Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Forty Books and Counting

How about you? I just finished my 40th book for the new year which means that I'm averaging 10 a month. Now, you might ask, am I retaining anything? Perhaps not but I'm enjoying them while I'm reading them and that's what counts, right? Just like my customers I'm always asking, "why do all the good ones have to come at once?"

I finished the new Per Petterson that I got from Library Journal in record time. I was happily surprised by it and discovered that he wrote it in 1992 but that it's just now been translated from the Norwegian for U.S. readers. Often I've found his work to be very despairing.

Not despairing but certainly angry is Paul Theroux's The Lower River, a semi-autobiographical novel about an idealistic young man who goes to Africa, Malawi to be exact, to teach English for the Peace Corps. His time there was eye opening and rewarding, but his life running the dreary family business back in Massachusetts is anything but. When his marriage falls apart, Ellis believes that returning to Malawi will be just the ticket. Read more in the April 15th edition of Library Journal:

Next week I'm hosting a book discussion of the much praised Tea Obreht debut novel The Tiger's Wife. It's not the type of book I generally read but I took it on at the request of one of our most well-read and respected discussion participants. The joke's on me. She hasn't come this year!! I'm struggling with it and feel like such a philistine. Barbara Hoffert, my editor at Library Journal, told me that she found it breathtaking. It is imaginative but I fear that I'm missing something and hate it when I do that. I'll let you know how it goes and what I learn from my deep readers.

One book that I thankfully DID jump on the band wagon for was last year's Swamplandia!, by another debut writer, Karen Russell. In case you didn't know it, her novel was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize! In fact, there's much hand wringing and controversy around the fact that the Pulitzer committee refused to choose among the three finalists recommended by the esteemed panel of judges (which included one of my favorites, Maureen Corrigan from NPR). The Pale King by David Foster Wallace and Train Dreams by Denis Johnson were the other contenders. I wouldn't dream of tackling DFW but the Johnson novella was already on my "to read" list.

When I'm not with Nadia and the tiger's wife I'm also reading a book that Harper Collins sent to me without my even asking! Heft by Liz Moore is a striking, sophisticated novel with a plot you don't see every day. And THAT'S saying something! I'll write more about it after I finish it. I've also gotten The Cove, The Variations, A Land More Kind Than Home, and The Good Thief's Guide to Venice. So what's in your "to read" pile?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Roger Ebert, My New Best Friend

Yes, I 've always had a soft spot for Roger Ebert. As a former movie addict I used to love his show with Siskel and would watch online whenever I could. I've followed his horrific battle with cancer and have marveled at the way he has adjusted to his new, circumscribed existence, one that no longer allows for the luxury of travel, and the pleasures of eating and drinking in exotic locales.

Life Itself, Ebert's low key description of his remarkable life has been in my car's cd player for several weeks now and I feel as if he's sitting next to me in the seat. Such an enjoyable companion! I make up errands so that I can spend more time with him. At the risk of sounding egotistical, I think that part of the attraction is that he reminds me of myself in many ways. No drama! He's a full throated optimist without an ounce of bitterness about his current illness and situation.

Can you imagine what a joy it is to listen to a person describe their childhood as normal and happy? What a relief! No half broke horses, drinks under the tree of forgetfulness, or running with scissors. Ebert was just a bookworm with two loving parents from a middle class home in a middle class neighborhood, Urbana, Illinois - I should add the caveat that this is what we USED to call middle class and not what currently passes for it. A former Catholic who questioned the dogma early on - I'm talking before the age of 10 - as I did, he still maintains a lovely spiritual aura that comes across loud and clear in his book.

Unlike so many celebrity writers of autobiographical material, Roger Ebert exudes kindness. It seems like he ascribes easily to the "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything" approach. Opting for humor over snarkiness, he manages to unearth the goodness in every person he meets, perfecting the non-confrontational interview techniques so eschewed by today's OMG standards. From Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, to Ingmar Bergman and Martin Scorsese, Ebert has elicited insightful interviews published in every major magazine and newspaper in the country with his laid back style. His friendships have endured for a lifetime. Oh, and did you know that he won a Pulitzer?

I especially took to the early chapters where he speaks of his travels overseas, his love affair with London and the solitary walks that gave him such a knowledge of the city. He was an early bloomer in terms of his writing skills, developer of his high school newspaper, editor of one in college, and the youngest member of the Chicago Sun Times esteemed staff, taken under the wing of Mike Royko, and introduced to his future wife Chaz by none other than Dear Abby.

Thyroid cancer may have taken away Roger Ebert's voice but it only enhanced his ability to tell a story. Life Itself is a must-read for anyone who considers himself an afficianado of film, books, newspapers, or history. Does that about cover it? Do yourself a favor and spend some time with Roger. You'll find that he's like an old friend that you haven't seen in a while but can strike up a conversation with immediately. Follow his blog at the Sun Times

Just finished a new book from Library Journal. Will keep you posted on that. Should also have Paul Theroux's new book reviewed in the 4/15 LJ. Loved it.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

John Donatich - I'm in Love with his Words

Who, you might ask is John Donatich and how did I find him? That's an especially apt question when you consider that my library system only owns one copy of his first book and it's improperly catalogued. I'll have to check usage and see if anyone else accidentally came upon him.

Serendipity is a wonderful word and, in my case, it often works. Betsy Lerner is a writer and editor whose blog I've been following for several years now. She is a pistol! Wry, funny, angry, blasphemous and talented, she posts one paragraph every day and never misses. Reading her is one part checking in with an old friend and another part keeping my pulse on the publishing world.

She recently mentioned that she'd thrown a book party for her husband's first novel, The Variations, which I immediately ordered. I wondered what kind of tough man could be married to this over the top woman. I discovered that he had written another book a few years ago called Ambivalence, A Love Story - Portrait of a Marriage. (not fiction as we have it but a memoir) And a beautifully written memoir at that.

Prompted by their decision to have a baby, move out of Manhattan and become suburbanites, John Donatich wrote the most honest, funny, sensitive paeon to fatherhood that I've ever read. Beginning and ending with the birth of Rafaella, Donatich's book is made up of a series of vignettes that examine his upbringing, his early career, his friendship with Betsy, the melding of their Catholic and Jewish cultures, depression, miscarriage, and pregnancy (with a hilarious take on the LaMaze boot camp).

But it's his style, his beautiful words, his sensitvity to the nature of relationships, his recognition of the supreme difficulty and joy of a marriage when you accept that you're in it for the long haul, that knocked me out. I kept interupting Don from his own reading to say "listen to this line, listen to how he says this!" Of course, I love that they are book people.

He quotes or refers to so many disparate authors in the course of his writing, from Henry James to E.B. White. On top of that, John Donatich speaks of Myron Floren and k. d. lang in the same hysterical paragraph as he confesses to his love/hate relationship with the accordian. Ya gotta love it! LOL as the kids would say.

Friends often ask "how was your weekend?" and then look askance when I say, "perfect, I didn't do anything!" How, some think, can that be fun? Don and I had lots of plans for this weekend but as yesterday passed companionably and we lost our ambition to even leave the house, I settled on the lanai with John while Don prepared a Senegalese stew for dinner and we were each as happy as clams - no ambivalence!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Elaine Newton - Now I Know What the Fuss is About!

I had the distinct pleasure of attending a lecture the other day at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts. For twenty years now Canadian Literature Professor, Elaine Newton, has been enthralling audiences -  at least 200 people were in attendance - with her in-depth reviews of books and authors. Often in the past our customers have brought us Ms. Newton's reading list just to let us know what she was up to (though I sometimes felt they were rubbing it in that we had to work and could never attend). I did feel vindicated when I saw that her tastes mirrored our own.

She is marvelously enthusiastic about reading, writing, and evaluating literature. Her speaking voice is exquisite and she had me chomping at the bit to return to a novel I previously couldn't read 50 pages of! This month's book? The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Publisher's Weekly calls it a "big, dense historical ... with literary brawn and stylistic panache." Is that great? What a fabulous description. I think I'll hang on til May when I'll be going north to see family and devote the week to it. Have any of you read it yet? I'd love to hear what you think.

Also this week I hosted 20 people for a book discussion of a novel I had grown to hate after reading it through twice! That almost never happens to me and I was a wreck over what to say and how to handle it. My stomach was in knots for days. On top of that I was going to be "observed" by one of our new staffers who'll also be planning book discussions next year. This maudlin, annoying novel? Please Look After Mom by the prolific Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin.

Fortunately, I didn't let on how I felt and just let the audience roll. Most of them had much more empathy for mom than I had. I notice there's a new book out about "empathy deficit disorder" (who knew?) and I fear that I may be suffering from it. Ha! Anyway, in this book, which we concluded may have suffered from a poor translation, mom and dad come from the country to Seoul to visit their children but no one seems to have time to pick them up at the train station. Dad hops on and somehow leaves Mom behind and the children are so busy blaming each other that a week passes before they can agree on how to even begin looking for her!

We meet and get to know mom through her children as they flagellate themselves with guilt. The famous novelist daughter, the successful businessman son, and the philandering, clueless husband each speak to mom as if she's still here, toting up all the extraordinary things that she did and sacrifices she made so that they could be who they've become. My nasty little self wanted to say, "how did that work for ya?"

My customers seemed satisfied that, in the final analysis, all those folks mom left behind grew in their understanding and appreciation of her. I said, "Yes, but, she's dead!" My readers felt "better late than never." Hmmmmm-I'm not feeling it!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Supremes - Court, That Is

I've been absolutely obsessing about the Supreme Court over the past couple of years. I suppose that it began with the mind boggling Citizens United decision proclaiming that a corporation can be considered a person for various reasons that, of course, involve $$$$$. I was angered and appalled by this decision but still had to stifle a shocked gasp when the president called the nine justices out on it during  last year's state of the union address.

Now, in an unfathomable decision, the nine - well actually the same five of the nine - have allowed that strip searching should continue in perpetuity for anyone, anywhere who is brought into a police station, even before they're arrested or found guilty of anything. How can this possibly hold up in the so called "greatest democracy in the world?" As a former protester who may become one again once I stop working for the government, I could theoretically be arrested for speaking my mind about an issue dear to my heart, brought into the sheriff's office and searched for potential contraband. What would that be exactly? A pen or pencil secreted in an orifice?

Presently the Supreme Court has heard arguments and is deliberating on probably the most important case in a generation, The Affordable Health Care Act. My curiosity got the best of me and I began listening to court watcher and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin's 2008 look at the history of the Supreme Court. The Nine; Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court is, believe it or not, compelling reading. There is absolutely nothing dry about Toobin's writing style or about the narrator's (Don Leslie) delivery. In fact, I'm walking more this week and playing in the yard longer because I hate to turn it off.

As a self-professed political junky, I am in perpetual amazement at the machinations and back room deals that go into choosing whom to elevate to a seat on the Supreme Court. For a president it is the opportunity of a lifetime to shape future litigation and laws that are in concert with your own ideals but often luck is the major factor. Timing can be everything. Depending upon your politics, you might find this to be a good or a bad thing, but it does appear that the courts tend to reflect the thinking of their times and judges who see the constitution as a living, breathing document can't help but be more reflective than the Federalists, Thomas and Scalia to name two,  who see it as a document written in stone. If that were really true then, by virtue of the color of his skin and a family history steeped in slavery, Clarence Thomas would still only be considered 3/5 of a man when it comes to government representation.

Toobin treats readers to a fascinating look at the thinking of the presidents and their advisors from Reagan to Bush (W), the incredibly invasive vetting process that has eliminated some of the best qualified men and women from the high court, including a man who was being treated for cancer and gave an oncologist access to his entire medical history to make a determination on his life span. (He didn't pass muster) Bill Clinton's agonizingly long process that finally gave us the marvelous Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a great tale of the right outcome for the wrong reasons. Thank you Janet Reno! And don't forget the protector of Roe v. Wade, Sandra Day O'Connor, who surprised the conservative Reagan with her sensible toughness.

I can't recommend this book enough for the insights into one of our most important political processes, the one with the longest lasting effect on all of our lives. Toobin is still at it and will release an update in September called The Oath; The Obama White House v. The Supreme Court. Should be a doozy!

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Expats - Who Wouldn't Want to be One?

Well this was just too much fun! A wild, crazy ride of a novel that at once seemed over the top far fetched and then, on the other hand, having seen all the episodes of MI-5, was absolutely believable, if only for its audacity! Pavone was himself an ex-pat living in Luxembourg where he apparently had a little bit of time on his hands and voila! He was living my dream. Leisurely mornings in bustling cafes, imagination on high alert, espresso and legal pad at hand, and a kick-ass book is born.

Strong marriages supposedly harbor few secrets but Dexter's and Kate's relationship is fraught with them. The irony here is that neither one knows what the other does or doesn't know - that she's former CIA, that he's a cyber hacker. Dexter is offered a too good to refuse position setting up cyber-security for an unnamed organization involved in Luxembourg banking. Kate has just foiled a formidable South American enemy who had threatened her family and she's ripe for a major change, one that just might involve something as simple as being a stay-at-home mom.

Well, you may take the girl out of the CIA but there's no way you can take the CIA out of the girl. Pavone has created a spunky, devious, brave new heroine in Kate Moore and I don't believe for a second that we've seen the last of her. Settled in Europe, surrounded by expats, the shoe is on the other foot, Kate home playing Lego's while Dexter works 24/7  and she doesn't like it one bit. After all, there's only so much schmoozing, coffeeing and gossiping a working girl can do before her head explodes.

New friends Bill and Julia set off Kate's alarm bells, turning up in the strangest places and times. Dexter's always affable personality gives way to a secretive, morose testiness that ignites Kate's inherently suspicious nature and pretty soon readers won't know who's on first! The financial machinations are frankly too complicated to even remotely try to explain, though fascinating.

I didn't really care who were the good guys and who the bad. My sensory pleasure points were burning with Pavone's descriptions of the expat life in Europe; the weekend jaunts to Paris, skiing vacations in Zurich,  the gloriously beautiful drive from Luxembourg to Holland, not to mention the low cost of living and the free health insurance! Oh how I'd revel in a year of discovery in France or Italy,perhaps Belgium. If travel is in your bones and espionage thrills you, run out and grab this book. I'm handing mine in tomorrow. Hope you're on the list.