Thursday, March 16, 2017

Elaine Newton Does it Again

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending Professor Elaine Newton's ( lecture at Artis-Naples on the novel "The Swans of Fifth Avenue." These mornings in Naples have been one of the greatest pleasures of my retirement and I have finally "qualified" as a returning guest. Ms. Newton's book talks sell out years in advance and deservedly so. She has the ability to take the worst book you've ever read and, in just an hour and a half, have you leaving the lecture hall praising it to the heavens. Such was the case for me with this novel by Melanie Benjamin.

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Though the general reading public obviously won't agree with me on this, I think that the genre of fictional biography is being overused. My predilection then, was to discount this book that stars gadabout writer Truman Capote and the wealthy, aimless women who swanned around him, petted him, and indulged him until he finally bit the hands that fed him.

I listened to the book in audio format and I can only conclude that, having met Ms. Benjamin last week and marveled at her stage presence (she has an acting background), her sense of humor, and her spot-on portrayal of Capote during her reading, I would have adored this novel if she had recorded it herself.

I forgot a cardinal rule of book reviewing. You don't have to "like" the characters to appreciate the strength of the writing that brings them to life. In fact it's a testament to an author's talent when he or she can arouse negative feelings as easily as positive ones. Melanie Benjamin's writing chops are on full display here.

She paints what Newton calls "New York café society" of the 1950's and '60's in brilliant colors. The swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman, and Slim Keith, are painfully real as wealthy, glamorous, strategically-married ladies of a certain class that is difficult for most of us to comprehend. Their elevation to the highest echelons of the New York social scene is precarious, based only upon the fates of their spouses, where they dine, where they shop, who they secretly love, and oh yes, where they get their plastic surgery.

When the swans adopt Truman Capote he is still a fledgling writer. "In Cold Blood" has yet to be published. Truman ingratiates himself with the group, cleverly convincing each woman that she is his special pet. But it is Babe Paley and her husband Bill, head of CBS television, to whom he is most attracted. Capote recognizes in Babe another soul just as lonely and empty as his own. They share a yearning to fill gaps in their lives that neither can fully express. But Babe's trust in Truman, though profound, eventually proves to be sorely misplaced.

And so, rather than a fluffy, lightweight novel about pretty despicable people, Benjamin, I now see, has written an American tragedy with Shakespearean overtones. Betrayal, waste, and downfall are at the crux of this fictional biography that rings oh so sadly true.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Dispelling Fear Through Literature

In these unsettling times, under the forty-fifth president, fear of the "other" is being ratcheted up to the nth degree. Ignorance has become a badge of honor. And yet I cling to the hope that literature can somehow bridge the gap between fear and understanding.

I am exceedingly fortunate in that my milieu at "Library Journal," is international literature. My editor inundates me with glorious novels that rarely make the best seller lists. Sadly, you won't find them reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Yet these books, difficult and tragic as they may be, are windows into the heart of other cultures and would go a long way toward enlightenment if they were only read by more people.

In fact, I just this minute put the finishing touches on a review of "A Good Country," a fantastic novel by Iranian-born author Laleh Khadivi, about a family well assimilated and successfully living in California until the bombing at the Boston Marathon upends the life of the teen-aged son. This is a must-read book, timely, observant, and tragic. It comes out in May.

Already published are my reviews of two other outstanding books that should be on your radar screens. For a Palestinian view of the displacements that began with the Six-Day War of 1967, look for (also in May) Hala Alyan's lovely

Salt Houses

Library Journal
In what feels like a very personal debut novel, the award-winning poet Alyan, her lyrical skills on full display, traces four generations of the Yacoub family as they are forced into the ranks of the Palestinian diaspora. Constantly uprooted by war, Salma, Hussam, and their children Widad, Alia, and Mustafa make disparate decisions that have ramifications for their offspring over five decades. First fleeing Israeli tanks that bulldoze through their home in Jaffa, later settling in Nablus, only to be routed by the 1967 Six-Day War, Alia and her husband, Atef, relocate with her sister Widad to Kuwait. Salma, now a widow, joins the family in Amman, Jordan, while Mustafa, the rebellious brother who was the light around which his family circled, disappears. The Yacoubs are fortunate. Not relegated to refugee camps, they have the wherewithal to fashion new lives for themselves. Still, Alyan makes it abundantly clear how displaced persons, separated from their culture, their religion, and their homeland, are forever altered. VERDICT This timely historical does for the Palestinians what Khaled Hosseini did for the people of Afghanistan. By placing readers inside the hearts and minds of one Arab family scattered from Paris to Boston to Lebanon, she beautifully illustrates the resilience of the human spirit. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/16.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

Then next month go out and grab the latest offering from the Booker-nominated, Pakistani author, Nadeem Aslam.
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Library Journal
★ 02/15/2017
On the day of his death, Massud awoke to the muezzin's call to prayer and the smell of baking bread, a fragrance, he had read, that instills kindness in human beings. There are many acts of generosity in this exquisite novel, though they are equaled by the treachery and corruption common to this Punjab region of northern Pakistan, where Muslims and Christians live warily side by side. Massud's grieving widow, Nargis, refuses to accept blood money from the state in exchange for her absolution of the American who shot her husband, causing the authorities to investigate this difficult woman, who may be harboring a blasphemous secret. Her intransigence draws adverse scrutiny to the Christian family who lives next door, a young woman named Helen and her widowed father, Lily, who is in a forbidden relationship with the imam's daughter. Through the reminiscences of each of these deeply sympathetic characters, Aslam (The Blind Man's Garden; The Wasted Vigil) elucidates the history of occupation and division that has influenced Pakistan's current climate of religious intolerance. VERDICT Man Booker Prize long-listed and Dublin short-listed Aslam uses lush, sensuous prose to create beauty from ugliness, calm from chaos, and love from hatred, offering hope to believers and nonbelievers alike. This thoughtful, thought-provoking read will enthrall lovers of international fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 10/17/16.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

And if you don't want to wait I'll be thrilled to send out pre-publication copies of any of these titles. Just say the word. Email your address to me at

Friday, February 24, 2017

A New Generation Vying to be Heard in The Fire This Time

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Literate readers can look just about anywhere today and find references to the work of James Baldwin. The thirtieth anniversary of his death has caused renewed interest in Baldwin's remarkable output of essays, novels, and short stories. The documentary film "I Am Not Your Negro," about Baldwin and his groundbreaking work, will be considered for an Academy Award on Sunday evening.

"The Fire This Time," is a collection of essays compiled by the estimable author and memoirist, Jesmyn Ward, whose devastating novel "Salvage the Bones," about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, earned her a National Book Award. The title is an homage to Baldwin but the essays are dedicated to Trayvon Martin and "the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years."

This work seems especially important as our country tries to move forward in the wake of Donald Trump's presidency and the strong presence of a white nationalist, Steve Bannon, at the president's right side. We should all be afraid, but unless we've seen inside the soul of a black man or woman, I don't think we can fully comprehend the constant drain that prejudice and distrust takes on the psyche. These essays will give readers some measure of insight. 

Divided into three parts, the book deals with the past, present, and future, or Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. Ward has called on friends to weigh in and oh, do they ever. Professor of Creative Writing at the New School, Wendy Walters relays her experience in "Lonely in America," a story about her reckoning with her family's history of enslavement, a history she chalked up to her roots in Louisiana. But living in New England, she was taken by surprise to find that bodies discovered under the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were found to be those of African families long forgotten.

Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) asks "Where Do We Go From Here?" after the death of Eric Garner, and multi-award-winning poet and essayist Kevin Young weighs in on the very ironic case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman, president of an NAACP chapter in Oregon, who passed as black for years in a very funny "Blacker Than Thou."

Perhaps two of the most difficult essays come from poet Claudia Rankine and memoirist Edwidge Danticat. Rankine looks back at the killing of four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, recounts the courage of Mamie Till Mobley who ordered an open casket for her murdered son Emmett's funeral, and moves forward to Dylann Storm Roof and the Black Lives Matter movement in "The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning." Danticat pens a "Message to my Daughters" harkening back to Baldwin's letter to his nephew in which he explained how to exist in a world that sees you as a worthless human being.

Harsh words? Yes, the are. But like Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, "Between the World and Me," these essays issue a warning of a legacy that has not died. Racism has been percolating under the surface for many years now. Some of us idealists thought it had gone away but we were wrong. This election has brought out the worst in human nature and it's imperative that we continue to read and understand and try to put ourselves in another man's shoes to fully grasp the fear and depression that the new administration is inflicting upon people of color and all people of good heart.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Chabon's Moonglow Glows

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I've been asking you readers for titles of books that you just couldn't put down and you haven't offered me any possibilities. But I kept looking and now I have a treat for you. My favorite read of 2017, and yes I know that the year is young, comes from Pulitzer Prize winner (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) Michael Chabon. I'm embarrassed to admit that though I've assiduously followed his career because of his spectacularly opinionated wife, novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, I had never read one of Mr. Chabon's books. Oh my, now, where to begin?
"Moonglow" is subtitled "a Novel" but it's one of those instances where you sense that the author is having fun with you in terms of what is true and what is not. In fact, he tells us so in his author's note when he assures us that he has taken liberties with his family's story with pure abandon. A love story, a war story, a memoir? What's your pleasure? This book has it all and Chabon offers it up to us readers as a gift.
A young man who just happens to be a writer is visiting with his grandfather over the last week of the man's life. This once rather quiet, severe man is suddenly bursting with stories which he shares with Michael/the writer in fits and starts until he's unspooling a remarkable history of the twentieth century. From the horrors that he witnessed in Germany during the second world war, to his fascination with rockets and space exploration courtesy of the publicity surrounding Wernher von Braun, to a stint in prison, and marriage to a war-damaged woman, the grandfather purges his soul for the eager pen of his grandson.
Chabon writes sensitively yet seductively about the mysteries of his grandmother's background, a Jewish girl, unmarried and pregnant, protected from the Nazis by a Carmelite community of French nuns. In a stunningly evocative chapter, Chabon recounts the night in 1947 when his grandparents met at a Baltimore synagogue that was hosting a casino night. (Funny, I thought only Catholics raised money by gaming.) Each detail of their clothing, their mannerisms, the sexual attraction, and the uncomfortable repartee as they inch toward each other and a lifetime of better and worse, is sheer literary perfection.
Generational novels that delve into family secrets, tragedies, and misunderstandings are a dime a dozen. But in the hands of Mr. Chabon the genre is elevated to another dimension. Each character stands out and none are a "type." There's Uncle Ray, granddad's brother, a former rabbi with a penchant for women, the track, and booze and the delightful German priest and sci-fi aficionado, Father Nickel, who harbors granddad and his fellow soldier in a hayloft to avoid retreating German troops.
Though there are many wry, funny bits in this book, overall it is a distinctly sobering examination of mental illness, of the dark side of mankind, and of the struggle to escape the effects of a past that may threaten to pull one under. There are lies we tell to protect ourselves and there are those we tell to protect others. And though love is a ferocious, glowing force throughout this beautiful novelized memoir the sad truth is that sometimes love's just not enough.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Moonlight and the Danger of A Single Story

My friend Don and I have instituted what we call "movie Mondays," our attempt to see all of the Academy Award nominated films before the Oscar production at the end of the month. This week we finally got to see "Moonlight." Let me say, unequivocally that I found it to be a beautifully shot, quiet film with some outstanding performances, especially Ashton Sanders as the teen, Chiron, struggling with his sexual identity, and Naomi Harris as his mom.

The problem arose in the third part of the film when Chiron is a young adult, now a drug dealer like his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali), living in Atlanta where his mother is in a drug rehabilitation facility. I turned to Don and said, "I wonder how the writer went from being a drug dealer to being an award winning playwright?" As a librarian, I had to immediately go home and investigate.

Of course what I found out is that neither Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose 2003 theatre piece "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" was written as an entry to graduate school, nor Barry Jenkins, the screen writer and director of the movie, had ever been drug dealers, not remotely close. Yet they have been participating in world-wide interviews speaking about the semi-autobiographical nature of their film collaboration.

I'm confident that they don't intend to mislead audiences but it will happen nevertheless. Both men grew up in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida, during the crack epidemic of the '80's. Each had mothers who succumbed to addiction. McCraney's mom died. Jenkins' came out on the other side. McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight. Each attended the same fine arts high school in Miami that set them on the path to higher education and success. McCraney holds a degree from DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, Jenkins from Florida State.  

One of my favorite authors and speakers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a famous TED Talk about the danger of a single story.
Her talk is really about ignorance, ignorance and lack of imagination when it comes to the American world view of Africa's many countries and their diversity. Don argues vehemently that the same ignorance holds true about America's view of African Americans and he hates it when filmmakers play into this single story, ie: The Butler, The Help, Fences, Twelve Years a Slave. Hidden Figures is the recent notable exception. 

So the question is, why didn't McCraney and Jenkins write the full story of their wonderful lives? Why didn't they show Chiron going on to college, accepting and loving himself as a gay, Black man in America? Why did they leave audiences to believe that the only way up and out of neighborhoods like Liberty City is through a life dealing drugs? Why the single story when the actual story is so much more compelling and uplifting? Don is writing to McCraney and Jenkins with these questions. I'll let you know if he gets answers.