Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Burgess Boys

Get ready lovers of Elizabeth Strout! Just one more month until her next novel, The Burgess Boys, hits the streets. I was able to get an advanced copy for my nook, finishing it last month. I've been hesitating to put my thoughts into words because I had to mull over my reactions to be sure I was being fair. I can honestly say that Olive Kitteridge was probably one of my all-time favorite books and a lively book discussion to boot. The Burgess Boys? They took longer to love.

Ms. Strout has an affinity for creating characters who are difficult. Olive was gloriously ornery but we readers knew that her prickly surface hid a compassionate heart. Jim Burgess, on the other hand, is just downright rotten, an egotistical, bloviating snob who treats his younger brother Bob and Bob's sister, Susan, in an appallingly demeaning and mean spirited way. Even this reprehensible behavior could be understood, if not forgiven, if Strout gave us reasons to do so.

Most disturbing is that Jim's entire life has been predicated on a childhood lie that has wrought terrible emotional damage on the other members of the family. I think we can all agree on a simple truth. We can't help the family that we're born into and sometimes, perhaps even often, we may love our siblings but we might not necessarily be friends. This can be particularly true when time and distance keep brothers and sisters apart. It certainly is the case with the Burgesses.

Born and raised in an Olive Kitteridge type town in Maine, Jim got out quickly and headed to Manhattan where he's a big muckety-muck attorney with political ambitions. Bob, who adores and looks up to his big brother no matter the abuse, also lives in Manhattan and works as an attorney. He though, ends up doing a lot of pro-bono and good works. The bad brother has a loyal wife of thirty years and perfect children who follow the rules. The good brother's wife left him for someone more exciting, but when she wants to talk heart to heart, guess who she turns to? Doesn't it figure? Life is so strange. Of course, it's those little inequities in the world that Strout excels at writing about.

What brings the siblings back into each other's orbits with a vengeance is a bizarre act of vandalism committed by Susan's troubled son Zach, an action so out of character and out of the blue that Zach can't articulate what on earth he was thinking. A cry for attention? A catalyst for a shake up of the status quo? An opportunity to bring himself to the attention of the dad who left him behind and moved to Europe?

Susan seems incapable of dealing with her son. They are two lost souls sharing the run down family home back in Maine. But as first Bob, and then Jim, return reluctantly to Shirley Falls, Bob trying to get to know Zach and make a connection, Jim blustering his way into lawyer's offices and courthouses, the three siblings tentatively, sadly, one step forward, two steps back, begin the long process of reacquainting.

Elizabeth Strout, in person, is funny, quirky, self-deprecating and delightful. Her personality says "let's have a glass of wine and chat," not "I'm a Pulitzer Prize winner, don't touch me." She is more approachable than her characters could ever be. And yet she plumbs the depths of complex family relationships, peeling back layer after layer like a surgeon with his scalpel, until all you can see is the dirty bits. Then, with empathy, she manages to rescue these folks from themselves. It's a literary miracle and one I never tire of.

Jim Burgess is no Olive Kitteridge but you'll want to meet him just the same. March 26th. Watch for it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Light Between Oceans

When my college roommate and I get together we always talk books. What would you expect from two English majors? When she read this blog recently she called me out for being a downer. "Time to lighten up," she said. "Wait 'til you read The Light Between Oceans!" When I mention that it's on my desk and that I plan to lead the book discussion next winter at my library (as a volunteer), she is pleased. Well, Cath, this one failed to cheer me up!

An amazing amount of buzz and press goes into selling a debut novelist. Readers of my blog know that I am constantly blown away by the talent out there and wonder how many outstanding novels are languishing in a publisher's slush pile. M. L. Stedman, I've read, is publicity shy. She doesn't have a web page and she doesn't believe that her personal life has anything to do with her novel. But, let's face it, author geeks always want to understand the back story. It's in our nature. Maybe we're secretly saying, this could be me someday.

An Australian by birth, Londoner by choice, Ms. Stedman first published a short story that became this popular novel about an emotionally fraught World War I veteran and a naive young woman, seeking a different kind of life, who marry and move to Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Australia. Tom Sherbourne craves the isolation that comes with his position as lighthouse keeper. Isabel revels in her new role as wife and helpmate. For a while, they live in a Paradise of their own devising.

But just as temptation came to the allegorical Adam and Eve in the form of a snake, so it does to Tom and Isabel in the form of a dinghy washed up on their shores, carrying within a dead man and a newborn baby girl. Timing is everything. Isabel, having just given birth to a stillborn little boy,  grieves deeply for her loss. Just the sound of this mewling child excites her unused milk-engorged breasts and before Tom even buries the unknown father, Isabel is feeding and naming the supposed orphan.

"Oh what tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive." For the first time in years Tom makes a conscious decision not to record, in his otherwise meticulous records, the fateful dinghy wreck and its contents. This major omission will haunt him, guilt will eat away at his gut, and distrust will build a wall between Tom and Isabel for years to come until the relationship cracks under the weight of Tom's burden.

This novel resembles a Shakespearean tragedy. Fate enters, the gods laugh, human beings fail even as they act with the best of intentions. There are no villains and whether or not any of Ms. Stedman's characters can be seen as heroic, I'll leave up to the attendees at the book discussion. While the writing is gorgeously descriptive, the lighthouse at Janus Rock emerging as a character itself, the book left me dejected and unsatisfied. Perhaps it's because, no matter what you may think about my dark reading tastes, I am by nature an eternal optimist, always seeking the happy ending.

Any ideas dear readers? Upbeat suggestions are welcome.

In the meantime, I've been honored to receive two new, big, hefty, 400 page gems from Library Journal to read and review in the next few weeks so I'd better get cracking. One of them is Khaled Hosseini's long anticipated new book And the Mountains Echoed. What a perfect way to spend a frigid afternoon in southwest Florida.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Kathryn Taubert, Otherwise Known as Yevu

From the moment I saw Kathryn Taubert walking toward me across the library foyer, I knew we were kindred spirits. With her wispy, flowing white dress, the startling turquoise jewelry, and her warm, intense eyes, she enveloped me with a sense of well being. She would become one of our most popular, patient, volunteer computer coaches.

While she was with us we learned so much about her eclectic background, dolphin trainer, insurance executive, jazz singer! But what I found most interesting of all was the five weeks that she spent as a volunteer worker with the Ewe tribe in Ghana, Africa.

Her book about her extraordinary experiences in Ghana came out a few months ago and the title is perfect. Yevu, which simply means "white woman" in the Ewe language, is an honest, compassionate, and heart-felt book, based upon the blog postings that Kathryn was sending to the local newspaper here in southwest Florida.

So often, when I hear of a person going to Africa to volunteer, I wince at the thought that they have only one mission and that is to proselytize for some religion or another. I can't forget my reading of Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Nor can one be familiar with the long, sordid history of the colonization of Africa without being cognizant of the damage that's been done in the name of God.

So what a delight to read Kathryn's glowing account of her five weeks living with a family in a little village a few hours from Accra. Through the Global Volunteer Network, her mission was to help the local leaders draft a grant proposal that would bring needed funding to the village for education. In the course of her work she discovered what I also found in Africa, a place of welcoming delight, where most folks speak multiple languages with ease, putting us to shame with their brilliance. Now think what they could do with an education comparable to ours.

What's especially lovely about Kathryn's book is her humble attitude toward her time in Ghana, realizing that she would learn much more than she would teach. Living with a family severely crowded by our standards, and used to her privacy here at home, was an adjustment that she accepted whole heartedly. She was open to new experiences, food, celebrations, customs at once unfamiliar yet often similar to those we know.

I loved her descriptions of returning from her walks into town and being followed by all the little kids yelling Yevu! Yevu! Because I have the ebook version, I did miss some of the better photographs that you'd get in the print version. We've requested it for the library but I notice it is not in our catalog yet. You can read about Kathryn and her travels (and hear her lovely voice) at

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Leonard Pitts Jr. A Different Choice for Black History Month

Once again Black History Month is upon us here at the library and I was all fired up to make my usual complaint about our seeming inability to make space for a meaningful black history display. I can think of twenty or thirty books right off the top of my head that should be featured front and center for the edification of our diverse adult population. However, the wind was taken right out of my sails because the space that I would have used was hijacked this past weekend. There's a display there alright, but guess what the subject matter is? Me!

Imagine my shock to discover that my dear co-workers decided to honor my six years of reviewing for Library Journal with a display of the many books I've read and had opinions on over the years. I truly almost came to tears and my loyalty to black history flew out the window!

One book that's too new to be displayed but that had a deep effect on me is Eleanor Morse's White Dog Fell from the Sky. I accidentally came upon a copy of my review on the front page of the author's website. What a compliment! I'm going to have to work a bit harder if I'm to keep my head from swelling.

But, back to Leonard Pitts. He is one of my favorite syndicated columnists. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Pitts is always reasonable, cogent, and even humorous when it comes to his take on race relations in America. When he's angry, he's righteous. His essays are an editor's dream.

So I was surprised to find that he had published a fiction work this past year, a big, fat, historical called Freeman. I snapped it up immediately but will admit that it took me a while to adjust my thinking to this new Leonard Pitts. The voice of historical fiction is such a radical change from the voice of an activist journalist.
The novel takes place shortly after the end of the Civil War, at a time when many southern soldiers and enslavers refused to believe that their cause was lost. Enslaved people were kept ignorant of their freedom, especially if they could not read or had no access to newspapers. And of course, there was the problem of what to do with this new found freedom. Where to go when you've not been allowed to earn money, to own property, to get an education. How do you just pack up and go?

It was in the cause of education that Prudence (who was anything but), a white widow from Boston, came to Buford, Mississippi with her adopted sister, a mixed race woman named Bonnie who was by far the more practical of the two. Together they intend to honor Prudence's father's past as an abolitionist by opening a school in a building he owned and to teach the freedmen and children of Buford, enabling them to make lives for themselves as free people of color.

A parallel story involves Sam, who escaped from slavery to join the Union forces, finding work after the end of the war in a library. He's safe and employed but his life is empty. He left his wife Tilda behind. Is she still working on the same plantation? Is she even alive? Though fifteen years have passed, Sam realizes that he can't move on unless he makes the dangerous trip back south, on foot, to look for her.

By the time Sam's story joins Prudence's there's been more tragedy than you'd believe one book or heart could hold. Freeman is not a novel for the faint of heart. You've read in your history books of the plight of African families, brought here against their will, bought and sold like a sides of beef, tortured and worked to death with no recourse. Pitts doesn't pretty up the horrific treatment of human beings in the post Civil War south. He does succeed at telling a story of the resilience of the soul, the yearning to be free, the strength of women, in particular, to go on living in the face of unbearable loss. It was a time of shame for our country and yes, a real part of our black history. Read it and weep.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Theatre is Alive and Well in Southwest Florida

I have a passion for live theatre - have had since I was a kid and my parents participated in a local theatre group. I remember my dad's pride when he received a letter from Jimmy Stewart regarding his (dad's) upcoming role in the play Harvey. Elwood P. Dowd was the quintessential role for Stewart but, all dolled up in a frothy dress and patent leather shoes, ensconced in my front row seat, I was convinced that the role was made for my dad. Mom was no slouch either, often strutting her great legs across the stage in some glam role that was far from her daytime persona as the high strung, high school English teacher.

Over the past few years I'm afraid that I've grown complacent, guarding my Sundays and oh, too few Saturdays off, rarely caring to leave the house except to sit in the yard and read. But yesterday, thanks to an NPR interview that Don heard earlier in the week, we got ourselves down to Florida Repertory Theatre ( to witness a performance of an amazing piece of writing by Tony and Pulitzer award winner Donald Margulies. Time Stands Still is a play that will force you to think and discuss long after you've left the studio. In fact, it would make a great book discussion and reminded me of one of my favorite novels last year, Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters which I blogged about here.

Sarah and James are deeply damaged people. He, emotionally scarred and she, physically. Their relationship is fraught with their mutual knowledge of the past and their fear of the future. Journalists, he writes, she takes photographs, they have been together for over eight years, traveling through the war torn middle east documenting the havoc unleashed by the United States in its search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction.

We learn that James has suffered an emotional breakdown from the endless trauma of his work. While back in New York City he hears that Sarah has been badly injured by a roadside bomb and the months he spends at her bedside stir something in him that he hasn't acknowledged before, the need for stability. But as Sarah, acerbic, stubborn and jaded, begins to heal, anxious to return to work, James becomes bogged down with writer's block, more controlling while she pulls away, and we the audience begin to sense the train wreck that lies ahead.

The perfect foil to Sarah's abrasiveness is the much younger, bright-eyed, optimistic Mandy, the new woman in Richard's life. Richard has a long history with James and Sarah, best friend, confidant and publisher of their work. He, like James, has tired of the horrors of war, the helplessness in the face of such suffering, and looks to Mandy for a respite from the cares of the world. Sarah scoffs, James envies, tensions rise.

This powerful, two hour play, raises many questions yet answers none. Why are some people drawn to the dark side? Can one become addicted to horror and violence? Or is the term inured? What of the ethical decision to photograph an atrocity, to bear witness if you will, rather than to try to stop it? How much influence does one person really have? Must we all share the collective guilt of a country that set in motion the devastation of others?

At one point Mandy plaintively begs James and Sarah to open their eyes to the beauty of the world. It's a gorgeous point in the play where, I might add, I saw several young women with kleenex subtly in hand. Mandy, no longer the naive girl with the admittedly narrow world view, becomes an adult before our eyes, blooming in her pregnancy, ready to give life to a new generation.

After the play we had a lively discussion with a fellow audience member who was incensed at what she felt was a judgment by the playwright about the two women's choices. I disagreed. I felt that both women made legitimate decisions about their futures that were right for them. In fact, I thought that Sarah gave life too, in her way. Her photographs gave life to the suffering of others, not a small thing. But why don't you decide? The play will run for two more weeks here in Ft. Myers or you can get a copy at your local library. Check it out. Let's talk!