My column ran in the Concord Monitor today; I’ve pasted it below. Before I get to that, a few words about the book I most recently finished, The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble.
I got into a discussion a few days ago with a fellow avid reader about the fact that there are books you have to read slowly and thoughtfully (frequently called literary, but that word is freighted with snobbery for some folks), and those you can tear through quickly. Drabble writes the kind one reads deliberately and carefully — and the kind that leaves you thinking for days. Bookconscious regulars may recall after I read The Peppered Moth I declared my intent to read all of Drabble’s work.
I found The Pure Gold Baby very beautiful and also very thought-provoking. The child of the title is Anna, a “special needs” girl, and the book is about her and her mother Jess and their friends and family in North London. Drabble makes their world deeply interesting even in its ordinary every-dayness, and through her narrator, Eleanor, a lawyer for a nonprofit social justice organization in London and longtime friend of Jess and Anna, she explores mental difference (both that which is evident from birth and that which develops later in life) and the care of the mentally ill or disabled. And even of the “regularly-abled” if you will — much of Eleanor’s reflection touches on the way parenting and childhood as well as mental healthcare has changed over the decades.
This of course opens the book up to related subjects – the old nature versus nurture debate, responsibility and accountability, whether inclusion and mainstreaming or institutionalizing and providing group care works better, etc. It’s a challenging read because Eleanor tells the story through her recollections, which are not always linear and chronological, and sometimes ramble or repeat, as memories do. But it’s a good read.
I’d say like much of the best literature, The Pure Gold Baby is about love — the highest value in most human transactions, the thing that makes us heroes or cowards, that causes our best intentions to go astray, and that sometimes makes us grow beyond our perceived potential. It’s a lovely meditation on friendship — between women but also between the sexes — and family, and how little our human constructs really matter when true affinity exists. And it’s a story, fitting for Jess, who is an anthropologist, of kinship, and the way our connections to each other shape our lives beyond anything else.
In this month’s Mindful Reader, three reviews:
The Mindful Reader: A wonderful read about Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening
By DEB BAKER
For the Monitor
Sunday, November 10, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, November 10, 2013)
Massachusetts author Susan Stinson’s Spider in a Tree: a Novel of the First Great Awakeningsurprised me. I knew the basic history of the period, including a bit about Jonathan Edwards, and frankly, thought it dull. But Stinson takes readers into Edwards’s home, into the lives of his family, their slaves, neighbors, relatives, and yes, even the spiders and insects of colonial Northampton, Mass. Suffering and joy, religious ecstasy and secular sorrow, the conflict between formal theology and individual conscience all make vivid fodder for Stinson’s story, which follows Edwards’s trajectory from 1731, during the religious revival that gripped New England, to 1750, when his congregation dismissed him.
She opens with Edwards sitting in “the big elm in front of his house. . . . People peered up at him through leaves that sifted light, which, he had taught them, was akin to sifting God. . . . Jonathan Edwards ate from pewter plates, not wooden trenchers, which did not go unnoticed in the town. He was useless with an auger, and his wife was better than he was on one end of a two-man saw, but most people who passed by the house on King Street had felt his sermons hammering at their souls.”
Stinson’s writing is clear, dynamic and full of vivid details that evoke early American life. Supporting characters add richness and depth to the story. Through them, we see Jonathan Edwards not only as a minister, but a man. Joseph and Elisha, Edwards’s young cousins, grow up in the shadow of their father’s suicide, which their mother believes Edwards caused with his fervent preaching. Sarah, Edwards’s wife, is a skilled herbalist, has ecstatic spiritual visions, bears 11 children and tries to smooth townspeople’s feelings when her husband stirs them up. Leah, the Edwards’s slave, experiences a personal religious awakening and wonders how people of faith can justify owning other people.
As these stories and others weave through Jonathan Edwards’s accomplishments and setbacks, readers explore the ideas and ideals, conflicts and controversies the characters face. And the big questions Edwards’s preaching raised in a world both very different and very similar to our own, where people’s emotions, resentments, secrets and aspirations color their actions. A fascinating trip back in time and through the human spirit, a story of longing, seeking, loving and struggling that seemed to me as engaging and fresh as anything you might read about a contemporary small town.
For fans of true crime
“The lies you wanted to hear were the easiest ones to tell,” says Lucy to Matt in Lies You Wanted to Hear, Massachusetts author James Whitfield Thomson’s debut novel. In this scene, Lucy and Matt are seeing each other again for the first time 17 years after Matt disappeared with their children. The novel opens with Lucy reflecting on nearly seven years without her family, and then explains what happened. Matt and Lucy are not terribly likeable characters, but Thomson makes them very real. It’s interesting to consider how far people will go in the name of love, and what an enormous claim parenthood makes on the human psyche. Inspired by a newspaper article about a Boston man whose daughters were glad he’d kidnapped them 20 years earlier, this novel should appeal to fans of true crime as well as fiction.
A non-adult book for adults
Monitor Board of Contributors writer Justine “Mel” Graykin wrote her novel Archimedes Nesselrode “for adults who are weary of adult books.” When working at the Philbrick-James Library in Deerfield, Graykin notes, patrons ask her for “something uplifting, in between all the heavy, literary, adult fare.” Her playful title character is an artist whose “creations” appear to be alive, and who shares his home with a basilisk guard, a matronly heron, mischievous marmosets, a bishop who lives in a teapot and many other whimsical creatures. When Nesselrode’s manager, Frank Shekle, interviews housekeepers, he warns them about his client’s eccentricity. Ms. Vivian Mare is undaunted. The household runs smoothly in her capable hands until the full moon, when Nesselrode’s behavior prompts a change in their relationship. By the end of the book, readers learn why Archimedes Nesselrode hasn’t left his house in 10 years, how he creates, what the downsides of his mysterious talents are, and what the future holds for Ms. Mare and her employer.
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