Friday, May 26, 2017

Here I Am, An Understatement by Jonathan Safran Foer

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It's been a year this week since I picked up my free copy of "Here I Am" by Jonathan Safran Foer in Chicago at Book Expo. I've been lugging it back and forth from Maryland to Florida and back again and I may not have gotten to it at all if I hadn't just reviewed "Forest Dark," the much awaited new novel by Nicole Krauss who just happens to be Foer's former wife.

I was surprised and a bit disappointed that Krauss felt she had to address her failed relationship with Foer in her new work - a work of fiction, I might add. So imagine my shock when I dipped into Foer's novel and discovered that he had mined the same territory but on steroids!

I had a love/hate relationship with this book. I have a tendency to believe that the generation behind mine is just too damn open for their own good. Yes, yes, common wisdom says you should write what you know, but really? If you want your readers to get that deep inside your marriage then pen a memoir, but don't couch your story in a novel and pass it off as fiction. It's as if both Foer and Krauss were analyzing their failures and expecting the readers to act as psychologists. Too much work!

Nevertheless, the writing itself is brilliant, insightful, and though painfully personal, spot on. Foer is not afraid to say out loud what most of us probably think but would never utter. The action takes place over just four weeks in the household of the Blochs, Julia, Jacob, and their three delightfully precocious boys. In fact, spending time with Sam, Max, and Benji is the height of reading pleasure.

The Blochs are planning Sam's bar mitzvah, a ceremony that they feel is  important for their families even though Sam is vocally against it and appears to have no deep feeling for his Jewish heritage. This is a boy who keeps his emotions closely guarded and is more himself when hiding behind an avatar in the computer world of Second Life.

A tech savvy nerd, Sam has discovered that his dad keeps a second cell phone, one that Sam easily breaks into, only to find that his father is in a sexting relationship with a woman from work. Sam decides to make sure that his mom finds the phone and sets in motion the dissolution of a marriage in which the parties have only been going through the motions for a long time.

As Jacob works through his sense of loss and guilt, he reflects on his life as a son, grandson, father, husband, and Jew. How, he wonders, can allegiances be spread so thin? How does a man pursue his own career while juggling life's enormous responsibilities and tentacles? Of course, this is the existential question. Some of us just buck up and do it. We don't have the luxury of time or money that's required to delve too deeply into unanswerable questions.

With Tamir, a cousin visiting from Israel, Jacob has long, endless, discussions about the hypocrisy of American Jews who talk fondly of the homeland they've never visited, sending money for a tree to be planted in memoriam, but afraid of getting too close. There's much truth and ironic humor in these chapters but some readers may decide that they go on for just a little too long.

This is a novel that one senses was written in despair, laden with angst, and bogged down in selfishness. But ultimately it works as an exercise in catharsis for the writer. For the reader it is a deep dark look into the workings of an author's mind as he tries to move forward by looking back.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Revisiting The Handmaid's Tale

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It's stunning to think that Margaret Atwood published her most famous piece of dystopian literature, "The Handmaid's Tale," over thirty years ago. I don't remember how old I was or what was happening in my life when I first read this book. I do remember how it made me feel, creeped out, frightened, but eventually, dismissive. I knew in my heart that the horrific happenings in the fictional world of Gilead could not happen here. Now? In 2017? I'm not so confident.

The Christian Right holds more sway than ever before in politics. An avowed racist is the Attorney General of the United States. Roe v. Wade is under assault, and women's healthcare issues were the first to fall in the new Republican proposed healthcare bill. In fact, the thirteen member committee formed by congress to address women's healthcare issues consists of thirteen old, white men. Nary a woman in the bunch. If this doesn't worry you, you are not paying attention.

At the very least you should reread or read for the first time, Ms. Atwood's prescient tale. While you're at it, stream the amazingly well executed video that is currently being shown in installments at

The basic premise, for any of you who swim completely under the radar, is that we humans have made a real cock up of our stewardship of the earth. Radiation and pollution have poisoned our world. Many men are sterile and reproduction is on the wane. An unknown organization, purported to be middle eastern naturally, has overthrown the government and divided up the country into areas for living and for dying.

Women past child bearing years, look out ladies, who refuse to become matrons in the new world of Gilead, are sent to the outer reaches where they toil at toxic waste dumps as the environmental cleanup brigade. Of course, they and we know that it's basically a death sentence. The elite, the commanders and their wives, live in empty, lonely opulence, where they promote rigorous moral codes and host bible readings for their staff. The "marthas" are the lower class of kitchen worker, cooks, servants basically, and the "handmaids," are the fortunate few, chosen for their fertility. As long as they can reproduce they are safe.

In this world sex has been reduced to its cold basics. Procreation is the only goal, pleasure is prohibited, and if you manage to find it outside of the monthly ceremony in which the commander rapes the handmaid, the "eyes" are watching and they will know. Punishment runs the gamut from public shaming to castration to hanging.

But more sinister than the physical violence for transgressions (cattle prods play a prominent role in re-education), is the idea of mind control. Memories are erased through deprivation. Books, magazines, video, telephones are all verboten. Conversation among handmaids is not allowed for fear of subversive influences. There is a memorable scene where the commander tries to tempt his handmaid, Offred, with a contraband magazine. Even as she recalls browsing through this kind of flotsam, think "Glamour," in a doctor's office and breezily throwing it aside, Offred now salivates at the small chance of regaining normalcy if only for a few stolen minutes.

What's most terrifying though is how easily human beings seem to adapt to a new reality. What once was unthinkable, with the slow progression of time and the steady drumbeat of fake news, becomes status quo. The "go along to get along" mentality is inherent in our natures. People say, "why resist? Put your energy to better use. It will only be for a few years." But Margaret Atwood obviously disagrees and so must we.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Waking Lions Will Keep You Awake

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I can't remember if it was the arresting cover or Maureen Corrigan's review on NPR last month that initially drew me to this novel by Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen but between the excellent translation from the Hebrew and the storyline, "Waking Lions" did keep me reading half the night. Gundar-Goshen, in an interview in "The Guardian," admits to her left leaning politics and disgust with the current Israeli leadership. She is also a psychologist who marries her politics and her profession beautifully in this thrilling exploration of Israel's refugee crisis, one you may not be familiar with.

Dr. Eitan Green is still chafing after having been transferred to the barren, dusty city of Beersheba from his sparkling clean neurosurgery suite in a Tel Aviv hospital after having fallen out with his supervisor. Frustrated by the lack of supplies, the long hours, and his feelings of being an inadequate provider for his wife and two boys, Eitan takes off one night in his SUV, music blaring, tires speeding and spinning in an orgy of childishness. The sudden thunk barely registers at first but the full moon cannot hide the fact that Eitan has run down another human being. In scarcely an instant the doctor examines the faceless Eritrean immigrant, concludes that he cannot survive his injuries, and heads home deciding that no one will look for the killer of one more Bedouin immigrant. 

How he could think that the hit and run would not have consequences (his wife, Liat, is a well-respected police investigator) is beyond us as readers. Or, is it? Of course, that is the question that we must ask ourselves. Yes, this plot device has been used before in literature to excellent effect, I'm thinking of Boyle's "Tortilla Curtain," or Lawrence Osborne's "The Forgiven." Gundar-Goshen adds nuance and ambiguity to our reading by painting Eitan as an arrogant physician who often doesn't "see" his patients and Liat as an officer known for being an astute observer.

It's not until the African woman arrives at his door with his wallet in her hand that Eitan realizes he will not easily be let off the hook. Sirkit is the hit and run victim's wife and she wants something that only Eitan has, not his money but medicine and his ability to treat the hundreds of Eritrean immigrants who live in camps outside the city in squalor. He dares not refuse her.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." Oh Shakespeare, how well you understand our humanity! As Eitan struggles to do the bidding of his blackmailer, keep up rounds and surgery at the hospital, and avoid awkward questions from Liat who is now investigating the Eritrean's death, he becomes mired in debilitating guilt and shame. Yet he also faces a chance at redemption. Working side by side with Sirkit, once just another anonymous black face but now a person with a life, a past, feelings, losses, grit, Eitan may find a way to become a better, more generous human being. Will he?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Nothing Gentlemanly Happens in Greg Rucka's A Gentleman's Game

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Readers who have been following me for a long time know that I have a penchant for spy thrillers that probably stems from hours of watching those wonderful old cold war TV shows of the sixties like Mission Impossible or my favorite, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Then there was John LeCarre. After that I discovered the British TV show MI-5 and became addicted. So when my friend Don, a graphic novel aficionado, told me about Greg Rucka's Queen and Country series, I had to give it a try.
Originally developed as a comic, three books resulted in this series, one of several that Mr. Rucka, who must write 24/7 to keep all the balls in the air, has penned over the past fifteen years. His versatility and output is phenomenal. But what both Don and I appreciate about him is his ability to craft formidable, believable female characters with guts and heart.
Tara Chace, a brainiac with a knack for languages, was chosen directly out of college to work for Her Majesty's Secret Service. But there was no way she was going to be satisfied stuck behind a desk interpreting code. She wanted the hand to hand combat training, excelled at rifle and pistol work, and begged to be placed in "special services." Think James Bond without the swagger.
By virtue of the job description, trained assassins seldom stay on the job for long, and within eighteen months Tara is the head "minder" of three, people whose lives are expendable to the top brass, who keep a "go bag" with a change of clothes on hand at all times, and who are stealthily parachuted into war zones knowing that if they're caught they will may be acknowledged by their mother country.
So it is that after London's underground was attacked by terrorists Chace is called in to get vengeance. The problem is that professionals, especially women, make easy enemies along the way and she has raised the ire of a competing organization. When more than one country is involved in negotiations - in this case the CIA and Israel's Mossad - things get even dicier.
It's no surprise that Rucka writes for TV and film as well. His narrative style is rapidly paced. You can read this book in a sit down or two and visualize it all on the big screen at the same time. He attends to every detail with precision and if his characters seem a little jaded, well you get it. You can be pretty sure that all the machinations taking place behind the scenes, the not so secret meetings between various factions of the secret services, the handlers and the government, are all too true.
"A Gentleman's Game" is the first of the three Tara Chace novels and I guarantee I'll be squeezing the other two in, between assignments from "Library Journal." It's smart, sexy, and timely, addressing the scourge of jihad without damning Islam.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Book of American Martyrs

Where have I been you might ask (in case you check in every week to see what I'm reading). Insert smiley face emoji here. Well, I have been locked in the head of Joyce Carol Oates, a place that, if you are familiar with her fiction, can be most uncomfortable. "A Book of American Martyrs" comes in at an astounding 755 pages and yet, if you can convince your book group members to buckle down and dig in, this saga would lend itself to a deep discussion.

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I've read many blurbs and reviews of this novel and they all seem to propound that the focus of Oates' book is abortion. That is really a gross oversimplification of a work that has deeply nuanced things to say about pro-choice/pro-life stances, the death penalty, equality in marriage, responsibility in parenting, forgiveness, and oh yes, boxing. Those of us who have met Ms. Oates at various conferences will remember that she has an inordinate interest in the sport of boxing and manages to display her knowledge very credibly in the final third of the book.

It's no secret that the two men at the heart of this novel are deeply devoted to their beliefs. Dr. Gus Voorhees is a surgeon who performs abortions at women's clinics in the poorest parts of the mid-west, Michigan and Ohio, going where he is most needed to help women who are faced with the most gut-wrenching decision they will likely ever have to make. Gus is a husband and a father of three.

Luther Dunphy is a born again Christian, a member of the Army of God, an organization that pickets women's clinics hoping to inhibit the slaughter of innocent babies. He believes that God has personally called to him. Voorhees is the name of a doctor on a hit list. Dunphy has a shotgun. He too is a husband and a father of four.

On November 2, 1999, the two men's paths will cross but the ripples of that fateful meeting will span another decade and a half as Oates pivots between the two families as they cope (or not) with the violence that has upended their lives. To illustrate just how complicated the abortion issue can be, Oates introduces readers to a mother who chose against abortion but ten years later physically abandoned her son. Another mother in China gave her daughter up for adoption. That girl is adopted by the Voorhees family. The widows disappear from their children emotionally, finding solace in work or in religion. The siblings become estranged as they try to distance themselves from their past. There is a ferocious amount of loss in this thought-provoking, weighty tome.

Reading the chapters that address the workings of the death penalty, the stays, the re-trials, the solitary confinement before the final sentence, hammered home for me the reasons why I could never condone capital punishment. Ms. Oates writes as if she'd been on death row herself and one doesn't doubt for a second the authenticity of the thoughts running through the heads of the guards or their prisoners. As I mentioned, there's lots to discuss here.

But ultimately I came to the conclusion that this book is about forgiveness and growth. There were so many times during my reading when I wondered "where is she going with this?" When the "ah ha" moment arrived I was so relieved that I wanted to cry. So, yes, I do think the book could have been whittled down a bit but hey, does anyone get to edit a writer of Oates' reputation? Probably not. And do we really want to excise one word from a writer so capable of taking you along on such a roller coaster ride? Probably not.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Connie May Fowler's Cri de Coeur For the Environment

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Well, my library was taking its own sweet time adding this new book by Florida writer Connie May Fowler to the collection so I got my copy by going to the source. I knew I would want to write about this very important memoir for my radio program, The Florida Book Page. I messaged the author through her Facebook page ( and I had the book in a couple of days. My radio review won't be broadcast until next fall and I sure don't want you to wait that long to put it on your "to read" lists.

Connie May Fowler has a beautiful soul, one that has been tested over the course of her life too many times. She novelized her neglected childhood, the chaos and hopelessness, with the Oprah pick "Before Women Had Wings," and wrote a harrowing memoir of an abusive relationship in "When Katie Wakes." But there is nothing fragile about the Connie May Fowler who resettles at Alligator Point, her own tiny piece of heaven on the pristine shores of Florida's panhandle.

There are many ways to handle grief. Each of us finds our own path. But this book called to me because for her, and for me, nature, our mother earth, has always been the way forward. A writer, a loner, Ms. Fowler lived with her animal family - each dog has his/her own outsize personality - in a beach house on the Gulf of Mexico, a body of water that generously deposited daily gifts to her door and offered healing that she would never have found anywhere else.

Fowler's writing is so fluid, so luminous, that every wondrous day of discovery that she describes feels as though it's your own. Each bird, starfish, seahorse, turtle nest is a wonder. Each day with lines written is our accomplishment as well as hers. Love arrives, gains trust, stays. Nature's treasures shared seem twice as precious. And then it happens.

On April 20, 2010, the BP oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the gulf. If you live here in Florida you may remember being glued to the TV as we watched in horror. Scientists worked feverishly to cap the well as months passed and the coasts of five states were despoiled with tar balls and dead sea creatures. In the end, 210 million gallons, an incomprehensible figure, spewed into the turquoise home of our fragile marine life.

In agonizing prose, Ms. Fowler takes us through the days, weeks, and months that she and her husband Bill activate neighbors, write letters, and battle the Army Corps of Engineers, all the time waiting for the now discolored sea, smelling of death, to disgorge its victims on their front lawn.

"A Million Fragile Bones" is both beautiful and horrible, a desperate cry to the world. Greed, corruption, and money were the motivators behind the oil spill. We may never know the extent of the damage but there's no doubt that it could be decades before mother nature begins to heal herself. If you have ever found solace in the sea, or the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake, the Hudson, the Cape Cod National Shore, then this book is a must read. Add it to your list today.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mark Billingham's Rush of Blood Gave me a Rush

I often forget how much I've always loved murder mysteries. I spend so much time reviewing literary fiction for Library Journal and reading Florida-centered books for WGCU that I've had to practically give up my old genre of choice, favorites since my mom first introduced me to the Mason Library in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. A few weeks ago I was browsing some website or another looking for novels set in Florida and discovered a Brit named Mark Billingham. day!

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Set in Sarasota - which I needed - and in the UK - which all great murder mysteries need - this book filled the bill, introduced me to some disagreeably icky tourists, and kept me thinking, though I did suss out the murderer before the denouement.
Three couples, Angie and Barry, Sue and Ed, and Dave and Marina are vacationing in Sarasota. All are hanging out at the Pelican Palms pool sipping G and T's, when one of the group overhears the distinctly British accent of another. Conversation ensues and, sure enough, they are all from the same general area of Great Britain just outside of London. Small world.
Of course says Ed, the know-it-all of the group, they must all eat together one evening. And that evening turns into every evening, then every day too, and pretty soon they are an inseparable posse, though they have little in common and wouldn't give each other the time of day back home.
But on the last full day of vacation, sated with sunshine and beer, the group is suffering from a case of collective guilt. A girl has gone missing. Amber-Marie, born with some obvious learning disabilities, has been enjoying the resort with her mom. For two weeks she's been chatting up the Brits, coloring in her books, and being feted with a little more attention than she'd normally get, an ice cream here, a candy bar there.
Now the place is crawling with cops, the Brits have flights to catch and hey, they didn't really know her did they? Just a girl with a big smile and a trusting manner but not their problem, right officer? Cursory statements are given and rental cars returned. Normally they'd never see one another again but they didn't reckon on Angie, a lonely housewife without enough to keep her busy, and with a sullen husband who doesn't like to socialize.
Angie straight away decides to entertain the other two couples, keep the friendship going, attempt to stay in vacation mode. Plus, she's an internet fanatic. From across the pond she's been following the investigation into the girl's disappearance and has convinced herself that everyone will want to be apprised of each new bit of scuttlebutt. Maybe, maybe not.
Characterization and conversation are Billingham's forte. Each person is annoying in his own way but still sympathetic, insecure, and terribly human. Their conversations are quotidian but their silent musings are delectably interesting. Sarasota's finest, Detective Jeff Gardner is imbued with heart and compassion while his cohort in London, ambitious DCI in training Jenny Quinlan, is a pure delight. The murderer's voice is coldly terrifying.
If you're in the market for a smart, suspenseful mystery sprinkled with enough red herrings to keep you guessing then I recommend "Rush of Blood." In fact, I'm placing holds on a few of his other novels the minute I finish typing.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Springsteen, The People's Poet

Music has a magical power for me. Always has. My dad and his dad before him had music in their bones, played piano by ear, played trumpet, sang in a barbershop quartet. My former husband could make an organ sing, could hear a tune once and recreate it on the Hammond, always adding a little of his own pizzazz. It was probably through raising my step-daughters that I first became acquainted with Bruce Springsteen. He didn't speak to me. Until I was navigating the minefield of divorce. And then he did.

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Springsteen wrote the songs for The Tunnel of Love album while dealing with his own divorce. Unless you've been through it you cannot imagine the feelings of inadequacy and failure that consume you. Almost forty years and unimaginable happiness later, he manages to describe those times so deftly, so poignantly, that the self-doubt is palpable. That's what a poet does.

"Born to Run" is a flat out amazing memoir. Even if you've never listened to a single one of The Boss's songs, you can appreciate it for the thoughtful, straight from the gut piece of literature that it is. Beautifully written, eerily evocative of the five decades covered, it's up there for me with Patti Smith's "Just Kids," and Harry Belafonte's "My Song," as a testament to hope, ambition, luck, and talent in equal measure.

Bruce does not shy away from the fact that it's taken forty years of hard work in therapy to reach the place of equanimity from which he now writes. Blessed with the genetic mess of the Irish/Italian family tree, the poverty of his childhood, the overpowering grandma who did battle with his mother for his soul, and the influence of the Catholic Church on the corner, he had plenty to contend with.
Add to that the manic-depressive father who wasn't diagnosed or helped until he was in his sixties and it should be no surprise that The Boss had issues. What is surprising is how eloquently he deals with this in his book, interspersing family life with the music life in perfect doses so that one never overtakes the other.

Eschewing college for the guitar, loaded with ambition and angst, left behind in New Jersey at the age of seventeen when his folks moved to California to try to improve their lot, he avoided the draft (a very funny chapter) and set out to become famous. The friends he made on the road are still in his life, a remarkable feat for a peripatetic, egotistic troubadour. And then there's the E-street band, together still.

A self-taught and extremely well-read man, Springsteen is a loner, a very interior person. Always cogitating on the human condition, he wrote music that reflected the times and slowly became quite political. I always got chills when I heard War, and I loved reading about the serendipity of the story behind the song, how he was reading "Born on the Fourth of July" when he met the author Ron Kovic at a rundown motel where they were both staying. Then, of course, there was the haunting Streets of Philadelphia, written for the Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington movie about AIDS in the city of brotherly love.

But it wasn't until American Skin, a gut-wrenching ballad about the police attack on Amadou Diallo, ( that Bruce managed to really stir up some controversy, garnering his first boos at a performance, yet soon forgiven with The Rising which he wrote in the aftermath of 9/11.

And then there's Patti. Lover, singer, musician, wife, mother. I can't do her justice, but he does. I've never read such a lyrical, poetic description of childbirth from the father's perspective. Needless to say, this is no celebrity tell-all, no gossip infused blather. This is a deeply personal memoir of musical history, family, struggle, faith and the America we all hope we'll one day live in.

Listen to the book if you can, there's nothing like hearing Bruce read his own words.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Elaine Newton Does it Again

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending Professor Elaine Newton's ( lecture at Artis-Naples on the novel "The Swans of Fifth Avenue." These mornings in Naples have been one of the greatest pleasures of my retirement and I have finally "qualified" as a returning guest. Ms. Newton's book talks sell out years in advance and deservedly so. She has the ability to take the worst book you've ever read and, in just an hour and a half, have you leaving the lecture hall praising it to the heavens. Such was the case for me with this novel by Melanie Benjamin.

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Though the general reading public obviously won't agree with me on this, I think that the genre of fictional biography is being overused. My predilection then, was to discount this book that stars gadabout writer Truman Capote and the wealthy, aimless women who swanned around him, petted him, and indulged him until he finally bit the hands that fed him.

I listened to the book in audio format and I can only conclude that, having met Ms. Benjamin last week and marveled at her stage presence (she has an acting background), her sense of humor, and her spot-on portrayal of Capote during her reading, I would have adored this novel if she had recorded it herself.

I forgot a cardinal rule of book reviewing. You don't have to "like" the characters to appreciate the strength of the writing that brings them to life. In fact it's a testament to an author's talent when he or she can arouse negative feelings as easily as positive ones. Melanie Benjamin's writing chops are on full display here.

She paints what Newton calls "New York café society" of the 1950's and '60's in brilliant colors. The swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman, and Slim Keith, are painfully real as wealthy, glamorous, strategically-married ladies of a certain class that is difficult for most of us to comprehend. Their elevation to the highest echelons of the New York social scene is precarious, based only upon the fates of their spouses, where they dine, where they shop, who they secretly love, and oh yes, where they get their plastic surgery.

When the swans adopt Truman Capote he is still a fledgling writer. "In Cold Blood" has yet to be published. Truman ingratiates himself with the group, cleverly convincing each woman that she is his special pet. But it is Babe Paley and her husband Bill, head of CBS television, to whom he is most attracted. Capote recognizes in Babe another soul just as lonely and empty as his own. They share a yearning to fill gaps in their lives that neither can fully express. But Babe's trust in Truman, though profound, eventually proves to be sorely misplaced.

And so, rather than a fluffy, lightweight novel about pretty despicable people, Benjamin, I now see, has written an American tragedy with Shakespearean overtones. Betrayal, waste, and downfall are at the crux of this fictional biography that rings oh so sadly true.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Dispelling Fear Through Literature

In these unsettling times, under the forty-fifth president, fear of the "other" is being ratcheted up to the nth degree. Ignorance has become a badge of honor. And yet I cling to the hope that literature can somehow bridge the gap between fear and understanding.

I am exceedingly fortunate in that my milieu at "Library Journal," is international literature. My editor inundates me with glorious novels that rarely make the best seller lists. Sadly, you won't find them reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Yet these books, difficult and tragic as they may be, are windows into the heart of other cultures and would go a long way toward enlightenment if they were only read by more people.

In fact, I just this minute put the finishing touches on a review of "A Good Country," a fantastic novel by Iranian-born author Laleh Khadivi, about a family well assimilated and successfully living in California until the bombing at the Boston Marathon upends the life of the teen-aged son. This is a must-read book, timely, observant, and tragic. It comes out in May.

Already published are my reviews of two other outstanding books that should be on your radar screens. For a Palestinian view of the displacements that began with the Six-Day War of 1967, look for (also in May) Hala Alyan's lovely

Salt Houses

Library Journal
In what feels like a very personal debut novel, the award-winning poet Alyan, her lyrical skills on full display, traces four generations of the Yacoub family as they are forced into the ranks of the Palestinian diaspora. Constantly uprooted by war, Salma, Hussam, and their children Widad, Alia, and Mustafa make disparate decisions that have ramifications for their offspring over five decades. First fleeing Israeli tanks that bulldoze through their home in Jaffa, later settling in Nablus, only to be routed by the 1967 Six-Day War, Alia and her husband, Atef, relocate with her sister Widad to Kuwait. Salma, now a widow, joins the family in Amman, Jordan, while Mustafa, the rebellious brother who was the light around which his family circled, disappears. The Yacoubs are fortunate. Not relegated to refugee camps, they have the wherewithal to fashion new lives for themselves. Still, Alyan makes it abundantly clear how displaced persons, separated from their culture, their religion, and their homeland, are forever altered. VERDICT This timely historical does for the Palestinians what Khaled Hosseini did for the people of Afghanistan. By placing readers inside the hearts and minds of one Arab family scattered from Paris to Boston to Lebanon, she beautifully illustrates the resilience of the human spirit. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/16.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

Then next month go out and grab the latest offering from the Booker-nominated, Pakistani author, Nadeem Aslam.
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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

And if you don't want to wait I'll be thrilled to send out pre-publication copies of any of these titles. Just say the word. Email your address to me at

Friday, February 24, 2017

A New Generation Vying to be Heard in The Fire This Time

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Literate readers can look just about anywhere today and find references to the work of James Baldwin. The thirtieth anniversary of his death has caused renewed interest in Baldwin's remarkable output of essays, novels, and short stories. The documentary film "I Am Not Your Negro," about Baldwin and his groundbreaking work, will be considered for an Academy Award on Sunday evening.

"The Fire This Time," is a collection of essays compiled by the estimable author and memoirist, Jesmyn Ward, whose devastating novel "Salvage the Bones," about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, earned her a National Book Award. The title is an homage to Baldwin but the essays are dedicated to Trayvon Martin and "the many other black men, women, and children who have died and been denied justice for these last four hundred years."

This work seems especially important as our country tries to move forward in the wake of Donald Trump's presidency and the strong presence of a white nationalist, Steve Bannon, at the president's right side. We should all be afraid, but unless we've seen inside the soul of a black man or woman, I don't think we can fully comprehend the constant drain that prejudice and distrust takes on the psyche. These essays will give readers some measure of insight. 

Divided into three parts, the book deals with the past, present, and future, or Legacy, Reckoning, and Jubilee. Ward has called on friends to weigh in and oh, do they ever. Professor of Creative Writing at the New School, Wendy Walters relays her experience in "Lonely in America," a story about her reckoning with her family's history of enslavement, a history she chalked up to her roots in Louisiana. But living in New England, she was taken by surprise to find that bodies discovered under the streets of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were found to be those of African families long forgotten.

Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns) asks "Where Do We Go From Here?" after the death of Eric Garner, and multi-award-winning poet and essayist Kevin Young weighs in on the very ironic case of Rachel Dolezal, the white woman, president of an NAACP chapter in Oregon, who passed as black for years in a very funny "Blacker Than Thou."

Perhaps two of the most difficult essays come from poet Claudia Rankine and memoirist Edwidge Danticat. Rankine looks back at the killing of four little girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, recounts the courage of Mamie Till Mobley who ordered an open casket for her murdered son Emmett's funeral, and moves forward to Dylann Storm Roof and the Black Lives Matter movement in "The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning." Danticat pens a "Message to my Daughters" harkening back to Baldwin's letter to his nephew in which he explained how to exist in a world that sees you as a worthless human being.

Harsh words? Yes, the are. But like Ta-Nehisi Coates' letter to his son, "Between the World and Me," these essays issue a warning of a legacy that has not died. Racism has been percolating under the surface for many years now. Some of us idealists thought it had gone away but we were wrong. This election has brought out the worst in human nature and it's imperative that we continue to read and understand and try to put ourselves in another man's shoes to fully grasp the fear and depression that the new administration is inflicting upon people of color and all people of good heart.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Chabon's Moonglow Glows

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I've been asking you readers for titles of books that you just couldn't put down and you haven't offered me any possibilities. But I kept looking and now I have a treat for you. My favorite read of 2017, and yes I know that the year is young, comes from Pulitzer Prize winner (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) Michael Chabon. I'm embarrassed to admit that though I've assiduously followed his career because of his spectacularly opinionated wife, novelist and essayist Ayelet Waldman, I had never read one of Mr. Chabon's books. Oh my, now, where to begin?
"Moonglow" is subtitled "a Novel" but it's one of those instances where you sense that the author is having fun with you in terms of what is true and what is not. In fact, he tells us so in his author's note when he assures us that he has taken liberties with his family's story with pure abandon. A love story, a war story, a memoir? What's your pleasure? This book has it all and Chabon offers it up to us readers as a gift.
A young man who just happens to be a writer is visiting with his grandfather over the last week of the man's life. This once rather quiet, severe man is suddenly bursting with stories which he shares with Michael/the writer in fits and starts until he's unspooling a remarkable history of the twentieth century. From the horrors that he witnessed in Germany during the second world war, to his fascination with rockets and space exploration courtesy of the publicity surrounding Wernher von Braun, to a stint in prison, and marriage to a war-damaged woman, the grandfather purges his soul for the eager pen of his grandson.
Chabon writes sensitively yet seductively about the mysteries of his grandmother's background, a Jewish girl, unmarried and pregnant, protected from the Nazis by a Carmelite community of French nuns. In a stunningly evocative chapter, Chabon recounts the night in 1947 when his grandparents met at a Baltimore synagogue that was hosting a casino night. (Funny, I thought only Catholics raised money by gaming.) Each detail of their clothing, their mannerisms, the sexual attraction, and the uncomfortable repartee as they inch toward each other and a lifetime of better and worse, is sheer literary perfection.
Generational novels that delve into family secrets, tragedies, and misunderstandings are a dime a dozen. But in the hands of Mr. Chabon the genre is elevated to another dimension. Each character stands out and none are a "type." There's Uncle Ray, granddad's brother, a former rabbi with a penchant for women, the track, and booze and the delightful German priest and sci-fi aficionado, Father Nickel, who harbors granddad and his fellow soldier in a hayloft to avoid retreating German troops.
Though there are many wry, funny bits in this book, overall it is a distinctly sobering examination of mental illness, of the dark side of mankind, and of the struggle to escape the effects of a past that may threaten to pull one under. There are lies we tell to protect ourselves and there are those we tell to protect others. And though love is a ferocious, glowing force throughout this beautiful novelized memoir the sad truth is that sometimes love's just not enough.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Moonlight and the Danger of A Single Story

My friend Don and I have instituted what we call "movie Mondays," our attempt to see all of the Academy Award nominated films before the Oscar production at the end of the month. This week we finally got to see "Moonlight." Let me say, unequivocally that I found it to be a beautifully shot, quiet film with some outstanding performances, especially Ashton Sanders as the teen, Chiron, struggling with his sexual identity, and Naomi Harris as his mom.

The problem arose in the third part of the film when Chiron is a young adult, now a drug dealer like his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali), living in Atlanta where his mother is in a drug rehabilitation facility. I turned to Don and said, "I wonder how the writer went from being a drug dealer to being an award winning playwright?" As a librarian, I had to immediately go home and investigate.

Of course what I found out is that neither Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose 2003 theatre piece "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" was written as an entry to graduate school, nor Barry Jenkins, the screen writer and director of the movie, had ever been drug dealers, not remotely close. Yet they have been participating in world-wide interviews speaking about the semi-autobiographical nature of their film collaboration.

I'm confident that they don't intend to mislead audiences but it will happen nevertheless. Both men grew up in the Liberty City section of Miami, Florida, during the crack epidemic of the '80's. Each had mothers who succumbed to addiction. McCraney's mom died. Jenkins' came out on the other side. McCraney is gay, Jenkins is straight. Each attended the same fine arts high school in Miami that set them on the path to higher education and success. McCraney holds a degree from DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, Jenkins from Florida State.  

One of my favorite authors and speakers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, gave a famous TED Talk about the danger of a single story.
Her talk is really about ignorance, ignorance and lack of imagination when it comes to the American world view of Africa's many countries and their diversity. Don argues vehemently that the same ignorance holds true about America's view of African Americans and he hates it when filmmakers play into this single story, ie: The Butler, The Help, Fences, Twelve Years a Slave. Hidden Figures is the recent notable exception. 

So the question is, why didn't McCraney and Jenkins write the full story of their wonderful lives? Why didn't they show Chiron going on to college, accepting and loving himself as a gay, Black man in America? Why did they leave audiences to believe that the only way up and out of neighborhoods like Liberty City is through a life dealing drugs? Why the single story when the actual story is so much more compelling and uplifting? Don is writing to McCraney and Jenkins with these questions. I'll let you know if he gets answers.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Searching for the Next Great Read

I love it when I get to talk books in the strangest of places, like cardio class for example. A fellow book lover who knows me from the library lamented that she hasn't read anything great for ages and I agreed. Nothing is making me swoon. In fact, she had just finished the new Wally Lamb and was sorely disappointed. Since "I'll Take You There" is on my "to read" list, she has offered me her copy for my opinion. Anyone else out there read this novel yet?

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I did have the chance to read Brad Watson's book, "Miss Jane," which was much touted at Book Expo last year and was on the long list for the National Book Award. A fictionalized story of Watson's great aunt, who was born with a genital birth defect that precluded her being able to make love or give birth, this is a quiet, melancholy little novel. Though I'll admit that it would take a certain sensibility to actually enjoy it, Jane is a pleasure to spend time with. She is such a sensible, smart little girl that it will break your heart to witness the chill rebuff that she gets from each of her withholding parents and her older sister, Grace.

Unable to continue in school because of the difficulty of cleaning herself and the diapers she's forced to wear, she learns about her world by silently watching and observing nature. Some of Watson's finest scenes take place on Jane's parents' farm where she discovers all the facts of life she needs to know from the pigs, cows, birds, and insects with which she shares space.

It's the early 20th century in rural Mississippi and medicine is not yet ready to handle a disability like Jane's. Fortunately, though, her physician, Dr. Thompson, recognizes something special and precocious about Jane, sharing books and conversation with her over the years, becoming both a father figure and a dear friend.

Eschewing the life of a surgeon in a big city like his friend at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Thompson chose the life of a country doctor, dealing with the poor and uneducated, often taking a jug of homegrown whiskey as payment in full for services rendered. A wise and caring man, he finds a kindred spirit in Jane and she in him. In fact, I'd say they most likely saved each other's lives.

Watson succeeds at honoring his aunt, a woman of resilience and resourcefulness, who understood the difference between being alone and being lonely. Still, one can't help but wonder what Miss Jane might have become had she been born in a different place and time, to other parents.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Little Life Could Have Been, Well, Littler

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I have finally finished Hanya Yanagihara's bold, disturbing, gorgeous, novel, a behemoth (814 pages) sorely in need of a better editor. Yes, it's astonishing. The language is stunning. It received multiple accolades, including finalist nods by the Man Booker and National Book Award committees, but it was the wrong book for me to tackle during this time of malaise to which I admitted in a previous post. The thing is, I have a lecture to attend in a couple of weeks and this book is to be the subject. I am nothing if not prepared.

There is so much to love about this amazing book, written by a woman, about the deep and abiding friendships of men. This doesn't seem to be a subject that's tackled in literature nearly as often as women's relationships are. Willem, JB, Malcolm, and Jude bonded during their college years, forming their own small community of struggling artists, actors, and strivers. Gay, straight, bi-sexual, these men bring others into their circle, nurturing each other over decades of escalating successes that none thought he would ever achieve.

Vicariously we live the lives of the 1% through JB's rise as a renowned painter/photographer, Malcolm's success as an architect, Willem's acclaim as an oft-feted actor, and Jude's unusual turn from underpaid intern in the New York state attorney general's office to lethal litigator. These men live in unique Manhattan apartments, build get-a-ways in upstate New York, own pied-a-terres in London and Paris and Rome. And yet each has difficulty in finding his own true self separate from the group.

The novel mainly focuses on the relationship between Willem and Jude, a deep trust building slowly over time into a mature partnership. It becomes obvious early on that Jude has many secrets and that he has been appallingly, psychologically and physically damaged by someone in his past. Jude is in a continuous state of pain that is as much existential as it is real. Hanagihara doles out insights into Jude's childhood in chapters that are very difficult to read.

You must be prepared for the worst kind of abuse administered externally and by Jude upon himself. Be prepared to learn more about the act of self-loathing that is cutting than you ever would want to know. Only Willem can keep Jude's nightmares at bay and even when their life together seems to be leveling out into some semblance of normalcy, Jude is often just at the edge of psychosis.

I would not want to discourage you from reading this book. There are many delightful secondary characters that you'll enjoy getting to know. Jude's trusted physician Andrew and his adopted parents Harold and Julia stand out. While there is too much repetition of Jude's cutting episodes, there is also the insightful examination of a forty year love affair between two successful, caring, devoted men, which I think may be an eye-opener for many readers. Yes, this novel took me to ever lower depths but, truly, it was worth it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Replacing Class with Crass; Thoughts on Inauguration Day

I must apologize to those of you who read my blog for great book recommendations. For the past two months I have been suffering from a deep malaise and this overwhelming feeling of being out of touch with the universe has deeply affected my ability to write. In fact, it has stifled my usual joie de vivre causing me to hunker down in my home, avoiding social situations and wondering what I can do to push through it.

Yesterday, determined not to watch the inauguration of Donald Trump, I arranged to meet a dear friend for lunch. On the way to and from the restaurant though I felt compelled to listen to my local NPR station to see if, just maybe, there was an outside chance that Trump would rise to the occasion and allay my doubts and fears for the future of my country. Remember when Hillary said, "when someone shows you who they are, believe it?" I should have listened.

The rhetoric of the Trump inauguration speech was darker, more jingoistic, and more threatening to our allies around the world and to those of us at home who dissent, than even I would have believed. I had to get off the road and send text messages to my friend Don and my sister Cynthia, people I knew would understand my outrage.

Never in my voting lifetime has a president come into office inheriting such a well-oiled machine. If he does nothing at all, we could roll along swimmingly with the lowest unemployment rate and the lowest crime rate in eight years. What universe is this man living in? It's "1984" revisited. How have we come to this? From the pure class, the soaring speeches, the nuanced, thoughtful editorials, the compassion and heart of a Barack Obama to an avowed non-reader, ignorant of history (think of the original meaning of America first), a crass, vocabulary challenged, tweeter-in-chief.

Claiming to speak for the forgotten people of the heartland, he signed his first bill last night, one that rescinds a ruling by President Obama that would lower interest rates on FHA housing loans - loans specifically designed for first time, low income buyers. The savings? One quarter of a percent!

And then there are the cabinet choices, the two most disturbing being Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, a man whose history with the minority community is an abomination, and Betsy DeVos for Education, because we all know that teachers are overpaid, underworked, and should do more testing to justify their phenomenal salaries. NOT!

But this morning I was gifted with a miracle. Don and I turned on the computer and watched the live action at the Women's March on Washington and around the world as gloriously beautiful nasty women from all walks of life, a rainbow coalition of Black, Latina, Asian, and White, gathered in peaceful protest. I knew it would be, to use a Trump adjective, huge. But I was awed by the way it made me feel, the way my heart, Don's heart, lifted. Our lethargy and despair ameliorated by witnessing this pink sea of humanity vowing to be watchdogs, to keep our country on track, to refuse to let evil win. I now know that we have not been alone. I now have the audacity to hope.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Avid Reader

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Could there be a better title with which to begin the new year? After all, if you are reading this then the epithet belongs to you. If you give this memoir a go, keep a pad and pencil handy as you'll be writing down book suggestions throughout.

Robert Gottlieb is a joy to spend time with. He's unassuming about his position in the hierarchy of literary editing and publishing and yet he can't help but marvel at his own good fortune at being able to work with all the bright lights of 20th century authorship. What more could an English major ask for?

It's difficult to believe that Gottlieb is now in his eighties. From whence does the energy come you might ask? Traveling the world, sitting on the boards of the New York City Ballet and then the Miami Ballet, and maintaining loving, nurturing relationships with friends all over the globe, he has remarkable stamina. I was exhausted just reading about it.

Luck and opportunity found him in the right place at the right time when he landed his first job at Simon and Schuster. His qualifications for the position of editor? Avid reader. Gottlieb had the chance to work with Joseph Heller, coming up with the name "Catch-22," (as opposed to "Catch-11"), and became life-long friends with Toni Morrison. He was the first to tell the single mother of two that she could comfortably quit her day job as an editor at Random House.

He moved on to the venerable Knopf, editing several celebrity memoirs including those of Bill Clinton, Lauren Bacall, and Jessica Mitford ("The American Way of Death"). He never betrays his clients' confidences but generously praises their work ethic and impressively shares his own. This is a man who reads just about 24/7, eschewing Manhattan's social gigs, awards ceremonies, and evenings out. He prefers his wife Maria's home cooking and having friends in. Nora Ephron actually lived with them for a while (as did many others) after her high profile divorce from Carl Bernstein.

Book lovers can't help but fall in love with a fellow book lover. Gottlieb is effusive in his praise of literature, a voracious reader, and a brilliant craftsman. He'll fight his authors to the death over the placement of a comma or semicolon but forty years later they are still friends. His passion for music, the ballet, and literature shine through on every page. This book, which landed on the 2016 notables list for the New York Times, will fascinate readers, voyeurs, and those interested in the inner workings of the publishing industry.