The Children Act

By Ian McEwan

(Knopf Doubleday, $25, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Ian McEwan is a bestselling British author, who has 15 books to his credit, many of which have won major prizes. Solar won a Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; Atonement won a National Book Critics Circle Award and the W. H. Smith Literary Award; Amsterdam took a Booker Prize and The Child in Time, received the Whitbread Novel of the Year Award for 1987.  His other books include On Chesil Beach, Saturday, The Comfort of Strangers and Black Dogs, and he also has written award-winning story collections. Atonement was made into a major motion picture in 2007 and was nominated for seven Academy Awards.

What is this book about?

This novel blends the story of a marriage gone bad with a court case that pits a religious family against the medical establishment. The link is High Court Judge Fiona Maye, whose 30-year marriage is falling apart because of her husband Jack’s infidelity and who is charged with presiding over a case in which a dying 17-year-old and his Jehovah’s Witnesses parents are refusing treatment that is almost certain to save him. because of their religious beliefs. Should a secular court overrule the family? Should deep religious devotion win out even if it will lead to the boy’s death? Fiona visits the boy, which causes each of them emotional turmoil. How will she rule on a case that seems to have no clear guidelines, but will surely have far-reaching consequences?

Why you’ll like it:

McEwan is a very skillful writer – his On Chesil Beach was a hilariously sad exploration of two inexperienced lovers terrified of having marital sex – and he draws complicated but believable characters. And in this current period of time, when the counterclaims of religious entities and secular society are clashing over health care insurance, this is a timely book.

What others are saying:                                

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “You’d be hard put to find a better choice for reading groups than Ian McEwan’s The Children Act. This book has so much going for it, on so many levels: moral, emotional, literary. . . . The Children Act is a compact, contemporary narrative that focuses intimately on a protagonist’s professional and personal life as she bumps up against various moral and personal crises. Where Saturday’s propulsive, explosive plot convincingly took us deep inside the life and thoughts of a male neurosurgeon under pressure, The Children Act just as persuasively zeroes in on a fifty-nine-year-old female High Court Judge in London. Fiona Maye presides over cases of divorce, custody, and child welfare in the Family Division with impressive aplomb, until her own generally solid marriage hits an unexpected but all-too-common snag. The somewhat awkward title — at least to American ears — comes from a 1989 British law that deems a child’s welfare “the court’s paramount consideration” in cases that involve them. . . . its length is a modest 221 pages, The Children Act is rich with issues that provoke thought and conversation: the nature of devotion (both religious and romantic), legality versus morality, the social aspects of welfare and well-being, the boundary between professional and personal responsibilities, and the marital tug-of-war between what one partner views as “brazen” behavior and the other as an “overblown sense of injury.” Readers will want to discuss Fiona’s various decisions, both in court and in her reactions to both Jack and young Adam, as well as the protracted, delicate thaw that follows a domestic freeze. But most of all, they’ll want to savor McEwan’s ability to pack so much into this tightly composed, ultimately moving story.”

Publishers Weekly‘s starred review says:  “The 1989 Children Act made a child’s welfare the top priority of English courts—easier said than done, given the complexities of modern life and the pervasiveness of human weakness, as Family Court Judge Fiona Maye discovers in McEwan’s 13th novel. Approaching 60, at the peak of her career, Fiona has a reputation for well-written, well-reasoned decisions. She is, in fact, more comfortable with cool judgment than her husband’s pleas for passion. While he pursues a 28-year-old statistician, Fiona focuses on casework, especially a hospital petition to overrule two Jehovah’s Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions for Adam, their 17-year-old son who’s dying of leukemia. Adam agrees with their decision. Fiona visits Adam in the hospital, where she finds him writing poetry and studying violin. Childless Fiona shares a musical moment with the boy, then rules . . . . Adam’s ensuing rebellion against his parents, break with religion, and passionate devotion to Fiona culminate in a disturbing face-to-face encounter that calls into question what constitutes a child’s welfare and who best represents it. As in Atonement, what doesn’t happen has the power to destroy; as in Amsterdam, McEwan probes the dread beneath civilized society. In spare prose, he examines cases, people, and situations, to reveal anger, sorrow, shame, impulse, and yearning. He rejects religious dogma that lacks compassion, but scrutinizes secular morality as well. Readers may dispute his most pessimistic inferences, but few will deny McEwan his place among the best of Britain’s living novelists.”

Kirkus says in its starred review: “In the late summer of 2012, a British judge faces a complex case while dealing with her husband’s infidelity in this thoughtful, well-wrought novel. Fiona Maye, at 59, has just learned of an awful crack in her marriage when she must rule on the opposing medical and religious interests surrounding a 17-year-old boy who will likely die without blood transfusions. The cancer patient, weeks shy of the age when he could speak for himself, has embraced his parents’ deep faith as Jehovah’s Witnesses and their abhorrence of letting what the Bible deems a pollutant enter his body. The scenes before the bench and at the boy’s hospital bedside are taut and intelligent, like the best courtroom dramas. . . . Meanwhile, McEwan, in a rich character study that begs for a James Ivory film, shows Fiona reckoning with the doubt, depression and temporary triumphs of the betrayed—like an almost Elizabethan digression on changing the locks of their flat—not to mention guilt at stressing over her career and forgoing children. . . . Also running through the book is a musical theme, literal and verbal, in which Fiona escapes the legal world and “the subdued drama of her half-life with Jack” to play solo and in duets. McEwan, always a smart, engaging writer, here takes more than one familiar situation and creates at every turn something new and emotionally rewarding in a way he hasn’t done so well since On Chesil Beach.”

Library Journal says: “Obsession is a familiar subject for McEwan, most memorably explored in his 1997 Enduring Love. This time the theme is a touchstone in a novel exploring a man’s fixation on having an open marriage, a boy’s fascination with the judge who will decide his fate, and a couple’s determination to follow the strictures of their religion no matter the cost. The judge, Fiona Maye, must decide whether the teenage boy, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, can be forced by the court to undergo the blood transfusion that is necessary to save his life. Clouding Maye’s mind is turmoil at home: her husband is calmly insisting upon changing the boundaries of their relationship, a story line that will remind readers of the excruciating tiptoeing-around-each-other executed in the author’s On Chesil Beach. In the end, this nuanced work explores compelling ideas but is not as memorable as McEwan’s best. It may find a wider audience than some of his works, though, as its setting is contemporary and its major plotline—religious exemptions to laws—topical.”

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Mark Twain branches now.

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

 

(HarperCollins, $27.99, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

You don’t encounter all that many authors who can actually print their own books, and not by using a computer printer, either. One such is debut novelist Alix Christie, who also is a journalist and letterpress printer who learned that skill as an apprentice to two master California printers and owns and operates a letterpress. Christie lives in London and reviews books and arts for the Economist.

What is this book about?

This is a story of enormous changes in the world of publishing – but it’s not about the birth of the Internet or the Kindle. It is a historical novel set in medieval Germany, where the invention of the printing press made waves still reverberating today. Peter Schoeffer, the ward of wealthy German merchant Johann Fust, is working as a scribe in Paris but gets hauled back to his hometown of Mainz in Germany to meet none other than Johann Gutenberg, who has just invented the printing press, a device that can and will change the way knowledge is disseminated. It is no longer the exclusive province of priests and scholars, handed down via illuminated handwritten manuscripts. Gutenberg’s press opens the world of words to the masses, and  that changes everything. Peter joins him in the controversial endeavor of printing copies of the Bible, despite fierce opposition, and also must deal with his two father figures: Fust, who is helping to fund Gutenberg, and the inventor himself, a difficult but brilliant man.

Why you’ll like it:

This is one of those novels that draws fascinating and unexpected parallels between the world we know today and long-ago civilization as the Middle Ages waned and the Renaissance bloomed. It shows us that cataclysmic change in how we live and think is nothing new: it happened then with the invention of the printing press and in our lifetime with the advent of computers and the Internet. There may be nothing new under the sun, as the saying goes, but the amazing details Christie recounts in her debut novel will be new, and thrilling, to her readers.

What others are saying:

Kirkus’s starred review says: “Christie debuts with a literary exploration of Gutenberg and his printing press, which sparked a technological revolution—as well as the other men involved who were left in history’s shadows. Johann Fust, prosperous merchant of Mainz, Germany, gathered guilders and gold for Gutenberg. Peter Schoeffer, Fust’s ward who was training in Paris as a scribe, was called home to become Gutenberg’s apprentice—and watch over the mad genius. An orphaned peasant boy, cousin of Fust’s first wife, Schoeffer resented being drawn away from intellectual circles but came to see his chance to “raise again the…lamp of learning.” Schoeffer’s the primary protagonist, his interior journey from frustration to reconciliation to obsession with Gutenberg’s press deftly chronicled against the panorama of the 15th century—the jealous craft guilds, the iron hand and depraved greed of the church hierarchy, the free towns like Mainz controlled by the machinations of oligarchs called Elders. Schoeffer anchors the story, but Gutenberg flashes—megalomaniacal and duplicitous, with hair “wild and bristling to his shoulders…beard cascad[ing]…glinting here and there like twists of wire,” and “glowing, canine eyes.” Christie masterfully depicts the time and energy required to print the first Bibles, a yearslong process of trial and error, tinkering with ink and type, lines and paper, guilder after guilder spent without return, all against a catastrophic backdrop of plague, the fall of Constantinople, the violent superstitions of the peasantry, and a vested intelligentsia fearing the press would generate “crude words crudely wrought…smut and prophecy, the ranting of anarchists and antichrists.” Bibles, 180 in all, are printed in the strictest secrecy lest the press be seized “as a threat to the scriptoria whose proceeds kept the landed cloisters fat.” While rendered chronologically, with a second narrative thread about Schoeffer’s courtship of his first wife, the narrative is given texture through intermittent chapters in which Schoeffer, years later—worried that Gutenberg’s triumph was more corrupt than holy—relates his story to Trithemius, abbot of Sponheim .A bravura debut. ‘

“Gutenberg’s Apprentice is an imaginative recounting of history that, despite a 15th-century setting, reflects many of today’s chief matters of concern. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the ever-changing art of publishing, ”  says BookPage.

In a starred review, Booklist says: “Gorgeously written…dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in a story that devotees of book history and authentic historical fiction will relish…An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age.”

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “This detailed historical novel takes readers into Gutenberg’s 15th-century Mainz workshop to experience the frustration and exhilaration of designing, typesetting, and rolling the first printed Bible off the press. Focusing on contributions made by Gutenberg’s associates, the story follows the apprenticeship of future publishing pioneer Peter Schoeffer from the day Peter’s adopted father, merchant-investor Johann Fust, tells him to give up life as a Parisian scribe in order to learn a new trade using Gutenberg’s secret technology and techniques. For unhappy Peter, printed texts seem less sacred, and certainly less artistic, than hand-copied manuscripts. Demanding and sometimes devious, Gutenberg proves a difficult boss; worst of all, the equipment still has bugs to work out. Only when Peter comes up with his own innovation does he appreciate print’s artistry and power. Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer’s tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible. Contemporary readers suspicious of digital texts will sympathize with Peter’s mixed feelings towards print. History buffs will savor the moment the inventor, the scribe, and the merchant make a decision that leads them out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. Journalist Christie’s fiction debut descriptions of technical processes and medieval society are enthralling; the romance and personal melodrama are less compelling. At her best, she demonstrates a printer’s precision and a dogged researcher’s diligence in her painstakingly meticulous account of quattrocento innovation, technology, politics, art, and commerce.”

When is it available?

It’s on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

 

Revival

By Stephen King

(Scribner, $30, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Stephen King, our contemporary king of horror fiction, has published more than 50 books and all of them have gained international best-sellerdom. Many have been made into haunting films – The Shining, Cujo, Christine – and TV series, such as Under the Dome, and his nonfiction guidebook/memoir On Writing has become a classic of its kind. His novel 11/22/63 was a named by The New York Times Book Review to its top 10 list for 2011 and also won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/and  Best Hardcover Book Award from the International Thriller Writers Association. In 2003, King won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Maine, where many of his harrowing tales are set, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King, but as a boy, he lived for a time in Stratford CT, in some ways, he says, a model for his fictional town of Derry, ME.

What is this book about?

Spanning half a century, Revival plays around with mad scientist-Frankenstein elements, and probes how fanaticism can entwine with religion and with science, to no good ends. It begins in a New England town, where a young boy, like most of the town, becomes fascinated by a charismatic new minister and his beautiful wife. But when a devastating auto accident wipes out the minister’s family, he leaves the church and bitterly mocks religion, becoming obsessed with the power of electricity. Meanwhile, the boy grows up to become a guitar player in rock bands and a heroin addict. Eventually, of course, they meet again and explore the ex-minister’s theories about “secret electricity” and its supposed powers to heal – and maybe to do even more. As countless characters in horror stories and films (including the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) have pointed out: “Perhaps there are some things man was never meant to tamper with.”

Why you’ll like it:

As with the best of King’s prodigious output, this one opens doorways you’re afraid to step through. King’s genius is his talent for creating believable characters speaking believable dialogue in the most unbelievable of situations, and it works every time. The clash between those who see the world through the lens of religion and those who see it through science is ongoing and flaring up anew, and this book plays with those larger concepts in a powerful and provocative way.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says:  “…Revival is pure Stephen King. Like many of King’s novels, it is filled with cultural allusions both high and low: In addition to the Bible and Frankenstein, there are references to Thomas Edison’s work at Menlo Park, Dan Brown, The X Files, the “Forbidden Books” (that is, grimoires banned and burned by the Catholic Church) and particularly Ludvig Prinn’s The Mysteries of the Worm…As the Kingian references pile up, and become layered into the events of the fictional world, you fall deeper and deeper under the story’s spell, almost believing that Jamie’s nightmarish experiences actually happened…Reading Revival is experiencing a master storyteller having the time of his life. All of his favorite fictional elements are at play—small-town Maine, the supernatural, the evil genius, the obsessive addict, the power of belief to transform a life.

And in The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes: “. . . tenderly realistic despite its roots in horror and science fiction…Revival…finds [King] writing with the infectious glee that has always been at the heart of his popular success…[it] is a well-built book that unfolds on a big canvas…Revival winds up with the idea that to be human, you must know what it is to be inhuman—and to know that only this thin partition separates that horror from ordinary life. So it’s not just a book that delivers its share of jolts and then lets the reader walk away unscathed. Older and wiser each time he writes, Mr. King has moved on from the physical fear that haunted him after he was struck by a van while out walking to a more metaphysical, universal terror. He writes about things so inevitable that he speaks to us all.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “This spellbinding supernatural thriller from MWA Grand Master King chronicles one man’s efforts to, as narrator Jamie Morton phrases it, “tap into the secrets of the universe.” Charles Jacobs, a Methodist minister in rural Harlow, Maine, loses his faith when his wife and child die in a hideous car accident, but not his obsessive interest in electricity. Over the next 50 years, Jamie—a devoted congregant of Jacobs’s when young, but a wary skeptic as he matures—crosses paths with his friend as the constantly experimenting Jacobs graduates from carnival huckster, to faith healer, and finally to mad scientist convinced that he can harness a “secret electricity” to get a glimpse of “some unknown existence beyond our lives.” King is a master at invoking the supernatural through the powerful emotions of his characters, and his depiction of Jacobs as a man unhinged by grief but driven by insatiable scientific curiosity is as believable as it is frightening. The novel’s ending—one of King’s best—stuns like lightning.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “In his second novel of 2014 (the other being Mr. Mercedes), veteran yarn spinner King continues to point out the unspeakably spooky weirdness that lies on the fringes of ordinary life. Think of two central meanings of the title—a religious awakening and bringing someone back to life—and you’ll have King’s latest in a nuthouse. Beg pardon, nutshell, though of course it’s madness that motivates all his most memorable characters. In this instance, a preacher arrives in a small New England town—always a small New England town—with an attractive wife and small child. Soon enough, bad things happen: “The woman had a dripping bundle clasped to her breast with one arm. One arm was all Patsy Jacobs could use, because the other had been torn off at the elbow.” And soon enough, the good reverend, broken by life, is off to other things, while our protagonist drinks deep of the choppy waters of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. “My belief had ended,” Jamie Morton says, simply—that is, until Rev. Jacobs turns up in his life again, after having spent time at the horrifying North Carolina amusement park that is Joyland (for which see King’s 2013 novel of the same name) and mastered not just the carney’s trade, but also the mysterious workings of “secret electricity.” Well, as Victor Frankenstein learned, electricity can sometimes get away from a fellow, and though young Jamie pleads with the bereaved pastor to get himself back on the good foot (“The newspapers would call you Josef Mengele.” “Does anyone call a neurosurgeon Josef Mengele just because he loses some of his patients?”), once it sets to crackling, the secret electricity can’t be put back into the bottle. Faith healing run amok: It’s a theme that’s exercised King since Carrie, and though this latest is less outright scary and more talky than that early touchstone, it compares well. No one does psychological terror better than King. Another spine-tingling pleasure for his fans.”

Library Journal also gives it a starred review:  “King’s latest (after Doctor Sleep) is narrated by Jamie Morton, who is six years old when he meets Rev. Charles Jacobs. New to Harlow, ME, Jacobs, along with his pretty young wife and toddler, quickly become the local attraction. Jamie and his family discover that Jacobs has a love of electricity and is quite ingenious with his inventions. Soon, though, tragedy strikes the reverend, and the losses he endures cause him to give a sermon that gets him fired from the ministry and banished from town. Years later, Jamie, now in his 30s and addicted to heroin, meets Jacobs again. Noticing how Jacobs has changed, Jamie worries about the man’s constant tinkering with what Jacobs calls “secret electricity.” Jacobs begins to heal people using his knowledge of electricity, but Jamie finds that there are terrible side effects. VERDICT King (The Stand) fans will rejoice that the horror master is back in fine form. While there are fewer characters than in many of his other tomes, each character is well drawn and worth following. The ending is exquisitely horrific and will leave the reader hoping this is only a work of fiction.”

When is it available?

Don’t be scared to look for this book. You can find it at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Blue Hills, Camp Field, Dwight and Park branches.

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

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

By Roz Chast

(Bloomsbury, $28, 228 pages)

Who is this author?

Roz Chast was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived in Ridgefield with her family for many years. More than 1,000 of her inimitably quirky cartoons have run in The New Yorker since 1978 – you could call them quintessentially NewYorkerish —  and others have appeared in Scientific American, Harvard Business Review, Redbook, Mother Jones, and many other magazines. She also has written or illustrated more than a dozen books. You can get a fine overview of her work in Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-Inspected Cartoons of Roz Chast, 1978-2006.

What is this book about?

Promise you won’t stop reading if I tell you.

This  #1 New York Times Bestseller, finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction and  winner of the 2014 Kirkus Prize for Nonfiction, is a graphic novel about Chast’s very difficult relationship with her very, very difficult parents and how she tried to care for them as they moved into an even more difficult stage of life: declining and demented in their 90s. That’s the grim reality.

What makes this illustrated memoir so, well, memorable, is the way Chast manages to inject humor into this achingly sad and often heartbreaking story. Her parents, teacher George and vice-principal Elizabeth, met in fifth grade, never dated others and were so preternaturally close a couple that Roz, an only child, was made to feel like an unwelcome intruder. The Chasts were full of anxiety and transmitted it to their daughter: you can see it in the squiggly-wiggly way she draws. Her father, even when healthy, was a weakling; her mother an overbearing, often nasty shrew. Still, they were her family, and Chast dID her best to cope with their oddities and get them the care they desperately needed, but did not want. It was an epic struggle. To paraphrase Shakespeare: “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To be an un-thanked child.”

Why you’ll like it:

If you have coped with caring for a declining elderly parent, or wonder how well you will do if that daunting job falls to you, this book will resonate with you. Chast has a brilliant understanding of the combustible mixture of love and frustration that suffuses such situations. As a cartoonist, she has always had a firm grasp on the slipperiness of the absurd; this talent serves her well as, after years of estrangement, she attempts the nearly impossible task of gaining her parents’ trust and affection, so long missing from her life. This is a brave, wrenchingly honest and yet often laugh-out-loud funny book whose images and message will stay with you for a very long time. Read it and laugh, and then weep, and then laugh again, and then make your adult children read it too.

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says:  “A revelatory and occasionally hilarious memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist on helping her parents through their old age. Few graphic memoirs are as engaging and powerful as this or strike a more responsive chord. Chast retains her signature style and wry tone throughout this long-form blend of text and drawings, but nothing she’s done previously hits home as hard as this account of her family life as the only child of parents who had never even dated anyone else and whose deep bond left little room for this intruder in their midst. Yet, “the reality was that at 95, their minds and bodies were falling apart,” and these two people who had only relied on each other were forced to rely on a host of caretakers, their daughter in particular, and to move from the Brooklyn apartment that had been home for half a century into a series of facilities that provided fewer and fewer amenities at escalating expense. Chast rarely lapses into sentimentality and can often be quite funny, as she depicts mortality as “The Moving Sidewalk of Life” (“Caution: Drop-Off Ahead”) or deals with dread and anxiety on the “Wheel of DOOM, surrounded by the ‘cautionary’ tales of my childhood.” The older her parents get, the more their health declines and the more expensive the care they require, the bleaker the story becomes—until, toward the end, a series of 12 largely wordless drawings of her mother’s final days represents the most intimate and emotionally devastating art that Chast has created. So many have faced (or will face) the situation that the author details, but no one could render it like she does. A top-notch graphic memoir that adds a whole new dimension to readers’ appreciation of Chast and her work.

In The New York Times Book Review, Alex Witchel writes: “This is a beautiful book, deeply felt, both scorchingly honest about what it feels like to love and care for a mother who has never loved you back, at least never the way you had wanted, and achingly wistful about a gentle father who could never break free of his domineering wife and ride to his daughter’s rescue. It veers between being laugh-out-loud funny and so devastating I had to take periodic timeouts. Cartoons, as it happens, are tailor-made for the absurdities of old age, illness and dementia, the odd dramas and grinding repetition expertly illustrated by copious exclamation points, capital letters and antic drawings. They also limit the opportunity for navel gazing and self-pity, trapping you in the surreal moments themselves.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “Something more pleasant” than the certainty of old age and death is what Chast’s parents would prefer to talk about, in this poignant and funny text-and-cartoon memoir of their final years. . . . Chast  . . . describes how her parents, George and Elizabeth, try her patience as she agonizes over their past and future. She brings her parents and herself to life in the form of her characteristic scratchy-lined, emotionally expressive characters, making the story both more personal and universal. Despite the subject matter, the book is frequently hilarious, highlighting the stubbornness and eccentricities (and often sheer lunacy) of the author’s parents. It’s a homage that provides cathartic “you are not alone” support to those caring for aging parents. . . . this is a cartoon memoir to laugh and cry, and heal, with—Roz Chast’s masterpiece.

“Chast’s scratchy art turns out perfectly suited to capturing the surreal realities of the death process. In quirky color cartoons, handwritten text, photos, and her mother’s poems, she documents the unpleasant yet sometimes hilarious cycle of human doom. She’s especially dead-on with the unpredictable mental states of both the dying and their caregivers: placidity, denial, terror, lunacy, resignation, vindictiveness, and rage. . . Chast so skillfully exposes herself and her family on the page as to give readers both insight and entertainment on a topic nearly everyone avoids. As with her New Yorker cartoons, Chast’s memoir serves up existential dilemmas along with chuckles and can help serve as a tutorial for the inevitable,” says Library Journal in a starred review.

“Roz Chast squeezes more existential pain out of baffled people in cheap clothing sitting around on living-room sofas with antimacassar doilies in crummy apartments than Dostoevsky got out of all of Russia’s dark despair. This is a great book in the annals of human suffering, cleverly disguised as fun,” says fellow New Yorker contributor Bruce McCall.

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a graphic memoir — in at least two senses. It joins Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, William Trevor’s The Old Boys, and Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up in the competition for the funniest book about old age I’ve ever read. It is also heartbreaking. In its pages, the elements of Chast’s most inspired comic work, well known particularly to readers of The New Yorker — impending calamity and aloneness — are no longer mere phantoms but are, instead, intractable, implacable reality. She, an only child, depicts in words, drawings, and ineffable mood her un-self-assured efforts to avert utter disaster as her parents descend into “the part of old age that [is] scarier, harder to talk about, and not part of this culture.

“. . . Naturally, this book begins on a doily-accoutered couch, a Chastian fixture as much existential condition as piece of furniture. There we first meet George and Elizabeth Chast, both born in 1912 and now around ninety years old . . .

Elizabeth had been an assistant elementary school principal and George, a high school teacher.. . . As a couple, they are perfectly matched: George, passive, patient, gentle, and anxious, is a man who “chain-worried the way others might chain smoke. He never learned to drive, swim, ride a bicycle, or change a lightbulb.” Elizabeth is aggressive, intolerant, confident, and domineering. She writes poetry of sorts, is given to explosions of rage (“blasts from Chast”), and played the piano almost every evening during the author’s unlamented childhood while young Roz and her father “would cower in admiration on the couch.”

“ . . . The ancient hostility between Chast and her mother becomes more fraught after her father’s death: Roz longing for some sign that her mother had loved her — this mother, now a lunatic version of her old self-centered, chilly self.

“. . .  Throughout the book, Chast’s drawings express her powerful sense of aloneness. With only a couple of exceptions, it’s just Roz — her daughter appears briefly — faced, as she was as a child, with her parents’ united front: dysfunctional in the past, positively pathological now. Her style — droopy, alarmed, appalled — perfectly captures her overwhelming feeling of inadequacy in the face of this drawn-out emergency. They show, graphically, how events surround her, and how taking care of parents deep in their dotage is an all-encompassing task.

“. . . Still, one might think, without really thinking, that a cartoon book about one’s parents’ decline and death would be a breach of good taste: disrespectful and not nice. (Can’t we illustrate something more pleasant?) But no. The final chapters in both parents’ lives, and their daughter’s bit part in each, are extremely moving. Certainly, the drawings and text are very funny, but here more than anywhere else in Chast’s work, one feels her comedy to be a form of desperate doughtiness, an attempt to foil terror, ease pity, and expiate guilt.

When is it available?

This remarkable 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!


Some Luck

By Jane Smiley

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

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

 What is this book about?

A simple plot idea, but one that is difficult to maintain: Smiley’s Some Luck is the first of a planned trilogy about the life of one farming family in Iowa from 1920 to the 1950s, told in the form of one chapter per year. Rosanna and Walter Langdon and their five children are the microcosm; the events from the Great Depression through World War II and its immediate aftermath is the macrocosm: both are delineated with care. The New Yorker says it best:

“This sweeping, carefully plotted novel traces the history, from 1920 to the Cold War era, of a single Iowa farming family. Each chapter focuses on one year, setting the minor catastrophes and victories of the family’s life against a backdrop of historical change, particularly the Great Depression. As the children branch out from their tiny town, so, too, does the story, eventually encompassing several generations, cities, and cultural movements. Smiley, like one of her characters contemplating the guests at the Thanksgiving table, begins with an empty house and fills it ‘with twenty-three different worlds, each one of them rich and mysterious.’ “

Why you’ll like it:

Smiley is an accomplished writer, and here she has set herself a difficult task: tell the story of one family while also telling the story of America during one of its most frightening yet fulfilling periods of history. And do so in a way that readers, having finished this book, will look forward eagerly to two more that will complete the story. Smiley has the skills to carry this off and no lack of the imagination that a literary feat of this nature demands. She can be touching yet funny, insightful and provocative. Some Luck and its planned sequels are truly a three-course readers’ feast.

What others are saying:  

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “In the first volume of a planned trilogy, Smiley returns to the Iowa of her Pulitzer Prize–winning A Thousand Acres, but in a very different vein. The warring sisters and abusive father of that book have given way to the Langdons, a loving family whose members, like most people, are exceptional only in their human particularities. The story covers the 1920s through the early ’50s, years during which the family farm survives the Depression and drought, and the five Langdon children grow up and have to decide whether to stay or leave. Smiley is particularly good at depicting the world from the viewpoint of young children—all five of the Langdons are distinct individuals from their earliest days. The standout is oldest son Frank, born stubborn and with an eye for opportunity, but as Smiley shifts her attention from one character to another, they all come to feel like real and relatable people. The saga of an Iowa farm family might not seem like an exciting premise, but Smiley makes it just that, conjuring a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next. Smiley plans to extend the tale of the Langdon family well into the 21st century; she’s off to a very strong start.”

From Library Journal’s starred review:  “Pulitzer Prize-winning Smiley moves from the 1920s to the 1950s as she unfolds the life of Iowa farmers Rosanna and Walter Langdon and their five children. As the children grow up and sometimes move away, we get a wide-angle view of mid-century America. Told in beautiful, you-are-there language, the narrative lets ordinary events accumulate to give us a significant feel of life at the time, with the importance and dangers of farming particularly well portrayed. In the end, though, this is the story of parents and children, of hope and disappointment . . . Highly recommended; a lush and grounded reading experience.”

From Booklist’s starred review: “Tremendous . . . Smiley is a seductive writer in perfect command of every element of language. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a novel about a farming family in Iowa, and she returns to that fertile ground to tell the stories of the Langdons, a clan deeply in accord with the land . . . As barbed in her wit as ever, Smiley is also munificently tender. The Langdons endure the Depression, Walter agonizes over giving up his horses for a tractor, and Joe tries the new synthetic fertilizers. Then, as Frank serves in WWII and, covertly, the Cold War, the novel’s velocity, intensity, and wonder redouble. This [is a] saga of the vicissitudes of luck, and our futile efforts to control it. Smiley’s grand, assured, quietly heroic, and affecting novel is a supremely nuanced portrait of a family spanning three pivotal American decades. It will be on the top of countless to-read lists.”

Kirkus says in its starred review: “Smiley follows an Iowa farm family through the thick of the 20th century. We first meet Walter Langdon in 1920 as he anxiously surveys his fields. Milk prices are down, and anyway “worry-shading-into-alarm [is] Walter’s ever-present state,” thinks wife Rosanna. The freakish accidental death of a toddler daughter is the only incident here that really justifies Walter’s apprehensions (it wouldn’t be a Smiley novel without at least one cruel twist of fate), but underpinning the comparatively placid unfolding of three decades is farm folks’ knowledge that disaster is always one bad crop away, and luck is never to be relied on. . . . The Langdons raise five children to varied destinies. Smart, charismatic Frank leaves home for college and the Army. Steady, sensitive Joe stays home on the farm, its perennial round of backbreaking labor somewhat alleviated by such innovations as tractors and commercial fertilizer. Golden girl Lillian marries a government employee who gets Frank involved in spying on suspected communist agents after the war—ironic, since Rosanna’s sister Eloise is a Trotskyist. Times are changing: Henry, the family intellectual, will clearly end up in academia; Lillian and Frank are both living in Eastern suburbs. Youngest daughter Claire is less vivid than her siblings, and the names begin to blur a bit as the postwar baby boom creates a burgeoning new generation, but for the most part Smiley juggles characters and events with her customary aplomb and storytelling craft. The novel doesn’t so much end as stop, adding to the sense that we’ve simply dropped in on a continuing saga. Smiley is the least sentimental of writers, but when Rosanna and Walter look at the 23 people gathered at Thanksgiving in 1948 and “agreed in an instant: something had created itself from nothing,” it’s a moment of honest sentiment, honestly earned. An expansive, episodic tale showing this generally flinty author in a mellow mood: surprising, but engaging.”

“Smiley is prolific [and] seemingly writes the way her idol Dickens did—as easily as if it were breathing . . . She made up her mind at an early age that she was going to master not just one genre, but all of them. Her new book is the first volume of a trilogy—one of the few forms left for her to tackle . . . Some Luck starts in 1920 and follows the fortunes of a Midwestern farming family; each chapter covers a single year. What most surprised her, she said, was the way that, more than in her other books, the characters took on lives of their own. ‘I got the feeling that I got on a train and sat down, and all these people were talking. I was eavesdropping, and the train was just heading into the future,’” says Charles McGrath in The New York Times.

When is it available?

Lucky for you, it is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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

 


Let Me Be Frank with You

By Richard Ford

(HarperCollins, $27.99, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Richard Ford, born in the South but now living in Boothbay, Maine with his wife, got lucky when the magazine Inside Sports folded in the 1980s, leaving him without a job. Previously a novelist, he began a new one inspired by his magazine experience: The Sportswriter, about a guy named Frank Bascombe.  A huge popular and critical success in 1986, it was followed by the best-selling sequels Independence Day (the first novel to win a Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award) and The Lay of the Land. Ford also wrote several story collections. Let Me Be Frank with You may be the final Bascombe book, but Ford’s fans hope not.

What is this book about?

Frank Bascombe, whose milieu is suburban New Jersey, is Ford’s triumphant creation: an Everyman for our times. Like Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman and John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, Bascombe is an iconic character who brilliantly reflects – and reflects on – his generation (which for many of us, is our generation, too.) He’s wry, cranky, smart, outspoken and intuitive, and he speaks with a voice that is almost too realistic. The book is not exactly a novel, nor a collection of stories. It is four linked novellas that bring Frank, at 68, through the horrors (and lingering aftershocks) of Hurricane Sandy and the crash of the real estate market, as well as  the sad realities of aging and illness and flawed and failed marriages. Grim stuff, but Frank has the sardonic wit to survive it, and to bring us along. He is not a perfect man, but he is the perfect man to tell these stories.

Why you’ll like it:

Sit back, relax, turn the pages: you are in the sure hands of a master storyteller. Ford has no need to play with novelistic innovations and literary folderol: he just lets Frank be, well, frank with us. We are all familiar with the recent upheavals of the real estate, financial and political climates, not to mention of the climate itself, but with Frank as our savvy, if sometimes a tad bewildered, guide, this book give us the chance to relive it with the perspective that a few years’ time and a lifetime of experience can offer.

What others are saying:

 

Publishers Weekly says: “Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land, continues to reflect on the meaning of existence in these four absorbing, funny, and often profound novellas. The collection is set in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2012. Frank considers the evanescence of life as he travels to the site of his former home on the shore; has an unsettling experience with a black woman whose family once lived in his present home in fictional Haddam; visits his prickly ex-wife, who is suffering from Parkinson’s, in an extended-care institution; and meets a dying former friend. At 68, Frank feels “old”; his bout with prostate cancer has convinced him that he’s in the “Default Period of life.” Intimations of mortality (“the bad closing in”) permeate his musings, recounted in an unadorned, profane, vernacular that conveys his witty, cynical voice. Frank’s cranky comments and free-flowing meditations about current social and political events are slyly juxtaposed with references to Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Trollope, Emerson, Milton, and others. Despite Frank’s dyspeptic outlook, Ford packs in a surprising amount of affirmation and redemption. Readers who met Frank in Ford’s earlier novels will quickly reconnect with his indelible personality.

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for November 2014 says: It’s been eight years since we last saw Frank Bascombe, successfully selling real estate in New Jersey, easing into his mid-50s at the conclusion of Richard Ford’s celebrated trilogy. Ford clearly had more to say about his man Frank. In the four connected novellas that comprise the touching and humorous Let Me Be Frank With You —like a coda to the trilogy—we see Frank confronting his aging self and, at the same time, a New Jersey coastline recently ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. In some ways, he’s the same old Frank: an admitted “malcontent,” cranky and kvetching, but funny and, mostly, a good guy. Speaking of being frank, I must admit: as a fan of the trilogy (especially the first two), I was doubtful that I’d care about the first-world problems of rich and retired Frank Bascombe, now on the verge of 70. But there’s a creeping sadness that infuses these stories, and a little bit of rage, as in raging against the dying light.  . . . In the end, the ride of life is often a waiting game. Says Frank: “Time fixes things, mostly.”

In the The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani writes: “. . . Let Me Be Frank With You] serves as an apt vitrine for Mr. Ford’s talents: his journalistic eye for the revealing detail, his knack for tracing the connections between the public and the personal, his gift for capturing the precariousness of daily life…the fact that Let Me works as well as it does is a testament to Mr. Ford’s strengths as a writer and his ability to turn his hero’s contradictions and discontinuities into something more like the genuine complexities of a real human being.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “The novelist returns with his favorite protagonist for a coda that is both fitting and timely.  . . In comparison to the other volumes in what had been known as “The Bascombe Trilogy”—and to Ford’s most recent novel, the masterful Canada (2012)—this is a short, formalistic work. Each of its four chapters could stand as a story on its own, featuring Frank’s meditations on odd encounters with someone from his past, now that he has settled into the detachment of retirement from the real estate racket. “[W]hat I mostly want to do is nothing I don’t want to do,” he explains, though he somehow finds himself commiserating with the guy who bought his house, destroyed by the recent Hurricane Sandy; the wife who became his ex three decades ago; and a former friend who is on his deathbed. While President Barack Obama, the hurricane and the bursting of the real estate bubble provide narrative signposts, not much really happens with Frank, which suits Frank just fine. He finds himself facing the mortal inevitability by paring down—ridding himself of friends, complications, words that have become meaningless. As he says, “I’d say it’s a simple, good-willed, fair-minded streamlining of life in anticipation of the final, thrilling dips of the roller-coaster.” Until then, what he experiences is “life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.” Over the course of his encounters, there are a couple of revelations that might disturb a man who felt more, but plot is secondary here to Frank’s voice, which remains at a reflective remove from whatever others are experiencing. Another Bascombe novel would be a surprise, but so is this—a welcome one.”

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “There’s something to be said for a good no-nonsense hurricane, to bully life back into perspective,” Frank says early on, pondering the “climatological shit train” that Sandy represents. He’d sold off his former coastal home, the one where he absorbed a gunshot wound at the climax of The Lay of the Land, and its new owner has summoned Frank to consider the wreckage. Damage assessment, both literally and figuratively, is the theme of the new book — in the two weeks before Christmas, he’ll hear his home’s former occupant relate a mortally tragic tale; visit his first, now ailing wife in a lavish but mortality-suffused retirement home; and grudgingly visit a distant friend on his deathbed. Every Bascombe novel thrives on the absurd disconnect between Frank’s pat sophistry and his real life: His patter about good parenting came undone when his son got whomped by a batting-cage fastball, and his pleas for civil political discourse couldn’t keep him out of a bar fight. Now, though, the dark humor is more elegiac. Frank, once a guy who could take a slug to the chest, is now just barely capable of handling his ex-wife’s Parkinson’s.

Ford’s great stroke as a novelist has come through giving us a narrator who is, at least half the time, full of horsehockey, yet making him a compelling narrator nonetheless; you’re buoyed on the sheer force of Frank’s know-it-all-persona  . . .”

When is it available?

I’ll be frank with you: it’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight 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!


Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free

by Hector Tobar

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Hector Tobar, born in Los Angeles to Guatemalan immigrant parents, is a prize-winning author and journalist who has long covered the relationship of the U.S. and Latin America. He has written for The New Yorker, LA Weekly, and Los Angeles Times, a paper his father once delivered. Tobar was on the Los Angeles Times’ 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning team covering the L.A. riots as well as a Metro columnist, book critic, bureau chief in Mexico City and in Buenos Aires, Argentina and national Latino affairs correspondent for the paper. His novels are The Barbarian Nurseries, Translation Nation, and The Tattooed Soldier.

What is this book about?              

The world recoiled in horror in August 2010, when a mine collapsed in Chile, trapping 33 miners under a half-mile of solid rock. For 69 days, rescue operations ground on, but no one was certain how many, if any, of the men had survived. Miraculously, all of them had, and TV viewers watched as they were extracted from the cavern in which they had found shelter, some near starvation. And in another kind of miracle, they made good on their vow to tell their story collectively. The miners chose Hector Tobar to write about their experience and their lives leading up to it and even after it – and that was not always a pretty picture — and they chose very well.

Why you’ll like it:

Deep Down Dark is narrative journalism at its finest, a “you are there” reading experience that took three years of reporting and hundreds of exclusive interviews with all of the 33 miners to flesh out their incredible experience. Tobar, a gifted and scrupulous storyteller, puts us in the bowels of the earth with these men and allows us to feel, as well as to read about, their experience. Today is Thanksgiving, and Deep Down Dark is a book that demands we give thanks for the courage of these men and their rescuers, as well as for the thorough reporting and compelling storytelling that this book offers.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and novelist Tobar presents the riveting story of the 33 men who spent 69 days trapped more than 2,000 feet underground in Chile’s San José Mine in 2010. Noting that the abundance of minerals under the hills of the Atacama desert drew workers from all corners of Chile, Tobar—who was granted exclusive access to the miners and their families—compassionately recounts the miners’ personal histories, experiences during the 17 days they were without outside contact, extended rescue, and the drama above ground with the families living near the mine in their makeshift “Camp Esperanza,” mingling with government ministers, NASA advisors, engineers, mechanics, and drillers. Particularly moving is the reenactment of the first 17 days when the “33” banded together, drinking dirty water used to cool off the mine’s drilling systems and sharing their meager food supplies. Feeling as though “they are living inside a Bible parable,” the men keep their hopes up through prayer, and some gravitate toward particular roles: the pastor, the chronicler, the unofficial spokesman. Tobar vividly narrates the miners’ lives post-rescue as they come to terms with their life-changing experience and the media frenzy surrounding it. Rich in local color, this is a sensitive, suspenseful rendering of a legendary story.”

NPR’s  Maureen Corrigan writes:  “Tobar had exclusive access to the miners, and while that kind of snug situation inevitably places some constraints on a storyteller, Tobar complicates the purely uplifting version of the men’s ordeal, describing occasional resentments and petty thievery. Nonetheless, the most inspiring aspect of the miners’ behavior was their almost immediate decision to act in solidarity. On the first day of their entombment, supervisor Urzua took off his distinctive white helmet and announced to his workers, “We are all equal now. . . .There are no bosses and employees.”

Kirkus says in a starred review:  “. . . Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and novelist Tobar  spins a gripping narrative, taut to the point of explosion, of the 2010 story that made international headlines for weeks. He doesn’t rush a complex story with many strands: the men below and their cacophony of woes, the families above, the political maneuvering of the Chilean state, the tightfisted mine owners and the company of rescuers. The locale featured “harsh, waterless surroundings [that] serve as a laboratory for studying the possibility of life on other planets,” and the mine itself was a sweltering jackstraw of tunnels, some nearing 100 years in age and ripe for disaster, the rock groaning and hissing as the great tectonic plates collided deep below. Tobar’s depiction of the cave-in is cinematic: The ceiling and floor became “undulating waves of stone,” then the lights went out as colossal wedges of rock collapsed to seal the exits. The author fully invests readers in the men’s plight by portraying the crushing realization of the dire circumstances, individual acts of decency and pettiness, and moments of sublimity and madness. He also devotes sympathetic attention to the gathering tent city of relatives who refused to leave, certainly not until the bodies were recovered. When the first bore hole punched through, suddenly, “the devil is present in the mine, taking form in all the greed, the misunderstanding, the envy, and the betrayals between the men.” Ultimately, once the miners made it out alive, via a frightening escape vehicle, life was good—until all the other stuff that surfaced along with the miners began to bring many of them down. An electrifying, empathetic work of journalism that makes a four-year-old story feel fresh.”

Library Journal says: “Tobar relates the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped thousands of feet underground for over two months. A significant portion of the narrative portrays the initial, critical days of survival against starvation. Before rescuers could reach the group, the men managed without assistance by rationing what little food was available, drinking water that was meant for their equipment, and depending on one another for support. As their time trapped below ground lengthened, and rescue efforts grew ever more complex, the men became the object of worldwide media attention. Deep Down Dark details that international rescue effort and the perseverance of those above ground, including mining experts from the United States and Chile, scientists from NASA, and family members who lived near the mine in a tent city for the duration of the rescue. Verdict;  A compelling account of a modern miracle for readers interested in survival narratives and contemporary accounts of recent mining disasters.”

“It’s almost hard to believe that Héctor Tobar wasn’t himself one of the trapped Chilean miners, so vivid, immediate, terrifying, emotional, and convincing is his Homeric narration of this extraordinary incident. Deep Down Dark is a literary masterpiece of narrative journalism, surgical in its reconstruction, novelistic in its explorations of human personality and nuance. In a manner that feels spiritual, Tobar puts himself at the service of his story, and his fidelity to and unquenchable curiosity about every fact and detail generates unforgettable wonderment and awe,” says author and part-time Trinity College professor Francisco Goldman.

When is it available?

This gripping book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

From her author photo, Emily St. John Mandel appears to be a slight and almost child-like, and it is not a surprise to learn she studied contemporary dance in her native Canada. But she is no delicate gamine when it comes to her novels. Station Eleven was a 2014 National Book Award finalist, and her first three — Last Night in Montreal, The Singer’s Gun, and The Lola Quartet —were Indie Next picks. The Singer’s Gun also won the 2014 Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Now living in New York City with her husband, she is a staff writer for The Millions, and her fiction has appeared in such anthologies as The Best American Mystery Stories 2013 and Venice Noir. You can learn more about this writer at www.emilymandel.com.

What is this book about?

In an unintentionally grim coincidence, Mandel’s fourth novel, about a plague called the Georgia Flu that kills of all but one percent of the world’s inhabitants, was released in September, just as widespread – and often unjustified – panic set in over the Ebola virus. The book became a New York Times bestseller, not just because of the newly heightened interest in devasting plagues, but because of its beautifully written and cleverly constructed story, that begins just as the disease begins its rapid-fire, world-wide destruction of life as we know it. The story covers the next 20 years or so, and also offers flashbacks to times before the deadly onslaught of the Georgia Flu. It gives us a world without electricity and the electronic devices that feed off it, without modern medicine or means of traveling, where a makeshift museum of civilization blossoms in an abandoned airport, and where a ragtag group of actors called the Traveling Symphony roam the Great Lakes area, bringing the universal and timeless magic of Shakespeare and music to the remnant that has survived. Their motto comes from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” They are a force for good, but violent cults offer darker, disturbing things for the desperate to believe in. The book tells a frightening story, but in the end, its message is one of hope, not doom.

Why you’ll like it:

“Station Eleven” is timely and tautly written and is the kind of book that commands you to stop and think about life in all its mysteries and to be thankful for what you have. Yes, it will scare you, but also will enthrall you, because of the beauty of Mandel’s prose and the underlying message that some of what humanity has created is indestructible and though altered, will survive.

Here is what the author has written about why she wrote this book:

“. . .  It was also partly that I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world—the high-speed trains, internet, antibiotics, electricity, cell phones, all of these wonderfully useful things that we take for granted. I’ve always loved post-apocalyptic novels, and it occurred to me that one way to consider the modern world would be to write about its absence.

“. . . Also, it seemed to me that there are some interesting parallels between Shakespeare’s time and the post-pandemic era about which I was writing, so as I continued revising Station Eleven, it began to seem more and more natural that the company would focus exclusively on Shakespeare. In Shakespeare’s era, theatre was often a matter of traveling companies moving from town to town, performing by candlelight. Also, he lived in a time and a place that was haunted by recurring episodes of bubonic plague, and you see it here and there in his texts.

“. . . I didn’t write the book with a message in mind, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to see the book as a suggestion that perhaps we could all stand to be a little more mindful of the fragility of civilization, and perhaps slightly more appreciative of the technological marvels that surround us. Isn’t it wonderful to have electricity? It’s something I very much appreciate, personally.”

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “Survivors and victims of a pandemic populate this quietly ambitious take on a post-apocalyptic world where some strive to preserve art, culture and kindness.  her fourth novel, Mandel moves away from the literary thriller form of her previous books but keeps much of the intrigue. The story concerns the before and after of a catastrophic virus called the Georgia Flu that wipes out most of the world’s population. On one side of the timeline are the survivors, mainly a traveling troupe of musicians and actors and a stationary group stuck for years in an airport. On the other is a professional actor, who dies in the opening pages while performing King Lear, his ex-wives and his oldest friend, glimpsed in flashbacks. There’s also the man—a paparazzo-turned-paramedic—who runs to the stage from the audience to try to revive him, a Samaritan role he will play again in later years. Mandel is effectively spare in her depiction of both the tough hand-to-mouth existence of a devastated world and the almost unchallenged life of the celebrity—think of Cormac McCarthy seesawing with Joan Didion. The intrigue arises when the troupe is threatened by a cult and breaks into disparate offshoots struggling toward a common haven. Woven through these little odysseys, and cunningly linking the cushy past and the perilous present, is a figure called the Prophet. Indeed, Mandel spins a satisfying web of coincidence and kismet while providing numerous strong moments, as when one of the last planes lands at the airport and seals its doors in self-imposed quarantine, standing for days on the tarmac as those outside try not to ponder the nightmare within. Another strand of that web is a well-traveled copy of a sci-fi graphic novel drawn by the actor’s first wife, depicting a space station seeking a new home after aliens take over Earth—a different sort of artist also pondering man’s fate and future. Mandel’s solid writing and magnetic narrative make for a strong combination in what should be a breakout novel.

Says Library Journal in its starred review: “Onstage at a Toronto theater, an aging movie star drops dead while performing the title role in King Lear. As the other cast members share a drink at the lobby bar before heading into the snowy night, none can know what horrors await them: “Of all of them at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” The Shakespearean tragedy unfolds into a real-life calamity just before the entire world is overtaken by a catastrophic flu pandemic that will kill off the vast majority of the population. The narrative is organized around several figures present at the theater that night, and the tale travels back and forth in time, from the years before the pandemic through the following 20 years in a world without government, electricity, telecommunications, modern medicine, or transportation. In this lawless and dangerous new reality, a band of actors and musicians performs Shakespeare for the small communities that have come into existence in the otherwise abandoned landscape. In this unforgettable, haunting, and almost hallucinatory portrait of life at the edge, those who remain struggle to retain their basic humanity and make connections with the vanished world through art, memory, and remnants of popular culture. VERDICT This is a brilliantly constructed, highly literary, postapocalyptic page-turner, and should be a breakout novel for Mandel.

Mandel is an able and exuberant storyteller, and many readers will be won over by her nimble interweaving of her characters’ lives and fates…Station Eleven is as much a mystery as it is a post-apocalyptic tale, and Mandel is especially good at planting clues and raising the kind of plot-thickening questions that keep the reader turning pages…If Station Eleven reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old,” says The New York Times Book Review.

Publishers Weekly says:  “Few themes are as played-out as that of post-apocalypse, but St. John Mandel finds a unique point of departure from which to examine civilization’s wreckage, beginning with a performance of King Lear cut short by the onstage death of its lead, Arthur Leander, from an apparent heart attack. On hand are an aspiring paramedic, Jeevan Chaudary, and a young actress, Kirsten Raymonde; Leander’s is only the first death they will witness, as a pandemic, the so-called Georgia Flu, quickly wipes out all but a few pockets of civilization. Twenty years later, Kirsten, now a member of a musical theater troupe, travels through a wasteland inhabited by a dangerous prophet and his followers. Guided only by the graphic novel called Station Eleven given to her by Leander before his death, she sets off on an arduous journey toward the Museum of Civilization, which is housed in a disused airport terminal. Kirsten is not the only survivor with a curious link to the actor: the story explores Jeevan’s past as an entertainment journalist and, in a series of flashbacks, his role in Leander’s decline. Also joining the cast are Leander’s first wife, Miranda, who is the artist behind Station Eleven, and his best friend, 70-year-old Clark Thompson, who tends to the terminal settlement Kirsten is seeking. With its wild fusion of celebrity gossip and grim future, this book shouldn’t work nearly so well, but St. John Mandel’s examination of the connections between individuals with disparate destinies makes a case for the worth of even a single life.”

“Mandel’s spectacular, unmissable new novel is set in a near-future dystopia, after most — seriously, 99.99 percent — of the world’s population is killed suddenly and swiftly by a flu pandemic. (Have fun riding the subway after this one!) The perspective shifts between a handful of survivors, all connected to a famous actor who died onstage just before the collapse. A literary page-turner, impeccably paced, which celebrates the world lost while posing questions about art, fame, and what endures after everything, and everyone, is gone,” says Vulture.

“If you’re planning to write a post-apocalyptic novel, you’re going to have to breathe some new life into it. Emily St. John Mandel does that with her new book, Station Eleven . . . The story is told through several characters, including an A-list actor, his ex-wives, a religious prophet and the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group of Shakespearean actors and musicians who travel to settlements performing for the survivors. Each bring a unique perspective to life, relationships and what it means to live in a world returned to the dark ages . . . Mandel doesn’t put the emphasis on the apocalypse itself (the chaos, the scavenging, the scientists trying to find a cure), but instead shows the effects it has on humanity. Despite the state of the world, people find reasons to continue . . . Station Eleven will change the post-apocalyptic genre. While most writers tend to be bleak and clichéd, Mandel chooses to be optimistic and imaginative. This isn’t a story about survival, it’s a story about living,” says The Boston Herald.

When is it available?

Copies of “Station Eleven” were due to arrive by November 19 at the Downtown Hartford Public Library. Please check with the library to see if the book is on the shelves.

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

 

Subtle Bodies

By Norman Rush

(Knopf Doubleday /Vintage International, $15, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Norman Rush, an author based in New York state,  is best known for “Whites,” a collection of stories, and two hefty novels: “ Mating” and “Mortals.” All were set in Botswana, the African country where Rush and his wife, Elsa, were Peace Corps directors from 1978 to 1983. “Mating” won a National Book Award for fiction, and you may have read some of Rush’s stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. “Subtle Bodies,” however, is a shorter work, set in the Catskills mountains of New York State, a bit of a departure for Rush, who is now 81.

What is this book about?

It’s a “Big Chill” kind of plot, in which Douglas, a charismatic member of a once-tightly knit group of friends, expires, and the rest gather, after having been apart for many years, to pay their respects and reminisce, even as Douglas’s widow tries to turn the event into what feels like a theatrical extravaganza. Of course, it is not always a good idea to stir up old memories and force old friends into new alliances. Should old acquaintance be forgot? Sometimes, yes. The book centers on Ned and his much younger wife Nina, who are trying to get pregnant and who tell the story. Many reviewers say Nina, a smart and sardonic narrator, is the best part of the book.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are a Baby Boomer, and really, who isn’t, you will find plenty to like here. Known for its relentless navel-gazing and its pig-in-the-python prominence in American demographics, this is the dominant group in numbers, wealth and influence, and “Subtle Bodies” delineates them well. Throw in Rush’s talents at writing coruscating humor and ability to create memorable female characters, and you have a winning combination.

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “Rush’s third novel is an outlier–a slim book not set in Botswana–but his concerns with our carnal and intellectual lives remain pleasurably, provocatively intact. The modern classic Mating (1991) and its 2003 follow-up, Mortals, were hothouse experiments in human behavior: Take a bright couple, drop them in a foreign milieu, and watch their primal instincts slowly emerge. This book does much the same thing, though it’s set in Rush’s native United States. At its center is Ned, a middle-aged activist who has hastened to the castle-like home of his college friend Douglas, who has died in a riding-mower accident. Following close behind is his wife, Nina, who is outraged at Ned for leaving just as she reaches the peak in her fertility cycle; she wants to conceive. Its life-and-death themes settled fast, the novel largely explores the personalities of Ned and three other friends of Douglas who have arrived for the memorial. Douglas was a lifelong provocateur, and in college, this clan was hellbent on undoing social norms, but reconvened, they largely have memories of old bons mots and a widow who’s trying to stage-manage the memorial to the last utterance. The setting is funereal, and Rush dwells much on the futility of warring against our natures, yet this book abounds in wit, particularly in its exploration of Ned and Nina’s marriage; alternating between their perspectives, Rush ping-pongs their thoughts about lust, love and accomplishment. The brevity of the story highlights its contrived setup–the everybody-stuck-in-the-castle arrangement has an unintentional whiff of an Agatha Christie mystery–and a subplot involving Douglas’ troubled teen son is left frustratingly unresolved. But this is a weaker novel only in comparison to Rush’s earlier triumphs. His skill at revealing our interior lives is undiminished. Easier to lug around than its predecessors but with plenty of heft regardless.”

Says Library Journal: “Old friends reunite at a funeral in Rush’s latest work, a basic plot here given lighthearted treatment. Chief among the group is Ned, coming from California to the East Coast and trailed by his wife, Nina, who mildly resents having been left behind but is mainly interested in continuing their attempts to conceive a child. The deceased is Douglas, a charismatic figure around whom the group coalesced at college in the 1970s, united by belief mostly in their superior intelligence but also encompassing vague political and theatrical forces. Douglas had resided on an estate in upstate New York, where, in addition to friends, various representatives of the international media appear to capture the elegiac ceremonies. Nina arrives and immediately immerses herself in the lives of Ned’s gang as the novel unfolds in a humorous and unfunereal fashion, played out against the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Verdict This novel has the verbal play and digressions one might expect from Rush . . . but is briefer and more accessible. Readers will be immediately drawn into the acutely rendered world swirling around Ned and Nina.”

Says Bookforum: Though Subtle Bodies tunnels in various directions, including toward a meditation on the enigma of male friendship, here again the marital banner flies strong from the novel’s first pages, its first syllables. In Subtle Bodies, as in so much of his work, confronting the world returns Rush to his central question: What matters, in the end? That we do what we can, is the author’s refrain. Even if all we can do— all any two people can do—is form a country of our own, whose flag is love.”

When is it available?

Rush to the Downtown Hartford Public Library to borrow this one.

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!


You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor

By Elizabeth Taylor

New York Review Books Classics, $17.95, 400 pages

Who is this author?

No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. This Elizabeth Taylor, who lived from 1912 to 1975, was a British author who published a dozen novels, five story collections and a book for children. Many of her stories appeared in such prestigious literary magazines as The New Yorker and Harper’s. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a governess and a librarian before marrying a businessman who later became mayor of their town. As private and unassuming as a writer as her namesake was flamboyant and theatrical as a superstar, this Elizabeth Taylor is known for her deft portrayals of life among the middle and upper classes in England following World War II. Her work is widely admired by other authors, and many have said her talent has never been fully appreciated. .American novelist Anne Tyler, for example, once compared Taylor to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen – “soul sisters all.” Taylor’s  best-known novels include “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” (2005), and “Angel” (2007), which, like some of her other  books, inspired film adaptations.

What is this book about?

Here are 29 stories, selected for this collection by novelist Margaret Drabble. They demonstrate Taylor’s quiet but powerful understanding of the emotional turbulence that often roils under the outward placidity of ordinary life. Taylor set her stories in domestic life, but the loneliness, self-doubt, awkward encounters and unfulfilled desires she so brilliantly depicts are anything but homey. Taylor employed a kind of double vision that allowed her to describe the surface and expose the depths at the same time.

Why you’ll like it:

Though these tales are set in England, the American reader will have no problem relating to her carefully drawn characters. Taylor’s work appeared so regularly in The New Yorker that you may well have read some of her stories there. No matter: having them collected in this fine book gives them a kind of cumulative power that will enhance their value whether they are familiar to you or serve as an entry point into Taylor’s work.

Here is what she once said about the art of writing:  “The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn’t. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.”

 

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review:  “This captivating collection of 29 stories by Taylor—a British novelist who wrote 11 novels and four story collections—includes an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who edited the book. Most of the stories revolve around female protagonists in unremarkable English settings. The title story is about a young girl named Rhoda, who attends a ball with her father. Her glamorous mother is sick and unable to attend, but she advises awkward Rhoda not to be shy. Their dynamic is emblematic of the tension between expectation and reality that affects many of Taylor’s characters. In “The Letter Writers,” spinster Emily finally meets a famous novelist she’s admired from afar through a decade of epistolary friendship. Unfortunately, the meeting is awkward and strained, leaving Emily feeling ashamed. In “The Prerogative of Love,” young, beautiful Arabella floats through her aunt’s lunch party, filling the elder guests with a longing for their youth and levity. In “Flesh,” a middle-aged pair on vacation strike up a brief adulterous romance, but are ultimately foiled. Taylor’s vulnerable characters are simultaneously touching and heartbreaking.”

“There is a deceptive smoothness in her tone, or tone of voice, as in that of Evelyn Waugh; not a far-fetched comparison, for in the work of both writers the funny and the appalling lie side by side in close amity,” says author Kingsley Amis.

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A newly selected volume of short fiction by a much-admired but not widely known English writer showcases her subtle insights. Taylor’s (1912-1975) reputation has ebbed and flowed in both her native England and in the U.S., where recent reissues of two of her 11 novels, Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek, have helped return her to the public eye. This book of 29 stories, edited and introduced by [Margaret] Drabble, reflects the breadth of her creative life as well as her nuanced grasp of human interactions. The tales are often located in a finely detailed, middle-class domestic setting where the tone and minutiae are very English: gardens, glasses of sherry, village pubs, marmalade, class differences, Austen-ish wit. Frequently noting the weather, the seasons, flora and fauna, Taylor considers, usually from a female perspective, questions of marriage, isolation, love and aging. The collection opens with a novella, Hester Lilly, which charts the strains imposed on an established marriage by the arrival of the husband’s young cousin. This theme of individuals struggling within an existing relationship recurs often, as in “Gravement Endommagé,” a glimpse of a couple that has survived wartime separation but is not at peace together. The title story, one of several featuring younger women outgrowing their youth, captures the exquisite discomfort of a daughter deputizing for her mother at a formal dinner. Among the most memorable is “The Letter-Writers,” a model of unarticulated intensity in which two long-term correspondents come together for the first time and fear their “eyes might meet and they would see in one another’s nakedness and total loss.” Sensitive souls are scrutinized with delicate English understatement.”

When is it available?

This Taylor-made collection can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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