Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two Books, One Nook

What happens when two people try to share one nook on a road trip? Well, I can tell you that Don got the better end of the deal! After Chinua Achebe's death, I had purchased his classic Things Fall Apart to read this summer. But...I was falling way behind on the pre-publication novels that I'd downloaded to the nook from Net Galley. So...being the good girl that I am, I went for Gail Godwin's Flora, hoping I'd be able to send the publishers a great review. NOT!

This book has been getting raves but I'll be darned if I can figure out why. I may have to return to the NY Times review and rethink my reading of it. If you remember The Bad Seed, then you'll have an idea of what I was expecting. This Southern gothic tale of a chameleon-like young girl, Helen, on the cusp of womanhood, only kept me reading because I expected her to do something evil. I wanted her to!

The novel takes place in the early '40's. Helen's dad has been called to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to do some clandestine work for the government, so he brings Flora, a cousin, into his home to care for Helen over the course of the summer vacation. Helen, being the precocious gal that she is, feels fully capable of caring for herself and resents the intrusion of a woman she considers a "country bumpkin."

As the simple, cheerful Flora makes inroads in the community, socializing, cooking, learning to drive, Helen becomes more conflicted with feelings of ridicule and envy and the reader begins to question just how far the nasty little Helen will go to rid herself of the upbeat presence of Flora.

Of course, it's not Ms. Godwin's fault that she didn't pen the book that I wanted (as we discussed at length today with a panel of reviewers at Book Expo). Still, I don't think that I know anyone to whom I could recommend this novel.

 On the other hand, while I was taking my turn at the wheel through the gorgeous Cumberland river gap, Don kept reading pages from the Achebe book and commenting out loud when the characters did things that, while maybe understandable, were not to Don's liking. He had me totally engaged and I can't wait to sit down and read the book at one sitting.

The moral of the story is that life's too short to hang with a book that isn't providing the ultimate reading experience. I'm going back to the rule of 50 and sticking with it this time. Here in New York City there are hundreds of talented writers with books just ripe for the plucking. It's a positively giddy feeling, like that proverbial kid in the candy shop. I'm on sensory overload right now but will catch you all up on everyone I've seen and heard when I get home.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Susan Shreve, Not Anita

I've read so much about Susan Shreve but just hadn't had the opportunity to sit down with one of her books until I downloaded her latest, You are the Love of my Life. Though it didn't disappoint, I sure had to hold my temper through most of my listening. I could NOT believe that Ms. Shreve would create a character who was so independent on the one hand and so mealy mouthed on the other!

Lucy Painter, appropriately named as she's a children's book illustrator/writer, has the chutzpah to be a single mother of two children. This takes particular courage back in the early '70's but in an anonymous city like New York, who knew or cared?

She takes nothing in the way of money or emotional support from "uncle Reuben," who happens to be her considerably older and very married editor, and the father of Maggie and Felix. The only thing they seem to have in common is great sex. OK, I get that, but no matter how much they swoon when together, I just wanted to scream every time this weak, unsavory man ensnared Lucy further into his web with the oldest of lines, "you are the love of my life." I wanted to say to Lucy, "come ON!"

The good news is that Lucy, in a sign of new-found maturity, decides to leave New York and return to her childhood home, one she inherited but never inhabited, in Washington, DC. And here, in the shadow of the Watergate hearings, a very public cover up, we learn that Lucy has been hiding her own very private secrets, managing to construct a wall around herself that not even her children, let alone a man, could penetrate.

The novel's core theme is that of loneliness. Shreve has obviously given much thought to the damage we inflict on ourselves and others when we hold on to past hurts whether through fear or shame. Any sidewalk psychiatrist will tell you that you've got to let it go. It seems so simple when observing from the outside but when one is tangled in the exhausting web of lies, well, not so simple,

Ironically, the more Lucy tended to stay to herself, to avoid the pathologically sociable neighborhood moms, the more they needed to understand what she was hiding. For the uber-social and very lonely 12 year old Maggie, her mother's refusal to entertain, to sit on the front porch with coffee in the morning and wine in the evening, was the perfect catalyst for another woman to step into the void.

Though I was impatient with many of the characters in this novel for their indecisiveness and inability to take control, I found it relatively enjoyable as I finished up my walk this morning along the bay. I would like for some of you to read it so we could discuss. I'm still anxiously waiting for a knock out novel of 2013. Book Expo here I come!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Interestings is That and Much More

Meg Wolitzer http://www.megwolitzer.com/ is interesting on so many levels, especially as an outspoken advocate for gender parity in book reviewing, a subject she'll be speaking about at the annual National Book Critics Circle meeting at Book Expo in a few weeks. The question she raises is whether or not women novelists - and the idea that one must even make that distinction - are treated equitably when it comes to serious book reviews, or are women relegated to that ridiculous genre label "women's fiction." As a readers' advisor, I understand just what that means, but as a writer and reviewer I resent it as much as Wolitzer does.

A novelist is a novelist, no matter one's sex. Wolitzer's new novel, The Interestings, will likely be compared to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections or, more apropos, to Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. My guess is that this book would appeal to readers of Franzen and Eugenides who, like myself, enjoyed their novels immensely - big, dense sagas that span several decades - but, I truly found The Interestings to be superior.

Wolitzer is a kinder writer for one thing, she seems to understand her characters in the same way that Jules, a social worker and one of the main characters, empathizes with and cares for her clients. I'd almost think that Wolitzer is a psychologist herself the way she delves into the hearts of the six friends, who bond at a summer camp in the Berkshires while in their teens, (my old territory) and manage to maintain their connection, sometimes tenuous, at other times living in each other's pockets, for the next thirty years.

 Jules always felt like an outsider because of her lower middle class background - she was at camp on scholarship - and her seeming lack of any major talent like some of the other gifted students in attendance at the arts camp, facetiously called Spirit in the Woods. Yet somehow she ingratiated herself with the twins, Ash and Goodman - another ironic name as it turns out - Wolf and their very wealthy family who live at the heart of the conflict in this novel.
Also in their group was Jonah Bay, son of a famous folk singer of the Joni Mitchell variety, and drawn to music himself until he suffered a sinister few months at the hands of one of mom's less than savory friends.

And then, there was Ethan Figman, a boy blessed with an incredible imagination and the drive to rise above his station. No one would have chosen this tall, gangly geek, who spent most of his time in the animation studio, as the boy most likely to succeed, but succeed he does and takes the prettiest girl in the room with him. Ethan and Ash go on as a couple to accomplish great things but even everything never enough is it? She keeps a divisive family secret and he finds that having a child with a disability stretches his ability to love right to the limit.

Jules marries Dennis, another outsider, a solid rock of a man physically but emotionally prone to depressive episodes that inhibit his ability to work. As Ethan and Ash head up multinational corporations and find that they don't need to even dirty themselves by touching their oodles of money, Dennis and Jules barely scrape by in their Manhattan walk-up, existing on the kindness and generosity of their friends until the envy and disconnect between the two couples threatens to shake their cherished relationship.

This thought-provoking, achingly honest novel is a joy to read. Ms. Wolitzer's wit and humor are on full display when she's sending up the aging hippies, the Wunderlichs, who nurture teens at Spirit in the Woods, or the yuppie helicopter families who live for their kids to the child's detriment. Oh yes, and then there's the Rev. Sun Young Moon!
 This deep examination of friendship, marriage, attraction, and love is neither male nor female, just a great read by a talented writer. One of my favorites of this year!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Love, Loss, and What I Wore

It's no secret that I'm half in love with Nora Ephron. I had a When Harry Met Sally moment on the deck of a cruise ship several years ago while reading I Feel Bad About my Neck. I was totally out of control, guffawing at Ms. Ephron's ability to tap into women's deepest insecurities and then to make light of them with her spot on humor. A woman sitting a few deck chairs down came over to me and asked what I was reading and, if it hadn't been a library book, I'd have handed it off to her right then and there. I mean reading and sharing is what it's all about, right?

So when the post card from Theatre Conspiracy arrived in my mailbox and I saw that they were having a fundraiser with various readings of Love, Loss, and What I Wore, I got on the phone and called up some gal pals for an evening of laughter and poignancy. Where else can you go and enjoy a night of live theatre for twenty bucks a head? Even when I dislike a choice by artistic director Bill Taylor and his group I still attend simply to show moral support for the arts in Fort Myers. Theatre Conspiracy has faced more than their fair share of dislocation and discombobulation, yet they've managed to stay alive and well for some thirty years now - an amazing feat in Fort Myers, Florida.

Norah Ephron and her sister Delia adapted this play from a memoir by Ilene Beckerman who morphs into Gingy in the play. I've never seen this show on or off Broadway, though I've wanted to, so I have nothing to compare it to. I will tell you that I doubled over with laughter at several points throughout the hour and half production and then was caught off guard by its moments of serious reflection. One scene in particular struck me when a woman who's chosen to have a double mastectomy after her breast cancer diagnosis receives a gift from a girl friend,  a white lace push-up bra, the most beautiful piece of underwear she's ever seen, which she proudly dons after reconstruction surgery.

Ephron's gift, her intuition if you will, is on full display here as the five women on stage revisit the large and small moments of their lives through their vibrant memories of what they were wearing at the time. Even those of us who couldn't be denigratingly called a "clothes horse" can remember certain dresses, hats, or those dreaded leggings that our moms made us wear. Yes, I'm dating myself.

Whether it was for a wedding, a divorce, a bat mitzvah, or the first day of school, old photo albums will remind us of the best and the worst moments of our lives. Ephron is such a generous writer. Her style hardly fits with the harridan portrayed by former husband and victim of her biting wit, Carl Bernstein.
 She loves Gingy in all her incarnations and she loves women in all their glory and insecurity. When actress Carrie Lund of Florida Repertory Theatre reminisces about the power and confidence she felt when donning her first pair of quality, leather boots, I could knowingly nod my head in camaraderie. We all have an item of clothing that imbues us with that feeling, don't we?

This play will run for another two weekends with a different complement of actors interacting with the audience each night. And please don't think that the show is "for women only." Your enlightened, feminist guy friends will enjoy the insight too. Interested? Check it out at: http://www.theatreconspiracy.org/

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mentoring in Libraries

One more week of "formal" library work! Then I will be freed of the tyranny of an hourly schedule and the deadlines I make will be my own. As I've mentioned all over the web this week, I'll never stop being a librarian and I'll be able to continue to review literature for Library Journal. I hope I'll have more time to investigate ways to expand the reach of my voice. But this confident, competent woman who writes about life and literature each week was not always the girl you're reading now.

Twenty years ago I was at a very low ebb. Raised to believe, "you made your bed, you lie in it," I struggled for years trying to keep a bad marriage alive because I thought it was the right thing to do. Eventually I realized that, at some point, you have to save yourself. I doubt that anyone who's gone through a divorce, messy or not, can really understand how devastating it is to your self-image, how bowed one can feel by failure.

How many of us are fortunate enough to meet a mentor who can see beneath the fa├žade and drag out the real person, kicking and screaming if need be! For me, that man is the gentleman pictured here at my retirement party Thursday evening.
Pete Smith and his wife Laurie, who met, like Don and me, at a library, have been friends since the day I introduced myself to him at a bookmobile stop in my San Carlos Park neighborhood. I had only been with the library system for six months. I was going to school nights and weekends and mowing lawns for pin money and exercise - just barely getting by. The first promotion available to me was as a bookmobile driver/assistant. Terrified, I plunged ahead, applying for the job and being granted an interview.

The next two years were heaven on earth. Pete was the most easygoing person I'd ever met. He made a complicated job seem easy and he had much more faith in me than I had in myself. With his encouragement, I began to look in the mirror and be ok with who was looking back at me.

 My knowledge of all things literary expanded considerably as Pete was an eclectic reader and handed me all kinds of books that I wouldn't have chosen on my own. In retrospect, I realize that he had an agenda, as most of what I read over those two years were books about strong women, traveling on their own, pushing the envelope, daring what others before had not. He should have been a psychologist.

 Pete introduced me to the first woman to graduate from West Point, and Mary Morris who wrote of her experiences living alone in Mexico in Nothing to Declare. I discovered Audrey Schulman and her novel The Cage and so many others that I scarcely know where to begin. And all the time I was drawing closer to earning that masters' degree and moving on.

I'd worked in other jobs and organizations prior to this mid-life career change. I knew plenty of women who would step on your fingers as you tried to climb up the career ladder after them. In libraries that never happened. I've never met so many brilliant mentors, collaborators, and boosters as I have here in library world. From our former library director, Dorothy Schirtzinger, to Daria Parry who "stuck" me with the book discussions in her branch and put me in front of a TV camera doing it, to Randy Briggs and Linda Holland, who allowed me to stretch and innovate. And of course, Ann Clark, who teaches by example as the hardest working librarian in Lee County. Thank you all.


And here's to the future librarians. I know you're out there. You know who you are, Ellie!

Friday, May 3, 2013

Rachel Simon, I Like You, I Really Like You

I've been preparing for my last book discussion of the season here at the library. Thanks to a recommendation from one of our faithful volunteers, we read The Story of Beautiful Girl by Rachel Simon. As I perused her biographical information I discovered that this novel came about because of her real life experience as the sister of a woman with learning disabilities. In fact, Ms. Simon had written a non-fiction book, Riding the Bus with my Sister, which is used in classrooms throughout the country as a text.

But it was another one of her titles that caught my eye, loved the title, loved the cover. Yes, readers, you know me well enough to know that I DO often pick up a book based on its cover. Building a Home with My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love. This was just what the doctor ordered! A real life love story. It didn't disappoint.



It all began with a break-in, Rachel on her way to the airport to deliver a lecture, her husband Hal at work. What started as a minor repair of the broken stairwell door became a tour de force of renovation, a gutting of all the major walls, an opening of space allowing the light to suffuse the little townhome with its warmth. Ms. Simon then plays with this beautiful metaphor throughout her book as she examines the ways in which this project opened her mind and heart, helping her to see relationships through a different lens.

Did I mention that hubby Hal was the architect of this project? It seems that, over the eighteen years of their relationship, Rachel hadn't really given much thought to what Hal does all day, what his work as an artist - as architects surely are - entailed. Because of her writing and lecturing, Rachel was constantly on the road and the pair had settled into a routine and a division of labor that worked for them. Until, that is, the renovation from hell!

I couldn't help but reminisce about last fall when my little guest bedroom was gutted and reborn as a glorious workspace. The idea that someone would love you enough to build with their own hands a desk, a bookcase, is overwhelming. Think how Rachel felt as she watched her home transform. Working together, building a tangible space that draws two people closer together, that pleases the senses. Can it get any better than that?