Saturday, March 28, 2009

Katrina tales

21. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans? A collection of stories & essays set in the Big Easy

Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?Is that not a great title page? The whole book is like that, marvelously designed. The cover image is Cassiopeia A: The colourful aftermath of a violent, stellar death. (This is the second edition, and I was torn, I tell you, torn! Do I buy the 1st because it's a first, or the second for the cover? You decide.)

You do have to read every word of this book. And I do mean every word. A tease from the copyright page: "All rights reserved. . . . Exceptions are made for book reviewers. By the way, there are no jokes here so you can stop reading if you are looking for them."

"This book was written and designed during three months in the fall of 2005." In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Chin Music Press put together this slender, beautifully made anthology that will make you laugh and cry and rage. And cook. There are recipes, too. Interspersed throughout are engravings from the 1885 volume, Historical Sketch Book and Guide to New Orleans.

There are two ways to read this book. The first gathers the contributions into three sections: "The Dirge", "The Return" and "Lagniappe". But if it is too hard for you to read all those stories of ruin and devastation, one right after another, before reaching hope, there is an "Alternative Reading Order. Inspired by the many different versions of the song "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" I read it the second way and still shed more than one tear along the way. All over again, I saw the images of things that should never happen in this country, heard the stories of grace and generosity, stupidity and blindness.

Thank you to Toni McGee Causey for her eloquent essay, "Where Grace Lives". Thank you to Jason Berry, for his tale of evacuation, "The Holy City of New Orleans". Thank you to Colleen Mondor, who has never been to New Orleans for "Listen to the Second Line", about the music that I, too, love and cherish. Thank you to Ray Shea for the laughter and memories he shares in "I was a Teenage Float Grunt". Thank you to Rex (oh, appropriate first name!) Noone for his story of the power of celebration, "Professor Stevens Goes to Mardi Gras". Thank you to everyone who contributed to this book. But most of all, thank you to Chin Music Press, who gave it to us.

There are more voices here.

Arguing with the Storm

20. Arguing with the Storm: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Rhea Tregebov

In 2000, a group of senior Jewish women in Winnipeg, intrigued by the large Yiddish collection at the Winnipeg Public Library, decided to form a reading circle for discussion of these works. Concerned that these works would be lost, they began to translate the stories and memoirs, and this book is the result.

Although the women represented here are all Eastern European, they led varied lives, some active in the worlds of literature and journalism, others not so much. Some emigrated, to the United States, to Canada, to Palestine (as it was then); others were lost in the Holocaust. All had something to say.

The works of the nine writers represented here range geographically from the shtetl to Miami Beach, in time from the 1905 Revolution to the present. The characters are young women and old, country and city dwellers, immigrants, Holocaust survivors, and their children and grandchildren. Some are funny, some somber, some in between.

If your idea of the shtetl was formed by "Fiddler on the Roof", read Rochel Broches devastating account of the short life of mamzers in "Little Abrahams" or Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn's "No More Rabbi!" Hamer-Jacklyn and Frume Halpern write movingly of the plight of older women, the search for stability and love. Bryna Bercovitch and Paula Frankel-Zaltzman are represented by their memoirs, the one of life in the Ukraine, the other of the Dvinsk ghetto.

We owe the Winnipeg Women's Yiddish Reading Circle a debt of gratitude for rescuing these stories from the library's dusty shelves, and making them available to a new audience.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Sound of Freedom

19. The Sound of Freedom: Marian Anderson, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Concert that Awakened America, by Raymond Arsenault

It was, I think, fitting that I finished reading this book, by the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida, on the very day that John Hope Franklin, founder of the discipline of African-American history and maker of history himself, died. (Indeed, I picked up the book and I read of his memories of hearing this concert broadcast on the radio.)

I thought that I knew this story. Marian Anderson's management wanted to book her into Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., the Daughters of the American Revolution said "no" because of her race, Mrs. Roosevelt quit the DAR and Miss Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial. All that's true. But, as with most simple stories, this one is a great deal more complex, and more interesting.

Why Miss Anderson? What was it about her that made her the first African-American woman to find an honored place in the world of classical music, and draw audiences of black and white alike? More than merely her gorgeous voice and excellent musicianship, it was the choices she made of repertoire and of management that led her there. She drew from her racial heritage, but did not allow herself to be typed as a "race" singer. At home in the U.S., her manager, the famed Sol Hurok, carefully publicized her as a singer who had conquered Europe but remained an unspoiled homebody. Arsenault traces for us the trajectory of her career and shows how she achieved a position and a reputation without which this fight would have been unlikely to have occurred, much less succeeded.

How did this story become so big? Following the DAR's initial refusal of the use of Constitution Hall, the director of the music series for which Miss Anderson was to perform sought, and received, not only favorable newspaper coverage, but the assistance of the NAACP in attempting a challenge to the DAR. The politics, the manoeuvering, the deft handling of a variety of interests by people like the NAACP's Walter White make for fascinating and illuminating reading. Committees were formed, alliances made, alternatives sought. A request to use a public school auditorium was turned down, again due to policies of racial segregation.

Timing, of course, is all. And friends. When Miss Anderson had been invited to sing at the White House some months earlier, she and Eleanor Roosevelt had become friends. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior (the Department with jurisdiction over the Lincoln Memorial) was a friend of Walter White's. When someone (it's not certain who) suggested that the Memorial be the venue for the concert, well, the rest is, indeed, history.

Since that time, we have become used to this space being used for great public events. Here the March on Washington took place. Here were protests against the Vietnam war. But this was the first time such a crowd had gathered there, in what Secretary Ickes called "this great auditorium under the sky [where] all of us are free." So it was that on Easter Sunday, 1939, a thrilled and respectful crowd of 75,000 heard Marian Anderson sing. It was a short concert, less than an hour, but its impact was great. Said Mary McLeod Bethune: It cannot be described in words. There is no way. History may and will record it, but it will never be able to tell what happened in the hearts of the thousands who stood and listened yesterday afternoon. Something happened in all of our hearts. I came away almost walking on air. We are on the right track--we must go forward. The reverence and concentration of the throngs . . . told a story of hope for tomorrow--a story of triumph--a story of pulling together--a story of splendor and real democracy. When I read those words, quoted by Mr. Arsenault, I could not help but think how accurately they reflected my feelings as I left Grant Park on Election Night, 2008.

The story does not end that day. Miss Anderson's growing stature in the musical world (finally singing at the Met) and participation in the civil rights struggle, the DAR's continued refusal to acknowledge the racial motivation in their refusal of the Hall, provide the coda.

Raymond Arsenault has written a moving, compelling and informative account of how this event came to be, how Miss Anderson came to be the right woman at the right time, and in the process has given me new insight into this moment in the history of American politics of race.

The Marian Anderson Historical Society

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Burn Out

18. Burn Out, by Marcia Muller

Private investigator Sharone McCone is burnt out. Just off an investigation involving her husband, Hy Ripinksy's, security firm, an investigation that nearly got them both killed, she's tired. Tired of investigating, tired of running her agency. So she heads off to their ranch for a little R&R, and some time away from it all to try to figure out what she wants to do.

This being a detective novel, she's not allowed to have that quiet time. Trying to help her ranch foreman deal with some family issues, she finds a young relative of his murdered, another disappears. And, despite her intentions, McCone finds herself in the middle of the investigation. In the process, she moves foreward in making reconnections with her recently found birth father, and her Shoshone heritage.

I must admit that I figured out who and what was behind the killings before McCone did. But then, I had the advantage of knowing the conventions required by this genre. The book's a good one, and I always appreciate the fact that Muller treats Sharon and Hy and their families (birth, adoptive and chosen) as people with lives, who grow and change.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Open Books

Over the last year or so,  I've seen tables/booths for Open Books, a Chicago literacy organization, at various book-related events, such as the Printers Row Book Fair (less than three months away - can't wait!).    They had a table at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs book fair, and were promoting an event called "Party with a Purpose".    The words "book swap" were mentioned.  Oh, dear.   Put together a good cause and an opportunity to acquire books, and I'm there.

I went through various shelves/piles/boxes and gathered a stack to bring.  And I am proud, not to mention a bit shocked, to say that I actually brought home fewer books than I brought.   I didn't want to be a pig about it.

The damage:
Eyewitness to history, edited by John Carey
Legal fictions : short stories about lawyers and the law, edited by Jay Wishingrad
A darker place, by Laurie R. King (whose Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli series I have enjoyed)
Golden earth : travels in Burma, by Norman Lewis
Tales of graceful aging from the planet denial, by Nicole Hollander (author of the comic strip, Sylvia
Cecil Beaton's Fair lady, Cecil Beaton's diary of the filming of My Fair Lady

It was a fun party, I met and chatted with a variety of interesting folk, and I just may (if I can find the time!) look into volunteering with them.  

A Fool and his humor are parted.

17. Fool, by Christopher Moore

The first thing that I must say to any Christopher Moore fan who picks up this book is to put aside your expectations. I had assumed that this would be, as are Moore's other books, hysterically funny. It's not. That is not to say it's a bad book. But it did take me a while to get into it simply because I kept thinking, "When does it get funny?"

The answer is that it doesn't. This retelling of the story of King Lear from the point of view of the fool is very dark indeed, though there are certainly humorous bits scattered about the book. (I particularly like the recurring appearance of a ghost, at which someone is always bound to exclaim, "There's always a bloody ghost!") Pocket has been Lear's fool, and mentor to a dull-witted apprentice, Drool, for years, having been brought to the castle to amuse the baby princess, Cordelia, and now follows him on his peregrinations through his former kingdom. This is about as far as Moore resembles Shakespeare. Moore's fool engages in political intrigues, dalliances with the princesses, and is generally responsible (indirectly, if not directly) for a variety of deaths, dismemberments and an ultimately "happy" ending.

Would I recommend this to a Christopher Moore fan? A qualified "yes". It's not his best, it's certainly not typical of his work, but if you go into it knowing that, you'll be satisified. But I definitely would not suggest this as an introduction to Moore's work.

Atmospheric Distubances

16. Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen

While browsing the "New Books" shelf at my library, I picked up this book, which begins: "Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife." Intrigued, I stood and read the first couple of pages and thought, "I must read this". Sadly, I have to report that the book does not live up to its promise.

When the protagonist, New York psychiatrist Leo Liebenstein, arrives at this conclusion, he is also dealing with a patient, Harvey, who believes that he is receiving secret orders from the Royal Academy of Meteorology in controlling the world's weather. Leo's "false" wife, Rema, whom he refers to as "the simulacrum", suggests that he pretend to be an agent of the RAM as well, transmitting directions from a meteorologist named Tsvi Gal-Chen. The relationship between this therapeutic fraud and Leo's search for the real Rema are the crux of Galchen's book.

Now, am I right? Those plots, and their intertwining, ought to make for good reading. But Galchen's prose is so dense and convoluted that it was hard to get through the book, much less enjoy it. I don't mind that it's never clear whether Liebenstein is himself suffering from mental illness (some reviews firmly state that he is suffering from Capgras Syndrome, though Galchen is never definite) or whether Rema really has been replaced by a fake. Nor do I mind that it's unclear whether the RAM really is trying to stop a cabal of errant meteorologists. What I do mind is that Galchen never makes me care about the outcome or her characters, so at the end (which is very unsatisfying, by the way) I just felt as though my struggle to finish had been a waste of time.

The fact that Galchen uses her own surname, names a person called "Tsvi" in the acknowledgements, and, as one discovers with a bit of research, has used parts of her father's work and history in her book, could have given the novel extra depth, but in Galchen's hands seems merely self-indulgent.

Give it a miss.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What Comes Naturally

15. What Comes Naturally, by Gerd Brantenberg

This humorous, though at times didactic, novel by the Norwegian feminist writer was written in 1973 and concerns the protagonist's coming out as lesbian in 1960's Oslo. Her own ideas of what a woman who loves women is/should be like are upended as she looks for friendship, sex and love, sometimes in the same place, sometimes not.

In her wildly funny and thought-provoking book, Brantenberg points up the contradictions in the idea that being gay isn't "natural". I wonder if, when she wrote this, she had any idea that Norway would one day legalize same-sex marriage?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Deborah Knott mystery

14. Death's Half Acre, by Margaret Maron

The latest in Maron's Judge Deborah Knott series is plotted around the corrupt connections between developers and politicians, something that is totally foreign to a Chicagoan like myself. {smile} The murderee is a county commissioner who clawed herself up by her painted nails, and supposedly takes her marching orders from the party higher-ups. But she has an agenda of her own, with files on a whole lot of folks. Judge Knott wonders if she knew the secret to Knott's appointment to the bench.

It's a decent mystery (took me a while to figure out the culprit, and Maron doesn't cheat, as some writers do, by making it a very minor character), though Knott does engage in a couple of acts of sheer stupidity, without which the matter would have been solved sooner.

There's also a courtroom scene which nearly had me throwing the book across the room, so outrageously unrealistic was it. However, this is a library book, so I didn't.

As usual, I enjoyed the byplay among Knott and her extended families. She's still adjusting to stepmother-hood, but has the example of her own mother to go by.