Monday, December 31, 2012

Lawrence Osborne's The Forgiven

This is it! The last book read in 2012 is number 119. The Forgiven is a title that had received a lot of early press, and which I had on my nook, direct from the publisher, but failed to get to in the allotted time. I'm so glad that I spotted it on the new book shelf the other day and snapped it up. I know that I was impressed but it wasn't until I found the author's website that I was reminded that this novel was on many prestigious "best of" lists this year.

I don't doubt that many readers, Americans in particular, will find this a difficult novel to swallow. Mr. Osborne appears to have spent his entire life traveling which would indicate a certain openness to other cultures, a person at home in the world, unlike the ill fated characters in his book. Brits, Dr. David Henniger and his wife Jo have rented a car in Tangier, undertaking the long ride out into the Moroccan desert to a weekend party at the palatial estate of a long time acquaintance. There's an uncomfortable tension between the two, so that readers sense the twenty year marriage is on its last legs.

Lost, drunk, late, and irritable, the very unlovely doctor speeds toward his destination without a thought to the young, ragged man who runs out into the road with his souvenirs for sale. I was honestly surprised that David actually even stopped to see who he might have hit but here's where it gets strange. The boy is dead, an argument ensues, and the decision is made to bundle the young man up in the back of the car and continue on to the party, laying the "problem" at the doorstep of the hosts, the debonair, well connected Richard and his partner, Dally.

What's so disturbing about this novel is the cold, detached way that the international guests and the Hennigers themselves can so easily distance themselves from the young man who lies shrouded, surrounded by oil lamps, in the garage of the manse. They don't see him as a person with a family or a history, but simply as a thing to be disposed of with as little fuss as possible, so that they can return to the party. And at first, it seems that that's exactly what will happen. But not so fast...

Mr. Osborne's powers of observation are stellar and his writing is so nuanced and lovely that the book is difficult to lay down. What he sees, though, is pretty despicable. The arrogance of some, the deep-seated resentment of Richard's staff as they wait on "the infidels" hand and foot, the foolish, air-headed women there to entertain, snort dope, and decorate the poolsides, all make you wonder, "why am I reading about these folks?" The answer is that you can't stop. You watch in fascination and with a sense of dread, like driving slowly by an automobile accident on a busy highway.

When the young boy's father, Abdelleh, arrives at the gates of the mansion to retrieve his son's body, he makes a bizarre request. He invites, no, insists, that David return with him to his home so that he can ask him about the incident that killed his boy, who has a name, Driss. Unbelievably, David goes. We readers are then treated to a parallel storyline that involves Driss and how he's spent the years up to his death. In a tour-de-force of storytelling, all perceptions are suddenly turned upside down. I can give away no more.

This is a shocking novel about the clash of cultures, about entitlement, naivete, forgiveness and restitution. An outstanding way to end the year!

Tomorrow I'll begin my 2013 book list with Retire Happy from the Nolo Press. Happy New Year dear readers. I've got to go check a few websites to see if we've gone over the fiscal cliff yet!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Ephron Raises the Hairs on the Back of Your Neck

Hallie Ephron, that is. Several years ago my friend Lesa Holstine suggested my name to Hallie Ephron as a reader for one of her new books, The Bibliophile's Devotional. From that experience I discovered Ms. Ephron's delightful blog that she shares with other crime fiction writers who are friends and supporters.

Later, I was honored to do an interview for the Jungle Red blog and then I had the opportunity to read the very creepy Never Tell a Lie. Imagine how pleased I was to receive an email from Hallie asking if I would read an advanced copy of her latest thriller, There Was an Old Woman. I saved it for my holiday time off because I was sure I would sit and read it in one or two sittings and I was right.

What makes Hallie Ephron's novels so unnerving is how she manages to unearth those fears that people least want to admit to, and then slowly, subtly, through story and character, confirms just why you are right to harbor those secret fears.

 Because I live in southwest Florida, a bastion of senior citizens in varying stages of health, I especially related to the fabulous character Mina Higgs Yetner. She's everything I want to be when I grow up! Still spunky, wryly humorous, and sharp as a tack at nearly ninety years old, Mina resides in an old but gorgeously maintained shotgun house built by her dad on a salt marsh outside New York City. Glorious views of the Manhattan skyline on one side and protected natural habitat on the other, make this spit of land an enviable place to live.

Oddly though, one by one, homes are falling into disrepair, their owners disappearing practically overnight. When Mina spots the ambulance next door, ready to make off with another one of her friends, she flies out front to get the scoop and receives a mysterious message instead. "Please, tell Ginger, don't let him in until I'm gone."

Ginger, a frazzled housewife who's at her wits end with her mom, and Evie, Ginger's sister, who creates exhibits for the New York Historical Society, and who wrote her alcoholic, irresponsible mother off years ago, have to come together to plan their mother, Sandra's, hospital stay and return to health.

Ginger insists it's Evie's turn to step up to the plate. Evie agrees to move into her mother's home, next door to Mrs. Yetner, to put Sandra's affairs in order.What greets her is astonishing chaos, filth, decay, and something more sinister that she can't quite put her finger on.

The tension builds slowly as the atmosphere oozes foreboding. Suddenly everyone wants to help Evie but why do they show up when least expected? Finn Ryan, an acquaintance from high school, who runs the local general store (though he's an attorney) has keys to Evie's mom's house. So, it seems, does the obsequious, much younger businessman from across the street. Mrs. Yetner's nephew Brian doesn't want Evie anywhere near his aunt even as the two women find they share mutual interests in the history of the area. So why keep them apart?

Paranoia manifests itself in both the characters and the reader. How easily  our confidence, our very foundation, can be undermined by insinuation or a misplaced document, a lost set of keys. When we are at our most vulnerable, whom do we trust?

Have I peaked your interest? Keep your eyes on the library catalog or your local bookstore's shelves. April is the release date. It'll be here sooner than you think!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Bookcase is up!

Yesterday evening Don and I gingerly lifted, tilted, slid and maneuvered the new bookcase from the garage into my office. Oh my, and to think that I was worried that, at three feet wide, it would be too small! Now that it's in the room it looks amazing and huge. Best of all, it looks exactly like the picture I randomly chose from the Internet, except that it was made from scratch, from loving hands. I am simply blown away.

Today, we'll anchor it to the wall, "just in case." Then I will unpack all the boxes and try to catalog in some semblance of order that will make sense to me. These are just the books I've collected that are on my "waiting to retire" list. They don't even touch all the books I've reviewed for Library Journal over the last - can it be - six years! Those are still behind my desk at work.

Speaking of book reviewing, there was an article on the front page of yesterday's New York Times that seemed especially apropos to you bloggers, Good Reads members, and book aficionados out there. It was about the fact that Amazon has purged thousands of book reviews from its pages since it found out that they're not all objective. DUH!

 It seems that writers can and will pay strangers for a good review, whether or not that reviewer had even read the book. Another issue is that relatives go online and pen glowing missives about their mother's, sister's, daughter's - you name it - latest self published book and, what do you know? Sales go up! There was even a profile of a, I'm sorry to say this, retired librarian named Harriet Klausner, who has reviewed some 26,000 books for Amazon and given them all four and five-star ratings. The questions being raised, quite naturally, is how can every book be that good?

And of course, the answer is, they can't. Which brings me to the difference between blogging and book reviewing. When I review a book for Library Journal, I am telling other collection development librarians whether or not I think they should spend their limited budgets on a book that may or may not fly off the shelf. Will it have wide appeal or will it need to be hand sold?

 Because my genre is literary fiction, the sad truth is that many of the books I review will more than likely languish on the shelves next to the Lee Childs, David Badaccis, and Vince Flynns. But that doesn't mean that we shouldn't have these little gems, many of them translated from other languages, for the more discerning taste. I am fortunate to work for a relatively large library system with a budget that supports new and obscure authors. Smaller libraries do not have that luxury.

As a blogger I want to keep you reading without putting you to sleep. I want to be able to rave about books that I think you shouldn't miss. I don't want to be too negative - well sometimes just a titch - but only in a humorous, not a nasty manner. Therefore, it goes without saying that I read tons of books each year that I don't write about here because if I can't say something good, I'd rather just stay quiet.

So, here's the link to the article. Why not give it a look and tell me what you think. Is it ok to love everything? I mean really?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan

On a glorious Saturday afternoon in southwest Florida, beginning a four day holiday, I sit in front of the computer trying to figure out how I can possibly explain the beauty of the novel I've just finished. Don is sanding away in the garage - the final stage in the bookcase building - before we stain. A pot of homemade soup loaded with our home-grown vegetables (thank you Michelle Obama for the inspiration) is simmering on the stove. How can I or any of my readers fully comprehend the deprivation that led Vaddey Ratner to finally pen her family's story?

In schools today we know that the Jewish Holocaust is taught at length. The library is overflowing with books on the subject and that's as it should be. But why not the other holocausts that have occurred over and over again throughout the world? Last week I wrote of the Armenian genocide. I've often written or referred to the African diaspora and slavery, probably the largest holocaust of all. Now, through her exquisite prose, the talent most likely inherited from her poet father, Vaddey Ratner introduces readers to the Cambodian genocide that happened only forty years ago,in which some two million people were starved, tortured and murdered by their fellow man.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel of heartbreaking despair, tempered with exquisite language. Ms. Ratner manages to convey hope after every cruelty, using the metaphor of flight throughout,she ends her story as the U.N. helicopter lifts her from the border of Thailand, west to freedom. Ms. Ratner fully discloses that this is the actual story of her family but that she felt compelled to write it in fictional format, perhaps to distance herself from the pain. But her memory informs every sentence.

If you are old enough to remember the film, The Killing Fields, then you will understand what happened to the author's family. The Khmer Rouge overran the Cambodian government and deposed the royalty who were in charge of the country. They had an idea that may have even sounded good (and perhaps a little too close for comfort?) to spread the wealth, work for the common good, return to an agrarian based society and utilize the land to its maximum capacity. But in the process of implementing the new way - the Organization, as it was called, did what most of them do. It became cruel, frightened and corrupt.

The intelligentsia, professors, scholars and such, like Vaddey's father, were first to be taken. Then doctors, teachers, business people who wouldn't cave to the party line. Families were separated, possessions were outlawed, as people were dragged from their homes and sent into hard labor, working in the fields for up to twenty hours a day with little more than a rice broth to eat every other day. Stray bugs were secretly scarfed down for sustenance before one of the guards could witness such an act of defiance and punish the perpetrator with a gunshot to the head.

There are so many heroes in this novel but Vaddey's mother shines throughout as a woman who suffered unbearable loss. She could have simply stopped living, delivered from her anguish, the disappearance of her husband, the death of her youngest child, but she made a conscious decision to live to see her older child rise from the ashes. She became an endless well of love for her thirsty daughter. She grew stronger rather than weaker with each year of enslavement. She outwitted her captors, made deals with the devil, bartered for an extra slip of sugar cane or a cup of rancid rice to keep Vaddey alive. I marveled at her resilience.

Please don't let the subject matter keep you from reading this book. We owe it to the victims of this senseless cruelty to be a witness to their deaths. As Ms. Ratner honors them with her compelling language we, too, can read and remember that his happened in our lifetime. How many more genocides will there be? Visit  and listen to the author speak of her feelings as she wrote her book at the website:

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The More Things Change....

...sadly, the more they remain the same. Finishing up Sunday's paper I came upon an article accompanied by a photograph taken last week in Aleppo. Syrian people, Assad's victims, lined up as far as the eye can see, waiting in line for food. Many of these refugees will die of starvation. When I think of what I throw away I'm ashamed.

Ironically I just finished Chris Bohjalian's The Sandcastle Girls, which I mentioned in my last post. If you aren't familiar with this novel, it is the personal story of Bohjalian's family history as it was lived out during the genocide he thinks no one has ever heard of. In fact, I had. When we were little, my siblings and I were often exhorted to "think of the starving Armenians," when we refused to eat everything on our plates. Read, vegetables.

Much of the action in the Bohjalian book takes place in the same city of Aleppo back in 1915, almost 100 years ago. An American woman, Elizabeth Endicott, and her father, are staying at the American embassy in Aleppo while arranging to have food shipped in for the starving Armenian refugees who flood into the town every day. Many of the women have been raped, beaten, widowed, and had their children pulled from their arms and murdered. The carnage is horrific.

Elizabeth is quite a marvelous character. Spunky, independent, a graduate of Mt. Holyoke at a time when an educated woman was looked at with grave suspicion, she doesn't shy away from the tragedy she encounters, but manages to jump right in to help where needed, oblivious to the differences between her blonde, alabaster self and the darker Armenians. Somehow we aren't in the least surprised when she falls in love with Armen, the widowed engineer she meets at the embassy.

Armen believes that his wife and daughter were killed during the purge and joins the British army as a means of revenge. Though not averse to killing, he is not cut out for war. Through his letters to Elizabeth, readers learn of the senseless cruelty that man inflicts upon man. And through Elizabeth's letters to him, we see her growth as a woman, her work in the nursing facility and with the orphans, as she advocates for their welfare.

The story of Elizabeth and Armen is being told in retrospect by a woman of Armenian descent in contemporary time. Laura Petrosian, we expect, and later find out for sure, is Bohjalian's alter-ego. She/he is a novelist with a renewed interest in her genealogy sparked by a chance siting of an old newspaper photograph featuring her grandmother. And so, the search for the past begins, naturally uncovering secrets thought long since kept.

And it's those secrets that kicks the narrative bar up quite a bit in this book, making it not just another historical novel but one well worth a serious discussion. Fateful decisions, made with thought, have long ranging effects and as I walked and listened I really questioned what I would have done in the same circumstances. An insightful interview with the author at the end of the reading adds depth to the story.

Apologies again for being away from the blog. I've been obsessing over my review of White Dog Fell From the Sky. The book was so heartbreaking. When this is the case, I often find myself at a loss for the proper words to express the depth of the feelings that a novelist takes me to. (uh oh, did I just end that sentence with a preposition?)
This may also be the case when I finish the amazing first novel by Vaddey Ratner, In the Shadow of the Banyan, about the Cambodian genocide. I may have to use that word I avoid, but which says it all, "luminous."

Sunday, December 9, 2012

If it's December it must be time...

...for reading lists! Yes, those ubiquitous lists that we readers simply love to assemble, to peruse, to use to judge ourselves against others with our astute abilities to pinpoint the next big hit, the hot debut author who's going places,  that are appearing in all the literary, and not so much, newspapers and magazines.

As soon as Don has finished the not so simple bookcase that I chose for him to make, he owes me a dinner out and some champagne chaser, for passing my goal of 112 books for 2012. Somehow, this year I was able to accomplish it rather effortlessly, not like last year when I wrote about my New Year's weekend scrambling to finish my 100th. How about you list makers? Where are you? Maryellen, I know you always beat me but how about some other readers out there?

I recently sent a list of my top ten choices for best of the year to the National Book Critics Circle for their esteemed gathering of opinions from members. Let me tell you, this is a difficult job. A certain novel or memoir might knock your socks off one month, depending upon your frame of mind as you read it, and not even elevate your temperature if read at a different place in your life. These lists of favorites are so subjective. Nevertheless, I'll give it the old college try.

 At various times during the past year each of these books spoke to me on a deep level, either for the beauty of the writing, subjects with heart, an important political message, or a combination of passions that I shared with the author.

1. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
2. Heft by Liz Moore
3. The Submission by Amy Waldman
4. Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman
5. In One Person by John Irving
6. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
7. Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
8. The Odds by Stewart O'Nan
9. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
10. Canada by Richard Ford

I also read and enjoy memoirs and some non-fiction and found that I related to each of the following five writers in a visceral way.

1. Life Itself by Roger Ebert
2. The End of Your Life Bookclub by Will Schwalbe
3. Paris in Love by Eloisa James
4. Mortality by Christopher Hitchins
5. Quiet by Susan Cain

Apologies for not reviewing anything here yet this month. I've just read and reviewed one outstanding novel for Library Journal by a Canadian poet named Tanis Rideout. The book will be out next year so keep your eyes open for this fictional biography of Mt. Everest climber George Mallory called Above All Things. I'll share the link to the review the moment it's printed.

I'm almost finished with another LJ title, White Dog Fell from the Sky, which I fear will end badly for Isaac, the South African student who illegally entered Botswana seeking political asylum. The author's descriptions of Africa are so right on that I sense I'm back there on a riverbank in the bush.

Listening to Nelson deMille's The Panther in my car because I never tire of the marriage of narrator Scott Brick and the main protagonist John Cory. On the ipod I'm struggling with The Sandcastle Girls about the Armenian genocide. I admit that Chris Bohjalian has lost me in his last several efforts.

How about you readers? What's left you cold lately? What's brought you to your knees? Inquiring minds want to know.