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.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Leavers, An Amazing Debut

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A front page article in today's New York Times, "Loving and Leaving America," gave me a jolt of reminder that I haven't yet written about a debut novel I finished last week that blew me away. Lisa Ko's ( "The Leavers" is an incredibly sophisticated, slow moving examination of the nuances of being an immigrant, or being born to one, in the United States today.

The voice of young Deming Guo will stay with you for a long time. Conceived in China, born in a sweat shop in New York City, then returned to China to live with his grandfather for five years, he is brought back to the United States by his mother Polly, after her father dies and she has exhausted all other options. Completely unequipped to mother a five-year-old, hiding from immigration authorities, Polly lives with her boyfriend, his sister Vivian, Vivian's son Michael, and Deming in a three room flat in Chinatown.

Ko wisely creates a seemingly unsympathetic character in Polly, at once lavishly loving and cringingly selfish, Polly is a schemer who doesn't plan to settle. She has brains, ambition, and dreams of a better life, one that frightens her less ambitious lover. When she disappears without a word, friends believe she's off to Florida to begin work managing a nail salon.

"She'll be back," they all assure Deming. But how, he wonders, could she leave without even saying goodbye?

 That question will haunt him for years. His search for answers will haunt readers who recognize that this scenario is playing out every day on the streets of our country as ICE cracks down on undocumented immigrants, breaking up families, and wrecking havoc on the psyches of the legitimate children left behind.

Eventually social services arrive and Deming Guo, a Chinese American boy, is adopted by a well-meaning but emotionally distant couple who believe that the best way for Deming to assimilate, far from the city that he loves and the only people he knows, is to become Daniel Wilkinson, all American boy. And Daniel tries, he really does. He wants to please but there's a rebellious streak there, perhaps a bit of his mother? There's also a raging anger against the woman who left him and nowhere to place that ire except against himself.

Just when you think your heart will break for Daniel and the road to self-destruction that he's on, just when you think you want to throttle Polly for pursuing her own dreams without thought to Deming's wellbeing, Ko reveals Part II of her book and we are treated to another entire novel told from Polly's point of view.

Nothing is black and white in this remarkable novel. Polly is complicated, her actions certainly worthy of analysis. But when you read her story you will, hopefully, be loath to judge. Lisa Ko has written a beautiful book about the plight of immigrants but offers no simple solutions. Awarded Barbara Kingsolver's Bellweather Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, this book begs to be discussed by socially engaged readers.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Nothing Fake About Jeffrey Gettleman's News

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The press has been taking a terrible beating over the past year. It appears to be open season on reporters, bloggers, and journalists. Anyone who questions the hard work, integrity, and sacrifice that newspaper employees expend to bring the truth of the world to caring readers should dip their toes into Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jeffrey Gettleman's memoir of his ten years reporting from east Africa.

I'll admit that I wasn't sure I would enjoy spending time with Gettleman. He gave the impression of a rather immature, selfish young man on a quest for excitement in the Hemingway tradition. I'm happy to say, that as he wrote and I read, I grew to appreciate his sometimes uncomfortable honesty. I realized that Gettleman was taking readers through his own slow maturation process and that it was well worth the time.

As a college student at Cornell, Gettleman took part in a mission to aid refugees in Kenya and southern Malawi. Africa had invaded his soul. He became fluent in Swahili. Though he had majored in Philosophy, he had a dream of becoming a journalist, writing about Africa for the most prestigious papers in the United States. Remarkably, via such an inauspicious location as Brooksville, Florida, Jeffrey Gettleman hone his craft and ultimately landed the position of East Africa Bureau Chief for The New York Times. What he learned about observing and recording, about what to put in and what to leave out, is a writer's dream.

There's also a love story. His college sweetheart, Courtenay, the one he knew he wanted to be with for the rest of his life, though he often didn't act like it, is one tough, likable gal. An attorney who finally realized that her life with Jeff, if she chose to take that road, would always have to revolve around his career, Courtenay learned video editing and joined him in Africa, working by his side under immensely difficult conditions

Though Jeff expresses his passion for Africa and its people, the joy and sense of home that infuses him when he is there, he has taken some heat for thoughtlessness and insensitivity over the years. He has sometimes put himself in danger for the story and, when that happens, other people's lives are endangered too, people who don't have the wherewithal to contact a publisher's office to request intervention. There are times when he questions whose side he's on and he developed some pretty jaded views of the CIA and their machinations with rebel groups in Somalia.

Still I enjoyed this book tremendously and sensed in Gettleman a sincerity of purpose. He is no phony and is not averse to pointing out his own failures as a man and as a husband. But here's how I know his love for the continent of Africa is true. Courtenay gave birth to their two boys in Nairobi, two little ones who are being immersed in the colors, smells, and beauty of their multicultural surroundings, a gift they will never forget.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Staying Power of Cabaret

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending a new rendition of the Broadway musical Cabaret at the Kennedy Center. I had read a negative review in the "Washington Post" but didn't share it with my friends until after the performance. The reviewer found the production too dark, a criticism that led me to wonder if he'd ever seen the play before or if he was only making the comparison to the Liza Minnelli film. Because the play is dark, indeed. And it should be.

Based upon the collection "Berlin Stories" by British writer Christopher Isherwood, the play centers around the rise of Fascism and the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930's. The Kit Kat Club, the cabaret of the title, acts as a microcosm of the decadent, and yes, gender fluid (before the term was cool) lifestyle of the city's denizens that opened the doors for the creation of the Aryan nation.

No matter how many times I see Cabaret produced, and how much I love the music, I find my stomach beginning to churn in the final scenes of the first act when Herr Schultz proposes marriage to Fraulein Schneider. Though they become engaged, I know that his sweet naivete will ultimately be rewarded with violence and rejection. Schultz is a Jewish fruit seller with his own business. Schneider is the proprietress of a seamy boarding house, a woman who relies on good relations with local government officials for her business permits.

In the second act, a low level Nazi officer points out what everyone has ignored. A marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew will not be tolerated. Arguments break out, sides are taken, and a few guests begin to sing the chilling "Tomorrow  Belongs to Me." As more people join in and the music grows louder and more militant, the audience realizes that they are witnessing the cusp of a new world order. It is terrifying. (from the film, which did it best)

And even though Herr Schultz's store is trashed by vandals, he attempts to convince the more clear-eyed Fraulein Schneider that this craziness will pass, that they should proceed with their marriage, that it will be safe.

"We are Germans after all," he says. "We are one people." The rest, as they say, is history.

You might wonder how a play this old, it was first produced in the '60's, can maintain its relevance. But all you have to do is think, as I did watching this latest version, of the poem attributed to German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller:

"First they came for the Socialists, but I was not a Socialist, so I did not speak out... Then they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist......."

You know the rest. Right now, here in the so-called greatest democracy in the world, we are facing a crisis of enormous proportions. We have elected an erratic leader who has placed himself above the laws of the land. Each day he is in office is another day of chaos. The normal checks and balances built into our constitution don't seem to apply.

Of course, as a cock-eyed optimist, I want to be Herr Schultz. I want to say, "This too shall pass." But what if it doesn't? What if we, like Germany's Jews, put our heads in the sand and take no action until it is too late? I don't have an answer and I don't know what to do. I can only offer this advice. Continue to read, to educate yourselves about our history and our rights, and to be vigilant. Knowledge is power and we must share it widely if we are to keep our democracy free to all of our citizens. When they come for one of us, they come for all of us.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Julia Glass, One of the Kindest Writers I've Ever Read

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Ever since I read "Three Junes," the debut novel and surprise National Book Award winner from Julia Glass, I have looked forward to each subsequent book with a sense of longing. Ms. Glass is a kind, generous writer, a woman who truly seems to care for each of her characters no matter their foibles and human failings. Current times are so rife with anger, distrust, and judgment that it's refreshing to find a writer who exudes such a forgiving nature.

"A House Among the Trees," resembles several of Glass's previous books yet each has its own distinctive personality. Glass is a close examiner of familial relationships, especially among disparate siblings. Death is often the catalyst for division followed by rapprochement. Glass is always cognizant of the gay community and often she features characters who suffer from AIDS. She has not made an exception in this lovely, tender story which features the fatal accident of a world renowned children's book illustrator (some reviewers say he is loosely based upon Maurice Sendak) and the life long effect he had on siblings Tommy and Dani Daulair.

Morty Lear, the illustrator, is an outsized personality who has a penchant for goading people into doing his bidding. He flirts, flatters, and cajoles and though they know he's attracted to men, women easily fall under his persuasive powers. For his assistant, Tommy (Tomasina), a temporary job helping to organize the great man's trove of work slowly took on a life of its own.

For over thirty years Tommy subsumes her own life into Morty's, rarely questioning what she might be giving up. They share a home, first in New York, later in Connecticut, where Morty acquires the peace and quiet he needs to create and Tommy becomes the guardian at the gate. When Mort's lover, Soren, becomes ill with AIDS it is Tommy who nurses him, though their relationship has been contentious at best.

But not until Morty's death and the surprising announcement that Tommy will become the executor and beneficiary of Morty's enormous estate, does Tommy discover that even a thirty year friendship may not preclude secrets. Enter Nick Greene, a renowned British actor signed to play Mort Lear in a forthcoming biopic. Hoping to better understand the esteemed Lear, Greene begs Tommy for the opportunity to stay with her for a weekend at the Connecticut home, picking her brain, absorbing the atmosphere of his room, and scouring his studio.

Meanwhile, Tommy's brother Dani, a man whose life has been a litany of small failures and large resentments decides to descend without warning on Tommy that same weekend. He is accompanied by one of Glass's most delightful characters, Merry Galarza, the curator of the not yet built museum that was meant  to house the complete Lear archive, that is until it was all left in Tommy's care. Recently divorced, childless except for the dog, Merry's career may be sidelined at the ripe old age of forty if she can't convince Tommy of the worthiness of her proposal.

These and other wonderful personalities converge and diverge in this warm, wonderful examination of lost childhoods, loneliness, desire and desirability, and the very messy act of living.

Friday, July 14, 2017

It Takes Courage to Read Joyce Maynard's "The Best of Us"

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Last year I happened to catch Joyce Maynard's essay in the "Modern Love" column of the New York Times. As a person whose life has been touched by pancreatic cancer, my younger brother died over two years ago from this horrific disease, my heart broke for Ms. Maynard and her husband Jim because I knew something about their outcome that they probably refused to believe at the time.

Through the generosity of so many publishers, in this case Bloomsbury, I am given the opportunity to read books of interest to me prior to their publication. "The Best of Us" will be out in September and it will join the pantheon of memoirs dealing with death and dying that will simultaneously debilitate and strengthen you. Think of Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" or "When Breath Becomes Air" by Paul Kalanithi.

Joyce Maynard writes with such breathtaking honesty about the joys and disappointments of her life that she has sometimes been the subject of what I see as extremely unfair criticism. This is, after all, what writers do. Their lives are fodder for the page. Fiction writers use stealth tactics but memoirists put it all out there and hope for mercy, for their humanity to be recognized.

Maynard's observations are clear-eyed and psychologically astute. When she and Jim first meet they talk over the phone for four or five hours. They lay out all their past failures and find no judgment from the other. They are adults, in their late fifties, and they are each complete in themselves, the only way to enter a relationship. When Maynard said that Jim was the first man she'd ever trusted to have her back I totally understood. If you've never had a champion in your life, a person who knows you inside and out, you cannot imagine the relief it bestows.

To finally find that kind of bliss and then, one year after their marriage, to be blindsided by a diagnosis of one of the deadliest cancers out there has to be the worst type of irony. No wonder they rebelled against the news, flying from coast to coast seeking better surgeons promising different outcomes, magical concoctions of herbs, special diets and juices, and ultimately the dreaded but longed for whipple procedure.

When and if you read this agonizing but wonderful book you may think to yourself that Maynard is exaggerating. I will attest that she is not. Each detail she shares, from the pain of being touched, to the inability to eat, to the drains and surgeries, fevers and brain fogs, and the lost look in the loved one's eyes is oh, too real. For two years I watched my brother fight, deny, withdraw, and refuse the loving care of hospice until his wife was near to a nervous breakdown herself. Like my sister-in-law, Maynard believed that only she could take the best, most tender care of the patient. They each did.

Learning about Jim through Joyce's loving eyes I once again learned how to die with grace and dignity. You cannot be given this important lesson too often. Would I have the strength to attend a Bob Dylan concert during the last week of my life so that I could say I took my beloved partner on a last date? We will never know until we are faced with these kinds of decisions ourselves. But we can read and be thankful that Joyce Maynard is an author unafraid of sharing her deepest most human thoughts with us. That trait is what separates writers from the rest of us. They should not have to fear reprisal.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Lovers Will Want to Head to Grisham's Camino Island

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I know, I know. John Grisham certainly doesn't need any extra publicity from the likes of me. But this heist caper that takes place on a fictional island off the coast of Jacksonville, Florida, is just too much fun not to recommend. Rumor has it that Grisham and his wife were driving to their Florida home from Mississippi and dreamed up the plot along the way.

The crime is executed in the first chapter. Five participants, some who've never been involved in nefarious adventures before, create a diversion that seems oh, so possible, break into the vaults in the basement of the Princeton University library, and make off with five manuscripts, original, handwritten novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Their value is incalculable.

A foolish, neophyte's mistake results in evidence being left at the scene and the FBI is all over the case within twenty-four hours. Then the trail grows cold. Grisham introduces us to Bruce Cable, a twenty-something English major with little direction in life, whose estranged father dies and leaves behind something more exciting than a few thousand dollars, signed first editions of classic American novels. Bruce spends a summer on Camino Island reading "War and Peace" and formulating an idea. Bay Books is born and becomes the "go to" place to see and be seen on the island.

Mercer Mann had a successful first novel but is now locked in writers' block hell. Plagued by student debt and losing her adjunct professor's job at Chapel Hill, Mann is ripe for recruitment by an insurance firm that's investigating the Princeton library's loss. Knowing that Mercer inherited a beach house on Camino Island from her grandmother, also understanding that Bruce Cable is an inveterate womanizer with a penchant for budding authors, the agent, Elaine, proposes a deal to Mercer that she simply can't refuse.

What ensues is a rollicking game of cat and mouse in which we're never quite sure which party is actually the guilty one and who's playing whom. Along the way we're taken into the fascinating international world of book collecting and preservation with an added bonus of Provencal antique acquisition. The shady characters are so likeable that we begin to root for them to get away with it, laughing all the way to the bank. Kind of like the author himself.

"Camino Island" can be read - I did - in a day, two max. I needed something light before tackling my two new assignments from "Library Journal," Salman Rushdie's "The Golden House," and Louise Erdrich's "Future Home of the Living God." I may be out of commission for a few weeks.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Anthony Horowitz Channels Agatha Christie in Magpie Murders

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Atticus Pund is an investigator, a likable version of Hercule Poirot, with less ego and more sensitivity. But Atticus has just been given some bad news about his health, and rather than dwell on it obsessively, he prefers to be in the middle of a mystery, a puzzle that needs solving. Unfortunately, when the lovely young woman from Bath arrives at Pund's London office seeking advice on her boyfriend's behalf, Pund just doesn't believe that he can help.

It seems, Joy Sanderling tells Pund, that Robert Blakiston's mother Mary died in a freak accident at Pye Hall, the Somerset mansion where she worked as a cleaning woman. Just because he was overheard arguing with his mother the day before her death (small English towns being what they are), some of the denizens of Saxby-on-Avon are looking at Robert with some trepidation. Joy loves Robert and hopes Pund will help clear his name. Pund puts Joy back on the train with little encouragement.

But the following morning Pund opens his London Times to read that Sir Magnus Pye, Baronet of that very same Pye Hall, has been brutally murdered, beheaded with a sword from his own collection. Pund's eyebrows arch significantly. He summons his trusty assistant James Fraser to pack a bag and bring the car around. Now he has a reason to visit Ms. Sanderling's village and better still, a reason to live a bit longer.

Now for the fun! This novel, "Magpie Murders," is touted as the ninth in the Atticus Pund series written by fictional author Alan Conway, a man so obnoxious and difficult that even his very successful editor at Cloverleaf Books, Susan Ryeland, refuses to deal with him face to face. "Magpie Murders," you see, is a 213 page novel nestled within a larger novel. The reader hunkers down with Susan on her unmade bed as she spends the gray, rainy weekend scarfing down salty treats and bottles of wine, editing pen hovering over the manuscript.

We encounter the Christie-like characters who populate the village, the antiques dealer with the shady past, the Baronet's disinherited sister Clarissa, the randy minister and his wife, the local physician who can't seem to keep a lock on her drug cabinet, and the recently sacked groundskeeper at the Hall. Seduced by the conundrums and red herrings, we begin to speculate about each person as a potential murderer and just when we believe we're getting warm, like Susan we discover that the final chapters are missing! What a clever trope. With that, Horowitz's second mystery gathers steam as Susan tries to ferret out what Alan Conway was up to and where the lost pages might be hidden.

Anthony Horowitz ( ) well known in Britain for his work with the BBC, Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders, has been awarded several prestigious awards for his work and you will understand why when you read this engaging, tricky, murder mystery that will especially delight lovers of word games. The narration is sheer perfection, the language oh, so British. And the multiple deaths? To my consternation, I couldn't solve even one. See if you can and do let me know.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin

Before I left town for ten days, (more on this later), I mentioned that I'd read and wanted to recommend Gabrielle Zevin's new novel "Young Jane Young," which will be out in August. You may remember Ms. Zevin's last book since  I gushed about it not so long ago.

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If I hadn't heard Gabrielle Zevin speak at the Library Journal Day of Dialog in Chicago I might not have reacted so emotionally to "Young Jane Young," but her conversation about slut-shaming, about sexual choices that women make and about how they are often, no, always treated differently than men's under the same circumstances, really brought me up short. Even though women not supporting women is one of my daily rants - think the 2016 presidential election - I realized that I, too, was guilty during the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal.

Zevin spoke passionately about this paradox and addresses it with pointed humor in her new book about a young woman, Aviva Grossman, who goes to work as an intern in the office of her Florida congressman. A former neighbor and friend of her parents, old enough to be her father, Congressman Levin is not above using his position of power to seduce Aviva. And really folks, let's ask ourselves, how many of us at the ridiculously naïve age of say twenty-one or two, would rise above being bowled over by the sexual attentions of a powerful, good-looking boss?

All the old clichés come to mind; he's unhappily married, he'll leave his wife for me, we'll be the next pair of movers and shakers in D.C. Of course, we know that isn't going to happen. There's an accident, the affair is plastered all over the news, Aviva's "private" blog goes viral, she discovers she's pregnant. What's a girl to do?

How Aviva changes her name and her life, raising her sharp-tongued but delightful daughter in a small town in Maine, is at the heart of this funny, timely, wise look at our national penchant for harsh judgment. "The Scarlet Letter" was written back in 1850 yet I don't feel as though we've come very far. Take a look at the Cosby trial or the judge in the Stanford rape case and you'll likely arrive at the same conclusion. 

Zevin's book is rife with fantastic, not so minor characters. You'll laugh out loud, with, not at, Aviva's stereotypical Jewish mother Rachel. You'll applaud Aviva's political mentor in Maine, and you'll credit the wisdom of Congressman Levin's wife. Wonder Women, each of them. Get on the wait list soon.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Day of Dialog - The Afternoon

Product DetailsAfter the lunch break at Library Journal's Day of Dialog, which was held concurrent with the 2017 Book Expo festival in New York City, the big panelists came out to play. Besides librarian Nancy Pearl and debut author Brendan Mathews who I wrote about yesterday, we also heard from the lovely Tayari Jones whose splendid 2012 novel "Silver Sparrow" pleased readers and reviewers alike.
Jones is back with another insightful book about relationships tested to the breaking point with "An American Marriage," the story of a husband falsely accused and sentenced to prison for a crime he didn't commit and a wife asked to wait for the uncertainty of his return. Though he's eventually exonerated, will too much water have passed under that bridge? How long does it take for love to starve? We'll have to wait until February to find out. Watch for it.

Another returning author was Gabrielle Zevin who pleased us mightily with "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry." Zevin is a feisty, funny raconteur and her fiction reflects this. But on the Day of Dialog she was deeply serious when speaking about her new novel loosely based on a Monica Lewinsky-type character, a smart young woman, a political addict, who makes the mistake of falling for the congressman for whom she's working. I've already had the pleasure of reading "Young Jane Young" and I'll tell you, it really prodded me to see myself in a new and unflattering light.

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Zevin spoke eloquently about the nasty habit of slut shaming and about how feminism so often fails when we women fail to protect our own. How is it that the politician always get to walk away from these sexual encounters unscathed while the woman involved is often ruined for life? If you believe that "living well is the best revenge" then you're going to enjoy Zevin's new novel. I did and will be reviewing it soon.

Barbara Hoffert, my editor at Library Journal, told the crowd that she is "messianic about books in translation." I laughed out loud because it's oh, so true. I love her passion for works from other countries and I love that she shares so many with me.
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I've added several of the featured books to my "must read" list including "Three Floors Up" by Israeli novelist Eshkol Nevo. Set in an upscale Tel Aviv apartment building Eshkol creates a microcosm of a splintering Israeli society through the lives of three families on three floors.

Europa Books, which probably produces the most beautiful covers in the publishing world, had two new titles that immediately got my heart pounding. Nicola Langoia, according to Europa, is the new Elena Ferrante! Need I say more? Her latest novel, "Ferocity," is a literary thriller about a family of morally corrupt property developers in southern Italy.

Product DetailsAnd then there's the sweet sounding love story that centers around "The Nakano Thrift Shop," where one man's trash is another man's treasure and found objects acquire deep meaning to new owners. Hiromi Kawakami is the author and this novel is already available for purchase on Amazon. Not sure if it'll be in your libraries yet but ask for it.

From Germany's Jenny Erpenbeck comes "Go, Went, Gone," which is billed as a scathing indictment of western reaction to the refugee crisis. (though I'd say Germany has nothing to be ashamed of!) It sounds like a tough one, in which a retired classics professor whose wife has just died takes an interest in an African refugee family he spots on the street and then becomes wrapped up in their lives. The question is probably who changes whom the most.

And now, because I may be taking up too much of your reading time, I'll just say that the final panel of the day was made up of authors who are publishing their sophomore efforts after big, startling first novels. Look for Chloe Benjamin's "The Immortalists" about siblings who know when they are each going to die and how they live with that knowledge. Celeste Ng writes a fictional take on her upbringing in Shaker Heights, Ohio, with the big issues of race/class tension and interracial adoption in "Little Fires Everywhere."

Marie Benedict follows "Einstein's Wife" with "Carnegie's Maid," set in 1800's Pittsburgh and based upon an actual family member of Benedict's large Irish clan who lived and worked in what's now one of the Carnegie museums. Georgia's Eleanor Henderson spoke about her new novel, "The Twelve Mile Straight," which takes place in the 1930's Jim Crow south where a young woman gives birth to twins, one white and one black. You can imagine the trauma that ensues. Sounds like a future book discussion pick for sure.

I hope this helps you think about what you should purchase for your libraries this fall and what titles you might want to personally place on hold before the world finds out about them. There's plenty to be excited about and maybe you'll think about joining the librarians at next year's Book Expo in New York.  

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Expo 2017 and Library Journal's Day of Dialog

My best reading buddy and I didn't go to New York City this year for Book Expo but through the glories of the internet I was able to spend an entire day with a front row seat to the Day of Dialog sponsored by Library Journal. It's the hottest day in publishing where agents, editors, and authors meet to tout their forthcoming fall and winter titles and there are always free copies for everyone. OK, admittedly, that part I did sorely miss!

I have five pages of notes but don't fear. I will just give you the highlights and especially give a shout out to the kind of books that you come to my blog to read about. If you still can't get enough of Gillian Flynn's novels St. Martin's Press has a November offering, "Poison" by Gary Niederhoffer. It's set in Seattle and involves a marriage that resembles the union in "Gone Girl." The publisher calls it a "swiftly moving, literary, women's thriller." Enough said?

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I went crazy for mortician Caitlyn Doughty's first book, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." It was a modern day Jessica Mitford clone about the gouging that families take from the funeral industry when they are least able to resist spending more than necessary. She is smart, funny, empathetic, and a pleasure to spend time with. Norton has Doughty's latest, which sounds like a mashup of anthropology and travel guide. "From Here to Eternity, Traveling the World to Find a Good Death." The title says it all. Look for it in October.

 Product DetailsBerkeley author Adam Braver - - is examining the aftermath of a San Bernardino-style terrorist attack in his new novel, "The Disappeared." The same publisher, Outpost Books, is issuing a new book by "The Atlantic" essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates that takes a look at the Obama years with poignancy and regret at all that has yet to be accomplished. "We Were Eight Years in Power, An American Tragedy," will also be released in early October.
There was an all female panel of SciFi, Fantasy, and Dystopian novelists who did Wonder Woman proud. Though it's not usually my cup of tea I did derive great satisfaction from seeing all these bright, young women embracing the genre. If it's your thing keep an eye out for Jordanna Max Brodsky ("Olympus Bound" Trilogy), S. A. Chakraborty ("City of Brass" set in 18th century Egypt), Holly Goddard Jones ("The Salt Line" involving an especially nasty plague), and Annalee Newitz whose "Autonomous" introduces robots who are slowly gaining their humanity.
And that was just the morning session!
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I would have loved to meet Brendan Matthews whose debut novel, "The World of Tomorrow," sounded like this year's answer to "The Nix." He told the audience that he spent eight years writing this big fat historical about the Irish in New York City from 1939 to the present day. He really got my attention when he said that most of his research and writing was conducted at the Lenox and Stockbridge (Massachusetts) public libraries! Born and raised in the Berkshires, I've spent my share of time in both of those libraries - most likely getting chastised for being too loud and giggly.
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And then there was a rowdy welcome for librarian and action figure Nancy Pearl, long time reviewer and once my inspiration, she is now a novel writer. Though "George and Lizzie" sounds at first glance like just another story about a marriage, commitment, and forgiveness, you know I'm going to have to take a chance on it and so will you. Though Pearl can be effusive when discussing another writer's book she seemed reticent to toot her own horn. I'll check it out in September and let you know the verdict.
Enough reading for one day? Take notes and I'll be back tomorrow with my favorite panel - international literature and books in translation.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Spend a Little Time in Europe This Summer, It Will Do You Good

If you feel the need for a break from the chaos that seems to be infecting the United States right now, why not take a little book break and head to Europe. I've spent the last few week in Rome and Paris with these wonderful travel companions. They made my heart sing.

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Before he won the Pulitzer for his amazing novel, "All The Light We Cannot See," Anthony Doerr won a fellowship to begin researching his future book in Rome. He and his wife had just become parents to twin boys but, young and brave, they took on the task of relocating to Rome with the bambinos in tow and their adventures resulted in this delightful, loving memoir/parenting guide/travel brochure.

The Doerr's "Four Seasons in Rome" will renew your love for the eternal city if you've been, and whet your whistle if you have not. There's nothing like strolling the alleys and markets of Trastevere with twins in the carriage to bring out the best in the Italians, swiftly breaking down cultural and language barriers.

The Doerr's trust their gut instincts in choosing a babysitter, a young immigrant who soon becomes part of the family, and manage to escape their tiny apartment for a quiet morning in the Sistine Chapel. Weekends involve train excursions out to the hill towns of Umbria - ahhh, Orvieto! And when his wife is felled by a bout of exhaustion and dehydration, they manage the healthcare system with aplomb and, by the way, without paying a dime.

I listened to the audio book of this story which was read by the author, a thoroughly engaging young man whose love for his family and his joy in the use of language shine through on every page.

From Rome I went to Paris where I spent a day with author Antoine Lauraine whose little gem of a novel, only 159 pages, introduces readers to bookshop owner Laurent Letellier and Le Cahier Rouge or "The Red Notebook."
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Called a piece of Gallic whimsy by one reviewer, I found this book to be a charming romance and an uplifting, yes, whimsical novel about finding love in the most unusual of places, think "Love Actually" with some "Sleepless in Seattle" thrown in.
Laurent's daily routine is thrown for a loop when he finds a gorgeous mauve handbag carelessly thrown on a garbage heap. The quality of the purse leads him to believe that it should not have been discarded and, upon opening it, he realizes that the owner's belongings are all intact, except of course for the money that was taken.
After an attempt to get the local constabulary involved - they are all too busy for a purse theft - Laurent takes the bag home and empties the contents hoping to find a clue to the owner. And here is where the author raises the level of his book far above the ordinary. In intricate detail he describes each item that Laurent retrieves from the bag, large and small. From a tube of lipstick to an autographed novel by the reclusive writer Patrick Modiano, Laurent begins to fall in love with the woman he comes to know through the things she finds important enough to keep in her purse.
As Laurent, with the help of his equally romantically inclined daughter, search Paris for the owner of the mauve bag we readers become completely invested in the outcome. If someone hasn't purchased the movie rights to this delightful little novel about knowing and being known then they have missed the boat. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Women in the Castle

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Author Jessica Shattuck has been getting plenty of great press for her latest novel "The Women in the Castle." Many reviewers have compared it to Kristin Hannah's "The Nightingale," likely because both novels explore the power of resistance during war time, specifically during and after World War II. It wasn't until I had finished this book that I discovered that Shattuck actually had a personal reason for writing. Her grandmother was a member of the Nazi party in Germany.

While "The Nightingale" was a true tearjerker, the story of the women in the castle is much less emotional but more nuanced and thought-provoking. The castle is the home of Marianne and Albrecht von Lingenfels, wealthy, connected Germans who see the rise of Hitler as a threat to their country and the life they hold dear. In Albrecht's office in the castle, a group of concerned citizens hatch a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. One of the members of that plan is Connie Flederman, Marianne's childhood friend and dear companion, who tasks her with taking care of his wife should anything happen to him.

We know from history that this attempt on Hilter (Valkyrie) did fail and that the men involved were condemned to death as traitors. Now, as she tries to sort through the aftermath of her husband's execution while raising her three children, Marianne, true to her word, uses her connections to track down the wives and children of the other perpetrators and bring them to the castle. As women on their own in a country now overrun with Russian prisoners of war and American troops, Marianne believes they will find some semblance of safety if they band together.

Through flashbacks we learn about the lives of the other two women. Benita, wife of Connie, is a naïve, small-town girl whose happy-go-lucky nature kept her from thinking deeply about politics and her husband's place in history. Separated from her beloved son Martin, Benita loses the will to live until Marianne rescues both her and Martin, installing them at the castle.

Ania is the single mother of two boys. Not much is known about the fate of her husband but she is tough and practical, joining forces with Marianne to cultivate the land around the castle, providing sustenance for their improvised family and matching Marianne's grit and determination with her own strong will.

How these women form an unbreakable bond is the ostensible storyline but the crux of the novel lies in their back stories. Each has secrets, each has been forced to make morally repugnant decisions. Why they did so and how they chose to live with their pasts and with themselves are the questions at the heart of Shattuck's book. One senses, after reading her own essay about her grandmother, that she is using fiction as a means of working through her own questions about right and wrong and the ambiguous nature of decisions made during wartime.

Spanning three generations and two continents, Shattuck's novel would be a good choice for book groups that aren't afraid of going deep. After all, it's not such a stretch to consider that resistance may once again be necessary to save our way of life. Who will have the courage to step up?