Monday, December 31, 2012

Lawrence Osborne's The Forgiven

This is it! The last book read in 2012 is number 119. The Forgiven is a title that had received a lot of early press, and which I had on my nook, direct from the publisher, but failed to get to in the allotted time. I'm so glad that I spotted it on the new book shelf the other day and snapped it up. I know that I was impressed but it wasn't until I found the author's website that I was reminded that this novel was on many prestigious "best of" lists this year.

I don't doubt that many readers, Americans in particular, will find this a difficult novel to swallow. Mr. Osborne appears to have spent his entire life traveling which would indicate a certain openness to other cultures, a person at home in the world, unlike the ill fated characters in his book. Brits, Dr. David Henniger and his wife Jo have rented a car in Tangier, undertaking the long ride out into the Moroccan desert to a weekend party at the palatial estate of a long time acquaintance. There's an uncomfortable tension between the two, so that readers sense the twenty year marriage is on its last legs.

Lost, drunk, late, and irritable, the very unlovely doctor speeds toward his destination without a thought to the young, ragged man who runs out into the road with his souvenirs for sale. I was honestly surprised that David actually even stopped to see who he might have hit but here's where it gets strange. The boy is dead, an argument ensues, and the decision is made to bundle the young man up in the back of the car and continue on to the party, laying the "problem" at the doorstep of the hosts, the debonair, well connected Richard and his partner, Dally.

What's so disturbing about this novel is the cold, detached way that the international guests and the Hennigers themselves can so easily distance themselves from the young man who lies shrouded, surrounded by oil lamps, in the garage of the manse. They don't see him as a person with a family or a history, but simply as a thing to be disposed of with as little fuss as possible, so that they can return to the party. And at first, it seems that that's exactly what will happen. But not so fast...

Mr. Osborne's powers of observation are stellar and his writing is so nuanced and lovely that the book is difficult to lay down. What he sees, though, is pretty despicable. The arrogance of some, the deep-seated resentment of Richard's staff as they wait on "the infidels" hand and foot, the foolish, air-headed women there to entertain, snort dope, and decorate the poolsides, all make you wonder, "why am I reading about these folks?" The answer is that you can't stop. You watch in fascination and with a sense of dread, like driving slowly by an automobile accident on a busy highway.

When the young boy's father, Abdelleh, arrives at the gates of the mansion to retrieve his son's body, he makes a bizarre request. He invites, no, insists, that David return with him to his home so that he can ask him about the incident that killed his boy, who has a name, Driss. Unbelievably, David goes. We readers are then treated to a parallel storyline that involves Driss and how he's spent the years up to his death. In a tour-de-force of storytelling, all perceptions are suddenly turned upside down. I can give away no more.

This is a shocking novel about the clash of cultures, about entitlement, naivete, forgiveness and restitution. An outstanding way to end the year!

Tomorrow I'll begin my 2013 book list with Retire Happy from the Nolo Press. Happy New Year dear readers. I've got to go check a few websites to see if we've gone over the fiscal cliff yet!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ephron Raises the Hairs on the Back of Your Neck

Hallie Ephron, that is. Several years ago my friend Lesa Holstine suggested my name to Hallie Ephron as a reader for one of her new books, The Bibliophile's Devotional. From that experience I discovered Ms. Ephron's delightful blog that she shares with other crime fiction writers who are friends and supporters.

Later, I was honored to do an interview for the Jungle Red blog and then I had the opportunity to read the very creepy Never Tell a Lie. Imagine how pleased I was to receive an email from Hallie asking if I would read an advanced copy of her latest thriller, There Was an Old Woman. I saved it for my holiday time off because I was sure I would sit and read it in one or two sittings and I was right.

What makes Hallie Ephron's novels so unnerving is how she manages to unearth those fears that people least want to admit to, and then slowly, subtly, through story and character, confirms just why you are right to harbor those secret fears.

 Because I live in southwest Florida, a bastion of senior citizens in varying stages of health, I especially related to the fabulous character Mina Higgs Yetner. She's everything I want to be when I grow up! Still spunky, wryly humorous, and sharp as a tack at nearly ninety years old, Mina resides in an old but gorgeously maintained shotgun house built by her dad on a salt marsh outside New York City. Glorious views of the Manhattan skyline on one side and protected natural habitat on the other, make this spit of land an enviable place to live.

Oddly though, one by one, homes are falling into disrepair, their owners disappearing practically overnight. When Mina spots the ambulance next door, ready to make off with another one of her friends, she flies out front to get the scoop and receives a mysterious message instead. "Please, tell Ginger, don't let him in until I'm gone."

Ginger, a frazzled housewife who's at her wits end with her mom, and Evie, Ginger's sister, who creates exhibits for the New York Historical Society, and who wrote her alcoholic, irresponsible mother off years ago, have to come together to plan their mother, Sandra's, hospital stay and return to health.

Ginger insists it's Evie's turn to step up to the plate. Evie agrees to move into her mother's home, next door to Mrs. Yetner, to put Sandra's affairs in order.What greets her is astonishing chaos, filth, decay, and something more sinister that she can't quite put her finger on.

The tension builds slowly as the atmosphere oozes foreboding. Suddenly everyone wants to help Evie but why do they show up when least expected? Finn Ryan, an acquaintance from high school, who runs the local general store (though he's an attorney) has keys to Evie's mom's house. So, it seems, does the obsequious, much younger businessman from across the street. Mrs. Yetner's nephew Brian doesn't want Evie anywhere near his aunt even as the two women find they share mutual interests in the history of the area. So why keep them apart?

Paranoia manifests itself in both the characters and the reader. How easily  our confidence, our very foundation, can be undermined by insinuation or a misplaced document, a lost set of keys. When we are at our most vulnerable, whom do we trust?

Have I peaked your interest? Keep your eyes on the library catalog or your local bookstore's shelves. April is the release date. It'll be here sooner than you think!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Bookcase is up!

Yesterday evening Don and I gingerly lifted, tilted, slid and maneuvered the new bookcase from the garage into my office. Oh my, and to think that I was worried that, at three feet wide, it would be too small! Now that it's in the room it looks amazing and huge. Best of all, it looks exactly like the picture I randomly chose from the Internet, except that it was made from scratch, from loving hands. I am simply blown away.

Today, we'll anchor it to the wall, "just in case." Then I will unpack all the boxes and try to catalog in some semblance of order that will make sense to me. These are just the books I've collected that are on my "waiting to retire" list. They don't even touch all the books I've reviewed for Library Journal over the last - can it be - six years! Those are still behind my desk at work.

Speaking of book reviewing, there was an article on the front page of yesterday's New York Times that seemed especially apropos to you bloggers, Good Reads members, and book aficionados out there. It was about the fact that Amazon has purged thousands of book reviews from its pages since it found out that they're not all objective. DUH!

 It seems that writers can and will pay strangers for a good review, whether or not that reviewer had even read the book. Another issue is that relatives go online and pen glowing missives about their mother's, sister's, daughter's - you name it - latest self published book and, what do you know? Sales go up! There was even a profile of a, I'm sorry to say this, retired librarian named Harriet Klausner, who has reviewed some 26,000 books for Amazon and given them all four and five-star ratings. The questions being raised, quite naturally, is how can every book be that good?

And of course, the answer is, they can't. Which brings me to the difference between blogging and book reviewing. When I review a book for Library Journal, I am telling other collection development librarians whether or not I think they should spend their limited budgets on a book that may or may not fly off the shelf. Will it have wide appeal or will it need to be hand sold?

 Because my genre is literary fiction, the sad truth is that many of the books I review will more than likely languish on the shelves next to the Lee Childs, David Badaccis, and Vince Flynns. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have these little gems, many of them translated from other languages, for the more discerning taste. I am fortunate to work for a relatively large library system with a budget that supports new and obscure authors. Smaller libraries do not have that luxury.

As a blogger I want to keep you reading without putting you to sleep. I want to be able to rave about books that I think you shouldn't miss. I don't want to be too negative - well sometimes just a titch - but only in a humorous, not a nasty manner. Therefore, it goes without saying that I read tons of books each year that I don't write about here because if I can't say something good, I'd rather just stay quiet.

So, here's the link to the article. Why not give it a look and tell me what you think. Is it ok to love everything? I mean really?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan

On a glorious Saturday afternoon in southwest Florida, beginning a four day holiday, I sit in front of the computer trying to figure out how I can possibly explain the beauty of the novel I've just finished. Don is sanding away in the garage - the final stage in the bookcase building - before we stain. A pot of homemade soup loaded with our home-grown vegetables (thank you Michelle Obama for the inspiration) is simmering on the stove. How can I or any of my readers fully comprehend the deprivation that led Vaddey Ratner to finally pen her family's story?

In schools today we know that the Jewish Holocaust is taught at length. The library is overflowing with books on the subject and that's as it should be. But why not the other holocausts that have occurred over and over again throughout the world? Last week I wrote of the Armenian genocide. I've often written or referred to the African diaspora and slavery, probably the largest holocaust of all. Now, through her exquisite prose, the talent most likely inherited from her poet father, Vaddey Ratner introduces readers to the Cambodian genocide that happened only forty years ago,in which some two million people were starved, tortured and murdered by their fellow man.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel of heartbreaking despair, tempered with exquisite language. Ms. Ratner manages to convey hope after every cruelty, using the metaphor of flight throughout,she ends her story as the U.N. helicopter lifts her from the border of Thailand, west to freedom. Ms. Ratner fully discloses that this is the actual story of her family but that she felt compelled to write it in fictional format, perhaps to distance herself from the pain. But her memory informs every sentence.

If you are old enough to remember the film, The Killing Fields, then you will understand what happened to the author's family. The Khmer Rouge overran the Cambodian government and deposed the royalty who were in charge of the country. They had an idea that may have even sounded good (and perhaps a little too close for comfort?) to spread the wealth, work for the common good, return to an agrarian based society and utilize the land to its maximum capacity. But in the process of implementing the new way - the Organization, as it was called, did what most of them do. It became cruel, frightened and corrupt.

The intelligentsia, professors, scholars and such, like Vaddey's father, were first to be taken. Then doctors, teachers, business people who wouldn't cave to the party line. Families were separated, possessions were outlawed, as people were dragged from their homes and sent into hard labor, working in the fields for up to twenty hours a day with little more than a rice broth to eat every other day. Stray bugs were secretly scarfed down for sustenance before one of the guards could witness such an act of defiance and punish the perpetrator with a gunshot to the head.

There are so many heroes in this novel but Vaddey's mother shines throughout as a woman who suffered unbearable loss. She could have simply stopped living, delivered from her anguish, the disappearance of her husband, the death of her youngest child, but she made a conscious decision to live to see her older child rise from the ashes. She became an endless well of love for her thirsty daughter. She grew stronger rather than weaker with each year of enslavement. She outwitted her captors, made deals with the devil, bartered for an extra slip of sugar cane or a cup of rancid rice to keep Vaddey alive. I marveled at her resilience.

Please don't let the subject matter keep you from reading this book. We owe it to the victims of this senseless cruelty to be a witness to their deaths. As Ms. Ratner honors them with her compelling language we, too, can read and remember that his happened in our lifetime. How many more genocides will there be? Visit  and listen to the author speak of her feelings as she wrote her book at the website:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The More Things Change....

...sadly, the more they remain the same. Finishing up Sunday's paper I came upon an article accompanied by a photograph taken last week in Aleppo. Syrian people, Assad's victims, lined up as far as the eye can see, waiting in line for food. Many of these refugees will die of starvation. When I think of what I throw away I'm ashamed.

Ironically I just finished Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls, which I mentioned in my last post. If you aren't familiar with this novel, it is the personal story of Bohjalian's family history as it was lived out during the genocide he thinks no one has ever heard of. In fact, I had. When we were little, my siblings and I were often exhorted to "think of the starving Armenians," when we refused to eat everything on our plates. Read, vegetables.

Much of the action in the Bohjalian book takes place in the same city of Aleppo back in 1915, almost 100 years ago. An American woman, Elizabeth Endicott, and her father, are staying at the American embassy in Aleppo while arranging to have food shipped in for the starving Armenian refugees who flood into the town every day. Many of the women have been raped, beaten, widowed, and had their children pulled from their arms and murdered. The carnage is horrific.

Elizabeth is quite a marvelous character. Spunky, independent, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke at a time when an educated woman was looked at with grave suspicion, she doesn't shy away from the tragedy she encounters, but manages to jump right in to help where needed, oblivious to the differences between her blonde, alabaster self and the darker Armenians. Somehow we aren't in the least surprised when she falls in love with Armen, the widowed engineer she meets at the embassy.

Armen believes that his wife and daughter were killed during the purge and joins the British army as a means of revenge. Though not averse to killing, he is not cut out for war. Through his letters to Elizabeth, readers learn of the senseless cruelty that man inflicts upon man. And through Elizabeth's letters to him, we see her growth as a woman, her work in the nursing facility and with the orphans, as she advocates for their welfare.

The story of Elizabeth and Armen is being told in retrospect by a woman of Armenian descent in contemporary time. Laura Petrosian, we expect, and later find out for sure, is Bohjalian's alter-ego. She/he is a novelist with a renewed interest in her genealogy sparked by a chance siting of an old newspaper photograph featuring her grandmother. And so, the search for the past begins, naturally uncovering secrets thought long since kept.

And it's those secrets that kicks the narrative bar up quite a bit in this book, making it not just another historical novel but one well worth a serious discussion. Fateful decisions, made with thought, have long ranging effects and as I walked and listened I really questioned what I would have done in the same circumstances. An insightful interview with the author at the end of the reading adds depth to the story.

Apologies again for being away from the blog. I've been obsessing over my review of White Dog Fell From the Sky. The book was so heartbreaking. When this is the case, I often find myself at a loss for the proper words to express the depth of the feelings that a novelist takes me to. (uh oh, did I just end that sentence with a preposition?)
This may also be the case when I finish the amazing first novel by Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan, about the Cambodian genocide. I may have to use that word I avoid, but which says it all, "luminous."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

If it's December it must be time...

...for reading lists! Yes, those ubiquitous lists that we readers simply love to assemble, to peruse, to use to judge ourselves against others with our astute abilities to pinpoint the next big hit, the hot debut author who's going places,  that are appearing in all the literary, and not so much, newspapers and magazines.

As soon as Don has finished the not so simple bookcase that I chose for him to make, he owes me a dinner out and some champagne chaser, for passing my goal of 112 books for 2012. Somehow, this year I was able to accomplish it rather effortlessly, not like last year when I wrote about my New Year's weekend scrambling to finish my 100th. How about you list makers? Where are you? Maryellen, I know you always beat me but how about some other readers out there?

I recently sent a list of my top ten choices for best of the year to the National Book Critics Circle for their esteemed gathering of opinions from members. Let me tell you, this is a difficult job. A certain novel or memoir might knock your socks off one month, depending upon your frame of mind as you read it, and not even elevate your temperature if read at a different place in your life. These lists of favorites are so subjective. Nevertheless, I'll give it the old college try.

 At various times during the past year each of these books spoke to me on a deep level, either for the beauty of the writing, subjects with heart, an important political message, or a combination of passions that I shared with the author.

1. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
2. Heft by Liz Moore
3. The Submission by Amy Waldman
4. Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman
5. In One Person by John Irving
6. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
7. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
8. The Odds by Stewart O'Nan
9. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
10. Canada by Richard Ford

I also read and enjoy memoirs and some non-fiction and found that I related to each of the following five writers in a visceral way.

1. Life Itself by Roger Ebert
2. The End of Your Life Bookclub by Will Schwalbe
3. Paris in Love by Eloisa James
4. Mortality by Christopher Hitchins
5. Quiet by Susan Cain

Apologies for not reviewing anything here yet this month. I've just read and reviewed one outstanding novel for Library Journal by a Canadian poet named Tanis Rideout. The book will be out next year so keep your eyes open for this fictional biography of Mt. Everest climber George Mallory called Above All Things. I'll share the link to the review the moment it's printed.

I'm almost finished with another LJ title, White Dog Fell from the Sky, which I fear will end badly for Isaac, the South African student who illegally entered Botswana seeking political asylum. The author's descriptions of Africa are so right on that I sense I'm back there on a riverbank in the bush.

Listening to Nelson deMille's The Panther in my car because I never tire of the marriage of narrator Scott Brick and the main protagonist John Cory. On the ipod I'm struggling with The Sandcastle Girls about the Armenian genocide. I admit that Chris Bohjalian has lost me in his last several efforts.

How about you readers? What's left you cold lately? What's brought you to your knees? Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bernadette Fox Grows Up....

...and readers will root for her all the way! You can just tell that author Maria Semple would be a fun gal to hang out with. And, she gives new meaning to the old fashioned term "epistolary novel." Through a series of e-mails, faxes, bills, and letters, Ms. Semple introduces us to the quirky Elgin Branch family along with some one-of-a-kind denizens of Seattle during the hey day of the dot com boom. Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a sarcastic, laugh-out-loud, yet poignant, introduction to a woman who just doesn't fit and the family that loves her.

Once a wunderkind architect designing and building ecologically sound homes in L.A.,  Bernadette Fox, through a series of tricks and a wicked act of vengeance that we learn about halfway through her story, has a bit of what might be called a nervous breakdown. Eschewing her career in favor of Elgin's move to Microsoft and the gray, rain plagued city of Seattle, Bernadette gives birth to her precious Bee and opts for the life of a stay at home mother, a convenient choice given that she suffers from severe agoraphobia.

Bernadette gets by using the services of her new best friend, an online shopper from India, therefore she seldom has to leave home except to drive by school to pick up Bee. She's not into the cookie baking, fund-raising, and schmoozing that goes with the territory in yuppie heaven. She's an atheist to everyone else's God driven do-gooding and she doesn't entertain cause her idea of cooking is Chinese take-out.
This so-called erratic behavior deeply disturbs the neighbors though Bee and Elgie are perfectly content for life to go on as it always has. The result is a hilarious fiasco involving inept land clearing, a mudslide, and a high tone brunch. One mistake piles on top of another (literally) and before you know it the FBI is involved and Bernadette goes missing just days before a planned family cruise to Antarctica.

Semple's novel is so imaginative and original that I just didn't want to put it down. Along the way, I learned all kinds of things I never knew about Drake's Passage and the South Pole. But the larger lessons gleaned have to do with love, loyalty, hope, optimism, and persistence. Fifteen year old Bee is a marvel. Elgin, well, he's a man, what can I say? He may go off track for a bit but he finds his way back. And Bernadette? Uh uh. I'm not going there. It's up to you to discover. Meet Ms. Semple at

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sally's Writing Space - The Saga Continues

Ohhhh, I'm in love with my new space. I feel so warm and enveloped here. It's still a work in progress but the desk is in and complete, my new chair is so comfy, my computer, Don tells me, travels at the speed of light. For me, if I push the button and it turns blue, I'm happy as a clam.

Now, of course, the question is, how many books did I read over this long Thanksgiving weekend? Ha! I'm still on the Sunday papers. It doesn't feel right to hear that saw whining in the driveway and me being inside with my nose in a book. I'd rather be out there at least making a few marks on a slab of wood and helping to guide the saw to its logical conclusion.

That doesn't mean I've been a complete slacker though.

I'm listening - FINALLY - to The Hunger Games. Cathy Jones? Are you reading this? I took your advice and yes, I do like it, and think it would make a great multi-generational book discussion. I'm even intrigued enough that we've gotten the film from Netflix! I'm also reading Where'd You Go Bernadette. What a hoot! I'll be writing about it here soon. Expecting not one, but two books from Library Journal after a six week hiatus. Seems that they've got new editors, different faces, and a techier way of doing things that, sadly, puts more space between the reviewer and her editor.
Lest you think our work here is complete though, the answer is a resounding no. A bookcase is in the offing, under construction in the garage. I have boxes of books all over the house. We're tripping over them - Nook be damned. I want a wall full of books and that's what we've been constructing for the past two days. Here it is in its infancy.
You know, I've never been clever or artsy, drawing and painting were not for me. Knitting? Sewing? Fuggedaboutit. But I can't tell you what a glorious sense of accomplishment I get seeing the fruits of my imagination come together under Don's capable hands. He's getting so good at this that a neighbor came by the other day asking if he hires himself out. Oh no, I explained quickly, this is a labor of love.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jonathan Dee, Don't Let Him Fly Under Your Radar!

I generally pride myself on being at least aware of authors with considerable talent even if I have to put their book titles aside on the "to be read when I retire list." Then, last year, Jonathan Dee wrote The Privileges and the amount of great press quadrupled. His novel was even nominated for a Pulitzer and, yes, it's still sitting on my "to read" shelf. However, with my fabulous new subscriptions to Edelweiss and NetGalley, I have the opportunity to eyeball wonderful new novels often four to six months prior to publication. And that, my friends, is how I came to read A Thousand Pardons, Dee's latest novel that will be out in the spring.

Let me just say right out of the box, this guy has an ear for family dynamics that competes with my very favorite writers - think Richard Russo. He's especially adept at the prickly relationship between moms and teens, the way we tend to hurt the ones closest to us because we intuit that they have to take it without judgement and lots of forgiveness.

When readers meet Helen and Ben Armstead they will beg for some tension between the two. There is none, and that's their trouble. They live together like two ghosts, scarcely communicating or seeing each other through the scrim of their individual disappointments with life. There's no tangible reason for their discontent, no one actually to blame, they are simply the victims of inertia. So Ben, in his anguish and desire to feel something, anything, throws it all away in an act that is so out of character it could almost be laughable if it weren't so painfully poignant.

Helen hasn't worked since she and Ben adopted their daughter Sara, now at that horribly hormonal pre-teen place where parents and teachers are barely worth a smirk. For Helen, who's entire married life has revolved around Sara, this rejection from both husband and daughter is dispiriting, but with a resilience that makes you just have to love her, she upends their life, moves from the small town scene of her shame to the anonimity of Manhattan and gets herself back in the game. PR that is. Reputation repair. For which she seems to have an unsuspected knack.

As Helen's star rises, her confidence blossoms, she begins to work too much, make too much, and lose sight of her beloved Sara, until a chance encounter with a person from her past, Dee's hilarious sendup of a very conflicted superstar, brings her life around full circle.

I just hate it when a reviewer tells the entire story. I won't do that to you. It's like seeing previews to a movie that are so in-depth, you no longer feel the need to pay your ten bucks. Let me say simply that this novel by Jonathan Dee is small in size but huge in heart. Each character is so vulnerable and flawed that you know them instinctively.

I read with a sense of melancholy at first, talking to myself, then talking to them, as in "you fools, don't you see what's right in front of your eyes?" But of course, they don't. That's part of the human experience, isn't it? I found myself hoping beyond hope for a happy ending to the Armsteads' story, something I seldom need  in order to feel satisfied by a book. I cared that much about these people. And in that caring I came to appreciate the quality of Jonathan Dee's sharply observed storytelling. Don't miss out like I almost did. Coming soon to a library or bookstore near you.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Round House

It probably seems a tad disingenuous to come out roaring about a great read once that book has already won the National Book Award but that's what I must do in the case of Louise Erdrich's beautiful new novel The Round House. You will love every minute of time that you spend with Joe as he narrates the story of his thirteen year old self and the violent act that tore the heart out his family.

Erdrich, if you are unfamiliar with her, is a descendant of the Ojibwe tribe of native Americans, so, much of her fiction addresses the inequities that continue to plague the modern native Americans as they traverse the rocky path between assimilation and adherence to tribal customs. Joe and his parents live on an ever shrinking North Dakota reservation where his dad, Bazil, is a tribal judge and his mom, Geraldine, works as a tribal enrollment specialist.

For young Joe life was pretty idyllic, with family all living in close proximity the boy always had a home he could crash in, grandmas always had extra food on the stove. He and his pals biked everywhere, fishing and hiking, wrapped in a security that was shattered the Sunday afternoon his mom failed to come home from an appointment.

Viciously attacked by a rapist, Geraldine manages to escape with devastating physical injuries that can be stitched up, but it's the emotional damage that drives her into a near catatonic state as she hides in her room, sleeping away the day, ignoring her family, and refusing to talk to either the tribal or city police.

Bazil's love for his wife and son is an amazing thing, so patient, so caring, as he continues Geraldine's work of planting flowers and vegetables, forcing Joe to dig in the earth, to work off his frustration and anger at the helplessness he feels in the face of his mother's anguish.

Erdrich creates some marvelously flawed but fully developed characters who play important roles in Joe's education and maturation, especially former Marine, Father Travis of the Catholic order that's made inroads on the reservation, and Sonya, a woman with a cloudy past but a nurturing instinct, who takes Joe under her wing, employing him in the family business.

The Round House is an exquisitely wrought piece that examines the universal themes of innocence lost, the age old tug between good and evil, the application of vengeance versus justice. In addition Ms. Erdrich teaches a history lesson that seems to be lost on those who constantly whine about "taking their country back." Whose country?

The government that decimated the native tribes, stole their land, and perpetuated the myth of their "savage" nature, put in motion a travesty that has carried down through generations that are still reeling from the indifference of the authorities to unsolved crimes committed by outsiders on the reservations.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Palmer's Political Suicide is Killer!

Whew. I just finished reading Michael Palmer's soon to be released novel Political Suicide and I'm on my way to the drugstore to double check my blood pressure. I fell half in love with Palmer's alter-ego, Dr. Lou Welcome, in last year's hit Oath of Office so was happy to see that he's at the center of the action in this new book too.

Like Dr. Palmer, Lou Welcome is a man on a mission, working the graveyard shift in an ER to keep his skills honed, while volunteering much of his daylight hours to the compassionate work of counseling and mentoring physicians struggling with substance abuse.

He's a man with a conscience that usually gets him way in over his head and a passion for justice that, when thwarted, fires up a frustration that he slakes on a boxing bag instead of in a bottle.

The prologue is so gripping that I had to keep returning to read it again. I wanted to be sure I understood what had just happened and how Palmer would relate the life of an ER doc in DC with a horrific U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. I think what's so terrifying about Palmer's novels is that the fictional scenarios - like genetically modified foods in the last book - are so logical that the reader suspects this isn't really make believe at all.

In Lou's latest escapade, the society doc he's sponsoring calls for help, admitting to a drunken night, a damaged vehicle, and an affair with the wife of Congressman Elias Colston, who's now lying dead in his garage. Dr. Gary McHugh knows that he's the obvious suspect to be charged with the murder but he claims innocence and Lou believes him.

The investigation will lead from a crooked cop, to a secretive group of special ops marines, to the Dept. of Defense. Along the way he'll enlist the help of a former burglar and impress a frosty defense lawyer with his stubborn independence.

Michael Palmer's Politcal Suicide represents a new high for the writer. His technique gets better and better, conversation and witty banter abounds, reminiscent of DeMille's Mr. and Mrs. John Corey. Certain helicopter scenes are so realistic that some readers will suffer from vertigo. Most rewarding though is that Palmer doesn't shy away from serious moral dilemmas with global consequences. He thrills us even as he makes us think. Read more about Michael, his life and work at

Monday, November 12, 2012

Progress Report - Sally's New Writing Space

I just know there's a funny short story in here somewhere. I promise I'll work on it the minute I can find my check book again. Those of my friends who see me regularly already know that a major undertaking has been going on at my  Garry Rd. address. Those who really know me, understand that change, disruption to routine, can make me apoplectic. It's truly a miracle how well I'm taking this and it's all because of Don. He has a way of calming my soul.

Some months ago I must have mentioned in passing that I was due for a new computer desk - something with more space that could double as a writing area for the planned May retirement. Before I knew what was happening we were in the car and on the way to West Elm to sneak a peek at designs.

Don loves projects, he's also enamoured of real wood, none of this plasticky stuff they show at Staples. A few discreet photos, a stop for graph paper, and before the day was over, Houston, we had a prototype in progress. A whole day at my second home, Lowe's (even their politics are on the right side, which is to say, left) and my new work station/writing desk was rising like a phoenix from the ashes of mess that is currently my garage.

But like the proverbial snowball, the project seemed to be taking on a life of its own. The desk is monstrous! Hmmm-something had to go. For two weekends that meant having a garage sale that served two purposes, freed up space, and gave us some money to put toward the new paint which was now going to be a must. The pastel peach and the frilly daybed, purchased for a long grown and gone stepdaughter, no longer seemed to fit my new maturity.

You know what's next don't you? The final color decision, burnt sienna and umber, are marvelously rich and warm. The off white carpet? Gone baby gone. Decisions, decisions.....the wood floor is gorgeous! Oh no, those white mini-blinds look ridiculously out of place. Uh huh, wood slat plantation shutters. Now my room sits empty, anxiously awaiting the piece de resistence. The desk is nearly finished, Don is sanding as I type and I'll be staining it in a few hours. Next weekend? He's building a bookcase to match. Am I the most fortunate girl in the world? And all he wants in return is the great American novel and 20% of the royalties. The pressure's on.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Joy Castro, A New Voice in Literary Suspense

Hell or High Water: A NovelTouted by none other than Dennis Lehane, Joy Castro, literature teacher at the University of Nebraska, will be sharing the stage with another Lehane admiree, Atticka Locke, at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival next March. I'm so looking forward to meeting the two of them.

I've been listening to Ms. Castro's book in my car while simultaneously listening to Gillian Flynn's much ballyhooed Gone Girl on my ipod and I have to say, as devious and clever as Gone Girl is, the less well known Hell or High Water seemed to me a more superior novel.

Joy Castro's characters have heart. They are real, tangible people that you might actually know and their behavior is the result of understandable motivations. The excellent reading by Audie winner Roxanne Hernandez brought the characters to life for me. Her gorgeous Spanish language skills added depth to the narration as well.

The setting for Hell or High Water is post Katrina New Orleans and the news room of the famous Times-Picayune, where Nola Cespedes, a promising young journalist is working on a feature story that will propel her from the Arts and Leisure section to the front page - or so she hopes. But she's got to get her act together. Out trolling for men every night, drinking into the wee hours of the morning, and showing up late with an attitude, is not the way she'll endear herself to co-workers or her boss Bailey.

The damaged city of New Orleans as it tries to rise from the ashes of Katrina is a metaphor here for the damaged characters who fill this novel. It opens with the disappearance of a young woman from a French Quarter restaurant in broad daylight, later found raped and murdered. The article that Nola is working on revolves around sexual predators who have served their time and the difficulties they face while trying to reintegrate into society. Castro is doing a good service here, teaching through her characters, the good, the bad and the ugly, the men who Nola confronts and interviews in often awkward circumstances.

There is a constant atmosphere of underlying tension throughout the novel that keeps one on edge. Nola is so smart, a Tulane graduate, hanging with a posse of great gals with careers and lives, but the reader learns through Nola's first person voice, that she always feels like an outsider. She is prickly and resentful of her background growing up in the projects. She has worked hard at hiding her past but still harbors a sense of loyalty to the less fortunate that she left behind.

She's distrustful of men and rebuffs all attempts at true intimacy in favor of one night stands without names or faces. She only feels safe with her roommate, a gay man who will never be a threat, and with her newly acquired pistol that accompanies her everywhere. On Sundays, like any good Latino young lady, she takes her mother to church and reverts to the woman she could be for a few hours.

It's not often that I don't see it coming but when the shocking thing happens, you know, the gun that's introduced in the beginning of a play must be used before the end, I almost stopped my car on the side of the road. Yup, Joy Castro did what Gillian Flynn didn't - took me by surprise. Take a look at her website, grab a copy of her book, meet her in March. You won't regret it!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Florida, Blue? Who Knew?

Yes, four years ago my adopted state of Florida went for Barack Obama. I was stunned and amazed. Since that time though, things have gone steadily downhill for progressives in the Sunshine State - especially in my neck of the woods. Since the election of Rick Scott for Governor, Florida has been paddling backward at an alarming rate.

Working with the public, though often rewarding, can be onerous for those of us with an outspoken bent. Just once, while placing the 500th hold on a Glen Beck title, I'd love to be able to look up sweetly from the reference desk and say, "how can you read that junk?" But of course, that's not how we librarians role. We believe in something to offend everyone!

Over the past year the atmosphere has become more and more toxic and I'm always flummoxed when someone presumes that I might share their mean spirited views towards humanity, blacks, the poor, immigrants, the unemployed, you name it. We in public service are often sitting ducks for abuse, tethered to a desk where we are expected to grin and bear it.

Not long ago a well-to-do customer came in to use the Internet as the service hadn't yet been hooked up in his second home. "What are all these people doing here in the middle of the day," he asks. "You let them stay here on the computers all day?" ( I'll leave you to figure out the racial make-up of "these" people)
"Looking for jobs," I respond, "or weren't you aware that we have a 12% unemployment rate here in Lee County right now?" Grrrrr.....

Yesterday, election day, I think I hit a low point for depression and disappointment. Our building is a polling place. What a great way to see the system at work! Except that two of the poll workers took their afternoon break in our supper room. They were loudly excoriating the president, teachers, unions, New Yorkers (where'd that come from?), and expressing their firm belief that the world as we know it would end if President Obama were to be re-elected. Silly me, I always thought poll workers were supposed to at least act non-partisan.

On a more upbeat note, at my polling place, I ran into all my Republican friends at once. I cracked up. Our wait was doable - an hour and a half - and we all had a chance to express ourselves. Even if we philosophically disagree about government and its responsibility to the least of our brothers, we all live in harmony in our little community and we are all there for each other.

An elderly woman, painfully thin and relying on a walker, was treated with such deference when she arrived. I wished I could take a picture of her as she exemplified to me the best of the democratic system. It couldn't have been easy for her to be there but by golly she was, like the Delaney sisters, "having her say."

So now the election is over. I can turn my answering machine on again and not be held hostage to the robo-calls. I'm obviously pleased and relieved at the outcome but worried too. I'm online too much. I see the horrific, inexplicable hatred that anonymous posters spew into the cloud about this good man whose burden is so ferociously heavy and I'm scared. Here's hoping that whatever gods or fates are out there will work their magic and help our country come together and work for the common good.

Now I can put my papers aside for a few days and get back to my real world - fiction!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nothing Casual about The Casual Vacancy

We librarians are as time constrained as our customers are as it applies to checking out books. So a 500 page whopper like J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, no matter how quickly it moves, can't always be completed by a working person within the 2 week limit. I'll admit that I'm on overtime myself but I figure the library needs the $$.

I expected plenty of controversy and sour grapes from reviewers now that Ms. Rowling has moved onto the adult literature stage and it was there. Few reviews were glowing and one writer even snarkily commented that spending time in Pagford, Rowling's fictional village in England where the vacancy occurs, was like spending a week with the Dursleys! That was funny. But not really accurate.

J. K. Rowling would appear to have a very jaundiced view of humanity which can make for depressing reading. The thing is that she also has a ferociously biting sense of humor that offsets the dim view of her small town denizens. The fact that she's right on the money, so accurate, so scathing in her depiction of the class warfare that has spoiled British life for so long and which has now crossed the pond to infect the United States, leaves me in awe of her skill.

Readers here in Southwest Florida will find her story particularly apropos. It's really a study of the haves and the have nots as well as a look at deep seated prejudices. Because we're in an area of extreme wealth, gated communities, and $300 a game golf courses that actually abut lower income communities peopled with blue collar retirees, the working poor and a large immigrant population, we see this kind of dichotomy everyday at the grocery store, at work, and in our schools. The English town of Pagford could be anywhere U.S.A. and it isn't pretty.

The plot surrounds the sudden death of a member of the town council who has been involved in a controversial battle between the quaint Pagford and the neighboring low income area called The Fields. Half of the townspeople would like to annex The Fields into Pagford and half are dead set against it. Who will fill the deceased man's seat on the council and what will he do to get there?

No, it doesn't sound like much of a plot, does it? But, in fact, Rowling manages to introduce readers to a complete microcosm of society and believe me, what shows on the surface is not at all related to what's going on in these peoples' heads! Among the teens there is angst and despair. Abused as a kid with a drug addict for a mother, Krystal Weedon acts out sexually in order to get attention. She is one of the characters I really got attached to in hopes that life would pull a turnaround for her.

A local physician who also serves on the council has lived in Pagford all her life but is still seen as a "Paki bitch" when push comes to shove. And speaking of pushing and shoving, there's an enormous amount of spousal abuse going on behind the pretty curtained windows of Pagford. You watch it happen with one eye turned from the page just waiting for the women to unleash their pent up rage.

Rowling does an especially good job with men, burrowing down into their psyches. In particular, the ongoing interior monologue of the attorney, Gavin, as he tries to extricate himself from a relationship with a social worker, Kay, who has moved to Pagford hoping to insinuate herself into his life, is pricelessly realistic. The tug of war between men and women is alive and well in Pagford and honestly depicted to a fault. Rowling pointedly shows the hypocrisy of the people on the hill, actually believing that they are above those down in the Field, even though the same devastation is being played out behind closed doors in both neighborhoods.

It's enough to make you blush when you read about a foible that Rowling has zeroed in on with her razor wit. How does she know this stuff? All those years of poverty when she sat in cafes and penned her fantastical Harry Potter world? Observing, observing, observing....

So, bottom line? Do I recommend The Casual Vacancy? I hate to be on the fence about anything but this is a time when I'm torn. It's a great expenditure of time and it won't make you happy. Life's short, I get that. I had to do it. Inquiring minds needed to know. Now though? I'm just looking for my next read to be happy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Latest from Ian McEwan

I was thrilled to download an advanced digital review copy of Sweet Tooth, McEwan's latest entry in his formidable list of prize winning novels, especially because you never know what to expect from him. Each book is so very different from the other. Think Atonement, Saturday, Solar or On Chesil Beach (my least favorite).

As a fanatic fan of the BBC production MI-5, the plot of Sweet Tooth grabbed me immediately: the '70's, the cold war is winding down as the IRA's methods become increasingly violent. A maths major at Cambridge, Serena Frome is the daughter of a middle-class family.  Dad is a church bishop, mom placates parishioners, but Serena is destined for bigger things.

 It all begins with a passionate summer affair with a much older man, a professor at college who schools her in much more than academics, then cruelly disappears from her life. Serena is a fabulous character, resilient, stubborn, a practical romantic if that isn't a contradiction of terms. Think "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." McEwan does an outstanding job of placing himself in Serena's head and channeling a 20 something with guts and bravado searching for a life of excitement and meaning.

She gets it all when she's hired for a low level desk job at MI-5. Because of her reputation as a great, eclectic reader - look out all you bibliophiles out there - Serena is chosen for her first important mission, operation Sweet Tooth. Her duty, should she choose to accept it, is to ingratiate herself with the aspiring author Tom Haley and to make him an offer he'd be loathe to refuse, a lovely pot of cash for stories with a certain political bent. Will he fall for her? Brains, beauty, treachery? Readers will love betting on who will outsmart whom.

McEwan's novel can be read simply for fun, which it is, but there are naturally messages here for discussion. Artistic integrity, deception, manipulation, self-knowledge, trust. These words give you a sense of all the fodder for the deeper reader. And, for those looking for the back story, wait until you've read the novel,  which will be out in just a few weeks, then check out this interview with the author.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

History Lessons with Rachel Maddow

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fiction fanatic. Still, every now and then I realize that I need a reality check, something that brings me back down to earth for better or for worse. I've done such a good job of tamping down my temper during this horrific election season but all it took was Rachel Maddow's Drift to fire me back up again.

Many of you will know Ms. Maddow from her stint on Air America or more likely from MSNBC, but you may not be aware that she truly knows her stuff. This is no Glen Beck! This woman has a Phd. from Oxford University! How I would have thrived having her for a history teacher. She has the ability to take an extremely complicated subject and distill it to the bare essentials.

My only warning is that you might prefer to read the book rather than listen to Rachel read it as I did. Her style is so staccato, so intense, that this listener felt the need to keep going back to be sure I got what she just said.

The subtitle to this book is "The Unmooring of American Military Power."  The gist of the book is just how far America has strayed from its founding principles as it applies to war mongering and keeping a standing army. She quotes Thomas Jefferson as opining to a friend that he hoped "never to keep an unnecessary soldier." Then she proceeds to explain how the United States, from the Vietnam War onward, has proceeded to build the world's largest military/industrial complex. The idea being, once you have it, you must put it to use.

And sadly, that we do, too frequently and too indiscriminately. From the pathetic invasion of the spice island, Grenada, under Ronald Reagan, to the first gulf war under President Bush, Sr. and the ill-informed invasion of Iraq, Ms. Maddow teaches how presidents are defying Congress and expanding the war powers of the executive branch through backdoor deals and secrecy. The lesson learned? No matter how you vote, the ugly truth is that you really have no say in how defense funds are spent.

Unfortunately, my own man, President Obama, is no exception to this. Ms. Maddow, a rather renowned liberal speaker, cuts no slack for Democratic presidents. My only issue with her is that she offers no solutions to the outrageous problem of American overreach. Perhaps another book is in the offing?

To calm myself down I turned to J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. She had me laughing snarkily from page one. Will keep you posted on that one though my home office/sanctuary remodeling project may mean that reading will get short shrift this weekend.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Will Schwalbe, Your Mom Must be So Proud

Please, please, dear readers, don't let the title of this marvelous book put you off. It is the most life affirming book I've read this year. Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club will definitely be on my list of books to discuss at the library next season. If you've been living under a rock and haven't heard the hullabaloo about this then take my word for it, it's no hype. I'm a very slow reader, but this one? Devoured in 2 evenings and an afternoon off.

Will Schwalbe's mother, Mary Ann(e) Schwalbe, was a mover and a shaker to her very last breath. An amazing woman, ahead of her time, she worked at various places of higher learning, eventually taking a position in the admissions offices of Harvard and Radcliffe. Yeah, not your average gal.

But her most lasting accomplishment, aside from her extended family, was likely her work with war refugees in Bosnia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In fact, my fellow book lovers, she realized her final dream, funding the building of a library in Kabul for all the young people she met and fell in love with through her work, during her treatment for pancreatic cancer.

For anyone who isn't aware, the administration of chemotherapy is a long, drawn out affair that can run anywhere from 4 to 6 hours on a good day. Some folks sleep or stare at the television but Mary Anne and Will read books - wonderful tomes - some deep and difficult like Thomas Mann, others light but luminous like Alexander McCall Smith. As I read I had a notebook beside me to transcribe the titles I wasn't familiar with, adding them to my lengthy "to read" lists.

Through Will's loving memoir of this precious 18 months with his mother, sharing thoughts and ideas as they never had before, he allows us to meet this remarkable woman and truly feel that we've gotten to know her. Humor, spunk, a dash of imperiousness, and an open heart, blaze off the page. I don't think that anyone could read this without thoughts of their own parents, especially if one has had the privilege to be with them during the process of living while dying.

Will Schwalbe has written a paean to his mom but even more to the power of books, words, and literature, to comfort, to provide respite from pain, to challenge us to think deeply and share widely, something we book bloggers and readers truly understand.

Without proselytizing, this is also a shout out to the dedicated men and women who work in Hospice and palliative care around the country. Through Will, Mary Anne cries out for health care reform. As decidedly ill as she was, she never forgot those who weren't as fortunate to have excellent insurance and access to the best that Sloan Kettering had to offer.

There truly isn't a single "down" moment in this beautiful tribute to the woman Will describes as like an air traffic controller, always making sure that her kids, grand kids and co-workers had what they needed when they needed it, planning parties and travels until her strength ran down, and even then advising Will on how to write and send responses to the condolences that she knew would come flooding in at the news of her death.  Don't miss the opportunity to spend a few days in Mary Anne's orbit!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Christopher Hitchens Will Not be Silenced

No one could miss the irony. That a man who lived for debate, for the joy of the spoken word - for which he was probably more famous than for his estimable writing - should be brought down by a disease that affected his ability to speak. Oh the injustice! That's my opinion, though, not his. He was not a man to ever ask that pathetically inexcusable question, "why me?"

I felt that I got to know this man as apparently millions of others did, through his memoir Hitch-22, a book that I listened to so as to reap the full benefit of his wonderful voice. Now I'm reading his final powerful words, just over 100 pages of humor, pathos, and feistiness, called simply, Mortality.

For any readers unfamiliar with the back story, Mr. Hitchens was on a book tour for his memoir when he was struck down by what would be diagnosed as stage 4 esophageal cancer. Since he wryly observes that there is no stage 5, he surmised the outcome from the beginning but gave it his best shot anyway, planning his death with lawyers and accountants in the mornings and putting it on hold in the afternoon during chemo drips. Eighteen months was all he got.

Poignant but never sad, this book had me laughing out loud in the lunch room the other day as my co-workers looked at the title of the book thinking what on earth??? You would have to understand the black humor that accompanies those of us who have been as he calls it "in the land of malady."

Comparisons are made, horror stories are shared, people take advantage of your emotions in ways they would never dare do to a healthy person. I remember going through radiation therapy and feeling guilty because my cancer was only localized while some of my fellow patients may have been looking at a different outcome.

Christopher Hitchens was infamous for his insistence on atheism and brilliantly debated famous theologians over the existence of god, heaven, hell and all stops in between. (Does anyone remember purgatory?) "Good" Christians took bets on whether he would recant as he faced his death. Hate mail equalled support letters in number as he plugged away at treatment and continued to write. I knew he would not cave.

Death is guaranteed at birth. I suspect that most of us would like to live for as long as we can be productive and involved. A fatal illness at the young age of 63 at the height of one's intellectual prowess and output seems more of a waste than a tragedy. But when faced with the facts Mr. Hitchens had courage, dignity, and the full use of his amazing power of reason. He inspired me to hope for nothing less.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Tatjana Soli's The Forgetting Tree

Last year I hosted a lively discussion of Ms. Soli's amazing debut novel about the first female photojournalists to serve in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The Lotus Eaters was simply beautiful for the evocative writing and the complicated theme of waging warfare in a country and on a people that we hopelessly misunderstood. This devastating error in judgement seems to have plagued the United States since World War II with no sign of diminishing.

So it was with trepidation that I opened what publishers and reviewers refer to as the "sophomore" effort, The Forgetting Tree. Believe me, there is nothing sophomoric about this incredible novel. Though the story is totally different from her first book, the descriptive, skilled use of language that lands you smack in the middle of the setting is there in spades.

A once prosperous citrus farm in California, owned by the Baumsarg family for several generations, is a living, breathing character thanks to what must have been extensive research on Soli's part. And it's through Claire, wife and daughter-in-law of the family, that readers feel the visceral love that comes from working the land. Claire can actually taste the soil and intuit how that year's crop will fare.

But times are changing, money is tight, other farmers are selling out to real estate developers, too much rain or not enough, plays havoc with the trees but Claire still cannot bring herself to quit. Her foreman Octavio and his family rely on her and she on them. She tells herself that she's hanging on for her family even though her husband left long ago and her girls can't wait to escape. What tethers her to her land? Her son Josh died there.

This novel is bookended by two violent acts that shake Claire to her very core. Each clarifies some of the central themes posed by Ms. Soli; excess, envy, hunger, need, how much is too much? How do we protect what's ours without incurring a violent reaction from those who have so little? When fighting for our lives, do our possessions lose their importance? What roles do race and culture play when resentment simmers just below the surface?

A remarkable character with multiple names, known to Claire as Minna, crashes the scene about halfway in and the novel takes on a seductive, surreal quality that had me tensely clutching my stomach. A bit of magical realism, some voodoo from Minna's native Dominica, and Minna spins a gossamer thread over the farm as she cares for Claire through a bout with cancer so realistically described that I could once again see my mom, almost thirty years ago, as she faced her final weeks.

Words fail me when I try to do justice to a novel like this one. The more talented the writer, the more inept I feel as I attempt to describe the essence of a book that I put down reluctantly at the denouement. Perhaps it won't speak to you but I must recommend that you at least give it a try and let me know what you think. Let's have a conversation! Visit Ms. Soli's website at

Friday, October 5, 2012

Three Quarters of a Year?

Could it be that we're three quarters of the way through 2012? I've just now accomplished writing 2012 on my checks without hesitating! Time, don't run out on me....lyrics to an old Ann Murray song. So, my question is, how many books have you read so far? Any favorites?

I'll brag for a second and tell you that I have hit a record - 94 books read in nine months. I guess I won't have to be scrambling between Christmas and New Years to make it to 100 this year. I'll share with you my top 10 so far but I have to say, there's a tremendous amount of literature out there drawing raves, yet when I sit down to read I find myself just saying "meh."

It doesn't feel right to blog here about books that I can't even enjoy myself. What kind of a writer would I be if I did that? Still, it stands to reason that some of you readers might be thrilled with a novel that just doesn't appeal to me. So, am I doing you a disservice by not giving those titles a name?

OK, let's begin: Night Watch by Linda Fairstein. She's a fabulous speaker who attended our Reading Festival a year or two ago and lit up the room. A feminist, a former New York state prosecutor, and a sex crimes specialist. So why did her series character, Alex Cooper, come across as a whiny, wimpy woman besotted by a slick talking Frenchman? In the middle of the most important case of her career - think Dominique Strauss-Kahn - she's more wrapped up in her "boyfriend" Luc Rouget than in getting her conviction.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan didn't even meet the rule of 50! Anyone else read it through?

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. OK, I'm only reading this because I know that I should. Ms. Mantel was a huge award winner for Wolf Hall, a fictional look at the scurrilous King Henry VIII and his secretary Thomas Cromwell. This is the sequel. It gets me through my walks but.....

Defending Jacob by William Landay. I'm five discs in and waiting.....I've heard from everyone that the ending is a knockout but, gee, shouldn't the characters strike you as real, sympathetic, or just remotely likeable before the last fifty pages? We are having a discussion on this one at the library so I'm anxious to be able to give it a great review!

Don't you find that it's really a difficult proposition to "rate" books? I hate it when asked that age-old question..."if you were stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book..." I'm trying to come up with my top ten so far this year and notice that some of the titles that I enjoyed the most are barely on most folks' radar screens. Nevertheless, these are the ones I wish you'd try:

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman
Heft by Liz Moore
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
Canada by Richard Ford
Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray
Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Paris In Love by Eloisa James
Life Itself by Roger Ebert
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The House Girl - 2013 Good Read Alert!

I was fortunate to receive a digital advance copy of this novel and blew through it last weekend while flying back and forth to Pittsburgh. I admit to having trouble with the title and wondered if this would be another condescending look at institutional slavery and its aftermath in the United States where the writer uses humor, as in The Help, to make light of a horrific time in our country's history.

What a pleasant surprise I had while reading this first novel by Seattle writer Tara Conklin. (born and raised only 6 miles from my hometown in Massachusetts) I loved her voice from the jump and enjoyed it even more when I found her blog, in particular this post where she discusses the novel's cover and the angst that goes into the decision - something most readers actually think the author has control over - NOT!

It seems that I've been inundated lately with novels that use parallel story lines, generally in different centuries, that culminate by solving riddles of identity and heredity. It's a very pleasing and effective literary device. Conklin's book begins on a Virginia tobacco plantation in the 1850's where the enslaved "house girl," Josephine, has an ambiguous relationship with her mistress and enslaver, Lu Ann Bell.

Josephine is an endearing heroine, strong, smart, and tenacious. Though she endures the rapes and beatings that befell so many women and children in the south at that time, her spirit and passion for freedom soar through the canvases she paints under Lu Ann's protection.

In current time Manhattan another strong willed woman, attorney Lina Sparrow, has been tasked with a make or break case, one that should have happened long ago, one that will create controversy, publicity and $$$$ for her prestigious law firm, a suit for reparations for slavery.

I love that Conklin had the courage to bring this contentious subject matter forward in her first  book. When one considers the economic impact of slave labor in the building of this country, not to mention the construction of our own White House, it would seem like a no-brainer that some form of compensation should be awarded to ancestors of enslaved people.

Calling upon her background as an attorney, Conklin draws a picture of bloodless lawyers, working their newbies 100 hour weeks while dangling the carrot of a partnership before their bloodshot eyes. Lina and her co-workers have no life outside the firm which perhaps explains how she has managed to subsume the longing for her mother, an artist named Grace, killed years past in an automobile accident.

She shares her childhood home with her dad, renowned painter Oscar Sparrow, and it is her connection with the art world that becomes the catalyst that bridges Lina's work on the reparations case with Josephine's life and legacy back in Virginia.

This novel deserves wide readership and I hope that it gets it when published in early 2013. Conklin combines the history of the underground railroad, genealogy research ( with a very cool librarian ), the underlying truth in artistic expression, and a passion for justice, to give her audience a deeply satisfying reading experience and time spent with characters who refuse to be victims. Multiple themes for discussion abound so book groups should keep this one on their radar screen!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Random Thoughts on Family Reunions

Unlike most folks, I just love flying. The more time I spend in an airport the better as far as I'm concerned. Where else can you people watch to your heart's content and read your book with no distractions. So it was, with a loaded up nook and a paperback of Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, just in case, that I flew last weekend to Pittsburgh for a mini family reunion.

My sister picked me up at the airport and we headed on to Steubenville, Ohio, where my brother and sister-in-law settled more than thirty years ago. Don't ask why. I love the dynamics of families! As a psychological study, can there be anything better? Probably 80% of the novels I read revolve around families, usually dysfunctional, but that's ok. Aren't we all to some degree?

What's remarkable is that siblings and in-laws, as disparate as they can be, manage to function pretty darn well together when you get right down to it. What's more, when push comes to shove, we love each other even if we haven't really known one another all that well. How could we really? Each of us pursued such different lives in varying parts of the country, priorities changed with circumstances, barriers to happiness have been many. Illness and divorce have taken their toll, but now, as the baby among us has turned 60, we seem to be mellowing out, coming into our own, morphing into the people we were each meant to be, and embracing our individual strengths.

In my family, as I surmise is true of most, we have long marrieds, divorced, and singles. Gays and straights and some still questioning. We have Republicans and Democrats, equally vocal. We have Christians, Agnostics, and Atheists, who I hope will always be given equal respect. We are a novel just waiting for the writing. Who will do it first? My nephew who's walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? My sister, the former newspaper columnist who made our family famous in Falmouth? Or, maybe even me?

Lest I forget, the reason for this autumn trip to Ohio was not just to cool down for a few days but to welcome new babies to the family. My niece just gave birth to identical twin girls, playmates for her two year old! She's my new idol.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

No, I didn't finish the Sunday papers. Instead, I finished my digital copy of Lisa Genova's latest novel Love Anthony, before it could disappear from my nook. You will get a chance to put this book on hold next week when it is released to the public and yes, I suspect the list will be long based upon Ms. Genova's reputation and her two previous books, Still Alice, the superior novel in my opinion, and Left Neglected.

Product Details

For those unfamiliar with Lisa Genova, you should understand that she is a biopsychologist and a Harvard degreed neuroscientist. Her background in these areas informs all of her fiction but I wonder if it's becoming more and more difficult for her to formulate stories around diseases of the brain. It is her strength while crafting believable conversations among friends, especially married couples, appears to be a weakness.

Still Alice was an outstanding, emotional read, a truly realistic and informative look at early onset Alzheimer's disease and its insidiously slow, lethal effect on the brain. More than that, it examined the families lost in the uncertainties of how to deal with the possibility that it is a disease that's genetically predisposed.

In Left Neglected readers were introduced to a rare form of brain injury and a tough woman's ability to readjust her way of life to the new reality that one side of her brain will no longer respond to commands.

Autism is at the heart of Ms. Genova's latest novel. Olivia and her husband David have separated under the formidable financial and psychological strain of trying to "fix" their son Anthony. When the book opens Anthony has died and Olivia has escaped to Nantucket to try to heal and to fathom why God would send this broken child to her only to take him away after ten short years.

The windswept desolation of the island, deserted from October to June, is gorgeously rendered and one can palpably sense the restorative nature of long, bruising walks on the gray beach. Ironically, it is that same warm, summer beach where Olivia and Anthony spent hours collecting and lining up white shells and stones, that enabled the chance encounter with Beth, a young woman who will change Olivia's life.

Beth is also a woman in transition, trying to decide if she can reconnect with her husband Jimmy, the father of her three girls, who had an affair with a co-worker. As they meet with their counselor and try to re-establish a sense of trust, Beth realizes that she has subsumed her pre-marriage and family interests to the detriment of her own sense of well being. She was a writer and it's to writing that she returns for renewal and salvation.

And it's Beth's novel, the novel within the novel, that is the strongest part of the book. Miraculously she manages to channel a child with autism, a boy who cannot communicate with words but whose inner life is roiling with thoughts and ideas. I'll leave it up to you readers to decide whether Genova's knowledge of the inner workings of Anthony's brain is based on scientific fact or on faith alone.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How Does Your Garden Grow?

So what will it be for the rest of the afternoon? Finish Lisa Genova's new novel, Loving Anthony, and report to you and Net Galley, or plow through the pile of newspapers that are rebuking me from the couch?

Yesterday was complete the garden day for fall. Don and I have been working hard each weekend on a new, sturdier set up for the growing season and now that it's finished, I have to say it's gorgeous! Good, solid 4 X 4's, held in place with rebar have replaced the bamboo that we used for the past two years.
Brand new healthy dirt, fortified with organic garden soil has been raked in and we have a better planting plan too. We're using both seeds and starter plants so that we'll have a longer eating season with less waste.

Here's what we have to show for hours at Lowe's, my favorite place after home and the library!

In one box go all of Don's hot peppers, collards, and this year's experiment, an eggplant. My mom would be soooo proud. In the other box are my red and green bell peppers, two types of tomatoes, and three lettuces, not to mention spinach. Marigold for color and peppermint to keep away the bugs!
I'm so glad I have a yard! How fortunate can a girl be? When we were finished we sat out back with our wine and just breathed in the smell of the wet dirt with such a sense of satisfaction - to be able to grow something provides such a glorious sense of well-being.
We also have the joy of providing a little mini-haven in the middle of this concrete world for all kinds of wildlife. We can observe more here than we do on our walks through the Six Mile Cypress slough. Yesterday there were yellow butterflies everywhere and the cardinals were so red and the blue jays so blue that they take your breath away. But better still were these three otters playing around later in the day that I tried to catch on film. Should have taken a video!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Three Weeks in December - Book Discussion Season Opener!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to perform one of my favorite "duties" as a librarian - opening our book discussion season. With fourteen attendees I believe we set a record for September and I'm sure that it was the choice of the outstanding novel Three Weeks in December which I shared with you here last year. This novel by Audrey Schulman impressed me even more through its second reading and my group was unanimous in its praise for the simplicity and beauty of the writing as well as for the in-depth character studies of the two main protagonists.

An anomaly in backwoods Maine in 1899, Jeremy is an engineer, struggling with his sexual identity and the extreme loneliness that comes from an inability to be one's true self. An assignment to Kenya to oversee the Indian laborers who are building the railroad through the savanna to Lake Victoria, becomes the catalyst for Jeremy to examine his desires and frustrations. He not only falls in love with Africa but also with his African hunter/guide, Otombe. Author Schulman writes of unrequited love and desire so poignantly that it causes one's heart to constrict.

One hundred years later, for the same three week period, we join a bi-racial woman, a scientist from Maine, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism which is manifested by asocial behavior, an inability to interact with others gracefully because of an aversion to physical touch, eye contact, colors, sounds, distractions of any kind. Max Tombay has a huge advantage though, a mother whose love and gumption have prepared her for a world in which she'll always be a tough fit.

Sent to Africa by a pharmaceutical company to locate a vine being ingested by the Rwandan silverbacks, Max feels more at home than anywhere else she's ever been. In love, like Jeremy, with Africa and with the gorillas, Max discovers that what may be a disability in Maine is an asset in the jungle. Like Max, the gorillas eschew eye contact and physical touch as they forage for food, thus accepting her quiet presence among them.

Themes for discussion abound as Schulman deftly, as I said in my review for LJ last year, teaches without preaching. We talked of colonization and how it can harm as much as help. Racism was a huge issue in the book as the Indian railroad workers were considered expendable, not given drugs for the malaria that killed 20 or 30 a day.
We spoke of big-pharma and its approach to research that may result in new drugs to save the world while destroying the habitat where they are found. We addressed the horror of the drug addled child soldiers who, in the novel, threaten the security of the gorilla research facility. Are these kids, so easily brainwashed, handed a rifle, and rewarded for killing, the reason only the young are asked to go to war?

Other reviewers and I, too, saw contrasts between this book and Ann Patchet's State of Wonder which we discussed here at the library last year. I personally think that Schulman's novel is by far the more sophisticated of the two but, as a lesser known novelist, she will not get the publicity and respect that she's due. So, my erudite readers, go out and grab a copy. You'll be glad you did!

Monday, September 10, 2012

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

Remember that admonishment from your mom? I apologize for not posting for a whole week but here's the dilemma....I can't say something nice yet about the two books I'm smack dab in the middle of. And guess what? They got great reviews from others!

Now, I'll grant you that last week I was completely caught up in the Democratic convention, glued to PBS's 4 hour coverage with Gwen Ifil and crew. Some of the speakers, especially the fine women, brought me to my knees. Sandra Fluke may one day be tapped for the Supreme Court but I suspect it won't be in my lifetime.

So, by the time I hit the bed, Jess Walter and his Beautiful Ruins simply could not entice me to read long into the night. Before I read all the kudos I was drawn to the book by its cover. Admit it, we all do it. How could you resist this gorgeous Italian coastline south of the CinqueTerra.Beautiful Ruins: A NovelAnd the lovely young man, Pasquale Tursi, owner of the Hotel Adequate View, in Porto Vergogna (yes, there is a great deal of droll humor in this book) is an endearing optimist full of grandiose plans to enhance the family inheritance.

These ideas could actually come to fruition now that the young American actress Dee Moray has come to his hotel hiding from the paparazzi who will beat down the doors when they discover that she's been booted from the set of Cleopatra, being filmed in Rome, for becoming pregnant by its big star.

But Walter doesn't want readers to languish back in 1962. Each chapter belongs to another set of characters in a different time and place, few of whom are as sympathetic as Pasquale and Dee.

There's Michael Deane, a caricature of the big-time Hollywood mogul, botoxed, sutured, and tanned to the point that his humanity is erased from his plastic face. (though this reader suspects he may be able to redeem himself in the final chapters)

There's Alvis Bender, the hapless writer who returns to Porto Vergogna each summer to tap away on his royal typewriter, editing a one chapter manuscript that goes nowhere. And then Claire Silver, Deane's long suffering assistant, who spends her weeks listening to amateurs pitch one horrible movie plot line after another, seeking the breakout story that will get her name in lights. 

Perhaps it's unfair of me to discuss this novel before I've finished it. Jess Walter has been a finalist for a National Book Award and the distinguished recipient of an Edgar too. And, at 259 pages in, there's no way I'm giving up on him now. Reviewers say this is a novel about flawed dreamers, beautiful ruins if you will. I'm a sucker for a happy ending so I'm forging ahead in hopes that Mr. Walter will tie all of his tales together in a tear inducing finale that will force me to eat crow for breakfast.

I'm dying to hear from any of you who have finished Beautiful Ruins, whether you loved or hated it. Tell us why, please. Let's have a discussion.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Great Northern Express by Howard WHO?

It's been a short week and a holiday weekend and while Don pattered happily away in the kitchen baking citrone limone and banana bread, I lolly gagged on the couch with Howard Frank Mosher. And who, you might ask, is that? Well even Howard refers to himself, in that self deprecating manor of folks who don't feel the almighty need to prove themselves to anyone, as "Howard Who."

Referred to as a "regional writer," Howard Mosher actually has an impressive array of novels to his credit, as well as several films made from his books which are all situated in New England, specifically northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  But I eschewed all that and went right for the memoir. I love memoirs by writers and Mr. Mosher's was a delight from beginning to lovely end. The title? The Great Northern Express; A Writer's Journey Home.

Written like an updated episode of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Mr. Mosher tells of hitting the road in his old beater Chevy, odometer bearing down on 250,000 miles, for a grueling cross country book tour that will take him to every major independent book seller in the United States. Perhaps in a different vehicle, that sounds like something I'd love to do myself. You know how it is when you get lost in a bookstore? Like dying and going to heaven, right?

And for Mr. Mosher, who had just finished treatment for prostate cancer and was getting that eerie sense of his own mortality, the trip was the perfect antidote and the fulfillment of a promise made long ago to his beloved uncle Reggie from whom he learned the joy and the gift of storytelling. Rather than conversing with a pet, a la Steinbeck, Frank has long, philosophical discussions with various phantom guests who frequent his "catbird" seat.
Writers and other colorful characters, but mostly his uncle Reg, join him on the trek through the south, out west and up to the pristine fishing waters of Washington and Montana, before heading back through Chi town, Philly and New York, to his wife Phillis who has kept her worries to herself and her support on maximum overdrive.

Interspersed with humorous tales of his book talks and the unique book stores where often the only audience is the staff or the homeless folk who come in out of the weather for a nap, are tales of the young, idealistic couple, Frank and Phillis Mosher, when they first arrived in northern Vermont as young teachers just out of college and just married.
 Having been born and raised in New England, I can vouch for the fact that his descriptions of small town America, the school kids, the principal who tapped the stash of booze in the desk drawer a tad too often, the wildly eccentric neighbors, and the life long friendships, are right on the money!

Frank Mosher's memoir is a paean to a way of life seldom recognized any more and is a welcome change from all the dysfunctional family narratives that I seem to be drawn to. He proudly yells kudos to teachers and librarians and throws flowers to all of those wonderful, independent book store owners who manage to keep the doors open even as Amazon and Costco chip away at their bottom lines, by cultivating the personal touch like author events with the likes of Howard Who. A wonderful read!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Many thanks to my friend Beth Conrad for her suggestion that I read this debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, a title that must have slipped under my radar screen though it's so evocative that you'd wonder how that could happen. Last weekend we here in Southwest Florida took only a glancing blow from the feeder bands of tropical storm Isaac resulting in a couple of lovely, windy, rainy days perfect for hunkering down with a new book.

Young, precocious protagonists seem to be the name of the game lately in all the quality new fiction I'm reading. June Elbus, the narrator of the Brunt book, represents a phase of every fourteen year old you've ever known - I am including myself here. Bookish, a loner, a thinker, a drama queen, an angst-filled kid with no one to talk to, she pins her hopes of being understood on her uncle and godfather, the renowned artist Finn Weiss.

Finn appreciates something special in June that neither her older sister Greta nor her parents, Finn's sister and brother-in-law, seem to get. It's the 1980's, the Elbus family lives a rather upscale existence in Westchester county where the parents are accountants and the kids are pretty much given free reign.
 Initially I had some difficulty imagining parents so oblivious to their kids' goings on but then I thought about my own childhood and the crazy things we got away with and, well.....

Uncle Finn is dying of a disease that no one will talk about. As a final gift to the family he has asked to paint a portrait of the girls and as a final gift to Finn, their mother Danni has agreed. Each Sunday they take the train into the city where Finn lives and has his studio and each Sunday June dies a little herself as she observes the changes in Finn as he wastes away from the illness that cannot be named.

There are so many themes running through this novel that I almost felt it detracted from the power of the book a bit. I suspect that Ms. Rifka Brunt had such a plethora of ideas running through her mind that she wanted to get them all down on paper in one fell swoop rather than wait for a second novel to emerge.

Sibling rivalry, a huge, understandable issue between the golden child Greta, the family performer who could be Broadway bound, and her darker, more introverted sister June, takes precedence over the more interesting subtext of the rivalry, envy, and resentment between Finn and his sister Danni, both artistic temperaments, Finn's fully developed and Danni's squelched for a more traditional path.

Secrets can be so damaging to relationships that families who keep them don't often fare too well. I know, as our family was close to the vest about so many fascinating aspects of our relatives' lives. They could have shared - we'd have gotten it!
The fact that AIDS was ravishing Finn, how that might have come about, and the existence of his long time companion and lover Toby, were only hinted at. June's understanding of the subject was learned through innuendo and half truths until she took the chance of meeting Toby and getting to know him for herself.

Love, in all of its permutations, becomes the saving grace for this family. How we love and who we love, the depth of our loyalty to our friends, partners, and family can make the difference between a life fully lived and an empty existence. This novel really intrigued me. Though I believe it may have benefited from some editing or paring down, I still recommend it as an example of the wonderful work coming from our young writers. We have much to look forward to as they take center stage.