Saturday, December 30, 2017

My Favorites of 2017, Part 2

The novels that I review for Library Journal are normally in the genre of International Fiction. These are wonderful, unusual books from African, Iranian, French, maybe Pakistani or Turkish writers who are not that well known to Americans and will likely never make the New York Times Best Sellers List. What a shame. We miss so much by not familiarizing ourselves with these award-winning authors. A couple of these titles really stood out for me this year:

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★ 02/15/2017
On the day of his death, Massud awoke to the muezzin's call to prayer and the smell of baking bread, a fragrance, he had read, that instills kindness in human beings. There are many acts of generosity in this exquisite novel, though they are equaled by the treachery and corruption common to this Punjab region of northern Pakistan, where Muslims and Christians live warily side by side. Massud's grieving widow, Nargis, refuses to accept blood money from the state in exchange for her absolution of the American who shot her husband, causing the authorities to investigate this difficult woman, who may be harboring a blasphemous secret. Her intransigence draws adverse scrutiny to the Christian family who lives next door, a young woman named Helen and her widowed father, Lily, who is in a forbidden relationship with the imam's daughter. Through the reminiscences of each of these deeply sympathetic characters, Aslam (The Blind Man's Garden; The Wasted Vigil) elucidates the history of occupation and division that has influenced Pakistan's current climate of religious intolerance. VERDICT Man Booker Prize long-listed and Dublin short-listed Aslam uses lush, sensuous prose to create beauty from ugliness, calm from chaos, and love from hatred, offering hope to believers and nonbelievers alike. This thoughtful, thought-provoking read will enthrall lovers of international fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 10/17/16.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

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★ 04/15/2017
At Laguna Prep, CA, all the kids seem to have money, cars, pools, and parents who don't seem to care what their offspring are up to. All except Rez (Alireza) Coudree, whose Iranian-born father has a low boiling point and a swift hand for his only son. Rez's perfect grades drop as he seeks to assimilate by experimenting with weed, hooking up for casual sex, and becoming addicted to surfing. An illicit road trip to Mexico results in a crime that drives a wedge between Rez and his all-American buddies, and he soon settles back into his studies, winning parent-pleasing awards and hanging out with guys named Arash or Omid. Rez soon falls for Fatima Hassani, ventures into a mosque, and gradually discovers the joy that comes from finding your tribe. Then bombs explode at the Boston Marathon. Suspense builds as microaggressions turn friend on friend, loyalties between country and culture tug at hearts, and the seeds of radicalism are sown. VERDICT Brilliantly channeling the minds of angst-filled teenagers with barely formed worldviews who seesaw between brash self-confidence and deflating insecurities, Whiting and Pushcart Prize winner Khadivi (The Walking) has written an important, smart, timely novel that rivals such standouts as Karan Mahajan's The Association of Small Bombs or Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/16.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL
Library Journal

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Ko's gorgeous book about the immigrant experience knocked me out. A debut, it was nominated for the National Book Award and won the Pen/Bellweather Award for socially engaged fiction. And then there was Eleanor Henderson's novel which delved into the horrors of the African American experience right here at home.
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And, as promised, still my favorite novel of this year and one that shockingly didn't seem to end up on any other "best of" lists that I could find, is from another debut author, Cherise Wolas.

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Thank you so much to all of you who read, make and take suggestions, and spread the word about good books. I wish every one of you a healthy, satisfying new year and remember, if the world is too much with you, just pop your nose into a book. Don't forget to tell me what you're reading.



Friday, December 29, 2017

My Favorites List for 2017, Part 1

When I woke up this morning I thought I was quoting Shakespeare when I turned to Don and said, "The world is too much with us." Turns out, it was Wordsworth who deserves the honors and, if he was alive today he would double down on that sentiment I'm sure. 2017 has not been a year I'd want to repeat. In fact, more than ever, I just want to hide my face in literature and leave the news of the world behind. But that isn't fair, is it? If we turn our heads away from the steady disintegration of civility in our country, beginning with our nominal head of state, then we are responsible in some indirect way for perpetuating it.

It seems that I have given an inordinate amount of time to the news media this year. I've only managed to read one hundred books in 2017, the lowest number since my retirement. The good news is that there are way more than ten titles that could make my top ten list, including novels that I've read for the second time. ("Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi for one) But, I have to draw the line somewhere so, in no particular order, I'll share the first five today:

In memoir, I was blown away by Connie May Fowler, Bruce Springsteen, and Joyce Maynard.

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And then there are the oh, so difficult reads that introduce us to characters we are never going to forget. Two such novels that will wrench your guts came from Jesmyn Ward and Hanya Yanagihara:

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And in deference to my healing arm, I will continue my favorites list tomorrow. Happy reading!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

I'm Back with a Beauty of a Novel by Mark Helprin

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Four and a half weeks have gone by in a split second. I find that, as my shoulder continues to heal, I can now use my right hand for brief periods if I'm careful. I was planning to share my top ten list for 2017 today. Until, that is, I discovered Mark Helprin. I just had to give this glorious book, "Paris in the Present Tense," the full treatment.

I'm quite sure that my friend Andrea Carter recommended one of his novels to me several years ago, either "Winter's Tale," or "In Sunlight and in Shadow." I regret not having gotten to either of them yet. Helprin has such a lush, lyrical style of writing that it's a perfect fit for a love story set in Paris. And, no, this is not your typical love story but rather a lengthy ode to joy, the joy of living a full life, of appreciation for the smallest pleasures and the greatest of beauties, and of course, it is a book about loss.

Jules Lacour may now be one of the most fully realized literary figures that I've met this year. I love and admire him. A seventy-four year man, a cellist, a teacher at the Sorbonne, and a composer, Jules is a man devoted to his wife though she's long dead of cancer, his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson Luc. Jules is a creature of habit. His grueling exercise regime keeps him fit, a responsibility to his progeny that he takes very seriously.

A Jew who doesn't believe in God, Jules was born in an attic over a bakery in Reims where he and his parents hid from the Germans for four years. This fact and what happened to them even as the city was being liberated informed Jules' life. He wanted little, aimed less for wealth and fame than for satisfaction and the ineffable quality of the deep love he found with his wife Jacqueline.

But suddenly Jules finds that he needs money, more money than he has ever dreamed of earning, and he suffers the guilt of a man who realizes that his choice of a life of happiness over one of greedy accrual has left his family vulnerable. Now he must devise a way, by any means necessary, to provide a legacy that will enable his daughter to travel the world in search of the best medical care for little Luc.

Helprin's narrative flows like a piece of music. Just as Jules' very being thrums with notes, so the novel moves, adagio then allegro, then back again in a pleasing rhythm of gorgeous sentences and visual set pieces.  Unexpectedly there is a violent murder that reveals the politics of present tense France.  Fear of Muslim immigration rears its ugly head, as does the new wave of anti-Semitism plaguing Paris and other major cities around the world. And still, profound acts of love prevail.

All I have to decide now is whose book gets bumped from my top ten list so that Helprin's can be added. This novel would lend itself to a nuanced, complex book discussion.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

On Hiatus

A week ago I did that thing we all, at a certain age, fear more than anything. I fell at home and broke my shoulder.  this is what good luck looks like, a clean break that should heal on its own if I can just be patient, be still in my sophisticated sling, and learn to accept help. So, I will be reading a LOT but writing little until I can use my right hand again. Bear with me, I'll be back.

2 recommendations for this week:

The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy and

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby Tops My List for 2017

Many thanks to my friend and mentor Linda Holland for recommending this outstanding, amazing, debut novel from Cherise Wolas. "The Resurrection of Joan Ashby" will linger for months on my mind as I consider the extremely accomplished women I have had the honor of knowing, those who chose motherhood, those who did not, and those who had no say in the matter.

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Too often, I've found, acclaimed novels offer either technical, sometimes pretentious, craftsmanship or engrossing storytelling, but not both. Cherise Wolas is a superb craftsman and a phenomenal storyteller without an ounce of pretension. Her book is a sincere examination of the world we women inhabit, a world that even now, with 2018 right around the corner, limits and judges our choices, especially when it involves career vs. motherhood.

We meet Joan Ashby via an article in the fall issue of "Literature Magazine." A twenty one-year-old prodigy, Ashby burst upon the literary scene fully formed, giving birth to an astonishing collection of short stories that proclaimed her as a daring new voice in fiction. Following up with "Fictional Family Life," Ashby became a feminist icon as she skewered the idea of traditional womanhood, excoriating the stifling, limited lives of women fettered by marriage and family. You can imagine how let down her legions of fans felt when she admitted that she had fallen into the trap and married Dr. Martin Manning.

Within two months of that marriage an unplanned pregnancy sets the tone for the next twenty years. Compelled to keep the baby by Martin's over the top reaction to the news, Joan immerses herself in motherhood, amazed at her own capacity for love. Nevertheless, she counts the days and years until she can return to her writing, her true creative calling, the contemplative life, the proverbial room of one's own. An extraordinary, shocking act of betrayal becomes the catalyst for Joan's decision to flee the exquisite prison Martin has constructed for her.

Throughout this literary tour-de-force, Wolas speaks in many voices. We are treated to full-fledged short stories from the young Joan Ashby, diary type entries from Joan's son Daniel, pieces of a novel within the novel, written by the adult Joan Manning, and finally a fully formed section titled "Paloma Rosen," one that I hope Ms. Wolas will one day publish in full.

The final third of this book is so overwhelmingly satisfying that I dare not write of it. Let me just tell you that it takes Joan to India, fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers, and to the actual Hotel Gandhi's Paradise in Dharamshala, ( home of the Dalai Lama. Wolas's description of this area is so perfect, so accurate, that I felt I could take the train there tomorrow, walk the two or three miles up the hill, and make myself at home.

This remarkably honest book should be dedicated to every woman like my own mother who should have been an academic but gave in to society's expectations, to every woman who has mothered other people's children, to every woman who has juggled a career, maybe settling for fewer promotions,  with raising wanted children, and for all the women who dare to say that motherhood is not on their agenda. Our choices have ramifications down through generations but they must always remain our choices.

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a serious meditation on the nature of maternal love and instinct. I found it a brave and daring novel peopled with fascinating, some flawed, some perfect characters that I wanted to know better. Hurry up and read it friends. I want to discuss it with you.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Eleanor Henderson's The Twelve Mile Straight

My sister and I were chatting on the phone last night when I mentioned that it had been a while since a new novel had really grabbed me. We both tend to the dark side in our reading but still I warned her that the book that had me at hello begins with a lynching. She said she was reading one that begins with a lynching. Sure enough...."The Twelve Mile Straight" held us both in thrall.

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I kept asking myself, how could a writing professor from Ithaca College create such an evocative sense of place as 1920's rural Georgia. I went to Henderson's website for answers ( and discovered that this amazing novel was informed by the lives of her father and grandparents who were sharecroppers in Ben Hill County, Georgia, during the same time frame.

Eleanor Henderson's outstanding book has much to say about the sin of silence. When Elma Jesup, the white daughter of a sharecropper in fictional Cotton County, Georgia, supposedly gives birth to twins, one black and one white, it is her silence that condemns Genus Jackson, the black farmhand accused of rape.

How else, town folk wonder, could Elma be carrying the white child of her fiancé, Freddie Wilson, who never intended marriage and now had a perfect out, and a black child too. Reporters from as far away as Atlanta flock to Cotton County to write about this miracle, doctors beg to study the twins, and the only people who know the truth remain steadfastly silent.

 Only a writer of considerable talent could turn this fantastical premise into a heartbreaking story about the interwoven lives of poor black and white southerners working the farms together to create wealth for the landowners. She exposes a precarious hierarchy of power. The Wilson family rules the county, the police, the politicians, even the local physician, Dr. Rawls, who keeps his practice afloat by performing abortions for the naïve young women who came to town to labor in Wilson's cotton mills.

Carrying the story are two marvelously drawn characters. Elma's mother died in childbirth so she is raised by the black midwife and housekeeper, Ketty, whose daughter Nan grows up as Elma's sister. Though Nan reads and writes and learns the trade of midwifery too, the balance of power between Nan and Elma is a constant. You see, Nan literally has no tongue, and though she and Elma have developed a nuanced means of communication, there are many times over the course of their lives together when the white girl, speaking for the black girl, gets it horribly wrong.

There are too many villains to count in Henderson's novel, yet she manages to imbue even the worst of these with a semblance of humanity. One especially powerful scene comes to mind. Elma's father Juke is in a jail cell awaiting trial for his part in the lynching of Genus Jackson. He is comforted by the sounds of gospel singing, low and strong, coming from the black woman in the adjoining cell. Later he hears her cries of anguish as she is raped by the jailer, so he sings a lullaby for her. In this one paragraph Henderson brilliantly opens a place in our hearts for forgiveness.

This strong novel, perfect for sophisticated book clubs, delves into the polio epidemic with a guest appearance from then Governor of New York Franklin Roosevelt, sickle cell disease and the dearth of funding for research, homosexuality, misogyny, class inequity, and of course, racism. At the same time this novel is a paean to the strength and resilience of women in particular, but to all who are victimized by the evil of discrimination in its many forms.

Monday, November 6, 2017


Don and I have just finished the outstanding but sometimes excruciating PBS documentary on Vietnam written by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. I suspect we each had doubts at first that the bent might be too jingoistic, but after reading many reviews and hearing Burns and Novick interviewed on various programs, I felt confident that viewers would get as even a handling of such controversial material as was humanly possible. I believe that they did a superb job.

I came of age during the Vietnam war. In 1969 I marched in Washington, D.C. while staying with a friend whose dad was a colonel in the Army, stationed in Khe Sanh. I joined friends in the living room of my college dorm as the lottery wheel turned, delivering the fates of our brothers and boyfriends, one number after another. At the time, I didn't believe that our country would ever be so divided again.
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I learned so much from this film, beginning with the fact that the involvement of the United States in the tiny country of Vietnam dates back to the Truman administration. It's simply shocking to see how each administration, always against its better judgment, allowed us to ratchet up the intrusion to the point of no return. Not one president, from Truman through to Nixon, actually believed that our country should be investing its billions and its boys in southeast Asia. And yet......

It's incredible and frightening to hear Kennedy, Johnson, and then Nixon discussing the war with their secretaries of state and defense, knowing full well that every word was being recorded for posterity, admitting their reservations, fears of defeat, and anxiety about the changing public temperament. What is most terrifying about this film is that it clearly shows the extent to which our leaders, those we once looked to for integrity and wisdom, did not know or understand about the horrific situation our country was in. 

Burns and Novick were extraordinarily successful in enlisting such an articulate, diverse range of people affected by the war and willing to share their thoughts. Former soldiers, grunts and enlisted men, from north and south Vietnam, along with Americans from every walk of life, men who moved to Canada, men who stayed home and fought through political action, men who are still true believers and those who believe they were mislead. Soldier/writers like Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried), and Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn), read from the novels they wrote to try to make sense of what they'd been through. Parents, brothers, and sisters shared their remembrances of their loved ones.

Perhaps most powerful is the editing, the use of so much original footage of the war over there and the war at home, accompanied by a playlist that will dredge up time and place for many viewers. There's a particularly amazing episode that juxtaposes the festival at Woodstock with a battlefield evacuation. As the music grows more frenetic and the film speeds up we see bloodied bodies being lifted into helicopters, overwhelming footage of chaos and fear, interspersed with scenes of Santana whipping up a  musical frenzy for his toked up audience.

The death tolls are staggering, the numbers controversial as they were often manipulated for political gain. Many agree that more than three million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians died between 1955 and 1975 defending their countries from outsiders. Another approximately 58,000 Americans were felled trying to "stop the spread of Communism" even as Richard Nixon opened the diplomatic door with China. Such irony!

I can't say enough about this must-see film. I wish it could be used in every high school history class in the country. Yes, it is emotionally exhausting. Each of the ten episodes runs about an hour and a half. You may have to take breaks. But I defy you not to be devastated when you see the faces of the South Vietnamese families on the grounds of the American embassy in Saigon days before the fall, not realizing that America was not going to keep its promise. No rescue was coming. No matter that they served as interpreters, drivers, guides, or servants to American troops. Once again I was reminded of Bruce Springsteen's cri de Coeur, "War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing..."

There are lessons here if we're willing to listen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

I'm Back in Florida and Reading Like Mad!

Apologies to all for my AWOL status. While on the road from Maryland to Florida I learned of the sudden death of a dear, longtime friend in Massachusetts. Home only long enough to exchange one suitcase for another, I flew north for several days of reunions and reminiscences. It was a bittersweet time for reflection on family and friendships.

So what better way to face the long flight back than to delve into a new book, due out this week, about - you guessed it - family and friendships. "Seven Days of Us" by Francesca Hornak kept me happily occupied for the three hours plus that we hurtled through the air with Jet Blue.

As I was reading I kept thinking, this is made for the stage. In fact, it presents almost like a screenplay, with short, punchy chapters that each focus on a different member of the Birch family as they face the week between Christmas and New Year's, often tense in the best of circumstances, under a medical quarantine at their rambling estate in the English countryside.

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Daughter Olivia is a physician whose penchant for helping out in the remotest parts of the world rarely brings her home for the holidays. That's just the way she likes it. But this year, she's been in Liberia facing a crisis that sounds much like the Ebola outbreak and, until she's declared disease free, no one can leave the house.

Her folks, Andrew and Emma, dance around each other like strangers. Each appears lost in his own world, Andrew's, a career decision hanging over his head, and Emma's, a potential life-threatening diagnosis. During their long marriage they've grown apart and lost the joy of communicating.

And then there's Phoebe, the younger daughter, always considered a flighty, flibbertigibbet, whose only interests are clothes, makeup, jewelry and beating her friends to the altar. Maybe that's why she's accepted a marriage proposal from George, a pompous slacker from a wealthy family with whom she's been keeping company for years.

I've often thought how problematic families can be. After all, just because they are related by blood doesn't always mean that they have much in common in terms of interests, passions, or temperaments. Put yourself, if you can, into the Birch family's situation and think about the potential for volatility when an outside party suddenly enters the frame.

Because that's just what happens when Jesse, a young American filmmaker in search of his birth father,  (and maybe a documentary), tracks down Andrew and decides to just knock on the door. Merry Christmas! A delightful character, Jesse is the catalyst the breaks the repressed Birches wide open. Hornak's prose is snappy, funny, poignant, and sarcastic in equal measure. Why was I not surprised when I read that her novel has already been optioned for British TV?

This is a warm, wonderful read that explores the quirkiest trait that most families share. We may not always like each other but, oh, how we do love each other.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Jonathan Dee's The Locals

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It's a shame that you'll never see author Jonathan Dee's books on the New York Times bestseller lists. No, we'd rather read Patterson, Baldacci, and Grisham while so-called literary fiction languishes on the back burner. But Dee's last novel "The Privileges," was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. The reason is that the man has vision and courage. He's not afraid to point out the flaws in the people who are just the ones who might be buying his books.

I was drawn to "The Locals" because it's set in the Berkshires where I grew up, specifically, Great Barrington, Stockbridge, Lenox, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Dee has surely spent some time there because he has the atmosphere down pat. The notorious love/hate relationship between the locals and the folks who come up from "the city" along the Taconic State Parkway for summer weekends, autumn leaf gazing, and winter ski trips. We love them because they pump their over abundance of bucks into the local economy. We hate them because we need them.

This amazing, clever, sly novel is set in the fictional southern Berkshire town of Howland, post 9/11. Local building contractor and general all around nice guy Mark Firth has unwisely invested what little spare money he had in a Ponzi scheme. His business is suffering, not to mention his relationship with his wife who had to go back to work to bail them out. Karen seethes with resentment, a fact that also colors her relationship with their daughter Haley.

Their next door neighbor is a wealthy New Yorker who seldom uses his gorgeous oversized home. People in town resent him too. How come they're all struggling to make ends meet when someone like Phil Hadi can let a palace like that sit empty half the year? Until 9/11 that is. Hadi, a money manager with billionaire clients, moves his family permanently to the Berkshire home to get away from the likelihood of another terrorist attack on the city. He wants an armed fortress. Money is no object. Mark Firth is glad to oblige.

And so begins a novel that pits the wealthy outsiders against the local people who are often just living paycheck to paycheck. Hadi loves the Berkshires so much that he decides to run for Selectman after the death of Howland's lackadaisical part time leader. At first the locals suspect that Hadi is just having fun at their expense. He eschews a paycheck, and even bails out several small businesses on the QT with his own funds just to maintain the illusion that the town is doing great. Eventually the locals come to depend upon Hadi, which is all well and good until he tires of his little social experiment.

This compelling book nails every little truth about small town life. I could visualize every pickup truck filled with carpentry tools, every bagel shop where the "live-heres" and the "come-heres" share turf. There's an hysterical chapter about a pretentious new farm to table restaurant  (I even know where it is). The locals save for a year just to step inside the doors while the city people tweet and blog about the $100 four ounce piece of meat decorated with sprigs of mystery grass.

Dee also gives us some wonderful secondary characters. I especially enjoyed Mark's sister Candace who saves the barely functioning library and begins surreptitiously allowing abused kids who've run away from home to sleep overnight in the children's room. Then there's the quintessential Century 21, gold-jacketed, fast-talking real estate agent, Gerry, who uses his unsold listing properties to meet co-workers for casual sex.

If you've ever grown up in a small town or wished you had, this new book from Jonathan Dee is a must-read. It's not all Norman Rockwell any more, but a seething cauldron of pettiness, fear of keeping up, and marriages held together by fraying tethers of economic necessity. Dee has the courage and the talent to shine a light on it.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

DeMille's The Cuban Affair Shows Little Love for Cuba

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If it's suspense you want, you've come to the right place. Count on Nelson DeMille. He won't leave a reader wanting when it comes to ratcheting up the pace, placing his heroes in harm's way, and letting them bulldog their way out. If you've ever read any in the John Corey/Kate Mayfield series, "Wild Fire," "Nightfall," or "The Panther," you'll also know that DeMille has a devilishly snarky sense of humor that isn't remotely PC.

This new novel, "The Cuban Affair," may signal the beginning of a new series featuring Afghanistan War veteran Daniel "Mac" MacCormack, a guy still questioning his five years and two terms of service, a little unsure where life is taking him, but currently chilling out in that chilliest of places, Key West. He and the bank own a good size fishing boat, and he's got a second mate, Vietnam veteran Jack, who he'd trust with his life. When they aren't squiring tourists out to the best fishing holes, they hole up at a comfy dive bar, drink and tell war stories.

Some might call it the good life. So why on earth would Mac fall for the fast- talking "offer too good to be true" that comes from the unlikely Cuban-American attorney Carlos? A woman, of course! Sara is gorgeous, mysterious, and low-key. She's sent in to seal the deal. Sara and Carlos want to hire Jack, Mac, and the boat to participate in a ten day fishing tournament in Cuba. At least that's the cover story. The money they're offering is an astonishing amount. Mac could pay off the loan on his boat and then some. But is it worth his life?

Originally I decided to read this novel thinking that, because of the Florida setting, I could give it a rousing review for my radio program.
It didn't take me long to realize that I could disabuse myself of that idea. In fact, one of the main characters in this book is Cuba herself. DeMille spent time in the country in order to authenticate his writing but, sadly, he did not come to appreciate her.

When the Obama administration finally opened channels with Cuba I was thrilled. I've always thought it would be a fascinating country to visit. The difference between me and DeMille is that his view of the detente and the country is jaundiced and he's not ashamed to show his bias.

By the time Sara confesses her real reasons for being in Cuba, to retrieve boxes of documents, land deeds, and records of wealthy Cubans who escaped to Miami and points north during the Castro revolution, she and Mac are ensconced on a "cultural tour" arranged under the auspices of the Yale College Alumni Association. They are under constant surveillance by the Cuban tour guide who may or may not be undercover police, yet they need to connect with Sara's underground network in Havana to complete the mission they're being paid to do. To complicate matters even more, they're in the middle of a hot and heavy affair that has Mac thinking with something other than his head.

There's never a dull moment in a Nelson DeMille book and this romp will not disappoint. I was left guessing right to the very end. Whose side are we on? Who might turn on whom? Who's lying? Who's using whom? If you're looking for a great weekend escape then dig into "The Cuban Affair." Just don't let it deter you from traveling to this beautiful country.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

A Second National Book Award for Jesmyn Ward?

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Jesmyn Ward is already on the long list for the National Book Award though her latest novel, after NBA winner "Salvage the Bones," has only been out for a few weeks. This is a remarkable testament to the consistent quality of Jesmyn Ward's skills, the way her narrative voice evokes all the joy, heartbreak, and anguish of a certain southern time and place and people. In thirteen-year-old JoJo, Ward has given birth to a character so anxious and watchful yet so loving and selfless that you want to wrap him up in your arms and take him home with you.

JoJo and his baby sister Kayla are the mixed race children of Michael, serving a three year stint at Parchman Farm, part of the infamous Mississippi state prison system, and Leonie, an addict who is so involved in her own needs that those of her children go unheeded. But for Leonie's parents, with whom they live, JoJo and Kayla would likely have been caught up in the foster care system a long time ago. But Pop and Mama, steadfast grandparents who lead by example, are working through their own crisis. Mama is at the end of a long struggle with cancer, Pop is trying to be all things to all people, and Leonie is off on binges for days or weeks at a time.

Not a single word is misplaced in this tight little novel that toggles back and forth between Leonie's and JoJo's points of view, between the present and years ago when Pop was also at Parchman. There he befriended a child named Richie who, like oh so many black boys in minor trouble, were housed and used in the cotton fields as slave laborers. Richie appears as an unquiet spirit, still wandering the land in search of the answers to his death appearing to JoJo who, like his mother, has a sixth sense. Please don't be put off by the use of ghosts to speak of past atrocities. The trope works. The unburied sing.

In exquisitely wrought prose, Ward sanctifies the relationship between JoJo and Kayla. She is everything to him. She is his reason for living, the vessel for his love, and Leonie can't stand it. She is unreasonably, but not inexplicably, filled with rage over the state of her life. When Kayla screams for JoJo and only JoJo to satisfy her needs, Leonie is both relieved and infuriated. She intuits but doesn't admit that her children feel safer with each other than with her even though she yearns for some semblance of family with Michael and their kids.

Naturally race plays a central role here, Michael is white and his family refuses to accept his black wife and children. But more than the personal, it is the long view of the south and racial injustices that interest Ms. Ward. She fuses the stereotypical story of poor black families just trying to survive with the untold stories of the past that history would prefer to bury. Her ghosts speak eloquently of a time we persist in believing and hoping is behind us. Though we now know that it may never be behind us, Ward gives us a glimpse of hope in "Sing Unburied Sing" that she didn't offer in "Salvage the Bones." 

I predict that multiple awards will be forthcoming for this crushingly beautiful novel. Grab it now before the holds list grows too long.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Evening with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Last night the crowd of around three hundred avid fans was being so patient. Our idol was nearly a half hour late - traffic is a bear around here - but when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie proudly strode onto the stage of the Calvert High School auditorium, all spike heels, long legs, and colorful garb, we stood and cheered. Young people see her as a feminist icon. Me? I simply think she's one of the best writers of her generation. Ten years ago I read "Half of a Yellow Sun," her novel of Nigeria's Biafran war. I've been hooked ever since.

Courtesy of the Maryland Humanities Council and the Maryland public libraries, Ms. Adichie's debut novel, "Purple Hibiscus," was this year's One Maryland/One Book read. The interview format was led by local pediatrician and author of several novels herself, Nadia Hashimi. Though she tried valiantly to ask questions about the book, the conversation veered all over the place, from religion to politics, from race to feminism, and ultimately to the surreal world under the leadership of Donald Trump.

Adichie can be prickly about certain subjects - maybe that's why we love her so much. She wouldn't speak of her collaboration with Beyoncé. Not sure what that's about. And though two of her non-fiction works have the word "feminist" in their titles, she expressed discomfort at being fetishized as a feminist icon. Though she made it clear that she speaks for herself, she was kind and empathetic to audience members who asked searching questions about how to raise children, especially boys, in the age of Trump. The answer? Allow them to be vulnerable. Adichie believes that the violence we witness daily in our lives is a direct result of repressed anger and NORMAL but unacknowledged feelings in our boys.

Ms. Hashimi, a Muslim American whose family is from Afghanistan, joined in the discussion of the politicization of religion. Not only do people fail to distinguish between culture and religion, making judgments and reaching uninformed conclusions based upon say, a hijab or a turban, but religious practitioners do a disservice to their members when they stray from the message of love. Adichie, at one time a Catholic, spoke of walking out of mass years ago while at Yale, when a priest used the pulpit to promote a local politician.

The evening went by way too quickly. I would have enjoyed listening to these two women chat all night. If I could register one disappointment it is that the local high school missed a golden opportunity to introduce their students to a purveyor of great literature that speaks to them. Why wasn't every high school English teacher on board? Where were the writing students? "Purple Hibiscus" centers around a fifteen-year-old girl, Kambili, who is physically and mentally abused by her father, a young woman who has swallowed her own voice fearful of reprisal for having an opinion. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I rejoiced with her as she slowly emerged from her cocoon under the tutelage of her uninhibited aunt and cousins.

Adichie may deny it all she wants but this novel IS a feminist manifesto and one that every high school student should have been apprised of. Here's hoping that teachers will take advantage of her other appearances around the state for One Maryland/One Read. After all, sitting in class isn't the only way to learn about the world.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

How to Find Love in a Bookshop

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Calling all Anglophiles and book lovers. If you're afraid of opening the newspaper and would enjoy a delightful respite in the Cotswolds, then I highly recommend you become acquainted with British writer Veronica Henry. A scriptwriter from North Devon, Ms. Henry has delivered a true winner with "How to Find Love in a Bookshop." In fact I'm tempted to hop the next Virgin Atlantic flight in search of the fictional town of Peasebrook and the joy-filled Nightingale Books.

Smart, savvy Emilia Nightingale is an independent thirty-something who's lived all over the world thanks to her supportive, broad-minded dad, Julius. But now Julius is dying. Emilia hopes to make her father proud by putting down roots in Peasebrook and taking the helm of his beloved book store, a true haven for the  village's quirky residents. 

Naturally, this won't be easy. It seems that everyone loved Julius for a reason. He was generous to a fault with his time and his money. As long as he could pair a customer with a book he felt he had completed his mission in life. He should have been a librarian rather than a businessman! Fortunately, Emilia has friends who will do anything to help her keep her dad's dream alive. They buoy her up as she takes stock of the unpaid bills and the crumbling building. They provide shoulders to cry on when the crushing loss of her dad gets her down and they provide wine and food when she finds cause for celebration.

Peasebrook reminds me of Louise Penney's Three Pines or Alexander McCall Smith's Botswana. Sure, the characters may not be fully formed but they are recognizable from any small town. Thomasina, the ugly duckling who could be a swan with just a little push. A talented chef, she runs a tiny restaurant in her home, A Deux. She's smitten with the cheese seller, Jem, after running into him in Nightingales' extensive cookbook section. 

Then there's the nasty property developer who can't wait for Emilia to fail so he can low-ball a figure, force her to sell, and put up a parking garage. Not to mention Jackson, a single dad trying to win his way back into his son Finn's life by picking Emilia's brain for books that would appeal to a fidgety boy with a wild imagination. And what of Bea, a talented woman who's given up a lucrative career in London to be a stay-at-home mom? Frustrated and unhappy, might she be just the woman Emilia needs to boost Nightingales' bottom line?

There are romances galore, too, most of them wrong! But somehow we trust Ms. Henry to make it all come right by the end of her story. I could not put this book down. It made me happy. What a relief! If it hasn't been optioned for film it certainly should be. I can even see it as a BBC serial production with perhaps Colin Firth as Julius. Please race to your public library and snatch this novel off the shelf. If you love books, bookstores, the English countryside, and still believe in the basic goodness of people, you will find much happiness in this bookstore.

Monday, September 18, 2017

National Book Festival, Continued

I spent the afternoon at the National Book Festival in the presence of three amazing writers, each with wildly different books, who spoke as if they had met the night before and calibrated their talks to include one specific theme, telling our stories. Women's stories. Black women's stories.

Margot Lee Shetterly is an awe-inspiring speaker. She teaches in Charlottesville, Va., and I admit to envying any student who lands in one of her classes. But of course she was there to discuss her remarkably successful first book "Hidden Figures." All the stars must have lined up just so for Ms. Shetterly. She admitted that she was dumbfounded to discover that her publisher had a bid on the film rights for the story before the book had even been written! And, unlike so many of her predecessors, her experience with the film industry was rewarding and actually fun.

Surely there is no one reading this who isn't familiar with the story of the women, the "human computers," who worked at NASA during the cold war, helping to put a man into space. Kathryn Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, were tops in their classes at historically black universities like Hampton Institute, Virginia State, and Wilberforce in Ohio. Their untold stories are now known around the world. Ms. Shetterly was coy about what she's working on next but I can tell you, whatever it is, it will be a must read.

I have been following Jesmyn Ward since she brought me to my knees with her National Book Award winning "Salvage the Bones." What a special delight to find that she was being interviewed by my favorite book reviewer, Ron Charles of The Washington Post.

Apparently he, too, was blown away by this young woman's work. He compared Ward's new novel, "Sing, Unburied, Sing," to Toni Morrison's "Beloved," without batting an eye. Once again Ms. Ward writes about folks in the margins, on the edge, people whose stories would be missing from history without her clear-eyed focus on their grace, strength, and character. Single mothers, grandparents acting as parents, and imprisoned fathers, people whose circumstances are beyond most of our comprehension, are the subjects of Ward's books. They may not be easy to read but they are necessary if we are ever to develop empathy for our fellow wanderers on this earth. I started it yesterday. Will keep you posted.
And what does one say about that bad feminist and difficult woman, Roxane Gay? A standing room only crowd laughed knowingly at her political jabs (take that you hillbilly elegist) and were perhaps just a bit taken aback by the smattering of four letter words that she let rip. But what else can Gay do with her anger? Well, she can write. And that she does. I reviewed her memoir "Hunger" not too long ago and can tell you that any time she puts her pen to paper Roxane Gay will tear your heart out.
The point is that only she can share her story, a not unfamiliar one that involves rape and its aftermath. Only she can tell you why she ate and ate, avoiding her family's efforts to intervene as her body bloomed. She does not want our sympathy or even our understanding. Writing was the catharsis that likely saved her life. Don't tell her about diet and exercise and don't offer prayers. She's comfortable with herself now, thank you very much. Roxane Gay is a force to be reckoned with. Look for her next work to be in graphic novels.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Library of Congress's National Book Festival

It's been two weeks since my sister Cynthia and I made our annual trek to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. I've been remiss in not writing about it sooner but you'll forgive me for having a minor stress meltdown as I waited to hear if my home had withstood the devastating Hurricane Irma. It did, though now we wait to see which paths the next two storms will take.

I'm guessing it had to do with the unseasonably cold, wet weather of Labor Day weekend, but the Walter Washington Convention Center was overflowing with book lovers. I've never seen it, even during Book Expo America, so jammed with people. Lines for every speaker ran round corners and through empty rooms, minimum waits ran forty five minutes. People were patient, they talked books with their neighbors or read what they had already purchased while standing in line. Never fear the demise of literacy.

Product DetailsMy sister ran right to David McCullough but I had my sights set on Siddhartha Mukherjee. Having devoured "The Emperor of All Maladies," I was anxious to hear what the renowned cancer researcher had to say about genetic testing as it relates to disease. Though "The Gene, An Intimate History," looks daunting, Dr. Mukherjee spoke to his interviewer and the audience in clear, layman's terms. With the calm and kindness of doctors like Abraham Verghese or Atul Gawande, he explained that his book had begun as a very personal family story, a search for the genetic propensity to clinical depression. Instead, it became a broader history of the double edged sword that gene research has become, from the evil of forced sterilization (the story of Carrie Buck,, to the targeted therapies now being formulated to treat individual cancers.

Another non-fiction writer whose presentation took me completely by surprise was New York Times opinion writer and three time Pulitzer Prize winner, Thomas Friedman. This was not a man to be tethered to a podium! He strode with purpose back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience with humor and aplomb. He shared the back story to the title of his latest book, "Thank You For Being Late," a plea to slow down and listen to our fellow humans even as we increasingly dance to the frenetic music of technology.

Friedman spoke of the new and unusual relationships he's formed since he made the conscious effort to take an extra five minutes to engage with people he would ordinarily be "too busy" to bother with. He spoke of the year 2007 as if it were a "supernova," filled with a remarkable accretion of technological advances that have pushed us beyond our wildest imaginings. And though he exhorts us to take time to smell the roses, Mr. Friedman also instilled fear in me when he opined that a young person entering college today will find that, by the student's senior year, much of what he or she learned to that point will already be outmoded. How does one even live with that kind of pressure?

And, speaking of pressure, I have a review due tomorrow for Library Journal on a book that I just finished yesterday, Elif Shafak's "Three Daughters of Eve." After I work on that I'll continue with this saga of my day in D.C. with the three authors I was able to hear in the afternoon.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Writer's Block

When I hear of writers who can't seem to recreate the magic of a former novel or two I truly feel their pain. It is disconcerting for a person who loves words and sharing their thoughts with others, even if it's me just talking about books, when the ideas just won't form and the mind feels muddled. For the past few weeks I have been immersed in so many news stories about tragedies of Shakespearean proportions that I believed my own words to be uninspired and worthless.

Houston's flooding, the fires ravaging the northwest, earthquakes in Mexico, and then the potential threat to my hometown, my friends, and my own home in south Fort Myers had left me depleted. But, for some reason I woke up this morning feeling some semblance of restored mental balance, and that was before I heard that my home had weathered Irma without damage.

The fact is that books, novels of great import as well as frothy little pleasures, have the power to take you away for a few hours from the craziness of a world you can't control.
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My adopted state of Maryland is also the adopted state of one of my favorite authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Thanks to the Maryland Humanities Council, Adichie's first novel, "Purple Hibiscus," (the only book of hers that I had NOT read) has been chosen for the One Maryland, One Read program. She will be appearing throughout the state to discuss her novel and fortunately the local high school will be one of her stops.

Adichie has been dubbed the new Chinua Achebe by many reviewers, an accolade that I thought might be a bit over the top. Yes, they are both from Nigeria, and yes, she lived in a home he had once rented, but really? Well, now I get it. "Purple Hibiscus" is a modern take on "Things Fall Apart," only more accessible.

Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her older brother Jaja appear on the surface to live a privileged life. But Adichie is adept at slowly doling out clues about their existence behind the walls of the gated compound that their father, Eugene, rules with an iron fist. Mired in the teachings of the Catholic church, an institution that has been relentless in its quest to wipe out the so-called heathen faiths of the Nigerian people, Eugene creates a joyless home where study and prayer are the only activities allowed.

Mom frequently sports bruises and black eyes. She suffers from broken ribs and has lost two babies. Jaja has a permanently deformed finger and Kambili fears the sound of her own voice. Neither child is allowed to see their grandfather, Papa Nnukwu, because he refuses to give up the religion of his ancestors.

When the children visit their father's sister, Auntie Ifeoma, a liberal university professor in Nsukka, their eyes are opened to a different life. Their cousins have opinions and express them loudly and frequently, even at the dinner table. Amidst abject poverty and a complete lack of the physical comforts Kambili and Jaja are accustomed to, Ifeoma's family laughs and loves in abundance.

Kambili's slow awakening to her own self worth is a joy to read about. As she and Jaja come of age, learning to trust their own thoughts, peeking out at the greater world, the politics of Nigeria takes center stage. Ifeoma's job is on the line when she speaks out for students resisting the government take over of their university. Back in their home town of Enugu, Papa's business partner is assassinated and the exalted life he has so carefully cultivated begins to fall apart.

This exquisite novel was Adichie's first, paving the way for "Half of a Yellow Sun," and "Americanah," where readers become reacquainted with the indomitable Auntie Ifeoma. One can sense the first stirrings of Adichie's proud assertion that "We Should All Be Feminists," in this heartbreaking coming of age story. Monday, September 25th. I can't wait to see her!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

America's Guilt Front and Center in American War

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Egyptian born author Omar El Akkad grew up in Qatar, moved to Canada where he was a journalist for The Globe and Mail, and then came to Portland, Oregon, where, we're told, he lives in the woods. No wonder. As a journalist he has covered terror plots, the war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution, and the Black Lives Matter movement. His novel, misleadingly referred to as a tale of a second Civil War, is informed by all that he has born witness to in his life as a reporter.

"American War," does, indeed, pit what's left of the south after global warming has flooded out Florida and Louisiana, against the new northern government based in Columbus, Ohio. The south stubbornly wants to keep its old ways, still using now illegal fossil fuels. Poverty and hunger are rampant, and secessionists track down those who want to escape to the north for a better life, imprisoning them in tent cities.

But what El Akkad is really doing here is teaching readers how simple it is to create a terrorist. There is a lesson here for those who aren't afraid to admit our nation's culpability, our years of supposedly spreading democracy throughout the world, especially in the middle east, where we aren't welcomed or wanted. Our bombs and drones have decimated countries like Iraq, the former cradle of civilization, for no good reason and as the pilloried Rev. Wright once said, "Our chickens have come home to roost."

Rather than an imam, El Akkad gives us a mysterious white man, Albert Gaines, who trolls Camp Patience and other refugee camps in the south, identifying unique young people who are smart, tough, and angry, yet are malleable enough to be used as human weapons of destruction. He makes them feel special, singled out for extra rations, more comfortable living conditions for their families, and he fills their heads with false history.

In Sarat Chesnut he finds the perfect foil. At first we are lulled into believing that she will be the heroine and for some, she may be. I would be more inclined to refer to this big, strapping, sexually ambiguous girl as the anti-heroine. Her story is devastating and not an easy read. She is brain washed, used to complete missions that no one else is crafty or crazy enough to take on, but loyal to her family and to her cohort.

This book is beautifully, passionately written. El Akkad's observations are clear-eyed and often cynical. He doesn't hold mankind in very high esteem. At one point he describes water boarding so specifically and horrifically that you just know he has witnessed its results first hand. We Americans tend to ask, "Why do they hate us?" El Akkad answers.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Books About Books

Product DetailsNothing gives more pleasure to deep readers than books about books and their effect on readers. Two lovely such memoirs about literature kept me sane over the past couple of weeks. Ann Hood's "Morningstar, Growing Up with Books," is the more down to earth of the two, informed by her blue collar, Italian-American roots growing up in the Rhode Island mill town of West Warwick. All she ever wanted to do was to get away.

Ann was the family nerd, the little girl with glasses who asked too many questions, learned to read without being taught, and whose life changed when the first public library opened in town when she was ten. Breezing past the children's section, not even deigning to glance in its direction, she filled her arms with Peyton Place, The Blackboard Jungle, Valley of the Dolls, and In Cold Blood. As a librarian, I can't help but be overjoyed at the kind of customer she was. As a woman, I can't help but love the warm, honest, seeker that she's become.

Each of the ten chapters in this little gem represents a life lesson that she learned from a book. "How to Dream," (Marjorie Morningstar), "How to Ask Why," (Johnny Got His Gun), or my favorite, "How to Fall in Love with Language," (Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows), take Hood back to the place and time where she read a particular book. Her memories and observations are deeply personal yet somehow universal.

The same can be said of the more erudite but no less enchanting "Books for Living" by Will Schwalbe, the author whose lovely debut "The End of Your Life Bookclub" spoke to the loving relationship he had with his mother and the poignant time they spent together discussing their favorite books while she was dying from pancreatic cancer. I love how he describes their reading as "whimsical, casual, and promiscuous."

Product DetailsEducated in swank private schools, well-traveled, Manhattan denizen, Schwalbe still writes with the same passion and open heart as Ms. Hood. Using a similar format, Schwalbe begins each chapter with the title of a book and the life lesson he gleaned from it. Classics like "The Little Prince" (Finding Friends), "Giovanni's Room" (Connecting), "Death Be Not Proud" (Praying), or "David Copperfield" (Remembering) share equal space with the children's book "Wonder" (Choosing Kindness), and the popular thriller "The Girl on the Train" (Trusting).

He rhapsodizes over Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," (how is it I haven't read this one yet?) and introduces Lin Yutang's "The Importance of Living" which sounds like an absolute "must own" book that touts the joys of slowing down and enjoying life's simple pleasures. All the while he reminisces, as Hood does, about where he was and what he was doing when these books came into his orbit.

Both Ann Hood and Will Schwalbe are a joy to spend time with. While you're reading it would be wise to keep a notebook handy because you're going to have your reading cut out for you when you finish. I've just placed about ten holds with our local library! Lesson learned? Calm down and read on!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Roxane Gay's Hunger

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Roxane Gay is morbidly obese. She does not shy away from her physician's description. In fact, she deliberately caused it.
"I ate and ate and ate," she says, "in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe."
At the age of twelve, Ms. Gay was gang raped. The leader of this assault on her young body was a boy she believed she was in love with. She realizes now, with more than twenty years of hindsight, that if she had been able to speak of this horrific invasion of her very selfhood, she might have been able to understand that it wasn't her fault. Her parents, a counselor, might have prevented the punishment she visited upon herself. But as a "good girl," a Haitian-American overachiever, a Catholic, she feared the judgment that might condemn her.
This tragedy informed Roxane Gay's life. Her visceral writing seethes with repressed violence. Just dip your nose into "An Untamed State." What other way is there for a wordsmith to work through trauma? Gay is an outspoken essayist, and I have no doubt, a fantastic writing teacher. With "Hunger, A Memoir of my Body," she lays her soul bare, trusting us, the readers, not to judge. It is a work of remarkable bravery.
Not only is this book psychologically astute but it is also a remonstrance. Fat shaming, a form of bullying, is alive and well online and in public. The world is obsessed with women's bodies. We have a president who feels entitled to comment on the "shape" of the wife of a world leader, who encourages withholding food from beauty contestants. Ms. Gay reminds us in many uncomfortable ways of the agony of being an oversized woman in a world created for "average" size people.
Gay's crowning achievement with this cathartic memoir is learning to love herself so that she can accept the love of others. After an accidental fall that left her hospitalized and laid up for quite a while, she realized that her protective veil of body mass could also be her downfall. Having to rely on family and friends, she opened her heart to love, the true hunger that is the crux of all our yearning.
Roxane Gay will be a keynote speaker at the National Book Festival in DC over Labor Day weekend. Though she admits to an aversion to being touched by strangers, it will be hard for me to resist offering a hug. I'll hold back, of course, out of respect for this truly beautiful woman.