Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tales of Graceful Aging

35. Tales of Graceful Aging from the Planet Denial, by Nicole Hollander

The creator of the Sylvia comic strip has turned her talented and humorous hand to prose. Just in time for this recently-turned-sixty, she sets out to show that "Women get a second wind in their sixties, they conquer new worlds, make change happen, reinvent themselves, make a contribution."

Friends Bitsy, Audrey and Sally are the perfect foils for then narrator's refusal to act her age, or, stated better, for her determination to make her own choices as to what's age -appropriate! Whether she's talking about "Disastrous Apparel Decisions", "Tiny Vices", love affairs or medical affairs, she'll make you laugh. If you are a sixty-ish woman, you'll guffaw or sigh with recognition. If you haven't reached that milestone, she'll show you that there's nothing to fear.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Best book blurb of the month:

"All of the titles in the Stahl's Illustrated Series are designed to be fun."

And what book is this?

Stahl's Illustrated Antidepressants, by Stephen M. Stahl

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two exiles

33. Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín

Eilis Lacey is a young Irish woman, living with her widowed mother and her sister in post-World War II, economically depressed Ireland. When a visiting priest from the United States suggests that she could find work in there, she passively accepts her family's decision that she should emigrate. Initially, she is very homesick, but slowly learns to adjust to her new life and her new independence. Having fallen in love with an Italian (shock!), she suddenly finds that she must return to Ireland to deal with a death in the family. There, she must confront her family's expectations for her future, and well as her own.

As with all Tóibín's books, this one deals primarily with the themes of privacy and distance, particularly distance between family members. It isn't so much that people want to keep secrets, as that it seems not to occur to them to share their feelings or to discuss their lives.

As usual, also, Tóibín writing is perceptive and thoughtful. His descriptions of Eilis' seasickness on the journey over and her homesickness are unerring. "She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there. In the town, if she walked to the shop or to the Vocational School, the air, the light, the ground, it was all solid and part of her, even if she met no one familiar. Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought."

Though this is not my favorite of Tóibín's books, I would certainly recommend it. (A not-great book of Tóibín's is better than most writers' best.)

An excellent article about Tóibín from the New York Times: His Irish Diaspora

34. Ruins, by Achy Obejas

In Cuba's "Special period in peacetime" following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which had been the economic support for Cuba, Usnavy Martín-Leyva, is still a true believer, an outsider, almost an exile, in his own country, while others choose exile outside of it. His neighbors and friends have their cheats around the black market, their ways to get around the dismal economy, but Usnavy is still too much of a Revolutionary to follow suit. Everything bad seems to happen to Usnavy. His fellow domino players call him "salao", bad luck. His one room home is crumbling under the weight of his upstairs neighbor's illegal construction. His fourteen-year-old daughter goes off doing who knows what.

Then one day he takes some powdered milk from the bodega where he works to provide a baby with sustenance when a friend flees the country with his family. This act triggers something in him, and though his heart still with the Revolution, he nevertheless begins the chase for the almighty dollar. The glass from two lamps, both perhaps Tiffanys, one dug out of the ruins of a neighborhood building, the other an inheritance from his mother, provide him, literally piece by piece, with the currency that allows him to buy a bicycle, to buy new shoes, ultimately a car. But what, really, is the price?

I think that too often writers about Cuba, both of fiction and non-fiction, see the country in black-and-white. The Revolution is all good or all bad. Exiles are gusanos or heroes. But life and the world aren't like that. Neither are Obejas' Cubans. They are people struggling to make decent lives for themselves and their families, and who make hard choices in that struggle.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

32. About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, by Donna Leon

I've stopped reading Leon for the plots (in this case, it's about garbage hauling, the Mafia, gambling and a society woman known as "la superliftata"). They are generally about corruption in Italian politics and business, and nothing is ever really "solved", because, of course, that corruption prevents a nice, tidy resolution.

However, I enjoy reading about La Serenissima, and Guido's family. We get more of his in-laws, the Conte and Contessa Falier, than usual, and, as always, they are more discerning than Brunetti has given them credit for.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Spider Season

31. Spider Season: A Benjamin Justice Novel, by John Morgan Wilson

Benjamin Justice is winding up an author tour following the publication of his memoir, Deep Background: The True Story of a Disgraced Journalist and the Pulitzer Scandal that Destroyed Him. The publicity results in the appearance of a skinhead motorcyclist, the reason for whose attentions Justice can't figure out. (I did, fairly early, but won't spoil it!). Then there are the threatening postcards from an old (though unknown to Justice) "admirer", who had an affair with an older Hollywood interior designer and may or may not have been responsible for his death. (It's this character's penchant for spiders that gives the book its name.)

Justice continues to fight his demons, and a rival journalist seems intent on bringing him back down into the alcoholic gutter from which he had dragged himself. At the same time, he is reconnecting with Ismael Aragon, who has left the priesthood and is coming to terms with his own homosexuality, an exploration which Justice would be glad to help him with!

Although the Benjamin Justice series is shelved among "mysteries", this one really isn't. It's really more about how Justice deals with unexpected revelations from his past, and with the changes in his present. So those who pick it up expecting a mystery may be a bit disappointed, but I've always felt that Wilson is better at characterization than plotting, so no disappointment on my end.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It Happened in Italy

30. It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust, by Elizabeth Bettina

Elizabeth Bettina is an Italian-American Catholic who spent her childhood summers with relatives in Campagna, Italy. During one visit as an adult, she discovered that Jews had been interned in Campagna during the war. She was fascinated by this, wondered why it wasn't talked about, and proceeded to become deeply involved in finding people who had been interned, telling their story and taking them back to the places where they had been. This should have been an absolutely riveting book. It's not. It's dreadful.

I finished reading this book for one reason, and one reason only: I got it through the Amazon Vine™ program and owed them a review. I cannot count the number of times I wanted to throw it against the wall or gritted my teeth in frustration and irritation. It is one of the worst books I have ever read.

And that is sad. Because there is a story to be told here, a story about how and why some Italians helped their Jewish neighbors. But, oh lord, Bettina hasn't got a clue about how to tell it.

She cannot write a straight-forward narrative. She hops, skips and jumps all over the place, repeats herself, and talks about people who haven't been introduced yet. Her language is repetitious. Every phone call requires the recipient to sit down. Everything is a surprise, unbelieveable, "unimaginable". If she described a sindaco's (mayor's) badge of office as a "Miss America sash" one more time, I'd have screamed.

And that's another thing! She constantly throws in Italian words and phrases for no reason or any reason. It's bad enough when she's quoting, because why pick out a few words in the quotation to put in Italian and translate? But "[t]the people . . . took note of the two stranieri, foreigners." "I [was] imagining the fogli, pieces of paper . . ." It's not only annoying; it's pretentious.

Worse, it's all about her. Everything is presented through her reactions, how she felt, what she did. The survivors are mere stick figures. One has no sense of them as individuals. Even when she is quoting them (and she was taping and filming so the dialogue is presumably accurate), there is no emotion. I don't know if that's due to her editing or if she simply hasn't got a clue about interviewing people. (If you want to know how to do oral history, read Studs Terkel!) We barely meet the "good" Italians she is so proud of. But we get Bettina, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

More disturbing to me was the substance of this book, or, should I say, it's lack of substance. There is absolutely no attempt at any analysis of why Italy was different (if it was). I( compare this to another book I've read, Trudy Alexy's The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot: Marranos and other secret Jews, which at least tries to answer the perhaps unanswerable question: why did Fascist Spain open its borders to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust?) It seems as though it never occurs to Bettina to ask the question.

Nor does Bettina make any effort to contextualize her story. Look. I know that the concentration camps in Italy were not death camps. I know that conditions were better there than elsewhere (though to say that is rather like Berlusconi telling the survivors of the L'Aquila earthquake to treat the experience like a camping weekend). I know that some Italians did their best to save Jewish lives. And I know that this book is focused on a sliver of Holocaust history. But do not toss a glance at the racial laws, at the anti-Semitic policies that prevented Jews from attending school or practicing their professions, and act as though that was nothing. It wasn't nothing! Do not ignore the effect of the profound, historic anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church! Do not ignore the murder of 15% of Italy's Jewish population! Do not ignore the failure of the Pope to speak out! Acknowledge these things!

Now perhaps someone will go out and write a good book on this subject.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Which Puppy?

29. Which Puppy?, by Kate Feiffer, illustrations by Jules Feiffer

It's a cute idea. When word spreads that the Obamas are going to adopt a puppy, all kinds of dogs, and other animals, want to be picked, and they decide to hold a contest. But the story doesn't hold together. The contests don't make sense, and then - out of absolutely nowhere - an "ancient custom" appears. And then there are three dogs which, if put together, meet the requirements. It's confusing.

The pictures are just okay. One of the fun things about children's books is that, often, there are surprises in the pictures, things to look for, particularly when there are "crowd" scenes. But there's nothing like that here. Just piles of dogs. Not that piles of dogs can't be cute, but it got a bit repetitious. I have to say, though, that the picture of the three dogs peering into the windows of the White House tugged at my heartstrings a bit. But then I can't read Mutts' Shelter Stories without wanting to dash off to the SPCA!