Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thirteen Ways of Looking

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If you're at all like me and tend to shy away from short stories, please don't let that keep you from the new collection, "Thirteen Ways of Looking," from Colum McCann. His prose has always been tight and exacting (he won the National Book Award for "Let the Great World Spin") so shorter pieces seem to be the perfect vehicle for showcasing his immense talent. In this case, there are only four entries, the title novella and three short but powerful stories.
Whether he's inside the head of an elderly man on the last day of his life, a young woman serving in Afghanistan, a middle-aged nun seeking closure on a violent incident from her youth, or a mother who believes she's caused her only child's death, McCann gets the emotional tone just right. How does he do it? A writer of his caliber must have been born with an uber-sense of empathy and compassion to be able to place readers so directly into someone else's shoes this way. I don't believe this can be taught (even though McCann is a creative writing professor at Hunter College).
From the moment Judge Mendelssohn opens his eyes on the last day of his life, the reader enters into the frustration of the elderly man whose deteriorating body has not kept up with his quick, vibrant mind. The slow realization that his caretaker has had to fix a diaper on him during the night, the quick anger when she doesn't respond immediately to his call, the humiliation he feels at being dependent, all of these visceral emotions play into our own worst fears.
And yet, this story is not in the least bit depressing. As the judge prepares for his daily ritual, the short walk down the street to his favorite restaurant for a fine lunch, he recalls the many highlights of his life, the long, successful career, the satisfying marriage, the accolades, all the accoutrements of a life well lived, and we feel that it's ok, it's as good a day as any to die. The how and why of the judge's demise is a satisfying little mini-mystery which adds layers to the secondary characters who might otherwise be seen as caricatures.
One of the most impressive and gut-wrenching bits of writing arises from the short story "Sh'hkol," in which the son of a woman who works as a translator and lives on a rocky promontory overlooking the North sea, goes missing a day after she has given him a wetsuit. With police and neighbors scouring the woods and shore, the former husband, who has been a noticeably absent father, shows up boiling over with blame and recrimination.
After hours of "whys," and "hows," and "how could yous," he falls exhausted into her bed. Depleted herself, she later eases in beside him, keeping to her own side of the bed, only to wake in the night to feel their bodies spooning in the old familiar way, his arm around her in a subconsciously protective embrace. These two disparate people, joined by memory and the agony of the loss they face together, are symbolic of the shared humanity McCann so eloquently writes about. 
Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I often eschew my Irish roots in the fervent desire for a mysterious Italian in the wood pile. However, I believe I can say unequivocally that Irish storytellers like Colum McCann (think Frank McCourt, Anne Enright) seem to excel at capturing the pathos of everyday life. I had been searching for a transcendent read. I found it here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Elena Ferrante, Book Two

For just a wild moment this week I wished I lived in New York city. Ann Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, was speaking at the New York Public Library and oh, how I wanted to be a fly on the wall. What a talent! Just think how difficult it is to write exquisitely in one language and then to have that beauty translated just as exquisitely into another. (in this case, Italian into English) Truly, I believe that a translator can make or break a reading experience.

I'm sorry to say that the folks who order books for my library have apparently not been paying attention. There are so few copies of the four novels that make up Ferrante's much-heralded series that I'll be waiting for number three for quite a while. Meanwhile, here's a recap of my thoughts on book one.

The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two

"The Story of a New Name," book two, begins with a shocking act of vengeance. If love and hatred are two sides of the same coin, then perhaps you will fathom what was going through Lena's mind when she dumped a box of eight notebooks off the Solferino bridge in Pisa. These notebooks, with which she was entrusted, represent the life story (so far) of Lena's best friend and worst enemy, Lila Cerullo Carracci.

But what, you may ask, was Lila's intent when she asked Lena to keep the notebooks hidden, unread, and private? She must have known that Lena could not resist reading, memorizing actually, each and every line, as painful and humiliating as they were. Lena and Lila are now as distant as two childhood friends could be. Lila, denied an education by her backward family, has made a pact with the devil, marrying the grocer, Stefano Carracci, for money and status. Lena, on the other hand, has graduated from secondary school with honors and escaped their stifling Naples neighborhood for the heady atmosphere of academia in Pisa.

It's a pure joy to watch Lena expand her horizons at school, excelling at her studies while taking a wealthy lover who delights in polishing her rough, Neapolitan edges. Lila, the proverbial bird in a gilded cage, becomes increasingly reckless. Her erratic, self-destructive behavior feels careless and cruel, driving a permanent wedge between her and Stefano and maybe even between her and Lena. Oh, book three, please come to me soon.

What is so remarkable about these novels is the ferocious honesty with which they are written. While they appear to be autobiographical, we cannot be sure since we don't even know who Elena Ferrante is. Her (or his?) identity is a much better kept secret in literary circles than J.K. Rowling's Robert Galbraith. Ferrante is fearless, baring her soul even if it means admitting to debilitating jealousy, cold calculation, and prideful vanity. She is a complete woman, and one I adore spending time with.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In the Language of Miracles

There's so much written about the concept of collective guilt that one could pen a dissertation on the subject. Why do some cultures feel the  burden more than others, though, is another question. Germans will probably never stop working to apologize for the Holocaust. Why else is Angela Merkel straining her borders to accommodate so many Syrian refugees?

Yet here in the United States, not only will we as a nation never apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some seem to still feel proud of it. Reparations for our native and African American citizens? Never. Since the attacks on 9/11 our Muslim citizens have faced undue prejudice and suspicion, forced to explain that their Islamic faith is not synonymous with terrorism, a false idea that will likely be exacerbated by the terrible events in Paris yesterday.

What a difficult and unnerving subject for a writer to tackle in a debut novel. Yet, that's just what Rajia Hassib has eloquently done in her book, "In the Language of Miracles," recommended by my friend Pat Abosch. Yes, if your group is looking for a challenging book discussion, this novel will lend itself nicely.

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 When Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy arrived in New York City from Cairo in 1985 with their newborn son Hosaam, they dared to dream confidently of their bright future. Samir was in medical school and once his residency was completed they would move to the suburbs, New Jersey perhaps, and he would find the perfect town, the ideal home, in which to raise their family. He did.
But that's the back story. The action takes place over a five day period, a year after 18-year-old Hosaam's death and the death of his next door neighbor and lifelong friend, Natalie Bradstreet. The catalyst is a tree planting, a memorial for Natalie, planned by her parents, an event that will resurrect strong emotions throughout the small town. The author delicately unspools bits and pieces of the facts surrounding the deaths of the two young people, and readers may arrive at one or two wrong conclusions before the full truth of the matter is revealed.
What we know is that a twenty year friendship between the Al-Menshawys and Natalie's parents, the Bradstreets, has been permanently severed by what happened one day a year ago. Since that day Samir and Nagla are no longer seen as simply neighbors and friends, but as Muslims, Egyptians, outsiders. Samir's practice is hemorrhaging patients, Nagla withdraws in anger and grief, ceding her role at home to her own mother, and daughter Fatima seeks solace at the mosque. 
Yet it is through the eyes and ears of Hosaam's younger brother, the beautifully drawn Khaled, that readers will fully grasp the depth of the family's collective guilt, the way that Hosaam's actions have shredded the fabric of a marriage and a family. Khaled is a boy you'll want to rock in your arms, on whom you'll want to lavish the solace that eludes him at home.
Not since Amy Waldman's powerful novel, "The Submission," have I read a book that so aptly describes the pain of guilt by association and the ways in which that anguish can upend the lives of perfectly good, decent people. This is a sophisticated novel from a young writer to watch.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Week of Great Regional Theatre

Whew! I've been falling down on the job when it comes to my reading ever since I returned from Maryland. It's been one social event after the other - not that I'm complaining. I've been so busy, I dropped seven pounds!

Don and I attended a fundraiser at our favorite local theatre,
Their annual new play contest was underway, and from over six hundred entries, they had narrowed the possibilites down to three. One play would be chosen by the audience on the evening of the fundraiser for a full staging in the spring.

 Bill Taylor and his cadre of loyal performers have been producing some cutting edge material for well over twenty years now in Fort Myers. They did a great job Friday night of staging readings from the three finalists' plays. We voted for Arlene Hutton's "Vacuum," which appears to pit business against science among a group of idealists who had once hoped they could change the world.

On Saturday afternoon we attended a very workmanlike production of an Agatha Christie mystery called "The Unexpected Guest" at the Florida Repertory Theatre in downtown Fort Myers.
Every actor was spot on, the scenery was professionally perfect, but the play lacked the emotional heft of some of their other productions. They did have a contest at intermission in which the audience had the opportunity to win theatre tickets by guessing the name of the murderer. It was tricky but I did it.

We saved the best for last. On Sunday we had front-row seats at Florida Rep's black box venue to an amazingly energetic and delightful one-woman show based on a memoir, "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," by Giulia Melucci, a PR executive with Harper's Magazine.
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Actor Michelle Damato was fantastic. She came across as exactly the kind of gal you'd want to spend an evening with, dishing on guys and quaffing wine. For two hours she regaled the audience with the story of her unsuccessful search for the perfect man over a twenty year span. As she chatted us up she prepared a full Italian meal from scratch and served it to eight lucky audience members who sat at strategically placed tables in Giulia's "kitchen."

Ms. Damato channeled Melucci and her love of cooking. In her Brooklyn brownstone, she chopped and diced veggies for Bolognese sauce, served an anti-pasta of artichoke hearts and prosciutto, and made noodles from scratch, all while fielding calls from her mom up in Connecticut, and sipping a smooth red. I can't imagine the concentration required to perform in this way, all the time interacting with the audience, asking us questions, calling out for answers.

By the end of the afternoon, I was half in love with her myself and so wanted Giulia to find the right  guy. If this play is any indication, the book must be a pure delight. And no, you don't need to be young or single to enjoy it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Searching for a Transcendent Read

Come on friends. Share with me. It's November 1st and I still haven't read a novel this year that's truly knocked me out. I'm looking over my list of books read and trying to decide which one will go to the head of the class.

Product DetailsI had big hopes for "A Place We Knew Well," a new novel by Susan Carol McCarthy which takes place outside of Orlando and which I hoped I could review for the Florida Book Page.
It's set during the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and juxtaposes the breakdown of trust in our government with the breakdown of the Avery family.

The Averys are the quintessential American family, dad is retired Air Force, runs a Texaco station, is married to Sarah, a stay at home mom who's frustrated and fragile, and they dote on their only daughter Charlotte. It's a time of ostensible innocence but there are unspoken secrets that cause ripples of tension just beneath the surface.

McCarthy dabbles in important topics: prejudice against the young Cubans being relocated to our country by the Catholic Church, the Cold War gamesmanship being played out by Kennedy and Khrushchev and the extent to which average Americans were completely in the dark about how close we came to mutually assured destruction, and also the mentality of the medical profession toward "women's troubles," along with the over reliance on medication and surgery, but none of these topics are fully developed to the point where I could drum up any outrage.

I recently reviewed an outstanding classic, "Alas Babylon," about a similar subject. Pat Frank's book was written in the '50's but it stands the test of time and was visceral and terrifying in its account of a nuclear conflagration and its effects on small-town Florida. I decided to cut my losses. I read the last chapter of McCarthy's book and moved on to another novel about Florida, Russell Banks' "Continental Drift." The difference in the quality and depth of the writing was immediately apparent. You can expect to hear me reporting on it within the next few months.

For a break, I turned to an old standby I can always count on for a laugh, Nelson DeMille. "Radiant Angel" is the latest in the long-lived John Corey series, read for the audio by the inimitable Scott Brick who, by now, has made the character his own. If you are unfamiliar with Corey - oh, I hope not - he is a fast-talking, wise-cracking, hot shot former cop, FBI agent, and anti-terrorism task force member, who eschews authority, takes risks,  and has a weakness for women, wine, and song. There is absolutely nothing politically correct about him!
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In literature and in film (saw Bridge of Spies yesterday) the so-called Cold War seems to be the topic of the moment. Putin's star would appear to be rising and we are desperately trying to extricate ourselves from the messes we've created in the middle east. DeMille is always right on top of the political landscape and his plot lines are rarely as far fetched as they might seem at first glance.

In this case there's a suitcase nuke that's been planted by the Russians on the yacht of a respected Saudi prince. It's the anniversary of 9/11. Where do you expect the yacht is headed?

Only DeMille can write suspense novels that are laugh-out-loud funny while dealing with truly terrifying subject matter. Treat yourself to one or two as a diversion.

Meanwhile, I'm suffering through two terribly erudite but uninteresting books assigned by Library Journal. Help me out here. What have you read and enjoyed lately? All suggestions are welcome.