Wednesday, December 28, 2011

100 Books! Ta Da...A Goal I Almost Didn't Reach

Now I know for sure why I'm a librarian and not an accountant. I rarely use an Excel spreadsheet at work and only use it personally for my "books read" list each year. I can't tell you how excited I was when I thought I had reached my goal of 100 books late Monday afternoon. As Don was pulling the champagne out of the refrigerator I went to the computer to enter my last title of the year, French Dirt.

I scrolled up to the top of the page and, to my horror, I realized that I had put the title of the excel document on line number 1 and then skipped to line number 3 to begin my list of books read! Can you imagine? I was two short of my goal! I almost didn't admit my folly this point it had become a matter of pride and I was so discouraged. I had pretended I didn't care about the numbers yet as I closed in on the 100 mark I realized that I did care - deeply. There was only one thing to do.

Don came to the rescue. He actually read through all my blog posts for the year and found not two, but three titles that I had blogged about but failed to add to the list. His persistence got me over the top. Now that's what I call love.

So here's how I spent the holiday weekend - reading about a garden in the south of France, lifting my face every few minutes to gaze upon our own garden in the south of Florida. I never would have dreamed that I would derive such pleasure from watching seeds grow.

This absolutely delightful book by Richard Goodman about his year living in a wonderful old stone house in a 250 member village outside Nimes was the perfect antidote to all the dark, dysfunctional tomes I've been reading lately. How many of us don't wonder every once in a while what it would be like to just walk away from job, friends, family, and reinvent ourselves in a new place? Such a courageous move!

Goodman says he's been a city boy his entire life but the ad in the paper and his Dutch girlfriend called to him to try something new. Once in St. Sebastien de Caisson, a name he invented to protect the village from Peter Mayle syndrome, Richard found that if he wanted to relate to the townspeople he would not have to worry about speaking French as much as he would have to learn to speak "garden." Agriculture was his way into the closed village society and the size of your melons and tomatoes was much more important than the size of......well, you get the idea.

Goodman found the generosity of the townspeople to be overwhelming. Even as they teased that an American had no clue how to work with his hands, they lent him theirs in abundance. Land, water, seeds, hoes, trenchers, buckets, you name it. His new friends watched with fascination as Richard threw himself into his vegetable garden with a naive passion that endeared him to everyone.

His description of the air, the light, the smells of the land in the Vaucluse area of France is overwhelming. The joy of discovery at one's ability to coax food from the earth is such a difficult emotion to explain yet he does so with such verve or, as they say in France, joie de vivre. I can't say enough about this glorious piece of travel writing. It will always be one of my favorite genres.

Adding a postscript here, as Mr. Goodman has, by some wild mystery of the Internet, found my blog about his book and taken the time to comment - a compliment I'll never get over when it happens - I love writers! Thought I'd take a moment to add a link to his site in case you're interested in learning more about him and his writing.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Condition

I wrote recently about Jennifer Haigh and her latest novel, Faith, which simply knocked me out. For that reason I made a concerted effort to go back and read at least one of her earlier books and decided on The Condition because I fancy myself an amateur doctor (tongue in cheek) and find all things medical absolutely fascinating!

The joke was on me. This book isn't actually about a medical condition at all even though Turner's Disease is the catalyst that brings down the house of cards the McKotch family has constructed. The actual condition is a disease of the soul that infects this family that, from the outside, appears to have it all. And this, after all, is the theme of Faith as well.

I often wonder who writes the jacket blurbs that are supposed to catch our attention and get us to pick up a book. The publisher? Have they even read their own authors? These little teasers often hold no relation to the story inside the covers.

Paulette and Frank McKotch have great pedigrees, three kids, perfectly spaced, she's from a long line of New Englanders, he's got the brains and the job that provides the life Paulette has come to expect. But one summer while vacationing on the Cape, a well-meaning in-law remarks on their daughter Gwen, in particular about her size.

The fact is that Gwen isn't growing like the other girls, no budding breasts, no maturing voice or filled out buns. Puberty had eluded her and no one had even noticed.

Frank is a scientist and goes at this problem from a researcher's point of view while Paulette puts her head in the sand, selfishly acting as if Gwen's "condition" is a reflection on her. The strain on the McKotch family begins to tear at the fabric of the marriage and quite honestly, neither Frank nor Paulette is a very sympathetic character, but readers will hang in there for the kids, Gwen, older brother Billy and baby Scott, whose lives and conditions of their own are revealed in varying chapters.

Jennifer Haigh excels at empathizing with families in crisis. Her writing may be painfully realistic but readers sense that she loves her characters with all their warts and wrinkles. She is a masterful storyteller of the human condition on a par with Jonathan Franzen in my opinion. The Franzen of Freedom that is, not of The Corrections.

Looking at my list of books read in 2011, I can see plainly that my taste veers way too much toward the emotionally draining side of the spectrum. Even my movie tastes are heavy going - Don and I saw The Descendents today and were not feeling the love. I may have to make a New Year's Resolution - something I don't even believe in - to read some light, uplifting books for a while. I finished Absolution for Library Journal, an outstanding, but angst filled debut whose review I'll finish up this week.

This morning I found just a glimmer of hope in the ending of Lloyd Jones' Hand Me Down World and this afternoon I whipped through another bummer called, unfairly, The Lover's Dictionary.

Tomorrow I will begin number 100, an upbeat non-fiction book called French Dirt , about a man who moves to a tiny village in France, possibly one of the ones Don and I biked through several years ago, and learns to love the people through working on their farms and falls in love with the country for the smell of the soil. Now that's something I can relate to!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shadows in the Street

I'm not normally a big fan of "cozy" mysteries, unless you're including The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency. I'm not sure I even care for that term. It just doesn't seem appropriate. And then too, one man's cozy is another's.......

Which is the case with Susan Hill. Several blogs I monitor have touted Hill as another Louise Penney, the woman whose star is skyrocketing with her Armand Gamache series of cozies that take place in Twin Pines, a little village in Quebec where there seems to be an inordinate number of murders. Now, I've only listened to one of Penney's titles so I won't make an unfair statement about the series but it just seemed a little too tame for me. I fully intend to try another in the new year.

In the meantime, though, I decided to give Susan Hill a try and began listening to The Shadows in the Street. This too is a series, perfect for those of you who love getting into a character and watching him morph into something other than what he started out as (think Harry Bosch). Hill's Simon Serailler mysteries take place in another peaceful little village, a cathedral town in England. Lafferton, like Twin Pines, is hardly the place where you'd expect to find much murder and mayhem. Maybe that's why readers love these books so much!

And mayhem there is, as one by one, various prostitutes' bodies begin to turn up strangled. The girls on the streets try to watch out for each other, helped by the do-gooders from the church and the lonely librarian who brings them hot tea and sandwiches each night. Some of them dream of getting out of "the trade," but they can't just stop working since they need the money to feed themselves and their kids. Hill, through her protaganists' situations, has a lot to say about the state of a society that can't or won't take care of the least of its brethren.

I think that what raises Hill's mysteries to the next level is that she really fleshes out the secondary characters with all of their foibles and flaws. In this episode there's a new dean at the cathedral, a political time bomb. He's accompanied by a wife, Ruth, who seems to be lacking any semblance of social skills. She quickly alienates other members of the various church boards and, quite suddenly, goes off the rails, disappearing for a few days and throwing off the investigation of the girls' murders. Ms. Hill provides a rather sympathetic examination of bi-polar disease and its effect on friends and loved ones.

There's also a lovely sub plot about the relationship of DCS Serailler with his family, in particular with his sister Cat, a recently widowed mother of three, and with his step-mother, a new addition to the family to whom he's previously been less than welcoming.

You know how sometimes you'll learn about someone or something new and then you see references to it over and over again? Does that happen to you? Well, it always does to me - especially working in a library. Sure enough, I just got to my Sunday's paper (yeah, it's Wednesday) and spotted Marilyn Stasio's column on crime in the Times book review mentioning the newest release in the Serailler series. Betrayal of Trust will be on the bookshelves soon.

And, if that's not enough, later in the day I read in Publisher's Weekly that a film is being produced based on one of her earlier novels, Woman in Black, starring none other than Harry Potter. Oh, I'm sorry, I mean Daniel Radcliffe. How much fun is that?

Meanwhile, I just received a new book from Library Journal, set in modern day Cape Town. I'm about 150 pages in and I must say that it's a deep, complicated novel that will take a lot of concentration on my part if I'm to give it a fair, honest review. I had hoped I could skate through a couple of easy books on my way to my goal of 100 but it looks like it's not to be. I'm so happy that all we've planned for the holidays is reading! Yup, I'm showing my age and I don't care who knows it.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ali Smith

Have you heard of her? No? Well, neither had I.

 However, she is the author of my 96th, count 'em, book of the year. Don is quite confident that, if I ignore the yard, forget all movies even though the academy awards are coming up, allow the dust bunnies to accumulate under the bed, and utilize the upcoming holidays, I will reach my goal of 100 books read for 2011. Maryellen, laugh if you will, I know you're way higher than that but, for me, it's a record.

So back to Ms. Smith, a Scot who lives in England and has been on the shortlist for pretty much all of the prestigious British prizes for literature including the Orange Prize and the Man Booker. Described by The Guardian as "profoundly clever," Ms. Smith's extremely clever (in the best sense of the word) character, a precocious young lady named Brooke Bayaude, is perhaps the most delightfully impish, smart, deep-thinking young person I've met in a book in a long time. I wonder if she is Ms. Smith's alter-ego?

The novel, one of the year's best on every list I've seen so far, is called There But For The, and to tell the truth I almost gave it up because it was causing me to think too much! I had the feeling that the author was trying to make a point that was so far over my head that I just couldn't do the work. But I was 100 pages in and decided to relax and go for the ride. It has left me with a jumble of emotions and thoughts that may sound disjointed but I'll try to explain.

Ostensibly this novel has been touted as a book about a man, Miles Garth, who attends a dinner party at a posh residence as the guest of another man, Mark, whom he's only just met. At some point between the main meal and the dessert, Miles excuses himself, goes upstairs and doesn't return. It seems that he has locked himself in the guest room refusing to come out. Now you may ask, how does one build an entire storyline around this odd occurrence? And, of course, this is where the genius of the writer comes into play.

Over the course of 30 or 40 years this man, Miles Garth, has touched many lives, some fleetingly, others more deeply, as have we all whether we stop to think about it or not. Moving fluidly back and forth through time, using the metaphor of the atomic clock in Greenwich, Ms. Smith takes readers deep into the lives of some of those fortunate folks who have interacted with Miles. There are some "ah ha" moments and then there are questions that are never answered. There are moments of melancholy and beauty and some laugh out loud moments too.

And thankfully, there is Brooke, a child of such sensitivity and brilliance, such compassion and joie de vivre, that my heart lifted with every page she inhabited. Through Brooke the author shows us the utter foolishness of humankind. The greediness of Mrs. Lee, the hostess who parlayed Miles' disturbing disruption of her home life into a cottage industry of t-shirts, coffee mugs, and twitter feeds, and the general public who, as disenfranchised as the Occupy Wall Streeters, have camped for months under the window where Miles, now know as Milo, shows his hand once a day to accept the food offered up by pulley in a basket. 

I was mesmerized by this novel, the way the author pulled me in against my will. I hope to begin the new year by going back and reading some of her previous work. Still, I don't think this is a book for everyone. It's so erudite that I'm convinced I would not even be able to lead a book discussion on it. I know that I've missed some very profound truths posited by this book and I'd love to hear a professor expound upon it at length but, hey, places to go, things to do, and book number 97 to begin this afternoon. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Andre Dubus III - A Townie?

 As much as I'd read about Dubus's autobiography, Townie, I wasn't sure if I could handle one more "dysfunctional family as means to fame and fortune" book. Jeannette Walls, Mary Carr, Alexandra Fuller, the list goes on and on. Once again, I'm chastising myself for my short sightedness. Townie is definitely deserving of a spot on my top ten list. I should have known better. This is the man, after all,  who wrote the devastating House of Sand and Fog, a novel not easily forgotten.

Fair warning, Townie builds slowly, the members of the Dubus family are difficult to warm to, but the writing is so exquisite, so evocative, that you hold your breath in wonder. How many writers do you know who can create great literature out of a description of a stinking, steamy night, clearing, rinsing and washing dishes in a run down back room of a restaurant where the screen door slams open shut, open, shut, welcoming the flies that light everywhere except in the sticky strips that hang from the ceiling?

You know, I think that the publishers or editors or whomever it is that determines a book's title, might have hit on something other than the derogatory "townie." Because I attended a college that was in a run down city, (Troy, New York), much lovelier now I might add, I vividly recall the snob appeal of referring to locals in bars as "townies." Even then, I hated it, the way we thought we stood apart somehow from those who may or may not have had a way out - or, perhaps, didn't even want one! That's a concept we couldn't remotely grasp.

But Andre the third wasn't really a townie. His dad, the very well regarded short story writer, Andre Dubus Jr., taught at several small, liberal arts colleges, in fact, had a very prestigious career marred by his penchant for sexual liasons with his students (this was the sixties so believe me it was prevalent), a fondness for alcohol, and a habit of serial marriage which made it impossible for him to meet his financial responsibilities to his first wife and the four kids which included Andre. An irony not missed by this reader but forgiven by the much kinder writer, is that his profligate dad, apparently a devout Catholic, never missed a morning mass. The disconnect never ceases to amaze me.

The Dubus kids suffered, as more and more kids do these days, from hunger and a lack of supervision from a mom struggling through one menial job after another, exhausted trying to make ends meet. It's painful to listen to Mr. Dubus read his own story. Even his voice, which at first I thought was just too deadpan for the job, reflects the depression, the hopelessness with which he, his brother, an aspiring musician, and his sisters dealt with every day of their young lives.

As he grew older, Andre's hopelessness grew into a simmering rage, one that he writes about so insightfully that it is painful to read (or listen to as the case may be). He goes through a long phase of obsessive body building, bag punching, even training for the Golden Gloves, fighting with anyone who looks sideways at him in the dim, dank Boston bars where he and his cronies hang out, until he finally wears himself out. The anger dissipates as he begins to put pen to paper, surprising himself most of all with this need to set words on the page. How fortunate for us readers that Andre Dubus III discovered how to channel his energy and sense of social injustice into our favorite format. This is a beautiful, wrenching book.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Most Beautiful Walk in the World

Like Lot's wife, I have looked back with longing and regret as the train or taxi took me back to the airport and I had to leave a city feeling that I had barely touched its surface. Fortunately, since I didn't become a pillar of salt, I may one day have the opportunity to return to these places of wonder with more time to be a flaneur. What a fabulous word!
In other words, I may not be trying to pump every waking moment of an all too short vacation full of seeing everything that one "must" see. Rather, I will have the leisure to stroll aimlessly, to take the road less traveled, to peer down the alley, to tarry over window displays, to sit in a park and people watch - one of my favorite things to do.

Paris is one of those cities that beckons to me to return. So when I read about John Baxter's new book, subtitled "A Pedestrian in Paris," I made sure to order it the very next day. Oh yes, one of the perks of being one of the purchasers for our library branch is that I make sure we purchase what I like. After all, I'm a taxpayer too, n'est pas?

Baxter is such an easy man to spend time with. It's easy to see how he was able to make a go of a little bet to become one of the most popular Parisian walking guides. ( He sees things as a writer does, his anecdotes of famous and infamous denizens of the Paris of the past are spot on and filled with little known details. If you've seen the fabulous movie, which I've mentioned previously here, Midnight in Paris, then you know of whom we speak.

An ex-pat Australian, Baxter married a French woman with whom he has a daughter. They've lived in Paris for over twenty years now and, reading this little gem of a book, one senses that not only has he not lost his passion for France but that it grows deeper each day.

Each little chapter - maybe 4 to 6 pages - is preceded by a timely quotation from famous observers of Paris life. Baxter proceeds to take us on one of his little walks through Montparnasse or the Marais, stopping for refreshment at some wonderful out of the way cafe where we can smell the aperitif and hear the friendly banter.

He describes Paris in each of her seasons, each lovelier than the next. Even sitting bundled up in a park in November Baxter finds beauty in the austerity of the light, the silhouettes of the buildings against the pinkish gray dusk. Walking through Paris, he says, is the difference between being there and being present. What a delightful distinction!

I admit that there are few cities that I don't enjoy visiting, but there are some that strangely call to you from the moment you arrive. Baxter says that this phenomenon is like love at first sight. Certainly Rome was one for me, Florence too, Washington, D. C. will always be one of those, but Paris, ahhhh Paris. I did not get enough. Reading John Baxter made me want to pick up the phone, dial up Air France, and book the next flight out. Which city was it for you?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Those Who Save Us

I'd have eventually read this novel simply based on the title. Isn't it lovely? But a friend and active member of my library discussion group saw a paperback copy on the Friends of the Library sales rack and she handed it to me with a command. Read this book! I'm ashamed to admit that, for some time now, it's been in that growing pile of "books to read" that graces my less than generous kitchen counter. I'm slowly winnowing it down to make more room for Don's desserts.

Perhaps I've put this book on the back burner because it's another Holocaust novel and there's been so many of them. Still, Jenna Blum ( takes a different tack and that makes all the difference doesn't it? Her novel toggles back and forth between 1940's Weimar, Germany, and 1990's New Heidleberg, Minnesota, examining the relationship between two complicated women, a mother and daughter, Anna and Trudy.

Trudy is a loner, unable to sustain relationships, not close with her mother, in fact, embarassed by her. Yet she's an overachieving college professor, respected by her co-workers, a teacher of German history who has gotten involved in a project much like NPR's StoryCorps.

She interviews former German citizens about their remembrances of their lives in Germany during World War II, much like the Shoah Foundation interviews Holocaust survivors for their stories. In fact, Ms. Blum worked for the Shoah Foundation for several years leading up to the publication of this book and it shows. The irony is that, as Trudy delves more and more into these people's pasts, she hurts more and more from the realization that she knows nothing about her own mother's past, recalling nothing from her childhood except the nightmares that plague her.

We, the readers, of course, learn Anna's amazing story. We know about the illegitimate child she had by the Jewish doctor she had hidden in her father's house. We find out about the courageous Mathilde, a bakery owner who takes Anna in, employs her, and enlists her help in the Resistance. We watch in horror as the Obersturmfuhrer rapes, brutalizes and finally subdues Anna, a woman who will hold her head high against the ugly gossip of the townspeople, aware that she will do anything to keep her Trudy fed and alive.

Anna as an older woman is an extremely frustrating character. I'll have to admit that I didn't really warm to her very much because I wanted to shake her! I wanted for her to see how her daughter was suffering by being kept ignorant and how much more fulfilling their relationship could have been if only Anna could have opened up the way Trudy's subjects did. But then Ms. Blum managed to write a denouement that settled this conundrum satisfactorily, for me at least.

I have to believe that this would make an excellent book for discussion groups. The characteristics that I look for when I'm choosing our discussion books are all there. Interesting, complicated characters. Moral relativity. Nuance. People who have committed what some might consider immoral acts but for reasons that may justify them. This is a book about life in all its messy intricacies. Remarkably, it is a debut. Once again, I'm amazed at the talent out there.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lists, Lists, and More Lists!

My sister left a message on my answering machine last night. Did I detect a hint of gloating in her voice? She has read 104 books this year! What??? This is my job, it's what I do, it's how I roll. But I'm just pushing 90. Don, my number one cheerleader, says I'll hit 100 by December 31st (that was my original goal) but I'm not feeling it.

 I only live 6 miles from work so it takes forever to listen to a CDBK unless I flat out make up errands. Of course, if I spend my time in the car then I'm not exercising, which means the book on my ipod languishes. Forget reading at work - I can't concentrate in our chatty-cathy lounge where the conversation tends to be about - you guessed it - work!! There is a picnic table where I often hide if the weather is amenable, but the ambiance leaves a bit to be desired. That damn dumpster!

Oh, what's a list-lover to do? Every blogger I monitor is coming out with his end of year personal bests. The New York Times printed their top 100 this past weekend. I was proud to note that, of the top 50 fiction titles, I had reviewed 8 or 9 for Library Journal. Many more magazines will be following up with their best of the year. I love it! The only reason I cared to learn Excel was so that I could keep track of books read, something I've been doing obsessively since this blog started in, I can't believe it, 2007!

How about you readers? Are you obsessive-compulsive about your reading? Do you worship booklists or is this just a librarian thing? I'd love to hear what's on your favorite books of 2011 list. I'll tell you mine. I feel that I can confidently say that nothing I have on tap for the next couple of weeks will take the place of these, the top 10 books that spoke to me on some deep level in 2011:

1. The Grief of Others, Leah Hager Cohen
2. The Submition, Amy Waldman
3. The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabelle Wilkerson
4. The Lotus Eaters, Tatjana Soli
5. Room, Emma Donaghue
6. The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright
7. To The End of the Land, David Grossman
8. Faith, Jennifer Haigh

9. Blame, Michelle Huneven
10. Three Weeks in December (not yet released), Audrey Schulman

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Sense of an Ending

This new novel by Booker Award nominee (English literary prize) Julian Barnes has been receiving kudos everywhere I read about it, even from readers whose taste I truly respect. Linda, I'm talking about you. But.....this novel left me chilled. That doesn't mean that I don't recommend it to people because I want to hear why from those who were bowled over by it. I'm especially waiting to hear what my sister thought since, unbeknown to each other, we each started reading this book on the same day.

Personally, I have difficulty with unlikeable characters. If I can't tolerate their company I have to wonder how other readers can. Some novels can simply be appreciated for the quality of the writing, no matter how we feel about the narrator, which may be why so many readers are praising Barnes and his narcissistic storyteller, Tony Webster.

Middle-aged (aren't we all?), retired but active enough, divorced but on good terms with his ex-wife, who is actually quite a lovely secondary character, in touch with his daughter, Tony is brought up short when he receives legal notice that he's the recipient of a seemingly small yet potent legacy; the bequest is the diary of a college friend who committed suicide some time earlier. The odd thing is, and what gives the novel a frisson of suspense, is that this diary has been in the custody of a former lover's mother. Got that?

Tony, as those of a certain age tend to do, begins to re-evaluate old memories from his youth brought to the fore by these "remembrances of things past." He mulls over a weekend he spent in the country with this former girlfriend, Veronica, and her family, and the strange simpatico that he felt with his girl's mother. He relives his schooldays when he and his cadre enjoyed long, meandering, pretentious conversations about life, philosophy, and history, in that insufferable manner that only 20 year olds can.

Then, against his better judgement, and the warnings of others, he contacts Veronica, setting in motion a strange dance between the two, in which she refuses to be forthright and he continues to be obtuse. This examination of memory and time is a common literary conceit, one that especially fascinates me as my brother, sister and I have such extremely varying recollections of our childhoods even though there's only a 4 year span among the three of us.

So yes, kudos to Barnes for the gorgeous, concise (176 p.) language. Perhaps Tony Webster is meant to be unlikeable, or perhaps, the older I get the less willing I am to give fictional characters a second chance. There are too many others out there just waiting to meet me! As a matter of fact, I can't wait to tell you about the great book I just reviewed for Library Journal peopled with truly marvelous characters. More as soon as it's published.