Thursday, July 29, 2010

Two Titles, Two Opinions

Great day at work - out early and no afternoon thunderstorms meant that I could put on those rocker sneakers and take my late afternoon trek around the hood. The only trouble is that I'm listening to a book I had been SO looking forward to and it's been a big disappointment.

 I suspect that the publisher was hoping that Sarah Blake's The Postmistress would be the next Guernsey Literary.....but no such luck. Believe me, I would give it the benefit of the doubt since the WW II era is the time that I'm drawn to, much to Aunt Jackie's dismay. The music, style, history, etc. for some reason have me often feeling that I was born in the wrong time and place.

I'm halfway through and may give it up unless Susan tells me to stick with it (I saw her reading it at work). It's not that I don't like Frankie, the plucky young New Yorker who works for CBS in London, reporting for the radio audience back in the states. She's bright and inquisitive and is an activist for truth, pushed by her former roommate to probe into round ups of German Jews into ghettos. There's at least something to grab onto, but the rest of the story just leaves me flat.

Kudos though to Ms. Blake for a sensitively written sensual love scene - we know these aren't easy and are often ridiculed - in which the title character makes love for the first time. She captured beautifully the initial hesitance, the excitement, the determination and the desire to join with a man in equal communion rather than the old-fashioned "surrender" that's expected of a virgin of a certain age.

Front page of the local newspaper today happened to have an article about cyber-stalking, harrassment by text message. Who'd have thought we'd come to this? Which brings me to a novel that blew me out of the water and which I devoured in 3 days. Admittedly, I've loved Anna Quinden since way back when she used to write her poignant, funny column for the New York Times, when her family was young, and so was I. OK, I'm dating myself.

Then she began writing novels and book groups couldn't get enough of Black and Blue or the devastating  One True Thing which, though it came out ten years after my own mom's death from cancer, set me right back there in the hospital room. Rise and Shine felt too light for Quindlen but now she's back with a vengeance. Every Last One is an unforgettable book about the randomness of life, the time wasted worrying about the little things, the depth of grief and the long, slow process of recovery that cannot be rushed by well-meaning friends.

One wonders how a woman like Anna Quindlen, with the glorious life one surmises she lives, can delve down into the darkest depths of her imagination to write a book of such anguish and loss. This must be a testament to her talent. Ms. Quindlen describes a home which, on the surface, sounds like the one we'd all want to live in; two adults with not too many issues, Glen a doctor, she a landscape architect, and three lovely kids who prefer to bring their friends home than to hang out on the streets. Still, one doesn't have to read too far into the book to discover the cracks in this foundation.

Teenage daughter Ruby suffers from an eating disorder, Max has anti-social anxieties, while his brother Ben is almost too perfect, playing three-letter sports. Then there's Kiernan, Ruby's oldest friend, now lover, who cannot get enough of the Latham family.
Glen and Marybeth have a comfortable, long-term marriage with the requisite, subtle fissures that one assumes will be temporary and dissipate when the kids are grown and gone on their assuredly successful future paths. But for every scene of domestic tranquility that Quindlen dangles in front of her readers, she throws in just enough hints to keep us on edge, waiting for the other shoe to fall.

 And when it does it seems to come out of the blue. The stunning violence just doesn't mesh with this lovely family that seems to be doing every thing "right." This is a must read for anyone who revels in examining the extreme complexity of relationships, be they familial or sexual. For readers who have raised their families safely to adulthood and can now rest on your laurels, this novel may remind you of how very lucky you are.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Oh, the Damage We Do in the name of our Gods

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been an outpouring of novels that attempt to aid thinking Americans in their understanding of Islam as both a culture and a religion. Book groups have glombed onto these titles in record numbers and for several years my group of deep reading women gave it their all. Recently though, they've asked if we could lighten up and so we will. Our upcoming titles are decidedly American in scope what with Olive Kitteridge, Union Atlantic, So Much for That and Blame, just to mention a few.

For myself, though, I'm still trying to make sense of various religions and how they've affected life, really from the beginning of recorded history. It's not a very pretty picture. Most recently I finished listening to a very disturbing book that I was initially drawn to just because of the cover, though the story was right up my alley. Gardens of Water by Alan Drew takes place in a small Turkish community outside Istanbul. Nine year old Ismail is being prepared for his coming of age ceremony, his circumcision, and the entire town is invited to this huge landmark celebration.

But for fifteen year old Irem, the daughter of the household, no such ceremony will ever be held. She can never expect to be the light of her parents' eyes as Ismail, the boy child is, and she knows that the future holds little for her except perhaps a suitable husband and a life of servitude. The jacket copy refers to Irem as headstrong and that really ticked me off right out of the gate. Is it headstrong to have a brain and be able to deduce that one's life is circumscribed by an accident of birth? Grrrrr

Her desire to feel more and experience more than her circumstances will allow is exacerbated by a budding relationship with Dylan, an American boy who lives in the upstairs apartment with his parents who are teachers and missionaries in Turkey. They have lived in the country for thirty years and appear to be deeply respectful of the fine line that separates them from the locals, but all that changes after a devastating earthquake shakes the village to its foundations.

An accident of Fate, or was it God's will, irrevocably binds Dylan's and Irem's families together and as the two young people spend more time together, Irem's family faces disgrace over their daughter's actions, and Irem's father Sinan is torn between his love for his daughter and the pressure to abide by the cultural laws of the land. At the same time, Dylan's father Marcus is in a position to help Sinan take care of his family by offering American made food and shelter, thereby adding to Sinan's sense of shame that he is unable to do this for himself.

Author Alan Drew does an admirable job of examining the conflicts and similarities between the Christian and Islamic sense of God, painting the irony of the two factions praying to their Gods in different buildings while using the same words, speaking of Heaven vs. Paradise, the hope of life after death, the belief that suffering on this earth will be rewarded in the next (that's one I never could cotton to!).

Tensions in the refugee camp are ratcheted up as more and more little Kurdish boys show up with gold crosses around their necks and biblical coloring books. Sinan and Marcus become so intent on the fight for Ismail's soul that they fail to notice that Dylan and Irem are on a downward path of no return. As I said, this is a very disturbing but thought-provoking read. It's not for everyone and I can't recommend it as such and if you're a searcher for understanding and answers, Gardens of Water may actually leave you with even more questions. Oh what the heck, go for it!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Painting and Body Surfing with Anita Shreve

At the end of the work day yesterday my supervisor asked me if I was going to relax today. I had to laugh cause I know where she was going with that. She thinks I'm just a little bit "off" because I find physical labor so relaxing. I love the sense of immediacy that I get when I work hard doing something, in this instance, mowing the lawn, painting the family room, planting the garden, that makes me sweat and allows me the joy of seeing the results. There's nothing more fulfilling than putting the photos and mirrors back up on a freshly painted wall!

I think that when one works with the brain, especially in the politically charged atmosphere we in county government are experiencing right now, the emotional stress level is high and unhealthy. If I didn't have the physical release I know I'd be very depressed. With that in mind, I spent my day off Friday on the ladder and the result is just exquisite. This old house looks brand spanking new and I got to listen to an entire book!

Body Surfing by Anita Shreve was one that I missed when it first came out. I happened to spot it while surfing our rather dismal choices in the Download Depot - literary fiction doesn't seem to be our strong suit. I'll admit that I almost gave it up because it didn't grab me right out of the gate. I've found that a down side of the Internet world is that our patience level has decreased tremendously - at least mine has. I'm not too keen on that aspect of myself.

Luckily I was too lazy to move on to the next book on my player and so just let it run. I'm glad that I did. Ms. Shreve is up there with some of my favorite writers who specialize in examining the nuance of familial relationships and the complications of love in all its manifestations. Usually there's something a bit sinister - maybe that's too strong a word - but all is never what it seems in a Shreve novel and this one is no exception.

Returning to one of her favorite spots, ocean front New Hampshire, this contemporary tale revolves around the seemingly perfect Edwards family whose daughter Julie is being tutored for her SAT's by Sydney, a live-in paid companion who walks a fine line between servant and guest. What no one will acknowledge is that Julie has a learning disability so the SAT will not get her into the fine college that her mother expects for her. She will not be following in the footsteps of her two older brothers, Jeff and Ben, of whom Mrs. Edwards is inordinately proud.

Sydney, though still in her thirties, has already been divorced once and then widowed. Mrs. Edwards, suspicious of someone who's "been around" so much tolerates her only because Julie responds so well to Sydney's loving tutelage. When "the boys" return home for a holiday weekend, each one sees something entrancing in Sydney, and the games begin. The well honed veil of family perfection will soon be torn  asunder by secrets, passion and jealousy with Sydney as the pawn in an old conflict.

And talk about writers who excel at family conflict, I just started Anna Quindlan's new novel Every Last One. Wow! That's my professional opinion so far. More on that at the end of the week. I also just finished listening in the car to a new author I had been unfamiliar with. His name is Alan Drew and the book, Gardens of Water, was deeply disturbing and ripe for book clubs. I'll tell you more about that later but I see out the window that my newspapers are here. Don't you just hate it when you can't sleep in on your day off?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Lighten up with Sarah Addison Allen

I've had a marathon reading weekend, taking three hours of R and R yesterday to sit by Don's pool and continue humping through the jungle of Vietnam with Karl Marlantes. I'm almost finished with this outstanding book and it just gets better and better. I just listened to a C-Span interview with the author in which he commented on how it felt to be screamed at by protesters upon his own return from Nam, how he wanted to say to them, "you don't know me, you don't know anything about me."

I felt compelled to apologize for them - kind of saying "forgive them, they know not what they do." This novel opens one's eyes to the agonizing dichotomy of a war, any war, where it's kill or be killed on the one hand yet, on the other hand, the internal recognition that so many had no clue what they were really killing for - as the author says through Lt. Mellas - just a filthy piece of ground. They also recognized that they were fighting an enemy they respected for their resilience yet hated for the same reason. It's amazing to me that ANYone can come home from war without PTSD, which is likely why it's often diagnosed years later as was the case for Mr. Marlantes.

In the meantime, I'm still walking and painting and for that I decided that I needed to lighten up a bit, choosing Sarah Addison Allen's latest novel The Girl Who Chased the Moon. My friend Andrea and I had found Ms. Allen's first novel, Garden Spells, to be an absolute delight - a frothy, sweet but not saccharine novel with  a little taste of Alice Hoffman's unexplained "practical magic" thrown in.

Somehow I missed her second novel but listened to this new one in record time. There usually seems to be a character in Allen's novels who has to return "home," wherever that is, through no desire of his/her own. Generally you'll find a family secret, long buried or unacknowledged, and unlikely friendships that lead to discoveries that allow the protagonists to better understand themselves and others.

In this case we have a lovely young woman, Emily Benedict, now an orphan, moving to her mother's small southern hometown to live with a grandfather she never knew she had. As Emily tries to break through grandpa Vance's reserve, she meets a bevy of townspeople who know more about her mom than she ever did and discovers that some had reason to dislike the woman Emily thought walked on water.

A parallel story line involves former town bad girl, Julia, who has returned temporarily upon her dad's death to get his barbecue restaurant back in the black. In a case of the lady doth protest too much, Julia persues her dream of opening a bakery in any other city far away by creating one of a kind desserts that unwittingly entice a former lover to rekindle a high school affair.

Sarah A. Allen's books constitute just the right respite from the plethora of dark novels I have stacked on counters everywhere, not to mention the constantly depressing news from the papers and this morning's talking heads on NBC and ABC. Meanwhile, I just received ANOTHER book from Library Journal - I'd be a millionairess if I was being paid for these reviews!

The new one is by Myla Goldberg whose debut novel Bee Season was a fascinating, complicated read that was made into a less than stellar movie with Richard Gere in a role that just didn't suit. The minute I get out of the jungle I'll jump into Goldberg's The False Friend on which I have a ten day turnaround.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Karl Marlantes' Vietnam

I've been lying awake for an hour now thinking about all that I want to say about this extraordinary novel Matterhorn. For anyone who may be considering writing a novel, the story of this one's genesis and publication is worthy of a novel itself. For over thirty years this Vietnam veteran, father, husband, and businessman has used his spare time - one wonders how he found any - to put together a forbiddingly lengthy 1600 page manuscript. Kudos to his publishers for paring it down to the very accessible, amazingly readable 600 pages that I'm more than halfway through now.

Perhaps because I'm of the Vietnam "conflict" generation I've tended to avoid reading too many novels, or non-fiction for that matter, about it. I've always been drawn to World War II literature because my dad was, though he'd hate the appellation, a war hero, and I believe it was the last war our country has been involved in that could, in my mind, be justified.

One of the great sadnesses of the anti-war movement of the '60's was the misunderstanding between the motives of the demonstrators - and I was one - and the young men forced to participate in the war itself. One can hate the action but not the person who had to do it. Friends and I were talking last night about the draft; how one had to register but then how and when the lottery went into effect. I recall as if it was yesterday, sitting around the tv in Wool House at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, watching the wire mesh tub full of numbers turn as young men's lives hung in the balance. We worried for lovers, friends and, in my case, my "baby" brother, two years younger.

One of the most outstanding things I've noticed about Marlantes' book is that he takes a very Jack Webb type  approach to the war - not making judgements or preaching or, as some debut novelists might, speak through the main character, Lt. Mellas. Marlantes puts the facts out there for readers to absorb and allows us to reach out own conclusions about the morality, horror, or foolishness of war.

This novel is so raw, so honest in its depiction of what motivated these young men, those who chose to go to Southeast Asia and those who had no choice. After only a page or two I felt as if I'd been dropped from a Huey into a soggy jungle and basically told to fend for myself. There can be no kind of training in the world that can fully prepare one for a change of this magnitude. You can feel the dampness at your very core, smell the stench of jungle rot and the tension and fear that rises from the backs of these kids as they hack their way blind through the dense forests of bamboo and elephant grass.

Marlantes does an excellent job of addressing the rising tensions between the black soldiers and their white counterparts. The Black Power movement was heating up at home, African Americans realizing that they were being sent to Vietnam in inordinately high numbers to fight for a freedom they had yet to accomplish in the states, began to organize and separate themselves voluntarily from their cohorts. The prejudice they endured was real and frankly, beyond belief, in a military establishment that had supposedly been integrated during or after World War II.

Another situation the author acutely observes is the political machinations, the dishonesty, or maybe I should say, carelessness, with which some of the officers toyed with their troops. Depending upon how badly a captain or a major wanted to move up and be decorated, he could turn a blind eye to the suffering of his subordinates. One gets the feeling that an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality ensued. Though their gut feelings may have gnawed at them, they were conveniently able to forget or disbelieve that some units were stuck out in the jungle without food, a change of clothes, medical supplies or ground support for weeks at a time.

I realize that this post is getting too long but I can't recommend this book highly enough. I'm pleased to say that it is on a wait list at our library but anyone who wants to borrow my ARC is welcome to it. If more people would read novels like this, and I hope there will be some outstanding novels to come out of our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan too, maybe, one day, the voters and readers in our country will prevail and fulfill Congressman Kucinich's desire to replace our Department of War with a Department of Peace.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Anne Tyler I'm Not

But I can wish! About 15 years ago my supervisor at the time, Daria Parry, gave me the honor of letting me run the book discussion group at the library where we worked. I think she was already beginning to burn out on being a librarian and, though I was the elder, it was a mid-life career change for me and I was passionate about it. And nervous!

We were to discuss, I believe, Ladder of Years, and I had proofread the publicity a thousand times. There was nothing misleading about it. Nevertheless, when I walked into the meeting room with my tummy in knots, I was met with strange glances and whispers. It seemed that the ladies were expecting Anne Tyler herself! PRESSURE! I had to put on my tap dancing shoes to make up for their disappointment but all must have worked out because I had a loyal following in Bonita Springs for the year and a half that I was there. We were even televised!

Since then I have enjoyed Ms. Tyler's novels, some more than others. I guess I was rather disappointed with Digging to America and, therefore, did myself the disservice of not jumping on Noah's Compass as soon as it came out. I seem to recall that the reviews were varied but I think it's hands down one of her best. First of all, I practically read it in a night and I can tell you that doesn't happen often. Then, it has a fabulous first line: "In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job."

Well, that says it all, doesn't it? Being sixty-one myself, I will admit to taking issue with Liam's insensitive daughters and friends who seemed to see him as "over the hill," and that made me curious as to Anne Tyler's age which I quickly discovered exceeds Liam's and my own by about 5 or 6 years. I just love her sense of humor which shines continuously throughout this book. It's been a while since I've laughed out loud so often while reading (yes, you know that my reading habits are generally pretty dark).

Liam Pennywell is a great literary character. I would characterize him as the male version of Olive Kitteridge if that tells you something. He's book smart but culturally naive, he's a man who isn't impressed by "stuff," preferring to leave a small footprint, he's alone but not lonely, he distrusts religion but trusts people.

Losing his job does not really upset him - he's had enough anyway. Just imagine, he thinks, being able to stay at home and read all day. Sound familiar. But, of course, it's not to be. Liam begins simplifying his life by moving to a smaller apartment where he is immediately the victim of a break in. He wakes up in a hospital bed with a skull cap of bandages, a throbbing head and no memory. His heretofore distant daughters come out of the woodwork, accompanied by his ex-wife, all with unwanted advice and criticism aimed at the way he's living. How Liam handles the changes that come his way, a teenager moving in with him, a romantic interest, are poignantly set out for us in Tyler's inimitable way. If you've missed this one, go grab a copy, pronto!

Meanwhile I've been obsessing about my review of Philip Roth's new novel Nemesis which I really, really liked and therein lies the problem. Reviewing a book I've enjoyed is much more difficult for me than the other way around. I don't know, there are just so many adjectives, we can't quote from the ARC and have to keep it around 200 words. Good grief!

I've also started my major July reading project Karl Marlantes' 600 page tome on the Vietnam War, Matterhorn. It knocked me out from the first page. Don't you just love it when a novel does that? Speaking of which, I'm done painting for the day so I think I'll get back to it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Pining for Italy

Can you even remotely believe that it's been 20 years since Frances Mayes happened upon her beloved Bramasole on the winding road that leads up the hill, which I've climbed, to Cortona? It just doesn't seem possible that so much time has elapsed since she penned Under the Tuscan Sun and changed forever the simple lives of those fiercely proud Tuscan people who have been inundated with tourists from around the world hoping to find their own little bit of heaven.

I admire Ms. Mayes tremendously. She is the perfect example of a person who has done what the "experts" say you must. She has followed her passion and it has, incidentally, brought her the wealth to continue to live that passion.
As a person who's been extremely fortunate herself over the past twenty years to have discovered her passion - librarianship - and been able to follow it and actually get paid a decent salary to become an expert on books and writing and even dabble a little bit, I have to confess that Italy and all things Italian are my other weakness. From the moment I first stepped onto the tarmac in Palermo, to my first grappa laced coffee, to my first ciao, I was hooked.

I thought it might have waned over the past few years as I've had the opportunity to visit new, exciting and far-flung places, but reading Every day in Tuscany, Seasons of an Italian Life, has been a not so gentle reminder that this is the place I would still love to retire to.

Just looking at the cover of the book, an aerial shot of the central piazza of Cortona where Betsy and I sat and slurped gelato one lovely, sun-drenched autumn afternoon, makes my heart begin to palpitate. What if I don't live long enough to get back there again? Oh, how I want to take Don and have him see it through my eyes.

Ms. Mayes and her husband Ed are poets and their supreme joy in the written word is always on display. I think that this is perhaps her most poetic book yet, in terms of her description of the endless - or as she refers to it - inexhaustible gift that is Italy. For food, of course, for art, for language and architecture, not to mention the glorious rolling hills, the vineyards, the sentry-like cypress trees that line the narrow roads, Italy offers an abundance of grace.

But truly it is the people that she, maybe inadvertantly, but inevitibly, revers. She and Ed have become locals. So much so that they've actually had to purchase and remodel another, smaller, what she refers to as (hold your laughter) a hunting cabin, hidden in the forest behind the main house, so that they can steal the privacy to write. I know, cry me a river.

Still, her explanation of how crazy it is to be sitting in the writing room at Bramasole with the weathered shutters open to the herb laden breeze, and suddenly hear tourists walking slowly by making personal comments about her, Ed or the house, as if they actually knew her from her books, is kind of funny and weird. Admirers deposit gifts in her mailbox.  I suspect it's just their way of saying thank you to her for opening up their eyes to the beauty of Italy. I thank her too.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Books I Probably Won't Finish - Rule of 50

This has been the rainiest week I can remember in a long time! It is Fourth of July evening and I'm sure a lot of picnics and fireworks displays are being curtailed because of the onslaught of rain. And to think I was worried about who would water my lawn while I was away!

Rain here in Southwest Florida never gets me down. In fact, I relish it! Don't get me wrong, I worship the sun, in fact, worshipped it a tad too much and now must eschew as often as possible those cancer causing rays that nail us between the 10 and 2 hours. But for a reader, these rainy days are a delight beyond compare. One never has to feel guilty lolly-gagging around the house with a good book when you simply can't do anything else.

Of course I did, do something else, that is. My energy fully restored from last week's cold, I proceeded to paint my living room this weekend and am one wall away from a marvelous feeling of completion. I'm thinking this will be the last time it should have to be done - in my lifetime here anyway. It all looks so clean and lovely and fresh. While I paint, I listen  to books (that is after I watched Rafi Nadal blow the competition off the court this morning at Wimbledon, ditto for Serena yesterday).

Will someone whose book group has discussed The Devil in the White City (and whose hasn't?) please tell me what all the hoopla is about. I'm halfway through and I'm still not feeling it. I admit that the writing is fine, the research on Olmstead and the architect Daniel Burnham, who brought the entire outrageous undertaking of the Chicago World's Fair together is certainly first rate.

 Larson's interweaving of the second story about the infamous Mr. Holmes who stalked young women new to the city, won them over and then disposed of them in the worst possible way, is a clever device that does keep the story moving along. So what's wrong with me?

Here's a chance for those of you who don't normally speak up to have a say. Tell me what I'm missing! Make me finish this book! Notice that a few posts back I actually had an author pick up on the tiny little mention of Dolley Madison and the White House and she encouraged me to do some further research. I will take her up on it and look for her book.

In deference to my wonderful, talented editor at Library Journal, who indicated when we met in Portland that she lobbied long and hard for Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall to win the National Book Critic's Circle award, I decided to put aside my distaste for historical fiction, English history in particular, and take up the novel. Wow! I just can't do it. Note to college roommate - Cathy Jones, if you're reading this, I bet you'd love it!

I know that this book is very clever, witty, some say brilliant even and my decision to listen to it was right on. There were so many actors in the production that it was like listening to a full blown Shakespearean play right in my car. Trouble with that? I wanted to SEE the actors. Listening just wasn't enough and reading it would, I'm sure based on hearing it, be a slog and a half. And really, how much more do we need to know about all the women King Henry wooed and how he tore apart the church to get what he wanted? Call me a philistine but those 13 discs looked daunting to me when I had only completed 6 and still wasn't enthralled.

Received a new Philip Roth from LJ the other day and it took me no time at all to get through the first hundred pages this afternoon. It's one of his works in the series that involves life in New Jersey back in the 40's and 50's. Remember The Plot Against America? I probably shouldn't say more about this one until the review is published but I'm thinking right now that it's a keeper.