Thursday, July 31, 2014

Quick Notes on Sweetness and Snarkiness

A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman
Ever since Don and I biked through Provence, several years and stronger knees ago, I've been a sucker for a field of lavender. Mix that field in France with a love story and I'm all in. Sussman's novel deals with middle-aged love, finding the right person at the right time in one's life, a phenomenon which happens more often than we believe, especially in the retirement havens of Florida.
But she also delves into love's intricacies, the idea of settling for comfortable rather than for the grand passion. Love for family, the complications that familial ties can arouse in a relatively new relationship, and long-time love, that survives through gracious acts of forgiveness, are all brought to the fore over one weekend at an inn in Cassis.
Olivia and Brody are taking the plunge, their best friends are hosting the wedding at their Provencal bed and breakfast, and Olivia's unhappily single daughters from her first marriage are working through their own strained relationship. In the course of a single weekend, bonds are forged and broken, past secrets are revealed, and love, in all of its iterations, conquers all.
Lost for Words
Leaving France with a sigh, I moved on to the witty, spiteful world of literary awards in Edward St. Aubyn's "Lost for Words." All I can say is OUCH! Even I, no expert on British writers and their judges, could easily recognize some of the real-life people St. Aubyn was satirizing in this clever, though not angry, expose of the Man Booker Awards, fictionally called the Elysian Awards, a shout out to the mega-corporation that owns and televises the annual festivities.
St. Aubyn exposes what I too believe is a flaw in the plethora of prizes for literature that exist in various countries. True, it's edifying to see books touted and writers presented with much needed monetary awards with which to continue their work, but.....there's also a false note to many of the awards.
Do judges deliberately choose novels that are simply unreadable because they don't want to be seen as not understanding what the writer is saying? Do the judges haggle ahead of time, pushing for their own favorite at the expense of the quality of the writing?
Literature lovers will laugh out loud and nod in recognition at the posturing critics as they fawn over an accidental entry for the Elysian Award in fiction, "The Palace Cookbook," which is, in fact, just a collection of recipes linked with prose reminiscences from the aunt of a renowned Indian writer whose thousand page tome is also in the running.
Might this book just be sour grapes? St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels received critical raves and one of them was on the short list for a Booker prize several years ago. I'm just saying......But, if you reveled in Richard Russo's "Straight Man," or chortled over Martha Grimes' "Foul Matter," you'll appreciate the humor in "Lost for Words."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lily King's Euphoria

Home Image

I'd have probably chosen this book anyway, just based on the riot of color that graces the cover and the one word title, "Euphoria," but I'd also been hearing some excellent buzz about Lily King's latest novel that made me curious.

It's no secret in literary circles that, for the past several years, a pseudo-biography about an interesting, perhaps unsung woman, is a sure-fire recipe for a hit novel. It started with "Loving Frank," then "The Paris Wife," and let's not forget "The Aviator's Wife." And why not? Shouldn't the tough woman behind the man finally start getting some credit?

In the case of "Euphoria" though, Ms. King turns this phenomenon on its head. The fascinating subject of her novel, Nell Stone, is a thinly disguised Margaret Mead, the ground-breaking, wonderfully controversial cultural anthropologist whose observations of tribal customs in the Asian Pacific resulted in the classic "Coming of Age in Samoa." (I regret that I've never read this but will now likely give it a look.) I love when reading fiction snowballs into other areas.

Researching through Mead's unpublished letters, King has written a tight, relatively short novel that packs in a great deal of information and character study. Nell is a woman who is so ahead of her time, so open to exploration, so driven to learn and to understand, that I found myself wishing that I could meet her.

By the time she arrives with her husband Fen, also an anthropologist, in the Sepik River area of New Guinea, she has already attained some renown from her first book. That fact is a thorn in the side of the less focused Fen and the seed of professional jealousy sprouts as Nell works successfully with the women and children of the Tam tribe, writing prodigious notes each evening, thriving in their female-dominated culture.

Enter Andrew Bankson, a British anthropologist well-known to the couple by his reputation, and the subtle fissures in Nell's and Fen's marriage open up. Bankson falls in love with Nell's mind first, perhaps why I fell half in love with Bankson, a fictional version of Mead's third husband Gregory Bateson. The two are so temperamentally suited, writing and talking together through many long nights, each one's ambition and love of the work feeds off the other's.

But what really excites me about this novel is the way Ms. King takes readers into the lives of the tribal women. Reminiscent of Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," we feel the freedom that the women share, admire the way they work together to care for and feed their families, and envy their sensuous ability to exult in their femaleness and their unfettered sexuality. A visceral air of fecundity seeps through the village, instilling a deep longing in Nell for a child of her own. And because we come to care for Nell so much, we wish it for her as well.

One can't write a novel about Brits and Americans "studying" other cultures without the worry that the colonialist mindset will raise its ugly head. Though King touches on the hubris of explorers who have stolen artifacts from the countries that have welcomed them, she dwells more on characterization. What motivates these anthropologists? How do they achieve satisfaction? How do they manage to survive and even thrive so far from their own societies? Perhaps they are afflicted with a strong case of euphoria!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why isn't Everyone Talking about Harry Quebert?

I was going to be alone this past weekend and had planned nothing more ambitious than binge watching the last season of Downton Abbey. But, along came my neighbor with a book that she was returning to the library. She said it was her favorite so far this year. Well, the gauntlet was thrown. I snatched it up, got comfy in the swing, and burned through this six hundred page monster in three days. I didn't lose patience until about fifty pages from the end so I guess that's saying something!

And who is the author Joel Dicker anyway? Here's an into: It's interesting to note that this novel was written in French and was a huge hit overseas. The book has taken a lot of negative hits on Amazon but I think the English translation is spot on and the plot is so convoluted that I defy you to tell me it doesn't hold your interest.

Book lovers will fall hard for this mystery which revolves around not one, but two writers - the most unreliable narrators in the world. (Remember that) Harry Quebert is the master, the teacher, who has written the "great American novel," and Marcus Goldman is the student who emulates him. Marcus has had an early success, much like his mentor, but is now plagued with writer's block. He decides that only Harry can help him overcome the stagnation and he happily accepts Harry's offer to come spend some time at Harry's home on the beach in New Hampshire.

Harry is an impossibly gullible and trusting man, supposedly so lonely that he'll open his home to anyone. It's not long before Marcus is snooping around and inadvertently comes upon a box laden with photographs of a young Harry with a much younger (under age) girl. Caught in the act, Marcus asks Harry to explain and then we're off and running. A doomed affair back in the summer of '75 has left Harry in relationship limbo for over thirty years.

Now, here is where you must simply give up all logic and go with the flow. It's well worth it, it's fun, and no sense spoiling the ride with those rude questions that deep readers ask, like, "how could this be?" Let's just say that a gardening project goes awry, a body is found on Harry's property and, lo and behold, the bones belong to the fifteen year old love of Harry's life, Nola. Harry is immediately arrested for Nola's death and Marcus becomes an overnight private eye sensation as he works to clear his friend's name.

Throughout the book, you'll meet a laundry list of absolutely crazy characters who certainly don't resemble anyone from my small New England town but, hey, who knows what goes on behind those closed doors? Oh, wait, now that I think about it....the police officer with the crush on the beauty queen who owns the diner, who had a crush on Harry and was thrown over for a fifteen-year-old. Then there's the kind minister, Nola's father, with the violent temper, and the disfigured chauffeur with a penchant for painting nude women. At some point each one of these folks will be a suspect.

When all is said and done, this is also a laughable send up of the publishing industry, the ridiculous multi-million dollar book deals, the press leaks, the pressure on young writers to live up to their own hype, and the back biting among agents, publishers, and those chomping at the bit for film rights.

Yes, it could have used better editing. Yes, there were points of repetition that got on my nerves, though I'll confess I thought it was done deliberately to make a point. Still, I could NOT put this book down until I had solved the mystery - and no, I never did. For pure camp, you really should give "The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair" a go. Oh, and if you've already read it, drop me a line and let me know if I'm crazy to be touting it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

One Plus One - Just What the Doctor Ordered

One Plus One
For several weeks I've been in the very dark recesses of the human heart. Between "In Paradise," which I wrote about last week, and "Barracuda," a new novel by Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas that I reviewed for "Library Journal," I have been suffering through the worst of human nature and desperately needed a lift.
Fortunately I remembered that, through the kindness of the editors at NetGalley, I had several books still sitting on my nook that had not yet gone out of date - I hate it when that happens! Jojo Moyes seems to be my new go-to gal for lifting the spirits and don't we all need a little rom-com now and then? Come on, admit it, you really liked Pretty Woman when it first came out. Sure, it's a bit sexist, rich man rescues poor but  beautiful girl, etc. Still, if you're not ashamed to admit that you laugh out loud at Hugh Grant's theatrical antics, then race to your library's website and place a hold on "One Plus One" which just came out July 1st.
Jojo Moyes is one of the most eminently readable authors I've found in a long time. Yes, she grabs you at "hello." Our feisty heroine is Jess Thomas, a thirty- something young woman whose husband Marty ran home to mom when the going got tough. Jess is raising their daughter Tanzie, a precocious little delight of a girl who wears home made clothes loaded with sequins to offset the look of her coke bottle glasses. She also happens to be a math prodigy.
Then there's Nicky, Marty's son from another liaison, a computer geek, eyeliner-wearing, hair-dying goth who regularly gets beaten and abused by the Fisher boys who rule the neighborhood with iron fists. Add to this menagerie a hundred pound mutt named Norman and it's no surprise that Jess hasn't had a date, well, since high school. She works days as a house cleaner and nights in a pub and still can't make ends meet. Still, this family is full of love.
When the math teacher tells Jess that Tanzie could qualify for a scholarship to a private school if she would just enter the math Olympiad in Scotland, Jess plots and schemes to get her there,  though normally there's no money for gas, hotels, or food.
You see, Jess found a wad of cash. It fell out of the pants pocket of a drunk she was helping home from the pub one night. Ed just happens to also be one of her least favorite employers, a wealthy software guru with an attitude, whose beach house Jess cleans. He'll never know, she thinks, if she borrows the money for a good cause and pays it back eventually.
Oh what tangled webs we weave.....through an odd-ball set of circumstances Ed winds up on the road trip from hell to Scotland with Jess and her brood. It's a no-brainer as to what's going to happen but the thing is, it doesn't matter. This is one of those heart-warming, sigh-inducing novels that you just savor for the pure goodness of the characters, and the assurance of a happy ending. As I said, it's just what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Paradise?

Peter Matthiessen's final novel, "In Paradise," was released to the public only a few days after his death from leukemia at the age of 86. I remember listening to him read his work, along with several other poets and writers, at an outdoor courtyard, under a full moon, on the fledgling Florida Gulf Coast University campus, many years ago. The experience was powerful and I'd promised myself at the time to read his famous Florida trilogy about the notorious Mr. Watson. Still haven't taken up that daunting task, but I aim to.

Less intimidating in size, yet no less daunting in subject matter, "In Paradise" opened a massive can of worms for me, bringing about these musings on what exactly constitutes a holocaust versus a genocide and why we humans feel we have to compete for the label of most wronged. I'll come back to that.

Clements Olin, a Polish American professor ostensibly researching a particular aspect of the Holocaust, but actually searching for the identity of his mother, joins a hundred other international visitors, who have come to Auschwitz to bear witness to the deaths of six million people.

But what would seem to be a worthy endeavor, and one that I wanted to take myself but was denied by my German hosts at the time, devolves into a bizarre blame game, one pilgrim turning on another in a disgusting show of one-upmanship. Various attendees take to the stage to share their stories, kind of like an AA meeting, but rather than be embraced, they are scorned for not having suffered enough, for not having a "good enough" reason for being at that death camp memorial.

The Catholic church and its representatives come in for especially scathing attention and Matthiessen, through Professor Olin, has plenty to say about education today and what's not being taught. This is not a novel one reads for pleasure but it is certainly thought provoking, bringing to mind the news about the never ending war between Israel and Palestine that greets me every morning when I open the paper. I become incensed when I read of the innocents who are being killed each day by the tit for tat mentality of the two leaders who seem incapable of breaking with the "eye for an eye" form of justice.

Professor Olin, at one point in the book, addresses the pilgrims at Auschwitz, Poles, Germans, Americans, Swedes, Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish, by saying, "All nations...and all religions, cultures, and societies throughout history have perpetrated massacres, large and small: man has been a murderer forever."

One needn't look far to prove this out. In our own country, according to David Stannard in his controversial book, "American Holocaust," between 10 and 114 million native peoples were systematically murdered or died from diseases brought over by European settlers. Does their suffering diminish others?

The PBS documentary "Africans in America" teaches us that over 20 million Africans were kidnapped from their land, enslaved, and bound on ships that traversed the middle passage for the Americas. More than half of these human beings died on route. A holocaust? I would say yes. But don't dare say the "r" word, as in reparations. That will stop a conversation dead in its tracks.

Man's inhumanity to man continues apace. How do we stop senseless suffering around the world? How do we atone to groups of people who have suffered and died because of their genetic makeup? I don't believe there will ever be answers to these questions, but writers will continue to ask them and, I hope, we will continue to read and ponder. Awareness is a beginning.