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Archive for January, 2013

Last night I finished a brief but very wise, warm, funny book by Anne LamottHelp Thanks Wow: the Three Essential Prayers.  I’d highly recommend it for people of any faith (or none — she points out that even atheists say these same three instinctual things at the appropriate moments). Lamott is so endearing because she is so free to admit her own imperfection, and she isn’t afraid to write what other people are probably thinking but don’t have the guts to admit.

If you’re thinking, “yeah, yeah, prayer is for other (i.e. religious) people, why would I want to read this book?” as many people I know might be, I’ll let Ms. Lamott speak to the simple but revelatory truth of her book, since I can’t hope to say it as well as she does:

“We are too often distracted by the need to burnish our surfaces, to look good so that other people won’t know what screwed-up messes we, or our mate or kids or finances, are. But if you gently help yourself back to the present moment, you see how life keeps stumbling along and how you may actually find your way through another ordinary or impossible day. Details are being revealed, and they will take you out of yourself, which is heaven, and you will have a story to tell, which is salvation that again and again saves us, the way Jesus saves some people, or the way sobriety does. Stories to tell or hear — either way it’s medicine. The Word.”

See what I mean? There’s a way into this conversation Lamott invites us to join, no matter your beliefs. And she is right, prayer is just another narrative form, a version of telling and listening, and heaven is taking ourselves out of ourselves and waking up to the present moment. Amen, sister. It won’t prevent us from burnishing our surfaces all the time, but any time it does, and we are more ourselves, and more able to see that being ourselves is not only ok but better for us and for the world, there’s hope.

My neighbor Priscilla recently passed away. She was a really interesting lady, who reminded me in some ways of my grandmother. She was 88 and had cancer, so her death was not unexpected. Even so she is mourned, and I’m always a little unsure what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one. Her daughter kindly invited me over to pick out some books — Priscilla was very well read and we always talked about what we were each reading. I thought “help” as I tried to make small talk with her daughter and bungled it, “thanks” because I was remembering the times Priscilla had invited me herself to “see what you’d like, I have so many books!” And “wow” when I chose some and could hear her voice in my head, saying what I heard her say often, “I’ve been lucky really.”

I came home with a book she’d recommended to me several times, The Peabody Sisters, as well as short story collections by Wallace Stegner (and also his excellent Crossing to Safety) and Muriel Spark, as well as Deborah Mitford’s memoir Wait for Me!,  a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, and Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. The bookconscious theory of the interconnectedness of reading was at work: Stegner was someone I’d only just read recently and loved, and I was glad to hear Priscilla had been re-reading him lately. Ditto Spark, who I only just read for the first time last fall. My dad recently discovered Margaret Drabble and recommended her books. My daughter is studying American history and we’ve just hit the period when the Peabody sisters lived. I’ve had They Came Like Swallows on my to-read list for a long time.

So help thanks wow, Priscilla.

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Over the weekend I read a couple of “light” books — sometimes you just need a palate cleanser, and after all the historical detail and busyness of To Marry an English Lord I was ready to curl up with a guilty pleasure.

First I read a book for young people, something I’ve been trying to do more of since the reference desk at our library is near the YA section and I sometimes help tweens & their parents who are not sure about YA but feel like they’ve outgrown the children’s room. I’d heard really good things about The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann, which is described on the jacket as “part murder mystery, part gothic fantasy, part steampunk adventure,” and some reviewers felt it was a good read for any age. I thought of it again after reading Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Plus, Bachmann was homeschooled until he entered the Zurich Conservatory and he wrote the book when he was sixteen, which I found intriguing.

It’s a good read, although I’m not sure I agree that it would appeal to many adult readers. It is very clever, and I liked the way Bachmann, like Philip Reeve in his wonderful Larklight series, creates a new Victorian England.  In Reeve’s case, he added space-age technology. In Bachmann’s he combines “steampunk” aspects (like mechanical messenger pigeons) and magic (fairies have lost the way back into their homeland after a war with humans). It’s an interesting read, with plenty of suspense, humor, and compelling characters. It’s the first in a series, so readers can look forward to more adventures for Bartholomew, a changeling child (a peculiar, both human and fairy), and his unlikely friend Arthur Jelliby, a member of the privy council who uncovers a murderer in the British government and with Bartholomew works to stop a conspiracy to re-open the door to the fairy realm.

My other light read was a “chick lit” novel, From Notting Hill With Love . . . Actually by Ali McNamara. It’s about a young cinema-obsessed woman, Scarlett, who works in the family popcorn machine business and is about to marry a man she’s not necessarily madly in love with, but whose family owns a cinema chain, in order to secure her father’s future. Sounds almost Jane Austen-ish, doesn’t it? Her father and her fiancee decide she needs some time away to think things over, and her best friend finds a house-sitting gig for her in Notting Hill. Scarlett decides to prove to her family that real life and movies (especially romantic comedies) are not so dissimilar by logging as many movie-like experiences as she can.

She meets neighbors and finds herself drawn into a new circle of friends (and possibly more), and shares her longing to know the mother who left her and her father when she was only a toddler. As you can imagine, all’s well in the end, but not before various zany, romantic, or dramatic events unfold. The Star Wars themed wedding she attends had me laughing out loud. It was a lot of light-reading fun, especially since we were just in Scarlett’s neighborhood ourselves (we rented a flat in Holland Park, and shopped at the Marks & Spencer near Notting Hill Gate for provisions).

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Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace must be fans of Downton Abbey, because their book, To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery has been on all kinds of lists in the press and online about what to read between Downton seasons. The publicity even led to a new edition released last spring which quotes Downton creator Julian Fellowes on the cover.

The Downton connection, to be honest, is why I requested this book on inter-library loan. I’m a Downton Abbey fan, even this year when it’s fashionable to disdain it for being too soap-opera-ish. I love just about anything on Masterpiece Classic, or what my family calls “bonnet shows.” I’m a costume drama nut — in fact, after I took my children to see Harry Potter: the Exhibition and then a couple of years later saw some shows on Broadway I realized what I really am is a costumes, sets, and props nut. Can you imagine how much fun it is to take a script and then design the way it’s going to look on the stage or screen? If I ever decide to start a new career  . . . .

But I digress. To Marry an English Lord is about the period from the late 1800’s through the end of King Edward VII’s brief reign in 1910 when over one hundred American heiresses married into the English aristocracy. Like Lord & Lady Grantham on Downton Abbey, each side got what it wanted: titles for the women (and increased social prestige for their American families) and money for the gentlemen’s shabby or debt-burdened estates. MacColl and Wallace do a great job of telling this story and filling it with interesting historical details about the period on both sides of the Atlantic.

I found the sidebars and sudden interjections of two-page-spread asides a little distracting, though informative. In fact I wondered if the writing was somewhat diminished by the busyness of the design. I love the research and the plethora of details the authors shared, and the way they brought certain characters to life. Alva Vanderbilt for example — I had to admire her chutzpah after reading what MacColl and Wallace had to say about her. The book is richly illustrated, so you can see Alva and many of the other people the authors are describing as well as their dresses, houses, jewels, children and more. I can see what attracted Fellowes, because it’s perfect for a writer who wants to get the details right for a story.

One of the things I found most interesting was the way American women shook up English society a bit, not only with their lavish spending, their style and penchant for entertaining, but also with their modern views. The authors point out that the heiresses weren’t just rich ladies with expensive tastes who shopped and threw extravagant parties. They changed British views about inheritance, control over money, and divorce. They influenced or got involved personally in politics. And they did a lot of good in their adopted country, raising money for various causes as well as preserving a number of great homes.

I was also very intrigued by the way Edward, as Prince of Wales and later as King, had so much to do with the American invasion. This was a part of the story I didn’t know, that he loved America and Americans, especially women. I had no idea that until just before his reign, the U.S. only had a consulate, not a full embassy (his strong personal ties to influential Americans may have been a factor in the upgrade). Nor did I know that he befriended so many of the heiresses, sometimes endorsed various matches and was godfather to many Anglo-American babies.

A very interesting, edifying and entertaining read.

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I really enjoy reading Boston Bibliophile and often enjoy Marie’s recommendations. When I saw her review of Have You Seen Marie?,written by Sandra Cisneros and illustrated by Ester Hernandez, over the weekend I knew I had to read it. It was sitting on the new book shelf when I got to work at the library yesterday so I brought it home. And read it as my husband suffered through the Patriots’ 3rd quarter, before Downton Abbey.

Yes, it’s that short. It’s a gorgeous little book, a story of love and patience, of understanding and community, of acceptance and healing. In the first few pages the narrator explains that when her friend Rosalind arrived for a visit in San Antonio, her cat Marie “ran off” after a long car ride. We also learn that the narrator’s mother died recently. She says, “Every day I woke up and felt like a glove left behind at the bus station. I didn’t know I would feel this way.”

The rest of the book is about the search for Marie, and the narrator’s grieving. As the two women search for the cat, they meet people from all walks of life and backgrounds, almost all of whom offer help or comfort, food or drink, or empathy. There is a real sense of community in their search because just about everyone has experienced loss. The illustrations are as important to the story as the text. Cisneros says in her afterword that she and Hernandez really walked around her real San Antonio neighborhood to get inspiration.

Also in the afterword, Cisneros describes the comfort she finds in both her human and natural neighbors. And she explains one reason why over-reliance on prescriptions is flawed. When her doctor wanted to prescribe anti-depressants* after her mother died, Cisneros said no, because “I need to be able to feel things deeply, good or bad, and wade through an emotion to the other shore, toward my rebirth. I knew if I put off moving through grief, the wandering between worlds would only take longer. Even sadness has its place in the universe.”

This is a story that is simple and clear, but not childish. It’s a profound meditation on grieving and healing and on the way we are connected to others, including people we don’t even know, by our shared experience. Cisneros’ story reminds us, too, of the power of beauty in nature as well as in art to comfort us in difficult times. And she acknowledges both the pain and the purpose of mourning.

Cisneros says she wrote the book because “I wish somebody had told me love does not die, that we can continue to receive and give love after death. . . because something was needed for people like me who suddenly found themselves orphans in midlife. I wanted to be able to make something I could give those who were in mourning, something that would help them find balance again . . . .” Thanks Marie (Boston Bibliophile) for bringing this book a wider audience on your blog.

(* Lest I offend someone, please let me add I’m sure some people benefit from anti-depressants and that prescriptions are helpful and even life-saving in some situations. I simply agree with Cisneros that grief is a normal and important emotion to feel. And I think that  in our culture, we tend to expect more from prescription drugs than is merited.

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David Blistein has a new book coming out this spring, David’s Inferno, and when he sent me an advanced reader copy for The Mindful Reader column, he also sent Waking the Dead. It’s an excerpt from his book-in-progress called Real Time. It’s beautiful.

His longtime friend Ken Burns contributed an introductory essay about his creative process as a documentary filmmaker and how it compares to Blistein’s process. Burns explains, “. . . David and I approach history in radically different ways. But we both ‘wake the dead.’ I do so by making them real again. David does it by becoming — like Billy Pilgrim, hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five unstuck in time . . . by allowing his characters to fully inhabit his everyday life, to hold forth in coffee houses, cemeteries, parking lots, and his own back yard, free of the trappings of their historical time and place.”

And that is exactly what happens in Waking the Dead. Blistein is present for Jezebel (the queen who marries Ahab in Israel around 900 BC), Minamoto No Yoritomo (the first shogun, who lived in 12th century Japan), Chopin (the Polish composer) and Harriet Tubman (of Underground Railroad fame). I say he’s present because that’s how this works: Blistein is ready when these people come to him, speak to him, and as Burns describes, “fully inhabit his everyday life.”

On Goodreads, Blistein writes that this limited edition was published for the Brattleboro Literary Festival in 2011 where he and Burns appeared together,  and “was inspired by conversations we have been having since we first met in college 40 years ago.”

I was looking for a short read because I finished a library book and I know I have an inter-library loan waiting for me to pick up tonight. This delightful mix of historyand philosophy, storytelling and myth, beauty and truth, wisdom tale and dream, was a terrific read.  It’s physically as well as intellectually lovely: printed on fine paper, with beautiful design incorporating maps, portraits, and signatures in each section. A delightful, genre-busting piece of book art.

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I first heard about Ransom Riggs‘ debut novel (he has written several nonfiction books), Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, on a Books on the Nightstand podcast. It’s a YA title, and I wonder about that — what makes some books like this young adult and others adult books with child protagonists? Certainly Briggs gives readers a complicated plot.

Perhaps it’s viewed as an illustrated book. That’s certainly a standout feature — it’s filled with strange black and white photographs, which Briggs says in an author’s note are all “authentic vintage found photos.”  The photos lend an eerie tension as readers see visual evidence of the fantastic things the protagonist, Jacob Portman, learns about his grandfather and the peculiars. As he is led to suspend belief in what he thinks he knows about the world and accept what his eyes are telling him, readers are right there with him.

Peculiar turns out to mean humans who have strange characteristics: a girl who can lift boulders, another who levitates, and one who has a “back mouth.”  A boy who is invisible. A girl who can make fireballs out of thin air. As a child, Jacob is impressed with his grandfather’s strange photos and stories of these peculiar children and of terrible monsters. He eventually decides these are just horrible old world fairy tales told by a man who is forever scarred by his escape from World War II Poland and his separation from his family, who he tells Jacob sent him to a home for refugee children on an island in Wales.

When he’s a teenager, Jacob’s grandfather dies, apparently mauled by wild animals. But Jacob sees the thing that kills him and has horrendous nightmares. His parents, who he already has a strained relationship with, think he’s losing it and take him to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist thinks he should visit the island his grandfather spoke of so he can gain some closure and put the strange stories behind him. On the island, Jacob finds the house where his grandfather took shelter during the war. And he finds Miss Peregrine and the peculiar children.

I can’t really say too much more without spoilers, but I can tell you that this book was very entertaining. The writing is straightforward but evocative. Briggs doesn’t dumb down his explanations of the way the normal and peculiar worlds intersect nor of Jacob’s coming to terms with his grandfather’s life. His portrayal of Jacob as a disaffected 21st century teen struggling with strong emotions was spot on, and the action a the end of the book was quite suspenseful, without everything tying up neatly in a bow. The only thing I didn’t like was the ending, because I hate cliffhangers when the next book isn’t going to be out for awhile (in this case next January).

I’m heartened that books like this — quirky, thoughtful, smart stories, with emotional depth and allusions to history, mythology, and literature — still have a strong following in a world where the top selling books are often much less complicated. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children describes in a new and creative way the monstrous side of human nature and the heroic capacity we also have to resist and repel those monsters.

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Here’s the link** to the Mindful Reader in Sunday’s edition of the Concord Monitor with reviews of Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment by New Hampshire author Katrina KenisonVanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature, and Love by New Hampshire native Megan Caldwell, and Good Kids, a novel by Benjamin Nugent, who is Director of Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. I also give a shout out to Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan‘s Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data.

In the print edition I pointed out that three authors recently reviewed in The Mindful Reader will visit Gibson’s Bookstore at 27 S. Main Street in Concord this month: Katrina Kenison reads from Magical Journey on January 23, Wesley McNair reads from The Words I Chose on January 24, and Joseph Monniger reads from Margaret From Maine on January 31. All three events start at 7pm. Call 603-224-0562 or visit www.gibsonsbookstore.com for further information.

Old habits die hard — I used to be the events coordinator at Gibson’s, so I know those events need all the publicity they can get. I invited Katrina to the store for her last book, and I am looking forward to seeing her again. The other events are while I am working at the library, so I will not get to see Joe Monninger or Wes McNair again but I recommend you go if you live in the area. Hearing an author read, asking what they are reading, listening to them talk about writing, is great fun and I’ve learned so much attending events like these. If you’re far away (and many of my readers are!) contact your local bookstore to ask about upcoming events.

** A reader let me know that the column is behind a paywall, so here it is for those of you who couldn’t get to it (formatting, headline, and subheadings are the newspaper’s):

The Mindful Reader: Another existential journey close to home

In Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, New Hampshire author Katrina Kenison seeks the same answers for her generation that Daniel Klein did for his in Travels With Epicurus, which I reviewed last month. Klein examined living a fulfilling old age by reading philosophy in Greece. Kenison considers how best to live a “second adulthood” after children are grown at the bedside of a dying friend, on a yoga mat, at a college reunion, in Reiki training, on hikes and walks, and in ordinary days with her husband of 25 years.

Like Klein, Kenison realizes that accepting imperfection and being aware of the gifts of the present moment in all its messiness (and possibly pain) are the way forward. Facing loss, questioning her path, she writes, “Making sense of my life has meant, in part, releasing my desire for permanence.”

As in her earlier books, Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of an Ordinary Day, Kenison writes beautifully and humbly about the discomfort change brings and the growth she experiences.

Magical Journey is even more open-hearted than her previous soul-baring memoirs. Which makes sense, given the revelations she shares: “A year ago, I yearned to undertake an exploration that might lead to some new sense of purpose for the second half of my life. . . . Now I see that the journey was never meant to lead to some new and improved version of me; that it has always been about coming home to who I already am. . . . Learning how to be at ease in the shadows of uncertainty and trusting the path to reveal itself.”

Her other books are about lessons gleaned from everyday experience. This one relates a personal quest; a quest readers join as she comforts friends, mothers grown sons, faces physical and emotional changes in herself and the tender evolution of long marriage, as she struggles to understand that her purpose might not be flashy or grand but could be as simple as being present, loving and being loved. With clarity, honesty, and spirit, Kenison allows readers into the intimate work of self-discovery and renewal.

Two novels

 Author Megan Caldwell grew up in Lyme Center. She’s written Regency period romance novels and is the community manager for the “Heroes and Heartbreakers” website. Her new book Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature, and Love is contemporary fiction. Molly Hagan is a newly single Brooklyn mom whose own mother moves in after losing everything day trading. Her ex is with a “younger, blonder woman” and claims he’s broke, even though Molly suspects he hid money before leaving her. She also has an energetic 6-year-old son, fiercely loyal friends and a freelance job writing copy for a book-themed bakery, Vanity Fare, near the New York Public Library. The bakery’s British celebrity chef pursues Molly, but she’s intrigued by his stern business partner.

If you like chick or hen lit (for younger and older women, respectively), this is somewhere in between, a novel about a mom learning to rely on the one person who will never let her down: herself.

The book includes recipes by Emily Isaac of Trois Pommes Patisserie in Brooklyn for Tart of Darkness, Lord of the Tea Rings, and several other goodies from the fictional bakery.

Benjamin Nugent is the director of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. His debut novel, Good Kids, opens in 1994 when two high school students, Josh and Khadijah, in a self-consciously funky Massachusetts college town find his dad and her mom enjoying an illicit kiss at the local health food store.

Josh and Khadijah’s friendship is brief but intense, then their families split and their lives diverge. A decade later, she’s an art historian in Boston creating miniatures of people’s houses for them to destroy and he’s the bassist of a defunct L.A. band, writing music and hoping to design home studios for other musicians.

Readers learn, from Josh’s point of view, what’s happened in between and how his adolescent observations of betrayal, loyalty, passion and responsibility continue to affect his life. Good Kids is an amusing, hipster-esque look at pop culture, family, love, commitment, and the way particular moments have the potential to shape our view of ourselves and our world.

Also noted

Dartmouth professor and author of Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan brings his skill at demystifying academic topics to a new book, Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from Data. From how to identify “deceptive statistics” to understanding probability and applying statistical information to life decisions, this book aims to help readers understand statistics with “wit, accessibility, and sheer fun.”

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