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Archive for May, 2013

I’m reviewing Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s A Million Years With You: a Memoir of Life Observed, as well as brief reviews of Martha Carlson-Bradley’s new poetry collection Sea Called FruitfulnessBen Hewitt’s $aved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the WorldTo Eat by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd, and Yankee Magazine’s Lost & Vintage Recipes by Amy Traverso and the editors of Yankee.

I turned the column in today and it will run in the Sunday, June 9 Concord Monitor.

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This weekend I finished the very unusual novel (one of two with this title released last month) Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I’d only ever read a short story of Atkinson’s, in an anthology called Earth. I enjoyed this book not only because it’s incredibly original — more on that in a moment — but also because it melds interesting characters, compelling ideas, and rich writing.

Ursula Todd, the heroine of the novel, is born over and over. Not into different lives, not reincarnated into new existences, but as herself, in her family and place and time (a moderately prosperous British family in the early 1900’s — she’s a child when her father goes off to the Great War and a young woman when WWII begins). Her life(ves) turn on circumstances that she can recall or sense, so sometimes she manipulates events to prevent untimely death. Sometimes things are beyond her control but still turn out differently. As she lives longer and grows up she begins to sense the nature of her strange reality.

Readers never get a sense that she completely grasps it, nor are we ever sure exactly which existence trumps the others; right up until the end, this novel is a puzzle. At least for me it was — I found it endlessly fascinating but was never sure I’d got it assembled in my mind perfectly. If you require a novel with a straightforward chronological narrative, or at least easy to digest flashbacks, you may be befuddled. But if you’re willing to let those trappings go, this is a really intriguing book.

Ursula is a great character — bright and capable and mostly quite brave and independent-minded. Different, marked not only by her strange deja-vu lives but as her father Hugh describes her, “watchful, as if she was trying to drink in the whole world.” And its a world in the throes of change: the world wars, the ushering in of the modern era’s new moral, cultural, and political realities. Atkinson mines all of that rich historical context and also plumbs Ursula’s relationships and her emotional life from various angles: Ursula as daughter, sister, niece, friend, lover, aunt. In this regard Atkinson reminds me of Jane Gardam.

This is a book you will likely want very much to discuss when you finish. Beyond the obvious questions about how much we control our own fate, Atkinson also looks closely at human nature. What makes a person act horribly to those closest to him or her? Why do we insist on labeling each other and boxing ourselves into social roles and expectations? Why are there dictators? Wars? Why are some people driven by ambition and others by purer motives? Does love ever exist in its purest form, and what is it exactly?

As I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in the questions and quandaries of Ursula’s fictional world I had our own very much in mind. At one point in the novel Ursula is a warden in an Air Raid Precaution unit. It’s a diverse group of volunteers from different walks of life, different ages and backgrounds, who come together to keep the people in their small sector of London safe, making sure everyone observes the blackout, takes shelter during raids, and is properly identified in case of injury or death. They respond to the horrors of the Blitz night after night. Ursula’s senior warden in a retired hospital matron and WWI nurse veteran, Miss Woolf. She’s unflappable and she keeps them focused on the higher moral ground at one point noting “it is intolerance that has brought us to this pass.”

It’s easy to think that was a different time, that there’s nothing comparable to such selfless service today — except there is. A Holocaust survivor, Irene Butter, spoke in Concord last week about her life, and the Concord Monitor noted, “Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project,” a group of women, Jews and Arabs, who are “refusing to be enemies.” In the UK, Faith Matters is working “to reduce extremism and interfaith and intra-faith tensions and . . . develop platforms for discourse and interaction between Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Jewish and Hindu communities across the globe,” responding this week to the anti-Muslim backlash after the extremist murder of a British soldier.

And of course, people are still working to assist the Boston bombing victims, people impacted by the Oklahoma tornado, and in quiet, less newsworthy ways, people in their own towns and cities every day who need help: homeless people, the elderly, those afflicted with cancer or mental illness or other health challenges, victims of abuse and violence, and others who need a helping hand. I’m grateful for people who are willing give of themselves to do what’s right. And for literature that helps us understand and discuss human nature at its best and worst.

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When I drove to Vermont to collect Teen the Elder (in less than two months I have to call him something else!) from college, I caught up on some podcasts, including Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust interview with Jacqueline Winspear. I’d heard of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, but mostly avoid mysteries. I’m a wimp when it comes to blood and guts and I hate thinking about crimes and criminal intent.

But I love history, and Teen the Younger and the Computer Scientist and I watched The Bletchley Circle on PBS recently. The series is about four women friends who were code breakers at Bletchley Park who work together to nab a serial killer in London a few years after the war. The murders made me squeamish, but the period details were terrific and I enjoyed the brilliant female characters.

So when I heard Winspear’s conversation with Nancy Pearl I was intrigued. Last weekend the Computer Scientist and I visited an inn on the southern Maine coast, and a mystery seemed perfect to take along. I loved it! Maisie is a very compelling character, a working class girl who goes into service and can’t resist her employers’ library. When she’s catches Maisie reading in the wee hours, Lady Rowan Compton realizes the girl’s remarkable intellect deserves developing, and she asks her friend, Dr. Maurice Blanche, to tutor Maisie.

When the first book in the series opens, Maisie has opened her own office as a “psychologist  and investigator” in London, and Dr. Blanche is retired. As the book unfolds we learn about her life thus far and the training, study, and experiences that have shaped her, including studying “moral sciences” at Cambridge and serving as a nurse in Frace during WWI. Under Dr. Blanche’s careful tutelage, Maisie learned to take careful notes, think deeply, and meditate regularly. This combination of awareness and contemplation really struck me.

That’s what I’ve been working on myself — mindfulness and lately, contemplative prayer. I’ve tried meditation for years and have had mixed results. In a small group discussion of Jerry Aaker’s A Spirituality of Service and a Lenten series on types of prayer, contemplative or centering prayer appealed to me as a practice similar to meditation but less focused on breathing. Phil Fox Rose offers a nice “how to” on this kind of meditation. Contemplative awareness in Maisie Dobb’s world and our own is about compassionate insight into the messy, the broken, and the beautiful alike.

Why bother with this? Why not say a quick prayer if you pray, and get on with the day? Well, Maisie meditates for mental clarity. Regular practitioners swear by that, and as I mentioned in my review of Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote, meditation  helps strengthen our “negative capability” as Keats called it, the capacity to live comfortably with uncertainty. Or to grasp a mystery, fictional or real. Such as trying to take in catastrophes like bombings or murders or natural disasters, or to be a witness to injustice (plenty of opportunity to do that lately, as our state argued about whether to fund essential services via casino gambling and a judge decides soon whether our town’s homeless people have a right to camp when there’s no shelter space).

I’m not sure if those skills will help me figure out what Maisie Dobbs is solving as I read the rest of Jacqueline Winspear’s series, but I plan to do that, as well as to hone my own contemplative and mindful awareness. 

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I finished Alexandra Horowitz‘s On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes last night, and earlier this week finished a book for next month’s column, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas‘s A Million Years With You: A Memoir of a Life Observed.  Thomas is an amazing woman, who learned at an early age the value of being fully present (both to people and animals) and observing closely. More on her book in the column. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist specializing in animals — both women wrote very popular books about dogs. But her latest book looks at what we humans don’t see, hear or sense in our everyday environments.

On Looking is about Horowitz walking her own block and other city streets with eleven experts: her toddler son, a blind woman, an insect tracker, one of the foremost raccoon experts in the world, the artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a typographer, a physician, a public space specialist, a sound engineer, and her dog. On each walk Alexander immersed herself in the specialty of the person (or dog) she was with. By identifying signs that other creatures were nearby (or what lettering or types of stone reveal), understanding how the blind (or a toddler, an artist, a dog) experience the world, and so on with each of her walk-mates, she considered the unique perspectives of her experts, and all that was there to explore in plain sight.

All of us have experienced — at work, at home, in friendships and with our families —  the way differences of perception color our everyday experiences. What we each notice and what even those closest to us notice is not always aligned. But Horowitz reveals that not only do humans perceptions vary, but beyond that, we don’t give our full attention to what’s right in front of us. As a longtime (and very unskilled) student of mindfulness I knew this, but Horowitz’s book examines this phenomenon beautifully.

She finds as she walks around her block at the start of her project, “What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see . . . .” Throughout her fascinating research, walking with people who guided her beyond the familiar, Horowitz discovered “the unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe.” She writes with humor and very accessible intelligence, as well as curiosity and admiration for her fellow walkers.

Will I ever be as attentive as she is? My monkey mind gets in my way all the time, and I’m not sure I can ever wrangle my synapses’ high capacity magazine with a mindfulness trigger lock. I recently read that creative types and “sensitive” introverts have overly active brains so maybe fighting the way my brain works is counterproductive, but some stillness and attentiveness has got to be better than none. I don’t expect to reach Horowitz’s level of attention on my next walk, but she’s given me a great deal more to notice.

Which brings me to the seeing part of the post: thanks to an attentive friend, I heard about and attended the rally in our town on Monday in support of our homeless community, who’ve been evicted from both public and private land and had their belongings seized, including donated tents handed out by a number of churches and social organizations when winter shelters closed. At the rally I noticed that one of the problems facing the homeless is perception: people see someone rough around the edges and assume mental illness or addiction. But the only accurate definition of someone who is homeless is that he or she has no home.

If you or I had nowhere to rest, clean up, or be safe, we’d look a little rough. As my friend Kellie’s sign said: poverty is not a crime. Treating it as such isn’t productive. Refusing to see the homeless will not make the problem of homelessness disappear. Thank God telling them to get out of sight won’t put them out of mind of the concerned citizens who were present on Monday. I’m thankful for those that not only see but also do, who are providing legal representation, practical support, and loving kindness to people who have little else in this world.

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Here’s my May column. It ran in today’s Concord Monitor, minus the last sentence for some reason (probably space, although they made room in the layout of the print edition for photos of each of the book covers). Here it is in its entirety.

The Woman Who Helped Shape the New Deal

Phillips Exeter Academy history teacher Michael Golay’s new book, America 1933:The Great Depression, Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Shaping of the New Deal is the story of Lorena Hickok’s exhaustive reporting in 1933-34 for Harry Hopkins at the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Hickock was an intrepid traveler, visiting relief and work programs and talking to “people from all walks of life” all over the country. Her work is “. . . an incomparable narrative record . . . of America in the depths of the Great Depression.”

Golay explains Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt were “close.” Hickok even lived in Eleanor’s quarters at the White House. Quotes from letters between Eleanor and Hickock portray a talented, assertive reporter whose intimate friendship with the First Lady brought relief from the travails of her work. Golay speculates that publicity surrounding their attempt to take a quiet vacation together in 1934 may have cooled Eleanor’s feelings. But the focus of America 1933 is “Hickok’s historical legacy . . . her influence on Hopkins’s welfare and jobs policies in a time when, for millions of ordinary people, a little help from the larger community meant the difference between hunger and subsistence, numb despair and a stirring of hope.”

Golay notes “it would be an exaggeration to portray Hickok as an observer gifted with keen political insight,”  but he clearly admires her determination and “astonishing capacity for work.” America 1933  illuminates her vivid reporting and its importance to policy makers. Golay offers a highly detailed, richly referenced portrait of a terrible moment in American history and the woman whose contributions helped get the country back on its feet.

Too many books: local history, doughboys, and terrific fiction

When I picked up Massachusetts author Julie Wu’s delightful debut novel, The Third Son, I thought it looked daunting: a protagonist with more than one name, foreign politics, tragedy. But I didn’t set it down again until I’d reached the end. The Third Son is the perfect fusion of great storytelling, evocative settings, interesting characters, and compelling ideas. The book opens in 1943 in Japanese occupied Taiwan during an American bombing raid. We meet Saburo, an eight year old who helps a girl take cover that chaotic afternoon; I loved him immediately. Wu draws readers into Saburo’s world as he grows up, navigates his unhappy family life, finds the girl again, and makes his own way in America. But beneath this book’s lovely surface there is so much more to enjoy. The Third Son is about the power of the human spirit to persevere and transcend hardship. The complexity of the relationships; the political, cultural and historical backdrop of the story; the characters who don’t act in perfectly mapped out ways but rise or fail in the face of challenges as real people do, all make for a rich, highly satisfying read, ripe for discussion.

Cathie Pelletier’s eye for detail enlivens The One-Way Bridge, a novel about fictional Mattagash, Maine and its residents. It’s a warm, humorous read, but subtle, too. Retired teacher Florence Henderson appears late in the book, but I felt like I knew her already because of her  vocabulary lesson yard sign. I also loved Billy Thunder, a drug dealer willing to sell his most prized possession to save a dog from being put down. And Harry Plunkett, a Vietnam vet whose brash  t-shirts and lifelong feud with local mailman Orville Craft hide a very emotional interior life. What all of her characters share is heart, but Pelletier isn’t shy about exploring their flaws. She portrays the complexity of living in a place where everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business, creating a very empathetic novel without sugar-coating life in rural Maine. You might not want to move there when you’re done reading, but you’ll have new respect for the people who do, like Pelletier herself.

Larry Sullivan’s Educators and Agitators: Selected Works of 19th Century Women Writers from a Small New Hampshire Town is published by the Warner Historical Society. Sullivan researched fifteen women and selected sixty of their works, including poetry, essays , children’s stories, and opinion pieces. His introductions paint a vivid picture of what women in 1800’s New Hampshire cared about and how they lived. They accomplished a great deal besides writing, becoming teachers, “agitators” for a variety of social causes, home economists, journalists, editors, librarians, and community organizers. They traveled around New England, across America and even abroad, wrote about a world that was changing quickly, and contributed to those changes. Vintage photos and Mimi Wiggin’s beautiful artwork enhance the anthology’s peek into the past.

Finally Maine author Richard Rubin’s curiosity, humor, and zest for his subject enlivens The Last of the Doughboys: the Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War. In 2003, after hearing a story about WWII veterans, Rubin wondered whether any WWI doughboys were still alive. He discovered the French government had been searching for every living American WWI veteran to award each the Legion d’Honneur. This “French List” helped Rubin locate and interview several dozen, ages 101-113. Both these carefully recorded conversations and the fascinating details he weaves into their stories  — about WWI monuments, battlefield souvenirs, Tin Pan Alley, cultural shifts on the home front and “Over There,” French and British views of America’s WWI contributions, talking with the very old — kept me turning pages. Rubin writes with a journalist’s attentiveness, immersing readers in the lives and experiences of those who “. . . set off for a world war, and came back with a world.” 

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I’m on the gazillionth (ok, twelfth) draft of my column and thought I’d take a break to let you know what I’ll be reviewing in the Mindful Reader, which will run on Sunday, May 12 in the Concord Monitor.

America 1933: The Great Depression, Lorena Hicock, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Shaping of the New Deal  by Michael Golay

The Third Son by Julie Wu (Facebook friends, this is the book I raved about the week of the Boston bombings)

The One-Way Bridge by Cathy Pelletier

Educators and Agitators: Selected Works of 19th Century Women Writers from a Small New Hampshire Town by Larry Sullivan with artwork by Mimi Wiggin

The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin

Phew. Back to work.

 

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I just finished Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots by Jessica Soffer. The structure felt cumbersome and I found the characters a little unbelievable, but it’s a debut and the writing isn’t bad, so I suspended disbelief. It’s the story of an eighth-grader named Lorca whose chef mother is too much of an emotional disaster herself to deal with her. Lorca has a psychological condition that causes her to cut or burn or otherwise hurt herself. When the book opens she’s been suspended after getting caught cutting herself at school. That in itself seemed wrong (although I have no idea how accurate).

Her mother’s not-so-kind response includes threatening to send her to boarding school. Lorca overhears her mother and aunt talking and decides that she will get back in her mother’s good graces by learning to make a complicated Iraqi fish dish called masgouf that her mother remembers eating in a restaurant. An older boy, Blot, who works in a nearby bookstore, and who Lorca has a crush on, ends up helping.

They track down Victoria, who owned the now-closed restaurant. She’s a recent widow, and she and Lorca each begin to believe, without telling each other, that she might be Lorca’s grandmother (her mother’s adopted and as far as Lorca knows, never found her birth mother). As this poor child tries to please her unsympathetic mess of a mother, we hear about Victoria’s also (to me) unbelievable past. Part of which includes learning something she never knew about her husband.

What made me finish the book, which I would probably have put down otherwise, was that I got to thinking about the way people know or think they know about each other. And I wanted, despite despising a key character and finding some of the book’s architecture unwieldy, to find out whether anything Lorca and Blot and Victoria thought they knew would help them. Some books I’ve been reading for my next column — one about WWI dough boys interviewed in very great old age, another a novel about a very small town in Maine, another a brilliant debut novel about a Taiwanese immigrant — also hinge on this very human problem.

We are always so sure we know what we know. Especially about each other. Just turn on the news and you’ll hear this play out again and again. In the case of the Boston bombers. Or in my town, of a boy who was arrested, then cleared of a felony charge which turned out to be based on false witness. Or of three people, one of whom is the victim’s mother (I guess I have to cut Jessica Soffer some slack) accused of torturing an eighteen year old boy. In the case of atrocities and conflicts around the world and our perceived interest or potential role in them, people who claim to know argue endlessly in the public sphere, often as people unknown to us as anything other than faces in the news are irrevocably impacted. (All good reasons to consume less news, as I mused last week). True or untrue, full story or sketch, what we know is often just a fraction of what we could. 

So what DO we know? For me, books are a way to explore this question, to look at human frailty in the context of universal stories rendered specific by authors who lead us on the search for what an Episcopal priest I know calls “Big T Truths.” Books allow some distance — fictional detachment in the case of novels and poems, reflective analysis in the case of history, memoir, and narrative prose — through which we can try to reach what is known and unknown. Which is one reason I read. Books are a far more comfortable home for ambiguity than news.

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