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Margaret Atwood on the small screen

Tue, 12/05/2017 - 4:52pm

Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel, Alias Grace, discloses the inner musings of a true-to-life Irish immigrant, Grace Marks, who was accused with and locked up in a Canadian penitentiary for killing her employer and his housekeeper. Grace’s story is given to us mostly through the interviews she has with Dr. Simon Jordan, a psychiatrist who has arrived at the penitentiary to determine Grace’s guilt or innocence. From Margaret Atwood’s able hands, we receive intricately drawn out details of the drudgery of a servant’s day, peppered with profound and beautiful observations about nature, God, men, and women. Born to serve, first her father, than various other households, Grace continues to serve through her crime. Her accusers, her co-conspirators, her defender, her jury, and the journalists who tell her story are all male. The action in Grace’s story belongs to the men who want to convey it. In order to own her narrative, Grace must rely on creating misconceptions, fugues, hallucinations, and evasions.

There are two threads running through this story at all times. The actual answers Grace gives to Simon’s many questions are interwoven with the answers she richly imagines providing. For his own part, Simon envisions a Grace different from the one who sits before him. “Grace’s will is of the negative female variety - she can deny and reject much more easily than she can affirm or accept. Somewhere within herself - he’s seen it, if only for a moment, that conscious, even cunning look in the corner of her eye - she knows she’s concealing something from him. As she stitches away at her sewing, outwardly calm as a marble Madonna, she is all the while exerting her passive stubborn strength against him. A prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out. Her strongest prison is of her own construction.”

Simon is excited by the possibility of Grace being a murderess. Though he is there to support her innocence, he can’t remove his own fantasies from Grace’s tale and therefore is unable to ascertain whether Grace is guilty of the crimes she has been charged with or not. “Murderess, murderess, he whispers to himself. It has an allure, a scent almost. Hot house gardenias. Lurid, but almost furtive. He imagines himself breathing it as he draws Grace toward him…”
Alias Grace has recently been made into a mini-series on Netflix. Showrunner Sarah Polley’s outstanding adaptation sticks closely to Atwood’s story (Atwood was a producer and has a small role in it). If you have a chance to watch it, I highly recommend it. What you won’t get from either Polley or Atwood are definitive answers as to the question of Grace’s guilt, but both work to convey the timeless struggle faced by women of how to have a voice.

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An unusual debut

Mon, 11/06/2017 - 12:38pm

In a literary world full of “5 under 35 lists” and authors publishing first novels in their 20s, Leah Weiss is something of an anomaly. Her debut novel, If The Creek Don’t Rise was written after her retirement from a 24 year career as the executive assistant to the headmaster at Virginia Episcopal School. In it she introduces us to the harsh and difficult life in a small town in Appalachia in the 1970s. This can be a dangerous place, a world of violence and cruelty, especially for women. Weiss presents this community through a profuse range of voices, voices with their own dialect, particular to these mountain ranges.

The chapters in Weiss’ book, each narrated by a different individual, read like a collection of connected stories, offering a unique and varied glimpse of Baines Creek, a remote haven in an unspecified state. As a newcomer to Baines Creek, teacher Kate Shaw, one of Weiss’ strongest characters, describes it as “barely a crossroad, a dot on a map. It’s remote, embraced by natural beauty, and riddled with hardships,” with “poverty the likes of which I’ve never imagined except in the books of Dickens and Brontë sisters.”

The cast of players in this secluded town represents all facets of personality and morality, and an internal view of even the most vile characters unveils some vulnerability. We are able to see why Prudence Perkins, the reverend’s spiteful, spinster sister, is so mean spirited, and to learn from where intense cruelty is born in the heart of an abusive bully, Roy Tupkin.

If there is a main character in If The Creek Don’t Rise, she is Sadie Blue, the wife of Roy. Her voice provides bookends, she starts the first and last chapters with the same sentence, within which she demonstrates one woman’s path to a better place in a town that so often resists change. Ultimately this is Sadie Blue’s story, provided to us by a chorus of voices from those who know her, but we get to experience so many other memorable folks from Baines Creek along the way.

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Rereading the Classics: To Kill a Mockingbird

Tue, 10/31/2017 - 12:30pm

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird something like 45 years ago, and I thought recently it was time to revisit it. How long has it been since you read it? Have you ever read it? It is one of the finest works of literature I know of, universal in its themes, distinctly American in its details, and a novel of such astounding excellence and rare insight that it shouldn’t be missed. Its message is never old.

Even if you haven’t read it before, I would guess you still know the story. The film version of the book, starring the incomparable Gregory Peck as the compassionate and principled lawyer, Atticus Finch, has assured that the plot line is familiar. But there are so many reasons to read this book (again) besides remembering what happens next.

Besides an engaging story, the book offers much more: a dead-on picture of small-town, Depression-era, Southern life; enduring insights into childhood games, insecurities, and fantasies; a view of the bond of love between family members, and neighbors, that is both uplifting and heartbreaking; characters so finely-wrought that they endure in your mind long after you put down the book; a subtle and effective examination of the themes of injustice, small-minded prejudice, making moral choices in the face of hatred and ignorance, accepting the ‘other’.

Harper Lee writes the book from the viewpoint of a young Scout Finch, and captures her seven-year-old voice with pitch-perfect accuracy. She effectively uses Scout’s immature perspective to explore the serious events which unfold in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Scout’s unassuming observances of the big and small events swirling around her; her feistiness, humor, and fears; her striving to understand her relationship to her family, her school-mates and neighbors who are different from her, and to the wider world; her innocence and wisdom; are all used to unfold the memorable story.

Who is the hero of To Kill A Mockingbird? One of the beautiful things about the book to me is that you could make a case for any number of people having that honor. Atticus is the epitome of the literary hero, quietly dignified, moral, and unpretentious, standing alone, if need be, to do what is right. But what about Scout and Jem? Calpurnia, Tom, Heck? The judge, the doctor, the nosey neighbors who look out for each other and the children? What about Boo? Each of them carries some of the light of the story forward and they create, collectively, the full complement of the heroic impulse and the human response to the world.

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2017 Man Booker Prize Winner is also a worthy listen

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 5:11am

Narrated by George Saunders, Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and various others
7 Hours and 30 Minutes

Lincoln in the Bardo has just been awarded the 2017 Man Booker Prize. George Saunders is the second US author to receive this honor, and his first novel garnered much publicity and praise upon publication. But have you considered listening to the audio version? Even if you aren’t normally drawn to books on CD, this one is more theatrical production than novel. Read by a cast of some 166 people, many famous voices among them, George Saunders’ story brings to mind Our Town, A Christmas Carol, and As I Lay Dying. The cast does a stellar job in delivering a beautifully read, moving, intelligent, and highly entertaining performance.

Two main plot lines run through Lincoln in the Bardo. Both are suffused with sadness, though there is much humor in the narrations of certain characters from beyond the grave. Many of the voices in this book are residents of The Oak Hill Cemetery, where President Lincoln has interred his son, Willie. They reside in a kind of limbo, “the bardo,” with unfinished business on earth, unaware that they are dead. The chapters alternate between the “action” in the bardo, and the story of the what is happening on the night of Willie Lincoln’s death, as told by Hans Vollman (Nick Offerman), Roger Bevins III (David Sedaris), and the Reverend Everly Thomas (George Saunders). Interspersed with their escapades are chapters focused on the raw grief of a father and his newly departed son. This most poignant story of a man struggling to say goodbye, and his son’s difficulty in letting go of the earth, is particularly moving. Listeners get an inside point of view from Abraham Lincoln himself, burdened with his country’s present agony as well as his own personal bereavement, as "narrated by hans vollman in the body of a. lincoln...
He is just one.
And the weight of it is about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I …
What to do. Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing fool, king of indecision, laughing-stock for ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout?
...What am I doing.
What am I doing here.
Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?
When he is to be left out here?
Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss?
As before?...
Was he dear or not?
Then let me be happy no more."

There are stand-out performances by many, most notably, David Sedaris, Nick Offerman, Julianne Moore as Jane Ellis, Kirby Heyborne as Willie Lincoln, Bill Hader as Eddie Baron and Megan Mullally as Betsy Baron
See more at: Penguin Random House Audio.

After two full run throughs, I had to return Lincoln in the Bardo for the next listener’s wonderment, but I miss the voices of Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, the Reverend Thomas Everly, and 163 others.

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Fabulous Fiction Firsts #655

Thu, 10/05/2017 - 9:02pm

One of Entertainment Weekly's 20 Must-Read Books of the Fall and a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, The World of Tomorrow * * * * by Brendan Mathews will not disappoint.

Set against the backdrop of the World's Fair, conceived to lift the spirit of city (and the country) out of the gloom of the Depression and promised a peaceful, prosperous "World of Tomorrow," is a sweeping, intricate, and ambitious debut about family, honor, love and betrayal, over the course of one whirlwind week in 1939.

Posing as a Scottish laird, escaped Dublin convict Francis Dempsey and his shell-shocked brother, Michael, are bound for New York on the RMS Britannic, having stolen a small fortune from the IRA. Francis's title and aristocratic bearing impresses his fellow passengers enough that they eagerly welcome him into their rarefied circle once they've reached Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Tom Cronin, a retired assassin living a quiet family life in a farm upstate, is pressed into service one last time - to track the Dempsey brothers down. During the week that follows, the lives of these characters collide spectacularly with big-band jazz musicians, a talented but fragile heiress, a Jewish street photographer facing a return to Nazi-occupied Prague, a vengeful mob boss, and the ghosts of their own family's revolutionary past.

"From the smoky jazz joints of Harlem to the opulent Plaza Hotel, from the garrets of vagabonds and artists in the Bowery to the backroom warrens and shadowy warehouses of mobsters in Hell's Kitchen, Brendan Mathews brings the prewar metropolis to vivid, pulsing life." (Library Journal)

"With the wit of a ’30s screwball comedy and the depth of a thoroughly researched historical novel, this one grabs the reader from the beginning to its suspenseful climax." (Publishers' Weekly)

Fans of Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; Rules of Civility by Amor Towles; and Netherland by Joseph O'Neill would not want to miss this.

* * * * = 4 starred reviews

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Saints for All Occasions: the best of the best in Irish-Catholic family sagas

Sat, 08/05/2017 - 10:09am

J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine, Commencement and The Engagements, again returns to Boston (where at least a portion of all of her books take place) in her latest family saga, Saints for All Occasions. A master of depicting tight-knight Irish-American families full of secrets, Sullivan possesses the rare ability to tell stories that span decades without losing the reader in time. Saints for All Occasions technically begins twice: first in 2009 when Nora Rafferty’s oldest son Patrick dies in a car crash and again in 1957 when Nora and her sister Theresa make the voyage from Ireland to America to join Nora’s fiancé, Charlie, in Boston.

What transpires between 1957 and 2009 seems at first simple: Theresa gets pregnant out of wedlock—at the time a particularly terrible fate for a young Irish Catholic girl—and goes reluctantly to a nunnery for the duration of her pregnancy and to have the baby. She doesn’t want to give her child up, but is forced to by the nuns. Nora—recently married to Charlie—agrees to take the boy in and raise him as her own. The effects of this choice drive the rest of the story, which introduces us to Nora’s other three children and to the path that Theresa followed after her pregnancy. Anyone who is familiar with Boston, with Irish-Catholic families, or with both will connect immediately to the portrait of the Raffertys that Sullivan paints in Saints for All Occasions. Her characters and their choices are believable and well-formed, and she travels between time periods deftly, revealing the secrets of the story to readers at the exact right moments.

Saints for All Occasions is a wonderful read to sneak in on your summer reading list.

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Margaret Atwood's Prize Winner

Wed, 07/19/2017 - 3:48pm

“Then I’ll tell you a story. I’ll tell you this story; the story of how you came to be here, sitting in my kitchen, listening to the story I’ve been telling you...What is it I want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn’t yours to bestow. Only a listener, perhaps; only someone who will see me.”

Margaret Atwood is a remarkably prolific author whose works include 16 novels, 8 collections of short fiction, children’s books, collections of poetry, non-fiction works, television scripts, a graphic novel and a play. In 2000 she won The Man Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin. This multi-layered novel contain books within books, plots stacking up and overlapping. Atwood masterfully uses her characters as storytellers to create an expansive and complex narrative.

The Blind Assassin defies an orderly summary. Using multiple literary devices, Atwood deftly braids together three main threads to create this textured tale. Though the plot is complicated, at times confounding, it is also highly compelling. Iris Chase Griffen is at the end of her life as she chronicles, in writing, how she fills her days. While she is detailing this, she is also writing about her childhood spent with her sister, Laura. The third main thread of the story is “The Blind Assassin,” a novel published posthumously by Laura. These independent episodes create a whole which reads like a gothic mystery blended with speculative fiction. We learn of Laura Chase’s death in the opening line of the novel, and we know how she died, but Atwood leads us on a long, twisted path to deliver the why. “From here on in, things take a darker turn. But then, you knew they would. You knew it, because you already know what happened to Laura.”

For those of you on the long hold list for her extremely popular, and timely The Handmaid’s Tale, or those looking for more Atwood, Margaret post-The Handmaid’s Tale, The Blind Assassin is definitely worth delving into.

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Pulitzer Prize Winners 2017

Tue, 05/23/2017 - 12:14pm

[img_assist|nid=360709|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=132]

The esteemed [http://www.pulitzer.org/prize-winners-by-year|Pulitzer Prizes] have been awarded for 2017 and they should all be required reading. Here is the list:

Fiction: [t:Underground Railroad] by [a:Colson Whitehead]: picking up numerous awards besides the Pulitzer, including the National Book Award & the Carnegie Medal. At the top of many best book of the year lists for 2016. Whitehead chronicles two runaway slave's trials as they attempt to allude their captors with allegories that resound into the present day.

General Nonfiction: [t:Evicted : poverty and profit in the American city] by Matthew Desmond: additional honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Carnegie Medal, & PEN award. Desmond followed 8 families in Milwaukee struggling with poverty.

History: [t:Blood in the Water : the Attica prison uprising of 1971 and its legacy] by [a:Heather Ann Thompson]: another that picked up numerous accolades and awards for telling the incredible story of the uprisings as well as the aftermath

Bio/Autobiography: [t:The return : fathers, sons, and the land in between] by [a:Hisham Matar]: a deeply moving portrait of the author's continued hope of finding his father alive after his mysterious disappearance in Libya

Poetry: [t:Olio] by [a:Tyehimba Jess]: Multiple award winning poet and Detroit native, Jess, deserves an even bigger following with this fascinating collection of poetry and narrative

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Saints for All Occasions

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 3:25pm

[cover_image]|1508247[/cover_image]

In a review in [https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/j-courtney-sullivans-saints-for-all-occasions-is-this-years-best-book-about-family/2017/05/08/3a57acd8-30ca-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?utm_term=.de6dc8ef4dbf|The Washington Post], Ron Charles says, “In a simple style that never commits a flutter of extravagance, Sullivan draws us into the lives of the Raffertys and, in the rare miracle of fiction, makes us care about them as if they were our own family.”

Though the plot of her new book, [b:1508247|Saints for All Occasions], takes place over the course of only a few days, [a:Sullivan, J. Courtney|J. Courtney Sullivan] carries us back and forth through time with the story of two sisters, Nora and Theresa, as they emigrate from Ireland to Boston in the 1950s, and the separate paths they follow once they arrive. Once in Boston, Theresa becomes pregnant and Nora and her husband raise the child as their own. This deception creates a rift between the sisters and lays the ground work for many more secrets within multiple generations of their family.

It is Nora’s story that lies at the heart of this book, even as she only ever seems to know who she is in relation to others, a wife to her husband, a mother to her children, and most challengingly, a sister to Theresa. Nora would like life to follow a plan, with her at it’s helm, but people are messy and they disappoint and confound her, remaining unknowable to her. Nora conveniently seems to forget parts of her life that don’t fit into her imagined order and thus becomes mired in deceit. As the mother of four children, Nora must manage how much she actually wants to know about the people she has raised. “This, then, was the hardest part of being a parent. Your children had their private worlds, where you could never protect them. They were yours and yet not yours.”

Nora’s sister, Theresa, ends up in a convent in Vermont and becomes Mother Cecilia. She initially goes there to escape, but what she finds in herself as a nun gives her more happiness than Nora will ever know. “To sit alone with your thoughts in silence for so long, you had no choice but to confront them. The calm came not from slipping a habit over one’s head but from facing down all that plagued you and coming out the other side.”

[a:Sullivan, J. Courtney|Sullivan] delves into weighty issues such as religion, birth-control, family, love, loss, and addiction, without ever getting too heavy-handed or sentimental. She carries us along through the strength of her characters, so that they will stick with us, even after the last page.

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More Than an Audiobook

Mon, 05/01/2017 - 12:21pm

[cover_image]|1506845[/cover_image]

Narrated by [a:Saunders, George|George Saunders], [a:Offerman, Nick|Nick Offerman], [a:Sedaris, David|David Sedaris] and [http://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/book/231506/lincoln-in-the-bardo/|various others]
7 Hours and 30 Minutes

[http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/title/Lincoln%20in%20the%20Bardo|Lincoln in the Bardo] might well be on your hold list already. [a:Saunders, George|George Saunders’], first novel has received much publicity and praise, rightly so. But have you considered listening to the [b:1506845|audio version]? Even if you aren’t normally drawn to books on CD, this one is more theatrical production than novel. Read by a cast of some 166 people, many famous voices among them, [a:Saunders, George|George Saunders’] story brings to mind [b:1393391|Our Town], [b:1185335|A Christmas Carol], and [b:1024028|As I Lay Dying]. The cast does a stellar job in delivering a beautifully read, moving, intelligent, and highly entertaining performance.

Two main plot lines run through [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/title/Lincoln%20in%20the%20Bardo|Lincoln in the Bardo]. Both are suffused with sadness, though there is much humor in the narrations of certain characters from beyond the grave. Many of the voices in this book are residents of [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak_Hill_Cemetery_(Washington,_D.C.)|The Oak Hill Cemetery], where President Lincoln has interred his son, Willie. They reside in a kind of limbo, “the bardo,” with unfinished business on earth, unaware that they are dead. The chapters alternate between the “action” in the bardo, and the story of the what is happening on the night of Willie Lincoln’s death, as told by Hans Vollman ([a:Offerman, Nick|Nick Offerman]), Roger Bevins III ([a:Sedaris, David|David Sedaris]), and the Reverend Everly Thomas ([a:Saunders, George|George Saunders]). Interspersed with their escapades are chapters focused on the raw grief of a father and his newly departed son. This most poignant story of a man struggling to say goodbye, and his son’s difficulty in letting go of the earth, is particularly moving. Listeners get an inside point of view from Abraham Lincoln himself, burdened with his country’s present agony as well as his own personal bereavement, as "narrated by hans vollman in the body of a. lincoln...
“He is just one.
And the weight of it is about to kill me.
Have exported this grief. Some three thousand times. So far. To date. A mountain. Of boys. Someone’s boys. Must keep on with it. May not have the heart for it. One thing to pull the lever when blind to the result. But here lies one dear example of what I accomplish by the orders I …
What to do. Call a halt? Toss down the loss-hole those three thousand? Sue for peace? Become great course-reversing fool, king of indecision, laughing-stock for ages, waffling hick, slim Mr. Turnabout?
...What am I doing.
What am I doing here.
Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath?
When he is to be left out here?
Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss?
As before?...
Was he dear or not?
Then let me be happy no more."

There are stand-out performances by many, most notably, [a:Sedaris, David|David Sedaris], [a:Offerman, Nick|Nick Offerman], [a:Moore, Julianne|Julianne Moore] as Jane Ellis, [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/author/%2522Heyborne%252C%2BKirby.%2522|Kirby Heyborne] as Willie Lincoln, [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/author/%2522Hader%252C%2BBill%252C%2B1978-%2522|Bill Hader] as Eddie Baron and [http://www.aadl.org/catalog/search/author/%2522Mullally%252C%2BMegan%252C%2522|Megan Mullally] as Betsy Baron
See more at: [http://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/book/231506/lincoln-in-the-bardo/#sthash.316nozQi.dpuf|Penguin Random House Audio].

After two full run throughs, I had to return [b:1506845|Lincoln in the Bardo] for the next listener’s wonderment, but I miss the voices of Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, the Reverend Thomas Everly, and 163 others.