Archive for March, 2014

In early 2010 I read  The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I really liked it and wanted to read the sequel when it came out but never got to it. A couple of weeks ago I was in Indianapolis for the Public Library Association conference, and ironically found myself without any recreational reading.

I turned to NH Downloadable books, our state library e-book consortium, and tried as best I could to reproduce the serendipity of the stacks on my iPad. A few minutes later, I was downloading The Magician King.

When I describe these books to potential readers I usually mention that Grossman alludes heavily to Harry Potter — the first book opens when Quentin Coldwater is called to Brakebills, a secret magic college — and to the Narnia chronicles. Quentin’s favorite books as a child are set in a magical world called Fillory.

They are very much grown up books — The Magician is not just a fantasy, but a coming of age story, gloriously messy and tangled. Full of sex and drugs, and full as well of the longing for something real that marks every awakening into mature consciousness. How are we to live? Who can we count on? What is True with a capital T? Which is why I loved it.

Not only that, but it’s also a book set in urban contemporary America that was as magically complex and fascinating as Jonathan Strange & Mr. NorrellThe Magicians was one of the most satisfying books I read in the last few years. So I was absolutely delighted that The Magician King did not let me down.

You know the feeling — you start a sequel and realize ten pages out of the gate that the conceit just doesn’t work in the second book the way it did in the first and you already don’t care where it’s heading. Or worse, you like it and then it fizzles out. But not so this time.

When The Magician King opens Quentin is bored. He’s enjoys being a king and he’s mostly recovered from the events that preceded his ascendance. But something deep inside him is agitated, even more so after a simple outing in the forest near the castle goes awry. He makes a rash decision to sail East on an errand and in the way of fantasies, that decision unlocks a series of events that lead to ever greater magical challenges. Everything Quentin thinks he’s ever wanted is on the line, and whenever it looks like a resolution is in reach, things slip away from him again.

As much as The Magician King is Quentin’s story it’s also Julia’s. Julia Wicker grew up with Quentin in Brooklyn but failed the Brakebills entrance exam. When her examiners “erased” her memory, they failed, and she is haunted by what could have been. In The Magician King we learn what happened to her while Quentin was at Brakebills and what it is that she has been longing for — and whether Quentin can help her.

Once again Grossman is writing just as much about the human psyche as magic. What makes us tic and what keeps us going when everything else in life has headed south? What’s fundamental to our humanity? Why do we let each other down? What’s left to rely on when we find ourselves alone? Which are, after all, the subjects of all good books. I love the magical stagecraft, but I stay for the great read. I’m really excited that the 3rd book, The Magician’s Land, is due out in August.



Read Full Post »

Welcome to my first bookconscious on-the-fly post. I’m quite literally about to fly, and since Manchester Boston airport has free Wifi (and no hoops to jump through to connect), I decided to write about the book I finished this morning after taking Teen the Younger to school.

The Guest Cat, by poet Takashi Hiraide, is a quiet, meditative book, small and polished and lovely. It’s a novel in which the narrator is writing the novel, a literary technique that reminds me of one of those wooden box puzzles you open only to find more to unlock in the next layer.

The narrator and his wife and most of the other human characters (other than poets, interestingly enough) remain nameless, which made the story feel like a fable, with universal lessons for readers to plumb. Chibi, the guest of the title, and several other cats who make briefer but nonetheless important appearances, all have names.

The narrator and his wife have recently come to live and work (they write and edit) in a guesthouse in the garden of an old fashioned Tokyo house owned by an elderly couple. Chibi belongs to a family in the house next door on “Lightening Alley,” but begins to visit the couple every day, even sleeping there at night. They feed her, play with her, observe her, and begin to find their way in a new life.

The translators notes discuss the theme of outsiderness in The Guest Catthe couple are not part of the family or even longtime residents of their neighborhood, but Chibi gives them a sense of belonging. Through the little cat they find connection in an otherwise changing, isolating world.

It’s a deceptively simple story on the surface, but philosophical as it’s settles in your mind, which is my favorite kind of read. Like other translated work I’ve read, The Guest Cat made me aware all over again of how similar human consciousness and emotion are, even in a culture as foreign (to me) as Japan’s. And I absolutely love the cover art.

Reading Hiraide’s novel felt like meditating does when I actually manage to be still. A good way to settle my heart and mind before a trip.

Read Full Post »

The Mindful Reader ran in today’s Concord Monitor.

From the start, readers know something is amiss with Arthur Winthrop, because he’s wandering naked in Central Park. In winter. As he speaks with the police, we learn about his life, spent almost entirely at Lancaster, an elite New England boarding school, where his father was headmaster before him. He talks about his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, who enlisted after Sept. 11 and is in Iraq instead of following the family path to Yale.

Arthur also talks about a student, Betsy, who he is passionately attracted to, not just physically: “She is not like other students, you see. Her eyes are more open to the world, and perhaps this is why I am so taken with her. She has a sense of who she is that is usually earned over decades and decades of having your heart broken by the ceaseless beat of time.” That sentence stayed with me.

In the second half of the book, we hear the story from Elizabeth’s perspective – and this is where it gets very interesting. Greene manages to draw readers in without making the book’s many intrigues predictable; an accomplishment, since this isn’t the first book about a boarding school, marriage or the uncertain footing of middle age. The Headmaster’s Wife is all that and more: a meditation on longing in all of life’s stages, a literary mystery, and a novel with much for book clubs to untangle.

From fictional intrigue to intriguing nonfiction: for his new book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, Belfast, Maine, author Murray Carpenter tracked the story of caffeine and how it has become the most socially acceptable, widespread drug in the world. He visited coffee plantations, Central American pozol stands, cacao farms, a Beijing teashop, a largely unregulated Chinese synthetic caffeine plant, the largest decaffeinated coffee factory in North America, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and the offices of energy product companies, scientists and regulators, trying to understand how much caffeine is too much and why we love it.

Carpenter traces the story of caffeinated beverages, legendary and true, from ancient cultures in Asia and the Americas to contemporary energy shots and gels. From the early 20th century trial that allowed American soft drink companies nearly unfettered freedom to caffeinate as they saw fit to contemporary examples of caffeine’s questionable place as an athletic supplement and a dangerous component of underage partying, he explores this substance’s physiological, social, historical, economic and psychological affect on human life. If the book reminds you of long-form journalism, it should: Carpenter has written for newspapers and magazines, including the New York TimesWired and National Geographic.

After reading about how much of the caffeine in American soda is made you may never want to quaff a Coke again. But even your beloved morning coffee or tea will seem different after you learn about the way our bodies metabolize caffeine. Carpenter is good at providing both the pros and cons – there are optimal levels of caffeination that can actually enhance a person’s outlook and productivity, for example, but caffeine addiction is in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For the perplexed he offers wise counsel: “We don’t need to be whipsawed by the findings, alternatively reassured and freaked out; we just need to understand that caffeine is a complicated drug that can affect us in strange ways.” Caffeinated is a readable guide to this ubiquitous but misunderstood substance.

Read Full Post »

When Hoopoes Go to Heaven is the sequel to Gaile Parkin’s international best seller, Baking Cakes in Kigali. The Tungaraza family has moved to Swaziland, and ten year old Benedict, the “eldest son,” isn’t sure about all the changes going on around him. His mama, Angel, can’t find customers for her cakes. His brothers prefer kicking balls and his sisters like spending time with the girls next door; he wishes he had someone who enjoyed exploring nature with him.

But the unsettling things in Benedict’s life are beyond his family; he feels “like water that somebody had sent a stone skipping across.” There is an illness no one likes to speak of, and it’s killing a lot of people; a strange report of planes flying into buildings in America; a teacher at the high school who seems to be frightening his friend. Benedict hears all of it, and many other things he doesn’t quite understand, even though Mama sends him out when she and Baba discuss grown up things.

I enjoyed the way Parkin explored societal challenges – drugs, crime, epidemics, inequality, discrimination, gender issues, and even just ordinary family problems – through a child’s eyes. It made me reflect on what unsettling things my own kids heard snippets of growing up. And as in her first book, Parkin brings Africa alive with vivid descriptions that help the reader see, hear, feel, smell, and taste what Benedict is seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting. I like a book that takes me not only into someone else’s life, but also to places I’ve never been.

Evenings in the bookconscious house are for catching up with each other these days, so I’m finding myself with less time to read. I would probably have enjoyed When Hoopoes Go to Heaven more if I’d read in longer stretches than 10 minutes here or there.

How do you read when your time is limited?

Read Full Post »