Shame and the Captives

By Thomas Kenneally

(Atria, $26, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

With 31 novels to his credit, Australian author Thomas Kenneally has earned worldwide fame and acclaim for his writing, in particular for 1982’s Booker Prize-winning Schindler’s List, the World War II drama about the German industrialist who clandestinely saved many Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. His other books include  The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Gossip from the Forest, and Confederates, all of which were shortlisted for the Booker. He has also written a memoir, Homebush Boy, and some nonfiction,The Commonwealth of Thieves, and Searching for Schindler. He is married with two daughters and lives in Sydney, Australia.

What is this book about?

Inspired by something that happened in New South Wales in 1944, Shame and the Captives tells the story of a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Australia, told through a young farm wife whose own husband is being held in an European prison camp. She meets a young Italian anarchist also being held in the Australian camp. Assigned to work on the farm, and he begins to enlighten her about the politics and realities of war. Meanwhile, the more than 1,000 Japanese prisoners, whose culture is badly misunderstood by their captors, plan an escape, a bloody uprising with unforeseen effects on the camp and the town.

Why you’ll like it:

Kenneally is a master at taking historical fact and using it as a building block for novels that go far beyond the what and where to explain the why and how. In this one, he tells the story from multiple perspectives, the cumulative effect of which produces a remarkably moving tale that explores bravery, betrayal, loyalty and love. As our memories of World War II continue to fade, and as new wars threaten, books such as this one provide invaluable insights into the powerful emotions and cultural beliefs      that drive soldiers and civilians alike.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “The author of Schindler’s List again novelizes a small yet revealing event from World War II. Based on the 1944 Cowra breakout in New South Wales, Australia, the novel interweaves perspectives of people in and around the fictional Gawell prisoner-of-war camp, where Japanese captives suffer less from conditions than from living with the shame of having been captured while more amiable Italian prisoners work on local farms, sing, or share news. The novel opens during the spring of 1943, after Italy has joined the Allies. Keneally explores the lives and innermost thoughts of, among others, Abercare, the English camp commandant trying to avoid conflict with his wife, his prisoners and his subordinates; Suttor, the radio writer in charge of Compound C, more in touch with his surly unpredictable prisoners than his commanding officer; Emily, Abercare’s unhappy wife; Nevski, the intelligent Russian-born translator. Keneally depicts the tragic reach of the war on a number of different lives, including the horror of a war crime and the neatness of the cover-up. Other writers may be more adept at portraying female emotions or dinner-party chatter, but no one equals Keneally for documenting the actions of human beings caught up in war, some desperate to hold onto their humanity, others desperate to die.

Says Library Journal:  “As in Schindler’s List, Keneally draws on actual events and uses a broad backdrop—here, World War II in the Pacific—for his tale of a POW camp located in a remote corner of Australia. Tensions arise when the camp’s commander, English colonel Ewan Abercare, disagrees with Australian major Bernard Suttor, in charge of the camp’s Compound C, over how to deal with its “most unpredictable and surly” Japanese prisoners, particularly should they attempt a breakout. Meanwhile, a nearly idyllic romance develops between Alice Herman, who runs a farm with her father-in-law while her husband is a captive of the Germans, and Giancarlo, an Italian POW assigned to work on the farm. This romance abruptly ends when the Japanese launch a breakout from the camp. The author deftly highlights the irony of Australians trying to adhere to the Geneva Convention while a prisoner on the loose concludes, “They’re mocking us by not trying to find us.” VERDICT The leisurely narrative gains force as it progresses. A fascinating aspect is the author’s treatment of the psychology of prisoners and their keepers, capped by Major Suttor’s conclusion that “the captors are prisoners too.” Highly recommended to all who appreciate a historical work told with great perception and insight.

Kirkus says, in its starred review: “In 1944, a group of Japanese POWs escaped from a prison camp in a rural Australian town. Keneally’s latest historical novel relates the lead-up to this event from the perspectives of many characters, including Japanese and Italian prisoners, the camp’s commanders and several residents of the town. Though the reader knows from the start that the breakout is imminent, thanks to an author’s note, Keneally manages to sustain the mounting tension. There are a number of compelling personalities, including the camp’s British commander, Col. Ewan Abercare, who’s trying to win back his wife’s trust after having a public affair; the commander’s distrustful underling, Maj. Bernard Suttor, creator of a popular radio serial; Tengan, a handsome and haughty Japanese airman, a leader among the zealots who dream only of death at the hands of the “enemy”; Ban, the Christian convert and outcast among his fellow Japanese, who sacrifices himself to warn the authorities about the impending breakout; and Alice Herman, a young Australian woman who falls into a steamy affair with the Italian prisoner working on her father-in-law’s farm while her barely remembered husband languishes as a POW in Austria. Keneally shares his deeply believable and flawed characters’ conflicting perspectives sensitively and with great empathy, expressing the full range of humanity in a few hundred pages. He does an extraordinary job of making all his characters compelling and sympathetic, with fully formed back stories, even those whose perspectives are likely to be the most foreign to the reader. The somewhat didactic title doesn’t do the book justice, and the occasional overwriting can be distracting. Nevertheless, Keneally blends history, romance and wartime intrigue in a remarkable piece of historical fiction with a strong sense of place and time.

 

 

When is it available?

This compelling historical novel is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories

by Charles Baxter

(Pantheon, $24, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Charles Baxter has written many novels and several short story collections. His novels are The Feast of Love, which was nominated for the National Book Award; The Soul Thief; Saul and Patsy; Shadow Play; and First Light. His stories can be found in Gryphon; Believers; A Relative Stranger; Through the Safety Net; and Harmony of the World.  Several pieces in his newest collection also were included in Best American Short Stories. He also has published  three poetry collections  and  two books of essays on fiction and has edited other books. Born in Minnesota, Baxter, now 67, teaches at the University of Minnesota and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College

What is this book about?

There are 10 interconnected stories in There’s Something I Want You to Do, and their titles are those of five vices and five virtues, such as Bravery, Charity, Loyalty, Lust and Sloth. Those behaviors, good and bad, are reflected in tales whose protagonists struggle with everyday realities and far deeper existential questions.  The characters include a shy architect who stops a woman – no shrinking violet she – from plunging off a bridge into the Mississippi River, and a pediatrician and father who has private conversations with the spirit of Alfred Hitchcock, which has taken to haunting Minneapolis, where most of these stories are set. These and others reappear and disappear in these linked stories that read like a novel. In them, Baxter explores what it means to need, what it means to help and what it means to love.

Why you’ll like it:

Being a poet as well as a highly gifted writer of prose, Baxter has not only created stories filled with tensions and unexpected connections, he tells them with a lyrical style that deftly evokes the character in a few words.  In “Chastity,” he describes the would-be bridge jumper this way: “Her speech style was oddly animated, and she seemed very pretty in a drab sort of way, like an honorable-mention beauty queen who hadn’t taken proper care of herself.”

Got it.

Reading  authors like Baxter, who write with both ease and authority, is a pleasure.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Five stories named for virtues and five for vices make up this collection from a master craftsman. Set mostly in Minneapolis, Baxter’s interlinked narratives feature ordinary people extending themselves beyond the ordinary for those they love, or used to love, or cannot love. In “Bravery,” a pediatrician and his new wife visit Prague, where a madwoman’s ranting appears to predict their future. In “Chastity,” a lonely architect stops a woman from jumping off a bridge; she turns out to be a stand-up comedian whose dark humor and elusive emotions enthrall him. “Loyalty” focuses on a mechanic as he takes his destitute first wife back into his home; years before, she’d abandoned her family, and now she blogs about the experience. “Sloth” shows the pediatrician from “Bravery” in middle age, talking suspense with the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock, who haunts Minneapolis. Baxter’s characters muddle through small but pivotal moments, not so much confrontations as crossroads between love and destruction, desire and death: a translator dreams of the poet whose work defies translation, a gay businessman searches the Minneapolis underworld for his lost lover, and a dying woman looks forward to the resurrection like others look forward to weekend football. The prose resonates with distinctive turns of phrase that capture human ambiguity and uncertainty: trouble waits patiently at home, irony is the new chastity, and a dying man lives in the house that pain designed for him.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “The author’s sixth collection of short fiction features stories linked by place, character, verbal echo, and a master’s hand for foibles and fellowship. The place is mostly Minneapolis, the repeated phrase is that of the title, with its modest appeal and its larger reminder that no one gets through life without hearing a call or cry for help. A young pediatrician bravely breaks up a mugging. A man who has been mugged (and whose assailant in another story will need help with his drug addiction) stops a woman from leaping off a bridge. A man gives shelter to his ex-wife after she turns into a bag lady. (The book’s last use of the title comes somewhat too pointedly from a Schindler Jew.) Several characters have encounters that suggest nonhuman help is available (a spiritual element also lies in the ten stories named after five virtues and five vices). The pediatrician’s wife on their Prague honeymoon hears a crone’s prophecy of her pregnancy. The doctor, the book’s most frequently recurring figure, spends most of one story talking to the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock on a park bench and then asks his wife to pray for him. Bare storylines can’t convey the quickly captivating simple narratives around them or the revealing moments to which Baxter brings the reader, like the doctor’s exhilaration with the physical violence of beating the muggers. Similarly, Baxter, a published poet, at times pushes his fluid, controlled prose to headier altitudes, as in “high wispy cirrus clouds threading the sky like promissory notes.” Nearly as organic as a novel, this is more intriguing, more fun in disclosing its connective tissues through tales that stand well on their own.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “In one of his essays on craft, Baxter talks about the art of subtext. His new collection of short stories shows him to be a master of that art. His characters, mostly Midwesterners, are smart and well educated but not glib and have strong feelings they can’t articulate fully. The book is divided into two sections, with the first part comprising stories titled after classical virtues, e.g., bravery, loyalty, and forbearance, and the second titled for five of the seven deadly sins (lust, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and vanity). This structure may seem overly programmatic and potentially predictable, but the stories themselves are anything but. A few repeating characters play leading roles in both parts. Moreover, the stories named after virtues don’t necessarily end happily, nor are those named after vices free of heroic gestures. Among the memorable characters are Benny, who repeatedly falls for difficult women (“Chastity”) and falls apart when they leave (“Lust”), and Elijah, a sweet-mannered, handsome young pediatrician who, a few decades later, displays a paunch and eats jumbo bags of potato chips while alone in his car (“Gluttony”) even as he fiercely defends the honor of his seemingly taciturn son. VERDICT Baxter’s delightful stories will make readers hungry for more. Fortunately, there are more out there, and, one hopes, more to come.”

When is it available?

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!


Get In Trouble

By Kelly Link

(Random House, $25, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Kelly Link, born in Florida and now living in Northampton, Mass., with her husband, writer and editor Gavin Grant, has developed what amounts to an enthusiastic cult following for her clever sci-fi and fantasy works that derive from fairy tales or ghost stories, collected in Get in Trouble, Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, and Pretty Monsters. She and Grant have co-edited many of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies, and they also co-founded Small Beer Press, which in turn publishes the wonderfully named journal, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet.

What is this book about?

There are nine short stories in Get In Trouble, which begin with at least one foot in reality and deftly move into wondrous tales of speculative fiction. “The Summer People” is about an Appalachian girl who is the unhappy caretaker for a cottage used by mysterious beings from far, far away. She figures out a way to get free of their control, but learns that freedom comes with a price. In another, a suburban princess gets a life-size animated robot “ghost boyfriend’ doll for her birthday, with unfortunate consequences.  “Valley of the Girls” imagines that rich, spoiled kids (think Paris Hilton) can foil the paparazzi by using body doubles. Ghosts and vampires figure in several tales, but not in clichéd ways.  Stories are set in such places as an abandoned theme park and a hotel that is hosting simultaneous conventions of dentists and superheroes. But no matter what the setting, Link’s meticulously crafted tales will take you someplace you’ve never been before.

Why you’ll like it:

Link has a tremendously agile imagination, and she augments it with a devastating sense of humor. This wonderful combination has earned her comparisons with such admired writers as George Saunders and Karen Russell and Ray Bradbury and  Shirley Jackson – and I’d say there is no higher praise. Reading her accomplished work will tickle your brain as well as your funny bone.

What others are saying:

“[Link] crafts a beguiling and eerie blend of fairy tale, fantasy, Ray Bradbury, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a wonderful mélange of cyborg ghosts, evil twin shadows, Egyptian cotillions, and pixie-distilled moonshine. Guys, she’s really great,” says The Portland Mercury.

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “In stories as haunting as anything the Grimm brothers could have come up with, Link gooses the mundane with meaning and enchantment borrowed from myth, urban legend and genre fiction. Here are superheroes who, like minor characters from reality shows, attend conferences at the same hotels as dentists and hold auditions for sidekicks. Here, a Ouija board can tell you as much about your future as your guidance counselor. In “Two Houses,” six astronauts wake from suspended animation to while away the time telling ghost stories, although they may be ghosts themselves. In “I Can See Right Through You,” an actor past his prime, famous for his role as a vampire, yearns for the leading lady who has replaced him with a parade of eternally younger versions of what he once was—but who is the real demon lover? In “The New Boyfriend,” a teenager discontent with her living boyfriend toys with stealing her best friend’s birthday present, a limited edition Ghost Boyfriend, capable of Spectral Mode. In “Light,” Lindsey has two shadows, one of which long ago grew to become her almost-real twin brother. She contemplates a vacation on a “pocket universe,” a place “where the food and the air and the landscape seemed like something out of a book you’d read as a child; a brochure; a dream.” Lindsey could be describing Link’s own stories, creepy little wonders that open out into worlds far vaster than their shells. In a Link story, someone is always trying to escape and someone is always vanishing without a trace. Lovers are forever being stolen away like changelings, and when someone tells you he’ll never leave you, you should be very afraid. Exquisite, cruelly wise and the opposite of reassuring, these stories linger like dreams and will leave readers looking over their shoulders for their own ghosts.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “These nine stories may begin in familiar territory—a birthday party, a theme park, a bar, a spaceship—but they quickly draw readers into an imaginative, disturbingly ominous world of realistic fantasy and unreal reality. Like Kafka hosting Saturday Night Live, Link mixes humor with existential dread. The first story, entitled “The Summer People,” in homage to Shirley Jackson, follows an Appalachian schoolgirl, abandoned by her moonshiner father, as she looks after a summer house occupied by mysterious beings. “I Can See Right Through You” features friends who, in their youth, were movie stars; now in middle age, she is the hostess and he is the guest star of a television show about hunting ghosts at a Florida nudist colony. “Origin Story” takes place in a deserted Land of Oz theme park; “Secret Identity” is set at a hotel where dentists and superheroes attend simultaneous conferences. Only in a Link story would you encounter Mann Man, a superhero with the powers of Thomas Mann, or visit a world with pools overrun by Disney mermaids. Details—a bruise-green sky, a Beretta dotted with Hello Kitty stickers—bring the unimaginable to unnerving life. Each carefully crafted tale forms its own pocket universe, at once ordinary (a teenage girl adores and resents her BFF) and bizarre (…therefore she tries to steal the BFF’s robot vampire boyfriend doll). Link’s characters, driven by yearning and obsession, not only get in trouble but seek trouble out—to spectacular effect.”

Says Library Journal:  “. . . Link’s fiction could be described as a combination of George Saunders’s eerie near-reality mixed with Amy Hempel’s badda-boom timing, plus a dose of Karen Russell’s otherworldly tropical sensibility. In short, the tales are imaginatively bizarre yet can be seen as allegorical representations of our own crazy modern world. Most of the protagonists here are female and resourceful; it’s a pleasure to immerse oneself in fantasy worlds where women aren’t victims or pale stereotypes.”

When is it available?

You won’t get in trouble if you borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

Nora Webster

By Colm Tóibín

(Scribner, $27, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Colm Tóibín is the powerhouse Irish author of many novels and winner of many prestigious awards. His books include The Blackwater Lightship; The Master (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize); Brooklyn (winner of the Costa Book Award) and The Testament of Mary, as well as two story collections. He is also known for his travelogues on Ireland and Spain, essays, and newspaper columns. Tóibín lives in Dublin and New York.

What is this book about?

It is set in a village in Ireland in the 1970s. Nora Webster has been widowed young, at 40, left with four children and an overwhelming need for enough money to maintain her household and enough information to find her way in a new and confounding world she is not prepared for. Her beloved husband had helped her get away from her overbearing family; now Nora fears she will be pulled back into their stultifying way of looking at life. Nora must cope with her deep sorrow, her young boys’ need for fatherly love and her preference for privacy in a nosy world. One bright ray in the darkness of sorrow is her decision to once again lift her lovely voice in song.

Why you’ll like it:

Tóibín writes beautifully of matters of the heart, but never falls into sentimentality in this genuinely moving story of a woman forced to engage with the world at a time and in a way that she never expected. His portrait of Nora is that of a woman in full, shocked by her husband’s death and forced by circumstances to fully flower.  Nora is not perfect, but that is not a problem: Tóibín, a gay man, has created a woman so real she leaps off the page.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review , novelist Jennifer Egan writes: “…Colm Toibin’s high-wire act of an eighth novel…is written without a single physical description of its characters or adverbial signpost to guide our interpretation of their speech. The emotional distance between protagonist and reader is so great that at times the title character seems almost spectral. Yet it is precisely Toibin’s radical restraint that elevates what might have been a familiar tale of grief and survival into a realm of heightened inquiry. The result is a luminous, elliptical novel in which everyday life manages, in moments, to approach the mystical. … There is much about Nora Webster that we never know. And her very mystery is what makes her regeneration, when it comes, feel universal.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Tóibín’s 10th novel offers a compelling portrait of an Irish woman for whom fate has prescribed loneliness. Widowed at 40, with four children and shaky finances, Nora rejects condolences and pity. She is so intent on making her children’s lives normal that she ignores their need to mourn as well. In the wake of her husband’s terminal illness, she instills fear and bewilderment in her two younger boys; they have nightmares, and one begins to stutter. The two girls, away at school, are resentful as well. Nora is sometimes obtuse about the choices she makes. She is short-tempered and sharp-tongued, and she makes significant mistakes—but her frailties make her an appealing character. Catholicism is woven into the setting of 1970s Enniscorthy. The Church is represented by a mean, small-minded teacher in the Christian Brothers monastery school and by a saintly nun who acts as guardian angel for the family. Several years pass, in which Nora gradually finds an unexpected fulfillment in a talent she had never acknowledged. Tóibín (Brooklyn) never employs dramatic fireworks to add an artificial boost to the narrative. No new suitor magically appears to fall in love with Nora. Instead, she remains a brave woman learning how to find a meaningful life as she goes on alone.”

The starred review from Kirkus says: “A subtle, pitch-perfect sonata of a novel in which an Irish widow faces her empty life and, incrementally, fills the hole left by the recent death of her husband. Tóibín’s latest serves as a companion piece to his masterful Brooklyn (2009), which detailed a young Irish woman’s emigration in the 1950s. Set a decade later, this novel concerns a woman who stayed behind, the opportunities that went unexplored and the comforts that support her through tragedy. Left with two young sons (as well as daughters on the verge of adulthood) by the death of her husband, a beloved teacher, Nora exists in a “world filled with absences.” Not that she’s been abandoned. To the contrary, people won’t leave her alone, and their clichéd advice and condolences are the banes of her existence. And there’s simply no escape in a village where everybody knows everything about everybody else. What she craves are people who “could talk to her sensibly not about what she had lost or how sorry they were, but about the children, money, part-time work, how to live now.” Yet she had lived so much through her husband—even before his unexpected illness and death—that she hadn’t really connected with other people, including her young sons, who now need more from her than perhaps she has to give. Without any forced drama, Nora works her way back into the world, with new priorities and even pleasures. There’s a spiritual undercurrent here, in the nun who watches over Nora, in the community that provides what she needs (even as she resists) and especially in the music that fills her soul. Explains a woman she would never have encountered, left to her own devices: “There is no better way to heal yourself than singing in a choir. That is why God made music.” A novel of mourning, healing and awakening; its plainspoken eloquence never succumbs to the sentimentality its heroine would reject.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of Tóibín’s latest novel.

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!


Chestnut Street

By Maeve Binchy

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 384 pages)

Who is this author?

Maeve Binchy is no longer with us, but her many novels live on. Her long list of bestsellers includes Nights of Rain and Stars, Scarlet Feather, Circle of Friends, and Tara Road, which was an Oprah’s Book Club choice. Binchy also wrote for major magazines, such as Gourmet; O, The Oprah Magazine; Modern Maturity; and Good Housekeeping, and London.  She was married to Gordon Snell, and they had homes in London and Dalkey, Ireland, until her death in 2012.

What is this book about?

Binchy, for many years, wrote hitherto unpublished short stories and sketches about the fictional residents of fictional Chestnut Street in very real Dublin, where neighbors knew each other’s business, sometimes getting involved and sometimes just observing from behind the living room drapes. These stories are gathered here for posthumous publication. In them you will meet many women learning to stand up to overbearing husbands, mothers and children; the glimmers and growth of unlikely love affairs, fathers trying to do right by estranged children, families confronting long-simmering issues and other domestic dramas. Visiting Chestnut Street with Binchy as your guide is like taking a trip to the Ireland tourists overlook.

Why you’ll like it:

Whether you read this collection as minor short stories by a great storyteller or as preliminary sketches for novels that might have come, there is plenty to enjoy on Chestnut Street. Binchy had a great gift for storytelling, and while some of these short pieces end abruptly or too tidily, the characters she invents are fascinating. The stories are brief but compelling, and you may find this book reminiscent of that old potato chip commercial: Nobody can read just one.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Binchy was well-known for creating realistic characters who interact in ordinary ways, in ordinary places. Before her death, in 2012, she had been jotting down short stories here and there featuring a number of different characters who all lived on the same Dublin street, Chestnut Street. This collection was gathered by her editors and approved by her family for publication. Readers meet plain Dolly, who wants to be just like her glamorous mother; Joyce, a model who gets her comeuppance on a blind date with an obese man; and Kevin Walsh, the taxi driver who keeps strangers’ secrets. Many of the stories are quite brief (as short as three pages) but serve as lovely character portraits. There is no common plotline moving the stories along, and some stories are stronger than others, but, overall, the collection works well, and her fans will be pleased. . . . Binchy’s many fans are sure to line up to read this collection of short stories, especially since they know there will be no more.”

“Reflect[s] Binchy’s generous spirit and realism about human frailty, never ignoring it but always empathizing with its cause,” says the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Publishers Weekly says:  “This posthumously published collection of stories revolving around an imaginary street in Dublin was written by over a period of decades, and approved by her husband, writer Gordon Snell. The earlier stories are more developed than some of the later tales, but overall, the author gives us one last extraordinary look at ordinary people as they struggle with family relationships, romances gone awry, and the possibility for a better future. Standouts include the first story, “Dolly’s Mother,” in which a shy, unassuming teenager copes with having a kind, charismatic mother who is more popular than she is, and—as is revealed—might not be as perfect as everyone thinks. In “It’s Only A Day,” Binchy fondly portrays the transformation of three childhood friends into adults, using the lens of their disparate views on romance, as old-fashioned values find a place in their modern worlds. The book is filled with vignettes in which dissatisfied husbands leave their wives, but find their new lives wanting; disparate people find common ground, and even romance; and holding one’s tongue leads to the best way to make relationships thrive. While some entries come off more as character studies than actual stories, one finds here insightful observations about human nature—all with Binchy’s thoughtful and loving touch that will be sorely missed.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “A variable, posthumous collection of loosely linked short stories from the much cherished Irish writer who died in 2012. Thirty-six tales of differing length, predictability and quality, generally focused on female characters—wives and mothers, partners, singletons, daughters and friends—make up this late addition to the Binchy oeuvre and explore domestic problems ranging from cranky relatives and problem children to unexpected attractions, and, most often, insensitive and/or faithless men. Binchy’s wise insights and wicked humor are visible now and then, for example in the cheerily sparring dialogue of “Fay’s New Uncle” and the teacher looking for mischief in “A Problem of My Own,” but too often there’s a sense of datedness, superficiality or simple fairy tale. . . . Nevertheless, the author’s compassion extends widely, notably to the many cheated-upon wives, girlfriends and children, as in “Taxi Men Are Invisible,” when a driver finds himself observing an affair, or “Reasonable Access,” which views divorce from the confused child’s point of view, or “The Gift of Dignity,” one of the few longer, more emotionally complex stories, which contemplates, from a friend’s perspective, a silent wife’s possible collusion in her husband’s adultery. Chestnut Street itself, a semicircle of 30 small houses in Dublin, plays a minor but constant role, as safe harbor to the nurse, the window cleaner, the couples, families and loners and, in “Madame Magic”—a typically tidy offering—a substitute fortuneteller who turns Melly’s empty house into a busy home. For Binchy aficionados, a late indulgence; for others, slim pickings.

When is it available?

Binchy’s last book is at the Camp Field, Goodwin, Mark Twain and Ropkins branches of the 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!

Ettta and Otto and Russell and James

By Emma Hooper

(Simon & Schuster, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Emma Hooper grew up in Canada, but moved to England, where she studied music and literature, earning a doctorate in Musico-Literary studies at the University of East-Anglia. She now lectures at Bath Spa University and performs solo as the musician Waitress for the Bees as well as playing with English bands. And while she has never walked across Canada, she does go back to cross-country ski from time to time. Etta and Otto and Russell and James is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

This is a kind of contemporary fairy tale, with a questing hero, a faithful companion and stories of lost and enduring love. What’s different is that the heroine, Etta, is 83 years old and her quest is to see the ocean, which requires her to walk across Canada from Saskatchewan in the west to the east coast. Her loyal accompanying friend is James, a coyote with whom Etta has long and revealing conversations, and her loves are her husband, Otto, and his almost-brother Russell, who was Etta’s lover many years ago. As Etta makes her thousand-mile journey, with a shotgun and a few provisions, she acquires the attention of a reporter and many fans. Back home, Otto cooks from the recipes Etta has left him and makes papier-mache animals. Russell sets out to find Etta, but he learns that each has a solo journey to complete. And James? He speaks for himself, which is miracle enough.

Why you’ll like it:

Whimsical without being silly, otherworldly without being fey, this is a touching love story that spans most of the 20th century and is  enriched, rather than burdened, by its magical realism. The narrative draws on letters exchanged by Etta and Otto when he was fighting in World War II as it chronicles the long relationship between them, with its ups and downs. Both poignant and poetic, this is one of the most unusual books of the year.

What others are saying:

Kirkus says, in a starred review: “Hooper’s debut is a novel of memory and longing and desires too long denied. On Saskatchewan’s Great Plains grew 15 Vogel children. When Otto Vogel was still a child, half-orphaned Russell joined the brood. The Great Depression burned on, crops failed, and schooling was casual. One of the teachers was Etta, no older than Otto and Russell. World War II came. Otto left. Russell, broken leg improperly mended, could not. As Hooper’s shifting narrative opens, now-83-year-old Etta awakens, intending to walk to Canada’s east coast, leaving a brief note for her husband, Otto. She carries a bit of food, a rifle, and a note of her identity and home. To a Cormac McCarthy-like narrative—sans quotation marks, featuring crisp, concise conversations—Hooper adds magical realism: Etta’s joined by a talking coyote she names James, who serves as guide and sounding board. With Etta absent, Otto begins baking from her recipes, his companion a guinea pig, always silent. Soon Otto becomes obsessed with constructing a menagerie of papier-mâché wildlife. Russell, shy lifelong bachelor and Etta’s wartime lover, follows her, finds her, only to hear her urge him to seek his own quest “because you want to and you’re allowed to and you can. You could have if you wanted to enough”—the novel’s thematic heart. Russell disappears into flashbacks. Hooper reveals more of Etta and Otto in letters exchanged during World War II, where Otto by turns is terrified, sickened and enthralled. Otto marries Etta on return, a less than perfect union shadowed by damaged Otto striking out at Etta. With beautifully crafted descriptions—derelict farm machinery as “gently stagnant machines”—Hooper immerses herself in characters, each shaped by the Depression. The book ends with sheer poetry, stunning and powerful, multiple short chapters where identities and dreams, longings and memories shift and cling to one character and then another within the “long loop of existence.” A masterful near homage to Pilgrim’s Progress: souls redeemed through struggle.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Eighty-three-year-old Etta embarks on a 3,200-kilometer journey walking from Saskatchewan to Halifax in order to see the ocean for the first time. Along the way, she befriends a talking coyote named James, a reporter who decides she’d rather walk with Etta than report, and throngs of fans who follow her progress from town to town. Her husband, Otto, passes the time until her return by writing Etta letters he never mails, learning to bake from her ancient recipe cards, and creating papier-mâché animal sculptures. Russell, who lives on the neighboring farm, goes after Etta, and, in the process, decides that it’s time to begin his own journey. Each character carries heavy memories: tragic pregnancies, the horrors of World War II, a broken heart, an injured limb. And over all, the dust of drought settles, the lack of water a constant pall, the search for water a means of redemption. VERDICT Debut novelist Hooper’s spare, evocative prose dips in and out of reality and travels between past and present creating what Etta tells Otto is “just a long loop.” This is a quietly powerful story whose dreamlike quality lingers long after the last page is turned. For literary fiction fans.“

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Hooper’s arresting debut novel, with its spare, evocative prose, seamlessly interweaves accounts of the present-day lives of its eponymous main characters with the stories of their pasts and how they first connected with each other. The book starts with a note that Etta leaves for her husband: “Otto, I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.” Thus begins elderly Etta’s journey from Saskatchewan to the coast, and the same ocean that once took her dear husband overseas to fight in WWII. She is armed with minor provisions, some clothes, and a sheet of paper with names on it, starting with “You: Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale farm. 83 years old in August.” Along the way, Etta meets a coyote she names James; she considers him her friend and they have many long conversations as they travel together. As Etta walks thousands of miles to her destination, three touching stories unfold: those of Otto, from a family of 14 brothers and sisters; Russell, the abandoned boy who lived next door to Otto and becomes a de facto part of his family; and Etta, who lost her sister at a young age. Hooper, with great insight, explores the interactions and connections between spouses and friends—the rivalries, the camaraderie, the joys and tragedies—and reveals the extraordinary lengths to which people will go in the name of love.”

“Hooper has conjured a character who is a gift… As the lines blur between Etta’s and Otto’s memories, and even between their physical bodies, readers emerge with a deeper appreciation for life and for its suffering against its backdrop of majesty,” says the Dallas Morning News.

When is it available?

This unusual love story is available 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!

The Boy Who Killed Demons

By Dave Zeltserman

(Overlook, $24.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Dave Zeltserman, who lives in the Boston area, has published 10 horror and crime novels, to much acclaim. His books include Monster, which was a Booklist Top 10 Horror Fiction selection; The Caretaker of Lorne Field, which was shortlisted by the American Library Association for best horror novel of 2010 and named a Horror Gem by Library Journal and A Killer’s Essence, a crime novel that, like Zelserman’s Outsourced, has been optioned for film.

What is this book about?

And you thought that kid who could see dead people had problems.

In The Boy Who Killed Demons, you will meet a teenager from the upscale suburb of Newton, Mass., who develops the sudden and unwanted ability to see demons.  These demons are complete with horns and red skin, yellow eyes, twisted faces, horns: the works.. . .and they also are Henry’s neighbors. And he thinks they are catching on to his ability to see beyond their human masks as they plot to destroy the world. Is Henry crazy? He does some research and concludes he is not. Is Henry going to ignore his new and unwelcome talent? He can’t, not when he learns that little kids are being prepped for ritual sacrifice. He gives up sports and girls, even the alluring Sally Freeman, and devotes himself to learning ancient languages, the better to read up on how to kill demons. Worst of all, he can’t tell anyone, especially his parents, for fear of being called crazy and sent to an institution. Not a bad setup for a novel, and Zeltserman follows through.

Why you’ll like it:

Zeltserman has pulled off a neat trick here: this coming-of-age novel is genuinely scary and genuinely funny, two things that do not often work together. You could, I suppose, read the whole story as an allegory about the shock and horror so many teens experience when they figure out just  how nasty adolescence and adulthood can be, or you can just take it for what it is: boy meets demons, boy fights demons, boy triumphs. Either way, it’s a fascinating tale. And the devils are in the details.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review:  “Henry Dudlow is a boy with a terrible affliction. Either the world is about to be invaded by demons, or Henry has completely lost his mind. His efforts to find answers unfold in his diary, which holds the confidences of a young man isolated from his family and peers by an ability he can neither control nor deny. Henry’s conviction that the rising demon threat is real leads him to ever more dangerous behaviors, even as he connects with people who are sympathetic to his plight. Henry is denied the proof he needs to feel completely confident in his actions, and yet must continue to take action due to the terrible consequences his inaction could bring, so he bravely become something bad, in order to prevent something far worse. The sympathy that Zeltserman (Monster) invokes on behalf of Henry is heartbreaking, and readers will fully believe in both the madness and the greatness of his tragic young hero.

Says Library Journal:  “If when you were 13 years old you discovered that you had suddenly acquired the unsettling ability to see evil people as hideous demons, what would you do? Author Zeltserman introduces Henry Dudlow, now 15, and well along the path he has chosen for himself as a result of being endowed with this particular sixth sense. Fearing that his parents will decide that he is suffering from mental illness—a possibility he has already explored—and insist that he be institutionalized, Henry has chosen to keep his trait a secret from everyone. But he feels a duty to use his peculiar faculty for the good of mankind by hunting and eventually slaying the demons in our midst. To this end he studies self-defense, teaches himself to read ancient texts on demonology, and avoids opportunities to interact with his peers, worrying they will discover his secret. Verdict: Despite the ever-heightening suspense as Henry pursues and conquers his first quarry, the sense of this teen’s isolation often overrides the heroics of his quest. Heroes need allies as well as adversaries. Still, Henry’s fortitude and single-mindedness will stir the hearts of adult and YA action fantasy fans.

Kirkus Reviews says:  Humor outweighs the horror in this amusing look at a 15-year-old saving the world. Henry Dudlow is a typical upper-middle-class teenager. His father is a lawyer, his mother’s a marketing executive, and they live a very comfortable life in Waban, Massachusetts, where “you don’t find too many kids shoveling snow or mowing lawns to earn money.” That was BSD, or Before Seeing Demons. Where most people see normal humans, Henry sees “flaming red skin, yellow eyes, horns, grotesque faces with twisted misshapen noses” all around him. He becomes obsessed with learning the demons’ wicked ways, teaching himself German and Italian to read medieval texts and conducting experiments to track them at various places around Boston. Enter Sally Freeman, a first crush from grade school who moves to Henry’s high school and fans the flames of adolescence to high heat. Henry is now obsessed with both Sally and the demons he’s hunting. Children nearing their fourth birthdays go missing, and Henry makes the connection to a gruesome find in a warehouse in Brooklyn where 39 kids were found caged in some unspeakable ritual. The pattern is repeating in Boston. Henry embraces his calling, drops Sally—temporarily—and commits to saving the children and the world from the gates of hell. The story is told in the form of Henry’s journal, where he keeps a record in case he doesn’t survive. Zeltserman manages the voice of a teenager deftly, and the adolescent angst rings true. The demons are almost background to a tale about growing up. Zeltserman has written an entertaining novel but not one that will keep you from turning off the lights.”

When is it available?

Don’t be scared. It’s waiting for readers 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!


Men:  Notes from an Ongoing Investigation

By Laura Kipnis

(Henry Holt/Metropolitan, $25, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Laura Kipnis is a critic and essayist who writes about contemporary culture, a professor who teaches film making in the Department of Radio/TV/Film at Northwestern University, a former video artist and the author of How to Become a Scandal, Against Love, and The Female Thing. She is fascinated by sexual politics, bad behaviors, emotions and the way people act out. She has written for such magazines as in Slate, Harpers, The Nation, Playboy, and The New York Times. Kipnis divides her time between Chicago and New York.

What is this book about?

Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do? In Laura  Kipnis’ case, the answer is, “write about them.”

In her latest book, she takes a look at men behaving badly and why she is fascinated by them, in public life and in her own private life. She takes a clear-eyed look at cheaters, “humiliation artists,” “trespassers” and  haters, such as sports stars whose private lives have dismayed their fans, politicians whose sexual escapades have disgraced them and other men who have gravely disappointed their families, friends and fans. She asks, what’s going on?.  And she provides some provocative answers in this collection of essays. Avoiding clichés, employing her considerable intellectual gifts and cutting through the simplistic explanations often offered to explain such self-defeating behavior, Kipnis brings an astringent wit and fresh perceptions to her exploration of why some men do the awful things they do.

Why you’ll like it:

Kipnis has a smart, sharply witty and sharply worded way about her, and while she comes from the academic world, her writing is anything but academic in the fussy, pedantic sense. She uses plenty of examples and anecdotes from her own life to enliven the text of Men, and her real-world examples of bad behavior give a sturdy grounding to her theories.

Here, to give you a sense of her writing style and choice of subjects, is a portion of her essay on Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine:

“. . . So there I was, a self-appointed expert on all things Hustler, seated across from the founding father himself in his thickly carpeted penthouse emporium atop the huge kidney-shaped office tower on Wilshire Boulevard, the one with his name emblazoned on the roof in towering letters that you can see for miles. If the magazine is a battleground of sex and vulgarity, Flynt’s office was no less an assault on the senses: Tiffany lamps dueling with garish rococo furniture, gold and velvet-covered clashing everything—it looked like armies of rival interior decorators had fought and died on the job. The surprisingly charming Flynt presided over this expensive-looking mishmash from his famous gold-plated wheelchair (a long-ago assassination attempt by a professed white supremacist enraged by Hustler’s interracial pictorials had left him paralyzed from the waist down2). All those years in the chair have given him an extreme case of middle-aged spread: his face has a melted quality, with only a hint of the self-confident cockiness from old pictures. Newly image-conscious with Forman’s biopic about to be released, he told me immediately that he was on a diet. “I may be a cripple, but I don’t have to be a fat cripple,” he chortled hoarsely.”

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…Men feels like something written by your most hyper-verbal friend, the sort of person who can turn even logistical planning into witty and dexterous prose…The patriarchal world, through Kipnis’s eyes, is consistently and quietly funny…At a time of trigger warnings and Twitter backlashes, when the media landscape can seem tripwired for even the most well-intentioned and accidentally insensitive of public figures (and civilians), Kipnis’s coolheaded, ironical assessments of modern masculinity read like perfectly-timed eye rolls.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Kipnis’s gifts are on full display in this irresistible collection of essays, in which she weaves together complex and penetrating insights about gender into provocative treatises. Though the book is putatively about men, Northwestern University professor Kipnis takes an appreciably unique angle on her subjects. Each chapter, save one, is devoted to an archetype of masculinity. Kipnis’s arguments are never predictable: for example, her chapter on “juicers,” ostensibly about steroid-abusing male athletes, evolves into a profound soliloquy about writing, plagiarism, and labor markets. Her examination of modern manhood sheds as much light on male vulnerability as it does on male privilege, entitlement, and abuse. If the book has a failing, it can be found in its unfortunate proclivity for armchair psychoanalysis, on display in the digression about Naomi Wolf’s story of sexual harassment at the hands of a male professor and the tale of a male writer who was the victim of stalking. In spite of this drawback, Kipnis has given us a necessary, and often witty, book that shows a brilliant, agile mind at work.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Feisty, unapologetic forays into the messiness of gender relations. In these essays, most previously published, outspoken feminist Kipnis fashions a fitting companion to her previous, self-described “conflicted” work on femininity, The Female Thing (2006). Male types—e.g., “the Con Man,” “the Manly Man”—fascinate the author and offer a way inside the male psyche in order to find out what men really think of women—and why we should care. Refreshingly, Kipnis operates by plunging into her subject, getting her hands dirty, her critics be damned—for example, reading back issues of Hustler magazine before interviewing publisher Larry Flynt—”the Scumbag”—which director Milos Foreman would not do when he made his film The People vs. Larry Flynt. Declaring the contents of the porn rag downright “Rabelaisian,” however gross, Kipnis offers some admiration that Flynt built his empire from the idea of fighting sexual repression. The author provides lively examples for each of her “types”: “humiliation artists,” like recently disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, are really all variations of the eponymous shame-seeking hero of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. “Cheaters,” like Tiger Woods, can only operate successfully due to the phalanx of women who possess “willing self-abnegation.” “The Trespasser” of Jackie Onassis’ privacy, photographer Ron Galella, is now elevated as an “artist,” and his aggressive stalking of his muse has been airbrushed. Kipnis reserves the final section for “Haters,” namely critics like Dale Peck, right-wing biographers of Hillary Clinton and even radical feminist icon Andrea Dworkin. Unafraid of offending the cause of political correctness, Kipnis is the kind of unfettered, freethinking observer who even questioned the nature of “unwanted sexual advances” at her school’s harassment workshop: “But how do you know they’re unwanted until you try?” Dynamite examples rendered in funny, spirited writing.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has “Men” on the new books shelf.

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!


Spoiled Brats

By Simon Rich

(Little, Brown and Company, $25, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Simon Rich is a professional funny guy, and if you think that is easy, think again. He has written for “Saturday Night Live,” as one of the youngest comedy writers ever on the iconic show, and Rich also was a staff writer for Pixar. His books include two novels and three collections of humor: The Last Girlfriend on Earth, What in God’s Name, Ant Farm, Free-Range Chickens, and Elliot Allagash, and his short fiction and humor pieces frequently appear in The New Yorker. Rich is the son of well-known critic and essayist Frank Rich of New York Times and New Yorker fame. He lives in Brooklyn, the current hotbed of American literature.

What is this book about?

In these 13 stories, you will hear many voices: a Polish immigrant recently awakened from 100 years of suspended animation in a barrel of pickle brine; the father in an unfortunate family of neglected hamsters in a private school classroom; a college girl in a study abroad program on Saturn (she hates the food) and a passel of self-absorbed narcissists and the parents who spawned them. Rich gets us to take a serious look at some of the nuttier phenomena of current American culture by skewering its excesses with his mordant sense of humor. That can be a risky approach for a writer with ordinary skills, but Rich has the talent and imagination to make it work, and work well.

Why you’ll like it:

This is high-grade, professionally polished snark, presented with panache by one of America’s funniest contemporary humorists.  Rich is 30 and has an innate understanding of what we’re calling the millennial generation (for lack of a better name.) Rich is especially good at coming at familiar situations from weirdly skewed but brilliant perspectives, which gives us stories that are highly comic and occasionally poignant: a powerful mix that is sure to entertain.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly:  “In his newest story collection, humorist and screenwriter uses space travel, weird science, and talking animals to knock narcissistic millennials and New York high society down to size. In the futuristic “Semester Abroad,” a college student studying on Saturn (where the food “tastes like straight ass”) obsesses about her boyfriend while an interplanetary war decimates her host society. In “Rip,” a brilliant retelling of the Rip Van Winkle fable, a 27-year-old low-life and aspiring blogger falls asleep for three years and wakes to find that his friends have become sashimi-eating yuppies. Two of the best entries feature a character named Simon Rich, usually in the role of brat-villain. “Animals” centers on a hamster whose family Rich, the “class clown” at a hoity-toity New York elementary school, has neglected to feed. And the novella-length “Sell Out” tells the story of a Polish immigrant who, after being preserved in brining fluid for a century, wakes in present-day Brooklyn and, with no help from his self-obsessed great-great-grandson Simon, becomes an overnight hipster celebrity. Throughout the collection, Rich skewers helicopter parenting, Gen-Me technophilia, and late-capitalist malaise with cruel precision. His occasionally stereotypical female characters and hackneyed resolutions are counterbalanced by on-point details—a club used to maul unhip elders, a post-genocide round of “Never Have I Ever”—that pierce the heart.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Humorist Rich’s latest collection is predictably funny, though sometimes digs deeper. Imagine a petty, oft-rejected writer complaining to his girlfriend about the “literary establishment”: “They hate that I’m trying to do something new—it terrifies them!” It’s a familiar rant to the girlfriend, who leaves, feigning frustration, only to place a call as soon as she hits the sidewalk, whispering, “He’s onto us,” and then…well, never mind. This review shouldn’t ruin the punch line of Rich’s “Distractions,” for the pleasure of this and other pieces comes from watching each joke unfold. Unfortunately, this also suggests the book’s larger hindrance: There’s not much here besides the jokes. The result is amusing, sure, but slight, like watching an uneven episode of Saturday Night Live (where Rich once worked as a writer) in which some skits stick the landing, some provoke mild chuckles, and some offer the opportunity to use the bathroom or play with your phone. The nearly 80-page novella Sell Out suggests something much different, however. In it, a hardworking immigrant in early-20th-century Brooklyn is accidentally preserved in pickle brine, only to awaken 100 years later. He tracks down his great-great-grandson, the author himself, a self-absorbed, neurotic disappointment. This story is funny, but it gestures toward something deeper about the dreams we foist upon our family members and icons and also the ensuing disappointments. Elsewhere, Rich puts his jokes first, but in Sell Out, the characters are paramount, and readers ought to return to this story. Otherwise, once is the right amount of times to read most of these pieces—and given Rich’s breezy style, once won’t be a chore at all. Humor comes easily to Rich, but he’s at his best when he pushes against the boundaries of his jokes.”

Library Journal says: “Rich, former Harvard Lampoon president and former Saturday Night Live staffer, as well as an established author and New Yorker contributor, has penned a collection of stories about the narcissistic millennial generation and how they got that way. His hilarious characters include a family of hamsters trying to survive in the fifth-grade classroom of a private school, a chimp who longs to see the world, a demon who just wants to be himself, a pickle maker who is revived after fermenting for 100 years in brine, and the devil himself. Settings vary from Saturn to sewers to the North Pole. Yet every story rings true and provides a rueful reminder of how helicopter moms and conservative dads contribute to the success of their children. The stories parody life in the 21st century and clearly explain where we all went wrong. VERDICT Recommended as funny and insightful reading.”

“What you can expect from Rich’s writing is to be transported to a place that is at its core, fundamentally familiar, but at the same time, utterly confusing. It’s like entering your childhood home through a secret passage no one ever told you about. It’s these different approaches that make Rich’s writing so enjoyable, because his stories are absurd without being entirely fantastical. They are relatable, more than anything,” says MTV.com.

“Ridiculous in the very best way… Spoiled Brats mocks its protagonists without being mean; we find ourselves sympathizing and relating with these characters even as we laugh at them. Straight-up cynicism feels a little cruel, but Rich stays away from that, and his stories make the same old tropes feel fresh and funny and new again… Spoiled Brats is undeniably funny, but its real genius is that, like the best comedy, it encourages introspection as well,” says Bookpage.

When is it available?

You can borrow this one from the Blue Hills branch of the Hartford Public Library, unless some spoiled brat has beaten you to it.

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 Emerald Light in the Air: Stories

by Donald Antrim

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22, 176

Who is this author?

Donald Antrim is hailed by literary critics as one of the finest contemporary American authors. His novels include Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist, and his memoir, The Afterlife, memorialized his talented and tragic mother and her indelible effect on his life. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, where all the stories in The Emerald Light In the Air first appeared, and he is an associate professor in the writing program at Columbia University. He won a 2013 MacArthur Fellowship, known informally as a “genius grant.”  Emerald was named as a Best Book of 2014 by The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement and The Independent.

What is this book about?

It’s about ordinary people doing ordinary things, but described in the most extraordinary fashion. This is a compilation of pieces Antrim has written over the past 17 years, and each captures emotionally fragile people at a turning point, and not necessarily a good one. His characters do simple things like trying to buy flowers, taking a walk through the city, coupling and uncoupling, driving through a forest: but nothing ever is simple in an Antrim story. He writes with amazing control and insight, and this collection will add additional gloss to his already shining reputation.

Why you’ll like it:

In 1999, Antrim made the prestigious New Yorker list of the 20 best writers under age 40. Today, he would undoubtedly make any list of 20 best writers over that age. He has been called “one of our period’s true artists of anxiety,” a description you will understand if you read his new collection. He presents deeply flawed people in a unsparing yet empathetic way: you feel for these people, fear for them and hope, with fingers crossed, that they will survive their richly detailed experience intact. Antrim has himself suffered emotional breakdowns and knows the bleak and dangerous territory of anxiety all too well. That he can take such raw and painful material and turn it into such delicately powerful stories is a testament to his considerable talent.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The seven gripping stories gathered in Antrim’s long-awaited debut collection showcase the author’s ability to employ surreal and traditional modes to describe the emotional demons plaguing his characters. The opening story, “An Actor Prepares,” is about a dean at a “small liberal-arts institution” who shares his creepy experiences directing a twisted version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The quietly troubling “Pond, With Mud” draws out an awkward chance encounter between a man and his girlfriend’s son’s biological father in a train station. The remaining five stories speak to each other to form a sort of thematic saga, which portrays the nuanced connections between flawed but sympathetic characters. “Solace” highlights the pleasant early stages of a relationship, and follows a couple’s romantic rendezvous in their friends’ New York apartments; more seasoned pairs are entangled and on the brink of collapse, but maneuver around each other to achieve temporary harmony in “Another Manhattan,” “He Knew,” and “Ever Since.” Antrim is well attuned to the idiosyncracies that define the rhythm of a relationship, and is particularly adept at giving shape to the complications that inevitably arise between lovers. A collection of great depth to be read, reread, and above all, relished.”

“In the last few years one of my favorite novelists, Donald Antrim, has devoted himself to short stories—not as finger exercises, but with a combined intensity, delicacy, and feeling for tradition that set him apart from any writer of his generation . . . What is it about Antrim? He writes as if prose were his native language: his sentences have the matter-of-fact pathos and absurdity of dreams . . . His themes are the Chekhovian classics—ambivalence toward the life at hand; yearning for the life that might have been—and he evokes unhappy love with a sensuousness and a subtle, plausible magic that recall Cheever at his best,” says Lorin Stein in The Paris Review Daily.

“No one writes more eloquently about the male crack-up and the depths of loneliness than Donald Antrim; the stories in The Emerald Light in the Air, hopscotching between the surreal and ordinary, comic and heartbreaking, are dazzling,” says Vanity Fair.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Couples unravel and anxieties are revealed in this batch of urbane, wry and interior stories enlivened by Antrim’s talent for gamesmanship with words. Antrim’s debut story collection—his first book of fiction since The Verificationist (2000) — sticks to a remarkably narrow set of premises. In “Pond, With Mud,” a hard-drinking New Yorker is losing his grip on reality and growing distant from his fiancée  and young would-be stepson; in “Another Manhattan,” a mentally ill New Yorker is failing at the simple act of buying his wife some flowers before dinner; in “Ever Since,” a couple grows strained at a boozy New York literary party. This repetition of setups would be tiring were Antrim not so capable of conjuring a variety of tones and surprising amount of subtlety from these common predicaments. In “Another Manhattan,” for instance, the man’s illness is slowly and powerfully revealed by his inability to stop the florist from adding more and more flowers to the bouquet; as the gift absurdly blossoms, his despair falls into sharp relief. “An Actor Prepares” is a more surrealist look at emotional fissures narrated by a college acting teacher whose guidance to his cast of A Midsummer Night’s Dream reveals both his sexual fixations and romantic failures. And in the closing title story, a man left suicidal by a broken relationship heads back home and, through a series of misadventures, winds up navigating his car through a forest. “The Emerald Light in the Air” refers to the sickly tint in the air before a storm, which captures the overall mood of these stories, where bad news seems to be just about ready to come raining down. But there’s wisdom and humor here, too; Antrim is attuned to the way couples struggle to make themselves heard or obscure their true feelings. A deceptively spiky set of meditations on romantic failure.”

Library Journal says: The stories in Antrim’s engaging new collection have been published . . . in The New Yorker. Many are set in Manhattan, but they are not stereotypically brittle New York stories. Antrim’s city dwellers are perpetual renters of fifth-floor walk-ups with careers they cannot sustain as lawyers or painters or actors. They drink more than they should (one story is called “Another Manhattan”), fall easily into infidelities, have a taste for fine clothing they cannot afford, and check themselves in and out of the city’s psychiatric wards. At the outset of a story called “He Knew,” a husband feels that “he might soon be coming out of the Dread.” He leads his chronically panicked wife on their ritual walk along Madison Avenue, stopping first at Bergdorf Goodman and then working their way “north through the East Sixties and Seventies, into the low Eighties, touring the expensive shops.” The whole story happens as they walk, worry, and lose each other along the way, and we worry right along with them. VERDICT Master storyteller Antrim has an original voice and an acute sensitivity to the spectrum of human emotion. These are stories this reviewer won’t soon forget.”

When is it available?

Antrim’s fine collection of stories is available at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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