Friday, December 31, 2010

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

Displaced Persons
Ghita Schwarz
William Morrow/HarperCollins
Released: August 2010
Source: library eBook

The last book that I read in 2010 was a good one.  It's not exactly a superstition, call it more of a goal, but I like to end or start each year with a good reading experience.  I don't remember where I heard about Displaced Persons, but it was recommended somewhere and I was thrilled to find I could download the ebook from my public library to read on my Kobo.

Displaced Persons opens in May 1945 just after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the liberation of the concentration camps.  It follows a core group of characters as they rebuild their lives over a 65 year period, to October 2000.  Refugees from concentration camps and others who lost their homes and families were renamed displaced persons (DPs), hence the title of the book.  Most leave Europe for Australia, Palestine, England, and America.  They start over in new countries, create communities, and struggle with what and how much to tell their children about their own experience.

While this novel doesn't put the reader directly in the shoes of the characters, which I don't think was the author's intention, you feel like you're standing next to them and seeing what they're going through.  You witness their numbness, fear, hunger, the surreal feeling of being alive after what just happened, the rekindling of hope, the betrayals, the silence, the eventual public dialog about the Holocaust.  I think Schwarz did an amazing job of creating a cohesive narrative that covers 65 years and the lives of multiple characters in just over 300 pages.  It sort of exhausted and invigorated me at the same time. It is what some would call a haunting novel, or at least it was for me.  After finishing Displaced Persons it took me a few days of flipping through other books before I could find one to commit to.  The characters in Displaced Persons wouldn't let me go.

I was surprised to learn about the judgment that some non-European Jews had for those Jews who stayed in Europe. I had no idea that there was such judgment against the European Jews by the Palestinian Jews or Zionists to the point that Yiddish was looked down on as the language of "sheep"--the Jews of Europe, who in the eyes of non-European Jews (or those who left before the Nazi horror), let themselves, or so the judgment goes, be led to slaughter like sheep.

The lack of understanding in this novel is sometimes due to language barriers--many of the DPs eventually speak several languages--but there is also a lack of understanding on many levels due to a fear of speaking out, of speaking one's truth.  But its complicated because to speak the truth during the war years was to risk certain imprisonment and possibly death.

This lack of understanding and the compassion it could breed is shown between Jews from various counties and within families.  As Pavel reflects late in the novel, "It was all just people, the members of a family, streams of wool thread, separate, hooked into the same loom by coincidence, touching and twisting only when the design required.  Maybe no one felt anything for anyone but the missing....Surviving in order to argue and hate."  Pavel bursts out laughing after that thought and its a laughter that seems to say humanity will survive.

And toward the end of the novel, stories are being told and recorded, scholars are writing books and giving lectures, movies are being made about the experience of the Jewish men, women, and children who survived the Nazis.  People are making an effort at understanding by listening to the stories of the survivors.  Some of the stories of survival seemed unbelievable, but they are the stories of people who lived.  Practical, realistic thinking lead to death sentences.  "It was when magical thinking came true that one lived."

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway

The Garden of Eden
Ernest Hemingway
Scribner, 1986
ISBN: 978-0-684-80452-1
Source: bought it

Instead of burning through all of the works of a writer I admire--particularly the dead ones--I try to hold back and let myself come to them here and there because after I read everything that folks like Hemingway, Hawthorne, or Cather wrote, that's it.  It's all over.  Sure I can re-read some favorite novels or short stories again (and again), but its never the same as coming to a story for the first time and relishing the experience as it unfolds.

Why The Garden of Eden now?  I picked it up because Patricia Cornwell recently recommended it on her Facebook page.  I don't remember exactly why the novel came up, but Cornwell specifically mentioned how it depicts the experience of a writer at work.  I was ready for a little Hemingway since I'd recently posted pictures from a visit to his house in Key West.

The Garden of Eden was published posthumously in 1986.  Hemingway started writing it in 1946 when he was living in Cuba.  He worked on it over the years and at one point it was up to 1,500 pages according to one source.  (Another article I read claimed it was 2,400 pages).  It obviously became a bit of a monster for him and for several editors who tried to shape it into a "publishable novel" after his death.  Tom Jenks, an editor who was not a Hemingway aficionado, finally edited it down to the 247 page novel that is available for purchase.

The biographical interpretation of the novel is that it is based on Hemingway's first marriage and the affair that subsequently broke up that marriage.  The story is about newly weds David and Catherine Bourne who are honeymooning on the coast of France, with some time in Spain. They've been married three weeks at the story's beginning.  He's 28 and she's 21.  He's a writer whose first book is currently getting good reviews and she's a wealthy heiress with nothing to do, it seems, but be a wife.

Trouble is alive from the get-go when, in their first conversation, David states that he's the inventive type and Catherine replies that she's the destructive type.  The style is typical Hemingway, but much of the content is not.  There's fishing, hunting, and drinking, but there's also sexual role playing, a male lead who can be a bit of a doormat, and another woman with whom both Catherine and David take turns having sex, swimming, and just hanging out.  There's also a negative portrayal of hunting presented in the story within the story that David is writing.

You'd think it was the other woman who would be the snake in this Garden of Eden, but at some point David starts calling Catherine "Devil."   This is one of those novels that an undergrad could have a field day deconstructing.

In regard to the sexual role playing, I was reminded of Gioia Diliberto's excellent biography of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife, titled simply Hadley.  In that biography Diliberto consulted letters between Ernest and Hadley and I believe she also interviewed Hadley.  Young Ernest and Hadley used to take turns being the passive and aggressive partner in bed and they also got their hair cut in the same style.  Hemingway supposedly regretted divorcing Hadley later in life.

I was struck by the preface to the edition I read, written by Charles Scribner, Jr.  It seemed like a bit of an apology for publishing the novel.  There's often controversy when a writer's unfinished work is published posthumously, but since Scribner was Hemingway's personal editor for the last part of his life, you'd think he'd have been able to write a different sort of preface, one not quite so argumentative that he ('we') did the right thing in publishing this novel.

My curiosity was piqued, so I looked into it just a little bit and found this interesting article about Tom Jenks's editing of The Garden of EdenClick here for the article.  It will cast a different light on the publisher's note found before the preface of the edition that I read which states: "In preparing the book for publication we have made some cuts in the manuscript and some routine copy edition corrections.  Beyond a very small number of minor interpolations for clarity and consistency, nothing has been added.  In every significant respect the work is all the author's."

I really enjoyed the novel and plan on picking up a copy for my Mom who is also a Hemingway fan but hasn't yet read this one.  I'm keeping my marked up copy because I know I'll read it again to enjoy watching how Hemingway unfolds the conflicts between the various characters.

Below is the cover of the first edition.  The image is Woman with Basket by the Cubist painter Juan Gris. Hemingway's son Patrick was reminded of this painting after reading Jenks's edited version of his father's novel.  I prefer this cover to the one above, which I think glamorizes and cheapens the sexual issues within the novel.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Title: The Sherlockian
Author: Graham Moore
Publisher: Twelve/Hachette Book Group
Published: December 1, 2010
Source: advance reading copy

I'm not a Sherlock Homes fan.  I may have read "The Hound of Baskervilles" way back when, but I wouldn't bet my life on it.  You'd think I would have looked into the stories since my older sister regularly said No shit, Sherlock to me when we were kids, but when I tried the stories always seemed stuffy and condescending to my younger self.  These days I'm more apt to give them another try.  I did recently read my second Agatha Christie novel even though I once harbored similar sentiments toward her books.

Since I'm not a fan of Sherlock Homes what convinced me to take the book home and give it a whirl?  Bram Stoker.  Yes, Bram Stoker, the man who wrote Dracula, the book that turned me from an occasional reader into a daily reader back in middle school, has a co-starring role in this wonderful first novel by Graham Moore.  The Sherlockian is the best historical mystery featuring dead literary icons that I've read since Matthew Pearl burst on the scene in 2003 with The Dante Club (which is a great read for 19th century American Literature enthusiasts).

I enjoyed the novel and it's a no-brainer to say it'll be an even richer read for Sherlock Holmes fans.  There's probably much in this novel that went over my head since I'm unfamiliar with Doyle's life and writings.  Moore's novel will no doubt be of great appeal to fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Hardcore fans have probably been awaiting the release of this novel and the casual fan will delight in stumbling upon it at their favorite bookstore.

Without giving away too much--but there are some small spoilers below--here's a bit about the content and plot:
This novel bounces back and forth between two sets of characters in two different time periods trying to solve different murders.  First there's Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker, primarily between October-December 1900 (there are a couple chapters in 1893 and one in 1901).  Then there's our contemporaries, Harold White, a Sherlockian, and Sarah Lindsay, a journalist, with their action taking place between January 5-17, 2010.   

The novel opens on August 9, 1893 with Arthur Conan Doyle standing high in the Swiss Alps proclaiming that he's going to kill off Sherlock Holmes because he feels that his fictional creation is eclipsing not only his other literary efforts, but his own life as well.  Fans don't want his autograph, they want him to sign Sherlock Holmes's name instead.  On September 3, 1893 Doyle does it, he writes a story killing off Holmes and thinks he's done with it, free of the character that had become his ball and chain.

When we next see Doyle on December 18, 1893, he's accosted on the streets of London for having 'murdered' Sherlock Holmes, the newspapers run headlines about the fictional character's death, and people are even wearing black arm bands to publicly proclaim their mourning.  The insanity of it all drives Doyle into the Lyceum Theatre to see his friend, Bram Stoker.  After that meeting the historical portion of the novel jumps to October 18, 1900 where the action for Doyle's part of the novel takes off.

The contemporary part of the novel starts on January 5, 2010 at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City with the annual meeting of The Baker Street Irregulars, an exclusive group of Sherlockians.  They are, in fact, the preeminent organization for the study of Sherlock Holmes and membership is by invitation only.  Enter our hero, Harold White, who, at 29, is invited not only to their annual celebration, but is also made a member.

The big buzz at this year's meeting of the Irregulars is that Alex Cale, a prominent Sherlockian, had announced months ago that he'd finally discovered a long lost diary of Arthur Conan Doyle's.  Cale's life-long quest had been to find this diary and he is going to present the diary to the group, only he's late for his presentation.  During the wait Harold starts chatting with Sarah Lindsay, a woman who shouldn't be there because she's a journalist.   Alex Cale never shows up for his presentation and his dead body is discovered in his hotel room.  Soon Harold and Sarah find themselves jetting off to England to track down the now stolen diary.

There are twists and turns along the way.  While this wasn't a book that kept me up reading late into the night, it is one that I looked forward to picking up when it was time to read.  The plot is fantastic.  The historical setting is enjoyable and I thought very well done.  I liked the theme of light--electric lights versus gas lights--that runs throughout the book and what the change signifies in terms of loss and gain.

If there is one criticism it would be that the contemporary characters weren't painted all that vividly.  Let me clarify that these characters do not seem wooden or anything of the sort.  The dialog feels realistic and swiftly moves the story along.  I just didn't have much of a picture of these characters in my mind.  Maybe that's my own issue or maybe its because Moore did such a great job with Doyle, Stoker, and other historical characters.

Moore gives the reader an idea of how unsettling it must have been to be a white man of a certain class at the turn of the last century when social attitudes towards women, non-whites, class, and even gays were starting to change, when electric lights were being installed along London's streets.

Doyle is presented as a conservative man, an anti-suffragist, who is in his early forties, I believe, at the start the novel.  He seems to have both feet firmly planted in the nineteenth century, the London of gas lights.  As the novel unfolds and he tries to discover who is killing a group of young women, he also comes face to face with a violent misogyny that seems to shake his own complacent attitude toward women and the way things "should" be.  Along the way women are called 'cunts' several times and 'cunnies' as well as a few other choice slang terms from the period.  Doyle doesn't come around and champion the cause of women by any means, but the reader gets the sense that he might be learning, that he might start to understand that anti-suffragist sympathies like his own are steps away from, and may even help to fuel, violent misogynist tendencies.

There's also a more subtle nod toward the cost of homophobia with the inclusion of Oscar Wilde, not as a character, but first in the thoughts of Doyle and later in discussion between Doyle and Stoker after they learn of their friend Wilde's death.  Stoker is presented as the more liberal of the two friends, the more modern man (he has a wider diversity of acquaintances and experiences, installs electric lights in the theatre and his home), and it is he who points out to Doyle that they abandoned Wilde after his trial and prison term.  Talking of the changing times Arthur says, "what saddens me is not the passing of time but the curious sensation of being aware of it as it happens. . . . I don't know how any man could feel his eyes burn in the electric light and not also feel the sudden palpability of history" (281).

I won't hesitate to recommend The Sherlockian to readers of historical mysteries/thrillers and fans of late 19th/early 20th century British Literature and history. It would also be a good selection for anyone who likes an intellectual but fun romp of a book.

I hope Graham Moore is busy writing his second novel.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Patricia Cornwell Book Signing Recap

Patricia Cornwell drew a crowd of about 350 people tonight at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL.  It may have been closer to 400, but it's hard to tell because it was a standing room only crowd and people where tucked away around corners in various sections.
The first 100 people or so who purchased their copy of Port Mortuary at that store today received a really cool free black ballcap that has the colorful Scarpetta logo or shield on the front of it.  I'm wearing mine as I type this, along with a happy grin.  Gold pins with the logo were also handed out throughout the day.  The crowd seemed festive as they waited patiently for Cornwell's arrival.  People came from as far away as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.  

Image from PC Facebook page
Cornwell arrived shortly after 7pm and started her talk with a request for Americans to reach out and help our veterans in need.  There are more than 100,000 homeless veterans in America now, more than after/during any other war.  Cornwell's "America for Vets" campaign is collecting daily toiletry type supplies at all of her book signings during the Port Mortuary tour.  The supplies collected at her book signings will be donated to homeless veterans via the Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD) which serves more than 2,000 veterans a year.  For more information on America for Vets click here.  There's also information available at the two links above if you can't make it to her book signings and would like to make a donation.
Next, Cornwell announced that she had a prize for the fan who traveled the farthest to attend the book signing and that was, of course, the lady from Florida.  I didn't catch her name, but she's now the proud owner of this little chocolate treat that was waiting in Cornwell's room at the Four Seasons when she checked in yesterday.  Cute, isn't it?
After that Cornwell took questions from the audience.  There were some good questions and she expanded upon each answer to include insights into her take on the series, characters, her process, potential Scarpetta movies, etc.  My favorite of her revelations was the result of someone asking if Scarpetta would ever forgive Marino.  A few books ago in the series (Book of the Dead) Marino attacked Scarpetta in a drunken rage.  Marino has been both an annoying  thorn in Scarpetta's side and a reliable crime solving partner since book one (Postmortem), and his behavior over the years had grown more obnoxious: he drank more, ate more, and became  more out of control with each subsequent book.  He was always a bit of a caveman.  At the signing tonight Cornwell said that she knew she had to do someting about Marino.  He was becoming a dinosaur, a stereotypical New York cop who says 'yo' all the time.  She thought she either needed to kill him off or do something drastic to bring him into the twenty-first century.  Hence, the attack, which ended up being a huge wake up call for Marino that started his transition into a more modern type of criminal investigator as well as a more self-aware human being.  Cornwell's discussion of why she had him do what he did really shed a lot of light on the series for me and helped me see it in a different way.

I could have listened to Cornwell take questions and talk for hours, but with that big of a crowd they had to contain the Q&A and get to the book signing so that everyone would get their books autographed.  Everyone seemed to have a great time and were patient while waiting to get their books signed.  The line moved quickly.  I couldn't stick around until the end, but I believe things wrapped up shortly after 9pm.

If you have the opportunity to attend one of Cornwell's book signings for Port Mortuary, don't let it pass.  Her schedule is here.  She's always interesting and entertaining.  And do me a favor and ask her if she has any plans to write another non-fiction book, because I forgot to!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Port Mortuary by Patricia Cornwell

Port Mortuary
Patricia Cornwell
Penguin Putnam, November 30, 2010
512 pages
Source: review copy

Patricia Cornwell is the only writer who has gotten me out of bed during a late night reading frenzy to double check that the doors and windows are locked.

She's also one of the few writers whose release dates I track for new books and I usually buy them on the lay down date.  This time around I was happy to get an early review copy.

I'm also thrilled that she's coming to Chicago!  She'll be at the Borders in Oak Brook, IL on Thursday, 12/3/10, at 7pm.  Please call the store for the latest details: 630-574-0800. [Disclosure: I work there part-time.]

I've been reading Cornwell since the late 1990s when I first started getting into mystery novels and her characters--Kay Scarpetta, Pete Marino, Lucy Farinelli, and Benton Wesely--are like old friends to me.  Her first novel, Postmortem (1991) is still, I believe, the only novel to win the Edgar, Creasey, Anthony and Macavity Awards as well as the French Prix du Roman d'Adventure in a single year.  She has been credited with starting the whole CSI craze due to her meticulous and engaging incorporation of the latest forensic investigative techniques and technology in her Scarpetta novels.

When I first started reading the Scarpetta novels I lived in Charlotte, NC where Cornwell is considered a bit of a home girl because she was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer and went to college up the road at Davidson. 

Port Mortuary takes Kay Scarpetta in a fresh new direction, but the novel is a bit slow on action.  The book, however, never dragged for me.  I just realized at one point that I was still reading about Scarpetta thinking after X number of pages.  I won't go so far as to say I am disappointed with this novel, but it wasn't the action packed thriller that I was anticipating.  Port Mortuary started strong, but I think it got a little bogged down in Scarpetta's internal musings.  I would've preferred to see Scarpetta engage in more action and to see more interaction between the main characters, but that's not the book Cornwell wrote.  And I know she has her reasons.

I'm looking at this novel as setting up lots of potential thrills going forward.  Scarpetta certainly learns a lot about herself in this story and tensions are set up between the characters and various organizations for future harvesting.  I know Cornwell fans will enjoy the novel and the new direction it is taking Scarpetta.  Actually, the more I write about this novel the more fascinating it seems.  I can't wait to talk with people who've read it to compare notes.

In this entry in the series we learn of Scarpetta's early work with the Air Force to pay off her medical school loans before she started her professional career.  There's also a dark secret that's been haunting her and which she's been hiding since the Reagan years.  Scarpetta has been appointed chief of the new state of the art Cambridge Forensic Center in Massachusetts which is a joint venture between state and national government (including the military), MIT, and Harvard.  However, she's been away at Dover Air Force Base practically since the new facility opened participating in an internship to learn how to conduct virtual autopsies using CT-assisted technology.

The four month internship has dragged on into six months and all is not well back home at the Cambridge Forensic Center where Scarpetta left Jack Fielding in charge.  But Scarpetta doesn't know that all is not well.  She's been cocooned working long hours at Dover.  And no one is really telling her anything these days.  Then, a young man drops dead near Scarpetta's house in Cambridge.  His body is taken to the Cambridge Forensic Center where his body starts to bleed in the cooler overnight.  Anyone whose read Cornwell knows that dead bodies don't bleed, which means the man may have been put in the cooler while he was still alive.  Scarpetta's reputation is on the line.  She may not have been there, but she's in charge and while she's been away standards have slipped and her second in command, Jack Fielding, has disappeared.  Pete Marino and Lucy Farinelli helicopter in to Dover to take Scarpetta home to Cambridge.  General Briggs, Scarpetta's commanding officer at Dover and the only one who knows about her earlier, dark secret, seems to want to interfere with her domain.  All of this, along with a few other things, makes Scarpetta a little paranoid, which sets up her internal musings.  The story takes off from there.

Cornwell delivers more of her trademark incorporation of the latest techniques and technology in crime scene investigation--virtual autopsies and various nano technologies--all the while maintaining a deep sense of respect for the victim's of crime as well as other living creatures.  Excuse me one cryptic remark, but going forward I'll be looking a little closer at flies on the wall after having read this novel.

Diehard Cornwell fans will no doubt pick-up Port Mortuary asap and, as always, it'll be like reconnecting with old friends.

Visit Cornewll's website here.  She's also been very active and entertaining for her fans on Twitter and Facebook.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Very Simple Crime by Grant Jerkins

A Very Simple Crime
Grant Jerkins
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2, 2010
Source: Review copy

I don't always say yes to a publisher when they contact me and ask if I'd be interested in an advance reader copy of a forthcoming book by a new writer.  Sometimes I'm just not interested in the subject matter or other times I have way too many books that I'm chomping at the bit to read and won't be able to read the offered book in a timely manner.

But when the publisher for A Very Simple Crime contacted me to see if I'd be interested in a review copy, I said yes.  I was intrigued.  Here was a first novel that involved mental illness written by a guy whose been an advocate for learning disabled adults for ten years.  I thought there might be some substance to this first novel, perhaps a fresh take on the psychological thriller.

I'm happy to say it was a good read, one that is getting better as it continues to bounce around in my brain.  I'll recommend to readers who like their mystery/thrillers to have a psychological edge and at little legal action.  The writing is deceptively simple.  Take my advice and pay attention to the details as you're reading.  If the beginning is a little slow or hard to get into, stick with it.  It's one of those thrillers that starts with some short chapters that leave you wondering what the heck is going on, but you quickly get drawn into the story and when you think you know what's going on that's when you really don't know what's going on.

A Very Simple Crime is the story of Adam Lee, a man who was orphaned at a young age and, along with his older brother Monty, is sent to live with his mother's sister's family.  Adam is a man who seems to have skimmed along the surface of life, not living very deeply.  His older brother Monty is one of the most successful criminal defense lawyers in the Atlanta area and a handsome womanizer who seems to have it all.  Adam has worshiped Monty since the two brothers were boys.

Adam marries Rachel, a mentally disturbed woman who is the sole heir to her wealthy father's fortunes.  They have a child, Albert, who is mentally handicapped.  Adam gets a job in his father-in-law's firm and is initially a competent, proficient worker.  During his son's childhood, however, he starts to throw himself into his work and is surprised that he becomes successful.  Eventually it becomes obvious that Albert needs to be institutionalized after he hits his mother in the head with an ashtray, hard enough that she is hospitalized.  Life goes one.  At first Adam and Rachel visit Albert regularly, but then Rachel's own mental illness intensifies and the visits dwindle.  Adam seems trapped in his sick marriage . . . and from there the plot takes off.

When Rachel is found dead and obviously murdered, is seems a simple conclusion can be drawn that Albert, the son, did it.  He was home visiting his mother that weekend.  But complications arise.  Enter Leo Hewitt, a junior deputy prosecutor whose once stellar career is now in shambles after being blamed for releasing a suspected child murder who was later caught red-handed.  Leo is prompted to dig into this new crime.  The authorities were going to consider the murder an open and closed case.  But Leo finds some damning evidence.  Dark history between Adam and Monty comes to light.  Did Adam do it?  He's claimed all along that he loved his wife....

A Very Simple Crime is one of those crime novels where you're left pondering characters, scenes, and the entire plot.  You'll find yourself flipping back through parts of the book and realizing that little things mentioned here and there turn out to be significant things later on.

If you're interested, read the book now, because the movie version is in pre-production.  Check out Grant Jerkins's website here.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy
Publisher: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Published: November 2, 2010
Hardcover, 352 pages
The audio version was simultaneously released and is read by Pat Conroy--what a treat that will be!

Please note that this post is based on a bound manuscript requested from the publisher and not the final published book.  Also beware that I am a huge Pat Conroy fan and think the man can do no wrong.  :-)

Pat Conroy fans will be delighted by and left wanting more after finishing My Reading Life.  This book is also a terrific gift idea for those who love literature and book culture in general.  It is a celebration of books, a memoir of one man's life-long reading of novels and poetry, as well as some literary criticism and literary history. 

Mr. Conroy beings this memoir of his reading life where it all began: with his Mother who was a passionate and voracious reader.  She infused her love of literature into her son at a young age and this love is something that mother and son shared throughout her life.  Chapter Two naturally segues into praise, appreciation, and a discussion of the impact of Gone with the Wind.  Other chapters are dedicated to and revolve around either a particular person, place, or writer.  Along the way Mr. Conroy reveals many details about his life: people he's met along the way (some brief, some developing into life-long friendships), places he's been, as well as how & why his ideas and themes were formed.

I appreciate Mr. Conroy's writing even more after reading this book and have a much greater understanding for his subject matter as well. Here's a look at the book's table of contents to wet your appetite:
  • Chapter One: The Lily--his mother
  • Chapter Two: Gone with the Wind--read it!
  • Chapter Three: The Teacher--about Gene Norris, Conroy's high school English teacher and life-long mentor and friend
  • Chapter Four: Charles Dickens and Daufuskie Island--a short chapter about the community on Daufuskie island and their staging of A Christmas Carol
  • Chapter Five: The Librarian--Miss Hunter, the librarian at Beaufort High School who didn't want students in her library
  • Chapter Six: The Old New York Book Shop--Conroy's relationship with Atlanta bookstore owner Cliff Graubart and the books, people, and fellow writers that walked in and out of the shop
  • Chapter Seven: The Book Rep--Norman Berg teaches Conroy about the book business from a different angle
  • Chapter Eight: My First Writers' Conference--funny chapter about a brief meeting with Alice Walker and missing out on Adrienne Rich's poetry workshop; the complicated early days of the feminist movement
  • Chapter Nine: On Being a Military Brat--the pros and cons of being a military brat and the need for some recognition from military fathers for the sacrifice and service of their children
  • Chapter Ten: A Southerner in Paris--Conroy does more than just finish writing The Lords of Discipline in the City of Light
  • Chapter Eleven: A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe--the spirit of Wolfe blazed into Conroy's consciousness in 1961 and still burns there religious fervor
  • Chapter Twelve: The Count--a tribute to Leo Tolstoy
  • Chapter Thirteen: My Teacher, James Dickey--hero worship at its finest
  • Chapter Fourteen: Why I Write--why he does it and what he wants as a reader
  • Chapter Fifteen: The City--the city in inside, created by a lifetime of reading
If you're a Pat Conroy fan this book will be a treat.  If you haven't read any Pat Conroy but love books about books, add this one to your list.  I now have a list of books recommended by Mr. Conroy and a renewed itch to re-read his novels. 

Mr. Conroy's writing desk

I became a fan of Pat Conroy in the early 1980s.  The 1982 hit movie An Officer and a Gentleman is what led me to discover Pat Conroy via David Keith's performance in the movie adaptation of his novel The Lords of Discipline.  

What?  Let me explain.

I fell in love with An Officer and a Gentleman.  I saw it several times in the theater and talked about it so much that my cousin Daniel made a VHS recording of it for me when it premiered on cable.  I wore that VHS out and my kind friends watched it over and over and over.  That VHS copy moved with me from Illinois to North Carolina to Nebraska to Nevada to North Carolina (again) and finally back to Illinois where it eventually went to VHS heaven.  I knew the movie by heart, to the point that when it aired in Germany once when I was visiting my aunt I could tell--even with my basic grasp of the language--that the translation was horrible.  Richard Gere was okay, but I really liked David Keith.  So when The Lords of Discipline movie, in which Mr. Keith starred, came out in 1983 I went to see it right away.  I was 17.

I didn't know about Pat Conroy before seeing the movie, but when I discovered that the movie was based on a novel, I bought the book as soon as possible.  The Lords of Discipline lead me to The Great Santini both the book and the movie (I joined the Marines anyway in 1983) and I've been a fan ever since.

I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Conroy at a house party in Charlotte, NC when I lived there in the late 1990s.  My memory is fuzzy, but I believe he was in town to help with a fundraiser for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system.  He packed one of the town's arenas and had the audience eating out of his hands.  This was probably shortly after Beach Music (1995) came out.  There was either a pre- or post-event party at somebody's house, someone who was a mover and a shaker in the Charlotte literary scene and who had a big enough house to accommodate the eager library supporters who were invited (being a broke graduate student at the time, I was a tag-a-long). 

Even after talking with what seemed like hundreds of people, Mr. Conroy took the time to hear me tell of my love for his stories, particularly for The Great Santini, a book which helped me deal with my own complicated love for my own complicated father.  Mr. Conroy seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and talked with me in a way that seemed decidedly "uncanned" for someone who--let's face it--probably has had the same conversation dozens of times with strangers at such events over the years.  Mr. Conroy's ability to remain present and connected turned him from being a favorite author to a writer-hero for me.

Conroy writes in Chapter One of My Reading Life, "I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever."  I have that faith, too.  I know his novels will live inside me forever.  And just as I grow and change, they've taught me new things when I've revisited them over the years.

Visit Pat Conroy's website here for a list of his books as well as upcoming events.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

All Hallow's Read--Halloween Recommendations

For me Halloween means two things: pumpkins and vampires.

I often reread Bram Stoker's Dracula for Halloween.  It was the first "grown up" book that captured my imagination and ignited a life-long passion for reading.  My appreciation of it grows with each rereading.

Over 600 pages of Dracula Galore!
Last year I spent the holiday with a cool gift that my partner bought me at Read Between the Lynes when we were up in Woodstock, IL for our annual pumpkin pilgrimage.  The gift was The New Annotated Dracula by Leslie S. Klinger, which I highly recommend for all vampire enthusiasts.  Neil Gaiman wrote the introduction to this tome.

Speaking of Mr. Gaiman, he's also trying to start a new tradition of scary book giving on Halloween and is calling it All Hallow’s Read.  I found out about it via a tweet by Joe Hill and you can read the post that started it all here.

And here's a neat idea for the Halloween season--you can watch and listen to Neil Gaiman reading The Graveyard Book here.  I haven't read the book yet, though its been on my list since it came out a couple years ago.  Each chapter is contained in its own video file so you can easily plan your viewing schedule or watch/listen to a favorite chapter.  It looks like viewing time for a chapter runs between 25-70 minutes.  The Graveyard Book is a novel for children so it would be appropriate reading (or viewing) for the whole family.  The novel won both the Hugo and Newbery Awards.

But as for my reading this Halloween season, I'm resisting the pull to reread Stoker's Dracula and am going to try it as a graphic novel instead.  I've not yet been able to read a complete graphic novel.  I lose interest in them pretty quickly.  This seems odd to me because I loved comic books when I was a kid (Sgt. Rock and Spiderman were my favorites).

Marvel Comics Dracula
DC Comics American Vampire
So I've checked out a copy of the new Marvel Comics Dracula adapted by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano.  I already know I love the story, so I'm thinking this might be a way in to graphic novels for me.  I also checked out a copy of DC Comics American Vampire by Scott Snyder & Stephen King.  Both books were just released this month and should be available at your local bookstore.

I'm also adding The Castle in Transylvania by Jules Verne to my reading list. 

Some Halloween recommendations:

Fangland by John Marks
This is the hardcover edition.
Much cooler than the paperback.
I read Fangland when it first came out in 2007.  The cover caught my eye.  Fangland is a literary vampire novel and it was the first novel that I recall reading that incorporates the destruction and devastation of 9/11.  It pays homage to Stoker's Dracula in both content and style and has some truly creepy moments that stick with me three years later.  I highly recommend it if you're a Stoker fan.  If you're not a Stoker fan or don't like epistolary novels, you might have a challenge with it, but give it a shot anyway.  If you haven't heard of Fangland I'm not surprised.  Some bookstores shelved it in the literature section where horror fans would not stumble across it while browsing and many literary fiction readers poo-poo vampire books (I said 'many,' not 'all') so it didn't catch on via word of mouth.  It will see some light again soon, however, because its being made into a movie produced by Hilary Swank, directed by John Carpenter with a screenplay written by Mark Wheaton.

1st edition cover
Salem's Lot by Stephen King
I have no written record of my early reading years, but in my memory I read Salem's Lot right after reading Dracula.  I went to the bookstore with my Dad and browsed the shelves looking for a good vampire novel and stumbled upon it.  Then, as now, I like my vampires to be nasty & scary.  The current popular romantic vampire craze doesn't appeal to me although I did read book one of Stephenie Myer's Twilight series to see what the fuss was all about.  I also read the first book in the Chicagoland Vampires series and will probably read more of those because they're set in Chicago.  Anyway, Salem's Lot it a hell of a vampire story.  It will scare you.  It will creep you out.  There's even a few film versions you can watch.  It scared me as a kid and it scared me as an adult when I reread it a few years ago.

There are of course tons of teen vampire options out there these days, and I already mentioned the Chicagoland Vampires series by Chloe Neill.  At the bookstore where I work its shelved in the adult sci/fi section, but I think its appropriate for older teens (at least the first book is, anyway).  I recommend this series to Charlaine Harris fans and several have returned for a second and now third helping.  I haven't read any Charlaine Harris novels yet, but from describing Some Girls Bite (the first in the series) to a customer who is a big Harris fan she said it sounded like it would be up her alley, and it was.  I wrote a post on Some Girls Bite in April 2010 that you can check out here.

If you're looking for something for a pre-teen kid I recommend Kate Cary's Bloodline.  If the name sounds familiar its because Ms. Cary also writes the hugely popular Warriors series about four clans of wild cats.  Bloodline and its sequel Reckoning carry on the saga of Dracula's bloodline.  Quincey Harker a captain in the trenches of World War I?  Beautiful transition between generations.  Bravo Ms. Cary!

If you're looking for books for even younger kids,
all bookstores that carry kids books will have a display full of picture books for little ones and don't forget your local library as an option, too.

Happy All Hallow's Read Everyone! 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hans Fallada's 1947 anti-Nazi classic Every Man Dies Alone

Every Man Dies Alone 
Hans Fallada (1893-1947)
Melville House, March 2009
543 pages
Translated by Michael Hofmann

Originally published in Germany as Jeder stirbt für sich allein, 1947

Published in the UK by Penguin Hardback Classics as Alone in Berlin, February 2009

"But they told themselves and each other that it didn't concern them and that nothing could happen to them, as they were doing nothing against the State.  "Thoughts are free," they said--but they ought to have known that in this State not even thoughts were free."

Reading this masterful novel was both painful and exhausting.  Every Man Dies Alone is the story of what it was like to live in Berlin in the early 1940s.  Written by someone who lived through it, the novel shows how everyone suffered under the political system of Nazi rule.  The concentration camps hover as a warning for gentiles and Jews.  The atrocities committed against the Jews of Poland is beginning to be whispered about in dark places at the beginning of this story.  The unrelenting fear and threat of violence that people lived with under the Nazi regime is unimaginable and I think it’s perhaps impossible for someone who has grown up in a well established democracy to truly comprehend such an existence and the toll it takes on one's conscience. 

After a few months of mowing through books like a wood chipper, this one slowed me down.  Way down.  In a way that's appropriate to the novel's content.  Every Man Dies Alone is one of those novels that makes you think about the point of life, how to live a good life
a meaningful liferegardless of the circumstances in which you find yourself, and also about the purpose and potential of literature.

Every Man Dies Alone is based on a true story of a Berlin couple, Otto and Elise Hampel
(renamed Otto and Anna Quangel in the novel), who decide to fight the Nazis in their own way.  A large cast of characters join the Quangels and their stories all weave throughout the novel.  Everyone in Berlin—from the gambling addicted alcoholic to inspectors in the Gestapolives in fear of the absolute power of the Nazi State.

When trying to make a decision, people think and rethink and then second guess themselves about the best course of action to take because absolutely anything can have unintended life or death consequences.  You don’t want to do anything to cause suspicion because once the questions start coming so many other things that you have done could begin to look bad or easily be interpreted to look like you don't support the cause.  And if they start to question you they'll also pull in your family and anyone you unthinkingly mention during the exhaustion of interrogations that may go on for twelve hours or more and include physical torture.

So, there are no small decisions, there is no safety, there is only fear.  This is not an action-packed novel.  It is about the day in and day out struggle to stay alive or at least to stay out of trouble for one more day.  And trouble finds everyone in Nazi Berlin.  No one is safe, not even Gestapo officers.

As I read I imagined everything in this novel as shades of gray and the cover reinforces the color scheme.  People seem to be either a pale, tired, gray with dingy clothing or they are blisteringly white with crisp black clothing and shiny black boots.  And everyone seems exhausted and worn down except for the brutal sixteen year old Hitler
youth all star named Baldur Persickes who doesn't seem to understand that his star is already falling.  Most of those who are not of the dingy gray sort dim their minds with mass amounts of alcohol in an attempt to drown out their conscience.  Two doctors with easy access prefer morphine to numb out.

How did people survive without going insane?  And maybe going insane meant joining the party and participating with gusto or maybe it meant resisting blatantly and ending up quickly imprisoned and eventually dead.  Otto and Anna Quangel  lived for a while in a non-existent, denial inspired middle, it seems, until their only son is killed in the war.  It woke them up and reignited their consciences.  They chose to protest in a climate where the smallest hint of protest was suicide.  Insane?  You'll have to read the book for yourself to decide.

I was drawn to this book when it first came out in March of 2009.  Since then I've picked it up and looked at it dozens of times in the bookstore where I work knowing that the day would eventually arrive when I would be ready to read it.  I knew it would be an emotional commitment.  I was finally ready last month after my journey of going to massage therapy school was over and I received my license to practice.  Buying Every Man Dies Alone was a reward to myself.

I chose to read it in e-book format.  Had I bought the hard copy version there would have been much underlining, dog-earring, and sticky note-ing going on.  At least in the beginning.  Since the e-reader I own doesn't have a note function, I started out reading and jotting down some notes and ideas in my reading journal.  Eventually I stopped doing that, whether out of the depression of reading this war torn story or knowing I'll read the novel again in the future or maybe out of a need to just experience the novel and not trying to 'intellectualize' it.  I probably would have stopped underlining had I chosen to read the hard copy.  The first hardcover copy that I come across in a used bookstore is going home with me.  E-books serve their purpose, but there are some books I want around as real 'objects.' 

It took me about three weeks to read Every Man Dies Alone.  Each day of those three weeks I looked forward to my reading time, yet I also dreaded it.  It is a book filled with great pain and destruction, with little scraps of tenderness and hope scattered here and there.  It's one of those novels where I fluctuated between both liking and disliking most of the characters.  I don't think this reaction is unique to me or an accident on Fallada's part.  He wanted to portray what it was like to live under the Nazi regime.  Living under that sort of brutality and fear with such guilt and where everyone has something to hide . . . what else can you expect?  People need people, but when you can trust no one or accidentally cause the death of someone you know or love by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, what does that do to how you see your neighbors and fellow citizens?  Or yourself?  Every man may die alone, but they don't live alone.  Fallada's novel shows some of the best and much of the worst that people experienced in one of the most horrific chapters of the twentieth century.
Hans Fallada at work

Fallada wrote the novel in only 24 days and based some of it on the actual Gestapo file that was kept on the real Otto and Elise Hampel.  The US paperback and hardcover versions of the novel contain an appendix with facsimiles of Gestapo documents including the Hempel's mug shots.

Rudolf Ditzen is Fallada's real name.  Hans Fallada was a pen name combined from two German fairy tales.  You can read more about the author's life and other novels at his website here

Read the first chapter of Every Man Dies Alone here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Visit to Hemingway's House in Key West

Despite suffering through reading and discussing and writing about The Old Man and The Sea for what seemed like weeks and weeks in high school, I became a fan of Hemingway in my early 20s.

It was in my early 20s that I realized my Mom has decent taste in books.  I took an independent study course in German Literature and after reading everything on the syllabus asked my Mom for her recommendations.  She is, after all, from Germany.  She suggested Thomas Mann's The Buddenbrooks, which I loved.

At the end of the semester I asked her to recommend more writers, from any nationality.  When she said "Hemingway," I inwardly groaned and outwardly asked which novel I should start with.  She thought about it for a few seconds and said A Farewell To Arms.

So off to the library I went.  I really enjoyed A Farewell to Arms and on the next trip to the library checked out For Whom the Bell Tolls, which I liked almost as much.  I thought about calling my high school English teacher and asking him why he didn't choose A Farewell to Arms for us to read.  It seems like it would have been of more interest to 14-year-olds than The Old Man and the Sea. (Note: I plan to re-read the book one of these years because I think I might enjoy it more now as a more "mature" reader.)

My appreciation for Hemingway survived college and graduate school even though a few professors along the way took pot shots at Hemingway as a person, at his subject matter, and at his style.  I was one of those innocents who became an English major because I loved reading and writing.  I assumed that my professors loved books and appreciated a diversity of subject matter, style, etc.  I had a lot to learn.

The first shot at Hemingway came during my first literary theory seminar as an undergraduate.  The class was team-taught by a professor from the English Department and a professor from the Modern Languages Department.  I don't remember what theorist we were discussing, but one of my classmates enthusiastically made a comparison to Hemingway (who she obviously adored) and the professor from Modern Languages sneered--yes, he actually sneered--as he replied, "Phft!  Hemingway.  See spot run."

We all sat there rather stunned for a bit, not making eye contact, while the Modern Language professor smirked.  After a few beats the professor from the English Department started talking about something else.  At then end of class some of us comforted our wounded classmate with assurances that we, too, loved--or at least respected--Hemingway.

That seminar was my introduction to the politics of literary theory, English department politics, and inter-departmental rivalry.  I look back on that seminar as a battle of egos between the two professors.  By the time I finished my graduate school years, my love of reading was almost sucked out of me.  Becoming a bookseller renewed my book-loving soul, but that's a topic for another post.

Let me just add that during our junior year my fellow English-major-roommate and I thumbed our noses at that professor by volunteering at the Hemingway Foundation in Oak Park, IL.  I also enthusiastically taught The Sun Also Rises during my own tenure as a college English instructor.

The point of today's post is to share some pictures from my visit to Hemingway's house in Key West last summer.  I was cleaning up my hard drive recently and thought it would be a fun to share some of them with you.  I am not a Hemingway fanatic (although I probably could be if I let myself go) but it was a thrill to finally visit his house.  While the rest of the family went shopping on the strip, I had a few hours to mosey around Hemingway's house and property. 

I hope you enjoy these images!

907 Whitehead Street, Key West, the house where Hemingway lived from 1931-1938 and owned until his death in 1961.
Hemingway's front door.

Cats are free to roam and lounge anywhere they please here. Hemingway loved cats and you can read an article about the cats who live at the house here.

The funky Hemingway cat toes!  Technical term: polydactyl.

The master of the lard on the master bed.  This fellow did not like to be petted and finally had to gently scratch a little girl who was annoying him to get her off his back.  Even her parents were annoyed with her.  Call it an interactive tour.  I think his name is Archibald MacLeisch.

Cats really are everywhere at Hemingway's.  The gray cat in the hallway is laying at the top of the main staircase.  Across the hall from the bedroom is the bathroom.  
Looking into the house from the back window.  The gray cat is laying below, just out of view.  On the right side wall are bookshelves covered with Plexiglas. For an interesting look at Hemingway's reading life click here for a 441 page PDF that you can download.
Kathleen Norris's Maiden Voyage was faced out on the one of the bookshelves.

Looking toward the lighthouse from the second floor.  The master bedroom is to the right.

Back of the house on the second floor.  Open door to the left leads into the master bedroom.

Stairway leading into the back yard.

Hemingway's writing space is on the second floor of the carriage house which is directly behind the main house. Note the two sets of stairs leading to the studio door.  Hemingway had a cat walk installed that lead from the second floor balcony near his bedroom door directly to his studio door.  I can picture him walking across the cat walk with his morning cup of coffee, ready for a morning of writing.  The cat walk was eventually taken down due to damage but I think that happened after he moved out of the house. The first floor of this building houses the bookstore/gift shop complete with a pressed penny machine!  We collect pressed pennies during our travels, and scoring a literary pressed penny was a double treat.
Standing at the top of the staircase, looking into the studio.

This iron decorative "cage" juts into the room a bit so you can get the full view of his writer's retreat.

View from the cage of the left hand side of the room.

View from the cage straight ahead.

Close up of Hemingway's Royal typewriter.  This is how writers suffered prior to ergonomically designed chairs, desks, and keyboards.
View from the cage of the right hand side of the room.
Self portrait reflected in a mirror.

A small bathroom is to the right and a bit around the corner.
Heading out of the studio you have two directional options.  To the left is the pool and gardens.  To the right is more gardens and an area for weddings and events.
Here's the pool.  Hemingway's wife Pauline had it installed while he was off traveling and he wasn't very happy with the price tag for it when he got home.  Rumor has it that he yelled at her for spending his last penny at which time he took a penny out of his pocket and pressed it into the wet concrete.

Kitty prints in the cement.

A replica of Hemingway's house that litter boxes.

A path through the gardens.

It was over 90 degrees F and humid as all get out and this little white cat wanted to cuddle with me.  She finally settled for the other side of the bench while I sat and looked through the treasures I'd just purchased in the bookstore/gift shop.

Toe thumb.  Reminds me of a dancer standing with her foot turned out.

Little huts are scattered around the property to provide shelter for the cat's dining pleasure.
This fountain/water bowl is at the front of the house.  

Check out more pictures and read about Hemingway's house at the house's official website here. I didn't take very many pictures because I wanted to experience being in the house rather than documenting it.  It is a beautiful place and visitors are free to roam about at their own pace or take a tour with a guide.  I did a little bit of both.
--The End--

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