Monthly Archives: February 2014


By Joyce Carol Oates

(HarperCollins, $26.99, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

As this blog noted in 2012, Joyce Carol Oates, who is now 75, is nothing if not prolific: short stories, more than 50 novels (some with the bylines Rosamond Smith and Lauren Kelly), plays, essays, memoir, children’s books, poetry, criticism, and she teaches at Princeton University. she has won such major literary prizes as the National Book Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction and the National Humanities Medal, which is America’s highest civilian honor for the arts, the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, among others.

According to the Barnes & Noble website: “On average Oates publishes at least one novel, essay anthology, or story collection a year (during the 1970s, she produced at the astonishing rate of two or three books a year.

What is this book about?

It’s another walk on the dark side of small-town American life. In the upstate burg of Carthage, N.Y., Cressida, a 19-year-old woman, disappears. Was she murdered, or did she run away? Suspicion falls on Brett, a physically and emotionally wounded Iraq War vet who was about to marry Cressida’s sister. The whole town searches for the young woman, unsuccessfully. Then Brett, who suffers PTSD, makes a startling confession. Think that solves the case? Then you don’t know Oates, who’s just getting this story started. This novel explores issues of grief and belief, justice in America and at war, and twists and turns its way to a complex conclusion.

Why you’ll like it:

Oates is a consummate storyteller: read just a few pages and you fall under her spell. She is adept at spinning real-life situations that reflect more abstract, national concerns about who we are and what it means to live in America in these times. But these lofty questions never overpower what is, in effect, a damn good mystery. We can’t know how many more books Oates can produce, but this one shows she has not yet lost her powerful voice.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly in a starred review: “Oates . . . returns with another novel that ratchets up the unsettling to her signature feverish pitch. Beginning with an attention-grabbing opener that begets addictive reading—Zeno Mayfield and a search party are on the hunt for Mayfield’s missing 19-year-old daughter, Cressida, in the Adirondack woods—the story chronicles the creepy circumstances surrounding the girl’s assumed murder. Was she, as many in the upstate New York town of Carthage suspect, beaten to death and dumped in the Black River by her older sister’s ex-fiancé, Brett Kincaid, a decorated Iraqi War vet? Or did she, the “dark twisty” daughter prone to excessive self-loathing, play some perverse role in her own disappearance? What transports the story beyond a carefully crafted whodunit is Oates’s dogged exploration of each character’s culpability in the case, which spans nearly seven years. Between Kincaid’s non-coerced but PTSD-fueled confession and Cressida’s feelings that her family didn’t understand or love her enough (the source of her long-suppressed desire to escape from them), nearly everyone can somehow be held responsible for the supposed crime—and seen as its unintended victim. When the truth and its fallout finally becomes clear at the end, the mood is not surprisingly claustrophobic and grim. Once again, Oates’s gift for exposing the frailty—and selfishness—of humans is on display.”

Library Journal says: “When Zeno Mayfield’s daughter can’t be found, everyone in the small Appalachian town of Carthage joins in the hunt. Alas, the trail leads to an Iraq War hero with an association to the family—and terrible memories of battle. Further complicating matters, it seems that the missing girl may have been estranged from her family long before she vanished.”

In another starred review, Kirkus Reviews says: “Dark events in Carthage, a town in upstate New York–a war hero returning from Iraq, a broken engagement, a mysterious murder–but not everything is as it seems. Carthage seems to embody the values of small-town America, for its citizens are independent and patriotic, but in early July 2005, things start to go dreadfully wrong. Juliet Mayfield, older daughter of former Carthage mayor Zeno Mayfield, is planning her wedding but finds her fiance, Brett Kincaid, broken and strangely different when he returns from duty in Iraq. Cpl. Kincaid is on a passel of meds, walks with a limp and has obviously experienced a severe trauma while on active duty. Meanwhile, Juliet’s cynical and smart-mouthed younger sister, Cressida (the “smart one” as opposed to Juliet, the “beautiful one”), disappears one Saturday night after uncharacteristically visiting a local bar. The next day, Kincaid appears, hung over and largely inarticulate, and blood is found on the seat of his Jeep. Although his mother defiantly defends him as a war hero, Kincaid eventually confesses to having murdered Cressida. The scene then shifts to Florida, seven years later, when an eccentric psychologist is interviewing Sabbath Mae McSwain for an intern position. She’s defensive about a name that seems obviously made up, though she carries a birth certificate around with her, and becomes visibly nervous when the psychologist starts probing about her past …Knotted, tense, digressive and brilliant.”

A third starred review comes from Library Journal: “Multiaward winner Oates’s latest work focuses on the disappearance and apparent murder of a talented but socially isolated 19-year-old by her sister’s ex-fiancé. The multiple points of view allow us inside the minds of the shattered Iraqi war veteran accused of the crime, the deceased young woman’s shocked and grieving family, and the young woman herself. In some ways, all are victims of wartime atrocities. Each perspective is involving; each character is complex and sympathetic. The result is a narrative that demands continual reevaluation of individuals and events, and readers are likely to race through the pages to unravel the mystery of what happened and why. The unexpected conclusion is very satisfying reading. This is a story about war, violence, mental illness, love, hatred, and, perhaps most of all, the will to survive and the healing power of forgiveness, all powerfully rendered by a master storyteller. . . . “

When is it available?

Carthage can be found in Hartford, at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

The Days of Anna Madrigal (Tales of the City Series #9)

By Armistead Maupin

(HarperCollins, $26.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

When Armistead Maupin began publishing his “Tales of the City” series in 1976 in the San Francisco Chronicle, it’s doubtful that he, or anyone else, could have foretold the success of this ongoing story of a virtual family of gay and straight people living at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco’s Russian Hill with their unusual landlady, Anna Madrigal. Or that a few decades later, same-sex marriage would be happening across the country and transgender people would be increasingly accepted.  But happen it did, and Maupin was a groundbreaker. He went on to write many “Tales of the City” novels, along with several others, and now he has written the ninth and final “Tale.” The series has been adapted in a musical version and also as three TV miniseries for PBS and Showtime.

Maupin, by the way, is a Navy vet who served in the Vietnam War and once worked for right-wing senator Jesse Helms. He is now married to photographer Christopher Turner, and spends time in San Francisco and New Mexico.

What is this book about?

Anna Madrigal, the lively and mysterious landlady of Barbary Lane, is 92 in this book, which concludes the series. Still beloved by her many tenants, who have been like sons and daughters to her for almost 40 years, she wants to revisit the Nevada brothel where she lived as a boy, before the profound life changes that made her who she is now. So while other “family” prepare to attend the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, Anna and her former tenant, Brian, head back into her past, in hopes of achieving resolution to her very complicated past.

Why you’ll like it:

Maupin has the gift of creating heart-warming yet never mawkish stories about complex people who share the deep need to connect, often in unexpected ways. That he has managed to keep this series going successfully for nine novels over nearly 40 years is a testament to his talent. Fans of the series will appreciate his caring portrayal of Anna at the end of her days. Newcomers may want to start with the first novel and work their way through to this concluding book.

Here are some of Maupin’s thoughts about being a gay writer:

“I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’ve been openly gay longer than just about anybody writing today [...] but I never intended for that declaration to mean that I was narrowing my focus in any way, or joining a niche . . .

“It’s complicated. I don’t want to feel any less queer, but I think for us to march along in a dutiful little herd called ‘gay and lesbian literature’ and have little seminars that we hold together is pointless at this point, it makes no sense to me at all. [...] I cringe when I get ‘gay writer’ each time. Why the modifier? I’m a writer. It’s like calling Amy Tan a Chinese-American writer every time you mention her name, or Alice Walker a black writer. We’re all discussing the human condition. Some of us have revolutionized writing by bringing in subject-matter that nobody’s heard about before. But we don’t want that to narrow the definition of who we are as an artist. [...] I don’t mind being cross-shelved. I’m very proud of being in the gay and lesbian section, but I don’t want to be told that I can’t sit up in the front of the book store with the straight, white writers.”


What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “This ninth Tales of the City installment is Maupin’s farewell to his beloved cast of characters. While his last few books have highlighted San Francisco’s Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and Mary Ann Singleton, the author updates fans with 28 Barbary Lane’s now-92-year-old transgendered landlady, Anna Madrigal. Anna is given the snappy, plucky dialogue she’s known for, and some chapters reveal her backstory, including her 1930s childhood, when she was a boy named Andy. Everyone is on hand here: Brian, Mary Ann’s ex and father of her daughter Shawna, makes an appearance, accompanied by his “fiftyish and luscious” new wife Wren, a former plus-sized model, along with Mouse and Mary Ann. Maupin’s flare for dialogue and fully-realized, contemporary characterization is again on display, as he keeps things hip with the use of modern vernacular (“amazeballs”, “chillax”) and by incorporating iPads (Jake’s “magic slate”), Angry Birds, missives on Twitter, and hooking up on Facebook. The story culminates in the group’s attendance at the Burning Man “Fertility 2.0” festival, as Shawna searches for a sperm donor while Brian, Wren, and Anna detour off to Winnemucca for a revelatory reunion with Anna’s past. Limned with the comfort of unconditional love yet reflective of the frailty, the uncertainty, and the beauty of aging, this installment is a memorable, satisfying capstone to his series.”

“Time marches on for all of us, including the beloved characters of Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series. . . . In what Maupin says is the last of the series, Anna Madrigal is 92 and frail; Michael is sixtysomething and feeling much older than his husband, Ben; and the youngest characters are starting to settle down. Once again, the characters revolve around Anna, but so does the plot; we see her backstory as a 16-year-old boy, growing up in a Depression-era brothel as she just begins to understand her nature. Interestingly, most of the action occurs far away from the eponymous city. Instead, the gang goes desert road-tripping: Anna on a last pilgrimage to the past, while the others go to the Burning Man festival, where the spirit of old San Francisco still lives on in collective art, community service, and freewheeling sexuality. VERDICT For fans definitely, but anyone may enjoy the peek into Burning Man culture, as well as the intergenerational twining of the characters and seeing just how far we have come in accepting ourselves,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says: “More “Tales of the City” with the former residents of 28 Barbary Ln. still fluttering around their erstwhile landlady. Anna Madrigal is now . . .  very frail, but she’s still got the gender-crossing panache that led her away from the whorehouse her mother ran in Winnemucca, Nev., and from the unwanted appendages associated with her youth as a boy named Andy. Having had one of the earliest sex-change operations in the U.S., Anna is a legend in the transgender community, and her young caretaker, Jake, has built a special float for her to ride at this year’s Burning Man festival to receive what everyone knows will probably be her final accolades. He is ultimately persuaded by others in their San Francisco circle that it’s too risky, and indeed, the closing chapters’ vivid depiction of the “mosh pit in the desert,” as Michael Tolliver calls Burning Man, makes it seem an unlikely place for an elderly lady. But while Michael, husband Ben, bisexual celebrity Shawna (who’s looking for a sperm donor) and many others are cavorting in the Nevada desert, Anna has unfinished business in not-too-far-away Winnemucca, to which she has persuaded Shawna’s father (and Michael’s close friend), Brian, and his new wife, Wren, to drive her in their air-conditioned RV. . . . Readers not up to speed on the series may have trouble sorting out all the relationships (and genders), but Maupin spins his usual good-hearted web of intrigues involving people who have created their own community. . .  Sweet, undemanding entertainment most suitable for longtime fans.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has copies of Maupin’s new book.

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

The Explanation for Everything: A Novel

by Lauren Grodstein

(Algonquin, $24.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Lauren Grodstein had a bestseller with her earlier novel, “A Friend of the Family,” which also was named a Washington Post Best Book Pick, a New York Times Editor’s Pick, a BookPage Best Book and an Indie Next Pick. A teacher of creative writing at Rutgers University in New Jersey, she is the author of three previous novels.

What is this book about?

Grodstein takes on the couldn’t-be-touchier subject of belief in Darwinian evolution vs. the concept of intelligent design in this novel. When a biology professor, whose wife was killed by a drunk driver and is raising his daughters alone, is asked by an earnest and very likeable young woman with evangelical beliefs to sponsor her independent study project on intelligent design, the professor, who teaches a course titled “There Is No God,” gets entangled with her. She babysits his kids and begins to challenge his faith in science, just as he questions her faith in faith itself. Boundaries get violated, beliefs get tested and questions that cannot be answered at least get asked in this novel that explores one of the most difficult debates of our time.

Why you’ll like it:

Grodstein takes an often academic and philosophical dispute – one getting more attention lately as atheists increasingly celebrate their unbelief, rather than apologize for it – and explores it through a story about people trying to live their lives with honesty and compassion,  dealing with grief and the wish for revenge as well as trying to make sense of the universe. No matter your personal beliefs on belief itself, you will find provocative and compelling arguments in this story.

What others are saying:

“[Grodstein has] fashioned in her smart, assured third novel, The Explanation for Everything, . . . a gripping tale of a biologist who finds himself approaching midlife and suddenly finding faith . . . Grodstein’s real gift is her emotional precision . . . Finding or losing God proves to be an equally destabilizing tectonic shift, and this novel is full of them . . . Their cumulative force will leave you happily unsteady, and moved,” says The Washington Post.

Library Journal says in a starred review: “Andy Waite is just about holding his life together, trying to raise his two young daughters after his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunk driver. As a biologist, Andy devotes himself to researching the effects of alcohol on laboratory mice. He is also obsessed with preventing the guy who killed Louisa from being paroled. At the mediocre college in southern New Jersey where he teaches, Andy offers a class called “There Is No God” on evolutionary biology. Most of his students are apathetic, except for a few evangelicals who strongly disagree with him. Then a persistent undergraduate named Melissa persuades him to sponsor her independent study project on intelligent design, and Andy reluctantly agrees. As Melissa becomes less sure of her religious convictions, Andy reevaluates his ideas about belief and forgiveness. VERDICT Many novelists explore love and loss, but Grodstein (A Friend of the Family) adroitly tackles big questions about faith and science, guilt and responsibility, punishment and healing. This engaging, and provocative novel is hard to put down. Highly recommended. “

Says Booklist: “Andy Waite is a biology professor who has never gone in for religion, but he lives for glimpses of his wife’s ghost. He’s trying to balance grief and fatherhood and a complicated relationship with his neighbor while applying for a grant that would help him prove that the brains of alcoholic mice are wired differently. None of it is going very well, although he is a pretty decent father to his two young girls. Then his seminar on Darwinism, “There Is No God,” is infiltrated by a Campus Crusader for Christ, and a student asks him to sponsor her independent study on intelligent design. All of this leads him to question the faith he was so confident he did not have. Nothing is neatly answered, and even though some of Andy’s actions are desperately cringe-worthy, you root for his hard-won wisdom. Grodstein handles everything with a subtle wit, managing to skewer both the ultraconservative and the ultraliberal without making either seem absolutely wrong.”

“In her fourth novel, Grodstein  . . . writes of loss of love and belief. Andy Waite’s a biology professor at Exton Reed, “eleven hundred students and forty-two acres of crumbling quad hidden at the ass end of New Jersey.” Andy loves teaching a class entitled “There Is No God,” a Darwinian homage. Andy’s mentor was a notorious Richard Dawkins–like professor, Hank Rosenblum. But Andy’s morose; his wife, Louisa, was killed by a drunken driver. He does have two precocious daughters, and tenure’s imminent, and there’s a possible National Science Foundation grant, one related to studies about alcohol and the brain. Louisa’s death explains his research, but nothing rational explains his agreement to mentor Melissa Potter’s independent study: an objectivist argument for intelligent design. Images of Louisa linger as Andy interacts with Sheila, divorced neighbor and recovering alcoholic. As his emotional relationship with Melissa skates toward intimacy, Andy is plagued by doubts–over his project’s validity after befriending Sheila; over his unbending opposition to parole for the young driver who killed Louisa; and over his rigidity as Melissa’s warmth and generosity make real the power of spiritual belief. Rather than offering the works of St. Augustine or C.S. Lewis as rationalizations for belief, Grodstein offers the homilies of a fictional local pastor; it’s a bit of an easier road, but her narrative sparkles with irony and wry observation. A fundamentalist student, Andy’s vocal opponent, loses his faith. Rosenblum’s overbearing prodding of a brilliant student who rejects science for marriage to a pastor results in her suicide. As the possibility of the divine sparks emotions Andy cannot comprehend, he learns he’s caught up in another person’s experiment. A college professor, Grodstein is perfect with her description of campus tremors radiating after a colleague strays from conventional wisdom. While Melissa’s motivations and actions are sometimes contradictory and counterintuitive, Grodstein’s portrait of Andy is spot-on, as is that of the evangelical student, Sheila, Rosenblum and the minor characters. A rumination on love and loss, faith in reason and faith in the divine.”

When is it available?

I believe you can find this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Goodwin 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!

It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It: Misadventures of a Suburban Hunter-Gatherer

by Bill Heavey

(Grove/Atlantic, $25, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Alabama-born Bill Heavey has put in 20 years as an editor-at-large for Field & Stream magazine and writes its back-page column, called “A Sportsman’s Life.” Heavey’s work also can be found in Men’s Journal, Outside, the Washington Post,  Los Angeles Times, and the Best American Magazine Writing. He says he’s not sure what an “editor-at-large” actually is, but  is sure it’s “better than an editor-behind-bars.”

What is this book about?

Heavey’s niche in the world of outdoorsy writing is channeling sportsmen whose skills don’t quite match up to their love of hunting, fishing and the like. Interested in the growing numbers of locavores, who try to eat only those things grown or found close to home, and foragers, who roam the land looking for wild edibles, he set out to write a book about how well he could feed himself and his young daughter for a year from food he hunted, fished, grew or plucked from nature.  This was tougher than it sounds, as he lives in a northern Virginia suburb and was a novice forager, prone to gaffes: too bad for him, delicious for his readers. He meets women who teach him plenty, and not all of it about hunting/gathering, hunts frogs and caribou with Cajuns and Alaskans, and discovers that wild and edible doesn’t necessarily equate to yummy and satisfying. Beware: there are descriptions of hunting that are truthful, which means bloody and brutal, though Heavey hunts for food, not for thrills.

Why you’ll like it:

Heavey has a lightly sarcastic style that fits this book well. Not shy about mocking his own failures as a latter-day Euell Gibbons or Nimrod, he describes his exploits with humor and a refreshing self-deprecation. He also gives plenty of sensible advice and shares knowledge of use to anyone seriously considering adding foraging to their weekly food-acquiring. Here are some of his musings:

“Few things so lift a man’s spirit as heading down the road on a spring morning to rent a powerful machine with which he will destroy something.”

“The first chapter of a foraging book includes a list of 90 poisonous plants. Like an Old West Gunfighter notching his kills, there were asterisks by each plant with a known fatality to its credit. Of the 90 plants, 24 had asterisks.”

“If you go frog-grabbing in the Atchafalaya Basin at night with a powerful spotlight strapped to your head, you will find yourself looking down at frogs the size of rotisserie chickens. And you don’t want to grab anything that has red eyes. Because that’s a gator.

“If you’re trying to get a group of Native Americans to accept and like you, adopting a forced and extroverted cordiality is not the way to go. Trust me on this.”

What others are saying:

“Locavores can be tiresome with their insistence on sourcing (and discussing) everything they put in their precious little mouths. Bill Heavey ran the risk of being a bore in his account of attempting to hunt, fish, grow or forage as much of his food as possible, It’s Only Slow Food Until You Try to Eat It, but escaped thanks to good humor, poking fun at hard-core foodies and himself while still finding merit in the movement. . . . Mr. Heavey takes us back to the joys—and occasional pitfalls—of the humble edibles around us, and his conclusions ring true.. . . Mr. Heavey reaffirms the value of things small and common that were once treasured but that we now walk by without a passing glance: persimmons, cattails, giant mushrooms, squirrels, morels, dandelions, wild cherries, frogs, crawfish and the whitetail deer that occasionally wander through backyards—at their peril, if it’s Mr. Heavey’s lawn.”—Wall Street Journal

Publishers Weekly says: “Longtime Field & Stream contributor Heavey leads a delightful romp through the backwoods and front yards of the D.C. Beltway area as he tries to eat wild. He notes that his adventure “was anything but radical. For most of our history, eating wild was what people did.” Heavey’s no expert, and reading about his stumbles through harvesting a salad from his lawn or learning to gut perch (“It looked like the bedroom scene from Macbeth”) is surprisingly both amusing and touching. Perhaps this is because Heavey has a gift for capturing the people around him: his skeptical young daughter; his extremely competent foodie girlfriend; and especially his friend Paula, a live-off-the-land expert and “about as eccentric as you could get and still be on the right side of crazy,” who takes him to harvest sour cherries right in the middle of the nation’s capital. Heavey doesn’t shy away from the potentially off-putting extremes of locavore living: he hunts, fishes, and even catches frogs, and his book is engaging, thoughtful, and truly funny.”

Says Library Journal:  “Claiming that he’s made a career of writing for Field and Stream and other similarly outdoorsy publications out of “ignorance and incompetence…my forte,” Heavey spins a yarn of how, armed mainly with enthusiasm and a refusal to admit when he was licked, he took up hunting and foraging in the Beltway. A chatty tale of all the plants, animals, and people he encountered, this book is mostly set in and around the Washington, DC, area but also chronicles trips made hither and yon: fishing for smelt in San Francisco, frog grabbing in the Louisiana swampland, and hunting caribou above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. Although each chapter ends with a recipe of sorts, Heavey is mostly cooking up an engaging autobiography/ersatz primer on how to (or not to) undertake subsistence living in an urban environment. While this title is chock-full of facts about nature and industrialized foodways, it’s also a story about friendship and falling in love. VERDICT Laced with tart humor and spiked with moments of sentimentality, this work makes for a compelling read.”

“In which an inside-the-Beltway type goes all Euell Gibbons on us–and doesn’t starve to death and even finds true love in the bargain. Granted, Heavey isn’t your typical D.C. commuter: A freelance writer, he hunts, fishes and contributes columns and pieces to magazines . . . Here, he describes, as both literary project and life hacking, his efforts to live closer to the land, lessening his reliance on grocery stores and big carbon footprints in favor of heading out into the world to gather baskets full of goodies. His travels, sad to say, require big carbon footprints, as he jets off to the Arctic and the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. What he brings back, apart from mushrooms, serviceberries and wild rice, are stories of how people of all sorts have gone back to the land, some out of necessity and custom, others by choice. One neighbor, for instance, is a combat veteran who has mastered the flora of the region, a solid candidate for survival come the apocalypse. (And apocalypse, meltdown and the end of civilization are never far from some of these back-to-the-landers’ thoughts),” says Kirkus Reviews.

“This is a tale of a leap into the deep-end of extreme foodieism—clumsy, bold, courageous, hilarious, honest, and touching. Bill wrote an onion. The first layer is a funny, witty adventure story. Peel it back, and we’ll find leaf upon leaf of how-to, coming-of-age, consumerist criticism, cultural discovery, plights real and imagined, and ultimately, a love story. Bill has given us all permission to not only discover a new facet of our edible lives, but to enjoy it,” says Duff Goldman, star of the TV show “Ace of Cakes.”

When is it available?

You can forage for this book 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 First Affair

By Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

(Atria, $25, 256 pages)

Who are these authors?

Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus had a blockbuster best-selling success with their first jointly written book, “The Nanny Diaries,” their 2002 insider’s view of working for the rich and famous and generally appalling parents of privileged youngsters, which sold more than 2 million copies. They wrote from first-hand experience, as they were attending New York University and working as part time childcare –givers at the time. The pair went on to write “Citizen Girl,” “Dedication,” “Nanny Returns” and two young adult novels.

Here’s what they have said about collaborating on books: “While we spend an inordinate amount of time together and it may frequently feel like we are, we are actually not a) living together, b) married to each other, or c) otherwise joined at the hip. Luckily, our own homes and lives allow us a few moments of daily rest to restore and revive before we head back into the writing cave.”

What is this book about?

Unless you were sound asleep in 1998, you will soon recognize that this book is a retelling of the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton scandal, told from the point of view of a young intern who accidently finds herself deep in an affair with an incredibly compelling and charismatic man who just happens to be the leader of the free world. It has the secret trysts, the untrustworthy friends, the moral dilemmas and the passion that keeps the dangerous and ill-thought-out affair going. And it somehow manages to make the young woman understandable if not totally sympathetic.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! It’s romantic! It’s naughty! It’s got political resonance! And this novel, written from the viewpoint of the young woman herself, is both a love story and a cautionary tale about the very different things men and women want from an affair, and how public scrutiny can shine a very harsh and unforgiving light on what seems at first to be a romance worth any sacrifice. This is an old story, but a fresh re-telling.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “McLaughlin and Krauss craft another narrative around tabloid headlines, this time exploring a White House intern’s downfall. After graduating from college into the worst job market since the Great Depression, Jamie McAllister lands a prestigious internship at the White House Department of Scheduling and Advance, hoping to pad her resume while looking for a paying position. The hours are long, and she doesn’t quite fit in with the straitlaced D.C. crowd, but Jamie has always been a high achiever and performs well. During a tense government shutdown, she and the other interns are called in to cover for furloughed employees, and an unexpected after-hours encounter with President Greg Rutland ends with a kiss, touching off a steamy affair. Suddenly, the president is calling Jamie at all hours of the night and inventing excuses for her to visit the Oval Office. When their secret inevitably escapes, Jamie finds herself enmeshed in a scandal that threatens to destroy not just the Rutland presidency but her career, friendships, and family. Jamie is initially hard to sympathize with, but her unreliability as a narrator and complexity as a character add an interesting dimension to a story that might otherwise have seemed trashy and exploitative.”

Booklist says: “ . . . the authors of The Nanny Diaries offer up another juicy ripped-from-the-tabloids tale. Studious Jamie McAllister graduates from Vassar and scores a coveted White House internship. She’s thrilled to be working in the administration of Greg Rutland, the handsome, charismatic President. But a close encounter between Rutland and Jamie in a hidden corridor in the West Wing ignites a steamy affair. Though Jamie knows rationally there’s no future for the relationship, she falls hard and confides in three friends about the romance. Jamie is stunned when one of them betrays her and turns her into front-page news. McLaughlin and Kraus draw heavily from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, but just as they humanized a pop princess in their last outing, here they offer up a convincing portrait of a damaged young woman whose head is turned by the attentions of a dashing and powerful political figure. This compassionate examination of a young woman led astray is an utterly absorbing page-turner.”

“The authors of The Nanny Diaries have written a transparent account of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal through the perspective of the female protagonist. Although the novel is placed in the present with our familiar political woes, the plot plays out identically to the events of the Clinton administration. As a recent grad, Jamie McAllister has little luck job hunting, but then her best friend’s mother pulls some strings, and Jamie finds herself as a White House summer intern in the government of Greg Rutland, a charmer with Robert Redford good looks. Amid the usual worries—finding a real job, student loans, family problems—President Rutland is encouraging and kind. And then their flirtation becomes something else. Document deliveries turn into bathroom quickies, with his secretary all but covering for these trysts. The president calls late at night to talk, and Jamie begins to fantasize about their future life together. Meanwhile, Rutland is getting ready to defend himself in a sexual harassment lawsuit (remember Paula Jones?), and aides suggest sending Jamie elsewhere, as she’s proven to be a distraction and potential liability to the president’s re-election campaign. Jamie is furious—she had finally gotten a real job at the White House (on her own merit)—and complains to her friends, many of whom know she’s having the affair. At this point, it is hard to muster sympathy for either Jamie and her imprudent naïveté or the president and his manipulations, but then the authors introduce Mike, Jamie’s first boyfriend, an adult sexual predator who seduced Jamie when she was 12. The president? Well, he has panic attacks, and his wife doesn’t understand him, and Jamie is so fresh and hopeful. But not after the trial. In a turn of events à la Linda Tripp, one of Jamie’s friends records their conversations, and soon, Jamie is on the witness stand regaling the world with humiliating details of her affair—her only option to prevent a prison term.  A dishy, sometimes somber, scandalous tale of what happens when you fall in love with the president of the United States,” says Kirkus Reviews.

When is it available?

This steamy novel is warming the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley

by Neal Thompson

(Crown Archtype, $26, 432 pages)

Who is this author?

Neal Thompson, who is based in Seattle, is a journalist who has written for many fine publications, including Outside, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health, Backpacker, The Washington Post Magazine, and The Huffington Post, and his work has been featured on NPR, ESPN, the History Channel, C-Span, Fox, and TNT. His earlier books are “Light This Candle,” “Driving with the Devil” and “Hurricane Season.”

Here is what he told interviewer Jon Meacham about why he chose to write a biography of Robert Ripley of “Believe It or Not!” fame:

“I had a general sense of Ripley’s appreciation for the so-called “freaks” that have anchored the Believe It or Not! brand. But I was thrilled to learn that Ripley was hardly a Barnum-style exploiter. In fact, he was a compassionate champion of those whose weirdness defined them. As a shy and bucktoothed oddball, I found that his devotion to strange people and the strangeness of the world grew from his own sense of being a bit of a misfit. He was the underdog who celebrated underdogs. I was equally thrilled to learn that this passion for discovering the overlooked and the outcast made him fabulously rich and famous.”

What is this book about?

Believe it or not, Robert Ripley’s real first name was LeRoy. Believe it or not, he was grossly bucktoothed and shy. BION, he turned his penchant for discovering odd facts, drawing cartoons about odd folks and documenting their odd achievements into world-wide celebrity and vast wealth and lived on a private island with a menagerie of exotic pet animals. No one expected this lonely and dentally challenged little boy to grow into such a powerful and admired man, not to mention one who enjoyed the attentions of many women…but BION, he had the guts and determination to make it happen.  This is a deeply researched biography of a genuine American original.

Why you’ll like it:

Ripley was an underdog who became a roaring success – who doesn’t love that kind of story, especially when it is a true one? Thompson, drawing on his extensive background in reporting, has created a fully fleshed-out story of a very unusual man, one who understood what it was like to be outside the normal and empathized with his subjects even as he sensationalized their stories.

Here is a sample of Thompson’s easy-to-read and vividly visual style:

“LeRoy was lean and slight, socially timid but full of energy. He had a ball-­shaped head and high forehead, a tousled mop of hair above comically jutted-­out ears, a freckled and often-­dirty face. His most notable feature was an unfortunate set of protruding and misaligned front teeth, a crooked jumble that practically tumbled from his mouth. When he smiled, it looked like he was wearing novelty teeth. He usually kept his mouth closed, lips stretched to hide his dental deformity.

He suffered from a debilitating shyness, caused largely by his disfigured smile, and by a stutter that filled his speech with uhs, ums, and frozen words. Ripley carried himself in ways meant to shield his smile and stutter from others: hunched inward, chin tucked down, shoulders drawn forward, a protective stance. He seemed fragile, almost effeminate, and years later would admit to feeling embarrassed about his ‘backwardness.’ “

And here is what Thompson told Meacham about contemporary versions of what Ripley did in the 1930s and ‘40s:

“It’d be impossible to find a modern equivalent, and I’ve often wondered if Ripley, who thrived in a pre-TV era, would find an appreciative audience in today’s screen-centric, beauty-obsessed culture. He was a goofy looking dude, and not entirely comfortable as a public figure. Yet, remarkably, he was a multimedia pioneer, on radio and TV, usually thanks to his nerve-taming paper cups of gin or whiskey. Today, what most resembles Ripley is a mash-up of pop-culture personalities and phenomena: Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmern, Oprah, Dr. Phil, The Amazing Race, MythBusters, and Fear Factor.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, May 2013, says:  “Like some old uncle you run into at family gatherings, LeRoy Robert Ripley was both charming and odd. He was obsessed with the weird, the gross, and the silly pun (a favorite town in Iceland was pronounced “Hell,” ergo lots of “Go to Hell” jokes). Born sometime in the 1890s (the record is unclear), he grew into a wildly talented cartoonist and radio personality who became rich in the Depression, eventually turning his fascinations into the Believe It or Not brand that survives to this day. With wit and passion, Neal Thompson, an Amazon senior editor, has chronicled this interesting weirdo’s life–just his amorous adventures could fill a book–and in the process come up with a portrait of early 20th-century America different from any you’ve read before. Trust us, which is 21st-century speak for: believe it or not! “

Says Booklist: “You can be very familiar with someone’s work but know next to nothing about the person himself. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, which began life as a newspaper feature before becoming a popular television series, is a staple of popular culture. But who among us knows much about its creator? LeRoy Robert Ripley was born in 1890, although he often claimed other birth years; he wanted to be a pro baseball player but wound up a sports cartoonist; he was a bit of a womanizer, quite a bit of a drinker, and he had an insatiable curiosity about the unusual, the exotic, and the just-plain weird. Believe It or Not! made him a wealthy man, which allowed Ripley to indulge his own passions, which included collecting some truly odd things (torture devices, for example). Thompson paints a picture of Ripley as a brilliant but aggressively eccentric man, a globe-trotting curiosity seeker who always believed there was something even more unusual just around the corner. A fine introduction to a man who, for most of us, has been merely the name above a famous title.”

“Deliriously entertaining…In Thompson’s vivid rendering, LeRoy Robert Ripley (1890-1949) leads a life best described as Horatio-Alger-as-directed-by-Preston-Sturges-at-his-madcap-best…At the peak of his popularity, ‘Believe It Or Not!’ had more than 80 million readers and received around two million fan letters a month.  Meanwhile, Ripley’s personal life was as overstuffed as his professional one, as he compulsively collected objects, pets, and mistresses to fill his grand 28-room mansion…Reading  A Curious Man, it’s easy to see the hunger into which Ripley tapped still raging…his comics feel akin to one’s inaugural adventures into YouTube, particularly in its early days.  The novelty or even extremity is not the true appeal—instead, it’s the experience.  Random discovery.  Each link leading to other links, creating a simulacrum of worlds both remarkably similar and different from our own,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Robert Ripley was as unique and fascinating as the “Believe It or Not” newspaper feature that made him one of the most popular and widely read syndicated cartoonists in the country during the 1930s, and Thompson  . . . delivers an equally fascinating biography that captures the influence of Ripley’s work life then and now, well into the age of television and the Internet. A slight, bucktoothed and “socially timid” youth growing up in Santa Rosa, Calif., Ripley’s main interests were baseball and drawing caricatures of his classmates and teachers. He moved after high school to San Francisco to draw for the city’s main newspapers, first the Bulletin and then the Chronicle. Thompson presents a vivid portrait of the city’s hotbed of cartoonists who were “taking the concept of illustrated newspaper entertainment to new levels.” Later, he explores in detail how Ripley moved east to draw for the New York Globe, whose overseas assignments to cover odd sporting events eventually led to Ripley developing the “Believe It or Not” concept, turning it into a widely popular comic, a bestselling book, a radio show, and a traveling show—becoming “an unlikely playboy-millionaire” in the process. Thompson superbly shows how Ripley’ work is the basis for today’s more extreme reality shows by teaching readers “to gape with respect at the weirdness of man and nature.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has copies….BION!

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 New Countess

By Fay Weldon

(St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 334 pages)

Who is this author?

The very witty and deliciously snarky Fay Weldon is back again with the third in a trilogy that aims to please devotees of  the TV smash “Upstairs Downstairs” (for which she wrote the prize-winning pilot episode) and “Downton Abbey,” its worthy successor.

Weldon, now 81 and still going strong, is a multi-award-winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter and a Commander of the British Empire. Among her many books, “Praxis” was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction; “The Heart of the Country” won a  Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize and “Wicked Women” won a PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award. She was the daughter of a housemaid and lives in England.

What is this book about?

“The New Countess” picks up where “Habits of the House” and “Long Live the King” left off, completing Weldon’s trilogy of upper-crust British life in the Edwardian era, with plenty of down-to-earth commentary by the manor house staff. It is set a decade earlier than “Downton Abbey,” and is tailor-made for fans of that TV show and the beloved “Upstairs Downstairs. In this novel, it is 1903 in England and Lord and Lady Dilberne are flustered by the endless and elaborate process of getting ready to host the King and Queen (and the king’s mistress) in their 100-room abode. Not only must the great house be gussied up; the  little grandkids must be coached in appropriate behavior – appropriate in the eyes of Lady Dilberne but not of daughter-in-law Minnie O’Brien, the Chicago meat-packing heiress who married the Dilberne’s son, bringing tons of money, if not an impeccable upbringing, to the family. Just to complicate things further, Minnie’s mother, Tessa, a rather uncouth sort, is also visiting. Add marriage problems, troublesome and eccentric relatives and a changing society, and the result is a dilemma for the Dilbernes but great fun for the reader.

Why you’ll like it:

As I mentioned when I blogged in Under the Covers a year ago about “Habits of the House,” Fay Weldon  has “a deep and delicious understanding of what we do for love, what men in a patriarchal system do to women, what women often do to themselves and the absurdity of it all.  She can spin literary gold out of the raw materials of class, gender, greed and jealousy, and she does it with high humor and penetrating insight.” She does so in “The New Countess,” which concludes the Dilberne saga. Readers will likely enjoy this book best if they have already consumed its two predecessors, but this one can be read alone with satisfaction.

What others are saying:               

The Boston Globe says:  “. . . daughter of a London housekeeper, Weldon first used her intimate knowledge of the underside of the English gentry when she penned the pilot of the hugely popular “Upstairs Downstairs” series in 1971, and she has built a career skewering the various strata of society. Now . . . Weldon throws us another tidbit, full of titled misbehavior and the secrets that only the servants know.

Says the Christian Science Monitor: If a certain wildly popular British TV show comes to mind, that’s no surprise. . . . Her Edwardian trilogy, told with wit, wry observation and fascinating period detail, is just as absorbing.

Weldon . . . writes with an insider’s knowledge about the concerns of that now-vanished world . . . .Weldon‘s characters prove themselves to be an all too believable mix of good impulses and bad, selfless and selfish. Part of the fun is that everyone gets (and for the most part takes) the opportunity to behave quite badly. There’s plenty of Nobility in this tale, but precious little nobility. Weldon, at 81, holds no illusions about her fellow human beings. No doubt growing up behind the scenes in a Great House took care of that.

Feminist scholar [and UConn professor] Gina Barreca, in a recent appraisal of Weldon, after concluding that Weldon’s “incisive, funny, truth-telling places her among Woolf, Mansfield, Bowen and Spark,” questions why this exceptional writer isn’t taken more seriously.

Berreca’s conclusion? “We often value authors who write wisely, but, in fact, not terribly well.”

Happily, here, Weldon does both.”

Booklist says: “Weldon concludes her excellent Dilberne Court trilogy as Lord Robert and Lady Isobel prepare for a visit from King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. As the frenzied preparations by both family and staff members shift into high gear, things are not running as smoothly as they ought to be on either the domestic front or in the financial arena. Fraught with multiple plotlines that bridge the gap between the servants and the served, the entire affair is delightfully Downtonish. Weldon, the writer of the pilot episode of the original Upstairs, Downstairs, has dipped her toes into the Edwardian pool before, with great results; this time she dives right in and readers—especially those who have already enjoyed the exploits of the Dilberne dynasty in Habits of the House and Long Live the King—will be eager to plunge in, too.”

“The novel’s conclusion is surprising. With remarkable skill, Weldon reverses the reader’s expectations in such a way that the astonishment is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability,” says The Star Tribune.

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has copies of “The New Countess” for you.

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!

From Scratch: Inside the Food Network

by Allen Salkin

(Penguin, $27.95, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Allen Salkin is a New York City-based  journalist who has New York magazine, The Village Voice and Details on his resume, along with the years he spent as a reporter for The New York Times, where he specialized in writing about culture, the media and of course, food. Add to that his stints as a wholesaler of rubber duckies in Las Vegas, an orange-picker on the island of Crete and a door-to-door oil painting salesman in Australia, and you can see he has an eye for the quirky. And oh yeah, he went to the same high school as the Kardashians, albeit before they attended. His first book was “Festivus: The Holiday for the Rest of Us”, which, we can assume, taught him something about  the airing of grievances that came in handy in writing ‘From Scratch.”

What is this book about?

The Food Network is a mainstay of cable TV, and would you believe it is now 20 years old?  “From Scratch” has all the ingredients for a celebratory feast –bushels of solid research and tasty details spiced up with saucy gossip about the food world ,served up to a public hungry for information about food and the chefs who create it. (OK, I have run out of food clichés.) The network has revenues of close to $1 billion and its stars are so well known they only need first names: Julia, Rachael, Emeril, Alton, Mario, Bobby, Tyler, Nigella, Ina, Paula, Anthony, Guy, Cat and more.

Why you’ll like it:

This is both a business book and a personality parade, and while you may skim the business details, no doubt you will devour the dishy backstories of the Food Network stars. (Um, I guess my appetite for food clichés is insatiable.) From it we learn that bluff and hearty Emeril is actually kind of shy and was devastated when his expensive-to- produce show was dropped. While the facts and statistics Salkin painstakingly collected and put in context gives the book a solid base, it’s that kind of personal tale that keeps the reader asking for more helpings.

What others are saying:

From Publishers Weekly: “The Food Network has risen from obscurity and ridicule in the early ’90s to become a powerhouse of cable television, transforming chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Paula Deen into celebrities and changing food culture forever. With a light wit and balanced perspective, Salkin, a former food and media reporter for the New York Times, presents the definitive history of the network from inception to the present day. Food Network devotees will delight at the inside knowledge of internal scandals, the intriguing biographies of their favorite star chefs, and an exclusive look at the ever-shifting lineup of executives and parent companies. The first act, detailing how the network was conceived, funded, and staffed, is tremendously dry and provides little entertainment, making it almost impenetrable for all but the network’s most devoted fans. Once the stage is set, however, Salkin moves deftly between periods in the channel’s development, garnishing the narrative with frequent quotes from influential personalities to add depth. Referring to nearly everyone by his or her first name makes for inevitable confusion, but patient readers will eventually uncover a nuanced and rich tale of an empire that no one expected to survive.”

“A detailed look at the network from start-up phase to the present, with a generous lump of juicy stories about the network’s most polarizing figures—Guy Fieri, Bobby Flay, Anthony Bourdain and, of course, Paula Deen y’all—heaped on top,” says The Atlantic Wire.

The Connecticut Post says: “You don’t have to be a foodie to enjoy Allen Salkin’s new book — “From Scratch” — about the creation of The Food Network 20 years ago, and its turbulent but highly successful history since then. Salkin researched and writes the story so well that it has the energy of a great show business novel . . . It’s a TV business story, it’s a tale of the rise of the food and restaurant cultures over the past two decades, and it’s a look at a wide array of fascinating personalities who flourished (and fell) after the creation of a cable channel devoted to food . . . The result is a rare non-fiction book with the narrative pace of the juiciest fiction.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Fact-packed insider dish on the unlikely rise to prominence of the Food Network. . . . former New York Times food reporter Salkin serves up a heaping portion of cable TV history on the Food Network: from its humble beginnings in 1993, broadcasting from murky, rat-infested studios, to the culinary-themed reality TV behemoth it is today. The author introduces us to all the major personalities that helped further the popularity of the network over the years: Julia Child, Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay, Rachael Ray, Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali, among many other foodie luminaries. Salkin’s writing is more nuts-and-bolts reportage-oriented and research-heavy, and he is not always meticulous about separating the wheat from the chaff regarding indispensable facts and anecdotes. Nevertheless, the author gives a reasonably vivid sense of the machinations that took the Food Network from their original blueprint of traditional, by-the-numbers cooking shows to ownership under corporate giant Scripps and their innovative new wave of sexy culinary melodrama in the vein of Iron Chef. Salkin also charts how, not surprisingly, the Food Network went from a loose, anything-goes business model to a more conservative, risk-averse operation by the 2000s, when executives began to turn more toward focus-group surveying and statistics rather than rely on their own gut feelings or instincts for what kinds of shows would appeal to the public. As it turns out, only a few of the network’s mainstays, such as Bobby Flay, for instance, have what it takes to change with the times and tastes of viewers over the years. Obsessively detailed, but often too exhaustive for its own good.”

When is it available?

It’s now being served at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Albany 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!