Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Maine’

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.

Read Full Post »

I really enjoyed Monica Wood‘s book Ernie’s Ark a few years ago and wrote here on bookconscious that I liked it much better than Olive Kitteridge. Today I reviewed her new book for the library’s “book of the week” feature in a local weekly paper.

The One-In-a-Million Boy is the story of the unlikely friendship of Ona Vitkus, a 104 year old Maine woman, and an 11 year old Boy Scout who comes to do chores for her on Saturdays. When “the boy,” as readers come to know him, dies suddenly, his father, Quinn, fulfills his son’s agreement by continuing to visit Ona for seven more Saturdays. As Quinn gets to know Ona he learns that she and “the boy” had become friends, and that he had convinced her to pursue some Guinness World Records.

Quinn mourns and tries to comfort Belle, his ex-wife, as they both get over the shock of losing their son. And without trying to, he too befriends Ona, and begins to see his son’s quirks through her admiring eyes. “The boy” appears in Ona’s and Quinn’s memories, lists he made in his journal, and the transcript of his interviews with Ona for a school project. The book examines the secrets each character keeps, the little things people hang onto through hard times, and the impact simple kindness makes on the lives of others. Wood’s characters are sympathetic without being sappy. Quinn, haunted by his own mother’s death and his failings as a father, is particularly well drawn. If you like your fiction heartfelt but not tear-jerking and peopled with misfits, you’ll enjoy The One-In-a-Million Boy.

Read Full Post »

I review books by two Maine authors in this week’s Mindful Reader column in the New Hampshire Sunday News. Kate Braestrup’s new memoir is Anchor and Flares and Robert Klose’s hilarious send-up of campus politics is Long Live Grover Cleveland.

Here’s the first paragraph for each:

Kate Braestrup is chaplain to the Maine Warden Service. Her new memoir, “Anchor & Flares,” deals with all of the things she’s written about before – family, love, grief, faith – and also service. Ranging across topics as diverse as the condition of a body that has been decomposing under a frozen lake and a study of the qualities shared by Germans who rescued Jews rather than turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, Braestrup talks about hope and despair, joy and devastation. And she writes of these things in the context of her eldest son’s decision to enlist in the Marine Corps.

and

University of Maine biology professor Robert Klose’s novel “Long Live Grover Cleveland” is a delicious farce. Grover Cleveland is a small college in Maine, founded during the Vietnam war by a distant relative of President Cleveland as a haven for students – and some faculty – who want to avoid the draft. When the college’s founding president dies, he designates his nephew Marcus Cleveland, a used-car salesman in New Jersey, as his successor. Marcus is a good salesman who doesn’t seem entirely in touch with the world.

You can read the entire column here.

 

Read Full Post »

In today’s New Hampshire Sunday News, I review a self-published book and explain why I don’t review more.

Potential and flaws found in ‘Destiny’

People often ask me why I don’t review more self-published books.There are too many for me to read them all, and self-published books are often flawed. If I can’t get through a book, no matter how it was published, my column readers probably wouldn’t want to, either.

What’s lacking in self-published books? A skilled editor lets the author know what a good story needs to be great, what should be trimmed and honed. Most authors are too close to their own manuscripts to make that judgment.

New Hampshire author Carl Howe Hansen’s self-published novel “Destiny” is part family-saga, part environmental thriller set in part on a 140-acre island off the coast of Maine that has been in the Petersen family since the 1940’s. “Destiny” is both a theme of the novel and the name of their “heavy wooden schooner,” built by Olaf Petersen during World War I.
You can read the rest by taking this link. Don’t miss the paper’s interview with Donald Hall, also in today’s edition.

Read Full Post »

All Right Here, by Carre Armstrong Gardner, is published by Tyndale House, a Christian publisher. I buy fiction for my public library and I know “inspirational” (mainly Christian) fiction is big business. I figured the demand comes from a sizable segment of the reading public that doesn’t want much sex, violence, or bad language in a book.

But Armstrong includes some of each — sex, violence, and bad language, albeit very gently portrayed — along with adultery, alcohol and drug abuse, premarital sex, and abortion. Granted the abortion serves as a plot point to explain why one of the main characters is kind of a jerk to his wife. But I was pleasantly surprised that although Gardner’s characters frequently pray and mention their faith, their actions speak louder.

Ivy Darling and her husband Nick (he of the jerky behavior) are well rounded characters and I found myself thinking I’d like to hang out with Ivy. Despite her faith, Ivy’s not always sure what she should do or what’s happening in her life. Which I appreciated.

And which makes the book a lot like mainstream women’s fiction. All Right Here is about family and friendship, possibility and love, pain and forgiveness. When the book opens, Ivy is wondering who will live in the run down house next door. It turns out a woman moves in with three kids, and one day, Ivy finds them on their porch, their mother gone. She does not hesitate to take them in.

The kids are black and “from away,” and small town Maine, most especially Ivy’s in-laws, don’t exactly embrace this unorthodox turn of events. I loved Ivy’s unequivocal open hearted compassion for the kids, and her extended family’s similar response. I also liked Nick’s honest hesitation. Gardner addresses something I’ve never read about in mainstream fiction: infertility from the husband’s point of view. And I enjoyed the fact that the path to becoming a family isn’t smooth — Nick is not instantly in love with the kids, and isn’t even sure he likes them much, and that seemed very realistic to me. As did, unfortunately, the open racism the kids face.

An overtly religious point of view isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d recommend All Right Here to readers who like inspirational fiction. Gardner writes well, and despite a few “typecast” folks, her characters are interesting, especially Ivy. The kids are too, and although the musically talented Jada and athletic Hammer are a little predictable, the teenaged DeShaun turns out to be good at inventing fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. Which is just as quirky and charming as it sounds. I appreciated that Gardner didn’t just make him a tough guy or get him in trouble, which is where the book appeared to be heading at one point.

Gardner introduces Ivy’s and Nick’s siblings and parents, but I was more interested in their new family than in the subplots. The way the book ended, and the subtitle (A Darling Family Novel), indicate sequels are forthcoming and that the next one might focus on Laura, Ivy’s troubled twin sister who isn’t too thrilled with her large, close-knit family. That story didn’t interest me as much, but I’m curious enough to want to find out what happens to Jada, Hammer, & DeShaun that I’ll be looking for the next book.

 

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

This month my reading ranged from  Belle Époque Holland to contemporary Cuba, 1990’s Boston to ancient Rome, a mysterious jinn city to a future America, from a Maine isle to US Navy vessels before, during, and after D-Day. If this sounds like too much variety for me to tie together with a theme, remember the Bookconscious Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading: one book will almost always lead us to another, as our mind seeks connections in what we’ve read.

And also know this: humans seem to have boundless capacity for inhumanity. We can’t resist labeling each other, mostly for the purpose of feeling entitled to treat each other with contempt or even cruelty or to wage war. Sadly, that seems to be what my July reading has in common, along with hope that we also have endless capacity to recover from and transcend inhumanity.

I read four novels this month. First, Richard Mason‘s History of a Pleasure Seeker.  I heard Mason on Nancy Pearl‘s podcast last spring. This book is his latest, but he first came to prominence when he was still at Oxford and published his first novel, The Drowning People.

History of a Pleasure Seeker is about a young man, Piet Barol, who is well educated but poor, whose late mother gave him a hunger for the finer things in life and prepared him to rise above his humble beginnings. When the novel begins, he’s interviewing for a job as tutor to Egbert, the youngest child and only son of hotel baron Maarten Vermeulen-Sickerts and his wife Jacobina. It’s not an ordinary job, because Egbert refuses to go outside and the last few tutors have failed.

Piet loves sensual pleasure — excellent food and drink, good music and art, fine clothing and furnishings, and yes, sex. With beautiful women or men (this book is quite explicit, but I’ll grant that the sex is part of the story). Piet’s not purely hedonistic. He does want to help Egbert,whose phobias and terrors Mason draws with convincing detail, and he comes to value the friendships he makes with both the family and the other servants.  As tutor, he is able to move freely in both worlds, which gives readers access to both “upstairs” and “downstairs” dramas in the household. Among which are the ways people are willing to stab each other in the back when they are afraid, angry, or prejudiced.

I won’t give away plot details, but I will say the book’s period details are fascinating, and Mason ties the fate of his characters’ lives to historical events. He is also a beautiful writer. Every sentence is a small jewel, cut and polished, perfectly showing off both natural beauty and craft.  But this isn’t intrusive, you don’t sense the writer working hard, it’s just a lovely novel whose language enhances the story and makes the characters three dimensional. Piet is fascinating because he is so self-interested and yet also has a conscience. I am very interested in reading Mason’s other work.

Another historical novel I read this month was Cecilia, a Europa Editions novel by Linda Ferri. The title character is a young noble woman in ancient Rome whose mother has lost all of her other children and who is increasingly obsessed with a goddess cult. Her father is an official in the emperor’s government, but was previously a farmer. He has given his daughter an education, but she is also expected to dutifully marry according to her parents’ wishes.

Cecilia continues studying, playing music, and writing a diary while trying to please her parents, understand her friends as they enter the adult world, and deal with the deaths of her siblings and a young slave she played with at her parents’ country villa.  She is a thinking person but her role is to be compliant. After a Christian wise man heals her, she joins their community where her nurse has secretly worshiped.

Cecilia is troubled by her family’s tragedies and her mother’s possible madness. She has difficulty reconciling her yearning for truth and her role in a superficial society that only wants her to look nice and be a good hostess for her ambitious husband, and in her troubles she turns to the Christian faith. But, the other new adherents aren’t a very nice bunch. In fact the men in the group are as domineering and judgmental as the other Roman men in the story.

The divergence into Cecilia’s diary and dreams confused me a bit early on, but when the novel rushed through her conversion, conviction, and imprisonment I was frustrated. I understand the poetic license necessary to write about someone who lived so long ago (the book is based on St. Cecilia), but I didn’t think Ferri made her conversion or her willingness to die for the faith convincing in the novel, even if it was meant to be understood.

From the past to the future: I also read The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. This book is set in the near future, in a time when the earth’s rotation slows and thus days and nights no longer correspond to a 24 hour period. It’s a fascinating idea for a novel. Walker chooses Julia, who is 11 when the book opens, to narrate. She’s an interesting and observant narrator.

But she’s a kid, so many of her concerns have to do with fitting in at middle school, getting a particular boy to notice her, and worrying about her parents and grandfather in the slightly clueless way of adolescence. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a smart character, but because of her age there is much she has to guess at, which leaves readers guessing too. And I don’t think her language is representative of an actual eleven year old, but is more what an adult might say or think. I think if Julia had been in her late teens, the book would read better. As it is, I was distracted by incongruities.

That quibble aside, I did like the book very much. Julia’s neighbors turn on the two households that try to continue living by sun time instead of the now arbitrary clock time. People seem to mostly act in fear and mistrust or succumb to “end time” attitudes, having lavish parties and indulging their desires before it’s too late. Julia’s family represents a kind of middle way — her mother hoards food and water, they try to protect themselves from excessive sun exposure, but they mostly try to get by, living as normally as possible. I enjoyed the way Walker shows readers a variety of human responses to the scary new reality of a slower earth.

Walker veers into a “young love” subplot but it’s quirky rather than sappy, and does have to do with the slowing. The Age of Miracles would be an interesting book club read, with plenty to discuss. It’s a pretty good read flaws and all, and definitely made me wonder how my own neighborhood would respond to such a strange turn of events.

Speaking of strange, Alif the Unseen is strange in all the best ways. Longtime bookconscious readers know I love books that dip into magical realism, where magic and the real world intersect. Jasper Fforde, Nick Harkaway, and Lev Grossman are masters of this, and to that list I can now add G. Willow Wilson. Her novel is one of the most enjoyable and thought provoking I’ve read this year.

Alif of the title is a cyber-security expert, a geek extraordinaire who protects anyone who’ll pay him — communists, Islamists, Arab spring activists, dissidents, all are his online clients. He lives in a decent but shabby neighborhood in a city state run by an emir, with a couple dozen princes in the line of succession. Alif is his computer handle, and his neighbor Dina is one of the few people in the book who knows his real name.

Soon after we meet Alif, he finds out the girl he loves is betrothed to someone in the royal family and she’s ending things with Alif. He writes an elaborate “bot” program that can identify her based on her keystroke patterns and language, so that they can never see each other online (their paths don’t usually cross in person since he is of mixed “desi”/Arab origin and not in her social class).

But the Hand, a government operative who has been after Alif and his hacker/revolutionary crowd for years, co-opts Alif’s technology and in a fit of panic, he severs ties with his clients and flees. As he feels the Hand (who turns out to have a personal beef with him as well) and state security closing in on him, Alif flees with Dina and they end up turning to Vikram, a jinn (genie).  Along the way Alif relies on Vikram’s sister (who he’s known as a cat for a long time) and his associates in the jinn world to help protect him, Dina, and an American woman who is a student and Muslim convert.

It’s as wild as it sounds, but it’s also a page turning thriller, as Alif implicates an elderly imam when he seeks refuge in the City’s main mosque, finds himself imprisoned and is later sprung by a hacker prince he’s only ever known online as New Quarter.  Dina turns out to be one of the strongest, wisest characters and Alif to his credit comes to see that he’s underestimated her.

Best of all for word geeks (and programmers, I’d guess, although I can’t speak for them) is that Dina’s involvement in the story begins when she delivers a package for the jilted Alif and returns with a book sent by the aristocrat who has dumped him. It turns out to be one of the only surviving copies of a jinn masterpiece, “The Thousand and One Days,” and Alif realizes that its secret wisdom is the power of language, and his favorite language is computer code. He manages to write a program that defeats the Hand before he’s betrayed and taken into custody.

When he makes it back to the City after escaping prison and reuniting with Dina in the jinn’s world, the revolution he and his online friends have long dreamed of is in progress. The Hand has broken the City’s internet infrastructure in his battle to beat Alif, and the people have risen up. Wilson’s humor seems born of outrage, and the book’s fantasy elements and forays into the worlds of supernatural beings and storytelling are excellent foils for sociopolitical critique.

Yes, it’s a novel with something to say, a good read that is fun but also meaningful, that can make you laugh and perhaps also feel indignant. Wilson captures the frustrations and idealism of the Arab Spring, the power of online communities, the strength and yes, even perhaps magic of language, whether its human, jinn, or computer.  She also challenges stereotypes with in-your-face examples of men and women, human and jinn, rich and poor who break out of the boundaries society wants to keep them in. I loved this book.

I read five nonfiction books as well this month. Yes, I know. More on how crazy that is later.

First, from New Hampshire’s Bauhan Publishing, Waltzing With Bracey: A Long Reach Home by Brenda Gilchrist. When the book opens, Gilchrist reacts to inheriting a home on Deer Isle: “It’s always been an anchor of sorts, throughout my rootless life. But it’s big, old, and reeks of history, custom, forebears.”

Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow (Henry’s nephew) designed the house. Gilchrist’s great-grandfather counted Charles Darwin, John Stewart Mill, and Frederick Law Olmstead among his friends. Harriet Beecher Stowe based characters on Gilchrist’s family of reformers, abolitionists, writers, people  “long on summers and pedigree, short on money.” Gilchrist “. . . can’t help being impressed by these people, yet they suffocate me.”

As a child, this diplomat’s daughter spent summers in Maine. When her aunt dies she’s forty-eight and editing a book series for the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York. Expat and city life have made her nomadic. She knows nothing about home ownership.

But she learns, renovating both the house and her life, coming to terms with family ghosts and her place among them. Bracey, her corgi, provides the unconditional love only a dog can give. He’s instrumental in helping Gilchrist come home in every sense of the word.

Bauhan’s hallmark is excellent design, and this beautiful book is filled with photos, paintings, woodcuts, and drawings that illustrate Gilchrist’s emotional journey. If you’ve lived in an old house or by the sea, loved a dog or reconciled yourself to your family’s legacy, you’ll find much to identify with here. Gilchrist’s writing is open-hearted, reflective, and spirited.

For a book club, I read The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser. This book tells the story of the theft of several priceless art works from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990, and of author Boser’s growing obsession with the crime and with unraveling the tangled threads of the most probable leads in the case.  It was an interesting read, which reminded me a bit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks because of the way the author became so involved in the story.

Boser also tells the story of Garder’s obsession with art, the significance of her collection, and the meticulous way she planned and built her museum. And he describes the heist in as much detail as possible. He describes the way the case was handled (and mishandled) over the years, especially by the FBI, and the many connections to prominent criminals in the Boston area, including the notorious Whitey Bulger.

Those sections of the book were hard to read, because of the violence and cruelty Boser details. I enjoyed the sections about art, the world of art theft and recovery, and Gardner more. Overall it’s an interesting read and I wondered if the theft will ever be solved or the art ever restored to the museum. And it’s a hopeful sign that not only is Bulger now in custody, but also the FBI appears to be over its years of corruption in Boston.

A book I picked up at the Five Colleges Book Sale that caught my eye in July is My War: A Love Story in Letters and Drawings by Tracy Sugarman.  Sugarman was an Ensign for most of his service in WWII, and was at Utah Beach for D-Day and after. This book is excerpts from his letters home to his wife June and from his sketchbooks, where he drew and painted what he was experiencing.

It’s a beautiful, heart-breaking book. Sugarman’s letters are full of youthful optimism, fury at the boorish or prejudiced behavior he witnesses among his fellow servicemen, awe at their bravery and hard work, frustration at the tedium and senselessness of war. He explains that most of June’s replies were lost, but includes one letter that survived. He also tells readers that she died in his arms in 1998, two years before the book was published. They’d been married 55 years.

As a personal account and a work of art, the book is beautiful. It’s also interesting historically as a primary source from a time which we remember mostly with fondness these days, a proud moment in American history. Sugarman balances well deserved pride in service, sacrifice, and courage with righteous anger at racism, anti-Semitism, chauvinism, and other cultural scourges.

Which of course got me to thinking about whether we can ever truly overcome those things — I was reading this book while the overheated and often distorted election year rhetoric swirled in the background. And as a woman in Congress questioned the service of a woman at the State Department in a shamefully prejudiced way. And as people flocked to either eat at a fast food chain or boycott it, over the biased remarks of the man who owns it. And as the Olympics were tainted by racist remarks and crass commercialism.

But I digress. Two other books I read this month — both for the Mindful Reader column — left me similarly torn between admiration and quiet fury.

Privacy brings Garret Keizer’s spirited, reflective, whip-smart and incisive analysis to this far-ranging yet elusive concept. Keizer, a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine, lives in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and writes frequently on “matters of politics, religion, and justice.” In Privacy, Keizer delivers a sharp, thorough, witty exploration of “the sacredness of the human person and the value of privacy; the things we share and the things we don’t; the ways we make ourselves lonely and the ways we mistake alienation for a private life.”

Keizer explains his book is an “introduction,” not an “airtight definition” of privacy.  He probes the concept in history, law, economics, the media, philosophy and social justice, popular culture and daily life, illuminating privacy’s “basis in the bodily integrity of human beings and in their spiritual needs.”  Keizer considers whether privacy is a universal value and investigates the ways it has eroded recently. He combines intellect and clarity to make this complex and somewhat fuzzy topic lucid, skewering sloppy or misleading reasoning no matter the source. Public discourse would benefit if more of it were this thoughtful and impartial.

In light of persistent lying/cheating scandals and over-heated, often deceptive election rhetoric, Keizer’s conclusion, “. . . privacy may amount to little more, and rest on no firmer basis, than the promises we make to one another” is depressing.  And yet, Keizer reminds us, “Privacy being what it is, they are kept more often than we know.” Let’s hope.

Another book that left me torn between hope and distress is New Hampshire author William Craig’s Yankee Come Home: On the Road from San Juan Hill to Guantánamo. Craig’s book is a searing combination of reporting, history, and personal reflection that covers U.S. foreign policy in Cuba since 1898, and Cuban history from its first hopes for independence to the present.

Craig visited Cuba for the first time in 2001, reporting on a tour by The Feminine Tone chorus. His return trip in 2005 provides the framework for Yankee Come Home. Craig is anxious to see Guantánamo and also to unpack the history of the Spanish-American-Cuban War. He’s motivated by post 9-11 angst and family legend regarding  his great-grandfather’s time with the “rough riders.” Craig and The Feminine Tone are trying to enter Cuba via a U.S. embargo loophole, “with a fundamentalist pastor licensed to lead missionaries.”

But Reverend Esau ditches them in a Jamaican airport, short on cash due to an unexpected “charter tax” and without the permits Craig will need to continue traveling once the chorus returns to New Hampshire. They go anyway, and we go along, meeting ordinary Cubans (among them many relatives of The Feminine Tones’ director Maricel Lucero Keniston) and learning a great deal. Including that Craig’s family legend may be just that.

Craig’s thorough observations, reflections, and sensory details bring his narrative to life. As in other countries where revolutionary promises of freedom, justice and equality devolved into an oppressive regime, Cuba is a place where daily life requires navigating hope and fear, beauty and decay, personal ingenuity and institutional corruption. Craig captures the indomitable spirit, warmth, and faith of the Cubans who befriend him, and the ugliness, suspicion, and ideological tension in his brushes with Cuban officialdom.

Cuba is a challenging, sometimes dangerous place to travel, and Craig shares the full gamut of his experiences with readers. He concludes that American foreign policy troubles are rooted in our “wielding money and guns to control what isn’t ours” in Cuba over a century ago. And that what Cubans admire about the U.S. (including the Declaration of Independence, which influenced revolutionaries) reflects “a vision of the peace we could have known if we’d stuck to our founding principles.

Which brings me full circle to the first pessimistic paragraphs of this post. Yes, each of these books seems to shed light on the myriad ways we humans mistreat each other. But thankfully (or I might not have been able to even reflect on these ideas) we are also able to help each other, to reform or repent, to make up for our errors. I guess that sums up the human condition, in literature and life — we screw up, and we fix it.

Books help us make sense of all this. We can learn about grace even from a fictional tutor who feels remorse for the emotional damage he causes,  a bumbling hero who acts selfishly and spitefully when jilted but risks his life to do the right thing for his  fictional world and the friends who stand by him, writers who tell us stories — real or imagined — that remind us our best selves are always within reach. This is one of the reasons I read.

You may have noticed I read a bit less this month.  A couple of years ago I heard Paul Harding talk about how he’d rather read one book well than read a pile of books. I’ve been reading a pile of books every month for a long time now, and it’s taking its toll. I read less this month in part because I spent more evenings with the Computer Scientist, Teens the Elder & Younger, and friends. And because I took on less, said no to a few books for the column. Teen the Younger has taught me that life is too short to read books I don’t care for.

I reflected on the tyranny of summer reading lists and realized I’ve been forcing myself into various reading “lists” for quite a while —  as an indie bookstore events coordinator and book club member, as Europa Challenge participant and book reviewer.  I’d hoped to get through my “to-read” piles this summer but all I’ve done is get them off the floor by spending an entire afternoon reorganizing shelves and lightly weeding.

So I’m hoping to change. I’m taking a break from reading challenges and clubs, and I’m learning that saying no to some books means I have more time and thought to give to the ones I’d like to share with my fellow readers. Like a student who’s had her love of learning diminished with busy work, I have let goals and obligations detract from the thing I love — reading for pleasure.

So for serendipity’s sake, I started a book this week because someone asked me about it and I remembered that I’d wanted to read it for awhile too.  I’m still discussing books I love — I did so last night at a dinner party and wrote down a couple of suggestions from the guest seated across from me.  I’ll still be making a “to-read” list or adding to my shelves, but only because a book intrigues.  Stay tuned. And happy reading.

Read Full Post »