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.

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, we decided on "The Girl in the Spider's Web," by David Lagercrantz.

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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

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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 ( ) "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.