Saturday, April 25, 2015

This is How You Lose Her

There is only one way to be introduced to Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz ("The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"). You absolutely must listen to him. After finishing his short story collection, "This is How You Lose Her," yesterday afternoon, I mucked about the Internet enthralled by all of the interviews and lectures that I found. These interactions give you a feel for the man and for what a delight it must be to land in one of his writing classes.

This is how you lose her
Diaz is a writer who does not hold back. Be prepared for a wild ride if you decide to jump into his work. Born in the Dominican Republic and transplanted to New Jersey, now living in Boston, Diaz writes in a funky patois, half English, half Spanish, with an overridingly heavy Jersey accent. If you're squeamish about four letter words, he's especially liberal with the one that begins with "f," then you might have to stay away but, honestly, you'd be doing yourself a disservice.
 
Reviewers pretty much concur that Yunior, the narrator of these tales, is Diaz's alter ego. I thought as much while listening but kind of hoped it wasn't true because, as hilarious as these stories are, (I often found myself stopped at a light and laughing out loud to the consternation of my fellow drivers) there is an unmistakable air of melancholy and loneliness running underneath the surface.
 
One story recounts how Yunior, his older brother Rafa, and their mom, finally came to the United States after waiting for their dad who had been here and working for quite a while, to send for them. Dad had no idea how to deal with his two little boys. They had never actually lived with him and he had strict Dominican ideas of how to deal with women and children. Think seen and not heard.
 
For an entire winter, Diaz recalls, they were confined to a small apartment with nothing but a TV for company, while they peered out the window to see other kids their age having snowball fights and running wild and free. When the little cutie next door waved at him through his frosted pane for the umpteenth time, Yunior decides to make a break for it knowing he'll pay when his dad gets home but also sensing that it'll be worth it.
 
Most of the stories though are about men and women, the dating and mating dance, the misunderstandings, the miscommunications, the extremely angst-filled game that so many play as they begin that endless quest for "the one." And Yunior? Well, he has a problem. As his posse says, he just can't keep it in his pants. Whether he's sleeping with the neighbor who's old enough to be his mom, or with his brother's girl, he's always got more than one thing going at a time. And when he's caught out? Well, that the subject of another story.
 
Junot Diaz is also very conscious of his position as a writer of color. In fact he founded an organization called VONA http://www.voicesatvona.org/Home.html
Observations on the immigrant experience, race and gradations of color are present in all of his stories and are addressed in very funny but ironically truthful ways. I don't have any way of knowing if Diaz's take on the world of love and marriage for the forty-something crowd is accurate but, if you've got the courage to delve into it, it's an eye-opener for sure.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Ones That Didn't Make the Cut

I've been terribly remiss in keeping to a weekly schedule this winter and I know that there's nothing more frustrating to readers than to visit a blog they count on for hot off the presses book news and find that it hasn't been updated. My only excuse is that my life has been more restricted by deadlines in the past four months than when I was working full time. What's wrong with this picture?

I've read thirty-eight books so far this year and have recorded seven reviews for WGCU where my monthly radio program "The Florida Book Page" is now airing once a month. http://news.wgcu.org/programs/florida-book-page I still have two more reviews to write and record before I leave Florida for the summer - a terrifyingly looming three weeks from now!

You have a huge treat ahead for you this summer when Paula McLain's new novel after "The Paris Wife" comes out. I just sent my glowing review to "Library Journal." If you were a fan of "Out of Africa" then keep your eyes on the lookout for "Circling the Sun," a fictional biography of the aviator Beryl Markham.

So often I read a book that I enjoy but that's it. I can't rave about it but it still may have been a pleasant way to pass my reading time. If I choose not to write about it, I realize that I'm censoring myself a bit. After all, just because it didn't rock me doesn't mean that it wouldn't be just what the doctor ordered for someone else. There is a book for every occasion, correct?

So, as I continue to meet my deadlines over the next couple of weeks and get myself moved to Maryland, I thought I might just give a brief shout out to a few of the books that I've enjoyed lately.

book cover Lydia Millet's "Mermaids in Paradise," is a novel that I listened to while I walked. The reader had just the right cynical attitude for the main character, Deb, who is on her honeymoon on a supposedly deserted, romantic tropical island. One of the problems is that her recently acquired husband is a real chatty cathy. He has never met a stranger, she is an introvert, and he schedules every moment of their time with the new friends they've met at the resort.

While on an afternoon pleasure boat ride Deb and Chip and all their new found friends witness a phenomenon that seems impossible to believe. Mermaids - everywhere. Thankfully one of them has had the foresight to film the bizarre spectacle or who would believe it? Well, as it turns out, plenty of folks would. But not for the right reasons.

What begins as a slapstick, crazy comedy, soon becomes a serious discussion about science, greed, and exploitation.

secular-lifePhil Zuckerman has made quite a name for himself as a spokesperson for a more humanist approach to the world. He is not, as he has been accused, anti-religion. He simply doesn't see one good reason for it. After all, he posits, do you really believe that fear of eternal damnation has ever prevented an evil act? Don't most of us simply live by the golden rule? If you remotely agree then delve into "Living the Secular Life, New Answers to Old Questions.

As a professor of sociology at Pitzer College in California, Zuckerman has studied and written about religion and humanism and their effects on societies for many years. The fact is, no matter how many new churches you see popping up on every street corner, fewer and fewer people are readily identifying as affiliated with organized religion. Some might say that we are devolving as human beings but Zuckerman and many other scholars believe that we may actually be evolving. Wouldn't it be grand if we no longer needed a hierarchical structure to keep us in line but rather, behaved humanely just because it feels good. It does you know.

Don't Call Me BabyBecause Gwendolyn Heasley lives in Naples, Florida, I was given an early reading copy of her young adult book, "Don't Call Me Baby," to peruse for my radio program. I wasn't sure that it would be the type of novel that would appeal to our morning listeners but I could certainly see its potential, especially for librarians and book lovers interested in cross generational literature.

Ms. Heasley writes about two women who earn their livings by blogging about their daughters to the point of obsessiveness. They are very successful at their work. Imogene and her best friend Sage have had every moment of their lives dissected and shared in cyberspace from birth. Now fifteen years old and ready for high school, they have had it! When they are given a school assignment to design and maintain a blog, the girls see the perfect way to get pay back time.

Heasley writes teenagers who all seem a little to good to be true but the subject of her novel still gives us food for thought. Where will the share all/tell all generation end? How much information will finally be seen as TMI and why is it easier to talk to the important people in our lives through the scrim of Twitter or Facebook rather than to look directly into their loving eyes? Great book discussion potential here!

So, tell me, what have you all read and enjoyed lately? I'll soon be reunited with my reading swing which overlooks the Chesapeake. I'll be able to spend hours of uninterrupted reading time there because, as my friend Don reminds me, this is my job. All suggestions are welcome.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Frances Godwin, Another Tough Woman

I've returned from beautiful Costa Rica and a wonderful visit with a friend who's one strong woman. She and I share of love for the author Robert Hellenga (www.roberthellenga.com) who initially grabbed us with "The Sixteen Pleasures," so I had dragged along his latest book for her to read while I was there. As you can imagine, as much as we all love books, we didn't get much reading accomplished. On the flight home, however, I jumped in and finished "The Confessions of Frances Godwin" in two days.
 
 
 
Frances spoke to me for a number of reasons, she's a Latin teacher as was my mom, she's a young widow like my sister-in-law, she's prone to examining her life in minute detail like my dear friend Andrea, and she's in love with Italy as I am. Perhaps she is Hellenga's alter-ego or maybe she's channeling his mom. Either way I loved her for her humanity, her truth, and her passion for all that life throws at her.
 
Frances begins her story in 2006 having survived hernia repair surgery and been advised by her friend/arch-enemy Lois that she should think about getting her affairs in order. Yes, she's about my age. Her confessions take her back to 1963 in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome where, now graduated from college, she is taking a conversational Latin course with the renowned Father Adrian. Back in the states she's left a lover, her Shakespeare professor Paul Godwin, whose marriage is now on the skids because of their torrid affair.
 
Forty-some years later Paul and Frances are still together in Galesburg, Illinois. Their only child, Stella, has failed to live up to their high expectations, having eschewed study at the Iowa Writers' School, to take up with a thug named Jimmy who treks vegetables cross country in an eighteen wheeler.
 
Paul has lung cancer. In less than a year Frances must face the world as a solo traveler. What she decides to do and how she does it fills this small novel with big ideas. We learn about astronomy, antique automobiles, opera, piano tuning, great wines, and even the Catholic church.
 
Some critics might say that Hellenga throws in everything but the kitchen sink to show off the breadth of his knowledge. I say that he takes a love story, a murder mystery, and a fantasy, combined with a dose of magical realism, wraps it up in the food and music of Italy, and serves up the kind of satisfying novel that will stay with you days after you've closed the cover.
 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

8th Anniversary of Reading Around the World

 
 
Eight glorious years of sharing my thoughts with you about books and ideas, it scarcely seems possible. I can't thank you all enough for taking this journey with me. There have been days when I thought I'd run out of things to say and others when I couldn't stop typing. There were times when I felt the urge, no, the need to write about other pressing topics, especially my family. Then too, I had fabulous journeys to share, and politics to rave and rage about.
 
But it always comes back to books, doesn't it? The beauty of the written word cannot be taken lightly. Authors are my heroes. They create a path to understanding, to the unique, to empathy for those in circumstances so different from our own. They keep us awake at night. They can terrify us, make us cry. And they are as diverse as we the readers are.
 
I plan to be off the grid for about ten days but I'll have so much to share when I return. I have new books from Paula McClain and Jane Urquhart on the way to me from Library Journal. I have a bag full of giveaways for new commenters. Jenny, you are first up.
 
I've also been introduced to several new (to me) Florida writers whose books will likely make it to WGCU's Florida Book Page. And best of all I met a lively fellow book lover at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival whose audio author interviews I highly recommend. Her name is Cary Barbor and you can catch her here. http://www.bksandauthors.com/
 
See you in April.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco at Southwest Florida Reading Festival

Oh, how this man touched my heart! It was just the right day, the right time for me to sit and hear his message of love for the immigrant experience as he and his family lived it. To think that Richard Blanco spoke for our president's second inauguration to hundreds of thousands gathered on the mall in Washington, yet barely drew one hundred southwest Floridians to his afternoon talk in Fort Myers, makes me want to weep. But those of us who attended will not soon forget it.
 

The back story here is that I moderated a book discussion at my library on Thursday. As I mentioned in a previous blog post we were discussing "Americanah." I was, as always, very well prepared with questions, answers, thoughts, and favorite quotes. What blindsided me was the small but vocal contingent of participants who turned the conversation into a "them" versus "us" tirade against immigration.

To paraphrase one woman speaking of the Somali immigrants in Minnesota, "They come here expecting everything to be given to them, they don't know what it is to work for it the way we did." I had so hoped that this old trope had been laid to rest. Were we not all immigrants once? I see so many hard working people out on the streets every day, trying desperately to get their kids educated, working all day, meeting their tutors in the evening. I marvel at their tenacity.

As I tried to get us back on task, I floated the idea to these women that it's possible their Somalis had fled for their lives from the militant group Shabab, maybe with little but what could fit into a suitcase. Is it possible that  they are not "arrogant" but rather out of their depth, uncomfortable, not yet as familiar with our language as they would like to be? Who, I wondered, remembered Andre Dubus's "House of Sand and Fog."

For a few hours I questioned whether I was on the wrong side of history. Was I still living back in the '60's? Make love, not war? But I conferred with my sister and realized I'm not crazy. Then I showed up at the Harborside Event Center to hear Mr. Blanco speak. I was mesmerized. What if his parents had not left Cuba with only a single suitcase? His mom was pregnant with him at the time, yet in an act of profound courage, she left everyone and everything she knew behind so that her unborn child could be free.

Mr. Blanco has an exquisite voice. It is intimate, soft yet powerful. He read from his new memoir "The Prince of Los Cocuyos," about his childhood in Miami. He recited poetry, he shared photos of his family, his partner, with whom he now lives in New England, and of course, he told of the day that the call came from President Obama. He had only three weeks to write three poems that would change the trajectory of his life.
 
prince-thumb
 
I think that what Richard Blanco acknowledged and what touched my heart most of all, was that we all, no matter where we're from or where we've settled, have a universal yearning to be home, to find a place where we are content, ourselves, and at peace. Those of us who have found that nirvana would never dream of denying it to someone else. Perhaps my angry book discussion ladies are unhappy or unsettled themselves. I hope that they will find their home. As Mr. Blanco said of home, "It is not where you're born but where you choose to die."

Monday, March 16, 2015

Thank You Anne Tyler!

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (2015, Hardcover)
You never disappoint me, Anne Tyler. I was so very ready for this heartfelt novel after the last month of reading non-stop for my new radio program. Oh, have I not mentioned this on my blog? Well yes, dear readers, for those of you who aren't from Southwest Florida...I now have a monthly radio review gig called "The Florida Book Page," which, while great fun, limits me to books by Floridians or about Florida. Not so easy! Take a listen.
 
 
I've also been immersed in a lion hunt in Mozambique with Mia Couto for my latest "Library Journal" review (due today and just sent off), not to mention my introduction to "The Making of Zombie Wars," also for LJ and far, far from my normal cup of tea.
 
All I hoped for this weekend was a good old fashioned story, no pretentious cleverness, no magical realism, just people I could relate to and feel something for. I found it in the Whitshank family of Baltimore and their warm, wood floored home on Bouton Rd., a house which is itself a fully formed character in the book.
 
Red and Abby, though a few years older than I, are a couple I get. She's an old hippie (I say this with fondness), a retired social worker, a woman who wants to save the world one lost soul at a time but sometimes to the detriment of her own kids. He's a good, decent man, one of those guys who works with his hands creating beauty from formless pieces of wood, not for the money or for the renown, but for the sense of pride and satisfaction that comes from a job well done.
 
Their children are as varied and dissimilar as a family of four kids can be. You know, they're not quite friends but they care deeply about each other, which is why they've all gathered on Bouton Road to discuss what to do about their folks. It seems that Abby has begun to lose time. She disappears. She's decided to give up driving. She can't remember the dog's name. The word Alzheimer's does not come up but, perhaps, the kids think, it's time to consider a "retirement home."
 
The thought of leaving the house that his father, Junior Whitshank, put every loving detail into, built from scratch for strangers, yet always believed would one day shelter his own family, is anathema to Red. Nothing could convince him to leave until Fate intervenes.
 
The joy of Anne Tyler's novels is that they feel so authentic. These are real families she introduces us to. We want to spend time with them. We recognize their faults as our own, we sigh in solidarity at their foibles, we empathize with the vicissitudes of their daily grind, the little things that wear all of us down yet deepen our love for life. And yes, we understand that they have secrets, some that they hold close with the best of intentions but which, when discovered, render tears in the fabric of their stitched together lives.
 
This multi-generational novel skips back and forth among the decades in a most satisfying way. Tyler generously lets her readers in on the back stories that are so central to our full understanding of her characters. Especially surprising is the relationship between Red's parents, the seemingly unsuited Linnie Mae and Junior, while Red and Abby's son Denny, a chronic misfit, elicited deep sympathy from me.
 
There are laugh-out-loud moments here interspersed with tender poignancy. If this sounds like a book you'd enjoy reading please let me know. You'll have a long wait at the library and I've got an advance reader's edition that I'd love to share. Email me at s_bissell@yahoo.com and it's yours.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Americanah, So, What are we Talking About When We Talk About Race?

Next week I'll be volunteering my time at the South County Library where I used to work by facilitating a discussion of one of my favorite books of 2013. "Americanah," by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, came to me via Library Journal long before it's publication date. I went out on a limb for this novel, saying that it was a must-read for anyone still living under the illusion that we are a post-racial society. The book went on to win a plethora of prizes, including the National Book Critics Circle Award.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Americanah.jpeg
 
 
Yesterday I sat and watched live streaming of the events in Selma, Alabama, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. If you didn't learn about our country's very own "bloody Sunday" in school, you can rent or borrow the outstanding film "Selma," which will give you an extraordinary mix of live footage and actor's re-enactments. The hatred, fear, and anger on the faces of the police and the white citizens of Selma are terrifying to witness. The courage of Martin Luther King and all who came to march with him that day in non-violent protest for the right to vote unimpeded is mind boggling.
 
President Obama, in one of the most impassioned, powerful speeches of his presidency, explained why we must never forget. That, yes, things have changed tremendously in the past fifty years BUT... and that's a big but...we have a long, long way to go.
 
Adichie, using humor, nuance, and sly innuendo, says much the same thing. I can't wait to hear how my group of deep readers will respond to her observations. As a Nigerian, she has often said in interviews, that she never realized that she was black until she came to America. Think about that. She tells the story of her alter-ego, Ifemelu, who landed a coveted student visa to get to the United States and, for thirteen years, made it her home.
 
She struggled in student housing, scrabbled to get a decent job, earned a degree, and became a sought after blogger and public speaker lecturing HR departments about race. The irony is, of course, that she is not an American black and she doesn't own or even understand the dark history that haunts American blacks.
 
But she was willing to learn through her various relationships, one long term affair with a wealthy white man, Curt, who loved her unconditionally, and another with an American black man, Blaine, who could not comprehend that she did not, could not, take offense at every slight, imagined or not, that he encountered as a professor at Yale. In a very funny scene, she calls home to tell her parents that she may be getting married to Blaine and, admitting that he is an American black, they lament, "are there not enough Nigerian men in America?"
 
Using the social interactions among the friends Ifemelu makes during her time in the states, Adichie is able to point out the uncomfortable contradictions in our (Americans) thoughts about race. Blaine and Ifemelu work tirelessly for the Obama presidential campaign and Adichie's description of the evening when the first announcer declared Barack Hussein Obama the next president of the United States is spot on. Still, Ifemelu stands back and notices how so many people working the room just dust their palms together in a way that says, "OK, we crossed that hurdle, we're no longer a racist country." Hmmmmm. Tell that to Trayvon Martin's family.
 
Adichie is a gifted writer. Her novel "Half of a Yellow Sun," is a heartbreaking love story underpinned with the struggle of the Biafran War. It was made into a less than stellar film. Now, "Americanah" will also be rewritten by Hollywood and I worry about the outcome. A writer can, (and she does) bring the reader along with clever word choices, utilizing the ambiguity of the English language to highlight cultural and racial differences. I'm not sure how well this book will translate into film, but there's no doubt that huge swaths of it will have to be left out. Please grab a copy, now out in paperback, and read it before you go to the movies. It may be uncomfortable but you'll see yourself in a whole new light.