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Archive for July, 2014

Lately I’ve only made reading time for books for the column or books for the library. Among the most enjoyable of these “work” reads has been The Road Unsalted, whose author, Sonja Hakala, will be visiting the library in December to read from her new Carding novel.

Carding, Vermont is in many ways a northern version of Jan Karon‘s Mitford, North Carolina. It’s a small town in the mountains with a cast of interesting characters. Carding is home to a famous arts academy and a small but thriving ski area. Early in the book, one of the town’s prodigal daughters, Allie-O, as she has styled herself, slinks into town in impractical heels, shivers her way to her brother’s front door, and leaves her twelve year old daughter, Suzanne, with him. Ted is the postmaster, a man whose mother’s tragic death on the eve of his adulthood left him deeply scarred, and an inexperienced uncle. But in no time he realizes he wants to raise Suzanne where she belongs, among family and friends in Carding.

We learn about the town, the scheme on the part of Harry Brown to force Carding Academy to move (to spite his ex-wife Edie, the academy’s director), the philandering of Harry’s son Gideon, and much else via a blog called The Carding Chronicles which Edie’s grandson, Wil Bennett, aka Little Crow, starts as the novel opens. We also learn a bit about some of the characters from Edie’s dog Nearly. Even with such a busy fictional agenda, Hakala take time to make the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Carding come alive. I want to visit whatever bakery she based Carding’s on, as soon as possible!

This is a cozy novel minus the mystery — although there are puzzlements, and characters who must solve difficulties, there are no dead bodies. Hakala takes on a great deal in this series opener — she sets the stage by introducing a townful of characters, she addresses family drama in several Carding households, and she presents tension in the form of the pending town meeting, where the issue of whether the Academy will stay or go depends on a crucial vote.  At times it felt overly ambitious, but on the whole, it’s an entertaining read peppered with wit, wisdom, and a great deal of affection for small town New England. It’s fun, but there would be plenty for a book club to discuss. 

Also of note: this is a self-published novel, albeit by an author with plenty of experience writing for “traditional” publishing. I was, I admit, hesitant — I’ve had too many poor quality self-published work sent my way — but Hakala writes well, and she also had her work professionally edited. It shows. In fact, this novel is smoother than some “mainstream” books I’ve read recently. Which further muddles things for librarians and booksellers looking for a reliable way to determine what’s a good read.

 

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My column ran in today’s Concord Monitor. I enjoyed reviewing Jessica Lander‘s Driving Backwards, Toby Ball‘s Invisible Streets, Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable and Stonlea: a Timeworn, Gilded Age Survivor Transformed by Peter W. Clement and Victoria Chave Clement, with an introduction by Stonlea‘s owner, Polly Guth.

Mindful Reader: Gilmanton, noir and ‘Perfectly Miserable’

Jessica Lander, author of Driving Backwards, was eight when her family bought a “two-century old house” on Stage Road in Gilmanton, a place to spend their summers. Their neighbors, David and Lizzie Bickford, kept them well-supplied with pies and stories. Lander writes, “It was not until I was a young woman that I began to listen more closely. . . . David’s stories drew me in.” Lander is 26 and David 99 when her book opens.

With David’s “humble recounting of a hundred years of life in small-town America” as a starting point, Lander tells stories of her own as well. She clearly delights in sharing the lives and work of the people who make Gilmanton a thriving rural community today, including a goat-cheese maker, blueberry and dairy farmers, volunteer librarians, and the woman who orchestrates the preparation of “Gilmanton Old Home Day Beanhole Beans.”

Lander also explores Gilmanton’s “great egg-carton landscape,” and the remains of a once thriving mill community along the Suncook. In sussing out the curious existence of the town’s dual villages – Gilmanton Iron Works and Gilmanton Four Corners – she writes of “Enmities . . . tilled into the soil so deeply that when David was a kid, teens of the two villages were forbidden to date one another.” And yes, she takes note of Gilmanton’s notorious former residents, serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, and Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. But mostly, Lander celebrates small-town New Hampshire.

Driving Backwards is a delightful read. Lander’s obvious pleasure in storytelling is sprinkled with history, both human and natural, and her curiosity and affection for her subjects is contagious. It’s a great book to read on a warm afternoon, as Lander lovingly describes bike rides and July Fourth parades, Old Home Days and abundant gardens, swimming holes and stargazing, when “the night sky is limitless, and by association, so too summer.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for more work from this talented young writer.

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I don’t usually read noir, but I’d heard a lot of good things about New Hampshire author Toby Ball’s dystopian crime novels. The latest, Invisible Streets, is set in the mid-1960s. Ball’s imagined city is grim, ripe for planner Nathan Canada’s New City Project, which will tear down decaying neighborhoods to create a massive business zone and Crosstown Expressway. A truckload of dynamite is missing from one of the project’s construction sites. Detective Torsten Grip, journalist Frank Frings and Canada’s right-hand man, Phil Dorman, all want to know who took it and why. Frings is also looking for a friend’s grandson, Sol Elia, who was a subject in secret hallucinogen studies as a student and may be part of a shadowy radical group, Kollectiv 61. Both a mystery and an examination of power and influence, Invisible Streets is an atmospheric, slow-burning book that illuminates the dehumanizing effects of uncompromising ideology and corruption. Frings is a thinking man’s hero whose patience pays, even when he wonders, “whether there was anyone left on his side – and what that side even was.”

Grip and Dorman are less admirable, but in Ball’s capable hands, they’re sympathetic characters. He takes you inside these men’s minds, out into the streets, and up on the girders of the City. If you’re looking for a smart, provocative crime novel, try Invisible Streets.

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 Sarah Payne Stuart is Perfectly Miserable. In her latest memoir, the Concord, Mass., native reflects on Guilt, God and Real Estate in her hometown. She has a love-hate relationship with her WASP family, with the formidable matrons of Concord, and with the 19th-century authors who put the town on the map. Stuart looks back not with nostalgia, but with her eyes open to the fact that she and her siblings could not wait to leave Concord, and yet she could not imagine raising her children anywhere else. Her self-depracating observations about parenting, being the daughter of aging parents, and being a grown-up in the place you were a child are funny, smart and thought-provoking. Even when she recalls painful incidents or patterns, Stuart’s tone is affectionate, even wistful: “And still I wish I could relive it all again.” With Perfectly Miserable, she and her readers do.

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Stonlea: a Timeworn, Gilded Age Survivor Transformed by Peter W. Clement and Victoria Chave Clement is, as Stonlea’s owner Polly Guth, says in the introduction, “the story of taking a Gilded Age grande dame of a summer house . . . and making it into a comfortable, year-round family house.” Guth felt the restoration was “a matter of stewardship,” and “continuity” – she wanted Stonlea to welcome her family and friends to Dublin to enjoy the beauty of lake and mountain just as its original owners did. She also set a very contemporary goal: net-zero energy, meaning that the home produces the energy it needs, through geothermal and solar technology. This gorgeous book, lavishly illustrated, shows Stonlea from start to finish. Even if you’re not an architecture buff or don’t own an old house yourself, the grand old summer houses in the Monadnack region are an interesting part of New Hampshire history, and this book is a vicarious entry into one such home.

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When I read Edwidge Danticat‘s The Dew Breaker in early 2010, I wrote here at bookconscious that I admired “her rich writing and the psychological depth of her storytelling.” That remains true now that I’ve read Claire of the Sea Light. What a beautiful book.

Claire is a little girl born born in a shack near the sea in Ville Rose, a fictional Haitian town. Her father is a fisherman, her mother, who dies giving birth to her, washes and dresses the dead at the local funeral parlor. Danticat draws a vivid portrait of the town and its people, connecting them and drawing them close around Claire until a fateful night when she turns seven.

I won’t give away plot details, but what I really liked about this book is the way Danticat weaves the stories of people from different walks of life and situations, men and women, young and old, into one big story, the story of being human and longing for a connection with others, a place to be at home in the world. Danticat is at once a keen observer — the details about Haiti and about her characters are absorbing and illuminating — and a generous commentator on the human condition.

Even when she’s writing about poverty or violence or death, Danticat’s writing is musical; I found myself wanting to hear this book aloud. For example, in a scene describing Claire’s father receiving Madame Gaelle, a well to do woman who has also experienced tragic loss, in his shack:

“She was there but not really. At one moment, her mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. She seemed to be recalling things she could not put into words.

He, though, was concentrating on his modest surroundings, on the way his cot caved in slightly under her weight. On the way the lamp was fluttering between shadow and light. . . . Her insistence on staying made him ashamed of his lack of comforts, of the smallness and feeble nature of his world.”

If any book about human frailty can be described as delicate, Claire of the Sea Light is it.

 

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a favorite literary publicist: Molly Mikolowski. She’s introduced me to so many wonderful books and authors over the years, sending me periodic packages of new gems that get me through low points in my reading life. You’ve probably had them yourself, especially if you work in a the book world — you’ve been obliged to read a stack of books that are not necessarily bad but don’t sing. Technically, the writers are sound, but they fail to light any soul-fires. Or to provoke any strong feeling at all. This results in reading ennui at best, or even fatigue.

Over the past couple of weeks, I self-medicated my reading fatigue with two of Molly’s finds: Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby, a novel about the grown daughter of an alpha blogger mommy, and Jam Today Too by Tod Davies.

I already knew I loved Tod’s writing from her wonderful Snotty Saves the Day. I’ve read a couple of cooking memoirs that were vaguely annoying and superior sounding, but I trust Molly and Tod, so I picked up Jam Today Too this morning and didn’t put it down until I got to the end, by which time my stomach was urging me forth into the kitchen.

Jam Today Too is an absolutely wonderful little book, full of delicious recipes and suggestions (Tod repeatedly assures readers, “you’ll have your own ideas”) but also good company. You know what I mean, it’s the kind of book that makes you wish you could be friends with the author, or maybe BE the author. I dare you to read this book and not be cheered immediately and tell yourself, “Well everything seems to have gone to shit in the world, but if people like Tod are in it, it can’t be all bad.”

I even read parts of the book aloud to my family, always a sign it’s one I’ll treasure. I shared Tod’s thoughts on feminism with my sixteen year old daughter who laments that people her age don’t like that word, and she loved this bit: “It can’t be just about doing what the boys do. It has to be about upholding the importance of what the girls do . . . . Girly stuff needs to be reclaimed as a ruling power in our culture . . . .”

Also, Tod suggests that dining alone on a dolled up bowl of popcorn (her topping: “melted butter, garlic salt, and Parmesan” in one’s bathrobe while reading a novel and drinking red wine is a lovely way to spend an evening. A book that makes you think “I thought I was the only one!” is always a delight. Read this book. Enjoy the vicarious pleasure of Tod’s meals with her “Beloved Vegetarian Husband” and dogs, and her graciously respectful good sense — it’s not a book that tells you what to do or how to eat, it’s a book that celebrates the pleasure of eating well your way.

As for Famous Baby, you’ve heard me lament that there are few new ideas in fiction. Karen Rizzo’s debut puts a refreshingly new twist on one of the oldest stories in the book: the mother-daughter love hate relationship. Abbie’s mother Ruth Sternberg refers to herself as the First Mother of Blogging. Abbie’s every move from babyhood to high school graduation is immortalized for millions of strangers in cyberspace. But Ruth can’t see how the constant examination is akin to exploitation, and Abbie moves out, under the guise of traveling before she goes to college.

When Ruth writes on her blog about preparing to bring her mother home from assisted living to die, Abbie kidnaps her grandma to prevent Ruth from exploiting her, too. This funny, touching book is about the discoveries Abbie, Ruth and Esther make as Ruth and her longtime agent track the women down in Tuscon and come crashing back into Abbie’s life, along with a passel of secrets revealed as the dust settles. It’s a novel with just the right combination of thoughtfulness and humor. Famous Baby would be a great choice for a book club.

I’ll leave you with this thought, from a conversation between Eric, a budding documentary filmmaker, and Abbie, “Maybe we’re never really who we think we are. You go around projecting a certain image that seems to make sense, and then something happens that scrambles that image . . . if you’re lucky, maybe you can make use of that moment.”

Books that interrupt your habitual thought patterns and give you those eyes-open moments make everything seem brighter, clearer, and better. And these are two of those books.

 

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