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Archive for February, 2014

This month’s column ran today in the Concord Monitor. Here it is:

University of New Hampshire psychology professor John D. Mayer co-wrote an article in 1990 called “Emotional Intelligence.” Journalist Daniel Goleman wrote a book about Mayer’s ideas that popularized his work. Mayer’s new book, Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How it Shapes Our Lives, explains his continuing work in personality psychology. Mayer outlines the ways human beings learn to assess each other’s personalities and character, and how this information influences us.

He posits that the intelligence required to take in and process observations about ourselves as well as the people around us is key to our success and happiness. Mayer writes, “Personal intelligence speaks to both our human potential and to our capacity for well-being.” He notes it “contributes to our growth as individuals and to our skills at engaging with society,” and “also speaks to the value of knowing our boundaries and limits.” He explains that people have been examining personality differences since antiquity, and he believes this “previously undervalued human skill . . . contributes to the accomplishments of our civilization by allowing us to function better with one another than we could otherwise.”

Although the tone is somewhat academic for a popular science book, I find Mayer’s optimism heartening and his theory convincing: Strengthening personal intelligence could certainly improve communication and understanding in professional and personal relationships. As I considered the other two books for this column, I realized personal intelligence – though I’ve never called it that before – is key to reading about both fictional characters and real people.

Taking stock

Seacoast author Kristin Waterfield Duisberg’s second novel, After, tells the story of a few years of Nina Baldwin’s life after finding a lump in her breast, from her point of view and that of her young autistic daughter Audrey and her much older husband, Martin, who escaped from occupied Germany after World War II as a boy.

 Martin’s vivid childhood memories shed light on his emotional reticence. Duisberg helps readers understand why Nina fell for Martin and why, now that she faces her own mortality, they have trouble turning to each other.

Audrey is a fascinating character, one I would have liked to hear more from. My favorite scene in the book describes Audrey and Nina shining flashlights into the summer night sky. “ ‘Why are we doing this?’ Nina finally asked. ‘Because the light will keep on traveling forever. Then, when I miss you, I can look up at the sky and know your light is still out there.’ ”

Parts of this quiet, thoughtful novel are very moving, and many readers will find something to identify with.

The subplots, while somewhat distracting, didn’t dissuade me from wanting to learn what would happen to Nina.

Shining light on love

Daniel Jones, who lives in Western Massachusetts and edits the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times, has gathered a decade’s worth of insight in Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers).

He examines contemporary relationships from the first glimmers of attraction to the nitty gritty of who does which chores and other inevitable challenges partners face.

Jones uses examples from the thousands of stories submitted to his column to shed light on issues like trust, vulnerability, infidelity, and the mystery of the feeling – or is it a decision? – we call love.

Jones approaches the loves laid bare in his inbox with open heart and mind: “Whether you’re a scientist investigating the chemicals of lust, a mathematician devising match-making algorithms, a jilted lover attempting to come to terms with how your last relationship unraveled, or a writer like me trying to make sense of it all, you’ve got my deepest sympathies.”

His curiosity and admiration for his subjects’ efforts, along with stories about his relationship with his wife, author Cathi Hanauer, make Jones a pleasant guide.

As he puts it, “In my mind I have not been mastering love all these years so much as marinating in it.

Asking me what I have learned about love is like asking a pickle what it has learned about vinegar.” You won’t find definitive answers in this book, but it does just what the title promises: illuminates.

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Last weekend I finished an advance copy of Matthew Quick‘s The Good Luck of Right Now, out next week. If the name sounds familiar, he’s the author of several other books, including The Silver Linings Playbook. If that book is about “love, madness, and Kenny G.” as Quick’s website says, the new one is about love, difference, and Richard Gere. As I read the new book I could picture it — Quick has a very cinematic way of setting a scene — and I’m happy to hear that the directors of Little Miss Sunshine are already lined up for the film version.

Quick has a knack for getting inside the lives of people we see all the time and don’t bother to know. In this case, a thirty-eight year old man, Bartholomew, who’s always lived with his mom, who recently died of cancer. And his messed up grief counselor, Wendy, who needs help herself. And his neighborhood priest, Father McNamee, who defrocks himself and moves in with Bartholomew.

And a guy Bartholomew meets in “group” therapy, Max. Who turns out to be the brother of the woman Bartholomew has admired from afar, who he knows only as The Girlbrarian. Her real name is Elizabeth. Max is mourning his cat Alice, believes Elizabeth was abducted by aliens who are still after them, and dreams of going to Cat Parliament in Ottawa (which we’ve visited — “call it synchronicity,” as Bartholomew might say). Max is a ticket taker at a movie theater and works “what the fuck, hey” into nearly every sentence.

Bartholomew narrates the book in letters he’s writing to Richard Gere. After his mother’s death, he found a form letter in her dresser from the actor, calling for a boycott of the 2008 Olympics because of China’s treatment of Tibet. Bartholomew assumes that is why she kept calling him Richard as her cancer worsened. He played along, so he sets out to explain things to Richard Gere, and himself, as he faces the scary prospect of living alone when he’s not even sure how his bills are paid.

Bartholomew spends a lot of time at his library, where he reads about Richard Gere and Tibet. He also reads the Dalai Lama’s A Profound Mind. His letters to Richard Gere make it clear that Bartholomew is developmentally disabled. The “little angry man” inside him calls him moron, retard, idiot, “miserable failure,” slow, stupid; he’s never held a job, he’s never really had a friend or gone out with a woman.

But he’s very observant, empathetic, and capable of learning — he writes to Richard Gere about Buddhism, Jung, Tibet-China relations. He explains how he senses suffering in others, what he admires about the Girlbrarian, how he’s dealing with the loss of his mother. And he explains her theory of “the good luck of right now,” that brings good for every bad. And how she was good at “pretending” — for him, but perhaps for herself as well.

If you are looking for a quick read (no pun intended), a movie-like story with teary moments but a feel-good vibe, this book is for you. It’s not as lightweight as that sounds — Quick addresses some big questions, like how society treats people who are different, and what family is. It’s not a hard read, until you look around, say at the library, and see people like Bartholomew. And wonder if they’ve been working up the courage, but not quite managing, to speak to someone they see day after day.

And then it’s a hard book in the best sense, because it worms its way into your heart. And makes you see the Bartholomews, Maxes, Elizabeths, Wendys, and Father McNamees in your own life.

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