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I finished The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago and have been avoiding writing about it. I think the author is passionate about her topic. It’s interesting. There is a whole group of girls who are dressed as boys in order to uphold their families’ honor and provide them with someone who can run errands, escort the girls and women to school and shopping, etc. When Jenny Nordberg found out about these “bacha posh” she was intrigued and began a quest to find and record the stories of current or former bacha posh.

Nordberg makes some very important points about international efforts in Afghanistan. By focusing so much on the rights of girls and women, westerners have fed the notion that gender equality is “against men.” Nordberg posits that by focusing so much on women in a place where many men cannot find work to support their families, NGOs and foreign powers have further entrenched the patriarchy. And that in a society where men literally control every move women make, “Men are the key to infiltrating and subverting patriarchy.”

Sensible, right? The stories are wrenching, but how wonderful that someone told them, right? The issues the books raises about gender roles and gender identity deserve wide attention and are really vital issues in our world. But for some reason, I just did not love this book, and I can’t really explain why. I usually enjoy books about hard topics, or books that challenge accepted wisdom, or examine the status quo in new ways. I think both the subject and the writing in The Underground Girls of Kabul are compelling.

I leave you with this mystery, dear readers. For unexplained reasons, I just didn’t like this perfectly deserving book. It’s different than a full on reading funk, where no book appeals, because I’ve started a couple of other titles since this one and am liking them well enough. Anyone else experience this lately?

 

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I’m not sure what to say about this book that will do it justice — it’s a good read, a novel that both tells a story and speaks truth, and it made me feel my white privilege acutely. Adichie manages to be both humorous and heartbreaking, and she takes readers into communities and cultures many of us don’t know. It you’ve read booksconscious for long, you know that for me, that’s pretty much the total package — good writing, truth, transport, compelling narrative. Oh, and characters who are alive.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and her childhood sweetheart Obinze. They come of age in Nigeria under military rule and both get fed up with the university strikes and decide to leave. Ifemelu follows her Aunty Uju to America, where she finds things are not what she expected. Obinze, denied an American visa, ends up trying his luck in England, where he has a cousin. I don’t want to give away details of what happens to each of them, but readers follow their struggles and successes until, full circle, the story returns to Nigeria.

Part of the story is that Ifemelu writes a blog about racism; in America she experiences being black for the first time (late in the book she tells a white American “I got off the plane in Lagos and stopped being black). The blog posts in the novel are particularly relevant, painful reading now.  She also writes in a refreshing way about the immigrant experience. I know refugees in my community, and I know how shocking it has been for them to come here and experience the reality of America as compared the image they held while waiting to come here. I hadn’t ever thought about the fact that some people, not refugees but other immigrants, don’t find what they are seeking and return to their countries. That’s not the story we’re told about the American Dream. I appreciated the view that America isn’t the end of people’s stories in this book.

Adiche, describing Ifemelu’s discovery of Obinze’s favorite books in her local library in Philadelphia, writes, “how could a string of words make a person ache for a place he did not know?” Of course, I recognized that feeling. If you do too, you will find that familiar, pleasant ache in Americanah. The thing is you might also ache for a place you do know — America. But right now, I can’t think of a better way to do that than to read fiction.

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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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If you are a bookconscious regular you know I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk for a few weeks. This week, though, I was wowed. Arcadia by Lauren Groff is a book to stay with you.

First of all it’s beautiful. Groff’s language is so right. There are sentences I read again just for the sheer pleasure.  Take this paragraph from early in the book when Bit Stone, the main character, is still a small boy:

“Time comes to him one morning, stealing in. One moment he is looking at the lion puppet on his hand that he’s flapping about to amuse Eden’s russet potato of a baby, and the next he understands something he never knew to question. He sees it clearly, now, how time is flexible, a rubber band. It can stretch long and be clumped tight, can be knotted and folded over itself, and all the while it is endless, a loop. There will be night and then morning, and then night again. The year will end, another one will begin, will end. An old man dies, a baby is born.”

And to bookend that, here’s a passage from late in the book when Bit is fifty:

“Grief as a low-grade fever. His sadness is a hive at the back of his head: he moves slowly to keep from being stung. Things bunch together, smooth endlessly out.”

Poetic, descriptive, emotive, evocative, lovely.

And the story? It felt completely original to me, which is hard to come by. It follows Bit from the legend of his birth in 1968 in a hippie caravan near Ridley, Wyoming through 2018, when he’s returned to the site of Arcadia, the utopian commune in upstate New York that his parents and their fellow travelers founded, to be with his mother. Groff paints the future as both bleak and hopeful — human recklessness still leads to suffering but so too does human compassion still heal.

Bit is one of the most interesting fictional characters you’ll ever meet, an old soul from birth, fragile but somehow emotionally invincible because of his natural tendency to be mindful, his enormous capacity for compassion and his unadulterated willingness to be vulnerable, to allow life to take him where it will.  Groff does not make him perfect, she does not give him an easy adulthood to make up for the vagaries of his strange childhood, she does not solve all of Bit’s problems. She lets readers peek at his soul, instead.

His family and friends, his loves, his child, are all incredibly finely drawn characters. Not one was hard to picture, not one was ever out of place or extraneous. Not a single subplot cluttered. As my grandmother used to say, everything counts in this book, there are no extra words. Writers should read Arcadia and try not to despair. Readers will find it a wondrous place to spend a few evenings.

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If you pick this book up after reading a blurb about it being a “sweet read” and without knowing much about McEwan, you’ll be irritated. McEwan is a master of exposing the worst of human nature. When you start a book and the opening paragraph warns you that the protagonist “was sacked, having disgraced myself and ruined my lover” you can’t expect an uplifting story to unfold. And then there’s the setting — the 1970’s weren’t exactly a sweet time.

Yes, it’s a love story, but I was suspicious of Serena’s capacity for love from the start. She’s a very mixed up person masquerading as a strong woman ready for anything. McEwan lays out the psychological workings: a distant but irreproachably admirable father, an affair with a married man old enough to be her father. That man manipulates Serena into her first job out of Cambridge, just as her parents manipulated her into studying maths instead of literature.

In her first job (at MI5) she develops a crush on another (for reasons I can’t expose without spoilers) unattainable man. This reader wanted to shout, “Serena, get a clue!” — she has so far explained her affection for a gay man, for a married man, and now for another guy who you sense will lead to nothing but grief. When she also gains a strong willed, outspoken best friend, Shirley, you think she’s going to get a clue.

But instead she walks straight into the arms of yet another man, one she meets as part of Operation Sweet Tooth. The program funnels financial support to promising anti-communist writers without their knowledge, to fight the Cold War via literature. Her affair with Tom, the writer she brings into the program (and Sweet Tooth’s only novelist) is unprofessional and she knows it. We know she’s not particularly attached to her job, that she’s there for reasons not her own, but you have to wonder, why doesn’t she just quit instead of engaging in self-sabotage? If she’s so bloody smart, why is she acting like such an idiot?

I suppose McEwan is telling us that you can be terribly smart and have marvelous opportunities (or at least as marvelous as they could be for a woman working in the British intelligence community in the 1970’s) and still be flawed, or maybe scarred. Serena thinks she’s got it all together but it turns out she doesn’t really know Tom, who never seemed quite right to me. My suspicions were confirmed late in the book, which is all I can really say without giving away the plot.

As for the writing? Brilliant. McEwan’s ability to evoke a place, a person, an emotion, damned near anything he sets out to evoke in just a few words is unparalleled. It’s a nice book for readers, because he references dozens of writers and books. It’s fun for spy thriller fans (of the old school — no special effects, just good old fashioned LeCarre style intrigue).  And the finale, in which we learn what Tom’s been up to, threw me, which I suppose is what McEwan set out to do.

Somehow I’m still not convinced Serena pulls off what McEwan wants her to. But maybe he needed her to be a less than perfect heroine in order to showcase his central premise.  Anyway it’s both smart and page-turning, original and witty and quite a fascinating take on spying and also on novel writing.  You’ll feel both smart and entertained when you’re through. But it may not entirely satisfy. I suppose that’s the trouble with having a sweet tooth — the craving never goes away.

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I’d had this memoir on my “to-read” list for a long time, and when a patron recently returned it to the library I bumped it to the top.It’s funny and thoughtful and well written. In some ways, the story of Howe trying to assimilate in his Korean American in-laws’ home, where he and his wife have moved in to save money, is relatable. Who hasn’t struggled with career and family choices, wondered about going for a dream (deli ownership in their case), versus playing it safe? Who hasn’t tried to understand their in-laws, or seen their spouse in a new light in their parents’ home?

In other ways, his story is too foreign to seem real. For non-New Yorkers, or as Howe points out even for those who live there, New York is a strange place. Most of us don’t have a mother-in-law feeding our spouse something called “deer juice” nor a parade of relatives arriving, sometimes right in our own bedrooms, at any time. Most of us don’t have the loans, cash, guts, or know-how to start a business. And certainly most of us do not get a dream job as editor at The Paris Review in the George Plimpton era, when editors take “extended absences for the sake of skiing or finishing a novel.”

Howe writes about himself as a sort of misfit, a Brahmin who can never stop being uptight, an odd man out. He writes with good humor and colorful detail. The chapters about his in-laws and the incredible changes they’ve witnessed in their lifetimes in Korea and as immigrants were fascinating. And the inner workings of the deli, the suppliers, and the irrepressible Dwayne, known as “preach” in the neighborhood, their larger than life employee and friend, those were fascinating too.

But it was hard to empathize with Howe. Despite a few setbacks, you just get the feeling he’s led a charmed life and that eroded any suspense. This man would always land on his feet, probably while wearing excellent shoes.

I felt the end of the book tried too hard to wrap things up. The final chapter opens with “It’s been six years since we sold the deli . . .” and then rushes through the resolution of a few hundred pages in just a few more. I like a book that leads readers to their own conclusions, and Howe gets a little heavy-handed with the self-analysis. But overall My Korean Deli is an interesting book, and gave me new respect for how hard it is to run a convenience store.

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Poet Jeffrey Skinner has written a sort of insider’s guide to the “PoBiz,” The 6.5 Practices of Moderately Successful Poets: a Self-Help Memoir. He identifies the 6.5 practices of the title, quotes many excellent poets, pokes fun at certain self-important aspects of the poetry world, and attempts to encourage those who are inclined to throw up their hands in despair. While much of book is mostly of interest to writers, I’d recommend the memoir sections for anyone who enjoys personal essays.

Some of Skinner’s advice will be familiar to anyone who has read writing books or attended workshops. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny. The final essay of the book, “The Family Guy,” is a thoughtful take on popular culture (yes, the title refers to the animated television show) and the place of poetry in it. He suggests poetry is not limited to the literary form, but can be “an immediate, intuitive grasp of meaning. . . confirmation that some measure of grace extends beyond the visible.”

Skinner challenges readers to “get right-sized about the place of poetry, the stuff we read and write, and to consider it as one particularly rich and complex example of wider poetry.” In other words, we shouldn’t “assume it is the only cathedral in the pines.” He exhorts readers to empathize with this wider poetry, not only in service to our own literary betterment but because “non-poets surround and vastly outnumber us.” (emphasis mine)

True. Maybe more people would read poetry if it was more widely understood in relation to poetry as Skinner defines it above. The same could be said for any art existing in tension with its commercial alter ego. Discuss.

Check out Skinner’s Periodic Table of Poetic Elements  (the section in the back of the book, The Noble Gases, is even better). Or, as he suggests, go bowling. Whatever you do, check out this book, which is one of the most original writing guides I’ve ever picked up.

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