Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Uncommon Reader

As Maryellen says, "great book alert!" All you librarians out there simply must avail yourself of this little book which can be read in an evening. Alan Bennett, British author of the fabulous play later made into a movie, The History Boys, has penned a witty, sly little morality tale on the efficacy and danger of - you know it - READING! The premise is that the current queen of England, while out walking her dogs, comes upon the mobile library parked outside the service entrance at Buckingham Palace supplying the lowly kitchen help with leisure time reading material. Mortified that the dogs are romping around inside and curious about the vehicle she'd taken no notice of in the past, the Queen enters and her life is forever changed.

Between Mr. Hutchings, the librarian, and Norman, avid reader and dishwasher for the royals, the Queen is introduced to hoards of books on every subject and in every genre. As her reading tastes develop and mature her handlers grow increasingly uncomfortable with her affinity for actually offering opinions. Since they won't encourage her in her new-found habit, the Queen promotes Norman to personal assistant so that she'll always have someone to talk books with. This sets off a chain reaction behind the scenes that will pit the Queen against her counselors with laughably unintended consequences.

One hilarious scene has the Queen coaching from the castle to Westminster, totally caught up in the open book on her lap, waving absently to her subjects as the Duke mutters furiously under his breath. While she performs her duties with the privy council, the Duke has the book confiscated from the carriage where the Queen has hidden it between the cushions. Upon her return she confronts the security guards as to the whereabouts of her novel and is told that it was identified as a possible explosive device and likely destroyed. The Queen archly replies that a book is indeed an explosive device, one used to ignite the imagination. You've gotta love it!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Where Have I Been?

As well you might ask! I just can't seem to finish a book lately and then, well, typing is just killing me. I think I've pinched a nerve in my neck or arm and I have this burning pain from my shoulder blade down to my wrist. This has been going on for a month now and it's driving me bonkers - especially when we're supposed to be practicing non-stop for our new computer system that'll be up and running at work by the end of January.

Enough of that whining though. There's so much going on in my head right now that I scarcely know where to begin. Don and I went to see "Milk" yesterday and, though I'm old enough to remember when Harvey Milk was assassinated, I guess I was too busy being a full-time stepmother at the time to really relate to what was happening in the gay/lesbian community. I recall Anita Bryant's frightening speeches, calling on God to condemn a whole segment of our society for loving the "wrong" person. I always cringe when I hear a member of some church use that disingenuous phrase about "loving the sinner but hating the sin," as if it's up to them to make a judgement about what's right and what's wrong. It's almost as bad as using the word "tolerance" as if it's some magnanimous gesture. To "tolerate" is hardly to embrace.

The movie got me to see this whole flap about Obama's asking Rick Warren to give the inaugural benediction in a whole new light. I thought the gay community was overreacting in their violent disapproval, clinging to my blind devotion to Barack and believing that he had a clever ulterior motive for his decision. But seeing the original footage of the police rounding up homosexuals from Stonewall in New York to south beach in Miami - a mere 30 years ago - I realized that, as with women's rights, we have not come as far as one would hope and that giving a prominent voice to a man like Rick Warren is to gays what elevating Lawrence Summers is to me as a woman.

Kudos to Sean Penn who never veers from controversy and wears his politics on his sleeve. The man is a beautiful writer, ( check out his articles in The Nation or on the Huffington Post), but he's also a very underrated actor, in my humble opinion. He blew me away in Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River" in which he played the father of a murdered girl who succumbs to vigilantism, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house when he channeled a mentally challenged father trying to retain custody of his daughter in "I Am Sam."

All this brings me to the book I am halfway through on the mp3. Palace Council by Stephen Carter, the third in his series of novels (and I think the best) about the elite, powerful movers and shakers of "the darker nation" who lived in elegant sophistication in Harlem during its peak, laboring behind the scenes to effect political change and a better future for the generations that would follow. I really enjoy how Carter weaves so much actual history into his novels that the reader believes that the fictional characters are as real as the names like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. du Bois, J. Edgar Hoover and Adam Clayton Powell that are dropped into the narrative.

As in his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, there is a secret society to be infiltrated and as in the second, New England White, there's a dead body found in a most inconvenient place. There's also an unrequited love, a baby born out of wedlock, and a family divided by differing philosophies on how to bring full civil rights to African Americans. Lest you think I'm being flip, on the contrary, I should tell you that Carter is a very literary writer with a penchant for red herrings but a need to tie up loose ends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Another Respite from Depression!

Hi everyone, I've missed writing. So pleased we'll have some time off in the next few weeks for R & R. I found another sweet little book on the shelf a couple of weeks ago from a first time author. Infobabe tells me that she concentrates her book discussions on first time authors and I like the idea of giving new folks some good press when they deserve it (and even sometimes if they don't).
House and Home by Kathleen McCleary caught my eye because of the cover art and the catch phrase "sometimes a woman loves her house so much that she'll do almost ANYthing to keep it." This was me fifteen years ago and I had the three concurrent jobs to prove it, all while attending library school. Now, older and wiser, I'm a little ashamed that I put so much stock in a physical structure to make me happy. Without going into all the unhappy details, suffice it to say that my home in Florida was the first thing I had ever owned in my own name so it was a symbol of so much more than 3 beds and 2 baths.

Ellen and Sam are in the process of ending an 18 year marriage when this novel opens but it only takes a few pages to intuit that neither one is gung ho about moving on and their two delightful daughters try every trick in the book to forestall the divorce. Ellen is a lovely character; believably flawed like most of us, both selfish and loving, hard working and loyal, quick to anger, a little slower to forgive. She's someone you could imagine as your neighbor and your friend.

Sam? The same! So what's wrong? Well, it seems that Sam, the visionary who can't seem to get his wild ideas to fall into place long enough to earn a living, has refinanced the beloved home for a pipe dream. Oh, way too close to home for me! The home sale is pending, Ellie and the girls are distraught, but Ellie has an idea. She plans a farewell party for her gal friends - you know the kind - lots of great food, good wine and conversation. And perhaps....a few too many candles???

To follow up, and keep my reputation for disturbing books intact, I've started The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam. This has gotten some great press so it was on my rather lengthy "to read" list and once again, the cover art is eye catching to say the least. This is a contemporary novel set in Afghanistan involving an elderly Brit, a grieving widower, whose daughter was kidnapped by the Taliban. He takes a motley crew of passers-through and activists into his home, ostensibly to assuage his loneliness but I expect there will be much more to it than that. LJ calls this “Arguably the best novel available on the current situation in the Middle East...." Hmmmm, pretty high praise. I'll let you know.

Had a great turnout for my book discussion last week on Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. Numbers aren't always important and sometimes 26 people can be too many but this was an impressive group of women who had read the book thoroughly with an eye to the discussion. Many came with notes, no one was afraid to talk, they all took turns - a remarkable experience overall. The big question was, whose book was it? Frank's or Mamah's? Was it a feminist book or a plain old romance? Another fantastic first novel by a woman who threw away seven years of work and started over with a wonderful outcome. Note: it helps if you aren't familiar with the true story.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Kissing Frogs Before Finding the Prince!

That old saying, which I never really followed (why not just wait for the prince?) can certainly be applied to books! I've found that I often have to struggle throught five or six before I even find one worth writing about. Then I miss writing and feel like I need to show up here anyway to let you know what's happening.

First up, I reviewed a gothic romance (so not me, but a lot of fun) called The Seance for Library Journal and am currently suffering through a compilation of short stories that are so tedious I want to cry. More on those after publication of the reviews.

I just finished Maryellen's recommendation Finding Nouf, a first novel by an American woman, Zoe Ferraris, who lived in the Middle East and whose experiences there may have informed this novel. Though just a basic murder mystery, and a pretty far-fetched one at that, what holds the reader's interest here is the plight of the female medical examiner, a professional and a feminist, working in a male - only world where even eye contact between her and her boss is forbidden. Imagine trying to work in such a delicate field, ensconced in a burqua, wary of every interaction with a male client and still trying to maintain credibility as a scientist?

Katya Hijazi is a delightful heroine. Investigating the death of her fiance's sister, she enlists the aid of the wealthy family's friend Nayir, a shyly conservative Muslim. As the two grow closer to the perpetrator of the crime they also disguise burgeoning feelings for each other. It's a pleasure to watch the delicate dance between Katya and Nayir as they slowly break with Saudi traditions in an attempt to be true to their own humanity.

I haven't had to drive that far lately and apologize to Andrea for keeping her cd book overdue. Luckily we staff members can't be sent to the collection agency! At least, I haven't pushed it yet. By now everyone in the world must know that Curtis Sittenfeld's new book American Wife is supposed to be a "fictionalized" version of the life of Laura Bush. Don sent me the link to an interview with Sittenfeld on the Terry Gross show

Gross implies in her interview that Sittenfeld might have gone too far by depicting our fictionalized Laura, named Alice Lindgren in the novel, as having had an abortion. Sittenfeld protests that, after all, this is a work of FICTION. Well, Curtis, you can't have it both ways. I think it's a tad disingenuous to encourage publicity and talk about your book by saying it's about LB and then, when someone takes you up short and says, hey, that's not fair to imply that LB had an abortion, turn around and say, "but it's FICTION."

Personally, if I had ignored all the advertising, I probably never would have made the Alice/Laura connection (though I'm only halfway through the book). Now that I know the connection I can't enjoy Alice's growing love affair with the fictional George, Charlie Blackwell. Everytime they make love I get an awful visual that just won't go away!! Yuk, can you can imagine?

The writing, though, is quite wonderful and the coming of age time frame is my time frame as well, so I "get" Alice and enjoy watching her growth as an independent person, even under the tough pressure from Charlie and the rest of his high-powered family. I'll stick with it til the boys from Baltimore threaten to come break Andrea's knees in which case I'll have to give it up to the next cutomer on the wait list.

I've got to go begin my apple pie now before the day gets away from me. Have a wonderful holiday everyone. We have SO much to be thankful for, don't we?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Little Gem

OK, the election is over and I'm back to books full time. Last week I finished a novel that is so light, sweet and entertaining that those who of you who are more than familiar with my reading habits will be shocked. If you're looking for a break from noir and blood-pressure-raising political books take a gander at Beginner's Greek, a debut novel by journalist James Collins. He's such a romantic!

The premise is that two "single, but looking" professional adults happen to be seated next to each other on a cross-country flight. Peter and Holly form an immediate connection, bonding over Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, so Holly rips out a page of her book, scrawls her Dad's phone number on it (where she'll be staying for the week) and hands it to Peter as they rush away to separate cabs. Naturally, Peter loses the paper.

Three years later, in a less than satisfactory relationship but commited to a marriage of convenience, Peter meets Holly again in New York and voila, she's married to his best friend Jonathan. How he obsesses. He's so focused on Holly and Jonathan that he doesn't even realize that his betrothed, Charlotte, is actually in love with someone else as well! It's all very Shakespearean and a great comedy of manners ensues.

Though I said the book is "light" I should perhaps say that it has a light touch. It's actually very deep in its perceptive examination of human nature, communication, love vs. friendship, office politics, fate, timing, you name it. If Collins seems to exaggerate a bit to make a point it's done in such a clever, roundabout way that you can't help but have a smile on your face all through your reading. This is a truly enjoyable book. I was ready for it, especially after slogging through half of Joyce Carol Oates' The Gravedigger's Daughter. Oy vay! I gave it way longer than Nancy Pearl would have - at least 20 miles worth of walking and listening before I caved in. I only kept on because I had met Oates at a conference last year and owned an autographed copy of the book which I can now, in good conscience, donate to the Friends as I probably won't be going back to take another look. Unless I decide that Oates should be read rather than listened to. Now that I think of it, the reader's voice (Bernadette Dunne) also drove me crazy in Choi's A Person of Interest.

Normally, I enjoy stories of the immigrant experience. Amy Bloom's Away was an exceptional book. I also reviewed Rose Tremain's The Road Home for LJ and found it wonderfully appealing and uplifting. Oates wrote this book, though fiction, about her grandmother Blanche Morgenstern, so I'd hate to believe that Oates' family was as unsympathetic and downright unsavory as the fictional Schwarts who fled 1930's Germany for upstate New York.

Language and cultural barriers assault the Schwart family. Resentment simmers unabated in Jacob Schwart's heart, this man who was respected and educated in Germany but who now digs graves for a pittance and lives and raises his family in an old stone carriage house on the grounds of the cemetary. His wife Anna fears everything in this new world and gradually succumbs to a form of agoraphobia. One by one, Rebecca's brothers leave for greener pastures and Rebecca's bright, inquisitive mind languishes under her mother's fear of education and her father's bitterness.

I know it isn't fair to write this without reading the entire 582 pages so perhaps one of you will do it for me and let me hear from you about how wonderful Rebecca's life turns out. You know it's pretty bad when things begin getting better after she becomes orphaned!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Breathing Easier - Thoughts on the Election

I rather doubt my ability to express the joy, the sense of peacefulness and safety, the pride that I have in being an American right now at this transformative moment in time. All the words have already been used by pundits around the world but one gal, interviewed in Grant Park the other night, said she felt as if "the weight of the world had been lifted off her shoulders." That about says it. Poor Barack. Talk about high expectations!

My friend Maria says that she walks around with her head held higher. I swear that when Don and I went for our walk yesterday, people were friendlier to us. It might be my imagination but, somehow, I think not. I watch our customers come into the library and imagine how proud half of them feel. A couple from England asked me if I could get them some Obama memorabilia for their daughter in London. Phone calls and emails have been coming in from friends and realtives from Washington state, to Arizona to Ohio and Massachusetts. At 11pm Tuesday evening Don poured 2 flutes of champagne. My sister called from Massachusetts crying. He poured a third glass and we toasted long distance.

I think the most poignant moment might have been on Sunday. We were in Ft. Lauderdale where my stepmother Edith was breathing her final breaths under the loving watch of her 2 daughters and the Hospice nurse. We took turns reading over the obituary for final changes and decided to add that Edith, a life-long, ardent Democrat, though initially a Hillary supporter, had cast her final absentee ballot for Barack Obama a few days before slipping out of consciousness.

In terms of race relations in our country, I'm sure it goes without saying that this is probably one of the most significant events of my lifetime. NBC did a particularly excellent job of reminding us that it wasn't so long ago that dogs and fire hoses were set upon black citizens who tried to vote in the South. Can it really be that that was actually in the '60's? I read that a relative of Emmett Till's was in the audience in Grant Park. Can you even imagine what was going through her mind? I doubt it.
That said, I'll be so overjoyed when we can look at Barack Obama and see him, not as an African American man, but simply as an American man, who ran for and won the presidential election in 2008.

More about books next post. I've got lots to talk about.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lush Life

That's the title of Richard Price's new book that I've just finished listening to but it's also the finest descriptor I can think of for the past week! First of all, Don is home and second, Barack is up in the polls and acquitted himself beautifully in the debate Weds. evening. I even have it on good authority that Colin Powell will finally endorse Barack later today, perhaps on Meet the Press.
These wonderful things are all exterior happenings that greatly contribute to my quality of life, however, personally it has been a delightful week for me too, if I may say. Tuesday morning I met my incomparable supervisor at the county commissioners' meeting where I received accolades upon reaching my 15 year anniversary with the library system. How this could have come to pass is beyond my understanding. Anyone who knew me between 15 and 20 years ago, when I had 3 jobs and still didn't know where my next meal might come from, would never believe that my life would now be so wonderfully full and yes, lush.

Ann and I went to Mimi's for a sinful breakfast of hash, eggs and pumpkin pancakes and then I went along to work, a job I might add that seems new and fresh every single day - even on the bad ones! After a couple of hours, I was frantically called into the kitchen to assess a broken window (yes, I have the dubious honor of being the facilities manager at my library branch). My head was all over this, figuring out how the lawn mowing team must have shot a stone up at the window and that the repair costs wouldn't have to come out of our budget and yada, yada, yada, but, when I opened the door to the kitchen, there were my co-workers, the library director and his assistant and I realized that I was "queen for a day!" I had won the Shining Star of the Month award! I knew that I had been nominated and, quite honestly, I REALLY wanted to win! This is an award that's determined by representatives from all of the library branches and I'm honored to be up there on the rather stunning plaque with so many of my co-workers and previous winners, including that incomparable Ann, plus my friends Andrea, Betsy, and Laura. It may take another week before I get my head out of the clouds so bear with me.

And that takes me back to Richard Price whose Lush Life is anything but. Like my favorite gritty, noir authors, George Pelecanos and early Dennis Lehane, Price writes what I call, literary street lit. This is Donald Goines for the college degreed. The beauty of these writers is their ability to find nuance and subtlety in what some would say is just black and white crime. Their books remind me of the Greek tragedies, in that their victims and criminals are not simply good or bad people but rather people with whom the Fates are f.....g. They are black, white and Hispanic. They often happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ending seldom works out well.

The characters in Lush Life and in Pelecanos's The Turnaround, which I just started this week, are achingly human and, but for the grace of God or whatever power one believes in, could be you or me. Whether in NYC or DC you know these kids, the crew that gets off work at 2am and goes out for a few tall ones before heading home to their lonely walk-ups, or the teenager, Alex, whose girl is grounded for the night so he ends up in the wrong car in the wrong neighborhood looking for just a "little trouble."
The parents of these kids? Some are great, hard working, usually second generation immigrants, wondering where they went wrong. Others, not so much. The cops are tragic figures too, so tired of trying to save the few redeemables from the drug life, so exhausted from being called out to the same crimes on the same streets night after night, day after day. They've become so cynical that they've lost the ability to tell the innocent from the guilty. Maybe we're all guilty. Yes, these books are downers, no doubt about it. But they're so elegantly written and so realistic that it's almost a duty for those of us lucky enough to have been brought up in safe, small-town America, in nuclear (not to be confused with nucular) families, to read them and try to open our hearts to the kids who weren't so lucky. It might just influence our views of our criminal justice system and the young lives wasting away in lockups around the USA.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Two Gems

How pleased I was to hear from one of my faithful readers that she uses my blog to help customers with readers' advisory. Well, Infobabe, have I got two hot titles for you! As different as two novels could be but each outstanding in its own way.
First, Jeffery Deaver's The Broken Window could be one of his best yet in the Lincoln Rhyme series and it's so relevant, which is probably what makes it so frightening. It took me a long time to trust my credit card number to the Internet, not to mention making a FaceBook page and creating this blog. To read this sinister thriller about identity theft, ratcheted up to the nth degree, reinforces all the paranoia that one might ever have regarding privacy in the information age. As a matter of fact, I have it from a good source that Deaver himself was a victim of identity theft.
I shouldn't assume that you're all familiar with this long popular series featuring the very testy quadriplegic homicide detective, injured in the line of duty, and his lover, police officer and CSI specialist Amelia Sacks. I can't read any of these novels now without seeing Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie in their roles in The Bone Collector. Confined to his bed, aided by the finest technology money can buy, Lincoln directs Sacks through crime scenes using her as his eyes and ears.
In this case, Lincoln's cousin Arthur, with whom he had an extremely close relationship growing up that was torn asunder by jealousy and conflict as they became adults, has been imprisoned for a murder he claims not to have committed. Lincoln and Sacks come to the conclusion that Arthur has been framed by a diabolically clever criminal mind capable of using the tools of data mining, RFID, (look out librarians!) and the Internet to manipulate information placing people and evidence where they might never have been.
Deaver is famous for throwing in a lot of red herrings to keep readers on their toes. Just when you think you have it all figured out a plot contrivance comes out of nowhere and you're all off track again. I've almost finished this book and three times I thought I had the mystery solved. I can't wait to drive somewhere just to find out "who done it."

America, America by Ethan Canin is a whole different animal. One of those wonderfully sprawling historical novels, kicked up a notch by the gorgeous language of Iowa Writers' Workshop professor Canin, this novel spans the last forty years. Told by now middle aged newspaper editor, Corey Sifter, raised by a loving lower middle class family in upstate New York, the story details the social and political climate of a generation.
While working summers for the wealthy Metarey family, Corey develops a special friendship with the scion of the family, his wife and their two daughters. Recognizing the potential in Corey, the Metareys sponsor his education at an exclusive private school ensuring that he'll get a college education.
The Metareys though, are old-time Democrats involved in the political machine that wants to push liberal Kennedyesque senator Henry Bonwiller into the presidency. Smoke filled, bourbon fueled back room machinations set the stage for Bonwiller's run while Corey is hired to be the "see nothing, hear nothing" gopher who would go to his grave with his secrets because of his loyalty to the Metareys. But Bonwiller's penchant for booze and women - sound familiar? - may override any good that he does for unions, education, ending the Vietnam war and strengthening the homefront.
America, America is a poignant, satisfying read that leaves me wondering, will we ever learn from our mistakes?

Friday, September 26, 2008

A Run on Spunky Ladies!

New York Times reporter Lily Koppel must have some great karma. Moving into her new apartment at 98 Riverside Drive, Lily noticed a cleaning company disposing of old trunks and furniture that had long since been abandoned in the basement of the glorious old brownstone. Riffling through the detritus, looking for anything she might be able to use, Ms. Koppel came upon a disintegrating leather diary sporting a tarnished brass lock. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lily's book, The Red Leather Diary; Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, is a pure delight. Unlike the other two novels of this nature that I've recently written about, this book is the very true account of an amazing young woman named Florence Wolfson, now Howitt, a spry 90-something widow still kicking in Connecticut and Florida. Yes, Ms. Koppel tracked Florence down and received permission to write this biography based upon the musings of the younger Miss Wolfson from the historical period between 1929 and 1934.

It never ceases to amaze me how many folks there were out there (you know, back in the day) who had seemingly endless supplies of resources for travel, Parisienne couture, fine dining, and leisure work. Not that I'm jealous but damn! Our very rebellious, independent Miss Wolfson was only 15 years old when she began to make diary notations about her evening forays to Carnegie Hall, the days spent at the Metropolitan Museum, her lovers both male and female, her desire to live a bohemian life in France, painting and writing, and having the wherewithal to carry it out. The funny thing is that she's an absolute sketch and you can't help but love her honesty and openness. Reading her forward to the book gave me the impression that she hasn't changed one bit!

I've been off Elizabeth Berg for a while but the title of her latest collection has been calling to me from the new book section. I look up from the reference desk and see that bright yellow cover - yes, I do often judge a book by its cover - with the reclining nude holding a three layer cake and I know I'm going to have to have it. (the book, not the cake) The Day I Ate Whatever I wanted and other small Acts of Liberation is pure Elizabeth Berg and had me laughing out loud in the lunch room to the point where I had to retreat to our picnic table to read. If you know Elizabeth, you also know that one minute after the laugh you might be crying uncontrollably. She can strike a vein that quickly, her specialty being the joys and indignities of aging, friendships lost and found, marriages stuck through and abandoned, and illness fought against. Body image is another perennial Berg theme and the subject of the marvelous title story of a woman abandoning the restrictions of Weight Watchers for a day of decadence.

First of all, for those of you who don't know, I kind of consider myself an EB expert. When I was full-blown involved in the Reading Festival it was my "duty" to pick Ms. Berg up at the airport and get her to her hotel. She was so easy to talk with and had that way about her of drawing me out and getting all personal, like we were actually friends, when you know she probably HATES these festival things where you fly into town one day and out the next, staying in some non-descript hotel (Holiday Inn on the River - oy!). I also had to reread all of her books so that I could go on WINK-TV's very EARLY morning show and talk coherently about her and the festival. For me, that was traumatizing. God bless my boss at the time for calling to tell how proud she was that I didn't once say "um." I performed better than Sarah Palin I guess!

One last thing. I started Ethan Canin's America, America last night and could not put it down. Gorgeous writing! Very Richard Russo in style. I stayed up late reading and can't wait to get back to it. Work sure does get in the way of my habit! Oh, and I HAVE to stay awake for the debate tonight so.....Andrea, you're going to love it - I think.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

There are some who might say that's an appropriate label for me! I still have hope with a capital "H." However, in this case I'm referring to the new book by Mary Doria Russell, another one that I can't say enough about. In many ways it reminds me of The Open Door that I wrote about 2 weeks ago; another novel about a spunky, independent woman who scoffs at the morees of the day (early 2oth century) and decides to experience all that life has to offer before it passes her by. Go ahead, suspend disbelief. Go along for the ride as plain Jane schoolmarm, Agnes, whose entire family dies during the influenza outbreak, reinvents herself with the help of a friend and a comfy inheritance, setting sail for Egypt and beyond.

A minor cultural faux pas occurs when Agnes tries to check into Cairo's finest hotel with her little schnauzer, drawing the attention of some well-known historical figures who happen to be staying at the same place. Soon our small-town heroine is drawn into the social milieu of Gertrude Bell, Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill and the renowned Lawrence of Arabia. Through this coincidental meeting, Russell gives readers a fascinating look at the backstory of the British involvement in the complicated separation of powers among the Middle Eastern states and the West. There were times in this historical novel when I thought I was reading contemporary jounalism!

It's such a pleasure to meet a character like Agnes, who blossoms with confidence and charm as she opens herself to the opportunities for love and adventure as they present themselves to her. While this novel is lighter than what I'm used to from Russell, having held a great book discussion on A Thread of Grace, it was still a pure delight from start to finish and goodness knows my reading habits can always use a little light!

You'll know what I mean if you've ever read one of the creepiest literary thriller writers around, our Reading Festival veteran, Jeffery Deaver. I started the latest in his incredible Lincoln Rhyme series last Thursday night on my way home from work. Within the short span of 8 miles I became so scared I didn't want to enter my garage alone! The Broken Window, a terrifying look at idenity theft, has sucked me in to the point where I'm planning a weekend trip just so I can listen.

Banned Books Week is coming up. Go ahead, make Sarah Palin's day! Read Daddy's Roommate.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Day Without Politics - Almost

Ever since our drive to Maryland, listening to talk radio all the way, I've been so depressed about the state of our country that I feel practically suicidal! Seems that I've been calling my sister an inordinate number of times just to hear her tell me that "all will be well." Easy for her to say, you see, she still lives in Massachusetts. Down here in Southwest Florida there aren't as many, dare I say it? Liberals!
I decided yesterday to take a day off from politics after reading a very funny entry to the Huffington Post saying that we must, to preserve our sanity, walk away every now and then from all news media, be it NPR, blogs, your local or national papers, The Nation, etc. It felt so good to get my blood pressure down to an acceptable reading.
But wait, late in the day I popped downtown to a library gathering, a farewell for a co-worker who's retiring, and within minutes of being around all my forward thinking librarian pals, we were positing questions about which nation we'd move to if the election doesn't go the way we want it to.
Then I came home to catch the Moyers show and had confirmed for me what I've already known and worried about for quite some time. That is, that the media rules and we only know what they allow us to know. How frightening it is to think that so few corporations now own every major television and radio station and the publishing empire to boot. If you haven't see it in a while, it's time to rent Network.

That said, I was also asked by one of my faithful readers, why I haven't written anything lately. The truth is that I was just waiting for a book I could get enthusiastic about. I've started and given up some so-so titles, using Nancy Pearl's trusty "rule of 50," as my new guideline; among them John DuFresne's Requiem, Mass (another dysfunctional family that's supposed to be funny and I find anything but...) and Alan Furst's The Spies of Warsaw which received glowing reviews in AudioFile but didn't grab me. I did finish, while up in Maryland, Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street, which I enjoyed, as I do all of her twisted, strange novels, but didn't think any of my regular readers would go for it. Divorce, suicide, potential pedophilia, friendships abandoned.......that's my Margot. The woman has a lovely way with language and a deeply disturbing take on the human condition. If you've never read her work I would suggest beginning with Eva Moves the Furniture.

I do have a glowing recommendation, a book you could read in one night if the spirit moved you. I had read an essay about the author, Elizabeth Maguire, in Publisher's Weekly. In fact, it was an obituary written by a long-time colleague and friend about Ms. Maguire's untimely death and the effort to get her book published. The Open Door is a fictional look at the life of feminist and author Constance Fenimore Woolson ( ) and her controversial and often misunderstood years-long relationship with Henry James. I just fell in love with Constance, the plucky kind of woman you'd hope you'd have been if you'd been an adventurous, open-eyed, 21st century soul stuck in a 19th century mold.
Apparently, though descended from the James Fenimore Cooper family of upstate New York, she lived in St. Augustine, Florida for several years and wrote about her travels and the area. She was published in Harper's and enjoyed some popularity which MaGuire indicates may have been a source of professional jealousy to James whose work was not likely as accessible to the "average" reader as was Contance's.

Woolson spent much of her life in Italy, so you can imagine how enamoured I was of the descriptions of her life in Florence, Venice and Sorrento, but she also traveled widely, renting digs in London, Salisbury, Switzerland, Egypt and Greece. She had several lovers, one in particular with whom she had a long, loving relationship, but she eschewed marriage and the drudgery and loss of independence that she assumed would come with it. Maguire's depiction of Woolson's deep friendship with James is so realistic that it's difficult for the reader to distinguish which is fact and which is fiction. The author quotes from supposed correspondance between the two and I'd have to do the research to find out if these letters did actually exist. The truth is, I don't care. They exist now in my mind and I just loved this little gem of a book!

Suddenly I have so much more to say........but I'd better not, since we know I tend to be a tad wordy. I'll be back.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Bad Call?

Yikes! I'm really doubting myself now. I obsessed over my latest review for Library Journal. Should I be honest and risk not being published or should I pander to an author that I know has an excellent literary rep? Well, I chose honesty and may have really blown it as the book that I panned has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
I was gratified to see that one of the Booker bloggers agreed with me and dear Andrea reminded me that Booker Prize winners don't always circulate very well at the library.

So I'm moving on, though nothing I'm reading is exciting me this week. I've been preoccupied with a potential health issue which resolved itself - phew - and then I had my workshop to teach, which I'm told by my students, was a hit - phew. On top of that, we had the Democratic convention which had me uncharacterisically in the thrall of the television, half the time in tears, the rest of the time pumping fists and shouting out to the speakers.

Now I'm prepping for my first book discussion to be held on Sept. 11th. Falling Man by Don deLillo is a deceptively brisk read loaded with psychological angst as it manifests itself in the lives of an estranged husband and wife and their son, who is only referred to as "the kid," throughout the book. The action takes place on Sept. 11th in New York City as the towers are falling. One man walks away, dazed, confused, bloodied, carrying a briefcase he's never seen before. Though he's been separated from his wife for 18 months, his body automatically treks through the debris to her, their son and his old apartment. How each member of this quasi-family responds, directly and subconsciously, to the horror of the terrorist attack and its disruption of their lives and the city they love, is the thrust of the book. I'll keep you posted on how the talk goes.

I just finished listening to another in Donna Leon's wonderful Commisario Brunetti series, The Girl of His Dreams. Leon's novels, set in Venice, where she's lived for years as an ex-pat, are always multi-layered and are not just your average police procedural. And Brunetti, who relaxes with Plutarch's Lives or The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, is not your average cop on the street. Leon manages to inject so many moral ambiguities into her work, sharing with readers the political nuances of Venice as a city that considers itself "apart" from the rest of Italy. Actually, I would say that Venice is a major character in her books.
There are two simultaneous plots laid out in this book and readers familiar with Leon's work assume that they will eventually collide. In this case, a priest who could have ulterior motives, asks Brunetti to investigate an evangelist who may or may not be bilking people out of their money. The irony is not lost on the anti-Catholic agnostic commisario.
The novel takes a darker turn when Brunetti and his sidekick, Vianello, come upon the body of a small girl, who turns out to be a gypsy (and a reason for Leon to expound on the despair of the gypsy life in Italy) floating in the Grand Canal.

I've got another, even better mystery going on my mp3. Careless in Red, by one of my old favorites Elizabeth George, is read by the same Brit who did such a good job with the 007 knockoff, John Lee. This is also a series that's been around forever, featuring Inspector Thomas Lynley, currently on leave from Scotland Yard and deeply, unalterably mourning the death of his wife and unborn son at the hands of a street urchin, the shocking climax from George's 2006 With No One as Witness. This is a series that you'll want to begin at the beginning because George so deftly introduces her characters, following their growth and maturation as cops and as people. Secondary, quirky detective Barbara Havers adds a truly human touch to the lofty, blue-blooded Lynley who wears the mantle of mentor uncomfortably at best.
If you want to get up to speed on this series a tad more quickly, WGBH out of Boston has created an extremely adept video series that the library owns. Still, I like to create my own version of the characters before being introduced to the televised ones.

OK, enough already. I'm off for a long weekend in Savannah and a quick trip up to Maryland accompanied by a suitcase full of overdue books. I'll let you know next week how I did.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I've missed writing!

What ever happened to those "hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer?" July and August are supposed to be the slowest time at the library, a time when we can catch up on all the things we don't get to do from October to June, but this year, not so much! I'm feeling overwhelmed with deadlines and, even though I always meet them, they put my stomach in a knot! Next week I have to teach a workshop on Readers' Advisory service and, though I've done it several times before, I always obsess about keeping it fresh, not to mention keeping the technology working to my advantage. The power point isn't for the students, it's a memory jog for this middle aged brain!

I've just written an article for the Bonita Banner on my favorite topic, Banned Books Week, and penned another review for Library Journal (more on the new book Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh at another time). At over 500 pages, with a 2 week deadline, I had to drop the book I really wanted to finish and write about, an old classic that I've only recently heard of, called Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith. Banned when it was published in the early '40's, this book about an interracial love affair in 1920's Georgia, builds slowly with glorious writing but the reader senses from the jump that tragedy will ensue. The term "strange fruit" is taken from a Billie Holiday song in which she refers to the bodies of lynched African Americans hanging from the trees in the south. In my naivetee, I've always believed that racial prejudice was long behind us here in the good ole USA. It's taken Barack Obama's bid for the presidency to show me how foolish I've been.

Meanwhile my friend Andrea mentioned the other day that she hasn't had a chance to read Ann Patchett's latest novel, Run. That's when I realized how far behind the eight ball I was. I must have finished that three weeks ago and hadn't posted a word. Many of us love Ann P. and we've been trying to get her, along with her delightful mother Jeanne Ray, (Julie and Romeo) to attend the reading festival to no avail. I absolutely adored Patchet's The Patron Saint of Liars, and had a very successful book discussion of Bel Canto, so I was awfully disappointed in the latest entry in her oeuvre. (I am alone in this criticism so don't take my word for it) It's a quick read but I found the plot to be so far fetched that it detracted from the otherwise good writing. In a nutshell, a wealthy, politically connected Irish Catholic family in Boston adopts twin boys, who happen to be African American, and almost immediately their adopted mom dies leaving the boys and their 10 year old half-brother to be raised single handedly by Doyle, the loving but demanding patriarch and former mayor.

When we meet the family they are fully dysfunctional and at odds with eachother while still putting on a united front to please Doyle in some kind of misguided thanks for the classy educations and upbringing. Teddy wants to be a priest, Kip a scientist, Doyle pushes politics. One evening as they are leaving the umpteenth lecture (Jesse Jackson!) that Doyle has dragged them to, Kip in an angry exchange with his dad, walks briskly away from the curb unaware that an SUV is careening toward him in the snow. A woman appearing from nowhere jumps in front of the vehicle, pushing Kip to safety but sustaining severe injuries herself. The Doyles jump into action, getting the unknown woman to the nearest hospital and arranging to take her 12 year old daughter Kenya home with them until things can be straightened out. Then things take a strange turn.

It seems that Kenya knows everything about the Doyles, has been following them her whole life with an avid, seemingly unhealthy interest encouraged by her mother. In this novel Patchett is obviously exploring relationships, examining what really constitutes a family and dabbling in the nature/nurture debate, themes I normally jump all over. So Andrea, go ahead, please and read this book. Maybe you'll help me understand why it didn't work for me. At any rate, it would make for a great discussion.

More soon on the exquisite Jhumpa Lahiri and her collection of related short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, a truly beautiful book that I highly recommend listening to just for the lovely lilt of the reader who nails the Bengali dialect.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Change for Bohjalian?

That's what I initially thought as I began listening to Skeletons at the Feast, a novel that, at first glance, seems to be unlike any of Chris Bohjalian's previous work. Think Midwives or Before You Know Kindness, book discussion favorites revolving around contemporary issues. Bohjalian is a favorite of mine because he so deftly illustrates the vast gray area present in moral ambiguities.

So I was surprised to read that he had written an historical novel of the second world war, a time that has always fascinated me, but that seems like it's been done, and done and done. Still, this tale of two German families, one Jewish, one Christian, both being forced by differing circumstances to march through that brutal winter of 1944-45, got to me. One family is fleeing the Russian invasion, the other is being led to the extermination camps, yet their experiences scarcely differ in the senseless, mind-numbing cruelty and the astounding acts of kindness and sacrifce that they witness. Herein lies the crux of all Bohjalian's work. What a great discussion this will be.
A Scottish prisoner of war, a Jewish escapee wearing a Nazi officer's uniform, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood trying to make sense of the suffering she sees around her, while another young woman, raised in a Hitler-worshipping, anti-Semitic household, all travel together seeking safe haven. When news of the allied bombing of Dresden comes through on a Wehrmacht officer's radio, we are led to understand that his two little sisters are somewhere in the burning city. Can we readers justify in any way the destruction of this historically remarkable city? Can we say that the Germans "brought this on themselves?" From the beginning of time good people have commited evil acts in the name of war. Talk will inevitably shift to our current miasma in Iraq. Will it ever change? Does discussing it help? I don't know the answer but I understand that our writers must keep telling their stories.

An explanation to my regular readers may be in order. I felt that I should delete a section of my last post that described a new novel I reviewed for Library Journal. Since that review has yet to be published (look for it in the August 1st issue, I hope), I worried that I may have said too much about the book in advance of the review that is exclusive to LJ. I will be adding it back in at a later date.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who reads and comments on my rambling thoughts about books. I'm so happy that I have some new readers, family members and friends that I didn't even realize were out there plowing through my rather lengthy posts. I'm still waiting for Jessica to show me how to set it up so that I can write just a "catchy" first paragraph and then put a link for those who are patient enough to go on. I will get savvier (is that a word?) I promise.

It's a lovely, rainy afternoon so I'll get back to Ann Patchett's Run and then on the New York Times, my Sunday afternoon treat. If anyone saw Obama's hour long interview on Meet the Press this morning would you let me know if I'm being over-sensitve on Barack's behalf. I had the feeling that Tom Brokaw was practically jumping down O's throat, probably trying to dispel the insane notion that the press is pro Obama. Brokaw really made my angry but, in my opinion, Obama reacted with his usual grace and handled himself beautifully.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

People of the Book - That's Us Readers!

Now I fully understand why Geraldine Brooks received a Pulitzer even though I didn't read The March! While the subject matter of that particular book didn't appeal to me ( I may have to go back and rethink that decision ) I have read The Wonder Years and her non-fiction book Nine Parts of Desire. The People of the Book has me rapt. Lucky Andrea grabbed it for our upcoming book discussion season but I'd love to participate if the schedule allows.

Since I've never been a huge fan of historical fiction, I'm especially appreciative of an author who is able to take a contemporary novel and weave history into it without being heavy handed. While the central character here is the wise-cracking, thirty-something, Aussie book conservator, called to Sarajevo to oversee the restoration of an ancient Haggadah damaged in the bombing, the true heroes are the characters throughout history who saved the book from thieves, vandals, and even the Inquisition! The tiny clues to its origins, that Hanna uncovers in the book's binding, lead readers on a glorious trip back in time via Austria, Italy and Spain.

The challenge for the book group will be to appreciate this book on multiple levels. The sins that have been commited in the name of religion go deep and wide and all faiths have been complicit. This is not, contrary to what our politicians tell us, a new conflict. Brooks finds light and dark in Christians, Muslims and Jews, all people of the same book, as they interact with the book at the heart of the outstanding novel.

What else am I reading? I know my posts can get to be too long. Mp3 holds a bunch of great stuff I can't wait to get to. Right now I'm listening to Skeletons at the Feast, Bohjlian's latest and another one that Andrea will be discussing this season. What, you might ask am I discussing? I'll save that for another time.

In the car I have a fabulous, old-fashioned cold war thriller called Devil May Care by one of my favorite authors, Sebastian Faulks (Charlotte Gray, On Green Dolphin Street). It seems that he has taken it upon himself to continue the Ian Fleming 007 series and he does it quite cleverly. It's witty and fun and, since I'm listening, the natty British accent of the reader, John Lee, compliments the story to perfection. I'm not sure if Fleming's family or estate tapped Faulks to do this or if he just thought it would be fun. Seems like the 007 character might be copyrighted. I found an interview at Amazon if you want the full scoop.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Yes, I've returned from my vacation and I'm afraid that I'm having a little mini-crisis. I LOVED not doing anything! Is this the new, older version of the old Sally who can't sit still for a moment? A political junky, only 33 miles from our nation's capitol, and much to Don's surprise, I canceled our planned day browsing museums, eating at the little French restaurant that Maryellen and I found when we were there last year, ( Bistro d'Oc ) seeing a movie that will likely never arrive in Ft. Myers, ( War, Inc. ) all to stay home and swing on the porch and watch the cargo ships ply the deep channel of the Chesapeake Bay. Seldom have I not been ready to come home at the end of a vacation, if ever, until now. And FATE almost agreed with me when we were greeted this morning at 5:30 AM with a dead battery in the faithful Prius. Ouch. Don's dear neighbors to the rescue - I got to the airport on time - in a Jaguar, no less, damn!

So here I am, but oh, have I been reading! Of course, I had to jetison three books and my tennis shoes so that I could return without an overweight penalty on my one "free" suitcase. Still I managed to almost finish Andre DuBus's The Garden of Last Days. I had read mixed reviews, the NYTimes dissed it, Stephen King raved, me....I'd like to withold judgment until the end only because I remember what he did to us in his previous megawatt House of Sand and Fog. Nevertheless, I can say unequivacally that this novel has been riveting for a number of reasons. The author has a way of ratcheting up the suspense by following the lives of multiple characters - always troubled, conflicted, fighting right and wrong yet victims of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The reader just knows that, when chance finally brings these people all together, the outcome may be explosive.

I'm discovering that DuBus has an uncanny knack for interior monologue, especially that of his female characters who reveal their pride, concerns, failings, foibles, intentions and self-deceit. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this novel, in a nutshell, the author fabricates the last several days in the lives of the September 11th terrorists as they make their plans here in Southwest Florida, training to fly, praying for strength, yet swimming in an unprecedented amount of money, succumbing to the temptations of booze and women. Interestingly it feels to this reader that the intentions and motives of these young men are the weakest link in the novel. It is the supporting cast that shines; April and the other single mothers stripping for big bucks at the Puma Club, saving to buy a home for herself and her three year old daughter, the lonely, pitiful clients of the strip club, in particular AJ, separated from his wife and beloved son by a court order, or Lonnie, the bouncer who was a failure at school because of a learning disability but listens to T. S. Eliot in his car on the way to his deadend job.

As always, my reading preferences are not for the faint of heart, but on this one I had no choice. I know everyone will be talking about it and it's huge bookclub material even if we have already had to decide on ours for the coming year. Speaking of books everyone is talking about, I agreed to lighten up a bit on my friend Cathy Jones's recommendation and listen to Marley and Me. Anyone who has ever owned a pet, a dog in particular but I think you cat lovers can relate, will delight in this sentimental story about the Grogans' decision to bring this crazy, loveable lab home and their attempts to tame him into submission. Not! Once I got past the very fey voice of the author/reader I got some laugh out louds from this one.

The only thing that Don and I were faithful to over the last week was our daily walk. He's now working on advanced Spanish - we're trying to find a place we can vacation next year where he can really use his newfound knowledge - and I had my mp3 loaded with four - what I hoped were - great books. I'm not thrilled with the one I've been listening to this week but it had gotten great reviews and it sounded intriguing. I guess it must fill the bill as I'm still with it and extremely curious about the denouement.
It's called A Person of Interst by Susan Choi, whose first novel, American Woman, was nominated for a Pulitzer. This one revolves around a mail bombing in a college professor's office and the subsequent investigation of the victim's colleagues by a rather ingratiating but devious FBI agent - surprise. Told through the prism of observations by the older, less flamboyant, vaguely resentful math professor, Dr. Lee, whose office was next door, this novel becomes less a political thriller and more a fascinating personality study. The reader is in the position of a psychologist with the complicated Dr. Lee on the couch.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Vacation, Books? Vacation

Hi everyone, (like there's so many of you that read my blog!) Well, it's the 3rd of July here in Chesapeake Beach and I'm in heaven, there's no other way say it. The fireworks have just ended, Don and his long time friend from the FAA are playing chess out on the patio, there are hundreds of boats still out in the Bay. It's probably 80 degrees, but with not a hint of humidity, it feels 10 degrees cooler and, miracle of miracles, I've had no hot flashes since we got here, even though we cooked a turkey today!
Our trip was fabulous even if we did some how manage to lose 60 bucks in the first hotel ( along with the case of the disappearing camera! Yup, I arrived in Ohio, in charge of photos, per my cousin Linda, at the wedding sans digital. Don't know where I left it. It's hell to grow old. I could write a novel about the wedding of my niece but suffice it to say, it was as different and loving as she and her husband Mike are. I LOVE his taste in music, the weather held for an outdoor ceremony right out of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, my aunt Jackie and cousin Michelle were there from Gt. Barrington and all was great.

Don and I surprised ourselves with the amount of time we spent at the Air Force museum in Dayton. Besides it being a lovely trip and Ohio being MUCH prettier than I've given it credit for, the museum was fabulous. Don was having a ball looking at all the various planes and helicopters he's logged flight time in and I found out that I own some very interesting and possibly worthy artifacts from my Dad's time in the Army Air Corps....a "short snorter," yup, look up the phrase. So very British. Basically, it's a long taped together row of dollar bills from countries all over Europe. Each time a soldier entered a bar, he was to have his money autographed by all the fellows at the bar at the time. If a soldier couldn't produce his "short snorter" when ordering drinks, the tab was on him. My Dad's is autographed by Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna (yeah, you guys are too old to know him), and Frances Langford, among others. I'm sorry it's in pretty bad shape but I'm going to try to get it fixed up so that I can donate it to the museum, along with his story about being with all these entertainers on a troop train home from his 25 bombing missions over Germany.

Muchos gracias to Jessica for the signed ARC from Anita Shreve of her forthcoming novel Testimony. Wow! I started it last Thursday at the airport and read all the way to DC without putting it down. I would say it's her best ever and would make a fab book discussion. It's so well done. I love the way Shreve tells her story, and a sordid one it is, from the points of view of at least 10 characters and manages to give each of them a distinctive voice. Seems like lately all I've been reading about are sex scandals but this one is so distinctive and it feels like it could have happened yesterday. Lots of nuance, lots of tragedy, lots of that "wrong time, wrong place" kind of fate that can change a person's life in an instant. It reminded me of any book by Jodi Picoult. Today I started Andre DuBus's new one and am planning to swing in my swing and read all day tomorrow. More later.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Anne Enright - Recovering Catholic?

I've never felt very Irish. My sister thinks we likely had a Portugese sailor in the wood pile from whom I developed my love of all things Italian. However, reading Anne Enright's Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, all in one sitting, sure did bring back memories. It's more than Liam's body, laid out in the living room so that one can't get to the cocktails without stopping to look at the waxy face of the corpse nestled in its velvet bed, it's not the requisite family priest who may or may not be satisfied with his "calling," it's more the way the family members, 12 kids in this case, so easily slip back into the old resentments and insecurities of childhood.

Narrator Veronica is, ostensibly, living one of the more successful of the 12 Hegarty lives. Her husband appears to love her, with reservations, and she revels in raising her two daughters, but her brother Liam's suicide quickly dredges up barely suppressed memories and resigned anger at the ineffectual mother who suffered from what we used to refer to as "the vapors" and from whom much is kept "for her own good." Because mum wasn't able to cope - 12 kids for God's sake! - Liam and Veronica, closest in age, were often sent to grandma Ada's house for months at a time. Ada often had a visitor while her husband was at work. Memory plays tricks on Veronica but certainly something bad happened to Liam while he was alone with this visitor, or was it to Veronica herself?
In typical Irish fashion, drama abounds, secrets are kept, particularly if they have sexual overtones, lives are inadvertently damaged and the almighty church never seems to be there to bolster the strugglers as they battle for "normal" lives.
There's nothing funny about this book. Enright is no Frank McCourt, and I intend that as a compliment. She's a deep, gorgeous writer whose use of the language enthralls. I couldn't put this one down.

Another one that I read in almost one sitting ( you can tell that Don's away, can't you? ) was The Headmaster's Dilemma by an oldtime favorite of mine, Louis Auchincloss. I don't know how many people read him anymore but if you love Henry James or the sharp wit of Edith Wharton then this guy is a dead ringer. He's been writing for years, with a jaundiced eye, (isn't that a great expression?) about the hypocrisy of New York city society and the faux mores that are a "must" if one is to fit in.

In this book, he moves the action to a private boys' boarding school in New England, where the city scions send their offspring to get them out of the way of their own social whirl and to ensure entree at a renowned university whent he time is right. The halls of academe look so idyllic from the outside, yes, much like the public library, but oh, the politicking that goes on inside! Just read Richard Russo's Straight Man. At Auchincloss's school there's been a new headmaster for 5 years now, circa 1975, and the school is finally coming out of the dark ages. Michael Sayre and his wife Ione are a successful duo at Averhill School, updating the curriculum and attracting girls to the previously all male bastion.

Naturally, there is a small cadre of old school professors who are less than pleased with the direction in which Averhill is going and resentful of Michael's popularity and power with the Board of Directors. What an opportune moment for this group to discover that a homosexual encounter between an older boy and the only son of a vociferous New York matron has been discreetly swept under the rug by Dr. Sayre. Readers can visualize the gleeful handwringing as the cadre goes to work to force Sayre's dismissal. But, never fear, this is Louis Auchincloss and the denouement is always satisfying.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Three Cups of Tea - Finally!

One man's mission to promote school at a time. Don't ask me why I've been putting this book off for so long. I have this terrible prejudice that, if "everyone" is reading it, I probably won't like it. In this case I was dead wrong. I can't say enough about Greg Mortenson and the things I've learned about him in this wonderful book that was, interestingly enough, first recommended to me while I was on a Paris subway chatting up the gal sitting next to me about books.

It must be difficult being married to a man whose vision is so great that he often can't see the forest for the trees. Don and I were having this discussion throughout the week in regard to Gandhi ( he finally saw the movie ). I also happen to be reading a non-fiction book about the last days of Imperial India, the Mountbattens, Gandhi and Nehru, called Indian Summer by an Oxford educated historian. The Gandhis were only 13 years old when they were betrothed so it's fair to say that she had no idea what would be asked of her in the years to come and my heart has often gone out to her. Today if one doesn't share one's spouse's ambition a woman has options. Then, in India, she had none.

Tara Mortenson on the other hand, came from a family of mountain climbers, risk takers, and socially responsible people, so when she met Greg she knew what he was about and loved him unabashedly for it. His heart was in the tiny Baltistan village of Korphe where he had been nursed back to health after losing his way on a return from nearing the summit of K2. Intent upon building the first school for girls in this little village as a way of showing his gratitude, Greg began what would become his life's work. More on the institute that he founded and manages can be seen at his blog:

What I love so much about this book is the number of people it has reached with the message that education, not war, is the only answer to permanently fighting terrorism around the globe. Mortenson was jobless, homeless and ridiculed for his dreams but with perseverance and some great luck he has managed to build, at last count, more than 60 schools in the Pakistan and Afghanistan nether regions; schools that will teach their young people to be engineers, nurses, teachers or just better citizens of the world, who won't succumb to fear and intolerance when preached to by the Taliban. Along the way, he met and we too get to meet, an amazing cast of wonderful, unselfish people who prove that one person CAN make a difference. What an upper! Beth, our manager at the library, will be leading a book discussion on Three Cups of Tea next Fall. Read it and join us if you can!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

New Fiction - Good and Bad

Wow! I've just finished 2 books by debut novelists and here I am examining my conscience again because, why oh why am I drawn to the dark side in my reading? First of all I was halfway through this controversial novel, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, when I received my fourth book in the mail from Library Journal. This too was a debut novel by a Canadian writer, Elizabeth Kelly. Time being of the essence, I dropped the tiger and took up with the Canadian. The review won't be published for a while yet but suffice it to say, this book was too clever by half. Kelly's writing was witty and funny but I felt as if it was contrived. Her characters, yet ANOTHER dysfunctional family, were so completely unlikeable, for no apparent reason, that I was hard pressed to express myself in 175 words or thereabouts. (as you can see, I'm not all that concise!)

On the other hand, the Indian servant Balram, who tells us within the first few pages of White Tiger that he has robbed and killed his master and is now living the high life on the lam from the law, is totally understandable. He proceeds to explain to the reader how he came to be a murderer, the fate of his birth into the lowest caste, destined for the meanest form of labor, his good luck at landing the job as a driver for the corrupt business man Ashok and his wife Ping, recently and unhappily returned from living in the states. Adiga's use of language is exquisite as he portrays the sense of rage and resentment that builds between the servant and master classes in India. Balram sees that the money Ashok and Ping spend on their poodles would feed a family back in his village for years and he wonders how long he can survive in the cage that the caste system has trapped him in.

This powerful book will likely be a great candidate for book clubs with a little gumption. I've discovered, sadly, that mine doesn't have it. A possibility would be to read it in conjunction with a non-fiction book like Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World which is getting plenty of play on talk radio and, of course, The Daily Show. On my list of "must-reads," along with the pile of about 20 titles I have sitting by the bed, the computer and on my desk at work, Zakaria's book addresses the rise of India and China as global powers and the effect that these countries' burgeoning middle classes will have on the United States and its place in the world. A conversation with an extremely well-read customer yesterday at work led me to believe that there are many more people who are threatened by this flattening of the world's economy than not. Sad but true folks. Kind of like those of us who move to Florida and then want to roll up the streets behind us, letting no one else in.

Luckily, and I've been holding off on rubbing this in as I know that some of my readers supported Hillary, we now have a Democratic candidate who is young enough and international enough to embrace globalization. He realizes as your "leaders" for the last 8 years did not, that the United States is only one small piece of a huge network and that we must work together now more than ever or we will sink together. I'm so excited about the next few years! I'm off to begin a new book.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day?

Can it really be? Remember when you lived up North? Come on guys, you know most of you did. Memorial Day was the beginning of what seemed like a long, lazy summer when you could finally have a little daylight after work and neighbors caught up after a long winter of hibernation. You went out and bought annuals and thought you could safely ensconce them in the ground without fear of another freeze.
Here in Southwest Florida it seems that the opposite is true. Now we close up the houses - though today is gorgeous and I'm wide open - turn on the AC and hibernate for the summer, catching up on old movies (I watched Chinatown yesterday) and reading!

So, I definitely gave up on The Appeal - life's too short - sorry John Grisham. I'm almost finished with I Am America....Kathleen was right, it is very funny, but I'm a little worried that people who don't know Stephen Colbert and aren't familiar with his show, might actually read this book and think that he's giving them a pass to be narrow minded, right wing nuts. We know he's kidding, but without seeing his face (and he and John Stewart can say sooooo much with just a raised eyebrow) some might not be sure. I'm anxious to get started on Maryellen's recommendation - the best book she's read all year she said (and that's saying something for her!) - it's called The Monsters of Templeton and that's next for my car.

With my Don away I've been keeping busy by catching up on all those organizational, cleaning projects that one puts off for a "rainy day." While I sort through clothes I'll never fit into again or rearrange the cabinets, I listen to books and I've started and almost finished Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells. What a delight! Andrea had mentioned it as a guilty pleasure but I see no reason to feel guilty. This new author - I believe this is her first book but she has another one out already (The Sugar Queen) - is a lovely mixture of Alice Hoffman, Laura Esquivel and Chocolate all balled up in one sweet confection.
Families are always great fodder for writers - mine especially - and the Waverleys are no exception. Sisters Claire and Sydney have been estranged for 10 years when Sydney returns to the family home in North Carolina driving a battered old car she bought with money she stole one dollar at a time from an abusive boyfriend. With her 5 year old daughter Bay in tow, (who captivates everyone she meets) Sydney settles in and much to Claire's surprise, seems to finally be at peace with who she is. Of course, the sisters discover that neither one knew as much about the other as they had thought, misunderstandings are clarified, and, with a little magical help from the wonderfully mysterious garden, relationships are forged. I can hardly wait to get back to it to see what happens but I am so done working for today!

The other day I finished a novel that crept up on me in a lovely way. I'd read warm reviews of Tessa Hadley's The Master Bedroom but hadn't seen it getting a lot of play at the library. So many times I give up on a book because the characters are so UNlovely. Not the case here. Even though the plot is predictable, gal whose life is slowly going nowhere decides to return home to care for aging parent and turns local lives upside down with her insouciance, the gal is a spunky academic named Kate Flynn and her alzheimer's afflicted mother Billie is one of the sweetest people I've ever met in fiction.
I guess it's the luminous writing, the gorgeous description of the old home in Cardiff that welcomes Kate back into it like a comfortable old bathrobe, that converts the standard plot into something special. Kate's relationship with her mother is enviable and the two spend time together making music (Billie was a paino teacher and Kate plays the violin) and attracting friends. The conflict comes when a troubled father and his teenage son, each develop a longing for Kate's company. The master bedroom fulfills its destiny as it has for generations but I'll say no more as that would spoil it for someone who might read it. Don would be very proud of me - 2 books with happy endings right in a row! It could be a first for me.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

So Much Politics, So Little Time!

Those of you who know me well understand that I'm a political news junky and, oh my, has this been a couple of fantastic weeks for the likes of me and my ilk!! Last night, just as I was settling down to finally finish Tom Perotta's The Abstinence Teacher, Don called to tell me to quick turn on the news. Sure enough, there was John Edwards being called up to the stage in Grand Rapids to proclaim his long-awaited endorsement for my Barack. Commercials kept interrupting so I ran to the computer and CNN live.
Then my sister called and by the sound of the message she left me I knew she wasn't aware of the latest news so I called her back and we talked for an hour and guys, that's why I still haven't finished Perotta's book. I'm so close to the end and I keep waiting for the awful thing to happen like it did in Little Children but, who knows, maybe this is a kinder, gentler Perotta. This book can make you mightly angry though if you're one who believes in separation of church and state - you know, just a minor part of our constitution. If you don't know what it's about, way too simply put, there's a battle going on in a small New England town, between the Christian Right and Ruth, the likeable single mom who's the health and sex education teacher. Of course, it's much more complicated than that. One character of interest is recovering alcoholic Tim, who was down as low as one can go until he found the fellowship of the Tabernacle Church. Now an accepted member of the community, middle school soccer coach and parent trying to make amends to a pre-teen daughter, he struggles every day to "overcome his demons" but recognizes that he's probably traded one crutch for another.

Meanwhile, Don's prophecy has come true! I returned my second book review to Library Journal and by the time I hit the "send" button, a third book was in my mailbox! Goldengrove by one of my favorite writers, Francine Prose, was excellent so I marvel at how difficult it is to write a review of something you really like as opposed to something you can trash! I dare not tell you what the book is about until the review is printed but then, you could go to the new issue of Booklist and find it there. Last Saturday, while I was obsessing over the review, I happened to see my book in the starred section of Booklist and had to quickly turn the page and deliberately avoid what was written there so as not be influenced. Eek.

At home I'll be starting Tessa Hadley's The Master Bedroom next and I'll admit that I'm actually listening to The Appeal in my car. It's pretty bad so far - typical Grisham - I had hoped that the reviews were correct and that he had raised the level of discourse on legal thrillers a bit but so far I'm not seeing any evidence of that. In fact, so far it seems like full out plagiarism of the excellent Jonathan Harr book about a small town lawyer taking a corporate polluter to court, A Civil Action. It'll be hard to hang in if it doesn't get better soon because I also have Stephen Colbert's I Am America, and so can You, waiting to be heard and I trust Kathleen who told me it's hilarious!

Friday, May 9, 2008

I Love Authors

I can't help it, I just do. Have you ever read a book or an essay and thought, "I know I'd like that person, we're on the same wavelength." Of course, normally you'll never findout, though I've been lucky enough to meet a few I've revered from afar. Elizabeth Berg is probably the one I spent the most time with. What a delight!
Well, I've always felt this way about Sara Nelson, the editor of Publishers' Weekly. Her looks intrigue me and her essays are usually spot on. Imagine my thrill when, while weeding the 001's, I came upon a book written by Ms. Nelson several years ago entitled So Many Books, So Little Time. I snapped it up and it confirms everything I was sure I knew about Sara Nelson. I love her! Of course, she has connections in the publishing world, but still...I now have hope that you can actually write a book about just reading books.
She decided to read a book a week for a year and then write about her experience. Hell, I can do that! Don has started a list of the books I've read this year in an Excel spreadsheet that I can add to as soon as I finish one. He's sure, and I think he's right, that I must read over 100 books a year ( not counting the ones that don't meet the rule of 50 ).

I'm also in the midst of Chris Bohjalian's Before You Know Kindness. I own an autographed copy of the darn thing but I never seemed to get to it so I downloaded it to my mp3. I'm pretty sure my friend Andrea led a book discussion on this one and I wish now that I had thought to ask her how that went. The book has always called to me because of the title and, though right now I think the main characters are an amazingly unlikeable bunch of New Englanders, I'm going to stick with it in hopes that the kindness will manifest itself soon.
The gist of the book is that a pompous, holier than thou, animal rights activist, Spencer McCullough, is accidentally shot by his own pre-teenage daughter with a rifle plagued by a faulty bullet chamber. A hunting rifle that just happened to be locked in Spencer's brother-in-law's trunk. How and why, you might wonder, did Charlotte McCullough get hold of the gun? Will the truth come out if the anti-gun, anti-meat organization (FERAL) that pays Spencer's salary capitalizes on his injuries with a big time lawsuit? Bohjalian, a dream author for book groups, chooses subjects with plenty of gray area (think Midwives) though so far he hasn't cut lawyers much slack.
I'm going to double my exercise routine so I can hang in with this novel and see where it takes me. If I know Bohjalian, he'll dig down beneath the surface of these characters, exposing the goodness beneath. At least, that's my hope.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Tree of Smoke

Denis Johnson's National Book Award winner should be another worthy addition to the canon of literature written about the Vietnam "conflict." (isn't that a hypocritical euphemism?) I'm afraid, though, that it won't reach the audience it deserves because it is just so unrelentingly dense. At well over 600 pages it becomes as daunting as that other tome, A Bright Shining Lie. I've been valiantly listening to Tree of Smoke in my car for several weeks now and at half way through I've given up the ghost. Plus, I received another novel from Library Journal Thursday and have 10 days to read it and write the review. Since it's by one of my favorite authors, Francine Prose, I'm all over it right now.

The trouble is that I really was enjoying Johnson's book even as I was losing patience with it. One of the characters, Kathy Jones, a widow and supposed missionary to Southeast Asia, shares her name with my dear buddy and college roommate. Every time I heard the name I thought, I should be at Doc's having a burger with Cath instead of riding around making up errands just so I can listen to this damn book! Now I realize that Smoke is probably one of those books that really does need to be read and savored. I will likely go back to it and finish it the old fashioned way. I've read a couple of not so flattering reviews about the book, the biggest criticism being that the characters are too one-dimensional. Interesting that, because I also found them inscrutable, but I thought it was the author's purpose to pen them that way. After all, the entire war was inscrutable from my viewpoint and the sense of distrust among the characters seemed absolutely correct. No one knew who the enemy really was or even if there was one!

At the center of the story is Skip Sands, a CIA agent whose mission and cover seem to be known to everyone except him. Brought into this mess by his uncle, known only as The Colonel, Sands meets and falls in love with Kathy who seems to be the conscience of the book. There are South Vietnamese who don't know which side to take for the safety of their families, North Vietnamese spies and two brothers from the midwest, one more naive than the other, believing at first that they really are there to save the world from communism. Behind it all is the sad history of the turbulent '60's and '70's, beginning with the assassination of JFK, the civil rights and antiwar movements, more assassinations and the final outcome. Here we are 40-some years later and we haven't learned a thing.

I have several other books I'm reading/listening to but Don tells me (kindly) that my posts are sometimes too long so I'll sign out for now and go see how Barack is doing in Guam. Meanwhile if any of my friends out there know how to post to a blog with just one paragraph and give the reader the choice of clicking to continue, I'd like to know how to do that. Then the challenge for me would be to keep you reading!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I'm in Print!

Can I crow for just a minute? I happened to be working on my second book review for LJ the other day and had a question about format. I opened the May 1st issue to look at a review and my eyes fell on - you guessed it - my very own review! I couldn't believe it. How come no one told me it was there? Why hadn't LJ sent me a copy? I guess they don't do that. So now I can actually say I'm published. Very cool.

When I was finishing up Stewart O'Nan's sweet little novel, The Last Night at the Lobster, I was thinking about who would read this book. Unless you'd been in the food service industry it might not appeal, but if you have? You'll get some poignant chuckles. One of my dirty little secrets is that while I was married, my ex-husband and I ran not one, but TWO restaurant/club establishments. I'm using the term restaurant loosely, believe me. They were bars, pure and simple, and if I use the term "the dregs of humanity" to describe our customers, please don't think I'm being unkind. Just the facts m'am.

So they say that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger and I have to admit that, while I was running these places, I hated life. Looking back on it though, I realize what great fodder it will be if I ever become a "real" writer. My experiences also made for some interesting interviews! All that is to say how much I enjoyed the O'Nan book. The entire thing revolves around one day, the last day, of a Red Lobster in Connecticut that 's being shut down by its corporate HQ for lack of sales. Anyone who's ever worked in a restaurant knows that the staff is like a microcosm of society; each player, from the busboy to the dishwasher to the chef and the hostess, has their little dramas and petty squabbles going on. Resentments flair over the smallest thing, "so and so got an extra table tonight," "the manager (in this case Manny) treats the prep guy better than the line cook," you know the kind of thing. Still, at the end of day, the staff of The Lobster are like family and Manny's efforts to make sure that their last day together is a good one, despite the winter storm outside and the fact that he won't be taking everyone with him to The Olive Garden down in Bristol, makes for a delightful read.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Good, Quick Reads

I'm like an addict who doesn't know where her next hit will come from! Michael Connelly's The Overlook ended so quickly that I was only half way through my yard work Thursday morning when I suddenly found myself without another book to turn to on the MP3. I raced into the house and began trying to download anything that looked halfway acceptable but I got one of those frustrating messages about a "license being expired." What? I don't think so. Several emails later I've been given some possible things to do to "fix" this. They better work!

The latest Harry Bosch was shorter than most but just as riveting for all that. Len Cariou IS Harry. When I hear his voice I feel as though I'm hearing from a crusty old pal. What made this book even more fun was that Maryellen and I were in the audience at the Sarasota Reading Festival when Connelly introduced the idea for his latest thriller; the theft from a hospital lab of a container of highly toxic, radioactive sesium, used in the treatment of certain cancers. A murder ensues and Harry thinks for one moment that he may have an open and shut case but things are never that simple with Bosch. Suddenly the FBI is all over it and Harry is reunited with his former lover, Rachel Walling.

I enjoy Michael Connelly's Bosch series for many reasons, not the least of which is that Harry has grown in introspection and dimension as the years have progressed. Connelly also manages to get a few subtle political jabs in. This time, there was a red herring that threw a kink in the investigation, the result of post 9/11 paranoia and distrust of all Middle Easterners.

I was thoroughly enjoying Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife when I received another packet from my editor at Library Journal. Ouch! Another 400 page book to be read and reviewed by the 29th. Delia, the very interesting and complicated wife of the senator, had to take a back seat but I can't wait to pick her up again. This novel would make a good discussion book for a group that doesn't mind opening up. It shines a fascinating light on what constitutes a "good marriage," and why such high profile marriages like those of the Kennedys and Clintons have managed to stand the test of time.

At work I'm finishing up Marguerite Duras's The Lover because the movie is a favorite of Don's and I recently read some blurb about Duras's life that piqued my interest. I had no idea that the video was based on a fictionalized version of her own young adulthood in Saigon where she became the consort of an older, very wealthy Chinese man, shocking her family even as they bled him dry. The writing style is naturally a bit dated and off-putting but it's a tiny little book by a devilishly clever and sophisticated young woman and it's worth the read just for the new introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Search for Bliss?

OK, if you have to go looking for it, do you think you'd recognize it if it hit you between the eyes? I normally steer way clear of "self-help" books that try to tell you how to live a certain way or adopt a persona that doesn't come naturally. In this case, though, I'd heard from friends and co-workers about Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss; One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. I appreciated that Mr. Weiner (pronounced "whiner" by the way, in the proper German vernacular) was inciteful enough to admit that he's a "grump" and I love travelogues, so I popped the first CD in the car and began.

It takes a little investment in time. I'd guess it started to grab me around disc 4; just when I was going to trade it in for something darker like Tree of Smoke, which is up next. The problem was that Eric was just taking himself and his "research" a little too seriously. It wasn't until he landed in Moldova that I really got interested. His sense of humor evolved as his travels progressed, so by the time he arrived at the most depressed country of all he began to lighten up. Go figure. His description of communicating with his dour Modovan landlady is hilarious and heartwarming as they actually grow to enjoy eachother's company. Still, as his plane lifts off from this most disheartening country, Weiner says he understands how the last soldier airlifted out of Vietnam must have felt. Unlikely, but a great metaphor nevertheless.

Weiner loved the enigmatic Thais. How can you not enjoy a people whose country has a "Gross Domestic Happiness Index?" His time in an Indian ashram had me laughing out loud. No coffee for three days? Yikes! And certainly the Berkshire village of Slough was the catalyst for several jokes at the expense of the Brits. I grew to like Eric Weiner more as we traveled together and began to wish that his search had taken him to some of the commoner countries, ones I've actually been to and found happiness in. As I was putting the finished Weiner book back on the shelf I picked up Mediterranean Summer; A Season on France's Cote d'Azur and Italy's Costa Bella. Now that's bliss!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Books I likely won't finish (and some I will)

I was really psyched when I heard about the new book How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Yes, this is exactly what I need, I thought. Well, not so much. Pierre Bayard's attempt to get us off the hook of reading every classic that's ever been written, is actually so erudite that it's difficult to understand what he's even talking about. By chapter two I was zoning out; by chapter three I was done. It's probably just as well. Now I'll have one less overdue on my disreputable library card!
Another bigger disappointment was Charles Baxter's The Soul Thief. How could the man who wrote the glorious Feast of Love, so full of wonderfully flawed and delightful characters, be the same man to write this creepy book about a slimy character who insinuates himself into others' lives, taking on their friends and persona. Yuk. I'm not sure if I even gave this one the "rule of 50," but then, I don't have to cause I'm 59 now. This means that I only need to read 41 pages before giving something the heave-ho.

The exciting news is that Tuesday, with sweaty fingers on the keys, I hit the send button to Library Journal with the first of my reviews for that magazine. I had a two week turn-around to read the book, which I really liked, and send in the review. Of course, over achiever that I am, I made sure to get it in well before the 4/7 deadline. I had an immediate and, whew, complimentary reply from my editor (doesn't that sound wonderful?) and she said another book will be on its way shortly. Uh oh, I hope they won't expect a one week turn-around!
Oh, by the way, the book is called The Road Home by Rose Tremain. It'll be out in August so be on the lookout.

Now I've got to get the push on to finish Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta which is my book club choice for April. This one is right up my alley. A sure to be depressing and controversial look at the lives of two college students who took part in a radical protest action against the undeclared war in VietNam. Yes, some of us actually remember that horrible time in U.S. history as if it was yesterday, which is likely why we were so vocal in our opposition to Bush's declared war in Iraq. When something goes awry at the demonstration, Bobby and Mary are forced to separate, avoiding arrest by going underground. How this action affects their lives and the lives of their families over the next twenty years is the subject of this book which was nominiated for a National Book Award.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Exit Ghost

This was without a doubt one of the most depressing books I've read in the past year! How can I recommend it? Philip Roth does this to me every time. He writes so real and true that when I finish one of his books I feel devastated, actually worn out by the angst of the characters. But isn't that the sign of a great writer? You really need to read one or two of his novels just to see how the greats of literature do it.

Exit Ghost is the final entry in the long, incredible series of books featuring Nathan Zuckerman, the Jewish American "everyman," who critics say is Roth's alter ego. Included in this series are two of my all-time favorite novels, American Pastoral and The Human Stain. These novels tackle every major historical happening of the twentieth century and their influence on those of our generation. (oops, guess I shouldn't assume that all my readers are middle aged!)

I've never had the courage to feature either of these books in my book discussion series here at the library. I guess I didn't have the confidence to tackle such a talented and prolific author.

I did finally choose to discuss The Plot Against America, a look at what might have happened to our country under the presidential mantle of anti-Semite Charles Lindburgh rather than Franklin Roosevelt. One of the few Roth novels that received less than stellar reviews, this work actually was the most autobiographical of all Roth's fiction, written as it was about his family and growing up outside of Newark, NJ, in the '40's.

In Exit Ghost, Zuckerman's life has been deeply changed by his surgery for prostate cancer. He's walked away from his frenetic life in New York City to settle in what would seem to be an idyllic farmhouse retreat in the Berkshires. There he eschews television, newspapers, politics, women or friends, to ostensibly concentrate on his writing. Instead, he fixates on the very real, uncomfortable and maddening results of his surgery.

As a woman and former breast cancer patient, I am appalled with myself for seldom giving a second thought to a cancer that only affects men. Even those women not caught up in body image live in fear of hearing that they might lose a breast. Yet it's only cosmetic and can be reconstructed if one so desires.

Through a continuous interior monologue, Zuckerman describes the nerve damage that has rendered him both impotent and incontinent, along with the subsequent despair that has him retreating from life. Roth is so eloquent on this subject that I broke down several times while listening to George Guidall's perfect reading. He writes like a man who has surely experienced this first hand. I hope that it's not true.

At any rate, it's the search for an experimental treatment that sends Zuckerman back to New York after many years. His visit happens to coincide with the 2004 presidential election, a nightmare that he delves into and that I remember much too vividly. As he reconnects with people and ideas, even toying with the idea of swapping homes for a year with a young couple suffering from post 9/11 trauma, Nathan begins to experience a full emotional life once again, accompanied by all the attendant hope, desire and rage. This fantastic, disturbing book is not for sissies!