Monday, December 30, 2013

Dear Great Book Guru,  Happy New Year to you and please, please help me keep my New Year’s resolution- I want to read one book a week. With all the wonderful things happening in Sea Cliff, I do find it hard to find the time so I need something short but worthwhile to start 2014 off right.  Resolute Reader

Dear Resolute, How admirable of you and indeed I do have a recommendation that should work very well for you:  THE APARTMENT by Greg Baxter.  This debut novel is set on a cold December day in an unnamed East European city- some reviewers suggest Prague, others Istanbul, while the author insists it’s an amalgam of many cities. The first person narrator is a forty-one year-old American who has become wealthy from profiteering during the Iraq War. We follow him as he travels around the city in search of an apartment- a new home.  He is accompanied by a young real estate agent and various friends of hers. Everything our American sees is colored by his past- with its memories of violence, camaraderie,  guilt, isolation, alienation.  We come to realize that this is a deeply political book, a study of America and its place in the 21stcentury .   Beautifully written, very provocative, and less than 200 pages, this book is definitely the way to start the new year!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Dear Great Book Guru,  My friends and I are planning a small New Year’s Eve dinner  party here in Sea Cliff and we would like to add  a literary twist to the evening’s festivities. Can you think of anything that might fill the bill?  New Year’s Eve Literary Reveler

Dear Literary Reveler, What a great idea and I have a great, great suggestion: “THE DEAD” by James Joyce,  perhaps the finest short story ever written and it is set at a gala party celebrating the new year. The description of the delicious food and drink coupled with sparkling conversation and lilting music, all set in the home of two elderly sisters and their niece, makes for a delightful glimpse into life in Dublin one hundred years ago. But the story is so, so much more. We meet the courtly, self-absorbed Gabriel - the sisters' adored nephew- and his wife Gretta; the easily intimidated and intoxicated Freddy Malins; his tedious, complaining mother; Lily, a young servant girl; and a whole array of colorful partygoers. There is a feverishly familiar litany of past parties, achievements, slights, and political barbs but the story's climax comes shortly after the party ends. Gretta in a melancholy mood mentions a young boy from the countryside who had loved her. Her husband immediately becomes jealous and questions her fidelity only to find that the boy had died decades before . Michael Furey had despaired when Gretta left their village for boarding school, and came to her window on a brutally bitter night to bid her farewell; he died from the cold but the devotion he showed was still vividly alive for Gretta these many years later. Gabriel laments his own pettiness, his lack of passion in contrast to young Michael's. The story closes with Gabriel looking out as the snow covers Ireland, falling "upon all the living and the dead." A truly beautiful piece!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Dear Great Book Guru,  Last weekend, I was at Elizabeth Weinstein’s 24thAnnual Cookie Swap and as usual, the cookies were delicious, the treats tasty, and the company  stellar.  As is often the case at Sea Cliff events, conversation turned to books.  One partygoer went on and on about her favorite author- I think her name was Alice McDermott. Have you read anything by her? I am looking for something relatively quick to read over the upcoming holiday weekend.   Elated Cookie Swapper

Dear Elated, I agree- Elizabeth’s cookie swap is one of the highlights of the holiday season, and I agree too that Alice McDermott is a very fine writer. I just read her latest novel SOMEONE and it touched me greatly.  Set largely in Brooklyn between the two world wars, the story is told by Marie who is seven when we first meet her.  Her neighbors, her friends, her parents, her brother-all the “someones” that make up Marie’s life are described in exquisite, almost painful detail. We go back and forth in time and characters we meet early on are reintroduced and seen through the different prisms of time and memory.  As we observe and, yes, examine Marie’s long life: its tragedies, its triumphs, its mysteries, we come to see the ordinary as truly extraordinary.  Highly recommended!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dear Great Book Guru,   Last week I was at a magnificent production:  An Introduction to "The Nutcracker "at the Children's Library here in Sea Cliff . The music was beautiful  and the performances of the twenty children outstanding  and especially memorable with the debut of the young  Lara as Clara. Dan DiPietro returned in his classic role as the mysterious but kindly  Drosselmeyer,  and the Stroppels- Fred and Joe and Liz admirably served as the production crew.  Afterwards, some of the audience members began talking about  a collection of short stories  they were reading for a book club discussion. The author was Junot Diaz but I can't remember its title.  Do you know this book and if so would you recommend it?  Nutcracker Devotee

Dear Nutcracker Devotee,  How  I too loved this performance ! And yes, I have read Diaz's latest work: THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER.   Written from the perspective of Yunior, this is a  collection of love stories- and they are love stories- four of them  are named after  women who Yunior loved and eight of the nine stories tell how he lost their love. Yunior's life trajectory follows closely that of Diaz's himself- born in the Dominican Republic, brought to this country at an early age, he ultimately becomes a highly successful teacher and author.  But much comes in between and herein  lies the theme  of these stories- Yunior loses each of his loves through serial infidelities that he describes in a flippant, almost cruel manner, and each time he ends up sad, lonely, repentant  but  seemingly  having learned nothing . In the final story, the longest by far in the collection, there is a sense of enlightenment as he tells us "the half-life of love is forever."   Still one wonders what Yunior feels : is it loss,  is it love, or is it  loss of love ? His lack of empathy remains a chilling indictment of the man.  A disturbing book!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Dear Great Book Guru,  Thanksgiving was such fun, and followed by the wonderful Hanukkah Happening, and then this weekend we will have the Tree Lighting on the Village Green with an afternoon of Village gift shopping . But now I need the always important good book suggestion.  My book group is looking for something we can discuss at length, something topical, something stimulating….Any ideas? Baffled Book Club Booster

Dear Baffled,  I have just the book for you and your book club: THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers.  On the first page,  we meet Mae, a young woman  a few years out of college who has been dispiritedly  living home with her parents and seemingly stuck at a dead end  job when  her fairy godmother of sorts appears: Annie,  a close friend  from school.  Annie has a coveted position with  the Circle, a company that bears a strong resemblance to Google, Facebook, or perhaps Amazon.  Annie hires  Mae  and suddenly  life turns golden.  The Circle is magical- everyone is young, beautiful,  smart, and so very friendly and  so, so willing to share. Yes, that is the company motto: "to share is to care." Soon Mae is caught up in the company culture, her parents (and she, of course) are given the best health insurance imaginable, her meals are prepared by gourmet chefs on the exquisite company campus,  her every need - known and unknown- is met. So …what could be wrong?  Nothing really just that she and all those around her have no private thoughts, no private moments. Everything is shared with the entire world. Everyone rates everyone and the company keeps score of all these ratings or "likes" which run into the multi- millions at times.  This novel is our Orwellian 1984, our Faustian bargain with the devil, our Bonfire of the Vanities, and to some degree, all of us are complicit.   A terrifying look into the present and the future!