WEEKEND READING…AND A MOMENTOUS OCCASION — FEB. 10

This week has been full of momentous reading, with each book bringing something special into my days. 

But here’s the most notable aspect to my reading week:  this week, I finished reading three review books, and not only finished them, but reviewed them.

I have one more book to finish of my planned week’s reading, but I’ve completed all the review books on my week’s list.  So I feel like celebrating a bit.

But here’s the best part.  I started reviewing on Amazon in 2008, and have been a Vine reviewer for awhile.  Today’s review post of The Long Drunk, by Eric Coyote, brought my total Amazon reviews to…wait for it!  600 REVIEWS!

When I started out, I wasn’t thinking of numbers.  I had just begun connecting to other reviewers and enjoyed exchanging comments on our reviews.

A lot has changed with Amazon reviewers since I began.  Back then, we had “Amazon friends” connections and could easily track the reviews of those we “knew.”

At that time, our profiles had links to these “friends,” and we could easily connect with them.  Nowadays, we have to actively search for other reviewers.

In the subsequent years, however, I’ve also joined Facebook, where I connect with readers, bloggers, writers, etc.  I have a lot of blogs these days, which is another way to connect.

Looking back, I am amazed at the changing online landscape, with more changes coming everyday.  Like Facebook’s timeline feature.

Goodreads is another place to connect with readers and bloggers.  I do enjoy how we can, in the midst of ongoing changes, find ways to join with other readers/writers and carry on a conversation, of sorts.

Where do you connect on the web?  Do you find that the social networking terrain has changed a lot since you began?  What are your favorite places to network?

IN PURSUIT OF A MADMAN — A REVIEW

In 1920s Munich, Faye Kellerman’s backdrop for this murder mystery is a war-torn city steeped in political unrest. As a barbaric butcher stalks the city, hate-mongers abound, ready to point fingers at any suspect in order to solve the crime and settle the unrest.

But Axel Berg is persistent in attempting to solve the crimes, and not just to close his case; he relentlessly pursues this goal, despite the obstacles he encounters along the way. Beautiful women are murdered and dumped in close proximity to one another, artfully arranged, suggesting psychological issues of childhood trauma. The closer Berg comes to identifying a possible suspect, another one crops up. As he draws closer to finding the ties that link the suspects to one another, he sets himself up as a target for the madman.

Kellerman’s clues kept me guessing all the way through, and I enjoyed the way she sprinkled them on the pathway to finding out the madman’s identity at the very end.

The beginning was a bit slow and I didn’t completely connect to the story for awhile, but once I did, I couldn’t put Straight into Darkness down. Kellerman’s skill swept me along to a startling finish. Four stars.

LEARNING EMPATHY, COMPASSION, AND THE FACT OF INJUSTICE

From this story’s beginning, we walk right into 1930s Southern life, visualizing the characters in this small town through the eyes of one of its children, Scout Finch, who narrates this wonderful tale.

With her older brother Jem and their summer friend Dill, these children explore the small world within two blocks of their home, imagining and fantasizing and sometimes obsessing over a mysterious man named Albert (Boo) Radley. The stories about him reveal a troubled young man contained in his home by his punitive father. But long after the father’s death, Boo stays out of sight.

Meanwhile, the town begins stirring over a controversial happening—Atticus Finch, a lawyer and the father of Jem and Scout has taken on the case of defending a black man against charges that he raped a white woman. Never mind that there is no physical evidence, nor are the “witnesses” even slightly credible. Finch pokes holes in the prosecution’s case, and Jem, Scout, and Dill, watching from the balcony, feel sure of an acquittal.

What these children learn from this case and the subsequent aftermath is that life is often unjust. But their father tries to help them see that understanding another person can only happen when you “walk in his shoes.”

Empathy, integrity, compassion, and yes, life’s injustices—all of these are brought home to these children growing up in a Southern small town during the 30s. When a surprising rescuer saves Jem and Scout from the evil of one bitter man, they also learn that things are not always the way they seem.

The ending of To Kill a Mockingbird (slipcased edition) was just a beginning, in a sense, as Scout, our narrator, comes to understand what Atticus has been saying all along…most people are “nice,” too, “when you finally see them.”

A LEGACY OF THE SEXUAL REVOLUTION

The time was the mid-seventies. Paul and Roz Mellow lived in a suburb called Wontaucket, and on a “normal” weekend, their four children are spending the day alone while their parents are off giving a lecture.

The second oldest child, Michael, discovers the mysterious tome on a top shelf, bookended by something innocuous, but he is curious. Something about the way it seems almost hidden….

From that point on, the story unfolds as the children discover what the book entails and secretly share its contents upstairs on the “children’s floor.” The children are Holly, the oldest; Michael; Dashiell and Claudia.

Their lives will never be the same again.

When Paul and Roz first met, he was studying psychoanalysis and Roz was his patient. They broke their first rules by getting involved with each other, which resulted in Paul’s removal from the program. Writing a bestselling “Joy of Sex” type book was not something they actually planned to do, and they were unprepared for the rousing success of this book…and surprised, somewhat, by how the book ultimately changed the shape of their lives.

The story is really about what happens after the book’s publication. How the family comes apart at some point, when Roz falls in love with someone else. In the thirty years after the book, we glimpse moments in the children’s complicated lives, with their conflicts and issues; we see the parents move on individually and then with other partners; and then, we watch and wonder when a publisher wants to reissue the book. That is when Michael goes to Florida (at his mother’s request) to try to persuade the reluctant Paul to agree—for Paul has been against the idea and is still bitter about the divorce.

The author’s portrayal of each of the characters, with their past and present moments, reveals how each of them struggle with the legacy of the book. Of all the children, Holly is the remote one, living in LA and refusing to share in any of the family gatherings. During her youth, we saw her submerse herself in drugs; now she cocoons with her husband and child.

Claudia has always felt inferior in many ways. Not pretty enough or talented enough, even though this is an incorrect appraisal. Dashiell comes to terms early with his homosexuality, and seems the happiest of the four children. Michael is successful, but is struggling with depression; an antidepressant he takes has negative sexual side effects.

In the end, there are celebratory moments after the second launch of the book, and everyone (except Holly) gathers for the occasion. In some ways, each family member has finally come to terms with the book—at last.

But what lingering foreshadowing hovers over each of them, even as they celebrate? What unexpected life-altering moments lie just ahead? Even as the story ended without answering some of these questions, there was a sense that somehow the characters would stumble along through whatever came next—because they had overcome the downside of their past.

The Position: A Novel was poignant and funny, with sharply drawn characters to which I could relate (except for Holly). Even though she is portrayed as the remote one, I believe that more could have been revealed about her. This omission left a cavernous hole in the canvas.

Coming of age in the seventies left its mark in various ways on those of us who had the opportunity (or curse!) to call that time our own. Wolitzer skillfully unlayers the facets of the sexual revolution and its impact on all who lived through it, and leaves the reader with the notion that family connections come in a variety of forms.

Four stars.

A VIEW FROM THE TOP

A mysterious and elusive woman, Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics), is the subject of this portrait by Charles J. Shields.

A former English teacher, Shields set for himself the task of writing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, this compelling biography based on hundreds of interviews, piecing together a picture of this Southern woman who began life in Monroeville, Alabama, the child of an attorney, whose mother suffered from a condition most likened to a bipolar disorder. Growing up, she was known to family and friends as “Nelle.” Lee enjoyed a tomboyish existence in the neighborhood, where she first met and became friends with Truman Capote. Their relationship lasted many years, although in later years, a strain hovered over this friendship—perhaps due to her success and his envy.

In her early years in NY, while she attempted to write her book and live the writer’s life, she became a part of a small community of like-minded friends that included her agent, Maurice Crain, and others of similar interests. Throughout her life, they would be her support system and conduit to the literary world.

At about the time her book was completed and just before its publication, Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Kansas as his assistant, to gather information on the killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb. Some say that her contribution to the eventual book, In Cold Blood, was huge (yet unacknowledged).

After the several years it took to complete To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics), when it finally came out, Lee allegedly remarked that she hoped that some people would like it. She was definitely unprepared for its huge success, which included bestseller status almost immediately; a Pulitzer Prize; and, of course, the movie.

Throughout this compelling portrayal of a fascinating writer, I could not help but long for something more about her life. More rich details of how she lives day-to-day. From all accounts, however, she blends almost seamlessly into the life of her small community. Occasional trips to NY became less frequent. For a woman who attained a great degree of fame and wealth, she certainly reportedly lives like an ordinary person—maybe less so, since she apparently strove diligently to maintain privacy and anonymity.

And yet, in this biographical sketch, there were occasional accounts of interactions with people that might suggest a more sociable side lying just below the surface.

For the most part, however, she seems to stay connected primarily with her family, her church friends, and others in the community. I liked reading descriptions of how she would be seen sitting alone at a table in a local restaurant, eating dinner, and enjoying her own company—or how her modest home is filled with books in every room. These tidbits reveal a contented person, despite what one might conclude. I especially enjoyed reading a comment she made to someone who asked her why she didn’t write another book: “I had every intention of writing many novels,” she reportedly said, “but I could never have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) would enjoy. I became overwhelmed.” And in another instance, she was reported to have said something like…when you’ve reached the top, there’s only one way to go.

How intimidating this degree of success must have been for a woman with no pretensions, who had hoped to achieve her dream of writing a book (or several), and then, in one fell swoop, achieves the totally unexpected feat of becoming the creator of the most widely read American novel ever. To reach this level of success and then to live with it afterwards had to be the greatest accomplishment of all. In another quote from Lee that occurred a little more than a year after her book was published, she said: “People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world.”

She seems to belong in that company of admirable people.

Five stars.

ALWAYS AUDITIONING

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Barbara Walters’ memoir encompasses her more than forty years of television journalism interviewing heads of state, world leaders, movie stars, criminals, murderers, inspirational figures, and celebrities of all kinds. Finally she turns her gift for examination onto herself to reveal the forces that shaped her extraordinary life.

We learn about her childhood with a father whose love of show business first brought the glamour and risk-taking of that life into her world and a mother, supportive, but often frustrated by the numerous times the family had to uproot in order to follow his dreams. We share her pain as she describes what it was like growing up with a mentally disabled sister whom she loved, but with whom she could share very little as they grew older. Despite her own ambitions, Ms. Walters made sure that her family was cared for during the lean times.

Her love affairs, her marriages, her child—we find out about each event in her life as she tells us in an anecdotal way, almost as if we’re having a conversation.

That is what I most enjoyed about this book…the feeling that I, as the reader, had somehow been granted admission into her living room or dining room while she described in detail the numerous aspects of her life. Her efforts to achieve recognition in a journalistic world that often overlooked women; the competitive moments; her occasional mistakes along the way—all shared with candor, humor, and insight. Her awesome and inspiring climb to a success that has included not only the famous interviews, but the numerous shows she has hosted, from the Today show, 20/20, the Specials…and now The View.

I must admit that the political aspects of the memoir were less-fascinating to me than the celebrity features, but it was clear that she is knowledgeable and that she very diligently did her homework for each and every assignment. And obviously she has kept impeccable records over the years to be able to recount all these moments with such detail.

A most admirable and extraordinary tome, Audition (Vintage), by its very name, sums up an aspect of the author that, perhaps, can shed light on this unique individual. In her own words, she talks about having to “audition” constantly, in the sense that she had to stand out and shine in order to achieve her goals. She had to be better than the best in a highly competitive world, and she excelled.

If I could, I would give this book ten stars, but I will settle for five.

REBUILDING A DREAM

A young woman, Cilla McGowan, former child actress, whose mother is a star and whose grandmother was a legendary star, returns to her deceased grandmother’s farmhouse in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia—dubbed Little Farm by its original owner. She has big plans. Not only will she be renovating the home, restoring it to its former glory, but she will bring her own special vision to this house that will, finally, be home for her.

After her child star days, Cilla found her own niche rehabbing and flipping houses. Her renovations of Little Farm will be the first time she’ll be keeping what she renovates.

But she has barely launched her project when several unexpected things happen. First, she meets her drop-dead-gorgeous neighbor, Ford Sawyer, who writes and illustrates his own graphic novels. Then she discovers a box of secret unsigned letters to her grandmother, Janet Hardy, from a married lover. Next, an unpleasant and frightening series of events, from vandalism to outright threats, begins to cast a troubling pall over her dreams and her vision.

As we follow Cilla’s progress in her rehab, we begin to search for clues as to who is frightening Cilla. When one of the enemies is identified and taken into custody, the frightening events continue, suggesting an additional perpetrator. As Ford and Cilla search for answers, the reader begins to piece together a few tidbits that just might lead to the identity of the vengeful one.

What is the significance of a lipstick pink couch with white satin pillows? And what unlikely person, close to Cilla and Ford, could have the most to gain by attacking her?

Tribute is a wonderful blend of romance, family legends, mystery, and lots of house rehabbing details. I loved this book and would like to read a sequel. Five stars at least!

A FICTIONALIZED VERSION…

In this exciting book, Black Water (Contemporary Fiction, Plume), we glimpse events that culminated in a disastrous leap into the black waters surrounding an island in Maine. It is a fictionalized version of an episode well-known to Americans who followed the frightening and horrifying plunge that turned a politician’s world upside down.

Joyce Carol Oates has created a tradition of taking real-life events and turning them into fiction. In the process, she adds insights that surface from behind the familiar news stories and creates questions about what might have happened.

In this particular story, we follow a young girl, Kelly Kelleher, who is wide-eyed with admiration for the charismatic Senator. They leave a party to rush to the ferry, and along the way, the car crashes through the guard rail and into the waters.

What sets this story apart is the back and forth meanderings of the girl’s mind as she recalls how she came to meet the Senator, moments they shared, her dreams for future events…all flashing “before her eyes” in a slow-motion kind of way.

I kept thinking maybe this story would turn out differently, just like when we watch a movie over and over, hoping for that happily-ever-after. But the conclusions we can draw are really all about those thoughts and feelings that flow like a slideshow of episodes and memories.

FAMILY SAGA AND EPIC LOVE STORY

In this lyrical family saga, we observe family members who interact like children in parallel play. This mother and two sisters appear detached from one another and bound only by their common love for one man—a husband to one of them and the father to the other two—and how his death fractures them all.

On his deathbed, however, the man, Evan Whitson, exacts a promise from his daughters. He insists on them listening to their mother tell the “fairytale” that has been a recurring theme in their childhood and their only family tradition…their mother’s story of a peasant girl and a prince in Leningrad, and to listen to it to the very end. Implied in this request is that somehow, this story has never yet been fully told and will somehow explain their mother and change their relationships to her and to each other.

But after the death, it is all that the sisters can do to manage their own lives. Meredith, the older sister, has always been the responsible one, holding the business together and taking care of everyone else. Yet she seems unable to prevent her mother’s grief-stricken downward spiral. Meanwhile, Nina, the photojournalist, is off somewhere doing what she does.

The mother, Anya, seemingly finds peace only in her winter garden—a place as icy as her personality—and when one day, Anya seems like a threat to her own safety, Meredith places her in convalescent care.

When Nina returns and abruptly brings their mother home again, the sisters battle things out. And then something happens that changes everything for all of them. Anya begins to tell the fairytale.

What secrets will be revealed by this story, and what does it have to do with any of their lives? Will the telling of the story free them all?

This was a haunting and provocative story that will be in my thoughts for a long time. A surprise twist at the end stunned me, even as I realized that it was the kind of conclusion we can always hope for in such a tale.

Winter Garden seems to epitomize the iciness of secrets, betrayals, and disconnectedness that inform the lives of our characters, and in this story, we also learn much about the strength of the human condition and how surviving loss can add to that strength.

SMALL AND LARGE MIRACLES — A Review of “The Handmaid and the Carpenter”

Elizabeth Berg’s The Handmaid and the Carpenter: A Novel is a richly detailed saga of an historic time and a Biblical couple; it is a tale that she has imbued with her special skill of immediacy and an everyday voice, and as a result, we can visualize this young couple as they struggle with the effects of a miraculous conception on their relationship and their lives.

We follow them in their journey to Bethlehem and the events that unfold there, just as we come to see the other small and large miracles that accompany them throughout their lives together. And we watch as Joseph’s doubts rise up again, and how, finally, he comes to believe.

This brief and powerful account is memorable and evocative, and one which adds another dimension to Berg’s body of work.

Five stars!