Monday, December 30, 2013

2013, A Fabulous Year for Literature!

The book is dead! The book is dead! Like Chicken Little's falling sky, doomsayers seem to think that the book is going the way of the dinosaur. I think that all you readers out there will agree that "it ain't necessarily so." Even though more news organizations are dropping their book pages and literary book reviewing is giving way to blogs and amateur analysis, reading is going great guns.

There have been scads of "best books" lists in print over the past few weeks and there are plenty of titles on those lists that are on my radar and that I hope to get to, books like the hefty Goldfinch and Luminaries. Still, I managed to burn through 107 books this year, not all released in 2013, so you can imagine that trying to name my ten favorites is like pulling teeth. Perhaps if I separated the non-fiction I could give a more accurate description of the wealth of books that knocked me out this year, some of which I've written about in this blog and others in Library Journal.

The following is a stab at a list of books that spoke to me this year for the quality of the writing, the poignancy of the subject matter, or the sheer audacity of the imaginative spirit of the creator.

1. Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain (

2. Just Kids by Patti Smith (

3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (

4. My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor (

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

6. Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (

7. The Dinner by Herman Koch (

8. Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink (

9. Dust by Yvonne Owuor (

10. How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny (

There were so many more that deserve mention, Alice McDermott's deceptively simple Someone, Ishmael Beah's devastating The Radiance of Tomorrow, JoJo Moyes' lovely Me Before You and Ivy Pachoda's debut Visitation Street come to mind, not to mention the education I received on Florida's shameful history from reading the Pulitzer Prize winner Devil in the Grove.

Thank you all so much for reading this year. I'm looking forward to 2014 and getting a handle on some of the classics that are sitting on my bookshelves awaiting my perusal. I also want to tackle some of those big, fat multi-volume tomes that I've been saving for my retirement. Who knew the days would flash by so quickly? I'll also keep you up to date on the new, new literature sent to me by Library Journal for review.

Let's keep the conversation going. Please let me know what you're loving and hating, whether you think I'm all wet on an evaluation or whether you agree wholeheartedly. I want to hear from you!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Explanation for Everything

Author Lauren Grodstein told an interviewer A conversation with local novelist Lauren Grodstein( )that all she wants is for people to NOT be able to put down her book. She got it! As annoyed, confused, and frustrated as I grew while reading The Explanation of Everything this weekend, I did not want to put it down.

If any of you readers are in the market for a great book discussion choice and have the guts to open this can of worms, that is, Darwinism versus Intelligent Design, Grodstein's book would be ideal. What I love the most about it is that she never takes a definitive position, never makes any one character all dark or all light. The people in this novel are real in that they are positively sure of a mindset one moment, searching and open in another. After all, this is human nature isn't it? If your beliefs can't be questioned then are they worth having?

The plot revolves around Andy Waite, a young widower raising his two daughters on his own, once the promising protégée of a famous Princeton atheist biologist, who has ended up in a tenure track position at a second rate college in New Jersey where he's plugging away on research in which he's actually no longer interested. His only passion is the one course he teaches that he's renowned for, There is No God, a scientific refutation of religion based on Darwinian principle.

Still lonely and vulnerable, unable to move on since the death of his wife Louisa in a horrific automobile accident precipitated by a drunk driver, Andy finds his belief system suddenly turned on its head by the appearance of two students. Lionel Schell,  a member of The Campus Crusade for Christ, has made it his life's work to attend Andy's class each semester, playing devil's advocate and challenging his teacher at every turn.

Michelle Porter, a transfer from community college, seems to have a more nuanced agenda in mind when she approaches Dr. Waite, knowing he's an avowed atheist, to oversee her independent research paper on Intelligent Design. Andy makes the excuses one would expect to hear. First and foremost, this is not a sociology department but a biology department. He works with students who can prove their theses with science, not religion.

 And here, I thought the author was just a tad weak in allowing Melissa to so easily manipulate Andy, insinuating herself into his life in ways beyond the student/teacher relationship. I couldn't believe he could be so foolish but, once again, we are human, aren't we?

There's an interesting secondary plot involving Andy's mentor, Dr. Rosenblum, whose reputation was sullied by the unusual death of his star researcher, Anita Lim, a young Harvard genius on the verge of a breakthrough in evolutionary research. Another percolating subplot is the one that involves the young man who killed Andy's wife and Andy's obsession with thwarting his parole.

Grodstein does an outstanding job of showing readers how people face the constant daily struggle of living, with or without faith, with or without answers to the great questions of the universe, and how our belief system can evolve, if I may use that term, as we grow, read, learn, and face the worst that life can throw at us. None of us can say who is right, and really, should it be a fight for who's right anyway? As long as we wake up to each new day with joy and appreciation for this world we inhabit. As long as we never lose our sense of wonder are we not, believers and non-believers alike, worshiping? If you're a person who enjoys a book that makes you think and poses more questions than it offers answers, then this one is for you!

Now, it's almost the end of the year and I've been perusing the list of 105 books that I've read this year (yes, I know, I've been slacking) trying to come up with a top ten list. Oh, how difficult this is! I'd love to have more interaction with my readers here on the blog next year and am hoping you'll help me. Begin by thinking about sharing your favorites of the year and maybe even telling us why. I'll try to do the same. The first person I hear from will get my advance readers copy of The Explanation for Everything.

In the meantime, I'll be finishing the stunning Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and struggling with The Cuckoo's Calling by J.K. Rowling, aka Galbraith. It's not that the book is so bad, it's more that I no longer spend enough time in my car to keep the momentum of a murder mystery going. I'll have two reviews in the Jan. 15th issue of Library Journal and will keep you posted on those. So, don't forget, think about what you loved this year and share with other readers.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Signature of All Things

I scarcely know where to begin in praise of this great, hefty, wonderful novel! Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, has simply outdone herself with this unusual, expansive, mature book that actually seems to defy categorizing. And that's a good thing. I would hate to keep someone away from the pleasure of this book by calling it an "historical," though it is, a "love story," but it is, or even a lesson in botany, yet you'll learn so much.


This engrossing tale begins in Kew Gardens, in England, where a clever young lad tries to outsmart his boss in a get-rich-quick scheme that lands him on a ship bound for the South Seas, a fate much preferable to hanging. Young Henry Whittaker soaks up everything he can learn about the natural world. Earning a vast fortune in quinine, he rehabilitates himself as a gentleman, acquires a sensible wife raised on the classics, and heads for the new world.

In Philadelphia readers will meet my new literary heroine, Henry's daughter Alma Whittaker, a formidable presence whose intellectual curiosity and passion for learning more than compensate for her ungainly size and plain countenance. Not content to play the spoiled ingénue, Alma devotes herself to the study of plants. Owing to the entrée afforded her by her father's reputation, she corresponds with botanists from academies around the world, writing scholarly essays published by a family friend with whom she believes she is deeply in love.

Sharing this confidence with her sister Prudence proves disastrous. Foiled in love, Alma throws herself further into her life's work, the study of moss. I know, I can't imagine telling you readers anything drier but please, if you read this blog often, trust me. Elizabeth Gilbert, through three years of research and fabulously imaginative wordsmithing, creates a sensuous world of teeming microorganisms that leave one almost breathless.

I dare not say too much. An outline of the plot will not do. You simply must jump in and be overwhelmed, surprised, and pleased as the resilient Alma, estranged from her sister, whose abolitionist fervor has made her persona non grata at the family estate, tempered by disappointment in love, explores the meaning of life through nature, logic, and scientific principle.

You will follow Alma to Tahiti on a quest to understand the true nature of the orchid artist Ambrose Pike and share in her heart wrenching search for sexual fulfillment. You will sail to Holland and be privy to the papers of Darwin and other great minds of science. You will participate in learned conversations pitting the spirit against the intellect. You may even believe that you see the hand of God in The Signature of All Things.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reminiscing on Mandela and South Africa

Living well, they say, is the best revenge. And so it is that Nelson Mandela, a man whose life some may have thought ended when he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island off Cape Town in South Africa for terrorist crimes against the apartheid regime, was reborn in 1990.

 His release from this prison cell did not come easy, five years of negotiations, first with President Botha who insisted that Mr. Mandela use his influence to end all armed resistance by members of the African National Congress. He refused. Not until President de Klerk came into office was a deal signed allowing black Africans the vote in their own country and a new constitution was written.

Many thought then and circumspectly still whisper that Nelson Mandela gave in too easily to the demands of the ruling white authorities. They call him a capitulator and an accommodator. I cannot subscribe to that theory. The idea that one must hold on to hatred, anger and bitterness has no place in my mindset and, thankfully for the country of South Africa, Mr. Mandela was destined to be a big picture person. He shouldered the burden, as did Martin Luther King, Jr. on a much smaller scale, of leading his people to a better place.

In his writings, Letters to Myself, and Long Walk to Freedom, among others, he exudes humility, admonishing those who would place him uncomfortably on a pedestal. He is open about his failings as a husband and father but realistic about the sacrifices that inevitably plague a man chosen to lead a nation. The transition from the oppression of white rule to a democratically elected president from the majority indigenous people could not have happened under a lesser man. I believe that South Africa would have devolved into chaos and bloodshed.

When Don and I visited South Africa two years ago, a trip of a lifetime and an education unsurpassed by any book learning, we walked in Mr. Mandela's footsteps on both Robben Island and in Johannesburg. It is impossible to explain the powerful emotions that I felt. How can a privileged, fortunate human being like me even begin to get inside the head and soul of a person who could basically give up his life for the benefit of future generations? Where does one find that kind of courage?

As we toured Soweto I was struck by the disparities that still exist but also by the difference between what your imagination tells you that you'll see and what is actuality. Certainly a great deal has changed in the almost twenty years since Mandela was elected president. Economic sanctions were lifted, education opened up, business expanded. Still, from a middle class neighborhood of immaculate brick homes in Soweto, albeit surrounded by walls and concertina wire, one still looks over the remains of tin-roofed shanties where there's no electricity and the women walk to the town well for water with jugs on their heads.

Mandela's home when he was in the thick of the revolution was in the Soweto neighborhood called Orlando. In this home that he shared with his second wife, Winnie, perhaps even more of a revolutionary than he, around this very dining room table, great ideas were discussed, plans to free a nation were made, and men and women realized that they might have to give their lives for a cause.

And a rainbow nation was born. Lest anyone try to say that it isn't working, I ask you to look at this photo from Friday's New York Times. I believe it says all that needs to be said.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Futures Cut Too Short in Men We Reaped

Jesmyn Ward is flat out, unequivocally, one of the finest young writers working today. A couple of years ago I raved here on my blog about her novel Salvage the Bones, which went on to win the National Book Award.

At the time I remember thinking that this writer could bring me to my knees with the visceral power of her words. Now, with her memoir, Men We Reaped, readers will understand that she is no fluke but the real thing. What I couldn't help but wonder was where she found the inner strength to escape the pull of DeLisle, Mississippi, even long enough to attend college in Michigan, let alone take advantage of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford.

Ms. Ward is unabashedly a southerner. When she is away from her home and family she misses it with every fiber of her being. As a person who can make her home most anywhere, I find this kind of obsession with a place, especially one that has so circumscribed her friends' lives, incomprehensible. I tried not to let my lack of understanding color my feelings about this memoir but I found myself screaming at Jesmyn to get out, get out, get out.

Because this memoir is about destruction. It's about a south that chews up young black men and spits them out. It's about a town where alcohol and drugs permeate every activity, every corner of every day. It's about fatherless families and mothers who have to work too hard for too many hours. It's specifically about five young men, one of whom is Ms. Ward's beloved younger brother Joshua, who die in violent accidents or by their own hands.

But these young black men  will not become just more statistics.  Jesmyn Ward resurrects each of them, Roger, Demond, CJ, Ronald and Joshua, fully and totally back to life through her anguish and her words. Ms. Ward is painfully honest, sometimes shockingly so.

 She doesn't make excuses so much as she explains how it is that a 13-year-old can eek out a living selling crack on the street rather than pumping gas at the Mobil station. You may cluck your tongue and wonder why and find it difficult to believe that rural Mississippi hasn't metamorphosed from the days of Emmett Till.  Jesmyn Ward forces us comfortable, middle class readers to open our eyes to the despair inherent in a community that holds no expectations of safety, education, or prosperity. It's a dark place indeed even as it's beautifully rendered.

Fair warning - you may not hear from me for a while. I've just finished two assignments for Library Journal and am about to fall into two monster novels waiting on the holds shelf at my local library, Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries, and Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things. Sure glad my Christmas gifts are wrapped and mailed!