Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Conversations With Myself

Yes, it's true, I often feel as though I'm conversing with myself out here in cyberworld until I get a wonderful repsonse out of the blue as I did from P. J. Grath at http://www.dogearsbooks.net/ It's so gratifying to realize that one has made a connection and that feeling, coupled with my thoughts on listening to Nelson Mandela's musings in his latest book, aptly titled Conversations With Myself, has brought me to mulling over this idea of being heard and understood by another person.

No matter how much we may love someone there are always times where words and intentions are misconstrued, feelings are hurt and the sooner fixed the better. But imagine if you possibly can what it must have been like for Mandela, confined as a political prisoner for nearly thirty years, feared by his captors for the damage (to them) that his powerful words could do, yet scorned as a man who expected too much - fair and equal treatment while detained.

Imagine the anguish of trying to communicate with your family, hearing of your wife's imprisonment through a grapevine, of your mother's death from an emissary, or of your first born son's demise in an automobile accident through a smuggled in newspaper. Imagine knowing that each word of anguish you put to paper will be read by strangers, blacked out, reworded, redacted, until it barely makes any sense IF it ever reaches its intended audience.

Mandela, writing in secret from Robben Island - the prison off the coast of Cape Town that I hope to visit in the Fall - came to the slow realization and acceptance of the fact that over the years of his incarceration he was becoming the symbol for the anti-apartheid movement and though he gracefully accepted that mantle, he railed and angrily chafed at the smaller indignities that came with never knowing if he was being heard, by family or friends in the outside world.

I thought I would enjoy listening to this book as the reader, John Kani, has that delightful, lilting voice reminiscent of Mandela's own. The initial format is a bit confusing but one adjusts after a disc or two. Mr. Mandela's thoughts on his mission to end apartheid, his words of love through letters to his family, and interview transcripts can seem disjointed, but they are arranged chronologically so if you listen, do stay with it. This book is one of many tributes to the unbelievable resilience of the human spirit.

A new book showed up yesterday from Library Journal so I'll be incommunicado for a few days while I try to determine, dear readers, whether or not you would enjoy a debut novel by Carolyn Cooke.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Blind Contessa's New Machine

Call me morbid but I always used to dwell on subjects like this: if I had to be blind, would it be easier to have never seen at all (blind from birth), or to lose your sight slowly but at least nurture a memory of what the world used to look like? At least one would have that concept of color and spacial distances ingrained, something to tap into as one adjusted to the darkness.

This question is dealt with in a thoroughly original way in a sweet little debut novel that I picked up off the new book shelf a couple of weeks ago. Author Carey Wallace doesn't even look old enough to have written a book, let alone to come up with such a great opening sentence: "On the day Contessa Carolina Fantoni was married, only one other living person knew that she was going blind, and he was not her groom."

According to her website, Ms.Wallace is, among several other notable attributes, a photographer and perhaps that explains the nature of this imaginative book. http://www.careywallace.com/
Set in some gorgeously rural part of Italy where various villas grace the countryside, boasting lakes and lemon groves, a young Carolina grows up with a tremendous amount of freedom due to a careless mother and a doting father.

Her love of the earth and intellectual curiosity set her apart from other young women, keeping her outdoors exploring plants, trees, and bugs from morning til night. Turri, the neighborhood eccentric, finds in Carolina a kinship that he doesn't share with his wife. An inventor, Turri bounces his ideas off Carolina and an intense friendship flourishes.

When she begins to realize that her eyes are dimming, her parents dismiss her "folly" and her fiance, the sexy but dimwitted Pietro, only laughs. Turri, on the other hand, gets to work and builds a writing machine that becomes the talk of the town, allowing the blind contessa to communicate with the outside world as her family would prefer to diminish her involvement with life.

Ms. Wallace has created a tough minded, passionate character in Carolina, a woman who uses her brains and wit to adjust to her circumscribed condition. She also cleverly points out the duality of human relationships in that it takes two male characters of varying strengths and weakness to satisfy one woman, and even then, not completely. What a delightfully subversive idea!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On The Fleeting Nature of Fame

It's possible that many of my readers are not in the library profession - possible but not probable. For those who aren't, I need to preface this post with an explanation of "weeding." It's one of my favorite and most difficult of job duties. Libraries pride themselves on keeping an up-to-date, relevant collection. They are also notoriously lacking in space!

The neat freak in me really loves cleaning up the shelves, getting rid of dog-eared, outdated paperbacks and odoriferous (smokers, you have no idea the damage you do), food stained hardcovers, but the book lover in me sobs to see so many beautiful tomes that have rarely been opened. Naturally, the ones that haven't been checked out in years are the ones I would want to read: the Booker finalists, the Pen/Faulkner award nominees, novels written by authors no longer on our radar screens, who once stood before adoring fans reading passages from literature they hoped would stand the test of time.

So why doesn't it? Are readers too lazy? Do they want to stick with the same old/same old and never venture into something new and wonderful? Where are the readers like my mother who spent hours, after school or on Saturdays, three noisy little readers in tow, perusing the shelves at the Mason Library looking for that little gem?

If I could, I'd take every single one of these "gems" home and create my "retirement library" where I'll one day sit and read for hours playing catch up. If there is any kind of existence after this one, I hope all these unloved books will join me as I read and blog into eternity. In the meantime, perhaps they will reach an unexpected, grateful, audience somewhere out there.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Evening with the Authors

Heather Graham, Susan Elizabeth Philips and Ted Bell were among the many who attended the Evening with the Authors at the Royal Palm Yacht Club. So much fun and so down to earth, I'm not sure why I expect authors to walk on water! Guess what? They think we do to!

Reading Festival 12 020.jpg

Oh, and my wish was granted. Yes, I got to meet and introduce the beautiful Alice Hoffman. No, Blackwell is not Becket but a figment of her imagination!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Thoughts on the Southwest Florida Reading Festival

For the 12th year the Lee County Library System staff and many, many generous sponsors and volunteers from around the county have put together what has become a premier event for authors from around the country and beyond. (Laura Esquivel came in from Mexico City). This multi-generational celebration of reading seems to run smoother every year and the crowds are more and more grateful and receptive.

Every year I work at this festival and every year I think of the one person whose germ of an idea was the catalyst for our very auspicious beginning. Lesa Holstine http://lesasbookcritiques.blogspot.com/ was a branch manager in Lee County, a readers' advisor extraordinaire, an author groupie, and an organizer. She asked a few of us (you know who you are) that she knew were "good" readers to join her committee, got the library administration on board and the Lee County Reading Festival emerged.

The thing about Lesa is that she knew so many authors and wasn't afraid to go after them. Yet, it was never about her. She  didn't care to be in front of the microphone. She walked around Centennial Park in a wide brimmed hat, her husband Jim manning the camera. But we all knew that "the lady in the big hat" was the "go to" person.

After that first shaky year we were able to attract a young man, just starting to make a name for himself in the mystery writing genre. Dennis Lehane agreed to join us and some writing buddies of his came along too. Jan Burke, James Hall, and Les Standiford stand out. Maryellen was beside herself as she was assigned the enviable task of picking up Carl Hiaasen and bringing him down to the outside stage where he proceeded to regale folks with his snarky tales of politics and corruption.

As the years went by, the Lee County Reading Festival became such a big deal that we had to hire someone to run it as a full time job! I had the pleasure of eating dinner the other night at the Evening with the Authors at Heather Graham's table and we commiserated about the rapid passing of time. I reminded her that she had been our keynote speaker years ago before we even had the Harborside Event Center as an indoor venue. She spoke out on the lawn in her spike heels under a white tent and it was so hot, folks were keeling over in their chairs! http://eheathergraham.com/index.htm

Lesa has moved on to greener pastures - lucky Glendale, AZ - festival coordinators have come and gone, but some of us have stayed on volunteering because we LOVE this! We have often discovered that the most famous writers are the easiest, most gracious people to work with. Think of Sue Grafton, Elizabeth Berg, Janet Evanovich, and David Baldacci who donated the proceeds of his sales to his charity. http://feedingbodyandmind.com/

I can scarcely single out all the lovely people we have briefly crossed paths with over the last twelve years, most recently the beautiful Alice Hoffman who received our Distinguished Author award this year for her work with young writers and in breast cancer research http://www.alicehoffman.com/. Then there was Dr. Michael Palmer and Jeffrey Deaver who were like a stand up duo, playing off each other and leaving the audience in stitches - pun intended. And what about Nelson DeMille who demurred at being considered the "keynote" speaker, leaving that spot to the incredible Linda Fairstein.

Oh, I could just go on and on but....once again, I'm told that long posts lose people's attention. We are a nation with attention deficit disorder, aren't we? I guess I just wanted to write a paean to authors and to Lesa, in particular, to thank her for her foresight that resulted in this labor of love. We miss you lady!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dinaw Mengestu's Sophomore Novel

There's nothing sophomoric about this hauntingly tragic novel of couples unable or unwilling to forge the connections that lead to a lasting relationship. Mengestu is such a beautiful young man, yet his writing is that of an old soul. The prose can make one weep with joy but the narrative is unrelentingly sad - almost even too morose for me!

Mengestu made a big name for himself with his debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears,  about gentrification in D.C. and its effects on the low income homeless and immigrant people living on the fringe of society in the nation's capital. Delving further into the immigrant experience in America is this second novel, How to Read the Air. Mengestu, or his publisher, has a penchant for gorgeous book titles that cry out to be read.

The impact of the title was lost on me until I was well into this novel. Let me say that if you've ever lived in an abusive, alcoholic, or angry home, you will recognize that life saving ability to "read the air" when you walk into a room. The atmosphere can change in a second, often for no discernable reason, and sometimes escape, though an avoidance mechanism, is the only answer.

Jonas Woldemariam, while a delightful young man, exhibits some highly honed methods of avoiding love, connections, responsibility, even happiness. I'm not sure that he understands why he does this, but he rightly connects it to his upbringing in a physically violent home. In an attempt to understand why he can't sustain his relationship with over-achieving attorney Angela, Jonas recreates for the readers and for himself, a scenario of what he believes transpired between his parents on their honeymoon trip through the midwest several decades earlier.

There is only one problem. Jonas is an unreliable narrator, because, you see, Jonas is a pathological liar. He tells a lie when the truth would suit him better. While reading this novel, there were times when I wanted to reach out and just shake him! It's not a simple thing for a novelist to elicit this kind of emotion from a reader.

His parents, in an arranged marriage, spent very little time together in their homeland of Ethiopia before his father disappeared. Mother Mariam managed to come to the United States but, by the time she sees her husband again, time has elapsed and neither seems sure of who the other one really is.

Distrust is the name of the game. The air is rife with tension, but rather than read it for her own safety, Mariam seems to deliberately stir it up. The reader begins to wonder if Mariam's stories to Jonas are as full of half truths and lies as his are to Angela. This is a disconcerting novel, one that I stayed with for the Mengestu's skill with language rather than for the characters.

To lift my spirits I'm now listening to Juliet by Anne Fortier and reliving my all too short sojourn in Siena, Italy of course!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dear Alice Hoffman, Where is Blackwell?

I simply HAVE to know! It sounds suspiciously like the little town of Becket, Massachusetts; a town I failed to appreciate when I was there because I was at such a low point in my life. Seeing it through the eyes of others, though, it takes on a whole new life. Yes, I've been  in Florida for almost thirty years now, but I do still have a soft spot for my home in the Berkshires, especially when I revisit it with Don who sees only the Norman Rockwell aspects of it.

The Red Garden is a novel in linked vignettes that trace the lives of the settlers and their offspring in the Berkshire hills town of Blackwell. It is certainly one of Hoffman's finest, filled with the magical realism that we've come to expect from this most imaginative woman. I often feel that she's laying bare her soul in every book she writes.

Ms. Hoffman's novels often catch us unaware because they deal with the mundane aspects of everyday life. Her books  focus on death but not in a depressing or negative way. Rather, she addresses life and death as the naturally occurring happenings that they are, a center piece of small town life.

Love and marriage, couplings and uncouplings, unfulfilled or secret passions are also at the heart of an Alice Hoffman novel. I suspect that she is an incurable romantic. There's not an ounce of cynicism on display - not an easy task in this day and age.

The women in Blackwell are glorious creatures, beginning with the founder, one tough gal named Hallie Brady, who helped the first settlers make it through a rough winter on the mountain, who had a magical affinity for bears, and who propagated the red garden, one of the threads that ties the stories together over two centuries of history, war, and depression.

Some residents of Blackwell can't wait to get away while others can't imagine living anywhere else. Strangers arrive, stay for a while, skulk out of town in the night, often leaving a legacy behind, like the pastries and cakes named for emotions or the legend of the eels in the river and the mysterious woman who may have actually been one.

One woman escapes an abusive relationship in New York City and, with her daughter, lands in Blackwell with an entirely fictional history. Locals gossip but they eventually accept. That's the beauty of a town like Blackwell. A group of actors passing through ignite a fire in the belly of a young woman who doesn't know herself. A loyal dog refuses to leave the gravesite of his owner, pining through grueling winters and long, languid summers.

And the red garden continues to color all that is planted there, be it lilacs or greens. This gorgeous novel infiltrates your heart and brain and lingers there long after that last page is read. I'll have the opportunity to thank Ms. Hoffman in person next week. http://www.readfest.org/

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Latest from Isabel Allende

I first fell in love with Isabel Allende after reading The House of the Spirits. This was a very long time ago after I had ended a long marriage to a cold, withholding man and the passion and fire of an Allende was just what the doctor ordered. I was relying on Ms. Allende and also writers like Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) to help me rediscover the spirited person who had been tamped down to the point of disappearing. Only one problem, Allende's character ended up mad and Esquivel's burned to death after a torrid night with her true love.

I returned to Allende and cemented my loyalty to her after reading Paula, a beautiful but difficult book about her only daughter who suffered from a lengthy, debilitating disease that eventually killed her. It is in these very personal books (Aphrodite, My Invented Country) that I think Allende excels. Her forays into historical fiction? Not so much.

Still, I knew that Island Beneath the Sea was about Haiti and the black uprising that freed the the nation from French rule and gave Toussaint Louverture a place in the history books. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toussaint_Louverture
It seemed prudent to learn all about Haiti at this time in its fragile existence and fiction is often a palatable way to get one's truths. I'm afraid that I've been disappointed.

I have been listening to this book for what seems like months and, though I can't deny being caught up in the lives of the characters and willing to follow through until I find out if the enslaved heroine, Zarite, will finally be given her promised freedom, the novel feels lightweight to me. Such  serious subjects as slavery, brutality, corruption, and imperialism deserve a more in-depth treatment, while Allende seems to only be skimming the surface. Her research is impeccable, surprisingly, it's her people who remain disappointingly remote. I'm finding it hard to get a bead on what's driving them.

The story centers around a French colonialist, Valmoraine, who arrives in Saint Domingue to tend to his family's sugar planation, and the enslaved woman, Varite, hired to care for Valmoraine's sickly wife and young son Maurice. As too often happened, Varite is initially raped by and then becomes, through no choice of her own, Valmoraine's "other woman," a relationship that lasts over decades and produces a little girl.

Varite, though, has known true passion in the arms of one man, Gambo, once a kitchen slave, who escapes and makes a name for himself in the revolution, helping her and the Valmoraine family to flee Haiti for the relative safety of Cuba and eventually on to New Orleans. I suspect that Isabel Allende just doesn't have it in her to explore the depths of depravity that institutionalized slavery engenders. Can any free person really imagine what it is to be treated as a non-person, one who is invisible and without rights of any kind?

Well, one fiction writer did. For a more realistic treatment of the conditions in the islands (in this case, Jamaica)  up to and during the slave revolt, I prefer Marlon James and his horrifying, heartbreaking, The Book of Night Women, which I blogged about here last year.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Lighten Up with Nicolle Wallace

Ms. Wallace may be the former White House communications officer for George "W" Bush and, dare I say it, a campaign advisor for McCain/Palin, but for a Republican, (no offense my Republican friends) she has a great sense of irony and is a darn good storyteller!

Eighteen Acres is her first novel - I gather there's a sequel on the way - and while it may not have been worth the ridiculous fine I'm now going to have to pay, I'm glad I read it. First of all, I needed to lighten up a bit as I'm still in the middle of a slave rebellion in Haiti with Isabel Allende (more about that on Sunday), and second of all, I just love it when people dish on the activities that take place behind the scenes in the halls of power.

So who knew that the White House is referred to as the "eighteen acres" by DC insiders? Apparently that's the amount of precious ground that it covers. In the case of Ms. Wallace's book, the White House is being run by a strong, capable, above reproach president named Charlotte Kramer, joined by a tough, experienced, been around the world-type chief of staff named Melanie Kingston who works 24/7 and is beginning to regret the fact that she's pushing 40 and has no life. Women in power, what a concept!

Of course, times are rough, the economy is tanking and the war in Afghanistan continues unabated - sound familiar? Charlotte's poll numbers are on the skids, her husband is having an affair with an up and coming reporter because he and Charlotte have "grown apart" and he's chafing under the mantle of "dad-in-chief. You see, she's busy saving the free world for democracy and he isn't getting enough attention. Cry me a river. Peter is the least savory character in the book. The women are quite wonderful and I suppose that's the way Ms. Wallace wants it. I'll bet she's seen some things!

Charlotte gets the brilliant idea of asking a Democrat to be her running mate for the next election cycle and the New York D.A.  says yes and hits the ground running. This book is simply a great romp, holds your interest, can be read quickly - don't ask me why I didn't - and offers up the juicy insider tidbits that are all consuming to political junkies like me.
At the same time, it tackles some of the thorny moral issues that come into play when one's reponsibility is to protect the President of the United States. How far must one go and does friendship blur the line between duty and love. Grab Eighteen Acres and find out all!