Friday, July 29, 2011

Why We Read

An interaction with a customer at the reference desk yesterday started me thinking about reading tastes, how they change (or do they?) over the years, why we began reading, why we read now, and how and what we'll read in our futures. I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume that if you're presently following this book blog that you're already a book junkie with an insatiable desire to read books and to read about books - even if you never choose to open any that I might recommend.

So this woman came up with a copy of a Wilbur Smith novel and wanted to know if I'd ever read him. Of course, I did my famous bait and switch dance and admitted that no, I hadn't read Wilbur, but that I've heard wonderful things about him. She didn't really care if I'd read him anyway, she only wanted to know what the next title was in that particular series, which was easier to discover than it's ever been since Jessica showed us what great info Wikipedia has on reading in a series. Sorry reference librarians but it's true! Google it! Ha.

Anyway, I was thinking "what if she'd asked me what I was reading now?" She'd have probably looked at me like I had three heads. The answer is Jane Gardam. The title, Old Filth. Fess up, how many of you have read her? Heard of her? Well, you know. I hadn't either. But, as I follow about 30 other book blogs written by some pretty amazing amateurs, and then read how many review magazines and websites, certain names come up again and again and one's curiosity gets the best of them.

Gardam is in that cadre of marvelously dry, witty, British women that my sister, my mother and I would read. I'm thinking Anita Brookner, Margaret Drabble. She's been shortlisted for or has won all the prestigious British awards, the Whitbread, the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, but still it seems that these types of authors get no respect in this country. Of course, she's also published by Europa editions with whom you know I'm having a cover love affair.

Old Filth                  Old Filth is an insider nickname for a very sad old man by the name of Edward Feathers. I say sad in that his successful life as a barrister has left him wealthily retired, widowed, and alone, back in England after years in Hong Kong. He and his wife Betty were childless and one gathers that there's an interesting back story to that situation which will eventually come clear. Though married for over fifty years they seem to know nothing about each other. At least he knows nothing about her. A follow up book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, is written from Betty's perspective and I can't wait to get into that!

The irony is that Eddie's life was, in fact, amazingly full, but his attempts at connection were thwarted by bad timing and worse luck. Born in Malaysia where his parents were stationed at the height of The Raj, think of the wonderful Raj Quartet, Eddie was motherless within a few hours of his birth. His father, a shell shocked WW I veteran who was barely holding it together before the death of his wife, refuses to acknowledge his son, so Eddie is happily left to be loved by the wet nurse and her family.

As he approaches school age though, father decides that Eddie should be sent back to England to be educated and the scenes of his removal from the indigenous family that he's attached himself to are heartrending. Ms. Gardam has a gorgeous way with words but, even more, a razor sharp insight into the effects of British imperialism on those who had to live through it on both sides of "the pond." 
Her novel throws a clear-eyed light on the British private school system as Eddie thrives in his studies and makes fast friends, until World War II intervenes.

So why does this book appeal to me? Why am I also currently listening to - don't faint now - a Sandra Brown novel? Why am I putting off the only book on my kitchen counter that everyone is talking about - The Paris Wife? And we're back to the first question, why do we read? Sometimes it has to be to learn how a great writer puts words together on the page and comes up with critical acclaim. Other times it's just to travel to a new place in a different time. Often it's just to relax after a particularly painful reading experience. Perhaps the more astute question is "how can we not read?"

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fun Cleaning Nabokov's House

Product DetailsRun, don't walk to your nearest library or bookstore and grab a copy of this laugh out loud entertaining debut novel by Leslie Daniels. I read it in a weekend and have been talking it up to all of my friends who have trouble sleeping at night. I simply marvel at authors who can come up with a subject that hasn't been done again and again and again.Or, I should say, a new twist on a subject that has been done again and again.

Barb Barrett is a woman you just can't help but root for. She's smart and snarky and sensitive and poignant, a perfect blend of most of us. When her husband says something that gets on her last frayed nerve, she doesn't think twice about grabbing her two kids and walking out the door. That's the problem, not thinking twice, not planning, not understanding that she's the city girl, the outsider in a small upstate New York town where the soon to be ex knows everyone and knows how to manipulate the system to his advantage.

By the time he takes her to the cleaners and the kids with him, Barb is in a funk so deep that you think she'll never be able to drag herself out of bed. But you'd be wrong. One day, living out of her car, she parks outside the kids' school yard to watch her little darlings at play and sees a perfect little yellow house with a for sale sign on it. Motivated out of her torpor, she makes a move to settle down and build a home for her children that will knock the socks off the snippy little social worker who is now sleeping with her ex-husband.

And then she finds the index cards. Hidden away in a drawer, an almost completed novel in the handwriting of one of the previous owners of the house, Vladimir Nabokov! The discovery boosts Barb's morale and sets in motion a series of hilarious events on her quest to earn enough money to go to court and win back custody of her kids.

Even though the plot is out of this world unbelievable, Daniels writes with such authenticity about small town life. Each character jumps off the page with recognition, from the concerned mail carrier whose wife just happens to be a publicist, to the washed up, middle aged sports icon who now runs the sharpest rowing crew at the local college. This book is filled with so much humanity, so much truth about the foibles, the best and worst in all of us.

 I simply sighed with satisfaction throughout as Daniels hit me with one perfect metaphor after another. I'm envious and half in love with an author who can do this. Vladimir Nabokov isn't the only one who can pen a perfect novel! Learn more about Ms. Daniels:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Oh Africa! When will they stop Pillaging You?

If you thought that the BP blowout in the gulf of Mexico was damaging to our country, to tourism, to the economy, you have no idea how really horrific things could be. At least here in the United States we still have the wherewithal to rant and rave and pass laws that may put a damper on these global corporations that thrive on short cuts and irresponsibility.

But what happens if you don't have a voice? Many of you may have been introduced to big oil's influence in Africa, Nigeria in particular, when you read Little Bee. In that novel readers learned what happens to villagers who refuse to leave so that the oil companies can move in. Children are not exempt from the cruelty.

In a new novel by Nigerian author Helon Habila, called Oil on Water, this subject matter is ratcheted up by several degrees but with more nuance than Chris Cleave's book. Each character in this deceptively simple, highly accessible story has a kind of humanity to him that forces the reader to dig a little deeper in an attempt to understand how it is that African countries seem so ripe for exploitation.

Rufus is our narrator, a delightfully unassuming young man, recently graduated from journalism school and assigned to work with Zaq, a hardened, experienced but jaded reporter who was once Rufus's idol. In the Niger delta where Rufus and Zaq work and grew up, BP has gotten a strong toehold.

Empty promises are made by BP's London staffers, the villagers will all get rich, sharing in the fruits of their land. If the tribal chiefs refuse to work with the oil companies they simply disappear. Villagers are exiled to islands where they will starve before they can rebuild their lives, similar to what we did to our Native American tribes, except that this is happening today, right under our noses.
When the wife of the BP rep. in Port Harcourt is kidnapped, Rufus gets the assignment by default, two other reporters dealing with kidnappers were executed a few days before. It's the chance of a lifetime but he has to weigh the danger to himself since he is the sole support of his sister Boma, whose face was disfigured in a fire from an exploding oil rig.

As Rufus and Zaq try to infiltrate the various villages and remote islands where Isabel and her driver might be held, readers once again get a history lesson through fiction. From Rufus's journalist's eye we get an unflinching look at the militants', the villagers', and even the oil company's points of view. Reviewers say the Mr. Habila may have a screenplay in the works and I believe that this would work well in a Blood Diamonds kind of way. It's not an easy subject but we need to know what's going on outside of our comfy little corner of the world.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Amy Waldman's The Submission

I read about this book about six months ago - somewhere - I can never figure out where I hear about these things that come up on my radar screen. Unsure of the protocol, I emailed Barbara Hoffert at Library Journal and asked her if I can request certain titles for review. Absolutely, was the answer. I knew that I wanted this one and was hoping that it would make a good book discussion title for next season.

Well, I got it, and it would! The problem is that it's almost too controversial. I just wasn't sure that I could handle it with my usual aplomb. Just how far did I want to push my customers out of their comfort zone? As the media keeps reminding us - over and over and over - it's been ten long years since that fateful day in New York City when we learned what it's like to be on the receiving end of a surprise attack. Ah, if only those young people sitting at computer stations at Langley running drones into people's homes thousands of miles away could recall how their parents felt on 9/11.

It's supposed to be a common truth that tragedy draws people together but on Sept. 11th the opposite happened. American turned against American in the worst possible way and the great divide that was wrought that day continues unabated ten years later. Did I read that Herman Cain, admittedly a long shot presidential contender, said this week that any town can refuse to allow a mosque to be built? Could they refuse to allow a church to be built? A synagogue? Hmmmm......

Ms. Waldman's novel, simply titled The Submission, comes out next month and brilliantly addresses our deepest prejudices. I couldn't put it down. The premise is that a contest is held for submission by artists and architects the world over to design a 9/11 memorial. Sitting on the panel is an array of professional critics, politically connected monied folks, and a widow representing the families who lost loved ones in the attack. The wrangling is ferocious, resentments and animosity run high - so what else is new? But eventually the committee defers to the widow and a winner is chosen.

Rather than reinvent the wheel I'll simply offer you the link to my starred review - hoo ha - that appeared in this month's edition of Library Journal. See for yourself if you don't want to run out and place this title on hold. As always, the reviews are alphabetical by author's last name so do scroll all the way down to "Waldman."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Borrower - A Perfect Antidote to the History of Cancer

Once again I've had my socks knocked off by a debut writer! Rebecca Makkai is no stranger to fiction, her short stories having been published in highly respected anthologies like Tin House and Ploughshares. Nevertheless, how does a young wife and mother find the time to write such a hilarious, insightful, original novel and then get it into the hands of a publisher at Penguin?

The first friend I want to share this with is Kathleen Wells. I could think of no one else but her as I followed the antics of Lucy, the bra-burning, left-leaning children's librarian who runs the youth services area of a small public library in Hannibal, Missouri. Ms. Makkai, through Lucy, touches on all the crazy goings on that people outside of the library world would never imagine in a million years actually happen on a daily basis in public libraries.

Lucy is kind of a loner. She has acquaintances, dates a bit - no one serious - and lives in a run down apartment over a theatre where an avant-guard troupe of actors rehearses and performs. But Lucy has a passion, for truth, justice, and freedom for all individuals and an equally passionate antipathy for the U.S.A. Patriot Act and what it means to librarians in particular. Lucy wasn't raised by Russian immigrants for nothing!

Lucy has some young patrons who stand out in her mind because of their quirky personalities or their sophisticated reading choices. Ian Drake is head and shoulders above the rest. The two seem to be soul mates despite the twenty year difference in their ages. Lucy can recommend anything to Ian and he gobbles it up. The further she stretches him the more he loves it, until the day Mrs. Drake arrives to lay down the law. There are certain books she believes are anathema and she hands Lucy a list of all the types of books Ian is no longer allowed to read. No witches, sorcerers, goblins, hobbits, in other words none of the great childrens' literature, you know, the books that expand your mind and help you soar.

Censorship is not in Lucy's vocabulary but even more upsetting is her new found knowledge, through the small town grapevine, that Ian's parents expect him to spend Saturdays with their evangelical Pastor Bob who specializes in "repatriating" young men who may be questioning their sexual orientation. Lucy seethes with rage. I feel her pain. Just read the article about Michele Bachmann's husband in today's New York Times and  you'll see how prescient Ms. Makkai is.

So when Lucy comes into the library early one morning and hears the shuffling sounds of a mouse perhaps? she finds, instead, Ian Drake, backpack full and ready to run. What does she do? Of course, she thinks about doing the right thing, for a minute or two, but what is the right thing? The rebel in her decides she should save Ian from his family and off they go on the adventure of a lifetime. What happens along the way? Not telling. I read The Borrower in just 24 hours. I suggest you do the same.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Books I May Not Finish

I am becoming much too impatient now that I'm in my '60's, especially with books. Anyone who's read this blog for a while knows that I'm a fanatic about espionage. I just love it. There will never be another BBC production as brilliant and frightening as MI-5. So I've been waiting for just the right time to tackle the latest from the "master" of espionage, John LeCarre. I'm five discs in, listening to Our Kind of Traitor, and I'm ready to scream, "move it along for crying out loud!"

Today I took my three mile walk and found my mind wandering constantly. This shouldn't happen with a good spy story, should it? Not ready to give up, I worked in the yard, weeding, trimming, until I began to feel faint and it thankfully began to rain. Still, the story isn't capturing my imagination. It was so well reviewed that I have to question myself but, really, it is simply too far fetched.

Imagine this: a British couple, upwardly mobile, he's an Oxford professor, she's a litigator, are on vacation in Antigua. The tennis pro fixes Perry up for a singles match with a Russian business man who has just purchased a home on the island. When they meet up at the courts Dimitri's body guards want to search Perry's tennis bag and make a big show of their secreted weapons. Gail, the lawyer, doesn't bat an eye. Oh really? For a tennis game? Would any normal couple just walk away? Not these two.

Eventually, after much dancing around the subject, Dimitri decides that he can trust Perry and Gail to take a message back to MI-6 in London, even though they are just good citizens and not in any way attached to the secret service or Scotland Yard. He wants to defect and hopes that Perry and Gail will pave the way. It seems that Dimitri has made his fortune in money laundering through British banks and is now ready to expose those that he dealt with along the way. Sounds like shades of Rupert Murdoch! Now there's a story.

I'm sorry, but there's been such a slow build up, so much back story, so much abuse of Perry and Gail to which they respond rather blandly that I believe I'm going to have to cut them loose. If any of my readers have finished this book and want to convince me that I should too, I'm open to hearing from you, please!

The only trouble is that our library's collection of downloadable audio materials is abominable. I've searched through the last 500 titles added to the catalog and found only 5 books that I'd be remotely interested in and two of those are by Alice Hoffman. I'm sure it isn't all our fault. I understand that there are some publishers who don't immediately offer their books in this format, but please, there are people with brains out there who would like to listen to something other than James Patterson.

The other book I'm currently listening to is The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer. I know, that sounds pretty depressing but actually it's fascinating. It's just so LONG! Publishers' Weekly calls this book "magisterial." People have written passionately about the author, Dr. Siddhartha Mukerjee, and the depth of compassion he shows for his patients, their families, and the researchers and organizations that work tirelessly to stop this malignancy in our lives. Is there anyone who hasn't been touched by this disease, which can be traced back to mummified remains in ancient Egypt?

And why, why, why can't we find a cure? Not an extension of life with bouts of radiation and soul deadening chemotherapy but truly, a cure. It seems impossible that we haven't, in light of all the other diseases we've been able to eradicate, even AIDS is coming close to having a vaccine. Perhaps Dr. Mukejee will address this in his voluminous work. I, for one, will need to take a break and intersperse my reading of this history of cancer with something a bit more light hearted before I can delve back into it again. Any ideas?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Learning History Through Fiction

How many of you enjoyed history when you were in school? I have to tell you, I hated it! For one thing, I'm not keen on memorizing dates and names and secondly, I suspect that I didn't have the kind of professors who could make history come alive for me, make it relevant. The one exception to that was my Ancient History teacher in high school, Mr. Shedlock. He was a frustrated actor, you could tell, and he pranced around the room in such a way that had me in thrall to everything he had to say. To this day I'm drawn to Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Middle East.

I mentioned in passing last month that I had been introduced to a new author when I received a book from Library Journal called Crossbones. The writer, Nuruddin Farah, must be very well known to readers more astute than I because he's been short-listed for the Nobel in the past and some say it's just a matter of time before he wins. Now I'm one of his biggest fans.

The review for Crossbones has not been printed yet but I think I can say that it was very impressive. So much so that I decided to go back and read some of Farah's earlier work. I began with Links, the first of the trilogy that ended with Crossbones. I cared that much about the characters that I wanted to understand how they came to be "linked," if you will.

That brings me to learning about history through fiction. Farah is a Somalian immigrant, an English professor here in the United States, who holds onto his ties to Africa by also keeping a home in Cape Town. My knowledge of Africa has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years but I can tell, by some of the crazy comments made to me, even by family, when I tell them about my upcoming trip, that most Americans haven't a clue about this amazing continent.
Each country within Africa is as distinct as the United States is from any other country on our continent and Somalia is a land all its own.

Farah's love of his country comes through in every conversation he puts into the mouths of his characters, but it's a clear-eyed love, not a romantic one. He sees the troubles for what they are and is able to give readers an overview of the history of colonialism that plagues many countries in Africa. The Brits, the Italians and the Americans have all wanted something from Somalia, many countries have over fished the waters and taken the livelihood from the Somalian people. Civil War has plagued the country too, and various tribal regions fight against each other. The result, of course, is horrific for the regular citizens who only want the basics, to live in peace, have enough to eat, to love and raise their families.

Links is the story of two men, Jeebleh and Bile, who were raised together and spent years as political prisoners in Somalia. When released, Jeebleh fled to the United States where he married and is now raising a family. Bile stayed in Somalia with his sister and her daughter running a refuge for orphans. After Jeebleh's mother dies he returns to Somalia with trepidation, distrustful of everyone he interacts with yet anxious to reconnect with Bile and to build a small monument to his mother's memory.

Unfinished business meets Jeebleh at every turn. Youngsters armed with guns larger than they seem to be threatening on every street corner. Mysterious meetings with clan members stir up old resentments. Jeebleh is introduced to a young woman whose baby was torn from her arms by the up wash of an American helicopter during an attack on Mogadishu, a story that forces him to confront his mixed feelings of loyalty to country and family. Bile's niece has been kidnapped yet no one seems equipped to begin to try to find her. One gets the impression that Mogadishu's citizens are so beaten down by war and infighting that they are stuck in a depressed state of inertia and who can blame them?

I read this book in three nights and intend to continue with Farah's saga in the next novel, Knots, but first up I've gotten another treat from Library Journal. Yesterday I received the newest from David Guterson of Snow Falling on Cedars fame. Deadline is July 21st. I'm all over it!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Europa Editions - They've done it again

I read on one of the many blogs I monitor that there's actually a fan club for  Europa Editions gorgeous cover art and I must find out where on earth I found that information and join up. This is a book I heard good things about and decided to take a look at when I read that it's set in the hills above Viareggio in the over-sold region of Tuscany. It's a satire that pokes great fun at the Brits - not the Americans for a change - and a great change of pace for me as I read through Neruddin Farah's trilogy about Somalia.

The unfortunate Brit in this instance is Gerald Samper, a ghostwriter, though he hates that term, for some really awful, uninteresting people. Still, it pays the bills and look where it got him. He bought his coveted privacy from an Italian realtor who assured him that no one, but no one would find him at the top of the winding, grass road that led to this glorious villa overlooking the sea.
Oh, how wrong that was! Within twenty four hours of Samper's arrival he is accosted by Marta, a tenant in the supposedly unattended cottage on the property below him. Armed with a welcoming bottle of Fernet Branca, a drink I'll admit I've never heard of but that is, it seems, more potent that my favorite, grappa, she interrupts his painting and solitude with intrusive patter and an invitation to dinner.

What makes this book so funny and clever is that every other chapter is told by Marta. She revisits the happenings in the previous chapter told from Gerald's point of view and it's like playing that old kids' game telephone, reminiscent of the old Robbie Burns sentiment, O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us

Marta, you see, is a renowned music writer and is working on a score for an Italian film producer. She's as annoyed as Gerald is at the unwanted interruption of her solitude and finds Gerald's unbridled penchant for breaking into off key, very loud singing while he works on his villa, an insurmountable obstacle to her work. But clever Marta comes up with a means of using Gerald's quirk to her advantage and the more they try to avoid each other the more chance and bottle of Fernet Branca throw them together. Even halfway through this novel you just know where these two misfits are going to end up but it doesn't spoil the read at all. Laugh out loud fun!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Black Like Me

When John Howard Griffin made the audacious proposal to his publisher over fifty years ago, many thought he had lost his mind. But he, and most especially, his family, had a thirst for justice that had to be quenched and the courage to follow it through. Griffin met with several dermatologists in New Orleans before settling on one who agreed to help him. You see, John Griffin, a white man from Texas, wanted to walk a mile in a black man's shoes, reporting on what it was really like to be a black southerner in 1959 in the greatest democracy on earth.

Holing up in a hotel room, he submitted to drug treatments, enhanced by hours under a sunlamp and a skin dye, that would eventually transform his melanin to a deep, rich brown. He shaved his head in order to hide the straight hair that might be a giveaway. It all sounds incredible but, in fact, it worked. Out he went into the streets of New Orleans that only a few weeks previously had welcomed him and his wallet with open arms. Now he had trouble finding a bathroom, a drink of water, or a seat on public transportation.

Traveling throughout Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, Griffin immersed himself in black life and quickly learned that there was a separate way of speaking and acting that had to be cultivated if he didn't want to incur the wrath of everyday white folks. Eye contact was to be avoided, a certain reticence in body language behooved him. Over the weeks of his experiment he became heartsick to his very soul at the unfounded hatred he encountered from people of his own race, so much so that he had to take a break from his life as a black man after only six weeks, visiting a Trappist retreat to pray and rejuvenate.

After only six weeks! Can you imagine? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in another's skin? I have to tell you that I had my consciousness raised fairly early in my life and I'm so grateful to my parents for allowing me the freedom to leave home and spread my wings.

 In the summer of 1969, against their better judgment, they agreed to my moving from the idyllic Berkshire County town that Don is so in love with, to Washington, DC, for the summer between my junior and senior years of college. Jobless, but optimistic, four of us gals sublet an apartment on Connecticut Ave. and hit the pavement looking for work. My buddy Sandy and I ended up, after failing at selling encyclopedias door to door, training to waitress at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in the heart of the ghetto, an area that ended up on fire later that summer when injustice and resentment ignited a conflagration.

We were the only white people in the restaurant - customers or staff. We were the only white people on the bus that took us home, exhausted, greasy, disheartened, at the end of the day. We also knew that we only had to do this for a couple of months. The women, young and old, we interacted with every day had this work to look forward to for the rest of their lives. Did they resent us? How could they not? Did we feel it? Maybe so, it's hard to remember. I only know that I felt we deserved every bit of their contempt when we quit after a few weeks when a "friend of a friend" found us office jobs in the Interior Dept.

John Howard Griffin never really recovered from his experience back in 1959. If Black Like Me isn't still required reading for every high school kid today, it should be. This book isn't dated, not one iota. Though prejudice is much more subtle today it is still shockingly rampant and often comes from people and places one would least expect.

Griffin returned home to his family in Texas, published his articles, appeared on Dave Garroway and Mike Wallace, and was hung in effigy in his own hometown of Mansfield. His parents received death threats, he eventually had to move his wife and kids to a secret location, and finally ended up living in Mexico, almost one hundred years after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation.

We read for so many reasons but this is certainly one of them. We must read so that we never forget.