Thursday, September 21, 2017

How to Find Love in a Bookshop

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Calling all Anglophiles and book lovers. If you're afraid of opening the newspaper and would enjoy a delightful respite in the Cotswolds, then I highly recommend you become acquainted with British writer Veronica Henry. A scriptwriter from North Devon, Ms. Henry has delivered a true winner with "How to Find Love in a Bookshop." In fact I'm tempted to hop the next Virgin Atlantic flight in search of the fictional town of Peasebrook and the joy-filled Nightingale Books.

Smart, savvy Emilia Nightingale is an independent thirty-something who's lived all over the world thanks to her supportive, broad-minded dad, Julius. But now Julius is dying. Emilia hopes to make her father proud by putting down roots in Peasebrook and taking the helm of his beloved book store, a true haven for the  village's quirky residents. 

Naturally, this won't be easy. It seems that everyone loved Julius for a reason. He was generous to a fault with his time and his money. As long as he could pair a customer with a book he felt he had completed his mission in life. He should have been a librarian rather than a businessman! Fortunately, Emilia has friends who will do anything to help her keep her dad's dream alive. They buoy her up as she takes stock of the unpaid bills and the crumbling building. They provide shoulders to cry on when the crushing loss of her dad gets her down and they provide wine and food when she finds cause for celebration.

Peasebrook reminds me of Louise Penney's Three Pines or Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana. Sure, the characters may not be fully formed but they are recognizable from any small town. Thomasina, the ugly duckling who could be a swan with just a little push. A talented chef, she runs a tiny restaurant in her home, A Deux. She's smitten with the cheese seller, Jem, after running into him in Nightingales' extensive cookbook section. 

Then there's the nasty property developer who can't wait for Emilia to fail so he can low-ball a figure, force her to sell, and put up a parking garage. Not to mention Jackson, a single dad trying to win his way back into his son Finn's life by picking Emilia's brain for books that would appeal to a fidgety boy with a wild imagination. And what of Bea, a talented woman who's given up a lucrative career in London to be a stay-at-home mom? Frustrated and unhappy, might she be just the woman Emilia needs to boost Nightingales' bottom line?

There are romances galore, too, most of them wrong! But somehow we trust Ms. Henry to make it all come right by the end of her story. I could not put this book down. It made me happy. What a relief! If it hasn't been optioned for film it certainly should be. I can even see it as a BBC serial production with perhaps Colin Firth as Julius. Please race to your public library and snatch this novel off the shelf. If you love books, bookstores, the English countryside, and still believe in the basic goodness of people, you will find much happiness in this bookstore.

Monday, September 18, 2017

National Book Festival, Continued

I spent the afternoon at the National Book Festival in the presence of three amazing writers, each with wildly different books, who spoke as if they had met the night before and calibrated their talks to include one specific theme, telling our stories. Women's stories. Black women's stories.

Margot Lee Shetterly is an awe-inspiring speaker. She teaches in Charlottesville, Va., and I admit to envying any student who lands in one of her classes. But of course she was there to discuss her remarkably successful first book "Hidden Figures." All the stars must have lined up just so for Ms. Shetterly. She admitted that she was dumbfounded to discover that her publisher had a bid on the film rights for the story before the book had even been written! And, unlike so many of her predecessors, her experience with the film industry was rewarding and actually fun.

Surely there is no one reading this who isn't familiar with the story of the women, the "human computers," who worked at NASA during the cold war, helping to put a man into space. Kathryn Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, were tops in their classes at historically black universities like Hampton Institute, Virginia State, and Wilberforce in Ohio. Their untold stories are now known around the world. Ms. Shetterly was coy about what she's working on next but I can tell you, whatever it is, it will be a must read.

I have been following Jesmyn Ward since she brought me to my knees with her National Book Award winning "Salvage the Bones." What a special delight to find that she was being interviewed by my favorite book reviewer, Ron Charles of The Washington Post.

Apparently he, too, was blown away by this young woman's work. He compared Ward's new novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," to Toni Morrison's "Beloved," without batting an eye. Once again Ms. Ward writes about folks in the margins, on the edge, people whose stories would be missing from history without her clear-eyed focus on their grace, strength, and character. Single mothers, grandparents acting as parents, and imprisoned fathers, people whose circumstances are beyond most of our comprehension, are the subjects of Ward's books. They may not be easy to read but they are necessary if we are ever to develop empathy for our fellow wanderers on this earth. I started it yesterday. Will keep you posted.
And what does one say about that bad feminist and difficult woman, Roxane Gay? A standing room only crowd laughed knowingly at her political jabs (take that you hillbilly elegist) and were perhaps just a bit taken aback by the smattering of four letter words that she let rip. But what else can Gay do with her anger? Well, she can write. And that she does. I reviewed her memoir "Hunger" not too long ago and can tell you that any time she puts her pen to paper Roxane Gay will tear your heart out.
The point is that only she can share her story, a not unfamiliar one that involves rape and its aftermath. Only she can tell you why she ate and ate, avoiding her family's efforts to intervene as her body bloomed. She does not want our sympathy or even our understanding. Writing was the catharsis that likely saved her life. Don't tell her about diet and exercise and don't offer prayers. She's comfortable with herself now, thank you very much. Roxane Gay is a force to be reckoned with. Look for her next work to be in graphic novels.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Library of Congress's National Book Festival

It's been two weeks since my sister Cynthia and I made our annual trek to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. I've been remiss in not writing about it sooner but you'll forgive me for having a minor stress meltdown as I waited to hear if my home had withstood the devastating Hurricane Irma. It did, though now we wait to see which paths the next two storms will take.

I'm guessing it had to do with the unseasonably cold, wet weather of Labor Day weekend, but the Walter Washington Convention Center was overflowing with book lovers. I've never seen it, even during Book Expo America, so jammed with people. Lines for every speaker ran round corners and through empty rooms, minimum waits ran forty five minutes. People were patient, they talked books with their neighbors or read what they had already purchased while standing in line. Never fear the demise of literacy.

Product DetailsMy sister ran right to David McCullough but I had my sights set on Siddhartha Mukherjee. Having devoured "The Emperor of All Maladies," I was anxious to hear what the renowned cancer researcher had to say about genetic testing as it relates to disease. Though "The Gene, An Intimate History," looks daunting, Dr. Mukherjee spoke to his interviewer and the audience in clear, layman's terms. With the calm and kindness of doctors like Abraham Verghese or Atul Gawande, he explained that his book had begun as a very personal family story, a search for the genetic propensity to clinical depression. Instead, it became a broader history of the double edged sword that gene research has become, from the evil of forced sterilization (the story of Carrie Buck,, to the targeted therapies now being formulated to treat individual cancers.

Another non-fiction writer whose presentation took me completely by surprise was New York Times opinion writer and three time Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman. This was not a man to be tethered to a podium! He strode with purpose back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience with humor and aplomb. He shared the back story to the title of his latest book, "Thank You For Being Late," a plea to slow down and listen to our fellow humans even as we increasingly dance to the frenetic music of technology.

Friedman spoke of the new and unusual relationships he's formed since he made the conscious effort to take an extra five minutes to engage with people he would ordinarily be "too busy" to bother with. He spoke of the year 2007 as if it were a "supernova," filled with a remarkable accretion of technological advances that have pushed us beyond our wildest imaginings. And though he exhorts us to take time to smell the roses, Mr. Friedman also instilled fear in me when he opined that a young person entering college today will find that, by the student's senior year, much of what he or she learned to that point will already be outmoded. How does one even live with that kind of pressure?

And, speaking of pressure, I have a review due tomorrow for Library Journal on a book that I just finished yesterday, Elif Shafak's "Three Daughters of Eve." After I work on that I'll continue with this saga of my day in D.C. with the three authors I was able to hear in the afternoon.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Writer's Block

When I hear of writers who can't seem to recreate the magic of a former novel or two I truly feel their pain. It is disconcerting for a person who loves words and sharing their thoughts with others, even if it's me just talking about books, when the ideas just won't form and the mind feels muddled. For the past few weeks I have been immersed in so many news stories about tragedies of Shakespearean proportions that I believed my own words to be uninspired and worthless.

Houston's flooding, the fires ravaging the northwest, earthquakes in Mexico, and then the potential threat to my hometown, my friends, and my own home in south Fort Myers had left me depleted. But, for some reason I woke up this morning feeling some semblance of restored mental balance, and that was before I heard that my home had weathered Irma without damage.

The fact is that books, novels of great import as well as frothy little pleasures, have the power to take you away for a few hours from the craziness of a world you can't control.
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My adopted state of Maryland is also the adopted state of one of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Thanks to the Maryland Humanities Council, Adichie's first novel, "Purple Hibiscus," (the only book of hers that I had NOT read) has been chosen for the One Maryland, One Read program. She will be appearing throughout the state to discuss her novel and fortunately the local high school will be one of her stops.

Adichie has been dubbed the new Chinua Achebe by many reviewers, an accolade that I thought might be a bit over the top. Yes, they are both from Nigeria, and yes, she lived in a home he had once rented, but really? Well, now I get it. "Purple Hibiscus" is a modern take on "Things Fall Apart," only more accessible.

Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja appear on the surface to live a privileged life. But Adichie is adept at slowly doling out clues about their existence behind the walls of the gated compound that their father, Eugene, rules with an iron fist. Mired in the teachings of the Catholic church, an institution that has been relentless in its quest to wipe out the so-called heathen faiths of the Nigerian people, Eugene creates a joyless home where study and prayer are the only activities allowed.

Mom frequently sports bruises and black eyes. She suffers from broken ribs and has lost two babies. Jaja has a permanently deformed finger and Kambili fears the sound of her own voice. Neither child is allowed to see their grandfather, Papa Nnukwu, because he refuses to give up the religion of his ancestors.

When the children visit their father's sister, Auntie Ifeoma, a liberal university professor in Nsukka, their eyes are opened to a different life. Their cousins have opinions and express them loudly and frequently, even at the dinner table. Amidst abject poverty and a complete lack of the physical comforts Kambili and Jaja are accustomed to, Ifeoma's family laughs and loves in abundance.

Kambili's slow awakening to her own self worth is a joy to read about. As she and Jaja come of age, learning to trust their own thoughts, peeking out at the greater world, the politics of Nigeria takes center stage. Ifeoma's job is on the line when she speaks out for students resisting the government take over of their university. Back in their home town of Enugu, Papa's business partner is assassinated and the exalted life he has so carefully cultivated begins to fall apart.

This exquisite novel was Adichie's first, paving the way for "Half of a Yellow Sun," and "Americanah," where readers become reacquainted with the indomitable Auntie Ifeoma. One can sense the first stirrings of Adichie's proud assertion that "We Should All Be Feminists," in this heartbreaking coming of age story. Monday, September 25th. I can't wait to see her!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

America's Guilt Front and Center in American War

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Egyptian born author Omar El Akkad grew up in Qatar, moved to Canada where he was a journalist for The Globe and Mail, and then came to Portland, Oregon, where, we're told, he lives in the woods. No wonder. As a journalist he has covered terror plots, the war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution, and the Black Lives Matter movement. His novel, misleadingly referred to as a tale of a second Civil War, is informed by all that he has born witness to in his life as a reporter.

"American War," does, indeed, pit what's left of the south after global warming has flooded out Florida and Louisiana, against the new northern government based in Columbus, Ohio. The south stubbornly wants to keep its old ways, still using now illegal fossil fuels. Poverty and hunger are rampant, and secessionists track down those who want to escape to the north for a better life, imprisoning them in tent cities.

But what El Akkad is really doing here is teaching readers how simple it is to create a terrorist. There is a lesson here for those who aren't afraid to admit our nation's culpability, our years of supposedly spreading democracy throughout the world, especially in the middle east, where we aren't welcomed or wanted. Our bombs and drones have decimated countries like Iraq, the former cradle of civilization, for no good reason and as the pilloried Rev. Wright once said, "Our chickens have come home to roost."

Rather than an imam, El Akkad gives us a mysterious white man, Albert Gaines, who trolls Camp Patience and other refugee camps in the south, identifying unique young people who are smart, tough, and angry, yet are malleable enough to be used as human weapons of destruction. He makes them feel special, singled out for extra rations, more comfortable living conditions for their families, and he fills their heads with false history.

In Sarat Chesnut he finds the perfect foil. At first we are lulled into believing that she will be the heroine and for some, she may be. I would be more inclined to refer to this big, strapping, sexually ambiguous girl as the anti-heroine. Her story is devastating and not an easy read. She is brain washed, used to complete missions that no one else is crafty or crazy enough to take on, but loyal to her family and to her cohort.

This book is beautifully, passionately written. El Akkad's observations are clear-eyed and often cynical. He doesn't hold mankind in very high esteem. At one point he describes water boarding so specifically and horrifically that you just know he has witnessed its results first hand. We Americans tend to ask, "Why do they hate us?" El Akkad answers.