Sunday, September 26, 2010


OK, friends, have any of you read this book and, if so, why didn't you tell me about it before? Were you afraid I'd go into another rant? How did this story, Zeitoun, get by my radar screen? I'm sure I've had customers ask for it and that book groups are talking about it. Did I think Dave Eggers was too "difficult" for me?

I'm about 60 pages from the end of this true story about one family's surreal experience, having lived through Hurricane Katrina but almost being destroyed by their own country. "Heck of a job Brownie!" This reads more like a novel and, if you pretend it's one, then you might be able to finish it without having your head explode the way mine is right now! It's like 1984 revisited.

The Zeitouns, a large, loving family have lived and worked in New Orleans for many years. Kathy raises their four kids and runs the business end of the painting contracting company while her husband, Abdulrahman, is the personality and workaholic, out in folks' houses all day. Do you get it yet? They are Muslim. Has it mattered in the past? Not at all. They are very successful, own several houses, and have friends all over the city. Their faith is a non-issue, as it should be.

With Katrina bearing down on the city, Kathy, the native Louisianan, begins to worry and pushes for them to leave. They have family a few hours away who will take them in. But Abdul is a stubborn man and not easily persuaded to leave what he considers his responsibilities behind. You all know the rest, don't you? Zeitoun stays, weathering the storm handily, but awakens two days later to the sound of water running through the first floor of his home.
 Salvaging what he can, he moves up to the roof where he pitches a tent, ties up his old canoe and spends his days paddling around the city helping any stray animals and people that he can. He and Kathy talk on the phone every day at noon like clockwork, she, along with Mayor Nagin, still pressing him to come to her and the kids.

And the nightmare begins. Five men and a woman, in full riot gear, armed with M-16's, rush Zeitoun's home, manhandling him and his friends. Strip-searched, thrown in outdoor dog cages and fed only pork, which of course, he could not eat, Zeitoun was held for 3 days without access to a telephone, without any explanation, but with the kinds of slurs - "Al Qaida, Taliban" - that let him know he wasn't being held for staying in the city without permission.

What follows is a week of such torture, such appalling treatment, such despair, that my stomach kept clenching as I read. How could this happen, you might ask, in the United States of America? Transferred to a super-max security prison, still without a phone call being made for him, an atty. or anyone else even knowing if he was alive or dead, Zeitoun and I began to lose hope. Admittedly, I had to go to their foundation's website to assure myself of the outcome before I could continue reading.

Dave Eggers has written a must-read book that should serve as a warning to anyone out there who, in their proud American complacency, echoes that old saw, "it couldn't happen here." It could, it did and it will again. All proceeds of the sale of this book go to the Zeitoun foundation to help rebuild New Orleans. Buy it, read it, pass it on.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Red Hook Road - Yet Another Country

Reading around the world happened to take me to Maine last week where I followed novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman. Waldman has interested me for a very long time and I believe that in previous posts, perhaps while discussing her last novel, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, I linked to the essay that brought her so much attention, the one in which, honest to a fault, she discussed having had an abortion and, though the loving mother of four children, commented that her love for her husband came first. Whoa - anathema to some, this apparently shocked the "civilized" world. But I remember hoping that my parents cared more about each other than they did about me.

Waldman's latest novel, Red Hook Road, seems much more mature and, in fact, she took some real chances with it in terms of her trust in her readers. I'll admit that it took me about 100 pages before I appreciated how cleverly she was unveiling the truths of her story. This is not a spoiler. Ms. Waldman kills John and Becca Tetherly not even an hour after their wedding and in the first chapter. The risk was that herreaders wouldn't care, because frankly, we had yet to get to know the young couple.

The joy is that Ms. Waldman spends the rest of her time with us carefully peeling back the skins of the families, compared in reviews to the Montagues and Capulets, allowing us to learn and care about Becca and John through their parents, siblings, and extended family in the little village in Maine where the actions takes place.

Coming from a small New England town myself, where I've witnessed the seething resentment of the wealthy New Yorkers who come for the summer or the weekend, driving up prices, clogging the roads, trying to change things, I empathize with the difficulties between the Tetherly and Copaken families. Jane Tetherly, single mother of the groom, has lived in Red Hook for generations, caretaking the "outsiders" homes. In fact, she is the housekeeper for Iris Copaken, wealthy New York college professor, a bit of an intellectual snob and mother of Becca who has given up a chance to pursue a classical music career to marry John and ply the Caribbean on the sailboat he is building.

The two women have a tenuous relationship at best. Both families are deeply disappointed in their children's choice of a life partner but intend to make the best of it. After the accident that takes their kids from them, the families become more entwined than they could have imagined. The depth of their grief is not obvious at first, in fact the only sympathetic character is Iris's husband, a lawyer who takes up boxing as a way of channeling his rage. But hang in there with these folks because they are beautifully, slowly, revealed in all their foibles, flaws and humanity.

An interesting subplot revolves around Iris's father, famed classical violinist Emil Kimmelbrod, whose interest in a young protegee, Jane's adopted niece Samantha, threatens to be the final rift between Jane and Iris, and Iris and her long-suffering husband. Ms. Waldman displays an impressive knowledge of (or lots of research on) the types of violins, classical music in general, and the minute care that go into honing a musical talent and that's not even to mention what she teaches us about the detail that's entailed in retrofitting a wooden sailboat.

Red Hook Road was a very satisfying read for me. If you're interested, Diane Rehm hosted Ms. Waldman on her show a few months ago where they discussed her novel:

Meanwhile I started Dave Eggers's Zeitoun which has grabbed me and won't let go. More on that next week after I see what Library Journal has sent me. A book is in the mail!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rereading Classics - Another Country

It's not bad enough, is it, that every day we read reviews of hundreds of books we just HAVE to get our hands on? When will we ever have time to delve into them all? Add to that the conundrum of all those glorious old classics one wants to revisit and Houston, we have a problem! At my library I have an end of aisle display for classic literature and the fact is, as soon as I put an Edith Wharton or a Henry James face out in its plastic receptacle, it's gone in 60 seconds. Readers are hungry for great literature.

Because of this I've decided that I, too, must return now and then to the novels my mother offered, to whet my appetite for reading so many years ago. I recently read a review of The Cross of Redemption, a collection of essays, reviews, and speeches, not previously compiled in one volume, by the author James Baldwin. I can only read one or two of these at a time because they are so powerful, so honest, and ultimately, so heart breaking in their timelessness, that I despair. Will change ever come to America?

My interest in Baldwin then progressed to one of his novels if, that is, I could find one in our downloadable books catalog. I often have difficulty finding much in the way of literary fiction in either our downloadable audio or ebook collections - a valid reason why I may have to splurge on a Nook (cheap classics) even though I love my Sony.

Another Country is read by the perfect narrator for the material. I fell for Dion Graham's voice while listening to some George Pelecanos, but his rendering of the Baldwin material is on a whole new level. The sensuality (and sexuality), the anger, the pathos, even the slightly off key singing of Bessie Smith, bring a depth to the novel that I might not have garnered from a straight reading.

As you may know, this book was published in 1962. I was in eighth grade, living in a Norman Rockwell type small New England town. Whatever I learned about the civil rights movement, the violent struggle for equality that was plaguing the South, was likely formed by osmosis, listening to my parents discuss and argue over the news before dinner, but before too long my consciousness was raised and I've been learning ever since.

The title Another Country is most apt for several reasons. Baldwin writes so movingly about characters who are angling to escape the boxes that society forms for them. Blacks forced in shackles from their own countries now find themselves in "another country," one in which they are disrespected and thus lose self-respect.
Gay men and women from all over the states come to New York City where they hope to fit in and find "another country" where they can be welcomed. Women are just beginning to chafe at the domestic "country" that they've been assigned to and are on the cusp of breaking out.

Rufus, a black jazz musician, is the catalyst for all the action in this tragic novel. A man who doesn't seem to fit in either the gay or straight world, he runs with the artists, writers and musicians who form their own country in 1950's - '60's NYC.

But Rufus is filled with the rage that comes from being promised a bill of goods that isn't forthcoming, similar to the anger that's now festering again just under the surface of our society. This rage informs his love affair with Leona, an old soul, a Southern white girl whose husband and child are lost to her. The reader gets that this relationship is doomed from the start but I was still devastated at the bleakness of Baldwin's vision.
Rufus kills himself, Leona's family consigns her to an institution, and this is only the first chapter.

All of the future action revolves around the way in which Rufus's death impacts his friends, family and former lovers. We learn that men and women were equally attracted to Rufus and that fact is a particular problem for Vivaldo, an aspiring writer who takes up with Rufus's younger sister Ida. Is it Rufus or Ida that he wants? Does he have the will to maintain this bi-racial relationship at a time when the gossip in this ostensibly "liberal" town could make or break his aspirations?

And what about Ida, a talented, ambitious singer who sees prejudice and hatred in the eyes of the musicians when she appears at the Harlem jazz clubs with her white lover. The racial divide has never loomed so large but Baldwin writes so beautifully, so thoughtfully that I can barely stand to put this audio down.

Other countries are discussed; France, Spain, where these misfits can maybe make a life free from the curious looks, the judgments, the innuendo that follows those whose dignity is disallowed. I've read that Baldwin himself found salvation in the south of France where he died in 1987. Yet today, in 2010, the Senate failed to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell and our black president is presumed to be from "another country." And this is why the classics will always speak to us.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Great House - Yes, It Lives up to its Rep

I scarcely know where to begin in talking about Nicole Krauss and her latest novel Great House. I wouldn't want to do the book a disservice by leaving you with my previous posting or mislead you into thinking the book is only about a desk. Naturally, it is so much more, so much deeper than that, which is why it reminded me of The Red Violin.

The desk has belonged to many people over the ages and has meant something to each person - has almost inhabited each owner in a way. I had to go to Ms. Krauss's website - -  to read an interview with her in which she remarks that the novel is really about memory, or as she calls it, "emotional inheritance." Isn't that a fabulous term? That's why I love writers so much. How do they do it? How does someone so young find the depth or imagination to write characters at every stage of life, rendering them so fully formed?

Maybe it's only because I had such a wonderfully inclusive and insightful book group at the library today to analyze Olive Kitteridge that I'm making this comparison, but it seems to me that, like Elizabeth Strout, Krauss has taken a series of stand alone stories and used the conceit of the desk to knit them into a perfect whole. Though it takes some concentration to read, and while you may find yourself returning to previous sections to be sure you haven't missed something, you will be rewarded with amazement at what can be accomplished with the English language.

The setting fluidly runs from New York to London, and Budapest to Jerusalem. There are several main characters, one a famous novelist who narrates much of the novel, another, Mr. Weisz, an antiques dealer whose specialty is tracking down valuables stolen from victims of the Nazi purge and Holocaust, returning them to their families or heirs.

The theme of familial relationships looms large in this ambitious, complicated novel. The difficult relationships between parents and children is heartbreaking in its realism, in its ultimately missed connections, disappointments, unstated desires, loss and longing. But please don't think that I'm saying this novel is depressing - it is not. At the risk of leaning on the most overused word in book reviewing, it is luminous!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Maybe I Really Am a Writer!

I've found that, increasingly, I wake up during the night or early in the morning with fully formed blog posts written in my head. I can't wait to get to the computer but it isn't fair to put down whatever thoughts are floating about my consciousness - not fair to readers who come here expecting to read about books. I simply can't read fast enough to keep the theme of "reading around the world" going, though you'll all admit that I try like hell!

Don has had an idea that I should create a second blog to deal more with my political and societal musings, which can be triggered at a moment's notice by an off hand comment from a customer at the library, an observation of human interactions that sometimes feed my soul but more often tend to confirm my opinion that living in another country might be the way to go.

 Just today, trying to make a dent in my Sunday papers, (I begin with The Week in Review in the Times so that I can concentrate on Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd and the guest essayists) I came up with about three different rants that I could write in a heartbeat. Let's see, Afghanistan - follow the money; Education - we're lost; Health care - why won't people admit that we're no longer number 1, not even close (unless of course, you've got the money to buy the best).

 Later, I'll peruse the News-Press while watching the US Open men's final since concentration isn't really called upon to scan the latest murders, drug busts, etc. Yesterday the sheriff's office was so proud of the garage full of marijuana it discovered after, I believe 10 hours' of men and equipment - for what? Legalize it and get it over with for heaven's sake!

You'll be glad to know that I've lightened up my ride to work with the latest from Alexander McCall Smith. I just adore the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series and have found myself falling in love with Smith's version of Botswana even if I may not get there when I take my big Africa trip next year. The continent is simply too big and choices have to be made. Three weeks may seem like a long time but the itinerary we're putting together is ambitious and Gabarone just doesn't have a draw like DuBois's Ghana or Don's previous home in Senegal.

Since we plan to end our stay in the Sudwala Safari Lodge outside Kruger Park I thought it only fitting that I listen to The Double Comfort Safari Club which is, if you're familiar with the series, a slow, languorous read that can lull you to sleep on the road if you're not careful. But there's a place for this kind of novel, the sweet, insightful musings of Mma Ramotswe, McCall-Smith's alter-ego, and the delightful, quirky side kick, Mma Makutse. I feel that I know them personally, especially after watching the HBO special last year.

The plot is certainly far-fetched - a woman in the states has died and left a considerable sum to a safari guide in Botswana who treated her kindly while she was vacationing there. The attorney who writes from St. Louis to Mma Ramotswe doesn't know the name of the lodge or the name of the guide - hmmm - but will foot the bill for Precious and Grace to track down the guide, travel to the safari lodge and hand him the inheritance. You doubters will say, "oh yeah, we'll see how that works out," but I, as a reader of the series, am fully confident that it will.

By my bed I have a much sought after advanced reader's copy of Nicole Krauss's new novel The Great House. I plan to ignore the "rule of 50" on this one and keep going though it seems very dense. The reviews have been glowing from every quarter, I loved her first novel The History of Love, and the premise, though done before (remember The Red Violin?), intrigues me. Then too, how can I not admire a novelist whose protagonist relaxes by leaving the city and driving through the Berkshires - mentioning my hometown of Gt. Barrington by name?

One of the primary characters in Ms. Krauss's book is a desk. There's something mysterious and exciting about a big old desk. I remember one in my great aunts' house that intrigued me so much with it's creaky roll top, its nooks and crannies, drawers big and small that often stuck, reassuring my young, imaginative mind that something wonderful was hidden there.

The desk in the novel belonged to a revolutionary, a poet who bequeathed it to another writer when he decided to return to his own country to continue the fight against the dictator Pinochet. The writer produced novel after novel - though Krauss's description of the writing process sounds more like hell than heaven - from this cherished desk for 25 years. Then, one day a stranger calls claiming ownership of the desk and the writer's life seems to cave in on itself.

I intend to spend a lazy afternoon reading and will let you know if this novel lives up the the hype.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Sometimes we're right to be angry!

OK, don't laugh, it's not my fault that I live so close to work and rarely drive anywhere anymore, but I finally finished So Much for That and Lionel Shriver gave me the most satisfying ending to a novel that I think I've ever encountered - and that said after all my complaining about her. Oh, I wanted to jump out of my driver's seat with a fist pump when Shep made his final visit to the oncologist's office to discuss his wife's prognosis.

Shep had done all his homework and had known all along that mesothelioma had a very low, read no, cure rate, but with that guilt that is so understandable and which doctors can beat you with every time, he had continued to fork over the bucks for one experimental treatment after another. The latest one that the good doctor recommended would cost $100,000 per dose and Glynis's life expectancy was three weeks, give or take!

From my research into this amazingly angry writer, Lionel Shriver, I have discovered that she has had her run ins with the medical profession and their infuriating insistence upon prolonging life at all costs. Sure, each of us has a different sense of what constitutes quality versus quantity but I learned the hard way that our good common sense can often be overruled by well meaning families and doctors who see research opportunities and a healthy insurance reimbursement.

My mom was only my age when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. It was more than a shock to our family as my mom was one tough nut. She was rarely sick that I can remember and I had never known anyone who had had cancer and hadn't recovered, so talk of death was not an option. Within six weeks she was gone, a bald, skinny, shrunken shell of the vibrant, brilliant teacher, reader and conversationalist extraordinaire that she had been. I was so angry! Why didn't she fight it, I wondered. Where was all that spunk she used to show when she taught Shakespeare to the high school boys who were one more offense away from jail?

I overrode my dad and got up the courage to call her doctor a few weeks after her funeral for a talk. When he told me that she had known that she couldn't be cured and that she had opted for the full load of chemo anyway, I was devastated. To think she had ruined her final days, a woman who loved eating out more than anything,  no longer even able to swallow, in a futile attempt to "hang on" a little longer, for us? I wrote my living will shortly thereafter.

This all brings me to Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided; How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. Some might say that this is a radical idea but I love Ms. Ehrenreich's courage to tell us the things we don't want to hear. Maryellen and I were first introduced to her at a long ago ALA conference in Atlanta where she was a keynote speaker about her first  big book Nickel and Dimed. She was angry then and she's angry now. There's a lot going on in this book but one chapter really spoke to me.

Ms. Ehrenreich had been diagnosed with breast cancer. An educated, research oriented person, she naturally went to the doctor's office with all the answers before she asked the questions. Then she got caught up in this relentlessly PINK, cheerful business (the ribbons, the hats, the tennis balls for pete's sake - even kitchen utensils) which personally drives me bonkers and trivializes the disease. Did someone forget that men get breast cancer too?

She talks about how doctors use the military metaphor for dealing with illness (we peaceniks resent that), the battle, the fight, the long haul, etc. She examines the guilt that one feels for getting ill and the subtle ways that one is made to feel that it's all their own fault when, hey, sometimes it's just the luck of the draw. But worst of all, and most damaging, is this implication that one can get better by positive thinking and that, is all the drug cocktails and radiation fail, it's somehow the patient who isn't "trying" hard enough. GRRR - This is one of the huge issues addressed by Lionel Shriver as well. Funny how when you're reading one thing it always links to another.

Lest you think, dear readers, that I'm some kind of a crank, nothing could be further from the truth! In fact, if I do say so myself, I'd guess that most people who know me would say that I have one of the sunniest dispositions around - and they'd be right. But, as Judge Judy once said, "don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining!"

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Mystique of Steig Larsson

So what is it, will somebody tell me, about this fascination with the Steig Larsson trilogy? I've never seen customers (at the library) go so crazy for a series of novels, by a European no less, that are so full of violence and disturbing sexual images. Well, sure, there's James Patterson, but with him, you've read one, you've read 'em all. I understand that the Larsson books are at least well written. I'll find out soon enough as a friend just gave me her three books after she finished them.

I crack up when these sweet little ladies with their permed hair and sedate demeanor come in complaining that they've been waiting so long for the books. I wonder if they know what they're in for. But then, who knows, maybe they see me as that sweet little librarian who loves her work so much and would never have an inkling into my love affair with the dark side either.

A couple of weeks ago as we spent most of Saturday in the waiting room of the Florida Skin Center with all the other ex-sun worshipers, I got a real kick out of seeing what the others were reading. We all know the drill and come prepared with plenty of reading material, laptops, snacks, etc. Don was lost in his electronic chess game and I was with Obama's family in The Bridge, but looked up to see an older couple - ha! - probably our age - come in and settle in with their books. What was she reading? You guessed it. Steig Larsson.
Pretty soon the whole waiting room was in a discussion about the films vs. the books, the upcoming American version vs. the European one, and with one leading comment a room full of strangers had found a meeting of the minds. Jeezzzz - I love it when that happens!

True confessions, I did try to listen to the first in the series, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a couple of years ago and for whatever reason - we all know sometimes its just a temporary mindset that keeps us from enjoying a certain novel at a certain time -  I just couldn't get into it. I doubt I gave it the patience that it deserved and now, having Netflixed (can that be a new verb like "googled"?) the film, I do intend to go back and read them all. Don and I watched the original European version with subtitles and plan to watch the next one soon.
Rape scenes are especially disturbing to me but I've come to love the fierce, tough gamin, Lizbeth Salander and when she gets her vengeance - well, let's just say I was ashamed of myself for the thrill of it!

Meanwhile, I had read at one of the hundreds of book blogs I subscribe to ( Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind) that there was another famous couple before Larsson and his partner (who I really hope has another novel on that laptop she refused to give up to his greedy family), who were the Swedish precursor to the Girl trilogy. Ten titles, considered masters of the police procedural, were published by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo and, wonder of wonders, my library has them all. Last night I began The Laughing Policeman and it got me from page 1. Will keep you posted.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Labor Day

Yes, the title is apropos, isn't it? Once again I've been eyeballing this novel because of the gorgeous cover art and because I've read much about the author Joyce Maynard, but had never read her work. (great interview with the author on Amazon!) I'm listening to this book and admittedly, I've been lax in my walking lately because of the ferocious heat and my new found love of my pilates video.

This novel is disturbing in a deep, visceral way that makes one recall the Stockholm Syndrome that afflicted Patty Hearst and that was handled so well in literature by Ann Patchett in Bel Canto. It's psychologically fascinating to me how easy it is to come under the spell of a person who treats us with whatever it is we're missing in life and how certain personality types are adept at sussing that out right away.

Escaped convict Frank is one of these types, deftly singling out 13 year old Henry and his mother Adele as they make one of their infrequent trips to the Pricemart in a small town in New Hampshire. Adele suffers from a worsening case of agoraphobia and relies overmuch on her young son to be her lifeline to the "real" world. Divorced and incapable of leaving home to hold any kind of meaningful work, Adele lives in a somnolent dream world, reminiscing about her past as a woman who loved to dance and style and get out in the world.

Frank has injured himself in a plunge out of a hospital window and needs to lay low over the Labor Day weekend, convincing Henry and Adele to take him home with them. Once there, Frank begins to open new worlds for both young Henry, whose self-esteem is at an all-time low, and for Adele with whom he falls in love.

Slowly, over the course of the weekend, the author unveils Frank's story, how he came to be imprisoned and plotted to make his escape, so that empathy for him is not only plausible but acceptable. This allows the reader to understand how both Henry and Adele begin to see Frank's entry into their lives as a saving grace. There's little that Frank can't do, his cooking that he learned from his grandmother, teaching Henry how to throw a ball, household chores that have gone undone for years take shape in his hands.

But the most eventful transformation is the one in Adele as she blossoms under Frank's  love and care and the renewed power of sexual fulfillment. The problem is that Henry, at 13, is also beginning to feel the power of puberty, and we can all remember how creepy we used to think it was that our parents actually "did it!" Henry is no exception and the mixed feelings of sexual jealousy, being on the outside looking in as his mom and Frank become more and more intoxicated with each other, skew his thinking to the point where he contemplates the ultimate betrayal.

This is an incredible novel that would be great fodder for book groups. The pace builds so slowly that the heart pounding worry about what's going to happen next sneaks up on readers almost without warning. As you're reading you have this constant feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. I recommend it!

Meanwhile, Swamplandia has proven to be a delightful place to hang out for a week and my review for LJ just kind of wrote itself.  Sometimes they come so easy and other times not so much. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to it but I love the challenge. Off to work guys, have a great holiday weekend.