Archive for September, 2014

Neil Gaiman thinks it does. Tomorrow evening my library’s new “Short & Sweet” group – devoted to reading & discussing a short story or essay each month – will talk about Gaiman’s talk, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading, and Daydreaming,” published as an essay in The Guardian. I  re-read it this morning to make some notes for the discussion. Gaiman proposes that our “common humanity” depends on reading for pleasure, especially reading fiction.

The beginning of the essay is about Gaiman’s belief that new readers (mostly, but sadly not always, kids) should be allowed to read whatever they want, that snobbery about “bad” books simply prevents people from reading, and that escapist reading gives people the chance to see their world differently.

But he goes on to note that fiction can teach empathy (something that scientists have studied). “You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.” I’ve written here at bookconscious over the years that my ideal reading experience is to finish a book like that, one that acts on my mind and heart and stays with me.

Gaiman notes this can have an impact on society, “Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” Gaiman explains that Chinese officials welcomed Sci-Fi conventions in the last few years because they learned that many of the most creative, inventive people in the American high tech. industry read Sci-Fi as kids.

Fiction, Gaiman says, reveals “that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are.”  The best books, including many I’ve written about here, help us make our way in the world armed with that kind of Truth.


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This is a little outside my usual reading; I needed to write a brief nonfiction review for work, and figured with so many kids playing this fall in rec. leagues and clubs and school teams, a soccer book might appeal to patrons who are spending all their free time on a sideline. And to people like The Computer Scientist, who plans his weekends around Liverpool on the telly. Don’t laugh — a larger and larger number of American fans do this. Plus, honestly, the library geek in me loves small esoteric reference books like this. And I do love the beautiful game as well.

Anyway, here’s my review of Who Invented the Bicycle Kick: Soccer’s Greatest Legends and Lore by Paul Simpson and Uli Hessi:

If you are one of the growing legion of soccer-mad Americans who follows the sport passionately, Who Invented the Bicycle Kick will fill in any gaps in your soccer history.  Simpson, who launched the magazine Four Four Two and currently edits UEFA’s Champions magazine, and Hesse, who has written a history of German soccer and is a prolific columnist for ESPN FC, have compiled detailed stories about soccer inventions, oddities, stars, gaffers (that’s coach in soccer-speak), records, and culture. I consider myself a fan, but this book convinced me that my knowledge was sadly limited. The curse of Los Gatos de Racing (seven dead cats buried in a Buenos Aires stadium to curse the home team); the origins of ads on jerseys, colored boots, and goalie gloves; the origins of total football, the stepover, and the sweeper-keeper; notable achievements, records, pre-match rituals, and more – you are sure to learn something new from this entertaining and accessible little book.




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My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  Here it is:

September 2014 Mindful Reader

by Deb Baker

Northeast Kingdom author Garret Keizer writes about his return, after 14 years, to teaching high school English in a small town in Vermont  in Getting Schooled: the Reeducation of an American Teacher.  Part memoir, part examination of recent trends in American education, Getting Schooled  is as beautifully written, carefully observed, and delightfully smart as Keizer’s previous book, Privacy. If you have ever wondered why things happen the way they do in a school, Keizer provides a behind the scenes – and sharply perceptive — view of both teaching and administration.

Noting contemporary educators’ (especially administrators) enthusiasm for the latest “methods” presented by consultants, Keizer admits he is doubtful himself but admires the source of his colleagues’ optimism. “The best teacher has already fallen for something  much more outlandish: the potential for magnificence in every human being.”  Rather than being cynical about this, Keizer embraces it, and his students notice.  In an essay one student reveals, “I learned that a good class with manners, respect and kindness to one another, you learn more and respect the subject more.”

Indeed, Keizer seems to spend a lot of his classroom time encouraging that kind of caring, cooperative atmosphere.  I found it telling that a junior in high school would only just be discovering that such an environment enhances learning. Keizer’s cultural observations are also fascinating; his explanation for the presence of Confederate flags in unlikely places like the Northeast Kingdom is particularly elucidating.

Keizer is thoughtful, curious, intelligent, and respectful, which is what every child deserves in a teacher. In Getting Schooled he teaches us what education, and small town life, is like in America today. He’s also one of the best nonfiction writers around, and I hope this large-hearted, clear-eyed, and thoroughly enjoyable read finds a large audience.

Accidents of Marriage, Randy Susan Meyers’ new novel, is about Maddy, a social worker, mother of three, and wife who suffers a brain injury in a car accident. Caused by her husband Ben, a public defender, driving like a maniac because he was angry.  Meyers uses this dramatic trigger to examine the details of a passionate marriage gone wrong , magnifying the many ways Maddy dealt with Ben’s anger over the years, her family and friends explained it away, and Ben himself justified it as the natural frustrations of a busy man with a disorganized wife. It’s a painful book, a bit like watching the coverage of a tragedy on the news. Meyers writes compellingly; Maddy’s recovery is detailed and wrenching, as are vivid portraits of the children’s reactions to their family’s turmoil. Maddy’s frustration, though, is the most vivid: “She looked out the window and watched the sun fall into the water, the airport, and the tiny distant skyline. Everything and nothing seemed familiar.” Accidents of Marriage ends on only a semi-hopeful note, with the suggestion that healing may be in store, but it won’t be easy for any of the characters.

Vermont author Sarah Healy’s novel House of Wonder is told from the point of view of Jenna, a single mom whose twin brother Warren is “more strange than quirky” and whose mother Silla’s house is full of  stuff she’s bought to counter the losses in her life. Jenna’s story alternates with Silla’s, a former Miss Texas whose own mother was “gone” when she was a very young child. Healy weaves together what happened then with why the neighbors are suspicious of Warren now, adding a love interest for Jenna and some drama surrounding Rose, her daughter. It’s a satisfying mix. Warren, who Jenna’s friend Maggie dryly notes is likely “on the spectrum,” is an interesting character, and I would have enjoyed hearing more of the story from his perspective.  Healy has a knack for realistic dialogue such as this exchange between Jenna and Maggie, “So . . . tell me more about Gabby’s daddy.” . . .”He’s just this guy I grew up with. . . . Stop staring at me with your shrink smile.” . . .”I think it’s great.” . . . “Maggie, it is so not like that. . . .” House of Wonder kept me reading late into the night, wondering how things would work out for these endearing characters. For fans of contemporary fiction and anyone who enjoys well-drawn characters who are much like people you know.

Randy Susan Meyers will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Sept. 24 at 7pm. and Bishop O’Connell  author of The Stolen, featured in August’s column, will be at Gibson’s on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 6pm.

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