Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Olive, Again!

Olive Kitteridge doesn't suffer fools gladly. Cold, grumpy, judgmental, Olive can be a handful. Just ask any of her neighbors in the small town of Crosby, Maine, where Olive taught math at the local high school and her husband, now deceased, ran the pharmacy. Just ask her son, who moved as far away as he could to be free of her constant criticism. But don't ask those whose lives Olive  forever changed even when she didn't realize it. They might tell you Olive saved them.

This is the dichotomy that the remarkable Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout so ably sets out on the page. How she makes us scream with fury at Olive's
cruelty one minute, then quietly tear up at her acts of compassion the next. Olive Kitteridge is a conundrum, but we all know someone like her. Sometimes we may even see ourselves in the aging Olive who believes most folks are just full of crap, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and that the indignities of aging pretty much suck.

If you read the first "Olive Kitteridge" you'll jump right in to "Olive, Again." The format of linked vignettes still works beautifully, giving the reader small but spot on glimpses of the mundane but never boring goings on in Crosby over generations. There are some hilarious scenes, especially if you're the type of person who would rather have your nails torn out one by one than attend ONE more baby or bridal shower. Olive is the master of the eye roll who will never understand the etiquette of oohing and aahing over diaper bags and onesies. But, give her the chance to be useful, like helping a young woman give birth in the back seat of a big old Pontiac, and yes, Olive is there.

There is a poignant chapter in which Olive has to come to terms with aging and dependence after she falls on her porch and has difficulty getting up. For several weeks she's visited by two very different young female aides and therapists who tend to her injuries. The one happens to be a Muslim in a headscarf about whom Olive worries incessantly, afraid that she'll cross paths with the second woman, Betty, a local who drives a pick-up truck and sports a Trump bumper sticker. Hearing in town that Betty has a pretty horrible existence, and trying to fathom why anyone would support that "orange monster," Olive sits down with her and simply asks, "What is your life like, Betty?" No one had ever taken even that minimal amount of interest in Betty before. The floodgates open.

Elizabeth Strout excels at stream of consciousness writing. Through the busy mind and constant thoughts of a woman like Olive Kitteridge, Strout lays out the visceral fears and pains of the aging single woman, the loneliness, regrets, the missed opportunities, but also the moments when we say yes to love, to connection. This lovely, thoughtful book may not have made Library Journal's top ten this year but it's still an exceptional read. I just wish I hadn't seen the TV special because now, rather than utilizing my full imagination when I visualize Olive, all I can picture is that fabulously talented curmudgeon Frances McDormand in the title role.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Alice Hoffman's Latest, One of Her Best

"The World We Knew" is the novel I would recommend for those of you who may have enjoyed Kristin Hannah's "The Nightingale" but prefer more lyrical prose. Alice Hoffman has always been a favorite of mine. In fact, she received a lifetime achievement award at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival several years ago when I was still a working librarian and her speech brought me to tears.

Ms. Hoffman is no stranger to magical realism and mysticism but feminism also plays a large role in many of her books. I love the way she married these themes by explaining the Jewish idea of a golem, a being created out of clay and breathed into life through prayers that only an experienced rabbi can intone. A golem, because "it" is so powerful, has a limited existence and must eventually be destroyed. Hoffman uses this fact to beautifully explore the nature of the soul, of love, feelings, fear, and self-sacrifice that might render a being fully human.

 In 1941 Berlin, as the Nazis become a daily presence and an existential threat to Jews, a mother, Hanni, realizes that she must make the ultimate sacrifice and send her teenage daughter away to safety. Understanding that Lea could not escape on her own, Hanni goes to the rabbi to beg him to create a golem to accompany Lea on her flight to freedom. The rabbi's fearful wife turns Hanni away, but his feisty daughter, Ettie, who has been secretly studying the Torah against the strictures of Judaism, offers to make the golem under one condition, that she and her younger sister can accompany Lea and the golem, named Ava, to Paris.

Agonizing suspense and pathos play out in equal measure as we follow the women on to the train and through the check points. In Paris, Ava and Lea are taken in by the Levi family, relatives Lea had never met. Here Ava, always with a watchful eye on Lea, makes herself useful as a cook, replacing Maryanne who recently abandoned the family to return to her father's farm in the French countryside where she will become a valued member of the Resistance.

 The Levi's two boys, Julien and Victor are each wonderful characters who play an outsized role in bringing the stories of Lea, Ava, and Maryanne together. While love is the overarching thread throughout this amazing book, Hoffman does not romanticize this era when good and evil were in such stark contrast. Good people die, some for no reason whatsoever, others for a cause greater than themselves.

Like Julie Orringer's "The Flight Portfolio," this is an emotionally ensnaring novel that forces one to confront the nature of evil and ask how we would resist if the need arises. Especially interesting is Hoffman's note to readers about how she came to write this story after meeting a woman at a library book talk, a woman who worried that her history might never be known. I hope she's still alive to read this compellingly told tale.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

The Secrets We Kept

I wonder what author Lara Prescott's parents were thinking when they named her after the famed love interest of Dr. Zhivago. I doubt they ever dreamed that their daughter would pen a best-selling debut novel, already optioned for film, based upon another true story we never learned about in school. http://www.laraprescott.com/

I was only nine when Boris Pasternak's novel came out so it's only fair that I would have been unaware of the swirl of controversy surrounding it. I'm certain that few suspected that the CIA was involved in making sure that the book was smuggled back into Russia, where it had been banned, so that ordinary Russian citizens could get a glimpse into life in the gulag and maybe, just maybe, foment a revolution. This is the fascinating story of how that happened.

Prescott sets her novel in the typing pool, one of the few places women were allowed to work, in the newly formed spy agency born out of World War II's OSS. She knows DC backwards and forwards and paints a vivid picture of what it was like for these women, newly freed from the conventions of marriage and parenting, working and playing among the men and admonished not to remember anything they typed - ha!
The Secrets We Kept: A novel

The story toggles back and forth between East and West and multiple viewpoints, a technique that will keep you on your toes. In Russia, Pasternak's lover, Olga, tells of life as the other woman, living in a small home not far from his much larger one that he shares with his wife. As with many life-long affairs of this kind, Olga is the one who suffers, often at odds with her children and her mother, and even spending time in prison for her relationship to the disgraced writer.

In Washington, a Russian immigrant named Irina catches the eyes of the typists when she is singled out for special treatment after only a small time on the job. How she is trained under the tutelage of an experienced female spy (named Sally) and sent into the Georgetown soirees to mingle and listen, is great fun even if it does feel much less sinister than some of the actual activities the CIA was involved in at the time. https://nyti.ms/2kaBLTU

"The Secrets We Kept" is high quality, fast-paced entertainment set in a Washington, DC, and a Russia that seem almost innocent when compared to what we read when we open our papers today. Yet Prescott raises some interesting questions about the nature of literature as a means for change, and the sacrifices made to get the word in the hands of the people. Boris may come across as stubborn and selfish, his wife, fearful, and Olga, both brave and foolish. Nevertheless, I see "Doctor Zhivago" now in an entirely different light. Yup, I just placed it on hold. 

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Library Journal's Ten Best

Oh no, sorry, I can't divulge the final decision yet but at least I can say with relief that we have winners. Thirty-six novels in two months! Phew! During a marathon conference call Wednesday afternoon each of us three reviewers gave up some personal favorites to make place for others. We discussed, eliminated, and compromised. No wonder the Booker committee copped out and split the winnings.

The good news is that now I have some wonderful titles to share with you over the next couple of months, titles that we all agreed should grace a runners' up list if such a thing was possible. The books were heartbreaking, jaw dropping, original, and flat out fun. Several I read more than once before giving them my imprimatur. Others were picked up by different committees at Library Journal, and then books like Atwood's "The Testaments," well, it hardly needs the publicity does it?

We also had to consider our audience. We review for the nation's librarians, those folks charged with spending tax dollars wisely while fulfilling their customers' requests for the best. The only book on our list that I simply chose not to finish because of time constraints was that thousand page doorstop "Ducks, Newburyport" by Lucy Ellmann. That isn't to say the book wasn't clever as hell. It absolutely is. 

Comprised of just two or three long sentences, the honest, hysterical, wry musings of a working Ohio mom over the course of one day, covers a gamut of ideas. A few have referred to it as a modern day Molly Bloom soliloquy. Nevertheless, I had visions of this book languishing on the shelves and being weeded in two years. In this age of instant informational gratification,  I just couldn't see most customers I've come in contact with giving it the time and attention it needs. 

I'm taking a couple of days off from required reading to binge watch all the Jason Bourne movies with Don - it's getting chilly up here in Maryland. Then I've downloaded a British murder mystery by Mark Billingham, one of many in the Tom Thorne series, as a palate cleanser. It has the feel of an Inspector Morse for the 21st century and I'll be surprised if the BBC doesn't pick it up soon. Next up will be Lara Prescott's "The Secrets We Kept."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

130,000 displaced people in just two days Judy Woodruff told me last night. Can we even imagine this? Turkey doesn't want these Kurdish families driven from their homes by the ongoing war in Syria. Italy no longer wants the Africans who still wash up daily on the Sicilian shore. The United States certainly doesn't want the central Americans - operative word - Americans who are fleeing gang violence and poverty. How do we wrap our minds around the courage that it takes to leave everything one has ever known, to start from scratch in a new place with nothing but hope? 

It is usually fiction that teaches me the many truths I never learned in school. Over the past few years there has been a bursting at the seams of amazing literature that speaks to the anguish of the immigrant experience. Several of these novels grace the list of books that I'm evaluating for Library Journal's top ten literary fiction for 2019. 

Today I finished listening to a remarkable debut novel by Cameroonian writer Imbolo Mbue - http://www.imbolombue.com/. "Behold the Dreamers" is
devastating, uplifting, and ultimately hopeful, though perhaps not in the way readers might expect. Mbue dares to ask if resettling in the United States is always the best route up and out of poverty. She poses the question, how long must one struggle before Langston Hughes's dream deferred becomes a dream not worth attaining?

Jende and Neni Jonga are characters who just leap off the page. They share their aspirations with us through every conversation, interaction, and move they make as they work hard and save mightily for something a little better than their three room walk-up in Harlem. 

Jende, with a word from a Cameroonian relative already established in New York, lands a fabulous job - $35,000 annually - as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers exec and his family. Often working eighteen hour days, Jende tries to connect with Clark Edwards by telling stories of his life back in Limbe, explaining how he can provide a better life for his wife and son in the United States. Meanwhile Neni, less nostalgic for the circumscribed life for a woman in Cameroon, excels at college where she is studying pharmacology on a student visa, and works as a nurses' aid, all while raising their boy. 

But the year is 2007 and Mbue imbues her novel with a terrible sense of foreboding.To the naive Jende, the Edwards family appears as shiny and bright as a newly minted coin. But when Mrs. Edwards asks Neni to spend the summer working for her at her Hamptons mansion Neni sees the shimmer fade away, the dark underside of the lonely, empty lives of her employers on full display. 

The crash, when it comes, will break you as you read. Not for Clark Edwards, who will be able to find a way forward, but for the Jongos, waiting for their green cards, desperate to stay in a country that saps the spirit from their souls. Jende and Neni grow farther apart as their ideas of what's best for their family diverge. I wondered, as I listened, would this country break them? You may be surprised by the answer.