Archive for October, 2012

I didn’t read Teen the Elder’s summer required reading, The Shallows. The Computer Scientist read a bit aloud to me about libraries’ computer & internet service and that was enough (I blogged about that at Nocturnal Librarian). But when Teen the Elder was home for mid-term break he mentioned how much he’s enjoying his first-year seminar, and suggested I might enjoy one of the books for that class, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants by Jaed Coffin.

He was right. Coffin’s mother is Thai, and he decided to go to her village in Thailand before his senior year in college to become a Buddhist monk. He’s very honest about not being sure of his own motives, of being a little confused about what he got out of the experience, and of being unsure how to apply what he did learn. Towards the end of the book he lets readers in on his re-entry into American life, his final year of college and what came next. But his memoir doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, which is nice. He leaves us wondering about some of the things he experienced and how they might impact his life, just as he wondered.

I like Coffin’s unvarnished voice — he doesn’t shy away from critical self-reflection. He has a good eye for small details that made the book vibrant and interesting. I wondered about some of the dialogue, given the distance he had when he wrote the book, but I know there is a theory that memoirs are meant to be representative of remembered experience, not journalist renderings of absolute detail. And maybe he had good notes, or just a better (younger) memory than I have.

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants is a young man’s story, a story about a person on the edge of adulthood, undergoing a rite of passage (in Thailand, it’s common for young men to spend time in a monastery), and trying to understand his role in life. Coffin captures the essence of that feeling beautifully. When he and one of his fellow monks, Narong, travel into the forest to visit another temple, Coffin tries to convince him that the Buddha is everywhere, in everything around them. They travel up the river seeking Buddha and meeting villagers, and when they return to the forest temple, the Luang Pa (sort of like the abbot of a western monastery) speaks with them.

He asks what they’ve been doing. Here’s a lovely passage that captures their exchange:

“I looked for an answer in the spaces between the trees and in the distant valley. It began to rain in heavy, cumbersome drops that looked like snow. A light wind came up too, pushing at the trunks of several bamboo trees and making a hollow clicking sound.  ‘The Buddha is everywhere,’ I told the Luang Pa.”

The Luang Pa tells him he is wrong:

“‘The Buddha is in the heart. He is in your mind. He is in the heart that is always mai nae jai.’ The Luang Pa’s face softened and became more gentle and sympathetic. I held the phrase in my mind until it made sense. Mai nae jai: not sure heart.”

That’s what this book is about. A boy, nearly a man, with a not sure heart. He goes to Thailand looking for half his life, half his being, he reacquaints himself with his mother’s family and the world she grew up in, and then he takes his mai nae jai heart back to America, which he realizes is more his home (in no small part because it’s become his mother’s home as well). And fortunately for the rest of us, he decides that the way to live with a not sure heart is to write.

I didn’t come to know my own not sure heart until later in life, and reading and writing, rather than a physical retreat, have taken me on a seeker’s journey that may never be complete. I’m grateful to people like Coffin for sharing their stories. I look forward to talking more about the book with Teen the Elder and comparing our responses to it. I’m also grateful that in a time when the most opinionated, self-assured voices seem to take up most of the public oxygen, my son’s college assigns books about the not sure.


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What a complete hoot this book is. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially because the Computer Scientist, my brother, and family friends worked or still work at Microsoft. We lived in Seattle for five years and I can assure you that Maria Semple‘s send-ups are hilariously spot-on.

Semple satirizes (affectionately, I think) Seattle’s many recognizable quirks. The large population of the newly well-off. Geeky outdoorsy-ness. The weird juxtaposition of political correctness, a publicly professed creed of “niceness,” and nimbyism. The blackberries that cannot be defeated even when torn out with special equipment. The competitive private school culture, combined with a desire to keep kids “real.” The strange combination of wealth and consumptionism with DIY spirit and zealous affirmation of “groundedness.” And she seasons it all with cultural and geographic references too numerous to recount.

But I digress. Enjoyable as it was for me to recognize these things, the book is funny and smart whether you’ve been to Seattle or not. No matter where you live it would be hard not to laugh at Semple’s trenchant portrayal of dysfunctional families, social aspirations, and neighborhood feuding, made more public by modern technology.

Where’d You Go Bernadette is about a pair of eccentric geniuses: Bernadette Fox, a MacArthur genius architect whose masterwork was destroyed in L.A. twenty years earlier by a vindictive neighbor she’d clashed with and Elgin Branch, TED talk star, workoholic inventor geek pioneering mind-activated robotics at Microsoft. Bernadette and Elgin have one daughter, Bee, born with a heart defect but brilliant and about to go off to boarding school, as her parents both did.

Bee asks for a trip to Antarctica to celebrate. Bernadette’s unhappiness with Seattle, with the privileged “gnats” as she calls the school mothers who don’t like her, and her social awkwardness come to a head. She hires a “virtual assistant” in India to handle the trip details and plots how to get out of going.

Meanwhile Elgin misinterprets his wife’s loopy behavior as either mental illness or drug addiction and plans an intervention. Several hilarious misunderstandings later, Bernadette disappears and Bee tries to find her. That final section of the novel, where Bee tells her version of things, is wonderful. It tempers the satire a bit with real emotional depth and the reveals the truth beneath the zaniness — this novel is a love story.

Every unhinged thing Bernadette does is grounded in her fierce love for Bee, who thrives because of it. Elgin and Bernadette have lost their way with each other but readers sense that beneath it all, they also have an unbreakable bond.  And they both love their inner worlds, the private creative processes that makes them such brilliant and innovative people.

Semple’s assertion, it seems, is that people need to be who they are, and society — especially privileged society —   beats down the very people it holds up as geniuses when they find themselves unable to conform. She also spotlights the everyday in-your-face rudeness we’ve come to accept. From entitled neighbors to pushy panhandlers to opinionated alpha-Moms, Bernadette can’t take it anymore; ironically that makes her part of the rudeness cycle.

But there’s redemption in this novel, and even nasty neighbor Audrey, Bernadette’s gnat nemesis, has a major change of heart. By the end of the book, much of the messiness is resolved, and you get a feeling things are going to work out. I love that it’s neat  but not too neat — Semple let’s us come to our own conclusions.

Bee is just a terrific character — still a kid, precocious but never without the innocence and emotion of a real middle-school girl.  And like many smart, mature kids, still very attached to the small rituals and touchstones of childhood, things the adults around her don’t necessarily see or appreciate. Few authors get “tweens” right and Semple does it perfectly, I think.

And I loved the form of this book, which is perfect for the story. Semple uses regular narrative, email, reports, presentations, faxes, transcripts — a melange of the material at-hand in her characters’ lives, like Bernadette’s architecture (her most famous work is a house made entirely of items sourced within 20 miles), like the former girls’ school partially converted into a residence where Bernadette, Elgin, & Bee live, like a community. There’s a very good reason for this hodge-podge which I won’t give away.

Seattle, Semple also reminds us, is not always as cloudy as you’d expect. Semple lets the best bits peek through. Again I think her specific city is just an example of all the hassles of modern life – get past the superficial, loud, overly-busy bits and you can make real connections.

Which after all is what the best books help us do.

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Two follow-up reads

I recently wrote about Susan Elia MacNeal‘s debut, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I was reading it because her second Maggie Hope book, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, was due out last week. I read that over the weekend, as well as Lois Lowry‘s Messenger, which is the follow up to Gathering Blue.

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy is a fairly satisfying historical spy mystery, set mostly in Windsor Castle during WWII. Having read a couple of biographies of Elizabeth II around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations in June, I found this book very interesting. MacNeal has again done her homework to get the period details and historical characters right. As a librarian, I especially liked that the real Royal Librarian, Sir Owen Morshead, appears in the novel.  There were also two book-related codes in the plot, which is nice bibliophile touch. Some of the fictional characters felt a little under-developed to me, though.

One thing I’ll give MacNeal is that she doesn’t make everything obvious as far as the mystery in her books, at least not to me. I’m not sure I liked that Maggie, whose nearly-fiancee (he proposed, she refused but regrets it) was shot down in Germany, has a love interest by the end of Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, even though I can see from the preview of the next book (printed in the back of this one, as the preview for it was in the back of Mr. Churchill’s Secretary) that MacNeal did this to complicate things for our heroine in the next book.

I also found the end of the book, in which we learn what Maggie will do next, somewhat unbelievable. Will I read the third book in the series? Probably. But I will lower my expectations a bit and just accept the things I like about the series — the historical setting, the entertaining details about food, clothing, and everyday life during the war, and the pluck and intelligence of the heroine — come at the cost of a little more melodrama than I’d prefer.

Lois Lowry’s third book in her Quartet, Messenger is darker than I was expecting but very thought provoking. I read it in one sitting (if you’re not familiar with Lowry, this is a series for young readers – I’d say middle school age and up) and very much enjoyed it. We meet our old friend Matty again, the boy who once growled to all who’d listen that he was “Fiercest of the Fierce,” now living with Kira’s blind father, Seer, in Village. Matty is a messenger who has always been able to enter and traverse the forest without fear or “entanglement.”

But something is changing in the forest, and in Matty. He accidentally discovers his gift, one that Leader (Jonas from The Giver) sees and understands. In fact before we understand, Leader knows that Matty will need to use his gift in a very dramatic way to help Village and his old friend Kira.

Kira is still in her village on the other side of the forest, and she has made it a much better place to live. She still intends to eventually come to live with Seer. But in Village, an evil force (a combination of envy and greed) has changed people’s hearts and they vote to close the community to outsiders, even though they’ve always welcomed everyone who sought shelter there, and even though most of them came to Village as outsiders themselves. Matty promises Seer he’ll reach Kira before it’s too late. The end of the book is about Matty’s efforts to bring her to Seer before Village closes.

I know I’m being a bit vague but it’s because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone. Read this moving book and see for yourself. I’m looking forward to Son. I appreciate the way Lowry lets readers connect her dots without dumbing down her stories. Her books are full of wisdom and wonder. I also appreciate the pacing, which is dramatic without being tense.

Up next? I’ve started Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which is a hoot, and I have A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, which Teen the Elder read in his first year seminar at college and recommended.  And I am reading some interesting books for the next Mindful Reader column, including The Art Forger.

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I picked up The Polish Boxer expecting excellent literary fiction — it’s published by Bellevue Literary Press. What I got was that and much more; a semi-autobiographical tale of a Guatemalan Jew, a trip around the world, insight into Balkan cultural fragmentation, jazz and the nature of improvisation, Gypsy music and culture particularly in Belgrade, the meaning of fiction and its place in reality, the preservation of Holocaust stories,the human psyche’s adaptation of beliefs and mythology/storytelling as a way to reconcile daily life with universal truths . . . . I could go on, but it would be better if you would just read this genre-bending novel for yourself.

In publicity materials and interviews, Eduardo Halfon has described the book as semi-autobiographical, and he’s said, “To me, all literature is fiction disguised as memoir. Or perhaps memoir disguised as fiction.”  The book felt to me like a novel-in-stories, especially in the early chapters, which follow the main character (also called Eduardo) from his literature classes at a Guatelmalan university to literary conferences in North Carolina and Portugal to the streets of Belgrade, where he is looking for a half-Serbian, half-Roma pianist he met at an arts festival in Guatemala.

We meet his lover, Lia, his musician friend Milan, and an eminent Twain scholar who recognizes Eduardo’s b.s. at a conference and chooses to tell jokes when it is his turn to speak. We also meet Eduardo’s grandfather, Leon. Leon is an Auschwitz survivor whose story of a fellow Pole, a boxer, coaching him to survive his trial becomes truth to Eduardo, until he reads another version of the story in a newspaper interview Leon gives shortly before his death. In the new version, there is no Polish boxer; Leon survives by other means.

This revelation causes Eduardo to say, in his speech at a conference in Portugal on how “Literature Tears Through Reality,” “Literature is no more than a good trick a magician or a witch might perform, making reality appear whole, creating the illusion that reality is a single unified thing.” He recounts the ending of an Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, and explains, “That is exactly what literature is like. As we write we know there is something very important to be said about reality, that we have this something within reach, just there, so close, on the tip of our tongue, and that we mustn’t forget it. But always, without fail, we do.”

I’ve only just finished The Polish Boxer so I’m not sure I’ve fully processed what it’s said to me about reality. But it’s a book full of sex, smoking and drinking, language, music, friendship, culture and identity. It’s about loss — the kind you feel without really understanding what it is that’s missing, only knowing it’s not there.

It’s about whether or not a Gypsy pirouetting means anything, and what it means, and what meaning means. It’s about the ways people in a Belgrade slum and a Guatemalan village and a Polish neighborhood and Brooklyn and a million other places live and love and get by the same as you and I. It’s about love, not just between lovers, but love of family and love of place, love of tribe (by birth or by art), love of humanity and the way love is the humanity between us, even at times when hate is the currency of power.

It’s about the need to write, to tell what urgently needs to be told, or to sing it or play it. It’s about poetry, which in the Mayan language Cakchikel  is “a braid of words . . . an embroidered blouse of words.”  That’s it too: The Polish Boxer is an embroidered blouse of words. And a tattoo on on old man’s arm,of his number at Auschwitz, the one he told his grand-kids was a phone number. And it’s the patterns we fall into, in loving and judging each other. In defining the world around us. In making reality and writing it into our consciousness.

Confused? Don’t be. I can’t do this book justice. Get yourself to your local bookstore or your library and ask for Eduardo Halfon’s The Polish Boxer. Get comfortable — the most frustrating thing about reading this book was that I didn’t have a good long stretch to read it in one sitting. Pour yourself a drink. Put on some music — jazz, gypsy, or whatever inspires your heart to longing. And enjoy this magical, unreal trip through reality.


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October’s Mindful Reader column** ran in today’s Concord Monitor.  The “And” in the last sentence of my review of Wes McNair’s memoir is not my own. Typos happen. Anyway, I wrote about Carolyn Roy-Bornstein’s memoir Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude, Wes McNair’s memoir The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry, and Ruth Nemzoff’s Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family.

This weekend I read Gathering Blue after reading the New York Times magazine interview with Lois Lowry last weekend. I was thrilled to hear Lowry at Gibson’s last fall — she was one of the last authors I booked as events coordinator there. My family read The Giver together before her event, and Number the Stars is one of our favorites as well.

If you shake your head at the way dystopia is marketed to young readers today, pick up the books in Lowry’s Giver quartet (she has a new one, Son, out now). I can’t get over how humane, thoughtful, and thought-provoking her books are, and how beautiful. Even when there are harsh things happening, it’s not at a heart-pounding pace. There is no need to whip readers up to make a point about human nature. You don’t get a sense the author had movie rights in mind as the book was written.

And Lowry is just a very good writer. There is a loveliness to her words; somehow even plain sentences are quietly powerful. Gathering Blue isn’t set in the same place and time as The Giver but it does give a sense of being beyond (before? after? we’re not sure) our time. The society is very authoritarian and less orderly than in The Giver. Our heroine, Kira, is a girl whose mother protected her when she was born with a damaged leg. Most imperfect babies are left to die.

Kira has a gift – she is a talented embroiderer. When the book opens we find out her mother has died and she is threatened when she goes back to rebuild her home, called a cott, which was burned because of her mother’s illness. We meet a ragged little boy who is one of her only friends.

I won’t tell you any more because it’s best to let Lowry tell you in her own wonderful words. Give these books a try, especially if you have middle grade or young teen readers you can share them with. Lowry reminds us that dystopian doesn’t mean dumbed-down. I am not saying there are no other authors writing well for young people (Jane Yolen is, for example). But Lowry is remarkable.


** Text of the column in case you can’t find it online:

Nothing is the same

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 201

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million people suffered a traumatic brain injury annually. When Massachusetts pediatrician Carolyn Roy-Bornstein’s memoir, Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude, begins, she is in her kitchen, asking whether her son Neil’s girlfriend, Trista, would like cheese on her burger. After supper, Neil walks Trista home. They never make it; he becomes one of those 1.7 million.

A drunken driver hit them on a well-lit road. Trista died of her injuries. Neil’s life was never the same. As Roy-Bornstein writes, the crash is ”a line, like a crack in the glass, that carves time and events in two: those that occurred before the crash and those that tumble and falter in its wake. There is this one moment after which nothing is the same.”

Roy-Bornstein writes movingly of her family’s dislocating experiences after that moment. Even with her medical knowledge, Neil’s condition is unfamiliar. From the night of the accident to years later when she notices something he does and wonders, ”is this the injury, or is this just Neil?” their world has become unpredictable.

Toward the end of the book, when she writes about Neil’s struggles in college and adulthood, her medical career and the process of seeking justice, the story sometimes wanders. But this section is also poignant. To those who suggest her family ”move on,” Roy-Bornstein points out that Neil’s cognitive and psychological challenges are ongoing, so ”this idea of closure is fraudulent.”

She also explains, ”I don’t want to focus on what Neil might have accomplished without his brain injury. Instead I want to celebrate everything he has accomplished with it. Despite it. That is grace.” In the afterword she shares what she’s learned about TBI as a mother, doctor and advocate, and describes Neil’s life now. A tough but ultimately redemptive read.

Two more nonfiction gems:

The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry by Wesley McNair is a standout.

Fans of McNair’s poetry and essays know he is a warm, funny writer whose work is rooted in life experience as well as responses to ”the erosion of family, region, and nation” he’s witnessed. This memoir, which begins with his parents meeting and covers his youth and early writing career in New Hampshire, is a heart-rending narrative of emotional and economic hardship – the wells McNair has drawn from throughout his distinguished writing career.

After describing his lowest point as a college teacher barely making ends meet, a scholar and poet unsure of his strengths, and a father caught in his own parents’ patterns of strife, McNair relates how ”six liberating words” from Donald Hall – ”I am dazzled by your poems” – set him on a new course.

McNair made peace with his past, himself and his family and continued to write, with great tenderness and power, the poems that made his name in American letters. This book isn’t just the story of how McNair realized his gift as ”a poet who has been shaped from the start by the threat of things dear to me coming apart.” It’s also a story of the healing power of literature, art and ideas.

McNair writes with abundant humanity and clarity about connections he’s made in his work between ”the terror,” as he calls the difficult times he’s faced, and the upheavals in American life over the past several decades.

And for literature buffs and those dealing with their own ”terror:”

Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family by Ruth Nemzoff.

I’ve been a daughter-in-law for almost 23 years, so I didn’t think I’d learn from this book. But Nemzoff’s engaging style and practical tone drew me in and I found much to ponder. She examines perspectives of both parents and grown children (including siblings, a particularly interesting section), and sticky issues from cultural and religious differences to addiction, money, grandchildren, holidays, aging and more. Nemzoff reminds me of my grandmother, who often said if I wanted to make the world a better place I should start by always trying to be my best self. She advises readers not to expect perfect in-law relationships, ”to put a statute of limitations on slights,” to be consistently kind or at least civil, to have some perspective (including looking at your own behaviors and beliefs), and ”to take the long view of things.”

A wise, warm book well worth reading whether you’re a longtime in-law or are newly merging families.

New this month – also noted . . .

There are so many New Hampshire and New England authors and books, it’s impossible for me to cover them all. So when necessary, I will briefly note those I haven’t reviewed in depth. These books will still meet The Mindful Reader criteria: by an author from New Hampshire or adjoining states or set in or about New Hampshire, of interest to a variety of readers, and probably not well-known or widely publicized.

• Sermons In Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York, by Susan Allport, illustrated by David Howell. The Countryman Press has reissued this book, originally published in 1990. Allport is an engaging science writer who did meticulous research. Howell’s detailed ink drawings are beautiful and informative. In her preface to this new edition, Allport notes the increased interest in stone walls and the complexity of what she expected to be a simple story.

• Cover-Up: One Man’s Pursuit of the Truth Amid the Government’s Failure to End a Ponzi Scheme, by Mark Connolly. ”This book is not meant to be a definitive history of this fraud; rather it is to inform the reader about how it feels to be in the middle of a political storm,” writes Connolly, former director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation. He dedicates Cover-Up to his bureau colleagues and the victims of Financial Resources Management.

• When America First Met China: an Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail by Eric Jay Dolan. Dolan, the Massachusetts author of several books including acclaimed volumes on the whaling and fur trades, explores the roots of America’s relationship with China and how that story informs contemporary relations. Dolan writes of policies and personalities in government, commerce and culture, and the clash and cooperation that shaped our countries’ intertwined destinies.

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When Nichole Bernier visited Gibson’s Bookstore in September, I asked what she’s been reading. She raved about a novel that my friend Sandy at Gibson’s also recommended highly: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I love a book that moves me. And a story that makes me want to stay up just a little longer to find out what happens. This novel is both.

I am going to tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil the story. Here’s what I can tell you: Tom is a WWI veteran, haunted by the war and by memories of his lonely childhood and the loss of his mother. Tom’s also in the Commonwealth Lighthouse service, and he arrives in a small town, Partageuse, at the southwestern tip of Australia to take up his new post on a small island off the coast, Janus Rock, as keeper. In Partageuse he meets Isabel.

They have  a brief courtship, he starts his work on Janus, and they correspond when they can (a boat only comes every few months to resupply Janus Rock). They marry. Isabel has two miscarriages and a stillborn. And then one day the tide washes up a boat on Janus. On board? A baby, perfectly healthy. And a dead man. Boat, body, baby. What would you do?

And that is what the rest of this novel is about, what Tom and Isabel do, how it impacts their lives and everyone else’s. It’s an incredibly thought provoking book — this is perfect for a book club, because Stedman does an excellent job of making all the possibilities plausible and in evoking great empathy for all the characters. She also makes them whole — no one dimensional villains or heroes here.

Writing wise it’s also a beautiful book. Everything is vivid, from Tom’s dreadful childhood home to the lighthouse and everything in between. Stedman writes with rich detail, but as my Grandmother used to say, with no extra words. Stedman makes Tom’s life perfectly clear even to someone like me who knew exactly nothing about how a nineteenth century lighthouse works. Every detail she includes does its job, with no flowery extras.

Here’s an example:  “Outside, the metal gallery circled the tower, and a perilous ladder arched against the dome, up to the thin catwalk just below the weather vane that swung in the wind.” Or this: “The town draws a veil over certain events. This is a small community, where everyone knows that sometimes the contract to forget is as important as any promise to remember.” Or a scene where a young man working in the town bakery helps a young lady with her shawl,”draping it around her in one fluid movement.”

I could go on but you should read this novel for yourself. Once you do you’ll want to talk about it with someone. Let me know what you think!

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Jane Gardam‘s Crusoe’s Daughter is a novel about Polly Flint, who goes to live with her aunts and a dour family friend named Mrs.Woods at Oversands, a large yellow house on a marsh in north Yorkshire, when she is only six. Her mother is dead and soon her father dies as well. Around ten years later, as the Great War rages, both aunts and Mrs. Woods are dead and Polly is alone with Alice, the housekeeper. And Robinson Crusoe, her constant companion.

Polly reads Robinson Crusoe over and over. Throughout her life, it is her obsession and her saving grace. While she’s still very young she loses the faith her aunts tried to instill. But she always has Robinson Crusoe I’ve never had a touchstone book like that but I know people who do.

Polly meets very few people out on the marsh. One, a mysterious Mr.Thwaite who appears at her Aunt Frances’ wedding when Polly is sixteen, becomes an important friend whose connection to the family is unclear to Polly or to readers for some time. The people she meets tend to leave — her dead family; a young poet, Paul Treece, who dies in the trenches; Theo Zeit, who Polly loves but who marries someone else his mother chooses.

But Robinson Crusoe remains, as Polly takes in boarders, nearly drinks herself into oblivion, and then, through Alice and a fragile war veteran, finds her calling as a teacher. The scene where she enters a classroom for the first time and takes an unruly group of little boys in hand is fantastic. By the time WWII is dawning, readers sense Polly will be alright. Theo writes and asks her to take in his two daughters, Jewish refugees who just get out out Germany. She brings them home to the yellow house, and we know without Gardam telling us that Polly and these little girls will take care of each other.

In the final chapter of the book, “The End,” Polly is now an old woman and Oversands, which was once isolated, is in the way of a nuclear waste dump the government wants to build. While one of the girls she raised, now a vicar’s wife, talks with a reporter outside, Polly carries on a conversation with Robinson Crusoe (yes, the character).

They discuss fiction, which Polly says has “become quite canonically boring– all about politics or marital discord. The minutiae.” She tells him “You were my bread. You are my bread.” When Crusoe replies that this sounds like blasphemy she remarks, “Quite a few people see an affinity between you and Jesus Christ. They are given grants for theses on the subject.” I laughed out loud. Before saying goodbye, Crusoe tells her she’s had “A quiet life . . . . As a life, not bad. Marooned of course. But there’s something to be said for islands.”

Gardam is so brilliant. I’ve sung her praises here before — I probably can’t add much. Her subtlety, the enormous humanity of her novels, the empathy she elicits for even her most flawed characters, her acute powers of observation about society and human nature, and her great good humor all add up to a deeply satisfying read. I would like very much to read every word she’s written.

In the introduction to the Europa editions reissue of Crusoe’s Daughter, Gardam says its her favorite of her own work. She explains that after her initial publishing success she wanted to write “one that mattered.” It surprised her to find that what she was drawn to was writing about her mother’s childhood world in the northeast of England. “When I had finished I felt I needn’t write anymore books. Take it or leave it, Crusoe’s Daughter says everything I have to say.” I’ll leave it to you, dear readers, to find all that she says — on what we place our faith in, how we care about each other, and how we carry on when there’s no one left to care, among many other things — by reading this wonderful, wonderful novel.

As Gardam herself notes, she has written more books, some of which won prizes and sold very well. I’m glad Europa editions has brought U.S. readers this novel, and I hope they continue to publish her earlier work in new editions. One quibble: typos. This is the 3rd book I’ve read in the last few weeks with proof-reading errors. Publishers, when we readers buy books, we’d like them to be finished, please.

I’ve never read Robinson Crusoe but we own a very nice copy so I may.

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Poet Jeffrey Skinner has written a sort of insider’s guide to the “PoBiz,” The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: a Self-Help Memoir. He identifies the 6.5 practices of the title, quotes many excellent poets, pokes fun at certain self-important aspects of the poetry world, and attempts to encourage those who are inclined to throw up their hands in despair. While much of book is mostly of interest to writers, I’d recommend the memoir sections for anyone who enjoys personal essays.

Some of Skinner’s advice will be familiar to anyone who has read writing books or attended workshops. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. The final essay of the book, “The Family Guy,” is a thoughtful take on popular culture (yes, the title refers to the animated television show) and the place of poetry in it. He suggests poetry is not limited to the literary form, but can be “an immediate, intuitive grasp of meaning. . . confirmation that some measure of grace extends beyond the visible.”

Skinner challenges readers to “get right-sized about the place of poetry, the stuff we read and write, and to consider it as one particularly rich and complex example of wider poetry.” In other words, we shouldn’t “assume it is the only cathedral in the pines.” He exhorts readers to empathize with this wider poetry, not only in service to our own literary betterment but because “non-poets surround and vastly outnumber us.” (emphasis mine)

True. Maybe more people would read poetry if it was more widely understood in relation to poetry as Skinner defines it above. The same could be said for any art existing in tension with its commercial alter ego. Discuss.

Check out Skinner’s Periodic Table of Poetic Elements  (the section in the back of the book, The Noble Gases, is even better). Or, as he suggests, go bowling. Whatever you do, check out this book, which is one of the most original writing guides I’ve ever picked up.

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Next Sunday (October 14) in the Concord Monitor the Mindful Reader column will include reviews of

Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude by Carolyn Roy-Bornstein
Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family by Ruth Nemzoff
The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry  by Wes McNair

and a new section called “also noted” where I point out other notable new releases including

Cover-up: One Man’s Pursuit of the Truth Amid the Government’s Failure to End a Ponzi Scheme by Mark Connolly
Sermons In Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York by Susan Allport
When America First Met China: an Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail by Eric Jay Dolin.

I’ll post a link when it’s up online.

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A couple of weeks ago I tried a library book on the Kindle app. I wanted to be better equipped to answer questions at the reference desk about downloading books to Kindles. I’ve just finished reading my second Kindle book, Thrift (The Misadventures of an Inadequate Teacher) by Phil Church.

Church is a fellow blogger and I noticed he was offering his book free for a short time. I have read few self-published books, because most I’ve tried have been riddled with typos or grammatical errors. But Church writes well on his blog, so I decided to try it.

I enjoyed Thrift as I recognized a good deal from our family’s recent adventures in England. But I also found it really funny. It’s a farce, and reminded me a bit of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Gerald Samper trilogy.

Thrift is about an English teacher, Marvin, at The Radley Hill School. His mother is a world traveler who loves him but is never around, and his wealthy and successful father and brother think he’s an idiot. His roommate, Malcolm, is a grown-up version of his students — fairly inept, slow but loyal, just trying to get by. Malcolm works at the local pub, which is populated by amusing regulars, like Rab, a Scot who thinks teachers are overpaid elitists and modern education is a travesty, and The Commander, a doddering retiree whose only companion is a cat.

Church is an English teacher himself, and the scenes in which Marvin tries to explain literature to his shiftless students are sad but quite funny. Marvin spends as much time as possible slacking off, dreaming up ways to get rich, eating biscuits and drinking, but he occasionally cares about being a good teacher — mostly when it might keep him out of trouble or help him get a promotion. When the feeling passes he goes back to surfing the internet during class. When he’s tasked with directing the school play he leaves a boy whose father is known to be tough in charge, and he also forgets to attend rehearsals.

Church’s send-up of school administrators is very entertaining as well. The sycophantic and clueless Deputy Headmaster thinks Hamlet is a comedy with fairies, and when Marvin suggests holding auditions, says “Brilliant. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that will get you places in this school.” The Headmaster is far more interested in good press coverage and keeping the Board of Governors happy than he is in the quality of the school. Both smile vacuously, have loads of confidence and are incompetent.

Beneath the hilarity, Church’s black humor is rife with social commentary. He rips on many aspects of contemporary culture, but I got the impression that he does so with fondness. Even though their play turns out to be a hip-hop extravaganza with vague Hamlet references in badly mangled English only remotely related to Shakespeare, it’s clear the teens’ initiative is impressive, and I could sense Church’s admiration for kids who face low expectations.

Marvin is not the most sympathetic of heroes, but by the end of Thrift I was rooting for him anyway. I’ll look forward to his further adventures, as Church is writing a sequel.


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