Saturday, September 29, 2012

The House Girl - 2013 Good Read Alert!

I was fortunate to receive a digital advance copy of this novel and blew through it last weekend while flying back and forth to Pittsburgh. I admit to having trouble with the title and wondered if this would be another condescending look at institutional slavery and its aftermath in the United States where the writer uses humor, as in The Help, to make light of a horrific time in our country's history.

What a pleasant surprise I had while reading this first novel by Seattle writer Tara Conklin. (born and raised only 6 miles from my hometown in Massachusetts) I loved her voice from the jump and enjoyed it even more when I found her blog, in particular this post where she discusses the novel's cover and the angst that goes into the decision - something most readers actually think the author has control over - NOT!

It seems that I've been inundated lately with novels that use parallel story lines, generally in different centuries, that culminate by solving riddles of identity and heredity. It's a very pleasing and effective literary device. Conklin's book begins on a Virginia tobacco plantation in the 1850's where the enslaved "house girl," Josephine, has an ambiguous relationship with her mistress and enslaver, Lu Ann Bell.

Josephine is an endearing heroine, strong, smart, and tenacious. Though she endures the rapes and beatings that befell so many women and children in the south at that time, her spirit and passion for freedom soar through the canvases she paints under Lu Ann's protection.

In current time Manhattan another strong willed woman, attorney Lina Sparrow, has been tasked with a make or break case, one that should have happened long ago, one that will create controversy, publicity and $$$$ for her prestigious law firm, a suit for reparations for slavery.

I love that Conklin had the courage to bring this contentious subject matter forward in her first  book. When one considers the economic impact of slave labor in the building of this country, not to mention the construction of our own White House, it would seem like a no-brainer that some form of compensation should be awarded to ancestors of enslaved people.

Calling upon her background as an attorney, Conklin draws a picture of bloodless lawyers, working their newbies 100 hour weeks while dangling the carrot of a partnership before their bloodshot eyes. Lina and her co-workers have no life outside the firm which perhaps explains how she has managed to subsume the longing for her mother, an artist named Grace, killed years past in an automobile accident.

She shares her childhood home with her dad, renowned painter Oscar Sparrow, and it is her connection with the art world that becomes the catalyst that bridges Lina's work on the reparations case with Josephine's life and legacy back in Virginia.

This novel deserves wide readership and I hope that it gets it when published in early 2013. Conklin combines the history of the underground railroad, genealogy research ( with a very cool librarian ), the underlying truth in artistic expression, and a passion for justice, to give her audience a deeply satisfying reading experience and time spent with characters who refuse to be victims. Multiple themes for discussion abound so book groups should keep this one on their radar screen!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Random Thoughts on Family Reunions

Unlike most folks, I just love flying. The more time I spend in an airport the better as far as I'm concerned. Where else can you people watch to your heart's content and read your book with no distractions. So it was, with a loaded up nook and a paperback of Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, just in case, that I flew last weekend to Pittsburgh for a mini family reunion.

My sister picked me up at the airport and we headed on to Steubenville, Ohio, where my brother and sister-in-law settled more than thirty years ago. Don't ask why. I love the dynamics of families! As a psychological study, can there be anything better? Probably 80% of the novels I read revolve around families, usually dysfunctional, but that's ok. Aren't we all to some degree?

What's remarkable is that siblings and in-laws, as disparate as they can be, manage to function pretty darn well together when you get right down to it. What's more, when push comes to shove, we love each other even if we haven't really known one another all that well. How could we really? Each of us pursued such different lives in varying parts of the country, priorities changed with circumstances, barriers to happiness have been many. Illness and divorce have taken their toll, but now, as the baby among us has turned 60, we seem to be mellowing out, coming into our own, morphing into the people we were each meant to be, and embracing our individual strengths.

In my family, as I surmise is true of most, we have long marrieds, divorced, and singles. Gays and straights and some still questioning. We have Republicans and Democrats, equally vocal. We have Christians, Agnostics, and Atheists, who I hope will always be given equal respect. We are a novel just waiting for the writing. Who will do it first? My nephew who's walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? My sister, the former newspaper columnist who made our family famous in Falmouth? Or, maybe even me?

Lest I forget, the reason for this autumn trip to Ohio was not just to cool down for a few days but to welcome new babies to the family. My niece just gave birth to identical twin girls, playmates for her two year old! She's my new idol.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Love Anthony by Lisa Genova

No, I didn't finish the Sunday papers. Instead, I finished my digital copy of Lisa Genova's latest novel Love Anthony, before it could disappear from my nook. You will get a chance to put this book on hold next week when it is released to the public and yes, I suspect the list will be long based upon Ms. Genova's reputation and her two previous books, Still Alice, the superior novel in my opinion, and Left Neglected.

Product Details

For those unfamiliar with Lisa Genova, you should understand that she is a biopsychologist and a Harvard degreed neuroscientist. Her background in these areas informs all of her fiction but I wonder if it's becoming more and more difficult for her to formulate stories around diseases of the brain. It is her strength while crafting believable conversations among friends, especially married couples, appears to be a weakness.

Still Alice was an outstanding, emotional read, a truly realistic and informative look at early onset Alzheimer's disease and its insidiously slow, lethal effect on the brain. More than that, it examined the families lost in the uncertainties of how to deal with the possibility that it is a disease that's genetically predisposed.

In Left Neglected readers were introduced to a rare form of brain injury and a tough woman's ability to readjust her way of life to the new reality that one side of her brain will no longer respond to commands.

Autism is at the heart of Ms. Genova's latest novel. Olivia and her husband David have separated under the formidable financial and psychological strain of trying to "fix" their son Anthony. When the book opens Anthony has died and Olivia has escaped to Nantucket to try to heal and to fathom why God would send this broken child to her only to take him away after ten short years.

The windswept desolation of the island, deserted from October to June, is gorgeously rendered and one can palpably sense the restorative nature of long, bruising walks on the gray beach. Ironically, it is that same warm, summer beach where Olivia and Anthony spent hours collecting and lining up white shells and stones, that enabled the chance encounter with Beth, a young woman who will change Olivia's life.

Beth is also a woman in transition, trying to decide if she can reconnect with her husband Jimmy, the father of her three girls, who had an affair with a co-worker. As they meet with their counselor and try to re-establish a sense of trust, Beth realizes that she has subsumed her pre-marriage and family interests to the detriment of her own sense of well being. She was a writer and it's to writing that she returns for renewal and salvation.

And it's Beth's novel, the novel within the novel, that is the strongest part of the book. Miraculously she manages to channel a child with autism, a boy who cannot communicate with words but whose inner life is roiling with thoughts and ideas. I'll leave it up to you readers to decide whether Genova's knowledge of the inner workings of Anthony's brain is based on scientific fact or on faith alone.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How Does Your Garden Grow?

So what will it be for the rest of the afternoon? Finish Lisa Genova's new novel, Loving Anthony, and report to you and Net Galley, or plow through the pile of newspapers that are rebuking me from the couch?

Yesterday was complete the garden day for fall. Don and I have been working hard each weekend on a new, sturdier set up for the growing season and now that it's finished, I have to say it's gorgeous! Good, solid 4 X 4's, held in place with rebar have replaced the bamboo that we used for the past two years.
Brand new healthy dirt, fortified with organic garden soil has been raked in and we have a better planting plan too. We're using both seeds and starter plants so that we'll have a longer eating season with less waste.

Here's what we have to show for hours at Lowe's, my favorite place after home and the library!

In one box go all of Don's hot peppers, collards, and this year's experiment, an eggplant. My mom would be soooo proud. In the other box are my red and green bell peppers, two types of tomatoes, and three lettuces, not to mention spinach. Marigold for color and peppermint to keep away the bugs!
I'm so glad I have a yard! How fortunate can a girl be? When we were finished we sat out back with our wine and just breathed in the smell of the wet dirt with such a sense of satisfaction - to be able to grow something provides such a glorious sense of well-being.
We also have the joy of providing a little mini-haven in the middle of this concrete world for all kinds of wildlife. We can observe more here than we do on our walks through the Six Mile Cypress slough. Yesterday there were yellow butterflies everywhere and the cardinals were so red and the blue jays so blue that they take your breath away. But better still were these three otters playing around later in the day that I tried to catch on film. Should have taken a video!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Three Weeks in December - Book Discussion Season Opener!

Yesterday I had the opportunity to perform one of my favorite "duties" as a librarian - opening our book discussion season. With fourteen attendees I believe we set a record for September and I'm sure that it was the choice of the outstanding novel Three Weeks in December which I shared with you here last year. This novel by Audrey Schulman impressed me even more through its second reading and my group was unanimous in its praise for the simplicity and beauty of the writing as well as for the in-depth character studies of the two main protagonists.

An anomaly in backwoods Maine in 1899, Jeremy is an engineer, struggling with his sexual identity and the extreme loneliness that comes from an inability to be one's true self. An assignment to Kenya to oversee the Indian laborers who are building the railroad through the savanna to Lake Victoria, becomes the catalyst for Jeremy to examine his desires and frustrations. He not only falls in love with Africa but also with his African hunter/guide, Otombe. Author Schulman writes of unrequited love and desire so poignantly that it causes one's heart to constrict.

One hundred years later, for the same three week period, we join a bi-racial woman, a scientist from Maine, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of Autism which is manifested by asocial behavior, an inability to interact with others gracefully because of an aversion to physical touch, eye contact, colors, sounds, distractions of any kind. Max Tombay has a huge advantage though, a mother whose love and gumption have prepared her for a world in which she'll always be a tough fit.

Sent to Africa by a pharmaceutical company to locate a vine being ingested by the Rwandan silverbacks, Max feels more at home than anywhere else she's ever been. In love, like Jeremy, with Africa and with the gorillas, Max discovers that what may be a disability in Maine is an asset in the jungle. Like Max, the gorillas eschew eye contact and physical touch as they forage for food, thus accepting her quiet presence among them.

Themes for discussion abound as Schulman deftly, as I said in my review for LJ last year, teaches without preaching. We talked of colonization and how it can harm as much as help. Racism was a huge issue in the book as the Indian railroad workers were considered expendable, not given drugs for the malaria that killed 20 or 30 a day.
We spoke of big-pharma and its approach to research that may result in new drugs to save the world while destroying the habitat where they are found. We addressed the horror of the drug addled child soldiers who, in the novel, threaten the security of the gorilla research facility. Are these kids, so easily brainwashed, handed a rifle, and rewarded for killing, the reason only the young are asked to go to war?

Other reviewers and I, too, saw contrasts between this book and Ann Patchet's State of Wonder which we discussed here at the library last year. I personally think that Schulman's novel is by far the more sophisticated of the two but, as a lesser known novelist, she will not get the publicity and respect that she's due. So, my erudite readers, go out and grab a copy. You'll be glad you did!

Monday, September 10, 2012

If You Can't Say Something Nice.....

Remember that admonishment from your mom? I apologize for not posting for a whole week but here's the dilemma....I can't say something nice yet about the two books I'm smack dab in the middle of. And guess what? They got great reviews from others!

Now, I'll grant you that last week I was completely caught up in the Democratic convention, glued to PBS's 4 hour coverage with Gwen Ifil and crew. Some of the speakers, especially the fine women, brought me to my knees. Sandra Fluke may one day be tapped for the Supreme Court but I suspect it won't be in my lifetime.

So, by the time I hit the bed, Jess Walter and his Beautiful Ruins simply could not entice me to read long into the night. Before I read all the kudos I was drawn to the book by its cover. Admit it, we all do it. How could you resist this gorgeous Italian coastline south of the CinqueTerra.Beautiful Ruins: A NovelAnd the lovely young man, Pasquale Tursi, owner of the Hotel Adequate View, in Porto Vergogna (yes, there is a great deal of droll humor in this book) is an endearing optimist full of grandiose plans to enhance the family inheritance.

These ideas could actually come to fruition now that the young American actress Dee Moray has come to his hotel hiding from the paparazzi who will beat down the doors when they discover that she's been booted from the set of Cleopatra, being filmed in Rome, for becoming pregnant by its big star.

But Walter doesn't want readers to languish back in 1962. Each chapter belongs to another set of characters in a different time and place, few of whom are as sympathetic as Pasquale and Dee.

There's Michael Deane, a caricature of the big-time Hollywood mogul, botoxed, sutured, and tanned to the point that his humanity is erased from his plastic face. (though this reader suspects he may be able to redeem himself in the final chapters)

There's Alvis Bender, the hapless writer who returns to Porto Vergogna each summer to tap away on his royal typewriter, editing a one chapter manuscript that goes nowhere. And then Claire Silver, Deane's long suffering assistant, who spends her weeks listening to amateurs pitch one horrible movie plot line after another, seeking the breakout story that will get her name in lights. 

Perhaps it's unfair of me to discuss this novel before I've finished it. Jess Walter has been a finalist for a National Book Award and the distinguished recipient of an Edgar too. And, at 259 pages in, there's no way I'm giving up on him now. Reviewers say this is a novel about flawed dreamers, beautiful ruins if you will. I'm a sucker for a happy ending so I'm forging ahead in hopes that Mr. Walter will tie all of his tales together in a tear inducing finale that will force me to eat crow for breakfast.

I'm dying to hear from any of you who have finished Beautiful Ruins, whether you loved or hated it. Tell us why, please. Let's have a discussion.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Great Northern Express by Howard WHO?

It's been a short week and a holiday weekend and while Don pattered happily away in the kitchen baking citrone limone and banana bread, I lolly gagged on the couch with Howard Frank Mosher. And who, you might ask, is that? Well even Howard refers to himself, in that self deprecating manor of folks who don't feel the almighty need to prove themselves to anyone, as "Howard Who."

Referred to as a "regional writer," Howard Mosher actually has an impressive array of novels to his credit, as well as several films made from his books which are all situated in New England, specifically northern Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.  But I eschewed all that and went right for the memoir. I love memoirs by writers and Mr. Mosher's was a delight from beginning to lovely end. The title? The Great Northern Express; A Writer's Journey Home.

Written like an updated episode of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, Mr. Mosher tells of hitting the road in his old beater Chevy, odometer bearing down on 250,000 miles, for a grueling cross country book tour that will take him to every major independent book seller in the United States. Perhaps in a different vehicle, that sounds like something I'd love to do myself. You know how it is when you get lost in a bookstore? Like dying and going to heaven, right?

And for Mr. Mosher, who had just finished treatment for prostate cancer and was getting that eerie sense of his own mortality, the trip was the perfect antidote and the fulfillment of a promise made long ago to his beloved uncle Reggie from whom he learned the joy and the gift of storytelling. Rather than conversing with a pet, a la Steinbeck, Frank has long, philosophical discussions with various phantom guests who frequent his "catbird" seat.
Writers and other colorful characters, but mostly his uncle Reg, join him on the trek through the south, out west and up to the pristine fishing waters of Washington and Montana, before heading back through Chi town, Philly and New York, to his wife Phillis who has kept her worries to herself and her support on maximum overdrive.

Interspersed with humorous tales of his book talks and the unique book stores where often the only audience is the staff or the homeless folk who come in out of the weather for a nap, are tales of the young, idealistic couple, Frank and Phillis Mosher, when they first arrived in northern Vermont as young teachers just out of college and just married.
 Having been born and raised in New England, I can vouch for the fact that his descriptions of small town America, the school kids, the principal who tapped the stash of booze in the desk drawer a tad too often, the wildly eccentric neighbors, and the life long friendships, are right on the money!

Frank Mosher's memoir is a paean to a way of life seldom recognized any more and is a welcome change from all the dysfunctional family narratives that I seem to be drawn to. He proudly yells kudos to teachers and librarians and throws flowers to all of those wonderful, independent book store owners who manage to keep the doors open even as Amazon and Costco chip away at their bottom lines, by cultivating the personal touch like author events with the likes of Howard Who. A wonderful read!