Monthly Archives: December 2013

Tenth of December

By George Saunders

(Random House, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Last January, without waiting to see what else might be published in 2013, the New York Times called George Saunders’ new short story collection “the best book you’ll read this year.” And not to be outdone, recently named Saunders one of the sexiest men of 2013. But, you may ask, who is he?

Saunders somehow morphed from being a a technical writer and geophysical engineer to being a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, winner of multiple writing awards, a visiting writer at Wesleyan University, a recipient of a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation  “genius grant” and possessor of an inimitable authorial voice in short stories, essays and books for kids. His work has been praised to the skies and reviewers this year were close to unanimous in saying “Tenth of December” was his best work yet.

Here’s what Saunders has said about his roots in science: “…any claim I might make to originality in my fiction is really just the result of this odd background: basically, just me working inefficiently, with flawed tools, in a mode I don’t have sufficient background to really understand. Like if you put a welder to designing dresses.”

Based on his wondrous writing, I’d sure like to see those dresses.

What is this book about?

Many, many things. This collection of 10 exquisitely crafted short stories veers from the real – a geeky loner of a kid emotionally rescues a suicidal man; an emotionally wounded veteran returns to his mother’s house but finds it no longer home – to the brain-twistingly surreal – a striving middle-class family yearns for the latest in lawn ornaments: live young women strung together by a wire through their brains; a research subject is tormented with drugs whose very names highlight Saunders’ verbal dexterity: Vivistif for creating lust, Verbaluce for spurring eloquence and Darkenfloxx for creating despair.

To describe their plots in detail would give toio much of  the stories away yet fail to fully explain them. It’s not so much what Saunders writes about, but how and why. If some of them seem familiar to some readers, that’s because they have appeared in that premiere showcase for American fiction: The New Yorker.

Why you’ll like it:

Saunders can be wickedly funny and challengingly weird, but underneath the verbal pyrotechnics is a writer with strong ideas about the need for tenderness and  goodness and the ever-increasing absurdity of our world. As put it: “It also doesn’t hurt that he seems like a genuinely nice guy.”

There is less of his brilliant mockery of corporate-speak here (but see those drug names!), and more probing into the human condition and its baffling quirks. Saunders is hard to write about – his style is unique, though he is often compared favorably to such other masters as Barthelme, Vonnegut and Twain. But he is easy to read, even when you are not quite sure where he is taking you. Do yourself a favor: let this geophysicist-turned-storyteller guide you deep into the center of his world.  And if you enjoy this book, do not miss his “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” (1996), “ Pastoralia” (2000) and  “In Persuasion Nation “(2006).

What others are saying:

Says  the Amazon Best Books of the Month review for January 2013: “George Saunders’ first short-story collection in six years, Tenth of December is as profound and moving as it is entertaining. Saunders’ wonderful ability to portray a character’s inner monologue–the secret voices, the little fantasies, the inside jokes, the spots of sadness–might be his greatest talent as a writer. But he is also expert at parceling out details to hook the reader and nudge the story in whatever direction he wants it to go. While these stories are generally more straightforward than we’re used to seeing from this author, the turns they take are constantly surprising. Saunders is an American original, a writer gifted at expressing the irony and absurdity all around us and inside us, but his ultimate goal is to show us something deeper: Our lives are composed of genuine experiences that deserve to be taken seriously.

Says The New York Times:  In “Tenth of December,” his fourth and best collection, readers will encounter an abduction, a rape, a chemically induced suicide, the suppressed rage of a milquetoast or two, a veteran’s post-­traumatic impulse to burn down his mother’s house — all of it buffeted by gusts of such merriment and tender regard and daffy good cheer that you realize only in retrospect how dark these morality tales really are. . . Fans of Saunders’s three earlier collections . . will immediately recognize the gonzo ventriloquism that gives his work such comic energy. By tapping into the running interior monologues of his hopeful, fragile characters, Saunders creates a signature voice that’s simultaneously baroque and demotic — a trick he pulls off by recognizing just how florid our ordinary thoughts can be, how grandiose and delusional and self-­serving….. Saunders hears America singing, and he knows it’s ridiculous, and he loves it all.”

The Boston Globe says:  “George Saunders captures the fragmented rhythms, disjointed sensory input, and wildly absurd realities of the 21st century experience like no other writer. He is satiric without being sarcastic, ironic yet compassionate. He mocks the bizarre institutional structures we’ve created — mindless bureaucracies, stale theme parks (in his 1996 first collection, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline’’), immoral goals promoted in rah-rah corporate technotalk, without being contemptuous of his characters. His prose mimics how we think, with abrupt starts and stops, the interior flow of perception interrupted continuously by digital cues and exterior shocks that require immediate analysis.”

“Since the publication of George Saunders’ 1996 debut story collection, Civilwarland in Bad Decline, journalists and scholars have been trying to figure out how to describe his writing. Nobody has come very close. The short story writer and novelist has been repeatedly called “original,” which is true as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. Saunders blends elements of science fiction, horror and humor writing into his trademark brand of literary fiction…. But with his new short story collection, Tenth of December, Saunders proves he’s a master of a genre few people have associated with him: realism. That’s not to say he has abandoned the bizarre, dystopian type of fiction that made him one of the country’s most well-regarded authors; that’s all still there. But in his new book, his defiant quirkiness is tempered with a dark sobriety and a sense that the world we live in is often more surreal and savage than any satire could be. Tenth of December isn’t just the author’s most unexpected work yet; it’s also his best….. It would be tempting to believe that Saunders’ fiction portrays society the way a fun-house mirror does, reflecting images that look familiar but are, finally, exaggerated and unreal. Tenth of December suggests that’s not the case — that what we assumed was a nightmare is, in fact, our new reality. It also proves that Saunders is one of America’s best writers of fiction, and that his stories are as weird, scary and devastating as America itself,” says

In a starred review, Booklist says:  “Saunders, a self-identified disciple of Twain and Vonnegut, is hailed for the topsy-turvy, gouging satire in his three previous, keenly inventive short story collections. In the fourth, he dials the bizarreness down a notch to tune into the fantasies of his beleaguered characters, ambushing readers with waves of intense, unforeseen emotion. Saunders drills down to secret aquifers of anger beneath ordinary family life as he portrays parents anxious to defang their children but also to be better, more loving parents than their own. The title story is an absolute heart-wringer, as a pudgy, misfit boy on an imaginary mission meets up with a dying man on a frozen pond. In “Victory Lap,” a young-teen ballerina is princess-happy until calamity strikes, an emergency that liberates her tyrannized neighbor, Kyle, “the palest kid in all the land.” In “Home,” family friction and financial crises combine with the trauma of a court-martialed Iraq War veteran, to whom foe and ally alike murmur inanely, “Thank you for your service.” Saunders doesn’t neglect his gift for surreal situations. There are the inmates subjected to sadistic neurological drug experiments in “Escape from Spiderhead” and the living lawn ornaments in “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” These are unpredictable, stealthily funny, and complexly affecting stories of ludicrousness, fear, and rescue. “

When is it available?

“Tenth of December” is on the shelves 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!

The Engagements

by J. Courtney Sullivan

(Doubleday, $26.95, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

J. Courtney Sullivan has two New York Times best-selling novels to her credit: “Commencement” and “Maine, which earned a Best Book of the Year designation by Time magazine and was listed as a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. Sullivan has also contributed to such publications as The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Glamour, Allure, Real Simple, and New York magazine and others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, the Official Borough of Talented Young American Writers. (OK, I made that up, but you know what I mean.)

What is this book about?

Diamonds, and their ostensible forever-ness.

And passion. And love. And whether marriage sustains those emotions or eventually snuffs them out…or both. Told in five stories, beginning in the 1940s with a young advertising copywriter who fears that finding a man might mean ending her burgeoning career (echoes of Peggy on “Mad Men,” anyone?),  based on real-life Frances Gerety, who coined the everlasting tag line for DeBeers diamonds – say it with me now: “A Diamond Is Forever.” The book goes on to examine four couples with very different experiences of romance, fidelity and eternal love

Why you’ll like it:

Multiple  romances, plus a dollop of feminist inklings, for the price of one, linked together by that expensive and still sought-after symbol of commitment, the diamond engagement ring. Sullivan gracefully uses the ring to link her stories, told with heart and a generous understanding of what love can do for us and to us. Easy to read and very, well, engaging. These stories, set in different decades, offer a clever and moving exploration of the things we do – or don’t, or won’t or can’t – for love.

What others are saying:

“Inspired by the real-life story of Frances Gerety, [who was] the 1940s copywriter who penned the ‘A Diamond is Forever’ tagline for DeBeers, Sullivan riffs on the fragile state of marriage through a clever series of loosely connected vignettes.  At the heart of each episode lies that sparkly symbol of romantic commitments . . . given a sharp and crystalline coherence by virtue of Sullivan’s sometimes bold, sometimes nuanced improvisation on the resonance of the diamond engagement ring,” says Booklist.

In The Washington Post, Ron Charles writes: “In Sullivan’s easy, unadorned style, The Engagements is a delightful marriage of cultural research and literary entertainment—the perfect book to ruin your wedding plans. It’s hard to describe The Engagements without making it sound like a lot of clunky exposition and domestic construction: five settings, dozens of characters, and all the attendant social and political contexts that need to be built for these separate plots. Don’t worry: Even jumping from story to story every few pages, Sullivan handles all the details elegantly, and the situations are surprisingly distinct, adorned with the unique elements of the times and even the disparate ways people spoke… “

Library Journal says: “Mary Frances Gerety’s greatest contribution to American romance, not to mention the jewelry industry, was the tagline she wrote for her employer, the N.W. Ayer advertising agency: “A diamond is forever.” Under the umbrella of the real-life Frances’s career, Sullivan weaves the stories of four couples bound together over decades by one opulent and iconic diamond engagement ring. We begin in the 1970s with the Pearsalls, reeling from their immature son’s abandonment of his family for a flagrant affair. In the 1980s, EMT James and nurse Sheila struggle in a stagnant Boston economy while working low-income jobs. In the early aughts, a beautiful French woman abandons her husband as she is consumed by passion for a brilliant and much younger American violinist, to whom she becomes engaged—until his behavior sends her on a rampage. A decade later, Kate and Dan eschew marriage while they prepare for the same-sex nuptials of Kate’s gay cousin. VERDICT Sullivan . . .  has written an intricate, beautifully timed novel, so delicious in its gradual unfolding that readers will want to reread it immediately to enjoy the fully realized ties.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Is a diamond really forever? So Sullivan . . . asks in her third novel, which explores the familiar territory of people who can’t quite find the old connections but keep looking for them all the same. Frances Gerety, a real person whom Sullivan enlists at the outset of her tale, had a daunting task way back in 1947: She had to cook up an advertising tagline for De Beers that would convince Americans to purchase diamond engagement rings, hitherto “considered just absolutely money down the drain.” Sullivan’s story takes off from there, diamonds forming a leitmotif in ingeniously connected stories that span generations. . . . in Sullivan’s depiction of the world, every character harbors regrets over roads not taken. Some are stronger than others, and many are devoted to things more than people . . . Does money ever buy any of them happiness? Not really, but it does score a few carats. A modern update of The Spoils of Poynton; elegant, assured, often moving and with a gentle moral lesson to boot.”

“Any one of the five stories of The Engagements could have been a novel in itself. Taken together, though, they rather brilliantly represent different facets of marriage — and not always the bright and shiny ones . . . Captivating . . . Clever . . . Sullivan’s writing is smooth as she takes the reader back and forth in time and in and out of relationships; by the end, you understand, as one character notes, that marriages can come and go, and it’s only the diamond that lasts,” says the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

When is it available?

If you think you’ll like it, put a hold on it. “The Engagements” is sparkling on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park 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!

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

By Peter Orner

(Little, Brown and Company, $25, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Peter Orner, who turned 45 this year, is a University of Michigan grad who also has a law degree and an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Born in Chicago, he now lives in Marin County, Calif., where he is a volunteer firefighter and teaches writing at San Francisco State University. Critics have raved over his earlier books, which include  “Esther Stories,” “Love and Shame and Love” and “The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo,” which he  set in Namibia, where he lived in the 1990′s. He has edited two non-fiction books, “Underground America” and  “Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives”  published by McSweeney’s/ Voice of Witness, an imprint that uses oral history to raise awareness of human rights crises. Orner’s work has also appeared in many major publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s and Best American Stories. His many awards include the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Goldberg Prize for Jewish Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and two Pushcart Prizes.

What is this book about?

As someone who spends a lot of time on Cape Cod, the title of this collection caught my eye. But it is not an homage to sand dunes and salty air on the Cape, although one story involves the Chappaquiddick bridge and another an impending hurricane.  Instead, it is a collection of 51 stories, some quite short, such as a single paragraph,  set in locales as diverse as Chicago, Mexico and the Czech Republic. The places that Orner is most interested in exploring are the human heart and mind; his wisdom, wit and curiosity about human nature makes him an ideal guide.

Why you’ll like it:

Orner wins praise for crafting intriguing characters and situations with a mastery of language, and he loves the short story form. Here are some thoughts he shared with Tin House, a literary journal:

“. . . I always get a little irritated by story collections that don’t contain stories that are different from each other.  . . . The sort of collection where you always know where you are. I like to think of a collection as exactly this: a collection of individual souls who may or may not have anything to do with each other, but they’re human and have some of the same preoccupations and worries and desires and fears. Say you’re walking down the street in a city where you couldn’t possibly know everyone, and yet what if you could? What if for every different person you walked by, you got into their heads, began to understand what makes them tick – all their common expectations, all their common disillusionments?  We’re all more connected than we ever realize.

…I think a lot of people, myself included, walk around numb a lot of the time. Stories unumb, if they’re doing their job. I confess to wanting—trying to—to put the screws to people. If a story doesn’t startle a reader out of complacency, it’s not much of a story.

“At the same time, I think we’re all a little afraid of melodrama or sentimentality. As is these things aren’t part of life, you know? But these things are as erratic and inconsistent as everything else in life. The thing is not to overly manipulate. Too often stories guide us to some emotional endpoint. I guess I try and avoid this with everything I’ve got.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review for August says: “Peter Orner’s exquisite second collection of stories rambles across time and place, from postwar 1947 to 1978 to 1958, from Chappaquiddick to Chicago to the Czech Republic, each exposing a small, intimate moment. Like an uncomfortably candid photograph  . . .  the stories are finite and tightly framed, some just a page or two. Some are whimsical, some sobering, and most conclude with a “wow” moment that requires a pause–to reflect on the horror or beauty of the story, or the bravado of the writer. In one of the strongest pieces, a boy-girl conversation about an ex-lover turns unexpectedly chilling, ending with the perfect closing line: “I said don’t touch me.” From a frightened dad suffering a “permanent state of mourning” to the “childless couple” murdered in their garage to the brothers looking back on the day they fished beneath the infamous bridge at Chappaquiddick, Orner’s characters are raw, exposed, often sad, and the dialogue conveys the uncomfortable sense that you’re spying on deeply personal conversations.  . . . Orner deserves a place among those who are bringing the short form back to new artistic heights.

Booklist says: “Orner is an undisputed master of the short short story . . . a form that even shapes his novels. . . . The 51 distilled tales in this fizzing, chilling, and incisive collection are rich in emotional intricacy, drama, and devilish humor. Also in high evidence is Orner’s fascination with fractious marriages and families under pressure—especially in beautifully rendered stories set in his native Illinois—and his gift for a touch of evil. A wife stands by her Bernie Madoffish husband. A man compulsively returns to a restaurant where a murder was committed. A father barely escapes a hurricane with his daughter. A woman recounts her lover’s disappearance and macabre reappearance. A woman in Mexico City misses her sister, who is out of reach in Ohio. With an eye to history and the mythic nature of public figures, Orner imagines Isaac Babel’s last moments and the struggles of Russian immigrants, the Kennedys, and Chicago mayors. This is a book of alchemical concentration, microcosmic resonance, arresting surprises, and stubborn tenderness. “

Says The New York Times Book Review: “In each of his books, Orner’s crystalline sentences and his ability to pay close and sustained attention to small moments transform the ordinary elements of each story into an even more astonishing whole…every story in Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is excellent, incisive, moving…A reader could dip into this book anywhere, go for a walk, and come back later to be moved differently. “

“In his second story collection, Orner  . . . fires jewel-toned shards of fiction into a stunning whole. These tales, many of which are as short as a paragraph, jump back and forth between Fall River, Mass.; Chicago; Russia; the Czech Republic; South Dakota; and other places, as well as skipping across decades. Though most stand alone, several feature the relatives of Horace and Josephine Ginsburg, a family’s “famous once-hads,” whose failed Ponzi scheme ruined their relatives and the whole town. Divided into four parts—“Survivors,” “The Normal,” “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different,” and “Country of Us”—the collection explores the heartache of the past; many stories feature men trying to make sense of the confusing adult world they inhabited as children. Perhaps the most tangible example is the title story, in which Horace’s brother-in-law Walt Kaplan—a daydreaming furniture salesman in 1947—ruminates on the time in 1938 when he made it over the Cape Cod Canal just ahead of a hurricane. Impermanence and longing pervade the collection. In “Fourteen-Year-Olds, Indiana Dunes, Late Afternoon,” one character “rises and stands in the shallow water and faces the beach as the waves break upon the shore, only to fall back toward her,” just as Orner returns over and over to these crystallized moments,” says  Publishers Weekly.

Says Library Journal:  “Orner . . . once again shows himself to be a master of compression. These stories, as short as a page and no more than four or five pages at most, form a constellation of key moments in the lives of an extended family of secular Jews with retail establishments and a penchant for local (i.e., Chicago) politics. One of the book’s four sections takes its title from Chekhov’s play, Three Sisters: “In Moscow Everything Will Be Different.” Just as Chekhov’s titular sisters never stop talking about Moscow but likewise never get there, Orner’s characters have their own personal “Moscows”—the events in their lives that they cannot get past, that they must continuously relive and retell, like the father who rescues his daughter in a hurricane or the man who may or may not have witnessed a fire at the Coconut Grove Hotel. VERDICT Collectively, these events take on a mythic aspect that makes them linger and coalesce in the reader’s mind. Perhaps by virtue of their length, Orner’s stories force the reader to pay attention to those telling details, to unravel the sentences for all they are worth, and they are worth a lot.”

When is it available?

Don’t be the last one over to the Downtown Hartford Public Library, where this book is on the 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 Daylight Gate

By Jeanette Winterson

(Grove, $24, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in  England and raised in a mill town, Winterson is the adopted daughter of Pentecostal evangelists and author of 17  books, including “ Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit,” a fictionalized autobiography; “Sexing the Cherry” and “The Passion.” Her prizes are many and impressive, including the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel for “Oranges,” the John Llewllyn Rhys Prize, the E. M. Forster Award, and the Stonewall Award. “The Daylight Gate,” published first in the UK, was an instant best seller there.

As her website,,,drily puts it: “As a Northern working class girl she was not encouraged to be clever.”

Winterson goes on to say: “I think I started writing before I could read because I wanted to write sermons, because I was driven by a need to preach to people and convert them which possibly I still am…”

But a conventional clergy career was not to be, because at 16, Winterson had come out as a lesbian and left home

What is this book about?

“The Daylight Gate” takes a hard and beautifully written look at a very troubling subject: witchcraft trials in the early 1700s in England, when the Protestant king hunted down Catholics following the aborted Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate him. Witchcraft and magic were accepted as real in those days, and religion and politics were inextricably mixed, to the benefit of neither….a lesson that perhaps needs to be re-learned.

The book is based on the true travails of Alice Nutter, a rich, beautiful and respected woman who was accused of witchcraft, like two of her friends, as well as being the lover of another woman. It is an historical novel that opens up a particularly dark era in Western history to some needed daylight and also a feminist novel that explores how some men are quick to accuse women striving to control their own lives of having or pursuing diabolical powers, a pernicious line of thought that regretfully has not disappeared to this day.


Why you’ll like it:

Winterson gets acclaim for the vividness of her writing, and her subject here is rich with opportunities for a writer with that kind of skill. Here are scenes of great wealth and privilege contrasted with abused women and their starving children; Renaissance-era libertines and alchemists, censorious clergy and brutal torturers, a mysterious woman with a pet falcon and myriad other characters of a period that sounds like a dark fairy tale but is based on reality. This is a short book but an enchanting one, the kind of historical novel where history and fantasy blend into a very powerful whole.

What others are saying:

“More than a shivery treat… This harrowing novel, set in early-17th-century England, touches on nearly every aspect of witchcraft, both historical and imaginative. In little more than 200 pages, Jeanette Winterson depicts starving hags, gorgeous Renaissance orgies, alchemists searching for the secret of eternal life, horrific torture and even the Dark Gentleman himself. Much of the story, moreover, is true…. The Daylight Gate proffers a series of short, sharp shocks… the reader … is gripped by the realistic horrors and brutality Winterson describes… Winterson neatly shifts back and forth among various “realities” throughout… Yet she never tries to dazzle the reader, keeping her sentences sober, precise and solemnly beautiful as the novel moves along with a steady relentlessness…. utterly spellbinding,” says Michael Dirda in the Washington Post.

Says Publishers Weekly: “To open The Daylight Gate is to be thrust into an England most Americans will have trouble believing ever existed. It’s a wild, superstitious place where the king (James I, Protestant son of the very Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots) has minions who prosecute (and, arguably, persecute) people suspected of witchcraft or Catholicism. Winterson starts with the historical record—the 1612 Lancashire Witch Trial really happened—and adds poetry, possibility, Shakespeare, Elizabethan Magus John Dee, a sexy priest on the run, a lifelong love between two women, and best of all, her version of real-life accused witch Alice Nutter. Using the fact that Nutter was from a different class than the group she was tried and executed with, Winterson creates a character straight out of fantasy. Alice is vividly beautiful, suspiciously young-looking, and while not a witch herself, acquainted with what witches call the “Left-Hand Path,” having worked with Dee on his alchemy and seen her female lover sell her soul to the devil, here called “the Dark Gentleman.” Disliked for her power and fearlessness—she rides astride and harbors suspected witches on her land—when the hunts for Catholics and witches converge, so too do her past and present. The book is short, violent (both torture and magic are depicted with full goriness), and absorbing. The language is simple and sometimes lovely, and to say that the book could have gone the extra mile and been a graphic novel is not to damn it, but to recognize the pleasure in its intensely visual qualities.

Booklist’s starred review says: “Winterson’s novels tend to be complex and invigorating. She excels at creating provocative and satirical meshes of tradition and innovation, as in her many-faceted riff on Robinson Crusoe in The Stone Gods (2008). But here wizardly Winterson hones her storytelling to a dagger’s point in an eviscerating variation on the epochal 1612 English witch trials in haunted Lancaster, a Catholic stronghold under James I, the new Protestant king. Like a witch over a cauldron, Winterson mixes historical figures (including William Shakespeare) with invented characters as she portrays a coven of horribly abused women and their starving, sexually exploited children, a desperate clan bravely defended by the mysterious and refined Alice Nutter. Wealthy, accomplished, and strangely ageless, Alice lives in solitary splendor, trusting only her falcon, and refuses to be intimated by the puffed-up witch-hunting lawyer, Thomas Potts, or the handsome, wily magistrate, Roger Nowell. But why does Alice risk all for the hideous crone, Old Demdike? Winterson summons up with forensic detail seventeenth-century filth, defilement, and torture while also conjuring occult forces and diabolical events. The result is a gripping tale of bloody religious persecution and brutal oppression of women and children, a heady and seething novel of fact, valor, ‘magick,’ and love.”

Says Library Journal: “This short novel brings to life 17th-century England during the reign of James I at the Pendle witch trials in 1612. The presence of witchcraft is clear, and Satan appears briefly, yet the accusations against 13 women are highly politicized, much like the Salem witch trials of 1692 in America. The protagonist is Alice Nutter (a real-life victim who was recently honored with a statue in the Lancashire village of Roughlee, her home before she was taken to Lancaster Castle to be tried), who speaks up for the condemned and finds herself facing charges. As we learn more about Alice’s history, we see how a great past love she experienced has and will cost her dearly. The story of Alice’s affair with another woman is erotic and gripping, and the story’s supernatural elements are intriguing. Alice is a complex character with a big heart, a woman who embraces her sexuality and stands up against the powerful. This is a suspenseful, disturbing novel about passion, injustice, sacrifice, and bravery in the face of hideous torture and execution. …”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Witchcraft in 17th-century England: from the prolific British author … a nightmarish novella that burns like a hot coal. It was a notorious trial. The Lancashire Witches were tried and executed in 1612. England was jittery. The Protestant king, James I, was intent on hunting down witches and Catholics. The Gunpowder Plot had been a close call; all the Catholic plotters had fled north to Lancashire. Winterson uses the historical framework, grafting her inventions onto it. Entering the past with her is like walking through an open door. You are there. It is a world of rape and pillage. The most conspicuous witches are the Demdikes, a fearsome family of wretched indigents. The gentlewoman Alice Nutter, wealthy from inventing a dye, lets them live in a grim tower on her land. It is Good Friday. The Demdikes are planning a Black Mass. It is Alice’s misfortune to be at the tower when the magistrate arrives. All of them, save Alice, are placed under guard. Alice does not believe in witchcraft, but she does believe in magic, which flickers throughout the narrative. Thirty years before, in London, she had known the alchemist John Dee and the beautiful Elizabeth Southern, one of her two great loves. Then Elizabeth sold her soul to the Dark Gentleman, but Alice stayed young, thanks to Dee’s Elixir of Life. Now she is in danger, for her other great love, the Catholic plotter Southworth, has materialized at her house. The magistrate offers a deal: Give up Southworth and go free, or be tried as a witch with the others. Alice refuses, sealing her fate. As the tension mounts, Winterson weaves into her story a voodoo doll stuck with pins and an eerie meeting on haunted Pendle Hill between Alice and the dead John Dee. There will be torture and false testimony. An electrifying entertainment.

When is it available?

You can borrow this book from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or 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!

League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth

By Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

(Crown Archetype, $27, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

Make that “these authors.” Mark Fainaru-Wada and his older brother Steve Fainaru, (who was a sports reporter for the Hartford Courant in the late 1980s), are investigative journalists for ESPN, so there is a genuine Connecticut connection here. But this book is of national – actually, international – interest. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams wrote the New York Times best-seller “Game of Shadows — Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports.”. Steve covered the Iraq war for the Washington Post and won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his investigation into the U.S. military’s reliance on private security contractors. The Fainaru brothers and their families live in California.

What is this book about?

Sports Illustrated calls it “the book the NFL doesn’t want you to read.” That’s because it tells, in damning and heartbreaking detail, the stories of football players damaged and/or driven to death by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which medical studies show was caused by repeated concussions sustained in practices and games. A PBS “Frontline” documentary earlier this fall turned a spotlight on the book and its findings, and a national debate is now underway on whether football can ever be safely played without the possibility of sustaining brain-destroying injuries and whether the National Football League, like Big Tobacco before it, has knowingly downplayed or manipulated research to keep its billion-dollar industry alive.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are a diehard fan who rejects any findings that get in the way of your enjoying a game, you won’t like this book. But that is why you ought to read it. And if you accept that concussions can lead to personality changes, violent behavior, dementia and suicide or other very unpleasant deaths, you ought to read it, too. And if you have a child who wants to play football, from pee-wee to professional levels, you both should read this book. The Fainaru brothers are sharp, meticulous and dedicated investigative reporters. They have written an important book about an important subject: how has enjoyment of a game and the money it brings in come to override the responsibility to treat its players sanely and compassionately?

What others are saying:

Says Kevin Fixler in The Daily Beast: “I’m unable to watch football these days as I used to. I desperately wish I could, but I just can’t. And after you finish reading this book, you won’t be able to either.

The book is League of Denial, from brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada (co-author of Game of Shadows) and Steve Fainaru (2008 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting), and it is one that the National Football League probably wishes was never written. The book explores the football factory that was the city of Pittsburgh, why it became the epicenter of the NFL’s concussion crisis, and how an improbable character by chance flicked the first domino to set off a devastating chain reaction with which the league is still grappling. Since assisting these two ESPN investigative reporters with research on their book, I’ve replaced my weekly excitement waking up in anticipation of an autumn Sunday morning filled with football to one of mostly disgust.

The league recently reached a settlement worth upwards of $1 billion with more than 4,500 former players who sued over negligence. The agreement does not require the NFL to admit any fault in the players’ injuries, and those who represent the league repeatedly declined to assist in the reporting of the book.”

NPR says: “Brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru take an exhaustive look at how the NFL has dealt with allegations that playing football can lead to brain damage. They say the NFL has repeatedly avoided tying football to brain injury, even as it has given disability payments to former players with dementia-related conditions.”

In the Washington Post , former professional football player Nate Jackson author of “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile,” writes: “The NFL sells violent entertainment but keeps it nice and tidy. Networks cut to a commercial when the actors start dripping blood. As long as no one sees it, there are no consequences: There is only the next play. In “League of Denial,” the consequences are the story. Instead of cutting away, Mark Fainaru-Wada and former Washington Post reporter Steve Fainaru zoom in on every tau-protein-riddled brain-tissue slide, every hasty NFL rebuttal and every self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. The devil is in the details: every page a new demon.…The Fainaru brothers liken the NFL’s denials to Big Tobacco’s old claims that smoking wasn’t bad for you. Turns out it kills. But it also turns out that people still smoke, illuminating an interesting case study in human behavior — one that the NFL might be inclined to consider. Morbidity does not scare people away. In fact, if our co-authors’ interest in the subject is any indication, it draws them closer. The NFL knew exactly what was happening to the brains of its workers, the Fainaru brothers argue, yet withheld this information for fear it might topple the league. This book was depressing for me to read and extremely difficult to get through. Not because of the quality of the work — it is meticulously researched, artfully structured, engaging and well written. It is depressing because of the conclusion, which is fairly simple: Football causes CTE, [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and CTE causes severe cognitive impairment, including dementia and depression. For those affected, life unravels. To highlight the macabre implications, “League of Denial” hangs on the profiles of some of the game’s most thoroughly ravaged players: Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. The fairy-tale NFL life did not end well for these men. The latter two shot themselves in the chest, presumably to preserve their brains to be studied for a disease they were convinced they had. They were right. My only concern with this book and with the head-trauma discussion as a whole is that they will legitimize the suicidal tendencies of former players, will affirm the science of their demons and will give some men a green light to end a suffering that “League of Denial” guarantees will only get worse. For non-football-players, this is an informative, intriguing and sobering book about power and control. I recommend it strongly. For football players, it reads as a death sentence. I encourage my brothers not to open it.

“These investigative reporters have committed a heroic act of journalism. This is not hyperbole. This book may help save peoples’ lives and save families heartache and pain. This book will be the definitive account of the end of the concussion era in the NFL. This book may contribute to the end of the NFL as we know it. This book matters,” says Calvin TerBeek in the Houston Press.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany branch have copies of this book.

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

Quiet Dell

By Jayne Anne Phillips

(Scribner, $28, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

If Jayne Anne Phillips were to line up her many literary awards on the mantelpiece….well, she’d need another fireplace or two. Her books include “Lark and Termite,” “ Motherkind,” “Shelter” and “Machine Dreams” and the story collections “Fast Lanes” and “Black Tickets.” Phillips has been a finalist for a National Book Award and National Book Critic’s Circle Award and has been awarded many prestigious fellowships, including a Guggenheim, a Bunting, two from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Sue Kaufman Prize, and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She is Distinguished Professor of English and directs the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, where she established The Writers At Newark Reading Series.

What is this book about?

Add this book to the pile of good novels with real-life underpinnings. It is based on multiple murders carried out by a con man whose victims were widows.

Set in Chicago in 1931, the novel tells what happens when Harry Powers, by all appearances an elegant and caring man, sends letters to a recently widowed mother of three children, promising to become a loving husband and father to the grieving Eicher family. Too good to be true? Evidently, because soon the poor mother and her kids are dead, killed in West Virginia in a town called Quiet Dell.

Enter Emily, a female reporter, one of very few women in that line of work in Chicago, who becomes obsessed with the heartbreaking story and sets out, with the help of a banker who might have saved the wife, and a photographer who is also fascinated by the case, to find out what happened, and how, and why. The despicable Harry Powers, it seems, has met his match.

Why you’ll like it:

Intrepid female reporters are not unusual in today’s journalism world, but they were in the 1930s, when the real-life murders chronicled here took place. So it’s refreshing to encounter a female character so passionate about the people in her story and one so dedicated to justice as well. Add to the compelling characters and chilling plot the beautiful prose for which Jayne Anne Phillips has been acclaimed, and you have a book not easily set down nor forgotten.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly:  “At the core of this sprawling new novel from the author of Lark and Termite is a series of real-life murders committed in 1931. A man calling himself Cornelius O. Pierson woos Asta Eicher, mother of three and recently widowed, in polished letters promising fidelity and financial security. After Asta disappears with Pierson, aka Harry Powers, the killer returns to Asta’s home in Chicago to kidnap and brutally murder her three beautiful children. In Phillips’s retelling, Emily Thornhill, a lovely staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, covers the case with her photographer colleague, Eric Lindstrom, and the Eicher family dog, Duty. She falls in love with the Eicher family banker, William Malone, who bankrolls much of the investigation, but she also becomes enthralled with the memory of the three dead children: simple Grethe; her brave brother, Hart; and their precocious little sister, Annabel. Phillips’s plot is engaging, romantic, and fecund; her characters are beautiful, accomplished, and good—except for the bad guy, who is very bad indeed. The book veers dangerously close to melodrama, and the story drags when trying to stick too closely to the truth, but Phillips is a reader’s writer. For every tedious page of the murder trial, mired in the story-lethal muck of facts, there is one of soaring lyricism. The best bits are Phillips’s recreation of her characters’ dreams, and especially the ethereal afterlife of the enchanting young Annabel, who is only nine when she is killed in a muddy field in Quiet Dell, W.Va.

The Miami Herald  says:  “Phillips’ extensive reporting—she quotes from newspaper stories, letters between Eicher and her ‘suitor’ and the trial transcript—gives the book its considerable heft. And her creation of a Chicago reporter named Emily Thornhill helps to frame the story of the eight-decade-old event in a fresh way. Quiet Dell is a smart combination of true crime, history and fiction tied together with Phillips’ seamlessly elegant writing….As the book proceeds to its dark conclusion, Emily offers readers a glimpse of light.”

“Phillips . . . fuses the established facts surrounding the 1931 trial of serial killer Harry Powers with her imagined version of the victims’ inner lives and the fictional lives of a handful of characters connected by the crimes. Financially strapped since her husband’s death, Asta Eicher lives with her three children in a large suburban Chicago house where she takes in boarders. Devoted to her and the children, former boarder Charles O’Boyle, who has prospered in his business, proposes to Asta while celebrating a joyful Christmas with the family in 1930. Aware he is gay, she turns him down. Instead, she assumes she will solve her problems by marrying Cornelius Pierson, with whom she’s secretly begun corresponding through the American Friendship Society (think snail-mail In July 1931, Asta leaves her children with a babysitter while she travels with Cornelius to set up the family’s new home. A week later, Cornelius returns alone to fetch the kids. Phillips brings the Eichers to vivid life–Asta’s guilts, 14-year-old Grethe’s innocence, 12-year-old Hart’s protectiveness, 9-year-old Annabel’s spirit–and wisely eschews the grisly details of their deaths. Months later, the police discover the Eichers’ remains in the basement of a garage belonging to Harry Powers in Quiet Dell, W.V. Charged with the Eichers’ murders, Powers is indicted for the murder of Dorothy Lemke, whose body has also been discovered in the garage, because the circumstantial evidence in her case is stronger. The snippets of actual court testimony and reportage included are harrowing. While digging up dirt on Powers, (fictional) Chicago Tribune reporter Emily Thornhill falls deeply in love with Asta’s (real-life) banker. She also takes in an orphaned street urchin. So in the aftermath of one family’s destruction, Emily creates a new if unconventional “family” of people she loves. Phillips’ prose is as haunting as the questions she raises about the natures of sin, evil and grace,” says Kirkus Reviews.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune says: “Gripping…Chilling…The novel’s heartbeat is Emily, a Chicago Tribune reporter covering Powers’ arrest and trial…Quiet Dell does what Emily can’t, thoughtfully grafting a 21st-century sensibility onto 20th-century ghastliness. Emily resists the fetters placed on her as a journalist and a woman, while Eric, a gay photographer who accompanies her, is a keen observer of closeted life in the South. Phillips exposes the era’s prejudices less to render judgment than to show how cannily people like Emily and Eric worked around them.”

When is it available?

This riveting novel is on the shelves 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!

A Blind Goddess (Billy Boyle World War II Mystery # 8)

by James R. Benn

(Soho Crime, $26.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Librarians love books, but they don’t necessarily write them. James R. Benn, of Hadlyme, does both. After 35 years of library and technology work, including being director of Godfrey Memorial Library in Middletown, and after the growing success of his Billy Boyle World War II Mystery series, he became a full-time writer in 2011. Benn says his wife, Deborah Mandel, who is a psychotherapist, helps him with his characters’ motivations. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and the Author’s Guild. “A Blind Goddess is the eighth novel in his Billy Boyle series.

What is this book about?

Benn sets his stories in the world of the Allied High Command during World War II, and his lead character Billy Boyle is a young Boston detective turned military private eye for his uncle — who just happens to be Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower

The first book, “Billy Boyle,” published in 2006, was set in England and Norway in 1942. The next, “The First Wave,” involves the Allied invasion of French Northwest Africa and the third, “Blood Alone” takes place during the Allied invasion of Sicily. The fourth, “Evil For Evil,” sends Boyle to his native Ireland, and the fifth book, “Rag and  Bone,” is about the brutal Katyn Massacre of Polish officers by the Soviets. The sixth, “A Mortal Terror”, involves the Anzio Beachhead battle and the horrors of combat fatigue. The seventh, “Death’s Door,” focuses on  the death of an American monsignor in the Vatican in Rome.

The newest, “A Blind Goddess,” takes on the shameful racism that permeated the army in those days and has Boyle investigating the mistaken arrest of a black soldier and a second case, involving the murder of a British accountant. Could they be related?

Here’s what Benn told an interviewer for Kirkus Reviews about the main theme of “A Blind Goddess”:

“The Army was woefully unsupportive when it came to pursuing justice for blacks abused and killed by whites in the south. There was too much political pressure to keep the Southern Democrats happy to challenge the racist environment there,” he says. “Ultimately, there were great strides made. Black units fought well, and some whites willingly changed their attitudes after encountering black soldiers on something approaching equal terms.”

Why you’ll like it:

It’s history, it’s mystery, it’s well-written and it’s psychologically acute. Benn creates believable characters and tosses them into difficult situations, always an intriguing combination. You do not have to be a World War II buff to enjoy these books, but if reading one leads you to read all of them, you’ll become a bit of an expert without even realizing it.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review:  “Pervasive racism in the U.S. Army during WWII frames Benn’s excellent eighth Billy Boyle whodunit … In March 1944, Billy receives an appeal from an old estranged friend, Sgt. Eugene “Tree” Jackson. A member of Tree’s “colored” battalion has been arrested for the murder of Thomas Eastman, an English policeman, who was found with his head bashed in on his father’s grave in the village of Chilton Foliat. Tree is positive that the accused was mistakenly arrested. Boyle wants to help, but he’s pulled away into another homicide investigation west of London in which MI5 has an interest. The intelligence service’s role may be related to the fact that the victim’s landlords were two Germans who fled their native country because they opposed the Nazis. The superior plot and thoughtful presentation of institutional racism directed against American soldiers about to risk their lives for their country make this one of Benn’s best.”

Says Library Journal:  “In the weeks building up to the anticipated invasion of France, D-day, things are hectic in southern England. Capt. Billy Boyle, a military detective, is surprised when an old Boston friend, Sgt. Eugene “Tree” Jackson, asks him to look into the case of a black U.S. serviceman who has been arrested in the murder of a constable. Tree’s unit, a segregated division stationed nearby, helps Boyle snoop around as he tries to figure out who has made the enlisted man a scapegoat. Concurrently, Boyle has been assigned to help MI-5 investigate the murder of a British loan officer. Adding fuel to the fire, a missing girl’s body turns up. Boyle steps carefully through the minefields of racism, espionage, and child abduction until the three cases intersect in a volatile, whirlwind finale. VERDICT Elaborately plotted, Benn’s eighth entry in the series …has his World War II sleuth investigating a deplorable side of U.S. military history. His use of an ongoing narrative throughout the book to explain Billy and Tree’s backstory is particularly well done.”

Booklist says: “The eighth adventure in Benn’s engaging WWII series finds recently promoted Captain Billy Boyle, special investigator for General Eisenhower, assigned to find the killer of a seemingly ordinary citizen in a country village. An odd assignment for a military man, made odder by the fact that Billy has been given orders not to investigate the German family who run the boarding house where the victim lived. Meanwhile, Billy has reconnected with an old friend from Boston, a black man called Tree, a sergeant in a tank destroyer unit. There is bad blood between Billy and Tree, but Tree puts that aside to ask for Billy’s help in freeing a friend from his unit, wrongly accused of killing an Englishman. Juggling both cases, Billy finds himself in the middle of a simmering racial conflict between the black soldiers stationed in the area and their white counterparts, who resent the fact that the blacks have been warmly received by the English. The mysteries themselves are pretty standard fare, but Benn’s thoroughly researched exploration of segregation in the wartime armed services is revealing and sensitively handled. Another nice mix of human drama and WWII history.”

When is it available?

You can find this one 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!

James R. Benn, who lives in Hadlyme, has three loves: libraries, historical research and mysteries., he published his first “Billy Boyle” mystery in 2006, creating a brash young Boston detective turned military private eye for his uncle — who just happens to be Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower — during World War II.

Benn once told me in an interview: “For each book, I focus on a true, but little-known event, and wrap a fictional mystery around it to illuminate history and the effect on those who lived through it.” If that’s a formula, it’s working well for him. You can learn more at

I live in Hadlyme, Connecticut, with my wife Deborah Mandel, a psychotherapist who offers many insights into the motivations of my characters, a good critical read, and much else. Our dog Ranger lives with us. We have two sons, Jeff and Ben, and seven grandchildren (Camille, Claudia, Emma, Luke, Nathaniel, Noah, Oliver).

I’m a graduate of the University of Connecticut and received my MLS degree from Southern Connecticut State University. I am a member of the Mystery Writers of America, and the Author’s Guild. I’ve worked in the library and information technology fields for over thirty-five years and quit the day job routine in 2011 to write full-time.

I’ve learned two valuable lessons since I started writing which have helped me greatly. The first is a quote from Oscar Wilde, who said “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of one’s pants to a chair.” The second is from novelist Rachel Basch, who told me “the story has to move down, as well as forward.” Both sound simple. Neither is.  Selected Works




The Valley of Amazement

By Amy Tan

(HarperCollins/Ecco, $29.99, 608 pages)

 Who is this author?

Amy Tan, 61, first captured her vast audience with her 1989 blockbuster bestselling novel of mothers and daughters, “The Joy Luck Club,” and she has never let her readers go.  Her subsequent  books are “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and “The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life.” Her books for children  are “The Moon Lady” and “Sagwa,” which became a PBS production. She also has published  essays and stories in many magazines and anthologies. Born in Oakland, Calif., she now lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

What is this book about?

Violet is half Chinese and half American on her mother Lulu’s side. Living in Shanghai in 1912, where Lulu is the successful proprietor of an exclusive house of courtesans, Violet herself is caught up in political strife and becomes “ a virgin courtesan” herself. How she comes to this turn of events – in 1897, Lulu, then 16, had followed her Chinese artist lover to his country and run smack into its rigid traditions – and what happens to these two similar yet very different women,  is the spine of the tale. Their search for respect, security and love fleshes out the story, which, true to Tan’s storytelling talents, explores the ways women think, battle and connect.

Why you’ll like it:

Amy Tan writes largely about women who are Chinese, but her stories are universal and have wide appeal: her books have been translated into 35 languages. Few contemporary authors are as adept at parsing the complex relationships that mothers and daughters create, full of joy but also of sadness, seasoned with envy, regret, hopefulness and often, irony and humor. This book has that intriguing underpinning, and upon it is a glorious structure of historical and cultural information about China and the United States over more than 100 years, the lives of courtesans and the yin and yang of love and betrayal.

What others are saying:

The  Amazon Best Book of the Month, November 2013 review says:  For a hefty half of her gorgeous new novel, The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan instructs us in the finer points of life as a courtesan in early 20th century China: expect and revel in sensual descriptions of the clothes, the customs, even the not-so-niceties of catering to rich men in a very regimented society. Lulu Minturn is a white Californian who’d run away with a Chinese painter, established the best courtesan house in Shanghai and given birth to a beautiful “Eurasian” (in the parlance of the time) daughter, Violet. Soon, either because she was tricked or deceitful, Lulu abandons Violet and flees back to America; history soon is in danger of repeating itself when Violet gives birth to her own daughter. (Eventually, the scene shifts to California, where the family searches for redemption and reconciliation.) Nobody does mother-daughter angst and cross cultural conflict better than Tan, who has been literally writing the book(s) on these topics for years. What makes this novel special is its meticulous language–readers may be struck by the juxtaposition of poetry and Anglo-Saxon equivalents in descriptions of courtesans’ sex lives–and its elucidation of the cultural upheavals at the time. This is as much a historical novel as it is a family story, at once intimate and sweeping, personal and political. You’ll have learned something by the end–and you’ll probably also be weeping.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “Written in Tan’s characteristically economical and matter-of-fact style, The Valley of Amazement is filled with memorably idiosyncratic characters. And its array of colorful multilayered stories is given further depth by Tan’s affecting depictions of mothers and daughters. Here are strong women struggling to survive all that life has to throw at them, created by a writer skilled at evoking the roil of emotions and mad exploits they experience when they follow their hearts.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “In her first novel since 2009′s Saving Fish from Drowning, Tan again explores the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, control and submission, tradition and new beginnings. Jumping from bustling Shanghai to an isolated village in rural China to San Francisco at the turn of the 19th century, the epic story follows three generations of women pulled apart by outside forces. The main focus is Violet, once a virgin courtesan in one of the most reputable houses in Shanghai, who faces a series of crippling setbacks: the death of her first husband from Spanish influenza, a second marriage to an abusive scam artist, and the abduction of her infant daughter, Flora. In a series of flashbacks toward the book’s end, Violet’s American mother, Lulu, is revealed to have suffered a similar and equally disturbing fate two decades earlier. The choice to cram the truth behind Lulu’s sexually promiscuous adolescence in San Francisco, her life as a madam in Shanghai, and Violet’s reunion with a grown Flora into the last 150 pages makes the story unnecessarily confusing. Nonetheless, Tan’s mastery of the lavish world of courtesans and Chinese customs continues to transport.

Booklist says, in a starred review: “Lulu, an American, is the only white woman running a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai in 1905. Burdened with secret anguish and loss, she relies on her loyal associate, Golden Dove, to help her create an enclave of confidentiality, courtly seduction, and voluptuous pleasure for the city’s most influential men. Her lonely young daughter, Violet, has taken to eavesdropping and spying to survive. Shocked to be outed as half-Chinese, Violet thinks, “half-breed, half-hated,” and indeed, this exposure is only the beginning of an all-out assault against her sense of self and freedom. In her first novel in eight years, Tan  returns to her signature mother-daughter focus as she pulls back the curtain on an aggressively sexist society after the fall of the last Chinese dynasty precipitates monumental change. Reaching back to Lulu’s San Francisco childhood and forward to Violet’s operatic struggles and traumas and reliance on her smart, loyal mentor, Magic Gourd, this scrolling saga is practically a how-to on courtesan life and a veritable orgy of suspense and sorrow. Ultimately, Tan’s prodigious, sumptuously descriptive, historically grounded, sexually candid, and elaborately plotted novel counters violence, exploitation, betrayal, and tragic cultural divides with beauty, wit, and transcendent friendships between women.’

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Tan, who made her name with The Joy Luck Club (1989), blends two favorite settings, Shanghai and San Francisco, in a tale that spans generations. …Lulu is in Shanghai for a reason–and on that reason hinges a larger conceit, the one embodied by the book’s title. She has a daughter, and the daughter, naturally enough, has cause to wonder about her ancestry, if little time to worry overmuch about some of the details, since her mom leaves her to fend for herself, not entirely willingly. The chinoiserie and exoticism aside, Violet makes a tough and compelling character, a sort of female equivalent to Yul Brynner as played by Lucy Liu. The members of the “Cloud Beauties,” who give Violet her sentimental education, make an interesting lot themselves, but most of the attention is on Violet and the narrative track that finds her on a parallel journey, literally and figuratively, always haunted by “those damned paintings that had belonged to my mother” and that will eventually reveal their secrets. Tan’s story sometimes suffers from longueurs, but the occasional breathless, steamy scene evens the score: “He lifted my hips and my head soared and I lost all my senses except for the one that bound us and could not be pulled apart.” A satisfyingly complete, expertly paced yarn.”

When is it available?

Amy Tan’s latest can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight 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!

At Night We Walk in Circles

By Daniel Alarcon

Riverhead, $27.95, 384 pages

Who is this author?

Born in Peru, raised in Alabama and now living in California, 36-year-old Daniel Alarcon has already enjoyed the singular honor of being named to The New Yorker’s coveted “20 best writers under 40” list. He has so far published “War By Candlelight,” a short story collection, and “Lost City Radio,” a novel that won  the 2009 International Literature PrizeHe has contributed to Granta, McSweeney’s, n+1 and Harper’s, and is considered one of the most talented of our young Latino writers.

What is this book about?

Nelson wants to be an actor, but his life script is not working out. His girlfriend is cheating on him, his brother has abandoned their widowed mother and left her to Nelson’s care and he can’t get his acting career in gear. But then he’s hired to play a big role by a troupe that is doing a classic play by his favorite author. But again, things don’t work out as he had hoped. The touring play moves across Nelson’s civil-war-damaged South American country and he becomes ever more caught up in the lives of the cast members, among whom a hidden betrayal is about to burst forth and cause havoc. Told by a narrator, which suggests Nelson’s fate may be unwelcome, this is a story about the thrill of playing roles and the dangers of role-playing.

Why you’ll like it:

Alarcon is a sharp new talent with the energy of a young writer and the skill of a much older one. The book explores personal and political rebellion and the considerable costs of both as well as the exhilaration of acting and the confusion it can create when playing a part crosses over into real life. This is a complex story that asks the reader to peel back many layers to get to the meat of the tale.

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, November 2013 review says: “A young man, hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend, lands a part in a revival of a controversial political drama. He journeys with his childhood hero, the playwright, through tiny towns scattered along the sparsely-populated mountainside. This hardly seems like the normal territory of a thriller but At Night We Walk in Circles delivers suspense to spare with tightly-written narratives, modern phrasing, and crisp character studies by Peruvian-born author Daniel Alarcón. Told through the eyes of a narrator who sprinkles in knowing tidbits about the ultimate fate of the young man, the story builds in momentum while simultaneously taking quiet forays into a world of dashed dreams, complex family obligations, and everyday dilemmas that are relatable even when set in an unnamed, Latin American metropolis or an eerily empty village. At Night We Walk in Circles pointedly delves into universal themes: life as merely a series of performances and small gestures that have inexplicable consequences. Like moths to a flame, it’s the desire to blindly follow that will ultimately lead to our downfall.”

In The New York Times Book Review, author Ana Menendez writes: “…wise and engaging…a provocative study of the way war culture ensnares both participant and observer, the warping fascination of violence, and the disfiguring consequences of the roles we play in public. The story unfolds in an unnamed South American country, but its concerns resonate far beyond its imaginary borders…With At Night We Walk in Circles, Alarcón fulfills the promise of his two earlier books…delivering a vibrant, ambitiously political story that derives its power from the personal. The rare lapse into abstraction quickly gives way to particulars described with devastating clarity. We are left with pure story, one that seems to question even its own motives while refusing to take sides in a world stripped of illusions.

Says Kirkus Reviews: “A South American theater troupe revisits an anti-establishment play and generates some new drama in the latest political allegory by Alarcón (Lost City Radio, 2007). As in Lost City Radio, this novel is concerned with the aftereffects of revolution and the surprising ways revolutionary rhetoric endures. Set in an unnamed Andean country, the story centers on Nelson, an aspiring actor who lands a role with Diciembre, a theater company that’s dusting off its best-known work, “The Idiot President,” for a revival. As the play’s title suggests, Diciembre’s work wasn’t subtle, but it was a touchstone 25 years previously, and its author, Henry, did time in a notoriously harsh prison for it. Henry and his colleague Patalarga take on Nelson for the tour, and though the three have an easy rapport, we know early something has gone wrong: The narrator is a reporter who’s quoting everybody involved except Nelson. Alarcón’s decision to frame the story as a superlong magazine story has its downsides: The novel has a tonal flatness that makes the story feel lighter than intended. But the outsider-looking-in perspective gives the narration both a sense of omniscience and intimacy, since the reporter knew the players. As the tour goes off the rails, Alarcón explores the idea of how imitation creates reality: The play’s restaging revives old revolutionary feelings; Nelson obsesses over his role with the woman he left behind; and he falls into the orbit of a family who’s bullied him to pretend to be a long-lost relative. In time, Nelson unwittingly becomes the target of a number of men, an absurd scenario that’s shot through with tragedy. Mind who you pretend to be, Alarcón suggests; the story you tell can be a surprisingly potent one. That’s true with this book, too. Though the book is low on lyricism, Alarcón successfully merges themes of art, love and politics.

Says Booklist in a starred review: “After the stunning, metropolitan sprawl of Lost City Radio (2007), Alarcón situates his riveting second novel in the backwaters of an unnamed South American nation. For Nelson, an out-of-work actor, it seems as if everyone has moved on: his one-time lover lives with another man, his brother long ago left for the U.S., and he’s stuck at home with his widowed mother. But when the newly revived, controversial theater company Diciembre casts Nelson in a traveling remount of The Idiot President, he joins Patalarga, a founding member, and Henry Nuñez, a playwright imprisoned during the show’s original run. At first, Nelson immerses himself in the world of the play, performing in taverns and city squares, until the tour brings the trio to the hometown of Rogelio, Henry’s former cellmate and confidante. Henry’s past and Nelson’s future converge, setting the stage for a fast-unraveling mystery of role-playing and retribution, told in compelling prose that is smart, subtle, and totally engrossing. Alarcón possesses Alejo Carpentier’s gift for evocative descriptions of anonymous geography, and one sees shades of Manuel Puig in the passages that recount Henry’s incarceration, both of which bode well for this native Peruvian’s bright literary future.”

“In an unnamed South American country, now stable after much political and social upheaval, Henry Nuñez, an actor and playwright who was a political prisoner, decides to reestablish his political theater troupe and tour the country. He recruits Nelson, a young actor, and Patalarga, an old friend, and they hit the road, performing Henry’s play, The Idiot President, a three-character work that was originally responsible for landing Henry in jail. As the tour progresses and young Nelson is urged to live the part of his character, life and art become intermingled and confused. A first-person narrator—a magazine writer who happens upon the troupe at one of their rural stops—gradually intrudes upon this multilayered story. The basic narrative focuses on Nelson as he follows in Henry’s footsteps. VERDICT This is an involving and dramatic story in a vague yet realistic landscape. PEN USA award winner Alarcón (Lost City Radio) strings the reader along expertly as he slowly complicates and shifts the perspective in this tragic tale of characters, citizens, lovers, and artists being influenced by the dangerous forces of political history and human desire,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

“At Night We Walk in Circles” can be borrowed from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Park branch.

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