Sunday, April 28, 2013

Feeling Vulnerable

Friday evening I attended a wake for a friend's husband. Bill was 60 years young. Tomorrow my 62 year old brother, who's just finished three months of chemotherapy, will meet with his team of doctors in Pittsburgh to discuss whether or not his tumor is now operable. Another co-worker, still in her forties, had heart surgery last week. And then, of course, there was Boston, followed by Bangladesh. The arbitrary nature of disease and death is all around us and fairness has nothing to do with it.

I often think that I dwell on this subject more than is healthy, kicking it around in my head while I'm mowing the lawn or working in the garden. It's one of the great mysteries, isn't it. People of faith believe that they have the answer - how marvelous to be so certain! But those of us who are doubting Thomases see options too, just not so definitively.
Human beings are, after all, a mash up of water, bone, genetic material and that intangible life force that could be called the soul, at least it is an element that exudes energy and that energy has to go someplace, doesn't it?

I can almost believe that, after we are dead, that energy could exist out there in another dimension and recognize that of others who have gone before. It might explain the light at the end of the tunnel. Certainly people are making small fortunes penning books describing their near-death experiences and our customers, judging by the holds lists, are desperate to be convinced. Still, I doubt that I can take my books with me and sometimes, when I look at all the worlds of words that await me just in my bookcase alone, I think, "I don't want to be greedy but damn I want to get a chance to read those books before I go!"

On the other hand, if what comes after this life is simply a void, well then the good news is, we won't know what we're missing! Only our families, lovers, and friends will be left to say, "I'm so sorry she didn't live long enough to do this or see that."

So I guess all this philosophizing has come to a head because of my pending retirement - ten more days. I wobble back and forth between exhilaration and guilt. Is 64 years young too young to go? Am I being selfish? Should I have waited until I had more money in the bank? No, I have to feel confident that my innate good sense and that ineffable something that speaks to us in our subconscious minds, is correct and that my timing is right.

The next phase of my life is about to begin and I look to it with trepidation and joy. I dare not tempt fate by saying, "there's so much I want to do!" (though there is)  I realize how inordinately fortunate I've been, known so many wonderful people, seen so many different parts of the world, worked in the best and worst of jobs, flourished in a rewarding career that allowed me to earn a living doing what I love. Can I ask for anything more? Yes! Yes! Yes!

Thursday, April 18, 2013


My replacement arrived today. Wouldn't that make a great first sentence of a novel? Instead, it's the actual story of my life. For the past several weeks I have been divesting myself of the evidence of a deeply satisfying twenty year career in librarianship. Hundreds of documents have been shredded, my desk burnished to a shine it hasn't seen in years. Photos have disappeared. Awards relegated to a jewelry box or, temporarily, to my home office. I really wanted to make it seamless for the lovely young woman who is now occupying my space, leaving no trace of the one who was there before.

I guess I misjudged how dislocated and invisible I would feel as I temporarily camp out in another cubicle, taking up space for a couple of weeks while I transfer to her my knowledge of the building, its quirks and peculiarities, its penchant for ceiling leaks, slow running toilets, and an air conditioner that insists on shutting down fifteen minutes before closing.

Customers I've known for years are heading north for the summer. I let them know that I won't be there when they return. Some are so happy for me, hugs and kisses ensue, while others ask that crazy, foolish question, "What will you DO with yourself?" I want to reply, "Are you talkin to ME?" Can a reader ever be bored? Doubtful.

Still, I have mixed feelings about leaving. I define myself by what I do. I'm a librarian. And, after May 10th, I will still be a librarian. It's a mindset, an openness to the improbable, a belief in knowledge and the sharing thereof. It saved me at a time in my life when I didn't think too much of myself and my own abilities. My mentors have been legion. The satisfaction, tremendous.

But those sands in the hourglass run faster as they grow fewer. I've got books to read, opinions to express, a best friend to share life with, a family that may need me, and a finite amount of time. I'll be reviewing more than ever and actually have the time to write more than once a week! And speaking of books, here's what I've been working on lately.

It seems that Library Journal now sees me as their "go to" person for all things Africa. In quick succession I've read and reviewed Khaled Hosseini's four-star novel And the Mountains Echoed. Here's the review which was posted at the Barnes and Noble website:
Library Journal
This bittersweet family saga spans six decades and transports readers from Afghanistan to France, Greece, and the United States. Hosseini (The Kite Runner; A Thousand Splendid Suns) weaves a gorgeous tapestry of disparate characters joined by threads of blood and fate. Siblings Pari and Abdullah are cruelly separated at childhood. A disfigured young woman, Thalia is abandoned by her mother and learns to love herself under the tutelage of a surrogate. Markos, a doctor who travels the world healing strangers, avoids his sick mother back home. A feminist poet, Nila Wahdatire, reinvents herself through an artful magazine interview, and Nabi, who is burdened by a past deed, leaves a letter of explanation. Each character tells his or her version of the same story of selfishness and selflessness, acceptance and forgiveness, but most important, of love in all its complex iterations. VERDICT In this uplifting and deeply satisfying book, Hosseini displays an optimism not so obvious in his previous works. Readers will be clamoring for it. [See Prepub Alert, 11/04/12.]—Sally Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Estero, FL

My review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's knockout novel Americanah will be published in the next edition of Library Journal. I also just submitted a review of a debut by a young woman gorgeously named NoViolet Bulawayo. Look for We Need New Names next month. This week I'm starting When Hoopoes go to Heaven by Gaile Parkin. So you see, I'm no slacker! I'll work hard to keep your interest and maybe even come back with some tips from the Book Bloggers' Convention at Book Expo next month in New York City. Stay with me!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Why Does War Result in Such Great Literature?

It's a tragic commentary but oh, so true. There has been some outstanding literature born of war, particularly now that the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are winding down. Must reads are The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by National Book Critics Circle winner Ben Fountain. Yesterday, here at the library, I led a heartfelt discussion of another novel about Afghanistan, The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya.

What's unique about this novel is that the author, unlike Powers and Fountain, is not and never was a soldier. And yet, each character's voice is so authentic, so right on, that one of the members of our group asked if he had been embedded with a squadron. He had not. Bhattacharya is a philosopher. How perfect is that?

As I prepped for the discussion I listened to a lengthy interview with the author and took notes. I also read the book twice, once for the initial impression and again for note taking and comprehension, where I invariably discover how much I missed the first time!

As befitting a philosopher, The Watch was written as a Greek tragedy, specifically, Antigone. After a prolonged firefight with casualties on both sides, a young woman waving a white flag, appears out of the mountainous terrain pushing herself on a homemade cart. The soldiers in the redoubt, kids really, aged 18 to 19, are initially terrified, suspecting a suicide bomber, then appalled, and finally somewhat empathetic to Nazim's request for her dead brother's body which she wants to bury according to her Pashtun custom.

But her brother's body is being held as a political tool by those in command, to be sent back to Kabul, to be photographed and displayed as evidence that the war is working, that the Taliban is falling to the might of the Americans and Nazim's continued presence in the killing fields becomes an uncomfortable reality to the Captain in charge.

Bhattacharya beautifully captures the palpable fear and boredom of the troops as they wait for a decision to be made about the young woman before another Taliban attack. Their youth, naivete, and false bravado jump off the pages as each soldier relates his perspective of the forty-eight hour period after Nazim's arrival. They speak of honor, the soldier's code, the chain of command, even as their hearts tell them they are on a fool's errand.

This novel is another remarkable addition to the growing body of work, poignant, angry, resigned, and sarcastic, that is coming from a new generation of writers using our country's endless wars to produce great literature. I'll leave it to you to decide if the end justifies the means.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Two Strong Women - Fiction and Non

I'm reading two books simultaneously - well, actually four but who's counting? What struck me about these two specific books is the wonderful, powerful, brave women and their stories.

Sonia Sotomayor's My Beloved World is a fabulous listen, read by a sultry Rita Moreno, a fellow Puerto Rican whose accent enhances the many times in the book when Sotomayor resorts to her native language. Sotomayor's story, by her own admission, is an inspiring Horatio Alger gem that should be pushed by teachers upon their Latino students who may think that a college education and a way up and out is not available to them.

Sotomayor is surprisingly blunt about the deprivations of her childhood in the Bronx projects. Though her parents were incredibly hard working, her dad had a severe addiction to alcohol which created a war zone at home between her folks and pushed him into an early death, leaving Sonia's mother to raise two kids under the age of ten.

Education was the be all and end all in Sonia's home. Her mother understood that it was through schooling that her children would persevere. Their Catholic education gave them the tools to study hard and but their innate brains and work ethic would not have gotten them to the Ivy League (Princeton was her choice) without affirmative action. The author shows us why she was the president's perfect choice for the position on the Supreme Court as she explains her mixed feelings about being a quota minority at a school steeped in white entitlement.

Her memoir is beautifully written, personal and very funny. Ms. Sotomayor has a great sense of humor and an admirable perception of self. When she wrote of her college interviews at Radcliffe and Yale I found myself laughing out loud. (she was accepted by both) I sensed that she'd have been great fun to hang out with, discussing the woes of the world late into the night. I also got the feeling that if anyone can solve some of them, she will.

I thought I was over my fascination with all things World War II, but since my niece has expressed an interest in some of my dad's memorabilia from his time as a bomber pilot in England, it seems to be on my mind once again. What I'm constantly asking myself is what deep well of courage did these folks tap in order to work for the resistance? I wonder if I'd have that kind of moxie.

Simon Mawer's heroine in his new novel Trapeze seems to have it in spades. Though barely out of school, Marian Sutro jumps at the chance to get out from under the watchful eyes of her parents and her big brother Ned. Because of her facility with languages, particularly French, she is hand picked by Specials Operations in London to train as an agent and in 1943 she parachutes from an airplane over France.

Mastering the ability to adopt new identities, multiple life stories, and assimilate with the French resistance fighters in the countryside, Marian faces blatant sexism among the male rank and file who don't believe that a "girl" can help them. It's amazing to watch her mature, hone her judgement, and learn the nuances of the spy trade with such agility. Mawer does an exemplary job of telling the story from Marian's point of view, her internal self-talk is a window into her thinking.

 Of course, there is also a love story. Can any World War II novel be complete without one? Marian was crazy in love with her brother's best friend when they were all growing up together, but life is whimsical and they've drifted apart. Now Pierre, a scientist of atomic theory who's been living in France for years, is wanted back in England for a special project and Marian's handlers see her as the  the perfect lure.

Suspenseful and thought provoking, this novel about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events tweaked my curiosity about Mawer and I'll be looking into another one of his lengthy list of writings soon. Never heard of him? Here you go:

Monday, April 1, 2013

James Salter - Tomorrow!

For as long as I've been reading interviews with authors the name James Salter has been mentioned as one of America's greats. Why then, don't we have enough of his books in our very large library system? It's an embarrassment. I tried to get his most famous novel, A Sport and A Pastime, a few years ago and actually had to put in a purchase request to have it added to the collection. Is it any wonder I worry about retiring?

I had the opportunity to read All That Is, the much anticipated novel that will be out tomorrow around the country, and was knocked out by the concise, lovely prose. Perhaps I'm drawn to Salter because of the connection I sense that he has with my dad with whom he's a contemporary. Salter had a long career in the Air Force before his success as a full time writer and actually crash landed into a house in my hometown, Great Barrington, Massachusetts, while training back in the '40's. Apparently that story is recalled in his memoir (which we also don't own in my library system) Burning the Days.

I don't believe that I'm the only one who will be clamoring for Salter's previous books after reading All That Is. Ironically, if this had been written by a woman it would be dismissed as "women's fiction." It is an unabashedly romantic novel, the story of one man, Philip Bowman, and his yearning for fulfillment through love. It's also a marvelous look at the publishing industry in its heyday as Bowman is a very successful editor, living an enviable life of travel and hobnobbing with the literary greats of the 20th century.

Armchair travelers will thrill to Salter's detailed descriptions of London, Paris and the great cities of Spain. Still, the biggest surprise to me was his perfectly realized, sensuous but never prurient, scenes of lovemaking. Salter obviously adores women, the female body, and the way it works. Philip falls deeply in love at various times in his life and is such an attentive lover and friend that one wonders why his affairs seem destined to fail. I cared so much for him that I took it personally yesterday when I read of one particularly devious betrayal.

This relatively short novel, 297 pages, teems with life and is a joy to read. His style has been compared to Hemingway's but I find it much more satisfying. Sentences beg to be read aloud and shared. If you've never heard of or read James Salter, do run out and place this book on hold. It could be his last.