Saturday, July 28, 2007

Ten Years in the Hills!

I know, I know. The actual title of Jane Smiley's latest offering is Ten Days in the Hills, but listening to those 20 discs I felt like I had signed my life away. Yet every time I decided to give up on it, Smiley would grab me with a great discussion of the war in Iraq as opined by Elena, the conscience of the disparate group inexplicably spending these ten days in Max's house in the Hollywood hills. Suzanne Toren's beautiful performance of the book on CD was likely another reason why I stayed with it longer than I should have. At one point I actually cheated and logged on to Amazon just to read others' reviews of the book. I kept thinking I was missing something but, no, I wasn't alone in finally saying "who cares?"

I'm not saying that the writing isn't great because, with Smiley, it always is. She's perennially a book club group favorite. I love her sense of sardonic humor and she uses it liberally here. There's plenty of sexual activity going on, but I'm sorry to say that it isn't the least bit titillating. On the contrary, the characters all seem to make love with one clinical eye on a mirror analyzing each other's responses.

Some of you know that I teach a workshop on Readers' Advisory skills and one of the things I talk about is why we read. In an exercise in which a reader is interviewed about The Bridges of Madison County, she explains that, although she wasn't initially drawn to the book, everyone was talking about it so she felt she had to give it a go. That was the same situation going on with me. I'd even read that Smiley's book was a take on Boccaccio's Decameron. I confess, I think that's a bit of a pretentious stretch. However, if you have ten days to spend with a group of rather self-absorbed, navel- gazing Hollywood has-beens, then by all means read this book. If not, there's plenty of other fish in the sea.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Life in the Emerald City

Do you all remember that line in the film Network when Peter Finch screams that he's "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore"? That's all I could think of as I watched the Democratic debate on CNN/You Tube the other night. Several political blogs have written scathing critiques of former Senator Mike Gravel, one saying that he resembled a "mad dog." But my heart broke for him. He's angry and frustrated, as so many of us in this country are, and he can't seem to get the point across that yes, our young men may be dying in vain.

If your blood pressure is even remotely near borderline you're going to want to stay away from the book I'm just finishing up on my mp3 player. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran will make any thinking person very angry! A former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, the author writes with much empathy for the few naive staffers who actually signed on to work in Iraq with humanitarian goals in mind. Yet, his descriptions of the mind-boggling carelessness (read, lack of planning) and the actual cruelty of the Coalition Provisional Authority under the inept direction of Paul Bremer, is appalling.

In a particularly upsetting episode Chandrasekaran tells how, within the Green Zone, peopled with Iraqi workers, Americans ate pork every night at a sumptuous buffet served in the palace. Iraqi customs were either ridiculed or ignored in the worst possible ways.

Another incident describes how 100's of job applications from American students of the Middle East, who actually spoke the language and understood the culture, were dumped in the garbage in favor of unqualified and massively inexperienced political "friends of W" who held good Republican values. Pentagon officials actually asked in job interviews how potential employees voted and what their opinions were of policies such as Roe v. Wade. Is this legal? Not in most worlds, but apparently the government has a loophole.

Most distressing is reading about the tremendous influence that Dick Cheney personally had on every single person hired to "fix" Iraq. Just imagine the scary wizard of Oz behind his curtain in Dorothy's Emerald City and you'll have the picture. I imagine that by now everyone knows that Cheney's Halliburton had all the major contracts for work in and outside of the Green Zone. Even the laundry contract was awarded to them. Of course, it took over two weeks for staffers to get their clean clothes as everything was "outsourced" to Jordan. Go figure.

As upsetting as this book is I really think it needs to be required reading for any voter worth his salt. But you've been warned - take your blood pressure pills first!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Let's Talk Books Again

I'm really in a panic. Now that I've committed to blogging about books I realize that there's NO way I can keep up with all this reading - and still have a life, that is. After all, reading is supposed to be a most pleasurable way to pass one's spare time, it shouldn't have my gut in an uproar. Still, the older we get, the less time we can devote to light reading when there's oh so much to be learned from great literature and, thanks to Andrea and Don, non-fiction. I wish I was more convinced that there's a heaven. I really need to believe that one day I'll get to all the books I've had to bypass in this life!

Back when I read strictly for fun, and when I was still in my "all things Italian" phase, I picked up a first novel by Anthony Capella. It was a delightful read called The Food of Love. From years of working on our Reading Festival and dealing with authors, big-time and small, I've found that you can get a real sense of a writer by his webpage. Capella's, as you can see, has a great sense of fun and whimsey about it and he doesn't take himself too seriously. When my friend Judy, with whom I share a love of all things foodie, recommended Anthony Capella's new book The Wedding Officer, I was all over it. Where his first book was set in contemporary Rome, this one takes place in post-WW II Naples. British and American forces, sent to make some sense of the chaos, are making themselves at home in Italy and are not immuune to the beauty of the land, the food and, of course, the women. Recently jilted by the girl back home, British Capt. James Gould arrives to work in the field security office as a "wedding officer" whose job it is to prevent foreign officers from falling prey to the seductions of the local women. In the process he runs afoul of the Cosa Nostra, black marketeers, and, you guessed it, a gorgeous Italian firebrand named Livia Pertini. I wish I could finish this book but I really must move on. Instead, I'll recommend it to you readers and you can tell me how it ends.

To Publish of Not to Publish....

The moment of truth has arrived! Yesterday, a friend whose opinion I value, asked me if she could link my book blog to her blog about the professional collection within the library system where we both work. Of course, flattery will get you everywhere - right? I was flattered, to say the least. But then my better judgement took over and I realized that I'd be putting my blog and my political and personal opinions out there for my library world to see. Am I ready?

What's wrong with that, you might ask, but think about it. How many times have we read that people's MySpace pages (yes, I have one now) and blog opinions have come back to haunt them when they've applied for certain jobs or promotions? Is it fair? Probably not, but be truthful. If you're a flaming liberal and you find out that a certain person you thought you liked has an anti-Hillary bumpersticker on their SUV, don't you see that person in a whole new (unflattering) light? I know, I know, it goes both ways but you get my point.

I love writing about books but I'm the first one to admit that my reviews are not professional. If I was reviewing for a newspaper or journal I would feel compelled to be objective, fair and balanced - don't laugh. However, in my blog I can speak freely about my personal reaction to certain authors and books based upon my politics, upbringing, life experiences, et al. I believe that it's the asides and editorializing that makes my blog fun for people to read. This is the me I wish I could share with the world but expediency tells me that I'm wiser to share it only with those who know and love me. Isn't this a sad commentary on the world we live in today?

Saturday, July 14, 2007


I really should have mentioned that the ONLY way to read Donna Leon's books is to listen. I was just reading an article by Benjamin Cheever in Audiofile Magazine in which he expounds on the joys of jogging and listening, driving and listening, flying and listening. You get the idea. He compares audio book listening to the comforting feelings he had being read to as a child.

David Colacci ( ) IS Guido Brunetti; calm, thoughtful, clever, empathetic and he has a perfect accent to boot.

Venezia - Light and Dark Sides

I'm not quite sure what keeps drawing me back to Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti stories. I can't really call them "mysteries," though there usually is one. The plots are fairly simple to figure out so I don't really consider them "challenges." Yet there is something beguiling about the commissario, the laid back life style of the Venetians and the complicated politics of Italy, the Veneto in particular, that entices me. Perhaps it is the way Ms. Leon loves Venice, as anyone who's ever been there must, warts and all.

I was lucky enough to hear Donna Leon speak at the American Library Association in DC a couple of weeks ago and was reminded anew of how much I appreciate her politics which can be gleaned from the moral dilemmas with which she confounds Brunetti. She has tackled the sex slave trade, immigration and economic blackmail, environmental crimes committed by the glass factory owners in Murano, and in Suffer the Little Children, illegal foreign adoption and medical privacy issues.

Over an impromptu luncheon last week with co-workers I was asked if I could be comfortable with the European lifestyle. We had been talking about our travels in recent years. I didn't hesitate for a second! Are you kidding? Every time Guido Brunetti and his wife meet for lunch, order up their panini and several glasses of pinot grigio, I wonder what's wrong with us Americans. Most of us consider ourselves lucky to eat a salad at our desk while reading work-related material. Studies have shown that Americans work longer hours and take fewer vacations than most other workers in developed nations. Brunetti, Paola and their delightful children actually talk while eating their lovingly described dinners in the evening and, when the kids go to do their homework, Guido and Paola relax on the couch with their books and snifters of grappa. Ah, va bene! No wonder I keep returning to Donna Leon and her Venezia. Take a look:

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Alice Sebold channels Shakespeare

I've just finished an advance readers' copy (thank you Jessica!) of Alice Sebold's follow up to the incredible Lovely Bones. The Almost Moon won't be released until October and you can bet there will be scads of holds on this book. I haven't read any pre-release information about it but the controversial subject matter and Sebold's reputation tell me that book discussion groups will be clamouring to get their hands on it. The book jacket notes that the author will soon begin a 5-city tour and I can't wait to catch an interview or two. I suspect she will be fielding some very awkward questions. Note to fellow librarians: I'll start lending this out tomorrow.

I thought Shakespeare had a lock on family tragedy but The Almost Moon is explosive. Helen Knightly's crime is so appalling that I felt myself physically recoiling from the pages even as I couldn't get enough of them. In a single 24-hour period Sebold lays out Helen's childhood, adulthood and likely future in a movie quality tableau.
Anyone familiar with Alice Sebold's autobiography, Lucky, which deals with the aftermath of the rape and beating she suffered while a student at Syracuse University, understands that, in Sebold, readers are dealing with an author who doesn't shirk from horrific truths. Her honesty as a writer is as admirable as it is devastating. I don't want to say any more about the plot of this book - even a few sentences of explanation would spoil it. Suffice to say, I read this book in two days - probably a record for me - and I'm anxious for you all to read it too so we can talk! Hurry up Maryellen.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Summer Reading

Vacation is almost over and I'm ashamed to say that I've only managed to read two books - both very light fare - but each entertaining in its own way. Summer Reading by Hilma Wolitzer began slowly for me. I kept getting this author confused in my mind with Meg Wolitzer, whom I've thought of as a little meatier in both subject and style, so I kept waiting for the book to get deeper.
Angela Graves, ostensibly a typical spinsterish retired English professor, actually has a rather lurid past which she chases through her relationships with the wealthy young air heads who attend her book discussion groups on lazy, summer afternoons in the Hamptons.
She despairs of reaching any of these women with the exception of Lissy, a lonely newlywed trying too hard to be accepted by Long Island's old guard. Lissy struggles to read the books Angela chooses to discuss. One surmises that she may suffer from dyslexia. But she does at least attempt to look outside her own shallow life and is moved, after reading Villette, to connect with the most interesting character in the book, her part-time housekeeper, Michelle.
I've been told that Diane Rehm had a lively interview with Ms. Wolitzer and then used her monthly Readers Review forum on NPR to discuss Villette, a lesser known Bronte novel. Listen and learn at:

They say you never should, but I often do choose a book by its cover. The Sidewalk Artist by Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk is a delightful little novel - yes, there was a photo of Venezia on the book jacket - set in Paris, Florence and Venice. The authors deftly weave two intertwining tales, one set in contemporary times and the other during the height of the Renaissance, surrounding the artist Raphael and the mysterious woman who was thought to be his muse and true love.
Tulia Rosa, a budding novelist with writer's block, not to mention a cheating boyfriend back home in New York, who has subsidised her six week European sojourn to make way for a new gal, leisurely strolls the streets of Paris searching for elusive inspiration. She feels an instant attraction to the young chalk artist whose representations of Raphael's angels grace the sidewalks. As they talk and share a bottle of wine it becomes obvious that Raffaello, this young man with the coin filled beret and paint stained fingers, knows Tulia better than she knows herself. Their connectedness has a depth that belies the brief time they've known eachother and their affair, while all encompassing and fulfilling, is tinged with a sad and mysterious tenuousness.
You can see where this is going, I'm sure, but that's OK. The writing is lyrical, the characters are charming and the outcome is satisfying. Why not give it a go?