Archive for October, 2013

I recently heard Nadia Bolz-Weber talking about her memoir, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Sainton the American Public Media program “On Being.” If you aren’t familiar with it, the show is a very interesting look at ethics, ideas, beliefs, the “big questions,” of human existence, which are important in everyday life because they influence the way people interact with each other. As someone who works with the public, it seems very important to my “humanity education” to learn as much as I can about what makes us tick.

Bolz-Weber works with the public too, as a “pastrix” (female pastor). On the surface our jobs may seem vastly different, but they share something important.: public libraries and churches (as well as hospitals) are open to all. You never know on any given day who will come through the door, what experiences have brought them there, or how best to serve them, and that’s a topic of great interest to me.

In her memoir, Bolz-Weber, a recovering addict, stand-up comedian, and refugee from a conservative Christian upbringing, writes about finding that the God her fellow addicts referred to in twelve-step meetings isn’t the one she learned to fear growing up. This God is “a higher power she can do business with,” one whose grace is available to all. When she met her future husband Matthew at “the sacred breeding grounds of tall people” — a volleyball court — she was intrigued to learn he was a seminarian studying to become a Lutheran pastor.

Fast forward a few years and Bolz-Weber herself graduated from seminary and founded The House for All Sinners and Saints, a church “with a progressive but deeply rooted theological imagination” where “it’s pretty easy to look around on any given Sunday and think, ‘I’m unclear what all these people have in common.'” Her congregation soon includes everyone from transgender teens to a well-known former con artist and strangest of all to Bolz-Weber, khaki clad suburbanites. Kind of like any given day at a public library.

As she describes her work, Bolz-Weber manages to make difficult theological concepts at once relatable, clear, contemporary and profound, and she’s also a great storyteller. Her irreverent but completely open-hearted observations about contemporary American life and faith are smart and provocative. Part memoir, part spiritual autobiography, entirely in-your-face and often funny, Pastrix will open your eyes to the saint and sinner in everyone. The concept of treating everyone with radical hospitality — within boundaries, but assuming an attitude of equal acceptance of all who enter — is a valuable idea for anyone in public service.

Pastrix is my November staff pick at Gibson’s Bookstore.



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Longtime bookconscious readers know my grandmother was a big influence in my life. She was a voracious reader, with very strong preferences and opinions about what she read. She was a big fan of the famous Strunk and White edict: “Omit needless words,” and was sure authors of long books had been paid by the word. Some of her highest praise for anything she enjoyed reading: “There was not one extra word. Every one belonged.”

She introduced me to many wonderful books, from A.A. Milne‘s poetry (she could recite “Disobedience,” as well as many other poems for children and adults, into her 90’s), to Vera Brittain‘s Chronicles of Youth and favorite biographies of political leaders (in particular John Adams and Winston Churchill) or heroic women (notably the only book that has ever made me absolutely sob, Eleni by Nicholas Gage). When my children were small and we moved to New England she sent me Shirley Jackson‘s Life Among the Savages.

Grandmother always had a book to recommend. And one piece of her advice I’ve followed more and more as I’ve entered middle age is that when life hands you lemons, you should slice them up to put in your tea and curl up with a good mystery or spy novel. She loved Agatha Christie, believed the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy books by John Le Carre are the epitome of good writing, and introduced me to one of our favorite heroines of all time, Dorothy Gilman‘s Mrs. Pollifax. I told her about Jasper Fforde‘s wonderful Thursday Next; she didn’t quite embrace Thursday’s snarkiness or odd time-warped world, but she tried it.

I think she would have loved Maisie Dobbs, who is a strong, independent woman whose fictional life experiences mirror some of Vera Brittain’s. I’m not sure if she ever tried Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I’m turning to both these days. Government shutdowns, overheated and misleading political rhetoric, shootings, and all kinds of other things I don’t understand have me turning to mysteries, even craving them.

Of course there is order to a mystery, which is comforting. There’s a definite sense of right and wrong, even when there are gray areas. There’s a clear villain most of the time, or at least a perpetrator whose circumstances or nature generally explain his or her crimes. There are clues that lead detective and reader alike to a conclusion, and there are mostly clean resolutions, where victims may have suffered but justice is served and all’s right again with the world. A series is also very comforting because the characters’ actions may be fresh but they are still familiar.

I have only two books left in the Maisie Dobbs series. If you love a gentle mystery author who writes without graphic violence nor ripped-from-the-headlines shock value and favors strong female characters, leave a comment so I’ll know what to read next.

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The Mindful Reader is up on the Concord Monitor’s site.  I’ve pasted it below as well. Both print and online edition include a large photo of Baker and pictures of each book’s cover. I wrote the column and the Monitor wrote the headlines. Enjoy!

The Mindful Reader: ‘Something basic and pure’ about author Nicholson Baker



For the Monitor

Sunday, October 13, 2013 
(Published in print: Sunday, October 13, 2013)

Nicholson Baker’s novel Traveling Sprinkler takes up the story of Paul Chowder, poet and former bassoonist, who was struggling to finish the introduction to a rhyming poetry anthology when we met him in The Anthologist. In Traveling Sprinkler he’s just as concerned with the sound of things but this time, it’s the sounds of music. Between riffs on composers, singers, performers, instruments and recordings, Paul teaches us about cigars, the CIA’s history, drone warfare, blackstrap molasses, traveling sprinklers, Reiki massage, shrink-wrapping boats and all kinds of other things. And he travels around Portsmouth and Concord to places you’ll recognize, which is fun.

Paul is supposed to be writing a poetry collection, but would rather smoke a cigar that “really smacks your brain” and try 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, goes to Quaker meeting.

Even though Paul is sometimes hard to follow, he’s an endearing, deeply humane character. The scene in which he visits Roz after her hysterectomy and she has him check for a staple left in her incision is one of the most touching, improbable love scenes you’ll find in literature. And he’s a hero for our age: a man whose work doesn’t make anything as tangible as a traveling sprinkler, who is facing late middle age without a permanent relationship, whose mind darts as quickly as he surfs from YouTube videos to New York Times articles, a man who knows what is beautiful and important in life but feels it’s 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, for example.

You can’t help rooting for him. If you’ve never read Baker, fasten your seat belt. His work is strange and wondrous, heartbreakingly beautiful often on the same page that it is stunningly of-the-moment and even in-your-face. If all this sounds confusing, 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.

Moving to Vermont 

Ellen Stimson’s family loved Vermont so much they decided to move there. In Mud Season: How One Woman’s Dream of Moving to Vermont, Raising Children, Chickens and Sheep & Running the Old Country Store Pretty Much Led to One Calamity After Another, her self-deprecating wit and chatty style are as engaging as her enthusiasm for their new life. Stimson turns even the most unpleasant experiences into good stories.

You may shake your head – some calamities were self-induced – but you can’t help admiring that Stimson’s sense of humor, and her marriage, remained intact.

A passage explaining how their teenage son led them to a nearby waterfall as troubles with the store multiplied sums up Mud Season ’s tone: “The waterfall was ours. It became a symbol. We didn’t have to run out and buy something new when we felt cheated or when we felt lost. . . . We had everything we needed in each other. This simple, beautiful place where we lived would feed us. It would nurture our souls. . . . 
It would fill us up. Well, it would if we could just figure out what to do about that damned store.”

Prison pups

Massachusetts writer Sharron Kahn Luttrell was suffering “Canine Deficit Disorder” after the death of her beloved dog when she learned about the Prison Pup Partnership, a service-dog training program whose volunteers provide weekend homes for puppies who live and train with prisoners. Weekends with Daisy is the story of Luttrell’s experience raising a yellow lab with Keith, an inmate at J.J. Moran medium security prison in Rhode Island.

Luttrell writes with feeling and warmth about what she learned from Daisy and Keith, and how the puppy training program not only helped her find community and purpose, but also helped her be a calmer parent and even deal with being laid off.

I enjoyed her honest appraisal of what she learned about Keith’s crime and how it affected her, and her understanding of what raising Daisy meant to his rehabilitation. Not just for dog lovers!

Meredith and ‘Archie’

Local author Carol Anderson was researching her book The History of Gunstock when she came across references to Bob Montana, longtime Meredith resident and creator of the Archie comics. As Anderson discovered, Gunstock is one of many Lakes Region settings Archie, Jughead and their friends visited. As she began researching The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana: Beyond the Archie Comic Strip, she found Montana was also an organic farmer ahead of his time, a generous friend and family man, a born performer and an integral part of the Meredith community, always willing to help, to donate his time and talent, and to mentor young people. Anderson’s book is part biography, part chronicle of Meredith’s Montana years, part tribute. Full of photographs and drawings, it’s sure to interest local history buffs and Archie fans alike.


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Just turned in The Mindful Reader yesterday; it will run this Sunday, 10/13 in the Concord Monitor. This month, I could not resist sharing Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler with my print audience (see my bookconscious review here).

Also on tap are brief reviews of Mud Season by Ellen StimsonWeekends With Daisy by Sharron Kahn Luttrell, and The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana by Carol Lee Anderson.

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Lately I’ve been engaging in an exercise: try choosing one sentence that best represents, or possibly sums up, the book I’ve just read. The one I chose for the book I just finished, Jeannette WallsThe Silver Star:

“We wouldn’t be in this whole mess if you had been acting like a mom all along.”

A sentence to make mothers everywhere shudder, especially if you have a little context: Bean, the person whose line this is, is only 13.

I haven’t read Walls’ very popular memoir or her other novel, and bookconscious regulars know I am somewhat skeptical of “it” books and authors, but my mother-in-law recommended The Silver Star. She thought I’d enjoy it and she was right. Bean is a delightful narrator. Uncle Tinsley is a sweetheart. I admire cousin Joe and Aunt Al. I find the fact that Bean’s sister Liz deals with a very painful event in her life by befriending a pair of emus quite original.

And I liked the story. Walls has mined her past — she grew up with “nonconformist” parents and eccentric relatives both in the West and the South — for a familiar American tale. There’s a mother who ran away from her small town life to escape the expectations of family and society, and tried her luck in California. Plucky sisters who make their way back to that small town in Virginia when their mother goes off to find herself.

We can see early on the mother is struggling, that she loves her girls and intends to be a good mother but can’t handle it. When the girls get to her birthplace it feels unsurprising that their mother came from “the big house” in town, that the family has fallen on hard times, that the town is facing drastic change brought on by integration and an outside interest buying the only employer (a mill), that there is a mean man in town who adds to the drama of the story.

But just because it’s mostly unsurprising material doesn’t make it a bad read. I found the characters decent company for an evening or two, and I enjoyed the ending, which was upbeat without being neat and tidy. And there is something comforting about being able to recognize the people in a book as people you’ve known or heard about. It’s a well told tale, and it’s simple without being simplistic.

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