Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Book Expo Chicago - A Feast for the Reader

Product DetailsBook Expo America is to a reader what the next hit must be like for an addict. And Chicago is a great American city, so much fun to visit and to dine in. My friend Maryellen was not as circumspect as I. She hauled home more than forty books while, since I was flying on to another city, remained cool at a conservative 21. But even if I read all day, every day, for the rest of the summer, I couldn't get through some of these big, fat, buzzed about books like Jonathan Safran-Foer's "Here I Am,"  or Nathan Hill's debut, "The Nix."

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Library Journal, the folks I review literary fiction for, always host the first day of BEA with a knock out cast of publishers and authors in panel discussion. Picture this. We arrive at the venue around 8 am to find that all of the big name publishers, Harper, MacMillan, Random House, as well as some wonderful small presses, have tables place on the periphery of the room. In the center is a wonderful breakfast spread and tables for eight. As we walk around, eyeing the displays, sales people are literally pushing free books into our hands.

"Do you like Dennis Lehane?" a Harper rep asks.

"Of course!" we affirm.

Product Details"Then you must read this," she says as she dishes out multiples of Michael Harvey's "Brighton," already optioned for film. It's the first hour of the first day and already my book bag is full.

Product DetailsAfter breakfast we go upstairs where LJ's Barbara Hoffert is preparing to interview Pulitzer Prize-winner and FSU professor, Robert Olen Butler, whose new novel is called "Perfume River," and is a potential choice for my first book discussion in December. I'm a sucker for anything that speaks to the divisions wrought by the Vietnam war within our country and also within our families. The synopsis sounds very personal to Butler who spoke emotionally of his time spent as a translator in the country and his love for the people he met there.

Joining him were Safran-Foer and Jay McInerney of "Bright Lights, Big City" fame, with "Bright, Precious Days," his third novel to follow the Calloway family as they strive to hold it together under what should be the everyday pressures of career, parenthood, and social climbing, but are apparently all magnified in New York City prior to the big bust of 2008.

So, what does this all mean for you dear readers? Well, imagine, all this star power and it's only lunch time. Wait til I tell you about the afternoon sessions. These hot new novels will all be coming out within the next several months and you're now in the know. I'll have lots of wonderful give-a-ways for you over the next couple of months, including some obscure but delightful little books that are floating just under the radar, so stay tuned.

Monday, May 9, 2016

JoJo Moyes' After You

Here I think I'm soooo informed, yet it took a Facebook friend (thank you Colleen Peckens) to let me know that author, JoJo Moyes, had written a screenplay for her beautiful, thoughtful love story, "Me Before You." http://bit.ly/1WVX8BZ Another month and the film will be released. I suspect a full box of Kleenex may be in order.

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How pleased I was to see the sequel, "After You," sitting on the new book shelf at my Maryland library. After a full week of clouds, rain, and cold, this Florida girl was looking for a cheerful romantic comedy to lighten the mood. This novel? The perfect antidote.

Lighter than "Me Before You," which carried the hefty weight of the right to die controversy, this novel still tackles the theme of loss, when our heroine, Louisa Clark, joins a bereavement group at the behest of her dad. It seems that Louisa's parents fear she might be suicidal after she falls from the roof of her London flat during a night of too much wine and too few friends with whom to share feelings of grief and guilt over Will Traynor's death.

Louisa rather reminds me of a modern day Bridget Jones. She has a wry sense of humor about her own situation as a woman at loose ends. She despises her job at a tacky Irish-themed airport lounge where she pours drinks and counsels fearful flyers dressed in a vile, green, mini-skirt and curly red wig. She has a fabulous job offer in New York City but is bogged down by inertia and a new-found sense of responsibility for Lily, a teen-age nymph who has turned up at Louisa's door claiming to be Will's daughter, a child neither he nor his still grieving parents even knew existed.

And now there's Sam, the paramedic who held Louisa's hand all the way to the hospital where doctor's stitched her broken body back together again. Is she ready to put her heart on the line for a new relationship? Is Sam? I know, I know. It all sounds a bit hokey. But, come on. Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned rom-com now and then?

JoJo Moyes is a witty, laugh-out-loud funny writer and her take on family dynamics is generous and spot on. Especially touching are the episodes involving Louisa's mother who, after thirty years of being a stay at home mom in a four generation household, decides to break out. She's taking poetry classes, reading feminist tracts, and refusing to shave her legs. You go girl!

So, if you swooned over "Me Before You," you're going to sigh with satisfaction over "After You." Read it before the film comes out. That's an order.



Friday, May 6, 2016

The Nest, Life, Love, Family from a Debut Author

It's been two weeks since I've written and I realize that it wasn't so much the dreaded writers' block as it was a feeling of nesting myself. For the third year now, I have migrated from my Florida nest to my friend Don's Maryland nest. It's a beautiful place but acclimating can often bring on a disturbance in my force, a sense of being discombobulated for a little while. I wanted to settle down long enough to recommend this very talented writer to you. http://www.cynthia-sweeney.com/about-cynthia/

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Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's "The Nest" is flat out fantastic. And this is coming to you from a reviewer who tends to trash dysfunctional family novels as "been there, done that." Not so with the Plumb family, four disparate siblings being held hostage by their dead father and the trust fund he set up for them. Having just drawn up a trust myself, I know that one of the rules of the road according to lawyers, is to hold off a bit when letting your heirs know what could be theirs if you only kick the bucket sooner rather than later. Ignorance is bliss and even a small inheritance can come as a pleasant surprise when it's unexpected.
 
In this case, the four Plumbs, found out early on that they would come into a goodly sum on money when the youngest of the siblings, Melody, turned forty. Each of them, in their own very different ways, lived their lives with the specter of that nest egg always just within sight. And then, the unthinkable happened.
 
This novel begins with a bang, literally. But why spill the beans? It's enough to tell you that Leo, the eldest, and the one around whom the rest of the family seems to rotate like planets to the sun, (as we ask why, why?) causes an accident that brings a world of litigation down on the Plumb family shoulders. His doting mother is only too happy to bail him out with, you guessed it, the money from the nest. How and when will he pay back his younger brother and sisters?
 
And here's where Sweeney excels. She offers up each one's backstory in increments that put us right into their shoes. Bad decisions? Sure, some. And yet we feel for these people, understanding how, under the right circumstances any one of us could find ourselves financially embarrassed.
 
For Melody it's her lovingly restored home, purchased with an indulgent husband who just couldn't say no. Now they're upside down in their mortgage and have two delightfully precocious twin girls who will be heading off to college soon.
 
For Bea, who, as a younger woman, made a name for herself in New York's literary circles with a series of short stories based upon Leo's life, it's a ten year drought, a writer's block so severe that she's long used up her advance and her friendship with the agent who initially discovered her talent.
 
And then there's Jack, an antiques dealer married to Walter, a much more solvent and cautious man. The financial secrets that Jack has kept from his husband now threaten the demise of a carefully nurtured relationship.
 
How each of these flawed yet realistic, sympathetic characters learns to love himself is a joy to watch. And how Sweeney, in her well-crafted, sophisticated first novel, weaves her tale, integrating each person's story into the whole, is a pleasure to behold. And Leo? Sorry, not telling. Read it and we'll talk.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Tale of Two Memoirs, On Death and Grieving

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Writing and reading memoirs about death and dying is a tricky business. Readers' experiences run the gamut depending upon their personal circumstances, some facing sudden death caused by violence or an accident, others gently witnessing the slow extinguishing of an elderly relative who had lived a long and happy life. I remember being shocked at how controversial my book club members' found Joan Didion's heartbreaking work, "The Year of Magical Thinking."

As a long-time listener to public radio's Diane Rehm show I was familiar with the fact that her husband of over fifty years, John Rehm, had been slowly dying from advanced Parkinson's disease, that he had been in a nursing home for a while, and that he had made it clear that he was ready to move on to the next adventure.

As an involved Episcopalian, John did not fear death but he did not want to suffer. Because the Rehms live in Maryland, assistance in dying is not an option, so John chose to refuse food or water, not I can say from experience, a bad death. I had hoped that Ms. Rehm's "On My Own," would speak to the right to die movement and the work she's planning to do with Compassion and Choices( https://www.compassionandchoices.org )
after her retirement at the end of the year.

But no, I'm sorry to say, that Rehm's book came across to me as uncomfortably self-centered and surprisingly thoughtless. Her editor should have advised that she remove the word "I," substituting "he" or "they" or "we," at least half the time. This book will not provide solace or food for thought to recent widows. Most people will have trouble feeling empathy for a woman of Diane's stature and wealth when they read "what will I do? Who will take care of me?" a theme that runs exhaustingly throughout.

At eighty years old, Rehm has forged a glamorous career, has no health issues, has successful, loving children, and financial stability. Was I wrong to expect a lot more grace and a bit less whining?
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"When Breath Becomes Air" is the complete antithesis. This exquisite, generous, thoughtful, and thought-provoking memoir was written by a thirty-six year old neurosurgeon during the final year of his life, as a gift to Cady, his newborn daughter. This is who I was, how I saw the world. This is your father. You will know him through his words. Oh, how proud she will be!

Paul Kalanithi's father and brother were physicians, yet he was drawn to philosophy and literature, even thinking that he might one day become a writer. He became both. Obsessed with the meaning of life, he studied the brain and how its inner workings translated thought into language. Then he used that language to tell his story, simply yet elegantly.

He relates for Cady, how he came to be a doctor, how he met her mother, Lucy, at medical school, how they struggled, working together toward their secure future, one that all came to a screeching halt the day he reviewed his own CT scans. Ordered after a long bout of back pain and a frightening weight loss, the pictures showed an unbelievable number of tumors in the lung, a deformed spine, and a liver in deep shadow.

But rather than asking the "why me" question, Lucy and Paul, dug deep, finding faith, acceptance, and the awesome grace to embrace each day that they had left together. Working at Stanford, Paul had access to some of the best doctors and treatments in the country, yet he rarely indulged in wishful thinking, choosing instead to live the best life possible in the moment. Their decision to have a child was made in love. Paul's decision to write a book? Inspired.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Bridge Ladies by Betsy Lerner - A Fabulous Mother's Day Gift

Bridge Ladies
 
 
For several years I followed Betsy Lerner's blog about writing. Then, somehow, I thought she had gone away and I was devastated. She enthralled me. Her humor was wry, her profanity infectious, her self-deprecation remained mercifully far from self-flagellation. And, I always sensed that we had  something in common. I'm happy to say that she's back and we do! https://betsylerner.com/
 
Let me say, unequivocally, that I loved "The Bridge Ladies," Ms. Lerner's memoir that examines her often fraught relationship with her mother and the efforts that she's taken, not to make amends, but to see through a different lens. Like so many of us who grew up in the '60's and '70's, getting out from under the yoke of parents and rules was paramount. There was none of this helicopter parenting that's choking today's kids, delaying their maturation by decades. We couldn't wait to be on our own and coming back home after college felt like the ultimate failure.
 
Betsy Lerner is refreshingly honest about her own rebellion which began at puberty and is maybe, just now, beginning to settle down. She and her mom, Roz, were at loggerheads constantly. If one said the sky was blue, the other saw it black. Criticism was the name of the game. It was not a time when parents were touchy-feely, and to say "I love you?" Well, it just wasn't done. Did we spend so much time chafing against everything our folks stood for in an effort to test their love?
 
Lerner sets out to better understand her mother through the bridge ladies, the four women who have met with her mom every Monday for over fifty years to nosh and play cards. By listening and observing, culling as much from what's not said as from what is, Lerner discovers that these women, now in their eighties, for whom she had had not a shred of admiration or respect, are actually deeply deserving of both. Her awakening to their attributes comes gradually, as she meets individually with each, asking probing questions about their youth, their marriages, their hopes and dreams. And they in turn, teach her how to play bridge.
 
I can't say enough about this beautiful book. Lerner, a writer, literary agent and former editor, has a wonderful way with words. There are so many little gems of self-awareness that I wanted to go back, re-read, and immediately pull quotes. She takes us through her bouts with depression, therapy, marriage, and motherhood, recognizing the parallels between her and her mother's life. She softens, as we all do with age, and it's gratifying to watch. How I wish my own mother had lived long enough to become my friend.
 
Whether you and your mom were best buds or - be honest now - were at each other's throats, this memoir would make a lovely gift for mother's day or for any important woman in your life. Thank you to the publisher, Harper, for allowing me to be an early reader. Look for it next month or place a hold at your public library now.