Still Life with Bread Crumbs

By Anna Quindlen

(Random House, $26, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Anna Quindlen reached a journalism pinnacle when she became a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, only the third woman to achieve that position, and then won a Pulitzer Prize for her columns there. She published two collections, “Living Out Loud” and “Thinking Out Loud,” and left the Times in 1995 for Newsweek, where her columns were later published in the collection “Loud and Clear.” She also had great success with her inspirational advice book, “A Short Guide to a Happy Life,” which has sold more than a million copies. But Quindlen says her heart always belonged to fiction-writing, and she has had many best-sellers, including “Object Lessons,”  “One True Thing” and “Black and Blue.”

Here is what she said in a Barnes & Noble.com chat: “I really only went into the newspaper business to support my fiction habit, but then discovered, first of all, that I loved reporting for its own sake and, second, that journalism would be invaluable experience for writing novels.”

What is this book about?

Rebecca Winter is 60 and an admired – though increasingly less financially successful – photographer. Circumstances, such as a cad of a husband who drops her for a younger woman, persuade her to leave city life to rent a country cabin so that she can sublet her apartment for the income and also re-boot her artistic career What she finds there includes a pesty raccoon, a dog who adopts her, a woman who runs a funky café and a divorced roofer/handyman who, as you are already guessing, can repair more than roofs. (Plus, he is 30 years younger: this is how you know it’s fiction.) “Still Life” is a romantic comedy that is humorous but never sappy, and it is certain to please Quindlen’s many fans.

Why you’ll like it:

As she proved over and over again in her columns, nonfiction and previous novels, Quindlen really “gets” what motivates or obstructs women, and she explores their lives with wit and deep empathy. Rebecca is older than Quindlen’s previous heroines, but not so old that she cannot start over after life tosses big obstacles in her path. Without being overly sentimental, Quindlen tells her story in a compelling way.  No doubt this will be her next best-seller.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “There comes a moment in every novelist’s career when she sloughs off the weight of the past—the conventions and obsessions, the stylistic fallbacks and linguistic tics, the influence of early masters—and ventures into new territory, breaking free into a marriage of tone and style, of plot and characterization, that’s utterly her own. Anna Quindlen’s marvelous romantic comedy of manners is just such a book. In Still Life With Bread Crumbs, Quindlen achieves something distinctive, a feminist novel for a post-feminist age…which proves all the more moving because of its light, sophisticated humor. Quindlen’s least overtly political novel, it packs perhaps the most serious punch.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Quindlen’s seventh novel, following Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, is a detailed exploration of creativity and the need for connection. Rebecca Winter is a 60-year-old photographer, once revered as a feminist icon, whose work isn’t selling as briskly as it used to. She needs a fresh start after her marriage falls apart because her husband trades her in for a younger model (as he does every 10 years). She rents a cabin in the country while subletting her beloved New York City apartment, needing both the money and the space in which to find her creative spark again. Jim Bates, a local roofer who helps her with the challenges of moving into the cottage, becomes a new friend, as does a dog that seems to prefer living with her rather than with its neglectful owner. Rebecca also finds new objects to photograph in the series of homemade wooden crosses she discovers during hikes in the surrounding woods, without realizing their connection to a tragedy in Jim’s life. Quindlen has always excelled at capturing telling details in a story, and she does so again in this quiet, powerful novel, showing the charged emotions that teem beneath the surface of daily life.”

“A photographer retreats to a rustic cottage, where she confronts aging and flagging career prospects. Rebecca Winter is known for her Kitchen Counter series, black-and-white photographs capturing domestic minutia, taken as her marriage to a philandering Englishman is foundering on the shoals of mistaken assumptions. But, as her laconic and un-nurturing agent, TG, never fails to remind her, what has she done lately? Her photo royalties are in precipitous decline. Divorced, living in a high-priced Manhattan apartment, Rebecca, 60, finds herself unmoored. Her filmmaker son, Ben, still requires checks from Mom. Her mother, Bebe, is in the Jewish Home for the Aged and Infirm, where she spends her days playing piano pieces on any available surface, except an actual piano. Since the collapse of the family business, Rebecca has supported both her parents and now pays Bebe’s nursing home bills. She figures that it will be cheaper to sublet her apartment and rent a ramshackle woodland cabin upstate than to continue to ape the NYC lifestyle of her formerly successful self. She meets the usual eccentrics who people so many fictional small towns, although in Quindlen’s hands, these archetypes are convincingly corporeal. Sarah runs the English-themed Tea for Two cafe, not exactly to the taste of most locals. Until Rebecca came to town, Sarah’s only regular was Tad, ex–boy soprano, now working clown. Sarah’s ne’er-do-well husband, Kevin, sells Rebecca subpar firewood and is admonished by Jim, an upstanding local hero. After helping Rebecca remove a marauding raccoon, Jim helps her find work photographing wild birds. Like Rebecca, Jim is divorced and has onerous family responsibilities, in his case, his bipolar sister who requires constant surveillance. As Rebecca interacts with these townsfolk–and embarks on a new photo series–she begins to understand how provisional her former life–and self–really was. Occasionally profound, always engaging, but marred by a formulaic resolution in which rewards and punishments are meted out according to who ranks highest on the niceness scale,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Library Journal says: “Formerly a world-famous photographer, Rebecca Winter is past her prime and out of her element. Her photographs are yesterday’s news, her family has fallen apart, and her bank balance is inching toward negative numbers. When she can no longer afford her luxurious Manhattan apartment, Rebecca sublets and moves to a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, on a road that has no name. Away from the noise and clatter of the city, she finds peace in a quiet country life, inspiration in the form of mysterious shrines she discovers hidden deep in the woods, and unexpected love with a husky roofer 30 years her junior. VERDICT Pulitzer Prize winner Quindlen has made a home at the top of the best sellers lists with novels that capture the grace and frailty of everyday life (Object Lessons; Blessings), and her latest work is sure to take her there again. With spare, elegant prose, she crafts a poignant glimpse into the inner life of an aging woman who discovers that reality contains much more color than her own celebrated black-and-white images.”

When is it available?

Quindlen’s latest novel can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Ropkins 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 Swan Gondola: A Novel

by Timothy Schaffert

(Riverhead, $27.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Timothy Schaffert is a thoroughly Nebraska guy. Schaffert spent his boyhood on a farm there and now lives in Omaha. His four previous novels include “The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God” and “Devils in the Sugar Shop,” garnered such honors as Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selections, Indie Next Picks, and New York Times Editor’s Choices. Besides writing, he teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

What is this book about?

First of all, were you as surprised as I was to learn that Omaha hosted the 1898 World’s Fair? It certainly did, and that is the milieu of this inventive novel. Set in the elaborate Gilded Age era, with all its Victorian flourishes, the book’s protagonist is the wonderfully named Ferret Skerrit, a ventriloquist and a con man. Clever though he is, he nevertheless falls for the charms of Cecily, who totes around a mysterious carpetbag and plays the role of Marie Antoinette in a traveling show at the fair, a role that requires her to lose her head….not romantically, but hourly, via a fake guillotine. She’s not interested in ferreting out (sorry!) Skerrit’s good side, until nightly star-lit rides in a swan gondola takes place. But their stars are crossed, and many other occurrences, such as a cameo appearance by President William McKinley, an ill-fated hot-air balloon crash and an even-more ill-fated marriage vie for the reader’s attention. Wizard of Oz imagery and lush description, a la “The Night Circus,” highlight the story.

Why you’ll like it:

Romances set in earlier times nearly always have charm, and this book is no exception. Ferret and Cecily have miles to go, and the reader has the fun of watching this improbable and complex love story play out. The gondola rides, hot air balloon and other Victorian frippery add period atmosphere and some fun to this lighter-than-air story.

What others are saying:

“Timothy Schaffert has chosen the 1898 World’s Fair in Omaha as the backdrop for his new novel, The Swan Gondola, a highly atmospheric entertainment, full of plot twists, historical flavor and paranormal romance. . . . Beneath the intrigue, mystery and historical window dressings of The Swan Gondola beats the heart of a complicated love story. . . . As a prose stylist, Schaffert leans toward the extravagant without crossing the line into purple. The jaunty Victorian temperament of the prose rings true to the era, as do its thoroughness and attention to detail. . . . This tendency toward expansive description . . . serves to create a palpable atmosphere, imbuing the novel with the glossy cinematic quality of a big-budget Hollywood period piece. . . . Readers who enjoyed Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are likely to be captivated by The Swan Gondola,” says The Washington Post.

“A ventriloquist in a hot air balloon lifts off from Omaha, Neb., crashes in a strange land, and presides over an emerald cathedral. Yes, it’s The Wizard of Oz. But it’s also the loose construct of Timothy Schaffert’s new novel, The Swan Gondola, which pays tribute to the L. Frank Baum’s classic, yet veers off on its own path of magic and deception. It’s an entertaining and thoroughly researched book, particularly suitable for Americana buffs who want a taste of life in a western frontier town struggling to become a modern city at the turn of the century,” says the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Booklist’s starred review says:  “Offering an expertly conjured atmosphere complete with soothsayers, cure-all tonics, technological gadgetry, and daring high-wire acts, Schaffert’s whimsical epic of illusion and reality at the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair promises and delivers grand entertainment. . . .  Audiences will be lured in by the offbeat personalities and carried along by the unexpected plot developments, but the real showstopper is the exuberant Gilded Age setting, imagined in elaborate detail. With so many wondrous attractions, this finely spun world feels almost dreamlike, yet Schaffert also takes a sharp look at what’s most important in life.”

Says Publishers Weekly: The latest from Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope) is a love story set during the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. “Ferret” Skerritt is a ventriloquist who becomes smitten with Cecily, a beauty who comes to town with the fair’s Chamber of Horrors (she plays Marie Antoinette and is beheaded hourly). Deciphering Cecily’s many secrets, including the contents of her mysteriously heavy carpet bag, is just the first challenge Ferret faces in courting her: soon William Wakefield, the fair’s wealthy patron, sees Cecily and decides he wants her for himself. Schaffert’s picture of the fair is enchanting, from the buildings that shimmer with “shattered glass that had been dusted over the whitewash” to the midway attractions, including a theatre where Cecily and Ferret briefly hang from wires and dance in midair. As the two lovers become embroiled with Wakefield, however, the novel loses some of its magic. Additionally, the frequent Wizard of Oz allusions build to nothing. But there are many romantic and historical delights here, and, despite its imperfections, it’s easy to imagine this charming novel attaining Water for Elephants–like popularity with readers.”

Library Journal says: “Schaffert’s fifth novel (after The Coffins of Little Hope) opens with a bang. In autumn 1898, the elderly Egan sisters are enjoying an evening cup of tea in their Nebraska prairie farmhouse when they are jolted out of their chairs by a hot-air balloon crashing on their roof. They rescue Ferret Skerritt from the basket and mend his broken leg. While he recuperates, he tells a fantastic story of his life at the Omaha World’s Fair (he is a ventriloquist) and why he stole the balloon. Ferret describes a world of colorful eccentrics, astonishing scientific wonders, and even a visit from President McKinley as he relates his pursuit of the beautiful but elusive Cecily. Cecily is an actress in the Chamber of Horrors, where she gets beheaded four times a day, and he courts her with romantic midnight rides in the swan gondola on the boat lagoon, offering her little except his devotion. Before Ferret can propose, Cecily marries a wealthy businessman to give her daughter Doxie a better life. Undeterred, Ferret plans Cecily’s rescue, dreaming of a dignified, respectable life with his beloved. VERDICT With allusions to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz, Schaffert has magically transformed a stretch of field near Omaha into a white, shimmering vision of rotundas, columns, and pillars. His magical tale is steeped in late 19th-century history. The stately pace might be too slow for some readers, but fans of historical fiction will not be disappointed.”

When is it available?

You don’t have to go to Nebraska to pick up this book. 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!

The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel

by Alice Hoffman

(Scribner, $27.99, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Best-selling author Alice Hoffman is a popular and prolific writer, who uses her own version of magical realism in her stories of love and loss. Her 28 works, published in more than 20 translations and more than 100 foreign editions, include 18 novels, two story collections and eight books for children or young adult readers. Her novel, “Here on Earth,” was an Oprah Book Club choice and “Practical Magic” became a film with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. She lives in Boston and New York and often spends time on Cape Cod. A breast cancer survivor, she founded the Hoffman (Women’s Cancer) Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

Set in the early 1900s in New York City, this is a tale of a young woman struggling to escape the schemes of her amoral father and a young man who rejects his stultifying Orthodox Jewish upbringing. It takes the length of the book for Coralie and Eddie to come together, and it’s the journey that captures the reader.

Coralie’s evil father runs The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that exploits its human exhibits. She has webbed fingers and is a talented swimmer: of course, her sinister dad tries to fashion her into a mermaid in the show. Eddie was apprenticed to a tailor but pursues photography as a way out of his close-minded community and shoots pictures of the chaos following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Coralie meets him taking pictures of trees in the moonlight, and a long-suppressed romance begins in this story that explores both real and phony magic.

Why you’ll like it:

Hoffman’s fans, and they are legion, will flock to this novel. While reviewers say it is not her best, that will not matter to those who love her wounded protagonists and stories told with vivid lyrical style, which this one has in abundance. Hoffman blends historical realities with magical imagination here, and when it works, it makes for a powerful reading experience.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “Like the museum of its title, Hoffman’s latest novel is a collection of curiosities, each fascinating in its own right, but haphazardly connected as a whole. New York City in 1911 is caught between its future and its past: the last woods are threatened by sidewalks; sweatshops and child labor abuses give rise to a cruel division between rich and poor. Coralie Sardie’s father runs Coney Island’s Museum of Extraordinary Things, a sideshow exhibit of pickled and preserved wonders, as well as living freaks; Coralie’s own webbed hands lead her father to train her as a swimmer, billing her as “the Human Mermaid.” But Professor Sardie’s museum is threatened by the city’s changing tastes, and he becomes increasingly sinister in his control of Coralie and his plans for the museum’s future. In a parallel, hopscotching storyline, Eddie Cohen, a Russian Orthodox Jewish immigrant, abandons his father and his community and becomes a photographer, finding his purpose in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the search for one of its victims. Though both stories have Hoffman’s trademark magical realism and hold great potential, their connection is tenuous—literally and thematically—and their complexities leave them incompletely explored.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A young woman grows up in her father’s eponymous Coney Island museum at the turn of the 20th century in Hoffman’s novel. Watched over by her beloved but acid-scarred family housekeeper, motherless Coralie lives a seemingly idyllic early childhood with her intellectual father above the “museum” he runs but doesn’t let her visit. Then, on Coralie’s 10th birthday, in 1903, her father not only escorts her through the exhibit for the first time, but he also puts her on display as “The Human Mermaid.” Born with webbed fingers, Coralie, an expert swimmer, spends her days in a tank wearing her mermaid suit. At first, she loves the work, in what her father staunchly denies is a freak show, and becomes close to other members of the exhibition, particularly the “Wolfman,” with whom Coralie’s housekeeper falls in love. But as business flags, her father arranges special showings, during which adolescent Coralie must swim naked for invited male audiences. By 1911, her father, a Fagin-like villain who hopes to milk rumored sightings of a sea monster, sends Coralie into New York’s waters at odd hours disguised as the monster. On one of her nightly swims, Coralie comes ashore, discovers a young man with a camera at a campfire and is instantly smitten. Eddie Cohen, the son of an Orthodox Jew, has left behind his ethnic and spiritual roots to become a photographer. Motherless like Coralie, Eddie has also been employed in phony magic, in his case, finding missing persons for a fake seer. Their love affair and Coralie’s rebellion against her father play out in a changing New York City as seen through Eddie’s photographic lens.”

Library Journal says: “. . .Coralie Sardie works for her father, the “professor” and impresario of the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a freak show in Coney Island. She performs as a mermaid in a tank but really lives for her long swims in the cold Hudson River. While Coralie’s element is water, Eddie Cohen is tormented by fire. He fled a fiery pogrom in his native Russia and now wants to break away from his miserable life on the Lower East Side and become a photographer. Eddie’s hatred of rich factory owners increases when he takes photos of the ghastly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile, Professor Sardie grows even more sinister as the crowds desert his “museum” for the new and lavish amusement palaces of Luna Park and Dreamland. Then Coralie and Eddie get caught up in the chaos as Dreamland burns to the ground. VERDICT With a sprinkling of magical realism, Hoffman blends social realism, historical fiction, romance, and mystery in a fast-paced and dramatic novel filled with colorful characters and vivid scenes of life in New York more than a century ago.”

“Alice Hoffman specializes in fairy tales for impressionable grown-ups and cautionary tales for precocious adolescents. Not infrequently, the two overlap. Her latest fiction for the former demographic, a melancholic love story that spotlights corruption and exploitative labor practices in 1911 New York City . . .  In conflating made-up characters with real-life incident and figures, Hoffman is trafficking more in the tabloid territory of Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist” than the impressionistic dabbling of E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime.” Like Carr, Hoffman’s book earns its legitimacy through an eye-opening plethora of period detailing, coupled with the author’s overarching outrage at urban workplace abuses. If “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” descends into high corn in its final stretch, you can’t help but admire the author’s fervor for telling stories and the democratic manner in which she disseminates the love of reading: Fiends and heroines alike lose themselves in great literature. A special place in her protagonist Coralie’s heart is reserved for Edgar Allen Poe, whose ghost hovers over the novel’s fiery climax with detectable satisfaction,” says the Boston Globe.”

When is it available?

You can find Hoffman’s latest at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany, Goodwin and Park 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!

 

I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War

by Jerome Charyn

(Liveright, $26.95, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Unless you have read one of his nearly 50 books, or are a fan of French ping-pong (more about that later), you may not know of Jerome Charyn. Your loss, but understandable, because this very talented and extremely prolific author does not seem to get much media buzz.  Charyn published his first novel, “Once Upon a Droshky,”  in 1964. He has 30 novels, including “Johnny One-Eye” and  “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson,” three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction to his credit and  two of his memoirs got the coveted New York Times Book of the Year designation. He lives in New York and Paris, where he was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture and was a Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris through 2009. And in France, he was a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players there. The novelist Don DeLillo called” Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins,” Charyn’s book on table tennis, “The Sun Also Rises” of ping-pong.”

What is this book about?

In “I Am Abraham,” a fictional memoir, Charyn takes on the daunting task of speaking in the voice of our revered 16th president, and by all accounts, does it smashingly well. If you have ever wished you could hear Lincoln speak about the devastating Civil War, this is as close as you could wish to come. The book, written in the first person, chronicles Lincoln’s personal history from Illinois to that fateful night at a Washington theater, blending humor and tragedy. Charyn uses real characters and invents others: all equally fascinating. Using the rhythms and idioms of 19th century speech, Charyn does not so much mimic Lincoln’s speaking style as inhabit it, drawing on letters and speeches the president wrote. This is historical fiction at its finest.

Why you’ll like it:

Innovative and bold by its very nature, this book is also brave: it is no easy feat to put yourself in the mind and heart of one of history’s most famous and controversial men and make it sound authentic. Charyn has the chops to bring off this literary impersonation, and in so doing, he gives us tremendous insight into the president who saved the Union, albeit at great cost (and with conflicts that persist to this day). Lincoln’s political brilliance, moral wisdom, sense of humor and feeling about his personal tragedies are all here, thanks to Charyn’s inventive abilities.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “Charyn certainly manages to bring the legendary 16th president down to earth; most readers will find it hard to view the Great Emancipator the same way after reading this fictional memoir’s description of him masturbating as a young man. But the novel also succeeds in making the legendary figure more accessible, using Lincoln’s lifelong battle with depression as an avenue through which to explore his life and perspective. The opening section presents the president’s memories of his last night, ending as Booth’s bullet shatters his skull, and then flashing back to 1831 as the young Lincoln begins life in New Salem, Ill. The rest of the book traces his well-known life arc, from prairie lawyer to U.S. president. This is a warts-and-all portrayal, not only of the lead, but of central supporting figures, most especially his tempestuous and difficult wife, Mary. Charyn has managed to craft a fictional autobiography that rings emotionally true.”

“If all historians—or any historian—could write with the magnetic charm and authoritative verve of Jerome Charyn, American readers would be fighting over the privilege of learning about their past. They can learn much from this book—an audacious, first-person novel that makes Lincoln the most irresistible figure of a compelling story singed with equal doses of comedy, tragedy, and moral grandeur. Here is something beyond history and approaching art,” says Harold Holzer, chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.

Library Journal says:  “It should be no surprise that a historical novel by Charyn captures the attention. A deeply lyrical writer, he has proven himself adept at reworking America’s historical legends . . . Reworking is the key to Charyn’s approach. His concern is not so much what has been written down about Abraham Lincoln’s actions as the inner life and tensions of his famous protagonist: his depression, his deep feelings of unworthiness, but also his compassion for the downtrodden. This re-creation of Lincoln’s life is as much domestic history as public, with Lincoln contraposed to his fiery but deeply troubled wife and his three very different sons. Charyn’s Lincoln is a real man, not a stick-figure saint. He lusts for Mary Todd in language that is earthy, at times even bawdy. But Lincoln was also, and always, a man who strove to listen to the better angels of his nature, and this, too, comes out in Charyn’s book. VERDICT This is another fine novel by a very good author who has a proven track record of attracting readers of all persuasions. What’s not to like?”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Charyn . . . has Abraham Lincoln narrating his own story, beginning a few moments before the assassination and then telling the highlights of his life through a series of flashbacks. Lincoln is presented here literally warts and all, from his rough-and-tumble upbringing to his early career as a lawyer and Illinois state legislator to the burden of being president. His first serious relationship is with Ann Rutledge, with whom Lincoln is very much in love (though Charyn endows him with a 21st-century sexual consciousness that at times seems rather jarring). After Ann’s death, Lincoln develops a case of the “blue unholies,” a melancholy that haunts him for much of the rest of his life. He next takes up with the vivacious and demanding Mary Todd, who comes across as more of a burden than a helpmeet, especially when they get to the White House, where she is unadmiringly styled the “Lady President.” Mary is preoccupied with redecorating, flirting and, later, with deeply grieving the loss of her son, Willie. The portrait of Lincoln readers get is characterized by emotional and psychological complexity, for he’s a reluctant candidate, a caustic commander in chief and, at times (understandably), a diffident husband. He, too, is deeply saddened by the death of his son as well as by the deep social divisions he seems unable to bridge. Charyn skillfully weaves bits of speeches and a large cast of characters, most of them drawn from Lincoln’s life, into his intricate portrait of the 16th president.”

“Jerome Charyn [is] a fearless writer… Brave and brazen… The book is daringly imagined, written with exuberance, and with a remarkable command of historical detail. It gives us a human Lincoln besieged by vividly drawn enemies and allies… Placing Lincoln within the web of ordinary and sometimes petty human relations is no small achievement,” says the New York Review of Books

When is it available?

This book is available 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!

 

Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him

by David Henry  and Joe Henry

(Algonquin Books, $25.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

You might not expect that the latest biographers of the amazing, frustrating, hilarious and tragic Richard Pryor would be a screenwriter and a songwriter, singer, guitarist and Grammy-winning music producer, but that is what David Henry and his brother Joe, respectively, are. “Furious Cool,” their debut as authors, began as a screenplay and took more than 10 years to complete, and now they are back to working on that screenplay based on Pryor’s life and career.

What is this book about?

If you have never seen Richard Pryor on screen, on TV or live, then it may be hard to imagine the power this hugely talented, demon-ridden genius of a performer had.  The son of a prostitute and grandson of a madam, he was one tough cookie: violent toward women, married seven times, a serious junkie who nearly burned himself to death and a sufferer of multiple sclerosis who also was, in the opinion of Comedy Central and quite a few others, the No. 1 stand-up comedian, ever. Pryor was not only funny, he created – often ad-libbing – characters onstage that made audiences howl with laughter and sometimes cry. There was no one else quite like him, for good or bad, and the Henry brothers tell his story well.

Why you’ll like it:

This is a book about a tragic comic, and unlike many books about funny men, it doesn’t kill the humor by analyzing it. The Henrys give you the whole Pryor experience, complete with unrelenting profanity, from his violent, abuse-laden childhood to professional success (and some failures) to the hell of drug addiction and the pain of illness. The book is loaded with trenchant detail and riveting anecdotes. It’s a must read for any Pryor fan and may create plenty of new ones who will watch any Pryor DVDs or movies they can find.

What others are saying:

Amazon.com Review says in a Best Book of the Month, November 2013 review: “Richard Pryor was nobody’s hero. The man sired accidental children, lived most of his life as a junkie, and even set himself on fire, but he was also one of the twentieth century’s most notable American geniuses. With the release of Furious Cool, brothers David and Joe Henry have written the definitive tribute to Pryor’s momentous cultural legacy. But this is no straightforward biography: structured as a long series of roughly chronological vignettes, the resulting impressionistic portrait mirrors the flights of fancy that marked Pryor’s most memorable stand-up comedy performances. Like Lenny Bruce before him and Bill Hicks later, Pryor’s fearlessness as a performer not only yielded incomparable recorded performances but also changed audience expectations and widened the art form forever after. Sensitive to this transformative import, Henry and Henry nevertheless portray Pryor the man with all of his failings in the full glare of the spotlight. In the 25 years between his self-immolation and his eventual passing, Pryor’s creative output went from bad (The Toy, Brewster’s Millions) to sad (“Richard Pryor at the Helm of Comedy”), but nothing in his long, slow fall from an admittedly twisted grace diminishes his accomplishments, and Furious Cool resists the fan’s impetus toward hagiography in favor of an artistic performance of the written word that does lovely justice to a brilliant, tortured man. “

“Furious Cool is a fabulous history, alive with fascinating characters both reacting to and creating world-changing events; it is a study of the seismic cultural shifts of the second half of the twentieth century, when everything we knew about music, literature, television, theater, and yes, comedy, was turned upside down and sideways, blowing our minds and resetting all expectations; it is a documentary of epic proportions, based as it is upon mountains of research (all of it refined, sifted, and clarified); it is a love song and a dirge and silly ditty and a symphony of every emotion . . . Every person on the planet has to find his or her way to the truth of life’s unfairness, beauty, sadness, opportunities and limits. That I could get myself part way there riding on waves of laughter was a wonderful gift, and it was Pryor’s gift. Furious Cool reminds me of his present, and his presence, and for this, I give thanks to the Henry brothers,” says The Huffington Post.

“It would be enough if Furious Cool was a profile of Pryor’s uncanny talents, psychic turmoil, and ungovernable behavior, but it’s also a fascinating history of black comedy . . . Furious Cool captures Pryor’s frenetic routines and stage presence on the page . . . The inextricable legacy of Richard Pryor—his boldness, inventiveness, candor, and empathy—lives on,” says Los Angeles Magazine.

Says Biographile.com: “Say what you will about Richard Pryor’s failings as a father, husband, co-star, or business partner (offstage, he couldn’t balance a checkbook), he lived his life totally immersed in the moment. Had he cared one whit about his legacy or posterity, we would still be buying up box sets of lost nightclub performances and concert films, just as we do Miles Davis’ “Complete Sessions” and Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg” packages. It maddens us to imagine all the unrecorded, never repeated performances Richard delivered during the flowering of his genius, lost now but for a few firsthand recollections.

The New York Times Book Review says: “ Furious Cool…is not an intimate, determinedly probing account that sets out to unearth previously concealed biographical detail or attempts to reassess a life or provide continuity. It’s more an admiring primer, an impressionistic riff that trips selectively through the…triumphs and tragedies that marked Pryor’s career, offering piquant snippets and fleeting snapshots as it prospects for the source of his genius…Pryor…was much more than just a comic to David and Joe Henry. And it is their passionate belief in his transcendent status that energizes the book…The authors, who are white, acknowledge some initial wariness about diving headlong into an examination of the social impact of a larger-than-life African-American cultural hero. But finally it is their affirmation of the influence Pryor had outside the black community and beyond comedy that perhaps most commends this book. It is a testament to his stature not only as an African-American entertainment idol but also as an American icon.”

When is it available?

You can find it now 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!

 

Guests on Earth: A Novel

by Lee Smith

(Shannon Ravenel, $25.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Lee Smith, who makes her home in North Carolina, is an experienced writer of popular contemporary fiction set in the South and has published 13 novels and four story collections. Her best sellers include “Fair and Tender Ladies” and “The Last Girls,” which won a Southern Book Critics Circle Award. Smith also has been honored with the 1999 Academy Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the North Carolina Award for Literature.

What is this book about?

“Guests on Earth” takes its title from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once said: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”

An apt quote, because this novel imagines the last years of Fitzgerald’s beautiful but very fragile and troubled wife, the artist and dancer Zelda, who perished in a mysterious fire in 1948 at Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, N.C., locked in with eight other female patients in the facility’s top-floor ward, with only a charred ballet slipper found by which to identify her.

Here is what Smith says about the story: “In this novel I offer a solution for the unsolved mystery of that fire, along with a group of characters both imagined and real, and a series of events leading up to the tragedy. My narrator is a younger patient named Evalina Toussaint, daughter of a New Orleans exotic dancer. Evalina is a talented pianist who connects to Zelda on many levels as she plays accompaniment for the many concerts, theatricals, and dances constantly being held at Highland Hospital.

“As Evalina tells us at the beginning of this novel, “I bring a certain insight and new information to that horrific event which changed all our lives forever, those of us living there upon that mountain at that time. This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was not Nick Carraway’s story, either—yet Nick Carraway is the narrator, is he not? And is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?”

Evalina is just 13 in 1936 when she is admitted, an orphan and a piano prodigy who is content to be an accompanist, never a star. Treatment by Dr. Robert Carroll is enlightened for its time, with an emphasis on fresh air, good diet, exercise, gardening and the arts, along with now outmoded insulin shock and freeze wraps. But it is primitive by today’s standards and labels as insane any women who did not meet the prevailing male ideas of behavior. As Evalina’s personal story develops in and out of the asylum, we get glimpses of Zelda’s sad denouement and meet piquant characters representing various types of Southern women of that day.

Why you’ll like it:

Smith has a large following, who love her books for their understanding of how women live and think and prevail. Here she offers a deft blending of sad fact and imaginative fiction, and a possible solution to the never-solved puzzle of how the came about. Readers get a historical novel, an illuminating look at medical practices of not so long ago and  stories of several fascinating women.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Zelda Fitzgerald is fictionalized and given a supporting role in Smith’s chronicle of a girl whose life is changed by a North Carolina mental institution. In 1936, after her mother’s suicide in New Orleans, 13-year-old Evalina Toussaint is sent to live at Highland Hospital. There, she’s mothered by Grace Potter Carroll, the director’s wife, who gives Evalina music lessons and a shot at a normal life. Evalina also meets F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, who swings from sweetness to cruelty, and often mistakes Evalina for her daughter Patricia. Mrs. Carroll and Evalina grow apart as the latter leaves Highland to attend school and eventually become engaged. When tragedy strikes and Evalina finds herself once again at the hospital, the Carrolls are no longer in charge, though Zelda remains among the changing crop of patients. At this point, the book becomes truly engaging, as Smith introduces characters like the charming Dixie Calhoun. Evalina also finds herself smitten with groundskeeper Pan Otto, who was found locked in a cage as a child, and doctor Freddy Sledge. Many tragedies pepper the narrative, including the fire that bookends the story, all of which are handled in a touching manner. Smith’s novel takes a while to blossom, but really takes off once it does.

Says Booklist:  “Abandoned as a child upon her mother’s death in New Orleans in the 1930s, Evalina is sent to Highland Hospital . . . by her mother’s wealthy lover—a convenient way of dealing with an inconvenient problem. Evalina may be a lot of things—a budding musician, a romantic dreamer—but mentally ill she is not. Yet over time, the mental hospital becomes her home and its staff and fellow patients her family. Celebrated for its unorthodox treatment methods, Highland attracts the penniless and the notorious, and Evalina is influenced by a nearly feral young man and the hospital’s most famous patient, Zelda Fitzgerald. Equally creative, emotive, independent, and adventurous as Zelda, wife of the renowned author F. Scott, Evalina also contradicts society’s standard for female behavior, guaranteeing that no matter how often she escapes or improves, she will always return to Highland. Riding the recurring wave of Zelda-mania, perennially best-selling Smith presents an impeccably researched historical novel that reveals the early twentieth century’s antediluvian attitudes toward mental health and women’s independence.”

Says The Washington Post: “The story moves forward at Evalina’s quiet, almost stately pace. Life at Highland is pleasant, almost luxurious: The residents — men and women — hike, read, garden, stage theatricals. Most of the time they seem perfectly healthy, except for when they don’t. Occasionally, Evalina will digress, to tell another woman’s story, which is when the reader realizes that Smith’s purpose is far more ambitious than it looks. Once, Evalina ventures off campus to spend the night with a mountain girl who lives far up in a “holler.” Her family is poor beyond words, but they make heavenly music. Another patient is genuine Southern Belle; like Zelda, she simply can’t stand the life. And there’s Jinx, a charming, murderous white-trash girl.

By the time she’s done, Smith has covered the entire spectrum of Southern women. In her acknowledgments, she writes, “I . . . have my own personal knowledge of the landscape of this novel. My father was a patient here in the fifties. And I am especially grateful to Highland Hospital for the helpful years my son, Josh, spent there in the 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations. Though I had always loved Zelda Fitzgerald, it was then that I became fascinated by her art and her life within that institution, and the mystery of her tragic death.”

“. . . This is a carefully researched, utterly charming novel. By the time you finish it, you fall in love with these fascinating lives, too.”

 “Indeed, most of the high spirited, rebellious, outspoken women who populate Guests on Earth would not now be considered insane at all. Smith’s imaginative, layered story illuminates the complexity of their collective plight—to be put in towers until they had no choice but to behave—and rescues them one by one,” says The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book on its shelves.

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!

 

Pioneer Girl: A Novel

By Bich Minh Nguyen

(Viking, $26.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Bich Minh Nguyen, whose name is pronounced Bit Min New-’win but prefers to be called Beth, is the author of the memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” which won a PEN/Jerard Fund Award and the novel “Short Girls,” which won an American Book Award. She teaches literature and creative writing in San Francisco, where she lives with her husband and their two children.

She understands the immigrant life well. As a baby, she and her father, older sister, grandmother and uncles—but not her mother — fled Saigon and landed in Grand Rapids, Mich., where her father worked in  a factory and her grandmother took care of the children. This experience engendered Nguyen’s deep interest, explored in her books, about what makes a family and what makes someone an American.

What is this book about?

You would hardly expect a Vietnamese American family to have a connection with the author of the classic “The Little House on the Prairie” books, but Bich Minh Nguyen makes it plausible in “Pioneer Girl.”

Its central character, Lee Lien, has earned a Ph. D,  but can’t land a job, and returns to her home outside Chicago, where she has a difficult mother to deal with and a family restaurant to help run. Then her brother goes missing, quite mysteriously, and she discovers he has left her a note and a gold-leaf brooch her mother once had in Saigon. Lee has long imagined that it may have belonged to “Little House” author Laura Ingalls Wilder and was left in Vietnam in 1965 by Wilders ’journalist  daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Lee is drawn into the researching the brooch and its true history as she tries to find out why her brother left and where he is, how to cope with her cranky mother – and not so incidentally, how to find her own place in the world.

Why you’ll like it:

Based on my reading of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” I can tell you that Nguyen is a gifted writer and insightful about life. She is very good at showing the often poignant and occasionally absurd situations that a child of immigrants can find herself in while navigating a country and culture not her own – at least, that is, until she makes it her own.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “As a child, Lee Lien loved to imagine that her mother’s gold brooch originally belonged to Laura Ingalls Wilder, and had been left behind in a Saigon cafe by Laura’s daughter, Rose, many years ago. Now unable to find a job after graduating with a Ph.D. in literature, Lee, the American-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrant parents, returns home to Chicago to help out with the family restaurant. This smart novel by American Book Award–winner Nguyen aptly conveys the anxieties connected to simultaneously trying to find one’s own way and live up to family expectations. When her brother Sam mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note attached to the brooch, Lee begins looking into whether there’s any truth to her belief that the brooch’s original owner was Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter. The question soon becomes an obsession, and she heads westward, eventually coming to San Francisco, searching for any small clue to the story behind the gold brooch. She must also deal with an irascible mother who believes that Lee’s Ph.D. is “a fake degree for a fake doctor,” and with returning to a life from which her degree was meant to free her. By acknowledging but not over-emphasizing how Lee’s identity has been shaped by her immigrant parents, Nguyen creates an insightful depiction of American life.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A Vietnamese-American scholar finds familiar ground when she stumbles across a lost fragment in the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and daughter Rose Wilder Lane. The third-person perspective of the author’s novel Short Girls lent that work some distance. This more intimate first-person narrative is by Lee Lien, who has a newly minted doctorate in 19th-century literature but few job prospects. The book contrasts Lee’s life with that of journalist and Little House on the Prairie collaborator Rose Wilder Lane. Lee, who has moved back in with her difficult mother and works at her mother’s coffee/noodle house, has a combative relationship with her mother, much as the talented journalist Rose had with her own. “You are alike,” Lee’s grandfather tells her, much to her dismay. The discovery of a mysterious gold pin, etched with a little house and possibly abandoned by Rose in Saigon in 1965, leads Lee toward the book’s pivot point, a mystery about a potential descendent of Laura Ingalls Wilder. The subject of that investigation is the weakest part of the narrative, leaning toward rom-com meet-cutes and a dubious liaison. That said, it’s clear that Nguyen has a perceptive understanding of the tension between mothers and daughters and the troubling insights to be gained from digging into the past. An unexpected pleasure,  with a well-drawn and compelling narrator.”

“A narrow gold pin, engraved with a small house on a lake, is found at the table in Ong Hai’s Saigon restaurant where Rose, an American war correspondent, takes tea each afternoon. Ten years later, when Ong flees Vietnam for America with his daughter, that brooch is one of the few items he takes and will become the catalyst for the action in Nguyen’s novel of migration, family, and the search for rootedness. Like Little House on the Prairie’s Ingalls family that so enthralls her, eight-year-old Lee Lien, brother Sam, and their widowed mother and grandfather wander from one Midwestern state to another, working long hours in the restaurant business. As transients, Lee and Sam make few friends and are embarrassed by their mother’s immigrant ways, her cold detachment, and her refusal to talk about their father’s untimely death. Each sibling seems locked in a continuum of inexplicable hostility with their exacting mother. It’s not until Lee earns a PhD and returns home jobless that the gold pin resurfaces, taking her on a scholarly hunt for Laura and Rose Wilder and their heirs. VERDICT Nguyen draws a parallel between Rose and Laura Wilder and Lee and her mother. Though it’s a bit of a stretch, this imaginative device spices up an otherwise conventional novel about the constant tug between first-generation immigrants and their more assimilated progeny,” says Library Journal.

“Elegant, sharp-eyed, and very funny, Pioneer Girl is ultimately about how one finds kinship – familial, cultural, literary – that transcends the usual lexicon about identity and belonging. Navigating Vietnamese ‘immigrant guilt’ and a stalled academic career, Lee Lien finds escape in trying to solve a literary mystery which leads her deep into her own heart and history. A wonderful read!” says Cristina Garcia, author of King of Cuba and Dreaming in Cuban.

When is it available?

You will find “Pioneer Girl” on the new books shelf 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!

My Mistake

By Daniel Menaker

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

After teaching high school English, he went from lowly fact checker to copy editor to New Yorker magazine editor, a literary career many would envy. Daniel Menaker worked for (in my estimation) the best magazine in the world for 26 years and then went to Random House, where he was an editor and then became its Editor-in-Chief. Menaker is also is the author or six books and also has written for such publications as the New York Times, the Atlantic, Parents and Redbook.  He is a professor at Stony Brook University’s MFA program and once taught  humor writing at Columbia University.  Here are some of the authors with whom he has worked: David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie, Curtis Sittenfeld, Michael Chabon, Michael Cunningham, Janet Malcolm, Elmore Leonard, Jonathan Kellerman, Elizabeth Strout, Colum McCann, Jennifer Egan, Daniel Silva, Billy Collins, George Saunders. Pretty impressive. He once got a fan letter from Groucho Marx, which is even more impressive. And he has successfully – at least “for the time being,” he says – fought lung cancer.

What is this book about?

Daniel Menaker, as mentioned above, started as a fact checker at The New Yorker in 1969. He says his hard work, good luck and support by William Maxwell helped him rise to being an editor, despite never getting along with the magazine’s legendary editor, William Shawn. In “My Mistake,” a many-layered memoir, he looks back on life at the magazine, with all its quirks and quirky writers; contemplates how the early death of one of his brothers affected his life and gives us plenty of insights into the ever-changing world of publishing.

Why you’ll like it:

It goes without saying, but let me say it anyway: if you are going to be the editor of talented writers such as those listed above, you’d better be a pretty darn talented writer yourself. Make no mistake: Menaker is just that. Besides offering a delicious helping of book-flavored insider information (otherwise known as gossip), this is a very entertaining, often wry, often self-deprecating and often poignant look back at a life at the top of the contemporary literary mountain.

What others are saying:

” My Mistake’ is only sometimes rueful. It is also frequently funny and splendidly precise as it takes a look back at a life led in the world of magazine editing and book publishing, a behind-the-scenes rumination of a time gone by. Intriguing now, it will be necessary later; readers will be thankful for this quirky and delightful piece of history,” says Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys.

In the New York Times Book Review,  Meryl Gordon writes: “Daniel Menaker loves words, and you can see it in every clause, in the rhythms of his language, even in the length of the sentences in his bracing memoir…He grabs the reader with urgency as he grapples with big questions: What shaped me? Where did I go right and wrong? What has my life meant? His clever, fast-paced prose makes you stop and think and wonder, meandering down your own byways, contemplating the ways his story reverberates.”

Publishers Weekly says:  “Menaker, once an editor at the New Yorker and Random House, grew up in the now-endangered class of New York communist intellectuals that had the nerve to call an elementary school (his alma mater) Little Red. He writes here of his hectic childhood with well-preserved romanticism. The result is charming. The memoir’s title phrase—it recurs, songlike, throughout—refers primarily to Menaker’s small but pivotal role in his elder brother’s sudden death when they were both young men. That event stands in sharp contrast to Menaker’s own slow battle with lung cancer. Mortality, that “Great Temporariness,” haunts this humble book. Menaker is at his best when irreverent: chuckling at aptronyms (people aptly named), or deflating New Yorker legends (William Shawn and Tina Brown, most notably). Still, in this book of years, gossip is secondary to the writer’s own musings and memories. Menaker leaves the reader with a sense of the vast triumph that is a life well lived.”

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “A well-known editor’s funny and thoughtful memoir of wrong turns, both in and out of publishing. As sums up his life, he can’t get past his mistakes–the big ones he’ll never stop paying for and the small ones that changed his life. As a young man, he goaded his older brother during a game of touch football, leading to his brother’s fatal injury and leaving himself with a lifetime of guilt. He smoked, quit and got lung cancer years later. He began working for the New Yorker, where it was easy to sweat the small stuff under the famously idiosyncratic editorship of William Shawn. Urged to find another job, he stayed for 26 years, skating on thin ice even as he climbed the editorial chain. There were rules of decorum (“You don’t say ‘Hi’ to Mr. Shawn–you say ‘Hello’ “) and regular surprises on what would or would not pass the Shawn smell test. When Menaker suggested ending a story with a mild pun, Shawn told him it “would destroy the magazine.” “What you want to write is an article,” Shawn admonished him at one point, “and the New Yorker doesn’t publish…articles.” On the plus side, Menaker learned high-level editing, not just from Shawn, but from the contrasting examples of magazine stalwarts Roger Angell (rough and tumble) and William Maxwell (kind and gentle). After the Tina Brown coup, Menaker moved on to Random House, where he eventually became editor-in-chief, wrestling to stay afloat and to stay alive. Menaker doesn’t just recount experiences; he digs away at them with wit and astute reflection, looking for the pattern of a life that defies easy profit-and-loss lessons.”

“[Menaker] contemplates the origins, happenstance, and consequences of his devotion to literature in a warm, humorous, on-point memoir. Amiably self-deprecating, Menaker is a deft sketch artist, vividly portraying loved ones (especially his older brother, who goaded him to excel and whose early death is the source of depthless sorrow) and colleagues (his portraits of New Yorker staff are hilarious, barbed, and tender). His insider view of publishing is eye-opening and entertaining,” says Booklist.

When is it available?

It will be your mistake if you do not borrow a copy of this book from 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!

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and The Spending of a Great American Fortune

By Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

(Random House, 428, 496 pages)

Who are these authors?

Bill Dedman, who won a 1989 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting while at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, also has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. After stumbling upon the grand – and empty – home of heiress Huguette in Connecticut, he began writing a series about her for NBC, and it became the website’s most popular feature ever, receiving more than 110 million page views.  He teamed with Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of Huguette Clark, who was very close to this reclusive  woman and spent 20 years researching the family history..

What is this book about?

The old cliché, “you can’t make this stuff up,” really applies to the story of Huguette Clark, who spent the last 20 years of her 104-year-life living in a hospital room, even though she was not ill, had a huge fortune and owned great mansions in California, New York and Connecticut. Bill Dedman learned about her when he noticed that one of these palatial homes was for sale in 2009 and had not been lived in for 60 years.  What he learned about its owner,, daughter of a wealthy copper magnate, U.S. Senator and  founder of Las Vegas, a generous patron to her friends (she gave her nurse  more than $30 million worth of gifts), an artist and one who valued her privacy above all else, is told in this book. Her life spanned American history from the days of the Titanic to the 9/11 attacks and offers a rare look into the world of a phenomenally rich and deeply eccentric woman. The book has 70 photographs that help tell the story.

Why you’ll like it:

We hear a lot today about the highly privileged 1 percent. In this book, we meet one of them. She owned many mansions that she seldom inhabited, along with a Stradivarius violin, masterpieces by Degas and Renoir and a vast collection of antique dolls and other luxuries. The family fortune was immense, but we are left wondering if all this money really bought her happiness. Perhaps it did, on her own terms. This is history as mystery, a biography with the power of a good novel. “The rich are different,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. This book proves how right he was.

 

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “What goes on behind closed doors, especially when those doors are of the gilded variety, has fascinated novelists and journalists for centuries. The private lives of the rich and famous are so tantalizing that Robin Leach made a career out of showcasing them. One of the biggest eccentric, rich fishes out there was Huguette Clark. Deceased for more than two years, Clark, brought to life by investigator Dedman and Clark’s descendant, Newell, owned nouveau riche palaces in New York, Connecticut, and California. An heiress, Clark disappeared from public view in the 1920s. What happened to her and her vast wealth? Answering this question is the book’s mission. Based on records and the hearsay of relations and former employees, the book pieces together Clark’s life, that of a woman rumored to be institutionalized while her mansions stood empty, though immaculately maintained throughout her life. Clark left few clues about herself, but she willed vast sums to her caretakers and numerous charitable endeavors. Still, her absence acts as a shade to seeing her fully, hinting at possible financial malfeasance, all the while conspiring to produce a spellbinding mystery.”

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review:  “Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr., a cousin of the book’s subject, reconstruct the life of reclusive copper heiress Huguette Clark (1906-2011) in this riveting biography. The authors bring Huguette’s odd past into clear perspective, including the hilariously corrupt political schemes of her father, W.A. Clark, who was a Montana senator. Though less celebrated than his compatriots Rockefeller and Carnegie, W.A. Clark was at a time wealthier than they, and by extension, so was his daughter. She was a regular in the society pages during her youth and even married for a short time, Clark later slipped into her own world and stayed there, quietly buying multi-million dollar homes for her dolls. Kind and unspeakably generous to those who worked for her and usually suspicious of family, she wrote a few big checks to people she hardly knew. Other family acquisitions, valuable musical instruments and jewelry among them, she simply gave away. The authors provide a thrilling study of the responsibilities and privileges that come with great wealth and draw the reader into the deliciously scandalous story of Clark’s choices in later life, the question of Clark’s presence of mind always at issue. Hewn from Huguette’s stories, purchases, phone calls, gifts, and letters, the tale of where and how Huguette Clark found happiness will entrance anyone.”

Library Journal says: “Drawing on extensive research by Newell, a cousin of the subject, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Dedman (NBC News) provides a comprehensive account of the late copper mining heiress Huguette Clark (1906–2011). Unlike the Rockefellers, the Clark family had all but been forgotten by history until Dedman’s 2009 television and msnbc.com pieces on the enigmatic heiress and her “empty mansions” in California and Connecticut set the stage for this book. The authors describe her lavish estates, art, jewelry, and musical instrument collections. They convey how, despite her affluence, Clark strangely chose to live her latter days as a relatively healthy recluse in a modest New York City hospital room. Nurses, acquaintances, and distant relations vied for her fortune during her life; the biographers tell how her entire estate is now contested and awaiting legal settlement. . . . An enlightening read for those interested in the opulent lifestyles afforded the offspring of the Gilded Age magnates and the mysterious ways of wealth.

Kirkus Reviews says: “An investigation into the secretive life of the youngest daughter and heiress to a Gilded Age copper tycoon. Huguette Clark (1906–2011) lived for more than a century and never once wanted for money. At her death, she was estimated to be worth–incorrectly, as it turned out–about $500 million. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Dedman stumbled onto her tale and wrote a series of stories about the Clark family, their fortune and the mystery surrounding Huguette. Here, with the assistance of Huguette’s cousin Newell, the author expands his search for information about the heiress who disappeared from public view in the 1980s–though she lived for another three decades. After an introduction to Clark’s fortune, Dedman moves his focus to her lifestyle and pursuits, always following the money. Clark was certainly eccentric, and her decisions, both financial and otherwise, definitely capture the imagination. She chose to live in seclusion after her mother’s death and then lived out the last few decades of her life in a hospital, despite being healthy. She spent money seemingly without thinking, giving away tens of millions of dollars to friends and employees, even selling off prized possessions to do so. As Clark aged, her family became concerned that her gifts were not necessarily voluntary and went looking for her. The story picks up steam with the family’s search for their wealthy relative and its aftermath. . . .”

When is it available?

“Empty Mansions” can be found 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!

Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books

By Wendy Lesser

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Wendy Lesser grew up in California and went on to study at three prestigious universities: Harvard, Cambridge and UC Berkeley and to teach at Princeton and other schools. In 1980, she founded the acclaimed literary magazine The Threepenny  Review, which she edits, and she has published 10 books, including novels, memoirs, biography and literary studies. She also reviews books, dance and music performances and art, and has homes in California and New York.

What is this book about?

Wendy Lesser loves everything about books: the way they feel, their unique scent, their characters, plots, meaning and language. As a longtime editor, author and reviewer, she knows books from all sides and aspects. And in this book, she shares with readers her love for the written word. In the prologue, she writes: “Reading can result in boredom or transcendence, rage or enthusiasm, depression or hilarity, empathy or contempt, depending on who you are and what the book is and how your life is shaping up at the moment you encounter it.”  She examines a wide range of writing here: novels, plays, poems, mysteries, sci-fi and memoir.

Why you’ll like it:

“I read to be alone. I read not to be alone,” the author Bich Minh Nguyen writes with Zen-like wisdom in her memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.” Wendy Lesser would understand.  Reading, and responding to what she has read has animated her life. Book lovers and book club members would do well to welcome her as a wise guide to a pastime they treasure, but perhaps have never analyzed. Besides offering insights into the work of many great authors, some familiar and some perhaps new to you, Lesser’s book will help you to understand he unique pleasure of reading.

What others are saying:

“Reading Wendy Lesser is like attending a book club where the leader is an Olympic champion reader.. . . [In] Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, Lesser tackles a deceptively simple question: Why does one read? The question might be impossible to answer, but it’s a pleasure to explore . . . Just like your favorite book club, the discussion is brainy, it’s personal, and it’s occasionally off topic,” says the Christian Science Monitor

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review:  “In this elegantly meandering narrative, critic and editor Lesser. . . , takes us through her expansive reading life. This is not so much a memoir of reading as it is about the craft of literature—the merits of both grandeur and intimacy, the double-edged sword of novelty, the ways character and plot are inextricably linked.  . . . Lesser likens the book to a spiraling conversation exploring what literature can truly offer us, and why we read even when we know the ending, as with Milton’s Paradise Lost.  . . . She investigates the “eerily bridgeable gap between the ‘you’ and the ‘me’ of a literary work” and describes the “terrific, inconsolable hunger” that comes after finishing a great novel. Lesser’s idiosyncratic reading list and her wealth of insights will speak to booklovers of all types.”

“I began Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books with my usual yellow highlighter in hand, notepaper and pen at the ready, opening the reviewer’s copy as I would for any normal assignment. By the time I’d finished, the notepaper was still mostly blank, but the thing in my hand resembled a brightly painted fan—every page saturated in color, with so many corners folded down the book had trouble staying closed . . hers has been a no-holds-barred, art-loving life, and her dedication to that quest irradiates Why I Read,” says The San Francisco Chronicle.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A lover of books reflects on her abiding passion. More than a decade ago, Threepenny Review founder and editor Lesser (Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, 2012, etc.) wrote about the pleasures and insights gained from rereading (Nothing Remains the Same, 2002). Now, in a kind of prequel to that book, the author steps back to ask a broader question: Why read at all? “I am not really asking about motivation,” she admits, but rather about what “delights” and “rewards” she gets. . . . For Lesser, literary characters are more alive than actual people, and she sometimes finds it “hard to keep in mind” that authors “were all living, once.” Literature functions as a “time-travel machine of sorts”: Faulkner has taken her to the South, Dostoevsky to 19th-century Russia, Rohinton Mistry to the slums of Bombay. Her quest to discover why she reads is inseparable from the question of how she reads, which includes noting characterization and plot, as well as the quality of a writer’s voice, authority and empathy. . . . She has read books on an iPad and iPhone but loves the feel, smell–the solidity–of bound pages. She ends her celebration of books with 100 titles, culled through “excruciating excisions and hesitant substitutions.” A gift of pleasure from one reader to another.”

“Lesser’s taste is eclectic, her range large. She offers insights into George Orwell and Henning Mankell, Emily Dickinson and Roberto Bolaño, J.R. Ackerley and Shakespeare, Henry James and Isaac Asimov—to name but a few. There is no claim to a comprehensive approach, nor even a sense that what is discussed is of greater importance that what is not. […] The effect is rather as if Lesser were writing to a friend about the most fabulous literary party of all time, where she’d been in conversation not with authors but with their works. […] Her book is […] thoughtful and intelligent, conversational without being “improving,” and it ultimately encourages us to formulate our own responses, to continue and enlarge the literary conversation,” says author Claire Messud in Bookforum.

When is it available?

You can read “Why I Read” if you pick up a copy at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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