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Archive for June, 2013

Teen the Elder is working as a summer intern at New Hampshire Citizens Alliance,where he is one of the only men in the office. During his first week he asked me if I knew what the difference in pay is between men and women in New Hampshire (the average woman earns $0.78 for every $1 earned by a man in our state). He seemed optimistic that the gap will close.

I thought about that as I read Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann. The co-protagonists of the book, New Yorkers Amanda Rosenbloom, a contemporary woman who owns a vintage clothing shop and Olive Wescott, an aspiring department store buyer in 1907, both deal with gender and class issues as they struggle to find fulfilling work to support themselves and lasting relationships to sustain them. In Olive’s time, Woolworth’s owner pays shop girls low wages to encourage them to marry and stay home, where he thinks they belong. Amanda loves her work but only stays afloat thanks to loans from her married lover. When she’s threatened with eviction she realizes her shop’s future is more precarious than she thought.

Here’s the review I wrote for the library’s “Beyond the Bestseller” feature:

“Amanda Rosenbloom owns Astor Place Vintage clothing shop but finds more than some beautiful old dresses when she visits 98 year old Jane Kelly. Among the consigned items is a fur muff with a diary from 1907 hidden inside. Amanda, who loves New York history, reads the diary and learns about Olive Wescott, a 19 year old orphan who hopes to become a department store buyer. She’s just lost her father & her income and struggles with expectations about her gender and class as she finds work, settles into a boarding house, and makes new friends. Amanda faces losing her store lease, undergoes hypnosis for insomnia, and vows to break up once and for all with her high-school-sweetheart-married-lover and find a man she can start a family with before she hits menopause. Lehmann deftly weaves Amanda’s and Olive’s stories, taking readers on a virtual tour of old New York (with vintage photos to aid the imagination) in the process. As the novel unfolds it becomes clear that although women today enjoy more rights and freedoms, they have many of the same concerns, dreams, ambitions and desires as their sisters of a century ago. A fun, interesting, thought provoking read for history buffs and fans of Joanna Trollope and Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge. An excellent choice for book clubs.”

I didn’t love Mr. Selfridge — I actually never finished watching it — but I loved the history it evoked and the ideas it tried to explore about women and their ambitions and hopes for balancing family and work. And the costumes and sets, which I pictured as I read Astor Place Vintage. Lehmann’s research, which she describes in an interview published in the back of the book, sounds really interesting and I look forward to meeting her tomorrow at Main Street Bookends in Warner.

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I love a book that lingers on the mind long after you’ve reached the last page. In some cases I think this happens because a book is beautifully written and thought provoking. In some cases it simply speaks to your own experience, or to the human condition, so clearly that it makes you, the reader, more human simply by reading it.

The Moviegoer is both. I’d never read Walker Percy and I have to credit the New York Times Sunday Book Review‘s “What I Read That Summer” article, where I read about Walter Isaacson’s meeting his friend’s uncle, Walker Percy, and his discovery of Percy’s books. I checked out The Moviegoer that evening at the library.

Binx Bolling is twenty-nine, a war veteran (Korean, I think) managing a small brokerage office in the family firm in New Orleans, having a string of affairs with a series of secretaries, and going to movies. “It is not a bad life at all,” as he says. He’s on a bus on the way to see his aunt, who has summonsed him to lunch, and checking out a pretty woman seated across the aisle, when he recalls an idea he had earlier: “the search.”  He explains, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. . . . To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

If that sounds like Kierkegaard, it should. Percy’s epigraph is from The Sickness Unto Death: “. . . the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.”  Binx undertakes his search during Mardi Gras and we go along as he promises to look after his mentally fragile cousin Kate, tries half-heartedly to start a new affair, visits his mother and his half-siblings, travels to Chicago for a conference.

I was totally drawn into his existential wanderings, I was in New Orleans (where I’ve never actually been) I could hear the voices of these characters, I ate their lunch. Ok, I didn’t eat their lunch, but you see what I mean? Walker Percy made me Binx Bolling. And he made me more me.

I was trying to figure out what I didn’t like about the last Gibsons’ Book Club selection, The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry. After the meeting, I felt a little churlish for stating my dislike strongly and also a little disappointed that nothing my fellow book club members said changed my mind (which has happened, and I’ve enjoyed, in the past). When I read The Moviegoer I got it.

On Ash Wednesday Binx thinks: “There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journeys and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.” This is the subtle, heartbreaking, tender, tenous, holy mess of life. This is love and faith and doubt and every loss or gain a person can experience. When you’ve drunk in a masterpiece like The Moviegoer you don’t really need words to explain why some “it” books disappoint. You feel it in every cell.

Good books capture what it is to be human. When someone raves about a book and I read it and it doesn’t, in Seamus Heaney’s words, “catch the heart off guard and blow it open,” well, that’s disappointing. I’ll grant that some days, that’s not what I’m after. As my dear friend YeVette says, some days she doesn’t want to think, she just wants a dead body in her book. But when you’re looking for more, give Walker Percy a try. Just be ready for Binx to stay a while after you close the book.

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Here’s the link to the Mindful Reader column in today’s Concord Monitor.

I’ve pasted the text below for anyone who can’t take the link.

Keeping Her Eyes Open

“While wandering down the road of life, it helps to look for something more meaningful than oneself .  .  . .  I find it by keeping my eyes open,” writes Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in A Million Years With You. “I see it in the stars when I look up and the soil when I look down . . . .” Fortunately for readers, her keen observation, attentive and inquisitive nature, and thoughtful, unvarnished writing grace numerous books devoted to sharing what she’s seen. This time she turns to a fascinating subject: herself.

From doing groundbreaking anthropological fieldwork with her family in Africa at eighteen to studying animal behavior, writing for the New Yorker to serving on the Peterborough Board of Selectmen, meeting Idi Amin to struggling with addiction, helping her grown children overcome grave injuries to surviving breast cancer, Thomas reflects on her life. She maintains a tone of wonder and gratitude, as well as gently self-deprecating humor: “. . . if you want a long marriage,” she advises, “. . . marry young and wait.”

Thomas examines her parents’ and grandparents’ role in nurturing her lifelong affinity for the natural world, her perseverance in the face of life’s obstacles, and her faith in wisdom, human and animal. There is a great deal of wisdom to glean from this memoir as well as sheer enjoyment. Thomas generously shares what she’s learned through her experiences, and tells a good story, too.

Poetry, Money, and Food

Hillsborough poet Martha Carlson-Bradley’s second full length collection, Sea Called Fruitfulness, addresses ideas contemporary and historical, individual and communal, emotional and intellectual. Her poems brim with visceral imagery – flies landing on fruit and tripe in a market, gall bladder removal, “the wafer, Giovanni, working/ its miracle –  body of Christ – on the hot/damp expanse of the tongue.” They are lyrical, rich in sound and rhythm. The title derives from the 1651 Riccioli-Grimaldi map of the moon, created by two Jesuit astronomers. Carlson-Bradley addresses or imagines the two in several poems such as “Bearings,” where they walk “while Bologna’s roofs and porticoes/ cut the world into heated planes of red clay/ and coverts of shadow . . . .” In others, like “Heavenly Body,” she roots her themes in human experience, “. . . that wave of hormonal blues,/. . . my body, abandoned,/ was hollowed out—his soul no longer/my center of gravity.” Notes reveal the extensive research that went into this thoughtful, expressive collection.

Vermonter Ben Hewitt’s $aved: How I Quit Worrying About Money and Became the Richest Guy in the World, is thought-provoking; I marked dozens of passages. Hewitt’s friend, Eric practices “self-imposed frugality,” making him both the poorest and the wealthiest person Hewitt knows. Hewitt studied his friend’s understanding of money and wealth and ended up learning the intricacies of monetary policy and the economy, the physical and conceptual definitions of money and debt, the social and environmental impact of our “unconscious economy,” and patterns of earning, spending and saving disconnected from the true sources of wealth in our lives – time spent with family, community, and issues and pursuits we care about. He’s a terrific writer, clear, funny, observant, even poetic: “We are repeatedly told that the path to prosperity and contentment is the one paved by the commodity economy, the one that separates and compartmentalizes us. We have been told this so often, and for so long, that sometimes we forget to take our eyes off the path, to look up and around. To look forward. To look inward.” $aved made me laugh and think.

To Eat: A Country Life, Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd’s last book together (Winterrowd died in 2010), is an artful tribute to their seven acre southern Vermont garden and their passion for raising, preparing, and eating food together. Even lettuce becomes luxuriant in their exuberant and informative hands. Bobbi Angell’s drawings and Beatrice Tosti di Valminuta’s recipes, along with Eck & Winterrowd’s elegant prose, take readers through the northern New England seasons, featuring one food per chapter. The book is seasoned with history, anecdotes, and abundant practical advice, and with reverence for land and tradition, “ . . . the deepest reward of a country life is that its deliberate embrace of a small conserving ethic opens one to the rhythms, values, habits and flavors of another time.” Whether or not you garden, To Eat is a vicarious pleasure.

My family hopes I’ll review more cookbooks like Yankee Magazine’s Lost and Vintage Recipes by Amy Traverso and Yankee’s editors. I made “Shirred Eggs and Ham,” “Fan Tan Rolls,” “Yankee’s Crisp-Chewy Waffle Iron Brownies,” and “One-Week Ginger Beer.” Everything turned out as described (and pictured in Heath Robbins’ mouthwatering photographs). My son liked the brownies enough to make another batch. I cut the spicy non-alcoholic ginger beer with seltzer; my neighbor mixed it with sparkling wine, an excellent variation. I enjoyed Traverso’s notes on the recipes, which “tell the rich story of our region’s people and places.” She notes “our mothers and grandmothers were making rich dishes . . . without creating a national obesity epidemic,” and suggests readers “needn’t fear . . . but, rather . . . enjoy them in moderation.” One quibble with this otherwise wonderful volume: the font is too small for reading across the kitchen counter.

 

 

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On Monday I read a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about Colum McCann. Joel Lovell, who also wrote a very enjoyable piece on George Saunders this year, talked to McCann about his new book and writing but also traveled with him to meet a group of kids at the Newtown, CT high school who read Let the Great World Spin after the shootings at Sandyhook Elementary. Their teacher, Lee Keylock, chose the book as a way to help himself, as well as his students, work through their grief and disbelief and invited McCann to come to the class.

The last three paragraphs of the article, which describe Lovell’s and McCann’s visit with Keylock’s students, are incredible journalism, which take you right into that school and those conversations, and remind you that human beings may have an outsized capacity to hurt each other, but we do a hell of a good job at helping each other as well. The piece reminded me of Rolf Dobelli’s contention that news is bad for us (which I wrote about here). It hit me that “bad” news lacks the humanity I felt leaping off the page in Lovell’s piece, connecting me to these people I’d never met.

McCann told the students a bit about a new nonprofit project he co-founded — Narrative4 — explaining, as Lovell writes, that it “brings together kids from different places — sometimes directly contentious places, sometimes just places with their own hardships — and how over a span of days the kids pair off, one from each place, and exchange the story that most defines who they are. At the end of their time together, they tell the stories to the larger group, taking on the persona of their partner — an exercise, McCann said, in “radical empathy.” The image of young people “taking on the persona of their partner,” inhabiting each other’s stories, really got to me. That could be life-changing, so also world-changing.

I went to Narrative4’s website and blog and learned that many authors I’ve written about and even a few I’ve met, like the wonderful Firoozeh Dumas, are a part of it. And that all of us can participate in the project’s radical empathy by donating a little bit (as little as $5) at the website to read over 100 stories by authors who wanted to help launch Narrative4. 

There is a connection between my visceral reaction to this project and what I’m reading. I just finished Jane Gardam’s Last Friends, which revisits the characters in Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat. The book is a heart-rending look at how our life stories stay in our hearts and minds and souls right into old age, and impact our relationships and our inner monologue to the end. Gardam doesn’t flinch away from despair, and her elderly characters aren’t just sweet old souls, they are whole people with a trail of hurts and misunderstandings in their wake. But they are also, like all of us, capable of what McCann described to the students: “optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’” I thoroughly enjoyed Last Friends.

Finally, a true story: yesterday I bought Stray Bullet, Gary Rivlin’s piece on Atavist (Gary is a terrific writer and is also married to my cousin). I downloaded it to my iPad but you can also read Atavist stories on your computer. Stray Bullet is about Tony Davis, a man serving life in prison for the murder of a teenager in 1990. Gary met him while writing his first book, Drive By, and the two became friends. I’ve only just started it but I’m hooked.

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