Archive for August, 2013

Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.


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I’m finishing up the column for September, which will run on 9/8 in the Concord Monitor.

I’m reviewing Howard Mansfield‘s Dwelling In Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter

and wrote shorter reviews of:

Abigail Carroll‘s history book Three Squares: the Invention of the American Meal

Susan Crowther‘s The No Recipe Cookbook: a Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Cooking

Katharine Britton‘s novel, Little Island

and I’ll post the link and the text of my column here when it’s up.


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Friday night we stayed home and read books. The Computer Scientist was trying to finish a library book that was due Saturday. I started A Street Cat Named Bob: and How He Saved My Life by James Bowen. And finished it about an hour or so later.

James Bowen was barely making ends meet as a busker in Covent Garden, recovering from years of homelessness and drug addiction, when he came home one evening to find a ginger tom cat in his apartment building in north London. Bowen nursed the injured cat back to health, dubbed him Bob and delighted in their new friendship. One day Bob followed him onto the bus, settling into his guitar case when Bowen set up to perform. He quickly realized Bob was a draw. People also treated Bowen better when Bob joined him. People who’d ignored or judged him before looked at him differently: “Seeing me with my cat softened me in their eyes. It humanised me . . . . I had been a non-person; I was becoming a person again.”

Bob’s antics – he watches horse races on TV, smacks a menacing dog with a swift paw, rides on Bowen’s shoulders, and teaches himself to use the toilet — are quite entertaining. And the way that caring for Bob brought Bowen new purpose, structure, and love as he put his life back together makes this a heart-warming read. Bowen’s compelling personal story reminds readers of the discrimination and danger street musicians and vendors face daily and the challenges that remain even after a homeless person finds a safe place to live. And of the difference small acts of kindness and community resources (like libraries, where Bowen often used the computers) can make for someone putting his life back together.

I’ve seen the softening effect of our own stray cat on my family these past three years — when someone is upset or stressed, she has a way of relieving the pressure and bringing us into the present moment. Being the object of a pet’s affections is a great way to get out of your own head. Our local paper has covered both our human homeless population and a colony of feral cats downtown. As I read A Street Cat Named Bob I couldn’t help but wonder whether these two communities have something to offer each other.

That might sound silly, but I think one of the strongest points the book makes is that Bowen became more determined to take his life back because he was responsible for Bob. For someone who’d lost touch with his family and whose friends sometimes offered the temptations of his old life, having a pet was an anchor. Bob offered more than companionship — he gave Bowen a reason to be his best self.

For now I don’t have the resources to start a nonprofit “sheltered housing”*/pet shelter. But I wonder if anyone’s every tried it? Leave a comment if you’ve ever heard of an organization helping get both people and animals off the street together.

*Sheltered housing in the UK helps the elderly and “vulnerable” people live independently with support and services to help them stay that way.


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Here’s the column. I reviewed The Telling Room: a Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti and Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley. You can also read it at the Concord Monitor‘s website.


For the Monitor

Sunday, August 11, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, August 11, 2013)

In 1991, Michael Paterniti learned about a famous Spanish cheese, Paramo de Guzman, while proofreading a newsletter for Ann Arbor, Mich.’s Zingerman’s deli. Years later he came across that newsletter as he was planning a reporting trip to Spain. He tracked down cheesemaker Ambrosio Molinos and made plans to travel to his village, Guzman. When Paterniti met Ambrosio, “the great storyteller, who held the real secrets of the world as well as the key to its happiness,” he heard what he summarizes in The Telling Room’s subtitle: “A tale of love, betrayal, revenge, and the world’s greatest piece of cheese.”

Paterniti’s book is also the tale of a writer torn between “American life . . . messy and maddening . . . but . . . deeply comforting, too” and Ambrosio’s old way, “in which there seemed to be more time for family and conversation, for stories and food.” In pursuing the story of the cheese in which he “sensed the presence of purity and transcendence,” Paterniti traveled to Guzman many times over a decade, and even moved his family there for several months. He spent hours with Ambrosio, most memorably in his bodega, a “handmade cave dating back to the time before refrigeration.”

In the contador, or telling room, above the cave, they ate, drank and talked. And even shared the last Paramo de Guzman. Paterniti says, “Oh, it was a strong cheese, a Herculean cheese . . . tangy and tart. . . . With the first crumble it spread slowly, in lava flow, across the palatal landscape, tasting of minerals and luscious buttercream, of chamomile and thyme. It tasted of flower and dirt, manure and nectar – and perhaps love and hate, too.”

But Paterniti fell not just for the cheese, or even the cheesemaker, but for the endless stories, which make the book sing. Several times, he set aside The Telling Room to write the award-winning journalism he’s known for. But he kept returning to Ambrosio’s stories of friendship, family and grudges; of food and wine, farming and truck driving; of Old Castile, El Cid, Guzman and the Spanish Civil War. Lengthy footnotes on all kinds of topics trace Paterniti’s digressions.

Collecting conflicting stories about Ambrosio’s lost cheese business, he recognized that every story has “an alternative narrative.” As he spoke with Ambrosio’s childhood friend Julian, Paterniti “wondered whether time is the only truth-teller, the trickle that over aeons formed the honest canyon.” But he saw that even family stories include “certain inaccuracies inadvertently passed on to us.” Flawed or not, they become “explanations about who we were and what we believed.”

As he struggled to finish the book, Paterniti realized, “I was telling myself a story, too.” What The Telling Roomcelebrates is the human impulse for storytelling, and the way our stories, whether strictly true or metaphysically so, bind us together. This book may very well put you in the mood to hang out in a telling room of your own (ours is the screened porch) with family and friends, sharing stories.

Entranced with ‘Paris’

Paterniti, his wife, writer Sara Corbett, and Susan Conley co-founded a nonprofit also called The Telling Room, where children in Portland, Maine, learn to write and share their stories. Many immigrant and refugee kids participate, which may be why Conley’s novel, Paris Was the Place, features young asylum seekers. Conley’s detailed rendering of 1980s Paris swept me up, as did her protagonist, Willie Pears, an American poetry professor who volunteers at a detention center for teenage asylum applicants, preparing girls to speak at their hearings. Sophie, the center’s administrator, tells Willie, “Make their stories so sad that there’s not a dry eye in the house and even God’s eyes are crying, yes.”

Willie falls in love with Macon, a lawyer representing asylum seekers. But this book is not a simple girl-meets-boy story. Willie comes alive through her relationships, especially with her brother, Luke, who contracts a seemingly unexplainable illness, and his Norwegian partner, Gaird; Macon and his young son Pablo; and Gita, an Indian girl from the asylum center who Willie offers guardianship. Readers are immersed in Willie’s life in Paris, but also in her unusual upbringing in California, her maverick parents, and her work tracking down and analyzing the original manuscripts of the feminist Indian poet Sarojini Nadu.

Rarely have I come across a fictional character portrayed so thoroughly. Through Willie’s friends and family and work, Conley explores love’s capacity to overpower life’s many imperfections, and she does so without making the complications in the novel unrealistic or gratuitous. The characters’ emotions ring true, even if the dialogue sounds slightly strange at times, perhaps because the characters are meant to sound foreign. But this beautiful book, woven from so many stories, entranced me anyway.

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I’ve shared several Bellevue Literary Press books with bookconscious readers (many of which I’ve heard about because of the talented Molly Mikolowski, one of the best publicists in the industry) — TinkersThe SojournUnderstories, The Polish Boxer – and I’ve loved them all. BLP brings readers amazing books that defy easy categorization or mass marketing. If you want a good read, many publishers can offer that. If you want an amazing, transformative read that will settle down in your memory and open a dialogue with the best books you’ve read, a book that will challenge you to new levels of emotional and intellectual perception, a reading experience that might blow your heart open or change your worldview, go to the Bellevue Literary Press website and pick any book.

For example, Ghost Moth by Michele Forbes. This lovely book sounds slighter than it is: the story of Katherine, a mother in Belfast on the cusp of The Troubles in 1969, who has a frightening experience while swimming in the sea which triggers memories of the summer twenty years earlier when she got engaged and incidents which remain just below the surface of her marriage.

Straightforward in lesser hands, but Forbes’ prose is like a masterful painting you see at a museum: at first glance you may respond to the beauty, the color and texture, composition and themes. But the longer you look the more you realize the artwork is powerful, it’s both contained and expansive, incredible in and of itself, but also able to impact the way you feel, the way you view this work and everything else you see in the museum.

That’s what this novel, like other books I’ve read from BLP, does. Here’s a paragraph that shows what I mean:

“How heavily it rained. It was as though the weather could not stop itself. Rain fell from a liquid sky like pellets of broken silver, battering against the buildings and the pavements, falling so suddenly and heavily that the earth did not have time to drink it in. Water spilled off the streets and the gardens, running in long furious ropes into the rivers and the sea. As Katherine closed the door of the church hall behind her, the rain hammered on it as though it wanted to get it.”

By itself, evocative, even muscular prose, this paragraph opens a chapter in which emotional tension thickens and bursts. The rainstorm sets the scene and also the psychological tone, as Katherine feels worse and worse about an untenable situation she has found herself in and finally, makes a rash, impactful decision.

I could quote many other passages. The sections which portray long marriage are profound and lovely and make a hero of solid, dependable George and his kind of quiet love. Ditto the chapters about motherhood. There are taut, indelible scenes — children provoking each other with dares, the firebombing of a Catholic shop, and a school swim class, to name a few — which read as if burned into memory.

Even towards the end, when readers may feel as if the story’s progress is chugging down a familiar track to a destination that’s vaguely recognizable, Forbes’ exquisite writing keeps Ghost Moth fresh and moving. This is a terrific novel, and like everything I’ve read from Bellevue Literary Press, it’s one that will stay with me.

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It’s deadline day. Next Sunday in the Concord Monitor you can check out The Mindful Reader. This month’s books are The Telling Room: a Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti and Paris Was the Place by Susan Conley.

Interestingly, Paterniti, his wife, the writer Sara Corbett, and Susan Conley are co-founders of Portland Maine nonprofit The Telling Room. Which looks like a dream gig — helping kids come together to write and share their stories.

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This week I finished a couple of inter-library loans, each about a prominent woman whose work was of the highest caliber but whose accomplishments are always discussed in terms of their gender. Marie Curie is one of the greatest scientists of all time, Chiyo-ni is one of the greats of Japanese literature. Each is generally spoken of as a woman who exceeded expectations, not just as an accomplished person.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Falloutby Lauren Redniss, is a beautiful book, a graphic biography with cyanotype art, a glow in the dark cover, and more than the usual life story of Marie Curie. Redniss portrays Marie & Pierre’s great love for each other and for their work, Marie’s second Nobel prize and the scandal around her relationship (as a widow) with a married colleague, the redemption of her reputation as she provided dozens of mobile and field x-ray units during WWI, and her post-war celebrity, as well as the incredible legacies of her life, including children and grandchildren who became prominent scientists.

Through art (including a custom font she created for the book) and text, Redniss also explores the “fallout” of the Curies’ work: nuclear weapons, radiation treatment, and nuclear energy, including interviews with a victim of Hiroshima, a man who grew up watching bomb tests in Utah, and a scientist studying Chernobyl, photos of mutant flowers growing near Three Mile Island, and an interview with a couple who regularly visit a radon spa in Montana. It’s a lovely, moving, thought provoking, and fascinating book.

Chiyo-Ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi is part biography, part anthology of a hundred of Chiyo-Ni’s haiku, arranged by season, as well as examples of her haibun (prose with haiku, a form made famous by Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North) and renga (linked forms, where two or more poets write haiku to form a longer work). Chiyo-ni published two poetry collections (a rare feat at the time) and her work appeared in a stunning 120+ anthologies in her lifetime (1703-1775). She became a Pure Land Buddhist nun at age 52, and her poems are known for their enlightened clarity. She wrote one of her most famous,

a hundred gourds
from the heart
of one vine

at age 24, when a Buddhist master asked her to compose a poem on sankai, “desire, form, and nonform.” As the story goes, he was stunned when she spontaneously wrote the gourd poem, which illustrated that “everything arises from the mind.” But, in her time and ours, she’s been called a woman poet, not just one of the greatest poets in Japanese literature. Do we call Basho a man poet?

I am intensely curious about why human beings feel the need to label each other and why women are viewed as doing something especially remarkable if they excel in a “male” field. It still happens today. The Computer Scientist shared this video with me and our teens this week, showing female “geeks” (gaming, comic, and anime/manga fans) who’ve experienced sexist attitudes about their interests, which are already disparaged in mainstream culture (hence the nickname “geeks”).

I just heard a piece on NPR about the Women’s British Open, where Inbee Park could win a 4th major this year (a feat no golfer, male or female, has accomplished). The reporter said he hoped Park would “get her due” if she wins. He went on to note that the LPGA tends to promote “sex appeal” rather than “great golf” and Park isn’t a “glam girl.” Why wouldn’t sports fans be at least as impressed with Park as they were with Phil Mickelson, who finally won the men’s British Open after many attempts? He’s no glam girl either.

Before you hit the comment button, I’m not saying men and women are the same, I know there are differences. But can’t we judge people’s actions and accomplishments on their merits without dwelling on labeling them by gender or race or age or any other label? I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, but it can’t hurt to try.

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