Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Lovers

Have you ever seen a book on the shelf that just screamed out to be chosen? One of the things that I absolutely love about the configuration of the reference desk at my library branch is that it sits directly across from the new book section. Not only does it make it easy for us to do double duty, shelving and answering questions as the same time, it also allows us to really examine all the scrumptious new novels that come in under the radar - the ones that don't go right back out to fill holds.

Long before the review appeared in the NYTimes book review I had spotted Vendela Vida's gorgeous little novel, The Lovers. It caught my eye for a couple of reasons, one of which is that the title has been used so many times before (one wonders why book titles aren't copyright protected) but also because of the simplicity of the cover art - the silhouette of the young boy wading into the becalmed sea - which doesn't become relevant until you're well into the book.

Upon opening the book the reader is greeted by a page of black and white intricate paisley kind of design reminiscent of Turkey where the novel takes place. These little things of beauty that a publisher accomplishes are missing to the reader of an ebook. One of the few drawbacks but, alas, there it is.

The story revolves around Yvonne, a young widow, a former school teacher, who hasn't fully mourned the death of her husband in an automobile accident back home in the states. She decides, quite courageously, to travel back to the tiny seaside town of Datca, where she and her husband spent their honeymoon. Readers understand that "you can't go home again..." and that memory has a way of being superior to reality.
This turns out to be the case as Yvonne walks the scruffy main roads, littered with trash and patrolled by stray animals. She realizes that she was blinded by love the first time she was there and that nothing is as she remembered.

In her loneliness she befriends almost anyone who will talk to her, including the spurned ex-lover of her mysterious landlord, a pair of tour boat operators, and a young boy who haunts the beach collecting shells to sell to tourists. She and Ahmet communicate using smiles and gestures while one gets the impression that she sees in him every student that she couldn't reach. Oddly, she yearns for his approval, paying him to paddle out on his surf board, scanning the ocean floor for the perfect shell.
Like many Americans Yvonne has good intentions tied up in helping this boy, but based on faulty information. When things go tragically awry, Yvonne is left to mourn once again.

The Lovers is a very unusual, haunting, spare novel. Things happen in this book that defy reality but, as a reader, I tended to just accept what Ms. Vida gave me, going with the flow. I don't normally do that. I usually talk to myself throughout a book saying "that wouldn't happen, that couldn't happen," but for some reason, the beauty of the author's prose forced me to suspend disbelief and succumb to the story.

Talk about suspending disbelief! I can't believe the wild book I just received from Library Journal for review. It appears to be a literary fantasy piece called Swamplandia and it takes place, you guessed it, in the Everglades. It doesn't appear at first glance to be anything like what I'd normally read, yet the author, Karen Russell, has accrued a daunting list of credits in her very young career so I will have to give it much credence. Eight days to read and review. Guess what I'll be doing this weekend?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sue Miller

Several years ago Sue Miller was a guest at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival and, because I had made the contact with her, I got to share the stage and introduce her to the crowd. I was so excited - let's face it, most librarians are author stalkers to some degree, but once we meet them it's easy to become tongue tied. In this case though, she was the one who seemed reticent to strike up a conversation. I would almost describe my impression of her as melancholy. Interestingly, that's how her press photo appears as well, and readers familiar with her tremendous output will likely admit that there's nothing uplifting about it.

The Lake Shore Limited is no exception. I've read so many fabulous books, one right after the other lately, that I almost didn't stick with this novel because I'd been spoiled. It didn't grab me right out of the gate. The atmosphere of sadness is palpable yet it draws the reader in. One feels the need to pursue these characters as they try to navigate life as normal, functioning people even though one senses the turmoil roiling right beneath the surfaces.

Leslie and Pierce are in Boston for the opening of a new play written by their dear friend Billy, Wilhelmina, Gertz. The play, The Lake Shore Limited, is about a man who is in anguish over his plans to leave his wife until he hears that she may have been the victim of a terrorist bombing of a train in Chicago. The guilt that he feels about ending their relationship is mitigated by the dream of a future with his lover. Until, that is, she voices the relief that he fleetingly feels when he realizes that his wife Charlotte's death would release him from having to tell her he's leaving.

Once he hears the ugliness of his secret thoughts come from the mouth of his lover, he can no longer even look at her. Truth has broken the spell and he will now wait for word of his wife's life or death with the realization that he will always be with her. As the novel progresses we realize that Billy's play was written from the depth of her own conflicted feelings about the death of her lover, Gus, who was Leslie's baby brother and how Gus's death has created an uncomfortably unbreakable bond between Billy and Leslie.

If this sounds a tad complicated then you're right, it is. That's what gives this novel its supreme strength. People are complicated - relationships are complicated - and Miller is supremely gifted at exposing what goes on beneath our surfaces in a painfully honest way. Her description of the day when Billy realizes that Gus must have been on one of the planes that was flown into the World Trade Center is a masterful piece of work. The sense of dislocation, confusion, loss of time - the shock of understanding how little she actually knew this man/boy she was living with - is devastating.

I had planned to go into a rant about 9/11 - about how people can't let it rest, put it behind them, and how this latest controversy of the Islamic Cultural Center to be built nearby is merely an excuse for politicians to make points with their constituents and fall all over each other to see who can be uglier. Believe it or not, reading Miller's book this morning before work (rather than the newspaper) has actually calmed me down on that subject. Plus, I started reading David Remnick's book, The Bridge, about President Obama back when I still hoped he could be all things to all people.

I'm also rereading the fabulous Olive Kitteridge, taking notes for an upcoming book discussion, the first of our "season" here in Estero, Florida. My starred review of Philip Roth's latest novel, Nemesis, appeared in the August edition of Library Journal - check it out!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Thoughts on Lionel Shriver

I'm beginning to really appreciate Ms. Shriver's ferociously dark sense of humor as I continue to listen to So Much for That. As my commute to work is short it may take some time for me to finish this book but I know that I will. There are times when I'm driving down the road and actually gasp out loud thinking, "she didn't say that!"

There are long philosophical discussions about quality versus length of life, including a rehash of the horrific Terri Schiavo case that put Florida on the map a few years ago and turned me off Jeb Bush forever. One of the most wise-cracking, poignant characters in this novel is Flicka, the extremely ill daughter of Jackson and Carole, who, at 16 years old, has had to grow up way too quickly. She's uber-bright and well aware that she doesn't have a long life expectancy.

 She feeds herself mush through a tube, is subject to debilitating seizures, yet because of the politics of public education in America, is mainstreamed in the school system. Her illness doesn't really allow her to develop friendships or to socialize in any normal way. She believes that people find her an object of pity and curiosity and voices the wish that her parents would let her just stay home and vegetate. But perhaps the lady doth protest too much?

Glynis, on the other hand, always such a cynic, has had surgery for mesothelioma and is currently suffering through a barrage of chemo treatments, hoping against hope to stay alive. Shep, now a full-time caretaker, sneaks guiltily into his office late at night to go online and just peek at the websites for the tiny island of Pemba where he had hoped they would retire to some day.

What, you might ask, to I do to pull myself out of the doldrums brought on by all this depressing reading? Certainly the newspapers don't help! Last night I went to the White House website and watched with pleasure as Elena Kagan accepted her appointment to the Supreme Court. All the good things that our government is doing - most of which never make the news - are there for anyone to see, if only they would.

Today I'll begin writing the review of my latest LJ offering, a wonderfully unusual and atmospheric novel by Susan Straight, a former National Book Award finalist. Take One Candle, Light a Room, will be out in October. Next up: Sue Miller's The Lakeshore Limited.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name.....

I'm trying to read all of the books on this year's discussion list well in advance and picked up one of Andrea's choices So Much for That by Lionel Shriver. I started listening to it in my car and I found it ferociously mean spirited. All I could think was "wow, this guy is so angry!" I kept listening, in thrall. It's kind of like when you drive by a car accident on the road and don't want to look but can't help yourself.

Imagine my embarrassment when I decided to look up this angry writer, Lionel Shriver, to see what his problem was and found that he is a she, and a prolific one at that! That will teach me to make judgments. Knowing that Ms. Shriver is an ex-pat living in London makes the novel and its point of view even more interesting to me. I didn't think I'd be able to spend any more time with these characters but now I know I'll hang in til the end.

Maybe what's bothering me about this book is how much it makes me think of myself and my friends, blithely planning for our futures, the trips we want to take, the "to do" lists for our retirement years. What's that old saying about "we plan, God laughs?" Shep and Glynis Knacker have spent every one of their vacations scouting for the perfect place to live when their time comes to relax and jump off the ends of the earth. They do everything right - work hard, invest wisely, live sensibly - and bang. Not just the Big C, but a highly untreatable form of cancer with a minimal chance of a good recovery. Suddenly all those pie in the sky plans fold up like a house of cards. It's terribly depressing.

Shriver's characters seem to just be mouthpieces for her politics. When Shep and Glynis get together with their best (and only) friends Carole and Jackson, who are raising a severely handicapped daughter, they rage against the American health care system, politicians, and the liberal elite, hysterically portrayed by Shep's wayward sister Beryl who spouts left wing rhetoric, eschews a career making money for one producing self-centered art films, and then begs for cash from her more responsible brother every time she needs a bailout. Ouch.

There are many online interviews with Ms. Shriver available but I'll just link to one. I find it interesting that she's gone on record as being dead set against President Obama's health care bill yet she despises our current situation in the United States, a belief that comes through loud and clear in this latest novel, but lives in England herself where she has free access to "socialized medicine." Hmmmmm

I would love to be a fly on the wall during this book discussion. Just maybe I'll be able to sneak away from the reference desk for an hour. In the meantime I have a tantalizing new book from Library Journal to delve into. My favorite days are those when I come in to find an express envelope from New York sitting on my desk!
Today I have an odd day off mid-week and I can hear my neighbor out mowing his lawn so I'd better get on it as well before it gets too hot.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Relationships are no easy thing!

I have been crabbing quite vocally lately about the dearth of intelligent movies that come to southwest Florida. Getting the New York Times on the weekend is only serving to frustrate me as I am teased by the reviews of all these wonderfully bright, controversial films, starring brave award-winning actors that won't ever see their way clear to Regal Cinemas in Ft. Myers. Is it any wonder the Netflix and our own library system are putting these theatres out of business?

Finally, after showing around the country for six weeks now, we got The Kids are All Right - English majors - shouldn't it be "alright?" My friend Donna and I went to see it yesterday and kudos to the film as it was the catalyst for a 6 hour conversation on relationships, marriage (whether it be between a man and a woman, two men, two women) and the difficulty of sustaining long term coupledom in this day and age of longer and longer lives. Were we meant to be together for 30, 40 or 50 years?

It's difficult to believe in a "higher power" who had a grand plan in mind when you think that he/she didn't foresee our living to such ripe old ages. Just returning to biblical times one can figure that a couple married at the age of 12 or 13, stayed together to raise their children to a similar age and then died off. So what's the longest they were together? Fifteen years maybe?

Think about the person you were at 18, then 30, 45 - 50, and now. Is it an unrealistic expectation to think that two people can grow at the same speed, toward the same goal, keeping love and attraction and respect intact throughout the aging process? This question has been bandied about quite a bit lately in light of the shocking news of the Al Gores' divorce but I've been pondering it for years. I can honestly say that, off the top of my head, I can only think of two couples I know who have managed to go past the forty years together mark and still prefer to be with each other than with anyone else. Oh yes, Alan and Sharon, Cathy and Hank, I do envy you.

The movie did an outstanding job of showing a lesbian couple in a long term marriage, raising two teenagers who share the same male sperm from a donor bank in California, as they try to navigate all the relational pitfalls of any heterosexual couple; a flagging sex life, disputes over power, who handles the money, who does the cooking, who's too easy on the kids, etc. They have traditional roles, the incomparable Annette Bening is a physician and the main breadwinner, her partner Julianne Moore has been the stay at home earth mother type whose latest venture is as a landscape architect.

Their performances were brave and heartfelt to the point where I did not see them as two female actors playing lesbians but felt that they were, indeed, a couple. In one amazing scene at a dinner table there is an incredibly long closeup of Ms. Bening sans makeup as she undergoes a devastating realization. The emotion plays across her face, crow's feet at her eyes, character lines around the mouth, a neck that looks like it belongs to a real woman and not a doctored version of one. It made me so proud to be a "woman of a certain age."

And it brings me to a look at a book I'm just finishing, another one that I had the good fortune to pick up back at the Public Library Assoc. conference in Portland. The Red Thread by Ann Hood is, on the surface, a book about adoption, in particular, adoption of Chinese female babies by American families. It's all there and lovingly told, the anguish of the Chinese mothers forced by family or circumstance or the government to give up their "unimportant" girl children and how these babies find their way to the waiting arms of women here in the states who long for a baby of their own.

But more than this, Ms. Hood has written a terrifying novel about relationships; the reasons couples are brought together, the reasons they part, the tragic inability of men and women to communicate about their deepest hopes and desires; the little deceptions that drive a chink into the foundation of even the happiest couples and the way they often tend to be working against each other, sometimes deliberately but at other times completely unwittingly.

Ms. Hood has created a wonderful character in Maya Lange, the owner of The Red Thread Adoption Agency, and the person who heals the emptiness in her heart caused by the loss of her own baby daughter to a tragic accident, by filling the need for a baby in others' hearts. Maya is as masterful at dealing with the various personalities of the prospective parents, their fear, insecurity and troubles, as she is with subsuming her own.

Even though I'm devastated by the couples I'm meeting in this novel, I care about them and want to keep reading to see how they will work through their relationships, or not. The writing is beautiful, the pacing quick and if you had no distractions you could finish this in a day.  I gather from the author's note at the end of the book that she is writing from the heart and has been to the emotional places she describes. I've not read Ann Hood before. If you haven't either, you might want to give this one a try.