Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell

If I die, survive me with such force 
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I dont want your laughter or your steps to waver, 
I don't want my heritage of joy to die.
Don't call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house. 
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.  
Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCIV

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship (2010), by Gail Caldwell, reminds me of this beautiful poem by Pablo Neruda. The author, in fact, quotes a couple of its lines when recalling the death of her dear friend, Caroline Knapp, and describing her process of healing from that loss.

The memoir is the story of a deep friendship - a bond in which two women are linked by their love of family, literature, writing, dogs, and the outdoors. They had other similarities,too - these of a darker nature. Both had struggled with and overcome the addiction of alcoholism.

Caldwell talks candidly about her own family history with this disease and how drinking was very much a part of the culture of her birthplace - Amarillo, Texas.

Because my tolerance allowed me to drink hugely but functionally for years - I survived most of graduate school with a cache of scotch," she recounts.  I cultivated an image that waffled between tragedy and liberation. The self-perception was constructed to fit the need: With alcohol the mandatory elixir, I would erect a stage set to justify its presence. I would be the sensitive heroine, or doomed romantic, or radical bohemian - I was Hamlet, Icarus, Edith Wharton's Lily Bart. God forbid that I simply face who I was, which was somebody drunk and scared and on my way to being no one at all... (p. 50)

Early on, Caldwell acknowledged her love of writing, which co-existed with her drinking. Studying for her doctoral oral exams in Austin, she would sit at her typewriter, "primed with a glass of scotch and a pack of Winstons. "The writing was the life force and the whiskey was the snake in the grass. For as long as I could, I chose them both." (p. 52).

What changed everything was a series of alcohol-related accidents, culminating in memory problems. Caldwell's drinking began to influence her ability to write. A life without writing was unimaginable. She was now living in Massachusetts and working as a freelance writer. It was the summer of 1984. Six months into being sober and with the help of AA meetings, she was hired by The Boston Globe as its underling book critic.

By the time she and Knapp became friends, Caroline had been sober a couple of years and was trying to keep balanced after publication of her book, Drinking, a Love Story. Caldwell, nine years her senior, had been sober for 15. The had initially met at a literary event, but cemented their friendship while out walking their dogs. Their shared love of rowing and long walks in the forest created a deep bond that grew stronger as time passed.

Caldwell's description of those walks is evocative. Her purchase of a home and joy of decorating it are life events that the author recalls as grounding and joyful. Carolyn's carrying her over the threshold evokes a smile, and the reader shares this happy moment with both women.

Clementine, Caldwell's beautiful Samoyed, plays a key role in this memoir. Her energy is matched only by the author's love for her.

In describing Let's Take the Long Way Home, Julie Myerson of the New York Times concludes:

This may be a book about death and loss, but Caldwell's greatest achievement is to rise above all that to describe both the very best that women can be together and the precious things they can, if they wish, give back to one another: power, humor, love and self-respect.

(The New York Times Book Review, August 20, 2010)

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Prague Summer by Jeffrey Condran

This is a debut novel, a thriller, that kept me on the edge of my seat!

The book begins with the story of six female friends, who, post-college, shared a house together on Coventry Drive, in the U.S.A. This house was the focal point for fun and glamor, and a testing ground for any potential man friends. All the girls weighed in on each other's dates!

One of the girls, Stephanie, married Henry Martin, and moved to Prague. Stephanie is a career diplomat assigned to the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Prague. Henry is a rare book dealer who can work anywhere. He opens a book store called, of all things, "Hades."

Fast forward some years, and one of Stephanie's friends from the Coventry Drive house, Selma, comes to visit, ostensibly to recover from a crisis. Selma's husband, Mansour Al-Khatoub was arrested under the Patriot Act and jailed in the US for unknown reasons. He was there on a work visa, and Selma claims he was arrested merely for being an Arab in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Selma says she has come to Prague to escape from her husband's grim fortune, and while she is there, never ceases lobbying U.S. congressmen and senators, hoping they can secure her husband's release.
It turns out that she also has an ulterior motive behind her visit to her old pal Stephanie and her suggestible husband Henry - Selma plans, through whatever means necessary, to convince Henry that his wife Stephanie should use her considerable connections and influence at the Embassy to get Mansour released.

Good writing, suspense, an intriguing storyline about the rare book world, and lots to think about in terms of friendships and loyalties - what would one do (or not do) for a friend, or a lover?

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I am Pilgrim opens with a grisly murder scene: a woman is found face down in a bathtub of acid which destroyed her facial features, teeth and finger prints making identification nearly impossible. One of the investigators present recognizes the scene - it's a reenactment from a book he wrote about forensic investigative techniques, a very obscure book.

The investigator is known by many names: Ramon, Scott Murdoch, Brodie Wilson, Peter Campbell, "Rider of the Blue," and later as Pilgrim. Ben Bradley, the lead homicide investigator is in charge and he has brought the Pilgrim with him to have a look. The Pilgrim was a member of a deep shadow United States government organization. Its task was to police the US intelligence community - it was known as "the world's covert internal affairs department" or more simply the "Division." As a member, Pilgrim saw lots of bizarre crimes. As the best of the intelligence agents he was known as "The Rider of the Blue."

Pilgrim spent years chasing terrorists and traitors around the world. Retired, he has been asked to come back and find the Saracen, a middle eastern terrorist who became more strident  in his beliefs after the execution of his father. He was a mujaheddin and then he trained as a medical doctor so he could carry out his world changing idea. He sets up his lab in the desert and practices his idea on 3 victims. It is successful beyond his imaginings. Saracen's problem is that there are governments looking for his 3 victims. While Pilgrim arrives too late to save the victims, he pieces together exactly what the Saracen plans to do but then he realizes he's looking at the problem all wrong!

This is a 600 page book but don't let that scare you off. It takes almost half the book to lay out the background and get to the main event. This book races along, layer after layer. It's a thriller in the classic sense. The Pilgrim has a personal history that is gradually shared. Ben is the perfect sidekick and he has his own past.  Plus the story line just moves - the plot line has twists and turns. Everyone is hiding something. Excellent!

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Friday, November 14, 2014

I Must Say: My Life as a Humble Comedy Legend by Martin Short

I missed Martin Short's new book in the tidal wave of upcoming celebrity memoirs that always greets the season, but this is somehow appropriate in that Short has always seemed to be on the cusp of massive fame but has had to settle into simply being well-known. I snatched this book off the shelf and read it in a weekend since in my world, Martin Short is one of the funniest men alive. Like Short, the book is charming and hilarious while his reminiscence of his wife of 30 years and her death by ovarian cancer is moving.

Short got his start as a professional actor in a Toronto production of Godspell with future SCTV co-stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas as well as David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer and Gilda Radner, who he would end up dating - can you imagine being out with those two on a double date? A Canadian branch of Chicago-based Second City eventually opened with John Candy, Brian Doyle-Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Joe Flaherty joining the cast. If it seems like there were a lot of funny future celebrities hanging out in Toronto at the time then that certainly was the case, and we end up hearing stories about all of them.

Short eventually joined up with Second City in Toronto, made his way to Hollywood where he starred in a few ill-fated pilots and landed at the now well-established SCTV where he proceeded to create some of the characters for which he is best known, including Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr. and songwriter Irving Cohen. Some of the characters followed him to Saturday Night Live, where he joined a cast that included funnymen comedians Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest and Jim Belushi. On the verge of superstardom Short made a number of movies that did...ok. Since that time he has popped up in starring and supporting roles on TV as well as feature films, with an upcoming role in the adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice in the pipeline. Chicago was lucky enough to see him onstage in a comedy show with friend Steve Martin a number of years back and he has even hosted his own Broadway show.

There are two particular aspects to this book that make it stand out. First, it is full of anecdotes about Short's relationships with his famous friends, who include the aforementioned Steve Martin and Paul Shaffer as well as Nora Ephron and others. If you don't want to crash one of his star-studded Christmas parties after reading this book then you really don't know how to have fun. There's even a poignant section on Robin Williams that must have been written since his death. Admittedly, my favorite celebrity anecdote involves a conversation between George Burns and Jack Benny that he heard second hand and which is too filthy to share here.

Beyond being a celebrity memoir though, this is a love story, with Short's wife a presence throughout. His warm remembrance of her makes this a very touching holiday read for any fan of Martin Short's comedy.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy

It’s been said that no one really knows what goes on behind closed doors. However if those doors are on Chestnut Street in Dublin, Maeve Binchy will clue us in to the inner workings.
A collection of nearly 40 somewhat interwoven short stories, this book, published posthumously, is Binchy’s last. It’s a nice coda on her literary life. The book’s stories feature a lot of humor, some sadness, a wee bit of sex, and many happy surprises about the life choices made by the middle-class residents of this long crescent-shaped street in Ireland’s capital.
If you've read this charming writer before, you won’t be disappointed, just wistful that this is her last offering. However, if you haven’t read Binchy before, this collection is a good way to be introduced to her (our Library has over a dozen of her works, so come on back for more when you finish this one).  But grab a cup of tea before you turn to page 1 of Chestnut Street, as you’ll want to settle in for a cozy time when  you meet "Dolly’s Mother" (what IS she doing behind the closed door with that man who is not Dolly's father?), "The Older Man" (why did Helen want to marry him, of all people?), the four lost souls who end up together having a very festive dinner  "One Night a Year", and so many other Dubliners of various ages, backgrounds, and sensibilities.

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Friday, November 7, 2014

New Life, No Instructions by Gail Caldwell



 (But) it's no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
( epigraph of New Life, No Instructions)

Gail Caldwell is the former chief book critic of The Boston Globe as well as winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism. New Life, No Instructions is her third memoir and it continues where Let's Take the Long Way Home left off.

It is now 2011, and the author is reflecting on events leading up to the summer of 2008 - the deaths of her adored father, her beloved mother, her best friend, Carolyn Knapp (Drinking, a Love Story, B KNAPP), and finally, her thirteen-year old Samoyed, Clementine. The loss of her faithful companion, Clementine, who had helped her with the other losses, was the blow that seemed to fell her.

After she was gone, Caldwell reflects, I wanted to lie down amid  the rubble and stay thereAnd yet, she continues, I sensed that I had not just been pummeled by death but reshaped by it, poised now at some crucial junction between darkness and endurance, which is the realist's version of hope. It seemed obvious that every gesture we make to way-lay loss - a walk taken, a symphony heard or composed, was either a trick on death or a transient reprieve, and I felt so saddened from this insight that I didn't think I had much fight left in me...I needed the rambunctious miracle that would prove the lie." (pp. 25-26)

This miracle comes in the form of a Samoyed puppy - a mixed blessing indeed. Tula, a dog bred to pull a thousand pounds - a sled dog--was quite a challenge for a woman in her late fifties. But the author welcomed challenges. Having had polio at the age of six months, she never let a limp slow her down. She hiked tough trails and was a strong swimmer and recreational rower. As with everything, Caldwell believed she was up for the task of raising this puppy.

New Life, No Instructions is much more than the story of this human-animal bond. The vigor of the puppy is contrasted with Caldwell's increasing frailty. During Tula's first year, the author's limp becomes more apparent, she is in increasing pain, and she falls repeatedly. After months of misdiagnoses, she finally sees a surgeon who orders an MRI. All the others attributed her decline to post-polio syndrome. Instead, the cause is revealed to be a disintegration in the scaffolding of her hip. She needs a full hip replacement. The surgeon also suggests lengthening the leg that was affected by polio and effectively erasing her limp.

The six months of healing - enduring the physical pain and weakness, re-learning to walk, using muscles in her lengthened leg that had never been used - is a testament to the determination and  strength of the author. It is also exploration of the single life and a testament to deep friendships  - without which Caldwell could not have managed her long recovery. And although Caldwell's recovery is a focal point in the book, it serves as a metaphor for the many hurdles we all face in life. As she observes:

One of the quiet profundities of aging is when you realize this is an ordinary and very un-profound moment. Inside every aging person is the ageless, blinking mind, asking, "How did I get here?" There may be a former linebacker inside the elderly man being helped across the street; the eighty-five-year-old woman selecting two oranges at the grocery store used to be a dancer, or a lawyer, or hoisted her children up over her head when they were small. It helps to know this, I think, because it widens the future, humbles you before the sovereignty of time...You can see all the corners of the map in your fifties, probably for the first time in life. You still get to shape some of it, and finally have the sense to know how. (p. 30)

New Life, No Instructions is a lyrical self-examination that brims with humanity and salutes all who have the courage to live with vigor and optimism.

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go

I could not stop reading The Steady Running of the Hour, this first novel by Justin Go. There is history and mystery, romance and epistolary (letter writing). The novel is compelling on many levels and much better written than my second sentence. I want to write something brief about this book and leave you to discover it for yourself. I do not want to give too much away.

The novel can be described as a quest novel. The narrative alternates between two time periods and main characters. Ashley Walsingham is an English mountaineer and a World War I veteran. In 1924,  he dies while trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest. He leaves his fortune to his former lover, Imogen, a woman he has not seen since she left him during the war. His lawyers can not find her and the estate is unclaimed.

"The letter came by courier last week." So writes Tristan Campbell, in the first sentence of the book. He is a young American college graduate, who is notified by a British law firm that he may be the heir to a fortune. Nearly eighty years have passed and only a few weeks remain before the trust expires. New information has led the law firm to Tristan who must find evidence of his relationship to Imogen to claim the trust. Conditions of the trust require that he not reveal his search or its purpose to anyone, so Tristan must search alone and unaided.

In the course of the two narratives, the reader is transported throughout Europe, "From London archives to Somme battlefields to the Eastfjords of Iceland..." The book is written with excellent attention to detail of places and a fine understanding of the multiple characters.  The Steady Running of the Hour is an story of adventure told with sensitivity. I found it hard to put down. I look forward to more from Justin Go.

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