Friday, April 29, 2011

Addicted to Writing, Not to Mention Reading!

It's true that I often wake up in the middle of the night and compose a complete post in my head. My friend Don gave me a little recorder that I can keep handy in order to write down my thoughts, but with the typical hubris of those who can't believe they're aging, I always figure I'll remember everything word for word in the morning. NOT!

This post is a query. Why would I continue to punish myself day after day listening to this Donna Tartt novel, The Secret History? It's at once fascinating and repelling and, I might add, in huge need of a better editor! There is so much extraneous material in there. If I were to be snarky, I might say that all the references to the Greeks and the classics are simply an opportunity for the author to show off her extensive knowledge.

Most readers will likely blow past these contrivances and zero in on the murder mystery. The thing is, it's so much more than that. I immediately compared this book to a Patricia Highsmith novel - think, The Talented Mister Ripley - later reading reviews that suggested the same thing. Perhaps it's knowing how diabolical Highsmith is that I keep on, waiting for the awful deed to happen. The suspense is killing me!

Tartt's characters don't seem to have a redeeming quality among them. Twenty somethings, attending an exclusive college in New England, they are so full of themselves, so sure of their brilliance, hand-chosen by the dubiouly tolerated classics professor for a private curriculum in Greek and Latin, these young men and one woman share a sense of entitlement that seems so outdated it's hardly believable.

Entering into this exclusive group is the narrator, Richard Papen, a scholarship student from a low brow California family, whose desire to be accepted is palpably sad. One wonders what he would do to become an "insider." Then there's Bunny, there's one in every crowd, whose whole reason for being is to identify the hidden weakness of each person in the group and then to tease or embarass that person unrelentingly, in an effort to boost his own low self esteem.

If I'm not making this sound like a recommendation, you're right. And yet...there's something so sinister, so slowly, inexorably evil about these people that curiosity as to just how far they'll go to protect themselves and their way of life keeps the reader turning the pages. This book must have been sold to a movie house. I can't believe it won't be appearing some day soon at a theatre near you.

If my ladies from Birmingham are still reading, a shout out to you. Would love to have a chat about your take on the royal goings on at Buckingham today. Full disclosure, against my better judgement, I did take my coffee and newspaper into the living room this morning to catch a glimpse of the happy couple. Hope springs eternal, so they say.

Next up, a marvelously written book, Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Another Cover I Couldn't Walk Past!

I just love eye popping book covers, as I've mentioned before. Sometimes, when I'm shelving my 4th or 5th cart of new books at the library, I  pretend I'm the judge of the latest artwork and choose a title based on that. I always find it interesting when audience members at the reading festival or other presentations question how writers choose their covers.

 The quick answer is - they don't. Unless you're a James Patterson or Danielle Steel you actually have no choice on cover art, not even on the title they tell us.  Also, one's overseas publisher might proffer your novel with a completely different cover than the one used here in the states. The same goes for paperback editions vs. hardcover.

The Lady Matador's Hotel: A NovelWith that in mind, let me tell you about the book I'm currently reading.  The Lady Matador's Hotel just cried out to be taken home and I finally got to it this week. The setup is reminiscent of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, in that the building, in this case the elegant Hotel Miraflores, somewhere in South America, actually becomes a character in the book.

A fascinating cadre of seemingly disparate characters is staying at Miraflores during this particular week, and author Cristina Garcia (Dreaming in Cuban), does a lovely job of weaving the threads that will tie them all together.

Suki Palacios in Room 719, aloof to the excitement generated by her visit, prepares to meet her bull while in the Honeymoon suite a Korean businessman tries to placate his very pregnant mistress and still keep a handle on the labor unrest at this textile factory.

Down in the lobby an unhappily married couple is about to take possession of a newborn girl adopted through a highly suspect agency run by the intrepid attorney Gertrudis Stuber whose husband is having an affair with one of her hired birth mothers. And in the kitchen, a former guerrilla fighter turned waitress prepares a poisonous soup for the atrocity committing colonel who pompously awaits her ministrations in the dining room.

Garcia's characters abound with all the flaws that make them human,  causing the reader to empathize even with the worst of them, rooting for their happiness, and laughing at their all too recognizable foibles. Reading this novel gave me that juicily uncomfortable feeling of being a voyeur. Great fun!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Huneven's Blame on Agenda for Book Discussion

I'm taking advantage of a couple of days at home - no sunlight for 48 hours is no easy restriction to adhere to when one lives in the Sunshine Capital in springtime - to be a layabout and actually relax and read an entire book in one sitting. I chose Michelle Huneven's NBCC nominee, Blame, a year ago for our May book discussion at the library. I never read the books ahead of time. I like to come to them fresh, the same way our customers do, when they show up on discussion day.

Deciding on books for discussion group so far ahead of time is no easy task. Normally I'll have 10 or 15 choices and have to narrow them down to 5 or 6 in time for a June press date. This spring, though, I'm having trouble. Nothing is screaming my name. Best sellers lists look, well,  listless to me and suggestions from friends have been considered and discarded. My tendency is to revert to the classics and I may tackle The Jungle in the fall. Meanwhile, I'm a woman on a quest.

Blame has turned out to be a fantastic choice for discussion. In fact, it's a much more nuanced, complicated book than I had expected. I began to make a snap judgement early on in my reading, wondering how I could devote 300 pages of time to such an unlikeable protagonist but I held back, opened my heart and mind to Patsy MacLemoore, and am anxiously hoping she'll prove worthy of my trust.

Patsy, you see, is a recovering alcoholic, twenty years sober and still trying to make amends for an action she has no memory of. The police told her that she drove her car, unlicensed as the result of a previous DUI, into her own driveway, running down a mother and her young daughter. The prison sentence that followed, gritty and realistically portrayed, probably saved her life, but it's after her release that living becomes even more complicated.

Patsy's psychiatrist aptly compares her re-entry to that of a soldier returning from war. The move from such a regimented environment to a smorgasbord of options can seem overwhelming and the author writes with such conviction about this difficulty that I wondered for a time if there was some biographical truth in there. An every day existence is no easy thing for the addictive personality, the world is often too much with us.

In fact, for all the millions of folks that AA has saved, criticism has been leveled that they simply exchange one addiction for another, albeit, a healthier one. How does a person manage a balanced life, not too heavily dependent on religion, sex, money, booze or drugs? This is the dilemma that Patsy faces as she tries to assuage guilt, seek redemption, repair relationships, and find fulfillment.

Though Huneven peoples her novel with a marvelously eclectic supporting cast of characters, readers understand that only Patsy can arrive at her true North intact. This reader has knots in her stomach as she heads to the couch for the denouement.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Up Country with Nelson DeMille

It's been a full month since the Southwest Florida Reading Festival and I've been remiss in not sending a huge shout out to my co-worker and friend Jessica Girlando for the outstanding job she did in her third or is it fourth year as the the one-man Author Selection Committee. Not to take away from Kathleen Wells who singlehandedly has lined up all the fabulous young adult - Ridley Pearson - and children's authors, from R. L. Stine to Jeff Kinney.

My pal Maryellen and I used to do this same job back in the day,  before social media completely changed the way we interact with our author idols. One thing, however, will not change. The bigger they are, the nicer they are to deal with. Go figure! David Baldacci? A gem. Janet Evanovich? Wow! A self published Florida writer with one unknown book? Oy!

This year we were privileged to have Nelson DeMille, a man who was so laid back that he refused the mantle of "keynote" speaker. This guy didn't even mind mingling with the public in the restroom! Do you think he thought no one would recognize him? He stood for tons of photos, appeared on two panels, but it was the evening before the festival that really tells you what kind of a man he is.

A Vietnam veteran whose book, Up Country, I'm going to tell you about today, he appeared alone at the Evening with the Authors dinner only to find his table completely full. As he sat and looked around, he realized that some of the faces were familiar. In fact, rather than repeat the whole story, let me have him tell you himself from his own newsletter:

I love DeMille's work but am fluent in his later novels with the wonderful John Corey. After hearing him speak, however, I couldn't wait to go back ten years to Up Country, especially in light of my renewed interest in my youth and the Vietnam War in particular (Matterhorn, The Lotus Eaters). This novel does not disappoint and is the perfect antidote to running up and down Route 41 in season.

Lt. Paul Brenner is not the smart ass that Corey is, but you still get the sense of a guy who uses humor to defuse situations when he's right on the edge. Believe me, there are plenty of opportunities for him to do this as Brenner travels, under the constant surveillance of the suspicious General Trang, from the southern former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, to the north in search of a witness to a murder that happened thirty years ago during the height of the Tet Offensive.

In typical government fashion, Brenner is given the least amount of information possible; given just enough to entice him out of retirement, to search for the North Vietnamese soldier whose letter to his brother, uncovered after all this time, recounted a cold blooded killing of a young American lieutenant by an American captain. Who were they? Is the witness still alive?

I guess I've read one too many espionage stories because when Brenner was met in the hotel bar on his first night in country by a gorgeous, much younger American  business woman, coincidentally fluent in Vietnamese, my thought was, "oh boy, look out."

Rather unrealistically, Brenner and Susan Weber fall into a relationship that they too quickly call love, (he has a woman back home - don't they all?) and she inserts herself into his investigation under the pretense of helping with the language. All I could think was CIA. Why didn't Brenner get it? Or, maybe he did and he was using Ms. Weber as much as she was using him?

Their easy camaraderie is a precursor to the fabulous relationship between Mr. and Mrs. John Corey. Tension runs high as they try to outwit the nasty Trang, keeping one step ahead of his goons. Along the way DeMille treats us to a gorgeous description of the countryside and the people of Vietnam who, amazingly, don't seem to hate us for the terrible, unforgivable damage that we did to their country.

 Like many veterans, my friend Don included, DeMille's return trip to Vietnam seems to be a necessary, cathartic experience and that mysterious country, unknown to so many Americans, is the perfect setting for this politically disturbing, suspenseful and absorbing read.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Thirteen Hours of Suspense

I had to stay up last night to finish this outstanding suspense novel by South African writer Deon Meyer. His creation, Benny Griessel, is my new cop hero. Years ago I went through a stage where all I read were Ed McBain's police procedurals. Add to that, an affinity for Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue (Dennis Franz was my main man), and Law and Order, I got to the point where I could read between the lines of any news article on a crime and accurately surmise "the rest of the story."

I love the psychology of crime and the crime solvers as well. Michael Connelly fascinates me and Deaver's Lincoln Rhyme series calls to me, especially since he's added body language expert Katherine Dance. I hoped to be a psychiatrist from a very young age but, thankfully, my mother disabused me of that notion. She rightly worried for my own mental health - perhaps not thinking I was stable enough to take on other people's troubles?

So I came to Thirteen Hours as a return to crime novels because I had read several excellent reviews but also because of my interest in South Africa, in this case Cape Town, where the Meyer novels take place. The novel is so much more than a murder mystery but that doesn't keep the adrenalin from flowing and the heart racing as recovering alcoholic and recently promoted Captain Benny Griessel plays beat the clock in an effort to halt the execution of a second young American tourist in a city struggling to forge a reputation as a tourist mecca.

Eighteen year old Rachel Anderson overrode the worries of her Indianapolis folks and embarked on the trip of a lifetime with African Overland Tours. About halfway through the trip, though, her positively euphoric response to all that she's learned and seen, takes a dramatic dive.
 Her friends don't understand and neither do we. In fact, Meyer juggles so many seemingly disparate threads that he keeps the reader guessing right up the last minute as to why Rachel is being hunted like a wild animal through the streets of Cape Town by, not one, but five sinister young men.

Adding to the suspense is the way the chapter headings each cover a small one or two hour window in the overall thirteen hours of this particular day. Along the way readers are introduced to the beauty of Table Mountain and the ugly residue of apartheid. Divisions in the police hierarchy are based on color, language, sex, and tribal culture. Whites resent being questioned by blacks while the "coloureds" (mixed race) are basically persona non grata.

 As in all major cities, political expediency grossly affects who is appointed to a high profile case where a PR nightmare is in the offing. The pressure on Benny comes from above and below as he's assigned to three cases in one day, acting as mentor to a new group of cops, while worrying about his own daughter who's studying in another country and his wife who's left him until he cleans up his act. Can he focus? Will he relapse? Read it and see. I'm moving on to Meyer's previous novel Blood Safari.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cardinal Sin of Blogging

I'm apologizing to my readers because I suddenly realized that I have committed a cardinal sin of blogging. One is supposed to update, post, write, whatever you want to call it, at LEAST twice a week or one's readership falls off.  This is according toThe Huffington Post Guide to Blogging, but hey, I don't have all the writers that Ariana Huffington has at her disposal, not to mention the free time now that she's sold to AOL! That was a disappointment.

Speaking of disappointments, my president has really been letting me down lately. I've been holding out "hope" that the man I thought I knew (and gave a bit of $$ to) would return - very funny skit on the Daily Show about our relationship with the president by the way. I'm weeks behind on watching, just as I'm weeks behind on reading. I still haven't finished Sunday's paper!

I know that the president spoke this afternoon about the budget and a quick scan of the headlines, indicates he may have finally said the right things about taxes on the uber-wealthy, cuts in defense spending, and protecting senior citizens' rights to Medicare. I'll have to listen to the full speech later. But, he's going to have to tell me an awful lot before I respond to his letter to me yesterday.
Yes, the one with the return envelope for my check for 2012. I wish we had rules like the Europeans do - give folks a month or two to campaign and that's it, put the burden of doing our homework back on us and not on network TV. Wouldn't that be heavenly?

So, what am I reading? Well, I haven't gotten far enough in anything to express an opinion but first up will probably be Nelson DeMille and Up Country. I'll be running the roads Friday on my day off and try to finish that one up so that I can get to the anxiously awaited Weird Sisters which sounds intriguing.

I've just started Donna Tartt's The Little Friend on my ipod. She reads it herself, typically a bad move for an author, but in this case, it's outstanding. The subject matter, though, may prove to be a bit erudite for me and at a whopping 18 or 19 parts to boot. By the bed I'm still enjoying Deon Myers' Thirteen Hours but at ten minutes per evening before crashing out, it'll be a while before I'll be able to weigh in on this.

At work I'm browsing through the latest Robert Baer book, written with his wife Dayna. These two former CIA agents have plenty to say about their previous employer and, as you can imagine, it's far from good. The Company We Keep has not fallen prey to the redactors the way Valerie Plame's book did (practically ruining it for readers or listeners), so the Baers must have learned to play the game. Ever since my love affair with the British spy series MI-5 I've been fascinated by the dark world of espionage. Well actually, I've been interested for most of my life. Why would that be, I wonder?

Any ideas on how I can juggle work, exercise, social life, home, garden and relationships and still have time to read more, I'd love to hear from you! Is it any wonder that social security check is calling my name?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

News Out of Africa and a Few Other Tidbits

You'll be hearing way too much about this in all likelihood but it's only 6 months now until I embark on what I expect will be the biggest adventure of my life - three weeks in Africa. The New York Times had an apropos cover story in Sunday's paper this week titled "Why We Travel," which fit me to a tee. I love to learn! As a matter of fact, I get almost as much pleasure out of preparing for a trip as I do from actually taking it. I think I'd be a fantastic travel writer - another retirement possibility?

You can imagine what a daunting task it is to even begin to get a handle on the largest continent in the world. Our original plans simply became overwhelming logistically so we've sensibly limited our visit to three locations in South Africa with a respite from the long flight with a stop over in Senegal.

My friend Don introduced me to an author who was able to distill the more recent history into an accessible book called New News Out of Africa; Uncovering Africa's Renaissance. Charlayne Hunter-Gault's name will be well-known to NPR aficionados for her work on a special called "Apartheid's People," which won a Peabody award. She was also CNN bureau chief, living and working out of Johannesburg for many years and has decried the lack of news available in the United States about the continent.

With her impeccable credentials, Ms. Hunter-Gault has been given exclusive access to all the big players in Africa's recent history, including Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and even Qaddafi. She accompanied President Clinton on his trip to Rwanda and has written at length about what Archbishop Desmond Tutu refers to as the "new apartheid," HIV-AIDS.

A big disappointment is that we simply cannot spend enough time away to include Ghana on this trip but Ms. Hunter-Gault's book, and most other African historians, give kudos to Ghana's conversion to a democratically elected government. I've heard such wonderful things about the Ghanaian people from one of our volunteers at the library who lived with the Ewe tribe for six weeks while teaching computer and grant writing skills.

Believe it or not, another fun way to get a feel for a culture is through crime literature, police procedurals in particular. When we were in Greece - and wherever we go - bookstores are one of our first stops. A bookseller there recommended Petros Markaris. I've now discovered Deon Meyer whose homicide detective Benny Griessel mentors a mixed race group of South African cops as they navigate Cape Town's darker side. Blurbed by none other than Michael Connelly, Thirteen Hours kept me up last night. More on that this weekend.

Meanwhile I've finished and reviewed my latest gift from Barbara Hoffert at Library Journal, a really unusual debut novel with the great title Daughters of the Revolution. Somehow she almost always knows just what will work for me. Also printed in the April 1st edition is my starred review of Helen Schulman's "ripped from the headlines" novel of a family in free fall after a web video goes viral. Read it here: Just scroll down to the author's last name.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Anne Fortier - You've Made Me So Happy!

Anyone who's ever met me probably knows that I believe that I should have been (or was in another life) Italian. If I could choose anywhere in the world to live in my retirement it would likely be a hilltown in Umbria or the Chianti region. The language sings to me, the people call to me, the food, the wine....need I say more? Anne Fortier - who is NOT Italian - must feel the same way because her debut (doesn't seem possible) novel feels, smells and tastes like Siena.

Juliet is the happiest book I've read this year. Sure, we could find some holes in the plot, be cynical about romance, or just slough it all off as light fare, but we'd be making a mistake to do that. Ms. Fortier's imaginative novel is so damn much fun! And, with the world in such tragic disarray, we sure could use some of that right now.

Sisters Julie and Janice Jacobs are as different as night and day. Orphans since their parents died in an auto accident in Italy, raised by flighty Aunt Rose in the states, Julie is a giver (currently teaching Shakespeare camp to school kids), while Janice is a taker, always on the lookout for whatever's in it for her. So, when Rose's will is read and Janice is the sole recipient of the estate both girls are stunned. Janice doesn't look back. Julie discovers that she has been given a passport and a key which may unlock the mystery of her past.

Toggling back and forth in time from 14th century Siena to present day, Fortier keeps the suspense going as Julie Jacobs finds out that she is actually Giulietta Tolomei, a descendant of the original Juliet of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet saga. Adding to the fun, she discovers letters, diaries, and papers that indicate that Romeo and Juliet lived in Siena, not Verona.

 Enter a handsome, imperious stranger, Alessandro, who takes a keen interest in watching over Julie/Giulietta as she pokes around Siena's libraries and museums, and the stage is set for a match made in? Hmmmm - perhaps not heaven, but here on earth several centuries ago?

Having vacationed for way too short a time in Siena several years ago, staying in an old convent converted to a B and B, I can tell you that Fortier's description of the city is right on. You can truly visualize every little side street, vegetable stand, cathedral and hotel.
Her history of the contradas, or old tribal divisions that make up the city, and the glory of the pallio, the horse race through Siena that still goes on today are just perfect, giving background to the story of the family feuds that fuel that action in this simply delightful novel.