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Posts Tagged ‘Vermont’

Full disclosure — I know Brady Carlson and his family, he thanks me and a colleague in charge of interlibrary loans and the rest of the library staff in his acknowledgements, and his publicist sent me a copy of Dead Presidents: An American Adventure Into the Strange Deaths and Surprising Afterlives of Our Nation’s Leaders. Regardless of these facts, I feel I can fairly review the book, because as a reviewer and a librarian, I’m patently opposed to people reading bad books.

And this is not one of those. Brady is a kick ass writer, which you can see for yourself by checking out his pieces on NHPR, a few of which have made the national NPR broadcast lately. Or by reading Dead Presidents, which I highly recommend. His tone reminds me a little bit of A.J. Jacobs — informative and funny, but in a very humane rather than biting or snarky way.

The thing I love most about Dead Presidents is how much Brady is into his subject. I knew this — for awhile several years ago we attended a meet-up of local media makers, and even when this project was in its formative stage, I had a sense that he was going to create something cool, because he has been interested in the presidents since childhood. In fact, in his introduction he notes that a book — Mr. President by George Sullivan — and a teacher who allowed him to conduct an “impromptu lesson” on presidential trivia in fifth grade were keys to his lifelong interest. I am a big fan of people pursuing what they love, and as a fellow member of the book tribe, I love this origin story.

(Aside: this is why cookie cutter curriculums are inferior. Imagine if Brady’s teacher was hamstrung teaching to the test or to “core competencies,” and couldn’t accommodate his budding interest?)

That genuine enthusiasm makes a topic that let’s face it, most of us probably don’t think sounds super exciting — dead presidents — come, dare I say it, alive. I couldn’t resist. Seriously though, the stories of places famous (like Grant’s tomb) and obscure (Grant’s cottage, where the former president finished his well known memoirs) are equally fascinating in Brady’s book. Did you know, for instance, that Grant was nearly moved from New York to Illinois, because the tomb site in Manhattan was so poorly cared for? Or for that matter, that several presidents’ remains have in fact been moved, sometimes a good distance?

Two of my favorite stories: in Plymouth, Vermont, you can see — and sample — one of the oldest cheesemaking operations in the U.S., where artisanal cheese is made just as it was when Calvin Coolidge’s father co-founded the place in the 1890’s. President Coolidge is buried nearby, in “the hilltop cemetery where his family had been buried for four generations.”

And there is a gathering of presidential descendants: “the Marshfield, Missouri Cherry Blossom Festival and Presidential Family Reunion and Missouri Walk of Fame Celebration.” One of the people Brady meets there is George Cleveland, a grandson of Grover Cleveland who lives only about an hour from here. In his travels, Brady had seen photos of George in various other sites related to presidential history, like on the wall of the Founding Fathers Pub in Buffalo, where the proprietor was unable to stump Brady on presidential trivia (he didn’t know Brady taught his fifth grade class this stuff, after all).

The thread that ties all of the stories together is Brady’s admiration for the presidents — even those who didn’t do such a great job in office — and his illuminating, thoughtful insights into their work habits, interests, values, and post-presidential pursuits, as well as their deaths, burials, and legacies. I especially loved the way he debunked the popular opinion of Taft as “the Fat President” and his commentary on how our culture’s views of obesity influenced public opinion of Taft unfairly. It’s the way Brady combines the weird and the wonderful that makes Dead Presidents both entertaining and truly interesting.

 

 

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In today’s column, I review Howard Frank Mosher’s God’s Kingdom and Castle Freeman Jr.’s The Devil in the Valley. Mosher’s book is a historical novel set in a village in Vermont near the Quebec border and Freeman’s is a re-telling of the classic story of a man selling his soul to the devil — with a decidedly different outcome than readers may expect, and also set in rural Vermont.

Here’s a taste of the column:

“God’s Kingdom” by Howard Frank Mosher is set in 1950s Vermont, in a village near the Canadian border called Kingdom Common. It’s a novel about Jim Kinneson, son of the local newspaper editor, and his family, who have lived in the Common for generations. Through a series of stories about Jim’s teen years, Mosher touches on concerns of the time and illuminates the past. And there is plenty of past in Kingdom Common — from troubles between Native Americans and settlers, to the Underground Railroad, to the burning of a settlement of former slaves.

In Castle Freeman Jr.’s “The Devil in the Valley,” a stranger named Dangerfield visits retired teacher and frustrated writer Langdon Taft to offer a deal: Taft can enjoy “talents” for seven months and then belong to Dangerfield’s “firm. But Taft is different from other clients.

You can read the rest in today’s New Hampshire Sunday News or online at the paper’s website.

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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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Lately I’ve only made reading time for books for the column or books for the library. Among the most enjoyable of these “work” reads has been The Road Unsalted, whose author, Sonja Hakala, will be visiting the library in December to read from her new Carding novel.

Carding, Vermont is in many ways a northern version of Jan Karon‘s Mitford, North Carolina. It’s a small town in the mountains with a cast of interesting characters. Carding is home to a famous arts academy and a small but thriving ski area. Early in the book, one of the town’s prodigal daughters, Allie-O, as she has styled herself, slinks into town in impractical heels, shivers her way to her brother’s front door, and leaves her twelve year old daughter, Suzanne, with him. Ted is the postmaster, a man whose mother’s tragic death on the eve of his adulthood left him deeply scarred, and an inexperienced uncle. But in no time he realizes he wants to raise Suzanne where she belongs, among family and friends in Carding.

We learn about the town, the scheme on the part of Harry Brown to force Carding Academy to move (to spite his ex-wife Edie, the academy’s director), the philandering of Harry’s son Gideon, and much else via a blog called The Carding Chronicles which Edie’s grandson, Wil Bennett, aka Little Crow, starts as the novel opens. We also learn a bit about some of the characters from Edie’s dog Nearly. Even with such a busy fictional agenda, Hakala take time to make the sights, sounds, scents, and flavors of Carding come alive. I want to visit whatever bakery she based Carding’s on, as soon as possible!

This is a cozy novel minus the mystery — although there are puzzlements, and characters who must solve difficulties, there are no dead bodies. Hakala takes on a great deal in this series opener — she sets the stage by introducing a townful of characters, she addresses family drama in several Carding households, and she presents tension in the form of the pending town meeting, where the issue of whether the Academy will stay or go depends on a crucial vote.  At times it felt overly ambitious, but on the whole, it’s an entertaining read peppered with wit, wisdom, and a great deal of affection for small town New England. It’s fun, but there would be plenty for a book club to discuss. 

Also of note: this is a self-published novel, albeit by an author with plenty of experience writing for “traditional” publishing. I was, I admit, hesitant — I’ve had too many poor quality self-published work sent my way — but Hakala writes well, and she also had her work professionally edited. It shows. In fact, this novel is smoother than some “mainstream” books I’ve read recently. Which further muddles things for librarians and booksellers looking for a reliable way to determine what’s a good read.

 

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The Mindful Reader is up on the Concord Monitor’s site.  I’ve pasted it below as well. Both print and online edition include a large photo of Baker and pictures of each book’s cover. I wrote the column and the Monitor wrote the headlines. Enjoy!

The Mindful Reader: ‘Something basic and pure’ about author Nicholson Baker

  

By DEB BAKER

For the Monitor

Sunday, October 13, 2013 
(Published in print: Sunday, October 13, 2013)

Nicholson Baker’s novel Traveling Sprinkler takes up the story of Paul Chowder, poet and former bassoonist, who was struggling to finish the introduction to a rhyming poetry anthology when we met him in The Anthologist. In Traveling Sprinkler he’s just as concerned with the sound of things but this time, it’s the sounds of music. Between riffs on composers, singers, performers, instruments and recordings, Paul teaches us about cigars, the CIA’s history, drone warfare, blackstrap molasses, traveling sprinklers, Reiki massage, shrink-wrapping boats and all kinds of other things. And he travels around Portsmouth and Concord to places you’ll recognize, which is fun.

Paul is supposed to be writing a poetry collection, but would rather smoke a cigar that “really smacks your brain” and try to write the perfect protest song. Or dance song. Or love song. Or all of those. He takes care of his neighbor’s chickens, worries about his ex-girlfriend Roz, works out at Planet Fitness, walks his dog, goes to Quaker meeting.

Even though Paul is sometimes hard to follow, he’s an endearing, deeply humane character. The scene in which he visits Roz after her hysterectomy and she has him check for a staple left in her incision is one of the most touching, improbable love scenes you’ll find in literature. And he’s a hero for our age: a man whose work doesn’t make anything as tangible as a traveling sprinkler, who is facing late middle age without a permanent relationship, whose mind darts as quickly as he surfs from YouTube videos to New York Times articles, a man who knows what is beautiful and important in life but feels it’s always slightly out of reach, often because of events far beyond our control: endless wars, the mysteries of the modern economy and the use of mono instead of stereo microphones, for example.

You can’t help rooting for him. If you’ve never read Baker, fasten your seat belt. His work is strange and wondrous, heartbreakingly beautiful often on the same page that it is stunningly of-the-moment and even in-your-face. If all this sounds confusing, just listen to Paul: “Maybe that’s what a chord progression can teach us. Out of the shuffling mess of dissonance comes a return to pax, to the three-note triad of something basic and pure and unable to be argued with.” That’s what Nicholson Baker’s fiction is, to me. “Something basic and pure and unable to be argued with” that comes from the “shuffling mess” inside his characters’ minds.

Moving to Vermont 

Ellen Stimson’s family loved Vermont so much they decided to move there. In Mud Season: How One Woman’s Dream of Moving to Vermont, Raising Children, Chickens and Sheep & Running the Old Country Store Pretty Much Led to One Calamity After Another, her self-deprecating wit and chatty style are as engaging as her enthusiasm for their new life. Stimson turns even the most unpleasant experiences into good stories.

You may shake your head – some calamities were self-induced – but you can’t help admiring that Stimson’s sense of humor, and her marriage, remained intact.

A passage explaining how their teenage son led them to a nearby waterfall as troubles with the store multiplied sums up Mud Season ’s tone: “The waterfall was ours. It became a symbol. We didn’t have to run out and buy something new when we felt cheated or when we felt lost. . . . We had everything we needed in each other. This simple, beautiful place where we lived would feed us. It would nurture our souls. . . . 
It would fill us up. Well, it would if we could just figure out what to do about that damned store.”

Prison pups

Massachusetts writer Sharron Kahn Luttrell was suffering “Canine Deficit Disorder” after the death of her beloved dog when she learned about the Prison Pup Partnership, a service-dog training program whose volunteers provide weekend homes for puppies who live and train with prisoners. Weekends with Daisy is the story of Luttrell’s experience raising a yellow lab with Keith, an inmate at J.J. Moran medium security prison in Rhode Island.

Luttrell writes with feeling and warmth about what she learned from Daisy and Keith, and how the puppy training program not only helped her find community and purpose, but also helped her be a calmer parent and even deal with being laid off.

I enjoyed her honest appraisal of what she learned about Keith’s crime and how it affected her, and her understanding of what raising Daisy meant to his rehabilitation. Not just for dog lovers!

Meredith and ‘Archie’

Local author Carol Anderson was researching her book The History of Gunstock when she came across references to Bob Montana, longtime Meredith resident and creator of the Archie comics. As Anderson discovered, Gunstock is one of many Lakes Region settings Archie, Jughead and their friends visited. As she began researching The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana: Beyond the Archie Comic Strip, she found Montana was also an organic farmer ahead of his time, a generous friend and family man, a born performer and an integral part of the Meredith community, always willing to help, to donate his time and talent, and to mentor young people. Anderson’s book is part biography, part chronicle of Meredith’s Montana years, part tribute. Full of photographs and drawings, it’s sure to interest local history buffs and Archie fans alike.

 

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Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.

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Over the summer I posted my review of Nichole Bernier‘s debut, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D., which was also in one of my first Mindful Reader columns. Last week, Nichole came to Concord to read at Gibson’s. During her post-reading Q&A, I asked what she’d read lately. She had several recommendations, but Crossing to Safety stood out because author Wallace Stegner is one of those literary lights I hadn’t yet read. Yes, even English majors/writers/librarians haven’t read everyone.

As Nichole said, this is a beautiful book. In a bit of bookconscious interconnectedness, the Modern Library edition has an introduction by Terry Tempest Williams, another author I hadn’t read until recently. I just mentioned Williams in my post about The Book of Mormon Girl.  I love these kind of links. Williams’ assessment is lovely and true: “The personal in Stegner’s fiction becomes the universal. Impatience turns to patience. Reservations become possibilities of transformation.”

Crossing to Safety is about Larry and Sally Morgan and Charity and Sid Lang, friends who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in 1938 when Larry and Sid are both young English professors. It’s about their respective marriages and their friendships, and it’s also about ambition and dreams, hardships and how to live. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, WWII, and the culturally turbulent years after, it’s also very much an American novel, examining two paths to success in our country — influence and ingenuity.

Larry and Sally are Westerners (Sally a first generation American) with no money or family pedigrees. Charity and Sid are wealthy, well-connected Easterners. Charity insists Sid “publish or perish” even if it means abandoning poetry and his dreams of a simpler life in their rural compound in Vermont; Larry pursues his literary ambitions rather than chasing tenure.

Charity’s plans don’t always come to fruition, but the Langs’ landing is always soft. Larry succeeds as an author on his own merit but his road is made smooth by Charity and Sid’s largess and their connections.  He doesn’t seem to resent this situation, only to relate it.

The Morgans’ friendship with the Langs dazzles them: “We straggled into Madison, western orphans, and the Langs adopted us into their numerous, rich, powerful, reassuring tribe. We wandered into their orderly Newtonian universe, a couple of asteroids, and they captured us with their gravitational pull . . . .” A few sentences later he adds,”Both of us were particularly susceptible to friendship. When the Langs opened their house and hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.” Later in the book, Larry notes, “They worried about us more than we had sense to worry about ourselves. What they had, and they had so much, was ours before we could envy it or ask for it.”

And despite the imbalance, each couple benefits from the friendship. Charity is a matriarch who manages and bosses everyone. But she’s not unkind. Larry says, “She is often right. She is also capable of a noble generosity, and of cramming it on the head of the recipient like a crown of thorns.” Sally and Larry offer their friends a deep well of goodness and shared experience; they know them and love them, just as they are.

The book’s structure is a circle; it opens with the Morgans arriving in Vermont in 1972, summoned by Charity, who is ill. From there, Larry reflects on a lifetime of memories, on the meaning of success and failure, morality and its measure, friendship and marriage. In the end, we’re back where we began, feeling a little wiser for having gotten to know these remarkable characters.

Larry tells us,”. . . if you could forget mortality, and that used to be easier here than in most places, you could really believe time is circular, not linear and progressive as our culture is bent on proving.” A few sentences later he adds, “Here everything returns upon itself, repeats and renews itself, and present can hardly be told from past.” Reading Crossing to Safety felt just like that. Stegner’s luminous, sometimes searing writing makes this novel thoughtful, moving, and a very great pleasure to read.

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