Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Elsewhere by Richard Russo

If they were believers, I would say that Barbara (especially her) and Richard Russo, one of my all-time favorite authors, should be canonized. It took me a long time to figure out why Russo felt that he had to pen this memoir, which revolves around his mother, Jean, her emotional instability, and its effects on her son and his wife. I suppose that it was cathartic in a way that spreading her ashes in the waters off Martha's Vineyard was not.

I believe that most of us tend to soften our views of our personal history as we age. I know that I certainly see my mom in a different light now, almost thirty years after her death, than I did as a younger woman. And the book that I might write about her now would be a much more compassionate one than the one I might have written when I was thirty and we were still, it seems, at loggerheads.

Richard Russo lived the burden of being an only child which likely added to his sense of responsibility where his mother was concerned. His father had exited the picture early on because he understood that his wife was - his term - crazy. In fact, she was mentally ill with at least two separate disorders that would be rather easily treated today. In the '40's and '50's what Jean Russo suffered from was "nerves," an affliction that was underestimated and over medicated.

The reviews for this memoir have pretty much been outstanding but, true confessions, I can't say that I enjoyed it all that much. Hoping for a deeper insight into a writer whom I admire so much, whose last novel I glowingly reviewed for Library Journal, I decided to listen to the book because Mr. Russo himself did the narration. What I discovered was that Russo came across as rather peevish. His wife Barbara? A living saint!

What was so striking to this outsider is how blatantly Jean Russo manipulated her son and how he enabled her bad behavior, at first because he was too young to recognize it for what it was, and later, as an adult who should have known better, because he simply didn't have the heart or strength to stand up.
 From the age of five or six, he was told that he was her "rock," the only person she could count on, even though she rented an apartment in her parents' home and relied upon them for financial support to supplement her work at General Electric.

When Richard was eighteen he decided to matriculate in a college in Arizona, so his mother, rather than be left behind, tells Richard that she's taking a job at a GE plant in Phoenix, and proceeds to move across country with him. That initial move sets the precedent that will inform the next forty years of Richard's life, a series of moves with mom and her books in tow. You might say that he's just being a dutiful son but there's something more going on here and you'd have to read the book to understand just how bizarre it becomes.

I have always had an irrational fear of irrationality. I hate family drama of any kind and tend to distance myself more and more as I age because of memories from childhood, not to mention seventeen years in a marriage that never knew a peaceful day. So, listening to Russo's Elsewhere actually began to scrunch my stomach up in knots.

I was so sure that Jean would finally be successful in keeping Richard all to herself, driving Barbara and their two girls away when they couldn't take it any longer. The neediness, the late night phone calls, the demanding expectations and financial help, how could he keep his sanity? How could he teach and continue to write and put out these marvelous novels while still jumping at her every beck and call?

Well folks, of course he did, and the reading public should be mighty grateful. I didn't calm down until the last chapter of the memoir in which Mr. Russo finally began to come to grips with the idea that his mother had plainly been suffering from a disorder for which there is a name and a treatment. It was too late for her but not too late for Russo's daughter who began to exhibit similar symptoms.

So, should you read it? Well, if you love Richard Russo as much as I do, you'll have to - just because. If not, you might take a look at a primer in how not to raise an only child.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reviewing a Nobel Prize Winner - Pressure!

I would guess that I've been reviewing for Library Journal for seven years now but I still consider myself an amateur critic. It took me several months and many angst-filled days to understand what fiction editor Barbara Hoffert first advised me. "Trust yourself as a reader." Whenever I delve into a new book now I think about the reader and the library's collection development folk who are working with less and less funding.

When J. M. Coetzee's newest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, arrived by mail I gulped. Yes, every major library needs to own this book but, five years from now, when staff members are weeding items for lack of use, I worry that this is exactly the kind of book that will end up on a Friends' sale rack.

Coetzee has two Booker Prizes and a Nobel to his name. How am I to deal with that? Can I say that I don't think this novel is going to be a bestseller? Am I allowed to visualize it languishing on the new book shelf, inevitably being passed over for the latest Daniel Silva or John Grisham? Don't I owe it to those librarians juggling their dwindling dollars to be truthful? Will Barbara one day call me up and say, "I can't publish this review."

Well, she hasn't yet and here it is, straight from the Barnes and Noble website where I can always be assured of finding my reviews. By the way, I'm such a devoted book reviewer, that this book accompanied us to Italy and I sent the review from our balcony in Lucca. The ARC, however, was a victim of the luggage purge in the Brussels airport and is now floating around somewhere in Europe. I hope it's pleasing to some of its recipients.

Library Journal
In this puzzling story, a man and a boy arrive by boat at an unknown destination, not unlike New York's Ellis Island, where they are given new names and birth dates. Because the five-year-old, now called David, has been separated from his mother on the boat, Simón takes responsibility for him. In this Spanish-speaking country, David and Simón struggle to adapt. Spare shelter is provided, and Simón finds work as a stevedore hauling sacks of grain. He teaches the precocious David to read using the allegorical story of Don Quixote to explain the worth of both logic and imagination, but when he finds a young woman to mother David, the two tangle regarding how to proceed with the youngster's education. The simplicity of Coetzee's prose belies the complexity of this Orwellian tale about a place where memory is denied, passion neutralized, and life is whittled down to its bare essentials. VERDICT Published in the UK in March to mixed reviews, Nobel Prize laureate and Booker Prize winner Coetzee's latest novel will be highly anticipated in the States. The dystopian themes may attract new readers, and students will have much to discuss, but fans of his more potent novels (e.g., Disgrace) may find this effort disappointingly flat. [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Ft. Myers, FL

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Art Forger - Does Life Imitate Art?

I recently finished listening to B. A. Shapiro's The Art Forger and was pleasantly surprised at this truly satisfying mystery, love story, and instructional exercise in the history of forgeries and how they're accomplished. I was only looking for a title to pass the time while I walk in the morning but I got more than I bargained for. So, the reviewers were right!

In this novel Claire Roth is a woman who's always subsuming her own passions and ambitions for someone else's. Like so many women before her, she was willing to be the muse to a painter who was "blocked." But oh how it must stick in the craw to see someone else bask in the limelight and be declared a genius for the work that you've done. What happens when that woman finally breaks out?

Claire was a good art student but for some reason, she just never stood out from the crowd. Her work was consistent but simply didn't get noticed, so she earned her living working for Reproductions.com, an organization that paid artists to recreate the works of the masters. Claire's particular forte? Degas. So when the renowned gallery owner Aiden Markel arrived at Claire's studio with one of the most famous Degas works, After the Bath, stolen from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner museum years earlier, she was practically orgasmic just being in the same room with the canvas.

The deal that she cuts with Aiden, to copy After the Bath for a buyer, and then return the original to the museum, would make both of them wealthy and secure her a showing of her own work, a privilege she's only dreamed of, at the Markel G studio. And this deal with the devil might have worked gloriously had it not been for two things. Aiden and Claire begin a love affair and Claire realizes, after significant study and reflection, that the "original" Degas that Aiden brought to her is, in fact, a forgery.

As Claire proceeds to copy the Degas, she walks us through the steps that must be followed to assure authentication. It's a fascinating process that involves baking the canvas to attain the crackling effect of old oils and then washing the finished work with yellowing agents that mimic the appearance of aging. Ms. Shapiro adds depth to the story with a secondary plot that involves Isabella Stewart's relationship with Edgar Degas as told through letters from Europe home to her niece in Boston.

The author manages to touch on the legal and moral implications of copying famous works and the fine line, if any, between forging and recreating. But where she really shines  her light is on the assumptions made by experts in the field, authenticators, curators, and experts who should be able to spot a fake a mile away but rather, choose to see what they want to see. This concept really hit home for me when I spotted this article in last week's New York Times:

In the art world there appears to be very little trust among dealers, curators, artists and buyers. After reading this book you'll understand why! Well worth the time and read quite nicely by Xe Sands.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Not so Hidden Costs of War

I'm smack dab in the middle of three novels that are just about as disparate as any three books could be. And yet....they share a common theme which jumped out at me sometime in the middle of the night when those kinds of connections usually do. Each author features characters whose lives have been irrevocably changed by war.

These are not the obvious suspects though, not soldiers in battle, nurses on the front lines, but the everyday, innocent denizens of whichever country happens to be involved at the time. These are the ones who may be completely apolitical, too old or too young to even be aware of the creeping evil about to overtake them. These are the invisible victims, the so-called "collateral damage" of roadside bombings, ethnic or tribal warfare, and partisan divisions. They will break your heart.

Don was reading Alan Furst's novel The Spies of Warsaw, which had been recommended by a lovely woman with whom we'd talked books one evening over wine in Siena. In fact, she had suggested we see the BBC film but Don decided to read the book first. He kept remarking on how realistic it was in terms of the diplomatic life of embassies overseas, before his time, but something he's familiar with.

 I love good espionage - think, John Le Carre - so decided I'd read it too and am so glad that I did. You can't possibly appreciate the choppy film without the back story that the novel provides. A fascinating time in history, we're talking 1937-39, when the rumblings of Hitler's intentions are beginning to waft over to the people in power but haven't yet trickled down to the man on the street.

Sure, we take history in high school and even college but somehow I get so much more from a novel. Poland, Russia, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Belgium, all these countries whose boundaries connect and whose histories are tied up together, are still reeling from the first world war. Still, rumors abound at the French embassy in Warsaw where Colonel Mercier, a wounded veteran of WW I and no fan of another conflict, tries to convince his higher ups in Paris that something is afoot.

Intelligence, counter-intelligence, spies and double spies with just enough very well written sex scenes and an epic love story are all combined in this very well done look at average people caught up in extreme circumstances.

I found a similar situation in Christopher Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins, his latest entry in the historical fiction genre that began with Skeletons at the Feast and moved on to Syria with The Sandcastle Girls. World War II is now in full engagement, the Nazis are making their move into Italy and the Rosati family's Villa Chimera has been confiscated by German soldiers. Events at the villa will affect the family, Francesca, married to the Rosati's pride and joy, Marco, their children, parents, and the youngest daughter, Cristina, for a decade after the end of the war.
In 1955, in Florence, a horrific murder in a shabby apartment not far from the Arno will bring the Rosati women in contact with police investigator Seraphina Bettini, a woman whose own war past has left her deeply scarred psychically and physically. As I begin to surmise the connection between Seraphina and the Rosatis, I can scarcely put this book down even though the mail lady has just delivered two new novels from Library Journal that need my immediate attention.
The first one is simply and powerfully titled Dust. The Kenyan author, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, had me at page one with a compelling and stirring description of a young man in the throes of death. I've researched Kenya's long history of war, first for independence from Britain and then from the corruption and human rights violations of its own leaders. I know that this won't be an easy read but I appreciate that the thread that runs through these three novels is one that we must never grow immune to.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jojo Moyes - How Did I Miss Her?

Thanks to my friend Maryellen for answering my call for a good read. She recommended The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. I'll definitely check it out. But, while I was waiting for all your ideas, I happened to read on one of the blogs I follow that Jojo Moyes has a new novel coming out and that the critics are very excited about it. (The Girl You Left Behind.)

 Wait a minute, I thought, I know that name. Didn't I just buy her last well regarded novel and download it to my nook? Sure enough. Me Before You has been sitting patiently in the electronic netherworld  calling my name and I almost missed one of the best books I've read this summer!

Mull this one over. Do you believe that you could love someone enough to help them die? That's the dilemma Ms. Moyes has conjured up for Louisa Clark, one of the funniest, most sensitive, quirky characters I've spent time with in quite a while. I guess I would call her the Eliza Doolittle of modern literature.
 Her Rex Harrison? Will Traynor, a man injured in a fluke automobile accident, now confined to a wheelchair. A quadriplegic, unable to attend to the simplest bodily functions, Will has to be spoon fed, changed and exercised. He's been given no hope of a recovery and suffers a lonely existence in a private annex of his parents home in a wealthy London enclave.

Louisa lives a short distance but light years away, on the other side of the tracks so to speak, with her own family, broke but unbroken, full of chaos, love, and acceptance. Circumstances are such that Louisa finds herself suddenly the sole support of her folks, her addled grandpa, and her sister and nephew. The job, playing nursemaid to Will from dawn to dusk, carries a salary that would save the Clark family. So what if she has no experience at this kind of thing? She'll be on a trial basis for six months. What could go wrong?

This is where the novel could have devolved into just another predictable love story but, trust me please. It is so much more! I would love to lead a book discussion of Me Before You but it might cut too close to the bone for so many people. Will and Louisa are oil and water from the moment they meet but as the weeks turn into months and the two parry and thrust, adjusting, learning about each other, letting down their guards, their roles reverse and the nurturer becomes the nurtured.

A man and a woman whose lives would never have intersected under normal circumstances are each forced to abandon their prejudices and look beneath the surface for a common thread. A tentative trust is established until Louisa overhears a conversation that explains why she's only been hired on for a six month stint. Will, after a failed suicide attempt, is determined to end his life at a Swiss hospice. His parents have extracted a promise of six more months hoping that, through Louisa,
Will might regain the joy of living.

Jojo Moyes' writing talent is fully on display here as she explores, through Will, the complicated, emotional, and controversial subject of assisted suicide. Who gets to decide when a life is no longer worth living? Can we outsiders judge the motives of family and friends who either support or revile the act of allowing a loved one to die. Is it selfish or selfless to guilt a suffering human being into continuing a life they no longer find tenable?

I would guess that most of us have faced or will be faced with similar questions and decisions at some point in our lives. My own family still agrees to disagree about my father's choice even though the operative word "choice" looms large. Have you written your living will? Made your wishes known?

Moyes has written an exquisite though some may say unrealistic love story. Suspend disbelief. Go with the flow. This beautiful novel is a gift, full of humor, sensitivity and love. Each character is complex and nuanced and deeper than we first give them credit for. In fact, they're just what every reader wants, people we'd like to know.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Florida's Very Dark History, Now in the Light

I was three quarters of the way through Gilbert King's horrifying retelling of the story of the Groveland Boys before I even knew that this book had won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction this past year. I knew one thing though, as difficult as it was to read this previously unknown (to me) history of my beloved state of Florida, I owed it to these four young men and their families to at least bear witness to their suffering and unjust treatment at the hands of the State of Florida. It's not like it's the first time my state supreme court has deeply disappointed me. Sometimes my faith in the innate goodness of man is sorely tested.
I already did know quite a bit about Thurgood Marshall. In fact, he was born here in my adopted state of Maryland and the Baltimore-Washington airport is named for him. This outstanding lawyer, first African American Supreme Court Justice, is the anti-Clarence Thomas, a man who saw injustice and fought it at every turn, even though his life was often on the line. What I didn't realize is that he came oh too close to being lynched right there in the woods of Lake County, Florida, where he was trying a case for four young men who were falsely accused of rape.
King's book about Thurgood Marshall and the four Groveland men is no easy read, let me be clear. My sister and I talked about it when she was about a quarter of the way in and she said she had to give up. She didn't have to tell me what part of the book sent her over the edge. I knew it when I got there.
 Did you know that Florida has the dubious distinction of holding more lynchings in the Jim Crow era than Mississippi and Alabama combined? Members of the Klan served proudly in state and local politics, in police departments, and on juries. But the real devil in the grove was Lake County's long-serving Sheriff, Willis McCall, a man who murdered prisoners in his custody in cold blood and was still elected to serve into the 1970's.
Gilbert King apparently had unfettered access to un-redacted FBI files relating to Hoover's investigation into the goings on in the Florida courts at the behest of Thurgood Marshall who was, at the time, head of the NAACP and a member of the legal defense team that traveled the country looking for court cases that would highlight the injustices still being visited upon blacks.
 The time frame is 1949 to 1954 yet here we are in 2013 and we all know what just happened in Sanford, Florida, only a few miles from where the Groveland men were tried and convicted to die in the electric chair even though there was not a shred of evidence against any of them and certainly no physical evidence of a rape.
King's methodical telling of this travesty of justice is fascinating in its detail and the histories of the judge, lawyers, and other players in this long drawn out case. Marshall and his fellow attorneys could not stay in any hotels in the area of the trial and were forced to find families brave enough to take them in, some of whom suffered greatly for their kindness. Fire bombings were common and lynchings, a given.
 But from the initial trial in Lake County, to the Florida Supreme Court, to the federal Supreme Court level, and then back to Marion County, Marshall spent years in his effort to keep one young man, Walter Irvin, who refused a plea deal to save his own life, from the electric chair. And all this while he was preparing to argue his most famous case, Brown v. Board of Education.
Florida history is not all sunshine and lollipops, seniors having great sex in Boca, Mickey Mouse, and a railroad. Our state was built on the backs of slaves and then, on the backs of supposedly free men who, of course, weren't free at all. In 2013 blacks have been replaced by Hispanics but the story is much the same. Big Sugar and the orange industry may be thriving but their workers are not. The injustices may not be as blatant as Mr. King's book outlines but often subtlety is even harder to fight. You owe it to yourself and to the ones who suffered to at least take a look at this devastating book.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Musings and Questions

I read on the Yahoo homepage today that Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro will be taking the lead roles in a film version of Ann Leary's The Good House, a wonderful book that I wrote about here just a few months ago. The screenplay will be written by none other than Michael Cunningham. Good film alert! Wonder how many years it will take to come to fruition?

What do you do when you have a book so literary, so beautifully written, yet so chock full of thoroughly incomprehensible characters, that you feel disdain for each of them? That was my dilemma with Claire Messud's The Woman Upstairs. Could I walk away? No, I was way beyond the rule of fifty. Like a person driving by an accident and unable to look away, I continued to read to the very bitter end.

The narrator, thirty-something school teacher Nora Eldridge, is at once self-deprecating and self important, giving one the feeling that her humble tone is a pose. She is a woman who believes she deserves more from life than a career, friends, and a home. She needs more experiences, more passion, but rather than look for them herself, she seeks to suck it from the lives of others.

In this case, it's the family Shahid, Reza, the beautiful boy who's in her class at school, his exotic mother, the Italian artist Sirena, and her husband Skandar, a visiting professor at Harvard. Nora feels both envious and resentful of Sirena's good fortune, a home in Paris, this lovely child, a talent that far surpasses Nora's own minimalist attempts at "making art." So when what would appear on the surface to be a deep friendship develops between Nora and the Shahid family, the reader soon wonders, who's using whom? The result is a gorgeously articulated novel about a cadre of folks for whom I sadly, felt nothing. Anyone else have an emotional reaction to this book?

No? How about Susan Isaacs' disappointing Goldberg Variations then? What happened to the kind of literature where you fell half in love with the people in the book? The inside cover advertises this novel as "wickedly witty," but I only found it nasty and mean spirited. Stereotypes abound in this supposed reworking of the King Lear story. Except that in this case, the king is Gloria, a feisty female who actually believes she built a kingdom all by herself. You know, the kind who forgets whose shoulders she climbed on to get to the pinnacle of her fashion profession.

Now, suddenly, she's pushing eighty and, because of an unpleasant falling out with her designated heir, she's got to scramble to find someone who can take over her empire and do it well. There's no one to fall back on but the three grandchildren that she's eschewed for 'lo these many years. She invites Matthew, his sister Daisy and their cousin Raquel to her palatial home in New Mexico for a weekend of testing the waters, hoping that one of them will fill the bill. The kids, though, have other plans.

So, it's not like I haven't been reading as fast as I can, trying to catch up to Maryellen who I'm sure is way ahead in the race for 113 in 2013. But I'm looking for something special. Come on readers. Suggestions? What knocked you out lately? I'm all ears.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Ann Hood Has Done it Again

I first discovered Ann Hood when I read her memoir couched in a novel called The Red Thread. This lovely book spoke to the world of adoptive parents, specifically six sets of adults who for various reasons, had decided to adopt girls from China. Ms. Hood and her husband were one of those couples.

Red TreadBecause I loved this book I was thrilled to see a copy of her new one, The Obituary Writer, sitting on the new book shelf here in my own adopted home, Maryland. The cover art alone would have forced me to pick it up. I was not disappointed.

I've always been fascinated by obituaries. I read them enthusiastically
in every newspaper that I get my hands on. Whether written by the
family or by a professional, an obituary is a constant amazement to me.
What wonderfully interesting people there are out there in the world!
People who have loved, been loved, made a difference in so many lives,
unsung heroes, not just a compilation of dull facts but a once living,
breathing human being whose death has left a void that won't be filled.

So, does one have to have faced a loss, a death if you will, to be able to articulate that loss for others? I believe that Ann Hood asks this question and so much more in the small but heavy novel about a young woman, Vivian, whose great love went missing after the San Francisco earthquake back in 1906. Closure is not possible as David's body is ever discovered and though Vivian's friends try to help her work through her grief, it's a tangible thing that she chooses not to let go of. Rather, she turns to writing obituaries as a way to connect her loss to that of others.

Alternating chapters take us to another woman, Claire, in the heady year 1960. JFK is about to be inaugurated. Hope and change are in the air. (we already know how that works out) Women like Claire, married to men who want an empty head, a peaceful home, and a martini chilling when he strolls in from his hard day at the office, are beginning to awaken to the idea that there might just be something more.

 Claire embarks on a madly passionate affair with Miles, the complete opposite, in every conceivable way, of her own husband, Peter. The results will lead Claire to re-evaluate her upbringing, her own desires for her future and will bring her to a new understanding of her previously unknowable mother-in-law, Birdy.

Ms. Hood makes each woman's story compelling in its own right yet manages to connect the dots between the two in a way that the reader may begin to see. Guessing will not hurt your appreciation of this novel in any way. One intuits that Ms. Hood is no stranger to grief. I happened to remember that her own daughter died of a freak infection over ten years ago and I suspect it's safe to say that this loss informs all of her work. There is a chapter in this novel that will bring you to your knees in it's oh too truthful vision of what it must be like to lose one's child. This is the beauty of Ann Hood's writing and of this quite wondrous novel.