Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Dumbing Down of Americans

Yes, I know, this is a book blog, and I believe that I've used extreme fortitude in not ranting about politics this election year - at least not as much as I did 4 years ago! But, I just can't take it any more. There are several news items that have stuck in my craw over the past couple of weeks, between the newspaper and the Daily Show, I just can't let this slide.

It began when John Stewart ran a skit a few weeks ago about Time Magazine. I suppose I know enough about publishing to realize, after the fact, that this happens more often than we'd care to admit, seems that Time's publishers don't believe that Americans have enough of a world view to be interested in international news. Therefore, they run a different cover photo and article in the states than they run in other countries.

The example John gave was an in-depth essay about Italy's new prime minister, Mario Monti. OK, even if you don't love Italy the way I do, you need to know what's happening in the world. Correct? But no, Time's U.S. version that week ran a cover story about Americans' love affairs with their animals. Say what??

Right on the heels of this show I happened to be reading a feature story by Barbara Hoffert  in the Feb. 15th issue of Library Journal  in which she evaluated U.S. public library circulation statistics by genre. The results, while not surprising, served to illustrate why I'm so disillusioned with my once brilliant career choice. Literary fiction, which I review and hope to do more of in my retirement, came in dead last. Hmmmm. Worse yet, in non-fiction, politics and government were on the bottom of the totem pole. So much for an informed public!

So let's move on to Rick Santorum. Must we? you may ask. Well yes, know thine enemy! Just when I thought nothing worse could come from his mouth, he had the temerity to call our president a snob because he believes that all kids in these United States should have an opportunity to improve their lives through education.
 But look out folks, they might be brainwashed by some liberal educator and transformed into a Barack Obama clone! Hey, why would we want our kids to aspire to the presidency? Is this like, "how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" Remember what happened to Flaubert's Madame Bovary when she tried to improve her mind with books?

This wedge that's being driven hard into the hearts of Americans is so disheartening that I just don't know what to do. How sad that Olympia Snow, a most respected moderate Republican senator is being driven from the Senate because she knows that she'll get nothing more accomplished in this current atmosphere.

How tragic that teachers, ( my mom was one) once considered, like librarians, as a cornerstone of an informed society, are being vilified, denigrated, and disrespected by parents and politicians alike. What a travesty that a man like Rick Santorum could illegally educate his kids in Pennsylvania while he actually living in Virginia, but that a black, single mom from Ohio who wanted a good education for her girls was sentenced to FIVE years in prison for using her dad's address to help them into a better school.

But lest you think I'm only reading the news I'll disabuse you of that notion right now. Books I'm reading that I probably won't blog about because they aren't setting me on fire are Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic and Val McDermid's horrifying murder mystery The Distant Echo. I will be yakking about Running the Rift and my book discussion next week on Ann Patchett's State of Wonder. I also had a starred review in that same Feb. 15th issue of Library Journal. I love it when that happens!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

P. D. James - Still the Master!

I've been known to say that if I see one more crazy knock off novel capitalizing on Jane Austen - think vampires - I'll scream. OK, I take it back. P. D. James, my very favorite British mystery writer, has outdone herself with the extremely clever Death Comes to Pemberley. The difference between her copycat Austen and all of the others is, simply, talent!

This remarkable woman, now well into her '90's, and looking fantastic, is still the grand dame of the sophisticated police procedural and her hero, Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, will probably go down in history as one of the most complicated, nuanced police inspectors in literature.

At first I thought that this new novel was very far afield for Ms. James and I even hesitated to check it out. Oh, I'm so glad that I did! Caught by the first sentence, " It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters." I could not put this novel down. If that literary style sounds familiar, and yes, one must have a working knowledge of Jane Austen to fully appreciate the extraordinary imitation of Austen's language and rhythm, then you will chuckle like I did as the story unfolds.

The years since Pride and Prejudice have passed in loving harmony at Pemberley; Darcy and Elizabeth now the proud parents of two young sons. The evening before the annual Lady Anne's ball, with the house in a flurry of activity, a carriage comes careening out of the woods with the erstwhile Lydia - the sister who had years previously almost ruined the reputation of the Bennnet family when she ran off with Mr. Wickham - crying and screaming that Wickham and his friend Denny disappeared into the woods and that there had been several gunshots.

Since Lydia and Wickham are not "received" at Pemberley due to a despicable act of impropriety on Wickham's part many years earlier involving Darcy's virginal (of course) sister Georgiana, their unexpected arrival causes a flurry among the staff and family. Darcy and his men venture out to the woods to investigate and come upon Wickham, drunk and broken, crying over Denny's bloodied body.

From this moment on James takes us through a standard police procedural except rather than up to the minute forensic tools, we are treated to the 19th century version of investigative and judicial procedure. Who better to walk us through the process than Ms. James who has over thirty years experience with British Civil Services as well as a stint in the Home Office.

This book is a must read for you die hard Pride and Prejudice fans - yes, I know who you are! I can't begin to imagine what Ms. James will tackle next but even Susan Jacoby would admit that this is a woman who breaks the mold when it comes to representing "good" old age. Her genetic lineage must be as impeccable as Darcy's!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Once More, Stewart O'Nan

I've been raving here on this blog for the past several months about the brilliance of Stewart O'Nan, a writer whose novels are about nothing and everything. His keen focus tends to be on the ordinary minutiae of daily living. I mentioned also, that some of the folks in my book group were divided in their opinions of Emily, Alone, half the room saying she should "get a life," the other half accepting her as she was.

I'd love to know just what they'd make of The Good Wife, a novel I just finished listening to in my car. An earlier O'Nan, written maybe 8 to 10 years ago, at first glance not as sophisticated and observant as his more recent work but it grew on me nevertheless.

I suppose that it was more difficult for me to get into the head of Patty, the good wife in question, than it was to understand and empathize with Emily. But all novels strike you differently depending upon where you are in life experience when you read it. True? I could imagine hundreds of women like Patty in small blue-collar New England towns like the one I lived in when I was married, the women home with the kids, the guys hanging in one of the many bars in town. A very insular life.

Patty and her husband Tommy, a character who's never really fleshed out very well making him difficult to either love or hate, are expecting their first child when he heads out with the "boys" for a night of drinking and carousing that culminates in a break and enter with bodily harm. It seems that Tommy has been supplementing his income by selling stolen property, but this time, he and his bad boy buddy have chosen the wrong home to burglarize. Their noise awakens the elderly woman who owns the home and, in her fear and confusion, she falls, hitting her head. Or was she attacked? Does it matter?

Tommy is sentenced to 28 years in prison. Patty is left to pick up the pieces of her life. At first you can't believe this is happening, neither can Patty and Tommy. You read along expecting that it's all a mistake, waiting for Tommy to proclaim his innocence, for a lawyer to turn up new evidence, but no, this is it. The entire novel is an homage to the strength of Patty, her sisters, her mother, and the women in this world who place their own lives on hold in order to hold others' lives together.

Remarkably, O'Nan manages to turn what could be an overwhelmingly depressing story into a rather beautiful novel about a young mother trying to raise her son and forge ties, however tenuous, between him and his father, a man he only knows through awkward visiting days at various penitentiaries throughout New York state.

Over the seemingly endless years, Patty goes from one crummy unfulfilling job to another, finally coming to the realization that if this is to be her life she'll need to take control of it, get herself educated, begin actually making some money, become a person her son Casey can be proud of. O'Nan does a great job describing Patty's small steps to independance and maturity. Little things like selling Tommy's truck to buy her first car reminded me so much of Emily, who also had to sell her husband's old car and choose something new, so perfectly symbolic of moving forward. Once again, Stewart O'Nan proves himself to be a master of understatement. Haven't read him yet? Your bad.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Love Anne Tyler? Try Hilma Wolitzer

As I anxiously wait for the release of Anne Tyler's new novel in April, I picked up Hilma Wolitzer's beautifully nuanced portrayal of a sixty something widower forced into the dating game by his stepkids. An Available Man immediately reminded me of one of my favorite Anne Tyler books Noah's Compass.

The available man in question is truly a gem. Edward Schuyler, who'd been abandoned at the altar as a younger man, spent years serial dating after Laurel's betrayal until he met and married the unflappable Bea, gaining a son, daughter and dog in the bargain. Wolitzer describes Edward's and Bea's marriage as one of those truly comfortable, no drama relationships, they were a perfect fit. That's what made her cancer diagnosis so difficult to accept, her death so quick, and the empty place so deep.

As they will, well meaning friends allow Edward very little time to mourn. The casseroles pile up, invitiations abound, but he just isn't ready. He's a sensitive man, he enjoys his privacy, he loves his teaching job, and he has his hobbies, birding for one. Grief counseling is uncomfortable for Edward, why can't they just leave him alone to think about Bea and the plans they'd made?

After two years the kids can't take it anymore and devise an ad for the singles section of the New York Review of Books - who knew? - hoping to attract some highbrow women to Edward's lonely corner of the world. The letters pile in! Edward begins to make calls, half-heartedly at best, a dinner here, a coffee there, some proferred kisses, some rebukes. And finally a connection! But, is she the right one for Edward? If you have to ask.......

What I love about this novel is the gentle humor, the reality of life as a single person in one's sixties, the truth about sexuality and the doubt that anyone will find our well worn bodies attractive, fear of loneliness yet fear of too much togetherness as well, the pressure from outsiders, the difficulty of trying to go solo in a coupled world. It is all so spot on and so tenderly described.

 Ms. Wolitzer treats us to people we truly care about, (and that doesn't seem to happen in novels too much any more), from yuppie stepson Nick and his wife Amanda, to Julie who wants everyone else to be happy but can't seem to track down that elusive feeling for herself, to Gladys,  Bea's octogenarian mother who holds the wisdom of the ages in her smile.

When I finished An Available Man I simply put it aside and let out a long, satisfied sigh. The perfect book for a long, lazy afternoon on the couch nursing a cold, waiting for the promised rain and the relief from the pollen and humidity, listening to Don chopping and dicing in the kitchen. Here's hoping Edward Schuyler will find what I did!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Susan Jacoby - Mad as Hell and Not Having It!

I first met Susan Jacoby through Bill Moyers' show on PBS.
He had a penchant for in-depth interviews with brilliant women like Ms. Jacoby and another one of my favorite straight talkers, Kathleen Hall Jamieson. His decision to retire has left a deep hole in quality television programming, though I've heard rumors that he may return.

Susan Jacoby is an eclectic writer whose essays and non-fiction have appeared in every major publication in the country. An avowed atheist, she received international kudos for her 2004 book about the myth of our country's supposed Christian foundation, Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism. She must be apoplectic over the rhetoric coming from our current crop of Republican candidates! While Gingrich can be written off as simply crazy, Santorum should truly be terrifying to any thinking woman.

Being a "baby boomer" seems to be a dirty word lately, at least as we are differentiated from my parents' "greatest generation," but talk of aging, retirement, health issues, and quality of life are weighing heavily on my mind as I consider the next phase of my life. Thus, when I saw that I could download Ms. Jacoby's latest eye-opening look at the "new old age," I grabbed it for the ipod. Such an irony that I listen as I walk my three mile route knowing full well that all that exercise will not protect me from the ravages of time and genetic inheritance!

Never Say Die, The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age will not be an easy book to swallow for those of my contemporaries who really believe that vigorous exercise, good nutrition, and crossword puzzles will keep them vibrant into their nineties and beyond. Not so, say the studies. They don't hurt of course, and they make us feel good, you know, all those burgeoning endorphins, but if one falls and breaks a hip, his quality of life will rapidly decline no matter how many fruits and vegetables he's ingested!

Ms. Jacoby is justifiably angry at the massive media conspiracy, along with AARP and the drug companies that blast the airwaves, magazines and newspapers with pictures of beautiful senior citizens, perfectly coiffed, healthily tanned (an oxymoron?), hefting their clubs and rackets, sipping champagne, and looking like they're having the times of their lives. She mentions study after study that prove out the obviously huge disparity between health care options for the wealthy vs. for the rest of us. Women, in particular, she notes, will live longer but with decreasing assets and many, many, will live out their days in abject poverty.

Though Ms. Jacoby gives huge praise to President Obama's health care initiative, discusses the efficacy of stem cell research, and is politically left of center, she doesn't spare compliments for those on the right who have stepped up to increase awareness of diseases that devastate families from all ends of the spectrum. All the money and education in the world will not spare some of us the heartbreak of Alzheimer's disease and she thanks Nancy Reagan for bringing this disease into the forefront of our psyches.

On a personal note, Ms. Jacoby speaks eloquently of her life partner, a brilliant, witty wordsmith who, as he succumbed to this disease, found himself unable to express even the simplest emotion. She talks too, of the enormous strain of caregiving, the ferocious cost of long term care insurance, and the injustice of losing one's assets to nursing care.

No, this book is not a cheerful read, but I think that it's necessary for those of us in what she refers to as "young old age," to get our heads out of the sand and recognize the facts. Like another one of my favorite angry women, Barbara Ehrenreich, Susan Jacoby splashes a healthy dose of cold water on the myths being perpetuated by the media, the exhorbitant amounts of money being spent to stave off the aging process, and the skewed results of many long-term drug trials that imbue families with false expectations. (just read about aricept)

There are many lessons one can take away from Never Say Die but the simplest and the oldest is one of pure common sense. Live each day as if it's your last. One day it will be.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

And so...A Trick of the Light

At the risk of repeating myself, I'll mention again that I think the term "cozy" is outdated as a genre descriptor. While it may have applied to Louise Penny's first or second novels about the little Canadian village of Three Pines, the term is no longer appropriate. There is nothing "cozy" about Ms. Penny's Armand Gamache series of 7 sophisticated crime novels (number 8 is in the hopper for August release) and she continues to reap accolades from reviewers worldwide.

I have to admit that I have not read these novels in order (sorry Cath) and I realize now that I did myself a disservice because much of the back story in the latest book revolves around an horrific accident that happened in the previous one in which Chief Inspector Gamache and his loyal second in command, Jean Guy de Beauvoir, were ambushed in a warehouse shootout, each suffering serious injuries.

PTSD affects each sufferer uniquely. For Jean Guy it means obsessing over the video of the catastrophe, leaked to the press and now viral on the Internet. He watches it over and over and over again, reaching a dangerous conclusion that we worry may affect his previous father/son relationship with Armand. To add to this complication Jean Guy, when facing death, realized that he needed to make some major life changes, one of which was to admit to himself that he was and always has been in love with Armand Gamache's daughter Annie.

Penny expertly juggles several disparate threads over the course of her novels. One of those threads that comes to the forefront in this book is that of the strained marriage of Peter and Clara Morrow. They are both artists living in Three Pines, but Clara has always subsumed her artistic endeavors, relinquishing her time and talent to Peter's, which is considered to be more saleable. Unspoken resentment and jealousy curdle below the surface when Clara, who's been sculpting and painting in obscurity for 25 years, is suddenly "discovered" and given a one woman gallery show of her own.

But as the glowing reviews and calls of congrats roll in the following day, the joy is drained from Clara's sense of accomplishment by the discovery of a body with a broken neck lying among the flowers in her garden. The Surete de Quebec takes up residence in Three Pines to begin the investigation and, in the process, readers are treated to a fascinating look inside the competitive, nasty, world of artists and galleries.

Ms. Penny excels at psychologically astute characterizations, from the seemingly unimportant background characters like the wonderfully drawn poet and town crank, Ruth, to the owners of the local B & B, to Clara and Peter, Gamache, his wife, Beauvoir and Beauvoir's mentee, agent LaCoste. She builds the suspense slowly but deftly until the reader is so invested there's no chance of leaving her books unread. She buries enough red herrings to throw even the best armchair detectives off base. In other words Louise Penny is a master of chiaroscuro. (look it up, I had to!)

Visit her website at to get a full sense of all seven books in the series and treat yourself so her blog posts to get a full sense of the delightful woman who writes them.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Make New Friends, But Keep the Old

Were you a Girl Scout? If so, then you'll remember the old song that we learned to sing in a "round." One is silver and the other gold. Today I had a golden day, the annual birthday lunch with my college roommate, Cathy Jones. We are Aquarians. Isn't everyone? Since she moved to Bonita Springs from Maryland several years ago, we have made this an annual event. Normally it involves The Grape at Coconut Point and multiple glasses of wine. The joy of golden friends is that no matter how long it's been since you've seen eachother, you take up right where you left off.

It's what they call "season" in Southwest Florida and the place was jammed, unlike our lovely mid-summer meetings when we have the place to ourselves. Therefore, the louder we got the more the folks at other tables turned to look at us and listen in on the conversation. By the time we were ready to go we had been offered high fives from quite a few delightful strangers. They asked us how long we'd known eachother. Hmmm, we met in 1966 and became roommates in 1967. We still talk books. Need I say more?

So we're comparing notes and I told her that yesterday was one of those golden days at the library where I actually had the opportunity to do what I was born to do. Thirty three men and women joined me for the book discussion of Stewart O'Nan's Emily Alone, in my opinion one of the loveliest books ever written about aging and friendship.(previously reviewed here) Not all agreed. And that's good. We like controversy in our book discussions. Of course, I told Cath she had to run out and get it immediately! She told me that I had to read Louise Penney - IN ORDER!

And there you have it. Forty five years and this is why we'll always love each other. I just finished Louise Penney's A Trick of the Light this morning. What a kick! I suspect I'm the most fortunate girl in the world. I'll tell you all about Ms. Penney on Sunday.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Writer's Block, But...I have a QR Code!

Apologies to my readers as it's been almost a week since I've written and truly, I miss it! The problem was that I had received a new book from Library Journal to read and review and I found myself, for the first time in the 5 years I've been reviewing for them, having trouble knowing quite what to say and how to say it. Can a reviewer have writer's block? I'm not sure but I'll tell you, it was an awful feeling.

The odd thing is that I did like the book, I'm sure it's an important book, and I hope it will get wide readership. Thetitle is Second Person Singular, written by a multi-award winning but controversial Arab-Israeli author. Of course, I always do my due diligence, so I had read interviews with the man and articles, some of which were relatively recent and from American sources. Anxiously, I sent it in today, the deadline, though I probably could have had an extension, I honestly didn't think it would help. The novel will be out in April. We'll see how it does then.

Meanwhile, Don found a website where I could create a QR code. You know, like you'd use in Target. So, how cool am I? One can scan my QR code and pop right up at my blog! You would almost think I'm a real techno-geek, wouldn't you? But you'd be wrong. My friend Jessica had to figure out how to load it into the blog and even she, the one we always turn to for all things computer related, hasn't been able to make it more discreet. It rather hits you in the eye when the page opens. We're working on it. Patience please.

Other than the paint thegarage floor project,(don't ask),which may take longer than I thought because Don, thank goodness, enjoys doing things right or not at all, I've been struggling with the latest novel by one of my favorite authors Penelope Lively. I'm not sure if it's the book or if it's me but I can't seem to concentrate on it and she's normally so wonderfully witty and dry. My kind of humor. How it all Began will be reviewed here soon. Maybe after the garage is a lovely shade of khaki?

Next up, Louise Penney's A Trick of the Light. I'm walking like crazy as I listen and learn all about modern art and meet up with my old friends from Three Pines. My next book discussion will be Ann Patchett's State of Wonder which is beckoning to me right now. Can't wait to delve into it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Deon Meyer - Back to Africa

With all my reading experience - does that sound conceited - sorry but, let's face it, it's what I do - I should have read a little further before I took home Deon Meyer's Blood Safari. I planned to listen in my car to a quick, down and dirty police procedural, kind of a South African Ed McBain, like the previous Meyer books that I've written about here in this space. The reason being that when you're wending your way through the nightmare mess of construction, tourist traffic and mania on the roads in Southwest Florida in the winter, you don't want to have to concentrate too much.

Big mistake! Meyer's new novel is a stand alone, not one of his wonderful Bennie Griessel murder mysteries. This is not a complaint, just an observation. I should have luxuriated with this book and given it the reading time that it deserved. This novel is a huge departure with a different, more complicated  focus than his previous works. Yes, there's a mystery, and some murders, but there's so much more at work here involving the ferociously complicated issues that seem to dog South Africa.

Meyer uses a story about a missing man, Jacobus LeRoux, who simply dropped out of sight in the Kruger National Park twenty years ago, and his sister, Emma, who never really believed he was dead, to lay out a sinister tale of racial tensions, environmental devastation, and political intrigue. If one is not familiar with the situation in South Africa, this novel will sound way over the top. I've learned from our own Afrikaans guide through Kruger that everything Deon Meyer says is true.

Emma is a business woman living the lonely but uneventful life of a successful white person in Cape Town when her home is broken into and her life threatened by an unknown gang of intruders. Because she can afford to, she hires a quirky body guard called Lemmer, another lonely, silent, man with a past, who only wants to do his job and get the hell home. When Emma tells him that she has reason to believe that her brother Jacobus is actually alive, he goes along with her to the lowvelt, to Kruger, to watch over her as she investigates.

Slowly he learns that Emma is not the spoiled little rich girl he had imagined but rather, a woman of passion and substance. It's not long before Lemmer is intricately involved in the search for Jacobus, rattling chains in the local police department and tangling with a strange environmental group that works the Kruger.

For someone who has recently returned from this area, the scenes are perfectly constructed. Meyer describes the airport in Nelspruit exactly as I saw it when I stepped off the plane. When Emma and LeRoux enter the park at one of the many entrances I could actually remember our own early morning arrival at the south gate. But it's his characterization of the people that is even more spot on.

 The tensions between the whites, the Africans, and the Afrikaaners is always an undercurrent. No one is quite comfortable yet with the post-Apartheid world and his or her place in it. A simple accent can brand one as an insider or not. Familiarity with a tribal language is always suspicious.

Criminal activity is rampant in Kruger Park and there is plenty of blame to be spread around. For years the elephants were slaughtered for their tusks, now it's the rhino whose horns are sold on the black market for their properties as an aphrodesiac. Before Paul Kruger "donated" this land to the country for a national park, it belonged to the native Africans who still hold to their rituals and tribal customs.Those who were run off now have family making claims for retrieval of their lands under the post-Apartheid government. Resentment leads to political involvement, money exchanges illegally, and often, murder ensues.

Meyer has crafted in Blood Safari a most sophisticated, involved novel that's well worth the slow build up. His understanding of the complicated history of South Africa and that history's impact on the people who live and love and want to stay in this country they so care for so deeply is on display at every turn. Informing without lecturing, Meyer shines a light on a struggling democracy that can't shed its past no matter how hard it tries.