Sunday, January 30, 2011

To The End of the Land

To the End of the Land by David GrossmanThis is another book that I would have probably picked up simply based on the beauty of its cover but I had also read about it somewhere among all those blogs I subscribe to. I'll be darned if I can remember where.  My very favorite literary blogger, Sam Houston,, wasn't as impressed as I am. As a matter of fact I believe this might be my favorite of the new year.

Mr. Grossman wrote his novel in Hebrew so kudos must also go to translator Jessica Cohen for her lovely conversion to English. I have no doubt that she had a gorgeous book to work with. The language is so emotional, so full of life and feeling and passion, as it should be when one realizes that they are reading a love story that attains epic status as it spans twenty years of the Arab/Israeli conflict.

In 1967 three young people,  victims of a fever that finds them in a near empty hospital in Jerusalem, slowly come to know each other, telling their stories and sharing their loneliness, as war ramps up outside the doors. Avram, Ora and Ilan fall in love, each with the other two, forging a bond that will last the threesome through marriage, childbirth, war and its inevitable suffering, down several generations.

The story unfolds ever so slowly but the pace feels fine because the pleasure is in the words. This is not a novel to be rushed through even though our new county policy means that I'm accruing fines on my library card even as I type!

 Mr. Grossman is a marvel at portraying his female character, Ora. Who says that a man can't feel what a woman feels at childbirth? Grossman disabuses us of that myth when he speaks through Ora about her relationship with her first born, Adam, and then later with her son, Ofar.

That visceral connection is nowhere better imagined than when Ora, finally able to be free of of a constant, overriding dread, as Ofar served his three years in the military, plans for the two of them to take an extended hike in hopes of reconnecting and getting to know each other again.

Ofar, instead, chooses to re up for one more mission. Ora's agony and fear overtake her and, rather than sit at home by the TV waiting for the unimaginable news that she's sure will come, she chooses to leave her home, find Avram,  the victim of post traumatic stress from his experiences as a prisoner of war, and force him to accompany her into the countryside on the hike she was to share with her son.

Through Ora's storytelling, and through flashbacks, readers  begin to appreciate the complicated web that has encircled Avram, Ilan, Ora, and her children for years. This is such a rich novel that I feel inadequate in my ability to do it justice for you. There's no doubt in my mind that this is the author's plea for peace in the Middle East and a love letter to his son Uri who died, if my reading is correct, while  Mr. Grossman was writing this beautiful work. Even one more death is too many.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

First Disappointment of the New Reading Year

Nancy Pearl! What are you doing to me? I even bought your latest book because I was so sure I'd want to be writing in the margins and underlining all your recommendations for travel reading (note to Nancy - librarians shouldn't have to buy books but, yes, we do). The best part of the latest issue of Book Lust - Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I'm sorry to say, is the title!

I love Nancy Pearl and am thrilled that she was named Library Journal's Librarian of the Year, so I say this with a heavy heart, but I think that the "book lust" theme has worn itself out. It's time for something new. I own all the Book Lust books thanks to friends who have gifted me with them. The latest was just too light. There's no substance here, nothing to tell me why I would like a certain book. Sometimes Ms. Pearl only uses one sentence to describe a book she's recommending. That just leaves me with a little too much guess work. I can do that just by looking through our library catalog.

What I don't feel in this latest iteration is the passion that I've come to expect from the country's favorite shusher. I love the layout of the book. As a matter of fact, I'd like to imitate it but then write my own impassioned plea for travel, travel writing, and reading. The countries represented each form a chapter, in alphabetical order, naturally. Nancy then tells the reader about several titles, fiction and non, that would make good reading if you're never going to leave your couch. Ouch! What about those of us who want to live the experience? Nada. Maybe it's time for me to put my money where my mouth is?

Also decided to see what all the hoopla was about with Henning Mankell. I notice on GoodReads that my friend Maryellen is in the middle of one of his novels right now and will be curious to hear what she thinks. I decided to listen in my car but I've also make a resolution for the new year to only give books on cd one cd's worth of time before I change it for something else. Mankell didn't make the cut. Perhaps the video series is the way for me to proceed.

I decided to switch Mankell for a classic that I had never read before and I'm thrilled with the change. Steinbeck's Travels with Charley is an absolute delight. Written in 1962, you might think it was a more idyllic time and that the book might sound dated but that's not the case at all.
In fact, for those of you readers who even remember 1962, it was a very scary time. The "cold war" was the buzz word - though it certainly beats the current "forever war" - Kruschev came to the UN banging his shoe on the table - my parents discussed, in hushed tones, building a bomb shelter in the back yard and I saw the aurora borealis one night and believed we were in the midst of a nuclear war.

The author's voice is so authentic. I feel as if he's speaking only to me and as a real friend. Charley, his doggy companion on this cross-country road trip, is a person in his own right. Having made some trips in a truck camper myself, not my fondest memories, I can just visualize Steinbeck's description of the interior after a particularly jouncy day over mountainous back roads. Books, papers, and even, want to laugh? the typewriter (yes, that is dated) are strewn from one end of the little home on a truck bed to the other.

This is not a travel guide about great cathedrals and natural wonders, although these things all have their part in the book. This is a travel book about people, those we meet along the road and allow into our lives for a fleeting moment, but remember forever. This is travel writing we can believe in!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Emma Donoghue's Room - No View

Whew! I finally finished listening to Emma Donoghue's remarkable novel Room without having anything else go wrong. Donoghue had me worried. I often think that I should transfer to a library farther from home just so that I can have more time in my car to listen to some of these outstanding books. This is definitely one where the hype was not hyperbole. I surmise that one really MUST listen to this book to get the full impact of the narrator's voice. Five year old Jack is one of my favorite characters in literature now.

This book has been getting a lot of good press and has been a finalist for several awards. The problem with writing about it is that one can't say too much without being a spoiler. Are you familiar with the metaphor of Plato's cave? If so, you will get the gist of this story of a young woman, kidnapped by a monster of a man, and held in a hidden, windowless room for years, to be used as a sexual slave. Raped repeatedly, the young woman gives birth twice, once to a still-born daughter and then to Jack who literally and metaphorically saves her life.

At the mercy of this monster, the young woman has to use every ounce of wit, skill, and courage that she possesses to appease the monster often enough to keep a minimal amount of food coming in, electricity for heat and air, and the very basics needed to raise her son. At the same time, she must make life in this single room seem "normal" to the growing boy, teaching him about a world he may never see, doling out information about "the outside" in bits and pieces as Jack seems able to absorb it. After all, in Plato's cave one's perception of the world is only what one knows for sure is true.

This is a deeply disturbing novel, not least of all because a similar scenario played out in San Diego a few years ago and was all over the news for weeks. I don't think that the horror of such captivity can be fully realized in fiction or in reality but Donoghue does an amazing job of illuminating the small wonders that Ma, our young captive, uses to give herself and Jack a reason to wake up every morning. The strength of the loving bond between a mother and child has never been more fully realized.

Enough said. Read this book!

Monday, January 17, 2011

My Reading Life

Well no, not mine exactly. But it should be, it could be, it may be someday. Instead, it's Pat Conroy's reading life that we're talking about today. I love this exquisite little book, more even than his novels, some of which I've relished and others, not so much. But My Reading Life is more personal, giving the reader a look inside the mind of a writer and of a man who appreciates every single day that he's been given, a man so overflowing with love for family, friends, teachers, mentors, even cities, that the words sing on the page.

Oh, to be able to express oneself this way! Those of you familiar with Mr. Conroy's work are likely to also be familiar with his life. It's an open book. The Water is Wide, which recounts Conroy's year teaching the beautiful children of Daufuskie Island, The Great Santini, a fictional look at Pat Conroy's childhood under the demanding Marine Corps pilot who damaged his wife and children in ways they may still not fully understand, or The Lords of Discipline, a book about the life of a plebe at The Citadel. You know who that was.

In My Reading Life, we are treated to the back story, and what a story it is. I admit that I had to work through my discomfort at the homage Conroy pays to his mother. Often, in death, I've found that very average, perfectly fine people tend to be lifted up on pedestals that they may not truly be worthy of, and I've wondered if Conroy's obsession with his mother might be a case in point. Still, I loved the picture of her studying along side her son, doing the work of each of his college classes, as if she were the student. She was driven to educate herself and make up for what she missed by marrying the Marine at too young an age.

Each chapter is a paean to a person or place in Pat Conroy's past that he remembers and relishes as if it were yesterday. The Old New York Book Shop and its owner Cliff Graubart star in one such chapter. When Conroy describes entering this bookstore for the first time, I could actually smell the dust of years, see the creaking old wood floors and the topsy-tervy shelves of treasures. He echoed my sentiments this way; "Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence. You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure...."

And then there's Gene Norris, the English teacher who was everything that Pat Conroy needed in a man and didn't see at home. I would venture that Mr. Norris saved Pat Conroy's life and the tribute he gives to this formidable educator is beautiful and tender. This was a man who stood up to the school board of Beaufort High School circa 1961 to fight for the teaching of The Catcher in the Rye.

 In a still segregated South Carolina, Gene Norris purchased monthly subscriptions to Harper's, The Atlantic and The New York Times for his students so that they could learn about the world outside their circumscribed existence.
And Gene Norris took the young Pat Conroy to his first fancy restaurant where he ate Dover Sole on china plates, learning which utensil came when and how to properly unfold a napkin. Forty years later Pat Conroy was at Gene Norris's death bed, the culmination of a relationship like many of Conroy's that truly seemed to stand the test of time.

I'm sorry, I'm going on and on but I just can't say enough about this book. It touches a reader's soul. The chapter about his time in Paris writing The Lords of Discipline, and the French teacher who predicted that he would glorify the English language - he was terrible en Francais - writing in a garret room overlooking the Seine, makes me pea-green with envy (to quote his mother's alter-ego Scarlet O'Hara.) The disciplined days of writing, followed by the long, aimless walks, learning the city of lights by night, sound glorious in their simplicity.

And then there's Thomas Wolfe - and why, or why, haven't I read Look Homeward Angel yet? And what about James Dickey, who actually kicked our Pat Conroy out of poetry writing class, doing us all a huge favor. Reading about all the great literary influences that Pat Conroy has enjoyed simply makes me want to run away to a place where the distractions of daily life recede into the background and I can just revel in the written word to my heart's content.
I've been this way since I was about twelve. Pretty sure I won't change now.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rose Tremain

It's difficult to believe that it's been almost three years now since I began reviewing books for Library Journal. It has been one of the greatest pleasures of my career and gives me such a sense of pride and fulfillment. The first book that Barbara Hoffert sent to me was such a special gift. I'll always remember the excitement of tearing open that puffy, overnight delivery bag to see what was in store for me. I still get a thrill when UPS shows up at the library with a book for me.

The Road Home, by Rose Tremain, was the subject of my debut review over which I agonized for days before hitting the "send" button. So naturally, when I saw that Ms. Tremain had a new publication, I had to snatch it up. Trespass is the title of her latest offering and, much like her previous novel, it creeps up on you slowly and then won't let go.

Ms. Tremain is a literary, nuanced writer; the recipient of or nominee for many of England's most prestigious awards.
Trespass is a slowly building, psychological thriller centered on two pairs of siblings whose stories at first seem to run parallel to each other and then suddenly overlap through a perfect series of events that seem both horrifying and inevitable.

When the abandoned little girl, Audrun, was adopted by the owners of the Mas Lunel in southern France, the villagers convinced themselves that her future was assured. But when Audrun's protective mother dies suddenly, her father and jealous brother Aramon, show their true colors, subjecting Audrun to years of abuse. Aramon's life descends into sloth and drunkenness, the glorious Mas falls into disrepair, while Audrun, considered a little "strange", is exiled to a small bungalow on the periphery of the property.

Coincidentally, another brother and sister, Anthony and Veronica Verey, live vastly different lives; Anthony as a renowned art and antique dealer in London, and Veronica, with her long-time lover Kitty, contentedly ensconced as a writer and garden designer at her home in the south of France. Kitty and V have such an idyllic existence that the reader - well I, at least - got a knot in my stomach knowing full well that nothing this wonderful will be allowed to last. What is it about happiness that cries out to be destroyed by others?

The economic downturn has a distinctly adverse effect on Anthony's business and makes a severe dent in his extravagant lifestyle. As he's done his entire life, he turns to V for solace and comfort, extracting an open-ended invite to regroup in France. With a sense of doom I watched as Veronica allowed the serpent into the garden, completely disregarding Kitty's sensibilities and insecurities.

Tremain's skill is so subtle and understated that I fear she may be overlooked in this country, but I can tell you, if I ever get to just sit around and read all day - ah joy - I will begin at the beginning and read her entire oeuvre. Her ability to nail the all too human emotions; jealousy, envy, desire, avarice, is remarkable. The fact that she can do it and still create characters with whom we can empathize, even in their darkest moments, is incredible.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Nelson DeMille and Scott Brick: A Marriage made in Heaven!

Human beings are a strange, dichotomous entity! How is it that the very term "war on terror" makes the hackles on the back of my neck rise up. Can one even wage war on a thing? Against an idea? Why even wage war at all? Yet, since my very young reading days, I have been enamoured of spy thrillers. I cut my teeth on early Ken Follet and Jack Higgins, then matured to all works by John LeCarre. I adore Joseph Kanon but Nelson DeMille is a real guilty pleasure. How wonderful that he'll be joining us in March at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival along with audio narrator extraordinaire, Scott Brick.

I have been listening to The Lion and would have had it finished long ago if my physical activity hadn't been curtailed. Still, I can dust or iron while confined to the house and listen away with abandon. First of all, let me say with no nuance, DeMille's books are violent to the max so be prepared. This one begins with a horrific scene - one wonders how Mr. DeMille thinks this stuff up - in which Kate Mayfield and her husband John Corey, stars of five books now in a series, are skydiving in upstate New York, their idea of a weekend of rest and relaxation!

John, new to the sport, jumps first, but looking back for Kate, senses that something has gone awry. Yes, it has. Kate is free falling with the weight of another person on her back and as they spin closer to John's chute, he quickly surmises that Kate is in big trouble. None other than Asad Kahlil, a Libyan terrorist who was introduced in a previous book, The Lion's Game, has Kate by the throat and a nasty looking knife in his hands. In an instant, and before anyone on the ground can even comprehend what's happening, Kahlil slices Kate's jugular and cuts himself loose.

The thing about Mr. and Mrs. Corey is that you just can't help but love them and I, for one, can't imagine these books without them! They exude sexual tension, bantering with that witty repartee that's reminiscent of Sybil Shepherd and Bruce Willis way back on their TV series Moonlighting. Am I dating myself? DeMille uses snarky humor to help make the senseless violence palatable and no one other than Scott Brick could deliver the lines so brilliantly. As all of you audio fans know, the reader can make or break a story and Scott Brick IS John Corey!

John and Kate met when they were members of the Anti-Terrorism Task Force for the FBI. In the course of their work they've made their share of enemies and to DeMille's credit he gives his bad guy, Kahlil, a raison d'etre for the swath of death and destruction that he renders from coast to coast. His entire family was killed in a bombing raid by U.S. forces. One might say that our chickens have come home to roost as Kahlil travels the country seeking revenge on anyone even remotely involved.

For full out fun reading that moves quickly and has the reader teetering between gasping in horror and laughing out loud, you can't beat Nelson DeMille. He manages to give shots at everyone in equal measure, typecasting the head of the FBI investigative unit, while giving his alter-ego, rogue agent John Corey, former NYPD, the smarts to outwit his co-workers and a terrorist. It's ok that he does this. Americans love their super heroes and Corey satisfies our need to a tee.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

By Any Greens Necessary

Yes, that's the clever title of a cookbook Don bought online and brought home so that we could come up with new and wonderful ways to prepare the fruits of our garden. The subtitle is "A Revolutionary Guide for Black Women Who Want to Eat Great, Get Healthy, Lose Weight, and Look Phat." Ya gotta love it and hey, white gals want to do all of the above too, right?

How I wish my mom was alive to see me playing with my veggies and tomatoes! How she suffered trying to get me to eat those gross things when I was a kid! How I used to regale people I met with the tales of my sneaky, anti-veggie campaign. I used those pockets on my overalls to full advantage, hiding each soggy, canned wax bean or, worse yet, lima bean, in the folds of my clothes, sneaking them to my room and depositing them behind the dresser where they would atrophy in limbo for six months or more. My mom was a working mom, she only did major (upstairs) housework, for spring and fall.

It wasn't until about ten years ago that I began to get with the program when my friend Donna tried to lure me into veggies by disguising them with gobs of wonderful cheese. Slowly, I began to say, hmmmm, these things don't taste so bad after all. Then, is it 6 years already? - Don came into the picture and the rest, as they say, is history.

We started with a few simple tomato plants and branched out to green peppers. Wow! I had never tasted anything like my own fresh peppers plucked from the plant. Next up I asked for an herb box and we had rosemary, basil, peppermint and parsley. Now I've added cilantro and all was looking good until the big freeze before Christmas. I only had so many extra sheets and I had to save the spinach and collards, right?

So, beginning to feel perkier after an unexpected bout with pneumonia found me in the emergency room last week, I went to Tracye McQuirter's cool cookbook and found a simple recipe involving all my favorite things: olive oil, garlic, and sundried tomatoes. Heated up for five minutes with the greens and plopped on the plate, it made for a gorgeous looking dish and, one would think, I should be getting healthier by the minute.

More on fiction in a few days. I've been honestly, too tired to read at full capacity.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Inauspicious Beginning

A belated happy new year to everyone and my apologies for being slow on the uptake. What is today? The 5th already? My stepfamily has a nickname for me based on our years of gatherings and a delightful ten day cruise several years ago. It is "Sally Fun-Fun." I'm afraid I sorely let them down this new years eve when, fighting what I thought was just a bad cold, I slept through the run-up to midnight, only gamely arising for the countdown, hugs, good wishes and back to bed.

Don had been plying me with the wonderful juice garnered from  my backyard trees coupled with massive doses of vitamin C, but when I finally got to see a doctor (2 holiday weekends in a row got in the way) I was assured that none of that would have helped my "squeaky" lungs. Until the antibiotics took hold I didn't have the energy to even hold up a book but now that I'm back on track, boy do I have a good one to tell you about!

I wanted to begin the year with a few light weight novels to offset next week's book discussion of Henrietta Lacks, not to mention the swearing in of Florida's frightening new governor!
 Have you ever heard of Jincy Willett? She had a first novel with the very clever title Winner of the National Book Award which had caught my eye and which I will now definitely go back and read, but the one I've had home over the past weekend is a knockout murder mystery that builds slowly until, more than halfway in, it began to truly scare me in a creepy, look under the bed and in the closets kind of way.

The Writing Class is written in a modernized Agatha Christie mode - think Ten Little Indians. The action begins in Amy Gallup's writing class in a community college in the San Diego area. Ms. Gallup, once a literary wunderkind, first published at only 23 years old, is now a middle-aged spinster (how I hate that word) who holes up in her home with Alphonse the dog, writing her blog, editing bios for a reference book, eschewing society except for her writing classes. And even these she faces with a jaded reluctance, recognizing the same "types" each semester, preparing for more third rate writing from students reluctant to speak up or out. And yes, Willett's description of a good writing class is pretty terrifying. Thin skinned people need not apply!

Remarkably, this year's cadre of students begins to gel and the criticism is erudite and sophisticated, seemingly handled very well by the students, some of whom Amy begins to believe, have actual talent. Until, that is, they begin to die. Anonymous phone calls, hacked emails, vicious poems, pranks, and critiques, plague Amy and her students, perhaps made more ominous because of their brilliance. Amy's natural reaction would be to take to her bed, ignoring the mayhem, but her students - those still alive, that is -  refuse to be cowed, dragging her out of her agoraphobic habits kicking and screaming.

What I love about this book is that Ms. Willett actually teaches the reader a great deal about the art of writing almost as an indirect side effect of the mystery. Each student provides stories to be parsed in class so that samples of poor construction, mixed metaphors and weak characterization compete with examples of authenticity and beauty. As readers realize that one of these writing students must be a killer we marvel as Amy conducts what she delightfully calls "creative writing forensics."

I currently have three suspects in mind. Can't wait for Jincy Willett to prove me wrong!