Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Death and Dying

Death has been on my mind a lot recently but that's not necessarily a bad thing. A friend of mine recently lost her husband to a long illness and, since she's not ready to talk about it yet, I've been trying to imagine myself in her place, wondering what would help me so that I can help her. Up until a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to perform this exercise because I hadn't ever had a "soul mate" (trite but true); someone who completes me. If you're fortunate enough to finally find this person, it's devastating to contemplate life without the other half of yourself.

My friend Don, a much more practical person than I, is more accepting of the natural progression of things but I, having read and reread Kubler-Ross, know that the knowledge of our inevitable demise doesn't preclude the pain of loss and the steps of the grieving process. As John Donne said in his beautiful poem, which was read at my mother's funeral many years ago, "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

All of this is to say that I'm as immersed in death in my real life as I am in literature. In a couple of weeks I'll be hosting a discussion of Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth, a book one critic called "a valediction to mourning." That term speaks to me. It's a perfect way of saying that it's ok to not be immediately ok after the death of a loved one. Just read Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking or listen to Diane Rehm's recent interview with Calvin Trillin as he discusses his Alice, gone five years but still very much a part of his life.

I expect that this book discussion may be difficult for the attendees, depending upon their life situations. I hope it will also be life affirming. Harrison is another one of those authors of such literary renown that I'm ashamed that I haven't read him before. His stories are very regional, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a bit of land you can almost smell and hear, his writing is so perfect. The main character, Donald, is dictating his family's history to his wife Cynthia so that their children will have a deeper understanding of their ties to the land after he is gone. Donald you see, is 45 years old and dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

There is no angst, no Sturm und Drang, in this tale. Donald, a member of the Anishnabeg clan of native peoples who inhabit the U.P. and Canada, is another person who sees his death as a natural part of life, to be taken charge of and embraced as a "returning to earth." The story though, is not as much about Donald's death as it is about the empty place he leaves in the lives of his kids, Clare and Herald, Cynthia and her brother, David. Through their reminiscing readers are able to glean insight into the mourning process and the many different ways that each person uses to cope.

Please don't by-pass this beautifully written, thought provoking book because of the subject matter. Not in the least depressing, it is in fact, an affirmation of all that is glorious and remarkable about the simple act of being alive.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Blown Away by The Tin Roof Blowdown

Yes, I'm back to my dark side with James Lee Burke's latest novel, highly recommended by my friend Maryellen who seldom steers me wrong. I used to read Burke's Dave Robicheaux series when Alafair was still a little girl. Then, tired of the violence, I left him behind for a while. Robicheaux's daughter is in college now and the real Alafair, James Lee's daughter, is writing a great mystery series of her own. Burke has not lost his edginess as he's aged. In fact most critics agree that The Tin Roof Blowdown is one of his best.

Be prepared if you're not familiar with Burke. The mood is always sinister, muddy, and slimey. The language is foul but honest. Even the good guys have bleak histories and are always one step away from sliding back into the muck. New Orleans on the uncertain days leading up to Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftermath is a major player in this novel of despair. Looters looking for just enough food and money to stay alive raid the wrong house at the wrong time in the wrong place. Detective Robicheaux, brought in from New Iberia Parish to join the NOPD in their investigation, uncovers so much more than a simple crime.

Burke has never been more politically outspoken in his fiction. There is no concealing his love for New Orleans and his disgust at the response of our government and our nation to the tragedy that transpired there. Often fiction does a better job than straight news reporting at depicting the truth and this book is a tough read for those who can't handle the truth (apologies to Jack Nicholson). Burke forces us to look behind the curtain of frivolity that surrounds the party city to the exteme poverty, racism and lack of opportunity for those who don't work on Bourbon Street. He forces us to examine our perceptions of good and evil, revenge and betrayal, brotherhood and love.

Read by a crusty, sinister sounding "good ole boy" named Will Patton, this book's atmosphere is considerably enhanced by the audio performance.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

For Mma Ramotswe Fans

My friend Tina brought this to my attention. Looks like great fun. Bless the BBC.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Taking a Break

Every now and then I do need a respite from the morbidly depressing novels I normally read. One author I can always count on is Alexander McCall Smith. I often recommend his delightful series, The Number One Ladies Detective Agency, to my customers as these books never fail to leave me chuckling. Personally I think that the only way to read them is on CD or download. Lisette Lecat, with her lilting accent, is perfect in the many roles, using subtle vocal changes to reflect each character male or female.
Speaking of the characters....McCall Smith's insight into the little foibles of us weak humans and his penchant for forgiveness of them, is the wonder of these novels. Where I often have trouble caring about those who people "good literature," (think of The Corrections), I never fail to shed a tear over the simple, everyday lives of Botswana's number 1 sleuth, Maa Ramotswe, her assistant Maa Makutsi who has a weakness for pretty, impractical shoes, and Mr. J. L. B. Matakoni, proprietor of the local body shop, who fears he may not be exciting enough for his detective wife.
I'm currently listening to number 8 in the series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, in which all the characters we've come to know and depend upon seem to be having mid-life crises. Though I think the books can stand alone, it feels better to read them in order, slowly coming to understand the beautiful natures of these people who will become your new best friends.

By my bed I've got a couple of novels I've been hoping to get to, among them The Madonnas of Leningrad, which was a popular book discussion here at the library and an autographed copy of The Whole World Over that I picked up when I met author Julia Glass at Book Expo a year ago. At work I'm half way through The Savage Garden by screenwriter Mark Mills. Well received by reviewers and set in Tuscany, this one naturally caught my attention.

Adam is a less than ambitious Cambridge scholar, inexplicably chosen by his professor to spend the summer in Italy researching the history of a formal garden at the Villa Docci. The elderly signora, owner of the property, guards its secrets on the one hand while opening her villa to Adam on the other. She doles out the information she wants him to have but the gossipers at the local trattoria contradict much of it and Adam begins to surmise that the true history of the villa may be much darker than he's been led to believe. I hope so!