Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thoughts on the Holidays (and a few books)

I guess you must have surmised that I'm back from vacation since I haven't written in a while. All that wonderful reading and now I'm back to being a slug. I didn't even make my 100 books in a year goal and was shamed to listen to my friend Maryellen tell the whole world on NPR yesterday that she read 133 books this past year and has a goal of 144 for next! Whew.

OK, I did have my sister here over the Christmas weekend but is that an excuse? Not really, since she's a reader too. But then, she doesn't do newspapers and mine take me hours to get through. I'm also half way through my first book discussion book of the new year, City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. I chose it almost a year ago while still in the throes of outrage over FEMA and New Orleans and the lack of attention to that city's crisis. I like to choose discussion books that will bring out emotions and controversy otherwise what is there to talk about? This one should do the trick as it follows two families in two disparate neighborhoods in the Crescent city as they deal with the run up and aftermath of the broken levies. As background Don and I watched the first part of Spike Lee's heartbreaking documentary When the Levies Broke. It isn't easy being informed.

Since I've been reviewing for Library Journal I've had all but one review published which means, if I may brag for a minute, that I've had a review in almost every issue for the last two years. There's nothing like seeing one's name and words in print to boost the ego for just a minute or two. I just finished a fantastic debut novel that my regular readers know I'm not allowed to speak about until the review is published. The ear-catching title is The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors. Suffice it to say you must keep an eye out for an April printing. Read about this delightful author at:

Yesterday I received another debut novel, almost 400 pages, by a Pulitzer Prize winning biologist. Yes, I have the new year's weekend off and guess what I'll be doing? In the meantime just a word about the other Updike. Who knew that John's son David was (is) such a talent. I've gotten to enjoy short stories as I never have before because we have such an abbreviated lunch break at work - usually 20 minutes of actual quiet time and even then only if I go out to the picnic table by the dumpster - that it's hard to concentrate on anything more involved. Old Girlfriends is a beautifully written, thought-provoking collection of stories about relationships that rings so true that at the end of one of the stories I had to emit an audible sigh.

I can't remember - an over 60 affliction - if I've written about one of our wonderful new volunteers at my library but I just can't stop commenting on the multi talented Kathryn Taubert who's become a computer coach for us. Among her many talents is writing and she has a blog for the Naples Daily News:

In a previous posting she wrote about the holidays and specifically, about the difference between being alone and being lonely. This is one of my favorite themes and one that I runimate upon quite often (especially during the holidays) because of where my life has taken me. There are no words to express how lucky I feel to be where I'm at right now. I NEVER think oh I wish I was younger or I wish I could start over or wasn't it great to be 30 or 40 or whatever. Back when I was married, which seems a lifetime ago, I was so desperately lonely and no one knew. For that matter few of my friends or family, to my mind, really knew me at all. We were always surrounded by an entourage and I learned early on that one can be loneliest in a crowd.
A lesson learned here is that we mustn't condescend to or feel sorry for someone who may be alone during the holidays. Many people actually enjoy their own company and will choose to be with a crowd if they get the hankering or may choose to be alone to take a bubble bath, read a book, watch old movies or feed people at a soup kitchen. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Off to the dentist for a marathon drilling. This won't be pretty.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Authors spotted on deck

Well, no, not exactly the authors themselves but don't you always love to see who people are reading? We've been faithful to our exercise routine everyday but I like to walk outside and Don prefers the gym. The deck is nice and long, 2 times around is a mile - I do my walking out there while listening to a new novel by ex- MI-5 agent, Stella Rimington. I'm addicted to spies right now.

As I walk I love to people watch and, in particular, I love to see what folks are reading. Spotted several John Grishams, of course, Harlan Coban, Jennifer Crusie, and one man reading Say YOu're One of Them, which is on my own "to read" list. Only saw one library book in the whole mix, To those who say that reading is on the wane, I scoff. Every single person by the pool has their nose in a book. I think it's because they can. When else do they have time to relax and read? It really does my heart good to see.

Our own routine looks something like this...sleep 9 or 10 hours, have coffee and juice delivered to the room, read for another hour or two, go to brunch, go to the gym, come back and sit in the sun and read some more. Need I say more? There is no greater pleasure for me than to stare at the sea. The idea that there's no land in any direction - visible at least - thrills me. My sister thinks there may have been a pirate in our family closet. Would that explain it?

Just finished the novel I wish I could have written during NaNoWriMo. Hello, Goodbye could have been my story. How could this young woman, Emily Chenoweth, former editor at PW, write like this? I'm pea green with envy! This gorgeous, gorgeous novel sounds depressing but, interestingly enough, it really isn't at all.

Fit, bright, wife, mother, counselor, Helen, comes in from  her early morning jog, pushes the button on the coffee maker and sinks to the kitchen floor in a blinding burst of light and pain.  After weeks of testing and an agonizing wait for Helen's husband Elliott, the diagnosis is an inoperable brain tumor. Why does this seem so common lately? Not just in literature but in real life....how do we deal with this kind of news? Yes, everyone is different but the  family dynamics explored by Chenoweth are a joy to  behold. This is one of the most honest books I;ve ever read.

From college freshman Abby, torn between a deep, unbearable love for her mother, and the normal selfish, what about me attitude of every 18 year old, to Elliott, overwhelmed with the burden of caring for his wife while keeping the truth of her dreadful diagnosis from Abby and their friends, these people act with a generosity of spirit that keeps readers high in the face of grief.

Elliott decides to take Helen and Abby back East from Ohio for a last summer vacation at a resort in New Hampshire where the couple's old friends can gather to say farewell to Helen and their carefree younger selves. All interesting and complex characters themselves, they rally round Elliott and Helen, with mixed feeling of helplessness and fear in the face of their own mortality.

How I wish it could have been my name on the back cover of this sensitve, uplifting novel. Emily Chenoweth, I hope you have more stories percolating,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sony and Sally, A Marriage Made in Heaven

Well guys, I'm the first to admit that my patience with technology is very limited and I;'m having a heck of a time typing on my new netbook knowing that we;re being charged 40 cents a minute for all my goofs. On the other hand, I'm looking out to sea and we've just left Costa Maya, Don's gone upstairs to get us a cheese tray and the ice is chilling. This keyboard is tough though after using a full size keyboard.
I had been invited to be a guest blogger this week on Jungle Red and was thrilled and scared on how we;'d manage it from sea. Good thing we put it off til Feb,. Wouldn't have happened!

So, on the to Sony, which is behaving much better than my cute little laptop! It is the greatest thing since chopped beef. I'm telling you - if you wear progressive lenses - you MUST own a Sony ebook reader. I have already gone through one book in no time flat. Because of the way progressives work, if you're reading a traditional book - as I am now - there's a lot of blurriness on the periphery. With the ebook reader you are seeing such a nice tiny page that you can scan it so quickly and easily - no strain. I simply love it! Day or night time - didn't matter, Three fonts available, Maybe it helped because of the book though, Anita Shreve's A Change in Altitude. Run out and grab a copy, Excellent!

I thought her last one, Testimony, was outstanding but this one stays right up there. Once again, she takes us back to Kenya, where she's set her novels before and where I hope to travel to next year, so it was of particular interest to me. Patrick and Margaret are newlyweds, he, a physician studying diseases and treating the poor in Nairobi. She hasn't found a job yet and is chafing at being unable to contribute, feeling like a fish out of water. Margaret spends her days trying to get to know Africa through the  back door. As a professional photograher, she sees things through a different lens and has a special affinity for the people.

When she takes her portfolio to the Kenyan Tribune she is hired as a freelancer and revels in the joy of working with a multicultural crew of reporters, especially Rafiq, a writer with a conscience.

The title is a clever play on the word attitude and altitude. Mount Kilimanjaro looms large in the plot of the story. If you've read Krakauer's first book  about mountain climbing you;ll know that climbers tend to be over confident in their abilities and underestimate the power of a mountain. Multitudes of illness can force hikers to turn back, altitude sickness among them.

When Patrick proposes a climb to be undertaken with their landlords and neighbors, British ex-pat, pompous Arthur and his can-do wife, Diana, Margaret sensibly intuits that she will not be up to it and will be a drain on the expedition. No one listens to her and she is forced by Patrick's strange attempt at good intentions to go along reluctantly and terrified. What happens on the mountain affects their marriage, friendships and futures in unintended ways, moving the novel in unexpected ways. I don't want to say too much but I found it a very satisfying novel and a deep exploration of a woman's growth and maturity.

Does Anita Shreve ever disappoint? Not in my book! The cheese is here - gotta go!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Homer, Langley and the Bouvier-Beales

I'm always amazed at how many connections there are in the world and it seems that, for the well read, they abound. I've been a theatre buff all my life, thanks to my parents' foresight and penchant for community acting and Broadway getaways. I love my weekend subscription to the Times just so I can keep up with what's going on in New York even if I never get back there myself. When I saw that a film had been made of the play (or was it vice-versa?) Grey Gardens, I took it home to have a peek and what a stunning revelation. Drew Barrymore is not just another pretty face. She put in a remarkably brave performance as Edie, the stiffled daughter of Jackie Kennedy's aunt Edith Beale, the recluse at the heart of the Long Island mansion Grey Gardens.

At the same time I've been listening to a recording of prolific award winner E. L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley, a fictionalized novel about the lives of the famous Collyer brothers who, like Edith and Edie Beale, simply withdrew from society to become infamous curiosities to the media and even despised by their neighbors in the toney brownstone neighborhood opposite Central Park.

What happens to people to precipitate such a drastic withdrawal from society? Is it personal? Political? Is it fear or laziness? Agoraphobia? Which comes first-the disease or the hibernation? In the movie, it was a bit easier to see how it all began, though not to condone it. The senior Edith Beale was not, to me at least, a very sympathetic character even though the film makers tried to nuance her situation. Apparently a frustrated perfomer and party girl, played beautifully by the versatile Jessica Lange, Mrs. Beale was married to a stuffy, wealthy, attorney who had a lover in the city and consigned his wife and family to the "beach house" where he deigned to visit on weekends but where they filled their time entertaining.

When her husband finally divorced her, Edith took up with a young piano player and they lived off her alimony until the famous first financial crash put an end to the money. Though her sons tried to convince Edith to sell the mansion she refused it seemed, out of spite, which would be understandable except that she took her daughter down with her. Young Edie had high hopes of a life in entertainment but her mother took advantage of her insecurities after a disastrous love affair with a married man and guilted her into moving home to Grey Gardens where the house was falling down around them and they sustained themselves on ice cream and garbage.

Similarly, Homer and Langley were the progeny of two selfish, wealthy parents who left them in the care of servants most of their young lives to the point where the parents were scarcely missed after their deaths. Homer, who was going blind and then deaf, narrates the story of their lives and also, through Doctorow's use of poetic license, the entire history of the 20th century. Though the brothers actually died in 1947, the author has them living through the Vietnam era so that he can use their actions and observations to comment on the politics of each generation.

The novel is a slow building tour de force ably read by Arthur Morey. Langley, educated at Columbia, goes off to World War I returning, like so many, damaged physically by mustard gas and mentally by the brutality and futileness of war in general. He becomes a lifelong pacifist, an eccentric inventor and pack rat, rebelling against any authority but, in his own way, protecting his young brother from the outside world. The question is, like Edith Beale, did his attempt to shield Homer from the cruelties of life, do more harm than good?

These two stories are great studies for those interested in the psychology of eccentricity and the extent to which it can go before it's beyond repair. Doctorow's novel can also just be read as historical fiction with a conscience. Further information about the real Collyer brothers can be found all over the Internet, in particular at the bottom of this Wikipedia entry (with apologies to my fellow librarians)


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Women's Rights and Women's History

I'm smack in the middle of two books that indirectly dovetail nicely with each other. True confession time: I don't think that I've ever considered myself a feminist in the fighting sense of the word. My friend Don is an ardent feminist and marched in the million woman march in DC. We have often talked of discrimination against women and its manifestations but I feel that I've been inordinately lucky in not having faced severe discrimination because of my sex. Don thinks I have, in large and small ways, and just don't know it, and I suppose if I had to dwell on it for a while I could find reasons to take umbrage but they don't amount to a hill of beans compared to the hell it is to be black, Hispanic or Native American and now middle-Eastern in this country.

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist, and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have spent the past ten years investigating discrimination against women in emerging countries. The result, Half the Sky, is not an easy book to read as I likely mentioned before. Perhaps what's almost as disheartening as the horrific damage that has been done to women during this century under the guise of religion or as an act of war or profiteering, is the political gamesmanship that goes on among countries that try (or pretend to try) to put an end to it.

Through hundreds of visits to Taiwan, India, China, and Africa, this husband/wife team have met many women who could and likely should be sainted for the work they've done, at risk to their lives and families, to save, counsel, educate and build up battered, wounded, disfigured women. Some have been kidnapped, trafficked and forced in sexual slavery and prostitution. Others have been disfigured with acid by their husbands, boyfriends or spurned lovers. Hundreds of thousands have been gang raped by soldiers as one of the historically oldest methods of war tactics against another tribe or nation. These women are not only social outcasts, if their families don't kill them for the shame they've brought home, they are demoralized and wounded inside and out. Hospitals rarely exist that will treat the injuries they suffer from sticks and bayonets and, even if they could afford them, the stigma of admitting to a sexual assault is ferocious.

I don't need to go on and on but I would like for folks to know that these things are happening every hour of every day while we complain that we're not being paid the same salary as a man.That surely is wrong but, yikes, let's get a grip. I have decided to make the Kristofs' cause a cause I can believe in. If you'd like to read about their travels, help support the hospitals and schools that are being slowly set up in developing countries to educate and empower women take a look at Mr. Kristof's blog at your leisure.

Simultaneously I'm reading A Short History of Women by National Book Award winner Kate Walbert. It may not sound like it but this is fiction; a fascinating look at a long line of women that begins with early suffragette Dorothy Townsend who starves herself to death to make a point. All the female relatives down the line have quite a bit to live up to in terms of making a statement and it takes its toll as readers follow their lives down through the decades to current times. The author does quite a bit of back and forthing through the 20th century which makes the novel a bit difficult to follow, requiring a little more concentration than we often want to give to bedtime reading, but I suspect it'll be worth it.

There's so much the young ladies today don't know about how far we've come and yes, no matter what I said about the previous book, how far we have to go. Through these mothers, daughters, grandmothers and great grandmothers we learn what the women's movement has given and yes, what it's taken away. Why some will never stay married and others will never bear children. Why some will go to prison for their ideals and others will play bridge. My mother was a feminist! Wish I'd appreciated her more when she was alive.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


Wow! Don and I have just finished the third season of this incredible BBC production recommended, as I mentioned before, by our two lovely acquaintances from Britain who we met while vacationing on Crete. Once again, I can't say that I've ever seen an American TV series or even a movie that can compare to this series. I have so many thoughts rumbling around in my mind based upon this show, the news of the day, and my other reading.

The British Secret Service is supposed to be the creme de la creme and the organization that our CIA was based upon. My disillusionment with our own government and its operatives continues in light of revelations in the Times today that secret prisons are still operating at US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan under our new leadership in Washington. I have answered Marcella's call and written a letter to our president expressing my deep disappointment.
Watching MI-5 at work is appalling and fascinating all at the same time. Much as a driver can't help but slow and gawk at an accident, we sit and watch this tv show knowing full well that the devious, terrifying, despicable things that these agents do for their country are being done every day in our own country in our name, whether we agree with it or not. It's not for the faint of heart. (or is that feint?)

Interestingly enough, it seems that as characters are written out of the show, their leavetaking coincides with their realization that they are losing their souls. One can only continue in this line of work for so long before a line is crossed that can never be undone. Do we all have a little devil inside of us that leans to the dark side? Perhaps we do and by heading into the living room and putting in season 4 I can appease that devil and remain in the real world, a little less oblivious to the "collateral damage."

Speaking of this, I can't wait to take a good long look at In Defense of the Realm, the Authorized History of MI-5 by Christopher Andrew. Even the "authorized" version should be full of fascinating tidbits and behind the scenes stories. At 1000 plus pages, I can guarantee that I won't be reading the full thing but will blog with impunity about it nevertheless!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Reading Just for Fun!

Should there be another way? Well....naturally, we read to educate ourselves and I've often found that fiction does that even better than non. How, you might ask. I suppose it's because through fiction that we learn how to accept, understand, and even embrace, all peoples, cultures, and classes. This is why I normally steep myself in the literary kind of fiction that pushes me beyond my comfort zone - especially when it comes to fiction for book discussions.

That being said, there comes a time when we all need to lighten up a little bit and I've been feeling that way lately. Murder mysteries are one way of doing that and I can highly recommend Hallie Ephron's Never Tell a Lie if you're looking for one of those thrillers that begin so sweetly that you don't see it coming until it builds inexorably to a terrible (and one hopes, faulty) conclusion. It may sound a bit like a cliche but the formula works and the New England setting is perfect for a haunting or a disappearance. I still have New England in the blood afterall.

Dave and Lily appear to have the ideal life with a thriving business in the cozy little town where they've just purchased and are remodeling an old Victorian multi-storied home with plenty of room for the requisite pets and the baby due any day now. Decluttering and feathering their nest, they hold a big garage sale which is attended by a woman, also ready to give birth any day, who knew both Dave and Lily from high school. While they scarcely recognize or remember her, she seems to have an uncomfortably huge amount of knowledge about them and the hairs begin to rise on the back of your neck in anticipation of what's to come.

24 hours later the mystery woman is missing, Dave is pulled from the baby shower by the local police farce - oops - Freudian slip but that's what we used to call them in Gt. Barrington - and hawled down to the town hall for questioning as pieces of circumstantial evidence pile up around him. Will Lily cave or fight? I already see this as a movie. More on Hallie Ephron at http://www.hallieephron.com/

Have you ever read Valerie Martin? Her latest novel, The Confessions of Edward Day has been getting some good press as a literary mystery which inevitably doesn't end up really being much of a mystery but a darn good read anyway, even if the characters are not exactly bound to be your best friends. They're theatre people so what can I say? If you are fascinated with theatre - as I am - and if you're willing to give the characters the benefit of the doubt because they are, after all, actors, then you'll have fun with this book starring a cadre of young people who have all come to NYCity, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, as my dad used to say, hoping to trip the light fantastic.

Madeline and Edward are attracted to eachother right from the start but she's a fickle lass and also seems to find the myterious Guy Margate equally entrancing. Where did he come from anyway? No one invited him to the party! As it turns out though, fate brought Guy to Long Island that summer night. When Edward fell through an old pier and into the night waters and the undertow of Long Island Sound, it was Guy who heard the calls for help and came to the rescue. Little did Edward know that Guy would become a rather sinister, unshakeable ball and chain around his leg, insinuating himself into every aspect of Edward's life from that point forward.

What ensues is a study of people who make their living by pretending. The reader is never quite sure who's real, what's true, what's part of the game or part of the show. Assumptions are turned on their head and you're in a world where things are always off balance. There's love, loss, betrayal, and friendships that span decades, all played out against a backdrop of off-off Broadway productions, summer stock, acting classes with all the greats, their individual foibles on display rather than hidden behind the scenes.

Next up? Nicholas Kristof's Half the Sky; Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, written with his wife Ms. Wu Dunn, won't be an easy read but it's a necessity. Not only do I hope to meet the authors when Maryellen and I travel to the Public Library Association Conference next Spring where they're the opening day speakers, but I truly believe we owe it to people who have suffered beyond our wildest imaginings to at least bear witness by listening to their stories. There but for a trick of FATE go we!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Slowing Down (or not)

I've been in a funk lately, the cause of which I can't quite put my finger on, but I think it involves TIME. I want more time - am I just being cranky and will it pass? Oh, I'm sure that it will. Nevertheless, I feel less and less inclined to listen to an alarm in the morning. I've tried all the tricks, using those crazy radios that let you hear water running, brooks rushing, birds singing but, hey, I still know it means that I have to alight from the bed prior to my body clock's recommendation.

For the first time in my life, I'm not ready to go back to work when vacation ends. When did that happen? I love my career, I truly do but....I'm less and less inclined to enjoy having to account for every hour of the day, following that task master, the written schedule, that says you will be here at 10 and you will be here at 11 and you will have supper at 4. What?? Do civilized people eat at 4?

What's happened to me is that I've regressed. I've become the person I was when I graduated from college all starry eyed - holding what some would say was a useless degree in English (unless you want to teach which was one of two options open to "girls" of my age at that time). What I wanted to do then, before life intervened for the next 40 years, was sit in a little cottage on a beach somewhere and write. Guess what I want to do now? You guessed it! Perhaps not a beach any more - skin cancer put an end to that dream - but maybe a bungalow in southern France or Umbria? A cliche you may say but wouldn't it be worth checking out? After all, no matter what you may read in the local press, the fact of the matter is that Europeans do live longer than we do. Ever wonder why? They live slower.

So here I am in this frame of mind and then I read that Arianna Huffington is going to have an online book group - like I don't belong to enough of those already. But guess what book she's featuring first up? Carl Honore's In Praise of Slowness.

Reading about the so-called slow movement has been a revelation. I no longer feel guilty about wanting to scale back. I no longer feel as though life is passing me by if I'm not going 24/7. I no longer revel in my reputation as the "energizer bunny." I look at the piles of books around the house and want to delve into each and every one. If I don't vacuum as often as I used to? Oh well. If the car isn't spotless - tough. Mow the yard? Yes, I still enjoy it but I no longer obsess. Those things will be here long after I'm gone but the experiences that I miss, the bike rides I don't take, the books I don't get to, the tastes and smells that I overlook, may be gone for good.

All I hope for this weekend? Sitting with Don with our noses in our books. Now I'm off to my latest terrific read (which I've had to renew twice because I can't find TIME for it!) Valerie Martin's The Confessions of Edward Day. More on this later in the week.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Book Group Alert - Shanghai Girls

I'm just finishing up listening to Lisa See's latest novel and, though I seldom say this, I suspect that this one might be better read than listened to. It's such a multi-layered book and can be analyzed in so many ways but on the surface it's a tale of two sisters, Pearl and May, who are as different as night and day - aren't we always?
Even though Pearl is the eldest, the strongest emotionally, the one who suffers greatly throughout the book to hold her small family together and take care of her younger sister as she promised her dying mother she would, the reader's voice has a complaining tenor to it that doesn't do justice to Pearl's strength but somehow makes her seem hard and less than sympathetic.
I'm on the last disc and have a terrible feeling that a bomb is about to drop, literally, not figuratively, that will split the two sisters forever. I've had a sneaking suspicion for quite a while that I might know the father of May's illegitimate child, born while the sisters were incarcerated on Angel Island, a holding place on the west coast for immigrants trying to enter the U.S. much like Ellis Island was on the East coast. Speaking of Angel Island, how many of you ever learned about this in history class? I went to great public schools but I sure did not! Ellis island for white Europeans? Lots of info? Asian immigrants at Angel Island? Not so much. Do you ever think about how much we can learn by reading fiction? The possibilities are endless. Read more here:

This is not an easy book to read, fair warning, there are very few bright moments. Those familiar with her very popular book group fave Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will not be surprised. Though I led that book discussion I can't say that it was one of my personal choices and I passed up the sequel, Peony in Love. I am drawn to many unfamiliar cultures but, for some unfathomable reason, the Asian culture has never been one of them. On the other hand I feel that I owe it to myself and to history to try to understand and learn about our country's dismal history with the Japanese and Chinese immigrants whose futures in the United States were whimsically tied to the "fortunes of war."

In fact, as I read, I realized that Ms. See may have drawn the two sisters to represent the two cultures, with Pearl the sensible, rule following, hard working woman who bears the burdens of an arranged marriage, the raising of her sister's daughter as her own, and subjugating her own desires for the common good as a symbol of the old world values and the self-centered, ambitious May as the symbol of the new American culture.The author may not have had this in mind but, if you decide to read this book or use it for discussion, you can see for yourself what I mean and run with it.

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that I tend to gravitate to difficult fiction that upsets, angers, or moves me in a deep and profound way. It's why I read. That's not to say that I don't love to take a break and just get into something that's pure fun. Having read and reviewed Hallie Ephron's delightful Bibliophile's Devotional, I decided to peek into one of her suspense novels, Never Tell a Lie. I'm not far enough along to write about it yet but the premise is great fun, an old New England home with secrets hidden in the attic, a mysterious woman with her own secrets who knows a bit too much about Ivy and David and the Victorian they're renovating. It's so great to lighten up and just enjoy. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Stephanie Kallos and Serendipity

Hi everyone, How I miss it when I don't get to the computer to write about what I'm reading. I feel as though I'm personally letting you down. Then I say, Sally, are you crazy? Does anyone really wait to see what you have to say next? Well, we'll find out. Now that I'm participating in Nanowrimo it seems that all I do is spew words out. The question is, will they ever amount to anything?

Don had the cleverest idea for a mystery novel revolving around the various disparate members of the library staff and their quirky associates. I'm sorry to confess that my imagination just doesn't work that way. My nanowrimo novel is simply writing what I know and putting a "spin" on it. Just call me James Frey. I'm writing about my life but in the third person so that it'll sound like fiction. What a cop out. The question is, as Don just asked me, if there are only X amount of hours a day, how many do I want to devote to reading for pleasure, how many must I devote to reading for Library Journal (which is also my great pleasure) and how many can I devote to being with my friends, exercising, working, the list goes on and on. Is this what they mean by "the horns of a dilemma?"

Sing Them Home is the novel that I'm totally engrossed in right now. I had planned to read it but am listening instead and, though it requires, once again, a great expenditure of time, I think it's just wonderful! Andrea and I fell in love with Stephanie Kallos several years ago when she came out with her first book Broken For You. She is such an imaginative writer with an amazing sense of people and character development. http://www.stephaniekallos.com/
Reading her memo on the website, she says she was taught that a writer must love the reader and I might add that she certainly loves her characters too. They may be deeply troubled but redeemable, they may also be remarkably normal and then do something so off the wall that you simply pull back in awe. But no matter what, they are oh so real.

Her new book is difficult to describe but I've learned some things I never knew about Nebraska and Wales and who knew how many Welshmen settled in Nebraska? Or that their funeral rites seem to mimic those of the Jewish faith? In Emlyn Springs, the dead are very much a part of the picture, observing those they've left behind and commenting among themselves. The Jones family has folks on both side of the divide. We hear from Hope, who is assumed dead after she and her youngest daughter Bonnie were swept up by a tornado, through years of diary entries in which she examines her life married to Llewelyn Jones, small town family doctor, father also to Larken and Gaelan.

Another narrator is Viney Kloss, Hope's best friend, the doctor's nurse and long time companion, who took over the raising of Hope's children and the care and feeding of Llewelyn after Hope's disappearance. The adult children are glorious characters, so prickly, so different from eachother that it's difficult to believe that they could truly be related by blood - much like my own family and, I'm sure, many others who won't admit it.
If you enjoy long, langorous, reads that suck you in and people that you understand, empathize with and maybe even know, if you believe in serendipity and that things happen for a reason, if you loved Richard Russo's Empire Falls or Bridge of Sighs, then you might want to try this book on for size.

On my mp3? Lisa See's Shanghai Girls. I can't say that I'm enamoured yet but will keep you posted. On to my novel!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

If you can't say something nice...

....don't say anything at all. That's the saying you heard from you parents, right? And it makes sense, it does, but what if you're advising people about books? Can you be truthful without being hurtful? And, if you think about it, is any author really ever going to see what I write about them anyway? After all, who am I in the big scheme of things? So many thoughts run through my mind as I go about my day and I so want to get here and write them down as a means of sorting through them.

Library Journal sent me a book recently that I read rather quickly but which I just wasn't enamoured of. It was a young man's first novel and he'd received some rather hefty accolades already. I wrote and submitted the review, trying to be objective but not gushing - as I was for Barbara Kingsolver's new book The Lacuna. I received an immediate email from my editor - a lovely email but insightful. She suspected that I didn't think the book would be a big seller but that the publisher was expecting huge things. She wanted to know what I REALLY thought. Ouch! I laughed. How did she see through me so easily? I'm an open book on my blog but with LJ? Not so much. After a few back and forths, I expressed my opinions and she moved some sentences around, took out a word or two and changed the entire tenor of the review. It was perfect.

All this is to say that while there's something for everyone,  it may not always be right for us. So when Stephen Carter came out with his fourth book, after Emperor of Ocean Park, New England White, and Palace Council, three suspenseful, eye-opening looks at the elite, rather secretive, African American movers and shakers of the 20th century who wielded much political power "behind the scenes," I was all set for more of the same and looking forward to it. Jericho Falls is, instead, a stand alone, about a former CIA deputy, facing major illness, mental as well as physical, whose paranoia envelops and almost destroys everyone he holds dear. Now, because I'd read all of Carter's previous work and enjoyed it immensely, I didn't want to have a negative attitude toward the new book which, from the jump, just didn't hold up. I stayed with it because I kept expecting it to get better but the plot was just inconceivable.

Joshua, the ex-spook, supposedly close to death, is holed up in his Colorado mansion, surrounded by extreme technology, booby traps, and his two disparate, feuding daughters. He calls Rebecca, an old flame, thirty or forty years his junior, a single mother living a very circumspect life, and asks her to come out from the East coast for a last goodbye. Of course, he tells her that someone is after his secrets and he can only trust her to keep them safe, and with absolutely no training or physical skill, Becca manages to hold off terrorists, CIA operatives, the local police dept. and every bad guy known to man. Hmmmmmm - not likely. The sad thing is that authors I really like blurbed this book saying it was the finest espionage they'd ever read. I guess I'd have to say, they haven't been reading their local papers lately!

On the other hand, someone I'll bet you've never read, a man named John Darnton, wrote a very witty sendup of the newspaper business in a flat out, old fashioned murder mystery called Black and White and Dead all Over. A few years ago, Maryellen and I heard Mr. Darnton speak at a reading festival in Sarasota and he was everything you'd expect a "mild mannered reporter" to be.

His novel on the other hand, is anything but mild mannered. In fact, it hits you over the head with the discovery of a dead body on the printing room floor, an editor, adept at making enemies, with a stake through his heart. The jaded reporter who gets the job of writing up the story befriends the police detective, a sharp, tough gal who knows the ropes (moonlighting as a jazz singer) and, between the two of them, they have a rip roaring time sifting through the motives and evidence looking for a perp.

Darnton introduces us to some pretty funny characters who would be recognizable to anyone with any cursory knowledge of the politics of publishing a small town newspaper let alone a NYC daily, with all the rivalries and petty jealousies at work between the obit writer, the "society" maven, the tv chef and the Internet. It all falls together nicely and the characters are believable and likeable. If you listen, as I did on my mp3 player, you'll also be treated to some rather lovely jazz riffs in the background to go along with the excellent narration.

Tonight I get to begin a new book, That Thing Around Your Neck, a series of short stories by a remarkable young author whose name I'm ashamed to say I can't pronounce, Chimamanda Adiche, whose novel Half of a Yellow Sun was one of the finest books I read last year.

Friday, October 23, 2009


What an acronym? Have you ever heard of it? People bandy this expression about as if we're all familiar with it but I'd never have become acquainted with it if it hadn't been for a co-worker who decided the library should be involved in helping future writers achieve their lofty goals. Agree?

Monday night I went to an introduction to National Novel Writing Month, Nov. 1st through the 30th. In it's 10th year, this program encourages those of us who have always thought they had a novel in them to sit down and put their money where their mouth is - so to speak - as no money changes hands. It is a daunting task!

The idea is that, for 30 days, one should write every day putting down a total of 50,000 words by the end of November. Forget about punctuation, grammar, editing, just throw down the words so that you can compete with other future authors all over the world. If you're a winner, you'll be privy to some editing help and ideas on how to get published from the NaNoWriMo folks. According to my friend Andrea, Sara Gruen's book club darling, Water for Elephants, was first written as a NaNoWriMo project. Who knew?

I have a dear friend who's been prompting me to get that novel written, but having attended the intro Monday night, I'm feeling more overwhelmed than ever. I love expository writing, this blogging bit comes so easily to me. But to make something up? Not so much. Still, I've promised to give it a go and may have an amazing personal story, that could be fictionalized, in my repertoire after next Wednesday evening.

Any novelists in training out there should go to the website and sign up. The more the merrier and we can keep eachother's spirits up as we try to have a life, work and write at the same time.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Shout out to the Brits!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Don and I met the most delightful ladies from Birmingham, England, while vacationing in Crete. One afternoon we were discussing our favorite actress, Helen Mirren, (because I reminded them of her!! yeah, not the first time that's been said to me even though my sister can't see it). We were bemoaning the fact that the U.S. tv stations have absolutely nothing that can remotely compare to Prime Suspect. Stevie and Laurie ( I hope you're reading cause I think of you often ) suggested we try a spy thriller that the BBC had named Spooks.

Wow! Our library does carry the entire 7 seasons of this outstanding show, renamed on this side of the pond as the more politically correct MI-5. Thank you ladies. We have burned through the first season which left us hanging with a diabolical ending. It was so suspenseful that I had to run down to the library on a Sunday afternoon to get in and grab season 2 off the shelf to find out if our hero's family died in an explosion.

Those of you familiar with Prime Suspect will know that, when it comes to crime, the BBC has it all sewed up. These shows are seriously violent, gritty and often tough to take. They are also clever, smart and realistic. The major difference between the two is that Prime Suspect was a vehicle for Ms. Mirren and she was undoubtedly the star. MI-5 is more like CSI in that it's an ensemble cast with no one character standing out over the other - even if we do have our favorites. MI-5 is Britain's answer to the FBI and they are constantly warring with MI-6, their version of the CIA. Sound familiar?

Turf wars, power struggles, failure to share information often prohibit each department from doing its job as well as it could. Fighting terrorism is a full time job in Great Britain even though we Americans seem to act like we're the only ones affected. I can't recommend this series enough but don't get excited. I've got all of season 2 checked out right now and, with a lovely cool spell coming this weekend, I see us curled up on the couch all day Sunday marveling at the fantastic movie making coming out of England. Thanks Stevie and Laurie! What are you reading ladies?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

For Second Wives Only

Sorry, but you really have to be one (or at least have been one) to appreciate this quick, insightful little novel by Sylvia Brownrigg, called Morality Tale. Ms. Brownrigg sets the tone with her nod to Alexander Dumas, "So heavy is the chain of wedlock that it needs two to carry it, and sometimes three." This novel is very snarky and, though David Denby says we're getting a tad too snarky nowadays, and I do agree with him, it is still a very funny form of humor.

The narrator is the second wife of a man who, though she claims is a really good person, comes off as a man who needs to be in constant control and feels that his life is totally not in his control. He is obsessed with his first wife who, as they are wont to do, uses his two young boys as ammo against him, denying visitation, arriving late or early, staging cell phone screaming matches that make you wince. As far as wife number one is concerned, number two is invisible. Thus, by default, she seems to actually fade in her husband's eyes. After all, how much energy can one give to relationships? If all the energy is focused on hating number one there isn't much emotion left for number two. Luckily, Richard, the envelope salesman who arrives at our heroine's little shop one day, does not find her invisible, in fact, he's smitten and she guiltily blooms.

Having sadly "been there, done that" this book was, for me, a revisiting of bad memories long ago put aside for the glorious life and career that I have now. I thought it might not be worth dredging up those old feelings. But a trusted friend, a second wife, had recommended it so I soldiered on and am glad I did. Brownrigg has so much insight into the human condition, empathy for her characters, (even the ones we love to hate), and keeps enough humor in the mix to make the whole thing rather tasty. I especially enjoyed the relationship between number two and the boys. I could imagine how they had been threatened within an inch of their life NOT to like this intruder but how her responsible, steady hand, so diferent from their blood relatives', put them at ease and won them over. After all, SOMEone has to get them to their field trips on time!

If you've ever read the fantastic, controversial Ayelet Waldman or perhaps Elinor Lipman then you'll understand the type of romantic comedy you're in for. As I said, not usually my forte, but a lovely diversion just the same.

I've started listening to not one, but two new books. In the car, Stephanie Kallos's Sing Them Home, which has caught me up right from the jump. More on this and the very (another one ) snarky murder mystery by John Darnton, a send up of the newspaper industry called Black and White and Dead All Over. You've got to love some of these titles! No writing this weekend as I've gotten another book from Library Journal. Ms. Hoffert must think my mind is still in Greece (when in fact I'm planning another trip already) as this new one is a retelling of the Odysseus epic. I'll keep you posted!

Where are all the comments? I know you're out there.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Subversive Little Read

Mohsin Hamid has written a devilish little book (184 pages) wihich had been recommended to me probably over a year ago, but which I just got to.  Well!  Better late than never!  The Ruluctant Fundamentalist is the name and I highly recommend listening to it as the reader, Satya Bhabha, does an outstanding job of ratcheting up the tension that the author has created. 

Bhabha truly becomes Changez, the brilliant young Pakistani immigrant whose degree from Princeton places him in the enviable position of earning an $80,000 a year income with esteemed acquisitions firm Underwood Samson.  Changez is in love with all the accoutrements of his job, the expense account, modern apartment, American champagne, and New York City.  We know this because he tells us so in a fascinating, book-length, one-sided conversation with an American stranger in a tea restaurant in Lahore.

What, you might ask, is he doing in Lahore when his "wonderful" life is back in the states? That's where the book gets tricky.  With a creeping sense of dread the reader begins to realize that something has changed within Changez.  An incendiary relationship between a nuclear India, which he perceives is being backed up by the US, and his home of Pakistan, is smoldering, affecting the family he supports with his outsize earnings. Then comes Sept. 11th and the reactions around the world don't seem to gel with Changez's own complicated feelings.

Fair warning, this is a very disturbing book, one that may only be appreciated by those who aren't afraid to see themselves as others see them.  At first I thought - book discussion material!  Then, the more I mulled it over (and it's still with me a week later) I realized that our customers may not be ready for - in fact - "can't handle the truth" as proposed by our reluctant fundamentalist.  I, on the other hand, am now anxious to read Moth Smoke, same author and reader, which was a New York Times Notable when it came out.

To get a sense of Mr. Hamid, check out this interview at Amazon:


Sunday, September 27, 2009

Traveling Bibliophiles?

One would assume that if you're reading this blog then you too are a bibliophile of the highest order. What do we do when we travel fellow book lovers? We go to bookstores. We go to libraries. Funny how we can leave the work of librarianship behind but we can never leave the librarian behind. I've never been to a city, no matter who I travel with, that we don't always want to check out the public library and a bookstore or two. What a kick I got when I reverently entered the National Library of Athens, taking in the odors of musty books and ancient walls only to see students and researches using our old familiar Dynix catalog system. How we miss it.

I mentioned our wonderful experience at Eleftheroudakis with the bookseller, Kostas, in Athens but did I tell you that we sent a note of appreciation to the bookstore and received a delightful response from Sonja and Ivan who run a fantastic website and blog (which I've linked to on the left side of the page) called The Bookstore Guide. If, in your travels, you happen to come upon a bookstore so outstanding and fun that you can't keep it to yourself, please email them or post to their blog and they would love to feature it there on their site.

Back to books. I mentioned that I was listening to The Angel's Game by Zafon but I didn't rave about it enough. This is a book, much like Shadow of the Wind, that really grows on you. Book lovers - this is a must read. The author has such reverence for the written word and has created so many wonderful characters whose lives revolve around books.
He's also given us the feisty heroine, Isabella, a 17 year old who aspires to be a novelist and who ingratiates herself with the recluse author David Martin, becoming his most devoted friend. They are witty, clever, talented and united in trying to release David from a pact he made with the devil, a publisher who may or may not be a ghost, the illusive Andrea Corelli.
This novel has all the earmarks of a true Gothic novel, which I normally wouldn't care for, but it's so intelligently done and includes some modern twists so that you find yourself just suspending disbelief and going with the flow. Just for the fun of it, why not give it a try.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

So, did he write it?

This is probably a terrible suspicion, brought on by all the media coverage of the delays involved in publishing Pat Conroy's latest novel, South of Broad. It's on the NY Times best seller list and we still have long wait lists at the library but I've had customers returning this book with much the same feelings I've had. The uneven writing - now I truly understand what reviewers mean when they use that term - lends one to suspect that someone helped Conroy write this book. Someone, I might add, without his talent since last night, at about page 400 and something, I hit upon the Pat Conroy I knew and loved from previous novels; glorious language, insight and appreciation of the small beauties we encounter each and every day.

I'll admit, because it was Conroy, I deliberately ignored the infamous "rule of 50." The first fifty pages of this book are flat out poorly written. The conversations throughout don't have an ounce of credibility to them. These characters don't talk the way regular people do. The parents and child narrator Leo, don't interact in any way remotely believable, though certainly the way one would love to see parents and kids respond to eachother. Mom, a nun who left the convent to marry Leo's dad, is a supposedly hard-ass school principal, yet she lets her son and his buddies make decisions that affect policy. Hmmmm - not in my lifetime!

Leo, the only nuanced character in the book, finds acceptance with a motley crew of stereotypical friends (the flamingly gay Trevor Poe and his blatantly promiscuous sister Sheba, the uptight southern snob Chad Rutledge and his wife Molly, the requisite black couple, police officers Ike and Betty and the orphans Niles and Starla) in his South Carolina high school after being institutionalized over a nervous breakdown after his older brother Steven commited suicide. The story line goes back and forth over twenty years of friendship and heartbreak as the friends draw together and apart depending upon what's driving their needs at the time.

Still, I'll admit, what normally keeps me in a sprawling saga of this type is whether or not I care about the characters and what happens to them. The bottom line is that somehow, yes, I do. I'll be curious to see how many book groups pick this up for discussion as I notice there's a reading group guide at www.doubleday.com/readers
Agree? Disagree? Let's talk.....

Monday, September 21, 2009

A relaxed Sally - Yes I Can!

Yes, I did it. Now I can share more photos of Greece. Oops, I forgot, I'm supposed to be talking about books but I'm still on vacation in my head. Don took this photo of me at the Temple of Poseiden in Sounian, a two hour local bus trip south of Athens along a coastal highway that looked a great deal like the Amalfi coast but not as upscale.

I should have mentioned what a great afternoon we had in a 7 storey bookshop in Athens that I had read about on a blog. Don was looking for a light read - mystery or espionage - that would give him a feel for the politics and people of Greece. Kind of what Donna Leon does so well for Venice. We chatted with Kostas for ages and what a well read, interesting young man he was. He and I had read all the same things and were just having a ball talking books all over the board. Very eclectic taste. Anyway, he came up with a book, The Late Night News by Petros Markaris, which Don just couldn't put down and now that we're back I've checked our library and sure enough, we have two other titles in our system and I've already got them on hold. If I can catch up on the ironing I might even get to it!!
We sent an email yesterday to the bookstore to compliment them and their fabulous employee and to also give Kostas my blog address.

I read in a book review magazine that one of the writers wanted folks to send him letters, not about the books they've loved, but about the ones they couldn't finish. People are having a ball with it and true confessions have been coming in from all over the country. I thought it would be fun if you readers sent me some titles you just couldn't get into and try to explain why. Premiere winner so far seems to be Love in the Time of Cholera. I'll second that!

Can we talk about South of Broad????? Do you really think Pat Conroy wrote this? I'll go into my impressions tomorrow after I look for more photos to upload. This is fun.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Can I Go Back Please?

I used to think that a two week vacation was a luxury of the highest order and, at the end of it, I was always ready to hit the ground running. Am I aging? For whatever reason, I can't seem to get it together since we've gotten back from Greece. I could have stayed much longer if my burgeoning tummy could have taken any more feta cheese!
There's a glorious freedom in going to bed without any pressure about what's happening the next morning. Eat dinner at 10 with the locals? No problem. Sleep til 10 and then read in bed. Perfetto! I even hesitated to book a day trip to Delphi just because I didn't want a wake up call at 7. (glad I didn't cave in to that)

More than the issue of rest though, is the growing unease, a sense that I don't really belong in this country anymore. The respite from the news, the deliberate avoidance of newspapers while in Athens worked for a while but Don kept teasing me with his iphone and sure enough, one evening as we sipped our wine on the balcony of our villa overlooking the bay at Heronissos he took a quick peek at the headlines. That was the day that our illustrious educators had decided that it would be detrimental to our kids to let them hear the president of the United States tell them to get ahead in school, follow their dreams and excel. Wow, subversive! I simply hung my head and cried.

We met a lovely duo, two women from Birmingham, England, with whom we felt a kinship on many levels and had some delightful talks with. They asked us, ever so politely, "what's wrong with you Americans?" We had no answers. Now Don's just come in to tell me that Nancy Pelosi broke down in an interview yesterday about the vitriol that's being spewed in the right wing media. I went online to see how she handled it and what she said was absolutely so correct. Who knows what kind of unbalanced people are out there just waiting for the right moment to do violence.

This brings me to the books that Library Journal sent for me to take on vacation. Two books and two reviews. I was feeling the pressure. As you know, I can't say too much until the reviews are published but I'll just mention that one of the books was ok, well written but peopled with characters I didn't like enough to spend vacation time with. The other - oh! Go right out and get yourself on the wait list for Barbara Kingsolver's latest - first novel in 9 years - The Lacuna. I couldn't put it down. Fair warning, her politics are as left wing as mine. She may actually be a little more hopeful though.

I finished Jeffrey Deaver's The Bodies Left Behind, one of the best cat and mouse games I've ever read - I mean, listened to. Whew! This is a stand alone, not one of his Lincoln Rime books. It begins with a bang and doesn't let up and introduces one of the pluckiest, toughest new heroines I've met in a long time. One wonders, if put in a similar situation, outrunning two gunmen in a state forest at night, how much of our Girl Scout training we'd remember and utilize. Brin McKenzie did it all. See if you can guess who the real bad guy is!

I'm also listening to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Angel's Game, a prequel to the well loved Shadow of the Wind, which I had the distinct pleasure to read while in Barcelona two years ago. Much of the action takes place on and about the Ramblas and it reminds me of our time in Athens and how similar the Plaka area of that city is. Don and I would stroll out for supper around 9pm and after a carafe of the local wine - never buy special - and a youvetzi or moussaka, we'd walk hand in hand smiling at everyone. No Greek? No problem. We made lots of friends. Can you think of any American city at all - maybe Miami? - where everyone goes out after dinner just to stroll the streets, peer in trinket shops, pick up fresh flowers or a baguette for breakfast?

It's such a different life. In Italy it's called the "passagiata" and it happens every evening. School? Doesn't seem to matter. Fathers and kids work the corners selling their wares to tourists, friends greet eachother and every conversation sounds like an argument with the gesticulating hands and loud voices. But don't you dare expect to buy anything at 3 in the afternoon. Except for the restaurants, all is closed and the siesta is still sacrosanct. No wonder Europeans have a greater life expectancy!! Not to mention health care - but that's another story.

I'll see if I can load a few pictures here in the next couple of days. You'd think I'd be better at this by now, wouldn't you?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Getting into Travel Mode

Sometimes I wonder what the heck I was thinking when I came up with the name of this online reading diary in a Blogging 101 class. It's way too long, it doesn't "pop up" in google, and I've been woefully neglectful in my reading of armchair travel books lately. Perhaps I was simply trying to describe my penchant for fiction that teaches me about other cultures and places, novels that I hope are reflected in my choices for book discussion next year. We'll get to that soon.

Meanwhile I'd like to share my thoughts on an interesting travel book that just jumped off the shelf and into my hand a few weeks ago - something to put me in packing mode - even though it involved Italy rather than Greece. The Last Supper; A Summer in Italy is not your usual fluffy Peter Mayle, Frances Mayes type comedy of errors, a treatise on how to deal with and befriend the locals. This book by Rachel Cusk is a much darker, more sophisticated look at wanderlust. I've read some reviews that criticize her for what's perceived as a cold, aloof style and for relegating her family to a background position in the book, but hey, it's not about them!

She doesn't say it but I wouldn't doubt that she suffers from seasonal affective disorder. Her desire to leave Great Britain is so overwhelming in its intensity. Having grown up in the Berkshires, I can empathize. Ms. Cusk's powers of observation are uncanny and her ability to translate what she sees into words is enviable.

I often wonder about travel writers - do they wander around with a notebook perpetually in hand? If so, how do they manage to appreciate what's right in front of them if they always have to be ten steps ahead, pondering how they'll write about it?

And the detail? I felt that I was traveling right along with Rachel's family as they drove through the French countryside, resting in the evenings at several country homes hosted by extremely quircky characters, some downright sinister.

The idea of the trip is to study art, in particular, Italian madonnas of which there's no dearth! Between those and the baby, hair-shirted John the Baptists, my friend Betsy and I saw when we were there, it's difficult not to lapse into irreverence after a while. Especially if one is a lapsed Catholic already! Ms. Cusk's impression and description of the chill enormity of St. Peter's Square is alone worth opening the book.

I've got my notebook handy, as I've had on every other big trip I've ever taken. I shall challenge myself to write a few words that might do justice to the Acropolis, the Parthenon, Delphi, or Knossos, but self-knowledge is a double edged sword. Words have failed me before as I've absorbed the vastness of history and the insignificance of my own self in the grand scheme of things. It is, after all, why we must travel.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Friend, A Connection and a Great Blog to Visit!

Ever since a former colleague, Lesa Holstine, taught Maryellen and me how to make a reading festival out of just about nothing, I have been watching her career with amazement. A heartbreak turned into a challenge and then a chance to fly. She is now glowing out in Arizona, another overachieving librarian, hosting authors from all over the country, writing, reviewing and honing her position as the "go to" person for all answers to all questions in genre fiction.

Imagine how pleased and surprised I was to receive an email from Dr. Hallie Ephron, yes, THOSE Ephrons, saying that Lesa had recommended she send me an advance reader's copy of her new book, The Bibliophile's Devotional; 365 Day of Literary Classics. I watched the mail every day waiting for that puffy manila envelope that indicates book rate and a new treat. For a book lover there's simply nothing like opening a package with a new book inside, the sensuous feel of the pages, the first look at the cover art, checking out the dedication and the introduction seem designed to raise the heartbeat just a titch. But a personal note from the author? Priceless!

The Bibliophile's Devotional is like a box of Norman Love chocolates; it should not be devoured but savored, dipped into, put aside, revisited. Book lovers are list lovers and not only is this an eclectic list of great reads but it will also make a great tool for any reader's advisory librarian or book group leader. The format is simple. For each day of the year there is an entry that begins with a quote from the featured book, next Ms. Ephron writes a concise background and plot description and then she offers up a pithy review or comment from an author or other notable source.

I hope this doesn't make the book sound too pedantic because it's anything but that, though I'll admit I was sorry to see that my birthday was given over to Beowulf! Whew, if you had to read that in college you must remember what a struggle that was. However, today, August 17th is Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, a novel that's been on my "to read when I retire list" for way too long. I confess to dog-earing quite a few pages of "must reads" and smiling with a warm sense of camaraderie at the presence of some of my all time favorites.

Best of all, dear readers, is the magical blog that I uncovered while poking around Hallie Ephron's website. You must add it to your RSS feeds. The name alone is worth the clicks. Writing Well is the Best Revenge. How much fun is that? And what a delightful group of gals, novelists, bloggers, and engaged human beings. I look forward to every new post. Do check it out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Man's Inhumanity to Man

I'm a librarian so I could do the research and see who to credit with this phrase and I should, since I think of it so often when I'm reading. It comes to me over and over while listening to The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a new novel and a book group's dream, by Jamie Ford.


Once again we have just passed the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our local news has deified the few last living members of the squads that dropped those atomic bombs. My own dad was co-pilot on a B-24 during World War II so I'm not insensitive to the fact that men were doing their jobs during the last "just" war, but I wish he'd have talked more about it before he died so I could try to understand how a person justifies the "collateral damage." I know his missions were to destroy railroads and manufacturing plants but to think of the devastation to an entire city and the residual effects of radiation illness that travels down through future generations simply boggles the mind.

This book, set in Seattle, toggles back and forth between the 1980's and the 1940's. Henry Lee's wife has just died after a long struggle with cancer and he's in a reminscent and melancholy mood when he walks by the old Panama Hotel and sees activity indicative of a refurbishment. Memories assault him as he thinks back to his childhood and his best friend Keiko who, with her family, lived in the hotel temporarily before being evacuated permanently to an internment camp.
The Chinese American Henry and Japanese American Keiko were first drawn to eachother in the kitchen of their "white" school where they both worked as scholarship students. Each was the butt of constant ridicule and harrassment by fellow students too ignorant to differentiate between nationalities but mean enough to know that Henry and Keiko looked different. Much like Muslim Americans after Sept. 11th, they were now the enemy.

The evil of prejudice and its insidious nature are at the heart of this lovely debut novel, yet there are so many bright spots in the book that what could have been a condemnation of humanity is, in fact, a tender love story and also a study of family and the damage that we can do when we neglect to be our true selves with those we love. This is most pronounced in the relationship between Henry and his son Martin which grows so much deeper after Henry, searching through the treasures in the basement of the Panama, begins to share his past with his only child.

Ford shows an impressive knowledge of the history of jazz music and clubs in Seattle in the 40's, evidenced by the delightful Sheldon, a black saxaphonist, a sidewalk muscian, who feels a kinship with the outcasts, Henry and Keiko, befriending them and playing a role in their budding romance. All in all this is a beautiful first novel with some gorgeous cover art. And, oh yes, the phrase can be credited to poet Robert Burns.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Colson Whitehead - What a Kick!

I just finished reading Sag Harbor by the funniest, wittiest writer and once again find myself asking, where has this guy been all my life? Of course, then I realize that I was probably already an adult when he was born but...be that as it may....Whitehead was a finalist for a Pulitzer for God's sake for another book that I now can't wait to look at called John Henry Days.

Anyway, Sag Harbor, is a coming of age story which, according to interviews with Whitehead, (there are so many it's hard to choose which one to link to)http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/tny/2008/12/q-a-colson-whitehead.html
is a pretty autobiographical novel and something that he put off writing because he didn't want to do what everyone else does - basically, come out with a first novel that's transparently autobiographical. Well, thank goodness, he finally let it out. He is so clever and witty and wry but also extremely astute about the nature of mankind, our fantasies and desires that make us all brothers under the skin.

I have read many books about the black upperclasses that vacation on Martha's Vineyard and wield an incredible amount of power behind the scenes; think of The Wedding by Dorothy West or any of Stephen Carter's books (up til the latest which I can't wait to begin), but this one follows the lives of the middle class, educated, hard working families who summer in the small enclaves on Long Island, where the kids could safely stay alone all week - heaven - and the parents came out on weekends to drink (heavily), sun and barbecue.

Whitehead's alter-ego, Benji, narrates the story of the summer when he was 15 years old, trying very hard to become Ben, torn between the very white bread life he led in Manhattan at his private school, and the street life in Sag Harbor where the boys are just beginning to graduate from bikes to cars and video games to girls. He's also in charge of his younger brother Reggie -oh, can I relate - and is working his first job making waffle cones at Jimmie Jon's Ice Cream.

The author's voice is so authentic and his observations are so sharp that I could barely put this book down. I came to truly care for Ben, learning about him through his interior monologue. I worried throughout the reading that some devastating racial incident was going to transpire to ruin his life or that of his friends. His description of lying around the house on the weekend, trying to stay under the radar, waiting for his dad to go "over the line," letting the gin and tonics take him to a dark , inexplicable side, was so frightning and realistic that it transported me to a time in my life that I'm glad is past.

After finishing the book I found this video link at Amazon and cracked up. The real guy is just as I thought he might be. http://www.amazon.com/Sag-Harbor-Novel-Colson-Whitehead/dp/0385527659/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249161956&sr=1-1

He'll be speaking at the Library of Congress Book Fair on the Mall in DC next month. Sure would love to be there!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

This 'n That

I've read so many books over the past 10 days that I scarcely know where to begin. On the plane going up to Massachusetts it was my latest offering from Library Journal, Philip Roth's The Humbling. You know, of course, that I can't say anything about it til the review which I sent in Weds. is printed in LJ. Suffice it to say, I read it between here and Charlotte!
Here I had thought I had made the big time when I received Richard Russo's That Old Cape Magic (which I also can't tell you about yet, or then I'd have to kill you!)

On the return flight it was Still Alice by Lisa Genova which so many of our customers had recommended. Readers sure are gluttons for punishment, aren't we? That was one of the most terrifying books I've ever delved into. If you know me, and now even if you didn't, I can tell you that I could be prone to massive hypochondria. So, did I really need to read this book about a 50 year old neurologist who begins to detect problems with her memory (she gets lost jogging home in Cambridge) and motor skills?

With access to the best that Harvard has to offer, since she and her husband John teach there, it isn't long before Alice is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The disturbing part for me was that I didn't fare much better than Alice did on the tests used to determine the extent of advancement of her disease!

This is an absolutely devastating book on so many levels and yet, as seems to happen in literature and life, Alice's children, especially her daughter Lydia with whom she had a testy relationship, dig deep, becoming better, more compassionate and loving people than they might have. Alice's background and education (similar to the author's by the way) help her cope for a while as she devises clever ways to outsmart the disease and fool co-workers and friends.
Realistic and admirable was her plan to stockpile sleeping pills and create a simple memory test for herself so she would be able to accomplish a clean suicide before the ability was taken from her hands.

Still Alice is a beautifully written, realistic look at what happens to a family when faced with unexpected, overwhelming obstacles. How a person faces death says so much about them. My dad taught me that. But, when death is slow to arrive and one loses their mental faculties along the way, the road becomes so much more complicated for the family. In one heartbreaking scene, Alice and her husband, who I think keeps trying to convince himself that if he just ignores this it will all go away, have decided to spend the summer at their beach house on the Cape, hoping the change of scene would be healing. With Alzheimer's that isn't the case and Alice, unable to remember where the bathroom is, panics and simply wets her pants in the living room. A Harvard professor of neurology, fifty years old, is humiliated and broken when least expecting it - as I said, a terrifying book.

To keep my mind off the sure knowledge that I likely have Alzheimer's too, I also took along a cd book for the one hour ride from the airport to the cottage in the woods in Otis. Michael Connelly's Scarecrow was just the ticket! Nothing like perverted sexual mutilation and murder, not to mention identity theft and computer fraud, to help you forget what you forgot!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


As I pack to fly to Massachusetts for my stepmother's memorial service the thoughts of "home" and what it means to any one of us is pressing heavy on my mind. It's fitting that I've just finished reading Marilynne Robinson's follow up to her Pulitizer Prize winning Gilead. Ms. Robinson's books are unlike anything you'll find on the usual top 10 lists. They are quiet, pensive, cerebral novels with little action but a lot going on. They are exquisite pieces of literature and will tear your heart out.

Gilead and its set-piece, Home, take place in 1950's Iowa, where neighbors are in and out of eachother's lives and homes every day. It is still a time of patriarchal households and in Gilead readers are introduced to the letters of Rev. Ames, an aging preacher who is writing to his very young son of the family's stormy history and the schism between his own father and grandfather over the abolitionist movement. This little gem will become a clue in Home.

Simultaneously, in Home, Rev. Boughton, Ames's dear friend and neighbor, widowed and ill, has to rely on one of his eight children, 38 year old Glory, to leave her teaching career and return home to Gilead to care for him in his final days. Glory is a long-suffering kind of gal and, though she truly loves her father, there is an underlying sense of loss and resentment for her "real" life which is exacerbated when her brother Jack, the archtypal prodigal son, returns to Gilead after a years' long absence.

I've never really "gotten" the parable of the prodigal son. Back when my dad and I still went to church we used to laugh over the complete injustice done to the "good" son who stayed home with his parents and ran the farm while the wastral went out into the world and lived a life of debauchery only to return to the celebratory arms of his family. Don't get me wrong, I know how unhealthy it is for one's heart and soul to hold a grudge and I've never been one to do that but...jeez....fair is fair!

As the story unfolds we discover, and readers who read Gilead first would remember, that Jack's shame was impregnating a young woman in his youth and leaving town to avoid responsibility, causing a rift between the preachers Boughton and Ames. Jack was the golden boy and the favorite of his father. Jack's moral failures, drunkeness and thievery, took the soul out of Boughton and hung over the entire family like a pall. It is painful to watch Jack tip toe around his family, unable to ask for forgiveness or accept that he's worthy of it.
I know, you're thinking, why would anyone want to read this terribly depressing story? I suppose because it makes you think about the big issues in life; forgiveness, responsibility and redemption.

To keep some lightness in my step, I'm listening to some comfort food, Maeve Binchey's Heart and Soul. You can always count on her for improbably happy endings!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thoughts on Independence Day

Today is my day off for the 4th of July. I've been writing in my head since about 4 AM - so many thoughts on so many themes from my latest readings that I scarcely know where to begin. I've never been one for the fireworks and flags thing - all I can ever see is someone blowing off an arm and inevitably, it happens every year. Jingoism makes me terribly uncomfortable. That said, I really missed not being in Chesapeake Beach with Don this year to watch the bay fireworks from the deck of his house, hand in hand. Vacation time is not endless and family commitments took up a chunk this year.

Instead, I exercised profusely and finished listening to Renegade, The Making of a President by Richard Wolffe. This Newsweek reporter spent two years on the road with the Obama campaign and, though it would have been impossible for him to disguise his admiration for the candidate, he also did an admirable job of attempting to remain neutral in his reportage of the ups and downs of the audacious run for the White House. For anyone who wants to understand how a relatively unknown senator raised the kind of money, made the quality of friends, and inspired the kind of trust that landed him the most powerful job in the country, this is the book. At the risk of sounding pie in the sky or drunk on the cool-aid as the distractors say, it does seem as though he was destined to this from a young age. As I watched the president and his family arriving in Moscow yesterday, I wondered if he felt that he had come full circle from that 20 year old Columbia student who wrote a magazine article on the need for nuclear disarmament at the height of the "cold war." See Sunday's New York Times.

To complete my patriotic weekend I watched the entire HBO movie series, John Adams, based upon David McCullough's biography of our second president. When one has been out of school for, dare I say it? 40 years! - one does forget or perhaps was never properly taught the little tidbits that make our history so fascinating. When I was in school we were taught to memorize significant dates but the stories that proved the humanity of our founding fathers were left to my mother to try to provide. Of course, we ignored her.

I recall vividly a family trip to Ft. Ticonderoga in New York state and my mother near tears at the very thought of the historical battle that once happened there. She was trying to describe for us kids what it must have been like. Brat that I was, I was mortified by her passion for her subject.

And so, John Adams, member of the first Continental Congress, believer in a revolution and a man, George Washington, to lead it, left his family alone for years at a time to forge a new government for a young country. Did the end justify the means? Well, of course, but the little details of his family's suffering remind us that this wasn't the age of Twitter. Months could elapse before Abigail, raising four kids, running their farm Peacefield, would hear from her husband and hard decisions had to made in his absence. While he was in France trying to raise money and naval support for the war against Britain, he was ridiculed as a low class country bumpkin disgusted by the debauchery of the Parisians and of his host, Bejamin Franklin, in particular.

What shouldn't be surprising to students of government is that, even then, the intrigue, back stabbing, and back room deals were as prevalent as they are now. Each representative of a colony had his own ax to grind and some, New York, Delaware, the Carolinas, were brought along into the "united states" kicking and screaming. The discussion of the creation of a national bank and the enmity between Alexander Hamilton and Adams were eye-opening to see, as was the friendship between Thomas Jefferson and Adams. It was Adams who initially recognized Jefferson as a man who said little but seemed to hold deep, complicated beliefs and it was Adams who invited Jefferson to pen the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, proof that the pen was mightier than the sword.

As Adams aged, the burdens of the presidency seemed to change him into a morose, hardened man, even as he fought to keep our fledgling country out of a war with France. He was dogged by bad publicity and private sorrows like the death of his son Charles from extreme alcoholism. The move from Philadelphia to the new capitol in Washington, DC, seemed to further alienate the Adamses from their advisors and friends until there were few they felt they could trust. Doesn't this seem to still be the case, over 200 years later?

I can't recommend this video series enough! I'll turn it in tomorrow so it's available for someone else. Now I've got to move from the keyboard and finish reading the next book I want to write about, Marilynne Robinson's Home.

Friday, June 26, 2009

RA 101, Redux

I need blog help 101; perhaps a whole week to teach myself all the tricks of the trade. No wonder I'm having so much trouble writing this review for LJ! Look how wordy I am. I write a draft, count the words - did I tell you? 175 to 200? Impossible! Then I go through and begin removing all my favorite adjectives until the review is pared down to nothing and then I wonder, would I want to read this book if this was all I knew about it? Folks, it's harder than it looks.

So, onward and upward as our friend Bob Macomber says. Another book I just finished and really enjoyed was one I saw in the weeding pile with such a sweet cover I felt compelled to rescue it. The House on First Street, My New Orleans Story, is one of those non-fiction quasi-autobiographies with food, drink and remodeling thrown in. I just eat these up. I wasn't familiar with the author, Julia Reed, but won't forget her now. She has quite a pedigree as a journalist with many awards to her name, but after reading her story, I'd say it's a miracle she's still alive to write it! How do these journalists abuse their bodies so devastatingly and still look so damn good?


Do you ever wonder if it's really worth it to deny yourself an excess of experience for the long life trade off? I ask myself that every time I walk by Kilwins!! (and they usually win) At any rate, this book is a quick read and a great look at what miracles can be done when money is no object! Julia was certainly already doing very well by herself when she met and married a well known attorney and they bought an old historic house that was in major disrepair. Her stories echo those of Peter Mayle and Frances Mayes before her, yet her troubles seemed to be of her own making. There's a term "more money than brains" and, at the risk of sounding a little unkind, if the shoe fits......She trusted everyone! Tried to employ every down and out barfly she'd ever met in the city and oh, they took her for a ride. After fits and starts the house on First Street begins to resemble the grand dame it once was and, you guessed it, Katrina!

Ms. Reed's story takes a much more serious turn as she tells of the evacuation, the days after the levies broke when communication was impossible, the losses of those who were left behind or stayed behind to protect their property. She focuses on the folks she knew best, the business owners, chefs and restaurateurs who fed the hungry with salvaged goods. She has no use for the Governor of Louisiana and gets a bit politically righteous when speaking of FEMA and its disastrous non-response to the situation in the Crescent City. All in all this was a great build up to my first book discussion book next season, City of Refuge.

Betsy and I are off to a Colin Firth movie in a few minutes so I'll have to get to book number 4 tomorrow. A dreary day, the paper full of sad and difficult news, so a good day to head to Coconut Point and lose ourselves for a couple of hours.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RA 101 - 4 Disparate Titles

OK, so it wasn't the US Open that kept me from blogging this weekend - though I did catch plenty of golf. It was the fantastic treat from Barbara Hoffert that arrived at the library for me Friday afternoon - Richard Russo's new book That Old Cape Magic. As you can imagine, Russo being one of my all-time faves, I was flying around the library to think that she trusted me to review this one. I read it in two days but had a heck of a time with the review - 1st draft sitting in the computer. It is SO much harder to review a book you love. Watch LJ for the results.

I've been all over the genre board lately with what I've been listening to and reading. For those of you who read this blog for readers' advisory I'll give you a down and dirty blow by blow of the latest titles. First up, I just finished The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz. Since this was the book I read during our rather paltry lunch break, I confess it look me a long time to get through it. Not the fault of the book, I don't think, more that it's hard to concentrate in the community lunch room and almost just as difficult when I dine al fresco by the dumpster!

The cover art intrigued me right away, not to mention that it was a starred review in Booklist. Literary fiction as well as historical fiction for those of you who are looking for categories, this book is about what happens when the crown prince of Japan falls for a "commoner," (one who had the audacity to beat him in a tennis match), marries her against the wishes of the royal family, and brings her into the severe confinement and stricture of the Chrysanthemum court.

The novel is based on a true story and Schwartz received much praise for his in-depth research since the Imperial Court of Japan is still shrouded in much secrecy. Book groups would find lots to discuss here; the loss of identity for a woman even in modern Japan once she becomes the potential bearer of the next crown prince, the pressure put upon her to renounce family and the outside world as well as her education and opinions. Talk could focus on choices we make in life, whether informed or not, and how we choose to live with them. And then there's love, is it enough? A very sad book indeed.

Espionage has always thrilled me. I think I'm a conspiracy theorist at heart. I've read most of John le Carre's work and was going to by-pass the latest until Nancy Pearl's glowing review forced me to listen to A Most Wanted Man. This is an extremely timely look at the "war on terror" and how governments interfere in the lives of innocent people, trying to make connections where none exist in an attempt to beat each other out in a great big contrived numbers game. The plot seemed just a tad unbelievable but I kept allowing myself to go with it cause, after all, what do I know about the terror war?

Still, why would a mother and son in Hamburg, Germany, take in a stranger off the street who appears to be deranged or dangerous, only to find that he's a Chechen Muslim who escaped torture and imprisonment to come to Germany to claim an inheritence from his Russian father who sired him out of wedlock? At the risk of being deported, this mother and son hook Issa, the stranger, up with a lawyer who represents immigrants in danger of being deported. The atty. Anabelle, hooks Issa up with a British banker, Tommy Brue, who holds the key to the money that will give Issa the freedom to study medicine and help the downtrodden Muslims of Chechnya. In my naivete, I wanted to believe that Tommy and Anabelle were truly good people caught up in something beyond their abilities. By the end of the book, as they were manipulated by German, British and U.S. forces, I wasn't so sure.

To be continued....I have to mow the lawn and the post is getting too long! Thanks for reading...

Friday, June 19, 2009

I have been reading, honest!

What happened? More than 2 weeks without writing. Here's the problem. I've been reading everyone else's blogs. In trying to figure out how to get my blog out there to more readers I've been looking at others and evaluating what they do that I don't. For one thing, most book blogs are much more colorful. They fill the page with cover art, pictures and links but, dare I say it? They aren't always that interesting. Sometimes they all seem to be saying the same thing about the same books and then I throw in the towel. It's just my style but I like a little personality thrown in with the books reviews. How what's going on in my life affects my choices and vice-versa is important to me.

I guess that's why I was so surprised to find that there's a minor controversy going on at Library Journal right how about the new format for reviews. I have not been given a written instruction as to the new format but read about it online after having noticed it in the June 1st issue. The basic plot of the book is set out for the reader and then there's a section marked "Verdict" where the reviewer gets to be a bit more out there in terms of raves or pans. It looked a bit funky at first but the further I read, the more I liked it. The reviewers sounded more human, as if they were actually talking to real people - much more blog like. I think it will fit my writing style so I made a comment on the forum encouraging people to give it a try.

I just wrote an article on summer reads for the Bonita Banner. I doubt anyone reads it but, for the few who do, I'm happy that the library is still in print. Worries abound here abound with all the budget whoo-ha.

One of the books that I can't stop raving about is The Help. I'm just blown away to think that this is a debut novel. The plot is so unlike the "same-old, same old" that seems to get published these days. Author Kathryn Stockett set her book in Jackson, Mississippi, in the early ‘60’s, where the civil rights movement had yet to gain steam. Budding journalist Skeeter Phelan, hoping to catch the imagination of an editor in New York, clandestinely meets with the black servants of the city’s most prominent families. Skeeter’s consciousness is raised as she records the sometimes funny, often heartbreaking stories of these invisible women who cook the meals, clean the clothes, and love the children of the privileged. Stockett ratchets up the tension by deftly weaving in the historical facts of Medgar Evers’ slaying and Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington as Dylan sings of changing times.

Listening to the downloadable version was especially rewarding as the various readers really brought the characters of Abeline and Minny to life. One gets a sense of the courage that it took for these two women to tell their stories of slave labor and abuse to a white woman, not to mention the fear they felt for their jobs and lives when and if the published volume hit the streets. I can't recommend this book enough. Great fodder for discussion.

At the risk of being too wordy I'll just say that I have three other books that I've just finished or am almost done with and I want to tell you about all of them. Plus I just began listening to Renegade, Richard Wolffe's behind the scenes look at "the making of the president," not to be confused with but getting lots of comparisons to the penultimate political book by Theodore White about JFK. More tomorrow if the U.S. Open gets rained out.