Saturday, March 29, 2014

Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom

I read Mandela's  book, "Long Walk to Freedom," last month and finally, yesterday, I got the Idris Elba film from the library. "Mandela; Long Walk to Freedom" came in and out of Ft. Myers, Florida, theaters with the speed of a tornado. Even if residents wanted to see it - and I'm sure there are those who did - they wouldn't have had time to plan to. However, if it's "3 Days to Kill" that floats your boat, no worries. It'll be showing for months.

Product DetailsMandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013) Poster

This film is one of the finest examples of a book adaptation that I've ever seen. Why was it so overlooked during the awards season? One of my favorite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, got me curious when, during a wide-ranging interview with Zadie Smith she opined that Idris Elba, who plays Mandela with extraordinary grace (my opinion), was robbed of an Oscar nomination. I agree. Not only did he have Madiba's vocal cadence down pat, he also conveyed the weight of twenty-seven years in prison, through the hunched body posture of the aging leader when he was released.

I thought the movie did an admirable job of introducing people to the full facets of Mandela's life within the extraordinarily limited two hour time frame. As Mandela admitted in his book, he did not take upon his shoulders the mantle of the peacemaker easily or without thought. How he arrived at this place, forgave his jailers and the enslaving political environment that was Apartheid, is the miracle of his story and of those who were imprisoned with him. This gentleman, incarcerated with Mandela, ensures that those who tour the prison will not forget. Imagine, if you possibly can, coming back each day to tell the story to future generations.

Whether reading or watching, what must keep us readers rapt is the question we ask ourselves. Could we put our lives on the line for an ideal we believe in? The very thought that South Africans were slaves in their own country, at the mercy of the colonialists who came to rape the land of its seeming unlimited bounty, is a difficult concept to get your head around. Unless, that is, you think of our own history here in the United States and our embarrassing treatment of the American Indians.

Yes, Mandela joined the African National Congress and eventually resorted to violence to shake up the Apartheid government. But what was excoriated as terrorist behavior in black South Africans was heralded in this country as patriotic fervor back in 1776 when a declaration of independence from the English oppressors was signed. Oh, how quickly we forget.

The film also gave Mandela's wife, Winnie, her due, showing us how she evolved from reluctant martyr to the cause, to a full soldier in the fight. I thought I was fairly well versed in Africa's history but I was completely unaware that Winnie was persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and, I'm sure, raped, simply as a way to psychologically destroy Mandela while he was isolated on Robben Island off Cape Town's coast.

He was allowed one letter every six months and, when one arrived, it was often so redacted as to be unintelligible. But the guards never failed to notify him when his wife was being punished. She was kept in solitary confinement for over a year not knowing where her two little girls were or who was caring for them. When she was released, she was a different woman. She told Nelson that only hate kept her going. Read or watch and you will understand.

The book and the movie are a fascinating look at evil and one's reaction to it. Winnie and Nelson Mandela suffered greatly for the freedom that would eventually unite their country but divide them. How each of them responded to the hardship and struggle comes down to the differences in our human natures.

Nelson became a beloved leader, though some South Africans I met while traveling there will quietly say that they think he may have sold out. Winnie's legacy flounders under a cloud of accusations of excessive violence, but make no mistake. My guide in Johannesburg drove me past her house and referred to her with awe and respect. It's clear that their work is not yet completed.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Seven Years of Reading Around the World

It's true. I can't believe that I've been documenting my reading, my travels, and my life, here on this blog for seven years today. I remember the workshop where it all began, sponsored by the Southwest Florida Library Network. I even remember several of the other students in the class. To my knowledge, none of them kept up the blog that they created that day.

Frankly, there are times when I think it's time to give it up, move on to some other mode of expression, but writing is addictive. The more often you do it, the more often you want to. My biggest disappointment has been my failure to find an interactive audience. I know you're out there. You're reading. I can see you through my statistical analysis "site meter." Are you shy? Reluctant to hit the "comment" button? I follow many blogs that knock me out, yet I too, hesitate to engage. Are we just lazy or do we think that our opinions don't matter. Say it isn't so.

I've been thoroughly enjoying this first winter of retirement by auditing a journalism class at Florida Gulf Coast University called "Writing for a Mass Audience." I've picked up so many tips by listening and observing. It has been a fantastic experience. The 20-somethings don't just tolerate me, they actually seem to like me, they really like me. They're always willing to give me tech tips, how to download the newest Twitter app to Don's ipad so that I can tweet photos, how to tweet from my old-fashioned flip phone, how to record sound bites, etc.

The class is using William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" as a reference. I reread Chapter 5 when I feel like it's time to throw in the towel.

"Who am I writing for?" he asks us. The answer is simple.

"You are writing for yourself. Don't try to visualize the great mass audience. There is no such audience - every reader is a different person.....You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for."

That would be you, people, and I do so much enjoy it. Therefore, I'll plunge joyfully into year eight of reading around the world, knowing that I can't possibly tell you about all the books that I devour ( 27 since the first of the year) and won't tell you about the ones I judge not worth sharing.

Next up will likely be the absolutely insane novel that I'm reading now. If you are familiar with the outrageously good, truly evil mind of Herman Koch and his novel "The Dinner," then you can imagine what his second book might be like. I managed to snag an advanced copy from the folks at Edelweiss Online Books and am reading as fast as I can. Give me another couple of days and, oh yes, thanks so much for hanging out with me all these years.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jean Hanff Korelitz

I've been seeing plenty of great press about the new novel by Ms. Korelitz that came out this week which only served to remind me that her previous book, "Admission," has been on my "to read when I retire" list for way too long. I just finished it and I'm so glad that I did.

I have one question for those of you who have seen the film and may or may not know that it was based on Ms. Korelitz's novel. How on earth could such a serious book with so many mature themes have been turned into a Tina Fey Rom-Com? Yes, it's now number one in my Netflix queue. Let's talk after I see it.

The story is about the aptly named Portia (the quality of mercy) Nathan, an admissions officer at Princeton, and about the horrendously difficult process by which applications to Ivy League colleges, Princeton in particular, are evaluated and culled. The politicking and behind the scenes lobbying, the deadly long days of final meetings where leaving the room for a bathroom break could be fatal for your favorite prospects, are written with withering clarity.

 It's a fascinating behind-the-scenes look and, thanks to the fact that Ms. Korelitz actually spent a semester or two as a reader of applications at Princeton, her writing smacks of the truth. Each chapter begins with a portion of an admissions essay. The stories range from laughably egotistical to distressingly sad and Portia can suss out a fake in a heartbeat.

While on a tour of private schools in the northeast, Portia visits the experimental Quest School and meets Jeremiah, a student who's been chosen for special attention because of his innate intelligence and troubled background in the traditional school setting. She is entranced. For reasons she can't explain even to herself, she wants to see Jeremiah thrive at Princeton and pledges to help him to that end.

Upon returning to New Jersey from New England, Portia discovers in a most humiliating way, that her partner of sixteen years is leaving her for the new English teacher from Oxford. Though their relationship was growing sterile and tired, she thought they would plod along as a couple indefinitely. The breakup throws her into a despondency that is heartbreakingly described. She refuses to bathe, answer mail or phone calls, and forgets to eat, leaving readers to wonder who or what will help her out of this debilitating depression.

The answer is a kick. "Admission" is a winner, full of laugh-out-loud humor, wince-inducing sarcasm and yes, even empathy. Looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of "You Should Have Known."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Writers are the Most Generous People

Yesterday I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival. This is my fifteenth year working with the authors and I never tire of it. Writers are the most generous people in the world, generous with their time, their advice, and especially with their patience. Sign this. Pose for photos. Answer the rudest, most personal questions with a smile.

There was a standing room only crowd - 460 seats and three walls full - for the opening speaker. Sue Monk Kidd spoke for close to an hour, even though she had been suffering with a flu all week. She attributed her lingering cough to a grueling three month book tour of all those frigid, northern states and was mighty pleased to be back home in Florida.

Ms. Kidd talked specifically of her new novel, "The Invention of Wings," which, by the way, sold out before she'd even said a word. Though not a southerner, I could totally relate to her description of her life in the '50's and early '60's. It must be appalling for the young women today to imagine, but career options were limited to teacher, nurse, (librarian, which I think she threw in just for us), or homemaker. She chose nurse. Her rebellion came later.

It's no wonder that she could empathize with the Grimke sisters, especially Sarah Grimke, the young woman at the heart of her novel, a young woman who aspired to become a lawyer. Though that road was closed to her, she managed to become a leading speaker throughout the nation on the subject of the abolitionist cause whose platform dovetailed with that of the women's suffrage movement. Her story makes for a compelling narrative.

I've often wondered how difficult it must be for writers to promote themselves, as they must in these days of limited publisher funding, when it would seem that, by nature, they should be introverts. Well, not so for all. Friday evening we had a great chat with Hank Philippi Ryan who has no trouble with promotion. She thrives on it.

Ms. Ryan has won every mystery writers' award that there is and still has time to contribute to the fabulous blog Jungle Red writers. I didn't get to hear her talk, though I heard it was fab, because I ran over to another venue to introduce one of my favorite new writers, Wiley Cash, "A Land More Kind than Home," and his co-presenter, Mario Zambrano, a former ballet star who still teaches dance yet managed to write a well-received debut novel as well.

These two young men completely charmed the small but attentive audience who were not shy about asking some probing questions. In fact, the audience questions at all of the presentations were much more imaginative than in past years, even earning kudos from the writers.

My day ended with Andrew Gross. He is a very funny man. Just check out the Twitter post on his website and you'll get a feel for how his afternoon talk went. I'll make my mea culpa now. I have not read an Andrew Gross novel. But I love suspense as much as the next person and I plan to amend that mistake as soon as I get free from the books that I've reviewed for Library Journal this month. (Not to mention my overdues at the library, the advanced copies on my Nook, and the assignments from my writing class.

At the risk of writing a post that's too long, I must give a huge shout-out to the wonderful Philip Margolin who received the Distinguished Author Award at the Friday evening festivities. He founded an organization in Portland, Oregon, that helps young students achieve school mastery through chess.

This is his second time gracing us with his presence in southwest Florida where he donated his time by offering to play golf with a lucky bidder. He also spent yesterday afternoon in the Books-A-Million booth signing his books for future sales. What a gentleman. I've heard wonderful things about his new book, "Worthy Brown's Daughter." Be sure to give him a look.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Less Than Perfect Book Discussion a Disappointment

Yesterday I hosted a book discussion at the library. I was expecting a huge crowd because it's March, a busy time in Florida, and because the book, "The Round House," by Louise Erdrich, is such an outstanding novel. I originally wrote about it here right after it won the National Book Award.

So what went wrong? I'm still mulling it over. I had invited a special friend who is a Canadian judge with a special interest in and knowledge of the difficulties of the native people of Canada. Erdrich, one quarter Ojibwe, is renowned for her activities and writing about the plight of the native people in the United States, and all of her novels are informed by this activism.

Briefly, in case you're not familiar with the novel, it involves a horrific crime committed against a native woman on the reservation by a non-native man. The problem is that we readers aren't, at first, privy to this information. We only know that Geraldine was blind-folded, beaten and raped. Later, she is either unwilling or unable to explain to the police where this happened and who perpetrated the attack. We come to understand that she does know all of the answers but that she keeps silent in hopes of saving another life.

My friend, the judge, expressed disappointment with the discussion, saying that we barely touched the surface of this deeply complex novel. I could sense that a few others agreed and were leaving frustrated. So many times during a discussion, all the stars are aligned and thoughts flow freely, but yesterday I felt that some people were holding back.

Several admitted that they disliked the book, yet when probed, they could not express why. Others obsessed over Ms. Erdrich's personal life instead of examining  the book on its own merits. A few found it unbelievable that a thirteen-year-old boy could plan and execute a revenge killing. I guess they don't read the papers.

I'm left with the feeling that I failed the group somehow. It never ceases to amaze me how off base I can sometimes be when my judgment is clouded by my own strong opinion. When I love a book, when an author's writing brings me to my knees, I blithely assume that everyone will see it my way.

It's too late to change the dynamic of yesterday's discussion. Since I'm now retired, I no longer have much say in how the discussion group is run, what books are chosen for discussion, or how many we host per year. We'll soon have a change of management at my home library and that may further affect my influence.

Still, I'll continue to advocate for more programs rather than fewer, for better quality books rather than lesser, and for more democratic input from the participants. I've already gone out on a limb and promised, if I'm allowed, to tackle the 800 page behemoth, "The Goldfinch." I'll keep you apprised.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ann Patchett's Essays

For the spring semester at Florida Gulf Coast University I am auditing a class in the journalism department. Some of the students would love to trade places with me. Auditing means that I don't have to do the homework, though I've tried to keep up. I thought I was taking the class to learn more about technology. Instead, I am picking up plenty of tips on crystal clear writing.

We are currently in the middle of an assignment called an "immersion essay." How fortunate that I finally got the email from my library telling me that "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage," by Ann Patchett was finally in for me. I've always been a huge Patchett fan. I've led book discussions on two of her novels, "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder," and still think that "The Patron Saint of Liars" is an amazing debut. But this essay collection is notable because it allows us into the author's head in a way that a novel simply can't do.

I plan to share a couple of these essays with my class as perfect examples of what I think an immersion essay should look like. My favorite, "My Road to Hell Was Paved," came about as a magazine assignment that Ann calls "her plan to infiltrate RV culture and expose it for the gas-guzzling, fitness-eschewing underbelly my editor knows it to be." I laughed out loud. My sentiments exactly, I thought.

The plan is to rent a Winnebago in Billings, Montana, drive through the Badlands and then on to Yellowstone Park. To make it even more adventurous, she's going to do this with Karl, the long-time lover with whom she's just broken up. Talk about stress; exceedingly close quarters, dodgy driving conditions, and proximity to other campers with whom one has little or nothing in common.

"The Wall" is another immersion essay about Ann's decision to apply for a position with the LA Police Dept. The back story is a balanced examination of the ferociously bad press the police department was garnering in the years leading up to the Rodney King tragedy when riots over claims of police brutality brought the city to its knees. Ann's dad, to whom she's very close, was a thirty-year veteran of the department so her loyalty to it was never in doubt.

Many of these essays poignantly reminisce on a less than idyllic childhood. Her parents divorced when she was four years old and her mom moved Ann and her sister from LA to Nashville, along with a boyfriend who would become step dad number one. "How to Read a Christmas Story" brought back memories of my own difficult Christmases as an inexperienced stepmother defending two little girls from selfish, battling parents.

Ann Patchett's writing is so perfect, so honest, especially when she's describing her own failings, that I wanted to sit right down and take another look at the memoir I started years ago in a NanoWrimo moment. Whether she's speaking about her family, her relief at never having had children, her first marriage, (the one that wasn't happy), her beloved dog, Rosie, or her husband Karl, readers will sense that a very private person is letting them, and only them, in on a secret.

To my fellow students I say, this is a must read. Ann Patchett's advice and reflections on her writing career are invaluable. Her take on the editing process is spot on. Everything that we're learning in class is there. She says that many of the essays she's proudest of "were made from the things that were at hand - writing and love, work and loss." I guess that means that the old adage, "write what you know," still holds true. And that's what readers will love about this collection. It's true.