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, (http://bit.ly/1UPGBLg) 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 (http://bit.ly/2mwlu6M) 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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Library Journal
★ 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 s_bissell@yahoo.com