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)( 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 . 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.

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. 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, which helps children whose lives are decimated by war, rebuild, find solace, and generate hope for a more radiant tomorrow.