Thursday, October 23, 2014

Attica Locke is Back with a Bang

OK, I'll admit that I was pretty miffed at the author Attica Locke when she blew off the Southwest Florida Reading Festival but, who knows, maybe we'll get another shot at bringing her from L.A. to Ft. Myers. I'm telling you, this gal is good.

Compliments of her publisher, Harper Collins, I had the chance to get an early reading of her latest novel, coming out next spring, titled "Pleasantville." Excellent! Ms. Locke has already compared to several of her finest contemporaries who write smart thrillers, Pelecanos, Lehane, and Turow. I think that her newest book places her right up there with John Grisham.

If you love David vs. Goliath type stories, especially those that end up in front of a judge, in a courthouse, then this is your girl. She's written a book that mixes up social justice issues with a good old fashioned murder mystery, one that I couldn't solve on my own. I hate it when that happens!

Texas politics plays an important role, circa 2000. A testy mayoral race, a campaign worker's disappearance, and a hard-won court battle against a big- pharma style polluter which is dragging its feet on the payout, all come to a head in the Houston neighborhood known as Pleasantville. This is an historic area of town which actually exists, a haven for middle-class African American working people to set down roots, own homes, and raise their kids in a supposedly safe environment.

The Hathorne family has been moving and shaking within the community for years and the aging patriarch, Sam, is bound and determined to see his son Axel, former police chief, become mayor. And things are on track until Sam's grandson Neal, campaign manager and newly minted attorney, is arrested amidst a barrage of circumstantial evidence that implicates him in the murder of Alicia Nowell, a student campaign worker.

Enter Jay Porter, a defense attorney who can't bring himself to face a jury. Since his wife died of cancer he's barely holding it together, trying to be mom and dad to his two kids and sinking everything he has into the class action lawsuit against Cole Oil Industries. He hates the idea of taking Neal's case but the Hathorne family, inexplicably, wants only him and he can't afford to turn it away, not just for the money but for the chance to redeem himself.

Locke's debut novel "Black Water Rising," was a knock out. It was here that we met Jay and his wife Bernie when she was pregnant with their first child, a teenager now in "Pleasantville." As I said then, it's obvious that Ms. Locke was a screenwriter (and still is). Her novels seem destined to come to a movie theatre near you soon. As you read you can actually see who would play whom in each and every roll. Even the lesser characters are outstanding. But, since we all know how long it takes to get a book to the big screen, you'd better add this one to your "to read" list and haunt the stores or your library until it comes out next spring. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Parenting, The Bravest Act of All

I've always thought that having a child is one of the most courageous, optimistic things that a person can do. Think of it! To voluntarily accept the responsibility of raising another little being to adulthood while afflicting as little emotional or physical harm as possible. Can it even be done? Are most of us just one short phone call from the psychiatrist's couch? Or, are we amazingly resilient and adaptable?

Author Noah Hawley has written a deeply emotional yet remarkably understated novel, "The Good Father," about a man and his boy, about the lengths to which a father will go to discover what makes his son tick. If something has gone haywire in his son's brain then who is to blame? Is it the old nature v. nurture conundrum? Or is it something more fundamental?

You see, Dr. Paul Allen, contentedly watching the news as his wife makes the Friday night pizza, sees something that he can't believe and will never accept. In a crowded college auditorium, a young man with a gun has just shot the Democratic candidate for president. The face on the TV screen is remorseless, no, affectless, but recognizable. It's Paul's son, Daniel.

Within minutes the FBI is at the door. Paul's second wife and their kids watch, stupefied, as Paul is whisked away in a black SUV to an undisclosed interrogation location. The nightmare begins.

I found it especially fascinating to listen in on the Q and A with the authorities. Their questions and Paul's answers reveal how little Paul knows about Dan's life even though he was an ostensibly hands-on dad, taking custody of Dan after the divorce from his first wife and integrating him into the new family. Dan's little brothers looked up to him and Paul's wife did her very best to make Dan feel at home. The last anyone knew, Dan had been enrolled, though a mediocre student, at Vassar.

This novel reminded me of William Landay's super hit, "Defending Jacob," though it's a more cerebral version of the psychological thriller genre. Hawley writes with such empathy for all of the characters affected by the candidate's death, Dan's mother, his stepmother and brothers, letting us into the lives of the many other victims of the crime.

As Paul sets out to prove that his son could not have committed this heinous crime, tracking back and forth across the country, following Daniel's movements, he ruminates on some of the other senseless assassinations of the last decade, the Kennedy brothers, John Lennon, looking for answers that may never come. But know this, those shooters were someone's child.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Coming in March - The Bookseller

Product Details
I don't know any bona fide reader who can resist a book entitled "The Bookseller," so when the publisher offered an early look, I jumped at the chance. I'm so sorry to tell you that I failed to realize just how early a look it was. Put a note on your calendar, do whatever you do when you're making your booklists, but don't miss Cynthia Swanson's debut novel when it is released next March.
When you read as many reviews as I do your eyes often begin to glaze over. It seems that there's a dearth of creativity and imagination when it comes to fiction lately. I'll often find myself saying, "not this worn out story again!" But Ms. Swanson, who has been awarded a Pushcart Prize for her short stories, broke the spell with this highly imaginative novel about a woman living in two worlds.
Kitty and Frieda have been best friends forever. They operate a struggling bookstore in Denver called Sisters, a moniker that reflects the strong connection between them. It's the '60's, try to remember those times if you can, and two women, happily single, surrounded by books and cats, and running a business, is still an anomaly.
 Frieda nurses a lingering resentment that her dad had to co-sign their business loan, and worries mightily about how they will keep the business afloat without an influx of money or a risky move out to the suburbs where things called shopping malls are opening up and stealing customers from downtown businesses.
Kitty, on the other hand, wonders if her very supportive parents secretly regret that she didn't marry young and provide them with the requisite two or three grandchildren. Why else would she be having such vivid dreams about a picture-perfect husband and a challenging set of triplets? Could this staid woman in the twinset and pearls actually be her alter-ego? Is this the person she'd have become if she hadn't chosen the freewheeling gypsy life of a bookseller? Or, are Kitty and Frieda two sides of the same coin?
Cynthia Swanson may be an artist by trade but she's a writer at heart. This refreshingly original novel examines women on the cusp of a movement where choices open up that were never there before. Yet, we know that for every action there is a reaction, choices have consequences. The psychology behind how we cope with those consequences is reflected in Kitty's dream world. Or is it?
This is a poignant, thoughtful novel about family, friendship, and the vagaries of life with all its joy and heartbreak.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Children Act

I've been waiting half the summer for another novel to impress me the way I was impressed by "All the Light you Cannot See." Yesterday afternoon I walked over to the library to pick up my copy of Ian McEwan's "The Children Act." This afternoon, I scarcely know where to begin. This is now my favorite Ian McEwan novel. There, I've said it. I can't for the life of me understand the tepid response that this novel has been given by other professional reviewers. I know that it will haunt me for a while.
A word about the cover, if I may? Take a quick look and what do you see? I saw a drop of blood. Knowing what the book was about, that seemed apropos. But then, upon closer scrutiny, the body of a gorgeous instrument, the violin. Now, what was I to make of that? Music, with its power to reduce one to a blubbering fool or raise one to the heights of ecstasy, plays a major role in McEwan's story but I have yet to hear it mentioned in any of the online discussions.
This novel should grace every book group's discussion list this year. The delicious dichotomy Mr. McEwan sets up between the law and morality. I think that most of us would agree that a "correct" action may not always be the moral one, and vice versa. But what if you alone have to be the arbiter? What a tremendously crushing responsibility.
British barrister Fiona Maye is my latest fictional heroine, a woman known for her sharp intellect, renowned for consistently making excruciating choices in the family court system, with unwavering belief in her own judgment. You can read the plot of this story anywhere but until you actually read McEwan's rendering, you cannot fully appreciate the subtlety and nuance of the narrative.
A seventeen-year-old boy lies in a hospital bed. He suffers from leukemia and is dangerously near death because he and his parents all agree that a blood transfusion, deemed medically necessary to save his life, would go against the tenets of their Jehovah's Witness faith. Because he is not of legal age to make an informed decision based upon England's Children Act, a guardian has brought the case to Fiona's courtroom for a verdict.
McEwan breathes glorious life into the young man, Adam, as seen through the eyes of all who interact with him, his nurses, and Fiona herself, when she suspends the court hearing to visit with him in his hospital room. Fiona is a woman who some, especially her seemingly long-suffering husband Jack, think is too cold, too self-contained, and maybe too involved in her work. Astute readers will see through this façade.
The strained relationship between Jack and Fiona is masterfully portrayed. After thirty-some years together, a request for freedom, a possible betrayal, a lengthy attempt to inch their way back, tiptoeing around the volatile subject, careful not to touch. It's all painfully realistic and recognizable to anyone who has gone through a separation or divorce.
I found this novel to be moving, thought-provoking, and beautifully written. Linda, my go to corroborator in all things literary, I know you read it. What say you?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The "Live Heres" and The "Come Heres" in Sue Miller's "The Arsonist"

The Berkshire Hills were just a week shy of showing off their full autumn glory while Don and I were there visiting family.  I was still ruminating on a novel I had recently read by Sue Miller, one of my favorites and a woman I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago in Southwest Florida. In "The Arsonist," one of the themes is the subtle resentment and class distinctions between the small town inhabitants of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, and the summer people who invade from the fourth of July until Labor Day.

Once, I was the former and now I'm the latter and, believe me, I do laugh at the irony that has brought me to this extremely fortunate place in life. When I lived in Great Barrington I joined the moaning natives who railed at the New Yorkers who clogged our roads on summer weekends and smirked at the "peepers" who drove up from the city to see the leaves turn in September. During high school I waited on the winter visitors who skied at Butternut Basin, and in my younger adulthood, relied heavily on the big-spenders from Connecticut who kept our Becket barroom in the green.

I happen to know that Sue Miller has been a New England gal for many years now (Massachusetts) and I can say unequivocally that she got it just right. Her latest novel may be a quick read but it packs in several serious issues that provide food for thought, issues that seem to have been overlooked by many readers opining on the Internet.

I had no trouble empathizing with Frankie, a woman in her mid-forties who's come home to New Hampshire to evaluate her life so far and consider what the next step might be. Frankie has lived in Africa working for an NGO for over fifteen years. Life there was fast and furious, no long-term relationships flourish in a place where do-gooders come and go, where hard work and long hours appear not to make a dent in the lives of the people, and where burn-out rates are high. (theme number one)

Frankie is spending time with her parents, with whom she's never had a terribly close relationship. Once they were "come heres" who spent summers in Pomeroy, R and R from their city lives as academics. Now they have retired and are in Pomeroy for good. But the dream may be short lived. Frankie notices that her dad's behavior has changed and that her mom seems overly stressed and is drinking too much. A heart to heart between mother and daughter reveals that Alzheimer's disease is the culprit and that her mother has honest doubts about her ability to handle it with grace. (theme number two)

And then there's Bud. A former hot-shot journalist from DC who climbed off the gerbil wheel and purchased the local newspaper in Pomeroy with an eye to a simpler, more meaningful life away from the slugfest that politics has become. Can he bring Frankie around to his way of thinking? Could he be the first stable man in her life? Frankie's career defines her. Who would she be if she gave it up? (theme number three)

But, you're probably saying, the book is called "The Arsonist." What about that? It's true, fires are deliberately being set, mainly in empty summer homes, so at first, no one  in town much cares. "They've got insurance," is the typical response. Until the fires hit closer to home, one family just out to a local dance, another still in the house. Suddenly the little community of "live heres" and "come heres" needs to rally and Miller masterfully portrays the nuances of the extremely testy town meeting where the discussion ensues. (theme number four)

Sue Miller's latest novel is a very accessible read involving everyday problems and everyday people. As in life, things don't get wrapped up in nice little bows at the end. This fact may annoy some readers but it makes for a more interesting book and would also be a great book discussion if you happen to be looking for one. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Richard Ford, From the Sublime to the Quotidian, A Great American Novelist Does it Again

He said that he wouldn't, but he did. Richard Ford has written an addendum to his renowned Frank Bascombe trilogy which began with "The Sportswriter," continued with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Independence Day," and supposedly ended with "The Lay of the Land." I've thoroughly enjoyed all of Mr. Ford's books and even had the chance to get an autograph at a Book Expo signing the year that his  sublime "Canada" came out, (my review)( but it's the deceptive simplicity of the Bascombe novels that really knocks me out.

I had the opportunity to download an advanced copy of "Let Me Be Frank With You," which, at 150 pages, could almost be classified as a novella. What fascinates me is how a book about nothing really, the quotidian, is actually about everything. This is the genius of Richard Ford.

You know how someone will ask you what you're reading and, when you tell them, they prod, "what's it about?" If I told you that this book is about a retiree and his wife who live in New Jersey and go about their daily routine just trying to do the best they can until they die, would you ever want to pick it up? Of course not. And yet you must!

The title is apropos since the novel reads more like a diary in which Frank relays his thoughts on the state of his morning, the coffee, the neighbors, the news, his wife and kids, and his past, in case we haven't read the other novels. We learn about his divorce from Ann after the death of their son, his successful career in real estate, the rapprochement with his son and daughter, and his second wife, Sally, who spends her retirement days grief counseling for those who lost everything during Hurricane Sandy.

Frank is frankly unsentimental and practical. He is well-read and has an ongoing argument with himself about words, deciding that there are too many, that the world of letters should be simplified, that we should downsize our verbosity. Perhaps a reason why this sequel is so small? He thinks of old friends with fondness but has no need to surround himself with an entourage.

Frank is wryly funny, often laughably irreverent, and at least for me, a pleasure to spend time with. He listens to NPR and gets a kick out of annoying his right-wing neighbors with the battered OBAMA sticker on his hybrid Hyundai. He records books for the blind, and drives up to Newark's Liberty Airport once a week to hand out welcome home packets to war veterans.

Frank Bascombe's life is simultaneously an open book and a mystery. He accepts with equanimity that he is on the downhill slide. The prostate cancer didn't kill him but something else will and that's as it should be. "Let Me Be Frank with You," is the pitch-perfect postscript to the Bascombe trilogy, a recounting of the days of an imperfect everyman, satisfied, content and unafraid of what tomorrow will bring. Can any of us ask for more?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey, Sometimes the Film is as Good as the Novel

I just caught myself. I was planning to say that the film, "The Hundred-Foot Journey," was better than the novel by Richard Morais, but that would not have been a fair assessment. After all, I finished the book last week, but Don and I just this minute returned from the theatre. The smell of  roasted pheasant still teases my nostrils and the bright, autumn colors of the vegetables in the open-air market are lingering in my mind's eye. Yum!

The Hundred-Foot Journey

I just adore books and movies about food, those who prepare it and those who relish it. Who doesn't remember "Like Water for Chocolate?" What about "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman?" "Big Night?" It's been a while since "Julie and Julia," and I was ripe for a new duo. Along came Richard Morais's tale about a clash of cultures, a novel that was actually released back in 2008 but which only came to my attention after the movie's release.

The story is about the large, boisterous, loving Haji family whose enormously successful restaurant in Mumbai was burned to the ground during a political regime change. The matriarch of the family was killed and the Hajis fled to London where they got by but never truly assimilated. Still grieving his wife's death, Papa Haji piled the family into the car and took to the road, searching throughout Europe for a true home.

Et voila! Lumiere, France. (not a real place, I was ready to book a trip!) Here, in the heart of France, the Hajis take the town by storm, remodeling an abandoned estate and opening Maison Mumbai in the heart of haute cuisine country, to the horror of Madame Gertrude Mallory, proprietress of the Michelin starred inn, Le Saule Pleurer, on the opposite side of the street.

War ensues as Madame Mallory and Papa Haji each tries to undermine the other's business. The staid customers at Madame's restaurant are served ferociously expensive yet parsimonious servings of perfectly prepared French foods while the townspeople chow down ebulliently on the curries and tandoori served by chef Hassan Haji only one hundred feet across the road.

Now one might say they've heard this story a thousand times before but it's all in the telling, isn't it? Personally, I never tire of tales in which people break down barriers, learn to see the world in new ways, to appreciate differences. While the estimable Helen Mirren does a pitch-perfect job as the cold, self-involved, Gertrude Mallory, she almost forfeits several scenes to the soulful young man (Manish Dayal) who plays her inevitable protégée, Hassan Haji.

The film is a beautifully executed rendition of the novel by Mr. Morais. Why the reviews were so tepid I'll never understand. There are glorious close-ups of a simple, perfect egg yolk as it plops into a glass bowl. There is Ms. Mirren's face when she first tastes Hassan's poached pheasant and realizes that she has met a natural chef, a young man born to create food with all of his senses. There is burgeoning love, between boys and girls, men and women, and a town willing to open its arms to so-called outsiders. And there's the power of family, of roots, of being able to blend the old and the new.

If you're tired of non-stop violence in the news or in your reading, take a break. Make that hundred foot journey to your local library for the book. Then hop on Fandango and grab a ticket to the movie. It won't be around long, the good ones never are.