Monday, July 30, 2012

I Can't Review Everything! Or Read it all Either!

I had a playdate Friday with my dear friend and college roommate, Cathy Jones. After 45 years we can still talk all day without a break in the conversation. What a joy! We haven't forgotten how to make eachother laugh and we know which topics to stay away from. One thing we can always count on is our love of books.

So I left her house with a load of guilt on my shoulders when she very correctly pointed out that she ALWAYS tries my recommendations and I NEVER try hers. Ouch! When she told me that she couldn't put down The Hunger Games, I was incredulous. Why do I have to be so ornery? I went right home and bought it for my Nook and it's been residing unmolested there in cyberspace ever since. I promise Cath, before the summer is over, I'm going to be all over it.

Now she wants me to read A Discovery of Witches. According to the blurbs it involves vampires, magic, old books - that works - the Bodleian Library at Oxford - ok, you've almost got me - what else? Hmmm - a protaganist who was originally burned at the stake in Salem. Well, interestingly enough, so was I, according the Dictionary of Witchcraft - under my maiden name of course.

So tell me readers? What's with all the supernatural business lately? Why are we drawn to the imaginary world? Is it because the actual world is in such despair? I don't know, just asking. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile, I have a nook full of advanced digital copies just calling out to me, not to mention two books of essays, one by the lovely, brilliant thinker, Marilynne Robinson, called When I Was a Child I Read Books. How could I not bring that one home? The other title is The Great Northern Express, A Writer's Journey Home by Howard Frank Mosher, a man whose name is always bandied about by writers I admire.

Today it was announced that another gem I just snapped up has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize. I can't wait to jump into The Unlikely Pilrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

What I won't review:

Believing the Lie by Elizabeth George - 20 sound discs and no murder! Are you kidding me?

Wish You Were Here by Joshua Henkin - the nastiest, most self absorbed family I've ever spent a weekend with!

The Art Thief by Noah Charney - mindless blather with a bit of art history thrown in. Just enough to keep me occupied while I trudge around the neighborhood on my 3 mile evening walk. Our download depot is ferociously lacking in literary fiction though I did get Hilary Mantel's latest yesterday.

So tell me readers - what books have you given thumbs up to lately? Thumbs down? Let's have a conversation.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Gun Violence in America - Can We Talk?

It's been almost a week now since the latest volley of shots rang out at the wrong place, in the wrong time. Once again we ask ourselves how this could happen. Why? But still, we won't talk about the elephant in the room. Why an AR-15, an assault weapon that fires off 100 rounds at one time, can be blithely purchased at Bass Pro Shops? Why should anyone, anywhere, be allowed to buy a rifle like this? Unless one is billeted on a mountaintop in Kandahar is there any earthly reason?

It's difficult to believe that it was only about 40 years ago, when President Reagan was shot for you younger readers, that an entire nation stood behind the Brady Bill. Within hours of its passage the National Rifle Association began its onslaught, raising formidable amounts of money that it has used to co-opt our democracy, coerce our representatives in Washington, and threaten our president and his opposition with annihilation in the polls if they breathe a word in support of gun control. How has the NRA wrested so much power from the people?

Don't get me wrong, I understand gun ownership and the legitimate reasons for it. My dad was a reluctant hunter and yes, we had a couple of 22's in a gun rack in the TV room. I'm not sure he ever caught a deer but I have a strong remembrance of trying to chew my way through a pheasant still loaded with buckshot. My mom was not the world's best cook! One year our neighbor was killed by an errant bullet during hunting season and my mom put her foot down. Dad's days with a rifle were over.

As an English major, commas and their placement in a sentence are important to me. I'm still of the opinion, current Supreme Court be damned, that the initial intent of the second amendment was to ensure that gun ownership be protected in case a militia needed to be quickly formed. Remember, we are speaking about the 1700's.

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,

the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
How this amendment was co-opted by the gun lobby to imply that it's our "god given right" to own and carry any kind of a weapon, anywhere in this country is beyond my comprehension. And, if you're a believer, why not ask WWJD? Don't I have a right to feel safe at work? Do you know that the state of Florida now has a law that insures that a customer can come into the library anytime he wants with a concealed weapon on him? Don't want to pay your fine today? Hmmmm-no problem!
For decades now the United States has had the dubious reputation of leading the pack in gun related injuries and deaths. You'll never hear this on the news though. Take a look at some older statistics keeping in mind that it's much worse now:
When, oh when, will we stop reading about the latest massacre of innocent people by a deranged gunman who sat in his room at his computer and ordered up death and destruction with aplomb? This cannot be what the founding father envisioned! We must put a ban on assault rifles back on the table. Please give it a thought, the elections are coming up.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Age of Miracles truly a miraclulous piece of writing from a first time novelist named Karen Thompson Walker. Once again a newbie has knocked it out of the ball park. I'm sorry that I'm late to this party as her novel, The Age of Miracles, has been getting rave reviews from every quarter. I had it in my hand months ago but kept putting it aside for library books which were accruing fines.

I think one of the things that stands out in this novel is the authenticity of the voice of the young narrator Julia. As a reader I really enjoyed spending time in her company. She's no drama queen but a thoughtful, sensitive, budding teenager facing all of the angst filled, everyday goings on that constitute the lives of everyday kids. Who's going to talk to me at the bus stop? Why are my parents acting funny toward each other? When will I be able to get my first bra? (even if I don't have breasts)

If you're one of the few book lovers out there who hasn't heard of this novel, the basic premise is that the earth's rotation is slowing, at first imperceptibly, but then more and more obviously, as the days of sunlight grow longer, brighter, hotter, and the nights get longer, darker, and colder. The effects of "the slowing" seem minor at first but as the multiple ramifications become clearer, both the characters and the reader come to understand that the earth is in its death throes.

This realization brings an air of bittersweet to the story of Julia and her friends who adjust as best they can. Graced with the optimism of the young, they continue to attend school, though some disappear to outlier colonies, rebels who think that they can live more productive lives if they stick to their circadian rhythms, most people follow the government's injunction to stick to the 24 hour clock.

The Age of Miracles has been touted as a great YA crossover novel and I think it would make for a terrific intergenerational book discussion. As often happens in YA lit, Julia's folks seem somewhat inept at first. Her dad keeps his head in the sand and his body at work, her mom seemingly over reacts, stockpiling canned goods, staying glued to the TV, and becoming more and more insulated from reality.

All I could think of while reading this book was the old T.S. Eliot poem that ends with these lines:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Alys, Always. I Found it First!

Yes, readers, before this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review featured Harriet Lane's debut novel on its front page, I had checked it out from the library and was halfway through. I was so thoroughly caught up in the story and Ms. Lane's talent that I hesitated to read Jonathan Dee's take. Writers for the Times can often be unfairly, scathingly harsh. Phew! He was not.

As an avid reader, reviewer, and author stalker extraordinaire, I was drawn to Ms. Lane's diabolical plot. She is deliciously evil and psychologically insightful. The first person narrator, Frances Thorpe, is a non-descript, one might even say, mousy young woman who works as an underling at a publishing house where she hears the names of literature's greats bandied about but spends her time adding and eliminating commas throughout their august texts.

But time and opportunity are everything in Ms. Lane's world. On a typical drizzling, dreary London evening Frances comes upon an overturned auto as she gingerly navigates her own way home from her weekly, stultifying visit with her folks.
Frances is not a bad person (so far) and she does what's expected, calling 911 for the woman trapped in the car, staying with her and calmly chatting until the ambulance sounds in the distance.

When Frances learns that the woman was Alys Kyte, the wife of renowned writer and man about town, Laurence Kyte, and that she died from her injuries, a diabolical plan begins to take shape in Frances's quite brilliant brain. Can she pull it off? Harriet Lane, how did you do this? A first novel? Amazing!

I finished this book in one sitting Sunday afternoon - three hours went by without my noticing it. Lane sets such a subtly creepy mood that before you know it your stomach is in knots but you can't honestly put your finger on just why.

Frances proves so adept at slow, steady, clever manipulation that you have to applaud her audacity. Her "victims" if you will, are so self-centered and clueless that we as readers feel little empathy for their plight.

We watch in awe as she unassumingly infiltrates the Kyte family's inner sanctum, becoming an indispensible part of their circle, while at work the panache of her proximity to the estimable Laurence Kyte has raised her profile considerably.

This novel just cries out to be purchased by the BBC and made into a movie that we can watch next year on PBS. I even know who I'd want for the actors. Rush out and grab a copy now before the holds start mounting up.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Writers are the Nicest People!

Those of us in the library biz are known to be author stalkers. Of course, I mean that only in the very best of terms! Years of conference attendance, book expos, and reading festivals have convinced me that writers are among the most unassuming celebrities in the world. They make their livings in the most solitary way - writing and researching - yet are forced to get out there and stump for their books on endless book tours, graciously answering the same questions over and over again.

This brings me to the good fortune I happened to have while on vacation. A real-life famous author was visiting family in the same complex where Don lives.  Because he knew the family, I had the chance to (diffidently, I'll admit) hand out my cards to several people including the writer and creative writing teacher, Diane McKinney Whetstone.

What a delight to have the opportunity to talk with her about her new book which is in the final stages of rewrites and will be published by Harper Collins next year. I flat out asked her if I could review it. How bold was that?

 Dare I tell you anything about it? I'm not sure how much I should divulge but I think I can safely say that it's a historical fiction novel about an immigration hub in the port of Philadelphia, one that was a first stop before the better known and studied Ellis Island.

Ms. Whetstone has been writing novels for many years and they're available in all formats through the library, some have been optioned for film. We talked about the long, frustrating process of bringing a book to the screen and the dearth of films portraying positve images of African American families. She's promised to send me a copy of her first book, Tumbling, and I promise to write about it here. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oh, Canada!

If you've ever wondered what manner of writing is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, please look no further than Richard Ford. I've always been a fan of the Bascombe novels but when I gently closed the pages on his latest novel Canada, I was speechless. This stunningly gorgeous book simply brought me to my knees.

The irony is that, based upon all those qualities that ostensibly draw a reader to a book, you know, setting, character, subject, I would never even pick up a novel set in Montana about a couple of kids whose parents, a mismatched pair if ever there was one, have been arrested for a bank robbery. I read this book based upon the author's reputation alone.

From the first page, the voice of the youngster, Dell Parsons, appeals in a visceral way. I felt the need to hug him, often and hard. Interestingly, I had the same urge with John Irving's wonderful young narrator Billy Abbott. Dell and Billy have abandonment issues in common and tend to review and speak about their lives with a clear-eyed matter of factness that the reader accepts as completely true, not exaggerated or embellished in any way.

Dell and his twin sister Berner were only fifteen years old when their folks did the unthinkable. Dad is retired Air Force, hail fellow, well met, a blustery salesman. Mom is an inscrutable, introspective school teacher. Bonnie and Clyde they are not!. And yet, consequences be damned, they cross the state line, approach a teller with a gun, take only enough to get them out of the mess they're in, and return to await their fate.

How this action, the events leading up to it and the ripples that emanate from it for years to come, affects the siblings is at the heart of this achingly poignant novel. How Richard Ford turns what could be a sordid tale into a soaring literary gem is remarkable. How Dell and Berner differ in their responses to their parents' betrayal of their innocence, their youth, their futures, is a fascinating psychological study.

And then there's Canada itself, Saskatchewan in particular. Every sentence paints a vivid picture of the remote, endless landscape, the loneliness, the harsh, long winters, the lack of color, the unknowableness of a land perfectly formed to act as a hiding place for those running from the law or from themselves. Thank you Mr. Ford for allowing Dell to find refuge in a place where he could have been lost.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Very British Independence Day

It's just a fluke that I'm involved in all things British on this most American of holidays. I'll blame it on the heat. 100 degrees in the shade and most of our plans are on hold. There's no wind so we can't take advantage of our neighbors' invite to go sailing....I know, you're not feeling my pain. So in between various tennis matches at Wimbledon, what's a girl to do? Lay about in the hammock and read!

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is one of the books that caught my eye on NetGalley. I thought it would be a perfect low-key choice to bookend between Flight Behavior and Canada and I was sooo right! What a crackup. I refer to it as Alan Bennett on steroids. He's the very witty gentleman I wrote about here a year or two ago whose novella, The Uncommon Reader, (about Queen Elizabeth's accidental introduction to the bookmobile and literature) proved to be an uncommon delight to many discerning readers.

William Kuhn, historian and biographer, is responsible for Mrs. Queen....his first novel.....and gives credit to Bennett in a hilarious send up toward the end of the novel, when Queen Elizabeth, who is in the midst of self-doubt and depression, decides to give her minders the slip, escaping the royal grounds with the help of a young lady who works in the royal horse stables.

Wearing a borrowed hoodie, (good thing she's not in Florida!) the Queen of England hops a train for Edinburgh where her decommissioned yacht, The Britannia, is docked and serving as a tourist destination. Along the way, incognito, she has the opportunity to mingle with her subjects on an entirely different, eye-opening level. And, she gets to let down her hair a little bit!

Naturally, the Queen's disappearance causes major consternation back at the palace and several unlikely minions join forces to find her and bring her back before MI-5 can take over. How do they know she's gone? The palace phones are monitored, of course.

There's a lot going on under the surface in this seemingly simple novel; parent child relationships, gay coupledom, racism involving England's large Indian population, eco-terrorism, and the age-old problem of the royal family and their excesses in a time of economic despair, are all touched on briefly or at length in a humane, objective manner.

There's also a significant nod to Shakespeare, especially his play Henry V, which perfectly mirrors the Queen's newly aroused sensibilities, and,if all this doesn't whet your whistle, then just look at the cover. I'd have picked this novel off the shelf based on it alone. I hope I've tempted you into giving this novel a go. The bad news is, it won't be released til fall. Keep an eye out!

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