Thursday, June 30, 2011

Atmospheric Disturbances

There's a book by this title and it struck me as a great one but that's not what I'm writing about today. This is more about the "disturbances" that I'm feeling in my own life as a plethora of happenings combine this summer to force me to stop and think about life, the future, and the meaning of happiness.

It really began when a dear friend of mine - you know who you are - told me that she is retiring to begin the rest of her life elsewhere. Though I've known about this for a long time and have been expecting it, I've still been rocked by the implications. As my sister would say, it's all about me! I'm so very pleased for my friend but bereft for myself, even though it could just as easily have been me doing the leaving. Remember that old nostalgic song, "Wedding Bells are Breaking up that old Gang of Mine?" Of course, most of you don't, but it's that kind of poignant sentiment that's washing over me right now.

So, my buddy has been slowly divesting herself of meaningful little items in her home and I returned to work this week to find two lovely gifts on my desk. One, the seeds to the best tomatoes ever grown, which I'll attempt to replicate in the fall, and the other, an autographed copy of Maureen Corrigan's book Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. I can't even remember where I got it or when, perhaps at our own reading festival, but books are meant to be shared and this one has now come full circle. I read the first chapter last night and couldn't help but laugh. It actually sounded as if I'd written it myself! Can't wait to finish my new Library Journal treat, Crossbones by the Somali-American writer Nuruddin Farah, so that I can delve back into Ms. Corrigan's.

Adding to this sense of loss was my trip to Massachusetts last week. As I always do on my annual trek, I took my Aunt Jackie to the family plot to "visit" the graves. I'm a doubting Thomas to say the least, so it's ironic that I take this so seriously. I don't believe in burial, why take up all that green space? I intend for my dust to go in my garden if I'm still in my house, otherwise, the sea is always a desirable spot. Still, it's disconcerting to read the dates on the gravestones, especially on my mother's, a vibrant woman who died so young, scarcely older than I am now. That will get your attention. It certainly caused me to ponder how much longer I'll be able to roll on this gerbil wheel called a work schedule.

Reading and writing are my salvation and the pride that I take in my reviewing for Library Journal is probably unseemly but, what can I say? It's so much fun to see one's words in print. The June 15th issue starred my review of Russell Banks' latest offering, The Lost Memory of Skin. This very depressing, disheartening novel (yup, right up my alley) was a difficult read but well worth it because it's based on a real situation in Miami, Florida, where sexual offenders, from unlucky Internet voyeurs to full blown pedophiles, who have been sentenced and served their prison terms, are released with nowhere to go. Talk about being set up for failure!

We say they've paid their debt to society yet they are pariahs. Not allowed to live within a certain distance from schools, playgrounds, libraries (yes, that bastion of freedom!), anywhere that kids might congregate, they are often left homeless. In Miami, and most likely many other cities in the U.S., they were relegated to a tent city, this one under the Julia Tuttle bridge. Read my review at: Scroll down to the author's last name "Banks."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Michael Connelly - Better Than Ever

Back when Michael Connelly was gazing at the New York Times best seller list from afar he graced the Southwest Florida Reading Festival with his presence and was a big hit. Oh, wouldn't we love to get him back to Ft. Myers now. We'd be talking standing room only. Connelly has come so far as a writer and yes, I've blogged previously about his Harry Bosch series, but now I'm listening to a recorded version of the next in his Lincoln Lawyer series, certainly aided by the successful Hollywood production with Matthew McConaughey.

The Fifth Witness is a taut legal thriller based on the very timely theme of foreclosure fraud. Micky Haller, the lawyer who had fallen on such hard times that he worked out of the trunk of his car, a battered old Lincoln, is, like Bosch, a person who grows on you. Connelly humanizes his characters, letting us into their hearts and minds through their relationships with their kids. Haller is no exception. Divorced from the woman he still loves, he is a responsible dad with shared duties that he takes seriously even though his work has him mixing with some very bad dudes.

In this novel he is defending Lisa Trammel, a woman in a very typical situation in these trying economic times. Her husband has abandoned her and her son, the home they owned is in foreclosure and Lisa has become the spokesperson for a group that pickets daily in front of the big bank without a heart - think Wells Fargo - that is trying to get her out. When the CEO of the bank is found dead in the adjacent parking garage, bludgeoned to death by a hammer wielding assailant, Lisa seems to be the default suspect and is quickly arrested.

I swear, sometimes I think I could get a law degree by just reading legal thrillers and this one is no exception. Haller, aka Connelly, leads readers through the criminal court proceedings in fascinating detail. Every little sneak play between the offense and defense is explained, the subtle interaction between jury members and attorneys is on display. Haller keeps up a running commentary on his thoughts as he cross examines tough and not so tough witnesses. Best of all, he presents us with a defendant who isn't very likable, which is probably very often the case, but who is getting the best possible representation.

There are several red herrings thrown in to befuddle the reader and I'm still pondering whether my assumption about the real guilty party will end up being correct. I'm one drive up Route 41 away from the ending and can't wait to hop in the car and find out if my sleuthing talents are as good as I think they are. Connelly - always a satisfying read!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Houston, We Have a Problem

Vacation is winding down and, Ann, don't read this, for the first time since I became a librarian,  I am not ready to get back to work. Hmmm-added to that dilemma is the fact that my partner Don has fallen in love with my hometown, Great Barrington, where I generally have knots in my stomach all the time, while I feel at peace and at home at his place on the Chesapeake in Maryland. Is it as simple as a mountain person vs. a water person?

Last night we sat on his deck with our wine and cheese thinking guiltily about those who have so little while we have options galore. It certainly gives one pause to be so overwhelmed with abundance even if it did come as a result of hard work and not just a little good luck. So many people struggle for a lifetime and never arrive at a place of contentment.

This led me to mull over the room at the Norman Rockwell museum, where we were earlier this week, that housed his most famous series called The Four Freedoms. Created, sadly, as part of the war effort during World War II, Rockwell depicted, through powerful scenes from every day life, the freedoms Roosevelt, and every other president since, said that we were fighting for: freedom from hunger, from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom to worship (or not) as one pleased.

I've been to the Rockwell museum many times over the years and considered Rockwell a man who wasn't afraid to make a political statement through his art, but Don noticed right away that Rockwell's world was very white. When he engaged the docent in a conversation about this fact, the gentleman told us that The Saturday Evening Post, with whom Rockwell had a contract, did not allow him to show blacks in his paintings unless they were shown in a subservient position. Can you even imagine? To his credit, we were told that Rockwell eventually worked on commission for Look Magazine which had a more left leaning philosphy. It's amazing what you see when your eyes are opened.

And here's another thing I learned last week. Did you know that we have a place in Washington called The United States Institute for Peace? If you didn't, don't feel bad, neither did we. Walking around down in the district, we had come from seeing the almost finished contstruction of the new Martin Luther King, Jr, Memorial that will open officially in August.

We were lamenting the fact that almost all of our national monuments are dedicated to wars. Walking up by the State Dept. we came upon this architecturally outstanding building - all open fretwork and glass, soaring ceilings,and transparent walls. Sure enough, it was the Institute for Peace. When we got home we looked it up online to see what it actually does. You want to hear the laughable irony? The Board of Directors all seem to be members of the Dept. of Defense!

You may be asking yourself, well, ok, enough about the vacation, did she read anything? Yes, folks, I did. But, if I tell you, I'd have to kill you. Library Journal will get my review of Tom Perotta's funny, ironic, sad, thought provoking new novel, The Leftovers. On my walks I've been listening to Lisa Scottoline's Why My Next Husband will be a Dog, recommended by my former roommate Cathy.

Ms. Scottoline was a keynote speaker at our Southwest Florida Reading Festival a few years ago and she writes the same way she talks. No wonder I love Italians! She's so warm, funny, and wise. This book, unlike her mystery novels, is a compilation of essays that she and her daughter Francesca put together about life and family in the twenty first century.

 Scottoline's love of her mother, her brother, and her daughter, and most of all, her pets, glows on every page and her comments about womanhood and all the vanities and trappings of keeping it together (spanx, makeup, gyms, hair color) are just hilarious. But the essay I loved best was the one about the graduation speech she gave to her daughter's class at Harvard.
While everyone else admonished the kids to go out and do, do, do - face the future head on, accomplish great things, she had the courage to tell them that they might want to slow down for a minute and savor the glory in each and every day. Advice we could all use.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Perfect Vacation Book

Did I ever say that I was looking forward to a place in my life where I'd have more time to write?  Was I fooling myself? In the past week I have been too mellow to even open this little notebook, let alone try to express myself! I had bunches of great photos to share but for some reason my cut and paste properties aren't working. I'm sleeping ten hours a night and right now Don and I are chilling on the deck of our B and B listening to the birds, admiring the mountain laurel on the cliff in the back, and enjoying having to wear sweaters!

I've just finished my first vacation book, a deeply insightful, long, slow novel about nothing and everything. Particularly appropriate for a woman like me who always believed "you can't go home again," Stewart O'Nan's Wish You Were Here, is, on the surface, a novel about one week in the life of the very complicated Maxwell family, gathered for the last time at the lake cottage that's been handed down through generations until the death of the patriarch, Henry.
Without getting any input from her kids, or from her wonderfully sensible sister-in-law Arlene, Emily has made the rather difficult, one might even say rash decision to sell the property, where the entire family has been coming to reconnect with each other for their entire lives.

Perfect on this 11th Father's Day without my dad, we learn about the kind, gentle Henry through the reminiscences of his widow Emily, who, though tough as nails, is still flailing without him, his son Ken desperately trying to take on his dad's mantle, and Henry's daughter Meg, the wild child whose life is a shambles.
Like so many families in the fifties and sixties, my own included, emotions were an unacknowledged undercurrent, rarely discussed. Questions went unanswered. Contrary to the false impression proffered by the writers of Father Knows Best, the family didn't always sit down and hash things out but instead, played avoidance games. Sadly, none of this was done in a deliberately hurtful way, it was simply the way stoic New Englanders rolled. But it did leave lasting scars.

Meg, Ken and Ken's wife Lise are each suffering from a sense of not having lived up to expectations. The implication is that Henry would never have let them feel his disappointment, whereas Emily is just more blunt and inquisitive. The more she pushes to understand what 's going on in her kids' lives, the more they hold back. Ah, human nature!  

O'Nan's writing is just exquisite, there's no other way to say it. He's like a laser, focused on the little insignificances of daily life, turning each small incident into an ah-ha moment that each and every reader will identify with. Mothers and sons, mothers and daughters, daughters and mothers-in-law, each tiny snub, each phrase put or taken the wrong way, each time we choose to jump into battle or to let one go, is so perfect.

I've chosen to host a book discussion of O'Nan's newest novel, Emily Alone. Written ten years after this one, it is a sequel. All the reviewers say that the new book can stand alone but now that I've met the Maxwells, I honestly can't imagine not having known them back then. For any reader who will honestly admit that their family doesn't remotely resemble The Brady Bunch, this book's for you. A gorgeous study in the minutiae of every day life.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Steve Martin's Object of Beauty

This may sound strange but I've had an affinity for Steve Martin since his days on Laugh In. Yes, I 'm dating myself. Even then I thought there was more to this man than meets the eye and when he delved into film I knew it was true. I'm not speaking of the silly comedic films but the more serious, and naturally less popular, like Pennies from Heaven. I wanted to know Steve Martin. I thought that he had a very romantic soul.

Then he began to write novels and, surprise for the reviewers, they were good. Once again, little humor came through but instead what I would call a poignant sadness or disappointment with life. This shouldn't really surprise readers as who can be sadder than a clown? I listened several years ago to Martin's autobiography and it was, indeed, quite depressing. It's the story of a man who is often misunderstood, one who wanted to succeed, to win over a cold, withholding  parent, but never quite felt that he did. Sad indeed.

An Object of Beauty received mixed reviews but I'll admit I liked it. I won't rave simply because it isn't that kind of novel. It's a bit jaded because it's about people in the rarefied stratus of the art world who are just that. Enter one smart, sexy, amoral woman who knows what she wants out of life and just how to get it and you have Lacy Yeager, a gal you may not like but can't help but watch in awe as she proceeds to  cleverly identify who she can ignore and who she must use to work her way up to her own East Side gallery.

Steve Martin is well acquainted with the fine art world. Considered quite an astute collector, his insider knowledge comes across wonderfully well in this novel. Reading it reminded me of being back in college with my first History of Art class.

Martin takes us through the back rooms at Sotheby's, to gallery openings uptown and downtown, explaining the difference, to the banquettes of the well known New York restaurants where the deals are hashed out and then teaches us about the rise of the Modernist movement, Warhol, deKooning, Pollack, and many names I'm ignorant of. He shows how buyers can be manipulated into thinking they're getting a deal and then the deal becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the value of the "object of beauty" skyrockets.

One caveat I might suggest that you actually read the book rather than listen to it as I did. The reason being that the physical book, which I've had the chance to browse through, has lovely photos of some of the art work discussed throughout the novel. That's when you understand that words may sometimes fail even a great writer when it comes to describing an object of beauty.

Yes, I am on vacation and tomorrow I'll see if I can express in words the beauty I see as I sit here on the deck, watching the container ships ply the harbor and wonder what's in them and where in this big, wide, wonderful world they're going. I'm hungry already. Is it time for cheese and wine yet?

Friday, June 10, 2011

The Good Daughters

The Good Daughters: A NovelIn the past I had the opportunity to apprise you of the amazing talent of this author, Joyce Maynard. It makes me think about, for the 1000th time, how many talented, insightful writers are out there quietly plying their trade every day who never make it to the "top ten." How can it be that we, as a society, pride ourselves on the mediocre when we could so easily be known for our appreciation of the outstanding? Why do my sweet little old lady customers at the library prefer James Patterson or Steig Larsson to an author like Joyce Maynard? I'll never get it.

This heartfelt novel, The Good Daughters, revolves around the 4th of July birthday (Jess, read no further) of two babies, born in the same hospital, Dana Dickerson and Ruth Plank. The story is told in alternating chapters between the two women as they come of age, each trying to adapt to and be accepted in the lives they've chosen, which don't necessarily conform with the futures their families may have envisioned for them.

Each woman is interesting and lovely in her own right. Ruth, the unexpected baby, rejected by her very unhappy mother Connie, a straight-laced, church-going farm wife, partner but reluctant lover to Edwin, whose family has owned the Plank farm for generations. Plodding along for decades, doing what's expected but nothing more, the Planks grown their strawberries, sell fresh vegetables during the short New Hampshire season, and live an anachronistic life that Ruth, a spirited artist can't wait to escape from.

Dana, on the other hand, has suffered as the child of selfish, nomadic parents, who schlep their family from state to state, following father George's latest get-rich-quick schemes that never pan out. Mom seems detached from all emotion, an artist who prefers the company of her canvases and paints to that of her lonely daughter and spaced out son Ray.

It's the old nature vs. nurture conundrum taken to a new level. In gorgeous prose, Ms. Maynard takes us into the hearts of these tragic, confused characters as they try to navigate the very difficult task of living as responsible adults who have never truly understood their innermost selves.

Ruth harbors a life long fascination, I should say a soul shattering connection, to Dana's quirky brother Ray. Every summer Connie Plank oddly insists on the requisite visit to the Dickerson family so that the "birthday sisters" can spend time together. Of course, Ruth and Dana have little in common and being forced to spend time together exacerbates their reluctance to socialize. These sojourns do, however, allow the spark to ignite between Ray and Ruth who years later will have the chance to act on their attraction to each other with complicated, tragic results.

Dana, on the other hand, falls in love with Clarice, a college professor for whom "coming out" back in the '60's was a sure way to sabotage the tenure track. Their idyllic, long term relationship is one of the amazing strengths of Ms. Maynard's novel. Dana is a woman inexplicably drawn to the land. A nurturer, she buys a farm, raises strawberries, flowers, and goats, establishing an Eden where she and Clarice can escape the judgment of the outside world.  Never have I read such a deeply moving description of a long term love affair challenged, but never hobbled by, tremendous social and physical troubles.

I can't say enough about the beauty of Ms. Maynard's writing, in her previous novel, Labor Day, and in her latest, The Good Daughters. I find myself sighing with satisfaction at the end of certain chapters and relishing the next ones. At the risk of going out on a limb, I believe that one can often get the sense of a person through their words and I feel that Joyce Maynard has an extraordinarily kind soul. There isn't an ounce of judgment or recrimination in her work. Instead, one feels that she embraces  all of humanity with its foibles, weaknesses, desires and joys. This is a woman I would love to know.

Read more about Ms. Maynard at

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Back from Botswana

Yes, I recently had the pleasure of eavesdropping at the Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party in Gaborone and, once again, I'm so sorry that Botswana can't be included in my ambitious African vacation later this year. Perhaps someday I'll be able to return and soak up the peaceful, laid back life lovingly described by Alexander McCall Smith in his No. 1 Ladies Detective series.

Though the plot was a little thinner than usual, perhaps owing to the fact that there doesn't really seem to be much crime in Gaborone, the lilting voice of Lisette Lecat, who's been doing an outstanding job of narrating these books for years now, is the perfect antidote for endless trips up and down route 41 in Southwest Florida.

For me, at least, the draw will always be the author himself. I never cease to marvel at Smith's insightful grasp of our shared human condition and of the female mind in particular. One can't help but adore Grace Makutsi, once secretary to Ma Ramotswe, now second in command as assistant detective, as she shops for the perfect pair of shoes for her wedding day.
A woman who struggled with poverty, about to be married to Phuti Radiphuti, respected business owner, Grace is in the unusual situation of being able to shop without a thought to the cost, a happenstance that she takes very seriously.

Smith's love and respect for people with all of their foibles, weaknesses and strengths is so endearing. I've seen various PBS documentaries with Smith in which he takes audiences on tours of the Okavango, Delta, introduces us to the local leaders, and simply overflows with appreciation for the land where he was raised.
 If you've never read any of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series then you really must begin at the beginning. Once you get to know the characters then you can bounce around without any loss of enjoyment. Oh, and do see the delightful film starring Jill Scott. I'm anxiously awaiting a sequel.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Wealth of Books!

I wish that I had taken a photo of the South County Library staff yesterday when the boxes from Book Expo arrived. I think that I was more excited than Jess and Kathleen, the actual attendees. One of the first things I'll do when I retire will be to call Maryellen (who will also be retired) and book our trip to NYC. We won't be reimbursed, no, but we also won't have to worry about staffing levels or be circumscribed by policy on who we want to see and when.

The cartons of books were a heavy lift but Jessica got them up on carts and we dug in. I love my Nook, no question, but there's nothing like fingering the pages of advanced reader's copies, realizing that one is about to be ahead of the curve, pronouncing on the new novels before the general public gets to see them.

I immediately emailed Barbara Hoffert, book editor at Library Journal, to brag that I was holding in my hand an autographed copy of Amy Waldman's much anticipated The Submission, a novel about choosing the architectural design for a memorial at ground zero. Could I go ahead and review it? And, while I'm at it, and since I'm leaving next week for a "reading" vacation in Maryland and Massachusetts, would she like me to tackle the new Anne Enright? Tom Perrotta? Alice Hoffman?

The Perrotta it is! Kudos to Kathleen Young-Wells for accosting Mr. Perrotta at BEA. Declaring herself his biggest fan anywhere - we librarians love superlatives - she was able to acquire an autographed copy for herself and another one for me. Please note that he graciously responded that he'd been waiting for her all his life. She swooned.

The man must be prescient as his latest novel in a long list of work noted for its blatant social commentary involves - you guessed it - the Rapture! Ironically titled The Leftovers, of which I surely hope I'm one, this is another book that's been getting plenty of hype. I can't wait to dig in.

I began The Submission at 7 AM, eschewing my NY Times and the No-News News Press, and honestly, if I wasn't on my way to the doctor's office for the results of an MRI, and then on to lunch at
Crave, I'd be plopped in a chair until I finished this remarkable novel. It's exceeding even my high expectations. I'll link to the reviews the minute they're published.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Off the Radar - Two Little Gems

This is what I'll miss most about working in a library and why I'll need to be a frequent visitor. I'll still read all the professional journals, of course, I'll be up on what the top writers in the world are doing, but how on earth do you find the little delights that catch your eye when you're shelving? Perhaps it would be fun to work in a book store.

My dear friend Andrea understands how much I crave respite from the news of the world, the frustration and disappointment with the status quo, because she's the same way. So when she mentioned that I might enjoy A Guide to the Birds of East Africa, a novel by Nicholas Drayson, I snapped it up. Think Major Pettigrew moves from East Anglia to Nairobi, Kenya.

In the quiet, subtle manner of Alexander McCall-Smith, Drayson, who lived in Nairobi for two years, touches on many serious political issues facing the Kenyan people, the prevalence of AIDS, corruption of the police and political authorities, and race relations, through a sweet love triangle.

At the center of this triangle is the widow Rose Mbikwa. Of Scottish descent, Rose met and married the love of her life, an African political activist who died in prison under mysterious circumstances. For sixteen years Rose has led the Tuesday morning bird walks and for six years Mr. Malik has been in her thrall, slowly healing from the death of his own beloved wife Aruna.

With the annual Nairobi Hunt Club Ball approaching, the shy, rotund, balding, Mr. Malik is trying desperately to drum up the courage to ask Mrs. Mbikwa to accompany him, when a blast from his past appears in the person of the gold-chain-draped, red-sport-car-driving, Harry Khan. Harry is a caricature of every fast-talking, womanizing creep who ever came down the pike so he naturally sets his cap for Rose.

What follows is a madcap, week long competition to win the hand of the unwitting Rose, who happens to be out of the country having eye surgery. The rules set up by Mr. Malik's cronies at the Asadi men's club state that whichever man comes up with the highest number of unique bird sightings will have the privilege of asking Rose to the ball. Only problem? No one seems to have let the estimable Mrs. Rose Mbikwa in on the contest.

A more serious but no less beautifully written novel that caught my eye is The Typist by Michael Knight, a creative writing teacher at the University of Tennessee. Ann Patchett calls it "elegant, thoughtful, and resonant." Need I say more?
Set in Tokyo immediately after the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this novel examines the disconnect between the conquered and the conquerors, through the eyes of Francis VanCleave, a typist on the staff of General MacArthur.

Van is not your typical soldier abroad. As the typist he is more of an observer, a witness to the carelessness with which the army's men make their presence known, frequenting the dance halls and prostitutes, condescending to the locals. But when Van's roommate, the troubled, insecure combat veteran Clifford, falls hard for Namiki, a local woman from a good family, he enlists Van's help in securing her trust, setting in motion a series of events that readers sense will end in tragedy.

Knight's writing is so spare and perfect. It's amazing the emotions he generates in less than 200 pages. Van's sensibilites commend themselves to MacArthur who entrusts his lonely 10 year old son to Van's weekly visits. Their poignant relationship foreshadows the resolution of another personal decision Van must make about the wife he married on impulse and left behind in the states.

Though The Typist takes place in the 1940's it could just as easily be set in Baghdad or Kabul right now. It poses the question, "what do we look like to those whose lives we've destroyed?" How must it feel to be beholden to your conquerors for your recovery? So far, we've been lucky, but I often wonder when our acts of aggression will come back to haunt us. More to the point, why aren't they haunting us right now?