Crazy Love You

By Lisa Unger

(Touchstone, $25.99, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Lisa Unger, who  was born in New Haven and grew up in New Jersey, where her mother was a librarian, now lives in Florida . She is an award-winning New York Times and internationally bestselling author. Whose 13 novels have so far sold more than two million copies and have been translated into 26 languages. Her psychological thrillers have won critical praise for their literary qualities as well as commercial success for their gripping plots and memorable characters.

What is this book about?

As a boy growing up in The Hollows in upstate New York, Ian is the fat kid whom his peers torment, and his unhappy life is made worse by his murderous mother’s mental illness. Then Priss moves to town and becomes Ian’s avenger and confidant. Ian grows up to become a successful graphic novelist, whose Fatboy and Priss books hark back to his miserable childhood. Ian, now an adult, maintains a relationship with Priss, who continues to manipulate his life, leading him into a world of drinking, drugs and kinky sex. It’s a dark path, and when Ian meets the sweet and lovely Megan, he sees a better life awaiting him.  But will the obsessive and dominating Priss let him go? Can he let her go? And by the way, is Priss at all what she seems? On that question hangs the resolution of this chilling tale.

Why you’ll like it:

Unger knows how to create compelling characters caught up in frightening relationships and dangerous behaviors, as well as stories that engage the reader and offer complex, twisty endings.

Here is some of what she told a Big Thrill Magazine interviewer :

“At its core, CRAZY LOVE YOU is about obsessive love, the twisting nature of reality and fiction, and going down the rabbit hole of addiction . . .”

And here is what she has said about The Hollows, the setting for several of her novels:

“The Hollows is a very interesting and unique place. It started out simply as the setting, a fictional town I created, for my novel Fragile. But, over the years, it has become much more. . . .The Hollows is, in some sense, how I see life. It has an endless number of shades and layers, and it shows various parts of itself to everyone. The Hollows is someplace different for Jones Cooper than it is for Eloise Montgomery than it is for Ian Paine. They all see what they want to see in the place, and they all take away a unique experience. Jones, who is a very practical, feet-on-the-ground type of guy, views The Hollows as he would view any other place. Eloise sees — and hears — a totally other perspective, something beyond the buildings and trees. Someone like Ian — troubled, addicted, sensitive — is having another experience yet again. They are all acting upon and being acted upon by The Hollows in different ways. Like life, The Hollows is exactly what you expect it to be, exactly what you put into it — and yet there are many elements that are totally out of your control.”

 

What others are saying:

The Providence Journal says:  “A simmering tale of romantic obsession and angst in the tradition of Body Heat or Fatal Attraction, laced with the noirish spirit of James M. Cain. Wonderfully crafted and beautifully executed.”

Booklist’s starred review says: “Ian is an overweight, very unhappy little boy growing up in the Hollows, a small town in upstate New York that is as creepy as it sounds. His mother has killed his baby sister during a severe bout of postpartum depression and is confined to an institution. Ian grows up bullied and prone to bouts of explosive anger; his only solace is a young girl named Priss, who shows up in his yard one day and befriends him—and later defends him. Fast-forward to Ian’s successful life as a graphic artist in New York City, where he is struggling with drugs and alcohol and a toxic relationship with Priss. Then he meets Megan, a young woman from a fine family, and they fall in love. Ian wants to be a better person for Megan, and he decides to stop using drugs. Megan wants to meet Priss, but Ian can’t let that happen. Priss is very jealous and keeps moving in and out of his life, leaving all sorts of damage in her wake. As the narrative weaves back and forth between Ian’s childhood and his adulthood, and his relationships with Megan and with Priss, the story becomes more entangled and more riveting. Is Priss real, imaginary, or a ghost? Does Ian have anger issues, or is it Priss doing all the damage? This is a complex, intricate story, yet the pages fly by as Ian, the most unreliable narrator since Nick Dunne in Gone Girl, leads us on a wild ride in this superb psychological thriller. Unger is at the top of her game here.”

“Sharply drawn characters and occasional rest breaks of humor . . . Unger is adept at evoking the eerie, but she’s also capable of droll sociological commentary on the urban scene. . . . After reading Unger’s sinister thriller, anyone cavalier enough to think they can easily put the past to rest (and even live companionably with the dead) will think again,”  says Maureen Corrigan in The Washington Post.

Publishers Weekly says: “Bestseller Unger’s suspenseful fourth Hollows thriller (after 2014’s In the Blood) focuses on Ian Paine, a graphic novelist in New York City, who draws on his unhappy childhood growing up in the Hollows, N.Y., for his successful series Fatboy and Priss. Fatboy was the name Ian was called by the schoolmates who viciously tormented him; Priss was his only friend, a girl who wrought revenge on anyone who hurt Ian. When Ian begins a relationship with Megan, a beautiful, caring woman, the resentful Priss sets out to lure Ian back into the destructive patterns he developed before meeting Megan—patterns that included long work sessions followed by heavy drinking and drug use. Ian is soon keeping company with inappropriate companions and engaging in promiscuous sex and various crimes. The tug-of-war between the two women to gain control of Ian will keep readers hooked, but some will find the lengthy ending unsatisfying.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Ian Paine is a successful graphic novelist, but as a child, his life was filled with heartbreak and turmoil. From his beloved mother’s descent into madness to the merciless bullying he endured at the hands of his classmates, life dealt Ian a difficult hand. But when a young girl named Priss arrived in town, she became his loyal defender and his close friend. Now an adult, Ian can’t turn his back on Priss, even though his friendship with her has taken a destructive turn, drawing him into a life of drinking and pill popping. When he falls in love with the kind and caring Megan, Ian resolves to free himself of his drug habit, but Priss makes it clear that she isn’t going to let go. VERDICT Unger’s skillful portrayal of complex and traumatized characters make her latest psychological thriller one that will keep readers engaged from start to finish. Fans of mystery and suspense, along with Unger aficionados, will enjoy this imaginative tale, which may be the author’s best work yet.”

“Unger takes her loyal readers back to The Hollows, a creepy town about 100 miles from New York City, in this tale of love gone awry. Ian Paine writes and illustrates graphic novels and has become quite a success. His series—Fatboy and Priss—chronicles the adventures of a nerdy outcast and his gorgeous, red-haired avenger, the amoral Priss, who makes certain that no slight to Fatboy goes unpunished. Originally from The Hollows, where otherworldly events are common, Ian was the original Fatboy. He led a miserable life after his mother lost her grip on reality and smothered his baby sister, then led him to the bathtub, perhaps planning to drown him. Escaping from his mom, Ian ran into the woods, where he met Priss, a strange child with red hair; as time passed, she became his only friend. Ian was the school joke, but with weight loss and artistic success, he eventually made a new life for himself in the city. Now he’s fallen in love with a woman named Megan, and she’s accepted his proposal of marriage. But when his editor tells him it’s time to kill off Fatboy and Priss and start another series, he finds that Priss, who has both haunted and defended him, isn’t going to go without a fight, and that fight can get very, very ugly. Though fans may wonder why, given its history, anyone would live in The Hollows, the big question for readers will be whether or not Priss is real or simply a manifestation of a disturbed young man’s imagination. Unger’s complex novel can at times get a little confusing, with the action constantly shifting from place to place and back and forth in time, but Unger knows what her fans like and scores another bull’s eye with this one. Classic Unger and a surefire hit with her followers,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

You can find this thriller at the Goodwin 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!

 


Unrivaled: UConn, Tennessee, and the Twelve Years that Transcended Women’s Basketball

By Jeff Goldberg

(University of Nebraska Press, $27.95, 234 pages)

Who is this author?

Jeff Goldberg (and if you are curious, yes, he is my son) was The Courant’s UConn women’s basketball beat writer from 2001 to 2006, a period that included championship seasons in 2002, 2003 and 2004. He also wrote three championship commemorative sections, including a commemorative book, “Excellence 3″ in 2004, and earlier, was The Courant’s UConn basketball on-line columnist from 1997 to 2001. Unrivaled is his second book on UConn women’s basketball. In 2001, he published Bird at the Buzzer: UConn, Notre Dame, and a Women’s Basketball Classic, a narrative of what many think was the single best women’s college basketball game ever played. From 2006 to 2008, he was the paper’s Red Sox beat writer. Since leaving The Courant in 2008, Jeff has been an editorial producer for MLB.com and  general manager of editorial content for Football Nation, LLC, as well as a sports freelancer in the Boston area. In August, he and his wife relocated to San Diego.

What is this book about?

Fans of UConn’s women’s basketball team – and for that matter, of women’s college basketball in general —  know that the rivalry between UConn and Tennessee was something special: a continuing source of great games, along with arguments and ill feelings. The teams began playing one another some 20 years ago and continued until 2007, when Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt abruptly canceled the series with no explanation from her or from UConn coach Geno Auriemma.  Unrivaled takes a deep dive into that history and all the controversies it generated while helping to make the women’s game a national phenomenon. The two coaches respected each other, but apparently did not like each other. The book offers intriguing theories on what happened to cause the end of their competition, from serious issues involving recruitment to misunderstood attempts at humor. Now that Summitt is sadly suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, her version will never be known, but this book offers the most detailed explanation so far of what went wrong and why.

Why you’ll like it:

Goldberg writes with insight, clarity, insider knowledge, humor and empathy about this complex interaction of coaches, players and fans. He uses his extensive background in daily sports journalism and his personal connections to coaches and players to give authority and authenticity to this compelling story. The book also offers two other voices that will be of great interest to UConn fans: Rebecca Lobo, a basketball analyst for ESPN who played for the UConn team and on three WNBA teams, wrote its foreword, and Auriemma’s daughter Alyssa, who wrote a touching and widely read blog post about Summitt in 2012, wrote the book’s afterword.

What others are saying:

“There were many memorable moments in the UConn–Tennessee rivalry. The author captures them all in exquisite detail, plus many more. This is a must-read for any women’s basketball fan, let alone those who follow the Huskies and Lady Vols,” says Mel Greenberg, Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee former women’s basketball writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and creator of the weekly Associated Press women’s basketball poll.

Says Library Journal: “Goldberg (Bird at the Buzzer) delivers the story of one of sports’ greatest rivalries, the 12-year feud between the University of Connecticut (UConn) and University of Tennessee women’s basketball teams. This title gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the drama on and off the court as the two teams ushered women’s basketball into the mainstream, as well as the highly publicized conflicts between coaches Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt. While the author has an obvious connection to Connecticut through his former role as the women’s basketball writer at the Hartford Courant and his published book on UConn player Sue Bird, he uses game summaries and quotes from parties on both sides of the battle line to present an unbiased account, a quality especially pertinent as the rivalry turned ugly toward the end. The volume expands upon Richard Kent’s Lady Vols and UConn, chronicling the competition to its controversial end and beyond to Tennessee’s legendary Coach Summitt’s retirement. VERDICT Because Goldberg includes detailed game summaries and basketball jargon, readers unfamiliar with the sport may find the book challenging, but it is highly recommended for basketball and collegiate sports fans as well as readers interested in learning about this important era in women’s history.”

When is it available?

It’s a slam dunk that you’ll find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field, Mark Twain and Park branches.

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

Loitering: New and Collected Essays

By Charles D’Ambrosio

(Tin House, $15.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Charles D’Ambrosio, a great writer who teaches aspiring writers about good writing, has published two short story collections, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist,  and the essay collection Orphans. His literary honors include a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, and his work frequently appears in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story and A Public Space. D’Ambrosio grew up in Seattle and now teaches at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.

What is this book about?

Loitering, which was published last fall, made NPR’s 2014 Best of the Year list and the Pacific Northwest Bestseller List, and it was named one of the Top Ten Books of the Year by Time Out New York. While D’Ambrosio is known as an excellent writer of short stories, he also wins generous praise as an essayist, writing in a genre that combines the personal with serious reportage. Loitering combines 11 original essays from his collection Orphans, a book that earned him a cult-like following, with new and uncollected essays. His subject matter is nothing if not eclectic: hunting whales with Native Americans; J.D. Salinger’s writing; a Pentecostal “hell house;” Mary Kay Letourneau (the teacher who fell in love with her 13-year-old student)  and his own family. What binds these disparate subjects together is his original voice and perspective: clever, compassionate, compelling.

Why you’ll like it:

D’Ambrosio has been credited with the rare ability  to write “understated realism.” He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and in an interview with him written for that magazine by essayist Leslie Jamison, she says:

“In these essays he is hard on easy answers and false resolution because he believes in what lies beyond them.  With this book, I felt like shaking strangers in the street and saying, Read these essays; they will move you.”

Here are some of his thoughts on writing essays, from that interview:

“. . . that figure on the threshold seems to be standing around in quite a few of these essays. It’s a little spooky to realize how porous the personality is in writing, porous or just plain incontinent, leaking out everywhere, so that things get revealed even when—or especially when—you haven’t given them much conscious thought. It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to indulge in a goopy confessional mode to write a personal essay—you’re more mysterious than you know, more naked than you imagine, and whether you intend it or not you’re going to be exposed.

“I don’t deliberately seek out that threshold or the ambivalence it offers, but the fact that I return to it over and over suggests that it isn’t entirely innocent, either. I mean, I must go there for a reason, but why? I was a vigilant kid, and vigilance as a perspective on life depends on distance, a certain remove. You’re always kind of there and not there, sitting in the room but also watching the room, alert to some other, less innocent possibility. That distance feels safe, but it also stirs up the most intense feelings of loss and longing, the dream of making the distance go away, of ditching the divided self and all its tensions and simply being there—you know, just crossing that threshold and coming inside, coming home. But it’s hard to do, hard for me to do, anyway. . .

“I can’t imagine absenting myself from the story. It’s not possible, so I don’t waste my time. I’m there, I’m witnessing, I’m thinking, I’m struggling to understand, I’m making connections or failing to make connections, I’m excited by errors that then, somehow, usher in a little truth, and all of that influences, distorts, and colors the material.

“Sometimes my role in the essay is simply presented as it happens—the narrative action is just the random intersection of my life, whatever that’s about at the time, with the story, whatever that may be.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review , author Phillip Lopate says: “D’Ambrosio has also published two fine collections of short stories, but it is his essays, appearing in literary magazines and previously in an obscure small-press edition, that have been garnering a cult reputation. Now that they are gathered in such a generous collection, we can see he is one of the strongest, smartest and most literate essayists practicing today…These are highly polished, finished, exemplary performances.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “This powerful collection (11 essays from Ophans, plus new and uncollected work) highlights D’Ambrosio’s ability to mine his personal history for painful truths about the frailty of family and the strange quest to understand oneself, and in turn, be understood. In his strongest essays, including an account of a trip to a Russian orphanage, a reminiscence of hopping freight trains, and wrenching family stories, he avoids pathos and uses telling detail to get at some larger truths. In an essay on J.D. Salinger’s short stories, D’Ambrosio (also known for his fiction) writes about the suicide of his youngest brother. In a Russian orphanage, he talks with children who will have a hard road ahead, and conveys that he, too, is making his way in a world full of holes, gaps, and scars. In his graceful essay on poet Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” he observes that in a life that’s been broken “we know these things happen, and we don’t… know why.” Without an easy solution, he observes that “answers are as foolish and transient as we are” and challenges writers and readers to “approach the unanswerable,” which he himself does here, to great effect. “

Kirkus Reviews says:  “An essayist and short story writer returns with a collection of pieces ranging in subject from whaling to a Russian orphanage to J.D. Salinger. D’Ambrosio begins with some thoughts about what an essay is (he views it as a way to figure out what he thinks) and then launches into his thoughtful and provocative essays, revealing a hungry mind and a pervasive, constitutional sadness. In the first essay, the author deals with his attempts as a young man to leave his boyhood home of Seattle, and he introduces some of the darkness (geographical and personal) that inhabits the other essays. Among the topics that he revisits throughout: suicide (attempts in his family, a leaper from a tower on 9/11), the puzzling aspects of experience (just about everything—from decrepit buildings to empty streets; the view from a boxcar he hopped), the fragility of family (his father appears continually), and the abuse of language. He goes off on the prosecutor and the press coverage of the 1998 case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a 35-year-old teacher convicted of having sexual relations with a 13-year-old boy (a former student). D’Ambrosio closely examines the language of the courtroom and the useless indignation that infused much of the press coverage. He considers the vastness of love, and he explores the language of Richard Brautigan, whose prose he does not admire. The author ends with a long disquisition on a poem by Richard Hugo (which and whom he admires). A couple of cavils: It would help curious readers to have publication dates on the pieces somewhere, and although the author chides one of his interview subjects for excessively inflated diction, D’Ambrosio, using words like “emunctory,” “gallionic” and “prodromal,” will send many readers to the dictionary apps on their smart phones. Erudite essays that plumb the hearts of many contemporary darknesses.”

When is it available?

Don’t loiter. Borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library soon.

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!

Born With Teeth

By Kate Mulgrew

Little, Brown and Company, $28, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Maybe you know her as Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, Mary Ryan on Ryan’s Hope, or Galina “Red” Reznikov on Orange Is the New Black. Or as Mrs. Columbo. Or as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, a role she played to great reviews in a Hartford Stage production. Or you may know her from one of her other many roles on stage, TV or film or as a fund-raiser in the fight against Alzheimer’s Disease, which afflicted her mother. But Kate Mulgrew, now 60, also is an accomplished writer, as shown by her memoir, Born With Teeth, which is garnering enthusiastic reviews.

What is this book about?

Mulgrew writes that she grew up in an unconventional Irish Catholic family in the Midwest, raised by parents who knew “how to drink, how to dance, how to talk, and how to stir up the devil,” which seems like great training for an actress-to-be. She headed to New York at age 18, studied with the famous Stella Adler and then had an unplanned pregnancy and gave her daughter up for adoption, a decision that haunted her for decades even as she enjoyed considerable professional success. There were other serious problems, including a rape, that she had to overcome. Known for her roles as strong women who handle challenges well, Mulgrew the writer proves that she can reflect on her life’s ups and downs with candor, humor, sadness and wisdom.

Why you’ll like it:

Mulgrew, unsurprisingly, pulls no punches in this very frank memoir about her personal and professional life.  It’s always fascinating to read the back story of a star that you may think you know; it’s doubly delightful when that back story is presented by a talented writer. Not many actors have the kind of insight and literary skills to create a memorable book, as Mulgrew has so ably done.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “In Mulgrew’s assured gem of a memoir, fans of the actress will delight in discovering her writing chops are as accomplished as her award-winning acting. Growing up, she lived in Derby Grange, a massive 1850s house in Dubuque, Iowa, where Mulgrew and her seven siblings enjoyed magical childhoods. Her eccentric artist mother, whose best friend was Jean Kennedy Smith, sent the budding actress to New York at 18, where she studied with the legendary Stella Adler. Mulgrew’s career took off quickly when she landed the lead in the soap Ryan’s Hope in 1975. Her unplanned pregnancy during that time was written into the script, although only a handful knew the baby girl was placed for adoption at birth. The events devastated Mulgrew, as did the early deaths of two beloved siblings and a rape she survived near her Manhattan apartment. But she kept moving forward, powerfully devoted to her life through broken romantic relationships, the joy of getting the lucrative starring role in Star Trek: Voyager, and finding her daughter at last in 2007. Mulgrew’s mother was her muse and true confidante, until the first signs of Alzheimer’s appeared. Readers will savor Mulgrew’s gift for erudite, honest writing and want to read more about her mesmerizing life.”

Mulgrew swaggers endearingly across its pages, her ‘able and hardy constitution’ ever on display as she powers through the many challenges—both personal and professional—that life has tossed her way. Eloquent and impassioned, the book reaches beyond the standard Hollywood memoir to something more affecting and enduring…Throughout, she narrates with the grandeur of a stage diva holding court: ‘Actresses. What a bunch of sad saps, we are,’ she intones. ‘Madly in love with the child. Madly in love with the craft. Trying desperately to forge an alliance with the two, and constantly failing.’ Mulgrew can be proud that this memoir, her defining monologue, proves otherwise,” says the Washington Post.

Says Library Journal: “Actress Mulgrew’s autobiography is an intriguing look at a very interesting life. She left her home in Iowa at 18 in the Seventies and studied with Stella Adler in New York, determined to become an actress. She quickly earned stardom on the TV soap opera Ryan’s Hope and her life changed forever. Despite her public success with acting, behind the scenes Mulgrew went through many emotional traumas with her children and in her personal life. She describes her deep sorrow when she gave a daughter up for adoption and how she eventually reconciled with her. This well-written book has great stories, as Mulgrew is a fantastic storyteller. It also is a very honest recollection of some of the experiences she has had and how, through it all, acting has remained her passion. VERDICT Mulgrew’s enjoyable narrative is compelling as she portrays her decades of acting work, personal triumphs and heartbreaks, and her mesmerizing life.”

Born with Teeth jumps spectacularly from tale to trial, each approached with abandon and honesty. Reading it feels like joining a friend on a spontaneous adventure that extends to another day, another party, another trip, leaving you breathless and unable to do anything but follow,” says The Miami Herald.

When is it available?

Mulgrew’s memoir is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


Amnesia

By Peter Carey

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Peter Carey, who was once an advertising copywriter, was born in Australia and has now lived in New York City for more than 20 years. He has published 13 novels and four works of nonfiction and has won the prestigious Booker Prize twice, the Miles Franklin Literary Award five times and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and has been executive director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Hunter College, which is part of the City University of New York.

What is this book about?

Novels don’t get much timelier than this one, which deals with radical Internet hackers, cyberwars, a computer virus that frees prisoners in Australia and the U.S. from incarceration and complex international power wars involving the CIA. Mixed in are actual historical clashes between America and Australia, largely forgotten now. Into this mess steps Felix Moore, the self-styled  “Australia’s last serving left-wing journalist,” who hopes to make sense of it all by writing the biography of the woman who released the “Angel Worm” virus that unlocked the prison doors. His first task: getting her to cooperate with his plans to explain her and then to save her and perhaps save his country as well.

Why you’ll like it:

Peter Carey has produced many highly imaginative novels, and this is his latest. He writes with verve and humor, which help make the often complex political and scientific material that inform his books go down easier. You may not have had much interest in recent Australian history – you may in fact have absolutely no interest in it – but if you are curious about the ever-increasing reality of cyberhacking and ecoterrorism, and are open to learning some esoteric history in the process, then this book is for you.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “From two-time Booker winner Carey comes this complex new novel, focusing on the author’s native Australia, but exploring themes of journalistic freedom and Internet ethics. At the center of the book is the young Australian Gabrielle Baillieux, who releases a virus called the Angel Worm in the computer system that controls the Australian prison system, releasing thousands of prisoners throughout Australia and, inadvertently, in the U.S. The move could be construed as an act of terrorism, a bold stroke in the fight for human rights, or just a geeky plan gone awry. Journalist Felix Moore is hired to write Gabrielle’s story sympathetically, to avoid her extradition. In the process, he spends time with her mother, the actress Celine Baillieux, whom he had previously known in college. Looking back through the two women’s lives, Felix also explores Australia’s history since WWII, confusing himself but also educating readers about the Land Down Under. Throughout the book, Carey’s cartwheeling prose and dazzling intellect can be challenging to keep up with, but the book is worth the effort.”

Says Library Journal: “Delving into political activism and ecoterrorism, this literary mystery by two-time Man Booker Prize winner Carey starts off with the unleashing of a computer virus that opens prison doors in Australia and the United States. Gaby, the daughter of a politician and his actress wife, is identified as a suspect in the viral attack, and soon Felix Moore (a writer with his own political past) is commissioned by wealthy shadow figure Woody Townes to produce a book about her. Felix is promptly abducted and taken to a remote location, where he transcribes tape recordings of reminiscences by Gaby and her mother, which comprise the bulk of the novel. His efforts result in a work bearing the same title as the present novel, which when released on the Internet has far-reaching consequences. Looming large over all these events is the Australian Constitutional Crisis of 1975. VERDICT Intricate and well told, with compelling details of Australian political and social history, this book is nevertheless slow paced, with shifts in time and perspective complicating matters. In the end, the characters never really command the reader’s sympathy enough to move beyond the political and environmental into human drama.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Carey returns to his native Australia, the setting of his two Booker-winning novels (Oscar and Lucinda, 1988; True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001), for this busy, history-soaked study of politics, family and computer hacking. Felix, the hero and occasional narrator of Carey’s 13th novel, is a legendary journalist who’s recently been disgraced in a libel trial. To redeem himself (and pay off his fines), he falls back into the orbit of a wealthy and politically powerful friend, who has a job for him: Write the life story of Gaby, a young woman accused of releasing a computer virus that freed inmates in almost 5000 U.S. prisons and jails. Felix was college friends with Gaby’s mother, Celine, and he’s being steered to find Gaby innocent, quite forcefully so—over time he’ll be sequestered in a remote hut and motel room with nothing but a typewriter and tapes of Gaby and Celine’s conversations to keep him company. That’s the novel’s spine, but it’s forced to bear the weight of a lot of back story, including musings on the CIA’s involvement in the disruption of Australia’s scandal-ridden government in 1975; the U.S. soldier and serial rapist who impregnated Celine’s mother; and Gaby’s awkward adolescence in the late ’80s, when she fell for a young man who taught her the ways of hacking, which led to some muckraking of a local polluter. As the title suggests, Carey is interested in the ways that we forget about the darker but influential moments in our lives, often deliberately. It’s a provocative theme, and Felix’s seen-it-all tone gives the political scenes an appealingly hard-nosed, jagged mood. But the novel overall is baggy, shifting from coder-speak to blunt dialogue to reportage. History is a complicated web, Carey reminds us, but this one is particularly sticky. A relatively forgettable entry in a top-shelf novelist’s oeuvre.”

“A novel about the new American empire and its repercussions around the world, about technology and, most movingly, about family. It is slippery and compelling, written with the vivid precision that marks Mr. Carey’s best work. It appears at first as though he might, like Thomas Pynchon in Bleeding Edge or Dave Eggers in The Circle, be attempting to recreate the constantly shifting virtual world in the fixed text of a novel. But humanity, not machinery, lies at the book’s heart. . . . Mr. Carey, who has already won the Man Booker prize twice should be in with a chance for a third prize next year,” says The Economist.

“The story of WikiLeaks as if transmogrified by Dickens and turned into a thrilling fable for our post-Edward Snowden era. Written with forensic precision . . . Australian fauna and flora are done in glorious technicolour: kookaburras, butcherbirds, killer magpies,” says The Guardian.”

When is it available?

Don’t forget that Amnesia is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills branch.

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


God Help the Child

By Toni Morrison

(Knopf  Doubleday,   $24.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

Toni Morrison, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1993), as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, is a professor of English at Princeton University and one of America’s finest novelists. Her 11 novels include The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Paradise, Home, Love and Beloved, whose film version starred Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover and which The New York Times named in 2006 as the best American novel published in the previous 25 years.

What is this book about?

The suffering of little children and how it continually shapes the lives of adults is the core of Toni Morrison’s latest, told, as her novels often are, in a powerful mixture of straightforward storytelling and lyrical fable. A woman who calls herself Bride, born Lula Ann with skin so dark as to look blue-back to parents repulsed by her color, undergoes a metamorphosis into a stunning woman who is just about to launch her own cosmetics empire. But first, she feels she must try to right a wrong she committed as a child: to gain favor with her rejecting mother, little Lula Ann gave false testimony about her teacher, Sofia, accusing her of sexual abuse. Now 15 years later, Bride tries to pay Sofia back, with disastrous results that involve severe injuries and the relinquishing of control over her beauty empire. Worse, Bride’s incomparably satisfying lover, Booker, leaves her, partly because he is haunted by actual pedophile attacks on his murdered little brother that he wishes to avenge. When Bride, who seems to be having a breakdown, tries to find him, she becomes entangled with yet another abused child, Rain.

Why you’ll like it:

The plot of God Help the Child  is grim stuff, but Morrison tells Bride and Booker’s story with such literary grace and beauty that the book rises above its dark underpinning. Morrison fluidly mixes elements of racial hate, child abuse, false imprisonment, parental rejection and other emotional and spiritual ills and somehow turns it all into a haunting novel about the possibilities of redemption. Very few writers can set themselves such a task and succeed: the sure-handed Morrison takes on and then overcomes her own challenge.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “In Morrison’s short, emotionally-wrenching novel, her first since 2012′s Home, a mother learns about the damage adults do to children and the choices children make as they grow to suppress, express, or overcome their shame. The story begins with the birth of Lula Ann Bridewell, a midnight black baby whose mother cannot stand to touch her. Grown-up Lula Ann transforms herself into Bride, a stiletto-wearing, Jaguar-driving California executive with dark skin proudly accentuated by stylish white clothing. Amid preparations for the launch of her signature cosmetics line, Bride offers a gift-bag of cash and cosmetics to parolee Sofia Huxley, the kindergarten teacher Bride accused of sexual abuse 15 years before, earning Bride maternal approval and Sofia her prison sentence. Sofia’s angry rejection of Bride’s present, coinciding with the departure of Bride’s lover, inspires such self-doubt that Bride fears regressing back into Lula Ann. A car accident lands her in a culvert, where a little girl keeping dark secrets of her own comes to the rescue. Nobel laureate Morrison explores characteristic themes of people held captive by inner struggles; the delusion of racism; violence and redemption. Her literary craftsmanship endures with sparse language, precise imagery, and even humor. This haunting novel displays a profound understanding of American culture and an unwavering sense of justice and forgiveness.”

“Sly, savage, honest, and elegant . . . . Morrison spikes elements of realism and hyperrealism with magic and mayhem, while sustaining a sexily poetic and intoxicating narrative atmosphere . . . . Once again, Morrison thrillingly brings the storytelling moxie and mojo that make her, arguably, our greatest living novelist,” says ELLE Magazine.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “In her latest book, Nobel laureate Morrison shows us how we hold onto our pain and let it define us, pulling back on her often liquidly lyric style to offer powerful portraits in lean prose. Sweetness, who is from a family whose members can pass for white, gives birth to the midnight-black Lula Ann and raises her at an ashamed and bitter distance, which she rationalizes will toughen her up. As a child, Lula Ann gains some favor from her mother by helping to put away a teacher named Sofia, who is accused of sexually abusing her charges. As an adult who renames herself Bride, Lula Ann becomes a successful, traffic-stoppingly beautiful career woman. But her life starts falling apart when she meets with a just-paroled Sofia. Then Booker, with whom she’s been conducting a passionate affair, leaves without explanation. Serious-minded Booker cannot leave behind a terrible family tragedy, and as Bride pursues him for answers to his abandonment, they are both transformed in more ways than one. VERDICT There are some moves here that may seem obvious, but the pieces all fit together seamlessly in a story about beating back the past, confronting the present, and understanding one’s worth.”

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani writes: “…slim but powerful…This novel does not aspire to the grand sweep of history in Ms. Morrison’s dazzling 1987 masterpiece, Beloved, but like Home (2012), it attests to her ability to write intensely felt chamber pieces that inhabit a twilight world between fable and realism, and to convey the desperate yearnings of her characters for safety and love and belonging. The scars inflicted on Bride and Booker by their childhoods are metaphors of sorts for the calamities of history and the hold they can exert over a country’s or a people’s dreams…Writing with gathering speed and assurance as the book progresses, Ms. Morrison works her narrative magic, turning the Ballad of Bride and Booker into a tale that is as forceful as it is affecting, as fierce as it is resonant.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “Brutality, racism and lies are relieved by moments of connection in Morrison’s latest.A little girl is born with skin so black her mother will not touch her. Desperate for approval, to just once have her mother take her hand, she tells a lie that puts an innocent schoolteacher in jail for decades. Later, the ebony-skinned girl will change her name to Bride, wear only white, become a cosmetics entrepreneur, drive a Jaguar. Her lover, a man named Booker, also bears a deep scar on his soul—his older brother was abducted, tortured and murdered by a pedophilic serial killer. This is a skinny, fast-moving novel filled with tragic incidents, most sketched in a few haunting sentences: “The last time Booker saw Adam he was skateboarding down the sidewalk in twilight, his yellow T-shirt fluorescent under the Northern Ash trees.” When Bride’s falsely accused teacher is released from prison, there’s a new round of trouble. Booker leaves, Bride goes after him—and ends up in the woods, recovering from a car accident with hippie survivalists who have adopted a young girl abused by her prostitute mother. Meanwhile, Bride is anxiously watching her own body metamorphose into that of a child—her pubic hair has vanished, her chest has flattened, her earlobes are smooth. As in the darkest fairy tales, there will be fire and death. There will also be lobster salad, Smartwater and Louis Vuitton; the mythic aspects of this novel are balanced by moments like the one in which Bride decides that the song that most represents her relationship with Booker is “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” A chilling oracle and a lively storyteller, Nobel winner Morrison continues the work she began 45 years ago with The Bluest Eye.”

 

 

 

When is it available?

Morrison’s latest is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Blue Hills, Dwight, Goodwin and Park branches.

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


Karen Memery

By Elizabeth Bear

(Tor, $25, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky is her real name. A Hartford native who now lives in Brookfield, Mass., she writes as Elizabeth Bear and has more than 30 novels and many short stories to her credit, mostly in the genre of speculative fiction, which is what science fiction is called these days. She says her earlier career pursuits included media industry professional, stablehand, a fluff-page reporter, maintainer of microbiology procedure manuals for a 1,000-bed inner-city hospital, typesetter and layout editor, traffic manager for an import-export business, and “the girl who makes the donuts at The Whole Donut at three A.M.” Whew. Bear won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005 and also has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and she is the author of the Eternal Sky series. Bear spoke at the annual CAPA-U (Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association) workshop day in Hartford this May.

What is this book about?

Bear says this about Karen Memery: “It’s a steampunk adventure set in a fictional city in the Pacific Northwest during the Alaskan Gold Rush. It stars a young woman who goes by the house name of Prairie Dove, which should give you an idea what she does for a living. She’s kind of a badass, and she has badass friends.”

(Steampunk, for the uninitiated, can be described as “the future as imagined through the eyes of the past,” and this genre can be seen in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and the early science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.)

Bear’s novel is set in Seattle-like Rapid City during the late 1800s, a time of fanciful steam-powered machinery and airships in this alternate universe. Her heroine, Karen, for whom the word feisty seems to have been coined, is an orphan who works in a high-end bordello where the poor and the powerful meet. The action picks up when a badly beaten girl seeks safety in the brothel, pursued by a man who has a special glove that can take over a mind and force it to do what it wants. Then a murdered streetwalker turns up in the brothel’s garbage, adding a Jack the Ripper vibe to this piquant tale.

Why you’ll like it:

Sometimes the best and quickest way to find out whether you will like a book is to read a few pages to absorb the author’s style and hear the voice that will tell you the story. Here is the opening of Karen Memery:

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like “memory” only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. “Hôtel” has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.

“Some call it the Cherry Hotel. But most just say it’s Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle and have done. So I guess that makes me a seamstress, just like Beatrice and Miss Francina and Pollywog and Effie and all the other girls. I pay my sewing machine tax to the city, which is fifty dollar a week, and they don’t care if your sewing machine’s got a foot treadle, if you take my meaning.

“Which ain’t to say we ain’t got a sewing machine. We’ve got two, an old-style one with a black cast-iron body and a shiny chrome wheel, and one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.

“Them two machines sit out in a corner of the parlor as kind of a joke.

“I can use the old-fashioned one—I learned to sew, I mean really sew—pretty good after Mama died—and Miss Francina is teaching me to use the new one to do fancywork, though it kind of scares me. And it fits her, so it’s big as your grandpa’s trousers on me. But the thing is, nobody in Rapid City sells the kind of dresses we parlor girls need, so it’s make our own patterned after fashion dolls from Paris and London and New York or it’s pay a ladies’ tailor two-thirds your wage for something you don’t like as well.

“But as you can imagine, a house full of ladies like this goes through a lot of frocks and a lot of mending. So it pays to know how to sew both ways, so to speak. . . .”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Steampunk: Something of a new venture for Bear, whose previous output has ranged from heroic fantasy to science fiction, often with an embedded murder mystery. By the late 19th century, airships ply the trade and passenger routes, optimistic miners head in droves for the Alaskan gold fields, and steam-powered robots invented by licensed Mad Scientists do much of the heavy (and sometimes delicate) work. In Rapid City on the U.S. northwest coast, Madame Damnable operates the Hôtel Mon Cherie, a high-class bordello, paying a hefty “sewing machine tax” for the privilege. Here, orphaned horse-breaker and narrator Karen Memery (Bear doesn’t tell us why the book’s title is spelled differently) works among similarly lively, engaging and resourceful girls. One night, Priya, a malnourished but tough young woman, arrives at the door carrying the badly wounded Merry Lee, who escaped from one of the grim brothels operated by brutal gangster Peter Bantle and has since made a career of rescuing other indentured girls from Bantle’s clutches. Madame Damnable’s steam-powered mechanical surgeon saves Merry’s life—but not before Bantle himself shows up, wearing, Karen notes, a peculiar glove that somehow can compel others to obey his commands. Worse, the following night the girls discover the body of a murdered prostitute nearby. U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves arrives with his Comanche sidekick, Tomoatooah; they’re tracking a serial killer who seems to have made his way to Rapid City. The story swiftly knots itself into steampunk-ishly surreal complications, with dauntless (and, by this point, love-stricken) Karen in the thick of the action. Supplies all the Bear necessities: strong female characters, existential threats, intriguing developments and a touch of the light fantastic.”

Her language, a celebrated feature in all of her writing, shines here in her descriptions of the setting…. Like George R.R. Martin, Bear presents third-person limited viewpoints from multiple characters, a strategy that allows her to delve deep into their heads without losing her own distinctive poetic narrative voice,” says The DC Spotlight.

Publishers Weekly says: “Bear’s rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental steampunk novel introduces Karen Memery (“like ‘memory’ only spelt with an e”), a teenage “seamstress”—that is, a prostitute—at Madame Damnable’s Hôtel Mon Cherie in Rapid City. This Pacific Northwest city of an alternate 1878 is home to airships, surgical machines, and other mechanical wonders that can also be put to horrific use. As Karen meets and begins to fall for Priya, another sex worker who escaped from evil pimp Peter Bantle, they learn that Bantle has more dark plans than brothel competition. U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves and his Comanche partner, Tomoatooah, also tie Bantle to the gruesome murders of some of Rapid City’s most vulnerable women. Bear gives Karen a colorful voice, sharp eyes, and the spunk and skills necessary to scuffle with bad types as well as to win over people whose help she needs. Her story is a timeless one: a woman doing what is needed to get by while dreaming and fighting for great things to come.”

When is it available?

This memorable book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

by Christopher Scotton

(Grand Central Publishing, $26, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

According to biographical information on his website and LinkedIn, Christopher Scotton has been many things: a carpenter, bouncer, kite flyer, amusement park ride operator, venture capitalist and CEO of several technology companies. For a time he lived in London to run the European operations of a technology publishing and tradeshow firm and is now president & CEO of ClearEdge3D, Inc., a software company whose technology, it says, can vastly reduce the cost of creating 3D CAD models of industrial plants, buildings, bridges and entire cities. This is all well and good, but what interests us here is his debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, which has the good fortune of being favorably compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird just as that classic book is enjoying renewed interest.

What is this book about?

This wistful and dramatic novel, like Mockingbird, involves violence, death, prejudice, injustice and friendship in a small Southern town of the Appalachian variety; a mining town in Kentucky, where big business is raping the beautiful land by removing mountaintops and filling in hollows to get at the coal. It is told through the eyes of Kevin, 14, whose little brother has died accidentally. Kevin and his mom have fled to spend a summer in the hilltown of Medgar with his granddad, a veterinarian active in a local movement to save the mountaintops from the coal company’s ravages. Kevin makes a friend of Buzzy Fink, who schools him in the ways of the woods and witnesses a hate crime involving a gay man who had been quietly accepted by the town until his environmental activism inflamed his opponents. This is a coming of age story that combines contemporary problems with bedrock issues of love, loyalty, grief and redemption.

Why you’ll like it:

Scotton’s book, the story of a boyhood recounted by the man he has become, is tenderly written and has a gripping plot. Here is what Scotton has said about how he wrote it:

“I completed about half of the novel in London—fleshing out those characters, their relationships and the loss each of them suffers—but something was clearly missing from the story. The various plot paths I needed to tie everything together turned out to be nub ends.

“I moved back to the States and immediately went down to eastern Kentucky in hopes of breaking this narrative logjam. It was on this trip that I saw my first Mountaintop Removal operation.

“The horrific gray scar of that mine brought back the sense of sickening loss I’d had at fourteen when the pristine woods I’d grown up in were cut down, hauled away and replaced with tract housing. I knew then, looking out over this massive, denuded landscape in Kentucky, that the eradication of these proud ancient mountains was a fitting allegory for a loss that all of the main characters suffer. Once I connected these themes, the rest of the story began to bubble forth.

“My trips to Kentucky, talking with folks and listening to their stories, showed me that the apologue of Mountaintop Removal is a complicated one—one that can’t be reduced to simply good vs. evil or rich vs. poor. The geography of this beautiful region makes for an economic hairball and the many decent people who inhabit it are forced to choose from a short list of bad options. I tried to portray this hard-bought paradox and lay it alongside Kevin’s story in a compelling way.”

What others are saying:

“A deeply moving story about human cruelty and compassion…wonderful…This book reminded me a little of Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ “ says The Oklahoman.

Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, says: “Debut author Scotton sets a captivating modern morality tale in Kentucky’s coal country, 1985. With the small-town aura of To Kill a Mockingbird, a man reflects on the summer he learned that tradition, greed, class, race and sexual orientation can make for murder. Multiple stories are at play in the coal town of Medgar: Bubba Boyd, the boorish son of a coal baron, is raping the landscape; local opposition leader and popular hairstylist Paul Pierce’s homosexuality is used to attack his environmental position; and the narrator, Kevin, grieving the death of his younger brother, arrives at age 14 to stay with his widowed grandfather. With a mother trapped by depression and father subconsciously casting blame, Kevin’s left alone in grief’s pit, and it’s Pops, a wise and gentle veterinarian, who understands his pain and guilt. In Medgar, mines are played out, and Boyd’s Monongahela Energy digs coal by “mountaintop removal,” pushing forested peaks into verdant valleys, leaving a poisoned landscape. Scotton’s descriptions of plundered peaks like Clinch Mountain, Indian Head and Sadler, Pops’ boyhood haunts, are gut-wrenching. As Kevin tags along on vet calls with Pops and befriends a local teen, Buzzy Fink—”fresh friends from completely different worlds faced with the hard shapings of truth and deceit”—Scotton explores both the proud, stoic hillbilly culture that accepts Paul’s “bachelor gentlemen” love and the hate-filled greed wielding the Bible as a weapon in service of ignorance and Mammon. And then Buzzy witnesses a brutal killing, a murder whose ramifications may cost Cleo, his brother, a prestigious college football scholarship. With glimpses of a mythical white stag and mad stones symbolic of the land’s capacity to heal, Pop, Buzzy and Kevin “tramp” to an isolated lake and find themselves targeted in a Deliverance-like shooting. Scotton offers literary observation—”a storm was filling the trees with bursting light”—and a thoughtful appreciation of Appalachia’s hard-used people and fragile landscape. A powerful epic of people and place, loss and love, reconciliation and redemption.”

The Amazon Debut Spotlight of the Month review for January 2015 says: “This earnest debut is part coming of age story, part tale of redemption and part Greek myth played out in the holler. After the horrific death of his younger brother in an accident on the lawn, 14 year old Kevin Gillooly and his distraught mother seek healing in the rural Kentucky home of his grandfather. There, Kevin – who is suffering from survivor guilt at the very least – meets up with a local boy, Buzzy Fink; the two embark on the kind of Huck Finnish boyhood adventures – fishing, hunting, hanging out in the tree house – meant to be wholesome and soul-cleansing. But this rural Kentucky town is rife with bigotry and rage, and soon Kevin and Buzzy are drawn into local politics that involve a mountaintop clearing project and the death of a local gay man who had opposed it. There are unabashed good guys, like Kevin (who has a bit of a pyromaniacal tendency, which could have been more thoroughly developed) and his “Pops,” a gruff old man who charms with remarks like “I’ll take another bullet before I eat any more of this hospital slop.” There are some very very bad guys, like the townsperson who murders his neighbor because of his own not unexpected issues. And then there are the guys – like Buzzy and Kevin – who find their characters forged and burnished by one particular hike this particular summer, the summer “when we left the coverings of boy behind,” as Kevin puts it. Readers might recognize something in the tone and style and plot; take one virtuous man, one redneck town and two scrappy, interesting kids. Add in the narration by a boy now all grown up. And you’re just begging for comparisons to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And yet, Scotton’s very earnestness, the obvious love he has for this particular bit of land, and the perfect ear for its youngsters’ dialogue (“She smiled at me and I almost lost breakfast”) make this novel his own. At once familiar and modern, it is always poetic and compelling.”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Daniel Woodrell writes: “The first half of The Secret Wisdom of the Earth moves with the leisurely pace of summer, but the second half is a page turner featuring masculine challenges, bloodshed and stoic survival. Some of the challenges Kevin and Buzzy encounter strain credulity, but they edge us toward myth, stretching for something larger than verisimilitude. Scotton’s prose is colloquial and evocative; the descriptions are sharp, the voice down-to-earth…[Scotton] should be congratulated on is his willingness to tell a new story in an old neighborhood, to draw characters who are thoroughly human, and to create a story that leads to terror and redemption, love and survival.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Scotton’s accomplished debut is the story of Kevin Gillooly, a 14-year-old boy who moves to coal country and learns about courage and violence, beauty and danger, from his wise, weathered grandfather and a best friend well versed in backwoods survival. Kevin’s mother brings him to her hometown of Medgar, Ky., after the death of Kevin’s three-year-old brother. Kevin’s grandfather Pops is a large-animal veterinarian and hires Kevin as an assistant. Pops also introduces him to books like Treasure Island and gives him time off to explore the surrounding mountains with his friend and confidant Buzzy Fink, who teaches Kevin how to use slugs to treat spider bites and other survival skills. Kevin sees land destroyed by mining, hears exploding mountaintops, and feels the fly-rock, while Buzzy witnesses the beating of gay hairdresser and anti-mining activist Paul Pierce. Both Kevin and Buzzy are tested during a camping trip with Pops, when an unknown assailant tracks them down and opens fire in the wilderness. Scotton’s cast of classic Appalachian characters also includes housekeeper Audy Rae, Cleo the high school football hero, the violent and inbred Budget family, and an array of old men shooting the breeze at Hivey’s. The coming-of-age story is enriched by depictions of the earth’s healing and redemptive power. Neither the first portrait of mining country nor the most original, Scotton’s novel nonetheless makes for compelling reading when the action grows intense—managing, like the landscape it describes, to be simultaneously frightening and beautiful.”

When is it available?

You can dig this one up at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


The Book of Aron

By Jim Shepard

(Knopf, $23.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Jim Shepard, who grew up in Connecticut and teaches at Williams College, has now published seven novels and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a National Book Award finalist and winner of The Story Prize. His short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, Tin House, Granta, Zoetrope and other magazines, and often have been selected for The Best American Short Stories and The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

What is this book about?

Be prepared: this is not your usual light summer reading. The Book of Aron is about a young Jewish boy in Poland during the Holocaust, caught up in an enormity he can barely comprehend even as it dominates his life and gives him slim chances for survival. The Nazis drive his family (and countless others) from the Polish countryside to the Warsaw ghetto, where starvation, rampant disease and vicious persecution merely top the list of horribles. He helps his family by becoming a smuggler and trader with other kids, all being hunted down by evil adults of every persuasion. Eventually, his family is decimated, but Aron finds temporary solace in the Warsaw orphanage run by a real person: Janusz Korczak, a doctor who fought for children’s rights and an opponent of the Nazi war machine. Aron becomes his ward and helper, but the concentration camps await these brave kids and adults. It will take stupendous courage and skill to do what the doctor hopes Aron can: escape and tell the word about the horrors he has seen.

Why you’ll like it:

Aron is not an angelic boy, but you will forgive and not soon forget him. Shepard has many talents as a writer, chief among them the uncanny ability to write believably in the voice of a child, as he did in his memorable and terrifying Project X, based on a Columbine-like slaughter at a high school. In this book, Shepard manages to keep readers glued to the kind of story that truly makes them want to put the book down so as not to have their hearts broken by the story it tells. At a time when prejudice has once again reared its ugly head in the U.S., it is important to read what unchecked evil it can unleash. Give Shepard credit for telling such a difficult tale with skill, using dark humor when he can. Events like those in The Book of Aron really happened. Books like this may help in some small way to make sure they do not happen again, at least not on our watch.

What others are saying:

“A masterpiece. . . a remarkable novel destined to join the shelf of essential Holocaust literature. . . . a story of such startling candor about the complexity of heroism that it challenges each of us to greater courage. . . . Shepard has created something transcendent and timeless,” says Ron Charles in The Washington Post.

“The story of what happened to children in the Holocaust is not for the faint-hearted. A fictional, first-person narrative from the point of view of a Jewish child in Warsaw—in fact, a child in Dr. Janusz Korczak’s well-known orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto—is very brave. And a heartbreaking historical novel that ends in Treblinka may not be what many readers are expecting from a novelist and short-story writer whose ironic touch is often comedic. But Jim Shepard has written a Holocaust novel that stands with the most powerful writing on that terrible subject,”  says bestselling author John Irving.

Library Journal’s starred review by Patrick Sullivan of Manchester Community College says: “The Warsaw Ghetto during the darkest days of World War II is the setting of this important, heartbreaking but also inspiring new novel . . . Told from the perspective of Aron, a Jewish boy in the ghetto, it is the study of the sadistic and systematic deprivation and dehumanization of a people. Forced with his family from the countryside into the ghetto, where he joins a band of hardy young smugglers, Aron eventually loses his entire clan to typhus, malnutrition, and forced labor and ends up in an orphanage in the ghetto run by Janusz Korczak, an important historical figure from this period. Korczak was a well-known advocate for children’s rights before the war and became famous for the orphanage he ran in the ghetto, and the author brings this heroic figure powerfully to life. Shepard also skillfully depicts the blighted human and moral landscape within the ghetto, where normal understandings of right and wrong have become impossibly compromised under the pressure of extermination. Surrounded by devastation, hopelessness, and cruelty, Korczak becomes an exemplar of all that is good and decent in the human spirit. Few will be able to read the last terrible, inspiring pages without tears in their eyes. VERDICT Indispensable reading.”

Kirkus’s starred review says: “An understated and devastating novel of the Warsaw ghetto during the Nazi occupation, as seen through the eyes of a street-wise boy.  Shepard has recently earned more renown for his short stories, but here he presents an exhaustively researched, pitch-perfect novel exploring the moral ambiguities of survival through a narrator who’s just 9 years old when the tale begins. He’s a Jewish boy living in the Polish countryside with his family and an odd sense of his place in the world. “It was terrible to have to be the person I was,” he despairs, matter-of-factly describing himself as basically friendless, a poor student, and an enigma to his loving mother: “She said that too often my tongue worked but not my head, or my head worked but not my heart.” Yet Aron proves to be engaging company as he describes the selfishness that will help him survive as the world becomes increasingly hellish. The horrors are so incremental that Aron—and the reader—might be compared to the lobster dropped into the pot as the temperature keeps rising past the boiling point. Aron’s perspective is necessarily limited, and he often seems to have little understanding of what’s happening around him or why. His family is pushed into the city, and in the ghetto’s chaos, he’s separated from them. Serving as a moral counterweight to the boy’s instinctive pragmatism is Dr. James Korczak, a real-life Polish Jew whose ambition to “become the Karl Marx of children” inspired him to keep a couple hundred alive through his orphanage, which he supports by begging for funds from the better-off ghetto inhabitants. Aron becomes the doctor’s ward and accomplice, though he has also been serving as an occasional informer for the Gestapo through an intermediary in the Jewish police. He tries to use his position to help save the doctor from being sent to a concentration camp, but the doctor is only interested if he can save all the other children as well. “How do we know if we love enough?” asks the doctor. “How do we learn to love more?” Ordinary people reveal dimensions that are extraordinarily cruel or kind.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Shepard is known for his enormous range and for the research that informs his many novels and stories—a reputation that will be reconfirmed with this novel, the acknowledgments section of which runs six pages long. And yet it is a supple, unlabored voice that issues from Aron (Sh’maya to his family), a young Polish Jew who survives as a thief, urchin, and smuggler forcibly relocated to Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto following the German invasion. Typhus, blackmail, and the Nazis’ wanton violence are routine, but perhaps the greatest threat is the Jewish Order Service, in charge of requisitions and expulsions, for whom Aron agrees to become an informer. Meanwhile, his gang—lead by the charismatic and more politically committed youth Boris—fight for control of the Quarter’s meager resources. But Aron’s alliances begin to shift following the rise of disappearances and quarantines, especially after he meets Janusz Korczak, “The Old Doctor,” a famous radio personality turned guardian who runs a shelter for children even as news of the concentration camps begins to trickle down. Aron’s fate will come down to a question of conviction: will Aron commit himself to Boris’s cause, or embrace the doctor’s selfless idealism? Shepard is a master with a light touch—but against the backdrop of the Holocaust, maybe a bit too light. Although this novel paints an unflinching portrait of the ghetto, many characters seem to stand in for ideas, and the limp plot is propped up only by Shepard’s eye for detail.”

When is it available?

This compelling novel is on the new book shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


The Light of the World

By Elizabeth Alexander

(Grand Central Publishing, $26, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Alexander, who is Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and also teaches African studies there, was honored when she was asked to write and deliver an original poem for President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. That poem was “Praise Song for the Day,” and it is among her many accomplishments that also include publishing six poetry collections and being the first winner of the Jackson Prize for Poetry. The Light of the World is the kind of book no author wants to write: it is a memoir about her husband’s unexpected death and its effect on Alexander and her children. The book became a New York Times and Washington Post best seller and was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and Amazon Best Books of the Month for April 2015, among other honors.

What is this book about?

Elizabeth Alexander, a much praised poet, and her artist/chef husband, a refuge from Eritrea in East Africa, had teenage sons, a happy marriage and artistic acclaim. And then it all ended, just like that, four days after Ficre Ghebreyesus turned 50, when he died of a heart attack while exercising at home. Stunned with bereavement, Alexander at first could only mourn; writing poetry suddenly came to a halt. Her memoir describes the heartbreaking process of coming to acceptance of great loss, yet is also a joyful celebration of the happy marriage that they had enjoyed for 15 years. Many writers have memorialized a lost spouse; few have done it with a lyrical command of language that transforms prose into poetry.

Why you’ll like it:

Sadly, it is not rare to hear of the death of a beloved spouse. What is rare is the lyrical beauty of this poet’s heartfelt memoir about her loving marriage and what happens when her husband suddenly dies. Not only is the language itself gorgeous, as only a poet can make it, this book is both achingly personal and welcomingly universal. There is much to admire here, as well as lessons, hard-won by Alexander, about learning to cope with the unimaginable while cherishing memories and moving forward with life. Reading this book may make you sad, but it will also uplift you.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…Alexander…has written a meditative and elegiac account of meeting and losing her husband and great love…We live in a culture so preoccupied with happiness, so instrumental in its attitudes, that we forget grief is not something merely to get over, something over which we “achieve closure,” but a human undertaking, a slow, sticky process of allowing our love to take another, more remote, shape. In The Light of the World, Alexander discovers a warmth that will remind some readers of the deeper truth of grieving: It is a sign of love.

Says Publishers Weekly: Poet and Yale African Studies professor was devastated by the death of her artist husband, who died of cardiac arrest at age 50 while exercising in the basement of their home. This memoir is an elegiac narrative of the man she loved. Artist and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus’s death was as inexplicable as the spark of love between him and Alexander after they met at a New Haven café in 1996. Ghebreyesus was a thin, fit person who nonetheless smoked; and he was not without his mysteries. For example, in the days before his death, he was obsessed with buying lottery tickets. Ghebreyesus was a gentle, peace-loving East African who had come through the Eritrean-Ethiopian civil war and was a refugee in America; he became a fashionable painter and an inventive chef at Caffe Adulis, which he ran in New Haven with his brothers. Alexander, who grew up in Washington, D.C., describes her husband’s endearing traits such as sleep-talking or singing in his native Tigrinya, and the special rituals he made when their sons reached age 13. Fashioning her mellifluous narrative around the beauty she found in Ghebreyesus, Alexander is grateful, patient, and willing to pursue a fit of magical thinking that he might just return.

Library Journal’s stared review says: “Alexander’s marriage to her husband, Ficre, was a great love, one filled with his painting, her poetry, their cooking, and an extended family all over the world. When Ficre dies suddenly, the life she has built with him and their two sons in New Haven, CT, seems to disintegrate. This gorgeous, shimmering account from a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry is an homage to the 15-year partnership the author and her husband shared. Though Alexander’s story is deeply personal, readers who have experienced love and loss will relate to it easily. VERDICT While it’s impossible to avoid comparisons to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, this work is set apart by the fluid translation of Alexander’s poetic ability into sentences so beautiful they beg to be reread.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A distinguished poet meditates on the early death of her beloved artist husband. A Brooklyn psychic once told Alexander that she would meet a mate sooner than she realized. What the psychic did not say was that Eritrean-born Ficre Ghebreyesus would bring her a love and fulfillment that transcended anything she had ever known. Though hailing from different worlds—Alexander from Harlem and Ficre from East Africa—the two blended their lives to create a kind of trans-Atlantic “karmic balance.” Alexander firmly grounded the husband who had seen war and poverty in his nation, and Ficre gave his American wife an abundance of family while connecting her to a history of black warriors who had never known slavery. Together, they built and inhabited an extraordinarily colorful, multicultural space made of books, art, food and friends. But then, 15 years into their marriage and just four days after his 50th birthday, an outwardly robust Ficre died of a heart attack. Now a widow with two teenage sons, Alexander began the lengthy, often wrenching process of mourning the man who had been the “light of [her] world.” With tenderness and fierce poetic precision, Alexander recalls the hours, days, months and years after her husband’s death. Grief-stricken to the point she could not produce the poetry she loved, the author marked the passage of time by observing whether she or her children still cried over his passing. At the same time, she celebrates how the love she and Ficre shared helped heal “every old wound with magic disappearing powers” so that the descendant of slaves and the survivor of a tragic war could go on with their lives. In letting go of—but never forgetting—her husband, Alexander realizes a simple truth: that death only deepens the richness of a life journey that must push on into the future. A delicate, existentially elegiac memoir.”

“This is a gorgeous love story, written by one of America’s greatest contemporary poets. Graceful in its simplicity, sweeping in scope, this book is proof that behind the boarded up windows of America’s roiled marriages and ruined affairs, true love still exists, and where it does exist, it graces the world-and us-with light and hope. Elizabeth Alexander is a prose writer of deep talent and affecting skill. With ease, she peels back layer after layer to show the soft secrets of affection, the kindness, and the wide open generosity of a full hearted man and talented artist, who had more love to give in his relatively short lifetime than most of us will ever know,” says James McBride, National Book Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and #1 New York Times bestseller The Color of Water

When is it available?

This elegiac memoir is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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