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Posts Tagged ‘The Mindful Reader column’

In today’s column I review Lily Brooks-Dalton’s memoir Motorcycles I’ve Loved. Here’s a bit of the beginning:

It’s spring in New England, which means motorcycle engines are roaring back to life after a long winter. I’ve never been on a motorcycle, and I admit to being a little afraid of them, but Lily Brooks-Dalton’s memoir, “Motorcycles I’ve Loved,” helped me see them in a different light.

You can read the rest here, for free. When I checked this morning, my column was one of the rotating front page stories, which is pretty cool! I also read this inspiring piece about a woman who lost her son to PTSD and suicide after he came home from Iraq who has started a nonprofit that helps veterans adopt shelter pets. Reading that made my morning — Jo-Ann Clark is an amazing woman, to turn a personal tragedy into hope for others.

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The title of my blog post is the New Hampshire Sunday News headline for my column today. You can read it here for free. This week I review Boston author Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head: the Making of a Carpenter, which is a terrific read and a really thought provoking look at the value of making tangible things instead of — ahem — stuff people read online.  If you know anyone about to graduate and confused about what to do, this would be a good gift.

I also review New Hampshire native Meredith Tate’s “dystopian New Adult romance,” Missing Pieces, which is also thought provoking in its own way, and fun to read.

Take the link and thanks for reading!

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In today’s Mindful Reader column in the New Hampshire Sunday News I review Holly LeCraw’s The Half Brother and Dr. H. Gilbert Welch’s Less Medicine, More Health.

I found LeCraw’s novel complex and original, and if you or someone you love has recently been diagnosed with a chronic or serious condition or is approaching retirement, Dr. Welch’s book is eye opening and thought provoking.

Take the link (it’s free) and thank you for reading!

 

 

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The Mindful Reader ran in the New Hampshire Sunday News today. Good news for longtime readers: you can take a link to the paper and read the article for free, with no restrictions on how many times you can visit the site in a month. Which is good, because the column will appear every other Sunday.

Here’s this week’s lead, so I can entice you a bit:

“I
n the acknowledgements of his book “Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever,” John Marshall thanks his ninth-grade English teacher at Manchester High School Central, Mrs. Singer, in whose class he says “a whole new world opened up for me” which led to his becoming a writer. We can all be grateful to Mrs. Singer, because Marshall’s memoir is an interesting, inspiring read. ”

I also review SNUH MFA grad Kenneth Butler’s debut novel Holy Fool. Take the link. Check out the column. Let me know what you think!

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

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

I read (in no particular order)

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

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

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

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

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

And the best for last:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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There are some changes going on at the Concord Monitor and in the midst of them, my column didn’t make it into last week’s Sunday book page. It’s slated to be in this week. Some of you have been asking about it so here’s a sneak peek:

August 2014 Mindful Reader column

New Hampshire author J.P. Francis revisits a little known part of our state’s history in a debut novel, The Major’s Daughter. Collie Brennan has left Smith College to assist her father, who is commanding officer of the WWII POW internment center, Camp Stark, near Berlin. In addition to helping in the office, she acts as a translator. Collie falls for August, an Austrian prisoner, who exchanges poems with her and plays Bach on the camp piano. She tries to fight her feelings, and confesses as much to her college friend Estelle, who is struggling with her own forbidden relationship – she has fallen for a Sikh who owns a flower shop in her Ohio hometown.

Francis tells the women’s stories, weaving more in about Estelle as the novel unfolds. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before – young women growing into adulthood at a time when their choices are limited — but it is told with interesting historical detail. Some of Francis’ writing tries too hard, as in this passage describing a lively girl who befriends Collie: “She reminded Collie of a spatula leaping from one bowl to the next to stir ingredients.” And the men are a little typecast: the hard-drinking macho bad guy, the boring but reliable younger son, the country club eligible bachelor, the forbidden love who quotes poetry.

Despite these flaws, there was something about this book that compelled me to read to the end – which didn’t turn out as expected. The Major’s Daughter is a decent freshman effort and I hope J.P. Francis enjoys stronger editing next time around.

Manchester author Bishop O’Connell’s new novel The Stolen is billed as “an American Faerie Tale.”  It has some of the traditional aspects of fantasy – fae, goblins, and wizards, magic and ways to travel between worlds, for example – but with a healthy dose of action sequences. Caitlin, a single mom in New Hampshire, is attacked outside a bar. A strange man named Brendan, who turns out to be “an outcast Fian warrior,” intercedes and sees her home, where they discover that her little girl, Fiona, has been taken. Caitlin’s best friend Edward, it turns out, is really a wizard who put protective wards around her house, so when he realizes they’ve been breached, he shows up as well. The three of them, along with a “fae magister” named Dante, work together to find Fiona and overcome the evil forces behind the kidnapping. If you like urban fantasy, Celtic mythology, or page turning action, you’ll enjoy The Stolen. I liked the humor and the way O’Connell blurs the line between the magical and the mortal worlds.

A Year After Henry is Cathie Pelletier’s latest novel. Set in fictional Bixley, Maine, it’s the story of how Henry Munroe’s son, wife, ex-lover, and brother are doing a year after his premature death. Pelletier is a master of evoking small town northern New England, and one thing I appreciate about her work is that she tells stories of people and emotions we’re all familiar with. You’ll probably recognize Henry’s mother who takes casseroles to her daughter-in-law. And Evie, who is from away but wants to put down roots. Larry, who is recovering from a nasty divorce and just wants to see his son. And Jeanie, who married her high school sweetheart, didn’t live happily ever after, and is trying to start living again after his loss. It may seem strange to describe a book about grieving and betrayal as hopeful, but in Pelletier’s skilled hands, it is.

New Hampshire author Shannon Stacey’s new contemporary romance, Falling for Max, is also set in a small town in Maine. Stacey writes with heart and humor, and her characters are unique. Max in particular was not what I was expecting in a romantic lead, and that was refreshing. Falling for Max is as much about the community as it is about love interests Tori and Max, and I liked that. The town store, diner, and library all felt cozy and familiar, but not predictable. Tori is a graphic artist and Max paints “historically accurate model trains,” and they each work from home, which captures the dilemma young people face today in wanting to live near their extended families but needing to support themselves. The emotional conflict in the book was also familiar and realistic but freshly told, and not tied up in a neat bow by the end of the book. A good beach read.

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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.

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My column ran today in the Concord Monitor.  I’m pasting my own version below, because the paper always lays the paragraphs out differently. Not sure why. This month I review Tory McCagg‘s Bittersweet Manor, Henry & Catherine Petroski’s The House With Sixteen Handmade Doorsand Lisa Cain‘s Snack-Girl to the Rescue.

May 2014 Mindful Reader Column

by Deb Baker

Part time New Hampshire resident Tory McCagg’s debut novel Bittersweet Manor tells the stories of three generations through a conversation between two women. Matriarch Gussie Michaels has removed her “beeper bracelet” and left assisted living on a chilly April day. Her granddaughter Emma has come to tell her she will sell the family home on Bittersweet Lane in Poquatuck Village, Connecticut. Or will she?

The conversation wanders, as Gussie’s mind does, through memories and decisions, misunderstandings and betrayals. As Gussie struggles to piece together recollections and Emma’s mind flits over everything that has led to her tenuous decision, McCagg shows how family roots are a tangle of places, the people who inhabit them, hopes and ambitions. She also examines the way these roots impact each generation.

McCagg sometimes tells too much about what her characters are thinking, instead of letting readers connect the dots. For example in this passage where Emma’s aunt “Alyssa cleared her throat, but with no intention of saying anything, because, thinking back, into the confusion of the past, she realized that sometimes betrayal is done with the best of intentions. And that the helpless reaching back to change everything . . . was impossible.”(Commas and ellipses are the author’s.) It’s also hard to read about relatives being unkind to each other. And yet, it sometimes rings true. A Thanksgiving scene fraught with awkward tension is certainly realistic.

Unlike some family sagas, Bittersweet Manor offers no easy resolution. It ends on a hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note — family, for better or worse, are a constant. Alyssa observes “That’s the beauty of being sisters . . . we aren’t best friends or anything. But here we are forced together, again and again, to learn something.”  The Michaels’ family mostly don’t learn, and their privilege is hard to relate to. But McCagg leaves readers sensing that Gussie has given Emma what she needs. And that struck me as real too – family wounds don’t magically heal, but a searing conversation can sometimes clean out what’s festering.

The House With Sixteen Handmade Doors: a Tale of Architectural Choice and Craftsmanship is the story of a small house off Spinney Hill Road in Arrowsic, Maine where author Henry Petroski, a professor, engineer, and writer, and his wife Catherine, a writer and photographer, live part time. It’s also the story of Bob Phinney, who built the house; a meditation on craft, engineering, and design; a tribute to Mainers; and an appreciation of the history and traditions of Arrowsic and the surrounding area. And it is utterly charming. Henry Petroski writes with admiration and insight, as in this passage: “The vertical set of drawers stacked beneath one end of the kitchen counter contains units of five distinctly different heights, which are graduated in subtly increasing size from top to bottom. The more I look at Phinney’s work the more I see, and the more I see the more I marvel at his attention to detail, proportion, order, and unity.”  Catherine Petroski’s photographs are a great asset for non-engineer readers. If you’ve ever wanted a simple summer home, or wondered how things were built when most work was done by hand, or loved a small town in coastal Maine, this book will delight you. It’s always a pleasure to read a book that is both erudite and intelligible, and the Petroskis’ affection for their subject makes this one even more satisfying.

Lisa Cain, Ph.D., western Massachusetts mom, and creator of Snack-Girl.com, distills her personal experience making healthy changes into Snack Girl to the Rescue! A Real-Life Guide to Eating Healthy, Slimming Down, and Enjoying Food. There are no strict rules here, nor easy answers. Her advice is not new –read food labels, pay attention to portions, eat more homemade food and less junk, meet your cravings with healthy alternatives, get off the couch and move. But the way she addresses these issues is refreshingly down-to-earth. Having trouble getting to the gym? Cain recommends walking five minutes a day and building from there. She wisely notes that everyday empty-calorie temptations are unavoidable, and offers sensible ways to manage things like office treats, parties, and holidays. She also advocates finding “comfort without food,” dealing with other kinds of “emotional eating,” choosing well in restaurants and grocery stores, and preparing affordable, nutritious, satisfying meals and snacks that will help you lose or maintain your weight. The book includes one hundred recipes; my family tried and liked Lentil Curry Stew, Roasted Vegetable Quesadillas, and No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls. If you’ve struggled with being healthy, Cain’s advice is simple and supportive: “Don’t give up. Just keep trying new things and good stuff will happen.”

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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.

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