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Archive for December, 2012

The Mindful Reader** was in yesterday’s Concord Monitor, because the week before the book page featured staff holiday recommendations (see my contribution at The Nocturnal Librarian), and another week Mike Pride wrote about Donald Hall’s new book.  I think I’ll be back to my usual slot (2nd Sunday of the month) on January 13.

In this month’s column I review Daniel Klein’s Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Lifewith shorter reviews of Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by George Howe ColtHunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscapeby David Hinton, and Margaret From Maine by Joseph Monninger.

I also note a couple of books by NH authors I didn’t review: Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail and Kristi Larrabee’s memoir, Acceptance: Why Can’t I Have a Baby?

 

** Here’s the text if you can’t login:

 

Mindful Reader: Daniel Klein takes on a philosophical journey in ‘Travels with Epicurus’

By DEB BAKER For the Monitor

Sunday, December 23, 2012
(Published in print: Sunday, December 23, 2012)
Most people associate existential angst with young adulthood, but Daniel Klein, author of Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, faced his when, at age 73, his dentist told him he had to choose between dentures and dental implants. As he considered his choice and the way our culture encourages people to be “forever young,” Klein wondered how best to be old.

His love of philosophy and many years of travel to Greece led him to conclude that instead of dental work, what he wanted was to sit in the Greek sun and read what philosophers say about how to be “an authentic old man.” So he traveled from his home in Massachusetts to Kamini, a village on the island of Hydra, with a suitcase full of books. Yes, dear readers, he had me at suitcase full of books.

If you think philosophy is hard stuff that makes your head spin and possibly hurt, Klein is the perfect guide to deep thinking. He introduces big ideas by way of personal anecdotes and stories about his life and friends in Greece and America.

Taking in philosophy this way is like sitting down with a wise, witty friend explaining something really interesting.

Companionship, idleness, remembrance, the pleasures of contemplating what you have done, reflecting on what you believe, who you love and have loved, all this is part of Klein’s exploration of aging well.

He considers potentially destructive thought patterns as well, like anticipating suffering and death, or focusing too heavily on lost youth. Throughout he manages to be both erudite and down-to-earth.

 Klein concludes that being aware of the philosophies of old age and asking how to be old is “some kind of end in itself,” and, “Perhaps if we are as mindful as we possibly can be of where we are in life right now, the most fulfilling option of how to live these years will reveal themselves to us.”

Being fully aware and wondering how best to spend our time are useful practices at any age, and this warm, thought-provoking book is a terrific introduction to thinking about life philosophically.

Brothers

Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by Massachusetts writer George Howe Colt, is both a memoir and a lively history of male siblings from Cain and Abel to contemporary times. Colt examines the Booths (Edwin and John Wilkes and their other siblings), the Kelloggs (of cereal and sanitarium fame), the Van Goghs (artist and art dealer), the Marxes (Groucho et al.), and the Thoreaus (John took the river trip with Henry that would lead to Henry’s first book). Alternating between in-depth examinations of these famous brothers’ bonds and lives, Colt ruminates on his own family of four brothers and how they’ve made each other who they are. He also introduces dozens of other brothers, some famous (the Wrights, the Gershwins) and others obscure. Colt’s fine writing, extensive research, and thoughtful analysis make Brothers a meaty, pleasurable read.

Mountain poetry

Hunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, by Vermont translator and poet David Hinton, is a slim book dense with reflections on Chinese philosophy, mythology, and poetry, nature, cosmology, and thoughtful, contemplative passages about the author’s experiences hiking Hunger Mountain near Montpelier. One chapter includes his recipe for chutney, another ends with a long, lovely “collage-poem” Hinton assembled from ancient poetry translations, “those warp-threads on the loom of culture.” Using the development of written Chinese as a narrative thread, Hinton also teaches readers about the progression from oracle bone symbols to modern Chinese. A challenging read, but the payoff is a deeply moving homage to the evolution of human consciousness and culture, and a sense that what binds us in human experience and understanding is greater than our cultural differences.

‘Margaret from Maine’

Margaret From Maine is Plymouth State University professor Joseph Monninger’s latest novel. Margaret Kennedy is married to Thomas, a Medal of Honor recipient who returned from Afghanistan in a vegetative state. She lives with their son, Gordon, only a baby when his father was injured, and her father-in-law Grandpa Ben on a dairy farm near Bangor. When she’s invited to Washington for a veterans’ bill signing, another wounded soldier, Charlie King, volunteers to escort her. Margaret and Charlie fall for each other, but she is committed to Thomas. This is a romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, a meditation on loyalty, and a look at the ongoing burdens of war. Monninger’s highly descriptive writing is rich in fine sensory detail. Even bugs sound pretty in his hands: “A battalion of flies flickered near the windows . . . turning to embers in the flashing light.”

Also noted

∎ University of New Hampshire associate professor Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail is a thorough examination of North Atlantic fisheries from colonial times to the 20th century. Combining exhaustive historical research with fishermen’s stories, Bolster tells both the ecological and personal story of fishing. A timely book in light of the current debate on sustainable fishing regulations.

∎ New Hampshire author Kristi Larrabee has published a memoir, Acceptance: Why Can’t I Have a Baby?, about her multiple miscarriages and after many years, the birth of her son. Acceptance “reminds all couples that they are not alone.”

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If you are a bookconscious regular you know I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks. This week, though, I was wowed. Arcadia by Lauren Groff is a book to stay with you.

First of all it’s beautiful. Groff’s language is so right. There are sentences I read again just for the sheer pleasure.  Take this paragraph from early in the book when Bit Stone, the main character, is still a small boy:

“Time comes to him one morning, stealing in. One moment he is looking at the lion puppet on his hand that he’s flapping about to amuse Eden’s russet potato of a baby, and the next he understands something he never knew to question. He sees it clearly, now, how time is flexible, a rubber band. It can stretch long and be clumped tight, can be knotted and folded over itself, and all the while it is endless, a loop. There will be night and then morning, and then night again. The year will end, another one will begin, will end. An old man dies, a baby is born.”

And to bookend that, here’s a passage from late in the book when Bit is fifty:

“Grief as a low-grade fever. His sadness is a hive at the back of his head: he moves slowly to keep from being stung. Things bunch together, smooth endlessly out.”

Poetic, descriptive, emotive, evocative, lovely.

And the story? It felt completely original to me, which is hard to come by. It follows Bit from the legend of his birth in 1968 in a hippie caravan near Ridley, Wyoming through 2018, when he’s returned to the site of Arcadia, the utopian commune in upstate New York that his parents and their fellow travelers founded, to be with his mother. Groff paints the future as both bleak and hopeful — human recklessness still leads to suffering but so too does human compassion still heal.

Bit is one of the most interesting fictional characters you’ll ever meet, an old soul from birth, fragile but somehow emotionally invincible because of his natural tendency to be mindful, his enormous capacity for compassion and his unadulterated willingness to be vulnerable, to allow life to take him where it will.  Groff does not make him perfect, she does not give him an easy adulthood to make up for the vagaries of his strange childhood, she does not solve all of Bit’s problems. She lets readers peek at his soul, instead.

His family and friends, his loves, his child, are all incredibly finely drawn characters. Not one was hard to picture, not one was ever out of place or extraneous. Not a single subplot cluttered. As my grandmother used to say, everything counts in this book, there are no extra words. Writers should read Arcadia and try not to despair. Readers will find it a wondrous place to spend a few evenings.

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Full disclosure: I’m one of those nuts who got up before dawn to enjoy uninterrupted hours of BBC America coverage of both the royal wedding and The Queen’s Jubilee.  So perhaps I’m the target demographic for Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, a debut novel from established historian and biographer William Kuhn.  I read it to write a brief review for the Concord Public Library.*

Sometimes it’s just nice to read a book you can tackle in one or two sittings, one that is witty and smart but not overbearing. Kuhn works in a variety of “issues” but I never felt like the book was messagey, even when it touches on mental health or other serious topics. Mostly I got a kick out of the clever but respectful portrayal of The Queen; we see her making marginal notes in biographies of herself, struggling with her computer and vowing not to call the IT woman again, annoyed with rogue tweets (“it’s gin o’clock!) by someone impersonating her.

There are a number of other characters, some of whom I warmed to more than others, but none of whom felt extraneous to the story. I enjoyed the train scenes very much; Kuhn’s portrayal of The Queen’s fellow passengers was terrific and reminded me of people I heard and saw on our recent trip to England. All in all, a nice little comedy of manners, which is something I always appreciate.

Here’s my review, a version of which will come out in January’s “Beyond the Bestsellers” and various other places.

Historian William Kuhn’s debut novel is reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Queen Elizabeth II is feeling low. She decides a visit to the decommissioned royal yacht Britannia, which is moored near Edinburgh, might be just the thing to set her right again. The Queen boards an ordinary train at King’s Cross Station with a string of staff on the trail, trying to keep her safe and to keep her adventure private. Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs fans will enjoy the stories of her majesty’s dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry, stable girl, and butler, as well as a clerk in a posh cheese shop. Kuhn weaves their stories — touching on everything from the Iraq War to class and racial stereotypes, yoga, sexual orientation, aging, environmental politics, royal and family dramas, and Twitter – into the tale of the AWOL Queen, to humorous effect. A light-hearted, entertaining read packed with interesting tidbits about contemporary British life and the royal household.

* Since I mention my job here and quote from a review I wrote for it at work, it’s a good time to remind readers that my blogs represent my views and not those of my employer, and I am writing here as a private citizen.

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If you pick this book up after reading a blurb about it being a “sweet read” and without knowing much about McEwan, you’ll be irritated. McEwan is a master of exposing the worst of human nature. When you start a book and the opening paragraph warns you that the protagonist “was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover” you can’t expect an uplifting story to unfold. And then there’s the setting — the 1970’s weren’t exactly a sweet time.

Yes, it’s a love story, but I was suspicious of Serena’s capacity for love from the start. She’s a very mixed up person masquerading as a strong woman ready for anything. McEwan lays out the psychological workings: a distant but irreproachably admirable father, an affair with a married man old enough to be her father. That man manipulates Serena into her first job out of Cambridge, just as her parents manipulated her into studying maths instead of literature.

In her first job (at MI5) she develops a crush on another (for reasons I can’t expose without spoilers) unattainable man. This reader wanted to shout, “Serena, get a clue!” — she has so far explained her affection for a gay man, for a married man, and now for another guy who you sense will lead to nothing but grief. When she also gains a strong willed, outspoken best friend, Shirley, you think she’s going to get a clue.

But instead she walks straight into the arms of yet another man, one she meets as part of Operation Sweet Tooth. The program funnels financial support to promising anti-communist writers without their knowledge, to fight the Cold War via literature. Her affair with Tom, the writer she brings into the program (and Sweet Tooth’s only novelist) is unprofessional and she knows it. We know she’s not particularly attached to her job, that she’s there for reasons not her own, but you have to wonder, why doesn’t she just quit instead of engaging in self-sabotage? If she’s so bloody smart, why is she acting like such an idiot?

I suppose McEwan is telling us that you can be terribly smart and have marvelous opportunities (or at least as marvelous as they could be for a woman working in the British intelligence community in the 1970’s) and still be flawed, or maybe scarred. Serena thinks she’s got it all together but it turns out she doesn’t really know Tom, who never seemed quite right to me. My suspicions were confirmed late in the book, which is all I can really say without giving away the plot.

As for the writing? Brilliant. McEwan’s ability to evoke a place, a person, an emotion, damned near anything he sets out to evoke in just a few words is unparalleled. It’s a nice book for readers, because he references dozens of writers and books. It’s fun for spy thriller fans (of the old school — no special effects, just good old fashioned LeCarre style intrigue).  And the finale, in which we learn what Tom’s been up to, threw me, which I suppose is what McEwan set out to do.

Somehow I’m still not convinced Serena pulls off what McEwan wants her to. But maybe he needed her to be a less than perfect heroine in order to showcase his central premise.  Anyway it’s both smart and page-turning, original and witty and quite a fascinating take on spying and also on novel writing.  You’ll feel both smart and entertained when you’re through. But it may not entirely satisfy. I suppose that’s the trouble with having a sweet tooth — the craving never goes away.

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I’d had this memoir on my “to-read” list for a long time, and when a patron recently returned it to the library I bumped it to the top.It’s funny and thoughtful and well written. In some ways, the story of Howe trying to assimilate in his Korean American in-laws’ home, where he and his wife have moved in to save money, is relatable. Who hasn’t struggled with career and family choices, wondered about going for a dream (deli ownership in their case), versus playing it safe? Who hasn’t tried to understand their in-laws, or seen their spouse in a new light in their parents’ home?

In other ways, his story is too foreign to seem real. For non-New Yorkers, or as Howe points out even for those who live there, New York is a strange place. Most of us don’t have a mother-in-law feeding our spouse something called “deer juice” nor a parade of relatives arriving, sometimes right in our own bedrooms, at any time. Most of us don’t have the loans, cash, guts, or know-how to start a business. And certainly most of us do not get a dream job as editor at The Paris Review in the George Plimpton era, when editors take “extended absences for the sake of skiing or finishing a novel.”

Howe writes about himself as a sort of misfit, a Brahmin who can never stop being uptight, an odd man out. He writes with good humor and colorful detail. The chapters about his in-laws and the incredible changes they’ve witnessed in their lifetimes in Korea and as immigrants were fascinating. And the inner workings of the deli, the suppliers, and the irrepressible Dwayne, known as “preach” in the neighborhood, their larger than life employee and friend, those were fascinating too.

But it was hard to empathize with Howe. Despite a few setbacks, you just get the feeling he’s led a charmed life and that eroded any suspense. This man would always land on his feet, probably while wearing excellent shoes.

I felt the end of the book tried too hard to wrap things up. The final chapter opens with “It’s been six years since we sold the deli . . .” and then rushes through the resolution of a few hundred pages in just a few more. I like a book that leads readers to their own conclusions, and Howe gets a little heavy-handed with the self-analysis. But overall My Korean Deli is an interesting book, and gave me new respect for how hard it is to run a convenience store.

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I’ve been reading for the column. Due to holiday reviews, it will appear in the Concord Monitor either Sunday Dec. 16 or Dec. 23.

I’ll be reviewing Daniel Klein’s Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Lifewith shorter reviews of Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by George Howe Colt, Hunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, by David Hinton, and Margaret From Maine by Joseph Monninger.

I also note a couple of books by NH authors I didn’t review: Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail and Kristi Larrabee’s memoir, Acceptance: Why Can’t I Have a Baby?

Over at my other blog, The Nocturnal Librarian, you can see what I have to say about holiday book recommendations.

I’ll be back here with posts about what else I’ve been reading soon!

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