Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Two Great Reads! One, Not so Much

There's nothing like a long flight to aid and abet an avid reader. I took the holiday weekend to fly to Massachusetts for a long overdue visit with my dear aunt Jackie and Cynthia, "the blogger's sister." I got to finish The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton. For those of you who don't know this, I was a Bookmobile Librarian for two years while I was in graduate school and it was one of the most satisfying jobs I've ever held.
Much like Fiona Sweeney, the character in the book, I was convinced that I was saving the world, one child at a time. Except that she's doing it in Africa! I had high hopes for this book and, while it did touch lightly on the problems that arise when one brings the outside world to remote, arid environs where hunger and disease are the primary worries of the people, it certainly doesn't have the depth of, say, The Poisonwood Bible.
What Hamilton does do though, is bring attention to the actual camel bookmobile which does indeed exist and needs our help. I had no idea of this when I began the novel but have since looked Ms. Hamilton up online - don't you just love the way one thing leads to another when you're reading? Her website tells the other side to this story. Take a look:

So what were the great reads you might be wondering. On the flight back home I began and couldn't put down Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I'd been saving it ever since I'd read the review last year - kind of as a treat - the way some people (me too) save certain foods for a guilty repast. So many of us dream of this but Gilbert actually did it - took a year off from the daily grind - to travel and write. And oh, how she can write! The subtitle of this book is "A Woman's Search for Everything, Across Italy, India and Indonesia." At only 30- something you might think that she hasn't lived long enough to know what "everything" is, but I love how she makes no bones about it and offers no apologies for wanting it all. To get to know her better you can read a Q & A at her website:
I've got to get back to the book!

Tomorrow I'll try to take time to write about the other fascinating book I'm in the middle of, Gore Vidal's Point to Point Navigation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Blood Diamonds

Movies are piled up all over my living room tables because I just can't seem to set aside 2 hours in a row to sit and watch them. Blood Diamond was top on the list only because it was overdue at the library. My friend Don and I opened a bottle of wine, made some guacamole and finally sat down Sunday to watch. What a disappointment! (at least Don's guacamole was great)

While we both decided that the movie was over rated, it did precipitate a long discussion about the civil war in Sierra Leone and raised many questions about when, who, how long, etc. Much to this librarian's dismay, Don went to Wikipedia, the bane of our existence, and did manage to get some factual information. I, on the other hand, went to the library catalog to look up a new book I'd read about, a memoir by Ishmael Beah who was actually a child soldier conscripted to fight at the age of 13 in Sierra Leone's revolution. I expect this to be a devastating but important read as we struggle to understand how younger and younger men and women, especially in the middle east, are brainwashed into strapping bombs to their bodies and blowing themselves, and innocent bystanders, to bloody bits.

The book is called A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. It's available in audio format too. If you want to get a feel for Mr. Beah and what the book is about you can hear his interview with Terry Gross on NPR:

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Blogging is addictive and I must say that I've missed not having something to say this week. Of course, those who know me understand that I've had plenty to say, but it hasn't necessarily been book related.
I'm just finishing the audio version of Margaret Atwood's Moral Disorder, a series of intertwining short stories that are at once funny as hell and devastatingly sad. I had planned to write quite a bit about it but I've just read A. S. Byatt's review of the book that appeared recently in the Washington Post Book World. How does one follow that?
I will say that the reader, Susan Denaker, does a great job with the material. I wondered, as I often do, how much of the author's life, if any, is reflected in these stories. Atwood's main character, Nell, reflects on the awkward, painful and difficult position of being, not only the "other woman" but also a stepmother, in a long relationship with a man who selfishly avoids pressing his wife for a divorce because she's so "fragile."
Now, before you defend the wife, Oona, let me tell you that she's the one who left him, introducing Tig to Nell practically on her way out the door. Controlling through passive-aggressive behavior, Oona looms large in the lives of her sons and exerts an incredible amount of influence on Tig, now Nell's husband. Nell, meanwhile, is dealing with aging parents, a sister diagnosed with schizophrenia and the pull of her biological clock.
The saving grace here is the beauty of Margaret Atwood's writing. Nell's ruminations over the years are spot on, whether she's describing her fear and anxiety at being 11 years old and having to watch over her mother who is facing a problem pregnancy or being a single, twenty- something college professor at a faculty party where the wives eye her with envy and distrust. A lifetime of caretaking for others could result in some deep seated resentments ( I know I've certainly had my moments) but Atwood's Nell shows remarkable resilience and compassion. She makes you want to be a better person.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

All roads lead to books! At least that's how my synapses work. Frank Lloyd Wright designed only one synagogue in the United States and I read yesterday in my local newspaper that this building has been designated a National Historic Site. Thoughts of F.L. Wright immediately lead me to Howard Roark, Ayn Rand's archetype of the "perfect man" made famous in her classic novel The Fountainhead. I seem to recall that back when I read this book for the first time, I got it in my head that Roark was supposedly loosely - or not so - based on Frank Lloyd Wright.
It just so happens that a few of my more erudite co-workers, also new to blogging, are going to hold an online book discussion of The Fountainhead and, though I begged off by pleading too many overdue books, some of you readers may want to tackle it. To learn how this all came about follow the link to
Meanwhile, I'm treating myself to some book candy. This week Alice Hoffman's Skylight Confessions graces my bedside table. She never lets me down! You could line up excerpts from 20 books - kind of like a blind tasting at a winery - and I'd pick out Alice Hoffman's writing every time. There's something very distinctive about her deceptively simple style that just grabs me from the first page. I always get such a vivid sense of foreboding yet I never seem to intuit what's going to happen next. How does she do that?
Francine Prose in her latest book, Reading Like a Writer, talks about the beauty and difficulty of perfecting an austere writing style where every word counts. Think Hemingway, (though she uses a passage of Flannery O'Connor's to make her point). Prose says that we must read slowly and methodically if we are to discover the "crucial revelations in the spaces between the words." So THAT'S my problem. I'm just going too fast.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

The cultural assimilation of immigrants in their adopted homelands has long been the subject of great fiction, from a classic American writer like Willa Cather to Andre DuBus to Amy Tan. When I read that a movie version of Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake was forthcoming, I recalled that this was a book I'd always wanted to read and had never gotten around to. Too late! Suddenly everyone wants to read it and I'm on a waiting list along with all of our other customers. No special treatment for librarians on staff!

Sunday afternoons are generally "movie time" for my friend Don and me and last Sunday was no exception. We chose The Namesake and we both found it very satisfying as a story and as a movie. For some reason that - who knows - may have to do with a previous life, I'm drawn to the Indian culture, the large, raucus family gatherings, the music, clothing, all of it. The very talented director of this movie, Mira Nair also directed Monsoon Wedding, another favorite of mine, as well as an early Denzel Washington flick called Mississippi Masala.

Nair was the perfect choice to handle Lahiri's novel. She doesn't shy away from stories of race and culture bias but she isn't heavy handed with our human foibles. All of these books and movies explore the difficulties of people who very much want to "fit in" without completely dismissing their heritage. The generation gap is clear as the parents prefer to stick with the "old ways" while the children rebel, finding love, friendship and a future through new eyes unclouded by ancient prejudices. The path is seldom easy and not all assimilation stories end as well as these do but it behooves us to remember that we were all strangers here once.

On the way out of the theatre I was approached by a library- goer who recognized me. She opined that the movie was far better than the book - not something we hear that often. Of course, I laughed to myself because she might as well have thrown down a gaunlet on the dim theatre stairs. Now I HAVE to read the book!