Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michael Gruber's Good Son

I once made an attempt at a Gruber novel, The Book of Air and Shadows, because he's such a well reviewed author and I do enjoy reading outside my comfort zone. Perhaps it was the reader, maybe my mind was elsewhere, but I didn't hang with it and now I'm thinking that I should revisit that error.

When I began listening to The Good Son I got the same sense of impatience, wanting the novel to catch me up in it immediately. I'm so unfair to a writer in that respect. When I decide on what to discuss for book groups, I always go for the book that grabs me from the first sentence. In Gruber's case, I'm pleased to say that I cooled my jets and waited patiently for the story to get me. It did.

This is an extremely complicated combination of espionage, psychology, philosophy, and history that affords the reader an opportunity to get inside the heads of the so-called terrorists practicing jihad in the Islamic world. Two story lines compete for your attention, one here at the National Security Agency in the U.S. and the other in a remote Afghan village where an international group of pacifists is being held in captivity, having been kidnapped on their way to a conference in Kashmir. A third angle, Theo, son of one of the captives and Army black ops specialist, acts as the bridge between the other two.

It might sound as if it stretches credulity but, in fact, it works amazingly well. The book is long and to some readers it may seem to drag in parts, but those criticized sections are the ones I found most fascinating. Gruber does an outstanding job of examining the psychology of captivity, delving deeply into the mystery of why some people handle torture and face death with such fortitude, humor and peace, while others unravel with frightening speed.

Strong women abound in The Good Son! Pakistani-American Sonia Leghari, Theo's mother, is a marvelous creation. A Jungian psychotherapist, a career she was drawn to after receiving treatment herself for a psychic breakdown, Sonia has known the horrific losses that result from endless war. A controversial figure in the states and the object of a fatwa in Pakistan, Sonia uses her exceptional skills among her fellow captives to try to begin to make sense of their incarceration and to gain the respect of their jihadi captors.

The unfortunate group is comprised of Muslims, Catholics, Quakers, and Atheists, a situation that lends itself to long conversations about the nature of god and religion, prayer, sin, and forgiveness. It's again to Gruber's credit that these meanderings are one of the highlights of this strange and wonderful novel.

Back at the NSA, he gives us Cynthia, a woman whose incredible skill with languages places her in the middle of an intercept that may or may not have to do with a potential nuclear attack, the development and movement of weapons, or the executions of the pacifist captives. In typical government fashion, she is shuttled to the side and warned off when she dares to express an opinion contrary to those of her superiors. Will she become a rogue agent? Go off the reservation, as they say?

And what of Theo? A Pakistani at heart, more at home in Lahore than in DC, Theo is still getting physical therapy to treat wounds from his last foray into a war zone. Will he be able to call in old markers from his years as a famed mujaheddin in the Afghan/Russian war in time to find and rescue his mother? Does he even want to? I'm not telling.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Should I Write About Mediocre Fiction?

I'm just finishing up two disappointments and I'm torn between writing about them or just keeping silent. I feel like a party pooper for saying something but then, I've read, one needs to keep updating one's posts or folks lose interest. Now, if I could be snarky in a Maureen Dowd kind of way, it would be worth your reading time but I can't do that to these two novelists who made an effort but simply didn't connect with me. That doesn't necessarily mean they won't connect with you.

Continuing my love affair with Paris, I just finished French Lessons by Ellen Sussman. She has a gorgeous website - http://www.ellensussman.com/ - and her rendering of Paris is perfect, but her characters fall kind of flat. Perhaps the problem is that we don't get to spend enough time with them to form an opinion. The novel is written in three vignettes, each involving a French tutor and his/her student, over the course of one day, as they stroll through the streets of the city, practicing their language skills and, mostly, thinking about sex.

Chantal - really? Is ANYone named Chantal? Nico and Philippe are the three tutors. Involved in a love triangle, things become more complicated when each of them is assigned to a student with romantic problems of his own. Josie, gobsmacked by the sudden death of her married lover, Riley, a young mother of two so frazzled that she no longer feels attractive to her workaholic husband, and Jeremy, an introverted architect who has followed his actress wife to Paris for a shoot, feeling totally out of his element. As the day in Paris progresses, each of the six reveals a bit of himself to the other until the question becomes who is teaching whom?

Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling is a modern telling of the Lysistrata tale, a plot that should have been hilarious but just ends up feeling rather melancholy. If there's anyone who isn't familiar with the classic Aristophanes play, Lysistrata is a powerful woman who convinces the other women of Greece to forsake all sexual relations with their partners until the twenty year Peloponnesian Wars are ended. It's a fall -out -of -your chair funny play - in the right hands - with a deadly serious message.

Wolitzer sets her novel in a small town in New Jersey which could be Anytown, USA. She is known for her keen observations of family relationships and some of her books are considered good crossover reads for teens. In this case a new drama teacher has come to town and Fran Heller is, well, a hell-raiser. She decides to stage the rather sophisticated Lysistrata as her major senior play, casting the lovely Marissa Clayborn in the title role.

What Ms. Heller hasn't counted on is Marissa's interest in an older man, a disfigured Iraq War veteran who opens her eyes to life and its cruelties outside of her idyllic small town. Marissa decides to stage a sleep-in, moving her bed to the lawn of the high school and exhorting the women of the town to give up sex until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ended. Since she refuses to leave her bed, she abdicates the pretend role of Lysistrata for the actual one.

Simultaneously, a mysterious cold spell overcomes the women of the town and they very suddenly lose all interest in sex, much to the shock of their husbands and lovers, who as yet have made no connection between the play and the drop in libido. This strange phenomenon overcomes everyone, those like Dory and Robbie Lang, the happiest and closest of all the couples in town, popular English teachers that everyone aspire to be like, as well as the cheating school principal and his wife, afflicted with chronic fatigue, and the Langs' daughter Willa, in her first serious relationship with Eli Heller, the dramatist's son.

There's a lot to work with here. The plot line had great potential and I'm having trouble trying to diagnose what went wrong. Maybe if any of you readers have dipped into this book you can tell me what I'm missing. In the meantime, I'm off in search of the next great read.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mr. President, How about the Library!

OK, this isn't my original thought but when one of my favorite bloggers, retired library director Will Manley, brought it up on his website the other day I immediately fist pumped, "right on!" Sounds to me like he's kind of where I am with our president right about now - trying desperately to hang onto a thread of hope that he'll become the man we thought he was. http://bit.ly/o4nVmS

It's all about perception after all. Rather than go get his summer reading from the charming little Martha's Vineyard bookstore, how about taking Michelle and the girls to the public library. I happen to know that the Mass. library system is much less sophisticated than ours and could certainly use the great PR. Such a small thing, but wouldn't it remind folks that they don't need to BUY their books. When I mentioned this to Don the other night he absolutely forced me to go to the computer to fire off an email to the White House. Which I did.

Last night I had a great talk with my sister Cynthia in Massachusetts - she who keeps me informed about the dearth of materials in Mass. libraries. We got on a tear comparing notes on what we'd been reading lately. When I mentioned that I was getting ready to begin Lucky Jim, she went crazy. Said it was one of her favorite books of all time. Who knew? I told her that I probably wouldn't have even thought about it if I hadn't been following the National Book Critics' summer blogging contest about the best academic comedy ever.

While many of the entrants mentioned my all-time favorite, Richard Russo's Straight Man, the hands down winner was Kingsley Amis's Jim. I'll let you know what I think if I can ever find time to sit down and savor a book from start to finish!

So Cynthia got this great idea which actually played right into a similar thought that Don has had for me to promote books and my blog. She opined about how much fun it would be to have a radio show - I'm thinking Click and Clack - where we just hang out for 15 minutes or half an hour and chat about books off the cuff. We would take calls from the audience of course. I'd LOVE it. Having done my thing on WGCU last year, I must admit that it's much easier chatting in a studio on a radio show than it is to be on TV. I'm already thinking of a name for our show. We could begin it using You Tube and our computers. Maybe Skype? Nancy Pearl does it - why can't I?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

If You Can't Say Something Nice....

...don't say anything? There are times when saying nothing is not an option so I faced a real dilemma with this last book I read for Library Journal. The book, it which can not yet be named, was by an Australian writer with a great reputation - awards galore - but throughout my reading I felt uncomfortably annoyed. I felt like the writer was toying with me. He even says at one point that reviewers of his previous works have fallen into three catagories, one of which was basically those who didn't "get it." Hmmmm - I'll admit, I didn't.

Naturally one WANTS to love a new book. I approach each one with joy and expectation. Not to mention the fact that if I ever want to be quoted in the New York Times Book Review I'll need to lavish praise. Sadly, not many of the novels I review make it that far, though most of them are stellar. Two such novels, each outstanding in its own very disparate way, made it into the August issue of LJ. http://bit.ly/mTzzh2

Remember to scroll down as reviews are in alphabetical order. The first one I've spoken of here already. It is Crossbones by Farah. After checking that one out, scroll on down to Perrotta, Tom, for my review of The Leftovers, an exremely timely look at the aftermath of a possible Rapture. Hilarious but not unkind, sad but not maudlin, it's just perfect Perrotta. According to Early Word, there's already a film in the works or possibly even an HBO series.

OK, I'm guilty of taking the easy way out sending you to previously written reviews but I haven't finished anything lately. I'm in the middle of several books, none of which are grabbing me the way I enjoy being grabbed. I'm on a search. Any ideas? I'm halfway through The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer, a modern look at the infamous Aristophanes play Lysistrata. In the car I'm listening to a lengthy, slow moving novel called The Good Son by Michael Gruber. I think this will ultimately be satisfying as it combines all the elements I love: espionage, politics, and psychology. More to come on that.

By the bed I've been falling asleep to French Lessons by Ellen Sussman, simply because I fell for the cover.
So you see, I really have been trying!
Product Details

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Paris Wife

Once again a debut novelist has knocked it out of the ball park! Paula McLain's novelized story of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife Hadley is an amazingly realistic look at a young marriage facing enormous strains and slowly, inexorably, unraveling in front of our eyes. For anyone who's been in a doomed relationship this book will be hard going unless, as for me, there's plenty of distance. Maturity and years add perspective but the pain for Ernest and Hadley is raw, a compliment to the author.

Naturally this novel will be compared to Nancy Horan's Loving Frank. As a matter of fact, she is blurbed on the cover. I led a book discussion on Horan's novel but found this one to be much finer in the subtlety of the writing, the introspection of the characters, and the feeling of authenticity. It may begin a bit slower but it draws you in.

I have always been fascinated by the over the top, legendary quality of the mystique around Ernest Hemingway. I had read most of his work as a young woman and some biographical works as well, so I was already very familiar with his penchant for serial marriages, his extreme bouts of depression, the heavy drinking, hard living reputation. I thought he was a pretty childish, disagreeable man. In fact, he sounded an awful lot like my ex-husband!

To Ms. McClain's credit, she paints him in a much more sympathetic light without excusing or paintbrushing his foibles. What I didn't remember is that he was only 21 years old, emotionally devastated by what he had seen and the injuries he had suffered in the war. Hadley was a twenty nine year old small town girl who was beginning to think her life was passing her by. Anxious for a new adventure, a rebel of sorts, she believed in Hemingway's talents, supported him financially and psychologically, and loved him unconditionally.

Paula McClain sets readers smack dab in the middle of 1920's Paris and the rich but decadent lives of the artists, writers, and hangers on who lived and partied there. It would be a miracle if any of the children of these unions came out unscathed! Our behavior today seems nearly puritanical compared with the antics Scott Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. If you haven't seen the wonderfully quiet Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, it provides a perfect companion piece to The Paris Wife.

There have been many artists whose reputations for over-the-top ego have been part and parcel of their reputations for literary output. So much has been written about them that another non-fiction book may have been redundant. But in a novel the author has more room to play, to surmise, to intuit and yes, to invent. Ms. McClain's invention is surreal in its authenticity.

Oh, just got a bizarre new book from Library Journal that I'll have to get into this weekend so I may be incommunicado for a week. Don't give up on me!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why we Travel

For quite some time now The New York Times has been running a Sunday column titled "Why We Travel." I've been impressed and heartened by some of the deep felt sentiments accompanying the photographs that have come in from readers all over the world. I look forward to sending some of my own. (see the link here): http://nyti.ms/jwPOIB

Having grown up in a small New England town and then raising my stepdaughters in an even smaller one, I was often dismayed to discover how little intellectual curiosity there seemed to be among the denizens of these burgs to explore, to reach out, to understand different cultures and places, to learn. When it came time for me to go to college I couldn't wait to get out of dodge. My kids, on the other hand, had no desire to leave their comfort zone. I was totally flummoxed.

Some of my favorite reads are travel books, thus the moniker "read around the world." I've had the overwhelming good fortune to land in a career that has allowed me to keep my eyes on the prize. I save money for one thing, after food and housing of course, and that is travel. So I was speechless the other evening when I mentioned to a person of influence in my library world that I was leaving next month for Africa. He looked me dead straight in the eyes and asked "why?"

I tried to read between the lines and see if that was a joke. Sadly it was not. I'm inept when it comes to cocktail party repartee and, though I'm seldom at a loss for words with my friends, I'm afraid I didn't have the quick comeback that I should have used. I managed to explain that I travel to learn, to grow, but failed to remind this supposedly bright person that Africa is the cradle of civilization from whence we all emanate. Long before there were Christians, Muslims and Jews trying to anihilate each other, there was life on this continent and I want to feel it in my very being.

I remember standing at the Forum in Rome where Caesar spoke and simply crying. I couldn't believe that I was actually there in such an historic location, walking where these people I knew from history (and Shakespeare) had actually stood. It's an overwhelming sensation, one that I won't stop seeking until I run out of money and stamina.

A perfect example of how we stretch our boundaries with travel is the email relationship I've forged with Sineta George, the owner of the bed and breakfast where we will stay in Dakar, Senegal. She's been reading my blog and even asked if she could use a quote of mine on her website. I was thrilled. For over a year now we have exchanged information and photos. The day we arrive, we will already be friends.

Don had a thank you letter from his granddaughter recently. She just graduated from UCal with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and he had helped send her to Sorrento, Italy to attend a dance workshop this summer. It was her first time out of the country, an experience she described beautifully as "freeing." This twenty one year old could teach some of our older, wiser brethren a lesson in opening minds.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Oh, Alice Hoffman, Why so Dark?

I know it, I know it, you're not supposed to make assumptions about writers based on their subject matter though we do it all the time, especially in book group discussions. In my continuing quest to catch up on all of the Alice Hoffman novels I've missed, I listened to The Story Sisters over the past couple of weeks and, oy vay, this is her darkest one yet. I, at least, can't help but wonder what was going on in her head or heart when she wrote this tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It's so relentlessly depressing.

All the elements are there for the asking; the parents' divorce with the dad getting so caught up in his new life that he forgets his three daughters, the mother, Annie, so centered on her own pain that she totally fails to see her daughters' strange behavior, the girls, Elv, Meg and Claire, living in a fantasy world where no one can hurt them, speaking their own invented language, burying themselves in their loss.

And then the catalyst for Elv's unraveling, which we learn about in doled out little bits of information throughout the novel, not really quite understanding the evil that's been done. Elv, kidnapped, molested, sacrifices herself to save her younger sister Claire, who can never bring herself to talk about that fateful day. When Elv returns home she is astounded that her mother can't intuit what has happened. When Annie seems oblivious, Elv begins the long years of acting out that will all but destroy the fragile Story family.

Cutting herself, by the very nature of the act, a cri de coeur for attention, goes unnoticed. Sneaking out at night, promiscuity, drugs, anti-social behavior, all result in Elv's being sent away to an institution for incorrigible teens, and adds up to a tale of hopelessness that any good reviewer simply can't recommend. Why would you want to spend time with these people? Perhaps it all goes back to my earlier question - why do we read? Perhaps, in this case, it's to say, "there but for the grace of god, go I."

Though some remnant of salvation evolves in the end, I just don't know that it's worth the wait. Ms. Hoffman's writing is, as always, that beautifully overused word, "luminous." That will never change. Next up, The Paris Wife. Too bad, we all already know how THAT worked out!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Sandra Brown, Yes, Sandra Brown

A typical Monday at my library means that friends and co-workers are like ships passing in the night. Scores of book carts are waiting to be shelved. Meetings and programs are lined up from dawn til dusk. You better hope nothing goes wrong with the lights, the AC, bugs of any kind, plumbing, you get the picture. So, it was delightful that my pal Andrea and I passed each other in the circulation office; she coming off the desk, me going on. She had a Jude Devereaux paperback in hand and asked me on the QT if she should think any less of her doctor for reading Devereaux.
Cracked me up. My immediate, snobby reaction was, hell yeah. Then I rethought the fact that I was planning to blog about Sandra Brown tonight and squashed that snobby voice in my head. No, Andrea, your poor doctor is probably stressed to the max and needs escapism in the evening. She agreed and we both felt good that we had addressed our elitist attitude toward literature. With whom will I play these little pas de deux when she is gone?

I wrote the other day about why we read but one of the motivations I forgot to mention was peer pressure. There's nothing like having someone whose opinion you respect ask you if you're familiar with such and such a book and having to hang your head in shame. Of course, librarians have the perfect excuse. We DON'T HAVE TIME! But when two members of our book discussion group both said that they wanted to talk about Sandra Brown's novel Rainwater, I'll admit I looked at them with crooked eyebrows.

Still, I remembered when Ms. Brown and her husband attended our reading festival several years ago and I had the honor of introducing her to the crowd. We were surprised and disappointed at the attendance, maybe 200 people in a room that holds 500. She was undaunted and unfazed. She gave a beautiful, heartfelt presentation talking more about the joy of writing than about any one particular book. Check your local catalog if you doubt her prolific output. She had a fan in me forever.

Rainwater is not her usual genre. As a matter of fact, Booklist calls it a huge leap from Ms. Brown's romantic suspense. One might even call it a parable since it has elements of a biblical tale of good vs. evil, a David vs. Goliath if you will. In a small Texas town, Gilead, during the depression years, a young Ella Barron, abandoned by her husband, perhaps over the birth of their son with a rare form of autism once called "idiot savant," (think Dustin Hoffman in Rainman), struggles to make ends meet as  the owner of a rooming house.

The local doctor asks Ella if she'd be willing to take in an old friend of his who's looking for a peaceful place to rest while he's being treated for a terminal disease. David Rainwater is like no other man Ella has ever met. As you read you must keep reminding yourself that we're back in the early 1930's, that morees are different from today's and that Ella's reputation depends upon her circumspection in her interactions with any of her boarders. She fights hard, stubbornly against her attraction to Mr. Rainwater.

Mr. Rainwater, ever the gentleman, isn't having it. He takes an interst in Ella's son, an instance that starts the ball rolling for Ella to see him as more than just a withdrawn little boy who throws tantrums. Researching his disease, she finds that Solly may have more going on in his head than anyone would have believed and begins to hope that he will one day be able to learn, to be on his own, maybe even to thrive.

Beyond the personal story of Ella and David is the backdrop of troubling times where once comfortable farmers are losing their lands to foreclosure, their crops to the dustbowl, and their animals to a government program that pays the farmers to destroy their cattle even though people are starving in the shanties on the edge of town. Racism is in full bloom and the good old boys who make up the police department are threatened when a new charismatic black minster comes to town with an uncanny ability to instill pride and hope into those who have had little of either.

David Rainwater is a man with, it would seem, little to lose. He invests himself in the townspeople's struggles, he organizes what might now be called neighborhood watches, he stands against the cruelty of the government men and the local bullies who would keep food from the mouths of the starving children.
Yet all while it's happening the reader has a constant feeling of dread in the pit of his stomach. Hoping against hope we understand that it will take a tragedy of epic proportions to set the town of Gilead right. I won't peek at the ending, though I want to very badly. Kudos to Sandra Brown for a thoughtful novel with enough twists to keep this fussy reader on edge.