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!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers


I had the privilege of "discovering" Tom Rachman several years ago when I was given his first novel, "The Imperfectionists," to review for "Library Journal." There's a courageous element to pronouncing on a book for the readers of LJ. We reviewers see the author's work in its very first iteration, long before publicists have rolled out the advertising machine. Our words may help a librarian decide whether or not to spend money from a dwindling collection development budget on a particular book. We really want to get it right. If, several months later, I see a great review of something I took a chance on, in say, "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post," I feel deeply gratified.

All that is to say that I loved "The Imperfectionists," (and highly recommend it), but I can only say that I liked Rachman's very different second novel, "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." I found it to be just as beautifully written and  wildly imaginative as his first, but it was simply too melancholy for me at this particular point in my life.

Note to readers! Please don't let my aversion to melancholy keep you from meeting the wonderfully quirky folks in this novel.

Literature lovers will immediately be entranced by the main character, the delightful, lovable, Tooly Zylberberg, who owns a wonderful, dusty old bookstore in Wales. She and her only other employee, the equally enjoyable Fogg, read all day long, happy for a customer's tell-tale ring of the bell, but not necessarily disappointed when none show up.

The problem is that the action doesn't take place in the bookstore. Rachman takes us back and forth over three decades, from Europe to Asia and New York, to illustrate Tooly's complicated backstory. How did this little girl, taken from school at the age of ten years old, become such a deep reader, thinker, and book lover? In one word? Loneliness.

You see, Tooly was first raised by a disconsolately lonely man named Paul. He'd wake her in the morning by shaking her hand. Parenthood, it seemed, was not his strong suit. Every year they moved to a new country and Tooly would have to adjust to a different school. By the time they set down in Thailand Tooly scarcely remembered what grade she was in. Books were her only friends.

Through bizarre happenstance, Tooly lands in the midst of a group of grifters, the fickle Sarah, the charismatic leader, Venn, and an old soul named Humphrey. With them she moves from city to city, always unsure who will be there in the morning, how and when she might eat, her only education coming from long, heated discussions about literature with Humphrey.

Though she is resourceful, and somewhat manipulative, Tooly is also rather na├»ve.  The lack of love and stability in her life leaves her with little to offer others. Her relationships are shallow and unsatisfying but she scarcely notices. She seems to always be on the periphery of others' lives.

Can you want what you've never had? As a reader, I craved happiness for Tooly, though I know that one must be happy within in order to share that emotion with others. Through the wonders of the Internet, a former boyfriend tracks Tooly down and sets her on the long and winding road to self-discovery. Rachman deftly takes all the disparate pieces of his story and creates a deeply satisfying whole.

Now that I reflect on it, maybe I did love this novel just a bit. Have you read it? What did you think?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

An Untamed State - Ferociously Powerful

Roxane Gay ( has been receiving some tremendous press for the past few months, not to mention an op-ed in last Sunday's "New York Times." If you have the stomach for it, you'll understand why when you read her novel, "An Untamed State," just out from Grove Atlantic.

The dedication page says, "For women, the world over." As you read you may ask yourself why a woman would write about so much shocking violence, aimed at one woman in particular, and then tell you that it's dedicated to you. You may reject it, as I almost did, but you'd be wrong to do so. The point is that women are subjected to subversive violations every day. We shrug and move on. Choose your battles, we say. But, if we are faced with the day when we may need to fight, can we? Will we?
In a country like Haiti, the very thought of the divide between the haves and the have-nots is ludicrous. No matter how lost the middle class is in the United States, we simply cannot comprehend the poverty and hopelessness of a battered place like Haiti. It is understandable that some might want to wipe that smug look off the faces of the matrons who hide behind their sunglasses, speed through town in their air conditioned limos, and glide behind the gates of their walled compounds to sterile safety.
Still, I was not prepared for the opening chapter, when Haitian born Mireille, her American husband Michael, and their newborn son Christophe, visiting her family's home in Port au Prince, are surrounded and attacked only feet from their fenced driveway. In astoundingly vivid detail, Roxane Gay ratchets up your blood pressure, as a band of young terrorists drag Mireille from her car, little Christophe screaming in the background.
Kidnappings, as we know too well from the news media, is a standard means of extracting money from wealthy families in third world countries. Often, victims are returned supposedly unharmed, but the crimes continue. Mireille will not be so lucky. Her father, Sebastien Duval, is a wealthy developer in Haiti. Perhaps, because he had pulled himself up from poverty, Mr. Duval felt immune to the dangerous jealousy and resentment that can build in the hearts of men who have nothing.
Unwilling to play games with the kidnappers, Mr. Duval waits twelve long days to negotiate a settlement for his youngest, most loved daughter. Twelve days can be an eternity when one is being tortured. Even reading the specifics felt like too much, too long. Yet now, as I finish this excruciating novel, I realize that it had to be, if only to understand how Mireille survived by dividing herself into two people, the woman before the kidnapping, the tough, proud, Miami litigator, and the one who, though still alive, is dead to her family and to love.
This is an amazing novel. I read it in just two days. It is disturbing and may leave you feeling raw. It is a story of love and a failure of love. It is a story of a forgotten country that may be beyond help. It is a story of resilient women and the weakness of men. But most of all, it is a story of power and one woman's defiance, her refusal to allow her captors to hold power over her. It is a story that will be difficult to forget.