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Archive for July, 2016

So a couple of weeks ago I eschewed reviewing sequels but I’m going to tell you today about a sequel. No News Is Bad News is the second Bernie O’Dea mystery by Maureen Milliken. She recalled that I had written about the first book, Cold Hard News,  in The Mindful Reader column, and recently got in touch to let me know about the sequel. As you all know, because I can’t help constantly going on about it, I admire small presses. And as a writer, I know that to sell a book published with a small press, an author has to reach out to everyone she knows, even remotely. So I told her sure, I’d be glad to take a look.

I really like Bernie O’Dea. She’s owner/editor of a small town newspaper in fictional Redimere, Maine.She likes to walk at night, looking at “porch lights or lit windows blinking through the trees.” Her handwriting is a mess and she’s often thinking about too many things at once. She’s been diagnosed with adult ADD, but she isn’t wild about how the medicine makes her feel.

When No News Is Bad News opens Bernie is wondering about that and about her cranky psychiatrist, who seems just a little too anxious to pack her out the door with a new prescription and not terribly interested in how she feels. In fact he suggests more drugs. But Bernie is too busy to question him — she needs to get the paper out and she’s short staffed. She needs to figure out her friendship with Redimere’s police chief, Pete Novotny. And to chase down some leads. What was Tim Shaw so angry with his wife about? Could she do a piece on domestic violence without endangering anyone? Who was brutally murdered, gutted, and ensanguinated in the woods? Who did it? And what was going on with her little brother Sal, who last she knew was a college professor, but has turned up at her house jobless and unannounced? And why are the police interested in him?

Yes, Bernie’s a reporter but her quest for the facts often leads her headlong into investigations. Much to Pete’s bemusement, frustration, and sometimes, annoyance. There are a few other twists to this story — the eviscerated body in the woods seems to be connected to the case that first brought Pete to Redimere, a missing boy who has haunted Pete for some time. Bernie needs help at the paper and she allows “Feckless” Fergus Kelley, a reporter from her former paper, to talk his way into a job. She also hires an intern, Carrie, who I hope will appear in the next book.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, and I admit that parts of this book did get me down. It’s depressing to think about the kinds of people who commit the crimes Milliken writes about. I avoid real news about crime (which may be good for me, according to this NPR article I heard on the way home from work yesterday). So I found some of the tougher bits hard to read. But I hung in because Milliken is a good storyteller and Bernie O’Dea is a terrific character, as are the other inhabitants of Redimere.

So look for Cold Hard News and No News Is Bad News. Get to know Bernie O’Dea.

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Even though I stopped writing my review column for The New Hampshire Sunday News, I still hear from publishers, publicists, and authors. Often a book from Bauhan Publishing will appear in my mailbox — regular readers of this blog know they are one of my favorite small presses, and they are right here in New Hampshire. I can’t get to every book I’m sent, but recently I opened a package containing a copy of Finding Phil: Lost in War and Silence and it looked intriguing. Then I flipped the book over and realized that the author, Paul Levy, lives in my small city, and that his wife is a retired librarian. Bookconscious regulars know I’m a librarian, too. So for no more scientific reasons than those, I decided to read this biography/memoir. Plus, I had a great uncle who served in WWII, who was Jewish and the child of Russian immigrants, like the subject of this book.

Finding Phil is the story of Phil Levy, a young American army officer, fresh out of college, newlywed, and full of a sincere desire to rescue France and defeat Nazi Germany. And it’s the story of his nephew Paul Levy, who describes his uncle’s journey but also his own, as he uncovered the story of a man his parents and other relatives almost never mentioned.

Phil died in France in the Vosges Mountains in January 1945, after being among the first American troops to cross into Germany. Growing up, Paul Levy knew about his uncle but never heard stories about him. When Phil’s widow Barbara died in 1987, her sister sent Paul his uncle’s journal, and that inspired him to learn more. As he did research into his uncle’s childhood, young adulthood, and military service, Paul reflected on not only his family and the silence surrounding his uncle, but also on larger themes of heroism, silence, and belief. He writes about all of that as well as what makes men go off to war and the different ways that shapes them, in Finding Phil.

Along the way he muses on the legacy of social justice and service to others that runs through the Levy family, on what his uncle might have worked for had he come home, and on how subsequent generations might process the atrocities of battle, civilian suffering, and genocide that are WWII’s legacy. Levy writes beautifully, and he clearly thought very deeply about his subject. In one passage, in a chapter describing what he learned about some members of the German unit and even the particular man who killed his uncle, Levy writes:

“Through it [the story of one of these men] I could begin to imagine more nuanced human beings beneath my simple stereotype. Some people might worry that such stories give escape routes to those who want to deny responsibility and that they encourage efforts at revisionist history . . . in which nations, cultures, and peoples try to distance themselves from their histories of deep antisemitism and downplay their complicity in the Holocaust. . . . I believe it is vital to insist on full responsibility for the atrocities of the Holocaust and to come to grips with the profound reality of engrained antisemitism. It is equally vital to see nuanced human faces beneath our stereotypes lest we fail to recognize how susceptible we all are to cultural demons and dynamics like those that fomented the Holocaust . . . .”

Read that passage again, and think about stereotypes for a second. Paul Levy is talking about considering a German man as a whole person in the context of his life, not just his time as a Waffen SS soldier, but it’s pretty easy to substitute other “cultural demons and dynamics” and think about today’s world. About the prejudices, perhaps subtle or even unconscious, each of us may hold when thinking about people who are part of a different religion, class, culture, or ideology than we are, or whose skin is different than ours. Presuppositions abound in contemporary society about people who live in certain places or do certain jobs. It’s different than antisemitism and Nazism, but our culture is still riddled with the kinds of demons that can incite people to hate or act violently towards each other. Or fall prey to fear mongering and hateful rhetoric and respond by allowing laws or regulations that call attention to difference and deny universal human rights. levy provides much to think about, which I really admire.

One of the other things I really enjoyed about this book was that Levy did not try to artificially build and release tension in his narrative — he lets the natural ups and downs of the story carry readers along. I’ve noticed a tendency in some memoirs to jerk readers’ emotions around, and I think that’s a sign of over-writing or over-manipulating a narrative. Levy instead provides space for readers to process what they are reading. I also learned some things about the war and about people who are preserving the memories of that time, and I love a book that teaches me things.

Finding Phil is a good read whether you are interested in history, war, families, or the mysteries of long-ago memories. Reading about how Levy pieced fragments together into a story made me think again of my great uncle and what I could possibly learn about his war experience (he was stateside, because he was a chemist, but that’s about all I know). Maybe I will attempt to put my own family’s fragments together.

 

 

 

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I read a sequel (Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley) this week, and in general I hate reviewing sequels, because so much of a reader’s reaction is informed by the first book (I enjoyed them both, but by design, wasn’t as blown away by the second one because the first is just so mind-blowing), and also, blog readers may not have read the first one. So, instead, here is a bit of readers’ advisory for you.

One of the librarians at my library asked for a good book to take to a lake house — something fun to read that wouldn’t require too much concentration. When I asked what kind of books she liked, we chatted a few minutes and I got the sense that she enjoys books about family relationships.

Here’s the list I gave her, which I realized just now is in no order. The book blurbs are mostly from the publishers, or book sites, and you’ll see I added my comments. I am pretty sure I’ve written about all of them on bookconscious.

Hi!

Here are a variety of recommendations:

The Beach House by Jane Green — Disregarding local gossip that pegs her as an eccentric, sixty-five-year-old Nantucket widow Nan skinny-dips in unattended pools and steals her neighbors’ flowers before her dwindling funds force her to take in boarders, a change that brings an unexpected visitor. A really summery read!

The Hollow Land and anything else by Jane Gardam — Young Harry Bateman comes from London with his family year after year to spend the summer at Light Trees Farm in the Cumbrian fells country, until he feels that it is his real home. I read this for a book club, but I love every one of Jane Gardam’s books.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively — The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership, and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life. Don’t be put off by the mugging; it’s a really interesting read, because that one event sets off a whole chain of other things, but Lively focuses on the relationships, not the crime.

Left Neglected by Lisa GenovaSarah, a career-driven young mother, suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that leaves her unable to perceive left-side information. The disability causes her to struggle through an uncertain recovery as she adapts to her new life. Same author as Still Alice; I was fascinated by the details about living with a brain injury, but the book is also about relationships.

The View from Penthouse B by Elinor LipmanTwo newly-single sisters, one a divorceé, the other a widow, become roommates with a handsome, gay cupcake-baker as they try to return to the dating world of lower Manhattan. Also, The Family Man — Reunited with his long-lost stepdaughter by an ex-wife’s hysterical plea for help, gay lawyer Henry Archer allows the young woman to move into his basement, where she reluctantly poses as the girlfriend of a down-on-his-luck former sitcom star. I also love her book of essays I Can’t Complain. She’s funny and wise.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda — Simon, Garance and Lola flee a family wedding that promises to be dull to visit their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a château in the heart of the charming Tours countryside. For a few hours, they forget about kids, spouses, work and the many demands adulthood makes upon them and lose themselves in a day of laughter, teasing, and memories.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain  — Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President Francois Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him. After the presidential party has gone, Daniel discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind. Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir, and as he leaves the restaurant, he begins to feel somehow different. I also loved The Red Notebook (same author) — After finding an abandoned handbag on the street, a Parisian bookseller endeavors to find its owner, the woman whose jottings he discovers in a red notebook within the bag. Both of these books are a mini trip to Paris!

The entire Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – My grandmother introduced me to these, and Mrs. Pollifax is one of my favorite characters of all time. Mrs. Pollifax is a widow and senior citizen who decides one day to leave her comfortable apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey and join the CIA. Funny, thoughtful, and absolutely charming books. The first is called The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai — Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. I could overlook the somewhat improbable plot because the heroine is a librarian and favorite childhood books are an important part of the story.

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters – In the first book, which is set in Concord (the hero even goes to the Concord Public Library!), Earth is doomed by an imminent and unavoidable asteroid collision. Homicide detective Hank Palace considers the worth of his job in a world destined to end in six months and investigates a suspicious suicide that nobody else cares about. This series is fantastic, and I don’t usually like mysteries or pre-apocalyptic books. The author won both the Edgar and the Philip K. Dick awards, he’s funny and smart and so are his books.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer— In 1946, as England emerges from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey and his eccentric friends, who tell her about their island, the books they love, German occupation, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation. If you didn’t read it when it came out, it’s a lovely book.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — Forced to confront the realities of life in the 21st century when he falls in love with widowed Pakistani descendant Mrs. Ali, a retired Major Pettigrew finds the relationship challenged by local prejudices that view Mrs. Ali, a Cambridge native, as a perpetual foreigner. Really good characters and a light touch, even though it’s a book about serious issues.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby —  When their singing coach dies unexpectedly before a big contest, a motley group of singers ina community choir from a small English village must overcome their respective challenges if they are ever going to succeed. Again, how could a book about a small town fading be so much fun? The characters.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby — Katie, a liberal, urban mother and doctor from North London, finds her life turned upside down when her husband, David, undergoes an outrageous spiritual transformation, in a hilarious novel about marriage, parenthood, religion, and morality. I love Nick Hornby; his charactars are funny and real.  I also loved High Fidelity — Follows the love affairs and belated growing up of a “Generation X” pop music fanatic and record store owner.

If you like nonfiction, both Calvin Trillin (I just recently read Travels With Alice, about vacations he took with his wife and kids; he’s hilarious) and Bill Bryson are fun and quick to read.

That’s probably too many books! But I wanted you to have options if some of these are not available.

 Enjoy!

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In my new library job I am doing some copy cataloging, which is great fun. It also contributes to my “to read” list, because I inevitably see a book on my cart that interests me. That is how I found The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for HAPPINESS (Not Money) Would Transform Our Schools by Susan Engel.

I LOVED this book. I’ll grant that I was primed to — longtime readers of bookconscious know that when I started the blog, it was about what my life learning family was reading. Back then, neither of our kids had ever been to formal schooling. John Holt had a lot to do with that. When I first learned about home education (by helping a library patron find books on the topic when I was pregnant with our older child), Holt’s work was life changing. What Holt wrote about is that children are born learners, who don’t need educational bureaucracies, metrics, curriculums, or even schools necessarily. What they need is adults who take them seriously, who respect their interests, and who give them the time and space to pursue those interests.

In The End of the Rainbow Engel quotes Holt and other educators and philosophers who embrace these ideas about children and how they learn. And she does something I wasn’t expecting — paints a very clear picture of what these ideas would look like in a public school. Any public school. In towns or cities, urban or rural places, with rich or poor kids. I quoted the book on Litsy as I was reading: “A premium on conformity and obedience has left little room for teaching children something much more powerful: the ability to find activities that are compelling, or to find what is compelling in a task, and thus find a way to be deeply absorbed.”

Engel’s call is to stop valuing conformity and start letting kids live their naturally learning-centered lives. She posits that if our education system was aimed at producing happy, well adjusted adults capable of thinking and pursuing ideas, rather than uniformly prepared workers ready for the workforce, both school and society would be better off.

One thing I hadn’t thought of until I read this book is that school is distracting — we actively encourage kids to change the subject several times a day, to move on whether something is done or not, and to work quickly. All the talk of our national inability to focus? Maybe it’s partially caused by school itself. One of our library liaisons heard faculty recently lament in a meeting that college students just want a rubric so they know what effort they need to make for an A, B, or C, and that they don’t try to think. I think Engel’s perspective might be that many college students have dealt with nothing but rubrics for the twelve years prior, and they’ve never been invited to think about doing things any other way.

Engel suggests that rather than standardized tests, which she notes have not been proven to be useful, schools could use many of the tools developmental psychologists employ to observe children’s (and their schools’) aptitudes in several key areas that would promote well being and a successful transition to adulthood. Such tools would include observing classrooms via videotape at random. Her “Blueprint for Well-Being” would ensure every child can have conversations, read for pleasure and information, collaborate and cooperate, investigate, “be useful,” “get immersed,” “become an expert” at something, and “know and be known by an adult.”

Most schools would have to change to allow these skills to be paramount. Engel notes that making room for teaching such attributes would mean simplifying school days, being intentional about schools as communities (including ensuring adults actively and positively engage with children so that they learn how to treat each other, and how to depend on one another so that differences become less important), allowing both teachers and students some autonomy, and ensuring teachers’ well being and happiness in their work, so that they have the energy and enthusiasm necessary to promote these attributes in their classrooms.

What an amazing world we’d have if every kid had these experiences! Some of the examples of classes she observed, both horrible and wonderful, made me want to start a school that embodies all of these principles and goals.Looking around at the pain society is experiencing right now, I wonder the kind of schools Engel envisions, places where competent, caring adults affirm and uphold the humanity, dignity, and natural curiosity of every child couldn’t just be the seismic shift we need? But could we get there with so many adults who are products themselves of our current school system, which Engel notes contributes to the mistrust many adults have of their own ability, each other and authority?

The End of the Rainbow is an amazing read, full of big ideas and thoughtful consideration of what society should want for it’s young people, interesting and important stuff even if you don’t have kids in school. Engel’s writing style is very persuasive. I’m grateful it was on my cataloging cart!

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