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Archive for February, 2016

Louise Penny came to Gibsons’s a few years ago to one of my final author visits as events coordinator there. I was impressed that so many readers in Concord came out, and dozens of people I’d never seen in the store traveled from all over the region. In the years since, many people have recommended Penny’s mysteries to me — fellow librarians, readers of all kinds, art lovers, travel buffs.

So for my “first book in a series” challenge for Book Bingo, I picked up Still LifeIf you don’t know Penny’s work, her novels are set in the fictional (although based on real places in Quebec) village of Three Pines, south of Montreal, and feature mysteries that are solved by Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Several people who recommended her books cited the terrific characters. I must say I’d like some of the inhabitants of Three Pines as neighbors. My favorites so far are Myrna, former psychiatrist turned bookstore proprietress; Ruth, the famously gifted and quite prickly poet living more or less incognito; and Gabri and Olivier, owners of the Bistro and the B&B.

In Still Life, a retired schoolteacher much loved by all the village is found dead in the woods just a few days she’s had work accepted in Arts Williamsburg, a prestigious local show. Gamache is called in to determine whether this “unnatural” death was an accident or a murder. The art portion of the story is interesting, and plays an important role in solving the case.

The mystery kept me guessing, and I liked the Chief Inspector and his methodology, although I was annoyed by a subplot about a young and kind of obnoxious agent, Yvette Nichol, chosen to join Armand Gamache’s investigative team. She seemed overly clueless and I didn’t understand why there was one small detail about her family’s history that was revealed and then never revisited. Maybe somewhere later in the series that becomes clear? Anyway Gamache is kind and principled and he reads, and he seems to care about the community impacted by the murder he’s called in to solve.

That community is the other thing people who love Louise Penny tell me about frequently: these books are infused with a sense of place that entices readers to spend more time in Three Pines. I definitely got that. I could practically smell the pastries and the wet dogs, see the fall leaves and feel the cold rain. Three Pines is a lovely village endowed with interesting people and I will certainly spend more time there.

 

 

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At a glance, the two novels I read in the last several days couldn’t be more different. One is a classic, the other a contemporary debut that could possibly be classified as a”geek mystery.” They both fit on my book bingo card.

Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner is on the Guardian‘s list of the “100 Best Novels.” The book is set in England between WWI and WWII, and features a “maiden aunt.” Laura, known as Lolly, doesn’t leave her childhood home until her father dies when she is in her twenties, past marriageable age, and then she moves to her elder brother’s home in London.

Stifled by her limited, proper existence she one day buys a map and a guidebook and is taken with a village called Great Mop, inconveniently located according to her sister-in-law, in the Chilterns. Free, finally, she begins to notice odd things about the village, including a kitten she sees as her familiar, and is eventually invited to a Witches’ Sabbath. She doesn’t really enjoy it but does enjoy the sense of coming into her own — when she was younger she had brewed herbal concoctions and she sees now that she is a witch, in league with the devil.

It doesn’t come as serenely as all that. There’s a threat to her independence when her nephew Titus comes to Great Mop, and Laura, in a state of great agitation goes out walking and finds herself in a field, surrounded by woods, just as boxed in as her family has always made her feel. She cries out, and ” . . . the silence that followed it had been so intent, so deliberate, that it was like a pledge . . . if any grimly favorable power had had been evoked by her cry, then surely a compact had been made. . . .” Shortly after, her nephew gets engaged and heads off to London with his fiancee.

Lolly is comfortable with the devil, who appears as a gardener and a hunter (the subtitle of the book is The Loving Huntsman), a man she can sit beside and talk philosophically with, and who offers her salvation from family ties that bound her to a life she did not choose. It’s an interesting novel, which I’d never heard of until I read Helen Macdonald’s “By the Book” in the New York Times. It would be a good book club selection, and deserves to be more widely read.

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore caught my eye because of the cover (yes, I sometimes choose wine by the label) and because of early reviews comparing it to Nick Hornby’s work. I didn’t find it as thoughtful, but it was entertaining. It’s a mystery set in Brooklyn, with characters like Jett (the heroine) and KitKat (the murdered woman) whose “boyfriend” is really gay (and black, so he feels he’s more easily accused of the murder) and Jett’s G.B.F. (guy best friend), Sid, who thinks he’s fallen for a stripper named Cinderella who turns out to have paid for her breast implants with a grad school research grant. A little much? Kind of, but not in an off-putting way. The thread that links Jett, her friends, and even the suspects is music.

Jett discovers the body when she lets herself into KitKat’s apartment to leave her mail, a mix tape that was inadvertently delivered to Jett. The tape evokes the rewind of the title as Jett unravels the clues in the mix so she can find the real murderer — she never buys the notion that the “boyfriend” did it —  and works her way through her own love life’s musical history, even re-entangling herself with a couple of exes along the way. The book is part romance, part coming-of-age (yes, Jett is older than most coming of are heroines but coming-of-age happens later these days), part geek noir, part playful send up of hipster Brooklyn where a vegan brunch hotspot and retro clubs are as important as Bath’s assembly rooms were in Jane Austen.

The result is pleasant enough, but I don’t know if I’m the target audience. I found the and mean militant feminist stripper depressing, and the social scene alarming (most of Jett’s acquaintances don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves, and the author’s take on marriage is not pretty), but Jett herself is endearing. She takes in her dead friend’s cat, is a kind soul, keeps her word, and wants to be like her grandma, who is, I grant, hipper than most grannies, but I liked that clue to Jett’s character. Mostly I found the nonstop stream of cultural references tiresome; even though I recognized most, it was distracting to place all of them all and stay with the story at the same time. I suspect that my kids’ generation, who are used to distraction in a way I’m not, will love this book.

So, looking at them again, do these novels have anything in common? Single women trying to live their lives the way they want to. Lolly has to make a pact with the devil to become truly herself — a witch — and be free of family ties. Jett gets her man (I won’t reveal which one) and solves a mystery. But Lolly feels serene and pleased about her future despite her deal, while Jett doesn’t make any progress in determining her life’s direction. That’s probably emblematic of our age — few people in their twenties or thirties today know what’s ahead. But like Lolly, Jett’s content. And in today’s multi-book deal world, I suspect we haven’t seen the end of her.

 

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I was looking around for a classic to read for my book bingo card, which is filling up nicely. More than once in the past couple of months different people whose reading tastes I admire recommended Graham Greene, so when I saw The End of the Affair on a list (something like “classics you may never have gotten around to reading”) I checked it out. I’m embarrassed that this 40-something English major librarian had never read Greene.

It’s a lovely book, and an interesting read during Lent. It’s about Maurice Bendrix, an author living in London, and Sarah and Henry Miles who live across “the Common” from him in London. Maurice and Sarah have the affair in the title, and are happy, although Maurice is a jealous lover. One night towards the end of WWII, a V1 hits Maurice’s house and Sarah thinks he’s dead. Unbeknownst to him, she makes a deal with God: “I shut my eyes tight and I pressed my nails into the palms of my hands until I could feel nothing but the pain and I said, I will believe. Let him be alive and I will believe. . . . But that wasn’t enough, It doesn’t hurt to believe. So I said, I love him and I’ll do anything if you’ll make him alive, I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance . . . .”

As you can guess, Maurice wasn’t really dead. Most of the book is from his perspective, as he and Henry talk about Sarah, engage a private detective to see who else she’s been seeing, and learn why the affair actually ended. I don’t want to give away what she is up to or what happens to the three main characters, but I will say I didn’t want to put the book down.

But it’s so much more than a novel of manners. Sarah and Maurice in particular, and to some extent Henry, wrestle with God’s existence and whether — and what — to believe. It was this aspect of the book I found especially interesting, in particular the way Sarah’s doubt, which is steadfast before her moment of prayer in the bombed house, slowly evolves, even though she is angry with God. She is smart, and a person fully of her time, married to a government minister, perfectly satisfied with her secular London life. She even meets regularly with an atheist who preaches rationalism on the Common.

But God gets in. Not through her happiness, but through her pain. She write in her journal, “I thought, sometimes I’ve hated Maurice, but would I have hated him if I hadn’t loved him too?  Oh God, if I could really hate you, what would that mean?” I think that’s one of the most rawly human streams of thought I’ve ever seen expressed in fiction.

Maurice even shows signs of believing if not exactly in a favorable manner: “With Your great schemes You ruin our happiness like a harvester ruins a mouse’s nest: I hate You, God. I hate You as though You existed.” Wow. That’s a seriously powerful line, especially as it comes towards the end of the book, and readers aren’t sure what will happen to Maurice. It’s also a perfect bookend to the first page of the novel, where Maurice tells the reader, “this is a record of hate far more than of love . . . .”

I didn’t want to put it down. Would any of them be happy? Did any of them actually love each other? What the heck IS love, actually? And hate? And how in the world do we deal with God, who is both real and “a vapour” as Sarah says? The End of the Affair is a beautifully written book, exquisitely structured, suffused with its London setting, which wrestles with some of the greatest questions people face. I loved it. Thanks, Juliana and J for the recommendations!

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This was my “book that’s been made into a movie” on my book bingo card, and also a book I’ve been promising a couple of my coworkers at the library for ages that I’d read after they both recommended it. If you don’t know the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s an animated full length picture by the great Hayao Miyazaki. My family seems to have seen it; I can’t recall it so I’m going to watch it (possibly again?) soon.

As my friends promised, it’s a wonderful book.Wynne Jones is very imaginative and Sophie, the heroine, and her sisters are strong female characters. Yes, I realize they all want to get married and live happily ever after, but they are intelligent and strong and in charge of their own paths in life.

Howl is a funny, complicated wizard, and his companions, an apprentice named Michael and a fire demon named Calcifer, are fine sidekicks. Sophie has to puzzle out what the contract is between Howl and Calcifer so she can help break it, and she also has to work out who the real villain is (Howl turns out not to eat girls’ souls, as she’d been told), where Howl comes from, and who has cursed each of them. Beneath all the fun is the main idea of so many great works of fantasy: people who care about each other can come together to overcome evil.

A lovely book for a deeply cold day. I started it with my morning coffee and finished this afternoon in a cozy chair when the chores were done.

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First the one I read and hated: The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger. I chose it to fill the “book from the teen zone” on my book bingo card. It’s a graphic novel in a picture book layout and the premise drew me in: a woman escaping a fight with her partner finds a mysterious bookmobile stocked with everything she’s ever read, staffed by a friendly librarian. A blurb on the back said the message is that we are what we read. What’s not to love?

Except this book is about a woman who reads and enjoys remembering what she’s read to the point of obsession and madness. It’s a story about losing hope, clinging to to our own desires even if they make us lonely and miserable, and perishing in a mire of self — and then the ending glorifies that. Don’t read this book.

There.

On to a much happier selection, even though it’s about grief and pain and loneliness. It’s H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, and it’s also about heart and hope and love, family and friendship and wildness. This is a story celebrating the redemptive quality of both seeking something we care deeply for, in Macdonald’s case hawking, and doing it well as a way of reminding ourselves how very alive we are when the world has overwhelmed us with sorrow. It’s beautiful and in some ways the opposite of The Night Bookmobile.

Macdonald can write. Damn, can she write. When the book opens she is describing a morning when she woke up feeling she must go out, and then “only when my frozen ancient Volkswagon and I were halfway down the A14 that I worked out where I was going and why. Out there, beyond the foggy windscreen and white lines, was the forest. The broken forest. That’s where I was headed. To see goshawks.”

She goes on to describe how hard a task she’d set herself: “Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace; it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.” It seems strange she’d just woken up and gone looking for them until not long after when she receives shocking news: her father has died suddenly.

Macdonald is stunned, horrified, immobilized by grief. She’d been devoted to hawking since she was a child, and as she processes her father’s death and struggles to stay sane, she revisits those memories, and her books on hawking. And before long, she has a goshawk, a young female she names Mabel.

And one of the books she re-reads is The Goshawk by T.H. White, the same man who also wrote The Once and Future King. Macdonald dips into many of White’s books in the telling of H is for Hawk. White, she sees, was deeply scarred by his childhood and deeply afraid of the potential pain and loss of human relationships. As an adult she can begin to understand that which she didn’t as a child. The reader watches as Macdonald’s compassion for White grows into healing for herself.

The brilliance of H is for Hawk is that it is several stories: Mabel’s and Macdonald’s, her father’s and White’s and also the story of hawking, and a loving tribute to the English countryside. It’s a book about grief and depression and how Macdonald manages to pull up as her life seems headed for a crash landing. And it’s the story of deep and abiding friendships –and Macdonald’s appreciation for them, and for Mabel, and ultimately, for life itself.

Often I don’t like this style — the Computer Scientist and I have discussed the fad for rambling, wide-ranging memoirs that seem not to have a clear point. But Macdonald manages both to ramble pleasingly and relevantly through history, literature, ecology, geography, hawking, and more, and to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end.There is no forced cleverness, no jarring sense that you can see the puppetmaster’s strings distracting you. If you’ve struggled to like cross-genre memoirs, try this one and you’ll see how it really ought to be done.

H is for Hawk is also warm. It’s about horrible things, hard things, lost things, but it’s also about things that are soulful and heartfelt. There’s a sense of ancient continuity in what Macdonald and Mabel do, and what Macdonald is feeling. And everything Macdonald relates belongs. It all comes together as if you were listening to a very intelligent, very interesting friend.

And I did listen; I took out the audiobook, which I don’t often do. Macdonald read it, even doing different voices. I liked hearing her narrate her own story, and I managed to knit a good bit of a scarf while listening. I do think I probably get more out of reading than listening, but perhaps that has to do with the fact that I’m a novice knitter and my attention was divided.  I’d like to go back and read it in print.

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Books & Brew is one of my favorite things. It’s our library’s low pressure book club; we meet once a month at True Brew Barista and talk about whatever we’re reading. On Wednesday, a guy in a shirt with some kind of red, white & blue logo came over with some postcards. I admit I ignored him a little — this is New Hampshire, and we’re up to ears in political canvassing. I was concerned that he was going to pitch something or someone to the group.

Turns out he was. When there was a break in the conversation, he jumped in and explained. He was Bob Makela of Bobtimystic Books, a small press in Brooklyn. He had an author with him, Craig Tomashoff, a box full of books, and no one had shown up for their event. I immediately felt for them. He told us about Tomashoff’s book, The Can’t-idates: Running for President When Nobody Knows Your Name.

It’s about fifteen of the more than 1400 “ordinary citizens” running for president. When Makela pitched it, I immediately asked one question that for me, would reveal how well researched this book was: “Is Vermin Supreme one of them?” Makela didn’t hesitate, “He’s chapter eleven.” Sold.

For you poor folks in the rest of the country where Vermin Supreme doesn’t campaign, get yourselves a copy of The Can’t-idates because it’s worth it for his chapter alone. Mr. Supreme has been running for president since 1992, and it’s not primary season in New Hampshire without him. My son and his friend actually got to meet him during the 2012 campaign at a Barack Obama event. He often attends other candidates’ events and talks to the crowds lined up to go in.

Anyway, I had high hopes there were other “protest” candidates out there bringing Vermin Supreme’s potent mix of satire and seriousness (this year he’s challenging people to give a kidney to those who need one) to weary voters everywhere. But as I began to read The Can’t-idates I was a little worried — the first guy Tomashoff meets thinks his whole hometown are government agents meant to keep him safe.

To his credit, Tomashoff recognizes his own “Oh God, this guy is crazy” feeling and feels badly about it — he wants to be respectful and kind to all the people he meets, and I admire that. He’s honest and he also looks for the good in these people. They may have failed the bar, or lost a business, or have a rap sheet, or be semi-illiterate, or have nearly insurmountable problems, but he sees and writes about what makes each of them admirable as well.

And that works, because Tomashoff is thoughtful, and a good writer. The book is as much a road trip memoir (he drove over 10,000 miles!) as it is a book about fringe presidential candidates. Tomashoff writes candidly about his own life experiences and his inspiration for the trip — he wanted “To show my son (and anyone else who’d pay attention) that you should listen to your own life.” His son was about to graduate from high school and Tomashoff hoped this project would help him learn about trying something other people thought was crazy, and finding happiness anyway.

He also notes things about America in 2016 that the mainstream media doesn’t or can’t confront so plainly and honestly. The ubiquity of racism, yes, even in you and me, in everyone. The fact that so many people all over our country don’t have safe, comfortable, or stable lives, and if you are a minority you’re even more likely not to. The fact that people who don’t learn like other people frequently end up just not learning at all.

And most of all that we are going along with electoral politics the way some of us follow our GPS even when it is leading us astray. Tomashoff writes about Waze not making clear that he’d be taking a ferry across Lake Champlain to get to Burlington. “The mainstream Republican and Democratic contenders are like Waze. We don’t really know how they operate. They’re forever telling us what to do, where to go and the easiest path to get there. And we are the ones who give them that authority, which we blindly follow without question because . . . well . . . it’s just easier that way.”

In his introduction, Tomashoff also points out that the media is partially responsible for low voter turnout. “There’s some irony here: the media spends hours shaming candidates for their personal and professional failures, and then shames voters for not showing up at the polls. If you tell us these people suck, you can’t be surprised that we don’t want to cast our votes for any of them.”

I submit to you, as does Tomashoff, that you have options. My take? If you truly feel no candidate represents your views or understands your life, consider voting for Vermin Supreme. He gave a kidney to his mother, and takes care of her. That’s probably a better indicator of someone’s fitness for office than a lot of the stuff we mindlessly accept from other candidates.

 

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I read Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh to fill the “a graphic novel or comic book” square on my book bingo card. And because my daughter finds some of it hysterical and some of it wise. And a young, smart colleague at work said it was one of the most helpful things she’d read when a friend was depressed, because it helped her see what that was like. And I am simultaneously admiring and jealous of bloggers whose work is published in books — Hyperbole and a Half was (and still is) a blog before it became a book.

When I brought it home, my daughter wanted to read two sections to me — I LOVE being read to, and I can’t even think of the last time that happened. She chose “The God of Cake,” and “The Party,” and by the time she got to the end of each she was laughing so hard she could barely catch her breath and was almost in tears, and that made me ridiculously, thoroughly happy.

I read the rest myself but she frequently came in and asked where I was and commented.

My take? Both my daughter and my young smart colleague are correct — it’s hysterical, and wise, and helpful. It’s also scary and maybe even a little painful. “Identity Part One” and “Identity Part Two” are so packed with observant insights into human nature and the philosophy of the self — or  is that just my identity, thinking I’m smart and wanting to feel special by saying things like that? Eek.

In “Depression, Part Two,”  Brosh writes (and draws), “And even if everything still seems like hopeless bullshit, maybe it’s just pointless bullshit or weird bullshit or possibly not even bullshit.

I don’t know.
But when you’re concerned that the miserable, boring wasteland in front of you might stretch all the way into forever, not knowing feels strangely hope-like.”

Wow. This is hard, funny, amazing stuff and I loved it, even when it made me uncomfortable. Tonight as I was looking at the blog, I read a comment that said “Oh my….this sort of hurt to read yet, I feel oddly connected to you.”  Yes. That, exactly. And bonus points because you make my daughter laugh.

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