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Archive for September, 2013

It’s been a while since I read a book that made me want to stay up too late or get up early to read. The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence did both.

The hero of Extence’s debut novel is Alex Woods, a seventeen year old from Lower Godley, a village near Glastonbury. When we meet him it’s the middle of the night, he’s just off a ferry from France, he’s had a partial seizure, and he’s being arrested for having a bagful of marijuana, a considerable amount of cash, and an urn full of ashes in the car. As he sits in police custody he reviews how he ended up in this situation.

We learn that he’s the child of a single mother who operates a witchcraft shop and does tarot readings, and who conceived him at Stonehenge with a man she never saw again. When he was ten, he was the victim of a freak accident:a meteorite streaked through the sky over his home, broke through the bathroom ceiling, and hit him squarely on the head. When he came to a couple of weeks later he had a scar that would prevent him from growing a normal head of hair ever again and a brain injury that caused his epilepsy.

By the time he began secondary school, Alex was firmly “different.” Besides having an unusual mother, he did well in school, was “poor” in the view of his peers (which meant “not having the right stuff,” he explains), had a shaved head, and liked to feed ducks, learn about space, read, and care for his regularly-pregnant cat Lucy — all “gay” behavior as far as the school bullies were concerned. One Saturday three of them chased him through the village. Alex crashed through a hedge, took shelter in a shed, and had a seizure. When he woke up the shed’s owner, Mr. Peterson, (an American, Vietnam vet, and widower) was pointing a gun at him. It turns out the thugs smashed some windows and left Alex to take the blame.

Alex’s mother made him agree to do chores at Mr. Peterson’s house to make amends. His first task was to type Amnesty International letters. As he got to know Mr. Peterson he began to borrow his Kurt Vonnegut novels. And they became friends — one review suggests Mr. Peterson is a father figure, but I’d argue that’s not the case. As Alex tells it, Mr. Peterson treated him as an equal, not a child.

Other adults also factored into Alex’s strange upbringing. From his neurologist, Dr. Enderby, he learned meditation, which tames his epilepsy even better than medication does. From Dr. Weir, the astrophysicist who saved the meteorite from trophy hunters while he was hospitalized, he discovered his affinity for science. From the librarians at Glastonbury Library and other members of Alex’s Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, which he advertised as “a book club for people interested in all or some of the following: morality, ecology, time travel, extraterrestial life, twentieth-century history, humanism, humor, et cetera) he learned that his interests and views were valid and valued.

So why is he sitting in a police interrogation room? He’s had to make life-altering decisions. Not about university education. Not about his strange relationship with Ellie, a classmate who works for his mother. Alex is unlike other teens, and the challenge he faced turns out to be unusual as well: Mr. Peterson needed help with two things that were perhaps ethically and morally right based on his circumstances, but illegal, at least in England. If I say any more I’ll give away too much of the plot.

So what was simply a quirky, funny, perceptive coming-of-age story is suddenly entangled with moral conundrums. I could not wait to learn the outcome.This much I can say: Alex, who was a bit of a twit to his mother and a bit too attached to his own precocious loner status, proves himself to be a deeply thoughtful and compassionate young man who copes with what happens with grace and love.

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I’ve said it before (but at the time I may have still been events coordinator at our local indie bookstore, and therefore professionally invested in exhorting people to attend) and I’ll say it again: there’s nothing quite like hearing an author read and discuss his or her work. Take Paul Harding, who I heard at Gibson’s today. Admittedly I’ve said many times I could listen to him read his grocery list and learn something. But hearing him read from his new book Enon helped me understand the reaction I’d had to the book in a way even discussing it with other readers couldn’t.

I read this book during my vacation reading binge. I came away feeling somewhat drained; I describe Enon as devastatingly brilliant and just plain devastating. I chatted with a writer friend about what we each thought — it’s stylistically different than Tinkers, which Paul* described today as an unlineated lyric poem. Enon is first person narrative, a book with dialogue. She felt Enon wasn’t as “tight” as Tinkers and said although she admired it she didn’t enjoy it, which gave me pause.

I agreed but then rescinded that feeling today: I stand by my original assertion that I enjoyed it. It’s a tough book, emotionally. But even in its darkest parts, Paul noted, he made sure never to extinguish the light altogether; he hoped the light — hope — would be the brighter for the darkness. Paul described it today as a ghost story, and a book about a person, Charlie Crosby, experiencing grief.

He noted that a narrative about an actual grieving person is not a meditation on grief. Instead, he called it a lamentation, a psalm. He said that Charlie’s sense he shouldn’t be doing what he’s doing, and then his doing it anyway, is straight out of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I sat there thinking “that’s so true, and I hadn’t thought of that.” A few minutes later he said something I’ve heard him say before: that he tells his students, what a writer should strive for is that readers will read a sentence and say “that’s true, and I’ve always known it but I’ve never seen someone put it into words like this before.”

That sense of profound truth, of human experience writ both small, in the story of a particular person, and large, in the sense you get reading it that this man is every man who ever lived, now and in the past and the future, that time has compressed, as Paul would have it, and that reading this book reveals what is, what was, and what will be in the human heart, well, that is just about as beautiful an experience as a reader can have.

And that is why I enjoyed Enon, in all its devastating, heartbreaking, gutsy raw truth.  The literary pyrotechnics aside — Paul’s inordinate skill at not only writing prose that it strong and powerful and lovely but also at weaving so much detail into his world that you feel you could walk through the town of Enon and know your way — this book will enter your mind and heart. Paul Harding makes me see the world differently. It’s both a more difficult and a more hopeful place, which I always knew, and never heard anyone else put it into words quite the same way before.

*I’ve spoken with him several times and actually sold a copy of Tinkers to his mother at one of his events before I realized that’s who she was. Also he’s possibly the only Pulitzer prize winner I’ll be on a first name basis with, so I’m taking the liberty of referring to him as Paul.

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Today’s book section of the Concord Monitor includes an “oral history” from Maxine Kumin introduced by Mike Pride, an interview Hillary Nelson did with Paul Harding, and my column. Perhaps because the section was so full, the end of my column was lopped off. So here’s the link, but you can read the original version below.

September 2013 Mindful Reader column

by Deb Baker

Howard Mansfield’s Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter is erudite, thoughtful, and deeply interesting. Like a novel-in stories, this is a book of linked meditative essays. Mansfield turns his powers of observation, his keen eye for illuminating details and anecdotes, and his thorough research to an exploration of what makes us feel at home.

First, he examines “Dwelling in the Ordinary” – exploring life at home after the ice storm in 2008, “The Age of Clutter” and the cult of organizing, the Zimmerman House in Manchester, and Hancock, New Hampshire’s attempt to modernize but preserve a footpath. The next section looks at “Dwelling in Destruction,” and covers the development of official policies to destroy homes during WWII and the Vietnam War and the work of sheltering victims of Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi. Finally Mansfield spends time “Dwelling in Possibility” as a census taker, an admirer of sheds (including saunas and bob houses, work sheds and barns, covered bridges and meetinghouses, A-frames and Quonset huts, cabins, teahouses, and “anti-sheds”), and a student of “dwelling.”

Mansfield notes, “The mystery that holds my attention is that some houses have life – are home, are dwellings – and others don’t.” From FEMA trailers to the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, from trends in “stuff” to David Budbill’s poem “The Chainsaw Dance” in which “Hermie Newcome lived in a bread truck,” Mansfield roams New England’s dwellings, and roams literature, and then holds forth in his accessible but cerebral style. You could learn something from any page of this gem of a book.

Whenever I read Mansfield’s work I come away feeling not only informed, but expanded. His books don’t just sit on the surface of my mind, but enter it, giving me pause, inspiring me to think in new ways and invoking old conceptions which surface in fresh form. And he does this with grace and humor, which makes it possible to digest the steady flow of ideas without feeling overwhelmed. “We are most at home,” Mansfield writes, “when we’re sheltered completely, body and soul.” Dwelling in Possibility is a shelter for the intellect, inviting, warm, and true.

Vermont historian Abigail Carroll’s new book, Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal examines the origins and development of breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as Americans’ notoriously copious snacks. From the earliest settlers to the current day, Carroll looks at how food and eating habits reflected the growth of our nation and are intertwined with American identity and culture. “Take breakfast, for example. When we pour milk into a  bowl heaped with rice puffs or bran flakes, we probably don’t realize that this morning meal has a lot to do with nineteenth-century religious health reforms . . . . Lunch and dinner are also living artifacts that say as much about the cultures and ideals of the eras in which they were born as they do about our modern lives today.” Why look back on these origins? Carroll notes, “the connection between obesity and the unraveling of meal patterns becomes more compelling every year. . . . Perhaps the family meal is worth saving . . . .” She draws on historical accounts of ordinary Americans’ eating habits as well as reformers, nutritionists, social commentators, and food critics whose “voices offer a compass with which to navigate the future.” A fascinating, readable history.

In The No Recipe Cookbook: a Beginner’s Guide to the Art of Cooking, Brattleboro chef  Susan Crowther uses charts, lists, and a breezy Q&A style to explain the essential principles  and techniques of cooking. Peppering her instruction with anecdotes from her own education at the Culinary Institute of America and training under master chefs, she covers how to choose ingredients, put a meal together from what’s on hand, combine seasonings, prepare food and know when it’s done. There’s a good bit to learn here, if you can get past the cute headings (“The Good, the Bad, and the Smoothie”) wordplay (vegetarian proteins are “meetz”) and distracting design (multiple fonts and text colors, frequent italics and overuse of capital letters). Crowther is passionate about her subject. I appreciated that she cautions against eating meat but admits craving it herself, but other advice came across as less tolerant, such as an anti-caffeine “soapbox.” That said, if you want to gain confidence or learn more about experimenting in the kitchen or you’re curious about what’s taught in culinary school, The No Recipe Cookbook is an interesting, informative resource.

Vermont author Katharine Britton’s second novel, Little Island, is a family tale replete with misunderstandings, secrets, and sibling dynamics. Set mostly at the Little family’s inn on an island off the coast of Maine, it’s the story of Grace, whose mother Joan left a cryptic note Grace interprets as her last wishes:

“Grace

Flowers

By the Water

Have Fun!”

And it’s the story of Grace’s children, Joy, whose only child has just left for college, and twins Tamar, a power lawyer whose insecurities are impacting her own young twins and her marriage, and Roger, the family black sheep. The family gathers for Joan’s memorial service, bringing their baggage, and it’s a revelatory weekend for all. I really enjoyed Britton’s portrayal of Grace and her husband Gar, whose marriage has withstood all the buffeting of parenthood and inn keeping. Their calm acceptance of life’s dramas anchor the story. Joy wonders “How many of us live lives driven by rules and assumptions that we never test?” but also realizes it’s never too late to adjust course, a comforting message for readers facing their own major life changes. A good read for fans of “hen lit” or family drama.

Sidebar:

Howard Mansfield will read at Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main Street, on Wednesday, Oct. 2, and Katharine Britton will be there on October 17, both at 7pm.

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Ok, book people, I have a confession. Before this week I’d never read one of Neil Gaiman’s books. I’ve seen Coraline and I’ve bought or checked out from the library his books for young readers for my daughter. As a librarian, I’ve followed his work and sometimes read his blog and noted all the very kind things he says about libraries on his website and just about every time he speaks. But I’d never read one of his books.

And now I have. And I want to go into a cozy room by myself and read all the rest of them over the course of a few days, and do nothing else.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I’m told by some die hard fans, isn’t even his best work. But I loved it. I want to still be reading it. I want to be IN it, although I don’t want to be the sister.

This story is about a man who returns to the road he lived on as a child, in rural England, when he’s in town for a funeral. He finds himself visiting the farm at the end of the road (lane) where the Hempstocks lived, a grandmother, mother, and daughter, Lettie, who he knew when he was seven and Lettie was eleven. As he sits “on the dilapidated green bench beside the duck pond” — or ocean, as Lettie called it — he is unsure why he is there. But he remembers.

His remembering is almost a reliving, it’s that vivid. You get the sense when he’s done, he’s worn out as if from a very strong dream. And when you read his remembrances you too get that out-of-time-and-place, almost lost feeling, as if anything could happen. I recognize that feeling. I had it as a child, whenever I was able to read for hours, so totally immersed in a book it was as if I’d entered its world. Which I still love to do when I can.

I won’t give away too many specifics about The Ocean at the End of the Lane except to say the writing is meaty and juicy, so descriptive it drips with sensory details. It’s about a man recalling himself as a little boy and the strange women he met and what happened and what he came to know as a result, but it’s also about human nature, and how what we think we want may not be what we really want, how we’re influenced by forces outside of us to act on impulses we don’t stop to understand. It’s also a book about agape, the kind of unconditional love that sacrifices itself for another.

If you have a few hours this weekend, treat yourself to reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane in one sitting so you can feel like a child again, free to while away an afternoon in a comfortable spot with a book, and if possible, a pet to keep you company. This book, I’d say, is good for sharing with a cat.

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I just finished Nicholson Baker’s novel Traveling Sprinkler, due out Sept. 17, which takes up the story of Paul Chowder, poet and former bassoonist, who was struggling to finish the introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry when we met him in The Anthologist. I was glad to see Paul again; here’s what I wrote about him when I reviewed the book here: “Chowder is such a richly wrought character — you feel like you know him well by the end of this short book. . . .(I felt) as if I’d had a long satisfying discussion with an old friend when I got to the last page.”

This time I felt as if I’d listened to a long, interesting podcast. Maybe because Traveling Sprinkler is just as concerned with the sound of things but this time, instead of poems, it’s the sound of Debussy’s compositions, electronic dance music, chords, bassoon solos, lots of songs, very nuanced parts of songs and their singers’ voices, a barn floor collapsing, a traveling sprinkler, the end of a headphone cord stuck in a car door bouncing along the road, little sounds in the silence of a Quaker meeting.

In between these riffs on sounds, Paul Chowder teaches us about cigars, all kinds of music (and composers, singers, performers, instruments, recordings), the history of the CIA, drone warfare, the iron content of black strap molasses, Logic music software, chickens, traveling sprinklers, Victorian porn, the difference between a poet’s works and voice, Reiki massage, shrink-wrapping boats, electronic keyboards, and all kinds of other things I couldn’t possibly list here.

Paul is trying to work on a poetry collection called Misery Hat, which his editor thinks is an unappealing title. Instead of working on it he finds himself drawn to smoking a cigar that “really smacks your brain” and trying to write the perfect protest song. Or dance song. Or love song. Or all of those. He takes care of his neighbor’s chickens, worries about his ex-girlfriend Roz, works out at Planet Fitness, walks his dog, and goes to Quaker meeting.

Even though Paul’s monkey mind is sometimes hard to follow — I found myself wishing I could have read the book in one sitting, because I sometimes had to flip back to recall references — he’s a very endearing character. The scene in which he visits Roz after she has a hysterectomy and she asks him to check if the doctor inadvertently left one staple in her incision is one of the most touching and improbable love scenes you’ll find in literature. Throughout the book, you feel what a deeply humane person Paul is.

And he’s a hero for our age: a man whose work doesn’t really make anything as tangible as a traveling sprinkler, who is facing late middle age without a permanent relationship, whose mind darts and turns and changes direction as quickly as he surfs from You Tube videos to New York Times articles, a man who knows what is beautiful and important in life but feels as if it is always slightly out of reach, often because of events far beyond our control: endless wars, the mysteries of the modern economy, and the use of mono instead of stereo microphones, to name a few.

You can’t help rooting for him. If you’ve never read Baker, fasten your seat belt. His work is dazzling and strange and wondrous, and heart-breakingly beautiful often on the same page where it is stunningly of-the-moment and even in-your-face. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry. Just listen to Paul: “Maybe that’s what a chord progression can teach us. Out of the shuffling mess of dissonance comes a return to pax, to the three-note triad of something basic and pure and unable to be argued with.” That’s what Nicholson Baker’s fiction is, to me. “Something basic and pure and unable to be argued with” that comes from the “shuffling mess” inside his characters’ minds.

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