Saturday, May 28, 2011

So Little Time

This post on The New Yorker "Book Bench" blog is just too good not to share with fellow readers.

But don't say I didn't warn you: If you go to the site, be prepared to get lost for hours in an amazing treasuretrove of things to read. In just the last few days there have been posts about:
Eustace EmojiImage by mecredis via Flickr
The best-read cities in the US (posted 05.26): San Francisco, where are you? Not in the top 20. Not surprisingly, Cambridge, MA is #1 and Berkeley, CA #3.

The impact of Terry Gross (posted 05.27): photo included.

An article about Emma Donoghue, the author of Room (posted 05.26): Be sure to finish the book before reading the blog post.

And if that is not enough there is a completely separate blog on the site called "Free Range" which is the work of Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief).

I can't even keep up with my subscription to the print edition of the magazine. How can I possibly add two blogs, one of which has multiple postings per day?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

An Odd Italian Tale

Valerie Martin has been under my radar since the compelling "Property" (2003). I remembered the sense of mounting tension she created so well in that tale of an unhappy white slave owner and her slave. One critic suggests that her near-obscurity may be because it's hard to categorize her. She excels at creating this kind of tension and suspense, combined with sexual anticipation and discovery in "Italian Fever" (2000). Lucy Stark a sensible, quiet woman, works for a successful but very untalented writer. When he dies suddenly she heads to Italy to settle his affairs. Mystery at an Italian farmhouse, great and mediocre art, a missing manuscript, darkly arrogant neighbors, a night time phantom, and Massimo, a handsome but married Italian (of course) enter into the mix. Lucy's observations of other characters, their hidden layers, including her reactions to great art, surprising and complicated neighbors, and her own burgeoning sexuality are all described with psychological depth (with the exception of Massimo). That mounting suspension is effectively created. This is a fun, quick, absorbing read, whether you are headed to Rome or are just seeking a mystery-like escape. Valerie Martin's books are now stacked by my bedside. Stay tuned.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Gypsy's Song

Colum McCann is an author who thoroughly researches his subject matter. In an interview at the end of his novel, “Zoli”, McCann talks about the time he spent in Europe researching, before he wrote the novel. The story,“Zoli”, is loosely based on the life of the Polish Gypsy poet, Papusza.

The story begins in 1930’s when a young Gypsy girl’s family is murdered by fascists. The girl, Zoli, and her grandfather escape and begin a journey to join a caravan of gypsies, who are their relatives. Her grandfather is different from most Gypsy men in the 1930‘s. He teaches Zoli to read and write although these skills are banned for Gypsies, especially for Gypsy women. But Zoli has a gift. She invents stories in her mind and she sings the stories to entertain her Gypsy tribe.

When outsiders recognize Zoli’s gifts, the trouble begins. Zoli’s songs are recorded and subsequently published. The voice of the novel shifts from Zoli, the protagonist, to the Irish-Slovakian journalist, Swann, who Zoli falls in love with, and to a Slovak poet, Stransky. Zoli’s voice is addressed to her daughter and her tale travels with her from Slovakia, to 1930s Czechoslovakia, to Northern Italy, to Paris, Hungary and to England. The story encompasses the history of the Romany people as they travel through Europe, misunderstood and persecuted.

When Zoli finds herself banished from her home and friends, she forges an amazing journey of hardship and triumph. Zoli's story, with Colum McCann’s background research of the Romany people and their amazing history, makes this story [“a fiction based on history”] a wonderful, informative read.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Working Danes

The next time I read a Thomas Kennedy novel I want to be sitting in a cafĂ© in Copenhagen. I'll pick up my book and follow the paths that his characters are traveling – over bridges, through parks, past sausage trucks, into apartments. That's how place-specific his novels feel, and it helps make the characters seem like flesh and blood people.

Last year I read the first book of his Copenhagen Quartet “In the Company of Angels” (A Difficult Subject), a love story which dealt with the serious subjects of torture and spousal abuse. Falling Sideways sets a lighter tone – it's essentially a workplace novel. All the main characters (helpfully listed at the start of the book, as if in a playbill) work at place called the Tank, or are connected to someone who does. Covering only a week, the book follows their lives inside and outside the office. Most effective for me were the plotlines concerning two different but equally troubled father/son relationships, whereas the women characters seemed to exist mostly to be hit by the fallout of the explosions in the male characters' lives. The tone is sometimes satirical and sometimes quite tender. The closest thing to a villain is the cold-hearted CEO, but most characters are flawed but sympathetic.

I have a soft spot for workplace novels; two of my favorites are “Then We Came to the End" (Office Life) by Johnathan Ferris and “The Imperfectionists” (Reporting From Rome) by Tom Rachman.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Three Books

I am so excited to have just found this wonderful book resource. Perhaps you already know of it (then why didn't you share it with me?). It's on the NPR website and is called Three Books. It appears to be a weekly series. I noticed it as I was browsing on the Alltop website.

It caught my attention because the most recent posting is a review of three new books about running, one of my favorite pastimes (don't ask me to choose between running, reading and mah jongg).

Why three? Here is their answer: "We live in a three-dimensional world, colored with hues that break down into a trio of primary colors. Three is a number that allows for conversation, completion, and understanding."

Sounds good to me. Check it out. I think you will find a threesome that addresses one of your favorite pastimes.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Oranges and Lemons

I wasn't going to blog this one, so as not to overdo the Israel topic, but its similarity to "The Lemon Tree" warrants attention for someone interested in understanding Israel's 20th century history. " City of Oranges" by Adam LeBor also chooses one area, in this case the vibrant historic city of Jaffa, and follows a number of resident families through the tumultuous events there from the 1920's to the present.

Two of the families are Christian, two are Muslim, and four are Jewish. Some left in 1948, some stayed, some arrived afterward. All suffered. It was a challenge keeping everyone straight, but it hardly mattered: they express themselves very clearly.

As in "The Lemon Tree", an enormous amount of detail about political changes throughout Israel and the rest of the Middle East anchors the personal stories. I'd recommend "Oranges" over "Lemon" as a more comprehensive view of the subject.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Two Families, one home

The Lemon Tree, written by Sandy Tolan in 2007, traces 2 real families' personal experiences on opposite sides of the Palestinian/Israeli divide. Based entirely on interviews and primary sources including archives and diaries , it imagines nothing which has not been documented.

The Khairi family of Palestinian Arabs were displaced in 1948 after the Israeli/Arab war leading to the independence of Israel from the house they had built in the village of al-Ramla many years before. The Eshkanazi family, refugees from Bulgaria, moved into the vacant house and raised their daughter there, while the Khairis dreamed of returning. The book recounts how the grown children of each family develop a relationship spanning many years after Bashir Khairi comes knocking on the door. They come to respect one another and try hard to understand the other's point of view, but ultimately cannot agree.

It is painful to watch the Khairis' longing to return, with Bashir spending years in prison for his activities. Here in the US home is often portable; we move, settle in new places, build lives there. The Lemon Tree gives us a window into a culture and circumstance where this seems impossible.

There is so much more here, detail about political developments which provide the background needed to understand the unfolding of events. It's a sad recounting of the micro effects of larger changes.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Inside Politics

I am certainly a late arrival to this party, but I finally got around to reading (actually, listening to) Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Although the story it tells – the 2008 primary campaign and election – is certainly old news by now, I was riveted. Part of that is due to the way the authors unfold the story.

Heilemann and Halperin gained access to a whole host of insiders in all of the campaigns, and they spoke to them shortly after the described events took place, before their memories were eroded by hindsight. Their reporting credentials – Heilemann is national political correspondent for New York magazine and Mark Halperin editor at large for Time – allow them to engage in some astute political analysis, but there's no doubt that their breezy, gossipy, behind-the-scenes style was what made it so compelling.

I listened to this book as if it were a novel that I was hearing for the first time. Of course I knew how it would all turn out, but I shut that out and just let it unfold like the sprawling, confounding, fascinating soap opera that it was.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Updating a Classic

Am I just imagining it, or is Lily Bart following me? I admit that I love Edith Wharton's “House of Mirth”, and that I think there is something iconic and uniquely American about her heroine. When I read Steve Martin's “An Object of Beauty” (Art Objects) I thought his Lacey Yeager seemed to possess that same combination of ambition, intelligence, a basic decency complicated by moral ambiguity and society's strictures. And now author Victoria Patterson re-creates Lily's story in This Vacant Paradise, where heroine Esther Wilson is transplanted to Newport Beach, California in the 1990's.

Orange County is a long way from Manhattan of the 1890's, but some things seem never to change. An attractive young woman torn between marrying for money and finding true love with a poor man – does that plot ever go out of style? And, like Lily, Esther sabotages her best chance for financial security, disappoints and eventually alienates her family and friends, all because she can't let go of her longing for some deeper connection that she herself cannot define or understand.

Patterson's cast of characters is far from sympathetic. Most are shallow, venal, judging everyone by social status and possessions – not too different from Wharton's. Esther is at least clear-eyed about the society she inhabits, and her moral compass prevents her from making the easy choices, but eventually leads to her downfall.

Patterson's writing does not match Wharton's elegance, but perhaps her more florid style is meant to reflect the excesses of Orange County life, where drinking sour apple martinis in a bar in the Fashion Island mall passes for  elegance.
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