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Archive for December, 2014

A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey: Seasonal Celebrations, Traditions, and Recipes is the latest companion book to the television series. Author Jessica Fellowes is the niece of Downton Abbey creator and writer Julian Fellowes, who provided an introduction to the book. After the whirl of activity at home and work in the past few weeks, I found this lavish peek inside Downton Abbey to be a treat.

Fellowes divides the book by month, explaining what an aristocratic family in 1924 Britain would be doing throughout the year. She also provides an insider view of the studios where all the below-stairs and some of the other interior scenes are shot, and describes the props, costumes, and historical detail that go into every scene in Downton Abbey, as well as the people who bring it to life. For each section of the book, Fellowes also provides seasonal recipes inspired by the carefully researched food on the show.

It’s a bit of a hodge podge compared to Jessica Fellowe’s previous companion book, The World of Downton AbbeyThe seasonal layout provides structure but also leads naturally to some repetition, so that in more than one place you read about servants’ leisure time, women’s fashion, modes of transportation and travel, and the exploits of “Bright Young Things,” for example. Still, each section is full of photos and details about the writing, filming and production. Fellowes interviewed cast members and others whose knowledge and recollections shed light on the world of Downton Abbey, and researched period details, which is very interesting. If you enjoy the show, it’s a lovely preview of “series five.”

One warning — the book reveals a bit of what’s in store for viewers this season that while intriguing, might be off-putting to those with an aversion to spoilers. None of what I learned seems to be a major plot point, but some of it I’d rather have discovered as I watched.

Hello and thank you to all my new blog followers.What’s next on bookconscious? I’m excited about two novels in the to-read pile: Fram, by the very talented Steve Himmer, and a fictional account of Caroline Herschel’s life, Double the Stars, based on her letters and notes, by poet Kelley Swain. I hope you’ll keep reading with me.

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I’ve been writing The Mindful Reader column for The Concord Monitor since April 2012. Thirty-three columns, one a month on the Sunday book page, reviewing dozens of books, all by New Hampshire or northern New England authors, many published by small presses. It’s been a wonderful experience.

People often stop me when I’m out and about to tell me how much they liked a column, or to ask my opinion about some aspect of one of the books I read. They come into the library, where I am the librarian in charge of adult services, and our local indie bookstore, where I was once event coordinator and bookseller, to ask for the books. That’s been a thrill — there is nothing better for a writer than knowing your work not only reached someone, but moved them enough that they wanted to participate in the thing you’ve written about. And the authors I’ve heard from who are so grateful to get a published review, when so much book publicity is focused on a handful of “it” titles — that’s been great too.

This week I received a brief reply to my monthly invoice from the Monitor’s editor, who has been with the paper a few months and had never communicated with me previously. He let me know my column is discontinued and invited me to chat with him about the direction the paper would be taking. I cried — I admit it. But the next day I called him and he called me back and we had that chat.

Here’s what I learned: he told me the paper needs to stop hiring freelancers in order to pay reporters. I was with him so far. I work in a public library, I get budget cuts. And he then went on to say he was hoping to have more reader generated content on the book page, and to ask me if the library has a book club or if I knew of other book clubs whose members might like to review books for the Sunday book page. Which floored me to uncomfortable silence.

When I recovered, I wished him good luck with getting readers to write for him. I noted that I would have liked to have had the chance to thank my readers and say goodbye, because I do have readers, who I hear from regularly. He suggested that if I wanted to keep writing my column for “personal gratification” he’d make space for it, I just couldn’t be paid. Which floored me even further. I explained I was needed at the reference desk and I excused myself.

I’m a librarian — we don’t just rearrange books and check them in and out, we learn how to classify, organize, and access information, how to help readers access it, and yes, how to evaluate the quality of all kinds of information, including books. I’m a professional reviewer — a member of the National Book Critics Circle, who has made contacts in the publishing world with other reviewers, editors, publicists, authors, librarians and booksellers. I’ve reviewed here at bookconscious for eight years, and my reviews have often been quoted in publicity materials and on book jackets, and former Monitor editor Felice Belman checked out my reviews here before offering me the column (for which I am still grateful). And I’m a professional writer — published in a lot of obscure little literary magazines that often only pay in copies, but which have never, ever made me feel I was merely servicing my personal gratification by sending in my work.

Because that’s what writing is. Work. An editor, even at a cash-strapped newspaper, should know this. Each of my columns went through 10-15 drafts. I cut, and honed, and read aloud, and clarified. I also read every word of every book I reviewed, 3-5 a month. And many words of books I didn’t review for one reason or another. And frankly, although I was paid and appreciated that, it was certainly not enough to pay a reporter, even a part time reporter.

Over the last couple of days as I’ve talked to colleagues and friends I’ve learned that so far, none of the other freelancers I know have had their columns cut. I think there is a perception in this Age of Amazon that anyone can write a book review, just as there is a perception that anyone can check books out. Granted I am aware that writers of all kinds are asked to work for free all the time, even for established media companies, especially online. And I would hate to see anyone else lose their columns.

But I’m smarting. Everyone I’ve described the situation to has had the same reaction — it’s in pretty poor taste to fire someone and then ask if they could recommend somebody to do the same work for free. One friend in the publishing world sent me her list of contacts at newspaper book pages around the country, as a way of assuring me I have something to offer, a kindness I really appreciate. Another suggested there might be a way to keep publishing locally. I don’t know what I’m going to do with The Mindful Reader yet. I need time to think about my options.

In the meantime I’ll be here at bookconscious. A co-worker has graciously offered to teach me how to knit an infinity scarf, and I’ve got a stack of books I haven’t had time to read that I want to get to now that I don’t have homework. Teen the Elder is going to be home from college before heading off to South Africa for the spring semester. Teen the Younger and I have some serious baking to do.

But first I’d like to say what I wasn’t given the opportunity to say in print: thank you. Thank you for reading. For stopping me at the Farmers’ Market, in the library, at Gibson’s, in restaurants, on the street, at church, at Red River Theatres, and lots of other places to tell me you’d read my column. Thank you for supporting our region’s many talented authors by reading and buying their books and going to hear them read. Keep doing that, keep reading my reviews — please let your friends know about bookconscious — and keep stopping me to talk. I’m still here.

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My column ran in today’s Concord Monitor. If you have trouble with the link, here it is:

The Mindful Reader: A sensible approach to mental strength

My son saw my review copy of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by Amy Morin and said it’s all over social media, even though it’s not officially out until Jan. 1. Which is fitting, because the book grew out of a blog post that went viral. By the time she was 26, Morin had experienced the unexpected deaths of her mother and husband. When she was 31, her new father-in-law died of cancer. A psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in Maine, Morin wrote her post about mental strength. It had 10 million views in a few weeks.

Morin’s advice isn’t necessarily new – don’t feel sorry for yourself, don’t waste energy on what you can’t control and don’t dwell on the past, for example – but her story is compelling. A conversational style makes the book easy to read. She includes diagnostic checklists (I uneasily identified myself as a people pleaser), and offers dos and don’ts at the end of each chapter to help readers coach themselves into better habits. She cautions those seeking a quick fix, “Increasing your mental strength isn’t about simply reading this book or declaring that you’re tough. Instead it’s about incorporating strategies into your life that will help you reach your full potential.”

And that’s what kept me reading. I’m fairly skeptical of positive psychology, but Morin is clear that her book isn’t about thinking good thoughts, but unthinking bad ones and working on healthier replacements for mental bad habits. It’s a sensible approach, prescribed in realistic, achievable actions. She also notes “training your brain” is no easier than training your body and requires discipline and hard work. Which seems like a message worthy of going viral.

Old age unvarnished

Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty is mainly about old age: “However much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy.” Hall covers his usual topics through the lens of aging – his life and work, New Hampshire, family, the habits and passions that make life comfortable and interesting. With self-deprecating humor and sharp observation, he admits to lighting his easy chair on fire by losing a cigarette, gives a history of his beards, pays homage to the women who make his independent living possible, and laments the aggravations of an aging body. Hall is matter of fact about death: “Except in print, I no longer dwell on it.” Maybe not, but it’s poignant to read an octogenarian’s reflections on sitting with his dying grandmother and wife decades ago. As always, he is smart and fascinating. Describing the satisfying result of meticulous revision Hall notes, “A scrupulous passion of style – word choice, syntax, punctuation, order, rhythm, specificity – set forth not only the writer’s rendering of barns and hollyhocks, but the writer’s feelings and counterfeelings.” Indeed. “New poems no longer come to me . . . . Prose endures.” For which readers of Essays After Eighty will be grateful.

A beautiful story

I knew Lissa Warren, who lives in southern New Hampshire, is an accomplished editor and publicity director. She’s also a terrific writer. Her memoir, The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat, is beautiful. It’s not just the story of Ting, her family’s Korat cat, who came into their home when her retired father needed a pet to keep him company. It’s also a grown daughter’s love letter to her parents. It’s a story of illness, fear and grief. And eventually, peace, in part from life with Ting: “The clocks in our house were superfluous; we marked our time by the cat.” I don’t want to give too much away, because part of the pleasure of this book is Warren’s unfolding of the various facets of her story. This isn’t just another book about a special pet – it’s an incredible story of care and determination, love and devotion, and family.

Making an exception

I don’t usually review children’s books, but when a copy of Cat In the City, written by Julie Salamon and illustrated by New Hampshire artist Jill Weber, arrived in my mailbox, it seemed worthy of an exception. This time of year brings out the child in all of us, and adult readers are often looking for a book to share with children they may not see often. Cat In the City is that kind of book, a warm tale well told, whose hero, Pretty Boy, is a fluffy white stray who stumbles into the dog run at Washington Square Park in New York and takes up with its inhabitants as he escapes from the neighborhood hawk. When Pretty Boy meets his new canine friends’ people, his life is transformed. As the story continues, he manages to repay the human kindness he has experienced again and again. Weber’s colorful illustrations remind me of Maira Kalman’s – stylized and unfussy but full of life and movement and emotion.

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Like the first two books in this series, The Magician’s Land had me hooked from page one. Quentin Coldwater, misunderstood misfit magician king, shows up at a bookstore in a strip mall in New Jersey on a rainy March night, because he received a letter inviting him to do so. From then on it’s  a – ahem – spell-binding ride as readers learn what happened to Quentin since the ram god Ember kicked him out of Fillory, and what he’ll do next. Will he recover from the disgraces he’s suffered in Fillory and on Earth? What secret does Plum, a former Brakebills student, have that might help her help Quentin? Can Quentin save Alice from spending the rest of eternity as a niffin? What are Eliot, Josh, Poppy, and Julia doing back in Fillory and why are things so strange there? What really happened to the Chatwin children, whose adventures in Fillory are memorialized in beloved story books?  Was there a dark side to the books’ author, Christopher Plover? Is there, indeed, a dark side to Fillory?

If you’re thinking you don’t like fantasy so this isn’t your cup of tea, think again. Grossman’s subject isn’t magic, or even purely good versus evil, although that is certainly important in his books. His subject is really humanity, in all its rich variety. And love. And truth. And growing up. And becoming who you’re meant to be. Everything that makes great fiction stick, in a fun, smart, thought-provoking, and yes, fantastic wrapping. I told friends over the weekend that The Magicians trilogy is a cross between Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia, but with sex and drugs.

If you’re looking for stories to get lost in this winter, I highly recommend these well written, entertaining, and soulful books. Give me The Magicians over any “problem” novel or confessional memoir, any day. Grossman packs as much truth and love and pain and heartfelt conflict into his stories, with none of the guilt, over-sharing, or voyeurism. Plus, he writes about wicked cool magic. In a series that is very contemporary, which manages to reference traditional fantasy in a very charming way. The jacket flap says this is the series’ conclusion, but I fervently hope Grossman changes his mind about that.

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