Saturday, January 30, 2010

Attica Locke's Debut Novel

OK, many of my readers are probably too young to even remember Attica, the New York state prison that was the scene of an uprising integral to the civil rights movement, "back in the day," as they say. Oddly enough, neither is Attica Locke, though she was named by her parents after that infamous place. You wouldn't need to read the personal notes on her website,
(though you should for the interest value), to understand how deeply affected she was by a movement that her parents defined and she surely profited from.

Still, changing laws and changing hearts are two very different things. Ask any African American who's still leery of "driving while black" through certain areas of North Florida. Think about the subtle connotations (or not so) dredged up when a pickup with a confederate license plate pulls up a tad too close behind you at a light. These are the kinds of feelings that Attica Locke creates in the reader's gut with her debut and highly regarded first novel Black Water Rising which takes place in 1980's Houston.
I'm listening to this in the car and am looking for excuses to drive anywhere, do any errand just to find out what's going to happen next! Kudos to reader, Dion Graham, for adding a very personal touch with his perfect voice and pitch and to the musical riffs between chapters for adding to the dark atmosphere.

Fledgling lawyer Jay Porter and his very pregnant wife Bernie,are enjoying a Saturday evening boat ride with family to celebrate Bernie's birthday with good food and friends. As Bernie and Jay enjoy the damp evening river air and talk about the baby, shots ring out from the bank and a woman's cries for help remind them that they're not in Kansas any more. Prodded by Bernie, a preacher's daughter and a woman who can't walk away from someone in trouble, Jay jumps in the water to rescue the woman they spot tumbling down the embankment. Within minutes of dragging her on to the boat, the crowd and the reader understand that all is not as it seems and Jay's good deed will not go unpunished.

What follows is a convoluted plot, not without some holes, but exciting just the same, that results in Jay's being threatened and harrassed by an unknown stranger, and pulled into a labor dispute of water front workers that is turning violent, pitting black workers against white as they struggle for basic pay and benefits. But most interesting of all, Jay is pressured into calling in a chit owed to him by Houston's new mayor, a woman with whom he had a long love affair years before when they were both college student radicals in the civil rights movement. Through this plot device, Ms. Locke is able to give the reader a history lesson on the SDS, SNCC, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the decision to assert a Black Power movement to effect quicker, more potent change. Alternating between past and present the author raises the level of her novel from just another murder mystery to something more intense, much like my favorites George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane. I'd love to see us get her to Florida for the reading festival next year!

Meanwhile, if I can boast for just a minute, I had the pleasure of reviewing another fantastic debut novel for Library Journal a month or so ago and the starred review was in the January edition so I'm sure it's ok to link to it now that it's out in the public domain. I have no idea how the editors determine which reviews are starred for special notice but I had the good grace to blush with pleasure when I saw it. Hope Tom Rachman's publicists liked it as well. Called The Imperfectionists, it should be out in April. or scroll down to "Rachman" to read full review:

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sisters - Sisters - Never Were There Such Devoted Sisters......

The relationships between sisters will never cease to interest me. I know that there may be some who would kill for each other - some, well, not so much. My sister and I can sing this Rosemary Clooney song from memory and do all the dance steps and sway those fans too if we had to, but our history is informed by the fifty some years that came before and the different ways we perceive our life experiences to this point. There are whole patches of our history that we can't honestly discuss and others areas where there are huge gaps in our knowledge of each other's lives.

Because of this I've been drawn to literature that explores family relationships. So when I read an article in the NY Times about Margaret Drabble and her historically tense interaction with her other renowned sister, A. S. Byatt, I knew I'd have to pick up The Pattern in the Carpet; a Personal History with Jigsaws. Full disclosure. My sister loves Margaret Drabble - I love Byatt and am still on the wait list for her latest book. Still, I own some Drabble books, things I've picked up at book sales here and there saying "I'll get to those when I retire," joke, joke.

Ms. Drabble refers to her relationship with Ms. Byatt in the intro but makes a disclaimer that she's not going to "go there" in this particular book . Apparently she's been there before in her fiction. So, what do we learn about Margaret Drabble in this book? She speaks about a special friendship she had with her Aunt Phyl, which I can fully relate to as my aunt Jackie, my dad's sister, still a pip at 85 years old, is my Aunt Phyl. Ms. Drabble tells of how, when age and crankiness, took Phyl away from her they still had the companionship afforded by games, jigsaw puzzles in particular.

Now, you may not picture me reading a history of jigsaw puzzles. It's not my usual fare. However, there are some wonderful little tidbits in this book wherein the author relates the connection between games in art and child psychology and the reader nods his head and say "yes." I immediately thought of my friendship with my stepmother. There were times, when she was married to my dad, that I thought we had nothing in common. I would go to visit and be at a loss sometimes as to a common means of communication. But she was a jigsaw fan and we could spend quiet hours finding pieces of a puzzle that fit and find pieces of our relationship puzzle at the same time. We both loved the beach and could laze away a Sunday afternoon with the NY Times crossword and be content. After my dad died, we spent time together and grew much closer. We talked like never before and I learned fascinating things about her, as well as some very tragic things, that allowed me to appreciate her as never before. There it is, my personal history with jigsaws!

If you're wondering why I'm not writing as much as usual, I'll tell you what....I'm reading some heavy duty things and I can't just blow through them. I'm listening to a 17 disc, unabridged recording of Orhan Pahmuk's The Museum of Innocence. In the car I've got a phenomenal recording of Attica Locke's Black Water Rising, which I'll have a lot to say about soon. I just need to take a road trip to finish it up. I've got piles of overdue books all over the house and am getting ready to begin American Rust which has been on my "to read" list for a while and I expect I'll have a book from LJ any day now. Whew! If I didn't have a life, that would be fine but guess what? I do! Hooray for that!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lark and Termite

Sometimes my friend Andea and I question our ability to read deeply. This often happens at the end of a formal book discussion at the library in which the women who participate arrive with sheaves of notes and evidence of such care in their reading that we feel inadequate to even be threre. Andrea says that she just gets out of the way and I like that analysis. Perhaps that's all we're supposed to do as facilitators.

So, if there's anyone out there who's read Jayne Anne Philips' Lark and Termite, considered by most review journals to be one of the best novels of 2009, I hope you'll help me. This uniquely written novel left me just staring at the last page wondering what I had missed along the way. I'm still not sure if the ending meant what I thought it did even though I was pleased with it.

I must admit that the Korean War is a very weak area of my knowledge base and it seems we didn't learn much more about it in school. I wasn't expecting the novel to tie into an incident that I've now learned was rather controversial that happened back in 1950 in a lonely tunnel at No Gun Ri in South Korea. The tragedies of war never seem to change, do they? And no matter what war it is, people of different cultures and languages will misconstrue an order or an intention and innocent people will die. What exactly happened in that tunnel I;m still unsure of but Phillips keeps the novel going back and forth from No Gun Ri to a small town in West Virginia several years later where Nonie, a woman of enormous generosity of spirit, is raising her sister;'s two children, Lark and Termite.

Lark is a glorious, bright, funny character-almost too good to be true. A nurturer, she loves and cares for her half-brother, little Termite who is confined to a wagon or wheelchair because of severe birth defects. Each characters thoughts and feelings are there for the reader to take in and interpret. They come across as honest and true and, as the story unfolds, we gradually learn about the relationship between Nonie and her younger sister and how Nonie has come to bear this burden of love that she carries and shares with Charlie, her lover, partner, employer and friend.

This is a sohpisticated novel that cries out for that deeper, reread that we often do for our book discussions and I feel as though I;ve barely tapped the surface of it. So, readers out there, if you've read this book and have opinions or ideas you'd like to share, I'd so enjoy hearing from you while I move on to my upcoming book discussion choice, The City of Refuge by Tom Piazza. A look at the run up to and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the lives of two very disparate couples and circumstances, this discussion will sadly be even more apt in light of the unspeakable tragedy unfolding before us right now in Port au Prince.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Revenge as Motive - Believable?

I'm coming to the end of two mystery books which have left me kind of cold and I'm guessing it's because the motives just don't add up for me. It's beyond my comprehension that a person can hold a grudge for  30 or 40 years - all that wasted energy! I just want to shake people who can't move on, get over and grow up (probably why my mom discouraged my youthful desire to be a psychiatrist).

So many of my customers have discovered Louise Penny that I felt I had to give her a go but perhaps I just chose the wrong title to begin the Three Pines series with. I've been listening to A Rule Against Murder featuring a great character in Armand Gamache, chief of Quebec's Surete, a cross between Hercule Poirot and my more sensitive favorite, Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti. The joy of listening to these novels is to hear the reader, in this case with all the lovely French thrown in and in Leon's case, the Italian. The problem with this particular novel is having to live with the despicable Morrow family for the entire book.

I must tell you that this series has been getting rave reviews so it may be unfair for me to judge it on one book. I may have to go back and read a different one. My patience with dysfunctional families is notoriously limited and having to spend my time in the car with the Morrows was trying - especially since they were the red herring anyway. I'll say no more so as not to be a spoiler.
Suffice it to say, the plot revolves around a family reunion at Gamache's vacation spot, the isolated, peaceful Manoir Bellechasse, where he and his wife celebrate their wedding anniversary. This year though, their peace is marred by the tension in the air as the Morrow siblings tear each other to shreds with verbal abuse and a constant rehashing of past resentments. When one of them is found crushed to death under a statue of her father, Gamache goes to work and Freud must roll over in his grave at the symbolism!

As soon as I brave the cold and head out for my walk I'll finish up listening to Stella Rimington's Secret Asset, another book whose premise revolves around family issues and long held anger as catalyst for outrageous pay back. As I've written in the past, I'm a sucker for espionage in all its incarnations, so I love getting the insider info from Rimington who was, in fact, head of secret intelligence in Great Britain. Her alter-ego, Liz Carlyle, has been advised to route out a mole in the organization and, if you know MI-5, no one can trust anyone and the majority of bad guys seem to come from MI-6 rather than from the outside. Amazing how they get through the vetting process, isn't it?

Or maybe not when you consider what happened to the CIA last week, the devastating loss they suffered at the hands of an alleged triple agent from Jordan, a country that's actually supposed to like us. It seems that all the psychological training in the world can't always help identify the misguided anger that seeths below the surface of our fellow human beings. That's not to say that it isn't understandable, this doctor had apparently been treating victims of some very horrific violence in Pakistan. I know it's not simple but if only this kind of zealousness could be turned good............what a world we could inhabit!

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Book or the Movie?

Loyal readers know that I generally lean to the dark side in my reading and movie watching, yet every now and then, one does need a break from noir. Over the past 4 or 5 years, Alexander McCall Smith has provided that respite for me. The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is, without a doubt, one of the most entertaining, enlightening cozy mysteries I've ever come across. It's amazing to me - sexist remark coming up - that a man could create this glorious character Mma Precious Ramotswe, a young woman of such spunk, courage and woman's intuition, who, after the death of her beloved father, sells the cattle farm he left to her and moves to the capitol of Botswana, Gabarone, to open the first female detective agency.

Equally delightful is her secretary Grace Makutsi, a model of efficiency and insecurity, and a loyal friend along with the inestimable J.L.B. Matakoni, owner of Speedy Motors repair shop, and a man with a heart as big as the sky. McCall Smith, a Scot, raised and educated in Africa, writes with a love of that country and its people that shines through on every page. You cannot read this series without wanting to book the next plane to South Africa to feel these emotions for yourself. (something Don and I plan to do in 2011!)

I have been listening to this series on and off for years and have come to associate the reader, Lisette Lecat with the characters. When I read that HBO was planning to make a movie special based upon the books with none other than Anthony Minghella directing and with much influence from McCall Smith, filmed on site in Botswana, I couldn't wait to see it. I have now finished the first season and have to say that, as is seldom the case, this series is as good as if not better than the books. Can you believe it? Not only does each episode correspond exactly with the story but the choice of actors is absolutely uncanny.  Each one is precisely as I had pictured them while reading the books, especially the full figured, beautiful inside and out, Jill Scott as Precious and the  marvelous Anika Noni Rose as Grace. Meet them here:

If you believe in poetic justice then you will love this series. Common sense and street smarts are the tools that Precious and Grace utilize to solve the mysteries of the human hearts of these denizens of Botswana, with a few robberies and larger crimes thrown in along the way. Moral ambiguities are addressed as well as the social and cultural problems of South Africa like the deadly rate of AIDS deaths and the masses of orphans created by the ravages of this still untalked about disease. One episode revolves around the diamond mining business and the money that has been put back into the Botswana infrastructure because of it (unlike the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone). I hope that they hurry up and make season 2. In the meantime, if my ladies from Birmingham are still reading me, Don and I plan an MI-5 marathon for this cold, rainy, unusual Florida afternoon.