Monthly Archives: May 2013

Fellow Mortals

By Dennis Mahoney

(FSG Originals, $15, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

You, like me, have probably never before heard of Dennis Mahoney, whose debut novel is “Fellow Mortals,” a book has been named by Barnes and Noble as a Discover Great New Writers selection.

He doesn’t have much of an Internet presence, but what is out there tells us he’s a down-to-earth guy with a wise take on life, something that you will also gather from reading his novel. Here are some things he says about himself:

“I live in upstate New York with my wife, son, and dog. I once grew a 314-lb. pumpkin in the yard. …I blog at and Tweet at @Giganticide. I’m writing a new novel and hope to finish a draft in 2013.”

In an interview with Jaime Boler of Bookmagnet’s Blog, who asked if he had always wanted to be a writer, Mahoney says: “No. I came to it late, at the tail end of high school. I was creative at an early age but it was more in the line of drawing and imaginative play. I zonked out in middle school and just acted like a regular boy, listening to hair metal and playing Commodore 64 videos games. But eventually my insecurities and general unhappiness led me to reading and writing, which boosted my confidence and gave me something to do.”

What is this book about?

Mahoney answers that question succinctly in his Bookmagnet’s Blog interview:

JB: How would you describe “Fellow Mortals” in ten words or less?

 DM: A tragic fire heightens relationships, for better and worse.

 JB: How did you come up with the idea behind “Fellow Mortals”?

 DM: The hero, Henry Cooper, was based on a minor character in a failed novel I’d written. I loved that character and wanted to put such a man—lively, big-hearted, simple—into the spotlight and test him with a horrible crisis, something that would thrust him into close proximity with different kinds of people. He’s someone who gets a strong reaction out of everyone who meets him, of bringing out their truest selves. That seemed like a great seed for a novel.”

The tragic fire in question begins with a careless gesture – Henry, a mailman on a new route, lights a cigar and tosses the match into some bushes, which leads to a fire that destroys houses and kills a young wife. What follows are the repercussions of this unwitting act on Henry, his wife, his neighbors and the town: lives change in unexpected ways. Henry and his wife invite into their home two sisters made homeless by the fire. The dead woman’s husband takes to the woods to carve mysterious sculptures. A neighbor with a violent past grows ever more brutal. Where will the ripples end?

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are drawing comparisons to Raymond Carver and Stewart O’Nan, which is high praise indeed. There is a tenderness and thoughtfulness to this book, a sense of how people really are and how they react to unforeseen and unfortunate circumstances. Henry does something awful without meaning to, but he is a good man at heart and his subsequent actions show this. There’s nothing far-fetched or fantastical here, just an absorbing tale that captures readers and lets them empathize with Henry and the rest of the residents on Arcadia Street after their lives are irrevocably changed.

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “One discarded match; several lives ignited. Henry Cooper’s cigar was the immediate cause, but its damage did not cease when the last fire truck rolled away. Dennis Mahoney’s “Fellow Mortals” renders the changing effects that this calamity has on its diverse, damaged survivors. A well-crafted…first novel.”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Elizabeth Graver says: “While the novel is richly populated, it is Henry who carries the story, even when he’s not around. Kind, self-interested, bumbling and brave, with a paunch and a walrus mustache, Henry seeks forgiveness in ways that are beautifully complex, his fantasies and guilt intersecting with a genuine desire to help the people whose lives his careless gesture has undone…From beginning to end, “Fellow Mortals” asks us to be gentle with ourselves, with each other, with the world…[it] will stay with me for its watchful portrait of people, imperfect in life as in art, trying to find goodness in one another and themselves.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Mahoney’s debut novel explores the aftereffects of a devastating fire on a neighborhood and community. Walking down Arcadia Street on his route, mailman Henry Cooper lights a cigar and tosses away the match, accidentally sparking a conflagration that kills one person, destroys two houses, and melts the siding off two more. Distraught, Henry attempts to make amends with his neighbors—among them, two elderly sisters whose house is destroyed and whom he takes into his own home. With Sam Bailey, whose wife Laura was killed in the fire, Henry has more trouble. Sam initially rebuffs Henry’s attempts, but eventually accepts Henry’s help building a cabin in the woods near the site of his burned-down house. Then there’s Billy Kane, whose wife has tired of his abuse and left him. Bereft, Billy spirals downward, culminating in a frightening Thanksgiving Day attack on Henry’s wife, Ava, at Sam’s cabin. Mahoney weaves together the patterns of a community (“You’re not alone, even when you are”) and depicts the aftermath of a catastrophe with an unwavering eye. A strong debut reminiscent of the novels of Stewart O’Nan.

“A small, tight, deftly rendered tale…. Mahoney has crafted a complete universe populated by people who feel real, living lives that feel real,” -says The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Every character in this tightly knit debut novel has a choice to make in how to handle the aftermath of the tragedy. What each one does affects the rest, bringing home the truth that ‘you’re not alone, even when you are,’” –says The Plain Dealer.

When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library 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!

Fever: A Novel

By Mary Beth Keane

(Scribner, $26, 306 pages)

Who is this author?

Mary Beth Keane, a writer honored in 2011 by inclusion in the 5 Under 35 list of worthy young authors by the National Book Foundation, is, like her subject, Mary Mallon, of Irish extraction. She was born in New York City, the site she vividly brings to life in this novel and now lives in Pearl River, N.Y. with her husband and sons. She also is the author of “The Walking People” (2010), another well-received saga of the Irish immigrant experience.

What is this book about?

“Typhoid Mary,” as the cook named Mary Mallon came to be known, was the first person in America to be shown as a carrier of deadly typhoid fever who never herself was afflicted with the disease. At the turn of the 20th century, she came to New York from Ireland as a teenager with ambition to better herself,  and by hard work and cleverness, she became a chef for wealthy families. Sadly, however, she infected those families with a horrible disease, unknowingly, and eventually was identified by a health researcher as the source of their fatal illness. Quarantined on North Brother Island from 1907 to 1910 by health authorities, she was released after a promise never to work as a cook again – a promise that, for personal and financial reasons, she did not keep. Eventually, she found work in the kitchen at a maternity hospital, with horrible results. The book tells her story clearly and fairly, explaining to readers what drove Mary to make her bad choices and presenting a rounded portrait of this very complicated, very
culpable, yet in some ways sympathetic woman.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s a medical detective story, it’s vivid historical fiction about life in early New York City, it’s a portrait of a headstrong, complex woman and it’s a morality tale that raises difficult ethical questions. That’s pretty impressive for a relatively short book. You probably have heard the epithet “Typhoid Mary” tossed around to describe anyone who trails disease or dysfunction behind her. Here you will learn, through fiction that illuminates the actual facts, how Mary Mallon’s name entered history and what the world learned from her frightening but fascinating story.

What others are saying:  

“Keane has replaced the ‘Typhoid Mary’ cliché with a memorable and emotional human story,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A fictional portrait of Typhoid Mary, the Irish immigrant cook who spread disease and death among the cramped, unsanitary streets of turn-of-the-century New York. Opening with the arrest of Mary Mallon in 1907, Keane ,,, moves back and forth across several decades to flesh out the famous plague carrier’s character against a detailed social panorama. Mallon’s arrival in 1883; her work ethic and ambition to rise from laundress to cook; her peculiar loyalty to work-shy Alfred Briehof, the alcoholic who refused to marry her–all these provide context as Keane explores Mary’s treatment at the hands of the Department of Health. Quarantined first in a hospital and later on North Brother Island for two years, the “Germ Woman” eventually finds a sympathetic lawyer who works for her release on condition she never cooks for others. Liberated, Mary returns to laundry work  in the city. Plague carrier she may be, but Keane’s Mallon is a fiercely independent woman grappling with work, love, pride and guilt. Exhausted by the laundry and yearning to cook, Mary becomes a baker but is discovered by her nemesis, Dr. Soper. On the run, reunited with now morphine-addicted Alfred, she starts cooking at Sloane Maternity Hospital until realization and responsibility become unavoidable. A memorable biofiction that turns a malign figure of legend into a perplexing, compelling survivor.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Keane … rescues Typhoid Mary from her “cautionary tale” status by telling her true story. Apprehended by the New York Department of Health in 1907, following the deaths of the family for whom she cooks, Mary Mallon is turned into a guinea pig on an East River island with little to comfort her aside from rare letters from her lover Alfred. Slowly she builds a case to win her freedom and returns to a changed New York of Chinese laundries, tenement fires, and Alfred, now-destitute. Dogged by her reputation as a tainted woman, Mary defies the virus she carries by doing what she does best, even as her nemesis—the “medical sleuth” Dr. Soper (the novel’s most engaging figure)—hounds her from kitchen to kitchen. ….we don’t entirely understand why Mary never seems to grasp the consequences of her actions. Still, as historical fiction, “Fever” seldom disappoints in capturing the squalid new world where love exists in a battlefield both biological and epochal.”

“What’s of paramount interest here is the mind of a woman who could not and would not understand why, being herself in good health, she sickened others, and then, when the evidence became overwhelming, got twisted up in grotesque knots of delusion, paranoia and self-deception…until finally, inevitably, almost gratefully she gave in…It’s in the tender, detailed portrayal of willed ignorance collapsing in the face of truth that Mary Beth Keane has made of Mary Mallon’s life a fine novel of moral blindness, and also remorse, of a sort,” says The New York Times Book Review.

Historical Novels Review says: “[An] excellent novel…Keane takes the facts and spins a probable life in such a way that one cannot help but cheer Mary on despite the knowledge that she carried potential death with her at all times. Looking back on Typhoid Mary a century later, Keane has given her the justice that eluded her during her lifetime.”

When is it available?

“Fever” is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain Branch.

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

The Good House

By Ann Leary

(St. Martin’s Press, $24.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Best-selling author Ann Leary has a famous husband (comedian and actor Denis Leary), but she is not piggybacking on his success. She got good notices for her memoir, “An Innocent, A Broad,” and for her novel, “Outtakes From a Marriage,” and her latest, “The Good House,” is now a best-seller. Leary’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in magazines and literary publications, and she co-hosts the NPR show “Hash Hags.”  Apparently, she is not kept busy enough with things literary, as she is also into equestrian sports and is a volunteer EMT. The Learys have a farm in Connecticut, on which, her publicity material says, you will see “four dogs, three horses and an angry cat named Sneakers.”

What is this book about?

The main character is Hildy Good, who is a real estate broker on Boston’s North Shore, a mother and grandmother, a descendant  of a Salem “witch” and a not-consistently- recovering alcoholic — and also, perhaps, a psychic. Hildy is feeling lonely and begins an increasingly fraught friendship with Rebecca, who is very rich and new to town. As their lives grow entwined, old secrets, a new scandal and dark doings threaten Hildy – and enthrall the readers of “The Good House.”

Why you’ll like it:

This is a beach book, and I do not mean that as a criticism. With its engaging heroine, a setting that will be familiar to many New Englanders and a plot that grows ever-more complicated and fascinating, it is the kind of novel that will find its way into many beach cottages, lake cabins and other vacation destinations. Or you can just enjoy it at home.

To get a sense of Leary’s highly accessible style, here is an excerpt from the first chapter, as Hildy introduces herself:

“I can walk through a house once and know more about its occupants than a psychiatrist could after a year of sessions. I remember joking about this one evening with Peter Newbold, the shrink who rents the office upstairs from mine…..

“…I like a house that looks lived in. General wear and tear is a healthy sign; a house that’s too antiseptic speaks as much to me of domestic discord as a house in complete disarray. Alcoholics, hoarders, binge eaters, addicts, sexual deviants, philanderers, depressives—you name it, I can see it all in the worn edges of their nests. You catch the smoky reek of stale scotch and cigarettes despite the desperate abundance of vanilla-scented candles. The animal stench oozes up between the floorboards, even though the cat lady and her minions were removed months before. The marital bedroom that’s become his, the cluttered guest room that’s now clearly hers—well, you get the idea.”

Tell us more, Hildy.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “ ‘The Good House’ has a plot packed with small-town intrigues: extramarital affairs, feuding mothers, a missing child and psychic powers that trace back to the Salem witch trials, to name a few. But the book’s real strength lies in its evocation of Hildy’s inner world…Leary writes with humor and insight, revealing both the pure pleasure of drinking and the lies and justifications of alcoholism, the warmth Hildy feels toward others when she drinks and the desperation that makes her put alcohol before the people she loves. The result is a layered and complex portrait of a woman struggling with addiction, in a town where no secret stays secret for long.”

Says Publishers Weekly: Hildy Good is a realtor in Wendover, the little Massachusetts town where she’s lived her entire life. Small town life inevitably brings small town gossip, and Hildy is no exception: “I know pretty much everything that happens in this town. One way or another, it gets back to me.” Suffering from alcoholism and marital problems, Hildy’s always in search of distractions. Emboldened by a self-professed ability to read people—bordering on what she considers ESP—Hildy finds the intrigue she’s been looking for when Boston hedge fund owner Brian McAllister and his wife, Rebecca, move to town. With her characteristic vigilance, Hildy soon uncovers a burgeoning affair between Rebecca and a local psychiatrist. As confidante, blackmailer, and real-estate broker to both Rebecca and Peter, the psychiatrist who rents the upstairs office, Hildy’s entanglements not only threaten the lives of others but also tease out her own problems and self-delusions. In this second novel …Leary creates a long-winded and melodramatic Peyton Place, but convincingly displays the corrosive and sometimes dire consequences of denial and overconfidence. “

“Ann Leary’s “The Good House” creates a one-of-a-kind character in Hildy Good, and gives us a raw, first-person glimpse into the mind of a middle-aged, outspoken wry New England realtor so real she might be someone you know…yet who also is hiding her alcoholism from her family, her town, and herself. By the end you’ll be flipping pages, trying desperately to piece together what happened as much as the narrator is doing herself,” says author Jodi Picoult.  

Library Journal says: “Hildy Good has lived in the same small town on Boston’s North Shore for all of her 60 years. She has a successful business selling real estate (though Sotheby’s is gaining on her), she married and had two children with her college sweetheart (they divorced when he admitted he was gay), and she likes to drink (her children forced her to go to rehab). After rehab, Hildy started sneaking the occasional drink alone until one of her wealthy clients—a transplant from the city—turns into a drinking buddy, and Hildy becomes privy to a secret she may not be able to keep. A romance with an unlikely suitor and the possibility of the biggest sale of her career lessen Hildy’s willpower. Then she must face the reality that her drinking may lead to her professional and personal ruin unless she confronts her addiction. VERDICT In Leary’s third book, the perils of addiction come to life. Sure to please fans of women’s fiction featuring women of a certain age such as the novels of Jeanne Ray and Elizabeth Berg.

“A supposedly recovering alcoholic real estate agent tells her not-exactly-trustworthy version of life in her small New England town in this tragicomic novel by Leary. …. At first, the novel seems to center on Hildy’s insights about her Wendover neighbors, particularly her recent client Rebecca McAllister, a high-strung young woman who has moved into a local mansion with her businessman husband and two adopted sons. …. Hildy is acerbically funny and insightful about her neighbors; many, like her, are from old families whose wealth has evaporated. She becomes Rebecca’s confidante about the affair Rebecca is having with Peter, whom Hildy helped baby-sit when he was a lonely child. She helps another family who needs to sell their house to afford schooling for their special needs child. She begins an affair with local handyman Frankie Getchell, with whom she had a torrid romance as a teenager. But Hildy, who has recently spent a stint in rehab and joined AA after an intervention by her grown daughters, is not quite the jolly eccentric she appears. There are those glasses of wine she drinks alone at night, those morning headaches and memory lapses that are increasing in frequency. As both Rebecca’s and Hildy’s lives spin out of control, the tone darkens until it
approaches tragedy. Throughout, Hildy is original, irresistibly likable and thoroughly untrustworthy. Despite getting a little preachy toward the end, Leary has largely achieved a genuinely funny novel about alcoholism,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

“The Good House” can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

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

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

By David Sedaris

(Little, Brown, $27, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Santa was very, very kind to David Sedaris.

His screamingly funny personal essay, “SantaLand Diaries,” about working at Macy’s at Christmastime (later re-defined as mainly fiction, but still just as hilarious), introduced this sardonic, snarky yet often poignant voice to readers and NPR listeners. Sedaris has gone on to publish seven personal essay collections about growing up in a character-filled Greek family in North Carolina; becoming famous; finding Hugh, his life partner, traveling and living abroad; and other subjects too numerous to recount. “Let’s Explore” makes it eight. The earlier books include the wonderfully titled “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk,” “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” and his essays often appear in The New
Yorker before inclusion in a collection.

What is this book about?

As is his wont, Sedaris jumps all over the place in these essays, telling us about his first colonoscopy (which he rather enjoyed); his  overbearing, often borderline abusive and yet oddly motivating father; his search for the ideal Valentine’s Day gift for Hugh, which turns out to be a stuffed owl; dentistry in France (bad), toilets in Beijing (worse) and a Costco in North Carolina (disorienting). The man is nothing if not eclectic in subject matter. In many ways, this is a travelogue that will convince you to stay home.

The book also contains six rants in the voices of unpleasant (to liberal-leaning readers) characters, such as a Tea Partier and a murderous homophobe who is responding to the growing acceptance of gay marriage. Most reviewers found these pieces, meant to be performed as high school “forensic debate” exercises, as less successful than the humorous essays.

Why you’ll like it:

Observational humor, done with skill, is delightful, and Sedaris has mastered that form of writing. He leads us deftly from a sensible premise – I need to buy a Valentine’s Day gift – through loonier and loonier levels – maybe I should buy a Pygmy skeleton – as though it were the most normal progression in the world.  His brilliant little apercus, such as defining Australia as “Canada in a thong,” will keep you entertained and waiting for more gems to be revealed.

Such as this: “I should be used to the way Americans dress when traveling, yet it still manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, ‘F— this. I’m going to Los Angeles!”

But he can also shift gears to bittersweet recollections about his difficult relationship with his father. In “Memory Laps,” for example, he recalls his dad heaping praise on a swim teammate while ignoring David.

“My dad was like the Marine Corps,” he writes, “only instead of tearing you to pieces and then putting you back together, he just did the first part and called it a day. Now it seems cruel, abusive even, but this all happened before the invention of self-esteem, which, frankly, I think is a little overrated.”

Yet, he told a USA Today interviewer: “I would hate for anyone to think that I would have ever wanted different parents than the ones that I have. Proving my father wrong was what got me out of bed every day. If I had a father who said, “You can do whatever you want, I believe in you 100 percent,” I wouldn’t be where I am. I had to work in opposition to him, and it worked out really well. It’s actually a really good relationship, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Sedaris’s latest essay collection possesses all of the wit, charm, and poignancy his readers have come to expect. His usual cast of delightful characters returns; including a flashback of his father in his underpants berating a schoolboy or, more recently, hounding David into getting a colonoscopy. Many pieces involve travel, animals, or both: his sister Gretchen totes around an insect “kill jar”; in a Denver airport, David engages with a judgmental fellow passenger; and visiting the Australian bush, he has encounters with a kookaburra and a dead wallaby. Seeking a stuffed owl for a Valentine’s Day gift leads him to a taxidermist shop where he is shown gruesome oddities and confronts difficult questions about his curiosity. Another essay explores the evolution of David’s 35 years-and-counting of keeping a diary and provides some great insight into his writing process.This is a must-read for fans of smart, well-crafted writing with a sense of humor.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: A more varied and less consistent essay collection from the noted humorist. In middle age, Sedaris no longer aims as often for laugh-out-loud funny as he did when he attracted a popular following almost two decades ago. Most of these essays revisit many of the areas he’s previously mined for hilarity–the dysfunctional family stuff, the gay stuff, the American-living-abroad stuff–but much of what he returns to in memory seems less antic and more melancholy than before. In the funniest piece, the penultimate “The Happy Place,” he discovers his Eden by embracing what others of his generation resist: the colonoscopy. “Never had I experienced such an all-encompassing sense of well-being,” he writes. “Everything was soft-edged and lovely. Everyone was magnificent….I’m not sure how long I lay there, blissed-out and farting.”

“Sedaris is a remarkably skilled storyteller and savvy essayist. He weaves together vivid images and sensations into a coherent whole that packs a serious emotional punch….Yes, David Sedaris is really that good. And based, on this latest collection, he’s getting only better,” says the Los Angeles Times.

“An acute observer and master of the quick, excoriating takedown, Sedaris claims new territory in this exceptionally gutsy and unnerving collection,” says Booklist.

“David Sedaris still talks pretty,” says New York Magazine.

When is it available?

The new book by David Sedaris is 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!

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

By Mary Roach

(Norton, $26.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

“Stiff.” “Bonk.” “Spook.” “Gulp.” Mary Roach (and what a great name for a science writer!) has an ear for the punchy one-word title, adding edifying subtitles to explain what the book is actually about.

Born in Hanover, N.H. and a 1981 graduate of Wesleyan University, Roach made her career in California, where she still lives, writing about hard and often weird science with a distinctively humorous approach. I can recall, in my days as the Health & Science page editor at The Courant, that pieces by Roach were hard to beat for explaining the difficult in a delightfully funny, yet accurate, way. Her other books include “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Voidand “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” for which Roach and her remarkably helpful husband volunteered for some interesting research experimentation.

What is this book about?

It’s alimentary, my dear Watson. (OK, sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

In “Gulp,” Roach takes us on a wild ride through the human gut, employing her agile mind and endless curiosity to probe the human piping system that keeps us nourished properly and eliminating nicely. Sometimes gross and gruesome, but also fascinating and funny, this is a book that will stimulate your mind and answers some questions that the 5-year-old in each of us still wonders about: how come the stomach doesn’t digest itself? Can you eat so much that it will burst, like that fat guy in the Monty Python movie? Does pet food taste the same to a dog and his owner? Did constipation kill Elvis? Well, did it? It’s all there, and more, in a book that you can savor in small bites or greedily gulp down.

Why you’ll like it:

Roach is a thorough researcher, a smart analyst and a damn amusing writer, all real pluses when you are writing about science for a general and generally mystified audience. Asked by NPR how she chooses her subjects, Roach said: “Well, it’s got to have a little science, it’s got to have a little history, a little humor – and something gross.”

She is careful to explain how she did her research and introduce various scientists who are important in the fields she explores.

She told an interviewer: “Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: ‘Oh! Now I get it!’”

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “Mary Roach has been described as “America’s funniest science writer,” not a superlative that one would expect that an author on a book about human cadavers would receive. In her latest effort, the author of “Stiff” and “Packing for Mars” takes us on an incredible voyage down our gullets and into dark digestive regions where more timid observers dare not go. Thanks to her apparently unflagging curiosity, Roach is willing to ask and answer essential questions, like …”How long can an oyster live inside us?” Simply put, “Gulp” will make you gasp with delight.”

“ ‘Gulp’ is far and away her funniest and most sparkling book, bringing Ms. Roach’s love of weird science to material that could not have more everyday relevance. Having graduated from corpses (“Stiff”), the afterlife (“Spook”) and sex (“Bonk,” full of stunts featuring Ms. Roach as guinea pig), she takes on a subject wholly mainstream. She explores it with unalloyed merriment. And she is fearless about the embarrassment that usually accompanies it…Never has Ms. Roach’s affinity for the comedic and bizarre been put to better use,” says Janet Maslin in The New York Times.

The Washington Post says: “…[Roach is] a very good writer who understands that her job is, above all, to entertain. Every paragraph is a pleasure to read, even if that paragraph is about a partially decomposed gazelle entombed in the body of a python…In the wrong hands, a book on digestion would be rendered tedious by a need to cover every aspect of the subject to some degree. But Roach follows her interests, not a checklist…you’ll come away from this well-researched book with enough weird digestive trivia to make you the most interesting guest at a certain kind of cocktail party.”

“Roach…once again goes boldly into the fields of strange science. In the case of her newest, some may hesitate to follow—it’s about the human digestive system, and it’s as gross as one might expect. But it’s also enthralling. From mouth to gut to butt, Roach is unflinching as she charts every crevice and quirk of the alimentary canal—a voyage she cheerily likens to “a cruise along the Rhine.” En route, she comments on everything from the microbial wisdom of ancient China, to the tactics employed by prisoners when smuggling contraband in their alimentary “vaults,” the surprising success rate of fecal transplants, how conducting a colonoscopy is a little like “playing an accordion,” and a perhaps too-good-to-be-true tale in the New York Times in 1896 of a real-life Jonah surviving a 36-hour stint in the belly of a sperm whale. Roach’s approach is grounded in science, but the virtuosic author rarely resists a pun, and it’s clear she revels in giving readers a thrill—even if it is a queasy one. Adventurous kids and doctors alike will appreciate this fascinating and sometimes ghastly tour of the gastrointestinal system, says Publishers Weekly.

 “…. The author ties her curiosity about this region of the body and what many consider a disgusting or off-limits subject for polite conversation to a fifth-grade classroom encounter with a headless, limbless, molded-plastic torso: “Function was not hinted at in Mrs. Claflin’s educational torso man….Yet I owe the guy a debt of thanks. To venture beyond the abdominal wall, even a plastic one, was to pull back the curtain on life itself.” The author begins by detailing the subtle, complex role the nose plays in taste; why humans have trouble finding names for flavors and smells;… grapples with the history of flatulence and adeptly describes the torment caused by Elvis Presley’s megacolon, which ultimately caused his demise. She also fleshes out just what constitutes the “ick factor” in this tale of ingestion, digestion and elimination. Roach’s abundant footnotes serve as entertaining detours throughout this edifying excursion. When a topic heads toward sketchy territory, the author politely provides a heads-up for squeamish readers. ….A touchy topic illuminated with wit and rigor, packed with all the stinky details, “ says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

You can gulp this book down at the new books shelf of 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!

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution,

By Nathaniel Philbrick

(Viking, $32.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Nathaniel Philbrick was born in Boston and knows the city and its early history quite well. Now a resident of Nantucket, he is the New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award winner “In the Heart of the Sea” and was a  Pulitzer Prize finalist for “Mayflower,” “Sea of Glory” and “The Last Stand.” Philbrick also wrote “Why Read Moby-Dick?” and “Away Off Shore.”

 What is this book about?

With the appalling terrorist bombing on Patriot’s Day fresh in our minds, we’ve all been thinking about Boston lately. For historian and author Nathaniel Philbrick, Boston and its environs is constantly something worth thinking about. An authority on the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history, Philbrick here rescues the story of the Battle of Bunker Hill from its hoary layers of historical embellishments and mythmaking and tells us what really happened that day in 1775, following the 1773 dumping of tea in Boston Harbor – the original Tea Party – and the clashes at Lexington and Concord. The Bunker Hill battle, Philbrick says, was the true harbinger of the Revolutionary War and all that came after. In that battle, major players emerged, including a doctor named Joseph Warren who led the Patriot militia, Paul Revere, the poet Mercy Scollay, George Washington and British generals Thomas Gage and William Howe.

In his preface to the book, Philbrick writes:

“…I have been exploring these places, trying to get a fix on the long-lost topography that is essential to understanding how Boston’s former residents interacted. Boston in the 1770s was a land-connected island with a population of about fifteen thousand, all of whom probably recognized, if not knew, each other. Being myself a resident of an island with a year-round population very close in size to provincial Boston’s, I have some familiarity with how petty feuds, family alliances, professional jealousies, and bonds of friendship can transform a local controversy into a supercharged outpouring of communal angst. The issues are real enough, but why we find ourselves on one side or the other of those issues is often unclear even to us. Things just happen in a way that has little to do with logic or rationality and everything to do with the mysterious and infinitely complex ways that human beings respond to one another.

“In the beginning there were three different colonial groups in Massachusetts. One group was aligned with those who eventually became revolutionaries. For lack of a better word, I will call these people “patriots.” Another group remained faithful to the crown, and they appear herein as “loyalists.” Those in the third and perhaps largest group were not sure where they stood. Part of what makes a revolution such a fascinating subject to study is the arrival of the moment when neutrality is no longer an option. Like it or not, a person has to choose.”

Why you’ll like it:

For many readers, the most important part of “history” is “story,” and Philbrick has the gift of bringing complex and misreported or misunderstood events into a narrative that holds our interest. He does this by telling it through the experiences of real people, which gives the book a vivid immediacy that blows off the cobwebs. If you cannot recall what you learned about Bunker Hill all those years ago in school, or if you don’t feel you ever were taught the complete story, this book is for you.

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “In popular culture, the Battle of Bunker Hill has lived on mostly as a trick question: Where was the Battle of Bunker Hill fought? (The military confrontation that fully ignited the American Revolution occurred mostly on Breed’s Hill.) National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick …rescues this pivotal epoch in our history with a revelatory narrative about the full context and unfolding of the bloodiest battle in the War for Independence. Seeing patriots and warriors so clearly that you can see the whites of their eyes.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Like most popular historians, Philbrick …writes about discrete events, not large developments. And he’s good at it, even if the larger context is rarely considered and critical analysis gives way to story and celebration. Here, his focus is on events that began with the humiliations of the British at Lexington and Concord and ended with the siege of Boston, the American victory at Bunker Hill in 1775, and the departure in 1776 of British forces from New England’s largest city. Philbrick correctly presents the battle at Bunker Hill as a critical moment in the opening stages of the War for Independence, and displays an empathy for the out-maneuvered British caught in the traps that the Patriots laid for them. He wisely makes as one of his central figures the Patriots’ charismatic leader, Joseph Warren, who was killed at Bunker Hill, and who has since been largely forgotten, despite having been the man responsible for “orchestrating the on-the-ground reality of a revolution.” Philbrick tells his tale in traditional fashion—briskly, colorfully, and with immediacy. The book would have benefited from a point of view more firmly grounded in a contemporary evaluation of the battle, but even as it is—no one has told this tale better.”

“National Book Award winner and Pulitzer Prize finalist Philbrick ….will be a candidate for another award with this ingenious, bottom-up look at Boston from the time of the December 1773 Tea Party to the iconic June 1775 battle. Independence Day rhetoric extols our forefathers’ battle for freedom against tyranny and unfair taxation, but the author points out that American colonists were the freest, most-prosperous and least-taxed subjects of the British Empire and perhaps the world. A century and a half of London’s salutary neglect had resulted in 13 nearly independent colonies. Trouble began in the 1760s when Parliament attempted to tax them to help pay for the ruinously expensive victory in the French and Indian War. Unexpected opposition handled with spectacular clumsiness by Britain guaranteed trouble. Among Massachusetts’ resistance leaders, most readers know John Hancock and Samuel Adams, but Philbrick concentrates on Joseph Warren, a charismatic young physician, unjustly neglected today since he died at Bunker Hill. His opposite number, British Gen. Thomas Gage, behaved with remarkable restraint. Despite warnings that it would take massive reinforcements to keep the peace, superiors in London goaded him into action, resulting in the disastrous April 1775 expedition to Lexington and Concord. They also sent a more pugnacious general, William Howe, who decided to expel colonial militias, now besieging Boston, by an uphill frontal attack on their entrenched lines, a foolish tactic. British forces succeeded but suffered massive casualties. It was the first and bloodiest engagement of the eight years of fighting that followed. A rewarding approach to a well-worn subject, rich in anecdotes, opinion, bloodshed and Byzantine political maneuvering,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

It’s now on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

The Interestings

By Meg Wolitzer

(Penguin, $27.95, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

Meg Wolitzer, a bestselling author who writes smart, funny and incisive novels about women’s lives, is the daughter of author Hilma Wolitzer, who writes novels in a similar vein. Meg’s previous novels include “The Wife,” “The Position,” “Surrender, Dorothy,” “The Ten-Year Nap” and “The Uncoupling.”  Wolitzer also has written screenplays and has been anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories” and has taught at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and at Skidmore College. She was born in Brooklyn, graduated from Brown University and now lives in New York City.

Here’s some of what she told a Barnes & Noble interviewer:

“First of all, I am obsessed with playing Scrabble. It relaxes me between fits of writing, and I play online, in a bizarro world of anonymous, competitive players. It’s my version of smoking or drinking — a guilty pleasure. The thing is, I love words, anagrams, wordplay, cryptic crossword puzzles, and anything to do with the language.”

“But mostly, writing a powerful novel — whether funny or serious, or of course both — is my primary goal. When I hear that readers have been affected by something I’ve written, it’s a relief. I finally have come to no longer fear that I’m going to have to go to law school someday….”

What is this book about?

Every school or summer camp has its “kool kidz,” and Wolitzer’s novel follows six such adolescents into adulthood. Calling themselves “The Interestings,’ this group of artistically talented campers carry their hopes and flaws with them into middle age, and their story spans about 40 years, from the early 70s to today. Some pursue music or acting, some give up on the artistic life and others unexpectedly grow rich. But they remain friends – or frenemies – despite a divergence of fortune and the acid of envy — and it is their interactions that Wolitzer skillfully chronicles.

Why you’ll like it:

Wolitzer has a real grasp of how friendships and other relationships work, particularly for women. Her books have dealt with families that fall apart, the effects of a death on the survivors, the difficulties of maintaining a long-term friendship and the realities of realizing that one’s great expectations have turned out to be not so, well, great. Women readers in particular appreciate her explorations of the connections that make life rewarding or frustrating, and this book is a prime example of how she wisely handles this kind of story.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “In the “nefarious, thoroughly repulsive” summer of 1974, 15-year-old Julie Jacobson, “an outsider and possibly even a freak” from the suburbs, gets a scholarship to an arts camp and falls in with a group of kids—the aptly self-named “Interestings.” Talented, attractive, and from New York City, to Julie they are “like royalty and French movie stars.” There Julie, renamed Jules, finds her place, and Wolitzer her story: the gap between promise and genuine talent, the bonds and strains of long friendships, and the journey from youth to middle age, with all its compromises, secrets, lies, and disparities…”

“ ‘The Interestings’ is exactly the kind of book that literary sorts who talk about ambitious works (at least in the nonexperimental vein) are talking about: It’s fat with pages and plot and loaded with thinly veiled cultural references, relevant social commentary and emotional themes particularly envy and regret. . . . “The Interestings” kept me in a state of alert recognition of the self, sometimes delighted and often chagrined. Wolitzer is almost crushingly insightful; she doesn’t just mine the contemporary mind, she seems to invade it,” says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Wolitzer follows a group of friends from adolescence at an artsy summer camp in 1974 through adulthood and into late-middle age as their lives alternately intersect, diverge and reconnect. Middle-class suburban Julie becomes Jules when a group of more sophisticated kids from Manhattan include her in their clique… Her lifelong best friend becomes beautiful Ash, an aspiring actress. Ash’s older brother is sexy bad-boy Goodman. Cathy, who wants to dance, becomes Goodman’s girlfriend. Jonah, the ethereally handsome, slightly withdrawn son of a famous folksinger, is musically gifted. And then there is Ethan: homely, funny and a brilliant cartoonist. Although he and Jules are immediately soul mates, she rejects his physical advances, unable to work up any sexual attraction. After this first idyllic summer, the novel cuts to 2009 when Jules, now living a modest middle-class life as a therapist married to a medical technician, receives her annual Christmas letter from Ethan and Ash, who are married and wildly successful. As she looks back, the reader follows the evolution of the group. …. Secrets are kept for decades among the six “Interestings”; resentments are nursed; loyalties are tested with mixed results. Ambitious and involving, capturing the zeitgeist of the liberal intelligentsia of the era.

“Wolitzer’s latest novel follows a group of creative types from the beginning of their friendship as teenagers through middle age. Hipsters before their time, they dub themselves The Interestings, in an effort at pretentious irony, with only group member Julie Jacobson truly believing that they are quite interesting. …VERDICT The novel skips back and forth, revealing information about each member of the group and covering their triumphs and tragedies over the course of the years. Ultimately, the work hits its own ironic note: Julie’s successful and creative friends are far more normal than she’d ever realized. This is certain to attract readers of literary and smart women’s fiction,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

This interesting book can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills and Mark Twain 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!

American Story: A Lifetime Search for Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

by Bob Dotson

(Viking, $26.95, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

If you are a fan of NBC’s “Today Show,” you are familiar with Bob Dotson, the NBC News correspondent, whose “American Story with Bob Dotson” is a regular feature there and on other NBC News programs and has won more than 100 broadcast journalism awards.  He also wrote and hosted “Bob Dotson’s America” on the Travel Channel. Dotson lives in New York City and Mystic.

What is this book about?

Ordinary citizens making a difference – that’s a staple of media news features, in print or on the air – and such stories never fail to make readers (or viewers) feel good about America. For example, in the recent horrific bombings in Boston, reports of people going out of their way to help the injured and identify the bombers brought a ray of hope into that darkness.

Bob Dotson understands this dynamic and his book, which reflects more than 40 years of reporting such inspirational stories, celebrates the ideas and actions of good-hearted people who stepped up to help others. They include a boss who “un-retired” to found a new business when his former employees could not find new jobs, the doctor who developed the vaccine for whooping cough and kept on practicing till age 104, a truck driver who designs tools used in microsurgery, an Oregon sawmill owner who gave scholarships to seniors who wanted to attend college and many, many more.

Why you’ll like it:

In these days of vicious political partisanship, natural and man-made disasters and the endless outpouring of angry commentary in the social media, we could all use some stories that remind us of the essential goodness of most Americans. Dotson’s tales are brief, but compelling, told in an easy-to-read style and with heart. This book serves as antidote to the despair many feel about where the nation is heading.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “In this powerful collection, NBC News correspondent Dotson compiles dozens of the human interest stories featured on his segment of the Today show….He’s traveled the country for decades interviewing remarkable people, many of whom have overcome great adversity and are actively working to make the world a better place for others. Some are quintessential innovators, like Jimmy Crudup, the truck driver who designs microsurgery tools on the side. Others defy the odds: in 1928, Leila Denmark became Atlanta’s first female pediatrician, and when she retired at the age of 103, she was the world’s oldest practicing doctor. (She died in 2012 at 114 years of age.) Elma Sneddeker’s tale is nothing if not miraculous: she was pulled from her burning car by a man born without arms who shattered a window with his foot to rescue her. Throughout, Dotson interweaves trying episodes from his own life, from being stricken with polio as a young boy to his decision to quit hard news and “look for people who offered solutions to problems that didn’t require bullets.” The details of their stories are unique, but their effect is not—they all inspire.”

“We’ve always known in our heart of hearts that the best of the country was bottom-up, not top-down, and now Bob Dotson, with this superb new book, proves us right.  These are remarkable and poignant and important stories that need to be told,” says documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

Says  Kirkus Reviews: “The longtime Today Show correspondent offers a collection of heartwarming stories about ordinary citizens, “people who live the values our country cherishes.” For more than three decades now, Dotson …has specialized in Charles Kuralt–like stories about people “whose values were never preached, just lived.” Thus, we learn about the photographer whose 10-year project memorializing the giant cedars of western Washington led to the creation of Lewis and Clark National Park; the physician who recruited other retired doctors and nurses to establish a health clinic for the poor on Hilton Head Island; the first African-American in the U.S. Navy to earn a rank that took him out of the galley; the New York artist who traveled the country, exchanging his paintings for room and board. Dotson has found the last living member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the migrant mother captured forever in Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo and a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, still dancing at 105. The author mixes in a little autobiographical information, but he focuses on a succession of quiet achievers, people whose imagination, grit and goodness might otherwise have escaped the news, had he not gone in search of their stories. Many of the characters require more than the three or four pages Dotson allots them to make any lasting impression, but the sheer multitude of tales underscores his argument about an America chock-full of unassuming people whose lives enrich the nation.”

“Throughout his remarkable career Bob Dotson has searched for the real essence of America–not by interviewing the so-called famous, but by seeking out those unnoticed  people we pass by every day. Those quiet souls are the ones who ‘live up to the brag,’ as he puts it, and remind us what truly makes this country great.  Every story they tell is a jewel…and Dotson a national treasure for caring enough to listen,” says TV journalist and host Meredith Vieira.

When is it available?

You can search for “American Story” on the new books 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!

Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

(Reagan Arthur, $27.99,  544 pages

Who is this author?

Kate Atkinson, who lives in Scotland, won the Whitbread (now called the Costa) Book of the Year Award for her first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” and became a bestselling author who has more than one million copies of her books in print in the United States alone. Even the titles of her novels are intriguing, such as “Human Croquet,” “Emotionally Weird,” “When Will There Be Good News?”  and “Started Early, Took My Dog.” Her novel “Case Histories,” which featured private investigator Jackson Brodie, became a TV series. She also has written a story collection, “Not the End of the World.”

What is this book about?

When you start with a fascinating premise, you immediately hook the reader. And this book has one. Its heroine, Ursula Todd, is born in winter 1910 and immediately dies. And then she is born again, in 1910, lives longer, and dies again as a child. It seems that Ursula will keep on doing this until she gets it right, like a cat with infinite lives that learns things from each life that matter in the next one. And while she is undergoing this mulligan-like miracle, the century staggers from one world conflict to another. Can the indestructible Ursula help save it? Should she even try? While you ponder these metaphysical puzzles, Atkinson gives you brilliantly drawn characters, a vivid reconstruction of England during the World War II blitz and a mind-twistingly good read.

Why you’ll like it:

A fresh and clever premise, a fantastical perspective on very real events, a meditation on free will and a style that combines humor with sadness are among the gifts Atkinson brings her readers in this hard-to-characterize and hard-to-put-down novel.

What others are saying:

“…[Atkinson's] very best…a big book that defies logic, chronology and even history in ways that underscore its author’s fully untethered imagination…[it] is full of mind games, but they are purposeful rather than emptily playful…Even without the sleight of hand, “Life After Life” would be an exceptionally captivating book with an engaging cast of characters,” says The New York Times.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Atkinson’s new novel … opens twice: first in Germany in 1930 with an English woman taking a shot at Hitler, then in England in 1910 when a baby arrives, stillborn. And then it opens again: still in 1910, still in England, but this time the baby lives. That baby is Ursula Todd, and as she grows up, she dies and lives repeatedly. Watching Atkinson bring Ursula into the world yet again initially feels like a not terribly interesting trick: we know authors have the power of life and death. But as Ursula and the century age, and war and epidemic and war come again, the fact of death, of “darkness,” as Atkinson calls it, falling on cities and people—now Ursula, now someone else, now Ursula again—turns out to be central. At heart this is a war story; half the book is given over to Ursula’s activities during WWII, and in its focus on the women and civilians usually overlooked or downplayed, it gives the Blitz its full measure of terror. By the end, which takes us back to that moment in 1930 and beyond, it’s clear that Atkinson’s not playing tricks; rather, through Ursula’s many lives and the accretion of what T.S. Eliot called “visions and revisions,” she’s found an inventive way to make both the war’s toll and the pull of alternate history, of darkness avoided or diminished, fresh. “

Kirkus Reviews says: “If you could travel back in time and kill Hitler, would you? Of course you would. Atkinson’s latest opens with that conceit, a hoary what-if of college dorm discussions and, for that matter, of other published yarns… But Atkinson isn’t being lazy, not in the least: Her protagonist’s encounter with der Führer is just one of several possible futures. Call it a more learned version of “Groundhog Day,” but that character can die at birth, or she can flourish and blossom; she can be wealthy, or she can be a fugitive; she can be the victim of rape, or she can choose her sexual destiny. All these possibilities arise, and all take the story in different directions, as if to say: We scarcely know ourselves, so what do we know of the lives of those who came before us, including our own parents and–in this instance–our unconventional grandmother? And all these possibilities sometimes entwine, near to the point of confusion. … there’s the rub with alternate realities, all of which, Atkinson suggests, can be folded up into the same life so that all are equally real. ….Provocative, entertaining and beautifully written. …”

“[S]tarting over and starting over, Ursula begins to retain impressions of her former lives. It’s not “Orlando”-esque reincarnation, nor is it the black joke of “Groundhog Day,” but some kind experiment in possibility. In one life a bundling seduction turns into a rape, and then an abortion; in another life the same seducer-rapist is cheerfully rebuffed, leaving no mark on the story. Ursula — she simply lives [the mystery], with a little more premonitory know-how each time. To the point where, having observed the currents of history as they flow (have flowed, will flow) around her and her family, she comes to the conclusion that it might be quite a good idea to kill Adolf Hitler. There. Now you have to read it,” says the Barnes & Noble Review.

When is it available?

Look for “Life After 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!