Monthly Archives: July 2013

Bad Monkey

By Carl Hiaasen

(Knopf, $26.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

Carl Hiassen is South Florida born and bred, and he finds seemingly limitless inspiration from his native state and the weird events that go on there. He’s written a dozen other novels, including the best-sellers “Lucky You,” “Nature Girl,” “Sick Puppy,” “Skinny Dip” and “Star Island” as well as four best-selling children’s books, “Chomp,” “Flush,” “Hoot” and “Scat.” His nonfiction includes “The Downhill Lie: A Hacker’s Return to a Ruinous Sport.” Hiassen got into the news biz as an investigative reporter and still writes a weekly column for The Miami Herald. He also keeps snakes as house pets, pointing out, “You give them rodents and they give you pure, unconditional indifference.”

While his novels feature absurd characters in even-more-absurd situations, he is dead serious about social, political and environmental malfeasance. As he told one interviewer: “I can’t be funny without being angry.”

In that case, stay very angry, Carl.

What is this book about?

Hiassen invents another delightful crop of misfit wackos in “Bad Monkey,” and that includes the titular animal, a mangy Capuchin named Driggs, who once “acted” in a Johnny Depp “Pirates of the Caribbean” film. Driggs is pretty nasty, but cannot compare to an aging voodoo priestess, the Dragon Queen, for unpleasant personal habits. Also along for the ride: Egg, a hulking, not-too-bright hitman; Nick Stripling and his wife Eve, two Medicare fraudsters who graduate to murderous criminality; Nick’s greedy daughter Caitlin;  Evan, a witless spec home builder; Bonnie, a sex-mad ex-teacher and former lover of our hero, Andrew Yancy. He’s a former detective who has been busted to the “roach patrol,” as restaurant inspectors are known in South Florida, for attacking Bonnie’s creepy husband with a portable hand vac inserted where even Sunshine State sunshine don’t shine.

Andrew is aided by his new love interest, medical examiner Rosa Campesino, and Neville, a Bahamian fisherman with a good soul. Andrew and Neville share a love of the Florida Keys and Bahamian islands, unspoiled but endangered places the author also reveres. This wild tale of murders, arson, fraud and cockroaches in the conch stew is powered, as are so many of Hiassen’s books, by a simmering anger at what mindless overdevelopment is doing to some of our last remaining pieces of Paradise.

Why you’ll like it:

Don’t just get mad, get funny. That seems to be Hiassen’s mantra, and it really works. He sets up complicated murder mysteries that keep you glued to the page, but he is really interested in laying bare the scams and frauds and avarice that plague Southern Florida like those rapacious pythons that are taking over the Everglades. But he’s never preachy – instead, he creates hilarious people that really are characters in the “weird person” sense of the word, and sets them loose in improbable but oddly logical plots. He also creates lively, to put it mildly, dialogue, that often involve a brilliantly use of profanity too vivid to quote in a family book blog. His novels make you laugh out loud, but they also make you think.

He told a Barnes & Noble interviewer that being an investigative reporter for The Miami Herald helped him in writing fiction:

“I’d always wanted to write books ever since I was a kid. To me, the newspaper business was a way to learn about life and how things worked in the real world and how people spoke. You learn all the skills — you learn to listen, you learn to take notes — everything you use later as a novelist was valuable training in the newspaper world. But I always wanted to write novels.”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “A severed arm that a visiting angler hooks off Key West kicks off Hiaasen’s 13th criminal comedy. …the encounter Andrew Yancy has with Miami Assistant Medical Examiner Rosa Campesino, which ends with him taking the arm back home and parking it in his freezer, starts to change his attitude toward the case. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the fact that he’s been suspended from the Sheriff’s Department and banished to the gruesome post of restaurant inspector. But once the arm is identified as that of developer Nicholas Stripling, Yancy….takes it on himself to question Nicky’s wife, Eve, his estranged daughter, Caitlin Cox, Eve’s sworn enemy, and several other concerned parties. When two of these parties are shot to death very shortly after their chats with Yancy, he knows he’s onto something…, Yancy takes Rosa along to follow the arm’s trail to Lizard Cay, Bahamas, where more crazies await: a toothless voodoo priestess called the Dragon Queen, her hapless client Neville Stafford, whose troubles bear an uncanny resemblance to Yancy’s own, and his companion Driggs, a monkey reputed to have worked on the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The mind-boggling plot will require yet another Hiaasen hurricane, a house fire, several perp walks for diverse felonies and a healthy dose of cleansing violence to bring down the curtain. … still the gold standard for South Florida criminal farce.”

In The New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio says: “Any fears that Carl Hiaasen might be mellowing are put to rest by “Bad Monkey,” another rollicking misadventure in the colorful annals of greed and corruption in South Florida…Hiaasen has a peculiar genius for inventing grotesque creatures—like the monstrous voodoo woman known as the Dragon Queen and Driggs, a scrofulous monkey “with a septic disposition”—that spring from the darkest impulses of the id. But he also writes great heroes like Yancy and Neville…”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Hiaasen …combines familiar themes with an inspired cast in this exercise in Florida zaniness. Andrew Yancy, who became an ex-cop after publicly assaulting his girlfriend’s husband with a vacuum cleaner attachment, is now on “roach patrol” as a restaurant inspector, but he soon gets a chance at redemption. Sonny Summers, the new Monroe County sheriff, tells Yancy to take a severed, shark-bitten arm snagged by a fisherman to Miami, where DNA identifies the limb as belonging to Nick Stripling, a retiree in his 40s whose boat was wrecked at sea. Stripling’s grown daughter, Caitlin Cox, claims after the funeral that her hated stepmother murdered her father, and Yancy sees proving the stepmother’s guilt as a way to return to the force. Add in some real estate shenanigans, a voodoo witch, and a deranged monkey, and you have another marvelously entertaining Hiaasen adventure.”

When is it available?

“Bad Monkey” is brightening the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Barbour, Camp Field, Park and Ropkins 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!

Why We Write :20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do

Edited by Meredith Maran

(Penguin, $16, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Or rather, who are the authors whose thoughts on writing make up the book? It is quite a roster: Isabel Allende, David Baldacci, Jennifer Egan, James Frey, Sue Grafton, Sara Gruen, Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, Sebastian Junger, Mary Karr, Michael Lewis, Armistead Maupin, Terry McMillan, Rick Moody, Walter Mosley, Susan Orlean, Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, Jane Smiley and  Meg Wolitzer. It’s likely that you know their work, or at least have heard of most of them.

So instead, let’s ask: Who is this editor?

Meredith Maran is also a writer and a book reviewer. She has published nine nonfiction books and the novel,  “A Theory of Small Earthquakes”. She’s been writer-in-residence at UCLA and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and a fellow at the famous Yaddo, among other artist colonies. Her reporting is frequently in the Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle and People.

What is this book about?

Here is what two of its contributors have to say about the art and act of writing:

“If writing were illegal I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion,” says popular thriller authors David Baldacci.

“When I’m writing… I’m living in two different dimensions: this life I’m living now…and this completely other world I’m inhabiting that no one else knows about,”  says Jennifer Egan, whose novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Such revealing quotes are typical of what you will find in this thoughtful compendium. Editor Maran pressed her interviewees to explain what inspires, drives, scares and motivates some of our best contemporary writers to sit down and face a blank screen and will a book, or story, into being. It may look easy, but it surely is not.

Why you’ll like it:

Maran did two very smart things here. She picked a wide range of authors: popular fiction writers like Baldacci and Picoult, masters of mystery like Grafton and Moseley, nonfiction stars like Orlean and Junger and many fine literary novelists, and she asked  them good questions and let them rip. Writers are by nature introspective people, and you get the sense that these 20 found it illuminating to frame, for readers and for themselves, why and how they do what they do.

What others are saying:

From the Barnes & Noble review:  “Most writers are too busy writing to wonder about why they write. So editor Meredith Maran did the obvious: She asked twenty prominent authors to write about how they do it, why they do it, and what aspects they most love and hate. Obvious, her quarries found the query compelling…. Stimulating thoughts for readers and writers.”

Says Boston Globe reviewer Chuck Leddy:  “In “Why We Write,” edited by Meredith Maran, an author and Globe contributor, 20 famous writers take us inside their literary worlds to see how the magic of writing takes place and to explain why otherwise sane people would engage in an activity that, Maran argues, “promises only poverty, rejection, and self-doubt.”

Kirkus Reviews says:  “A rich, informative essay collection based on interviews with 20 prominent authors seeking to answer the question: “Why do writers write?” ,,, So what drives individuals to engage in this constantly frustrating endeavor? Maran posed the question to writers who seemed to have what every writer could ever want: “[m]illions or billions of fans worldwide . . . [and] full creative freedom.” Isabelle Allende and David Baldacci write from an obsessive need to tell stories. Kathryn Harrison explains that “it’s the only thing I know that offers the hope of proving myself worthy of love.” Armistead Maupin writes that “it’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to lend symmetry and meaning to it.” Maran’s subjects include authors who have received both popular and critical acclaim, and she includes details about how each author found a place in the literary sun. She also delves into how they approach the task of recording their stories and presents their writing tips. The wisdom these luminaries offer sometimes, and perhaps inevitably, borders on the obvious or banal: “You have to simply love writing,” writes Susan Orleans. But more often than not, that wisdom is as sharp-eyed and candid as Sue Grafton’s observation that “[b]anging out a single book, then thinking you’re ready to give up your day job and be a full-time writer, is the equivalent of learning to play ‘Three Blind Mice’ on the piano and then expecting to be booked into Carnegie Hall.” A fun, enlightening read for writers and book lovers alike.

Library Journal

Seeking to crack the mystery of why writers write, Maran … interviewed 20 acclaimed writers and asked “why?” of each of them, also asking for their best and worst moments as writers, and the advice they would give to aspiring authors. Their descriptions of working life include a few elements that are strikingly similar from writer to writer, e.g., that it is both necessary to write, and terrifying to start a new book. The authors included here are all award winners (each entry includes a boxed “stats” section)… VERDICT One could gain a lot of inspiration from this book, but also be rather discouraged at staring so much success in the face. This exercise has been done before, but this collection’s organization makes it useful at a glance. A solid addition to writers’ reference collections.”

“Says Helen Gallagher in the New York Journal of Books: “…As we read about these writers and their ways we understand as much about why they write as how they write. Many writers remain motivated when the work is good, but the ability to keep writing is daunting when deadlines loom. When writing isn’t going well fear and panic overtake thoughts of fame and profit. …

 “As Ms. Maran gets the authors to open up about their work, we learn what they do when the muse is “injured on the job…”

“In exposing these successful authors’ most private foibles, fears, and superstitions to bring the reader the full story of the ups and downs of a writer’s life and work, Ms. Maran bumps them gently off their pedestals where they reside with the rest of us.

“As Meg Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Uncoupling) states: “No one can take writing away from you, but no one can give it to you, either.”

When is it available?

You can learn why they write by borrowing this book 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!

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder

By Charles Graeber

(Grand Central, $26.99, 307 pages)

Who is this author?

When a writer can list the following venues for his articles: Wired, GQ, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Vogue, Outside Magazine, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Travel + Leisure, and The New York Times , you know he can deliver the goods. Charles Graeber is that kind of writer and more – he was once a medical student and has co-written papers that were published in scientific journals. He has also won major awards for his reporting, and his stories have appeared in such respected anthologies as The Best American Crime Writing, The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Business Writing and The Best of National Geographic Adventure.  A Midwesterner by birth, he now lives in Brooklyn and on Nantucket Island.

What is this book about?

Be aware: the title of this book is drenched in irony. It is the true story of a monstrous criminal, Charles Cullen, the registered nurse who became known as “The Angel of Death” when his crimes were made known. Cullen, who from outward appearances was a nice guy, father, friend and respected colleague, was in fact a remorseless serial killer who dispatched as many as 300 victims over 16 years of work at nine hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. He was finally caught, through the dogged work of two former New Jersey detectives and sentenced in 2006. It took Charles Graeber almost a decade to research Cullen’s life and criminal career, through studying police records, conducting interviews, hearing wiretapped conversations and watching videotapes, along with talking to Cullen and to an informant who tipped off the authorities to the nurse’s murderous ways. Cullen is a mysterious creature: a bright, talented, seemingly shy man who in many ways was a good nurse, except, of course for his compulsion to kill: a “Dexter”-like character with a difference. After all, Dexter only kills evil killers. Cullen killed innocent people. And he is not the only villain here: the hospital administrators who ignored the warning signs and kept hiring him deserve a significant part of the blame.

Why you’ll like it:

Is the summer weather too hot for you? Open this book and you will soon feel a chill. If you are a lover of true crime stories, this is a classic of that genre. If you are fascinated by the minds of psychopaths, this is a book that gets inside the head of a particularly sick one. If you have concerns about the way the medical profession monitors its own, this book will disturb you. And if you appreciate the bravery of those willing to speak out and the determination of those who suspect the worst and proceed to track down a killer, it will tell you a story you will not soon forget.

What others are saying:

Says Janet Maslin in The New York Times: “…a stunning book with a flat, uninflected title that should and does bring to mind “In Cold Blood”…Both [Mr. Graeber] and Mr. Cullen know that the story appeals to prurient interests, as does any graphic tale of true crime. But “The Good Nurse” succeeds in being about much more than Mr. Cullen’s murderous kinks. The causes of his pathology are not interesting. But the eagerness of ambitious hospital administrators to cover up his misdeeds is revelatory. And the police investigation that brought him down is a thriller in every sense of that word.

Publishers Weekly says: “Taking advantage of his exclusive access to serial killer Charles Cullen, journalist Graeber makes the most of the dramatic story of a nurse who began killing patients in 1991, and who eluded prosecution for over a decade. …Without excusing or condoning Cullen’s crimes, the author presents a picture of the killer’s horrific childhood, which may provide an explanation for his descent into violence—a journey that began with animal cruelty and emotional withdrawal from his increasingly frightened wife. Cullen began tampering with IV bags at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey, and patients on the road to recovery, or who were at least stable, started dropping like flies. Incredibly, Cullen was able to move from one nursing job to another even after being forced out of employment because of suspicions that he was responsible for the deaths. Graeber doesn’t pull punches—his description of the effects of insulin poisoning are chilling, and he needn’t resort to hyperbole to damn the hospital administrators who failed to take it upon themselves to stop Cullen from claiming more lives. A deeply unsettling addition to the true crime genre.

“The terrifying, true tale of nurse Charles Cullen, a man who worked with the most vulnerable of patients for 16 years, delivering life or death on a whim. A whodunit where the culprit is identified on page one is as strange as a thriller with no surprise ending, but journalist Graeber presents these facts right from the beginning, never doubting the strength of the story. It works. Even without an uncertain finale, this true-crime tale delivers mystery and intrigue. The author begins with the satisfaction Cullen felt in his work, the good money he made and the doors open to him despite the litany of problems littering his professional and personal record. The author describes how Cullen came to nursing, how he felt a sense of belonging and distinction in his role, and the dysfunction of his personal life. Soon, Cullen was exerting control over his world by taking the lives of patients. Graeber does a particularly good job of showing the mounting evidence against Cullen as his misdeeds were originally discovered, following the nurse from accusation to accusation. The author imbues the story with an intense level of anticipation, with one question constantly in the background: Who will stop this man and when? Graeber describes the administrators who refused to report Cullen in the same way as the whistle-blowers who insisted on involving the police. The author’s cut-and-dried delivery serves to make the many paradoxes more poignant and lend some humor to a dark subject. A thrilling and suspenseful page-turner that is sure to be loved by the majority of readers, who will be both horrified and fascinated,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

“The Good Nurse” is in the stacks now at the Goodwin and Mark Twain branches of The Hartford Public Library.

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


By Roxana Robinson

(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $27,  400 pages)

Who is this author?

Roxana Robinson has now published five novels, three collections of short stories, and the acclaimed  biography, “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.” She has also contributed to The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, More, Vogue, and other publications.

Robinson, who divides her time between Maine, New York and Connecticut, has taught at Wesleyan University and other colleges and since 1997, has been on the faculty of the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference. She now teaches in the Hunter College MFA Program and reviews books for The New York Times and The Washington Post

Besides her fiction, Robinson also writes frequently about 19th and early 20th century American art for magazines and exhibition catalogs and is an expert on the life and work of O’Keeffe.  She also writes about travel, environmental issues and gardening.

What is this book about?

At Williams College, Conrad Farrell majors in classics and admires the history of ancient Sparta, where all citizens served as soldiers. His love of honor, courage and commitment leads him to join the Marine Corps when he graduates. But when he returns to his home in Katonah, N.Y. after four years in Iraq, though not physically wounded, he finds it difficult if not impossible to rejoin his former life, mirroring the agonies of so many returning soldiers. His rage is mounting and he is not getting the support promised to returning military. Sparta uses fiction to remind us of the real–life predicament of so many who served us, only to be abandoned when they return.

Why you’ll like it:

Robinson has researched the plight of military veterans who are not getting the help they need to reintegrate into American society, and she uses that knowledge to create compelling characters. This is fiction deeply grounded in fact, and the book offers a way for readers to comprehend the ironies and outrages of a system that demands everything from these young men and women but gives them far less than they deserve.

What others are saying:

In The Washington Post , reviewer Heller McAlpin says: “Pardon the pun, but Roxana Robinson’s new novel, “Sparta, “which takes us deep inside the troubled head of a Marine returning from four years of active duty in Iraq, really is a tour de force…”Sparta” is a novel with a mission—which in a lesser writer’s hands could spell its doom. But Robinson manages to convey the difficulties of a warrior returning to society and dramatize how we fail our veterans without reducing her story to a polemic. She pulls this off by expertly deploying three literary weapons: emotional insight, moral nuance and intellectual depth.

Says Publishers Weekly:  “Robinson’s fifth novel … is a detailed examination of the inner life of a Marine returning home after combat. Classics scholar Conrad Farrell, wanting to do “something big,” enlists in the belief that, as a soldier, he will be continuing a tradition going back to the ancient world. Following officer training at Quantico, Va., and four years of service in Iraq, he finds coming back to his family in Westchester, N.Y., a disorienting experience. He can’t get used to the safety of civilian life and struggles to reconnect with his family and his girlfriend, Claire, feeling overcome by rage at unexpected moments. He stays in contact, though, with the men who served under him. Suspecting that he’s suffering from PTSD, Conrad contacts the VA, but his needs are ignored again and again. Robinson brings us deep inside Conrad’s soul, and inside the suffocating despair and frustration that can stalk soldiers even when they are ostensibly out of harm’s way. By letting the reader live in Conrad’s skin, Robinson creates a moving chronicle of how we fail our returning troops.”

“A Marine commander returns home from Iraq badly shaken in this novel, which wears its heart–and its research–on its sleeve. Conrad entered the Marines shortly before 9/11 with an ambition to do something big: He studied Greek military history in college, admiring the discipline of city-states like Sparta (hence the title) but neglecting that place’s undercurrent of hubris. Returning home after two tours in Iraq to his sturdily middle-class family outside New York, Conrad is incapable of shaking off his experience. Loud noises snap him into fighting mode; suburban buildings and trains appear to him as easy targets; and simple conversations with his family and his on-again, off-again girlfriend become torments. Robinson consulted with Iraq War vets and a stack of books to construct Conrad, and she is masterful at capturing the various ways that language fails to depict the misery of PTSD; she subtly shows how everything from emails to prescription information sheets to official forms offer ways to only talk around the problem. Conrad struggles to find his footing in the months after his return, gamely preparing for grad school and reconnecting with college friends, but he slowly slips off the rails as he begins to self-medicate. Between the detailed flashbacks of wartime violence and the visions of stateside anxiety, Robinson has convincingly summarized the wartime experience, but only rarely does it feel like she’s made a full person out of Conrad, who has the distant feel of an Everyvet…” says Kirkus Reviews.

“Sparta gives us an unflinching portrayal of the costs of war, costs that go far beyond what the tallies of killed and wounded can tell us. There are plenty of losses that can be measured only in the language of the spirit, and it’s books such as this one, necessary books, that guide us to a fuller appreciation of war’s costs,” says Ben Fountain, author of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

When is it available?

“Sparta” can be found 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!

By Stephen King
(Hard Case Crime, $12.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Do I really have to tell you? OK, let’s assume you all know who Stephen King is. But did you know that as a child, he once lived in Stratford? And that Stratford and Bangor, Me., were the models for King’s fictional city of Derry, Me., which figures in several of his novels, such as “It”? King, who is the king indeed of contemporary horror fiction, is having quite a year: He is publishing two books – “Joyland”  is just out  and “Doctor Sleep,” a long-awaited sequel to his classic “The Shining,” in the fall. His novel “Under the Dome” is now a CBS-TV series, and in October, “Ghost Brothers of Darkland County,” a musical for which King wrote the book and John Mellencamp wrote the music, will go on tour. It’s already out in a CD box set, mini-documentary and e-book format.

You can learn more about King in my interview piece about him that ran Sunday, July 14, in The Courant and is online now. And you may be one of the lucky ones who snagged a ticket to his appearance, with WPNR radio personality and Courant columnist Colin McEnroe on Thursday, July 18, at the Bushnell. Tickets are $25 to $75.  Information: 

What is this book about?

“Joyland,” as you can tell from its pulp-fiction-y cover art and its publisher, Hard Case Crime, is more a mystery blended with a coming of age story than a work of supernatural fiction, although it does have a ghost. She is the spirit of a murdered girl who haunts a North Carolina amusement park where a college student lands a summer job in 1973 and learns the ways of the carny world and the real world, becoming attached to a dying young boy with a mysterious gift and falling for the boy’s mother. Reviewers are comparing its tone to that of King’s short story, “The Body,” which became the warm and nostalgic film about growing up, “Stand By Me.”

Why you’ll like it:

Here’s what King himself says about this book: “I love crime, I love mysteries, and I love ghosts. That combo made Hard Case Crime the perfect venue for this book, which is one of my favorites.”

King, as we all know, is quite capable of conjuring up supernatural stories that can scare readers to the point of being afraid to turn the page for fear of what is coming next, but this book is has a touching and poignant air about it and a mystery to solve. This is kinder, gentler King at his storytelling best. So you do not need to be a connoisseur of chills to find plenty to enjoy in “Joyland.” I’m betting it will be seen on beach blankets everywhere this summer.

What others are saying:

Neal Thompson, writing for  Amazon Best Book of the Month, June 2013, says : “What a smart, sweet, spooky, sexy gem of a story. In this one-off for the Hard Case Crime publishing imprint, King has found yet another outlet and format (print only, a zippy 280 pages) to suit his considerable talents. All are on full display here in the story of Devon Jones–”a twenty-one-year-old virgin with literary aspirations … and a broken heart”–who spends the summer of 1973 at Joyland amusement park in North Carolina. Devon makes new pals, proves himself to the hard-core carny workers, saves a girl’s life, befriends a dying boy (who has a secret gift), and falls for the boy’s protective, beautiful mother. The first half of the story is sweet and nostalgic, with modest hints of menace to come. (Think: “The Body,” King’s novella that became the film Stand By Me.) Devon learns to “sell fun” and “wear the fur” (carny-speak for dressing as Howie the Happy Hound, the park mascot), but he also learns about the woman who had been killed in the Funhouse, whose ghost still haunts Joyland. King has fun with the carny lingo–most of it researched and real, some of it invented. (The Ferris wheel, for example, is the chump-hoister.) The second half gets spookier, spinning into a full-on murder mystery–but also a love story, and a coming-of-age-story, with some supernatural fun woven in. More than a trifecta, this is King at his narrative and nostalgic best. A single-session tale to savor some summer afternoon. And then try not to keep thinking back on it.”

Library Journal says: “Along with hair-raising plots and believable characters (whether innocent or demonic or somewhere in between), a strong sense of place is an essential quality of King’s writing. In his second book for Hard Case Crime (after “The Colorado Kid”) the setting—an old-time amusement park on the North Carolina shore—easily earns its title billing. On a whim, Devon Jones, soon to be a University of New Hampshire senior, takes a summer job at the park and is quickly seduced by the carny atmosphere and the “we sell fun” motto. Soon he’s speaking the lingo, operating the rides, and entertaining crowds of kids, troubled only by the waning interest of his college sweetheart, who’s stayed behind in Boston. But as the weeks pass, Devon is pulled toward Joyland’s darker side, finding more evidence that an unsolved murder victim’s ghost still haunts the shadowy tunnels of the Horror House. VERDICT This one’s a must for King fans and may also attract YA readers.”

The Washington Post  says: “…a moving, immensely appealing coming-of-age tale that encompasses restless ghosts, serial murder, psychic phenomena and sexual initiation…The melodramatic aspects of the story are great fun, but the real strength of “Joyland” stems from King’s ability to connect with his characters directly and viscerally. It’s that emotional bond that marks the difference between books that merely entertain and books that matter in a fundamental way. With deceptive ease and astonishing regularity, King has been writing stories that matter for nearly 40 years. In “Joyland,” he has done it once again.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “A haunted carnival funhouse gives a supernatural spin to events in Thriller Award–winner King’s period murder mystery with a heart. In the summer of 1973, 21-year-old college student Devin Jones takes a job at Joyland, a North Carolina amusement park. Almost immediately, a boardwalk fortune-teller warns that Devin has “a shadow” over him, and that his destiny is intertwined with that of terminally ill Mike Ross, a 10-year-old boy who has “the sight.” Shortly after Devin meets Mike, Mike makes a cryptic comment: “It’s not white.” This proves a vital clue when Devin begins investigating an unsolved murder committed four years before at the carnival’s Horror House, and quickly stumbles into more than he bargained for. King brings his usual finesse to this tale’s mystery elements, and makes Dev’s handling of them crucial to the novel’s bigger coming-of-age story, in which Dev adapts to the carny life and finds true romance.”

“Undeniable…charm [and] aching nostalgia…[JOYLAND] reads like a heartfelt memoir and might be King’s gentlest book, a canny channeling of the inner peace one can find within outer tumult,” says Booklist.

When is it available?

Oh joy! There are copies of “Joyland’ at the Albany, Blue Hills, Campfield, Dwight, Goodwin and Mark Twain branches of the Hartford Public Libraries now.

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

The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family

by Josh Hanagarne

(Gotham, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

If I told you that Josh Hanagarne is a 6-foot-7-inch, 260-pound Mormon who is a weight lifter, you’d probably be impressed. And if I added that he has a serious and intractable case of Tourette’s Syndrome, a brain abnormality that causes all kinds of tics: Shouting uncontrollably or making other noises or smacking himself, you’d be horrified. But when you learn what he does for a living –  he is a librarian, of all unlikely occupations, at the Salt Lake City Public Library in Utah — you’d no doubt be mystified.

Hanagarne, who is married and has a young son who is beginning to exhibit signs of Tourette’s,  is all of these things, and he has written an inspirational memoir about his unusual life and the methods he has tried in hopes of  conqueingr his Tourette’s, including weight training, which does give him some control. He writes a blog about books and weight lifting at .

Interested in learning more? He will give a free talk on July 17 at 5 p.m. at the Center for Contemporary Culture at the Downtown Hartford Public Library, 500 Main St., Hartford.

What is this book about?

It’s the story of a very unusual life, marked by unusual problems and talents, and also a very interesting meditation on the value of libraries, then and now. Hanagarne loves books and reading and makes a passionate case for why books matter and how libraries enrich our communities and culture. His personal history – a late diagnosis of Tourette’s, although the symptoms had been present since he was 6, and years spent trying approved and quack remedies – is compelling. That he has found some relief from weight training and has also retained an impressive sense of humor is wonderful.

Here is some of what he told an Amazon interviewer:

Q: How has Tourette’s impacted your life?

Let’s get the negative out of the way: My case of Tourette’s hurts, it’s disruptive, it’s exhausting, it makes it hard to be out in public, it made me a great target for bullies, etc—Tourette’s often steals my chances to make my own first impressions. There’s this weird thing that goes out before me, announcing me, defining me, before I get the chance to explain myself. But it’s not me.

There are positives, though: Tourette’s has made me tough, stubborn, and has given me a low tolerance for whining and inertia. And it’s lead me to a lot of wonderful people in the Tourette’s community, particularly the kids who are having a tough time adjusting to the disorder.

Q: What are some of the ways you have tried to conquer your tics?

Lots of pills.  A nicotine patch. A faith healer/chiropractor in Elko, Nevada, who dressed like Randall Flagg from “The Stand” and administered to me with ramen noodle crumbs in his scraggly beard. I got botox injections in my vocal cords for two years, which took away my voice, so I couldn’t scream, but I couldn’t really talk either.

Lifting weights helped for a while, because I would train so hard that the pain of the workouts made the tics pale in comparison, but that’s a stupid way to approach a problem. I’ve also tried to stifle the tics through willpower, but that doesn’t work for long.

Ultimately, it’s come down to a grim truce. I’m still convinced I’ll get rid of Tourette’s entirely, but until then, I’ll be running on pure spite, here in the library, on full display and defiant.

Why you’ll like it:

The book is refreshingly honest, inspirational and informative, and also occasionally hilarious and/or heartbreaking. Hanagarne is an original voice, and while he cannot always control that voice in his dealings with others, he uses it beautifully when he writes about his unique situation. Here is an excerpt from his book:

“….Working in this library is the ultimate test for someone who literally can’t sit still. Who can’t shush himself. A test of willpower, of patience, and occasionally, of the limits of human absurdity.

A patron recently took exception to a series of throat clearings I couldn’t suppress. As he approached, I put on my customer service smile and readied myself for one of those rare, mind-blowing reference transactions that I hear about from other librarians. Instead this man said, “If you’re going to walk around honking like a royal swan, you don’t belong in the library. I’m going to call security. Somebody needs to teach you a lesson.”

I stood up. I’m six feet seven inches tall, and I weigh 260 pounds. “Is it you?” I’m not confrontational, but I don’t lose many staring contests. I’m good at looming when it’s helpful. He walked away.

I also work here because I love books, because I’m inveterately curious, and because, like most librarians, I’m not well suited to anything else. As a breed, we’re the ultimate generalists. I’ll never know everything about anything, but I’ll know something about almost everything and that’s how I like to live.

And here’s what he told the Amazon interviewer he hopes readers will get from his book:

I hope they’ll laugh, hug their families, use their libraries more, read more books, and ask all of those uncomfortable questions they’ve been avoiding. And then I want them to write to me and recommend a book that I should read. Anyone can send me a recommendation through my website:  www.WorldsStrongest . ”


What others are saying:

From Barnes & Noble: It is probably safe to say that Josh Hanagarne is probably the only six foot seven Mormon librarian with extreme Tourette’s who is also a proficient weightlifter. All that singularity, however, does not decrease by an iota the breadth of the appeal of this memoir, which has already been justly hailed for its “insight, humor, grace, and wonder.” Hanagarne’s account of how he bravely overcame his embarrassing Tourette’s tics with strength-training will be the draw for many readers, but with all its entertaining stories, this memoir is far more than just an inspirational tome. A Discover Great New Writers selection; an editor’s recommendation.

“Josh Hanagarne is a remarkable man…. In this moving memoir, Hanagarne shows his readers what it is like to live with a severe form of Tourette’s and how, with patience, love, and support from his family, he was able to build a rich, full life. Throughout, his optimism and amusing, self-deprecating sense of humor shine through. An excellent and uplifting story on accepting and coping with lifelong disabilities….” says Booklist.

Publishers Weekly says: “This wildly quirky memoir of facing down his ferocious Tourette’s tics follows Hanagarne, the son of a gold miner, from a bookish Mormon upbringing in Moab, Utah, to becoming a six-foot-four kettlebell-lifting librarian in Salt Lake City. …Hanagarne’s tics and involuntary vocalizations grew steadily worse through adolescence, until the family finally got a diagnosis when the author was in high school, learning about Tourette’s dopamine imbalances and the potential for various drugs. He began to see the dreaded condition as a kind of bodily parasite, with a separate identity he called Misty [for “Miss Tourette’s]. Playing basketball and the guitar helped the rangy, overtall Hanagarne to deal with his physical itchiness; and after being forced to return early from his mission year in Washington, D.C., at age 19, when the disability nearly incapacitated him, he entered a long, restless spell of dropping out of school, sporadic employment, and periodic weight training. Hanagarne’s account manages to be very gag-full and tongue-in-cheek, alternating with highly engaging current segments that take place in the urban library system where he works, besieged by noisy, importunate, rude—though mostly grateful—patrons. Moreover, the narrative is informed by Hanargarne’s deep reading of Stephen King and others, and proves a testament to his changing faith, as he recounts his marriage and his wife’s inability to conceive for many years, and their rejection by the Church of the Latter Day Saints for adoption. Reconciled with Tourette’s, Hanagarne never let the disease get the upper hand. “

Kirkus Reviews says: “A jaunty memoir covering both the influence of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the torments of Tourette’s syndrome….. His love of reading–boys’ books, girls’ books, the complete works of Stephen King or Agatha Christie, among many others–provided refuge from the taunts of schoolmates, and that love has abided. His day job is appropriate: He is a librarian at Salt Lake City’s public library, where Misty has little influence. Hanagarne is quite passionate about libraries, expressing more enthusiasm on the subject than he does on his relationship to his church. Mormon missionary work and higher education did not fit well with the recurring spasms; fitness training helped some. Even better was his marriage, an especially important part of the Mormon way of life. …Filled with patently imaginary discourse, clever invented conversation and just a hint of the inspirational, this text on how the writer copes is surprisingly amiable. Along the way, readers will learn about the workings of LDS ministration and a puzzling physical disorder. A clever, affable story of one Mormon, his family, his vocation and his implacable ailment.”

When is it available?

This book by a librarian is now waiting for readers at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick 

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

(Public Affairs, $24.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Letty Cotton Pogrebin, who was a cofounder with Gloria Steinem of Ms. Magazine, has had a long and successful career as a prize-winning journalist, an opinion writer and a public speaker, as well as a  progressive political activist. She is the author of several nonfiction bestsellers, including “Growing Up Free,” “Getting Over Getting Older” and “Deborah, Golda, and Me” and the novel, “Three Daughters.” She also is a breast cancer survivor.

What is this book about?

Even the most caring and sympathetic friends and relatives may find themselves groping for the right words and actions when someone they care about is diagnosed with cancer or another devastating disease. Yet they want to offer comfort and help, even if they are not quite sure how to best do so.

Having survived breast cancer, Letty Cottin Pogrebin experienced the gamut of reactions from those close to her: sometimes awkward or badly expressed and  confused about what Pogrebin needed and how to offer it, but in other cases, happily, full of genuine understanding and real help. So, like any good journalist, she decided to write about it, but branched out by interviewing other patients and survivors of serious  illnesses or accidents about what they felt they really needed and how best others might provide it. She compiled their information so that others can learn how to talk the talk and walk the walk with those they love.

Why you’ll like it:

Pogrebin has a warm voice and a practical soul, and even when she is criticizing the way some people stumble when dealing with an ill friend, she does it with caring and humor. Mincing few words and acknowledging the sensitivity of both patients and caregivers, she offers pragmatic and useful advice at a time when emotion tends to cloud good judgment. Many will find this a most useful and comforting book for friends or family members aching to do the right thing but unsure about how to do it well.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “ Pogrebin, a veteran feminist and  author… uses her experience with breast cancer—she was diagnosed in September 2009 at age 70—and nearly 80 interviews with friends and patients to craft this bluntly practical and gently humorous guide to the dos and don’ts of caring for the ill. The list of tips is formidably long, and includes plenty of helpful advice: Don’t ask “how” someone is feeling, ask “what” they’re feeling; never start a sentence with “Oh my God!”; and be sure to say things like, “Tell me how I can help,” and “I’m bringing dinner”—or ice cream, laughter, or pot (to which she gives “the grand prize for Most Restorative Gift”). There are also accounts of patients themselves, like writer Nora Ephron, who surprisingly chose to keep her fatal illness a secret from friends. But it’s the bravery and wisdom Pogrebin … brought to her own battle that lifts this guide from a mere list of sickroom rules to invaluable lessons for sickness and health. Her cancer, she writes, “taught me the blessings of silence” and that there are times “when the kindest thing you can do” for the ill “is to confer upon them the honor of the ordinary.”

Says the Wall Street Journal:“[A] kind of communication chasm, the one between the ill and those who care about them, is addressed with sympathy and humor in Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s “How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” a guide to what might be called “compassion etiquette.”

“…A cancer survivor channels her ordeal into reflections on the nature of empathy and friendships…. In 2009, a routine mammogram revealed a suspicious mass that not only changed the author’s relationship to her body, but also the interactions with her friends, some of whom were hesitant to visit. Pogrebin’s text serves her well as both an informative guide and an autobiographical chronicle. Evenly distributed throughout are personal interludes from her battle with breast cancer combined with helpful sections guiding those who are conflicted “when your role in the relationship is no longer easy or obvious.” For many, she writes, worry for a friend’s sudden or prolonged illness can be an intimidating, touchy subject, and communicating genuine concern could understandably be met with either graciousness or an irritable “Thank you for caring. Now leave me alone.” The author’s sharp advice illuminates many of the more common gray areas governing what to say to an ailing friend, appropriate visitation frequencies and durations, and proper gifting. She also provides tips for good behavior when a friend’s parent or child is gravely ill. Much of this valuable “illness etiquette” comes from personal experience (Pogrebin’s mother died of cancer) and from survival stories told to her by fellow patients. Illness, she writes, will often prove a friendship’s mettle, and those who get it right will temper the unavoidable shame and embarrassment that often accompany serious health issues. A useful refresher course on navigating the complicated territory of compassionate companionship,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Harold Varmus, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, says: “After examining a potentially difficult and nearly universal experience—dealing with a friend’s illness — from many points of view, Letty Pogrebin has turned her findings into wise and witty lessons about a prized but neglected human trait: empathy. In advising us on what to do and say, she also shows why she’s the kind of friend we all would want to have if we were sick.”

 “In How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, Pogrebin offers healthy doses of advice interspersed with a memoir of her own cancer sojourn. She promises a primer on empathy, and she delivers. She pens a call to action, and the stories — and truths — gathered in these pages will leave the reader fully equipped to become that life-affirming wonder, a Most Compassionate Friend,” says the Chicago Tribune.

When is it available?

This book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field, Dwight and Goodwin 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!


By Kent Haruf

(Knopf, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Kent Haruf is a native Coloradan who has set three of his successful novels – “Plainsong,” “Eventide” and now “Benediction” — in the state he knows so well. They take place in Holt, a fictional High Plains town inspired those of by Haruf’s boyhood. He  also is the author of “The Tie That Binds” (1984) and “Where You Once Belonged” (1990).

His writing has won him major honors: a Whiting Foundation Writers’ Award, the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Award, the Wallace Stegner Award, and a special citation from the PEN/Hemingway Foundation; he has also been a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New Yorker Book Award.

He and his wife, Cathy, have eight children between them, including his three daughters, from previous marriages. He had been teaching at Southern Illinois University when the profits he realized from best-selling “Plainsong,” which became a 2004 CBS TV movie starring Rachel Griffiths, enabled him to retire and return to Colorado.

What is this book about?

“Benediction” tells the story of a dying man. “Dad” Lewis,  and his wife Mary, who struggle to make his last days meaningful and peaceful, with the help of their daughter, who leaves the big city (Denver) to help out in Holt. But issues remain with their son, who is at odds with the family. Neighbors are affected by Dad’s illness, which echoes sadness they too have endured, and a new minister arrives in town, bearing with him problems with his wife and teenaged son and upsetting his congregation with his ideas. Meanwhile, a widow and her daughter do their best to comfort those in need. 

Why you’ll like it:

Haruf once told an interviewer this about his book, “Plainsong,” and it applies as well to “Benediction”:  “In the Plains, things are stripped down to the essentials, and that seems to fit what [“Plainsong”] is about and that seemed to be an obvious setting for this story.” His readers appreciate his calm and low-key voice, which reflects the simple landscape and ways of Holt, an unpretentious place. His stories show the author’s compassion for his  characters and hold out the possibility of grace, even for those who don’t seem to have earned it.

What others are saying:

Writing in  The Washington Post,  Ron Charles says: “…Haruf may be the most muted master in American fiction: our anti-Franzen. Haruf’s…novels are as plain and fortifying as steel-cut oatmeal: certified 100-percent irony-free, guaranteed to wither magic realism, stylistic flourishes and postmodern gimmicks…At its best, “Benediction” offers deceptively simple “little dramas, the routine moments” of small-town life, stripped to their elemental details. Haruf’s minimalism achieves more emotional impact than seems possible with such distilled material and so few words…He produces the kind of scenes that Hemingway might have written had he survived the ravages of depression.”

Publishers Weekly says:  “In Holt, the fictional Colorado town where all of Haruf’s novels are set, longtime resident Dad Lewis is dying of cancer. Happily married (he calls his wife “his luck”), Dad spends his last weeks thinking over his life, particularly an incident that ended badly with a clerk in his store, and his relationship with his estranged son. As his wife and daughter care for him, life goes on: one of the Lewises’ neighbors takes in her young granddaughter; an elderly woman and her middle-aged daughter visit with the Lewises, with each other, and with the new minister, whose wife and son are unhappy about his transfer to Holt from Denver. Haruf isn’t interested in the trendy or urban; as he once said, he writes about “regular, ordinary, sort of elemental” characters, who speak simply and often don’t speak much at all. “Regular and ordinary” can equate with dull. However, though this is a quiet book, it’s not a boring one. Dad and his family and neighbors try, in small, believable ways, to make peace with those they live among, to understand a world that isn’t the one in which they came of age. Separately and together, all the characters are trying to live—and in Dad’s case, to die—with dignity, a struggle Haruf …renders with delicacy and skill.”

“His finest-tuned tale yet. . . . There is a deep, satisfying music to this book, as Haruf weaves between such a large cast of characters in so small a space. . . . Strangely, wonderfully, the moment of a man’s passing can be a blessing in the way it brings people together. Benediction recreates this powerful moment so gracefully it is easy to forget that, like [the town of] Holt, it is a world created by one man,” says John Freeman in The Boston Globe.

“Haruf is the master of what one of his characters calls ‘the precious ordinary’. . . . With understated language and startling emotional insight, he makes you feel awe at even the most basic of human gestures,” says Ben Goldstein in Esquire.

“Grace and restraint are abiding virtues in Haruf’s fiction, and they resume their place of privilege in his new work. . . . For readers looking for the rewards of an intimate, meditative story, it is indeed a blessing,”  says Karen R. Long in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has “Benediction” on its new book shelves.

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 Woman Upstairs

By Claire Messud

(Knopf, $15.95, 321 pages)

Who is this author?

Claire Messud positioned herself solidly atop the current literary ladder to success with her 2006 novel, “The Emperor’s Children,” which was named a New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post Best Book of the Year. She also drew praise for her first novel, “When the World Was Steady” and her novella collection, “The Hunters,” finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her second novel, “The Last Life,” was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year and Editor’s Choice at The Village Voice., and all her books were named New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She lives in Cambridge, Mass, with her husband and children. Her husband, by the way, is British literary critic James Woods, now the chief books critic for The New Yorker. Messud’s fans can only wonder how much further she can rise, and whether her latest novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” with its difficult lead character, will energize or impede her impressive career.

What is this book about?

It’s about a thwarted artist, who settles for becoming a teacher. (Those who can’t do, teach?) It’s about her involvement with a family, the Shahids, who enthrall and ensnare her in their lives. And mostly it’s about betrayal and the amazing, thunderous, purifying rage that ensues.  Nora Eldridge had dreamed of being an artist, mother and lover, but winds up merely the “woman upstairs,” a secondary player in the lives of her friends and neighbors. When the cosmopolitan, artistic and brilliant Shahids enter her life, she falls in love with them all: the Lebanese Harvard professor father, the artistic Italian mother and their darling but bullied son. When the story’s twists propel Nora (and the reader) to a shocking betrayal, that rage erupts. Hold onto your seat.

Why you’ll like it:

Messud writes with assurance and  power, issuing forth page-long paragraphs that leave you gasping for breath and also gasping with admiration. Here, for example, is how the book begins:

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

 “I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight- A, strait- laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and “I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father every day on the telephone— every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.”

“Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end even the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish. What do I mean? I mean the second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get to my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone—they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and cute outfits and they care how their hair looks! In the third grade. They care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics. How did all that revolutionary talk of the seventies land us in a place where being female means playing dumb and looking good? Even worse on your tombstone than “dutiful daughter” is “looked good”; everyone used to know that. But we’re lost in a world of appearances now.

“That’s why I’m so angry, really—not because of all the chores and all the making nice and all the duty of being a woman—or rather, of being me—because maybe these are the burdens of being human. Really I’m angry because I’ve tried so hard to get out of the hall of mirrors, this sham and pretend of the world, or of my world, on the East Coast of the United States of America in the first decade of the twenty- first century. And behind every mirror is another fucking mirror, and down every corridor is another corridor, and the Fun House isn’t fun anymore and it isn’t even funny, but there doesn’t seem to be a door marked EXIT. “


This is no one’s idea of a “beach book,” unless you are the kind of fearless reader who wants your heat emanating from the pages of a book, not the summer sun. 

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The gifted Messud, writing her way through the ages, has now arrived at a woman in her 40s – and it’s not pretty. Nora Eldridge, a schoolteacher who dreams of being an artist, is angry, cynical, and quietly desperate. Then she meets the Shahid family: Sirena, Skandar, and Reza, a student in Nora’s third-grade class, … When Sirena asks Nora to share an artists’ studio, Nora falls in love with each exotic Shahid in turn: Sirena, for her artistic vision; Skandar, for his intellectual fervor; and Reza, because he’s a perfectly beautiful child, bullied at school but magnanimous. …here is an individual who believes she’s found a vigorous self in the orbit of a dangerously charismatic family. But after freeing Nora from herself, the Shahids betray her, Sirena especially …. As with other Messud characters, these too are hard to love; few would want to know the unpalatable Nora, so full of self-loathing, nor the self-important Shahids.”

“…it’s unwise to credit Nora’s jaundiced perceptions. Her untrustworthy, embittered narration, deliberately set up as a feminine counterpoint to the rantings of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, is an astonishing feat of creative imagination: at once self-lacerating and self-pitying, containing enough truth to induce squirms. Messud persuasively plunges us into the tortured psyche of a conflicted soul whose defiant closing assertion inspires little confidence that Nora can actually change her ways. Brilliant and terrifying,” says Kirkus Reviews.

Writing for Bookforum, Daphne Merkin says:

“If I have sounded like an equivocal admirer of Messud’s until now, let me hereby announce my full conversion to fandom with her latest novel, “The Woman Upstairs.” For one thing, it is something none of her other fiction has been, which is an absolute page-turner, from its grab-you-by-the-collar opening–”How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that”–to its final rumination on the creative uses of anger: “a great boil of rage like the sun’s fire in me.” For another, it may well be the first truly feminist (in the best, least didactic sense) novel I have read in ages–the novel candid about sex and the intricacies of female desire that Virginia Woolf hoped someone would write, given a room and income of her own. …”The Woman Upstairs” is an extraordinary novel, a psychological suspense story of the highest sort that will leave you thinking about its implications for days afterward.”

“…. “The Woman Upstairs” is first-rate: It asks unsettling, unanswerable questions: How much do those who are not our family or our partners really owe us? How close can we really be to them before we start to become needy or creepy? The characters are fully alive,” says John Broening in The Denver Post.

“Spellbinding, psychologically acute . . Nora’s heightened state lets her see things others miss. [Yet] how much of Nora’s fantasy is true—and to what degree the Shahids must share the blame when it’s not—is the real subject of Messud’s novel… as is often true with her work, the writer who comes to mind is [Henry] James—with his often unreliable narrators and focus on the disconnect between American innocence and European experience. . . . By novel’s end, Nora has every reason to be angry with the Shahids. But Messud also makes clear that if Nora is living her life upstairs rather than down on the main floor, she has even more reason to be angry with herself . . . Exquisitely rendered,” says Mike Fischer in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“[A] powerful psychological thriller . . . As in a fairy tale, Nora becomes spellbound by a family that seems to embody what she is missing. The power of self-deception is one of the key themes. . . . This is not just a novel of real psychological insight. It is also a supremely well-crafted page-turner with a shocker of an ending,” says Julia M. Kleinin The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

Messud’s new book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Camp Field Branch. 

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