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.