Thursday, January 31, 2008

Missing in Action

Oh, how I've missed writing! I wake up in the early morning hours and compose fabulous posts in my head. Then I fall back asleep and by the time I've had my coffee and am up for good, my witty reviews and comments have been deleted from the memory bank.
So much has been going on at work that I think we're all feeling the crunch. Between committee meetings, writing deadlines, book discussions, the reference desk, I'll admit that April and May are going to look really good to me. Not that I want to wish my life away - I had another birthday recently (my last) and celebrated for a week so yes, I still have a life.

Anyway, I just finished listening to Middlesex on my mp3. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to that book. We discussed it here years ago. It was interesting, not great, but passed the time as I trudged my way around my nightly 3 mile circuit. I'm now listening to Away by Amy Bloom and, though it started out a little slowly, it has now gotten my full attention. Barbara Rosenblatt, a well-known audio reader, has got the Yiddish thing down pat and it seems to me that it adds so much to the story to listen to it as opposed to reading it.
In keeping with my penchant for depressing reading material, Away fills the bill completely. The story is Lillian's, a victim of the pogroms perpetrated by Christians on Jewish towns in Poland and Russia. Lillian hides her daughter Sophie in a chicken coop as her husband and parents are slaughtered. A commanding officer's timely order enables Lillian to escape, scarred but strong, but believing that Sophie is dead. She finds her way to New York City where she garners the interest of Meyer and Rueben, a father and son who own the theatre where Lillian has copped a job as a seamstress.
Lillian's three way arrangement with the elderly Rueben and the dashing but very gay Meyer is fascinating to watch. Stories of what women will do to survive are as old as the hills and the story could be trite in another author's hands, but Bloom (a National Book Award nominee) endows Lillian with a street smart, wily streak that prevents readers from seeing her as a victim.
I'm still early on in this engaging novel. Our heroine has made her way to Seattle through a bribery system that immigrants used for cheap train travel, usually riding for hours in a broom closet and being fed garbage by the porters. Lillian has been told, by a less than trustworthy source, that her daughter is alive afterall, so she arranges to return to Siberia through the Bering Strait and reclaim the only true love she has ever known. I can't wait to see how this tough, resilient gal overcomes the rest of the obstacles that Bloom will throw in her way. I pray that Sophie is at the end of the journey.

To lighten things up a bit I decided to listen to Steve Martin's Born Standing Up as I drive around the county - back and forth to the wine store - oh, I mean back and forth to work. You'd think this would be funny, right? Those of you old enough to remember the fabulously irreverent Smothers Brothers Show, which finally fell to the CBS censors, must be able to picture Martin, that "wild and crazy guy" with the arrow through his head, who could make you laugh just to look at him. His life? Not so funny.
I've always been a little in love with Steve Martin. My imagination has always worked a lot of overtime and to me he seemed sadly vulnerable and very approachable. I used to think that, if he could just meet me, we'd be oh so simpatico. OK, this was a while ago, I admit. I was desperately unhappy in my marriage and pining for real romance. His movie, LA Story, just did me in.
Martin reads the audio version of his book and plays some banjo riffs to indicate chapter breaks. Strangely, for a comedian, his voice is very monotone, so when he speaks of his early gigs and tells you why they weren't that funny, you believe it! Then he'll suddenly say something that takes me back to the '60's/'70's and I just roar. He's a very generous man, mentioning by name practically every person who ever helped his career in any way, from Hollywood insiders to college friends, to parents of old girlfriends, and old girlfriends too. He still comes across as a truly nice, self-effacing guy with a lot more depth than some readers might expect if they're not familiar with his fiction writing. Shopgirl, in particular, cemented in my mind the kind of man I hope Steve Martin really is.
At this point in his book Martin is still a struggling stand-up comic opening for well-known acts around the country. We all know how the story ends but I'm glad I have a couple of more discs to listen to so he can tell me all about it.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Notes on a Few Books

I'd been waiting for quite some time to get the audio version of Valerie Plame's book, Fair Game, about her life in the CIA. I was all hyped up, ready to dredge up all that righteous indignation that bubbles just beneath the surface of my consciousness so often these days. The minute I slid the first disk in the car's system I knew I was in trouble. The disclaimers came fast and furious as listeners were advised that whenever the author came to a section of the story that the CIA had "vetted" we would hear a low hum. Of course, the ENTIRE book is made up of low hums, to the point that the story is so disjointed that one can get absolutely no sense of it. I was hugely disappointed and wondered why I hadn't bothered to read any reviews of the audiobook ahead of time. I have since discovered that all of the reviewers warned readers of this disconcerting censorship. Your government dollars at work!

I was chatting with several of my colleagues at our quarterly Saturday evening get together about the book I just finished by Ian McEwan. On Chesil Beach is a deceptively tidy little book that is so deftly written that the actions of two people on one evening seem to define an entire era in history. The time is 1962. Remembering what my friends and I were doing back then at our 8th grade graduation parties, I did have a little bit of trouble buying into the idea of Edward and Florence, college-educated adults, and both still angst-filled virgins on their wedding night. But anyone familiar with McEwan's other work understands that he has a way of pulling you so deeply into the story that it's easy to suspend disbelief.
The old saying "actions speak louder than words" does not apply here. Edward and Florence each keep up a stream of consciousness type thought process that the reader is allowed to follow, even as we watch them act completely contrary to what each is thinking. McEwan used this amazingly effective tool to illustrate how a small crack in a relationship can be quickly elevated to a schism when there is a lack of honest communication.
McEwan's book always have, at least for me, a dark, somber thread running through them and, as I'm reading, I'm always waiting for the other shoe to fall. I know that he's not above creating a bad end for his characters. The problem is that I must be getting hard in my old age because I never really like his characters. Think of Enduring Love, Saturday and certainly, Atonement. ( Even the lovely Keira Knightly couldn't create a Cecelia I could warm to)
From a technical point of view McEwan's writing is perfection itself, but if it's people you grow to know and love, go back to Richard Russo.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Shaken Confidence

This week something happened to me that I've never experienced before and it gave me chills. Advice please! I have been leading/moderating book discussions for Lee County for at least 12 years now and I have never faced a room full of women with absolutely nothing to say. Oh sure, they all agreed they "liked" it but, come on folks, a book about assisted suicide and its aftermath? Grief and loss? Native American culture? Surely someone should have been moved to speak. I tried all the usual probing questions and was still faced with blank stares. I'll admit, I started to sweat. I wanted to shake them and say "what part of the word "discussion" don't you understand?"
One of our more erudite participants, who we can always count on, bailed me out more than once but it felt like we were having a one on one conversation. The fatal book? Returning to Earth. Now I'm doubting all my other choices for the season. I can hardly wait til March to see what they think of The Space Between Us!

Speaking of mistakes in judgement, I've got to diss myself for waiting so long to read The Glass Castle. When everyone and his brother is touting a book, something like The Secret (gag), I just steer away, I swear, to be ornery. In this case, shortly after the James Frey fiasco, I had decided that I just wasn't going to support one more whiny-pants book about dysfunctional families. Then Maryellen and I heard Jeannette Walls speak in DC and she was just so warm and funny that I thought I'd better cave in. I'm so glad I did.
The audio version is narrated by Julia Gibson whose voice holds just the perfect blend of childlike innocence and teen-age cynicism. The story of the Walls family is so apallingly outrageous that the listener is torn between laughing out loud and sobbing. Just when I think that I might actually agree with these parents on some of their child-rearing philosophies, they do something so cruel or irresponsible that I gasp out loud.
If listening to their story is like a roller-coaster ride for the reader, just imagine what it was like for the four kids whose nomad existence took them all over the southwest, running from bill collectors and child services. How does one coincide the image of Ray Walls, a father who tossed Jeannette's cat out the window of their moving car because it was just too crowded, with the other Ray Walls who, unable to afford a birthday gift for Jeannette, took her out into the desert, looked up at the sky and asked her to choose a favorite star for her very own.
Who knows, if I had chosen this book for discussion maybe they'd have been clamoring to share their own dysfunctional stories. God knows, we all have our share of them.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Beauty of an "Uneventful" LIfe

Happy new year everyone. Here in Southwest Florida January 1st was one of those rare and wonderful days, cloudy, rainy, sweatshirt-wearing chilly, that we welcome as a respite from the never ending blue skies and balmy temperatures. Don was rebuilding a computer and I got to stretch out on the couch, book in one hand, Beaujolais Nouveau in the other.

I am suffering from a major case of author envy. How on earth does Richard Russo do it? I've always loved his work, my favorite being the send up of campus politics, Straight Man. Bridge of Sighs, though all reviewers don't agree, is on another whole level in my opinion. It may be that I can't put this book down because Russo is writing my life. I recognize every minute detail that makes living in a small, insular northeastern community both "the best and worst of times." I see friends who, much like Lou (Lucy) Flynn, stay in town and thrive, becoming the heart and soul of the next generation's leaders. In Lou's best friend, Bobby Marconi, I see much of myself, fleeing like a bird accidentally let loose from its cage, looking back as seldom as possible, trying to reinvent himself in a very different environment.

It could, of course, have nothing to do with me at all (though my sister insists it's always about me!). It may be that Richard Russo is simply one of the finest American novelists/storytellers of our time, a writer whose heart is as big as the hefty tomes his readers long to lose themselves in. The families who inhabit the mill town of Thomaston, NY, a somewhat thinly veiled reference to Russo's own hometown of Gloversville, NY, are composed of some deeply flawed and yet truly loveable men and women resembling everyone you've ever known. Spanning three generations of the Lynch, Marconi and Berg families, life in Russo's Thomaston, though seemingly uneventful, is a microcosm of American history in the second half of the twentieth century.

The tannery that employs many of the town's people, helping them to fulfill the great American dream of homeownership, is also responsible for pumping the poisonous effluent into the river, creating a legacy of cancerous tumors that will decimate the population for years to come. The schism in the town between those who can move up and those who never will is evidenced by Division Street (there's one in every town, isn't there?). The ones who live on the wrong side of that street, girls like the precocious tease, Karen Cirillo, understand enough to know that their place on the social ladder is static, already determined by teachers who pigeonhole their kids based on what their parents did in school. Histories are seldom forgotten, making it difficult to live down a youthful indiscretion. The Civil Rights Movement seems to have bypassed Thomaston and a violent racial incident leaves relations between blacks and whites tenuous at best.

Still, I regret every time I have to put this book down for the demands of my real life. The Bridge of Sighs elicits sighs from me as I marvel at Russo's use of our language, his insight into and compassion for the human condition, his use of metaphor that's so descriptive that I keep interrupting Don to read just one more passage out loud. Run, don't walk, to your local library or go online right now and reserve a copy of this terrific book!