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Archive for January, 2015

Thank you again to all of you who have responded to “On Being ‘Discontinued.'” The support I’ve received from all over the world has been quite surprising and gratifying. I’m happy to report The Mindful Reader will have a new home in print and online beginning Sunday, Feb. 15 in the New Hampshire Sunday News. My column will run twice a month in the paper’s new NH Life section. I’ll still be covering New Hampshire and northern New England authors and my goal will be to review books readers might not hear about elsewhere, or by authors who are visiting a bookstore nearby. Only nearby will now mean statewide. All of you from large states, stop snickering.

On to reading. This week as we waited for our firstborn’s passport to return from its tour of embassies in Washington and New York (he needed two visas for his upcoming study abroad semester, and he departs next week so the waiting was nerve-wracking), I needed an escapist book. When I was a young mother, we lived in Seattle and I fought the winter doldrums by reading about people chucking it all to live in a new place, often a ramshackle old home in a foreign country. At the library recently I came across Castles In the Air: the Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion by Judy Corbett. Here’s my CPL Book of the Week review:

In 1995, Judy Corbett and her fiancée Peter were looking for an old house to restore in Wales, where Judy grew up. When they heard that Gwydir Castle, an aristocratic home dating back to around 1500, might be for sale, they visited, only to find two astonishing things: it was the very house Judy admired as a child in a sepia photograph at her neighbor’s house, and it was a wreck. Part of the house had been turned into an underground nightclub, the rest had been left to crumble and rot. Judy and Peter were not only undeterred; they were smitten.

Judy & Peter shared Gwydir with all manner of flora and fauna when they moved in. Their wedding was nearly called off because of a haunting. They learned that some of the home’s original furnishings were in a Metropolitan Museum of Art warehouse (by way of Hearst Castle) and set about trying to repatriate them. Castles in the Air is part memoir, part history, part ghost story, and entirely delightful.Throughout the story of their “adventures” Judy focuses on her home’s wild beauty, “Sometimes it seems to me as though it had been conjured out of the damp earth by sorcery.” Reflecting on the lives of Tudor women who lived at Gwydir she notes, “I click the same latch and feel the heavy mass of oak drop slightly on the swing of the same strap hinges. To me, the continuity of such things is reassuring. I am reminded that we are the future the past looked forward to . . . .” A lovely book and a fascinating story told with warmth, humor, and good cheer.

 

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A colleague of mine at the library lent me her copy of A Single ManShe said she’d never read Isherwood, came across this book on our sale rack, and decided she wanted to try it. When someone likes a book so much they invite me to borrow it, that’s a compelling recommendation, so I took her up on it.

I have to admit, I’d never read Isherwood either. I thought A Single Man was nearly perfect (only nearly, because I’m not sure perfection exists). The characters are so complete they came off the page in my mind. The story is simple but the book isn’t about what happens so much as it is about life happening. It’s one of those novels that is absolutely True, by which I mean it tells capital T truths about what it means to be human, in a way that I think even nonfiction doesn’t always do. It has both a kick-ass beginning and an ending that I can’t get out of my head. My grandmother would give it her highest praise: there is not one extra word. Everything Isherwood wrote belongs.

George, the main character, is an older man whose much younger partner Jim died suddenly in an accident a short time before the book opens. It’s the 60’s, and even in southern California he is not entirely out. He refers to Jim as his “friend” and even pretends to his neighbors that Jim has gone to be near family rather than risk revealing too much by telling the truth. George is still grieving and the opening pages of the book, which describe him having a sort of out-of-body experience of coaxing himself to get up out of bed and get on with the day, drew me in immediately:

“Waking up begins with saying am and now. . . . Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home. But now isn’t simply now. Now is a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year.”

To me this is an intriguing and promising opening. I wanted to know whether George was going to feel better. The rest of the novel takes readers through the rest of this one day in George’s life. It doesn’t necessarily answer my question.

If you read about Isherwood you’ll see that some of the characters in the book appear to be inspired by people in his life. He did have a much younger partner. And Charlotte, George’s dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, might resemble Isherwood’s real life dear friend and fellow British ex-pat, Dodie Smith. Learning those possible parallels made the book even more endearing to me.

But I should add — it’s not endearing in a cute and cuddly way. This is a tough book that confronts prejudice, homophobia, and meanness. It questions consumer culture, the American higher education system, and the dawn of suburban sprawl. George’s emotions range from euphoria over life’s simple pleasures, like going to the gym to despair that the students he teaches at a community college are never going to get what he’s trying to tell them. He is both thrilled to be alive and afraid that his life is meaningless. He feels pure rage at those who vilify homosexuality and loneliness as he observes people together. At times his loss seems to take on a mystical presence yet he seems content with what he still has at other moments. His enormous grief seems to pulse just below the other emotions. Sometimes the streams cross and George is nearly overcome, he changes his mind about what he’ll do next, he seems to be feeling everything at once.

What’s incredible is that readers get this rich sense of the man when we see him on just one day, and also that his inner life becomes so vivid. I don’t want to give away the ending but I have to say it blew me away — I was not expecting it and the last two pages may be among the finest book endings I’ve ever read. I immediately wished I could talk about it with someone and will do so tomorrow. What I will say, and what I’ll leave you with, is that A Single Man gets to the heart of what it feels like to be human — coursing with emotions, full of longing to connect with people, to be purposeful, to be happy and also not to make others unhappy, to know what one’s life should be. I’m a straight woman, born in a far different generation and in another country, but I felt George’s joy and discomfort, I was a part of his humanity, so long as I was reading this book.

 

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Emerson College professor Steve Himmer’s new novel Fram is about Oscar, a “minor bureaucrat” in the Bureau of Ice Prognostication, a government agency tasked with completely imaginary work: inventing “discoveries” in the Arctic, creating records relating to their use, and recording these in reports and files in their basement office somewhere in Washington. For example, “Perhaps a town’s population had boomed—was a streak of silver discovered and a spoon factory built? Or perhaps a coal vein ran dry and the families of miners packed up and left it behind. Generations of prognosticators could return to the same parts of the Arctic and find something new . . . .” Their work is carried on under an old lightbulb with a “cloth-wrapped cord.” “The bulb wasn’t bright, but its wan glow was faithful.”

So is Oscar. His cover story is that he works on creating more efficient filing systems for the government, but “polar fever” as his wife Julia calls it, extends into his personal life, as he reads again and again about the great expeditions North and obsessively watches “Pole cam” on his phone. He is quietly dedicated to the Arctic, day and night.

One day Oscar’s diligent work is interrupted by unprecedented news: he and his new partner, Alexi, have been summoned by their director with orders to travel to the Arctic themselves. And this is where the novel begins to feel a lot like walking on ice, solid but unstable – the reader slips and slides, in one moment upright, slightly off balance the next. I never quite wiped out, but I was never absolutely certain where I stood.

Oscar goes home baffled and unsure of this mysterious trip. Julia isn’t home, and he muses on how they’ve grown apart, and how dearly he holds their private jokes and memories, the shared stories that make a marriage its own little ship on stormy seas. He notes how difficult it is, lying to Julia about what he does.

And the next morning, Oscar is seized. From there, his journey North is confusing and strange. He’s never sure who is BIP and who is not, who might be trustworthy and to whom he should deliver an envelope marked “Northern Branch.”  Spy-like figures, who readers first see on the Metro when Oscar leaves work the fateful day he learns of his journey, appear on trains and boats and in the snow. There’s a gunbattle aboard a ship. A mysterious hunter/terrorist who travels South, bent on destroying BIP’s work. Conspiracy theorists who posit online that BIP is a sham, balanced by hints that the “discoveries” are not in fact invented at all, but rather their invention is invented.

Himmer aims his considerable dark wit at government bureaucracy, at “big data,” at murky virtual communities, even at extreme eating competitions and Bond-like villains – no one escapes skewering but Oscar, who is “fast as a lightbulb,” and seems to stand for honesty and diligence, hard work and faith, trust and loyalty. And even Oscar is slightly ridiculous, a lackey who never wavers from the make-believe of his own work even when his trip spins out of control, a grownup who spends all his spare time focused on his boyhood obsession, a man who misses the closeness he enjoyed with his wife even as he’s failed to really notice her own secrecy for years. These parts of the book resonated most with me – I enjoyed Oscar’s recollections of moments in his marriage that add up to a life together. I was rooting for him to return to Julia and make things right again. But that, like so much else in Fram, seemed uncertain with every new development.

Should a book, even one so reliant on polar seas and pack ice, leave its readers feeling so off-balance? Fram defies category; it doesn’t have the pacing or predictability of a mainstream thriller, nor the singular focus of a satire. Interspersed with the main narrative are very brief chapters that reference the history of Arctic exploration that Oscar holds so dear. Other slivers of story reveal glimpses of what else might be happening as Oscar is caught up in some strange intrigue. All of this adds to the off-kilter feeling.

But I wanted to finish Fram, the tilt-a-whirl sensation was not off putting, and I found the end intriguing rather than frustrating, even though I can’t say I’m entirely sure what happened. It’s a book you’ll want to discuss with someone – if your book group likes to try something unusual, this would be a good choice. Spending several hours reading Himmer’s fine prose is always a pleasure. If you’ve resolved to read something different this year, try Fram.

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When our elder child finished his gap year in England we met him there. I’d planned a day in Bath, which I visited during college. It proved to be a wonderful day despite fairly steady rain, and one of the best things we did was visit a small, unassuming and very well done museum: The Herschel Museum of Astronomy. When they were younger, my children were both fascinated by astronomy and we’d learned briefly of brother and sister astronomers William and Caroline Herschel. Their former home on New King Street in Bath is a lovely tribute to their work together and we all enjoyed it.

When I heard that one of my favorite small presses, Cinnamon Press, had published a novel about Caroline Herschel, Double the StarsI was intrigued. And yesterday, on the last day of my holiday vacation, I sat and read it in its entirety, one of my favorite ways to get lost in a book. It’s a wonderful read by a person well versed in both science and art; Kelley Swain was poet-in-residence at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge while working on this novel. She notes in the afterword that she met with the Herschel’s descendants, one of whom even created the cover art, and from what I could tell from what (albeit little) I know about the Herschels, the novel seems true to history.

And yet, it is still a work of fiction, with certain details rearranged to create a narrative, and I suspect, bits of emotional drama inserted. The Computer Scientist and I went to see The Imitation Game this weekend, the biopic about Alan Turing (the other really interesting place we visited on our trip was Bletchley Park — well worth an outing if you are in London). We enjoyed it but mused on our way home that it seemed unlikely that Turing’s relationships with his superiors at Bletchley were so fraught, and I noted that the information about the burglary and investigation seemed inaccurate from what I could recall. I found an article in Slate when we got home which verified what we’d suspected — conflict was added to the film that didn’t exist in Turing’s actual life, and no detective in Manchester investigated him, he admitted to being gay and that was that. Also, in focusing on Turing, the filmmakers left out some important collaboration that took place in breaking Enigma and in building The Bombe — the computing machine that sped up the code-breakers’ work.

Does that matter? I mused on Facebook that I was disconcerted by the level of extra drama and the portrayal of Turing as a humorless, antisocial narcissist (like Benedict Cumberbatch’s well known portrayal of Sherlock Holmes). My cousin Sheafe noted “the movie biz believes that the story of a movie must have more drama than in anyone’s real life. The movie must have conflict in every scene, however small to be a good movie and not a boring one. Most people’s life story, even the extraordinary ones have some dull, not so cinematic moments that must be creatively altered to serve the plot/story/movie. That’s the moviegoers expectation to be amazed and overwhelmed.”

Sheafe comes from a family of actors and directors and his law practice is dedicated to entertainment law and intellectual property in the arts, including film. So he knows what he’s talking about. And I know I’m the odd one out in believing that novels and films about real people don’t have to have zingers, explosions, betrayals, or drama on every page or frame in order to entertain. But how is it that we’ve reached a point in our culture where we need to be amazed and overwhelmed nearly to a point of artifice? Why aren’t people as incredibly interesting as Caroline Herschel and Alan Turing entertaining enough without the added embellishments? I get that every day of even remarkable people’s lives aren’t interesting, but it seems to me that both of them had lives that are plenty dramatic.

But I digress. Swain’s novelization of Caroline Herschel’s life is delightful and I don’t mean to detract from that. She portrays the enormous obstacles to female intellectual life in the late eighteenth century and the freedom Caroline Herschel enjoyed in large part because she lived with her brother. And the darker side of that freedom, as in this passage, when Caroline realizes her musical career will end when she becomes her brother’s assistant astronomer, a royal posting: ” . . . locked into William’s orbit, his influence overwhelmed the trajectory of her own desires.”

Swain makes clear that Herschel’s peers — including some of the greatest scientific minds of her time — knew and valued her work, and that she herself derived great satisfaction from it. Herschel was the first woman to earn her living as a scientist, and whether the dramatic story-line in the novel about her sacrifice of personal happiness is true or not, there is no doubt that she, and most women of her time, had to sacrifice their own pursuits to the needs and preferences of the men they relied on for support and respectability. Swain does an excellent job of showing how bittersweet Herschel’s successes were; unlike many women she was lauded for her fine mind and its accomplishments, but like so many others, decisions about how and where to live, and what work to pursue, were often not entirely up to her.

Read Double the Stars. Go see The Imitation Game. But ask yourself — isn’t art just as beautiful when it is, like life, leavened with a little ordinariness? Do we really need the adrenaline rush of conflict and drama to be entertained? I’m reminded of Eddie Izzard’s comparison of American and British films. I guess I just like the A Room With A View, “I’d better go, Yes I think you better had” sort of art, myself.

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2014 in review

Thank you to everyone who read, shared, commented, linked, re-blogged, etc. in 2014. It’s because of all of you fellow members of the book tribe that bookconscious exists. Stay tuned for more great reads in 2015! I’m especially pleased that people from so many different countries read the blog — comment if you’re from outside the U.S. and let me know what reviews you most enjoyed.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 8,100 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 7 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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