Monday, December 30, 2013

2013, A Fabulous Year for Literature!

The book is dead! The book is dead! Like Chicken Little's falling sky, doomsayers seem to think that the book is going the way of the dinosaur. I think that all you readers out there will agree that "it ain't necessarily so." Even though more news organizations are dropping their book pages and literary book reviewing is giving way to blogs and amateur analysis, reading is going great guns.

There have been scads of "best books" lists in print over the past few weeks and there are plenty of titles on those lists that are on my radar and that I hope to get to, books like the hefty Goldfinch and Luminaries. Still, I managed to burn through 107 books this year, not all released in 2013, so you can imagine that trying to name my ten favorites is like pulling teeth. Perhaps if I separated the non-fiction I could give a more accurate description of the wealth of books that knocked me out this year, some of which I've written about in this blog and others in Library Journal.

The following is a stab at a list of books that spoke to me this year for the quality of the writing, the poignancy of the subject matter, or the sheer audacity of the imaginative spirit of the creator.

1. Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain (

2. Just Kids by Patti Smith (

3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (

4. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

6. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (

7. The Dinner by Herman Koch (

8. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink (

9. Dust by Yvonne Owuor (

10. How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (

There were so many more that deserve mention, Alice McDermott's deceptively simple Someone, Ishmael Beah's devastating The Radiance of Tomorrow, JoJo Moyes' lovely Me Before You and Ivy Pachoda's debut Visitation Street come to mind, not to mention the education I received on Florida's shameful history from reading the Pulitzer Prize winner Devil in the Grove.

Thank you all so much for reading this year. I'm looking forward to 2014 and getting a handle on some of the classics that are sitting on my bookshelves awaiting my perusal. I also want to tackle some of those big, fat multi-volume tomes that I've been saving for my retirement. Who knew the days would flash by so quickly? I'll also keep you up to date on the new, new literature sent to me by Library Journal for review.

Let's keep the conversation going. Please let me know what you're loving and hating, whether you think I'm all wet on an evaluation or whether you agree wholeheartedly. I want to hear from you!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Explanation for Everything

Author Lauren Grodstein told an interviewer A conversation with local novelist Lauren Grodstein( )that all she wants is for people to NOT be able to put down her book. She got it! As annoyed, confused, and frustrated as I grew while reading The Explanation of Everything this weekend, I did not want to put it down.

If any of you readers are in the market for a great book discussion choice and have the guts to open this can of worms, that is, Darwinism versus Intelligent Design, Grodstein's book would be ideal. What I love the most about it is that she never takes a definitive position, never makes any one character all dark or all light. The people in this novel are real in that they are positively sure of a mindset one moment, searching and open in another. After all, this is human nature isn't it? If your beliefs can't be questioned then are they worth having?

The plot revolves around Andy Waite, a young widower raising his two daughters on his own, once the promising protégée of a famous Princeton atheist biologist, who has ended up in a tenure track position at a second rate college in New Jersey where he's plugging away on research in which he's actually no longer interested. His only passion is the one course he teaches that he's renowned for, There is No God, a scientific refutation of religion based on Darwinian principle.

Still lonely and vulnerable, unable to move on since the death of his wife Louisa in a horrific automobile accident precipitated by a drunk driver, Andy finds his belief system suddenly turned on its head by the appearance of two students. Lionel Schell,  a member of The Campus Crusade for Christ, has made it his life's work to attend Andy's class each semester, playing devil's advocate and challenging his teacher at every turn.

Michelle Porter, a transfer from community college, seems to have a more nuanced agenda in mind when she approaches Dr. Waite, knowing he's an avowed atheist, to oversee her independent research paper on Intelligent Design. Andy makes the excuses one would expect to hear. First and foremost, this is not a sociology department but a biology department. He works with students who can prove their theses with science, not religion.

 And here, I thought the author was just a tad weak in allowing Melissa to so easily manipulate Andy, insinuating herself into his life in ways beyond the student/teacher relationship. I couldn't believe he could be so foolish but, once again, we are human, aren't we?

There's an interesting secondary plot involving Andy's mentor, Dr. Rosenblum, whose reputation was sullied by the unusual death of his star researcher, Anita Lim, a young Harvard genius on the verge of a breakthrough in evolutionary research. Another percolating subplot is the one that involves the young man who killed Andy's wife and Andy's obsession with thwarting his parole.

Grodstein does an outstanding job of showing readers how people face the constant daily struggle of living, with or without faith, with or without answers to the great questions of the universe, and how our belief system can evolve, if I may use that term, as we grow, read, learn, and face the worst that life can throw at us. None of us can say who is right, and really, should it be a fight for who's right anyway? As long as we wake up to each new day with joy and appreciation for this world we inhabit. As long as we never lose our sense of wonder are we not, believers and non-believers alike, worshiping? If you're a person who enjoys a book that makes you think and poses more questions than it offers answers, then this one is for you!

Now, it's almost the end of the year and I've been perusing the list of 105 books that I've read this year (yes, I know, I've been slacking) trying to come up with a top ten list. Oh, how difficult this is! I'd love to have more interaction with my readers here on the blog next year and am hoping you'll help me. Begin by thinking about sharing your favorites of the year and maybe even telling us why. I'll try to do the same. The first person I hear from will get my advance readers copy of The Explanation for Everything.

In the meantime, I'll be finishing the stunning Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and struggling with The Cuckoo's Calling by J.K. Rowling, aka Galbraith. It's not that the book is so bad, it's more that I no longer spend enough time in my car to keep the momentum of a murder mystery going. I'll have two reviews in the Jan. 15th issue of Library Journal and will keep you posted on those. So, don't forget, think about what you loved this year and share with other readers.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Signature of All Things

I scarcely know where to begin in praise of this great, hefty, wonderful novel! Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, has simply outdone herself with this unusual, expansive, mature book that actually seems to defy categorizing. And that's a good thing. I would hate to keep someone away from the pleasure of this book by calling it an "historical," though it is, a "love story," but it is, or even a lesson in botany, yet you'll learn so much.


This engrossing tale begins in Kew Gardens, in England, where a clever young lad tries to outsmart his boss in a get-rich-quick scheme that lands him on a ship bound for the South Seas, a fate much preferable to hanging. Young Henry Whittaker soaks up everything he can learn about the natural world. Earning a vast fortune in quinine, he rehabilitates himself as a gentleman, acquires a sensible wife raised on the classics, and heads for the new world.

In Philadelphia readers will meet my new literary heroine, Henry's daughter Alma Whittaker, a formidable presence whose intellectual curiosity and passion for learning more than compensate for her ungainly size and plain countenance. Not content to play the spoiled ingénue, Alma devotes herself to the study of plants. Owing to the entrée afforded her by her father's reputation, she corresponds with botanists from academies around the world, writing scholarly essays published by a family friend with whom she believes she is deeply in love.

Sharing this confidence with her sister Prudence proves disastrous. Foiled in love, Alma throws herself further into her life's work, the study of moss. I know, I can't imagine telling you readers anything drier but please, if you read this blog often, trust me. Elizabeth Gilbert, through three years of research and fabulously imaginative wordsmithing, creates a sensuous world of teeming microorganisms that leave one almost breathless.

I dare not say too much. An outline of the plot will not do. You simply must jump in and be overwhelmed, surprised, and pleased as the resilient Alma, estranged from her sister, whose abolitionist fervor has made her persona non grata at the family estate, tempered by disappointment in love, explores the meaning of life through nature, logic, and scientific principle.

You will follow Alma to Tahiti on a quest to understand the true nature of the orchid artist Ambrose Pike and share in her heart wrenching search for sexual fulfillment. You will sail to Holland and be privy to the papers of Darwin and other great minds of science. You will participate in learned conversations pitting the spirit against the intellect. You may even believe that you see the hand of God in The Signature of All Things.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reminiscing on Mandela and South Africa

Living well, they say, is the best revenge. And so it is that Nelson Mandela, a man whose life some may have thought ended when he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island off Cape Town in South Africa for terrorist crimes against the apartheid regime, was reborn in 1990.

 His release from this prison cell did not come easy, five years of negotiations, first with President Botha who insisted that Mr. Mandela use his influence to end all armed resistance by members of the African National Congress. He refused. Not until President de Klerk came into office was a deal signed allowing black Africans the vote in their own country and a new constitution was written.

Many thought then and circumspectly still whisper that Nelson Mandela gave in too easily to the demands of the ruling white authorities. They call him a capitulator and an accommodator. I cannot subscribe to that theory. The idea that one must hold on to hatred, anger and bitterness has no place in my mindset and, thankfully for the country of South Africa, Mr. Mandela was destined to be a big picture person. He shouldered the burden, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. on a much smaller scale, of leading his people to a better place.

In his writings, Letters to Myself, and Long Walk to Freedom, among others, he exudes humility, admonishing those who would place him uncomfortably on a pedestal. He is open about his failings as a husband and father but realistic about the sacrifices that inevitably plague a man chosen to lead a nation. The transition from the oppression of white rule to a democratically elected president from the majority indigenous people could not have happened under a lesser man. I believe that South Africa would have devolved into chaos and bloodshed.

When Don and I visited South Africa two years ago, a trip of a lifetime and an education unsurpassed by any book learning, we walked in Mr. Mandela's footsteps on both Robben Island and in Johannesburg. It is impossible to explain the powerful emotions that I felt. How can a privileged, fortunate human being like me even begin to get inside the head and soul of a person who could basically give up his life for the benefit of future generations? Where does one find that kind of courage?

As we toured Soweto I was struck by the disparities that still exist but also by the difference between what your imagination tells you that you'll see and what is actuality. Certainly a great deal has changed in the almost twenty years since Mandela was elected president. Economic sanctions were lifted, education opened up, business expanded. Still, from a middle class neighborhood of immaculate brick homes in Soweto, albeit surrounded by walls and concertina wire, one still looks over the remains of tin-roofed shanties where there's no electricity and the women walk to the town well for water with jugs on their heads.

Mandela's home when he was in the thick of the revolution was in the Soweto neighborhood called Orlando. In this home that he shared with his second wife, Winnie, perhaps even more of a revolutionary than he, around this very dining room table, great ideas were discussed, plans to free a nation were made, and men and women realized that they might have to give their lives for a cause.

And a rainbow nation was born. Lest anyone try to say that it isn't working, I ask you to look at this photo from Friday's New York Times. I believe it says all that needs to be said.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Futures Cut Too Short in Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward is flat out, unequivocally, one of the finest young writers working today. A couple of years ago I raved here on my blog about her novel Salvage the Bones, which went on to win the National Book Award.

At the time I remember thinking that this writer could bring me to my knees with the visceral power of her words. Now, with her memoir, Men We Reaped, readers will understand that she is no fluke but the real thing. What I couldn't help but wonder was where she found the inner strength to escape the pull of DeLisle, Mississippi, even long enough to attend college in Michigan, let alone take advantage of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.

Ms. Ward is unabashedly a southerner. When she is away from her home and family she misses it with every fiber of her being. As a person who can make her home most anywhere, I find this kind of obsession with a place, especially one that has so circumscribed her friends' lives, incomprehensible. I tried not to let my lack of understanding color my feelings about this memoir but I found myself screaming at Jesmyn to get out, get out, get out.

Because this memoir is about destruction. It's about a south that chews up young black men and spits them out. It's about a town where alcohol and drugs permeate every activity, every corner of every day. It's about fatherless families and mothers who have to work too hard for too many hours. It's specifically about five young men, one of whom is Ms. Ward's beloved younger brother Joshua, who die in violent accidents or by their own hands.

But these young black men  will not become just more statistics.  Jesmyn Ward resurrects each of them, Roger, Demond, CJ, Ronald and Joshua, fully and totally back to life through her anguish and her words. Ms. Ward is painfully honest, sometimes shockingly so.

 She doesn't make excuses so much as she explains how it is that a 13-year-old can eek out a living selling crack on the street rather than pumping gas at the Mobil station. You may cluck your tongue and wonder why and find it difficult to believe that rural Mississippi hasn't metamorphosed from the days of Emmett Till.  Jesmyn Ward forces us comfortable, middle class readers to open our eyes to the despair inherent in a community that holds no expectations of safety, education, or prosperity. It's a dark place indeed even as it's beautifully rendered.

Fair warning - you may not hear from me for a while. I've just finished two assignments for Library Journal and am about to fall into two monster novels waiting on the holds shelf at my local library, Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, and Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things. Sure glad my Christmas gifts are wrapped and mailed!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Life Lessons from The World's Strongest Librarian

If you think that you need to be a librarian to enjoy Josh Hanegarne's moving memoir, please let me disabuse you of that thought right now. Though he does relate some very funny stories about what really goes on at the reference desk, and in the stacks after dark, this book covers an amazing amount of ground and offers some beautifully thought out life lessons.

What actually drew me to this book is the subtitle, A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family. Tourette's Syndrome as an ailment is a fascinating subject on its own. People's reaction to those who suffer from this disease is not fascinating at all. In fact, in my own library we have a family of two, a patient, loving and I'm sure long-suffering dad and his adult son who is plagued with Tourette's, who are in several times a week.

This young man exhibits many of the mannerisms, loud shouts, tics, and frantic, uncontrollable waving of arms, that Josh Hanegarne describes in his memoir. But Josh became a librarian while our young man has been vilified by other customers, reported for being disruptive, and even asked to leave. So much for loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Hanegarne uses the Dewey Decimal System to preface chapters, giving readers a heads up as to what subjects he'll be dealing with next. He is so real, honest, and self-effacing. He seems totally unafraid of putting his whole person hood out there for readers to analyze, enjoy or dissect. His brilliant parents hold pride of place in Josh's life.

 His dad, who suspected that Josh might have Tourette's when he was still quite young (it wasn't diagnosed until years later), entices his son to the gym, a place that will become a salvation for a guy who has an inordinate amount of energy to channel. His mom, on the other hand, entices him to the library, another place of salvation. And Josh reads everything! What a readers' advisor he is. His taste is all over the board eclectic. And, tell me, how can you not fall in love with a guy who hides his Stephen King book from his mom by wrapping it in another book jacket and thinking he can put one over on her?

The Hanegarne family is Mormon and Josh does a fantastic job of explaining the ins and outs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, how it began, the tenets of the beliefs, the expectations for the young people to fulfill their mission, marry early and procreate. Josh is funny and wise as he tells us about his escapades on the dating scene with his tics and whistles, grunts and shouts. He credits his wonderful mom with introducing him to the woman who will become his wife and then breaks your heart with the story of their long quest to have a child of their own.

Josh Hanegarne is a deep thinker. His loss of faith in his religion and what it might mean to his family is so painfully thought out yet so logically and beautifully explained. He's a man always searching for answers, always asking, always discussing his doubts and concerns with others and finding acceptance. This is a man you just know you'd love to know. And guess what librarians? He's the new Nancy Pearl in my book. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Dark World of Dennis Lehane

I've been a huge fan of Dennis Lehane ever since he agreed to come to one of the first Southwest Florida Reading Festivals, back when it was run by a small group of librarians and was held outdoors under the hot Florida sun. It's come a long way since then and Mr. Lehane has returned to receive our Distinguished Author Award.

Dennis Lehane

So I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to his latest novel Live by Night. Even though I don't drive as often or as far as I used to when I was a working girl, I still decided to listen to the audio version of the book. The reader, Jim Frangione, did an exceptional job of setting the tone of the story with his low, serious, but never somnolent voice. One surmises that things will not end well.

I've read all of Mr. Lehane's books except for the short stories and I think it's fair to say that he has a very jaded opinion of humanity in general and politicians in particular. This dark world view informs all of his work, from the wonderful police procedurals featuring Angela Gennaro and Patrick Kenzie, to the gritty, deeply disturbing Mystic River. Still, his way with words is so superlative, his ability to paint a picture so exceptional, and his way of eliciting the emotional tug from even the hardest readers' hearts so compelling, that he raises the bar in whichever genre he chooses.

Live by Night builds slowly, you think you'll be reading an Irish Godfather. Joe Coughlin is just another two-bit hood working in the Boston underworld when he runs up against big-time gangster Albert White and falls hard for Albert's girl, Emma, a woman who will bring him no joy.

After a bank heist goes terribly awry, Joe and his father Thomas, Asst. Chief Superintendent of the Boston police department, have their final blowout. Beaten and bowed, Joe lands in Charlestown, a violent prison where a cop's kid will be hard pressed to find protection without being able to kill or be killed. And so begins a long relationship with an Italian mob boss who runs Charlestown from the inside out.

The novel follows Joe to Tampa, Florida, where, after proving his mettle to the local Cuban honcho, he gets involved in the lucrative rum trade. We're smack dab in the middle of the prohibition era and Lehane's meticulous research provides readers with a fascinating lesson in the history of supply and demand, the cigar industry in Ybor City, and the development of the west coast of Florida.

Lehane manages to write a rip-roaring historical balanced with a nuanced psychological portrait of the criminal mind as it wrestles with good and evil. Almost every character, though deeply flawed, shows glimpses of the humanity often buried deep beneath the surface.

This is a novel about family and loyalty and even about love. It's about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons and about those sons looking for redemption, a stab at a legitimate life, a chance to make amends.Ultimately this is a gut wrenching, completely absorbing meditation on the fate of those who choose to Live by Night.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Twelve Years a Slave?

Last week I attended an afternoon showing of the film Twelve Years a Slave. I love movies, those with a message, those that brings me to tears, and the ones that have me laughing out loud. Often times I'll realize, in advance, that I'm going to be demoralized or brought down by a film but I go anyway because I feel as though I need to bear witness to the worst parts of human nature. (think Schindler's List)

 I also prefer to see every film that will be nominated for awards so that I can have some buy-in on Oscars night when I stay awake way past my bedtime til the bitter end. And...I read every film review available. When I'm told from such disparate sources as People Magazine and The New York Times that a movie is "necessary," I'm on it. Such was the case with the highly touted Twelve Years a Slave.

And now I'm going to ask again, "Why did we need Twelve Years a Slave?" What new ground did this film cover? What light did it shed on one of the most horrific episodes in United States history? I discussed this with friends last week, both of whom are around my age, lets call us 60+, and mentioned that I felt that I had learned more about the full history of slavery from reading and watching Alex Haley's Roots saga, not to mention the eye-opening Alice Walker novel and subsequent film, The Color Purple.

Anne and Beth had to remind me that it's possible and even likely that the reviewers of this new movie were not even alive when Roots or The Color Purple first came out. We would be going back to the late '70's or early '80's. Wow! That was an eye opener and, of course, they are most likely right. Still, isn't it incumbent upon reviewers to be knowledgeable about what preceded the current? Or are they only responsible for what's right before their eyes? I see both sides to this dilemma.

Let me say that, from the start, I took issue with the title, Twelve Years a Slave, even though I understand that it was taken from the book by Solomon Northrup, a free man who lived in New York state, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into enslavement. Twelve Years Enslaved would have been the more appropriate title.

What bothered me the most about the film was that, contrary to what we know from history, it depicted the enslaved people on the plantations as both fearful and cowed, rather than as defiant and able to run, choosing death over enslavement. Granted, Solomon had a reason to live. His wife and children in New York had no idea what had happened to him because he had no way of communicating with them.

 Though he was a man of talent and knowledge, could read and write, Solomon had no access to paper and pen, a fact that is addressed in a frustrating scene where he tries to fashion a pen out of wood and ink from boiled berries. He painstakingly, and though the film doesn't show it, one gathers, writes a letter over several nights or even weeks, entrusting it to a "man of God," who's seeking redemption by working in the cotton fields. I'll say no more.

I've been looking forward to discussing this film with my sister with whom I'm usually in either complete accord or totally opposite. We are never wishy-washy when it comes to our views of movies and literature and we share a penchant for the dark side. I'll be curious to see if she agrees with me on this but I didn't see any Academy Award worthy material here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Violet Hour

Readers who know me well will understand why I was drawn to this title and book cover. So what a joy it was to discover that there's much more to love than a color and a feeling. It's the maturity of Katherine Hill's debut novel about a family in free fall.

It came at an especially opportune time as I had just struggled through another novel in which the author, who shall remain nameless at this time, had created a family brimming with stereotypes and lacking any authenticity.

The Violet Hour, on the other hand, is a sophisticated novel about a twenty-year marriage that has suffered from an erosion of trust brought on by one partner's need  for affirmation through sexual dalliances. Only two, Cassandra will tell her husband. They have nothing to do with her love for him which always seems to be a little deeper when faced with losing him. She apologizes. She's an artist. She has heightened sensibilities.

And Abe? He just swims away. Literally. On an afternoon of sailing in the San Francisco Bay, Abe's passion and Cassandra's idea of a living hell, Abe leaves their teenage daughter Elizabeth at the helm after a loud, vile, violent shouting match with his wife over her latest transgression, and dives into the Pacific.

Once this effective prologue gets your undivided attention the following three hundred pages fly by as Ms. Hill unveils the back story, how Abe and Cassandra met, the complications of their individual childhoods, his as an orphan raised by his grandmother, hers as the oldest child to Howard and Eunice Fabricant, who prepare bodies for burial in the basement of their Bethesda home.

Abe and Cassandra have ostensibly moved on since his defection. Elizabeth is now a medical student studying back east. Cassandra's art has earned her a comfortable living  and Abe does his best to be an absentee father. Howard Fabricant's 80th birthday celebration is the reason that the entire family descends upon the funeral home, a perfect place for Ms. Hill to unload her boatload of talent, as the disparate brothers, sisters, boyfriends, exes and neighbors gather for the portentous occasion.

Though brought up in this funeral home, Cassandra has an uneasy relationship with death, a fact that will manifest itself in an amazing scene toward the end of this extremely satisfying novel, in which Cassandra will be asked to grow up, step up, and put her artistic skills to work on a corpse.

It's such fun to watch a debut talent at work. Katherine Hill has written a novel  full of humor, insight and wisdom. The jacket photo shows me a very young woman but the words are those of an old soul with an intuitive knowledge of our human faults and foibles. A lovely read indeed.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Two Wrenching Reads

Apologies at having been away for a week. I've been working on a book for Library Journal which, as it happened, wasn't one of my favorites this year. Naturally I obsessed over the review but have just hit "send."

And speaking of Library Journal, I was so proud and surprised to see my name mentioned in one of fiction editor, Barbara Hoffert's articles in the online version of the magazine last month. It was titled, "The Possibilities of Africa: A Talk with Author/Journalist J. M. Ledgard."

 In the run up to the Q and A with the author, she mentioned me by name as her "smart go-to reviewer for African-themed literature." Whew! That's pretty heady stuff. I walked around just a tad full of myself for a couple of days.

Now that both of the reviews Barbara was referring to have been printed I wanted to share them with you and tell you that they will probably top my 2013 list of bests. Either one will tear your heart out with the beauty of the writing and the palpable sense that you are drawn into the very souls of these characters. I haven't read any American writers this year whose work can compete with these two incredible novels. (maybe because I'm still on hold for Goldfinch and The Signature of All Things)

First up is Dust by Yvonne Owuor:

The other one is the first novel by child soldier memoirist Ishmael Beah:

Its title is The Radiance of Tomorrow, an apt title for a radiant man. My friend Maryellen and I were privileged to hear Mr. Beah speak at Book Expo back in May and I don't know that I've ever met a man who radiates joy the way he does. It's almost incomprehensible when one reads of his life and its horrific beginnings. He is a living testament to the power of the human spirit.

Library Journal
★ 11/15/2013
For Mama Kadie, returning to her village, Imperi, after the seven-year civil war in Sierra Leone, home is the dirt sifting between her toes and the scent of coffee flowers. For Pa Moiwa, it is burying the bones of those who did not escape the destruction. Slowly, others return, hoping to mend the fabric of lives sundered by war. First Bockarie and later Benjamin, former teachers in the village, arrive with their families. Then Sila and his children, missing arms and hands, find acceptance there. Even Colonel, leading a band of former child soldiers seeking to reclaim their humanity, is embraced by the elders. But hardship persists. Bockarie and Benjamin work months without a paycheck while the school principal cooks the books. A mining company rapes their land yet entices villagers with big salaries while downplaying horrific working conditions. Still, each physically and psychically damaged person in Imperi will learn to trust again. VERDICT Beah, who broke our hearts with the haunting memoir of his life as a boy soldier (Long Way Gone), will render readers speechless with the radiance of his storytelling in this novel of grace, forgiveness, and a vision of a tomorrow without conflict. [See Prepub Alert, 7/8/13.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

I've learned how rewarding it is to read outside of my comfort zone. Becoming acquainted with new authors is one of the greatest pleasures of my reviewing for Library Journal. Over the past several years I have found myself in Somalia, Liberia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, and Nigeria without leaving the comfort of my lanai. Thank you readers for taking these excursions with me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Louise Penny Lets the Light In

After languishing all summer at the cloistered monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups with Chief Inspector Gamache, recovering addict Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and the undeniably evil Inspector Francoeur, I feared that Ms. Penny might have come to the end of her outstanding series about the Surete de Quebec. The Beautiful Mystery was overlong on solving the mystery of the bludgeoned monk yet ferociously dark in its treatment of the ongoing power struggle between Gamache and Francoeur. The latter, a man willing to destroy the fragile Beauvoir if it will take down his nemesis, Inspector Gamache once and for all.

It was with trepidation that I began listening - yes, you must listen to these books - to How the Light Gets In, although early reviews told me it would be one of Ms. Penny's finest yet. You see, I've fallen half in love with Armand and Jean-Guy, as well as the denizens of the village of Three Pines where most of the books' action takes place. I simply couldn't bear to see the author ruin the lives of these people I feel I've come to know and understand deeply.

So it is that Chief Inspector Gamache, when he needs a place to hunker down in order to draw the final curtain on the thirty years of diabolical misdeeds by a faction of Quebec's police department, finds himself renting a home in Three Pines, where he can set up a sophisticated computer network with the help of trusted friends, Supt. Therese Brunel and her husband Jerome, who happens to be a super-hacker. The technology involved in cyber-espionage - I can see why Snowden got caught up in it - is absolutely fascinating and had me on the edge of my seat as files were opened and downloaded under split second time constraints.

Ms. Penny has an awesome talent and has been rewarded over and over again for her work. Though I've read that her background is in journalism, not psychiatry, Louise Penny exhibits a remarkable acuity when it involves the human psyche. In Three Pines she has created a place where oddballs and misfits live in relative harmony, caring for each other and banding together when the outside threatens.

 Even her rendering of the inner workings of a dog's mind seem to be spot on. You'll understand how she brings Gamache's German shepherd Henri to life by reading more about her at her website.

She is able to inhabit Jean-Guy's mind and depict the horror of destructive self-talk, paranoia, and the psychic pain that he's been fighting ever since his beloved Gamache made the fateful decision to leave him bleeding to death on a factory floor after the department was ambushed in a raid. Each man has been suffering from PTSD throughout the past few novels but now the true extent of the betrayal that's been perpetrated on them is finally coming into the light.

I'll say no more about the plot. You simply must read this book for the complexity of the character development and to appreciate the way the author has been building to this moment through all of her previous novels.  There are curmudgeons who wonder why readers are drawn to fiction, especially to murder mysteries. I say that it is within the pages of fiction that we learn more about human nature than practically anywhere else. Louise Penny is one of many great teachers.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jazz, Jesus, and John Brown at Florida Gulf Coast University

Oh how I wish someone had posted a youtube video of the mind boggling concert/reading/come to Jesus gathering that some friends and I attended at the local university Tuesday night. I need a visual for you because my words would be inadequate to express the uplifting nature of the event.

Sadly, there was very little effective publicity about the appearance by author James McBride. In fact, if I hadn't heard about it through the library's grapevine I would have missed it altogether and been the lesser for it. As you know, I met Mr. McBride this summer at the Library of Congress Book Festival where he spoke under a leaking tent during a downpour to about 600 stalwart fans. But his talk that day couldn't hold a candle to the one the other night before a rollicking group of maybe a hundred.

You see, besides being a writer (and current nominee for the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird), James McBride studied music at Oberlin College and has received a Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award. The man can get down with the sax! He came to Florida Gulf Coast University with his full entourage, an awesomely talented group of men from all over the country, and conducted a moving and powerful combination of book talk and concert.

First and foremost his words were for the students. He talked about failure and how to leave that baggage behind and move on. He talked about differences and learning to embrace them. He spoke of travel, fleeing one's comfort zone, going out on a limb. I tried to find a video that might incorporate the essence of his wise words and this was the most apropos that I could find.

This was the most innovative book talk I've ever attended. It'd be a shame if he couldn't bring the whole package back in March for the Southwest Florida Reading Festival but I didn't get the feeling that that would happen.  McBride practically channeled John Brown, the abolitionist who believed that God asked him directly to eliminate slavery in the United States.

As he read from Lord Bird, the novel about Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, his musicians took their places on stage and pretty soon the joint was jumping. I thought I had accidentally entered a revival tent touting that old time religion and when Trenton, New Jersey drummer and vocalist, Show Tyme, (yup, that's his name), performed a startling rendition of How Great Thou Art, I was overwhelmed by emotion.

Thanks to Maria Palacio for keeping me in the loop.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cathleen Schine Shines in Fin and Lady

I have my friend Andrea to thank for suggesting that I would love Cathleen Schine's latest novel, Fin and Lady. Girl, you know me! And I also know Andrea so it was no surprise that she would be seduced by the quiet power of this lovely book. I listened to the audio version which was enchantingly read by Anne Twomey.

Fin Hadley, named on a whim by his tough, stuffy father as he watched the "end" of a French film, meets his half sister, Lady, on that most decadent, gorgeous Italian island, Capri, where she has run to escape a shotgun wedding, infuriating Mr. Hadley but casting a spell on the impressionable little boy. Orphaned only a few years later, Fin must leave his family's Connecticut farm and move to Greenwich Village to be raised by Lady, scarcely grown up herself and in no emotional position to be guardian to a precocious eleven-year-old.

It's the heady decade of the 1960's and Lady, who seems to have a bottomless trust fund, fully embraces the anthem of freedom espoused by the likes of Janis Joplin in Me and Bobby McGee. Juggling three lovers at a time, only one of whom cares an iota for the observant and oh so smart Fin, Lady dines and dances into the early morning hours, making sure that part of Fin's education involves the fine art of mixing the perfect martini as well as learning to appreciate art and literature.

Lady toys with people. She's a complex figure who throws herself into the anti-war effort and the civil rights movement, happy to demonstrate anywhere at any time, yet she doesn't seem to comprehend the irony of the fact that she relies on her black maid Mabel to run her home, cook, clean and look the other way when she behaves badly. It's Fin who begins to wonder who Mabel is and what her life is like when she leaves the Greenwich tower at the end of the day.

Fin and Lady are two very lonely people. Neither has deep friendships except for Fin's neighbor and school chum, Phoebe, another great character who astutely observes Fin's relationship with Lady with wry amusement. There's a  symbiosis between the siblings that leaves readers questioning just who is taking care of whom? What constitutes a family? When Lady tasks Fin with finding a suitable husband for her by the time she's 25, (could she really be so traditional?) he throws himself whole-heartedly into the project - after all, this person will be getting a package deal.

Cathleen Schine (The Three Weissmann's of Westport) has written a delicate, sad, yet satisfying novel, told by a mysterious narrator whose identity only becomes clear toward the finale. This book overflows with loss yet it's fitting and right. It also overflows with love and wisdom and an evocation of an era when life was fleeting and candles burned at both ends. Thank you Ms. Schine for the memories.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Joyce Maynard Excels at Literary Suspense

Several years ago I raved here on these pages about a new author I'd found. ( )
Her name is Joyce Maynard and her book, Labor Day, was an outstanding piece of writing, an in-depth examination of the complexities of the human heart. The film, currently in production and starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, will be released in January.

I was surprised and disappointed to see that there wasn't a long wait list for her newest novel After Her. How is it that everyone doesn't know about this woman? Readers, heed my advice and run out to your local library for this exquisite novel. It's no surprise that Ms. Maynard runs several successful writing workshops on fiction and memoir.

 Her ability to capture that narrow line between the innocence and wisdom of teenagers is on full display in Labor Day but is especially fine tuned in After Her. Based upon the true story of the infamous California crimes of the so-called Hillside Strangler, this book is set in Marin County, California, at the base of the mountain range where so many young women's bodies were discovered back in the '80's. The murder mystery itself, however, takes a back seat to the exploration of the effect that the case had on those living in the area and, especially, on the man in charge of the investigation.

Anthony Torricelli loved women - all women - way too much to be a good husband, but he was a devoted father to his daughters Rachel and Patty even though he'd moved out by the time they were in school. And to those girls, that man could do no wrong. The summer that the bodies began to show up on the mountain, Detective Torricelli became the lead spokesperson for a department that kept coming up short on clues and, for a while, his notoriety trickled down to Rachel, giving her unusual entrée with the "in" crowd at school and driving a wedge between her and her sister.

But, as the year progresses more bodies are discovered on the mountain, the probe into the crimes is getting nowhere and Rachel, a gifted storyteller with a fertile imagination, obsessed by the killer, takes it upon herself to seek justice for the victims and save her father's reputation. The results of her actions will be felt for decades to come.

Ms. Maynard's attention to detail places the reader firmly in the time period, referencing songs, describing the laconic after school activities that mostly involved making out in the cool kids' basement, polishing nails, and dissing the outsiders. The angst, the burning desire to belong even at the expense of common sense, may remind you of your own teen years.

The love-hate relationship between Rachel and her sister Patty as their high school lives veer off in wildly different directions, (Patty becomes a basketball fanatic), is so sensitively and truly written, each sister too proud to admit how much she misses their former closeness, their us against the world mentality.

After Her succeeds on so many levels. I loved this book. It made me want to hop a plane to Guatemala, manuscript in hand, for a week with the author and her students. But can you teach imagination? I'm not so sure.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Delightful Evening with Tami Hoag

The Southwest Florida Reading Festival hosts several fundraisers throughout the year but it was the delightful moniker, Read Between the Wines, given to this event three years ago, that prompted best selling author Tami Hoag ( ) to drive across the state from her home in West Palm with some friends in tow. She told us that she really liked the idea of books and wine and meeting fans in an intimate setting where no microphones are needed and folks felt comfortable just calling out their questions.

I've been involved with the reading festival for many years and I've always noted that the more renowned the writer the more pleasant they are to deal with. Tami Hoag is no exception. What a delightfully unassuming woman, with a great sense of humor, honed, I'm sure from so many years on the road promoting her books. It seems that no matter how many times one's name graces the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, publishers will not let up on the grueling work of advertising.

Though she has a new book, The 9th Girl, out right now, one that Booklist called "knowing, thought provoking and one of her best," Ms. Hoag was remarkably reticent about pushing it. Instead, she spoke about her roots in romance and the down and dirty business of publishing. She regaled the audience of about 170 people with anecdotes about breaking into the mystery/suspense genre and how the romance writers had to teach those mystery folks a thing of two about marketing.

She got pretty serious when discussing how important it is to have respect for the police detectives and about the many times she shadowed them. Though some were reluctant at first, her professionalism convinced them that she wanted to get it right the first time as, she says, TV rarely does.

The audience sat rapt for almost an hour. One gal brought her own copy of Ms. Hoag's first big novel Night Sins, along with a few women from her book group. Another group from the local university seemed to know each and every character from every book written over the past twenty years. We enjoyed a tasty hors d'oeuvres buffet of salmon, cheese and fruit and wines from the Masciarelli vineyards. Books were sold and autographed and a fine time was had by all. If you live in Southwest Florida, be prepared and don't miss this lovely event next year.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

James McBride's The Color of Water

OK! Now I know why my sister is in love with Mr. McBride. How it is that I never read this book when it was the hot thing and the subject of every book discussion for miles around, I'll never know. Especially since I've been in an interracial relationship for almost ten years, you'd think this story of Mr. McBride's white, Jewish mom and black dad would have crossed my radar screen before! And, may I say, James McBride has the best author website I've ever visited.

Thanks to Don for pushing me to the head of the line. This is for Cynthia who, I believe, is half in love with the man. Yes, I got an autographed copy of his new book The Good Lord Bird.

So, my FB friends know that I had the opportunity to hear James speak at the National book festival on the mall in Washington. Now I've heard through the library grapevine that he'll be speaking here in Ft. Myers (so sorry it's spelled wrong on his website) in a couple of weeks. So, the pressure is on. I'd like to get The Good Lord Bird, my own autographed copy mind you, read before I go see him again. I was pleased as punch to see that his latest novel, about a boy, disguised as a girl, who fought alongside the abolitionist John Brown, has been nominated for The National Book Award.

The Color of Water was written well before there was a President Obama but I must say, he crossed my mind quite often during the reading. He briefly touched on his difficulties trying to straddle two worlds in his first memoir, Dreams from my Father, and McBride delves deeply into the divided loyalties that a bi-racial child feels and senses when his folks are "different." Race and identity are at the core of this remarkable story.

Rachel Shilsky, daughter of an Orthodox rabbi,  grew up in a Virginia town that thought about as much of Jews as it did of the negroes - not much! Her father, supposedly a man of God, ran a grocery store with his invalid wife, worked his kids to the bone, and nursed his own prejudices by cheating his black customers. He never intuited the irony of his hatred of the "Schwarz."

By the time she finished high school, Rachel, now called Ruth, would leave Virginia for the bright lights, big city with Dennis, the black man who was the love of her life. McBride does a masterful job of letting Ruth tell her story in alternating chapters with his own story. Thus we learn that, facing overwhelming odds as an interracial couple in the '40's, Ruth and Dennis were inseparable, embraced by the black community in Harlem, starting a family and a church in that order.

This book is full of love, pathos, understanding and humor. McBride is disarmingly honest about his feelings for his "mommy," especially his growing understanding that she didn't look like him and his curiosity about this fact. He speaks proudly of his eleven, yup, count 'em, brothers and sisters and with such honesty when he writes of his rebellious years, the drugs, guns, and bad company that could have taken him down the wrong path. There isn't a false note when he credits his mother and his God for his turnaround.

Reading is a natural catalyst for self-examination. I couldn't help but marvel at this woman, Ruth Jordan, at her courage and fortitude in pursuing what at the time was surely a "forbidden" love, realizing that she would never see her mother or sister again, that she was dead to her family. As often happens I wondered if I would have stood up for my beliefs under similar circumstances, choosing to teach my children that we are not black, red, or white but, rather, the color of water.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Knocking on Heaven's Door

There's nothing heavenly about Katy Butler's new book, subtitled The Path to a Better Way of Death. Nevertheless, it's a book that needs to be read and referred to over and over by anyone who hopes for a "good" death and who wants to save their family members from the confusion and frustration of having to make medical decisions under duress.

This book is no easy read but it is painfully honest. You may not like Katy all the time, she may sound selfish sometimes, whiny at others, but like a dog with a bone, she follows every lead (Ms. Butler is a well-known journalist who specializes in health issues) while she tries to help her mother let her long suffering father die.

Unlike families of yore, twenty-first century parents and kids are often bi-coastal, separated by miles, work, and culture. Sadly, not everyone dies in their beds surrounded by their loving families anymore. Katy's folks were in Middletown, Conn. while she was living in California. Her father's troubles began long before the stroke that was the beginning of the end. He had lost an arm during the war while fighting in Italy but had deftly compensated. Katy tells of her family's life, first in South Africa, then in the states where Mr. Butler was a renowned professor, ending his career at Wesleyan. Her mother Valerie was an artist and homemaker extraordinaire and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.

This book does not skimp in the raw details involved in care taking for an elderly, dementia-plagued patient, one who knows in his lucid moments that he has outlived his body and who the next moment doesn't know who or where he is. Nor does it minimize the pressure and heartbreak for the caretaker.  For six painful years Val fulfills what she sees as her duty to this man she's loved for sixty years but there are times when she believes that she's losing her own mind. That's when she calls Katy.

What's most troubling about this journey we take with the Butlers is that we know  it's relived day after day in homes across America. I really thought that talking about illness and death and how we wish to spend out final days was de rigueur, out in the open, no longer a subject to be squeamish about but that doesn't seem to be the case. You might be accused of being cold hearted or subjecting your loved one to a "death panel." One's religious beliefs or lack thereof can come into play. Word to the wise - be cautious of Catholic hospitals if you believe in letting someone die naturally! Doctors who you would think would be your ally become the enemy.

Katy Butler has done her research and the facts and figures are fascinating and sad. The amount of money made on medical devices built to prolong life is obscene but if you want Medicare to pay for therapy after a stroke you can think again. In Mr. Butler's case it was the pacemaker that was his family's downfall. Like the old Timex watches, it could take a licking and keep on ticking. Even with the quality of Mr. Butler's life, his dead staring eyes, the diapers, the feedings, the inability to function on even the lowest level, the pacemaker kept his heart ticking along perfectly.

 Is it a mercy killing to stop a pacemaker? It certainly can be done but try to find a doctor to do it. Or, was it a crime to put one into the chest of a man who couldn't make a medical decision of such enormity on his own to begin with? Does it constitute being kept alive by artificial means? Did you realize that a DNR order, a living will, etc. can be overruled by feuding families if you don't have a strong advocate?

This book made me once again sit up and take notice. I'm such a believer in being prepared and yet I still haven't made that appointment with the cremation society. For book groups looking for a good non-fiction pick for discussion this should be at the top of the list. For families facing illness and death it could be the catalyst for heart to heart talk. For Katy I'm sure it was a catharsis and I know that her sensitive, informative portrayal of her family's odyssey through the medical world will be a huge help to anyone brave enough to read it.

Meet Katy and hear her in her own words at

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Melancholy of Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott              Someone

I won't say that one has to be of an Irish Catholic lineage to appreciate Alice McDermott's fiction but, if you are, it will certainly enhance your reading experience! Of course I'm convinced that someone back in my genealogical past must have had a passionate affair with an Italian sea captain because I don't feel very Irish at all.

 Yet there's something about the characters in Ms. McDermott's novels that remind me so much of my upbringing - the large family of great aunts and grandmothers, Irish sisters - the Mooney girls they were known as - who were inseparable. They were also mysterious, full of family secrets and half-hidden foibles that we never fully understood as kids. They were fun-loving enough but I never felt a sense of joy in their homes. Priests were highly valued friends.

So when I met Marie, the seven year old narrator of Someone, Ms. McDermott's first novel in eight years, I felt an immediate kinship. Marie is a keen observer of her surroundings, sitting on the stoop of her Brooklyn brownstone waiting for her dad to rise up from the subway station and saunter down the street to scoop her up in his arms.

She thinks a lot about odors, his jacket will be smoky with a hint of the whiskey that he's quickly downed on the way home. Observations like this, for which McDermott is known and rewarded, give the reader the palpable sense of being within the action, or lack thereof.

Because, as she's been telling all the interviewers with whom she's made the rounds over the last couple of weeks, this is a book about nothing really, the quotidian events of a plain life. And yet, it's about everything really, birth and death and all that lies between. And it's the way Ms. McDermott conjures up the nuances of all those years in between that makes her such a master of her craft. Her description of Brooklyn street lights causing a chicklet pattern on the carpet is just one such "ah ha" moment. More powerful is her account of Marie giving birth to her first child and more bitter, her ability to write so convincingly of the senseless meanness of kids at play.

I don't want to run down the plot of this novel, as I said, it's just one ordinary family trying to do the best it can. It's Marie, her parents, her brother Gabe, her first lover, her husband, her children, her employer, a quite marvelous undertaker, Mr. Fagin. If this novel has an overall atmosphere of melancholy, well then, roll with it. That's just the Irish for you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

Everyone, everywhere, is weighing in on the latest novel from Pulitzer recipient Lahiri and the reviews are almost all glowing. The book was on the shortlist for the Booker prize before it even hit the stores. And honestly, I really, really wanted to love this novel as much as I did, say, The Namesake. Perhaps readers will think that I'm just playing devil's advocate but the fact is that I'm not swooning even though I'll be the first to say that there's great book discussion potential here.

There are so many things that I can't tell you about this novel without giving away key points that you'd rather learn for yourself. Let me say this. Unless you're a glutton for punishment you'll want to get past the first fifty pages quickly, a long, dry history of the Naxalite movement (more information than needed to move the plot forward in my opinion), an apparently Communist based terror organization that was operating in India, Calcutta in particular, during the second half of the twentieth century.

Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan are at the heart of the story. We are to believe that they are so close as to be inseparable growing up yet their actions speak louder than Ms. Lahiri's words. She does not adhere to the old rule of fiction, "show, don't tell." In fact, the boys are polar opposites. Their story reminded me of how I used to be so incensed by the parable of the prodigal son. So unfair!

 Subhash older and more responsible, is a brilliant student who wishes only to please his parents, to make them proud. Udayan, on the contrary, is a careless charmer, the object of his mother's unfathomable worship. He is also secretly, deeply involved in the Naxalite organization, a fact that causes Subhash a great deal of pain. With no passion for politics himself, he is incapable of understanding his brother's willingness to put their family at risk as the movement grows more violent. He also understands that if anything should happen to Udayan, his parents would break under the loss.

Offered the opportunity to do marine research in a doctoral program in the states, Subhash leaves Calcutta for Rhode Island where he forges a lonely but not unsatisfactory life of scholarship. Letters from Udayan are slow in coming and when they do the tenor seems off. Seemingly over night Udayan is morphing into a traditional Indian man, marrying a fellow student and settling into a single room in his parents' home.

The rift between the brothers is exacerbated by time and distance until one day, the news that he's always dreaded, pulls Subhash back to India and to a decision that will alter his life. This novel is really not about politics but about family, what it means to be responsible for the life of another, what constitutes a family and why some must walk away from its ties to save themselves while others embrace it for the same reason.

If you've already read The Lowland I'd love to hear your thoughts. If you haven't, I've got a pre-publication copy I can send to you. Let's get a conversation going!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Howard Zinn, Another Firebrand

Hot on the heels of my post about Taylor Branch comes this one about the often maligned, though not by anyone whose opinion I'd respect, Howard Zinn. It happens that I've been listening to the latest version of his 1980 classic, The People's History of the United States. I've been familiar with this book for many years but had never read it start to finish, just knew much of what it was about.

In the latest iteration of the book, Mr. Zinn reads the introduction and summarizes the highlights of his first history, now required reading in many schools around the country. Then the actor Matt Damon reads the body of the work which begins with the 1950's and the long, tragic story of the United States' entry into the Vietnam quagmire. He does a great job, never bringing his own bias to bear on the reading, simply giving us plain, simple, indisputable facts.

From Vietnam we graduate to black power, the women's movement, labor unrest around the county, Caesar Chavez and the agricultural workers' plea for better wages and working conditions, and on through the good, the bad and the ugly about our nation as it continues its attempt at becoming a democracy that is truly about "liberty and justice for all."

Throughout Mr. Zinn's long career as an historian, author, and teacher, he has been vilified for what some would call an anti-American frame of mind. He scolds us for turning Christopher Columbus into a hero, reminding readers of the devastation wrought upon the native peoples, their land and culture. Though an Army Air Corps veteran and a bombardier during World War II, Mr. Zinn decries the holocaust that was the result of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

His largest concern has always been the rewriting of history to suit our image of ourselves as purveyors of "truth, justice, and the American way." But it's not us, the people, that he takes to task. Rather, it's the politicians responsible for the lies, back door dealings, money grabbing, and hubris that have brought the United States to its knees so often (and may do again next week). He reminds us that, when less than fifty percent of the citizens of our country are exercising their right to vote, it's difficult to know who to blame for those who supposedly represent us.

After visiting Mr. Zinn's website I was gratified to see so many tributes (Mr. Zinn died in 2010) from around the world and was especially touched by Bob Herbert's New York Times editorial and Bill Moyers' video essay on PBS.

So, I promised to leave the dark side for awhile and read a few more upbeat books. How am I doing? Uh, huh, that's a joke. I've just finished Ishmael Beah's  Radiance of Tomorrow which I'll be reviewing for Library Journal but, as I pondered what I wanted to say, I realized that I'd simply have to go back and look through his memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, in order to get the full impact of the debut novel.

I'm almost finished with Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and have Alice McDermott's Someone on my nook for the ride back to Florida. How about you folks? Come on, what have you read lately?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Taylor Branch, Man on Fire!

Yesterday Don and I went to the Library of Congress Book Festival and had the distinct honor of attending a talk by the Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch. I have been recommending him for years to my cohorts at the Lee County Reading Festival since our non-fiction authors seem to draw such great crowds but, so far, no one has taken me up on it.

Now I realize that maybe it's just as well. I surmise that the Lee County Florida audiences would run for the doors in the face of his fire and brimstone cry for better cooperation and understanding of the subtle, still powerful racism that is the undercurrent of our inability to accomplish anything in Congress and the Senate these days.

Mr. Branch's passion for his subject, the result of his life's work, practically brought the tent poles down. He didn't need a microphone and the young woman charged with translating his words into sign language was practically out of breath. Mr. Branch became so overwrought by the injustice of the world that his face turned a deep, unhealthy red and I worried that he might fall out right in front of us. I'd guesstimate that close to 600 people gave him the longest standing ovation of the day was obvious that he was preaching to the choir.

The Pulitzer was awarded for his three volume definitive study of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most thorough history lesson that I've ever had in all my years of schooling. America in the King Years covers the timeframe of 1954 to 1968 and it is the most vibrant, fascinating and horrifying look at the birth of the civil rights movement and its aftermath that you will ever read.

You will never see the Kennedy family and the myth of Camelot in the same way again. You will learn to have a healthy fear of your government, the FBI, the attorneys general and all the others who you would like to believe have your best interests at heart. You will despair at the inhumanity of man for his fellow man. But, you will know the truth and no longer be easily susceptible to the rewriting of history that our kids and grandkids are subject to.

When I closed the pages on At Canaan's Edge, the final book in the trilogy, I opined that it should be required reading for every high school student in the country. Apparently others agreed but didn't think that most kids, or their teachers for that matter, would have the time or inclination to steep themselves in the more than 1500 pages. So Mr. Branch and some professors at the University of Maryland came up with a way to distill the finest nuggets into a classic text that could go down a little easier with the masses. The result is The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, now available at your favorite bookstore or library.

You might wonder how this middle aged white man from Atlanta, Georgia, with the coveted degree from Chapel Hill, came to be such a powerful spokesperson for civil rights in America. He honestly couldn't explain it himself, except to point to the Birmingham church bombings which he saw on TV at the impressionable age of sixteen. I believe that there are just some people who are born with a more honed sense of world in which they live and the drive and wherewithal to do or say something significant about what they see and what they'd like to change. Taylor Branch is one of those people and we readers are the better for it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep, A Great Match

I've been reading novel after novel that takes me to the dark side of the soul and needed a pick me up. What better than the newest audio version of Nora Ephron's classic Heartburn as read and interpreted by Meryl Streep. Oh, what a great, though wry, laugh. Kept me walking for hours!

OK, I'm sure that anyone who's ever been through a divorce believes that theirs was truly the worst, most heartbreaking, awful time there ever was. And when you're in the middle of it that may be true.  But most of us will reminisce and come to the conclusion that it was probably the best thing we ever did. No regrets, no recrimination, lessons learned.

But imagine if you will, that you're Nora, with a baby boy in diapers, seven months pregnant with her second, when the gossip swirling around Washington as to whom a certain woman has been having an affair with, comes right home to Nora's front door. D.C. is a very small town for a capitol city, and unless you're not in the LEAST political, you'll know that this Ephron novel was based not so loosely on the collapse of her marriage to political reporter and Watergate hero, Carl Bernstein.

If you've been there, you know the feeling. Anger doesn't even begin to surface until later, it's more the idea of being made to look a fool, every story - read lie - that you believed, every run, as Nora says, out for a pair of socks, every hint that you didn't pick up on, every trip out of town, every nuance of your relationship now has to be parsed in a completely different way. There's only one way through it and it relies on a heavy dose of friends and a huge helping of humor. Food and wine are always good.

There are many hilarious scenes but a few stand out. One of them involves Nora following Carl, known in the book as Mark, after he has promised never to see the despised woman Thelma again. Nora has just discovered that Mark recently purchased a ferociously expensive necklace from their favorite jeweler (who had "accidentally" spilled the beans) and she had not been the recipient.

 She arrives at Thelma's house, sneaks around the side to peer into a curtained window, trips over a wire and falls right on top of Thelma's husband who is also spying on the errant couple with an illegal wiretap set-up. Oh yes, this man was in an elevated position within our government. Will they never learn?

Nora Ephron's ability to write such real scenes, such honest human emotions, is a talent I envy. Her more recent books, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I Remember Nothing, have given me great pleasure. And then, of course, there's the screenplays, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, proof positive that Ms. Ephron never lost her belief in love and romance.

 How did she do it? I'd guess it's the innate ability to take the most difficult circumstances that life can throw at you and turn them into humor. As long as we can be the butt of our own jokes, get the story out first and our way, we can assuage the anger, heartbreak, and disappointment inside. It also doesn't hurt to keep that old adage close to heart, "Living well is the best revenge."

Monday, September 16, 2013

Rachel Joyce's Sequel to Harold Fry is, well, Perfect!

Readers who have been following this blog for a while may remember that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was at the top of my favorites list last year. In fact, I'll be leading the book discussion of Rachel Joyce's debut novel at the South County library next winter. So naturally, when I read that she had a new novel coming out in January - yes, sorry, you'll have to wait until 2014 - I immediately asked for a copy from the good folks at Net Galley.

Harold was one of the first characters to make me cry in a long, long time. Diana Hemmings, the tragic figure in Perfect, didn't make me sob out loud but she tore my heart out just the same. In fact, the basic similarity between Ms. Joyce's first and second novels is that they are both peopled with such lost and lonely souls desperately in need of connection.

The other day I read an article in the New York Times about the president of Barnard College in which she discusses the downside of the feminist revolution, the fact that we gals now seem forced to seek perfection in everything we do. Having it all means being the perfect employee, manager, mom, wife, etc. Under that kind of enormous pressure, something's got to give. I though of Diana Hemmings right away.

Rachel Joyce has created in Diana such a fragile creature that I actually got sympathy knots in my stomach when her husband Sylvester got off the train each Friday afternoon at precisely the same time. The children who, during the week while daddy is away on business, laugh, play, and dwell happily in their imaginations, become silent, sullen, and nervous the second he gets in the car.

Though she's dressed with caution, not a hair out of place, Sylvester's favorite style includes a pencil skirt, modestly heeled shoes and a demure silk blouse, Diana can do nothing right under his cold scrutiny. Why, we might wonder, would she live like this, even keeping in mind that it is only 1972?

 Is it the lovely home on the English moors, the freedom from financial worries, or the new Jaguar sitting in the garage? Painfully, slowly, Ms. Joyce metes out the information to her readers so that we get to know the other Di, the one who was less than "perfect.".

The narrator is Diana's precocious son Byron, an eleven year old boy who's as sensitive and bright as his mother, and one who worries about everything. In fact, it is one of these big worries, that the international clock at Greenwich will lose two seconds during the course of the year, that is the catalyst for a split-second accident that will reverberate through the lives of all the characters down to current times.

This novel involves two stories told in alternating chapters that don't seem to correlate at all when you begin reading. Do stay with it. When it all makes sense, I hope that you'll be as shocked as I was.
The author has an exquisite way with words, a deep empathy for the human condition, and amazing insight into the mysteries of the heart. A wonderful read indeed.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sweet Affirmation! Times Two

Just a few weeks ago I used this platform to bemoan the fact that, as a reviewer, I often question myself. So it was with trepidation that I looked at last weekend's cover review in the New York Times of Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus, a novel that I've mentioned, I found to be indecipherable. What, I kept asking, was the author really trying to say?

The Times review was written by none other than the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates. Of course, writers like Oates are not limited to 225 words, so I jumped right to the last paragraph of the three page spread and found that, in much kinder words, Ms. Oates asked the same question I had, what the hell is this author really trying to say? Ya gotta love it.

I was so thrilled to read that another novel, one that I really loved and wanted to tell you about, has just been added to the short list for the prestigious Booker Prize. Such validations are absolutely necessary for a reviewer - at least for this one. I couldn't keep going if I didn't feel that I got it right way more often than I got it wrong. Who would trust me?

Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo's first novel, We Need New Names, is the Booker nominee that I'm talking about.

We Need New Names

Snap up a copy as soon as you can so that you, too, can be on the inside track when the awards are announced next month. Here's the review I wrote before I was assured that it would be a hit.

Library Journal
Caine Prize-winning Bulawayo's debut novel opens in a Zimbabwean shantytown called Paradise, where life is a daily struggle for sustenance as the regime destroys homes and closes schools. As ten-year-old Darling and her friends roam the streets, turning their quest for food into a game, Darling makes wry observations about her country's social ills that belie her tender age. Given the opportunity to move to Michigan with her aunt Fostalina, Darling faces a different challenge: how to transition from abject poverty to ostentatious excess. With an acute sense of irony, she observes refrigerators stuffed with food even as the women diet rigorously to fit into Victoria's Secret underwear and the dog whose room is larger than most homes in Zimbabwe. In a poignant scene, Darling sniffs at a guava and is transported to her homeland. VERDICT As Bulawayo effortlessly captures the innate loneliness of those who trade the comfort of their own land for the opportunities of another, Darling emerges as the freshest voice yet to spring from the fertile imaginations of talented young writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dinaw Mengestu, who explore the African diaspora in America. [See Prepub Alert, 11/19/12.]—

Monday, September 9, 2013

Surveillance and Flanery's Fallen Land

Mea culpas to my readers as I've been offline for over a week. Facebook aficionados will know my whole life story even though I didn't post a word! My sister was here in Maryland for a visit and we then proceeded to drive to Erie, Pa. for my nephew's wedding. The entire family had a fantastic Labor Day weekend and things went off without a hitch. How lovely to see the little ones, growing faster than is even comprehensible. Are the twins actually walking already?

On we went to my hometown of Great Barrington, in the Berkshire hills, recently named "best little small town in America" by Smithsonian magazine. What a laugh. This precious town is currently nothing more than an unaffordable bedroom community for New Yorkers. Our old "homestead," barely standing it's so run down, cost my folks around $12,000 when they purchased it back in the '60's. It was considered pretty upscale. It last sold for close to $300.000 to a man who leases it out to students at the local branch of Bard College. Thank goodness my dad can't see his once gorgeous yard now.

So what was I reading while on the road you might wonder. A very disappointing John Le Carre, A Delicate Truth, failed to live up to its hype and, in deference to my Civil War manic sister, I'm struggling through Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. I'm confident that it will become more interesting once we get to Washington but life in the early days of Seward and Bates, contenders for the seat that Lincoln eventually won, is not exactly heart-stopping reading.

What did knock me out is the one that I couldn't talk about until the review had been published in Library Journal, which it was, in the 9/1 edition that was waiting for me when I got home to Maryland Saturday night. Yes! Keep you eyes out for this one by Patrick Flanery.

 Throughout my reading of this novel, Fallen Land, I could think of nothing else but Edward Snowden. Whether you believe he's a villain or a hero, and of course I would tend to the latter, his revelations about the depth of the spying taking place by the NSA should have come as no surprise to thinking people everywhere. Hoover started it all during the so-called "red scare" of the '50's and it's been insidiously growing since then.

Some little part of me said it was no big deal. You know, if you've got nothing to hide....but the librarian side of me thought, whoa, think of the damage that false or misinformation can do. What if something one writes or says is misinterpreted? Remember when you were a kid and played Telephone? How easily a phrase or sentence can be changed simply by inflection or with deliberate intent.

Here's a copy of my review. Please add this to the top of your "to read" list!

Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
In compelling prose, Flanery (Absolution) unveils the insidious growth of defense contractor EKK Corporation into a global big brother intent on managing all aspects of people's lives. At the crux of this intense narrative are Paul Krovik, a failed building contractor whose paranoid delusions have alienated his family and left him holed up and armed in a bunker under the house that he considered his masterpiece, and EKK executive Nathaniel, the usurper who now lives with his wife, Julia, and son, Copley, in Paul's former home. Confusing Copley with his own son, Carson, Krovik steals into the house at night in a misguided effort to watch over the lonely boy. But when Copley warns his parents of this strange presence, they fear for his emotional health. Julia turns to former schoolteacher Louise, the granddaughter of sharecroppers, who inherited the land on which Krovik's planned community was built. Burdened with medical bills after her husband's death, and with her home in foreclosure, Louise needs a place to live, and Copley needs an advocate. VERDICT In alternating chapters, Flanery gives every character a nuanced inner voice, allowing the reader to empathize with, if not fully understand, the actions of each. This is a tense, gut-wrenching take on the American dream gone horribly awry.—

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

If they were believers, I would say that Barbara (especially her) and Richard Russo, one of my all-time favorite authors, should be canonized. It took me a long time to figure out why Russo felt that he had to pen this memoir, which revolves around his mother, Jean, her emotional instability, and its effects on her son and his wife. I suppose that it was cathartic in a way that spreading her ashes in the waters off Martha's Vineyard was not.

I believe that most of us tend to soften our views of our personal history as we age. I know that I certainly see my mom in a different light now, almost thirty years after her death, than I did as a younger woman. And the book that I might write about her now would be a much more compassionate one than the one I might have written when I was thirty and we were still, it seems, at loggerheads.

Richard Russo lived the burden of being an only child which likely added to his sense of responsibility where his mother was concerned. His father had exited the picture early on because he understood that his wife was - his term - crazy. In fact, she was mentally ill with at least two separate disorders that would be rather easily treated today. In the '40's and '50's what Jean Russo suffered from was "nerves," an affliction that was underestimated and over medicated.

The reviews for this memoir have pretty much been outstanding but, true confessions, I can't say that I enjoyed it all that much. Hoping for a deeper insight into a writer whom I admire so much, whose last novel I glowingly reviewed for Library Journal, I decided to listen to the book because Mr. Russo himself did the narration. What I discovered was that Russo came across as rather peevish. His wife Barbara? A living saint!

What was so striking to this outsider is how blatantly Jean Russo manipulated her son and how he enabled her bad behavior, at first because he was too young to recognize it for what it was, and later, as an adult who should have known better, because he simply didn't have the heart or strength to stand up.
 From the age of five or six, he was told that he was her "rock," the only person she could count on, even though she rented an apartment in her parents' home and relied upon them for financial support to supplement her work at General Electric.

When Richard was eighteen he decided to matriculate in a college in Arizona, so his mother, rather than be left behind, tells Richard that she's taking a job at a GE plant in Phoenix, and proceeds to move across country with him. That initial move sets the precedent that will inform the next forty years of Richard's life, a series of moves with mom and her books in tow. You might say that he's just being a dutiful son but there's something more going on here and you'd have to read the book to understand just how bizarre it becomes.

I have always had an irrational fear of irrationality. I hate family drama of any kind and tend to distance myself more and more as I age because of memories from childhood, not to mention seventeen years in a marriage that never knew a peaceful day. So, listening to Russo's Elsewhere actually began to scrunch my stomach up in knots.

I was so sure that Jean would finally be successful in keeping Richard all to herself, driving Barbara and their two girls away when they couldn't take it any longer. The neediness, the late night phone calls, the demanding expectations and financial help, how could he keep his sanity? How could he teach and continue to write and put out these marvelous novels while still jumping at her every beck and call?

Well folks, of course he did, and the reading public should be mighty grateful. I didn't calm down until the last chapter of the memoir in which Mr. Russo finally began to come to grips with the idea that his mother had plainly been suffering from a disorder for which there is a name and a treatment. It was too late for her but not too late for Russo's daughter who began to exhibit similar symptoms.

So, should you read it? Well, if you love Richard Russo as much as I do, you'll have to - just because. If not, you might take a look at a primer in how not to raise an only child.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reviewing a Nobel Prize Winner - Pressure!

I would guess that I've been reviewing for Library Journal for seven years now but I still consider myself an amateur critic. It took me several months and many angst-filled days to understand what fiction editor Barbara Hoffert first advised me. "Trust yourself as a reader." Whenever I delve into a new book now I think about the reader and the library's collection development folk who are working with less and less funding.

When J. M. Coetzee's newest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, arrived by mail I gulped. Yes, every major library needs to own this book but, five years from now, when staff members are weeding items for lack of use, I worry that this is exactly the kind of book that will end up on a Friends' sale rack.

Coetzee has two Booker Prizes and a Nobel to his name. How am I to deal with that? Can I say that I don't think this novel is going to be a bestseller? Am I allowed to visualize it languishing on the new book shelf, inevitably being passed over for the latest Daniel Silva or John Grisham? Don't I owe it to those librarians juggling their dwindling dollars to be truthful? Will Barbara one day call me up and say, "I can't publish this review."

Well, she hasn't yet and here it is, straight from the Barnes and Noble website where I can always be assured of finding my reviews. By the way, I'm such a devoted book reviewer, that this book accompanied us to Italy and I sent the review from our balcony in Lucca. The ARC, however, was a victim of the luggage purge in the Brussels airport and is now floating around somewhere in Europe. I hope it's pleasing to some of its recipients.

Library Journal
In this puzzling story, a man and a boy arrive by boat at an unknown destination, not unlike New York's Ellis Island, where they are given new names and birth dates. Because the five-year-old, now called David, has been separated from his mother on the boat, Simón takes responsibility for him. In this Spanish-speaking country, David and Simón struggle to adapt. Spare shelter is provided, and Simón finds work as a stevedore hauling sacks of grain. He teaches the precocious David to read using the allegorical story of Don Quixote to explain the worth of both logic and imagination, but when he finds a young woman to mother David, the two tangle regarding how to proceed with the youngster's education. The simplicity of Coetzee's prose belies the complexity of this Orwellian tale about a place where memory is denied, passion neutralized, and life is whittled down to its bare essentials. VERDICT Published in the UK in March to mixed reviews, Nobel Prize laureate and Booker Prize winner Coetzee's latest novel will be highly anticipated in the States. The dystopian themes may attract new readers, and students will have much to discuss, but fans of his more potent novels (e.g., Disgrace) may find this effort disappointingly flat. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Art Forger - Does Life Imitate Art?

I recently finished listening to B. A. Shapiro's The Art Forger and was pleasantly surprised at this truly satisfying mystery, love story, and instructional exercise in the history of forgeries and how they're accomplished. I was only looking for a title to pass the time while I walk in the morning but I got more than I bargained for. So, the reviewers were right!

In this novel Claire Roth is a woman who's always subsuming her own passions and ambitions for someone else's. Like so many women before her, she was willing to be the muse to a painter who was "blocked." But oh how it must stick in the craw to see someone else bask in the limelight and be declared a genius for the work that you've done. What happens when that woman finally breaks out?

Claire was a good art student but for some reason, she just never stood out from the crowd. Her work was consistent but simply didn't get noticed, so she earned her living working for, an organization that paid artists to recreate the works of the masters. Claire's particular forte? Degas. So when the renowned gallery owner Aiden Markel arrived at Claire's studio with one of the most famous Degas works, After the Bath, stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum years earlier, she was practically orgasmic just being in the same room with the canvas.

The deal that she cuts with Aiden, to copy After the Bath for a buyer, and then return the original to the museum, would make both of them wealthy and secure her a showing of her own work, a privilege she's only dreamed of, at the Markel G studio. And this deal with the devil might have worked gloriously had it not been for two things. Aiden and Claire begin a love affair and Claire realizes, after significant study and reflection, that the "original" Degas that Aiden brought to her is, in fact, a forgery.

As Claire proceeds to copy the Degas, she walks us through the steps that must be followed to assure authentication. It's a fascinating process that involves baking the canvas to attain the crackling effect of old oils and then washing the finished work with yellowing agents that mimic the appearance of aging. Ms. Shapiro adds depth to the story with a secondary plot that involves Isabella Stewart's relationship with Edgar Degas as told through letters from Europe home to her niece in Boston.

The author manages to touch on the legal and moral implications of copying famous works and the fine line, if any, between forging and recreating. But where she really shines  her light is on the assumptions made by experts in the field, authenticators, curators, and experts who should be able to spot a fake a mile away but rather, choose to see what they want to see. This concept really hit home for me when I spotted this article in last week's New York Times:

In the art world there appears to be very little trust among dealers, curators, artists and buyers. After reading this book you'll understand why! Well worth the time and read quite nicely by Xe Sands.