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I was chatting with a professor at work last week about what we’d each read over the holiday break and he mentioned Slade House. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve enjoyed several other titles by David Mitchell, and actually The Computer Scientist had pointed out Slade House to me when it first came out, so I went to the stacks and checked it out.

It’s a trip of a book, from it’s strange little format (in the hardcover edition we have at the library, which is square and has a cut-out cover exposing an Escher-esque maze of stairs) to the idea of the novel itself – that twins Norah and Jonah Grayer have learned the secret of immortality. Both “engifted” with psychic powers, they hone their mystical skills until they have perfected luring other unsuspecting engifteds, usually people who are misfits in the world, and take what they need from them to go on living (I don’t want to give away the whole story). You can guess that doesn’t end well for the victims.

The other premise of the book is that Slade House, where the twins’ strange and nasty work is done, doesn’t exist in the physical plane of the world, but in an “orison” of a house that was bombed in WWII. The door to reach the garden of the great old house appears every nine years in Slade Alley. So the victims are from different decades in each chapter.

It’s a short book (it took me a week because I’m also reading another book), and it feels like an over-grown short story to me. I understand that it’s related to The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t read. I enjoyed Slade House even though it left me wanting to know more about both Jonah and Norah (I would have liked to have read about their growing up, discovering their gifts, and honing them — we get all that as backstory told by another character) and their victims, who we meet only as they are lured into Slade House. Still, Mitchell is a good writer and he tells a compelling tale.

I like the kind of story that makes you look around and think “What if . . . ?” as in “What if there really were engifteds around here somewhere?” Let’s face it even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe in ghosts and never considers metaphysical questions, an awful lot of people do, and an awful lot of people claim to have experienced the presence of someone who is no longer in the physical world. I think as long as there have been stories, and as long as there are stories, people will place their hopes and fears about what happens when we die, whether a part of us (soul, spirit, ghost, or whatever you call it) goes on and if so where it goes, how existence works. So brief as it may be, Slade House, gets to the heart of that and its appeal is in this universal hope or fear (or both).

Back soon with the nonfiction book I’ve nearly finished.

 

 

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The column ran today in The Concord Monitor.  Here it is:

 

The Mindful Reader: ‘Lightkeeper’s Wife’ strays from the ordinary

Cape Cod author Sarah Anne Johnson’s debut novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife begins as an ordinary work of historical fiction. In 1843, Hannah Snow is the lighthouse keeper’s wife on a treacherous stretch of coast. There’s a wreck one night when her husband, John, is away. Hannah makes a risky rescue attempt but manages to save just one passenger.

After he recovers from nearly drowning, Billy Pike stays on, helping Hannah. John’s horse turns up without him, and bucking convention, Hannah chooses to remain at her husband’s post tending the light. She loves her work. “What an exhilarating feeling, knowing that she could help a floundering ship navigate these waters.”

Things get very interesting as Johnson introduces Annie/Blue, a sea captain’s wife who suffers a loss and rebels against the rules and superstitions surrounding a woman’s presence at sea. When pirates raid her husband’s ship, Annie saves herself, proves her mettle and goes on to masquerade as a man, the pirate Blue.

Johnson spins these two stories and Billy’s into a page-turner with a hint of mystery, weaving in details from her considerable research into women’s maritime history. Several minor characters are also female, providing Johnson a broad palette from which to paint women’s roles in a small 19th-century New England community. This interesting angle, along with the story’s twists, nautical details and compelling characters, make The Lightkeeper’s Wife an intriguing read.

Puzzling whodunit

Michael Nethercott’s The Haunting Ballad is an old-fashioned mystery set in 1957 Greenwich Village, featuring a beat coffeehouse and a colorful cast of characters. Private eye Lee Plunkett and his Yeats-quoting sidekick Mr. O’Nelligan encounter, among others, a “ghost chanter” who receives songs from the afterworld, a blues guitarist, a 105-year-old Civil War drummer boy and a trio of Irish brothers as they investigate the death of a cantankerous folk “songcatcher.” “The woman seemed to flourish on conflict,” O’Nelligan notes as the investigation turns up a steady stream of possible perpetrators. Nethercott’s period details enhance the story, as does Plunkett and O’Nelligan’s banter. Although this is the second book in Nethercott’s series, I hadn’t read the first (The Séance Society) but had no trouble catching up with his characters. The Haunting Ballad features strong dialogue and a great deal of charm, as well as a puzzling whodunit.

With grace

Brattleboro, Vt., author Martha M. Moravec’s Magnificent Obesity: My Search for Wellness, Voice and Meaning in the Second Half of Life tells the story of her heart attack at age 55 and subsequent quest to “close the gap between where she is headed in life and the very different place she wants to be.” Moravec reflects on or confronts just about every issue anyone might be facing as they enter their senior years, all at once: childhood trauma, family dysfunction, unrealized dreams, under- or unemployment, health concerns (obesity, debilitating anxiety, diabetes, colitis and heart disease) and struggles with faith (she thinks of God as “The Man at My Elbow”). But this isn’t a “disaster memoir” – she isn’t mopey or maudlin. She repeatedly praises the “Angels We Can See,” who are “People whose desire to help was so genuine as to seem either genetic or divinely inspired.” She sums up her problems: “I was suffering from acute sensitivity to the fact that I had spent the past 30 years of my life circumventing my life. . . .” But by the time you travel with Moravec to the end of this honest self-examination, her “struggle to lose weight, calm down and find God” has led her “to seek a kind of truce and peace in what unalterably is . . .” and to “grow up in time to grow old with grace.”

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Some of you may already know Tom Holt‘s work, but it was new to me when I picked up Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Sausages from a pile of books I’d just checked in at the circulation desk in my library. I order fiction, so I like to see what patrons are reading, and this book looked well loved.

The cover calls it a “comedy of transdimensional tomfoolery,” and Holt’s work reminded me of the great Douglas Adams. He’s witty in that sharp English way. This book features a successful businessman, Mr. Huos, whose riches rely on a strange ring, which is part of his even stranger origin story. A pair of sisters who are lawyers with brothers who are musicians and a “weirdness expert” named Mr. Gogerty, along with a flock of clever chickens and some intelligent pigs, all help solve the madcap multidimenional mysteries in the novel. How does Huos build so many housing tracts in bucolic Norton St. Edgar? Who is drinking Polly Mayer’s coffee? Where has the dry cleaners on Clevedon Road gone? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Polly’s stream of thought towards the end of the book: “She couldn’t be scared, because something like this couldn’t have happened. Fear needs belief. This was just silly, and silliness only made her irritable.”  Holt’s work hits the sweet spot of piquing the reader’s curiosity without being either scary or dumbed down. He’s entertaining in a way that makes readers think, which I enjoy very much.

If you like offbeat humor, urban fantasy, a puzzling mystery, or all things English, you’ll enjoy Tom Holt. He’s written a slew of books, so I look forward to trying more of them.

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The other book I checked out before the holidays because I’d meant to read it for some time is People of the Book. I really enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and Nichole Bernier recommended People of the Book last fall when she read from The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. at Gibson’s. Since I loved two other books Nichole recommended that night (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans), I figured I’d like this one too.

And I did, even though it took me awhile to read it between holiday visits, parties, and events and post-holiday chores and errands. Like Caleb’s Crossing, I found People of the Book‘s historical details evocative and fascinating, and also as in that book, I liked Geraldine Brooks’ strong female protagonist, this time an Australian book conservator named Hannah Heath. Brooks takes readers back in time through several periods as Hannah inspects, studies, and prepares for exhibit the rare illuminated manuscript, recounting Jewish history through the Exodus, known as The Sarajevo Haggadah.

When the book opens, it’s 1996, the Bosnian war has just ended, and Hannah begins her work. A few traces people have left behind — a wine stain, an inquisitor’s signature, a cat hair, a bit of salt, an insect’s wing, and the space where clasps once held the binding closed — are the jumping off points for the haggadah’s story. Each character from each place and time was interesting, and Brooks brought them all to life in places she made vivid. Maps with dates on the end papers show readers “The Global Journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah” so you can follow it as you read or preview what’s coming.

People of the Book is in part the stories of people in various centuries who carry out Brooks’ fictional history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It’s also a novel about a young woman seeking her own place in the world. Hannah’s mother, a famous neurosurgeon, disdains her work, at one point telling her she is nothing but a “tradeswoman” despite the fact that Hannah’s expertise and training sets her apart as one of the best conservators in the world. In the course of the book Hannah learns her father’s identity and meets an extended family she didn’t know she had.  It’s a mystery too, with the clues Hannah tracks about the haggadah’s history and a chapter about the manuscript’s whereabouts. And it’s a lovely recounting of the importance of art and books and the resilience of the human spirit throughout history.

It was also a terrific read in the evenings as a busy year drew to a close and the new one began. Brooks leaves readers feeling hopeful that the long story of human cooperation, tolerance, and friendship is at least as strong as its opposite.

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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The “good book” (as I affectionately call my trusty compact OED) tells me that flaky means “consisting of flakes,” or “to come away or off in flakes.” It further reports that “flake” can refer to snow, fluff, ignited matter from a fire, or a small piece of material that has exfoliated, fractured, peeled, or otherwise loosened itself. Flake can also refer to a layer, as in an oyster shell, or a loose sheet of ice from a floe.

There’s a kind of carnation called a flake (it’s striped) and the word is part of brand names for several kinds of flaky products (like the Cadbury chocolate bar called Flake, which is quite crumbly).  Finally, OED points out that as a verb, flake can mean to fall in flakes (as it is now doing outside my window), to break off, or to fragment.

When I think back over January 2011, it’s flaky. We went from practically no snow at Christmas to so much snow we are running out of places to throw it (the banks on either side of the driveway are several feet high). Our local newspaper reported that we had 38 inches in January (the most for Jan. in 20 years) and February is already off to a roaring start with another 16+ inches in the first two days.

And my reading was fractured, layered, loose. I picked up what I could when I could, in between shoveling, getting the bookconscious household back into a routine post-holidays, and traveling to my first ever American Booksellers Association Winter Institute. I read some books I wanted to read, some I have booked for events at Gibson’s, some forthcoming titles, and others that are bookconscious life learning choices.

The perfect reading for someone who is starting and stopping frequently is a collection of short stories ( a poetry collection works well, too). I read two wonderful collections this month. The Teens and the Computer Scientist gave me Oxfam’s Ox Tales for Christmas.  In January I read Earth. I absolutely loved this collection, and I really look forward to the others in the series.

The stories in Ox Tales Earth are all loosely related to the theme of land rights and farming.  “The Jester of Astrapovo,” by Rose Tremain, opens the book, and I found it especially intriguing because I enjoyed the film The Last Station, which was about the final part of Tolstoy’s life and his dramatic death at a remote train station.  Tremain writes from the station master’s perspective, and the story is far less sympathetic to Tolstoy’s wife, Countess Sofya, than the film was.  Tremain’s story is a well cut gem; in just 31 pages, she provides fascinating characters, an intriguing plot, a clearly drawn setting that comes alive in her hands, a transformation, and enough left unsaid to allow the readers’ imaginations to play.

Marti Leimbach, author of “Boys In Cars,” paints a poignant sketch of a mother and her autistic son, creating tension in their relationships with his father and in the boy’s attempt to deal with a birthday party invitation. I teared up, and admired the fictional mother very much. “Lucky We Live Now,” by Kate Atkinson is a fantastic dystopian story with magical-realism elements that made me laugh out loud.   And I also found “The Importance of Having Warm Feet,” by Marina Lewycka very compelling; it takes place mostly in the narrator’s memory as she sits at her mother’s death bed, and it’s another beautiful, tightly written, emotionally weighty piece. I could go on, but the point is, I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

I received Siohban Fallon‘s new book, You Know When the Men Are Gone, from her publicist, and I’m grateful. This debut is a collection of loosely linked short stories set mostly at Fort Hood (although one of my favorites takes place in Iraq), featuring a combat unit and the family members they leave behind.  It’s a terrific read, and one I hope many people will try; it’s a very good portrait of military life.

While it’s been twenty years since the Gulf War, and seventeen since the Computer Scientist’s last long deployment with the Marine Corps (seven months in Japan & Thailand while I was back in Hawaii, expecting Teen the Elder), I found this book weirdly familiar. Deployments have changed (for one thing, much to the Teens’ amusement, we couldn’t email our deployed loved ones back then; we wrote — gasp — letters!); the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan are also very different than the Gulf War. But Fallon’s book brought back the spouse support dynamics, both official and unofficial. Her stories recalled the frustration, stress, camaraderie, and gossip families deal with, and I found myself thinking about situations and people I haven’t thought of in years.

Fallon writes with authority born of experience — she is a military spouse herself, and lived at Fort Hood. As I looked back over the book to tell you about my favorite stories, I found there’s something compelling about each of them. Fallon’s writing isn’t fancy or cutting edge. Her style is simple, clear, but full of vitality.  As I read I felt like recognized her characters, not because I’d read about similar ones in another book, but because I felt as if I’d met them.

I imagine that even people who haven’t experienced military life will have the experience I had, because Fallon has an uncanny ability to evoke a haunting familiarity in her stories. Even if you haven’t been through deployment, you know someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or whose teenager is suddenly acting like someone else, or you’ve listened to someone whose marriage is falling apart or who suspects it is.  You’ve been, or known, a person who suddenly, inexplicably, experiences something that causes a subtle shift in perspective, or maybe rocks your world.

None of this is new emotional territory, but what makes the book so striking is that on every page you’re reminded that the people in these stories are just like the real people who have gone to Iraq & Afghanistan or stayed home while the people they loved went. So even though the universal nature of Fallon’s themes  make the book accessible to anyone, You Know When the Men Are Gone is at its core a stark reminder of what a portion of America is living with all the time as long as we are at war.

In addition to this great short fiction, I read a few novels in January.  The best was Luka and the Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie’s follow up to Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  It’s brilliant. Rushdie creates a heroic adventure for Luka, who is the younger son of Rashid Khalifa, the storyteller from Haroun. Funny, smart, imaginative, utterly original — there aren’t adequate adjectives for this book. Rushdie spins his usual complex, rich, fabulous prose, he’s very funny, and he keeps you turning the pages.

Luka is set in a magical world that works like a video game, so I can’t wait for the Teens to read it, because I think they’ll be amused that Luka has to advance through increasingly challenging levels, like a game. The way Rushdie manages these contemporary, fresh images alongside references to classical mythology and his own imaginary flourishes is very entertaining. And it’s a classic adventure tale, with a young hero having to prove himself through a series of tests so that he can vanquish evil forces and rescue his father. Very good reading, in every sense.

I read The Year of the Hare, by Arto Paasilinna, after seeing Pico Iyer’s review in the Wall Street Journal.  Iyer wrote the forward, too. I expected to love this book. Bookconscious readers know I’m a fan of works in translation.  And I like quirky premises such as a man deciding to completely change his life — leaving his wife, his job, his home, everything — because he rescues a hare that’s been hit by a car.

I did love about 3/4 of The Year of the Hare. The original conceit was convincing, the story compelling, the people and situations interesting.  The way the main character, Vatanen, seems to happen upon opportunities, meet people, and influence the outcome of situations reminded me of Forrest Gump.  But the last part of the book was too erratic and unbelievable for me, even for a tale that had taken great leaps earlier.

Another book I admired but didn’t love is Finny, by Justin Kramon. Justin came to Gibson’s at the invitation of a local book club.  He’s a talented young writer, whose future work I look forward to. The characters in Finny are unforgettably original — I think Poplan and Menalcus are about as fantastic as two supporting characters can be. I loved that Justin wrote from the point of view of a woman so empathetically and so well.  And I liked the happy-ish ending; satisfying without being treacly.

But I felt that overall, Finny suffered from too much information. For example, too many scenes in which the characters acted thoughtlessly towards each other. This was at least effective in evoking the social squeamishness that existed as the young characters grew up, crossed paths, and fell in and out of favor with each other.  A surfeit of these situations was distracting but seemed characteristic of long term friendships formed in youth, even when they seemed improbable.

But sometimes there was just too much detail that dragged the story down or were unwieldy.  Eventually the scenes where characters hurt each other once again were beyond believability — it struck me that real people wouldn’t keep returning to relationships that were so dysfunctional.  And yet, the book has stayed with me, and one of the book club members told me that they discussed it at great length, both indications that Justin is a compelling writer. Stay tuned.

One final note on fiction before I move on to drama and nonfiction: I’m almost finished with the latest Flavia de Luce book, A Red Herring Without Mustard, which comes out next week. As I’ve said before, I am a huge Flavia fan — she’s one of my favorite characters, ever.  I’m not a regular mystery reader, but I also love the way Flavia’s creator, Alan Bradley, keeps me guessing; I’ve never seen how his mysteries will be solved until the end. 

Red Herring is every bit as fresh, funny, and fascinating as the earlier books in the series. Who knew chemistry could be so interesting (it’s Flavia’s passion).  Great reading, and as my grandmother always said, nothing is better for unsettling moments than a good mystery. Rising gas prices? Instability in the Middle East? Another blizzard?  Curl up with Flavia and you’ll feel better.

Along with Teen the Elder, I read Shakespeare’s Henry V in January. Having read a fictional book about war families and a nonfiction book full of the atrocities humans perpetrate against each other (more on that in a moment), I found myself impatient with King Henry’s patriotic speeches and the youthful excitement of both the French and English as they prepared to kill each other. But Shakespeare is eternally entertaining, and who can resist his hilarious English lesson for the French princess? Or the way the formerly rebellious Prince Hal has grown into a leader, unflinching and decisive? Good stuff, and interesting to discuss with the boy. He admired the speeches.

The book I read that reveals the atrocities of war in mind-boggling breadth is Human Cargo: A Journey Among RefugeesCaroline Moorehead, a British human rights journalist, lays out the history of refugees and resettlement in the 20th and 21st centuries. I volunteer with refugee resettlement in our town, so I have a good working knowledge of contemporary refugee issues, but Moorehead’s clear writing gave me a better overall understanding of the politics, past and present.  She also explores the sociological motivations of governments who promote resettlement but simultaneously make life as difficult as possible for asylum seekers and migrants.

While Moorehead is clearly a humanitarian and doesn’t hide her feelings about the people she meets, the injustices she exposes, or the dysfunction of the international system meant to help displaced people, I found the book to be fair. I am firmly on her side, however — I think the treatment of refugees in most of the world is morally reprehensible, I find the justification most governments give for rejecting economic migrants hypocritical, and I think even the best intended governments are often culturally clueless and politically hamstrung when it comes to resettlement.

Examples: refugee “camps” (sounds nice, right, rustic, but safe?) are nearly universally unsafe, understaffed, and inadequate for preparing displaced people to lead healthy, productive lives outside the camps.  The argument that illegal immigrant labor harms consumers and workers often comes from the very powerful people who make it legal and economically desirable for corporations to either use migrant workers anyway or outsource their factories in order to keep their products cheap for consumers.  And as Moorehead so poignantly describes in her chapter profiling some African refugees now living near the Arctic circle in Finland, resettled refugees are sometimes stuck in climates and cultures that are almost impossibly unfamiliar, with restrictions on or barriers to employment, education, and movement. This makes adjusting, even in a country that welcomes them, overwhelming.

But, I still found Human Cargo uplifting, despite the horrific stories Moorehead shares, and the disheartening systemic failures she exposes.  Why? Because first of all, Ms. Moorehead, like Nicholas Kristof in the Unites States, carries on a fine journalistic tradition of shining light on the darkest of human conditions. And like Kristof, she meets and shares the stories of ordinary people who are quietly defying official indifference and insensitivity, who are heroically performing simple acts of welcome and friendship, who are making a difference in the most profound way possible, one person at a time.

The best example of what I mean are Moorehead’s chapters on the Australian government’s recent actions against asylum seekers, and her profiles of some British asylum seekers.  In both cases, the refugee stories, and the government policy and actions, made me feel physically ill and kept me awake wondering if there any worse invention in human history than bureaucracy (I think it’s a three-way tie with warfare and torture). But in those same chapters, Moorehead introduces people who are reaching out to those who are suffering in their midst, people who with very few resources and extraordinary reserves of patience, compassion, and goodness are offering whatever aid and solace they can. Many of these people are just ordinary folks trying to be neighborly.

Another highly compelling read this month was Stephanie Saldana‘s The Bread of Angels.  I picked this up at the library after reading The Calligrapher’s Secret in December and wanting to know more about Syria. Saldana was a Fulbright scholar learning Arabic in Damascus, and this book is about that year. I’d read an excerpt in the Modern Love column of the New York Times.

Bookconcious regulars know that last month I read Andrew Krivak’s memoir, The Long Retreat.  Krivak and Saldana are kindred spirits (and kindred seekers — Saldana underwent the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius at the desert monastery Deir Mar Musa, just as Krivak did on retreat as a Jesuit). Both books are about seeking, about love (divine and human), and about finding one’s way by examining life through the cultural lenses of faith, history and family. Saldana’s book also describes being an American abroad in a time of war, and living in the heart of a place your government has declared evil.

I found myself wishing I could discuss this book with my grandmother, who would have liked hearing about it. Saldana studies with a female imam, which Grandmother would have found interesting, and she lives in the Christian quarter of Damascus in a multi-ethnic, religiously diverse, crumbling old apartment building. She’s taken under the wing of a grandfatherly Armenian Christian she calls The Baron who loves Italian shoes and lived for a long time in Lebanon.

She meets an Israeli Jew studying Arabic and trying to remain anonymous, an Iraqi refugee artist, a Damascan carpet seller. She undergoes a crisis as she tries to discern whether she’s called to a religious vocation. And, as I read in the Times excerpt, she falls in love with a monk.

Saldana’s honest portrayal of the psychological impact of  her family history helps readers understand why she’s seeking not only fluency in Arabic but also spiritual and emotional education. I found the book very moving and like The Long Retreat, sometimes draining to read. Saldana and Krivak both reveal the deepest human longings at work in their lives, and neither flinches from sharing low points.  Ultimately I found The Bread of Angels redemptive, lovely reading. Saldana is also a poet, and her writing is lyrical and deeply suffused with emotion.

The ABA’s Winter Institute 6 (WI6), in Washington, DC, was a jam packed two days of learning, networking with other indie booksellers, and finding out about new books.  Since my return, I’ve read three books by authors I went to dinner with, and I brought back a stack of forthcoming books tall enough that our cat has to stretch to rub her chin on it.

On my first evening at dinner, I met Sophie Blackall, illustrator of the delightful Ivy & Bean series and many other wonderful children’s books (take the link, her website is amazing). Sophie was at WI6 to promote her gorgeously illustrated edition of Alduous Huxley‘s The Crows of Pearblossom. Yes, that Alduous Huxley.

We chatted about our daughters, and Sophie kindly signed her book for Teen the Younger, whose own art astonishes me. I’d mentioned her penchant for dystopian fiction, and Sophie’s inscription points out that Huxley’s tale is “ever so slightly dark.”  Her vivid paintings, drenched in color, detail, and expression, are a perfect compliment to this classic tale.

Also that evening I met Tom Angleberger, author of the wildly popular The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, whose new book is Horton Halfpott, Or, The Fiendish Mystery of Smugwick Manor; or, The Loosening of M’Lady Luggertuck’s Corset. I loved, loved, loved this book.  I read it in a couple of nights and tapped into that lovely feeling I had as a kid, of finding a wonderful book at the library and wanting to devour it. Tom manages two things every writer of books for children should, perfectly.

First, he grants his readers dignity by writing intelligent fiction, thereby promising them that he understands they are smart and will respect that by not talking down to them. Second, he achieves the balance of humor and humanity that I remember wanting as a voracious young reader. I didn’t like books that seemed to be funny on the surface but really just exhibited the author’s belief that kids are silly. And I liked books that appealed to my inner sense of justice and fairness — kids feel that so strongly, I think especially in the “middle grade” years Tom writes for.

Horton Halfpott is a fine hero, a “lowly kitchen boy” who is hard working, humble, honest, caring, a good friend and son, and a kid who loves books and learning.  But Tom also gives readers a strong heroine, Celia, a girl who is sensible, smart, capable, considerate, and kind to Horton even though she’s an heiress and he’s a servant.

I don’t want to say anything about the plot that might spoil things, but the story opens with the “loosening” referred to in the title, which sets off a general loosening around Smugwick Manor.  There are mysterious thefts, plans for a ball, a celebrity detective, bumbling reporters, pirates, and Horton’s friends the stable boys, Bump, Blight, and Blemish. And Tom drew a terrific map and caricature style sketches of the characters.

On my second evening at WI6, I met Jennifer Sattler, whose new book, The Pig Kahuna, is coming out in May. This is an absolutely adorable picture book; I dare you to find more expressive pigs in contemporary children’s literature. They’re hilarious. The story is sweet with just a dash of adventure, perfect for little ones.  And quite funny for the adults reading it over and over.

You’ll hear more about books I picked up and authors I met at WI6 over the next few months!

Next week, Stephen Amidon, a novelist, and his brother, Dr. Thomas Amidon, a cardiologist, are coming to Gibson’s to read from and discuss their amazing new book, The Sublime Engine; A Biography of the Human Heart.  I finished reading it last weekend, and it’s one of the most unique works of nonfiction I’ve read. The brothers apply their combined expertise to tell the history of the human heart from both a scientific and a cultural perspective.

Starting with ancient times and ending a short time in the future, they trace our understanding of the physiology of the heart, our metaphysical or religious view of its importance, and the heart’s role in human culture, especially literature. A book that combines scientific and cultural history is exactly the kind of thing that appeals to me: if there is any book that is an example of The Bookconscious Theory of Interconnectedness, this is it!  I have been telling the Teens for years that educational “subjects” are artificially divided and packaged for schools’ convenience, but that the real story of human knowledge is interdisciplinary. Everything is connected to something else and no discipline sprung up in isolation from the others.

The Amidon brothers prove my point — medical history has often been  informed not only by science but by the predominant religious and philosophical views of the times, and literature was often influenced by breakthroughs in science.  Each part worked with the others, sometimes in harmony, sometimes at odds.  This book is a fascinating, informative, and a delightful read.

Did you know that Hippocrates diagnosed coronary artery disease as a “blockage” and recommended a healthy diet and more rest to those suffering from it? Or that some medieval theologians believed God’s word might be literally written into someone’s heart?  Or that we owe the ubiquitous heart symbol found on valentines and “I heart NY” t-shirts to an extinct root from ancient North Africa that was considered an aphrodisiac?  Or that Mary Shelley kept her dead husband’s heart in her desk drawer?  I didn’t. Nor did I know that the history of cardiology is filled with colorful and even heroic characters.

The Sublime Engine isn’t just a collection of obscure facts, though, nor is it a dry medical history. It’s a well written narrative, one that made me think about taking better care of my heart (I gave it a good work out this week, shoveling). I can’t wait to meet Stephen and Tom next week.

I’m recommending The Sublime Engine to the rest of the Bookconscious household. In January, both the Computer Scientist and Teen the Elder read books I’d recommended ages ago, which proves that raving about a book and leaving it out where it can entice can be effective.  I’m telling myself that the piles of books around the house aren’t a mess, they’re an incubator for potential life learning.

Teen the Elder is reading Paul Johnson’s terrifically compact, insightful biography, Churchill, which I reviewed in bookconscious last winter.  He’s working on an essay about English patriotism in Henry V, and Churchill was quite taken with the play.  He also read some issues of FourFourTwo, a British magazine devoted to his main passion, soccer.

He’s also developing a newer passion for music. He’s teaching himself musical notation  and theory using all sorts of online resources along with Edley’s Musical Theory for Practical People by Ed Roseman and Music Theory Made Easy by David Harp. He’s been fiddling with a demo version of FL Studio, and this week we got him “fruity” edition, for composing and arranging digital music. He works with Garage Band on his sister’s Mac when he can, as well. I’m psyched to see him pursuing this passion.

Speaking of passion, Teen the Younger continues to spend a great deal of time drawing both on her Mac with a tablet her grandpa got her for her birthday and in sketchbooks. She still devours Manga, and this month started a few new series as well as re-reading some old favorites.

She started Suzanne Collins’ series The Hunger Games last month, and is on the second book, Catching Fire. She reports that the “angst” she previously expressed a distaste for is a complicated part of the plot, and that she is enjoying Catching Fire even more than the first book.

Another book she’s been dipping into (and I’ve looked at too) is Theodore Gray‘s The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom In the Universe. It’s an amazing book — scientific eye candy, on the one hand, but packed with interesting information, too. And since Teen the Elder is a photographer, I figured they’d both like it. It’s on an end table in the living room, handy for browsing for a few moments. Teen the Younger is planning to read it straight through, eventually.

The Computer Scientist finished Lynne Olson’s excellent Citizens of London and says, “The tragic tale of Gil Winant, a largely unknown player in most historical examinations of WW II, is told with wonderful depth. I recommend this book for anyone interested in the political and physical pre-cursors to committing a nation to military operations as well as the challenges the US government faces into its continuing political discourse with our allies in Western Europe, even today.” I loved this book as well, and hope to re-read it someday.

He also read Full Dark No Stars, which he’s had since November. This is highly unusual — he generally devours a new Stephen King book within a day or two of receiving it. But he said he’d reward himself with this book when he finished something on his nightstand, which is full of books he’d started or planned to start, so he waited until he’d read Citizens of London. His take?  “Some real SK home runs in this collection of four short stories. All four novellas are outstanding and refresh my enjoyment of SK’s storytelling.”  He says his favorite of the four (longish) short stories is “Fair Extension.”

So what’s ahead?  I have Handing One Another Along, by Robert Coles, out from the library, and I suspect it will cause me to hit the shelves at home and at the library to read or re-read some of the literature Coles writes about. There are any number of events books awaiting me, as well as the terrific stack of galleys from WI6.  I’m still enjoying my slow re-reading and study of Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life. Sure as the snow will fall, the bookconscious household will find fascinating reads in the coming weeks. Happy reading!


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It’s dark here in northern New England in November. Evening comes early — the sun is going down by four o’clock. One of my favorite poems of all time is “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon, which I always think of at this time of year, as the dark hours increase. Kenyon writes, “God does not leave us comfortless,” and I like to think one of the chief comforts at any time, but especially in darkness (whether physical, spiritual, or emotional), is reading.

As the final weeks of campaigning came to a close, I read a couple of funny books to help balance the negativity. I wrote a few months ago about visiting a terrific used bookstore in Maine. One of my purchases there was a pair of paperbacks by Shirley Jackson.

My grandmother first recommended Jackson’s memoir, Life Among the Savages, when I had a three year old and a seven year old and had just moved into a 132 year old house in New Hampshire. I was still in that anxious phase of early motherhood, and I was also a bit overwhelmed by the house. Mostly my husband and I became of aware of how little we really knew about houses, despite having been homeowners before. An old house will humble you. Even though it was in many ways the coolest house we’ve ever lived in, I felt like we were in a power struggle, that house and I. The house won, but that’s another story.

Jackson writes about moving to an old house in Vermont from New York City with her husband and two young children. While she doesn’t know much more about the maintenance and upkeep of an old house than we did, she makes use of her inexperience by writing a hilarious memoir. Between her observations of the nature of very young children and anecdotes about things going wrong with her house and car, I laughed out loud. So when I saw it this summer in the used bookshop for $ .50, along with its companion, Raising Demons, I snapped them up.

Rereading Life Among the Savages, I was struck by how funny it still is, even though we’ve moved twice and now live in a house that’s only thirty something years old. My toddler and young son are now a preteen and a very tall kid who eats a great deal and is three months from being legally able to learn to drive. Despite being older, more experienced (notice I didn’t say wiser), and a great deal more relaxed, I still laughed out loud. Jackson manages to write about things that are so easy for any parent or former child to identify with that it doesn’t matter that the books were written in the late 1940’s.

Jackson’s book is all the more appealing to me for its New England setting. Rebecca Rule’s Live Free and Eat Pie! A Storyteller’s Guide to New Hampshire is a funny but affectionate look at the bookconscious family’s adopted home. Arranged like a guidebook, Live Free pokes fun at New Hampshire culture, but also fills readers in on history, people, and places around the state. While she enjoys pointing out the state’s quirks, Rule clearly loves New Hampshire, and revels in her role as collector of its tradition and lore. She writes that many of her best stories come from her own storytelling audiences, and I’m hoping to be in the audience when she comes to Concord in December.

At Gibson’s a couple of weeks ago, I went to hear D. Quincy Whitney read from her new book, Hidden History of New Hampshire. This little book grew out of Whitney’s work preparing New Hampshire “firsts and bests” for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Rather than putting her information in chronological order, Whitney organizes the book into thematic collections of stories, such as “Home, Town, and Community,” “Seasons: Work and Recreation,” “Creativity and Culture,” or “Ingenuity and Enterprise.” I found the groupings creative and conducive to browsing — when was the last time you picked up a history book and found a chapter on “Sea, Lake, and Sky,” or “Forests and Mountains?”

The pieces themselves are short and engaging. You may have recently heard references to Bretton Woods in the news, and this book will tell you the story behind the location of the conference and preparations for world leaders to come to remote NH. As always, hearing the author talk about her work really enhanced my appreciation for the final product, and it was interesting to hear about her travels. Whitney’s research led her to all kinds of fascinating places, like a unique monument to women who have lost their lives serving their country, which is decorated with reliefs Norman Rockwell designed.

Whitney doesn’t leave out familiar famous Granite staters, like Robert Frost and Christa McAuliffe, but she also writes about lesser known people who have achieved extraordinary things. And kids of all ages will enjoy hearing about notable sports achievements, including New Hampshire’s illustrious skiing history. It’s a well written, interesting little book enhanced by a great selection of historical photographs, and I’ve left it out where I hope the rest of the family will browse through it.

The kids have been reading some interesting fiction. My son tried The Sand Reckoner, by Gillian Bradshaw, who writes marvelously detailed historical fiction and is one of my favorite authors. As you can tell by the title, taken from his famous treatise on large numbers, The Sand Reckoner is about Archimedes, and Gregory found it interesting as well as entertaining. His sister is reading an Enola Holmes mystery, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, and she also just read Ivy and Bean and The Magic Half. The mystery features Sherlock’s little sister, and is part of a series by Nancy Springer my daughter really enjoys. The other two books are by Annie Barrows.

Annie Barrows is also the co-author, with her aunt, of a book I just finished last week and loved: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This was one of those books I didn’t want to end. A few years ago I watched Island at War on Masterpiece Theatre. I’d never really heard much about the occupation of the Channel Islands until then, and found it really interesting. Given all the hype about Barrows’ book, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s written almost entirely as a series of letters between the protagonist and other main characters, which sounds hokey. But instead it was charming, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was torn between wanting to know the heroine, Juliet, and wanting to be Juliet.

Another story I thoroughly enjoyed was The Blue Star, by Tony Earley. This novel is a sequel to Earley’s successful and critically acclaimed Jim the Boy. Both books are evidence that a person can write a good book for adults that is neither graphic nor shocking nor steeped in the latest pop psychology nor dripping with dramatic twists lifted from tell all talk shows and gossip rags. Earley’s setting, a small town in the South in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, feels vibrant and real. His characters are good without being sappy or cloying. Difficult things happen, especially in The Blue Star, but the books don’t titillate, taunt, or tire the reader. I wish there were more novels like these.

Which brings me to a book I didn’t enjoy that much, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. This was one of those books reviewers raved about that just didn’t appeal to me. I felt like it would have made a better movie or television drama. Nothing much happens in the book, but at the same time, there are so many characters that you don’t really get to know them, either. Maybe the main character, Manny, is the only one O’Nan meant for readers to care about, but despite his obvious good qualities, I found Manny fairly boring as characters go.

O’Nan’s writing is vivid, cinematic, I’d call it. His descriptions of restuarant work brought back vivid memories of a summer I spent busing tables, and I could picture the Lobster easily as I read. I didn’t hate the book, but I just felt there was not much to the story, and characters I couldn’t really get excited about — which are two things I’m really looking for in a novel.

When it comes to nonfiction, I often read about subjects I’m exploring with the kids. We’re learning about Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, because my dad and his wife are traveling there right now, and I just finished The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan. I wouldn’t exactly say I enjoyed reading it, but it was good read. The subject matter was disturbing: this book tells the story of Bashir, who was born in the house his father built in Ramla, with a lemon tree in the garden; and Dalia, the daughter of Bulgarian Jews who moved into the house after Bashir’s family and most other Arabs were expelled from Ramla when Israel became a country. Tolan tells, in spare, clean language, what happens after the two meet in their late teens, when Bashir comes to see the house and Dalia lets him in.

No matter your politics, this book will probably make you angry as well as horrified. The thing that struck me most was something Dalia noticed when she was still a little girl: the children of European Jews in Israel managed to dehumanize and mistreat people who were “other,” despite the experience of the Holocaust. I stayed awake wondering how that could be possible. The stories of Dalia and Bashir and what becomes of the house with the lemon tree are gripping, and Tolan fills in historical detail without bogging down readers or losing sight of the bigger picture. Tolan also manages to maintain an impartial tone throughout the book. When I was finishing the last chapter, Israel was blocking UN food aid deliveries in Gaza. After reading this book, I wonder if the situation can ever be fully resolved.

After such a heavy read, coming right after a novel I didn’t really enjoy, I’m going to read something I’m pretty certain I’ll find entertaining next: Brisingr, Christopher Paolini’s latest book in his Inheritance cycle. First of all, how cool would it be, as an author, to have written a series known as a “cycle” — as in The Epic Cycle, or the Arthurian Cycle? My son read Brisingr as soon as it came out, put in on my nightstand, and promised I would love it. I think it will be just the thing to sustain and inspire me as I crank through the 30,000 word mark this week.

Yes, crazy as it is, I am doing NaNoWriMo again this year. In case you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo is the insanity of thousands of people around the world each writing a 50,000 word novel in November. A month in which I will spend hours in the car, taking the boy to a series of soccer tryouts some distance from our house and the girl to a weekly drama class where she is memorizing lines for an early December play, and to several art classes a week. We are also preparing for visiting relatives I am looking forward to spending time with, and Thanksgiving, which is one of our favorite holidays and which would result in mutiny if it did not include the traditional bountiful and somewhat time consuming menu.

In short, it’s not a month in which I really ought to be committing to 1667 words per day. But for some inexplicable reason, I love NaNoWriMo. Especially since I am ahead on my word count today. Talk to me tomorrow. You can follow my progress with that nifty word count meter in the side bar here at bookconscious.

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