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.