Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense

By Joyce Carol Oates

(Mysterious Press, $24, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Joyce Carol Oates, who is now 78 and still going strong, is the author of numerous bestsellers among her more than 100 books in just about every genre: fiction, nonfiction, mysteries, thrillers, memoir, criticism, poetry, children’s books, plays, you name it. Oates has won an equally impressive list of awards, including a National Medal of Humanities, National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, National Book Award and PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. As if she weren’t busy enough, Oates also is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. Impressed yet?

What is this book about?

With echoes of Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King, Jack of Spades gives us an unusually prolific author (hmmm, does anyone else come to mind?) whose elegant mystery novels have earned international acclaim and earned him a boatload (and we are thinking Titanic-sized boat here) of bucks. But no one knows – at least, not at first – that Andrew J. Rush has a secret, dark and violent side, expressed in the writings by the pseudonymous  “Jack of Spades.” Then his luck changes, as Rush is accused of plagiarizing an unknown local writer and his daughter finds a Spade novel that leads her to ask uncomfortable questions. Soon Rush is thinking more and more in the mode of his evil alter ego, and another fine Oates thriller lays its cards on the table.

Why you’ll like it:

Oates is blessed with an apparently unlimited imagination and the strength and determination to get those imaginings down on paper so that we may share in them. But she is far more than simply prolific; she is an extremely talented writer as well. Here, she is having some fun poking at the pretensions of the literary establishment, but this book is not about inside jokes. It is a thoroughly engrossing thriller in its own right. At just over 200 pages, this book will fit nicely into your beach bag, and it will provide a little chill to counter the hot summer sun. You might well say that all work and dark play makes this Jack anything but a dull boy.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “A writer’s secret pseudonymous identity becomes a conduit for his murderous dark side in Oates’s sleek and suspenseful excursion into the literary macabre. For years refined crime novelist Andrew J. Rush—known to his audience as “the gentleman’s Stephen King”—has moonlighted as Jack of Spades, an author of violent pulp potboilers. When an unhinged reader brings a ludicrous lawsuit against him for literary theft, Andrew snaps. Motivated by what Poe called “the imp of the perverse”—a quotation from the Poe story of that name serves as the book’s epigraph—he begins acting increasingly like a character in one of his alter ego’s nasty novels. Oates has endowed her first-person narrator with the slightly affected speaking style and overconfidence of one of Poe’s monomaniacal protagonists. Although she nods to a number of Poe’s classic tales—especially “The Black Cat” and “William Wilson”—the story’s modern spin is entirely of her own clever invention. Readers are sure to be gripped and unsettled by her depiction of a seemingly mild-mannered character whose psychopathology simmers frighteningly close to the surface.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Oates has written a great psychological noir novel, which also serves as a homage to Stephen King (once shunned but now embraced by the literary establishment). Andrew J. Rush, a seemingly mild-mannered and irritatingly self-absorbed and smug author of mainstream thriller fiction, has begun to write (in a partially fugue state) disturbing and violent novels under the Jack of Spades pseudonym. But when Andrew is accused of plagiarism and his daughter begins to ask questions about Jack of Spades, his carefully compartmentalized life begins to unravel. VERDICT As this tour de force reveals, Oates is a master of bleak literary fiction and its (sometimes) poor relation, crime/noir fiction. Examining and delineating insanity, obsession, paranoia, alcoholism, manipulation, and murder, not to mention book collecting and writer’s block, this tale of suspense makes for another high-caliber Oatesian outing, displaying flair, noir sophistication, and King-like flourishes.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A mystery writer slowly becomes subsumed by his dark alter ego in Oates’ tale of literary madness. Andrew J. Rush has made a name for himself and more than a comfortable living as a successful mystery writer. He’s published 28 novels, and an early review even called him “the gentleman’s Stephen King.” But behind the happily married family man with three grown children who’s the favorite son of his small New Jersey town lies a secret, ultraviolent series of noir thrillers Rush writes under the pseudonym “Jack of Spades.” No one—not even his doting wife, Irina—knows about Jack: Rush dashes the books off in secret and sends them to a separate agent and publisher. Despite its grisly content, the series sells modestly well. Rush’s two worlds seem to coexist in parallel harmony until the day his daughter, Julia, finds a copy of Jack’s A Kiss Before Killing in Rush’s office and decides to read it. Soon after, Rush is hit with a bizarre plagiarism lawsuit from C.W. Haider, a local woman claiming he not only copied her ideas, but physically stole her work. In an enjoyable bit of metafiction, Oates depicts Haider as particularly litigious when it comes to the literary set: she’s sued Stephen King, John Updike, and Peter Straub, among others. While the mild-mannered Rush is merely indignant at being accused, Jack of Spades wants revenge, and so begins his slow descent into madness. With its homages to Poe, from “The Black Cat” to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the horror masters Jack of Spades so admires, this latest unsettling and chilling thriller from Oates does not disappoint.

When is it available?

This noir thriller is on the shelves 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!

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by Erik Larson

(Crown/Archetype, $28, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Erik Larson, a widely acclaimed master of narrative journalism, has written four previous national bestsellers: In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm. His books, which have been published in 17 countries, have sold more than 5 million copies in total. In addition to writing his books, he has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State and Johns Hopkins University.

What is this book about?

It was a century ago that the ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed in the Atlantic Ocean near Ireland, on its journey from New York to England. Its sinking took place in the early months of the conflicts that became World War I, and is one of those historic events that people – at least those of a certain age – think they know all about. Erik Larson’s richly detailed account proves that they almost surely do not. The ship was the fastest transatlantic luxury liner then in existence and its captain, William Thomas Turner, believed that Germany would abide by the rules of warfare that had, up till then, kept civilian ships protected from attack. Sadly, he was wrong, and the super-secret British intelligence-gathering team that knew better had its reasons for not alerting the liner to the rapidly approaching sub that carried doom for the nearly 1,200 passengers, who included many babies and children. Add such factors as bad weather, a late departure and unusually slow running speed, and disaster becomes inevitable.

Why you’ll like it:

Larson is both a journalist and a novelist, and he brings his considerable storytelling and research skills to Dead Wake. This is meticulously mined nonfiction, but the story is told with the tension and ironies of a great novel. While explaining the technicalities of ocean voyaging of those times in a way that typical readers can understand, Larson also brings to life many characters – some as famous as President Woodrow Wilson and  others heretofore unknown, in the recounting of this story. A note to Connecticut readers: one of the passengers who survived was Theodate Pope, the woman architect who designed her family’s home in Farmington, now the Hill-Stead Museum.

Here are some remarks by Larson provided by his publisher:   “The Lusitania, like the Titanic, is just such a compelling story, and I felt I could do it in a way that no one else had. I was drawn by the prospect of using the vast fund of archival materials available on the subject to produce a real-life maritime thriller—things like code books, intercepted telegrams, even some extremely passionate love letters between Woodrow Wilson and the woman he fell in love with after his first wife had died. It became for me an exploration of the potential for generating suspense in a work of nonfiction. Plus, I knew the one hundredth anniversary of the disaster—May 7, 2015—was just over the horizon. Further, I’d wager that just about everything that people know or think they know about the Lusitania is just flat-out wrong. Certainly that was the case with me. The sheer wrenching drama of the event pretty much took my breath away.

“The most valuable tools were depositions and other first-person accounts given soon after the sinking. These provided a rich timeline of events: the peace and good cheer aboard ship as the Irish coast appeared in the distance, the moment of impact, and the truly macabre and disconcerting things that followed, as parents made cruel choices and passengers confronted the decision of whether to jump, get in a lifeboat, or stay aboard. These events, juxtaposed against details about the U-boat’s voyage as revealed in the War Log of its captain, Walther Schwieger, and in secretly intercepted telegrams, helped me create a real-time sense of growing dread and danger.”

What others are saying:

Amazon.com’s Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015 review says: On May 1st, 1915 the Lusitania set sail on its final voyage. That it was sunk by a German U-boat will be news to few—and Larson’s challenge is to craft a historical narrative leading up to the thrilling, if known, conclusion, building anticipation in his readers along the way. To his credit, he makes the task look easy. Focusing on the politics of WWI, on nautical craftsmanship and strategy, and on key players in the eventual attack and sinking of the “fast, comfortable, and beloved” Lusitania, Larson once again illustrates his gift for seducing us with history and giving it a human face. Dead Wake puts readers right aboard the famous Cunard liner and keeps them turning the pages until the book’s final, breathless encounter.”

“[Larson] has always shown a brilliant ability to unearth the telling details of a story and has the narrative chops to bring a historical moment vividly alive. But in his new book, Larson simply outdoes himself…What is most compelling about Dead Wake is that, through astonishing research, Larson gives us a strong sense of the individuals—passengers and crew—aboard the Lusitania, heightening our sense of anxiety as we realize that some of the people we have come to know will go down with the ship. A story full of ironies and ‘what-ifs,’ Dead Wake is a tour de force of narrative history,” says BookPage.

“Larson has a gift for transforming historical re-creations into popular recreations, and Dead Wake is no exception…[He] provides first-rate suspense, a remarkable achievement given that we already know how this is going to turn out…The tension, in the reader’s easy chair, is unbearable…”says The Boston Globe.

The Onion A/V Club says: “The bestselling author of The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck puts his mastery of penning parallel narratives on display as he tells the tale of the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, building an ever-growing sense of dread as the two vessels draw closer to their lethal meeting…He goes well beyond what’s taught in history classes to offer insights into British intelligence and the dealings that kept the ship from having the military escort so many passengers expected to protect it…By piecing together how politics, economics, technology, and even the weather combined to produce an event that seemed both unlikely and inevitable, he offers a fresh look at a world-shaking disaster.”

Publishers Weekly says: “With a narrative as smooth as the titular passenger liner, Larson delivers a riveting account of one of the most tragic events of WWI. The fact a German U-boat sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915 is undisputed, so Larson crafts the story as historical suspense by weaving information about the war and the development of submarine technology with an interesting cast of characters. He expertly builds tension up to the final encounter. An unanticipated sequence of events put the Lusitania in the path of Capt. Walther Schwieger’s U-20, and he didn’t hesitate to open fire. The Lusitania’s captain, the capable and accomplished William Thomas Turner, did everything in his power to avert the catastrophe, but fate intervened, taking the lives of 1,195 passengers and crew members, including 123 Americans. Despite the stunning loss of life, President Woodrow Wilson held firm to American neutrality in the war, at least in 1915. Larson convincingly constructs his case for what happened and why, and by the end, we care about the individual passengers we’ve come to know—a blunt reminder that war is, at its most basic, a matter of life and death.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “When veteran captain William Thomas Turner accepted the pinnacle position within Cunard Steamship Company, commander of the RMS Lusitania, he never imagined the danger that lay ahead. Bestselling author Larson traces the liner’s final voyage by intertwining narratives of Turner with those of notable passengers such as Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, trailblazing architect Theodate Pope, and suffragette Margaret Mackworth. Hardest to shake are descriptions of impulsive Captain Schwieger and his disheveled German crewmates torpedoing vessels, reveling in the shrill of explosions; and imposing British spymaster Blinker Hall stealthily monitoring Schwieger’s U-20 as it discreetly, or so it thought, hunted targets. Rounding out the primary cast are a trio of political players: an ambitious Kaiser Wilhelm, a disciplined Winston Churchill, and an infatuated (and ergo distracted) Woodrow Wilson. Using archives on both sides of the Atlantic, Larson describes the Lusitania’s ominous delayed departure and its distressing reduced speed. He vividly illustrates how these foreboding factors led to terror, tragedy, and ultimately the Great War. VERDICT Once again, Larson transforms a complex event into a thrilling human interest story. This suspenseful account will entice readers of military and maritime history along with lovers of popular history.

Kirkus’ starred review says:  “Larson once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. . . . A gem of the Cunard fleet, she drew the cream of society, and life aboard was the epitome of Edwardian luxury. The author works with a broad scope, examining the shipping business, wartime policies, the government leaders and even U-boat construction. More fascinating is his explanation of the intricacy of sailing, submerging and maneuvering a U-boat. Gaining position to fire a torpedo that has only a 60 percent chance of exploding belies the number of ships sunk. Throughout the voyage, many omens predicted disaster, especially the publication of a German warning the morning of sailing. . . . Larson explores curiosities and a long list of what ifs: If the Lusitania had not been late in sailing, if the fog had persisted longer, if the captain hadn’t turned to starboard into the sub’s path and if that one torpedo hadn’t hit just in the right spot, the Lusitania might have arrived safely. An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. . . .”

When is it available?

Larson’s latest is awaiting readers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Goodwin and Mark Twain 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!


Beautiful Eyes: A Father Transformed

By Paul Austin

(Norton, $25.95, 288)

Who is this author?

I’m always amazed and impressed when doctors have the time and talent to step outside their demanding medical careers and become published authors as well.  That is the case with Paul Austin, who is an emergency-room doctor in North Carolina. His previous memoir, Something for the Pain: Compassion and Burnout in the ER, was well-received, and he has published essays in such literary journals as Creative Nonfiction, the Southeast Review and the Gettysburg Review.

What is this book about?

In the moments just before a child is born, parents are awash in hopes and fears. For Paul Austin and his wife – he a medical student and she a delivery room nurse – the moment in 1987 was one of joy but also of the stark revelation that their daughter, Sarah, had the physical signs of Down Syndrome. And even for a doctor who understands the limitations that accompany Down Syndrome as well as the strides that can be made, that is the beginning of a harsh reality. The good news is that love and acceptance prevail, and Austin, over time, learns plenty about being a good parent and a better doctor from the wisdom – and I use that word deliberately — that Sarah possesses and shares. He learns we all have limitations, even doctors, and that they can be addressed, tackled and often, overcome.

Why you’ll like it:

Memoirs can be inspirational without being saccharine, and Beautiful Eyes is one such book. Austin tells his family’s story honestly and deftly, and it is just as much his own coming of age story as it is Sarah’s. He blends his family’s personal experiences with her condition from birth through age 22 with the science of the syndrome and the history of the medical world’s often cruelly low and downright ignorant expectations for Down kids. This is an enlightening book in every sense of the word.

What others are saying:

People Magazine says: “Raising a child with Down syndrome, the author had plenty of fears and preconceptions. But from babyhood to adult-hood, Sarah challenged him to accept her not as a dire diagnosis but as a beloved, inspiring daughter. This isn’t a book only for those dealing with disability; it’s a ferocious, illuminating look at the stunning surprise of human connection.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An emergency room doctor and essayist tells the moving story of how he came to terms with being the father of a child with Down syndrome. When doctors first told Austin and his wife, Sally, that their newborn daughter Sarah had trisomy 21, the couple went into shock. Neither could fully acknowledge that they had created a life that was anything less than perfect. Bonding with the child proved difficult at first, not because Sarah was a difficult baby but because the couple could not see themselves—or traits from their families—in her. They only saw the “simian crease” on Sarah’s palms that marked her as “abnormal.” The author and his wife also found they had to deal with the prejudices of others—e.g., the senior resident at the hospital where Austin trained who suggested that a Down syndrome child would be functional enough to “make a good pet.” Seeking to understand Sarah’s otherness, Austin explored the history of Down syndrome, the philosophical writings of Locke and Montaigne, and the art of the 15th-century Flemish masters. He discovered that the negative feelings he and others had toward his daughter were as much historical as they were a product of a society that scorned difference. As Sarah grew up, so did Austin. He began to see his child as a self-aware being who struggled with her limitations rather than a set of chromosomes gone awry. Sarah made the most of her abilities in events like the Special Olympics and gracefully accepted her fate to live as a member of a group home. This tender, bright and flawed child showed how being different enhanced her humanity rather than detracted from it. A poignant and candid father’s memoir.”

Novelist Ann Hood says: “In this beautiful, unflinching memoir, Paul Austin uses science, history, and a father’s love and fear to trace his emotional journey with his daughter Sarah. Eventually, she becomes less his daughter with Down syndrome and simply his daughter. And every step of the way you will root for Austin, for Sarah, for everyone who has had to learn how to accept the path they are on. I simply love this book!”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Austin follows up Something for the Pain, his memoir of becoming an ER doctor, with an eloquent account of his experiences raising a child with Down syndrome. It begins in 1987 when he, a third-year resident, and his wife, Sally, a labor and delivery room nurse, receive the news that their newborn daughter, Sarah, has the congenital condition. As Austin watches his wife breast-feed Sarah, and later slips a flower behind his daughter’s ear as she sleeps in his arms, his love for her is unmistakable. He segues seamlessly between scenes of family life and disquisitions on the history and science of Down syndrome, arguing that we are defined by more than our genes. Though Austin doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges he faced, he also shows Sarah as an engaging, sociable child who loved movies, dancing, and drawing. While following her development from birth to age 22, readers also witness Austin’s transformation from a father who once had to “pretend” to be proud, to a man in genuine awe of Sarah’s many gifts. Parents of special-needs kids will find this story particularly inspiring, and its universal message of love and acceptance should speak to a much wider audience.”

When is it available?

You can find this important book 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!


Boston Girl

By Anita Diamant

Scribner, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

You probably know Anita Diamant as the author of the wildly popular biblical history novel, The Red Tent.  It was her debut novel, based on the little-known life of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, who gets a few lines in the Book of Genesis. Excellent word of mouth and recommendations from book clubs and independent bookstores made it a best-seller, and it has been published in more than 25 countries and became a Lifetime TV miniseries. Diamant, who began her writing career as a Boston journalist, also is the author of Good Harbor, The Last Days of Dogtown and Day After Night, and an essay collection, Pitching My Tent, as well as six guides to contemporary Jewish life and customs. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Newark and Denver, she is now a Boston girl herself. Boston Girl is a New York Times best-seller.

What is this book about?

At 85, Addie Baum sits down to tell her granddaughter was life was like – and more pertinently, what her own life was like, as the 20th century was born. Addie’s immigrant parents were struggling to make a living in Boston when she was born in 1900, the third daughter in the Baum family. Her parents are flummoxed by American freedoms and customs so different from their own, but Addie, smart and spirited, embraces the new ways and the increasing opportunities for women eagerly. What she discovers –  short skirts, movies, the possibility of  college and a career, love lost and gained – makes for a great tale that encapsulates how women and America changed and how each changed the other.

Why you’ll like it:

As the success of The Red Tent shows, Diamant has an intuitive sense of what readers, particularly women, like in a novel.  Her new book doesn’t have the Bible as its inspiration, but it recounts the recent past – one that some readers will recall first-hand – and shows how far we have come, in a relatively short time, and also how far we still need to go.

Here is something Diamant has said about her debut success: “In my first novel, The Red Tent, I re-imagined the culture of biblical women as close, sustaining, and strong, but I am not the least bit nostalgic for that world without antibiotics, or birth control, or the printed page. Women were restricted and vulnerable in body, mind, and spirit, a condition that persists wherever women are not permitted to read.

What others are saying:

The Amazon.com Review says: “An Amazon Best Book of the Month, December 2014: There’s a lot that’s familiar about The Boston Girl. A tale of a plucky immigrant girl at the turn of the century, it addresses some of the same themes as other contemporary novels, including the author’s breakout The Red Tent: religion, feminism, the pull between tradition and the modern world. Here, our heroine is Addie Baum of Boston, now in her eighties telling the story of her life to her twentysomething granddaughter. And what a life it was: born in 1900, Addie survived the travails of aggressive greenhorn parents, world wars, abusive men and a flu epidemic to become a woman, finally, with a voice and a life of her own. What makes this story engaging is just that old-fashioned straightforwardness, as well as its perfect ear for the locutions of the time. Someone is “smiling to beat the band.” Addie “can really cut a rug.” You had to “kiss a lot of frogs before [you] found a prince.” No wonder this book rings so true: reading it feels like lazing away a winter afternoon with a beloved aging relative paging through a family scrapbook. “

Says Publishers Weekly: “Bestseller Diamant  tells a gripping story of a young Jewish woman growing up in early-20th-century Boston. Addie Baum, an octogenarian grandmother in 1985, relates long-ago history to a beloved granddaughter, answering the question: “How did I get to be the woman I am today?” The answer: by living a fascinating life. First reminiscing about 1915 and the reading club she became a part of as a teenager, Addie, in a conversational tone, recounts the lifelong friendships that began at club meetings and days by the seaside at nearby Rockport. She tells movingly of the fatal effects of the flu, a relative’s suicide, the touchy subject of abortion and its aftermath, and even her own disastrous first date, which nearly ended in rape. Ahead of her time, Addie also becomes a career woman, working as a newspaper typist who stands up for her beliefs at all costs. This is a stunning look into the past with a plucky heroine readers will cheer for.”

Library Journal says: “Eighty-five-year-old Addie Baum reminisces about her life in Diamant’s step back in time. Addie’s been asked by her 22-year-old granddaughter, Ava, to explain how she became the woman she is. Born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1900 in Boston’s heavily populated North End, Addie and her two older sisters lived in a tenement with their unhappy parents who did not acclimate to this new world. But Addie’s caring and loyal sisters are there for her. In 1915 she is a young teen, interested in her activities at a library group held at a neighborhood settlement house. Recalling situations with her compassionate eye and remarkable sense of humor, Addie observes upheavals large and small: changing women’s roles, movies, celebrity culture, short skirts, and the horrible flu pandemic of 1918. She explores feminism, family, and love as well. VERDICT Diamant offers impeccable descriptions of Boston life during these early years of the 20th century and creates a loving, caring lead character who grows in front of our eyes from a naïve young girl to a warm, wise elder. Readers interested in historical fiction will certainly enjoy this look at the era, with all its complications and wonders.

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A Jewish woman born in 1900 tells her granddaughter about growing up in the 20th century. Diamant establishes an agreeable, conversational tone in the opening paragraph: “I’m flattered you want to interview me,” Addie says. “And when did I ever say no to my favorite grandchild?” It’s 1985, and we quickly learn that Addie is the daughter of Russian immigrants, the only one born in the New World but not the only one to disappoint her bitter, carping mother by turning out to be “a real American.” Older sister Betty horrifies their parents in 1910 by moving out to become a saleswoman at Filene’s, and Addie flouts their limited expectations by attending high school and joining a reading club at the local settlement house. It’s there she learns about Rockport Lodge and snatches a vacation at this “inn for young ladies in a seaside town north of Boston” with the help of the settlement house’s nurturing Miss Chevalier. On her first trip to the lodge in 1916, Addie forms lifetime friendships with other striving working-class girls, particularly Filomena, whose affair with a married artist demonstrates the promises and perils of the new freedoms women are claiming. Addie’s narrative rambles through the decades, spotlighting somewhat generic events: the deaths of two nephews in the 1918 flu epidemic, an unfulfilling romance with a traumatized World War I veteran, an encounter with a violent rumrunner. Her increasing aspirations take her from a secretarial job to a newspaper, where she climbs from typist to columnist with the help of other uppity women. True love arrives with labor lawyer Aaron Metsky, and a quick wrap-up of the years after 1931 tells us Addie found her vocation as a social worker and teacher. Enjoyable fiction with a detailed historical backdrop, this sweet tale is paradigmatic book club fare, but we expect something more substantial from the author of The Red Tent (1997) and The Last Days of Dogtown (2005).”

When is it available?

You can find Boston Girl in Hartford, 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!

Lucky Alan And Other Stories

By Jonathan Lethem

(Doubleday, $24.95, 176 pages)

Who is this author?

Jonathan Lethem is one of our best and best-selling contemporary writers of novels, short stories and essays. His nine novels include Dissident Gardens, Chronic City, The Fortress of Solitude, and Motherless Brooklyn (1999) which won a National Book Critics Circle Award.  In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant.”  He has written for The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, which has called him “something of a hipster celebrity.” He has also been dubbed a “genre bender,” as shown by his mastery of detective fiction, science fiction and autobiographical books. Lethem has said that his genre-mixing was likely influenced by his artist father’s work, which, he said, “”always combined observed and imagined reality on the same canvas, very naturally, very un-self-consciously.”

What is this book about?

Lucky Alan is Lethem’s latest collection of stories, whose plots are typically diverse: a father breaks down at Seaworld in “Pending Vegan”; a foundling child is rescued during a blizzard; a political prisoner in New York City is placed in a hole in the street; old time comic book characters are trapped on a desert island; and the title story is the tale of an actor and a famous theatre director. Some of these stories are straightforward; others surreal. All nine stories are beautifully written examinations of the weirdness of life.

Why you’ll like it:

Let’s let Lethem talk about his work, which will help you decide whether you’d like to read his latest book.

In an interview with Armchair/Shotgun in 2009, Lethem said: “I’m writing short stories right now, that’s what I do between novels, and I love them. I’m very devoted to it. You know, it’s funny. There seems to be some sort of law that you only get to be celebrated for one or the other. And then a couple of people will break it. Updike did. They didn’t review his story collections by saying, “Well, these are nice, but he’s a novelist.” Or review his novels by saying, “Well, too bad he can’t do the longer stuff.” Other people tend to get patronized on one end or the other—and I’ll take it. I have a very happy life as a novelist. But the story collections I’ve published are tremendously important to me. And many of the uncollected stories—or yet-to-be-collected stories—are among my proudest writings. They’re very closely allied, obviously, to novel writing. But also very distinct, and, you know, there’s no need to choose.”

Earlier this year he told Salon: “What’s great about short stories is the opportunity to play at reinvention; all those new departures, all those new landings to try to stick. It makes me happy to think of the book as a window into the last decade’s worth of tiny revolutions and self-overthrowings, and as a laboratory for what I might still become as a writer. For instance “Lucky Alan” was the last thing I wrote before starting “Chronic City,” and it looks to me like I was testing my confidence for that milieu and tone.”

He went on to tell Salon: “I’m haunted, yes, all the time, and increasingly, by the kinds of writer I’ll never get to turn out to have been. I’ve been digging in my own buried archives recently and discovered bunches of notebooks with jottings for stories and novels I never got around to writing (as well as jottings indicating some of those I did — I was amazed to find that I’d basically already conceived the intention to write The “Fortress of Solitude,” my sixth novel, when I was 19). Crime novels, autobiographical novels about parts of my life untouched by the autobiographical novels I’ve actually managed, surrealist stories, plays even! Every one of those notes feels alive to me, waiting to be picked up and realized. Probably none of them ever will be.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “In Lucky Alan…Lethem’s considerable strengths are on display…Lethem works in an interesting literary space between realism and absurdism, modernism and postmodernism, satire and a particular brand of DeLillo-inspired darkness…His talent is large and, as these stories demonstrate, his eye as sharp as ever.

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “These nine stories by a leading American writer almost all bend away from realism, and one goes well into fantasy, while offering choice prose and insights. Lethem has a rubbery Gumby brain that bounces among genres, elements of pop culture and everyday abnormalities. “Their Back Pages” tells of a comic-book plane crash that maroons on an island 13 characters (such as the armless King Phnudge and the clown Large Silly). Their adventure fluidly, delightfully mixes human and cartoon elements, along with a hint of something malign. In “Procedure in Plain Air,” which more than nods to Donald Barthelme, a bound man is casually and without explanation placed alive in a hole in a Manhattan street, and a passerby is enlisted to watch over him. The title character of “The Porn Critic” has a certain cachet among his peers, in part by managing a sex-toy shop and reviewing its adult films, but his simple romantic ambitions are foiled when the lady in question sees the piles of XXX DVDs in his flat. “Traveler Home” starts as fragments, like aides-mémoire for a larger work, then blossoms into a modern Grimm tale. “The King of Sentences” tells of two sentence-loving, unpublished writers hunting the reclusive man of the title when they aren’t concocting lines like, “I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring.” One story concerns the estrangement between the narrator and his blog, where “gulls have skeletonized the corpse in the entranceway,” among other things. It’s as far out there as jazz might be to a Beatles fan. At the other end of the scale is an almost conventional piece about a family outing to SeaWorld that is colored by the father’s being weaned from the antidepressant Celexa. Lethem’s humor ranges from rueful to sly to “big silly,” and his careful, mostly unshowy writing has a gift for charming a reader into almost anything.”

Publishers Weekly says: “In Lethem’s collection, following the novel Dissident Gardens, the stories use absurdity, satire, or incongruity to contrast the quotidian. A bookstore clerk and his girlfriend obsess over the cadence and precision of language, stalking the reclusive writer they’ve deemed “The King of Sentences” (in the story of that name). In “Procedure in Plain Air,” the main character, sitting outside his favorite cafe, watches a work crew dig a hole in the street, then lower a bound and gagged man into the chasm. In “Porn Critic,” the lonesome Kromer reflects on his titular vocation, realizing his “special literacy was… positively toxic.” Unfortunately, the characters, with exquisitely improbable names like Sigismund Blondy, C. Phelps Northrup, and Invisible Luna, seldom surpass the concepts that formed them, and the ideas of the stories are more promising than the stories themselves. Although nearly every sentence captures Lethem’s sharp wit and copious imagination, reminding us that Lethem himself is perhaps the king of sentences after all, the sum of the parts rarely adds up. The most rewarding exception is “Pending Vegan,” which begins, “Paul Espeseth, who was no longer taking the antidepressant Celexa, braced himself for a cataclysm at Sea World.” The story that follows fulfills this line’s prediction with all the intrigue, emotion, and blunt force of reality.”

In the Barnes & Noble Review, novelist Alexander Chee says: “. . . Lethem’s feeling for the contemporary moment appears at its best in the first and last stories, “Lucky Alan” and “Pending Vegan,” and with their settings, we have the collection’s single recognizable arc, one that takes us from New York City to California, mirroring the writer’s life. “Lucky Alan” is something of a tribute to a vanishing New York, the story of an actor and the famous theater director, Sigismund Blondy, whom he befriends shortly after auditioning for him (Dianne Wiest makes a cameo). They run into each other at films in theaters in their Upper East Side neighborhood, and these repeated sightings become occasions for conversation. When Blondy fails to reappear as usual, the narrator, who by now has quit acting, pursues him — even calling him at home, an essential violation of this friendship’s unspoken terms. On this call, he learns Blondy has moved downtown but would like to see him. They make plans — momentous — when Blondy tells him he has a questionnaire he needs him to answer.

This leads to the unveiling of the titular Lucky Alan, and I won’t ruin the story by telling you how this happens. But in Blondy and his actor narrator, Lethem deftly skewers the sort of person who loves being obscure for the sake of being obscure — as if all of the fun in knowing him is in his being only partly understood. The story itself is not urgent somehow, strangely delicate in the way it is made out of obscure films and theatrical references, and the single biggest pleasure in it is the moment when Lucky Alan’s wife appears — and speaks a single, unforgettable line. She is the story’s moment of truth. The pretentiousness of the men in the story is suddenly revealed to be like the drifting smoke it was all along.

“. . . Lethem is at his best when he is the revolutionary, I think — and not the genre-reconciling statesman. When he drills down into the strangeness of contemporary life, the result is as striking as anything else he’s written. It’s a testament to this sort of exercise’s value — and makes you hope Lethem’s not finished playing around. California has many ironies left to offer him.”

When is it available?

Lucky for us, Lucky Alan is available for borrowing 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!


Early Warning

By Jane Smiley

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

Jane Smiley, who lives in California, won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel A Thousand Acres, a modern retelling of King Lear set in Iowa farm country. She went on to write other novels: Moo (a biting satire of life at an agricultural college), Horse Heaven, Good Faith, Private Life and many more, as well as five nonfiction books and a series for young adults. Her honors include membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature.

What is this book about?

A simple plot idea, but one that is difficult to maintain: Smiley’s Early Warning is the second novel in  a planned trilogy about the life of one farming family in Iowa and beyond, over the past 100 years, beginning in 1920 and told in the form in one chapter per year. Rosanna and Walter Langdon, their five children and their offspring are the microcosm; the events from the Great Depression through World War II and its Cold War aftermath, Vietnam and on is the macrocosm: both are delineated with care. This book begins in 1953 with a funeral and goes on to chronicle other deaths, births, breakdowns, successes: in short, life as it goes on. The younger family members, except for stalwart farmer Joe, have left the farm and/or Iowa and are swept up in personal and national change. Elder son Frank, he of the Mad Men ways and Midas touch in business, continues to find ways to prosper while losing his soul; thoughtful Arthur risks his sanity in working for the CIA; motherly Lillian makes the mistake of trusting her family doctor; and an unexpected new member of the family is revealed. Those who were captivated by Some Luck will want to continue following the Langdons into their future, which is ours as well.

Why you’ll like it:

Here’s what I wrote in December about Some Luck: “Smiley is an accomplished writer, and here she has set herself a difficult task: tell the story of one family while also telling the story of America during one of its most frightening yet fulfilling periods of history. And do so in a way that readers, having finished this book, will look forward eagerly to two more that will complete the story. Smiley has the skills to carry this off and no lack of the imagination that a literary feat of this nature demands. She can be touching yet funny, insightful and provocative. Some Luck and its planned sequels are truly a three-course readers’ feast.” That remains true, and I would add: Smiley maintains her pace and power in Early Warning, book two of this ambitious trilogy, in which characters grow more “modern” and situations more familiar. Readers who have invested their time and in books one and two will surely want to follow the Langdons into the final volume

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Smiley has a big cast to wrangle in the second volume of the Last Hundred Years trilogy, which began with 2014’s Some Luck, and she starts this entry at the funeral of Walter, the Iowa farmer and paterfamilias of volume one. While the Langdons, scattered across New York, Chicago, and California, reunite, readers get a refresher on the family relationships. Covering 1953 to 1986 at a clip of one year per chapter, the focus here is the Cold War and its fallout. This material occasionally feels like the greatest hits of the post-WWII era, with Langdons brushing up against a Kennedy assassination, Jonestown, and Vietnam. And since the post-war baby boom means cousins by the dozens, the cast of characters isn’t as vivid and particular as it was in the knock-out first volume. Still, Smiley keeps you reading; as a writer she is less concerned about individual characters, but still as deft as ever at conveying the ways in which a family develops: some stories carrying on, while others fall away. This isn’t a series you can start in the middle, so pick up Some Luck, ride out the Depression and WWII with Walter, Rosanna, and Frank, then come back to the atom-and-adultery-haunted volume two.

Library Journal says: “. . . this second work in the trilogy follows the complicated Langdon siblings after the death of patriarch Walter in 1955. Eldest son Frank is unhappily married to alcoholic Andy, who frets about her lack of maternal instinct. While Joe lingers on the Iowa farm with homely wife Lois, wondering what could have been, Lillian settles down with secretive Arthur, Claire hastily marries an older Paul, and everyone wonders why affable Henry is still a bachelor. Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley . . . paints pictures with her words, describing the intricacies of each character, even the unlikable, as the family steadily grows owing to marriages and births. As in Some Luck, each chapter here represents one year, with the Langdons reflecting on events of the 1960s and 1970s and warmhearted Lillian becoming the matriarch, uniting the disparate cousins. Although the narrative can be predictable at times, Smiley’s beautifully descriptive writing compensates. VERDICT Those new to this multigenerational saga should start with Some Luck. Those already familiar will be eager to continue with the inevitable conflicts among cousins and the appearance of an unexpected family member. . . . While Smiley’s latest offering is not as captivating as the first installment, readers interested in a story well told will be satisfied.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Opening with the 1953 funeral of patriarch Walter, Smiley follows the Langdon family introduced in Some Luck through its second and third generations. Only steady second son Joe stayed home on the Iowa farm; he watches the land soar in value during the 1970s, though the farmer fatalism he inherited from Walter is justified when crop prices tank in the ’80s. Brilliant, predatory older brother Frank rises through the Manhattan business world while wife Andy raises their kids on automatic pilot, devoting her principal energies to psychoanalysis and worrying about nuclear war. Lillian has the happiest marriage among the siblings, though husband Arthur’s employment at the CIA provokes several crises of conscience. Observing them all in her customary critical spirit, widowed Rosanna cautiously expands her horizons, learning to drive and paying a visit to youngest son Henry, a gay academic, in Chicago. His sister Claire finally dumps her husband in 1979, after years of never talking back.  . . . Smiley’s narrative web snares almost every major postwar social change, and inevitably there are some generic touches: One member of the third generation is killed in Vietnam, another gets involved with Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. Such boilerplate is generally redeemed with nicely specific details, as when Andy imagines the impending nuclear apocalypse to be something like the Ragnarök envisioned by her Norse forebears. Each of the large cast of characters has sharply individualized traits, and though we’re seldom emotionally wrapped up in their experiences—Smiley has never been the warmest of writers—they are unfailingly interesting. The surprise 1986 appearance of a hitherto unsuspected relative prompts a semiconfrontation between Arthur and resentful daughter Debbie that reminds us life and love are never perfect—they simply are. Sags a bit, as trilogy middle sections often do, but strong storytelling and a judicious number of loose ends will keep most readers looking forward to the promised third volume.”

“Wondrous . . . Early Warning is a good reminder that the big, juicy novel is ascendant again . . . Smiley enriches the great-events model of American history with her equal attention to cultural history, and she makes the lives of obscure women, men and children as important as the lives of Great Men . . . Like the 19th-century novels she invokes, her stories revel in coincidences, repetitions, revelations and elaborations of events and themes. The surprises are irresistible. She plucks from a crowded gathering of relatives and, one by one, develops lives that are rich, mysterious and constantly changing . . . The Midwestern intonations of Early Warning shift subtly as Smiley narrates the Langdons’ moves to the East and West coasts, their educations, their travels to Europe, their rapid ascension into wealth and the inclusion of other ethnicities and sexual preferences into their midst. As their world expands, the events becomes mesmerizing, the reading compulsive and the direct language a guard against sentimentality,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

Warning: Get to the Downtown Hartford Public Library early to borrow a copy of this book.

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!

Crow Fair

By Thomas McGuane

(Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Thomas McGuane, chronicler of the contemporary American West, lives on a ranch in Montana, and is an expert fly fisherman. He’s also an expert writer who has published 10 novels, three nonfiction books and  two collections of stories. His best-known books include The Bushwacked Piano, Gallatin Canyon, Keep the Change, Ninety-two in the Shade and, Nothing but Blue Skies. He was married to actress Margo Kidder and Jimmy Buffett’s sister Laurie. According to the Barnes & Noble Review, “In the 1970s, when McGuane partied with the likes of Buffett, Peter Fonda, and Sam Peckinpah, he was nicknamed Captain Berserko. Today, at seventy-five, he looks like a cross between the World’s Greatest Grandpa and the Marlboro Man.”

What is this book about?

In his first collection in nine years, McGuane gives us 17 stories that capture life in the far West, where freedom is treasured but the constraints of modern life still pertain. Two shocked sons learn things about Mama they’d rather have never known; a dad tries to be an outdoorsman but can’t cope with dangerous weather; a guy who makes a good living inseminating cattle unwisely pursues dreams of big money; a father and son face Dad’s out of control peccadillos; two brothers-in-law find that their loony guide is leading them into the fishing trip from Hell; a couple breaks up while celebrating their 25th anniversary. Most of the stories take place in Montana and are redolent with Western flavor, but the conflicts they describe, told with McGuane’s typical droll style and dark diversions, could take place, and be just as compelling, anywhere.

Why you’ll like it:

I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of the stories in McGuane’s latest collection when they appeared in The New Yorker: I loved their wry humor, unpredictable trajectories, quirky characters and Western flair. Although he is 75, he writes with the verve of a much younger man. McGuane is one of those “national treasure” writers who help define contemporary American literature. His fans will appreciate this collection; for those unfamiliar with his work, it opens a new door to reading enjoyment.

What others are saying:

 

In the The New York Times Book Review, Atticus Lish writes: “McGuane—a Montana resident who in 10 novels and two previous story collections has honed a kind of bluff Western comedy of masculinity—turns muck into art, which takes wing in flights of ingenuity…Some bonds are timeless and intractable. McGuane may be unable to free himself from his family romance, but, through his obsessive struggle, the author of Crow Fair provides us with a series of imaginative escapes that are mysterious and illuminating.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Me and Ray thought you ought to see what dementia looks like,” a woman named Morsel tells Dave, who has just driven Ray across the prairie to visit Morsel and her peculiar father. It’s one of many funny, sad, and awful, awfully human moments from McGuane’s latest story collection featuring aging cowboys, middle-aged men resistant to growing up, and the women who plague and perplex them. “Motherlode” traces the road trip to Morsel’s house from a not-so-chance encounter at a small town hotel to a scheme for selling drugs in Montana’s northern oil fields. McGuane’s Montana retains wistful and ironic echoes of the Old West. The title story recounts how two brothers handle their dying mother’s revelation of her long-ago love affair at the Crow Fair powwow/Wild West Show. With imagery as sparse and striking as the landscape, houses figure prominently. “Weight Watchers” shows a man who builds homes only for other people. The repossessed “House on Sand Creek” becomes home to a real estate lawyer, his Eastern European wife, her infant son, and Bob the babysitter. At the “Fishing Camp,” two longtime friends find their wilderness guide cannot stand being in the wilderness with men who keep arguing about the past. Among female characters, “Prairie Girl” shines as she makes her way from prostitute to bank president. A boy steals hubcaps; a shaman begs charity; a girl hikes toward the howling of wolves: McGuane’s stories highlight the detachment of young from old, husband from wife, neighbor from neighbor, the dying from life itself.”

“One of McGuane’s great gifts is the ability to elicit laughter in dark moments or to jolt the reader of an ostensibly comic tale with a knife twist of pathos or tragedy . . . the only thing [the reader] can expect is to be surprised – by McGuane’s deadpan wit, his hyperactive imagination, and his deep appreciation for the human comedy . . . [Crow Fair] serves not merely to make us gape or laugh at man’s essential weirdness but also to recognize a bit of it in ourselves,” Says Stefan Beck in The Christian Science Monitor.

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Family ties form the focus of these turbulent stories, set mostly in Montana. The title story concerns the strained relationship of two brothers that’s exacerbated by the discovery of their saintly mother’s infidelity. “A Long View to the West” explores the highly ambivalent feelings of a son, a small-town car dealer, toward his father as he listens once again to his too-familiar stories when visiting him in the hospital. “River Camp” concerns another strained relationship, this one between lifelong friends who have booked a backwoods expedition in hopes of repairing their friendship only to find themselves in the hands of a mentally unstable guide. In “The Casserole,” a seemingly comfortable marriage unexpectedly breaks up on the couple’s 25th anniversary as they drive to her parents’ house for what is supposed to be a celebratory get-together. VERDICT Very little about the world is ever as solid as it might seem for McGuane’s solitary and troubled characters, as the foundations of their lives can give way at a moment’s notice, leaving them suddenly bereft—or with only a casserole somehow stuffed into in a lunch pail to carry them through the long ride home. A compelling, emotionally charged collection.”

Kirkus’ starred review says: “Seventeen stories, straightforward but well-crafted, that cement McGuane’s reputation as the finest short story writer of Big Sky country—and, at his best, beyond. These days, McGuane’s writing could hardly be further from the showy, overwritten prose of his breakthrough novels like Ninety-two in the Shade (1973). His sense of humor remains, but it’s wiser, more fatalistic and more Twain-like; he writes beautifully about the wilderness but always with an eye on its destructive power. As with much of his recent fiction, most of the stories here are set in Montana and turn on relationships going bust. In “Hubcaps,” a young boy observes his parents’ breakup through the filter of baseball and football games, capturing the protagonist’s slowly emerging resentment; in “Lake Story,” a man’s long-running affair with a married woman collapses during an ill-advised public outing, exposing the thinness of the connections that united them; in “Canyon Ferry,” a divorced dad’s attempt to prove his intrepidness to his young son during an ice-fishing trip pushes them to the edge of disaster during a storm. One of the best stories in the collection, “River Camp,” displays McGuane’s skill at pairing emotional turmoil with the untamed outdoors, following two brothers-in-law whose attempt to get away from it all leads them to a tour guide of questionable mental stability, bears rustling through tents and plenty of exposed raw nerves about their marriages. “Stars” tells a similar story in a more interior mode, following an astronomer who increasingly fails to contain her anger at the workaday world—McGuane skillfully depicts the small but constant ways life goes off-plumb for her—and how she fumbles toward balance in the forest. The conflicts throughout this book are age-old—indeed, the title story evokes “Oedipus”—but McGuane’s clean writing and psychological acuity enliven them all. A slyly cutting batch of tales from a contemporary master.”

When is it available?

Take a trip to Montana through this book, 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!

Happy are the Happy

by Yasmina Reza (translated by John Cullen)

Other Press, $20, 160 pages)

Who is this author?

Yasmina Reza, who lives in Paris, is a playwright, actress, screenwriter and novelist who has enjoyed both popular and critical praise for her work, which has been published in more than 30 languages.  Her plays “Art” and “God of Carnage” were produced in America and Europe, and “God,” which opened on Broadway with James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis , won Best Play at the 2009 Tony Awards. Her seven books include Dawn Dusk or Night: A Year with Nicolas Sarkozy. John Cullen, who lives in New York, has translated many book from their original Spanish, French, German and Italian.

What is this book about?              

Eighteen characters. Twenty-one chapters. One hundred sixty pages. Yasmina Reza packs a powerful punch in this relatively short novel, whose title comes from a quote from the novelist Jorge Luis Borges:  “Happy are the loved ones and the lovers and those who can do without love. Happy are the happy.”

The book’s interconnected vignettes, written with humor and compassion and told in the first person, introduce and connect ordinary people – insofar as French people ever  can be thought of as ordinary — struggling with ordinary problems – though some are more than a little unusual, like the plight of the parents trying to hide the fact that their son suffers the delusion that he is, in fact, Celine Dion. Sacre bleu!  This Gallic go-round is very merry, yet notes of poignancy underlie the cleverness and enrich the stories, the characters and the power of this slim but memorable book.

Why you’ll like it:

Reza’s background is international – her father was a Jewish Iranian of Russian descent and her mother was a Jewish Hungarian violinist – but her appeal is universal. Smart, sharp and witty, she is a keen observer of contemporary mores and obsessions, and she uses a light touch to present characters struggling with mundane concerns that carry the possibility of major upheavals in their lives. Happy indeed will be the happy readers who explore this book.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “Happy Are the Happy is another coup, a quick and delicate book that’s as funny as it is humane. Each of its short chapters…is told in the first person and concerns, for the most part, other characters in the book soon to introduce themselves if they haven’t already. Everyone gets a word in, and the style is feathery as gossip. Characters chime with one another in ways they never realize, a conviviality that is bittersweet. Their voices are self-aware, a little jaundiced, vulnerable, sometimes plaintive, and entirely authentic…Reza is attuned to intensity and banality in equal measure—how they refuse to converge at a tolerable midpoint, how infrequently people agree on which is which.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Playwright and author Reza’s newest book is a fragmented novella of vignettes, all of which function as independent short stories. Reza follows more than a dozen characters struggling with marriage and loneliness—opening with “Robert Toscano,” a hilarious study of patience and insistence revolving around a married couple in France, the Toscanos, who get into an escalating argument over cheese (he doesn’t buy the kind she likes). Reza’s askew humor pervades the book—four chapters later, we find out that the seemingly perfect Hunter family (bitterly envied by the Toscanos) has a secret: the son is not interning abroad, he is in a mental institution because he believes he is Celine Dion. Reza’s vignettes are also dark (a man’s incestuous relationship with his brother later turns him into a sexual masochist) and sardonic (a man accuses his wife of wanting to be buried together for social reasons: “My wife is counting on the grave to outfox spiteful gossips, she wants to remain a petit bourgeois even in death”). Reza’s stories build and build, creating a complicated, multifaceted world—a world that is unmistakably Reza’s.”

“The characters in these 21 brief, bittersweet and playfully interconnected stories by the French playwright Yasmina Reza hold tight to philosophies about love…[Reza] fills the stories, most of them six to eight pages long, with efficient detail, making them feel, perhaps unsurprisingly, like a series of vibrant one-acts,” says The New York Times.

The New Yorker says: “The twenty-one interconnected monologues in this meditation on parenting, death, and relations between the sexes manage to make domestic trifles seem electrifying. With implacable wit and a dramatist’s sense of timing, Reza offers snapshots from the psyches of eighteen characters, including a couple who squabble over Morbier cheese and stuffed hamsters, and a retired financier and statesman who taunts his exasperated wife with instructions for his funeral. The tone is wry, warm, and accepting.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “This enjoyable work from France-based novelist and playwright Reza  . . . concerns happiness in one’s personal life, with spouse, children, parents, and friends. The first chapter sets a humorous tone as Odile and Robert go shopping for cheese in a crowded supermarket, arguing over Morbier and the junk food Odile has placed in the cart for their children. A few of the characters in other chapters are definitely quirky: a man playing cards with his wife gets so agitated that he eats the king of clubs, for instance, while another sincerely believes he is Celine Dion. With sharp insight, Reza quickly penetrates the thoughts and actions of the characters to reveal just how happy (or not) they really are. VERDICT Winner of the Le Monde Prix Littéraire française 2013, this charming novel will make all Francophiles want to move to France immediately. What a delightful, witty slice of life!”

When is it available?

Happily, this book is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Mark Twain 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 Harder They Come: A Novel

By T. C. Boyle

(Ecco, $27.99, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

First, let’s get the name right, if we can: He was born Thomas John Boyle in 1948 and is known as Tom (or just T.) Coraghessan Boyle and T.C. Boyle. An author who has published 14 novels and 10 collections, comprising more than 100 stories, Boyle has won several major literary awards, as well as a devoted audience. He also is a distinguished professor of English at the University of Southern California and lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.

What is this book about?

Three complex characters collide in this thriller set in contemporary times. They are Sten, a father in his 70s who was a Marine in Vietnam and later a high school principal and becomes a hero for killing a thief in Costa Rico while on a trip; his schizophrenic son Adam, who identifies with Lewis and Clark guide John Colter, and Adam’s lover Sara, an older woman deeply involved in the survivalist and ultra-rightwing sovereign citizen movement. As the three Californians’ lives grow more entangled, they spiral into violence fueled by their various political and personal obsessions. This is an unflinching look at right-wing paranoia, violence, the American myth of the West and the desire for freedom at any cost: all topics increasingly in the news and in our communities.

Why you’ll like it:

Boyle is a masterful writer who creates hard-to-forget characters and is drawn to stories of man vs. nature and man vs. his own imperfect nature.

The Barnes & Noble Review describes him well: “Practically from the start of his fiction career in 1980, T. Coraghessan Boyle has been an outlier in American letters — not so much its Bad Boy or Angry Young Man as its Weird Uncle, spinning tales of pot growers and communes and survivalists and man-chimpanzee bonding at a nearly Oatesian pace. Like another California-based Weird Uncle, William T. Vollmann, he’s long written about the ways mankind’s feral instincts collide with the hubristic urge to bring nature to heel. Unlike Vollmann, though, Boyle has stuck exclusively with fiction — the long list of titles in the front matter of The Harder They Come includes no reportage. He’s remarkably determined to use the tools of imagination alone to critique postlapsarian humanity in its untamed — and often absurd — state. This frees him to be wild himself, though in this case his free-range instinct has its imperfections.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani writes:  “. . . stunning…The Harder They Come…is very much a showcase for all of Mr. Boyle’s storytelling talents. It’s gripping, funny and melancholy, and opens out from the miseries of a father and his troubled son into a resonant meditation on the American frontier ethos and propensity for violence—a dramatic novelistic rendering, in many ways, of the scholar Richard Slotkin’s pioneering studies on the mythology of the American West…From the novel’s thrilling set piece of a start…to its pensive conclusion, The Harder They Come is a masterly—and arresting—piece of storytelling, arguably Mr. Boyle’s most powerful, kinetic novel yet. “

The New York Times Book Review says: “The Harder They Come…takes on the paranoia of the far-right sovereign citizen movement and off-the-grid/mountain-man survivalism, as well as more mainstream American notions of independence. This could easily have been an opportunity for a writer of Boyle’s comic gifts to go full-tilt satirical, but Boyle takes a darker and more restrained approach. He has written a compelling, complex and intimate novel about three particular people in a specific time and place, a novel that tells us something unnerving about certain precincts of the American Now.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Boyle’s  hypnotic narrative probes the complexities of heroism, violence, power, and resistance. At its heart are ex-Marine and retired school principal “Sten” Stensen and his schizophrenic son, Adam, who arms himself against shadowy “hostiles” and identifies with heroic 19th-century wilderness guide John Colter. On vacation in Costa Rica, Sten kills a gunman attempting to rob his tour group. Back home in Mendocino, Calif., he becomes an instant celebrity for his act of vigilante justice, and he is drawn into a citizen brigade whose mission is to protect nearby forests from the South American drug cartels that despoil the land. Meanwhile, Adam forms a tenuous, lust-fueled bond with anti-government activist Sara Jennings. Driven further into delusion by her brushes with the law and his physical confrontation with his father, Adam flees for his secret camp in the woods; when one of the citizen patrollers challenges him, Adam shoots that man, and soon another. As the manhunt intensifies, Sten realizes his son’s involvement and his own inability to change his son’s fate. Written with both clarity and compassion, each of the novel’s characters inhabits a rich and convincing private world. As they traverse a landscape none of them control, their haunting stories illuminate the violent American battle with otherness. “

Library Journal’s starred review says: “An elderly California couple’s vacation cruise is turned upside down when bandits attack their party at a Central American nature preserve. Former high school principal and Vietnam vet Sten Stensen reacts with unexpected fury when an armed thief approaches him, strangling him to death. While viewed as a hero back home, Sten’s disturbed by the violence that’s visited his life and will deal with more as the mental state of his emotionally troubled adult son, Adam, grows worse. A paranoid survivalist who fashions himself after 19th-century mountain man John Colter, Adam has taken up with another disquieted soul, Sara, a local farrier and proponent of radical right-wing ideas. A fight with his parents after they sell his late grandmother’s cabin, where he has been living, sends him spiraling downward. He retreats to a deep-woods bunker with his weapons where his shooting of a perceived “alien” will set off a massive manhunt. VERDICT Inspired by a true story (and also echoing recent events in Pennsylvania), Boyle tellingly explores the anger, paranoia, and violence lurking in the shadowlands of the American psyche. A powerful and profoundly unsettling tale.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Violence corrodes the ideal of freedom in an ambitious novel that aims to illuminate the dark underbelly of the American dream. In the prolific Boyle’s latest, the estrangement between a father and son provides the plot’s pivot. The father is 70-year-old Sten Stensen, a Vietnam Marine vet and later a high school principal, whose military training comes in handy when he’s among a group ambushed during a cruise. Three armed robbers threaten the group, and Sten kills one of them. He initially fears he might face criminal prosecution in Central America but subsequently finds himself hailed as a hero. In his mind, “He’d done what anybody would have done, anybody who wasn’t a natural-born victim, anyway.” There’s a hint of xenophobia in his attitude, a dismissal of a foreign culture where life is cheap and values ambiguous and where expediency has him cooperating with officials who let him know he has done them a favor. Sten has never been a hero to his son, Adam, a troubled youth since his days in his dad’s high school, now a self-styled mountain man on the outskirts of Fort Bragg, California. In Adam, Sten sees the chickens coming home to roost, the propensity for violence that they share twisted by drugs and paranoia. Adam has become involved with a right-wing anarchist 15 years his senior, who seems to be in the novel mainly to distinguish her misguided politics from his insanity. And even Adam and Sten function more as types and symbols than individuals, though Boyle remains a master at sustaining narrative momentum as the sense of foreboding darkens and deepens. Boyle’s vision and ambition remain compelling, though his characters here seem like plot devices.”

When is it available?

This engrossing novel is 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!

Just Kids from the Bronx: Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History

By Arlene Alda

(Holt, $28, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

We all know Alan Alda, a terrific actor with many fine movies and TV appearances to his credit. But how many of us are aware that his wife, Arlene, (nee Arlene Weiss, of the Bronx) is a gifted musician and a very successful photographer and author of books for kids and adults? Arlene Alda was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Hunter College, earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study clarinet in Germany and was a clarinetist in the Houston Symphony, under Leopold Stokowski, before marrying Alan. She went on to become adept at photography and writing and has published 19 books, among them bestselling, award-winning children’s titles.

What is this book about?

Alda’s latest book is about childhood but is for adults. It is a collection of oral histories about growing up in the famous borough of New York City, a book in which well-known people in the arts, business, science and more share their memories of how its culture affected them then and now. Their stories recall life there from the 1920s to 1990s,  and among the 60 men and women sharing them are scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson; Millard “Mickey” Dressler, CEO of J. Crew; rock singer Dion DiMucci of Dion and the Belmonts; hip-hop Grandmaster Melle Mel, Al Pacino, Carl Reiner, Colin Powell and Mary Higgins Clark. Nuns, cops, athletes and artists, entrepreneurs and more look back with affection and pride at their youth and the unique place that encouraged them to pursue – and often realize – their dreams.

Why you’ll like it:

If the words “oral history” sound forbiddingly academic, then call these reminiscences family stories instead. Alda re-creates a wonderful slice of urban 20th century Americana here and has chosen an impressive line-up of speakers who invoke the recent, but rapidly receding past.  Whether you grew up in the Bronx or not, you will relate to the era she has captured, and you will be fascinated by the personal tales Alda and her participants tell. This is a warm and engaging book that has tremendous appeal.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Short essays connected by a common thread: a childhood spent in the Bronx. Through the voices of more than 60 interviewees, Alda presents a kaleidoscope of images from these vignettes of life in the New York borough. The pieces span from the late 1920s to the early 1990s and capture the evolution of a neighborhood. Since the Bronx was originally settled primarily by Jewish, Italian and Irish immigrants, the initial stories are rich with details about life during the Depression and World War II and its aftermath. Then the narrative gradually shifts with the progression of time to personal reflections from newer arrivals comprised of African-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. These short slices of life offer intimate glimpses into the childhood memories of well-known people such as Colin Powell, Milton Glaser, Abe Rosenthal and Al Pacino. Whether it was the women’s changing room at Loehmann’s department store, riding a bike to Pelham Bay Park or running to an apartment block to fetch someone for a telephone call at the corner store, living in the Bronx made an impression on all of them as they worked their way up the American dream ladder to become productive and prosperous members of society. Amar Ramasar, principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, sums up the essence of these narratives, writing, “Manhattan wasn’t home until recently, when I moved there. It was always associated with work and studying, but the Bronx is different. It was, and I think always will be, home, comfort, love.” Other contributors include Carl Reiner, Regis Philbin, Dava Sobel, Maira Kalman, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bobby Bonilla. Entertaining and informative; cherished memories from a diverse group from the Bronx.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Alda has compiled a fabulous collection of 65 brief oral histories from a wide range of people who began their lives in the Bronx. The assortment of childhood memories begin as far back as the 1920s, move through the 1940s and 1950s, and end with those born in the late 1980s. Contributors include Carl Reiner, Colin Powell, and—among younger names—dancer Amar Ramasar and Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. While the borough’s underdog status is acknowledged (Odgen Nash’s “The Bronx? No Thonx?” gets quoted), the general tenor is fond and wistful. Mary Higgins Clark sets the tone by dubbing the area one of “only three places in the world that have a ‘the’ in front of their names: the Vatican, The Hague, and the Bronx.” Stories often recall the mundane: stickball in the streets, trying to get “home before dark,” the unforgettable smell of bakeries and delis. Al Pacino recalls teachers who changed his life, and an urban planner remembers his mother drilling him on the subway system before sending him off alone at age 9. There are few readers who won’t be touched by this affectionate look backward, which is as much about the universal state of childhood as the specific borough of the Bronx.”

President Bill Clinton says: “Arlene Alda must be a great listener because all kinds of amazing people tell her remarkable things in Just Kids from the Bronx. No matter where you grew up, you’ll find this a down-to-earth, inspiring book about the American promise fulfilled.”

The New York Times says:  “More than 60 evocative oral histories . . . Just look at the angelic faces captured in the photographs that accompany each of the essays and ponder the question she [Arlene Alda] poses: ‘How did they find a place for themselves?’”

“In these funny, intelligent, generous-spirited reminiscences, an extremely diverse group of Bronxites pay tribute to the borough where they were raised. Many of these are rags-to-riches impresarios whose riches are better known than their rags. Here, they give voice to the place that made them and in doing so, they make you fall in love with the Bronx, and with the resilience and moxie it seems to have bred in its sons and daughters. This is an enchanting collection,” says bestselling and National Book Award-winning author Andrew Solomon.

When is it available?

You can visit the Bronx by borrowing 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!