Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lorene Cary launches Literally Speaking: Author House Parties

On June 30th I launched my new event series: Literally Speaking: Author House Parties. My first guest was author Lorene Cary.

Lorene Cary is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, founder of Art Sanctuary, and author of the memoir Black Ice and the novel The Price of a Child, the 2003 selection for One Book, One Philadelphia.

The event featured Cary’s newly-published book, If Sons Then Heirs, which tells a complex story of family, race, and the challenges of reconciling the present with a persistent past. Publishers Weekly says: “Cary pairs generations of loving, and loyal individuals with social history, making for an absorbing and moving tale.”

The book is a compelling read, with lively, likeable characters and fabulous dialogue. Cary’s got a great ear for voices. I particularly liked Selma, the aging matriarch trying to hold together the family farm in South Carolina, fighting off conflicts from family, the law, racism, and a slew of memories from a life lived through a number of controversial periods in American history.

My great thanks to Lorene Cary for making the trip and sharing her time, her warmth, and her insights with the audience at Literally Speaking!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Patchett Again

The other Patchett book I read recently (in addition to the one discussed below, The Patron Saint of Liars) is her newest one, State of Wonder, just out and already on the bestseller lists. Patchett’s publicist calls this book “her best one yet,” but it’s no Bel Canto. Hard to imagine anything can beat Bel Canto. The students in my Hot Off the Press class liked this book, but my feelings are more lukewarm.

It’s a Heart of Darkness of a book, a fraught voyage down the Amazon to a deep, dark outpost where scientists are studying the amazing long-lasting fertility of a particular tribe. To this place goes Dr. Marina Singh, sent by her pharmaceutical company employer (whose president is also her lover) to a) find out what happened to the guy they sent before who never came back (Mr. Kurtz, he dead), and to find out what’s happening on the promised drug development front down there. The company wants a return on its extensive investment!

Why send Marina? Well, because she has to go, of course. That’s how the plot works. Never mind that she’s just some obscure scientist toiling away on researching lipids for a cholesterol drug, hardly an Amazonian warrior. Besides, it turns out (ta da!), that M’s deep dark secret is her mistake in medical school, a botched delivery while studying obstetrics, studying under the fearsome Dr Swenson—the very doctor now ensconced in said Amazonian outpost.

Marina goes, descends Orpheus-like to hell, and lives to tell the tale. On the way we meet doctors and scientists, local tribesmen, gatekeepers and hangers on-ers. An anaconda is wrestled, a baby is successfully and dramatically delivered (to make up for past mistakes), and the missing man’s whereabouts are accounted for. We also chew some tree bark and there’s the requisite Patchett tie-it-all-up-neatly twist near the end, but hey, I’ll leave you a surprise or two.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Patron Saint of Liars

Just finished another Ann Patchett book, The Patron Saint of Liars. One more (Taft) to go in my campaign to read all of Patchett’s work! This one’s from 1992, and it has Patchett’s signature style: great storytelling that draws you in, richly-drawn characters, and beautifully-crafted sentences.

The book begins in the early 20th century with a prologue in which a farmer discovers on his property a spring which appears to have healing powers, healing his animals and ultimately & miraculously saving the life of his young daughter. This draws crowds and a wealthy couple who build a fancy hotel at the site, which for many years is a popular destination. When the Great Depression hits, the spring dries up, as do customers for the hotel. The couple donates the hotel to the Catholic Church which uses it first as a convent and then as a home for unwed mothers.

Fast forward to the mid-1960s where we meet Rose, a nineteen year old Catholic girl lighting holy candles and praying for her sign from God to tell her what to do with her life. She meets a guy she thinks she’s meant to marry, marries him, and soon discovers her mistake. A few years later she finds herself driving away from life as she knows it. She’s leaving, she’s pregnant, and she’s heading for St. Elizabeth’s Home for Unwed Mothers, the above-mentioned former spa and hotel.

When Rose arrives at St. Elizabeth’s, the author carefully describes the somewhat shabby grandeur of the place. I picture a huge white-washed cedar-shingled Victorian, a quiet oasis where guests relax and read and ponder life. Sounds like a great place to be—I could use a retreat like that!

The book is in three sections, each narrated by a different character (if I tell you who the three characters are I’ll totally give away the plot!). Rose is the thread throughout, Rose the perhaps-failed Catholic who is the title’s patron saint of liars, who covers her tracks as she goes through life, sharing as little as possible about herself with those with whom she shares her life.

Rose, as presented through her own voice and then from the point of view of two other characters, is an interesting character. I liked her, while at the same time wanting to smack her on the side of the head and say “come on, give a little – a word, a hug – something!” Rose makes so many choices that seem so wrong. In fact, now that I think of it, I’m pretty mystified by many/most of Rose’s choices. This would be a great book club book, because it bears talking over. I need someone to discuss Rose with!Anyone out there read it?