemption in this story for soldiers who follow orders they know are wrong or make a bad situation worse. One main character, Elsie, has a fiancee, Josef, a Nazi officer wracked by psychosomatic migraines and insomnia; another, Reba, is the daughter of an alcoholic Vietnam vet suicide victim. Neither man deals adequately with the part he played in their respective wars. Both women live with their families’ war ghosts, both ultimately make their peace.

In fact, one of the nicest things about this book is Elsie’s ability to let her sorrows go. I don’t want to give too much away but she’s a very strong, interesting character who experiences real redemption and forgiveness and makes peace with all that happened. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Baker’s Daughter is set both in WWII Germany and present day Texas. Reba is a reporter in El Paso, with a troubled childhood and a fiancee, Riki, she isn’t sure she can commit to. Riki is the child of Mexican immigrants working for the U.S. Border Patrol, torn between his loyalty to America and its rule of law and his moral compass telling him that many of the people he deports are victims, not criminals. And that even those who try to enter illegally might be better served by compassion than scare tactics.

Reba meets Elsie and her grown daughter Jane at their bakery when she’s writing a magazine piece on Christmas traditions. Elsie doesn’t reveal all of her past in their interviews, but the book alternates between her life story — and that of her sister Hazel, who was a mother in the Lebensborn Program — and Reba’s, with brief forays into some of the other characters’ stories, especially Josef and Riki.

It was an interesting read, with characters facing many moral dilemmas and family secrets. The teenage Elsie begins to sense through her sister’s letters and her first Nazi social event with Josef that what Hitler’s Germany stands for is nothing like the ideal her father believes in. When an older SS officer assaults her, a Jewish boy who was made to sing at the party comes to her aid. He shows up outside her house hours later, begging for protection. Despite her extreme fear, she can’t turn him away. I loved this part of the story.

I also enjoyed the way the novel explores how people don’t know the whole story of an event as it’s happening. Riki and his fellow Border Patrol agents have to guess about the people they’re chasing. Elsie and her sister believe propaganda at first because it’s what they know, but the war begins to impact them in ways they never imagined and shades their understanding of the world. Josef is a young man who feels conflicted about carrying out his orders. When a younger Nazi gets carried away, Josef exacts his own justice, and is haunted by the event for the rest of his life. His story is echoed in that of Reba’s father who goes mad because of what he did in Vietnam.

Riki makes a different choice, following his conscience to find a different job.  All of these characters act within a community of family and friends; Reba and Elsie’s family represent those who love people living with hard choices. A book club could have fun hashing out the repercussions they all experience. There’s a particularly poignant scene between Reba and her sister when they discuss their parents.

McCoy presents several of Elsie’s secret Schmidt family bakery recipes in the back of the book. I copied down the recipe for “brotchen” which my son thinks are the rolls he ate when he went to Germany a few summers ago to play soccer. He called them “dope rolls,” which is teenager for “really good.” I hope I can do them justice!

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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Over the summer I posted my review of Nichole Bernier‘s debut, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., which was also in one of my first Mindful Reader columns. Last week, Nichole came to Concord to read at Gibson’s. During her post-reading Q&A, I asked what she’d read lately. She had several recommendations, but Crossing to Safety stood out because author Wallace Stegner is one of those literary lights I hadn’t yet read. Yes, even English majors/writers/librarians haven’t read everyone.

As Nichole said, this is a beautiful book. In a bit of bookconscious interconnectedness, the Modern Library edition has an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams, another author I hadn’t read until recently. I just mentioned Williams in my post about The Book of Mormon Girl.  I love these kind of links. Williams’ assessment is lovely and true: “The personal in Stegner’s fiction becomes the universal. Impatience turns to patience. Reservations become possibilities of transformation.”

Crossing to Safety is about Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang, friends who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in 1938 when Larry and Sid are both young English professors. It’s about their respective marriages and their friendships, and it’s also about ambition and dreams, hardships and how to live. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, WWII, and the culturally turbulent years after, it’s also very much an American novel, examining two paths to success in our country — influence and ingenuity.

Larry and Sally are Westerners (Sally a first generation American) with no money or family pedigrees. Charity and Sid are wealthy, well-connected Easterners. Charity insists Sid “publish or perish” even if it means abandoning poetry and his dreams of a simpler life in their rural compound in Vermont; Larry pursues his literary ambitions rather than chasing tenure.

Charity’s plans don’t always come to fruition, but the Langs’ landing is always soft. Larry succeeds as an author on his own merit but his road is made smooth by Charity and Sid’s largess and their connections.  He doesn’t seem to resent this situation, only to relate it.

The Morgans’ friendship with the Langs dazzles them: “We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull . . . .” A few sentences later he adds,”Both of us were particularly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.” Later in the book, Larry notes, “They worried about us more than we had sense to worry about ourselves. What they had, and they had so much, was ours before we could envy it or ask for it.”

And despite the imbalance, each couple benefits from the friendship. Charity is a matriarch who manages and bosses everyone. But she’s not unkind. Larry says, “She is often right. She is also capable of a noble generosity, and of cramming it on the head of the recipient like a crown of thorns.” Sally and Larry offer their friends a deep well of goodness and shared experience; they know them and love them, just as they are.

The book’s structure is a circle; it opens with the Morgans arriving in Vermont in 1972, summoned by Charity, who is ill. From there, Larry reflects on a lifetime of memories, on the meaning of success and failure, morality and its measure, friendship and marriage. In the end, we’re back where we began, feeling a little wiser for having gotten to know these remarkable characters.

Larry tells us,”. . . if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe time is circular, not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving.” A few sentences later he adds, “Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.” Reading Crossing to Safety felt just like that. Stegner’s luminous, sometimes searing writing makes this novel thoughtful, moving, and a very great pleasure to read.

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I really enjoy Books On the Nightstand, although I got a little behind on their podcasts over the summer. But at one point I heard about Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks on BOTN and then serendipitously, the book’s publicist heard about The Mindful Reader and asked if I’d like a copy to review. Dicks lives in Connecticut (a little beyond the column’s geographic limits), and my “to read” shelf is stuffed, but I told her about bookconscious and said I’d heard good things about Memoirs and would love to read it. (Thanks, Aleks!)

So this amazing story made its way to me and last night I did something I haven’t done in months: stayed up too late to get to the end. If you can’t imagine how a book narrated by a kid’s imaginary friend (Budo, friend of a boy named Max) could be so compelling, try it. It’s an imaginative story with very well developed and interesting characters — who readers meet through Budo’s eyes, mind you.

Max is “on the spectrum” (of autism) although his dad keeps saying he’s just “a late bloomer.” He’s very smart and very creative, so he’s imagined Budo as smart and creative as well, and older than many imaginary friends. He also didn’t imagine he’d need sleep, so as Budo says, “I have more time to learn.” His understanding of Max and the way his mind works, and of all the human relationships he observes, is just incredible. With no need for rest, Budo is also able to hang out at night with Max’s parents or at an all night gas station, so he knows a good bit about the adult world.

Which is good, because Mrs. Patterson, a disturbed aide at Max’s school, decides she knows better than anyone what Max needs. I don’t want to give away the page-turning plot, so I won’t say more, except that Budo, who no one but Max and other imaginary friends can see and hear, is on to her very quickly, thanks to Max’s imagination and his own curiosity about the world.

When children grow up, they forget about their imaginary friends, who then disappear. Budo loses Graham, his best friend other than Max, when her little girl no longer needs her. Dicks writes beautifully about the “death” of imaginary friends. And he sets up the central problem of the book: if he helps Max defy Mrs. Patterson, Budo will end up hastening his own disappearance.

It’s not easy to imagine what I’m describing, but Dicks manages it perfectly. Imaginary friends and their world became completely believable to me (just as rabbit culture did when I read Watership Down). And Mrs. Patterson is quite the villain — the last bit of the book had me completely drawn in and feeling I HAD to know what was going to happen.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend ventures into some very adult issues even though the central characters are a nine year old and his imaginary friend. Max’s parents are struggling to deal with their son’s differences and also with secondary infertility. Budo can tell that at Max’s school, some of the teachers are very good and others “play school.” There is bullying and crime and illness and injury in this book. It’s definitely not simple just because it deals with childhood. Budo’s insights into human nature and our tendency to misunderstand each other are very perceptive.

So if you’re looking for a book that will keep you glued to the page, maybe touch you with some very poignant observations about the human spirit, and perhaps even bring back some memories of imaginary friends (I know I had one, although I can’t recall too much about that, and my kids both did as well), check out this book. But allow for the fact that you may not want to put it down once you start.

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When I heard Joanna Brooks on The Daily Show I put her memoir on hold at the library. The Book of Mormon Girl is a thoughtful, warm, intriguing book about Brooks’ growing up in a devout Mormon home, becoming a feminist and gay rights advocate, then an interfaith parent married to “a man whose religious practice entails a combination of Judaism, Buddhism, and ESPN.” And it’s the story of Brooks’ learning to assimilate these parts of herself — her faith, her belief that God is loving and kind, her warm memories, her stories, her search for truth.

To Brooks, Mormonism “is my first language, my mother tongue, my family, my people, my home; it is my heart, my heart, my heart.” She is heartbroken when in the midst of her own intellectual awakening at Brigham Young University, beloved professors and feminists are fired and excommunicated. It’s the 1990’s, when Mormon leaders decide that “feminists, intellectuals, and gays and lesbians enemies.” She returns her diploma in protest, despite fearing she too will be excommunicated.

In grad school, she meets her future husband. She marries him, entering “a sweet space of talking, listening, and learning.” At first she’s miserable anywhere near a Mormon church, but when her daughters are born she begins to find her way back, to come to a grown-up understanding that “This is a church of tenderness and arrogance, of sparkling differences and human failings. There is no unmixing of the two.”

During California’s Prop 8 fight she’s horrified anew by the large, well-funded mobilization of Mormons to fight gay marriage. But she continues to find ways to make herself heard, including writing and posting her essays online. When she’s overwhelmed by hateful responses, she prays. And realizes, “I knew what the voice of God felt like, and it did not feel like rocks against the side of my house. . . The voice of God I knew was gentle, kind, and deliberate. And that voice was not forbidding me to write or speak, so long as I did so honestly and without malice.”

The Book of Mormon Girl is very strong for the first 160 pages. I felt like the last 40 were less cohesive, and perhaps even a bit rushed; in just a few chapters Brooks covers early motherhood, losing her grandmother, Prop 8, her budding activism, and her family’s interfaith life. She alludes to reconciling with her parents but says very little about their feelings when she left and married outside the church. Her siblings are almost absent from the book, even though she mentions many times that large, close-knit families are one of the bedrocks of Mormonism.

But her stories and her writing are heartfelt and lovely and capital T true, and those qualities outshine any flaws in the memoir’s narrative structure. If anything, these very minor imperfections add a raw quality that enhances the authenticity and personality of the book. If you liked Mennonite In a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen (which I wrote about here) you’ll probably enjoy this book. In fact, Brooks thanks Janzen in her acknowledgements; I wondered if they’ve met since they’re both Californians and scholars who write about faith and family.

If you’re just curious about Mormon beliefs, what a bishop does, etc., reading The Book of Mormon Girl is a nice way to learn. Or if you admire Terry Tempest Williams‘ flowing and spirited prose, which I could sense in Brooks’ writing as well, you’ll enjoy this book. Or, if you yourself have felt lost or wandering or seeking, you may find a kindred spirit here, or at least a safe space in which to rest. By the time I read the last page, I felt as if I’d love to talk with Brooks, which is a nice way to end.

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September’s Mindful Reader column is up on the Concord Monitor** website. Check out my review of Cascade, by Maryanne O’HaraRise by L. Annette BinderThe Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice, & Other Stories by Jay WexlerUnderstories by Tim Horvath; and Park Songs: a Poem/Play by David Budbill.

This weekend I read The Uninvited Guests by Sadie Jones  — a very fun romp. The book combines the social wit of Jane Austen with the eccentricity of Alan Bradley (author of the Flavia de Luce mysteries), a dash of Julian Fellowes, and a bit of wild stagecraft Shakespeare could love. In fact, if you’re a Downton Abbey fan pining for season three, this might be a quirky distraction.

The book opens at a crumbling great house, Sterne, in 1912, on the morning of Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday. Her mother is preoccupied with her stepfather Edward’s trip to Manchester, where he plans to ask an unpleasant business acquaintance for a loan to save Sterne. As the day unfolds there is a visit from a potential suitor, John, a self-made man who Emerald doesn’t really want but who has plenty of money. A telegram from her childhood best friend, Patience, whose mother has come down with influenza. And news of a terrible train crash on a branch line nearby, resulting in the uninvited guests, who the Torringtons must take in after their ordeal.

The housekeeper, Mrs. Trieves, and Emerald’s mother, Charlotte, are dismayed to find a man they once knew has crashed Emerald’s party, claiming to be the sole first class passenger among the train wreck victims. Everyone can see there is some sort of secret among these three. Meanwhile the eccentric little sister, Imogen, known as Smudge, takes advantage of the chaos to smuggle the family pony, Lady, into her room to sit for a portrait.

Emerald finds herself strangely drawn to her best friend’s brother Ernest, a medical student who has escorted his sister to Sterne in place of his mother, and Clovis finds that Patience, who he used to find annoying, is actually not anymore. As the party takes stranger and stranger turns. The finely dressed guests and hosts (except for Charlotte, who retires to her boudoir to sulk) end up serving the carefully prepared multi-course birthday feast to the train passengers.  They sit in their spoiled finery making a meal of the bits and pieces. And the strange “gentleman” entices them into a humiliating party game.

In the frenzy of emotion and tension that follows, all of the twists of the day resolve themselves and in Shakespearean fashion, many matches are made. The pony is led back downstairs. And in the morning, once the mess is cleared and the uninvited guests are gone (and their nature made clear), Edward returns with news of a strange turn of the family’s affairs.

If I’m being unspecific it’s to save you, dear readers, from a series of spoiled surprises. The Uninvited Guests is such a delightful literary romp that I don’t want to ruin the fun.  Just imagine an Edwardian house party with “dark surprises” as the jacket blurb surmises, plenty of social satire, and a rather arch look at human nature.


** Text if you can’t find it online:

Finding balance

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 2012

Cascade, by Massachusetts author Maryanne O’Hara, grew out of three story ideas. O’Hara didn’t really know how the stories might connect but sensed they should. The result is a historical novel that focuses on Desdamona Hart, or Dez. She has come home to Cascade, Mass., in 1935 after art school in Boston and travel in Europe, determined to help her dying, bankrupt father save his Shakespearean playhouse. She marries Asa Spaulding, a pharmacist, who takes them in.

Her father thickens the plot by leaving the theater to Asa. Dez wants to paint and to keep her promises, so for a time she tries to ”have it all” as both a dutiful wife and an artist. She takes portrait commissions to resurrect the theater as her father asked. Anyone who has ever juggled responsibilities while trying to pursue work they love will understand her struggle.

Dez befriends Jacob, an artist and peddler, and their friendship sustains her as she tries to fit back into small town life. Meanwhile Asa is pressuring her to start a family and disapproves of another man spending time with his wife.

And Cascade is under persistent threat from the water authority, which plans to flood the town for a reservoir.

Her postcard series about Cascade’s possible destruction becomes a regular feature in The American Sunday Standard, whose editor invites her to illustrate for the magazine in New York. She and Jacob become the subject of town gossip when a man working on the reservoir plans is found dead on Asa’s land with Jacob’s truck nearby. Dez risks everything to clear his name, and Jacob leaves for New York and a job in a New Deal art program.

In the aftermath of this episode, Dez has to choose – stay with Asa, pursue Jacob, or simply follow her dream of a career in art, regardless of the men in her life. The burden of the playhouse, which she must persuade Asa to move before the town is flooded, weighs heavily. I found myself having nasty thoughts about her father, who appears to have cared more about his theater than his only child.

 O’Hara touches on issues familiar to contemporary readers, such as the conflicts surrounding public works projects and eminent domain, or the painful gossip and bigotry that sometimes plague small towns. She tells a very interesting story about an unsettling time in history as well, during the Depression and the run-up to World War II. And she tells a timeless one too, about a woman working to balance her promises and her passion. I enjoyed each aspect of this atmospheric novel.

Short fiction and a poem / play

I also read three short-story collections and a poem/play: Understories by Tim Horvath, Rise by L. Annette Binder, The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Association Justice and other Stories by Jay Wexler, and Park Songs by David Budbill.

Horvath is a professor at New Hampshire Institute of Art. The pieces in Understories not only share a philosophical, whimsical, darkly humorous aesthetic, but also seem to come from a world that resembles ours but is riddled with portals into imagined places beyond anything you or I could dream up. I loved the way reading these evocative stories left me feeling slightly off-kilter.

The Conversations, which I read as a satirical poke at the breakdown of civil discourse, and The Understory, about a German botany professor who escapes Hitler’s rise to power, settles in New Hampshire, and loses many of the trees on his land in the 1938 hurricane, are two of my favorites. Horvath doesn’t just tell a story, he gives readers a window into the hearts, minds and souls of his characters.

Binder, a part-time New Hampshire resident, fills Rise with fantastical details: a giant woman who is half-angel and still growing in her 50s, a boy who sees shadow-like halos over the heads of people who will die soon, a child who only speaks dead languages. At the same time, her stories are about everyday realities, such as people dealing with illnesses or struggling to get along. Rise is a book about transcending life’s emotional and psychological turbulence.

Wexler, a law professor at Boston University, has written a zany collection of stories that had me laughing out loud. In one, Henry Clay advises a teen and her mother on college. Another is written as a script for a sitcom pilot about a prison’s death row.

Wexler hits on a number of brilliant ways to skewer government and politics, such as a story about a man filing a ”horn incident report,” and another in which Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearing is conducted by the 1977 Kansas City Royals instead of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Adventures of Ed Tuttle, Associate Justice is offbeat, absurdist and thought provoking.

Budbill is a Vermont poet and playwright whose work reflects his father’s advice, ”Stick up for the little guy, bud.” Despite its genre-bending, Park Songs: a Poem/Play is a very accessible book about people in a city park on a single day. In addition to R.C. Irwin’s ”absurdist and nostalgic” photographs, traditional blues lyrics complement the dialogue. Budbill’s note to readers suggests that any parts of the book could be staged, that a blues band could act as a Greek chorus, and that ”Let’s Talk” could be its own one-act play. That section features very funny, touching banter between Fred, who is lonely, and Judy, who is reading in the park because she wants to be alone. Budbill captures the essence of human communication – the misunderstandings and connections, hurts and expectations – in one scene on a park bench.

With fall around the corner you can curl up on a cool evening with any of these books and enjoy fictional worlds grounded in very realistic human hopes and struggles.

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As I’ve listened to the presidential campaigns, news analysts and comedians argue about whether Americans are better off now than four years ago, I’ve been reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis. My dad sent me a copy last fall and I finally pulled it off the “to read” shelf, in light of the economic debate and because I recently read Ira Glass‘s take on the book.  I also thought it would be interesting to read as Teen the Elder studies American politics this semester and Teen the Younger learns about psychology.

The Big Short is about the murky world of subprime mortgage backed securities, credit default swapscollateralized debt obligations, hedge funds, and other financial stuff most people will never fully understand. To his credit, Lewis makes it slightly less murky even for this English major with finance-phobia. But the book is also about a handful of people who knew what was happening —  and in one case even tried to alert the media and the SEC — and were mostly ignored. Lewis’s handling of these characters make the book a good read.

I’d argue that the story Lewis tells is also a psychological drama, with very rich, very powerful bankers and investors indulging in self-protective cognitive tactics to avoid facing what they could not imagine or believe. Traders and regulators ignoring what they could not understand, or refusing to believe there was anything beyond them. And ordinary people placing blind and undeserved trust in the system that lends money to potential homeowners and sells them property beyond their means as well as the system in which most retirement money now sits in 401k’s.

The Big Short isn’t obviously political, but I think Lewis exposes the way the U.S. government (both the previous and current administration; this is a bipartisan critique), also acting in fear and ignorance and also convinced of its own ability to understand the unfathomable, blundered around the financial system, rescuing some firms and allowing others to go bankrupt, bandying about the term “too big to fail” (coined much earlier by a man called Jamie Mai in a memo to his two partners in a very small firm called Cornwall Capital) as it snowed the public into believing everything was under control.

I finished this book convinced of a few things. The first is that Michael Lewis is a very talented writer who brings people right off the page — I could almost hear the folks he profiled talking. Lewis manages, as Ira Glass noted, to make readers love the “rich know-it-alls” who saw the crisis coming, he humanizes them, but he also points out that without exception the people who saw what was happening, who understood, were also complex moral figures. Also as Glass points out, these “contrarians” are funny. I think their stories are unbelievably entertaining; they could be characters straight out of a tragedy.

The second thing I’m convinced of is that our economy and our government are too big and complicated for the people working inside them ever to fully grasp, and that reform is unlikely because the systems are absurdly complicated and influenced by money. Who is better off now than in 2007/2008? Well, Wall Street for one. A few firms went under, were bought out and absorbed into other firms, or downsized, but the financial sector’s recovery has been quite good considering the size of the crisis.

Worse, there has been no psychological recovery — the hubris and greed that allowed the financial industry to create the entire mess has never gone away. Just look at the Facebook IPO and the “selective disclosure” of key information in the days before it by firms like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase (who all appear in The Big Short). Or the Libor scandal.  Michael Lewis tells readers at the beginning of The Big Short that he had personally given up on waiting for “the end of Wall Street as I had known it,” (his first book, Liar’s Poker, is about his time at Salomon Brothers). He says there is no “scandal or reversal . . . sufficiently great to sink the system.”

I wonder where he invests? Anyway, Dad, you were right, it’s a good read. Absurd. Horrifying. But well done.


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I looked around at the library last week for a Europa Editions book, giving myself permission not to choose one if there wasn’t something that interested me. Laurence Cosse‘s An Accident In August looking appealing, so I decided to try it and keep up with the 2012 Europa Challenge.

I’m glad I did. For the first time in a few months I can say I really liked my challenge book. When the novel opens, Lou (short for Louise), has just pulled into her garage in her white Fiat Uno, and she is very shaken. She’s just been part of an accident in Paris in the Alma tunnel; a Mercedes barreled into the tunnel behind her at top speed and scraped her car before crashing spectacularly into a pillar. She had reacted in a panic, driving straight out of the tunnel and home. Lou is trying to calm down and deal with the fact that she should have stopped, and that she could be charged with failure to assist at the scene of the crash.

Then she turns on her radio in the bathroom and realizes not only was she involved in a horrible crash, but also the victims of the incident are none other than Lady Diana and Dodi Fayed and their driver. What was already upsetting becomes Lou’s obsession. She gets through the rest of the weekend pretending to be ill, and then takes her car to a different town on Monday to have the taillight and paint repaired.

But even with the Fiat patched up she is unable to think about anything else. She’s afraid she’ll be arrested and that the press will make a spectacle of her. She tries to just go on, but can’t stop thinking about getting rid of the car and running away. Her employer and her boyfriend both notice how strange she’s acting; she finally feels she really has to act.

She’s about to leave her apartment, with a somewhat amateur plan to ditch the Fiat and go away, when a mechanic from the garage appears. He’s put two and two together and he wants a cut of the money and fame Lou could achieve selling her story to the press. He kidnaps her, telling Lou he has all the evidence that her car needed repairs just a couple of days after the crash, and she has to do what he says.

I don’t want to give away the rest of the story, but will just say it wasn’t what I expected. An Accident In August succeeds as a psychological thriller even though I could not really understand why Lou didn’t just come forward immediately, tell the police the car hit her and that she was so startled she drove off, in shock. Given the details in the news — that there were hordes of paparazzi in several cars — she could probably have escaped serious prosecution if she simply admitted being afraid.

At any rate, Cosse wrote an interesting tale, and it made for entertaining reading. The setting in and around Paris and the fact that I remember the general and widespread hysteria surrounding Diana’s death added to my enjoyment of the book, not because I liked reading about the tragedy, but because I can recall a person I knew who followed every detail of the crash and investigation, like one of Lou’s co-workers. Also in May when we met up with Teen the Elder after his gap year, I saw the Dodi & Diana memorial at Harrod‘s and a display in Kensington Palace about Diana’s dresses, so I’d actually thought about her death again recently.

I’d recommend An Accident In August as a light but well-written thriller with a strong psychological aspect to the plot.

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