Posts Tagged ‘The Nocturnal Librarian’

I’m having a hard time believing January is almost over and I’m finishing the February column. This month I’ve read books by two New Hampshire authors, UNH professor John D. Mayer‘s Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives and Kristin Waterfield Duisberg‘s novel After, as well as Love Illuminated: Exploring Life’s Most Mystifying Subject (With the Help of 50,000 Strangers) by Daniel Jones, editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times and western Massachusetts resident.

And I’m coming up on the end of my first month of full time librarianship, which  I reflect on over at The Nocturnal Librarian. On my lunch break I tend to try to read for work: books to review for the column or for the library. Come evening, my brain is pretty tired, there are chores to do, and we’re catching up together as a family. Reading time is limited.

And I spent a chunk of it on a book I didn’t enjoy. My neighbor invited me to her book club (which due to unforeseen circumstances neither of us made it to this month) and their selection was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I got the impression Kingsolver was working overtime to prove her country creds. Take this sentence: “She’d asked him to tidy things up, but men and barns were like a bucket of forks, tidy was no part of the equation.” Clink, clank, clunk. The fork part just made no sense to me (why would they be in a bucket?) and “tidy is no part of the equation” sounded awkwardly like the Dowager Countess of Grantham trying to speak to a farmhand, not a country girl, albeit a well-read one, thinking to herself.

Given her reputation, I imagine Kingsolver is under pressure to perform every time, but this book’s sprawling high-minded themes — faith and love and family and the environment — got tangled in the “poor girl pulling herself up by her bootstraps even though she had a child too young and never had an education” story. I kept hearing Kingsolver’s voice (which she wields in fine essays on some of the same topics she tackles in this novel) and seeing her maneuvering the plot, rather than hearing her characters and seeing their lives unfold. I couldn’t help comparing it to Kerry Hudson‘s searing debut, also about  a smart but poor heroine, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma. Which I highly recommend.

I also read Mary Oliver‘s A Thousand Mornings. A well-read friend recently told me she find’s Oliver’s work trite. I wouldn’t go that far but I found this volume, published in 2012, less inspiring than some of Oliver’s earlier work at first. On re-reading, the poems are not as simple as they seem.

I chose this book because of another big change in the bookconscious household: Teen the Younger decided to go to high school rather than continuing to learn at home. Her favorite class so far? English. They’ve been reading poems from A Thousand Mornings. During her first week I gave her “Introduction to Poetry,” by Billy Collins lest she rope Oliver’s poems to a chair. I was pleased to hear that her teacher mentioned this favorite of mine in class today.

The first poem Teen the Younger mentioned working on in class is “An Old Story” and said that being teenagers, her group was quick to gravitate to the last lines: “My heart says: there, there, be a good student./My body says: let me up and out, I want to fondle/those soft white flowers, open in the night.” Oliver is writing about ” . . . the first fragrances of spring/which is coming, all by itself, no matter,” but I can see how her imagery might be considered sensual, and I’m impressed that such lines, written by an openly lesbian poet, are discussed in Catholic school.

Yesterday they read and discussed “Poem of the One World: This morning/the beautiful white heron/was floating along above the water/and then into the sky of this/the one world/we all belong to/where everything/sooner or later/is a part of everything else/which thought made me feel/for a little while/quite beautiful myself.” I think what I have always liked about Oliver is that her words are deceptively simple but koan-like. Upon first reading this poem seems ho-hum. A pretty bird in the sky, the oneness of the world, we’ve heard this all before. But the way Oliver breaks the lines (which you can see here) creates a rhythm, a sort of chant or plainsong quality, that is “quite beautiful” itself. And there is wisdom in the poet’s mindfulness.

Which is what I need more than ever these days, with the new shape of our days, with new responsibilities and old roughing it together this cold winter.

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The Mindful Reader** was in yesterday’s Concord Monitor, because the week before the book page featured staff holiday recommendations (see my contribution at The Nocturnal Librarian), and another week Mike Pride wrote about Donald Hall’s new book.  I think I’ll be back to my usual slot (2nd Sunday of the month) on January 13.

In this month’s column I review Daniel Klein’s Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Lifewith shorter reviews of Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by George Howe ColtHunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscapeby David Hinton, and Margaret From Maine by Joseph Monninger.

I also note a couple of books by NH authors I didn’t review: Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail and Kristi Larrabee’s memoir, Acceptance: Why Can’t I Have a Baby?


** Here’s the text if you can’t login:


Mindful Reader: Daniel Klein takes on a philosophical journey in ‘Travels with Epicurus’

By DEB BAKER For the Monitor

Sunday, December 23, 2012
(Published in print: Sunday, December 23, 2012)
Most people associate existential angst with young adulthood, but Daniel Klein, author of Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life, faced his when, at age 73, his dentist told him he had to choose between dentures and dental implants. As he considered his choice and the way our culture encourages people to be “forever young,” Klein wondered how best to be old.

His love of philosophy and many years of travel to Greece led him to conclude that instead of dental work, what he wanted was to sit in the Greek sun and read what philosophers say about how to be “an authentic old man.” So he traveled from his home in Massachusetts to Kamini, a village on the island of Hydra, with a suitcase full of books. Yes, dear readers, he had me at suitcase full of books.

If you think philosophy is hard stuff that makes your head spin and possibly hurt, Klein is the perfect guide to deep thinking. He introduces big ideas by way of personal anecdotes and stories about his life and friends in Greece and America.

Taking in philosophy this way is like sitting down with a wise, witty friend explaining something really interesting.

Companionship, idleness, remembrance, the pleasures of contemplating what you have done, reflecting on what you believe, who you love and have loved, all this is part of Klein’s exploration of aging well.

He considers potentially destructive thought patterns as well, like anticipating suffering and death, or focusing too heavily on lost youth. Throughout he manages to be both erudite and down-to-earth.

 Klein concludes that being aware of the philosophies of old age and asking how to be old is “some kind of end in itself,” and, “Perhaps if we are as mindful as we possibly can be of where we are in life right now, the most fulfilling option of how to live these years will reveal themselves to us.”

Being fully aware and wondering how best to spend our time are useful practices at any age, and this warm, thought-provoking book is a terrific introduction to thinking about life philosophically.


Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by Massachusetts writer George Howe Colt, is both a memoir and a lively history of male siblings from Cain and Abel to contemporary times. Colt examines the Booths (Edwin and John Wilkes and their other siblings), the Kelloggs (of cereal and sanitarium fame), the Van Goghs (artist and art dealer), the Marxes (Groucho et al.), and the Thoreaus (John took the river trip with Henry that would lead to Henry’s first book). Alternating between in-depth examinations of these famous brothers’ bonds and lives, Colt ruminates on his own family of four brothers and how they’ve made each other who they are. He also introduces dozens of other brothers, some famous (the Wrights, the Gershwins) and others obscure. Colt’s fine writing, extensive research, and thoughtful analysis make Brothers a meaty, pleasurable read.

Mountain poetry

Hunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, by Vermont translator and poet David Hinton, is a slim book dense with reflections on Chinese philosophy, mythology, and poetry, nature, cosmology, and thoughtful, contemplative passages about the author’s experiences hiking Hunger Mountain near Montpelier. One chapter includes his recipe for chutney, another ends with a long, lovely “collage-poem” Hinton assembled from ancient poetry translations, “those warp-threads on the loom of culture.” Using the development of written Chinese as a narrative thread, Hinton also teaches readers about the progression from oracle bone symbols to modern Chinese. A challenging read, but the payoff is a deeply moving homage to the evolution of human consciousness and culture, and a sense that what binds us in human experience and understanding is greater than our cultural differences.

‘Margaret from Maine’

Margaret From Maine is Plymouth State University professor Joseph Monninger’s latest novel. Margaret Kennedy is married to Thomas, a Medal of Honor recipient who returned from Afghanistan in a vegetative state. She lives with their son, Gordon, only a baby when his father was injured, and her father-in-law Grandpa Ben on a dairy farm near Bangor. When she’s invited to Washington for a veterans’ bill signing, another wounded soldier, Charlie King, volunteers to escort her. Margaret and Charlie fall for each other, but she is committed to Thomas. This is a romantic tale of star-crossed lovers, a meditation on loyalty, and a look at the ongoing burdens of war. Monninger’s highly descriptive writing is rich in fine sensory detail. Even bugs sound pretty in his hands: “A battalion of flies flickered near the windows . . . turning to embers in the flashing light.”

Also noted

∎ University of New Hampshire associate professor Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail is a thorough examination of North Atlantic fisheries from colonial times to the 20th century. Combining exhaustive historical research with fishermen’s stories, Bolster tells both the ecological and personal story of fishing. A timely book in light of the current debate on sustainable fishing regulations.

∎ New Hampshire author Kristi Larrabee has published a memoir, Acceptance: Why Can’t I Have a Baby?, about her multiple miscarriages and after many years, the birth of her son. Acceptance “reminds all couples that they are not alone.”

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I’ve been reading for the column. Due to holiday reviews, it will appear in the Concord Monitor either Sunday Dec. 16 or Dec. 23.

I’ll be reviewing Daniel Klein’s Travels With Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Lifewith shorter reviews of Brothers: On His Brothers and Brothers in History, by George Howe Colt, Hunger Mountain: a Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, by David Hinton, and Margaret From Maine by Joseph Monninger.

I also note a couple of books by NH authors I didn’t review: Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail and Kristi Larrabee’s memoir, Acceptance: Why Can’t I Have a Baby?

Over at my other blog, The Nocturnal Librarian, you can see what I have to say about holiday book recommendations.

I’ll be back here with posts about what else I’ve been reading soon!

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In my last post I mentioned my plan to read differently, to say no to books I don’t really want to read, to be more serendipitous in my book selections, to read fewer books more intentionally. So in support of that goal, I’ve decided to also write about my reading differently, posting more frequently about what we’re reading at the bookconscious house, rather than writing one mammoth monthly post.

I finished David Mitchell‘s Cloud Atlas last week, which I’d been meaning to read for a long time. I blogged about The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet two summers ago, and I also loved Mitchell’s Black Swan Green. A customer at Gibson’s recently asked for Cloud Atlas because he’d seen the movie trailer. Apparently so did a lot of other people, as the book has seen a spike in sales.

Mitchell impresses me with the emotional intensity of his characters’ inner lives. A lot of the action in his books happens inside people’s heads. The Thousand Autumns was also impressive for its historical detail. Cloud Atlas has both things — emotional intensity and historical detail — as well as mind-bending speculative fiction, philosophy, humor, and rip-roaring storytelling.

Mitchell tells the story of five main characters living in different times; I use the singular here because each piece belongs to a larger story. First we meet a 19th century San Francisco notary in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” His story of South Pacific adventure is told, as you might guess, in diary entries.

Next comes an aspiring English composer in inter-war Belgium, Robert Frobisher. He’s living in a crumbling great house working for an aging composer, as we learn through letters to his good friend (lover?) Sixsmith. Frobisher is reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

In “Half-Lives:The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” we learn that Rufus Sixsmith became a nuclear scientist. Luisa Rey, a young reporter, gets stuck in an elevator with him and learns that a nearby nuclear plant is unsafe and mired in corruption. She pursues the lead and in the process finds Sixsmith’s letters from Frobisher.

Luisa’s story turns up as a draft novel, sent to a vanity publisher in “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.” His story is a romping farce in which he’s chased by gangster relatives of his most successful client (an aging rock star who kills a book critic who panned his memoir), tricked into being admitted to a Dickensian nursing home, and sprung from said home with a little help from a pub full of Scottish soccer fans.

This cracker of a tale reappears as a movie (known as a “disney”) in “The Orison of Sonmi 451.” The title character asks to watch before she is executed. Sonmi 451 is a “fabricant” – a human cloned and engineered to slave in a futuristic world where corporations rule. Is Sonmi 451 a pawn in the power struggle between Unanimity and Union or an ascendant prophet, or both? Declarations, her “catechism” (or propaganda?) explains, “in a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear . . . until the only ‘rights,’ the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.”

While on the run from a man who may be a Union spy or a Unanimity agent, Sonmi 451 meets the Abbess of a community refusing consumerist culture. In “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After,” a character called The Abbess teaches Hawaiian islanders (who speak and live more like Appalachian dirt farmers) the divine Sonmi’s wisdom. Zachry, the main character in this section, asks “Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow? Only Sonmi . . . an’ the atlas, yay, only the atlas o’ the clouds.”

Sloosha’s Crossin’ is the hinge at the center of the book. Mitchell leads readers back through the other stories in reverse order, leaving a trail of literary breadcrumbs. The main characters share a strange birthmark (possibly in the shape of a cloud — they all describe it differently). Frobisher’s major work is “The Cloud Atlas Sextet.” Luisa Rey feels she’s heard the music before. Bridges and heights appear in each story. So do class and race divisions.

If this all seems a little too “pat,” it’s because I’m inadequately explaining — Mitchell is brilliant. His writing is brilliant. You never feel like a puppet master is pulling strings. And a strong thread of philosophy weaves the stories together. At the end of his journal, Adam Ewing writes:

“. . . history admits no rules; only outcomes. What precipitates outcomes? Vicious acts and virtuous acts. What precipitates acts? Belief. Belief is both prize & battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world.” He goes on to say that if mankind believes in nothing but inhumanity and strife, that’s what we’ll have.  If we believe instead in peace,  with “violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.” Imagine.

Ewing admits he’s describing “the hardest of worlds to make real” and that “torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.” This book came out in 2004; perhaps Mitchell was commenting on the world at the time but he could have been talking about any time. Cloud Atlas reminds us that a person who is fully awake to the world, who doesn’t just go through the motions in life, is a person who will notice beliefs and their outcomes.

My favorite blogger, Leo Babauta, wrote a great post on intentional life this week. This sort of thing happens in my reading life all the time; I read one thing and come across something else that speaks to it. I love that, and I love a book like Cloud Atlas that not only entertains me but charges all those connections in my brain, reminds me of the best things I’ve read and the thinking I’d like to spend more time doing, stays with me. For all those reasons it would be fun to discuss with other readers.

On a totally different note, last weekend I read The Art of Racing in the Rain. I mention in my post at The Nocturnal Librarian that a fellow dinner party guest recommended it a couple of weeks ago. It’s narrated by a dog, Enzo. He tells us the story of his master, Denny, an aspiring race car driver, and Denny’s wife Eve and daughter Zoe. It’s a bit of a tear-jerker, and perhaps a little bit predictable, as Denny deals with very dramatic ups and downs. But sometimes that’s just what I want when I read: a book that’s emotional catharsis, not mental gymnastics.

Which is not to say there’s nothing to think about here. Enzo is a wonderful narrator, an “old soul.” I learned a great deal about race car driving. My brother, who is a big racing fan and lives in Seattle where the book is set, says author Garth Stein is big in “local car culture” there and agreed the racing sections were impressive.

Equally interesting was Enzo’s hope that a Mongolian belief that dogs can reincarnate as humans will be true for him. He comes to believe he is ready for that change as he reflects on human nature. You might never look at dogs the same way after spending time with Enzo. And there’s plenty to discuss in The Art of Racing in the Rain, including the cultural lenses that color our interpretation of stories.

Teen the Elder finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, which is the Saint Michael’s College class of 2016 community read. He found the writing style “irritating” and the thesis “fear-mongering” and was pleasantly surprised to read some responses from professors who didn’t necessarily agree with Carr either. He’s writing his own response for his freshman seminar.

For fun, he also re-read some childhood favorites this summer, including the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz and Lloyd Alexander‘s Chronicles of PrydainAnd for those who are counting, he is now in his final year of being a teen; when I started writing bookconscious he was just becoming one.

At the moment I’m reading a book for The Mindful Reader, my monthly review column for the Concord Monitor. I will probably save that post for when the column comes out. So I’ll be back in a week or two with whatever I pick up after that . . . and happily, I haven’t decided what that will be yet.

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