Saturday, May 23, 2015

Hitting the Road with Books

It appears that May, the lusty month of May, will permanently be my month to be off the grid. It's a crazy month of last lunches and get-togethers in Florida followed by reunion luncheons and get-togethers in Maryland. There's a home to close and another to open, gardens to put to bed and others to plant. It's also the month that I make my annual trek to Massachusetts, state of my birth, to visit with my Aunt Jackie and sister Cynthia for a week.

This year was special as it was my Aunt Jackie's 90th birthday and we had planned a surprise party for her. (she's the one in the peach shirt) Yes, I can only hope that I've inherited her genes.

I suppose it was especially fitting that I was reading Anne Enright's "The Green Road" on the run up to that week. Our family, as much as I've tried to deny it all my life (convinced that I'm Italian), has more than a tad of Irish in it and difficult Irish families are Enright's forte. She won a Man Booker award for her wonderful novel "The Gathering," about a family coming home for a wake, and I suspect she will be nominated again for her latest novel even if the subject matter sounds trite. In this case, the family is summoned home for Christmas.

The Irish are renowned for their storytelling prowess, just think of Frank McCourt, Colum McCann, or Colm Toibin. Anne Enright is no exception. If you love lyrical phrases and sharp humor, Enright is your girl. But, if you get frustrated with characters who immediately revert to four-year-olds when they rejoin the bosom of their family, you may decide to stay away.

Rosaleen, the matriarch of the Madigan family, takes to her bed in anguish when her favorite son Dan announces that he plans to join the priesthood. That's a rare reaction from an Irish mother. Certainly my aunts encouraged our cousin George in his delayed vocation. Over the span of thirty years we live with each of the four Madigan children as they struggle to make their way in the world, eschewing the ties that bind them to Rosaleen and County Clare.

Constance marries a kind, loving man with a knack for making money and becomes the quintessential Irish version of a soccer mom, running the kids this way and that in her fancy Lexus, while ballooning in weight, a metaphor for the excess that surrounds her. Emmet, takes the opposite tack, heading to Mali in Africa to work with an NGO that provides for with those who have little or nothing. Hanna finds that having a baby does little to fill the pain in her psyche that only vodka can assuage and Dan, having given up the seminary, lives in New York City where he is free to come out as a gay man yet faces the scourge of the 80's HIV crisis.

So when the resilient Rosaleen, now widowed, decides that it's past time to sell the family manse and simplify her life, she sends her annual Christmas cards with a passive-aggressive taint to the message. She expects them all home in Ireland for Christmas this year.

Could four more disparate siblings convene for a holiday? Can they find common ground? Is there an innate love between brothers, sisters, and parents that surfaces no matter the past disappointments and hurts? Can we eventually accept each other as friends? Enright may answer these questions but she'll raise even more as she brings this fractious family to life on the page.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Sympathizer

the sympathizer-new

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. The library had my copy of Viet Thanh Nguyen's first novel, "The Sympathizer," available last week just as Don and I settled down to watch Rory Kennedy's PBS special marking the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon in South Vietnam. It stirred so many memories for each of us, his as an Army private stationed there in the early days before the worst of the fighting, and mine as a spoiled college kid protesting the escalation of the bombing from the relative safety of the streets of D.C.

Of course, we both arrived at the same place. We have a deep empathy for the Vietnamese people and some measure of remorse and even shame at what the American armed forces, not the guys on the ground, but the brass at the Pentagon, did to this small but mighty country in the name of fighting Communism.

Nguyen's family fled North Vietnam for the south ahead of the Communist push, and when he was only four, they escaped to America where he received a stellar education and pursued a noted career in academia.
This sophisticated and technically exceptional novel begins with the narrator confined to a prison cell, in solitary confinement, where he is writing a "confession." The confession begins on that April day forty years ago when, depending upon who one knew and how much money one had, some would be evacuated from Saigon as the northern armies moved in.

The narrator is the right hand man and trusted confidante of a general who is in thrall to the United States and all it stands for. The general still cannot believe that South Vietnam is being abandoned, no money, no arms, no men, to fend off the north while the American ambassador and his cronies board jets to safety. But, with the help of Claude - CIA perhaps? - the general secures passage to the states, and because our narrator is a spy, he too will be flown out so that he can keep an eye on the general.

Confused? Well yes, this is a book that requires your attention. On the surface it's a thriller, espionage, but it is so much more. Nguyen may have only been four when he came to the states but he has obviously examined the physical and psychological ramifications of the migration experience of the Vietnamese people in depth. I suspect that the fact that Nguyen's central character is a spy, a man of two minds if you will, speaks to the fact that no matter how well an immigrant succeeds in his adopted country, there will always be a yearning for the origin, for his roots.

This is also a novel about three friends, Bon, Man, and our narrator, about loyalty to one's country and loyalty to one's blood brothers. It's a novel about the moral quagmire that is torture, its efficacy, its history, and sadly, how it was introduced to the Vietnamese by the United States.

"The Sympathizer" is a gorgeously crafted work of art. Each sentence is a gem. With just a few words Nguyen proffers a world of wisdom. He zings us with ironic statements that are spot on without being mean-spirited. We see only truth in the uncomfortable facts he writes about. I don't doubt that this novel will appear on many "best of" lists for 2015. Yet, for me, there is something missing.

I can't find the beating heart of this book. It seems too clinical, lacking in a soul, minus the empathy one would expect from an author recounting the demise of his homeland. As I've mentioned before, I hold every novel of Vietnam up to Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn," a book that touched me at my core. While "The Sympathizer" has much to recommend it, especially for those interested in how governments wage war on the backs of those least able to sustain it, I fear that what's absent is the sympathy.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Banality of Evil in "Her"

41KzvDb9htLHarriet Lane's first novel, "Alys, Always," was a heart knocking psychological thriller that I read in one afternoon.
Imagine how pleased I was to see that Ms. Lane had quickly followed up on her early success. The minute my obligatory reviews for the radio program and for Library Journal were completed for this month I sat back expecting to be blown away once again. Alas, it was not to be.

"Her" requires a bit more investment in time.  Lane brilliantly writes about the frustrations of Emma, a London career woman who has forfeited the good life for domestic tranquility, two kids and a less successful husband. Lane perfectly describes the dichotomy between a mother's pleasure at the touch of her baby's skin and her rising anxiety level when that same baby is screeching at high pitched decibels for the unknown. I doubt that there's any mother reading this who won't empathize with the harried Emma as she pushes the infant in the unwieldy pram while trying to keep her eyes on the toddler with his trike. Danger can come from anywhere, at any minute.

But whenever Emma seems to be at the end of her rope, Nina is there with the lifeline. How is it that this neighbor, professional artist, svelte, polished, put-together Nina, becomes Johnny on the spot? She "finds" Emma's lost wallet, she "discovers" the missing toddler Christopher on her front steps, she slowly insinuates herself into Emma and husband Ben's lives until she is almost indispensable, even offering ten days away from the madding crowd at her family's summer home in France. Why her?

And therein lies the problem with this entertaining but hardly heart knocking psychological thriller. It simply takes too long to ratchet up the tension. Every other chapter is a repeat of the one prior, so that Emma tells her version of an incident and then Nina offers the same tale from her perspective. But the differences are just too nuanced and the risk of boring the reader is simply too great.

Revenge has historically been the motivation for some horrific acts of violence yet often it is the minor injury we commit, without even being aware, that settles in a twisted person's psyche and percolates for years. How can we defend ourselves, apologize for, or even acknowledge our offense if we are oblivious to it? Perhaps that's the banality of evil that Harriet Lane would like us to think about. Have you read this novel? What did you think? Agree? Disagree? Let's talk.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

This is How You Lose Her

There is only one way to be introduced to Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz ("The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"). You absolutely must listen to him. After finishing his short story collection, "This is How You Lose Her," yesterday afternoon, I mucked about the Internet enthralled by all of the interviews and lectures that I found. These interactions give you a feel for the man and for what a delight it must be to land in one of his writing classes.

This is how you lose her
Diaz is a writer who does not hold back. Be prepared for a wild ride if you decide to jump into his work. Born in the Dominican Republic and transplanted to New Jersey, now living in Boston, Diaz writes in a funky patois, half English, half Spanish, with an overridingly heavy Jersey accent. If you're squeamish about four letter words, he's especially liberal with the one that begins with "f," then you might have to stay away but, honestly, you'd be doing yourself a disservice.
Reviewers pretty much concur that Yunior, the narrator of these tales, is Diaz's alter ego. I thought as much while listening but kind of hoped it wasn't true because, as hilarious as these stories are, (I often found myself stopped at a light and laughing out loud to the consternation of my fellow drivers) there is an unmistakable air of melancholy and loneliness running underneath the surface.
One story recounts how Yunior, his older brother Rafa, and their mom, finally came to the United States after waiting for their dad who had been here and working for quite a while, to send for them. Dad had no idea how to deal with his two little boys. They had never actually lived with him and he had strict Dominican ideas of how to deal with women and children. Think seen and not heard.
For an entire winter, Diaz recalls, they were confined to a small apartment with nothing but a TV for company, while they peered out the window to see other kids their age having snowball fights and running wild and free. When the little cutie next door waved at him through his frosted pane for the umpteenth time, Yunior decides to make a break for it knowing he'll pay when his dad gets home but also sensing that it'll be worth it.
Most of the stories though are about men and women, the dating and mating dance, the misunderstandings, the miscommunications, the extremely angst-filled game that so many play as they begin that endless quest for "the one." And Yunior? Well, he has a problem. As his posse says, he just can't keep it in his pants. Whether he's sleeping with the neighbor who's old enough to be his mom, or with his brother's girl, he's always got more than one thing going at a time. And when he's caught out? Well, that the subject of another story.
Junot Diaz is also very conscious of his position as a writer of color. In fact he founded an organization called VONA
Observations on the immigrant experience, race and gradations of color are present in all of his stories and are addressed in very funny but ironically truthful ways. I don't have any way of knowing if Diaz's take on the world of love and marriage for the forty-something crowd is accurate but, if you've got the courage to delve into it, it's an eye-opener for sure.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Ones That Didn't Make the Cut

I've been terribly remiss in keeping to a weekly schedule this winter and I know that there's nothing more frustrating to readers than to visit a blog they count on for hot off the presses book news and find that it hasn't been updated. My only excuse is that my life has been more restricted by deadlines in the past four months than when I was working full time. What's wrong with this picture?

I've read thirty-eight books so far this year and have recorded seven reviews for WGCU where my monthly radio program "The Florida Book Page" is now airing once a month. I still have two more reviews to write and record before I leave Florida for the summer - a terrifyingly looming three weeks from now!

You have a huge treat ahead for you this summer when Paula McLain's new novel after "The Paris Wife" comes out. I just sent my glowing review to "Library Journal." If you were a fan of "Out of Africa" then keep your eyes on the lookout for "Circling the Sun," a fictional biography of the aviator Beryl Markham.

So often I read a book that I enjoy but that's it. I can't rave about it but it still may have been a pleasant way to pass my reading time. If I choose not to write about it, I realize that I'm censoring myself a bit. After all, just because it didn't rock me doesn't mean that it wouldn't be just what the doctor ordered for someone else. There is a book for every occasion, correct?

So, as I continue to meet my deadlines over the next couple of weeks and get myself moved to Maryland, I thought I might just give a brief shout out to a few of the books that I've enjoyed lately.

book cover Lydia Millet's "Mermaids in Paradise," is a novel that I listened to while I walked. The reader had just the right cynical attitude for the main character, Deb, who is on her honeymoon on a supposedly deserted, romantic tropical island. One of the problems is that her recently acquired husband is a real chatty cathy. He has never met a stranger, she is an introvert, and he schedules every moment of their time with the new friends they've met at the resort.

While on an afternoon pleasure boat ride Deb and Chip and all their new found friends witness a phenomenon that seems impossible to believe. Mermaids - everywhere. Thankfully one of them has had the foresight to film the bizarre spectacle or who would believe it? Well, as it turns out, plenty of folks would. But not for the right reasons.

What begins as a slapstick, crazy comedy, soon becomes a serious discussion about science, greed, and exploitation.

secular-lifePhil Zuckerman has made quite a name for himself as a spokesperson for a more humanist approach to the world. He is not, as he has been accused, anti-religion. He simply doesn't see one good reason for it. After all, he posits, do you really believe that fear of eternal damnation has ever prevented an evil act? Don't most of us simply live by the golden rule? If you remotely agree then delve into "Living the Secular Life, New Answers to Old Questions.

As a professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California, Zuckerman has studied and written about religion and humanism and their effects on societies for many years. The fact is, no matter how many new churches you see popping up on every street corner, fewer and fewer people are readily identifying as affiliated with organized religion. Some might say that we are devolving as human beings but Zuckerman and many other scholars believe that we may actually be evolving. Wouldn't it be grand if we no longer needed a hierarchical structure to keep us in line but rather, behaved humanely just because it feels good. It does you know.

Don't Call Me BabyBecause Gwendolyn Heasley lives in Naples, Florida, I was given an early reading copy of her young adult book, "Don't Call Me Baby," to peruse for my radio program. I wasn't sure that it would be the type of novel that would appeal to our morning listeners but I could certainly see its potential, especially for librarians and book lovers interested in cross generational literature.

Ms. Heasley writes about two women who earn their livings by blogging about their daughters to the point of obsessiveness. They are very successful at their work. Imogene and her best friend Sage have had every moment of their lives dissected and shared in cyberspace from birth. Now fifteen years old and ready for high school, they have had it! When they are given a school assignment to design and maintain a blog, the girls see the perfect way to get pay back time.

Heasley writes teenagers who all seem a little to good to be true but the subject of her novel still gives us food for thought. Where will the share all/tell all generation end? How much information will finally be seen as TMI and why is it easier to talk to the important people in our lives through the scrim of Twitter or Facebook rather than to look directly into their loving eyes? Great book discussion potential here!

So, tell me, what have you all read and enjoyed lately? I'll soon be reunited with my reading swing which overlooks the Chesapeake. I'll be able to spend hours of uninterrupted reading time there because, as my friend Don reminds me, this is my job. All suggestions are welcome.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Frances Godwin, Another Tough Woman

I've returned from beautiful Costa Rica and a wonderful visit with a friend who's one strong woman. She and I share of love for the author Robert Hellenga ( who initially grabbed us with "The Sixteen Pleasures," so I had dragged along his latest book for her to read while I was there. As you can imagine, as much as we all love books, we didn't get much reading accomplished. On the flight home, however, I jumped in and finished "The Confessions of Frances Godwin" in two days.
Frances spoke to me for a number of reasons, she's a Latin teacher as was my mom, she's a young widow like my sister-in-law, she's prone to examining her life in minute detail like my dear friend Andrea, and she's in love with Italy as I am. Perhaps she is Hellenga's alter-ego or maybe she's channeling his mom. Either way I loved her for her humanity, her truth, and her passion for all that life throws at her.
Frances begins her story in 2006 having survived hernia repair surgery and been advised by her friend/arch-enemy Lois that she should think about getting her affairs in order. Yes, she's about my age. Her confessions take her back to 1963 in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome where, now graduated from college, she is taking a conversational Latin course with the renowned Father Adrian. Back in the states she's left a lover, her Shakespeare professor Paul Godwin, whose marriage is now on the skids because of their torrid affair.
Forty-some years later Paul and Frances are still together in Galesburg, Illinois. Their only child, Stella, has failed to live up to their high expectations, having eschewed study at the Iowa Writers' School, to take up with a thug named Jimmy who treks vegetables cross country in an eighteen wheeler.
Paul has lung cancer. In less than a year Frances must face the world as a solo traveler. What she decides to do and how she does it fills this small novel with big ideas. We learn about astronomy, antique automobiles, opera, piano tuning, great wines, and even the Catholic church.
Some critics might say that Hellenga throws in everything but the kitchen sink to show off the breadth of his knowledge. I say that he takes a love story, a murder mystery, and a fantasy, combined with a dose of magical realism, wraps it up in the food and music of Italy, and serves up the kind of satisfying novel that will stay with you days after you've closed the cover.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

8th Anniversary of Reading Around the World

Eight glorious years of sharing my thoughts with you about books and ideas, it scarcely seems possible. I can't thank you all enough for taking this journey with me. There have been days when I thought I'd run out of things to say and others when I couldn't stop typing. There were times when I felt the urge, no, the need to write about other pressing topics, especially my family. Then too, I had fabulous journeys to share, and politics to rave and rage about.
But it always comes back to books, doesn't it? The beauty of the written word cannot be taken lightly. Authors are my heroes. They create a path to understanding, to the unique, to empathy for those in circumstances so different from our own. They keep us awake at night. They can terrify us, make us cry. And they are as diverse as we the readers are.
I plan to be off the grid for about ten days but I'll have so much to share when I return. I have new books from Paula McClain and Jane Urquhart on the way to me from Library Journal. I have a bag full of giveaways for new commenters. Jenny, you are first up.
I've also been introduced to several new (to me) Florida writers whose books will likely make it to WGCU's Florida Book Page. And best of all I met a lively fellow book lover at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival whose audio author interviews I highly recommend. Her name is Cary Barbor and you can catch her here.
See you in April.