Saturday, January 28, 2012

Audrey Schulman-A Blast from the Past

Many years ago when I worked on our county's bookmobile I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who was always pushing me to broaden my reading horizons. It was a glorious couple of years as I was studying for my masters degree while working with someone whose whole raison d'etre seemed to be to build up my self esteem and convince me that I could do anything that I chose to do. (he was right!)

Mr. Smith would never miss an opportunity to hand me a book about strong women, fiction, non-fiction, biographies. One of the memorable books he asked me to read was The Cage by Audrey Schulman. Billed as a "feminist adventure story," this literary thriller was about a nature photographer and a crew who ventured into the arctic to study polar bears.

Imagine my surprise when I opened my package from Library Journal last month and saw that I'd been sent a new novel, her first in over ten years, by Ms. Schulman. I couldn't wait to jump right into Three Weeks in December which should be released any day now. My review was published in the January issue of Library Journal but, to my dismay, I can no longer link to reviews as it seems they are adding a layer of security to their website while they roll out a new and complicated "look."

So, rather than reinvient my own wheel, I'll tell you that I absolutely loved this novel. Here is a copy of my review:

The abundance of Africa has made the continent ripe for exploitation, but among those who arrive there with less than honorable intent, some will become so enthralled with the land and its inhabitants that they cannot, will not, leave. In 1899 Jeremy, an engineer from a line of Maine homesteaders, hired on with the British to supervise the construction of a railroad that would carve its way through East Africa, paving the way for English settlers while carelessly displacing the indigenous people. One hundred years later Max, an ethnobotanist chosen by a “big pharma” corporation, travels to a gorilla research facility in Rwanda to test and return with a rare vine that could become a medical miracle. In alternating chapters, Ms. Schulman weaves two mesmerizing tales based upon historical fact, enlivened by fully formed, sympathetic characters. Jeremy feels compelled to prove his manhood when his encampment of Indian workers is threatened by a pair of aggressive lions, while Max immerses herself in the silent world of the endangered gorilla families. Verdict: Ms. Schulman (The Cage, A House Named Brazil) treats readers to a visceral cornucopia of senses, taking readers from the plains of Kenya to the mountains of Rwanda. Teaching without preaching, the author speaks to the dichotomy between the preservationists and the destroyers of Africa’s resources. She’s also written an ode to the wonder of silence.
 
Coming soon from Europa Editions. Look for it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mothers and Daughters, An Eternal Struggle?

My mother did not live long enough for us to become friends. I suspect that subconsciously, I consider this the one tragedy of my life. It certainly must be working on me because I think about it more and more as I age. I think about how remarkable she was, so ahead of her time, yet circumscribed to some degree by the times in which she lived.

After listening to an interview with Diane Keaton on NPR I knew that her memoir Then Again would speak to me. Not your average celebrity tell all with the requisite nasty secrets unveiled, Ms. Keaton has instead risen above the fray and written an homage to her family and, in particular, to her mother.

Since Keaton and I are contemporaries, our mothers faced similar situations as parents, stay at home moms, raising their kids in the '50's. Bright, educated and stifled, they budgeted wisely, sent the hubby off to work, and spent quality time with the children. But under the surface they were chomping at the bit to be freed up to explore their own talents.

Diane's mother took up photography, collage, and journaling, the results of which are shared in abundance throughout this book. My mother went back to teaching the moment we three kids were in school. The classroom was always her natural habitat.

Keaton's memoir is bittersweet as she recounts her decision at the age of fifty to open herself to the commitment of parenting, adopting her little girl Dexter, just as her mother begins the slow, agonizing slide into dementia and finally Alzheimer's disease. That's not to say that this is a depressing book by any means. In fact, it's a lovely examination of a family that grows closer with age and distance, and four siblings who owe their wonderfully disparate successes to the woman they called Mom.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oh What Tangled Webs We Weave......

....when first we practice to deceive. Living a lie must be one of the most soul killing things a person can do. The excitement may be sexy and stimulating for a while but the day arrives when you must realize that the walls will come tumbling down. And no, I'm not speaking of that slimey Newt Gingrich.

In this case I'm speaking of the bigamist James Witherspoon who is at the heart and soul of an eminently discussable book that I just finished called Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Ms. Jones has an impressive array of degrees and awards to her credit yet, once again, I had not heard of her until I caught an interview on the Diane Rehm show. It makes me wonder why women of color aren't always reaching a larger audience, but I guess that's the subject of another blog all together.

This novel is so readable yet so deep in its examination of the hidden knowledge in relationships; what makes them tick, why some last and others don't, how much deception can be overlooked and what has to come to light. You might think that no one could get away with having two complete families, living three miles apart in the same town, but you'd be wrong. In fact, it happened in the little town in Massachusetts where I lived during my own marriage.

James is basically a good man - don't laugh. It's to Jones' credit that she makes no judgements and treats him fairly, even with empathy. His first wife, Laverne, was pregnant at the age of 14. He married her and, with the help of his mother Bunny and his best friend Raleigh, he managed to go into business for himself, work his way up the ladder, buy a home, and provide for his family, especially the love of his life, his daughter Chaurisse.

The only problem is that James was inexorably drawn to Gwendolyn, the mother of his other daughter, Dana Lynn, and didn't have the gumption to give them up, though he only saw them once a week on a "work" night.

Dana and her mother were well aware of Laverne and Chaurisse but, naturally, the reverse was not the case. James and Raleigh could have kept the secret forever if Dana had been a different kind of girl and Gwen had been a woman willing to be satisfied in second place. Tragically, that was not to be.

Jones ratchets up the tension slowly but surely, keeping her readers in a knot of anxiety, turning the pages like a person driving by a car wreck and trying not to look. I really enjoyed the way she put her writing chops on full display by using two very different voices to tell the story.

The first half of the book is Dana's tale. Her voice is bright, sophisticated, and just a little bit devilish as she stalks her sister, torn between desperately wanting a complete family and the love of a sibling with the natural jealousy that would come from having to share her father's love with this stranger.

Chaurisse, too, is a young woman whose loneliness and insecurity cause her to feel overjoyed but suspicious of the attention that Dana suddenly lavishes on her. Not blessed with Dana's good looks and straight A brains, she has to question why this young woman who's on her way to Mount Holyoke College is hanging out with her at her mom's hair salon.

There's so much going on under the surface of this novel, so much to talk about. Women and men, black, white, Asian, whatever....it really doesn't matter, does it? The complications of attraction go back to the beginning of time.
But there's also an especially sensitive look at the plight of African American women in particular. How they feel about themselves, how they're treated in society, what's presumed about them, what their definition of beauty is.

I found Silver Sparrow to be an enlightening, thought provoking read. So much so that it's on my short list for next year's book discussion.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Charles Frazier's Nightwoods

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep..." What is it about the woods that sends one's imagination into overtime? I grew up living near, what seemed to a little girl, like a terrifying place with woods on three sides of a house way up on a hill. Yes, we had our worn paths to the neighbors' houses but, stray off the tried and true and where might you end up?

Left alone at night to babysit for my younger siblings, I was constantly looking out the dark windows, sure that someone was lurking, someone who meant us harm. Every little sound was evidence. And what would I do? Run off and leave them to fend for themselves? Wasn't I fortunate not to be put to the test!

In Charles Frazier's exquisite new novel, Nightwoods, the opposite seems to happen. The woods in this story become a haven for those in need and a fitting place to die if that's what's destined to be. Nature, in all its glory, reclaims what it must and shelters the rest. It's a place of healing for the damaged folks who seek its solace. It is described with such beauty and love that the reader feels that Frazier has put his heart into every word.

This novel worked its way into my head so slowly that I didn't see it coming. I chose it not having read any major reviews but simply on the basis that it was one of the few literary novels available for download to my nook. Once begun though, I read non-stop, fearful that it would disappear in an instant and leave me high and dry!

Certainly a dark novel, like most that I read, each character is wounded so deeply that one wonders how they will move on. Luce was abandoned by her mother, a woman just not imbued with the maternal instinct, her sister Lily ran off in a fever with a bad news boy, married him, had two kids and died at his hands, her dad, haunted by World War II, was lost in a buzz of drugs and alcohol.

Luce worked nights at the telephone company switchboard until she was sexually assaulted by someone she thought she could trust. From that moment she turned inward, away from the world and the despair she saw there. Luce went towards the woods, out of town and as far from civilization as she could, becoming a caretaker for the elderly owner of a decrepit lodge that once hosted the well-heeled swells escaping the city's heat for the clean, fresh lakes of the Appalachian mountains.

When Mr. Stubblefield dies Luce stays on, used to the anonymity of life in the woods and the solitary joy of her self-sufficient days. She has her one friend, Maddie, a fabulously tough old mountain gal who gives Luce a rooster or eggs now and then and offers small talk over coffee when its needed. The day that social services arrives with her sister's orphaned children in tow, Luce is as blindsided and speechless as are the little ones, Dolores and Frank. How can she possibly repair these two mute, damaged souls when she's just barely begun to repair herself?

Charles Frazier must know a great deal about the human spirit, the power of love, the karmic justice in the battle between good and evil. He lays it all out here for his readers in a powerful, succinct story that's been touted as a mystery but is oh so much more. Cold Mountain may have won the National Book Award but Frazier's writing chops are truly on display here in Nightwoods.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Michael Palmer - Not For the Squeamish

Whew! I barreled through Michael Palmer's Oath of Office, scheduled for release next month, just in time for his second appearance at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. (http://www.readfest.org/) If you're a political junky, thrill over gruesome medical details, or are a conspiracy theorist, this is the next great read for you!

Palmer introduces another compassionate physician, his alter-ego perhaps, in the super human form of Dr. Lou Welcome, a former alcoholic who's had his license to practice medicine in the E.R. reinstated. When not mending patients' bodies or working out in the boxing ring, a practice that will come in very handy when he finds himself on the wrong end of guns, knives, and even a combine harvester, Dr. Lou counsels and mentors other physicians with drug and alcohol addictions.

When one of his biggest successes and a close friend, Dr. John Meacham, goes off the deep end, turning a pistol on his waiting room patients and then on himself, Dr. Lou is horrified and unwilling to believe that his old friend had relapsed. Something else must have been at play and, since he's been laid off at the counseling center, he has the time and inclination to investigate, discovering that several other horrific, unexplainable incidents have been going down in the D.C. bedroom community of King's Ridge, Va.

An alternate story line revolves around the coolest, ballsiest First Lady you'll ever meet. Dr. Darlene Mallory has put her career as a pediatrician on hold to stand by her man, Martin Mallory, the currently very unpopular president of the United States. But when Martin fires their childhood friend, Secretary of Agriculture Russell Evans, without even hearing his side of the tabloid story, Darlene decides to go "off the grid" to find out who wanted Evans out of the agricultural chairmanship and why.

As Lou and Darlene delve deeper into the mysteries surrounding their friends, they discover that their investigations begin to overlap. Just suspend disbelief and go for the wild ride as, with the help of a renegade Secret Service agent and an entomologist who specializes in African termites, Dr. Lou and the First Lady deal with a "deep throat" whistle blower, threats, and thugs, before ending up on the doorstep of William Chester, a wealthy and powerful corn producer who holds the town of King's Ridge in his economic grip.

Laced with descriptions of life-saving emergency room procedures and protocols, as well as a rather gruesome chapter involving a woman who performs her own liposuction - you'll never eat fatty foods again - Palmer's novel never lets you forget that the author is a physician first and foremost. Lou Welcome is the quintessential doctor, combining technical perfection with compassionate care for his patients and his family.

 Oath of Office is billed as a pulse-elevating medical thriller. Don't worry Michael Palmer fans, it is all that. But at the heart of this disturbing novel is an important and timely message from the good doctor about the ethical decisions  that are made in the upper echelons of government and in the corporate offices of agricultural conglomerates about the food we grow, produce, and eat. Gassing tomatoes may make them look pretty but how does that break down in our bodies? Irradiation and manipulating of plant DNA takes the danger to a whole new level. Imagine a day when your doctor admonishes,  it's not healthy to eat your veggies."

Visit Michael Palmer's website to learn more about genetically modified foods and join a discussion of his book. www.michaelpalmerbooks.com

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

112 Books in 2012!

I've never been a terribly competitive person. Sports? Just there for the exercise, not to come in first. Cards? Simply enjoying the company, unless there's $$ involved. But books? Now that's another story! How about you? How many do you plan to read this year? Is it a numbers game or do you just pick it up, enjoy it and put it aside? And, for that matter, when does trying to get the numbers begin to take away from the pleasure of the reading?

Me? I'm off to a great beginning this year with 7 titles under my belt already, not to mention the one that I cut loose on the first disc. My Nancy Pearl prerogative kicking in. Several glowing reviews led me to download In Zanesville by Joanne Beard. I should have known better as I'm a bit beyond "coming of age" novels but it was on plenty of "best of" lists so I gave it a whirl.

This novel was billed as laugh out loud funny but I'm afraid my sense of humor may be a tad different. This was more of a Glass Castle imitation and when the author had an abusive father force his son's hand into the blue flame of a gas stove burner, holding it there until the smell of roasting flesh caused his babysitter, the narrator, to sob out loud, I was finished. I have too many other choices. Just look at my kitchen counter!



I did finish Scott Turow's Innocent on my Nook before the library police took it away from me. I was totally enthralled with this book, couldn't put it down, until the author completely let me down on the finale. I wanted these people to be evil - or should I say - more evil. I'm listening to Last Man in the Tower. More on that later. And, finally, I'm almost done with Michael Palmer's new novel, Oath of Office, which I've promised to review here next. Very creepy folks.
For some reason, blogspot has been acting up for a couple of days and I don't seem to be techie enough to figure out why I keep getting a bright red message saying "an error occurred while saving." You may or not may not get to read my latest musings. If you do, why not let me know if you'd like to compete this year. Let's see who enjoys counting titles and who gets to 112 first. Talk to me!






Sunday, January 8, 2012

Who is Yannick Murphy?

Once again I've been totally blindsided by a novelist, much as I was by Lionel Shriver. Usually I read books by authors I'm familiar with but I kept shelving this little novella, The Call, and the cover well, yes, it called to me. Then I saw if on several "best of 2011" lists and discovered that we actually had a copy in our downloadable format. I read it on my nook in just a couple of days.

This novel, The Call, is so deceptively simple, you think that you're just reading a diary, kind of "a day in the life of a country veterinarian" type book - think James Herriott. Then suddenly, it takes such a turn that you shake your head in disbelief. Where is the author going you wonder? And then, when you find out? Frankly, I was awestruck.

The format of The Call may take a page or two to adjust to. Four seasons, daily calls to the veterinarian's home for his services; a goat needs help in the birthing process, a horse needs stitches, a dog is listless, a cow isn't giving milk.

Over the course of a year, readers are introduced to a glorious array of characters who people this small New England farm town. Especially poignant is the elderly woman whose sheep lives in the house with her, keeping her company much as a dog would. When she asks the veterinarian for help, it is for herself that she's really calling, simply needing some company or perhaps a caring prod to make that phone call to the doctor for her own checkup.

A reluctant hunter, the veterinarian takes his son Sam on his first foray into the woods for deer season, against the wishes of his wife, Jen. A shocking accident sends Sam to the hospital with a head injury and this light story morphs into something so much more, an investigation of guilt, vengeance, familial stress, and the hope that springs eternal in all of us. Through their reactions to Sam's predicament, Jen, her husband and their two little girls, come alive as individuals and as an unbeatable family unit.

I dare not tell you more about this book for fear of taking away the lovely suprises that Murphy reveals like a set of nesting dolls. What I do want to say is how stunned I was, at the conclusion of this book,   to discover that the author is a woman. This fact somehow enhanced my appreciation of her skills, as she had so totally inhabited the character of the male veterinarian who narrates the story, to the point where I was actually getting angry at him/her for his/her off hand treatment of his wife. OK, agreed, that was a tough one to explain.

All I can say is I highly recommend giving this book a chance. I've only disclosed some of the surprises. Honest. It would make a fantastic book discussion and I will likely consider it for next  year. Treat yourself to Yannick Murphy's website at: http://yannickmurphy.com/

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Midnight Rising - Listening to History

I know that I don't read as much non-fiction as I should, and I've often stated right here on this blog that I prefer to swallow my history couched in fiction. But....Tony Horwitz, like Erik Larson or Isabel Wilkerson last year, lends such vibrancy to our past in this detailed account of John Brown's life, in particular the attack on Harper's Ferry which would become a precursor to the Civil War.

I ask myself "what is a terrorist?" Does the end justify the means as Machiavelli opined? How many times in our scant 200 -and- some- year history have well-meaning people concluded that revolt is the only answer? John Brown became one of those men. So appalled and despairing of the cruelty of slavery, especially after the enactment of The Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Brown convinced himself and his followers that only action, rather than peaceful negotiation, would culminate in freedom for the African slaves forced into this country against their will as a boon to the southern economy.

The facts of the matter we may learn in school, but the telling by Horwitz adds a tremendously personal note to those facts. Brown, who had settled not far from my home town in Springfield, Massachusetts, had a small but important following in the free thinkers of the day. Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth were all part of the burgeoning abolitionist movement that was spreading throughout the northeast. In fact, the church where Brown worshipped was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

I especially enjoyed the way Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and husband of another Pulitzer winner, Geraldine Brooks, credited so many strong, courageous women, not the least of whom was Brown's wife Mary, with their steady devotion to the cause. By necessity Mary and her daughters-in-law had to stay behind at their farm in New York state, raising the children, doing without, seeing her sons and their husbands off to join Brown in his battles against the scourge of slavery, whether in Kansas or Virginia, where he raided the armory at the renowned Harper's Ferry.

Horwitz gives readers small but telling anecdotes, individualizing many of the men who followed Brown to Harper's Ferry and he also goes into minute detail about the Virginians who were being held hostage by Brown's men. Through their court testimony we learn that, while they disagreed with Brown and even feared his efforts to free and arm their slaves, they respected him for his gentlemanly treatment of them and for his seeming unwillingness to harm them unless in self-defense.

There is a dichotomy here between the way Brown saw himself and the way others saw him. Over the last century he has been villified as a domestic terrorist and hailed as a lone voice for the abolition of slavery. A maniacal firebrand or a Christ-like figure willing to sacrifice himself for the freedom of others? The truth is always somewhere in between, isn't it? It's true that "John Brown's body is mouldering in the grave," but his legacy of righteous anger, his desire to see all men truly free, and the courageous manner in which he faced his death sentence, are a testimony to the impact of his short time on this earth.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Year, A New Booklist!

Happy New Year everyone. Such a cliche yet.... 2012 sounds good to me. Ever the cockeyed optimist, I've scanned the headlines this morning, the world is in a mess, killing over religion, tribal warfare continues unabated, and yet I still have a deep seated notion that this year may bring some respite from the economic trials of the last several years.

Now if we could just fast forward to November and get this ridiculous election over with, let Obama get on with the sisyphian task of pulling our country out of the doldrums.....but oh yes, I'm here to speak about books, aren't I?

Let me begin the new year by saying that I believe Stewart O'Nan is probably one of America's finest novelists to have published in the last decade. I will kick off the year's discussion group at the library with his most recent novel, Emily, Alone, the wondrous sequel to his first novel about the Maxwell family, Wish You Were  Here.

What does O'Nan write about, you may ask. My answer, everything and nothing. Remarkably, this is a novelist who can explain the entire human condition through the prism of one week with one family in one town. He excels at describing the minutiae of every day life in a manner than makes you want to smack your head and say "of course, that's it exactly! Why couldn't I think of that?" But we don't, which is why we are readers and not writers.

Emily is so familiar to me that I feel I've known her all my life. She is a kinder, gentler Olive Kitteridge; she is me, my stepmother Edith, my mother Penny, my sister Cynthia. She's a universal character captured so perfectly by O'Nan that I marvel at his powers of observation.

Many of my "regular" book club attendees have told me that they may not come to this discussion. They found the novel too depressing, they related too closely to this woman at the tail end of her life, planning for her demise. I'm amazed at these ladies. Rather than depressing I found this novel inspiring. I love Emily. I aspire to be like her.

Pushing 80, Emily still lives in her family home with her constant companion, Rufus. She misses her husband tremendously, speaks to him in a constant stream of consciousness that is entirely believeable and honest. Her discussions with her dog are even more spot on.

Her dearest companion, her sister-in-law Arlene, another independent senior , accompanies her to their friends' funerals, to the opera, to their "club," a throwback to past glory days. Even as they remind each other that their time is growing short, they manage to fill each day with worthwhile activity and joy in the little things, a good book, a radio show, a good meal, a cocktail.

Emily's relationships with her children, Ken and Margaret, have long been frought with anxiety. Unmet expectations are a normal part of the parent/child bond. What parent doesn't want more for their kids than they had themselves? What child doesn't sometimes feel that they've let their parents down? Underachieved? How many times do we bite our tongues to keep the peace at family gatherings?

Stewart O'Nan is a master. I don't know what else to say. I can't wait to have this discussion with my group, hoping I'm not a lone voice in the wilderness of appreciation of this low-key, understated talent. I'm already looking forward to his next release, The Odds, A Love Story, coming soon to a library, bookstore, kindle, nook, near you!