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 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)
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.

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