Friday, July 30, 2010

The Other Side of the Story

If you have read the 1989 Oscar Hijuelos novel “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” you will remember the Castillo brothers – band leader Cesar and his ill-fated brother Nestor. You may even remember the love song Nestor wrote in memory of his long lost love in Cuba - “Beautiful Maria of My Soul”. That's the title of Hijuelos's newest novel, in which he tells the story of the woman who inspired the love song.

Maria Garcia y Cifuentes is a beautiful but illiterate country girl (a guajira) who comes to Havana and quickly learns to use her looks to her advantage as a dancer in a second rate Havana nightclub. There she meets Ignacio, a gangster who showers her with gifts, clothes and a nice apartment. But she also meets the soulful trumpeter Nestor, with whom she has a passionate love affair described in great detail by Hijuelos. Let's just say that Nestor's instrument is prodigious even when he's not playing the trumpet. But what's a poor girl to do? Maria opts for security over passion and heartbroken Nestor heads for New York, where his adventures (including a memorable appearance on "I Love Lucy") are picked up in “Mambo Kings”.

The story is periodically interrupted by reminiscences by the sixty-something Maria, now living in Miami with her grown daughter (an immigrant's dream come true – she's a doctor), looking back over her personal story as well as the turbulent history of Cuba. Images of the poverty and luxury that existed side by side in the pre-Castro Havana are especially powerful, and the description of the Cuban community in Miami is vivid.

Hijuelos is a great storyteller, and although he was born in the US his affection for Cuba and her people is always apparent. Could there ever really be a woman as universally desirable and passionate as Maria? That seemed a little like a fairy tale (a very male fairy tale), but I enjoyed my return visit to these memorable characters.
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Do you know TED?

This is really going to be a stretch for a blog whose subtitle is "all things reading." The best that I can do is: 1) we read to investigate ideas and 2) for many of us, at least some of our reading these days is "audible." So why not a website that records (video and audio) and makes available for download lectures of "ideas worth spreading"? Hence, TED: You can listen on your computer or download MP3 files for later portable listening.

The range of topics and speakers is vast. Many are short - less than 20 minutes. I have listened to:
Edith Widder on Glowing Life in an Underwater World
Simon Sinek on How Great Leaders Inspire Action
Dan Pink on the Science of Motivation

Trying to make a selection is almost paralyzing. One way to get started:
- Go to the Home Page
- Select "Talks" at the top
- Along the left side select "Most favorited (is that really a word?) all-time"

Or listen to Elif Shafak's talk on The Politics of Fiction.

Think of this as another arrow in our Alzheimer's Prevention quiver. Let me know what you think. I can't imagine that you will be disappointed. If you find a particularly noteworthy talk, please share.

PS: Many thanks to my friend Jill for introducing me to this wonderful resource.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Double Lives and Double-Crossed

The double lives recounted in Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich are the stuff of legend: MIT students, graduates and drop-outs who formed a team in the mid-90s to defeat the gambling casinos on their own turf at the blackjack tables. For some team members weekends in Las Vegas were a break from 9 to 5 jobs; for others it was their only job. Like most teams, this team had leaders and followers, rivalries, egos, and power struggles which were only intensified by the large sums of money to be won or lost.

Mezrich does such a good job of explaining the nuances of card counting (and the boundaries that keep it legal) that you ALMOST think you could have done it, too - in the days before continuous shuffling in the casinos. The point is made repeatedly: blackjack is the only game offered by casinos that is beatable over an extended period of time. Absent a shuffle of the deck, the cards you see affect the cards that you are going to see. But the story makes another point: casinos and the corporations that own them don’t like to lose. As the team leader said to the new recruit: “The most important decision a card counter ever has to make is the decision to walk away.” That’s good advice not just for card counters.

I’m not sure whom to blame for what I consider the double-cross: the author or the publisher, probably both. It’s right there on the last page in About the Author: “Bringing Down the House is his seventh book and his first foray into nonfiction.” Even the Library of Congress cataloging is misleading: “Biography.” Except that it isn’t nonfiction and it isn’t biography as a very careful reading of the Copyright page discloses: “Some of the events and characters are also composites of several individual events or persons.” That makes it Fiction in my mind. No footnotes, no bibliography. And I am left to wonder: if the author was not constrained by facts and the truth, how much may have been invented to make a good story even better?

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

What is True?

Paul Auster has written fifteen novels, six non-fiction works, two screen plays and a collection of poems. I have read one of his novels “The Brooklyn Follies” and I didn’t really like it, although most of our book club did. When I saw his latest novel “Invisible” I was intrigued. The description on the book itself, sounded very interesting. The New York Times critic, Clancy Martin, states that “Invisible” is Paul Auster’s finest novel. I would like to agree because I really enjoyed this novel, but I haven’t read enough of Paul Auster to make that claim.

The story begins in 1967, in New York City. The protagonist, Adam Walker, is a second year student at Columbia University, majoring in poetry. Adam finds himself at a party in Manhattan, not sure why he is there. At the party Adam meets, Rodolf Born, a Swiss citizen teaching at Columbia and his beautiful French girlfriend, Margot. This chance encounter sets off a series of events that lead to an act of violence that changes Adam’s life.

The novel is presented in four parts, Spring, Summer, Fall and Cecile‘s diary. The first section is narrated by Adam. The second section jumps to 2007 as Jim Freeman, a college friend of Adam, tells us that he has received a letter and a manuscript from Adam. Adam fills him in on what has happened to him over the past forty years and asks him to read the manuscript he has written. The manuscript is entitled Summer, and it took place the summer after Adam’s encounter with Born. This section is a difficult read for the Jim and for the reader because it is about incest. It is the natural, beautiful prose of Auster that makes this section work for the reader. But it is in this section that the reader begins to question the reliability of Adam as a narrator.

In the next section, Fall of 1967, Adam finds himself in Paris on a mission. A mission that reunites Adam with Born and introduces him to Born’s fiancĂ©e, Helene Juin, and Helene’s daughter Cecile. Adam’s mission in Paris fails and he finds himself back in the United States. The final section of the book is entitled, Cecile Juin’s Diary, and takes place in 2007. This section tells the reader what ultimately happens to the characters but doesn’t end the story in a true sense.

The story has tree different narrators and as many perspectives on what really happened during the year of 1967. It is a story of love and how difficult it is to define love because it is invisible. Paul Auster’s writing is so good, so brisk, that you glide through the pages, but his sentences are filled with innuendo and he is a master of intrigue. “Invisible” is a wonderful novel and although it may be his best, I am tempted to try another.

Friday, July 16, 2010


I like to think that I will at least recognize the name of most American novelists who have written critically acclaimed fiction for over twenty years. But I'm embarrassed to say that until I heard Garrison Keillor talking about him on “Writer's Almanac” I had never heard of Richard Powers. His list of awards is indeed impressive – National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist in 2006, New York Times Notable Book five times, MacArthur Fellowship. Just another reminder of how much great fiction is out there waiting to be read.

So I chose his 2006 book The Echo Maker. The book title refers to the sandhill crane, whom Native Americans named “the echo maker” because of its distinctive call. The opening sequence is an absolutely beautiful description of the cranes settling onto the frigid Platte river in Nebraska as part of their northward migration. Then the calm of this scene is shattered by the squeal of brakes and the sound of a crash. Even if you don't read the whole book I recommend that you read those first two pages – knocked my socks off.

The crash victim is twenty-seven year old Mark Schluter, and the head injury he suffers produces an unusual condition. He believes that his older sister Karin, who has returned to her Nebraska hometown to care for her brother, is an impostor – a skilled actress who looks like Karin and seems to know him and his family history well but is a fake. In desperation Karin contacts Doctor Gerald Weber, an Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who has written several successful books about unusual brain disorders. Weber agrees to come to Nebraska, and his own professional and personal life becomes entwined with the Schluters, Mark's friends and caregivers, and eventually even the cranes.

In the process Powers imparts an amazing amount of information about brain injury and brain research (maybe more than I needed), but he also creates compelling characters who struggle with their identity and sense of self. He weaves the arc of the cranes' migratory journey into the stories of this characters' personal journeys, and the mystery of an anonymous note left by a witness to the accident is threaded through the book and revealed in the end.

I'm glad I found Richard Powers. How many other wonderful writers am I missing?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Gem of a Book

I have been trying to think of a way to give some direction to my reading other than just a haphazard selection from books on the table at the library or mentioned in the newspaper or on a blog. It occurred to me after reading Le Clezio’s Wandering Star (see Charlotte’s April 23, 2010 blog) that I could use the Nobel Prize in Literature as an organizing structure. Working backward, it would take me a while but eventually I would get to Pearl S. Buck who was awarded the prize in 1938. In the meantime I have just finished Pearl of China by Anchee Min.

This is a novel but there is no attempt to disguise that fact that it presents itself as a biography of the real Pearl Buck told by an imagined Chinese friend Willow. Certain facts of Buck’s life as portrayed in the book are undoubtedly true. She grew up in China because her father was an American missionary there trying to convert the Chinese from Buddhism to Christianity. She married an American agriculturist who came to China trying to teach poor peasants who had farmed the land for centuries the ways of Western agriculture. She gave birth to a severely handicapped daughter. She was twice driven out of China, first by the Boxer Rebellion and finally by the Nationalists when she was in her 40’s. (Questions: Does the fact that this book is presented as a novel remove any legal issues for the author? What if the portrayal were unflattering and factually inaccurate? What if Buck were still alive?)

Before leaving China for good, Buck had already started to find her escape and strength through writing, first by contributing articles under assumed male names to Chinese newspapers (the Chinese were not likely to accept the opinions of a blond female Westerner) and then essays and stories to publications outside China about what life was really like in the Orient for the greater number of Chinese people. All of that takes place in the first half of the book. The second half is really Willow’s story as she remains in China during the Communist struggle and the Cultural Revolution.

Min’s descriptions of life in China are vivid and detailed especially when it comes to weddings and funerals. The internal political struggles, the repression of Mao’s regime, the intrigues of Madame Mao are just as fascinating as Buck’s early life. A perfect follow-up has to be Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling, a non-fiction account of Buck’s life during the same period. And, of course, The Good Earth itself.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Story of a Marriage

I started reading Jane Smiley with great enthusiasm over twenty years go. I enjoyed her short story collection “The Age of Grief” and her novellas “Ordinary Love and Good Will”, and I really loved “A Thousand Acres”. But then came “Moo” and I began to feel that Jane's time in Ames, Iowa had made her a little more interested in farming and animals than I was, and I moved on to other authors.

But recently she published a new novel called Private Life that sounded intriguing. It follows the life of Margaret Mayfield from her childhood in post-Civil War Missouri, to her marriage to Captain Andrew Jackson Jefferson Early and their married life in northern California at the Mare Island naval station and nearby Vallejo. Woven into the story are many historical events, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the Japanese internment camp at Tanforan Racetrack in 1942.

But when I find an historical novel enjoyable it's not because the history is good; it's because the story is good. (“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a successful recent example of this). And this is the story of a remarkably uninteresting woman and a remarkably unlikeable man, and it didn't work for me. Not that I have anything against unlikeable characters. Sam Pollitt in Christina Stead's powerful “The Man Who Loved Children” (see my blog) was, like Andrew Early, a narcissistic gasbag in love with his own cockeyed theories and delusional ideas, but Stead created family members who clashed with his monstrous ego and then spun off in all directions. But Margaret Early does little more than wring her hands. I'm sure I'm meant to admire her growing self-awareness and independence, but by then she's sixty-four and I've had to endure thirty years of this dysfunctional marriage.

Strangely enough, this story made me think of “Middlemarch”. Remember how Dorothea puts up with that drip Mr. Casaubon for far too long? But she does eventually come to her senses and leave. I wish Margaret had read George Eliot. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

3 for 3

Well, I did it: lost another weekend to Steig Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest. There's not much that I can add to the millions of words/reviews/blogs already devoted to this phenomenon ("book" just doesn't seem to capture it).

For myself, I still had trouble with all of the multi-syllabic Scandinavian names. I still think that having a better sense of the geography of the country would have helped but lacking it was probably not a serious handicap. Some of the violence is over the top, especially the part with the nail gun - what an imagination! AND there are some very thoughtful passages about the role of a Secret Police in a democratic society: think CIA in the United States. In the end it is this social commentary that I think was Larsson's mission although it is not that for which he is being read or may be remembered. How much of Mikael Blomkvist is Larsson's alter-ego?

In a recent article by Charles McGrath in the The New York Times Magazine, there was mention that Larsson's long-time girlfriend may have possession of a 4th manuscript on a laptop computer. There was also an assertion from some quarters that Larsson never had enough talent as a writer to have authored the three books in the series. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, develops along either of these lines.

PS: The icing on this three-layer cake may be the article in the July 5, 2010 issue of The New Yorker by Nora Ephron: "The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut." It is very clever and very funny. Read it as soon as you finish Hornet's Nest while you still remember the details.

Monday, July 5, 2010


Dan Buettner is a National Geographic explorer, a writer and the founder of Quest Network Inc. His story for “National Geographic”, “Secrets for Living Longer”, was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. When he first set out to investigate the mysteries of human longevity he teamed up with demographers and scientists at the National Institute on Aging to identify pockets around the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives.

Dan Buettner’s book, “The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who Lived the Longest”, is a great read for people who are interested in the question of longevity and the realities of aging. Mr. Buettner and his team identified pockets, or Blue Zones, “where people reach the age of 100 at rates significantly higher, and on average, live longer, healthier lives than Americans do.” The group traveled with interpreters to the four chosen Blue Zones: the Barbagia region of Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, the Seventh Day Adventists community of Loma Linda, California and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.

In each of these Blue Zones the team met with and talked to wonderful centenarians, trying to find out how they lived, what they ate and why they thought they had lived so long. Each one of these pockets had a different diet and way of life, but there were overall similarities between the groups. A strong community and family support was important. Some of these people lived alone but most of them were living with their extended families. They all had a plant based diet where meat was secondary or not part of their diet. A sense of purpose in life and spirituality was a common thread and most important the centenarians were never sedentary, they were always busy doing something.

In final chapter of the book Dan Buettner shows the reader how to put the information learned in the Blue Zones to work in our busy twenty first century lives. This is a very interesting book that may change your view of aging and give you some good ideas to incorporate into your life as you do.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Back To The Courtroom

Do you remember where you were when you read Scott Turow's “Presumed Innocent”? It was his first novel and a bestseller that everyone seemed to be reading at once. It was 1988, I was on a long overseas flight, and when I reached my destination the combination of jet lag and curiosity led me to stay up all night finishing it. (I suffered the consequences of this sleep deprivation two days later when I nearly fell asleep in a plate of noodles...but that's another story).

Turow's book began the flood of legal thrillers that have become a staple on the bestseller lists. But I always thought that his was the best. So when I saw that he had published Innocent as a sequel I was happy to revisit Rusty Sabich. Twenty years have passed, Rusty is now a judge, and many of the same characters whom I remembered so vividly – Tommy Molto, Sandy Stern, Ray Horgan – are still crossing paths in the courthouse. And it's no spoiler to tell you that the book opens with Rusty sitting on his bed next to the dead body of his wife Barbara.

Could Turow's intricate plot twists reel me again? I am older and wiser, and this time I would surely recognize his red herrings and anticipate where he was really headed. And every time he did lead me where I had guessed he would, and then flipped things on their head before I could catch my breath. The story is rich with Turow's knowledge of the law and court procedure, but his examinations of the psyches of Rusty and Tommy add a richness and poignancy that make this story far more than just a flashy courtroom drama.