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This month’s column ran today in the Concord Monitor. Here it is:

University of New Hampshire psychology professor John D. Mayer co-wrote an article in 1990 called “Emotional Intelligence.” Journalist Daniel Goleman wrote a book about Mayer’s ideas that popularized his work. Mayer’s new book, Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How it Shapes Our Lives, explains his continuing work in personality psychology. Mayer outlines the ways human beings learn to assess each other’s personalities and character, and how this information influences us.

He posits that the intelligence required to take in and process observations about ourselves as well as the people around us is key to our success and happiness. Mayer writes, “Personal intelligence speaks to both our human potential and to our capacity for well-being.” He notes it “contributes to our growth as individuals and to our skills at engaging with society,” and “also speaks to the value of knowing our boundaries and limits.” He explains that people have been examining personality differences since antiquity, and he believes this “previously undervalued human skill . . . contributes to the accomplishments of our civilization by allowing us to function better with one another than we could otherwise.”

Although the tone is somewhat academic for a popular science book, I find Mayer’s optimism heartening and his theory convincing: Strengthening personal intelligence could certainly improve communication and understanding in professional and personal relationships. As I considered the other two books for this column, I realized personal intelligence – though I’ve never called it that before – is key to reading about both fictional characters and real people.

Taking stock

Seacoast author Kristin Waterfield Duisberg’s second novel, After, tells the story of a few years of Nina Baldwin’s life after finding a lump in her breast, from her point of view and that of her young autistic daughter Audrey and her much older husband, Martin, who escaped from occupied Germany after World War II as a boy.

 Martin’s vivid childhood memories shed light on his emotional reticence. Duisberg helps readers understand why Nina fell for Martin and why, now that she faces her own mortality, they have trouble turning to each other.

Audrey is a fascinating character, one I would have liked to hear more from. My favorite scene in the book describes Audrey and Nina shining flashlights into the summer night sky. “ ‘Why are we doing this?’ Nina finally asked. ‘Because the light will keep on traveling forever. Then, when I miss you, I can look up at the sky and know your light is still out there.’ ”

Parts of this quiet, thoughtful novel are very moving, and many readers will find something to identify with.

The subplots, while somewhat distracting, didn’t dissuade me from wanting to learn what would happen to Nina.

Shining light on love

Daniel Jones, who lives in Western Massachusetts and edits the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times, has gathered a decade’s worth of insight in Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers).

He examines contemporary relationships from the first glimmers of attraction to the nitty gritty of who does which chores and other inevitable challenges partners face.

Jones uses examples from the thousands of stories submitted to his column to shed light on issues like trust, vulnerability, infidelity, and the mystery of the feeling – or is it a decision? – we call love.

Jones approaches the loves laid bare in his inbox with open heart and mind: “Whether you’re a scientist investigating the chemicals of lust, a mathematician devising match-making algorithms, a jilted lover attempting to come to terms with how your last relationship unraveled, or a writer like me trying to make sense of it all, you’ve got my deepest sympathies.”

His curiosity and admiration for his subjects’ efforts, along with stories about his relationship with his wife, author Cathi Hanauer, make Jones a pleasant guide.

As he puts it, “In my mind I have not been mastering love all these years so much as marinating in it.

Asking me what I have learned about love is like asking a pickle what it has learned about vinegar.” You won’t find definitive answers in this book, but it does just what the title promises: illuminates.

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I’m having a hard time believing January is almost over and I’m finishing the February column. This month I’ve read books by two New Hampshire authors, UNH professor John D. Mayer‘s Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives and Kristin Waterfield Duisberg‘s novel After, as well as Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers) by Daniel Jones, editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times and western Massachusetts resident.

And I’m coming up on the end of my first month of full time librarianship, which  I reflect on over at The Nocturnal Librarian. On my lunch break I tend to try to read for work: books to review for the column or for the library. Come evening, my brain is pretty tired, there are chores to do, and we’re catching up together as a family. Reading time is limited.

And I spent a chunk of it on a book I didn’t enjoy. My neighbor invited me to her book club (which due to unforeseen circumstances neither of us made it to this month) and their selection was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I got the impression Kingsolver was working overtime to prove her country creds. Take this sentence: “She’d asked him to tidy things up, but men and barns were like a bucket of forks, tidy was no part of the equation.” Clink, clank, clunk. The fork part just made no sense to me (why would they be in a bucket?) and “tidy is no part of the equation” sounded awkwardly like the Dowager Countess of Grantham trying to speak to a farmhand, not a country girl, albeit a well-read one, thinking to herself.

Given her reputation, I imagine Kingsolver is under pressure to perform every time, but this book’s sprawling high-minded themes — faith and love and family and the environment — got tangled in the “poor girl pulling herself up by her bootstraps even though she had a child too young and never had an education” story. I kept hearing Kingsolver’s voice (which she wields in fine essays on some of the same topics she tackles in this novel) and seeing her maneuvering the plot, rather than hearing her characters and seeing their lives unfold. I couldn’t help comparing it to Kerry Hudson‘s searing debut, also about  a smart but poor heroine, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma. Which I highly recommend.

I also read Mary Oliver‘s A Thousand Mornings. A well-read friend recently told me she find’s Oliver’s work trite. I wouldn’t go that far but I found this volume, published in 2012, less inspiring than some of Oliver’s earlier work at first. On re-reading, the poems are not as simple as they seem.

I chose this book because of another big change in the bookconscious household: Teen the Younger decided to go to high school rather than continuing to learn at home. Her favorite class so far? English. They’ve been reading poems from A Thousand Mornings. During her first week I gave her “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins lest she rope Oliver’s poems to a chair. I was pleased to hear that her teacher mentioned this favorite of mine in class today.

The first poem Teen the Younger mentioned working on in class is “An Old Story” and said that being teenagers, her group was quick to gravitate to the last lines: “My heart says: there, there, be a good student./My body says: let me up and out, I want to fondle/those soft white flowers, open in the night.” Oliver is writing about ” . . . the first fragrances of spring/which is coming, all by itself, no matter,” but I can see how her imagery might be considered sensual, and I’m impressed that such lines, written by an openly lesbian poet, are discussed in Catholic school.

Yesterday they read and discussed “Poem of the One World: This morning/the beautiful white heron/was floating along above the water/and then into the sky of this/the one world/we all belong to/where everything/sooner or later/is a part of everything else/which thought made me feel/for a little while/quite beautiful myself.” I think what I have always liked about Oliver is that her words are deceptively simple but koan-like. Upon first reading this poem seems ho-hum. A pretty bird in the sky, the oneness of the world, we’ve heard this all before. But the way Oliver breaks the lines (which you can see here) creates a rhythm, a sort of chant or plainsong quality, that is “quite beautiful” itself. And there is wisdom in the poet’s mindfulness.

Which is what I need more than ever these days, with the new shape of our days, with new responsibilities and old roughing it together this cold winter.

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