Archive for November, 2012

Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’m an Anglophile. I’ve loved English novels since childhood, and when I visited (Twice! Thanks, Mom & Dad) during the winter mini-term in college with a favorite English professor, it felt like all the literature I’d absorbed came alive as we traveled and talked about books.

But despite reading a lot of British literature, I still come across writers I haven’t yet read. Over the weekend I read A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. Spark is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read. I picked up this book because Maria Popova at Brain Pickings quoted from the book in October in a post titled “How a Cat Boosts Your Creativity.”

Spark is considered one of the best British writers of the 20th century but her books are “slim” (according to her New York Times obit) and for some reason not widely taught, at least not in the United States. Perhaps because her sharp humor and her matter-of-fact illumination of moral issues is so subtle?

Anyway I’m glad to have finally read her. A Far Cry From Kensington features the indomitable Mrs. Hawkins, a smart book editor known for her good advice. She’s a loyal friend and no nonsense woman. In her postwar London boarding house, we meet her Irish landlady and a zany cast of neighbors, and in her various publishing jobs we see Mrs. Hawkins capably handling nutty bosses, fragile co-workers, and obnoxious authors. She’s kind and empathetic to those who are suffering and firmly critical of those who are mean or even evil. I adored her. And I want to go on and read more Spark.

Ruth Hamilton is a writer from Bolton in northern England, where Teen the Elder spent his gap year. I was using a “reader’s advisory” tool at the library called NovelList, helping a patron find books like one she’d just finished, when Parallel Life came up. I noticed it was set in Bolton and made a note to look for it later. Hamilton reminds me a bit of Maeve Binchy — this novel has a large and varied cast of characters, from different walks of life, facing issues straight out of the headlines.

The women in Hamilton’s novel stick together. When Lisa Compton-Milne ends an affair with a dicey alarms installer, his wife, Annie Nuttall, confronts her in a posh restaurant. A few pages later they are becoming friends, and by the end of the book Annie and her children are practically part of Lisa’s family. Harriet, twenty-one when the book opens and Lisa’s elder child, is holding her dysfunctional family together, and her grandmother, who has MS, rules over all of them from her attic suite. By the end of the book these two tough ladies have settled into new understandings and purpose as well.

I got a kick out of the strong women, the plot twists, and the setting, and this was a nice read over the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Some parts of the story were a bit repetitive, but overall it was interesting and kept me turning pages. For me the references to Bolton were especially interesting, since I recognized places my son had visited.

Next up I have books checked out by two American authors I’d been intending to read: Lauren Groff and Ben Ryder Howe.


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Turns out I have had a bit of time for reading, so here’s my take on two quick reads: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde.

Both of these books met my reading needs this week: they’re easy, entertaining books I could read between cooking, hanging out with my family, and catching up with friends and family by phone. That said, both were less appealing than the hype I’d heard.

I think The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry would have been a good novella, or even a long short story. At 336 pages, it plodded at times and there were too many passages that were similar to something I’d read a few pages earlier. If it hadn’t been a quick read, I may have put it down.

That said, I liked the story, which is about a recently retired brewery salesman in southwestern England who gets a letter from an old friend and colleague, Queenie, who is in hospice. The letter triggers all sorts of memories and Harold writes back. On his way to post the letter, an unlikely encounter leads to an even unlikelier decision: Harold will walk all the way to where his friend is, in northeast England. The audacity of this plot twist is enough to make it work.

Harold has experienced a psychological shock and it worked for me that he would do something so unusual and even a little nutty. He’s had enough of regrets and pain. He’s going to do something worthwhile.

As the rest of the book unfolds, I liked the way his wife, Maureen, begins to face the ways she and Harold have grown apart. I liked the revelations about their marriage, their only son, and the backstory about Queenie. I enjoyed how their neighbor, Rex, helps Maureen make her way back to Harold emotionally.

And the stages of Harold’s pilgrimage made sense as well, his doubts and low points, a few helpful people he meets, some skeptics, and the inevitable publicity and people trying to cash in.  I just felt the whole thing went on too long and could have been done more effectively in a shorter, tighter book.

I love Jasper Fforde. I’m a big fan of the Thursday Next books (especially the early ones) and Shades of Grey (no, not Fifty, just Shades of Grey), his Nursery Crime books. The Last Dragonslayer is a YA book, and it’s not as complex as some of Fforde’s other work, which is a shame. It’s still fairly imaginative in the trademark Fforde way — he is masterful at making magic seem a normal part of the familiar world. And he nails human nature in very clever, very funny ways in all of his books.

But for some reason this book didn’t really wow me. The villains seemed a little predictable, or at least a little too much like the villains in Thursday Next books. A promising character, Tiger Prawns, never really gets to shine. Jennifer Strange, the heroine, was uneven. The finale seemed a bit rushed. Again, the story was good, but the execution just didn’t do it for me.

So in both cases, I didn’t hate the book nor did I love it. Am I too full of turkey to have properly appreciated these books? Is it autumn ennui? I’m not sure.

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I’ve spent several days with Hilary Mantel‘s sequel to Wolf HallBring Up the Bodies. It’s interesting to me that both titles come from references made at the end of these long books, though that’s probably not significant. Just unusual, as is Mantel’s writing style, which takes readers right inside her main character’s head. I noticed she used personal pronoun “he” less in this book than in Wolf Hall, but she still writes in such a way that Thomas Cromwell’s interior life

I thoroughly enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies. On Saturday we were at dinner with friends and one of them had also recently finished Wolf Hall and was reading Bring Up the Bodies. He said he felt the novels are somewhat overrated because they don’t accomplish what he thought they ought to: delving into the major themes of the Tudor period, including the political and religious philosophies which shaped modern England. My friend is very smart and well spoken and we decided that if that is what he is looking for the books don’t meet his needs as a reader — a fair assessment.

But I countered that I don’t think Mantel’s intention is anything other than to present Cromwell as one of the most fascinating characters of the time. Cromwell is the first citizen statesman, not a nobleman, not a man who married into power. He becomes Henry’s right hand man because he is smart and thorough and an excellent reader of men. He trains the young men of his household for statecraft as well, and he treats people fairly — those who cross him and those who are crossed and need an advocate each receive their due.

Mantel herself says in her author’s note in Bring Up the Bodies: “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers. Meanwhile, Mr. Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie, but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”

That is what this trilogy is about, Mantel’s digging up of Cromwell’s mind and heart, the man that he was. She tells us in both broad and fine (and in my opinion brilliant) brushstrokes of the work he did to give his character context, but she is not trying to write history. Her novel is about Cromwell the character, and she uses historical events, sometimes altered a bit to fit her artistic purpose, to present him to readers and not the other way around.

That is not to say these books aren’t “true” — Mantel has done an incredible job in presenting her human drama in gorgeous period detail. And overall the story is accurate, if some of the details are by necessity fictional. Besides, these books are big “T” True in the very best way. Cromwell is fully human, by turns tender and terrible, formidable and even, sometimes, a bit afraid. Mantel makes him live and breathe and have his being: I’d know him anywhere. For me, that is the greatest accomplishment a fiction writer could hope to have.

So if you want a novel that is a careful rendering of historical facts and themes, this isn’t for you (I’d argue actually that fiction is not where you’ll find this at all; if you want facts, read nonfiction). But if you want incredibly rich writing (my aunt describes these books as “a full blown big screen movie running into your head”), a fresh voice like nothing you’ve read in fiction before, read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I’m very curious to read the final installment when it comes out, and also to try to find time to read some of Mantel’s other work.

This week, with Thanksgiving bringing Teen the Elder home from college, I’ll stick to shorter reads: I’ve got Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer out from the library. I’m mostly looking forward to hanging out together as a family, cooking, eating, and getting started on our holiday planning. Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading!

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So after reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore I decided to spend a little more reading time in San Francisco and chose a book Boston Bibliophile mentioned recently, San Francisco Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Marie wrote about this line from “Challenges to Young Poets:” “Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall out.” Good advice.

This little volume is the first in the San Francisco Poet Laureate series published by City Lights Foundation. I’m not a Ferlinghetti aficionado and I’ve never read a full collection of his work but I enjoyed this brief book. It opens with his inaugural address as the city’s poet laureate, a post he held from 1998-2000. It’s interesting that Ferlinghetti sees a city gentrifying and losing its culture, whereas Robin Sloan portrays San Francisco in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as plenty off-beat, artsy, & funky (albeit well-off).

The poems in this volume are like postcards, giving the reader small, intimate sketches of the city Ferlinghetti loves, and which has been his muse. I especially liked “The Changing Light,” about the beauty of the sun and fog and sea light in San Francisco; and “Dog,” in which a dog takes the reader on a tour of the city’s streets, “investigating everything/ without benefit of perjury/a real realist/with a real tale to tell/and a real tail to tell it with . . . .”

“Baseball Canto,” is probably the best baseball poem I’ve read and is also about race and class and the American Dream and the giving way of the old guard in literature to new voices that aren’t all male and white. Really. Read it, you’ll see what I mean. And “A North Beach Scene” is a painting in a poem, so vivid.

I got to wondering whether there are other book series devoted to poets laureate and I couldn’t find any. Nor did I find a consolidated list of cities with a poet laureate. I did learn on Wikipedia that not all U.S. states have one. And now I need to finish my lunchtime musings and get on with the rest of the day here in the bookconscious household. If anyone knows of links to poets laureate of cities please leave a comment.

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The November Mindful Reader** column is up at the Concord Monitor‘s website. My main review covers B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger and I also wrote short reviews of The Paternity Test by Michael LowenthalMy Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos, and Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography by Dana Wilde.

It was a busy weekend in the bookconscious household but I did read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloane.  Clay Jannon, a laid off art school graduate in San Francisco, stumbles across a help wanted sign at a strange “vertical bookstore” in which some of the shelves are accessed by climbing ladders. Mr. Penumbra, the store’s owner, hires him for the overnight shift.

Clay soon realizes that Penumbra’s is actually two stores: a conventional bookstore in one small section, and the vertical stacks or “Waybacklist,” strange old books that appear to be written in code. “Customers” who ask for these books by name are members (of what he’s not sure at first) who borrow volumes, as Clay figures out, in a particular order.

With his own background in web design and the advice and influence of his friends (a geeky start-up CEO whose company specializes in virtual breast animations for video games, an artist who designs strange and wonderful stuff for films, a Google genius who believes the company will eventually unlock the secret to eternal life) Clay figures out how to create a digital visualization of the store and reveals a strange pattern in the regular customers’ book borrowing. Penumbra is pleased, but promptly disappears.

Clay and his pals track him to New York where they get to the heart of a secret society, the Unbroken Spine, which is covered by a front company, Festina Lente (motto of the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius, who is the group’s messiah). I don’t want to give away too much because this in an ingenious story, but suffice to say our heroes embark on a quest and the rest of the book involves the resolution and results of said quest.

Can they protect Mr. Penumbra, who embraces Clay’s technological innovation at the risk of alienating the Unbroken Spine’s old fashioned leader? Can they harness technology to solve what 500 years of scholarly effort have not? You’ll have to read to find out — and it will be a pleasurable few hours. Clay has an artist’s eye for detail.

Here he describes Penumbra’s codex in the Unbroken Spine’s subterranean library: “This book is beautiful. It’s taller and skinnier than its neighbors, with super-stiff binding boards. Its dimensions remind me more of an oversized children’s book than an occult diary. The cover is pale blue, exactly the color of Penumbra’s eyes, with some of the same luminescence, too: the color shifts and glimmers . . . . It’s soft under my fingers.”  And that’s just an example picked at random; this novel is filled with rich descriptions of things real and imagined.

Books coexist in this novel with their high tech cousins, parts of the story are set in a dusty bookstore and others in Google’s campus. Community is both Clay’s ragtag tribe and the whole world — Hadoop‘s “distributed computing” and a hacker site run by a mysterious person called Grumble are important to the success of Clay’s quest. There are references to history and phrases in Latin as well as descriptions of all kinds of futuristic research at Google. Clay’s favorite childhood fantasy trilogy is key to the story and so is advanced computing.

Sloan’s joy in presenting the old and the new (and even the not yet conceived) as complimentary forces for good makes this novel a very happy one — there is some tension, and a couple of characters face disappointment, but overall it’s a book that will make you feel good about human progress. In Sloan’s fictional world there is no real villain. If there’s a flaw here it’s that everyone seems pretty darn smart, but then maybe Sloan adheres to the idea that everyone has something to be brilliant at if given the chance.

Spend some time in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s a delightful place to hang out for a little while.


** Column text as it appeared in print:

‘The Art Forger’ keeps the mystery going

By DEB BAKER The Mindful Reader

Monday, November 12, 2012
(Published in print: Sunday, November 11, 2012)

Boston novelist B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger kept me up late wondering what would happen to Claire Roth, the deliciously complicated character at the center of this “literary thriller.” Last summer I read Ulrich Boser’s The Gardner Heist, about the unsolved theft of 13 artworks from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Shapiro doesn’t get into the heist itself but imagines what might happen if one of the stolen works surfaced.

Claire is a young artist scarred by a professional and personal scandal involving her relationship with a well-known painter. She’s been shut out of the art world and works as a “certified Degas copyist” for Reproductions.com. Prominent art dealer Aiden Markel visits her studio and offers her a solo show at his Boston gallery.

The catch? She has to copy one of the Gardner’s missing works.

Aiden promises to pay her more than she’s ever made, sell her copy and return the original to the museum. Claire is nervous about the scheme but can’t resist the opportunity to redeem her reputation and see the stolen art returned.

Aiden brings a large Degas entitled After the Bath to her studio. She dives into the work, studying Degas paintings, pouring over his sketchbooks, and analyzing the work of great forgers of the past. It doesn’t take Claire long to realize that After the Bath is a fake.

But is it the painting that was stolen? And if so, was Isabella Stewart Gardner aware of the forgery?

 Shapiro weaves together details about painting, art forgery, museums and galleries with her absorbing story and a fictionalized account of Isabella Gardner’s relationship with Edgar Degas.

Her writing is vivid and entertaining, illuminating the mysterious and rarified art world and how human nature – particularly a desire to protect one’s reputation – can overwhelm logic, professionalism and even morality.

A few of the minor characters are somewhat typecast, and Aiden is a bit flat at times, but the storytelling made up for these flaws and book clubs would enjoy The Art Forger.

‘The Paternity Test’
by Michael Lowenthal

Former University Press of New England editor Michael Lowenthal’s new novel is a searing psychological drama. A gay couple, Stu and Pat, hire a married Brazilian immigrant, Debora, as a surrogate mother for their baby.

The novel probes the emotional turmoil of a couple trying to become parents, as well as the consequences of following sexual and emotional impulses, what it means to be committed, and whether domestic habit can seal the cracks in a relationship.

While Pat and Stu are the heart of the story, Lowenthal deftly draws their family and friends and Debora’s family into the tension.

The ending is anything but neat and tidy, as Lowenthal leaves readers with plenty to ponder.

‘My Escapee’
by Corinna Vallianatos

Jhumpa Lahiri selected this short fiction collection by Vermont author Corinna Vallianatos for the Grace Paley Prize. The characters in these stories, mostly women, are almost all acting counter to the world’s expectations of them.

Vallianatos explores their inner lives, exposing their choices and desires, the hard edges and soft comforts of their lives.

Age and illness, infirmity and death, love and betrayal, motherhood and youthful indecision – Vallianatos sculpts this ordinary stuff of life into stories that make common human frailties beautiful.

‘Nebulae: a Backyard Cosmography’
by Dana Wilde

This self-published book of essays collects Wilde’s Bangor Daily News “Amateur Naturalist” columns with longer pieces.

Besides making astronomy and physics clear to the layman, Wilde muses on science history, psychology, philosophy and mythology.

His observations about the emotions star-gazing induces – “awe, strangeness, fear, humility, and sometimes dreams of untold infinities” – and the strangeness of space-time are intriguing, as are the parallels he draws between contemporary science and ancient knowledge.

Some passages are quite beautiful, such as this one describing late afternoon sunlight on fall leaves: “The angle of the light pries something loose. The mind finds itself inside those shafts and colors. . . . For a moment there is a sense that this autumn afternoon is the whole of autumn, all autumns from childhood up through autumns yet to come.”

A few pieces seemed a bit too similar, but this is a well-written, erudite and interesting collection.

(Deb Baker can be reached at mindfulreader@yahoo.com)

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The 1980’s references in Carol Rifka Brunt‘s debut novel, Tell The Wolves I’m Home, are thick and resonant. A Holly Hobby wallpaper border. Gunne Sax dresses. “99 Luftballoons,” “Ghostbusters,” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the diner jukebox. Suzanne Vega on Saturday Night Live.Those skinny black rubber bracelets we wore by the dozens. Ryan White. Reagan’s speech on AIDS. Kids playing D&D after school.

I was nineteen in late 1986 when this book opens. The teenaged sisters at the center of the story, June and Greta, are a little younger, but their world felt oh-so-familiar to me. Even the woods June hangs out in behind her school were similar to woods I went to behind my own neighborhood school.

But if this setting isn’t familiar to you, don’t worry. Rifka Brunt gives readers meaty details on every page. The smell of the stew in the crock pot, the scent of June’s uncle on his wool coat and of Greta’s Jean Nate, the howling June hears in the woods, a jar of guitar picks, a neon orange lighter, Greta singing, Toby’s hacking cough and his “thick and gurgly” breathing.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home evokes these specific kids of sights and smells and sounds, making it possible to enter the story sensually. But it also evokes such primal and universal feelings and experiences that I couldn’t help also being very emotionally drawn in. Siblings changing as teens and and not really understanding what’s happening. Trying to figure out one’s place in both the miniature world of one’s family and the larger world. Experiencing a death in the family for the first time. Learning about your parents as people, and as younger versions of themselves.

Without giving too much away, here’s the gist of the story. June is a quirky kid, into medieval history, mad about Mozart’s Requiem, feeling like a misfit as her childhood world gives way and her old friends, including Greta, seem to grow up and away from her. She has a rich inner life, imagining herself in other times and places. Her Uncle Finn is the only person she feels really understands her.

When the novel opens Finn is dying of AIDS. He’s also painting a portrait of June and Greta. Not long after he dies June finds out Finn has had a partner, living in the apartment she visited every week, for nine years and she never knew anything about him. This man, Toby, contacts her and begins to share things he says Finn wanted her to have. Among them, a note asking her to look after Toby.

As June starts to unravel the things her family has hidden from her, she’s also negotiating her tricky relationship with her sister, who is at turns cruel and tender. Rifka Brunt really nails that adolescent weirdness of sometimes forgetting yourself with your siblings and parents, allowing yourself to be the kid you often still feel like, and then catching that happening and trying to be the separate young adult you also often feel like.

June is a fantastic character who manages to be a unique and fully drawn person and also a symbol of adolescence in all its glorious mess. Greta, Finn, and Toby are fully themselves even though they are the satellites to June’s star, and even Ben, a minor but occasionally important character, makes an impression as a full person. I thought June and Greta’s parents — especially their mother, whose role in June’s new understanding of family dynamics is key — were somewhat less fully formed.

But overall I found Tell the Wolves I’m Home to be a very satisfying and enjoyable read. If you like your novels character-driven and full of redemption and growth, this is for you. It’s beautifully evocative, the dialogue felt true, and the writing is real, for lack of a better word. This is the second book I’ve read lately with a very interesting, strong teen girl setting the quarrelsome or misguided adults straight —Where’d You Go, Bernadette being the other. If this is a trend, I like it.

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I just turned in my November column which will appear next Sunday in the Concord Monitor.  My main review covers B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger and I also wrote short reviews of The Paternity Test by Michael LowenthalMy Escapee by Corinna Vallianatos, and Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography by Dana Wilde. I’ll post a link when the column is published.

Over the last week I’ve been reading Wolf Hall  by Hilary Mantel for Gibson’s book club’s discussion. I really don’t think there is anything I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. My reaction, as I posted on my Friday Reads update: “Muscular writing, timeless interpersonal drama, evocative period details.” I found myself, a couple of hundred pages in, marking pages to copy beautiful passages out later. Such as:

p. 258 “The scholar’s lips move, like the lips of a monk at vespers; liquid figures spill from his pen.”

p. 294 “A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

p. 437 “Henry says, ‘Do what you have to do. I will back you.’ It’s like hearing words you’ve waited all your life to hear. It’s like hearing a perfect line of poetry, in a language you knew before you were born.”

p. 512 “Silence. The loud, contentious quality of More’s silence. It’s bouncing off the walls.”

p. 527 “You can have a silence full of words. A lute retains, in its bowl, the notes it has played. The viol, in its strings, holds a concord. A shriveled petal can hold its scent, a prayer can rattle with curses; an empty house, when the owners go out, can still be loud with ghosts.”

I’ll leave it at that. I look forward to reading the sequel.

Oddly, I am now reading another book with a wolfish title, Carol Rifka Brunt‘s Tell the Wolves I’m Home. More on that soon.

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