Thursday, June 27, 2013

War and Remembrance

No, I haven't just reread Herman Wouk's classic novel, though I loved it when I did, thirty-some years ago. Rather I am writing about a more personal remembrance of World War II.

When Don and I realized that we would be going to Cambridge, England, to visit with his grandson, I floated the idea of driving out into the countryside to the old RAF airfield where my dad was stationed when he was a B-24 pilot during World War II. The name of the village is Tibenham and, even as we asked directions, it seemed clear that no one had heard of it except me.

Don bravely offered to drive - a harrowing experience but one he undertook on my behalf, As we got farther and farther out into the countryside I began to doubt myself. If I hadn't been to the website of the Norfolk Gliding Club, I would have been sure that my dad had been telling tales.

In one of the tiniest villages I've ever seen by car, on a road with scarcely room for one mini-cooper, a woman was walking her horse. She graciously directed us to the airfield and there it was - an old, grassed over airstrip where the 445th bomb group ran thousands of sorties over Germany from 1943 to 1945.
Two delightful elderly gentlemen, well, yes, perhaps our age or a bit older, were working on a glider behind a building so we walked over to chat them up. Their gracious hospitality all that I'd read to expect and more.  The younger man was a six year old when the American "flyboys" were stationed in his village. All he remembers of those time is chocolates. The older man, Dave, I suspect, had lived through a different memory.
He showed us the old hangars, still intact, and drove with us to the clubhouse where the memorabilia, library, and maps of the old airfield remain for those, like me, who make pilgrimages to honor the memory of these young men who left college mid-stream as my dad did, or who came over as gunners, mechanics, or radio operators to fight the scourge of Nazi oppression.
It's a mind boggling experience to stand on this ground and imagine my dad, who always struck me as a rather conciliatory, don't rock the boat kind of guy, as a twenty year old, already awarded a pair of wings and the control of a B-24 aptly named The Liberator. I can't fathom the kind of courage it took to step into that cockpit, fly to Germany and return, not once but twenty-five times.
I wondered if his spirit somehow lived on in that space and if he knew or sensed that I was there with Don, a fellow pilot, with Don's grandson, a young man of twenty-three who may or may not feel the pall of history that had settled on this place. It was a day of war and remembrance, not for reading but for feeling. Now we're on our way to Brussels and I may have some time to get back to my books. I'll keep you posted. Thanks for bearing with me through this sentimental journey.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wally Lamb on Letting go of the Past

I wrote  previously that I had the pleasure of hearing Wally Lamb speak about his jumbo sized new novel, We Are Water, at Book Expo in New York. I couldn't wait to dive into it and really, really wanted to LOVE it so that I could send my review to Harper Collins. If you're familiar with his writing you'll know that he's at his best when delving into families, what makes them tick, how they interact, what they keep from one another and what they share. We Are Water has all of that and more. What it lacks, I'm sorry to say, is a tougher editor!

The novel unfolds as the artist, Annie Oh, famous for her dark, angry collages made from street junk and garbage can rejects, sits on her fiancée's bed pondering the choice of pricey Vera Wang gowns that have been selected for her to choose from, by her agent, friend, lover, and future wife, Viveca. Annie's doubts about the pending nuptials seem deep and foreboding, her mind constantly dredging up old injuries from the past, her failed 30 year marriage, her three very different children, even her embarrassment at Viveca's over-the-top excess as she plans and pays for every extravagance for their wedding day. And then Mr. Lamb hits rewind.

Back in the early '60's in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, a damn above the village burst one evening during a storm. The powerful river ripped through town taking all in its path. From the events of that night, Mr. Lamb has created a family saga that spans fifty years, testing our intuition and ability to discern truth from lie, or false memory from reality. In the tragic aftermath of nature's fury, Annie begins her treacherous path toward adulthood, her mother and sister drowned, her father lost to her by guilt and booze.

Meeting and marrying Orion, a gentle, patient psychologist, should have been the answer to all her prayers but the secrets she's kept from him and his unwillingness to prod or push, will, over the life of their marriage, suffuse Annie with a rage that's inexplicable to her children and unseen by her overworked man, it's only safe release to be found in the basement where she creates her art.

Families are complicated I've always said. Ironically, I was reading this book while in Ohio visiting my brother and his wife. I've often bemoaned to them my regret that we hadn't really known each other in a deeper way while we were maturing, becoming grownups. Our lives took such varying turns, theirs wrapped around their large family, mine trying to recreate myself as a single woman with a career, my sister searching for her niche, all of us in far flung states. Now, as we head into our senior years, we are reaching for each other again but memory, ah, that fickle state of reminiscing, plays havoc with us.

So, too, in Lamb's novel, does memory and the suppression thereof, play a huge role in the damaged lives of the family Oh. It seems so simple when one is on the outside, looking in, to see the mistakes as they're being made, but honestly, how do we know what we'd do in similar circumstances?

Wally Lamb's novel is full of every conceivable politically correct situation. Aside from the gay wedding, Lamb delves into religion in all its over the top, born again iterations, balanced by a deeper look at mature faith born of trials, as well as no faith at all, just innate goodness unprovoked by clerics. Child sexual abuse and its devastating aftermath are front and center, along with the physical and emotional trauma of war.

So how is it that a writer of such sensitivity and nuance failed so miserably in his handling of racial issues? I was deeply disappointed in Mr. Lamb's one dimensional portrayal of the black family that worked for Viveca and accompanied Annie to her wedding. In 2010 there are few, if any, middle class black families who speak as if they were characters in The Wind Done Gone. Dis, dat, dese and dose? Really?
This patois was especially surprising and offensive because the other main character in this book, Josephus Jones, was an unschooled artist whose unusual, disturbing work plays a major role in the story, as does his unsolved murder on the night of the flood.

This may seem like a small complaint in the overall scheme of things and, perhaps it is. I liked this book, I really did. I cared about the Oh family, Orion and Annie, Andrew and his veteran patients, Marissa and her Hollywood dreams, Ariane and her soup kitchen. I just have this sneaking suspicion that everything was just too pat, a tad too clichéd. Tell me what you think. I know you're out there readers!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Good House is Very Good

Hildy Good is a drunk, a functioning alcoholic, until she isn't, functioning that is. Hildy is also  a lifelong denizen of Wendover, Massachusetts, and a highly successful real estate broker who thinks that she's hiding her drinking problem from her friends and family. She's also a ton of fun to spend time with, a witty, insightful woman who can tell you more about people after spending ten minutes in their homes than a shrink could do in a month of sessions. And there's the rub.

Normally, someone like me, who grew up in a family that drank too much and then married an alcoholic, would stay far away from the volatility of such an addictive personality. To Leary's credit as a writer, and now I'll want to go back and read more of her work, she presents Hildy as a fully rounded, complex, interesting character, one whose interior monologue is so revealing of the way that a person can talk himself into and out of the truth in the time that it takes to pour another glass of wine.

Ms. Leary adeptly captures the agony and the ecstasy of small town life, the way your neighbors know everything about you, your parents, your grandparents, and on down the line ad infinitum, until you just want to scream. Privacy is non-existent as Hildy learns when she enters Hazeldon following an intervention by her daughters. Returning to Wendover, she senses that the whole town knows where she's been. Friends can no longer meet her eye when they see her on the street, social invitations fall off, fellow members of AA ask how she's doing and the question is loaded with nuance. Oh, how she hates their assumption that she may not be quite sober.

She actually convinced me that she was coping until she sold the mansion on the hill to Rebecca and Brian McAllister. Outsiders with money are not warmly welcomed to small towns like Wendover. The other young moms resent Rebecca, her family money and her fragile beauty. They couldn't see what Hildy could, the lonely, slightly off kilter woman who became obsessed with her psychiatrist and immersed in an affair that can have only one outcome.

When Hildy becomes Rebecca's sounding board and drinking buddy the plot got more complicated and my stomach began to twist into knots. Whose truth is true? When does perception become reality? Can Frank, the man who's been half in love with Hildy since high school, save her from her own worst self? Does she even want him to?

The Good House is a novel that you can blow through in one sitting, but days after I put it aside I'm still thinking about Hildy, Frank, Rebecca and the lust for life that they represent. The caliber of Ann Leary's writing raises this book way above the level of your normal soap opera about flawed characters, a la Danielle Steel or Nicholas Sparks. It might make you uncomfortable but why not give it a try.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy

I've been half in love with Nora Ephron for many years now, even more so after reading I Feel Bad About My Neck. There's nothing like a book that causes you to flat out guffaw! I remember specifically that I was on the balcony of a cruise ship, doubled over with laughter. Later in the evening when we emerged from our room, the woman next door asked me what I was reading. It was one of those moments like the classic restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. She wanted what I was having.

I had read quite a bit of the back story related to Ms. Ephron's well received stage play about the journalist Mike McAlary but I really didn't know what to expect. The cost of a Broadway play nowadays is almost prohibitive and yet, sure enough, the matinee last Saturday was sold out, as was every other performance. And so, being the worrywart that I am, I figured the record sales could be attributed to the fact that a big time movie star, Tom Hanks, had the starring role.

What a joy to tell you that this play was formidably powerful beyond all my expectations and not simply because of Tom Hanks. No, it was the entire ensemble cast that worked seamlessly with each other. No egos were seen on stage. In fact, one of the most gripping performances can be credited to a five minute appearance by Stephen Tyrone Williams as Abner Louima, the young man who was beaten and sodomized by New York City's "finest" back in 1997.

Though McAlary had been ill and the victim of his own hubris in an ongoing battle for money, bouncing between The New York Daily News and The New York Post, though his reputation had been damaged by an article he'd written about a rape that didn't happen, he somehow had the courage to return to the fray, to interview Mr. Louima, to believe the victim, and to write the articles that busted the corruption within the New York police force wide open. He garnered a Pulitzer for his efforts.

Ms. Ephron's paean to the days when journalists were hard drinking, hard hitting idealists (though terribly lacking in a female presence)  is equally long on humor and drama and it moves at a lightning pace. The staging, I'm not sure who gets credit for it, was phenomenal and dramatic. Using several large screens for a backdrop, playgoers were pulled into the reality of every incident with actual video of interviews with the police commissioner and other players and politicians.

And, of course, as we now all know, this play was Ms. Ephron's last piece of work, written as she was facing her own death. I couldn't help but wonder what she was thinking as she wrote the scenes of McAlary's final days and untimely death at the age of 41. Was it cathartic?

I'll tell you, not all the critics agree with me on this, though they're willing to give Hanks his props. I loved this show and the audience agreed. The standing ovation was spontaneous, not forced, and even the actors seemed taken aback by all the love sent their way. I've snoozed through way too many plays. Lucky Guy had me on the edge of my seat. Thank you Nora and crew.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Dinner from Hell

Big thank you to friends Kathy Babcock and Linda Holland for encouraging me to go ahead and read this absolutely bizarre novel, The Dinner, by Herman Koch, no matter what the New York Times had to say about it.
This book may be controversial but it grabs your attention from the first page and doesn't for a minute let you go. I've read that it's being compared to Gone Girl which I find laughable. The quality of the writing in Gillian Flynn's book was mediocre at best and her characters were simply not believable.

Now, in The Dinner, the characters may be despicable but they are fabulously drawn, realistic in their anger and evil, and even understandable to a degree that brave book groups could explore. How far would you go to protect your child from a prison sentence? Motivation? You betcha. How many parents do you know right now who would deny that their child could deliberately perpetrate an act of unwarranted violence? Why is bullying a national obsession? Are mental health illnesses more prevalent or just more out in the open? Can a person diagnosed with a mental health issue that might make him prone to violent behavior justify going off his meds?

All these questions and more are there for discussion. Koch challenges readers in a way that few authors have the courage to do. He forces one to ruminate on the darkest angels of our natures rather than on the best. Admittedly, it's an uncomfortable place to be, much like going to a NASCAR race and secretly hoping to see a smash up.

The story takes place over the span of a few hours in an upscale restaurant in Holland to which the future prime minister has summoned his brother and sister-in-law and where they are to discuss an incident that took place between their two teen aged sons. As the meal progresses from appetizers to main course to dessert so does the conversation escalate accordingly from whispers to tears to tirades. When the back story reveals itself the reader must contend with having all his presuppositions upended and, as horrifying as it is, we must give credit where it is due.

Perhaps this isn't a novel one can say they "like," but it is a novel that forces you to sit up and take notice of a major literary talent. Herman Koch has accomplished an amazing feat. He forced this reviewer to fear her own reactions. Read it? Let me know what you think.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Famous and their Public

I often jokingly refer to myself, while writing about books and authors, as an author stalker. Naturally I hope that those who read my posts and "hear" my voice will understand that I'm trying to add a bit of humor here and that I won't ever be found in a police precinct for getting too familiar with a writer. Yet I do wonder just what a well-known public figure owes to his fans and constituents, if you will, when he or she appears at a gathering renowned for its up close and personal contact.

While attending various forums at Book Expo America this week, I joined thousands of book/author groupies at small, intimate gatherings on the show floor where authors agreed to answer questions from a moderator and then open the floor to questions from the audience. My friend Maryellen and I just happened upon one of these events and were thrilled to see that three of the four authors on this particular panel had attended previous Southwest Florida Reading Festivals. David Baldacci, Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, my favorite literary crime novelist, were being interviewed by attorney and author Marcia Clark. Scott Turow was the other member on the team.

Pelecanos graciously gave Ms. Clark a shout out for her latest legal thriller which I'll be running out to get based on his recommendation. He also introduced her to the audience because she had, in an unexpected bit of humility, failed to introduce herself. Kudos to George!

At the end of the presentation we waited in line for a quick conversation with Michael Connelly about whom we felt a certain je ne sais quoi. Maryellen had invited him to one of our very first festivals almost fifteen years ago when he was still a fledgling novelist and we've taken personal pride in his remarkable success and rise up the ladder. How disappointing to see that fame had definitely jaded Mr. Connelly to the point where he seemed not to remember our festival (which I could  understand) but didn't even know Lee County, less than 100 miles south of his home. That stung. No eye contact, no warmth, just wandering eyes that seemed to say, "get me out of here."

But don't despair. On the other side of that coin was Wally Lamb. A famous writer too but the difference? Comfortable in his own skin. He was in the unenviable position of following to the podium the child soldier Ismael Beah and historian extraordinaire, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Wally Lamb knocked it out of the ball park with his speech, amazingly humorous for a man of such deep, brooding work. His new book We Are Water, based upon a racial incident that actually happened in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, was there for every one of us who attended this breakfast meeting and, though it's being billed as his darkest one yet, or maybe because of that, I'll be starting it any day now.

How serendipitous that, later in the day, Maryellen and I were strolling through the convention center  when who should we see walking our way, minus an entourage? You got it, Wally Lamb, cradling a bagel in one hand and balancing his coffee in the other, making eye contact that said, "engage me." We introduced ourselves as librarians. I thanked him for his powerful work, for continuing to write, for making me cry. He was gracious and kind, asking us about ourselves, where we're from, how we're enjoying the event. We spoke for maybe five minutes but never did he give us the impression that he'd rather be anywhere else but with us, in a hallway, at that moment in time.

And what a delight to see Doris Kearns Goodwin stretched out on the floor of the stage reaching for her fans' books to sign, conversing with each as if he or she was the only person in the room. Now that's a class act!