Thursday, June 28, 2012

Dress Rehearsal for Retirement?

It's likely that I'll never NOT be a librarian but it's very likely that, with good fortune and good health, next year at this time, I will be retired, not from being a librarian, but from the regulation of the day to day, hour by hour drudgery of the glorified geek squad.

So, in preparation for that time, not to mention getting my financial ducks in a row, I took a two week vacation to do nothing! You heard it, nothing! Sure, I've  often taken two weeks off in a row but it usually means learning how to communicate in another language, arranging for travel documents, international drivers' licenses, you get it.

This time all I'm doing is reading, blogging, following the Supreme Court and loving my proximity to the action in DC. Side note, a nurse/teacher from Ft. Myers was on the front page of the local section of the Washington Post today. A supporter of the Affordable Care Act, or as Don and I call it, Obamacares, this lady came all the way from my hometown to sit outside waiting for the historic decision to come down. As a supporter, she was not disappointed. I am still in a state of shock!

So, will I be able to retire? Well, let me tell you what my first big decision of the day is....should I have my coffee and newspaper in bed or should I go out to the deck? Second decision of the day...should I take the shorter but more strenuous walk to the south boardwalk and a few hills ( yup, they have those here ) or should I take the northbound, longer walk along the beachfront where I might get waylaid by all the kitschy antique shops?

Currently reading Barbara Kingsolver's new book Flight Behavior. I'm almost finished but can't say a word as I'm reviewing it for LJ. Listening to and very much enjoying The Nineteenth Wife. Thanks to Net Galley I also have bunches of new books that will be out in the fall on my nook. I also took a chance on paying overdue fines in order to bring  Richard Ford's Canada with me.

Oh wow, just stretched and looked out the window to see a huge cruise ship heading down the Chesapeake to the open sea. What a glorious sight. I'll never tire of it. Speaking of sights, Don pointed out a photo op that reminded him of my most loyal reader Maryellen. Shout out to you. I took this picture today. Thought you'd get a kick!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Nation of Cowards?

A few years ago, Attorney General Eric Holder stirred up some controversy when he remarked that, when it comes to discussions on race, we are a nation of cowards. Author John Irving seems to be positing a similar belief about our discomfort in regards to talking about sex. After all, we're the country that says it's ok for women in uniform to kill but it's not acceptable for them to breast feed their babies. What?
I had been eagerly anticipating Irving's latest novel, In One Person, since I heard him interviewed on Diane Rehm's show several months ago. This is one righteously angry man! Lesbian women, gay men, bi-sexual adults, transgendered people and cross dressers all get their shot at self respect in this thought provoking look at the everyday lives of some marvelous characters, all trying to discover their true selves, over the course of America's long and winding road to acceptance.

I couldn't help but fall half in love with the narrator, William (Billy) Abbott. After all, we spend almost 60 years with him, beginning with his first trip to the public library, (yes, readers, the public library! Thank you John Irving), where he meets a woman who will change his life. No, it isn't a cliche. She's a gloriously independent, open minded, wonderful character whose library becomes a safe haven for Billy and his friends. And readers, you'll love all of the literary references!

If you're familiar with Irving's work then you'll likely recognize the small New Hampshire town, the boys' school where wrestling matches and Shakespearean plays are equally well attended. The small town atmosphere can be stifling or nourishing, a place where Billy's cross-dressing grandpa is revered but a place from which Billy, who worries about his attraction to both girls and boys, will flee.

To Europe, San Francisco and New York, Billy wanders, honing his craft as a writer, loving men and women in equal numbers, always returning to his best friend Elaine for comfort and for support throughout the '80's as the AIDS epidemic hits its peak, the drug cocktail still only in trials, and entire hospitals are designated for the dying.

If you haven't known a family member or friend suffering through the angst of a sexual identity crisis, this novel would be a  perfect primer. The confusion, self doubt, prejudice, even a hatred turned cruelly inward, will affect everyone in its orbit, as Irving so deftly shows us.

This is a big hearted novel, one that will have you laughing and crying. It's so full of compassion, indignation, explanation, a cri de coeur from John Irving to his readers, asking us to open our hearts and minds to all human beings, gay, straight, and all the colors of the rainbow in between. For me, In One Person is right up on that pedestal with the heartbreaking, Cider House Rules.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Louise Penny, Once Again

Why, oh why, aren't customers 100 deep on the hold list for the works of Louise Penny? I mean really? We still have some 600 waiting for Fifty Shades of Grey! Ms. Penny just gets better and better and I think that the book I just finished listening to, Bury Your Dead, is my favorite in the Armande Gamache series so far.

Labeling novels by genre has been getting more and more controversial. I've discussed it here in this blog previously and now Duncan Smith has addressed it in his latest blog post for Novelist, a readers' advisory database.

There is no way that the works of Louise Penny can be called "cozies." In fact, they seem to become darker as they progress. Not darker in the violence of the crimes as much as darker in her assessment of the human heart. These novels are deep with psychological insight into what makes us tick. It's not always pretty!

In her 6th installment of the series Ms. Penny has pulled off an extraordinary coup, combining three stories in one, simultaneously. Not once was I confused as to which story I was in. It's amazing really.

Both Chief Armande Gamache and his second in command and dear friend Jean Guy de Beauvoir are recovering from wounds both physical and emotional suffered in a job gone horribly wrong in the previous novel. Jean Guy is back in the deceptively peaceful town of Three Pines where, in that previous book, A Brutal Telling, a popular local business owner was sentenced to prison for a murder he may not have committed.

Gamache is in old Quebec recuperating at the home of his former boss and mentor Emile Comeau. At Gamache's request, Jean Guy is surreptitiously reopening the investigation in Three Pines while Gamache is being pulled into a murder investigation at his place of respite, the library of The Literary and Historical Society.

Ms. Penny treats readers to a fascinating history lesson on the founding of Quebec and the ensuing clashes between the English and the French that continue unabated. The French Separatist movement still flourishes in Quebec and the English speakers are considered persona non grata.

The story of the battle of Samuel de Champlain (remember your grammar school lessons?) and Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham come alive as we follow the trail of a quirky historian whose life work is the ongoing search for Champlain's final burial place.

However, none of these distractions can stop Gamache's mind from replaying the horrific details of the botched investigation that brought him to Quebec for R and R. Guilt, recrimination, and now a tacky media splash, combine to weigh heavily on Gamache's soul, leaving readers anxious for the next installment in this outstanding series.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Marriage Plot - A Work of Art

The Virgin Suicides left me baffled and the Pulitzer winning Middlesex seemed over long and difficult to me at the time, so it was with trepidation that I picked up The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides' latest contribution to the world of letters. I have to say I think it's his most accessible and fascinating character study yet.

I especially appreciate that this novel is set in the mid-'80's, a time that I only vaguely remember in terms of what was happening in my own country, let alone on a global scale. I was busy trying to patch together a court ordered family, a reluctant husband and two emotionally damaged little girls. It seems that the economy was troubled then, much like now, and gas shortages were the talk of the town, but I managed to be above it all.

The three disparate young people whose lives play out over the course of the year after their graduation from Rhode Island's Ivy League, Brown University, face challenges that will sound familiar to today's graduates, few jobs, low pay, limited choices. Still, there's no talk of loans to repay and graduate school is still an option, as is taking a year to traipse through Europe in search of oneself. Nice work if you can get it!

Leonard, Mitchell, and Madeleine first cross paths during their freshman year and though we're never quite sure why, Madeleine becomes the sun around whom the planets, Leonard and Mitchell circle, each yearning for her and wary of eachother. It's interesting to note that a writer as fine as Eugenides seems, in The Marriage Plot, to be less able to flesh out the female character with the same extraordinary depth he finds for both Leonard and Mitchell.

Though Madeleine is bright, but not brilliant, pretty but not drop-dead gorgeous, she does in fact, work hard at trying to bridge the gap between the middle class good girl that she is, and the bohemian scholar/writer she yearns to be. Her studies revolve around the great English novels of Austen, Elliot and James and the subversive "marriage plot" that colors all their work.

 Mitchell Grammaticus, the son of working class Detroiters, is a wonderful example of  a young man searching for meaning in his life, persuing religious and philosophical studies, going to India to live among the destitute and dying, all the while watching himself perform and poignantly recognizing his lack of true calling.

Leonard Bankhead might go down in literary history as the epitome of the brilliance, madness, and manipulativeness of a person suffering from manic-depression. Eugenides' description of Leonard's mood swings, interior monologue, self destructive behavior, attempts at self-medicating, and ability to ensnare others in the morass of his illness, are a wonder to behold. This is writing at its finest. The reader senses he is inside Leonard's head, torn between empathy and outrage.

I'll say no more about the other marriage plot, the one that moves this story, and kept me talking to myself as I read. Do yourself a favor readers, if you've never tried Eugenides, this book may speak to you. I found it to be a remarkable snapshot of a particular time and place.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Jeanne Ray, I See You!

Calling Invisible Women brought to mind the film Avatar. How, you might ask, could that be? Because of the glorious words spoken in Avatar, words that could change our world if we'd let them. "I see you." And when I think of my friends, at least the happiest ones I know,they all have someone in their life who does truly see them. Having once, long, long ago, allowed myself to almost become invisible, I truly get the joy of being a person to be reckoned with, to be understood.

I've always had a soft spot for Jeanne Ray, an author who could have disappeared under the shadow of her more well known author/daughter, Ann Patchett. But instead, she has steadily written delightful, "softer," yes, but no less thoughtful novels of her own; think Julie and Romeo or Step-Ball-Change.

Calling Invisible Women could have been oh, so predictable, but Ms. Ray took her book to another level by actually coming up with a plausible reason why women of a certain age were suddenly losing their corpus. Sure, any of us who've been married and raised families know that it's part of the game for us to be overly relied upon and too often taken for granted. But we have the chance to squash that tendency before it gets out of hand - and we must.

Clover Hobart's body first went missing on a Thursday - a great opening line for a novel, which I'm paraphrasing here. Her family didn't notice and the dog didn't care but as life would have it, her best friend Gilda was appalled and urged her to tell someone. But Clover didn't panic, in fact, she decided to play it for all it was worth, turning her invisibility into a strength and a new found sense of freedom.

Think about it! No longer obsessed with weight or clothing she could get naked and travel undetected wherever the spirit moved her. She joined an invisible women's support group that managed to meet weekly at a local Sheraton hotel in a ballroom where all anyone could see was a circle of empty chairs and scattered kleenex wafting on the breeze of the AC - their secret salute.

She became a community activist, encouraging the women to use their invisibility to their advantage, giving some of them back their confidence and building her own. A former newspaper journalist, recently relegated to the books page (an inside joke with her daughter I'm sure), and then further demoted to a weekly gardening column, Clover's missing body lands her right in the center of a newsworthy fray. What do you know? Her editor suddenly sees her and she earns a front page byline.

Truth is often more palatable when it's couched in humor and there's plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in Jeanne Ray's latest novel. In this case though, I prefer the "ah ha" moments and the poignancy with which she handles the long, comfortable relationship between Clover and her husband Arthur, an over worked, harried pediatrician who, while not invisible, may also have had reason to feel unseen.

This is an example of "women's fiction" in the finest sense of the word. That may be a nebulous genre, but let's face it, more than 50% of the world's population is female, so this novel should be well loved.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Anne Tyler's The Beginner's Goodbye

First of all, can Anne Tyler really be 70? Known for her distaste for getting out there to stump for her new books, I was surprised to read a full blown interview with her recently and to learn that her husband had died not that long ago. I guess that's why I opened The Beginner's Goodbye assuming that it was about people my age. I must have still been in Noah's Compass mode.

Also, most of the reviews I've read mislead readers into thinking that this is about a man who misses his dead wife so much that he conjures her up and speaks with her all the time. Really, not so much. While there's more to it than that, it's also disappointingly light. I never felt that I got to know these characters the way I did Noah. They almost, I hate to say it, came across as caricatures of a few basic types, with Aaron as the quintessential Walter Mitty, oblivious to what's happening around him.

Those of you familiar with Ms. Tyler will be comforted by and immediately recognize her wry sense of humor. She has a remarkable penchant for evoking the quirkiness of the regular, everyday person on the street. We all have our foibles, some of us in spades, so when we see them so vividly described in an Anne Tyler book we don't need to laugh out loud, a smirk or twist of the mouth is all it takes to show that you get it.

Aaron and Dorothy are the couple at the heart of this short novel, I read it in one day! Aaron's career is a crack up to those of us in the library profession as he and his sister operate the family's vanity publishing press dealing especially in books that resemble the "dummies" series, except that they're called the "beginner's" series.

Dorothy's death comes suddenly through a bizarre act of nature and after a tepid, typical disagreement with Aaron, for which he will suffer survivor's guilt. Aaron sleepwalks through his days, avoiding sympathizers, pitching casseroles from well meaning neighbors in the garbage, and working non-stop. It takes a while for Dorothy to make her presence known and, though Aaron cherishes that time with her, he also uses it to examine their relationship which he now realizes was fraught with misunderstanding.

Could it be that Dorothy wasn't the perfect partner for him after all? Grief and memory play tricks on people. How many of us know someone who had a miserable relationship for years but when the spouse died they were suddenly raised up on a pedestal of unearned perfection? I know I've seen it in my own family. And of course, therein lies Ms. Tyler's talent. She always manages to offer readers a person or situation that they can completely identify with.

I'd been looking forward to this book for quite some time and can now take my name off the wait list cause I confiscated a donated copy over the weekend. Though I was a little let down, perhaps my expectations were too high? I still recommend anything that Anne Tyler has to offer. Spending the day with her is as comfortable as being with old friends who may annoy us now and then but still beat having to put out the effort to find a new relationship. Uh oh, wasn't that Aaron and Dorothy's problem too?