Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Getting Quiet with Susan Cain

My dear friend Andrea put me on to this fascinating book by Susan Cain. I normally dislike over analyzing things - even though as a kid I wanted to be a psychiatrist in the worst way - but as we age it seems a natural predilection to review our lives, the decisions we made, the ones we passed by, the roads less taken, and ask ourselves why. When people ask that cocktail party question, "what would you do differently if you had your life to live over?" I always answer truthfully. "Nothing!"

I firmly believe that each wrong turn, each bad move and the pain that goes with it, contributes to the whole package that we are now. If we're pleased with who we've become, why question the past? The old saw, "one door closes and another opens," is so full of wisdom. A couple of tough years trying to find my way after a protracted and financially debilitating divorce led me to twenty years as a librarian, the most stimulating, fulfilling, and yes, blogable ( is that a word?) career imaginable!

You may find some insights into your own life's path by reading Quiet; The Power of Introverts in a World that can't stop Talking. There's a tremendous amount of scientific research to bolster Ms. Cain's observations about introverts and extroverts and I like that she eschews those labels, affirming that what I suspected is true. Most of us are a mixed bag of traits, and can lean one way or the other depending upon the situation. We are adept at adapting!

 But, a full 50% of us are, believe it or not, more likely to be introverts than the opposite. Is it any wonder that buying a car is one of the most hated things people have to do? Just the thought of those hail fellow, well met salesmen accosting me in the parking lot gives me the creeps. AAA buying service, thank you!

Why then, you may ask, is Facebook so hot? Why do folks go out there and bare their souls in cyberspace? Perhaps because they'd rather do so in the privacy of their homes than socialize face to face. What does this tell you? How is it that people who think they know me well will learn things about me on my blog that they might never find out at a party? Yup, I'm one of those introverts too. Give me dinner with four than fourteen any day of the week.

The thing is that society does seem to place more value on the extrovert personality. The squeaky wheel gets the grease as they say and Ms. Cain points our in her book how often in business, politics, school, and even families, thoughtful, quiet, or reticent people can be seen in a negative light. They need to be "helped," brought out of their shell, introduced to more friends, get out of the house more, and blah, blah, blah. No, actually, they might be perfectly happy playing alone, reading a book, or hey, becoming the next Bill Gates!

Patience is not considered a virtue in the American psyche. The Horatio Alger, up from the bootstraps, individualist who doesn't suffer fools gladly seems to be the ideal. But think, says Ms. Cain, about the quiet strength of people like Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks. What did it cost them, physically and psychologically, to leave their introverted comfort zones and put themselves on the line for causes they were passionate about?

There is some great advice in this book for parents, teachers, couples, and managers. If we take the time, Ms. Cain posits, to truly understand our relatives, co-workers, partners or employees we might do a much better job of getting each of them to rise to their full potential. What works for one may not do the trick for another. And why should we all be the same anyway? Isn't our uniqueness what makes us great?

Thank you Andrea, a fantastic, eye-opening read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in what makes the world tick.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Fun with David Frum

I'm just loving my new relationship with Net Galley! You get to browse through titles that will be coming out within the next 6 months or so and "request" a digital copy from the publisher. Naturally publishers want to get these galleys into the hands of as many folks as possible - especially folks who may be able to influence readers - so they seldom turn you down. That's how I came to be reading David Frum's Patriots while I was on vacation.

Political junkies, get on your library's website and grab up a copy of this book. It is a kick! I knew the name David Frum through past political reading but I decided to wait until I'd read his book before I investigated his background too thoroughly. I didn't want to prejudice myself against the novel if he was a right wing nut - or is that a wingnut? I did know that he had worked in the Bush administration but decided to forgive him for that transgression. So glad I did.

Patriots is a clever political satire that skewers both sides equally while also providing readers with some characters you can really care for. The time frame is the near future and our country's first black president of the "nationalist" party has been defeated by a strict "constitutionalist." (think Tea Party) Outrageous amounts of money have been spent - surprise - to aid and abet the election of Pulaski, a wounded veteran of the new Mexican war that our country has been engaged in.

To win this election, General Pulaski had to pander to the rightest wing of the party, but now that he's ensconced in the White House, he wants to govern from the center and his supporters aren't having it. The complicated back room deals, promises made for cash infusions or vote support in the house and senate, are absolutely accurate, you just know it! Frum's time in Washington was not wasted and the details of the hang outs, the food, the booze, the parties is over the top perfect.

 Readers in the know will have so much fun trying to correlate each fictional character to his or her real counterpart. The description of the Patriot News TV station (Fox) and the Glen Beck clone with his phony professor's glasses is an absolute laugh-out-loud hoot. The Occupy Wall Street movement becomes the Truckers for America coalition and the big rigs roll into DC turning the city upside down.

At the heart of the story is Walter, a naive, unambitious young man, heir to a mustard fortune, who's involved with Valerie, a hot, go-getter, who wants to mold her man into one she can be proud of. With some help from the family matriarch, Walter lands a low rung position as assistant to Senator Hazen from Rhode Island, home of corporate headquarters for Schotzke mustard. One hand does, indeed, wash the other.

It's a joy to watch the neophyte Walter grow close to and learn from Senator Hazen while, at the same time, he's courted by the opposition team for a stand he never really took - everything in Washington is staged says Frum and, sadly, this is likely true. Valerie and Walter are used by others for their own political ends as well but you keep hoping that they'll rise above the fray.

I really enjoyed this book but then, my readers know that I am the ultimate political junkie. I appreciate that David Frum had the integrity to paint the politicians in his novel as equally flawed, well, some a little more so than others, but most truly working in the way they believe is best for the country. It's just that sometimes the end doesn't justify the means and, in a democracy, we all have to wait our turn to have our say.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Anna Quindlen at Sixty

Serendipity. That magical moment when life puts you in the right place at the right time. For me it was yesterday, knowing full well that I'd have to spend pretty much the entire day waiting around airports, waiting in planes for takeoff or waiting in  lines to get into planes for takeoff. I never mind these kinds of days. Why? Because I read!

I had just downloaded a new book from NetGalley to my Nook and couldn't wait to jump in. I've been following Anna Quindlen since she was writing about her babies and the everyday life of a working mom. Those babies are adults now and I still love Ms. Quindlen more than ever. Imagine how thrilled I was to receive an email from my alma mater, Russell Sage College, apprising me that graduation would be webcast for everyone to see whenever they got around to it. Guest speaker and Doctor of Humanities recipient? You know it. Anna Quindlen.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, came to me at a most propitious time. I was leaving Massachusetts where I'd just come up against my own mortality. My annual trip to visit with my Aunt Jackie, my dad's sister and a second mother to me all my life, had me in a reflective mood. At 87 Jackie is still beautiful, pink, unwrinkled skin (how in hell did she do that?), with a quick, a little bit snarky, mind. She's a reader and a sports nut, but she can't get around very well. The inevitable day when she'll no longer be able to do everything for herself is fast approaching. It's hard not to fast forward 20-some years and see myself.

Which brings me back to Ms. Quindlen and her fantastic book about her life so far, about aging, about staying strong, about faith or the loss thereof, about friendships, the ones that come and go and the ones that last forever, about marriage, divorce, widowhood, illness, and all of the other things that life throws at you. In other words, about life in all its glory. She can be laugh-out-loud funny one minute and deadly serious that next. I love her politics so I guess you know how far left of center she is. I love her spunk, her brains, and her intimate knowledge of herself. I love her fearlessness.

I know that many of you have read or are familiar with most of Anna Quindlen's novels but are you aware that she's also a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, that she broke a glass ceiling somewhere in the newspaper world around 1978? Do you remember Black and Blue or the movie fashioned from the pain of One True Thing? It wasn't until yesterday that I came to understand that the Renee Zelwegger character was actually our author and that she had to put her college life on hold to nurse her mother through the final days of a deadly cancer.

I'm not sure how Lots of Candles will resonate with younger women but I hope that it does. There are so many life lessons here but even better, Quindlen posits questions that leave those lessons open for discussion. There's a heartfelt appreciation for the young and the realization that maybe they have learned and understood what our generation of women has fought for, just as we understand now how much our mothers sacrificed for us. Before Anna's mother had baby after baby, she was a draftsman. How about that? Mine taught Latin. Yikes! Imagine what kind of a brain that takes!

I could go on and on raving about this book which I read in one day between Hartford and Fort Myers but that would be stealing its thunder. I want you to go out and delve into it for yourselves. Then you can go to this website  (fast forward to her part if you can) to hear Anna Quindlen tell the Russell Sage graduates to throw out all the advice they get from those like us and make their own way. Courage and fearlessness, into the brink. It took me a heck of a long time to embrace those words but at 63, by george I think I've got it!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You Can Go Home Again's not as much fun without Don. Seeing my hometown through his eyes has always been a more fulfilling experience than being here on my own, but this was a visit that had nothing to do with site seeing and everything to do with sitting around reminiscing, going to doctor's appts. with my aunt who just celebrated her 87th birthday, doing errands, and then just doing nothing.

Yes, it's true, my little town was recently voted one of the 20 best small towns in America! Check it out: and I do understand why, however, the bottom line is that unless you've lived here and owned your home all your life, you could never afford to settle down here now. One would be hard pressed to believe that there's an economic crisis going on out there judging by the prices in the shops, restaurants, and up scale grocery stores.

Each time we come we walk past my old homestead, a falling down ruin right now that would have my dad rolling over in his grave. How fastidious he was with his acre of lawn. Perfection was the name of the game. The lilacs and wysteria always trimmed and brimming with flowers. The paint touched up each year, the storm windows puttied and removed when the irises popped up.

I was curious enough to zillow the property only to discover that this wreck of a house, built in1911, changed hands three times in the past six years and each time for a sale price of almost 300,000 bucks. I know my dad paid $14,000. What a kick.

I'm walking everywhere cause I was too cheap to rent a car and need the exercise anyway. As I stroll along and pass people on the street I wonder if I know any of them. Who could these old, gray haired folks be? I haven't aged, right? I'm still Sally Pease who graduated in 1966. What a rude awakening to look at these residents and realize that they're my peers! For me, time has stood still but for them, it's moved on. So many have stayed here and made a life. So why did I always (and still) want to flee?

Haven't read as much as I'd have liked so I have no book news. I will tell you that there had to be hundreds of copies of Fifty Shades in every bookstore in every airport I've passed through. When I think of our 700 customers waiting to read the damn thing and look at the trade paperbacks languishing on the shelves - I have to wonder if I shouldn't have purchased several copies and brought them back to sell. Guess I'd have never made a great business woman.

Ok, the family awaits me so I'm off. Will catch you up on what I'm reading this weekend.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Week in Venice with Chris Ewan

With the lovely smells of Parisian bakeries still a close memory, I moved on to the dank, fetid, mysterious city of Venice to satisfy my curiosity about Chris Ewan's series of books about a good thief. The Good Thief's Guide to Venice is the 4th but what the heck! I'm rebellious enough to begin at the end and go backwards. What I really wanted was a novel that would remind me of the oh too short three days that I spent in Venice on my first trip to Italy - what seems like a hundred years ago.

What I got was that and so much more! If any of you, my readers, recall the television series Moonlighting and the evolving sexual tension between the snarky Bruce Willis and his partner Sybil Shepherd, then you'll know exactly what's on offer in this light but clever mystery series, a nice break from the darker look at humanity on offer from, say, Michael Connelly, whose latest, The Drop, I just finished listening to.

Our good thief, Charlie Howard, is apparently trying to give up the thieving aspect of his life for a full time career as a mystery writer. Moving to Venice, hoping for inspiration, he is working on a stand alone novel. But a hefty dose of writer's block and self doubt have conspired to give Charlie the jitters so he's invited his friend and agent Victoria to join him in la Fenice for a little moral support.

Charlie is a very funny guy. His inner monologue is wise-ass perfection and the quick repartee between Charlie and Victoria keeps the plot clipping along at a good pace. Naturally, Charlie is not destined for the contemplative life of a novelist so, after his home is invaded by a buxom, blonde Italian, who outsmarts Charlie at his own game, stealing his most prized possession, a first edition of The Maltese Falcon, Charlie doesn't hesitate to get our his tools of the robbery trade.

What he didn't figure on was how adeptly Victoria would jump into the fray, proving to be a quick study in the art of deception. Exploding bombs, stolen vaporettos, bloodied bodies, and late night chases through the misty alleyways of Venice culminate in an evening of tuxedoed luxury at the one of the oldest casinos in Europe (and one I've actually been in!) where a crooked black jack dealer is about to steer a half million euros to a partner in crime.

Plenty of fun and a great break from the real world, Chris Ewan's book provided me with respite, but didn't intrigue me enough to give up any more literary reading time to another chase through another city. You may feel differently though. If so, check out his website at:

As for me, I found a big fat mailer from Varick Street in NYCity on my chair yesterday at work. You know what that means? A new book from Library Journal and it looks intriguing, Three Strong Women by a French/Senegalese author named Marie NDiaye. I've already looked her up and it's pretty intimidating news. This novel, first published in France in 2009, won the most prestigious Prix Goncourt. The pressure's on folks!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

My Week in Paris with Eloisa James

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What a lovely family to spend time with! And here I thought Eloisa James was "just" a romance writer. I MUST rid myself of this hangup with romance writers! Yes, she does apparently pen many historical novels, books that probably are the reason Ms. James can afford to up and whisk her Italian hubby and two delightful children off to live in Paris for a year. Did I mention that she's also a Shakespearean scholar named Mary Bly? Can you imagine a better gig? A year in Paris, blogging about her experiences while also writing a novel and, at the same time, high speed training off to other fabulous European cities to lecture.

What's exceptional about Eloisa James is that all through her exhuberant book Paris in Love you don't for one second think that she takes any of her good fortune for granted. Rather, she seems to delight in each new morning, getting the kids ensconced in their new schools, meandering each rue de whatever, window shopping, lingerie shopping, comfortably people watching from a sidewalk bistro, sometimes alone, more often with Alessandro, always with a carafe of the local vin rouge.

Each season debuts new joys and even the grayest, wettest days in Paris seem to satisfy the soul of this writer. She admits to relishing the chill mornings under the duvet leisurely trying to outwit Will Shortz's crossword puzzles. I love the way she loves her family and pokes gentle fun at herself and I empathize with the honest analysis of her own motivation for tasting everything that comes her way, not simply the glorious food, but life itself.

You see, only two weeks after her mother died from cancer, Eloisa too was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Minus the offending breast but pleased with the looks of the newly constructed one, Eloisa began divesting herself of baggage. For her and Allesandro that meant dumping the family home in New Jersey for a long held dream of living the life of city people. But before Manhattan, la vie Parisienne beckoned.

This book was the perfect antidote to my penchant for the dark side. Whether walking along the Champs Elysees with Eloisa and the kids or wandering down the marvelously secret little alleys, I felt fully Parisian. I smelled the baguettes that accompanied Alessandro home for dinner, felt the nurturing pleasure of the hearty soup that had simmered all day, tasted the chocolate souflee from the first melting, sensuous spoonful and wished that Don and I had had more than a week to explore. I'm now tapping the toes of my ruby slippers together while chanting, "I want to go back, I want to go back!"

Friday, May 11, 2012

My President and John Irving

Today I need to get a tad political and give a high five to President Obama for finally coming out (no pun intended) in support of gay marriage. Ya gotta love Joe Biden for inadvertently giving the nudge (Don thinks it was all choreographed) last Sunday on the morning talk shows.

 Like so many of the social issues we're facing heading into the final stretch of this long, long, presidential election season, this is one that should have been settled long ago. Yes, I did get out my checkbook to let the Obama team know that I unequivocally want a president who takes a stand no matter the consequences in the voting booth.

Ironically, on the same day that President Obama was speaking with Robin Roberts, one of my all-time favorite authors, John Irving, was speaking on the Diane Rehm show about his new novel In One Person. (Yes, I'm on the wait list) This interview moved me almost as much as it moved Irving who, at one point, seemed to choke up with his anger and righteous indignation. You can listen here:

At one point he told the listeners that he's almost 70 years old and can't believe that he's still having to write about the issue of sexual identity and acceptance almost 25 years after A Prayer for Owen Meany. Irving, I think, even shocked Diane when he stopped just short of calling Americans neanderthals - I believe the word troglodytes may have been broached - when it comes to sexual mores.

After my book discussion group disbanded for the summer yesterday afternoon, a few of us hung around to talk politics and this very subject came up. The new president of France who ousted Sarkozy happens to be in a long term relationship with a woman to whom he is not married. So, will they inhabit the presidential palace as a couple? Do you think the French care a whit? Can you imagine an unmarried American man or woman running for election? Dogcatcher perhaps?

I'll never understand why so many seemingly intelligent folks are more offended by the beauty of the human body than by the horror of body bags. Why are breasts and buttocks celebrated in the glorious artwork of the Greeks and Romans (yes, even in the Vatican) but draped and hidden in the U.S?
We profess to be a Christian nation (the Founders must be rolling in their graves) yet we seem to abhor the body "made in his image and likeness" (see, I remember my catechism) and deny the amazing feelings it can produce. It's enough to make one's head explode!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Once Again, To the Dark Side of Human Nature

The gals at Harper Collins work tirelessly to promote their favorite new writers through their e-newsletter, webinars, and tweets. Virginia Stanley is one of my heroes. She truly has a passion for authors and for reading. So when she says "you MUST get this book," well, I listen.

A Land More Kind than Home (what a gorgeous title) is a first novel by a young man named Wiley Cash, an English professor originally from North Carolina. This book left me feeling empty, devastated, and hoping beyond hope that there wasn't one iota of biographical material in this tale of Shakespearean dimensions.

I'm a firm believer in the destruction that religion has wrought over the centuries so you might think that I could just blow off this tale of a mesmerizing preacher named Pastor Carson Chambliss as a kind of cosmic joke. You'd be wrong. He's terrifying because he's so real and frankly, because good, smart people get sucked into the hypnotizing power of men like this every day. Sometimes the damage is irreversible.

Carson Chambliss arrived in the little North Carolina town from out of the blue. He seemed "heaven sent" since the former beloved pastor has just passed with cancer and the people were directionless and ripe for the picking. No one except old Adelaide Lyle, the town midwife, thought it odd when Chambliss took over the building on the main drag, covered all the windows with newspaper to eliminate the light of day - an obvious metaphor - and began holding spirited services that included speaking in tongues, fainting, and tests of faith involving snakes.

Eight year old Jess Hall is a perfect storyteller, because he sees what happened with the clarity of the young. He and his older brother, unfortunately nicknamed Stump because he was born mute, have an idyllic country life, fishing in the brook, catching tadpoles, outdoors from morning til night. Idyllic, that is, until the day Stump climbs onto the rain barrel to see what's going on in mom's bedroom, a typically innocent thing that kids do but that sets in motion a series of catastrophic events that made my stomach queasy.

Wiley Cash has crafted such a sophisticated first novel that it takes one's breath away. That's been happening to me a lot lately. The sense of place, the sinister mood, the finely drawn characters, so real and so flawed, fairly jump off the page. Having been raised in a small town, I recognize the way each character's back story, sheriff Clem Barefield, Jess's folks, Julie and Ben Hall, and Ben's prodigal dad Jimmy, plays out in this tragedy of epic proportions.

Yes, I need to lighten up for a while. I'm currently enjoying a year in Paris with romance writer Eloise James and her family. More on that this weekend. Then I'll be off to Venice with Chris Ewan's "good thief." How about you? What have you read and enjoyed lately?

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Conundrum of Marriage

Last Sunday there was a cover story about the actor Samuel L. Jackson in the NY Times Magazine. Don mentioned that Mr. Jackson and his wife had been married for 40 years and, when asked about their secret to longevity, she quipped "amnesia." We got a kick out of that but the more I mulled it over the more I recognized the brilliance of her pronouncement. What a lovely way of saying that they've learned to let things go.

I have more to say on that subject later but this does lead me to the book that I was beginning last week, a novel by Lily Tuck called I Married You for Happiness. I'm not even so sure that it can be called a novel, more of a reminiscence, and one that I surmise is pretty close to the bone for Ms. Tuck.

 A man named Philip walks in from work, just another ordinary day, sniffs the emanations from the kitchen, and apologizing to his wife, heads upstairs for just a quick snooze before the pleasant evening ahead. Except that, of course, for Philip there will be no more evenings of good wine and conversation. A sudden heart attack sees to that.

"She," is the narrator. Nina, Philip's wife, unable to let him go quite yet, curls up next to him in bed and throughout the evening and into the dark hours of the early morning enthralls us with the vignettes she recalls, the perfect snapshots of a marriage steeped in love, companionship, jealousy, friendship, compassion, truths, lies, resentment and respect.

We spend time with Nina and Philip throughout their courtship in Paris where she's an artist, he a mathematician. She's wary, he pursues. A child is born, there are suspicions of affairs. Philip can be arrogant, as professors often are. Nina seems aloof, an observer in her own life. Their marriage endures, is strong, is happy. Why? Amnesia. Neither one caves in to the soul deadening game of oneupsmanship, the tit for tat that is horrible to watch and must be worse to live through.

Long marriages are miraculous, the odds are against them. There is no shame in giving up. Couples grow apart more often than not. A dear friend once told me that she often wondered if she was still in her 40 year marriage because she was too lazy to walk away. Some hurts may be unforgiveable to one person yet completely forgettable to another. Some of us can walk away unscathed, others stay but suffer. For Nina and Philip, like Joan Didion and John Dunne (The Year of Magical Thinking), the joy remained.

 If you've been long married or hope to be one day, do pick up a copy of Lily Tuck's beautifully rendered paeon to love. Ms. Tuck was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award and is a past winner of the National Book Award, so you know that you'll be getting a finely crafted, sensitively written window into the soul of a long term relationship.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Heft by Liz Moore

Do you order books for your library? If so, please run out and get more of this title and talk it up. The premise may sound unappealing but I promise, the writing is exquisite. It never ceases to amaze me how these young writers, usually women, manage to insinuate themselves into the heads of characters they've likely never known. The talent is mind boggling and Liz Moore has it in spades.

Arthur Opp, a college professor who slowly, painfully, removes himself from society, eating himself up to a hefty 550 pounds, a weight that effectively inhibits his ability to leave his home. His only connection with the outside world is the correspondence that he's been sharing over the years with a former student, Charlene Turner. In his letters Arthur invents a fantasy life for himself, the life he should have had, teaching, socializing, and traveling.

 Letter writing, like our current fascination with Facebook and Twitter, enable Arthur to fake an emotional relationship without any of the hassles that might accompany a touching, feeling, living together situation; the perfect vehicle for an agoraphobic.

But with the terrifyingly insistent ring of the phone, Arthur's proscribed life will be upended forever, if he allows it. After fifteen years, Charlene has called. She hasn't been entirely truthful either, you see. An unemployed alcoholic, chronically depressed, home bound, she despairs of properly raising her teenage boy Kel - oh yes, that's a secret that she's kept from Arthur during their correspondence - and entreats Arthur to meet Kel with an eye toward encouraging him in his studies and impressing upon him the importance of a college education.

Kel is a fantastic character, vulnerable, angry, bright, scared, and Ms. Moore shines in her ability to speak so authentically as both Arthur and Kel, two severely damaged men subconciously begging for rescue. Every secondary character in this outstanding novel is equally well drawn, from the tough, no nonsense cleaning girl, Yolanda, who first opens the windows on Arthur's life, to Kel's friend Lindsay and her family who step in to rescue the struggling young man.

Heft is so full of hope and redemption that one's heart just soars during the reading. All things seem possible even in the midst of such sadness and despair. This book is unique and perfection for those who say they prefer to care about the characters in their books. Believe me, I read hundreds, probably thousands of reviews a month, often groaning at the plethora of same old, same old plots. The depth of compassion, warmth, humor, and truth in Heft renews my faith in the future of literature.