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.