Monday, March 28, 2016

A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins

There is a knock out scene in Kate Atkinson's latest novel, "A God in Ruins," where RAF pilot Teddy, and his sister Ursula, are attending a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. While Beethoven is being performed in the background, Teddy is ruminating on the fact that he didn't want to come to the concert but is, in fact, glad that he did, for the welcome respite from the death and destruction his bombers are raining down on Germany. Ursula interrupts his train of thought with a question, softly ventured at first and then more insistent. How does it feel to be responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people? Wow!
At first I couldn't believe she had the nerve to ask. We are, Teddy reminds her, at war. But nevertheless, it was a question I always wanted to ask my dad about his time as a bomber pilot. I didn't have the courage. The question is not meant as a critique but as a conversation starter about the horrible new term, collateral damage, and the efficacy of war in general. Is even one death too much of a price to pay?
Like Teddy in the novel, my father flew thirty missions over Germany and France. He, too, had to ditch his plane into the North Sea. Reading Atkinson's amazingly realistic descriptions of what it was like for these youngsters (average age, twenty-two) to answer this call from queen and country, is very powerful. Atkinson does not romanticize the horror of war as so many do when describing World War II. I would actually call this book an anti-war novel, among many other things. It is a novel about history and our place in it, about family and the hard work that goes into making it work.
It has been called a "companion piece" to "Life After Life," the first book that introduced readers to the Todd family. By no means do the novels need to be read in sequence. The action does move around in time but, at least in the audio version, readers are always reminded of where they are. Teddy is a youngster one moment, a precocious, sensitive boy in tune with nature and the beauty of the world. Suddenly he is a man who earns the respect and admiration of everyone he meets, especially those who fly under him. Turn the page and he's an elderly grandfather trying also to be a father to Sunny, his abandoned, confused grandson.
It's as a husband to Nancy, his childhood neighbor and sweetheart, that Teddy seems least adept. Nancy is one of those women who worked with Turing in the code breaking area of the war, a brilliant mathematician. She and Teddy fall into marriage almost as an afterthought.Two less likely people to be together, let alone to parent a child, there never could be. But their daughter Viola also has a role to play in this stunning novel of truly flawed humans.
When the end came, not with a whimper but with a bang, it was so startling that I backed up the ipod and began listening all over again. This book is truly a remarkable achievement, a work of fiction within a work of fiction, and a beautifully written meditation on the power of storytelling.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Joyce Maynard is Under the Influence

I read an editorial by Joyce Maynard in the paper a few weeks back ( and was reminded, once again, why I've been drawn to her writing for so long. If there's a certain sense of melancholy throughout most of her work, one need only read her memoir "At Home in the World," to understand why. Considered controversial when it first came out, Maynard recalls the year that she spent at a vulnerable stage in her life, living with, (under the influence of), the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger, who was thirty years her senior.

I found that the title of her latest book, "Under the Influence," actually pretty accurately describes a good portion of her life as a woman working very hard to climb out from under other people's influence.

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If you happened to see the Kate Winslet film, Labor Day, based on Maynard's novel of the same name, then you'll remember the theme, sort of a Stockholm Syndrome effect, where a captive falls "under the influence" of her captor. No surprise, the book was much more believable and suspenseful, a credit to Maynard's talent as a writer.
Returning to this convention, Maynard has turned out a truly disquieting novel, in which the danger facing Helen, our very unlucky protagonist, creeps up on the reader slowly but inexorably, so that we're never sure from whence it will come or how it will manifest itself. Yet there's no doubt that it's always bubbling under the surface.
Helen, a single mom, loves her son Ollie to distraction. So it's all the more difficult to read the chapters in which she loses custody of her boy to a vindictive ex after an episode that involves too much alcohol and no friends to count on in a pinch. It could have happened to anybody, and the punishment seems outsize to the crime, but it sets us up to root for Helen's recovery and redemption.
And suddenly her luck changes. When Ava and Swift Havilland take an inordinate interest in Helen, it's almost as if she's one of their many rescue dogs. They employ her, they try to remake her over in their image, revamping her clothes, her style, her sense of self. They make her feel indispensable to their life, plying her with personal questions while revealing little if anything about their own provocative marriage. And then they hold out the carrot.
Maybe their high powered lawyer can work on her custody case as a favor. After all, since she introduced Ollie to the Havillands, the tension of the former visits between mother and son has disappeared. Ollie is enchanted with Swift, a man who rarely seems to work but has money to burn and nothing but time to shower on a kid who's desperate for attention. But we keep worrying, what's the stick?
This suspenseful novel is also psychologically astute. Maynard must have learned early on, the power of observation. Helen is a photographer. She sees people more clearly through a lens. In fact, a camera will play a large role in the denouement of this compelling story of an insecure woman who learns through trial and error to value herself above all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sally's Florida Book Page

OK, I know, I'm cheating here. The plain truth is that I've dilly-dallied away the entire winter and now it's six weeks to departure for Maryland, Chicago, (BEA, here I come!), and California, and I'm way behind the eight ball. My local Florida readers know that a little over a year ago I proudly agreed to take on a monthly audio review for our local NPR station, WGCU, which records from the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.

The idea behind this program is that the books read and reviewed must be by an author with ties to Florida, about Florida, or taking place in Florida. Well! Who knew it would be so hard to stay on top of these kinds of books and still find stories that I would truly enjoy and want to recommend. This missive then, should be considered an SOS to all my readers, no matter where you are. Your ideas are welcome anytime.

Just now I've found myself with several interesting possibilities, two of which I'm working on right now. The problem is that I have to get them all recorded ahead of time so that I can leave for the summer with a clean conscience. It often takes me a whole day to draft a five hundred word review, practice speaking it, tweak it, practice and time it again before I go into the studio. I still have two more to read, write, and record.

I try diligently to post something here every week so that readers won't think I've given up or gone away. I owe it to you according to all the books I've read on maintaining a blog. So, even though I just finished a creepy suspense novel by Joyce Maynard that I can't wait to share with you, I've got to get back to the Florida Book Page. Want to know what I've done so far? Here's a link to the last year's worth of recordings. Enjoy! I'll be back.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Ginny Gall - Or Another Term for a Long Season in Hell

Common wisdom tells us that if we truly want to know another person, culture, or way of life, we must walk a mile in those shoes. If Ta-Nahisi Coates' version of being a black man in the United States ( is too harsh, and you would prefer to do your learning through fiction, then have I got the book for you!
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The richest, lushest novel that I've read so far this year comes from an author, Charlie Smith, with whom I wasn't familiar, though he's won prizes galore. He is renowned as both a poet and a novelist so you shouldn't be surprised at the pure lyricism of his writing style. Even when the tale itself is teeming with brutality, cruelty, sorrow, and unspeakable yearning, it is so beautifully told that you simply cannot put it down.
I fell in love with Delvin Walker from the moment his mother, Capable Florence, pushed his "gummy little bushy-haired head" out of her body while climbing the back porch steps of her Chattanooga, Mississippi, shack. It was July, 1913, and though they were free blacks on paper, Jim Crow laws insured that there were no opportunities for women like Cappie who turned tricks in the old slave quarters to feed her brood of babies.
But Cappie had a gift that she shared with Delvin, stories. Tales of knights and palaces and kings lulled Delvin to sleep in the afternoons. By the age of four he was teaching himself to read from the funny papers left outside the general store. He dreamed that he would travel, see far-flung places, and succeed in the white world. Yet we sense, from the first paragraph of this incredible book, that life won't be easy for this dreamy, naïve boy.
Smith is so damn good that he lures us with his mesmerizing words (at least the optimists like me) into believing that maybe this time things can be different. After Cappie disappears, a loss that will haunt Delvin all his days, a wonderfully interesting man rescues Delvin, taking him in, teaching him to love Shakespeare, and to honor the living and the dead. Mr. Oliver, you see, runs the town's only Negro funeral home and he bestows a selfless generosity on young Delvin that of course, is too good to last.
Whispers of lynchings, followed by the burning of a Negro church, and an ugly incident with some white boys, which may or may not have ended in a death, set Delvin on a lifelong path of running, returning, and running again. Riding the rails from state to state, Delvin falls in hopeless love with a woman he can never win, learns the truth of America's black history from a professor with a traveling museum, and has his spirit crushed but not broken in a prison cell.
This masterful novel, written by a white man from Georgia, is truly a gift for anyone who wants to spend some time inside the mind,  body, and yes, the shoes, of a man who, because of the color of his skin, will never reap even the simplest American benefits, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

On the Road with Gloria Steinem

Stunningly alive and eloquent, Gloria Steinem will be remembered, I fervently hope, for her sixty years of tireless activism and not for a tossed off comment about Bernie Sanders' young followers while she was under the temporary influence of bad boy comdedian, Bill Maher. Like Diana Athill, subject of my previous post, Ms. Steinem has embraced every phenomenal decade of her life with gusto and an unselfish interest in helping others.

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I listened to the book, "My Life on the Road," in its low-key, no drama recording by actress Debra Winger. It seemed to be a fitting way to honor Steinem's admonishment to go through life listening more and speaking less - a lesson that should be adopted by our current group of presidential candidates! Steinem is so unassuming about her outsize role in the lives of women my age, as if she doesn't really get just how important she's been in the work for civil rights for all people, particularly black, female, and native American.

Gloria's writing style makes you feel that you're on a first name basis, conversational and friendly. If she spends a little too much time reminiscing about her childhood travels with her dad, a salesman who was always on the road and never met a stranger, I suppose it's because she attributes her peripatetic life to those early wanderings. In fact, she admits that she didn't settle into her own first home until she was past fifty, and then only because she feared becoming a bag lady.

A common thread among all these strong, independent women that I'm drawn to read about is their gift of self-knowledge. From Smith College, to a fiancé and a pregnancy that she didn't want or need, she credits the physician who performed the safe, but then illegal abortion, with setting her on the path of activism. A year in India, a kind of listening tour, opened up her mind to the power of small groups of women determined to make a difference. Steinem was a community organizer long before the term became synonymous with Barack Obama, and used as a slur. Just look at what these organizers have done!

Always terrified of public speaking, Steinem ironically became the spokesperson for two generations of women looking for more meaningful lives. Through innumerable political campaigns, national and local, from a fascinating look at the Eugene McCarthy bandwagon, not flattering, through the Kennedy years, to Geraldine Ferraro, and on to Obama and Hillary,  Gloria was the hard-working, nose to the grindstone, presence behind the scenes.

Particularly poignant was the final chapter of the book in which she describes being honored to attend the death of her long-time friend and activist, Wilma Mankiller, first female chief of the Cherokee nation. Long plagued by cancer, Mankiller decided to end treatment and die at home on her beloved land with friends and family attending to her needs. Not in the least bit depressing, Steinem's beautiful descriptions of the native tribe's end of life rituals was a reaffirmation of the strength of family and female relationships.

My fondest wish would be that young women and men would embrace this memoir lest they take for granted the freedoms they've come to expect. We have come a long way baby as the saying went, and we women especially, stand to lose so much over the next few years depending upon which way the electorate chooses to go. Think of those wonderful three women on the Supreme Court and thank the ones like Gloria Steinem who had the courage to speak out on the road.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Alive, Alive Oh!

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As I sit here this morning looking out at the ocean, the mighty Atlantic which changes personalities as the day progresses, I’m feeling so fortunate and reflective. I lavish the Neutrogena sun block on my hands and marvel at the fact of my genealogy staring back at me. The prominent veins, the swelling knuckles that now make a good solid handshake painful, belong to my aunt, my dad, my grandmother Pease, and now to me.
The aging process is a double-edged sword, but I believe it is our responsibility to face with joy each day we are allowed or else we do a terrible disservice to those who, through some awful quirk of fate, have not been lucky enough to have good health or a long life. I was in just the right frame of mind to read Diana Athill’s brief but lovely paean to a good old age.
Alive, Alive Oh!” is the memoir of a woman who has embraced each phase of her life with gusto. A renowned publisher in Great Britain, Athill moved in enviable literary circles during her illustrious fifty-year career. Then, when most of us would hang it up to go sit by the ocean, she wrote her first memoir, “Somewhere Towards the End,” and promptly won the National Book Critics Circle award for it. This second one, coming at the age of ninety-seven, is simply the icing on the cake.
What a pleasure it is to read a reflection that harbors no regrets, no self-flagellation, no blaming of family members for imagined or even real hurts and resentments. In these days of recrimination and hair shirt donning, I reveled in Athill’s ability to own her life’s decisions, which by the standards of her day, were unconventional to say the least. Whether it was to eschew marriage or coupledom for a career, or to try to maintain an unplanned pregnancy at the age of forty-three, this is a woman who did what was right for her without listening to those who may not have had her own best interests in mind.
If the paths she chose did not result in the expected way, she never looked back with "I should have's," or "I wish I'd...." No, Athill simply moved forward as we all must. I particularly enjoyed the chapters that involved her realization that it was time to consider moving to a senior facility. She cared for a loved one long beyond the time she was physically able, and saw friends relying too heavily on generous caregivers. This is a woman who did not want to relinquish her independence but was unselfish enough to take care of it when the time came.
Now, in her late nineties, she has winnowed down her possessions to one room, an act that forced her, a solitary soul, to go out into the halls and the tea room and interact with others. And oh, what she discovers! The other ladies of Highgate share a fascination with learning, have illustrious and deliciously scandalous pasts, and humorous hearts. This unflinching, honest memoir is a pleasure to read. I can't wait to pick up the first one. And, if I'm lucky enough to keep my wits about me, I hope to grow up to be just like her!