Monday, January 19, 2009

Marie Arana and Lima Nights

Another good book alert! I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Marie Arana speak at a Book Expo in Washington a few years ago and snapped up an autographed copy of her first fiction Cellophane. It's still sitting, unread, behind my desk at work. What happens is, when I know I own the book and am not pressured to finish it, I just let it languish for "when I retire." That's a laugh! So when her second novel came out to great reviews I figured I should get on it and I'm so pleased that I did. If I had to offer you a "read alike" I'd say it would Isabel Allende.

Lima Nights is a beautiful, haunting read and a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. I actually thought I could see a bit of Othello there. It's a tale of extreme cultural divides and the difficulties of breaking through. It's a love story in which, if the two characters could just be left alone they might actually make it, but the outside world loves to intervene to squelch a cross cultural relationship. Arana, who lives part of the year in her native Lima, Peru, brings the city to life in her descriptions of the horrific slum from which the lovely Maria Fernandez comes each evening to entice wealthy men at the tango bar where she dances, supporting her family and dreaming of a better life.

Carlos Bluhm, an ordinary man, husband, father, son, lives a traditional life in every way until the night he catches Maria's eye, shares a dance and is transformed into an erotically crazed, chance-taking man unwilling to be confined by society's mores or the disapproval of his friends. As Carlos plots the seduction of the young Maria, some 25 years his junior, she in turn, recognizes a chance of a lifetime, and makes a conscious decision to give this man all the love and care he craves in exchange for a home and security.

As the old song says, sometimes an affair is just too hot not to cool off. After 20 years together familiarity has bred some contempt. A jealous friend of Maria's, thrown over by her own long-time lover, plants seeds of doubt, Iago style, encouraging Maria to push for a permanent commitment just as Bluhm's friends begin questioning his loyalty to Maria, creating a perfect storm of misunderstanding. Really, yesterday I could barely put this book down, even for the pre-inaugural events!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell's Theories

When it comes to non-fiction I'm afraid that I'm often a very suspicious reader, questioning authors' pronouncements, refusing to take them at face value. I guess that's the reference librarian in me. Reading non-fiction is a lot of work! But there's something about Gladwell. He's a most interesting thinker and the kind of person you'd really like to meet and talk with at length. I first became familiar with him through his book The Tipping Point, which was of interest to me as a former real estate broker living in an area where property values became so falsely inflated that they had nowhere to go but down. I wondered when investors would realize that they were spending half a million bucks for a condo worth $200,000 max. Lucky sellers.

I then listened to Blink; The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and was fascinated with Gladwell's theory that gut feeling, coupled with knowledge of a specific subject, will lead a person to make what might appear to be a snap judgement but which, in fact, is a spot on determination. It's not often that non-fiction is so entertaining. I believe that the success of Blink has to do with the wonderful examples Gladwell chooses to elucidate his theory; the discovery of an enormous art fraud at the Getty museum or taste tests of Pepsi and Coke. While one can always take exception with some of the premises of this book, the psychology of body language and use of nuance to avoid conflict were immediately recognizable to me and have certainly played out in my life.

When I got my copy of Outliers; the Story of Success, I had piles of new fiction all over the house and worried that I couldn't get to it. I asked Don to begin the Gladwell and help me get a feel for it. He started with chapter 7 because it spoke to the ex-air traffic controller in him and by the time he'd explained it to me I had to put down my fiction and pick up Outliers. Gladwell does back up his theories with charts and studies that indicate that the Horatio Alger story, while a lovely fairytale, is likely just that. Successful people are also lucky people and sometimes their success is simply a matter of being at the right place at the right time and being willing to work damn hard. He profiles the life of Bill Gates to prove his point. Family planners take note, month of birth appears to be a big influence in a child's advancement in sports and education.

He may be accused of generalizing, but Gladwell does illustrate how country of origin/cultural upbringing can have long term social repercussions. Listening to cockpit transcripts between pilots, co-pilots and air traffic controlers during incidents of high stress (including some fatal crashes) Gladwell shows how a tendancy to nuance, over developed respect for authority and reticence to "rock the boat" contribute to disastrous breakdowns in communication. Korean Airlines once suffered from the highest percentage of crashes until it recognized the problem and made a concerted effort to train its people and turnaround its safety record. New York City air traffic controllers have the reputation for being the rudest most obnoxious in the business, but guess what? They also have the highest safety record. At least in aircraft safety it appears that it's a fine thing to say what you mean!

Back to fiction now. We have a long holiday weekend and when I'm not glued to the inaugural festivities I'll be reading Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, probably finishing just in time to chat with him at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival:

Monday, January 12, 2009

New Year, New Book List

Last year, on a bet from Don, I began keeping a list of books I'd read. He was so sure that I must read at least 100 books a year and I couldn't believe that was possible. Still, I hit 84 titles from the end of March through December. Not bad! Today, I'll begin my 2009 list with two non-fiction titles, the first of which will bring me briefly back to Friday's rant.

Yes, it's called "read around the world" but there are so many thoughts that one's reading arouses. I suspect that what got me so wound up about god was probably the video clip I saw in which Joe the Plumber (who wasn't one) is now Joe the War Correspondent (who isn't one.) When asked if he was afraid to be traveling in the Middle East he blithely responded that, as he's a Christian, God would protect him. Hmmmmm-let's see. Would that be the same god who's protecting the Israelis and, at the same time, the Palestinians?

I've just finished an extremely interesting autobiography by New York Times and WSJ correspondent Helene Cooper. The House at Sugar Beach; in Search of a Lost African Childhood reminded me once again of how much we aren't taught in school. It makes me despair of the general public ever becoming aware enough of our country's history to make informed decisions about anything! How many of you knew that, long before the Civil War, there was a strong "back to Africa" movement (besides my sister who seems to know these things too)? Armed with their bibles and the desire to convert, African freemen left the United States in the 1820's looking for a home in Africa. The problem with bands of people looking to resettle is that they usually do it by taking someone else's land. Such was the case here. Finally settling in Monrovia, Liberia, after forcing land sales at gunpoint, the American Colonization Society paid the equivilant of $300 to become "Congo royalty" and Ms. Cooper's family line began.

As a child she lived a charmed life in a mansion on the beach with her parents and sisters. When she had nightmares and didn't want to sleep alone, her mother went into town and chose a native child to take into their home as a companion for Helene. She and Eunice were as close as blood sisters until the uprising in 1980 when the locals staged a coup, assassinating the President and forcing the Congo royalty, as the 150 year interlopers were called, to avoid assassination or imprisonment by fleeing Liberia. Eunice stayed and Helene came to the United States.

To her credit, Ms. Cooper admits that she moved her life in Africa into a compartment for safe keeping (my words, not hers, but that's the gist of it). Trying to adjust to life here, school, Americanization, and new friends, she seemed to forget for a while that she had ever lived her formative years in Africa. Eunice was relegated to another time and place. Living first with her mother, later with her dad, Helene was still enjoying what would appear to outsiders to be a charmed life, able to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and free lance for a variety of journals and newspapers. It wasn't until many years of maturity later, traveling all over the world, reporting on international affairs, with a dangerous stint in Iraq, that she began to reflect upon her life and realize that she had unfinished business in Liberia. Her inner thoughts about her return are well worth the wait.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thoughts as we Face the New Year

I'd love to begin by wishing everyone a truly wonderful new year. It seems like an exercise in futility to believe that life will begin to look up for all of the unemployed friends, family and even customers we see in the library on a daily basis. That's not to mention the innocent victims of so many wars in the Middle East and those who are fighting debilitating illness here at home. Everywhere we turn life appears to be a devastating trial for so many people. It's no wonder to me that there are so many new books being published by writers and thinkers who, after years of searching and questioning, have come to the conclusion that there probably is no god. I'm currently on the wait list for Nothing to be Frightened Of, a memoir by Julian Barnes and hoping we'll purchase The Religious Case Against Belief after listening to philospher James Carse discuss his forthcoming book on the Diane Rehm show.

I must say, there's a glorious sense of freedom and well being when you're able to finally accept that you're not a stained soul from birth and that, no matter how difficult a child you were, you're not going to go to Hell! What a wonder when you discover that yes, bad things do happen to good people and vice versa, but guess what? You're not being tested to see how you fare against others in some nasty cosmic game, you're simply a victim of chance. Remember when Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan shocked the world with her rather selfish cry of "why me?" when she was attacked by Tonya Harding? Well Nancy, why not you? The true test of a person's character is how they respond when the bad things happen and, of course, they come to all of us at one time or another.

I've been introduced to a woman named Julia Sweeney whose very humorous but sincere search for life's meaning, from Catholicism, her parents' religion to Buddhism and beyond has been documented in a DVD called "Letting Go of God." Take a peek, even if you're not searching: