Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

By Katha Pollitt

(Picador, $25, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Katha Pollitt, who describes herself on her blog as  a “polemicist, poet, feminist,”  is a prize-winning author, whose awards include a National Book Critics Award for her first collection of poems, Antarctic Traveler, and two National Magazine Awards for Essays and Criticism. She is a poet, an essayist and a longtime columnist for The Nation magazine. You may also have read her work in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Ms. Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Mother Jones, and the London Review of Books or heard or seen her on NPR’s Fresh Air and All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBC and the BBC. She is known as a feminist with a strong interest in the politics of sexuality.

What is this book about?

Pollitt makes the case that abortion, which has been legal but a polarizing issue in the U.S. for more than 40 years, can be a moral right and a social good. If that shocks you, it proves a central point she makes in Pro. She says even after 42 years, and despite studies that show that one in three American women will have terminated at least one pregnancy by menopause, abortion remains controversial, abhorred by the pro-life movement that has been successfully chipping away at its legality and too often  weakly defended by pro-choicers and feminists, who have absorbed the idea that the choice of terminating a pregnancy is always “agonizing” or “a bad thing,” even when there are moral and rational reasons for doing so. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of her book:

“We need to talk about the scarcity of resources for single mothers and even for two-parent families, and the extraordinary, contradictory demands we make upon young girls to be simultaneously sexually alluring and withholding: hot virgins. We need to talk about blood and mess and periods and pregnancy and childbirth and what women go through to bring new life into the world and whether deep in our hearts we believe that those bodies mean women were put on Earth to serve and sacrifice and suffer in a way that men are not. Because when we talk about abortion as a bad thing, and worry that there’s too much of it, sometimes we mean there’s too much unwanted pregnancy and that women and men need more and better sex education and birth control, and sometimes we mean there’s too much poverty, especially for children and their mothers, but a lot of the time we mean a woman should have a good cry, and then do the right thing and have the baby. She can always put it up for adoption, can’t she, like Juno in the movie? And that is close to saying that a woman can have no needs, desires, purpose, or calling so compelling and so important that she should not set it aside in an instant, because of a stray sperm.”

Why you’ll like it:

If you enjoy reading the words of a strong-minded woman who has done her research, synthesized its findings and is unafraid to speak out about a subject that so many avoid, you will find this book fascinating even if you disagree with Pollitt’s conclusions. And if you agree that abortion can be necessary and justified, you will find plenty to like about Pro. This is a powerful and provocative book, written by an author who pulls no punches.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Even though abortion “is found in virtually every society going back at least 4,000 years,” it continues to be a divisive, controversial issue in the United States. Pollitt, a columnist at the Nation, regards abortion as a fact of life and makes an impassioned, persuasive case for understanding it in its proper context—“the lives and bodies of women” and their families. With wit and logic, Pollitt debunks the many myths surrounding abortion, and analyzes what abortion opponents really oppose: namely, women’s growing sexual freedom and power. She similarly addresses the notion of the “personhood” of the zygote/embryo/fetus and shows how, in spite of its small numbers (“only 7 to 20% of Americans tell pollsters they want to ban abortion”), the anti-abortion movement succeeds by focusing the debate on “life.” As Pollitt explains, objections to abortion have only surfaced within the past 140 years, and she illuminates the “anti-feminist, anti-modern view of relations between the sexes” at the core of today’s opposition, showing how its connection to patriarchal religious institutions provides much of its political power and funding. Finally, Pollitt brings readers up to date on the positive changes she sees in the current pro-choice movement—the growth in the number of women sharing their abortion stories, and in the support for reproductive justice for targeted groups—and offers suggestions of her own. With arguments that are both lucid and sensible, Pollitt successfully reframes the abortion debate to show that, “in the end, abortion is an issue of fundamental human rights.”

The New York Times Book Review  says: “ …Pollitt argues that many abortion opponents are less concerned with the plight of any one embryo—and the fate of that embryo if carried to term—than they are with curtailing women’s sexual and economic freedom. This isn’t exactly a novel concept to students of feminist theory. But Pollitt’s exploration of the hypocrisy of abortion opponents…is so witheringly encyclopedic it will be an eye opener for those who have never darkened the door of a women’s studies classroom.

“Katha Pollitt’s brilliant new book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, arrives like an urgent letter as rights are fast eroding….With Pollitt’s characteristic wit and logic, Pro marshals science, history, medicine, religion, statistics and stories of real women’s lives—with all the ‘tangled secret misfortunes’ of families—to make a myth-busting argument that abortion is a social good. It’s good for women. It’s good for children. It’s good for men. It’s a normal fact of life and has been since ancient times. All of which might sound shocking, so rarely do we hear about abortion’s benefits,” says Kate Manning in Time.

Says Ms. Magazine: “[This] shouldn’t be a radical message, but in an era when some feminists feel the need to defend the birth control pill by highlighting its use for reasons other than contraception, the very idea that we should insist that abortion is a good thing because it’s good for women feels incredibly bold…. ‘No one is pro-abortion’ is a common refrain among liberals defending the right to choose. In the abstract, no, but if you need an abortion to live your life as you see fit, then pro-abortion is exactly what you are. Katha Pollitt has your back on this, and more pro-choicers should embrace her unapologetic approach.”

“A dramatic, persuasive argument for abortion…Bolstered by dramatic statistics (‘excluding miscarriages, 21 percent of pregnancies end in abortion’), personal interviews, and historical references reaching as far back as ancient Greece and Egypt, Pollitt impressively makes her case while admitting that abortion clinics have become increasingly inaccessible and certain ‘pronatalist pundits’ are holding women’s intimately private pregnancy decisions up for public scrutiny…Pollitt’s cogent opinion presents potent testimony on a woman’s right to choose,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

Pro can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or 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!


Sweetland

By  Michael Crummey

(Liveright, $24.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Michael Crummey, an acclaimed Canadian writer who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, is both a poet and a novelist. His third novel, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize for Canada and his earlier novels also won or were listed for several literary awards. Crummey often draws inspiration from the history and wild landscapes of Newfoundland and Labrador, where he also has lived, and his fictional towns evoke the harsh realities of life in  the Canadian Maritimes.

What is this book about?                

Sweetland is a tiny, nearly depopulated village on an island off Newfoundland. The mainland government has deemed it as being in inexorable decline, and offers its remaining citizens a very generous payment to abandon the place –providing everyone agrees to leave. But  at nearly 70 years old, lighthouse keeper Moses Sweetland, whose family founded the town, digs in his heels: Hell no, he won’t go. Neither will his niece’s son, who has autism (and whom the town has written off as its “village idiot.”) There are other quirky characters in Sweetland as well, and Moses tells us about them and town’s history. His eventual fate seems inevitable, but Crummey makes the very most of his story, reminding us what a powerful pull a place and the recollections it engenders can have on those who love it.

Why you’ll like it:

Crummey writes prose with a poet’s touch, and is a shrewd and sensitive creator of characters. This is a book in which plot is overshadowed by memories, personal oddities and the power of a strong-willed man to ride out his destiny as he sees fit. Not merely a historical novel, although there is plenty of history of this fictional but believable town, Sweetland nods to the Internet and TV dramas in the current era, but slams us with nostalgia and regret for the passing of a more innocent and challenging way of life.

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for January 2015 says: There’s a quietness to Michael Crummey’s novel that adds to its power. Sweetland is about a man, Moses Sweetland, who lives on an island off of Newfoundland. The island itself is called Sweetland, named by Moses Sweetland’s ancestors, and it’s a dying place. In fact, the entire population has been offered a lump payment by the government to remove themselves from the island. There are only two holdouts to the deal: the village idiot and the sixty-nine year old Moses Sweetland. What’s most appealing about this subtle, entertaining, and quietly moving novel is the humanity of its characters and the genuine feel of Sweetland itself. Each character is real and truly imagined; it’s the kind of book and the kind of place where many readers will just want to linger. Communities like Sweetland, with their specific ways of talking and being, are growing less common. Crummey’s book is a testament to those places and the people who live there.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Sweetland is both a place—a small island off Newfoundland—and a person—Moses Sweetland—and both have seen better times. The provincial government is offering resettlement money to Sweetland residents, but only if everyone agrees to leave. Moses Sweetland is 69 years old and has been disfigured by an industrial accident. When the story opens, he is the only person—aside from the man considered the island idiot—who opposes the government’s proposition. He’s under plenty of pressure to accept, but the island named for his ancestors, where he takes his great-nephew rabbit hunting and hands down family legends, is the only place Moses can imagine living. Crummey, whose last book, Galore, won the Commonwealth Prize, does both man and place justice: Moses is a memorably strong-willed character, whose manner of thinking and speaking are dying out. The novel also conveys the way that a sense of place is the product of relationships—among the living, with the dead, and, in Moses’s case, arising from intimate connections to land and sea. At the end of the story, Moses remains alone on the island, his supplies dwindling, beset by injury, cold, and memories—the question isn’t what will happen, but how. Having nearly trapped himself in a narrative corner, Crummey writes himself out of it, concluding the book in a way that recalls Aristotle’s maxim from the Poetics: the best endings find a way to be both surprising and inevitable.

Macleans magazine says: “Impetuous and imperious, Moses Sweetland is an extraordinary, beautifully realized character, and the supporting cast—including Queenie Coffin, a chain-smoking romance-novel addict who hasn’t left her house in four decades; and the feral Priddle brothers, “Irish twins” born 10 months apart—are scarcely less so. But Sweetland, Crummey’s finest novel yet, reaches its mythic and mesmerizing heights only after the others depart, leaving Moses—a Newfoundland Robinson Crusoe who even encounters a Friday-like dog—alone on his eponymous island, bracing for a bitter winter both seasonal and personal.”

Says Kirkus in a starred review: “On the small fictional island of Sweetland, just south of Newfoundland, a former lighthouse keeper becomes the last man standing when he refuses to accept a government resettlement package—much to everyone’s exasperation. Never married and with hardly any living kin, Moses Sweetland has spent most of his 69 years on the island to which his ancestors gave their name. Since technology eliminated his lighthouse keeper job, he has done a little bit of everything, like burying bodies and pulling a baby calf from a neighbor’s mistreated cow. He’s a sarcastic cuss, but his attachments—especially to his niece’s autistic son, who is as adamant about staying on Sweetland as Moses—are strong. In resisting the government’s $100,000 cash offer, which needs to be accepted by all the occupants to go through, Moses exposes himself to a series of threats, some of them grisly. But with all the memories the island has for him, and all the secrets there still waiting to be uncovered, he plans on being there until he dies. Canadian author Crummey employs a very different style here than he did with his fanciful, widely admired 2011 novel, Galore. Like Moses, Sweetland moves in fits and starts, capturing the present in patient detail and flashing back to dwell on milestone moments in his life. Unlike most novels steeped in rural nostalgia, it gets a kick out of contemporary life: Moses plays Internet poker; his niece is hooked on Mad Men. But the elimination of an entire community, and what it represents, is deeply felt. Through its crusty protagonist, Crummey’s shrewd, absorbing novel tells us how rich a life can be, even when experienced in the narrowest of physical confines.”

When is it available?

This novel 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!

 


The Happiest People In the World

By Brock Clarke

(Algonquin, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Brock Clarke, who lives in Portland (the Maine one, not the Oregon one or the Connecticut one)  is the author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which was a national bestseller, and the novels Exley and The Ordinary White Boy, as well as two story collections. He’s won the Mary McCarthy Prize for Fiction, along with other honors and his stories and essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Boston Globe, Virginia Quarterly Review and other journals and anthologies. He teaches creative writing at Bowdoin College.

What is this book about?

Following a trip to Denmark, which Clarke cheerfully admits he had mixed up with The Netherlands, Clarke was inspired by the real life brouhaha that transpired when several Danish cartoonists did caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, thereby thoroughly upsetting the world of Islam and putting their own lives at risk of fatal retaliation. This set Clarke to wondering what would happen if a cartoonist from what has been called the home of “the happiest people in the world” was given a witness-protection-style new identity as a high school guidance counselor, of all things, and shipped off to upper New York state, to a town where, it turns out, the CIA has been stashing various operatives for a long while. What would happen? Dark, delicious, spy novel satire that tweaks American worries about security and conspiracies is the answer.

Of course, given the recent horror of the assassination of the Charlie Hebdo satirical cartoonists in France, this book now takes on (perhaps unwanted) relevance.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s a spy thriller, it’s political, it’s damn funny and it’s cleverly constructed and written. Clarke manages to hit a whole bunch of sweet spots in one novel, potentially making his readers among the happiest in the world.

I recommend that you take the time to go to his website, www.brockclarke.com, and find the essay he wrote about what inspired this book. It will give you a good sense of what the book is about, and more important, his writing style. Here is an excerpt:

“So what is this novel about? It’s about a bunch of things. It’s about free speech and religious intolerance. It’s about what it’s like to live in America right now, with its messed up economy and messed up families and its clashing cultures and its NSA scandals and its wiretapping and its Gitmos and its Snowdens and Plames. It’s about what it’s like to be a high school guidance counselor, not to mention a high school principal, not to mention a high school teacher, not to mention a high school student. It’s about what it’s like to be in a marriage, to be in a family, to love people but not as purely as they deserve. It’s about the way we believe that we can’t be happy unless someone else is unhappy. But mostly, it’s about a person who runs from his past and into a future made up of a new family, a new town, a new country. Meanwhile, all of the people in that new family, town, and country are trying to figure out if and how they can run from their pasts, and if so, in what kind of future they’ll find themselves. They wonder, “Will it be a future we want, or a future we deserve?” I wonder that, too.”

What others are saying:

Says the Wall Street Journal: “In Brock Clark ’s dark and funny satire “The Happiest People in the World”, a Danish cartoonist facing death threats after drawing a picture of the Prophet Muhammad is placed in a witness protection program and sent to live in Broomeville, N.Y. Why Broomeville? His CIA handler is in love with the sleepy town’s high-school principal. Coincidentally, Broomeville is also a CIA recruiting hub—half its residents are armed spies, and the mounted moose head in the local lodge has a hidden video camera.

If all this sounds ludicrous, that is Mr. Clarke’s point. A more peaceable soul than the cartoonist doesn’t exist (he orders his eggs sunny side up rather than poached or scrambled because it seems “the most optimistic and least violent of the three choices”), but his arrival riles up the agents, who find themselves incapable of deciding whom to protect and whom to watch. The ridiculous confusion of infidelities, secret identities and double-crosses that plays out reflects the absurdity of any country obsessed with spying on its own people. And the paranoia and bloodshed that consume Broomeville in the novel’s grim finale are entirely self-inflicted.”

The Chicago Tribune says: “Clarke’s comedy is complex and packed with big ideas, but also wonderful sentences. The cartoonist, on his way to his new life, having just taken a nap on a bus, feels “that pleasant, superior, invincible feeling one gets when one has just woken up. It’s the way cats must always feel.” Clarke’s characterizations are equally deft, as when the teenage Kurt observes his uncle who is “reading the paper, making those clucking sounds designed only to make the person sitting with you finally ask, What? But Kurt refused to ask it. He was busy feeling melancholy.” Clarke says a great deal about each person in just a few sentences, and the whole book is like that: exuberantly packed.”

“Clarke and his newest protagonist play with fire in the figurative sense in the writer’s fourth, most combustibly funny novel, “The Happiest People in the World,” a transcontinental screwball comedy that mines cathartic (if not consoling) laughs from such front-page flashpoints as global terrorism, government surveillance, and gun ownership,” says the Boston Globe.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “The latest from Clarke is a whiz-bang spy satire bundled in an edgy tale of redemption. Impulsive cartoonist Jens Baedrup leaves his wife and home in Denmark with the help of love-lorn CIA spy Locs (aka Lorraine). The reason: an impressionable and lonely immigrant takes offense at Jens’s drawing of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban, hovering above the “happiest people in the world… frowning inexpertly.” And so begins clueless cultural criminal and eternal optimist Jens’s transformation into Henry Larsen, a Broomeville, N.Y., high school guidance counselor. Henry woos Ellen, a heartbroken bar owner. Meanwhile, Locs is futilely and obsessively in love with Ellen’s husband, Matty, a school principal. These mismatches ultimately set off a violent chain reaction of discovery and revenge. As Henry’s world comes undone, the identities of his unlikely protectors are revealed in a hilarious series of bloody blunders. The bizarre moose-eye view opening to this culture-clash horror tale expertly sets the tone for what’s to come. Clarke dazzles with a dizzying study in extremes, cruising at warp speed between bleak and optimistic, laugh-out-loud funny and unbearable sadness. His comedy of errors is impossible to put down.”

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for November 2014 says: “It’s long been a credo of mine: any story that begins with a stuffed moose head on the wall of an upstate bar, a spy camera embedded in its eye looking down on a sprawl of gunshot victims… well, attention must be paid. And my attention to Brock Clarke’s weird, wise and witty fifth novel, The Happiest People in the World, never wavered. In a nutshell, sort of: a Danish cartoonist named Jens unwisely draws a cartoon of the Prophet, making him an assassin’s target and prompting the CIA to relocate him to America, where he poses as a high school guidance counselor in a small, strange New York town. That’s where the story gets truly bizarre, often hilariously so. I’m no fan of the term “laugh out loud,” but I did audibly chuckle, a lot. (Example: “it’s all good” really is “the most idiotic expression on the planet.”) Without giving too much away: Jens (now known as Henry) works for Matthew (the school principal), both nursing secrets, both victims of lies. But beneath the convoluted entanglements of small town love and small town spies—veering too close to madcap at times—there’s a deceptively touching story of flawed men who aren’t quite sure how to be fathers, husbands, or men. Or happy. “

When is it available?

Happily, this book can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

 

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

Evergreen

By Rebecca Rasmussen

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Rebecca Rasmussen first garnered wide attention with her novel The Bird Sisters, and she also has been published in (or has won prizes from) such journals as  TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, Glimmer Train and The Mid-American Review. A Midwesterner by birth, she has lived in eight states and now makes her home in Los Angeles with her family, where she teaches English part-time at UCLA.

What is this book about?

This is a novel about family, and how strong the impulse to share a heritage can be. Opening in the late 1930s, when Eveline, a naive but game young woman, follows her new husband Emil, a taxidermist, to a beautiful and abundant but primitive spot in the forests of  Minnesota, it goes on to chronicle her life and that of her children: Hux, son of Emil, and Naamah, the child of a rapist who strikes when Emil returns for a time to Germany. Eveline makes the heartrending decision to give this child of violence to an orphanage, a place that proves to be cruel beyond measure. Later, as an adult, goodhearted Hux, who knows about his hidden sister, finds her and brings her home, but taming Naamah is far from easy or assured. This is a novel that asks whether the bonds of family can bind up devastating emotional wounds.

Why you’ll like it:

While this book has received somewhat mixed reviews, Evergreen has several intriguing points of entry: a story of survival in the wilderness that takes place in a time less than 100 years ago that might as well be many centuries past; and a story of emotional trauma in which good people make inadvertently bad decisions and bad people strike without conscience or caring. It is also a novel in which the setting deeply affects the characters and the plot. Here is what Rebecca Rasmussen told an Amazon interviewer about the book:

“As a person who has lived in eight different states so far in my life, I’ve had the fortunate experience of witnessing how place changes people. In Massachusetts, I used to snowshoe down my street. I was moodier then. After a long winter, there was nothing more enlivening than seeing the first magnolia blossoms in the spring. In Los Angeles, I’m a hundred feet from the 405. I’m so close I can give a traffic report. But the sun is always shining and the winds are always warm. I’m softer here. Less alone.

In Evergreen, the changes the characters go through are more pronounced than mine, perhaps because there are no modern conveniences to soften the transition when they move from an established town to the wilds of northern Minnesota in 1938. Electricity changes people. Running water. But so do swiftly moving rivers and old growth forests, night skies unmarred by city lights, industry. To my mind, this novel couldn’t take place anywhere else in the world but Evergreen.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Evergreen is a small pocket of habitable forestland in rural Minnesota, where, in 1938, giddy newlyweds Eveline and Emil start a life together. Their riverside cabin is stubbornly removed from the nearest town of Yellow Falls, with its electricity and grocery stores. Soon a baby is on the way, and their marriage unfolds, almost too sweetly. But Rasmussen has a knack for destabilizing her characters as soon as she’s got them settled. Emil heads home to his native Germany, and his father’s deathbed, with World War II on the horizon. Eveline, nursing an infant, refuses to stay with her parents but, instead, emulates Lulu, her neighbor across the river, who hunts, curses, and stomps around in a dusty coat of animal pelts. Eveline learns empowering survival skills, but they do little to protect her from a stranger who appears one night and rapes her, leaving her pregnant. Mothers, daughters, and granddaughters struggle with abandonment, physical violation, and illness in this story. Rasmussen does not shy away from evil characters—rapists, child abusers—but her most unnerving character is Eveline’s son, Hux. Without an ill-intentioned bone in his body, he makes the women look comparatively unhinged and, at times, selfish. Evergreen is serene, but not safe. If Rasmussen’s characters contained such subtleties and contradictions, the novel would be more realistic. And yet, Rasumssen makes her point about the indelibility of trauma and the impossibility of avoiding heartbreak.”

Booklist says: “Rasmussen has been steadily crafting a unique brand of midwestern literature that combines offbeat characters and timeless rhythms reminiscent of folk tales with touching story lines about the pain and hard-won joys of real life. As with her debut, The Bird Sisters (2011), in her new book, she shows her strong affection for the picturesque rural settings of yesteryear. In 1938, Eveline Sturm joins her German-born husband, Emil, in the northern Minnesota backwoods. Their isolated cabin is beyond rustic, and her only reading material is Emil’s taxidermy manuals, yet she decides to remain alone with their baby son, Hux, when Emil returns to Germany to care for his father. Years later, Eveline’s daughter, Naamah, the product of a traumatic rape, grows up amid cruelty in a Catholic orphanage. After reuniting with his half sister as an adult, Hux tries to help the beautiful, damaged Naamah recapture her lost childhood. In this character-driven saga of friendship and the thorny bonds of family, Rasmussen writes with wisdom and compassion about the people and places that shape us, for better and worse.”

“A fairy tale-like chronicle of how one moment’s pain can echo through generations . . . Rasmussen was born and raised in the Midwest, and her descriptions of the Minnesota wilderness are poetic in their spare beauty. Nature has an almost mystical draw for the characters in Evergreen, most of whom look to it as a refuge rather than something to conquer . . . With its quiet beauty, deep compassion and strong emotional pull, Evergreen cements Rasmussen’s reputation as one of our most talented new writers,” says Bookpage.

“Evergreen is set in the austere landscape of northern Minnesota, where the forests and lakes have a beauty that reveals itself only gradually, and where that beauty is matched by the twin dangers of isolation and cold . . . a stark book, with flashes of human kindness held in balance by moments, or years, of scarring violence . . . Rasmussen doesn’t shy from depicting villainy: Two of her characters are sociopaths, and their impact on the others careens through the years. At the same time, and without sentimentality, she allows for the healing power of time and nature.” Says The Columbus Dispatch.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A malign stranger’s visit to a remote Minnesota log cabin in the 1930s will cast long shadows over a family in a fatalistic second novel. After her quirky debut, Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters, 2011) returns to the subject of siblings, this time via a fairy tale–flavored three-generation family portrait set in a forest wilderness. Evergreen is the tiny riverside community to which Eveline LeMay travels in 1938 to join her new husband, German immigrant and taxidermist Emil. Arriving dreamily in a rudderless boat, Eveline disembarks into a life of rural simplicity and hard labor, wrapped in the sweetness of a loving marriage. Soon after a son, Hux, is born, however, Emil is called back to Germany, to his father’s deathbed. The year being 1939, his return to Eveline will not be problem-free. Opting to stay on the land instead of returning to her own parents during Emil’s absence, Eveline discovers strength and local friendship but also suffers a traumatic rape which leads to the birth of a daughter, Naamah, whom Eveline reluctantly decides to abandon at the door of Hopewell, a Catholic orphanage. Naamah’s cruel treatment at the hands of Sister Cordelia, the crazed nun in charge at Hopewell, leaves ineradicable scars on the child’s psyche; although she escapes at age 14, her behavior—even after Hux finds and rescues her, years later—is proof of deep-rooted damage. Rasmussen’s devoted storytelling lends grace to the proceedings, but there’s a sense of sketchiness, both in the story and the cast of one-note characters whose problems are largely wiped away in an overwhelmingly sweet conclusion. The delicate inventiveness that marked this author’s first novel is less apparent in her sentimental second.

When is it available?

Evergreen is on the shelves at the Mark Twain branch 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!

Even This I Get to Experience

by Norman Lear

(Penguin, $32.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

In 1999, when President Clinton honored Norman Lear with a  National Medal of Arts, saying he  has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” That’s no exaggeration. The comedy genius behind “All In the Family, “Maude, “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “One Day at a Time” and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”  gave us plenty of laughs but also made us more aware of our attitudes about race and women’s rights and income disparity and a whole lot more. Lear was one of the first seven television pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984 and has won many other arts and  humanitarian honors. He also founded the progressive organization, People For the American Way, which supports Bill of Rights guarantees and calls attention to violations of constitutional freedoms. He also founded other non-profits, such as the Business Enterprise Trust and the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and co-founded the Environmental Media Association.

What is this book about?

Lear, now 92, looks back on his long and storied career, with its many ups and considerable downs, and in relaying his own personal history also gives us a history of entertainment and comedy in America, plus political history as well. All of them are entwined in this man’s career. Lear was born in New Haven to parents who were, to put it mildly, difficult people. He was there as TV became a major shaper of the American conscience and consciousness, was involved in the creation of more than 100 TV shows, and ever the proud liberal thinker.  Lear boasts about being described by evangelical TV  preacher Jerry Falwell as the “No. 1 enemy of the American family” and being on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Those who might question his politics should remember that he dropped out of college in 1942 to join the U.S. Army Air Forces as a radio operator and gunner during World War II. He flew 52 combat missions in the Mediterranean Theater and earned an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. He also purchased one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he took on tour to every state. In this book, Lear tells his fascinating life story with frankness and a sense of fun befitting one of the best comedy minds of our generation.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s always a kick to go behind the scenes, and that kind of pleasure is intensely magnified here because the guide is one of the seminal figures in American entertainment. Lear may be in his 90s, but he is still a vigorous commentator and master storyteller. You will learn what it was like to break taboos in what could be shown or discussed on the air in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including profanity, racial slurs, and toilet humor. Of course, what seemed shocking or groundbreaking then is considered pretty mild today. Booklist says of Lear’s reminiscences: “This is, flat out, one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written. An absolute treasure.” Read it and see for yourself.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The television producer whose controversial sit-com hits—All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time—virtually defined the culture of the 1970s looks back on his triumphs and vexations in this feisty, thoughtful autobiography. Lear vents sharply conflicted feelings about nearly everyone and everything: his father, a charismatic con-man; his mother, a sour woman who constantly disparaged him (when he made Forbes 400 Wealthiest Americans she noted he was near the bottom of the list); Carroll O’Connor, a sublime Archie Bunker but also a megalomaniac forever threatening to shut down the show over script complaints; the United States, which, as founder of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, Lear celebrated in patriotic extravaganzas while deploring patriotic excesses. Lear pens sharply observed studies of the creative process on his many iconic productions and bares plenty of raucous, sometimes bawdy anecdotes—readers get to experience a nude and lewd Jerry Lewis—before the narrative peters out in a third-act haze of nostalgic testimonial and light spiritual rumination. Still, in keeping with the bigoted, mouthy, complex and loveable characters he created, Lear’s knack for sizing up a flawed humanity makes for an absorbing read.”

Library Journal points out: “Creator of some of the most significant series in television history and a dedicated political activist, Lear presents an amazing life story, from flying 50 bombing missions over Germany during World War II to buying an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he shares regularly at schools, libraries, and public institutions nationwide.”

Kirkus Reviews says in a starred review: “A TV titan on his memorable life and storied career. Lear, best known as the creative mind behind such classic comedies as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times, recounts his extraordinarily eventful life with his signature wit and irreverence. The result is not just a vividly observed and evocative portrait of a long life, but also a fascinating backstage look at the evolution of the American entertainment industry. Born to a charismatic and wildly unreliable con man—Lear’s father would miss a chunk of his son’s childhood serving a jail term for fraud—and an unaffectionate, self-obsessed mother, Lear flailed about in various unsuccessful ventures before teaming with friend Ed Simmons to write comedy, eventually penning sketches for the likes of Jack Haley, Martha Raye, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the early heyday of television. After a stint as a film director and producer, Lear returned to TV to create the epochal series All in the Family, which famously brought sensitive political and social issues to the family hour. Lear’s other shows struck a similarly confrontational chord, explicitly discussing race, class, abortion and a host of other controversial topics. Lear’s analysis of network politics is astute and amusingly cynical, and his sketches of such legendary figures as Milton Berle are unsparing in their honesty. It’s not all showbiz; Lear writes movingly of his service in World War II, his difficult upbringing and subsequent troubled marriages, and his commitment to liberal causes, evidenced by his founding of the advocacy organization People for the American Way and his purchase of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. That he makes these subjects as engrossing and entertaining as his Hollywood reminiscences speaks to Lear’s mastery of storytelling and humor. A big-hearted, richly detailed chronicle of comedy, commitment and a long life lived fully.”

When is it available?

You can get to experience this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or 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!

Mannequin Girl: A Novel

by Ellen Litman

(Norton, $25.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Ellen Litman immigrated to Pittsburgh from Moscow in 1992 when she was 19. After spending six years working as a software developer in Baltimore and Boston, she went back to school, earned an MFA from Syracuse University and won a Rona Jaffe Award for her writing. In 2007, she published a novel in stories called The Last Chicken in America, which became a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award and for the Young Lions Fiction Award. Her work also has run in Best New American Voices, Best of Tin House, Ploughshares, and other journals. She lives in Mansfield.

What is this book about?

Is there a little girl anywhere who hasn’t admired beautiful models? Even one growing up in Soviet Russia? Even with a rapidly advancing case of scoliosis that is twisting her spine? Kat Knopman is that little girl, and her disease sends her away from the school at which her parents, Jewish (but not all that observant) intellectuals,  teach literature and drama, to a special school for kids with spinal diseases where an ugly and confining body brace awaits and the other students don’t display much sympathy. Kat has a lot to learn: about herself, brains and beauty, being Jewish in an anti-Semitic country and whether her parents are as perfect as she has always thought. This is a fine coming-of-age novel that shows that whatever the particulars, growing up is universally a challenge.

Why you’ll like it:

Littman writes gracefully and often with rueful humor, and though the situations she describes in her novel and stories often are difficult and depressing, her wit and insights make for a very entertaining reading experience. She is particularly good at creating sharp-minded heroines who appreciate life’s ironies, and while she has said that her work is not autobiographical, she herself certainly  is a sharp-witted author with a firm grasp of irony and the absurd.

What others are saying:

Booklist says: “Litman transports readers to her home city, Moscow, during the 1980s in this portrait of a besieged Russian Jewish family. Kat is dizzy with joy at the prospect of beginning first grade at the school in which her glamorously bohemian, slightly dissident, theater-devoted parents teach. Instead, Kat is diagnosed with severe scoliosis and sent to a regimented school-sanatorium where over the years she makes enemies and friends while enduring a painful body cast and the staff’s attempts to straighten out her unconventional mind as well as her curved spine. Her parents—stunning, tempestuous Anechka; kind, dreamy Misha—are overwhelmed by Kat’s predicament, Anechka’s emotionally compounded health problems, and Misha’s mother’s dementia. With surgical humor and supple sensitivity, Litman illuminates the struggles of both the spinally challenged and the straight-backed within a microcosm of the twisted, ailing, malignantly anti-Semitic Soviet state, in which typical coming-of-age angst is amplified. As teen Kat rebels, certain that no one will ever love her, Litman scrupulously traces a web of social and family conundrums in this strikingly lucid and affecting novel.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Litman chooses a claustrophobic setting for her second novel: a Soviet boarding school for children with scoliosis. As the story begins in 1980s Moscow, seven-year-old Kat is ready to start first grade at a new school—the same one where her parents, Anechka and Misha, are beloved, charismatic teachers who, in their private hours, host risky meetings of dissidents. But after Kat is diagnosed with scoliosis, she must leave her warm, chaotic family for the rigors of the “special school,” where she will be fitted for a brace (which resembles “the carcass of a prehistoric animal”) and faced with increasing prejudice against her Jewish heritage and pressure to conform to Communist ideals. When Kat reaches adolescence, Anechka and Misha come to teach at her school, ostensibly for her own good, but their presence only aggravates Kat’s troubles. Kat, refreshingly, isn’t painted as a blameless victim, but her needs—for her mother’s love, or love of any kind—are so relatable that she never becomes unsympathetic. Readers who can make it through the book’s grim early section will be interested to see how Kat does when the brace finally come off.”

Library Journal says: “Kat Knopman’s earliest years are carefree. Her parents, nominally Jewish, are moderate activist teachers and make life fun in 1970s Moscow. But their lives turn darker when Kat is diagnosed with scoliosis and her mother suffers a series of miscarriages. Kat finds herself an outcast at a special boarding school as her parents slide into quiet despair. But Kat is nothing if not determined. She’ll make a friend out of her worst tormentor and she’ll make peace with her place in the world. Litman deepens the usual coming-of-age tale with a sensitive illumination of disability and the lure and dangers of exceptionalism—whether imposed or adopted. VERDICT Accompanying Kat on her journey is painful at times for the reader, but a trip worth taking.”

“. . . a shrewd, observant coming-of-age tale set in the twilight years of the Soviet Union. Diagnosed with scoliosis at age 7, Kat is crushed to learn that she’ll be sent to a special boarding school on the outskirts of Moscow. She’d always expected to attend the school where her brilliant, bohemian parents, Anechka and Misha, shine as popular teachers so she can show off her own precocious intellect. Instead, she finds herself unpopular with the other boarding school students and disturbed by familial tensions when she visits home on weekends. Mercurial Anechka’s repeated, failed attempts to have another baby reinforce Kat’s sense that she’s disappointed her parents, and the massive body brace she’s forced to wear doesn’t help her self-esteem. Litman traces her bumpy progress from 1980 to 1988 entirely without sentimentality, showing Kat capable of being as mean as the kids who persecute her and revealing her parents (who join Kat’s school in 1984) as too wrapped up in their own problems to be much help to their troubled daughter. Litman is equally sharp on the shifting alliances of childhood: Kat’s mortal first-grade enemy, severely hunchbacked Seryozha, by the end of the book is the devoted friend who prods her to fulfill her longtime acting ambitions. The Soviet Union’s slow collapse is seen in the backdrop, for good and ill. . . . Litman deliberately keeps the dramatic incidents everyday (bullying, tale-bearing, an infidelity); she offers a snapshot of life rather than a grand artistic statement, in keeping with Kat’s final conclusion that “she doesn’t mind pedestrian, [it's] what she needs right now.” Smart, highly readable fiction propelled by a vulnerable and crankily appealing heroine,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?       

This novel 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!

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

By Atul Gawande

(Holt, $26, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Atul Gawande, the son of two doctors and a surgeon himself, is also a bestselling and prize-winning author and a staff writer for The New Yorker. Gawande’s books, all bestsellers, are Complications, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; Better, selected by Amazon as one of the 10 best books of 2007; and The Checklist Manifesto. He lives in Newton, Mass., with his wife and three children, is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. He has won many major awards for his writing: a Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science, a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship and two National Magazine Awards. And if all this were not enough, he also works in the public health field as Executive Director of Ariadne Labs, a center that pursues health systems innovation, and her is chairman of Lifebox, a nonprofit organization that works to make surgery safer around the world.

What is this book about?

Gawande is one of a growing number of author/doctors who understands that for all the advances medicine has made in treating illness, the profession still has much to learn about the experience of dying. Too focused on achieving a “cure,” even when common sense and medical wisdom clearly shows that death is inevitably on the way, doctors find themselves causing suffering in the name of keeping a patient alive as long as possible, and this counterproductive mindset has, if you will, infected patients and their families. Gawande speaks out in this wise book about issues of dignity and the human spirit and reminds us that how we live and how we die are more important than how long we hang on as the cascade of bodily shut-downs overwhelms us. The real issue, he believes, is not the failure to cure a patient but the failure to comfort and provide a sensible and humane ending when medicine has done all – or perhaps more — than it reasonably can be asked to do.

Why you’ll like it:

If you have ever wished you had a doctor who did not have a “God complex,” who would speak with you frankly, show deep understanding of  the physical and emotional turmoil you or a loved one is suffering and offer sensible and sympathetic advice, look no further: Dr. Gawande will see you now. He writes in a clear and concise way, using plenty of anecdotes from his years of practice and offering ideas and solutions that go beyond conventional approaches to treating those who are dying. This is an eye-opening book, full of hard-won wisdom. Don’t let the subject matter put you off: read this very important book.

Here is what Gawande told a Barnes & Noble interviewer about writing:

“I don’t write out of inspiration. . . . I write because it’s my way of finding cool ideas, thinking through hard problems and things I don’t understand, and getting better at something. I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.”

He said this about why he wrote Being Mortal:

“This experiment of making mortality a medical experience is just decades old. It is young. And the evidence is it is failing.

“. . . this is a book about the modern experience of mortality— about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong. As I pass a decade in surgical practice and become middleaged myself, I find that neither I nor my patients find our current state tolerable. But I have also found it unclear what the answers should be, or even whether any adequate ones are possible. I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith, however, that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing.

“. . . Our reluctance to honestly examine the experience of aging and dying has increased the harm we inflict on people and denied them the basic comforts they most need. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for October 2014 says: “True or false: Modern medicine is a miracle that has transformed all of our lives. If you said “true,” you’d be right, of course, but that’s a statement that demands an asterisk, a “but.” “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine,” writes Atul Gawande . . .  “We think. . .[it] is to ensure health and survival. But really. . .it is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.” Through interviews with doctors, stories from and about health care providers (such as the woman who pioneered the notion of “assisted living” for the elderly)—and eventually, by way of the story of his own father’s dying, Gawande examines the cracks in the system of health care to the aged (i.e. 97 percent of medical students take no course in geriatrics) and to the seriously ill who might have different needs and expectations than the ones family members predict. . . . Doctors don’t listen, Gawande suggests—or, more accurately, they don’t know what to listen for. (Gawande includes examples of his own failings in this area.) Besides, they’ve been trained to want to find cures, attack problems—to win. But victory doesn’t look the same to everyone, he asserts. Yes, “death is the enemy,” he writes. “But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee… someone who knows how to fight for territory that can be won and how to surrender it when it can’t.” In his compassionate, learned way, Gawande shows all of us—doctors included—how mortality must be faced, with both heart and mind.”

Kirkus Reviews says: A prominent surgeon and journalist takes a clear-eyed look at aging and death in 21st-century America. Modern medicine can perform miracles, but it is also only concerned with preserving life rather than dealing with end-of-life issues. Drawing on his experiences observing and helping terminally ill patients, Gawande offers a timely account of how modern Americans cope with decline and mortality. He points out that dying in America is a lonely, complex business. Before 1945, people could count on spending their last days at home. Now, most die in institutional settings, usually after trying every medical procedure possible to head off the inevitable. Quality of life is often sacrificed, in part because doctors lack the ability to help patients negotiate a bewildering array of medical and nonmedical options. . . .Yet the current system shows signs of reform. Rather than simply inform patients about their options or tell them what to do, some doctors, including the author, are choosing to offer the guidance that helps patients make their own decisions regarding treatment options and outcomes. . . . As Gawande reminds readers, “endings matter.” A sensitive, intelligent and heartfelt examination of the processes of aging and dying.”

In The New York Times Book Review, Sheri Fink writes: “Gawande writes that members of the medical profession, himself included, have been wrong about what their job is. Rather than ensuring health and survival, it is “to enable well-being.” If that sounds vague, Gawande has plenty of engaging and nuanced stories to leave the reader with a good sense of what he means…Being Mortal is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on aging, death and dying. It contains unsparing descriptions of bodily aging and the way it often takes us by surprise. Gawande is a gifted storyteller, and there are some stirring, even tear-inducing passages here. The writing can be evocative…The stories give a dignified voice to older people in the process of losing their independence. We see the world from their perspective, not just those of their physicians and worried family members.”

“Beautifully crafted . . . Being Mortal is a clear-eyed, informative exploration of what growing old means in the 21st century . . . This should be mandatory reading for every American. . . . it provides a useful roadmap of what we can and should be doing to make the last years of life meaningful,” says Time.com.

When is it available?

You can make an appointment with Being Mortal 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!

 


Lila

by Marilynne Robinson

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 272 PAGES)

Who is this author?

Marilynne Robinson is widely considered to be one of America’s finest contemporary writers, and she is unusual among them in that her work derives inspiration and sustenance from her deep religious faith. She is a Congregational Church deacon. Robinson has written a trilogy of novels about the Iowa town of Gilead: Home, Gilead (which won a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and Ambassador Book Award) and Lila, as well as her debut novel, Housekeeping. She is also the author of four nonfiction books, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She also teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

What is this book about?

Lila opens in the middle of the night, as an abandoned little girl shivers on the doorstep of a Depression-era shack in Iowa, soon to be comforted by Doll, a woman who is a drifter and a loner who pities the child and offers her well-meant, if meager, care. They live on the run, forge a bond against their loneliness and spend years on the road. Then Lila, now grown but still homeless, enters a church in Gilead, meets the much older and widowed minister, John Ames, and eventually becomes his wife. The novel brings back characters from Home and Gilead, and rounds out their stories. It was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction.

Why you’ll like it:

Robinson has a masterly way of creating believable characters caught up in dilemmas of ethical or religious nature, but there is nothing preachy about her writing. She creates these broken people with tenderness and deeply humane insights and puts them into situations where healing is possible, if improbable, and always miraculous.

Robinson told a Barnes & Noble interviewer: “I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with . . . There was a character whom I intended as a minor character… he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different — he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place. . . . I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do — whose voice tells me how to write the novel.”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says:  “More balm in Gilead as Robinson  returns to familiar ground to continue the saga of John Ames and his neighbors. Ames, Robinson’s readers will know, is a minister in the hamlet of Gilead, a quiet place in a quiet corner of a quiet Midwestern state. Deceptively quiet, we should say, for Robinson, ever the Calvinist (albeit a gentle and compassionate one), is a master at plumbing the roiling depths below calm surfaces. In this installment, she turns to the title character, Ames’ wife, who has figured mostly just in passing in Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). How, after all, did this young outsider wind up in a place so far away from the orbits of most people? What secrets does she bear? It turns out that Lila has quite a story to tell, one of abandonment, want, struggle and redemption—classic Robinson territory, in other words. Robinson provides Lila with enough back story to fuel several other books, her prose richly suggestive and poetic as she evokes a bygone time before “everyone…started getting poorer and the wind turned dirty” that merges into a more recent past that seems no less bleak, when Lila, having subsisted on cattails and pine sap, wanders into Gilead just to look at the houses and gardens: “The loneliness was bad, but it was better than anything else she could think of.” She never leaves, of course, becoming part of the landscape—and, as readers will learn, essential to the gradually unfolding story of Gilead. And in Robinson’s hands, that small town, with its heat and cicadas, its tree toads and morning dew, becomes as real as Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, just as charged with meaning if a touch less ominous, Lila’s talismanic knife notwithstanding. Fans of Robinson will wish the book were longer—and will surely look forward to the next.”

In The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani writes: “Writing in lovely, angular prose that has the high loneliness of an old bluegrass tune, Ms. Robinson has created a balladlike story about two lost people who, after years of stoic solitariness, unexpectedly find love—not the sudden, transformative passion of romantic movies and novels but a hard-won trust and tenderness that grow slowly over time. The novel is powerful and deeply affecting…In the hands of another author, Lila’s back story might sound sentimental or contrived, but Ms. Robinson renders her tale with the stark poetry of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth…capturing the loneliness of her transient existence. “

In The New York Times Book Review, Diane Johnson writes: “Told with measured and absorbing elegance, this account of the growing love and trust between Lila and Reverend Ames is touching and convincing…It’s courageous of Robinson to write about faith at a time when associations with religion are so often negative and violent. And goodness, a property Midwesterners like to think of as a regional birthright, is even harder than piety to convey without succumbing to the temptation to charge it with sanctimony or hypocrisy. That is not the effect of this lovely narrative…In the end, Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment.”

Publishers Weekly says, in its starred review: “This third of three novels set in the fictional plains town of Gilead, Iowa, is a masterpiece of prose in the service of the moral seriousness that distinguishes Robinson’s work. This time the narrative focuses on Lila, the young bride of elderly Reverend Ames, first met in Gilead. Rescued as a toddler from abusive caretakers by a rough but kind drifter named Doll, raised with love but enduring the hard existence of a field worker, and later, in a St. Louis whorehouse, Lila is a superb creation. Largely uneducated, almost feral, Lila has a thirst for stability and knowledge. As she yearns to forget the terrible memories and shame of her past, Lila is hesitant to reveal them to her loving new husband. The courtship of the couple—John Ames: tentative, tender, shy, and awkward; Lila: naive, suspicious, wary, full of dread—will endure as a classic set piece of character revelation, during which two achingly lonely people discover the comfort of marital love. Threaded through the narrative are John Ames’s troubled reflections that the doctrines of his Calvinist theology, including the belief that those who are not saved are destined for hell, are too harsh. Though she reads the Bible to gain knowledge, Lila resists its message, because it teaches that her beloved Doll will never gain the peace of heaven. Her questions stir up doubt in Ames’s already conflicted mind, and Robinson carefully crafts this provocative and deeply meaningful spiritual search for the meaning of existence. What brings the couple together is a joyous appreciation of the beauty of the natural world and the possibility of grace. The novel ends with the birth of their son, to whom Ames will leave his diary in Gilead.

“This is a lovely and touching story that grapples with the universal question of how God can allow his children to suffer. Recommended for fans of Robinson as well as those who enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, another exploration of pain and loneliness set against the backdrop of a small town,” says Evelyn Beck in Library Journal’s starred review.

When is it available?

Lila is on the shelves at the Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field 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!

Does Santa Exist?: A Philosophical Investigation

By Eric Kaplan

(Dutton, $29, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Eric Kaplan is a co-executive producer of (and writer for) the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Before that, he was a writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, Futurama, and Flight of the Concords, so he knows comedy. He has a degree from Harvard and is currently completing his dissertation in philosophy at UC Berkeley, so he is a scholar of philosophy. This book allows him to draw on both kinds of knowledge.

What is this book about?

If we all know Santa is not real – and we do – then how come so many of us believe in him anyway, or persuade our kids to? In this book, a writer and producer of the very popular Big Bang Theory sets out to explore the paradox of real vs. not real, and uses it as a clever jumping off point to explain some basic workings of philosophy. He explores how mysticism, Buddhism, Taoism, early Christianity, Theosophy and current philosophers have handled such confusing material, yet manages to keep the discussion merry and bright.

Why you’ll like it:

Is there anyone who has not pondering the Santa Claus paradox, or struggled with deciding when to admit to the kiddies that the Jolly Old Elf is actually Mom and Dad? Kaplan uses this familiar doorway to take readers deep into the thickets of philosophy, but he does it with humor and insight. Unwrap this one at your leisure and enjoy. Ho, Ho, Ho.

What others are saying:

From Barnes & Noble: “For most adults, ontological questions about Santa were solved long ago, but for philosopher Eric Kaplan, that childhood conundrum has more than lingering interest. Make no mistake: His inquiry is no sooty retake of a yuletide chimney slide; he regards “the Santa question” as a stimulating takeoff point for reopening age-long debates about the real and the unreal. For readers, his North Pole excursions are as entertaining as they are provocative and even Scrooge himself can enjoy the detours that bring Monty Python and The Big Bang Theory into the picture. One stocking stuffer that won’t be forgotten.”

The New York Times Book Review says: “an equally earnest and witty effort to explore the conflicts between reason and faith, logic and mysticism, science and religion—the usual strange bedfellows…[ Kaplan] has a rare gift for explicating jokes without leeching all the fun out of them.“

Publishers Weekly says: “Comedy writer, philosophy scholar, and co-executive producer of the hit show The Big Bang Theory, Kaplan begins his elliptical examination of the ontology of Santa Claus by introducing readers to a conundrum he faced when his son began kindergarten: how to deal with other parents who didn’t want Kaplan’s son telling their children that Santa didn’t exist. Does he let his son spoil the illusion and potentially sacrifice his school friendships, or should he encourage him to go along with the myth in an effort to fit in with most of his peers? This simple question quickly unfolds into a much larger examination of perspective, and Kaplan brings in myriad branches of philosophy and other tools to tackle the slippery subjects of existence, duality, and rationality. Socratic dialogues, fairy tales, and humor (not to mention a brief examination of humor itself) enliven the discussion and keep the reader engaged. Even fans of The Big Bang Theory brand of humor may be surprised by the density of the conversations here, but Kaplan’s deft examination of a simple contradiction manages to be both entertaining and enlightening—often simultaneously. Regardless of how readers will answer Kaplan’s titular question after emerging from this philosophical rabbit hole, they’ll likely end up appreciating the journey.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “The acclaimed comedy writer and co-executive producer of The Big Bang Theory presents a unique and peculiar philosophical inquiry into the belief in Santa Claus. . . . Thus the problem of Santa becomes one of self-contradiction, and this type of paradox is a common plague to logicians. However, the attempts of other philosophers to escape this paradox are unsatisfactory to Kaplan, and he explores the mystic tradition as an alternative. In mysticism, paradox is a fundamental tool for understanding how we exist; therefore, it does not rely on practical rationality. Using Buddhism as his primary source, Kaplan explains how self-contradiction could be embraced to justify both the existence of Santa and his nonexistence. But the ever diligent author encounters a similar paradox in mysticism, seemingly justifying a dangerous relativism in which all that is correct is equally incorrect and vice versa. To bridge the paradoxes of logic and mysticism, Kaplan suggests comedy, at least “good” comedy, as a way to “approach the unavoidable contradictions in our life.” (After all, Santa is a jolly fellow.) As he teases out this synthesis, the author’s argument is both thought-provoking and, at times, less than convincing, but he proves to be an engaging thinker whose musings are always provocative. Kaplan’s investigation into the ontology of Santa Claus is erudite, readable and exceedingly funny.”

When is it available?

Santa has dropped off a copy 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!

Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured

By Kathryn Harrison

(Knopf Doubleday, $28.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Kathryn Harrison has several novels, nonfiction books and memoirs to her credit, among them a biography, St. Therese of Lisieux, and a true crime book, While They Slept: An Inquiry Into the Murder of a Family. Her novels are Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, and Envy and Enchantments. She is well-known for her powerful but disturbing memoir, The Kiss, about her incestuous affair with her father, who left the family when she was an infant and did not see her again until she was 20. California-born, she now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, author Colin Harrison, and their children. She frequently writes reviews for the New York Times Book Review.

What is this book about?

Joan of Arc, who lived, albeit briefly, in the 15th century, made a huge impact on her times and has been a figure of mystery and inspiration ever since. But was she a mystic, a schizophrenic, possessed by demons or just a brave and courageous young woman who led the French in battle against invaders from England at the behest of “voices” that she alone could hear, and for her efforts was burned at the stake at age 19 (and later canonized)? Harrison explores historical fact, myth, folklore and scholarly research on this unusual young woman whose life inspired writings by such authors as William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and others.

Why you’ll like it:

Joan of Arc, known as the Maid of Orleans, is one of those historical figures that we think we know all about, but in fact, her story is far more complex than popular mythologized or movie versions of her life present. Was she divinely inspired, a tool of the devil or simply (if such a thing is ever simple) insane? Scholars have pored over her life for centuries without ever resolving these questions, but Harrison does a fine job of recounting the various theories and arriving at her own conclusions. While this is a biography meant for adult readers, younger (and older) fans of such genre fiction as The Hunger Games and its heroine Katniss Everdeen might find the story of a real young female warrior even more compelling.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “The versatile Harrison novelist, biographer, memoirist and true-crime writer—becomes the most recent in a long list of authors to tell the story of the unusual warrior. Born in 1412 and executed just 19 years later, French peasant Joan of Arc began listening to the voices of angels at age 14 (“hers alone, a rapturous secret”). She did not suspect at first, nor did anybody else, that those angels wanted her to undertake a seemingly impossible task: to lead an army of Frenchmen into battle against the mighty enemy forces from across the channel in England. The tale of Joan of Arc has been told countless times, so why revisit it, especially when hard evidence is lacking? For starters, Harrison’s editor suggested the topic. At that point, the author decided 21st century readers required a new narrative of a life so improbable and heroic. Harrison knew, of course, about the daunting list of previous interpreters, including William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. She wisely examines some of those previous interpretations, finding some of the speculation and historicism plausible but some of it wanting. Harrison examines Joan as a sexual being as well as a warrior and perhaps a schizophrenic. The sexuality angle becomes especially provocative when Harrison discusses how God may have favored Joan due to the virginity she advertised so boldly. The author recounts the battle scenes in sometimes-excruciating detail and gives plenty of space to her arrest, trial and execution. She also provides a chronology. The vivid stories of Joan’s remarkable life never died completely, leading to her canonization as a saint in 1920. Harrison joins the psychobiography school of life writing, doing so with memorable writing and an energetic approach.”

“It is impossible for Harrison to write an uninteresting book. She is too skilled a prose writer, too good a storyteller, too alert to passions and the human heart to produce a work that ever flags. But read Joan of Arc for what it tells you about the world in which the subject lived and the half-millennium of culture that has continued to mythologize her. In this striking volume, it is clear that Joan fell victim to more than an era’s intolerance. She became a victim to other dreamers’ dreams,” says Marie Arana inThe Washington Post.

“[Harrison] awes us with her incisive intelligence, her fierce curiosity, her literary prowess. These qualities, along with years of meticulous research, are on stunning display in Harrison’s latest work of nonfiction, which focuses, fittingly, on two aspects of the cross-dressing teenaged warrior: her sanity, and her sexuality. Harrison sets the scene, painting a layered portrait not only of Joan’s life, but of her times,” says The Boston Globe.

Booklist says: “…In novelist [Kathryn] Harrison’s deft hands, the latest analysis is both vividly detailed and historically grounded. Casting a modern eye on a medieval legend, she is able to breathe new life into the girl, the warrior, the messenger from God, and the saint. In addition to Joan’s early years and her fiery path to battle, Harrison also includes Joan’s trials, execution, and canonization in the compulsively readable narrative.”

“Hundreds of books have been written about her, but the story remains astounding enough for new interpretations. Kathryn Harrison, the well-known author of novels, memoirs and a previous biography of a saint, has now taken up the challenge with the deeply researched and thoughtful Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured…. Harrison shows that Joan’s worst crime in their eyes was her revolutionary audacity in dressing and behaving like a man. Of course, the ultimate victory was hers,” says Bookpage.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour and Blue Hills 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!