Saturday, March 31, 2012

Five Years!! Still Opinionated

Can you believe it? I certainly can't! I'm told that after retirement, time will pass with the speed of light but I'm finding that it's already doing that. I've heard the word "blogiversary" used for what I've accomplished - five years of reading, writing, and opining on books and other subjects dear to my heart, but I have to admit I'm not fond of the word - reminds me too much of Blagojevich!

So I suppose I should have some kind of contest - a giveaway - but what do I have to give? What I'd love is to have all my readers - I don't know, all 5 of you? - give me a shout out and say happy anniversary. I'd be thrilled to find that there are lurkers out there and that I'm actually reaching a wider audience than I could ever imagine. You know, some publisher who's tired of Nancy Pearl and would like to put a fresh new voice in print! Here I am!

What I won't do is bore you with the statistics of how many posts, how many books read, how many different states my readers come from. I'd rather tell you about how I decided to leave Vietnam behind in search of a rip roaring laugh of a read to take my mind off war for a few days. Have you ever heard of Trevor Cole? ( I can't honestly remember where I did but yikes! I was looking for laugh-out-loud chuckles but what I got was dark humor - very dark!

The novel, Practical Jean, had a siren song effect on me the second I laid eyes on the cover. Later I found out that this is the American version of the cover, Jean with her seamed hose and pumps, a far superior cover to the original Canadian version (in my opinion). You could vote if you'd like. Would you have picked up the first one?

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This is a wild and crazy ride through Jean's warped imagination as she recovers from the long, protracted death of her mother, a hard, tough character, former veterinarian with little use for sentiment. Jean concludes that she failed as a daughter because she lacked the courage to put her mom out of her misery, like her mom had done so many times for her ailing animal patients.

Jean makes a conscious decision to be a finer friend than she was a daughter. She will study her dearest friends, discover what would make them happier than they've ever been, and then quickly end their lives while they're at their peak - saving them from the long, drawn out ravages of old age. At once hilarious and horrifying, Jean's imagination knows no bounds as she systematically goes about eliminating her buddies. As I reader, I kept saying, "she wouldn't!!!" You've got to wonder what kind of mind could have come up with this plot!

Jean makes no attempts to hide her tracks and, as her estranged but loving husband Milt,  her baby brother, the inept but trying cop, Wellend, and her big brother who's the police chief, begin to suspect the unbelievable, Jean blithely continues to mend fences with her high school buddy Cheryl who drinks more than she bottles at her winery in the Finger Lakes.

This crazy romp was just what the doctor ordered after The Things They Carried, not to mention my next book discussion choice, a real downer called Please Look After Mom. What else am I up to? Hoping to begin The Expats today. Listening to Stewart O'Nan's Snow Angels on the ipod and just beginning Roger Ebert's autobiography in the car. How about you?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tim O'Brien's War

First it was Matterhorn, then The Lotus Eaters. It seems that once a year I feel the need to revisit Vietnam hoping to make sense of unnecessary wars and their effect on those who must serve and those at home. Perhaps it was the horrific attack on innocent civilians by Sgt. Robert Bales last month in Afghanistan, so reminiscent of the My Lai massacre fifty years ago, that compelled my to listen to The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

Once considered the penultimate novel of the Vietnam War, though I personally feel that Karl Marlantes has usurped that position, O'Brien's book is a strange hybrid, billed as fiction though every few chapters the author speaks as himself. His book is raw, uncomfortable, hopefully cathartic, as any war story must be. In a way, it's almost a confession. The most difficult one was how desperately he tried to avoid going.

The opening chapter is gut wrenching in its honesty as Mr. O'Brien explains his fear of traveling halfway around the world to be killed - as he was sure would happen - fighting people he didn't know in a country he didn't hate. Younger readers may ask why he had to go. Yes, we had a draft then, or perhaps he was caught up in the lottery where young eligible men were assigned a number that held their future in it. I'll never forget the evening they televised the "lottery" for all to see, we young college women watching in agony as brothers, lovers, and friends were saved or damned.

O'Brien's dad was a veteran, as was mine. How do you look those brave men in the eye and say, "I can't do this." He left a note on the kitchen table and headed for Canada. Not too many miles before the border he saw a circle of run down cabins and stopped for the night, a dalliance that would change him profoundly and inexorably.

Tim O'Brien will be the first one to tell you that fact and fiction are liberally blended in this account of his friends, his injuries, the losses, regrets, anger, and resentment that live with a soldier forever. Twenty years later he was still trying to write his way through those emotions. When you ask yourself how Sgt. Bales could have woken in the night, armed to the teeth, and descended upon women and children with murder in his heart, you must ask yourself what we expect from these young men, barely kids, 18 to 20 years old, when we teach them to go to war.

Listening to Mr. O'Brien describe himself objectively, almost like an outside observer remarking upon the person he once was and the person he now is, you want to sob for the loss of innocence and goodness. When he admits to that deep core of ice that developed after his second injury you understand that rage would be preferable. When I read books like this one or Matterhorn I marvel that more young men, damaged beyond repair, aren't committing atrocities even more frequently. We owe it to them to remember the unspeakable things they carry within them when they come marching home.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Odds are You'll Love The Odds

Oh Stewart O'Nan, readers are going to tire of hearing me sing your praises once again. How do you do it? So consistently excellent! Each novel so different from the one before. The Odds is the perfect antidote for the book group attendees who thought Emily Alone was too depressing.

This new book is either the result of a quintessential editor or O'Nan is the embodiment of an editor's dream. Tight, focused, without a spare word anywhere, The Odds comes in at under 200 words of sheer perfection.

Over one Valentine's Day weekend the thirty year marriage of Art and Marion Fowler is put to the test and I honestly didn't know how it would fare until the final two sentences. A timely portrait of the casualties of the economic downturn, Marion lost her job first, Art fell a year later. Their kids are grown, educated, and on their own so normally they would be able to struggle along except that their home, an over financed boondoggle whose purchase Art still chafes at, is financed to the max.

Art is a money man and he's used the leisure time afforded by his unemployment to study ways to make quick money on a gambling scheme. In a last ditch effort to rescue their home from foreclosure and their marriage from the deeply held resentments for past transgressions, Art asks Marion to return to the scene of their honeymoon, Niagara Falls, the Canadian side that is, where a pricey new casino beckons.

O'Nan is a master at characterization. There isn't one false note as first Art, then Marion, tell the story of their lives through their individual musings over the course of the weekend. Where Marion festers in cold, pent up anger, and not a little guilt, Art exudes over the top but unwarranted optimism.

 They are so real, so human, evoke such compassion, that they become every couple working through a long-term relationship, fraught with pressures at every turn. One understands that the odds of one in two marriages surviving this long is a miracle in itself! This is, quite simply, a beautiful, heart breaking novel.

Monday, March 19, 2012

ZANE! So Much More than Sex

We've been trying for years to bring Zane to downtown Ft. Myers for the reading festival but it took social media to seal the deal. Back in the day, I had to use mail - post office type mail, I mean - now even email is outdated. Jessica is the queen of social media and through an interaction on Facebook she got Zane signed, sealed and delivered.

Now I had heard her talk at one of the many conferences I'd been to over the years so I knew that some folks fears that her presentation would be R rated were ridiculous and unfounded. Still, we do live in a pretty buttoned up region of Florida. How I wish that those who had reservations about the tenor of Zane's talk could have attended her powerful, empowering advice to the young adults in the audience.

The daughter of educators, Zane told us that she grew up in a house surrounded by thousands of books. She was shy, introverted, but blessed with an imagination and an eye for detail that had her putting words to paper at an early age. After college, she worked as a research assistant for her dad, a renowned theologian, professor, writer and lecturer, all the while she was writing hot, steamy sex.

 Not sex just for sex's sake, she reminds us with a grin, she loves characterization and believes that people wouldn't read her books if they didn't care about the women in them. Women who make poor decisions, are in destructive relationships, who are being abused by fathers, brothers, uncles, but who are striving to get up and out. Empowerment is the name of her game.

And she lives it. Zane had been writing online for years when word got out to a major publisher who wanted to pick her up. She signed a book deal and was on her way until, that is, they began to tell her to change this, don't do that, tone this down, and on and on. For Zane it wasn't about money or fame, in fact she seems quite shy, so rather than kowtow to a publisher who didn't know her from adam, she just went out and formed her own company.

Now she mentors young authors , seeking out and publishing new talent in multiple genre. In fact, one of her authors, whom she'd only dealt with online, was in the audience and proudly stood up to introduce herself. When an older man took the mic to blame Zane's writing for his 21 year old daughter's out of wedlock pregnancy, she was compassionate but firm, speaking about the role of parental guidance in raising kids. (she has four of her own!)

But the event that touched this librarian's heart the most was when a young woman stepped up and said to the crowd, "I love you Zane. You've changed my life. I hated school and I hated to read until I found you. Now, I read every day. My kids(who were there)do too." In one minute this young lady boiled down the essence of the reading festival. I wish the TV cameras could have been there to capture her sincerity and to see the looks on her children's faces.

Moral of the story? Don't judge the writer by her covers? I'm not sure what the take-away is but I plan to check out one of her books very soon!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Southwest Florida Reading Festival-13 Years and Growing!

The culmination of another year of hard work by Jessica Girlando, Kathleen Young-Wells, and their committees, the 13th annual reading festival was held on Friday and Saturday and was, once again, a resounding success! I marvel at how far we've come from our first days when my buddy Maryellen got to drive Carl Hiaasen from the hotel to the park in downtown Ft. Myers, Florida, to speak under a tree to a "crowd" of probably 100 people, and I had the formidable task of "handling" the local authors, whose egos knew no bounds.

I'm proud that my suggestion to choose Dr. Michael Palmer for the Distinguished Author award was accepted. After his heartfelt, deeply personal speech Friday evening at the awards dinner at The Landings, I think everyone would agree that his work with addicted physicians in his home state of Massachusetts is a truly worthy endeavor.

 Michael talked of the privilege that money and respect bestow on doctors, allowing them to hide their dependencies on drugs, but mostly alcohol, from their patients and peers. No matter how often the news media and our own internal prejudices paint the all too obvious portrait of drug addicts as young, poor and black, the statistics prove that, in fact, most impaired people are middle class whites.

Dr. Palmer doesn't shy away from his work in ER medicine or his respect for AA in his novels and has actually introduced a new character, Dr. Lou Welcome, (who may be Michael's alter-ego ) in his most recent page-turner, Oath of Office. We were told yesterday that Lou will be starring once again in the novel Michael's currently working on. Dr. Welcome works to rehab good doctors who have gone off the rails from stress and easy proximity to drugs. But when one of his former success stories, Dr. John Meacham, blows away the folks in his waiting room one peaceful afternoon, all eyes turn on Dr. Welcome to shoulder the blame. If you missed it, I blogged about this novel a couple of months ago. You can check it out at:

I tend to go back to old posts looking for comments and deleting junk. I've noticed that my posts can go on and on. At the risk of being too wordy today, and because I want to read Stewart O'Nan's The Odds this afternoon, so that I can send it along to the next person on the wait list, I'm going to talk about Zane's presentation tomorrow. She was a knockout and I'm so sorry that more people weren't there to hear her.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Running the Rift

Do you ever think about what causes you to choose one book over another?  What are the key factors that sell a book to you? The publisher? (Algonguin in this case) Cover art? Blurbs? Reviews? Gossip? Radio interview? TV appearance? Librarians are attuned to all of the above but I wonder what it takes for the rest of you.

Naomi Benaron's novel, Running the Rift, was blurbed by Barbara Kingsolver. She had me at "hello!" On top of that, she was awarded the Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. I suppose that could be a turn off for some, you may not want lessons with your leisure reading, but for me "read around the world" is not just the name of a blog. It's a goal.

A little historical background may be necessary for those who aren't familiar with the Rwandan genocide between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. You may not have read about it but you've likely seen the devastating film, Hotel Rwanda, in which Don Cheadle represents an African version of Schindler, saving thousands of Tutsi refugees by providing shelter in the famous Hotel des Mille Collines, where as a Hutu he is a respected manager.

It's likely an unfathomable situation for us Americans to get out heads around yet this transpired less than twenty years ago. Author Benaron pens an exquisitely slow-building, thoughtful. coming of age/romance story to awaken readers' understanding of  the horrors of the genocide through its effect on a few wonderfully drawn characters.

There's a heartbreaking song in South Pacific about prejudice, that it isn't natural to the human species (we hope) but has to be carefully taught through words and action. Put children of various tribes, cultures, colors, together in a playground and they'll happily cavort. Twenty years later they may take up arms against each other.

John Patrick Nkuba is a young Tutsi man with an enormous talent. Son of a school teacher, unafraid of study, he is identified as a potential Olympic long distance runner by a Hutu coach who happens to see him on the field one day. Towards that end, Olympic gold for Rwanda, JP trains under his coach's demanding eye, competing in events throughout Africa.

 But eventually, border crossings, necessary for JP to compete in meets in other countries, become more fraught with tension as the Hutus begin to blame their Tutsi brothers for all the ills of poverty and deprivation they face in Africa. Tragically, they seem incapable of realizing that foreign countries, in this case Belgium, are the instigators. After all, can a house divided against itself stand?

JP acquires a Hutu identity badge, an irony of course, as it indicates that the guards can't even recognize the differences among their own people. Apolitical, JP  feels only a twinge of guilt at being able to bridge both worlds, until he meets and falls in love with Bea, a Hutu woman, who's an involved, political firebrand with a passion for her country, her family, and eventually for John Patrick.

As the war against the Tutsi escalates, friends turn on friends, loyalties become strained, and John Patrick has to grow up fast, choosing between his future as an Olympic star from Rwanda, his family, his love for Bea, and his life. Can one even sustain a relationship in a nation so fraught with rage? Running the Rift is another beautiful example of a novel that can teach us more about history than the history books can even begin to do.

An aside, company coming today and a new book by Paul Theroux to be reviewed for Library Journal. I may be incommunicado for a while but my mind is always writing. Next week, thoughts of the 13th annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival and the five year anniversary of this blog! Where does the time go?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder

This is why I'm still a librarian, in my heart and soul. Hours of troubleshooting computers, downloading customers' books to their "devices,"fighting with the cleaning crew for basic services, policing the study rooms, have become the norm. But one day per month I'm privileged to host a book discussion with an amazing group of men and women who are thoughtful, detailed, and opinionated readers. What a joy!

Today we had 29 people attend the discussion of Ann Patchett's remarkable novel State of Wonder. Most librarians, I feel certain, take their preparation for these discussions very seriously but we never want to turn them into a lecture. Rather, our duty is to throw out some open ended questions and let the attendees take over. And, oh, they do! No matter how deeply I think I've read a book, usually an initial reading for pleasure, then another reading for note taking, and a third to look for perfect quotations, my (and I do feel as though they're MY) people are ten steps ahead of me.

Patchett is always a great novelist for discussion. Bel Canto was a book group favorite and State of Wonder, even though I thought it had a few holes, had our group talking non-stop for an hour and a half. If there are any readers out there not familiar with the premise, let me give you a quick blow by blow.

Some reviewers say this novel hearkens back to Joseph Conrad's classic, Heart of Darkness, others see references to Paradise Lost, and others to the mythical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. A rogue doctor, Annick Swenson, described as "a force of nature," has been researching an unnatural phenomenon among the Lakashi tribe in the Brazilian rain forest. The women remain fertile and childbearing into their sixties and seventies, basically until they die of other causes.

Though the research is fully funded by a Minnesota firm, Vogel Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Swenson remains unreachable and unresponsive to their requests for progress reports. A Vogel scientist, Anders Eckman is sent to Brazil to find Dr. Swenson and wring some answers from her. Instead, he contracts a fever and dies. Now what? Anders' skeptical widow asks that his closest friend from work, Dr. Marina Singh, follow his footsteps in Brazil until she has a better explanation for Anders' disappearance. Dr. Singh complies. The results will be a life altering.

Patchett's ability to write a sense of place is phenomenal. The density, heaviness, and darkness of the jungle are palpable. While the male characters get short shrift, and I suspect that is intentional, the females are all astounding, complicated women, in very diverse ways. Controversial themes abound: loyalty/betrayal, ends/means, big pharma abusing third world countries for gains they may never reap the benefits of, medical ethics, women giving birth to children they won't live to raise, the list goes on and on.

I confessed to my group that I had a love/hate relationship with this novel. Then one of the participants asked us why we thought Ann Patchett wrote this book in the first place. What was her intent? Did she succeed? What kept us reading? Why? If you haven't read it yet, why not give it a whirl and let us know what you think. I await your response!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair

Just the title alone should drive you to pick up this book! I can't remember when I joyfully stumbled upon Nina Sankovitch's blog but I do recall being "pea green with envy." To think that this young woman had the time and privilege to sit down and read a book a day for a year drove me to distraction. And then, to get a memoir of her reading year published? Why didn't I think of that? And, would anyone have cared? What a gimmick! Kind of reminded me of Julie and Julia.

Except that, rather than being a gimmick, it evolved into therapy of the very best kind and the book that came from the experiment is a delight to behold in every way. Ms. Sankovitch reminds me of a younger version of myself, at least in her politics and reading choices. And who isn't egotistical enough to admit that they can't help but love someone who reflects their own tastes? Come on, you know it's true.

Nina Sankovitch, mother of four boys, retired attorney, writer, had watched her older revered sister, Anne- Marie, die of a rare form of cancer at the shockingly young age of 49. Nina found that she couldn't move past her grief and was plagued by survivor's guilt. She resolved to seek answers and solace in reading. The result is a gorgeously written memoir, a paean to her family, especially to her fantastically interesting parents who escaped to the United States from Poland after the second world war.

But this book is also a reflection on the healing power of the written word. Anyone who is reading this blog most likely already subscribes to this notion; we are librarians, writers, and readers who put authors on a pedestal. Ms. Sankovitch eloquently interprets the works of the world's finest writers and some you may not have heard of. In fact, I read her book with a pad and pencil next to me so that I could jot down titles I knew I'd have to check out when I finally get to my own "year of reading dangerously."

From the first title, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, to the final, Spooner, Nina Sankovitch credits writers with reminding us that we are all a part of the universal condition. As John Donne said, "No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind...." Donne's words were read at my mother's funeral. They could have been read at Anne-Marie's memorial for all I know. They reflect the way that Nina grew to accept that the best way to remember and honor a loved one who has died is to be fully alive to the glorious life that we have.