Dear Committee Members

By Julie Schumacher

(Doubleday, $22.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

Julie Schumacher is a graduate of two fine schools: Oberlin College and Cornell University., The Body Is Water, her 1995 debut novel, and was an ALA Notable Book of the Year and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Minnesota Book Award. Schumacher has also published a story collection and five books for younger readers. She is a faculty member in the Creative Writing Program and the Department of English at the University of Minnesota.

What is this book about?                                             

Academia. Boredom. Despair. The unquenchable hope that maybe for once you can make a difference, a good one, in someone’s life. The crushing realization that nope, you probably cannot. Oh, and the fine art of passive-aggressiveness. Told entirely in the form of recommendation letters by a professor of creative writing at a not-so-hot Midwestern college on behalf of students and colleagues seeking gainful employment. Professor Jason Fitger will likely never write the mythical Great American Novel, but Julie Schumacher has constructed a pretty darn funny – and wise – one from the endless letters Fitger sends out.  

Why you’ll like it:                 

Anyone who has ever written a recommendation (or has begged a colleague for one) will appreciate how well Schumacher replicates the style of these peculiar letters, which often seem to be written in code. It sounds gimmicky to create an entire novel and deftly delineate a character solely from such epistles, but Schumacher makes it work, and the book is both howlingly funny and not a little sad. It’s no surprise that many reviewers wrote their appreciations in the form of letters to a committee, but the book does it better.

What others are saying:                                

Publishers Weekly says: “Professor Jason Fitger, the hero of this engaging epistolary novel from Schumacher is concerned about Darren Browles, a student of his currently at work on a novel. Fitger, who teaches creative writing at fictional Payne University, believes this book, when completed, will prove Browles to be a prodigy. Despite Fitger’s near-ecstatic praise of the would-be novelist, both for writing positions and for any job available, no one seems interested in hiring Browles, not even the less-than-enterprising college radio station. In addition to this pet project, Fitger commits himself to writing recommendations for anyone that asks. However, he agrees to do so only on the condition of being completely frank, leading him to address the personal lives of his colleagues and students inappropriately. Additionally, Fitger delves into his own life with uncomfortable honesty, regardless of which person he’s writing to, usually concerning the marriage-ending novel he wrote about his extramarital affairs and his distress over being a failed novelist. His letters become progressively more abrasive, to the point of insult. A creative writing professor herself, Schumacher crafts a suitably verbose but sympathetic voice for Fitger, a man who exudes both humor and heart.”

Says Slate: “A funny and lacerating novel of academia written in the form of letters of recommendation… Dear Committee Members isn’t really an academic novel, or even an academic satire. It’s a sincere exploration of the depths and breadths of human selfishness, and the contemporary American academy is simply the backdrop… So in the end, it is exactly Fitger’s selfishness that destructs, rather than his life—and although his semi-redemption may not redeem the rank carcass of academic culture that continues to fester around him, it’s more than enough to recommend this mischievous novel.

“. . . A smart-as-hell, fun-as-heck novel composed entirely of recommendation letters… Beyond the moribund state of academia, Schumacher touches on more universal themes about growing old and facing failure: not necessarily the dramatic failure of a batter striking out with two on and two out in the  bottom of the ninth, but the quieter failure that accrues over time, until we are finally forced to admit that we are not who we wanted to become,” says Newsweek.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “. . . Over the course of 100 letters, we learn that waste water is leaking into Fitger’s office from the construction of a glorious new economics center above the English department; that he’s engaged in a losing battle of office politics with the administration; that he has a cordial but cold relationship with his ex-wife over in the law school; and that he’s generally kind to most of his students, even the ones who are moving on from college to the local liquor store. His writing, meanwhile, is tremendously florid and mostly cynical: “Mr. Duffy Napp has just transmitted a nine-word email asking that I immediately send a letter of reference to your firm on his behalf; his request has summoned from the basement of my heart a star-spangled constellation of joy, so eager am I to see Mr. Napp well established at Maladin IT.” Most of all, we learn that the failed novelist still has hope for the future—if not for himself, then for one of his students, Darren Browles, whom he’s mentoring through a difficult first novel. It’s an unusual form for comedy, but it works.Truth is stranger than fiction in this acid satire of the academic doldrums.”

“For that reason, I entreat you, now that you’ve reviewed my précis, to read Ms. Schumacher’s book. It is easily consumed in small pieces, like a tray of sweets and savories. It is ideal for passing the time between innings of a baseball game, waiting for a long red light to change, or sitting in a warm bath. As for Jason Fitger, I implore you to take a leap of faith and offer him admission to your next available residency. The worlds of business and academia will be poorer for lack of his letters, but perhaps, with your support, he can find a way to channel his energy and inventiveness into a new novel—one that will hopefully be as entertaining and as sharply written as Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members,” recommends Jon Michaud in The New Yorker.

When is it available?

I recommend that you check the new book shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

By Steven Johnson

(Riverhead, $30, 304 pages)

Who is this author?     

Steven Johnson is the brilliant author of the bestselling nonfiction books on science: not the easiest field of endeavor. His titles include Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good for You, Mind Wide Open, Emergence, and Interface Culture. But, as they say on infomercials: That’s not all! Johnson also edited the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook, founded many and varied websites and contributes to Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in California with his family.

What is this book about?

This fascinating book is an illustrated look-back (with lots of color photography) at powerful ideas and how they came to influence many aspects of civilization, often quite unintentionally. Gutenberg, for example, did not and could not foresee that his invention of the printing press would spark a desire for spectacles that helped readers see better and in turn, lead to the development of lenses for microscopes and telescopes and cameras. The book offers many such unexpected connections: air conditioning facilitated the growth of such cities as Phoenix; the ability to make water clean helped in making computer chips, the technique of amplifying sound increased the power of orators as diverse as Hitler and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The book covers six broad areas of innovation, and you’ll wish it covered even more.

Why you’ll like it:

Johnson has the rare and valuable ability to write about complex scientific ideas in a very accessible and entertaining way, opening the door for even the casual reader to deep and important knowledge. He gives us the history of inventors who stumbled upon radical new ideas and devices, often not realizing themselves what they had unleashed. Stories like that are just plain fun to read, and Johnson illuminates both history and science without ever dumbing them down. The book also has inspired a six-part series on PBS that began Oct. 15.

What others are saying:

From Barnes & Noble: In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson successfully demolished the “Eureka Moment” theory of ideas dropping on inventors like apples from a tree. In How We Got to Now, he escorts us further into the real world of innovation by describing half a dozen breakthroughs that have radically changed humankind, almost always in unforeseen ways. To this new mix, Johnson brings the talents of a natural storyteller, dispensing real-life tales of both genius inventors and near-miss blunderers in equally captivating ways.  . . Johnson is particularly interested in the unpredictable ways that developments in one field can trigger momentous changes in another, a process he refers to as “the hummingbird effect” (named for the way the coevolution of flowering plants and insects unexpectedly led to the hummingbird’s evolved — and unbirdlike — ability to float in midair while extracting nectar from flowers). Each chapter is full of strange and fascinating connections, but my favorite was the one on glass. Johnson shows how Johannes Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention of the printing press made vast numbers of people aware for the first time that they were farsighted, creating a new and massive demand for spectacles. The growth in the market for spectacles in turn led to a surge in experimentation with lenses, resulting in the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope. Johnson doesn’t stop there: he brings the story of glass up to the present moment, describing how silicon dioxide enables you to read material like this on the Internet, which is created out of fiber-optic cables.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “In this fascinating book, Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From) presents a “history of ideas and innovation,” focusing on six important technical and scientific innovations that have shaped the modern world but that we often take for granted. The book reveals what Johnson calls “the hummingbird effect,” when “an innovation… in one field ends up triggering changes that seem to belong to a different domain altogether.” . . . Understanding the hummingbird effect is crucial in our world of constant technological development. Johnson debunks the genius theory of innovation—the romantic idea of the lone inventor who changes history—arguing instead that ideas and innovations emerge from “collaborative networks” at the intersections of different domains. He says that this understanding is crucial to “see more clearly the way new ideas come into being, and how to cultivate them as a society.”

Says Kirkus Reviews in its starred review: “Best-selling author Johnson  continues his explorations of what he calls the “hummingbird effect,” unforeseeable chains of influence that change the world. An innovation, writes the author, typically arises in one field—chemistry, say, or cryptography. But it does not rise alone—”ideas are fundamentally networks of other ideas,” and those tributary ideas likely came from many sources and disciplines, conditioned by the intellectual resources available at the time. Da Vinci aside, the author notes that even the most brilliant 17th-century inventor couldn’t have hit on the refrigerator, which “simply wasn’t part of the adjacent possible at that moment.” A couple of centuries later, it was, thanks to changes in our understanding of materials, physics, chemistry and other areas. Johnson isn’t the first writer to note that such things as the can opener were game-changers, but he has a pleasing way of spinning out the story to include all sorts of connections as seen through the lens of “long zoom” history, which looks at macro and micro events simultaneously. . . , Johnson’s look at six large areas of innovation, from glassmaking to radio broadcasting (which involves the products of glassmaking, as it happens), is full of well-timed discoveries, and his insistence on the interdisciplinary nature of invention and discovery gives hope to the English and art history majors in the audience. Of a piece with the work of Tracy Kidder, Henry Petroski and other popular explainers of technology and science—geeky without being overly so and literate throughout.”

“[Johnson's] point is simple, important and well-timed: During periods of rapid innovation, there is always tumult as citizens try to make sense of it….Johnson is an engaging writer, and he takes very complicated and disparate subjects and makes their evolution understandable,” says The Washington Post.

When is it available?

You can discover 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!

Of Sea and Cloud

By Jon Keller

(Adams Media, $24.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?                                                                

From the mountains of Idaho and Montana to the rough coast of Maine, debut novelist Jon Keller is a writer who finds inspiration from a wild landscape. After earning an MFA degree from Boise State University, he moved to Maine, worked on a lobster boat and wrote for a commercial fishing newspaper. Needing more time for his writing, he left lobstering and took up clam digging.

Here is what he told fictionwritersreview.com about Maine and his work:

“The seascape amazed me; not just the beauty, but the starkness of it all, so absolute and consuming. For weeks on end, the world could go cold and gray in a way I’d not witnessed—so many subtle and varying degrees that were both harsh and beautiful. I was working on a lobster boat, so I spent huge amounts of time watching the water and the sky because there was nothing else to look at but lobster bait, which is just dead fish.

“I felt guilty for wanting to write about the lobster fishing world because it was such an old and insular place, and I was so new to it. It took me two years of working on the boat, and at the pound, before I began to write. In addition to my notes, I’d written a bunch of research-based articles concerning the economics and politics of commercial fisheries for a monthly paper, but when it came to the culture, I felt that I was touching on something nearing the sacred, and to write about the locals would be a form of trespass. Fiction writers have a serious responsibility, especially when writing about something that others view as sacred—and on the downeast coast of Maine, the entire culture is wrapped around the lobster industry. Then one day, while working on the boat, it dawned on me that I could spend a lifetime on the stern of a boat. By then, I felt like I’d put in enough time to not be a total interloper.

What is this book about?            

It’s the saga of a family devoted to lobster fishing: two brothers, Bill and Jonah, who have been taught this old and demanding trade by their father. But when he goes missing at sea, and is later found murdered, all at a time when the normally pricey crustaceans are losing their value on the market, they must make difficult decisions about whether to continue in their beloved but difficult and demanding family business. The brothers also must cope with the ill will of their father’s longtime business partner, a former minister and mystic who is working with his grandson to drive the brothers out of business — come hell or very high water. The book combines family drama, the tension between honoring tradition and welcoming change and the impact of globalization on this very idiosyncratic business.

Why you’ll like it:                        

This is a story of tough men in a harsh environment and an insider’s look at the dark side of the business that puts those yummy lobster rolls on your summer table.  So you get a fascinating fictional tale and a good look at the real-life world behind it. As Keller told the fictionwritersreview.com interviewer:

“Isolation, I think, works backwards in this case; instead of safeguarding a place from the onslaught of a global economy, the isolation exposes it. Many young fishermen are no longer learning to care for the industry the way their fathers and grandfathers had; instead, they take out huge loans and buy huge boats and catch unprecedented numbers of lobsters. The captain I worked for was of the older generation, and he talked often about the changes he was seeing—the younger generation’s apathy, the infringement of big business, the loss of waterfront access. It was all happening at once, and I tried to capture that whirlwind in the novel.

“. . . what it comes down to, though, is that the work I’ve done and the people I work with have kept my head in a place where I need it to be. By that I mean that as a writer, I spend a huge amount of time in my own head, thinking about story and plot and metaphor, motivation and reaction and all of that crap that will eventually drive me crazy if I don’t find a way to mediate it. Some writers drink, some meditate, some exercise, some go crazy. I turn to physical labor.”

 

What others are saying:                                    

Fictionwritersreview.com says: “. . . Of Sea and Cloud mixes elements of murder mystery with a Hamlet-esque meditation on revenge and its consequences. Partly a homage to the great seafaring novels of the canon, at its core it is an elegy for a dying way of life. Even as he subjects them to insurmountable economic and environmental forces, Keller manages to treat the Graves Brothers with a wealth of compassion.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “This atmospheric, gritty first novel from ex-lobsterman Keller takes place on Maine’s rugged coast. An argument flares up between lobster catchers Nicolas Graves and Osmond Randolph over their lobster pound, a protected cove used for harvesting the animals . . . Osmond, an imposing former Calvinist preacher said to experience strange religious visions, has plans to expand his operation in order to survive in the face of an increasingly corporate-dominated industry. He also dotes on his 20-year-old grandson Julius Wesley, a drug dealer. Nicolas leaves behind two sons, the older of whom, “Captain” Bill, is in the family business. The younger son, college-educated and introspective Jonah, had been estranged from Nicholas at the time of his death. . . . the two brothers discover . . . that Osmond may have murdered Nicolas, setting the stage for a feud between the two families. The rich lore of the Maine lobstermen combines with an energetic narrative and muscular prose to make Keller’s fiction debut a winner.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “The death of a fisherman off the wintry coast of Maine sparks a deadly feud in this debut novel. In a remote area near the Bay of Fundy, Nicolas Graves and his partner, Osmond Randolph, have a fight over the future of their lobstering business.  . . Osmond, a former minister, has no qualms about presiding at Nicolas’ empty-coffin funeral and then immediately setting traps on his old partner’s hunting ground. Without a thought for the consequences, Nicolas’ younger son, known as Jonah, cuts the traplines to warn Osmond off the family territory and costs his father’s old partner thousands in lost stock and equipment. Osmond, desperate to support his three grandchildren, wants to partner with a slick salesman from Boston who covets the lobsters stored in the saltwater pound Nicolas built. But Jonah and his older brother Bill don’t want to sell out to big corporations, as so many of the other local fishermen have had to do. To their shock, they discover that their father left no will and that Osmond is the sole owner of the business. A grisly reminder of their father’s death makes Jonah and Bill even more suspicious of Osmond. Woman trouble, rivalry between the brothers and a trapping war up the ante even more in a tale that vividly portrays a bleak land, a cruel sea, the unexpected beauty of the blueberry barrens and a dark side of Downeast Maine that tourist brochures rarely show. In a style as unadorned as the characters he creates, Keller builds suspense slowly but inexorably—not so much about the victim’s death as about what will happen when his fiercely independent sons find out how he died. “

Says Library Journal: “Keller’s debut novel examines the tough and hardscrabble world of Maine fishing families. Nicolas Graves, the patriarch of a lobster family, has worked his whole life and created what is known as a lobster pound, a cooperative of lobstermen who add their catch into a salt pond to sell when they have a good price. When Nicolas is lost at sea, Osmond Randolph, the town minister, mystic, and partner in the lobster pound, stands ready to take over and cut Nicolas’s two sons out. Jonas and Bill have to discover what really happened to their father and deal with Osmond and his shifty grandson. VERDICT With Shakespearean overtones, Keller’s immersive story examines the difficult choices that are made when a family legacy is at stake. His well-crafted narrative builds into an epic story of addiction, greed, betrayal, and the vast power of the sea.”

When is it available?                                         

You can catch this novel at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or 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!

A Song For Issy Bradley

By Carys Bray

(Ballantine, $26, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

This is the first novel from Carys Bray, a lapsed Mormon who lives in Southport, England. But it is not her first published work to win critical praise: her debut story collection, “Sweet Home,” won the Scott Prize and she also has won an Edge Hill Prize for the Short Story.

What is this book about?                   

How does any family cope with the death of a small child? For the Bradley family, despite their Mormon faith that had heretofore defined their lives, coping does not go well. Issy is only four when she dies of meningitis, and her parents and siblings react in different ways. Issy’s mother, Claire, a convert to Mormonism, retreats into herself and into Issy’s bed, wishing for a sign from God to explain things. Her father, a math teacher and Mormon bishop, is full of platitudes and unwarranted optimism about the power of faith. Her siblings, Zippy, Al (short for Alma, an odd name for a boy) and Jacob, are struggling, respectively, with first love and lust; a rejection of Dad’s bromides and piety and the wish to make things right with through a miracle ( Jacob thinks if he can resurrect his dead goldfish, he can bring Issy back).

Why you’ll like it:

This is a  story of a family in crisis and the power —  and also the limits — of hope, faith and love, and it is  one of those novels that can make you cry, and then laugh, and then maybe cry some more. Bray has an impressive grasp of family dynamics and how they work – or fail to work – during devastating troubles. Never sentimental or treacle-y, it is nevertheless a touching story of how people, made real by this talented author, deal with a situation none of them can properly apprehend.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “When 4-year-old Issy dies of meningitis, her Mormon family struggles with sadness, doubt and faith. The Bradleys—Ian, Claire, Zippy, Alma, Jacob and Issy—don’t live in Salt Lake City but rather in an English town where Ian is constantly on call as bishop to a small flock of Latter-day Saints. He misses Jacob’s seventh birthday party, leaving Claire so stretched she doesn’t notice Issy’s fever is more than a regular cold. The little girl’s death sends her family reeling; rather than bringing them closer, it fractures them, especially once Claire retreats to Issy’s bed and won’t get up. Ian believes in telling the truth at all times, but what kind of example would he be setting if people knew he couldn’t solve his own family’s problems? So he begins covering for Claire when people ask about her, shocking his children. Zippy is sure of her own rectitude until she discovers the pleasure of kissing the boy she’s long wanted to marry; will he now see her as tarnished goods? Alma is a boy who’d rather be called Al, thank you very much, and he’s the requisite doubter among the children; what good is religion if it makes his father force him off the soccer team? Young Jacob believes so fervently in the power of prayer that he sets about trying to resurrect Issy, practicing first on bugs, spiders and a goldfish. Each chapter follows a different Bradley, and Bray brings her characters to complicated, messy life with her tremendous power for empathy. It’s rare to see religious faith explored so deeply in popular fiction, and though Ian’s nearly unquestioning devotion can make him seem like the villain at times, Bray does a remarkable job of illuminating each character’s hopes and fears. An absorbing, beautifully written debut novel with surprising moments of humor.”

Says Library Journal: “In British author Bray’s debut novel, Claire and Ian Bradley are part of a Mormon community in England struggling to raise their children—Al, Zippy, Jacob, and Issy—in the ways of the church despite modern influences. Ian is the bishop, on call 24/7, while convert Claire has an unconventional approach to her beliefs but has accepted this restricted life because of her deep love for Ian. Jacob believes he’s seen proof of resurrection when his goldfish comes back to life. Al longs to play football, imagines he’s adopted, and doesn’t believe in miracles, such as a cheesy crisp shaped like Jesus. Zippy frets after a heavy petting session with her boyfriend, only to be given a pamphlet to help her with her guilt. The family’s predictable, ordered life falls apart when tragedy strikes Issy, with a depressed Claire feeling that her faith has failed her and Ian making excuses because he doesn’t want people to think there’s something wrong with his wife. VERDICT With wit and compassion, plus insider knowledge of the Mormon way of life, Bray exposes the raw emotions of a family in crisis. An intriguing and heartbreaking story from an author to watch.

“[Carys] Bray fully inhabits each of her characters, displaying an admirable range of narrative talent rare in a first novel. Fans of The Lonely Polygamist and Where’d You Go, Bernadette will savor this thrilling glimpse behind the scenes of a family in crisis,” says Booklist’s starred review.

The Independent says: “Bray’s characters hum with life, each with a unique voice. For Claire, her faith shaky even before Issy’s death, Jesus has become the Child Catcher. God is a greedy deity who steals her daughter as Claire searches for “a game-changing word” to stop him: “A word like Rumpelstiltskin, a word which will overpower and break him.” Her husband, unable to acknowledge what has happened to his family, stumbles through the devastation, reacting in ways which are sometimes horrifying. At other times, by accident, he bumps up against the right thing to do.  Occasionally the ventriloquism can be uneven. Jacob’s voice contains the odd bum note, and Ian is a little opaque; we feel there must be more struggle beneath the rigid surface than we are let see. But these are quibbles, and this is a story peopled with astonishing vibrancy. It is also leavened with unexpected moments of humour, be it the absurdist events of Jacob’s daily life or Alma’s nice line in subversive wit.”

When is it available?

This novel is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills 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!


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.

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