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Ok, so it didn’t snow today, or last Friday, but it snowed Saturday-Monday and I read three more books.

One book bingo square I filled is “A book from one of the library’s new shelves.” I chose Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. It’s as much the story of his remarkable mother as it is his story. Noah explains apartheid and the post-apartheid years in Johannesburg and describes his childhood and adolescence, as well as his family history. As the child of his unconventional mother and father — a black Xhosa woman and a white Swiss man, Noah is considered colored, or mixed race, in South Africa, and his very existence was illegal. Growing up his black relatives and their neighbors considered him white; he thought of himself as black.

Noah has a conversational style and as you might expect, a gift for finding humor even in extreme hardship. And it’s clear that despite repeatedly describing beatings he received from her, Noah’s mother is the reason he survived his childhood. In one story he explains that she frequently told him things a child perhaps should not hear, but she had her reasons: “My mom told me these things so I would never take for granted how we got to where we were, but none of it ever came from a place of self-pity. ‘Learn from your past and be better because of your past,’ she would say, ‘but don’t cry about your past. Life is full of pain. Let the pain sharpen you, but don’t hold onto it. Don’t be bitter.’ And she never was.”

For my “book whose title that begins with W,” my second born suggested Why We Broke Up. I got it at the library book sale at one point, because we both love Maira Kalman and they loved Daniel Handler as Lemony Snicket — A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of the first series they read without me reading it aloud. Why We Broke Up is is the story of Min, a teenager who is writing to her two-timing jock ex-boyfriend, Ed. She’s explaining what’s in a box of stuff she’s going to leave on his porch as soon as she’s done writing the letter. Her best friend, Al, is driving her to take the box of stuff back. I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure the second born would — they’d probably want to know what in the hell Min saw in Ed (ok, lust, popularity). I couldn’t decide if Ed is a serial shit, a victim of his own popularity and co-captain privilege, a product of the patriarchy, or unreliable because of his own troubled childhood. Min is awesome, except that she’s dim about Al, who is superior to Ed in every way. Al is awesome, and at first I thought kind of unbelievable but then I realized no, there are kids who are kind of mature beyond their years. A little painful to read for someone who made her share of dumb decisions about which boys to spend time in high school, but I like the way it’s told, and I LOVE the illustrations.

Finally I read “A book with a red cover,” one that I’ve owned for years but had only flipped through: A Journey Into the Transcendentalists’ New England by R. Todd Felton. I bought this in Concord, MA, when we went on a family day trip after reading about — and some works by some of Concord’s famous residents, particularly Thoreau. I’ve been reading and thinking a good bit about 19th century Boston, especially because the Computer Scientist and I have spent more time there this year. This book is an introductory guide to the places and people who were important to the Transcendentalist movement. It’s full of photos and maps, but no visitor information, so it’s more a guide in the sense of giving an overview than a tourist guide. It made me curious about The Boston Atheneum – a private library, still in existence today. And it made me aware of some of the history of places I’ve already been — I didn’t know The Atlantic Monthly was founded by a group called the Saturday Club, which met at The Omni Parker House.  Nor did I know that the building attached to the Brattle Book Shop on West Street, now occupied by a restaurant called Papagayo, was once Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, where Margaret Fuller and Peabody held “conversations” for thinking women and so many of the great writers and thinkers of the day came to talk and buy books.

I love history and reading this, as well as a biography of Isabella Stewart Gardner that I’m about halfway through, makes me want to go through my shelves for more Boston history. I could read something in that vein for the “A biography or memoir” square, since the Gardner book would fit the “book about art or artists” square (she collected art, befriended artists, and founded the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this evening, I’m after “A book with a number in the title.”

And, there is snow in the forecast.

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This book caught my eye as I was ordering fiction at the library. It absolutely lived up to the prepublication reviews. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read. The protagonist, Carleen Kepper, has recently been paroled after twenty some years in prison when the novel opens. We find out she’s living in a halfway house in New York, working as a dog walker and trainer, and is trying to reconnect with the daughter she bore in prison but who was immediately taken way from her, Pony, now called Batya.

As the novel progresses, the reader learns about Carleen’s early life. Born Ester Rosenthal, she was an artistic prodigy, a sought after and wealthy painter by her teens. But despite her promising future and the friendship of  David, a famous artist visiting the college, she got caught up in drugs and petty crime. All that spiraled into a final botched heist, and she ended up sentenced to life in prison, even though she was underaged when it happened. Elizabeth Swados writes vividly about prison life — beatings, rapes, intimidation, conspiracy, and torture. Power trips by wardens, guards, and other prisoners. Throughout these years, Carleen cycles in and out of madness and violence, sessions in solitary confinement and prison clinics. Just before the worst of her criminal mischief and drug addiction, she had married a man named Leonard, and when he is finally allowed to see her in the second prison she lands in, she gets pregnant during the visit.

Towards the end of her incarceration, Carleen is given a puppy who will be a guide dog who she must train. She shows such affinity for the work that she ends up starting a prison puppy training program with the woman who first brought her this work. Somewhere alone the line a young lawyer reads her case and realizes that Carleen should never have been sentenced to life and gets her paroled, and the work with dogs is her lifeline when she gets out.

I won’t tell you how things turn out, but I will say this was one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. The prison bits are stomach turning but perspective shattering. Carleen is an incredible character. She believes there’s something wrong with her emotional reactions, but it’s hard to know if it is a result of physical and psychological injury from the extensive beatings or, as she tells her daughter late in the book, “I think I was born this way. I’m like a clock that’s set wrong. Or I have lifelong jet lag.” But the people who get to know her well love her — people whose dogs she walks, David, and Elisheva, Batya’s bat mitzvah tutor. She enters prison an artist and that is taken from her; the dogs seemed to me to represent all the good parts of Carleen, and her ability to tame them and earn their complete trust and love is how she is slowly finding and saving her true self.

The glimpses of a loving human we see as she works with dogs is in a constant struggle with the “fragments of a criminal” that are deeply embedded in her psyche. This book is about Ester/Carleen but it’s also about what makes us human and whole, what causes dysfunction to morph into psychosis, and whether the things that make us who we are can also make us crazy. It’s also a shocking portrait of the systematic inhumanity visited upon prisoners. Walking The Dog  gets inside your head and your heart and stays there.

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It was too hot to do anything more taxing than turn a page last night. So I read. Howard Mansfield is one of my favorite writers, and his latest book, Sheds is a kind of visual companion to the previous one, Dwelling In Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter.  Joanna Eldredge Morrissey, the staff photographer at the MacDowell Colony, a famous artists retreat in southern New Hampshire, took the photos of all kinds of sheds — from covered bridges and meeting houses to work sheds.

This is a beautiful book to spend an hour with, but I highly recommend you also read Dwelling In Possibility. Mansfield is an excellent writer. In Sheds he provides just a taste of his philosophy of the soul of shelter: “Sheds are utilitarian. Sheds contain small things — wood and tools — and big: summers, winters, solitude, festivity. The smallest sheds can be liberating: a bob house on a frozen lake, a summer cabin. The can shelter dreams.”  And this passage, on why people seek out covered bridges. Yes, partly for nostalgia, “But the strongest appeal of covered bridges, I think, lies in the surprising feeling of shelter they arouse in people. Passing into the bridge’s shadows, a traveler is enclosed and suspended, and in many bridges, open to the water — looking through the trusses or windows, or down through the boards of the roadway. This sudden enclosure and suspension reawakens the senses.”

We recently walked on the bridge in Littleton, and it’s very true. Mansfield has a way of writing that evokes a sense of recognition in readers; you read his books and continually think, “yes, that’s it exactly,” even though previously you weren’t really conscious of thinking whatever his words has awakened in your mind.

 

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Sheds and Dwelling in Possibility would make a great gift, for yourself or someone else. Don’t miss either.

Sometimes I just want to read something I can finish in one sitting, and last night Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fit the bill. I won’t go into much detail — I’m sure you’ve heard all about it. I enjoyed it, even though the script format is not as much fun to read as a novel. It’s a decent story, although nowhere near as good, or as in depth, as the first seven Harry Potter books — but could anything be? It was interesting to imagine Harry and his friends as people only a little younger than I am now. The focus is much more on what the characters think and feel than on the action, although there’s enough action — and magic — that I can’t imagine how complicated it must be to stage.

The way people look back on what happened nineteen years earlier is interesting too. You get the impression that Harry kind of misses the bad old days, that he’s a bit bored with mid-life. There are a lot of references to the characters and events in the earlier books, possibly meant to orient new readers, but those feel neither informative enough for someone who may not know the stories well nor subtle enough not to annoy those who do. There are also some absolutely clunky scenes — Act 4, Scene 7, for example, where Hermione is bullying Ron into making nice with Draco and Ron actually says “Fine. I um, I think you’ve got really nice hair. Draco.” And Hermione replies, “Thank you, husband.” Grown-ups just don’t act or sound like that.

Most disappointing is that without the build-up of a novel, the story doesn’t feel very likely. Why would nothing much have happened for nineteen years? What happened to all the people who fought on Voldemort’s side? Was there a process of reconciling the wizarding world, post-Voldemort? It seems likely that wouldn’t have been perfectly smooth, but readers are asked to believe that the hardest thing that’s happened is fathers and sons not having great relationships. That said, I definitely wanted to know how things were going to turn out. If you’re nostalgic for the days when you devoured the latest Harry Potter book because you could not put it down, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child will remind you, somewhat, of that time, even if it’s not quite the same.

 

 

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I read a sequel (Stiletto, by Daniel O’Malley) this week, and in general I hate reviewing sequels, because so much of a reader’s reaction is informed by the first book (I enjoyed them both, but by design, wasn’t as blown away by the second one because the first is just so mind-blowing), and also, blog readers may not have read the first one. So, instead, here is a bit of readers’ advisory for you.

One of the librarians at my library asked for a good book to take to a lake house — something fun to read that wouldn’t require too much concentration. When I asked what kind of books she liked, we chatted a few minutes and I got the sense that she enjoys books about family relationships.

Here’s the list I gave her, which I realized just now is in no order. The book blurbs are mostly from the publishers, or book sites, and you’ll see I added my comments. I am pretty sure I’ve written about all of them on bookconscious.

Hi!

Here are a variety of recommendations:

The Beach House by Jane Green — Disregarding local gossip that pegs her as an eccentric, sixty-five-year-old Nantucket widow Nan skinny-dips in unattended pools and steals her neighbors’ flowers before her dwindling funds force her to take in boarders, a change that brings an unexpected visitor. A really summery read!

The Hollow Land and anything else by Jane Gardam — Young Harry Bateman comes from London with his family year after year to spend the summer at Light Trees Farm in the Cumbrian fells country, until he feels that it is his real home. I read this for a book club, but I love every one of Jane Gardam’s books.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively — The mugging of a retired schoolteacher on a London street has unexpected repercussions for her friends and neighbors when it inadvertently reveals an illicit love affair, leads to a business partnership, and helps an immigrant to reinvent his life. Don’t be put off by the mugging; it’s a really interesting read, because that one event sets off a whole chain of other things, but Lively focuses on the relationships, not the crime.

Left Neglected by Lisa GenovaSarah, a career-driven young mother, suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that leaves her unable to perceive left-side information. The disability causes her to struggle through an uncertain recovery as she adapts to her new life. Same author as Still Alice; I was fascinated by the details about living with a brain injury, but the book is also about relationships.

The View from Penthouse B by Elinor LipmanTwo newly-single sisters, one a divorceé, the other a widow, become roommates with a handsome, gay cupcake-baker as they try to return to the dating world of lower Manhattan. Also, The Family Man — Reunited with his long-lost stepdaughter by an ex-wife’s hysterical plea for help, gay lawyer Henry Archer allows the young woman to move into his basement, where she reluctantly poses as the girlfriend of a down-on-his-luck former sitcom star. I also love her book of essays I Can’t Complain. She’s funny and wise.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda — Simon, Garance and Lola flee a family wedding that promises to be dull to visit their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a château in the heart of the charming Tours countryside. For a few hours, they forget about kids, spouses, work and the many demands adulthood makes upon them and lose themselves in a day of laughter, teasing, and memories.

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain  — Dining alone in an elegant Parisian brasserie, accountant Daniel Mercier can hardly believe his eyes when President Francois Mitterrand sits down to eat at the table next to him. After the presidential party has gone, Daniel discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind. Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir, and as he leaves the restaurant, he begins to feel somehow different. I also loved The Red Notebook (same author) — After finding an abandoned handbag on the street, a Parisian bookseller endeavors to find its owner, the woman whose jottings he discovers in a red notebook within the bag. Both of these books are a mini trip to Paris!

The entire Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – My grandmother introduced me to these, and Mrs. Pollifax is one of my favorite characters of all time. Mrs. Pollifax is a widow and senior citizen who decides one day to leave her comfortable apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey and join the CIA. Funny, thoughtful, and absolutely charming books. The first is called The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai — Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten-year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly anti-gay classes. I could overlook the somewhat improbable plot because the heroine is a librarian and favorite childhood books are an important part of the story.

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben Winters – In the first book, which is set in Concord (the hero even goes to the Concord Public Library!), Earth is doomed by an imminent and unavoidable asteroid collision. Homicide detective Hank Palace considers the worth of his job in a world destined to end in six months and investigates a suspicious suicide that nobody else cares about. This series is fantastic, and I don’t usually like mysteries or pre-apocalyptic books. The author won both the Edgar and the Philip K. Dick awards, he’s funny and smart and so are his books.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer— In 1946, as England emerges from the shadow of World War II, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey and his eccentric friends, who tell her about their island, the books they love, German occupation, and the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation. If you didn’t read it when it came out, it’s a lovely book.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — Forced to confront the realities of life in the 21st century when he falls in love with widowed Pakistani descendant Mrs. Ali, a retired Major Pettigrew finds the relationship challenged by local prejudices that view Mrs. Ali, a Cambridge native, as a perpetual foreigner. Really good characters and a light touch, even though it’s a book about serious issues.

All Together Now by Gill Hornby —  When their singing coach dies unexpectedly before a big contest, a motley group of singers ina community choir from a small English village must overcome their respective challenges if they are ever going to succeed. Again, how could a book about a small town fading be so much fun? The characters.

How to Be Good by Nick Hornby — Katie, a liberal, urban mother and doctor from North London, finds her life turned upside down when her husband, David, undergoes an outrageous spiritual transformation, in a hilarious novel about marriage, parenthood, religion, and morality. I love Nick Hornby; his charactars are funny and real.  I also loved High Fidelity — Follows the love affairs and belated growing up of a “Generation X” pop music fanatic and record store owner.

If you like nonfiction, both Calvin Trillin (I just recently read Travels With Alice, about vacations he took with his wife and kids; he’s hilarious) and Bill Bryson are fun and quick to read.

That’s probably too many books! But I wanted you to have options if some of these are not available.

 Enjoy!

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I saw a review of Radio Girls somewhere, and thought it was just the thing after my Infinite Jest fail and an interesting but not exactly light nonfiction read. I was right. Sarah-Jane Stratford based her novel on some real people — especially Hilda Matheson and her friends (who included Lady Nancy Astor and Vita Sackville-West) and the BBC Director General John Reith — and some fictional characters. Her heroine is the fictional Maisie Musgrave, who was born in Canada, grew up in New York, and ran away to become a WWI nurse even though she was underaged. When we meet Maisie, it’s 1926, and she is back in London after attending secretarial school in New York, and is trying to find work. Maisie is young and fairly adrift, having never known her father and never really felt any love from her mother.

She becomes a secretary at the BBC, working for both the Director General’s assistant and Hilda Matheson, who heads the Talks Department. The novel follows Maisie’s ups and downs as she discovers she doesn’t have to be mousy, she loves radio, she’s capable, and she longs to write. It’s her story, but it’s also the story of her time, and the BBC at that time, especially the development of the Talks. I enjoyed the parts about political events, especially the passage of universal suffrage and the first vote for all British women. Maisie also finds her way into a mystery that leads to a brush with spying and to a subplot about British fascists who want to take over the press. And she learns a great deal from Hilda.

In her author’s note, Stratford tells readers that many of the bits about the BBC, its inner workings and growing pains, Hilda Matheson’s accomplishments, and Reith’s actions at the helm are true. So are some of the facts about British fascists, although the story Maisie uncovers is fictional. Also true are the parts of the book about women having a hard road to advancement or even to working after marriage. Some of the plot gets a bit far fetched but it’s a fun read. I came away wanting to read more about Hilda Matheson — what a woman! —  and about the BBC.

Radio Girls isn’t perfect — some of the plot is far-fetched, and some of the language is a bit stale, with characters turning “bright red” or “white” whenever they are expressing shock or anger, for example. But I really enjoyed this debut and kept thinking it would make a wonderful Masterpiece production. Maisie is a delightful character.

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I’ve really enjoyed other books by Nick Hornby, and a patron recommended Funny Girl when he was returning it last week so I thought I’d give it a try. It’s set mainly in the 1960’s, although the end is in present times. It’s about a young woman, Barbara Parker, from Blackpool, who wants to be the next Lucille Ball. Barbara wants this so badly she is willing to leave her dad and her auntie Marie in Blackpool and go to London where she knows no one.

Hornby is respectful of Barbara’s ambition — in fact, one thing I really like about his books is that Hornby is respectful of all of his characters. Even the nakedly ambitious or the slightly mean-spirited or the completely irritating ones.  He has a a generosity of spirit towards all of them that is really endearing.

Back to Barbara, or Sophie as she is known in London. She is smart and funny and unvarnished and when she auditions for a comedy show on the BBC the writers, Tony and Bill, and the producer, Dennis, realize she’s brilliant and hatch plans for a series. But Funny Girl isn’t just about a happy young successful team and their smash hit show. Tony and Bill are gay, although Tony’s not sure if he is also attracted to women, especially after he marries one and is happy. Hornby writes about how dangerous it is to be gay in London in the 1960’s. And how society is changing swiftly but there are still people who use the word “courting” and are openly prejudiced. And how in the tumult of these changes, people mostly want what they always have.

In other words, in the framework of this funny novel about the birth of a modern sitcom in 1960’s London, Hornby talks about the ever changing, ever the same human condition. We struggle with our ambitions and hopes, and struggle to reconcile them with the ambitions and hopes of our family and friends. We hurt each other inadvertently or purposefully, we apologize and make amends or lurch off to do it again. We try to learn and be better people and be worthy of those who love us.

Hornby also notices that people have always thought the young were careless or unserious. In one scene Tony is trying to write a new show with Sophie’s friend Diane about a young woman making her way in London, and he asks ” What’s her problem?” Diane doesn’t understand his point, and he goes on to patiently explain that’s how scripts work — the characters have a problem that they work out. Diane, who is herself a young woman making her way in London, says “Yeah, but they’re all so depressing, those programs . . . . None of my friends want to watch them.” They go back and forth a bit and she tells him that only her parents and grandparents watch that kind of thing, and Tony’s appalled. It reminded me of modern conversations about which generations prefer which social media or online content.

Look for Funny Girl  if you’d like a historical novel of manners full of astute observations of human nature that has as much to say about our own world as the one it’s set in.

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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.

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