Posts Tagged ‘The Concord Monitor’

I’ve been writing The Mindful Reader column for The Concord Monitor since April 2012. Thirty-three columns, one a month on the Sunday book page, reviewing dozens of books, all by New Hampshire or northern New England authors, many published by small presses. It’s been a wonderful experience.

People often stop me when I’m out and about to tell me how much they liked a column, or to ask my opinion about some aspect of one of the books I read. They come into the library, where I am the librarian in charge of adult services, and our local indie bookstore, where I was once event coordinator and bookseller, to ask for the books. That’s been a thrill — there is nothing better for a writer than knowing your work not only reached someone, but moved them enough that they wanted to participate in the thing you’ve written about. And the authors I’ve heard from who are so grateful to get a published review, when so much book publicity is focused on a handful of “it” titles — that’s been great too.

This week I received a brief reply to my monthly invoice from the Monitor’s editor, who has been with the paper a few months and had never communicated with me previously. He let me know my column is discontinued and invited me to chat with him about the direction the paper would be taking. I cried — I admit it. But the next day I called him and he called me back and we had that chat.

Here’s what I learned: he told me the paper needs to stop hiring freelancers in order to pay reporters. I was with him so far. I work in a public library, I get budget cuts. And he then went on to say he was hoping to have more reader generated content on the book page, and to ask me if the library has a book club or if I knew of other book clubs whose members might like to review books for the Sunday book page. Which floored me to uncomfortable silence.

When I recovered, I wished him good luck with getting readers to write for him. I noted that I would have liked to have had the chance to thank my readers and say goodbye, because I do have readers, who I hear from regularly. He suggested that if I wanted to keep writing my column for “personal gratification” he’d make space for it, I just couldn’t be paid. Which floored me even further. I explained I was needed at the reference desk and I excused myself.

I’m a librarian — we don’t just rearrange books and check them in and out, we learn how to classify, organize, and access information, how to help readers access it, and yes, how to evaluate the quality of all kinds of information, including books. I’m a professional reviewer — a member of the National Book Critics Circle, who has made contacts in the publishing world with other reviewers, editors, publicists, authors, librarians and booksellers. I’ve reviewed here at bookconscious for eight years, and my reviews have often been quoted in publicity materials and on book jackets, and former Monitor editor Felice Belman checked out my reviews here before offering me the column (for which I am still grateful). And I’m a professional writer — published in a lot of obscure little literary magazines that often only pay in copies, but which have never, ever made me feel I was merely servicing my personal gratification by sending in my work.

Because that’s what writing is. Work. An editor, even at a cash-strapped newspaper, should know this. Each of my columns went through 10-15 drafts. I cut, and honed, and read aloud, and clarified. I also read every word of every book I reviewed, 3-5 a month. And many words of books I didn’t review for one reason or another. And frankly, although I was paid and appreciated that, it was certainly not enough to pay a reporter, even a part time reporter.

Over the last couple of days as I’ve talked to colleagues and friends I’ve learned that so far, none of the other freelancers I know have had their columns cut. I think there is a perception in this Age of Amazon that anyone can write a book review, just as there is a perception that anyone can check books out. Granted I am aware that writers of all kinds are asked to work for free all the time, even for established media companies, especially online. And I would hate to see anyone else lose their columns.

But I’m smarting. Everyone I’ve described the situation to has had the same reaction — it’s in pretty poor taste to fire someone and then ask if they could recommend somebody to do the same work for free. One friend in the publishing world sent me her list of contacts at newspaper book pages around the country, as a way of assuring me I have something to offer, a kindness I really appreciate. Another suggested there might be a way to keep publishing locally. I don’t know what I’m going to do with The Mindful Reader yet. I need time to think about my options.

In the meantime I’ll be here at bookconscious. A co-worker has graciously offered to teach me how to knit an infinity scarf, and I’ve got a stack of books I haven’t had time to read that I want to get to now that I don’t have homework. Teen the Elder is going to be home from college before heading off to South Africa for the spring semester. Teen the Younger and I have some serious baking to do.

But first I’d like to say what I wasn’t given the opportunity to say in print: thank you. Thank you for reading. For stopping me at the Farmers’ Market, in the library, at Gibson’s, in restaurants, on the street, at church, at Red River Theatres, and lots of other places to tell me you’d read my column. Thank you for supporting our region’s many talented authors by reading and buying their books and going to hear them read. Keep doing that, keep reading my reviews — please let your friends know about bookconscious — and keep stopping me to talk. I’m still here.


Read Full Post »

The column ran in today’s Concord Monitor:

November 2014 Mindful Reader

by Deb Baker

Concord native Michael Fournier’s new novel Swing State is set in the fictional mill town of Armbrister, New Hampshire. Swing State is about three tragic characters: Roy Eggleton, injured Afghan war vet with no family and nearly no friends; Dixon Dove thief, vandal, and high school bully; and Zach Tietz, one of her regular targets.  All three are victims of abuse and neglect. Fornier takes readers inside their heads to experience their misery firsthand as they struggle to get out of their unfortunate situations and away from Armbrister.

These three characters are vivid, as is the complete impotence of their community. The few people who are meant to help Roy, Dixon, and Zach  —  with veterans’ benefits, guidance at school, etc. – are completely ineffective. Readers don’t even see these helping professionals long enough to know if they are hapless or part of a faulty system. Even at the end of the book, when the grim tension is broken by an over-the-top event that melds Roy’s, Dixon’s, and Zach’s suffering, I felt there was little resolution and no hope. In describing Zach’s despair over one of Dixon’s attacks on him Fournier writes, “He knew he was unable to act. No matter the brand of humiliation inflicted on him, he could not stand up for himself. He could not fight back. He was only able to be acted upon. Not to act. Always a defenseman, never a striker.”

If that is Fournier’s point – and it may very well be, that the kind of suffering he’s portraying here is practically impossible to escape — he makes it very well. But to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, fiction can provide people the tools to break out of their prisons. Swing State succeeds in taking readers into the prison of despairing lives, but it doesn’t show the way out or even hint that there may be one.

Canterbury author James Marino’s debut fantasy novel, The Keepers of Mercia, is filled with the classical elements of the genre. Binette, a teenager who just wants to get off her parents’ farm and spend more time with her boyfriend, is the heroine, who at the outset of the book has no idea of the powers she will inherit or the journey that will ensue. Enjoyable as it is to find strong female characters in a fantasy novel – one of the Keepers’ guards is a woman as well – Binette seemed a little unformed. But she is quite young, so maybe that is by design. The story unfolds with plenty of intrigue, an epic journey, and battles galore. Binette doesn’t appear to be influenced by happily-ever-after once she realizes what’s in store. The book ends with a teaser for the next installment, so there will be more adventure to come for Binette and her friends. Occasional verbal flourishes: “Her future with Jarrod had been washed away by the sudden gust of immutable destiny, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t celebrate their bond,” are districting, but most of the writing is not so flowery.

Northern New Hampshire author Leah Carey noticed a burst of hashtag activism on Twitter in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting last spring; the shooter “blamed his misery . . . on the fact that women refused to be intimate with him.”  In two days, 1.2 million tweets included #YesAllWomen , as people around the world responded with stories of women’s “harassment, discrimination, assault, sexism, and violence.” A seasoned workshop leader (she  worked with Jodi Picoult on Bosom Buddies, a breast cancer survivor theater workshop) Carey decided to invite a number of women who were participating in the Twitter conversation to join her in an online writing workshop to share their experiences. You Are Not Alone: Stories from the Front Lines of Womanhood is the result. It’s a book in ten voices, plus twitter posts, covering an array of issues and challenges from sexual and emotional freedom to women’s own role in perpetuating gender bias. The stories are powerful and moving, even if it’s somewhat astonishing that they still need to be told today. In the last chapter, Carey provides readers with a blueprint for starting a similar writing group, with suggestions and writing prompts.

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »

My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  Here it is:

September 2014 Mindful Reader

by Deb Baker

Northeast Kingdom author Garret Keizer writes about his return, after 14 years, to teaching high school English in a small town in Vermont  in Getting Schooled: the Reeducation of an American Teacher.  Part memoir, part examination of recent trends in American education, Getting Schooled  is as beautifully written, carefully observed, and delightfully smart as Keizer’s previous book, Privacy. If you have ever wondered why things happen the way they do in a school, Keizer provides a behind the scenes – and sharply perceptive — view of both teaching and administration.

Noting contemporary educators’ (especially administrators) enthusiasm for the latest “methods” presented by consultants, Keizer admits he is doubtful himself but admires the source of his colleagues’ optimism. “The best teacher has already fallen for something  much more outlandish: the potential for magnificence in every human being.”  Rather than being cynical about this, Keizer embraces it, and his students notice.  In an essay one student reveals, “I learned that a good class with manners, respect and kindness to one another, you learn more and respect the subject more.”

Indeed, Keizer seems to spend a lot of his classroom time encouraging that kind of caring, cooperative atmosphere.  I found it telling that a junior in high school would only just be discovering that such an environment enhances learning. Keizer’s cultural observations are also fascinating; his explanation for the presence of Confederate flags in unlikely places like the Northeast Kingdom is particularly elucidating.

Keizer is thoughtful, curious, intelligent, and respectful, which is what every child deserves in a teacher. In Getting Schooled he teaches us what education, and small town life, is like in America today. He’s also one of the best nonfiction writers around, and I hope this large-hearted, clear-eyed, and thoroughly enjoyable read finds a large audience.

Accidents of Marriage, Randy Susan Meyers’ new novel, is about Maddy, a social worker, mother of three, and wife who suffers a brain injury in a car accident. Caused by her husband Ben, a public defender, driving like a maniac because he was angry.  Meyers uses this dramatic trigger to examine the details of a passionate marriage gone wrong , magnifying the many ways Maddy dealt with Ben’s anger over the years, her family and friends explained it away, and Ben himself justified it as the natural frustrations of a busy man with a disorganized wife. It’s a painful book, a bit like watching the coverage of a tragedy on the news. Meyers writes compellingly; Maddy’s recovery is detailed and wrenching, as are vivid portraits of the children’s reactions to their family’s turmoil. Maddy’s frustration, though, is the most vivid: “She looked out the window and watched the sun fall into the water, the airport, and the tiny distant skyline. Everything and nothing seemed familiar.” Accidents of Marriage ends on only a semi-hopeful note, with the suggestion that healing may be in store, but it won’t be easy for any of the characters.

Vermont author Sarah Healy’s novel House of Wonder is told from the point of view of Jenna, a single mom whose twin brother Warren is “more strange than quirky” and whose mother Silla’s house is full of  stuff she’s bought to counter the losses in her life. Jenna’s story alternates with Silla’s, a former Miss Texas whose own mother was “gone” when she was a very young child. Healy weaves together what happened then with why the neighbors are suspicious of Warren now, adding a love interest for Jenna and some drama surrounding Rose, her daughter. It’s a satisfying mix. Warren, who Jenna’s friend Maggie dryly notes is likely “on the spectrum,” is an interesting character, and I would have enjoyed hearing more of the story from his perspective.  Healy has a knack for realistic dialogue such as this exchange between Jenna and Maggie, “So . . . tell me more about Gabby’s daddy.” . . .”He’s just this guy I grew up with. . . . Stop staring at me with your shrink smile.” . . .”I think it’s great.” . . . “Maggie, it is so not like that. . . .” House of Wonder kept me reading late into the night, wondering how things would work out for these endearing characters. For fans of contemporary fiction and anyone who enjoys well-drawn characters who are much like people you know.

Randy Susan Meyers will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Sept. 24 at 7pm. and Bishop O’Connell  author of The Stolen, featured in August’s column, will be at Gibson’s on Tuesday, Sept. 23, at 6pm.

Read Full Post »

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.

 ∎ ∎ ∎

 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.

Read Full Post »

The column ran today, and here it is (headlines by the Concord Monitor):

The Mindful Reader: ‘Claremont Boy’ tells his tale with wry sense of humor

Joseph Steinfield wrote a column for the Monadnack Ledger-Transcript called “Looking Back,” where the short personal essays in his memoir Claremont Boy: My New Hampshire Roots and the Gift of Memory first appeared. Whether he’s writing about his childhood in Claremont, his career as a lawyer, his immigrant family or his interesting friends (including Julia and Paul Childs) and New Hampshire neighbors, Steinfield’s voice is what makes this book a gem. He’s a terrific storyteller with stellar pacing and a wry sense of humor.

One of my favorite pieces, “My Mother’s Hobby and Roosevelt Grier,” demonstrates this beautifully. He explains that as a child he thought his mother’s needlepoint was “. . . a waste of time. Nothing you could play with, or even wear.” When she announced in her late 50s that she planned to move to Boston and get a job, Steinfield was doubtful. She became Lord & Taylor’s “Needlepoint Lady” around the time Rosey Grier popularized the hobby. Steinfield concludes, “So much for having a know-it-all son.”

Whether he’s writing about small town life in the 1940s and ’50s, losing his wallet while traveling, learning his daughter is gay, or wishing he could be a professional baseball player, Steinfield’s warm, witty stories will keep you entertained and leave you a little wiser. Bauhan Publishing has done a beautiful job with the book design, incorporating photos and illustrations that enhance the essays.

Sensational novel

Set in New Hampshire but penned by a young Swiss author, Joel Dicker, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a unique thriller. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, was prominent author Harry Quebert’s student at a small college in Massachusetts. He visits his mentor at his Seacoast home after the wild success of his first novel leaves him paralyzed with writer’s block. When Nola Kellergan, missing for 30 years, is found buried in Harry’s yard, he’s arrested. Marcus moves into Harry’s house and vows to learn who really killed Nola. His publisher demands that Marcus write about the sensational story quickly, since he has failed to make his deadline on a promised second novel.

 The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a page-turning police procedural about Nola Kellergan’s murder. It’s also a study of how truth appears differently to different people. And it’s a novel about love in its many forms, and the lengths we’ll go to protect those we love, even to the point of madness. None of that is unusual for a thriller, but Dicker also examines artistic inspiration – sprinkled between the regular chapters are Harry’s rules for writing a great novel, which both Marcus and Harry aspire to, and there is an important subplot about a painter.

Some of the dialogue is a little odd. For example, librarian Ernie Pinkas says, “I would like to be listed in the Acknowledgements of your book. I would like you to mention my name on the last page, the way writers often do. I would like my name to be the first one. In big letters. Because I did help you get information, didn’t I? Do you think that will be possible? My wife would be proud of me. Her husband would have contributed to the huge success of Marcus Goldman, the famous writer.” I’m not sure whether the strangeness is caused by the author imagining the way people speak here or whether it’s a result of the translation. Regardless, this dramatic, original first novel has made Joel Dicker a famous writer in Europe, and may do so in America as well.

Water for the heart

Richard Hoffman’s love & fury is a memoir that examines the complexities of family relationships, especially those between fathers and sons. Written after his father’s death, and after his grandson’s father is imprisoned on dubious charges in a case exacerbated by Hoffman’s own very public advocacy for the young man, this book is bracing and touching, searing and tender all at once.

It’s not only a book about being a man, but also about being human and truly knowing each other. Hoffman’s cover quote sums the book up exactly: “When I have spoken of my family in the past, there is always someone who wants to know how such love and fury could coexist, and I don’t understand the question. Families seem to me to be made of love and fury. The world is mostly water; we are mostly water; but we don’t ask how such hydrogen and oxygen can coexist. We just drink it and live.”

Hoffman’s writing is water for the heart, words that will quench those struggling with self-examination, family reconciliation, or damage done by physical or societal ills.

Read Full Post »

My column ran today — it’s not online yet, and the print version cut off the last sentence and part of the 2nd to last, so I’ve pasted it here instead.  Enjoy!

In The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting, Alfie Kohn uses some of his previous theories on the problem with rewards, homework, and competition to debunk the prevailing view that “kids today” are over-indulged, over-protected narcissists , and that their helicopter parents made them that way. Given his earlier research, Kohn wondered what evidence supported such anecdotes?

He notes that many of the criticisms are contradictory: recent articles in such respected publications as Atlantic and The New Yorker note children are pushed to compete from a young age for elite accomplishments and are also shielded from competition by “everyone gets a trophy” policies. Similarly, parents are accused of being both too involved in their kids’ lives and too oblivious to anything but their smartphones. In an attempt to untangle these inconsistent allegations, Kohn searched for data to support criticisms of modern parenting and found none. Instead he contends that the often repeated concerns are driven by  “a traditionalist viewpoint” about children’s place in society, opinions presented as fact. And that logical fallacies and a lack of statistical evidence flaw many widely reported generational  issues.

Kohn proceeds to analyze each of the most common complaints about kids and parenting. His conclusion? “The real alternative to narcissistic self-absorption is not mindless obedience but reflective rebelliousness,” and “intellectual progress (that) demands we refuse to take things at face value or accept everything we’ve been told.”  In other words, the best thing we can do for our kids, and ourselves, is teach them to question what they hear and read, starting with reports about their own alleged self-importance and the mistakes their parents are making. A provocative, important read.

Eve O. Schaub lives in an area of Vermont where specialized eating habits, like locavorism, aren’t uncommon. But in her book Year of No Sugar she relates how people react to her family’s effort to stop eating foods with added sugar, “. . . it’s not just with waitstaff and counter people but friends, relatives, acquaintances; I can pinpoint almost the exact moment when the other person’s face changes. . . .” Although most people are tactful, their dismay is clear. Inspired by Dr. Robert Lustig’s obesity research and David Gillespie’s book Sweet Poison, Schaub embarked on a year of no sugar, (with certain exceptions, like monthly family desserts) and her husband and kids joined her. Her memoir, inspired by the blog of the same name, tells the story of what she learned and how they managed when much of the food we purchase, even organic and natural versions, includes some kind of sugar. I found the book interesting and the facts about sugar’s impact on our health and well-being  compelling, albeit somewhat limited – Schaub cites few sources beyond Gillespie and Lustig. The book’s excessive use of italics for emphasis, perhaps intended to convey a conversational tone, is visually disruptive. But Schaub writes with passion and personality and I hope her experience inspires others to learn more about the ubiquitous sweeteners we consume.

Holly Robinson’s Beach Plum Island is a family novel with plenty of emotional punch. Sisters Ava and Elaine have very different reactions to their father’s death. Resentful of his much younger second wife Katy and disdainful of their half-sister Gigi, Elaine appears to be a polished professional  and volunteers for a suicide hotline, but escapes on the weekends into binge drinking and hookups. Ava, a potter and teacher with teen sons, reaches out to Gigi. Together they decide to pursue mysterious clues their father gave in his last days about a brother they never knew existed. Robinson weaves each sister’s story into a tale of grief and love that explores the ways women adapt to expectations, the consequences when those become too much to bear, and the healing power of love.  Along the way, she includes details that bring every scene to life – like this description of the sisters’ Great Aunt Finley’s living room, furnished with  “. . .a plaid recliner with cat-scratched fabric  . . .a sagging brown tweed couch and a coffee table with so many water rings on its surface, it looked like a deliberate helix design. There was a wooden lamp, its base carved like an owl, and magazines were stacked all over the floor and on top of every horizontal surface.”  Vivid details like this, as well as the particulars of Ava’s art, Elaine’s work, and Gigi’s horseback riding and fully fleshed out secondary characters, bring Beach Plum Island into deep focus as the story unfolds. An uplifting but not overly bow-tied ending makes for satisfying reading.

Read Full Post »

The Mindful Reader ran in today’s Concord Monitor.

From the start, readers know something is amiss with Arthur Winthrop, because he’s wandering naked in Central Park. In winter. As he speaks with the police, we learn about his life, spent almost entirely at Lancaster, an elite New England boarding school, where his father was headmaster before him. He talks about his wife, Elizabeth, and their son, who enlisted after Sept. 11 and is in Iraq instead of following the family path to Yale.

Arthur also talks about a student, Betsy, who he is passionately attracted to, not just physically: “She is not like other students, you see. Her eyes are more open to the world, and perhaps this is why I am so taken with her. She has a sense of who she is that is usually earned over decades and decades of having your heart broken by the ceaseless beat of time.” That sentence stayed with me.

In the second half of the book, we hear the story from Elizabeth’s perspective – and this is where it gets very interesting. Greene manages to draw readers in without making the book’s many intrigues predictable; an accomplishment, since this isn’t the first book about a boarding school, marriage or the uncertain footing of middle age. The Headmaster’s Wife is all that and more: a meditation on longing in all of life’s stages, a literary mystery, and a novel with much for book clubs to untangle.

From fictional intrigue to intriguing nonfiction: for his new book Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts, and Hooks Us, Belfast, Maine, author Murray Carpenter tracked the story of caffeine and how it has become the most socially acceptable, widespread drug in the world. He visited coffee plantations, Central American pozol stands, cacao farms, a Beijing teashop, a largely unregulated Chinese synthetic caffeine plant, the largest decaffeinated coffee factory in North America, the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, and the offices of energy product companies, scientists and regulators, trying to understand how much caffeine is too much and why we love it.

Carpenter traces the story of caffeinated beverages, legendary and true, from ancient cultures in Asia and the Americas to contemporary energy shots and gels. From the early 20th century trial that allowed American soft drink companies nearly unfettered freedom to caffeinate as they saw fit to contemporary examples of caffeine’s questionable place as an athletic supplement and a dangerous component of underage partying, he explores this substance’s physiological, social, historical, economic and psychological affect on human life. If the book reminds you of long-form journalism, it should: Carpenter has written for newspapers and magazines, including the New York TimesWired and National Geographic.

After reading about how much of the caffeine in American soda is made you may never want to quaff a Coke again. But even your beloved morning coffee or tea will seem different after you learn about the way our bodies metabolize caffeine. Carpenter is good at providing both the pros and cons – there are optimal levels of caffeination that can actually enhance a person’s outlook and productivity, for example, but caffeine addiction is in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For the perplexed he offers wise counsel: “We don’t need to be whipsawed by the findings, alternatively reassured and freaked out; we just need to understand that caffeine is a complicated drug that can affect us in strange ways.” Caffeinated is a readable guide to this ubiquitous but misunderstood substance.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

Taking stock

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

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

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

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

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

Shining light on love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

The Concord Monitor ran my column today:

The Mindful Reader: A thriller and a tour of the universe’s inside story

Saturday, January 11, 2014
(Published in print: Sunday, January 12, 2014)

Boston-area author Elisabeth Elo’s North of Boston kept me turning pages between tasks on my holiday to-do lists. I’m not a huge thriller fan, but I enjoyed this one because of Pirio Kasparov, the smart, loyal, strong main character with a penchant for cigars and Russian novels.

Pirio works for her family’s perfume company and tries to keep her oldest friend, Thomasina, out of trouble and to be a good godmother to Thomasina’s son, Noah. She’s helping Noah’s father, Ned, on his new lobster boat when it’s hit by a freighter. Pirio survives the frigid ocean, Ned doesn’t. Pirio’s physiological resilience lands her in a U.S. Navy study. Her fierce love for Noah and deeply ingrained sense of justice land her in trouble as she tries to discover who rammed the boat and whether it was an accident or murder.

While sleuthing, she meets Russell Alejandro Parnell, a writer who becomes her partner. After saving him from a bunch of bad guys, Pirio examines his bookcase for clues about whose side he’s on: “The environmental books are persuasive, but the book that makes the case for his non-evil character is The Elements of Style. What bad guy would give a s— about the difference between which and that?” I admit, I swooned over this line (and lamented Elo’s occasional reliance on adverbs).

With a twisty story line, truly rotten villains, intriguing supporting characters and interesting subplots that shed light on Pirio’s character, North of Boston was a pleasure.

Toward the end of the book, Pirio’s father, Milosa, tells her, “It takes so little to satisfy you Americans. . . . You put a few facts together, and congratulate yourselves that you’ve uncovered the truth and told your story right up to the end. But the truth doesn’t have an end. It just keeps going, and if you don’t have the guts to follow it, you start to die.”

 A good thriller or mystery leaves the reader with closure and also curiosity about where the truth might lead the hero next. Elo definitely accomplished that in her winning debut.

Learn something new

When she was 15, Amanda Gefter and her father discussed the origins of the universe over cashew chicken at their local Chinese restaurant, and whether “something and nothing aren’t really opposites, they’re just different patterns of the same thing.” They decided to find out, together. If your New Year’s resolutions include learning something new, I highly recommend Gefter’s science memoir, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, which tells the story of her journey from a self-described underachiever who skipped high school physics to a highly respected science journalist, who, along with her father, took on one of the greatest mysteries of all: “Why existence?”

Gefter became an intellectual adventurer. She and her father taught themselves physics, amassing a library of books and papers as they worked together for years to prove that everything is nothing. Their quest influenced her life decisions: While working for a bridal magazine she got press passes to a conference at Princeton honoring physics legend John Wheeler, and from that day – when she and her father visited the street where Einstein lived and trespassed on the lawn – she decided to give up her day job to search for the answers they sought. That meant pitching a story to Scientific American in order to start a freelancing career that eventually led to an editor’s position at New Scientist. And contacting Nobel laureates and other top scientists to ask them about something and nothing.

Gefter moved to London to pursue her doctorate in the philosophy and history of science, and asked the agent who represents all the biggest names in physics to take on her book. Her story is as much about becoming somebody as it is about discovering “something.”

Gefter’s wit, audacity, intelligence and irreverence, her wonderful relationship with her father, and fan photos of the two of them with famous physicists give the book heart. What gives it heft is Gefter’s gift for reducing mind-blowing concepts (non-Boolean logic, strings and particles, M-theory, quantum mechanics, Hawking radiation, de Sitter space, Gödelian self-reference, etc.) into plain English. Don’t take my word for it. After Gefter sent Stephen Hawking and his research partner Thomas Hertog the draft of a piece she wrote about their work, Hawking emailed: “The article is remarkably good and clear.”

Gefter and her dad reached their goal. “We had found the universe’s secret: Physics isn’t the machinery behind the workings of the world; physics is the machinery behind the illusion that there is a world. . . . How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.” If that confuses you, or if you were an underachiever who skipped physics, try Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter will take you on an outsider’s tour of the universe’s inside story, and you’ll learn – and understand – more than you imagined you could.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »