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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks around here, with more to come. I ended one job and will be starting a new one in a couple of weeks (more to come on that, over at Nocturnal Librarian). This week, the man formally known as Teen the Elder graduates from college. Teen the Younger is a senior too, with the semester wrapping up, a senior trip to NYC, prom, finals, and more.

Also, the Computer Scientist and I decided to completely update our living room. An epic trip to IKEA ensued (our multiple carts and carriages attracted attention; one woman in the next line actually came around to see what the damage was when we paid — I kid you not). But before that, I decided to weed our books. And that felt so good I weeded the entire rest of the house. I sort of applied the Marie Kondo method, with a few of my own twists (see my review of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up here). Instead of thanking my stuff I mostly railed “Why have I been dragging this around for years?” At any rate we are feeling lighter and more organized. And the books — well, now we have room for more!

Which brings me to today’s actual topic: I took my mom to Asheville for a few days, and that involved a) selecting vacation reading and b) visiting four bookstores and the Pack Memorial Library’s “Frugal Friday” sale, where all the books were $.25. I enjoyed all the stores we visited. I didn’t get any $.25 bargains, nor did I find anything at the Friends of the Library shop, inside the library. At The Captain’s Bookshelf I bought Calvin Trillin‘s Travels With Alice. More on that in a moment. At Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, I bought Educating Our Daughters by Lynn White, Jr., published in 1950, partly because I had just visited the aSHEville Museum‘s “100 Years of Sexism in Advertising” and was primed for this book and partly because I want to read bits aloud to Teen the Younger and watch her alternately snort and be indignant. I also partook of a literary cocktail, the “Fahrenheit 451” — sparkling wine with cayenne, spicy chocolate, and a cherry. At Malaprops, it took three tries but I finally got a “Blind Date With a Bookseller” book I hadn’t read.

Blind Date Book

Revealed blind date

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I could not resist reading Travels With Alice while traveling. I finished that book and loved it — I think Calvin Trillin is a wonderful writer, funny and observant, and this book is charming. I wonder if I can convince the Computer Scientist to refer to me as “the principessa” if we ever visit Italy together?

Trillin’s delight in the world around him and his wry wit make this book fun, but his affection for his friends, family, even the strangers he meets in his travels, make it a soulful read. His family’s preferred method of travel — hanging around, he calls it — sounds just right. “In the subtle negotiations that occur when time is up for grabs rather than strictly allotted, Alice had got her share of scenic drives and the girls had got their share of swims and I had got my share of fish soup.” Well before the concept of “being present” was trendy, Trillin practiced it. Travels With Alice is just the thing for reading in tumultuous times. Or while traveling.

On the way down on the plane I read Ignorance by Milan Kundera, which is decidedly not just the thing for a tumultuous time, but worked well as an airplane read because I could give it my full attention and read it in one sitting. It’s the story of Irena, a Czech emigre living in France who returns to Prague for the first time after her partner opens an office there. She’s not happy about returning, but on the way she meets Josef, a man she had a brief flirtation with before she left for France. The novel is framed around their re-encounter, as well as Irena’s and Josef’s seeing other Czech friends and relatives during their visits.

The narrator not only tells us their stories, but also lectures us on the lessons of exile and return in The Odyssey. Don’t get me wrong, this analysis of Homer’s themes is relevant to Kundera’s story. The narrator focuses on the irony of Odysseus’s constant longing for home culminating in a return that was confusing, jealousy inducing, and violent. Irena and Josef don’t have to fight anyone, but their returns cause them psychological struggle. I think that would have been clear without the lengthy discourse. Kundera’s narrator also muses on Czech poet Jan Skácel and Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg; interesting but I’m more of a fan of the narrative.

Ignorance is otherwise efficiently told, but it’s a book that stays with you. Passages like this one require some mulling over: “All predictions are wrong, that’s one of few certainties granted to mankind. But though predictions may be wrong, they are right about the people who voice them, not about their future but about their experience of the present moment.”  Hmm. It’s a novel ripe for discussion if your book club likes literary fiction.

Stay tuned for more on the other books I bought!

 

 

 

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Thanks to all of you who read, shared, re-blogged, and commented on bookconscious this year. As I look back over my year in reading, several titles stand out — recently I loved A God In Ruins, The Hollow Land, and The New & Improved Romie Futch. Other fiction that really stayed with me in 2015: A Single Man, The Red Collar, The Maintenance of Headway, and Fram. Nonfiction that continues to make me think: Body RespectHammer HeadPig Tales, and Sit Like a Buddha. You can find reviews of these titles and more good reads from this and past years by scrolling through the blog or searching by title.

Leave a comment with your best read(s) of the year. And I hope you’ll follow my reading adventures in 2016.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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I heard about this book on Morning Edition a couple of weeks ago, during one of Nancy Pearl’s chats with Steve Inskeep. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is Emma Hooper‘s debut novel, and it’s one of those books that had such buzz (it’s being published in eighteen languages right off the bat, it seems to be everywhere you look, it was starred in every major review journal in the U.S.) that I was skeptical. But it’s an incredibly good read, and unlike anything I’ve read.

Etta, Otto, and Russell grow up on the prairie in Saskatchewan. Otto comes from a large family, and Russell is an only child whose father dies during the Great Depression and whose mother takes him to live with a childless aunt and uncle, neighbors of Otto’s family. He is absorbed into the mob of siblings, and he and Otto take turns going to school and tending to farm work. Etta takes a job as teacher in their one room schoolhouse, even though she’s about the same age as Otto and Russell, right about the time most men — and older boys, like Otto — are leaving for the war.

When the novel opens they are in their 80’s. Otto wakes up one day and finds a note from Etta, “I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back. Yours (always), Etta. Beneath the letter she’s left him recipe cards, so he can eat while she’s away.

The rest of the book alternates between the present, as Etta walks, and Otto tries to get by without her, and Russell gets angry that Otto hasn’t stopped her and goes looking for her, and the past, when the three were growing up, and when Otto went to war. I don’t want to give too many details away about the story. I do want to say that the movement back and forth in time and place in the narrative is seamless and I was never lost. And that Otto’s sister Winnie is as intriguing a minor character as I’ve come across in a while — even in a book full of intriguing minor characters — and I sincerely hope she is marching around in Hooper’s brain demanding a book of her own.

Hooper writes beautifully, her prose is very clear but also has a musical or poetic quality. Things happen as they would in real life but also as they might in a dream. If you’ve noticed that I don’t say who James is, it’s because I think you’ll have more fun finding out for yourself.

I didn’t care much for The Unlikely Pilgrimmage of Harold Fry, which was also about an older person taking an impractical journey by foot, seeking. Hooper gets at so much more in this novel, and does it with much more evocative language. Here’s a bit where Otto is home on leave. He and Etta are in the schoolteacher’s cottage, and it’s his last evening, “It was windy outside and the wind blew dust up against the windows, coating them so thick all you could see from inside was the glow of late-day sun. From there, they could pretend they didn’t notice it dimming.”

Hooper references dust often, and dust advances her narrative more than once. But what I really love about that brief passage, beyond the dust, is how much is there — you’re transported to a languid afternoon, two people in love, snug in a house with the world pressing in. So much is about to happen in their lives, but for this moment, they are content to pretend that all they have in the world is each other.

At the library people often want me to tell them what a book is about. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is about what all good books are about — what it is to be human, to love and to hurt, to thrive and to suffer, to create and to deplete, to seek after the very puzzle of all of this, looking for what’s true, living as if life is a quest and the prize is knowing your own heart. This book isn’t for you if you like a neat ending to a clear-cut story. But if you want to wallow in the muddled, holy mess of life, pick up Hooper’s debut and give it a try.

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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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2013 in review

Thanks to all of you (from 92 countries!!) readers, followers, commenters, and anyone who randomly stumbled across bookconscious in 2013.

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Happy New Year and good reading to all in 2014!

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