Friday, December 30, 2016

More of the Best of 2016 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.

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.
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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ( 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. (

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.

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. 

"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.