Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jazz, Jesus, and John Brown at Florida Gulf Coast University

Oh how I wish someone had posted a youtube video of the mind boggling concert/reading/come to Jesus gathering that some friends and I attended at the local university Tuesday night. I need a visual for you because my words would be inadequate to express the uplifting nature of the event.

Sadly, there was very little effective publicity about the appearance by author James McBride. In fact, if I hadn't heard about it through the library's grapevine I would have missed it altogether and been the lesser for it. As you know, I met Mr. McBride this summer at the Library of Congress Book Festival where he spoke under a leaking tent during a downpour to about 600 stalwart fans. But his talk that day couldn't hold a candle to the one the other night before a rollicking group of maybe a hundred.

You see, besides being a writer (and current nominee for the National Book Award for The Good Lord Bird), James McBride studied music at Oberlin College and has received a Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award. The man can get down with the sax! He came to Florida Gulf Coast University with his full entourage, an awesomely talented group of men from all over the country, and conducted a moving and powerful combination of book talk and concert.

First and foremost his words were for the students. He talked about failure and how to leave that baggage behind and move on. He talked about differences and learning to embrace them. He spoke of travel, fleeing one's comfort zone, going out on a limb. I tried to find a video that might incorporate the essence of his wise words and this was the most apropos that I could find.

This was the most innovative book talk I've ever attended. It'd be a shame if he couldn't bring the whole package back in March for the Southwest Florida Reading Festival but I didn't get the feeling that that would happen.  McBride practically channeled John Brown, the abolitionist who believed that God asked him directly to eliminate slavery in the United States.

As he read from Lord Bird, the novel about Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, his musicians took their places on stage and pretty soon the joint was jumping. I thought I had accidentally entered a revival tent touting that old time religion and when Trenton, New Jersey drummer and vocalist, Show Tyme, (yup, that's his name), performed a startling rendition of How Great Thou Art, I was overwhelmed by emotion.

Thanks to Maria Palacio for keeping me in the loop.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cathleen Schine Shines in Fin and Lady

I have my friend Andrea to thank for suggesting that I would love Cathleen Schine's latest novel, Fin and Lady. Girl, you know me! And I also know Andrea so it was no surprise that she would be seduced by the quiet power of this lovely book. I listened to the audio version which was enchantingly read by Anne Twomey.

Fin Hadley, named on a whim by his tough, stuffy father as he watched the "end" of a French film, meets his half sister, Lady, on that most decadent, gorgeous Italian island, Capri, where she has run to escape a shotgun wedding, infuriating Mr. Hadley but casting a spell on the impressionable little boy. Orphaned only a few years later, Fin must leave his family's Connecticut farm and move to Greenwich Village to be raised by Lady, scarcely grown up herself and in no emotional position to be guardian to a precocious eleven-year-old.

It's the heady decade of the 1960's and Lady, who seems to have a bottomless trust fund, fully embraces the anthem of freedom espoused by the likes of Janis Joplin in Me and Bobby McGee. Juggling three lovers at a time, only one of whom cares an iota for the observant and oh so smart Fin, Lady dines and dances into the early morning hours, making sure that part of Fin's education involves the fine art of mixing the perfect martini as well as learning to appreciate art and literature.

Lady toys with people. She's a complex figure who throws herself into the anti-war effort and the civil rights movement, happy to demonstrate anywhere at any time, yet she doesn't seem to comprehend the irony of the fact that she relies on her black maid Mabel to run her home, cook, clean and look the other way when she behaves badly. It's Fin who begins to wonder who Mabel is and what her life is like when she leaves the Greenwich tower at the end of the day.

Fin and Lady are two very lonely people. Neither has deep friendships except for Fin's neighbor and school chum, Phoebe, another great character who astutely observes Fin's relationship with Lady with wry amusement. There's a  symbiosis between the siblings that leaves readers questioning just who is taking care of whom? What constitutes a family? When Lady tasks Fin with finding a suitable husband for her by the time she's 25, (could she really be so traditional?) he throws himself whole-heartedly into the project - after all, this person will be getting a package deal.

Cathleen Schine (The Three Weissmann's of Westport) has written a delicate, sad, yet satisfying novel, told by a mysterious narrator whose identity only becomes clear toward the finale. This book overflows with loss yet it's fitting and right. It also overflows with love and wisdom and an evocation of an era when life was fleeting and candles burned at both ends. Thank you Ms. Schine for the memories.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Joyce Maynard Excels at Literary Suspense

Several years ago I raved here on these pages about a new author I'd found. ( )
Her name is Joyce Maynard and her book, Labor Day, was an outstanding piece of writing, an in-depth examination of the complexities of the human heart. The film, currently in production and starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin, will be released in January.

I was surprised and disappointed to see that there wasn't a long wait list for her newest novel After Her. How is it that everyone doesn't know about this woman? Readers, heed my advice and run out to your local library for this exquisite novel. It's no surprise that Ms. Maynard runs several successful writing workshops on fiction and memoir.

 Her ability to capture that narrow line between the innocence and wisdom of teenagers is on full display in Labor Day but is especially fine tuned in After Her. Based upon the true story of the infamous California crimes of the so-called Hillside Strangler, this book is set in Marin County, California, at the base of the mountain range where so many young women's bodies were discovered back in the '80's. The murder mystery itself, however, takes a back seat to the exploration of the effect that the case had on those living in the area and, especially, on the man in charge of the investigation.

Anthony Torricelli loved women - all women - way too much to be a good husband, but he was a devoted father to his daughters Rachel and Patty even though he'd moved out by the time they were in school. And to those girls, that man could do no wrong. The summer that the bodies began to show up on the mountain, Detective Torricelli became the lead spokesperson for a department that kept coming up short on clues and, for a while, his notoriety trickled down to Rachel, giving her unusual entrĂ©e with the "in" crowd at school and driving a wedge between her and her sister.

But, as the year progresses more bodies are discovered on the mountain, the probe into the crimes is getting nowhere and Rachel, a gifted storyteller with a fertile imagination, obsessed by the killer, takes it upon herself to seek justice for the victims and save her father's reputation. The results of her actions will be felt for decades to come.

Ms. Maynard's attention to detail places the reader firmly in the time period, referencing songs, describing the laconic after school activities that mostly involved making out in the cool kids' basement, polishing nails, and dissing the outsiders. The angst, the burning desire to belong even at the expense of common sense, may remind you of your own teen years.

The love-hate relationship between Rachel and her sister Patty as their high school lives veer off in wildly different directions, (Patty becomes a basketball fanatic), is so sensitively and truly written, each sister too proud to admit how much she misses their former closeness, their us against the world mentality.

After Her succeeds on so many levels. I loved this book. It made me want to hop a plane to Guatemala, manuscript in hand, for a week with the author and her students. But can you teach imagination? I'm not so sure.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Delightful Evening with Tami Hoag

The Southwest Florida Reading Festival hosts several fundraisers throughout the year but it was the delightful moniker, Read Between the Wines, given to this event three years ago, that prompted best selling author Tami Hoag ( ) to drive across the state from her home in West Palm with some friends in tow. She told us that she really liked the idea of books and wine and meeting fans in an intimate setting where no microphones are needed and folks felt comfortable just calling out their questions.

I've been involved with the reading festival for many years and I've always noted that the more renowned the writer the more pleasant they are to deal with. Tami Hoag is no exception. What a delightfully unassuming woman, with a great sense of humor, honed, I'm sure from so many years on the road promoting her books. It seems that no matter how many times one's name graces the top of the New York Times bestsellers list, publishers will not let up on the grueling work of advertising.

Though she has a new book, The 9th Girl, out right now, one that Booklist called "knowing, thought provoking and one of her best," Ms. Hoag was remarkably reticent about pushing it. Instead, she spoke about her roots in romance and the down and dirty business of publishing. She regaled the audience of about 170 people with anecdotes about breaking into the mystery/suspense genre and how the romance writers had to teach those mystery folks a thing of two about marketing.

She got pretty serious when discussing how important it is to have respect for the police detectives and about the many times she shadowed them. Though some were reluctant at first, her professionalism convinced them that she wanted to get it right the first time as, she says, TV rarely does.

The audience sat rapt for almost an hour. One gal brought her own copy of Ms. Hoag's first big novel Night Sins, along with a few women from her book group. Another group from the local university seemed to know each and every character from every book written over the past twenty years. We enjoyed a tasty hors d'oeuvres buffet of salmon, cheese and fruit and wines from the Masciarelli vineyards. Books were sold and autographed and a fine time was had by all. If you live in Southwest Florida, be prepared and don't miss this lovely event next year.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

James McBride's The Color of Water

OK! Now I know why my sister is in love with Mr. McBride. How it is that I never read this book when it was the hot thing and the subject of every book discussion for miles around, I'll never know. Especially since I've been in an interracial relationship for almost ten years, you'd think this story of Mr. McBride's white, Jewish mom and black dad would have crossed my radar screen before! And, may I say, James McBride has the best author website I've ever visited.

Thanks to Don for pushing me to the head of the line. This is for Cynthia who, I believe, is half in love with the man. Yes, I got an autographed copy of his new book The Good Lord Bird.

So, my FB friends know that I had the opportunity to hear James speak at the National book festival on the mall in Washington. Now I've heard through the library grapevine that he'll be speaking here in Ft. Myers (so sorry it's spelled wrong on his website) in a couple of weeks. So, the pressure is on. I'd like to get The Good Lord Bird, my own autographed copy mind you, read before I go see him again. I was pleased as punch to see that his latest novel, about a boy, disguised as a girl, who fought alongside the abolitionist John Brown, has been nominated for The National Book Award.

The Color of Water was written well before there was a President Obama but I must say, he crossed my mind quite often during the reading. He briefly touched on his difficulties trying to straddle two worlds in his first memoir, Dreams from my Father, and McBride delves deeply into the divided loyalties that a bi-racial child feels and senses when his folks are "different." Race and identity are at the core of this remarkable story.

Rachel Shilsky, daughter of an Orthodox rabbi,  grew up in a Virginia town that thought about as much of Jews as it did of the negroes - not much! Her father, supposedly a man of God, ran a grocery store with his invalid wife, worked his kids to the bone, and nursed his own prejudices by cheating his black customers. He never intuited the irony of his hatred of the "Schwarz."

By the time she finished high school, Rachel, now called Ruth, would leave Virginia for the bright lights, big city with Dennis, the black man who was the love of her life. McBride does a masterful job of letting Ruth tell her story in alternating chapters with his own story. Thus we learn that, facing overwhelming odds as an interracial couple in the '40's, Ruth and Dennis were inseparable, embraced by the black community in Harlem, starting a family and a church in that order.

This book is full of love, pathos, understanding and humor. McBride is disarmingly honest about his feelings for his "mommy," especially his growing understanding that she didn't look like him and his curiosity about this fact. He speaks proudly of his eleven, yup, count 'em, brothers and sisters and with such honesty when he writes of his rebellious years, the drugs, guns, and bad company that could have taken him down the wrong path. There isn't a false note when he credits his mother and his God for his turnaround.

Reading is a natural catalyst for self-examination. I couldn't help but marvel at this woman, Ruth Jordan, at her courage and fortitude in pursuing what at the time was surely a "forbidden" love, realizing that she would never see her mother or sister again, that she was dead to her family. As often happens I wondered if I would have stood up for my beliefs under similar circumstances, choosing to teach my children that we are not black, red, or white but, rather, the color of water.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Knocking on Heaven's Door

There's nothing heavenly about Katy Butler's new book, subtitled The Path to a Better Way of Death. Nevertheless, it's a book that needs to be read and referred to over and over by anyone who hopes for a "good" death and who wants to save their family members from the confusion and frustration of having to make medical decisions under duress.

This book is no easy read but it is painfully honest. You may not like Katy all the time, she may sound selfish sometimes, whiny at others, but like a dog with a bone, she follows every lead (Ms. Butler is a well-known journalist who specializes in health issues) while she tries to help her mother let her long suffering father die.

Unlike families of yore, twenty-first century parents and kids are often bi-coastal, separated by miles, work, and culture. Sadly, not everyone dies in their beds surrounded by their loving families anymore. Katy's folks were in Middletown, Conn. while she was living in California. Her father's troubles began long before the stroke that was the beginning of the end. He had lost an arm during the war while fighting in Italy but had deftly compensated. Katy tells of her family's life, first in South Africa, then in the states where Mr. Butler was a renowned professor, ending his career at Wesleyan. Her mother Valerie was an artist and homemaker extraordinaire and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism.

This book does not skimp in the raw details involved in care taking for an elderly, dementia-plagued patient, one who knows in his lucid moments that he has outlived his body and who the next moment doesn't know who or where he is. Nor does it minimize the pressure and heartbreak for the caretaker.  For six painful years Val fulfills what she sees as her duty to this man she's loved for sixty years but there are times when she believes that she's losing her own mind. That's when she calls Katy.

What's most troubling about this journey we take with the Butlers is that we know  it's relived day after day in homes across America. I really thought that talking about illness and death and how we wish to spend out final days was de rigueur, out in the open, no longer a subject to be squeamish about but that doesn't seem to be the case. You might be accused of being cold hearted or subjecting your loved one to a "death panel." One's religious beliefs or lack thereof can come into play. Word to the wise - be cautious of Catholic hospitals if you believe in letting someone die naturally! Doctors who you would think would be your ally become the enemy.

Katy Butler has done her research and the facts and figures are fascinating and sad. The amount of money made on medical devices built to prolong life is obscene but if you want Medicare to pay for therapy after a stroke you can think again. In Mr. Butler's case it was the pacemaker that was his family's downfall. Like the old Timex watches, it could take a licking and keep on ticking. Even with the quality of Mr. Butler's life, his dead staring eyes, the diapers, the feedings, the inability to function on even the lowest level, the pacemaker kept his heart ticking along perfectly.

 Is it a mercy killing to stop a pacemaker? It certainly can be done but try to find a doctor to do it. Or, was it a crime to put one into the chest of a man who couldn't make a medical decision of such enormity on his own to begin with? Does it constitute being kept alive by artificial means? Did you realize that a DNR order, a living will, etc. can be overruled by feuding families if you don't have a strong advocate?

This book made me once again sit up and take notice. I'm such a believer in being prepared and yet I still haven't made that appointment with the cremation society. For book groups looking for a good non-fiction pick for discussion this should be at the top of the list. For families facing illness and death it could be the catalyst for heart to heart talk. For Katy I'm sure it was a catharsis and I know that her sensitive, informative portrayal of her family's odyssey through the medical world will be a huge help to anyone brave enough to read it.

Meet Katy and hear her in her own words at

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Melancholy of Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott              Someone

I won't say that one has to be of an Irish Catholic lineage to appreciate Alice McDermott's fiction but, if you are, it will certainly enhance your reading experience! Of course I'm convinced that someone back in my genealogical past must have had a passionate affair with an Italian sea captain because I don't feel very Irish at all.

 Yet there's something about the characters in Ms. McDermott's novels that remind me so much of my upbringing - the large family of great aunts and grandmothers, Irish sisters - the Mooney girls they were known as - who were inseparable. They were also mysterious, full of family secrets and half-hidden foibles that we never fully understood as kids. They were fun-loving enough but I never felt a sense of joy in their homes. Priests were highly valued friends.

So when I met Marie, the seven year old narrator of Someone, Ms. McDermott's first novel in eight years, I felt an immediate kinship. Marie is a keen observer of her surroundings, sitting on the stoop of her Brooklyn brownstone waiting for her dad to rise up from the subway station and saunter down the street to scoop her up in his arms.

She thinks a lot about odors, his jacket will be smoky with a hint of the whiskey that he's quickly downed on the way home. Observations like this, for which McDermott is known and rewarded, give the reader the palpable sense of being within the action, or lack thereof.

Because, as she's been telling all the interviewers with whom she's made the rounds over the last couple of weeks, this is a book about nothing really, the quotidian events of a plain life. And yet, it's about everything really, birth and death and all that lies between. And it's the way Ms. McDermott conjures up the nuances of all those years in between that makes her such a master of her craft. Her description of Brooklyn street lights causing a chicklet pattern on the carpet is just one such "ah ha" moment. More powerful is her account of Marie giving birth to her first child and more bitter, her ability to write so convincingly of the senseless meanness of kids at play.

I don't want to run down the plot of this novel, as I said, it's just one ordinary family trying to do the best it can. It's Marie, her parents, her brother Gabe, her first lover, her husband, her children, her employer, a quite marvelous undertaker, Mr. Fagin. If this novel has an overall atmosphere of melancholy, well then, roll with it. That's just the Irish for you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

Everyone, everywhere, is weighing in on the latest novel from Pulitzer recipient Lahiri and the reviews are almost all glowing. The book was on the shortlist for the Booker prize before it even hit the stores. And honestly, I really, really wanted to love this novel as much as I did, say, The Namesake. Perhaps readers will think that I'm just playing devil's advocate but the fact is that I'm not swooning even though I'll be the first to say that there's great book discussion potential here.

There are so many things that I can't tell you about this novel without giving away key points that you'd rather learn for yourself. Let me say this. Unless you're a glutton for punishment you'll want to get past the first fifty pages quickly, a long, dry history of the Naxalite movement (more information than needed to move the plot forward in my opinion), an apparently Communist based terror organization that was operating in India, Calcutta in particular, during the second half of the twentieth century.

Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan are at the heart of the story. We are to believe that they are so close as to be inseparable growing up yet their actions speak louder than Ms. Lahiri's words. She does not adhere to the old rule of fiction, "show, don't tell." In fact, the boys are polar opposites. Their story reminded me of how I used to be so incensed by the parable of the prodigal son. So unfair!

 Subhash older and more responsible, is a brilliant student who wishes only to please his parents, to make them proud. Udayan, on the contrary, is a careless charmer, the object of his mother's unfathomable worship. He is also secretly, deeply involved in the Naxalite organization, a fact that causes Subhash a great deal of pain. With no passion for politics himself, he is incapable of understanding his brother's willingness to put their family at risk as the movement grows more violent. He also understands that if anything should happen to Udayan, his parents would break under the loss.

Offered the opportunity to do marine research in a doctoral program in the states, Subhash leaves Calcutta for Rhode Island where he forges a lonely but not unsatisfactory life of scholarship. Letters from Udayan are slow in coming and when they do the tenor seems off. Seemingly over night Udayan is morphing into a traditional Indian man, marrying a fellow student and settling into a single room in his parents' home.

The rift between the brothers is exacerbated by time and distance until one day, the news that he's always dreaded, pulls Subhash back to India and to a decision that will alter his life. This novel is really not about politics but about family, what it means to be responsible for the life of another, what constitutes a family and why some must walk away from its ties to save themselves while others embrace it for the same reason.

If you've already read The Lowland I'd love to hear your thoughts. If you haven't, I've got a pre-publication copy I can send to you. Let's get a conversation going!