The Sellout

by Paul Beatty

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

He first gained recognition as a poet in 1990, having been crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café, and then became a successful novelist. Paul Beatty grew up in West Los Angeles and now lives in New York City. He earned an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. His previous novels are Slumberland, Tuff, and The White Boy Shuffle and his and two poetry collections are Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor, whose slyly provocative cover is a smiley face made from a curved slice of watermelon rind.

What is this book about?

It doesn’t get much more politically incorrect or comically outrageous than this: a young black urban farmer the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, just south of L.A. but no longer on any map, grows watermelons and weed, had a complicated childhood with a weird father and concocts a plan to put his town back on the map by owning a slave and segregating the local high school, which transgressions eventually land him a reckoning with the Supreme Court. You can’t make this stuff up, but Paul Beatty can, in a wildly satirical novel that challenges the Constitution, father-son relationships, the civil rights movement and other sacred cattle of American life. The narrator, nicknamed The Sellout later in the story, grows up the subject of racially-fraught psychological experiments staged by his sociologist father, believing it is all for a memoir that will make the struggling family solvent. But there is no memoir: just a father killed by the cops and a bill for a drive-through funeral. And the town’s most famous resident, the  fictional Hominy Jenkins, who is the last of the nonfictional Little Rascals of movie fame, a man who wants to be, or play, The Sellout’s slave. If this sounds like exceptionally challenging satire, you’re on the right track.

Why you’ll like it:

The consensus among reviewers – and this book was reviewed by the best – is that The Sellout is outrageously, side-splitting funny, but also a vehicle for some pretty profound analysis of race relations in America. Beatty spares no one and nothing: for example, he calls Black History Month an “onslaught of disingenuous pride and niche marketing.”

He told the Paris Review that he questions the wisdom of advising someone to “be yourself”: “Most people are like, Be yourself, that’s enough—but in Slumberland there’s a line where the narrator decided he’s not going to tell anyone to “be themselves,” because most times when people are themselves they act like assholes. Why would I encourage that? It’s an idea I play with and try to reshape from book to book, about our individual responsibility and culpability. There’s something in the shift from White Boy Shuffle to Slumberland to The Sellout that shows a progression, but it’s the kind of progression that I completely believe in—things change but remain the same.”

But Beatty resists calling his book satire: “In my head it would limit what I could do, how I could write about something. I’m just writing. Some of it’s funny. I’m surprised that everybody keeps calling this a comic novel. I mean, I get it. But it’s an easy way not to talk about anything else. I would better understand it if they talked about it in a hyphenated way, to talk about it as a tragicomic novel, even. There’s comedy in the book, but there’s a bunch of other stuff in there, too. It’s easy just to hide behind the humor, and then you don’t have to talk about anything else. But I definitely don’t think of myself as a satirist. I mean, what is satire? Do you remember that New Yorker cover that everyone was saying was satire? Barack and Michelle fist-bumping? That’s not satire to me. It was just a commentary. Just poking fun at somebody doesn’t make something satire. It’s a word everyone throws around a lot. I’m not sure how I define it.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times , Dwight Garner writes: “The first 100 pages of…The Sellout are the most caustic and the most badass first 100 pages of an American novel I’ve read in at least a decade. I gave up underlining the killer bits because my arm began to hurt. “Badass” is not the most precise critical term. What I mean is that the first third of The Sellout reads like the most concussive monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle wrapped in a satirical yet surprisingly delicate literary and historical sensibility. Mr. Beatty impastos every line, in ways that recall writers like Ishmael Reed, with shifting densities of racial and political meaning. The jokes come up through your spleen…Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility. This is where Mr. Beatty shines…in this landmark and deeply aware comic novel.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “. . . a droll, biting look at racism in modern America. At the novel’s opening, its narrator, a black farmer whose last name is Me, has been hauled before the Supreme Court for keeping a slave and reinstituting racial segregation in Dickens, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles inexplicably zoned for agrarian use. When Dickens is erased from the map by gentrification, Me hatches a modest proposal to bring it back by segregating the local school. While his logic may be skewed, there is a perverse method in his madness; he is aided by Hominy, a former child star from The Little Rascals, who insists that Me take him as his slave. Beatty gleefully catalogues offensive racial stereotypes but also reaches further, questioning what exactly constitutes black identity in America. Wildly funny but deadly serious, Beatty’s caper is populated by outrageous caricatures, and its damning social critique carries the day.”

“Beatty, author of the deservedly highly praised The White Boy Shuffle (1996), here outdoes himself and possibly everybody else in a send-up of race, popular culture, and politics in today’s America . . . Beatty hits on all cylinders in a darkly funny, dead-on-target, elegantly written satire . . . [The Sellout] is frequently laugh-out-loud funny and, in the way of the great ones, profoundly thought provoking. A major contribution,” says Booklist’s starred review.’

A starred Kirkus Review says: “The provocative author is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries. Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.”

NPR says: “The Sellout is a comic masterpiece, but it’s much more than just that — it’s one of the smartest and most honest reflections on race and identity in America in a very long time, written by an author who truly understands what it means to talk about the history of the country. “That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book — that we can turn the page and move … on,” the narrator muses. “But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

The Nation says: “Yet even as it shreds through the sentimental, The Sellout is more mature and affecting than Beatty’s previous novels. In its last pages, it becomes something more than the sum of its searing satirical indictments of contemporary mores, racial and otherwise. Ducking and weaving under the pummel of Don Rickles punch lines, one discovers, among other things, a loving portrait of a father and son, and their reconciliation of sorts; a love letter to the city of Los Angeles; indelible portraits of the Supreme Court justices; purple-hazed Pynchonesque set pieces, including something of an ode to the Pacific Coast Highway; notes toward a semi-serious theory of “unmitigated blackness,” matched with a profound criticism of same; and finally, a resounding refusal of all self-satisfied definitions and patented claims on the concept of race and proper racial belonging.”

When is it available?

It’s at the Albany and Mark Twain 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!

 

Negroland

By Margo Jefferson

(Knopf Doubleday, $25, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

In 1995, Margo Jefferson won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, after a long career as a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. She has also written for Vogue, New York magazine and The New Republic and is the author of On Michael Jackson, a book-length essay. Jefferson, who grew up in Chicago, is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts and at The New School in New York City. Her bestselling memoir, Negroland, won critical and popular acclaim, including inclusion on best books and notable book lists for 2015 at The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Marie Claire and Vanity Fair.

What is this book about?

Margo Jefferson has enjoyed a privileged life. Her father was a respected pediatrician; her mother a socialite, and Margo had the benefits of a fine education and an upper-crust social life complete with exclusive clubs, sororities and fraternities and men and women pursuing professional careers. Nothing unusual about that, except that it occurred in what Jefferson calls “Negroland” — “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.”  As they say, from those to whom much is given, much is expected, and in this memoir Jefferson takes a deep and personal look back at her elite upbringing and the small aristocratic world in which it took place, as well as how that world was affected by the civil rights movement, feminism and hopeful but naïve ideas about the emergence of a “postracial” society.” She also explores the tensions and pressures of living a privileged life in a segment of the larger society that fails to respect or value it.

Why you’ll like it:

“I’m a chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter, and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” she writes. The book is frank about how excelling within the black bourgeoisie, which Jefferson calls “The Third Race,” did not guarantee protection from the prejudice and malevolence of many in the outside world, and she does not flinch from describing the often cruel internal Third Race hierarchies of status based on skin tone, ability to “pass,” wealth and social status. Jefferson told an interviewer for Gawker:

“For a child, for the black bourgeois, the scope—and I think this is true for any group that has been discriminated against, oppressed, and whose status is always contested—varies. Within an all-black world, it felt very, very secure. How is this manifested? By material things—your house, clothes, by manners, by the schools you go to, by what your parents say to you about how you’re supposed to carry yourself in the world. It always shifts when you move into various parts of the white world. Then you are contending with much shakier status. You start learning that your privilege can be challenged or disregarded at any minute. You’re learning those things almost simultaneously. . . . We all live several lives—there’s the internal, there’s the external, there’s the life of me as a black woman, there’s the life of me as an American citizen—and we’re all doing this, and how are you faithful to those lives?”

What others are saying:

“Poignant. . . . In Negroland, Jefferson is simultaneously looking in and looking out at her blackness, elusive in her terse, evocative reconnaissance, leaving us yearning to know more,” says The Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times says:  “. . . [a] powerful and complicated memoir…power dwells in the restraint of Negroland. Ms. Jefferson gets a lot said about her life, the insults she has weathered, her insecurities, even her suicidal impulses. There’s sinew and grace in the way she plays with memory, dodging here and burning there, like a photographer in a darkroom…This book runs on several rails at once. In part it’s a history of the upper strata of black society in America…In part it’s also [Jefferson's] own story, and a primer on being what she calls a “Good Negro Girl” in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s…With luck, there will be a sequel to this book, one that takes us more fully up to the present and continues to reckon with the questions that animate her…”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Tracy K. Smith writes: “Jefferson’s candor, and the courage and rigor of her critic’s mind, recall a number of America’s greatest thinkers on race, many of whom she directly references, refines and grapples with: James Baldwin, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier. Jefferson also invites women to the round table: Adrienne Kennedy, Nella Larsen, Ntozake Shange, Jamaica Kincaid—and voices outside that established canon…How can a book so slim take on such mammoth considerations and manage them with such efficacy? Perhaps because we gain entry via one girl and, later, the woman she becomes. Perhaps because no matter how conscious Jefferson makes us of societal circumstances, what drives Negroland is an abiding commitment to the primacy of the individual. There are drawbacks to this approach…But what we gain from such a choice is revelatory: recognition of the nuance, fragmentation and fragility of a single black life begging to be considered on its own terms and in its own voice. Aren’t all of us, no matter who we are, living for the rare moments when we can forget about the collective we belong to and just be?”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Jefferson, a former book and theater critic for the New York Times and Newsweek, writes about growing up in mid-20th-century Chicago as well as in “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty” in this eloquent and enlightening memoir. Jefferson describes how her peers thought of themselves as “the Third Race, poised between the masses of Negroes and all classes of Caucasians.” Jefferson’s father was a pediatrician at Provident, the nation’s oldest black hospital, and her mother was a social worker turned socialite. With her family’s privilege came many perks: attendance at the private, progressive, mostly white University of Chicago Laboratory School; summer camps; drama performances; an impeccable wardrobe; and membership in national black civic organizations such as Jack and Jill of America and the Co-Ettes Club. Yet much was expected; for Jefferson’s generation, she says, the motto was “Achievement. Invulnerability. Comportment.” In the late 1970s, though established in a successful journalism career, Jefferson contemplated suicide to escape the continued weight of these expectations. . . . Perceptive, specific, and powerful, Jefferson’s work balances themes of race, class, entitlement, and privilege with her own social and cultural awakening.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “From a Pulitzer Prize-winning theater and book critic, a memoir about being raised in upper-class black Chicago, where families worked tirelessly to distance themselves as much from lower-class black people as from white people. Born in 1947, Jefferson has lived through an era that has seen radical shifts in the way black people are viewed and treated in the United States. The civil rights movement, shifting viewpoints on affirmative action, and the election of the first black president, with all the promise and peril it held . . . The author describes a segment of the population intent on simultaneously distinguishing itself from both white people and lower-class black people and drawing from both groups to forge its own identity. She writes about being raised in a mindset that demanded the best from her and her family, while she also experienced resentment regarding the relative lack of recognition for the achievements they had earned. . . . Jefferson swings the narrative back and forth through her life, exploring the tides of racism, opportunity, and dignity while also provocatively exploring the inherent contradictions for Jefferson and her family members in working so tirelessly to differentiate themselves.”

When is it available?

This provocative memoir can be borrowed from 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 Hours Count: A Novel

by Jillian Cantor

(Penguin/Riverhead, $26.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Jillian Cantor grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Arizona, but she also likes to inhabit the past. The author of award-winning novels for teens and adults, she is best known for her historical novel, Margot, a “what if” exploration of what the life of Anne Frank’s sister would have been like if she had escaped to America, which was a Library Reads pick.

What is this book about?

Cantor combines a retelling of the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who became the only Americans executed for allegedly spying for Russia during the Cold War, a case that is still argued about today, with a look at motherhood and friendship in America during the 1940s and ‘50s. She creates the character of Millie, a Lower East Side of New York City neighbor of the Rosenbergs. Millie has a toddler son, David, who would today be diagnosed as on the autism spectrum; she befriends Ethel and also becomes close to Jake, a psychologist who surreptitiously helps her with her son. Millie’s husband Ed is a Russian immigrant, and as the anti-Communist paranoia of the era grows, entangling the Rosenbergs, Millie begins to wonder about his political beliefs as well. Cantor keeps the tension and suspense at a high level, while also exploring how difficult life could be for women at that time.

Why you’ll like it:

The book offers a sensitive look at women’s friendships, as well as a re-examination of the Rosenberg case through the perspective of a friend, albeit a fictional one. And it reminds readers that political paranoia, still with us today, has deep and intransigent roots in the U.S.

Here is some of what Cantor told Signaturereads.com about how she came to write the book.

“. . . There were many things that surprised me as I began researching, mostly because before I decided to write the book I didn’t know very much about the Rosenbergs or what had really happened with their case. I had a vague recollection of learning about them in a high school history class, the notion that they were spies, who’d been executed in the 1950s. But as it turns out, they were the only civilians ever executed in the U.S. for “conspiring to commit espionage.” And the more I read about what happened to them the more convinced I became that Ethel was innocent, and that she had not deserved to die.

“I did a lot of research about motherhood in the 1940s and 1950s, and my Millie’s life as a mother came as a result. I read about the “refrigerator mother” theory, which was popular around 1950 and which blamed autism on the mother being “too cold.” I made Millie’s son David (what we would today consider) autistic, as I wanted to imagine what it might have been like for a woman, a mother, at that time to deal with an autistic child. And I wanted Millie and Ethel to connect over their joys and troubles as mothers.

“Though The Hours Count is a novel about what happened to the Rosenbergs, it ultimately became for me — at its core — a story about friendship, about what it was like to be a wife and mother in the 1940s and 1950s. And this is where fact and fiction collided and intersected, as I imagined and reimagined both women’s roles as mothers and friends.”

What others are saying

Publishers Weekly says: “Cantor’s suspenseful historical novel concerns Millie Stein, a lonely mother in late 1940s New York who befriends her kind neighbor Ethel Rosenberg, who later will be executed with her husband, Julius, after an FBI witch hunt at the height of anti-Communist paranoia. The women bond upon discovering that they both face challenging parental situations: Ethel’s son, John, is difficult and off-putting, while Millie is often vilified because her two-year-old David has yet to speak. At a gathering with the Rosenbergs’ friends, who have Communist sympathies, Millie encounters psychologist Jake Gold, who offers to treat Millie and her son in exchange for being able to write about them in a paper. Jake is kind and patient with David, and shows interest in Millie as a person. Millie finds herself falling for Jake as her Russian husband, Ed, tries to send David away and demands that she conceive another baby. Cantor deals deftly with themes of friendship and motherhood, but doesn’t fare as well when it comes to romance. The book is at its best throwing surprises at Millie, beginning when sweet-talking Jake suddenly vanishes and Millie suspects that Ed might be hanging with a nefarious crowd. Cantor keeps the reader guessing about various characters’ motivations right up until the climax. While the love story is the weakest element in this narrative, the novel is notable for its affecting depiction of motherly love and the skillful way it captures the suffocating air of the McCarthy era.

Says Library Journal: “The author of Margot, a reimagining of the life of Anne Frank’s older sister, this time focuses on Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the only Americans put to death for espionage during the Cold War. Narrating the couple’s story from the perspective of Ethel’s friend and neighbor who takes in the two Rosenberg sons after their parents’ arrest in 1950, Cantor combines mystery, romance, drama, and espionage into a spellbinding and fascinating page-turner that also gives readers insight into this chapter of American history.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “. . . she turns her attention to the Rosenbergs, who were executed in 1953 for conspiring to commit espionage. As she writes in her Author’s Note, after reading about the case and the couple’s lives, Cantor became convinced they were victims of America’s vicious hunt for communists in the 1950s. Her view is represented by sheltered, lonely Millie Stein, the Rosenbergs’ neighbor in a Manhattan apartment house. Millie is married to Ed, a taciturn Russian immigrant who barely acknowledges her existence, except for sex, and who ignores their autistic son, David. Millie is devoted to the boy, guilt-ridden when the family doctor insists she’s caused his behavior by her coldness. Isolated with David, starved for affection, it’s no wonder she falls for warm, handsome Jake, who befriends her at a gathering hosted by the Rosenbergs. He tells her he’s a psychotherapist with experience helping children like David, and Millie agrees to meet him, with David, twice a week. Although Ethel warns her not to trust him, and although Millie repeatedly suspects that he’s lying, she fantasizes about running off with him, leaving her boorish, elusive, and secretive husband. In a rare gesture of independence, she agrees to a tryst at a cabin in the Catskills and, after one night of chastely described sex (buttons are slowly undone), finds that she’s pregnant. Millie’s naiveté about politics is barely believable, and when the Rosenbergs are accused of being traitors, she knows in her heart that they’re innocent: Ethel is such a good mother; Julius, such a loving husband. Plot twists tease the reader into wondering who’s telling the truth, who’s working for the KGB or the FBI, but despite its historical context, the book reads like a predictable, although engaging, love story.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of The Hours Count.

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!

 

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll

by Peter Guralnick

(Little, Brown and Company, $32, 784 pages)

Who is this author?

An authority on American music, especially rock and roll and its many offshoots, Peter Guralnick has written extensively, including the prize-winning Elvis Presley two-part biography Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love; an acclaimed trilogy on American roots music, Sweet Soul Music; Lost Highway and Feel Like Going Home; the biographical Searching for Robert Johnson; the novel Nighthawk Blues; and Dream Boogie, a biography of Sam Cooke. He splits his time between Nashville and Massachusetts.

What is this book about?

Based on what Guralnick saw and learned during his 25-year close friendship with Sam Phillips, he gives readers a full warts-and-wonders look at the man whose insights and intuitions about black and Southern white musicians was crucial to the development of rock and roll. It’s said that behind every successful man is a good woman: in the case of such stars as Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash it was a man with a big vision and a small company, Sun Records, who gave them the push into the spotlight. Phillips was a revolutionary in the music world and his championing of both black and white talent was a huge step forward both for music and race relations. While Phillips was no angel —  emotional problems, marital discord and infidelities, financial troubles, drinking and bragging were all part of his life — he nevertheless was a giant who, pardon the pun, was instrumental in giving America the rambunctious wonderfulness of rock and roll.

Why you’ll like it:

Guralnick writes with authority and a deep knowledge of his subject acquired during his long career as a historian of American music. Phillips is such a rich subject that his life  easily fills nearly 800 pages. No matter how much you know or recall about the history of rock and roll, this book will take you deeper, higher and farther.

What others are saying:                       

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Acclaimed music historian Guralnick has written landmark accounts of Elvis (Last Train to Memphis), Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie), and the history of American roots music (Lost Highway), and he now turns his considerable skills to the life of Sun Records producer Sam Phillips in this delightful and comprehensive volume. While he builds the story on the skeleton of the facts of Phillips’s life—his birth outside of Florence, Ala.; his production of the jam session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, later released as the Million Dollar Quartet tapes; and his tireless work ethic—Guralnick portrays a man deeply passionate about giving black musicians opportunities to share their music and voices in a South that seldom allowed them to do so. Drawing on extensive interviews from his 25-year friendship with Phillips, as well as on interviews with many of the musicians Phillips produced (Howlin’ Wolf and Ike Turner among others), Guralnick energetically tells the must-read tale of a Southern boy intent on enacting his vision of freedom and justice through music. Phillips’s message from the start was “the inherent nobility not so much of man as of freedom, and the implied responsibility… for each of us to be as different as our individuated natures allowed us to be”; as Guralnick points out, Phillips succeeded in giving each of his musicians the freedom to express themselves fully on records that changed the musical landscape forever.”

Says Library Journal: “Guralnick follows his biography of soul-gospel legend Sam Cooke (Sweet Soul Music) with an equally exhaustive portrait of Sam Phillips (1923–2003), the so-called “Father of Rock and Roll,” who, as owner of Memphis-based Sun Records and Sun Studio, helped launch the careers of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and Johnny Cash. The author emphasizes Phillips’s contributions to rock and roll’s 1950s emergence in the racially charged South and his personal and professional relationships with not only the many famous singers and musicians who benefited commercially and artistically from his vision, encouragement, and technical skills but also the obscure rockabilly, blues, country, and pop artists who were given an opportunity to express themselves on vinyl. Drawing primarily from new interviews with Sun musicians, family members, and even a few former girlfriends, Guralnick presents a well-told, well-rounded biography of an innovative and influential pop culture pioneer with an unorthodox and oftentimes rocky personal life.”

A starred Kirkus Review says: ‘A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture. Celebrated music historian Guralnick . . . recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books. . . the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88″ (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history. A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.”

“Just as the two magisterial volumes of Guralnick’s Presley bio paint a much more nuanced picture of Presley, The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll captures the complexity of the colorful Phillips….The author loves his subject and loves writing about him…. A book that can stand with his best, and that is [both] entertaining and lively….For that rock-and-roll fans should be eternally grateful,” says the Philadelphia Inquirer.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has it now. Rock on.

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 Guest Room

By Chris Bohjalian

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Chris Bohjalian, many of whose books have been described in Under the Covers,  has published 18 books, including Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, and Midwives, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection. His Secrets of Eden, Midwives and Past the Bleachers were adapted as films. He lives in Vermont with his wife, and for many years wrote a weekly column for the Burlington Free Press. He has spoken in Connecticut several times in recent years about his books, which range from historical novels to contemporary examinations of family and relationships.

What is this book about?

Richard Chapman and his wife, Kristin  think they are being generous and supportive when they agree to host his younger brother Philip’s bachelor party at their gracious  Westchester home. But their goodwill goes terribly wrong when the party degenerates into drunken orgy territory and the “entertainment” — two Russian strippers controlled by truculent “bodyguards” — are killed as the women try to escape their life as sex slaves. The Chapmans are forced out of their home by the police, as it is now a crime scene, their marriage founders over Richard’s encounter with one of the strippers in the house’s guest room and his banking career is put on hold. Things are even worse for Alexandra, the dark-haired stripper, who is now fleeing the cops and her deadly and dangerous handlers from the sex-trafficking world. Next comes blackmail, as the Chapmans try to dig themselves out of the moral cesspool into which they have fallen, and Alexandra tries to stay alive.

Why you’ll like it:

This is a literary thriller, which is book-industry-speak for a suspenseful book in which the skill of the writing is as important as the convoluted plot. Bohjalian, as his many fans know, is a born storyteller, and in The Guest Room he has invented quite a story to tell.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “In another fresh and different novel from the New York Times best-selling Bohjalian, Richard Chapman was prepared for a mess when he opens his home to his younger brother’s bachelor party. But he wasn’t expecting an intimate moment with one of the women hired as entertainment before she and her coworker (both naked) stab their Russian bodyguards to death and flee into the night. Richard is tossed from his crime-scene house by the police, put on indefinite leave by his investment bank, and cold-shouldered by his wife, and that’s just the beginning in this tale of escalating suspense.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “In his latest novel, Bohjalian stacks the deck against his well-to-do main character, Richard Chapman, who holds a bachelor party in his Bronxville home for his younger brother, Philip. Richard sends his wife and daughter into Manhattan for the night, a good thing, because the two strippers hired for the occasion turn out to be Russian sex slaves, who kill the two pimps who accompany them to the party before fleeing into the night. Earlier, one of them, a beautiful Armenian girl named Alexandra, almost managed to seduce Richard before he changes his mind. In the aftermath of the murders, Richard is turned out of his house, which has become a crime scene with reporters camped outside, and forced to hire a lawyer. As the consequences of the night pile up, Richard becomes estranged from his wife, is banned from his office, and finds himself the target of a blackmailer from the party who has an incriminating cell phone video of him and Alexandra. And then there is Alexandra herself, who returns to the scene of the crime, tailed by her seriously scary Russian bosses. It is to the author’s credit that he takes this situation and makes it somewhat credible. Juxtaposed against the upper-class setting is Alexandra’s own account of being sold into slavery, which deserves a less sudsy book of its own. “

Kirkus Reviews says: “Bohjalian’s latest ripped-from-the-headlines cautionary tale concerns a very poorly planned bachelor party. Richard Chapman, a middle-aged investment banker with a lower Manhattan firm, makes one mistake that will upend his life: he hosts a bachelor party at his suburban Bronxville home for his feckless younger brother, Philip, manager of a boutique hotel in Chelsea. Richard’s wife, Kristin, a good sport about the impending high jinks, is spending the weekend at her mother’s in Manhattan with their 9-year-old daughter, Melissa, to allow the boys to be boys. Although he was expecting a stripper, Richard definitely failed to anticipate that the entertainment procured by Philip’s hotelier friends would actually be two possibly underage Russian girls and their menacing bodyguards, who forbid the men to take cellphone pictures but encourage everything else. Soon the high jinks are devolving into an outright orgy. As the men take turns with one of the girls, Sonja, the other, Alexandra, takes Richard up to the guest room, where he declines to do more than talk. Alternating with the narratives of Richard and his family is Alexandra’s chronicle of her enslavement. After her mother dies, the talented young dancer is tricked by a trusted family friend, who arranges for her to travel from her native Armenia to Moscow—for a ballet audition, she thinks. Instead, she’s raped and then trafficked in Russia until she’s 19, when she is removed, along with Sonja and another girl, Crystal, to New York. At the party, Sonja, who knows that the guards, Pavel and Kirill, murdered Crystal, fatally stabs Pavel with one of Kristin’s butcher knives. Kirill is shot and killed in the fray, and the girls escape. From there the plot thickens with blackmail threats, Internet defamation, employment discrimination, and marital meltdown, as Richard compounds his original error with even more implausible lapses in judgment. Character development takes a back seat in this exposé of human trafficking, and Bohjalian’s treatment often wavers between prurience and polemic. A compulsively readable train wreck.”

When is it available?

This book is on the shelves at the Mark Twain and Goodwin branches of the Hartford Public Library and will soon be available at the Downtown library and the Dwight and Camp Field branches.

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

Girl Waits with Gun

by Amy Stewart

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Amy Stewart, who lives in Eureka, Calif., with her rare book dealer husband, Scott Brown, made her reputation with six nonfiction books about the natural world, including four New York Times bestsellers: The Drunken Botanist, Wicked Bugs, Wicked Plants, and Flower Confidential. But in 2015 she hit it big – very big – with Girl Waits with Gun, a novel based on the real life of Constance Kopp of New Jersey, who became one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs in the early 1900s. The book, a national Indie bestseller, was named to many notable book lists, including  a New York Times Editors’ Choice;  NPR, Publishers Weekly and Bookpage  Best Books of 2015; People’s “Best Books of the Fall;” Washington Post’s “Notable Fiction Books of 2015;”  USA Today’s “New and Noteworthy;”  Cosmopolitan’s “24 New Books to Read this Fall” and  Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book of 2015, Fall/Winter, among others.

What is this book about?

Constance Kopp is very tall, content with being what they used to call a “spinster” and living as though in hiding with her two sisters on a farm in rural New Jersey. Then one day in 1914, a local wealthy but loutish businessman who owns a silk factory makes the mistake of smashing into the Kopp sisters’ buggy with his car and then makes the further mistake of refusing to pay for the damage. The resulting dispute turns ugly, and Constance finds she must fight back with the help of a sympathetic sheriff, and also face up to some deep family secrets.

Why you’ll like it:

Constance is a tough, feisty, often funny woman with immense appeal. And the fact that she was a real person only makes things better. No wonder many reviewers said they hoped this novel was the first of a series.

Here are some thoughts about the book that Amy Stewart shared in an interview by Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train:

“It started with one newspaper clipping. I was writing about a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman for my previous book, The Drunken Botanist. I found an article from 1914 about someone named Henry Kaufman who ran his car into a buggy being driven by these three women, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. I liked the Kopp sisters immediately, so for one afternoon I forgot all about the book I was writing, and kept digging.

“. . . But there was no book, no Wikipedia page, nothing except these hundred year-old newspaper stories.

“So I dug up as much as I could from the papers, courthouse documents, and genealogical records on ancestry.com. The smartest thing I did was to hire a genealogist in New Jersey who knew exactly where to go to find out more. Thanks to her, I got birth certificates, wills, and even land deeds, all of which told me so much more than I could have imagined. But yes, you’re right—I really had to chip this one out of the historical record myself. It definitely made the research more exciting—I was uncovering family secrets!

“. . . I did think about writing it as nonfiction, but there were all these gaps in the record that frustrated me. I had no idea what they were doing for months at a time. Also, I couldn’t say for sure why they did some of the things they did. What drove Henry Kaufman to attack these women? And what led Constance to stand on a street corner with a gun in her handbag to defend her family? I mean, who does that in 1914? Who does that today, even? I loved being able to fill in those blanks and to explore all the small, intimate moments in their lives that sometimes go missing in nonfiction.

“. . . The Kopps are very real to me and their opinions matter a great deal. If I could somehow travel through time and hand them my book, I think Norma would arch an eyebrow and write corrections in the margin, Fleurette would demand that all the parts about her be read aloud over and over, and Constance would just shake her head, lean forward, and tell me all the secret truths about their lives that I never could have guessed. I dream about that moment.”

What others are saying:

“Constance Kopp, the feisty heroine of Amy Stewart’s charming novel “Girl Waits With Gun,” sounds like the creation of a master crime writer. At nearly 6 feet tall, Constance is a formidable character who can pack heat, deliver a zinger and catch a criminal without missing a beat. Based on the little-known story of the real Constance Kopp, one of America’s first female deputy sheriffs, the novel is an entertaining and enlightening story of how far one woman will go to protect her family,” says The Washington Post .

“Stewart has spun a fine, historically astute novel…The sisters’ personalities flower under Stewart’s pen, contributing happy notes of comedy to a terrifying situation…And then there is Constance: Sequestered for years in the country and cowed by life, she develops believably into a woman who comes into herself, discovering powers long smothered under shame and resignation. I, for one, would like to see her return to wield them again in further installments” says The New York Times Book Review.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Hardened criminals are no match for pistol-packing spinster Constance Kopp and her redoubtable sisters in this hilarious and exciting period drama by bestseller Stewart). This is an elegant tale of suspense, mystery, and wry humor set in 1914 in Paterson, N.J. A crash between the Kopp sisters’ horse and buggy and an automobile driven by arrogant factory owner Henry Kaufman begins a disturbing cycle of menacing behavior: Kaufman refuses to pay for the buggy damage, angry and humiliated in an embarrassing confrontation with a tall, imposing, and formidable woman. Intimidation and threats of violence follow Constance’s every effort to make Kaufman pay, finally resulting in her appeal to the Bergen County Sheriff to help her collect. Sheriff Robert Heath has been itching to lock up Kaufman and his thuggish pals, and sees this as an excellent opportunity to rid Paterson of the pack of criminals. The Kopp sisters live alone on a remote farm and are taunted, burglarized, and shot at by crooks of the Black Hand gang as retaliation for involving the police and causing trouble for Kaufman. But when Constance starts to pack a revolver and doesn’t hesitate to shoot back, the game changes drastically. A surprising Kopp family secret, a kidnapped baby, and other twists consistently ratchet up the stakes throughout, resulting in an exhilarating yarn.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “In the summer of 1914 in rural New Jersey, the lives of Constance Kopp and her sisters take a dramatic turn. Their horse-drawn buggy is overturned in an accident with a motor car driven by local factory owner Henry Kaufman. Constance wants only an apology and the money owed to them for damages. Her determination in seeking justice puts her family in danger as the thuggish Kaufman begins a campaign of intimidation against them. Aided by the local sheriff, the Kopp sisters defend their home while Constance unravels a web of Kaufman family secrets and reckons with her own. In her engaging first novel, Stewart draws from the true story of the Kopp sisters . . . and creates a welcome addition to the genre of the unconventional female sleuth. Colorful, well-drawn characters come to life on the page, and historical details are woven tightly into the narrative. The satisfying conclusion sets up an opening for future Constance Kopp novels. . . .”

Kirkus’ starred review says: “. . . Stewart crafts a solid, absorbing novel based on real-life events—though they’re unusual enough to seem invented.. . . . As Constance’s first-person narrative unfolds, we see that she’s a bold woman unafraid to defy convention, determined to see justice done and to protect her family. . . . When Henry and his thuggish friends start turning up at the Kopps’ isolated farm, firing guns and sending bricks through the window bearing letters threatening all the sisters but paying particular attention to Fleurette, our tough-minded heroine is not about to be intimidated. She swears out a complaint against Henry, backed up by Sheriff Robert Heath, himself something of a rule-breaker. More threats ensue, as does the complicating factor of a young woman employed at the silk factory who bore Henry’s baby and is convinced he had a hand in the child’s mysterious disappearance. Stewart deftly tangles and then unwinds a complicated plot with nice period detail, and it’s good to see Henry finally get his comeuppance, but the real interest here is rooting for Constance as she refuses to be patronized or reduced to a dependent of her well-meaning brother, who thinks three unmarried women should naturally be living with a male protector. A final scene offers well-deserved new horizons for Constance and hints a series may be in the works. More adventures involving gutsy Constance, quietly determined Sheriff Heath, and a lively cast of supporting characters would be most welcome.”

When is it available?

The Dwight branch of the Hartford Public Library has a copy of this book.

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

Among the Ten Thousand Things

By Julia Pierpont

(Random House, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Julia Pierpont is a graduate of the NYU Creative Writing Program and has won a Rona Jaffe Foundation Graduate Fellowship. A native New Yorker who works at The New Yorker, Pierpont is a graduate of Barnard College and NYU’s MFA program. This is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

Jack Shanley, a famous New York artist with a long history of adulterous affairs – that’s how he met his current wife, Deb  – picks a bad choice for his latest inamorata, who, upon the dissolution of their affair, sends an anonymous package to the Shanley home, addressed to Deb. But when 11-year-old Kay takes a look, she discovers emails that chronicle the relationship. She shares this world-rocking information with her 15-year-old brother, Simon, who shares it with Deb, and we get to watch the shattering of what seemed to be a happy marriage and the new paths that each character must take despite still being connected to one another.

Why you’ll like it:

All unhappy families are not alike, and Pierpont does a wonderful job of delineating this one. She won praise for her quirky use of dialogue and syntax, flash-forwards and wise insights – unusual for a writer in her 20s – into the ups and downs of this marriage in particular and marriages in general. Especially poignant are the reactions of the children, caught up in a frightening new world they didn’t ask for and didn’t make but must live in anyway.

What others are saying:                 

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Long-simmering tensions boil over in the Shanley household to devastating effect in debut novelist Pierpont’s drama of domestic unravelling. It’s not that the news contained in the anonymous package is a surprise to Deb:  not the hundreds of emails documenting her husband’s affair and certainly not his lover’s cliched confessional which accompanies it. It’s that her 11-year-old daughter, Kay, stumbled upon the box first and that she and her 15-year-old brother, Simon, have now read their father’s messages (“i can’t explain why i get so sad when you make me so happy”) that makes the reality unbearable. And so begins the dissolution of the Shanleys or, at least, the Shanleys as they once were: Jack, the successful sculptor and not-unlikable narcissist married to Deb, the former ballet dancer who happily traded her career for motherhood. As their marriage crumbles, Jack and Deb set out on separate courses away from New York. Meanwhile, Kay and Simon contend with the loss while navigating their own coming-of-age struggles. We know how the story ends because Pierpont tells us: a spectacularly melancholy interlude midway through puts an end to any suspense. But suspense is hardly the point; it’s the characters’ rich emotional lives that propel the story forward. Deb and Jack and Simon and Kay could easily have been reduced to types—the suffering wife, the womanizing husband, the stoned teenage son, the sensitive tween daughter—but in Pierpont’s hands, they’re alive: human, difficult, and deeply lonely. It’s loneliness that’s at the novel’s core, hitting unsentimentally and with blunt, nauseating force. Which is not to say that there isn’t serious humor among the heartbreak (Kay’s penchant for writing Seinfeld fan fiction is a particular delight), and for all the book’s sadness, much of its lingering force comes from Pierpont’s sharp-witted detailing of human absurdity. A quietly wrenching family portrait.”

The New York Times Book Review calls it “…a novel about a family blown apart and yet still painfully tethered together, written by a blazingly talented young author whose prose is so assured and whose observations are so precise and deeply felt that it’s almost an insult to bring up her age. At 28, Pierpont has a preternatural understanding of the vulnerabilities of middle age and the vicissitudes of a long marriage…In truth, the writing and the storytelling make the twists and turns of a marriage between such shallow characters more interesting than they have any right to be…Among the Ten Thousand Things is…an impressive debut.”

“Pierpont’s concentrated domestic drama is piquantly distinctive, from its balance of humor and sorrow to its provocatively off-kilter syntax, original and resonant descriptions, bristling dialogue, snaky psychological insights, and escalating tension. . . . With acid wit and thoughtful melancholy, Pierpont catalogs the wreckage, mourns the death of innocence, and measures varying degrees of recovery, achieving a Salingeresque ambience,” says Booklist.

The New York Times says: “…[a] sharp, knowing dissection of an unraveling marriage…it shows a remarkably mature understanding of the delicate emotional balances in families—how feelings can flow back and forth like electricity in some kind of zero-sum game—and the subtle, irrational vicissitudes of people’s psyches. We follow first one character and then another as each tries to manage what has happened. It is an old story, a crumbling marriage, but Ms. Pierpont gives it fresh insights, making the particular unhappiness (and occasional happiness) of the Shanleys by turns poignant, funny and very sad.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The perennial theme of marital infidelity is given a brisk, insightful, and sophisticated turn in Pierpont’s impressive debut. When their father’s emails to his former mistress are inadvertently discovered by siblings Kay Shanley, 11, and Simon, 15, the result is the unraveling of the family. Their father, Jack Shanley, is a well-known conceptual artist and self-indulgent seducer, and he sees his career go downhill due to a variety of circumstances. Deb, his wife, carries guilt from having broken up Jack’s first marriage, only to realize that he’s an inveterate womanizer who feels his indiscretions should be forgiven. Pierpont’s keen observational gaze illuminates a strata of Manhattan society in which money and privilege abide alongside the gritty, drug-and-alcohol-fueled margins of social behavior. She is also particularly adept at portraying alienation in the young (Kay starts writing dirty Seinfeld fan fiction in a notebook; Simon reads The Fountainhead because he knows his mother doesn’t want him to) and the parents’ awkward attempts to communicate with their self-protective children. Her sense of humor surfaces, especially in a scene at a gallery opening, when Jack’s carefully planned and shocking installation goes awry. Pierpont throws an audacious twist midway through the book, giving the slow, painful denouement a heartbreaking inevitability. This novel leaves an indelible portrait of lives blown off course by bad choices, loss of trust, and an essential inability to communicate.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Recent MFA grad Pierpont’s first novel is an expertly crafted story of a family in crisis . . . [and] throws the reader into the middle of the family drama that may not be distinct but perhaps has never been this well articulated. The author plays with the narrative, giving us a snapshot of the characters’ lives to come over the following decades before zeroing in on the immediate aftermath. After a few disastrous weeks coping at home in Manhattan, Deb takes the kids to a family beach house in Rhode Island, while Jack, an installation artist at a crossroads in his career, flies to Texas. We hear alternating perspectives from Jack, Deb, Kay, and 15-year-old Simon, all of whom are richly drawn and heartbreakingly sympathetic. VERDICT Pierpont wields words like beautiful weapons. This short novel is a treat for fans of Jonathan Franzen, Jami Attenberg, and Emma Straub, and shows off an exciting new voice on the literary landscape.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of this 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!

When We Were Animals

by Joshua Gaylord

(Little, Brown and Company/Mulholland, $26, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

A Californian turned New Yorker who has taught at the New School and New York University, Joshua Gaylord also writes using the pen name Alden Bell, producing two horror novels, Exit Kingdom and The Reapers Are the Angels, a novel about zombies that transcends the usual genre cliches. He also has taught at a private school, and his first novel, Hummingbirds, was set in an all-girls prep school in Manhattan.

What is this book about?

You’ve probably heard of Rumspringa, the Amish community ritual that allows teens to sample the vices of the wider world before making a lifetime commitment to their faith. In When We Were Animals, Gaylord takes this concept higher – or lower — imagining an Appalachian town where teens “breach,” running wild on full moon nights for a year, while older, settled folks hide in their homes and protect their little ones from the rampaging, sex-mad adolescent breachers. Told from the point of view of a middle-aged mom who experienced the ritual, it is a powerful blend of two genres: the gothic thriller and the coming of age tale.

Why you’ll like it:

Gaylord grew up in Anaheim in Orange County, home to Disneyland. But there is nothing Mickey-Mouse about this disturbing tale of a town with a weird secret. His professional background includes teaching at a private school in New York City, which perhaps has contributed to his understanding of the emotional and hormonal storms of teenage behavior, taken to quite an extreme in this unsettling story. Reviewers are praising his imaginative plot and the ring-true voices of his characters. One of them praises this novel by saying: “Imagine if Twilight were well-written and grown up.”

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “Lumen, the narrator of this disturbing fable from Gaylord that explores the eternal tension between reason and the irrational, grows up with her widowed father in a small Appalachia-like town inhospitable to outsiders. During each full moon, the town’s teenagers “breach”; that is, they run naked and wild, fight with each other, and have sex in the woods. A late bloomer, she moves from childhood into adolescence after her peers; Lumen at first resolves never to breach, but as her hormones begin to stir, she finds herself torn between seemingly good Peter Meechum and wicked Blackhat Roy, who both debases and fascinates her. Gaylord, who has written two horror novels under the pen name Alden Bell, spikes his fitfully lovely language with noisome noir detail. In the end, some readers may regret that Lumen appears to accept that humanity is “a shameful and secret nastiness,” while she misses the honest simplicity of genuine human emotion, too deep for logical explanation.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Gaylord . . . tells the story of Lumen Fowler, a quintessential good girl who grew up in a small American town with a strange secret: the town’s teenagers don’t just run wild in a metaphorical sense, they literally run wild with each full moon. Looking back at her adolescence from middle age, Lumen examines the year when the young people in her age group went “breach,” spending three nights a month bustling naked through the streets, engaging in primal acts of sex and violence, while adults and younger children hid in their houses. VERDICT In Lumen, Gaylord creates an unforgettable and, well, luminous narrative voice, and his language captures the lush, dangerous possibilities of teenage nights to perfection. Working both as a contemporary coming-of-age gothic novel and as a metaphorical exploration of the importance and cost of exploring one’s instinctual side, this book deserves a breakout success like that of Jeffrey Eugenides’s first novel, The Virgin Suicides.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “In this coming-of-age tale with a gory twist, Gaylord recounts the troubled adolescence of a good girl in a not-so-good town. It’s not unusual for small towns off the beaten path to develop quirky rituals. Lumen Ann Fowler’s hometown goes beyond that. When puberty hits, teenagers experience what’s known as “breaching,” a year-long period of cyclical sex and violence, akin to an orgiastic Rumspringa, which takes place at every full moon on the streets of the town and in the nearby woods. Lumen—the kind of girl with few friends, excellent grades and a great relationship with her widowed dad—is convinced she’ll never breach (her mother never did), let alone get her first period. Gaylord cleverly weaves in Lumen’s present-day narration, in which she’s a happily married mother known as Ann whose husband and young son know nothing about her past, with the events leading up to and including her inevitable inclusion in the bizarre breaching rituals. The usual drama between teenage girls and the boys they covet is heightened not only at school, where the students whisper about their exploits under the previous night’s moon, but also during the hypersexualized breaching scenes themselves. At first the tentative Lumen feels outmatched, but as she comes into her own—while unearthing secrets from her mother’s past—she discovers that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Though the buildup, like Lumen’s agonizing wait to breach, is slow, once Gaylord finds his momentum, there’s no stopping this bizarrely fascinating journey of dark self-discovery.”

When We Were Animals conjures the dreamy satisfaction of revisiting the cult horror movies of your youth — things are familiar but they resound in new and unexpected ways, revealing subtle depths and poignancy. This is a dark, inventive and absorbing story, fittingly theatrical. It disturbs and entertains in equal measure,” says Benjamin Wood, author of The Bellwether Revivals.”

When is it available?

Don’t wait for a full moon: this book is available 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!

Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed

by Aidan Levy

(Chicago Review Press, $28.95, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Aidan Levy grew up in West Hartford and is a graduate of Hall High School and the son of former Courant writer Patti Weiss and former WVIT-TV reporter and current consumer columnist/staff writer at Journal Inquirer, Harlan Levy. Aidan Levy has written for the New York Times, the Village Voice, JazzTimes, and the Daily Forward. He plays baritone saxophone in the Stan Rubin Orchestra and recently earned a Ph.D from the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His biography of Lou Reed is his debut book.

What is this book about?

James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, but Lou Reed was the Godfather of Punk. He was a poet of rock whose legacy includes “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” and “Street Hassle,” among other songs.

Reed, a curmudgeonly sort in his music and his life, died in 2013, but his legend lives on. He made “noise rock” in the 1960s with the Velvet Underground and went on to work with Metallica. A nice middle-class Jewish boy, the son of an accountant and a former beauty queen, he grew up on Long Island and went on to write songs before joining those two seminal groups and becoming a pivotal figure in the punk music avant-garde. Levy’s book explores his early doo-wop recordings, the influence of his Jewish faith on his work and his connection to the LGBT movement, drawing on deep research that includes recent interviews with Reed’s friends, lovers and artistic collaborators, who included Andy Warhol, Nico, John Cale, critic Lester Bangs and others.  And it also demonstrates the tender side of this often harsh purveyor of punk music.

Why you’ll like it:

Levy spared no effort in exploring Reed’s world, relationships and lasting influence on music, and his thorough research grounds the conclusions he reaches about this often difficult but important figure in contemporary music. He produces not only a measured look at the punk phenomenon, but also an intimate portrait of one of its most famous avatars —  addictions, sexual explorations and all.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says:  “In his biography of the protopunk icon Lou Reed (1942–2013), Levy does a splendid job debunking the myths surrounding the musician. He describes Reed’s middle-class Jewish upbringing on Long Island as stifling and discusses how bouts of nonconformity, depression, and bi-curious sexual attractions drove his parents to subject him to electroconvulsive therapy. Levy covers Reed’s years at Syracuse University, where he meets his first girlfriend, Shelly Albin, a muse for some of his notable early songs, and his troubled mentor, the writer Delmore Schwartz. Levy’s history of the Velvet Underground, Reed’s influential late 1960s band, covers familiar territory, as the author discusses his fractious relationships with Andy Warhol, Nico, and collaborator John Cale. Levy is at his most engaging describing Reed’s first decade as a solo artist, shedding light on his attempts to self-sabotage his career, his then-shocking relationship with transwoman Rachel Humphreys, his playfully combative friendship with rock critic Lester Bangs, and his addictions to alcohol and amphetamine. The book’s one weakness is that it offers far less detail about Reed’s career after 1980 than about his work prior to that decade. VERDICT Though a little dry, this study is about as close to a must-read book on Reed as one can get.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A biography of legendary rocker Lou Reed (1942-2013). There is no shortage of biographies testifying to Reed’s importance as the godfather of punk and progenitor of art rock. Even before his death, his place in the rock-’n'-roll pantheon was uncontested as a founding member of the Velvet Underground, and his life had become the subject of mythic archetype for his transgressive lyrics, blend of pop stylings with avant-garde aesthetics, and hard-living lifestyle. Journalist Levy’s narrative of Reed’s life and work—touted as the first since his death—confirms these honors. But the most useful aspect of Levy’s study is his ability to separate Reed the rocker from Reed the person. Reed’s reputation and legacy as one of the pioneers and innovators of rock are unquestioned, but the author also showcases his irascible, confrontational, and often cruel personality, which complicated his cult of personality. Driven by the emergence of bohemian and Beat cultures in the 1950s, Reed devoted himself to a contrarian, anti-bourgeois lifestyle that alienated friends and lovers, sabotaged professional relationships, and fueled a self-destructive lifestyle. Guided by his literary mentor Delmore Schwartz, Reed began his musical career as a songwriter at Pickwick Records, where he began writing one of his early masterpieces, “Heroin.” He also made connections with like-minded musician John Cale and artist Andy Warhol, who formed the artistic core of the Velvet Underground. As frontman, Reed ushered in a new style of cacophonous, uninhibited, and gritty urban realism in songwriting. The details of Reed’s ascendance, fall, and comeback as a solo artist are so vital and culturally significant they read like a Hollywood script, and Levy ably captures it. Few artists, let alone musicians, have had a more fruitful yet tempestuous creative life, the results of which forever changed perceptions of popular music and art. A valuable study of Reed, further cementing his totemic influence as the high priest of art rock.”

When is it available?

“Dirty Boulevard” is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour branch.

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

The Mare

By Mary Gaitskill

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Mary Gaitskill, who once sold flowers on the street in San Francisco and for a time supported herself as a sex worker, is now an acclaimed American novelist, essayist and short story writer who often explores kinky relationships in work that goes far beyond the cheaply titillating. She is the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted T , which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award, and Don’t Cry, and the novels Veronica , which was nominated for a National Book Award, and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Her story, Secretary, which appeared in Bad Behavior, is about a sadomasochistic boss and worker relationship, became a 2002 movie with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

What is this book about?

A middle-aged couple in New York State entwine their lives with an 11-year-old girl from the Dominican Republic via Brooklyn, through a children’s charity. Velveteen Vargas, known as Velvet (in a nod to the classic book and film National Velvet), has a domineering, cold-hearted mother, but over several years, she develops a warm relationship with Ginger, her benefactor who is a recovering alcoholic and a failed artist, despite Ginger’s husband’s doubts about yanking a city kid out of her milieu and exposing her to a life she may not be able to sustain. Even more important,Velvet comes to love and bond with an abused mare known as Fugly Girl, and that relationship changes everything for the main characters. The story has some real life parallels: Gaitskill and her then-husband hosted a pair of Dominican-American siblings with an abusive mother through the Fresh Air Fund and grew close with them, although the relationship fell apart. The book explores how love can be affected by differences in race and socioeconomic class.

Why you’ll like it:

Gaitskill writes with unflinching honesty and lyrical grace, and in this book she convincingly speaks in the voice of a child. Her work is both disturbing and compelling, and she is not afraid to explore areas of human behavior and emotion that might frighten off a lesser writer.

In an interview with BOMB magazine, she said she began writing at age 18 because she was ‘”indignant about things—it was the typical teenage sense of ‘things are wrong in the world and I must say something.” ‘

A New York Times story about Gaitskill describes her work this way: “[It’s] so acutely observant of human behavior that it’s frequently described in the language of violation: a vivisection, a dental drill, a flogging. There is very rough sex in her books, and characters who binge eat and rip out their hair. But the real danger is elsewhere: It’s in glances and gestures and sudden silences, in craving contact and being rebuffed. ‘‘I wanted to communicate and connect,’’ Gaitskill said when I asked why she became a writer. ‘‘

What others are saying:

“The Mare is a raw, beautiful story about love and mutual delusion, in which the fierce erotics of mother love and romantic love and even horse fever are swirled together,” says Maureen Corrigan’s Best Books of 2015 on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Velvet Vargas, the abused, underprivileged daughter of unstable Silvia, and Ginger, a fortysomething, upper-middle-class recovering alcoholic, are the heart of this multi-voiced saga of damaged people scrambling to survive against enormous odds. When Ginger and husband Paul take in 11-year-old Velvet for a summer stint with the Fresh Air Fund in upstate New York, this initial visit segues into frequent visits over the years. Paul is skeptical about this social experiment; Ginger is obsessed with the girl’s welfare every time she returns to Brooklyn. When they arrange for Velvet to take riding lessons at a nearby horse farm, Velvet’s rare equine intuition ups the tension. Her jealous, hateful mother resists all efforts to nurture the very gifts that may save Velvet’s soul, while Ginger oversteps one boundary after another to keep Velvet safe while healing the dark abyss of her own psyche. VERDICT Gaitskill spares no one in this brutally honest story of poverty, bigotry, the secret life of adolescents looking for love and acceptance in all the wrong places, and parental and marital dysfunction. The major and minor voices narrating this brilliant tapestry are wondrously original, poignant, and, despite all, not without hope.”

Kirkus’s starred review says: “A young Dominican girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn forges a relationship with a white woman living in a bucolic upstate town and learns to love horses and respect herself. Eleven-year-old Velvet has a soft name, but there’s nothing even remotely plush about her life in a rough part of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Abused (mostly, but not only, verbally) by her mother, a tough immigrant, Velvet has little to call her own (she keeps her treasured objects—a shell, a dried sea horse, a broken keychain doll—in an old cotton-ball box in the back of a closet) and few friends, almost no one she can trust. Velvet’s mother clearly prefers her 6-year-old son, Dante, singing him to sleep at night with her back to Velvet in the family’s shared bed. Instead of comfort and cuddles, Velvet gets the message that she’s “no good”—not that it’s really her fault; it’s just that her blood is bad. While Velvet craves her mother’s love and attention, Ginger, a 47-year-old sometime artist recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse, an abusive relationship, and the death of her troubled sister, finds herself yearning for a child. Now living a comfortable life in upstate New York with Paul, her college-professor husband, Ginger has decided to “test the waters” of adoption by hosting a Fresh Air Fund kid for a couple of weeks, a commitment that stretches far longer and deeper. That’s how Velvet and Ginger meet, and it’s also how Velvet meets a mistrustful and mistreated horse at the stable next door to Ginger’s house, the horse the others call “Fugly Girl” and she renames “Fiery Girl,” whom she will tame and train, and who will do the same for her. Alternating primarily between Velvet’s and Ginger’s perspectives, with occasional observations from other characters, National Book Award finalist Gaitskill takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting. Gaitskill explores the complexities of love … to bring us a novel that gallops along like a bracing bareback ride on a powerful thoroughbred.”

“The Mare is indebted, in its narrative strategy, to As I Lay Dying, another novel that employs a host of recurring narrators to get at the tangled intricacies of family life. There is a certain loom-like effect at work in both books, a warp-and-woof texture, visible only to the reader, produced by the interwoven sets of impressions . . .  On horseback, Velvet is in her own, untouchable place, and Gaitskill’s sentences lift their necks and pick up speed to match her movements stride for stride,” says The New Yorker.

Says Publishers Weekly: “In this novel by National Book Award–finalist Gaitskill 11-year-old Dominican-American Velveteen “Velvet” Vargas from Crown Heights in Brooklyn is invited to spend a few weeks with a white couple in upstate New York as part of the Fresh Air Fund sponsorship program. The demure and self-possessed girl is skeptical of the situation at first, but as she continues to visit over the next three years, she develops a relationship with Ginger—an ex-addict and amateur artist—and Ginger’s professor husband, Paul, as well as with the horses at a nearby stable. True to form, as Velvet learns to trust her instinct and develops a talent for riding a feisty horse she renames Fiery Girl, her confidence soars. But problems arise when Velvet hits puberty and discovers boys: Velvet’s single mother, fierce and prone to violence, refuses to allow Velvet to ride and repeatedly calls her worthless, while Ginger goes off the rails dealing with her own insecurities. Gaitskill is renowned for her edgy writing, but the book—narrated by different characters—treads into stereotype. More nuanced portrayals might have made Velvet’s bumpy growth into an independent young woman more palatable. “

 

When is it available?

This powerful novel is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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