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?

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