The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year

by Matt McCarthy

(Crown/Archtype, $27, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Matt McCarthy, once a pitcher on Yale’s baseball team, got his first best-seller with Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, about his brief experience with the Provo Angels, the minor league team of the 2002 Anaheim Angels. He abandoned (probably wisely) baseball for medicine and is now an assistant professor of medicine at Cornell and a staff physician at Weill Cornell Medical Center. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Slate, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Deadspin, where he writes the Medspin column.

What is this book about?

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly puts us right into one of the most stressful career situations imaginable: a medical internship. Despite his lofty ambitions to become a caring and cool-headed doctor, McCarthy nearly lost his first cardiac care patient during his first night on call. This often scary, often hilariously funny memoir captures the tensions and opportunities that on-the-job training offers those with the smarts and stamina to make it through, and is a valuable insider’s look at what goes into the making of a competent doctor. Among other worthy insights: savvy doctors learn as much from their patients as they do from their teachers.

Why you’ll like it:

You’ve no doubt heard that it is best to stay out of hospitals during the summer, when the new crop of interns dons stethoscopes and start making decisions based on schooling but not hands-on experience. Matt McCarthy takes us into that world and, with honesty and a great deal of humor, shows why that advice can be true. Books that offer an insider’s perspective are often delightful; this one may also help readers understand how medicine does and does not work these days: invaluable knowledge.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “McCarthy follows his controversial tell-all about his brief baseball career, Odd Man Out, with an account of his grueling first-year internship at one of New York’s premier hospitals. Here, the New York-Presbyterian Hospital attending doctor is hardest on himself: he expresses guilt over a missed diagnosis with his first patient, coldly brought to his attention by the patient’s angry primary doctor, and learns a sobering lesson about the doctor-patient relationship from a patient awaiting a heart transplant. Along the way, he is guided by others, such as the second-year resident who gives him the tough love and experience required to make it through a rotation in the Cardiac Care Unit, the “real doctor” at the hospital’s clinic who helps him make independent—though not always perfect—decisions, and the physician who teaches him that through medicine “it is possible to reach the unreachable.” McCarthy’s story is one of transformation. “I felt different now because I was different,” he writes. “I was looking out for my patients, not myself.” McCarthy’s growth will seem familiar to everyone traveling a path of self-discovery.”

“Matt McCarthy’s new book, The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly, is an honest, beautiful, and terrifying look at what goes into creating a doctor. Filled with very human characters, both doctors and patients alike, Matt’s well-paced writing makes it easy to imagine yourself in the shoes of a brand new intern, nervous and afraid, yet still tasked with literal life and death decisions. I would recommend this book to anyone who knows or has been treated by a doctor (so basically everyone,” says Chris Kluwe, former Minnesota Vikings football player and author of Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies.

“Well-written and brutally honest, Dr. McCarthy’s engrossing memoir of his internship year is told with uncommon frankness and perception. The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly is one of the most powerful books about a doctor-in-training I have ever read. The author vividly describes the crushing emotional and physical demands a young doctor must face, and he does so with consummate skill and compassion. A marvelous book,” says Michael Collins, author of Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs.

Library Journal says: “Author of the best-selling Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, Harvard Medical School grad McCarthy delivers a sometimes raucous, sometimes moving story of his year as an intern at a New York hospital. Between nearly losing a patient the first day and befriending a man awaiting a new heart, McCarthy learned what it’s like to deal with real patients instead of just textbooks, formulas, and cadavers.”

When is it available?

No need for a waiting room here: 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!

When Reason Breaks

by Cindy L. Rodriguez

(Bloomsbury USA, $17.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Cindy L. Rodriguez, of Plainville, is a former Hartford Courant reporter and Boston Globe investigative researcher who left journalism to become a public school teacher. Rodriquez is now a reading specialist at a Connecticut middle school and also teaches college-level composition. When Reason Breaks, a YA novel, is her debut book. She is a member of the Class of 2K15, the Fearless Fifteeners, the We Need Diverse Books Team and Latin@s in Kid Lit. You can reach her on Twitter: @RodriguezCindyL .

What is this book about?

Two high school girls with serious emotional problems find comfort in the words of poet Emily Dickinson and help from a caring teacher. Elizabeth Davis, a Goth girl whose mother is overwhelmed with problems, develops anger management issues. Emily Delgado, a sweet girl tentatively exploring romance, has a father obsessed with political success and unblemished family images, and she struggles with serious depression. This novel captures the emotional whirlwinds of adolescence well and cleverly brings Dickinson’s words and ideas into the plot.

Why you’ll like it:

I first met Cindy Rodriguez in 1993 when she was hired by The Courant to be the first reporter for a new City Desk feature, the Hartford Neighborhoods page, which I edited. She was newly graduated from UConn and immediately proved to be a sensitive and savvy reporter who knew how to tell a good story. Those skills are also evident in her first novel, which handles teenage angst with delicacy, offers believable characters and also may serve as an introduction to Dickinson’s immortal poetry for teen readers. The story opens with a near-suicide but does not reveal which girl attempted it until the end, telling the tale through flashbacks that add a bit of mystery to this dramatic and compelling story.

What others are saying:

“This realistic novel invites readers into the lives of two high schoolers, Elizabeth Davis and Emily Delgado, as they struggle with unrelated painful events, reacting in ways as different as their personalities. Artistic Elizabeth changes her appearance to look Goth, skips class, fights with her mother and sometimes experiences uncontrollable rage. Emily tends toward a preppy, academic style, but bouts of anxiety impact her studies and relationships. The two young women are brought together in their English class, where teacher Mrs. Davis engages students with authentic care and a curricular focus on Emily Dickinson. Deep analysis of the poet’s life and writings results in personal insights for the protagonists. The use of foreshadowing at the beginning of the book alerts to future trauma without spoiling the plot, and a reference to the board game Clue provides a subtle tool for making meaning of the quick shifts in narrative perspective and form. Latino culture, and bicultural and gay family relationships are woven easily into the story; popular culture references and some romance will also resonate with adolescents. Overall, this text provides important insights into the various stressors that can lead to depression and suicide, as well as the type of support required to move toward potential healing,” says School Library Journal.

Publishers Weekly says: “First-time author Rodriguez cleverly represents Emily Dickinson’s dark side and her reclusive tendencies through the two distinct personalities of her teenage heroines, who are studying the poet in English class. Elizabeth Davis, who enjoys visiting a nearby cemetery, is fascinated with death, but her expression of it through drawings and journal entries have gotten her into trouble at school. Classmate Emily Delgado is not nearly as bold, keeping her despair a secret, but the pressure of being the perfect daughter of a rising politician is becoming too heavy a burden to bear. After the girls team for a project on Dickinson, Elizabeth’s ideas are misinterpreted, causing her to become enraged, while Emily, absorbed in conflicts with old friends and the boy she likes, spirals into depression. The question remains whether, in the heat of their individual crises, the newly formed friendship between Elizabeth and Emily can survive. If the numerous allusions to Dickinson’s life (pointed out in an author’s note) are somewhat forced at times, the inner torment of the two main characters and the book’s psychologically intense climax remain gripping.”

Says VOYA: “A high school student leaves a note under her teacher’s door and walks into the woods to swallow a handful of pills. As she lies on the ground and her teacher rushes to find her, the story flashes back eight months. Two high school sophomores, Emily and Elizabeth, tell their very different stories in alternating chapters. They connect in English class where they are studying Emily Dickinson’s life and work. It is clear that both students are troubled; however, it is unclear until the end which of the two students is the one in the opening scene. This narrative gambit allows the author to give one of the main characters a resolved ending while still illustrating effectively and accurately the struggle that suicidal teens face. As one would expect with a novel of this type, contact information for suicide hotlines is provided. In addition, the connection between Emily Dickinson’s life and When Reason Breaks is also discussed in an author’s note. One of the more notable characteristics of this title is the prevalence of Latino characters, doing culturally Latino things, like speaking snippets of Spanish at home, in a story in which the heritage of the characters is not critical to the plot. Representation of diverse characters in books that are not overtly multicultural in nature is an additional positive in an already strong story. . .”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Two young women struggle with family and school pressure, finding support in a kind, principled teacher in this contemporary novel featuring alternating narrators.The story opens as one of them—readers do not know which one—attempts suicide in the opening chapter. Though readers may at first have trouble distinguishing between their voices due to the similarity of their names and to that purposeful obfuscation, Emily Delgado and Emily Davis (who goes by her middle name, Elizabeth) could scarcely be more different. Quiet, careful Emily is the daughter of a local politician whose image-conscious authority grates on his family. Elizabeth is opinionated and tough, though she, her younger sister and her mother are still reeling from the anguish caused by her father’s departure from the family after his extramarital affair. One of their teachers, Ms. Diaz, becomes a confidante for each of them, and she pairs them up for a project on Emily Dickinson, whose poems are discussed throughout and whose life circumstances serve as inspiration for the characters. The portrayal of the different ways people experience depression is spot-on—including the terrifying and believable way some of its less visible symptoms can be missed by the loved ones of those who are suffering. A sharply drawn, emotionally resonant tale of two girls—one gripped by uncontrollable rage, the other by unrelenting numbness—that will speak to many teens.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain, Albany, Ropkins and Barbour branches have copies 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!


The Family Hightower: A Novel

by Brian Francis Slattery

(Seven Stories Press, $27.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Brian Francis Slattery, an editor and co-founder of the New Haven Review, has published four novels, as well as short fiction for Glimmer Train, McSweeney’s, the Revelator and other journals. His novels include Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, which was named by Amazon’s editors the best science-fiction book of 2008, and Lost Everything, which won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award. And he’s a musician, too.

What is this book about?

What are the odds? Two members of the same family, one living in Morocco and the other in Cleveland, unwittingly name their sons Peter Henry Hightower, after the boys’ grandfather, an Ukrainian-American crime boss who has amassed a fortune in ill-gotten gains. One boy grows up to be a journalist who lives abroad; the other follows in the family footsteps by becoming a criminal. Their lives are not exactly parallel, but eventually they become dangerously entwined: killers seeking to wipe out the criminal mistakenly go after his cousin, the reporter. Throw in the grisly Eastern European black market for human organs and you get a dark thriller that combines a compelling crime novel with a family saga.

Why you’ll like it:

Slattery writes with a knowing air that is at once gruff and wry, confiding his often gruesome and shocking tale to his readers as though he were sharing some dark family secrets. Which, actually, is exactly what he is doing. Moving from Cleveland to Ukraine and back, with side trips to Morocco, Zimbabwe and Romania, this is a fast-paced thriller with tough characters engaged in bloody endeavors.

What others are saying:

Author Stewart O’Nan says: “There will be blood, Brian Slattery promises early on, and, man, does he deliver. Expertly paced and beautifully detailed, The Family Hightower is a Ukrainian-American Godfather–a time-traveling, globetrotting crime saga spanning the last century, spiriting the reader from Morocco to Zimbabwe to Romania and always back home to strangely exotic Cleveland. Completely satisfying and completely  brilliant.”

A starred Kirkus Review says: “A tale dripping with blood and money in a family that’s far more fun to read about than it would be to live with.  “So listen,” the narrator begins, and you feel like he’s confiding in you about a bunch of crooks he knows. But no, he’s “selling them out to you” as though he’s more snitch than storyteller. “There is blood everywhere,” he assures “dear reader” near the beginning, and in due time, it’s a promise amply kept. What else to expect from people who make some of their riches from involuntary organ donors? The bulk of the story takes place in Cleveland, with side trips to Ukraine. Cleveland is “a city built to make money and a city that money built, built and took apart, again and again.” There are two cousins named Peter Hightower. One is a journalist, and one, Petey, is a criminal who evolves from Petro Garko to Pete the Uke to Peter Henry Hightower, falsely claiming to have gone to Yale. “How much money does my family have?” asks the other Peter Hightower. The answer is that they stopped counting long ago. Their grandfather was a thug with deep Ukrainian roots. The criminal tradition continues in Cleveland, with the women just as vicious as the men—but will that be enough against a rival named The Wolf? Slattery goes into rich digressions such as the fatal Sugar Ray Robinson-Jim Doyle fight, and he does them so well the reader doesn’t care that they’re only tangential to the storyline. And one could fill a page with all the novel’s quotable lines; “I love you means I will bleed you dry” tops the list. This is a splendid story filled with betrayal and disaster. Readers prone to schadenfreude will find it doubly delicious.”

Says Library Journal: “Philip K. Dick Award winner Slattery does something a little different, turning in a book that’s at once literary thriller and family drama. Peter Henry Hightower has grown up abroad, always on the run with his father, but he doesn’t know why until he rebels and gets in touch with his family in America. He soon discovers that the family wealth has been built on the criminal activities of the grandfather after whom he’s been named and that a cousin also called Peter Henry Hightower is a spectacular criminal-in-training. VERDICT A swift but thoughtful read about what family means.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Slattery’s fourth novel has a dynamic premise that unfortunately descends into a frustrating jumble. Two cousins are given the same name: Peter Henry Hightower, named after their grandfather, a Ukranian-American crime boss. They grow up differently (one becomes a journalist, the other a criminal), but their fates are entwined by a mistaken phone call setting killers on the trail of one, thinking it is the other. The bulk of the book is set in 1995, although sections go back as far as 1896, and move past 1995 to an unnamed contemporary date. The canvas of the book ranges from Cleveland to Kiev to Granada to Africa and many places in between. Delving deeply into the horrors of the Eastern European black market organ trade, Slattery should be commended for not watering his story down or giving us false heroes, and his research and sensory detail are excellent. Unfortunately, the choice of present tense and the unnamed narrator talking at the reader throughout keep a buffer zone between the reader and the experience of the book. A rather wry, somewhat condescending tone  prevent what could have been a strong emotional impact and thought-provoking aftermath.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour 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!


Everlasting Lane

By Andrew Lovett

(Melville House, $25.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Andrew Lovett is a British author and teacher and a married father of three who lives in York, turns 50 this year and has based Everlasting Lane, his debut novel, partly on his own childhood.  Here are some thoughts about his work that he posted in 2013 on his website, Andrewlovett.co.uk:

“If, like me, you’re a human being, a flawed bag of flesh, blood and bones, struggling to make sense of your world and the people with whom you share it; struggling, perhaps, to even make sense of yourself, then you already know something of what Everlasting Lane is about.

“The book is the result of twenty years work and initially inspired by a family tragedy; events of twenty years ago, the consequences of which continue to play out and affect lives to this day.

“Everlasting Lane is a real street in St Albans, Hertfordshire which I used to drive past when visiting one of the local secondary schools – I was a Year 6 teacher at the time.

“I always thought it sounded like the title of a children’s book which is how I originally wrote it. I assume the name is ironic as the street itself is alarmingly short.”

What is this book about?

Peter is a little boy – 10 years old – when his father dies and his mother chooses to leave the city and install them in a house in the country, where she insists Peter once lived, though he cannot recall that. There is a lot about the world that Peter does not understand, just like most kids his age. But most kids don’t suddenly have their mothers tell them to now call her Aunt Kat, or live in houses with a secret locked room where mother spends time alone. He’s an outsider at his new school, but does acquire two friends who also are loners: too-fat Tommie and too-precocious Anna-Marie. They make the acquaintance of the hermit-like Mr. Merridew and Scarecrow Man. And Peter grows increasingly troubled by whatever it is that his mother is hiding in that mysterious locked room. This is a nostalgic look at childhood interlaced with a sad, dark family history. And it makes you think that it’s possible that memory itself is a kind of everlasting lane.

Why you’ll like it:

Lovett is a largely unknown writer, but his talents are obvious to the reader. He tells this coming-of-age story with tenderness and humor, capturing the bewilderment and challenges of childhood. Here is what he told rifflebooks.com about the book:

“I’ve dreamt and day-dreamed of being a writer ever since the age of fourteen after reading Catcher in the Rye, but my early attempts were pretty embarrassing and now sit gathering dust in the attic. Experience gave me something real to write about, the desire to commit to the task and the drive to get it done. Except in exceptional circumstances, I’m not sure how people who have their first novel published in their twenties can have anything of substance to say. I know I didn’t.

“The plot/s of Everlasting Lane came from a whole range of experiences; my childhood, my relationship with my mother, my career as a teacher etc. The characters also come from all over. The character of Anna-Marie first appeared in a short story I wrote whilst teaching. She later forced her way into Everlasting Lane by sheer strength of personality.

“I’m too cynical and middle-aged to cite Holden Caulfield as a hero nowadays. I have always empathized with Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I really relate to the permanently startled expression he wears as the universe continually throws curve-balls at him. A real hero, though, would be Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird. He represents a moral courage which I would love to imagine I would show in similar circumstances.

Good news for those who like this book: it is the first of a planned trilogy.

Lovett says: “Part 2 is called As if We Were Still and is set in a college in the mid-1980s. Part 3 is set in a primary school in the mid-1990s but I haven’t yet settled on a title. As to what they’re about, you’ll have to wait and see.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “British author Lovett’s engrossing debut, partly based on events from his own childhood, follows 10-year-old Peter Lambert, who is uprooted by his mother to go live in a “dusty and undisturbed” cottage in the Amberley countryside in the mid-1970s after his WWII veteran father’s untimely death. Even more confounding than his new environment are his mother’s decision to change her name to Kat; her reference to the fact that he’d lived in the town before; and the plucky, dominating behavior of Anna-Marie, the girl next door. Peter befriends Anna-Marie along with Tommie Winslow, a schoolmate who eventually competes with Peter for the girl’s attentions. The unexpected trio bring Everlasting Lane to vibrant life along with a host of peripheral characters, including harsh grade school teacher Mr. Gale and a few local eccentrics such as reclusive Mr. Merridew, a hermit living in a wooded cabin, and Dr. Todd, a secretive physician who becomes Kat’s special friend. While Peter narrates the story with the naive, goofy curiosity of a young boy, there are also thin swaths of the bitterness and angst more befitting his aggrieved mother. She’s hiding a secret behind one of their cottage’s locked doors, and it becomes one of Peter’s burdensome obsessions. Familial melodrama and confusion are resolved and explained as Lovett’s creative tale broadens into an exploratory, discovery-filled journey for three zany outcasts—“a fluttering rabble of butterflies,” each taking in the world one revelation at a time.”

Kirkus’ starred review says: Debut novelist Lovett offers a dreamy portrait of an English childhood, with some sharp edges beneath the blur. Following the death of his father, 9-year-old Peter and his mother move from London to a mysterious house in the country. Peter states at the onset of the novel, “I can’t promise that this is the way it was, not exactly, only that this was perhaps how it sometimes seemed to be.” He tells and retells stories, all in luminous and evocative language, as he begins to realize that the secrets of the past are layered and complex. Among the many changes that occur quite quickly in Peter’s life is his mother’s strange request that he refer to her as Kat and keep the details of their home life to himself. That secret, and the secrets that begin to rise up all around him, become more difficult to protect when he meets Anna-Marie, a bossy neighborhood girl, and Tommie, an outcast schoolmate. Taking to the countryside, they begin to investigate a series of intertwined mysteries stemming from the discovery of a hidden room within Peter’s new house, a museumlike nursery filled with artifacts for a lost baby girl that the children long to understand. The narrative is driven by images, connecting and unfolding like the mysteries beneath the surface: mirrors, clocks, butterflies and a storybook rambling through the physical Everlasting Lane, lush and green and seemingly unending. Deeper still is the reminder that the narrative itself is connected to the realm of imagination, as Peter muses on the idea that like stories, real life can be amended for happy endings and a second chance to make the right decision. Beautifully written, and as charming as it is dark, the novel unwraps the endless secrets that elude a child.”

Library Journal says: “Peter is at that phase where he doesn’t quite understand adults and the consequences of one’s actions. He fills his ten-year-old world with imagination, exploration, and playtime with his two new friends, Anna-Marie and Tommie; this helps him escape from his mother’s sadness and the uneasy feeling that he did something to make her blue. Though the same age as Peter, Anna-Marie has a grown-up understanding of the world, which can get her into trouble. As Peter and friends travel down life’s lane, they meet odd neighbors and encounter disapproving adults; Peter learns that adults can be weighed down by secrets, and he starts to realize how his actions affect others. VERDICT The experience told through a child’s eye, with Peter always two steps behind Anna-Marie, is authentically rendered, and Lovett creates a realistically naïve narrator in Peter. Although the viewpoint is simplified, Lovett’s writing is sophisticated and evocative. Anna-Marie’s dialog is cheeky and entertaining, yet she also has a vulnerable side and is endearing as an outcast and as Peter’s fearless friend. The strong points in this sometimes meandering tale of a British childhood are the absorbing literary writing, the vibrancy of Anna-Marie, and the dynamic among the three friends.”

When is it available?

Everlasting Lane is on the shelves of 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!


The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing: A Novel

By Mira Jacob

(Random House, $26, 512 pages)

Who is this author?

Mira Jacob is not a familiar name to most readers, but she has earned widespread praise for her debut novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing. Her novel was on the shortlist for India’s Tata First Literature Award was and made the best books of 2014 lists put out by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, Bustle and The Millions.

Jacob, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son and teaches fiction at New York University, was a co-founder of Pete’s Reading Series in Brooklyn, an organization that sponsored on-stage presentations of literary fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She also has taught writing in New Mexico and Barcelona, has contributed to such magazines as Vogue and Redbook, and last year was named the Emerging Novelist Honoree at Hudson Valley Writer’s Center. 

What is this book about?

A daughter hears from her mother, a woman who often embellishes her stories, that her father, Thomas, a famous brain surgeon, has taken to holding conversations with dead relatives at their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Amina, a wedding photographer living in Seattle, takes Kamala’s concerns seriously and returns home to find that indeed, something strange is going on and it is apparently related to a trip home to India that the Eapen family, including rebellious Akhil, Amina’s brother, took 20 years earlier. Akhil’s life took a sad turn, and Amina discovers that she must uncover unpleasant truths about their history to understand what is troubling her father and to help her family.

Why you’ll like it:

Family sagas, especially those that carefully reveal hidden truths and closely guarded secrets, have universal appeal. Jacob’s novel, cleverly plotted and deftly and often wittily written, spins one such story and augments its power by being set it in the world of Indian immigrants to America, a fast-growing and increasingly influential group in business and politics. This particular family is Christian, which may surprise some readers. But you don’t have to know much about life in India or among its expatriates here to appreciate this nuanced story of a family whose future depends on squarely facing its past.

What others are saying:

“Jacob’s novel is light and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty. Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny. . . . This is the literary fiction I will be recommending to everyone this summer, especially those who love multigenerational, multicultural family sagas,” says the Associated Press.

Entertainment Weekly says: “This debut novel so fully envelops the reader in the soul of an Indian-American immigrant family that it’s heart-wrenching to part with them. . . . Thanks to Jacob’s captivating voice, which is by turns hilarious and tender and always attuned to shifts of emotion, her characters shimmer with life. [Grade:] A-.”

Publishers Weekly says: Toggling back and forth between the early 1980s and late 1990s, Jacob’s emotionally bountiful debut immerses us in the lives of Amina Eapen and her extended Indian-American family, who have lived in Albuquerque, N.Mex., since the late 1960s. In 1998, Amina, then age 30, works as a wedding photographer, having given up a promising photojournalism career after a single picture—a photo of a Native American activist jumping off a bridge—made her notorious. She moved to Seattle to distance herself from her overbearing parents, Kamala and Thomas, but returns home after learning that Thomas, a surgeon, has begun acting strangely. She plans to make it a short trip but decides to stay after her father is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This extended visit forces Amina to confront anew the death of her older brother Akhil, who committed suicide as a teenager, and to rekindle her romance with Jamie Anderson, whose sister was Akhil’s girlfriend. The author has a wonderful flair for recreating the messy sprawl of family life, with all its joy, sadness, frustration, and anger. Although overlong, the novel, through its lovingly created and keenly observed characters, makes something new of the Indian immigrant experience in America.

Says Library Journal: “In this strong debut novel, grief has haunted the Eapen family since their move from India to the United States in the late 1960s. Now, in the late 1990s, Amina Eapen is called back from Seattle to her parents’ home in New Mexico to deal with her brain surgeon father’s presumably delusional dialog with dead relatives, and the family’s grief powers to the forefront. As the poignant yet witty and irreverent story unfolds, Amina seeks to disentangle fact from fiction, especially regarding the suicide of her precocious brother, Akhil. Ultimately, the Eapens must relive their past in order to face a troubling future. VERDICT Jacob’s writing is refreshing, and she excels at creating a powerful bond between the reader and her characters, all wonderfully drawn and with idiosyncratic natures—the mother, Kamala, for instance, is a born-again Christian—that make them enchanting. Recommended for those who like engaging fiction that succeeds in addressing serious issues with some humor.

A starred review from Kirkus says: “Jacob’s darkly comic debut—about a photographer’s visit to her parents’ New Mexico home during a family crisis—is grounded in the specifics of the middle-class Indian immigrant experience while uncovering the universality of family dysfunction and endurance. Amina Eapen was born in New Mexico, but her older brother, Akhil, was born in India before the family moved to America. Amina and Akhil chafed against their parents’ evident unhappiness—their mother, Kamala, clung to impossible dreams of returning to India; their father, Thomas, disappeared into his medical practice—while also enjoying the extended Christian Indian community to which the Eapens have always belonged . . . . By the time Thomas is diagnosed with a physical disease, Amina is feeling a bit haunted by the past herself—she can’t escape from memories of growing up with the gifted but troubled Akhil, whose death as a high school senior was a blow from which no one in the family has recovered. Amina also finds a lover she avoids introducing to her parents for good reason: He’s the brother of Akhil’s high school sweetheart, and he isn’t Indian. Amina’s romance, as well as mouthwatering descriptions of Kamala’s cooking, leavens but does not diminish the Eapens’ family tragedy. Comparisons of Jacob to Jhumpa Lahiri are inevitable; Lahiri may be more overtly profound, Jacob more willing to go for comedy, but both write with naked honesty about the uneasy generational divide among Indians in America and about family in all its permutations.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain Branch have copies 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!

Voices In the Night

By Steven Millhauser

 

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Steven Millhauser was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut. He’s been honored many times for his fiction, such as the novel, Martin Dressler, which won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize, and We Others: New and Selected Stories, which won  the Story Prize. His work has been translated into 17 languages, and his story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” inspired the 2006 film The Illusionist. Millhauser teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, N. Y.

What is this book about?

This collection of 16 new stories shows Millhauser, 71,  is still at the top of his game. As he often does, he sets his strange tales in ordinary settings – small towns that seem “normal” but are anything but. Some play on venerable fairy tales: Rapunzel and her prince charming meet the real world – and others have Biblical themes that resonate here and now. In one, Miracle Polish, an anti-tarnish product that also buffs up a man’s life; in another, a brochure advertises a luxury resort where, when people check out, they really do check out. In another, a mermaid washes up on shore and changes a town forever. There is fantasy here, handled deftly, and the collection is a showcase of terrific literary talent.

Why you’ll like it:

Critics have called Millhauser’s technique hyperrealism or magical realism, but readers will not care what lit-crit tags are hung on these stories: suffice it to say they are funny yet disquieting, familiar yet weird, deceptively calm yet disturbingly deep. Millahuser also has been compared to a daunting line-up of literary stars: Malmud, Kafka, Poe, Borges, Lovecraft, Hawthorne, Gogol, Calvino and Garcia Marquez to name but a few – yet readers know that his is an original and distinctive imagination at play.

What others are saying:

Library Journal’s starred review says: “ Imagine a town crier delivering updates to the world in the form of newsletter or annual holiday card. This is the dominant voice of this latest collection from Millhauser, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Martin Dressler. Half the stories, including “Phantoms,” “Mermaid Fever,” “A Report on Our Recent Troubles,” “Elsewhere,” and “The Place,” are told in the voice of The Town. “Arcadia,” the darkest of the stories, is a brochure advertising a suicide retreat complete with a suite of amenities found only in a luxury resort. There is a touch of magic realism as well, including phantoms, ghosts, mermaids, and a magical bottle of furniture polish, all revealing a sense of loss, longing, and an emptiness that cannot be expressed by ordinary means. The weakest pieces, e.g., the lengthy “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama,” move beyond town life, but the change in tone and voice is quite jarring and not entirely successful. VERDICT Millhauser’s wry humor really shines in these off-kilter stories of town life. Despite a few lesser pieces, this enjoyable collection is highly recommended.”

In another starred review, Kirkus says: “A master storyteller continues to navigate the blurry space between magic and reality in 16 comic, frightening, consistently off-kilter tales. As a short story writer, Millhauser  emerged in the ’70s with his sensibility fully formed, taking Bernard Malamud’s heady mixture of Jewish mysticism and urban life and expanding its reach to encompass palace courts and big-box suburbia. His strategy remains the same in this collection, but there’s little sign that his enthusiasm has weakened. In “Miracle Polish,” a man buys a mirror-cleaning chemical that makes his reflection slightly but meaningfully more upbeat and glimmering; a sly riff on the myth of Narcissus ensues. “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” describes a community wrecked by a spate of suicides, some seemingly done as perverse pleas for attention, and the narrative slowly edges toward a harrowing, Shirley Jackson-esque conclusion. That story, like many of the others here, is written in the first person plural, and Millhauser revels in upending that bureaucratic voice and making it strange; he satirizes the language of rest-home brochureware in “Arcadia,” which opens gently but becomes more sinister, darkening the bland rhetoric. Millhauser does much the same with setting, complicating our notions of suburban comfort in stories like “The Wife and the Thief.” As ever, he’s an incessant tinkerer with ages-old myths, fairy tales and religious stories: Among the best entries here are “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama,” a tale of the young Buddha that pits foursquare language with its hero’s roiling spiritual despair, and irreverent tweaks of tales about Paul Bunyan, Rapunzel, mermaids and the prophet Samuel. Millhauser intuits modes of storytelling like nobody else, and even his satire of sports-announcer-speak in “Home Run” elevates the quotidian to the cosmic. A superb testament to America’s quirkiest short story writer, still on his game.”

“American literature never had a magical realist tradition to call its own, but it’s always had writers eager to blur reality and the metaphysical . . . For decades Millhauser has [been] our national laureate of the weirdness of our normal lives. The stories in his masterful new collection riff on advertising copy, board reports, mythology and sports announcing. But within that breadth of styles he consistently prompts the reader to sense some shadowy but important news that’s about to be delivered . . . He isn’t concerned with death so much as with the elements of human nature that are hard to articulate or that speak to our fears. . . . Voices in the Nightis defined by its playfulness; Millhauser tweaks genres and expectations like a carnival strongman bending steel bars,” says Mark Athitakis in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The New York Times Book Review says: “ …the stories in Millhauser’s spellbinding collection…are anchored by dark human yearnings—for perfection, or excitement, or some ungraspable form of fulfillment. These yearnings have a combustible quality, threatening to consume the towns and minds where a pervasive sense of unease provides the tinder…beware the uncanny magic of Millhauser: Just when you think you recognize a myth, a character, a voice—the familiar tacks toward the strange and unexpected…In Voices in the Night, Millhauser gives us worlds upon worlds—wistful and warped, comic and chilling—that  by story’s end, feel as intimate as our own reflections. “

Publishers Weekly says: “In this vividly imaginative new collection of 16 stories, Pulitzer Prize–winner Millhauser  draws a gauzy curtain of hyper-reality over mundane events and creates an atmosphere of uneasiness that accelerates to dread. Millhauser establishes tense yet wondrous tones while never resorting to melodrama; his cool, restrained voice is profoundly effective. In a couple of stories (“Sons and Mothers,” “Coming Soon”) the protagonist wakens in a different time zone after a nap and understands that his life has changed forever. In others, the narrator is a spokesperson for his community, places where residents get caught up in mass hysteria (“Elsewhere”), psychosis (“Mermaid Fever”), or a craving for deep emotion (“The Place”). Variations on fairy tales include a clever, humorous “Rapunzel,” which is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. . . . The gem of the collection is the semi-autobiographical “A Voice in the Night,” in which a young boy in the author’s own home town in Connecticut is transfixed by the biblical story of Samuel, who heard God’s voice and knew he must obey. The boy grows up to be a writer, with memories similar to those in Millhauser’s earlier book The Barnum Museum. This is a volume best read in small doses, since the voices throughout remain similar and the situations often echo one another. The cumulative effect is to transport the reader to an alternate world in which the uncanny lurks pervasively beneath the surface.”

“Brilliant . . . powerful. Each work is a delight and revelation. Beautifully made fantastic tales such as Millhauser writes don’t begin from nothing. As in the tradition of Nikolai Gogol, Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (to name a few revered creators of fiction that carries us beyond the normal), most of them grow out of everyday incidents and lead us right up to the line between the ordinary and the magical. And sometimes they help us to cross over . . . But this collection it isn’t just a regional fantasia, all stories about the other side of normal small-town life . . . Let’s call [them] borderline pieces—easily described as magical realism, or perhaps, turned on their heads, tales of realistic magic. However we might describe it, Voices in the Night is a smorgasbord of deftly created short fiction by a great imaginative talent. Millhauser stands tall in the company of a growing number of contemporary American masters of magic, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. To use his own plain, down-home metaphor, Millhauser has polished his mirrors in the halls and bedrooms and bathrooms and elsewhere, and it will do us all good to take a look at the reflections the glass throws back at us,” says Alan Cheuse for National Public Radio.

When is it available?

Millhauser’s magical book is 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!


How to be both

By Ali Smith

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Ali Smith, a Scottish author who now lives in England and is one of the most admired (and honored) writers in the United Kingdom (and for that matter, in the entire literary world), has published eight previous works of fiction and has won many major awards.  Her books include the novel Hotel World, short-listed for the Orange Prize and Booker Prize and winner of the Encore Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award, and The Accidental, winner of the Whitbread Award and short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Her story collections include Free Love, which won a Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award, and The Whole Story and Other Stories.

What is this book about?

It’s about art, love, injustice, the Renaissance, the 20th century, the twisting of time and the bending of genres and genders.  Smith’s latest has been called “a literary double-take,” and was shortlisted for three big awards: the 2015 Women’s Prize for Fiction, the 2014 Man Booker Prize and the 2015 Folio Prize, and it won the 2014 Costa Novel Award and the Goldsmiths Prize. It’s a complicated book to explain but a delight to read. Here is how Publisher’s Weekly describes the novel structure of this challenging novel in its starred review:

“This [is an] inventive double novel that deals with gender issues, moral questions, the mystery of death, the value of art, the mutability of time, and several other important topics. Two books coexist under the same title, each presenting largely the same material arranged differently and with different emphases; which narrative one reads first depends on chance, as different copies of the book have been printed with different opening chapters. In one version, the androgynous adolescent character George (for Georgia) is mourning the sudden death of her mother following a family trip to Italy, where they viewed a painting by the obscure Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa. The alternate volume begins with Francesco, recounting stories of the painter’s youth and the ongoing creation of a fresco in a palazzo in Ferrara, a process described in vibrant detail. Francesco’s secret is disclosed in both sections—teasingly in one, overtly in the other. The narratives are captivating, challenging, and often puzzling, as the prose varies among contemporary vernacular English, archaic 15th-century rhetoric interposed with fragments of poetry, and unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness narration. Clever puns and word games abound. George’s mother accurately identifies the subtext when she says, “Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.” Smith’s two-in-one novel is a provocative reevaluation of the form.”

Why you’ll like it:

Smith lets her imagination soar in the structure and content of this book, and readers get to go along on this literary flight. She is a wonder at creating dialogue, which rings true no matter which century its speakers happen to be inhabiting.  Nothing is ordinary about this book, from its characters to its settings to its plots and especially, to its clever writing and provocative explorations of love, death, art and identity.

What others are saying:

“Playfully brilliant. . . . Fantastically complex and incredibly touching. . . . This gender-blending, genre-blurring story, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, bounces across centuries, tossing off profound reflections on art and grief, without getting tangled in its own postmodern wires. It’s the sort of death-defying storytelling acrobatics that don’t seem entirely possible. . . . [A] swirling, panoramic vision of two women’s lives, separated by more than 500 years, impossibly connected by their fascination with the mystery of existence,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

Says Heller McAlpin for NPR: “Can a book be both linguistically playful and dead serious? Structurally innovative and reader-friendly? Mournful and joyful? Brainy and moving? Ali Smith’s How to be both, which recently won the prestigious, all-Brit two-year-old Goldsmiths prize for being a truly novel novel, is all of the above—and then some. . . . Smith, whose books include The Accidental, There But For The, and the essay collection Artful, has outdone herself with How to be both. . . . To say that there’s more than meets the eye in this terrific book is a gross understatement; it encompasses wonderful mothers, unconventional love and friendship, time, mortality, gender, the consolations of art and so much else. . . . Once again, Smith’s affinity for beguiling oddballs and the pertly precocious rivals J.D Salinger’s. . . . [A] gloriously inventive novel. . . . Ingeniously conceived.”

“Ali Smith is a genius. . . . Smith, who was born and raised in Inverness, continues a Scottish literary tradition, whose practitioners include James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, Alan Warner, and James Robertson, of tearing a rent in the scrim between the physical and the metaphysical worlds to allow a stranger, or an other to slip through. Her willingness to embrace the supernatural, when taken in conjunction with her acrobatic language, wit, philosophical bent, and her overarching obsession with form, also places her within that select British modernist sisterhood alongside such doyennes as Virginia Woolf, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Iris Murdoch. . . . [How to be both] cements Smith’s reputation as one of the finest and most innovative of our contemporary writers. By some divine alchemy, she is both funny and moving; she combines intellectual rigor with whimsy. . . . If we think of time as Smith would have us do, we do not become older but deeper; no one is ever gone, and nothing is ever lost, that cannot be found again, if sought, ” says Susan McCallum in The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “ What if an Italian Renaissance painter were to drop down to Earth and observe the mysterious modern world—specifically, the world of one bright, young Cambridge girl in the wake of a recent family tragedy? This is the premise of Smith’s bold new novel—actually two novels (Eyes and Camera) in one. Camera is set in the present, when George (Georgia) is grieving the loss of her mother, a feminist art and culture critic, who liked to challenge George about the meaning of art and life, and who became so intrigued by the work of Italian artist Francesco del Cossa that she spirited her children off to Italy to view his frescoes (only recently uncovered beneath later paintings) in their natural setting. Francesco’s story (Eyes) covers his friendship with the boy who grew up to become his benefactor and patron, as well as his early art training and his work on the grand palazzo walls. VERDICT Two versions of the book will be available: one beginning with the artist’s story, the other with George’s—and readers won’t know which they will be reading first until they open their particular book. The order in which the stories are read will surely color the reader’s experience of the whole. Which version is the preferred? And “how to be both”—seen and unseen, past and present, male and female, alive and dead, known and unknown? In a work short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, Smith presents two extraordinary books for the price of one.”

Kirkus says in its starred review: “This adventurous, entertaining writer offers two distinctive takes on youth, art and death—and even two different editions of the book. George, short for Georgia, is 16, whip-smart and seeking ways to honor her dead mother. She vows to dance the twist every day, as her mother did, and to wear something black for a year. She also inhabits a memory, a visit to Italy they made together to view a 15th-century mural her mother admired, and studies a painting by the same artist in London’s National Gallery. There, she sees a woman her mother knew and tries to study her as well. In the book’s other half, the ghost of the 15th-century artist pushes up through the earth to the present and finds himself in the museum behind George as she studies his painting and just before she spots the mystery woman. The painter’s own memories travel through his youth and apprenticeship in a voice utterly different from and as delightful as George’s. He—though gender is bending here too—also loses his mother when young and learns, like George, of the pain and joy of early friendship. He provides an intimate history for the mural in Italy and offers a very foreign take on George and modern times. The book is being published simultaneously in two editions—one begins with George’s half, and the other begins with the painter’s, which might be slightly more challenging for its diction and historical trappings. Both are remarkable depictions of the treasures of memory and the rich perceptions and creativity of youth, of how we see what’s around us and within us. Comical, insightful and clever, builds a thoughtful fun house with her many dualities and then risks being obvious in her structural mischief, but it adds perhaps the perfect frame to this marvelous diptych.”

When is it available?

This book – perhaps the version that begins with George, or the version that begins with Francesco – 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!


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.

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