Archive for March, 2013

Bookconscious readers know I try to read a selection of new books at the library where I work part time. I’d heard good things about Sebastian Faulks and hadn’t read anything by him, so I requested his new book A Possible Life: a Novel in Five Parts.  I enjoyed each of the five parts alluded to in the subtitle. But I don’t think together they make a novel.

The book’s parts are five stories: “Geoffrey”, set in 1938; “Billy,” set in 1859; “Elena,” set in 2029; “Jeanne,” set in 1822; and “Anya” (which to me really should have been called Jack), set in 1971. The first and last stories are 80 and 90 pages each, so novellas really. As you can see they are not told in chronological order.  I’m not sure the reason(s) for the order they are in.

I’m not really sure of anything about this book. I didn’t dislike it. I did find the ending of “Jeanne” strange — Faulks writes Jeanne’s whole life story and then revisits a seminal moment from her youth, tacking it on after she dies as if it was an afterthought, even though it was formative. “Elena” seemed to go on a little longer than it needed to as well. But overall they are well crafted stories peopled by interesting characters struggling with engaging problems.

I admit I turned to reviews to try to make sense of what Faulks is saying with these disparate parts. Even after reading what others had to say about it I had a hard time believing the tenuous threads made for a cohesive whole. There is a thematic ribbon to tie the narratives together: each of the protagonists imagines at one point or another what things might be like if their lives had not gone the way they had.  Certain ideas do appear in the stories over and over: questions about faith, war, love, family, identity, and self-awareness.

So, a good read, with plenty to discuss. In fact, I’d probably have enjoyed this more with a book group. But if anyone can explain to me what makes this novel, I’d appreciate it.


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Longtime bookconscious readers know I love Jane Austen. I was very excited to read this new biography, The Real Jane Austen: a Life in Small Things, and author Paula Byrne’s innovative approach sounded intriguing. Rather than telling the story of Austen’s life directly, she takes nineteen objects from Austen’s time (and some from her actual possession) and weaves Austen’s story as well as relevant literary, social, cultural and political history from these seemingly disparate threads.

For example, in a chapter called “The Barouche,” Byrne covers Austen’s love of travel, the history of English travel writing, the social and economic aspects of travel in the Georgian era, and the significance of carriage and coach rides in Austen’s novels. In “The Theatrical Scenes,” Byrne writes of the Austen family’s great love of both amateur theatricals and professional theater, the theater scenes in London and Bath, some of the best-known actors and actresses of the day, and the influence of theater in Austen’s writing.

You get the idea. It’s lovely, and very interesting, and felt a great deal like visiting a museum and peering into cases with exceptionally well written displays. In fact, the book would be a terrific companion guide to an exhibit about the iconic items Byrne selected to portray key themes in Austen’s life.

First let me say that Byrne only reinforced my deep admiration for Austen as a deeply interesting, incredibly gifted, strong and brilliant woman and one of the best writers of all time. Byrne’s writing is excellent and she has, to my mind, the perfect touch when it comes to speculating on what we don’t know about Austen and what we can sensibly conclude — she never overreaches and is careful to be forthright with her readers when she veers into analysis rather than strict historical record. I wanted to love this book wholeheartedly as I love Jane Austen.

But because of the inventive format Byrne chooses, the narrative felt circuitous and choppy. Several anecdotes from Austen’s life are repeated across chapters. I found myself flipping back to check what I’d already read, or skimming parts that felt repetitive. I suppose the best way to avoid this feeling would have been to savor the chapters individually as essays, rather than reading the book in a few sittings straight through. In my case, that wasn’t an option — it’s a new book from the library so I had limited time to read it.

Still if you love Austen, you’ll find much to enjoy, and I’d also recommend The Real Jane Austen for anyone studying Georgia England, or interested in the period. If possible, just dip in, choosing a chapter that looks interesting, rather than reading it from beginning to end.

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My column ran this past Sunday. I reviewed  Megan Marshall‘s Margaret Fuller: a New American LifeAbi Maxwell‘s debut novel Lake PeopleJack Gray‘s memoir-in-essays Pigeon In a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety & Accidental Glamour and Brett Markham‘s The MiniFarming Guide to Composting.

It seems like the Monitor has worked out the paywall issues it was having so here’s the link.

If I hear anyone is having trouble reading it, I’ll post the whole column here.

Heard from someone that indeed they could not take the above link so here is the column:

The Feminist Transcendentalist

Massachusetts author Megan Marshall’s (The Peabody Sisters) new biography, Margaret Fuller: a New American Life, is a thorough and sympathetic treatment of the famed feminist. Even for readers familiar with Fuller, Marshall’s account is engaging. She covers not only the biographical details of Fuller’s life that forged an intellect nearly unmatched in her time, but also Fuller’s relationships – as daughter and sister devoted to pleasing a difficult father and keeping her financially challenged family afloat; friend and colleague to dozens of thinkers, reformers, and writers; teacher and mentor; wife and mother in revolutionary Italy – that made Fuller the complex, fascinating woman that she was.

Though she was often misunderstood, maligned or even mocked in reviews and in private correspondence (even by some of her closest friends and relatives, whom Marshall quotes extensively), Fuller is, in Marshall’s view, a heroine. She influenced history through her groundbreaking feminist work Women in the Nineteenth Century, her series of “Conversations” for women in Boston, and her prolific journalism, which brought observations and ideas from Transcendental New England; the newly settled American West; the prisons, workhouses, factories and slums of New York and industrial England; and Europe’s 1848 revolutions to a wide national audience. With copious quotes and excerpts from Fuller’s books, journals, letters, essays, poems, and articles in The Dial and in New Hampshire native Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, Marshall presents Fuller in her own words whenever possible.

Marshall believes Fuller was neither as scandalous as some accounts of her life imply, nor as personally free – from childhood to her death at age 40, Fuller was constantly caring and providing for family members, often sacrificing her own health, well-being and happiness to ensure that of others. As Marshall explains, Fuller’s “own writings in the last year of her life show persistent resolve in the face of danger, not recklessness or fatalism, and an immunity to public censure.” You can meet the resolute yet tender Margaret Fuller in the pages of Marshall’s excellent biography.

A novel, a memoir, and all you ever need to know about compost

Gilford assistant librarian Abi Maxwell’s novel is set in the Lakes Region, where she grew up. Lake People is a haunting tale of identity, ancestry, family and belonging. Told from many characters’ points of view over several decades, it’s the life and family story of Alice Thornton, who was found in a canoe as an infant. Like Alice Hoffman, Maxwell’s writing has a fairy tale quality, perhaps meant to make readers comfortable with the improbable number of extraordinary events that happen to Alice as a descendent of the mysterious lake people. The small New England town and its deeply held secrets are reminiscent of Peyton Place, as are the contrast between characters’ public stoicism and private passion and the impact balancing the two has on their psyches. An interesting debut.

Jack Gray grew up visiting his grandparents in Barnstead and first produced “news” in their living room. After UNH he produced news programs in New Hampshire and Boston before landing his current job as a producer for “Anderson Cooper 360” on CNN. His memoir-in-essays Pigeon In a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety and Accidental Glamour is an irreverent, profanity-laced look at his career and family, including stories of meeting celebrities, becoming a Twitter star, observing the media, and coming out. The title comes from one of the last pieces in the book. Gray was walking his dog Sammy on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and angsting about his life when he noticed a pigeon crossing the street. He notes, “I’m losing sleep over whether . . . I can sustain a life for myself in New York and there’s a . . . pigeon out here using the crosswalk. A pigeon that seems pretty happy with himself. I am clearly doing something wrong. At that moment I decide Sammy and I will be fine. If that pigeon can adapt and succeed in the big, complicated city, I can too. The bar has been set by a pigeon in crosswalk . . . .” Wise, warm, and often hilarious.

New Ipswich famer, engineer, and author Brett Markham has written The MiniFarming ™ Guide to Composting, part of his series on small scale — as little as 1/4 acre — farming. I’ve looked at other composting books, and this is both a more serious (think equations, formulas, and building plans) and a more accessible guide than any I’ve dipped into. For someone like me, an English major and haphazard gardener, he covers the most basic methods of composting, including my favorite, “lasagna gardening.” For the serious gardening geek or farmer, Markham’s thorough analyses of soil science, anaerobic, aerobic, mesophilic, and vermiculture composting, and biochar are sure to supply answers to the most technical questions. Students and teachers interested in hands-on science would also enjoy this book. Markham believes “. . . composting is accessible to everyone,” and with this book as a guide, that should be true.


Sidebar: Abi Maxwell will read from Lake People at Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord on March 21 at 7pm. Call 224-0562 or visit www.gibsonsbookstore.com for more information.

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My father went to a live simulcast of Sonia Sotomayor‘s 92nd St. Y appearance in January and then recommended My Beloved WorldHe told me it offers a sense of what a remarkable person Ms. Sotomayor is, not only because of what she overcame in her life but also because of who she is as a human being. I think his assessment sums it up nicely.

Sonia Sotomayor’s story is inspiring, true, but lots of people survive chronic illness, climb their way out of poverty, grow up with one parent, or overcome prejudice (to be fair, few manage such success in spite of all of that at once). What my dad noted, and I too enjoyed, is that she has reached heights most of us never will and yet her tone is humble as well as clear-eyed. She doesn’t claim false modesty about her gifts: a sharp intellect, an inquiring nature, a “competitive spirit,” early and persistent self-reliance, a deeply rooted sense that “there are no bystanders in this life,” a grandmother and mother who modeled “generosity of spirit,” and a strongly held belief in “this ideal of law as a noble purpose.” She’s grateful and a little awed, as if she can’t believe her life has actually gone the way it has.

She also notes that as early as high school, she could see “values that brook no compromise . . . integrity, fairness, and the avoidance of cruelty. But I have never accepted the argument that principle is compromised by judging each situation on its own merits, with due appreciation of the idiosyncrasies of human motivation and fallibility. Concern for individuals, the imperative of treating them with dignity and respect for their ideas and needs, regardless of one’s own views — these too are surely principles and as worth as any of being deemed inviolable. To remain open to understandings — perhaps even to principles — as yet not determined is the least that learning requires.” In the section about working as a prosecutor she writes about how whenever she sent someone to jail, it weighed on her to think of the family this impacted; she saw beyond the simple facts of each case.

This compassion, commitment to humanity and thoughtful consideration is just what I’d want if I ever had to appear before a judge. Her views on women and work reflect her nuanced thinking: “But as for the possibility of ‘having it all,’ career and family with no sacrifice to either, that is a myth we would do well to abandon, together with the pernicious notion that a woman who chooses one or the other is somehow deficient. To say that a stay-at-home mom has betrayed her potential is no less absurd that to suggest a woman who puts career first is somehow less a woman.” Amen, sister.

Another thing I found endearing is the way Sotomayor cites “faith in my potential for self-improvement” and talks about instances throughout her life where she realized there were things she didn’t know or had never learned — from the consistent use of verb tenses to opening a bank account, shopping for clothes that suit her, swimming, or even hugging loved ones — that she set out to accomplish with curiosity, openness, and determination. Her optimism applies to mankind in general; for someone who worked as a prosecutor and judge and has seen some of the worst of human behavior, it’s impressive that she believes “people can change; very few are carved in stone or beyond redemption.” I also admire the amiable feelings she has for her ex-husband, the way she reconciled with her mother over misunderstandings from her early life, and the way she admits she and her brother didn’t really get along as children but are unconditionally supportive of each other now.

Sotomayor’s book is an interesting read as social and cultural history and an enjoyable one as the story of a good woman who is in a position to bring all of her many gifts to bear on making a real difference in the world. If that weren’t incredible enough, she manages to admit her life is special and seem genuinely grateful and even a bit baffled that it should be so.

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I was looking for recent nonfiction to review for my library’s “beyond the bestsellers” guide when I picked up The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. I really enjoyed Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, and the Computer Scientist and I have had many conversations with our teenagers over the past couple of years about happiness — how to define it, whether it’s possible to pursue it, whether it comes and goes, whether we can choose to be happy, why some people seem to be happier than others, what external and internal factors make happiness possible, etc.

I wish instead I’d had this book to hand them or quote from.  Here’s what I wrote for the library, adapted slightly:

Oliver Burkeman has written a handbook for what the English Romantic poet John Keats called “negative capability,” or living with “uncertainties, mysteries, (and) doubts” without feeling miserable. Burkeman neatly explains why positive psychology often backfires and what philosophy and psychology have to say about the “negative path to happiness.” From Stoicism to Eckhart Tolle, Buddhist non-attachment to the Museum of Failure, Burkeman explores a range of ideas and practices. In the tradition of other recent “immersion journalists” (like A. J. Jacobs) Burkeman actually visits his subjects when possible and tries the practices he writes about. For example, he takes a week long silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, recreates psychologist Albert Ellis’s “subway-station exercise” on the London Underground, and visits a cemetery in a Mexican village to experience The Day of the Dead. In the final chapter he offers “an interim status report” to explain how these experiences and approaches worked in his own life.

One of the reasons this book is so delightful is that Burkeman reveals his own doubts, and then admits when something works or makes more sense than he’d first suspected. Unsurprising for a reporter for The Guardian with a weekly column (This Column Will Save Change Life) he’s also an excellent writer, clear and smart and spot on. I think a cynical teenager would probably identify with his very modern, slightly skeptical point of view. It lends Burkeman’s conclusions a greater authority, because if someone bright and observant like him has been won over by Echkart Tolle’s “palpable stillness, which seeped into the corners of the small Vancouver apartment and by the end of an afternoon’s conversation, into me” than perhaps Tolle’s not just some Oprah-anointed guru nutter.

Burkeman has convinced me to work on my negative capability. Read this book and you’ll probably want to as well.

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I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for over a year, and finally read it for Gibson’s Book Club. I’m very glad I did. The hare in the title is a netsuke, a small Japanese carving that attached to the end of a cord on a small pouch that men hung on their kimono sashes to serve as a sort of external pocket. And The Hare With Amber Eyes is about how the netsuke came into the author’s possession, and where it was before.

Edmund De Waal‘s great uncle Iggie owned a collection of 264 netsuke. De Waal, a world-reknowned ceramicist, studied in Japan, and often visited Iggie and his partner, Jiro, in Tokyo. He learned that the netsuke belonged to Iggie’s parents, Emmy and Viktor Ephrussi, and that Iggie and his siblings played with them as children. They had come to rest in their vitrine in Emmy’s dressing room because Viktor’s cousin Charles Ephrussi had given them to the couple as a wedding gift.

When The Hare With Amber Eyes opens, De Waal recalls learning after Iggie’s funeral that Jiro wants him to “look after the netsuke.” He tells readers that back home in London, he carried a netsuke of a medlar fruit around in his pocket. He thought about where it had come from. He wrote down “the bones” — what Iggie told him about the collection. And he realized he wanted to learn the rest of the story.

He knows “my family were Jewish . . . staggeringly rich, but I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” Instead, he writes, “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object I am rolling in my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been…. I want to know what it has witnessed.” And a few paragraphs later, “I realize that I’ve been living with this netsuke business for too long. I can either anecdotalise it for the rest of my life – my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative — or go and find out what it means.”

And so he does. He really goes — to libraries and archives in London where he can hunt down clues. To Paris. Vienna. Tokyo. Odessa. And in the end, home. And what he learns is fascinating, heart breaking, incredible, and finally, life affirming.

At the book club (and in some reviews) some felt De Waal should have told a more complete story of his family, but he never meant to. Some audiences have asked whether the writing of the book led De Waal to epiphanies about his identity or caused him to pursue restitution — his family’s riches were confiscated by the Nazis. I think all of this misses the point. This a book about connections, between generations, between collectors and object, between what has survived and all that is lost.

De Waal’s approach is to chronicle his imposing relatives as a means of tracing the netsuke, because they connect him to the past. The family is part of his story, yes. The way Charles was cut out of Paris society after the Dreyfus affair (and snubbed by anti-Semite friends Renoir and Degas) the way they were robbed of everything, even their names, by the Nazis. The way Iggie, Elisabeth (De Waal’s grandmother) and their siblings were scattered around the world after the war. The way they became  “. . . a family that could not put itself back together.”

DeWaal writes, “I’m not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago.” He learns how the netsuke moved from 1880’s Paris to early 20th century Vienna to post-war England and Tokyo and now back to London. The family are certainly fascinating. Especially Charles, a friend of many of the Impressionists as well as Proust. And Iggie, the great-uncle who passes the netsuke on to De Waal and who ran away from Vienna and the family bank to be a fashion designer before serving in Normandy as an intelligence officer and becoming, after all, a very successful banker in post-war Japan.

Equally fascinating is the Viennese maid, known only as Anna to De Waal, who stayed with her mistress even after the Anchschluss, and even then played a key part in the story of the netsuke while the Nazis made her work in the Palais Ephrussi as its riches were plundered. And Elisabeth, De Waal’s indomitable grandmother, who got her parents safely out of Vienna, and “provided a kind of centre” for the family diaspora from her new home in England. The incomplete nature of their story is the story — this is a family whose story was fractured, repeatedly, by anti-Semitism in several generations.

Through discussions of literature, art, aesthetics, culture and society, De Waal traces the netuke’s path, as well as his family’s, and tells us what the rooms looked like where they were displayed, what the people who held them wore and talked about and what their lives and cities and world was like. But he doesn’t tell the entire story, and he can’t. He explains, “There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others.” His grandmother, his great-uncle offered some remembrances, but De Waal notes, “I remember the hesitancies when talking to Iggie in old age; hesitancies that trembled into silences, silences that marked places of loss.” Elisabeth would not talk about Emmy.

“Stories and objects share something, a patina….Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so the essential is revealed . . . . But it also seems additive.” De Waal has added his patina to the story of the netsuke – he has revealed the humanity in the story of these collectible objects. He has added the staggering wealth and staggering loss, the disrupted lives, and the small moments when people — Proust and Renoir and children and Japanese cocktail party guests and faceless visitors to Charles’ salon or Iggie’s apartment — picked up the netsuke and rolled them, like he did, in their fingers.

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My column got pushed back a week, but I’m turning it in soon and it will appear in the Concord Monitor on March 17th. I’m reviewing Megan Marshall‘s Margaret Fuller: a New American Life, Abi Maxwell‘s debut novel Lake PeopleJack Gray‘s memoir-in-essays Pigeon In a Crosswalk: Tales of Anxiety & Accidental Glamour and Brett Markham‘s The MiniFarming Guide to Composting.


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