What Is Visible

By Kimberly Elkins

(Grand Central, $25, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Kimberly Elkins makes her debut as a novelist with “What Is Visible,” but she also is known for her short stories and nonfiction. She was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and has written for the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, Iowa Review, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Village Voice, among others. A Tennessee native, she now lives in Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

The book is fiction, but the subject is real: years before Helen Keller was born, Laura Bridgman was the first deaf and blind person who learned language and became famous during the mid-19th century. Laura had scarlet fever as a two-year-old child and recovered, but lost her eyesight, hearing and senses of smell and taste. With a quick mind and strong personality virtually imprisoned in her disabled body, she nevertheless learned to communicate through touch alone under the supervision of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston and husband of Julia Ward Howe, the suffragette and writer who composed the words to The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Dr. Howe was a brilliant teacher but a cruel man, who stifled his wife’s ambitions and Laura’s desire for full womanhood. Charles Dickens wrote about her, and Laura eventually met Helen, whose popularity she resented. Though the book has fictional aspects, such as s lesbian lover for Laura, it mainly follows the astounding true story of her life, proving once again that truth can be stranger – and more compelling – than any fiction.

Why you’ll like it:

Kudos to Elkins for bringing Laura Bridgman, once famous and admired, out of the shadows of history with this powerful, if embellished, tale. She combines historical reality with novelistic skill, broadening the story from Laura’s understandably constricted perspective and thereby making it more palatable to the reader. In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Elkins discussed what drew her to Laura’s life story:

“When I saw her picture in the article, even though her eyes were covered with a shade, I could feel her isolation, her pride, her precocity. It was there in the straightness of her spine, the way her hands caressed the raised-letter book, the slightly odd and rigid way she held her head. She was posing for a photographer she couldn’t see, for an image she’d never see, and with a face and body she’d never know except through touch. As someone who has suffered from bouts of severe depression all my life, I immediately identified with that sense of profound separateness—that inability to communicate the helplessness and depths of one’s truest emotions to others.”

On why Laura was forgotten:

“Helen Keller set out, in her own words, to become “the best damn poster child the world had ever seen,” while Laura had no desire to mold herself into a perky novelty for the world to cheer on; she was too stubbornly, even mischievously, her own person, becoming increasingly outspoken, especially on matters of religion, contradicting the views of the New England elite who had supported her. Ideas about female beauty and “normality” also figured into Laura’s decline—she became anorexic due to her lack of taste and smell, which made her far less exhibition worthy. As a result, Perkins Institute conducted a decades-long search to find the “second Laura Bridgman,” and Helen Keller was finally chosen from a field of candidates based solely on a photograph. But more than anything, it was the loss of her beloved teacher at age 20 that kept Laura from reaching her full potential and maintaining her celebrity. For most of her life, Helen had Annie Sullivan to interpret the world for her, and she learned to speak, graduated college, and went on to become a vibrant public figure. Helen herself said that if Laura had her own Annie Sullivan, she would have far “outshone” Helen.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “In this fictional treatment of the life of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to learn language, Elkins aims to show “how little one can possess of what we think it means to be human while still possessing full humanity.” After a raging bout of scarlet fever at the age of two, Laura loses her eyes, her hearing, and her ability to taste and smell. Taken from her family home by Dr. Samuel Howe and taught to communicate via hand spelling, Laura soon becomes a celebrated figure attracting hundreds to exhibitions at Howe’s Perkins Institution, including Charles Dickens and Dorothea Dix. But Howe has his own agenda, using Laura to push both the causes of phrenology and anti-Calvinism. When Laura embraces the Baptist faith, she loses Howe’s favor but never loses her fire. Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife, and Laura’s beloved teacher, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: Laura Bridgman lost all her senses but that of touch due to a fever at age two. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history. Fortunately, Elkins revives this historical figure with a wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched debut novel. Arriving at the Perkins Institution as a child, Laura learns to read, write, and “speak” through signing via the manual alphabet, with letters tapped out on her hand. Though she receives hundreds of visitors at “Exhibition Days,” Laura has few friends or family members who care about her. She is intensely attached to Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe from the institution, and suffers virtual abandonment when he marries to begin a family of his own. Howe, acting in accordance with the religious and scientific mores of his time, thwarts the dreams and desires of the women around him, including his wife, Julia Ward; Laura’s teacher, Sarah Wight; and Laura herself. But despite the many physiological and social restrictions placed on her, Laura comes across as a willful, mysterious marvel.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “. . . At 7, she was sent to Boston to live with Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute, who taught her tactile sign language, tapped out in the palm of the hand, which eventually enabled her to read, write and do arithmetic as well as hold conversations. As word of Howe’s achievement spread, Laura herself grew famous. A miracle girl whose renown was rivaled only by Queen Victoria, she was celebrated in the press and even written about by Dickens. Yet she remained an experiment for Howe. After he acquired a family and her development plateaued, she was increasingly left trapped in her own inner world. Flitting back and forth over the course of a half-century, the novel is told from alternating viewpoints, including Laura’s own. She is at once savvy and naïve, and as she strives to understand the world through touch alone, she falls in love with Howe, campaigns to be allowed glass eyes and access to the Bible, and has an intensely physical affair with an orphaned Irish girl. A little too much is made of the latter event, along with bouts of anorexia and self-harming, though the historical background is elegantly sketched. In her late 50s, Laura meets 8-year-old Helen Keller, already known as “the second Laura Bridgman.” (“The second, and I’m still here!” she huffs.) Other perspectives contextualize her celebrity and include those of Howe; his headstrong wife, Julia, a writer, abolitionist and suffragist; and Laura’s favorite teacher, who marries a missionary and meets a tragic end. An affecting portrait which finally provides its idiosyncratic heroine with a worthy voice.”

“Kimberly Elkins’s wonderful novel salvages [Laura Bridgman's] story from the sunken wreckage of history and tells it anew in riveting, poignant detail… “What is Visible” illuminates the historical blindness of men – and women’s struggles to be seen and heard. The novel is infused with longing and rich with detail about the social reforms of the Victorian era, the quest for rights and freedom for women and slaves, for the disabled and the poor…. Elkins gives full throat to this strong voice: Laura is funny, angry, brave. She sees without seeing, hears without hearing, speaks without speech. Her world is rich indeed, one of yearning, secrets, defiance and lyrical flights of fancy. In what the author has described as the only “major swerve from Laura’s documented life,” Elkins invents for her a sensual love affair, based on Laura’s oft-punished habit of creeping into the beds of the female students at Perkins, craving touch and connection. . . .This important story has been hiding in plain sight for more than 100 years, and Elkins makes this great American woman visible again, in all her remarkable, fully human complexity,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this enlightening 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!

 

Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers

By Mike Sacks

(Penguin Books,  $18, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Mike Sacks is a journalist and author with excellent credentials as an interpreter of pop culture, especially if it involves humor. He has written three other books, including  “And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft,” for which he interviewed such comedy writers and performers as  Harold Ramis, Buck Henry, Bob Odenkirk, Stephen Merchant, David Sedaris, Jack Handey, Robert Smigel and Daniel Clowes. Sacks, who was born in Virginia, grew up in Maryland and went to Tulane University in New Orleans, is on staff at Vanity Fair, and his other credits include writing for The New Yorker, the New York Times, Esquire, GQ,  McSweeney’s, Vice, Salon and, unsurprisingly, MAD.

What is this book about?                 

Anyone can make a joke. But not everyone, not by a longshot, can write the kind of gut-busting, mind-tweaking, zeitgeist-revealing comedy that Sacks explores in the interviews that make up this book. He talked with a diverse group of comedy writers for print, websites, stand-up, TV and movies and with  directors and performers as well, including Amy Poehler, Mel Brooks, Adam McKay, George Saunders, Bill Hader, Patton Oswalt, West Hartford’s Michael Schur (of The Office and Parks and Recreation fame)  and many more. Here you will learn what it is like to work in a writers’ room, why a sketch may not make it on Saturday Night Live and many secrets of the humor-writing trade.

Why you’ll like it:

This book performs a rare service: it explains – you could even say dissects — the art of comedy, but does this without killing the humor being examined, despite the title. Sacks gets what comedy is all about and how hard it is to create it, which is basic for any writer of this kind of book, but he also is able to convey it to the reader, a much more difficult task.  The book’s stories are funny, but the subject is serious and the interviewing and writing is skillful. This is an insightful and delightful book, as well as a helpful guide to anyone considering matching wits for a living.

What others are saying:                    

“A series of rich, intimate conversations about the ins and outs of turning funny ideas into real-world art….[Sacks] dives deep with everyone from Saturday Night Live lifer James Downey to Cheers creator Glen Charles to Mel Brooks, and every interview is refreshingly candid. Sacks asks the right questions…to inspire lively conversations….As a sort of expert witness to comedy’s history, he’s reverent, though his subjects are also clearly chosen because they understand the absurdity of their own vocation. He pokes and prods just enough to reveal some guts, and most of the time they’re just as fascinating as what’s on the surface,” says The Onion’s A.V. Club.

From Barnes & Noble: “When Mel Brooks, Amy Poehler, Diablo Cody, Michael Schur (The Office; Parks and Recreation), Glen Charles (Cheers; Taxi) and other comedy writers share stories, unbridled hilarity and instruction ensues. Mike Sacks, the author of And Here Is the Kicker, here returns with another VIP pass into the mysterious world of comedy-making. These behind-the-scenes stories take sitcom buffs into the inner workings of sketch writing teams at Saturday Night Live, The Onion, Seinfeld, The Colbert Report and other hit shows, films, and even Twitter. (P.S. This paperback and NOOK Book original also contain sections of “Pure, Hard-Core advice” and “Ultra Specific Comedic Knowledge” culled from hundreds of pages of interviews with comedy writers.)

Says Publishers Weekly:  “In this excellent book, Sacks follows up on his Conversations with 21 Humor Writers and once again displays his ability to get fascinating and honest interviews from comic luminaries such as long-time Saturday Night Live writer James Downey (“Most of the people who have been in the cast of SNL did their best work on SNL”); “Anchorman” director Adam McKay (“The biggest mistake is that people go into comedy solely for the money. It’s just a dead end—always”); and the legendary Mel Brooks (“Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve started with characters. I learn what they want, what they need”). But interspersed with 15 full-length interviews are insights from 30 more comedy writers in two shorter categories: “Pure, Hard-Core Advice” (Patton Oswalt: “When you’re writing something, and it makes you laugh, don’t judge that”) and “Ultraspecific Comedic Knowledge” (Conan writer Todd Levin on “Writing a Submission Packet for Late Night TV”). While Sacks writes that he is no “humor expert,” his book more than proves his contention that “we are now living in a comedic Golden Age.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Vanity Fair writer Sacks’s follow-up to his 2009 book And Here’s the Kicker is a compendium of 40-plus interviews, short pieces, and advice from comedy writers. The title comes from an E.B. White New Yorker quote: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Aside from fascinating interviews with some comedic heavy hitters such as Glen Charles, Dan Guterman, and Mel Brooks, there are also sections of advice for aspiring writers—although much of it can be summed up thusly: if you can do something else, then do it. But if you can’t do anything but comedy, then just don’t give up. Ever. The collection is full of great moments that are funny, thought provoking, and poignant. VERDICT If a casual humor enthusiast can appreciate the work this much, the book is going to be snapped up by comedy writers and aficionados. Title, contents, author photos: it’s all great.”

“The true usefulness of Poking a Dead Frog to an aspiring comedy writer is in its clear-eyed picture of the gritty inner workings of the comedy industry….Reading about how a joke goes from the mind of a writer to an episode of Community is like watching a magician reveal his secrets: Sure, it dispels some of the magic, but it inspires new reverence for the real skill that went into producing the effect, says Slate.”

When is it available?

Don’t laugh this one off. It’s 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!

 


Rogues

Edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

Stories by Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, David W. Ball, Paul Cornell, Bradley Denton, Phyllis Eisenstein, Gillian Flynn, Neil Gaiman, Matthew Hughes, Joe R. Lansdale, Scott Lynch,  George R.R. Martin, Garth Nix, Cherie Priest,  Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Saylor,  Michael Swanwick,  Lisa Tuttle, Carrie Vaughn, Walter Jon Williams  and Connie Willis

(Random House, $30, 832 pages)

Who is this author?

Some of these authors may be unfamiliar to you, but surely you have heard of Gillian Flynn, whose mega-best-selling thriller, “Gone Girl,” the movie version of which has just been released to frenzied expectations. Or Neil Gaiman, whose fantasy novels for adult and young adult readers are international best-sellers. Or certainly George R.R. Martin, whose brilliantly conceived and well-written “Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy novels became the wildly popular “Game of Thrones” series on HBO. Dozois has won 15 Hugo and 32 Locus editing awards and two Nebula Awards for his writing and  has written or edited more than100 books, among them many volumes of The Year’s Best Science Fiction.

What is this book about?                                                                           

Bad boys – and girls. Twists and turns. A new tale featuring a heretofore unknown character for the many fans of GOT, and an introduction by his creator Martin to boot.  This anthology offers 21 stories by mystery, thriller, science fiction and fantasy authors who understand the universal appeal of rule-breakers and plot reversals, and the writing is often as roguish as the characters. Their deeds and misdeeds span the globe – make that the universe, known or imagined, and many epochs. Here is mischief of many kinds, presented by masters of their crafts.

Why you’ll like it:                                                                                           

What these stories have in common, besides the roguish behavior of their central characters, is the skill of the writers who created them. As the success of countless books, movies and TV shows have proved, readers love  clever, brave scamps who can think way outside the box and let us come along for the escapades. You may not always approve of their deeds (and misdeeds), but you will enjoy reading about them.

What others are saying:                                                                             

Kirkus Reviews says: “Avast, ye varlets, intergalactic and otherwise: There are new bad boys and girls afoot on Mars and in Middle Earth, and you’ll like them, even if you’ll count your silverware after they leave.. . .They have in common an irresistible penchant for gaming the system, no matter what mess they leave for others to pick up. They also nurse a narcissistic dose of self-worth relative to other people, as well as a conviction that whatever they’re doing is right; thus, as Joe Abercrombie writes of one femme criminale, “To be caught by these idiots would be among the most embarrassing moments of her career.” Exactly: for a rogue, the worst crime is to be busted. Martin, of Game of Thrones franchise fame, and Hugo Award-winning editor Dozois assemble a lively collection of original stories across several fictional genres . . . The biggest draw in this sprawling collection is a new Song of Ice and Fire yarn by Martin, giving back story to a mid-Targaryen dynasty scamp. . . Of particular interest, too, are a grandly whimsical piece by Neil Gaiman that begs to be turned into a Wes Anderson film; a shaggy dog tale by Paul Cornell of a Flashman-ish character gone to seed; and, especially, an utterly arresting, utterly surprising tale by Gillian Flynn that begins, “I didn’t stop giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it.” Rambunctious, rowdy and occasionally R-rated: a worthy entertainment, without a dud in the bunch, that easily moves from swords and sorcery to hard-boiled Chandler-esque. “

Says Library Journal in its starred review: “Everyone loves a scoundrel. As themes go, this outstanding collection has chosen one with a generous flexibility and a surefire appeal. Beyond the general setup of characters who are a little dangerous, a little nefarious, and very unpredictable, the stories unfold in a delightful number of directions. Contributions from well-known mystery and thriller writers, as well as offerings from those who are better known for sf and fantasy, are included . . . VERDICT The wide array of styles and genres mean that this is easiest to dip in and out of rather than read cover to cover, but there is not a single bad story in the bunch. . . .”

“Overall, if I were to sum up the book in a single word, it would be Fun. These tales are generally fun reads, entertaining, full of action and adventure. In this, the genre mix works to the anthology’s advantage, offering a constant change of pace and variety, even while most are on the lighter side, with engaging narrative voices. It’s not a book full of true darkness, evil, gloom and depression. Rogues are fun, as long as we’re reading about them and not living with them,” says www.locusmag.com .

When is it available?                                                                                    

You can borrow “Rogues” 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!

Lovely Dark Deep

By Joyce Carol Oates

(Ecco, $25.99, 432 pages)

Who is this author?                          

It seems I am always telling you about Joyce Carol Oates’ newest book: she’s published three novels, all to critical acclaim, in the past 10 months alone, and those are just the latest in her more than 100 books in just about every genre: fiction, nonfiction, memoir, criticism, poetry, children’s books – can a JCO cookbook be far behind? I wouldn’t put it past her. This prodigious output has won Oates 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.

If you are a fan of her work, you can hear her live onstage at a WSHU Public Radio/NPR’s “Join the Conversation” author event at The Study at Yale, 1157 Chapel St., New Haven, on Thursday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10: www.wshu.org.

What is this book about?

Oates’ new collection of 13 short stories explores the dark side of human relationships: man and woman, boy and grandmother, husband and wife, father and daughter, author and interviewer. Most of the characters are fictional, but Robert Frost, of all people, plays a starring role in the title story, whose “lovely, dark and deep” quotes “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening.” Oates gives us a couple with a strange erotic connection; a teenager made vulnerable by his adoration of his grandmother; a woman who watches her husband obsessively; a doomed pregnancy and the Frost tale, among others.

Why you’ll like it:

I like to joke about Oates’ ability to turn out book after book after book, seemingly without breaking a sweat, but make no mistake: she is a fine writer whose ouput is matched by her talent. Oates has published more than two dozen story collections, and she is particularly skilled at using this form for probing the complexity of human interactions. And she is never afraid, in her lovely writing, to go dark and deep. Some find her stories disturbing, but others prize them for their insights and relevance. If you are not yet familiar with her work, this collection could be your entry point, but beware: if you like this one, you’ll need a lifetime to read the rest of her amazing body of work.

What others are saying:                

“Marvelous. Oates is a giant among us, as prolific as the worst of the writers who produce dreck and turn it into cash, but thoroughly wonderful and important,” says NPR Books.

Publishers Weekly says:  “Oates’s newest collection characteristically mines the depths of the female psyche to find darkness there. In particular, she deals with women who hide medical procedures—including, presciently, abortion—from their loved ones (“Sex With Camel,” “Distance,” “‘Stephanos Is Dead’”) and with women who struggle to assert themselves in relationships with their artistic, self-absorbed fathers (“Things Passed on the Way to Oblivion,” “Patricide”) and with lovers (“Mastiff,” “A Book of Martyrs,” “The Hunter,” “The Disappearing”). Throughout, the lines that define these secrets and hidden desires captivatingly blur and dissolve. “The Jesters,” about aging suburbanites who eavesdrop on their neighbors’ seemingly picture-perfect life as it shatters, conjures both elements, and then ups the ante with a paranormal twist. A pair of longer stories—the title story, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” which is a fictional reimagining of a young poet’s interview with Robert Frost in his twilight years, and “Patricide,” a longer exploration of a stifling father-daughter bond—expand on these themes. As the interloping fiancée of “Patricide” says of her deceased lover, the Phillip Roth–esque Roland Marks, “He knew women really well—you could say, the masochistic inner selves of women.” We might well say the same of Oates, with the same complimentary awe. “

Says Library Journal: “More fiction from the daunting Oates, this time . . . stories unfolding the darkness that haunts us all. In the title story, a young woman interviewing an aging Robert Frost seems to peer straight into his soul. Elsewhere, a boy learns to love his grandmother, a woman refuses to allow her husband from her sight, and a lost pregnancy spells the end of a relationship. . . . Oates fans and short story lovers will eat it up.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “What lurks in the woods is creepy and scary, but Oates ventures in deep and reports back in this collection of stories dealing with themes of mortality. The prolific Oates returns to short stories with this collection of 13 tales examining the reactions of humans confronting the final baby boomer frontier—death. Oates’ characters—including an assortment of deteriorating “great men,” isolated, lonely, middle-aged women, and couples on the downslide—encounter harbingers of their eventual fates with every canker sore, abortion, scab and biopsy. Elusive neighbors, living beyond an area of unexplored boundary woods, haunt the lives of aging suburbanites in “The Jesters” while a puzzled wife, in “The Disappearing,” mulls over the significance of her husband’s divestiture of his personal possessions. The enervating effects of a brush with death are examined from the points of view of a survivor, in “Mastiff,” and, in a twist on 1950s teenage-car-crash ballads, a victim, in “Forked River Roadside Shrine, South Jersey.” The collection’s titular story delivers a skewering of Robert Frost in its unsympathetic riff on the facts of the poet’s life as well as a testimonial to the role of the poet’s craft as a hedge against mortality. The aging literary lion in “Patricide,” Roland Marks, allows Oates another opportunity to poke at the myth of the “great man” of literature while providing clues as to which man of American letters may have annoyed Oates the most. As unsympathetic as many of Oates’ mordant and quasi-anonymous characters may appear at first, en masse their fears and anxieties in the face of death and decline epitomize universal recognition of hard facts: We’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.”

Says Booklist: “Oates, one of few writers who achieves excellence in both the novel and the short story, has more than two dozen story collections to her name and she continues to inject new, ambushing power into the form… Oates’ stories seethe and blaze.”

When is it available?

This lovely, dark and deep collection is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death

By Colson Whitehead

(Doubleday, $24.95, 234 pages)

Who is this author?                                        

Colson Whitehead has published best-selling novels, an essay collection and memoir: he excels at each genre. He’s written about subjects as diverse as zombies and the arcane profession of creating brand names that perfectly capture the essence of a product; about being a kid in Sag Harbor and loving New York City. His efforts have been rewarded: Whitehead has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and has won a prestigious Whiting Writers’ Award and a hotly coveted MacArthur Fellowship.

What is this book about?                                                           

Feature writers for newspapers and magazines never know where their next assignment may take them. For Colson Whitehead, it was to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker, for an article to be published by Grantland, an online magazine. Grantland paid his way in, a $10,000 fee. If he won anything, he could keep it. And he had just six weeks to hone his thoroughly amateur poker-playing skills — and to balance the demands of the assignment with his new role as a single divorced dad of a young daughter. He did the Grantland assignment, ate a lot of terrible food (hence the beef jerky title reference) and doubled-down on the experience, turning the article into a very funny yet often disturbing memoir. No, he did not walk away from the tables a millionaire, but he did learn some valuable things about poker, competition and himself.

Why you’ll like it:

Whitehead is a master of dry, cool humor and never hesitates to make fun of himself. His descriptions are memorable and often can be painfully insightful. In this memoir, he takes two seemingly incompatible subjects: the weird world of professional poker and his own personal striving to be a good dad despite the failure of his marriage, and compare and contrasts one against the other to good effect. Grantland dealt him a challenging hand. This book shows how well he played it.

What others are saying:

From a Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Whitehead: “The Noble Hustle centers on Whitehead’s time competing at the World Series of Poker, an experience funded by the website Grantland, for which he wrote a series of dispatches. The book is about being thrown from a regular friendly home game into the most major of the poker tournaments with only six weeks to prepare. It’s about his badass poker coach, Helen Ellis, a novelist who in contrast to us Annie Oakley types identifies herself as a housewife when she competes. (“The dudes flirted and condescended, and then this prim creature in a black sweater and pearls walloped them. . . . A lot of people don’t think women will bluff,’ Helen said. She was bluffing the minute she walked into the room.”) It’s about cramming: reading strategy, playing at low- stakes tables in Atlantic City, and consulting a physical trainer steeped in the Alexander Technique. It’s about major poker tournaments and the ways computer gamers are changing them. But The Noble Hustle was written after Whitehead’s divorce, and it’s also about loneliness and longing, our attachment to our children and the ways we try to distance and distract ourselves from emotional pain. (At one tournament table, “I hadn’t been glared at with such hate by two people since couples therapy.”)

Booklist’s starred review says: “This is not one of those poker books about a gang of math whizzes from Harvard who go to Vegas and win a gazillion dollars… A self-described citizen of the Republic of Anhedonia, whose residents are unable to experience pleasure, Whitehead, author of Zone One and other novels, agrees to enter the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and see how far his half-dead poker face and a $10,000 stake can take him… Whitehead’s account may seem at first like just another ‘sad story about a pair of Jacks,’ but it’s really something very different, much sadder and much, much funnier. He calls his book ‘Eat, Pray, Love for depressed shut-ins,’ and that pretty much says it, if you remember that the eating part is mostly about beef jerky and the praying is for a pair of aces.”

Says Library Journal:  “ . . . he had never before played in a casino tournament. Having only six weeks to prepare, the author began to hone his skills in the casinos of Atlantic City while trying to maintain some semblance of a home life. Hilarity ensued. Whitehead quickly developed a rhythm of dropping off and picking up his kid from school; riding the Greyhound bus to New Jersey with the “day-trippers, day-workers, and hollow-eyed freaks”; gambling; and then returning home to sleep. The author’s satirical descriptions and observations of his days spent preparing, filled with playing cards, eating at artery-clogging all-you-can-eat buffets, and his interactions with the people who haunt the casinos there are only prolog for the grand finale of the Leisure-Industrial Complex (LIC) of Vegas. VERDICT Entertaining and absorbing, Whitehead’s look at the subculture of gambling and casino tournaments will appeal even to nongambling readers. Also recommended for those who enjoy memoir.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The eternal tension between good luck and remorseless odds animates this loose-limbed jaunt through the world of high-stakes poker…, a mission for which he frankly declares himself unqualified, owing to his rather desultory pick-up games, haphazard training regimen featuring yoga lessons, deep and semi-baffled immersion in the arcana of poker-playing manuals, and bus trips to Atlantic City for seedy practice tournaments. His journey unfolds in a series of jazzy, jokey riffs on the cultural detritus of poker: the take-over of the game by young “Robotrons” honed by online gaming; Vegas’s “Leisure-Industrial Complex,” a terrain of soulful soullessness where “your true self is laid bare with all its hungers and flaws and grubby aspirations.” Along the way, poker emerges as the national sport of “the Republic of Anhedonia,” his habitually depressive, fatalistic State of mind that recognizes that “eventually, you will lose it all”—and that playing it safe is therefore the ultimate sucker’s strategy. Whitehead serves up an engrossing mix of casual yet astute reportage and hang-dog philosophizing, showing us that, for all of poker’s intricate calculations and shrewd stratagems, everything still hangs on the turn of a card.”

“Whitehead proves a brilliant sociologist of the poker world. He evokes the physical atmosphere vividly, ‘the sleek whisper of laminated paper jetting across the table,’ as the dealer shuffles. But he also conjures the human terrain, laying bare his own psychology and imagining his way into the minds of others. His book affirms what David Foster Wallace’s best nonfiction pieces made so clear: It’s a great idea… to turn a gifted novelist loose on an odd American subculture and see what riches are unearthed,” says The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

I’m betting you can find this 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!

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

by Lydia Netzer

(St. Martin’s Press, $25, 352 pages)

Who is this author?                

Midwest born and bred, Lydia Netzer is an emerging author who has already won plaudits for her debut novel, “Shine Shine Shine,” which was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Married to a mathematician and living in Virginia, when she is not working on a book, Netzer teaches, home-schools her kids and plays guitar in a rock band. Her new novel, “How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky,” is garnering enthusiastic reviews.

What is this book about?

Two scientists, both brilliant, ambitious, tired of being alone and searching for answers to profound questions about God and the universe, find themselves on an emotional and spiritual collision course at the prestigious Toledo Institute of Astronomy. But the scientific truths and theories they are exploring can’t compete with their discovery that their mothers, longtime friends, raised Irene and George separately (and puposefully) to eventually fall in love with each other. George hopes a proof of God’s existence can be found in the heavens; Irene is all about hard science and its delights and disciplines. Brought together in Toledo when Irene’s difficult mother falls down a flight of stairs and dies, Netzer’s characters (and her readers) will learn if their relationship will end not with a whimper but a big bang.

Why you’ll like it:                                 

Are our faults or favors in our stars, can destiny be engineered by well-meaning tinkering, is love a matter of the heart or of the mind? Here is a quirky romance that is buttressed with fascinating if abstruse astronomical lore, made palatable by Netzer’s skills at writing about science for readers who may never have studied such complex material nor even considered it. This is a touching love story and a short course in astronomy, rolled into one twinkling story.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review  says: “antically inventive, often outrageously funny…Netzer excels at comedy, and some of the most savory humor arrives with side characters…Netzer’s fans are likely to be quite entertained by this second charmingly weird novel of hers that grapples with big questions. Is love written in the stars? Where does inspiration come from? Who decides our fates? Netzer’s wise answer: “The most important things are mysteries.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Netzer’s second novel (after Shine Shine Shine) ties together cosmology, astronomy, and astrology into a dense but absorbing meditation on destiny. After making a career-defining discovery, astrophysicist Irene Sparks is leaving Pittsburgh, Pa., to take a job at the Toledo Institute of Astronomy in her old Ohio hometown. Returning to Toledo means confronting her complex relationship with her recently deceased mother, a lifelong alcoholic who worked as a professional psychic. Most of the staff at TIA is indifferent to Irene’s arrival or outright unwelcoming, but when Irene meets her new colleague, George Dermont, they immediately feel a powerful connection to one another. But what Irene and George don’t know is that 29 years prior, their mothers—both astrology enthusiasts—made a pact to conceive a pair of cosmically ordained soulmates, then separate them so that they can find each other again. The knowledge that they were quite literally made for each other shatters the worldviews for both George (a self-described dreamer with an interest in mythology) and Irene (an empiricist to her core). Although the high-concept astrophysics and philosophy may initially feel daunting, and the story frequently veers from quirky into just plain weird, things pick up speed as well-rounded characters and a few surprising twists are introduced. Whatever their beliefs on fate, readers will root for George and Irene to find their way back to each other.”

Library Journal says:  “At the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, George Dermont is hoping to prove the scientific existence of a Gateway to God. Clear-eyed mathematician Irene Sparks has come to the institute to direct work on its massive superconductor. Imagine their surprise when they fall for each other, then discover that their mothers raised them together and subsequently separated them in an attempt to engineer true love. Just the kind of touchingly offbeat stuff you could expect from the author of Shine Shine Shine, a big debut that was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, and more.”

“Star-crossed lovers usually aren’t, really. More often it’s family or other interested parties that make connection difficult — even when these outsiders mean to do the opposite. That’s certainly the case in Lydia Netzer’s “How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky,” although in this winning second novel, the answer may genuinely lie in the heavens. Irene Sparks and George Dermont were not born to be lovers. They were raised to be — part of a plot dreamed up by their mothers back when the two were girlhood best friends.  Irene is a pragmatist who has avoided intimacy for all of her 29 years. George is a dreamer, an easygoing soul whose visions of gods and goddesses threaten to interfere with his everyday life. Both are damaged, in part because of the falling out between their mothers 23 years before. Both are also astronomers, who meet as adults when an important discovery by Irene brings her to the Toledo Institute of Astronomy, where George had been the rising star. . . . Netzer’s often impressionistic writing swings from science to the flesh in broad, fearless sweeps that incorporate astrophysics, mythology, and characters who are true to themselves, even when those selves are maddening,” says The Boston Globe.

When is it available?       

“The Night Sky” is shining on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


The Boy In His Winter

By Norman Lock

(Bellevue Literary Press, $14.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

Norman Lock, an author who lives in New Jersey, has won an Aga Khan Prize from The Paris Review and a writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and has published novels, short fiction, poetry and stage, radio and screen plays. His books include “Love Among the Particles”, a Shelf Awareness Best Book of the Year.

What is this book about?

What if Huck Finn’s iconic antebellum journey with Jim down the Mississippi River didn’t end when Mark Twain’s classic novel reaches its conclusion? What if Huck and Jim, never aging and living outside history, instead travel through time together till 1960 on their raft and witness Civil War battles, the murderous onslaught against Native Americans, the failed legacy of Reconstruction, the horror of Hurricane Katrina and much more? In Norman Lock’s imaginative and brilliant riff on Twain’s great American novel, Huck tells us his new stories and does not leave us until he is an old man in 2077, inviting us to recall the original novel and to review American history with a fresh eye.

Why you’ll like it:                 

It takes a brave and highly skilled author successfully to put his own spin on a beloved, if controversial, classic. By all accounts, reviewers say Lock has done an admirable job, even if the concept of Huck Finn as a time traveler seems outré at first. Twain’s youngster on the river gave us a sometimes humorous, often poignant and ultimately courageous perspective on the ingrained racism of mid-19th century America. Lock’s inspired take on Huck’s life from that point on shows us that racism is sadly and apparently inextricably entwined in our history.  This is a provocative and challenging book.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Inspired by Mark Twain and propelled by the currents of the Mississippi River, this is a tall tale that Lock has abducted and handed over to Huck Finn. In Lock’s fantastical iteration, Huck and his old friend Jim set off from Hannibal, Mo., in 1835 and raft through the rest of the 19th century. Along the way they meet Tom Sawyer, grown up to become a Confederate soldier, view piles of Union dead, and help a Choctaw chief die with dignity. Jim is inconsolable when he hears John Wilkes Booth has shot Abe Lincoln. By the time they reach Baton Rouge, they’ve entered the 20th century, with horseless travel and the first motion pictures. The time travelers make their way through American history without aging a day, until Jim decides to leave the raft in 1960, sure that it is a good time to reenter the world. (Sadly, he seems to enter the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, fatefully breaking up a chiffarobe for Mayella Ewell.) Huck, still 13, almost makes it to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina finally blows him from myth into real time. “I can feel my cells divide,” Huck says, reinventing himself as Albert Barthelemy and continuing his journey with a couple of smugglers and a black man who happens to be named James. Albert makes sure things turn out pretty well for himself as a grown man—he’s the author of his own destiny, after all—before he reveals that his beautiful black wife (whose name happens to be Jameson) has written an illustrated children’s book about the adventures of a boy named Albert, calling it A Boy in His Winter. Lock plays profound tricks, with language—his is crystalline and underline-worthy—and with time, the perfect metaphor for which is the mighty Mississippi itself.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “The latest from distinguished elder statesman Lock, winner of the Aga Khan Prize from the Paris Review, is an eclectic hybrid of literary appropriation, Zelig-like historical narrative, time-travel tale and old-style picaresque. It’s narrated in 2077 by an octogenarian Huckleberry Finn, who meandered down the Mississippi alongside his stalwart friend Jim for 125 years, from 1835 until 1960, remaining miraculously unchanged by time. Along the way, they drifted southward through the Civil War (Tom Sawyer has a cameo as a Confederate officer, and Jim is photographed at Vicksburg); the uprooting and massacre of Native Americans (they play a role in allowing Cochise to die with dignity); the electrification of the country (which they encounter when they enter the 20th century around Baton Rouge); and the Jazz Age. Jim, trying to wait until racism has either passed away or grown less virulent, leaves the raft in 1960; after a brief excursion into the world of To Kill a Mockingbird, he discovers there’s no outlasting that particular viciousness. Huck, who’s followed his old companion, ends up having to stand by helplessly as Jim is lynched. He staggers back to the raft and meanders for nearly another half-century, until Hurricane Katrina spits him ashore in a storm-battered south Louisiana necropolis, a landing that at last jars him back into time. Over the next seven decades, an aging Huck serves as an accomplice to a group of marijuana smugglers; lands in juvie; becomes a flashy, globe-trotting yacht broker; marries an African-American woman who writes novels for children; and makes a late-life return to Hannibal, Mo., where he exacts a kind of revenge on his “creator” by playing the elderly Mark Twain, “river pilot and raconteur,” at a riverside amusement park. The philosophical and literary musings are inventive, and Lock manages to make the combination of brevity and tall-tale looseness mostly work. But for all its charms, the book ultimately seems pretty diffuse.”

 

Says NPR: “Finn and Jim set out from Hannibal, Mo. on a July afternoon in 1835 aboard a raft. But this is not Mark Twain’s tale: In Norman Lock’s brief and brilliant fabulist novel . . . , Huck and Jim sweep down the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico as though in a dream, caught in mythic time. “We were held in the mind of the river, like a thought,” Lock writes. . . .

“Huck narrates from the perspective of old age, in 2077, questioning all the way, acknowledging early on that while he is writing a time-travel novel, he has “no adequate theory to explain why the raft was able to travel through time. . . .

“By reconceptualizing Twain’s 1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to include three centuries — from slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and onwards — Lock raises questions about why we struggle still with the notions of freedom and justice. The “Territory” Huck lit out for in 1835 has developed, Lock writes, into “a nation of pleasure seekers; not all, of course, but enough to form a constituency with strength to pervert the virtues of democracy.”

The Minneapolis Star Tribune says:  “I always wondered why Mark Twain didn’t number the last chapter in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Instead, he titled it “Chapter the Last.” Was it so we’d be discouraged from ever thinking of Huck as anything more than that mischievous kid we’d come to know and love?

“Regardless of Twain’s reasons, any author picking up where Twain left off is an audacious literary move, one Norman Lock has made with his most recent — and 15th — book of fiction, “The Boy in His Winter.” Though in truth, to call it a work of fiction is to tell only part of the story. This book is as much a treatise on memory and time and the nature of storytelling and our collective national conscience as it is a novel in the sense “Huckleberry Finn” is.

“….There is no shortage of rhetoric on the nature of time and our memories in these sections, much of it wildly funny and extremely intelligent, and most often Lock’s prose matches his purpose to wicked effect. But if you come to this book expecting a yarn like you got in high school when you were assigned “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” you will end up finding something else in “The Boy in His Winter.”

When is it available?                                      

No time travel required: this book is 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!


Lucky Us

By Amy Bloom

(Random House, $26, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Connecticut readers know…or certainly should know …fellow state resident Amy Bloom’s fine work. Trained as a psychotherapist, she taught for many years at Yale University and currently is Distinguished University Writer in Residence, teaching creative writing, at Wesleyan University. The prolific Bloom is the author of many highly regarded books, including the nonfiction “Normal,” and story collections and novels that include “Come to Me,” “A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You,” “Love Invents Us; “Away” and “Where the God of Love Hangs Out.” Her stories are a mainstay in the best anthologies, and Bloom also has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon. She also is a winner of a  National Magazine Award.

What is this book about?

It’s the 1940s, and a pair of half-sisters from a not-so-functional family take off in a stolen station wagon from Ohio to the glamorous West Coast and the temptations of Hollywood, only to wind up on the East Coast and the ritzy, glitzy mansions of Long Island and eventually, London. Iris and her younger sidekick Eva pursue their dreams, despite personal betrayals and the national struggles of a nation at war. This lively story is a jazzy as the musicians who are among its cleverly drawn, piquant characters, all of whom possess the energy and ambition that blossomed as the Great Depression tapered off and America became even more of a world power. Bloom combines history with humor and heart to tell this story, and it is a captivating tale.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s hard to determine whether Bloom’s skills at therapy deepen her writing or whether her authorial imagination has influenced her ability to help her patients, but either way, it has made her a powerful storyteller and insightful interpreter of the human soul. Opening one of her books is like climbing into a car with a savvy driver: you may not know for sure where it is heading, but you are confident that it will be one hell of a trip. This is a many-layered novel, which uses letters as a form of narrative, and fans of historical fiction,  as well as those who savor brightly imagined characters of varying races, ages, genders and sexual preferences, a compelling plot and delicious dialogue are going to enjoy the ride.

 

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for August 2014 says:  “From its provocative opening paragraph–”My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”–to its sweet tableau of an ending, Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us is a percussive novel about two sisters who go from Ohio to Hollywood and back trying both to find and lose themselves and each other. Iris has the disposition (if not the talent) of an actress, but early on she gets drummed out of Tinseltown for a particularly shocking (for the time) youthful indiscretion; Eva is her younger, more dour sister/observer. Through short vignettes of and letters from the Acton sisters as well as a growing cast of tragicomic characters, we get a jazzy novel about the WWII era. Bloom is particularly good at recreating the idioms of the time–in her acknowledgements, she thanks her cousin, the writer/scholar Harold Bloom for teaching her “to find a better way to put almost anything.”–and both her style and her story have a subversive, iconoclastic quality. This is not a very long novel, but with its expansive understanding of human nature and of history, it covers a lot of ground.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Two teenaged half-sisters make their way through WWII-era America in Bloom’s imaginative romp. After being left on her father’s Ohio doorstep by her absconding mother, 11-year-old Eva meets Iris, the older half-sister she never knew she had. They escape to Hollywood, where Iris hopes to become a movie star. But they wind up on Long Island, where the girls and their father, Edgar, find employment in the home of the nouveau riche Torelli family. Over the course of the story, Edgar develops a relationship with a black jazz singer named Clara Williams, Iris falls in love with the Torellis’ cook, Reenie Heitmann, and Eva learns to read the tarot and sets herself up as a psychic. Joining the lively cast is Francisco Diego, a Hollywood makeup artist; Gus, Reenie’s German husband, who is deported; and Danny, an orphan who is ultimately raised by Eva. On the way to a gloriously satisfying ending, these characters are separated by fate and distance, but form a vividly rendered patchwork American family (straight, gay, white, black, citizen, immigrant). Bloom transforms history to create a story of stunning invention, with characters that readers will feel lucky to encounter.”

Says Kirkus in its starred review: “On a journey from Ohio to Hollywood to Long Island to London in the 1940s, a couple of plucky half sisters continually reinvent themselves with the help of an unconventional assortment of friends and relatives. In 1939, 12-year-old Eva is abandoned by her feckless mother on her father’s Ohio doorstep after the death of his wealthy wife. After a couple of years of neglect, Eva and her glamorous older half sister, Iris, escape to Hollywood, where Iris embarks on a promising career in film—until she’s caught on camera in a lesbian dalliance with a starlet, which gets her blacklisted. With the help of a sympathetic gay Mexican makeup artist as well as their con-artist father, Edgar, who has recently reappeared in their lives, the girls travel across the country to New York and finagle jobs at the Great Neck estate of a wealthy Italian immigrant family. Hired as a governess, Iris promptly falls in love with the family’s pretty cook, Reenie, inconveniently married to Gus, a likable mechanic of German ancestry. In this partly epistolary novel interspersed with both first-person and third-person narration, Bloom tells a bittersweet story from multiple viewpoints. The novel shares the perspectives of Eva, Iris, Edgar, Gus and Cora, a black nightclub singer who becomes Edgar’s live-in girlfriend and companion to Eva. Though the letter-writing conceit doesn’t always ring true, since it’s unlikely that one sister would recount their shared experiences to the other in letters years later, the novel works in aggregate, accumulating outlooks to tell a multilayered, historical tale about different kinds of love and family. Bloom enlivens her story with understated humor as well as offbeat and unforgettable characters. Despite a couple of anachronisms, this is a hard-luck coming-of-age story with heart.”

Booklist, in another starred review, says: “Eva, age 12, knows her father as a sweet man who visits on Sundays, until her mother announces that his wife has died and they’ll be paying him a visit. And so Eva arrives at a home she’s never seen to live with her father and older half sister, Iris, whom she didn’t know existed. Talented, self-involved Iris is a doggedly hopeful performer, winning every local and regional competition in their small midwestern college town before graduating high school and escaping to Hollywood with the embarrassing but brainy and reliable Eva in tow. There is a gossip-column scandal and a cross-country road trip, an abducted orphan and an accused spy, and more than a couple of masquerades, but everything here is fresh; Bloom’s cannonballs read like placid ripples. Told partially from Eva’s perspective, and with epistolary interludes over the novel’s 1939–49 span, Eva’s world is one of endless opportunities for reinvention—and redemption—if one only takes them. With a spare and trusting style, Bloom invites readers to fill the spaces her pretty prose allows, with true and beautiful results.”

“Bighearted, rambunctious . . . a bustling tale of American reinvention . . . [a] high-octane tale of two half-sisters who take it upon themselves to reverse their sorry, motherless fortunes . . . If America has a Victor Hugo, it is Amy Bloom, whose picaresque novels roam the world, plumb the human heart and send characters into wild roulettes of kismet and calamity. . . . Love will fizz and fizzle, outrageous lies will be told, orphans will find happiness and heartbreak, and fate will sweep in to drive characters into hellish corners of the world. . . . There are few American novelists writing today who can spin a yarn as winningly. . . . Welcome to America, dear reader. Lucky us,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

Lucky for us, it is 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!

 

Praying Drunk

By Kyle Minor

(Sarabande, $15.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

For an author who is not yet 40, Kyle Minor has racked up a quite impressive list of honors.  Minor won the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Kroger Prize for Short Fiction, was a three-time honoree in the annual Atlantic Monthly writing contest and was selected as one of Random House’s Best New Voices of 2006. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Iowa Review, Salon.com, Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, and Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial. He also is the author of the 2008 story collection, In Devil’s Territory. He grew up in Florida and has lived in Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio.

What is this book about?

Tortured souls, including some who have actually been physically tortured, abound in this complex collection. While this is a book of short stories, Minor instructs his readers that they are meant to be read in order, as themes and events and characters play return engagements in these tales set in Kentucky, Florida and Haiti. You will encounter people who speak in tongues, bully a classmate, seek God, fail to find God and battle despair. Minor creates people who embark on the great struggle to maintain faith in a world of random pain.  “Praying Drunk” is a sobering book.

Why you’ll like it:

Kyle Minor is unafraid to tackle the downside of belief and the grimness so many find in life, but while there is a lot of unhappiness in this book, Minor handles it so skillfully and intelligently that it uplifts, rather than depresses. His characters struggle and do not always succeed, but it is the struggle that counts. Adding to the complex nature of this collection is his use of repeating themes and characters, a layering that adds depth to these already provocative tales.

What others are saying:             

The Los Angeles Times says:  Kyle Minor’s “Praying Drunk” offers a grim, gripping view of men and women still searching for the miraculous. Evangelists embark on missions to Haiti hoping to save anyone, if not just themselves; grieving family members struggle with questions of faith in the face of mounting evidence that they have no business having any; and a young narrator is tortured over and over again in school.

“To read “Praying Drunk” is to open yourself up to the type of rumination that some might be afraid of: namely, how can anyone have faith when humans do so much to distort godliness? The stories in Kyle Minor’s second collection are tender, searching and reflect onto one another. . . . tales are told over and over again from different perspectives, with facts erased, altered or added. Characters inhabiting one story pop into others, shifting our belief in who the characters are and who they wish to be. Minor quotes a teacher in the story “Q&A”: “Our job is to identify the distance between the story we’ve been telling ourselves about our lives — the received story, or the romantic story, or the wishful thinking — and replace it with the story that experience is revealing about our lives, the story that is more true.”

Says the New York Times Book Review: “Kyle Minor wants you to know that Praying Drunk is not actually, or only, a collection. In the epigraph, he warns: “These stories are meant to be read in order. This is a book, not just a collection. DON’T SKIP AROUND.’ Minor is right to insist. The stories may span decades as they move from Kentucky to Haiti and points between, but they work in concert to slowly reveal the landscape of an emotionally desolate quasi-America sinking under the weight of its own faith. . . . Minor writes beautifully about these ruined lives.”

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “An award-winning short fiction author offers 12 stories so ripe with realism as to suggest a roman à clef. . . .”In a Distant Country” is the most affecting, ringing with the haunted truths of Shakespearean tragedy—a missionary in Haiti, his teenage bride, the Duvaliers overthrown, his death, her disappearance—a tale unfolding in six letters from witnesses. It’s the 10th tale, but don’t read it first. In sequence, the stories present a powerful reflective narrative, offering perspectives on friends, family and faith. Stories cut to the heart—a teen helps his father chop a pink piano into kindling before he “walked toward this woodpile with a loaded shotgun and blew off his head”; then the boy’s funeral is rendered through multiple stories. Then come stories of the narrator’s brother, a Nashville musician, cheated and misused, who quits, finds a good job and then quits again . . . .Pain and loss range from Ohio to Tennessee to Kentucky to Florida to Haiti, with prose ringing with the hard-edged, mordant clarity of Southern writing. A preacher turns the making of biscuits into a funeral parable, and there’s more sardonic play with faith, as when a character sniffs up methadone powder: “There’s the line, gone up like the rapture.” That surrealistic piece follows a bereaved father who recreates a dead son as a bionic robot to win back his wife. This brilliant collection unfolds around a fractured narrative of faith and friends and family, loved and lost, an arc of stories in which characters find reason to carry on even after contemplating a “God with agency enough to create everything…and apathy enough to let it proceed as an atrocity parade.” There’s cynicism and despair and nihilism in the collection, certainly, but there’s courage too and a measure of blood-tinged beauty.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Similar to a great magic trick, the 13 stories in Minor’s  latest lure reader investment with strong visuals while simultaneously pulling the rug out from underfoot with clever, literary sleights–of-hand. Though not necessarily linked in the traditional sense, there is a sequential order to the collection—ideas, locations, incidents, and characters echo as the volume chugs forward—and the result is an often dazzling, emotional, funny, captivating puzzle. At the heart of the book are the Haitian tales “Seven Stories About Sebastian of Koulèv-Ville” and “In a Distant Country.” Set within the same village, though separated by decades, the narratives follow the lives of missionaries and the natives they look to aid during the Duvalier dictatorship and after the 2010 earthquake. The ideas of trust and faith run deep, and these emotions bleed throughout the collection, particularly in the narratives concerning a character akin to the author, who frets over his musician brother (in “There Is Nothing but Sadness in Nashville”), his dying grandfather (in “First, the Teeth”), and his own convictions (in “You Shall Go Out with Joy and Be Led Forth with Peace” and its companion, “Suspended”). Minor’s continuous play with form keeps the book fresh, despite a somewhat distracting presentation.”

Booklist says: “Minor’s first book of short fiction, In the Devil’s Territory (2008), introduced a talented writer with a penchant for experimental repetition and extraordinary vision, whose characters struggle to contain or divulge the dark secrets faith and family conceal. This well-honed second book consists of a series of linked narratives dealing again with questions of religion and kin, spanning Kentucky, Florida, and Haiti. The book deserves to be read sequentially, not because it’s arranged in chronological order but because characters and conceits recur, eventually coalescing into heartrending closure. In one instance, Minor tells the story of a son’s suicide from multiple perspectives, spinning off seemingly peripheral characters, only to take up alternate points of view in subsequent stories. Elsewhere, a rational young man questions his romantic interest’s spiritual awakenings, which include speaking in tongues and dangerous visions. Minor writes with the descriptive clarity of Denis Johnson, the jigsaw-like structuring of Sherwood Anderson, and the Appalachian acuity of Jayne Anne Phillips. Certainly one to read and enjoy and to watch for in the future.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies available for borrowing.

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!

Instructions For a Heat Wave

By Maggie O’Farrell

(Knopf, $25.95, 304)

Who is this author?                            

Part of the fun of writing about books is getting to discover authors I’ve never before read. Not that they aren’t already well-known, just not to me. My summer discovery this year was the award-winning Maggie O’Farrell, who was born in Northern Ireland, grew up in Wales and Scotland and now lives with her family in London. This is her sixth novel, the others being  “After You’d Gone,” “ My Lover’s Lover,” “The Distance Between Us,” “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox”  and  “The Hand That First Held Mine.” Happily, that means I have five more to look forward to.

What is this book about?

It’s the brutally hot summer of 1976 in London, where an Irish family (or most of it) is coping with the stunning heat wave. Gretta, mother of three troubled grown children, wakes to find what seems like a normal day, and despite the punishing heat, bakes some soda bread. And then she realizes that her husband, a quiet retired banker named Robert, has quite unbelievably disappeared, along with some money and his passport. Soon the children — unhappily married history teacher Michael Francis; equally unhappy and very judgmntal middle daughter Monica; and far off in New York, smart but dyslexic youngest daughter Aoife, who has hid her inability to read from family, teachers, employers and even her boyfriend Gabe — are forced to put aside their sometimes petty and more often profound differences and solve the puzzle of where their father has gone. And even more important, what they themselves want from life, and each other.

Why you’ll like it:

O’Farrell is deeply talented at creating believable characters who talk the way real people do, which immediately draws the reader in and does not let them go till the final pages are consumed. Anyone who has had to cope with dysfunctional family dynamics — and that is just about everyone — will be impressed by how skillfully O’Farrell handles them here, from the low-level sniping among the siblings that begins in childhood and grows more serious in adulthood to the constant struggle of a well-meaning mother to control the children she loves but does not understand and their never-ending battle to break free. What takes place over four days is fascinating, but compelling as the plot may be, it’s the power and beauty of O’Farrell’s writing that makes this book so good. Here’s a sample of her prose, as the story begins:

“The heat, the heat. It wakes Gretta just after dawn, propelling her from the bed and down the stairs. It inhabits the house like a guest who has outstayed his welcome: it lies along corridors, it circles around curtains, it lolls heavily on sofas and chairs. The air in the kitchen is like a solid entity filling the space, pushing Gretta down into the floor, against the side of the table.

“Only she would choose to bake bread in such weather.

“Consider her now, yanking open the oven and grimacing in its scorching blast as she pulls out the bread tin. She is in her nightdress, hair still wound onto curlers. She takes two steps backwards and tips the steaming loaf into the sink, the weight of it reminding her, as it always does, of a baby, a newborn, the packed, damp warmth of it.

“She has made soda bread three times a week for her entire married life. She is not about to let a little thing like a heatwave get in the way of that. …”

What others are saying:

“O’Farrell appears to be fascinated by the idea that the visible connections of kinship or marriage are often not the entire story — and not even the actual story — of what holds us close to one another. Secrets and lies pervade her fictional worlds, and they always tumble out to satisfying effect. She has made her mark by combining the elements of good old-­fashioned drama — love affairs in the shadows, the reappearance of long-lost relatives, hidden wives — with a modern lightness of touch in language and a deft freedom in moving her narratives forward through juxtaposition rather than linear plotting. For the reader, this can feel like having one’s cake and eating it too. O’Farrell’s novels appeal to a broad audience, but they’re also smart and provocative. Over and over, they try to work out who people really are, how ordinary lives can conceal extraordinary stories,” says The New York Times Book Review.

The Observer says:  “All the hallmarks of an O’Farrell novel are here: a family with secrets in its past and words left unsaid years ago, relatives long since forgotten, a claustrophobic atmosphere of uncomfortable emotional closeness. This is an accomplished and addictive story told with real humanity, warmth and infectious love for the characters. Highly recommended.”

Says Booklist: “It is July 1976, and London is in the grip of an intense heatwave. All over the city, people are coming unhinged, and the Riordans are no exception. Retired banker Robert has left to buy a newspaper and never returns. His wife, Gretta, calls their three children, who converge on the family homestead for the first time in years. marriage is over; uptight Monica, trapped in a second marriage with two stepchildren who hate her, is not speaking to the younger sister she practically raised; and Aoife, who has taken herself off to Manhattan but cannot outrun the dyslexia that has made her working life a virtual hell. As the siblings seek out clues to the whereabouts of their father, O’Farrell, in her sixth novel, draws a beautiful portrait of family life. The story really blossoms in the second half, when the Riordans end their search in Ireland, where the family’s secrets and private feuds come raging forth so that the true healing can begin.”

Publishers Weekly says: When Gretta Riordan’s husband, Robert, disappears during the 1976 London heat wave, her three grown children return home for the first time in years. All are dealing with personal crises that inform their relationships with each other and are tied back to their family history. The oldest, Michael Francis, is trying to keep his marriage together as his wife yearns for independence, and his two sisters, Monica and Aoife, have been estranged for years over a bitter secret that led Aoife across the ocean to New York, where she has made a life for herself while hiding her illiteracy. Under the stress of searching for their father and enduring the unbearable heat—which causes people to “act not so much out of character but deep within it”—the siblings and their mother are forced to confront old resentments which bubble to the surface. O’Farrell skillfully navigates between past and present, as family secrets are revealed and old grudges are hashed out, without ever losing the narrative’s pace. An absorbing read from start to finish, through O’Farrell’s vibrant prose, each character comes alive as more is revealed and the novel unfolds.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A sometimes-brooding but always sympathetic novel, by prize-winning British writer O’Farrell, of a family’s struggles to overlook the many reasons why they should avoid each other’s glances and phone calls. Hot town, summer in the city. . . . This does not keep Gretta Riordan, dutiful and uncomplaining, from rising early to bake soda bread. Desiccated Irish transplant Robert Riordan, though, takes a look at his suburban life, wife and family and makes his way to cooler and greener pastures without them. Has the heat addled his brain? Is he doing the only sensible thing possible? When his children converge to suss out what Da has done, they have no answers. Meanwhile, all of them are on the run from themselves: Michael, a schoolteacher, has a wife who’s taken to sheltering herself in the attic, away from her own children. Monica, the favorite (“Not even her subsequent divorce–which caused seismic shockwaves for her parents–was enough to topple her from prime position.”), is on the edge of a scream at any given minute. The baby, Aoife (pronounced “precisely between both ‘Ava’ and ‘Eva’ and ‘Eve,’ passing all three but never colliding with them”) has been off in New York, nursing a very strange secret. In other words, no one’s quite normal, which is exactly as it is with every family on Earth–only, in the case of the Riordans, a little more so. O’Farrell paints a knowing, affectionate, sometimes exasperated portrait of these beleaguered people, who are bound by love, if a sometimes-wary love, but torn apart by misunderstanding, just like all the rest of us. A skillfully written novel of manners, with quiet domestic drama spiced with fine comic moments. The payoff is priceless, too.”

When is it available?        

Whether it is hot or cold, this book can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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