Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What's in a Name?

At age 14 Little Bee flees her home village in Nigeria. She ends up as a stowaway on a freighter taking tea to England. Discovered en route, she is turned over to the authorities upon arrival and sent to the Black Hill Immigration Removal Centre. After two years there she is suddenly inexplicably released but without the necessary papers. What to do, where to go? Among her very few possessions are the business card and driver’s license of Andrew O’Rourke, an English journalist. Little Bee had met Andrew and his wife Sarah when Andrew and Sarah were on vacation in Nigeria. They are the only people she knows in this new country so she sets out to find them...and she does. This is the beginning of Little Bee by Chris Cleave.

The rest of this novel is told by Little Bee and Sarah in alternating chapters. We learn why Andrew and Sarah went to such an unlikely place for vacation; how they met Little Bee; how she came to have his driver’s license; and how they react to her re-entry into their lives. It’s a grim story – not the best choice for reading on Christmas Eve but I didn’t know that when I started. There is probably no “good” time to think about asylum, refugees, emigration, immigration, detention, deportation.

Another important character is Charlie, the four-year-old son of Andrew and Sarah. Charlie absolutely refuses to wear anything sleeping or waking (except at bath time) other than his Batman costume complete with mask, belt and cape. Sarah finally resorts to getting a second one so that at least she can get out the sweat and grass stains. Life for Charlie is framed in terms of goodies and baddies: you’re either one or the other. For the rest of us it is not quite so simple.

Little Bee herself may have framed the central question of this novel: “But please, what does it mean?” I said. “What does it mean, to belong here?”

At the end of the book, Little Bee finds beauty and joy. I’m not so sure that I did.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Favorite

My favorite Christmas book?  Without a doubt it's Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory.  Written in 1956 for Mademoiselle magazine, it is the nostalgic but not sentimental story of Buddy, a seven year old boy living in the South with distant relatives, and his best friend and companion Sook, an elderly but childlike cousin.  Buddy narrates the tale of their Christmas preparations, including an elaborate fruitcake-making production, the choosing and cutting of a Christmas tree, and the making of decorations and gifts.  (It was later made into an excellent television show with the incomparable Geraldine Brooks as Sook and Capote himself as the narrator).

I hope you all have fond Christmas memories of your own and that you add new ones today.

PS Don't forget - our Living2Read discussion of The Radetzky March begins on January 8th.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Anna's Best Books of 2009

It is really difficult to believe that we have been blogging for almost two years! As we come to the end of 2009 it was fun to look back at what we have read and try to choose our favorite books. I was surprised to see that I did not blog any non-fiction this year. That could be for more than one reason. But there is something reassuring and comforting about reading a good novel. Maybe we(I) needed that reassurance and comfort during this past year. I did read some very good novels this year. I chose these five novels as my favorites because they were all great surprises, written by authors I didn’t know and for some it was the author’s first novel. Try one of them and see if you aren't surprised or give one for a gift and join us in 2010 as we discover more wonderful books!

"The Housekeeper and the Professor", by Yoko Ogawa is a beautiful story about a math professor who suffered a brain injury and has only eighty minutes of short term memory.It is a unique story about memory, mathematics, baseball and love that asks the underlying question of whether one can truly love without memory.

"Olive Kitteridge", by Elizabeth Stout is a novel in stories. There are thirteen stories that are connected by the larger than life character, Olive Kitteridge. She is a strong woman, not always liked by those around her, but one who gives the reader the opportunity to watch her change and become the woman she wants to be.

"Tinkers", by Paul Harding is a first novel that is a wonderful combination of beautiful writing, stunning descriptions and a heartwrenching story. The author retells the life stories of three men, a boy, his father and his grandfather. He uses theses stories to show the mystery of existence and connection.

"The White Tiger", the first novel by Aravind Adiga was a facinating story about the self proclaimed White Tiger who is telling a fictional Chinese premier, via emails, the story of how he became a successful entrepreneur. The story is told with charm and wit but it is a strange tale that takes a grim look at the class system in India and the problems evolving with the new developing India.

"The Piano Teacher", by Janice Y. K. Lee takes place in Hong Kong just before and after World War I. It is the story of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong and the devasting impact it had on the lives of the natives and the large expatriate society in Hong Kong. It is a story of war, love and betrayal told with sparse and riveting prose. One that brings to life a time and place in history, and again the first novel of this author.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Men Behaving Badly

Is this becoming a sub-category of American fiction? The main character is a decent, flawed male who makes bad decisions and lives to regret them. He's a taciturn loner prone to excessive drinking, womanizing, and machismo. But he is nourished by the stark beauty of the western landscape he inhabits. And his story is told in unadorned prose that seems to match his persona.

Did it begin with Hemingway and his simple declarative sentences? Sam Shepard often populates his plays with these damaged types. Cormac McCarthy portrays them in his dark morality tales. More recently Ron Carlson, in his novels “Five Skies” (Loss and Redemption)  and “The Signal” (Western Love), explored the psyche of emotionally scarred men struggling to become their better selves.

The latest in this literary line is Brian Hart's first novel Then Came the Evening. His flawed hero is Bandy Dorner. In the opening pages he behaves so badly that the story needs to skip ahead eighteen years to pick up the story, as Bandy approaches the end of a prison term. He returns to his native Idaho to try to connect with his ex-wife Iona and a son he didn't know he had.

Perhaps more than the other authors I've mentioned, Hart explores the complicated dynamic that pulls family members together and pushes them apart. His portrayal of the angry, needy son Tracy is especially honest and touching. His descriptions of the small Idaho town and its residents felt gritty and true. Violence seems to be a necessary component of this genre, and as is often the case there was more of it than I needed, although Hart doesn't wallow in it the way McCarthy sometimes does. And occasionally I felt that the story jumped in time and left me wanting the gap filled in.

Still, I admire Hart's attention to the specifics of place that made this story feel so real and honest, and in Bandy Dorner he has created his own version of the flawed Western hero.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

It Doesn't Seem Possible

With Afghanistan in the news almost every day, I thought I should know more about the country. I had read Khaled Hosseini’s works of fiction set in that country and Greg Mortenson’s first book on setting up girls’ schools there. I wasn’t quite ready for something as serious as Taliban by Ahmed Rashid. But I did have Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between. This is his chronicle of his walk between Herat and Kabul in the winter of 2002, just after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. He had already walked across Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal. This was the missing piece. It wasn’t that he didn’t have other means of transportation. He was offered rides and warned against walking alone. But Stewart meant to walk, literally, every step of the way.

For the most part Stewart was alone. Only as he reached the more isolated, primitive villages did rules of hospitality dictate that he be provided a guide to the next village. At one point he was given a dog to be his companion. Was it really a gift? For the most part it was a liability. Now Stewart had to find food not only for himself but also for the dog. In some of the villages a dog was considered unclean and Stewart was refused lodging.

Many of the villagers were illiterate and had never been even as far as an hour’s walk outside their village. No electricity or television: hence very little knowledge of the outside world. Living in caves. Differences and jealousies between and among their groups deep and violent. But there amid these impassable mountains remnants like the Minaret of Jam and Turquoise Mountain of a lost culture.

Here is how Stewart describes himself at the end of the journey:
“My stomach had gone and I had a hacking cough. The zipper on my jacket had jammed; one of my bootlaces had snapped; and the rice bag covering my backpack had fallen to pieces. I had bedbug bites and prickly heat; my nails were long; and my hair had not been cut in four months…I ran my filthy hands over my failure of a beard, my black eye, my blistered lips and peeling nose, and looked at my clothes, which had gone unwashed for three weeks.”

As one man’s journey, this is a fascinating book. As a picture of what lies ahead of us in our country’s efforts in this region, it is terrifying.

PS: The rest of Rory Stewart's biography is equally amazing. Read it here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Lost in Shanghai

Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the wonderful novel “The Remains of the Day” which won the Booker Prize in 1989. Ishiguro is a memorable writer and “The Remains of the Day“ is one of my favorite novels. Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan and raised in Britain. His novels are usually set in Britain and his narrators are strong British voices.

Christopher Banks is the narrator of Ishiguro’s novel written in 2000, “When We Were Orphans”. Banks was born in Shanghai to British parents in the beginning of the twentieth century. The novel spans a time frame from 1930 to 1937, as Christopher retells his life story and attempts to solve its mystery.

Christopher lived with his parents in Shanghai where his father worked for a large British company and his mother was a social activist. He had an idyllic childhood which he shared with his best friend and neighbor, a Japanese boy named, Akira. This idyllic life ended for Christopher when he was ten years old and his father suddenly disappeared. Within weeks his beloved mother also disappeared and Christopher was sent to England to live with his aunt. Christopher’s life long desire to become a detective and solve the mystery of the disappearance of his parents becomes a reality in London after he finishes Cambridge.

Ishiguro does a wonderful job of telling the story of Christopher’s childhood using Christopher’s boyhood reminiscences. In 1938 as an adult and a renowned detective, Christopher returns to Shanghai to solve the mystery. Here Ishiguro’s story becomes difficult to follow as Christopher’s reality quickly slides into fantasy.

But being the great storyteller that he is, the author brings us to a believable ending. The last chapter is set in 1958 as Christopher looks back on his life as an orphan and the strange circumstances that surrounded his family.

“When We Were Orphans” was a great read. Maybe not as great as “The Remains of the Day”, but definitely an intriguing story, written with the beautiful prose and compelling plot that has consistently characterized Ishiguro’s novels.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Read Any Good Sagas Lately?

Saga – not a word I use very often. The dictionary defines it as “a form of the novel in which the members or generations of a family or social group are chronicled in a long and leisurely narrative”. Originally they were Icelandic tales of heroic deeds and Viking voyages. Modern examples would include The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, maybe even Jean Auel's Earth's Children Series.

Sea of Poppies is the first book of Amitav Ghosh's three book saga set in nineteenth century India in 1838, just prior to the Opium Wars. In the first two sections, “Land” and “River”, Ghosh assembles a cast of characters from all strata of society and threads their stories together so that in the third part, “Sea”, all are aboard, either as crew or passengers, the former slave ship Ibis as it leaves Calcutta to deliver coolies (indentured servants) to British plantations on Mauritius. 

Ghosh wraps a lot into one book. It's an historical novel, with detailed descriptions of opium processing and trade, a Dickensian tale with a cast of quirky characters, a romantic drama painted on a broad canvas, and has a lexicon all its own. On every page there were at least five words I didn't know, either because they were part of the local patois or of the vocabulary of nineteenth century sailing ships. What's a zemindary, a bandobast. a budgerow, a lascar? But somehow the meanings become clear as you keep reading, and you are swept along with the characters as they hurtle towards their destinies.

And here I must confess that, in my ongoing efforts to read as little as possible about a book before I read the book itself, I had not learned that this book was the first of a trilogy. So as the pages turned and the end neared, I couldn't figure out how Ghosh was going to resolve all the story lines. I had just about concluded that on the last page the ship would sink and all on board would perish when I finally read the back cover blurb - “the first of an epic trilogy”. And by the time I reached that last page, I would gladly have picked up book two immediately if it were available.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is it the climate?

I never seem to own the books that I would like to have. For most of the 26 years of our book group I would purchase the monthly book. But occasionally, probably after a string of less than inspiring reads, my conscience would get the better of me (trees, shelf space, cost) and I would get the next month’s book from the library. Inevitably (it must be a variation of Murphy’s law), that book would be terrific. Such is the case with Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy which we read as a group in 1994. I remember it as a book of great force (it’s hard to forgetan image of a wheelbarrow, body parts, and lye). I was prompted to look for it on my bookshelf because I just finished reading McCabe’s Winterwood, published in 2006. When I picked up Winterwood, I mistakenly assumed that McCabe had not written anything in between but in fact he had published 5 other novels in between.

I guess my first comment about Winterwood would be: is there an Irish novel that does not have child sexual abuse as its touchstone?

In 1981, on assignment from his paper to write an article about “folklore and changing ways in Ireland,” Redmond Hatch returns to his home town of Slievenageeha and meets Auld Pappie Ned, a 70-year-old fiddler who lives outside of town in a tumbledown shack. To the younger townspeople, Ned is a harmless teller of tales and the keeper of their traditions and customs from the past. In succeeding weeks, Hatch returns to interview Ned and learns more about his own past than he bargained for.

According to the chapter headings, we are following Redmond chronologically for the next 20 years. But at the same time McCabe takes us back to Ned’s youth and to Redmond’s childhood. In McCabe’s hands it is a masterful technique and makes this book a real page turner with the suspense building to a tragic end. All I can say is: if you are a woman married to an Irishman, think twice before cheating on him.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Charlotte's Favorites - 2009

It's time once again for me to choose my favorites from among the 42 books I've blogged this year. It's always a hard choice, especially when I've read great authors like Updike, Roth and Welty. But I've tried to pick books that caught me by surprise, made me laugh, touched my heart – made an impression that has stayed with me. Once again, I tried to pick three and ended up with six, and there are at least three more that could easily have made the list. And that doesn't even include my journey through five Rabbit books! It was a good year:

Brooklyn (A Simple Story)– because Colm Tóibín created a character that resonated for me as if she were my long lost sister.
Lucky Jim (Academic Satire) – very simple – it made me laugh out loud.
City of Thieves (A Russian Coincidence) – because David Benioff turned the Siege of Leningrad into both a riveting thriller and a tale of friendship.

Love and Summer (Summer In Ireland) – ah, the Irish. My bias is clear. William Trevor is a master at telling a simple story in beautiful prose.
The Vagrants (The People of Muddy River) – the most powerful book I read this year – a haunting story of China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
Sag Harbor (Summer Vacation) – a coming-of-age story like none I've read. Funny and honest.

My list of "Books I Want to Read" never gets any shorter, so I am looking forward to a 2010 full of great reading. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reading can be fun!

It’s been a long time since I have had this much fun reading. If someone else were in the room with me, I had to cover my mouth to hide the big grin. And the reason for all this mirth? The Reluctant Widow by Georgette Heyer.

Heyer is often compared to Jane Austen: they were writing about the same period of English history but Austen was writing contemporaneously whereas Heyer was writing historical fiction. Heyer was unbelievably prolific: more than 40 novels, a dozen short story collections and almost as many thrillers. I wonder if reading them all could still hold my interest; but this first one was an unmitigated delight. I guess I avoided reading Heyer because her novels are generally described as “romance novels” and I mistakenly thought that they would not be “literary” enough (whatever that may mean and however foolish a sentiment that may be).

There is a lot of historical detail in the book that I trust is accurate: clothes, food, manners, some passing references to the historical figures of the day, in this case Napoleon and Wellington. But by far the most memorable part of the book is the dialogue. It will have you smiling from ear to ear if not laughing out loud. The repartee between the imperturbable Lord Carlyon and Mrs. Cheviot is masterful.

I don’t want to spoil any aspect of the plot for you. But here’s my recommendation: take a break from “serious fiction” and treat yourself to this book. You don’t even have to tell anyone; but if you are like I am, you will want to share the fun.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Define Happiness

“Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story, the novella is generally unrecognized by academics and publishers.” Melville House Publishers is celebrating the novella by publishing many novellas that have never been published before. “The Happy Man”, written Hansjorg Schertenleib and translated from German by David Dollenmayer, is the first work of this well known Swiss writer that has been translated to English.

This short, amazing story is about an average man who just so happens to be a genuinely happy man. The hero of this story is This Studer (at first it is difficult to read sentences about a man named This). This is (see what I mean) a jazz musician, married to the love of his life and the father of a somewhat abrasive teenage girl. Both This’ wife and his daughter find his complacent nature irritating. But they both suffer from problems that This finds endearing.

The story takes place in Amsterdam where This has gone for a week to play in a club with a group formed by his old friend Henk. The story progresses as This and his wife explore Amsterdam. The author's descriptions of the streets, restaurants and people of Amsterdam are vivid. But the story itself meanders along as the reader waits to see what is going to happen to our “happy man”. In the hands of a less skilled writer this could be a dull story, but Hansjorg Schertenleib is a wonderful writer. His prose is lyrical and his dialogue is quirky and interesting. His hopeful man is a very intriguing character. But the best part of this story is the stunning, unexpected ending.

Mr. Schertenleib has written two collections of short stories, poetry and seven novels yet this is the only one translated to date. He has been living in Ireland for the last thirteen years so maybe we will see more of this very talented author’s work translated to English.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Year of the Rabbit

No, not the Chinese lunar calendar kind of year. I mean my own personal year with Rabbit Angstrom. It started in March when our book club, mindful of his recent death, decided to read John Updike's “Rabbit, Run”. I was intrigued by Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, this impulsive, confused, horny everyman who seemed to be seeking something he couldn't define, and running from family, responsibility and himself.

So in April I read “Rabbit Redux” (The Next Chapter) and picked up Rabbit's story in the turbulent Sixties, where his odd alliance with a black revolutionary and a rich-girl drug addict produced a fractured, intense drama that matched the times. And in May I read “Rabbit Is Rich” (Rabbit Is Paunchy) where Rabbit, ten years removed from his Sixties self, was selling Toyotas and enjoying the middle class life of country clubs and golf games, but still struggling to connect to his alienated son, still driven by his libido and by his search for meaning. In September I read “Rabbit At Rest” (Rabbit Runs Down), where Rabbit, now in his fifties, facing his own mortality, tried to do what he had always done – run. You can probably guess how that turned out.

So I thought Rabbit and I were done. But then I discovered Licks of Love, a collection of Updike short stories published in 2000. The final story, a novella length piece entitled “Rabbit Remembered”, is the final chapter in the Rabbit saga. It's now 1999, and as the millennium approaches Rabbit's wife Janice and son Nelson are both still in Brewer, Pennsylvania. Rabbit is gone but his presence still lingers. And then it appears in the flesh in the person of Annabelle, Rabbit's daughter from his brief fling with Ruth in “Rabbit, Run”.

Updike shows us flashes of Rabbit – impulsive, patriotic, unapologetic, searching – in both his two offspring and his awkward grandson. And there are flashes of Updike's brilliance as well – his affection for small town life, his ability to weave the historical events of the era into the narrative, his honest portrayal of his flawed characters. But with Rabbit things were always messy and off balance, so I was a little disappointed in the tidy ending.

I've enjoyed my Year of the Rabbit. I don't know when I'll have another chance to follow a character and an author through forty years. Goodbye Rabbit; goodbye John Updike.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Trip to South America

If you had a blank map of South America, could you draw in Uruguay – with any accuracy? I certainly couldn’t. But I was prompted to look at a map while reading The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. It is a novel set in Uruguay (with a small detour to Argentina) during the twentieth century. Most of the events occur in Montevideo: “Monte. Vide. Eu. I see a mountain, said a Portuguese man, among the first Europeans to sight this terrain from sea.” But he was wrong – no mountains, barely a hill, hence the “invisible” of the title.

The story follows the lives of three generations of women: Pajarita, a healer of mind and body with her plants; her daughter Eva, a poet; and Eva’s daughter, Salome. But equally as interesting is the way that De Robertis manages to weave in concurrent historical events including the Cuban revolution, the rise and fall of Juan and Evita Peron, Che Guevara, the docking of the wounded German warship Graf Spee during WW II, and most importantly the change in Uruguay in the 1960s to military rule. The resistance efforts of the Tupamaros are inspiring – and heartbreaking. The portrayal of the lives and conditions of political prisoners is memorable.

De Robertis knows of what she writes. Her parents were Uruguayan, although she herself was raised in Europe and the USA and now lives in Oakland, CA; and she has relatives in Uruguay with whom she spent time while preparing this book. There is a liberal sprinkling of Spanish words and the local culture: lots of smoking, music, drinking (what exactly is a mate?), food (empanadas – those I remember from a cooking class) as well as sexual abuse and poverty.

These are three resilient women (none of the men in their lives comes off very well). Each generation faced very different challenges but each succeeding generation found strength from the one(s) before. “...roots are essential. We begin long before we’re born.” I am glad that I had an opportunity to spend some time with them.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable - Episode 2

Once again we are planning a Roundtable, where we encourage our readers to participate in a discussion about a book. We've all had the experience of reading a book and then wanting to share thoughts with others. Here's your chance to broaden your understanding and increase your enjoyment of a book by giving your opinion, asking questions, and listening to the thoughts of other readers.

Our next Roundtable will be the week of January 8th through 14th. Our selection is The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. Written in 1932, the book is a family drama set against the backdrop of the Austro-Hungarian Empire just before World War I. The New York Times describes it as “epic . . . brilliantly achieved . . . the portrait of an empty age, an age of gold braid and glitter.”

So start reading, and let's talk in January.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Victims of War

Janice Y.K. Lee’s first novel, “The Piano Teacher” takes place in Hong Kong during and after the 1941 Japanese invasion. The story begins in 1952 as Claire Pendelton, newly married, has arrived in Hong Kong with her British husband who has just been posted at the Department of Water Service. Claire decides to take a job as a piano teacher to the daughter of a wealthy, socially connected Chinese couple, Melody and Victor Chen. At the Chen’s Claire becomes acquainted with a fellow Brit, Will Truesdale, who is employed as the Chen’s chauffer.

Claire knew when she married Martin that she was not in love with him but it seemed like the right thing to do. The affair between Claire and Will takes on a life of its own as the story goes back in time to 1941. Will Truesdale had just arrived in Hong Kong. The British expatriates were seduced by Hong Kong, the parties, the life style, the overall lack of boundaries. Will fell in love with Trudy Liang, the beautiful daughter of a Portuguese mother and a wealthy Chinese businessman. Trudy was captivating, charming, and totally in charge. But six months after Will met Trudy, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong.

The author brings to life the tremendous turmoil that took over the residents of Hong Kong in 1941. The Japanese forced the privileged Brits and Americans into internment camps. The Chinese residents were forced to find ways to survive. And Trudy Liang was above all, a survivor.

The story flips from 1952 to 1941 as Claire attempts to understand the reticence and sadness behind the enigmatic Will Truesdale. What happened to the characters who lived in Hong Kong as the Japanese invaded is an intriguing story of war, love and betrayal. What happened to Claire Pendelton as she unravels this story is life transforming.

Janice Y.K. Lee has written a compelling first novel. Her writing is sparse and riveting. The story brings a time and place in history to life. The author, who was raised in Hong Kong, uses this intriguing story to show how deeply scarred the inhabitants of Hong Kong, both native and expatriate, were by the Japanese invasion.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Enough of a Good Thing

When I first read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (see my blog of November 19, 2008), I thought that I was ahead of the curve. It wasn’t quite so well known at that time. But when The Girl Who Played with Fire came out this summer, I had to wait several months to get a copy from my local library.

I’m not sure it was worth the wait. It has the expected healthy doses of body piercings, sex, beatings, motorcycle chases, and an outsized human “freak”. You do find out more about the personal family background of our Girl heroine Lisbeth Salender (no wonder she is so reserved around people).

But I didn’t really “learn” anything this time. The journalist Mikael Blomkvist’s involvement starts out with a planned expose of sex trafficking but we never really get the details of the trade. This book is pure plot: no character development (unless you count the unacknowledged developing romance between Salender and Mikael Blomkvist), no beautiful language, no thoughtful reflections or philosophy, no history. With all of the wonderful books out there to read and because I am a slow reader, the only reason that I can justify (to myself) reading a thriller is that it comes with something else. There’s a little bit of the art and strategy of boxing; some mathematics in the introductions to the Parts of the book. There is some behind-the-scenes duplicity by the Swedish government with regard to a Russian defector. Maybe that is based on fact or intended to be a cautionary tale. But none of these, alone or in combination, is enough to satisfy my requirement.

But that is just me. If you are at a time and place in which to lose yourself in a book for that purpose alone, then this is a good choice. The author does try to fill the reader in on some of the details of the prior book, but I would highly recommend reading them in order (Tattoo first, then Fire). There will be a third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, but I am content to wait.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation – what an evocative phrase. We all have memories from our childhood and adolescence of that long stretch of days that opened up before us on the last day of school. I always thought that the light in my grade school classroom looked different on that final day – more golden. And if, like me, you grew up in a city, and your summer vacation included an escape to the beach, you probably remember the pleasure of that simpler, lazier existence.

That's the feeling Colson Whitehead captures in his novel Sag Harbor. Sag Harbor is first of all a real place – a small community in the Hamptons, populated in summer mainly by the families of African American professionals who own vacation homes there, many of them built or purchased by their grandparents' generation in the 1930's and 40's. But for Whitehead's fifteen year old hero Benji Cooper, Sag Harbor is also a state of mind, an escape from the world of his elite, mostly white, Manhattan prep school to a place where he hopes to reinvent himself as a cooler, more confident version of his old self. His parents visit only on occasional weekends, so Benji, his brother Reggie and their pals have plenty of space to experiment with cool handshakes, new haircuts and BB guns.

Was Whitehead taking notes when he was fifteen? His characters seem seem so true in every detail, and the humor bubbles up on every page. He's not attempting to describe a 'special summer' where some traumatic event causes a boy to become a man. Instead he gets inside of Benji's head as he wryly observes life in Sag Harbor, and attempts to figure out who he's going to be, who he wants to be. It's funny and touching with a just a hint of melancholy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Perfect Timing

It’s a week before I am scheduled to run a marathon and I am nervous, jittery, and sluggish. There is an article in the NY Times reviving the controversy that slower runners (undefined but I definitely include myself in that category) who take walk breaks (also me) are not really true marathoners and are messing up the sport for the other fast runners. My training partner has the flu. I’m still battling a nagging hamstring injury. Why did my physical therapist mention scar tissue at my last visit? My work office is closed this week so I don’t have that as a distraction – more time for self doubt. When I started training, the race was 24 weeks away. How did it get to be 6 days, 5 days…? I’M NOT READY! I CAN’T DO THIS!

But then something guided my hand to a recent addition on my bookshelf: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. McDougall is a journalist, also a runner, also plagued with recurring injuries. In his search to answer the question “Why does my foot hurt?”, McDougall learns about and then goes in search of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The Tarahumara are legendary for their ability to run long distances (hundreds of miles) seemingly effortlessly in just sandals. Not only that, they are supremely healthy and happy.

McDougall is a wonderfully entertaining writer. He gives us a crash course in the evolution of Homo erectus – how and when – and proceeds to describe each feature of our anatomy that supports the argument that we are designed to run. He takes us on a persistence hunt in which African Bushmen actually capture a kudu by outlasting the animal in a foot chase. And with all of this background, he is setting us up for the climax: a 50-mile foot race between some of the Tarahumara, a few of the fastest ultra distance runners from the US, and McDougal himself. Each of the other American runners comes with an amazing story – as you would expect of people who run 100+ miles for fun in the extremes of temperature and terrain. Each has his and her own reason for joining the race. For McDougall, it’s “Just beat the course…No one else. Just the course.” When he limps in last, taking more than twice as long as the fastest finishers, the others are there to congratulate him. When he demurs about being “amazingly slow”, the second place finisher tells him, “I’ve been there, man. I’ve been there a lot. It takes more guts than going fast.”

That’s what I needed to hear. Now I’m ready for the race. After all, I was born for this.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: On a scale of 1 to ...

“A decent novel can entertain you.
A good novel can make you feel stuff.
A great novel can change your life.”
Brad Bollenbach

Where does this novel (The Secret River by Kate Grenville) fit?

There are many ways to judge a novel.
- Did it expand your emotional repertoire?
- Did it deepen your self-understanding?
- Did any character change your perception of the world?

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for “made-up words.”

How well do you think the author succeeded with this book?

This is the fourth and last blog in this Roundtable series. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov. 3 and Nov. 4. We hope that you have enjoyed the conversation. If you have any suggestions for books that you would like to discuss in this forum, please let us know. Watch for an announcement of the next Roundtable.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Language

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

What did you think of the author's use of local speech patterns...not exactly a dialect but the grammar of the less educated, I guess? Did you find it distracting or authentic? Some of the terms I never did figure out and just kept on reading. But I did have to smile when I finally realized that "baccy" meant tobacco.

Did you notice the author's convention of writing all direct conversation in italics rather than in the conventional quotation marks?

I was especially moved by the author's descriptions of the physical landscape, the weather, the skies, the sea, the dawns and sunsets. Those things haven't changed in 200 years and no doubt the author's having grown up in Sydney and returning there after living a few years in Europe gave her ample opportunity for observation. Actually I was disappointed that the narrative changed before William and Sal had their first winter on the river. After such vivid descriptions of the hot summer months, I was looking forward to reading about winter. I'm sure it would have been just as extreme and vivid.

Is there a passage of special beauty or effectiveness that you marked in your reading?

This is the third in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov. 3 and Nov. 5.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Characters

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

With which character did you feel more empathy or sympathy: William or Sal?

Did that feeling change during the course of the story?

I thought the author was even-handed in her portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of both William and Sal. Each had a certain measure of selfishness but also moments of compromise (how else can a marriage be sustained?). Sal's resilience and inventiveness in dealing with the poverty of her life as a young married woman in England, the squalor of their initial accommodations in Sydney and starting life on the river were remarkable. I kept trying to see myself in the same situations. For Sal's sake I was insulted by William's continued surprise at his wife's farsightedness.

Both William and Sal were changed by their experience in this foreign land. One of the final incidents (p. 331) is quite telling. Sal reminds William "I thought you was wonderful when I was a little thing...Because you spit such a long way!" And he replies: "I ain't lost the art, Sal,...Only in this dry place a man needs all his spit for himself." And that, to me, sums up William: it became all about himself. And as usually happens, that does not make for a truly happy life.

This is the second in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 2, Nov 4 and Nov. 5.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable: The Secret River

Well, it’s finally here: the first Living2Read Roundtable. Welcome!

Our hope is that those of us who have read the book can engage with each other in an exchange of thoughts and opinions about the book. If you are a member of a book group, you know that discussion of the author’s themes, intentions and characters in a novel can provide a broader context for analyzing current real-world issues. Respectful disagreement is a good thing – and welcome. As we experiment with a format for these Roundtables, it may have the feel of a work in progress – it is. But in time a solution will emerge. For this week, we will pose a question each day to start the discussion. Feel free to pose questions of your own about the book. To the point…

For this first Roundtable we have chosen The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It is the story of the early settlement of the area around Sydney, New South Wales (now known as Australia) by non-Aborigines as personified by William and Sal Thornhill. Perhaps the curriculum in other countries of the former British Commonwealth is more detailed than in the US but my own knowledge was only that this area was used as a penal colony for English convicts. I never thought to inquire what that might actually mean for the persons sent there. One test that I would make for any historical fiction is whether it inspires the reader to want to know more about the “facts”. By that measure I would judge this book an unqualified success. I would like to read more of the actual history of that time and place. If anyone can make a recommendation for further reading on that topic, please do so.

After Sagitty’s place is attacked and burned, Thornhill takes the dying Sagitty to the hospital in nearby Windsor. Instead of returning right away to Sal and the children, Thornhill goes to the local bar. With its repeated retellings, the story of the attack grows in its atrocities. Fear, prejudice and a desire for revenge drive the other men into a frenzy and Thornhill must decide whether to join in their murderous scheme. Could he have made a different choice? Do you think that he felt remorse for the choice that he did make? Was Sal somehow complicit in William’s choice by not challenging his version of what had occurred?

This is the first in a series of 4 blogs in this Roundtable. You can find the others on Nov. 3, Nov 4 and Nov. 5.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Makeshift Family

Anna Quindlen was a Newsweek columnist who won the Pulitzer Prize for her column “Public & Private” for the NY Times. She left the Times to write books. She has written four books, both fiction and non fiction, since she left her life as a columnist. Her novel “Blessings” was published in 2002.

“Blessings” takes place in the small town of Mount Mason, just outside of New York City. Blessings is the name of the estate owned by Lydia Blessing and her family for over sixty years. The story begins as a teenage couple quietly drive up the long driveway to the main house at Blessings. The boy gets out of the car and puts a box on the steps. But he is in such a hurry he leaves the box on the steps of the garage apartment and not the main house.

The next morning Skip Cuddy, who has recently begun to work for Lydia Blessings, finds a baby, wrapped in a flannel shirt in a cardboard box, as he leaves his apartment. For reasons unknown to him Skip decides to keep the baby. But he can’t let anyone know.

The readers are pulled into a story about a young man, without parents, who found himself in prison for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and a old woman who has led a privileged but lonely life. The story goes from the present, as Skip struggles with his life as the father of a newborn, to the past, as Lydia Blessing is haunted by the secrets she and her family have lived with over the last sixty years.

Lydia Blessing decides to help Skip to care for this child but a betrayal occurs and things drastically change. Anna Quindlen is a master at creating characters that you really care about. Her writing is so clear and descriptive that the reader can’t help but be moved to tears of empathy as this young man struggles to be a good father to this baby he found on his doorstep. And Lydia Blessing finds a part of herself that she thought was gone forever. But Anna Quindlen is never maudlin. She has that innate skill that makes a reader feel that the characters are real and what they do makes a difference.

This is a story about self discovery and family, whatever that family looks like in the end.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Childhood Memories

You may know Helene Cooper's name from her byline as a diplomatic correspondent for the New York Times. You may even have seen her on TV news shows like Washington Week. But her memoir The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood tells the story of a childhood far removed from that of a typical American girl.

Cooper was born and raised in Liberia, directly descended on both sides from freed American slaves who immigrated from the United States in the pre-Civil War 1820's to establish a free colony in Africa. As a “Congo”, as the descendants of freed slaves were called, she lived a privileged childhood in a large house outside Monrovia, while the native Liberians, called “Country”, struggled in poverty and worked as servants for the upper class “Congos” like the Coopers.

Her parents adopted a native Liberian named Eunice as a companion for the lonely Helene, and the two lived a childhood that would be familiar to any American girl, with music, clothes, cars, and boys as their primary interests.But in 1989, when Helene was fourteen, native soldiers led by Samuel Doe overthrew the government, killing President Tolbert and executing scores of government members, including Helene's uncle. After a terrifying encounter with the native soldiers who invade their Sugar Beach home, the Coopers fled to America, leaving Eunice behind.

Cooper describes her struggles to fit in as an American student, her determination to become a journalist, including a first job in Rhode Island covering school board and city council meetings for the the Providence Journal , and ultimately a plum assignment to cover the Iraq invasion for the Wall Street Journal. A near-death experience there makes her realize that the war she should be covering was in Liberia, and she returns to her native country, which has been devastated by years of savage warfare.

The book is more than just chronology of Helene's life. It is a warm and tender tribute to the strength of her family, especially her warm and loving father and her indomitable mother. When she returns to Liberian to find her lost adopted sister Eunice, she powerfully reconnects to her childhood and to her native country. This book tells a very personal story, but it is also an amazing window on the Liberia behind the headlines.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Survival in Brooklyn

In 1943 Betty Smith’s first novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, was published. Somehow it touched a nerve for the people of New York and the country. It sold over 300,000 copies in the first six weeks. Betty Smith said she wrote about “the kind of people I know and the kind of people I like”. Betty Smith wrote about what she knew, her life growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Francie Nolan is the heroine of this story. But Brooklyn is the main character. Francie’s Williamsburg neighborhood was a wild place, children were fighting in the street and on the playground. The best place in the world for Francie was the fire escape outside her apartment. It is here that Francie could dream and watch the tree grow outside her window.

The characters that Betty Smith created are ones that will stay with you for a long time. Francis’s mother, Katie Rommely, only wanted to marry the handsome, charming Johnny Nolan and probably, secretly, regretted it for the rest of her life. Johnny Nolan was a fun loving, charming, singing waiter who drank himself to death as his family waited for him to come home at night.

Francie was a better student than her brother, Neely, but it is in Neely that Katie put all her hopes for the future. Katie read to Francie and Neely every night, as her Austrian mother instructed her to do, from the Bible and Shakespeare. It was from these books that Francie learned to dream and to write.

Betty Smith’s writing was incredibly descriptive as she showed us how the people of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, shopped, went to school, worked, ate, drank, went to church, voted and dealt with every human crisis sent their way. Her characters are equally memorable, from the strong and lovable Rommely women to the sweet alcoholic Johnny Nolan but most of all, Francie. Francie was gentle, shy, industrious, bright and resourceful. We lived through her pain, her humiliations, her successes and her sorrow to see her triumph as a strong, determined young woman with a bright future.

It is easy to understand why Betty Smith’s novel touched so many people in 1943 and has continued to intrigue readers sixty years later.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Summer in Ireland

I guess I'm just a sucker for Irish writers. Once again I was seduced by the beautiful prose of a master storyteller. This time it was the prolific and much admired writer William Trevor. In Love and Summer the story begins on a June morning in the Irish town of Rathmoye, as mourners spill out of the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer after the funeral of Mrs. Connulty, the matriarch of the town's most important family. She is mourned by the son she doted on and the daughter whose anger over the past still boils. Florian Kilderry, a young amateur photographer, happens on to the scene and snaps some pictures. Ellie Dillahan, the young wife of an older widowed farmer, observes him with interest before he pedals away on his bicycle.

From this beginning Trevor weaves the story of one summer in and around Rathmoye. He explores the inner lives of his characters with spare, honest prose, in contrast to the lyric descriptions of the lush summer landscape. Although initially he seems to be telling separate stories about each of his characters, their lives are seamlessly woven together as the story progresses. Trevor is Irish, so of course there's humor. Mrs. Connulty's daughter (known by all simply as “Miss Connulty”) exults in wearing the expensive jewelry her mother refused to let her touch when she was a child.

But as the summer ends the tone grows more poignant. Trevor gently examines the conflicting yearnings of love, passion, loyalty and the desire to escape. The final scenes are at once heartbreaking and comforting. At the end, I felt much as I did with another Irish book I read recently (see my blog of “Brooklyn”). I didn't want to leave Rathmoye, and wondered if I should read it again to see if it would end differently. The Irish get me every time.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I decided it was time that I tried to tackle Roberto Bolaño. Actually this is my second attempt. I started “The Savage Detectives” but it was too confusing and overwhelming. So this time I started small with his novella By Night in Chile. The entire book is the deathbed rant of Father Sebastien Urrutia, a Chilean priest, poet and literary critic.

This book is hard to put down for two reasons. The first is the practical one – since there are no chapter or paragraph breaks it's hard to pick up where you left off. But the more powerful reason is that it picks you up and sweeps you along as Sebastien revisits his past. At first his reminiscences are about literary evenings with Chilean writers and intellectuals, most notably poet Pablo Neruda. But then he meets the mysterious figures Mr. Etah and Mr. Raef (surely the backwards spelling of their names is no accident), who generously send him on a trip to Europe to study the deterioration of churches. In his travels he discovers that the main cause of the damage is pigeon droppings, and that the elegant solution employed European priests is falcons, which swoop down from steeple tops to bloody and kill their prey. What a surreal image.

Urrutia returns to Chile in time to witness the Allende government (he studies Greek classics and keeps a low profile) and the Pinochet coup (he instructs Pinochet and his generals in the basic tenets of Marxism). He eventually confesses to having attended literary evenings at the home of a glamorous hostess (he claims the visits were “infrequent” although we sense this is not the truth), not knowing, or perhaps ignoring, the brutal interrogations of political dissidents taking place in her basement.

Sometimes Bolaño's prose read like poetry, with a rhythm that carries you along with its urgency. At other times Urrutia's self-justifying confession is a biting satiric condemnation of the silence of the intellectual elite. It's a book that needs to be read in big gulps. I may have to try "The Savage Detectives" again.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Different World

Fortunately, most of us will have no reason to go anywhere near the inside of a women’s prison. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have an appreciation of what it is like for those inside. A very vivid picture can be found in Michelle Huneven‘s novel Blame.

Blame is the story of a woman alcoholic Patsy MacLemoore who is sent to prison for two years for causing the death of a mother and daughter through her reckless driving. In fact, she has no memory of the incident. And you may well wonder why 2 deaths merited only a 2 year sentence. Actually, the prison sequence takes up only the first third of the book but that section will probably stay in my mind the longest. I heard the author speak at a local bookstore. In response to a question from the audience, she admitted that in researching the novel she had never personally visited a prison but had spoken with several former inmates. That is all the more credit to Huneven’s writing because it feels so real. It's not a place you want to go.

The rest of the story recounts the next twenty years of Patsy’s life as she tries to reestablish her academic career and find and keep some meaningful relationships. We meet her parole officer, her psychiatrist, her former boyfriend's new boyfriend, the husband/father of the victims in well-drawn portraits. Readers with no experience of Alcoholics Anonymous will be interested in the descriptions of their meetings and its effect on different lives. There is the continuing tension as Patsy meets certain challenges between her resolve and her addiction. It takes several tries before she can settle into a romantic relationship only to have it tested by step-children and age differences.

I'm not sure that I ever came to feel Patsy's sense of guilt and blame of the title but I did learn a lot from Patsy about resolve and determination.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Parables on Happiness

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has been called one of Europe’s most popular writers. “The Most Beautiful Book in the World” is his first book to be translated from French to English. The translation was done by Allison Anderson. "The Most Beautiful Book in the World" is a collection of eight Novellas. The stories are written in a thoroughly engaging, whimsical style and all have a moral or a truth to be told.

The main character of each of these stories is a woman who inadvertently finds happiness or redemption. “Wanda Winnepeg” tells the story of a very rich woman who has attained her wealth by adhering to two principles: marry well and divorce well. Wanda strangely finds redemption by secretly returning a favor to her first benefactor. In “A Fine Rainy Day”, Helene could never remember having ever experienced a perfect moment. Her sour disposition is countered by the ultimate optimist, Antoine, who falls madly in love with Helene. And ultimately and strangely Helene finds she has become Antoine. In “Odette Toulemonde” a struggling widow worships a famous writer. But she is the one who teaches him how to live and find happiness.

The last story has same title as the book itself, “The Most Beautiful Book in the World”. A group of women prisoners in Stalin’s Gulag want to make a book to leave for their daughters. The gift they create is an eloquent book that is made with simplicity and love using something they each have in common to offer to their daughters.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is a wonderful storyteller. Each of his characters is unique and engagingly quirky. He tells a story in a whimsical, humorous way yet all of the stories have a philosophical twist that is brilliant in its simplicity. Reading this book was a treat and I hope this popular French author will choose to translate more of his writing for us to enjoy.

Reminder: L2R Roundtable

Just a reminder in case you haven't started yet: We will be having an online conversation about The Secret River by Kate Grenville during the week of November 2.

Once you have finished the book you may wish to listen to a podcast interview with the author recorded April 3, 2009 at the World Book Club.

We are looking forward to your thoughts and opinions.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The World's a Stage

It's hard to categorize a writer like Valerie Martin. I've read three of her books and they are all very different. “Possession” told the dark and compelling story of the destructive relationship between slave and slave owner in the antebellum South. “Trespass”, which I blogged in last year (Intruders), begins as a domestic story but ultimately expands to the horrors of the Bosnian genocide. Her latest novel, The Confessions of Edward Day, is a story of ambition and jealousy set in the New York theater world of the 1970's. Two young, attractive and ambitious actors, Edward Day and Guy Margate, are rivals both for roles in plays and for the affections of Madeleine, a beautiful young actress. Early in the story Guy saves Edward's life, and this event locks them in a bond of obligation, gratitude and resentment that follows them for decades.

Martin gets inside the psyche of an actor, and made me better understand the process of inhabiting a role. If you've ever seen “Uncle Vanya” or “Sweet Bird of Youth” I think you will enjoy the description of Edward's analysis of his parts in these plays.

As in her other books, Martin does a terrific job of keeping the reader off balance and in creating a mounting sense of tension. The story is told by Edward, but is he a reliable narrator? Many times I would go back and re-read scenes between the two rivals. Did I really know where the truth lay? And what was Madeleine's role in the conflict? To her credit, Martin doesn't try to tidily tie up the answers at the end of the novel. All the actors talk about finding the truth in their characters, but Valerie Martin demonstrates that truth can be elusive.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Supreme Court

In 2007 Jeffrey Toobin wrote The Nine: Inside the World of the Supreme Court. While traveling this summer we found it a most interesting and informative audio CD which I would certainly recommend to anyone interested in the workings of the court. The personalities as well as political persuasions on the court vary widely, as we all know, but there were surprises behind the scenes, such as the strong friendship between Ginsberg and Scalia. It was a real surprise to read about Clarence Thomas, who is most jovial and talkative with the staff working in the court building, who goes on RV vacations and holds forth with folks in the countryside, yet virtually never says a word in the court. The importance of Sandra Day O'Connor as a critical swing vote in so many cases, and the drama around her replacement was intriguing. There is extensive and compelling history behind the abortion issue, separation of church and state issues, and the people working behind the scenes attempting to influence the court in specific directions. It's a worthwhile read/listen to a good analytical writer who knows and understands the workings of the highest court in our country.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Family Memories

It's a familiar plot line. A traumatic event causes a character to examine his life, dredging up memories of his past in order to come to terms with a tragedy. In the case of Martin Lambert in Dennis McFarland's first novel The Music Room, the event is the suicide of his younger brother Perry. The call comes from the New York police just as Martin is cleaning out his San Francisco apartment and struggling to accept the ending of his marriage. He heads east to try to sort out the reasons his brother chose to end his life.

What follows is Martin's search, both in the past and in the present, to make sense of what has happened. McFarland beautifully describes Martin's memories of his unconventional childhood, fragments that slowly fit together to reveal some of the reasons for the difficulties he and his brother faced as adults. In his search for answers in New York, Martin becomes involved with his late brother's girlfriend as they both look for understanding of Perry's loss in each other.

The two brothers and their father are all musicians, and McFarland's writing often seems to have a musical quality, not just because of the beauty of his prose, but also because of the layered non-linear way that past, present and even Martin's dreams are woven together. Although it may sound relentlessly dark, there are moments of humor and an ending that offers a sort of redemption.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's a Parent to Do?

Or a grandparent or a teacher or anyone having contact with children? Nurtureshock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman is a fascinating book which raises as many questions as it may seem to answer. The subtitle of the book is New Thinking about Children. It is a collection of 10 chapters that can generally stand alone but which taken together turn the world of child development upside down - depending of course on your vantage point. (Example: Is emotional intelligence really such a good thing if imprisoned felons have higher emotional intelligence that the population as a whole?) And though most of the chapters deal with very young children, a couple of the chapters do concern teenagers (their sleep requirement, driver's ed, rebellion).

It is hard to escape the attention of late that the media have given to the advances in neuroscience but, with deference probably to the large number of baby boomers, the emphasis has been on the developments affecting life's later years. It turns out as you will learn from this book that there have also been astounding discoveries by neuroscientists with respect to the very young. And the designs of the experiments with the very young are ingenious!

When my children were younger the popular parenting approach was STEP (Systematic Training for Effecting Parenting) with its emphasis on "I" messages and logical consequences. More recently the approach seems to have been "All praise all the time" and helicopter parenting. No doubt this book will not be the last word on children and their development. Children's lying, sibling fighting, racial tolerance, language development are complicated and important issues for which there is no one magic formula. But understanding the principles set out in this book is important. It is also a call to action - to change the way we test for gifted children, to talk to children explicitly about race, to re-think the benefits of Sesame Street, ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Bittersweet Vacations

Richard Russo’s latest novel “That Old Cape Magic” is different from his past novels that have garnered so much praise and an almost cult following. This novel does not take place in upstate New York, where Russo was born, nor does it deal with the blue collared workers who he is so famous for bringing to life.

“That Old Cape Magic” takes place at two weddings, a year apart, that are set in Cape Cod and Maine. The “hero” of Russo’s latest story is Jack Griffin, known as Griffin. Griffin is a 55 year old college professor at a liberal arts college in Connecticut. And Griffin is having a mid-life crisis. Griffin’s father has died and he is carrying his father’s ashes to disburse at Cape Cod, where Griffin and his parents spent every summer. It is here that Richard Russo unleashes his skills as a comedy writer. The dilemma of where exactly to throw these ashes gets ridiculous.

Griffin’s parents were Ivy League educated academics that ended up at a boring college in, as they will only refer to it, “the mid fucking west”. But every summer they spent a month on Cape Cod. It was their dream to live there some day and as they drove over the Sagamore Bridge to Cape Cod, Griffin’s parents would sing “That Old Black Magic” substituting Cape for Black. But Griffin’s parents were miserable where ever they were.

The story progresses as Griffin relives his childhood thinking about what horrible parents they were but unable to let them go, or to forgive them. What he does do is alienate his wife of thirty some years and try to recapture the glory of his days as a screenwriter in Los Angeles.

Russo has written a novel about family, nostalgia, and discontent. Griffin realizes that he cannot escape his parents, shut out their voices in his head, or return to the fantasy of his youth. Richard Russo has added some hilarious scenes and witty dialogue to his repertoire. This may be a new direction for Mr. Russo and it’s fun to read. A mid-life crisis with some hilarity mixed in with introspection makes for a great story.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Living2Read Roundtable

One of the reasons that people join book groups is to have a forum for discussing books that they read with others who have read the same books. To date, our blog has not been like that. It has functioned more as a resource for finding interesting books to read, for answering the question: What should I read next? We hope that you have taken some of our suggestions and felt rewarded.

Now we would like to introduce the Living2Read Roundtable to provide that much-desired forum for discussion. We want to have a real conversation with you, albeit in cyberspace, about some of our books. If by reading we are able to broaden our understanding of others and deepen our understanding of ourselves, then how much more enriching to share that understanding.

We have selected the week of Nov. 2 - 6 to talk about The Secret River by Kate Grenville. It is a prize-winning novel set in the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. (Available in paperback). Our hope is that, with this advance notice, more of us can read the book and then, during that designated week in November, post Comments to share our thoughts and opinions about it.

So mark your calendars and start reading - we hope you'll join in!

Why Stop?

What makes you give up on a novel? We've all done it – you read 50 or 100 pages and then just don't want to keep going. It hasn't happened to me in a while, but I reached in point in Susan Choi's A Person of Interest where I closed the book and had no desire to open it again. Why does that happen?

For some people it's important that they like the main characters. That's never been my criterion. I still remember the horror on my high school English teacher's face when I told her that my favorite character in “David Copperfield” was Uriah Heep. Her lip actually curled. But he was much more interesting than that simp Dora.

Obviously poor writing can cause any reader to give up, but sometimes even a good writer can fail to hold your interest. In the case of Susan Choi, whose “American Woman” I had enjoyed, I just got too annoyed with the main character. Choi's book includes plot elements from the real-life stories of both the Unibomber and Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-born American scientist at Los Alamos who was accused of espionage. Ho's fictional main character, also named Lee, a Chinese-born math professor, is suspected by the FBI of being connected to the bomb which killed another professor. And in order for this suspicion to grow, Cho needs the professor to act incredibly guilty (and stupid) when being questioned by the FBI. After a while I just got too annoyed with him, and with Choi. I felt like she was manipulating her character in order to force her plot into the direction she wanted to go, and I just balked at following her.

So think back on books you've abandoned. Can you identify the reason you did it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Do Not Go Gently

If you have ever wondered what it will feel like when your mind and body start to betray you as you near the end of your life, this book will terrify you. How the author Oscar Casares, who looks from the book jacket picture to be no more than 40 (aside: he has done a masterful job of keeping his personal data off the internet), can write so convincingly of his main character who is 91 is a mystery. I can hope that he is wrong – but I doubt it. It feels quite true.

Amigoland is the name of the nursing home in Brownsville, Texas to which Don Fidencio, 91, has been sent by his daughter. He has enough mental agility and physical mobility to be out of place with the other residents. Casares’ descriptions of the home and its residents are heart-breaking – and terrifying.

The other actors in the novel are Don Celestino, his younger brother at age 70, and Don Celestino’s girlfriend Socorro, age 38. Don Fidencio has repeatedly expressed his wish to visit the birthplace of his grandfather across the border in Mexico. After much disagreement the three of them set out on this journey/pilgrimage. The incidents of a lost passport, lost medicine, incontinence, missed busses might be humorous unless you have ever had to deal with similar incidents with an aging parent or relative.

For most of the book I was focused on the geographical journey that the three were making: the descriptions of an unfamiliar part of the country and the travel mechanics. Only at the end did I realize that each of them was on a much more significant inner journey of his and her own making.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Academic Satire

All I knew about Kingsley Amis was that he was the curmudgeonly father of novelist Martin Amis. But I recently stumbled on a list of most influential books of the 20th century, which included his first novel Lucky Jim. Published in 1953, the novel associated Amis with the “Angry Young Men” school of British literature, working and middle class writers and playwrights whose anti-establishment works contrasted with the more urbane and delicate upper class writers of the 30's and 40's (think Evelyn Waugh).

The title character Jim Dixon is a lecturer in Medieval History at an unnamed provincial university in the early 1950's. He is frustrated by the stiflingly pretentious atmosphere, yet he gamely attempts to win favor with his superior, the absent-minded and boring Professor Welch, in order to hold on to his job, even though he loathes it. He's also involved in a quasi-relationship with a woman he alternately likes and despises. Jim's rage at the pretensions he is forced to observe is relieved by two methods – copious amounts of alcohol and making faces when no one is looking.

The results are almost always hilarious. Amis is adept at painting quick humorous sketches (“a small bullied-looking woman with unabundant brown hair”), but he's at his best in his longer descriptions of Jim's predicaments. I have probably never read a funnier description of waking up with a hangover (“His mouth had been used as a latrine for some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he's somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police.”), and it gets even funnier when Jim discovers the damage he has done to his guest room at Professor Welch's house in his inebriated state.

Viewed from more than fifty years later, it's hard for me to measure the impact this biting satire must have had on post-war British society, but it certainly provided me with lots of laughs.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another Classic

For most people the name Charlotte Bronte is quickly associated with her novel Jane Eyre - but only with Jane Eyre. For some time I have had on my bookshelf a copy of Bronte's Villette. How it came to be there I have no idea. But at 464 pages it was unlikely that I would be reading it any time soon. So I decided to take advantage of a free audio download to listen to it while running. It turned out to be a great choice with one reservation. Villette is the name of the town in which most of the story takes place (not the name of the main character as I had erroneously supposed). It is located in Belgium where they speak French. Bronte has included a lot of French dialogue in her book - which is fine if you have the printed version that includes the translations in the back. But somewhat difficult if you are listening to a recording and your French is very rusty. That said, I don't think that I missed too much.

In the most general terms this is the story of a poor English girl Lucy Snowe on her own whose luck or fate brings her to a girls' school in Villette where she becomes a teacher of English. As you would expect Bronte is superb in describing the physical surroundings as well as portraits of a host of other characters. Bronte herself lived for a time in a Brussels boarding school where she taught English so she can write vividly from experience.

One of the aspects that I found particularly interesting was the portrayal of the differences and animosity between the Romanists (aka Catholics) and the Protestants. Lucy is the sole Protestant among the Catholic faculty of the school. Great efforts are made to convert her in the course of which Bronte lays out for the reader/listener some of the significant differences between these two philosophies and their respective views of life. So much more interesting than reading an encyclopedia.

The ending of the book took my breath away. I still want to say "Wait - that can't be," but of course it can and for Bronte's purposes it can only be that way.