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.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Janet Groth, The Receptionist

But NOT your everyday receptionist, let me tell you! The subtitle of this delightfully unusual book is, "An Education at the New Yorker." A 1957 college graduate from Minnesota, Janet Groth showed her gumption and style early on when she interviewed for a position at The New Yorker magazine with E. B. White. Rather than be intimidated, she quite rightly told him when he inquired about her typing skills, that she intentionally did NOT learn to type as she had no intention of being stuck in the typing pool. You've got to love it.

  Instead, she became the receptionist and remained the receptionist for twenty some years during which time she lived a life one can't help but envy even though it was fraught with unrequited love and shockingly, a thwarted suicide attempt. 

These were the days before political correctness, vegan diets and Evian. These were the days, some of you may remember, of three martini lunches and indiscreet friendships with co-workers or bosses. These were also days when an $80.00 a week salary allowed for a young, single woman to travel to Europe for the extended summer vacation, on her own, footloose and fancy free. And yes, The New Yorker was extremely generous with its time off. Where, one might ask, did we go wrong?

Ms. Groth interacted with a plethora of fabulously interesting people and soon became one of those interesting people herself. The author Muriel Spark sent her as proxy to a fancy dress ball at a castle in Great Britain, she house sat a home in Cortona, Italy, for an entire season. She was a confidant to the wonderful Calvin Trillin and his family, babysitting, running errands, and making herself indispensable to so many. She spent a summer in Greece without ever worrying about safety, security, or the need for a traveling companion. I believe that, refreshingly, she enjoyed her own company. 

What I most enjoyed about this open, honest memoir is how it reflects the last half of the twentieth century and one woman's reaction to the rapid changes, the civil rights and womens' movements, the politics, the naivetee when we believed that the Kennedy Camelot era would bring change to the government. Funny how all things are cyclical. Who would have thought I'd live through that hope and change thing twice! 

Ms. Groth had always wanted to be a writer and, apparently, just being around them was enough for her for quite some time. I get that. However, she couldn't keep her pen still forever and pursued graduate degrees, a Phd. and a rewarding career in academia. Her writing is perfection itself. Simple, clear, direct, she relies on her amazing memory (she must have kept tons of diaries) and remembers such telling little details from her childhood and young adulthood that she graces the readers (at least those of a certain age) with many ah ha moments. I spent a wonderful week in her company.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Digital Nerd!

If anyone had ever told me that I'd be all over technology I'd have harumphed in their face. I have to say though, I LOVE my nook. Now that I have access to pre-publication titles from NetGalley and Edelweiss my world has opened up. Of course, I still don't have time but that's coming.

I wrote last time about reviewing my first digital title, The Water Theatre by Lindsay Clarke. I no sooner sent in the review than it was published. BAM! What a kick. You can read it here:
I'm now working on a book that's had me wanting to throw it against the wall and then minutes later disolved in tears. om love (lack of capitalization is the author's preference) by George Minot, sibling of writers Susan and Eliza Minot, is an English major's nightmare. More on that when I write the review.

Meanwhile, can I talk politics for just a minute? On Tuesday, Southwest Florida held their primary elections and, per usual, a whopping 22% of the denizens of this place I used to love, weighed in on who will be making our decisions for the next two to four years. This, in the "greatest democracy in the world." We don't want to renew voting rights for felons who have served their time, we don't want those without a photo ID to have a say, but we officially registered voters simply blow off our privilege as if it will always be there. I have my doubts.

I think what makes me the most depressed is that one of our commissioners here in Lee County, in fact the only one who has consistently over the years - at least the 20 years that I've worked here - fully supported the public library and all that it stands for. He "gets" it.
But a super PAC, funded indirectly by big sugar, you know, that nemesis of Carl Hiaasen's, put all their bucks on the new guy by airing misleading or flat out false advertising that pummeled our man for his consistent rants against the agricultural companies' pollution of our Caloosahatchee, the gorgeous river that flows through downtown Fort Myers and halfway through the state to Lake Okeechobee.

I don't know what else to say. I guess we deserve what we get but in a couple of months we'll be going to the polls again and if big bucks and low voter turnout decide our next four years for us then I fear that our basic freedoms will have already been considerably weakened. Unless, that is, you want the freedom to tote a gun to the libary. Then you're home free!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Reading, Reviewing, and Reading, Oh My!

I've been incomunicado for a week but, believe me, not for a lack of reading and writing. It's just that I had an opportunity to review a digital title for Library Journal and I jumped at it. I had read that the New York Review of Books was going to become a publisher, bringing literary fiction to the e-book world and saw a title that appealed to me. At almost 400 pages and with a week to download, read, and write the review, I was scrambling for time. Fortunately, I couldn't put this book, The Water Theatre, down. Watch for it soon!

Meanwhile I received a traditional paper copy of another book to be read and reviewed by next week and I actually missed reading and reviewing a  third title, Under the Shadow of the Banyan, that I had gotten from NetGalley because I just couldn't keep up. Oh yes, when they say "so many books, so little time," they aren't fooling around.

Imagine my trepidation when I opened this morning's New York Times to find that a book I had reviewed for LJ last month was on the front page of the Book Review section! How did my opinion measure up? Was I on the wrong side? Oh for the pleasure of having so much space in which to explain myself! 200 words - yes, I always go over - is just so restrictive.

The book is called Three Strong Women by a Senegalese author named Maria Ndiaye. You can read my review at Barnes and Noble:

Oh, and though I haven't seen it myself yet, I notice that my review of Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, Flight Behavior, is also printed (though it appears to have been cut just a titch) at the Barnes and Noble website. Thank you B and N!

Yes, I've been a busy gal! One might wonder how I have time to work. I may take a break today - it's a lovely, thundery, rainy day in Southwest Florida - and curl up on the couch with Don. We've discovered a replacement for MI-5 that has us on the edge of our seats. It's a British series by Prime Suspect's wicked Lynda LaPlante called The Commander. Great fun!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Walking Through England with Harold Fry

I thought I had become rather jaded and inured to the emotional tug of most literature but playwright and author Rachel Joyce disabused me of that notion with her novel, recently added to the long list for the Man Booker Prize, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I feel compelled to share my admiration for this book with everyone I talk to. It's so original, not an easy thing when it seems that every new book that comes down the pike contains a variation on the same old theme.

Harold and Maureen Fry haven't touched one another, physically or emotionally, for twenty years. As the threads of their story slowly unspool we learn that there was a cataclysmic even that resulted in their estrangement and the inertia that has kept them from addressing it. Then one day a note on pale pink stationery, addressed to Harold, interupts their lives of quiet desperation.
It seems that an old friend and colleague from his working days is dying of cancer, being cared for in a Hospice in northern England. Queenie Hennessey has dictated a letter of goodbye.

This simple missive shakes Harold to his core. Memories and regret well up in him volcanically. Can he simply pen a neutral response of sympathy? In a completely uncharacteristic, "blink" moment of decision, Harold leaves home with nothing but the suit on his back, shod in an uncomfortable pair of boat shoes, to set out on the 600 mile trek across England to the Hospice in Berwick on Tweed, believeing inexplicably that Queenie will stay alive until he shows up.

Through the solitary act of placing one foot in front of the other, the days and weeks go by, the years fall away, and Harold reverts to the open, optimistic, caring young man he was when he first spotted Maureen across a crowded dance floor of giggling girls and won her over with hardly a word.

Maureen, for her part, is left behind to wonder if she will ever see Harold again. A woman who has kept her life so antiseptic, so empty of people or relationships, anything that would allow her to feel, Maureen's only conversations are between her and her son David. If Harold calls to check in with Maureen, keeping her apprised of his progress, she is clipped and resentful. The barriers between them seem insurmountable.

And yet, and yet......Rachel Joyce is such a generous, big hearted writer that we sense, we hope, there may be an epiphany, a light at the end of the tunnel, a means toward rapprochement. And so we walk with Harold, listening to his musings, fearing for his safety, rooting for Queenie, and remembering our own acts of intransigence and carelessness with friends, or lovers, perhaps family, recognizing the importance of forgiveness and the joy of making amends. This beautifully written book brought me to tears.

If you're interested there's a lovely interview with the author on the Diane Rehm show:

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

A few nights ago I was skipping through TV channels rather mindlessly looking for anything that wasn't Olympics related when I landed on PBS and the Bill Moyers show. I keep forgetting that he's back so I fail to seek him out even though I think he's one of the finest people on television - perhaps of all time. He was interviewing an author about whom I've written and spoken here and on radio myself. Karl Marlantes, the writer of Matterhorn, a semi-fictional account of his year in Vietnam, is still struggling with his demons through his writing. His non-fiction book What it is Like to Go to War was the subject of this interview.

I don't think it's possible to make an informed voting decision until we have given these men a full and complete hearing. They went out, some through a draft and some as volunteers, and put their lives on the line. Could you do that? I don't know if I could. Listen to what they are saying and try to understand that the writers are few and far between but that they speak for thousands who may not be able to articulate the emotions they've repressed.

Now that the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down I expect that we will begin to see some excruciating literature emerge from the ashes. One such piece is The Yellow Birds, a debut novel from Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers. This beautifully written book deserves wide readership.
Unlike Matterhorn which focused more on the insanity of the war itself, the confusion of the orders, and the inability of folks to understand what they were doing, Powers writes more about the aftermath of that insanity and confusion. It's a much more internal book. I felt that Powers was cutting himself open and laying out his insides for us to see. Extremely powerful stuff.

The story takes place in flashbacks to a few days of a battle in Al Tafar in Iraq. The platoon members are wrenchingly young, only kids that age could be convinced that they are invincible. The new boy on the block is Murph and one of the more experienced guys has been asked to kind of take Murph under his wing. But how, Powers asks, can one person be fully responsible for another in the chaos of battle? Murph is shaky and everyone senses it. The lieutenant's experience tells him he's dealing with a dead man walking. What happens in Al Tafar is not clear at first but it haunts young private Bartle for years to come.

What's most difficult and realistically addressed is the coming home. Bartle's mother is unable to break through her son's insistence that all is fine, though he sleeps away days and then months, refusing to take calls from friends, unable to feel comfortable in his own skin. Having absorbed the horrors of war, how can Bartle ever hang out on the river bank swilling beers and flirting with girls?

He says, "I started crying. Through my tears night had fallen. The girls in the hot summer night were toweling off and laughing, standing on the darkening rocks beneath the soft light of the lampposts on the nearby train bridge. I got up..." He had to walk away. He undressed and walked into the water. Hoping for redemption? Pleading to die in peace? The agony of living with the aftermath of war is palpable in these pages. This novel won't be out until mid-September but again, I can't say it strongly enough. We owe it to these young soldiers to read their accounts and think twice, and then three times, before we vote to send them off to war.

The Yellow Birds: A Novel