Selections for August 2008
Apples and Oranges Marie Brenner (2008)
Marie Brenner puts her investigative reporting talents to good use in Apples and Oranges: My Brother and Me, Lost and Found, her moving memoir about her older brother Carl's life and death. Brenner is probably best known for her biography of the Binghams, the scandal-ridden family that owned the Louisville Courier-Journal and other newspapers, and for her exposé of the tobacco industry that became the basis for the 1999 film The Insider. Here she considers all the possible causes and permutations that may have led her to become a lefty New York journalist, while her brother grew up to be a Communist-hating, NRA-loving owner of an apple orchard in Washington State. (She tells of the time when, during their adolescence, Carl - who, even as a teenager, was a member of the John Birch Society - destroyed all of her Joan Baez records because he believed the singer was too liberal.) Their differences far outweighed whatever it was they shared and seemed too great to ever overcome. Yet when Carl develops cancer, Marie flies (figuratively and literally) to his rescue, determined to save him through equal parts of research and love. When she learns about an earlier feud between her rationalist father and his turbulent sister Anita, who ran off from the family home in Texas and became friends with the many artists living in Mexico at the time - including Diego Rivera, Edward Weston, and Frida Kahlo - she fears that unbridgeable emotional distance between siblings is a part of a family's genetic code. The title comes from the way Marie's mother would describe her two children - Carl and Marie, she'd say, were as different as apples and oranges.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (2008)
Quick, can you name the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1968? Do you remember which one won the Oscar? Believe me, by the time you finish Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris's thorough and totally entertaining history of how each film came to be made, and the writers, actors, directors, and producers involved, you'll be able to rattle off the names with ease. And not only that - a bit of a warning here - you may have to put reading aside for a while, since you'll want to spend some quality time watching DVDs of the films Harris discusses. But Harris, a writer for Entertainment Weekly, is up to something more than just retelling often familiar tales of well-known Hollywood denizens. Rather, he's interested in showing how the movie-making business in the 1960s, as exemplified by these five films, changed dramatically (that's my bad pun, not Harris's) and became closer to the business of Hollywood that we're familiar with today. The star system (where movie studios developed young actors, who then "belonged" to them, and only did the projects the studios chose for them), which was so successful in previous decades (Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and Rock Hudson are prominent examples of that system), was falling apart due to competition from European auteurs, the growing influence of television, and the rising cost of making movies. I suspect that even the most Hollywood-savvy reader will find something new in Harris's accounts of the events and people involved in the creation of these five films. There are discussions of actors Sidney Poitier, Warren Beatty, Katharine Hepburn, Dustin Hoffman, Spencer Tracy, Rex Harrison, and others; directors, such as Mike Nichols, Norman Jewison, and Arthur Penn; studio heads (Richard Zanuck and Jack Warner); and writers (Robert Benton, David Newman, and Robert Towne) and also how the 1960's zeitgeist - especially the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the rising intensity of the war in Vietnam - affected Hollywood's decisions about what movies were made and with whom. Oh yeah, the nominated films: they were Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?; Doctor Dolittle; Bonnie and Clyde; The Graduate; and In the Heat of the Night.
The Other Side of the Story by Marian Keyes (2006)
In The Other Side of the Story, Marian Keyes explores the typically hateful "Other Woman" as seen in the inter-connected lives of three successful Dublin women in their thirties. Gemma, a party planner, is currently without a man in her life (her former best friend stole her boyfriend, Anton) and now her father has run off with a much younger woman, leaving Gemma to deal with her mother's almost catatonic despair (this involves many trips to the pharmacist to fill prescriptions). She writes about what's happening in her life in a series of emails to a friend in Seattle that just happen to come to the attention of JoJo, an editor for a major publishing house who's simultaneously angling for a coveted partnership at the company, having an affair with her boss, and trying to coax a second novel from mega-successful Lily, who is Gemma's former best friend and the woman who took Anton away from her. Whew - it's a lot more exhausting to describe this warmhearted novel (my favorite of all of Keyes's books) than it is to read it, but I assume you get the picture. Life's complications just keep happening - sometimes, as in this case, delightfully.
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (2008)
I recently went geocaching for the first time, and as I and four friends (Justina Chen Headley, Dia Calhoun, Lorie Ann Glover, and Janet Lee Carey - all writers of books for children and young adults) and two middle-graders spent an exhilarating two hours on an urban hike, walking up and down Seattle's hills, following maps, a compass, and our handheld GPS device, discovering pocket parks we hadn't been aware of, crawling through the ubiquitous blackberry bushes and mysterious dense vines (Janet was best at this), scrambling down stone stairs cut into rocks, all of us looking intently for three separate caches. Although we only found one, I'm pretty sure that we all went home to our reading and writing reinvigorated and joyful. My experience reminded me of the importance of Richard Louv's message in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Written in a clear and accessible style, the evidence Louv offers, and the passion with which he presents it, should prompt parents, city planners, and educators to ensure that a major part of a child's experiences and education - as central, Louv believes, to healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical development as any activities that take place in a traditional classroom - are an ongoing exposure to nature and the outdoors. "No child left inside" is Louv's motto. Through a combination of anecdotes and research studies, Louv describes how a lifelong exposure to the natural world can help with problems such as depression, obesity, and attention deficit disorder. His call to action imagines a society in which both children and adults are aware not only of the great and grand outdoors, but that each of them acknowledges a sense of stewardship and compassion for the world we inhabit.
How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life by Mameve Medwed (2007)
Fans of Elinor Lipman's or Stephen McCauley's comedies of manners will be quite taken, as I was, by Mameve Medwed's newest novel, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life. When Abby Randolph learns (via a television show like Antiques Roadshow) that the chamber pot she's inherited from her mother actually belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (and is therefore quite valuable), circumstances force her back into contact with her mother's lover's children, one of them being her ex-best friend and the other her ex-fiancé. Because it's so clear that Medwed cares deeply about Abby's happiness, it makes the reader root for her, as well. And she's an awfully likeable heroine (although I did want to shake her once or twice for being so darn trusting). Medwed was on a panel I moderated this May during the Massachusetts Librarian Association meeting, and she was as funny and charming as I had envisioned her to be after reading this novel.
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles (2008)
Anyone who's experienced the vicissitudes of air travel recently will immediately empathize with the situation that 53-year-old Bennie Ford, the complex narrator of Jonathan Miles' Dear American Airlines, finds himself in. On the way to Los Angeles from New York, to walk the daughter he hasn't seen she was a baby down the aisle at her wedding, his connecting flight is cancelled and he's stuck overnight at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. Since Bennie is a writer (a failed poet and a successful translator of Polish literary works), what else can he do but begin a long letter of complaint to the airline that's stranded him and caused a major delay in what he sees as the last step of finally and completely turning his life around. And over the course of this short and comical first novel (just the right length to begin and finish during the course of a cross-country flight), we learn about Bennie's parents, his childhood, marriages, and mostly non-stop drinking. (We even get a good look at his work, since woven throughout the novel are excerpts from the Polish novel he's currently translating.) Bennie's voice - persistent, petulant, narcissistic, and remorseful - is what drew me in, and his story, which is heartbreaking, funny, and hopeful (though not about the possibility of getting a refund check for his cancelled flight from American Airlines), kept me absorbed and entertained.
No Visible Horizon: Surviving the World's Most Dangerous Sport by Joshua Cooper Ramo (2004)
If you've ever been amazed at what goes on at air shows and wondered about the motivation (aside from the adrenaline rush of risking death) of the stunt pilots who zoom their planes through tunnels, loop over and under bridges, fly upside down, and do stomach churning spins and rolls and dives, then No Visible Horizon: Surviving the World's Most Dangerous Sport by Joshua Cooper Ramo is the book for you. Ramo competes in the sport of aerial acrobatics, and he shares his love of it in language that is both poetic and mesmerizing. As he describes his own addiction to a sport that is more dangerous than most, he offers a meditation on the subject of all extreme sports (which takes him - and us - from Plato to the psychological theory of "Flow"), and the men and women who risk their lives in pursuit of.what? Ramo would say, I think, a certain purity of purpose, a loss of control in the midst of perfect control, the mind-altering sensations of approaching danger and paralyzing fear. (Those last two are feelings that most of us run from, screaming.)
How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz (2008)
There's a (growing) list of author/illustrators whose new picture books very seldom disappoint me, and a (growing) list of autobiographical picture books. The two lists intersect for me in How I Learned Geography, an illustrated memoir that can only enhance Uri Shulevitz's already stellar reputation as an artist and storyteller. (He's already received the Caldecott Medal and two Caldecott Honor citations.) Aimed at five- to eight-year-olds, this touching but not sentimental tale tells of the time that he, his mother, and his father fled their war-ravaged homeland (in Poland) and moved to a strange city (Turkestan, in what is now Kazakhstan, in Central Asia). They had little money for food, but even so, one day at the bazaar, Uri's father buys an enormous map rather than a loaf of bread. Although his purchase infuriates his hungry wife and son, Uri soon discovers that the map feeds another kind of hunger. The moral here - that the value and joy of imagination can trump even physical pain and deprivation, and that even in the bleakest of times something of value (and salvation) can emerge - is presented through the vivid watercolor illustrations, which completely illuminate Uri's joy at being able to travel in his mind far beyond his physical location.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008)
The first time I started reading Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, I put it down after the first chapter, disappointed and disillusioned. I had really admired Strout's first novel, Amy and Isabelle, for its exquisite use of language and the author's ability to create complexly realistic characters, not all of them totally nice people. (That's an understatement. There's a particularly loathsome teacher in the novel whom I will never get over despising.) But I realized that I really wasn't thrilled about spending any time with the eponymous Olive: I hated that she was married to a kind man to whom she was, more often than not in those pages I read, not kind at all. Then, a month or so later, for some reason that remains unclear to me, I picked it up again, began at the beginning, and was immediately and totally hooked. Olive Kitteridge is what's being called these days "a novel in stories," i.e., interwoven tales that together provide the heft and scope of a traditional novel. And, like the best traditional novels, its characters become utterly familiar to us. I began to accept Olive's quirks and bad behaviors, even if, at first, I couldn't completely understand why she acted the way she did. (And I still frequently winced and wished that she'd change.) Olive, while never an easy person to like, grew dearer (and ever more real) to me as I encountered her in many different situations. Here is how Strout sums up Olive's relationship with her son Christopher, as a child, in the story "A Little Burst": "She can almost not remember the first decade of Christopher's life, although some things she does remember and doesn't want to. She tried teaching him to play the piano and he wouldn't play the notes right. It was how scared he was of her that made her go all wacky. But she loved him!" Isn't that phrase "and doesn't want to" brilliant for its economy in telling us so much more than those four particular words? And though it's particularly painful to read "Security," in which Olive totally loses her cool during a visit with the now-adult Christopher and his new family in New York, who is there among us who has not said precisely the wrong thing (and in the wrong tone of voice) to those we love? Strout writes divinely, using language that is precise and elegant without being phony or high-falutin', about the ravages and blessings of the passage of time, about grace, and about the possibility of forgiveness, of ourselves and others, for the wrongs, large and small, that have been done to us and by us.
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple (2007)
When I was in Australia a few years ago, a fellow librarian and good friend recommended Peter Temple's The Broken Shore to me. I got a copy, read it there, and was just blown away by just how good it was. At the time, though, it wasn't published in the U.S., so I couldn't include it in Pearl's Picks. Now, however, it's available here, and after a second reading for the purposes of writing this month's recommendations, I can assure any reader on the hunt for a powerful and complex crime novel with a social conscience that this is a book that shouldn't be missed. After being brutally assaulted in a Melbourne stake-out that went horribly awry, homicide detective Joe Cashin is reassigned, for a period of recuperation, to the sleepy, relatively crime-free, oceanside town of Port Monro, near Melbourne, where he spends his time mostly brooding on the past, drinking to deal with the residue of the physical and emotional pain from the attack, and going for long walks with his two large black poodles. But when Charles Burgoyne, a Port Monro entrepreneur, is discovered in his ransacked house on the verge of death, Cashin finds himself back doing serious police work. Suspicion falls on two aboriginal boys who live in the nearby ghetto known as The Daunt. But are they guilty? To find the truth, Cashin has to deal with the seemingly endemic racial prejudice against the Aboriginals, corrupt and inept colleagues, and the residue of his own past. The American writers Temple most resembles are Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos - all of them look squarely at the depths of depravity that humans are capable of (and write like fallen angels). But the fiction writer whom Temple most reminded me of is his fellow Aussie, Tim Winton, perhaps because they both have a powerful talent for evoking both the setting and soul of Australia. Here's Temple describing the small, rundown town of Port Monro, where Joe himself spent part of his childhood: "But the year had turned. May had come, the ice-water rain, the winds that scoured skin, and just the hardcore left - the unemployed, pensioners, people on all kinds of welfare, the halt, the lame. Now he saw the town as you saw a place after fire, all softness gone: the out-crops of rock, the dark gullies, the fireproof rubbish of brown beer bottles and car skeletons." (It's also interesting for American readers to note that several years after this book was published, the Australian government, under the leadership of newly elected prime minister, Kevin Rudd, formally apologized to all the indigenous peoples of the country for past wrongs. Joe Cashin would have approved.)
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (2008)
If you're a bit tired of trying to decide whether the memoir you're currently reading is closer to fiction than nonfiction, save yourself the trouble of fretting, put it down, and pick up A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz's insane, brilliant, exasperating, and exhilarating novel written as a memoir. It's about an insane, brilliant, charming, and exasperating father (Marty) and the son (Jasper) whom he tries to remake in his own image. It's Jasper, writing from prison, after his father's death, who initially introduces us to this loopy family, but, alternating with Jasper's account, we get Marty's viewpoint, too, so it's with a double vision, so to speak, that we learn of everything that led up to Jasper's present state. And what a tale it is: a plot summary simply does not do justice to the book. If pressed to say what the novel's about, I'd mention the eternal conflict between fathers and sons, and the rivalry between brothers. Growing up in stifling small towns. Love, the errors of love, and the terrors of love. It's about the law of unintended consequences and that no good deed ever goes unpunished. It's about our fear of living and disinclination to die. It's about the consolations (or not) of philosophy. But mostly it's about Life, with a capital L, and all that it entails. Toltz's writing is always exuberant and sometimes hypnotically over-the-top. Here's Marty describing his childhood experience playing "a dreadful thing called musical chairs, another cruel game." He elaborates:
"There's one chair short, and when the music stops you have to run for a seat. The life lessons never stop at a children's party. The music blares. You never know when it's going to stop. You're on edge the whole game; the tension is unbearable. Everyone dances in a circle around the ring of chairs, but it's no happy dance. Everyone has his eyes on the mother over by the radio, her hand poised on the volume control. Now and then a child wrongly anticipates her and dives for a chair. He's shouted at. He jumps off the seat again. He's a wreck. The music plays on. The children's faces are contorted in terror. No one wants to be excluded. The mother taunts the children by pretending to reach for the volume. The children wish she were dead. The game is an analogy for life: there are not enough chairs or good times to go around, not enough food, not enough joy, nor beds nor jobs nor laughs nor friends nor smiles nor money nor clean air to breathe.and yet the music goes on."
Wow. It's hard to even take a breath when you're reading that paragraph. If the John Irving of The World According to Garp or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest are your cup of tea, don't miss A Fraction of the Whole.Title available via inter-library loan
Cats in May by Doreen Tovey (2008)
There's only one downside to reading Cats in May, an enchanting tale of Doreen Tovey's love affair with Siamese cats: there's a strong possibility that you'll feel a definite inclination, as I did, to put it aside for an hour or two and run out to the nearest Siamese breeder and buy yourself a cat or two. It's an unavoidable hazard, I suppose, of spending time with Solomon and Sheba, the Tovey family cats. From their appearance on the BBC to their loud disapproval of any and all attempts to introduce a third Siamese - Samson - into their midst, Solomon and Sheba rule the roost. It's not just cats that Tovey makes so appealing to the reader: there's also an adorable squirrel who they rescued from certain death as a baby, and who has his own routines, habits, and pet peeves. One of the pleasures of Blondin's life is tea, and Tovey describes how the squirrel stands vigil by the teapot, afraid he's going to miss out on a drink, how he sleeps with a hot water bottle, and seems to only half believe that he's not a human who happens to like nuts an awful lot. (Incidentally, if you happen to be a mystery lover as well as a Siamese cat fan(atic), take a look at the mysteries by Richard and Frances Lockridge. The first, The Norths Meet Murder, published in 1940, introduced amateur detectives Pam and Jerry North, who are the owners of (or who are owned by) a series of Siamese cats. Their names are Gin, Martini, and Sherry. Oh those Norths, what civilized drinkers they were!)