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Archive for June, 2014

The column ran today, and here it is (headlines by the Concord Monitor):

The Mindful Reader: ‘Claremont Boy’ tells his tale with wry sense of humor

Joseph Steinfield wrote a column for the Monadnack Ledger-Transcript called “Looking Back,” where the short personal essays in his memoir Claremont Boy: My New Hampshire Roots and the Gift of Memory first appeared. Whether he’s writing about his childhood in Claremont, his career as a lawyer, his immigrant family or his interesting friends (including Julia and Paul Childs) and New Hampshire neighbors, Steinfield’s voice is what makes this book a gem. He’s a terrific storyteller with stellar pacing and a wry sense of humor.

One of my favorite pieces, “My Mother’s Hobby and Roosevelt Grier,” demonstrates this beautifully. He explains that as a child he thought his mother’s needlepoint was “. . . a waste of time. Nothing you could play with, or even wear.” When she announced in her late 50s that she planned to move to Boston and get a job, Steinfield was doubtful. She became Lord & Taylor’s “Needlepoint Lady” around the time Rosey Grier popularized the hobby. Steinfield concludes, “So much for having a know-it-all son.”

Whether he’s writing about small town life in the 1940s and ’50s, losing his wallet while traveling, learning his daughter is gay, or wishing he could be a professional baseball player, Steinfield’s warm, witty stories will keep you entertained and leave you a little wiser. Bauhan Publishing has done a beautiful job with the book design, incorporating photos and illustrations that enhance the essays.

Sensational novel

Set in New Hampshire but penned by a young Swiss author, Joel Dicker, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a unique thriller. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, was prominent author Harry Quebert’s student at a small college in Massachusetts. He visits his mentor at his Seacoast home after the wild success of his first novel leaves him paralyzed with writer’s block. When Nola Kellergan, missing for 30 years, is found buried in Harry’s yard, he’s arrested. Marcus moves into Harry’s house and vows to learn who really killed Nola. His publisher demands that Marcus write about the sensational story quickly, since he has failed to make his deadline on a promised second novel.

 The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a page-turning police procedural about Nola Kellergan’s murder. It’s also a study of how truth appears differently to different people. And it’s a novel about love in its many forms, and the lengths we’ll go to protect those we love, even to the point of madness. None of that is unusual for a thriller, but Dicker also examines artistic inspiration – sprinkled between the regular chapters are Harry’s rules for writing a great novel, which both Marcus and Harry aspire to, and there is an important subplot about a painter.

Some of the dialogue is a little odd. For example, librarian Ernie Pinkas says, “I would like to be listed in the Acknowledgements of your book. I would like you to mention my name on the last page, the way writers often do. I would like my name to be the first one. In big letters. Because I did help you get information, didn’t I? Do you think that will be possible? My wife would be proud of me. Her husband would have contributed to the huge success of Marcus Goldman, the famous writer.” I’m not sure whether the strangeness is caused by the author imagining the way people speak here or whether it’s a result of the translation. Regardless, this dramatic, original first novel has made Joel Dicker a famous writer in Europe, and may do so in America as well.

Water for the heart

Richard Hoffman’s love & fury is a memoir that examines the complexities of family relationships, especially those between fathers and sons. Written after his father’s death, and after his grandson’s father is imprisoned on dubious charges in a case exacerbated by Hoffman’s own very public advocacy for the young man, this book is bracing and touching, searing and tender all at once.

It’s not only a book about being a man, but also about being human and truly knowing each other. Hoffman’s cover quote sums the book up exactly: “When I have spoken of my family in the past, there is always someone who wants to know how such love and fury could coexist, and I don’t understand the question. Families seem to me to be made of love and fury. The world is mostly water; we are mostly water; but we don’t ask how such hydrogen and oxygen can coexist. We just drink it and live.”

Hoffman’s writing is water for the heart, words that will quench those struggling with self-examination, family reconciliation, or damage done by physical or societal ills.

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I can’t quite remember how I heard about Matt Haig and his novel The Humans, but it arrived on the state library van as an interlibrary loan for me this week and it’s the first book that’s kept me up too late in a few months at least. I really didn’t want to put it down, and not just because I’d dropped the “blue card” with the circulation bar code on it in the dark and subsequently woke up repeatedly in the night worrying I’d have to return it sans card. (When I woke up the card was on my slippers).

The premise of the book is that the narrator, an alien assassin, has been sent to Earth from a planet many light years away to eliminate a maths professor, Andrew Martin,  at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam College because he has discovered the proof for the Riemann Hypothesis, the inhabitants of his planet believe humans aren’t ready for such progress.  The only problem is he arrives on earth with little knowledge of everyday human life and culture, and for some reason, arrives in Andrew Martin’s naked body on a dark country road.

Alien Andrew Martin has to convince his wife, Isobel, his troubled teenaged son Gulliver, and their dog, Newton, that he’s the same man they’ve always known, despite his powers (he can heal, for example), and what appear to them to be his mental lapses. Such as a complete lack of understanding of adultery. And, he has to kill them, since that’s what he was sent to do.

Instead, he begins to admire human life, and to understand it. He learns to like music: “The last thing I listened to was a tune called ‘Clare de Lune’ by Debussy. That was the closest representation of space I had ever heard, and I stood there, in the middle of the room, frozen with shock that a human could have made such a beautiful noise.” And he discovers poetry, especially Emily Dickinson. And peanut butter, which he shares with Newton. As he learns about being human, he becomes a vastly kinder, more considerate one than the real Andrew Martin ever was. Which is where the problems begin.

I don’t know why I am on a British witty urban scifi kick lately, but at risk of repeating myself, if you like Tom Holt or Daniel O’Malley or Douglas Adams or Nick Harkaway you’ll like this book, which is less showy in the bells and whistles of alien life, but funny in its own dry way, and lovely too, in the tenderness alien Andrew Martin learns. It’s a quick read, entertaining, but also thought provoking. Haig writes in the afterward that he recovered from panic disorder by reading, and by writing this book. How beautiful, that a novel about what it means to be truly human gave its author a sense of being comfortable with his own humanness.

 

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