Friday, February 20, 2009

Do We All Think We Discovered Dennis Lehane?

I can't believe that it's been ten years since Dennis Lehane agreed to speak at the first annual Lee County Reading Festival. Lesa, Maryellen and I were so thrilled. My sister flew in from Massachusetts just so she could ask a snarky question about Whitey Bulger. (you have to be from Southie to get that) I saved the letter from him for years and may still have it in a folder somewhere in my desk.

When I began reading the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series that starts with A Drink Before the War, I was a total mystery/cop/thriller reader. I still love those books but have broadened my world considerably. I can't tell you how impressed I was with Lehane's writing style, his depth of characterization, his politics that I thought shined through loud and clear. ( is it shines or shone?) It boggled my mind that someone so young, it seemed like he was barely out of college, could have developed such a deep appreciation of nuance, the complications of relationships, and the pain of injustice. Yes, they were mysteries but they were so much more. Think of Richard Price or another one of my favorites George Pelecanos. I recommended - still do - Lehane to every customer who walked in the door and many have come back to thank me.

All that is to say that I just finished The Given Day, Dennis's first historical novel which is garnering praise all across the board and is showing up on "must read" lists all over the professional journals. It definitely lived up to the hype and I can't wait to meet him again at our tenth annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival next month. This book is both nothing like his others and just like his others. It screams to be a movie. Look what Eastwood did with Mystic River.
This novel is first and foremost a sprawling historical centered around the Boston police strike, the result of a first attempt at unionizing a so-called service organization in America. It pits a family against each other in that Danny, a union activist, a free thinker, and perhaps I would call him the new 20th century man, is surrounded by old world thinking in the person of his dad, a tow the mark Irish Catholic police captain and a brother who's a district attorney.
Then there's the romance/class struggle angle in that Danny is in love with Nora, a young Irishwoman of unknown origin who was found by Capt. Coughlin, starving and beaten, and taken in by the family in a conflicting role as part maid, part family. To complicate matters she eventually becomes engaged to Danny's brother.

A parallel story involves a small time criminal, Luther Laurence, who gets in over his head with a dangerous crowd and flees a murder in Oklahoma for Boston where a young black man can find work and hide from a dubious past. He leaves behind a pregnant wife whose love could be his road to salvation if he can only bring himself to see it. Luther's and Danny's lives intersect in such a way that each is able to learn from the other and become better men because of their relationship.

There's so much going on in this book that it can seem overwhelming. Post Civil War racial inequality, the formation of the NAACP, the infuenza epidemic that knew no class or color lines, the post WW I distrust of the labor movement, the graft and corruption of the state and local governments are all there as seen through Danny's and Luther's eyes. I've read some criticism that the characters' motivations and depth weren't explored enough and that perhaps Mr. Lehane tried to put too much into The Given Day and I might even agree. The thing is, I don't care. How long has it been since you had a big, lusty 700 page book that you didn't want to put down? Yeah, I thought so.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Missing Guernsey

It's been a very long time since I've finished a book and felt like I'd just lost my best friends. For months I put off reading the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society just on the basis of the title alone. What a snob I am. This imaginative tale by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (how on earth do people collaborate on a work of fiction?) takes readers to the island of Guernsey off Great Britain shortly after the German occupation circa 1946. It is there that a group of friends walking through town after curfew are accosted by German soldiers and forced to quickly make up an excuse for their offense. Fast thinking Elizabeth, the strong center of this outstanding novel, invents the book club on the spot and thus a literary society is born.

Across the channel, writer Juliet Ashton, tiring of her weekly newspaper column, is searching for an idea for a novel when she receives a letter from Guernsey resident Dawsey Adams. Their ensuing correspondence opens up a whole new world to Juliet as Dawsey encourages other island residents to write to Juliet about their experiences under the Germans. Juliet, in turn, convinces her editor Sydney that there's a book to be found in the simple lives of the resilient and resourceful Guernsey folk. Eventually Juliet travels from London to Guernsey, settling in to the missing Elizabeth's cottage, becoming a surrogate mother to Elizabeth's daughter Kit and an indispensable member of the community.

A novel in letters particularly lends itself to audio presentation and I can't recommend enough the downloadable version of this book. Each character is represented by a different actor and each takes on a life of his own. In lesser hands these people could become simplified exaggerations of personality types, the nosy neighbor who finds fault with everyone, the goody two-shoes, the reserved farmer, the gay intellectual, even the pretentious, wealthy American Mark, who assumes he can lure Juliet away from her work with the promise of a soft life of dances and dinners. However, in this production, the people became so real, so honest that I was ready to go online and book myself a trip to the Channel Islands! Truly a wonderful reading experience.

What's great for the environment - commuting only 6 miles to work - is a real setback to a person who relies on cd books to complete her non-stop reading marathons. I have been living with Barbara Walters now for months and, while it's been a terrific, eye-opening experience, I'm ready to move on. Audition is a long, long (but never boring) book, as it must be since it covers pretty much the entire history of the twentieth century. Don and I have often had the discussion about how prevelent discrimination against women has been and remains. When I tell him that I've rarely felt it directed at me personally, he's amazed. However, that's not to say that I don't know our history very well and don't appreciate those who have broken barriers and paved the way. In fact I worry a great deal about the young women today who seem to take these strides for granted.

Listening to Barbara, who I assure you never feels sorry for herself or dwells on past injustices, tell of the despicable on air treatment she received from Harry Reasoner or the years that she worked without an agent for a salary less than half what male equivalents were making brings it all home to me. Her extraordinary career, the guts and courage it takes to make it in a man's field, the amazing interviews she's landed with every major political player of the past 60 years, is a story worth listening to, so I'll hang in there through the 19 disks even though I've got three other cd books waiting patiently for me in the back seat. To sum up her book in one sentence; "living well is the best revenge!"

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Delightful Alice Hoffman

Maryellen and I had the distinct pleasure of hearing Alice Hoffman speak last night at the Sanibel Public Library. She has always been one of my favorite writers - what's not to love about a novelist who examines love and loss in its many hues? I still value the little post card she sent to me some 8 years ago in response to my extended invitation to her on behalf of the Lee County Reading Festival. Even though it was a regret, I flew around the library for days with that card in my hot little hand. There's something about a personal note from a writer, especially when it's one that you feel you already know intimately through his or her work. Elizabeth Berg and Isabelle Allende come to mind. (yes, I've saved notes from each of them!)

Alice, I feel I can call her that, gives off wonderful, warm vibes. Her smile is wry and she still carries a hint of the Long Island accent that indicates she's no pushover. She seems like the kind of woman you'd like to sit around and share a bottle of wine with, while discussing esoteric subject matter and solving the world's problems. In fact, as she was signing our books last night I noticed the glass of wine at her side and approved!

Why, you might wonder, would a librarian buy a book she can find in the stacks? Well, Alice Hoffman plugs for libraries all the time. She's not just pandering as some writers do. Listeners can tell in a heartbeat. Like Nancy Pearl, Ms. Hoffman tells of a lonely childhood, an absent father and the solace she found in books. So many of us can relate, even if we weren't melancholy kids. I have to support a writer like that. Anyway, I'm tired of all those overdue notices! I'll be blogging about The Third Angel when I finish Dennis Lehane's incomparable The Given Day.

Check out Alice's great website and blog at