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.
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 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.
 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, 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.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson

Subtitled, "Living the American Dream in France," Craig Carlson's  delightful memoir was just what the doctor ordered after "The Underground Railroad." For anyone who loves to travel, these ex-pat memoirs, books of enviable self-discovery, are so much fun to read and often, though they appear lighthearted, can have many serious undertones too.

Product DetailsCarlson has a quirky, self-deprecating sense of humor and is great fun to spend time with. His narrative voice is so real, you feel as if you're meeting a new friend and really getting to know him.

The story is about Carlson's love affair with France, a relationship that began when he spent time abroad while a student at the University of Connecticut. Like so many of us who would love to live abroad, Carlson's life took him in a completely different direction, to Hollywood and a career as a successful screenwriter. But there was always a little something scratching away in the back of his mind.

What is remarkable about Carlson's story is how many ferociously difficult obstacles he had to overcome, how often he was cheated our of money, time, or property, as he began his quest for a home for his dream, an all-American breakfast restaurant in Paris. He visualized a place where those with an appetite for more than brie and croissant could eat their fill, and a spot where locals and tourists could mingle in harmony.

Et voila! Breakfast in America was born after ten grueling years of scrambling for donors, a location, and an electrician who would actually return until the job was completed. Think of Peter Mayle's hilarious, "A Year in Provence," written by a less curmudgeonly author, and that's what you'll get with Mr. Carlson, a man so open and trusting that he is ripe for the machinations of every crook or criminal in Paris. While we may envy the French for their generous pay and leave practices, Carlson explains how difficult it is to be an employer in such a generous country.

Still, against all odds, Carlson now has three phenomenally successful restaurants operating in Paris. Even better, I think, than discovering his inner entrepreneur, is the fact that he found the love of his life. After years of therapy and self-reflection, Carlson accepted that his fear of intimacy was related to his sexuality. Once he could come out and live an authentic life, everything else seemed to fall into place and I, for one, heaved a sigh of relief.

Thanks so much to Source Books for an advanced digital copy of this lovely book. If you adore all things French, traveling, resilience, and a modern love story too, then get yourself acquainted with Monsieur Craig. And next time you're in Paris, line up at Breakfast in America (no reservations accepted) and tell them a book reviewer sent you. The publication date is mid-September.