The Dream Lover

By Elizabeth Berg

(Random House, $28, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

With a long list of bestselling novels to her credit, Elizabeth Berg has established herself as one of today’s most successful authors. Her novels include Talk Before Sleep, Tapestry of Fortunes, The Last Time I Saw You, Home Safe, The Year of Pleasures, and Dream When You’re Feeling Blue, Open House  (an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Durable Goods and Joy School (ALA Best Books of the Year), and The Pull of the Moon was adapted as a play. In addition, she has published two collections of short stories and two works of nonfiction. Berg has homes in Chicago and San Francisco.

What is this book about?

Nineteenth century French  novelist George Sand, as we know or should know, was not a male writer. Sand was the pen name of Aurore Dupin, a powerful author who was as unlucky at love as she was successful in writing. Unafraid of living an unconventional life, and undaunted by those who called it scandalous, she had many  lovers and friends include Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval, and Alfred de Musset and she herself became a Paris luminary in her time. Ivan Turgenev said of Sand: “What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.”

Why you’ll like it:

Elizabeth Berg was once a nurse, and her innate understanding of the human heart and its hurts underlies her many bestselling novels, which include Talk Before Sleep, in my opinion one of the most astute descriptions of women’s friendships ever published. In Dream Lover, Berg uses her insights to explores a woman who was a rarity in her time: she  achieved professional fame, publishing nine novels, plays, essays, literary criticism and more; yet she suffered personal heartbreak. Berg captures her contradictions and complexities in this deeply researched and well-written biographical novel.

What others are saying:

 

Library Journal’s starred review says: “George Sand, born Aurore Dupin in 1804 to a courtesan and a descendant of Polish royalty who was a distinguished military officer in France, is often reduced to the bullet points of her life: she was a prodigious writer who dressed in men’s clothing and smoked cigars in public, a friend and/or lover to much of the A-list of 19th-century European culture (Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt), and a divorcée who had troubled relationships with her mother, grandmother, and children. Berg’s years-long immersion in the writings of and about Sand has resulted in a remarkable channeling of Sand’s voice that imagines the contradictory strands of her nature. Among these themes are her fierce independence, so contrary to her endless impetuous romantic entanglements, which quickly devolve into difficult morasses. Sand’s endless struggles to be a good parent were compromised by her unsettled travels; all of these issues were driven by her intense need to write. VERDICT Years ago, Berg urged Nancy Horan (Loving Frank) to write a fictional biography of Sand. Horan told Berg to write it herself. Wisely, Berg took her advice to heart, as evidenced by this beautiful, imaginative re-creation of a brilliant, complicated writer, feminist, romantic, and activist.”

Kirkus Review says: “Best-selling author Berg turns her attention to the life of French writer George Sand with this vivid historical novel. The book begins twice: It’s 1831, and Aurore Dupin, a free-spirited young woman, is leaving her loveless marriage in the French countryside for a creative, bohemian life in Paris—the life that will lead her to become literary icon George Sand. Then time whips backward: It’s 1804, and the scene is Aurore’s birth. Her mother is fiery, passionate, low-born and beautiful; her father is handsome, musical, charming, a military star. And so Berg sets off on a project that’s part biography, part George Sand fantasy, alternating between scenes from Aurore’s fairy-tale childhood and tales of her adult affairs—her brilliant career, her difficult family life, her struggles with femininity and the limitations of femaleness, her complicated sexuality, and, above all, her many, many whirlwind romances. “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved,” Sand once wrote, and it is that quest that becomes the focal point of Berg’s novel: We follow Aurore in and out of her loveless marriage, through passionate relationships and bright-burning assignations, many of them with historical characters famous in their own rights. Her work, we are told, comes easily and brilliantly and is met with perpetual praise and complete success; her politics are progressive and generally to be admired. A more nuanced exploration of her professional and political life might have brought Berg’s Sand necessary humanity and texture, providing both a foil and a context for her love affairs. As it is, though, Aurore—for all that she’s intoxicating, beautiful, gifted, desirous, unconventional and heartbroken—never quite becomes human. She remains mythlike, and we remain one step removed. A thoroughly pleasant escape, if not a particularly deep one.”

 

Says Publishers Weekly: “Berg’s latest novel is about the iconoclastic French writer born as Aurore Dupin but better known as George Sand. The story begins in 1831, when Aurore leaves her loveless marriage for a bohemian life in Paris. Born to an aristocratic soldier and a courtesan, Aurore’s upbringing is shaped by her father’s untimely death and her mother’s unpredictability. Craving love and reveling in the natural beauty of the family estate at Nohant, she finds that conventional marriage stifles her soul. Though it means financial uncertainty and separation from her two children, the move to Paris lets her authentic, creative, androgynous self emerge. Notoriety, bestsellerdom, and a place in glittering literary, political, and artistic circles follow; though she has relationships with myriad men, including Frédéric Chopin, Berg suggests that it was a woman, the actress Marie Dorval, who most deeply captured her heart. In its attempt to capture Sand’s entire eventful life, the novel can get overly expository. In the smaller, more intimate moments—the kind that helped make her previous books so successful—Berg offers vivid, sensual detail and a sensitive portrayal of the yearning and vulnerability behind Sand’s bold persona.”

“The Dream Lover is the dream match of writer to subject, Elizabeth Berg animating George Sand so vividly that you feel the Frenchwoman speaking directly to you. Infamous for her eccentricities and her passions, Sand is shown to be a touching figure, a woman needing to love and be loved, a writer needing to be read and understood. Bravo to Berg for pushing aside decades and decades of misunderstanding to reveal so compelling a story, and so human a heart,” says author Robin Black.

When is it available?

This novel about a remarkable woman and author is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

The Sellout

By Paul Beatty

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

Who is this author?

Paul Beatty was a poet back in 1990, when he became the first Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Café, which got him a book deal for his first poetry collection. He went on to publish a second collection and three novels — Slumberland, Tuff and The White Boy Shuffle—before his latest, The Sellout, which is garnering raves. His biting humor, which demolishes racial stereotypes and stereotypical thinking about race, is earning him comparisons to the great black standup satirists of our time, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle.

What is this book about?

The surest way to kill a joke is to dissect it, but here goes: This novel, set in a fictional area on the edge of southern Los Angeles, is about a farmer who grows artisanal watermelons and marijuana (one type is called Anglophobia) and for complicated reasons, attempts to bring back slavery and a segregated school. Raised by an unhinged sociologist who carries out weird psychological experiments on the boy and is later killed by police during a routine traffic stop (dark humor that is not so funny today, in light of Ferguson and Baltimore), the son inherits Dad’s penchant for crazy social science experiments and somehow winds up “owning” elderly Hominy Jenkins, a fictional character who claims to have understudied Buckwheat on The Little Rascals and insists on becoming the young farmer’s slave. One of Hominy’s show biz insights: “You know, massa, Bugs Bunny wasn’t nothing but Br’er Rabbit with a better agent.” The farmer winds up explaining things to the Supreme Court, and readers wind up with a supremely funny and biting novel.

Why you’ll like it:

Anyone who can write the way Pryor, Rock and Chapelle  can (or could) riff deserves your attention. At this moment in American history, when the country is inflamed by the killing of unarmed black men by white police, leading to riots, looting and an outpouring of gassy pontificating by pundits of the right and the left, it is refreshing, if somewhat alarming, to read a book that manages to speak clearly about racism yet still makes the story at hand hilarious.

Here is some of what Dwight Garner said about Beatty’s book in The New York Times:  “Broad satirical vistas are not so hard for a novelist to sketch. What’s hard is the close-up work, the bolt-by-bolt driving home of your thoughts and your sensibility. This is where Mr. Beatty shines.

Almost the entirety of black American culture and stereotypes are carved up under this novel’s microscope: Tiger Woods, Clarence Thomas (given a memorable line), Oreo cookies, fairy tales (“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!”), Bill Cosby, cotton picking, penis size, Saturday morning cartoons, George Washington Carver, lawn jockeys, Mike Tyson. The “do-gooder condescension” of Dave Eggers comes in for a hazing. The American liberal agenda is folded into origami.”

What others are saying:

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “The provocative author of The White Boy Shuffle (1996) and Slumberland (2008) is back with his most penetratingly satirical novel yet. Beatty has never been afraid to stir the pot when it comes to racial and socioeconomic issues, and his latest is no different. In fact, this novel is his most incendiary, and readers unprepared for streams of racial slurs (and hilarious vignettes about nearly every black stereotype imaginable) in the service of satire should take a pass. The protagonist lives in Dickens, “a ghetto community” in Los Angeles, and works the land in an area called “The Farms,” where he grows vegetables, raises small livestock and smokes a ton of “good weed.” After being raised by a controversial sociologist father who subjected him to all manner of psychological and social experiments, the narrator is both intellectually gifted and extremely street-wise. When Dickens is removed from the map of California, he goes on a quest to have it reinstated with the help of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who hangs around the neighborhood regaling everyone with tales of the ridiculously racist skits he used to perform with the rest of the gang. It’s clear that Hominy has more than a few screws loose, and he volunteers to serve as the narrator’s slave—yes, slave—on his journey. Another part of the narrator’s plan involves segregating the local school so that it allows only black, Latino and other nonwhite students. Eventually, he faces criminal charges and appears in front of the Supreme Court in what becomes “the latest in a long line of landmark race-related cases.” Readers turned off by excessive use of the N-word or those who are easily offended by stereotypes may find the book tough going, but fans of satire and blatantly honest—and often laugh-out-loud funny—discussions of race and class will be rewarded on each page. Beatty never backs down, and readers are the beneficiaries. Another daring, razor-sharp novel from a writer with talent to burn.”

The Barnes & Noble Review says: “The Sellout is narrated by a young black man who owns a slave, albeit entirely against his will; who reestablishes segregation in his Los Angeles ‘hood; and who uses the word nigger, both in his exposition and in his own speech, with a frequency that must match or exceed Twain’s in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (I didn’t keep count, but my money is on “exceed.”) Its repertoire of racial stereotypes is so exhaustive that some readers may not even recognize or understand all of them, and others may not want to admit they do.

So, graduates of Sensitivity Training are forewarned: This is an offensive book. It is also a timely, phantasmagoric, and deliriously funny look at American race relations in the twenty-first century. As a starting point for that “national conversation on race” Americans keep meaning to have, The Sellout is perhaps an unlikely candidate, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an ideal one.”

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

In The New York Times Book Review, Kevin Young writes:  “I thought often of the 1990s appointment TV In Living Color when reading the novel; Beatty takes the same delight in tearing down the sacred, not so much airing dirty laundry as soiling it in front of you…From its title on, The Sellout so clearly and gleefully means to offend that any offense taken suggests we aren’t as comfortable with race or ourselves as we wish to be…Beatty’s novel breaks open the private jokes and secrets of blackness…in a way that feels powerful and profane and that manages not to be escapist.

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

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

When is it available?

The Albany and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Library have copies of this book.

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

We Are Pirates

By Daniel Handler

(Bloomsbury, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Daniel Handler’s career reminds me of that line in The Eagles’ “Hotel California:” We are just prisoners here, of our own device.” In Handler’s case, his “prison,” and a lush and lucrative one it was, was his phenomenal success as Lemony Snicket, author of the wildly popular 13 books in his A Series of Unfortunate Events and  four-book series All The Wrong Questions, written ostensibly for young readers but embraced by many adult readers as well. Writing under his own name, Handler published four previous novels, The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, and Why We Broke Up., but none achieved the success of his Snickety work. Though he grew up in San Francisco, where he and his family now live, Handler has plenty of Connecticut connections: he is a 1992 Wesleyan University graduate and his wife, the illustrator Lisa Brown, is from West Hartford.

What is this book about?

Larceny on the high seas! Well, maybe not so high: it’s San Francisco Bay we’re talking about. Living in a condo overlooking the water is Phil, an unhappy husband, mostly-failed radio producer, dreamer of rebellion and fortune hunting and the confused father of Gwen, a 14-year-old with issues. Gwen is a good student, an accomplished swimmer and a basically good kid, but she too is bored stiff and longs for some adventure, even if it means becoming an outlaw. Then there is Gwen’s new pal, her best friend Amber’s grandpa, a cranky old guy in a nursing home who has unwillingly set sail, metaphorically speaking, to the dread Isle of Alzheimer’s, but with Gwen and Amber will soon set sail for real on a piratical adventure.

Why you’ll like it:

Handler has a terrific sense of humor and can mix the dark with the light with skill. This book combines family drama, a coming of age tale, a going into that good night tale and a swashbuckling adventure. You may not have read a good pirate story since Treasure Island, but avast there, mateys, and get on board with this one.  It’s a delightful voyage.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Life is a confused and confusing mess—but it still offers plenty of room for mischief, as Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, informs us. When you’re a kid, you don’t know which side is up half the time. Then you grow up, and you really don’t know. So it is with Gwen Needle, who’s taken on the nom de crime Octavia (a good one, Octavia having been an exceedingly bad noblewoman of ancient Rome). It’s not that Gwen/Octavia is evil; she’s just antsy: “Twelve and thirteen she was pretty happy….Then one day boredom just set upon her with a fierceness.” She’s also penniless, since Dad, an always-pitching radio producer, is always this far away from landing a deal. Popped for shoplifting, she’s sent off to a veterans’ home to do community service. There, she meets an old coot who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s—not yet full-blown, Gwen’s warned, though the patient is given to flights of fancy and strange thefts of his own. He asks her if she’s there for a school project, and when she answers that it’s punishment, he growls, “Good, I’m glad. I don’t like the school project kids. You know you’re going to die when they come at you with a tape recorder.” Meanwhile, Dad keeps hoping the heavens will part and he’ll finally get to do something interesting with his life, like be an outlaw—a dream his daughter, it seems, is living, along with a band of merry mates, the old coot among them. Handler is a master at depicting the existential chaos all his major characters are living through, and with warmth, sympathy and considerable humor at that. The reader will delight in Gwen and old Errol’s escapades, which involve plenty of jawboning but some good old-fashioned larcenous action, too, all of which affords her the street cred to say piratical things like, “You take one more step away and I’ll split your gullet” and “Totally verily.” Affecting, lively and expertly told. Just the sort of thing to make grown-ups and teenagers alike want to unfurl the black flag.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Why do pirates appeal? Because, as 14-year-old Gwen Needle puts it, when you’re a pirate, you can “go anyplace” and “do whatever you want.” Compelling ideas to Gwen and her friend Amber, whose supervised lives—Gwen is not even allowed to take the bus alone—are the opposite of pirate freedom. The pirate lore comes from Amber’s grandfather, Errol, who’s just as trapped, in his case by Alzheimer’s and an old-age home he loathes. While Gwen and Amber visit Errol and plot kidnap and ruin together, Gwen’s father, Phil, tries to make it big in radio, which might be consolation for a wife who doesn’t like him much, a house he can’t afford, and a very angry daughter. Can a couple of teenagers, a befuddled old man, and a nursing home orderly really steal a boat and wreak havoc in San Francisco harbor? Sure, says Handler, crossing and mixing genres—dark and light, YA yarn and midlife doldrum—while making readers root for his 20th-century privateers. The book never quite decides how serious it wants to be, becoming dark when the adventure turns violent, then shirking some of the consequences of that darkness, but it does offer a jaunty and occasionally jolting, and honest take on the discomforts of youth, midlife, and old age, and how ineffective we are at dealing with them.”

The Independent on Sunday (UK) says: “Sails against readerly expectation to brilliant effect. Gloriously cut loose from much in the current book market, We Are Pirates is a pirate adventure for grown-ups set in modern-day San Francisco . . . It is a swashbuckling, wonderfully eccentric message in a bottle for those seeking a social order beyond the realm of traditional authority . . . Handler’s yarn, replete with as many twists and turns as the classic pirate stories, captivates from start to finish, but it is his stylistic exploration of the piratical yen for elsewhere which most cleverly shanghais the imagination.”

“A witty adult novel by Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler . . . . Lemony Snicket’s gothic humor lingers over this tale of upper-middle-class despair . . . [A] dark and whimsical novel . . . Yes, we are pirates, but we’re chained on barren land. Has that theme ever been explored in such a weird mixture of impish wit and tender sympathy?” says the Washington Post .

“Exuberant . . . Handler’s a master with language, crafting showstopping sentences that are fresh and funny . . . [He gives] everything the feel of legend, a story burnished with each retelling, and gleaming with rich moral lessons . . . Although the novel is a raucously funny adventure, it’s also a tragic exploration of the restlessness in all of us, of the ways we want to claim our happiness like buried treasure that might change everything. We Are Pirates is about how we try to forge our own destinies, and if we’re lucky, become heroes of our own stories,” says author Caroline Leavitt in her San Francisco Chronicle review.

Says Library Journal: “As the Huffington Post says, “If it’s possible to be criminally underrated yet also be a millions-selling author, then Handler is it.” He’s world famous as Lemony Snicket, but not everyone remembers that his last adult book, Adverbs (2006), won considerable praise for being both formally experimental and emotionally arresting. Here, conscientious-to-a-fault 14-year-old Gwen follows her dreams, rounding up a motley crew and becoming a pirate who spreads terror on San Francisco Bay. “

When is it available?

You can dig up this treasure 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!


A Spool of Blue Thread

By Anne Tyler

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 368 pages)

Who is this author?

Although Anne Tyler was born in, Minnesota in 1941, grew up in North Carolina and earned a degree at Duke University, she has made Baltimore her literary and literal home, setting many novels there. In 50 years of writing, she has produced 20 novels, many of them best-sellers, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her 11th, “Breathing Lessons.”  Among her other successful books are “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” and “The Accidental Tourist,” which won a National Book Critics Circle Award, was No. 1 on The New York Times Bestseller list and was made into an Oscar-winning film with Geena Davis and William Hurt.

What is this book about?

It’s about a home as much as it is about a family. Most of this multi-generational story of the Whitshanks takes place in the meticulously constructed home on Bouton Road in Baltimore, built by the aspiring Junior Whitshank in 1936 and later handed down to his blunt but caring son, Red, who runs a construction business, and his wife Abby, a social worker who seems to regard her kids as clients and adores them with a fierce devotion that skirts the boundaries between motherlove and smothering love. The kids, actually all adults, are capricious, mysterious and frustrating Denny, who drops in and out of family life, deeply annoying his siblings; lawyerly Amanda and quiet Jeannie, and sweet-natured Stem, an adopted child whose presence irks jealous Denny and who is married to the preternaturally respectful and caring Nora, a religious fundamentalist who calls Abby “Mother Whitshank,” much to her mother-in-law’s chagrin. There’s also Red’s social-climbing sister Merrick, and a passel of grandkids. What happens? Nothing earthshaking, but nevertheless highly relatable events: marital squabbles and reconciliations, coping with a blacksheep son, the poignancy and perils of aging, the fraying and re-knitting of family ties.

Why you’ll like it:

Tyler’s novels are known for their quirky characters, and Tyler herself is an oddity among successful self-marketing writers today: she won’t do in-person interviews, read from her work in public or participate in book signings or tours to promote her novels. And sadly for her many readers, Tyler, who is 73, has said this book is likely to be her last. What keeps those readers in her corner? It’s her innate understanding of the ups and downs of typical marriages and the often-thwarted but spectacularly indulged urge to kick over the traces of a dutiful life and embrace rebellion, the ability to write lyrically without being grandiose and to create comic novels from everyday life and often, sad circumstances. If this is indeed Tyler’s final novel, it’s a good one to cap a career with, and for readers who are charmed by her novels of Charm City, it opens a door to her previous 19 books.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says:  “…graceful and capacious…Give or take a few details, this extended/blended/fouled-up family could be any of ours. That makes it cliché territory, risky for an ambitious novelist. It’s also quintessential Anne Tyler, as well as quintessential American comedy. Tyler has a knack for turning sitcom situations into something far deeper and more moving. Her great gift is playing against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood at its heart: that given hard work and good intentions, any family can attain the Norman Rockwell ideal of happiness—ordinary, homegrown happiness…In novel after novel [Tyler] predisposes her characters to crave the unattainable—parental love (in both directions), a sense of belonging (among your own and in the world), forgiveness, amnesty from familial wrongdoing, the comfort of home. And yet she’s a comic novelist, and a wise one. The calamities she depicts are minor, after all, and her characters aren’t the twisted, fearsome ones of much American fiction.”

Publishers Weekly says; “Thoroughly enjoyable but incohesive, Tyler’s latest chronicles the Whitshank family through several generations in Baltimore, Md. The narrative initially tackles the mounting tensions among the grown Whitshank siblings as their aging parents, Red and Abby, need looking after. The youngest son, Stem, adopted as a toddler, moves back into the family house to help care for Abby, who has spells of forgetfulness. This causes resentment in Denny, the family’s eldest biological son, who is capricious and has been known to drift in and out of their lives. As matters come to a head in Abby’s life and the lives of her children, the story suddenly switches to an in-depth exploration of Red’s parents and Red and Abby’s courtship, delving into Whitshank family lore. The interlude proves jarring for the reader, who at this point has invested plenty of interest in the siblings. Despite this, Tyler does tie these sections together, showing once again that she’s a gifted and engrossing storyteller.” 

“Happily, A Spool of Blue Thread is a throwback to the meaty family dramas with which Tyler won her popularity in the 1980s . . . As in the best of her novels, she here extends her warmest affection to the erring, the inconstant, and the mismatched—the people who are ‘like anybody else,’ in Red’s words,” says the Wall Street Journal.

 

“Deeply moving . . . A Spool of Blue Thread is a miracle of sorts, a tender, touching and funny story about three generations of an ordinary American family who are, of course, anything but . . . Tyler’s accomplishment in this understated masterpiece is to convince us not only that the Whitshanks are remarkable but also that every family—no matter how seemingly ordinary—is in its own way special,” says the Associated Press.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Three generations of Whitshanks have lived in the family home in Baltimore since the 1920s, in which they have loved, squabbled, protected secrets, had children, and, in some cases, led inauthentic lives. Using her signature gifts for brilliant dialog and for intricately framing the complex messiness of parental and spousal relationships, Tyler beautifully untangles the threads that bind and sometimes choke all of them, especially Red and Abby, the last Whitshank homestead occupants. In 2012, Red and Abby are in their late 70s, and their fractious children rally to the modern dilemma of the sandwich generation—caring for aging resistant parents in their home safely, while raising their own children. VERDICT It’s been half a century since Tyler debuted with If Morning Ever Comes, and her writing has lost none of the freshness and timelessness that has earned her countless awards and accolades. Now 73, she continues to dazzle with this multigenerational saga, which glides back and forth in time with humor and heart and a pragmatic wisdom that comforts and instructs.”

In its starred review, Kirkus says: “Tyler’s 20th again centers on family life in Baltimore, still a fresh and compelling subject in the hands of this gifted veteran. She opens in 1994, with Red and Abby Whitshank angsting over a phone call from their 19-year-old son, Denny. In a few sharp pages we get the family dynamic: Red can be critical, Abby can be smothering, and Denny reacts to any criticism by dropping out of sight. But as Part 1 unfolds, primarily from 2012 on, we see Denny has a history of wandering in and out of the Whitshank home on Bouton Road just often enough to keep his family guessing about the jobs and relationships he acquires and discards (” ‘Boring’ seemed to be his favorite word”) while resenting his siblings’ assumption that he can’t be relied on. This becomes an increasingly fraught issue after Red has a heart attack and Abby begins to have “mind skips”; Tyler sensitively depicts the conflicts about how to deal with their aging parents among take-charge Amanda, underappreciated Jeannie and low-key Stem, whose unfailing good nature and designation as heir to Whitshank Construction infuriate Denny. A sudden death sends Tyler back in time to explore the truth behind several oft-recounted Whitshank stories, including the day Abby fell in love with Red and the origins of Junior, the patriarch who built the Bouton Road home in 1936. We see a pattern of scheming to appropriate things that belong to others and of slowly recognizing unglamorous, trying true love—but that’s only a schematic approximation of the lovely insights Tyler gives us into an ordinary family who, “like most families…imagined they were special.” They will be special to readers thanks to the extraordinary richness and delicacy with which Tyler limns complex interactions and mixed feelings familiar to us all and yet marvelously particular to the empathetically rendered members of the Whitshank clan. The texture of everyday experience transmuted into art.”

When is it available?

You can unwind this tale of family life 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 Whites

By Harry Brandt (pen name for Richard Price)

Holt, $28, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Harry Brandt is the pen name of novelist Richard Price, the talented author of eight previous crime novels that have gained him a wide and devoted audience. His other novels include Clockers, Lush Life, The Breaks, Freedomland, Blood Brothers and more. He has also written the screenplays for such hit films as The Color of Money, Sea of Love and Shaft, as well as for the HBO series The Wire. Price, who is now 65, lives in Manhattan.

What is this book about?

Police detectives, even the most successful, all have their “whites,” those Moby Dick-like criminals who tantalize their pursuers yet always seem to get away. In this novel, one such detective, Billy Graves, is haunted by a never-solved murder, his sketchy past and a stalker out for cruel revenge. His involvement in the accidental killing of a little boy has stalled his career, but now, years later, circumstances throw him back into the dark world of cops seeking off-the-record vengeance. Even his personal life gets twisted up in the dangerous tensions that result when Graves begins probing the hidden involvement of his old pals in the Wild Geese unit.  A gripping story of good guys and bad guys and some guys who are both.

 

Why you’ll like it:

You know him as Richard Price, who first gained fame at age 24 as the author of the inimitable, hilarious and touching novel, The Wanderers, the saga of bunch of Italian American kids in the projects in the Bronx in 1962.  Price also grew up in public housing in the Bronx, and his understanding of urban mean streets is visceral and vivid. You can feel, smell, taste, see and hear that gritty world in his on-the-money descriptions. Price has become one of our most admired and respected novelists, whose crime stories are always about much more than just crime. The Whites is gaining universal high praise, even from such hard-to-please reviewers as Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times. Price/Brandt is a master of realistic dialogue: its word choice, pacing and nervous energy. By any name, this author is always worth reading.

 

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Old tragedies combine with fresh ones in Brandt’s steely-jawed, carefully constructed procedural. Few crime novelists are as good at taut storytelling as Richard Price who, for reasons of his own, writes here under a pseudonym. But then, everyone in these pages is hiding bits and pieces of their lives and nursing secrets. Billy Graves, for instance, is well-known among Gotham’s cops for having been an almost mythical crime fighter back in the day, until an errant bullet put a kid instead of a bad guy into the ground. Since then, Graves has been shunted from one graveyard shift to another, and though he nurses hard feelings, he’s also glad just to have a gig in a time when it seldom seems that “the Prince of Peace was afoot.” Certainly that’s true when another perp of old turns up dead at just about the time it dawns on Billy that others nurse grudges, too: “Although money was the prime motivation for those signing up for a one-off tour with Night Watch, occasionally a detective volunteered not so much for the overtime but simply because it facilitated his stalking.” The city quickly becomes a set for a sprawling, multiplayer game of cat and mouse, with vengeance not the province of the lord but of the aggrieved mortals below. Or, as one player ponders while assessing the odds, “To avenge his family, he would be destroying what was left of it.” When vigilantes try to do the work of cops, no one wins—but how can there be justice in a place where everyone seems to consider the law a private matter, if not merely a polite suggestion? The grim inevitability that ensues follows lines laid out in such recent fiction as Mystic River and Smilla’s Sense of Snow—but also, for that matter, in The Oresteia. In the wake of rage and sorrow, ordinary people respond by going crazy and screwing up. In this far-from-ordinary novel, Price/Brandt explores the hows and whys. Fasten your seat belt.”

In The New York Times,  Michiko Kakutani writes: “…riveting…[Price] not only has a visceral ability to convey the gritty, day-to-day realities of [his characters'] jobs, but also a knack for using their detective work the way John le Carré has used spy stories and tradecraft, as a framework on which to build complex investigations into the human soul…No one has a better ear for street language than [Price] does, and no one these days writes with more kinetic energy or more hard-boiled verve. His high-impact prose is the perfect tool for excavating the grisly horrors of urban life…And his ability to map his characters’ inner lives—all the dreams and memories and wounds that make them tick—results in people who become as vivid to us as real-life relatives or friends…[The Whites] is, at once, a gripping police procedural and an affecting study in character and fate. “

In The New York Times Book Review, mystery author Michael Connelly says: “…as much an entertaining story as it is an examination of the job of policing…The novel posits a simple axiom: Those who go into darkness as a matter of course and duty bring some measure of darkness back into themselves. How to keep it from spreading like a cancer, eating at your humanity, is the police officer’s eternal struggle. It’s this struggle that [Price] places at the heart of his storytelling. Another great so-called crime novelist, Joseph Wambaugh, has said that the best crime novels aren’t about how cops work cases, they’re about how cases work cops. This holds true, with fervor, in The Whites…The routine of police procedure…is just right, depicted in its perfect shopworn way. And the dialogue…reaches the high-water mark of previous Richard Price novels…The Whites is a work of reportage as much as it is a work of fiction…It tells it like it is. It provides insight and knowledge, both rare qualities in the killing fields of the crime novel. It’s a book that makes you feel that Price has circled the murders at this detective’s side and in the process really gotten to know a city.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Price is one whale of a storyteller by any name, as evinced by the debut of his new brand—okay, Brandt—a gripping, gritty, Greek tragedy of cops, killers, and the sometimes-blurry line between them. The sprawling tale centers on stoic police sergeant Billy Graves, banished to the purgatory of the NYPD’s night watch since his role in a racially charged, politically explosive double shooting a decade earlier. Despite the adrenaline-pumping emergencies that routinely erupt during his 1–8 a.m. tour, he has time to obsess over his troubled wife, Carmen; his increasingly demented father, Billy Sr., a retired former chief of patrol; and, most of all, his “White” (that’s what Billy, with a harpoon salute to Melville’s tormented mariner, calls the one who got away): triple-murderer Curtis Taft. He’s the elusive monster Billy is fated to hunt, probably even after retirement—to judge from the way Billy’s former colleagues in the Bronx, a group calling themselves the Wild Geese, continue to hunt their own Whites. Suddenly, one of Billy’s friends’ Whites turns up murdered amid a St. Patrick’s Day scrum at Penn Station. Soon a second disappears. And then it starts to look as if someone is stalking Billy’s family. The author skillfully manipulates these multiple story lines for peak suspense, as his arresting characters careen toward a devastating final reckoning.”

In its starred review, Booklist says: “This is going to be a strong contender for best crime novel of 2015…. With one-of-a-kind characters and settings so real you can smell them, Brandt plunges us into the chaos of domestic life, the true agony of a parent’s grief, the cost of secrets kept and revealed. He does it all with indelible phrasing that captures both the black humor of the on-the-job cop and the give-and-take of longtime married couples. While the finely tuned story engine accelerates, it’s supercharged with complications…In the end, The Whites isn’t about cops and killers so much as it is about the damage we all carry [and] the sins we’ve all committed.”

Stephen King says: The Whites is the crime novel of the year — grim, gutsy, and impossible to put down. I had to read the final 100 pages in a single sitting. I began being fascinated, and ended being deeply moved. Call him Price or Brandt, he knows everything about police life, and plenty about friendship: what your friends do for you…and what they sometimes do to you.”

When is it available?

The Whites 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!

Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves

by Carolyn Chute

(Grove/Atlantic, $28, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Carolyn Chute, a quirky but powerful writer, lives off the grid in rural Maine and has produced five previous novels that explore the people and predicaments of backwoods life: The School on Heart’s Content Road, which was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year; The Beans of Egypt, Maine; Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts; Snow Man; and Merry Men. Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves is a sequel to The School on Heart’s Content Road, and a third book in the series is planned. Chute has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Thornton Wilder Fellowship.

What is this book about?

It’s 1999 in Maine, and stories are flooding the rural area where a man named Gordon St. Onge, known locally as “The Prophet,” runs a cult-like counterculture commune and homeschooling group called The Home Place Settlement. Rumors swirl about caches of weapons, violent behavior, child abuse – and indeed, there is a growing group of pregnant teens living there – and Gordon soon becomes involved with a new recruit, a bright but disturbed girl, Brianna, who paintings reveal her political and personal issues. It all comes to a head when a local reporter, looking for a big story, works her way into The Settlement and finds Gordon compelling, to say the least. When her story is finally published, the results are profound and unexpected.

Why you’ll like it:

Carolyn Chute has a vivid and powerful voice and she uses it to illuminate her characters and the out-of-the-way world in which they live. This is not hipster Portland or blue-collar Bath; it’s the deep back country Maine where abject poverty is rampant and so is the desire for personal freedoms. Chute is an author who thrives on afflicting the comfortable and complacent; there is nothing remotely sissified about her voice or her ideas about society and politics, and while the plots of her books are interesting,  it’s the real-life dialogue and characters that jump off the page that will keep you hooked. If you are intrigued by the current debates about income inequality, this book will resonate with you.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review , author Bill Roorbach, who lives in Maine, says: “…Chute…continues to make great art out of the nexus of the two Maines, and more and more (certainly in Treat Us Like Dogs and We Will Become Wolves), she is making great art out of the truer multiplicity of Maine. And isn’t this the multiplicity of greater America? Blue and red, for sure, but rainbows too  …Chute’s method…is to offer up the kisses, the confusions, the tongue-tied eloquence of teenagers, the battles of brothers, the fraught caring of women, the paranoia of one disenfranchised group rubbing up against another, the pains of disassimilation, and from them build her story. Carolyn Chute is a James Joyce of the backcountry, a Proust of rural society, an original in every meaning of the word. She inhabits everyone in her creation, sees everything that goes on within it. And though we might at times rather look away, we readers see everything—and everyone—too.”

“Quirky, intensely original…an intellectual page-turner…Chute combines strident political commentary with humor, surrealism, and inventive language. Her novel, like its author is multilayered and complex, deeply critical of society but fiercely devoted to humans,” says O Magazine.

“A complex, multilayered story worth digging into, which explores, among other things, poverty, democracy in America, and the role of community in helping those living on the fringe of society take even the tiniest steps forward,” says  Booklist.

Kirkus Reviews says: “Second volume in a planned series about the St. Onge Settlement, a collective of disaffected have-nots in North Egypt, Maine. At first we see the settlement and its charismatic leader, Gordon St. Onge, mostly through the eyes of Record Sun feature writer Ivy Morelli, who receives multiple phone messages warning of child abuse, drugs, guns, religious brainwashing, and anything else the anonymous callers think might prompt her to visit the place and expose its nefariousness. In the scornful eyes of Gordon and other settlement members given voice in this polyphonic novel (which also includes the comments of extraterrestrial “grays” we could do without), Ivy is a media lackey of the ruling class, alternately dishing out human-interest pabulum and scary crime stories to keep the masses frightened and passive. In a country that prefers to ignore the existence of social classes, Chute’s contempt for such air-brushing is bracing, as is her refusal to neaten up her decidedly flawed male protagonist’s opinions and actions. . . . He despises corporations and well-meaning liberals equally. He also dislikes feminists and has an awful lot of “wives” with an awful lot of babies; his newest spouse, Brianna Vandermast, is only 15. Brianna is no victim, however; she goads Gordon to move beyond creating an alternate world at the settlement and directly challenge the political system that pretends to serve democracy. This provokes sinister undercover servants of the powers that be to make use of Gordon’s messy personal life to manipulate another rebellious proletarian into doing their dirty work. The plot, the prose and the political pronouncements are as over-the-top as they often are in Chute’s work—which by no means negates the value of her career-long mission to show the elite what people at the bottom of the heap think of the American dream. Bottom line: They’re not fooled.”

Library Journal says: “In this latest work from Chute. newspaper reporter Ivy Morelli investigates the Home Place Settlement in Maine, a collective that exists outside the social and economic norms of modern America under the charismatic but troubled leadership of Gordon St. Onge. What Ivy finds is more nuanced and complex than the tempting soundbites of “cult” or “militia”; despite some unsavory aspects of Settlement life, it’s hard to argue that St. Onge and his followers don’t have a point about the destructive nature of much of the media and the detrimental effects on ordinary citizens of corporate and political corruption. Unfortunately, the sympathetic story Ivy relates is the first in a chain of events that threatens to break down the settlement way of life. This big, sprawling, messy, tour de force employs multiple narrators (including space aliens) and metafictional techniques. Though she does evolve, Ivy’s character is so annoying and shallow that it’s something of a relief when she takes a backseat in the last half of the novel and other characters emerge. VERDICT At turns funny, moving, and disturbing, this book will challenge readers to check their assumptions about how people choose to live in today’s society.”

“. . . Fiery, impassioned, and unlike anything else you will ever probably read, you can take Chute’s book as a warning, a letter from the future — or from the present — from people who are tired of promises and lies and just might not be willing to take it anymore,” says the Boston Globe.

When is it available?

Chute’s new novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money

By Ron Lieber

(HarperCollins, $26.99,  256 pages)

Who is this author?

Ron Lieber knows a lot about personal finances. Lieber is the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times, and before that, he wrote The Wall Street Journal’s “Green Thumb” personal finance column, was on the reporting team for its “Personal Journal” section, and worked at Fortune and Fast Company magazines. He also has written (or co-written) three books, including The New York Times bestseller Taking Time Off. He is married to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor.

What is this book about?

Many parents famously avoid having “the talk” about sex with their kids, and a lot of them also avoid the other talk: the one about using money wisely.  Lieber, who really knows the personal finances territory, is also a father, and he understands the wisdom and necessity of making sure a child understands its family’s values when it comes to earning, spending, investing and donating money, from visits by the tooth fairy to handling college expenses. He has written a practical guide, enhanced by  anecdotes about how real families have encountered and solved money behavior problems. This book is meant to be a guide for parents, but it offers useful advice to people of all ages and stages.

Why you’ll like it:

Lieber uses a friendly and practical tone, which is a great help when discussing monetary issues that can be very dry. Besides offering sensible advice on everything from allowances to birthday money gifts to part-time jobs to charitable projects, he emphasizes that teaching children well from an early age about the uses and power and meaning of money, especially if the family is fortunate to have enough, is a vital part of preparing any child to enter the adult world.

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “In any casual gathering of parents, conversation will probably soon turn to an all-too timely topic: kids and money. In most cases, these chats rapidly degenerate into rants about “how different it was in my day.” With this book, New York Times columnist and author Ron Lieber  plans to change that verbal evasion with practical advice about getting youngsters involved with financial responsibility. In The Opposite of Spoiled, he achieves that goal with a combination of guidelines about discussions and motivational prompts; examples from real cases; and interviews. Real-world approaches to making boys and girls more modest, generous, and ready for the future.

The New York Times Book Review says: “ [Lieber] doesn’t offer a grand philosophy…His book is intensely pragmatic, relentlessly anecdotal—and that’s why I loved it. Lieber wants to solve the problems middle-class parents face every day: allowances, the tooth fairy, summer jobs, indulgent grandparents, North Face fleeces, car insurance. Mammon is in the details. Keeping his eye on specifics, Lieber covers all the biggies: earning, saving, giving, buying. He has an instinct for addressing the nitty-gritty…He has written a book that will start important conversations in a lot of households… “

Says Publishers Weekly: “Despite a smattering of practical advice, there’s more of the philosophical than the methodological to this primer from New York Times columnist Lieber  on helping children, especially those in the upper middle class, to approach financial matters with responsibility, generosity, and gratitude. Lieber makes a strong argument that money is something that children notice and talk about. He believes modern American parents’ reticence on the subject bypasses the opportunity to instill both good values and important skills. Lieber advises giving honest responses to children’s questions about family finances and encouraging even affluent kids to take after-school jobs. More specific and fun suggestions include divvying up allowances between Give/Save/Spend jars, establishing the “fun per dollar” test, and making the Tooth Fairy’s arrival less of a cash grab. Assorted motivational stories touch on both the mundane (collecting bottles for deposit) and the dramatic (parents who downsized their home, at their young daughter’s urging, to free up $800,000 for charity). Lieber’s easygoing style will encourage parents to raise a new generation that’s both confident and compassionate.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Talking big bucks with the smallest members of your household will make the world a better place, argues New York Times personal finance columnist Lieber. Do you know the going rate for a visit from the tooth fairy in your neighborhood? . . .. So what do you put under your child’s pillow? Does it matter? Yes, these seemingly small family financial decisions matter a lot, according to Lieber. In his third book, the author addresses affluence, its effect on child-rearing and the lessons most of us are not teaching our children about managing wealth. As practical as the first half of the book is—it’s packed with suggestions on everything from allowance to college tuition—Lieber’s advice skews toward the upper-class family, leaving out the many families who make less than the $75,000 annual income he acknowledges as his base line. Later chapters get into tougher territory, and Lieber makes a good case for using early money management training to help children eventually tackle society’s bigger problems, such as homelessness and hunger. Humble stories of kids raising money for Down syndrome research or creating kit bags to give to people living on the street offer inspiration for those who do have money to spend it wisely in the world and to teach their children to do the same. Sound advice on managing family finances —  but only if you have sufficient finances to manage.”

When is it available?

You can borrow this valuable book of advice from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Albany, Blue Hills, Goodwin, Mark Twain or Park branches.

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


A Sister to Honor

By Lucy Ferriss

(Penguin Publishing Group, $16, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Lucy Ferriss, who spent considerable time in Pakistan to research her latest novel, is writer-in-residence at Trinity College and has homes in West Hartford and the Berkshires. But her roots are mid-Western, specifically in St. Louis, as her memoir, “Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante,” demonstrates. Her books include novels and short–story collections, literary criticism, poetry and essays and she has written for The New York Times, Shenandoah and the Georgia Review, among other publications. In 2000, she won the Mid-List First Series Award for “Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories.”

What is this book about?

Ferriss’ novel, set in Pakistan and New England, is about family, religion and loyalties, but its main subject is the seemingly unbridgeable clash of customs that divide Western and Middle Eastern cultures, differences so deep that members of each group find it almost impossible to understand how others believe and behave as they do. The story describes the plight of a young Pakistani woman, who enrolls at Smith College to begin a career as a doctor at the urging of her brother, Shahid, who also has enjoyed academic success in America. But when Afia, a modest, religious young woman who is a hard-working student, does something so common to Americans that it is hardly noticed here, she puts her life in danger. What is her transgression? Nothing more than being shown in a photo posted online holding hands with her boyfriend. This outrages her devout Pakistani family, especially her step-brother, Khalid, who then seeks a remedy through an “honor killing.” Will it fall to her beloved brother Shahid to avenge the dishonor, as the family insists?

Why you’ll like it:

Ferriss has tackled a timely, complex and very prickly topic in this book, and to her credit, she helps the reader understand both sides, without expecting them to approve of honor killings. The time she spent living in Pakistan exposed her to ways of thinking very foreign to Western culture and gave her knowledge that provides a strong underpinning to the story of Afia and Shahid.  As America grows ever more entangled with Middle Eastern nations, some as allies and some as adversaries, understanding mindsets so foreign to our own is crucial, and this fiction can help us deal with facts that alarm and astonish.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Ferriss’s latest novel addresses conservative Pakistani values and the immigrant experience and explores the many meanings of honor. Afia Satar is the daughter of a landholding family in northern Pakistan. Brilliant and ambitious, she is sent to college in America along with her brother Shahid, a rising sports star. While Shahid has no qualms about living amid American culture, Afia is held to a much different standard. After photos of her holding a boy’s hand appear on the Internet, her jihadist stepbrother Khalid begins to stir outrage. When Khalid shows up in America to restore the family honor, Afia is suddenly no longer safe, and Shahid is caught in the crossfire. VERDICT This stirring novel explores the psychology of honor killings and Pakistani family life. The swift-moving narrative traverses very different worlds, creating an exquisite tension that lasts well after the novel is over. Recommended for fans of Claire Messud, Jenny White, and readers who like a political slant to their fiction.”

“Ferriss fills one family’s story with the elements of a political thriller. The well-drawn characters and believable settings lead readers to some understanding of how these young people are torn between tradition and modern life, but there are no easy answers,” says Booklist.

“It’s tricky business writing about honor killing, which to our American mainstream culture is horrific and inexplicable. But Ferriss presents a thoughtful and nonjudgmental look through the eyes of a young woman for whom it is a reality. . . An insightful and though-provoking foray into a world so different from ours,” says The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Afia Satar is just another college student, studying hard on a New England campus and dreaming big dreams about becoming a doctor to help the poor village women in her native Pakistan. When she falls in love, she forgets that she is not just any other college co-ed, but a Pashtun girl from a village where the family’s reputation is tightly linked to the daughter’s purity. An innocent picture of her clasping hands with a boy on her college’s website catalyzes her jihadi step-brother to insist Shahid, her older brother who’s also in New England, remove the stain on the family’s honor. Honor is the heartbeat of this novel as the Satar family grapples with their responsibilities and expectations. The Americans—especially Shahid’s squash coach Lissy Hayes—have different ideas of honor. Tribal ties clash with individualism, as Afia and Shahid struggle to find the right path. Both are aware this may not end well. Afia and Shahid’s painful struggle is intricately crafted, and the cultural nuances are evocatively depicted in this thought-proving novel.

When is it available?

Ferriss’ new novel is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


All My Puny Sorrows

By Miriam Toews

(McSweeney’s, $24, 330 pages)

Who is this author?

Miriam Toews (her surname is pronounced “taves”), a Canadian author from a Mennonite family,  has published six novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, Irma Voth and All My Puny Sorrows,  and the nonfiction book, Swing Low: A Life, a touching memoir about her father’s depression and suicide.  All My Puny Sorrows also focuses on suicide, and was inspired by thesel-inflicted  death of the author’s sister. Toews has won many Canadian literary prizes for her work.

What is this book about?

Elfrieda (known as Elf) and Yolandi (known as Yoli) Von Reisen are sisters who were raised in a strict and religious Mennonite community. Elf is an internationally praised pianist who lives a glamorous, wealthy life and has a good marriage, but she wants out: she wants to die. Yoli, a not very successful writer, is divorced, has no money and has two children who are rushing into adulthood, but she has a mission: to keep her beloved sister from ending her life. As the story progresses, Yoli comes to understand her sister’s agony and grapples with the complex issues of assisted suicide.

Why you’ll like it:

A bill to legalize assisted suicide is being debated in Connecticut and elsewhere, as the population ages and people increasingly seek to control their manner of death. This book goes right to the heart of this profoundly complex issue, but though the story is sad, Toews writes with skill and provocative humor that invites readers to examine how they really feel about this difficult choice.

Here is what Toews told the website thestar.com about her philosophical journey and her love of writing:

“The relationship between Yolandi and Elfrieda is certainly taken from my own life, my relationship with my sister.

“My sister attempted and finally succeeded in killing herself. There are parts of the book that are more fictional than others, it’s certainly fiction, but the major central relationship is informed by my life, by reality.”

“. . . .In writing fiction I can be free,” Toews explains. “I can use my life. The raw material is my experiences. (But in fictionalizing it,) I can set the tone, the voice, the pace. I can embellish. I can exaggerate. I can create. There’s just more freedom. It’s the direction I go in when I write. It’s what I do.”

Toews says she isn’t so much making the argument for assisted suicide, as she is “presenting certain questions to hopefully allow readers to think about things that maybe we as a society haven’t given much thought to.”

“. . .  “going back to my own experience and seeing my sister in such agony, and thinking of her having to die violently and alone; that there were no other options for her made me think, made me really think of the idea of assisted suicide, of providing a peaceful, good death to people who have decided for themselves that’s what they want and that’s what they need to get rid of the pain.

“. . . Writing helps me to create order out of chaos, and make sense of things. It helps me to understand what I’ve experienced, what I’ve felt and seen, so it becomes a little easier to handle.

“On the other hand, I don’t want it to be just a cathartic experience, an outpouring of grief or whatever it is. I want it to be artful, solid narrative that other people can enjoy and relate to.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review, novelist Curtis Sittenfeld writes: “…spending time in the company of Yoli, a 40-something woman alternately busy with the work of caring for various family members and screwing up her own life, was the main reason I loved the book… The flashbacks to Yoli and Elf’s childhood in a rural Mennonite community are vivid and energetic. In both the past and present, Toews…perfectly captures the casual manner in which close-knit sisters enjoy and irritate each other. The dialogue is realistic and funny, and somehow, almost magically, Toews gets away with having her characters discuss things like books and art and the meaning of life without seeming pretentious or precious; they’re simply smart, decent and confused…All My Puny Sorrows is unsettling, because how can a novel about suicide not be? But its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balm—a comfort not unlike the sort you might find by opening a bottle of wine and having a long conversation with…a true friend.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-tuner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized.” This sentence, in the voice of the younger Yolandi, crystallizes the dynamic of the two sisters in Toews’s (Summer of My Amazing Luck) latest novel. While Elfrieda is the genius and the perfectionist, it is the practical, capable Yolandi on whom she depends. Over the course of this tender and bittersweet novel, Elf tours the world while Yoli stays put, has two kids with two different men but stays with neither of the fathers. It is Elf’s debilitating depression and suicidal tendencies that keep the two urgently close as Yoli, for decades, does everything she can to help Elf ward off her psychological problems. The prose throughout the book is lively and original and moves along at a steady clip. Though there are some underdeveloped aspects (their upbringing in a Mennonite household, Yoli’s experience of motherhood), the novel is a triumph in its depiction of the love the sisters share, as Yoli tries, just as when she was a page turner, to stay a few beats ahead. “

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Sisters should always want what is best for each other, but what if what one sister really wants is to end her life? This is the dilemma Yoli faces when her ethereal sister, Elf, attempts suicide. The beautiful Elf is a world-renowned pianist who’s in a loving relationship and about to start an international tour, but having it all doesn’t matter to her when she is drowning in despair. Yoli, as she rightfully points out, is the one struggling; she’s twice divorced, with children by two different fathers, and after having achieved some success as a YA series author (though she has nothing like Elf’s gifts), her career has stalled. But though she and Elf are close—the bond they forged while growing up in a conservative Mennonite town in Canada is central to the narrative—depression is hard to understand from the outside. VERDICT Despite the topic, this is not a dark novel. In fact, its gloom comes in the form of dark humor, and Toews does a wonderful job with her characters, none of whom are perfect, which makes them all the more real. It requires a talented author to take a serious subject and write such an engaging, enjoyable work.

And in its starred review, Kirkus says: “A Canadian writer visits her older sister, a concert pianist who’s just attempted suicide, in this masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” Yolandi Von Riesen says of her sister, Elfrieda. Toews moves between Winnipeg, Toronto, and a small town founded by Mennonite immigrants who survived Bolshevik massacres, where the intellectual, free-spirited Von Riesen family doesn’t share the elders’ disapproval of “overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces.” Yoli looks back over time, realizing that the sisters’ bond is strengthened by their painful memories. The girls’ father baffles neighbors by supporting Elf’s creative passions and campaigning to run a library. His suicide and absence from their adulthood make him even more important to his daughters as their paths diverge. Elf travels around Europe, emptying herself into Rachmaninoff performances; Yoli writes books about a rodeo heroine, feeling aimless and failed. Elf’s husband appreciates her singular sensitivity as a performer, but this capacity for vulnerability dangerously underpins her many breakdowns and longstanding depression. Yoli’s men are transient, leaving her with two children. Toews conveys family cycles of crisis and intermittent calm through recurring events and behaviors: Elf and her father both suffer from depression; Yoli and her mother face tragedy with wry humor and absurdist behavior; and two sisters experience parallel losses. Crisp chapter endings, like staccato musical notes, anchor the plot’s pacing. Elf’s determination to end her suffering by dying takes the form of a drumbeat of requests for Yoli to help her commit suicide. Readers yearn for more time with this complex, radiant woman who fiercely loves her family but cannot love herself. “Sadness is what holds our bones in place,” Yoli thinks. Toews deepens our understanding of the pain found in Coleridge’s poetry, which is the source of the book’s title.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book.

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The Hilltop

By Assaf Gavron

(Scribner, $26, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Assaf Gavron, whose parents were immigrants to Israel from England, grew up near Jerusalem and now lives in Tel Aviv.  He has published seven books and has won national and international awards, including the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, the Book fur die Stadt award in Germany, and the Prix Courrier International award in France and the Bernstein Prize, a prestigious Israeli honor.

What is this book about?

A trenchant, tender story, which some are calling “the Great Israeli Novel,” The Hilltop is set in a West Bank settlement in Israel, a tiny hamlet  the government officially says does not exist yet covertly supports. A Palestinian village sits nearby, watching as the residents of Ma’aleh Hermesh C plant crops and expand their housing and quietly dig in. Among them are a farmer, Othniel, who has the smarts to outwit government bureaucracy, and brothers Gabi and Roni, who grew up on a kibbutz before one became very religious and the other became very rich working on Wall Street but is now very poor. Roni comes up with a plan involving olive oil sales to the foodies of Tel Aviv, a Washington Post reporter discovers the illegal village and soon a major diplomatic kerfuffle is underway.  Can – should – this village survive?

Why you’ll like it:

Israel and its policies and prime minister are very much in the news these days, and increased (and some would say unwelcome) attention is being given to the issue of West Bank settlements, a major point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters worldwide, and one that underlies the animosities boiling in the Middle East. From this thorny and perhaps impenetrable tangle of claims and counterclaims, Gavron has fashioned a smartly satirical tale that, though fiction, gets right to the heart of the people, provocations and political battles whose outcomes will not only affect Israel but also the nations who aid  or abhor it. That he makes this book as funny as it is serious is a tribute to this author’s skill.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Behind the headlines in the turbulent Middle East are ordinary people living their lives, raising families, and struggling to get ahead. Israeli author Gavron focuses on such individuals in a West Bank settlement. The novel begins when Othniel Assis stakes a claim on a remote patch of land and starts growing vegetables. Soon he is joined by others, among them brothers Gabi and Roni, whose personal histories are an important focus of the novel. The community continues to grow, babies are born, the years go by, but the settlement’s status as an illegal entity lacking the necessary permits continues to endanger its existence. At some point, a high-ranking minister declares that they must evacuate, an order residents ignore as they have all previous orders. Then the army arrives and precipitates the final conflict. VERDICT Gavron expertly works with a large cast of characters to create a resonant portrayal of life at the center of one of the world’s main trouble spots. His depiction of the community’s religious practices and the reasonably sympathetic portrayal of the neighboring Arab village and their age-old lifestyle and customs are particularly effective. Despite the highly charged political and cultural arenas in which it is set, this novel, an award winner in Israel, is very funny and entertaining.”

“In The Hilltop, Gavron’s unique gift is on full display in all of its eccentric, genre-bending glory. He treads the line between the serious and the absurd, the tragic and the comical, the sincere and the satirical, and creates a sweeping, complex story that raises more questions than it provides answers,” says Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner).

“Sardonic and engaging. . . . Gavron excels at unmasking the contradictions that characterize Israeli society. . . . His hilltop may be fictionalized, but it embodies, perhaps more than any journalistic or documentary attempt in recent years, the mechanisms by which extremism crosses over and adopts the bureaucratic language and signifiers of the officially sanctioned,”  says the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“A unique attempt to consider the phenomenon [of illegal settlements] not from a merely political point of view, but as a tale of human endeavor, in all its glory and its folly,” says The Jerusalem Post.

Publishers Weekly says:  “This memorable novel by Gavron follows the fate of a small, not-quite-legitimate Israeli settlement in the West Bank and its denizens. Othniel Assis and a few associates founded Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the recent past, both despite and with the aid of various Israeli bureaucracies. While the primary story line charts the course of the settlers’ fight against the inevitable barrage of eviction notices and subsequent reversals, Gavron moves beyond simple political farce by weaving together the stories, both simple and complex, of individual characters. He particularly focuses on the kibbutznik brothers, the spiritual Gavriel Nehushtan and businessman Roni Kupper, who arrive at Ma’aleh Hermesh C at different times and in different circumstances. “Longing is the engine of the world,” one character says. Indeed, Gavron’s novel is marked by its great depth of feeling and its disparate themes, which are united by the longing of its characters.”

Says a starred Kirkus Review: “Writing with crisp insight and dry humor, Israeli author Gavron tells a lively tale of life in an embattled Jewish settlement . . . Gavron’s sardonic yet sage story. . . focuses on an ever expanding community of observant Jews that populates the West Bank settlement Ma’aleh Hermesh C. Bit by bit—a new mobile home here, a spare room fashioned from a shipping container there, a new playground for the kids (funded by a deep-pocketed Miami macher), maybe some improvements for the synagogue or day care center (Jewish workmen only, please)—these settlers, who consider themselves modern-day pioneers, gradually establish ever more permanent footing as the government either looks the other way, threatens to evacuate, or (despite the fact that the settlement may not officially exist) boosts their infrastructure and provides protection, depending on the moods and whims of those in power on any given day. Through it all, Ma’aleh Hermesh C’s motley assortment of residents contends with the stuff of life—babies are born, marriages break up, business ideas bloom and die, teenagers come of age and struggle to grasp where they stand. Within the vast cast of characters, two brothers, Roni and Gabi Kupper, orphaned as infants, raised on a kibbutz, are central. . . . Slowly and incrementally, like those settlers on that craggy West Bank hilltop, Gavron’s story gains a foothold in our hearts and minds and stubbornly refuses to leave.”

Booklist says: “This many-storied, funny, shrewd, and tender satire dives into the heart of Israel, a land of trauma and zeal, fierce opinions and endless deliberation. From failed marriages to governmental dysfunction to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gavron’s spirited desert saga embraces the absurd and the profound and advocates for compassion and forgiveness, even joy.”

When is it available?

This timely novel 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!