Friday, August 29, 2008

A Bad Call?

Yikes! I'm really doubting myself now. I obsessed over my latest review for Library Journal. Should I be honest and risk not being published or should I pander to an author that I know has an excellent literary rep? Well, I chose honesty and may have really blown it as the book that I panned has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
I was gratified to see that one of the Booker bloggers agreed with me and dear Andrea reminded me that Booker Prize winners don't always circulate very well at the library.

So I'm moving on, though nothing I'm reading is exciting me this week. I've been preoccupied with a potential health issue which resolved itself - phew - and then I had my workshop to teach, which I'm told by my students, was a hit - phew. On top of that, we had the Democratic convention which had me uncharacterisically in the thrall of the television, half the time in tears, the rest of the time pumping fists and shouting out to the speakers.

Now I'm prepping for my first book discussion to be held on Sept. 11th. Falling Man by Don deLillo is a deceptively brisk read loaded with psychological angst as it manifests itself in the lives of an estranged husband and wife and their son, who is only referred to as "the kid," throughout the book. The action takes place on Sept. 11th in New York City as the towers are falling. One man walks away, dazed, confused, bloodied, carrying a briefcase he's never seen before. Though he's been separated from his wife for 18 months, his body automatically treks through the debris to her, their son and his old apartment. How each member of this quasi-family responds, directly and subconsciously, to the horror of the terrorist attack and its disruption of their lives and the city they love, is the thrust of the book. I'll keep you posted on how the talk goes.

I just finished listening to another in Donna Leon's wonderful Commisario Brunetti series, The Girl of His Dreams. Leon's novels, set in Venice, where she's lived for years as an ex-pat, are always multi-layered and are not just your average police procedural. And Brunetti, who relaxes with Plutarch's Lives or The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, is not your average cop on the street. Leon manages to inject so many moral ambiguities into her work, sharing with readers the political nuances of Venice as a city that considers itself "apart" from the rest of Italy. Actually, I would say that Venice is a major character in her books.
There are two simultaneous plots laid out in this book and readers familiar with Leon's work assume that they will eventually collide. In this case, a priest who could have ulterior motives, asks Brunetti to investigate an evangelist who may or may not be bilking people out of their money. The irony is not lost on the anti-Catholic agnostic commisario.
The novel takes a darker turn when Brunetti and his sidekick, Vianello, come upon the body of a small girl, who turns out to be a gypsy (and a reason for Leon to expound on the despair of the gypsy life in Italy) floating in the Grand Canal.

I've got another, even better mystery going on my mp3. Careless in Red, by one of my old favorites Elizabeth George, is read by the same Brit who did such a good job with the 007 knockoff, John Lee. This is also a series that's been around forever, featuring Inspector Thomas Lynley, currently on leave from Scotland Yard and deeply, unalterably mourning the death of his wife and unborn son at the hands of a street urchin, the shocking climax from George's 2006 With No One as Witness. This is a series that you'll want to begin at the beginning because George so deftly introduces her characters, following their growth and maturation as cops and as people. Secondary, quirky detective Barbara Havers adds a truly human touch to the lofty, blue-blooded Lynley who wears the mantle of mentor uncomfortably at best.
If you want to get up to speed on this series a tad more quickly, WGBH out of Boston has created an extremely adept video series that the library owns. Still, I like to create my own version of the characters before being introduced to the televised ones.

OK, enough already. I'm off for a long weekend in Savannah and a quick trip up to Maryland accompanied by a suitcase full of overdue books. I'll let you know next week how I did.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I've missed writing!

What ever happened to those "hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer?" July and August are supposed to be the slowest time at the library, a time when we can catch up on all the things we don't get to do from October to June, but this year, not so much! I'm feeling overwhelmed with deadlines and, even though I always meet them, they put my stomach in a knot! Next week I have to teach a workshop on Readers' Advisory service and, though I've done it several times before, I always obsess about keeping it fresh, not to mention keeping the technology working to my advantage. The power point isn't for the students, it's a memory jog for this middle aged brain!

I've just written an article for the Bonita Banner on my favorite topic, Banned Books Week, and penned another review for Library Journal (more on the new book Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh at another time). At over 500 pages, with a 2 week deadline, I had to drop the book I really wanted to finish and write about, an old classic that I've only recently heard of, called Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith. Banned when it was published in the early '40's, this book about an interracial love affair in 1920's Georgia, builds slowly with glorious writing but the reader senses from the jump that tragedy will ensue. The term "strange fruit" is taken from a Billie Holiday song in which she refers to the bodies of lynched African Americans hanging from the trees in the south. In my naivetee, I've always believed that racial prejudice was long behind us here in the good ole USA. It's taken Barack Obama's bid for the presidency to show me how foolish I've been.

Meanwhile my friend Andrea mentioned the other day that she hasn't had a chance to read Ann Patchett's latest novel, Run. That's when I realized how far behind the eight ball I was. I must have finished that three weeks ago and hadn't posted a word. Many of us love Ann P. and we've been trying to get her, along with her delightful mother Jeanne Ray, (Julie and Romeo) to attend the reading festival to no avail. I absolutely adored Patchet's The Patron Saint of Liars, and had a very successful book discussion of Bel Canto, so I was awfully disappointed in the latest entry in her oeuvre. (I am alone in this criticism so don't take my word for it) It's a quick read but I found the plot to be so far fetched that it detracted from the otherwise good writing. In a nutshell, a wealthy, politically connected Irish Catholic family in Boston adopts twin boys, who happen to be African American, and almost immediately their adopted mom dies leaving the boys and their 10 year old half-brother to be raised single handedly by Doyle, the loving but demanding patriarch and former mayor.

When we meet the family they are fully dysfunctional and at odds with eachother while still putting on a united front to please Doyle in some kind of misguided thanks for the classy educations and upbringing. Teddy wants to be a priest, Kip a scientist, Doyle pushes politics. One evening as they are leaving the umpteenth lecture (Jesse Jackson!) that Doyle has dragged them to, Kip in an angry exchange with his dad, walks briskly away from the curb unaware that an SUV is careening toward him in the snow. A woman appearing from nowhere jumps in front of the vehicle, pushing Kip to safety but sustaining severe injuries herself. The Doyles jump into action, getting the unknown woman to the nearest hospital and arranging to take her 12 year old daughter Kenya home with them until things can be straightened out. Then things take a strange turn.

It seems that Kenya knows everything about the Doyles, has been following them her whole life with an avid, seemingly unhealthy interest encouraged by her mother. In this novel Patchett is obviously exploring relationships, examining what really constitutes a family and dabbling in the nature/nurture debate, themes I normally jump all over. So Andrea, go ahead, please and read this book. Maybe you'll help me understand why it didn't work for me. At any rate, it would make for a great discussion.

More soon on the exquisite Jhumpa Lahiri and her collection of related short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, a truly beautiful book that I highly recommend listening to just for the lovely lilt of the reader who nails the Bengali dialect.