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: