Monday, May 31, 2010

Identity Crisis

When I was in Portland for the Public Library Association conference I was fortunate to receive a bag full of audio materials at the Sue Grafton dinner. The meals themselves can often be nondescript but getting back to the room and opening the bags is always a treat. Among the giveaways was an audio book by a fledgling author who had received several prestigious grants as well as a Bellweather Prize from none other than Barbara Kingsolver. If that doesn't make you sit up and take notice, Heidi Durrow's writing will.

You all know the myth that we are now supposedly living in a "post-racial" world. Oh, would that it were so! We may have a bi-racial president but we also have a Tea Party and a new law in Arizona that can only be followed if the authorities practice an ugly brand of racial profiling.
During the presidential campaign of 2008 the divisions in our country were exacerbated by black activists who accused Barack Obama of not being "black enough," while others refused to accept that  his mother, not to mention the grandparents who raised him, were white. If you read his books you will understand that this dichotomy has plagued him for most of his relatively  young life.

Durrow gives readers a chance to try to understand this bi-racial dilemma through the eyes of young teenage girl in this complex and thought-provoking debut novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. According to the blurbs this novel is an attempt to grapple with feelings that Durrow herself likely faced as she is, like the main character Rachel, the child of an African American soldier and a Danish woman who he met and married while overseas. The couple doesn't see color and naively believes that their children will be raised not to see it either.

Educated and well traveled, young Rachel comes to live in Chicago with her younger brother and sister. The marriage of her parents, though, will not survive the strain of alcohol abuse. Her mom takes up with a man she meets in rehab, a man who is not sufficiently healed to love or even accept the three black children that are part of the package.

Through multiple narrators and flashbacks the reader discovers that Rachel is the sole survivor of a horrific tragedy which results in her moving to Portland, Oregon to live with her father's mother. A light skinned black girl with startling blue eyes, living in an all black neighborhood with a black grandmother she's never met, Rachel begins the long process of examining what it means to be bi-racial in America.

Conflicted, questioning, unaccepted by either side (Rachel talks "white" but looks black), she longs for facts about her father while trying to come to grips with her mother's actions and yearns for love, often pinning her hopes on the wrong person. As the observer/reader I wanted to yell out no, don't trust that one, listen to this one, which I guess is indicative of how Ms. Durrow drew me into her narrative. And if that isn't the sign of a good writer, well, what is? Book groups could have a field day with this one!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

On Death and Dying

Several years ago my friend Andrea and I planned an outstanding series of programs for our public library titled "On Death and Dying." We had both recently experienced devastating losses of loved ones and the subject of helping folks educate themselves about the various ways we perceive the deaths of others and, of course, our own, was topmost in our minds.

For 6 weeks we hosted members of Hospice, local clergy, palliative care nurses, nursing professors from FGCU and even an Elder Law attorney. Though the number in attendance was less than stellar, the folks who did come were overwhelmed and grateful for the chance to learn and mingle with like-minded folks. Your public library doing what it does best.

I wish that this exquisite little novel with the big ideas had been available then so that we could have piggy-backed onto the program with a discussion of The Spare Room by Australian writer Helen Garner. This is a difficult, brutally honest look at a long friendship being tested to the breaking point by Nicola's refusal to admit that she is dying of cancer and Helen's rash invitation to take Nicola into her home while she undergoes alternative treatments.

Nicola has an outsized personality and, as a single woman with no kids or family to speak of, life has always been, as my sister would say, all about her. Helen, on the other hand, lives next door to her daughter and delightfully precocious granddaughter, is active in the community, and planning a huge trip in the not too distant future. She comes to realize that a three week stint caring for Nicola will mean that she must completely put her own life on hold.

Now, don't get me wrong, we DO these things, don't we? Usually for family though, and even then with great trepidation. How long will the ties of friendship hold without untethering when strained by sleepless nights, endless laundry, and daily trips to the clinician who subjects Nicola to vitamin C treatments and coffee enemas that leave her shaking with pain and fever.

What it boils down to is that the two friends have very different views on what constitutes a "good death." Neither one of them sees the other as the other sees herself. Then again, how can they really? How can anyone get into the mind of another? Nicola is fighting because she doesn't feel she has a legacy to leave, while Helen sees Nicola's entire life and friendship as a positive force, a legacy in its own right.

Until we, the reader and the person, are in the dying one's shoes, we can never understand what that state of mind must be like. Everyone, it seems, has something to say about how one "handles" their leave taking from this earth. Our family and friends may not approve of our choices, rifts may be bridged or chasms dug, all depending upon where we are in our own growth and development as human beings. Garner's book will conjure up all the conflicting emotions you have ever had over the years as you've sat by a family member's bedside. Some may have raged against the dying of the light, others accept with grace. Be prepared for a deep emotional response to Ms. Garner's gem of a novel.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Old Friends

In my ongoing attempt to lighten up a little bit in my reading, I decided to go back to Martha Grimes whose books I used to love until I realized that they were pretty formulaic and I had to move on. For some reason I decided to download her latest in the long running and very popular Richard Jury series, the one in which every title is named for a British pub. What's not to like about that? Listening to The Black Cat was like getting together with old friends that you haven't seen in ages and realizing that you still really enjoy each other's company.

Supt. Jury, while not as complex a character as P.D. James's brooding Adam Dalgliesh, is still an interesting man who proves worthy of his promotions. His sparring yet comfortable relationships with Sgt. Wiggins, his sidekick, and Carol Ann, his quirky upstairs neighbor, who watches over him like a mother hen, render him very human even as he mourns the end of a relationship with Lu Aguilar, paralyzed and in a coma from a horrific accident in a previous novel.

At the Black Cat Pub a stunningly decked out body clad in Jimmy Choos (THAT got my attention) turns up dead with only the local cat as a witness. As the investigation proceeds we find out that the glamorous female victim worked part time for an exclusive escort agency but during the week she was just a low-paid, plain looking - you guessed it - librarian! Can't these authors make us more interesting in our own right? I don't know any dull librarians.

At any rate, the deaths mount up, escorts all dressed in Louis Vuiton and Manolo Blahniks. Naturally suspicion falls on the men who hired these women. Jury, on the other hand, is nursing an old grudge against a man who previously got away with murder and for a while drops the ball on the current investigation as he fixates on the wrong culprit. Add to the mix an excessively cheerful wife of the local constabulary who, though confined to a wheelchair, harbors an unhealthy fascination with designer shoes.

Sure, I guessed the name of the culprit before the superintendent did but that's ok. Reading Martha Grimes is like having a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tomato soup; comfort food.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Addictive Personality Disorder

I'm gonna have to face it, I'm addicted to books. I haven't read of this disorder in the DSM-IV but I know there have been many books written about those strange characters who hoard books or steal them from libraries (say it isn't so!). Me? I collect Advanced Reader's Copies. Behind my desk at work, in piles at home on the kitchen counter, in my office and the bedroom, these paperback, pre-publication books (some autographed, some not) mulitply by the number of conferences I attend, the number of publishers' contests I enter and the number of books Barbara Hoffert sends me. I love them!

I'm thinking about this today because two of my colleagues are winging their way to New York City for Book Expo America and I'm pea green with envy. BEA is, without a doubt, the greatest high a book collector and author stalker can ever feel. No matter how overwhelmed we are with our responsibilities here at work, this is the time of year (and I'll bet Maryellen feels the same way) that I wish we were still co-chairing the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. I have no doubt that, when I retire, (famous last words) I'll attend BEA on my own dime and just revel in all those stacks of new books crying out "pick me, pick me!"

Some lovely treats that I carted home from Portland and intend to get to over the long, hot summer are Matterhorn (Nancy Pearl's review was over the top),
The Lonely Polygamist, The Red Thread, and The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst. Of course, that doesn't include what goodies Jessica brings back from BEA for me. Hint to Jess if you're reading!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Conspiracy Theories, Part 2

Whew, I just finished The Room and the Chair, and it was breathtaking. Lorraine Adams has an impressive resume and her background in journalism is evident in her writing which is crisp, clear and to the point. No Jamesian paragraph-long lines here. While I love complex, winding sentences in the right place, this book is perfect for the other kind and the abrupt style probably adds to the feeling one has that you're on a runaway train and won't be able to stop it.

The novel opens with a harrowing description of a jet losing power for no known reason, taking us into the  pilot's head as she examines all the ramifications of ejecting over the Potomac, not far from the Watergate building. Mary Goodwin ends up in a tree like a broken doll, yet before anyone could have known the plane was even down, an ambulance and crew rescues her and takes her to Walter Reed for surgery. Unknown to any of the players, there's been a witness to the crash and to Mary's unlikely saviors.

I read in the paper last week that new car manufacturers are expressing concern over the fact that black boxes like the ones in the Toyota Priuses, which have supposedly been acting up, can be easily hacked into by computer geeks bent on causing havoc. Hold that thought while reading this book.

Meanwhile, in the offices of a large DC newspaper, not unlike the Washington Post where Adams worked for many years, news of the crash comes in, but for some suspicious reason none of the usual "unidentified sources" know anything about it. How do you hide an F-16 one might ask? And Vera, the newbie on the night desk, decides to go after it.
Not yet jaded like many of her cohorts, she still has a passion, I believe Adams calls it, fervor, for the thrill of investigative journalism. Her research has her surreptitiously  meeting with underage prostitutes who have the goods on many an "upstanding" DC bigwig, frightening some of her higher ups at the paper but earning the respect of the supervisor who matters and the satisfaction of uncovering the truth whether or not it ever gets printed.

This book will make you question everything you read in any paper no matter its reputation. I remember a professor in library school who asked us to look askance at every article we ever read. Look for the subtext, he said. Who's behind the research and do they have an ax to grind? No one cared for this guy but he's the only one I really remember well. Maybe he was a conspiracy theorist.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Conspiracy Theories; Fact or Fiction?

Truth in advertising - I've bordered on conspiracy theorist ever since I spent the summer as an intern at the Dept. of the Interior in DC. I remember taking the bus to and from work, naive as hell, when these activists would come aboard and hand out copies of supposedly leaked intel about Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia. Of course, I was dead set against the action in Vietnam and had marched and been tear gassed the spring before this, but even I couldn't believe that the president would try to get away with an illegal action of this magnitude. How sadly wrong I was proven.

So when Don asked me to pick up Jesse Ventura's new book American Conspiracies: Lies, Lies and More Dirty Lies That the Government Tells Us, I was all over it even though I had never taken Mr. Ventura too seriously when he was governor of Minnesota. My bad. This book only confirms in a hundred different ways, and with facts galore, the suspicions that I've held close to the vest in the past for fear of being thought a nut case.

Some of the more obvious conspiracies are pretty much accepted, that Lee Harvey Oswald could not have acted alone, seems to me to be a no-brainer. Bobby Kennedy? Hmmmm - Martin Luther King, Jr? Even Pulitzer winner and King expert Taylor Branch questions the circumstances around his death. And who knew that King's family won a civil case against the government for a wrongful death? Did you ever read about that trial? I didn't, but I have now because the transcript is there at the King website for anyone with even a modicum of curiosity.

What's terrifying about all this are the implications for our current president. When one wonders why he hasn't been bolder in his actions (though I think he's having an amazing first year) one must keep in mind that the president of the United States can go just so far and no farther. Checks and balances can be deadly.

Other theories I've kept pretty much to myself but Ventura goes after them full force. Do you remember going to sleep thinking that Al Gore was our new president and waking up to find out that it was George W. Bush? To insure that the election wouldn't be stolen again four years later I took vacation time to be a poll watcher at my local precinct. Interesting training and an amazing day later I left my shift assured that John Kerry was so far in the lead that there was no need to worry. But something strange happened in Ohio, Kerry way too quickly conceded, and voila, four more years of W.

Shall we move on to 9/11? Ask any air traffic controller about black boxes and audio transcripts of control tower happenings and they'll tell you that these items just don't disappear. But  can the FAA be overruled? When golfer Payne Stewart's plane veered off the grid fighter jets were scrambled in a matter of minutes. They flew close enough to the run away private jet that pilots could see into the cockpit confirming that crew members were unconscious from, likely, a sudden change in cabin air pressure. But.....four passenger jets go off the grid simultaneously on 9/11 and not one plane was sent up to check it out?
 Hmmmmm-one could say that truth is stranger than fiction but in a little while I'll write about an outstanding book The Room and the Chair, a novel about conspiracies written by former Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer winner, Lorraine Adams. Why is it fiction? I guess no one would believe her is she tried to pass it off as the truth.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

There Are No Secrets in Eden

Reading Chris Bohjalian's latest novel, The Secrets of Eden, was rather like reading the local newspaper, which has devolved in the 25 years I've subscribed to it into little more than a supermarket tabloid. No matter what's going on of importance in the world their front page seems to focus on murders, the more salacious the better, domestic violence, robberies, discovered bodies, etc. It's a pretty sad commentary on Lee County, Florida.

Bohjalian is usually a book group favorite but, in spite of good reviews in PW and Booklist, I didn't find enough depth in this novel for any kind of discussion. Told through several voices, the novel begins with the discovery of a grisly murder/suicide scene in the idyllic Vermont home of Alice and George Hayward. Though everyone in town expresses shock and dismay it soon becomes clear that most everyone in town knew that George regularly beat his wife, specifically inflicting the worst wounds in places where they wouldn't show. Not only was their precocious daughter Katie well aware of the horror that went on in the Hayward house but so too was Alice's pastor, Stephen Drew.

Why didn't anyone intervene you might ask. I asked the same. Neither Alice nor George was a fully drawn character so the motivation for his cruelty and her acceptance of it remains nebulous. I didn't feel that the author tried to get into the psychological reasons why this crime happens all too often. Instead, Bohjalian overly focused on the actual arguments and beatings to the point where it became overkill, if you'll excuse the pun.

He also threw in a red herring in the character of Heather Laurent, a Marianne Williamson type of author, who specializes in angels and miracles. She rather unconvincingly shows up on Rev. Drew's doorstep a couple of days after the murders which have so devastated him, and within a week, they're sleeping together. Hmmm - I'm sorry, am I getting cynical in my old age?

Actually, much of the book is narrated by Stephen and he is the most interesting character in the novel. Since I listened to the book I found the reader's voice of Stephen just a perfect blend of chilly aloofness and intimate self-knowledge. In fact, the minister that we hear speaking is a very different man from the one his congregation sees, not that I would find this too unusual in a man of the cloth.

I kept with the book because I had some time invested in it and frankly, I had to know if the crime had actually been committed by the person I fingered less than halfway through. It seemed too plausible to be the denouement and I hoped for something more startling but it wasn't to be. If any of you have read and loved this book I'd be open to hearing from you so that I can hang my head in shame for having missed something big!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Just Musing

Yesterday I finished my new book from Library Journal and it's a winner. The first draft of my review is written and I'll let that sit for a day or two before I tweak it and submit but, I've got to tell you, keep your eyes open for a new novel by Mackenzie Ford. It'll be out in July and it has everything going for it. When the review is published, I'll link to it and you'll get to find out more.

The subject is archaeology and so much more. It's of particular interest to me ever since my trip to Athens last fall where we learned about the controversy behind the building of the new Parthenon museum and the long-standing argument for the return of the Elgin marbles to their rightful place in Greece. At face value, it seems only right to me, but then I'm not a person who condones the ransacking of other nations for their antiquities. Who are we, after all, to decide which countries are "responsible" enough to keep their own treasures?

Maryellen introduced me to a new spunky, outspoken character that I'd love to share with you. She is Ella Rodino, kind of a blue collar Olive Kitteridge, who narrates the delightful, thought provoking story by Michael Zadoorian called The Leisure Seeker. Now that I've finished it, I understand why Maryellen thought it would make a good, and apparently it was,  controversial book discussion that resulted in strong feelings being shared. Andrea thought it was too sad whereas I thought it was an uplifting book about the power of being your own person and living life, as much as anyone can, on your own terms.

Ella and her husband John have had over fifty years together, sharing the best and worst that life can throw at any of us. They have wonderful, caring kids and they still have some fight left in them even though John is in the throes of Alzheimer's disease and Ella suffers from metastasizing cancer. Rather than waste away in a hospice or let the physicians dictate her final days, Ella decides that she and John will pack up their ancient RV, the "Leisure Seeker" of the title, and head west on route 66, recreating long past family vacations, until they reach the Pacific.

Zadoorian hits all the right notes, filling his novel with a perfect blend of pathos and humor. Ella and John are real people, folks I think I actually know and their banter and bickering as they drive the thousands of miles from their home in Detroit, through the desert, to the coast left me laughing and teary all at the same time. I can't wait to recommend this book to my friend and tennis partner Cherri who has been trying to educate me for years about the strange, conflicting results of Alzheimer's disease on the brain. I highly recommend it. Thanks Maryellen!

Next up, Chris Bohjalian's latest novel, The Secrets of Eden.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Those Three Weissmans of Westport

I had mentioned in an earlier post that I was ready to read something funny and that the snarky humor of Cathleen Schine was right up my alley. Well, I finished this book last week and I have to say, though there were many laugh out loud moments, it was still a very poignant and spot on novel of truths about human beings and their inability to see the forest for the trees. I enjoyed it while I was listening, the reader was excellent, and I've been mulling it over ever since.

When Joseph tells his wife of fifty years that he wants to end their marriage on the grounds of "irreconcilable differences," she initially reacts with humor and patience. Hear the New York accent - "what - after 50 years - you can't live with me? snap out of it!" It's not until Betty finds out that the irreconcilable difference has a name - Felicity - that she rounds on him with all the fury of a woman scorned.

Banished from her lovely apartment in the city, Betty relies on the kindness of Uncle Lou, a prototype of the Jewish uncle who's never met a stranger, he takes in strays like a kid. Lou sets Betty up in his ramshackle cottage in Westport while Betty waits for Joseph to come to his senses. She is soon joined by her two grown daughters, Miranda, whose business as an editor is in financial trouble because she backed an author whose ripped from the headlines biography was fabricated - sound familiar? and Annie, a librarian whose sense of duty compels her to sublet her condo in the city and join her mother and sister in exile.

While in Westport, Miranda takes up with a younger man and falls more in love with his son than with him. Annie suffers in silence as she tries to be the sensible one, keeping her mother and sister from spending as if they still had money while nursing a crush on the distant novelist who spoke at a library function and happens to be the brother of the despised Felicity. Uncle Lou, surrounded by hangers on, tries to jolly Betty out of the doldrums while she pretends to be a widow as it's more palatable to her ego than to admit her husband has dumped her.

Reviewers have compared this little gem to a modern version of Sense and Sensibility and the reader does get that feeling of watching from above as Schine's characters make all the wrong moves while the right ones seem so obvious to us as outsiders. The joy of an Austen read-a-like is that you can be assured that the denouement will be satisfying and there's certainly little enough of that in the world lately!

I started listening to Chris Bohjalian's latest novel, The Secrets of Eden, and it got me from the first sentence. I must be the only one who didn't love Skeletons at the Feast so this new one feels more like his previous works of moral ambiguity. I'll keep you posted.
You may not hear from me for a while though because Barbara Hoffert just sent me a wonderful looking, big fat novel about Kenya circa 1960. As usual, there's a ten day turnaround to read it, write the review, mull my words over for a few days and then send it in to LJ. I read 100 pages last night without falling asleep. That bodes well.