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!