Monday, August 24, 2015

Franzen - Love Him or Hate Him?

There's no question that when Jonathan Franzen's name is mentioned, there is a thumbs up or thumbs down reaction - no in-between. I wonder why it is that we as a society love to tear people down? Sure, he ruffled some feathers when he initially refused Oprah's imprimatur for his knock-out novel, "The Corrections," but they finally kissed and made up and the book was more widely read as a result.

Then there was the hoo-ha a few years ago ( when popular novelist Jodi Picoult accused reviewers of favoring white male authors over females who write about the same subject matter. Unfortunately for her argument she referenced Jonathan Franzen. Though I always try to take the feminist side, all things being equal, I can say unequivocally, I've read Jodi Picoult and she is no Jonathan Franzen!

When I received "Purity," Franzen's much anticipated new novel, from my editor at "Library Journal," I was thrilled but nervous. I would be one of the first reviewers wading into the fray because LJ writes for pre-publication. Librarians need to know how many copies to order well ahead of the release day based upon informed guesses of what the demand will be. If the book is a flop, will I have the guts to say that the emperor has no clothes?

In this case I didn't have to worry.  "The Corrections" will probably always be my favorite book simply because there were scenes in that novel that were stolen right from our family dinner table. As for "Purity," I felt that his editor could have used her pen a lot more often, especially when it involved the sexual relationship between Pip, our heroine, and Andreas, the anti-hero and CEO of the Sunlight Project. Rather than reinvent the wheel I'm just going to share with you the review that was published in the August 1st edition of "Library Journal."

 Does anyone have truly pure intentions, or are most people motivated by their own needs and desires? This is one of the questions posed by Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom) in his provocative new novel, a book rich with characters searching for roots and meaning in a world of secrets and lies. Pip (Purity) Tyler is burdened with college debt, a minimum-wage job, and a needy yet withholding mother who lives as a recluse under an assumed name. The identity of Pip’s father is a taboo subject. Enter the shadowy, Julian Assange–like CEO of the Sunlight Project, Andreas Wolf, purveyor of all the Internet’s hidden truths. With less than pure objectives, Wolf offers Pip a researcher position at his South American headquarters. An improbable sexual cat-and-mouse game between them causes a temporary drag in the narrative, but once Pip returns stateside and is embedded in the offices of an online journal, Franzen reveals moments of absolute genius. The cathartic power of tennis; the debilitating effects of jealousy; the fickle, fleeting nature of fame; and the slow death of youthful idealism are all beautifully captured. Verdict National Book Award winner Franzen, who often decries the state of our increasingly materialistic, high-tech society via his essays and novels, this time proffers a more hopeful, sympathetic worldview. Demand will be high. [See Prepub Alert, 3/9/15.]—Sally ­Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

What a relief when I opened the "Washington Post Book World" this weekend to see that my favorite reviewer, Ron Charles, felt the same way that I did. It's always gratifying to see your judgment shared by someone you admire. How about you readers? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman, Weighing in on the Controversy


A judge in Alabama ruled that Harper Lee was capable of making her own decision regarding the release of a controversial "new" novel, one that is, in fact, a precursor to the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning "To Kill a Mockingbird." I regretfully say that I believe he erred.

I have been following the controversy surrounding "Go Set a Watchman" for so long now that I feel like an expert. But who really knows another's heart? Perhaps Harper's phenomenal sister Alice, a practicing lawyer into her '90's, who was Ms. Lee's watchman. From what I've read, this book deal was signed scarcely two weeks after Alice Lee's death at the age of 103. And someone is making pots of money.

If it's true that Watchman was actually a preliminary draft of Mockingbird, submitted for publication, sent back to the author, and reworked, then it makes perfect sense and I can appreciate it for what it is. It reads like a very personal cri de Coeur from a 20-something woman who is trying to understand her place in the world. How many of us have felt that we didn't fit in, physically or psychologically, with the place where we were raised?

Ironic indeed that Harper Lee, who as Jean Louise Finch in Watchman, leaves college and moves to New York City where she can hide among millions, ends up living out her life in Maycomb, Alabama, protected and respected by those she reviled. In fact there's an extremely funny, beautifully written scene in Watchman, where Jean Louise, forced by her stern Aunt Alexandra to hold a coffee gathering for the magpies (as she calls the women in town), writes two running conversations, the women speaking of trivialities and Jean's stream of consciousness replies, the ones she would LIKE to give.

The strongest chapters are those in which Jean Louise reflects on her childhood as Scout, the girl readers fell in love with in Mockingbird. These are so heartfelt and real that one can understand why her editor asked her to rewrite Watchman from the point of view of Scout. Maybe Ms. Lee did it chafing at the bit, but she did what she was told and earned a Pulitzer for the result.

Of course the issue that's got most Mockingbird aficionados upset is Atticus. I suspect that the majority of complainants have never even read the book. They only see the very black and white film version of Atticus embodied by Gregory Peck. Yes, he was a knight on a white horse, but hardly the nuanced character of Ms. Lee's novel. Scout had no mother to turn to. Inevitably she positioned her father on a pedestal so high that he couldn't help but fall off eventually. And fall he does in Watchman.

Jean Louise follows Atticus to a Sunday afternoon meeting at the very courthouse where she admired him as a child. Only this time he is not defending a young black man from a falsified rape charge, he is leading a meeting of the Citizens Council, a group formed to foil the integrationist results of the recently won Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education.

Physically ill at the thought of her father, and her fiancĂ© Henry, sharing a stage and a philosophy with racists, Jean Louise goes into a tirade that becomes a complex and disingenuous discussion of states rights. But there's nothing to hide the fact that Atticus, though a believer in equal justice under the law, does not believe that Negro people are equal to whites socially or intellectually. As ugly as it sounds, this is a realistic portrayal of most white men in the south in the 1960's and, dare I say it, even to this day.

"Go Tell a Watchman" is a much darker novel than "To Kill A Mockingbird," written by a woman who, I believe, was trying to sort out her own beliefs through her fiction. It's the work of a journeyman feeling her way and should be read as such. Mockingbird was a winner with the public because it made white people feel so self-satisfied. In Watchman, we don't look nearly so good. 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

"All the Old Knives" is Sharp Espionage

It's no secret to those of you who have been reading this blog for a while that my friend Don and I and crazy mad about espionage. We have yet to find anything on the BBC that can compare to MI-5, a breathtaking years-long series about the British Secret Service. I will read or watch anything that revolves around the CIA. Just when I think no, even they can't be THAT duplicitous, by golly they go and double down.

So, if John le Carre has gotten just a bit too erudite for you, Olen Steinhauer is your man. I knew that I would want to listen to this book because it would keep me on edge as I walked and I'd keep on steppin' no matter how hot it got. It worked!

Henry and Celia excelled at their jobs when stationed at CIA headquarters in Vienna. In fact, as I expect often happens when one is involved in clandestine work, though surely frowned upon, they became lovers. But after a hostage situation involving a plane on a tarmac at the Vienna airport goes horrifically awry, Celia decides to leave the service and try to live a more conventional life. But can one every leave the CIA behind?

Six years later she is a contented mother of two, married to a simpler man, seemingly willing to be taken care of in pretty, placid Carmel-by-the-Sea, until, that is, she hears from Henry. Still with the CIA, he says. Just passing through, he tells her. Let's meet for dinner, for old time's sake.

And now Steinhauer shows off his brilliance. He invites the reader to be a fly on the wall as the former lovers size each other up, drink, reminisce, drink more, each wondering what the other one is really thinking. They parry back and forth as if they are engaged in a chess match, one scoring, then the other.

As the evening progresses a back story emerges, shedding light on what led to Celia's abandonment of Henry.  Depending upon which character is speaking, you'll find yourself forming definite opinions, changing them, and then recalibrating again. But of course, that's the beauty of espionage. Sometimes you're not sure who you can trust until that old knife slides into your ribs.

A great read and apparently being optioned for film. Don't miss it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Anthony Marra's Phenomenal Novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A few weeks ago I received a review assignment from my editor at Library Journal. I was surprised at first, thinking that it didn't fit my usual profile (I seldom review short stories). But as it happens "The Tsar of Love and Techno," by literary wunderkind Anthony Marra, is a marvel and readers are in for a real treat when it comes out in October.

Feeling that I should be thorough, I decided that I'd better read Marra's debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," that took the literati by storm back in 2013. So glad that I did!

Both novels examine the ways in which people and places are affected by war, in this case a war that I knew little or nothing about. When the USSR imploded back in the '80's the ripple effect was long and profound. In Chechnya there was a division between those who embraced independence and those who felt that they were Russian to the core. In the same way that issues and sides in the Middle East conflict are muddled, so the Chechens broke into rebel groups pitting parent against child, brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor.
The book opens with the lonely figure of eight-year-old Havaa hiding in the forest with her little blue suitcase, an item her dad always had her keep handy in case the family was evicted or arrested. Her father has been "disappeared," her home is burning to the ground, and her mother is already dead.
Akhmed has been fearfully watching the scene unfold from his nearby home, cautious lest he be next to catch the attention of the Russian marauders. Still, he cannot in good conscience leave Havaa to her own devices so he makes a momentous decision. He will take her to a place of sanctuary, an abandoned hospital in the nearby town where a renowned female surgeon and a couple of die-hard nurses continue to treat war casualties.
And here, in this place of death and desperation, the surgeon, Sonja, Havaa, and Akhmed, form a coalition of the unwilling, tolerating each other at first, then beginning to trust, and finally to discover some sense of humanity in a world gone mad. Over the course of a week, back stories reveal a tenuous connection that binds the three in surprising ways.
Anthony Marra has been lauded with multiple awards for this sophisticated novel, evoking wonder at how one so young could write as if he held the wisdom of the ages in his pen. If I had to use an adjective to describe him it might be humane. He manages to find goodness in evil places. Where torture is the norm, men stand up to be counted rather than flinch from death. Where love seems impossible, it manifests itself in small, selfless actions of profound beauty and generosity.
Reading a novel like this reminds me yet again how ridiculously fortunate we here in the United States have been for the past couple of hundred years. While the news media totals up statistics of the dead and displaced in all of the war-torn areas of the world, we live in relative comfort, watch our TVs, and satisfy ourselves that these atrocities are happening elsewhere in the world.
When refugees come to our shores we expect them to buck up, assimilate, get jobs, and pursue the American dream without taking even a moment to comprehend the horrors they've seen. Thank you Mr. Marra for using fiction to illustrate the truth, that while survivors of war may appear to be whole, they are indelibly and profoundly altered by their experiences. May we find the compassion for them that you have shown for your characters.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Calling All Conspiracy Theorists

I once thought that Jessie Ventura ("63 Docs the Government Doesn't Want You to Read") had a lock on grand conspiracy theories. That was before I read Greg Iles' "Natchez Burning." Last summer I flew through that 800-some page novel and reported on it here. It's an adrenaline-filled trip to the darkest side of human nature overburdened with horrific violence. Death by flamethrower comes to mind. I probably called it gratuitous but the more I think about it, how else could Iles convey evil in its basest form? Expect nothing less from "The Bone Tree," the second entry in this remarkably complex trilogy.

I just read at Greg's website ( that Sony and Amazon, working with actor Tobey Maguire, plan to make an original cable TV series from these books and I know that Iles is well into the final novel, prepping it for release next summer. If you want to be in on the ground floor, begin reading now.
For those of you unfamiliar with the series, or Iles for that matter, his novels introduce a Mississippi native named Penn Cage. Once a prosecutor, he has returned to his hometown of Natchez to become mayor. With him is Caitlin Masters, his fiancé, descended from a long line of honored journalists and currently publisher of the local newspaper.
Together, though they often keep an unhealthy number of secrets from each other, they are working to expose members of a special branch of the Ku Klux Klan, the Double Eagles, all prominent business people, well connected politically, and with tentacles that reach deep into Mississippi and Louisiana law enforcement. No surprise there.
Not only was this group responsible for unsolved rapes and murders dating back to the 60's and the height of the civil rights era but, according to a rogue FBI agent, they may have been involved in the attempted assassination of Bobby Kennedy and the actual death of JFK in Dallas.
Iles deftly shows how complicated a multi-state, multi-police force investigation can be, especially when vital communications are stunted because of a lack of trust among the various agencies. To further muddy the waters, Penn is faced with a heart-rending conflict of interest, when his beloved father and local hero Dr. Tom Cage, becomes a fugitive from justice on a trumped up murder charge.
This series throws the cold, hard light of scrutiny on a shameful part of America's history. Because Iles writes in such a dramatic, over-the-top kind of style, you might be forgiven for saying,
 "Oh no, this couldn't have happened in this country, he's just taking literary license."
Of course, you would be wrong. Even though the plot becomes so convoluted that at times it defies logic, there's no doubt that there are too many black bodies hidden in the bone trees in the Louisiana swamps. Beginning with reconstruction and the implementation of Jim Crow laws, organizations like the KKK have operated with impunity in the south, going underground when necessary, and being legitimized under the auspices of private business. 
If you find yourself wondering why #blacklivesmatter has become a cri de coeur and you want a history lesson that's not didactic but wrapped up in 1600 pages of fiction that you simply can't put down, then begin at the beginning with "Natchez Burning," and I guarantee you'll be anxiously waiting for book number three to find out if good will finally triumph over evil.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"Small Mercies" is a Small Miracle

Once again I must thank my friend and deep reader, Pat Abosch, for the recommendation of this outstanding novel by debut writer Eddie Joyce. I realized that I was in for a very special reading experience when I saw that one of my all-time favorite authors, Richard Russo, had written a blurb for the cover. I gather that Russo was a mentor for Joyce. It shows.

What Russo did for the failing mill town of Empire Falls Joyce does for a blue- collar, Irish-Italian enclave in Staten Island, bringing it to vibrant life. His characterizations of both the people and the place took me back to the small mill town of Lee, Massachusetts, where I lived for seventeen years. Joyce captures the cadence of the discussions, the family pow-wows around the kitchen table, the vague resentments between those who stayed in the hood and those who left for the bright lights of the city.

"Small Mercies" is an outstanding example of what I call the post 9/11 genre represented so powerfully by such authors as Don de Lillo ("Falling Man"), Jonathan Safran Foer ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"), or Amy Waldman ("The Submission").

These books are not about the terrorist attacks, per se, but rather, about the ramifications, sometimes on just one person, or on a small group of people. They are about the ripple effects of a single act that repeat and repeat over the years and about the "small mercies" that one must be grateful for in the face of tremendous loss.

When "Small Mercies" opens, it's been ten years since Bobby Amendola, NYFD, disappeared under the rubble of the twin towers. Still, not a day goes by that his mother Gail doesn't step into his childhood room and wonder why. Bobby's widow, Tina, is raising her two kids the best she can with the emotional support of the entire Amendola family and, as is often the case in small towns like this, the entire community. But after years of believing that there wasn't a man alive who could take Bobby's place, Tina has finally met a guy, a widower who understands the aching hole in her heart, who just might be the one.

How will this news affect Tina's relationship with Gail, with Bobby's brothers, with his dad, Michael? Bobby Jr.'s birthday is coming up and there will be the usual over-the-top fanfare at Gail and Michael's house. Tina would like to introduce Wade to the gang but is plagued with trepidation. Wade is a New Yorker, a successful hedge-fund manager, not your typical Staten Island, jeans and hoodie clad, sports-gambling, cop, construction worker, or firefighter content to hang out at the bar on Friday nights downing shots and beers. Can Tina bridge these two worlds?

With spot on, perfect prose, Eddie Joyce uses flashbacks to get inside the heads of each member of the Amendola family. And as they allow us to see their strengths, their foibles, their sins, and their moments of pure grace, readers can't help but recognize pieces of themselves. Eddie Joyce, by tapping into the ferocious sense of love and loyalty within families and small communities has performed a minor miracle. "Small Mercies" will likely be among my top ten best reads of 2015.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Two Quiet Novels of Unrequited Love

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

From English writer Rachel Joyce whose novel "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" was a runaway bestseller, book club darling, and nominee for the Man Booker Prize, comes a complementary book about Queenie Hennessy, the catalyst for Harold's unlikely walk across England.

I wrote glowingly of Joyce's first novel ( ) and am pleased to tell you that this, her third, is every bit as warm, loving, and heartfelt. But, it cannot stand alone. You must read Harold first to fully appreciate the story Queenie Hennessy dictates from her bed in the hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Part memoir, part confessional, Queenie's letter is to Harold. The marvelously quirky denizens of the hospice are in a state of high expectation as the news media conflates Harold's once very private, penitential 600 mile walk to ask Queenie's forgiveness before she succumbs to the ravages of cancer. But Ms. Hennessy believes that she's the one who needs to seek absolution and in so doing we readers meet a woman of passion subsumed, of love deepened by twenty years of a life alone but not lonely. If you believe that giving love is a reward in itself, whether or not it is returned, then this is the book for you.

On the other hand, if you think that twenty years is way too much time to spend pining for a lost love, then hop on board Monsieur Perdu's floating bookstore and travel with him and his unlikely followers down the Seine to Provence. Nina George's "The Little Paris Bookshop," though not as much a love song to books as I had hoped, is still a delightful summer confection.  


Jean Perdu has the heart of the best librarians. He can talk with a customer for only a few minutes and deduce exactly which book to prescribe. He considers himself an apothecary, yet this physician cannot heal himself. He is, as his name suggests, lost. Eschewing human contact, he lives on his book barge with his cats, wondering why the love of his life, Manon, left him all those years ago. We learn that Manon did send him a letter of explanation but, stubborn to the core, Perdu had set the letter aside, preferring to suffer in silence.

Not until he overhears his neighbor, Catherine, sobbing over her pending divorce does his heart begin to feel twinges of life. He suggests books. She asks him to dinner. He lends her a table. She unearths Manon's twenty year old letter and gives it back to him. What he learns sends him on a journey of discovery south to Manon's home village.

Along the way he picks up and discards various strays, not just animals but wonderfully colorful characters, like those living in Queenie's hospice, from whom Jean absorbs the wisdom of life's lessons. It is so gratifying to watch Jean's rebirth, to feel the joy as he discovers the pleasure of his physical self and the body he has left languishing for so long. Life can begin at any age if we just open our hearts and minds to it. Thank you  Nina George for the reminder.