Subtle Bodies

By Norman Rush

(Knopf Doubleday /Vintage International, $15, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Norman Rush, an author based in New York state,  is best known for “Whites,” a collection of stories, and two hefty novels: “ Mating” and “Mortals.” All were set in Botswana, the African country where Rush and his wife, Elsa, were Peace Corps directors from 1978 to 1983. “Mating” won a National Book Award for fiction, and you may have read some of Rush’s stories in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Short Stories. “Subtle Bodies,” however, is a shorter work, set in the Catskills mountains of New York State, a bit of a departure for Rush, who is now 81.

What is this book about?

It’s a “Big Chill” kind of plot, in which Douglas, a charismatic member of a once-tightly knit group of friends, expires, and the rest gather, after having been apart for many years, to pay their respects and reminisce, even as Douglas’s widow tries to turn the event into what feels like a theatrical extravaganza. Of course, it is not always a good idea to stir up old memories and force old friends into new alliances. Should old acquaintance be forgot? Sometimes, yes. The book centers on Ned and his much younger wife Nina, who are trying to get pregnant and who tell the story. Many reviewers say Nina, a smart and sardonic narrator, is the best part of the book.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are a Baby Boomer, and really, who isn’t, you will find plenty to like here. Known for its relentless navel-gazing and its pig-in-the-python prominence in American demographics, this is the dominant group in numbers, wealth and influence, and “Subtle Bodies” delineates them well. Throw in Rush’s talents at writing coruscating humor and ability to create memorable female characters, and you have a winning combination.

What others are saying:

In a starred review, Kirkus says: “Rush’s third novel is an outlier–a slim book not set in Botswana–but his concerns with our carnal and intellectual lives remain pleasurably, provocatively intact. The modern classic Mating (1991) and its 2003 follow-up, Mortals, were hothouse experiments in human behavior: Take a bright couple, drop them in a foreign milieu, and watch their primal instincts slowly emerge. This book does much the same thing, though it’s set in Rush’s native United States. At its center is Ned, a middle-aged activist who has hastened to the castle-like home of his college friend Douglas, who has died in a riding-mower accident. Following close behind is his wife, Nina, who is outraged at Ned for leaving just as she reaches the peak in her fertility cycle; she wants to conceive. Its life-and-death themes settled fast, the novel largely explores the personalities of Ned and three other friends of Douglas who have arrived for the memorial. Douglas was a lifelong provocateur, and in college, this clan was hellbent on undoing social norms, but reconvened, they largely have memories of old bons mots and a widow who’s trying to stage-manage the memorial to the last utterance. The setting is funereal, and Rush dwells much on the futility of warring against our natures, yet this book abounds in wit, particularly in its exploration of Ned and Nina’s marriage; alternating between their perspectives, Rush ping-pongs their thoughts about lust, love and accomplishment. The brevity of the story highlights its contrived setup–the everybody-stuck-in-the-castle arrangement has an unintentional whiff of an Agatha Christie mystery–and a subplot involving Douglas’ troubled teen son is left frustratingly unresolved. But this is a weaker novel only in comparison to Rush’s earlier triumphs. His skill at revealing our interior lives is undiminished. Easier to lug around than its predecessors but with plenty of heft regardless.”

Says Library Journal: “Old friends reunite at a funeral in Rush’s latest work, a basic plot here given lighthearted treatment. Chief among the group is Ned, coming from California to the East Coast and trailed by his wife, Nina, who mildly resents having been left behind but is mainly interested in continuing their attempts to conceive a child. The deceased is Douglas, a charismatic figure around whom the group coalesced at college in the 1970s, united by belief mostly in their superior intelligence but also encompassing vague political and theatrical forces. Douglas had resided on an estate in upstate New York, where, in addition to friends, various representatives of the international media appear to capture the elegiac ceremonies. Nina arrives and immediately immerses herself in the lives of Ned’s gang as the novel unfolds in a humorous and unfunereal fashion, played out against the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Verdict This novel has the verbal play and digressions one might expect from Rush . . . but is briefer and more accessible. Readers will be immediately drawn into the acutely rendered world swirling around Ned and Nina.”

Says Bookforum: Though Subtle Bodies tunnels in various directions, including toward a meditation on the enigma of male friendship, here again the marital banner flies strong from the novel’s first pages, its first syllables. In Subtle Bodies, as in so much of his work, confronting the world returns Rush to his central question: What matters, in the end? That we do what we can, is the author’s refrain. Even if all we can do— all any two people can do—is form a country of our own, whose flag is love.”

When is it available?

Rush to the Downtown Hartford Public Library to borrow this one.

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!


You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There: The Stories of Elizabeth Taylor

By Elizabeth Taylor

New York Review Books Classics, $17.95, 400 pages

Who is this author?

No, not that Elizabeth Taylor. This Elizabeth Taylor, who lived from 1912 to 1975, was a British author who published a dozen novels, five story collections and a book for children. Many of her stories appeared in such prestigious literary magazines as The New Yorker and Harper’s. Before becoming a writer, she worked as a governess and a librarian before marrying a businessman who later became mayor of their town. As private and unassuming as a writer as her namesake was flamboyant and theatrical as a superstar, this Elizabeth Taylor is known for her deft portrayals of life among the middle and upper classes in England following World War II. Her work is widely admired by other authors, and many have said her talent has never been fully appreciated. .American novelist Anne Tyler, for example, once compared Taylor to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen – “soul sisters all.” Taylor’s  best-known novels include “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” (2005), and “Angel” (2007), which, like some of her other  books, inspired film adaptations.

What is this book about?

Here are 29 stories, selected for this collection by novelist Margaret Drabble. They demonstrate Taylor’s quiet but powerful understanding of the emotional turbulence that often roils under the outward placidity of ordinary life. Taylor set her stories in domestic life, but the loneliness, self-doubt, awkward encounters and unfulfilled desires she so brilliantly depicts are anything but homey. Taylor employed a kind of double vision that allowed her to describe the surface and expose the depths at the same time.

Why you’ll like it:

Though these tales are set in England, the American reader will have no problem relating to her carefully drawn characters. Taylor’s work appeared so regularly in The New Yorker that you may well have read some of her stories there. No matter: having them collected in this fine book gives them a kind of cumulative power that will enhance their value whether they are familiar to you or serve as an entry point into Taylor’s work.

Here is what she once said about the art of writing:  “The whole point is that writing has a pattern and life hasn’t. Life is so untidy. Art is so short and life so long. It is not possible to have perfection in life but it is possible to have perfection in a novel.”

 

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review:  “This captivating collection of 29 stories by Taylor—a British novelist who wrote 11 novels and four story collections—includes an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who edited the book. Most of the stories revolve around female protagonists in unremarkable English settings. The title story is about a young girl named Rhoda, who attends a ball with her father. Her glamorous mother is sick and unable to attend, but she advises awkward Rhoda not to be shy. Their dynamic is emblematic of the tension between expectation and reality that affects many of Taylor’s characters. In “The Letter Writers,” spinster Emily finally meets a famous novelist she’s admired from afar through a decade of epistolary friendship. Unfortunately, the meeting is awkward and strained, leaving Emily feeling ashamed. In “The Prerogative of Love,” young, beautiful Arabella floats through her aunt’s lunch party, filling the elder guests with a longing for their youth and levity. In “Flesh,” a middle-aged pair on vacation strike up a brief adulterous romance, but are ultimately foiled. Taylor’s vulnerable characters are simultaneously touching and heartbreaking.”

“There is a deceptive smoothness in her tone, or tone of voice, as in that of Evelyn Waugh; not a far-fetched comparison, for in the work of both writers the funny and the appalling lie side by side in close amity,” says author Kingsley Amis.

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A newly selected volume of short fiction by a much-admired but not widely known English writer showcases her subtle insights. Taylor’s (1912-1975) reputation has ebbed and flowed in both her native England and in the U.S., where recent reissues of two of her 11 novels, Angel and A Game of Hide and Seek, have helped return her to the public eye. This book of 29 stories, edited and introduced by [Margaret] Drabble, reflects the breadth of her creative life as well as her nuanced grasp of human interactions. The tales are often located in a finely detailed, middle-class domestic setting where the tone and minutiae are very English: gardens, glasses of sherry, village pubs, marmalade, class differences, Austen-ish wit. Frequently noting the weather, the seasons, flora and fauna, Taylor considers, usually from a female perspective, questions of marriage, isolation, love and aging. The collection opens with a novella, Hester Lilly, which charts the strains imposed on an established marriage by the arrival of the husband’s young cousin. This theme of individuals struggling within an existing relationship recurs often, as in “Gravement Endommagé,” a glimpse of a couple that has survived wartime separation but is not at peace together. The title story, one of several featuring younger women outgrowing their youth, captures the exquisite discomfort of a daughter deputizing for her mother at a formal dinner. Among the most memorable is “The Letter-Writers,” a model of unarticulated intensity in which two long-term correspondents come together for the first time and fear their “eyes might meet and they would see in one another’s nakedness and total loss.” Sensitive souls are scrutinized with delicate English understatement.”

When is it available?

This Taylor-made collection can be found 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!

Perfect

By Rachel Joyce

(Random House, $25, 400 pages)

Who is this author?                          

Rachel Joyce made her debut as a novelist in 2012 with the international bestseller, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.”  An actress who had leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company, she also has written more than 20 plays for BBC Radio 4, and has won awards for playwriting. She lives in England, on a farm in Gloucestershire.

What is this book about?

Can two seconds change a life? Seems unlikely, but “Perfect” says otherwise. It opens in 1972, when an 11-year-old English  schoolboy becomes obsessed with the fact that two seconds are being added to the Leap Year. Byron thinks even those fleeting moments can open the door to unforeseen disaster, and though he is mocked for his outsize concern, it turns out he was right. As the clock adds the seconds, he inadvertently distracts his mother, Diana, who driving him and his sister to school. An accident ensues, his mother is oblivious, and everything changes. Byron and his best friend come up with a plan to protect his mother, but Diana, upon learning of the mishap, begins to deteriorate and nothing goes as planned. And there is more to it: another central character, Jim, is introduced in the present day portion of the story, and he struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder. Joyce ties these threads together in a surprising denouement that brings resolution and redemption.

Why you’ll like it:

Joyce’s first novel, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye,” was laced with British whimsy and charm. “Perfect” has another emotional color: tense, mysterious, dark and disturbing. What ties them together are Joyce’s insights about mental disorders and her skillful writing. This is a novel of psychological suspense that readers will find fast-moving and intriguing.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “The time is out of joint, as the follow-up to a popular novelistic debut brings a slightly darker edge to its fable-like whimsy. Having earned a best-selling readership in both the U.S. and her native Britain with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), Joyce returns with an even less likely but more ambitious piece of fictional fancy. The protagonist is 11-year-old Byron, a reflective and innocent schoolboy who becomes overly concerned when his best friend, James, tells him that two seconds will be added to this leap year to somehow even things out. After his mother assures him that “[w]hen it happens you won’t notice. Two seconds are nothing,” Byron responds, “That’s what nobody realizes. Two seconds are huge. It’s the difference between something happening and something not happening.” And with the addition of those two seconds–or not–something happens–or not. And whether or not something happens, everything changes. A veteran of the stage and a radio playwright before turning to fiction, Joyce specializes in the sort of insights that some find charming, others cloying and a style that could sometimes pass for fairy tale, other times for Young Adult (though those readers wouldn’t have much patience for her plotting). The novel alternates between chapters that follow what happens to Byron, his mother and their family (which the reader quickly realizes is more dysfunctional than Byron does) and ones that concern an adult sufferer of obsessive-compulsive disorder who resorts to menial labor when the British mental health system fails him. “No one knows how to be normal, Jim,” a social worker tells him. “We’re all just trying to do our best.” The two plot lines must inevitably intersect, but the manner in which they do will likely surprise even the most intuitive reader. Many of those who loved the author’s first novel should at least like her second.”

“Joyce’s dark, quiet follow-up to her successful debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, could easily become a book club favorite. . .  Perfect is the kind of book that blossoms under thoughtful examination, its slow tendencies redeemed by moments of loveliness and insight. However sad, Joyce’s messages—about the limitations of time and control, the failures of adults and the fears of children, and our responsibility for our own imprisonment and freedom—have a gentle ring of truth to them,” says The Washington Post.

Publishers Weekly says: “An 11-year-old boy makes an error that brings tragedy to several lives, including his own, in Joyce’s intriguing and suspenseful novel. One summer day in a small English village in 1972, Byron Hemmings’s mother, Diana, is driving him and his younger sister to school when their Jaguar hits a little girl on a red bicycle. Diana drives on, unaware, with only Byron having seen the accident. Byron doesn’t know whether or not the girl was killed, however, and concocts a plan called “Operation Perfect” to shield his mother from what happened. Previously, she has always presented the picture of domestic perfection in trying to please her martinet banker husband, Seymour, and overcome her lower-class origins. After Byron decides to tell her the truth about the accident, she feverishly attempts to make amends by befriending the injured girl’s mother, but her “perfect” facade begins to splinter. Joyce sometimes strains credibility in describing Diana’s psychological deterioration, but the novel’s fast pacing keeps things tense. Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, Jim, a psychologically fragile man in his 50s, endures a menial cafe job. Joyce, showing the same talent for adroit plot development seen in the bestselling The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, brings both narrative strands together in a shocking, redemptive (albeit weepily sentimental) denouement. The novel is already a bestseller in England.

The Barnes & Noble review says: “. . . Though here, too, Joyce’s characters carry soul-searing secrets, the compensating sugary whimsy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is gone. In its place Joyce has constructed a world of merciless cause-and-effect. And though Perfect is told through the close-focus view of two unreliable narrators, a crucial revelation in the end turns the story on its head even as it sews it together.

“[F]or one person to help another, for one small act of kindness to succeed, a lot must go well, a myriad of things must fall into place,” Jim thinks near the end of the book, finally finding light at the end of his ordeal.

“And the author’s own act of kindness at the end of the book leaves the kaleidoscope transformed from broken vision to a hard-won kind of grace.”

When is it available?

Take a few seconds and borrow this one from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight branch.

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


All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid

by Matt Bai

(Knopf Doubleday, $26.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Matt Bai, a native of Trumbull, covered three presidential campaigns when he was chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, and this year he became the national political columnist for Yahoo News. He began his career at The Boston Globe and then wrote for Newsweek. His “The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics,” was a New York Times notable book of 2007. Bai often appears on the Sunday morning political analysis shows, such as “Meet the Press” and “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”  He also played himself last year on “House of Cards” on Netflix and is now co-writing a screenplay for a limited series for FX on the disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy, a Congressional intern.

What is this book about?

Monkey business, you might say. By that, I mean the unfortunately named yacht on which aspiring Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart was photographed with a model named Donna Rice, leading to a press frenzy that sank his candidacy. Bai’s contention is that the l’affaire de Hart was a major turning point in how politicians would be covered, changing things dramatically (and not for the good of the country.)  This was the moment, he says, when personal lives (and peccadillos) became public fare and a tabloid mentality infected even the most staid media.  He also makes the case that Hart had far more to offer than people realized. That point is debatable, but Bai’s larger analysis of how political reporting has changed is prescient and profound.

Why you’ll like it:

I wrote this the day before the 2014 elections, and you are reading it the week after. But no matter what the outcome of those elections were, and whether you agree with Bai’s contention that Gary Hart deserved better from the press and the American electorate, this is a book with plenty of valuable insights on how debased politics have become  in the U.S., and the far-from-admirable role the media has played. Even if you’ve had your fill of politics this year, this book offers you thought-provoking information and interpretation by an author who really knows the territory.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Political columnist Bai (The Argument) makes a persuasive case for reexamining the career of presidential candidate Gary Hart, whose downfall in the wake of speculation about an extramarital affair, he argues, marks a turning point in the deterioration of American political journalism and democracy. Bai analyzes the forces coalescing around the scandal that brought down the Democratic frontrunner in May 1987, and captures those frenzied days in a masterfully written account. The possibility that a candidate might be lying about his sex life was not usually relevant, given the close relationship between major news outlets and politicians, but much had changed, especially given Watergate’s influence on a generation of reporters. By the time allegations of adultery met Hart’s campaign in New Hampshire, two previously separate streams, the tabloid press and political journalism, joined forces. The result has been “an unbridgeable divide… between our candidates and our media” and an accompanying lack of substance and transparency in the political process. Based on extensive interviews with reporters and campaign insiders, including Hart and Donna Rice (the then 29-year-old model photographed sitting on his lap), Bai appraises Hart the politician, political visionary, and high-minded yet obstinately private man, and asks what the country might have lost with his foreshortened career. This first-rate work of political journalism will fan embers long thought to have gone out

“In the tradition of his friend Richard Ben Cramer, Matt Bai astonishes us by delving deeply into a story and thus overturning our views about how the press should cover politics. This fascinating and deeply significant tale shows how the rules of American politics and journalism were upended for the worse by the frenzied coverage of Gary Hart’s personal life. The soot still darkens our political process,” says biographer Walter Isaacson, author of “Steve Jobs.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A new look at a scandal that changed American politics. In 2002,   York Times Magazine chief political correspondent Bai wrote an article about Gary Hart’s 1987 presidential bid, a campaign that ended with the media’s splashy coverage of Hart’s apparent adultery. The author arrived “at the same psychoanalytical conclusion on which a lot of Hart’s contemporaries had settled back then—that Hart had to have harbored some self-destructive impulse to begin with,” risking his reputation by getting involved with “some model.” Now, more than a decade later, Bai takes a far different view of the episode: “It was the story that changed all the rules” for journalists covering politicians; “the moment when the worlds of public service and tabloid entertainment…finally collided.” The author argues that the Watergate scandal “left the entire country feeling duped and betrayed”; political reporters wondered how Nixon, “a man whose corruption and pettiness were so self-evident,” could have won two presidential elections. Suspicion came to focus on candidate Hart because of his widely known womanizing and his aloof and detached manner. For this book, Bai interviewed Hart, as well as reporters and editors involved in publicizing the alleged affair. The Washington Post reporter who aggressively pursued the story told Bai that he had felt “relieved, then triumphant” when Hart withdrew from the presidential race. The way he saw it, writes the author, “he and his colleagues had managed to protect the nation from another rogue and liar.” As Bai sees it, however, the nation lost “one of the great political minds of his time.” Hart’s attempt at another run failed, and until recently, he was marginalized from politics. Hart once said that obsessive scrutiny of sex as an indicator of character would give America the politicians it deserved. In this probing narrative, Bai comes to another dismal conclusion: It would give America the news coverage it deserved—entertainment-driven, dominated by shallow pundits, and bereft of intellect and ideas.”

“Bai doesn’t just make an argument: He tells the juicy Hart story all over again, right down to the oil-stained alley in which reporters cornered the candidate and interrogated him about the blonde in his apartment.…Bai’s important call for perspective is a reminder to all of us in the press and the electorate to recognize the complexity of the human condition, whether we’re casting aside candidates because they wear a funny helmet in a tank or because they once committed adultery,” says Slate.

The Boston Globe says:  “An introspective book that is set in another era but offers insights into ours…Bai says what is obvious—that the Donna Rice furor irreparably hurt Hart—but he also says what is less obvious, and very wise: that it hurt us all.”

 When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch have copies of Bai’s book.

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


The Rest Is Silence: (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery #9)

by James R. Benn

(Soho Crime, $26.95, 325 pages)

Who is this author?

James R. Benn, of Hadlyme, has made a second and highly successful career of writing mysteries, after 35 years of library and technology work, including being director of Godfrey Memorial Library in Middletown.  Benn published his first “Billy Boyle” mystery in 2006, about a young Boston detective turned military investigator for his uncle — who just happens to be Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — during World War II. This book is the ninth in the Biily Boyle series and it is winning praise for Benn who is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Author’s Guild.

What is this book about?              

Benn told Amazon.com: “The Rest is Silence” . . . features the disaster surrounding Operation Tiger, a D-Day training event at Slapton Sands in southwest England that went terribly wrong. I am currently at work on the tenth Billy Boyle novel, which will take him to distant waters in the South Pacific.”

“Silence” begins when an unidentified corpse is found  with a bullet in his head on a beach at on England’s southern coast, which happens to be the training site for the upcoming and highly secret D-Day invasion of Normandy.  US Army Captain Billy Boyle and his partner, Lieutenant Piotr ‘Kaz’ Kazimierz, must investigate the grisly and mysterious death. Boyle and Kaz are lucky to be billeted nearby at Ashcroft manor, a Downton Abbey-ish home owned by a friend of Kaz, and Boyle gets to know some fascinating characters there, both upstairs and down. Then hundreds of Allied soldiers perish during Operation Tiger, and to complicate things further, a man at Ashcroft may have been murdered. It will take all of Boyle’s considerable investigative skills to solve the various mysteries in “Silence.”

Why you’ll like it:                  

Benn’s writing grows more assured with each successive Billy Boyle mystery. He gives his stories a solid historical underpinning, which make the fiction even stronger and offers the reader a course in World War II history without ever making it didactic. Benn combines the skills of an avid researcher with a born talent for storytelling: the reader reaps the rewards.

What others are saying:                                

Publishers Weekly says: “Benn offers a thrilling mix of fact and fiction in his ninth whodunit featuring Boston cop-turned-army investigator Billy Boyle. On the eve of D-Day, Boyle, who serves on Eisenhower’s staff, travels to Kingsbridge, England, and looks into the death of an unknown man whose corpse washed ashore on a beach. Since the location was used as practice for the amphibious assault that will be launched shortly in France, the higher-ups are concerned that a link may exist between the dead man, who was shot in the head, and the secret invasion plans. A feud among local gangsters that Boyle learns about suggests a less sinister theory, but the path to the truth is appropriately complex. The affable and capable Boyle continues to grow as a character, and Benn effectively uses the impending Allied invasion of Europe as the background for the whodunit plot.

“This Billy Boyle World War II mystery is an exceptionally written book . . . the plot and historical sights and sounds are top-notch. Whether a reader holds WWII books or suspense books close to their heart, this one will be a true find,” says Suspense Magazine.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An unidentified corpse on the southwest coast of England throws a wrench into D-Day planning. Can Capt. Billy Boyle identify the victim and crack the case? April 23, 1944. Allied forces are gathered in Kingsbridge, waiting for the go-ahead to swarm the beaches of Normandy, but a body on the beach threatens to disrupt their sensitive timetable. Boston cop-turned-Army investigator Boyle  is called in to investigate, along with his melancholy partner, Piotr Augustus Kazimierz. The local coroner, Dr. Verniquet, confirms that the body has been in the water for more than a month and offers the opinion that the victim was a petty criminal of some sort. Billy wonders whether the dead man had darker designs, perhaps on Gen. Eisenhower, who’s supervising the big maneuver and makes a cameo appearance. Billy’s suspicions deepen when a sniper fires at him and Kaz, who end up pinned by their overturned jeep. Their probe gains traction when Billy decides to follow the money by determining who stood to profit most from foiling the D-Day invasion. The investigation leads the pair to some slick and colorful gangsters at a racetrack as well as the dining room of British society’s upper crust, where additional murders complicate the case. Billy’s ninth case moves a bit too deliberately and may have too many red herrings, but his whiz-bang first-person narrative keeps the story afloat, and its Greatest Generation plot gives it an appealing sense of nostalgia.”

Says Library Journal: “Southwest England in 1944. Operation Tiger is underway, a dress rehearsal for D-Day. Nerves are understandably raw. When a corpse washes ashore, questions naturally arise: Is this simply a drowned local or a drunken sailor or could it be a German spy? In this ninth entry in Benn’s series, plucky Billy Boyle, late of the Boston constabulary but now a member of General Eisenhower’s (Uncle Ike’s) Office of Special Investigations, is dispatched to investigate. The case of the dead body quickly gives way to a domestic drama played out at Ashcroft House where Billy is billeted. In residence are Sir Rupert, a former Indian civil servant, his two grown daughters and their husbands, plus a cadre of servants. Presiding over the menagerie is great-aunt Sylvia, she of the acerbic comment. When a possible heir (not only is he from below stairs but is also American-raised) arrives unexpectedly on the scene, it’s not difficult to predict trouble on the stormy horizon. There are period details aplenty with cameo appearances by historical figures. A bit of cheeky fun is had when the author enlists the aid of a certain Mrs. Mallowan (aka, Agatha Christie), a local resident, during the course of the investigation. VERDICT With its very smooth mix of mystery and historical references (with a dash of Downton Abbey), just about everybody will find something of interest in this fizzy retro cocktail.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book now.

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 Empathy Exams

By Leslie Jamison

(Graywolf, $15, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Leslie Jamison, who lives in New Haven, is an essayist and novelist. Her 2010 novel, The Gin Closet, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and her essays have been published in Believer, Harper’s Magazine, Oxford American and Tin House. Her latest book, an essay collection, won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and was named a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Essay Collection of Spring 2014.

If her work intrigues you, you can hear her talk about it on Nov. 9 at 2 p.m. at a free Authors Live!  program with psychiatrist Gary Greenberg presented by the Noah Webster Library, 20 S. Main St., West Hartford. Registration: www.westhartfordlibrary.org . The library validated parking in the Isham Road garage.

 

What is this book about?                              

Jamison once worked as a medical actor, a job in which people act out disease symptoms for medical students, to help them learn to make diagnoses. She writes about that in this book, which explores the many aspects of pain and what it can teach us about human interactions. Can you truly feel someone’s else’s pain? Do we sometimes use empathy to judge someone? Should we empathize with imagined pain? Using her own personal encounters with sickness and injury, Jamison examines a wide range of experiences, including “poverty tourism,” real and imagined illness, violence, reality TV programs, marathon running and imprisonment, to explore the meaning and ramifications of pain and our response to those who suffer.

Why you’ll like it:

This is an intellectual, philosophical but never dry book about feelings we all have experiences and fear. Jamison writes with grace, and, yes, empathy about what pain is and more importantly, what pain means. Her explorations and insights offer valuable and provocative information for anyone suffering chronic pain or close to someone who has that problem, but her emphasis is more philosophical than practical.

 

What others are saying:  

From Booklist’s starred review: “Jamison wrote about “wounded women” in her powerful novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and she pursues that subject in this collection of gutsy essays. But the line of inquiry that connects these riveting works of acute description and exacting moral calculus, these amalgams of memoir and risky investigative adventures is Jamison’s attempt to discern and define empathy in diverse and dicey situations. She begins with an account of her experiences working as a “medical actor,” performing as patients with baffling ailments that medical students must diagnose, encounters that deliver the realization that empathy requires humility and imagination. She discloses her own medical travails and asks, “When does empathy actually reinforce the pain it wants to console?” Jamison’s mission to put empathy to the test is more covert and even more provocative in her wrenching chronicles of drug-war-ravaged Mexico; Nicaragua, where a man attacks her and breaks her nose; a silver mine in Bolivia; and a “Gang Tour” in Los Angeles—explorations that inject guilt into the equation. A tough, intrepid, scouring observer and vigilant thinker, she generates startling and sparking extrapolations and analysis. On the prowl for truth and intimate with pain, Jamison carries forward the fierce and empathic essayistic tradition as practiced by writers she names as mentors, most resonantly James Agee and Joan Didion.”

“If reading a book about [pain] sounds . . . painful, rest assured that Jamison writes with such originality and humor, and delivers such scalpel-sharp insights, that it’s more like a rush of pleasure. . . . To articulate suffering with so much clarity, and so little judgement, is to turn pain into art,” says Entertainment Weekly, which gives the book a Grade: A-. “

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Novelist Jamison’s first collection of essays, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, is a heady and unsparing examination of pain and how it allows us to understand others, and ourselves. Whether she’s playacting symptoms for medical students as a medical actor, learning about the controversial Morgellons disease (delusional parasitosis), or following ultramarathoners through the rugged Tennessee mountains, Jamison is ever-probing and always sensitive. Reporting is never the point; instead, her observations of people, reality TV, music, film, and literature serve as a starting point for unconventional metaphysical inquiries into poverty tourism, prison time, random acts of violence, abortion, HBO’s Girls, bad romance, and stereotypes of the damaged woman artist. She focuses on physical and emotional wounds because, as she writes, “discomfort is the point. Friction arises from an asymmetry.” For Jamison, that friction shatters the clichés about suffering that create distance between people, resulting in a more honest—and empathetic—way of seeing.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Jamison notes that empathy is “a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves.” In this collection of 11 essays, which take place in many different regions of the world including Central America, Bolivia, South Central Los Angeles, and Tennessee, the author does pay attention. She writes about a variety of subjects such as reality television, Tijuana, Frida Kahlo, ultra marathons, the West Memphis Three, illness, female suffering, and working as a medical actor, examining some very difficult topics with intelligent candor. The types of empathy—self, painful, guilt, fearful—evoked when reading the pieces are as varied as their subject matter. Jamison illustrates self-empathy, for example, when openly describing traumatic events in her personal life, including when she was violently mugged in Nicaragua; cleverly woven into the retelling of this painful and terrifying ordeal is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. VERDICT Winner of the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, these essays will inspire readers to reflect on their own feelings of empathy—not an easy feat in today’s disinterested society.”

Kirkus Reviews, in its starred review, says: “ A dazzling collection of essays on the human condition.In her nonfiction debut, the winner of the 2011 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Jamison presents 11 essays that probe pain alongside analyses of its literal and literary trappings. Whether tackling societal woes such as strip mining, drug wars, disease and wrongful imprisonment, or slippery abstract constructs including metaphor, sentimentality, confession and “gendered woundedness,” Jamison masterfully explores her incisive understanding of the modern condition. The author’s self-conscious obsession with subjectivity and openness to the jarringly unfamiliar become significant themes. . . .”Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel,” she writes. “It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Jamison’s uncanny ease in crossing boundaries between the philosophical and the personal enables her both to isolate an interiority of feeling and capture it in accessible metaphorical turns of phrase: “Melodrama is something to binge on: cupcakes in the closet.” Throughout, Jamison exhibits at once a journalist’s courage to bear witness to acts and conditions that test human limits—incarceration, laboring in a silver mine, ultramarathoning, the loss of a child, devastating heartbreak, suffering from an unacknowledged illness—and a poet’s skepticism at her own motives for doing so. It is this level of scrutiny that lends these provocative explorations both earthy authenticity and moving urgency.A fierce, razor-sharp, heartwarming nonfiction debut.

When is it available?                    

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

Dear Committee Members

By Julie Schumacher

(Doubleday, $22.95, 192 pages)

Who is this author?

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

What is this book about?                                             

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

Why you’ll like it:                 

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

What others are saying:                                

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

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

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

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

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

When is it available?

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

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


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

By Steven Johnson

(Riverhead, $30, 304 pages)

Who is this author?     

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

What is this book about?

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

Why you’ll like it:

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

What others are saying:

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

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

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

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

When is it available?

You can discover this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library

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

Of Sea and Cloud

By Jon Keller

(Adams Media, $24.99, 320 pages)

Who is this author?                                                                

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

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

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

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

What is this book about?            

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

Why you’ll like it:                        

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

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

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

 

What others are saying:                                    

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

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

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

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

When is it available?                                         

You can catch this novel at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight branch.

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

A Song For Issy Bradley

By Carys Bray

(Ballantine, $26, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

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

What is this book about?                   

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

Why you’ll like it:

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

What others are saying:

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

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

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

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

When is it available?

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

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