Sunday, February 27, 2011

Alice Hoffman's Ice Queen

Ohhhhh  - I finished this novel this morning on my walk and, I tell you, The Ice Queen could melt the most frigid hearts. What a deeply insightful novel of guilt, miscommunication, realization and forgiveness. The audio version is perfectly read by Nancy Travis with just the right combination of smart ass Jersey girl attitude and vulnerable, orphaned, single librarian angst.

Our narrator, though never called by name, opens herself up to the reader in a way that she is incapable of doing with the few people in her life. A recluse, a reference librarian whose primary interest is death, she blames herself for her mother's premature demise in an automobile accident on an icy road and has managed to close off her senses as well as her heart to outside interference.

When her older  brother Ned invites her to move to Florida where he and his wife are professors at one of the state universities, she goes simply because she has nothing tying her to New Jersey, certainly not the occasional trysts in a car with Jack the local police chief.

But, remarkably, once in that fetid swamp that we Floridians love to hate, she begins to smell and feel the density of the place. During a humid evening thunder storm, staring out the window at the tumultuous southern sky, she is struck by lightning and nothing will ever be the same. Survivors of lightning strikes are, you see, very rare, and it just so happens that a study is in progress at Ned's university.

Ironically it is cold, clinical Ned, the scientist with whom our ice queen has little in common, who will become the catalyst for her salvation, just as she will one day be his. It is only when our heroine begins to interact with the others in the workshops, rushing into a literally steam inducing, obsessive affair with another loner/survivor, that the ice begins to melt.

This is such a heartfelt, satisfying novel, I can't recommend it enough. It's especially fun of course, for us librarians. Ms. Hoffman, who I don't believe was one, sure knows all the inside scoop on privacy issues in libraries, our ability to access information for personal gain, (say it isn't so!) and our inquisitive natures.

The ice queen is a great character; a woman you want to slap one minute and hug a second later, a stubborn, selfish person one day and a generous, passionate lover the next. She embodies the dichotomy in all of us who have lived through deep, gut wrenching loss and come out the other side, perhaps not whole, but certainly wiser and working toward completeness. I love this book and can't wait to meet the woman who had the imagination to create it.

By the way, you can follow me on Twitter @sallyreads

Someday soon I'll figure out how to get that twitter button on my blog!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Lotus Eaters

There are days here in Southwest Florida that are so exquisitely perfect that I wonder what I've done to deserve to be here and alive at this moment in time. Today is such a day. It's a day so beautiful that I can actually take a few hours' break from my sustained anger at our government's careless refusal to consider the less fortunate of us; the many who have no home, no yard to luxuriate in on a sunny afternoon, no job, no hope for the future, the people who will suffer so that the uber-wealthy can hold onto their tax cuts.

I am home today on furlough, those unpaid hours that many of us are doling out to ourselves in minor increments so as not to affect the checkbook too drastically. The irony is that I am using the day to do some work. The beauty of that statement is that I don't consider reading for a book discussion "work." It's a joy to me.
To be able to sit and read for a glorious couple of uninterrupted hours, rather than in dribs and drabs between nodding off to sleep, is better than a chocolate ice cream cone. I make it a habit to choose books that I haven't yet read. I like coming to it fresh, as my customers do, gut reactions at the forefront. My choice this time - outstanding!

How do they do it, these young writers who create a first novel of such depth, such anguish and loss, such descriptive power? Where do the pull these emotions from? What is the background of the author of The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli? In researching these questions I stumbled upon a fabulous website to which I have applied to be a member. It's a haven for literary nuts like us! (I'm assuming that you, dear readers, must be one if you're here)

I'm not sure why I've had such a resurgence of interest in the Vietnam era over the past year or two. Perhaps it's because of my deep seated fear that we are repeating those mistakes of the sixties in Afghanistan. Have we learned anything from history? It seems not. We'll see what my ladies have to say.

The Lotus Eaters should be read hand in hand with Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn. (see previous post)
While Marlantes focuses on the chaos of battle from the soldiers' perspective, Soli takes a more humanistic approach to war, concentrating on the relationships between the oppressed and the oppressor (or liberator if you buy into how we saw ourselves). She also does a remarkable job of showing readers how life in a war zone changes people, how the almost certainty of imminent death naturally causes one to throw off the moral restrictions of a past life that barely seems real anymore.

It is death that brings neophyte photojournalist Helen Adams to Vietnam, her brother's death and her parents' anguish. It is death that will hold her there for over ten years, honing her craft, building a reputation as a ballsy, fearless reporter, garnering front page coverage back in the states. It is love that may make her careless.

Helen's love affair with infamous war correspondent Sam Darrow would appear to give her a hand up in the field, being included on dangerous sojourns along the Ho Chi Min Trail, allows her take photographs with a sense of being protected, if not by Darrow himself, then by the inscrutable Linh, his Vietnamese assistant. But, as she works, lives with and becomes comfortable among the villagers, acquires the language, and adjusts to the stifling humidity, Helen finds herself falling in love with the land and questioning, as so many of us did, why American soldiers are dying so violently and senselessly.

This post is becoming over long, as often happens when I feel passionately about something. Like Matterhorn, The Lotus Eaters will stay with me long after I've finished reading. It is, to use that overwrought but often apt word, luminous. The language is so extraordinarily evocative that, sitting in the back yard, the buddha facing me from his/her nest of firecracker bush, turtles splashing in the canal, devilish sun raising a strong sweat on my back, I can almost believe that I'm with Helen, Darrow and Linh, taking R & R in a Vietnamese village untouched, so far, by war.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide........

Not all blacks are fans of Tyler Perry's silly Medea series of films and certainly, Precious, though critically acclaimed, was not everyone's cup of tea. There are so many uplifting African American stories to tell so why do filmakers tend to concentrate on the sordid, dark side of things? Why is it that stories of excellence don't interest us? Could a film be made about the life of Dr. Benjamin Carson, the first black neurosurgeon to separate twins joined at the skull?

Or what about Dr. Charles Drew, inventor of blood transfusions and the theory of blood banks?

Once again it's Black History Month and the books on my library display touting the successes of scores of awe-inspiring leaders in American history are languishing on the shelves. So it was with curiosity but trepidation that I checked out Perry's movie For Colored Girls based upon the 1975 prose poem by Ntozake Shange. I wish that I'd had a chance to view it prior to the program sponsored by WGCU's Valarie Edwards and David Plazas from the News-Press. They hosted a discussion of the film and the sad truths that it revealed, not just for African American women but for all of us who have ever been in a relationship that was less than we deserved. Is there anyone who hasn't?

The film was beautifully done, the music powerful and moving, the opportunities for the actors to stretch were enormous. Janet Jackson as a black Anna Wintour type character ( Devil Wears Prada) was a revelation, and Phylicia Rashad's calming presence, strength, and wise counsel as the building superintendent where several of the women lived, was simply perfect. As a matter of fact each woman portrayed in the film was glorious and inspiring in her own way.

This is not an easy movie to watch, don't get me wrong. Spousal abuse, rape, abortion, and HIV are all there and despair runs close to the surface. But it's also a film about empowerment, education, forgiveness and friendship and manages to end on a positve note.
My friend Don is always asking what I get from books and films like this? Why do I prefer to tread on the dark side? To glean insight into the human condition? To become more human? More understanding? More compassionate? I hope that's the case.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

An Evening with Anita Shreve

We author groupies are rarely disappointed when we finally have an opportunity to meet or listen to one of our favorites. It seems crazy to those outside of the literary/book lover field but I would go to the ends of the earth to listen to an author talk about their books, their thoughts, their disappointments, rejections and successes.

Sanibel Island, Florida, has a public library with a generous endowment. When they have an evening with an author it looks much different from our raucous, 10,000 fans pushing and shoving into a 500 seat auditorium Southwest Florida Reading Festival. They are just two very different modes of entertainment. At Sanibel we are greeted with flutes of champagne and a harpist. Chatter is subdued considering there are probably 200 people in the computer lab/meeting area.

Anita Shreve was much as I had expected; a classy, soft spoken, self-deprecating woman with a sharp wit and sense of humor that emerged unbidden once she took the measure of the audience. I was surprised to learn that she had begun her career in journalism and had lived in Kenya for three years. Interestingly enough, it's been her books set in Africa that most appealed to me; The Last Time They Met and A Change in Altitude, which was the first one I read on my Sony ebook reader.

Ms. Shreve has had an amazing output of novels and no two books are really anything at all alike. She tells her audience that they simply come to her unbidden and that she writes, I love this, long hand on legal pads every day from early morning to mid-day. She shared with us her feelings at reading a devastating review in the New York Times of her historical novel Fortune's Rocks - a story that reminded me how seriously we reviewers must address each book entrusted to us. I don't know that I could ever be a writer as my skin is just not thick enough.

Of course she was vindicated by the call from Oprah and the resulting publicity that catapulted The Pilot's Wife to stardom and a made for TV movie. Honestly, it couldn't have happened to a nicer person. Meanwhile, I received a new book from Library Journal after a 6 week hiatus that had me chomping at the bit. This new novel from Helen Schulman has a decidedly Shrevish feel to it which translates to, I can't put it down! Don is painting baseboards, I think I'll go sit in the sun and read.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Nora Ephron Remembers Everything!

She may have titled her latest book I Remember Nothing but nothing could be further from the truth! This woman remembers every little slight and disagreement she ever had with anyone and how these altercations made her feel at the time. The good news is that she doesn't seem to hold a grudge so the overall tone of her book is one of reflection and acceptance.

After having roared my way through Ms. Ephron's previous book, I Feel Bad About my Neck, I expected another laugh a minute from her new one, but such was not the case. This book would make a good addition to a women's history course as Ms. Ephron talks about her first jobs after college graduation doing various gopher work at the New York Post. So much for that prestigious degree in the 1960's!

Still, she worked her way up to writing positions and has managed to build a glorious career for herself writing, directing films and hobnobbing with fascinating folks in the literary and movie stratosphere. Her relationship with the infamous Lillian Hellman made for a very strange chapter.

 Reading this account of Nora Ephron's life made me want to go back and revisit the book Heartburn, about her devastating breakup with husband and father of her children, Bob Woodard. And the film, Hanging Up, which was based on her famous family of siblings, has renewed interest for me now that I read her sister Hallie's blog every day.

Still, for those of us who have the "so many books, so little time" mentality, I guess I'd have to say that you could take a pass on this one. The wait was long but the reading took no time at all.

What else is going on? Tomorrow evening my friend Maryellen and I will traipse over to Sanibel to hear one of our favorites, Anita Shreve. Will tell you all about it this weekend.

I had not one, but two book reviews printed in the Feb. 1st edition of Library Journal. Neither book knocked me out I'm sorry to say, especially about the Mary Gordon for which I had big hopes. Here's the link, scroll down for Gordon and Napolitano.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Moonlight Mile - third time's a charm

Not once, not twice, no, three times I had to download this book to my nook from my library's ebook website in order to finally read it through without having the license disappear on me. Not that it didn't hold my attention - au contraire, mes amis. It's just that I had way too much going at the same time. Yes, I'm still traveling with Charley in my car, hiking in Galilee with Avram and Ora, learning the history of Nanking with Mo Hayder as I walk, and preparing a book discussion about the fall of Saigon - The Lotus Eaters - for March.

So what a respite it was when I put all the others aside and gave a few concentrated days to my man Dennis Lehane, an author my colleagues and I have had our eyes on since our first Southwest Florida Reading Festival, hmmmm, twelve years ago? Oh dear time, where do you go?

I first met Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro in Lehane's debut novel A Drink Before the War and, though you could satisfactorily read the series in any order as stand alones, I don't recommend that. Much like Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Patrick's and Angela's back story is imperative to understanding how they can be happy, pumped even, in such a dangerous line of work. As a pair of unlikely private detectives, their business thrives on the sick underbelly of the Boston area where mob mentality, political corruption, and gang activity run rampant. Even their best friend and protector is a "killer with a heart."

Readers took a shine to Patrick and Angie so when Lehane broke out of the detective fiction box with psychological thrillers like Mystic River and Shutter Island, fans clamored for more about their favorite sleuths. Lehane was in the middle of his huge breakout historical novel, The Given Day, and had apparently moved on, when we suddenly read that yes, he was working on another Kenzie/Gennaro book.

I believe that I can say unequivocally that Lehane wrote Moonlight Mile to bring a satisfying end to the Patrick/Angie series. This novel is a follow up to Gone Baby Gone, in which four-year-old Amanda McCready was kidnapped from her derelict mother, found by Patrick and Angie, who violently disagreed about the right thing to do for Amanda, and ultimately returned  to a drug addled mom because Patrick opted for the law over Angie's desire to follow her gut feelings.

Twelve years later Patrick and Angie are married and the parents of a four-year-old themselves. They are struggling financially while Angie tries to finish up a masters' degree and Patrick plays at being politically correct, working at a large firm that provides much needed health insurance. I love Lehane for the way he always wears his left-leaning politics on his sleeve. Through his characters and their situations he generously shows readers the perils of trying to do the right thing in a less than perfect world.

When Amanda McCready's aunt contacts Patrick to tell him that Amanda, now a sixteen year old on the fast track to a Harvard scholarship, has gone missing again, Patrick and Angie are sucked back into the old life they've been trying so hard to avoid.

Here's where it gets a bit dicey. Suspend disbelief and just enjoy the ride. Sure, it's a tad over the top - the Russian mob, a baby selling ring, a lost Russian Orthodox artifact - but the constant smart ass dialogue and the repartee between Patrick and Angie make it a fun read and, for me at least, a much needed break from the darkness of Vietnam and Israel.