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Archive for January, 2014

I’m having a hard time believing January is almost over and I’m finishing the February column. This month I’ve read books by two New Hampshire authors, UNH professor John D. Mayer‘s Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives and Kristin Waterfield Duisberg‘s novel After, as well as Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers) by Daniel Jones, editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times and western Massachusetts resident.

And I’m coming up on the end of my first month of full time librarianship, which  I reflect on over at The Nocturnal Librarian. On my lunch break I tend to try to read for work: books to review for the column or for the library. Come evening, my brain is pretty tired, there are chores to do, and we’re catching up together as a family. Reading time is limited.

And I spent a chunk of it on a book I didn’t enjoy. My neighbor invited me to her book club (which due to unforeseen circumstances neither of us made it to this month) and their selection was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I got the impression Kingsolver was working overtime to prove her country creds. Take this sentence: “She’d asked him to tidy things up, but men and barns were like a bucket of forks, tidy was no part of the equation.” Clink, clank, clunk. The fork part just made no sense to me (why would they be in a bucket?) and “tidy is no part of the equation” sounded awkwardly like the Dowager Countess of Grantham trying to speak to a farmhand, not a country girl, albeit a well-read one, thinking to herself.

Given her reputation, I imagine Kingsolver is under pressure to perform every time, but this book’s sprawling high-minded themes — faith and love and family and the environment — got tangled in the “poor girl pulling herself up by her bootstraps even though she had a child too young and never had an education” story. I kept hearing Kingsolver’s voice (which she wields in fine essays on some of the same topics she tackles in this novel) and seeing her maneuvering the plot, rather than hearing her characters and seeing their lives unfold. I couldn’t help comparing it to Kerry Hudson‘s searing debut, also about  a smart but poor heroine, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma. Which I highly recommend.

I also read Mary Oliver‘s A Thousand Mornings. A well-read friend recently told me she find’s Oliver’s work trite. I wouldn’t go that far but I found this volume, published in 2012, less inspiring than some of Oliver’s earlier work at first. On re-reading, the poems are not as simple as they seem.

I chose this book because of another big change in the bookconscious household: Teen the Younger decided to go to high school rather than continuing to learn at home. Her favorite class so far? English. They’ve been reading poems from A Thousand Mornings. During her first week I gave her “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins lest she rope Oliver’s poems to a chair. I was pleased to hear that her teacher mentioned this favorite of mine in class today.

The first poem Teen the Younger mentioned working on in class is “An Old Story” and said that being teenagers, her group was quick to gravitate to the last lines: “My heart says: there, there, be a good student./My body says: let me up and out, I want to fondle/those soft white flowers, open in the night.” Oliver is writing about ” . . . the first fragrances of spring/which is coming, all by itself, no matter,” but I can see how her imagery might be considered sensual, and I’m impressed that such lines, written by an openly lesbian poet, are discussed in Catholic school.

Yesterday they read and discussed “Poem of the One World: This morning/the beautiful white heron/was floating along above the water/and then into the sky of this/the one world/we all belong to/where everything/sooner or later/is a part of everything else/which thought made me feel/for a little while/quite beautiful myself.” I think what I have always liked about Oliver is that her words are deceptively simple but koan-like. Upon first reading this poem seems ho-hum. A pretty bird in the sky, the oneness of the world, we’ve heard this all before. But the way Oliver breaks the lines (which you can see here) creates a rhythm, a sort of chant or plainsong quality, that is “quite beautiful” itself. And there is wisdom in the poet’s mindfulness.

Which is what I need more than ever these days, with the new shape of our days, with new responsibilities and old roughing it together this cold winter.

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The Concord Monitor ran my column today:

The Mindful Reader: A thriller and a tour of the universe’s inside story

Saturday, January 11, 2014
(Published in print: Sunday, January 12, 2014)

Boston-area author Elisabeth Elo’s North of Boston kept me turning pages between tasks on my holiday to-do lists. I’m not a huge thriller fan, but I enjoyed this one because of Pirio Kasparov, the smart, loyal, strong main character with a penchant for cigars and Russian novels.

Pirio works for her family’s perfume company and tries to keep her oldest friend, Thomasina, out of trouble and to be a good godmother to Thomasina’s son, Noah. She’s helping Noah’s father, Ned, on his new lobster boat when it’s hit by a freighter. Pirio survives the frigid ocean, Ned doesn’t. Pirio’s physiological resilience lands her in a U.S. Navy study. Her fierce love for Noah and deeply ingrained sense of justice land her in trouble as she tries to discover who rammed the boat and whether it was an accident or murder.

While sleuthing, she meets Russell Alejandro Parnell, a writer who becomes her partner. After saving him from a bunch of bad guys, Pirio examines his bookcase for clues about whose side he’s on: “The environmental books are persuasive, but the book that makes the case for his non-evil character is The Elements of Style. What bad guy would give a s— about the difference between which and that?” I admit, I swooned over this line (and lamented Elo’s occasional reliance on adverbs).

With a twisty story line, truly rotten villains, intriguing supporting characters and interesting subplots that shed light on Pirio’s character, North of Boston was a pleasure.

Toward the end of the book, Pirio’s father, Milosa, tells her, “It takes so little to satisfy you Americans. . . . You put a few facts together, and congratulate yourselves that you’ve uncovered the truth and told your story right up to the end. But the truth doesn’t have an end. It just keeps going, and if you don’t have the guts to follow it, you start to die.”

 A good thriller or mystery leaves the reader with closure and also curiosity about where the truth might lead the hero next. Elo definitely accomplished that in her winning debut.

Learn something new

When she was 15, Amanda Gefter and her father discussed the origins of the universe over cashew chicken at their local Chinese restaurant, and whether “something and nothing aren’t really opposites, they’re just different patterns of the same thing.” They decided to find out, together. If your New Year’s resolutions include learning something new, I highly recommend Gefter’s science memoir, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which tells the story of her journey from a self-described underachiever who skipped high school physics to a highly respected science journalist, who, along with her father, took on one of the greatest mysteries of all: “Why existence?”

Gefter became an intellectual adventurer. She and her father taught themselves physics, amassing a library of books and papers as they worked together for years to prove that everything is nothing. Their quest influenced her life decisions: While working for a bridal magazine she got press passes to a conference at Princeton honoring physics legend John Wheeler, and from that day – when she and her father visited the street where Einstein lived and trespassed on the lawn – she decided to give up her day job to search for the answers they sought. That meant pitching a story to Scientific American in order to start a freelancing career that eventually led to an editor’s position at New Scientist. And contacting Nobel laureates and other top scientists to ask them about something and nothing.

Gefter moved to London to pursue her doctorate in the philosophy and history of science, and asked the agent who represents all the biggest names in physics to take on her book. Her story is as much about becoming somebody as it is about discovering “something.”

Gefter’s wit, audacity, intelligence and irreverence, her wonderful relationship with her father, and fan photos of the two of them with famous physicists give the book heart. What gives it heft is Gefter’s gift for reducing mind-blowing concepts (non-Boolean logic, strings and particles, M-theory, quantum mechanics, Hawking radiation, de Sitter space, Gödelian self-reference, etc.) into plain English. Don’t take my word for it. After Gefter sent Stephen Hawking and his research partner Thomas Hertog the draft of a piece she wrote about their work, Hawking emailed: “The article is remarkably good and clear.”

Gefter and her dad reached their goal. “We had found the universe’s secret: Physics isn’t the machinery behind the workings of the world; physics is the machinery behind the illusion that there is a world. . . . How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.” If that confuses you, or if you were an underachiever who skipped physics, try Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter will take you on an outsider’s tour of the universe’s inside story, and you’ll learn – and understand – more than you imagined you could.

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My first review of 2014 is for “Beyond the Bestsellers,” a quarterly review sheet Concord Public Library staff produces. I’ve pasted it below. I put BtheB together now, and it’s fun to see what my fellow librarians are reading.

The Maid’s Version
Woodrell, Daniel – 2013 – 164 p. Setting: 1920’s & beyond in West Table, Missouri     FIC WOODRELL

Self-described “country noir” novelist Daniel Woodrell (The Outlaw Album,Winter’s Bone, etc.) latest is culled from actual historical events. Twelve year old Alek Dunahew spends the summer with his grandmother Alma. One night during a storm she shares a long-kept story with him: “. . . she cunningly chose that raging moment to begin telling me her personal account of the Arbor Dance Hall Explosion of 1929, how forty-two dancers from this small corner of the Missouri Ozarks had perished in an instant. . . and why it happened . . . . a great crime or colossal accident, an ongoing mystery she thought she’d solved. I knew this was a story my dad did not want me to hear from her lips, as it was the main source of their feud, so I was tickled and keen to hear more . . . .” In 1989, the angel marking the fire victims’ grave appears to dance, igniting new interest in the story, and Alek’s father says, “Tell it. Go on and tell it.” Woodrell unspools the heartbreaking tale bit by bit, introducing suspects, dance hall-goers, and Alma’s family. It’s beautifully told, historically interesting, and perfectly crafted.

I’ve also been working feverishly to get my column done for tomorrow’s deadline ahead of Downton Abbey — and I just turned it in. Before I go make popcorn, I’ll note that The Mindful Reader will run in the Concord Monitor next Sunday, January 12, and I’m reviewing Elisabeth Elo’s debut thriller, North of Boston and one of the best science books I’ve ever read, Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Stay tuned!

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