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

Last modified: 1/13/2014 10:03:47 AM
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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