Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Stopover in Venice

Ahhh - don't I wish. I'm still in Italy in my mind for some reason, not the least of which must be that there's been so much fun stuff written lately that takes place there. I suppose because it's bound to get published just on the basis of readers' ongoing love affair with Italy.

Kathryn Walker is an author I had not heard of and I'm guessing that this is her first novel but not her first brush with fame. She has an impressive background in theatre and the arts (artist in residence at Harvard) which might explain why this light read got a bit bogged down in art history about half to three quarters of the way through. Not enough to put me off but I confess I was reduced to skimming. It was the characters more than the art that I was interested in.

The premise is a bit contrived but if you go with it you won't be disappointed. Basically Nel is married to an egotistical playboy that she apparently latched onto on the rebound after the death of her real love. On tour in Europe with Antony's group, Nel simply gets fed up with the hangers on and asks the bus to drop her off. Just like that she sets herself up at the Gritti Palace in Venice, conveniently with hubby's credit card, and decides to spend more than one night in each city, to relax and try to find out what she wants to do with her life. It's a story that's been told a trillion times yet the quality of the writing sets this story apart.

Through the intervention of a dog - read on - Nel meets Lucy, an older woman who lives alone - but not lonely - in her palazzo where a young art restorer, Matteo, is working on uncovering a glorious fresco of unknown origin that's been plastered over for hundreds of years. Nel and Lucy have an affinity for eachother that results in Lucy's inviting Nel to move into the palazzo to help Matteo research the history of the home, which was at one time a convent, and possibly find the long lost artist responsible for the beautiful art work. OK, I needed a break from all that heavy reading I do and this filled the bill.

Painting the kitchen today gave me the opportunity to finish a more serious book, written by Janice Lee and exquisitely read by Orlagh Cassidy. The Piano Teacher, amazingly sophisticated for a debut novel (what is it with these Harvard gals?), is historical fiction at its finest. The setting is Hong Kong immediately prior to and throughout World War II, an exotic, mysterious city where the perfect surface manners used by both the Brits and the Chinese belie the subtle, underlying distrust between the users and the used.

This is a love story too, complicated by the times, the prejudices and the snobbery of the Brits in Hong Kong as one of their own eligible bachelors falls for a Eurasian woman of dubious reputation. When the Japanese invade, everyone scrambles to be on the side of the winners and those without connections are sent to a prisoner of war camp at Stanley Prison. Will, our bachelor, must go, but Trudy, his lover, chooses to stay on the outside working for a Japanese official who can obtain food and medicine for her to smuggle into the camp.

Ten years later a naive young Brit, Claire Pendleton, comes to Hong Kong with her husband Martin. To fill her time while Martin is working she begins giving piano lessons to Locket Chen, the daughter of a well established Hong Kong family. At the Chen's home she meets their driver, Will Truesdale. and through their burgeoning relationship Ms. Lee provides readers with a close up view of the "collateral damage" of war, the cruelty of the oppressor, and the choices human beings will make to survive. A truly beautiful book and a good discussion group suggestion.

Well, the kitchen is done, the rain has blown over. Hmmmm should I go for a bike ride or open a bottle of wine and relax in front of the tv?

Monday, May 25, 2009

Sarah's Key

It's time for the librarians at South County to complete ruminations about what we'd like to discuss next season so that we can write our annotations and prepare our brochure for mailing. We often take recommendations from the women in our reading group, some good, some, not so much. One book they were pushing this year is Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key, so I picked up a donated copy and took it home to read.

This is one of those books, released only in paperback, that's been getting word of mouth buzz, much like The Lacemaker or hmmm what was that one about the nurse who took the doctor's disabled baby and raised it as her own? Yikes, guess it didn't make much of an impression. At any rate, I almost caved to the rule of 50 but something kept me going and I'm glad I did. Ms. de Rosnay's writing style took a bit of getting used to. I attributed the short, choppy sentences and quirky use of grammar to a poor translator but discovered that the author did in fact write the book in English, her primary language, along with French and Russian.

Alternate story lines denoted by different typeface lay out the history of a special home in Paris from which a Jewish family was rousted in 1942 and into which an American journalist is moving with her family in modern times. The plot revolves around an apparently little-known incident which actually happened after the German occupation of Paris. With the aid of French gendarmes, Jewish families were rounded up like cattle and locked in the Velodrome d'Hiver in the center of the city. According to a Wikipedia entry (apologies to Laura), some 13,000 people were interned there over an 8 day period with no toilet facilities and little food or water while they waited to be sent to a concentration camp outside the city and then on to Auschwitz. Sarah and her parents were among them.

So many times when I read novels, or non-fiction for that matter, of these types of atrocities, whether it be slavery, pogroms or acts of genocide, the only things that prevent me from losing hope for my fellow man are the acts of bravery, generosity and self-sacrifice that are made when one least expects them. Sarah, driven by a dreadful secret involving the key she's managed to secret among her belongings, escapes with the help of a guilt ridden policeman and is taken in by an elderly couple willing to die before turning their backs on a hungry child.

From that one action a succession of actions over the next decades will eventually tie Sarah's family to the journalist, Julia's family in ways the reader may suspect but not guess. I can't say any more - don't want to blow it for you. Suffice to say that this turned out to be a great read with lots of meat for discussion. Too bad my boss claimed it for herself!

On a lighter note, books I won't blog about because, heck, everyone knows P.D.James and how fantastic her Adam Dalgleish series is but, let's face it, as complicated and convoluted as these books are, and Lord knows how she does it at her age, they keep on coming. They are, in the end, great British mysteries but often interchangeable. I love them, don't get me wrong, and I'm almost finished listening to The Private Patient, but it's just a jaunty way of getting me through my driving day and not the delight of finding a new writer who opens your eyes to a new way of thinking or forces you to rethink a situation you already thought you understood.

That novel might be The Piano Teacher which I'm now listening to on the mp3. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Local Theatre Troupe Returns to Old Haunt

Over two years ago, in what I'm sure was a politically motivated action, The Alliance for the Arts in Ft. Myers failed to renew the lease that locally renowned Theatre Conspiracy had held for about as long as I've lived here. It was a crushing blow to Bill Taylor and his crew who had held the new play contests and showcased local talent in this venue for years. Desperate not to have to disband, the troupe found a funky new home in Ft. Myers in a warehouse behind the yummy Sasse's Restaurant.
My buds and I followed Theatre Conspiracy to the new location - great excuse to eat out - but the new location, which would have been a smash hit in any major city in the country, didn't really work for the locals who don't like to drive any further than around the corner. There were other issues, not the least of which was the rousing hallelujah chorus from the evangelical church next door - rather disconcerting to the actors trying to run their lines, I would guess.

Anyway, a new director at the Alliance has apparently seen the light and Theatre Conspiracy made their debut return with Mom's the Word, an ensemble production starring all of my favorite local actors, especially our very talented co-worker, Annie Wagner, winner of not one, but two, new playwriting awards. The library was well represented Friday night and the players did not disappoint - though one stuffy old geezer who didn't seem to appreciate Lauren Drexler's apt recreation of birth pangs, left at intermission.

I loved this play for its honesty. Who knew motherhood would be such a controversial political football? But... there it is. It's a new age from the '60's when I grew up. I never thought I'd see a pro-choice president boycotted for giving a graduation speech at a Catholic college that, while professing respect for life, offered an honorary degree just four years ago to a different president who rejoices in the death penalty.
In one particular scene Drexler is reading a seemingly innocent story to the group, a story that takes a suddenly serious turn when the audience realizes that we are hearing about a woman who is alone and pregnant, doing all she humanly can, including jumping off the barn roof, to lose this baby. When she doesn't, and gives birth, of course she loves her child. No, women don't take a decision to terminate a pregnancy lightly.

Annie has a recurring, heartbreaking scene in which she and her husband haunt the neo-natal care unit for months waiting for her preemie to be healthy enough to go home and Joann Haley, another very talented local, plays the career mom who fights resentment and fears of mush brain, even as she devotes her life to her kids.
The brave authors of this play address another truism that many of us hesitate to admit. A man may break your heart but if you're going to be sucker punched, you can bet it'll be another woman who delivers the blow. Why don't we support eachother? Isn't that what we fought so hard for? Choices? Why do we make judgements about another woman's way of doing what she thinks is right for her family and herself without undermining her confidence every step of the way?

These and other aspects of the play reminded me of the broohaha that author Ayelet Waldman (Love and Other Impossible Pursuits ) stirred up when, a couple of years ago, she wrote an essay for the NY Times confessing that she loved her husband ( Michael Chabon) more than she loved her kids. Hate mail arrived from all over the globe and I don't doubt that her experience with that shocking response led to her new book that came out this month called Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace,
which, now that I think about it, would have been a fabulous title for this play!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Armchair Travel

I'm not sure what's more fun - planning a trip or actually being on it. Ever since Peter Mayle left London for the south of France (A Year in Provence), I have been enamoured of traveling through books. I read everything that I can get my hands on before I go, but even more satisfying, is reading about places you've been - recognizing streets, monuments, little restaurants - it doesn't get better.

Since I usually travel on a budget you can imagine my surprise when I opened Sunday's New York Times to find an entire article devoted to the Roman ruins in the south of France. One hotel in particular was named as a place of interest in Arles and it's one that Don and I stayed in on our bike trip. It brought back such vivid pictures for me. Arles was the one town where we were actually going to get a day of rest. How well I remember biking into the town along the river - the end of a 50 km ride - Don wanting to get photos and me whining that, if I got off the bike for a picture, I'd never get back on. Oh, how unprepared we were! Pushing the bikes through the narrow streets, up a small hill to the Hotel d'Arlatan, what an oasis it seemed. Check it out:

In the lobby there was a glass floor through which one could see into the sub-basement to the ruins of Roman baths. As a lover of all things Italian I was able to fall equally in love with France and would be more than happy to retire to either country in the not so distant future.

That brings me to another book I finished while up north. Venice for Lovers is a labor of love, a collaboration between husband and wife team Louis Begley and Anna Muhlstein. Begley was introduced to me many years ago by mentor and friend Pete Smith who was my supervisor when we ran the roads of Lee County on the bookmobile. If you remember the Jack Nicholson movie About Schmidt, then you understand the sensibilities of an author like Begley. Wartime Lies was another one of his important books.

Venice for Lovers is an unusual but lovely combination of genre and style, beginning with an autobiographical piece by Ms. Muhlstein, also a writer, telling of the couple's 30 year love affair with La Serenissima. Can you imagine the joy of returning year after year to the same little tratorrias, being greeted as old friends, establishing a routine, walking in the early morning fog, shopping in the fresh markets, returning home to write all afternoon and into the evening - oh, the life! Begley then follows up his wife's essay with a very Henry Jamesian short story and an essay about the writers who have turned Venice into a major player in their work. All in all this is a must read for anyone who has ever thrilled to their first glimpse of St. Mark's Square and a should read for anyone planning a trip to this mysterious, romantic canal city.
While I'm thinking about it, one of my all time favorites about Venice is Paula Weideger's Venetian Dreaming and please don't overlook anything by the delightful ex-pat Marlena de Blasi, in particular A Thousand Days in Venice.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Postscript - Sunday afternoon

He's done it again. Just when I think that Barack Obama can't get any better, he ups the ante. I'm on YouTube listening with tears in my eyes once again to his speech to the young men and women graduating from Notre Dame today. I am so overwhelmed with pride for these students and their responses to Barack's words. "We must find a way to live together as one human family..."

Like he always does, he courageously addressed the controversy head on, but not before acknowledging the class of 2009 and the reason he was there - for them. He told them to live the golden rule and try to love all the people with whom we share this very brief moment in time on this earth. He spoke of faith and that faith admits doubt. He spoke of the anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education and the huge role played by one of Notre Dame's distinguished professors - a history lesson I certainly appreciated.

I won't go on. You can listen for yourselves - or not - whatever the case may be. I, for one, am so proud of this president and his calm, reasoned responses, his willingness to open hearts and minds and his refusal to use labels to dismiss those with beliefs different from our own. No wonder I couldn't wait to get to DC and stand outside his house! Wish I could figure out how to import my wonderful picture of our meeting. Let's see - maybe I can..... Nope, it won't work. I'll have to get Jess on this.

Who is Garth Stein?

...and where's he been all my reading life? Readers, do take a look when you get a chance.

Thanks to my sister for recommending his truly wonderful book and shame on me for letting it sit on my desk at work for months because I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it. Auto racing? Not of interest to me. When will I learn not to close myself off from a new experience? It's not like me to do so. The Art of Racing in the Rain is really about love. The total opposite of Marley and Me, this novel is a paeon to a relationship, told from the perspective of the dog rather than his owner. It blows Marley out of the water!

When we meet Enzo he is philosophically accepting, one might say even anxiously looking forward to, his pending demise. He's confident that he has completed his job here as an animal and anticipates returning as a human being, ostensibly a higher level though readers might wonder about that! Reminiscing about his years with his family, Denny, Eve and Zoe, Enzo proves to be keen observer of the human condition who laments his inability to communicate on a level higher than simple barks and whines. He has plenty he'd like to say! Stein's imaginative voice is a delight as he channels Enzo, who loves watching TV with his person, feels jealousy when Eve enters their life yet rejoices when bonding with baby Zoe. There's a school of thought that abhors anthropomorphizing animals but pet owners know there's a person behind those eyes just dying to get out. My own pound dog, JJ, was my mom reincarnated - no kidding!

Denny, an aspiring race car driver, seems like that Peanuts character with the dark cloud always hanging over his head. He can't seem to catch a break. Publishers' Weekly criticized Stein for putting so many unbelievable obstacles in the way of Denny's peace and happiness. I'd like to know what rock the PW reviewer lives under. Most of my friends and relatives have all faced and overcome intermittent bouts of illness, divorce, poverty or angst. What they share with Denny and what makes life worthwhile are the friends, family, and yes, pets, who are there for all of us when we most need them.

Facing a two hour wait at the airport in Hartford, I dove into this book and couldn't put it down. I'll warn you that the lovely gentleman sitting next to me on the flight to Orlando surreptitiously handed me some kleenex when he saw my shoulders shaking and the tell tale wet spots on the page. I couldn't even look up to thank him. It's been quite a while since I've had such a cathartic, satisfying read.

Friday, May 15, 2009

You Can't Go Home Again

Thomas Wolfe said it first and someday I must read the book that he wrote with that phrase in mind. I've always been a person who lives in the present - often in the future - (that's what Aquarians do) so I've never understood those who can't seem to leave the past behind. I don't do class reunions and I abhor "oldies." I've obsessed over the fact that I'm pretty cold when it comes to washing my hands of people, places and times that have caused me pain. I don't hold a grudge, I just don't care any more.

So, when people ask me how my vacation was, I have mixed reactions. Driving to Maryland with Don is always great. We're easy companions in the car, talking or not talking is equally comfortable for us. I love Chesapeake Beach and feel at home there, but this time the visit had to be short as I was long past due for some time with family in Massachusetts. Our crew is so small - so few of us left. My aunt Jackie, always like a second mother to me, was 84 this past week, her "boyfriend" was 89. We had a lovely visit, never at a loss for conversation, always ready to go out to eat or get in the car and just do errands. My sister, still there but, I surmise, still searching for a place to call her own.

The cold, rainy weather, the pasty looking folks just coming out of their winter hibernation, gave me such a discomforting feeling in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes, this is weird, I have nightmares in which I stay too long and am not allowed to leave. Though the economic downturn sure isn't evident in the prices of food, gas, or real estate, the trendy tourist attracting facades of the businesses on Main St. belied the shabby back doors where the weathered wood and rickety stairs looked close to collapse. Even the time share I was lucky to get had a run down feel to it - think Bates Motel. When my return flight started its descent into Florida I looked out at the St. Augustine/Ponte Vedra Beach shoreline and felt my heart lift. I started to grin when I came even with the cotton candy thunder heads. Sure, we haven't had rain in a while, sure it's flat and yes, it's brown, but it's home, my home now for 25 years and I reveled in the return.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Annie Vanderbilt and her Olivetti

Wow! If people truly write what they know then Annie Vanderbilt, LCLS Reading Festival speaker, and author of The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti, has had a marvelously full life. Either that or she has a fantastic imagination. Even if I hadn't taken an immediate liking to the author (I did), I would have wanted to open her book just based on the cover. Having biked through the south of France, I was smitten by the colors, the buildings and the people who, contrary to what you may hear on Fox news, were a pure delight.

Madame Olivetti, as you may have surmised, is the old fashioned typewriter that accompanies Lily Crisp on her trip to the family "cottage" in France where she hopes to bare her soul to the sympathetic pages in the olivetti. Mourning the unexpected death of her husband Paul, she is looking to regroup and make amends for certain past indiscretions which were fulfilling when they occurred but have left deep wells of guilt in Lily's soul. Enter Yves, the contractor there to put the house back in order and, peut-etre, our Lily as well.

As Lily writes the memoir, for her eyes only, readers are treated to several love stories that seem honest and realistic, dating back several generations to couples from both Lily's and Paul's families. As a matter of fact, I'd say that one of the themes of the book is that true love is never perfect. Vanderbilt has a lush writing style, using words that paint big, lusty pictures in our heads. This book is ripe for a movie featuring a fabulous 50-something actress and not some ingenue. I'd hate to see it ruined the way Under the Tuscan Sun was. The joy of the thing is that Lily is a mature, experienced woman and all the more beautiful for it!

I'm off to Maryland and Massachusetts for a week. There's a pretty dreary forecast which means my time can be filled with reading and family gabbing. I'm obesessing over which books to take on the road and on the plane, like a druggy worried about where the next fix will come from. I'll very much miss the cd in my car, a supurb recording - great Scottish accents - of Kate Atkinson's When Will There be Good News. Whew! It's diabolical the way it begins so sweetly and slowly before degenerating into a first class mystery. More on that when I return.