Mr. Mercedes

By Stephen King

(Scribner, $30, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen King has had an amazing career as a writer, with a phenomenal 50-plus international best-seller list to his credit. Most of us have read at least one, or seen a movie based on one, or are watching the TV miniseries “Under the Dome.” Some may dismiss him as a writer of horror stories, but many praise his gifts as a storyteller and author of imaginative fiction, often the kind that scares the living daylights out of its readers, and his nonfiction memoir/guide, “On Writing,” is a valuable book for writers and readers alike. King’s honors include the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Many of his books are set in Maine, where he lives with his wife, novelist Tabitha King.

What is this book about?

I interviewed Stephen King for The Courant last year, and he told me then that his forthcoming novel, “Mr. Mercedes,” would make people think it was based on the Boston Marathon bombings, but in fact he had already written it before that horrific event occurred. But this novel does indeed involve a mad bomber, one Brady Hartsfield, a deeply insane young man who lives with his abusive alcoholic mom and is bent on committing evil acts. He starts relatively small: deliberately running his stolen Mercedes into a crowd of forlorn job seekers, killing some and wounding many more. But Brady has bigger plans for thousands more victims. Who can stop him? Perhaps a depressed retired cop, Bill Hodges, who gets threatening letters from Brady and sets out to prevent further mayhem, working with some unusual helpers.

Why you’ll like it:

This is not one of King’s patented supernatural tales, though the evil at its heart is far from normal.  King is a personal fan of gritty crime stories, and that is the genre in which “Mr. Mercedes” has parked itself. So you don’t have to believe that crazed shape-shifting clown demons lurk in the sewer to be chilled and thrilled by this one: the killer here is all too human. The plot follows a favorite path of this author: a regular-guy hero pairs up with a few intrepid souls to figure out, find and write the finale for a very bad man. A well-tuned Mercedes offers a smooth ride; so does this novel.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “King is clearly having fun, and so are we…For the first half of the novel, King tickles our anxieties, his detective engaging in a classic cat-and-mouse game with the killer. But you can feel him wriggling against the hard-boiled tradition, shaking the hinges. Soon enough, in ways large and small, he rejects and replaces the genre’s creakiest devices…But it’s the larger genre deviations that make Mr. Mercedes feel so fresh. At their purest, hard-boiled novels are fatalistic, offering a Manichaean view of humanity. For King, however, dark humor extends beyond the investigator’s standard one-liners, reflecting a larger worldview. Killers and detectives make mistakes all the time…and coincidences play a far greater role than fate. Mr. Mercedes is a universe both ruled by a playful, occasionally cruel god and populated by characters all of whom have their reasons. One man can do only so much.”

Says Booklist:  “King’s interest in crime fiction was evident from his work for the Hard Case Crime imprint—The Colorado Kid (2005) and Joyland (2013)—but this is the most straight-up mystery-thriller of his career. Retired Detective Bill Hodges is overweight, directionless, and toying with the idea of ending it all when he receives a jeering letter from the Mercedes Killer, who ran down 23 people with a stolen car but evaded Hodges’ capture. With the help of a 17-year-old neighbor and one victim’s sister (who, in proper gumshoe style, Hodges quickly beds), Hodges begins to play cat-and-mouse with the killer through a chat site called Under Debbie’s Blue Umbrella. Hodges’ POV alternates with that of the troubled murderer, a Norman Bates–like ice-cream-truck driver named Brady Hartfield. Both Hodges and Hartfield make mistakes, big ones, leaving this a compelling, small-scale slugfest that plays out in cheery suburban settings. This exists outside of the usual Kingverse (Pennywise the Clown is referred to as fictive); add that to the atypical present-tense prose, and this feels pretty darn fresh. Big, smashing climax, too. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: No need to rev the engine here; this baby will rocket itself out of libraries with a loud squeal of the tires. –

Says the Associated Press: “Classic Stephen King. Creepy, yet realistic characters that get under your skin and stay there, a compelling story that twists and turns at breakneck speed, and delightful prose that, once again, proves that one of America’s greatest natural storytellers is also one of its finest writers.”

Library Journal says: Bill Hodges is bumping around, barely registering his retirement, when a maniac in a stolen Mercedes repeatedly drives into a line of unemployed folks waiting in the gray dawn of a gray Midwestern city for a job fair to open. Eight people are killed and 15 injured. Hodges immediately enlists two allies to help him find the killer, who so loved his little taste of death that he’s planning to blow up thousands. The novel, described as King’s first hard-boiled detective tale, has an unsettling ripped-from-the-headlines feel, though the author has said that he started work on it before the Boston Marathon tragedy.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In his latest suspenser, the prolific King returns to the theme of the scary car—except this one has a scary driver who’s as loony but logical unto himself as old Jack Torrance from The Shining.  It’s an utterly American setup: Over here is a line of dispirited people waiting to get into a job fair, and over there is a psycho licking his chops at the easy target they present; he aims a car into the crowd and mows down a bunch of innocents, killing eight and hurting many more. The car isn’t his. The malice most certainly is, and it’s up to world-weary ex-cop Bill Hodges to pull himself up from depression and figure out the identity of the author of that heinous act. That author offers help: He sends sometimes-taunting, sometimes-sympathy-courting notes explaining his actions.  . . . With a cadre of investigators in tow, Hodges sets out to avert what is certain to be an even greater trauma, for the object of his cat-and-mouse quest has much larger ambitions, this time involving a fireworks show worthy of Fight Club.  . . . King’s familiar themes are all here: There’s craziness in spades and plenty of alcohol and even a carnival . . . It’s nicely dark, never predictable and altogether entertaining.”

When is it available?

“Mr. Mercedes” is waiting for passengers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Blue Hills, Camp Field and Dwight branches and will also be at the Albany and Goodwin branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


The Care and Management of Lies: A Novel of the Great War

By Jacqueline Winspear

(Harper, $26.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Jacqueline Winspear is a British author now living in California, who is best known for her popular Maisie Dobbs novels, featuring a nurse with psychology training turned private investigator in London in the early 1900s. Her debut Dobbs’ novel, in 2003, made lists of best books from Publishers Weekly and The New York Times and also was nominated for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. “Care and Management” is not part of the Dobbs series, but is also a historical novel set during World War I.

Winspear loves the outdoors: horseback riding, hiking, sailing, and mountain biking are among her pursuits. She also loves traveling, and found a way to do it without cost, she told an interviewer:

“My first ever job after college was as a flight attendant. I wanted to travel and could not afford it, so I decided to get myself a job where I could travel. I did it for two years and had great fun.”

What is this book about?

It was billed as “the war to end all wars,” but sadly, that was not to be the case. This historical novel, set in 1914, looks at World War I through the eyes of two young women, one of whom, Kezia, is marrying the her best friend Thea’s brother, Tom. He’s off to the war, leaving Kezia to manage the family farm, and Thea, who is on the outs with her, gives her a guide to good housekeeping, “A Woman’s Book,” as a snarky wedding gift. Kezia proves to be better as a farm manager than Tom is as a soldier; Thea, though a passionate suffragette and pacifist at heart, joins the war effort as an ambulance driver as the international conflagration grows. Though set in a time of great public upheaval, this is primarliy a novel about individuals caught up soul-testing times.

Why you’ll like it:

Winspear has created engaging, believable characters in this tale, the kind that make readers wonder what they themselves would do if living through similar times. There are no flamboyant heroics here, just regular folks coping with world-shaking events and bravely trying to hold on to some semblance of normal life. There is something very British about this effort, and readers will be rewarded with a fine character study firmly embedded in a lesson about war, set in a conflict that is ever more rapidly retreating into the past, but that still holds meaning for us today.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “What kind of farm wife would educated Kezia Marchant make in 1914, wonders her dearest friend, Thea Brissenden? Just before Kezia marries Thea’s brother, Tom, who runs the family farm, Thea gives the bride-to-be an ironic gift, The Woman’s Book, the actual volume, published in 1911, that inspired this novel. As it turns out, Kezia brings a different, lighter tone to the farm, particularly in cooking, which is new to her. After Tom feels duty bound to enlist in the Great War, Kezia fills her letters with mouth-watering accounts of the meals she is preparing for him, descriptions that become ragingly popular as he reads them to members of his unit on the front lines in France. As Kezia proves proficient in managing the farm and keeping discouraging news from Tom, who has become the whipping boy of his hard-nosed sergeant, Thea, in danger of arrest for her pacifist activities, also joins the war effort. In a stand-alone departure from her popular post-WWI mystery series featuring psychologist Maisie Dobbs, Winspear has created memorable characters in a moving, beautifully paced story of love and duty.”

Says Kirkus in a starred review: “Five kind and honorable people are caught up in the depredations of the Great War in this first stand-alone novel by the author of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. In 1914, as war looms, newlyweds Tom and Kezia Brissenden are making a go of the farm Tom inherited from his father, a farm that would have been part of the estate of wealthy gentleman Edmund Hawkes had not his great-grandfather lost it to Tom’s great-grandfather in a darts game. Kezia, a vicar’s daughter, is earnestly striving to supplant her finishing school ways with those of a farm wife, consulting a housewifery guide, The Woman’s Book. . . .  Tom and Hawkes both enlist and are sent to the front line in France, where Tom, a private, serves under Capt. Hawkes. Kezia keeps Tom’s spirits up with her letters describing the sumptuous meals she prepares for him in her imagination, where wartime food shortages and government inroads on the farm’s production aren’t problems. The whole battalion soon looks forward to her letters and the occasional fruitcake. However, Tom is scapegoated by this novel’s closest thing to a villain, the cynical and embittered Sgt. Knowles, who resents the influx of so many green recruits. Meanwhile, Tom’s sister (and Kezia’s best friend), Thea, anguishes over whether she will be arrested for her activities as a suffragette and pacifist. Ultimately, she decides that the only way to escape government oppression is to reaffirm her loyalty: She becomes an ambulance driver at the front, where Kezia’s father, Rev. Marchant, is ministering to troops in the trenches. Without questioning either the cause of the war or the dubious tactics employed, seemingly, to ensure maximum loss of life for minimal military advantage, these characters simply get on with it, reaffirming our faith in the possibility of everyday nobility. A sad, beautifully written, contemplative testament.”

“Winspear’s beloved period mysteries featuring Masie Dobbs depict an England haunted by memories of the Great War, so it’s no surprise that she uses the conflict as the backdrop to this elegiac historical, her first stand-alone novel. Kezia and Tom Brissenden have been married only a few weeks when Britain declares war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Tom enlists, leaving his town-bred bride in charge of his sprawling Kent farm. His commanding officer is Edmund Hawkes, an aristocratic neighbor whose loneliness is magnified amid the horror of the trenches. Meanwhile, Thea Brissenden, Tom’s sister and Kezia’s estranged best friend, volunteers as an ambulance driver on the front lines to avoid charges of sedition stemming from her involvement with a pacifist group. Kezia and Tom exchange letters full of love and well-intended deceit concocted to shield the other from anguish, while Edmund and Thea struggle to overcome self-deception and find meaning in a senseless war. VERDICT Though this is not a mystery, Winspear’s fans should welcome the keen period detail and thoughtful tone so familiar from the Maisie Dobbs books, while historical fiction readers will be gripped by this sensitive portrayal of ordinary men and women on the home front and battlefield,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

This book about World War I, and many others, can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

American Romantic

By Ward Just

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Ward Just, 78, a Midwesterner who briefly attended Trinity College, began his career as journalist, including stints as a correspondent for Newsweek and the Washington Post, before concentrating on writing novels. “American Romantic” is his 18th (he has published short story collections as well), and Washington Post reviewer Jonathan Yardley, a great admirer of Just’s work, says this latest novel may well be “the best of them all.” Just writes often about how politics affects the personal lives of its practitioners and his stories usually are set in Washington or foreign nations, or both.

What is this book about?

Harry, a young American foreign service officer from a wealthy and liberal Connecticut family, is posted to Indochina as the conflict that will become the Vietnam War gathers momentum. There, two things occur that influence the rest of his professional and personal life. He has an off-the-books meeting with insurgents that goes very, very wrong and he meets Sieglinde, a German woman who becomes the love of his life, but not his wife. That would be May, a New Englander as well, and while his diplomatic career and their marriage are successful, he never forgets Sieglinde, who describes Harry  as an “an American romantic.” May also harbors secrets.

Why you’ll like it:

This novel plays with the ironic truth that even those who are smart and powerful enough to influence international affairs may not be able to successfully manage their own. Through the story of the once idealistic, but increasingly cynical Harry, who has known loves both passionate and deeply comforting and who has learned that diplomacy and intrigue can be inextricably, if contradictorily, entwined, we see parallels to America’s own progress from naïve confidence in the early days in Vietnam to today’s resigned, pragmatic acknowledgement that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars failed to justify their overwhelming cost. Reviewers praise Just’s elegant writing as well as his clear-eyed look at contemporary history and its major and minor players.

What others are saying:

Booklist’s starred review says: “ In this deft portrait of a promising young foreign service officer, Just reaches back to the earliest, hazy days leading up to the “misbegotten” Vietnam War, a time and place he witnessed firsthand. Though he never names the country Harry Sanders is posted in, Just describes it with molecular particularity, from the roiling city streets to the malevolence of the deep jungle, creating an arresting visual lexicon drawn from the paintings of Matisse, Vuillard, and Munch. This adds evocative textures to Just’s lushly sensuous and moodily introspective tale while also conveying Harry’s cultural legacy as a man born to privilege in orderly Connecticut, the opposite of this dense, lacerating land. Stubborn and idealistic, Harry envisions a bright future as a diplomat with the beautiful if haunted Sieglinde at his side, though they hardly know each other.  . . . He sees himself as a “connoisseur of the counterfeit and the inexplicable” after a dangerous, clandestine mission and Sieglinde’s abrupt disappearance leave him hobbled and scarred. As Just circles forward and back to tell their dramatic stories, he dissects the romance, presumption, nobility, and futility of the diplomatic life and weighs the stoniness of the past. Master writer Just’s eighteenth novel is elegantly structured, worldly wise, shrewdly suspenseful, and profoundly satisfying.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “Just’s 18th tells the sensitive, elegant stories of a young, desperately naïve American foreign service officer and the two women who love him.  . . . Harry’s budding career, however, takes a fatal turn when he is duped into a secret, unsanctioned negotiation with the North Vietnamese and his actions come back to haunt him. Years later, Harry marries May, and she follows him through 30 years of global postings and ambassadorships, during which time Harry’s early career idealism becomes cynical posturing. And although he loves his wife, he cannot forget Sieglinde. In his work, he struggles to justify American interference in other countries’ affairs, while in his personal life, he is torn between his feelings for the two women. Only after he retires does Harry finally understand something about his life. Just’s clever plot reveals a man conflicted by duty and loyalty, adroitly playing the State Department career game, but always wondering what might have happened if he had just made one or two different choices in his life. It’s also a fascinating portrayal of American embassy operations and the treacherous shoals of international diplomacy and duplicity.”

“The latest from Just considers the toll that a life lived upon the great stage of international politics can take on a man of substance. . . Mired in disinformation, Harry’s stranded in the jungle, injured, forced to kill. Once the “war turned into an ironist’s feast, a smorgasbord of contradictions and false hopes,” Harry becomes damaged goods, but State owes him, and so comes a lifetime of assignments to Paraguay, Africa, Norway. There’s a comfortable, even loving, marriage to May, but Harry forever remembers Sieglinde, a German woman with whom he had an affair in Saigon. . . . Minor characters, especially Harry’s ambassador mentor, fascinate and shine with veracity.  . . Just writes without quotation marks, but the narrative’s beautifully descriptive story is easily parsed, growing especially intense when Harry is trapped in the jungle and later when he is assaulted by grief.  . . . Just is sometimes cynical in his appreciation of diplomacy and existential in regard to God, but Harry, as much a realist as a romantic, is a man astride the American century. Another brilliant novel from Just: wise, introspective and full of humanity,“ says Kirkus Reviews.

Library Journal, in another starred review, says: “Trust Just, a onetime journalist and author of nuanced political/historical fiction . . . to offer a sweeping view of late 20th-century U.S. diplomacy. He opens in early 1960s Indochina, when “their army was called a guerrilla force. Our army was called a Military Assistance Command,” as eager young Harry Sanders fails at a secret outreach mission to the enemy. Recognized as perhaps too genteel for a business that’s “not a straight-line affair”—he even chides himself tartly as “the ambitious one who thought that a negotiated settlement would end the war”—Harry gets more manageable postings over the next decades and marries sweet, naïve May. Meanwhile, he recalls his affair with Sieglinde, a technician on a German hospital ship in Saigon’s harbor who sails away despite her promises.  . . One wonders: Are can-do Yankees as shaped as anyone by historical forces, and did Vietnam (and beyond) prove that we can’t do everything? VERDICT Highly recommended as a sharp, fluidly written book on what it means to be American; great for book clubs.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Last Night at the Blue Angel

By Rebecca Rotert

(Morrow, $25.99, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Rebecca Rotert, an Omaha, Neb.-based writer who has just published her debut novel, is also an award-winning poet, having been honored with an Academy of American Poets prize. She has published her poetry and essays in many literary journals and magazines.

Her debut novel is set in a world of jazz musicians. Here are excerpts from an interview with her written for Amazon.com by bestselling author Paula McLain., in which Rotert talks about her background and certain characters in the book:

“My family sings a LOT. I was classically trained, and sang in school choirs and plays. As a young adult I sang in a few bands and learned to write music, to show up at practice with lyrics and chords on a scrap of paper and have a song by the end of the night. I chose to limit Naomi’s artistry to singing other people’s music as another way for her self-expression to be truncated. If she wrote her own music, if she had that kind of agency, her story would be different, I think.”

“….These characters were gleaned from my life. I had one particular teacher who treated me with an undeserved and seemingly endless amount of patience and respect, and stood by me through my development as a writer as well as countless personal difficulties. I also believe that nuns are among the smartest, fiercest, most radical women I’ll ever know—and Rita is surely a tribute to all the fearless characters in my life.”

What is this book about?

In this novel about music and motherhood, set in Chicago in the turbulent 1960s, we meet Naomi, a terrific jazz singer hoping to find fame after years of being on the brink, and her wise-beyond-her-years 10-year-old daughter Sophia, who mothers her self-destructive, highly attractive single mom, a woman forever scarred by her own unhappy childhood. That long-awaited chance for fame may be at hand when Naomi is chosen for a cover story in Look magazine (remember Look?), but it comes with a cost. The story is told in alternating chapters by striving mother and anxious child and is a penetrating look at a pivotal time in American history as well as a riveting personal story. Rotert says this about the book  in the Amazon interview:

“Sophia’s voice appeared first and I immediately fell in love with her sensibility, her hyper-vigilance. Her mother, Naomi, demands an enormous amount of attention, and Sophia lives in the shadow of that appetite, like a riverbank constantly being shaped and re-shaped by Naomi’s currents. You could also say I’ve been thinking about this theme all my life. I was acutely aware from an early age of my own mother’s magnetism. In a way, the brighter she shone, the more private I got to be, and in that privacy my own internal world began – the reading, writing, painting, and music.”

Why you’ll like it:

Tuesday’s blog entry told you about Emily,  the vividly written teenage protagonist of Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.” Today’s blog entry brings you another unforgettable, though much younger child: Sophia Hill, who is blessed and cursed by having a talented but troubled mother, Naomi, who the girl adores and envies and takes care of in this upside-down kind of family. Rotert is a poet as well as a novelist, and her skill with words is one of the strengths, along with the strong characters of Sophia and Naomi, of this impressive debut.

What others are saying:

Booklist says, in a starred review:  “Set in mid-1960s Chicago, this impressive debut novel tells the story of 10-year-old Sophia and her mother, Naomi. With chapters alternating between the two characters’ perspectives, Rotert paints a moving portrait of a tumultuous yet tender mother-daughter relationship. Naomi, a talented and very troubled jazz singer, performs at a past-its-prime nightclub while trying to catch her big break. Irresponsible and selfish (yet somehow likable and sympathetic), she drinks too much and hosts a variety of lovers in the hotel apartment she shares with her daughter. In flashbacks to Naomi’s childhood in rural Kansas, we learn of the painful past that both shaped and haunts her. Sophia essentially serves as her mother’s caretaker. Kindhearted and wise beyond her years, she obsesses about nuclear destruction and keeps a list of things that must be reinvented once it happens. Sadly, a normal childhood is forever beyond her grasp. With lush prose and well-drawn characters, this heartbreaking novel of love, loss, and the redemptive power of music also offers a satisfying glimpse of Chicago at a pivotal point in history.”

Publishers Weekly says: “. . . Rotert’s debut depicts Naomi Hill’s struggles to succeed as a jazz singer, largely from the perspective of her young daughter, Sophia. “Mother is a singer. I live in her dark margin. For the first ten years of my life, I watch her from the wings.” A reckless single mother, Naomi believes in living in the moment and depends on her friends to help care for Sophia. The girl grows up in an erratic lifestyle revolving around Naomi’s club act at the titular Blue Angel. The stress Sophia already feels as a result of their unpredictable routine is heightened by school civil defense drills, which leave her feeling anxious about the threat of nuclear warfare. However, she has an ability beyond her age to understand her mother’s flaws while still being able to cherish their relationship. In flashbacks told from Naomi’s point of view, the woman reflects on what drove her to flee her Kansas hometown in the 1950s and what drives her to pursue the spotlight. Rotert has created a complicated and engaging heroine in Sophia, a memorable character portrait which is her book’s most striking aspect.

In another starred review, Kirkus says:  “A debut novel about a nightclub singer preoccupied with her own desires and a young daughter who yearns for her love. Ten-year-old Sophia Hill knows her mother’s life is about to change as she watches her final performance at the Blue Angel. Naomi’s picture now graces the cover of Look magazine, and she’s famous. Naomi has achieved her goal, but Sophia’s dream is different: She just wants her mother’s love. It’s 1965, and Sophia lives in a Chicago motel with Naomi, meticulously documenting the comings and goings of the men and women who spend time in her mother’s bedroom, including a couple of guests from the past. She doesn’t fully grasp the meaning behind all of Naomi’s visitors, but Sophia is wise beyond her years in many ways. Surrounded by adults who’ve always protected and indulged her mother, she’s never experienced a normal family life. Instead, her days and nights revolve around Naomi’s needs, and she worries that her mother will leave her behind the same way she imagines Naomi left her own parents. However, unbeknownst to Sophia, Naomi’s life has been one of turmoil and deprivation. One of seven children born in poverty in Kansas, she was a rambunctious student until a teacher recognized her talent and encouraged her to sing. After graduating from high school, she was forced to leave town after becoming sexually involved with the daughter of a prominent community leader, sparking a complicated future with regard to relationships. Telling the story from Sophia’s and Naomi’s distinct perspectives, Rotert creates an expressive and haunting narrative highlighting Sophia’s innocent vulnerability and her mother’s single-minded obsession. Though the characters are very different, the author’s interpretation of both emerges spot-on. And, while Naomi’s journey is interesting, Sophia’s story hooks the reader from the beginning and dominates, particularly as the final chapters unfold. A tale that’s poignant, poetic and heart-wrenching throughout.”

Says Library Journal:  “Rotert’s astonishing debut novel opens with ten-year-old Sophia sitting behind the dusty velvet curtains at Chicago’s Blue Angel Jazz Club. She peeks out at the audience, yearning to be noticed. But it’s the singer, her mother, Naomi, who’s center stage, the place that she was born to be. Naomi is single-mindedly focused on achieving fame, and therein lies the conflict for Sophie and everyone else caught up in Naomi’s thrall. Her daughter, her lovers, and her best friend, Jim, though complex, nuanced characters, are just bit players in her entourage. Naomi may seem abusive, living as she does in a run-down hotel, keeping Sophie out half the night at the Blue Angel, entertaining various men and women until morning, and using the deeply smitten photographer Jim as dad, cook, and housekeeper. We begin to understand better when Rotert shows us Naomi’s 1950s Kansas childhood, during which her siblings worked the farm and a dissident teacher, Sister Idalia, recognized Naomi’s potential, encouraging her musical talent. This, too, is where Naomi fell in love with Laura, sparking a scandal that would reverberate over the next 20 years. VERDICT Rotert’s musical background informs Naomi’s passion for performance, but it is her heartbreaking portrait of Sophie, so wise yet so vulnerable, that readers will remember long after the final page.”

When is it available?

You can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

By Chris Bohjalian

(Doubleday, $15.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Chris Bohjalian, the New Yorker turned Vermonter, has published 17 books, including four bestsellers: “The Sandcastle Girls,” “Skeletons at the Feast,” “The Double Bind” and “Midwives.” Which was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  As readers of “The Double Bind,” which incorporates parts of the story told in “The Great Gatsby,” will recall, Bohjalian is a great admirer of the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and owns at least 42 editions of books by or about him. Bohjalian often works contemporary or historical issues, such as domestic violence, gun safety, the genocide of Armenians and the horrors of World War II into his novels, adding weight to his well-written books.

What is this book about?

Bohjalian’s latest blends the story of one individual – a troubled teenage girl in Vermont who adores the poetry of Emily Dickinson and wishes her parents would stop drinking so heavily – and a mega-disaster. That horror is an explosion in a nuclear power reactor, brought on when weeks of rain cause a dam to overflow, which in turn floods the power plant, leading to a meltdown and the release of deadly radiation in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Emily’s parents worked – and were killed — at the plant, and her father may have contributed to the accident. Suddenly orphaned and forced to hide her identity from furious Vermonters who have lost everything, Emily takes to the road and experiences the travail of homeless kids, even as she tries to mother a runaway 9-year-old foster child and find her way back home, or to what is left of it. The title, by the way, recalls a heartbreaking moment in recent Connecticut history.

Why you’ll like it:

You can call this a dystopian novel, but it is far more than that.  While the nuclear meltdown ruins the lives and land of residents of the Northeast Kingdom, those who live out of the danger zone are far less troubled. Emily’s story bridges these two worlds and brings in elements of drug use, human trafficking and exploitation of needy kids. But grim as these aspects of the novel are, Emily’s voice, as she moves back and forth in telling her story, is wise beyond her years, often sad and poignant and even more often sardonic and  surprisingly funny. Those who live downwind of aging nuclear reactors ought to read this book, and so should any reader seeking to meet a lively, if troubled, teenager trying to cope with a world turned upside down. Once you have met Emily Shepard, you will not soon forget her.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal: “Emily Shepard is hiding out in a shelter made of ice and trash bags after a nightmarish meltdown at a nuclear plant in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that left her parents dead. Since the meltdown might have been her father’s fault, she’s not reaching out for help, but she does take a homeless boy named Cameron under her wing. More heartfelt, engaged work from relentlessly best-selling, best-book author Bohjalian, and how can you not love a heroine who identifies with Emily Dickinson?”

Booklist says:  “When a disastrous meltdown occurs at a Vermont nuclear power plant, forcing people to flee for their lives and face permanent exile from their beloved homes, everyone blames Emily’s parents. Her father was chief engineer, and her mother was the communications director, and they had a reputation for drinking. Terrified, Emily, a bookish, 16-year-old only child, runs away and ends up crashing in the squalid lair of a guy called Poacher, who recruits homeless teens for his drug-and-prostitution ring. But smart Emily, who knowledgeably reveres Emily Dickinson, gets it together once she takes responsibility for a nine-year-old boy on the run from foster care and builds a trash-bag igloo to protect them from the bitter cold. In his sixteenth novel, the versatile Bohjalian has Emily tell her harrowing, tragic story retrospectively, under medical care. If only this well-meant and compelling tale offered more scenes depicting the shocking aftermath of a nuclear disaster to provide an even more arresting and significant context for traumatized yet tough and resilient young Emily’s sad, brave saga.”

Says Elizabeth Hand, in the Washington Post: “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, Chris Bohjalian’s terrific new novel, could serve as a master class on how to write the thinking reader’s bestseller. Suspenseful, provocative, often terrifying yet compassionate . . . all while creating one of the most memorable teenage protagonists in recent fiction . . . Moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title.

“In 2011, Hurricane Irene caused cataclysmic floods in Southern Vermont, cutting off small towns for weeks and imperiling the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant just a few miles from Brattleboro — an area far more populous and closer to the East Coast megalopolis than Bohjalian’s imaginary facility in the Northeast Kingdom. His wrenching descriptions of mass evacuation, bumper-to-bumper traffic, refugee camps and the plight of those suddenly made homeless cuts frighteningly close to the bone in this era of dramatic climate change and mega-storms.

“Sometimes I think I was at my best when the world seemed to be at its worst,” Emily muses. And while Bohjalian provides no simplistic happy ending for his young heroine, he gives us something much more satisfying: a finale that’s moving, hopeful and grounded in the everyday, and as heartbreaking as the inspiration for the novel’s title, revealed in its final pages. I closed this book with regret that it had ended — and relief to know that the Vermont Yankee plant will be shut down by the end of this year,”

Publishers Weekly says: “Bohjalian’s impressive 16th novel charts the life of a teenage girl undone after a nuclear disaster. . . . Emily is banished once she’s pegged as the daughter of heavy-drinking parents both employed (and held responsible by surviving townsfolk) at the power plant. . . . Frequent flashbacks to her days at school and the youth shelter show her surrounded by influential miscreants, self-abusing “cutters,” and drug takers like friends Andrea and Camille. Stealing and shoplifting through neighboring towns in order to survive the frigid New England winter becomes an often harrowing ordeal for Emily and Cameron as she attempts to figure out her next move. Through her first-person narration, readers become intimately familiar with Emily (and Cameron), as she grapples with the frustrating life of a misunderstood homeless youth on the run. Emily continually surprises herself with her newfound maternal instincts for Cameron and how difficult it is to survive life on the streets. Her admiration for kindred spirit Emily Dickinson serves to humanize her plight, as does an epiphany in the book’s bittersweet conclusion.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “After a nuclear meltdown, a Vermont teen flees to the mean streets of Burlington.  . . .Fearing she will be asked to testify about her father’s alcoholism, she assumes a new identity and claims to be 18. After bouncing from a Burlington shelter to the home of a drug dealer who exploits her and other young women as prostitutes, Emily rescues 9-year-old Cameron, an escapee from an abusive foster home. During the frigid Vermont winter, the two inhabit an igloo of frozen, leaf-filled trash bags, but when spring thaw melts their domicile, Emily gets a waitressing job and a place to stay, thanks to a shelter acquaintance. This newfound security is short-lived: Cameron falls seriously ill, and after an emergency room visit threatens to expose both their identities, Emily fears she has run out of Plan B’s. Readers hoping for a futuristic novel imagining the aftermath of a Fukushima-type disaster in the United States may be disappointed—Bohjalian’s primary focus is on examining, in wrenching detail, the dystopia wrought by today’s economy. Emily’s voice is a compelling one, however, and hers is a journey readers will avidly follow.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Goodwin Branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Grey Howl

By Clea Simon

(Severn House, $27.95, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Clea Simon got her start as a reporter and nonfiction writer before she found her true métier: writing cozy mysteries that feature amateur detectives aided by their feline companions (including a kitty who has already crossed that darn Rainbow Bridge.)  A Harvard grad and Boston lover, she lives there with her husband and her cat, Musetta. She writes frequently for the Boston Globe and also contributes to as American Prospect, Ms., San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon.com., among others. Her essays also appear in anthologies, such as “Cat Women: Female Writers on Their Feline Friends.” She is the author of three series of mysteries, all enlivened by cats and the occasional dog. They feature animal psychic Pru Marlowe, freelance writer Theda Krakow and Harvard grad student Dulcie Schwartz, whose mystery titles all include the word “grey” and involve ghosts as well as cats.

What is this book about?

Anyone who has ever done time working at a college knows that academic rivalries and jealousies can be intense, occasionally leading to the killing of reputations and, at least  in many mysteries, to actual killings. So readers won’t be surprised when a literature conference in Cambridge, MA, (where else?) is plagued by a sabotaged presentation and the disappearance – make that suicide – no, make that murder — of a visiting scholar. But (just as with the Spanish Inquisition), nobody expects the ghost of a cat to show up. That would be Dulcie Schwartz’s sainted Mr. Grey, who helps her expand her conference role from grad student working as the university liaison to the conference to sleuth who solves the case.

Why you’ll like it:

Simon refers to her books as “fun feline mysteries,” which is exactly what they are, and she has chosen a genre that has wide appeal to lovers of a good, puzzling story and the wise cats who help solve the mystery. Here she mixes in academic life, always a fat target because of the pomposity of the players, and the results are satisfying. This book is the lucky seventh of the Dulcie/Grey series, and those who sample it will likely want to read the previous six books (and two other series) as well.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Academic politics and the world of literary scholarship provide the background for Simon’s charming seventh Dulcie Schwartz mystery. Harvard grad student Dulcie, who’s been researching The Ravages of Umbria—a gothic romance—and the role of women in 18th-century society, is looking forward to a prestigious academic conference in Cambridge, Mass., at which she’s to present her first paper. On the eve of the conference, Marco Tesla, a visiting scholar, is found dead with a broken neck, having fallen from a balcony. Detective Rogovoy and Dulcie, with the help of three cats she communes with for assistance (one of whom, Mr. Grey, is deceased), determine that Tesla was murdered and try to uncover who, among the scholars vying for the position of department chair, is the culprit. Extracts from The Ravages of Umbria add to the fun “

Says Kirkus Reviews: “More adventures in the dangerous groves of academe. Doctoral candidate Dulcie Schwartz is thrilled that she is getting the chance to read a paper she wrote on aspects of a gothic novel by a so-far-unidentified woman author who’s the subject of her thesis. The literature conference is being held for the first time at a prestigious university in Cambridge, Mass. Dulcie has been pressed into service as a liaison and fixer of problems by her nervous department head, Martin Thorpe, who’s fighting to keep his job. Dulcie would prefer Renée Showalter, a Canadian professor who’s made available to her some highly interesting documents that will help in her research—at least, until she meets charismatic Paul Barnes, another candidate for Thorpe’s job who hints that he’d like to work with Dulcie. When a paper that Stella Roebuck had planned to read vanishes from her computer, professor Roebuck, blaming her former lover Barnes, demands that Dulcie’s boyfriend, Chris, a computer expert, find it. Then Marco Telsa, Roebuck’s newest lover, falls off a balcony at an evening party, and the police suspect murder. Dulcie, who often seeks advice from the ghost of her deceased cat Mr. Grey and her new cat, Esmé, is worried about Thorpe, who appeared to be drunk at the party, and Chris, who’s acting strangely. Although she’s survived several murder investigations, her immersion in all things gothic gives her a distinctive slant on sleuthing that puts her in peril. Though Dulcie’s rather scatterbrained approach to sleuthing may put readers off, her seventh provides a plethora of suspects that keeps them guessing.”

Kingsriverlife.com says:  “As the visiting conference attendees arrive, Dulcie finds herself in the middle of battling egos, romantic engagements and rival studies. When one of the professor dies in what is initially declared as a suicide, Dulcie has little doubt that it was in fact murder, especially considering the clues and information she receives from her trusted companions.

“Mr. Grey, the ghost of her most beloved feline companion, continues to whisk in and out of her life providing advice and comfort, and his talent for telepathic communication has been passed on to the very living La Principessa Esmeralda, also known as Esme, Dulcie’s new tuxedo cat companion who more than lives up to her lofty name.

“In this seventh mystery featuring English and American Literatures and Language graduate student, Dulcie Schwartz, her computer science boyfriend Chris, and her feline companions, Simon continues what feels like a long episodic narrative that explores both Dulcie’s investigation into the life of a gothic novel writer as well as her introduction into a whole new world of ghostly and corporal communicative cats.

“Animal lovers will find the felines–one who acts wisely and the other who remains true to her catty temperament–completely endearing, while mystery lovers will appreciate the battles of the academia and the internal political squabbling. This is an entrancing mix that seems reminiscent of Amanda Cross’s academic mysteries and Lillian Jackson Braun’s helpful investigating cats. Cat and mystery lovers rejoice!”

When is it available?

You can hear this one howling “come get me” from the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!


Hyde

By Daniel Levine

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Daniel Levine grew up in New Jersey, but now lives in Colorado. He received his BA from Brown University and his MFA from the University of Florida and has taught at various colleges. “Hyde” is his debut novel.

What is this book about?

One sign of a classic is that it can be manipulated, turned inside out, told backwards or played with in many ways without losing its power and appeal. In “Hyde,” Daniel Levine takes the iconic Robert Louis Stevenson tale of split personality and tells it from the point of view of the monstrous Mr. Hyde, and darned if we don’t sympathize with this avatar of evil. Maybe Hyde is not the murderer we think we know him to be. Maybe Dr. Jekyll should never have begun his experiment. Maybe there is another character of whom we should be suspicious.  In any case, it is intriguing to contemplate a new twist to this old story.

Why you’ll like it:

Coming up with a new version of an old tale is only half the battle for an author. Carrying out your idea in a believable and compelling fashion is the other, and it’s far more important. By all accounts, Levine has done both things with aplomb, reminding readers of what the original “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was all about (hint: it was far deeper than just being a horror story) and offering a fresh perspective that illuminates the old story in new ways. This could be just the  chiller for those hot summer reading days.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Imagine that Edward Hyde, the alter ego of Dr. Jekyll, wasn’t the animalistic creature Robert Louis Stevenson created. Imagine, instead, that he was just a man and a misunderstood one at that. That’s Levine’s approach to this revisionist take on Stevenson’s classic tale, which is reprinted here, after Levine’s own story has come to a close. Levine’s version, narrated by Hyde, begins just before Stevenson’s ends: Hyde is concealed in Jekyll’s laboratory, Jekyll’s letter to his lawyer awaits discovery, Hyde waits to die. Hyde takes us back through the preceding months, covering the same ground as Stevenson but from a new perspective: Hyde as a newborn man, struggling to understand the world he’s been thrust into, driven by desperation to commit the acts recounted by Stevenson. We realize, in the process, how little Stevenson really explored Edward Hyde, how Hyde was a function of the narrative, an idea but not a fleshed-out man. Giving him flesh and humanity, Levine makes him a kind of tragic hero and gives the original version an added dramatic and emotional dimension. A fascinating companion piece to a classic story.”

Says BookPage: “…Taking the parameters of Stevenson’s story, but deepening and extending the details, Levine allows us to view Hyde not merely as the venal incarnation of Jekyll’s soul, but as a fully fledged character in his own right…Levine answers many questions that Stevenson left unexplored….a visually dark and viscerally brooding tale that avails itself of a cinematic style of storytelling that, of course, Stevenson could never have imagined….an entertaining and intriguing work, as much a meditation on and extrapolation of Stevenson’s original intentions as a freestanding work of popular fiction. With compelling intensity, Levine makes a noteworthy literary debut.”

Library Journal says: “It’s Mr. Hyde’s turn as unreliable narrator in this literary reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Accused of murder and sexual trafficking of minors, Hyde has hidden himself in Jekyll’s closet. As he awaits discovery he unfurls a tale that sheds doubt on Jekyll’s innocence—but does it absolve Hyde? Levine’s palette includes every shade of gray as he explores moral ambiguity and mental anguish in this psychological gothic. VERDICT Levine’s debut novel is deviously plotted but relies a great deal on readers having a close familiarity with the parent text, while the anachronistically graphic descriptions of sex and violence may be off-putting for some. On the other hand, readers who enjoy the grittier crime fiction of Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, and John Connolly might give it a try.”

In The New York Times Book Review, Walter Kirn says: “Hyde is the first-time novelist Daniel Levine’s ingenious revision of this canonical work, an elevated exercise in fan fiction that complicates and reorients the story by telling it from the perspective of the monster, exposing the tender heart inside the brute and emphasizing the pathos of his predicament…The novel is a pleasure…a worthy companion to its predecessor. It’s rich in gloomy, moody atmosphere (Levine’s London has a brutal steampunk quality), and its narrator’s plight is genuinely poignant.”

In its starred review, Publishers Weekly says: “. . . this ambitious first novel provides an alternate perspective on Jekyll’s chemical experiments on the split personality. Edward Hyde first emerges independent of Jekyll on the streets of London in 1884—not as the malevolent brute that Stevenson conjured, but as a member of the lower classes who is fiercely protective of his and Hyde’s friends and interests. But over the course of two years, Hyde develops a reputation for evil that confounds him—and that he suspects is being engineered by Jekyll, whose consciousness lurks inside his own, steering him into certain assignations and possibly committing atrocities while in his form. Levine slowly unfolds the backstory of Jekyll’s schemes for Hyde, relating to his earlier failed “treatment” of a patient with a multiple-personality disorder, and traumatic events from Jekyll’s own childhood that come to light in the novel’s tragic denouement. Levine’s evocation of Victorian England is marvelously authentic, and his skill at grounding his narrative in arresting descriptive images is masterful (of the haggard, emotionally troubled Jekyll, he writes, “He looked as if he’d survived an Arctic winter locked within a ship frozen fast in the wastes”). If this exceptional variation on a classic has any drawback, it’s that it particularizes to a single character a malaise that Stevenson originally presented belonging universally to the human condition.”

“Levine’s account is a masterpiece of hallucination; his narrator is feverish, righteous, intense. The author knows what to invent and what to leave to the master. And about that confession: Hyde doesn’t open it, and neither does Levine. He leaves it to Stevenson, to whom he is faithful with his prose. The shockers may be born of this century, but this chilling new version is a remarkably good fit with the original horror classic,” says The Miami Herald.

When is it available?

This book is not hiding in the shadows. You can get it at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Albany or Dwight branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Hotelles: A Novel

by Emma Mars

(Harper Perennial, $15.99, 592 pages)

Who is this author?

That’s a very good question. “Emma Mars” is the pen name of a writer who lives in France, and that is about all we know. Except for this, which the author wrote on http://authorsoundrelations.blogspot.com/2014/04/emma-mars-hotelles.html

“The first thing to know about me is, definitely, that I am… French! Maybe this is a dull detail for you, but I think that who I am as a writer (I’ve written something like 12 novels, under several names) comes from that specific origin. Even when I create a story that does not take place in France (I have, a few times), I guess that the way I feel and describe my characters is French to the core. For instance, I’m obsessed with smell and perfumes, which is a typical French (bad) habit.

“Another great source of inspiration for me is to close my eyes and imagine a place I’d like to be. When I wrote the very first lines of Hotelles, I saw a beautiful hotel room, designed as a replica of a famous bedroom in a Napoleonic Castle, and just tried to guess what could happen to a young girl lying in such a gorgeous and mysterious place. Why is she here? Is she alone? What could make her presence here odd?

“Then I only had to write her story as I’d like it to be told to me – full of thrill, emotion, and sensuality. Also, before each writing session, I did some breathing exercises; my eyes closed, and tried to slip into Annabelle’s mind and body. To feel the same things as her, even what her belly or her sex could feel in such circumstances. To really BE her, before writing like her.”

OK, then.

What is this book about?

Forget the red cover — this book could have been clad in 50 shades of grey. What’s it about? A mysterious lover. Secret notes. Sex. And more sex. In Paris, in the Hotel des Charmes, whose rooms are named for legendary French seductresses. There Annabelle, a young woman who works as an “escort,” and is about to marry a rich and powerful man who doesn’t know about her occupation (or does he?), is taking on one last client, who turns out to be her fiance’s brother, a man who has a fetish for fetishes. Uh-oh.  Annabelle has much to discover about passion and desire and how they relate to true freedom. Readers of her story will learn a lot, too.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s sensuous summertime. What better time for a book that takes a cool look at a hot story? Far, far better written than the inexplicably popular “Fifty Shades,” this is an exploration of eroticism with a heavy French accent and with a good bit of mystery thrown in. Read this one with a tall, cooling drink handy: there’s a heat wave between those red covers. And it’s the first book in a trilogy!

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review: “Pseudonymous French author Mars offers an intricate erotic tale that grabs the reader on its first page and never lets go. Annabelle is an aspiring journalist whose mother needs expensive medical care—so Annabelle becomes Elle, a paid escort for one of Paris’s most exclusive agencies. When she meets high-flying businessman David Barlet and he proposes marriage, Elle thinks her problems are over, but they’re just beginning. David’s brother, Louie, is one of Elle’s past clients, and he’s not above blackmailing her. Meanwhile, someone is sending Elle anonymous erotic notes. And her husband-to-be may not be as oblivious to his brother’s machinations as Elle thinks. As the mysteries unwind, Elle proves that she’s more than able to take care of herself. Clever details add an extra dimension for readers familiar with French language and culture, but Elle’s story is accessible to any reader. Rather than producing a Fifty Shades of Grey clone, Mars has created a sensuous, fascinating, and erotic achievement all her own.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Struggling to finish her journalism degree and help her cancer-stricken mother, a young escort finds herself swept up in an erotic education that threatens her impending fairy-tale wedding. Elle hopes her job working for an exclusive escort agency won’t last long. Obligated only to accompany wealthy men in need of arm candy to their social functions, she sometimes takes advantage of the after-hours, off-the-books amorous perks. Yet the encounters leave her dissatisfied. After a silver notebook mysteriously appears in her bag one day, Elle begins receiving erotic notes from an anonymous admirer. One evening, she meets the brilliant, charismatic media mogul David Barlet. A whirlwind romance ensues, and within weeks they’re engaged. Elle ought to be thrilled, but it all seems too fast; David hasn’t kissed her yet, and she’s still harboring a few secrets. Certain that David would drop her if he knew about her escort work, Elle is determined to quit but agrees to take one final job—which turns out to be with David’s charismatic brother, Louie. Her silver notebook starts filling with not only erotic notes, but also demands, presumably from Louie. He sets Elle a series of erotic challenges, each accompanied by a signature fetish and held in an aptly chosen room at the Hôtel des Charmes. Echoing The Story of O, most of the games arouse Elle’s desires to submit and to dominate. Yet others have an odd ring to them, such as her encounter with a man clad entirely in black latex wielding a whip, like a superhero deeply concerned about germ transmission. As the games continue, Elle starts to wonder about the death of David’s first wife, Louie’s motives and her own desires. Rife with sexual tension and mystery, this first tale in a trilogy will have readers eager for the translation of Mars’ next installment.”

When is it available?

It’s burning up the shelves at the Dwight and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community

by Saul Austerlitz

(Chicago Review Press, $19.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Saul Austerlitz, who lives in Brooklyn, is an author and pop culture critic who has been widely published in print and online in such venues as the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Boston Globe, Slate, the Village Voice, The National, the San Francisco Chronicle, Spin, Rolling Stone and others. Booklist named his 2010 book, “Another Fine Mess: A History of the American Film Comedy,” as one of the year’s 10 best arts books. He wrote about the intersection of TV and music in “Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes,” which is being adapted as a documentary film.

What is this book about?

Who among us has not enjoyed laughing along with a favorite situation comedy on TV? The sitcom, for short, whether set in a workplace or grounded in family life or among friends, is a bedrock form of TV entertainment, and this book shows how it has grown and developed, with attention to such hit shows as I Love Lucy, The Phil Silvers Show; The Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore shows; M*A*S*H; Taxi;  Cheers, Roseanne; Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock and more. Canned laughter, quirky characters, familiar sets, broad humor or sharp satire: sitcoms have all that and more, and Americans love them. Challenged by the popularity of so-called “reality” shows, which are in fact often scripted, sitcoms are entertainment but also a reflection on current trends and enduring truths, and in this book, Austerlitz provides a thorough and thoughtful look at their history.

Why you’ll like it:

This book will take you down TV’s memory lane, one hilarious episode of one of 24 hilarious shows at a time, but it is more than a light exercise in nostalgia. Sitcoms are by definition funny, and sometimes even wise, and they have provided a great window on how Americans feel about themselves and their times, not to mention relatable characters and catchphrases that enter the language. And they helped expose – and change – such hitherto verboten subjects as racial prejudice and gay life. Austerlitz is a smart and funny guide to these smart and funny shows that are so firmly entwined in our culture and our hearts.

What others are saying:

Says Library Journal in a starred review: “. . . “Watch enough television, and sitcoms begin to talk to one another.” This serves as the book’s thesis, and the author is at his best when he’s facilitating the conversation. Father Knows Best recalls The Honeymooners, Moe’s Tavern is Springfield’s answer to Cheers, and Curb Your Enthusiasm couldn’t exist without Seinfeld. Extending beyond the facile comparisons, Austerlitz’s chapter on Sex in the City opens with a look at The Golden Girls and leads into Entourage, while his section on Taxi reads like an introduction to TV sidekicks, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Community. Austerlitz adheres to his history of sitcoms in 24 episodes, but isn’t shackled by it, easily covering an entire run of a sitcom while drawing comparisons to a dozen other shows within a single chapter. VERDICT A compulsively readable and often laugh-out-loud funny study of the American sitcom. While it lacks the detailed episode and cast listings scholars might desire, it’s perfect for armchair readers—and is a must if that armchair resembles Archie Bunker’s.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Sitcoms reveal America’s changing reality, writes the author in this enthusiastic overview of an enduring genre. Movie and TV critic Austerlitz brings his keen analysis of American culture to sitcoms, long the staple of prime time. Each chapter focuses on a single episode of a popular show, which launches the author’s investigation into the evolution of comedy; the talents of stars, producers and writers; and the changing expectations of viewers. As the author sees it, sitcoms emerged in the 1950s as “field guides to the new postwar consensus, an effort to simultaneously reflect the lives of their audiences and subtly steer their behavior.” The shows celebrated family life and domesticity, even when their subjects were sparring, childless couples, such as Ralph and Alice Kramden in The Honeymooners. Most early sitcoms featured middle-class white families with stay-at-home mothers, children who invariably got into and out of mischief in half an hour, and fathers who did not always know best. Those sitcoms, writes the author, “promised comfort and familiarity, the certainty of an eternal present free of all but the most fleeting concerns.” In evaluating the genre, Austerlitz sets the bar high: I Love Lucy was brilliant, while Leave it to Beaver was repetitive and only occasionally funny. Some of his discoveries may surprise readers: The long-running, award-winning The Dick Van Dyke Show and Cheers were almost cancelled after their first seasons; Carl Reiner envisioned Johnny Carson for Van Dyke’s role; the creator of the racist Archie Bunker was “a card-carrying liberal humanist.” Roseanne, writes the author, disrupted the idea of sitcom as middle-class comfort zone; Friends offered viewers “a replacement family” in the form of a group of confidants; Seinfeld began a trend in which sitcoms spoofed television itself, “undercutting its medium, ridiculing its traditions and its unspoken assumptions.” Astute and bursting with information–an entertaining treat for sitcom fans and a valuable contribution to TV history.”

“[...] Austerlitz ingeniously and persuasively uses the genre of situation comedy as an American Rosetta stone, showing it to be capable of decoding itself (thanks to its endless self-references) and of making intelligible an entire social archaeology, [...]  Bottomless in its depth of research but as light in touch as the best of its subjects, Sitcom belongs in any home that has a sofa and a TV set,” says The Nation.

James Napoli, writing in Paste magazine, says “. . .All great comedy represents, for certain, finely honed craft. And when we combine expertly crafted jokes with perfectly realized characters, we get the iconic shows that Austerlitz profiles here. His descriptions of hilarious moments and plotlines from such groundbreaking work as The Honeymooners, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld and 30 Rock effortlessly carry you along on a wave of grins-while-reading and goodwill for the programs, even if you weren’t around when they originally broadcast.

“. . . In the end, though, let’s not argue about whether the TV sitcom is an art form. Let’s just say some shows aspire to be, and might, on a subjective basis, get there at times. Once we establish this, we can review the sitcom’s place in the landscape of our lives with nostalgia, affection and a good portion of insightful (and not unfounded) sociological analysis.

“Austerlitz delivers exactly this in his pleasantly satisfying, quite informative book. We do not need to ask any more of it.”

When is it available?

“Sitcom” awaits you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Foreign Gods, Inc.

by Okey Ndibe

(Soho, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Okey Ndibe is a Nigerian émigré who lives with his family in West Hartford. He was an award-winning member of The Courant’s editorial board and editor of African Commentary, a magazine founded by the acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. Ndibe teaches African and African Diaspora literatures at Brown University and holds MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He has taught at Connecticut College, Bard College, Trinity College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). His previous novel is “Arrows of Rain.”

What is this book about?

Ikechukwu Uzondu, “Ike for short,”  has a degree in economics but can find only demeaning work as a New York cabbie, hampered from achieving more by his impenetrable Nigerian accent, love of gambling and volatile personality. Bankrupted by his passionate and predatory former wife, Ike devises a get-rich-quick scheme. He’ll go home to Nigeria, steal his village’s revered war god statue and return to the Big Apple, where he can sell the icon to a gallery called Foreign Gods, Inc., run by an unpleasant gent who specializes in esoteric religious items. Like so many best-laid plans, this one goes very, very awry. Ike discovers that his mother and sister have been gulled by a shady evangelist; his old friend seems to be living off crookedly obtained money and his former love is a miserable mother suffering extreme poverty. As an amateur thief, Ike is prey to shaky nerves and other debilitating handicaps. Worst of all, Ngene, the stolen war god, is seeking revenge. All doesn’t end well, but this cabbie takes us for a helluva ride.

Why you’ll like it:

The characters are compelling — Ike’s ex-wife alone is worth the price of admission. The language is evocative and illuminating – as I said in my review in The Courant: “Ndibe makes lavish use of Nigerian idioms, and while their meaning can be ascertained through their context, an author’s note or glossary would have been very welcome. Still, the delightful phrase “blows grammar” — tries to impress listeners by using big, complicated words where simpler ones would do —- is one of many wonderfully colorful expressions that enliven the tale.”

The plot is lively, though less so in the book’s middle. And the karma dished out by that kidnapped god statue will leave you shivering. We’ve all seen those phony financial deal emails supposedly sent by Nigerian princes. Well, here is a novel whose Nigerian hero sadly manages to scam himself. The book is both laugh-out-loud hilarious and deeply sad. It’s a story you will not soon forget.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Ike, a Nigerian immigrant, hasn’t been able to make it in America. Driving a taxi, divorced, and broke, he continues to look for an angle and thinks he may have found it in an article about an art gallery that buys icons of foreign deities. He returns to his village in Nigeria in search of art but finds his family caught up on both sides of a religious war between Christianity and native beliefs revolving around the god Ngene. This is a heist story unlike any other, and at the center of it is a web of family obligations, cultural history, and greed. The self-destructive Ike, palpably conflicted and ready to place the blame for his lot anywhere but on himself, is a compelling character who attempts to come home again. Novelist Ndibe unfurls his rich narrative ­gradually, allowing room for plenty of character interaction while painting a revealing portrait of contemporary Nigeria. With piercing psychological insight and biting commentary on the challenges faced by immigrants, the novel is as full-blooded and fierce as the war deity who drives the story.”

In The New York Times. Janet Maslin writes: “razor-sharp…astute and gripping…Mr. Ndibe invests his story with enough dark comedy to make [the Nigerian war idol] Ngene an odoriferous presence in his own right, and certainly not the kind of polite exotic rarity that art collectors are used to. At one point, the novel compares him to the demonic Baal, and Ngene shows many signs of wishing to live up to that reputation. In Mr. Ndibe’s agile hands, he’s both a source of satire and an embodiment of pure terror.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “In Nigerian-born Ndibe’s (Arrows of Rain) new novel, Ikechukwu “Ike” Uzondu is a hapless N.Y.C. taxi driver stymied at every turn—his rent is past due, his Amherst education means less to potential employers than his accent, his green-card marriage has more than its share of baggage, and his fares always mispronounce his name (that’s “Ee-kay”). Desperate to keep his head above water in a country that only accepts him as a caricature, Ike decides to travel back to his village in Nigeria, steal his village’s ancestral war idol, and sell it to an unscrupulous dealer in tribal antiques. Many novels would merely use this premise as an excuse for madcap postcolonial allegory, but the theft turns out to be the setup for the novel’s centerpiece: Ike’s return to the village of Utonki, where he finds his family torn between a maniacal Christian pastor and the traditional worshippers of Ngene, the god Ike has resolved to pillage. Neither fable nor melodrama, nor what’s crudely niched as “world literature,” the novel traces the story of a painstakingly-crafted protagonist and his community caught up in the inescapable allure of success defined in Western terms.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “A Nigerian living in America has a moneymaking scheme–to return to his native village, steal the statue of a war god and sell it to a tony New York dealer who deals in such deities. Ikechukwu Uzondu (or Ike for short) has high expectations. Although he’s a cum laude graduate of Amherst with a degree in economics, he’s working as a New York cabbie because his accent won’t get him in the door at a Wall Street firm. Recently divorced and hounded by creditors . . . Ike borrows some money from a friend to purchase a ticket back to his home village of Utonki and carefully lays the groundwork for stealing a statue of Ngene, the village war god still worshiped by Ike’s uncle Osuakwu. . . . Ndibe writes of culture clash in a moving way that makes Ike’s march toward disaster inexorable and ineffably sad.”

Library Journal says:  “Ikechukwu Uzondu, a Nigerian cabbie working in Manhattan, is addicted to gambling and alcohol, with a hefty dose of self-pity thrown in. Though he holds a degree in economics from Amherst College, we’re asked to believe that it’s only his accent that keeps him from landing acceptable employment. Ike ignores bills and avoids the plaintive emails from his sister back in the village of Utonki. Since his ill-considered marriage imploded, Ike has been unable to send funds home, leaving him feeling guilty and angry. But he has a scheme. He’ll steal the statue of Ngene, a warrior god that has protected his people in Utonki for hundreds of years, and sell it to the officious Mark Gruels, curator of Foreign Gods, Inc., a gallery that caters to wealthy collectors who will pay small fortunes to display their liberal tastes. Not until Ike’s week back in Nigeria, where he tussles with corrupt customs officers, battles a hypocritical missionary for his mother’s soul, and visits a school friend whose gauche mansion was built with dirty money, does the author’s biting humor surface, but it’s more bitter than sweet. VERDICT Ndibe (Arrows of Rain) offers a jaundiced view of the immigrant experience in Ike, who won’t assimilate to his adopted country but can’t return home either. Ike’s overwhelming sense of loss and alienation results in a bleak portrait of a broken man. A difficult read indeed.”

My review in The Courant says: “How much is a god worth, metaphysically, morally or, in the case of Ngene, a Nigerian village war god embodied in a wooden idol, materially?

“That is the question haunting Ikechukwu Uzondo, a Nigerian cab driver in New York City who is the protagonist of Okey Ndibe’s second novel, “Foreign Gods, Inc.” (Soho Press, $25). It’s a frequently bitter yet often humorous account of a frustrated immigrant whose American dream becomes a nightmare.

“Ike, as he is known – that’s “Ee-kay,” not Ike as in Eisenhower, as he often has to point out — has earned a degree in economics from Amherst College that he believed would lead to respect and riches. But his hopes go unfulfilled because, he believes, his impenetrable Nigerian accent puts off American job interviewers. What he does not take into account is his prickly personality and the gambling and drinking that sap his opportunities.

Then there is his inability to stand up to his former wife, the sex-mad, foul-mouthed Bernita, a force of ill nature for whom words such as harridan and harpy were coined. Bernita, aka Queen B, drives Ike deep into debt and humiliates him with infidelity. . . .

“As Ike’s quest begins, Ndibe introduces readers to piquant characters and village life in a country with one foot in the rampant bribery of corrupt capitalism and the other planted in the primitive past. He also explores the conflict between Christianity and native religions. Christianity gets the worst of it, represented by a long-ago white Anglican evangelist who seized souls for Christ by haranguing and bullying the villagers, and present-day Pastor Uka, a charlatan who bilks the gullible with the guile and greed of the worst TV preachers. The followers of Ngene, though their worship involves remarkably bawdy prayers, seem far more genuine in their piety. . . . The vivid, if cartoonish, characters are the best, yet in a way least satisfying part of the book, because they intrigue the reader momentarily and then fade into the background. Bernita her bad self is worth an entire novel. The story also is slowed down by repetitious scenes and near-obsessive imagery of sweating, engendered by climate and fear, which appears in trickles, rivulets and torrents throughout the story. . . .

“Ike carries out his plan, with results that shock him but not the reader, who roots for this earnest, if flawed, man but in the end can only feel pity. There’s more than a touch of Poe, or perhaps “The Twilight Zone,” in the surreal conclusion of this story.

Ngene, it turns out, is far more powerful and vengeful than Ike ever imagined. And he would have done well to study not just economics, but Euripedes, the ancient Greek dramatist who pointed out that “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

 

When is it available?

This caustic yet touching book is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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