Sunday, March 24, 2013

Some Books in Bits and Pieces

It's been too long since a book caused me to race to the computer and rave about its quality, its grandeur, its scope or luminosity. I read so much that I expect more and  more from my authors. I prefer an in-depth look at a glorious piece of writing as opposed to the quick 2, 3 or 4 star rating of Good Reads. But sometimes, I'm afraid, that's all I can muster.

Keeping that in mind, here's the lowdown on some titles I've read or am in the middle of reading right now.

Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue. It seems like this one might only be appreciated by a very specialized audience, one well versed in old jazz music and its purveyors. Once married to a musician, I was able to laugh out loud at some of the references, especially to the musical instrument, the  Hammond B-3 organ, that was once a staple of musical groups. A huge old thing with a glorious sound, it took a small army to move, thus Chabon uses it as a means of an unfortunate death for one of his characters.

Married to another author, Ayelet Waldman, father of four daughters, Chabon exhibits a special affinity for the female voice and his great character, Gwen, a midwife who's nine months pregnant, is very authentic, sympathetic and wise.

But actually I surmise that the main theme of this novel is the eternal struggle between big business and the little guy. Gwen's husband, Archie, is the part owner of an old time music shop, Brokeland Records, which is about to be swallowed up by a super franchise.

If you readers are old enough to remember, there was a  dark, cavernous kind of store where there was a booth and you donned headphones to listen before you bought, where you could browse through old bins of '78's and collector's items and dish with the owners about the greats of musical history.
This is the kind of shop where the personal touch was the reason you walked in and why you'd never be a traitor and pop over to WalMart for a bargain no matter how great the discount. In fact, it's exactly the kind of place that is all but disappearing around the country. Chabon's novel is a love song to this nearly extinct phenomenon.

Joan Wickersham's The News from Spain is an interestingly written, low key examination of love in all its iterations. Seven stories, variations on  a theme, are offered up like delicate morsels. Is there such a thing as inappropriate love, they seem to ask, or is any expression of love preferable to the lack of it?

These poignant stories seldom end happily but you could say that they end satisfactorily. Whether it's the love/hate relationship of a daughter and her nursing home bound mother, or the illicit couplings of a passionate music teacher and her underage students, or the long ago memories of a middle aged widow whose husband died in his prime, Ms. Wickersham manages to elevate even the rather sordid to the sublime.

A  very different kind of love is dissected in Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins, praised for its pathos, sensitivity and humor. Well dear readers, I am more than familiar with the similarities among most cultures when it comes to its treatment of food, from the Jewish tendency to kill with kindness, to the Italians' exhortations to "mangia, mangia," to the blacks' Sunday diet of fatback in greens with cornbread and ribs, but I just failed to find the humor in Attenberg's truly tragic tale of a woman eating herself to death.

Readers are to believe that Edie is a brilliant woman, a lawyer for thirty years who still managed to raise a successful family and hang onto her husband Richard even though he's been dying in slow degrees as Edie, yearning for something lacking in her psyche, eats her way up to 350 pounds. I don't know, I love food as much as the next one but, is that smart behavior?

By the time the kids intervene, Edie's health is severely compromised, her husband has flown the coop hoping for one last chance at happiness, and her daughter-in-law, fearing that her family may have inherited the gluttony gene, has them on a paltry ration of vegetables insufficient for the needs of growing teens.

The Middlestein family is a train wreck waiting to happen, but unfortunately ( or maybe not! ), a family that I could not relate to. I'm about to lighten up with a suggestion from my delightful co-worker Susan. Dottie Benton Frank's Land of Mango Sunsets is now high on my "to read" list. How about the rest of you? Any suggestions?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Writers and Readers Unite!

Yesterday I worked at the thirteenth annual Southwest Florida Reading Festival and, as I do each and every year, I opened the newspaper this morning hoping for a great article covering this wonderful event. Once again, I was disappointed. It seems that the writers for my local newspaper don't think they can sell a story if it doesn't have a photo of a cute little kid on the cover.

Now I've got nothing against children but, come on. This is a huge event for adults and it costs us a bundle to bring a cadre of famous writers to southwest Florida in the height of season. If the adults in our area were to read only what's in the paper they would be completely justified in assuming that this event is only geared to the young.  Kudos to the local television station for their interview with the renowned and very funny Catherine Coulter earlier this week.

There was absolutely nothing shabby about the numbers we garnered as Alex Berenson, Dorothea Benton Frank, Kim Hamilton, Mary Kay Andrews, Catherine Coulter and Joy Castro, among others, took to the stage. I'm always amazed at how many writers seem comfortable as stand up comics when you consider how solitary the writing life must be by necessity. A conversation with Deborah Sharp
confirmed this when she remarked that a membership with the Toastmaster's Club helped her to overcome her natural introversion. Writers today are forced to market themselves with less help from publishers than ever before. Tweeting, Facebook, blogs and websites are de rigueur for up and coming authors and it doesn't always come naturally.

Not so for Dottie Frank who just took over and had the audience eating out of her hands. Before we could even give the canned introduction she was on stage and working the crowd as the chairs filled up. A Jersey girl who's heart will always be in North Carolina, she had us in stitches as she talked about her early career in the garment district in Manhattan. On a more serious note she spoke of her grief at the loss of her mom and how desperately she wanted to buy her old family home on Sullivan's Island, a wish that led to her first novel by the same name. I'm now looking forward to starting the series.

Proof that I hadn't done my due diligence came early in the day when I met Alex Berenson and was taken aback at how young he looks! I mean, this guy had been around the world as an embedded journalist in Iraq and then Afghanistan while working for the New York Times, which, by the way, featured his newest book, The Night Ranger, in today's review section. Espionage in the vein of Le Carre is right up my alley and I plan to acquaint myself with his John Wells series soon as well. Whew! I've got a lot of reading ahead.

Berenson was so self deprecating and marveled that over 200 readers would roll out for a 10 AM talk. He demurred when asked to speak for half an hour but the audience was full of great questions and he ended up spending close to an hour with us. Check him out at his website

I'm sorry that I didn't get to meet Joy Castro whose book Hell on High Water I gave big praise to not long ago here on my blog. She was speaking in the adjoining room and my friend Maryellen said she was just a delight.

Another lovely woman, Annie Barrows, chatted us up at the bar Friday evening at the pre-festival dinner at the Royal Palm Yacht Club. Ms. Barrows, you may remember, was co-author on the ever popular book club favorite The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Come on, admit it. You checked it out just for the title! We laughed over the fact that there's now a Guernsey island walking tour based on the places she mentioned in her novel. The only problem? She made them up!

So there's the down and dirty on just a few of the highlights from yesterday's festival. Put it on your calendars. It's the third Saturday in March and the weather is always perfect. Remember, Southwest Florida Reading Festival, not just for kids any more!

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Supremes - The High Court That Is

Jeffrey Toobin is at it again and I'm so glad! His studies of the workings of the United States Supreme Court are fascinating for political junkies like me and he writes at a layman's level so that his books would be a perfect way to introduce high school kids to the inner workings of this historical institution.

In his previous book The Nine, which I blogged about here, he took on the earlier history of the court and now, in The Oath; The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, he takes up where he left off. The only quarrel I have with this new book is perhaps the fault of the publisher. I know how much they want to sell books but the cover art is very misleading. This is not a book about the antagonistic relationship between President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts. In fact, Toobin minimizes the gossip that surrounds their dealings.

What Toobin does so well is give us the scuttlebutt, the background stories that court watchers and insiders know and generally keep under wraps. How lawyers are positioned years ahead of time for future Supreme Court potential is amazing. The work that goes into the vetting process, every slightly off-key pronouncement, no matter how slight, is examined under a microscope for possible trouble down the road. What comes across loud and clear is how much more political the choosing of Supreme Court justices has become during my lifetime, especially since the Reagan years.

I particularly get a kick out of reading of the extreme quirks of the justices, their habits when they recess for summer which say so much about them. David Souter, a dour New Englander, is exceptionally interesting in his abhorrence of the public eye when contrasted with folks like Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito who never miss an opportunity to be quoted. Trail blazer, Sandra Day O'Connor, who broke the male sex barrier not that long ago, waited until she retired to begin a prolific writing career whereas our first Hispanic judge, Sonia Sotomayor, is touting her biography already. My Beloved World will be my next read.

I think what's most disturbing to Toobin, and to those of us who lean to the left on social issues, is the systematic way in which the current court has agreed to revisit some important standing laws that have been part of the American fabric for so long.
Toobin feels that Chief Justice Roberts sided with the majority on the Affordable Care Act almost as if he was throwing a bone to the Obama presidency (even if it was a large, juicy one!) because so much of the rest of the court docket involves laws like the Voting Rights Bill, Roe/Wade, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which will undoubtedly fall to the standard 5/4 split.

Of course, this all remains to be seen and the fact is that the court, like our constitution itself, is constantly changing, reinventing, and reflecting the times in which we live. Judges will retire, some may die in office, new judges are chosen and the dynamic changes again. Thanks to Jeffrey Toobin for making it all so clear and accessible. A great read!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Women's History Month for a New Generation

I'm sorry to say that this post is not about books. This one is coming from my other avocation which involves politics/sociology. I've been obsessing for the past 24 hours over a disturbing conversation I had in the break room at work yesterday with a co-worker. This woman is only 27. I guess that makes her a generation Y or millennial. She is smart and funny, a lovely gal all around.

So my heart truly hurt when she made an extremely judgmental remark about women who claim their husband's social security. More disturbing to me was that she did not seem to understand the difference between Medicare and Medicaid and how one qualifies for each even though she worked in a medical office. She seemed to think it was unfair for a divorced spouse to receive a former husband's social security benefits. Then she went off on a riff about folks who abuse the system and it was all I could do the clamp my mouth shut. You see, we're not supposed to talk politics at work. Thus, I write.

I suppose this was where I should have gone to the bookshelves and found a copy of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique! Fifty years since it was written, twice as long as this young lady has been alive. But not me. I remember well what was happening in the '50's and '60's. What I wanted to tell her was - talk to your grandma. She'll explain. But maybe I should take her out for a drink and give her the down and dirty on the past fifty years of women's history. Has she not heard of Lily Ledbetter?

Most of the women in my book discussion group are in their '70's. We've been together a long time. We tend to get personal. One woman told me about being fired from her school teaching job when she got pregnant. Yes, of course she was married but, hey! We don't want those poor little children's psyches to be damaged as they wonder how she got that way!

My stepmother, Edith, had a degree in chemistry from Barnard. When she graduated she was offered a position working on the Manhattan project. Imagine! She was also offered a proposal of marriage from the love of her life. She couldn't have both. You know which one she took.

When I was in high school my mom and my aunt Jackie were the only two women I knew who worked outside the home. In college, I surmised within a few weeks that I was way out of my socio-economic class. NONE of the other mothers worked! Fortunately they stayed home and baked cookies and we were darn glad of it since the care packages were usually full of sweets. My mom sent money for books.

So now fast forward to the day these women turned 65. Some weren't allowed to work, for some it just wasn't done in their class structure. Have they contributed to social security or Medicare? No. Have they possibly worked at some menial position below their educational level to put some man through law or medical school? Possibly. Have they raised the kids, served on non-profits, hosted hubby's boss for hundreds of dinners? Oh yeah. Their working years were full of duties but you can't deposit thank you's in the bank.

Now let's say hubby's gone off with the trophy wife. We all know how long that's going to last! Does this woman deserve some compensation for the 20 or 30 years she kept the home fires burning? You betcha! Do I cringe when I hear the word "entitlement?" Uh huh. And oh, I haven't even touched upon the women living in poverty, the working poor who will never earn enough to be able to live on social security. They qualify for Medicaid for a reason!

The next time we put up a women's history month display in the library I'm going to make sure that, instead of Susan B. Anthony, though she's certainly important, we make sure to include my contemporaries, the women from the boomer generation who broke all kinds of barriers. Gen Y, you need to brush up on your women's history!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Attica Locke, Did you Diss Southwest Florida?

Attica LockeJust ten days until another Southwest Florida Reading Festival A year of letter writing, invitations, tweets and Facebook contacts and now my co-workers are frazzled and excited, we're down to the wire, publicity is out and guess what? Attica Locke, who accepted our invitation months ago, has decided not to come! Why am I bothered by this? Because I lobbied the author selection committee for her appearance. Yes, after reading her debut novel, Black Water Rising, and then reading Dennis Lehane's glowing recommendation of her latest book, The Cutting Season, I thought she'd be a great fit for the festival and the perfect writer to share the stage with Joy Castro.

I'm sorry for our public but more than that, I'm sorry for her. Perhaps she doesn't realize what a fantastic, family event our festival is and how many years Lee County has been perfecting this one day literary event. I'll never forget the evening that Jeffery Deaver said he turned down Virginia's Festival of the Book because he heard that ours was the place to get up close and personal with fans. We LOVED that man!

So, of course, I read The Cutting Season in hopes of talking about it with Ms. Locke. My initial impression was that readers might not hang with her as the novel begins soooo slowly. Perhaps in an effort to arouse that sleepy, southern atmosphere of a plantation in Louisiana? Belle Vie is the ironic moniker given to the property where Caren Gray and her family have lived and worked for many generations. But Belle Vie, or Beautiful Life, certainly had a different meaning to her forebears, formerly enslaved on this plantation, and even after emancipation, working in menial positions for the Clancy family.

Caren, an events planner and a single mom, eschewed her law studies at Tulane, moving back to Belle Vie to help her mother and to become the in-charge person, hosting weddings, parties, and the most difficult thing of all, the re-enactments of slave life "back in the day," replete with actors dressed in 1860's garb. It's a terribly uncomfortable reminder of the insensitivity of  landowners who would have young, black college students earning their money by playing happy slaves on a plantation. It's rather shocking that it takes Caren, a strong black woman herself, so long to get it.

Locke gives readers a rather flimsy murder mystery involving a cane worker found with her throat slashed in the sugar fields that abut the plantation. The young woman is an immigrant, here without papers, employed by a man from a big sugar company with a reputation for mistreating its employees. Since the workers are undocumented, who, they wonder would care? But when one of Caren's young employees is charged with the crime and shuttled off to jail, the litigator in her rises up and she begins investigating on her own.

This is when one simply has to suspend disbelief and go with the flow. Caren takes such foolish chances for a woman who once excelled in law school. Even I know better than to wash away blood evidence from clothing in my own sink. Hasn't CSI taught us anything?
To keep us involved, Locke brings in an old love interest, Eric, the father of Caren's daughter, along with an interesting newspaper man out of New Orleans who has the potential to be the new man in Caren's life.

Really, this isn't sour grapes. The novel just doesn't have enough suspense to work as a mystery but it did interest me as a historical look at the old plantation system and the way in which freemen could be intimidated or coerced into giving up property rights to land they worked for decades. Attica Locke is also a screen writer and I'm wondering if that affects the way she writes her novels. Come to think of it, I could easily see The Cutting Season coming out of Hollywood with an all-star cast. Maybe you should wait for the movie.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Rules of Civility

Yes, I know, I'm very late to the party. This novel by Amor Towles was all the talk of the town last year and book groups all over my area were embracing it with abandon. And who, you might ask, is Amor Towles anyway? The voice of the novel suggested to me that Amor was a man, yet part of me thought, "what a lovely name for a woman!" Read more about this wondrous writer here.

I have been listening to The Rules of Civility on my ipod and I do admittedly get distracted while I'm walking or gardening. Though the reading by Rebecca Lowman is perfectly fine, I suspect that this is a book to be held, read and savoured, one that requires the reader to return to certain sections just to marvel at the literary technique, the amazingly apt metaphors, the beauty of the prose.

Towles takes us back to the 1930's, when young women from the mid-west flocked to New York City to make it big (or not) in the Big Apple. Eve is one of those gals. She becomes fast friends with Katey Kontent, a witty, intelligent young woman, mature beyond her years, whom she meets at the boarding house where they chafe under the watchful eye of their landlady.

Pooling their meagre salaries, Katey and Evie make the rounds of speakeasies and jazz clubs from Greenwich Village to Harlem where, one evening, they catch the eye of a man who looks terribly out of place with his creme silk scarf and gold engraved lighter.

Tinker Gray, drawn to their enthusiasm and gaiety, becomes their partner in crime as they swill unlimited martinis and sip flutes of champagne while tripping the light fantastic. It doesn't hurt that Tinker appears to have an endless amount of cash and a gorgeous place on the upper east side. Towles' descriptions of New York circa 1938 are so enticing I wanted to jump right on a Jet Blue flight for the north!

But of course, nothing this much fun can last forever. Where, after all, would the dramatic tension come from? A freak accident has devastating consequences on the dynamic among the three friends, altering the way we see each of them. Themes of loyalty and trust are examined as each character is put under the microscope. And there are so many fabulous secondary characters for us to scrutinize as well!

The nature of class structure, money and how it's acquired, education, opportunity and fate with a capital F are all subjects ripe for thoughtful discussion. Readers who may think of those times as more carefree and innocent will be quickly disabused. In fact, that's the nature of Towles' talent, that he so deftly digs beneath the bright, shiny surface to the darker truths in the shadows. I can't wait to see what else this young man will do.