Thursday, September 26, 2013

Howard Zinn, Another Firebrand

Hot on the heels of my post about Taylor Branch comes this one about the often maligned, though not by anyone whose opinion I'd respect, Howard Zinn. It happens that I've been listening to the latest version of his 1980 classic, The People's History of the United States. I've been familiar with this book for many years but had never read it start to finish, just knew much of what it was about.

In the latest iteration of the book, Mr. Zinn reads the introduction and summarizes the highlights of his first history, now required reading in many schools around the country. Then the actor Matt Damon reads the body of the work which begins with the 1950's and the long, tragic story of the United States' entry into the Vietnam quagmire. He does a great job, never bringing his own bias to bear on the reading, simply giving us plain, simple, indisputable facts.

From Vietnam we graduate to black power, the women's movement, labor unrest around the county, Caesar Chavez and the agricultural workers' plea for better wages and working conditions, and on through the good, the bad and the ugly about our nation as it continues its attempt at becoming a democracy that is truly about "liberty and justice for all."

Throughout Mr. Zinn's long career as an historian, author, and teacher, he has been vilified for what some would call an anti-American frame of mind. He scolds us for turning Christopher Columbus into a hero, reminding readers of the devastation wrought upon the native peoples, their land and culture. Though an Army Air Corps veteran and a bombardier during World War II, Mr. Zinn decries the holocaust that was the result of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

His largest concern has always been the rewriting of history to suit our image of ourselves as purveyors of "truth, justice, and the American way." But it's not us, the people, that he takes to task. Rather, it's the politicians responsible for the lies, back door dealings, money grabbing, and hubris that have brought the United States to its knees so often (and may do again next week). He reminds us that, when less than fifty percent of the citizens of our country are exercising their right to vote, it's difficult to know who to blame for those who supposedly represent us.

After visiting Mr. Zinn's website I was gratified to see so many tributes (Mr. Zinn died in 2010) from around the world and was especially touched by Bob Herbert's New York Times editorial and Bill Moyers' video essay on PBS.

So, I promised to leave the dark side for awhile and read a few more upbeat books. How am I doing? Uh, huh, that's a joke. I've just finished Ishmael Beah's  Radiance of Tomorrow which I'll be reviewing for Library Journal but, as I pondered what I wanted to say, I realized that I'd simply have to go back and look through his memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, in order to get the full impact of the debut novel.

I'm almost finished with Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland and have Alice McDermott's Someone on my nook for the ride back to Florida. How about you folks? Come on, what have you read lately?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Taylor Branch, Man on Fire!

Yesterday Don and I went to the Library of Congress Book Festival and had the distinct honor of attending a talk by the Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch. I have been recommending him for years to my cohorts at the Lee County Reading Festival since our non-fiction authors seem to draw such great crowds but, so far, no one has taken me up on it.

Now I realize that maybe it's just as well. I surmise that the Lee County Florida audiences would run for the doors in the face of his fire and brimstone cry for better cooperation and understanding of the subtle, still powerful racism that is the undercurrent of our inability to accomplish anything in Congress and the Senate these days.

Mr. Branch's passion for his subject, the result of his life's work, practically brought the tent poles down. He didn't need a microphone and the young woman charged with translating his words into sign language was practically out of breath. Mr. Branch became so overwrought by the injustice of the world that his face turned a deep, unhealthy red and I worried that he might fall out right in front of us. I'd guesstimate that close to 600 people gave him the longest standing ovation of the day was obvious that he was preaching to the choir.

The Pulitzer was awarded for his three volume definitive study of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most thorough history lesson that I've ever had in all my years of schooling. America in the King Years covers the timeframe of 1954 to 1968 and it is the most vibrant, fascinating and horrifying look at the birth of the civil rights movement and its aftermath that you will ever read.

You will never see the Kennedy family and the myth of Camelot in the same way again. You will learn to have a healthy fear of your government, the FBI, the attorneys general and all the others who you would like to believe have your best interests at heart. You will despair at the inhumanity of man for his fellow man. But, you will know the truth and no longer be easily susceptible to the rewriting of history that our kids and grandkids are subject to.

When I closed the pages on At Canaan's Edge, the final book in the trilogy, I opined that it should be required reading for every high school student in the country. Apparently others agreed but didn't think that most kids, or their teachers for that matter, would have the time or inclination to steep themselves in the more than 1500 pages. So Mr. Branch and some professors at the University of Maryland came up with a way to distill the finest nuggets into a classic text that could go down a little easier with the masses. The result is The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement, now available at your favorite bookstore or library.

You might wonder how this middle aged white man from Atlanta, Georgia, with the coveted degree from Chapel Hill, came to be such a powerful spokesperson for civil rights in America. He honestly couldn't explain it himself, except to point to the Birmingham church bombings which he saw on TV at the impressionable age of sixteen. I believe that there are just some people who are born with a more honed sense of world in which they live and the drive and wherewithal to do or say something significant about what they see and what they'd like to change. Taylor Branch is one of those people and we readers are the better for it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep, A Great Match

I've been reading novel after novel that takes me to the dark side of the soul and needed a pick me up. What better than the newest audio version of Nora Ephron's classic Heartburn as read and interpreted by Meryl Streep. Oh, what a great, though wry, laugh. Kept me walking for hours!

OK, I'm sure that anyone who's ever been through a divorce believes that theirs was truly the worst, most heartbreaking, awful time there ever was. And when you're in the middle of it that may be true.  But most of us will reminisce and come to the conclusion that it was probably the best thing we ever did. No regrets, no recrimination, lessons learned.

But imagine if you will, that you're Nora, with a baby boy in diapers, seven months pregnant with her second, when the gossip swirling around Washington as to whom a certain woman has been having an affair with, comes right home to Nora's front door. D.C. is a very small town for a capitol city, and unless you're not in the LEAST political, you'll know that this Ephron novel was based not so loosely on the collapse of her marriage to political reporter and Watergate hero, Carl Bernstein.

If you've been there, you know the feeling. Anger doesn't even begin to surface until later, it's more the idea of being made to look a fool, every story - read lie - that you believed, every run, as Nora says, out for a pair of socks, every hint that you didn't pick up on, every trip out of town, every nuance of your relationship now has to be parsed in a completely different way. There's only one way through it and it relies on a heavy dose of friends and a huge helping of humor. Food and wine are always good.

There are many hilarious scenes but a few stand out. One of them involves Nora following Carl, known in the book as Mark, after he has promised never to see the despised woman Thelma again. Nora has just discovered that Mark recently purchased a ferociously expensive necklace from their favorite jeweler (who had "accidentally" spilled the beans) and she had not been the recipient.

 She arrives at Thelma's house, sneaks around the side to peer into a curtained window, trips over a wire and falls right on top of Thelma's husband who is also spying on the errant couple with an illegal wiretap set-up. Oh yes, this man was in an elevated position within our government. Will they never learn?

Nora Ephron's ability to write such real scenes, such honest human emotions, is a talent I envy. Her more recent books, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I Remember Nothing, have given me great pleasure. And then, of course, there's the screenplays, When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, proof positive that Ms. Ephron never lost her belief in love and romance.

 How did she do it? I'd guess it's the innate ability to take the most difficult circumstances that life can throw at you and turn them into humor. As long as we can be the butt of our own jokes, get the story out first and our way, we can assuage the anger, heartbreak, and disappointment inside. It also doesn't hurt to keep that old adage close to heart, "Living well is the best revenge."

Monday, September 16, 2013

Rachel Joyce's Sequel to Harold Fry is, well, Perfect!

Readers who have been following this blog for a while may remember that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was at the top of my favorites list last year. In fact, I'll be leading the book discussion of Rachel Joyce's debut novel at the South County library next winter. So naturally, when I read that she had a new novel coming out in January - yes, sorry, you'll have to wait until 2014 - I immediately asked for a copy from the good folks at Net Galley.

Harold was one of the first characters to make me cry in a long, long time. Diana Hemmings, the tragic figure in Perfect, didn't make me sob out loud but she tore my heart out just the same. In fact, the basic similarity between Ms. Joyce's first and second novels is that they are both peopled with such lost and lonely souls desperately in need of connection.

The other day I read an article in the New York Times about the president of Barnard College in which she discusses the downside of the feminist revolution, the fact that we gals now seem forced to seek perfection in everything we do. Having it all means being the perfect employee, manager, mom, wife, etc. Under that kind of enormous pressure, something's got to give. I though of Diana Hemmings right away.

Rachel Joyce has created in Diana such a fragile creature that I actually got sympathy knots in my stomach when her husband Sylvester got off the train each Friday afternoon at precisely the same time. The children who, during the week while daddy is away on business, laugh, play, and dwell happily in their imaginations, become silent, sullen, and nervous the second he gets in the car.

Though she's dressed with caution, not a hair out of place, Sylvester's favorite style includes a pencil skirt, modestly heeled shoes and a demure silk blouse, Diana can do nothing right under his cold scrutiny. Why, we might wonder, would she live like this, even keeping in mind that it is only 1972?

 Is it the lovely home on the English moors, the freedom from financial worries, or the new Jaguar sitting in the garage? Painfully, slowly, Ms. Joyce metes out the information to her readers so that we get to know the other Di, the one who was less than "perfect.".

The narrator is Diana's precocious son Byron, an eleven year old boy who's as sensitive and bright as his mother, and one who worries about everything. In fact, it is one of these big worries, that the international clock at Greenwich will lose two seconds during the course of the year, that is the catalyst for a split-second accident that will reverberate through the lives of all the characters down to current times.

This novel involves two stories told in alternating chapters that don't seem to correlate at all when you begin reading. Do stay with it. When it all makes sense, I hope that you'll be as shocked as I was.
The author has an exquisite way with words, a deep empathy for the human condition, and amazing insight into the mysteries of the heart. A wonderful read indeed.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sweet Affirmation! Times Two

Just a few weeks ago I used this platform to bemoan the fact that, as a reviewer, I often question myself. So it was with trepidation that I looked at last weekend's cover review in the New York Times of Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus, a novel that I've mentioned, I found to be indecipherable. What, I kept asking, was the author really trying to say?

The Times review was written by none other than the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates. Of course, writers like Oates are not limited to 225 words, so I jumped right to the last paragraph of the three page spread and found that, in much kinder words, Ms. Oates asked the same question I had, what the hell is this author really trying to say? Ya gotta love it.

I was so thrilled to read that another novel, one that I really loved and wanted to tell you about, has just been added to the short list for the prestigious Booker Prize. Such validations are absolutely necessary for a reviewer - at least for this one. I couldn't keep going if I didn't feel that I got it right way more often than I got it wrong. Who would trust me?

Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo's first novel, We Need New Names, is the Booker nominee that I'm talking about.

We Need New Names

Snap up a copy as soon as you can so that you, too, can be on the inside track when the awards are announced next month. Here's the review I wrote before I was assured that it would be a hit.

Library Journal
Caine Prize-winning Bulawayo's debut novel opens in a Zimbabwean shantytown called Paradise, where life is a daily struggle for sustenance as the regime destroys homes and closes schools. As ten-year-old Darling and her friends roam the streets, turning their quest for food into a game, Darling makes wry observations about her country's social ills that belie her tender age. Given the opportunity to move to Michigan with her aunt Fostalina, Darling faces a different challenge: how to transition from abject poverty to ostentatious excess. With an acute sense of irony, she observes refrigerators stuffed with food even as the women diet rigorously to fit into Victoria's Secret underwear and the dog whose room is larger than most homes in Zimbabwe. In a poignant scene, Darling sniffs at a guava and is transported to her homeland. VERDICT As Bulawayo effortlessly captures the innate loneliness of those who trade the comfort of their own land for the opportunities of another, Darling emerges as the freshest voice yet to spring from the fertile imaginations of talented young writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dinaw Mengestu, who explore the African diaspora in America. [See Prepub Alert, 11/19/12.]—

Monday, September 9, 2013

Surveillance and Flanery's Fallen Land

Mea culpas to my readers as I've been offline for over a week. Facebook aficionados will know my whole life story even though I didn't post a word! My sister was here in Maryland for a visit and we then proceeded to drive to Erie, Pa. for my nephew's wedding. The entire family had a fantastic Labor Day weekend and things went off without a hitch. How lovely to see the little ones, growing faster than is even comprehensible. Are the twins actually walking already?

On we went to my hometown of Great Barrington, in the Berkshire hills, recently named "best little small town in America" by Smithsonian magazine. What a laugh. This precious town is currently nothing more than an unaffordable bedroom community for New Yorkers. Our old "homestead," barely standing it's so run down, cost my folks around $12,000 when they purchased it back in the '60's. It was considered pretty upscale. It last sold for close to $300.000 to a man who leases it out to students at the local branch of Bard College. Thank goodness my dad can't see his once gorgeous yard now.

So what was I reading while on the road you might wonder. A very disappointing John Le Carre, A Delicate Truth, failed to live up to its hype and, in deference to my Civil War manic sister, I'm struggling through Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals. I'm confident that it will become more interesting once we get to Washington but life in the early days of Seward and Bates, contenders for the seat that Lincoln eventually won, is not exactly heart-stopping reading.

What did knock me out is the one that I couldn't talk about until the review had been published in Library Journal, which it was, in the 9/1 edition that was waiting for me when I got home to Maryland Saturday night. Yes! Keep you eyes out for this one by Patrick Flanery.

 Throughout my reading of this novel, Fallen Land, I could think of nothing else but Edward Snowden. Whether you believe he's a villain or a hero, and of course I would tend to the latter, his revelations about the depth of the spying taking place by the NSA should have come as no surprise to thinking people everywhere. Hoover started it all during the so-called "red scare" of the '50's and it's been insidiously growing since then.

Some little part of me said it was no big deal. You know, if you've got nothing to hide....but the librarian side of me thought, whoa, think of the damage that false or misinformation can do. What if something one writes or says is misinterpreted? Remember when you were a kid and played Telephone? How easily a phrase or sentence can be changed simply by inflection or with deliberate intent.

Here's a copy of my review. Please add this to the top of your "to read" list!

Library Journal
★ 09/01/2013
In compelling prose, Flanery (Absolution) unveils the insidious growth of defense contractor EKK Corporation into a global big brother intent on managing all aspects of people's lives. At the crux of this intense narrative are Paul Krovik, a failed building contractor whose paranoid delusions have alienated his family and left him holed up and armed in a bunker under the house that he considered his masterpiece, and EKK executive Nathaniel, the usurper who now lives with his wife, Julia, and son, Copley, in Paul's former home. Confusing Copley with his own son, Carson, Krovik steals into the house at night in a misguided effort to watch over the lonely boy. But when Copley warns his parents of this strange presence, they fear for his emotional health. Julia turns to former schoolteacher Louise, the granddaughter of sharecroppers, who inherited the land on which Krovik's planned community was built. Burdened with medical bills after her husband's death, and with her home in foreclosure, Louise needs a place to live, and Copley needs an advocate. VERDICT In alternating chapters, Flanery gives every character a nuanced inner voice, allowing the reader to empathize with, if not fully understand, the actions of each. This is a tense, gut-wrenching take on the American dream gone horribly awry.—