Saturday, June 30, 2018

Off to Sicily with Mario Giordano

As my friend Don and I plan a late summer trip to Sicily and the Amalfi coast, I've been scrambling to brush up on my shaky Italian and to uncover some light, fun-filled books about Sicily. Author Mario Giordano offered exactly the right mood with the first in a series, "Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions," based loosely upon the life of his own Aunt Poldi. Each is apparently a zoftig Bavarian widow of sixty with a lot of life left in them.

Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (An Auntie Poldi Adventure)Poldi tends to depression, especially since the death of her Sicilian husband, but her in-laws encourage her to come south to the sun, sea, and glorious foods that Sicily offers. With the help of her nephew she barnstorms around the area of Catania and Mount Etna until she finds a home, one that speaks to her yogic sensibilities, in the village of Torre Archirafi.

Before long Poldi is the most talked about fixture in the town. Her curious, adventurous nature leads her to strike up conversations with everyone she meets, and though her original intent was to drink herself to death while gazing out to sea, she discovers that Sicily has renewed her lust for life, not to mention her lust for all the fine masculine specimens in the uniform of carabinieri.

When the sweet natured young man, Valentino, who helps Polidi around the house, disappears and is then found washed up on the beach with his face shot off, Poldi determines to find the murderer, even as the delicious Commissario Vito Montana warns her not to play Miss Marple. But play she does and a cat and mouse game ensues as Poldi worms her way into people's homes, enlists the aid of her sisters-in-law pulling surveillance at cafes in Taormina (cry me a river!), and generally manages to one-up the investigation of the frustrated commissario to whom she is wildly attracted.

Aunti Poldi may not be as loveable and erudite as Ma Ramotswe but she's bold and brash and a hoot to spend time with. And if you've ever been to Italy then you'll get such pleasure out of reading about the Catania fish market, the little patisseries (in fact Giordano already put me on to one a few blocks from out hotel in Catania), the local wines, and of course, the grappa. In spring of 2019 there will be a follow-up, "Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna," the first chapter of which was appended to my copy of Lions. Looks like Poldi and Vita may just be a thing!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Tough Times Call for Light Reading

My alarm still goes off several mornings a week because exercise class begins so darn early here in Maryland. I must have time to savor my coffee and read the paper before heading out, an act that is so upsetting lately that I NEED to go exercise just to work off the frustration. Thus, when it comes to reading for relaxation, I've had to modify my palate this year.

The Punishment She Deserves: A Lynley NovelMurder mysteries always work, the more involved the better! I just finished listening to Simon Vance's dulcet British accent as he narrated Elizabeth George's latest Inspector Lynley novel, "The Punishment She Deserves." The quirky Barbara Havers simply shines in this book, as she's exiled to the north country, a college town called Ludlow, to rubber stamp an investigation into a suicide.
Accompanied by her boss's boss, DCS Isabelle Ardery, who would love nothing more than to fire Havers for her off beat methods, Barbara intuits that the suicide was not what it appears even as Ardery admonishes her to keep her mouth shut and just follow orders.

This long-running series with Lynley and Havers just keeps getting better as Ms. George tackles many thorny issues, in this case, pedophilia, rape, alcoholism, police corruption, and the list goes on. Episodes can also be seen on PBS if you're so inclined.

Do you all remember Rachel Joyce's "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry?" If so then you'll know that you can expect to be joyfully uplifted by anything Ms. Joyce writes and "The Music Shop" does not disappoint. This novel should appeal especially to those with an eclectic knowledge of and appreciation of music in all its forms, from Puccini to Springsteen. Much like a good librarian connects just the right book with the right person at the optimum time, Frank works the same magic in his recording booths.

The Music Shop: A Novel

A luddite of sorts, Frank insists that vinyl is the only proper way to get music from machine to ear to heart. No CD's for him! Of course, this attitude limits business traffic and worries friends in the down-at-heels London neighborhood that a developer has his destructive eye on.

Frank is a conundrum, a mystery man whose solitary life unfolds slowly throughout the novel, so it's no surprise that he'd be attracted to Ilse Brauchmann, another mysterious character with no discernible history, who faints outside the music shop one day. She quickly disappears but returns weeks later to say thank you for the kindness of the staff and offer her help in the music shop. She and Frank dance around their attraction to each other, miscommunication ensues, until finally Ilse offers to pay for Frank's time so that he can share his love and joy in the healing power of music with her.

And then there's the latest novel from prolific writer Anthony Horowitz of Foyle's War and Midsomer Murders fame. "The Word Is Murder," written in a rather disconcerting format, places Anthony at the center of the action as a novelist writing a book about a murder. I'll admit that it took me a few chapter readings to adjust. In the novel Horowitz is between writing gigs and has agreed to pen a biography of a disgraced copper named Daniel Hawthorne who is working on a case independent of the local police department whose skills Hawthorne derides.

The Word Is Murder: A NovelHorowitz and Hawthorne are oil and water so much of the reading fun involves watching the slippery ways that Hawthorne eludes his biographer, refusing to share even minor details about his life's work. The case involves Diana Cowper, a wealthy socialite and mother to a famously disagreeable rock star. Only hours after she visits a non-descript mortuary to arrange for her future funeral Cowper is found dead at home with a curtain cord bound around her neck. Why would anyone want to hurt this paragon of the community?

There are so many red herrings and diversions that I defy you to read this book and guess the ending before it unfolds. Normally I can ferret out the culprit around two thirds of the way through a novel, but not this time. The characters are a nasty bunch but their motivations seems just beyond reach. Let me know if you're surprised at the denouement.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Silas House

SouthernmostThe author Silas House has been on my radar screen for a long time, he's been writing consistently for almost twenty years, often mentioning Lee Smith as one of his mentors. So I wonder why I'm only just now getting around to reading one of his novels? Perhaps it was my constant quest for books to review for the Florida Book Page ( that finally brought me to him and his new book "Southernmost," the title a reference to that concrete buoy at the tip of Key West that signals the farthest southern latitude in the continental United States - a ubiquitous lure for selfie aficionados.

Mr. House is billed as a "southern writer," a term that seems limiting, and yet one that we readers get immediately. His writing style is relaxed, conversations feel folksy. But this simplicity doesn't hide his penchant for vividly painted details and gorgeous descriptions of the natural world, the likely result of his work as an environmental activist, when he isn't teaching writing at Berea College that is, or advocating for gender rights issues.

As the book opens, a devastating flood is ravishing the small Tennessee town where Asher Sharp is the local preacher, the man everyone turns to for support in all things great and small. Farms, animals, and whole homes are swept away in a tragedy of biblical proportions just as Pastor Asher has begun to question his belief in a just, loving, but sometimes vengeful God. His crisis of faith drives a wedge between him and his more rigidly pious wife Lydia, a wedge that becomes a chasm when she refuses to shelter a gay couple that have just lost everything to the tumultuous storm.

Though Jimmy and Stephen risked their lives to rescue neighbors and were the ones who found Lydia and Asher's boy Justin before the waters swallowed him up, the  couple was shunned by everyone except Asher and his sensitive boy when they appeared together for Sunday services. In a moment of righteous anger Asher lashes out at his congregation for their paucity of generosity, their meanness of spirit. A woman with a cell phone captures Asher crying tears of frustration as he exhorts his people to open their hearts and a viral post on the internet becomes the catalyst for all the sorrow and miscommunication that follows.

Just spending time with Justin, so bright, articulate, and hyper-sensitive to emotional imbalance, is worth the time you spend in this book. Silas House writes with generosity and a keen understanding of the human condition, delicately exploring the loss of a belief system, the ways in which our past informs our present, the damage parents can do in the name of love, and the ways in which we form new, non-traditional families to replace our broken ones.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Social Justice Issues Front and Center at Book Expo

No matter which conference you're attending you can always count on Carol Fitzgerald of the Book Reporter ( to host lively panel discussions and this year's  Book Expo was no exception. First time authors were especially powerful in their Q & A sessions with Carol as she dug deeply into issues of racism, poverty, and the downsides of 24/7 social media exposes. No, not everyone is a journalist and sometimes what we see and film is not what's actually happening right in front of our eyes.

Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of FearSuch was the case for Kim Brooks who spoke about her book "Small Animals," in which she describes her life being turned upside down by a stranger who posted a video of her leaving her child in the car while she ran into a drugstore to pick up a prescription.

While admitting it was wrong, objectively, she opined that in today's internet age we as a people are so quick to judge without engaging. She wishes the stranger had just approached her. Instead the police were called, her vehicle was confiscated, her custody of her child was called into question in a series of cascading developments that could have been avoided.

There Will Be No Miracles Here: A Memoir

Casey Gerald's memoir, "There Will Be No Miracles Here," will be published in October. Raised in poverty, earning a football scholarship to Yale, Mr. Gerald would seem to be living the American dream when, in fact, it was anything but. His passionate presentation spoke to the systemic racism that underlies every success story as he has examined what it means to get ahead and at what cost to your identity. This one appears to be a must-read.

Another exciting debut is forthcoming from the delightful Weyetu Moore who's written a novel about the founding of Monrovia, Liberia, as seen through the eyes of three disparate characters. "She Would be King" tells the tale of Gbessa, an African refugee left for dead after a snake bite, June, an enslaved woman who escaped a plantation in Virginia, and Norman, a mixed-race child of a British colonizer on Jamaica, as they use their wits and talent to bridge the gap between the various indigenous Liberian tribes and the new African-American settlers seeking a place to call home. Look for this in September.She Would Be King: A Novel

And for those of you who may be attending the American Library Association conference in New Orleans, do look for editor and all around book expert Sarah Weinman, who will be touting her first non-fiction, true crime book based on the life of Sally Horner, the young woman upon whom Nabokov based his infamous "Lolita." According to Weinman, the famous author never acknowledged how much he knew about the 1949 kidnapping, in Camden, New Jersey, of the eleven-year-old Horner and how it informed his novel. Weinman brings a feminist outrage and an editor's eye to the facts of Horner's case and that of so many other young girls who have disappeared at the hands of pedophiles or rapists, never to be seen again.
The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

A Day of Book Expo America

Back in New York City this year, Book Expo America billed itself as "reinvented." Hmmm-I'm not quite sure what that means but I know that, for the first time ever, I had to apply to attend. Once accepted, I sent a check for $200 for a one-day pass. Yes folks, that's a lot of money for some free books that could have been downloaded from home onto my Kindle. So, why do we do it?  Only those readers passionate about books and authors can understand.

The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral HistoryAnd only Barbara Kingsolver and Trevor Noah could have awakened me at six in the morning so that I could walk to the Javits Center from our hotel room and be sitting toward the front of the stage by 7:30 slurping coffee and orange juice! They were worth the price of admission. Each displayed such brilliance and class, exacerbated by the comparison with the moderator, Nick Offerman, who offered exactly no class. It was way too early in the morning to find anything humorous about Nick and his wife, fellow comedian Megan Mullally, joshing about their spectacular sex life. Unless you're huge fans you can probably pass on this.

However, mark your calendars for October when Kingsolver's latest novel, "Unsheltered," will be released. She told the audience that when something scares her so much that she can't think about anything else, she writes about it. And nothing, we all agreed, can be as scary as what's happening right now. Or can it? Kingsolver sets her book in a dilapidated house in Vineland, New Jersey, during two time periods - under current circumstances and under an equally unsettling epoch, back in the 1870's after the Civil War had divided our nation and Charles Darwin shook up the world of science and education with his new theory of humankind.

I can't wait to jump into this book and will offer it to one of you the minute I'm finished. As Barbara told the audience, "stories will get us through times with no leaders better than leaders will get us through time with no stories." Unsheltered: A Novel

Trevor Noah, wisely chosen by John Stewart as replacement host of The Daily Show, has not only grown into the job but has exceeded my wildest expectations. In fact I find Noah to be a much more thoughtful interviewer than John was and deeply knowledgeable about each guest and our country as a whole. Perhaps being an outsider and witnessing the worst that governments can do - read his book about growing up in South Africa as a mixed-race child, "Born a Crime," - he can be more objective about the present state of our nation.

The staff of The Daily Show is attempting the impossible. They are collating all of the tweets that Donald Trump has issued in the first year of his presidency to try to get a handle on what kind of a man he really is. Noah tells us it should be simple, we'll know enough to know he should never have been president! Still, the thought of a computer algorithm able to identify Trump's most used words to form a psychological profile is intriguing. I'll be on the wait list for sure.

These Truths: A History of the United StatesThe big surprise of the morning was the absolutely delightful historian and Harvard professor Jill Lepore. She is such a dynamo. If I had had someone like that for a history teacher? Oh my, the places I'd have gone! Called "daring and provocative," words that speak to me, "These Truths, a History of the United States," commences with the signing of the constitution and the hypocrisy of its foundation, "that all men are created equal." It ends with the chapter heading "America, Disrupted," and the election of the 45th president.

Attendees at the breakfast only received a sampler of Lepore's book but it will be a great introduction to her theories and her writing style. You'll be hearing more from me about it in the near future. I'm hoping to stay home and read for a few months now. More on the amazing panel discussions I attended and on meeting Andre DuBus III will be coming in a few days. Happy reading!