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Posts Tagged ‘memoirs’

winter-book-bingo

I finished my book bingo card this week. For an old favorite, I chose Picnic, Lightning by Billy Collins. And for a book I haven’t read by an author I like, I chose Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska, and interestingly enough, Billy Collins wrote the introduction. They are both incredible and it was nice to return to poetry after not reading any for a long time.

For a biography or memoir, I listened to Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl  by Stacy O’Brien. O’Brien’s story would be incredible if she only wrote about Wesley, the barn owl she adopted when he was only four days old, loved, raised, observed, lived with for nineteen years. But her own story is also incredible, from her musical childhood to her incredible fight against a mysterious, debilitating illness. I didn’t love the narration, honestly. I also don’t think audiobooks on my commute are the best idea — I’m probably going back to podcasts.

And for any book in a series, I read Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidant by Susan Elia MacNeal, which is a Maggie Hope novel. MacNeal gets into several interesting side plots, including an intriguing nod to Roald Dahl‘s life, as well as the continuing saga of plucky Maggie Hope, this time visiting the U.S. as part of Churchill’s team for the famous meeting with Roosevelt just weeks after Pearl Harbor. I enjoyed it, but realized when I was finished that I don’t think I read the previous title in the series so I’m going to have to go back.

It was fun to finish my card, but I’m looking forward to just reading things because the mood strikes, or someone recommends something, or a book catches my eye.

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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.

 

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Thank you again to all of you who have responded to “On Being ‘Discontinued.'” The support I’ve received from all over the world has been quite surprising and gratifying. I’m happy to report The Mindful Reader will have a new home in print and online beginning Sunday, Feb. 15 in the New Hampshire Sunday News. My column will run twice a month in the paper’s new NH Life section. I’ll still be covering New Hampshire and northern New England authors and my goal will be to review books readers might not hear about elsewhere, or by authors who are visiting a bookstore nearby. Only nearby will now mean statewide. All of you from large states, stop snickering.

On to reading. This week as we waited for our firstborn’s passport to return from its tour of embassies in Washington and New York (he needed two visas for his upcoming study abroad semester, and he departs next week so the waiting was nerve-wracking), I needed an escapist book. When I was a young mother, we lived in Seattle and I fought the winter doldrums by reading about people chucking it all to live in a new place, often a ramshackle old home in a foreign country. At the library recently I came across Castles In the Air: the Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion by Judy Corbett. Here’s my CPL Book of the Week review:

In 1995, Judy Corbett and her fiancée Peter were looking for an old house to restore in Wales, where Judy grew up. When they heard that Gwydir Castle, an aristocratic home dating back to around 1500, might be for sale, they visited, only to find two astonishing things: it was the very house Judy admired as a child in a sepia photograph at her neighbor’s house, and it was a wreck. Part of the house had been turned into an underground nightclub, the rest had been left to crumble and rot. Judy and Peter were not only undeterred; they were smitten.

Judy & Peter shared Gwydir with all manner of flora and fauna when they moved in. Their wedding was nearly called off because of a haunting. They learned that some of the home’s original furnishings were in a Metropolitan Museum of Art warehouse (by way of Hearst Castle) and set about trying to repatriate them. Castles in the Air is part memoir, part history, part ghost story, and entirely delightful.Throughout the story of their “adventures” Judy focuses on her home’s wild beauty, “Sometimes it seems to me as though it had been conjured out of the damp earth by sorcery.” Reflecting on the lives of Tudor women who lived at Gwydir she notes, “I click the same latch and feel the heavy mass of oak drop slightly on the swing of the same strap hinges. To me, the continuity of such things is reassuring. I am reminded that we are the future the past looked forward to . . . .” A lovely book and a fascinating story told with warmth, humor, and good cheer.

 

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We just got back from a week in Isle la Motte, one of the Champlain Islands in northern Vermont. Even though this year we spent a day in Montreal, I still somehow read eight books and finished a 9th (and nearly a 10th):

I finished Getting Schooled by Garret Keizer, which I’m reviewing in September’s Mindful Reader column, and which I loved — Keizer writes about a year in which he returned to teaching high school after 14 years. He recounts a bit about his earlier years teaching, his writing career, and the changes he observes, culturally and in the world of education, in his small Northeast Kingdom town. And the day we were leaving I was up early and very nearly finished Every Day in Tuscanby Frances Mayes. She writes about post-fame life in Cortona and includes recipes as well.

I read (in no particular order)

Ben Winters’ World of Trouble, the 3rd in the Last Policeman trilogy. A friend told me before I left for vacation that it was the best of the three and she is right. She also warned me it’s sad; also very true. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the ending, which could have been awful, but Winters write it beautifully. One spoiler: it’s not set in Concord, NH, like the first two in the series. But Hank Palace is still the last policeman, and I continue to admire his heart and dedication, his refusal to quit in the face of ridiculous odds, and his selfless pursuit of the truth.

Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This book is a “big” novel from a “big” author (his latest book, out in September is already on the longlist for the Booker Prize). Various reviewers compared it to The Great Gatsby and referred to it as a 9/11 novel, an immigrant novel, a great American novel, and a post-colonial novel. I thought it was an interesting story, well told, but I was a little doubtful about the marital problems of the main character, Hans van den Broek, and his wife Rachel. Basically she is so rude to him that I had a hard time believing he’d keep wanting to work it out, but I suppose love is strange. When the book opens, Hans has learned that an old friend, Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricket referee and businessman with dreams of building a cricket stadium in New York, was found murdered. He reflects on how his friendship with Chuck developed after 9-11 when Rachel moved back to London with their son.  If I had to boil down what I thought Netherland was about I’d say it’s about isolation.

Breakfast with the Nikolides by Rumer Godden. I loved Impunity Jane when I read it to my daughter years ago, and this book had been calling to me from the used book section at Gibson’s for weeks when I finally bought it. When the book begins, Louise Poole and her two daughters, Emily and Binnie, have arrived in India where Charles Poole has been living, estranged from his wife and alone for many years. As the novel unfolds, readers learn more about the troubled family as well as the agricultural college Charles has helped build. We meet Narayan Das, a veterinarian, who scorns traditional Hindu beliefs and traditions and despises the caste system. And Anil, a Brahmin student who is only studying agriculture because his father insists, but really prefers writing poetry. When Emily’s dog dies, all of these characters’ play a role in the drama; most of them experience an epiphany of some sort. A satisfying, evocative read, which left me with much to ponder.

Marrying Off Mother and other Stories by Gerald Durrell. Longtime bookconscious readers know I adore Durrell. My Family and Other Animals remains of my favorite memoirs ever.This collection of stories is based in fact; some of the pieces have the same tone as his memoirs. Durrell is a unique writer, whose work is suffused with his love of the natural world as well as his warmth and the joy he seems to take in his unusual life. He also has a terrific sense of pacing; I always imagine it would be best to hear his work aloud.

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Another story collection, some of them linked, about people and their relationships with each other and with society. I liked it — not too dark, not too light, interesting characters. Kane’s stories remind me a bit of Ann Beatty’s. This is fiction about feelings, heavier on interactions than actions. But you don’t come away feeling like humanity sucks when you’re through reading this collection, which is good for a vacation read.

And the best for last:

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardamone of my favorite authors.  I was really looking forward to this one and it didn’t disappoint. Gardam’s writing is exquisite and this story really grabbed me. Gardam captures adolescence beautifully, and her main character, Jessica Vye, reminded me of myself in some ways — feeling different than everyone else and being both glad of it and repulsed by it. Every character is interesting, and not a word is misspent. I am not sure I can even put into words what it is about Gardam that I love so much; I always wish her books would never end.

Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. Like a long, cool drink of water on a hot day.  Spufford is witty and clear, and doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but nonetheless writes about contemporary faith in a way that is both reassuring and challenging. This book is his answer to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and I enjoyed it. I don’t think it would convince atheists to change their minds (at least not the ones I know) but it might convince them to allow that not all believers are mindless idiots, and that alone makes it a great contribution.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth. If you’ve seen the BBC series, his is the first of three memoirs by the real Jennie in the series. She writes with great affection about the community of nurses and nuns where she lived and worked in London’s East End in the 1950’s. It was a perfect book to read after enjoying Alan Johnson’s This Boy. I intend to find and read Worth’s other books as well. She was a remarkable lady and her writing is vivid, cheerful, clear, and reflective.

 

 

 

 

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A memoir about the postwar London childhood of a Labour party politician doesn’t necessarily sound like a page turner, but Alan Johnson‘s charming and moving tale, This Boy, was indeed just that. Johnson’s mother Lily, a Liverpudlian who moved to Notting Hill (at the time not posh at all) with her husband after the war, was a hardworking and sickly woman whose heart was damaged irreparably by a bout of rheumatic fever as a child. She grew up with a cold and irritable father who refused to let her accept a scholarship to further her education.

Lily wanted more for her children and raised them to be polite, caring, studious and hardworking despite numbing poverty — Alan recalls being permanently hungry, and notes that he and  his sister Linda did not have an indoor toilet until 1964. Linda is the real heroine of the story, as she cared for Alan almost exclusively during their mother’s hospital stays, and became the family breadwinner at age 16 during Lily’s final illness. Her fierce love and support of both her mother and brother are inspiring.

That Alan remembers his childhood with any fondness at all is remarkable; more than that, he is generous in his recollections of friends and neighbors who were kind to them. He manages to credit his father with a few highlights in an otherwise despicable fatherhood. And he lavishes praise on his mother, his sister, and the closest friends who made his life bearable. As well as on two pastimes that soothed his soul: reading and music.

It’s amazing to read about how very different the world was only about half a century ago. I was absorbed in the detailed descriptions of 50’s and 60’s London, its war-scarred buildings and racial tension, neighborhood grocers and nearly car-free streets. From his work assisting a neighbor with paraffin oil delivery to his obsession with Queens Park Rangers, Mod style, and the Beatles, Johnson evokes his childhood in small stories that illuminate a time and place, as well as a particular life.

If you like well-told stories of love overcoming hardship, like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or James McBride’s The Color of Water, you’ll enjoy This Boy.

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My column ran in today’s Concord Monitor. I enjoyed reviewing Jessica Lander‘s Driving Backwards, Toby Ball‘s Invisible Streets, Sarah Payne Stuart’s Perfectly Miserable and Stonlea: a Timeworn, Gilded Age Survivor Transformed by Peter W. Clement and Victoria Chave Clement, with an introduction by Stonlea‘s owner, Polly Guth.

Mindful Reader: Gilmanton, noir and ‘Perfectly Miserable’

Jessica Lander, author of Driving Backwards, was eight when her family bought a “two-century old house” on Stage Road in Gilmanton, a place to spend their summers. Their neighbors, David and Lizzie Bickford, kept them well-supplied with pies and stories. Lander writes, “It was not until I was a young woman that I began to listen more closely. . . . David’s stories drew me in.” Lander is 26 and David 99 when her book opens.

With David’s “humble recounting of a hundred years of life in small-town America” as a starting point, Lander tells stories of her own as well. She clearly delights in sharing the lives and work of the people who make Gilmanton a thriving rural community today, including a goat-cheese maker, blueberry and dairy farmers, volunteer librarians, and the woman who orchestrates the preparation of “Gilmanton Old Home Day Beanhole Beans.”

Lander also explores Gilmanton’s “great egg-carton landscape,” and the remains of a once thriving mill community along the Suncook. In sussing out the curious existence of the town’s dual villages – Gilmanton Iron Works and Gilmanton Four Corners – she writes of “Enmities . . . tilled into the soil so deeply that when David was a kid, teens of the two villages were forbidden to date one another.” And yes, she takes note of Gilmanton’s notorious former residents, serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, aka H.H. Holmes, and Peyton Place author Grace Metalious. But mostly, Lander celebrates small-town New Hampshire.

Driving Backwards is a delightful read. Lander’s obvious pleasure in storytelling is sprinkled with history, both human and natural, and her curiosity and affection for her subjects is contagious. It’s a great book to read on a warm afternoon, as Lander lovingly describes bike rides and July Fourth parades, Old Home Days and abundant gardens, swimming holes and stargazing, when “the night sky is limitless, and by association, so too summer.” I’ll be keeping an eye out for more work from this talented young writer.

 ∎ ∎ ∎

I don’t usually read noir, but I’d heard a lot of good things about New Hampshire author Toby Ball’s dystopian crime novels. The latest, Invisible Streets, is set in the mid-1960s. Ball’s imagined city is grim, ripe for planner Nathan Canada’s New City Project, which will tear down decaying neighborhoods to create a massive business zone and Crosstown Expressway. A truckload of dynamite is missing from one of the project’s construction sites. Detective Torsten Grip, journalist Frank Frings and Canada’s right-hand man, Phil Dorman, all want to know who took it and why. Frings is also looking for a friend’s grandson, Sol Elia, who was a subject in secret hallucinogen studies as a student and may be part of a shadowy radical group, Kollectiv 61. Both a mystery and an examination of power and influence, Invisible Streets is an atmospheric, slow-burning book that illuminates the dehumanizing effects of uncompromising ideology and corruption. Frings is a thinking man’s hero whose patience pays, even when he wonders, “whether there was anyone left on his side – and what that side even was.”

Grip and Dorman are less admirable, but in Ball’s capable hands, they’re sympathetic characters. He takes you inside these men’s minds, out into the streets, and up on the girders of the City. If you’re looking for a smart, provocative crime novel, try Invisible Streets.

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 Sarah Payne Stuart is Perfectly Miserable. In her latest memoir, the Concord, Mass., native reflects on Guilt, God and Real Estate in her hometown. She has a love-hate relationship with her WASP family, with the formidable matrons of Concord, and with the 19th-century authors who put the town on the map. Stuart looks back not with nostalgia, but with her eyes open to the fact that she and her siblings could not wait to leave Concord, and yet she could not imagine raising her children anywhere else. Her self-depracating observations about parenting, being the daughter of aging parents, and being a grown-up in the place you were a child are funny, smart and thought-provoking. Even when she recalls painful incidents or patterns, Stuart’s tone is affectionate, even wistful: “And still I wish I could relive it all again.” With Perfectly Miserable, she and her readers do.

 ∎ ∎ ∎

Stonlea: a Timeworn, Gilded Age Survivor Transformed by Peter W. Clement and Victoria Chave Clement is, as Stonlea’s owner Polly Guth, says in the introduction, “the story of taking a Gilded Age grande dame of a summer house . . . and making it into a comfortable, year-round family house.” Guth felt the restoration was “a matter of stewardship,” and “continuity” – she wanted Stonlea to welcome her family and friends to Dublin to enjoy the beauty of lake and mountain just as its original owners did. She also set a very contemporary goal: net-zero energy, meaning that the home produces the energy it needs, through geothermal and solar technology. This gorgeous book, lavishly illustrated, shows Stonlea from start to finish. Even if you’re not an architecture buff or don’t own an old house yourself, the grand old summer houses in the Monadnack region are an interesting part of New Hampshire history, and this book is a vicarious entry into one such home.

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Longtime bookconscious readers know I have a favorite literary publicist: Molly Mikolowski. She’s introduced me to so many wonderful books and authors over the years, sending me periodic packages of new gems that get me through low points in my reading life. You’ve probably had them yourself, especially if you work in a the book world — you’ve been obliged to read a stack of books that are not necessarily bad but don’t sing. Technically, the writers are sound, but they fail to light any soul-fires. Or to provoke any strong feeling at all. This results in reading ennui at best, or even fatigue.

Over the past couple of weeks, I self-medicated my reading fatigue with two of Molly’s finds: Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby, a novel about the grown daughter of an alpha blogger mommy, and Jam Today Too by Tod Davies.

I already knew I loved Tod’s writing from her wonderful Snotty Saves the Day. I’ve read a couple of cooking memoirs that were vaguely annoying and superior sounding, but I trust Molly and Tod, so I picked up Jam Today Too this morning and didn’t put it down until I got to the end, by which time my stomach was urging me forth into the kitchen.

Jam Today Too is an absolutely wonderful little book, full of delicious recipes and suggestions (Tod repeatedly assures readers, “you’ll have your own ideas”) but also good company. You know what I mean, it’s the kind of book that makes you wish you could be friends with the author, or maybe BE the author. I dare you to read this book and not be cheered immediately and tell yourself, “Well everything seems to have gone to shit in the world, but if people like Tod are in it, it can’t be all bad.”

I even read parts of the book aloud to my family, always a sign it’s one I’ll treasure. I shared Tod’s thoughts on feminism with my sixteen year old daughter who laments that people her age don’t like that word, and she loved this bit: “It can’t be just about doing what the boys do. It has to be about upholding the importance of what the girls do . . . . Girly stuff needs to be reclaimed as a ruling power in our culture . . . .”

Also, Tod suggests that dining alone on a dolled up bowl of popcorn (her topping: “melted butter, garlic salt, and Parmesan” in one’s bathrobe while reading a novel and drinking red wine is a lovely way to spend an evening. A book that makes you think “I thought I was the only one!” is always a delight. Read this book. Enjoy the vicarious pleasure of Tod’s meals with her “Beloved Vegetarian Husband” and dogs, and her graciously respectful good sense — it’s not a book that tells you what to do or how to eat, it’s a book that celebrates the pleasure of eating well your way.

As for Famous Baby, you’ve heard me lament that there are few new ideas in fiction. Karen Rizzo’s debut puts a refreshingly new twist on one of the oldest stories in the book: the mother-daughter love hate relationship. Abbie’s mother Ruth Sternberg refers to herself as the First Mother of Blogging. Abbie’s every move from babyhood to high school graduation is immortalized for millions of strangers in cyberspace. But Ruth can’t see how the constant examination is akin to exploitation, and Abbie moves out, under the guise of traveling before she goes to college.

When Ruth writes on her blog about preparing to bring her mother home from assisted living to die, Abbie kidnaps her grandma to prevent Ruth from exploiting her, too. This funny, touching book is about the discoveries Abbie, Ruth and Esther make as Ruth and her longtime agent track the women down in Tuscon and come crashing back into Abbie’s life, along with a passel of secrets revealed as the dust settles. It’s a novel with just the right combination of thoughtfulness and humor. Famous Baby would be a great choice for a book club.

I’ll leave you with this thought, from a conversation between Eric, a budding documentary filmmaker, and Abbie, “Maybe we’re never really who we think we are. You go around projecting a certain image that seems to make sense, and then something happens that scrambles that image . . . if you’re lucky, maybe you can make use of that moment.”

Books that interrupt your habitual thought patterns and give you those eyes-open moments make everything seem brighter, clearer, and better. And these are two of those books.

 

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