Sunday, December 26, 2010

Winding Down 2010

Yes, it's Sunday afternoon and I'm holed up on the couch under a soft, blue blanket (thanks Andrea) fighting off the earache and cough that have been dogging me since I returned from Ohio. Outside the wind is absolutely howling and it'll be in the '30's shortly so I should be outside watering the greens. Instead I'm reading and contemplating the "best" lists that everyone's been publishing for the end of the year.

Have you ever tried to make a list of your top ten reads? I thought it would be easy but I'm already at 16 titles that MUST be on the list. Hmmmm - and this is only out of 95 read this year. I didn't even break the 100 mark like I'm sure my buddy Maryellen did. Shame on me.

When thinking of personal favorites I realize that the criteria can be very different than it would be for a best written list. Often one reads a book at just the right moment in time and it simply gets you in the gut or the heart or the memory. Once in a while we read something that teaches us a history lesson that we wouldn't have been complete without. Sometimes, we just need a book that makes us sigh with delight or laugh out loud. My list will have all of the above. Here goes: oh, this is tough!

1. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
4. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
5. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
6. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
7. Great House by Nicole Krauss
8. Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
9. Another Country by James Baldwin
10. Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt

Honorable mentions go to Born Round, The Leisure Seeker, The Three Weissmans of Westport, Nightfall and The Widower's Tale. So, come on, tell me yours. I really want to know!

Friday, December 24, 2010

What I Did for Love

The phone call came in just as I was leaving for work last Wednesday. My brother - my "baby" brother - was in the hospital after suffering his second stroke in 9 months. Further conversations confirmed that this time the recovery might not be quite so effortless. His throat, therefore the swallowing mechanism, was paralyzed. By the next day, I found myself also paralyzed. How could I get to Ohio on such short notice? And Christmas week to boot. I had to be there but also had to be out of the way - a help and not a hindrance.

For only the second time in my life, I rented a car, mapquested the directions, got myself to Pittsburgh, hopped in and drove. Going out, the weather was with me. Twenty five years in Florida has severely weakened my ability to even contemplate driving in snow, let alone in a strange car in a strange land. I was a wreck but being with my brother and sister-in-law were the top priority.

You see, ten years ago a similar call came in but it was about my dad. He too had lost the ability to swallow but had refused a feeding tube and slowly, over a two week period, slipped into a coma and died. My brother, like my dad, is one of those soft spoken, amiable men that everyone likes. Loyal, steadfast, willing to give up the great passions or dreams for the life of a homebody, reveling in being the good provider, a husband, dad, grandad. So, the question is, would he be a fighter? Would he rage against the machine?

While all that remains to be seen, I could leave Ohio yesterday knowing that before the day was out, my brother would be home in his recliner, in the arms of his family. Yes, he has a feeding tube but it is expected to be temporary. Yes, he faces surgery, but not until his brain has healed from this latest insult. Yes, he's depressed but his wife is a rock. Now I could relax and fall apart, which I did, clutching the wheel in terror and cursing as semis passed me going at the speed of light  through snow, sleet and freezing rain.
 I slid slowly into the parking garage at the Alamo rental car return not even caring that the fool behind me was so impatient that he swerved around me inside the garage, almost running down the poor young man who was retrieving keys.

Back in Florida, surrounded by my books, facing another day of endless sunshine, listening to Don whine about the chill in the air, I can laugh and thank whatever Fates brought me to this place. I'll write my review for Library Journal, sit out back this afternoon in the warmth and prepare for my book discussion on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and envision a springtime when my brother and his wife will join us for some R and R, eat some good food and enjoy some red wine - working on keeping those arteries clear!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Finding One's Niche

I've been a bit over philosophical the last few months. I expect it has to do with thoughts of coming up on that special age that, in our parents' time, meant sitting back and relaxing for the rest of one's life. For our generation, 62 means very different things. Why, one almost feels guilty for saying the word retirement! People wonder, "what on earth would you do?" I accuse those people of a dire lack of imagination!

For those of us who love our work the choices are even harder. What many of us would like is the gift of time. An extra day or two to read and write would suit me just fine and time to go to New York for an NBCC event, time to volunteer on ALA's Notable Book Council, time to push myself out of my comfort zone and feel the satisfaction after having done so.

I had a golden opportunity this week to do just that and, I can't believe I'm saying this, it was FUN! I was asked to speak on the local NPR station about the great books of 2010. My usual reaction would be to call my friend Maryellen and say, "you go, I can't do this," but that wasn't an option this time. When the library director asks for a favor, the answer is always YES! And all this is to say that I think I've found my niche. Listen if you have the time and see what you think:

I have another book from Library Journal to read and review this week. Loved the cover - ROME! (thank you Barbara!) Will let you know if the book lives up to it's cover. Finished The Cookbook Collector this morning with a huge smile on my face. How I do love happy endings! A very satisfying read. I'm halfway through Dennis Lehane's Moonlight Mile on my Nook. You've gotta love his politics. He never misses a chance to slip them in.

Planning to take a break from Paul Theroux's trip through Africa so that I can listen to Room. It's getting too much press to ignore. Treated myself to my own copy of Nancy Pearl's Book Lust to Go. If I want to BE her, I absolutely have to read her!
So, what are you all reading?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Extraordinary, Ordinary People

This extraordinary autobiography by former National Security Advisor and Secretrary of State Condi Rice has been a wonderful surprise for me. It's the first book that I downloaded from the library to my new Nook and I worried about finishing it in the 2 week time frame. I needn't have.

You can breeze through this story in no time because the writing style is simply delightful. I felt like I was just sitting around talking with a friend throughout most of it. (until she got to the last chapter - her belief in W) I'd always wondered how Ms. Rice could be a Republican, it just didn't compute for me. She very briefly touches on her reasons, which date back to Jimmy Carter's administration and pieces of his foreign policy with which she says she disagreed. She left the Democrats shortly after.

Yes, she's feisty, pro-military, hawklike and a big believer in the right to bear arms, so I'm going to guess, though she doesn't say it, that his failure to secure the release of the hostages was the turning point for her. I've always felt that Carter got a bum rap on that and his recent interview on the Diane Rehm show backs me up. But for one extra helicopter, that mission may have been saved. He listened to his military advisers, the advice was lacking, but he took the blame as he had to.

At any rate, Condeleeza Rice has written an ode to her loving, foresighted parents who put their hearts and souls into her upbringing, making sure that she had every single opportunity available to a middle class black girl in 1950's Birmingham, Alabama. They never had to force her, she was a force to be reckoned with all on her own. At 3 she sat at her mom's piano in church and began to play, lessons ensued. In school she was pushed ahead a year so that she wouldn't be bored. An interest in ice-skating, after moving to Denver, evolved into an obsession with perfection. Condi never did anything half way!

Having educators for parents almost assures a leg up. Teachers don't stop at the end of the school day. Believe me, I know. Yes, I hated it at the time. I was more rebellious than she, but now I realize how very, very lucky I was to have parents who always had books in their hands and expectations for us kids. Condi's folks were extraordinary. Their whole lives revolved around her and the democratic process began at home at an early age. All job changes and moves were discussed among the three of them.

What struck me most is Ms. Rice's sense of humor and self-deprecation. She never seems to brag about her accomplishments, they just are what they are, and they are many. Provost of Stanford at 38 years old! And parents out there, don't despair when your kids have trouble settling down. Condi was well into her 20's before she figured it out, going from studying to be a concert pianist to becoming a foremost, international Russian expert.

Most interesting were her descriptions of the dark days in Birmingham when her neighborhood was being firebombed most every evening and her dad, a Presbyterian minister at the time, sat outside on the porch with his shotgun over his lap to protect her home and family. Rev. Rice had deep misgivings about Rev. King's non-violent movement, especially after the bombing of the neighborhood church that killed four girls from their community. Can you even imagine how that incident would affect someone for years to come? I can't.

But I loved it when she wrote about her dad starting the first Black Studies program at Denver University under the tutelege of an old friend from Alabama who was now President of Denver. The first guest speaker, Stokely Carmichael, shook the very foundations of this very white school and he became a close friend of Condi's family for many years. Who'd have thought that?

Enough, I've said enough. Read for yourself and see what you think. If I had any complaint it would be that she didn't really delve into the politics of the Bush administration at all. Perhaps she's saving that for another book or maybe she's protecting her long friendship with the senior Bush and his wife Barbara who she credits as important mentors. Either way, I now feel that Condi Rice is a woman I'd love to get to know better. Never thought I'd say that!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Cookbook Collector and Other Titles

I had to stay away from writing for a few days as I received a most unusual book from Library Journal with a scary 7 day turnaround! I'm tweaking the review now and will send it in tomorrow. A Good Hard Look is the name of the novel which won't be out til next June and it revolves around the real hometown of Flannery O'Connor, Milledgeville, GA, and the denizens thereof.

 That's all I can say at this time but I can tell you to keep your eyes peeled for the most delightfully unusual book I've read and reviewed in ages. It's called Mr. Chartwell and it got a starred review last month.

Meanwhile I've given up on Elizabeth Kostova's The Swan Thieves. I was listening in my car and the reader was putting me to sleep! A definite no-no while traversing Route 41. Can anyone who read it tell me why I should go back to it? Please?

I've traded it for Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. Fussy me - I don't care for this reader either but the idea of a trip from Cairo to Cape Town intrigues me right now as I'll be going to Africa in September. I've also started Condi Rice's Extraordinary, Ordinary People, the story of her wonderful family and strict upbringing in Birmingham in the terrifying '50's and '60's. It's beautifully written and indicates a delightful sense of self-deprecation and humor that didn't come across while she was Secretary of State. It's on my Nook. Sure hope I can finish it before it disapirates! OK, Ms. Rowling - is that really a word?

Now, if you have patience and really enjoy a slow book that unfolds quietly, affording you time to acquaint yourself with the characters and begin to feel that you care for them, then The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is for you. It's strange, I've been listening to this for quite some time now and it feels as though I'm reading two different books.

 It appealed to me because of the premise of the two disparate sisters, one very practical and by the book, the other, rather flighty and prone to impracticality. I wondered if I'd see Cynthia and me in here but, instead, I see the two sides of me. Uh oh, does that mean it's all about me as my sister would say?? The novel takes place in California during the dot com madness with the older sister, Emily, running Veritech a startup Internet company, taking it public and making the big bucks.

Jess, the younger, is a perpetual student, always broke, studying philosophy, following a bad boyfriend around trying to save the redwoods, and working for the reclusive bookman, George. There are a host of quirky characters, most of whom are with the wrong person or in the wrong place. Few are following their passions though all of them desire to do just that. Trouble is, we the readers are the only ones who can see it.

The chapters that follow the boom and bust of of the Internet world are actually very interesting even to someone like me who would normally tune out when business is explained. The chapters that follow George, his antiquarian bookstore, his growing feelings for Jess, and his deep appreciation for the unusual cookbook collection he stumbles upon are downright glorious! Ms. Goodman describes the worship of books in a way that underscores my complete faith that e-book readers will never completely replace the physical beauty of bound pages.

I highly recommend this one - so much so that I think I'll head out for my walk so I can get back to it. Hat and gloves may still be needed but I'm out of here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs......

Fair warning: I'm about to be a book snob. I'm the first one to enjoy a clever title but I just hate it when a publisher chooses to issue a title that is just plain poor English usage. You will NOT catch me reading The Wind Done Gone! So, when customers kept placing holds on Alexandra Fuller's story of her African childhood, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, I just put it on my list of book titles that annoy me and called it a day.

The trouble is, I now realize that I was only hurting myself. I've been fascinated with books about white Europeans who leave the comforts of home to live in a continent so overwhelmingly different from what they've known ever since reading Karen Blixen. Then there was The Flame Trees of Thika, (thanks Cynthia!), and in India, the exquisite Raj Quartet or The Far Pavilions. These books only tended to fan my flame of romanticism and naivete, a weakness that I'm trying to overcome through learning and living without becoming too cynical.

The bottom line is that I saw the paperback of Fuller's book on the Friends' shelf so I picked it up and started browsing. Sure enough, I couldn't put it down. It reads like a cross between Out of Africa and The Glass Castle. It is lovingly written, showing a depth of appreciation for the beauty of Africa and an amazing well of forgiveness for the difficulties that Alexandra "Bo Bo's" parents put their family through.

Moving from country to country within the continent, Zambia, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mogadishu, the Fullers "follow the money" (kind of). They are farmers, growing tobacco. They raise and herd cows. They lease derelict farms and work to turn them around using the slave labor of the indigenous population - paid but not really. They rarely make a dime. To their credit, they all work. From a very young age BoBo and her sister Vanessa are out there in the fields and at the market. Their Mum is a horsewoman who can train and break a horse with the best of them, riding through her difficult pregnancies, right up til she's hospitalized for rest.

What becomes clear through Ms. Fuller's storytelling is the extreme hardship of life in the bush, the loneliness that comes from the cultural divide. BoBo and Van are, at this time, not allowed to befriend the black population and not willing to befriend the white missionaries. Until they are sent off to private schools their lives are proscribed to such a degree that it seemed like abuse to me.
 Mum, once a happy drunk, succumbs to full-blown alcoholism as she buries unformed babies, fights off cobras with an Uzi, and is finally diagnosed with manic-depression. She is fearless but hateful to any black who crosses her path yet saves the life of Violet, a native woman whose husband has attacked her.

Like so many Europeans who believe that they know better than the ones they think they have conquered, there is an underlying sense of superiority among the adults that, by some wonderful quirk of fate, does not carrry down to the children. Ms. Fuller's love for Africa is exacerbated after she goes to England and returns. Her descriptions of the smells, tastes, and especially, the sounds of the continent resonate with the reader as they only can when one has loved a place beyond description. Probably the way I feel about Italy. 

I believe that, in everyone, there is a spot where we truly feel we belong - where we were born to be. For Alexandra Fuller, though she currently lives in America, that place is Africa. Read more about her writing and upcoming sequel to Dogs at: