Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Latest from Ian McEwan

I was thrilled to download an advanced digital review copy of Sweet Tooth, McEwan's latest entry in his formidable list of prize winning novels, especially because you never know what to expect from him. Each book is so very different from the other. Think Atonement, Saturday, Solar or On Chesil Beach (my least favorite).

As a fanatic fan of the BBC production MI-5, the plot of Sweet Tooth grabbed me immediately: the '70's, the cold war is winding down as the IRA's methods become increasingly violent. A maths major at Cambridge, Serena Frome is the daughter of a middle-class family.  Dad is a church bishop, mom placates parishioners, but Serena is destined for bigger things.

 It all begins with a passionate summer affair with a much older man, a professor at college who schools her in much more than academics, then cruelly disappears from her life. Serena is a fabulous character, resilient, stubborn, a practical romantic if that isn't a contradiction of terms. Think "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with." McEwan does an outstanding job of placing himself in Serena's head and channeling a 20 something with guts and bravado searching for a life of excitement and meaning.

She gets it all when she's hired for a low level desk job at MI-5. Because of her reputation as a great, eclectic reader - look out all you bibliophiles out there - Serena is chosen for her first important mission, operation Sweet Tooth. Her duty, should she choose to accept it, is to ingratiate herself with the aspiring author Tom Haley and to make him an offer he'd be loathe to refuse, a lovely pot of cash for stories with a certain political bent. Will he fall for her? Brains, beauty, treachery? Readers will love betting on who will outsmart whom.

McEwan's novel can be read simply for fun, which it is, but there are naturally messages here for discussion. Artistic integrity, deception, manipulation, self-knowledge, trust. These words give you a sense of all the fodder for the deeper reader. And, for those looking for the back story, wait until you've read the novel,  which will be out in just a few weeks, then check out this interview with the author. http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/books/interview-ian-mcewan-author-1-2474675

Thursday, October 25, 2012

History Lessons with Rachel Maddow

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a fiction fanatic. Still, every now and then I realize that I need a reality check, something that brings me back down to earth for better or for worse. I've done such a good job of tamping down my temper during this horrific election season but all it took was Rachel Maddow's Drift to fire me back up again.

Many of you will know Ms. Maddow from her stint on Air America or more likely from MSNBC, but you may not be aware that she truly knows her stuff. This is no Glen Beck! This woman has a Phd. from Oxford University! How I would have thrived having her for a history teacher. She has the ability to take an extremely complicated subject and distill it to the bare essentials.

My only warning is that you might prefer to read the book rather than listen to Rachel read it as I did. Her style is so staccato, so intense, that this listener felt the need to keep going back to be sure I got what she just said.

The subtitle to this book is "The Unmooring of American Military Power."  The gist of the book is just how far America has strayed from its founding principles as it applies to war mongering and keeping a standing army. She quotes Thomas Jefferson as opining to a friend that he hoped "never to keep an unnecessary soldier." Then she proceeds to explain how the United States, from the Vietnam War onward, has proceeded to build the world's largest military/industrial complex. The idea being, once you have it, you must put it to use.

And sadly, that we do, too frequently and too indiscriminately. From the pathetic invasion of the spice island, Grenada, under Ronald Reagan, to the first gulf war under President Bush, Sr. and the ill-informed invasion of Iraq, Ms. Maddow teaches how presidents are defying Congress and expanding the war powers of the executive branch through backdoor deals and secrecy. The lesson learned? No matter how you vote, the ugly truth is that you really have no say in how defense funds are spent.

Unfortunately, my own man, President Obama, is no exception to this. Ms. Maddow, a rather renowned liberal speaker, cuts no slack for Democratic presidents. My only issue with her is that she offers no solutions to the outrageous problem of American overreach. Perhaps another book is in the offing?

To calm myself down I turned to J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. She had me laughing snarkily from page one. Will keep you posted on that one though my home office/sanctuary remodeling project may mean that reading will get short shrift this weekend.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Will Schwalbe, Your Mom Must be So Proud

Please, please, dear readers, don't let the title of this marvelous book put you off. It is the most life affirming book I've read this year. Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club will definitely be on my list of books to discuss at the library next season. If you've been living under a rock and haven't heard the hullabaloo about this then take my word for it, it's no hype. I'm a very slow reader, but this one? Devoured in 2 evenings and an afternoon off.

Will Schwalbe's mother, Mary Ann(e) Schwalbe, was a mover and a shaker to her very last breath. An amazing woman, ahead of her time, she worked at various places of higher learning, eventually taking a position in the admissions offices of Harvard and Radcliffe. Yeah, not your average gal.

But her most lasting accomplishment, aside from her extended family, was likely her work with war refugees in Bosnia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. In fact, my fellow book lovers, she realized her final dream, funding the building of a library in Kabul for all the young people she met and fell in love with through her work, during her treatment for pancreatic cancer.

For anyone who isn't aware, the administration of chemotherapy is a long, drawn out affair that can run anywhere from 4 to 6 hours on a good day. Some folks sleep or stare at the television but Mary Anne and Will read books - wonderful tomes - some deep and difficult like Thomas Mann, others light but luminous like Alexander McCall Smith. As I read I had a notebook beside me to transcribe the titles I wasn't familiar with, adding them to my lengthy "to read" lists.

Through Will's loving memoir of this precious 18 months with his mother, sharing thoughts and ideas as they never had before, he allows us to meet this remarkable woman and truly feel that we've gotten to know her. Humor, spunk, a dash of imperiousness, and an open heart, blaze off the page. I don't think that anyone could read this without thoughts of their own parents, especially if one has had the privilege to be with them during the process of living while dying.

Will Schwalbe has written a paean to his mom but even more to the power of books, words, and literature, to comfort, to provide respite from pain, to challenge us to think deeply and share widely, something we book bloggers and readers truly understand.

Without proselytizing, this is also a shout out to the dedicated men and women who work in Hospice and palliative care around the country. Through Will, Mary Anne cries out for health care reform. As decidedly ill as she was, she never forgot those who weren't as fortunate to have excellent insurance and access to the best that Sloan Kettering had to offer.

There truly isn't a single "down" moment in this beautiful tribute to the woman Will describes as like an air traffic controller, always making sure that her kids, grand kids and co-workers had what they needed when they needed it, planning parties and travels until her strength ran down, and even then advising Will on how to write and send responses to the condolences that she knew would come flooding in at the news of her death.  Don't miss the opportunity to spend a few days in Mary Anne's orbit!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Christopher Hitchens Will Not be Silenced

No one could miss the irony. That a man who lived for debate, for the joy of the spoken word - for which he was probably more famous than for his estimable writing - should be brought down by a disease that affected his ability to speak. Oh the injustice! That's my opinion, though, not his. He was not a man to ever ask that pathetically inexcusable question, "why me?"

I felt that I got to know this man as apparently millions of others did, through his memoir Hitch-22, a book that I listened to so as to reap the full benefit of his wonderful voice. Now I'm reading his final powerful words, just over 100 pages of humor, pathos, and feistiness, called simply, Mortality.

For any readers unfamiliar with the back story, Mr. Hitchens was on a book tour for his memoir when he was struck down by what would be diagnosed as stage 4 esophageal cancer. Since he wryly observes that there is no stage 5, he surmised the outcome from the beginning but gave it his best shot anyway, planning his death with lawyers and accountants in the mornings and putting it on hold in the afternoon during chemo drips. Eighteen months was all he got.

Poignant but never sad, this book had me laughing out loud in the lunch room the other day as my co-workers looked at the title of the book thinking what on earth??? You would have to understand the black humor that accompanies those of us who have been as he calls it "in the land of malady."

Comparisons are made, horror stories are shared, people take advantage of your emotions in ways they would never dare do to a healthy person. I remember going through radiation therapy and feeling guilty because my cancer was only localized while some of my fellow patients may have been looking at a different outcome.

Christopher Hitchens was infamous for his insistence on atheism and brilliantly debated famous theologians over the existence of god, heaven, hell and all stops in between. (Does anyone remember purgatory?) "Good" Christians took bets on whether he would recant as he faced his death. Hate mail equalled support letters in number as he plugged away at treatment and continued to write. I knew he would not cave.

Death is guaranteed at birth. I suspect that most of us would like to live for as long as we can be productive and involved. A fatal illness at the young age of 63 at the height of one's intellectual prowess and output seems more of a waste than a tragedy. But when faced with the facts Mr. Hitchens had courage, dignity, and the full use of his amazing power of reason. He inspired me to hope for nothing less.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Tatjana Soli's The Forgetting Tree

Last year I hosted a lively discussion of Ms. Soli's amazing debut novel about the first female photojournalists to serve in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The Lotus Eaters was simply beautiful for the evocative writing and the complicated theme of waging warfare in a country and on a people that we hopelessly misunderstood. This devastating error in judgement seems to have plagued the United States since World War II with no sign of diminishing.

So it was with trepidation that I opened what publishers and reviewers refer to as the "sophomore" effort, The Forgetting Tree. Believe me, there is nothing sophomoric about this incredible novel. Though the story is totally different from her first book, the descriptive, skilled use of language that lands you smack in the middle of the setting is there in spades.

A once prosperous citrus farm in California, owned by the Baumsarg family for several generations, is a living, breathing character thanks to what must have been extensive research on Soli's part. And it's through Claire, wife and daughter-in-law of the family, that readers feel the visceral love that comes from working the land. Claire can actually taste the soil and intuit how that year's crop will fare.

But times are changing, money is tight, other farmers are selling out to real estate developers, too much rain or not enough, plays havoc with the trees but Claire still cannot bring herself to quit. Her foreman Octavio and his family rely on her and she on them. She tells herself that she's hanging on for her family even though her husband left long ago and her girls can't wait to escape. What tethers her to her land? Her son Josh died there.

This novel is bookended by two violent acts that shake Claire to her very core. Each clarifies some of the central themes posed by Ms. Soli; excess, envy, hunger, need, how much is too much? How do we protect what's ours without incurring a violent reaction from those who have so little? When fighting for our lives, do our possessions lose their importance? What roles do race and culture play when resentment simmers just below the surface?

A remarkable character with multiple names, known to Claire as Minna, crashes the scene about halfway in and the novel takes on a seductive, surreal quality that had me tensely clutching my stomach. A bit of magical realism, some voodoo from Minna's native Dominica, and Minna spins a gossamer thread over the farm as she cares for Claire through a bout with cancer so realistically described that I could once again see my mom, almost thirty years ago, as she faced her final weeks.

Words fail me when I try to do justice to a novel like this one. The more talented the writer, the more inept I feel as I attempt to describe the essence of a book that I put down reluctantly at the denouement. Perhaps it won't speak to you but I must recommend that you at least give it a try and let me know what you think. Let's have a conversation! Visit Ms. Soli's website at http://www.tatjanasoli.com/Future_Projects.html

Friday, October 5, 2012

Three Quarters of a Year?

Could it be that we're three quarters of the way through 2012? I've just now accomplished writing 2012 on my checks without hesitating! Time, don't run out on me....lyrics to an old Ann Murray song. So, my question is, how many books have you read so far? Any favorites?

I'll brag for a second and tell you that I have hit a record - 94 books read in nine months. I guess I won't have to be scrambling between Christmas and New Years to make it to 100 this year. I'll share with you my top 10 so far but I have to say, there's a tremendous amount of literature out there drawing raves, yet when I sit down to read I find myself just saying "meh."

It doesn't feel right to blog here about books that I can't even enjoy myself. What kind of a writer would I be if I did that? Still, it stands to reason that some of you readers might be thrilled with a novel that just doesn't appeal to me. So, am I doing you a disservice by not giving those titles a name?

OK, let's begin: Night Watch by Linda Fairstein. She's a fabulous speaker who attended our Reading Festival a year or two ago and lit up the room. A feminist, a former New York state prosecutor, and a sex crimes specialist. So why did her series character, Alex Cooper, come across as a whiny, wimpy woman besotted by a slick talking Frenchman? In the middle of the most important case of her career - think Dominique Strauss-Kahn - she's more wrapped up in her "boyfriend" Luc Rouget than in getting her conviction.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan didn't even meet the rule of 50! Anyone else read it through?

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. OK, I'm only reading this because I know that I should. Ms. Mantel was a huge award winner for Wolf Hall, a fictional look at the scurrilous King Henry VIII and his secretary Thomas Cromwell. This is the sequel. It gets me through my walks but.....

Defending Jacob by William Landay. I'm five discs in and waiting.....I've heard from everyone that the ending is a knockout but, gee, shouldn't the characters strike you as real, sympathetic, or just remotely likeable before the last fifty pages? We are having a discussion on this one at the library so I'm anxious to be able to give it a great review!

Don't you find that it's really a difficult proposition to "rate" books? I hate it when asked that age-old question..."if you were stranded on a deserted island and could only have one book..." I'm trying to come up with my top ten so far this year and notice that some of the titles that I enjoyed the most are barely on most folks' radar screens. Nevertheless, these are the ones I wish you'd try:

Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman
Heft by Liz Moore
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
Canada by Richard Ford
Calling Invisible Women by Jeanne Ray
Emily Alone by Stewart O'Nan
Paris In Love by Eloisa James
Life Itself by Roger Ebert
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones