Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Change for Bohjalian?

That's what I initially thought as I began listening to Skeletons at the Feast, a novel that, at first glance, seems to be unlike any of Chris Bohjalian's previous work. Think Midwives or Before You Know Kindness, book discussion favorites revolving around contemporary issues. Bohjalian is a favorite of mine because he so deftly illustrates the vast gray area present in moral ambiguities.

So I was surprised to read that he had written an historical novel of the second world war, a time that has always fascinated me, but that seems like it's been done, and done and done. Still, this tale of two German families, one Jewish, one Christian, both being forced by differing circumstances to march through that brutal winter of 1944-45, got to me. One family is fleeing the Russian invasion, the other is being led to the extermination camps, yet their experiences scarcely differ in the senseless, mind-numbing cruelty and the astounding acts of kindness and sacrifce that they witness. Herein lies the crux of all Bohjalian's work. What a great discussion this will be.
A Scottish prisoner of war, a Jewish escapee wearing a Nazi officer's uniform, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood trying to make sense of the suffering she sees around her, while another young woman, raised in a Hitler-worshipping, anti-Semitic household, all travel together seeking safe haven. When news of the allied bombing of Dresden comes through on a Wehrmacht officer's radio, we are led to understand that his two little sisters are somewhere in the burning city. Can we readers justify in any way the destruction of this historically remarkable city? Can we say that the Germans "brought this on themselves?" From the beginning of time good people have commited evil acts in the name of war. Talk will inevitably shift to our current miasma in Iraq. Will it ever change? Does discussing it help? I don't know the answer but I understand that our writers must keep telling their stories.

An explanation to my regular readers may be in order. I felt that I should delete a section of my last post that described a new novel I reviewed for Library Journal. Since that review has yet to be published (look for it in the August 1st issue, I hope), I worried that I may have said too much about the book in advance of the review that is exclusive to LJ. I will be adding it back in at a later date.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone who reads and comments on my rambling thoughts about books. I'm so happy that I have some new readers, family members and friends that I didn't even realize were out there plowing through my rather lengthy posts. I'm still waiting for Jessica to show me how to set it up so that I can write just a "catchy" first paragraph and then put a link for those who are patient enough to go on. I will get savvier (is that a word?) I promise.

It's a lovely, rainy afternoon so I'll get back to Ann Patchett's Run and then on the New York Times, my Sunday afternoon treat. If anyone saw Obama's hour long interview on Meet the Press this morning would you let me know if I'm being over-sensitve on Barack's behalf. I had the feeling that Tom Brokaw was practically jumping down O's throat, probably trying to dispel the insane notion that the press is pro Obama. Brokaw really made my angry but, in my opinion, Obama reacted with his usual grace and handled himself beautifully.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

People of the Book - That's Us Readers!

Now I fully understand why Geraldine Brooks received a Pulitzer even though I didn't read The March! While the subject matter of that particular book didn't appeal to me ( I may have to go back and rethink that decision ) I have read The Wonder Years and her non-fiction book Nine Parts of Desire. The People of the Book has me rapt. Lucky Andrea grabbed it for our upcoming book discussion season but I'd love to participate if the schedule allows.

Since I've never been a huge fan of historical fiction, I'm especially appreciative of an author who is able to take a contemporary novel and weave history into it without being heavy handed. While the central character here is the wise-cracking, thirty-something, Aussie book conservator, called to Sarajevo to oversee the restoration of an ancient Haggadah damaged in the bombing, the true heroes are the characters throughout history who saved the book from thieves, vandals, and even the Inquisition! The tiny clues to its origins, that Hanna uncovers in the book's binding, lead readers on a glorious trip back in time via Austria, Italy and Spain.

The challenge for the book group will be to appreciate this book on multiple levels. The sins that have been commited in the name of religion go deep and wide and all faiths have been complicit. This is not, contrary to what our politicians tell us, a new conflict. Brooks finds light and dark in Christians, Muslims and Jews, all people of the same book, as they interact with the book at the heart of the outstanding novel.

What else am I reading? I know my posts can get to be too long. Mp3 holds a bunch of great stuff I can't wait to get to. Right now I'm listening to Skeletons at the Feast, Bohjlian's latest and another one that Andrea will be discussing this season. What, you might ask am I discussing? I'll save that for another time.

In the car I have a fabulous, old-fashioned cold war thriller called Devil May Care by one of my favorite authors, Sebastian Faulks (Charlotte Gray, On Green Dolphin Street). It seems that he has taken it upon himself to continue the Ian Fleming 007 series and he does it quite cleverly. It's witty and fun and, since I'm listening, the natty British accent of the reader, John Lee, compliments the story to perfection. I'm not sure if Fleming's family or estate tapped Faulks to do this or if he just thought it would be fun. Seems like the 007 character might be copyrighted. I found an interview at Amazon if you want the full scoop.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

Yes, I've returned from my vacation and I'm afraid that I'm having a little mini-crisis. I LOVED not doing anything! Is this the new, older version of the old Sally who can't sit still for a moment? A political junky, only 33 miles from our nation's capitol, and much to Don's surprise, I canceled our planned day browsing museums, eating at the little French restaurant that Maryellen and I found when we were there last year, ( Bistro d'Oc ) seeing a movie that will likely never arrive in Ft. Myers, ( War, Inc. ) all to stay home and swing on the porch and watch the cargo ships ply the deep channel of the Chesapeake Bay. Seldom have I not been ready to come home at the end of a vacation, if ever, until now. And FATE almost agreed with me when we were greeted this morning at 5:30 AM with a dead battery in the faithful Prius. Ouch. Don's dear neighbors to the rescue - I got to the airport on time - in a Jaguar, no less, damn!

So here I am, but oh, have I been reading! Of course, I had to jetison three books and my tennis shoes so that I could return without an overweight penalty on my one "free" suitcase. Still I managed to almost finish Andre DuBus's The Garden of Last Days. I had read mixed reviews, the NYTimes dissed it, Stephen King raved, me....I'd like to withold judgment until the end only because I remember what he did to us in his previous megawatt House of Sand and Fog. Nevertheless, I can say unequivacally that this novel has been riveting for a number of reasons. The author has a way of ratcheting up the suspense by following the lives of multiple characters - always troubled, conflicted, fighting right and wrong yet victims of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The reader just knows that, when chance finally brings these people all together, the outcome may be explosive.

I'm discovering that DuBus has an uncanny knack for interior monologue, especially that of his female characters who reveal their pride, concerns, failings, foibles, intentions and self-deceit. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this novel, in a nutshell, the author fabricates the last several days in the lives of the September 11th terrorists as they make their plans here in Southwest Florida, training to fly, praying for strength, yet swimming in an unprecedented amount of money, succumbing to the temptations of booze and women. Interestingly it feels to this reader that the intentions and motives of these young men are the weakest link in the novel. It is the supporting cast that shines; April and the other single mothers stripping for big bucks at the Puma Club, saving to buy a home for herself and her three year old daughter, the lonely, pitiful clients of the strip club, in particular AJ, separated from his wife and beloved son by a court order, or Lonnie, the bouncer who was a failure at school because of a learning disability but listens to T. S. Eliot in his car on the way to his deadend job.

As always, my reading preferences are not for the faint of heart, but on this one I had no choice. I know everyone will be talking about it and it's huge bookclub material even if we have already had to decide on ours for the coming year. Speaking of books everyone is talking about, I agreed to lighten up a bit on my friend Cathy Jones's recommendation and listen to Marley and Me. Anyone who has ever owned a pet, a dog in particular but I think you cat lovers can relate, will delight in this sentimental story about the Grogans' decision to bring this crazy, loveable lab home and their attempts to tame him into submission. Not! Once I got past the very fey voice of the author/reader I got some laugh out louds from this one.

The only thing that Don and I were faithful to over the last week was our daily walk. He's now working on advanced Spanish - we're trying to find a place we can vacation next year where he can really use his newfound knowledge - and I had my mp3 loaded with four - what I hoped were - great books. I'm not thrilled with the one I've been listening to this week but it had gotten great reviews and it sounded intriguing. I guess it must fill the bill as I'm still with it and extremely curious about the denouement.
It's called A Person of Interst by Susan Choi, whose first novel, American Woman, was nominated for a Pulitzer. This one revolves around a mail bombing in a college professor's office and the subsequent investigation of the victim's colleagues by a rather ingratiating but devious FBI agent - surprise. Told through the prism of observations by the older, less flamboyant, vaguely resentful math professor, Dr. Lee, whose office was next door, this novel becomes less a political thriller and more a fascinating personality study. The reader is in the position of a psychologist with the complicated Dr. Lee on the couch.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Vacation, Books? Vacation

Hi everyone, (like there's so many of you that read my blog!) Well, it's the 3rd of July here in Chesapeake Beach and I'm in heaven, there's no other way say it. The fireworks have just ended, Don and his long time friend from the FAA are playing chess out on the patio, there are hundreds of boats still out in the Bay. It's probably 80 degrees, but with not a hint of humidity, it feels 10 degrees cooler and, miracle of miracles, I've had no hot flashes since we got here, even though we cooked a turkey today!
Our trip was fabulous even if we did some how manage to lose 60 bucks in the first hotel ( along with the case of the disappearing camera! Yup, I arrived in Ohio, in charge of photos, per my cousin Linda, at the wedding sans digital. Don't know where I left it. It's hell to grow old. I could write a novel about the wedding of my niece but suffice it to say, it was as different and loving as she and her husband Mike are. I LOVE his taste in music, the weather held for an outdoor ceremony right out of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, my aunt Jackie and cousin Michelle were there from Gt. Barrington and all was great.

Don and I surprised ourselves with the amount of time we spent at the Air Force museum in Dayton. Besides it being a lovely trip and Ohio being MUCH prettier than I've given it credit for, the museum was fabulous. Don was having a ball looking at all the various planes and helicopters he's logged flight time in and I found out that I own some very interesting and possibly worthy artifacts from my Dad's time in the Army Air Corps....a "short snorter," yup, look up the phrase. So very British. Basically, it's a long taped together row of dollar bills from countries all over Europe. Each time a soldier entered a bar, he was to have his money autographed by all the fellows at the bar at the time. If a soldier couldn't produce his "short snorter" when ordering drinks, the tab was on him. My Dad's is autographed by Bob Hope, Jerry Colonna (yeah, you guys are too old to know him), and Frances Langford, among others. I'm sorry it's in pretty bad shape but I'm going to try to get it fixed up so that I can donate it to the museum, along with his story about being with all these entertainers on a troop train home from his 25 bombing missions over Germany.

Muchos gracias to Jessica for the signed ARC from Anita Shreve of her forthcoming novel Testimony. Wow! I started it last Thursday at the airport and read all the way to DC without putting it down. I would say it's her best ever and would make a fab book discussion. It's so well done. I love the way Shreve tells her story, and a sordid one it is, from the points of view of at least 10 characters and manages to give each of them a distinctive voice. Seems like lately all I've been reading about are sex scandals but this one is so distinctive and it feels like it could have happened yesterday. Lots of nuance, lots of tragedy, lots of that "wrong time, wrong place" kind of fate that can change a person's life in an instant. It reminded me of any book by Jodi Picoult. Today I started Andre DuBus's new one and am planning to swing in my swing and read all day tomorrow. More later.