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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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Full disclosure: I’m one of those nuts who got up before dawn to enjoy uninterrupted hours of BBC America coverage of both the royal wedding and The Queen’s Jubilee.  So perhaps I’m the target demographic for Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, a debut novel from established historian and biographer William Kuhn.  I read it to write a brief review for the Concord Public Library.*

Sometimes it’s just nice to read a book you can tackle in one or two sittings, one that is witty and smart but not overbearing. Kuhn works in a variety of “issues” but I never felt like the book was messagey, even when it touches on mental health or other serious topics. Mostly I got a kick out of the clever but respectful portrayal of The Queen; we see her making marginal notes in biographies of herself, struggling with her computer and vowing not to call the IT woman again, annoyed with rogue tweets (“it’s gin o’clock!) by someone impersonating her.

There are a number of other characters, some of whom I warmed to more than others, but none of whom felt extraneous to the story. I enjoyed the train scenes very much; Kuhn’s portrayal of The Queen’s fellow passengers was terrific and reminded me of people I heard and saw on our recent trip to England. All in all, a nice little comedy of manners, which is something I always appreciate.

Here’s my review, a version of which will come out in January’s “Beyond the Bestsellers” and various other places.

Historian William Kuhn’s debut novel is reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. Queen Elizabeth II is feeling low. She decides a visit to the decommissioned royal yacht Britannia, which is moored near Edinburgh, might be just the thing to set her right again. The Queen boards an ordinary train at King’s Cross Station with a string of staff on the trail, trying to keep her safe and to keep her adventure private. Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs fans will enjoy the stories of her majesty’s dresser, lady-in-waiting, equerry, stable girl, and butler, as well as a clerk in a posh cheese shop. Kuhn weaves their stories — touching on everything from the Iraq War to class and racial stereotypes, yoga, sexual orientation, aging, environmental politics, royal and family dramas, and Twitter – into the tale of the AWOL Queen, to humorous effect. A light-hearted, entertaining read packed with interesting tidbits about contemporary British life and the royal household.

* Since I mention my job here and quote from a review I wrote for it at work, it’s a good time to remind readers that my blogs represent my views and not those of my employer, and I am writing here as a private citizen.

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February is a short month, and yet I read a baker’s dozen books.  Many of them were quick reads; brief books or books that focus an author’s talents on a small flash of human experience, a moment in history, a idea, a window into one place, time, or family. I’ll admit, the Computer Scientist was away a few times, and without him tossing and turning to remind me I needed to get to sleep, it was easy to stay up too late reading.

I started the month by reading a new release whose advance copy was in my to-read pile for months: Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron. I’ve groused before that a few “it” titles suck all the oxygen out of the book publicity world, leaving many worthy titles to debut with little fanfare. This was one of those books deserving of much more attention. It got plenty of pre-pub reviews, but I have seen very little since it came out in January.

Benaron’s story is about a Tutsi boy in Rwanda who dreams of running in the Olympics. That’s probably all I have to say for you to know that it’s going to be a tough story about the 1994 genocide.  The book actually starts a few years earlier and through her hero’s life, Benaron portrays the events that led to it.  I won’t say it helps the reader understand — I think it’s impossible for most people to actually understand how genocide happens.

This book is a very compelling look at how the undercurrents of civil strife eventually grew into violent conflict . It’s also a love story in a few different ways, and a book about coming of age, dealing with loss, finding friends. The boy’s coach is a particularly strange character, who loves him and protects him but also hurts him unimaginably, all in the name of a cause that is ultimately a house of cards even for its most fervent believers.

There are a pair of idealistic ex-pats, the only characters I thought were not very interesting, and Hutus who stand up against the atrocities. The scene on the night when the genocide hits home for the book’s characters is incredibly chilling.  Benaron’s details — the way mobs form in the street, the night raids by people familiar to the victims, the government controlled radio announcing the names of people they want killed — will keep you glued to the page. The redemptive power of her character’s rebuilt lives will satisfy you as well.

Bitter violence and redemption also feature in three books I read in one weekend while the Computer Scientist was away: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. If you’ve not heard, these young adult titles have been wildly popular and are being made into a film series. The first one is out soon. Teen the Younger has been recommending I read these for awhile, as had several other friends of all ages.

While I haven’t read a great deal of YA fiction, I’ve read some that has been fairly dumbed down.  Collins, to her credit, writes pretty well; the books are not simple. I was definitely hooked and enjoyed reading them straight through a weekend, even though I lost sleep doing so. I have a weakness for a good dystopian story and this definitely fits the bill.

The trilogy is set in a future America that has been divided into thirteen districts subjugated by a powerful and hedonistic Capitol. Every year each district has to send one girl and one boy — culled at a “reaping” ceremony televised live throughout the land — to the Capitol for the Hunger Games. Their mission? Become the champion by remaining the last person alive in the arena.

Yes, Collins makes several overt allusions to Rome – in one book there is even a feast at which characters excuse themselves to vomit so they can eat more. And she taps into the cultural obsession with reality shows; I am sure if I’d read more slowly I would have picked up other references.

Perhaps these allusions could have been more subtle, but I liked the intent. Collins clearly hoped to get young people thinking about power, culture, and the importance of independent critical thinking. I appreciated that she has something to say besides just telling a thrilling story. I like the fact that kids reading these books could ponder some of life’s big questions.

Collins also writes the requisite love story into her books (are there any YA books without a romantic angle?) but makes that a more complicated story than simply boy-meets-girl-meets-boy. There’s a fair bit of psychological drama.

Teen the Younger complained at first that she thought the love story was superfluous to the second book. She hates token romance thrown into stories (as do I, as did her great-grandmother). But on reflection even she agrees it’s an important part of the heroine’s understanding of what she must do.

The characters are edgy and interesting, even if they occasionally veer close to stock roles. Collins respects her readers enough that just when you think you have one of the main characters figured out, he or she does something you aren’t expecting. I do think that some of the minor characters came across as a little flat or undeveloped.

But overall, The Hunger Games series were excellent reads. I just don’t know if I am brave enough to see the movies. Teen the Younger says she will go first and make sure I can handle it.

One night as I was arriving at the reference desk my colleague who worked the previous shift handed me a book and said she’d read it in an hour and highly recommended it. The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, by Caroline Preston, took me more than an hour, because I was poring over every page.  This book defies genre, much as Brian Selznik’s books do.

It’s not really a graphic novel, it’s a scrapbook novel, told from Frankie’s point of view from her high school graduation in Cornish, NH in 1920 through college and adventures in New York and Paris before she returns to Cornish. It’s fascinating, and Frankie is an appealing aspiring-writer heroine somewhat reminiscent of Skeeter in The Help, although her story is much different.

Preston has written a lovely essay about how her highly original and very beautiful book came to be. I am very impressed that she created the scrapbook from vintage ephemera along with writing the novel. And I’m excited she’s already at work on another scrapbook novel. I think Preston has created a really interesting way to write historical novels and the fact that her background as an archivist inspired her work is a wonderful example of the spontaneous way life can inform art.

A nonfiction book I read this month was inspired by art in another way. DaVinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester‘s latest book, is the story of Leonardo DaVinci’s famous sketch “Vitruvian Man.” Lester writes in an engaging way about every aspect of science, art, and culture that led to the drawing over centuries. In lesser hands, the story might be dry, but Lester can make everything from Renaissance politics to frog anatomy seem relevant and interesting. He’s simply a terrific story-teller. And he makes Leonardo seem like a real person, not a remote historical genius.

It is interesting that Leonardo’s drawing isn’t just an example of his own curiosity about movement, art, and the human form. Lester unpacks the philosophical idea that the ideal human form inside the circle inside the square of Vitruvian Man represents the harmonious proportions of all creation — the universe as everyone from the Greeks to the Renaissance thinkers of Leonardo’s time understood it. As I say, the best part is that Lester makes this all come alive in a very entertaining way.

Another book that is very close in spirit and style to DaVinci’s Ghost is The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction last year. This is the story of one cultural icon as well: a poem packed with scientific theories and philosophical ideas by an obscure Roman named Lucretius, “On the Nature of Things.” The Swerve is an interesting, if sometimes discouraging, read.

Greenblatt can’t really tell us much about the poet, because no one knows much about him. He focuses instead on an Italian book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, who rediscovered “On the Nature of Things” in a remote German monastery in 1417. Bracciolini worked as secretary for a succession of popes.  The discouraging parts of this story have to do with the corruption of the Vatican and the horrors it inflicted on people during the Inquisition.

Greenblatt also touches on the poem itself, its Epicurean inspiration, and the people in later centuries who were influenced by “On the Nature of Things.” Overall, it’s a well written, entertaining story, if slightly drier than DaVinci’s Ghost.

Similarly fascinating and discouraging is Novels In Three Lines by Felix Feneon. These are actual three line pieces Feneon wrote for a French newspaper Le Matin in 1906. Many reviewers describe the pieces as Twitter-like.  Here are some examples (I didn’t preserve the three line format, but the book does):

“At census time the mayor of Montirat, Tarn, nudged the figures upward. His eagerness to govern a multitude cost him his job.”

“Once again people have been stealing telephone cables: in Paray, Athis-Mons, and Morangis, 36,000 feet; in Longjumeau, 10 miles.”

“Colics are tormenting 18 inhabitants of Matha, Charente-Inferieure; they ate some mushrooms that were much too lovely.”

“M. Usuello and M. Crespi were very cold (30 below) at 18,000 feet aboard the Milano, taking off from Milan and landing at Aix-en Savoie.”

and the whimsical:

“V. Kaiser, 14, was headed to Mont-Saint-Martin, Meurthe-et-Moselle, to see her father. Then the satyr of the woods rose up before her . . . .”

But these are only a few of the hundreds that are about suicide, despair, murder, or other crimes, horrors or hardships. I found the book to be a bit too much read all in one go. It might have been less unsettling in smaller bites.

The introduction is excellent and explains a great deal about Feneon and his work. Besides writing these brief pieces for Le Matin, he was Rimbaud‘s editor, he helped discover Seurat, hired Debussy to be a music critic for a journal he edited, and was a frequent attendee at Mellarme‘s weekly salon. And he was an anarchist and “Trial of Thirty” defendant. So the book is interesting albeit depressing and I learned a fair bit from digging into the author’s background.

Perhaps I was drawn to the idea of novels in three lines because I’m a fan of poetry in a similar form. Bookconscious readers know I read and write haiku and other Japanese forms. Haiku really isn’t about the form so much as the aesthetic, despite what you may have learned in fourth grade.

February is NaHaiWriMo – National Haiku Writing Month – which is fun. I usually write haiku daily anyway, and I try to read haiku daily as well. This month I also decided to pick up a book I’d had on my nightstand for a long time: one of Stephen Addis‘s beautiful books, Haiku Landscapes.

Like the other haiku books he has shepherded, this one is a collection of poems by Japanese masters with English translations by Fumiko Y. Yamamoto and Akira Y. Yamamoto. The poems are matched with woodblock prints and paintings by great Japanese artists. The combination is just gorgeous. I’d love to get some of the other books in the series.

In fiction, short stories are fairly well known but hardly anyone talks about novellas. That may be in part because no one is really certain what a novella is. Sure, it’s a small novel. But when is a novella a novel and when is it a long short story? That’s a subject open to debate.

I’ll wade in: I read two short books in February that I feel venture into novella territory. Bookconscious readers know I loved Stewart O’Nan‘s last book, Emily Alone. I’d heard good things about his new book, The Odds.

Let me say that I think Stewart O’Nan is masterful. This is a really heart-breakingly sharp look at a long-married couple, Art and Marion, on a last pre-divorce weekend fling in Niagara Falls. They are facing bankruptcy, a loss on the sale of their house, and past indiscretions, known and unknown. Readers are privy to the entire mess through long interior passages.

But it’s one of those books I admired but didn’t enjoy as I read. In retrospect, it’s really complicated, impressively so. Between the financial and the personal entanglements, O’Nan packs a tremendous amount of psychological drama and tension into a small package. But it is so sad, which isn’t what I look for in pleasure reading.

He does reward the reader with a very hopeful, possibly even redemptive ending. It’s grown on me since I finished it. Plus, there are fascinating little facts about the odds of various things happening at the beginning of each chapter — a pleasing touch that appealed to my inner fact junkie.

I had a similar problem with my Europa Challenge read this month. It’s a novella by Alfred Hayes, The Girl on the Via Flaminia. I read that the author adapted this book into a play, and I could immediately understand why — I actually envisioned characters entering and exiting the scenes as I read it. I have no quibble with the writing, but this book wasn’t my cup of tea.

Again I think the subject matter is the issue: this is a distressing story, and even worse, I got no sense that the characters would be released from their troubles as I did with the end of The Odds.

The book is about an Italian girl who stays in a pseudo-brothel with an American serviceman at the end of WWII because she’s hungry. But she really doesn’t want to, and he really wants more than a prostitute. They’re both miserable; just about everyone in the book is miserable.

This was one of those books I read to the end because it felt like it should develop into something I’d eventually love, but it didn’t. But I may have just reached my limit for sadness this month.

A book which opened with sorrow but developed into joy much later is The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen.  First in the prologue, a bear makes it to the shore of a Scottish island after a harrowing swim. We only know it’s a bear because a little picture of a bear signals his story. Then in the opening chapter, a recently bereaved mother and three children are driving to the same island, and they are clearly and understandably each a mess, in different ways.

Through the eyes of these five characters (including the bear), the novel unfolds. Slowly we learn that until recently the family lived in Cold War Bonn, and the father worked for the British embassy.  The government thinks he killed himself because he was a spy; his wife doesn’t want to believe it but finds what she thinks is incriminating evidence, and each of the children is unsure what to think.

And the bear? The boy is sure it’s his father, come back to help him. Pollen spins a page-turning tale with such fabulous characters, such sensory detail, such emotional depth, and such unexpected turns, I couldn’t put it down. A handful of moments, a handful of personal interactions, made the whole story fit, and I really enjoyed how seamlessly it all happened.

Finally a book of very brief essays, Delight: Taking Pleasure in the Small Things in Life by J. B. Priestly, which I read only because it was also on my nightstand with a bookmark perhaps ten pages in, under Haiku Landscapes. When it rose to the top I decided to pick it up again and finish it. It was, well, delightful.

Some of Priestly’s small things are not mine and never will be — he lived in a different era in a different culture. But his delight is infectious. This isn’t a feel-good book. Some of his musings take a serious tone, even as he describes his delight. But it’s an erudite little tour of the way an attitude of delight can make even hard things more pleasant.

So, a book about taking pleasure in small things, a number of books devoted to small forms, a big novel that turned on small moments, another novel that shines a light on one terrible time, and two nonfiction books focused, respectively, on one drawing and one poem. That did it or me this month. As for the rest of the bookconscious household . . .

. . . Teen the Younger finished The Help, continued to read Sherlock Holmes stories here and there, and wasn’t particularly interested in my grilling her about what she thought about her reading.  She ventured that she likes the character of Mae Mobley in The Help. I’d rather she read without feeling badgered, so I did not press for more details.

The Computer Scientist sent me such a nice thorough description of his reading that I quote it nearly in its entirety:

“I read The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak. I found this to be an enjoyable historically based story told with great prose. I loved following the characters along their troublesome and humanistic path. I honestly couldn’t put this down, in part because I was stuck in a window seat on a long flight. To be honest, though, I really didn’t want to put it down, either. I highly recommend this book. (bookconscious note: I wrote about  how much I loved The Sojourn here.)

On a separate long flight, I made serious progress on The Social Animal by David Brooks. Despite his political proclivities, Brooks is thoughtful writer from whom I’ve learned much about the wiring of people within the social structures in which they exist. I left the copy with Teen the Elder because it was so fantastic and topical for him, and I look forward to finishing it in the near future.

Finally, I’m nearly finished with the first installation of The Hunger Games trilogy. An interesting story concept that is well paced, but I find it lacking in depth when compared to other authors considered peers of Suzanne Collins. It’s to the point and enjoyable, but I find myself reading it to just finish it more than being compelled by the story.”

Well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. So that’s the story here at the bookconscious house. Stay tuned for more books and musings.

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