Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tough Choices, My Personal Favorites for 2015

I love lists and was so hoping that I could use the mellifluous sounding "115 in 2015" as my theme for this New Year's Eve post, but alas, it was not to be. I finished 111 books this year, not all of them published in 2015, just books that came to my attention. Though it was a great year for the publishing industry (http://nyti.ms/1UhXTlf) I admit that I had a difficult time finding a book I could really rave about. This year's list is a bit more personal, a list of books, fiction and non, that spoke to me on some deep level beginning with:

1. Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Trilogy. I cheated on this one since I felt that the three books are truly one long novel divided up by publisher, Europa Editions, simply for ease of reading. These novels about the strange, symbiotic relationship between two school girls, Elena and Lila, spans decades using the political and cultural evolution of Italy, from Naples to Milan, for a backdrop.
http://bit.ly/1PEbK6R, http://bit.ly/1OyWWXP 

My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One

2. "Being Mortal," by Atul Gawande. This book came to me last January when my brother was facing his final days of life. Death and dying with dignity has long been an obsession of mine back to the days when my buddy Andrea Carter and I brought a six week discussion series (not very well attended, I might add) to our library. I'm still amazed at how few of us are able to speak honestly about the one thing we all share as humans - the end of life. This book should be required reading. http://bit.ly/1R18q74  
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End


3. "Redeployment," by Phil Klay. This powerful series of short stories brings the chaos of the war in Afghanistan into our minds and hearts. "When will we ever learn.....when will we ever learn." http://bit.ly/1L1Vl9o    
Redeployment


4. "Our Souls at Night" by Kent Haruf. Small but mighty, this is a gorgeous novel about two lonely souls having the courage to make a connection, flaunting small town small-mindedness, rising above salaciousness. The joy of the physical is not bound by age. http://bit.ly/1OurJhW   
Our Souls at Night: A novel

5. "Florence Gordon," by Brian Morton. An opinionated woman who refuses to age gracefully, beautifully rendered by a male author, Florence is this year's Olive Kitteridge in all her curmudgeonly glory. I hope to be her when I grow up.
http://bit.ly/1mrIcgr   
Florence Gordon

6. "Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Reading this book, a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, will be the closest you'll ever come to knowing what it is like to walk in another man's skin. If you want to understand the power of the #blacklivesmatter movement, if you hope to even remotely fathom what it's like to be a black man in America today, look no further.
http://bit.ly/1JLnMVb    
Between the World and Me


7. "My Song," by Harry Belafonte. This memoir is the perfect juxtaposition of Mr. Coates' cri de Coeur from a new generation. I knew that Belafonte was a force to be reckoned with in the black movement of the '60's but I had no idea what a powerful role he played and continues to play, always following his own conscience, his own song. This memoir reads like a history of the civil right movement in the twentieth century.  
My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance


8. "Small Mercies," by Eddie Joyce is an incredible debut novel, one of my must reads of 2015. Set in Staten Island, New York, in a middle-class Irish-Italian neighborhood, Joyce captures to perfection the means in which small-town Americans rally around their own during times of extreme trouble, in this case the death of a local fireman at ground zero. http://bit.ly/1RT1zMA 
Small Mercies: A Novel

9. "The Tsar of Love and Techno," by Anthony Marra. Here's a portion of what I had to say in this starred review for "Library Journal." Love and war, loyalty and betrayal, are themes inextricably joined in the literary imagination. Marra, who dazzled readers and critics with his debut novel, "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena," once again captivates with this collection of stories spanning 75 years. Linked by generations of political rebels, artists, soldiers, and criminals, these tales pay homage to the victims of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resulting wars in Chechnya.   

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories

10. "City on Fire," by Garth Risk Hallberg. This ferociously ambitious first novel apparently didn't live up to the hype. Readers today just aren't prepared to tackle these wonderful 800-plus page behemoths. But oh, what they're missing. Difficult to describe, this is a Dickensian romp through 1970's New York city, long before Mayor Bloomberg came along to clean things up. It's a mash-up of sex, drugs, rock and roll, the art scene, AIDS, nihilist philosophers in cahoots with businessmen of dubious wealth. It's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," on steroids.    
City on Fire: A novel

Now I'd like to hear from you. I have a give-a-way, a much anticipated novel by Charles Bock. It's called "Alice and Oliver," and I've just sent my review in to "Library Journal," so I'm free to mail this out to the first person who comments on this list or is willing to share their own favorites of 2015. There's so much I haven't read. Tell me what I need to put on my list for the new year. Thanks so much for reading!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Who's Reading What on the High Seas

My friend Don and I have just returned to the real world after a ten day hiatus from the news. Except for our stop in Cartagena, Columbia, there was really nothing I wanted to see between Ft. Lauderdale and the Panama Canal. When I cruise, it's the days at sea, with nary a sight of land, that please me the most. There's nothing that beats lazing about on the balcony with a good book while the sound of the sea slapping the ship's hull forms a metronome in the background.

One of my shipboard pass times is to find the deck where I can walk a complete circuit and spy on what my fellow sailors are reading. The advent of ipads, kindles, and nooks has put a damper on this particular quirk. Based on what I saw, the old standbys like Baldacci, Flynn, Grisham, interspersed with a new Adrianna Trigiani and an Erica Spindler, along with a sports bio, "Lefty, An American Odyssey," I was pretty disappointed. Where are all the deep thinkers, I wondered. Then I had to laugh at my old book-snob self.

What had I brought along? "Death of a Red Heroine," by Qiu Xiaolong, the first in the Chief Inspector Chen series that Don, my resident Sinophile, discovered a few months ago and has been devouring. My second book was an assignment from "Library Journal," a novel to be released in April- review due Wednesday and not even begun - called "Alice and Oliver," by Charles Bock. The third was a potential book for my Florida radio program, "Under a Dark Summer Sky," a fictional account of life in the 1930's Florida Keys for the black families who had come to build Flagler's railway.

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We had a delightful lunchtime discussion with a retired University of Toronto professor (who knows Margaret Atwood!) and his wife about print vs. digital books. The professor and I ganged up on Don, who is all digital, all the time. I'll wager that he has well over a hundred books on his ipad. I obsessed over the sensuous pleasure I felt upon opening Knopf's gorgeous edition of "M Train." The paper was like velvet.

Our professor worries, and studies back him up, that children whose first experiences with reading are digital, will, over time, lack focus and have difficulty retaining what they read. Don, on the other hand, loves being ecologically in the vanguard and gets off on the way he can immediately detour to Wikipedia whenever something comes up in a book that he questions or isn't sure about.

Print versus digital was also the subject of a chat we had at lunch with Philadelphia journalist, Bobbi Booker. A mover and shaker on the Philly scene, Ms. Booker works for the oldest black newspaper in America, "The Philadelphia Tribune," and had plenty to say about the demise of print media. If you're worrying, you can stop. The news from the bridge is good. People are reading, writing, and talking about reading and writing. Later this week I'll post my top ten favorite reads of the year - not the best books written - just the ones from the hundred and ten that spoke to me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Word Lovers Should Hop On to Patti Smith's M Train

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Patti Smith may look formidable on the cover of her most recent memoir, but if you've already read "Just Kids," her National Book Award-winning tale of her early years in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe (a book whose beauty just knocked me flat), then you'll feel as if you're visiting with an old friend when you open "M Train." I started it last night and couldn't put it down.

Now, I'm no connoisseur of punk rock. In fact, the name Patti Smith was only something in the periphery of my core knowledge. I did not know of her talent as a poet, though it stands to reason that a song writer would have a flair as a wordsmith. "M Train" is a very different animal from "Just Kids," but it's a haunting piece of work just the same.

Librarians, readers, and writers just can't help but fall in love with a person so passionate about words. Smith's lyricism flows like a kind of prose poem as she takes us from the present to the past and back again in a dreamlike, stream of consciousness style. One moment we're in Mexico on the prowl for the best cup of coffee in the world, and the next we're ensconced in a London bedsit overdosing on British murder mysteries. "Luther," here we come.

Ms. Smith has a wildly eclectic taste in literature, often referencing books that she returns to time and again. She credits her mother, whose gifts of books she cherishes to this day, and fondly recalls being enthralled with "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew." How many readers our age will even admit to that? Whether she's quoting Wittgenstein or passages from "The Story of Davy Crockett," we're right there with her.

There is a lovely soulfulness to Patti Smith's reminiscences. One minute she's taking us back to Michigan and her marriage, which ended so abruptly with the death of her husband at the ridiculous age of forty-five, the next, she's hiding in the bathroom at her daily haunt, the CafĂ© 'Ino, waiting impatiently for her table to be vacated by the interloper harping away on a cell phone and disturbing the atmosphere of Smith's favorite writing spot - other than her own bed.

Everyone seems to be putting out their "best of" lists too soon. There are fifteen days left until the end of the year. Just think what literary marvels might still be waiting to be discovered. I'll be traveling and devouring books over the next two weeks, taking a break from the Internet. Though "M Train" has just been added to my short list of favorites for the year I remain open to the next great read before 2016 arrives.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Lightening Up - Just a Tad

The third book in the simply outstanding Neapolitan trilogy by Elena Ferrante has taken a decidedly dark turn. "Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay," moves well into the adult years of the two women, Lena and Lila, who have been competing for each other's undivided attention since they were children. Their friendship has devolved into a power play in which Lila, at turns cruel and needy, withholds the approval and love that Elena so desperately needs from her. 

Reflecting the times in which the novel takes place, Ferrante writes passionately about the women's movement in Italy, the advent of the pill (which Elena's husband refuses to let her take), and especially about the difference between the more educated, enlightened areas of the north, Milan, Florence, etc. where Elena lives vs. the southern area, Naples and its surrounds, where Lila works under inhumane conditions at a sausage factory.

Ferrante also tackles the political climate, as Lila's communist acquaintances put her in an untenable position at the factory, when they protest against the mob owners in an effort to unionize the workers. The dark underbelly of Italy is on full display.

fpo

In a search for a lighter weekend read, I happened upon "Meeting the English," a smart, wisecracking send up of the British. This is a sinfully funny yet thoughtfully observant debut novel by Kate Clanchy, a young lady wise beyond her years, and it has the best opening pages I've read in years.

Meeting the English

Phillip Prys, once respected novelist and playwright, still being taught in schools but definitely on a down hill trend, is about to have a stroke, upending the lives of his wives, past and present, not to mention his kids and his agent. As Phillip languishes in a catatonic state in a wheelchair set up in the living room of his mansion on Yewtree Row, everyone scrambles to be first in line for the estate of the soon to be deceased Mr. Prys.

The only thing they haven't counted on is the bright, shiny young Scot, Struan Robertson, who's been hired down from the central highlands for a summer of caretaking of the great writer. Only seventeen, he is the original cockeyed optimist. After years of caring for his own Da, crippled with MS, Struan knows his way around a wheelchair, diapers, and the elderly. He has the confidence of the young, fully believing that Phillip will eventually return to the bosom of his family.

A lovely young fellow like Struan would find it impossible to believe that the family could care less. Phillip's former wife, Myfanwy, (don't ask) is an estate agent who can't wait to get her hands on the house, while his current wife, Shirin, forty years his junior, acts caring but has an artistic career that's blossoming, one she'd like to press on with.

The kids are complicated. Jake, the golden child, needs money to feed his hidden drug addiction and Juliet, unhappy and neglected by both parents, finds solace in food. What a delight it is to watch Struan walk into this dysfunctional mess, take charge of Mr. Prys, stand up to Jake, give Juliet the attention and direction she so desperately needs, and fall in love with Shirin, all within the  course of one long, hot summer in 1989 London. A great weekend read.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Nightingale, Yes it Pulls at the Heartstrings

Product DetailsThe '40's, the era of World War II, has always held an inordinate fascination for me, the clothes, the music, the literature and film. With the demise of so many members of the World War II generation, interest seems to have spiked and taken on a new urgency. But when a friend whose judgment I trust recommended Kristin Hannah's new book, "The Nightingale,"  about two French sisters living under the Vichy government, I thought, "could there possibly be anything new under the sun to say about this time in history?" It turns out that there isn't.

Now let me admit right up front that, yes, I cried toward the end of the novel, laughing at myself for being so easily manipulated. Just because a book isn't that well written doesn't mean that it can't hold your interest and even pack a punch. Though not original, the set up works. An elderly woman, preparing to sell her home and move to an assisted living facility, uncovers long-forgotten mementos in the attic, causing a flood of memories that had been too painful to share. Now, we learn about the sisters:

Vianne, the elder, follows the rules, keeps her head down, and stays out of trouble. She marries Antoine, her childhood friend and lover, pursuing a domestic idyll that allows no room for her younger sibling. Isabella is rebellious and independent by nature, managing to get herself kicked out of several schools, dreaming of a life lived out loud. The war offers her that opportunity.

History tells us time after time how many citizens of Germany, France, and Italy, underestimated the power of Hilter's reach. Even as they were packing suitcases and fleeing Paris, many thought they'd be back home within weeks. The years-long, horrific siege of France and its terrifying effect on the people comes through in Ms. Hannah's descriptions of the day to day lives in the small towns and villages like Carriveau where Vianne teaches school, raises her daughter, and waits for her soldier husband's return. In fact, Hannah's depictions of the hunger, cold, and deprivation of wartime France represent the most powerful sections of the book.

I suspect that most of us wonder at times how we would have responded if faced with similar circumstances. Could we stand up to the tyranny of having the enemy confiscate our homes, our lives? Would we speak out against the violence perpetrated upon our neighbors because of their religion? What inner fortitude turns one person into a collaborator and another into a resistor?

Herein lies my problem with "The Nightingale." There is absolutely no backstory that would remotely lead us to think that sixteen year old Isabelle Rossignol could transform overnight from a bratty schoolgirl to a woman who could lead downed Allied pilots over the French Pyrenees mountains to safety in Spain. All a reader can do is suspend disbelief, roll with the story, and try to overlook the more egregiously inept metaphors (a lanky young man resembled a comma - twice!)

Now, if you crave good historical fiction that's centered around the Nazi era and the French resistance, may I suggest a short list of some of my favorite novels, beautifully executed, and in the case of "All the Light We Cannot See," transcendent. First try anything by Irene Nemerovsky, then move on to the Marian Sutro series by Simon Mawer which includes "Trapeze," and "Tightrope." Take a look at Sebastian Faulks' "Charlotte Gray," and of course, de Rosnay's "Sarah's Key."

More like Kristin Hannah's book might be JoJo Moyes' "The Girl You Left Behind," or Anita Shreve's aptly named "Resistance." No matter what your tastes, happy reading!
 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thirteen Ways of Looking

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If you're at all like me and tend to shy away from short stories, please don't let that keep you from the new collection, "Thirteen Ways of Looking," from Colum McCann. His prose has always been tight and exacting (he won the National Book Award for "Let the Great World Spin") so shorter pieces seem to be the perfect vehicle for showcasing his immense talent. In this case, there are only four entries, the title novella and three short but powerful stories.
 
Whether he's inside the head of an elderly man on the last day of his life, a young woman serving in Afghanistan, a middle-aged nun seeking closure on a violent incident from her youth, or a mother who believes she's caused her only child's death, McCann gets the emotional tone just right. How does he do it? A writer of his caliber must have been born with an uber-sense of empathy and compassion to be able to place readers so directly into someone else's shoes this way. I don't believe this can be taught (even though McCann is a creative writing professor at Hunter College).
 
From the moment Judge Mendelssohn opens his eyes on the last day of his life, the reader enters into the frustration of the elderly man whose deteriorating body has not kept up with his quick, vibrant mind. The slow realization that his caretaker has had to fix a diaper on him during the night, the quick anger when she doesn't respond immediately to his call, the humiliation he feels at being dependent, all of these visceral emotions play into our own worst fears.
 
And yet, this story is not in the least bit depressing. As the judge prepares for his daily ritual, the short walk down the street to his favorite restaurant for a fine lunch, he recalls the many highlights of his life, the long, successful career, the satisfying marriage, the accolades, all the accoutrements of a life well lived, and we feel that it's ok, it's as good a day as any to die. The how and why of the judge's demise is a satisfying little mini-mystery which adds layers to the secondary characters who might otherwise be seen as caricatures.
 
One of the most impressive and gut-wrenching bits of writing arises from the short story "Sh'hkol," in which the son of a woman who works as a translator and lives on a rocky promontory overlooking the North sea, goes missing a day after she has given him a wetsuit. With police and neighbors scouring the woods and shore, the former husband, who has been a noticeably absent father, shows up boiling over with blame and recrimination.
 
After hours of "whys," and "hows," and "how could yous," he falls exhausted into her bed. Depleted herself, she later eases in beside him, keeping to her own side of the bed, only to wake in the night to feel their bodies spooning in the old familiar way, his arm around her in a subconsciously protective embrace. These two disparate people, joined by memory and the agony of the loss they face together, are symbolic of the shared humanity McCann so eloquently writes about. 
 
Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I often eschew my Irish roots in the fervent desire for a mysterious Italian in the wood pile. However, I believe I can say unequivocally that Irish storytellers like Colum McCann (think Frank McCourt, Anne Enright) seem to excel at capturing the pathos of everyday life. I had been searching for a transcendent read. I found it here.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Elena Ferrante, Book Two

For just a wild moment this week I wished I lived in New York city. Ann Goldstein, the translator of Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, was speaking at the New York Public Library and oh, how I wanted to be a fly on the wall. What a talent! Just think how difficult it is to write exquisitely in one language and then to have that beauty translated just as exquisitely into another. (in this case, Italian into English) Truly, I believe that a translator can make or break a reading experience.

I'm sorry to say that the folks who order books for my library have apparently not been paying attention. There are so few copies of the four novels that make up Ferrante's much-heralded series that I'll be waiting for number three for quite a while. Meanwhile, here's a recap of my thoughts on book one. http://bit.ly/1PEbK6R

The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two


"The Story of a New Name," book two, begins with a shocking act of vengeance. If love and hatred are two sides of the same coin, then perhaps you will fathom what was going through Lena's mind when she dumped a box of eight notebooks off the Solferino bridge in Pisa. These notebooks, with which she was entrusted, represent the life story (so far) of Lena's best friend and worst enemy, Lila Cerullo Carracci.

But what, you may ask, was Lila's intent when she asked Lena to keep the notebooks hidden, unread, and private? She must have known that Lena could not resist reading, memorizing actually, each and every line, as painful and humiliating as they were. Lena and Lila are now as distant as two childhood friends could be. Lila, denied an education by her backward family, has made a pact with the devil, marrying the grocer, Stefano Carracci, for money and status. Lena, on the other hand, has graduated from secondary school with honors and escaped their stifling Naples neighborhood for the heady atmosphere of academia in Pisa.

It's a pure joy to watch Lena expand her horizons at school, excelling at her studies while taking a wealthy lover who delights in polishing her rough, Neapolitan edges. Lila, the proverbial bird in a gilded cage, becomes increasingly reckless. Her erratic, self-destructive behavior feels careless and cruel, driving a permanent wedge between her and Stefano and maybe even between her and Lena. Oh, book three, please come to me soon.

What is so remarkable about these novels is the ferocious honesty with which they are written. While they appear to be autobiographical, we cannot be sure since we don't even know who Elena Ferrante is. Her (or his?) identity is a much better kept secret in literary circles than J.K. Rowling's Robert Galbraith. Ferrante is fearless, baring her soul even if it means admitting to debilitating jealousy, cold calculation, and prideful vanity. She is a complete woman, and one I adore spending time with.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

In the Language of Miracles

There's so much written about the concept of collective guilt that one could pen a dissertation on the subject. Why do some cultures feel the  burden more than others, though, is another question. Germans will probably never stop working to apologize for the Holocaust. Why else is Angela Merkel straining her borders to accommodate so many Syrian refugees?

Yet here in the United States, not only will we as a nation never apologize for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some seem to still feel proud of it. Reparations for our native and African American citizens? Never. Since the attacks on 9/11 our Muslim citizens have faced undue prejudice and suspicion, forced to explain that their Islamic faith is not synonymous with terrorism, a false idea that will likely be exacerbated by the terrible events in Paris yesterday.

What a difficult and unnerving subject for a writer to tackle in a debut novel. Yet, that's just what Rajia Hassib https://www.rajiahassib.com/ has eloquently done in her book, "In the Language of Miracles," recommended by my friend Pat Abosch. Yes, if your group is looking for a challenging book discussion, this novel will lend itself nicely.


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 When Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy arrived in New York City from Cairo in 1985 with their newborn son Hosaam, they dared to dream confidently of their bright future. Samir was in medical school and once his residency was completed they would move to the suburbs, New Jersey perhaps, and he would find the perfect town, the ideal home, in which to raise their family. He did.
 
But that's the back story. The action takes place over a five day period, a year after 18-year-old Hosaam's death and the death of his next door neighbor and lifelong friend, Natalie Bradstreet. The catalyst is a tree planting, a memorial for Natalie, planned by her parents, an event that will resurrect strong emotions throughout the small town. The author delicately unspools bits and pieces of the facts surrounding the deaths of the two young people, and readers may arrive at one or two wrong conclusions before the full truth of the matter is revealed.
 
What we know is that a twenty year friendship between the Al-Menshawys and Natalie's parents, the Bradstreets, has been permanently severed by what happened one day a year ago. Since that day Samir and Nagla are no longer seen as simply neighbors and friends, but as Muslims, Egyptians, outsiders. Samir's practice is hemorrhaging patients, Nagla withdraws in anger and grief, ceding her role at home to her own mother, and daughter Fatima seeks solace at the mosque. 
 
Yet it is through the eyes and ears of Hosaam's younger brother, the beautifully drawn Khaled, that readers will fully grasp the depth of the family's collective guilt, the way that Hosaam's actions have shredded the fabric of a marriage and a family. Khaled is a boy you'll want to rock in your arms, on whom you'll want to lavish the solace that eludes him at home.
 
Not since Amy Waldman's powerful novel, "The Submission," http://bit.ly/1N409h9 have I read a book that so aptly describes the pain of guilt by association and the ways in which that anguish can upend the lives of perfectly good, decent people. This is a sophisticated novel from a young writer to watch.

Monday, November 9, 2015

A Week of Great Regional Theatre

Whew! I've been falling down on the job when it comes to my reading ever since I returned from Maryland. It's been one social event after the other - not that I'm complaining. I've been so busy, I dropped seven pounds!

Don and I attended a fundraiser at our favorite local theatre, www.theatreconspiracy.org
Their annual new play contest was underway, and from over six hundred entries, they had narrowed the possibilites down to three. One play would be chosen by the audience on the evening of the fundraiser for a full staging in the spring.

 Bill Taylor and his cadre of loyal performers have been producing some cutting edge material for well over twenty years now in Fort Myers. They did a great job Friday night of staging readings from the three finalists' plays. We voted for Arlene Hutton's "Vacuum," which appears to pit business against science among a group of idealists who had once hoped they could change the world.

On Saturday afternoon we attended a very workmanlike production of an Agatha Christie mystery called "The Unexpected Guest" at the Florida Repertory Theatre in downtown Fort Myers. www.floridarep.org
Every actor was spot on, the scenery was professionally perfect, but the play lacked the emotional heft of some of their other productions. They did have a contest at intermission in which the audience had the opportunity to win theatre tickets by guessing the name of the murderer. It was tricky but I did it.

We saved the best for last. On Sunday we had front-row seats at Florida Rep's black box venue to an amazingly energetic and delightful one-woman show based on a memoir, "I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti," by Giulia Melucci, a PR executive with Harper's Magazine.
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Actor Michelle Damato was fantastic. She came across as exactly the kind of gal you'd want to spend an evening with, dishing on guys and quaffing wine. For two hours she regaled the audience with the story of her unsuccessful search for the perfect man over a twenty year span. As she chatted us up she prepared a full Italian meal from scratch and served it to eight lucky audience members who sat at strategically placed tables in Giulia's "kitchen."

Ms. Damato channeled Melucci and her love of cooking. In her Brooklyn brownstone, she chopped and diced veggies for Bolognese sauce, served an anti-pasta of artichoke hearts and prosciutto, and made noodles from scratch, all while fielding calls from her mom up in Connecticut, and sipping a smooth red. I can't imagine the concentration required to perform in this way, all the time interacting with the audience, asking us questions, calling out for answers.

By the end of the afternoon, I was half in love with her myself and so wanted Giulia to find the right  guy. If this play is any indication, the book must be a pure delight. And no, you don't need to be young or single to enjoy it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Searching for a Transcendent Read

Come on friends. Share with me. It's November 1st and I still haven't read a novel this year that's truly knocked me out. I'm looking over my list of books read and trying to decide which one will go to the head of the class.

Product DetailsI had big hopes for "A Place We Knew Well," a new novel by Susan Carol McCarthy which takes place outside of Orlando and which I hoped I could review for the Florida Book Page. http://news.wgcu.org/programs/florida-book-page
It's set during the time of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and juxtaposes the breakdown of trust in our government with the breakdown of the Avery family.

The Averys are the quintessential American family, dad is retired Air Force, runs a Texaco station, is married to Sarah, a stay at home mom who's frustrated and fragile, and they dote on their only daughter Charlotte. It's a time of ostensible innocence but there are unspoken secrets that cause ripples of tension just beneath the surface.

McCarthy dabbles in important topics: prejudice against the young Cubans being relocated to our country by the Catholic Church, the Cold War gamesmanship being played out by Kennedy and Khrushchev and the extent to which average Americans were completely in the dark about how close we came to mutually assured destruction, and also the mentality of the medical profession toward "women's troubles," along with the over reliance on medication and surgery, but none of these topics are fully developed to the point where I could drum up any outrage.

I recently reviewed an outstanding classic, "Alas Babylon," about a similar subject. Pat Frank's book was written in the '50's but it stands the test of time and was visceral and terrifying in its account of a nuclear conflagration and its effects on small-town Florida. I decided to cut my losses. I read the last chapter of McCarthy's book and moved on to another novel about Florida, Russell Banks' "Continental Drift." The difference in the quality and depth of the writing was immediately apparent. You can expect to hear me reporting on it within the next few months.

For a break, I turned to an old standby I can always count on for a laugh, Nelson DeMille. "Radiant Angel" is the latest in the long-lived John Corey series, read for the audio by the inimitable Scott Brick who, by now, has made the character his own. If you are unfamiliar with Corey - oh, I hope not - he is a fast-talking, wise-cracking, hot shot former cop, FBI agent, and anti-terrorism task force member, who eschews authority, takes risks,  and has a weakness for women, wine, and song. There is absolutely nothing politically correct about him!
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In literature and in film (saw Bridge of Spies yesterday) the so-called Cold War seems to be the topic of the moment. Putin's star would appear to be rising and we are desperately trying to extricate ourselves from the messes we've created in the middle east. DeMille is always right on top of the political landscape and his plot lines are rarely as far fetched as they might seem at first glance.

In this case there's a suitcase nuke that's been planted by the Russians on the yacht of a respected Saudi prince. It's the anniversary of 9/11. Where do you expect the yacht is headed?

Only DeMille can write suspense novels that are laugh-out-loud funny while dealing with truly terrifying subject matter. Treat yourself to one or two as a diversion.

Meanwhile, I'm suffering through two terribly erudite but uninteresting books assigned by Library Journal. Help me out here. What have you read and enjoyed lately? All suggestions are welcome.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Allure of Immortalilty, Book Release Party


 

Last night Don and I attended a standing room only book release party at Florida Gulf Coast University. Journalism professor (and former teacher of mine), Lyn Millner, published her first book with the University Press of Florida and it's a beauty! She must be so proud of her accomplishment.

This summer I received a copy of the manuscript so that I could review it for The Florida Book Page, my monthly radio review program on our local NPR station. I recorded my thoughts on Tuesday and they will run on November 10th at 8:45 a.m. http://news.wgcu.org/programs/florida-book-page

As a former public librarian at the branch that serves the Estero, Florida, area, I can attest to the fact that so many new residents come in looking for books that can inform them about the area. I was always embarrassed at the lack of great options and ended up doing my best southwest Florida Chamber of Commerce routine, telling my customers the history I'd gleaned over my thirty years of residence. The Koreshan State Historic Site was always high on my list of must-sees. It is a very spiritual oasis in the middle of chaotic growth and new construction.

Now I'm pleased to tell you, there is a definitive, fascinating, readable option. "The Allure of Immortality," though a biography of the charismatic Dr. Cyrus Teed who formed the utopian Koreshan Community here in Estero, Florida, is so much more. That's because author Lyn Millner is first and foremost a journalist. She went about writing her book with a journalist's eye for detail. She also set Teed's life in the context of all that was happening in the country socially, economically, and politically, while he was preaching for converts to Koreshanity.

Subtitled, "An American Cult, a Florida Swamp, and a Renegade Prophet," this book will not be a hard sell. And its interest will not be limited to local residents as Teed gave birth to his controversial ideas in New York state and fomented them in Chicago. I won't tell you any more about it (the review will be podcast). In fact we worried that Amy Bennett Williams, who introduced Lyn to the audience last night, suffered from TMI syndrome. I kept thinking, if you keep telling us the whole story, who's going to bother buying the book. I needn't have fretted. The signing line was plenty long. Congratulations Lyn.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Lisbeth Salander is Back, Better Than Ever

Last week my friend Don and I made the semi-annual "snow-bird" trek from Maryland to Florida. We have found this to be a relaxing and enjoyable interlude, no rushing as we're retired. The trip has been enhanced by our reading interests. Listening to books makes the ride pass almost too quickly.

On our way north in May we discovered the fascinating political backstory about the building of the Panama Canal through David McCullough's "The Path Between the Seas." The problem is that I immediately had to book us on a December cruise so that we could actually experience traversing the canal. Not wanting another book quite so expensive, and after listening to the author on The Diane Rehm Show, http://bit.ly/1MzQVDj we decided on "The Girl in the Spider's Web," by David Lagercrantz.

Product Details
 
 
You may remember the massive amount of attention that went into Steig Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, the story of the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine, Millenium, which nabbed the biggest story of the century when he paired up with young computer hacker, mathematical genius, and Asperger's sufferer, Lisbeth Salander, aka, the girl with the dragon tattoo.
 
Well, Larsson died back in 2004 and a tawdry, lengthy battle over his estate ensued between his family and his life partner, a woman he had been with for some twenty years. Now, apparently an agreement has been reached, and the family has given their blessing to another Swedish writer, David Lagercrantz, to continue Mikael and Lisbeth's story. He has done a remarkable job. Larsson would be pleased.
 
For a refresher we binge watched the three Swedish films based on the original trilogy - please, forget the American version. Then we settled in for the ride. Lisbeth is the strongest female protagonist you'll ever meet and it's so much fun  to get inside her head. She may not be comfortable interacting with people but oh what you'll learn about the darker side of the Internet.
 
This book has it all. There's a major espionage case involving the Russians and the theft of scientific research. In the states, the NSA is investigating, as is the Swedish contingent. A mathematical genius, Frans Balder, worried that his work on advanced algorithms is in danger, returns to Sweden from Silicon Valley, reclaims his autistic son August from his former wife and her abusive boyfriend, and hunkers down in an effort to protect his work and spend time rebuilding his relationship with his boy.
 
Balder realizes, now that he's taking time to notice, that August, who doesn't speak or make eye contact, has an amazing photographic memory and can draw perfect replicas of all that he sees. August, it seems, is a savant. But Balder will find no peace with his son. Threats on Balder's life force him to hire security and he reaches out to respected journalist Blomkvist to whom he hopes to tell his story as a sort of insurance policy. Of course, by the time Blomkvist arrives at Balder's home it's way too late for storytelling.
 
This cerebral literary thriller has already been optioned for film and there's no doubt that it will translate well. Blomkvist and Salander have a wonderful chemistry even though they're never at the same place at the same time. Whether online, through texts, or over the phone, they work together and with the Swedish police, members of which you'll recognize from Larsson's previous books, to bring the bad guys to justice. Naturally, Lagercrantz leaves just enough of the mystery unsolved to keep open the possibility of a fifth  book in the series. We welcome it!

Monday, October 12, 2015

No One Writes of the Disaffected Male Like T. C. Boyle

Product Details

One of the best book discussions I ever led was at the Bonita Springs Library, close to twenty years ago. The book was "The Tortilla Curtain" by T. Coraghessan Boyle. In brief, it was about the wealthy, self-satisfied liberal families who lived in the hills of L.A. and their dismay at the homeless immigrants building camps in the ravines by the side of the roads that led to those gated communities.  At the time, Bonita was transitioning from a poor man's Naples to a haven for upscale gated communities. The only time folks wanted to see our Hispanic residents was when they were grooming the golf courses.

That remarkably timely book encouraged a wonderful exchange of opinions and I'm shocked at myself for not having read more of Boyle's trenchant novels since then. I decided to listen to his latest, "The Harder They Come." Once again Boyle shows his eerie talent for getting inside the heads of his characters. What he describes may not be pretty but it is the raw, unfiltered truth. He is the master of the angry white male.

Recently retired, Swen Swenson and his wife Carolee live in northern California.  She volunteers her time at a wildlife sanctuary. He's still trying to adapt, but he drives a Prius to the golf course so he feels he's doing his bit for the environment. Sven, a Vietnam Veteran, was principal of the local high school - a big man in town - and the greatest disappointment of his life,  the one he is helpless to change, is his son Adam.

It was pretty clear to Swen and Carolee that, by the time Adam hit fifteen, there was more wrong with him than the usual teen-age angst. Brilliant in certain areas but asocial and inward, Adam left his parents' home to live with his grandmother in her house out in the mountains. After she died he stayed on,   growing and harvesting poppies in the woods, building a cement wall around the house to discourage intruders, stockpiling weapons, and studying the books of John Colter, the mountain man who aided Lewis and Clark.

A survivalist, Adam lives off the grid, honing his skills for the revolution that he's sure will come. How appropriate that he should meet Sara, a farrier who works for cash only, eschews the government's system of laws, and often finds herself on the wrong side of them. They are sexually attracted to each other though I think she sees in Adam a feral animal that she hopes to domesticate. He is incapable of any relationship and, though he craves the smells from her cooking and the feel of her in bed, he is always gone before morning light, out into the woods where he answers to no one but nature.

This is a novel filled with violence. When one wonders why Adam is so angry at the world, one must look no further than the first chapter, and listen to Swen's stream of consciousness observations as he and Carolee take a day excursion from their cruise ship through the rainforests of Costa Rica. His hatred for "foreigners" is visceral and it's to Boyle's credit that the reader can feel it in every word on the page. The language lends itself perfectly to an audio recording.

Back in the states Swen and his buddies volunteer to patrol the mountains outside of town where it's believed that Central American immigrants grow and harvest dope, trashing the forests for tourists and ruining local business. But when one of their  own is killed, town meetings are called, posses form, and "by god they're gonna drive these damn immigrants out of their woods if it's the last thing they do."

But, what if the sins of the father are visited upon their sons? If you want to understand the mindset of a person who might vote for Donald Trump, look no further than this devastating, insightful novel about what happens when the American dream fails to live up to our expectations.

Monday, October 5, 2015

"Ordinary Grace" is Full of Graceful Moments

A big shout out and thank you to my former college roommate and still dear friend, Cathy Jones. So often she chastises me, rightly, because she takes all my book recommendations to heart and I seldom reciprocate. It's not that I'm being closed minded - well, maybe I am - but simply that our reading tastes vary widely. And then, you know the saying, "so many books, so little time." Patience is no longer my virtue. It has to grab me - quickly!

Her favorite book of the summer was William Kent Krueger's ( http://www.williamkentkrueger.com/ ) "Ordinary Grace."
She threw down the gauntlet and I picked it up.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
I read this book in just two days. I was unfamiliar with Mr. Krueger but can tell you that his writing style is purely graceful, slow and melodic yet building in intensity. Genre fanatics will have a difficult time placing this novel in a box - a very fine thing.
 
The narrator, Frank, from the wisdom of his sixty-some years, is looking back at his twelfth summer, the year in which he grew up way too fast. It's 1961 and life in New Bremen, Minnesota, is that ideal kind of time that we doubt exists anymore. In fact, it's much like the atmosphere that I grew up in in Massachusetts or that Cathy grew up in on the plains of Illinois. You could leave the house in the morning, bike baskets filled with sandwiches and sodas, and never come home 'til evening. No one worried, no one had to.
 
But that summer a little boy is killed on the railroad tracks. Soon afterward, Frank and his younger brother Jake come upon the dead body of an itinerant down on the riverbed where they always play. And oh so slowly, Krueger taints the idyllic charm of this small town, exposing the nasty underbelly of any so-called paradise.
 
Frankie and Jake Drum are no strangers to death. Their dad is the local Methodist minister, and his friend Gus, a fellow war veteran who lives in the basement of the church, is the gravedigger. But when death comes even closer to home the boys' live are upended, suspicion falls on strangers and friends alike, their parents withdraw into their separate hells, one believing that God is the answer, the other sure that he does not exist.
 
This startlingly lovely novel reminded me so much of Louise Erdrich's "Round House" in its examination of crime and its effect on the psyche of a small town. Krueger also addresses the nature of prejudice, whether against another culture, sexual orientation, or class. Moral ambiguities abound. Faith is tested. Split second, from the gut decisions may haunt someone for a lifetime but love, remembrance, and forgiveness prevail. As I said, it's a time that we may doubt exists anymore but it's a lovely place to spend some time.
 
 


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Elena Ferrante - Judy Blume's Opposite

Last week I complained about the lack of substance in Judy Blume's adult novel about the lifelong friendship of two girls who were affected by a series of air traffic accidents in their small town in New Jersey.

A week later I can only marvel at the depth and sophistication of "My Brilliant Friend," the first in a series of four novels, also about the  lifelong friendship of two girls, Lila and Elena, raised in the violent, patriarchal world of Naples, Italy. What a different reading experience!

Much has been written about the enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. Apparently no one actually knows who she is. She eschews speaking engagements and only acquiesces to interviews by mail. Some even thought that she might be a man but, based upon my reading, that just doesn't seem probable. Her female characters, their thoughts, aspirations, jealousies, and insensitivities are simply too visceral. This is the work of a writer at the top of her game.

The story begins in the 1950's in a small, insular neighborhood outside Naples, a town that serves as a microcosm of Italy at the time. Lila and Elena might be two sides of the same coin, Lila the daredevil, the bad girl, the leader, and Elena, the fearful follower and admirer.

They meet in primary school at a time when few were expected to further their education beyond the eighth grade. Girls like Lila and Elena have no money. Their highest expectations would have been to work in the family's meager business or to marry and have babies. But these girls have brains, imaginations, and aspirations. What will become of them?

And that's what the reader will discover, lost in these volumes of exquisite prose. One asks how can a writer - think of Alice McDermott - take a subject of such little consequence, the daily lives of small-town girls, their parents, siblings, boyfriends, and turn it into a work of literature?

Ferrante captures the importance of the hierarchy in a small town. The butcher trumps the shoemaker who trumps the clerical worker. The first one to own a car has a means of escape, a way to open up to a wider world. But the one with the education? What good is Latin and Greek when your family needs you to forge a propitious alliance with another family? What's love got to do with it, Tina would ask.

I won't tell you what happens. I only know the beginnings of the story myself. After all, it's life and all that living entails, betrayal, hurt, sexual awakening, accolades and disappointments. I'm waiting for book 2 in the series right now. I don't doubt that I'll be living with these women into their old age and enjoying every minute.

Monday, September 21, 2015

In the Unlikely Event....

.....that you think beloved author Judy Blume should be writing novels for adults, let me disabuse you of that belief right now. Yes, she changed our lives and the lives of our kids with her wonderfully open, conversation-starting books for teens. How else would I have been able to explain masturbation to my pre-teen stepdaughters?
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Maybe I won't be popular for saying this but the much heralded adult novel, "In the Unlikely Event," is written in a style I found more appropriate for teens. I really wanted to like this book. The premise offers a great opportunity for a writer to explore the interior lives of children suffering from post traumatic stress disorder after three unthinkable tragedies rained down on the residents of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Ms. Blume, I'm afraid, missed that chance.

Now let me qualify my remarks. There are positives I can play up. First of all, the historical nature of the material, the plane crashes in 1951 and '52, actually happened. Beginning each section of the book with imagined clips from "The Elizabeth Daily Post," adds immediacy to the narrative and allows Blume to introduce the journalist, Henry Ammerman, to the readers.

Second, Blume has a remarkable memory or a great researcher. The small details, saddle shoes, fuzzy earmuffs, Toni home perms, that she includes in the novel, will resonate with readers of a certain age. And those who grew up in New Jersey and its environs (I'm talking to you Maryellen Woodside) will thoroughly enjoy the nostalgic trip down memory lane.

But I found little character development. Each person in this book feels like a cardboard cut out, or in deference to the fifties theme, a paper doll. Miri, her best friend Natalie, their parents and siblings, are sadly one-dimensional. Each of them, we are told, is profoundly changed by the death and destruction they witnessed when first the C-46 crashed into the Elizabeth river and, not long after, the American Airlines Convair barely missed the high school full of students before taking out an apartment building.

One of the basics of writing class says "show, don't tell." Natalie becomes ill, her parents' perfect marriage disintegrates, a devastated widower finds new life through Miri's wonderful grandmother, Irene. Miri channels her anger into journalism, encouraged by her uncle Henry. But I never felt an emotional connection to these characters as I might have in a more subtle writer's hand.

Have you read it? Do you disagree with me? Tell me what you thought. I'd love to get a conversation going. I'm packing for a little mini-vacation to Williamsburg and taking along Elena Ferrante and the hot new "City on Fire." Will report upon my return. Happy reading.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, A Justifiably Angry Man

Ta-Nehisi Coates has written two books and is the recipient of numerous prizes for opinion writing and journalism. But the article that probably brought him the most renown was the in-depth "Atlantic" cover story, "The Case for Reparations," an amazing, convincing piece of writing that details how we, the people of these United States, profited from the physical and economic enslavement of the African people.

http://theatln.tc/1KC95mS

His new book, "Between the World and Me," has been called required reading by Toni Morrison. What she doesn't say is that it should be required reading for white folks. After all, black people already understand the sickening, underlying angst that colors every day in a world that disrespects them with impunity. This tiny book, a 152 page letter to Coates' fifteen-year-old son, filled me with despair because I believe that the writer was being realistic in his advice.

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Twenty years ago I never would have said this, naively believing that we'd come so far in race relations in the U.S. Now we have a man like Donald Trump leading in the polls in a presidential election. Have we stooped that low?

Coates is not a man of God. He rails at the thought that black people believe that they must wait until they get to a so-called promised land to achieve the freedom that should be guaranteed them here on earth. Coates is not a fan of the non-violent stance of a Martin Luther King, Jr. He is a follower of Malcolm X and he tells his son why.

Using the Michael Brown incident as a catalyst, Coates speaks eloquently of the body. How with one false move, in one moment of wrong place/wrong time, a black man can lose his body - his life. He doesn't want this for his son. But he doesn't want him to stand down either. Coates was raised by two loving middle-class parents but his father did not spare the rod. Coates was punished for being too weak, for allowing a bully to steal his bike, for avoiding certain streets and people while growing up in Baltimore. At one point he describes how he learned to smell a fight on the summer air, when heat and tempers flared.

It's so difficult for many of us to imagine this feeling of being terrified to walk to school, to have to plot your course, to avoid eye contact with the gang members, the kid with a pistol flailing around. The physical anxiety had to be overwhelming and, internalized, no doubt led to the growth of a man who is bottling up a justifiable rage. It informs his words on every page.

But tempering that anger is the deep, abiding love Coates has for his son, his wife, his family, and for Howard University, which he refers to as Mecca. Here he discovered a haven for students like himself, looking for answers to previously indecipherable questions. His wife helps him adopt a gentler way, she introduces him to the joys of travel, searching for other cultures that might be a better fit.

I think it's such a beautiful labor of love to put down on paper a lesson of this magnitude. The book becomes almost a genealogy of black families from their time in Africa, to their kidnapping, and their displacement here in this country, their accomplishments all the more remarkable under the circumstances.

Coates tells his child, Samori, that he is a young man growing in consciousness. He says that he hopes Samori never feels the need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable. Coates, on the other hand, may make some readers uncomfortable and that's a good thing. If we are to grow in consciousness ourselves then we must be snapped out of our complacency and walk in another's shoes. This is a good place to begin that journey.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

From Despair to Hope at the National Book Festival

Phil Klay.jpg

Phil Klay has garnered several important awards for his collection of short stories culled from his year serving in the Marine Corps as a Public Affairs Officer in Anbar Province. "Redeployment," which I reviewed last February (http://bit.ly/1L1Vl9o) is a stunning book, a perfect marriage of an MFA from Hunter College and a year in Iraq.

I was so pleased that Klay was on the agenda at the National Book Festival but, being a great writer doesn't always translate into being a powerful presenter. I'm here to tell you, Phil Klay was electric. I'd guess that he has some acting chops in his background because when he read his stories he was as animated as the sign language interpreters who are phenomenal. It made me sorry that he isn't the narrator on the audio versions of the book.

Klay's stories ring of despair. We sit at the shoulder of a young man hoisting his rifle to shoot at a stray dog because he's angry and the dog is the only moving thing upon which he can vent that rage. Why is he this way? Because he doesn't know where he is or why he's there. He can't distinguish who is the "enemy" or even why they're the enemy. He knows that someone killed his friend and so the young man kills in return.

The chaos of war, the wasted money, the decimated bodies, the scrambled brains, are vividly portrayed, and when the author uses humor it is very dark indeed. The message seems incongruous coming from such a sunny personality. I wish that I could have stayed in my seat for the Q and A but I was racing to meet my sister in the front row of Bryan Stevenson's talk about his foundation, The Equal Justice Initiative. www.eji.org

Now here is a man whose life's work involves despair, yet he exudes hope from every pore. A Harvard educated lawyer, Stevenson took an internship in Georgia that changed him forever. The criminal justice system in the United States, the death penalty, mass incarceration, and incarceration of juveniles, are all in his sights and if anyone can make a change, I believe, after listening to him speak and watching the audience, that he could be the one. He received the only standing ovation of the day.

His book, "Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption," addresses this country's shameful history of accusing, trying, and sentencing to prison the most vulnerable among us, young, poor, and black. In particular, Stevenson concentrates on the story of Walter McMillian, the victim of corrupt police, judges, and lawyers, who was sentenced to death row for a murder he didn't commit.

 You might think that this kind of travesty is a thing of the past, but you'd be wrong. We Americans jail more people, proportionally, than any other country in the developed world, children, the mentally challenged, and the innocent among them. Stevenson spoke eloquently about some of his most emotional cases and few of us were dry-eyed. He was generous with his time when answering questions and signing books. Here's my sister to prove it.

Cynthia Pease's photo.

Monday, September 7, 2015

First Impressions of the National Book Festival

If anything good came out of the eight-year Bush administration it was librarian Laura's decision to create the National Book Festival! What a glorious celebration of reading and literacy. Watching so many families, of every make and model, thrilling at the chance to meet writers and buy books lifts the heart of this librarian every time. Of course, I'm most proud of the festival that I actually had a hand in - patting my own back now - my own library system's Southwest Florida Reading Festival. www.readfest.org

Needless to say, having all the resources of Washington, DC, and the Library of Congress goes a long way to insuring attendance by the finest writers in the land. This year was no exception. The move from the national mall to the Walter Washington Convention center, which saddened me for just a moment or two, has proved to be inspired. Huge ballrooms accommodate the crowds and video will soon be posted on www.loc.gov/bookfest

Louise Erdrich

I had planned my day carefully, fully expecting the women whose writing inspires me, Lousie Erdrich and Marilynne Robinson, to be the pinnacle of the event. Instead, it was the men who shined. Perhaps it was the format, which we've used at our own festival at some authors' request, but it seemed stilted. Many authors do not want the pressure of giving a half hour address and prefer the Q and A, interview approach.

Marilynne Robinson

The interviewers in this case were experienced, thoughtful, and prepared, yet the writers seemed to hold back emotionally. Marie Arana, former editor of the "Washington Post Book World," interviewed Erdrich who received this year's award for the body of her work. Erdrich's genealogical background includes Ojibwe Indian and that native culture informs much of her work. Her latest novel (2012), "The Round House," was a stunning piece of literature which I reviewed here: http://bit.ly/1qD3Xbl

Though Arana had to drag it out of her, Erdrich did speak a little bit about some of the wonderful secondary characters who emerged from this novel, also getting her to admit that there is another book about these interesting, complex people forthcoming. Whew! I couldn't help but think that Erdrich hadn't had enough coffee yet.

Robinson on the other hand, was just plain stingy. Ron Charles, who I often mention as one of the finest reviewers working today, also at the "Washington Post," tried valiantly to elicit some kind of emotion from the Pulitzer Prize winner, to the consternation of the audience. He asked several open-ended questions that she shut down with single word answers and at one point, when Charles posited a particularly probing query, Robinson actually said,

"That's a good question."

To which he replied, "Good, because I'm dying up here."

The audience roared in sympathy.

Now I understand that writing is a solitary endeavor. I'm sure that many writers find the required book tours daunting. As introverts, they likely feel uncomfortable touting their books like carnival barkers. I get that. If you read any of Ms. Robinson's incredible works you'll gather that she's hardly an extrovert. Even her writing is quiet. I reviewed her most recent book "Lila," here: http://bit.ly/1QkuA0h

But, if one accepts a speaking engagement, then I believe that person has an obligation to the hundreds of fans who get up early, drive 45 minutes to the metro, spend another half hour on the train, to be inspiring, to be engaging, to be present. And that, unfortunately, was just not the case Saturday.

Tomorrow, though, I'll tell you about the men who knocked my socks off: Phil Klay, Marlon James, Bryan Stephenson, and Viet Than Nguyen, kudos to you!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Girl on the Train

Dear friends, neighbors, and Aunt Jackie. Do I have to apologize for acknowledging that I ended up enjoying this book? I know, we all laughed about it. Who wants to spend time with these people? So many issues, right? Why, oh why, I wondered, has "The Girl on the Train" been on the NY Times bestseller list for six months?

I love psychological suspense even if I did find "Gone Girl" truly distasteful. So once I had rolled along on the train with sad, deluded, alcoholic Rachel for about 100 pages I knew I was in it for the long haul. The reason? Paula Hawkins had me stymied. I didn't figure out where she was taking us until nearly the very end!  I pride myself on my sleuthing skills. My friend Don calls me his DCI - though he's no slouch - because I always peg the murderer when we're watching our BBC mysteries. Not so here.
 
The Girl on the Train By Paula Hawkins - US Hardcover

(This is the UK version of the cover which I find more exciting.)

Granted, there was some confusion in the  beginning of this novel. Rachel, whose life is a shambles of broken dreams, has lost her husband Tom to the "other woman." Unfortunately Rachel's commute takes her through the neighborhood that once was hers when she and Tom were still together.

Now, as many unhappy people do, Rachel tries to inhabit her former life vicariously through others, in this case, the couple that she sees every morning on her way to London. They look so happy, so in love. They have everything that she's lost. In a proprietary gesture, she names them Jason and Jess. And then Jess disappears.

From here on in Ms. Hawkins, a journalist by trade, does a great job of throwing out red herrings, a psychiatrist who breaks the cardinal patient/doctor rule, a man who seems to know Rachel though she doesn't recognize him. Readers may decide to hold on to these obstacles or to discard them, but they shouldn't act too quickly.

 Hawkins cleverly juggles time and point of view, revealing the story through the voices of three women whose relationships are skewed by their interconnectedness, Rachel, Jess, whose actual name is Megan, and Anna, Tom's new wife and mother of their baby girl. None is fully who she seems. The fun is in deciphering and analyzing.

Critics are comparing Hawkins to Hitchcock and I've read that the novel, her first, has already been optioned by DreamWorks for film. The women's roles have been cast, but not by Brits I'm sorry to say. So, if you couldn't get your head around this book at first, you may want to give it another go. I didn't choose to see "Gone Girl" but I know that curiosity will take me to the theatre to see how Hollywood handles the complexities of this one.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Franzen - Love Him or Hate Him?

There's no question that when Jonathan Franzen's name is mentioned, there is a thumbs up or thumbs down reaction - no in-between. I wonder why it is that we as a society love to tear people down? Sure, he ruffled some feathers when he initially refused Oprah's imprimatur for his knock-out novel, "The Corrections," but they finally kissed and made up and the book was more widely read as a result.

Then there was the hoo-ha a few years ago (http://bit.ly/1Jvso4P) when popular novelist Jodi Picoult accused reviewers of favoring white male authors over females who write about the same subject matter. Unfortunately for her argument she referenced Jonathan Franzen. Though I always try to take the feminist side, all things being equal, I can say unequivocally, I've read Jodi Picoult and she is no Jonathan Franzen!

When I received "Purity," Franzen's much anticipated new novel, from my editor at "Library Journal," I was thrilled but nervous. I would be one of the first reviewers wading into the fray because LJ writes for pre-publication. Librarians need to know how many copies to order well ahead of the release day based upon informed guesses of what the demand will be. If the book is a flop, will I have the guts to say that the emperor has no clothes?


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In this case I didn't have to worry.  "The Corrections" will probably always be my favorite book simply because there were scenes in that novel that were stolen right from our family dinner table. As for "Purity," I felt that his editor could have used her pen a lot more often, especially when it involved the sexual relationship between Pip, our heroine, and Andreas, the anti-hero and CEO of the Sunlight Project. Rather than reinvent the wheel I'm just going to share with you the review that was published in the August 1st edition of "Library Journal."

 Does anyone have truly pure intentions, or are most people motivated by their own needs and desires? This is one of the questions posed by Franzen (The Corrections, Freedom) in his provocative new novel, a book rich with characters searching for roots and meaning in a world of secrets and lies. Pip (Purity) Tyler is burdened with college debt, a minimum-wage job, and a needy yet withholding mother who lives as a recluse under an assumed name. The identity of Pip’s father is a taboo subject. Enter the shadowy, Julian Assange–like CEO of the Sunlight Project, Andreas Wolf, purveyor of all the Internet’s hidden truths. With less than pure objectives, Wolf offers Pip a researcher position at his South American headquarters. An improbable sexual cat-and-mouse game between them causes a temporary drag in the narrative, but once Pip returns stateside and is embedded in the offices of an online journal, Franzen reveals moments of absolute genius. The cathartic power of tennis; the debilitating effects of jealousy; the fickle, fleeting nature of fame; and the slow death of youthful idealism are all beautifully captured. Verdict National Book Award winner Franzen, who often decries the state of our increasingly materialistic, high-tech society via his essays and novels, this time proffers a more hopeful, sympathetic worldview. Demand will be high. [See Prepub Alert, 3/9/15.]—Sally ­Bissell, Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

What a relief when I opened the "Washington Post Book World" this weekend to see that my favorite reviewer, Ron Charles, felt the same way that I did. It's always gratifying to see your judgment shared by someone you admire. How about you readers? Thumbs up or thumbs down?