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!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

All Superfluous Reading on Hold!

Stop the presses! Please don't recommend one more great book. It's finally happened. Today I received in the mail my very first galley from Library Journal. I'm simply beside myself with excitement and trepidation. I have 2, count 'em, two weeks to read and review this 400 page book. Since I generally average 3 or 4 pages a night before the book falls on my head, this should be quite an endeavor! I don't think I'm allowed to tell you all much about the title or story until (and if) the review is published. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I can talk about the 9th annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival that went off without a hitch this past weekend. We are really getting good at this! The Royal Palm Yacht Club was the place to be on Friday evening as authors and guests turned out for a sit-down dinner and a chance to hear Stuart Woods accept the library's Lifetime Achievement Award. Though not a great socializer, he was gracious and I surmise, a bit surprised at the first class organizational skills that went into the weekend. As always, our library director was in charge of the weather and it was exceptional.

My venue this year was the VIP food area where the authors could hide out between presentations, wind down, look at their speeches and mingle with other like minds. We served box luncheons to some delightful and unassuming writers including Susan Vreeland, Irene Smalls, Joe Hill (extremely popular and charming son of Stephen and Tabitha King), Marianne Berkes, Martha Tod Dudman, and Wendy Corsi Staub whose big Italian family was in tow and planning a trip to Sanibel.
Carla Neggers chatted with one of my volunteers at length, then went to Books a Million, purchased one of her own books, autographed it and brought it back for Joyce who was absolutely blown away. Stand up comedienne Alison Larkin had us laughing Friday night and she didn't slow down on Saturday. Bob Morris, Tim Dorsey and James Born should take their act on the road as well. They're always there for us and so generous with their time.
Maryellen and I popped over to H2 at the end of the day for our annual hash over (accompanied by wine and cosmos) of how things went and we're already full of ideas for next year. Jess has a list of our top ten author wish list and she and Carrie will be sending invites before you know it. If anyone knows how to circumvent Carl Hiaasen's publicist would you let us know!

I finished Exit Ghost, a most devastating novel. I've written enough for today but I must come back to Philip Roth another day. A writer that powerful deserves quality time.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sudden Wealth of Great Books

Sometimes we avid readers go through a depressing dry spell where nothing we pick up grabs our full attention. Then, other times, WOW! I have found a great new writer to recommend for literary mystery. He writes under the innocuous sounding name of Benjamin Black but, in reality, he is Booker prize winner John Banville, whose renowned novel The Sea was one of our book discussion books here at the library last year.
Writing under the pseudonym, Black has completed two novels featuring a wonderfully crusty, complicated Dublin pathologist named Quirke whose burning desire for justice is matched only by his smoldering hatred of the hyprocrisy of the one, true Irish religion, Catholicism. In the first book, Christine Falls, Quirke is investigating the death in childbirth, and the disappearance of the newborn, of a young woman who once worked as a maid in the house of his half-brother and nemesis, Mal.
Multiple plot lines take the reader back and forth across the pond from Ireland to Boston and I must say, I can't remember when I last read a book with so many thoroughly despicable characters in one place. They're gloriously awful! I listened to this book in my car, thoroughly enjoying the reading by actor Timothy Dalton, who embued Quirke with a very authentic world-weary, cynical persona just as the author surely must have intended.
I can't wait for the highly praised second novel in this series, titled The Silver Swan, to make it to the shelves.

Don and I are each working on projects at home that involve painting. It's such a companionable thing to do together especially when we each have our mp3's plugged in, Don to perfect his Spanish and me to keep up with all the reading I have to do. This undertaking in my dining room (which looks fab if I do say so myself) has enabled me to burn though A Free Life by Ha Jin.
This is one of those books that I would have felt obligated to read to enrich my life but may not have enjoyed quite so much if I had to tackle it at the end of a long work day. Listening frees me up to accomplish other things and expand my mind at the same time. Win-win!
This novel follows the lives of Nan Wu, PingPing and their son TaoTao, Chinese immigrants who came to the northeast United States after the debacle of Tiananmen Square. Like so many immigrants to America, Nan Wu and his wife, college-educated scholars in their own country, work hard in menial jobs to forge a free life for their beloved son.
Nan had aspired to be a poet but lacking confidence in his English language skills, he slowly develops a sense of peace in the every day repetitive work of preparing and cooking food for the restaurant that he and PingPing bought in an Atlanta suburb. An unexpected visit from a colleague from Nan's writing days in Boston reacquaints Nan with the local literati at Emory and the Chinese dissidents from whom he's tried to distance himself.
Author, Ha Jin, gives readers tremendous insight into the plight of our immigrants, the pressures they face to leave their native land behind emotionally as well as physically, while adapting to a new and very different culture. Some succeed beyond their wildest dreams, others fail for so many reasons. The novelist challenges us to think about how well we would do as ex-pats in another country, not an easy, romantic switch like Italy or France, but a truly different land. I surmise we wouldn't fare very well.

Coming up: fabulous review of Philip Roth's Exit Ghost, and big hopes for Charles Baxter's Soul Thief, not to mention Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife. I'm reading as fast as I can!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Blogger's Sister Scores

Thank you Cynthia for Mister Pip. Yes, readers, my sister's taste is as depressing as mine when it comes to reading material, however, this lovely novel by Lloyd Jones is filled with such redemptive moments that the tragic events somehow seem tolerable.
On an unnamed island somewhere off the coast of Australia, a community decimated by tribal wars and "redskin" invasions, tries to survive without the presence of the men, who have left their women and children to join the rebel forces. The only male left in the village is the eccentric and distrusted old white man whom the kids have nicknamed "PopEye." His name is Mr. Watts and he will try, through the power of words, to lay an heretofore unfathomable world at the feet of the island children.

At a time in our own history when the power of language is being discussed daily in the news, I'm disheartened to admit that I'm having trouble reaching for the right ones to describe the beauty Lloyd Jones conjurs up in my mind when he describes the rapt faces of these children as they sit in their decrepit one-room schoolhouse, listening to Mr. Watts read to them from his tattered copy of Great Expectations. Imaginations fired, the children come to intimately know Pip, Mr. Jaggers, Miss Havisham and Estella. They also become acquainted with a world of possibilities outside of their proscribed little island. (I actually was moved to download Great Expectations to my mp3 for a long overdue reread of the Dickens classic.)

In an effort to assuage the skepticism from the mothers in the village, who fear losing their children to Pip's world, Mr. Watts very cleverly invites them to join their children in the schoolhouse and share with everyone a piece of their hard-earned life lessons. Of course, as you know, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," and soon rumors spread about the mysterious white man, Mister Pip, who's filled the heads of the native children, our delightful narrator Matilda in particular, with hopes and dreams and "great expectations" which might lead to empowerment.

This powerful little novel would make a great book discussion so I may put it on my short list for next season. It has everything I crave in a novel; love, loss, imagination, trust, faith, and the courage to speak for what we believe in when no one around us will. Timely, isn't it?