Sunday, February 28, 2010

When Past and Present Collide

Gail Goodwin’s thirteenth novel, “Unfinished Desires”, is a story about related generations, teenage girls, the South, nuns and God-------a combustible combination!

In 2001 at the age of eighty five and living in a retirement home in Boston, Mother Suzanne Ravenel is tape recording the history of Mount St. Gabriel. The story moves from Boston in 2001 to Mountain City, North Carolina in 1951. Mother Ravenel was the head of this all girl’s Catholic School set in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. Suzanne Ravenel came to Mount St. Gabriel’s as a student and stayed on after she became a nun and was the head mistress of the school for many years. As Mother Ravenel attempts to narrate the history of the school her thoughts keep returning to 1951, “the toxic year” and the one night that changed the lives of a young nun, her ninth grade charges and Mother Ravenel.

Gail Goodwin is a great story teller and her characters are riveting. To reconcile the “toxic year” Suzanne Ravenel goes back to her own senior year, 1931, and her friendship with the wonderful Antonia Tilden. The generations of students at Mount St. Gabriel are all connected. The friends Suzanne Ravenel had in 1931 now had daughters and nieces attending Mount St. Gabriel‘s. And, the generations were connected by bad blood that had been festering for years. The author skillfully moves the plot back and forth between the generations letting the reader in on the motives that propelled these adolescent girls to the night in 1951 that altered so many lives.

This is a good story, with many wonderful, quirky young girls, their difficult mothers and secretive aunts. Gail Goodwin has a talent for developing interesting characters that pull the reader into the story. Mother Ravenel has struggled for years with the part she played in the events that unfolded that fateful night. But Gail Goodwin leaves the reader with an eighty five year old nun who can finally reconcile her questionable motives, with a lifetime of service to God and to Mount St. Gabriel. Ms. Goodwin has many messages she wants the reader to understand. First, that unfinished desires can lead to a problematic life and can be passed on from generation to generation, but Ms. Goodwin also wants us know that it is possible for desires to be left unfinished and for a life to be well lived.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Real Courage

My award for the least creative book title definitely goes to The Cure by Geeta Anand. But except for the title, this book is anything but dull. It has all the tension and drama of the best fictional thriller. In some sense it is about a killer ready to attack or a ticking time bomb. In fact it is the true story of a father in search of a cure for his two children diagnosed with an "incurable" disease. Sound familiar? It is the story on which the movie "Extraordinary Measures" is based. I like the title of the movie much more.

I was drawn to the book when I heard that the wife/mother Aileen Holleran Crowley and I are alumnae of the same college. Even though we are more than two decades apart, there is something about the bond of a small Catholic women's college that seems special. Maybe that's the case for all alumnae. Anyway, that prompted me to pick up the book...and I am glad that I did. I still have not seen the movie and I made a special effort not to look at the pictures in the book lest it give me some hint of how the story ends.

For the most part the story concentrates of John Crowley's herculean efforts to raise money to support clinical trials for a treatment of Pompe disease. In the beginning he was also trying to maintain a full time job as well. Okay, that's a lot to handle. But I kept thinking of Aileen: three children, the eldest with ADHD and the two younger ones (15 months apart in age) in wheelchairs on ventilators - and for a while with no one to help her. John would come home in the evening and complain (more than complain, really lose his temper) because she hadn't made some phone calls or followed up on something they had discussed. He does eventually acknowledge Aileen's contribution but I don't think he ever really understands her heroism. I want another book in which Aileen tells her side of the story. She is such an inspiration: so patient and resilient. It seemingly doesn't phase her to take all three children to the beach or to Disney World. Why was I exhausted from traveling with one or two healthy children? AND all of this was happening to her when she is in her 30s - so young!

If you haven't seen the movie, I urge you to read the book. We are capable of so much more than we think. There are some remarkable individuals and families out there struggling against odds that seem overwhelming.

Friday, February 19, 2010

I Was Warned

My fellow blogger Dorothea warned when she lent me Howard Norman's The Bird Artist. Her caveat - the book's main characters, all residents of the Newfoundland fishing community of Witless Bay, have one thing in common – they each lack a moral compass. And it's not as if the action takes place in these modern days of moral relativism. The novel is set in 1911, and the narrator Fabian Vas, the bird artist of the title, announces on the first page that he has murdered the lighthouse keeper Botho August.

This is not my first encounter with quirky Newfies. Annie Proulx's “The Shipping News” had a few. But the Vas family (son Fabian; parents Alaric and Orkney) are as odd and unpredictable as their names. Alaric begins an adulterous affair with no explanation and no regret. Fabian feels far more passion about the birds he draws than about his crime.  And Fabian's love interest Margaret downs a bottle of whiskey or two a night. Impulse control is definitely not a common trait in Witless Bay.

And yet there was something oddly compelling about the story. Part of it was the humor – the description of an arranged marriage which ends with the groom in handcuffs was particularly entertaining. And part was like watching a train wreck – you know the murder is coming and it's hard to look away.

Norman's style is understated and as laconic as Fabian himself. If you're in the mood for something quirky and offbeat you might enjoy it.  But you've been warned.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A City On The Edge

The New York Times book critic, Jonathan Mahler, called “Let The Great World Spin”, “….one of the most, electric, profound novels I’ve read in years.” In Nov. of 2009 Colum McCann received the National Book Award for this wonderful novel.

On a summer morning in 1974 in New York City, Philippe Petit performed the amazing feat of walking a tightrope wire between the World Trade Center buildings, one hundred and ten stories above the ground. Colum McCann uses this event to pivot an incredible story about twelve characters who lived in New York on that day, some who witnessed the event and some who did not. The author’s characters are bound by the single common thread of the grief they have experienced in their lives.

The story begins with two Irish brothers living outside Dublin. They grow up and move to New York City. Corrigan, the younger brother, becomes a monk ministering to prostitutes and senior citizens in the Bronx. Ciaran, the older brother, comes to New York and can only find a job as the stereotypical Irish bartender in Queens. Their lives intersect with hookers, mainly Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn. Tillie is an incredibly memorable character, soul ridden with regret and guilt, but feisty, funny and smart. All of the characters have a connection----the hookers under the Major Deegan Expressway, the mothers who are grieving for their lost sons in Vietnam, the Guatemalan nurse who fell in love with Corrigan, the two drugged out artists who propel the story with their reckless indifference to life, and the New York City Municipal judge who gets to allocate the sentences that will lead to celebrity status and death. And, there are a group of “hackers” who can anonymously connect themselves to telephone booths across the country. Colum McCann allows us to see and understand that on that day in 1974, and everyday, that nothing stands by itself, everything and everyone seems to be connected. He skillfully, with beautiful, heartfelt writing, links each character as the story moves through that fateful day in 1974.

McCann’s characters are linked in their lives by grief but the story is one of love and redemption. Once again an author with a memorable story to tell shows us the resilience of the human spirit. “As the Great World Spins” presents New York City with all its grit, dirt, sorrow and thrills. In the aftermath of 9/11 Colum McCann portrays two little girls emerging from a Bronx housing complex and being rescued by strangers. He tells us, “That, for me, is the core image of the novel. That’s the moment when the towers get built back up.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Adventure and Inspiration

This memoir Learning to Breathe was recommended to me because it includes a climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in celebration of the author's 40th birthday. I too am hoping to celebrate my birthday by a Kili climb in 2011. But for the author, the climb was her way of demonstrating her recovery from an horrific accident.

Wright is a photo journalist and in early 2000 she was in Laos working on a photographic book about children in developing countries. She was riding in an old bus up a narrow winding road when her bus was broadsided by a logging truck...and she was seated just at the point of impact! She was so convinced of her imminent death that she wrote a goodbye note to her brother and his children.

But obviously she survived - in spite of broken ribs, a collapsed lung filled with blood and fluid, a punctured diaphragm, a lacerated spleen, and a back, pelvis and coccyx that were also broken. Much of the immediate repair work was done without anesthesia. Wright attributes her survival in part to the breathing techniques that she had learned during several Buddhist retreats she had made in Nepal.

When she was well enough to travel, Wright returned to her home in San Francisco to begin the arduous process of learning to walk properly again. It was during this time, when one of her specialists told her that she would no longer be able to continue traveling and working as a photographer, that she issued her challenge: "I'm going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for my fortieth birthday!" She had just over a year to prove the specialist wrong.

Alison Wright was and is a fearless adventurer. She entertains the reader with many of her pre-accident adventures. Having sustained and recovered from these injuries, she still takes risks that to me are unimaginable: scuba diving, a 709-foot bungee jump in South Africa, white water rafting on class five rapids in Uganda. I loved reading about them all. She has a mindset that is totally foreign to my own. Maybe I'll try to be more adventurous myself now. I look forward to searching out her photographic work.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Tales From A Master

How can I even think about writing a review of a work by the author of “Madame Bovary”, one of the great novels of Western literature and certainly one of my personal favorites. So I won't qualify this as a review – just some passing comments on Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert.

First of all, despite their length, these three pieces are not short stories in the modern sense. The first, “A Simple Heart”, tells the story of Félicité, a faithful servant who devotes her life to her mistress, her mistress's daughter and her parrot. When the beloved parrot Loulou dies, she has him stuffed and continues to revere him, even believing in her later years that he is the Holy Ghost. I know, it sounds goofy, but Flaubert tells the tale simply, without sentimentality, but also without condescension.

The second tale. “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller”, was inspired, according to Margaret Drabble's helpful foreword, by stained glass windows of the saint in Rouen cathedral. The tale was drawn from a medieval story, and like many of the stories of saints I remember from my childhood, first Julian was very, very bad (brutally killing lots of animals) and then he was very, very good (befriending a leper).

The third, entitled “Herodias”, also has a religious theme. This time it's the story of John the Baptist's death. The final climactic scene is familiar to most of us – Salome,Herod's stepdaughter (egged on by her mother Herodias), dances for Herod at his birthday celebration and then demands John's head. But Flaubert's version focuses Herod and his myriad of problems; the demands of the Rome,  the angry tribes outside his walls, as well as his prisoner John the Baptist, who is revered by some in his household but reviled by others

All three tales are told in the concise, unadorned language for which Flaubert is so famous. For example, after the violent scene of the beheading in “Herodias”, the story ends with this: “The three of them took the head of Iaokanann and set off for Galilee. As it was very heavy, they took turns carrying it”. I admired the polished, jewel-like precision of each of these unusual stories.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Not My Genre

I guess you would classify Sizzle by Julie Garwood as a romance/thriller. It was recommended to me by a friend who guaranteed that I would laugh out loud. And she was right. The antics of a hapless hit man who seems to succeed in spite of himself are laughable.

It is the story of Lyra, a film student in Los Angeles who becomes targeted by unknown people for unknown reasons. She returns home to her apartment one day to find two men ransacking her apartment and assaulting her roommate. But Lyra manages to chase them off. Her roommate’s brother happens to be an FBI agent and sends 2 fellow agents to be the girls’ bodyguards. Did I mention that Lyra is drop-dead gorgeous with a body to match? By (no) coincidence her bodyguard Sam is also drop-dead gorgeous with a body to match and a Scottish accent. How long do you think it takes before this is more than a bodyguard-client relationship? I guess that is the “sizzle” of the title.

There are a few minor characters: Lyra’s social-climbing parents, her eccentric devoted grandmother and the above-mentioned hit-man Milo. A few comments on filmmaking, the requisite lovemaking scenes, a murder-suicide, a small-time mobster, a car bombing…that’s about it. The mystery is solved.
Do they live happily ever after? You would have to read the book to find out. But I think you can find something better. That's just my opinion. Lots of people seem to think otherwise as this book is in its second week on the NY Times hardcover best seller list. It's a mystery to me!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Mirror Image

I haven't abandoned my pledge to read paper-and-ink books. But I do love being read to while I'm walking. For short stories I highly recommend NPR's Selected Shorts and the New Yorker Fiction, both available on iTunes. When listening to a full length book, I've found, like Dorothea, that mysteries work the best. So, having enjoyed listening to her earlier book “In The Woods”, I loaded Tana French's The Likeness. The main character, who also appeared in the earlier book, is detective Cassie Maddox of the Dublin Police Department. Although she is no longer on the murder squad, she is drawn back into that world when detectives find a murdered girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to her.

And I'll say right now that suspending disbelief is not something I take lightly. I know we supposedly all have a double out there somewhere, but what are the odds that your splitting image lives in the same place you do? And do you really believe it would be possible to fool people who know your doppelganger? But I recommend that you accept this premise and dive in.

Cassie, pretending that the murdered girl has survived, assumes the identity of Lexie Madison, a grad student at Trinity University in Dublin who lives outside the city in a gone-to-seed Georgian mansion called Whitethorn House with four other grad students. Her task as a detective is to determine if one of her housemates is the killer. But, having spent her life as an outsider, she is drawn to the circle of friendship that Whitethorn seems to offer her. The group mantra is “No Pasts”, and they form a sort of substitute family that appeals to Cassie.

French creates a sense of foreboding in the early chapters that she sustains throughout, but the tension is broken by Cassie's combative, irreverent exchanges with her boss Frank. The story unfolds slowly (maybe a little too slowly) and the plot requires Cassie to make some foolish decisions, but French has made each of the housemates, as well as the other residents of the tiny village of Glenskehy, believable, three dimensional characters, and I was drawn in. One day I pulled weeds in my garden for an hour, just so I'd have an excuse to keep listening. Special kudos to audiobook reader Heather O’Neill, who does a wonderful job with the various Irish accents.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Take the Pledge

Read the Printed Word! With the introduction of the iPad tablet, reading in the digital age has taken another step. The question is whether it is a step forward or back.

Along the same line is an article in the July/August 2008 issue of The Atlantic titled "Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains" by Nicholas Carr. Carr describes the work of Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University. "...the media and other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains...We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works."

Try this experiment (but finish reading this blog first). Start reading Carr's article - it's 6 pages of small type when printed on paper - and see how far you get without being distracted or losing focus. It's especially dangerous to read it on-line with all of the hyperlinks. One link can lead to another and you may never find your way back to the starting point. Maybe that makes for a richer reading experience...or maybe not. I urge you to read this article and would be especially interested in your Comments.

So here is the pledge:

"I support the printed word in all its forms: newspapers, magazines and, of course, books. I think reading on computers or phones or whatever is fine, but it cannot replace the experience of reading words printed on paper. I pledge to continue reading the printed word in the digital era and beyond."

(Courtesy of