Sunday, November 27, 2011

George Pelecanos, I Love You Man But.....'re killing me! I've been an avid follower for years George. I'll never forget the day the phone at my cubicle rang and when I picked up there you were on the other end just like any regular Joe. I was having heart palpitations! You graciously responded to my invitation to head south to our reading festival and what a great year that was! It was my first year with Don, who accompanied me to the Evening with the Authors reception just so that he could meet you.

Now, I know that you walk on the dark side but why'd you have to do those boys that way in The Way Home? I can't take it! I get that you write for The Wire, I get that life doesn't always have happy endings but someone, somewhere in DC must find redemption!

Readers, I can't say enough about George Pelecanos and his books. They're so much more than crime novels. They're a love offering to the District of Columbia for one thing, and for another, I see them as a paean to the human condition. Pelecanos throws in enough politics to keep me in his corner and one can hope that his heart felt cries for juvenile court reform are not falling on deaf ears.

I have several autographed copies of his books but I prefer to listen to Pelecanos because of Dion Graham. He's the perfect reader for these deep, dark novels. His voice is low, rough and sensual. He seduces the reader, lulling you in and then smacking you down with the overt violence that's generally at the core of these stories, the Sturm und Drang of life on the streets for kids released from juvenile lockup with no place to go, no one to believe in them.

 The Way Home is a novel about a cadre of boys who served together in a juvenile detention facility for minor crimes, mostly the kind of drug use practiced by our last three presidents but hey - if you're a kid from the hood, you're going to do time. Chris Flynn doesn't fit the profile. Raised by loving parents, business owners, upwardly mobile types who work hard to give Chris the things and the future they never thought they'd have, Chris's parents agonize over where they went wrong.

They provide Chris and his buddy Ben with a second chance, honest work as carpet installers for Flynn Carpets. Chris and Ben have an easy rapport and camaraderie engendered by their shared past at Pine Ridge Detention Facility. But one day, while tearing up some old flooring, they discover a hidden bag full of money and old temptations gurgle to the surface.

If money is the root of all evil, you won't doubt it for a minute as you watch this cash become the catalyst for all of the horrific action that follows. It will test the already tenuous relationship between Chris and his dad Tom Flynn, force Chris's fiancee to question her trust in his innate goodness, and perhaps derail all the redemptive actions that these young men have taken on their way to a better life.

George Pelecanos is without peer, in my humble opinion, when we talk about literary crime novels. He gets better, deeper, more psychologically astute with age. Yes, you'll need to take a break now and then and read some fluff to help you down from the edge, but you'll find yourself going back. I can't wait for his latest to hit the streets. Watch for The Cut at a library or bookstore near you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

National Book Award Winner Jesmyn Ward

This young woman is no stranger to awards. She has been a Stegner fellow at Stanford, a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi, and is currently a teacher of creative writing in Alabama, but still one has to wonder how someone so young could plumb the depths of despair that are so evident in her National Book Award winning novel Salvage the Bones.

This novel had been on my radar screen for a while and I started to read it before I realized that she was up for this prestigious award. I truly thought I would have to give it up because the writing is so raw, so gut wrenching that I just wasn't sure I could take it. Then, last week, Ms. Ward beat out even the much ballyhooed The Tiger's Wife (which I'll be discussing later this year at my library) and I knew that I would soldier on.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that it's a difficult book to read but that it's HARD to read if you get my drift. Other reviewers have stressed that this is a novel about Hurricane Katrina but it's far from that. Katrina is simply the catalyst for what I see as the true subject of this book which is love. Love in all its manifestations, family, friendship, passion, loss, memory.
 Salvage the Bones is a Greek tragedy and in fact Esch, our narrator, reads the story of Medea and Jason throughout the novel, seeing herself as the victim, no, I shouldn't say victim, but vessel of an attraction, a hunger for love so deep that it burns her soul.

In Bois Sauvage, Louisiana, in the days running up to Katrina, the young people are oblivious to the media's warnings of pending destruction. Esch's family is barely scraping by, her father mourns the death of his wife in childbirth, barely holds a job because of the alcohol, ceding care of the baby to the other kids. Randall, a talented basketball player, has a slim chance of scoring a scholarship and getting out but he is also Junior's de facto parent.

 Skeetah sublimates his need for the nurturing he missed by raising his pit bull, China, weaning her from her babies with a tenderness that tears at your heart even as he gambles on her ability in a fighting ring, a centerpiece so descriptive that any reader must turn his eyes away in horror at the unsettling violence. This is not a novel for the faint of heart.

I've never read a book like this. I gasp aloud at some of the metaphors, so apt, so perfectly placed. I rage against the poverty that ties this family to its home as the hurricane waters begin to rise. I agonize with Esch as she senses the life growing in her womb, frightened yet accepting of impending motherhood, beating back the rejection from Manny, the most likely father and the object of her outsized passion. In fact, this entire little novel (250p.) is outsized in its passion, which is why it deserves all the accolades that it gets.

Friday, November 18, 2011

How Does Your Garden Grow?

The old saying "you reap what you sow" can be interpreted in many different ways and I've been ruminating on all of them this week. Right now though, I'll tell you what it means to me in a literal sense. Two weeks ago a wonderful old Florida cracker arrived at my house with a truckload of "good" dirt,  a caterpillar for spreading it around, and a head full of old fashioned knowledge about growing fruit and veggies in Florida. Within a few minutes both of my vegetable planters were overfull with abundance and I was dancing around with glee. I couldn't wait to get those seeds in the dirt!

There's an indescribable sense of satisfaction that I get while watching the garden grow. What a rotten kid I was! I can recall making such fun of my mother when she would get practically orgasmic with delight when her tomatoes began to ripen each summer. The August that we knew she was really sick with the cancer that would take her in just 6 weeks was the August that she didn't want her tomatoes and asked us to give them away. Now I harvest my own in her memory and hope that she knows.

So mom, here was the garden last Sunday:

And only 10 days later, check out the first stirrings of lettuce, collards, spinach, peppers and, you can just barely see them, tomatoes!

And watching over all this is the reason I won't give up my home and move into a condo until I can't stand up straight!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Jeffery Deaver Channels Ian Fleming

Other authors have tried and failed but Jeffery Deaver has knocked it out of the ballpark with Carte Blanche; 007, an up to date look at Special Agent 007 (who will always be Sean Connery to me) working in a 21st century world. New enemies and new gadgets but the familiar snappy dialogue and interior musings of Bond as he takes on a false identity hoping to entrap a truly disgusting enemy, Severan Hydt, king of a waste disposal empire.

Now you may think that I'm prejudicial in favor of Deaver's perfect blend of old-style spy material a la Fleming with the new technology at Bond's disposal because of Deaver's wonderful appearance at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival a few years ago where he told us, admittedly after a few glasses of less than perfect pinot, that he had passed up the Virginia Festival of the Book in favor of our more fan-centered festival, and you'd be right.

Still, I'd be stunned and amazed if this new take on James Bond isn't parlayed into a film and what a fun film it would be. It has all the trademark elements that Bond aficionados expect. Flirtations with beautiful women, and a hint at a more serious relationship in the future, an enemy bent on the destruction of huge amounts of people simply because he has a fetish for dead bodies, and enough politically correct undercurrents to keep this reader fascinated.

Best of all, for me, is the fact that Deaver set the novel in South Africa, Cape Town mostly, and he brings the city to life while explaining to readers, without being didactic, how terribly obvious is the separation that still exists between those who live up on the hill and the workers who are down in townships grotesquely named things like "Primrose Gardens," a place where corrugated shacks with no electricity or running water pass for homes and the people are as disposable as the trash that Hydt compacts.

Toby Stephens deftly handles the reading of the audio book version that I'm listening to, not a simple task as he jumps back and forth between Bond's British upper-crust and the South African Afrikaans accent which is a cross between English, Dutch and German. I imagine the family of Ian Fleming, who chose Deaver to take on the Bond tradition, is thrilled with Carte Blanche, as fans of Fleming and Deaver should all be. Give it a whirl.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

The subtitle of Erik Larson's latest book is "love, terror, and an American family in Hitler's Berlin." This is not just any American family though. This is the true story, something Larson excels in is writing non-fiction that reads like fiction, of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd.

Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt after several other men turned down the position, Dodd was considered a fusty, old fashioned, tight fisted man, an academic from Chicago totally unsuited to the job. His penury, which today would be considered an admirable quality, made him the laughing stock of his staff and of the other dignitaries he interacted with. He actually walked to meetings rather than luxuriate in a chauffeur driven vehicle! He didn't have enough servants and he tried to live in Berlin on the ambassador's salary, about $3000 a year at the time.

I have to tell you, I must be the only person in the world who didn't think that Larson's big hit, Devil in the White City, an ugly recounting of a serial killer who stalked young women in Chicago while making a fortune from the building of the World's Fair, was a great read. What every book discussion group in creation saw in that book to talk about, I have no idea. But this one? Oh yeah!

I personally think that this book is by far the more interesting and sophisticated. It offers a great way to learn your history without falling asleep. It brings the run up to World War II alive to the reader through the eyes of a family that initially didn't believe there was anything to worry about as Hitler rose in prominence.
But gradually, through immersion in the lives of the German people, the socialites, the politicians, and the various branches of the police, Ambassador Dodd and his family began to sense with growing alarm the true evil that was burgeoning in their beloved Germany.

Larson has done a load of research, often quoting from diaries and letters of the many players who populate his book. I found Dodd's daughter Martha to be the most fascinating woman I've read about in forever. You couldn't make this up! The old saying "truth is stranger than fiction" certainly applies here.

 The women in the book discussion I attended were non-plussed by what they perceived to be her indiscriminate sexual behavior. It's all they could focus on. What I loved watching was her talent at drawing so many different men and women into her orbit and mesmerizing all of them at the same time. A newspaper editor in Chicago, she obviously had the brains and looks to pull it off and the sense of freedom that being in a foreign country often proffers.

Hardly the swinging '60's, this was 1933 -35, Martha deftly juggled a former husband in the states with lovers from both the Russian embassy and the Nazi SS at the same time and managed to do it all under the ever watchful eyes of the of the government. She attracted all the writers and artists of the day to her home and participated in various discussion groups and socials where politics and the future of Germany were dissected and hashed over.

And it's through Martha, the most dazzled initially by Hitler's "new" Germany, that Larson proves how easily people could fool themselves into believing that the attacks on American Jews in Berlin were not truly racially motivated and that the whisperings of attempts to create an Aryan race were not really possible. Until, that is, the evidence becomes more obvious, the sounds of the jackboots more ominous, and the hateful speeches louder.

I've been listening to Larson's book on my ipod. It's been a boon to my health as I want to walk longer and farther even though I know the ending. I feel like Larson has allowed me to be a fly on the wall at the backdoor machinations of the politicians who jockey for position, each with his own agenda, our lives in their hands as they decide to go to war. Not much has changed.

I'm thrilled to tell you that Erik Larson will be attending the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in the Spring - good going Jess! Put it on your calendar. The man is a talent to be reckoned with.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Grief of Others

Be not afraid of this title. This exquisite book, though about grief, will not cause you to grieve but to rejoice at the glory of the English language! Leah Hager Cohen is a name you may not find on the New York Times best seller list, a fact that will tell future generations a thing or two about our discernment as it applies to literary appreciation.
I don't recall how I first heard about her but I've been following her blog for several years now and have been brought practically to my knees in envy and appreciation of her skills.

How many years has it been since you fell in love with an entire family? A fictional family, that is? Each member of the Ryrie family is so special, so distinct, so overwhelmingly lovable, even when he or she is acting distinctly unlovable. Ricky, John, Paul and Biscuit, then later Jess, could be any average American family in the burbs, a two income household in which the fact that Ricky earns considerably more as a financial analyst than does John who designs stage sets, causes some friction and resentment now and then.

What sets them apart is that it's been a year since the death of their newborn son and they have yet to talk about it. The corrugated box of ashes, tied up with string, has been relegated to a high shelf in the back of a closet. The fact of its being hidden there, though, does nothing to dispel the sense of lethargy, loss, anxiety, and despair that hovers over the Ryrie household.

Paul, as awkward a pre-teen as you've ever met, is being bullied at school. His once lanky frame has given way to pudginess and a raft of pimples as he tries to eat away his insecurities. Biscuit, at ten, is a little miss firecracker, too bright and sassy for her own good. Yet, in the year since the baby's death she has skipped school five times and, anathema to some of us, has stolen a book from the library. John and Ricky notice nothing. At best, they are only vaguely aware.

The tension in the air is so tangible that as I read I worried for the mental health of "my" family. Open up! Open up! I wanted to yell at them, to shake them, force them to look at these beautiful damaged kids crying out for a way to work through their own pain. And suddenly there were catalysts, new characters who would change the makeup of things, skew the emotions, throw everyone off balance, and I loved them too.

If you've been reading along here for a few years you know that I have a love/hate relationship with the word "luminous." I worry about its overuse, especially in book reviews. Nevertheless, I've racked my brain and I can find no other word that better describes the memorable feeling of reading a truly luminous novel such as this one. Just read this description of the newborn, Simon, from the first page of the book:

          "His lips: how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And in the curl - in the way the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, twice, like a bobbing valentine, and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasures...."

I've never even held a newborn but I could feel and smell him with every fiber of my being as I read this paragraph. Ms. Cohen's entire novel is overflowing with glorious gemlike sentences. Please, do yourself a favor and download, purchase or borrow this book as soon as you can. Then let me know what you think.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Robert Macomber - Library Advocate

Many years ago I read an article in the Fort Myers News-Press about a former sheriff's office employee whose love of sailing, charts, and history was taking him on a mid-life adventure, a career change of interest to me since I too was embarking upon a new career. Robert Macomber is a writer. I'm a librarian. Need I say more?

 I've been following his trajectory from local author to internationally recognized purveyor of deeply researched maritime novels and fascinating guest lecturer for the Cunard line of cruise ships. His quarterly newsletter is one of my favorite reads.

Yesterday I attended the annual meeting of the Southwest Florida Library Network where Mr. Macomber was the guest speaker. He had just made a PSA for Florida libraries and was full of support and kind words for researchers of all stripes. More to the point though, was his deeply held belief that a free public library is, and always will be, a cornerstone of a democracy. I was very moved.

Bob Macomber has traveled the world. I believe he said he has done "eye ball reconnaissance" in over 70 countries since he began writing his Honor series of books about naval intelligence officer Peter Wake. He holds one in thrall when he talks about the smells of a market in Marakesh or the sounds one hears on the Mekong River at night. You can't make this up. It needs to be experienced in the flesh.

 It reminded me of something I read and loved on Barbara Hoffert's Library Journal blog a few weeks ago, a quote from St. Augustine: "The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Military history, fiction or non, has never been my cup of tea. Yet I'm going to open myself up to a new genre, go outside my comfort zone, and read Bob's newest book in the series, Honor Bound (I understand that they can stand alone), which is centered in Haiti.

On another note, Thrity Umrigar has accepted an invitation to appear at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival in March and I had the opportunity to read and review her latest novel which will be released in January. I enjoyed The World We Found very much, as I have all of her books and look forward to meeting her soon. You can read my review at the link below: as always, scroll to the bottom.