Friday, November 30, 2012

Bernadette Fox Grows Up....

...and readers will root for her all the way! You can just tell that author Maria Semple would be a fun gal to hang out with. And, she gives new meaning to the old fashioned term "epistolary novel." Through a series of e-mails, faxes, bills, and letters, Ms. Semple introduces us to the quirky Elgin Branch family along with some one-of-a-kind denizens of Seattle during the hey day of the dot com boom. Where'd You Go, Bernadette is a sarcastic, laugh-out-loud, yet poignant, introduction to a woman who just doesn't fit and the family that loves her.

Once a wunderkind architect designing and building ecologically sound homes in L.A.,  Bernadette Fox, through a series of tricks and a wicked act of vengeance that we learn about halfway through her story, has a bit of what might be called a nervous breakdown. Eschewing her career in favor of Elgin's move to Microsoft and the gray, rain plagued city of Seattle, Bernadette gives birth to her precious Bee and opts for the life of a stay at home mother, a convenient choice given that she suffers from severe agoraphobia.

Bernadette gets by using the services of her new best friend, an online shopper from India, therefore she seldom has to leave home except to drive by school to pick up Bee. She's not into the cookie baking, fund-raising, and schmoozing that goes with the territory in yuppie heaven. She's an atheist to everyone else's God driven do-gooding and she doesn't entertain cause her idea of cooking is Chinese take-out.
This so-called erratic behavior deeply disturbs the neighbors though Bee and Elgie are perfectly content for life to go on as it always has. The result is a hilarious fiasco involving inept land clearing, a mudslide, and a high tone brunch. One mistake piles on top of another (literally) and before you know it the FBI is involved and Bernadette goes missing just days before a planned family cruise to Antarctica.

Semple's novel is so imaginative and original that I just didn't want to put it down. Along the way, I learned all kinds of things I never knew about Drake's Passage and the South Pole. But the larger lessons gleaned have to do with love, loyalty, hope, optimism, and persistence. Fifteen year old Bee is a marvel. Elgin, well, he's a man, what can I say? He may go off track for a bit but he finds his way back. And Bernadette? Uh uh. I'm not going there. It's up to you to discover. Meet Ms. Semple at

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sally's Writing Space - The Saga Continues

Ohhhh, I'm in love with my new space. I feel so warm and enveloped here. It's still a work in progress but the desk is in and complete, my new chair is so comfy, my computer, Don tells me, travels at the speed of light. For me, if I push the button and it turns blue, I'm happy as a clam.

Now, of course, the question is, how many books did I read over this long Thanksgiving weekend? Ha! I'm still on the Sunday papers. It doesn't feel right to hear that saw whining in the driveway and me being inside with my nose in a book. I'd rather be out there at least making a few marks on a slab of wood and helping to guide the saw to its logical conclusion.

That doesn't mean I've been a complete slacker though.

I'm listening - FINALLY - to The Hunger Games. Cathy Jones? Are you reading this? I took your advice and yes, I do like it, and think it would make a great multi-generational book discussion. I'm even intrigued enough that we've gotten the film from Netflix! I'm also reading Where'd You Go Bernadette. What a hoot! I'll be writing about it here soon. Expecting not one, but two books from Library Journal after a six week hiatus. Seems that they've got new editors, different faces, and a techier way of doing things that, sadly, puts more space between the reviewer and her editor.
Lest you think our work here is complete though, the answer is a resounding no. A bookcase is in the offing, under construction in the garage. I have boxes of books all over the house. We're tripping over them - Nook be damned. I want a wall full of books and that's what we've been constructing for the past two days. Here it is in its infancy.
You know, I've never been clever or artsy, drawing and painting were not for me. Knitting? Sewing? Fuggedaboutit. But I can't tell you what a glorious sense of accomplishment I get seeing the fruits of my imagination come together under Don's capable hands. He's getting so good at this that a neighbor came by the other day asking if he hires himself out. Oh no, I explained quickly, this is a labor of love.


Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jonathan Dee, Don't Let Him Fly Under Your Radar!

I generally pride myself on being at least aware of authors with considerable talent even if I have to put their book titles aside on the "to be read when I retire list." Then, last year, Jonathan Dee wrote The Privileges and the amount of great press quadrupled. His novel was even nominated for a Pulitzer and, yes, it's still sitting on my "to read" shelf. However, with my fabulous new subscriptions to Edelweiss and NetGalley, I have the opportunity to eyeball wonderful new novels often four to six months prior to publication. And that, my friends, is how I came to read A Thousand Pardons, Dee's latest novel that will be out in the spring.

Let me just say right out of the box, this guy has an ear for family dynamics that competes with my very favorite writers - think Richard Russo. He's especially adept at the prickly relationship between moms and teens, the way we tend to hurt the ones closest to us because we intuit that they have to take it without judgement and lots of forgiveness.

When readers meet Helen and Ben Armstead they will beg for some tension between the two. There is none, and that's their trouble. They live together like two ghosts, scarcely communicating or seeing each other through the scrim of their individual disappointments with life. There's no tangible reason for their discontent, no one actually to blame, they are simply the victims of inertia. So Ben, in his anguish and desire to feel something, anything, throws it all away in an act that is so out of character it could almost be laughable if it weren't so painfully poignant.

Helen hasn't worked since she and Ben adopted their daughter Sara, now at that horribly hormonal pre-teen place where parents and teachers are barely worth a smirk. For Helen, who's entire married life has revolved around Sara, this rejection from both husband and daughter is dispiriting, but with a resilience that makes you just have to love her, she upends their life, moves from the small town scene of her shame to the anonimity of Manhattan and gets herself back in the game. PR that is. Reputation repair. For which she seems to have an unsuspected knack.

As Helen's star rises, her confidence blossoms, she begins to work too much, make too much, and lose sight of her beloved Sara, until a chance encounter with a person from her past, Dee's hilarious sendup of a very conflicted superstar, brings her life around full circle.

I just hate it when a reviewer tells the entire story. I won't do that to you. It's like seeing previews to a movie that are so in-depth, you no longer feel the need to pay your ten bucks. Let me say simply that this novel by Jonathan Dee is small in size but huge in heart. Each character is so vulnerable and flawed that you know them instinctively.

I read with a sense of melancholy at first, talking to myself, then talking to them, as in "you fools, don't you see what's right in front of your eyes?" But of course, they don't. That's part of the human experience, isn't it? I found myself hoping beyond hope for a happy ending to the Armsteads' story, something I seldom need  in order to feel satisfied by a book. I cared that much about these people. And in that caring I came to appreciate the quality of Jonathan Dee's sharply observed storytelling. Don't miss out like I almost did. Coming soon to a library or bookstore near you.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Round House

It probably seems a tad disingenuous to come out roaring about a great read once that book has already won the National Book Award but that's what I must do in the case of Louise Erdrich's beautiful new novel The Round House. You will love every minute of time that you spend with Joe as he narrates the story of his thirteen year old self and the violent act that tore the heart out his family.

Erdrich, if you are unfamiliar with her, is a descendant of the Ojibwe tribe of native Americans, so, much of her fiction addresses the inequities that continue to plague the modern native Americans as they traverse the rocky path between assimilation and adherence to tribal customs. Joe and his parents live on an ever shrinking North Dakota reservation where his dad, Bazil, is a tribal judge and his mom, Geraldine, works as a tribal enrollment specialist.

For young Joe life was pretty idyllic, with family all living in close proximity the boy always had a home he could crash in, grandmas always had extra food on the stove. He and his pals biked everywhere, fishing and hiking, wrapped in a security that was shattered the Sunday afternoon his mom failed to come home from an appointment.

Viciously attacked by a rapist, Geraldine manages to escape with devastating physical injuries that can be stitched up, but it's the emotional damage that drives her into a near catatonic state as she hides in her room, sleeping away the day, ignoring her family, and refusing to talk to either the tribal or city police.

Bazil's love for his wife and son is an amazing thing, so patient, so caring, as he continues Geraldine's work of planting flowers and vegetables, forcing Joe to dig in the earth, to work off his frustration and anger at the helplessness he feels in the face of his mother's anguish.

Erdrich creates some marvelously flawed but fully developed characters who play important roles in Joe's education and maturation, especially former Marine, Father Travis of the Catholic order that's made inroads on the reservation, and Sonya, a woman with a cloudy past but a nurturing instinct, who takes Joe under her wing, employing him in the family business.

The Round House is an exquisitely wrought piece that examines the universal themes of innocence lost, the age old tug between good and evil, the application of vengeance versus justice. In addition Ms. Erdrich teaches a history lesson that seems to be lost on those who constantly whine about "taking their country back." Whose country?

The government that decimated the native tribes, stole their land, and perpetuated the myth of their "savage" nature, put in motion a travesty that has carried down through generations that are still reeling from the indifference of the authorities to unsolved crimes committed by outsiders on the reservations.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Palmer's Political Suicide is Killer!

Whew. I just finished reading Michael Palmer's soon to be released novel Political Suicide and I'm on my way to the drugstore to double check my blood pressure. I fell half in love with Palmer's alter-ego, Dr. Lou Welcome, in last year's hit Oath of Office so was happy to see that he's at the center of the action in this new book too.

Like Dr. Palmer, Lou Welcome is a man on a mission, working the graveyard shift in an ER to keep his skills honed, while volunteering much of his daylight hours to the compassionate work of counseling and mentoring physicians struggling with substance abuse.

He's a man with a conscience that usually gets him way in over his head and a passion for justice that, when thwarted, fires up a frustration that he slakes on a boxing bag instead of in a bottle.

The prologue is so gripping that I had to keep returning to read it again. I wanted to be sure I understood what had just happened and how Palmer would relate the life of an ER doc in DC with a horrific U.S. military mission in Afghanistan. I think what's so terrifying about Palmer's novels is that the fictional scenarios - like genetically modified foods in the last book - are so logical that the reader suspects this isn't really make believe at all.

In Lou's latest escapade, the society doc he's sponsoring calls for help, admitting to a drunken night, a damaged vehicle, and an affair with the wife of Congressman Elias Colston, who's now lying dead in his garage. Dr. Gary McHugh knows that he's the obvious suspect to be charged with the murder but he claims innocence and Lou believes him.

The investigation will lead from a crooked cop, to a secretive group of special ops marines, to the Dept. of Defense. Along the way he'll enlist the help of a former burglar and impress a frosty defense lawyer with his stubborn independence.

Michael Palmer's Politcal Suicide represents a new high for the writer. His technique gets better and better, conversation and witty banter abounds, reminiscent of DeMille's Mr. and Mrs. John Corey. Certain helicopter scenes are so realistic that some readers will suffer from vertigo. Most rewarding though is that Palmer doesn't shy away from serious moral dilemmas with global consequences. He thrills us even as he makes us think. Read more about Michael, his life and work at

Monday, November 12, 2012

Progress Report - Sally's New Writing Space

I just know there's a funny short story in here somewhere. I promise I'll work on it the minute I can find my check book again. Those of my friends who see me regularly already know that a major undertaking has been going on at my  Garry Rd. address. Those who really know me, understand that change, disruption to routine, can make me apoplectic. It's truly a miracle how well I'm taking this and it's all because of Don. He has a way of calming my soul.

Some months ago I must have mentioned in passing that I was due for a new computer desk - something with more space that could double as a writing area for the planned May retirement. Before I knew what was happening we were in the car and on the way to West Elm to sneak a peek at designs.

Don loves projects, he's also enamoured of real wood, none of this plasticky stuff they show at Staples. A few discreet photos, a stop for graph paper, and before the day was over, Houston, we had a prototype in progress. A whole day at my second home, Lowe's (even their politics are on the right side, which is to say, left) and my new work station/writing desk was rising like a phoenix from the ashes of mess that is currently my garage.

But like the proverbial snowball, the project seemed to be taking on a life of its own. The desk is monstrous! Hmmm-something had to go. For two weekends that meant having a garage sale that served two purposes, freed up space, and gave us some money to put toward the new paint which was now going to be a must. The pastel peach and the frilly daybed, purchased for a long grown and gone stepdaughter, no longer seemed to fit my new maturity.

You know what's next don't you? The final color decision, burnt sienna and umber, are marvelously rich and warm. The off white carpet? Gone baby gone. Decisions, decisions.....the wood floor is gorgeous! Oh no, those white mini-blinds look ridiculously out of place. Uh huh, wood slat plantation shutters. Now my room sits empty, anxiously awaiting the piece de resistence. The desk is nearly finished, Don is sanding as I type and I'll be staining it in a few hours. Next weekend? He's building a bookcase to match. Am I the most fortunate girl in the world? And all he wants in return is the great American novel and 20% of the royalties. The pressure's on.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Joy Castro, A New Voice in Literary Suspense

Hell or High Water: A NovelTouted by none other than Dennis Lehane, Joy Castro, literature teacher at the University of Nebraska, will be sharing the stage with another Lehane admiree, Atticka Locke, at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival next March. I'm so looking forward to meeting the two of them.

I've been listening to Ms. Castro's book in my car while simultaneously listening to Gillian Flynn's much ballyhooed Gone Girl on my ipod and I have to say, as devious and clever as Gone Girl is, the less well known Hell or High Water seemed to me a more superior novel.

Joy Castro's characters have heart. They are real, tangible people that you might actually know and their behavior is the result of understandable motivations. The excellent reading by Audie winner Roxanne Hernandez brought the characters to life for me. Her gorgeous Spanish language skills added depth to the narration as well.

The setting for Hell or High Water is post Katrina New Orleans and the news room of the famous Times-Picayune, where Nola Cespedes, a promising young journalist is working on a feature story that will propel her from the Arts and Leisure section to the front page - or so she hopes. But she's got to get her act together. Out trolling for men every night, drinking into the wee hours of the morning, and showing up late with an attitude, is not the way she'll endear herself to co-workers or her boss Bailey.

The damaged city of New Orleans as it tries to rise from the ashes of Katrina is a metaphor here for the damaged characters who fill this novel. It opens with the disappearance of a young woman from a French Quarter restaurant in broad daylight, later found raped and murdered. The article that Nola is working on revolves around sexual predators who have served their time and the difficulties they face while trying to reintegrate into society. Castro is doing a good service here, teaching through her characters, the good, the bad and the ugly, the men who Nola confronts and interviews in often awkward circumstances.

There is a constant atmosphere of underlying tension throughout the novel that keeps one on edge. Nola is so smart, a Tulane graduate, hanging with a posse of great gals with careers and lives, but the reader learns through Nola's first person voice, that she always feels like an outsider. She is prickly and resentful of her background growing up in the projects. She has worked hard at hiding her past but still harbors a sense of loyalty to the less fortunate that she left behind.

She's distrustful of men and rebuffs all attempts at true intimacy in favor of one night stands without names or faces. She only feels safe with her roommate, a gay man who will never be a threat, and with her newly acquired pistol that accompanies her everywhere. On Sundays, like any good Latino young lady, she takes her mother to church and reverts to the woman she could be for a few hours.

It's not often that I don't see it coming but when the shocking thing happens, you know, the gun that's introduced in the beginning of a play must be used before the end, I almost stopped my car on the side of the road. Yup, Joy Castro did what Gillian Flynn didn't - took me by surprise. Take a look at her website, grab a copy of her book, meet her in March. You won't regret it!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Florida, Blue? Who Knew?

Yes, four years ago my adopted state of Florida went for Barack Obama. I was stunned and amazed. Since that time though, things have gone steadily downhill for progressives in the Sunshine State - especially in my neck of the woods. Since the election of Rick Scott for Governor, Florida has been paddling backward at an alarming rate.

Working with the public, though often rewarding, can be onerous for those of us with an outspoken bent. Just once, while placing the 500th hold on a Glen Beck title, I'd love to be able to look up sweetly from the reference desk and say, "how can you read that junk?" But of course, that's not how we librarians role. We believe in something to offend everyone!

Over the past year the atmosphere has become more and more toxic and I'm always flummoxed when someone presumes that I might share their mean spirited views towards humanity, blacks, the poor, immigrants, the unemployed, you name it. We in public service are often sitting ducks for abuse, tethered to a desk where we are expected to grin and bear it.

Not long ago a well-to-do customer came in to use the Internet as the service hadn't yet been hooked up in his second home. "What are all these people doing here in the middle of the day," he asks. "You let them stay here on the computers all day?" ( I'll leave you to figure out the racial make-up of "these" people)
"Looking for jobs," I respond, "or weren't you aware that we have a 12% unemployment rate here in Lee County right now?" Grrrrr.....

Yesterday, election day, I think I hit a low point for depression and disappointment. Our building is a polling place. What a great way to see the system at work! Except that two of the poll workers took their afternoon break in our supper room. They were loudly excoriating the president, teachers, unions, New Yorkers (where'd that come from?), and expressing their firm belief that the world as we know it would end if President Obama were to be re-elected. Silly me, I always thought poll workers were supposed to at least act non-partisan.

On a more upbeat note, at my polling place, I ran into all my Republican friends at once. I cracked up. Our wait was doable - an hour and a half - and we all had a chance to express ourselves. Even if we philosophically disagree about government and its responsibility to the least of our brothers, we all live in harmony in our little community and we are all there for each other.

An elderly woman, painfully thin and relying on a walker, was treated with such deference when she arrived. I wished I could take a picture of her as she exemplified to me the best of the democratic system. It couldn't have been easy for her to be there but by golly she was, like the Delaney sisters, "having her say."

So now the election is over. I can turn my answering machine on again and not be held hostage to the robo-calls. I'm obviously pleased and relieved at the outcome but worried too. I'm online too much. I see the horrific, inexplicable hatred that anonymous posters spew into the cloud about this good man whose burden is so ferociously heavy and I'm scared. Here's hoping that whatever gods or fates are out there will work their magic and help our country come together and work for the common good.

Now I can put my papers aside for a few days and get back to my real world - fiction!!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Nothing Casual about The Casual Vacancy

We librarians are as time constrained as our customers are as it applies to checking out books. So a 500 page whopper like J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy, no matter how quickly it moves, can't always be completed by a working person within the 2 week limit. I'll admit that I'm on overtime myself but I figure the library needs the $$.

I expected plenty of controversy and sour grapes from reviewers now that Ms. Rowling has moved onto the adult literature stage and it was there. Few reviews were glowing and one writer even snarkily commented that spending time in Pagford, Rowling's fictional village in England where the vacancy occurs, was like spending a week with the Dursleys! That was funny. But not really accurate.

J. K. Rowling would appear to have a very jaundiced view of humanity which can make for depressing reading. The thing is that she also has a ferociously biting sense of humor that offsets the dim view of her small town denizens. The fact that she's right on the money, so accurate, so scathing in her depiction of the class warfare that has spoiled British life for so long and which has now crossed the pond to infect the United States, leaves me in awe of her skill.

Readers here in Southwest Florida will find her story particularly apropos. It's really a study of the haves and the have nots as well as a look at deep seated prejudices. Because we're in an area of extreme wealth, gated communities, and $300 a game golf courses that actually abut lower income communities peopled with blue collar retirees, the working poor and a large immigrant population, we see this kind of dichotomy everyday at the grocery store, at work, and in our schools. The English town of Pagford could be anywhere U.S.A. and it isn't pretty.

The plot surrounds the sudden death of a member of the town council who has been involved in a controversial battle between the quaint Pagford and the neighboring low income area called The Fields. Half of the townspeople would like to annex The Fields into Pagford and half are dead set against it. Who will fill the deceased man's seat on the council and what will he do to get there?

No, it doesn't sound like much of a plot, does it? But, in fact, Rowling manages to introduce readers to a complete microcosm of society and believe me, what shows on the surface is not at all related to what's going on in these peoples' heads! Among the teens there is angst and despair. Abused as a kid with a drug addict for a mother, Krystal Weedon acts out sexually in order to get attention. She is one of the characters I really got attached to in hopes that life would pull a turnaround for her.

A local physician who also serves on the council has lived in Pagford all her life but is still seen as a "Paki bitch" when push comes to shove. And speaking of pushing and shoving, there's an enormous amount of spousal abuse going on behind the pretty curtained windows of Pagford. You watch it happen with one eye turned from the page just waiting for the women to unleash their pent up rage.

Rowling does an especially good job with men, burrowing down into their psyches. In particular, the ongoing interior monologue of the attorney, Gavin, as he tries to extricate himself from a relationship with a social worker, Kay, who has moved to Pagford hoping to insinuate herself into his life, is pricelessly realistic. The tug of war between men and women is alive and well in Pagford and honestly depicted to a fault. Rowling pointedly shows the hypocrisy of the people on the hill, actually believing that they are above those down in the Field, even though the same devastation is being played out behind closed doors in both neighborhoods.

It's enough to make you blush when you read about a foible that Rowling has zeroed in on with her razor wit. How does she know this stuff? All those years of poverty when she sat in cafes and penned her fantastical Harry Potter world? Observing, observing, observing....

So, bottom line? Do I recommend The Casual Vacancy? I hate to be on the fence about anything but this is a time when I'm torn. It's a great expenditure of time and it won't make you happy. Life's short, I get that. I had to do it. Inquiring minds needed to know. Now though? I'm just looking for my next read to be happy.