to kill mockingbirdMy favorite banned book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  I loved this book; I loved the movie.  I can still picture (in black and white) Gregory Peck portaying the consummate Southern lawyer Atticus Finch, wiping his brow in the hot, segregated courtroom while his adoring daughter Scout, looks on from the balcony.

Set in a small Southern town in Alabama during the Depression, the book follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother Jem and their father, Atticus, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman.  Thus, the book covers many issues, but because it is told through the eyes of young Scout, it never comes off as judgmental or preachy.

I could never understand why someone would not want others to read this book.  It won the Pulitzer Prise, it’s been translated into more than forty languages and was voted the best novel of the twentieth century.  If somehow you got through school without reading this book, now is the time to do so.  Come to think of it, it may be about time for me to read it again — it’s that good!

pay it forwardRemember the movie, Pay It Forward (2000) with Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt?  The one in which the teacher (Spacey) encourages his students to make the world a better place?  By the way, in case you don’t know — as I didn’t — the movie is actually based on a book with the same title by Catherine Ryan Hyde.  Anyway, in the book or the movie,  one of his students actually comes up with a plausible plan: to pay it forward.  In other words, if someone does you a kind deed, rather than paying it back, you pay it forward, to three new people.

Well, recently, my husband and I were recipients of a kind deed.  We were out shopping for replacement steps to our hot tub; after 16 years, its wooden stairs had finally disintegrated. We looked at building them ourselves (cost: $50 plus, not to mention time and effort).  Another store sold cedar steps for $100 — a bit pricey.  At our final stop, the salesperson was showing us floor samples in hard plastic.  Another customer spoke up and said, “I have three of those at home; if you want one, just follow me home and you can have one.”  At first, we weren’t certain he was serious and we didn’t want to appear cheap.  But even the sales guy offered, “Well, you can’t beat a deal like that!”  So, we followed him home, got the steps and offered to pay him.  His reply: “Just do something nice for someone else.”  Translation: pay it forward.

So, I’m still looking for ways to do just that.  Though I’m not quite ready to donate a kidney, I am hoping some random act of kindness will make itself blatantly obvious.  In the meantime, if you know of a need — please let me know.  I need to forward some payments.

south of broadI couldn’t wait to read South of Broad — Pat Conroy hasn’t written a novel in 14 years  — though he did write a memoir (My Losing Season) and a cookbook.   I was also curious about the Charleston, South Carolina connection.  In Charleston, south of Broad Street (S.O.B.) is teasingly differentiated from slightly north of Broad (SNOB) in reference to the upscale residents there.  None of the reviewers seemed to catch this obvious pun.  At any rate, I do have to agree with reviewer Chris Bohjalian, who stated, “Even though I felt stage-managed by Conroy’s heavy hand, I still turned the pages with relish.”  That’s how I felt, too.  The book definitely kept my interest but there were details that irritated me.  I questioned the likelihood of all those high school sweethearts actually marrying.  I was kept worrying about his brother’s suicide until the very end.  I found some of the dialogue forced.

Still — I’d rather have you form your own opinion, so here’s a short synopsis of the plot.  The book begins in the summer of 1969, just as the main character (Leopold Bloom King — yes, named after the character in Joyce’s Ulysses) is about to enter his senior year in high school.  After a miserable childhood, marked primarily by the unexpected suicide of his golden-boy brother, Leo becomes friends with an unlikely group which includes orphans, blacks, members of the socially elite and charismatic twins, Trevor and Sheba Poe.  Fast forward twenty years — Sheba is now a famous movie star and Trevor is wasting away with AIDS.  Sheba recruits this same group — still best friends — to find Trevor in San Francisco and bring him back home to Charleston.

In my opinion, this is not Conroy’s best work, but it’s one that many will still enjoy reading.

breaking awayThere’s lots of bicycling in the news this week – RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) is at the halfway point and the Tour de France will finish on Sunday (can Lance Armstrong pull off his comeback?) Keep the bicycling theme going and check out the movie Breaking Away, one of the best sports movies ever made.

Set in the college town of Bloomington, Indiana, four friends are caught in limbo after finishing high school, not know what they want to do next. The college kids derisively call them “cutters” (for the stone quarry where most of their blue-collar fathers work). Dave escapes into his dream of becoming a bicycle racer for the world champion Italian team by training rigorously and even learning to speak Italian (much to his father’s chagrin). After one dream is shattered, an unexpected opportunity opens when a local team (the “Cutters”, led by Dave) is allowed to compete in the famous Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University. What follows will have you cheering for what’s possible against impossible odds.

Loosely based on a true story (there really is a Little 500 race at Indiana University) this heartwarming (in the best sense) movie is more than a story about a bicycle race – it’s also about family and home, about loyalty and friendship, about accepting and embracing change, about finding your perfect place in the world. Beautifully acted (Dennis Christopher, Paul Dooley, Daniel Stern, Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, Barbara Barrie) this inspiring film will make you laugh, cry and cheer.

Enchanted AprilLong available only on VHS tape, Enchanted April has finally been released on DVD. Fans of beautiful scenery, charming stories and happy endings rejoice!

Two middle class English housewives, feeling downtrodden and forlorn, decide to rent an Italian villa for the month of April. To help with expenses they include two strangers – an elderly woman and a beautiful socialite. Leaving England in the rain, they are somewhat discouraged to find it still raining when they arrive in Italy, but the next morning reveals the countryside in all its beauty.  Soon the sunshine, warmth and quiet solitude work their magic; friendships are forged, marriages healed, memories made.

This is a light – and yes, enchanting – movie filled with humor and heartfelt stories. It is beautifully made (filmed on location in Portofino) and the cast is stellar (Polly Walker, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Alfred Molina, Josie Lawrence) This is the perfect ancedote to a hectic or rainy day, or any day that you just want to feel good.

belong-to-me

Having grown up in Philadelphia and lived in New York City, Cornelia Brown believes the suburbs will be a piece of cake. Turns out the slice of the American dream that Cornelia and her husband Teo move to is just as full of drama, heartache, secrets and joys as anywhere else.

Early on in Belong to Me, Cornelia struggles to find a place among the women and families of her new neighborhood. When Piper, the “leader” of the local social network, takes an instant dislike to her, it looks like things will get ugly. But then by chance Cornelia meets Lake, also new to the area and they begin to form a bond. Not everything is as it seems – we learn that Piper is caring for her terminally ill best friend and is not quite the dragon she presents to the world, that seemingly perfect marriages have cracks and that Lake has secrets that will affect them all.

de los Santos writes about the daily living with family and children and events both large and small with grace and clarity, but she is especially good at revealing the intricaces of the friendships of women; there is a lot of emotion here, but no sentimentality. Characters are complex, with flaws, but also hugely likeable, people that you’d like to know and have over for coffee.

This is a follow-up to de los Santos first book, Love Walked In where we first meet Cornelia and Teo and learn how they got together.

snowflowermedIn today’s  world the main character in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan would perhaps be categorized simply as a “senior citizen”. In Lily’s unforgiving world at 80 she is known as “the one who has not yet died”. Pretty telling about how the elderly and or women are portrayed in this story. Lily tells her challenging life story and what it was like growing up female in a 19th century Chinese village. Women in particular at this time lived excruciatingly difficult lives. Their feet were bound rendering them all but crippled yet was neccessary to procure a husband. They were married off and forced to take the position of lowliest person in the household. Essentially, women were deemed responsible for anything that was bad or went wrong in their culture. Although their customs, folklore and traditions were fascinating, this was a difficult read at times.

I was amazed at how these women managed to survive such physical and emotional hardships. A beautiful way in which they escaped was through the ancient art of women’s writing called nu shu. Some young girls participated in a sort of arranged friendship called laotongs through which they communicated in this secretive fashion – writing on fans, in letters or embroidering handkerchiefs. Snow Flower and Lily had just  such a relationship in which their remarkable lives are chronicled through their nu shu correspondence.

evolution-of-janeHave Darwin’s birthday celebrations piqued your interest in natural selection and evolution? One painless way to learn about a complex subject is to explore it through fiction.  A funny, easy-to-read example is The Evolution of Jane by Cathleen Schine. While on an ecological tour of the Galapagos Islands, Jane  begins to apply Darwin’s principles to her own relationships – in particular, the unexplained break with her childhood friend, who(coincidentally!) is leading the tour.

Barbara Kingsolver calls the book  a “beautifully descriptive travelogue of the Galapagos, loaded with mini-lectures on natural history, evolutinary theory and Darwiniana, wrapped around a rollicking family saga tinged with hints of sexual intrigue….My hat is off to any writer who can render such complex ideas comprehensibly in English…”