Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Uncommon Reader

As Maryellen says, "great book alert!" All you librarians out there simply must avail yourself of this little book which can be read in an evening. Alan Bennett, British author of the fabulous play later made into a movie, The History Boys, has penned a witty, sly little morality tale on the efficacy and danger of - you know it - READING! The premise is that the current queen of England, while out walking her dogs, comes upon the mobile library parked outside the service entrance at Buckingham Palace supplying the lowly kitchen help with leisure time reading material. Mortified that the dogs are romping around inside and curious about the vehicle she'd taken no notice of in the past, the Queen enters and her life is forever changed.

Between Mr. Hutchings, the librarian, and Norman, avid reader and dishwasher for the royals, the Queen is introduced to hoards of books on every subject and in every genre. As her reading tastes develop and mature her handlers grow increasingly uncomfortable with her affinity for actually offering opinions. Since they won't encourage her in her new-found habit, the Queen promotes Norman to personal assistant so that she'll always have someone to talk books with. This sets off a chain reaction behind the scenes that will pit the Queen against her counselors with laughably unintended consequences.

One hilarious scene has the Queen coaching from the castle to Westminster, totally caught up in the open book on her lap, waving absently to her subjects as the Duke mutters furiously under his breath. While she performs her duties with the privy council, the Duke has the book confiscated from the carriage where the Queen has hidden it between the cushions. Upon her return she confronts the security guards as to the whereabouts of her novel and is told that it was identified as a possible explosive device and likely destroyed. The Queen archly replies that a book is indeed an explosive device, one used to ignite the imagination. You've gotta love it!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Where Have I Been?

As well you might ask! I just can't seem to finish a book lately and then, well, typing is just killing me. I think I've pinched a nerve in my neck or arm and I have this burning pain from my shoulder blade down to my wrist. This has been going on for a month now and it's driving me bonkers - especially when we're supposed to be practicing non-stop for our new computer system that'll be up and running at work by the end of January.

Enough of that whining though. There's so much going on in my head right now that I scarcely know where to begin. Don and I went to see "Milk" yesterday and, though I'm old enough to remember when Harvey Milk was assassinated, I guess I was too busy being a full-time stepmother at the time to really relate to what was happening in the gay/lesbian community. I recall Anita Bryant's frightening speeches, calling on God to condemn a whole segment of our society for loving the "wrong" person. I always cringe when I hear a member of some church use that disingenuous phrase about "loving the sinner but hating the sin," as if it's up to them to make a judgement about what's right and what's wrong. It's almost as bad as using the word "tolerance" as if it's some magnanimous gesture. To "tolerate" is hardly to embrace.

The movie got me to see this whole flap about Obama's asking Rick Warren to give the inaugural benediction in a whole new light. I thought the gay community was overreacting in their violent disapproval, clinging to my blind devotion to Barack and believing that he had a clever ulterior motive for his decision. But seeing the original footage of the police rounding up homosexuals from Stonewall in New York to south beach in Miami - a mere 30 years ago - I realized that, as with women's rights, we have not come as far as one would hope and that giving a prominent voice to a man like Rick Warren is to gays what elevating Lawrence Summers is to me as a woman.

Kudos to Sean Penn who never veers from controversy and wears his politics on his sleeve. The man is a beautiful writer, ( check out his articles in The Nation or on the Huffington Post), but he's also a very underrated actor, in my humble opinion. He blew me away in Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River" in which he played the father of a murdered girl who succumbs to vigilantism, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house when he channeled a mentally challenged father trying to retain custody of his daughter in "I Am Sam."

All this brings me to the book I am halfway through on the mp3. Palace Council by Stephen Carter, the third in his series of novels (and I think the best) about the elite, powerful movers and shakers of "the darker nation" who lived in elegant sophistication in Harlem during its peak, laboring behind the scenes to effect political change and a better future for the generations that would follow. I really enjoy how Carter weaves so much actual history into his novels that the reader believes that the fictional characters are as real as the names like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. du Bois, J. Edgar Hoover and Adam Clayton Powell that are dropped into the narrative.

As in his first novel, The Emperor of Ocean Park, there is a secret society to be infiltrated and as in the second, New England White, there's a dead body found in a most inconvenient place. There's also an unrequited love, a baby born out of wedlock, and a family divided by differing philosophies on how to bring full civil rights to African Americans. Lest you think I'm being flip, on the contrary, I should tell you that Carter is a very literary writer with a penchant for red herrings but a need to tie up loose ends.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Another Respite from Depression!

Hi everyone, I've missed writing. So pleased we'll have some time off in the next few weeks for R & R. I found another sweet little book on the shelf a couple of weeks ago from a first time author. Infobabe tells me that she concentrates her book discussions on first time authors and I like the idea of giving new folks some good press when they deserve it (and even sometimes if they don't).
House and Home by Kathleen McCleary caught my eye because of the cover art and the catch phrase "sometimes a woman loves her house so much that she'll do almost ANYthing to keep it." This was me fifteen years ago and I had the three concurrent jobs to prove it, all while attending library school. Now, older and wiser, I'm a little ashamed that I put so much stock in a physical structure to make me happy. Without going into all the unhappy details, suffice it to say that my home in Florida was the first thing I had ever owned in my own name so it was a symbol of so much more than 3 beds and 2 baths.

Ellen and Sam are in the process of ending an 18 year marriage when this novel opens but it only takes a few pages to intuit that neither one is gung ho about moving on and their two delightful daughters try every trick in the book to forestall the divorce. Ellen is a lovely character; believably flawed like most of us, both selfish and loving, hard working and loyal, quick to anger, a little slower to forgive. She's someone you could imagine as your neighbor and your friend.

Sam? The same! So what's wrong? Well, it seems that Sam, the visionary who can't seem to get his wild ideas to fall into place long enough to earn a living, has refinanced the beloved home for a pipe dream. Oh, way too close to home for me! The home sale is pending, Ellie and the girls are distraught, but Ellie has an idea. She plans a farewell party for her gal friends - you know the kind - lots of great food, good wine and conversation. And perhaps....a few too many candles???

To follow up, and keep my reputation for disturbing books intact, I've started The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam. This has gotten some great press so it was on my rather lengthy "to read" list and once again, the cover art is eye catching to say the least. This is a contemporary novel set in Afghanistan involving an elderly Brit, a grieving widower, whose daughter was kidnapped by the Taliban. He takes a motley crew of passers-through and activists into his home, ostensibly to assuage his loneliness but I expect there will be much more to it than that. LJ calls this “Arguably the best novel available on the current situation in the Middle East...." Hmmmm, pretty high praise. I'll let you know.

Had a great turnout for my book discussion last week on Loving Frank by Nancy Horan. Numbers aren't always important and sometimes 26 people can be too many but this was an impressive group of women who had read the book thoroughly with an eye to the discussion. Many came with notes, no one was afraid to talk, they all took turns - a remarkable experience overall. The big question was, whose book was it? Frank's or Mamah's? Was it a feminist book or a plain old romance? Another fantastic first novel by a woman who threw away seven years of work and started over with a wonderful outcome. Note: it helps if you aren't familiar with the true story.