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Posts Tagged ‘The Mindful Reader’

Two weeks and no posts about pleasure reading? See my previous entry on not finishing books . . .  maybe I’ll write soon about applying the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (sort of) to my cookbook collection.

In this week’s Mindful Reader column I review two books: a beautiful photography collection by Becky Field about New Hampshire’s newest Americans, particularly our refugee neighbors, and Stephen P. Kiernan’s latest novel, The Hummingbird.

Here’s a bit about each; read the entire column here.

Vermont author Stephen P. Kiernan’s new novel, The Hummingbird, is about Deborah, a hospice nurse whose husband, Michael, has severe post-traumatic stress disorder after three deployments to Iraq. Their marriage is suffering and she not sure what to do. Her latest patient is Barclay Reed, a grouchy former history professor whose career ended over accusations of academic dishonesty.

and

“I love the American people because they respect all people and give them their rights without exception.” That’s a quote from Nakaa Nassir, an Iraqi woman in Manchester, which appears in photographer Becky Field’s new book, Different Roots, Common Dreams.

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The newspaper is still having trouble getting the column name and photo in the online edition, but The Mindful Reader ran today. I reviewed two New Hampshire books: Brendan DuBois’s latest Lewis Cole mystery, Blood Foam, and Aurore Eaton’s history of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. You can see the column here. If the link doesn’t work, please let me know; for some reason every time they fix the column title the link changes, and I don’t hear about it.

Thanks for reading!

 

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I’ve written here before about not finishing books and how hard I find that. This summer I’ve not only let go and left books unfinished, I’ve allowed myself free-range grazing in books — starting and setting them aside and returning to them. Why the change? I think this reading style fits the chaos of my life life right now.

One adult child is about to be a senior in college (yes, longtime readers, that’s the former Teen the Elder) and is working from home doing an unpaid internship, which as you can imagine isn’t very gratifying — there are a lot of requirements and stipulations from an organization that not only isn’t paying him, but also isn’t always doing what they said they would. He’s sticking it out but isn’t thrilled, and mostly hopes it will look good on his resume to have completed the internship. His younger sister (Teen the Younger) is going to be a senior in high school, another tumultuous time in life, and she doesn’t feel any more satisfied with her summer. I’m still reviewing for The Mindful Reader column and occasionally for Kirkus but both of those have not gone as planned this summer either — par for the course in journalism, but still an additional dash of unpredictability.

There’s a medical issue in the family, plus all the usual daily life stresses of work, errands, remembering to mail things, carrying on with keeping up the house and the laundry and all that jazz. We also decided to have some long-hoped for work done to the house, mostly outside, but disruptive nonetheless for around a month now. And Teen the Younger decided to completely redo her room (inspired in part by The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), which has been great, but has resulted in much of her old room moving into the garage and needing to be dealt with. Yes, the Computer Scientist helps, but he’s as caught up as I am in the maelstrom of generally unsettled and unsettling emotions and decisions and stuff out of place because of the work, and a million little things to be taken care of.

So, I’ve started and stopped reading. Repeatedly. I’ve returned more library books unread than I care to recall. At the moment I have two books going, both of which I’ve been reading for weeks: Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends With Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awareness by Chogyam Trungpa and The Stories of Jane Gardam. Both are excellent. Both can withstand the chaos. Mindfulness in Action was compiled and edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian and is one of over two dozen posthumous works by Chogyam Trungpa. It goes beyond describing how to practice mindfulness meditation and gets into the nitty gritty of what mindfulness is and does. It’s wise and kind and gentle, and very insightful.

If you’ve read bookconscious regularly you know that I love Jane Gardam. I’d read her grocery lists. And I’ve reviewed many short story collections before as well — a good short story, like a good essay or poem, makes me happy. There’s something about compact forms, well crafted, that I find really satisfying. I’m around halfway through this collection and I haven’t read a story yet that I didn’t like. Gardam’s subject, as always, is humanity in all its messy, marvelous glory. Maybe the messiness is what is especially appealing to me, given the way things are around here these days.

Oh, and we have a kitten. Gwen, short for Guinevere. She’s compact and perfectly lovely too, but trying to introduce a kitten to our cat is also not conducive to finishing a book.

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Today’s Mindful Reader column features the New Hampshire poet laureate, Alice Fogel, and former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic. Here’s the beginning:

It’s almost April, and that means National Poetry Month.

If your immediate reaction to that statement is to roll your eyes, shake your head, or yawn, bear with me. And listen to the words of Charles Simic, Pulitzer Prize winner, former U.S. poet laureate, and longtime New Hampshire resident, who notes in “The Life of Images,” his new book of collected essays, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we recognize ourselves.”

So relax, forget everything you learned in school about poetry, and think of poems as what people shared before Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.

– See more at: http://www.unionleader.com/article/20150329/LOCALVOICES/150329228#sthash.MXMIEGKu.dpuf

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

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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.

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