Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Thoughts on the Holidays (and a few books)

I guess you must have surmised that I'm back from vacation since I haven't written in a while. All that wonderful reading and now I'm back to being a slug. I didn't even make my 100 books in a year goal and was shamed to listen to my friend Maryellen tell the whole world on NPR yesterday that she read 133 books this past year and has a goal of 144 for next! Whew.

OK, I did have my sister here over the Christmas weekend but is that an excuse? Not really, since she's a reader too. But then, she doesn't do newspapers and mine take me hours to get through. I'm also half way through my first book discussion book of the new year, City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. I chose it almost a year ago while still in the throes of outrage over FEMA and New Orleans and the lack of attention to that city's crisis. I like to choose discussion books that will bring out emotions and controversy otherwise what is there to talk about? This one should do the trick as it follows two families in two disparate neighborhoods in the Crescent city as they deal with the run up and aftermath of the broken levies. As background Don and I watched the first part of Spike Lee's heartbreaking documentary When the Levies Broke. It isn't easy being informed.

Since I've been reviewing for Library Journal I've had all but one review published which means, if I may brag for a minute, that I've had a review in almost every issue for the last two years. There's nothing like seeing one's name and words in print to boost the ego for just a minute or two. I just finished a fantastic debut novel that my regular readers know I'm not allowed to speak about until the review is published. The ear-catching title is The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors. Suffice it to say you must keep an eye out for an April printing. Read about this delightful author at:

Yesterday I received another debut novel, almost 400 pages, by a Pulitzer Prize winning biologist. Yes, I have the new year's weekend off and guess what I'll be doing? In the meantime just a word about the other Updike. Who knew that John's son David was (is) such a talent. I've gotten to enjoy short stories as I never have before because we have such an abbreviated lunch break at work - usually 20 minutes of actual quiet time and even then only if I go out to the picnic table by the dumpster - that it's hard to concentrate on anything more involved. Old Girlfriends is a beautifully written, thought-provoking collection of stories about relationships that rings so true that at the end of one of the stories I had to emit an audible sigh.

I can't remember - an over 60 affliction - if I've written about one of our wonderful new volunteers at my library but I just can't stop commenting on the multi talented Kathryn Taubert who's become a computer coach for us. Among her many talents is writing and she has a blog for the Naples Daily News:

In a previous posting she wrote about the holidays and specifically, about the difference between being alone and being lonely. This is one of my favorite themes and one that I runimate upon quite often (especially during the holidays) because of where my life has taken me. There are no words to express how lucky I feel to be where I'm at right now. I NEVER think oh I wish I was younger or I wish I could start over or wasn't it great to be 30 or 40 or whatever. Back when I was married, which seems a lifetime ago, I was so desperately lonely and no one knew. For that matter few of my friends or family, to my mind, really knew me at all. We were always surrounded by an entourage and I learned early on that one can be loneliest in a crowd.
A lesson learned here is that we mustn't condescend to or feel sorry for someone who may be alone during the holidays. Many people actually enjoy their own company and will choose to be with a crowd if they get the hankering or may choose to be alone to take a bubble bath, read a book, watch old movies or feed people at a soup kitchen. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Off to the dentist for a marathon drilling. This won't be pretty.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Authors spotted on deck

Well, no, not exactly the authors themselves but don't you always love to see who people are reading? We've been faithful to our exercise routine everyday but I like to walk outside and Don prefers the gym. The deck is nice and long, 2 times around is a mile - I do my walking out there while listening to a new novel by ex- MI-5 agent, Stella Rimington. I'm addicted to spies right now.

As I walk I love to people watch and, in particular, I love to see what folks are reading. Spotted several John Grishams, of course, Harlan Coban, Jennifer Crusie, and one man reading Say YOu're One of Them, which is on my own "to read" list. Only saw one library book in the whole mix, To those who say that reading is on the wane, I scoff. Every single person by the pool has their nose in a book. I think it's because they can. When else do they have time to relax and read? It really does my heart good to see.

Our own routine looks something like this...sleep 9 or 10 hours, have coffee and juice delivered to the room, read for another hour or two, go to brunch, go to the gym, come back and sit in the sun and read some more. Need I say more? There is no greater pleasure for me than to stare at the sea. The idea that there's no land in any direction - visible at least - thrills me. My sister thinks there may have been a pirate in our family closet. Would that explain it?

Just finished the novel I wish I could have written during NaNoWriMo. Hello, Goodbye could have been my story. How could this young woman, Emily Chenoweth, former editor at PW, write like this? I'm pea green with envy! This gorgeous, gorgeous novel sounds depressing but, interestingly enough, it really isn't at all.

Fit, bright, wife, mother, counselor, Helen, comes in from  her early morning jog, pushes the button on the coffee maker and sinks to the kitchen floor in a blinding burst of light and pain.  After weeks of testing and an agonizing wait for Helen's husband Elliott, the diagnosis is an inoperable brain tumor. Why does this seem so common lately? Not just in literature but in real life....how do we deal with this kind of news? Yes, everyone is different but the  family dynamics explored by Chenoweth are a joy to  behold. This is one of the most honest books I;ve ever read.

From college freshman Abby, torn between a deep, unbearable love for her mother, and the normal selfish, what about me attitude of every 18 year old, to Elliott, overwhelmed with the burden of caring for his wife while keeping the truth of her dreadful diagnosis from Abby and their friends, these people act with a generosity of spirit that keeps readers high in the face of grief.

Elliott decides to take Helen and Abby back East from Ohio for a last summer vacation at a resort in New Hampshire where the couple's old friends can gather to say farewell to Helen and their carefree younger selves. All interesting and complex characters themselves, they rally round Elliott and Helen, with mixed feeling of helplessness and fear in the face of their own mortality.

How I wish it could have been my name on the back cover of this sensitve, uplifting novel. Emily Chenoweth, I hope you have more stories percolating,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sony and Sally, A Marriage Made in Heaven

Well guys, I'm the first to admit that my patience with technology is very limited and I;'m having a heck of a time typing on my new netbook knowing that we;re being charged 40 cents a minute for all my goofs. On the other hand, I'm looking out to sea and we've just left Costa Maya, Don's gone upstairs to get us a cheese tray and the ice is chilling. This keyboard is tough though after using a full size keyboard.
I had been invited to be a guest blogger this week on Jungle Red and was thrilled and scared on how we;'d manage it from sea. Good thing we put it off til Feb,. Wouldn't have happened!

So, on the to Sony, which is behaving much better than my cute little laptop! It is the greatest thing since chopped beef. I'm telling you - if you wear progressive lenses - you MUST own a Sony ebook reader. I have already gone through one book in no time flat. Because of the way progressives work, if you're reading a traditional book - as I am now - there's a lot of blurriness on the periphery. With the ebook reader you are seeing such a nice tiny page that you can scan it so quickly and easily - no strain. I simply love it! Day or night time - didn't matter, Three fonts available, Maybe it helped because of the book though, Anita Shreve's A Change in Altitude. Run out and grab a copy, Excellent!

I thought her last one, Testimony, was outstanding but this one stays right up there. Once again, she takes us back to Kenya, where she's set her novels before and where I hope to travel to next year, so it was of particular interest to me. Patrick and Margaret are newlyweds, he, a physician studying diseases and treating the poor in Nairobi. She hasn't found a job yet and is chafing at being unable to contribute, feeling like a fish out of water. Margaret spends her days trying to get to know Africa through the  back door. As a professional photograher, she sees things through a different lens and has a special affinity for the people.

When she takes her portfolio to the Kenyan Tribune she is hired as a freelancer and revels in the joy of working with a multicultural crew of reporters, especially Rafiq, a writer with a conscience.

The title is a clever play on the word attitude and altitude. Mount Kilimanjaro looms large in the plot of the story. If you've read Krakauer's first book  about mountain climbing you;ll know that climbers tend to be over confident in their abilities and underestimate the power of a mountain. Multitudes of illness can force hikers to turn back, altitude sickness among them.

When Patrick proposes a climb to be undertaken with their landlords and neighbors, British ex-pat, pompous Arthur and his can-do wife, Diana, Margaret sensibly intuits that she will not be up to it and will be a drain on the expedition. No one listens to her and she is forced by Patrick's strange attempt at good intentions to go along reluctantly and terrified. What happens on the mountain affects their marriage, friendships and futures in unintended ways, moving the novel in unexpected ways. I don't want to say too much but I found it a very satisfying novel and a deep exploration of a woman's growth and maturity.

Does Anita Shreve ever disappoint? Not in my book! The cheese is here - gotta go!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Homer, Langley and the Bouvier-Beales

I'm always amazed at how many connections there are in the world and it seems that, for the well read, they abound. I've been a theatre buff all my life, thanks to my parents' foresight and penchant for community acting and Broadway getaways. I love my weekend subscription to the Times just so I can keep up with what's going on in New York even if I never get back there myself. When I saw that a film had been made of the play (or was it vice-versa?) Grey Gardens, I took it home to have a peek and what a stunning revelation. Drew Barrymore is not just another pretty face. She put in a remarkably brave performance as Edie, the stiffled daughter of Jackie Kennedy's aunt Edith Beale, the recluse at the heart of the Long Island mansion Grey Gardens.

At the same time I've been listening to a recording of prolific award winner E. L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley, a fictionalized novel about the lives of the famous Collyer brothers who, like Edith and Edie Beale, simply withdrew from society to become infamous curiosities to the media and even despised by their neighbors in the toney brownstone neighborhood opposite Central Park.

What happens to people to precipitate such a drastic withdrawal from society? Is it personal? Political? Is it fear or laziness? Agoraphobia? Which comes first-the disease or the hibernation? In the movie, it was a bit easier to see how it all began, though not to condone it. The senior Edith Beale was not, to me at least, a very sympathetic character even though the film makers tried to nuance her situation. Apparently a frustrated perfomer and party girl, played beautifully by the versatile Jessica Lange, Mrs. Beale was married to a stuffy, wealthy, attorney who had a lover in the city and consigned his wife and family to the "beach house" where he deigned to visit on weekends but where they filled their time entertaining.

When her husband finally divorced her, Edith took up with a young piano player and they lived off her alimony until the famous first financial crash put an end to the money. Though her sons tried to convince Edith to sell the mansion she refused it seemed, out of spite, which would be understandable except that she took her daughter down with her. Young Edie had high hopes of a life in entertainment but her mother took advantage of her insecurities after a disastrous love affair with a married man and guilted her into moving home to Grey Gardens where the house was falling down around them and they sustained themselves on ice cream and garbage.

Similarly, Homer and Langley were the progeny of two selfish, wealthy parents who left them in the care of servants most of their young lives to the point where the parents were scarcely missed after their deaths. Homer, who was going blind and then deaf, narrates the story of their lives and also, through Doctorow's use of poetic license, the entire history of the 20th century. Though the brothers actually died in 1947, the author has them living through the Vietnam era so that he can use their actions and observations to comment on the politics of each generation.

The novel is a slow building tour de force ably read by Arthur Morey. Langley, educated at Columbia, goes off to World War I returning, like so many, damaged physically by mustard gas and mentally by the brutality and futileness of war in general. He becomes a lifelong pacifist, an eccentric inventor and pack rat, rebelling against any authority but, in his own way, protecting his young brother from the outside world. The question is, like Edith Beale, did his attempt to shield Homer from the cruelties of life, do more harm than good?

These two stories are great studies for those interested in the psychology of eccentricity and the extent to which it can go before it's beyond repair. Doctorow's novel can also just be read as historical fiction with a conscience. Further information about the real Collyer brothers can be found all over the Internet, in particular at the bottom of this Wikipedia entry (with apologies to my fellow librarians)


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Women's Rights and Women's History

I'm smack in the middle of two books that indirectly dovetail nicely with each other. True confession time: I don't think that I've ever considered myself a feminist in the fighting sense of the word. My friend Don is an ardent feminist and marched in the million woman march in DC. We have often talked of discrimination against women and its manifestations but I feel that I've been inordinately lucky in not having faced severe discrimination because of my sex. Don thinks I have, in large and small ways, and just don't know it, and I suppose if I had to dwell on it for a while I could find reasons to take umbrage but they don't amount to a hill of beans compared to the hell it is to be black, Hispanic or Native American and now middle-Eastern in this country.

Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist, and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have spent the past ten years investigating discrimination against women in emerging countries. The result, Half the Sky, is not an easy book to read as I likely mentioned before. Perhaps what's almost as disheartening as the horrific damage that has been done to women during this century under the guise of religion or as an act of war or profiteering, is the political gamesmanship that goes on among countries that try (or pretend to try) to put an end to it.

Through hundreds of visits to Taiwan, India, China, and Africa, this husband/wife team have met many women who could and likely should be sainted for the work they've done, at risk to their lives and families, to save, counsel, educate and build up battered, wounded, disfigured women. Some have been kidnapped, trafficked and forced in sexual slavery and prostitution. Others have been disfigured with acid by their husbands, boyfriends or spurned lovers. Hundreds of thousands have been gang raped by soldiers as one of the historically oldest methods of war tactics against another tribe or nation. These women are not only social outcasts, if their families don't kill them for the shame they've brought home, they are demoralized and wounded inside and out. Hospitals rarely exist that will treat the injuries they suffer from sticks and bayonets and, even if they could afford them, the stigma of admitting to a sexual assault is ferocious.

I don't need to go on and on but I would like for folks to know that these things are happening every hour of every day while we complain that we're not being paid the same salary as a man.That surely is wrong but, yikes, let's get a grip. I have decided to make the Kristofs' cause a cause I can believe in. If you'd like to read about their travels, help support the hospitals and schools that are being slowly set up in developing countries to educate and empower women take a look at Mr. Kristof's blog at your leisure.

Simultaneously I'm reading A Short History of Women by National Book Award winner Kate Walbert. It may not sound like it but this is fiction; a fascinating look at a long line of women that begins with early suffragette Dorothy Townsend who starves herself to death to make a point. All the female relatives down the line have quite a bit to live up to in terms of making a statement and it takes its toll as readers follow their lives down through the decades to current times. The author does quite a bit of back and forthing through the 20th century which makes the novel a bit difficult to follow, requiring a little more concentration than we often want to give to bedtime reading, but I suspect it'll be worth it.

There's so much the young ladies today don't know about how far we've come and yes, no matter what I said about the previous book, how far we have to go. Through these mothers, daughters, grandmothers and great grandmothers we learn what the women's movement has given and yes, what it's taken away. Why some will never stay married and others will never bear children. Why some will go to prison for their ideals and others will play bridge. My mother was a feminist! Wish I'd appreciated her more when she was alive.