Friday, September 26, 2008

A Run on Spunky Ladies!

New York Times reporter Lily Koppel must have some great karma. Moving into her new apartment at 98 Riverside Drive, Lily noticed a cleaning company disposing of old trunks and furniture that had long since been abandoned in the basement of the glorious old brownstone. Riffling through the detritus, looking for anything she might be able to use, Ms. Koppel came upon a disintegrating leather diary sporting a tarnished brass lock. The rest, as they say, is history.

Lily's book, The Red Leather Diary; Reclaiming a Life Through the Pages of a Lost Journal, is a pure delight. Unlike the other two novels of this nature that I've recently written about, this book is the very true account of an amazing young woman named Florence Wolfson, now Howitt, a spry 90-something widow still kicking in Connecticut and Florida. Yes, Ms. Koppel tracked Florence down and received permission to write this biography based upon the musings of the younger Miss Wolfson from the historical period between 1929 and 1934.

It never ceases to amaze me how many folks there were out there (you know, back in the day) who had seemingly endless supplies of resources for travel, Parisienne couture, fine dining, and leisure work. Not that I'm jealous but damn! Our very rebellious, independent Miss Wolfson was only 15 years old when she began to make diary notations about her evening forays to Carnegie Hall, the days spent at the Metropolitan Museum, her lovers both male and female, her desire to live a bohemian life in France, painting and writing, and having the wherewithal to carry it out. The funny thing is that she's an absolute sketch and you can't help but love her honesty and openness. Reading her forward to the book gave me the impression that she hasn't changed one bit!

I've been off Elizabeth Berg for a while but the title of her latest collection has been calling to me from the new book section. I look up from the reference desk and see that bright yellow cover - yes, I do often judge a book by its cover - with the reclining nude holding a three layer cake and I know I'm going to have to have it. (the book, not the cake) The Day I Ate Whatever I wanted and other small Acts of Liberation is pure Elizabeth Berg and had me laughing out loud in the lunch room to the point where I had to retreat to our picnic table to read. If you know Elizabeth, you also know that one minute after the laugh you might be crying uncontrollably. She can strike a vein that quickly, her specialty being the joys and indignities of aging, friendships lost and found, marriages stuck through and abandoned, and illness fought against. Body image is another perennial Berg theme and the subject of the marvelous title story of a woman abandoning the restrictions of Weight Watchers for a day of decadence.

First of all, for those of you who don't know, I kind of consider myself an EB expert. When I was full-blown involved in the Reading Festival it was my "duty" to pick Ms. Berg up at the airport and get her to her hotel. She was so easy to talk with and had that way about her of drawing me out and getting all personal, like we were actually friends, when you know she probably HATES these festival things where you fly into town one day and out the next, staying in some non-descript hotel (Holiday Inn on the River - oy!). I also had to reread all of her books so that I could go on WINK-TV's very EARLY morning show and talk coherently about her and the festival. For me, that was traumatizing. God bless my boss at the time for calling to tell how proud she was that I didn't once say "um." I performed better than Sarah Palin I guess!

One last thing. I started Ethan Canin's America, America last night and could not put it down. Gorgeous writing! Very Richard Russo in style. I stayed up late reading and can't wait to get back to it. Work sure does get in the way of my habit! Oh, and I HAVE to stay awake for the debate tonight so.....Andrea, you're going to love it - I think.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dreamers of the Day

There are some who might say that's an appropriate label for me! I still have hope with a capital "H." However, in this case I'm referring to the new book by Mary Doria Russell, another one that I can't say enough about. In many ways it reminds me of The Open Door that I wrote about 2 weeks ago; another novel about a spunky, independent woman who scoffs at the morees of the day (early 2oth century) and decides to experience all that life has to offer before it passes her by. Go ahead, suspend disbelief. Go along for the ride as plain Jane schoolmarm, Agnes, whose entire family dies during the influenza outbreak, reinvents herself with the help of a friend and a comfy inheritance, setting sail for Egypt and beyond.

A minor cultural faux pas occurs when Agnes tries to check into Cairo's finest hotel with her little schnauzer, drawing the attention of some well-known historical figures who happen to be staying at the same place. Soon our small-town heroine is drawn into the social milieu of Gertrude Bell, Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill and the renowned Lawrence of Arabia. Through this coincidental meeting, Russell gives readers a fascinating look at the backstory of the British involvement in the complicated separation of powers among the Middle Eastern states and the West. There were times in this historical novel when I thought I was reading contemporary jounalism!

It's such a pleasure to meet a character like Agnes, who blossoms with confidence and charm as she opens herself to the opportunities for love and adventure as they present themselves to her. While this novel is lighter than what I'm used to from Russell, having held a great book discussion on A Thread of Grace, it was still a pure delight from start to finish and goodness knows my reading habits can always use a little light!

You'll know what I mean if you've ever read one of the creepiest literary thriller writers around, our Reading Festival veteran, Jeffery Deaver. I started the latest in his incredible Lincoln Rhyme series last Thursday night on my way home from work. Within the short span of 8 miles I became so scared I didn't want to enter my garage alone! The Broken Window, a terrifying look at idenity theft, has sucked me in to the point where I'm planning a weekend trip just so I can listen.

Banned Books Week is coming up. Go ahead, make Sarah Palin's day! Read Daddy's Roommate.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Day Without Politics - Almost

Ever since our drive to Maryland, listening to talk radio all the way, I've been so depressed about the state of our country that I feel practically suicidal! Seems that I've been calling my sister an inordinate number of times just to hear her tell me that "all will be well." Easy for her to say, you see, she still lives in Massachusetts. Down here in Southwest Florida there aren't as many, dare I say it? Liberals!
I decided yesterday to take a day off from politics after reading a very funny entry to the Huffington Post saying that we must, to preserve our sanity, walk away every now and then from all news media, be it NPR, blogs, your local or national papers, The Nation, etc. It felt so good to get my blood pressure down to an acceptable reading.
But wait, late in the day I popped downtown to a library gathering, a farewell for a co-worker who's retiring, and within minutes of being around all my forward thinking librarian pals, we were positing questions about which nation we'd move to if the election doesn't go the way we want it to.
Then I came home to catch the Moyers show and had confirmed for me what I've already known and worried about for quite some time. That is, that the media rules and we only know what they allow us to know. How frightening it is to think that so few corporations now own every major television and radio station and the publishing empire to boot. If you haven't see it in a while, it's time to rent Network.

That said, I was also asked by one of my faithful readers, why I haven't written anything lately. The truth is that I was just waiting for a book I could get enthusiastic about. I've started and given up some so-so titles, using Nancy Pearl's trusty "rule of 50," as my new guideline; among them John DuFresne's Requiem, Mass (another dysfunctional family that's supposed to be funny and I find anything but...) and Alan Furst's The Spies of Warsaw which received glowing reviews in AudioFile but didn't grab me. I did finish, while up in Maryland, Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street, which I enjoyed, as I do all of her twisted, strange novels, but didn't think any of my regular readers would go for it. Divorce, suicide, potential pedophilia, friendships abandoned.......that's my Margot. The woman has a lovely way with language and a deeply disturbing take on the human condition. If you've never read her work I would suggest beginning with Eva Moves the Furniture.

I do have a glowing recommendation, a book you could read in one night if the spirit moved you. I had read an essay about the author, Elizabeth Maguire, in Publisher's Weekly. In fact, it was an obituary written by a long-time colleague and friend about Ms. Maguire's untimely death and the effort to get her book published. The Open Door is a fictional look at the life of feminist and author Constance Fenimore Woolson ( ) and her controversial and often misunderstood years-long relationship with Henry James. I just fell in love with Constance, the plucky kind of woman you'd hope you'd have been if you'd been an adventurous, open-eyed, 21st century soul stuck in a 19th century mold.
Apparently, though descended from the James Fenimore Cooper family of upstate New York, she lived in St. Augustine, Florida for several years and wrote about her travels and the area. She was published in Harper's and enjoyed some popularity which MaGuire indicates may have been a source of professional jealousy to James whose work was not likely as accessible to the "average" reader as was Contance's.

Woolson spent much of her life in Italy, so you can imagine how enamoured I was of the descriptions of her life in Florence, Venice and Sorrento, but she also traveled widely, renting digs in London, Salisbury, Switzerland, Egypt and Greece. She had several lovers, one in particular with whom she had a long, loving relationship, but she eschewed marriage and the drudgery and loss of independence that she assumed would come with it. Maguire's depiction of Woolson's deep friendship with James is so realistic that it's difficult for the reader to distinguish which is fact and which is fiction. The author quotes from supposed correspondance between the two and I'd have to do the research to find out if these letters did actually exist. The truth is, I don't care. They exist now in my mind and I just loved this little gem of a book!

Suddenly I have so much more to say........but I'd better not, since we know I tend to be a tad wordy. I'll be back.