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?