Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Wonderful Book, Unfortunate Title

North of Dawn: A NovelNuruddin Farah has spent a lifetime writing about the plight of the Somali Diaspora and the difficulty immigrants must overcome as they assimilate into new cultures and countries. I have had the privilege of reviewing several of his novels for "Library Journal" and have discovered that his work, especially this new book, "North of Dawn," is extremely accessible to readers who enjoy learning through fiction.
From the chilling moment when a suicide vest explodes in a crowded Somali marketplace, ripple effects are felt in Oslo where the bomber’s parents, Gacalo and Mugdi, have lived and thrived as secular Muslims for decades. Now Gacalo, fulfilling a promise to her dead son, Dhaqaneh, intends to sponsor his widow Waliya, and her children Naciim and Saafi, causing a rift in the family which is concerned by the burgeoning anti-immigrant sentiment in Norway. How will their friends respond to the news that their own son has embraced jihad?
Reclusive Waliya, fully cloaked in niqab and strongly influenced by a local Imam, is reluctant to allow her bright, inquisitive children to take advantage of the tremendous educational opportunities that Norway provides for new immigrants. The kids, naturally, are torn between loyalty to their mother and the exciting freedoms offered by their grandparents. Nacim especially, has developed a close relationship with his grandfather, preferring to eat and sleep at his home, while everyone worries that Waliya may be grooming young Saafi for marriage to a much older man.
Then a terrorist strikes closer to home and Farah poses the question, are we ever truly safe in a world where fear of “the other” prevails? Farah is always passionate when delving into the conundrum faced by victims of brutality forced to emigrate to a foreign, often frightening country, no matter how welcoming the new home may be.
An exile himself, from a homeland he can never stop loving, Farah has taught and written in countries all over the world and currently lives in South Africa. His name is always bandied about as a potential Nobel Prize winner, and though it hasn't happened yet, I have no doubt that it will. If you're interested in getting acquainted with him, I have copies of both "North of Dawn" and his 2014 novel, "Hiding in Plain Sight." Send me a comment soon as next week I'm taking the train to the cold north for a couple of months.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Reading into a New Year

It's already eleven days into the new year. Where does the time go? Don and I have been lollygagging our way through the first week, putting off the packing that must be done before we head to Maryland at the end of the month for his hip replacement surgery.

I had two assignments from Library Journal, wonderful novels that are always dark and deep, so I prefer to intersperse them with what I consider a little light reading. This time that didn't turn out to be the case. Former co-worker and friend Lesa Holstine had recommended Jeffrey Siger's "An Aegean April" on her favorites list and, since I love, love, love Greece, I dove right in. This is the ninth in a series featuring Andreas Kaldis, Athens chief inspector, who reflects Mr. Siger's own mixed feelings about his adopted country.

 There is nothing light about the plight of refugees seeking asylum on Greek and Italian islands as Don and I learned first hand from his grandson who's been studying and writing about the crisis in Sicily. The novel begins with a horrific murder of a wealthy businessman, Mihalis Volandes, who, having made his fortune in shipping, has partnered with an activist NGO, offering his ships to help rescue Turkish migrants floundering at sea off the coast of Lesvos.

What doesn't make sense is that Ali Sera, a young immigrant himself, who's been working with the NGO, Safe Passage, is found at the scene covered in blood. There is no murder weapon and no motive but still he is arrested in a ploy to strike the fear of immigrants into the hearts of the island's residents, a plot that sounds eerily like the contrived crisis that our president has concocted at our own borders.

Siger examines the usual tensions that arise between police departments that spar for funding and jurisdiction, as well as the corruption that motivates a medical examiner to falsify records in order to keep Sera locked up. The feisty American, Dana McLaughlin, who heads up Safe Passage, puts pressure on Kaldis to come over from Athens to intervene in the investigation and the search is on for a ruthless killer with no political agenda, and the head of a Turkish slave trafficking ring. This fast-paced mystery stands perfectly well on its own but it may prompt some of you to go to the beginning and get to better know chief inspector Kaldis and his crew.

On my ipod I had downloaded the second book by Thomas Mullen following "Darktown," http://readaroundtheworld-sallyb.blogspot.com/2016/10/mullens-darktown-tells-of-dark-time.html which introduced readers to the Atlanta police department circa 1950, a time when the government forces the hiring of Atlanta's first black officers. Lucian Boggs and Tommy Smith struggle to do their work within the tight parameters set by the department, no weapons, no offices, no access to police cars, in other words, they are set up to fail.

"Lightning Men" begins more slowly than its predecessor but it is equally powerful as a historical testament to the courage of these young black officers, educated veterans of World War II, who hope to prove their worth to their own black community who often see them as sell-outs, and to the white community they plan to integrate.

In this episode Boggs and Smith are apprised of an illegal moonshine business being run out of the back of a locally owned grocery store. Trying to keep booze and drugs out of the black community is a priority for Boggs, the preacher's son, but when the partners stake out the operation, catching the perpetrators in the middle of a handoff, they discover, to no one's surprise, that it's white men running the show. Black officers are not even allowed to question a white man, let alone arrest him, and now one is lying dead in the road.

Addressing issues of white flight, neo-Nazis, the Klan, and the Sisyphean task facing black police officers in the Jim Crow south, Thomas Mullen does an outstanding job of delivering tight thrillers coupled with an accurate look at our shameful history of racial injustice.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Top Faves of 2018

Here it is, New Year's Eve, and I'm only just deciding on my favorite reads of 2018. In fact, yesterday I finished a gorgeous novel that I'm reviewing for Library Journal but, since it doesn't even come out until 2019, I'll save it at the top of my list for next year. It's called "The Dragonfly Sea" by Yvonne Owuor. Be sure to keep an eye out for it in March. The language will have you swooning.

So, the operative word here is "favorite," not necessarily "best." That moniker I left to the journals and newspapers. These are the books that touched me deeply, that made me sigh with satisfaction or delight when I closed the last page. In no particular order they are:

Asymmetry: A Novel"Asymmetry," by Lisa Halliday is one of the most original books that I read this year. Two books in one, a May/December romance that may or may not be based on Ms. Halliday's long relationship with Philip Roth, and the story of an Iraqi-American detained by authorities at Heathrow airport. Halliday brilliantly ties the two stories together in this amazing debut that examines the imbalance, the asymmetry if you will, in unequal relationships. https://bit.ly/2LFkgVd

"Anatomy of a Miracle," by Jonathan Miles. This incredible novel should be on every reading group's list if they want a powerful book discussion. A wheelchair bound Afghan war veteran suddenly stands up and walks. A miracle? Oh howAnatomy of a Miracle: A Novel* believers wish it were so, no matter what the medical evidence says. The church sends an envoy from Rome, the little Mississippi town is turned upside down, a doctor's reputation is on the line, and a TV crew can't wait to make fools of Cameron and his devoted sister and caregiver Tanya. If you read for characterization, you'll love Miles.

I rarely read short stories so I surprised myself with my reaction to this rare, luminous collection, "Florida, Stories," by Lauren Groff. She captures the Sunshine State at its very darkest, dankest, and most evil, yet each story rings completely true for those of us who've lived here for any length of time. Take your time and savor each story slowly. https://bit.ly/2s03wPv

"The Great Believers," by Rebecca Makkai has topped out many lists this year and there's a reason for that. We toggle back and forth between late '80's Chicago as Yale pursues his career in art acquisition - a fascinating story in itself - and 2015 Paris. Fiona is the bridge. Fiona is a woman suffering from the trauma of losing The Great Believerseveryone she's known and cared for. Is it possible that she's used up all the love she had to give? Unable to sustain her marriage, now estranged from her adult daughter, Fiona is on a mission to bridge the divide with her child and maybe even find a reservoir of compassion left for herself. Makkai sheds a harsh light on the pain of the AIDS epidemic, a time some readers may not even remember. https://bit.ly/2LIhfU2

 Gun Love: A Novel
 "Gun Love," by Jennifer Clement left me feeling broken but amazed at the way an author's words could do this to me. Oh! the talent!

A 1994 Mercury Topaz is home to Pearl, the precocious and wryly observant fourteen-year-old narrator of this devastating, lyrical novel set in a dilapidated Florida trailer park where the denizens live on the edge of quiet desperation while dreaming of a different life, devoid of drugs and guns and men who can’t be trusted. Clement has written an unforgettable paean to the resilience of the human spirit.
I'm certain that few of you have ever heard of Joseph Cassera or his first novel "The House of Impossible Beauties." I don't understand why Library Journal The House of Impossible Beauties: A Novelwas one of the few reputable resources to add this gloriously written book to it's top ten list. If you know as little as I did about the transgender culture and dance houses in New York City during the '80's, made famous by the documentary film "Paris is Burning," this amazing debut will open your eyes and implore your empathy for the young Latino men and women searching for identity, family, and acceptance.

And of course, what librarian would not add Susan Orlean's delightful, well researched, "The Library Book," a fascinating, uplifting, and dazzling history of Los Angeles and the great fire that shuttered its flagship library.
The Library Book
Orlean throws herself into the research with the verve she has previously applied to such disparate characters as ghost orchids and Rin Tin Tin. She unearths some delicious details about previous librarians who helmed LA Public. Did you know that women weren't "allowed" to hold library cards in LA until 1880? 

The Overstory: A Novel

Richard Powers' "The Overstory" is still my number one of the year. In this stunning work of imaginative prowess, Powers illustrates the symbiotic relationship between trees, insects, animals, and human beings through Norwegian immigrant Jorgen Hoel who moves to Iowa, pockets filled with chestnut seeds  which he plants on the family farm, setting in motion this luminous tale of nine seemingly unrelated characters whose lives intersect over decades in profoundly unsettling ways.

And finally, hey, my champagne is waiting for me in the other room, Leif Enger's "Virgil Wander." This is a novel that will restore your sanity in these troubled times. I promise. The daily life of a small, declining, Minnesota town is movingly exalted by Enger’s beautifully written meditation on memory, loneliness, loss, and rebirth as seen through the eyes of Rune, a flyer of kites, in search of a son he never knew he had, and Nadine, who’s given up hopes of reunion with her long-missing husband, and Virgil himself, a man whose spirit opens to a new world of possibilities after surviving a nearly fatal automobile accident.

Happy New Year everyone. Isn't it wonderful to realize that there are more wonderful books than ever, already written and just waiting for our enjoyment, out there right now? Too many books, too little time. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 30, 2018


Becoming….how a reluctant Michelle Obama became the most popular first lady to ever grace the halls of the White House. The dilemma for me as a reader is to try to separate my love for the Obamas, my feelings which are personal and political, from an objective look at this best-selling memoir in terms of style and substance.

If you're a reader who hasn't been an Obama aficionado since, let's say, 2005, then you will absolutely love and appreciate this book from beginning to end. If, like me, you've read everything you could put your hands on since 2005, especially David Axelrod's "Believer," http://readaroundtheworld-sallyb.blogspot.com/2016/08/axelrods-believer-confirms-why-i-am-one.html and seen the films like "Barry" and "Southside with You," then you may find that there are parts of this book that you may decide to skim.

I found the strongest section of Michelle's memoir to be the first third, "Becoming Me." Oddly enough this is where the details and memories seem most acute. Every instance of that childhood in a tiny, sweltering upstairs apartment in the home of her great-aunt Robbie, an exacting piano teacher, comes to vivid life. I could see my own family, all three of us kids in one small bedroom, giggling, spatting, and talking through the night, in Michelle and older brother Craig, as they, too, talked and giggled through the partition their dad had built down the middle of the living room to give them each some semblance of privacy. Her love for her parents, her appreciation for her mother Marian, for the work ethic they instilled in her, runs deep and strong. 

This section is where Michelle overcomes the prejudice she encounters on the playgrounds and in the schools, where she is reminded again and again that she may not be "Princeton material." This is where the laborious perfectionist learned to perform in public on a grand piano, where she easily followed Craig to Princeton and then on to Harvard Law School. This is where Michelle Obama honed the skills that would make her a person to be reckoned with in her own right, earning a six figure salary at a swanky Chicago law firm, long before a cocky intern, Barack Hussein Obama, swaggered in to her 46th floor office ten minutes late. (a tendency she hated and one he would never get over)

"Becoming Us," the second section of the book, is the love story many of us memorized as the Obamas traveled the campaign trail. Michelle says this is when she made the "big swerve." Timing is everything. Just as she was feeling less fulfilled with corporate law, this young idealist and visionary, Barack Obama,  was asking her what she wanted out of life. Where did she see herself down the road? How could she use her talents to help others more and herself less. He had an idea, she didn't like it. Politics!

I found that this part dragged somewhat, perhaps just too much ground to be covered with too few of the titillating, telling details that most of us love to uncover. Michelle Obama is no gossip and rarely throws shade at anyone, though she'd have been forgiven had she done so. Or would she? That is what's at the heart of this book after all. Will the first black anyone always be held to a higher, almost unattainable standard? Yes! And the first black president and first lady?  Of course! The joy of it is that they did attain the unattainable, living exemplary, grace-filled lives in this white house that may have been built by Michelle's own enslaved relatives only a few generations back.

The third section, "Becoming More," soars once again as Michelle hits her stride. No longer out of her comfort zone, she excels at campaigning, yearning this time with all her heart to win so that she and her family can continue to expand on their work for the environment, gun control, educational opportunities for all, and opening their white house to all the people, not just the elite Washington insiders. Michelle Obama's very existence has become a beacon of hope, not just for young girls and women of color, but for all of us who have been marginalized or unseen, whose opinions are overlooked or disregarded whether in board meetings, or on county commissions, or at school, or even at home.

The results of Michelle's eight years in Washington are seen in the incomparable cadre of women who have run for, or plan to run for office, as evidenced by this article from today's New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/29/us/politics/michelle-obama-stacey-abrams-politics.html

So, you may wonder, is this the best book I've read this year? No. That list will begin tomorrow. But, is "Becoming" a must-read? The answer is a resounding yes. Michelle writes as if she's just chatting over tea or a glass of wine. She is very open, personal, and human about her fears, for her girls, her relationship with her husband, about being "good enough" to represent her race and gender in the second most important job in the United States. Anyone who reads her story will have to agree with me. She nailed it!

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Diary of a Bookseller

I've just finished the most delightful book, one that I discovered by accident, and one that has convinced me to add a new town to my "places to visit before I die" list. Wigtown, Scotland, (http://www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk/) is the unlikely village, apparently known throughout the world for having the largest number of bookshops anywhere! Who knew? 

The Diary of a BooksellerI downloaded Shaun Bythell's book, "The Diary of a Bookseller," to my kindle ages ago courtesy of Net Galley. I was several pages in before I even realized that it wasn't a novel but Bythell's actual hilarious, wryly subversive diary of a year in the life of the used book store unassumingly called The Bookshop. https://www.the-bookshop.com/

Shaun and his wife Anna live above the shop where an assortment of lost souls, part time staffers, and visiting dignitaries to the annual book festival simply doff their shoes at the store and settle in for supper, the night, or weeks.

Shaun is extremely well-versed in his profession and reading his diary will open up vistas for those of you who may think what a nice, easy life it would be to run a bookshop. However, he's probably the last person who should be dealing with the public as he suffers no fools gladly and had me laughing out loud in the doctor's office yesterday, appalled at some of the comments he makes to his own customers. What's so wonderful about them is that they are pithy rejoinders to idiotic statement that you know we all wish we had the courage to speak aloud but don't. 

Bythell abhors Amazon and rants at length about their policies which bite into any potential profit for independent booksellers, and, sad to say, he has no love lost for librarians either. He hates the way we treat our discards, stamping them all over, removing the verso page, and basically depriving them of any value they might have had before we got our grubby little hands on them.

He introduces us to Nicky, his right hand gal with the indecipherable method of subject heading shelving, who hews to Foodie Friday by bringing in leftover goodies she's found in a "skip," a dumpster behind a local grocery store. Yuk! We go with Shaun and the volunteers and employees as the "skip" out to the local pub or spend the morning fly fishing for salmon. In fact, Shaun is all over the countryside on book buying expeditions, sometimes even unearthing a gem of a book that makes it all worth while. 

For any "bookie" this diary is a must read. You'll yearn to head to Wigtown for a stay in a local bed and breakfast and a mosey down the main streets. But when you pop into The Bookshop, just don't tell Shaun that you're a librarian!