Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On Friends and Books

I LOVE being a librarian! My friends are bookies and so am I. It's always eye-opening to see what they'll recommend and I find it interesting to discover how well another reader knows me when they make just the right choice for me. Maryellen did that recently. I may have mentioned that most of the books I read are pretty depressing and there are seldom happy endings. I was so afraid that this would be the case with Leah Stewart's The Myth of You and Me.

If I'd had the time I probably could have read this book at one sitting. A little bit mystery, a tiny bit "chick-lit," and definitely literary fiction, Stewart's novel begins in the present with the death of renowned recluse and scholar, Oliver Doucet. Cameron, his live-in research assistant, is bereft, homeless, jobless and generally at loose ends. However, Oliver has given her one last assignment and it's a doozie! He leaves Cameron a package, charging her with tracking down and delivering it to her best friend Sonia, from whom she has been estranged for several years.

The mystery of what came between the two previously inseparable buddies propels the story forward while, in typical fashion, my imagination conjured up some truly awful scenarios. Flashbacks fill in the blanks, little by little, until the reader gets a clear picture of just how important these two women were to eachother from an early age. One act of betrayal changed all that.

It never ceases to amaze me how people can hold onto hurts and betrayals for years, allowing them to eat away at the soul. This book examines how misunderstandings can fester, walls can be erected, and a life of self imposed exile can lead to unnecessary loneliness. There were times I wanted to shake Cameron and slap her - kind of like when Cher told Nicholas Cage to "snap out of it" in Moonstruck. To feel that strongly about a character certainly says something about the author's abilities. I'm looking for other books by Leah Stewart right now.

For an absolute laugh and a half, I highly recommend to my librarian friends (yes, you probably have to be a library worker to appreciate this one) Free for All; Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library by Don Borchert. Damn, I wish I'd written this! The thing is, I could have. In the evening I usually regale Don with tales of an "average" day at my library and it never ceases to amaze him what goes on in an 8-9 hour day. Most of our patrons, and probably our families, think that we have such peaceful jobs, sitting around reading or looking at books all day. Don Borchert will disabuse them of that thought!

Borchert works in a suburban L.A. library setting so you might think that his stories about the homeless folk, the drug pushers using the bathroom as a drop off/pick up spot, or the teens on a rampage are exaggerated. Not so. When I used to work in Fort Myers, I often shared my seat and my sandwich with a homeless man at the picnic table. One morning our branch manager went outside to raise the flag and stepped right over a dead body, assuming the poor fellow was just sleeping! It's worth browsing this book just for the section on hiring a library page. Free for All is free to library patrons; the humor inside? Priceless!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

When We Torture

I was so moved by Nicholas Kristof's editorial by this same title in the NY Times the other day, that I had to go to his blog to comment. He wrote a devastating description of the treatment that the Guantanamo "detainees" (what a euphemism!) are being subjected to. In particular he described the year long force feeding of photojournalist Sami al-Hajj who has been held for six years without any concrete evidence of wrongdoing. Apparently he's been beaten so badly that he cannot squat to relieve himself.


I try to make sense of this and ponder what could have happened to our once great country that we can allow this to happen under our watch. It would seem that the torturer, not the prisoner, is the one more completely diminished by the act.

Kristof's editorial and our continued presence in Iraq was in the back of my mind as Don and I watched a powerful movie last night called The Battle for Algiers. Released in the mid-'60's, it could have been made yesterday. The film sheds some light on how a terrorist is formed and why. In this case the plight is that of the Algerian people who, under oppressive French rule, have been losing their independence, their ability to work and raise their families in peace in their own country. A revolutionary grassroots organization forms and women and men work together to retake their country. The battle is long and bloody and relies on terroristic activities including detonating bombs in public places, one of the most heinous means of intimidation the human mind has ever invented. Still, when you watch these people trying to reclaim their homeland and witness the torture methods used by the French to glean information, you can comprehend, if not fully understand, how a person might be driven to become something other than what God intended when and if he created us.

First time novelist Dalia Sofer also examines the psychology of torture and its aftermath in her moving, and one surmises, semi-autobiographical novel, The Septembers of Shiraz. After the Iranian revolution, life for the Isaac Amin family changes quickly and drastically. Wealth can no longer be held by the few, no matter that Isaac worked for years as a rare gems dealer to provide his family with a better life. The Revolutionary Army is everywhere and no one can be trusted. Once loyal servants are now suspect and people disappear without warning. The Amins send their only son, Parviz, to safety in the United States where he lives with an Hasidic Jewish family in New York. Much of the book contrasts his loneliness as a cultural outsider here in the states with that of his father Isaac, who is being held imprisoned and incommunicado by the Revolutionary Guard, who use torture with impunity.

While, in theory, Isaac has done nothing wrong, readers are able to see through the eyes of one of the guards, that families like Isaac's have spent their entire lives accumulating wealth while turning a blind eye to less fortunate Iranians. Isaac's wife, in particular, comes off as a self centered, acquisitive woman, more concerned with her daily comforts even than with her husband's suffering. It doesn't take a Phd. to figure out how the ever widening gap between the haves and have nots can sow the seeds for a revolution. There's a message here for us should we choose to hear it.

This is a sophisticated, beautifully wrought novel by a young woman who escaped to this country from Iran at the age of ten. An MFA from Sarah Lawrence and a stint at Yaddo indicate that her talent was discovered early on. I look forward to novel number two.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Politics and Prose

It's a miracle that I can find any time to read fiction at all. For me lately it's just all politics, all the time. Thanks to Don and Andrea I've become addicted to Bill Moyers and his eloquent, frequent guest Kathleen Hall Jamison. Couple that with my nightly dose of Jon Stewart, who actually seems even more clever without his writers, and all I can say is thank God for Tivo! At least we don't have to waste precious hours on commercials.

My admiration for Barack Obama grows stronger every day and I have yet to regret that gut feeling I had about him ages ago, before he even thought about running for President, (well, perhaps he was entertaining the notion) when I read his first book Dreams from my Father. While I was certainly pleased to see that he won a Grammy for his reading of The Audacity of Hope, a book I highly recommend to anyone and everyone who wants a full accounting of where Obama stands on the issues, I was disappointed but hardly surprised that my local newspaper found it notable enough to put Obama's photo up there on the front page with rapper Kanye West for his Grammy win, yet failed to acknowledge the much more exciting news of his huge win in the Maine caucus the night before. Call me super sensitive but I've studied enough psychology to understand how this subtle form of racism sends a sly message to voters and it just infuriates me.

As for prose, I've still found time to finish one excellent and a few less than notable books in the past couple of weeks. If you haven't discovered Irene Nemirovsky, please do. I was drawn to Suite Francaise when I read the story of Irene's death at Auschwitz and the later discovery, by her daughter, of a suitcase full of manuscripts that she had written in the years leading up to her incarceration. These wonderful books are being beautifully translated, with all Nemirovsky's sublety and nuance intact, by Sandra Smith and published here in the states. The latest release, Fire in the Blood, is really just a perfect little tale. It begins so simply, with narrator, Silvio, reflecting upon his life and family relationships in a bucolic French village. The author chooses every word with such care that her keenly critical observations of the townspeople could go unnoticed by a less than discerning reader. She reminds me of a kinder, gentler Flaubert.
The phrase "still waters run deep" comes to mind with Nemirovsky. She builds to the climax so slowly and deftly that you don't see it coming until it floors you with that realization that you've been had. It was an "ah ha" moment that made me laugh out loud. I can't wait to see what will be translated next!