Archive for February, 2013

In September 2011, Lillian Daniel’s essay on Huffington Post, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me” went viral, which led her, eventually, to write this similarly named book. I thought it looked intriguing, and as I began to read, her voice reminded me of some of my favorite people (you know who you are) — smart, funny, and blunt. This is one of those books that isn’t hard to read but may be hard to process.

Each chapter is an essay (or a sermon? I wondered if that’s where these began), brief and self contained, and they’re organized loosely by theme.  Since it’s a new library book, I only had two weeks to read it, but if I’d had longer I probably would have read one a day, so I had time to let them sink in. What I love about her writing is that like the best kinds of stories, these essays are delightful to read, entertaining, and then upon reflection, thought provoking.

Daniel can be quite direct, as when she addresses the spiritual-but-not-religious, “who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating,” — “There’s nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.” Discussing the way individual opinion is paramount online she writes, “We are creating a culture of narcissists who have never had a thought they did not press ‘send’ on.” Or, describing the way progressive religious types tend to explain their beliefs by saying what our churches don’t believe, “Oh just stop it . . . . You can be accepting of other people’s ideas but still willing to articulate your own.”

So she tells it like she sees it. Which means she also celebrates the messiness, the imperfections, the inconsistencies, and the “perplexity” in living out one’s faith in community. Some essays are rooted more in everyday life than in church, but she writes from a clear and unapologetic point of view as a minister in a progressive Protestant denomination (United Church of Christ). Even if you don’t share her faith or her views, she’s also very funny and a keen observer of human nature and of contemporary culture, and writes beautifully, so you will probably find something to enjoy. And if you don’t, that’s probably fine with her.


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I am clearly not the target demographic for Simon Rich‘s story collection, The Last Girlfriend on Earth. I’m in my mid-40’s and I’ve been happily married to the same man for 23 years. In Simon Rich’s fictional world (at least in this story collection) I don’t exist.

I’d heard this book was “hilarious.” Which it may be if you find sad and cynical hilarious. The stories are mostly about the pathetic/tragic lot of single men who are victims of cooler men, bossy girlfriends, or missed sexual opportunities. Except for two about a woman or girl victimized by an imaginary person or animal. Rich writes well. He has a unique voice. I tried to give the book a chance.

A few of the stories engaged me. “Unprotected,” the story of a condom stuck in a young man’s wallet for a few years, until he finds a steady girlfriend who sees the condom is expired, was funny and sweet. “Sirens of Gowanus” was a nice contemporary twist on Greek mythology, with tragically hip Brooklyn musicians falling for the sirens. “I Love Girl” moved me although I found the caveman dialect a little trite.

If you’re young, male, and cynical (or ironically cynical  as Mr. Rich may be, I can’t say) about women and relationships, you might find more to like. Mr. Rich, it’s not you, it’s me. You never meant for a person like me to “get” your work and that’s ok. I only spent an hour reading it anyway, so really, no hard feelings.

I hope you find a girlfriend who is not a troll, doesn’t need “repairs” and doesn’t sentence you to three days in the “hole” of her mother’s house.  Really, I do.

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I’d heard Simon Garfield interviewed about his new book and knew I would love it, and it came in with a stack of other “holds” the Thursday before the blizzard. But I’ve been so busy it’s been hard to finish On the Map: a Mind Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks. This is not a book to pick up and set down in short intervals. It’s better absorbed at least one rich chapter at a time, if possible.

I’ve always loved maps and geography. I thoroughly enjoyed geography class in junior high, and looking at globes and atlases as a child. When my children were young we had a series of map place mats and puzzles, played geography games on the computer, and conducted a family “country of the month” club, where we took turns choosing a country, checked out stacks of books about it, ordered maps from tourist bureaus, read folktales, listened to music, learned a few phrases, etc. and wrapped up with a meal featuring foods from our chosen country. And on family trips I introduced them to old school AAA “TripTiks,” each flip map trip route plotted especially for us at the AAA office, with the journey unfolding page by page as the miles melt away.

My son learned to travel by map every summer for the handful of years we lived in deep southern Georgia. I’d order fresh new regional maps and we’d highlight a route according to our stops along the way. We’d set off early, the summer sky just brightening, dotted with a few lingering stars, the trees dark silhouettes, all three of us (the kids and I — the Computer Scientist didn’t usually get enough time off to road trip) nearly sick with nervous excitement, the car fully kitted out with snacks, caffeine for me, travel games, audio books and music to help us pass the time. Odds Bodkin and Jim Weiss, and later Bill Bryson, kept us company on the way.

My son would follow the route I’d marked, navigating and urging we go farther before stopping (he was always anxious to get wherever we were going). We’d stop to visit family along the way and end up back in New Hampshire, where I would never fail to point out the gorgeous boulders to my eye-rolling offspring as we drove along Rt. 9 past Keene in a particularly scenic stretch where the road follows a brook. And at the end of the visit we’d head back again, the familiar exits and landmarks leading us home as my son followed along on our maps.

My daughter likes maps too but is far more familiar with GPS. (An aside: she is the subject of one amazing map story in our family’s lore. When she was 2, she was sitting in her booster seat looking out the kitchen window and said in the matter-of-fact way of children, “Look Mommy, France.” She was pointing to a cloud, and it did indeed look like France, which was in front of her on a place mat world map!)

Garfield explains towards the end of his book that by 2005, GPS had taken off, becoming the routing method of choice for people traveling by car. My daughter knows I find GPS frustrating – it’s disconcerting to look at the little screen diagram and also at the road for one thing, and I like seeing the whole route, not just the next step. I almost always print out directions and ask her to refer to them as we go. So she’s learned, in her formative years, to navigate via Google Maps directions, and to follow along on a moving digital map with us at the center.

On the Map begins and ends by examining this current state of mapping affairs: we are the center of our own maps, as GPS devices and smartphones and apps focus on our current location. He traces this unquenchable human longing to place ourselves in the context of our world from the earliest maps traced on a stone tablet through the imaginary but incredibly detailed maps of Skyrim and even more mind boggling, maps of our own brains. He covers maps’ role in geopolitical, economic, social and cultural history, and their influence on everything from exploration to social justice.

I loved every bit of it. It’s a very pleasingly designed book, smaller than most hardcovers and stout. Every chapter is filled with illustrations and many have small sections Garfield calls “pocket maps” that offer tantalizing detours from his main narrative. From mapping Mars to the history of guidebooks, from Churchill’s map room to famous map thieves, from blank spaces and invented mountain ranges to iconic maps real and imagined (the London Tube, the Marauder’s Map in Harry Potter), Garfield packs every page with fascinating people and stories. One of my favorites concerned the use of specially modified Monopoly games as escape kits sent to WWII prison camps; the boards hid clues, silk maps were sandwiched between the cardboard layers and the game pieces included a compass.

When I had time to sit down and really savor his erudite but thoroughly readable prose, I really enjoyed it. If I had just a few minutes to read, I wished for more. If all history were this palatable no student would ever find it drudgery. Garfield presents the entire course of humanity’s rise from caves to space in the story of maps. I’m going to have to add his other books to my lengthy “to-read” list.

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I loved this book. I’ll get to why in a second, but first, a moment of bookconscious interconnectedness. Last night during the State of the Union the President said something that is nonpartisan and true not only for the politicians he was addressing but for any of us: “We were not sent here to be perfect, we were sent here to make what difference we can.”

I immediately thought that Fin Dolan, the hero of Truth in Advertising by John Kenney, would agree. Fin is a copy writer. He’s working on a last minute Super Bowl commercial for a new totally biodegradable, nontoxic, flushable diaper for one of his firm’s biggest clients, who end up deciding their revolutionary diaper is not really any of those things.

Fin knows his job requires saying things that either are untrue or make no sense in order to sell stuff people don’t necessarily want or need. But he is stuck not knowing what else to do. When he hears from his older brother that their father, who he hasn’t seen or heard from in years, is dying in a nursing home on Cape Cod, Fin has to figure out how to respond, and why.

Fin pictures his own life in scripted scenes to deal with his horrible childhood and the rat race and to keep himself and his friends laughing. When his father turns up, he tries to reconcile the reel in his head with reality, to not suck as a son, a brother, a co-worker, a friend. To figure out why he feels so adrift even though he’s writing his own script. The themes aren’t new, but Kenney captures contemporary angst so well, we can’t help rooting for Fin.

Kenney’s writing manages to be both hilarious and tender. The characters are a little typecast — the gay art director sidekick, the tough woman in the office who has a tender heart, the beautiful best friend we all know Fin is in love with, the older brother who is terrified of becoming their father, the hard-ass boss, the fellow troubled son who appears right when Fin needs him and helps him see what to do. But given that Fin sees life on a screen in his head, this works.

I thought the way Fin evolved from a self-deprecating wise-ass to a softer, more fragile version of the same was lovely. Towards the end of the book he remembers reading and agreeing with Thoreau in college: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Fin now sees him as a “pompous asshole.” (I had much the same reaction when I read Walden a few years ago.) He thinks, “The simple truth is that we know nothing about the inner life of the person sitting next to us . . . unless we choose to listen. Quiet desperation? What about quiet resilience. Quiet courage. Quiet hope.” Fin realizes he doesn’t have to prove himself to the voices in his head. He just has to do the best he can at being who he is.

So that’s why I loved this book. Kenney’s given us a contemporary myth. The scene: the heart of the advertising industry that has our collective emotions squeezed in its gold-plated grip. The hero: A young man given a series of tasks that shake his psyche. Through these he discovers his strengths: to make real connections with people, to live a decent life, not doing great or heroic things, not even necessarily knowing what to do, just doing his best, every day. I know so many people who can identify with that, or who could benefit from realizing it. Life is not as complicated as we make it. We are here not to be perfect, but to make what difference we can.

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Here’s the link to February’s column in the Concord Monitor (the books I reviewed are listed here.) My editor decided that after a few months of trying an “also noted” section where I mention books of local interest that I didn’t review, the column is going back to just what I have the time and inclination to read. The novels under the heading “self-published” in this column were “also noted.”

I think the Monitor has worked through it’s pay wall issues, but if the link doesn’t work for you, let me know and I’ll post the full text.

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You’ve probably heard the northeast was hit by a blizzard on Friday and Saturday. Fortunately we were well supplied here, we never lost power, and I came home from work at the library Thursday night with six books. And I passed a few happy hours with one this afternoon — The World of Dowton Abbey by Jessica Fellowes –after finding out that even powdery snow is pretty freakin’ heavy when you are moving piles of it that are almost thigh deep.

If you’re a Downton fan, this is a delicious book. It’s an interesting, lavishly illustrated introduction to the historical, cultural, and social setting behind the show, as well as the fictional details that make Julian Fellowes’ story come to life on the screen. You’ll learn how Maggie Smith has her hair done as she prepares to play Dowager Countess Violet Grantham, where the “downstairs” scenes are filmed, and how the many period details are created in the costumes and on the set.

Besides being Julian Fellowes’ niece, Jessica Fellowes is a writer and editor and her short, informative essays in each section of the book tell readers everything from the difference between Prime Minister Asquith’s salary and the purchase price of a car in 1914, the percentages of single and married women working at the beginning of the 20th century in Britain, and how many birds were bagged in a three day shooting party at Sandringham in 1905. Also which of the American-heiresses Cora’s character is based on, what the lives of young women serving as WWI nurses were like, and what a typical kitchen maid’s day was like in a house like Downton.

All the details, interesting “behind the scenes” information about how the show is created, actors’ insights into their characters, and gorgeous photos made this a great escape on a snowy day. I definitely indulged my inner costume/set/prop designer. I learned that one lucky assistant art director, Lucy Spofforth, “is in charge of all the graphics — anything that is printed that appears on the programme, from a packet of biscuits to a letter or a painted sign.” Bloody stumps in the battlefield scenes are made from mushrooms, apples, and soft dried fruit stuck together with gelatine.

I’m looking forward to this week’s episode from season 3, but this book made me want to go back and watch the first two seasons of Downton Abbey as well.

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I enjoyed George Saunders‘ book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone and his earlier story collection, In Persuasion Nation.  The New York Times Magazine has already anointed Tenth of December as the best book of the year. In the article making that bold proclamation, Saunders is also interviewed. It’s a very interesting read that gives you the sense of him as human being as well as insight into his writing process. He sounds like a humble and hardworking guy as well as a genius. Even daunted by a) feeling I can’t add much to what’s been said about Saunders or this book and b) being embarrassed to gush about a writer I admire so much, here goes.

The stories in this collection are mostly set in places that seem very much like ours except something is just different enough to give you a slightly off-balance feeling as you read, while you get your bearings in the strange land of Saunders’ imagination. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” poor immigrants come to America to be “SG’s” — they are strung by a microline through their heads and hang on racks as yard decorations. Other than that, the setting is completely familiar. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” young criminals are sent to a center for pharmceutical experiments in lieu of jail. The experiments test emotion-setting drugs that can temper the amount of love people feel.

In “Home,” which is mostly about a returned war veteran whose family is completely changed (mother has a live in boyfriend and is being evicted, sister married a jerk and has a baby, wife left him and remarried), there is one detail that makes us feel as strange as the veteran does: a store selling plastic tags reading “MiiVOXmax and MiiVOXmin.” Neither the reader nor the characters really learn what they’re for. In “Victory Lap” the boy whose parents are very controlling must place a geode in the yard before they come home. We never learn why.

The stories aren’t really about these weird details. “Victory Lap” is about calling upon your true nature in a crisis — even this boy, whose parents have molded his life so firmly, can find a reservoir of strength in an emergency even though it violates many of his parents’ rules. “Home” is about the futility of war, its impact on the ones who go, and the disjointedness that results when those at home are completely disconnected from their emotional wounds. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a commentary on the our culture’s dependence on and trust in pharmaceutical solutions. In the way other normal human emotions and variances in personality have been made into “conditions” to be treated, Saunders writes of love as a treatable disease.

Other stories are set in places not discernibly different than our own. These are just as moving, tragic even. “Puppy,” which juxtaposes two mothers each trying to do their best for their families, might be the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever read. “Sticks,” in just two pages, tells the story of a man desperate to tell his kids there’s more to him than the emotional absence he’s offered, as he decorates a pole in the yard, his “one concession to glee.” The narrator says, “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic.”

Both “Exhortation,” a story in a memo which captures the strange futility of a contemporary workplace filled with rules, rubrics, and benchmarks, and “My Chivalric Disaster,” about a man working at a medieval re-enactment whose dose of KnightLyfe (a drug that makes him speak in Renaissance style) causes him to act chivalrous to disastrous result, address the ways low skill, low pay work, when combined with unthinking or overbearing management, creates a system in which people live in either (or both) physical or psychological poverty, unable to express themselves and sapped of a sense of self.

The title story is beautiful, strange, and sad, a tribute to the imaginative powers of childhood and the redemptive resources of old age, to the pain of being rendered helpless by illness and infirmity and the reckless hope of youth that drives us to overcome helplessness, to believe in our own big hearts. I can’t imagine a story that better balances those experiences.

I love a book that makes me think and also entertains and Saunders’ writing consistently does that. The issues he ranges over are big and current — he is holding a mirror up to contemporary American culture. But he’s doing it in a fun house, showing us how silly we look with just a slight distortion of the smooth glass we normally gaze into. It’s not a hopeless book though, and there are glimpses of humor even in the most tragic stories. The questions Saunders raises would be fun to discuss in a book group.

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Last week I read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Lady Fiona Carnarvon, who lives with her husband, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon at Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed. The book is mainly about Almina Wombwell, the heiress who married the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, helping to cancel his debts and put the castle on firm financial ground for future generations, much as Cora, the heiress on Downton, does for Lord Grantham.

Almina wasn’t American but was as wealthy, perhaps wealthier, than the women I read about in To Marry an English Lord. As a society outsider because her uncertain paternity – she was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, and her mother, Marie Wombwell was married to a ne’er do well – Almina craved the respectability and social entree a titled marriage would afford her. And her Earl wanted cash, not only to preserve Highclere, but also to fund his expeditions with Howard Carter to Egypt.

Yes that Howard Carter. The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, Almina’s husband, was with Carter when he opened Tutankhamen’s tomb, and had bankrolled Carter’s archaeological work for many years. Although Almina wasn’t there, she rushed to her husband’s side when he fell ill and died shortly after the unsealing of the tomb in 1923, and the current Lady Carnarvon notes in interviews that the entire episode was one of the first international media events. It’s one of the more fanous episodes in Almina’s glamorous life. Another is her hosting the Prince of Wales at Highclere when she was a nineteen year old bride in 1895. She spent over half a million dollars in today’s money on his three day stay, even ordering a custom bed and redecorating a bedroom for the future king.

The sections about the lavish entertaining, along with details about how Highclere was run and what life “downstairs” was like, were interesting for me as a Downton fan. Lady Fiona Carnarvon wrote this biography to help promote the show (which has been a financial boon to the estate), and to highlight the true story of the castle’s conversion to a hospital during World War I. Almina was a strong advocate for quality nursing and like many women in England relished her war work as a way to make a real difference at a time when the country was in a constant state of loss and grief.

I really enjoyed the sections of this book that focus on the war and the relief work. The stories of Almina’s sparing no expense to provide excellent hospital and convalescent care, and of the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon in Alexandria, Egypt (she followed her younger son, Aubrey, who did intelligence and translation work for the British in the Middle East) are tremendous. The Dowager Countess felt the hospital ships were not being managed efficiently, and she did such a good job in reorganizing things that she became harbormaster. That story is so good I wondered why Julian Fellowes didn’t use it — wouldn’t you like to see Maggie Smith commandeering a pilot’s boat?

As a longtime fan of Word War I poetry and Vera Brittain‘s absolutely devastating diaries and memoirs, I find World War I just staggering, and for that, the biography of Almina and Highclere’s role as a war hospital are very interesting reading. The parts about Lord Carnarvon’s Egyptian expeditions and other well known people and historical events are also interesting, and the history of the house itself is wonderful. If you like Downton Abbey, you should enjoy this book as well. There has been some criticism that the book overlooks or whitewashes less desirable aspects of the family’s history, but even if that’s the case, this side of the story makes a good read. It’s not bad writing, and if you understand the perspective of the author, you take with a grain of salt her effusive praise of her predecessor. Besides, Almina was quite a woman. She makes Cora seem pretty wishy washy by comparison, honestly.

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Here’s what I’m reviewing for The Mindful Reader column that will run on 2/10/13 in the Concord Monitor.

Back of the House:the Secret Life of a Kitchen  by Cambridge food writer and psychologist Scott Haas

with shorter reviews of

The Truth About Death by Northwood, New Hampshire poet Grace Mattern.

The Promise of Stardust by Maine native Priscille Sibley.


When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnosis and Unnecessary Tests by doctors Leana Wen and Joshua Kosowsky

“Also noted” this month are two self-published books:

Vivian’s Window by Concord author and lawyer Jason Dennis

and Split Thirty by Concord criminal defense attorney and former Concord Monitor Board of Contributors writer Michael Davidow.


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