Thursday, April 26, 2018

Adrienne Benson's "The Brightest Sun"

The Brightest SunIf your reader's imagination has ever soared to Africa, the world's second largest continent, then imagine no more. Debut novelist Adrienne Benson, ( informed by her girlhood when she was the precocious child of USAID workers, takes us there in a visceral way in this enchanting tale of mothers and their daughters as they struggle to define themselves in a world both alien and welcoming.

Leona's anthropological work with the Maasai tribes in Kenya is a way to distance herself from America, from an abusive father and a mother too busy to see what was happening under her own roof. So when Leona becomes pregnant from a one-night stand she worries that she too, will be an unworthy mother. She participates in a ritual that will proffer care of her daughter Adia to Simi, a childless Maasai woman and friend who faces the humiliation of expulsion from her husband's care if she doesn't have a baby to care for.

A biologist, Jane arrives in Nairobi under the auspices of the Elephant Foundation, an NGO that tracks and details the slaughtering of elephants for the valuable tusks. Like Leona she's fleeing an untenable family situation back in the states. Jane and her Kikuyu guide Muthega venture out to the Rift Valley before dawn each day following the glorious animals, taking DNA and dung samples, hoping to use scientific information to stop the illegal poaching. But an act of violence sends Jane in emotional tatters to the U.S. embassy where she meets Paul and subsumes her life and passions into his.

Through the lives of these two women, Benson has us crisscrossing the continent, from the green hills of Kenya to the seething heat and humidity of Liberia and north to the dry desert air of Morocco, then back to Nairobi where Adia and Jane's daughter Grace meet at school and become inseparable.

This is a deeply moving novel about complicated people whose paths in life intersect in unsuspected ways, women and men who allow their grim pasts to trample on their bright futures. As joys emanate from past sorrows each character opens to the possibility of, if not pure happiness, radiant contentment. The character of Adia is especially wonderful as she skillfully balances her life with the Maasai with her life among her actual blood relatives.

Though she says in the novel's acknowledgement that she is no Karen Blixen, I couldn't help but feel Blixen's presence in Benson's loving portrayal of Simi and the Maasai women, warriors all, and of the visual, almost painterly descriptions of the many faces of Africa. This book came out last month from Park Row Books. Check your library. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Jonathan Rabb's Among the Living

A shout out to friend and avid reader Pat Abosch for recommending that I introduce author Jonathan Rabb to my repertoire. A professor of literature, currently at Savannah College of Art and Design, Rabb may have gotten the idea for "Among the Living," which was first published in 2016, from the glorious Savannah campus where the student center was once the first major synagogue in the city.

From the 1700's the city of Savannah was a haven for a burgeoning Jewish population which separated itself into Reform and Conservative factions and never the twain should meet. This irony, the fact that religious groups who all ostensibly worship the same god, discriminate against each other is hardly lost on this recovering Catholic who tempted god mightily by daring to sneak into a Congregational church once during my inquisitive youth. Mr. Rabb addresses this and many other important themes in this beautifully written novel.

Among the Living

For Yitzhak Goldah, arriving in 1947 at the Savannah home of cousins he's never met, it's a question of surviving versus actually living. Among the well-heeled friends of the well-meaning Jeslers, Abe and Pearl, Yitzhak is an object of pity and discomfort. Recently released from a German prison camp, Yitzhak cringes each time someone offers him too much food, takes him shopping for new clothes, and studiously avoids speaking of the elephant in the room.

The Jeslers are shocked when Yitzhak declines to attend Sabbath services, unable to imagine that he might no longer be a believer. They advise that things will go "easier" for him if he has a more American name, deciding on Ike.As "Ike" tries to assimilate into Savannah society, working at Abe Jesler's shoe store, he marvels at the naivety of the American people, at their inability to remotely fathom what happened back in Poland and Germany. He finds he has more of an affinity for the black people who work in the Jesler's kitchen and in the back room of the store.

And then he meets Eva, a war widow with a young son, who sees in Ike a man, kind, interesting, smart, and not just a symbol of the Holocaust. As their relationship deepens we sense that Eva might be the person who can restore Ike to the land of the living unless a surprise arrival from his past and the power of survivor guilt intrude on his new life.

The Jim Crow south, the publishing industry, northern union influence on southern businesses, and cultural and religious identity are all part and parcel of this deeply affecting book from a master storyteller. I did not want it to end.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Anita Shreve's Final Gift to her Readers

Unless her family uncovers a partially completed manuscript, "The Stars Are Fire" is most likely Ms. Shreve's last novel. Her death last month at the age of seventy-one came as a shock to me. It seemed one could always rely on a new book every two or three years and they were consistently good. Is it because she's gone that this one seems exceptional? I don't know. I can only tell you that, like the horrific fires that tore through the state of Maine in 1947, this novel begins slowly and builds to a terrible crescendo.

There's something special about fire and man's relationship to it. It can be mesmerizing and terrifying at the same time, its power and relentlessness an insurmountable obstacle. And during that searing summer and autumn of 1947 with the threat of fire a daily constant, tensions simmered between Grace and her inexplicably sullen husband Gene. It was almost a relief when news of the smoldering forests first spread and Gene joined the men of Hunts Beach in an effort to build a fire break around the town.

Shreve allows us to become intimately acquainted with Grace. We spend time in her head and have access to her complicated, intelligent thoughts as she goes through her humdrum days, finding joy in her two babies, Claire and Tom, in the smell of fresh laundry, or the first pull on a cigarette during a stolen moment at the water's edge with her dear friend Rosie.

But as the fires encroach on the town and Gene fails to return to his family, (was this his opportunity to disappear for good?) Grace has to use all her strength and brains to save her family. Historical records indicate that over twenty five hundred people were left homeless in Maine that fall. Our fictional Grace was one of them. How does one even begin to rise up from the ashes of such devastation?

It's a thrill to watch Grace fashion a life for herself and her children, talk her way into a job though she's never held one in her life, finagle a great deal on an automobile from a sexist car salesman, and basically learn to love herself and her body after years of disdainful condescension from her former husband. It's difficult to read of the abuse Grace suffered at Gene's whim, especially the insidious way that power, at a time when women had none and men had it all, was at its core. Disparate male/female relationships are Shreve's specialty and this book packs an emotional punch.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Librarian as a Superwoman!

The LibrarianOK, this will sound really out there to you librarians who read my blog but I'm so tired of our collection development folks disregarding self published authors out of hand without at least giving them the benefit of an evaluation. Don and I had a lengthy wait at the San Jose airport last week when we were returning from our vacation in Costa Rica. On a lark he bought and downloaded a book for me, "The Librarian," by a man named Philip Wilson. Don couldn't help himself, the cover is fantastic and the reviews were stellar even if they weren't posited by the usual editorial suspects.

During the two and a half hour flight, I never looked up once! Admittedly, this is not my usual fare, but it was so well written and so high octane that I forgave the unlikely premise that our unprepossessing heroine librarian, named Sarah by the way, could actually morph into a vengeful killing machine. I normally eschew too much violence in my reading but, well, Sarah's victims were certainly deserving of her wrath.

A chance encounter on a New York City subway brings former navy seal Paul Taylor into the orbit of Sarah Andrews, a public librarian and tech guru. But after only a few dates that bode well for the relationship Sarah disappears. Sarah has never had much of a private life. Between work and caring for her aging father, her days have been fairly circumscribed. When the nursing home calls to tell her that her dad has had a stroke and been taken to a downtown hospital she decides to save cab money and walk there from the library. Mistake!

Lost in a seedy warehouse district only ten blocks from the hospital, Sarah stops under a street light to double check her directions and finds herself smack dab in the middle of a drug bust featuring a pack of crooked cops hell bent on skimming a million bucks off the take. No witnesses allowed. When the money disappears off the front seat of an unmarked car under that same street lamp the dirty cops come to one bizarre conclusion. Sarah is arrested and brutally tortured with the permission of the future chief of police, the man in charge of the drug crimes unit. Oh irony!

Convinced that a plea deal is the way to go by a lawyer in cahoots with the police department, Sarah is sentenced to three months in prison, a horrific maximum security facility where she learns to use her brains if not brawn to stay alive. And where you might ask is the wonderful new lover Paul Taylor? Why doesn't he answer her letters?

It's said that the will to live is an insurmountable desire and that we humans will do almost anything to survive. In this shockingly tense novel author Philip Wilson has created a character who represents this survival instinct with a vengeance. There are no literary pretensions in this book. There are no redeeming qualities in the bad guys and even the good guys, though we root for them with vigor, are morally shaky. What "The Librarian" is? A flat out unputdownable book just perfect for a long flight, car drive, or doctor's office waiting room. I couldn't find it in my library and you may not find it in yours but it's worth the Amazon download fee and will support an amazing self-published author.