Friday, December 30, 2016

More of the Best of 2016

http://bit.ly/2iOiGF1Product Details6. I'm so grateful that Jacqueline Woodson is writing for adults now. This gorgeous novel slows like a poem, the prose is so lyrical that you want to read the book aloud. In 1970's Brooklyn August and her girlfriends try to navigate the trials of friendship and the dangers of the street. Some will leave and some will stay.



7.
LaRose: A Novel Louise Erdrich is known for fiction that addresses her Ojibwe background and the cultural and legal ramifications of a people living in two worlds. A hunting accident tears a family apart in this exquisite novel of unimaginable loss and grief. Only the beautiful little boy, LaRose, intuits that he may be the conduit through which two broken families can heal. http://bit.ly/1sZOdoB
 
 
Product Details8. Debut novelist Emma Cline examined the truly terrifying nature of evil in this book that takes readers back to L.A. in the '60's and reimagines the Charles Manson case. Lonely, footloose teenager Evie Boyd is a remarkable fictional character. There isn't a false note in Cline's description of the inner workings of her mind as she sets herself up for seduction.
 
 
 
Two simply marvelous memoirs make my list and others get honorable mention.
 
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9. I feel certain that I will never forget Paul Kalanithi or his wife Lucy. The power couple, both distinguished doctors with the whole world ahead of them, are floored by Paul's cancer diagnosis. With all the tools at their disposal they assume that a cure is just one more treatment away, until it isn't. Paul's book, written for his unborn daughter, is and awesome gift of grace. His lesson on how to die is more powerful than any book you could ever read on how to live.
 
 
Product Details10. I said in my review of Betsy Lerner's memoir that his would be the ideal Mother's Day gift. That was a year ago and I stand by my statement. Lerner takes readers through her lifelong attempt to understand her mother, Roz, a woman who, like Betsy herself, suffered severe depression, yet soldiered on as she was raised to do. By embracing the ladies with whom her mom plays bridge, (they met every Monday for over fifty years), Betsy reaches a catharsis, a new respect and love for her mother, and learned to play cards too!
 
I devoured Gloria Steinem's "On the Road," and soared with hope for my dotage after sharing time with Diana Athill's roaring "Alive, Alive, Oh!" How many people place an explanation point at the end of their title?
 
And of course there's the fiction that I didn't even get to this year, so many advanced readers' copies that I haven't even opened yet. Jonathan Safran Foer, I'm talking to you!
 
A new year and a new booklist are forthcoming and I'll try to keep you entertained and informed as we forge ahead into the great unknown. If it's Florida books you want to hear about, there are two years' worth of podcasts at WGCU radio:
 
Happy reading to all and to all a goodnight.
 
 
 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

116 In 2016, My Favorites of the Year

Granted, 2016 is a year that many of us will be glad to close the door on. It may have been a disaster politically but it was an outstanding year for readers. I had set the mellifluous goal of reading 116 books in the year 2016 and actually managed to exceed that goal by two though I confess that I didn't finish each book on my list. Sometimes life's too short to stick with a book that isn't worthy.

I hate having to put my favorite reads of the year in numerical order but how else can it be done? Let's just say that if you asked me, "What should I read?" these titles would jump off my tongue immediately. Normally I read an eclectic mix of old and new, fiction and non, but looking back over this year's top ten, it appears that all but one actually came out in 2016. Without further fanfare here are my choices for the most moving, most technically excellent, flat out best books I read this past year.

Product Details1. This debut novel by Nathan Hill, a local southwest Florida writer, bowled me over with its originality. 600 pages and I wouldn't have edited a thing. Spanning six decades of American history, Hill gently skewers academia, publishing, politics, and technology through the eyes of Sam and the mother who abandoned him. http://bit.ly/28TS55p

2. This may be the most underappreciated novel of the year. It's a devastating look at the effects of Jim Crow laws in the south on another abandoned young man, Devlin Walker, as he tries to make his way through an antagonistic world. Smith's prose if breathtaking. I defy you not to agonize over the injustices done to Devlin by a system designed to keep the black man in chains. http://bit.ly/1pajwu8


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3. Amor Towles delighted me with this sly historical novel
set in Russia beginning in the 1920's. The plot involves
a delightful Count Rostov who's been accused of writing subversive poetry against the government. His punishment? Permanent exile in a luxurious hotel in the heart of Moscow where he manages to thrive more fully than many do with unlimited freedom. http://bit.ly/2iJ5L2Z


 
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4. Yaa Gyasi's "Homegoing" takes readers through a history of the Dutch slave trade in Ghana, from the door of no return, to the United States, through the lineage of stepsisters, Effia and Esi, who are unaware of each other's existence. This novel is bound to be the ancestor to Alex Haley's "Roots," and would lend itself easily to film. http://bit.ly/2dHdHT9
 
 
5. 

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Bill Clegg made his living helping other writers get published but when it came time to write his own novel he knocked it out of the park. A horrific tragedy on the eve of a family wedding leaves only matriarch June Reid alive to pick up the pieces of her life, if she can. This emotionally draining debut examines survivor guilt from the viewpoint of several characters on the periphery of the action.
 
 
I'm burdening you with too much reading. How about if I pick up tomorrow with my final five and honorable mentions too? Thanks for reading!





 

 

 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Nothing Plain about Plainsong

 


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I've been preparing to reread Kent Haruf's "Our Souls at Night," an exquisite little novel that I'm planning to discuss with readers at the South County Library in January. (http://bit.ly/1OurJhW) I thought I should familiarize myself with other works by this beautiful writer, dead too soon, a man who left a glorious prose legacy. "Oh my," is all I can say. I started "Plainsong" yesterday afternoon and basically did little else until I could finish it. Then I sighed with pleasure. I needed that and most likely, so do you.

Written in 1999, set in the small farming town of Holt, Colorado, this book probably best exemplifies the simpler life that so many voters, misguided as I think they were, yearned for in 2016. Haruf tells us that the word plainsong refers to any simple and unadorned melody or air. This is his milieu. No cataclysmic drama, no bloody corpse, just the vagaries of everyday life. His characters are farmers, teachers, waitresses, and secretaries just putting one step ahead of the next, not too prone to brooding or self reflection.

But of course there is drama in everyday existence, isn't there? Nine and ten year old brothers, Ike and Bobby, fear walking by their mother's closed bedroom door. A ghost of her former self, Mrs. Guthrie lays in bed for weeks on end with her face turned to the wall, incapable of being mom or wife. Tom Guthrie cares for the boys and the farm and still manages to get to work everyday at the local high school where he teaches American History.

Victoria Roubideaux isn't the first na├»ve seventeen-year-old (yes, in Holt they actually are that unaware) to fall for an older guy who feeds her all the sweet nothings a lonely girl wants to hear. But when she comes up pregnant and her mom kicks her down the road, fortunately she knows that a woman like Maggie Jones might just take her in and sort her out.

And then there's the eccentric McPheron brothers, Raymond and Harold, who still work dawn to dusk on their family's cattle ranch on the outskirts of town where, in a wonderfully visual chapter, the Guthrie boys learn the ins and outs of sex while helping round up the heifers for examinations and injections.

Haruf excels at creating perfect little scenes that will take readers right back to childhood when kids were left on their own all day and no one worried about them. Ike and Bobby take advantage of a lazy summer afternoon to peak through their mother's bedroom drawers, closets, and boxes, sniffing, touching, replacing items and taking others. Later they play on the railroad tracks, placing coins on the rails to be flattened, reworked by the powerful engine as it flies through on its way to somewhere else.

I don't think that Haruf implies that people were "better" back then. There are still gossips and bullies in Holt. But his love of these folk, neighbors who have to pull together to succeed, shines through from every page. They watch out for each other. They have each other's backs. They draw from seemingly endless wells of good will when the need arises. They renew our faith in what it means to be human. Oh yes, I needed that.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Stellar Literary Mystery in The Gloaming

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We're very close to the end of the year when I write about that extremely subjective entity, the best books I've read in 2016. Many of these "best" lists come out early in December. Thank goodness for that or I'd have missed this beautifully written novel by Melanie Finn, a writer formerly unknown to me, but with an outsize talent. (www.melaniefinn.com)

A mystery, a psychological study of guilt, a love story, and a paean to Africa, (Finn was born in Kenya) "The Gloaming," which was published last year in Great Britain under the title, "Shame," is a difficult book to put down. Loaded with deeply flawed characters, it's a credit to Finn's authorial chops that we still become invested in the well being of each of them.

Pilgrim Jones was only eighteen and obviously susceptible to flattery when she met international lawyer Tom, a man who was likely attracted to her beauty and the way she would look on his arm as he traveled the world for his work. She hadn't had a chance to develop a persona of her own so she simply became a vessel for his opinions and ideas. By the time he left her, alone in a small town in Switzerland, friendless and with few language skills, she had a dearth of inner resources on which to rely.

When Pilgrim wakes up in the hospital in Bern she has no memory of why her car missed the curve, smashing into the bus stop stanchion, killing the three little ones who were waiting for their ride. She thinks she might be losing her mind when she returns home to find that someone has access to her apartment, leaving little clues and traces of his or her presence in Pilgrim's absence. Even a trip to the grocery store is fraught with anxiety as voices whisper behind her back, "Kindermorderin."

The decision to fly to Tanzania is the bravest, most uncharacteristic thing Pilgrim has ever done. Choosing to abandon the guided tour she shared with two "ugly Americans," to take up residence in the poverty stricken village of Magulu, well, that was considered just downright crazy. But she had Dr. Dorothea, a physician with no medical supplies, and Mr. Kessy, a police officer without authority, not to mention Gladness, the proud owner of the Goodnight Inn. Here, in this remote part of Africa, Pilgrim may be able to reinvent herself if the curiosity of the locals doesn't break her fragile defenses.

Reviewer Jill Essbaum said that she didn't so much read this novel as experience it. What a perfect way to describe how I fell under the spell of Melanie Finn's tale of loss, redemption, and final chances. From the sinister mercenary Martin Martins to Mama Gloria, who hopes to fill the void left after her son's violent death by loving and caring for AIDS orphans, these people burrow into your psyche and refuse to let go long after the cover is closed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

McEwan's Nutshell, Another Take on Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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I have a love/hate relationship with British author Ian McEwan. When he's good, he's very, very good, ("The Children Act") but when he's bad....well, "Nutshell" is an example of a book that infuriated me. I must tell you that I disagree with all of my favorite reviewers on this, (Ron Charles of the Washington Post and Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times), so don't necessarily take my word for it. Read it yourself and then we can talk.
 
Admittedly, the premise is clever. The narrator is an almost full-term fetus nestling now uncomfortably claustrophobic in the womb of Trudy, a woman who has dumped the father of her child in favor of his brother Claude, an insipid, boring man whose only good attribute seems to be his penis. The names Trudy and Claude should kick off alarm bells in the reader's head. Yes, this novel is a strange tribute to the bard's "Hamlet." The fact is that Philip Roth used a similar trope in his 2000 novel "Gertrude and Claudius."
 
Our fetus is deeply concerned with his own future welfare as he witnesses, from his insider position, the plot to murder his father, John, by inelegantly painful means. John is a poet, passionate and worldly, and the fetus is flummoxed by the attraction his mother has for John's brother Claude. She and Claude copulate frequently but they don't seem to like each other much and they certainly don't trust each other.
 
And so the fetus spends his time ruminating upon the state of the world he's about to be born into and here is where I take issue with this novel. If McEwan needs to spout his concerns about society's failures, and he has many, why not just do it in essay form? As a murder mystery, the novel works, but as a treatise on the unhealthy state of the world, from war in the middle east, to climate change, to the decline of the United States and the rise of China, it just seems like misplaced rhetoric.
 
Will you keep reading? Yes! We have to know whether Trudy and Claude will get away with their dastardly deed and we have to know whether the brilliant fetus will be safely delivered of his amniotic sack or whether, in frustration, he'll strangle himself with his own umbilical cord.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Trevor Noah, Smart, Funny, Humble in Born a Crime

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When Jon Stewart left The Daily Show many of us wondered how we'd go on. Ironically, what began as a fake news program actually became one of the few places where people could get the real news. Yes, it was dressed up for comedy but it was still the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I've read that when Trevor Noah took over the show he received an unprecedented amount of hate mail. At the time I was shocked. Now of course, since the election, nothing could shock me. What has pleasantly surprised me is how much I've come to appreciate Mr. Noah and the whole tenor of the show he fronts. We should have trusted Jon to choose wisely and in Mr. Noah he has a worthy successor. http://www.trevornoah.com/

What I didn't expect was that Noah would also be such a beautiful writer and a deep thinker. Just look at this editorial piece he wrote for the New York Times last week. http://nyti.ms/2h7eXyF 

"Born a Crime, Stories From an African Childhood," is so much more than a series of funny vignettes, it's a primer on the history of South Africa, how apartheid was established, and why it was able to work. Each chapter starts with a short lesson in evil, beginning with the establishment of the Immorality Act of 1927 which outlawed the sexual mingling of Europeans and native peoples. Since Noah's father was German and his mother a black South African of the Xhosa tribe, his birth was literally a crime punishable by five years in prison for each parent.

Noah explains how complicated the separation of the races was when he was growing up, how his black grandmother had to hide him in her home when he came to Soweto to visit because a child of mixed race could be snatched off the streets by the police and sent to an orphanage or worse. If his father and he were walking down the street and a cop came along, he would have to drop back and appear to be on his own.

 In school mixed race kids were an anomaly, fitting in with neither black or white. A lonely child, Trevor - it's hard to believe - claims he was chubby, had terrible acne, and few friends. I've read many memoirs by comedians and I find that this theme of alienation is a thread that runs through them all. Only by being funny could he be accepted by all sides.

The poverty he describes in South Africa cannot even be imagined by western standards. The lengths that Noah and his remarkable mother went to in order to survive, to eat, to get an education, and to succeed, are daunting.
But what Trevor Noah lacked in material things was more than made up for with love. In fact, this book is actually a paean to his mother and her single minded will to raise a man of integrity and honor. She practiced tough love but she also shared a huge sense of adventure, a vivid imagination, a love of books, and deep pride.

I hope, because Noah is young, hip, and followed all over the world, that his book will reach a wide audience of young people uneducated in the horrors of apartheid, that it will open their eyes to what can happen right here, right now if we aren't diligent in fighting bigotry whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head. Our world is currently in a very fragile place. I worry that with just a little more pressure we could reach a tipping point from which we may not be able to return. What's the old saying? Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Mothers, Another Amazing Debut Novel

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What a fabulous year for readers! I can't remember the last time there were so many stellar writers debuting novels of such sophistication and depth. Especially gratifying is that they are women, Emma Cline, Yaa Gyasi, Nicole Dennis-Benn, to mention just a few of my favorites in 2016. And now, Brit Bennett (http://britbennett.com/about/), a winner of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 50 award, with an Ivy League education that includes Stanford, the University of Michigan, and Oxford. Whew!
 
We first meet Nadia Turner through the eyes of "the mothers," the elders of the Upper Room Chapel, who keep keen eyes on the youth of their parish. These women pride themselves on their observations about all the members of their Oceanside, California, community but they are not above spreading gossip based on false assumptions and misinformation. The onus is on the reader to parse what we learn from the mothers with what we learn from the first person narration of the three main characters themselves.
 
The mothers were the last people to see Nadia's mom alive and they wonder, in hindsight of course, what they might have done differently if they'd known she intended to kill herself. Nadia and her father both died a little bit that day, their grief internalized, creating an impenetrable wall that neither seem able to breach.
 
Nadia's search for anything to fill the hole in her heart begins with the usual suspects, drugs and alcohol, and ends in a secret fling with the pastor's son, Luke Sheppard, a man fighting his own demons. They know it won't last, after all, Nadia is heading off to college the following year, to Michigan on a full scholarship. So when she finds out that she's pregnant, it never occurs to her that Luke might have mixed feelings about the child he'll never know. This lack of insight into Luke's true character has ramifications for each member of the Upper Room over the next several years.
 
Absent mothers, whether physically or emotionally, are an integral part of Ms. Bennett's novel. Aubrey's mom is alive but has chosen her boyfriend over her daughter. Abandoned, Aubrey moves in with her sister and her sister's partner and joins the Upper Room seeking a safe haven. There she meets Nadia, one empty girl seeking out another. Nadia is drawn to Aubrey's innocence and to the home she has made with her sister, harboring an aching envy that Bennett describes in this gorgeously written sentence,
 
 "Monique and Kasey's love for Aubrey hung in their eyes, and even though it wasn't meant for Nadia, she inched closer, holding her hands up to the warmth."
 
Can't you just see it? Insightful sentences like this jump off many pages in "The Mothers," a book that holds so much pain, loss, and misunderstanding behind its cover that if feels like it should have come from a much older soul. Bennett examines grief, loyalty, friendship, and love, along with the seemingly unbreakable bond between parents and children. Lots of material here for book groups.


 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Jacqueline Woodson's Other Brooklyn

Product DetailsLong before the brownstones started going for a million dollars and up, there was "Another Brooklyn." Jacqueline Woodson is fortunate enough to now live in the new, gentrified Brooklyn, but there was a time when she lived in the middle of Bushwick, when white flight was happening all around her and  neighborhoods were being populated by black and Latino families. This is the Brooklyn that is a full-blown character in Ms. Woodson's first book written for adults. Finally! http://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/

I've written before about a new phenomenon that really seems to be catching the literary imagination. It's the memoir as novel,  a trope that allows the writer much more freedom even as it keeps the reader guessing. How much of this actually happened? In an interview, Ms. Woodson said that her books may not all be physically autobiographical but they are "emotionally autobiographical." I love that distinction. I love this book.

Ms. Woodson covers so much emotional territory in this finely tuned novel/memoir that in only 179 pages my senses ran the gamut, from poignant melancholy, to worry, to wise laughter, and memories of my own young adulthood. Oh, it's remarkable how she perfectly captures such an achingly difficult time!

There is a mystery in the novel that slowly reveals itself. Our narrator August moves north from Tennessee with her brother and her dad, yet there is a huge hole in the family that was once occupied by their mother. "Why didn't she come with them?" asks her baby brother. "When will she arrive?"

Woodson creates a beautifully written bond between August and her little brother, alone at home all day while their dad is at work, not allowed to leave the house for their own safety. Their faces are often pressed to the window from which they observe the neighborhood. They long to join in with the other kids, jumping rope, bouncing balls, running through the pulsing water of the fire hydrant, but a full season goes by before their dad feels comfortable letting them explore their diverse, fascinating cityscape.

It is from this window that August first spots the girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, with whom she will develop a seemingly inseparable friendship. Remember, if you can, the angst, the drama, the secrets and confidences shared during your teen years. Woodson depicts this time so realistically that I actually began to relive old hurts leveled by girls I thought I could trust, and acts of gross misbehavior instigated by a bully to whom I couldn't say no.

And though "Another Brooklyn" is about the dangers and pitfalls of growing up as a black girl, the story has universal appeal. Each of the girls has a dream, not each will live up to her potential. Burgeoning hormones run rampant, fear of pregnancy is never far from the girls' minds, the stigma and the lost opportunities. There is also a lovely exploration of Islam. August's dad and then her brother convert, finding joy in their daily devotions, the healthy dietary restrictions, and the intellectual rigor, such a different vision from the hate- filled rhetoric of today.

I own this marvelous little book. After sitting next to Ms. Woodson at the National Book Festival there was no way that I couldn't buy it, right? If you've gotten this far in my post then you may be more than a little interested in reading her. I'd be thrilled to "pay it forward" and send my copy to the first person who comments.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Good Girls Revolt, A Book that Raises a Question

Product DetailsAs people around the world pondered and attempted to analyze what just happened in the United States on Tuesday, November 8th, I was beginning a new book by journalist Lynn Povich (http://www.lynnpovich.com/) that drove home to me, once again, what I see as a serious problem in our country. Women are still too reluctant to support other women.

"The Good Girls Revolt, How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace," is a true story about a class action lawsuit that was brought by the fiery and formidable Eleanor Holmes Norton, then assistant legal director at the ACLU, on behalf of the female employees at Newsweek Magazine, the first of its kind. I was just graduating from college in 1970 when this all began and I admit to being totally oblivious. But I'll excuse myself by saying that I didn't have access to the constant barrage of 24/7 news feeds or women's studies programs that are prevalent now. Two generations of young women have reached adulthood since the women's movement began and I worry that too many of them either take all the work that's gone before for granted, or don't realize how close they may come to losing it all.

The ladies at Newsweek, graduates of the finest colleges in the country, were hired as fact-checkers, entry level positions that many of them assumed would get them in the door. Then they would be able to showcase their true talents, writing and reporting on the news of the world. Instead they were bypassed by young men with equal or lesser skills who steamrolled their way to important positions in the company. Newsweek was owned by the Washington Post company which, in turn, was led by Katherine Graham, the first female executive of a major news organization, a woman who was sadly unaware of the discriminatory treatment of her own female employees.

These women were in the vanguard of the movement. It took courage to secretly plan the suit, carefully choose whom to trust, realizing that they could possibly lose their jobs, and would certainly be retaliated against. Ms. Povich was a signatory to the lawsuit but she gives a clear-eyed account of all that happened, giving credit to the men who stood behind their co-workers, and calling out those who stonewalled. Though Norton won the case for the women, two years later very little had changed.

Well regarded writers like Nora Ephron, Jane Bryant Quinn, and Ellen Goodman had moved on to other venues where they found better options for advancement. Those who stayed continued to push for writing opportunities, eventually having to bring another suit in 1973 to force the Newsweek administration to prove that they were actively soliciting female editors. At the same time, the Post organization was under an edict to hire more minority professionals. I've always thought it a shame that the Black Power Movement and the Women's Movement couldn't have joined forces to advance their outcomes. It seems that a lack of trust and an every man (sorry) for himself mentality prevailed.

Which brings me back to the election of 2016. The latest statistics tell us that 53% of women in the United States pulled the lever for Donald Trump. How can that be? Of course I'm not saying that we should vote with our vaginas as Susan Sarandon quipped, but come on. It is doubtful that, in my lifetime, we will have another candidate as qualified to lead our country as Hillary Clinton. Many of Bernie's younger supporters said, "she comes with too much baggage." Well, hell yes, she comes with baggage. You can't become a leader without putting yourself on the line, again and again. She had some spectacular successes and some flaming failures. In other words, she was tested.
"
"The Good Girls Revolt" should be added to college reading lists in journalism and gender studies. It reminds us that only forty years ago women were relegated to getting the coffee, expected to endure outrageous sexual harassment, released from their jobs for getting married or pregnant, and were not allowed to even hold credit cards in their own names. We may have come a long way baby but believe me, we're not there yet.



Monday, November 7, 2016

Nine Island by Jane Alison

Product DetailsI am on a never-ending quest for books set in Florida that I can read and review for The Florida Book Page, my monthly radio stint on our local NPR station WGCU. This can be more difficult than it sounds since I want to actually LIKE the book and consider it well written. What a pleasant surprise to open last Sunday's New York Times Book Review and find not one, but two new books that fit the description. I'll be waiting a while for John Grisham's "The Whistler," but "Nine Island," by Jane Alison, http://www.janealisonauthor.com/, a writer who is new to me, came in immediately. Now I plan to go back and read all her other books!

Advertised as a "non-fiction novel," a new one on me, this exquisite little gem of a book is melancholy yet hopeful, sad and funny and smart. Narrated by J, a woman at that precarious stage between youth and old age, who is wondering as the song goes, "should I stay or should I go?" From the floor to ceiling windows of her Miami high rise, she watches the toned bodies, the immoveable breasts, and the worked over faces of the women on the make and asks herself if it's worth it. Should she stay in the dating game or relinquish it for her literary pursuits.

J is a scholar of Ovid, as is the author. She is translating "The Metamorphoses," while pondering her own transition from the lush, sexual being she thinks she still is, to a woman who's given up on love. She reminisces about past affairs and a long, infertile marriage, and fantasizes about the toned young men who strut their stuff on the beaches and around the pools. When J is in the water she feels replenished, supple, lighter, more desirable, but ironically, the pool is in disrepair and about to be shut down indefinitely.

Living alone, J is curious about the comings and goings of some of her neighbors and they, in turn, are interested in her, especially N, the woman who beats J to the pool each morning and then disappears for the rest of the day in a whirl of mystery. N and her husband invite J for drinks. They want to know her better, whether she's contented with her life, with just Ovid and her old cat, or if she needs and expects more out of life.

This is not a novel for the impatient reader. This book reminds me of a good foreign film, contemplative and interior. It tantalizes and yes, it titillates. Alison has written a gorgeous meditation on life, on aging, on embracing what's offered and accepting that which we just may not be able to have.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney

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Not all reviewers were equally smitten with Jay McInerney's third novel about Russell and Corrine Calloway. Reading between the lines, I gather that some may have found it too, well, precious. Not so for me. Because I haven't read the two previous works about this New York City power couple, "The Good Life," and "Darkness Falls," I came to them fresh, thanks to an advanced readers' copy from the publisher, Knopf. I really enjoyed this book. It's sarcastic, funny, poignant, biting, and honest.

Taking us inside the writing and publishing business right before the 2008 financial meltdown, McInerney drops so many literary names and references that some might accuse him of being pretentious. But I loved reading about the behind-the-scenes machinations that result in a published book. Especially well-done and realistic is Russell's discovery of a "fresh new voice in fiction." Jack is an unpolished kid from the south whose undisciplined work shone under Russell's editing, a young man whose success went to his head as quickly as his star faded.

McInerney says that New York is really just a small town where everyone knows everyone, and the city, from Soho to Harlem, is a major character in this book He conjures up the very essence of what it's like to live among, yet on the fringes of the 1%, the endless fund raisers, charity parties, openings, screenings, benefits. He pulls us into that life, shallow and exhausting, and mesmerizes us with the rich tapestry of lives lived on the edge of the precipice.

Yes, they made it through the sex, drugs, and rock and roll days, for which there's little nostalgia. Now, will they survive the indignities of middle age and the looming financial crisis? Obviously pulling on his own thoughts about aging, McInerney depicts couples in middle age, rethinking their marriages, contemplating (and often having) affairs, grasping at those last ditch efforts to stave off boredom even if it means downing a Cialis with your $1500 bottle of Bordeaux.

And yet, ever the generous writer, McInerney forgives Corinne and Russell, Washington and Veronica, Tom and Casey their vanities, their deceptions that mean so little in the overall scheme of things. There is much love and respect among these couples. They have histories that are worth preserving. There's a wonderful scene on the evening of the 2008 presidential election when the long time friends and their teenage kids sit together watching the news results roll in from the various TV stations, learning that Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States.

The champagne corks pop, the sense of hope in the future is palpable. We realize that these couples, these friends, will probably make it. I remembered my friend Don and I popping our own champagne that night here in Florida, calling my sister in Massachusetts, and I felt nostalgic for those bright, precious days. That's what a good writer can do for you.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mullen's Darktown Tells of a Dark Time

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Whenever I'm getting ready to fly I want to make sure that I have a book that will grab me and hold my attention for several hours. Such a novel accompanied me home to Florida from Baltimore last week. "Darktown," by Thomas Mullen was one of the most talked about books at Book Expo in Chicago in May and it lives up to the hype.

Based upon the true story of the first black police force in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late 1940's, this book has been billed as a police procedural but it is much more than that. In fact, the central murder mystery is probably pretty easy for those of us who thrive on thrillers to solve, but it is the historically accurate tale of the eight officers and how they had to operate with both hands tied behind their backs that is at the crux of this novel.

Begun as an experiment and a quid pro quo between black leaders of Atlanta and then mayor William Hartsfield, the first black officers were brought on board amid threats and intimidation from white officers, many of whom were still not- so-covert members of the Klan, and were hell-bent on seeing that these fellow police officers would not be successful, or even live to tell their stories. http://historyatlanta.com/atlantas-first-black-police-officers/

Partners Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith patrol the Auburn Avenue neighborhood on foot, black officers are not allowed to drive police cars, where they are distrusted by their own black neighbors as sell-outs. They are only allowed to intercede when the crime is black on black. They do not have jurisdiction to arrest whites, a fact that diminishes respect and authority to the point where they feel emasculated.

When they see a white man, obviously drunk driving in their neighborhood, (he's knocked over a street lamp), they stop him and request license and registration. The man's disdain for the officers is painful even to read. The fact that he has a terrified young black female passenger sporting a bruise on her face, is ominous. Boggs and Smith are required to call in white officers to handle what should obviously be an arrest, but when the most terrifyingly racist officer, Dunlow, arrives on scene, we know that nothing will happen.

A few days later, that same young woman's body shows up, abandoned on a garbage dump, with a bullet hole through her chest, setting in motion an investigation. Hampered by the double standards of the time, a black body is of little interest to the Atlanta police department, and black officers are not allowed to work out of police headquarters with their peers, or even have access to reports, Boggs and Smith pursue leads on the sly putting themselves at even greater risk than usual.

Mullen does an excellent job with characterization, delving into the motivations of officers like Lucius, son of a well-connected local minister, who could have made a safer career choice. He also addresses the nuanced ways in which a new batch of more educated, younger white officers, evidenced by Dunlow's new partner, Rakestraw, abhor the violent, racist, old ways of policing, while being fearful of showing too much solidarity with the black officers.

This is a solid piece of historical fiction tied up with a murder mystery. It is also a terrific work of social commentary that will leave readers wondering just how far our police departments have actually come on that long road to equal justice under the law. 


  

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Respite from the Darkness with Jenny Colgan

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If you are reading this blog then it's a safe bet that you might resemble Nina Redmond, Jenny Colgan's delightful heroine, who blatantly admits she prefers books to people. Haven't we all felt that way sometimes? Especially lately?

Nina is a librarian whose forte is matching patrons with the perfect book. She loves her work, but as those of us in the business have already learned, the times they are a changin'. In Birmingham, England, funds are dwindling and libraries are forced to reinvent themselves. You know the terms... maker spaces, community centers, digital labs. Books? Well, they no longer fit into the equation.

Staff members are let go but told that they may reapply for their jobs IF they are willing to wear the new hats required of them. Nina tries, but she just can't stop herself from rhapsodizing about books during her interview. Wrong move.

Yes, this novel is a romantic comedy, perhaps a little too heartfelt for some tastes, but every now and then don't we all just need a book that makes us feel that all's right with the world? I know that I do. (Thank you Alexander McCall Smith!) I thoroughly enjoyed watching Nina stretch a bit, move out of her comfort zone, and stand on her own two feet, all the while turning a life-long dream into reality.

"The Bookshop on the Corner," is actually a refurbished van, one that Nina travels all the way to the wilds of Scotland to purchase. We watch as she slowly falls in love with the people and the quiet of the countryside, such a far cry from the chaos of downtown Birmingham. With the aid of her plucky roommate, Nina ships cartons of books by train, managing to fall for one of the conductors in the process, to the Highlands, where she meets a wonderful cast of characters while operating her traveling bookstore.

Colgan has a great sense of humor, offering some laugh-out-loud moments that librarians and booklovers will especially relate to. She'll also make you want to book a trip to Scotland asap, a country she obviously loves and where she apparently makes her own home. If you're looking for a break from the ugly reality of the news of the day, Jenny Colgan should be your go-to woman. Reading her will give a boost to your feel-good pheromones!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

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Oh how I wish I had arrived at the National Book Festival in time to hear Yaa Gyasi speak with the audience about the impetus for this absolutely phenomenal debut novel. It's been called, and truly is, breathtaking. I am calling it a modern day "Roots," and I suspect that the incredible story Gyasi shares is as much about her own familial line as Alex Haley's was about his.

Ms. Gyasi was born in Ghana but left for America by the age of three. She says that she had no real feelings toward that country until a visit in 2009 when she was a student at Stanford. She returned and toured the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the settings for her novel. Cape Coast Castle has a long history dating back to the Swedes and then the Danes, but Gyasi begins her novel when the British made it their headquarters for the slave trade in the 1800's.

Two major tribes, the Asante and the Fante, competed to do business with the English, sadly selling their own people into slavery. Thousands of enslaved people were held in the dungeons of the Cape Coast Castle prior to being shipped  through the door of no return to the United States. What readers may not know is that African women were often married to British soldiers in exchange for gold or cloth. They lived in relative luxury on the upper floors of the castle while their fellow tribeswomen were enslaved in the basement.

Gyasi took this fact and built a historically accurate, multi-generational novel around Effia and Esi, half sisters unaware of each other's existence, who find themselves in this very situation. Through an act of trickery, Effia's step-mother arranges a marriage between her Fante daughter and a white castle officer, James Collins. In another bit of treachery, a raid on an Asante village results in Esi being captured and enslaved in the Cape Coast dungeon. Gyasi follows their lives and that of their progeny through two hundred years of deep, abiding love, and horrific, unspeakable loss.

Each emotionally resonant chapter gives voice to a new member of these women's lineage, toggling back and forth between those who remained in Africa and those who moved from plantations in the south, through emancipation, and the great migration to New York and Chicago.

Gyasi illuminates life in Africa for her readers, the tribal culture that honors its elderly yet succumbs to dangerous, hurtful superstitions, the village that cares for each member yet has trouble accepting those with lighter skin. At the same time we see the United States with its shameful history. We watch as a young woman, Marjorie, much like Ms. Gyasi, tries to fathom the difference between being African in this country and being African American.

Nominated by author Ta-Nehisi Coates for the National Book Foundation's Five Under Thirty-five honor, Ms. Gyasi has a bright future ahead of her. I would be shocked if her novel isn't optioned for film, but it's more of her writing I hope to see. "Homegoing" will be a hard act to follow.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Hidden Figures, Out in the Open at Last

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 There's nothing like an absorbing audio book to take the stress out of a long trip, and when it's a fascinating piece of history, deftly written and perfectly narrated, then you know you've hit gold. I can't recommend this book enough.
 
"Hidden Figures, the American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped America Win the Space Race," by Margot Lee Shetterly, read by Robin Miles, has only been out for two weeks and it's already on everybody's radar. Suddenly a once obscure name, Katherine Goble Johnson, is becoming a household word. And it's about time. https://crgis.ndc.nasa.gov/historic/Katherine_Johnson
 
Physicist Katherine Johnson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year at the White House. She was a precocious student, graduating from high school at the age of fourteen and moving right on to the freshman class at West Virginia State. What she went through to get her education though, was a travesty. Back in the '30's, Jim Crow was firmly ensconced in West Virginia. Since the black students weren't allowed to be educated in white schools, her parents had to separate, living 125 miles apart during the week, so that Katherine and her siblings could move beyond the 8th grade.
 
Katherine was not alone. There was Dorothy Vaughan, Miriam Mann, Christine Darden, Mary Jackson, and a host of other women, juggling marriages and children, who broke both gender and racial barriers. Shetterly http://nyti.ms/2dFSvLf masterfully delves into the early lives of each of the main characters, women who, without fanfare, worked with numbers at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1940's.
 
 They were called "computers," a disconcertingly neutral title that takes a while to adjust to if you're listening to the book. These women, white and black, were the Rosie the Riveters of the scientific community at NACA, a precursor to what we now call NASA. When first hired they assumed they would only be working until the "boys" came home from the war. How they made themselves indispensable, staying the course through the first manned space flight and the moon landing, is a tale of brilliance and fortitude.
 
Shetterly must especially be congratulated for writing about the most complex mathematical calculations, whether involved in testing jet engines or plotting the trajectory of a rocket's return to earth, in a way that even the most math-challenged readers will find appealing. And while she doesn't shy away from the incidents of racial prejudice that plagued the "computers," (they handled them with aplomb), she speaks equally to the gender prejudice that women in the sciences had to deal with. In fact, many of the Langley women generously mentored a new generation of female scientists through scouting and sorority work.
 
In January a film will be released based upon Shetterly's book and I'll admit that I'm looking forward to it with trepidation. "Hidden Figures" is a scholarly, deeply researched, historical record of importance. I watched the trailer for the film and worried that, with Octavia Spencer in the leading role as Dorothy Vaughan, she might play it for laughs rather than for the respectfulness it deserves. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vGAxf55sFLI
 
 My advice, read the book first. Then, if the movie doesn't live up to expectations, you can revel in being one of those snobs who opines that "the movie NEVER measures up to the book."
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



Wednesday, September 28, 2016

James McBride at National Book Festival



 
 
I've now seen James McBride three times and I never tire of him. When he's in front of the audience he seems to blossom under the warm vibes he draws from the crowd. I actually had little interest in McBride's latest book, nor in the subject of the book, the transformative singer James Brown. I understood that his music changed the way musicians thought about notes and chords, but I guess I just didn't want to delve into Brown's very messy life.
 
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McBride may have changed my mind. "Kill 'em and Leave," the author informs us, is not a biography, but rather a journey of discovery. I really appreciated the way McBride made this distinction. He was more interested in the historical times that informed James Brown's life, that made him the man he was. Along the way McBride developed some righteous indignation.
 
From a family of sharecroppers who were displaced by General Electric and Dupont way back in 1951, Brown rose to the heights of fame and fortune. A fortune, by the way, that he specified in his will was to go to educating poor children in the states of South Carolina and Georgia. Ten years later, not a dime has gone for this worthy enterprise and McBride has nothing but contempt for the lawyers in both states who have milked funds from the estate without settling it as Brown wished it.
 
McBride's long career as a jazz musician came in handy when he attempted to describe for the audience the way that Brown changed rock and roll forever. Using the mic and the podium to puff and bump out notes with emphasis on various beats, he handily illustrated Brown's rhythmic changes and drew appreciate laughs and nods at the same time.
 
Not as circumspect as Richard Russo, McBride referred to Brown's life as a "metaphor for how we handle race in America," going on to riff about the current state of politics and the horrible thought of the possibility of a Trump presidency. I'll wager he did NOT alienate half of his audience!
 
My only regret was that I had to miss Jacqueline Woodson whose presentation overlapped with McBride's. In my defense, when I was speaking with her earlier in the day, she told me not to miss McBride. How generous is that? I went right downstairs to Politics and Prose and bought "Another Brooklyn," and will review it here soon.

Monday, September 26, 2016

National Book Festival 2016

The Library of Congress's annual National Book Festival was started by First Lady Laura Bush, drawing wonderfully diverse crowds from Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia. Three years ago, as the National Park Service realized that the lawns of the national mall were being beaten down to nothing but dirt, a decision was made to move the festival indoors to the Walter Washington Convention Center. I was worried that it would lose the ambiance of the outdoor setting, with the Smithsonian castle and the Washington monument in the background, but it thrived at the convention center and many more people could be accommodated. That is, until this year.

For some reason the roster of eminent fiction writers seemed to get short shrift and the large ballroom on the second floor was reserved for historians and super stars. (Shonda Rimes, Bob Woodward, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) Other years one could come and go throughout the various venues since speakers often overlap, but this year lines formed outside the smaller rooms set aside for fiction writers, many so long that I thought I'd mistakenly ended up at Disney World.

Doors were locked until one presentation ended and another began. While chatting in the hour-long line for Richard Russo with some other book lovers, I found that they could not get in to see many of their favorites, Carl Hiaasen and Colson Whitehead among them. This is especially shocking in light of the fact that Whitehead, as an Oprah pick, was bound to attract a standing room only crowd.

Having worked for years on the Southwest Florida Reading Festival, I understand how difficult it is to please all the people, all the time.One has to make difficult choices. In fact, there were three people I wanted to hear at noon! But even though the new system meant that we couldn't interact with as many authors as we would have liked, (not even Mary Roach had seating space), my sister, my friend Don and I had a great afternoon, even finding ourselves within a couple of feet of Salman Rushdie at one point.

 
Yes! I did get to listen to one of my all time favorite writers. Richard Russo's "Straight Man" will always stand out for me as one of the best sendups of academia ever written and Russo admitted that it was the easiest novel he ever sat down to write. Of course, he was mostly asked about "Everybody's Fool," the sequel to "Nobody's Fool," and about his penchant for writing about the failing towns in upstate New York that he spent his entire life trying to escape from.

The questions were especially apropos, the interviewer pointed out, because of the current political climate that seems to pit blue collar workers, shut out from factory jobs that have disappeared and unable to reinvent themselves, against college educated folks with more resources. Russo did an admirable job of fielding a charged opportunity to trash one presidential candidate or the other, by saying that he wasn't inclined to alienate half of his audience, drawing appreciative laughs.

Russo was thoughtful and kind. I had no doubt that he would be. He treats each quirky character he creates, no matter how deplorable (if I may use that word), as someone loveable and redeemable. He told the audience that his best known anti-hero, Sully, played in the film, "Nobody's Fool," by Paul Newman, was based upon his dad, something I guess I should have picked up on but hadn't.

What's next? He has two books in the hopper, one a collection of short stories, and the kernel of an idea that may evolve into his next novel. In the meantime, he asks, can we please just read a little slower?


Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Week's Vacation with A Gentleman in Moscow

Last week a perfectly marvelous new novel was launched into the world. "A Gentleman in Moscow" defies categorizing. No simple genre classification could contain the wealth of knowledge and pleasure that readers will gain from taking their time and savoring this literary masterpiece.

The author, Amor Towles, http://www.amortowles.com/amor-towles-bio/ wowed the critics with his debut, "The Rules of Civility," which came out a few years ago and has been optioned for a film. I enjoyed it very much, but this new book is written on an entirely different level. Isn't it a joy when a writer gets better with age?

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When I first laid eyes on the cover of the book, I made the incorrect assumption that I would be delving into a John Le Carre type of espionage tale. And yes, there certainly are thrilling moments of political intrigue. But there is so much more.  You will actually witness a half century of Russian history through the eyes of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, as companionable a fictional character as you'll ever meet. You will be treated to a cri de Coeur for a way of life that may be obsolete but not forgotten.
 
Count Rostov appears before the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs in June, 1922, charged with penning a poem that might be considered subversive. The Count, a member of the "leisure class," had exiled himself to Paris at the height of the revolution, suddenly returning to Moscow to take up residence in the luxurious Metropol Hotel, after the destruction of his family's country estate.
 
Upon questioning from the panel now deciding his fate, Rostov is asked about the nature of his occupation. He replies imperiously that, "It is not the business of gentlemen to have occupations."
 
"Very well then. How do you spend your time?" his interrogator queries.
 
Rostov states, "Dining, discussing. Reading. Reflecting. The usual rigmarole."
 
How can you not love this guy?
 
Rostov is found guilty and, oh joy, he is sentenced to a lifetime of confinement in, you guessed it, The Metropol. If he attempts to leave, he will be shot on sight. And so begins our thirty year relationship with the count and his cadre of fascinating friends, the seamstress, the waiters, chefs, concierge, and janitors who will always revere him as "your excellency." Though his circumstances are grossly reduced, from a luxury suite on the fourth floor to a single room with a closet in the attic, he is revered for his discernment, wit, and seeming blindness to class structure.
 
Over time the count, because of his intellect, curiosity, and kindness, thrives in confinement, managing to meet and form long-term relationships with artists, poets, and politicians from around the world. He nurtures a lengthy love affair with a famous beauty, the actress Anna Urbanova, and even becomes a doting father.
 
Towles subtly contrasts the idyllic life within the hotel to the bare existence of the Russian people as they struggle under Lenin, Stalin, and the rapacious building of the Soviet Union. The count represents a time when Russia was in its golden period, when the appreciation of glorious music, literature, and creativity was a raison d'etre. And though he eventually becomes an employee at the Metropol, he cultivates pride in every task required of him, exalting the menial.
 
Amor Towles has pulled off something rare in the book world today, a unique story, luminously written, deliciously subversive, and inhabited by people we wish we could spend more time with. I can't wait to share my copy so that I can talk about it with you. "A Gentleman in Moscow" has now become my second favorite book of the year after Nathan Hill's "The Nix."


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Brighton by Michael Harvey

I used to be crazy mad for murder mysteries, the grittier the better. I considered myself an expert on them. What happened? I guess that once I started reviewing so-called literary fiction for "Library Journal," at least ten years ago now, I must have unwittingly upped my game in terms of the quality and type of characters that I spend time with. But that's a shame because the other day I realized how much I miss a good page-turner.

I turned to a novel that was handed to me when I was at BEA in Chicago. Virginia Stanley from Harper Collins caught my attention with, "You like Dennis Lehane? You'll love this book." I do, and I did.



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Most reviewers are comparing "Brighton," to Lehane's "Mystic River." That's because the premise of each is that a crime committed when the characters were youngsters will one day surface to haunt their adult lives. The past is never really past, is it? Another similarity is that Harvey writes as atmospherically about the Brighton section of Boston as Lehane did about Dorchester, about the Irish, alcohol, race, and the mob.
 
In 1975 Kevin Pearce is a fifteen-year-old boy on his way up and out. His mother Katie had been a smart one too, but marriage to an abuser, three kids, and a lack of hope, clipped her wings. She, and her mother who lives upstairs, place all their faith in Kevin. He'll be the one to go to college. The girls, Colleen and Bridget, were just second thoughts and they knew it.
 
Kevin's Gram, Mary Burke, was a force to be reckoned with. She ran a local cab company from an office next door to the house and she didn't take any crap from anyone. She always told Kevin, if anything goes down that doesn't look right, you can trust Bobby Scales with your life. The day Mary Burke was knifed to death in her home, Kevin had to do just that.
 
Kevin left town that day and didn't look back. Twenty-six years later, his life is charmed. A journalist, he lands a plum job with the "Boston Globe." He's involved romantically with a brainy attorney from the DA's office, and he's just gotten a phone call advising him that he's won a Pulitzer Prize for a piece of investigative journalism that brought to light the jailing and subsequent prison death of an innocent man.
 
It's only a short drive, yet a million miles away to Brighton. Kevin never goes back. But who does he really have to share his good news with if not Bobby? I found myself yelling at him through the pages,
 
"No, don't go back. They'll suck you in. You can never go home again."
 
But then, if he didn't, there wouldn't be a mystery, would there? And it's a doozy. I usually pride myself on guessing the outcome well before the denouement. Not this time. Harvey is expert at throwing out enough red herrings to keep you guessing until the very end. He also excels at painting a picture of true evil and I believe that's what's most frightening about this book. There is no reasoning with this evil, no exculpatory justification for its existence. Dennis Lehane's worst characters have some redeeming qualities but I defy you to find one here. This is a truly gripping thriller and I just happen to have a copy to share. Comment if you'd like it.