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My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  I’m pasting my own version below, because the paper always lays the paragraphs out differently. Not sure why. This month I review Tory McCagg‘s Bittersweet Manor, Henry & Catherine Petroski’s The House With Sixteen Handmade Doorsand Lisa Cain‘s Snack-Girl to the Rescue.

May 2014 Mindful Reader Column

by Deb Baker

Part time New Hampshire resident Tory McCagg’s debut novel Bittersweet Manor tells the stories of three generations through a conversation between two women. Matriarch Gussie Michaels has removed her “beeper bracelet” and left assisted living on a chilly April day. Her granddaughter Emma has come to tell her she will sell the family home on Bittersweet Lane in Poquatuck Village, Connecticut. Or will she?

The conversation wanders, as Gussie’s mind does, through memories and decisions, misunderstandings and betrayals. As Gussie struggles to piece together recollections and Emma’s mind flits over everything that has led to her tenuous decision, McCagg shows how family roots are a tangle of places, the people who inhabit them, hopes and ambitions. She also examines the way these roots impact each generation.

McCagg sometimes tells too much about what her characters are thinking, instead of letting readers connect the dots. For example in this passage where Emma’s aunt “Alyssa cleared her throat, but with no intention of saying anything, because, thinking back, into the confusion of the past, she realized that sometimes betrayal is done with the best of intentions. And that the helpless reaching back to change everything . . . was impossible.”(Commas and ellipses are the author’s.) It’s also hard to read about relatives being unkind to each other. And yet, it sometimes rings true. A Thanksgiving scene fraught with awkward tension is certainly realistic.

Unlike some family sagas, Bittersweet Manor offers no easy resolution. It ends on a hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note — family, for better or worse, are a constant. Alyssa observes “That’s the beauty of being sisters . . . we aren’t best friends or anything. But here we are forced together, again and again, to learn something.”  The Michaels’ family mostly don’t learn, and their privilege is hard to relate to. But McCagg leaves readers sensing that Gussie has given Emma what she needs. And that struck me as real too – family wounds don’t magically heal, but a searing conversation can sometimes clean out what’s festering.

The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors: a Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship is the story of a small house off Spinney Hill Road in Arrowsic, Maine where author Henry Petroski, a professor, engineer, and writer, and his wife Catherine, a writer and photographer, live part time. It’s also the story of Bob Phinney, who built the house; a meditation on craft, engineering, and design; a tribute to Mainers; and an appreciation of the history and traditions of Arrowsic and the surrounding area. And it is utterly charming. Henry Petroski writes with admiration and insight, as in this passage: “The vertical set of drawers stacked beneath one end of the kitchen counter contains units of five distinctly different heights, which are graduated in subtly increasing size from top to bottom. The more I look at Phinney’s work the more I see, and the more I see the more I marvel at his attention to detail, proportion, order, and unity.”  Catherine Petroski’s photographs are a great asset for non-engineer readers. If you’ve ever wanted a simple summer home, or wondered how things were built when most work was done by hand, or loved a small town in coastal Maine, this book will delight you. It’s always a pleasure to read a book that is both erudite and intelligible, and the Petroskis’ affection for their subject makes this one even more satisfying.

Lisa Cain, Ph.D., western Massachusetts mom, and creator of Snack-Girl.com, distills her personal experience making healthy changes into Snack Girl to the Rescue! A Real-Life Guide to Eating Healthy, Slimming Down, and Enjoying Food. There are no strict rules here, nor easy answers. Her advice is not new –read food labels, pay attention to portions, eat more homemade food and less junk, meet your cravings with healthy alternatives, get off the couch and move. But the way she addresses these issues is refreshingly down-to-earth. Having trouble getting to the gym? Cain recommends walking five minutes a day and building from there. She wisely notes that everyday empty-calorie temptations are unavoidable, and offers sensible ways to manage things like office treats, parties, and holidays. She also advocates finding “comfort without food,” dealing with other kinds of “emotional eating,” choosing well in restaurants and grocery stores, and preparing affordable, nutritious, satisfying meals and snacks that will help you lose or maintain your weight. The book includes one hundred recipes; my family tried and liked Lentil Curry Stew, Roasted Vegetable Quesadillas, and No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls. If you’ve struggled with being healthy, Cain’s advice is simple and supportive: “Don’t give up. Just keep trying new things and good stuff will happen.”

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I’m on the gazillionth (ok, twelfth) draft of my column and thought I’d take a break to let you know what I’ll be reviewing in the Mindful Reader, which will run on Sunday, May 12 in the Concord Monitor.

America 1933: The Great Depression, Lorena Hicock, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Shaping of the New Deal  by Michael Golay

The Third Son by Julie Wu (Facebook friends, this is the book I raved about the week of the Boston bombings)

The One-Way Bridge by Cathy Pelletier

Educators and Agitators: Selected Works of 19th Century Women Writers from a Small New Hampshire Town by Larry Sullivan with artwork by Mimi Wiggin

The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin

Phew. Back to work.

 

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Here’s the link** to the Mindful Reader in Sunday’s edition of the Concord Monitor with reviews of Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment by New Hampshire author Katrina KenisonVanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature, and Love by New Hampshire native Megan Caldwell, and Good Kids, a novel by Benjamin Nugent, who is Director of Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. I also give a shout out to Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan‘s Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data.

In the print edition I pointed out that three authors recently reviewed in The Mindful Reader will visit Gibson’s Bookstore at 27 S. Main Street in Concord this month: Katrina Kenison reads from Magical Journey on January 23, Wesley McNair reads from The Words I Chose on January 24, and Joseph Monniger reads from Margaret From Maine on January 31. All three events start at 7pm. Call 603-224-0562 or visit www.gibsonsbookstore.com for further information.

Old habits die hard — I used to be the events coordinator at Gibson’s, so I know those events need all the publicity they can get. I invited Katrina to the store for her last book, and I am looking forward to seeing her again. The other events are while I am working at the library, so I will not get to see Joe Monninger or Wes McNair again but I recommend you go if you live in the area. Hearing an author read, asking what they are reading, listening to them talk about writing, is great fun and I’ve learned so much attending events like these. If you’re far away (and many of my readers are!) contact your local bookstore to ask about upcoming events.

** A reader let me know that the column is behind a paywall, so here it is for those of you who couldn’t get to it (formatting, headline, and subheadings are the newspaper’s):

The Mindful Reader: Another existential journey close to home

In Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, New Hampshire author Katrina Kenison seeks the same answers for her generation that Daniel Klein did for his in Travels With Epicurus, which I reviewed last month. Klein examined living a fulfilling old age by reading philosophy in Greece. Kenison considers how best to live a “second adulthood” after children are grown at the bedside of a dying friend, on a yoga mat, at a college reunion, in Reiki training, on hikes and walks, and in ordinary days with her husband of 25 years.

Like Klein, Kenison realizes that accepting imperfection and being aware of the gifts of the present moment in all its messiness (and possibly pain) are the way forward. Facing loss, questioning her path, she writes, “Making sense of my life has meant, in part, releasing my desire for permanence.”

As in her earlier books, Mitten Strings for God and The Gift of an Ordinary Day, Kenison writes beautifully and humbly about the discomfort change brings and the growth she experiences.

Magical Journey is even more open-hearted than her previous soul-baring memoirs. Which makes sense, given the revelations she shares: “A year ago, I yearned to undertake an exploration that might lead to some new sense of purpose for the second half of my life. . . . Now I see that the journey was never meant to lead to some new and improved version of me; that it has always been about coming home to who I already am. . . . Learning how to be at ease in the shadows of uncertainty and trusting the path to reveal itself.”

Her other books are about lessons gleaned from everyday experience. This one relates a personal quest; a quest readers join as she comforts friends, mothers grown sons, faces physical and emotional changes in herself and the tender evolution of long marriage, as she struggles to understand that her purpose might not be flashy or grand but could be as simple as being present, loving and being loved. With clarity, honesty, and spirit, Kenison allows readers into the intimate work of self-discovery and renewal.

Two novels

 Author Megan Caldwell grew up in Lyme Center. She’s written Regency period romance novels and is the community manager for the “Heroes and Heartbreakers” website. Her new book Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature, and Love is contemporary fiction. Molly Hagan is a newly single Brooklyn mom whose own mother moves in after losing everything day trading. Her ex is with a “younger, blonder woman” and claims he’s broke, even though Molly suspects he hid money before leaving her. She also has an energetic 6-year-old son, fiercely loyal friends and a freelance job writing copy for a book-themed bakery, Vanity Fare, near the New York Public Library. The bakery’s British celebrity chef pursues Molly, but she’s intrigued by his stern business partner.

If you like chick or hen lit (for younger and older women, respectively), this is somewhere in between, a novel about a mom learning to rely on the one person who will never let her down: herself.

The book includes recipes by Emily Isaac of Trois Pommes Patisserie in Brooklyn for Tart of Darkness, Lord of the Tea Rings, and several other goodies from the fictional bakery.

Benjamin Nugent is the director of creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University. His debut novel, Good Kids, opens in 1994 when two high school students, Josh and Khadijah, in a self-consciously funky Massachusetts college town find his dad and her mom enjoying an illicit kiss at the local health food store.

Josh and Khadijah’s friendship is brief but intense, then their families split and their lives diverge. A decade later, she’s an art historian in Boston creating miniatures of people’s houses for them to destroy and he’s the bassist of a defunct L.A. band, writing music and hoping to design home studios for other musicians.

Readers learn, from Josh’s point of view, what’s happened in between and how his adolescent observations of betrayal, loyalty, passion and responsibility continue to affect his life. Good Kids is an amusing, hipster-esque look at pop culture, family, love, commitment, and the way particular moments have the potential to shape our view of ourselves and our world.

Also noted

Dartmouth professor and author of Naked Economics, Charles Wheelan brings his skill at demystifying academic topics to a new book, Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from Data. From how to identify “deceptive statistics” to understanding probability and applying statistical information to life decisions, this book aims to help readers understand statistics with “wit, accessibility, and sheer fun.”

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I’m putting the finishing touches on my January column, with reviews of Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment by New Hampshire author Katrina Kenison, Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature, and Love by New Hampshire native Megan Caldwell, and Good Kids, a novel by Benjamin Nugent, who is Director of Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University. I also give a shout out to Dartmouth professor Charles Wheelan‘s Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread from the Data.

Why is it, by the way, that publishers feel the need to add “a novel” after fiction titles these days? Do they think we readers can’t figure out what kind of book we’re looking at? Is it backlash from all those semi-true memoirs?

Anyway, the column will appear on my usual 2nd Sunday of the month, January 13, 2013 in the Concord Monitor. I’ll post a link.

 

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October’s Mindful Reader column** ran in today’s Concord Monitor.  The “And” in the last sentence of my review of Wes McNair’s memoir is not my own. Typos happen. Anyway, I wrote about Carolyn Roy-Bornstein’s memoir Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude, Wes McNair’s memoir The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry, and Ruth Nemzoff’s Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family.

This weekend I read Gathering Blue after reading the New York Times magazine interview with Lois Lowry last weekend. I was thrilled to hear Lowry at Gibson’s last fall — she was one of the last authors I booked as events coordinator there. My family read The Giver together before her event, and Number the Stars is one of our favorites as well.

If you shake your head at the way dystopia is marketed to young readers today, pick up the books in Lowry’s Giver quartet (she has a new one, Son, out now). I can’t get over how humane, thoughtful, and thought-provoking her books are, and how beautiful. Even when there are harsh things happening, it’s not at a heart-pounding pace. There is no need to whip readers up to make a point about human nature. You don’t get a sense the author had movie rights in mind as the book was written.

And Lowry is just a very good writer. There is a loveliness to her words; somehow even plain sentences are quietly powerful. Gathering Blue isn’t set in the same place and time as The Giver but it does give a sense of being beyond (before? after? we’re not sure) our time. The society is very authoritarian and less orderly than in The Giver. Our heroine, Kira, is a girl whose mother protected her when she was born with a damaged leg. Most imperfect babies are left to die.

Kira has a gift – she is a talented embroiderer. When the book opens we find out her mother has died and she is threatened when she goes back to rebuild her home, called a cott, which was burned because of her mother’s illness. We meet a ragged little boy who is one of her only friends.

I won’t tell you any more because it’s best to let Lowry tell you in her own wonderful words. Give these books a try, especially if you have middle grade or young teen readers you can share them with. Lowry reminds us that dystopian doesn’t mean dumbed-down. I am not saying there are no other authors writing well for young people (Jane Yolen is, for example). But Lowry is remarkable.

 

** Text of the column in case you can’t find it online:

Nothing is the same

Deb Baker

Monday, October 22, 201

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.7 million people suffered a traumatic brain injury annually. When Massachusetts pediatrician Carolyn Roy-Bornstein’s memoir, Crash: a Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude, begins, she is in her kitchen, asking whether her son Neil’s girlfriend, Trista, would like cheese on her burger. After supper, Neil walks Trista home. They never make it; he becomes one of those 1.7 million.

A drunken driver hit them on a well-lit road. Trista died of her injuries. Neil’s life was never the same. As Roy-Bornstein writes, the crash is ”a line, like a crack in the glass, that carves time and events in two: those that occurred before the crash and those that tumble and falter in its wake. There is this one moment after which nothing is the same.”

Roy-Bornstein writes movingly of her family’s dislocating experiences after that moment. Even with her medical knowledge, Neil’s condition is unfamiliar. From the night of the accident to years later when she notices something he does and wonders, ”is this the injury, or is this just Neil?” their world has become unpredictable.

Toward the end of the book, when she writes about Neil’s struggles in college and adulthood, her medical career and the process of seeking justice, the story sometimes wanders. But this section is also poignant. To those who suggest her family ”move on,” Roy-Bornstein points out that Neil’s cognitive and psychological challenges are ongoing, so ”this idea of closure is fraudulent.”

She also explains, ”I don’t want to focus on what Neil might have accomplished without his brain injury. Instead I want to celebrate everything he has accomplished with it. Despite it. That is grace.” In the afterword she shares what she’s learned about TBI as a mother, doctor and advocate, and describes Neil’s life now. A tough but ultimately redemptive read.

Two more nonfiction gems:

The Words I Chose: a Memoir of Family and Poetry by Wesley McNair is a standout.

Fans of McNair’s poetry and essays know he is a warm, funny writer whose work is rooted in life experience as well as responses to ”the erosion of family, region, and nation” he’s witnessed. This memoir, which begins with his parents meeting and covers his youth and early writing career in New Hampshire, is a heart-rending narrative of emotional and economic hardship – the wells McNair has drawn from throughout his distinguished writing career.

After describing his lowest point as a college teacher barely making ends meet, a scholar and poet unsure of his strengths, and a father caught in his own parents’ patterns of strife, McNair relates how ”six liberating words” from Donald Hall – ”I am dazzled by your poems” – set him on a new course.

McNair made peace with his past, himself and his family and continued to write, with great tenderness and power, the poems that made his name in American letters. This book isn’t just the story of how McNair realized his gift as ”a poet who has been shaped from the start by the threat of things dear to me coming apart.” It’s also a story of the healing power of literature, art and ideas.

McNair writes with abundant humanity and clarity about connections he’s made in his work between ”the terror,” as he calls the difficult times he’s faced, and the upheavals in American life over the past several decades.

And for literature buffs and those dealing with their own ”terror:”

Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family by Ruth Nemzoff.

I’ve been a daughter-in-law for almost 23 years, so I didn’t think I’d learn from this book. But Nemzoff’s engaging style and practical tone drew me in and I found much to ponder. She examines perspectives of both parents and grown children (including siblings, a particularly interesting section), and sticky issues from cultural and religious differences to addiction, money, grandchildren, holidays, aging and more. Nemzoff reminds me of my grandmother, who often said if I wanted to make the world a better place I should start by always trying to be my best self. She advises readers not to expect perfect in-law relationships, ”to put a statute of limitations on slights,” to be consistently kind or at least civil, to have some perspective (including looking at your own behaviors and beliefs), and ”to take the long view of things.”

A wise, warm book well worth reading whether you’re a longtime in-law or are newly merging families.

New this month – also noted . . .

There are so many New Hampshire and New England authors and books, it’s impossible for me to cover them all. So when necessary, I will briefly note those I haven’t reviewed in depth. These books will still meet The Mindful Reader criteria: by an author from New Hampshire or adjoining states or set in or about New Hampshire, of interest to a variety of readers, and probably not well-known or widely publicized.

• Sermons In Stone: the Stone Walls of New England and New York, by Susan Allport, illustrated by David Howell. The Countryman Press has reissued this book, originally published in 1990. Allport is an engaging science writer who did meticulous research. Howell’s detailed ink drawings are beautiful and informative. In her preface to this new edition, Allport notes the increased interest in stone walls and the complexity of what she expected to be a simple story.

• Cover-Up: One Man’s Pursuit of the Truth Amid the Government’s Failure to End a Ponzi Scheme, by Mark Connolly. ”This book is not meant to be a definitive history of this fraud; rather it is to inform the reader about how it feels to be in the middle of a political storm,” writes Connolly, former director of the New Hampshire Bureau of Securities Regulation. He dedicates Cover-Up to his bureau colleagues and the victims of Financial Resources Management.

• When America First Met China: an Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail by Eric Jay Dolan. Dolan, the Massachusetts author of several books including acclaimed volumes on the whaling and fur trades, explores the roots of America’s relationship with China and how that story informs contemporary relations. Dolan writes of policies and personalities in government, commerce and culture, and the clash and cooperation that shaped our countries’ intertwined destinies.

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