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Archive for August, 2014

We just got back from a week in Isle la Motte, one of the Champlain Islands in northern Vermont. Even though this year we spent a day in Montreal, I still somehow read eight books and finished a 9th (and nearly a 10th):

I finished Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer, which I’m reviewing in September’s Mindful Reader column, and which I loved — Keizer writes about a year in which he returned to teaching high school after 14 years. He recounts a bit about his earlier years teaching, his writing career, and the changes he observes, culturally and in the world of education, in his small Northeast Kingdom town. And the day we were leaving I was up early and very nearly finished Every Day in Tuscanby Frances Mayes. She writes about post-fame life in Cortona and includes recipes as well.

I read (in no particular order)

Ben Winters’ World of Trouble, the 3rd in the Last Policeman trilogy. A friend told me before I left for vacation that it was the best of the three and she is right. She also warned me it’s sad; also very true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ending, which could have been awful, but Winters write it beautifully. One spoiler: it’s not set in Concord, NH, like the first two in the series. But Hank Palace is still the last policeman, and I continue to admire his heart and dedication, his refusal to quit in the face of ridiculous odds, and his selfless pursuit of the truth.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This book is a “big” novel from a “big” author (his latest book, out in September is already on the longlist for the Booker Prize). Various reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby and referred to it as a 9/11 novel, an immigrant novel, a great American novel, and a post-colonial novel. I thought it was an interesting story, well told, but I was a little doubtful about the marital problems of the main character, Hans van den Broek, and his wife Rachel. Basically she is so rude to him that I had a hard time believing he’d keep wanting to work it out, but I suppose love is strange. When the book opens, Hans has learned that an old friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket referee and businessman with dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York, was found murdered. He reflects on how his friendship with Chuck developed after 9-11 when Rachel moved back to London with their son.  If I had to boil down what I thought Netherland was about I’d say it’s about isolation.

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I loved Impunity Jane when I read it to my daughter years ago, and this book had been calling to me from the used book section at Gibson’s for weeks when I finally bought it. When the book begins, Louise Poole and her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, have arrived in India where Charles Poole has been living, estranged from his wife and alone for many years. As the novel unfolds, readers learn more about the troubled family as well as the agricultural college Charles has helped build. We meet Narayan Das, a veterinarian, who scorns traditional Hindu beliefs and traditions and despises the caste system. And Anil, a Brahmin student who is only studying agriculture because his father insists, but really prefers writing poetry. When Emily’s dog dies, all of these characters’ play a role in the drama; most of them experience an epiphany of some sort. A satisfying, evocative read, which left me with much to ponder.

Marrying Off Mother and other Stories by Gerald Durrell. Longtime bookconscious readers know I adore Durrell. My Family and Other Animals remains of my favorite memoirs ever.This collection of stories is based in fact; some of the pieces have the same tone as his memoirs. Durrell is a unique writer, whose work is suffused with his love of the natural world as well as his warmth and the joy he seems to take in his unusual life. He also has a terrific sense of pacing; I always imagine it would be best to hear his work aloud.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Another story collection, some of them linked, about people and their relationships with each other and with society. I liked it — not too dark, not too light, interesting characters. Kane’s stories remind me a bit of Ann Beatty’s. This is fiction about feelings, heavier on interactions than actions. But you don’t come away feeling like humanity sucks when you’re through reading this collection, which is good for a vacation read.

And the best for last:

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardamone of my favorite authors.  I was really looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Gardam’s writing is exquisite and this story really grabbed me. Gardam captures adolescence beautifully, and her main character, Jessica Vye, reminded me of myself in some ways — feeling different than everyone else and being both glad of it and repulsed by it. Every character is interesting, and not a word is misspent. I am not sure I can even put into words what it is about Gardam that I love so much; I always wish her books would never end.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Like a long, cool drink of water on a hot day.  Spufford is witty and clear, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless writes about contemporary faith in a way that is both reassuring and challenging. This book is his answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it would convince atheists to change their minds (at least not the ones I know) but it might convince them to allow that not all believers are mindless idiots, and that alone makes it a great contribution.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you’ve seen the BBC series, his is the first of three memoirs by the real Jennie in the series. She writes with great affection about the community of nurses and nuns where she lived and worked in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It was a perfect book to read after enjoying Alan Johnson’s This Boy. I intend to find and read Worth’s other books as well. She was a remarkable lady and her writing is vivid, cheerful, clear, and reflective.

 

 

 

 

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There are some changes going on at the Concord Monitor and in the midst of them, my column didn’t make it into last week’s Sunday book page. It’s slated to be in this week. Some of you have been asking about it so here’s a sneak peek:

August 2014 Mindful Reader column

New Hampshire author J.P. Francis revisits a little known part of our state’s history in a debut novel, The Major’s Daughter. Collie Brennan has left Smith College to assist her father, who is commanding officer of the WWII POW internment center, Camp Stark, near Berlin. In addition to helping in the office, she acts as a translator. Collie falls for August, an Austrian prisoner, who exchanges poems with her and plays Bach on the camp piano. She tries to fight her feelings, and confesses as much to her college friend Estelle, who is struggling with her own forbidden relationship – she has fallen for a Sikh who owns a flower shop in her Ohio hometown.

Francis tells the women’s stories, weaving more in about Estelle as the novel unfolds. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – young women growing into adulthood at a time when their choices are limited — but it is told with interesting historical detail. Some of Francis’ writing tries too hard, as in this passage describing a lively girl who befriends Collie: “She reminded Collie of a spatula leaping from one bowl to the next to stir ingredients.” And the men are a little typecast: the hard-drinking macho bad guy, the boring but reliable younger son, the country club eligible bachelor, the forbidden love who quotes poetry.

Despite these flaws, there was something about this book that compelled me to read to the end – which didn’t turn out as expected. The Major’s Daughter is a decent freshman effort and I hope J.P. Francis enjoys stronger editing next time around.

Manchester author Bishop O’Connell’s new novel The Stolen is billed as “an American Faerie Tale.”  It has some of the traditional aspects of fantasy – fae, goblins, and wizards, magic and ways to travel between worlds, for example – but with a healthy dose of action sequences. Caitlin, a single mom in New Hampshire, is attacked outside a bar. A strange man named Brendan, who turns out to be “an outcast Fian warrior,” intercedes and sees her home, where they discover that her little girl, Fiona, has been taken. Caitlin’s best friend Edward, it turns out, is really a wizard who put protective wards around her house, so when he realizes they’ve been breached, he shows up as well. The three of them, along with a “fae magister” named Dante, work together to find Fiona and overcome the evil forces behind the kidnapping. If you like urban fantasy, Celtic mythology, or page turning action, you’ll enjoy The Stolen. I liked the humor and the way O’Connell blurs the line between the magical and the mortal worlds.

A Year After Henry is Cathie Pelletier’s latest novel. Set in fictional Bixley, Maine, it’s the story of how Henry Munroe’s son, wife, ex-lover, and brother are doing a year after his premature death. Pelletier is a master of evoking small town northern New England, and one thing I appreciate about her work is that she tells stories of people and emotions we’re all familiar with. You’ll probably recognize Henry’s mother who takes casseroles to her daughter-in-law. And Evie, who is from away but wants to put down roots. Larry, who is recovering from a nasty divorce and just wants to see his son. And Jeanie, who married her high school sweetheart, didn’t live happily ever after, and is trying to start living again after his loss. It may seem strange to describe a book about grieving and betrayal as hopeful, but in Pelletier’s skilled hands, it is.

New Hampshire author Shannon Stacey’s new contemporary romance, Falling for Max, is also set in a small town in Maine. Stacey writes with heart and humor, and her characters are unique. Max in particular was not what I was expecting in a romantic lead, and that was refreshing. Falling for Max is as much about the community as it is about love interests Tori and Max, and I liked that. The town store, diner, and library all felt cozy and familiar, but not predictable. Tori is a graphic artist and Max paints “historically accurate model trains,” and they each work from home, which captures the dilemma young people face today in wanting to live near their extended families but needing to support themselves. The emotional conflict in the book was also familiar and realistic but freshly told, and not tied up in a neat bow by the end of the book. A good beach read.

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A memoir about the postwar London childhood of a Labour party politician doesn’t necessarily sound like a page turner, but Alan Johnson‘s charming and moving tale, This Boy, was indeed just that. Johnson’s mother Lily, a Liverpudlian who moved to Notting Hill (at the time not posh at all) with her husband after the war, was a hardworking and sickly woman whose heart was damaged irreparably by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. She grew up with a cold and irritable father who refused to let her accept a scholarship to further her education.

Lily wanted more for her children and raised them to be polite, caring, studious and hardworking despite numbing poverty — Alan recalls being permanently hungry, and notes that he and  his sister Linda did not have an indoor toilet until 1964. Linda is the real heroine of the story, as she cared for Alan almost exclusively during their mother’s hospital stays, and became the family breadwinner at age 16 during Lily’s final illness. Her fierce love and support of both her mother and brother are inspiring.

That Alan remembers his childhood with any fondness at all is remarkable; more than that, he is generous in his recollections of friends and neighbors who were kind to them. He manages to credit his father with a few highlights in an otherwise despicable fatherhood. And he lavishes praise on his mother, his sister, and the closest friends who made his life bearable. As well as on two pastimes that soothed his soul: reading and music.

It’s amazing to read about how very different the world was only about half a century ago. I was absorbed in the detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s London, its war-scarred buildings and racial tension, neighborhood grocers and nearly car-free streets. From his work assisting a neighbor with paraffin oil delivery to his obsession with Queens Park Rangers, Mod style, and the Beatles, Johnson evokes his childhood in small stories that illuminate a time and place, as well as a particular life.

If you like well-told stories of love overcoming hardship, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or James McBride’s The Color of Water, you’ll enjoy This Boy.

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