Tuesday, December 30, 2014

114 in 2014 - How to Choose Only Ten?

I did it, I did it! One hundred fourteen books in 2014. It has such a nice ring to it , doesn't it?  In fact, I'm halfway through number 115 right now but I'm going to roll it over to next year's list. And so, the question is, how can one possibly choose only ten from this formidable number?

 I get a kick out of the end of the year lists, love checking off the titles I've read. Still, we all understand that what makes a certain book great for us as individuals is really the nature of the psychic space we are in when we read it. Unlike the "New York Times" or "Library Journal," my choices have less to do with the finest writing - though that's always a piece of the equation - but more to do with which author's words spoke to me at that specific moment in time.

So here we go, drumroll please......

1. "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, http://bit.ly/14b3SF7

2. "Jewelweed" by David Rhodes, http://bit.ly/13QXDWi

3. "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt, http://bit.ly/1tyeqd1

4. "Euphoria" by Lily King, http://bit.ly/1vq4z2N

5. "The Children Act" by Ian McEwan, http://bit.ly/1Agw8C7

6. "The Garden of Evening Mists" by Tan Eng, http://bit.ly/1vEGqXm

7. "The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry" by Gabrielle Zevin, http://bit.ly/1x1Eixn

8. "The Invention of Wings" by Sue Monk Kidd, http://bit.ly/1BgSvWB

9. "Driftless" by David Rhodes, http://bit.ly/1CRY2qn

10. "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by Caitlin Doughty, http://bit.ly/1xw9mnE

As the year draws to a close I realize that I live in an almost constant state of wonder at the brilliance of the authors who grace us with their words. I am  grateful for so many things, the obvious ones like health, love of friends and family, the ability to still use my brain, you, my loyal readers, and the hours and hours of unabashed pleasure I get from reading.

I don't ask for much in 2015, only a cure for cancer, peace in the Middle East, and an end to racial and economic divisiveness here at home. My wish for you in the coming year is that you receive what most sets your heart soaring. Oh, and that you'll feel free to share your reading thoughts with me! Chat with you next year.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Dave Eggers' The Circle - Rethinking TMI

Product Details
I've had a love/hate relationship with Dave Eggers for a few years now. I thought "Zeitoun" was brilliant (http://bit.ly/1rpaSIy). On the other hand, I was completely underwhelmed with "Your Fathers, Where Are They..." and wasn't afraid to say so when I reviewed it for "Library Journal." For the past several weeks I've been completely immersed in "The Circle." If you find that I'm missing in action on Facebook and Twitter, this novel will be the reason why.
Since I've retired I find that I spend much less time in my car and really miss the chances to get involved in audiobooks. It takes me a lot longer to "read" them. I found myself just making up errands so that I could continue to listen to the silky, sexy voice of Dion Graham, one of my favorite audio performers, as he narrated this foreboding look at the power of large tech companies, think Google, Apple, or Microsoft, to infiltrate and eventually control our minds. I totally understand why some of my friends and family are completely off the grid.
We meet Mae Holland on her first day of work at The Circle, a giant California technology campus where the best and the brightest would kill to work. Mae has her best friend Annie, a mover and shaker on campus, to thank for putting in a good word. From the first chapter my stomach began to clench as the orientation committee began to separate Mae from all aspects of her former life, confiscating her laptop and phone, while downloading all of her information to the new, snazzy, company provided devices.
Then there's the creepy mandatory physical and the outwardly warm, sweet physician with the Nazi mentality who already seems to know everything about Mae from her tiniest childhood scrapes and bruises. Pressure is put on employees of The Circle to wear wristbands similar to fitbits, if you've seen those, which record vital statistics 24/7.
The description of a day at work for Mae, in a cubicle in front of multiple screens, wearing a headset that poses non-stop consumer questions in her ear, questions that she must answer with a smile or a frown, while also responding to in-coming emails from worldwide consumers and co-workers, is absolutely harrowing. Naturally, the more Mae excels, the more she is given to do. The Circle expects nothing less than 100% client satisfaction.
Kids fortunate enough to land jobs at The Circle are encouraged to give up their off campus apartments to live in studios within The Circle's borders. After all, participation in after-hours social activity is monitored and judged by the number of "zings" one sends and receives (think tweets). Visits to family are considered distractions.
What happens if a "circler" just needs to take a little break from all this togetherness? Hold your breath. Mae's spur of the moment kayak sojourn is caught on one of The Circle's new surveillance cameras (designed for our safety, of course) and her penance for that precious time alone is to become the spokesperson for The Circle's latest innovation, a wearable audio/video device that will enable complete transparency. Mae will now share all aspects of her life, except bathroom breaks, with the entire world.
"The Circle" is a cautionary tale for the 21st century and would make for an excellent book discussion. How much of our privacy are we willing to give up? How much are we entitled to know about our neighbors, friends, politicians? Where do mavericks like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden fit in? Villains or heroes? And how many faux friends do we need to claim on Facebook to make ourselves feel valued? Read this book, then decide.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Last month I enthusiastically endorsed "Jewelweed" by David Rhodes as one of the best books I read in 2014.
Since then I've had the opportunity to return to Words, the Wisconsin town where Rhodes set his exquisite novel, in order to read the prequel "Driftless." I wondered, what if it isn't as magical? I needn't have worried.

 Driftless by David Rhodes book cover

There's something inherently good about the folks in Weeds. No matter their quirks, foibles, and differences, they are people you probably know. Their way of life may be a far cry from what we here on the east coast consider normal, it's simpler, more earnest, in a Little House on the Prairie kind of way, but damn hard work nevertheless. Rhodes respects them and so will we.

There's Cora and Grahm Shotwell, naive dairy farmers who somehow find the courage to take on the corporate giant that's been bilking them out of their fair share of earnings. Then there's Olivia, confined to a wheelchair from childhood, and her caretaker, Violet who has sacrificed much to care for her rebellious sister.

Grahm's sister Gail works in a factory and drinks herself to sleep most evenings yet she can sing like an angel, has a body to die for, and on the weekends, plays a mean bass in a country band that doesn't do her talent justice. She wonders what her life might be like if she could just get one small break.

Most special of all is the burgeoning story of Pastor Winifred who stole my heart in Jewelweed. Here we learn how she came to settle in Weeds in the first place, this young girl who seemed an enigma to her elderly congregants. She will be unyielding in her devotion to their staid practices. She will succeed at winning them over, keeping the story of her visions and voices to herself until she finds the ideal person with whom to share them.

David Rhodes is a master at capturing the zeitgeist of rural America. The story lines are deceptively simple, the characters are gloriously complex. His words and sentences, I think I've said before, often cause me to sigh with pleasure. How did he come up with that perfect metaphor? That spot on observation?

 But I guess what I love most about Mr. Rhodes is how he uses his fiction to espouse his belief that we are all connected with the most fragile threads. I can only think of John Donne's "no man is an island," when I read Rhodes and feel sure that no matter how insignificant we may think our lives are, somewhere, somehow, we've unknowingly touched another in a very significant way.

Coming up next week my top ten of the year. Start thinking about yours. I want to hear from you and I have a ton of books to give away. Got to clean out the shelves for 2015!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Marilynne Robinson, So Quiet Yet So Powerful

Marilynne Robinson.jpg

Some readers are only in it for the thrill of the chase. Their novels need to move at the speed of light, keep them guessing til the end, give them an adrenalin rush. I'd never say that isn't fun but I've found that, as I'm aging, my tastes tend toward more ruminative literature. Marilynne Robinson's National Book Award finalist, "Lila," (she lost to the devastating short story collection "Redeployment" by Phil Klay), is one such ruminative novel.

Though it is a prequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning "Gilead," it can be read and thoroughly enjoyed on its own. I will, however, defy you, once you finish it, not to want to go back to read how the story of Lila and Rev. Ames plays out. Gilead is the tiny Iowa town where Rev. John Ames has lived and nurtured souls for most of his life. His first wife and only child are buried there. His existence since their untimely deaths has been filled with prayer, reading, and weekly visits with his intellectual sparring partner and childhood friend, "old Boughton", also a minister.

In fact, until he spotted Lila, sodden with rain, dressed in rags, and more than a little rough around the edges, sitting in a pew in his church, he may not have admitted to the deep well of loneliness that afflicted him. The improbable, immediate connection he feels with Lila frightens and shames him. The gap between the ages of Rev. Ames and this itinerant farm worker is formidable, the intellectual gap, one might assume, is even more daunting.

There is little physical action in this haunting novel but oh, the stimulating interior monologue as we listen in on the thoughts, questions, and hopes of Lila and John Ames, is extremely powerful. Excruciatingly slowly, they gravitate toward each other, building a tentative trust that we worry, from what we learn of Lila's past through her reminiscences, could dissolve at any time. Though she has seen the worst of human nature, she has also known the singular love of Doll, the woman who rescued her from orphanhood and raised her to be a street smart survivor.

Ms. Robinson's work is steeped in biblical quotes and verses but non-believers should not be put off. It is heartening and fascinating to listen to Rev. Ames' honest, humorous, and deeply felt responses to the unchurched Lila as he tries to explain the unexplainable mysteries of faith. The topics they tackle, the very meaning of existence, are those that all thinking people contemplate.  Thoughtful readers will feel great joy at being let in on the conversation.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Elizabeth Warren - Mad as Hell and Not Gonna Take it Any More!

Product Details  There's only one way to read Senator Elizabeth Warren's book, "A Fighting Chance," and that is to listen to it. No one else could have recorded this book but Elizabeth herself and she does a bang-up job of it. Every time she calls out some senator or congressman with a "horse pucky!" or a "jeesh!" you'll understand that this Harvard law professor has not forgotten her Oklahoma roots and the people she's fighting for.

Call me a cockeyed optimist but I live in hope that this woman will be one of the few who won't become jaded by Washington, but will continue to fight for the underdog the way she did when she was charged with forming (and then refused the right to head up) the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, a result of the financial meltdown of 2008.

Ms. Warren is a passionate speaker and advocate for the least of our brothers. From a hard scrabble childhood, her dad ill and out of a job, her mom heading back to the workplace, Elizabeth was expected to find a man who made good money and marry him immediately. Dreams of college and a teaching career were poo-pooed by her mother but she secretly applied for scholarships and, when they were awarded in droves, her dad made the decision to send her on her way. Thank goodness for us!

Elizabeth Warren's specialty, when she taught at Harvard, was bankruptcy law and she must have been a hell of teacher. Warren makes sure that her readers know that bankruptcy is not a moral failing as some politicians would have us believe,  but the direct result of three major life events that could have, or have happened to many of us, job loss, illness, and divorce.

She's able to explain the most complicated financial  products and laws in such succinct language that even I, who tend to zone out over facts and figures, could easily understand the implications. And she buries forever one of the most despicable tropes to come out of the recession years, that the lower classes - read blacks and Hispanics - took on more mortgage debt than they could handle, thereby destroying the economy.

This would be laughable if it wasn't so insidious and repeated so often that folks came to believe that our measly little fifty or seventy-five thousand dollar home loans could take down Wall St. With what big banks gamble and lose in a single day the government could have paid off every home loan in America and kept folks in their homes. But that's another story.

Elizabeth's story is that of an outsider, despised and feared by big banks, who came to Washington to change things and banged her head against a big brick wall. She tells the truth about those who helped - Ted Kennedy, Barney Frank - and those who hindered - too many to name. A story about a dinner with the infamous sexist and former head of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, confirmed what I already knew. But his flat out threat, advising Warren to keep her head down or know that she will make powerful enemies, only fired her up more.

When the president's staff, and later the president himself, informed her that she could not be confirmed to head the consumer organization she founded because she was "poison" in Washington, she headed home and explored a run for the senate. Fortunately, for Massachusetts and for all of us, we know how that turned out. We have an advocate in Washington.

This is a great read, an accessible memoir, a story of David and Goliath that has only just begun. If you've wondered about "too big to fail," the great recession, the bad guys and the good guys and how the people of our country were mislead and fooled into blaming ourselves for the financial meltdown, then this is your chance to exonerate yourselves and meet a wonderful new voice for sanity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Jewelweed is a Gem of a Novel

Jewellweed book cover
A thousand thanks to my literary mentor and friend Linda Holland for awarding five stars to Mr. Rhodes' exquisite novel, "Jewelweed." Linda is not prone to lavish praise unless it is really deserving. So the question is, why haven't more of us discerning readers heard of this book? Do you know that I actually had an advanced readers' copy sitting in my bookcase for months and hadn't even given it a second thought.
Like a dinner of plain old down-home cooking, Mr. Rhodes serves up simple sentences so crystal clear that each of the five senses are on high alert. No obfuscation, no high fallutin' phrases, but simple prose that pulls you into the story and doesn't let you go. We are in Words, Wisconsin, after all, a small town, yes, but a microcosm of every city everywhere.
What's so special about this book? To begin with, David Rhodes loves and respects each and every one of his characters. He treats them tenderly. They have troubles, they make huge and small mistakes, they suffer from alienation, false pride, misplaced assumptions, loneliness, and all of the other foibles that make us human. Mr. Rhodes is kind to these people and, in being so, he is kind to us as readers. I can't help but feel that he must be a lovely person, one you would want to know.
There is a plot, but it's not really necessary for me to retell it. This is a full-on, character-driven story about people whose lives intersect at just the right moments in their lives.
Why did Pastor Winifred feel the urgent need to go to the supermax prison to meet and talk with Blake Bookchester? He'd already been incarcerated for ten years for a small-time crime that was exacerbated by Blake's stubborn temper. Now he's due for parole. Might Winifred reach him through her constant gift of books? Help him acclimate to his freedom after his release?
How is it that Winifred's dreamy, scary smart son August befriends Ivan? Of all the kids at school, these two misfits seem to have an almost immediate, mystical kinship. And though Ivan's mom, Dart, distrusts everyone, scarred by years of bad men and broken dreams, she cracks open her heart just long enough to let Pastor Winnie in.
By doing so, Dart (actually Danielle) finds a job with the Roebuck clan, a multi-generational family with love to spare, a need for a no-nonsense cook/housekeeper like Dart, and an apartment for her and Ivan that's a huge step up from the one room dump over the meat locker in town.
And then there's Blake's dad Nate. A long distance trucker whose wife split when Blake was a kid, Nate did the best he could with Blake and still blames himself for Blake's downfall. Now he's a wreck. Blake may be released soon and Nate needs to get his rig home. He's been alone for so long he's unsure how the two of them will do together.
Avoiding the main highway, he takes a country road that leads him to a farmhouse where he stops to take a rest, accepting a kind offer of mashed potato pie from an elderly gent. In a glorious flight of magical realism, the very taste of the pie floods Nate's brain with memories of his cousin Bee, a woman he's loved since childhood. Could he ever reconnect with her?
When I closed the final page on this novel I sighed in pure delight. David Rhodes is a balm for the soul. This beautiful novel of time's healing properties, the eventual rightness of life, the ability to reconcile with the past, to forgive, to move on, is a joy to read. And the best news is that there's a prequel named "Driftless," which I've just checked out from the library. I'm willing to give my copy of "Jewelweed" away but it won't be easy. Comment if you'd like to share a wonderful reading experience!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Booker Prize Nominee - Us


A novel about a marriage and family in free fall was probably not the best choice of reading matter for me last week as I sat at my brother's bedside in the Ohio hospital where he was being treated for multiple debilitating side effects from his cancer therapy. I witnessed a disparate group of folks, my nieces, nephews, in-laws, and medical personnel all coming together with a common goal, to see Alan well enough to walk out that door.

I suppose it was unfair of me to expect that same cooperation from the characters in Mr. Nicholls' engaging but disturbing new novel, one that he refers to on his website as a "tragi-comedy." I found the story more tragi than comedy but I loved Nicholls' writing style and the self-deprecating voice of the narrator, Douglas Petersen.

If there were ever two people less meant for each other it had to be Douglas, an introverted, bookish scientist, and the wild child, pseudo-artist, Connie. Lessons we all should have learned by now? Physical attraction will only get you so far in a relationship. At the end of the day you really need to like one another and Connie's dismissive attitude toward Douglas and his exacting personality wore on me as a reader. On Douglas? Not so much.

In fact, inept at emotional intelligence, Douglas failed miserably at sensing the growing divide between he and his wife until the night she told him she "might" be leaving him. Ouch! Such a passive aggressive way of lowering the boom after twenty years. Connie deliberately leaves the door open and Douglas, thinking that there's still a chance of keeping his family intact, plans an elaborate European tour to celebrate their son Albie's high school graduation and their soon to be empty nest.

Nicholls alternates chapters between the current trip through France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with Doug's reminiscences of past excursions he and Connie took when their relationship was still new, before the death of their baby girl and the birth of their son Albie, a child who seemed to shrink from his dad from his first breath. The stronger the bond grew between Connie and Albie, the more Douglas was pushed to the periphery of the relationship, confused and uncomprehending. This trip, he believes, is the last chance he will have get to know his son and save his marriage.

This is a wistful kind of novel. The humor, while not the laugh out loud kind, is sardonic and the situations are oh so recognizable. I found myself hoping beyond hope that all would come right for Connie, Douglas and Albie even as I recognized that what might seem "right" to me might just not be what's right for them. This is a lovely book, a worthy nominee for the Booker prize. Just don't read it when you're down or blue. You wouldn't be giving it its due.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

It's never easy for me to bypass a book that has a photo of the Eiffel Tower gracing its cover, so the new Francine Prose was a must read.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
Ms. Prose is a prolific and thoughtful writer whose books have intrigued me for years. Many of her works examine the duality of our human natures. I'm thinking of "A Changed Man," a story about a Neo-Nazi hoping to atone for his transgressions, or "Blue Angel," in which an aging literature professor tries to regain his glory days through the talent of a young, off-limits student.
With "Lovers at the Chameleon Club," Francine Prose steps fully and confidently into the historical fiction genre while retaining the nuanced psychological probing into the nature of evil. She builds slowly, but you'll be rewarded magnificently if you have patience and stay the course.
Multiple narrators, each with a very distinctive voice, tell the story which covers almost eighty years. Prose shifts her writing style every time she changes point of view, an amazing feat which I've enjoyed ever since Barbara Kingsolver used it in "The Poisonwood Bible." So we have a mash-up of young people, Gabor, a Hungarian photographer and his future wife Susanne, Lionel, an American writer, and Lily de Rossignol, the baroness with a passion for the arts, who thrill to the 1930's nightlife of a vibrant, all-encompassing Paris.
And all paths cross at the Chameleon Club where, like its color-shifting namesake lizard, men and women are free to be, for an evening at least, who they really are, gay, lesbian, transgender, cross-dressing human beings. It's here that Gabor will take the infamous photo, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, that will kick start his career and bring unwanted attention to the subject of that picture, Lou Villars.
I love a novel that makes you start to search for background material and there's a ton of it here. It seems that Prose based her Chameleon Club on a famous lesbian underground nightclub called Le Monocle. http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/le-monocle-1932/  And, I'm afraid that once I saw the above picture, Lou Villars was firmly planted in my mind.
Lou is a tragic figure in this novel, a young girl who never felt comfortable in her skin. A young woman who wanted to compete in sports with men. She loved women and though she was cared for in return, relationships didn't seem to last. Business ventures failed. Down on her luck, she was ripe for seduction, not for sex but for a stronger drive, love of country.
France, you see, was in a bad place. Prose describes it this way: "The very same government that, by raising taxes, permitting uncontrolled immigration, weakening the military, failing to control the national debt, and fostering skyrocketing unemployment, was making it impossible for them to feed their families and provide better lives for their children."
Sound familiar? Yes, many Frenchmen, like Villars, could only see one way forward, an easy fix, a return to conservatism.  As the Nazi storm troopers moved inexorably toward Paris many truly believed that Germany was coming to help France regain its pride of place in Europe. Lou was one of these.
Of course, historically we know how the story ends. Yet this amazing novel had me on the edge of my seat wondering and sadly asking, could it happen again? Could it happen here? Francine Prose is at the top of her game here as she tackles war, politics, art, sexual identity, loyalty and love. I see a book discussion in my future.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Subjective Nature of Reviewing

I've been sitting here at the computer for going on four hours now trying to write an objective review of a book I really disliked. It doesn't happen often, though I'm less easily pleased the older I get. After all, I don't even have to mention the books I don't care for here on the blog. But this particular novel was sent to me by Library Journal and the deadline is Friday. It was the second one this month with which I was less than enthralled.

Of course, the author shall remain nameless until I can share it with you, but I feel like he's having me on and I just hate that. I want a writer to respect me as a reader and not fill up a novel with insider jokes and references that few folks would get. Is that asking too much? I just want a good story!

Between reading and getting my yard back in shape after a five month hiatus, I fear I've been derelict in my blogging duties. It's not that I don't have plenty on my mind but it's almost too frustrating, anger-inducing, and depressing to share. That would be politics, the media, and, of course, my brother's illness which seems to be relentlessly dogging him lately.

So tell me dear readers, what have you read lately? Contrary to what my sister thinks, it isn't always all about me! I need some recommendations - please. I have some fabulous forthcoming titles on my Nook but it hardly seems fair to rave about books you can't get hold of until 2015. Among them, Dennis Lehane's follow-up to the outstanding "Live By Night," http://bit.ly/1pZjqjl a look at the Irish mobster Joe Coughlin and his takeover of the Cuban rum trade in Tampa, Florida. It's called "World Gone By," and will likely disappear from the ether if I don't get to it soon.

And then there's Stephanie Kallos's "Language Arts." Those of you who read her debut, "Broken for You," will know what I'm talking about - gorgeous prose. Oh, did you know that Anne Tyler has written "A Spool of Blue Thread" for a February publication date? Hey, it's almost November, don't despair. I think I'll have a give-a-way for it as soon as I've devoured it myself. Watch for it here. I'm reading as fast as I can.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Attica Locke is Back with a Bang

OK, I'll admit that I was pretty miffed at the author Attica Locke when she blew off the Southwest Florida Reading Festival but, who knows, maybe we'll get another shot at bringing her from L.A. to Ft. Myers. I'm telling you, this gal is good. http://www.atticalocke.com/

Compliments of her publisher, Harper Collins, I had the chance to get an early reading of her latest novel, coming out next spring, titled "Pleasantville." Excellent! Ms. Locke has already compared to several of her finest contemporaries who write smart thrillers, Pelecanos, Lehane, and Turow. I think that her newest book places her right up there with John Grisham.

If you love David vs. Goliath type stories, especially those that end up in front of a judge, in a courthouse, then this is your girl. She's written a book that mixes up social justice issues with a good old fashioned murder mystery, one that I couldn't solve on my own. I hate it when that happens!

Texas politics plays an important role, circa 2000. A testy mayoral race, a campaign worker's disappearance, and a hard-won court battle against a big- pharma style polluter which is dragging its feet on the payout, all come to a head in the Houston neighborhood known as Pleasantville. This is an historic area of town which actually exists, a haven for middle-class African American working people to set down roots, own homes, and raise their kids in a supposedly safe environment.

The Hathorne family has been moving and shaking within the community for years and the aging patriarch, Sam, is bound and determined to see his son Axel, former police chief, become mayor. And things are on track until Sam's grandson Neal, campaign manager and newly minted attorney, is arrested amidst a barrage of circumstantial evidence that implicates him in the murder of Alicia Nowell, a student campaign worker.

Enter Jay Porter, a defense attorney who can't bring himself to face a jury. Since his wife died of cancer he's barely holding it together, trying to be mom and dad to his two kids and sinking everything he has into the class action lawsuit against Cole Oil Industries. He hates the idea of taking Neal's case but the Hathorne family, inexplicably, wants only him and he can't afford to turn it away, not just for the money but for the chance to redeem himself.

Locke's debut novel "Black Water Rising," was a knock out. http://readaroundtheworld-sallyb.blogspot.com/2010/01/attica-lockes-debut-novel.html It was here that we met Jay and his wife Bernie when she was pregnant with their first child, a teenager now in "Pleasantville." As I said then, it's obvious that Ms. Locke was a screenwriter (and still is). Her novels seem destined to come to a movie theatre near you soon. As you read you can actually see who would play whom in each and every roll. Even the lesser characters are outstanding. But, since we all know how long it takes to get a book to the big screen, you'd better add this one to your "to read" list and haunt the stores or your library until it comes out next spring. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Parenting, The Bravest Act of All

I've always thought that having a child is one of the most courageous, optimistic things that a person can do. Think of it! To voluntarily accept the responsibility of raising another little being to adulthood while afflicting as little emotional or physical harm as possible. Can it even be done? Are most of us just one short phone call from the psychiatrist's couch? Or, are we amazingly resilient and adaptable?

Author Noah Hawley has written a deeply emotional yet remarkably understated novel, "The Good Father," about a man and his boy, about the lengths to which a father will go to discover what makes his son tick. If something has gone haywire in his son's brain then who is to blame? Is it the old nature v. nurture conundrum? Or is it something more fundamental?

You see, Dr. Paul Allen, contentedly watching the news as his wife makes the Friday night pizza, sees something that he can't believe and will never accept. In a crowded college auditorium, a young man with a gun has just shot the Democratic candidate for president. The face on the TV screen is remorseless, no, affectless, but recognizable. It's Paul's son, Daniel.

Within minutes the FBI is at the door. Paul's second wife and their kids watch, stupefied, as Paul is whisked away in a black SUV to an undisclosed interrogation location. The nightmare begins.

I found it especially fascinating to listen in on the Q and A with the authorities. Their questions and Paul's answers reveal how little Paul knows about Dan's life even though he was an ostensibly hands-on dad, taking custody of Dan after the divorce from his first wife and integrating him into the new family. Dan's little brothers looked up to him and Paul's wife did her very best to make Dan feel at home. The last anyone knew, Dan had been enrolled, though a mediocre student, at Vassar.

This novel reminded me of William Landay's super hit, "Defending Jacob," though it's a more cerebral version of the psychological thriller genre. Hawley writes with such empathy for all of the characters affected by the candidate's death, Dan's mother, his stepmother and brothers, letting us into the lives of the many other victims of the crime.

As Paul sets out to prove that his son could not have committed this heinous crime, tracking back and forth across the country, following Daniel's movements, he ruminates on some of the other senseless assassinations of the last decade, the Kennedy brothers, John Lennon, looking for answers that may never come. But know this, those shooters were someone's child.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Coming in March - The Bookseller

Product Details
I don't know any bona fide reader who can resist a book entitled "The Bookseller," so when the publisher offered an early look, I jumped at the chance. I'm so sorry to tell you that I failed to realize just how early a look it was. Put a note on your calendar, do whatever you do when you're making your booklists, but don't miss Cynthia Swanson's debut novel when it is released next March.
When you read as many reviews as I do your eyes often begin to glaze over. It seems that there's a dearth of creativity and imagination when it comes to fiction lately. I'll often find myself saying, "not this worn out story again!" But Ms. Swanson, who has been awarded a Pushcart Prize for her short stories, broke the spell with this highly imaginative novel about a woman living in two worlds.
Kitty and Frieda have been best friends forever. They operate a struggling bookstore in Denver called Sisters, a moniker that reflects the strong connection between them. It's the '60's, try to remember those times if you can, and two women, happily single, surrounded by books and cats, and running a business, is still an anomaly.
 Frieda nurses a lingering resentment that her dad had to co-sign their business loan, and worries mightily about how they will keep the business afloat without an influx of money or a risky move out to the suburbs where things called shopping malls are opening up and stealing customers from downtown businesses.
Kitty, on the other hand, wonders if her very supportive parents secretly regret that she didn't marry young and provide them with the requisite two or three grandchildren. Why else would she be having such vivid dreams about a picture-perfect husband and a challenging set of triplets? Could this staid woman in the twinset and pearls actually be her alter-ego? Is this the person she'd have become if she hadn't chosen the freewheeling gypsy life of a bookseller? Or, are Kitty and Frieda two sides of the same coin?
Cynthia Swanson may be an artist by trade but she's a writer at heart. This refreshingly original novel examines women on the cusp of a movement where choices open up that were never there before. Yet, we know that for every action there is a reaction, choices have consequences. The psychology behind how we cope with those consequences is reflected in Kitty's dream world. Or is it?
This is a poignant, thoughtful novel about family, friendship, and the vagaries of life with all its joy and heartbreak.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Children Act

I've been waiting half the summer for another novel to impress me the way I was impressed by "All the Light you Cannot See." Yesterday afternoon I walked over to the library to pick up my copy of Ian McEwan's "The Children Act." This afternoon, I scarcely know where to begin. This is now my favorite Ian McEwan novel. There, I've said it. I can't for the life of me understand the tepid response that this novel has been given by other professional reviewers. I know that it will haunt me for a while.
A word about the cover, if I may? Take a quick look and what do you see? I saw a drop of blood. Knowing what the book was about, that seemed apropos. But then, upon closer scrutiny, the body of a gorgeous instrument, the violin. Now, what was I to make of that? Music, with its power to reduce one to a blubbering fool or raise one to the heights of ecstasy, plays a major role in McEwan's story but I have yet to hear it mentioned in any of the online discussions.
This novel should grace every book group's discussion list this year. The delicious dichotomy Mr. McEwan sets up between the law and morality. I think that most of us would agree that a "correct" action may not always be the moral one, and vice versa. But what if you alone have to be the arbiter? What a tremendously crushing responsibility.
British barrister Fiona Maye is my latest fictional heroine, a woman known for her sharp intellect, renowned for consistently making excruciating choices in the family court system, with unwavering belief in her own judgment. You can read the plot of this story anywhere but until you actually read McEwan's rendering, you cannot fully appreciate the subtlety and nuance of the narrative.
A seventeen-year-old boy lies in a hospital bed. He suffers from leukemia and is dangerously near death because he and his parents all agree that a blood transfusion, deemed medically necessary to save his life, would go against the tenets of their Jehovah's Witness faith. Because he is not of legal age to make an informed decision based upon England's Children Act, a guardian has brought the case to Fiona's courtroom for a verdict.
McEwan breathes glorious life into the young man, Adam, as seen through the eyes of all who interact with him, his nurses, and Fiona herself, when she suspends the court hearing to visit with him in his hospital room. Fiona is a woman who some, especially her seemingly long-suffering husband Jack, think is too cold, too self-contained, and maybe too involved in her work. Astute readers will see through this façade.
The strained relationship between Jack and Fiona is masterfully portrayed. After thirty-some years together, a request for freedom, a possible betrayal, a lengthy attempt to inch their way back, tiptoeing around the volatile subject, careful not to touch. It's all painfully realistic and recognizable to anyone who has gone through a separation or divorce.
I found this novel to be moving, thought-provoking, and beautifully written. Linda, my go to corroborator in all things literary, I know you read it. What say you?

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The "Live Heres" and The "Come Heres" in Sue Miller's "The Arsonist"

The Berkshire Hills were just a week shy of showing off their full autumn glory while Don and I were there visiting family.  I was still ruminating on a novel I had recently read by Sue Miller, one of my favorites and a woman I had the pleasure of meeting several years ago in Southwest Florida. In "The Arsonist," one of the themes is the subtle resentment and class distinctions between the small town inhabitants of Pomeroy, New Hampshire, and the summer people who invade from the fourth of July until Labor Day.

Once, I was the former and now I'm the latter and, believe me, I do laugh at the irony that has brought me to this extremely fortunate place in life. When I lived in Great Barrington I joined the moaning natives who railed at the New Yorkers who clogged our roads on summer weekends and smirked at the "peepers" who drove up from the city to see the leaves turn in September. During high school I waited on the winter visitors who skied at Butternut Basin, and in my younger adulthood, relied heavily on the big-spenders from Connecticut who kept our Becket barroom in the green.

I happen to know that Sue Miller has been a New England gal for many years now (Massachusetts) and I can say unequivocally that she got it just right. Her latest novel may be a quick read but it packs in several serious issues that provide food for thought, issues that seem to have been overlooked by many readers opining on the Internet.

I had no trouble empathizing with Frankie, a woman in her mid-forties who's come home to New Hampshire to evaluate her life so far and consider what the next step might be. Frankie has lived in Africa working for an NGO for over fifteen years. Life there was fast and furious, no long-term relationships flourish in a place where do-gooders come and go, where hard work and long hours appear not to make a dent in the lives of the people, and where burn-out rates are high. (theme number one)

Frankie is spending time with her parents, with whom she's never had a terribly close relationship. Once they were "come heres" who spent summers in Pomeroy, R and R from their city lives as academics. Now they have retired and are in Pomeroy for good. But the dream may be short lived. Frankie notices that her dad's behavior has changed and that her mom seems overly stressed and is drinking too much. A heart to heart between mother and daughter reveals that Alzheimer's disease is the culprit and that her mother has honest doubts about her ability to handle it with grace. (theme number two)

And then there's Bud. A former hot-shot journalist from DC who climbed off the gerbil wheel and purchased the local newspaper in Pomeroy with an eye to a simpler, more meaningful life away from the slugfest that politics has become. Can he bring Frankie around to his way of thinking? Could he be the first stable man in her life? Frankie's career defines her. Who would she be if she gave it up? (theme number three)

But, you're probably saying, the book is called "The Arsonist." What about that? It's true, fires are deliberately being set, mainly in empty summer homes, so at first, no one  in town much cares. "They've got insurance," is the typical response. Until the fires hit closer to home, one family just out to a local dance, another still in the house. Suddenly the little community of "live heres" and "come heres" needs to rally and Miller masterfully portrays the nuances of the extremely testy town meeting where the discussion ensues. (theme number four)

Sue Miller's latest novel is a very accessible read involving everyday problems and everyday people. As in life, things don't get wrapped up in nice little bows at the end. This fact may annoy some readers but it makes for a more interesting book and would also be a great book discussion if you happen to be looking for one. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Richard Ford, From the Sublime to the Quotidian, A Great American Novelist Does it Again

He said that he wouldn't, but he did. Richard Ford has written an addendum to his renowned Frank Bascombe trilogy which began with "The Sportswriter," continued with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Independence Day," and supposedly ended with "The Lay of the Land." I've thoroughly enjoyed all of Mr. Ford's books and even had the chance to get an autograph at a Book Expo signing the year that his  sublime "Canada" came out, (my review)(http://bit.ly/YTsKhV) but it's the deceptive simplicity of the Bascombe novels that really knocks me out.

I had the opportunity to download an advanced copy of "Let Me Be Frank With You," which, at 150 pages, could almost be classified as a novella. What fascinates me is how a book about nothing really, the quotidian, is actually about everything. This is the genius of Richard Ford.

You know how someone will ask you what you're reading and, when you tell them, they prod, "what's it about?" If I told you that this book is about a retiree and his wife who live in New Jersey and go about their daily routine just trying to do the best they can until they die, would you ever want to pick it up? Of course not. And yet you must!

The title is apropos since the novel reads more like a diary in which Frank relays his thoughts on the state of his morning, the coffee, the neighbors, the news, his wife and kids, and his past, in case we haven't read the other novels. We learn about his divorce from Ann after the death of their son, his successful career in real estate, the rapprochement with his son and daughter, and his second wife, Sally, who spends her retirement days grief counseling for those who lost everything during Hurricane Sandy.

Frank is frankly unsentimental and practical. He is well-read and has an ongoing argument with himself about words, deciding that there are too many, that the world of letters should be simplified, that we should downsize our verbosity. Perhaps a reason why this sequel is so small? He thinks of old friends with fondness but has no need to surround himself with an entourage.

Frank is wryly funny, often laughably irreverent, and at least for me, a pleasure to spend time with. He listens to NPR and gets a kick out of annoying his right-wing neighbors with the battered OBAMA sticker on his hybrid Hyundai. He records books for the blind, and drives up to Newark's Liberty Airport once a week to hand out welcome home packets to war veterans.

Frank Bascombe's life is simultaneously an open book and a mystery. He accepts with equanimity that he is on the downhill slide. The prostate cancer didn't kill him but something else will and that's as it should be. "Let Me Be Frank with You," is the pitch-perfect postscript to the Bascombe trilogy, a recounting of the days of an imperfect everyman, satisfied, content and unafraid of what tomorrow will bring. Can any of us ask for more?

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey, Sometimes the Film is as Good as the Novel

I just caught myself. I was planning to say that the film, "The Hundred-Foot Journey," was better than the novel by Richard Morais, but that would not have been a fair assessment. After all, I finished the book last week, but Don and I just this minute returned from the theatre. The smell of  roasted pheasant still teases my nostrils and the bright, autumn colors of the vegetables in the open-air market are lingering in my mind's eye. Yum!

The Hundred-Foot Journey

I just adore books and movies about food, those who prepare it and those who relish it. Who doesn't remember "Like Water for Chocolate?" What about "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman?" "Big Night?" It's been a while since "Julie and Julia," and I was ripe for a new duo. Along came Richard Morais's tale about a clash of cultures, a novel that was actually released back in 2008 but which only came to my attention after the movie's release.

The story is about the large, boisterous, loving Haji family whose enormously successful restaurant in Mumbai was burned to the ground during a political regime change. The matriarch of the family was killed and the Hajis fled to London where they got by but never truly assimilated. Still grieving his wife's death, Papa Haji piled the family into the car and took to the road, searching throughout Europe for a true home.

Et voila! Lumiere, France. (not a real place, I was ready to book a trip!) Here, in the heart of France, the Hajis take the town by storm, remodeling an abandoned estate and opening Maison Mumbai in the heart of haute cuisine country, to the horror of Madame Gertrude Mallory, proprietress of the Michelin starred inn, Le Saule Pleurer, on the opposite side of the street.

War ensues as Madame Mallory and Papa Haji each tries to undermine the other's business. The staid customers at Madame's restaurant are served ferociously expensive yet parsimonious servings of perfectly prepared French foods while the townspeople chow down ebulliently on the curries and tandoori served by chef Hassan Haji only one hundred feet across the road.

Now one might say they've heard this story a thousand times before but it's all in the telling, isn't it? Personally, I never tire of tales in which people break down barriers, learn to see the world in new ways, to appreciate differences. While the estimable Helen Mirren does a pitch-perfect job as the cold, self-involved, Gertrude Mallory, she almost forfeits several scenes to the soulful young man (Manish Dayal) who plays her inevitable protégée, Hassan Haji.

The film is a beautifully executed rendition of the novel by Mr. Morais. Why the reviews were so tepid I'll never understand. There are glorious close-ups of a simple, perfect egg yolk as it plops into a glass bowl. There is Ms. Mirren's face when she first tastes Hassan's poached pheasant and realizes that she has met a natural chef, a young man born to create food with all of his senses. There is burgeoning love, between boys and girls, men and women, and a town willing to open its arms to so-called outsiders. And there's the power of family, of roots, of being able to blend the old and the new.

If you're tired of non-stop violence in the news or in your reading, take a break. Make that hundred foot journey to your local library for the book. Then hop on Fandango and grab a ticket to the movie. It won't be around long, the good ones never are.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Everything's Burning in Natchez Burning

There's more gratuitous violence in Greg Iles' latest novel than I've seen in years. Still, I could NOT put it down. This 800 page thriller steam rolls into your reading life and takes over. What a thrill to find out, about half way through, that this is the first in a trilogy and that the follow up is already in the hopper. It's a tribute to Iles' strength as a person and as a writer that, after suffering severe injuries in an automobile accident, he was able to reap, from a long period of recuperation, such a tremendous literary output.

"Natchez Burning" has everything that a southern gothic novel should; family secrets, political shenanigans, corrupt policing, and still viable remnants of the Klan trying to outrun their pasts. Loyal readers of Greg Iles will already be familiar with Penn Cage, lawyer turned mayor of Natchez, Mississippi. He has finally recovered from his wife's early death, has raised a lovely teen-age daughter, and is engaged to be married to the ambitious, savvy editor of the local newspaper, the feisty Caitlin Masters.

Life is looking up, until, that is, Penn's dad, highly respected and beloved G.P. Tom Cage, who's been practicing medicine on both sides of the color line in Natchez for years, is accused of murder. Was it euthanasia or was it a deliberate attempt to keep his past relationship with the victim quiet? Tom won't talk and Penn is torn between loyalty, disappointment and anger, trying to keep his mom and daughter in the dark until he can find out for himself what his dad is hiding.

Greg Iles does an admirable job of using the dark history of the south, the pain of the civil rights era of the '60's, the unfathomable cruelty and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, as the foundation and backdrop for all that comes after. Vengeance and greed play strong roles in the lives of the businessmen who are behind the cover-ups of multiple race-related crimes in the Natchez area over the years and god help the do-gooders who try to bring those crimes to light.

There are some great secondary characters in this novel. I'm guessing that Iles has plenty of respect for investigative journalists as Caitlin fights Penn for the right to get the story to print even if it means putting lives in jeopardy. And it's another newspaperman, Henry, whose years of research on the Klan's activities set much of the book's action in motion.

There may be times, during the reading of this novel, that you'll shake your head in disbelief at someone's outsize bravery, or squirm in reproach at the author's use of German flamethrowers as instruments of torture, but if you can skim over these distractions, you'll be rewarded with a thriller that leaves you breathlessly anticipating the sequel, "The Bone Tree," out next April.

Learn more about Greg at his trippy website http://www.gregiles.com/ . Bookie insiders will be pleased to know that they can hear Greg perform as a member of the novelist/musician junk yard band, The Rock Bottom Remainders. I just know that someday we'll get them to a gig at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lisa See, Most Patient Writer Ever or National Book Festival, Part 3

I've been involved in hundreds of reading festivals, author talks, and conferences over my years as a librarian and there's one thing I always dread, the Q and A. Is there even one original question left to ask of a writer after he or she has finished his presentation? I cringe when I hear someone get up to the microphone and ask, "what does your writing day look like?" or "how do you come up with the ideas for your characters?" OY!

Worse yet is when a questioner rambles on about himself, the book he's in the middle of, how to retain a publisher, etc. So, kudos to Lisa See for the amazing self-restraint she showed last Saturday after her very funny, a good bit bawdy, and extremely informative talk at the National Book Festival.

Lisa See

Touting her recently released novel, "China Dolls," Ms. See began her presentation with an anecdote from the evening prior to the festival when a woman who was seated at her dinner table asked her why she always wrote about China. She proceeded to explain her family's genealogy, tracing back over several generations, and then spoke about how mixed-race children tend to identify with one side of the family over the other. It has to do with those around you, she explained, and she has 400 relatives on her father's Chinese side.

When she was finished, moderator Ron Charles from the Washington Post called anxious audience members to the microphone to ask their questions. The first one? You got it. Prefacing his question with words like, "this might seem like an inappropriate question...." I'd have stopped him in his tracks right there. You know, if it looks like a duck.....However, Ms. See, a better person than I, let him go on and sure enough, he had the gall to say, "you don't look Chinese."

To her credit, after chastising him lightly for missing the beginning of her presentation, she took the opportunity to provide a lesson in cultural awareness, identity and prejudice. The audience was mighty pleased. http://www.lisasee.com/

By the way, if you were not able to attend the National Book Festival but would like to know more about the authors and their presentations, the Library of Congress does a great job of taping and webcasting for your enjoyment. It may take a week or two for this year's authors to be up on their website but you can always entertain yourself with videos of previous years while you wait. http://www.loc.gov/bookfest/ Enjoy!

Monday, September 1, 2014

National Book Festival 2014, Part 2

I first read a book by E. L. Doctorow back in the '70's when I belonged to the Book of the Month Club. Remember that? I have no recollection of which book it was, but I've been a fan ever since. Last year I led a book discussion of his classic "Ragtime," but I think that "Homer and Langley" is my favorite so far.

Image of E. L. Doctorow

So there was no way that I wasn't going to break my retirement rule of sleeping until my body clock wakes me, to get down to the DC convention center by 10:00 a.m. in time to see the rather frail eighty-three-year-old receive the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. According to his interviewer, Marie Arana, former editor of the Book World for "The Washington Post," Mr. Doctorow is still writing at the top of his game. Simply remarkable! His latest novel, "Andrew's Brain," is now on my lengthier by the day "to read" list, along with an old one that I missed but which peaked my interest as he spoke, "The Book of Daniel."

My sister and I stayed in the ballroom, patiently waiting for Doctorow's fans to file out, so that we could move to the very front of the room to bask in the glorious aura that emanates from Ishmael Beah. This man fascinates me. When I used to ruminate on the seemingly unfathomable resilience of the human spirit, Anne Frank usually came to mind. Now it's Ishmael Beah.

I had the great privilege of reviewing Mr. Beah's first novel, "The Radiance of Tomorrow," for "Library Journal." I knew of his history as a child soldier forced to take up arms against his own people during the civil war in Sierra Leone. I had heard him interviewed on the Diane Rehm show and felt, for certain, that I could not read his memoir, "A Long Way Gone." Yet I also knew that, in order to pronounce on his novel, I would need to immerse myself in the full context of his life, no matter how painful that would be.
My verdict on the novel, one sentence, was definitive:
"Beah, who broke our hearts with the haunting memoir of his life as a boy soldier (Long Way Gone), will render readers speechless with the radiance of his storytelling in this novel of grace, forgiveness, and a vision of a tomorrow without conflict."

Mr. Beah is a beautiful speaker. He talks of language with overt reverence, of his family's long tradition of storytelling with love and longing in his body. He will, he says, return to Sierra Leone to live and to raise his children when the time comes. We understand. The opportunities that have been afforded him by his life in the United States, though life-changing, cannot compete with the love of his homeland.

This is a man who will never forget the past. He uses his renown and money to work for his foundation, http://www.beahfound.org/ which helps children whose lives are decimated by war, rebuild, find solace, and generate hope for a more radiant tomorrow.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

National Book Festival 2014, Part 1

The locals were concerned about the National Book Festival's move from the green, green grass of the mall in front of the Smithsonian to the Washington Convention Center. No need. The grass was no longer green anyway (a problem that will soon be remedied), and on a 90 degree day in the District of Columbia, with showers threatening, there was no better place than the convention center to celebrate books and reading.

For my sister Cynthia, it was the culmination of a dream. The minute the list of speakers' names was released and civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis's name was included, she made her plans to visit. I warned her as best I could.

"There's thousands of people there Cynth, you may not get to talk with him, you may only see him from afar, blah, blah, blah...."

I should never have underestimated her. As we came off the escalator, well ahead of the crowd in order to get a front-row seat, there he was! Minus an entourage, no secret service, she soon had his ear, into which she whispered, "I bless the day you were born."

I admit that when he rose for the first of three standing ovations, my eyes misted over. We were witnessing living history. The cause for all the attention is the story of John Lewis's life and work in the civil rights movement written for a new generation as a graphic novel called "March." This is the first volume in a projected trilogy, the brainchild of Andrew Aydin, a comic book aficionado, and member of Representative Lewis's staff.

The book has already won numerous awards and has been added to required reading lists in schools across the country. But that isn't what made yesterday's presentation so memorable. It was the passion of the two speakers and the obvious affection they have for one another that choked me up.

It was so gratifying to see this history maker from my generation interacting with and igniting the mind of someone decades younger, a thirty-something who gets it and who, we feel assured, will take up the mantle when the time comes. The struggle for equal rights in the United States continues unabated, but today I feel more confident that the work will go on long after we children of the sixties are gone.

Though being in the same room with Representative Lewis was the highlight of our day, there are many more fantastic speakers to write about, not to mention all the friends we ran into among the throngs of bookies. More on that tomorrow.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Caitlin Doughty's Lessons from the Crematory

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory

Last spring, some of you may remember, I audited a journalism course at Florida Gulf Coast University. I really threw myself into it, and though I certainly didn't have to complete the assignments, I did want to pull my weight. So when we were assigned a 700 word personal essay, I decided to write about my experience purchasing a cremation service. You should have seen the kids' faces the day we went around the room and shared our ideas! Horrified. Appalled. Disturbed. Well, I get it, they're twenty and I'm sixty-five.

When I began reading early reviews about the perfectly titled, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and other Lessons from the Crematory," by Caitlin Doughty, I knew that I wanted to be an early reader. I wasn't disappointed. Ms. Doughty came to the subject of death and its treatment at the hands of dishonest funeral directors, guilt-inducing religious (she's not), and the general public, much the way I did but at a considerably younger age. Just think of all the angst she's spared herself.

The fear of death can be debilitating. It can stop you in your tracks, determine how you live your life for good or ill, and is a stultifying feeling that I personally blame on my Catholic upbringing. For Ms. Doughty, it was witnessing a horrific accident that resulted in the death of an eight-year-old. After earning a degree in medieval history studies, Caitlin, turned to a crematorium in Oakland, California, for her next life lessons.

This is one feisty gal. She didn't stand on ceremony or expect to be treated specially because of her fancy college degree. She jumped right into the heat, handling the bodies that need to be prepped for family visits, pulling them from the fridge and wheeling them into the ovens. I've seen this operation, believe me, it's pretty basic and, she tells us, very dirty. And yet, it is so right. After all, if you believe that the soul leaves the body at the moment of death, no problem. If you don't believe in anything at all, well, still no problem, right?

There is plenty of humor to be mined in the dust bins of the crematory and Caitlin is a very funny lady. There are also instances in which people behave so badly, especially families, that it's disheartening. If you've ever watched an episode of CSI, you understand that death can be a messy business. She pulls no punches about the ways of a body in decomposition. But don't be squeamish, she also takes every opportunity to quote from some of her favorite writers, Jessica Mitford and Joseph Campbell, two of my personal heroes as well.

There may be some extraneous bits to this book, but death and its handling is an important topic which needs to be talked about, so I was willing to overlook the parts about a love affair gone wrong. Perhaps it's there to let readers know that Caitlin had a life outside the crematory. The object of the book is to get families talking, to prod people to make their wishes known to those who care about you. I did, and it's such a load off my mind.

Caitlin now works as a successful mortician with her own business, an active online video presence, and an audience of people willing to be pragmatic as they work with her to try to create a "good death." To get a better sense of Caitlin Doughty and her calling, visit her wonderful website at:


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Time For a Book Giveaway!

There's nothing more exciting for a book reviewer than the sound of the UPS guy pulling up to the curb with a box of books. This week I received two advanced copies, along with a leisurely deadline. "Outline," by Rachel Cusk, which I'm halfway through, and "Africa 39," essays from new writers south of the Sahara.

The surprise in the box was a completed hard copy of a novel I reviewed back in January, a disturbing, psychological study by Richard Bausch. I compared "Before, During, After," to a Tennessee Williams play because it was so emotionally draining to read. Here's how I began:

"Natasha Barrett and Father Michael Faulk had at least one thing in common the evening they met at Mississippi Senator Norland’s house: neither wanted to be there. Yet within a few alcohol-fueled months of dating, they chose to ignore their misgivings, the 17-year age difference, the dearth of information about each other’s pasts, and planned a September wedding. As each tied up loose ends, Michael in New York City, Natasha in Jamaica, the unthinkable happened. September 11, 2001, gave Americans a collective case of PTSD. For Natasha, stranded in Jamaica, convinced that Michael was dead, an assault of a different nature had a similar effect."

 I'm sure I said it was compelling. It's a story about secrets. Why we keep them and how they can eat away at the soul until there's nothing left but the empty shell of the person we once may have been.

It's a love story as well. A novel of trust, lost and regained, the tale of two people traumatized by the very public terrorist attacks in New York City and the very private attack suffered by Natasha in Jamaica.

So, I surmise that if you read this blog fairly regularly, you may be a reader who is also drawn to the dark side of humanity. I'll send this book out to the first person to comment on their reading tastes and, if you wouldn't mind, why not recommend something for the rest of us, something wonderful that you've read lately and would like to share. If you give me your email address I can contact you personally and follow up for your mailing address. Cheers!