Friday, October 29, 2010

Franzen's Freedom

I'm two thirds of the way through Jonathan Franzen's newest epic, Freedom. It's everything I expected and more. Discussion has been going on here at work for a few weeks between those of us who loved The Corrections and the other who couldn't take it. I'll admit that the families in his earlier book held few redeeming qualities - though some of the scenes came right out of my childhood - (which I thought was fairly idyllic). You've got to have a sense of humor, right?

Someone who seems to be lacking that humor is author Jodie Picoult. I'm not sure I understand her ire at the publicity and honors that Franzen is receiving but it certainly seems overblown. I'm all for exhibiting a healthy dose of self confidence but for her to put herself in the same literary category as Franzen is just simply unrealistic. To say that women are consistently left out of literary awards and acknowledgement seems inaccurate as well. What about Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel?
Perhaps, after looking over her recent interview on the Huffington Post, her gripe is more about publicity rather then respect. However, if I had her bank account I don't think I'd be whining.

Anyway, back to Freedom which I find myself unable to put down. Ironically, I've been fighting off a major autumn cold for the past ten days and have been sleepless and hacking half the night away. This incident has afforded me the opportunity to read during the wee hours so I may actually have the book back to the library relatively close to deadline!
The Berglund family, around whom the action swirls, is a kinder, gentler, version of the family in The Corrections. Their issues seem to be less black and white; a much more nuanced portrayal of the day in/day out intricacies of holding together a related unit of wildly divergent personalities brought together by the accident of birth and the choice of marriage, made like so many of them, at an age when the protagonists are just too darn young and unformed.

Franzen can be downright hilarious, not in the laugh out loud funny way, but in the wincing "ouch" kind of way, as he skewers the left, the right, and all the inbetweens. This is a very political novel in which people with the best of intentions  turn absolutely Machiavellian in their aim to achieve their goals. Take, for instance, Walter Berglund's burning desire to save a blue warbler at the risk of getting into bed with the Bush/Cheney crew that will scrape raw the West Virginia mountaintops to achieve a 100 year gain. It's all end justifies means and he's encouraged in his quest by a young, dewy-eyed assistant who takes advantage of the rift between the long-married Walter and Patty to insert herself while Walter is at his weakest.

Patty, meanwhile, is sunk in apathy and depression as she dwells on the road not taken. Back in college, while she was under the spell of Walter's roommate, rocker Richard Katz, Walter worshipped her from a distance. Rather than take the chance on the womanizer Katz, she convinced herself that the good, stolid Walter would be the right choice for a husband (an ideology that usually proves true). Only problem with this is that Walter and Patty continue to see Richard throughout their marriage and the itch between Patty and Richard cries out to be scratched.

Helicopter parenting has a particularly bad outcome in terms of the Berglund's son Joey who rebels against his liberal family's intense love and scrutiny by moving next door into the home of his girlfriend and her right-wing, beer-swilling step dad (a rather stereotypical example to be sure) whose pick-up trucks and rusty construction equipment are the bane of Patty's existence. After Joey moves East to attend college he's torn between the complete sexual satisfaction - and isn't that what it's all about for a 19 year old? - from Connie and the possibility of hooking up with his roommate's sister and the chance to get upwardly mobile. He rather callously calls upon his newly discovered Jewish roots to ingratiate himself with his roommate's dad and lands himself a summer job that will serve him well.

No, this isn't a feel-good novel, nor is it intended to be. It is however, a sadly realistic look at life as we know it. It's peopled with hypocrites, slackers, those without good judgment and those who judge too much, those who'll stomp on someone else's rights so that they can get theirs and those who fight for what they believe is right as the expense of someone else. These same characters forgive, forget and love in their own inimitable ways. They are, probably, most all of us!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Glass Rainbow

Such a lovely title for such a dark novel! But then I suppose that a glass rainbow indicates the fragility of beauty, how easily it can be broken, an apropos metaphor for the tragic, violent deaths of the young women that haunt Dave Robicheaux in this latest entry in Burke's long-running, powerful series set in the mysterious, treacherous bayous outside New Orleans.

I usually listen to my Robicheaux novels because Will Patton does such an outstanding job in the narration. His vocal renditions range from world-weary to downright sinister with a guttural timbre that ratchets up my blood pressure and has me looking behind me when I exit the car. As Clete Purcell, Dave's longtime friend and polar opposite, Patton can bring the reader to tears describing the emptiness and desolation of his life. As Dave, Patton takes us into the heart of a man whose ferocious, protective love for his wife and adopted daughter Alafair, conflict with the deep anger of the Vietnam veteran and cop who sees an injustice and just has to right it.

One often wonders how much of these novels - and those of many, many writers - are based in at least some fact. Because of my work on the Southwest Florida Reading Festival ( )and the years of writing to Alafair Burke in an attempt to lure her and her dad to Ft. Myers for a head to head presentation, I know that she is a law professor in New York and a well-known mystery writer in her own right. In The Glass Rainbow, Alafair is still in law school but is taking a semester back home to complete her first novel. She is dating a man from an old Louisiana family with a dark history that dates back to slavery. The Abelards have made their wealth on the backs of others for generations.

Dad doesn't like it and, to add to his discomfort, he is investigating the murders of two teenage girls, one of whom had crossed paths with Kermit Abelard and the ex-con turned novelist with whom he shares his home. The con, Robert Weingart, is about as slimy a character as you'll meet in literature but then Burke always fills his books with them. I guess it's so that we, the readers, won't feel quite so guilty at the jubilation we feel when Clete and Dave turn their violence outward.

I really thought that Burke could not get better than he was with Tin Roof Blow Down which I blogged about here a year or two ago, but The Glass Rainbow is right up there when it comes to unveiling a story that reveals his depressingly low opinion of human nature. Readers sense that James Lee Burke, or at least Dave Robicheax, has lived through the depths of despair and come out the other side a deeply damaged man trying to make sense of a deeply damaged world.

If this sounds too despairing to read, ignore me! Like my other favorites in this genre, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, or Richard Price, Burke has an exquisite ear for what's real, balanced with a joy in the natural beauty of his surroundings, the smells, sounds and tastes of the bayou, that will just knock your socks off.

If I had any critique at all it would be that his female characters, while ostensibly strong (chief of police Helen Swallow), always seem to have a weakness pulling at them subconsciously. I would love to see him flesh out Dave's wife Molly, the former nun whose love is barely holding him together. Other than that, I can always count on James Lee Burke for a great ride.

Almost finished with my LJ book, a quick read by a South African named Damon Galgut. The book was a finalist for the Booker Prize - pressure!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Let the Great World Spin

Years ago I used to listen over and over to the sound recording of Liza Minelli's live concert at Carnegie Hall. This was in her hay day and she could belt out a song like nobodies' business. True confessions - if I hadn't become a librarian I would have loved to be a torch song singer - but there probably wouldn't be enough training in the world! Anyway, she sang with such passion and one of the numbers was about the world going round and round and ROUND and round - basically a lament but also an ode to life and how it goes on no matter how badly we screw up, how difficult our lives may become, how much joy or sadness we live through and with.

That song kept going through my mind as I read Colum McCann's National Book Award winning novel. The premise is so simple yet so profound. I'm always so envious when a writer pulls off a trick like this, making it look so easy. He took one factual happening in the life of New York City in the early '70's and wrapped around that incident a complete novel of vignettes in which the lives of a few intercept in ways that have repercussions for years to come.

The news worthy event was when a Frenchman named Philippe Petit managed to elude security guards, break into the World Trade Center towers one evening and lay out a cable between the twin buildings. He waited until rush hour the following morning before stepping out onto the cable in his ballet slippers, balancing bar in hand, to dance and skip his way across the gap to the cheers, jeers, awe and anger of the public.

Gloria is one of the women who witnesses this crazy, death defying stunt as she makes her way from the Bronx to the upper east side to meet with a group of mothers who have very little in common except that they have all lost their sons to the war in Vietnam. They gather to remember, to comfort, to talk about their boys as if they were still here. They hang out in the kids' bedrooms, touching their clothing, their trophies, the tangible reminders that they once were whole, living human beings. Can there be a worse loss?

We meet an Irish priest who, plagued by the need to save others, cannot save himself. He lives in a two room walkup in the worst section of town where he defies the pimps and gang members by taking care of a cadre of prostitutes without ever prosletizing. He offers them a place of respite between tricks, bails them out when needed and looks after their kids. We meet the young widow with whom he falls in love, a nurse who would love to be a doctor but will never find the way.

Then there's Lara and Blaine, artists whose one night fall from sobriety, causes a minor fender bender with a huge impact. Lara's admonition to just drive away, back upstate to their ramshackle cottage, haunts her until she returns to the city, admitting her culpability to the priest's brother and thus creating a bond that will surprise and please readers with its perfection.

Let the Great World Spin is a deeply tragic yet profounding hopeful novel of life and death. An accessible read, it is only made difficult by the feeling one gets that they're on a runaway train. We see the characters as they make mistakes, misunderstand eachother, stumble and fall, before we can grab them up, get their backs. It's a feeling of grave frustration but one very much worth having. Thanks to Linda Holland for the recommendation!

Two treats awaited me at work this week. Franzen's Freedom appeared on my desk - not long after I placed it on hold! It's pretty formidable looking and, of course, I only have two weeks to read it so naturally a new book arrived the following day from Library Journal. I started that one over the weekend - it's short but deep. I hope that I can do it justice. I may be incommunicado for a few days.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reviewing Philip Roth

It's always with trepidation that I approach a supposedly professional review of a book that I've already read and reviewed, especially when it's one by an author as august as, say, Philip Roth. This past summer I had the pleasure of casting my humble judgment about his latest novel, Nemesis, for Library Journal (link here and scroll down to Roth).

I try to follow Barbara Hoffert's (LJ books editor) advice to trust myself as a reader and offer an honest opinion without nuance. But that opinion should be based on a lifetime of reading experience and offered with a modicum of objectivity. So I'll admit to being rather shocked at what I found to be a highly personal attack on Philip Roth in a review by Roxana Robinson in the Washington Post last week when I was up in Maryland.

It seemed to me that she failed the author by refusing to separate her feelings about him, based on personal experience or hearsay, I'm not sure which, from her thoughts about his novel. For a moment, but only one moment, I questioned my own evaluation of the book, which I thought was profound on several levels and ripe for a book discussion. Aside from Mr. Roth's ability to place his readers smack down in the middle of Newark, New Jersey, circa 1940's, it's his examination of guilt along with all of its ramifications that impressed me the most. As a recovering Catholic I'm always fascinated by the power of this useless emotion to ruin lives and take the joy from living.

So, when I opened my Sunday New York Times Book Review to Philip Roth's visage staring back at me from the cover, I couldn't wait to see how another professional reviewer handled Nemesis. Kudos to Leah Hager Cohen for her honesty and integrity. I loved her review, not simply because she agreed with me on all aspects of the novel, but because she admitted to a bias and then committed her summer to the due diligence that Roth deserves.

One doesn't have to admire all of his work, in fact I rather panned The Humbling for its gratuitous sexual content and the life-denying look at a man in his sixties, but the author of American Pastoral is a genius in my book and always will be.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Thoughts on the Drive South

As we made our way from Maryland back to Florida last week I was reminded that it's been almost forty years since I first made this trek from Massachusetts to the land of sunshine and skin cancer. Back then, I-95 was still unfinished and the old route 301 took us through what was, to me, another world. Fresh out of college, I was a strange mix of naive yet aware - aware of the outrageous disparity between my good fortune and all that it entailed (solid home life, great education, etc.) and the very unfortunate others whose rough hewn, falling down shacks we drove by as we wended our way through the Carolinas and Georgia.

On the one hand I marveled at the beauty of the landscape, the old southern plantations with their wide porches flanked by pillars and the miles long driveways lined with old oaks dripping Spanish moss. Why, you could almost envision Scarlet O'Hara racing her dad, both on horseback, down toward the barns. What you didn't see, of course, were the then slaves, now servants, who tended to those horses, barns, grounds and people, living in the unheated, unplumbed shacks that dotted the countryside. There's no question that this knowledge detracted ferociously from my appreciation of the surroundings.

Add to that the certainty that 200 years really hasn't changed all that much here in the United States and, if you dwell on it long enough, it's extremely depressing. When we stopped at the welcome station in South Carolina we were greeted by the smiling face of Gov. Sanford, still serving and more popular than ever, though he abandoned his postion last year, leaving the country and failing to even set someone up as the "in-charge" person should a state emergency arise. I've read that he even went so far as to have an aid "tweet" occasionally during the week he was in Argentina with his paramour. Yet New York's Gov. Patterson was villified for accepting tickets to a baseball game. Sometimes I think we're living in a science fiction world!

We stopped in Walterboro, SC, to visit a memorial to the Tuskegee Airmen, the famous African American soldiers who trained as World War II fighter pilots at the then Walterboro Airport, now the Low Country Municipal Airport. The day was perfect, warm and clear, and out at the little air strip small planes were doing touch and go's. Men were parasailing or hang gliding or perhaps parachuting down from the clear blue sky. In a pine woods area to the right of the field was a beautiful sculpture of a young pilot along with a glass case full of sun-faded photos of the original cadre of brave young men who actually had to fight to go overseas and fight for freedoms they didn't even have here at home. It could break your heart.

We read that the farmers who donated the land for the airfield still continued to raise their crops and that they actually hired German POW's who were being held in Walterboro - back when we followed the rules of the Geneva Convention - to help them. The Germans were not only paid a stipend but were fed and actually befriended by the locals, some of whom stayed in touch years after the war ended. That's a great story and I'm all for it, except for one problem.

The black American soldiers who were actually going off to fight against the Germans were not allowed to mingle with the whites, not even with the POW's. They were segregated in both their living and eating quarters, not even able to socialize at the dances. How can this be, you might ask. I have no answer, but this is your history lesson for the day. The more we learn the more we can try to understand the suffering of our fellow men - that's my hope. For more information on the Tuskegee Airmen and their incredible feats:

Yes, I'm still reading like mad and will report next on Let the Great World Spin, recommended by my former manager and deep reader, Linda Holland. I'm also listening to two books, an old Donna Leon and a new James Lee Burke. All three of these novels are very dark - suprise, surprise. I also may have to take up where Don leaves off in the new book by Pulitzer winner Isabel Wilkerson. The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of what she calls "the great migration" of Southern sharecroppers to the Northern cities, looking for opportunity and a more equitable life, is on my radar for book discussion next season but I already know that, psychologically, it'll be tough going.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Widower's Tale

Well, Julia Glass did not let me down. What a wonderful group of characters to spend time with. What a lovely respite from the outrageous characters I have to spend time with in the news. Up here it's the Washington Post every morning so I feel like I really have a pulse on the doings of the nation's capital, just 30 minutes away. By the way, I'm totally apologetic that I didn't get myself into DC last Saturday for the anti-Beck rally. Don doesn't do crowds and I don't drive in the city. Not a very committed progressive, am I?

So, back to my recommendation of Ms. Glass's latest novel. She has a talent for rendering family relationships, the tensions, the love, the hard work and aggravation that comes with nurturing and sustaining them over the long haul. The people in her novels are not one dimensional. Like all of us they can be annoying one minute and huggable the next. While Clover is a dreamer who always has to be bailed out by her dad, Trudy is an overachiever who depletes her load of compassion on her patients and therefore has none left for her sister.

Trudy's son Robert is supposed to be following in his mom's footsteps, training at Harvard for a career in medicine, but a svengali-like relationship with his mysterious roommate Arturo, a rabid environmentalist, will result in an unexpected detour that may notactually be all  bad.

Sarah Straight, the fifty something mom who caught the older Percy's eye, will have to face some demons of her own and the means that she chooses, controversial and appropos in light of the current health care crisis in our country, will be painful to Percy and difficult to comprehend.

Ira, a gentle teacher, driven from his previous post by a homophobic parent, seems to have found safety and acceptance at last at the school on Percy's property, but his long time relationship with Anthony, a lawyer known as The Python, is cracking under the strain of Anthony's push for a showy, in-your-face wedding.

Glass beautifully uses these folks to examine the oldest theme in the book. People needing people, choosing to live with the mess of interaction as opposed to solitary neatness, opening ourselves up  again and again to the possibility of loss for the joy of letting someone in, these are the dilemmas that face us in fiction and in life. Do with them as you will.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What a Difference a Day Makes!

Thursday at the library I was stressed to the max. Between orientation for two new volunteers, reviewing a book for LJ, and doing the usual cleanup that one does before leaving for vacation, I wasn't sure I'd get it together for the early morning flight to Md. Add to that the precipitous weather forecast that had me rummaging for a few extra pairs of sweats at Beall's Outlet Thursday night and, well, all I can say is - all that must have happened in another lifetime.

This morning before the wind turned and started coming from the North, I sat out on the deck overlooking the Chesapeake Bay and started a new book that I snatched from Jess yesterday - an autographed copy no less, of Julia Glass's The Widower's Tale. It's just wonderful - more on that in a minute - my only trouble being that I had to keep looking up at the view.

Can there be anything better than to fall asleep and awaken to the sound of the shallow bay waves  caressing the rip rap down below? To wake up in the night to see the waning moon hovering over the water like a lantern? I've never known such peace as I feel here in Chesapeake Beach. This morning it was so clear that the faint gray shadow of the Bay Bridge over to Annapolis could be seen on the horizon, fronted with dozens of varied size sails as people take advantge of what will likely be one of the last fine days of the season.  I look up to see the funky box-like container ships as they head down toward the Atlantic and this evening, at dusk, over wine, we'll be able to see the lights of the cruise ships as they do the same.

A whole week to read! Such choices I had! On the plane it was A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, a rather daunting, close to 700 page tome about Olive Wellwood, a famed children's story book writer, and her family  as they maneuver through the times and political upheaval of London in the early 1900's. Though I loved Possession and I'm valiantly trying to stick with Byatt's latest, it may take a back seat to Ms. Glass's latest novel which I'll burn through in the next day. What a delight!

Percy Darling, the widower of the title, reminds me of Ann Tyler's widower in Noah's Compass. He is just a "darling!" A retired librarian, from the Widener no less, he has plenty of funny things to say about the new "wired librarians" in his small New England town. He's a curmudgeon of the first order, a man who only loved once, his wife Poppy who drowned in their back yard pond when their daughters were teens.

Now Trudy is an oncologist in Boston and Clover has left her husband, who she believes may be in love with a man, and left her kids in New York to return to her home town and lick her wounds.  Always the "flighty" one, but also the one more in tune with her dad, she convinces Percy to let her convert their barn into a nursery school for the town's yuppie parents.  Percy's glorious solitude is about to be invaded by chattering little four year olds. Yet he seems remarkably amenable to the changes going on around him and, suddenly, after more years than he cares to think about, to the charms of one of the moms.

I was a bit disappointed in Glass's past couple of novels but this one, more on the caliber of Three Junes, is not going to let me down. Tomorrow I'll tell you what I'm listening to - after I decide which of the 10 books on my mp3 player is going to hold my interest the best.