Wednesday, December 28, 2011

100 Books! Ta Da...A Goal I Almost Didn't Reach

Now I know for sure why I'm a librarian and not an accountant. I rarely use an Excel spreadsheet at work and only use it personally for my "books read" list each year. I can't tell you how excited I was when I thought I had reached my goal of 100 books late Monday afternoon. As Don was pulling the champagne out of the refrigerator I went to the computer to enter my last title of the year, French Dirt.

I scrolled up to the top of the page and, to my horror, I realized that I had put the title of the excel document on line number 1 and then skipped to line number 3 to begin my list of books read! Can you imagine? I was two short of my goal! I almost didn't admit my folly but....at this point it had become a matter of pride and I was so discouraged. I had pretended I didn't care about the numbers yet as I closed in on the 100 mark I realized that I did care - deeply. There was only one thing to do.

Don came to the rescue. He actually read through all my blog posts for the year and found not two, but three titles that I had blogged about but failed to add to the list. His persistence got me over the top. Now that's what I call love.

So here's how I spent the holiday weekend - reading about a garden in the south of France, lifting my face every few minutes to gaze upon our own garden in the south of Florida. I never would have dreamed that I would derive such pleasure from watching seeds grow.

This absolutely delightful book by Richard Goodman about his year living in a wonderful old stone house in a 250 member village outside Nimes was the perfect antidote to all the dark, dysfunctional tomes I've been reading lately. How many of us don't wonder every once in a while what it would be like to just walk away from job, friends, family, and reinvent ourselves in a new place? Such a courageous move!

Goodman says he's been a city boy his entire life but the ad in the paper and his Dutch girlfriend called to him to try something new. Once in St. Sebastien de Caisson, a name he invented to protect the village from Peter Mayle syndrome, Richard found that if he wanted to relate to the townspeople he would not have to worry about speaking French as much as he would have to learn to speak "garden." Agriculture was his way into the closed village society and the size of your melons and tomatoes was much more important than the size of......well, you get the idea.

Goodman found the generosity of the townspeople to be overwhelming. Even as they teased that an American had no clue how to work with his hands, they lent him theirs in abundance. Land, water, seeds, hoes, trenchers, buckets, you name it. His new friends watched with fascination as Richard threw himself into his vegetable garden with a naive passion that endeared him to everyone.

His description of the air, the light, the smells of the land in the Vaucluse area of France is overwhelming. The joy of discovery at one's ability to coax food from the earth is such a difficult emotion to explain yet he does so with such verve or, as they say in France, joie de vivre. I can't say enough about this glorious piece of travel writing. It will always be one of my favorite genres.

Adding a postscript here, as Mr. Goodman has, by some wild mystery of the Internet, found my blog about his book and taken the time to comment - a compliment I'll never get over when it happens - I love writers! Thought I'd take a moment to add a link to his site in case you're interested in learning more about him and his writing. http://www.richardgoodman.org/

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Condition

I wrote recently about Jennifer Haigh and her latest novel, Faith, which simply knocked me out. For that reason I made a concerted effort to go back and read at least one of her earlier books and decided on The Condition because I fancy myself an amateur doctor (tongue in cheek) and find all things medical absolutely fascinating!

The joke was on me. This book isn't actually about a medical condition at all even though Turner's Disease is the catalyst that brings down the house of cards the McKotch family has constructed. The actual condition is a disease of the soul that infects this family that, from the outside, appears to have it all. And this, after all, is the theme of Faith as well.

I often wonder who writes the jacket blurbs that are supposed to catch our attention and get us to pick up a book. The publisher? Have they even read their own authors? These little teasers often hold no relation to the story inside the covers.

Paulette and Frank McKotch have great pedigrees, three kids, perfectly spaced, she's from a long line of New Englanders, he's got the brains and the job that provides the life Paulette has come to expect. But one summer while vacationing on the Cape, a well-meaning in-law remarks on their daughter Gwen, in particular about her size.

The fact is that Gwen isn't growing like the other girls, no budding breasts, no maturing voice or filled out buns. Puberty had eluded her and no one had even noticed.

Frank is a scientist and goes at this problem from a researcher's point of view while Paulette puts her head in the sand, selfishly acting as if Gwen's "condition" is a reflection on her. The strain on the McKotch family begins to tear at the fabric of the marriage and quite honestly, neither Frank nor Paulette is a very sympathetic character, but readers will hang in there for the kids, Gwen, older brother Billy and baby Scott, whose lives and conditions of their own are revealed in varying chapters.

Jennifer Haigh excels at empathizing with families in crisis. Her writing may be painfully realistic but readers sense that she loves her characters with all their warts and wrinkles. She is a masterful storyteller of the human condition on a par with Jonathan Franzen in my opinion. The Franzen of Freedom that is, not of The Corrections.

Looking at my list of books read in 2011, I can see plainly that my taste veers way too much toward the emotionally draining side of the spectrum. Even my movie tastes are heavy going - Don and I saw The Descendents today and were not feeling the love. I may have to make a New Year's Resolution - something I don't even believe in - to read some light, uplifting books for a while. I finished Absolution for Library Journal, an outstanding, but angst filled debut whose review I'll finish up this week.

This morning I found just a glimmer of hope in the ending of Lloyd Jones' Hand Me Down World and this afternoon I whipped through another bummer called, unfairly, The Lover's Dictionary.

Tomorrow I will begin number 100, an upbeat non-fiction book called French Dirt , about a man who moves to a tiny village in France, possibly one of the ones Don and I biked through several years ago, and learns to love the people through working on their farms and falls in love with the country for the smell of the soil. Now that's something I can relate to!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shadows in the Street

I'm not normally a big fan of "cozy" mysteries, unless you're including The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. I'm not sure I even care for that term. It just doesn't seem appropriate. And then too, one man's cozy is another's.......

Which is the case with Susan Hill. Several blogs I monitor have touted Hill as another Louise Penney, the woman whose star is skyrocketing with her Armand Gamache series of cozies that take place in Twin Pines, a little village in Quebec where there seems to be an inordinate number of murders. Now, I've only listened to one of Penney's titles so I won't make an unfair statement about the series but it just seemed a little too tame for me. I fully intend to try another in the new year.

In the meantime, though, I decided to give Susan Hill a try and began listening to The Shadows in the Street. This too is a series, perfect for those of you who love getting into a character and watching him morph into something other than what he started out as (think Harry Bosch). Hill's Simon Serailler mysteries take place in another peaceful little village, a cathedral town in England. Lafferton, like Twin Pines, is hardly the place where you'd expect to find much murder and mayhem. Maybe that's why readers love these books so much!

And mayhem there is, as one by one, various prostitutes' bodies begin to turn up strangled. The girls on the streets try to watch out for each other, helped by the do-gooders from the church and the lonely librarian who brings them hot tea and sandwiches each night. Some of them dream of getting out of "the trade," but they can't just stop working since they need the money to feed themselves and their kids. Hill, through her protaganists' situations, has a lot to say about the state of a society that can't or won't take care of the least of its brethren.

I think that what raises Hill's mysteries to the next level is that she really fleshes out the secondary characters with all of their foibles and flaws. In this episode there's a new dean at the cathedral, a political time bomb. He's accompanied by a wife, Ruth, who seems to be lacking any semblance of social skills. She quickly alienates other members of the various church boards and, quite suddenly, goes off the rails, disappearing for a few days and throwing off the investigation of the girls' murders. Ms. Hill provides a rather sympathetic examination of bi-polar disease and its effect on friends and loved ones.

There's also a lovely sub plot about the relationship of DCS Serailler with his family, in particular with his sister Cat, a recently widowed mother of three, and with his step-mother, a new addition to the family to whom he's previously been less than welcoming.

You know how sometimes you'll learn about someone or something new and then you see references to it over and over again? Does that happen to you? Well, it always does to me - especially working in a library. Sure enough, I just got to my Sunday's paper (yeah, it's Wednesday) and spotted Marilyn Stasio's column on crime in the Times book review mentioning the newest release in the Serailler series. Betrayal of Trust will be on the bookshelves soon.

And, if that's not enough, later in the day I read in Publisher's Weekly that a film is being produced based on one of her earlier novels, Woman in Black, starring none other than Harry Potter. Oh, I'm sorry, I mean Daniel Radcliffe. How much fun is that?

Meanwhile, I just received a new book from Library Journal, set in modern day Cape Town. I'm about 150 pages in and I must say that it's a deep, complicated novel that will take a lot of concentration on my part if I'm to give it a fair, honest review. I had hoped I could skate through a couple of easy books on my way to my goal of 100 but it looks like it's not to be. I'm so happy that all we've planned for the holidays is reading! Yup, I'm showing my age and I don't care who knows it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ali Smith

Have you heard of her? No? Well, neither had I.
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ali_Smith

 However, she is the author of my 96th, count 'em, book of the year. Don is quite confident that, if I ignore the yard, forget all movies even though the academy awards are coming up, allow the dust bunnies to accumulate under the bed, and utilize the upcoming holidays, I will reach my goal of 100 books read for 2011. Maryellen, laugh if you will, I know you're way higher than that but, for me, it's a record.

So back to Ms. Smith, a Scot who lives in England and has been on the shortlist for pretty much all of the prestigious British prizes for literature including the Orange Prize and the Man Booker. Described by The Guardian as "profoundly clever," Ms. Smith's extremely clever (in the best sense of the word) character, a precocious young lady named Brooke Bayaude, is perhaps the most delightfully impish, smart, deep-thinking young person I've met in a book in a long time. I wonder if she is Ms. Smith's alter-ego?

The novel, one of the year's best on every list I've seen so far, is called There But For The, and to tell the truth I almost gave it up because it was causing me to think too much! I had the feeling that the author was trying to make a point that was so far over my head that I just couldn't do the work. But I was 100 pages in and decided to relax and go for the ride. It has left me with a jumble of emotions and thoughts that may sound disjointed but I'll try to explain.

Ostensibly this novel has been touted as a book about a man, Miles Garth, who attends a dinner party at a posh residence as the guest of another man, Mark, whom he's only just met. At some point between the main meal and the dessert, Miles excuses himself, goes upstairs and doesn't return. It seems that he has locked himself in the guest room refusing to come out. Now you may ask, how does one build an entire storyline around this odd occurrence? And, of course, this is where the genius of the writer comes into play.

Over the course of 30 or 40 years this man, Miles Garth, has touched many lives, some fleetingly, others more deeply, as have we all whether we stop to think about it or not. Moving fluidly back and forth through time, using the metaphor of the atomic clock in Greenwich, Ms. Smith takes readers deep into the lives of some of those fortunate folks who have interacted with Miles. There are some "ah ha" moments and then there are questions that are never answered. There are moments of melancholy and beauty and some laugh out loud moments too.

And thankfully, there is Brooke, a child of such sensitivity and brilliance, such compassion and joie de vivre, that my heart lifted with every page she inhabited. Through Brooke the author shows us the utter foolishness of humankind. The greediness of Mrs. Lee, the hostess who parlayed Miles' disturbing disruption of her home life into a cottage industry of t-shirts, coffee mugs, and twitter feeds, and the general public who, as disenfranchised as the Occupy Wall Streeters, have camped for months under the window where Miles, now know as Milo, shows his hand once a day to accept the food offered up by pulley in a basket. 

I was mesmerized by this novel, the way the author pulled me in against my will. I hope to begin the new year by going back and reading some of her previous work. Still, I don't think this is a book for everyone. It's so erudite that I'm convinced I would not even be able to lead a book discussion on it. I know that I've missed some very profound truths posited by this book and I'd love to hear a professor expound upon it at length but, hey, places to go, things to do, and book number 97 to begin this afternoon. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Andre Dubus III - A Townie?

 As much as I'd read about Dubus's autobiography, Townie, I wasn't sure if I could handle one more "dysfunctional family as means to fame and fortune" book. Jeannette Walls, Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, the list goes on and on. Once again, I'm chastising myself for my short sightedness. Townie is definitely deserving of a spot on my top ten list. I should have known better. This is the man, after all,  who wrote the devastating House of Sand and Fog, a novel not easily forgotten.

Fair warning, Townie builds slowly, the members of the Dubus family are difficult to warm to, but the writing is so exquisite, so evocative, that you hold your breath in wonder. How many writers do you know who can create great literature out of a description of a stinking, steamy night, clearing, rinsing and washing dishes in a run down back room of a restaurant where the screen door slams open shut, open, shut, welcoming the flies that light everywhere except in the sticky strips that hang from the ceiling?

You know, I think that the publishers or editors or whomever it is that determines a book's title, might have hit on something other than the derogatory "townie." Because I attended a college that was in a run down city, (Troy, New York), much lovelier now I might add, I vividly recall the snob appeal of referring to locals in bars as "townies." Even then, I hated it, the way we thought we stood apart somehow from those who may or may not have had a way out - or, perhaps, didn't even want one! That's a concept we couldn't remotely grasp.

But Andre the third wasn't really a townie. His dad, the very well regarded short story writer, Andre Dubus Jr., taught at several small, liberal arts colleges, in fact, had a very prestigious career marred by his penchant for sexual liasons with his students (this was the sixties so believe me it was prevalent), a fondness for alcohol, and a habit of serial marriage which made it impossible for him to meet his financial responsibilities to his first wife and the four kids which included Andre. An irony not missed by this reader but forgiven by the much kinder writer, is that his profligate dad, apparently a devout Catholic, never missed a morning mass. The disconnect never ceases to amaze me.

The Dubus kids suffered, as more and more kids do these days, from hunger and a lack of supervision from a mom struggling through one menial job after another, exhausted trying to make ends meet. It's painful to listen to Mr. Dubus read his own story. Even his voice, which at first I thought was just too deadpan for the job, reflects the depression, the hopelessness with which he, his brother, an aspiring musician, and his sisters dealt with every day of their young lives.

As he grew older, Andre's hopelessness grew into a simmering rage, one that he writes about so insightfully that it is painful to read (or listen to as the case may be). He goes through a long phase of obsessive body building, bag punching, even training for the Golden Gloves, fighting with anyone who looks sideways at him in the dim, dank Boston bars where he and his cronies hang out, until he finally wears himself out. The anger dissipates as he begins to put pen to paper, surprising himself most of all with this need to set words on the page. How fortunate for us readers that Andre Dubus III discovered how to channel his energy and sense of social injustice into our favorite format. This is a beautiful, wrenching book.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

Like Lot's wife, I have looked back with longing and regret as the train or taxi took me back to the airport and I had to leave a city feeling that I had barely touched its surface. Fortunately, since I didn't become a pillar of salt, I may one day have the opportunity to return to these places of wonder with more time to be a flaneur. What a fabulous word!
In other words, I may not be trying to pump every waking moment of an all too short vacation full of seeing everything that one "must" see. Rather, I will have the leisure to stroll aimlessly, to take the road less traveled, to peer down the alley, to tarry over window displays, to sit in a park and people watch - one of my favorite things to do.

Paris is one of those cities that beckons to me to return. So when I read about John Baxter's new book, subtitled "A Pedestrian in Paris," I made sure to order it the very next day. Oh yes, one of the perks of being one of the purchasers for our library branch is that I make sure we purchase what I like. After all, I'm a taxpayer too, n'est pas?

Baxter is such an easy man to spend time with. It's easy to see how he was able to make a go of a little bet to become one of the most popular Parisian walking guides. (http://johnbaxterparis.com/) He sees things as a writer does, his anecdotes of famous and infamous denizens of the Paris of the past are spot on and filled with little known details. If you've seen the fabulous movie, which I've mentioned previously here, Midnight in Paris, then you know of whom we speak.

An ex-pat Australian, Baxter married a French woman with whom he has a daughter. They've lived in Paris for over twenty years now and, reading this little gem of a book, one senses that not only has he not lost his passion for France but that it grows deeper each day.

Each little chapter - maybe 4 to 6 pages - is preceded by a timely quotation from famous observers of Paris life. Baxter proceeds to take us on one of his little walks through Montparnasse or the Marais, stopping for refreshment at some wonderful out of the way cafe where we can smell the aperitif and hear the friendly banter.

He describes Paris in each of her seasons, each lovelier than the next. Even sitting bundled up in a park in November Baxter finds beauty in the austerity of the light, the silhouettes of the buildings against the pinkish gray dusk. Walking through Paris, he says, is the difference between being there and being present. What a delightful distinction!

I admit that there are few cities that I don't enjoy visiting, but there are some that strangely call to you from the moment you arrive. Baxter says that this phenomenon is like love at first sight. Certainly Rome was one for me, Florence too, Washington, D. C. will always be one of those, but Paris, ahhhh Paris. I did not get enough. Reading John Baxter made me want to pick up the phone, dial up Air France, and book the next flight out. Which city was it for you?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Those Who Save Us

I'd have eventually read this novel simply based on the title. Isn't it lovely? But a friend and active member of my library discussion group saw a paperback copy on the Friends of the Library sales rack and she handed it to me with a command. Read this book! I'm ashamed to admit that, for some time now, it's been in that growing pile of "books to read" that graces my less than generous kitchen counter. I'm slowly winnowing it down to make more room for Don's desserts.

Perhaps I've put this book on the back burner because it's another Holocaust novel and there's been so many of them. Still, Jenna Blum (http://www.jennablum.com/) takes a different tack and that makes all the difference doesn't it? Her novel toggles back and forth between 1940's Weimar, Germany, and 1990's New Heidleberg, Minnesota, examining the relationship between two complicated women, a mother and daughter, Anna and Trudy.

Trudy is a loner, unable to sustain relationships, not close with her mother, in fact, embarassed by her. Yet she's an overachieving college professor, respected by her co-workers, a teacher of German history who has gotten involved in a project much like NPR's StoryCorps. http://storycorps.org/

She interviews former German citizens about their remembrances of their lives in Germany during World War II, much like the Shoah Foundation interviews Holocaust survivors for their stories. In fact, Ms. Blum worked for the Shoah Foundation for several years leading up to the publication of this book and it shows. The irony is that, as Trudy delves more and more into these people's pasts, she hurts more and more from the realization that she knows nothing about her own mother's past, recalling nothing from her childhood except the nightmares that plague her.

We, the readers, of course, learn Anna's amazing story. We know about the illegitimate child she had by the Jewish doctor she had hidden in her father's house. We find out about the courageous Mathilde, a bakery owner who takes Anna in, employs her, and enlists her help in the Resistance. We watch in horror as the Obersturmfuhrer rapes, brutalizes and finally subdues Anna, a woman who will hold her head high against the ugly gossip of the townspeople, aware that she will do anything to keep her Trudy fed and alive.

Anna as an older woman is an extremely frustrating character. I'll have to admit that I didn't really warm to her very much because I wanted to shake her! I wanted for her to see how her daughter was suffering by being kept ignorant and how much more fulfilling their relationship could have been if only Anna could have opened up the way Trudy's subjects did. But then Ms. Blum managed to write a denouement that settled this conundrum satisfactorily, for me at least.

I have to believe that this would make an excellent book for discussion groups. The characteristics that I look for when I'm choosing our discussion books are all there. Interesting, complicated characters. Moral relativity. Nuance. People who have committed what some might consider immoral acts but for reasons that may justify them. This is a book about life in all its messy intricacies. Remarkably, it is a debut. Once again, I'm amazed at the talent out there.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lists, Lists, and More Lists!

My sister left a message on my answering machine last night. Did I detect a hint of gloating in her voice? She has read 104 books this year! What??? This is my job, it's what I do, it's how I roll. But I'm just pushing 90. Don, my number one cheerleader, says I'll hit 100 by December 31st (that was my original goal) but I'm not feeling it.

 I only live 6 miles from work so it takes forever to listen to a CDBK unless I flat out make up errands. Of course, if I spend my time in the car then I'm not exercising, which means the book on my ipod languishes. Forget reading at work - I can't concentrate in our chatty-cathy lounge where the conversation tends to be about - you guessed it - work!! There is a picnic table where I often hide if the weather is amenable, but the ambiance leaves a bit to be desired. That damn dumpster!

Oh, what's a list-lover to do? Every blogger I monitor is coming out with his end of year personal bests. The New York Times printed their top 100 this past weekend. I was proud to note that, of the top 50 fiction titles, I had reviewed 8 or 9 for Library Journal. Many more magazines will be following up with their best of the year. I love it! The only reason I cared to learn Excel was so that I could keep track of books read, something I've been doing obsessively since this blog started in, I can't believe it, 2007!

How about you readers? Are you obsessive-compulsive about your reading? Do you worship booklists or is this just a librarian thing? I'd love to hear what's on your favorite books of 2011 list. I'll tell you mine. I feel that I can confidently say that nothing I have on tap for the next couple of weeks will take the place of these, the top 10 books that spoke to me on some deep level in 2011:

1. The Grief of Others, Leah Hager Cohen
2. The Submition, Amy Waldman
3. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson
4. The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli
5. Room, Emma Donaghue
6. The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright
7. To The End of the Land, David Grossman
8. Faith, Jennifer Haigh

9. Blame, Michelle Huneven
10. Three Weeks in December (not yet released), Audrey Schulman

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

This new novel by Booker Award nominee (English literary prize) Julian Barnes has been receiving kudos everywhere I read about it, even from readers whose taste I truly respect. Linda, I'm talking about you. But.....this novel left me chilled. That doesn't mean that I don't recommend it to people because I want to hear why from those who were bowled over by it. I'm especially waiting to hear what my sister thought since, unbeknown to each other, we each started reading this book on the same day.

Personally, I have difficulty with unlikeable characters. If I can't tolerate their company I have to wonder how other readers can. Some novels can simply be appreciated for the quality of the writing, no matter how we feel about the narrator, which may be why so many readers are praising Barnes and his narcissistic storyteller, Tony Webster.

Middle-aged (aren't we all?), retired but active enough, divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, who is actually quite a lovely secondary character, in touch with his daughter, Tony is brought up short when he receives legal notice that he's the recipient of a seemingly small yet potent legacy; the bequest is the diary of a college friend who committed suicide some time earlier. The odd thing is, and what gives the novel a frisson of suspense, is that this diary has been in the custody of a former lover's mother. Got that?

Tony, as those of a certain age tend to do, begins to re-evaluate old memories from his youth brought to the fore by these "remembrances of things past." He mulls over a weekend he spent in the country with this former girlfriend, Veronica, and her family, and the strange simpatico that he felt with his girl's mother. He relives his schooldays when he and his cadre enjoyed long, meandering, pretentious conversations about life, philosophy, and history, in that insufferable manner that only 20 year olds can.

Then, against his better judgement, and the warnings of others, he contacts Veronica, setting in motion a strange dance between the two, in which she refuses to be forthright and he continues to be obtuse. This examination of memory and time is a common literary conceit, one that especially fascinates me as my brother, sister and I have such extremely varying recollections of our childhoods even though there's only a 4 year span among the three of us.

So yes, kudos to Barnes for the gorgeous, concise (176 p.) language. Perhaps Tony Webster is meant to be unlikeable, or perhaps, the older I get the less willing I am to give fictional characters a second chance. There are too many others out there just waiting to meet me! As a matter of fact, I can't wait to tell you about the great book I just reviewed for Library Journal peopled with truly marvelous characters. More as soon as it's published.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

George Pelecanos, I Love You Man But.....

....you're killing me! I've been an avid follower for years George. I'll never forget the day the phone at my cubicle rang and when I picked up there you were on the other end just like any regular Joe. I was having heart palpitations! You graciously responded to my invitation to head south to our reading festival and what a great year that was! It was my first year with Don, who accompanied me to the Evening with the Authors reception just so that he could meet you.

Now, I know that you walk on the dark side but why'd you have to do those boys that way in The Way Home? I can't take it! I get that you write for The Wire, I get that life doesn't always have happy endings but someone, somewhere in DC must find redemption!

Readers, I can't say enough about George Pelecanos and his books. They're so much more than crime novels. They're a love offering to the District of Columbia for one thing, and for another, I see them as a paean to the human condition. Pelecanos throws in enough politics to keep me in his corner and one can hope that his heart felt cries for juvenile court reform are not falling on deaf ears.

I have several autographed copies of his books but I prefer to listen to Pelecanos because of Dion Graham. He's the perfect reader for these deep, dark novels. His voice is low, rough and sensual. He seduces the reader, lulling you in and then smacking you down with the overt violence that's generally at the core of these stories, the Sturm und Drang of life on the streets for kids released from juvenile lockup with no place to go, no one to believe in them.

 The Way Home is a novel about a cadre of boys who served together in a juvenile detention facility for minor crimes, mostly the kind of drug use practiced by our last three presidents but hey - if you're a kid from the hood, you're going to do time. Chris Flynn doesn't fit the profile. Raised by loving parents, business owners, upwardly mobile types who work hard to give Chris the things and the future they never thought they'd have, Chris's parents agonize over where they went wrong.

They provide Chris and his buddy Ben with a second chance, honest work as carpet installers for Flynn Carpets. Chris and Ben have an easy rapport and camaraderie engendered by their shared past at Pine Ridge Detention Facility. But one day, while tearing up some old flooring, they discover a hidden bag full of money and old temptations gurgle to the surface.

If money is the root of all evil, you won't doubt it for a minute as you watch this cash become the catalyst for all of the horrific action that follows. It will test the already tenuous relationship between Chris and his dad Tom Flynn, force Chris's fiancee to question her trust in his innate goodness, and perhaps derail all the redemptive actions that these young men have taken on their way to a better life.

George Pelecanos is without peer, in my humble opinion, when we talk about literary crime novels. He gets better, deeper, more psychologically astute with age. Yes, you'll need to take a break now and then and read some fluff to help you down from the edge, but you'll find yourself going back. I can't wait for his latest to hit the streets. Watch for The Cut at a library or bookstore near you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward

This young woman is no stranger to awards. She has been a Stegner fellow at Stanford, a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and is currently a teacher of creative writing in Alabama, but still one has to wonder how someone so young could plumb the depths of despair that are so evident in her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones.

This novel had been on my radar screen for a while and I started to read it before I realized that she was up for this prestigious award. I truly thought I would have to give it up because the writing is so raw, so gut wrenching that I just wasn't sure I could take it. Then, last week, Ms. Ward beat out even the much ballyhooed The Tiger's Wife (which I'll be discussing later this year at my library) and I knew that I would soldier on.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that it's a difficult book to read but that it's HARD to read if you get my drift. Other reviewers have stressed that this is a novel about Hurricane Katrina but it's far from that. Katrina is simply the catalyst for what I see as the true subject of this book which is love. Love in all its manifestations, family, friendship, passion, loss, memory.
 Salvage the Bones is a Greek tragedy and in fact Esch, our narrator, reads the story of Medea and Jason throughout the novel, seeing herself as the victim, no, I shouldn't say victim, but vessel of an attraction, a hunger for love so deep that it burns her soul.

In Bois Sauvage, Louisiana, in the days running up to Katrina, the young people are oblivious to the media's warnings of pending destruction. Esch's family is barely scraping by, her father mourns the death of his wife in childbirth, barely holds a job because of the alcohol, ceding care of the baby to the other kids. Randall, a talented basketball player, has a slim chance of scoring a scholarship and getting out but he is also Junior's de facto parent.

 Skeetah sublimates his need for the nurturing he missed by raising his pit bull, China, weaning her from her babies with a tenderness that tears at your heart even as he gambles on her ability in a fighting ring, a centerpiece so descriptive that any reader must turn his eyes away in horror at the unsettling violence. This is not a novel for the faint of heart.

I've never read a book like this. I gasp aloud at some of the metaphors, so apt, so perfectly placed. I rage against the poverty that ties this family to its home as the hurricane waters begin to rise. I agonize with Esch as she senses the life growing in her womb, frightened yet accepting of impending motherhood, beating back the rejection from Manny, the most likely father and the object of her outsized passion. In fact, this entire little novel (250p.) is outsized in its passion, which is why it deserves all the accolades that it gets.

Friday, November 18, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

The old saying "you reap what you sow" can be interpreted in many different ways and I've been ruminating on all of them this week. Right now though, I'll tell you what it means to me in a literal sense. Two weeks ago a wonderful old Florida cracker arrived at my house with a truckload of "good" dirt,  a caterpillar for spreading it around, and a head full of old fashioned knowledge about growing fruit and veggies in Florida. Within a few minutes both of my vegetable planters were overfull with abundance and I was dancing around with glee. I couldn't wait to get those seeds in the dirt!

There's an indescribable sense of satisfaction that I get while watching the garden grow. What a rotten kid I was! I can recall making such fun of my mother when she would get practically orgasmic with delight when her tomatoes began to ripen each summer. The August that we knew she was really sick with the cancer that would take her in just 6 weeks was the August that she didn't want her tomatoes and asked us to give them away. Now I harvest my own in her memory and hope that she knows.

So mom, here was the garden last Sunday:

And only 10 days later, check out the first stirrings of lettuce, collards, spinach, peppers and, you can just barely see them, tomatoes!


And watching over all this is the reason I won't give up my home and move into a condo until I can't stand up straight!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jeffery Deaver Channels Ian Fleming

Other authors have tried and failed but Jeffery Deaver has knocked it out of the ballpark with Carte Blanche; 007, an up to date look at Special Agent 007 (who will always be Sean Connery to me) working in a 21st century world. New enemies and new gadgets but the familiar snappy dialogue and interior musings of Bond as he takes on a false identity hoping to entrap a truly disgusting enemy, Severan Hydt, king of a waste disposal empire.

Now you may think that I'm prejudicial in favor of Deaver's perfect blend of old-style spy material a la Fleming with the new technology at Bond's disposal because of Deaver's wonderful appearance at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival a few years ago where he told us, admittedly after a few glasses of less than perfect pinot, that he had passed up the Virginia Festival of the Book in favor of our more fan-centered festival, and you'd be right.

Still, I'd be stunned and amazed if this new take on James Bond isn't parlayed into a film and what a fun film it would be. It has all the trademark elements that Bond aficionados expect. Flirtations with beautiful women, and a hint at a more serious relationship in the future, an enemy bent on the destruction of huge amounts of people simply because he has a fetish for dead bodies, and enough politically correct undercurrents to keep this reader fascinated.

Best of all, for me, is the fact that Deaver set the novel in South Africa, Cape Town mostly, and he brings the city to life while explaining to readers, without being didactic, how terribly obvious is the separation that still exists between those who live up on the hill and the workers who are down in townships grotesquely named things like "Primrose Gardens," a place where corrugated shacks with no electricity or running water pass for homes and the people are as disposable as the trash that Hydt compacts.

Toby Stephens deftly handles the reading of the audio book version that I'm listening to, not a simple task as he jumps back and forth between Bond's British upper-crust and the South African Afrikaans accent which is a cross between English, Dutch and German. I imagine the family of Ian Fleming, who chose Deaver to take on the Bond tradition, is thrilled with Carte Blanche, as fans of Fleming and Deaver should all be. Give it a whirl.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

The subtitle of Erik Larson's latest book is "love, terror, and an American family in Hitler's Berlin." This is not just any American family though. This is the true story, something Larson excels in is writing non-fiction that reads like fiction, of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd.

Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt after several other men turned down the position, Dodd was considered a fusty, old fashioned, tight fisted man, an academic from Chicago totally unsuited to the job. His penury, which today would be considered an admirable quality, made him the laughing stock of his staff and of the other dignitaries he interacted with. He actually walked to meetings rather than luxuriate in a chauffeur driven vehicle! He didn't have enough servants and he tried to live in Berlin on the ambassador's salary, about $3000 a year at the time.

I have to tell you, I must be the only person in the world who didn't think that Larson's big hit, Devil in the White City, an ugly recounting of a serial killer who stalked young women in Chicago while making a fortune from the building of the World's Fair, was a great read. What every book discussion group in creation saw in that book to talk about, I have no idea. But this one? Oh yeah!

I personally think that this book is by far the more interesting and sophisticated. It offers a great way to learn your history without falling asleep. It brings the run up to World War II alive to the reader through the eyes of a family that initially didn't believe there was anything to worry about as Hitler rose in prominence.
But gradually, through immersion in the lives of the German people, the socialites, the politicians, and the various branches of the police, Ambassador Dodd and his family began to sense with growing alarm the true evil that was burgeoning in their beloved Germany.

Larson has done a load of research, often quoting from diaries and letters of the many players who populate his book. I found Dodd's daughter Martha to be the most fascinating woman I've read about in forever. You couldn't make this up! The old saying "truth is stranger than fiction" certainly applies here.

 The women in the book discussion I attended were non-plussed by what they perceived to be her indiscriminate sexual behavior. It's all they could focus on. What I loved watching was her talent at drawing so many different men and women into her orbit and mesmerizing all of them at the same time. A newspaper editor in Chicago, she obviously had the brains and looks to pull it off and the sense of freedom that being in a foreign country often proffers.

Hardly the swinging '60's, this was 1933 -35, Martha deftly juggled a former husband in the states with lovers from both the Russian embassy and the Nazi SS at the same time and managed to do it all under the ever watchful eyes of the of the government. She attracted all the writers and artists of the day to her home and participated in various discussion groups and socials where politics and the future of Germany were dissected and hashed over.

And it's through Martha, the most dazzled initially by Hitler's "new" Germany, that Larson proves how easily people could fool themselves into believing that the attacks on American Jews in Berlin were not truly racially motivated and that the whisperings of attempts to create an Aryan race were not really possible. Until, that is, the evidence becomes more obvious, the sounds of the jackboots more ominous, and the hateful speeches louder.

I've been listening to Larson's book on my ipod. It's been a boon to my health as I want to walk longer and farther even though I know the ending. I feel like Larson has allowed me to be a fly on the wall at the backdoor machinations of the politicians who jockey for position, each with his own agenda, our lives in their hands as they decide to go to war. Not much has changed.

I'm thrilled to tell you that Erik Larson will be attending the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in the Spring - good going Jess! Put it on your calendar. The man is a talent to be reckoned with. www.readfest.org

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Grief of Others

Be not afraid of this title. This exquisite book, though about grief, will not cause you to grieve but to rejoice at the glory of the English language! Leah Hager Cohen is a name you may not find on the New York Times best seller list, a fact that will tell future generations a thing or two about our discernment as it applies to literary appreciation.
I don't recall how I first heard about her but I've been following her blog for several years now and have been brought practically to my knees in envy and appreciation of her skills.
http://loveasafoundobject.blogspot.com/

How many years has it been since you fell in love with an entire family? A fictional family, that is? Each member of the Ryrie family is so special, so distinct, so overwhelmingly lovable, even when he or she is acting distinctly unlovable. Ricky, John, Paul and Biscuit, then later Jess, could be any average American family in the burbs, a two income household in which the fact that Ricky earns considerably more as a financial analyst than does John who designs stage sets, causes some friction and resentment now and then.

What sets them apart is that it's been a year since the death of their newborn son and they have yet to talk about it. The corrugated box of ashes, tied up with string, has been relegated to a high shelf in the back of a closet. The fact of its being hidden there, though, does nothing to dispel the sense of lethargy, loss, anxiety, and despair that hovers over the Ryrie household.

Paul, as awkward a pre-teen as you've ever met, is being bullied at school. His once lanky frame has given way to pudginess and a raft of pimples as he tries to eat away his insecurities. Biscuit, at ten, is a little miss firecracker, too bright and sassy for her own good. Yet, in the year since the baby's death she has skipped school five times and, anathema to some of us, has stolen a book from the library. John and Ricky notice nothing. At best, they are only vaguely aware.

The tension in the air is so tangible that as I read I worried for the mental health of "my" family. Open up! Open up! I wanted to yell at them, to shake them, force them to look at these beautiful damaged kids crying out for a way to work through their own pain. And suddenly there were catalysts, new characters who would change the makeup of things, skew the emotions, throw everyone off balance, and I loved them too.

If you've been reading along here for a few years you know that I have a love/hate relationship with the word "luminous." I worry about its overuse, especially in book reviews. Nevertheless, I've racked my brain and I can find no other word that better describes the memorable feeling of reading a truly luminous novel such as this one. Just read this description of the newborn, Simon, from the first page of the book:

          "His lips: how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And in the curl - in the way the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, twice, like a bobbing valentine, and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasures...."

I've never even held a newborn but I could feel and smell him with every fiber of my being as I read this paragraph. Ms. Cohen's entire novel is overflowing with glorious gemlike sentences. Please, do yourself a favor and download, purchase or borrow this book as soon as you can. Then let me know what you think.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Robert Macomber - Library Advocate

Many years ago I read an article in the Fort Myers News-Press about a former sheriff's office employee whose love of sailing, charts, and history was taking him on a mid-life adventure, a career change of interest to me since I too was embarking upon a new career. Robert Macomber is a writer. I'm a librarian. Need I say more?

 I've been following his trajectory from local author to internationally recognized purveyor of deeply researched maritime novels and fascinating guest lecturer for the Cunard line of cruise ships. His quarterly newsletter is one of my favorite reads.
http://www.robertmacomber.com/Scuttlebutt.html

Yesterday I attended the annual meeting of the Southwest Florida Library Network where Mr. Macomber was the guest speaker. He had just made a PSA for Florida libraries and was full of support and kind words for researchers of all stripes. More to the point though, was his deeply held belief that a free public library is, and always will be, a cornerstone of a democracy. I was very moved.

Bob Macomber has traveled the world. I believe he said he has done "eye ball reconnaissance" in over 70 countries since he began writing his Honor series of books about naval intelligence officer Peter Wake. He holds one in thrall when he talks about the smells of a market in Marakesh or the sounds one hears on the Mekong River at night. You can't make this up. It needs to be experienced in the flesh.

 It reminded me of something I read and loved on Barbara Hoffert's Library Journal blog a few weeks ago, a quote from St. Augustine: "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Military history, fiction or non, has never been my cup of tea. Yet I'm going to open myself up to a new genre, go outside my comfort zone, and read Bob's newest book in the series, Honor Bound (I understand that they can stand alone), which is centered in Haiti.

On another note, Thrity Umrigar has accepted an invitation to appear at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in March and I had the opportunity to read and review her latest novel which will be released in January. I enjoyed The World We Found very much, as I have all of her books and look forward to meeting her soon. You can read my review at the link below: as always, scroll to the bottom.
http://bit.ly/oWU02K

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Alice LaPlante's Knockout Debut

Trust me, you will not be able to forget Dr. Jennifer White! This woman once excelled in her chosen field. As a renowned orthopedic surgeon who did not suffer fools gladly, she was a formidable presence in the OR, in the classroom, and even at home. She commanded respect and, no matter how brittle, she received love from her husband James, her kids Mark and Fiona, and a semblance of that complicated emotion from her best and only friend Amanda, a woman with whom she had a long-standing, prickly relationship, yet trusted with godparenting her children.

I speak of Dr. White in the past tense though Alice LaPlante presents Dr. White as the present tense narrator in her outstanding, unique, and yes, deeply disturbing debut novel, Turn of Mind. Dr. White suffers from early onset Alzheimers disease but is still able to live in her family home with a permanent care-giver as long as the money holds out and she behaves relatively well.

But readers learn, through Jennifer's stream of consciousness narration, that she is losing ground daily, a trait of early onset vs. the more dementia type alzheimer's which attacks later in life. What is sinister and devious about the disease is the roller coaster nature of conscious thought, capable of recalling exact details of long ago incidences yet unable to recognize Fiona or Mark when they come to visit. Her addled mind though, is still able to discern who means harm and who is caring or neutral in terms of her well being.

It's a remarkable, realistic, terrifying journey that LaPlante takes us on. The author's research into diseases of the brain must have been inordinately in-depth to create such a multi-faceted character, imperious, hard nosed, funny, and oh so sympathetic, even if we believe that she murdered her friend Amanda and surgically removed four fingers from one hand.

The police investigation of Amanda's death, with Dr. White at its core, is the ostensible subject of this book, but the subtext is what really keeps you reading late into the night. Family secrets are alluded to in snippets of Jennifer's memories, in the diary that visitors write in when they come so that Jennifer can keep a handle on her days, and in the tense conversations she often has with her troubled son Mark or with Fiona, who holds the purse strings.

LaPlante teaches creative writing at Stanford, no surprise there. She doles out clues, stirs in a few red herrings, throws us off the scent (though I managed to sniff it out), presenting us with a novel that's difficult to classify and all the better for that. It's a psychological thriller, a murder mystery, a character study, and a dysfunctional family drama, rolled into one knockout book. Unlike Lisa Genova's Still Alice, it isn't really about the disease per se, though it still convinced me to run, not walk, to a lawyer and get that will updated.

Friday, October 28, 2011

When She Woke - Be Very Afraid

I was having such a love/hate relationship with this book that I almost cashed it in. I'm so glad that I didn't! Without a doubt, it's one of the most terrifying novels I've ever read. Though reviewers are saying it's supposed to be a modern day Scarlet Letter, I'm thinking that it's much more akin to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book, I might add, that can still give me nightmares twenty some years after reading it.

Hannah Payne (initials H.P. like Hester Prynne) awakens in a hospital ward/prison as a "red." She is under 24 hour video surveillance by anyone in the entire country who wants to witness her shame and tragically, like a reality TV show, people do.  She has been chromed.

You see, in the not too distant future - just imagine Rick Perry as your President - the United States (this particular novel begins in Texas) has become an evangelical Christian nation with laws that make Sharia look loosey goosey. The only problem is that the prisons are just too full and costly to maintain - sound familiar?
 Criminals are treated with a drug that changes the color of their skin to match their crime. Hannah has had an abortion and to add to that sin, she has refused to give up the name of her lover or the doctor who took mercy on her and performed the procedure. Her red skin is now the outward symbol of her treachery, putting her at the mercy of vigilante groups like The Fist who can monitor her every move through advanced gps technology.

In this eerie time in our nation women are relegated to being seen and not heard. Their education consists of mastering the domestic arts, sewing, cooking, and raising a family. Their opinions are not solicited and, if offered, are ignored. Over a few generations, a woman might not realize what she's lost. But Hannah, who spends a horrifying few weeks in a halfway house undergoing "enlightenment" treatment, meets other women, in particular a college educated woman named Kayla, who offers her  the possibility of another kind of life.

With the help of an underground railroad of activists called It's Personal, Hannah embarks upon a journey of self discovery, an awakening if you will, an arduous trip to safety and reversal treatment for her skin pigmentation.  The question is, will she have the moral courage to proceed?

I just realized that I haven't yet mentioned the outstanding young author of this incredible novel, Hillary Jordan, whose first book, Mudbound, received all kinds of kudos. I suspect that, with this second endeavor, she has cemented her position as another one of these talented young writers who will be producing glorious works of literature for years to come.
http://www.hillaryjordan.com/

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Europa Editions, You've Done it Again

My love affair with this publisher continues unabated as they persist in putting out the loveliest looking books from Europe's best, I would guess, mid-list authors. No slam bam James Pattersons for Europa, no sir. The latest of their impressive releases is Laurence Cosse's An Accident in August, an absolutely stunning examination of the effects of guilt on the human psyche.

AN Accident in August: A Novel

Like foreign films, these novels translated into English, are meant to be savored. They begin slowly and build gradually so that when you're hit between the eyes with the action it's shocking, unexpected and fabulous. This particular book would make a terrific movie. All the camera would have to do is follow Lou around for a week trained on her face. With the right actress for the role, the entire novel would be to told through her expressions.

Lou is a victim of Fate with a capitol F. At the wrong place, the entrance to the Alma tunnel in Paris, at the wrong time, the exact moment that Princess Di's Mercedes is barreling away from the hotel, her slow moving Fiat is clipped by the Mercedes as it rams out of control into a cement piling, resulting in the accident of the decade.
Lou is so stunned and shaken that she just continues to drive away, unaware of the famous victims she's abandoning in her wake, until the next morning, that is, when the media frenzy changes the direction of her life.

As Lou changes before our very eyes one wonders why her lover, Yvon, doesn't force her to unburden herself of the guilty load she's carrying. Cosse gets the reader inside Lou's head as she plots and schemes to cover her tracks and erase all evidence of her presence at the scene of the crash. One bad decision after another brought to my mind that old saying "oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive."

Cosse, whose A Novel Bookstore, I wrote about here last year, has outdone herself with this small but incisive character study that managed to shock me more than once by taking off in directions I never would have expected. This is a very satisfying read.

 I'm sorry that I can't say the same for the madly far-fetched novel, The Informationist, which I also finished this week.  Can someone who read this, Linda perhaps, tell me how early in the book you were able to surmise who the bad guy was? OK, admittedly, I stuck with it to its conclusion but Michael/Vanessa was without a doubt the most unbelievable character I've ever encountered in literature.

 I almost laughed out loud at some of the deadly predicaments she managed to fight, slash, and shoot her way out of. Shades of 007 abound and the willing suspension of disbelief is a requirement if you intend to hang with Taylor Stevens to the end of this debut thriller. But don't take my word as the be all and end all, the Amazon reviewers went mad for this novel, comparing Michael Vanessa Monroe to Lizbeth Salander and pre-ordering the follow up due out in December.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cocktail Hour Under the Tree....

...of Forgetfulness. Not that long ago I raved here on this blog about Alexandra Fuller's story of her African childhood http://readaroundtheworld-sallyb.blogspot.com/search?q=don%27t+let%27s+go+to+the+dogs+tonight and now she's going to force me to do it again! I read the new book about her mother, Nicola Fuller, in a record two days and, though I was fully prepared to be appalled at the arrogance of these people who go into Africa and expect to make it their own with no concern for the people whose lands they are adopting, I was surprised and pleased to discover that Tim and Nicola Fuller did finally come to terms with the new Africa and made their peace with black rule.

Ms. Fuller had to face her mother's wrath after she opened her family up to criticism in Don't Let's go to the Dogs.... Her mom continues to refer to it as "that AWFUL book." Yet, Ms. Fuller's respect and love for her mother's resilience glows from every page of her latest reminiscences. Some of the stories I remembered from the first book. I knew that Nicola Fuller suffered from extreme bouts of depression and mania that caused her to over imbibe in alcohol. I knew that she was tough on every one around her, including her husband, daughters, and servants. Still, she never expected more of any of them than she expected of herself.

Under the tree of forgetfulness the now grown up Alexandra questions her larger than life mother Nicola about her dreams and regrets. Nicola Fuller's Scottish family had settled in Kenya during colonial rule. Africa was in her blood from a very young age so that the prejudices that she developed over time had trickled down through generations and would require time to dispel. When she met the like-minded Tim there was no doubt that they would settle on a farm in Africa despite the hardships, of which there were plenty.

Besides being a book about her mother, this is also a clear, understandable, brief history of the end of colonialism in parts of Africa. As a land owner in the former Rhodesia, Ms. Fuller's father was drafted into the army, often gone fighting for months at a time while Nicola kept the kids, the cattle and the crops under control, fending off stray soldiers who wanted them off what they considered their land.

Rhodesia eventually gained independence, becoming Zimbabwe, but still the Fullers would not be moved. "People often ask why my parents haven't left Africa. Simply put, they have been possessed by the land. Land is Mum's love affair and it is Dad's religion," says Alexandra, and though she currently lives in the United States, one senses that she too is constantly struggling against the pull of that continent. She has penned a beautiful love story to her parents and to the land where humanity began, a place that has mesmerized explorers for better or worse for centuries.

As someone who's recently returned from Africa and from weeks of talking with native Africans and Afrikaners like our guides Henk or the gun toting Max whose families have also lived in Africa for generations, I've tried to put myself in their shoes. I love my home, my little piece of land that I've cultivated and made my own over the past nearly thirty years.

The question is, would I feel justified in fighting for it if I was suddenly confronted by the unfortunate truth that this land belonged to the Seminoles, who were pushed further and further into the Everglades by northern developers generations ago. Hmmmm - it gives one pause, does it not?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Faith

A five letter word so fraught with meaning that there are some who will refuse to even discuss it,  faith is a powerful thing. What does it conjure up for you? As a kid being raised a Catholic, if we entertained doubts about the catechism and dared to openly question it, we were simply told that we had to believe, it was a matter of faith. When you're eight or ten years old that might be a good enough answer but as you mature you might think that it just doesn't fly. Personally, I'd prefer to entertain faith in the innate goodness of my fellow man, though that's been taking a beating lately too!

As it does in Jennifer Haigh's outstanding new novel, Faith. You don't need to be a Catholic, recovering, former, or otherwise, to appreciate Ms. Haigh's examination of the pedophilia scandal that's been plaguing the church for the past century, but it certainly added to the sense of familiarity I had while reading. You see, my Irish family had a deeply troubled priest in our midst so this novel really hit home.

Arthur Breen is a wonderfully complicated character, a popular and by all accounts successful priest, practicing (you've got to love that word) in a south Boston parish where his days are filled with hospital visits, council meetings, and long, comfortable silences with his loyal housekeeper and cook, Fran. But beneath this tranquil surface run longings and doubts long held in abeyance that bubble to the surface when Fran begins to supervise her grandson after school.

In 2002 in the Boston archdiocese all hell broke loose when it was discovered that abuse of children was running rampant throughout the priesthood and was being covered up by those in authority. Suspicion and accusations abounded in a "his word against mine" atmosphere that was difficult to counter. But this isn't really what Haigh's novel is about as much as it is the catalyst for a heartbreaking novel about family secrets, a failure to communicate, and that word again, faith.

When Arthur is accused of molesting Fran's grandson it seems an outrageous lie, especially to his mother, steeped in the rigors of Catholic tradition, and his half sister Sheila, the one person with whom Arthur can normally be himself. But when Sheila rises to his defense Arthur withdraws even from her, planting seeds of doubt that will plague her conscience as she tells the story in flashbacks.

Every single character in Haigh's brave, tragic novel is so nuanced, so believable, that I felt I knew each one of them. Their motivations, actions and reactions make perfect sense and I love that she doesn't judge them or make caricatures of them. From Arthur's half-brother Michael, former tough guy who married up and made good, to his once bullying step-father, now suffering from dementia, to Aiden's mother Kath, a barely recovering addict wounded over and over by wrong men and wrong choices, Jennifer Haigh has penned a novel that cries out to be a movie with the scope of Mystic River.

I hope that my customers at the library feel the same way since we'll be discussing this novel in a few weeks as our 2011-2012 season gets into full swing. I'll also be tackling Ann Patchet's new book State of Wonder, Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife, and Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Small Hotel

One of those authors who's always been on my "to read" list is Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler. I'm glad that I didn't wait for retirement to get to him. Reviews, not to mention the cover, of A Small Hotel, beckoned to me. I finished it this morning and had to write immediately.


The Olivier House in New Orleans, room 306, has been a refuge for Kelly and Michael since their first encounter twenty years ago, a crazy Mardi Gras night when Kelly, disguised as Catwoman, strayed from her friends and wandered into a dangerous situation.
Michael could have come off as a caricature of the tall, dark stranger swooping in to rescue the damsel in distress but in Butler's capable hands it feels not only plausible but so right that he would take Kelly back to room 306 and offer to give her privacy for the evening until she regains a sense of safety and trust.

In fact, trust is a major player in this tight little novel of a relationship in which the words unsaid threaten to unravel the finely honed agreement between husband and wife, between father and daughter, that has been forged from one generation to the next. "I love you." Three little words fraught with meaning. Do we say them so often that they lose their power to convey their depth? Or do we withold the words to avoid losing ourselves in someone else?

Butler teaches creative writing at FSU, a coup for that university for sure! I read the first sentence of the book and was caught up in the pleasure of the words. "On the afternoon of the day when she fails to show up in a judge's chambers in Pensacola to finalize her divorce, Kelly Hays........" The entire novel will take place over the course of one evening in room 306 where Kelly will relive the highs and lows of her marriage to Michael, who is reliving the same, though he is in another hotel with another woman only fifty miles down the road.

This book, in only 239 pages, manages to beautifully convey the complications, the baggage we now call it, that we take from our childhoods, store away in our psyches, and unconciously unpack in our adulthood, thwarting our ability to make connections. When you think about it, it's a miracle that there are as many fulfilling relationships as there are out there and that we continue to try, in the face of daunting odds, proves the old adage that hope springs eternal. For more on Robert Olen Butler check out his website at
http://www.robertolenbutler.com/

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Old Hippies Never Die.....

......I'll admit that my memories of that first march on Washington in the late '60's have become somewhat jumbled up in my head with other memories of DC, where I spent lots of time and lived for the summer between my junior and senior years of college. What I do remember is the sincerity with which my buddies and I drove to Falls Church that spring where we were to all camp out, girls upstairs, guys in the basement, at the home of one of my college chums. Her dad was a colonel, having served in Viet Nam and recently returned to the U.S. We were there to march in hopes of ending this deadly, unpopular war that was threatening to take our brothers, lovers, and friends.

We were terrified of Col. Hamblen - he seemed so formidable - but I think often of what an intuitive and sensible dad he was. His daughter was pretty headstrong - why tell her and her crew what they can't do? In stead he welcomed us to take his hospitality and to join the march - perhaps a little part of him agreed with us? On another visit he invited us to the Pentagon for lunch - obviously pre-Homeland Security. I found his impressive obituary the other day and understood a lot. http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/alhamblenjr.htm

We thought we were being careful, sensing that we were a part of something so much greater than ourselves, a turning point. Until the tear gas began to roll over us from  up ahead. I can tell you that it only takes a second for panic to set in and chaos to reign.

Over the years I've been so fortunate to be able to travel to various dream destinations - dreams to me anyway - and it never seems to fail that I arrive just as something momentous is happening and I'm thrown back to the '60's and that pride that one feels for taking a stand. In Florence, in the middle of an anti-Bush rally, our tour company asked us to forgo the city as it wouldn't be safe for Americans. Andiamo, we replied, voting for Florence and maybe even to take up a banner!

In Paris a few years ago Don and I were out strolling one evening, drawn to the glorious sight of the illuminated tour Eiffel . As we neared we could hear low singing, chanting almost, and closer still, we saw hundreds of people with candles lit and swaying. You got it, a peace rally. C'est magnifique!

Athens? We arrived only a month after the worst rioting in years to see bank windows boarded up or taped, paint stains that had splattered the sidewalks. We spoke with locals who explained their anger to us and, as we generally do, we empathized with these people. The advent of the euro had not been the panacea the government had hoped for. The gap between the wealthy and the working poor was growing all too quickly.

So I wasn't even remotely surprised when we arrived in the Mpumalanga delta outside Nelspruit, South Africa, for our week long stay at a lovely lodge on acres of land basically in the middle of nowhere, to find that there would be no housekeeping service or food service that week as there was to be a strike! Yes! Right up my alley. I didn't need to ask why, (but of course Don did) you have to know how underpaid these workers are - I worked as a housekeeper myself back in the hard days. They were asking for a 50 rand per month increase, about $6.00. We wished them all the luck in the world.

Panorama Tour 1 054.JPG

All this was brought home to me the other day when I began to read about the movement Occupy Wall Street which is spreading across the country. My faith in Americans has been revitalized! I'm so happy that FINALLY someone is mad as hell and doesn't want to take it any more. I was working this past Saturday and will be for the next few but kudos to my buddies, my old hippies, who were in downtown Ft. Myers this weekend walking to Bank of America. I'll join you as soon as I can.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Enright's The Forgotten Waltz

Like a drug addict, book addicts have similar nightmares, that is, being somewhere without something to read! And so it was that, even though I had loaded my Nook with plenty of reading material, my deep seated fear of being without a book got to me. What if the battery life wasn't as long as advertised? What if our electrical adapter didn't work in the bush? I packed light, I'm getting really good at that, but what harm could it cause if I threw in just one paperback?

Thanks to my friend Jessica I had an autographed copy of Anne Enright's new book The Forgotten Waltz, so on a day of rest, when I needed respite from the heartbreak of The Warmth of Other Suns, I settled into another kind of heartbreak - relationships. Enright won a Booker Prize a few years ago so you know that the writing here is stellar. We settled in on our porch, periodically joined by the peacocks, Don making a spreadsheet of our expenses (thank goodness he enjoys that kind of thing!) and me to my novel. I couldn't put it down.

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I've said this before and I have to say it again. How on earth do writers of distinction like Enright take the mundane happenings of anyone's everyday life and turn them into high drama, suspense, and raw, biting humor? How do they create characters so flawed yet so sympathetic? How do they take the "same old, same old" story of an affair and a divorce and elevate it to literature? I'm so envious!

Two sisters, Gina and Fiona, two men, Conor and Sean, both pairs as different in make up as any pair can be, are the central characters, but the heart of the story, the catalyst, is really Sean's strangely "different" daughter Evie. Because of Evie's misbehavior, because Gina needed to sneak away for a smoke, because Sean, too, was putting distance between himself and his wife Aileen, eyes met and an unspoken world of knowledge passed briefly between Aileen and Gina, then Gina and Sean.

It would be a few years before Gina and Sean would act upon their attraction, keeping the affair secret for as long as possible, but one knows these things don't often go unnoticed by those around us. What's interesting, in retrospect, is that the reader doesn't truly "get" the attraction between these two and at times Gina and Sean question it themselves. The more visceral feelings this reader got was for the discarded spouses, the innocent, almost puppy dog-like, loveable Conor, and the cold, suspicious, but knowing Aileen.

Their individual reactions as knowledge of the affair becomes clear are so palpably realistic that I shake my head in wonder. This novel is spot on in its depiction of a disintegrating marriage, the suspicions, the guilt, the crazy mad sex as Conor and Gina try desperately to recreate their initial attraction, then the unwinding of shared responsibilites, the house, the bank accounts, the families turning away in disappointment and disgust. It's all too sordid yet all too impeccably depicted.

Enright is brilliant! This novel is far from uplifting but, as literature goes, it's an inspiration.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Warmth of Other Suns

Isabel Wilkerson's (http://isabelwilkerson.com/) National Book Critics Circle award winning book was the perfect companion piece to my tour of South Africa. The irony of the fact that sanctions were placed on South Africa's Apartheid regime (by most civilized countries but notably NOT by the United States), while our own citizens were suffering under the more sinister, unspoken rules of Jim Crow, was not lost on me.

 In fact, while I was drawn to and loved the quote from Richard Wright's Black Boy regarding the "warmth of other suns," I wondered toward the end of this phenomenal book whether or not Ms. Wilkerson was using the title sarcastically. The truth is that the families whose lives she scrupulously follows over a forty year time period were not welcomed with warmth as they migrated from the cotton fields of the south to the factories of the north. Because the prejudice was more nuanced than the do's and don't's of the south, they wounded even more deeply and were more difficult to navigate.

It's no mystery why Isabel Wilkerson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. The Warmth of Other Suns reflects years of in-depth research yet there isn't a dry moment in this almost 600 page volume. For those who like to catagorize things, this is one of those "non-fiction that reads like fiction" type of books. It's one that needs to be read in sections and then put aside for a while for something lighter, then returned to. These stories are true and they're not easy to take.

How does one begin to tell the story of "America's great migration?" The subject matter is so enormous, the task of getting her mind around it must have been daunting. Ms. Wilkerson wisely chose to follow the lives of three disparate families as representatives of the whole, a theme that personalizes the struggle for readers the way no history book could. I'll admit to having had some  knowledge of the flight of black families from the south as my friend Don's mother was one of those who followed an aunt from Mississippi to Los Angeles, California in the late 30's.

George Swanson Starling's story was the most eye-opening for me. A citrus fruit picker from Eustis, Florida, George was an early activist for better pay for field workers and, with a couple of years of community college under his belt, was seen as "too big for his britches." He chafed under the harsh treatment he suffered and knew himself well enough to understand that he'd end up at the wrong end of a rope if he didn't escape. Harlem was his destination.
Florida, I'm sorry to say, has an abominable history of civil rights violations, lynchings, and burnings of whole towns, just read about Rosewood, yet it doesn't often suffer the stigma of the so-called deep south of say Alabama or Mississippi.

Ida Mae Gladney had family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but put down roots in Chicago where the South Side was becoming home to a future black middle class like Michelle Obama's parents. Dr. Robert Pershing, a surgeon good enough to operate on soldiers during WW II, but not able to touch a white patient in his own hometown, Monroe, Louisiana, endured the humiliation of the cross country drive to California without the respite of a bedroom or a bathroom along the way, only to find that LA would not greet him with open arms. It took him several years to achieve his goals and bring his wife and children west to join him in the land of mild and honey.

These families are not set up as gods but are portrayed with all the warmth and humanity of any family just trying to do better than the previous generation. They give honest interviews and Wilkerson does not shirk from illuminating their weaknesses as well as their strengths. They are simply fellow Americans with all the foibles and nobility of each of us.

Please, do yourself a favor and delve into this incredible book. If we are ever to learn from our mistakes, avoid repeating a shameful piece of our history, or want to understand why some believe that reparations in the form of education or a leg up is due to the families of sharecroppers and former slaves, then books like Wilkerson's or Rebecca Skloot's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are must reading. It's easy to visit other countries and shake our collective heads at the rights violations that we see but it behooves us to remember that "he among us who is without sin can cast the first stone."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A Day Like No Other!

Every once in a while you begin to feel your age and it really is so irritating, you know? I had planned this day for so long, knowing it would be a once in a lifetime deal (and it was), but make no mistake, I was not a happy camper with the weather! I’m in Africa, am I not? Where’s the heat?

Henk picked us up at 5AM for our trip to Skukuza Gate at Kruger Park. It’s a school holiday week here so he expected the lines to be long – they weren’t – and, because of the gray, drizzly, overcast, he told us we’d see a lot more animals – we did!
I’ll tell you that I’ve never been one for zoos or animal parks. I hated the circus as a kid, it terrified me, had a sinister feeling to it that I just couldn’t shake, and that watching Water for Elephants on the plane over here did nothing to dispel! Seeing caged or impaired movement in the animal kingdom goes against nature and causes me to be too depressed to enjoy it. Whenever I hear of an animal retaliating against its keeper I do a silent fist bump.
So it is with great joy that one experiences the animals in the wild in a paradise like Kruger, an animal refuge as large as the state of Israel. It’s difficult to comprehend. Even with an experienced guide like Henk your head is on a constant swivel, straining into the veld to catch a movement. One can only marvel at the creativity of mother nature and the way she shields her charges from harm, their coats of many colors blending so well with their surroundings and changing with the seasons.

An elusive Kudu spotted by Don. My  favorites, I thought were the giraffes until we spotted the herd of zebra!



But then how can you resist the Impalas who rove in large groups for protection, I’m sorry to say that mother nature has determined that they are the weakest link in the wild and are there to feed the more aggressive animals, in particular, the lions (of which we only spotted one elusive guy resting on a rock).




We left this area of the Kruger around 2 in the afternoon to meet up with a character right out of a novel. A rifle toting tracker, Magda, who prefers to be called Max, was to take us on the next leg of our day, to a private game reserve within Kruger where we would transfer to open top Land Rovers for a four hour game drive that would place us right in the middle of the animals’ territory. This was to be the highlight of our day – why oh why did it begin to rain with a vengeance? The temperature dropped to about 50 something and all I could think of were Ann’s last words to me as I left for vacation, “don’t come back sick.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Physical Beauty of South Africa



After a lay-a-bout day of rest we got up early for our first of two full days that we had booked with Henk and Lizelle Gous, an extremely hard working couple who run Sundowners Tours. Henk was oddly apologetic that some other people were going to be joining us but we were thrilled when we saw it was the four young women we had met the previous day as they rode horses through the compound. You could just tell right away that they were going to be fun!

What can I say about Henk? He’s been extremely helpful and professional with us but – if we were back in the States – we would not likely be friends. In Florida you’d refer to him as a “good old boy,” (God, Guns, Family) and he now and then slipped and let certain prejudices surface  “the Indians always do this, or Muslims are taking over.” Somehow it’s easier to ignore these comments  or try to understand where he's coming from but you can see that the rift the will always be here between the blacks and the Afrikaners, a divide that’s been hundreds of years in the making.
We took off on our Panorama Tour to see the beauty of the African countryside and found the beauty in our traveling companions as well, four single gals who work for the government pension office in Pretoria. Mathilde, especially, was so well-read and informed, that we learned more from her over the course of the day about the political situation here in SA and how young people see the future of their country than I think we had up to this point.

                                               In the meantime, Henk had the chance to share his obvious love and pride in his country and we got to see it through his eyes. Blyde River Canyon, a place that could pass for a miniature Grand Canyon, the Three Rondovals, a mountain range of mysterious formations, and God’s Window, a secret place where the clouds come down to cover the view one moment and retreat the next to reveal a breathtaking sight.



  
And yes, it was cold and cloudy! Who knew you’d be cold in Africa?

If there’s one thing that white and black agree on, sadly, it’s the massive corruption in the current South African government. How does a man like Jacob Zuma, who spent time as a political prisoner on Robben Island for speaking out for the underserved, end up ignoring them for his own enrichment? That’s a tough thing to swallow. How tragic to hear 35 year old Mathilde, a woman who must remember the horrors of Apartheid, posit that perhaps the country would be better off returning to it. What could she mean by that? Thankfully, I later chatted with Thulia, only ten years younger, who sees nothing but a positive, co-operative government in her future. My hope is with the young!

Wet and Wild Sudwala Welcome



Friday we vacated the understated luxury of An African Villa, www.anafricanvilla.com for the puddle jumper that would take us up to Nelspruit and our week of rest at the Sudwala Lodge, a glorious piece of property about an hour from several gates to Kruger National Park. While waiting to board the plane in Joburg I noticed a woman in full black chador, nothing visible but her deep brown eyes and amazingly smooth young woman’s hands, engrossed in a dog eared paperback that I assumed (you know what they say about those who assume) was the Koran. What a laugh I had at myself when I found her sitting next to me on the flight. The book that had her so intent? Danielle Steel!

After grocery shopping, we’re in a self catering unit but there is a restaurant on premise, we settled in with Henk from Sundowners-Tours to plan our week. Yes, we wanted a safari in Sabie Sands and yes, we wanted a day in Kruger, but we also wanted to be sure that we could just sit around and read. Our chalet is about a half mile walk to the restaurant and, though it was pouring down a much needed rain, we set out for a hot meal. Sadly, the restaurant had closed, only a few staff members sitting outside waiting for their rides home.

As we began the return trek the thunder and lightning stepped up their commotion and suddenly we were thrust into utter darkness. Not a light to be seen anywhere throughout the compound. We had yet to reconnoiter or to remotely have familiarized ourselves with the grounds and I immediately went into full panic mode. Don, with the calm of a pilot who suddenly loses his instruments, found our way back by stopping, waiting for a lightning strike, and then walking until another one guided us safely home. We found out later than the emergency generator goes off at 10 pm. In other words, most folks should have been in bed, not out looking for food!

Speaking of food, and wine, or was I speaking of wine? Americans can do VERY well here with the exchange rate. On average,  80 rand = one U.S. dollar. We have yet to pay more than ten bucks for any meal and the food is outstanding everywhere we go. Wine? A normal bottle of the local pinotage, quite a bit stronger than our pinot noir grape, runs three to four dollars. A splurge might go as high as $7!

The windows here are all floor to ceiling wood framed glass, the roof is faux thatch because the baboons ate the real thatch roofs! They try very hard to give one an authentic feeling of being outdoors and within nature. They needn’t have worked so hard. This is what greeted us Saturday morning after our good night’s sleep Friday: