'Tis the season for a good read

Modern Lovers by Emma Staub. In the 1990's, four friends at Oberlin form a short-lived but locally successful rock group. Twenty years later, Andrew and Elizabeth are married with a teenage son, Harry;  Zoe is the owner of a successful Brooklyn restaurant with her wife Jane, and the mother of a rebellious teen, Ruby; the fourth member, Lydia, died from an overdose after becoming a highly successful raspy-voice singer with her recording of Elizabeth's composition  Mistress of Myself. Her brief career and young death catapulted her to Janis Joplin status and now Hollywood wants to create a biopic but they need the other former band members to sign off on the deal. For Andrew and Elizabeth, pressure from the movie studio creates an added strain to their marriage as they mull over the possible consequences of exposing their complicated past lives. Like many middle-ages hipsters, the three friends are proud of their free-wheeling youth and the liberal values that continue to define them. But of course, life brings change - they are now parents of teenage children whose rebellion catches them by surprise. Sure THEY stayed out all night, smoked pot, drank, had sex freely but . . .  This thoughtful and witty novel reflects upon love, life, family, and friendship in a way that is sure to stir your own memories of youth and how the realities of adulthood impose on our expectations of marriage, friends, and parenthood.

Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway's Masterpiece by Lesley M. M. Blume. As a 16-year-old living in the sleepy town of Redlands, California, the local library in a majestic historic building was a sanctuary for me. A library was where I could find always feel comfortable as we moved from place to place throughout the state. Redlands High was my third secondary school; as usual I arrived mid-year, carefully skirting the crowds of girl cliques, trying to blend into the bustle of the sprawling campus.  Eventually I met a friend who shared my passion for Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and other writers that provided literary adventures we could only barely imagine. We would ride around in her baby blue VW convertible competing in our analysis of favorite novels of the 20's and 30's pausing at times to sing along with the Supremes blasting out of the radio. Remember, there was no YA literature at that time, no Judy Blume, no Hunger Games, so we were trying to see the world through the eyes of these male writers of a much earlier era in our century. We both had a passion for Hemingway's writing and lifestyle in particular: his youthful ambition, the literary discussions in Paris cafes, and the spur of the moment trips to the south of France or Spain. He and his cohorts "behaved badly"as we so desperately wanted to do as well.
Blume's meticulously researched work follows Hemingway from his arrival in Paris in 1923 to the production of his first novel, considered by some his "masterpiece" and certainly the novel that initiated his entry into the literary world of New York publishing. Living off his wife Hadley's small inherited income, Hemingway trolled the cafes of Montparnasse, charming the regulars with his flamboyance and singular self-confidence. He managed to surround himself with the likes of Ezra Pound, Dorothy Parker, Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, as well as numerous wealthy patrons of the arts. In July 1925 Hemingway traveled to Pamplona for the San Fermin Festival with Hadley and a group of friends, including writer Robert McAlmon who discreetly paid the hotel and bar bills for the Hemingways as they never seemed to have any cash. After a week of  heavy drinking and taunting bulls, the Hemingways traveled to Switzerland and soon afterward he began work on what was eventually called The Sun Also Rises, a novel based almost entirely on the "bad behavior" of his so-called friends. Although he lost the respect of some and was resented by others who were portrayed quite mercilessly, his tightly written prose was highly praised and he was credited with transforming the literary style of early 20th century writing. Lesley M.M. Blume has recreated the surreal world of 1920's Paris in rich detail, with the pacing of a suspenseful novel that makes this glimpse into a slice of Hemingway's life such a compelling read.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski.  The title of this memoir by noted British author Jenny Diski seems straightforward enough: after her diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer in 2014 (was it the publisher who chose the cover picture?), she began a journal of introspection. But it was not to be a tale of gratitude. Jenny began life in a home plagued by poverty, abuse, and neglect. As a child and teenager she spent months at a time in foster homes and hospitals for the mentally ill.  The Camden Council in London managed to send her to an exclusive boarding school in an attempt to encourage healthy development of her obvious intelligence but she broke all the rules and eventually was expelled. Enter novelist Doris Lessing who later was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.  Her son Peter was a fellow student of Jenny and although he often argued with her, he felt that she needed another chance and persuaded his mother to take Jenny in. Lessing herself grew up in a dysfunctional family in colonial Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and ran away from school at age 13, never to complete any further education. Jenny and her mentor often clashed but she admits that she began her real education around the dinner table at Lessing's house with numerous notable writers and artists. All her life she felt that people expected her to feel gratitude for what was given to her but Diski pushed back from this pressure. She acknowledges her success in life, due to stubbornness more than anything else. Her rambling thoughts and memories, her resignation to death, and her ability to see things as they are make this a remarkable book. 

Short Takes   

They May Not Mean to But They Do by Cathleen Schine.  This author is a favorite of mine, with her always fresh and clever way of looking at families and relationships.  The title of her latest book comes from the Philip Larkin poem This Be The Verse:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

Schine takes this poem full circle with the story of the Bergman clan. Joy's husband has just passed away and her adult children Molly and Daniel take charge with suggestions on how she should manage her health, her finances, her choice of meals, and eventually her love life. Joy at 83 still holds a job as a museum curator, clinging to her independence with the aid of a cane and her sassy girlhood friends. When she reconnects with an old friend in the park, her children step a bit too far into her life - they don't mean to but they do.

The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese.  I still regard Verghese's novel, Cutting for Stone, as one of the most elegantly crafted novels of the late 20th century. As both a physician and a perceptive  writer, he traces his relationship with a troubled medical resident under his supervision at Texas Tech School of Medicine. Australian David Smith, a former professional tennis player, is a bright and talented medical student struggling with drug addiction, already having been suspended from the school and readmitted with numerous restrictions. The two discover a common passion for the game of tennis and carry on a continuing  dialogue on and off the court about the obstacles they are facing in life which include Verghese's divorce and separation from his children. An amazingly frank account of two very different men whose friendship takes a horrifying turn.

Local authors 

Penroe: In Another Field Without Time by David Bosselmann.  When I was handed this book by the author, I wasn't sure what to expect. He described it as a biography of his late wife, Penny Walker Bosselman, a woman he obviously still missed and loved deeply but I didn't anticipate finding more than a moving tribute to a beloved spouse. As it happens, Penny or "Penroe" as David affectionately called her, was a poet, a naturalist, and a truly spiritual woman who spent her life in quiet observation of the world around her, communicating intimately with her husband and with those who read her beautiful, lyrical poetry.  Bosselman manages to seamlessly weave Penny's journals, poems, and his own reflections into a memorable and moving story. Highly recommended.  Available from the author: www.penroe.net

The Kitchen by Elizabeth Fellers. Feller's latest book would make a great gift for any woman on your Christmas list. Julianne, a woman still reeling from her husband Jock's death under mysterious circumstances as well as the financial mess that he left behind, gathers her inner strength to move forward with help from her daughter Natalie and close friend Adela. She is encouraged to use her culinary skills to open her own business providing lessons in the art of preparing and serving a delicious meal to small groups of students. Although Julianne becomes more confident in her ability to not only survive but flourish in her new role in life, she still needs to find out the secrets of Jock's life and death. Marriage, friendship, secrets, lies - a bit of romance and some delicious recipes ( I have tried these myself!) make for an "unputdownable" read for the holiday season. Available from Amazon, in print and kindle.

Happy holidays dear readers!


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