Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tom Franklin on Friendship

I've been mulling over the nature of friendships obsessively lately as I see our library crew targeting retirement dates, moving away to more reasonable places to live, hoping to simplify their lives. Yesterday I had a "play date," with my college roommate. We try to do this three or four times a year and it's always so satisfying. She, too, is ready to jump off the gerbil wheel.

Forty one years ago I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, we roomed together for three of our four years at Russell Sage, and then we spoke perhaps once a year for thirty years. Imagine how we felt when we found ourselves suddenly living 20 minutes apart in Southwest Florida! The joy of this kind of friendship is that, once reunited, we realized that no time had passed at all. We still find the same things funny, the same things irritating, and have the ability to laugh at ourselves with abandon. We are still on the opposite sides of all things political - except our love of the environment - but simply agree to disagree.

I just finished a powerful novel about friendship, family, race, and secrets in a southern town where nothing much has changed in the almost fifty years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, a literary murder mystery, takes place in Mississippi where a bookish young Larry Ott learns early on that friendship cannot transcend race in Chabot. Silas Jones, son of a single black mom who works two jobs to put food on the table, lives in what's likely an abandoned slave cabin on the Ott family farm.

Their secret friendship deepens over time as Larry teaches Silas how to shoot a gun, fish, and appreciate the stories of Stephen King. Yet at school, they pass each other in the hall as strangers. Larry's parents have secrets and his father, especially, is intent upon keeping the boys apart. In a particularly ugly scene, Mr. Ott discovers that Larry has loaned his favorite rifle to Silas, and, pitting the two boys against each other, forces a confrontation that will change their relationship for years to come.

The moniker, "scary Larry," follows young Ott all through his life after his very first date ends in the disappearance of the young woman, her body never found, and suspicion always weighing heavy on Larry, who proclaimed his innocence to no avail. Small towns can be cruel places; reputations once earned are difficult to shed. Larry never had a chance to escape Chabot, while Silas, buoyed by a talent for sports, leaves for college, returning years later as a police constable.

When another woman disappears, it's easy for the townspeople to point to scary Larry. He lives all alone in the family home, runs the family body shop, not that any customers ever come his way, and watches out for his dementia plagued mother in the nursing home.

Silas, who still hurts from the discrimination that sent him away to Oxford (Mississippi that is) twenty years earlier, feels that he has to perform twice as well for half the recognition. This murder investigation is his big chance to gain the respect he deserves. He knows that Larry isn't capable of hurting anyone, but will he have the courage to stand up to the townspeople who have already tried Larry in their hearts?

This heartbreaking novel is so much more than a murder mystery. Even though sharp readers will figure out one of the main points of the story before it's actually revealed, that doesn't detract from Mr. Franklin's painfully honest look at human nature and the lengths that we'll go to to protect ourselves from the bad opinion of others.

The character of Silas is especially interesting, complicated by his guilt and the need to do the right thing after years of covering up key knowledge that could have freed Larry from his loneliness. A few secondary players are also wonderfully drawn. Silas's girlfriend is a strong "sista" who pushes him to be the man she believes he is and Voncile, the dispatcher at the police station, has personality plus. An extremely poignant and satisfying read.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lisa Genova - Not for Hypochondriacs!

Did any of you read Ms. Genova's Still Alice and not suspect that you were suffering from dementia at the very least, if not the beginnings of Alzheimer's? I know, I know, I read every article I can about how middle-aged folks shouldn't worry when they can't remember names or find their keys but...I'll never, ever forget that scene in the devastating film Iris, in which Judi Dench, as the writer Iris Murdoch, sits at her desk, staring out the window at a rabbit, and can't for the life of her remember what that poor creature is named.

Now Lisa Genova has given me something else to worry about - traumatic brain injury - in this case, a rare neurological disorder called Left Neglect. In her latest novel, Left Neglected, which I simply can't put down, the full power of her Harvard Phd. in neuroscience is on display.

I would call Sarah and Bob Nickerson a typically unlikeable yuppie couple who already have too much of everything and are scrambling for more, but then, how do I know what's "typical?" When they boast of working 18 hour days each, going to bed with their laptops and iphones, and then raising three kids under the age of 8 on top of that, I would say "you call that living?"

Bob and Sarah even play games of chance to decide who gets to NOT take the kids to school each day. On this particular morning, Sarah won. How many times have you looked away from the road for just a split second? Changing the CD in the player? Swiping at a bug? Sarah searches her purse for her cell phone, just think how much she can accomplish on her ride into Boston! But, when her eyes next connect with the road, traffic has stopped, she brakes, swerves, rolls, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Genova's novel may have too much technical information for some readers. Because of my fascination with all things medical, especially involving brain injury, I'm enjoying it immensely. Sarah's eyesight has not been affected by the accident yet her brain cannot "see" the left side of anything. Imagine it! It's difficult to think of all the ramifications of an injury of this magnitude for a mother of three. Eating, walking, dressing, reading, and writing, once taken for granted, must be relearned, much as it would if she had had a stroke.

Adding to the stress of regaining her life is the emergence of Sarah's estranged mother as her primary caregiver and cheerleader, a necessity since Bob is facing a company reorganization that may soon render him redundant. Slowly, as Sarah heals, the back story of her older brother's death and her mother's long slide into depression, reveals itself, leading to healing of another kind. As it does, readers begin to surmise the double meaning of "left neglected." I, on the other hand, was left to ponder whether or not I'd have Sarah's gumption and courage to claw back from such a devastating injury.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

My New American Life and Other Thoughts

My latest review appeared in the 5/15 issue of LJ. I'll never get over seeing my name in print. Oh vanity, thy name is woman!

What a surprise I got the other day when I went into work and found not one, but three envelopes from LJ on my desk. I almost went into panic mode thinking that I would have to review three titles at the same time but, no, they had sent me hard copies of older novels that I had reviewed for them. In one, Swamplandia, there was a full color print out of publisher Knopf's advertising for Karen Russell's novel which will soon be out in paperback.

I was blown away to see myself quoted at the top of the page and was so busy patting myself on the back that I failed to notice that the title of the book was spelled wrong! My former manager, Linda Holland, with whom I share these things, spotted it immediately. Once an editor, always and editor.

As I've mentioned before, I'm in the process of whittling down my choices for next season's book discussions and I'm afraid I've just eliminated Francine Prose's My New American Life. I am enjoying the book but, on some level, I just don't think it will work for my group. Ms. Prose is noted for her many award nominated works (Blue Angel, a look at sexual politics on college campuses, A Changed Man, about the Neo-Nazi movement) which tend to be cutting edge, politically timely, and funny in a tongue in cheek type of way. This one is no exception.

Our heroine, Lula, is an Albanian immigrant who has lucked into a boring but cushy job as companion to Zeke, only teenage son of a Walter Mitty clone whose wife left him on Christmas Eve a year ago. Zeke's dad, Mr. Stanley, has a friend who's a renowned immigration attorney, currently working with detainees at Gitmo.
 He has managed to streamline Lula's green card, knowing full well that her entire application is a beautifully fabricated story. Lula, you see, has a penchant for fiction writing, a talent that will prove advantageous to Zeke later in the story.

Prose pointedly pushes one of her themes, that we Americans take our largess and freedoms for granted, through Lula's observations and comparisons between the life she's living in Northern New Jersey and the one she left behind. I like Prose's politics, always have, but she rather bangs us over the head with the juxtapostions of Lula's memories of Eastern Bloc justice and the Bush/Cheney policy of torture and rendition that we see through the eyes of atty. Settebello.

 Zeke, on the one hand comes across as a lonely, disconnected young man with few friends, and on the other, as a spoiled, disrespectful brat. Still, in her way, Lula loves him and she has his back. To me, he's the most interesting and realistic member of this strange clan.

Lula's longing for a taste of home comes in the person of her  missing friend Dunia. Thinking that she's been kidnapped and sold into prostitution, Lula is shocked and somewhat disappointed to find that Dunia has sold her soul to a wealthy plastic surgeon for the unlimited use of credit cards and a handsome young driver. A little too cliched?

Then there's the three Albanian "brothers" who show up unannounced at Mr. Stanley's. Why there, why now? Why do they ask Lula to hide a gun in her underwear drawer? Why on earth does she trust them?

I think it's the character of Lula herself that is giving me trouble. I'm 250 pages in and only just now beginning to feel any empathy for, or belief in her. Is it because, as she says herself, after telling us so many lies, we won't believe her when she tells the truth? Or is Prose getting at something deeper? Is our "new" American life really so different from whence we all came?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Smart Women

Oh, how I love them. Outspoken, opinionated - remember how Theresa Heinz Kerry was lambasted for calling herself that? I've just finished two books, a novel and a memoir, that went a little way toward satisfying my curiosity about these two women.

Susan Sontag. I have no idea how it is that she's always been on my radar screen, but there it is, she has. Whenever I go to a book sale I look for books by her because I suspect that they're too in-depth and erudite for me to read just for a weekend's pleasure. My overdue fines are high enough as it is! The Volcano Lover is supposed to be the most accessible of her novels and I may just take it with me on vacation this summer.

In the meantime I decided to read Sigrid Nunez's memoir of her time living with Ms. Sontag as her amanuensis and, later on, as her son David's lover. Sempre Susan is the name of this one day read and it provided a light look at the everyday life, quirks and foibles of the notoriously brilliant and, some say, difficult Ms. Sontag. Ms. Nunez does not presume to evaluate Sontag's huge body of essays or her fiction. She simply give readers a glimpse of a woman who was driven to write.

Do you think that she was considered "difficult" because she was a woman? Because she was such a provocative writer and purveyor of ideas that she confounded people? Are scholarly men considered "difficult" when they profess their beliefs for all the world to read? Quick - answer! Time is up.....

Cynthia Ozick has been a finalist for most every prestigious literary award out there: Pulitzer, Man-Booker, O.Henry, etc. Several years ago at a library conference she was on a panel, along with the delightful Liesl Schillinger, frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review. In fact, I believe they were touting all the great new books that were coming out that year. Ozick, who reminds me of my mother, impressed me with her smart, sassy observations and I made a pledge to catch up on her fiction.

I picked up a used copy of Heir to the Glimmering World, you know, one of those books I'm saving for my retirement. But when I saw her latest, Foreign Bodies, with the glorious Parisian skyline at sunset on the cover, I decided I'd better not put her off any longer. So glad I didn't!

One of the most worrisome, difficult things about reviewing literary fiction is the possibility of totally missing the point of a novel. When I see that a book I've reviewed in a lukewarm manner is raved about by someone like my idol Barbara Kingsolver, I just want the earth to open up and swallow me. (this actually happened with E. O. Wilson's Anthill)
 Therefore, I was grateful to the reviewers who pointed out that Ozick's novel is a reverse take on Henry James' The Ambassadors. I never would have figured that out on my own! Note to self, download a free copy of the James novel to my Nook.

In 1952 Europe is still reeling from WW II but siblings Julian and Iris are drawn to the dark mysteries of Paris when their father Martin refuses to stop orchestrating every aspect of their lives. In desperation, the egocentric Martin contacts his estranged sister, Bea, expecting her to drop everything (she is a divorced teacher living in relatively poor circumstances in Manhattan where she teaches Shakespeare to low level learners) and fly to Paris to coax Julian back to the states.

Bea arrives in Paris to find Julian married to an older woman, a Jewish refugee whose husband and child were killed during the war. She works for an agency that places immigrants in housing and jobs, yet supports the rather listless, unattractive Julian. Iris is in an experimental relationship with an unsavory man who's passing himself off as a doctor, duping people out of hard earned money.

Why the Americans yearn for these "foreign bodies" is at the crux of this complicated, dispiriting novel,  which is so well written that the reader forgives the slimy way the author makes us feel about being so devil may care about our wealth and advantages. Bea is a wonderful, tough character, a feminist before her time and I just loved the clever way she was able to win over her niece and nephew with her open, sensible, smart attitude!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Remembrance of Things Past

No, I haven't tackled Proust! I did, however, attend a retirement party, one of many I expect to attend over the next couple of years, and had a disturbing interaction with a former co-worker that has been sticking in my craw. I just hate it that her infamous negativity swamped over me and I've been trying to analyze it ever since Friday evening.

Our library system has been graced with an exuberant, visionary group of people who came to the profession in mid-life. We went through graduate school together, encouraging each other every step of the way. We soaked up all that we learned at conferences and participated in leadership seminars. Now, after the requisite twenty years, we are facing our next iteration, whatever that may be.

I mentioned that evening that we will soon be losing our corporate memory and that I would be interested in writing a history to enhance the timeline several of us worked on a few years ago while preparing a five year strategic plan. This person scoffed at my suggestion and said in no uncertain terms, "no one would care, no one would read it." She went on to say that no one remembers you the day you walk out that door (and it may be true in her case!) and if you think they do you need to have you head examined. Ouch.

What she failed to see was that this isn't about me or any one person but about a generation of idealistic librarians who have embraced their career paths and, dare I say it, changed people's lives. Sometimes with encouragement, other times without, we have made innovations that have brought new services to those who may not have had access before.

Will we ever forget the pride we felt seeing our first library director's face on the cover of Library Journal - Librarian of the Year! Can I ever forget the encouragement and mentoring that I received from Pete Smith, the Bookmobile librarian who supervised me for two years while I was getting my degree? Will we ever forget Lesa Holstine who single handedly got the Southwest Florida Reading Festival off the ground? (now a sought after speaker and reviewer)

So, do we learn from history? Our country's continued war in Afghanistan, so like the Vietnam quagmire, tells me that no, we probably don't. But should we stop trying? No way! As we sixty somethings straggle out the doors of our libraries over the next couple of years I have no doubt that there will be fabulously inventive young people to take our places. I've just written a personal recommendation for one such lovely young woman and this I know is true. If I hand her a copy of the corporate history, she'll read it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Weird Sisters are - well- kind of weird

I've been listening to Eleanor Brown's book for several weeks now and I'll admit I was becoming so annoyed with these women, Rose, Bianca and Cordelia Andreas, that I was ready to scream. I just wanted to shake them and yell "grow up!" How could I have ever thought that I'd make a wonderful psychologist? I'd have been just awful!

I had to take a huge giant step back  and try to remember where my brother, sister and I were when we were the age of these women - mid to late '20's - and realized, a bit sheepishly, that perhaps we weren't quite as settled or accomplished as my addled brain remembers. I'd love to know what my folks would say. Ha!

The sisters are the daughters of an absent minded Shakespeare professor, thus the names from King Lear, and his wife, who happens to be in the throes of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer. What a great cover for Rose, Bianca and Cordy to all pile on at home, each nursing their own very private wounds. As will happen when "kids" return home after flying the coop, they immediately tend to revert to the roles they had as children and begin to act like children as well.

I'm dating myself but, if you remember the Smothers' Brothers when they did their sibling routine "mother always loved you best," then you'll get the picture. As the oldest, Rose tends to be the "bossypants," (apologies to Tina Fey) still disapproving and judgemental after all these years. Though her long suffering fiance is at Oxford on a teaching fellowship, she just can't seem to see her way clear to even go for a visit, convincing herself that her folks can't do without her, when in fact, she just won't leave her comfort zone.

Bianca is the one who couldn't wait to leave the confines of the bucolic Ohio town where she was born and raised. Bright lights, big city was all she ever wanted, and the parties, clothes, and men to go with it. But those things cost plenty, so when the men stopped buying, she helped herself to the company's checkbook.

Cordy is the most lovable one of the bunch, an irresponsible flower-child, floating from town to town with her guitar in tow, flopping for a week or a month wherever the spirit moves her. Now she's back in the fictitious Barnwell, broke, pregnant and yearning to be settled and able to indulge her burgeoning nesting instincts.

The narrator of the audio does a wonderful job with the omniscient voice, bringing life and sympathy to these characters all struggling with what, I realized, are major, life altering decisions. The parents who, throughout most of the novel, seem like cloudy, background characters, suddenly take their places toward the end of the book with sage advice and unexpected wisdom, allowing this listener to sigh with relief.

Suddenly I saw the truth and insight of Ms. Eleanor Brown. How could I have forgotten the way I felt the day I left my little town in the Berkshires? I never wanted to look back and honestly, didn't, for many years. I was terrified, like Cordy and Bianca, of being trapped in what I saw as a "small town" life and it took me a long time to be able to return and appreciate the beauty of my original home.

As the girls begin to make mature decisions and realize that the choices are theirs and no one else's, readers will get a sense that all will be well for the Andreas family, even though much different than they might have predicted. How can you not love a book in which one of the main characters decides to become a librarian? And, it's a good thing!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Bessie Smith at Florida Rep

Only a few of you may know this but I've harbored a secret desire to be a torch singer ever since my parents used to return from their annual theatre trip to New York City back in the '50's with the records of the shows they'd seen,. My siblings and I would play those vinyls again and again, memorizing every word to Camelot, My Fair Lady, even The Tenderloin. We mounted ambitious productions every summer, The Emperor's New Clothes sticks in my mind. Once we even attempted Shakespeare! We charged the neighbors five cents a seat and that included refreshements.

So it was with anticipatory pleasure that Don and I traipsed downtown on a hot, sunny Florida afternoon to take in the matinee at Florida Repertory Theatre. Fort Myers' very professional company has tackled every Pulitzer winner, Obie recipient and Tony award winning play ever produced and I've seldom seen a show that didn't stand up to New York standards in every way. This one was no exception.

I'm only sorry that we were part of a, by nature, older crowd that tends to go to the theatre in the afternoon, as I suspect an evening crowd would have been a bit more rambunctious. True confessions, I'm one of those annoying people who just can't sit still if the music is hot. The Devil's Music is an 80 minute joy of theatrical storytelling, mixed with incredible vocals and a sexy saxaphone, jaunty piano and subdued bass. One might think I'd have dropped five pounds from bouncing in my seat.

Neither Don nor I had previously been familiar with the life of Bessie Smith, though we recognized some of the songs right away. She was a groundbreaking, tough living, multi-talented woman who came of age in the twenties, saved Columbia Records from bankruptcy after the depression through her stellar sales, appearing on stages all over the country. Who knew?

Actress Michi Braden is a knockout! Only a few minutes into the show I felt as though I were sitting in the living room of an old speakeasy talking with Bessie Smith as she shared the ups and downs of her life as a black woman determined to make a place for herself in a too white world. The show runs for two more weeks. Love music? Get downtown to see it!

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Lost Week

I was hell bent on finishing Cynthia Ozick's novel in one sitting this week when two things happened to stop me in my tracks. Of course, the first thing was the headline in the paper on Monday morning that had me questioning my self image as an anti-death penalty fanatic. I want to feel guilty about my lack of empathy for Mr. Bin Laden, truly I do, but my friend Andrea has always told me that I'm a strategic thinker and that part of my personality emerged as my immediate reaction was, President Obama's approval ratings will improve drastically.

I haven't talked politics in a while - just books. It seems that, after the mid-term elections, I was in such a funk, such a deep depression about the state of our country, the rise of the conservative fringe, and the election of Florida governor Rick Scott, that I just didn't know what to say. I drowned myself in literature.

This week I've had to do the same. When I'm not reading every newspaper I can get my hands on, I'm reading my latest gift from Library Journal which also arrived on Monday. The 400 and some page novel, the latest from Russell Banks, has a one week turnaround and is consuming my every spare minute.It appears to be a thought-provoking treatise on the nature of crime and punishment. How appropos is that?

Halfway through The Weird Sisters which I'm listening to in my car. (so don't be offended when I decline car pooling) Will give you my thoughts when the review of Mr. Banks' novel is on its way to New York.