Archive for December, 2013

2013 in review

Thanks to all of you (from 92 countries!!) readers, followers, commenters, and anyone who randomly stumbled across bookconscious in 2013.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Happy New Year and good reading to all in 2014!


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Once again the Concord Monitor asked columnists and readers to add to the cacophony of holiday book recommendations. I’m not much of a fan of this sort of general advice for gift-giving — it’s personal, and without some idea of the tastes of the person you’re shopping for, how can I make a suggestion? But in the spirit of cooperation and community I played along. My suggestions are pasted below. For all the recommendations the Monitor ran, take this link.

I stand by the advice I gave last year in this space: Visit your local independent bookstore and public library for expert book suggestions. A gift card from your indie bookstore and a stocking stuffer from the Friends of the Library sale shelf (plus a library card application, if your giftee doesn’t have one), with the promise that you’ll spend an afternoon together browsing and enjoying a café treat, is a return-proof gift sure to appeal.

That said, here are four widely appealing recent books that would be great gifts for teens through great-grandparents:

Richard Blanco’s For All of Us, One Today is a brief memoir of his experience as inaugural poet. He writes movingly of his life, his family, his writing, and why poetry is important to our national conversation as one people in a diverse country.

Billy Collins’s new collection, Aimless Love, is brimming with his trademark wit and quirky perception, and is especially appropriate for those who fear they don’t get poetry.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence is a tremendously fun, sweet-not-syrupy, thought-provoking coming-of-age book. Told from a teenager’s perspective (but not a Young Adult book), this novel also addresses parenthood, aging, friendship, and end-of-life issues, as well as the power of books (and libraries!) to bring people together.

Shopping for a voracious reader? I suggest (and hope to receive) the literary almanac A Reader’s Book of Days: True Tales from the Lives and Works of Writers for Every Day of the Year.

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The column appeared in today’s Concord Monitor and is online as well. I’ve pasted it below for those who face technical issues with accessing it at their website:

Sunday, December 8, 2013
(Published in print: Sunday, December 8, 2013)
Richard Blanco’s quiet life in Bethel, Maine, changed forever when he learned he’d been chosen inaugural poet. For All of Us, One Today: an Inaugural Poet’s Journey is both his personal story – Latino immigrant, gay man, engineer who felt called to study creative writing – and also the story of his public role. Blanco invites readers into his process as he considers the meaning of being American, writes three poems, “One Today,” “Mother Country” and “What We Know of Country,” revises them, consults family and colleagues, and prepares for the big day. We share Blanco’s awe and wonder as he goes to the podium to read “One Today,” and as he receives an outpouring of public and professional responses to his work, including invitations to write other occasional poems.

It’s a lovely memoir, melodic and rich in imagery. For example, he describes sitting in the airport after the inauguration when everything felt “like those few minutes some mornings in bed with half my life still in a dream and the other half of me being born anew into the miracle of yet another morning.”

The book is not only a poignant look at Blanco’s experiences over the past year but also at America’s, from Sandy Hook to the Boston Marathon, from the inauguration to historic advances in marriage equality. And it’s a meditation on loving one’s country, through good times and bad.

In “What We Know of Country,” Blanco describes this kind of mature patriotism, beyond the flag-waving admiration we’re taught as children. It’s like a relationship, one in which we forgive mistakes and stay together through disagreements, because “to know a country takes all we know of love.” The line is powerful because it’s true in a deeply humane way.

Blanco sees poetry as “a great big mirror, for all of us to look into, together.” Reading For All of Us, One Today, I was filled with a renewed hope that what binds us is greater than what separates us, and a profound admiration for Blanco as a champion of poetry. When he goes into classrooms, he teaches kids “the beauty, power, and purpose of poetry,” which for Blanco is “connecting to people – and having them connect emotionally to their own lives.” Poetry is relevant, Blanco believes, because a shared emotional experience – like hearing a moving poem – breaks down barriers and helps people relate to each other. His memoir is a tribute to all that inspires him to write and share poetry.

Sheep, goats, llamas and bears

If you or someone you know dreams of owning a small farm, knits or loves the New England countryside, Barbara Parry’s Adventures in Yarn Farming: Four Seasons on a New England Fiber Farm will be a treat. Parry explains the intricacies and hard work of raising sheep for their wool in detail. “The barn is my vessel; we set a course for a new year. Shearing, skirting fleeces, and lambing are now visible points on the horizon. The yearly rituals are the same, but no two years are alike.” This book is part memoir, part farm journal, part how-to manual, with recipes, instructions for dying and spinning, and patterns for knitting and weaving.

Photographer Ben Barnhart captures each season in all its glory and many of the farm’s sheep, goats and llamas. I would have preferred less farming jargon and a slightly more streamlined narrative, but Parry provides a window into small farming and skilled craftsmanship, which are part of New England’s heritage, and does so beautifully.

Ben Kilham’s work studying black bears and his pioneering methods of raising orphaned bears and successfully releasing them into the wild are well known in New Hampshire. Out On a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuition reveals how his unique studies have influenced bear science worldwide.

Kilham never imagined this would happen, nor that he’d be invited to translate his years of experience into a Ph.D. As he writes: “Being self-taught, it was difficult not to be intimidated by the extensive literature in the behavioral sciences that clearly states that none of the behavior I had been witnessing actually existed in animals. . . . I’m over that now.”

Kilham himself is as interesting as his research, and passages in which he describes his life and studies are delightful. The last part of the book, in which Kilham lays out his hypotheses that “a close look at the primitive social systems of black bears provide(s) an alternative explanation for the development of human cooperative behavior, altruism, and morality,” is especially intriguing.

Kilham’s work may affect science in ways not yet fully understood, which makes his autodidactic methods even more remarkable. His book is thoroughly engaging, accessible and practical, too – he ends with an appendix outlining how humans and black bears can coexist peacefully, and how to behave with a bear if you inadvertently attract one to food sources in your yard.

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Over Thanksgiving weekend I read an advance copy of Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (due out in the U.S. in February). It was a squirm-inducing read; Hudson’s own upbringing “in a succession of council estates, B&B’s, and trailer parks” informs her debut, which portrays the bleak, depressing life of a single mother and her daughters Janie Ryan (who narrates the book from birth) and Tiny as they bounce in and out of housing projects in Scotland and England. Tony Hogan of the title beats the girls’ mother. Drugs and alcohol abound.

The suffering seeped right through the sentences into my heart. I felt an awful kind of literary equivalent of survivors’ guilt the whole time I was reading it. I kept thinking how random it is that I grew up in such a different world, when I know there were kids in my town whose lives were not a lot different than the Janie’s.

So why did I keep reading a book that made me feel miserable? Believe it or not, this is a love story. Because despite the soul crushing poverty and attendant overwhelming pain, Janie and her family love each other. Hudson has written a novel that simultaneously repulses and taps the depths of human pathos. But by the end of the story readers sense that Janie is going to be ok, despite the absent father, the wreck of a mother, the system that sees her as nothing but trash with no future but to repeat the pattern. What might save her? At the risk of over-simplifying, unconditional love. (And, I am extremely pleased to report, regular visits to the library from a young age.)

Hudson’s talent lies in her ability to write a story no one wants to hear but readers can’t seem to put down. The book was a sensation in Britain, garnering critical praise and prize nominationsGibson’s Book Club this week got into a discussion about what deserves to be called a great book. One thing we agreed on was that good writing doesn’t stay on the page — it enters our hearts and minds and lingers.

That’s what’s been happening to me as I continue to think of Janie. A fictional walk in someone else’s shoes, no matter how painful, can influence the way we see each other in the real world. Janie was with me when I read an article this week about fast food workers’ hopes for living wages. And her world also brought to mind the families caught in the cycle of poverty in the incredibly moving documentary on hunger in America the Computer Scientist and I saw a few months ago, A Place at the Table. 

 I’m fortunate that with the final page of this book I put away the misery Janie lived with and stepped back into my own very comfortable shoes. I read to the end for her, and for everyone like her. Not because I can save them, but because I believe reading — and understanding in even the tiniest way what other’s lives are like — can save us all.

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I nearly forgot to post — this coming Sunday, 12/15, my column will run in the Concord Monitor. I’m reviewing three books, each beautiful in its own way: Richard Blanco‘s For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s JourneyBen Kilham‘s Out on a Limb: What Black Bears Have Taught Me About Intelligence and Intuitionand Barbara Parry‘s Adventures in Yarn Farming: Four Seasons of a New England Yarn Farm.


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