Monthly Archives: May 2014

 A Burnable Book: A Novel

by Bruce Holsinger

(Morrow, $26.99, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Bruce Holsinger, who teaches about the medieval world in the English Department at the University of Virginia, has won many prizes and fellowships for his scholarly work on that period of history and has published six nonfiction books about its culture and events. Now, in his debut novel, Holsinger blends his encyclopedic knowledge of 14th century England  with a mystery plot involving political intrigue and the possible assassination of young King Richard II, to fine effect.

What is this book about?

Set in London in 1385, and featuring poet Geoffrey Chaucer amongst its characters, “A Burnable Book” is an historical thriller that is also a vivid travelogue that takes its readers back to medieval times. It involves a forbidden book of poems that are believed to prophesize the death of British kings, including poor Richard II. Chaucer, who works as what we would today call a government bureaucrat when he is not writing some of the English-speaking world’s most enduring poetry, engages another poet, John Gower, to track down the mysterious volume and the complex conspiracy that surrounds it. As lively as the plot is Holsinger’s vivid, almost palpably odiferous description of the filthy conditions of those times, when blood, muck, offal and excrement filled the streets.

Why you’ll like it:

It takes an expert to re-animate the long-dead past, and Holsinger has the knowledge and deep insights to do just that. Reading this book will give you a fine history lesson, but it will not seem like studying, because the lively plot and characters – and the sounds, smells, tastes and other sensory details that Holsinger so aptly describes – bring the story to life. Enter his way-back machine and you will find yourself living in another world, at least for the time it takes to read this engrossing — and often gross – novel.

What others are saying:

“Holsinger is…a fantastic historical novelist…definitely a strong new talent in the field. This book has everything–Chaucer, cryptography, murder, Katherine Swynford, the Southwark stews, English royalty, prophecy. It’s that rare thing: a well-written, historically accurate thriller,” says Historical Fiction Notebook.

NPR’s review by Jean Zimmerman says: “I fell into a state of dazed puzzlement at the start of this book, whose first chapter includes a remote century’s bitter winter, “sour ale” in an “undercroft tavern,” the stink of Newgate Jail, French secret agents, a wild-haired preacher and conversations in Italian and French as well as English. But after spending time with the knights, scholars and whores who populate the 1385 London of Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book, the pull of the story asserted itself: The search for a treasonous book of poems triggered labyrinthine plots and subplots that kept me guessing until the last page. Poems accused of treasonous intent? Now that I simply had to see.

At the center of A Burnable Book stands the flawed, aging fixer, John Gower. Resembling a less-powerful version of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, Gower sets off on the hunt for the missing book at the behest of his friend, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Yes, that Geoffrey Chaucer, who in Holsinger’s debut novel is accomplished and celebrated in London literary circles, but has not yet penned his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.

The “burnable” book of the title is a work of poetic prophecy, ostensibly written during the reign of William the Conqueror, which foretells in gory detail the demise of thirteen English kings. In a society where it’s a hanging offense merely to think of the king’s death, this is seditious stuff. More to the point for Chaucer’s contemporaries, Liber de Mortibus Regum Anglorum prophesizes the assassination of the sitting ruler, Richard II. The central mystery of the book leads us through the mucky lanes of London, with cunning surprises around every corner.”

New York Times Book Review says: “The poet John Gower is the perfect narrator and amateur sleuth. . . . Holsinger’s research, alongside the energetic vulgarity of a language in flux, delivers up a world where even the filth is colorful.”

Says the Washington Post: “Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century, lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary.”

In its starred review, Publishers Weekly says: “Medievalist Holsinger . . . delivers a first novel whose zest, breadth, and color evoke The Canterbury Tales. In 1385, Geoffrey Chaucer asks fellow poet and dealer in information, John Gower, to find a cryptic manuscript that predicts specifically how the current monarch, Richard II, will be assassinated. Gower discovers that the book has been stolen from Westminster by an unidentified woman, later murdered; dying, she gave it to a common prostitute, who is now hiding it in London. As treasonous texts begin to inflame an already dissatisfied populace, Gower realizes that the king, the book’s possessor, and his friend Chaucer are in danger, and his own son is threatened as well. For the first time, he finds himself at the mercy of other men’s secrets, rather than in control of them. Though the period’s unfamiliar terms and figures can be confusing, the intricate plot, sharp characterizations, and sweeping depiction of medieval England make this a memorable fiction debut.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In 1385 London, the race is on to recover a missing book. Outside the walls of London, Agnes, a “maudlyn,” or prostitute, observes the murder, by a cloaked, Italian-speaking thug, of a young woman, whose dress and accent bespeak noble birth. Agnes leaves the scene with a hidden prize: a book wrapped in a delicate tapestry. Meanwhile, John Gower, the 14th-century equivalent of a grizzled detective, has gotten wind of a conspiracy against the reigning king, Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince and nephew of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. The plot may have been fomented by the followers of the recently executed heretic Wycliffe, who are using the prophecies of one Lollius, an ancient Roman, as a blueprint. Lollius, it seems, predicted the manner of death of each English sovereign since William the Conqueror, and there is one prediction yet to be fulfilled: that on St. Dunstan’s Day, near a bishop’s palace, butchers—abetted by a Long Castle (Lancaster)—will lie in wait to slay the current monarch. As it happens, these prophecies are contained in Agnes’ contraband volume, which has fallen into the hands of her sister Millicent, who hopes to sell it to restore herself to the middle-class existence she once attained as a knight’s mistress. Trouble is, possession of a “burnable book,” one that embodies heresy and/or threats to the king’s person, is high treason. Gower and his friend Geoffrey Chaucer are hot on the tome’s trail when Gower’s sinister son, Simon, returns inopportunely from exile abroad. Enter Agnes’ best friend Eleanor/Edgar, a transvestite, whose main goal is to free his brother Gerald, a butcher’s apprentice, from the clutches of his cruel master, Grimes. Gerald has overheard Grimes planning just the sort of butchery envisioned by the book. Although the burgeoning web of plots and plotlines is dauntingly complex, the determined reader will be rewarded with a fascinating overview of pre-Renaissance London at its best and worst. A highly literate thriller from medievalist Holsinger.”

When is it available?

Please do not burn this book, or any other. This one is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


You Should Have Known

By Jean Hanff Korelitz

(Grand Central, $26, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

Jean Hanff Korelitz, an author who is New York City-born and bred, is a graduate of  Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge, and has written several novels, among them “Admission,” which became a Tina Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin movie last year. Her other books are “A Jury Of Her Peers,” “The Sabbathday River,” “The White Rose;”  a novel for middle grade students, “Interference Powder;” and the poetry collection “The Properties Of Breath.” Korelitz is the wife of Irish poet Paul Muldoon, who is poetry editor at The New Yorker, and they live in New York City with their two children.

What is this book about?

Like a long and intriguing episode of the Investigation Discovery channel’s “Who the Bleep Did I Marry,” this novel takes us inside a union that seems perfect on the surface but has monstrous events hiding just below. Its heroine is Grace, a therapist and writer married to Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist. They live in the same Manhattan apartment where she grew up, their son attends a fine private school and Grace is about to publish a book called “You Should Have Known,” about how some women blindly let themselves be deceived by their nefarious husbands. Life is good, and then suddenly  life is very, very bad for Grace, who herself becomes a betrayed wife who would have made an excellent case study for her book. There’s a murder, a disappearance, more shocking revelations and painful public humiliation in store, in this tale that one clever reviewer likens to “Jason Bourne meets Martha Stewart.”

Why you’ll like it:

Whether you approach it as a cautionary tale, an inspiring account of how a woman finds a way to survive a nightmare or just as a heaping helping of schadenfreude in which over-privileged New Yorkers get their just (and unjust) desserts, “You Should Have Known” should have great appeal. If you are at the shore this summer, check out what others are reading. I am betting this novel will be on many beach blankets.

What others are saying:                    

The New York Times Book Review says: “Dramatic irony isn’t the only pleasure of You Should Have Known; Grace’s husband’s pathology is erratic enough for behavior that holds genuine surprise. But the real suspense here lies in wondering when Grace will catch up to the reader. When and how will she come to know what she should have known and at some level maybe already did? The momentum of the novel, not to mention the writing, takes off just as Grace starts stumbling her way, arms outstretched, toward a glimpse of her husband’s true nature.”

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly says: “This excellent literary mystery by the author of 2009′s Admission unfolds with authentic detail in a rarified contemporary Manhattan. Therapist Grace Reinhart Sachs is about to embark on a publicity blitz to promote her buzzed-about book on why relationships fail, You Should Have Known. In the meantime, she cares for her 12-year-old son, Henry, who attends the same private school she went to as a child. Grace also treasures her loving relationship with her longtime husband Jonathan, a pediatric cancer doctor at a prestigious hospital. The novel’s first third offers readers an authoritative glimpse into the busy-but-leisurely lives of private-school moms. Grace does her best to get along with the school’s vapid and catty fundraising committee. She eventually learns that one of the mothers outside her social strata, Malaga Alves, was found murdered in her apartment by her young son. Grace, already tense and sad from these events, becomes more and more anxious as Jonathan, at a medical conference in the Midwest, proves unreachable over several days. The author deftly places the reader in Grace’s shoes by exploring her isolation, unease, and contempt for the rumor mill. The plot borders on hyperbole when it comes to upending what we know about one character, but that doesn’t take much away from this intriguing and beautiful book.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Jason Bourne meets Martha Stewart in another of Korelitz’s woman-of-a-certain-age-in-crisis dramas. The author’s 2009 novel, Admission, is now a film starring Tina Fey. Well, not quite Jason Bourne. But Grace Reinhart Sachs is almost as resourceful. She lives the perfect life–or so she thinks–with a rich, famous doctor for a husband and a satisfying if hurried professional life as a therapist, pop psychologist and now author of a book called, yes, You Should Have Known, a book that’s “apparently about to snag the Zeitgeist.” With said snagging comes her ascent to public personhood, or, as Grace puts it in psychologese, “[t]hus completing my public infantilization.” Her book urges women to take charge and exercise due diligence with regard to potential life mates, though in her own case, she had “absolutely just known, the first time she had lain eyes on Jonathan Sachs, that she would marry and love him for the rest of her life.” Mistake. Karma being what it is, it only stands to reason that the perfection of her life–the great kid, happy marriage, stunningly appointed city apartment and country home–will fall apart at the mere hint of scandal. And so it does, so that when Grace discovers that he’s not everything that he’s cracked up to be–emphasis on cracked up–she swings into action to uncover every dirty bit of laundry that’s hidden in that oak-paneled walk-in closet. Korelitz writes with clarity and an unusual sense of completeness; she doesn’t overdescribe, but neither does she let much of anything go by without observing it, which slows an already deliberately paced narrative. She is also an ascended master of the psychologically fraught situation, of which Grace experiences many as she stumbles on but then rises above the wreckage of her life. A smart, leisurely study of midlife angst.”

“A successful therapist with her new book, You Should Have Known, due to be published in weeks, Grace is living a life to envy: she’s married to an oncologist who loves her, has a son who adores her, and lives in a great apartment in Manhattan. Her son, Henry, attends an exclusive private school, which is in the midst of an annual fundraiser. Grace attends a planning meeting with several moms she already knows plus a new member, Malaga. Imagine the moms’ shock when a few days after the meeting, Malaga is found brutally murdered in her apartment. The police question everyone on the planning committee but return to talk to Grace several times. And thus begins the end of what Grace thought was a normal life. VERDICT Korelitz, the author of Admission, has crafted her second novel in the vein of Gone Girl or The Silent Wife; unfortunately, the suspense is marred by the overwritten prose. The book tends to be very New York-centric, so readers unfamiliar with the vagaries of life in Manhattan may find little to enjoy; still, fans of Korelitz’s first novel may be curious enough to give this a shot.,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

You should have known it would be on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.  And now you do.

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!


Family Life

By Akhil Sharma

(Norton, $23.95, 224 pages)

Who is this author?

Akhil Sharma is the author of “An Obedient Father,” which won a PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award Stories. A native of Delhi, he now lives in New York City. In the late 1970s, his father immigrated to the United States, and in 1979, when he was eight years old, Sharma and his mother and 12-year-old brother followed, eventually settling in Edison, New Jersey, where a large Indian community was established. Sharma earned his B.A. in public policy, not in literature, at Princeton University and won a Stegner Fellowship to the writing program at Stanford University, where he won several O. Henry Prizes. After failing to become a screenwriter, he went to Harvard Law School, and then became a successful banker before deciding to return to writing. His short story “Cosmopolitan” was anthologized in “The Best American Short Stories 1998,” and was made into an 2003 movie.  

What is this book about?

It is about immigration and making a new life, but it is also an autobiographical and devastating tale about how a single careless moment leads to a tragedy that undoes the close and ambitious Mishra family, who have left Delhi for life in America. Based on Sharma’s real life, the story tells what happens when his teenage brother, on whom the family’s hopes are pinned, has an accident in a swimming pool that leaves him brain-dead and the family reeling to cope. They care for poor, ruined Birju for years, but the father becomes an alcoholic, the mother settles for menial work, there are difficulties with a lawsuit and Ajay (the Sharma character) is torn between love for his brother and resentment of the circumstances that make him the family golden boy by default.

The Bangalore Mirror asked Sharma: “How cathartic has it been to write Family Life?,” which took him about 13 years to complete. His brother died about a year before it was published.

He replied: “Writing the book changed me. There was something about thinking about my family’s suffering, about how we had all behaved, sometimes well and sometimes not so well, that lead me to feel compassion. I think writing the book educated me about how much acceptance and forgiveness we need to have.”

Sharma told American Bazaar that  “the tragedy of his brother in America taught him to comprehend at an early age the permanent predicament of his wasted brother, who was supposed to be the beacon of success; to understand the helplessness of his once-ambitious father’s dive into alcoholism. To gauge the pain of his loving mother’s fight for sanity, her struggles to present a bold face, calm demeanor in society. . . .  Sharma creates a make-believe optimistic world for himself to ward off being dragged into failure, which would have been an easy option as there were no expectations of him from his family.”

Why you’ll like it:

Whether its author decided to tell it as fiction or as nonfiction, this is a gripping story. All families suffer some kind of pain: the Sharmas were given more than their share. The stress of living through the practical nightmare of caring for a severely damaged loved one while also dealing with the personal failings and problems of each bereaved family member is movingly, yet sparingly, told, which makes the story all the more powerful. This is emotional dynamite, handled gingerly, and a personal tale made universal by the author’s deft writing skills. There is just enough humor interspersed with the essential sadness of this story to make it palatable, even as you feel for this beleaguered, once hopeful, family.

What others are saying:

This is Sharma’s second novel after the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning “An Obedient Father” (2000). In it, there is none of the score settling of adult memoirists recalling bad parenting. He sees everything, including the actions of his protagonist, with what’s been called the “cold, loving eye” of the novelist. No one is spared by his gaze, and yet one comes to understand and feel sympathy for each of these characters. It is the story of the meeting between the adult man and the child he was. With his subtly drawn point of view — recreating the child’s perceptions but with the controlling sensibility of an adult intelligence — Sharma gives us a fully imagined world, both hard and consoling.” says the Boston Globe.

The New York Times Book Review says: “…deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core…Family Life is devastating as it reveals how love becomes warped and jagged and even seemingly vanishes in the midst of huge grief. But it also gives us beautiful, heart-stopping scenes where love in the Mishra family finds air and ease…I found Family Life riveting in its portrayal of an immigrant community’s response to loss…But where Family Life really blazes is in its handling of Mrs. Mishra’s grief. Sharma is compassionate but unflinching as he tells of this mother’s persistent and desperate efforts to cope over the years.”

Says Publishers Weekly’s starred review:  “The immigrant experience has been documented in American literature since those first hardy souls landed at Plymouth, and as the immigrants keep coming, so too do their stories. Sharma (An Obedient Father), who acknowledges the autobiographical elements in his new novel, tells a simple but layered tale of assimilation and adaptation. The Mishras come to America in the late-1970s, the father first, in the wake of new U.S. immigration laws and the Indian Emergency, when the narrator, Ajay, is eight, and his brother Birju is 12. There are lovely scenes of their life in Delhi before they leave, the mother making wicks from the cotton in pill bottles, the parade of neighbors when their plane tickets to America arrive. Sharma captures the experience for Ajay of being transported to a different country: the thrill of limitless hot water flowing from a tap; the trauma of bullies at school; the magic of snow falling; watching Birju, the favored son, studying hours each day and spending entire weekends preparing for the entrance exam at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Then a terrible tragedy irreparably alters the family and their fortunes. Sharma skillfully uses this as another window into the Indian way of accepting and dealing with life. A loving portrait, both painful and honest.

Kirkus Reviews says: “In Sharma’s world, as in Leo Tolstoy’s, unhappy families continue to be unhappy in different ways. In 1978, narrator Ajay’s father emigrates from Delhi to New York to take a job as a clerk in a government agency, and a year later, his family joins him. Ajay’s mother had been an economics teacher in India and must now adjust to lower career aspirations, while Ajay’s older brother Birju experiences some academic success in middle school and qualifies to attend the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his new high school, he has an accident—he hits his head in a pool and stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage that lasts throughout his life. This accident changes the entire dynamic for the Mishra family. First, they have to determine how to take care of Birju, and they eventually decide to buy a new home and have live-in help, a situation made more feasible when the family gets a $1 million insurance settlement. But the father becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stresses brought about by Birju’s medical needs, and the mother winds up taking a job in the garment industry for minor wages. Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be the academic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high school class—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes an investment banker. Along the way, he becomes enamored with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories about his family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—a style Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel. A moving story of displacement and of the inevitable adjustments one must make when life circumstances change. “

When is it available?

This moving novel is on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

Clever Girl

by Tessa Hadley

(Harper, $25.99, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Tessa Hadley, a much-admired British novelist and short story writer, is the author of such novels as “Accidents in the Home” and “The Master Bedroom” and the collections “Sunstroke” and “Married Love.” Her books often gain the New York Times Notable Book designation, and Hadley also is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Her parents had artistic leanings, and she is the niece of playwright Peter Nichols, famed for his “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” and “Passion Play.”

What is this book about?

A young girl, Stella, recognizes early on that she has considerable intellectual cleverness and envisions a bright future, possibly with her brilliant, quirky boyfriend, Valentine. But life, in this realistic “coming of middle age” story set largely in Bristol, England, takes a different turn. At 16, Stella, who is the daughter of a single mother,  faces single-motherhood herself. It’s a challenge indeed, and there are more that follow as the years go by.

The Independent interviewed Hadley and said: “It’s hard not to draw parallels between Stella and her creator. Both read avidly as teenagers, both entertained literary aspirations which were derailed by circumstance: namely, marriage, pregnancy and family.”

“Hadley acknowledges the congruencies between fact and fiction only to swat them away. “It is not very autobiographical except that, deliberately, Stella is born in the same city and the same year as me. But she absolutely doesn’t have my life. She is much braver than I am, much more audacious.”

Why you’ll like it:               

Hadley is one of those gifted writers who can reveal the extraordinariness of what seems to be on the surface just an ordinary life. Stella, whose story she tells from her teen years in the 1960s to today, is British, but American readers – particularly women – will relate to the choices she makes and the consequences that ensue.  Here is what Hadley told The Independent about what her novel explores:

“The things that aren’t under your control are the most interesting,” Hadley says. “Stella says it herself. It isn’t what goes on in your inward life that is most important. It is what you do with what befalls you. We can’t pre-empt this. In the end, when you look back, those substantial accidents are the test, much more than what you have schemed.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist: “Growing up in Bristol with a single mother, Stella first realizes she’s clever when she solves a physics problem with sudden insight. Her cleverness seems confirmed when she and brilliant Valentine become inseparable in a life of the mind. But she’s not clever enough to avoid becoming pregnant at 16, after having sex just twice with Val, who’s left for America. When Stella’s in the greatest need, her own hard work and the kindness of others help sustain her through motherhood, communal living, tragedy, affair, and marriage to the age of 50, when she understands that “the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than the invisible turmoil of the inner life. . . . The highest test was not in what you chose, but in how you lived out what befell you.” Hadley (Married Love, 2012) displays the keen insight and masterful portrayal of the domestic life for which she has become known. But this story of how narrator Stella lives out what befalls her is more likely to be admired for Hadley’s sheer skill than embraced.

In The New York Times Book Revie, author Meg Wolitzer  wrote: “…Hadley is an immaculate stylist…Clever Girl isn’t plot-driven and isn’t a character study and isn’t preoccupied with language, but its elements work in patient harmony. It is what could be called a “sensibility” novel—a story that doesn’t overreach, about a character who feels real, told in prose that isn’t ornate yet is startlingly exact. The effect is a fine and well-chosen pileup of experiences that gather meaning and power. “

Publishers Weekly says in a starred review: “Hadley’s latest is told from the point of view of Stella, a lower-middle-class British girl born in the 1950s, whose experiences coming of age mirror the broader cultural development of her times. The child of divorced parents, Stella is clever in school and seems destined to go on to a university. But after being abandoned by a boyfriend and discovering she is pregnant (her son, Luke, eventually goes on to be a teacher), Stella’s life takes a series of left turns. While working as a waitress, she falls in with a group of art students, and eventually goes to live in their commune, where she gets pregnant again by a new boyfriend who’s tragically killed before the baby is born. After a dispiriting stint as a married businessman’s mistress, Stella returns to school and resumes the trajectory of her waylaid life. The simplicity of its story is one of this novel’s great strengths: the uncluttered plot allows for Stella’s pains, humiliations, and instances of self-discovery to be confidently inhabited and rendered with emotional precision. Looking back over her life, Stella can be wistful about people and places (“Sometimes I’m nostalgic for that old intricate decay, as if it was a vanished subtler style”), but tellingly, she is often at a loss to explain or precisely remember her motivations, “as if a switch flicked between two versions of myself, I suddenly wasn’t all right.” In the end, this carefully wrought novel transcends mere character study, offering up Stella’s story as a portrait of how accidents and happenstance can cohere into a life. “

Says the Wall Street Journal:  “Masterful, understated….Clever Girl, like the fiction of V.S. Pritchett or Alice McDermott, is devoted to capturing personality through small actions and expressions, to sparking characters into a vivid flame with a few exact descriptions and to distilling domestic settings into precious, even exalted significance.”

Hadley’s book unfolds Stella’s life straightforwardly, making it all the more believable.

When is it available?

“Clever Girl” is on the new books shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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



By Susanna Kaysen

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Best known as the author of the memoir turned film, “Girl, Interrupted,” Susanna Kaysen also wrote the novels “Asa, As I Knew Him” and “Far Afield” and the memoir “The Camera My Mother Gave Me.” She lives in, loves and writes about  Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

Susanna Kaysen, the author, grew up in 1950s Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard and bastion of liberal politics, lifestyles and world-views. Susanna, the protagonist of “Cambridge,” is a fictional version of the author as a young girl, and the book looks back at her young life in this haven of academia and artistic achievement with nostalgia for its peculiarities and for the tween years she experienced before “tween” was a word. Always longing to go back to Cambridge as her professor father’s career took them to the great cities of Europe, Kaysen seems fated to be the outsider who has the perspective with which to capture that place in her memories and to make it live for her readers.

Why you’ll like it:

The book centers on Cambridge, but it is just as much about being a bright, lonely young girl growing up in confusing times – and the times are always confusing to bright and lonely young girls approaching womanhood. It is that universality that will endear readers to this story. You may not be philosophically or politically attuned to “the People’s Republic of Cambridge,” as it later came mockingly to be known, but you will relate to the coming-of-age aspects of this thoughtful novel built on real life.

What others are saying:

“With Cambridge, Kaysen is writing about a personal theme, her hometown, where she has lived for most of her life . . . The novel is a portrait—almost a still life—of the city in the 1950s, revolving around a dreamy girl and her intellectual, worldly parents. Kaysen grew up among the academics and artists of Cambridge, too, the eccentric characters who socialized with her mother and her economist father, Carl Kaysen, a highly respected professor first at Harvard, then at MIT. But even though Cambridge is heavily autobiographical (the young heroine’s name is Susanna), it is fiction, a decision Kaysen made to help her in the writing process [and] enabled her to invent,” says Matthew Gilbert, writing in The Boston Globe.

“Poignant . . . Kaysen, the author of Girl, Interrupted, her affecting memoir about her stint as a psychiatric patient in 1967, [had] a wry humor, [and] Kaysen brings that same appealing style to her memoir-like third novel, Cambridge. It’s not an epic or a page-turner, but it succeeds as a wisely observed story about leaving childhood—both its humiliating powerlessness and its blissful innocence—whether you want to or not . . . It is also about nostalgia, and the tricks of memory. Every recollection contains an element of fiction. When we leave her at age 11, Susanna is standing in her Cambridge back yard after dinner, a ‘booming, echoing feeling in my chest . . . My childhood—it was gone!’ What was wonderful, she concludes, was ‘standing alone in the night, rewriting the past to make myself miss what had never been,’”  says Christina Ianzito in The Washington Post.

“Elegant, remarkable. The experience of reading Cambridge, the story of a girl growing up in the 1950s, feels like settling back into a warm chair after an absence . . . Novels-from-life like Cambridge often contain their own brand of wisdom. They are books whose use of the techniques of fiction seems to have an almost political purpose: namely, to make mundane realities worth inscribing in print. And there is something very noble about insisting that there is art in those experiences we would not necessarily call novelistic. And in then being totally honest about the way in which we tend to shape and revise the stories we tell ourselves . . . There is indeed something uniquely worth recording not just about one’s childhood, but about the way in which we spend our lives revising it into such outlines,” says Michelle Dean in Slate.

Says Library Journal: “This latest novel from Kaysen (Asa, As I Knew Him) follows a character named Susanna from the second to the sixth grade, taking her through four countries, a Swedish nanny, and a Brahman piano teacher who never makes her play. Susanna leads an unconventional life and is not happy about it. Maladjusted, awkward, and lonely, she has only one friend her age, and he lives in Cambridge, MA. Kids are just one more reason to hate school, but though she spends most of her time abroad in the company of adults, they make no more sense to her than do her classmates. What she does love is the English language, and Susanna’s facility with language allows Kaysen to create tension and humor around experiences that would seem insignificant to an adult but that Susanna finds traumatic. VERDICT Although Susanna’s despair and confusion are palpable throughout, this is not a depressing work. Susanna is a curious girl whose travels often leave her awestruck. Readers of literary fiction and novels about academic life will find the globe-trotting parents interesting, if not ideal protectors.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Susanna, a “cranky and difficult” young girl with complicated parental relations, recalls her formative years, traveling from English shores to Grecian temples, in this fictional memoir, which, as the title implies, focuses on the period she and her academic parents lived in Cambridge, Mass. Despite the somewhat predictable nature of Susanna’s feelings (“They’d be sorry when I froze to death two blocks away, a pathetic little creature with only my bicycle for a friend”) and the lengthy digressions on topics like piano lessons, this raw, biting autobiographical novel from the author of Girl, Interrupted frequently lights up to the point of incandescence with subtle descriptions and astute, witty anecdotes. The depiction of the courtship between Susanna’s piano teacher and her Swedish nanny, Frederika, in which the narrator’s mother and a few other key characters play strong supporting roles, is a literary tour-de-force, neatly displaying Kaysen’s unique talent for creating an engaging ensemble cast that comes uniquely alive under adolescent eyes: “Mascara, a swipe of red lipstick, and a dab of rouge could transform Frederika into a monster in two minutes. It was terrifying.” Susanna may not be the most likeable young girl, and she certainly spends a good deal of time wallowing in self-pity (“I could keep growing and thinking and reading in secret, in my dark, sorry-for-myself basement of failure and neglect, like a little rat”), but for Kaysen and her legion of fans, the focus on adolescence is a theme that works. And why not? Sometimes, parental neglect or some other sad reality is just a fact of life, and the effects are, unfortunately, affectingly real.”

When is it available?

You don’t have to go to Cambridge to find “Cambridge.” It’s on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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


Fallen Land

By Patrick Flanery

(Riverhead, $27.95, 416 pages)

Who is this author?

He was born on the West Coast, raised in the mid-West and educated at the University of Oxford in England. Patrick Flanery first gained attention as the author of the much-praised “Absolution,” set in South Africa, and now turns his attention to the American heartland and disturbing trends in American life.


What is this book about?

Flanery told an NPR reviewer that his aim in writing “Fallen Land” was to explore the effects of the housing crisis:

“I came to thinking about the housing crisis as the natural setting for the story that I wanted to tell. Because I had this vision of somebody who was in a house that was no longer theirs. And it seemed logical to set it against the backdrop of the housing crisis and think about how that was affecting very different kinds of people and the very different situations they find themselves in after foreclosure auctions and things like that.”

So he gives us a doomed development called Dolores Woods (an apt name, when we remember that Dolores means sorrow). Built on land owned for generations by an African American family, who got it following a lynching, it now houses half-finished McMansions and the developer’s foreclosed home, newly bought by a family from Boston – with a son named Copley — who don’t know what they are getting into. Also unbeknownst to the Noailles family, the developer is still living in the house, hiding out below ground in a secret bunker like an especially demented Doomsday Prepper that only the troubled son of the family can see, leading to clashes with his father.  Also still secretly in Dolores Woods is the wife of the sharecropping family, living off the grid not for ecological reasons, but because she cannot afford to pay for utilities. Hovering malignly over all of them is the EKK corporation, which employs Nathaniel Noailles and is  a vast multinational octopus reaching into spheres from private prisons to private schools to entertainment, and not with good intentions or results.


“I wanted the book to speak to a kind of crisis in neighborliness, and thinking about the ways in which people are becoming so inward-looking, and the ways in which it’s incredibly easy — I think in part because of technology — not to think about what’s happening around us. And that’s not just thinking about security but thinking about who needs help. So it’s almost about a crisis of empathy with the people that we should be looking out for but who we fail to look out for in fairly fundamental ways.”

“I wanted the book to speak to a kind of crisis in neighborliness, and thinking about the ways in which people are becoming so inward-looking, and the ways in which it’s incredibly easy — I think in part because of technology — not to think about what’s happening around us. And that’s not just thinking about security but thinking about who needs help. So it’s almost about a crisis of empathy with the people that we should be looking out for but who we fail to look out for in fairly fundamental ways,” Flanery told NPR.

Why you’ll like it:                                 

This is a book that combines elements of the mystery novel, the psychological thriller, family problems, contemporary political and financial issues and more, but not in a preachy or heavy-handed way. All these elements are explored, but always in the context of human foibles and tragedy. Flanery’s compelling story and deft handling of its people and plot has earned this novel starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal, no mean feat.

What others are saying:

Says Booklist:  “The land once belonged to Louise’s family, but she had to sell it in the wake of her husband’s death. Now she watches from the small plot that remains in her possession as Paul Krovik erects his new housing development, beginning with his own home. But Paul’s vision is ill-founded, and when he loses everything, he sinks into madness and goes into hiding in a bunker beneath his house. Chasing their own dreams, Julia and Nathaniel buy Paul’s foreclosed home and move to the small town with their son. Unaware of the man living below them, they cannot conceive of their danger. As they become increasingly mindful of an unexplainable presence in their home, Nathaniel’s reservations about the move grow to the point of insanity, leading them all toward the tragedy hinted at in the novel’s beginning. This psychological thriller doesn’t stop at suspenseful and chilling, though. Fallen Land deconstructs the American dream to expose its most damning flaws and unsound foundations. The novel is rich in imagery and metaphor, and its conclusions are deeply disturbing. Written with the same elegance and ease demonstrated in Absolution (2012), Flanery’s second novel will keep readers riveted from intriguing prelude to stunning finale.”

Says Publishers Weekly:  “Flanery’s engrossing new novel speaks to modern anxieties through themes of loss. In an unnamed Midwestern city, Paul Krovik has lost his business due to incompetence, his home due to foreclosure, and his family due to divorce. Now he lives in a bunker adjoining his former home. Neighbor Louise Washington is being evicted from her home on her family farm, which is being sold off to satisfy debts. Nathaniel Noailles’s family—Boston transplants now living in Paul’s old house—is falling apart, partly due to poltergeistlike nighttime visits from Paul (who emerges in the pantry via a secret tunnel) and partly due to son Copley’s difficulties in a draconian school run by Nathaniel’s employer, the sinister multinational security corporation EKK. Convinced that Copley is responsible for the disturbances in the house, Nathaniel ignores the problems he is having at school. Only Copley’s mother Julia—and Louise—believe the boy is innocent. Flanery (Absolution) excels in depicting psychic anguish. Paul is both disturbing and fascinating, and Copley, helpless in the face of his father’s increasing harshness, is eminently sympathetic. The characters’ struggles culminate in a shocking and memorable denouement.

Kirkus Reviews says: “The cataclysm at the root of Flanery’s (Absolution, 2012) second novel is an act of mob violence 100 years past. Two men are lynched, one white, one black. The deed to the white man’s farm falls to the black man’s brother, Louise Washington’s ancestor. Louise was a teacher; her husband, Donald, farmed, but he was caught between high interest rates and low crop prices. Before he could recover, he died. Now, Louise, evicted by eminent domain, trespasses in her own home. Paul Krovik, an ambitious contractor, secured rights to build Dolores Woods, a McMansion development, on Louise’s land. Then the housing bubble burst, the development failed, and Paul was evicted from his model home while also losing his family. In this “dolorous forest of infinite sorrow,” Paul lurks in his house’s secret basement shelter. From their lairs, these outliers watch Nathaniel and Julia and their boy, Copley, move into Krovik’s house. Julia is a research scientist. Nathaniel, reluctant to leave Boston, will be National Director of Offender Rehabilitation for EKK, once into security and incarceration management but now exerting massive influence in areas ranging from biotech to entertainment. Nathaniel and Julia are profession-centered and blind to reality, but Copley, “unfailingly polite, reserved, self-contained, all of his processes and emotions hidden,” encounters Paul. No one believes Copley, but Paul, increasingly paranoid, soon surfaces to destroy more dreams than his own. In a literary effort far different from his accomplished debut, Flanery explores family and social mores, cataloging emotional damage tumbling from generation to generation, all woven into a metaphorical tale about the human cost of bubble economics, the undermining of personal freedoms in the name of homeland security and the ugly consequences of the privatization of public service. Characters and back stories are both authentic and chilling, as when EKK’s CEO declares “[p]rivate is now public, in the interests of security.” In a novel both symbolic and philosophical, Flanery’s dark view of human ambition, weakness and complacency is both thoughtful and terrifying. A haunting, layered allegory.”

“Now, on the back of his highly regarded South Africa–set debut, Absolution, Patrick Flanery takes up the challenge of what DeLillo calls ‘the American mystery’ in a new novel that also explores the dark shadows cast by history and old lies. . . . In Fallen Land, Flanery has given us a gripping thriller, and a superb portrayal of how ordinary men can veer into madness, but its real power lies in its recognition of the tragic failure of an American dream that should have tried, at least, to live up to Francis Bellamy’s principle of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ ” says The Guardian.

When is it available?

You can explore “Fallen Land” now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight or 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!


A Natural Woman: A Memoir

By Carole King

(Grand Central, $27.99, 496 pages)

Who is this author?

If you love rock ‘n’ roll, I don’t really have to answer that question. You already know that Carole King, a singer, songwriter and pianist, wrote, collaborated on or performed many of rock’s greatest all-time hits. The list is fabulous: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (her first No. 1 hit, when she was18), “One Fine Day”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “The Loco-Motion”, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Me Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman,” all of which she co-wrote with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, and many, many more. And she was no flash in the Tin Pan Alley: “Tapestry,” her 1971 solo album, won four Grammy awards and was on the Billboard charts for six years, a record for an album by a female artist, and was No. 1 for 15 consecutive weeks. She’s written more than 100 top-selling songs and recorded 25 solo albums.

The good news is that she can write a good memoir, too.

What is this book about?

It’s about her life and career, which started early. Now 70, King looks back at growing up in Brooklyn as Carol Joan Klein, scoring her first record contract at 15, marrying for the first time at 17 and going on to become a rock legend and to work with James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Neil Sedaka and many other stars. (Sedaka was her boyfriend for a time, and his hit song “Oh! Carol” was inspired by her.)

That may all sound familiar, but there are other, less-well-known aspects to King’s life: after divorcing Gerry Goffin, she married three more times and suffered abuse at the hands of husband No. 3.

Having lived in New York and California, she later developed a deep interest in environmental issues that were inspired by living with her family in Idaho’s mountain country.

Why you’ll like it:

King came from an ordinary background and she writes in a straight-forward, regular-person way. It’s fascinating to read how she evolved from being a kid who liked to scribble down lyrics to the creator of so many heartfelt songs that spoke eloquently to an entire generation and beyond, and how she managed this in an industry long-dominated by men. The book is enhanced with childhood and family photos and shots taken during and behind the scenes at her performances.

What others are saying:

Says Kirkus Reviews: “a down-to-earth, optimistic and liberated worldview of a woman with some timely stories to tell….when her marriage deteriorated, she set off for Los Angeles to seek her own voice. That voice comes through strongly on every page of this memoir, an engaging assortment of recollections comprising a journey that started in her working-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, took her to Manhattan and Laurel Canyon and saw her escape what Joni Mitchell called “the star maker machinery” to settle in rural Idaho. She is also refreshingly candid about her four marriages. A warm, winning read that showcases baby-boomer culture at its best.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Weaving a tapestry of rich and royal hue, King’s affecting memoir eases readers through her life, from the girlhood in Brooklyn where she was already jotting down lyrics.”

 “…There’s a big audience for this memoir by the four-time Grammy Award winner, who says, sweetly, that “the journey probably started with my grandparents,” says Library Journal.

When is it available?

You can find it now on the new book 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!


Thunderstruck and Other Stories

By Elizabeth McCracken

(Dial Press, $26, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of several excellent books: the heartbreaking memoir of losing her unborn baby, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” the delicately lovely novel “The Giant’s House,’ the story collection  “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” and  the novel “Niagara Falls All Over Again.” A former public librarian, and former resident of Massachusetts, she is now a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin. Her husband is the novelist and illustrator Edward Carey.

What is this book about?

Here are nine stories from one of the most accomplished writers working today. They are often sad, often provocative and truly compelling, as their characters face challenges and make decisions that take them to places they never meant to go and from which they cannot return without undergoing great changes. The plots are simple: a bereaved young widower decides to toss out his landlord’s things in a quest to remake a rented home; a grocery store manager becomes enthralled by the case of a missing woman and her son; a father must cope with his daughter’s brain injury; another with the failed man that his son has turned out to be. The details are not complicated, but the telling, as is always the case with McCracken, is rich and strange.

Why you’ll like it:

“Thunderstruck” is a story collection that was long awaited – 20 years – by fans of McCracken’s inimitable style. She can be funny, incisive, poignant, lyrical without being precious and surprisingly hard-hitting: often all at the same time. Her novel, “The Giant’s House,” set on Cape Cod, is a kind of modern-day fairy tale about an improbable but not impossible love affair, and it is one of my favorite books of all time. This collection also shows off McCracken’s singular voice and appreciation of the world. I rate her as one of the best contemporary American writers: read this book or her others and see if you agree.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says, in a starred review: “McCracken’s short stories are like no others. Her distinctive voice, her slightly askew manner of looking at the world, her mix of mordant humor and tenderness, her sense of life’s ironies, and the jolt of electricity at the end of each tale make her work arresting and memorable. In this collection of nine short narratives (McCracken’s return to short fiction 20 years after Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry), a feckless, improvident father mourns the unwitting example he has set for his son; a grieving mother finds solace in a neighbor’s child, while that child’s mother is about to undergo a tragic loss; and a librarian has to live with a disastrous memory. In the title story, a father who must come to terms with his daughter’s brain injury muses: “Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure that you cleared the lip.” These stories, set in France, Massachusetts, Maine, and Iowa, are macabre yet anchored by precise details and psychological insight; they turn on ironic twists of fate and seesaws of luck. Readers will enjoy reading them twice—the first time quickly, because the plots are mesmerizing and strange, and the second to relish the dozens of images, aperçus, and descriptions (a handsaw is “a house key from a giant’s pocket”; “His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast”; “Amazing how death made petty disappointments into operatic insults”). McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions. “


In its starred review, Kirkus Reviews says: “These nine stories from fiction and memoir author McCracken (An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, 2008, etc.) excavate unexplored permutations of loss and grief. The volume starts and ends with bookending wallops. The opener, “Something Amazing”—combining a not-quite-ghost story about a grieving mother “haunted” by her dead child with the unfolding story of a mother unaware she is about to suffer her own loss—taps into every parent’s worst fears. The final story, “Thunderstruck,” follows a family in which the mother and father react in very different ways after their joint efforts to be good parents disastrously backfire. The rest of the volume deals with various forms of sorrow and coping. “Property” considers the stuff of grief as a newly widowed man moves into a rental house full of what he considers junk left by the house’s owner. In “Some Terpsichore,” a woman remembers an abusive former lover with horror and nostalgia. Memory also plays tricks in “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”: A store manager’s memory of helping a young boy he once discovered being starved by his grandfather sustains him through his own losses, but the boy, now grown, remembers the incident differently. In “Juliet,” the murder of a library patron causes a series of off-kilter reactions among the librarians, showing that guilt is not limited to perpetrators or sorrow, to those officially bereaved. In “The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs,” a foolhardy expat in rural France realizes his son, whom he’s raised with outrageous carelessness, has betrayed his trust and left him broke. “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” describes a different kind of betrayal when a dying man attempts to visit the former friend who ruined his life. In the surprisingly tender “Hungry,” about a woman caring for her granddaughter while the girl’s father (the woman’s son) lies in the hospital, food and a patriotic speech serve as metaphors for the power and limitations of love. McCracken’s skewed perspectives make this a powerfully if quietly disturbing volume.”

“A young girl’s ghost, two three-legged dogs, and a comatose American preteen in Paris are a few of the characters who live inside McCracken’s bizarre and magnetic gallery of short fiction. In “Something Amazing,” a woman is haunted by the recent death of her six-year-old daughter but discovers some release and joy in an unexpected place. “Some Terpsichore” tells how the strange love between a man who plays a saw with a bowlike instrument and his wife, whose singing voice mimics the sound of the musical saw, flickers out when he becomes depressive and physically abusive. At the heart of these pieces and her collection as a whole, McCracken (The Giant’s House) examines the connections among human beings and what happens when they lose one another. Through death, medical trauma, or some other mystery or disappearance, life changes for the individuals in these stories, not only for those who are left behind to live with the memory of their loved ones but for neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers. VERDICT Anyone who enjoys short fiction will find pleasure and substance in McCracken’s witty, world-wise collection,” says Library Journal.

“Marvelously quirky, ironic, but, most of all, poignant . . . McCracken paints [her characters] with such rich detail that it feels as if we must know them,” says Booklist.

When is it available?

“Thunderstruck” awaits you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.


 by Lorrie Moore

(Knopf Doubleday, $24.95, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Lorrie Moore, who built an enviable  reputation as a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, attracting students who worshipped her abilities to connect with and inspire them, has moved on to become Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, a title I’m betting she finds just a tad grandiose. Moore is known for her wit, often corrosive, and wisdom, hard-earned. She has won many awards for her fiction, including the Irish Times International Prize for Literature, a Lannan Foundation fellowship, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for her achievement in the short story. Her most recent novel is A Gate at the Stairs and she also is the author of  “Like Life,” “Self-Help,” “Birds of America, “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and  “Anagrams.” 

What is this book about?

It’s a collection of eight stories, mordantly funny but also darker in tone than some of her previous work. If this collection has a theme, it is the difficult process of letting love go, or maybe that should be letting go of love. The first story, “Debarking,” set against the revving up of the Iraq war, gives us a sweetly dorky, newly divorced guy who becomes entangled with a gorgeous but increasingly disturbed (and disturbing) woman whose relationship with her spoiled-beyond-redemption teenage son will skeeve you out, even as you find yourself laughing out loud. “Foes” involves the 9/11 catastrophe. “The Juniper Tree” is a compelling ghost story. “Wings” is a riff on the famous Henry James tale, “Wings of the Dove.”  Moore’s “Referential” is her version of a famous Nabokov story, “Signs and Symbols.” But don’t be alarmed: Moore is not cribbing here: she makes these stories her own. In sum, this collection, her first in 15 years, is both vintage and new, as Moore continues to hone her brilliant, singular voice.

Why you’ll like it:

I’m in the process of reading “Bark” now, and on the basis of “Debarked,” “Paper Losses” and “The Juniper Tree,” I can tell you that she had me from page one. Moore employs a wit that can slash, but also enlighten. She gets how complex, and even murderous, relationships both good and bad can be. She uses language like a whip: pity those upon whom the lash falls. Some reviews have carped that this book is a bit too dark for them. I say it’s like almost-bitter chocolate: delicious and addictive.

Here is what Moore told The New York Times about writing:

“Now that she is done with the collection, Ms. Moore said, she is thinking about another novel, one “weirder” than her last. She pointed out that the difference between the two forms is that stories need to be written, or at least mapped out, in a single sitting, while, with a novel, “you can just go in and write a paragraph and then go away.” She continued, “This is why some people think the novel is the perfect form for the busy single working mom.”

On the other hand, she said, novel writing is a “form of insanity” that forces a writer to keep endless company with characters she has made up. “How a novel finishes,” she added, “is there’s a moment when you know it has problems, and you don’t know how to fix them. That’s when you’re done.”

What others are saying:

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, March 2014 review by Sara Nelson says: “Here’s a reason Lorrie Moore is so beloved by her baby boomer brethren: she’s smart, she’s funny, her eye is even sharper than her tongue. In Bark, her latest collection of stories, all those qualities are well on display. “He had never been involved with the mentally ill before,” she writes of her mid-life anti-hero in the (sort-of) title story, “Debarking.” “[B]ut he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good looking.” Acerbic? Check. Knowing? Check. Says out loud on the page what we less talented, less observant mere mortals wish we could form so well in thought? Check. Check. Check. The only reason not to read these seven stories is that, perhaps, they’re just too accurate and perceptive about the way we live now–but then, why would you ever want to read stories that were anything else?”

Says Booklist in a starred review: “Moore’s first collection of short stories, the uncommonly perceptive and energetically articulate Birds of America (1998), established her prominent place in the renaissance of the American short story that made itself heard with great innovation in the 1980s and 1990s. Since then, she has alternated between story collections and novels, and now a new compilation of stories will add support to the widely held opinion that the short form is her true forte. Her talent is best exhibited in the collection’s longest stories (each around 40 pages); her comfort with that length is indicated by her careful avoidance of overplotting, which, of course, dulls the effect of an expansive short story, and by not allowing the stories to seem like the outlines of novels that never got developed. These two examples of her proficiency shine: “Debarking” is about a divorced man who enters the dating scene only to experience complications with the is-she-crazy woman he starts dating and also within himself, as intimacy seems the natural antidote to “global craziness”; “Wings” concerns husband-and-wife musicians whose dreams haven’t panned out. A major ingredient of Moore’s tales of troubled lives is an abiding humor, which serves to protect her characters, in all their frailties, from grating on the reader as too pathetic.”

“Moore is not only a brilliant noticer.  She is also brilliant at noticing those things that ‘one was supposed not to notice,’ namely our seemingly limitless cruelty, apathy, and violence…The initial surprise of Moore’s effervescent, jarring stories ultimately yields to a response that, far from mystification, is its mirror opposite: enlightenment,” writes Nathaniel Rich for The Atlantic.

“…Moore didn’t invent the breed, but she may be the chief contemporary chronicler of those whose dread makes them unable to turn off the laugh machine.  It’s commonplace to call Moore ‘funny,’ but that’s not quite right.  P. G. Wodehouse is funny.  Moore is an anatomist of funny…In a world according to Moore—the ‘planet of the apings,’ as one character thinks of it—who could ask for more?” says David Gates in the New York Times Book Review.

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “There are eight stories in Moore’s latest collection, and, like her previous work (Birds of America), these stories are laugh-out-loud funny, as well as full of pithy commentary on contemporary life and politics. In much of Moore’s earlier fiction, the protagonists are young girls or mothers of small children. Here, they are divorcées. They have teenagers. They’ve variously tried and failed at dating, holding down jobs, being kind, or being sane. Perhaps that accounts for the ever-present sting of sadness in the book: relationships don’t fare well (with one slightly desperate exception), and the sly wisdom of Moore’s meditations on time will get under your skin like a splinter. “Referential,” a wry updating of Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” is a fascinating look at what happens when the mind of one writer collides with the mind of another. In the final story, “Thank You For Having Me,” the narrator stops her teenager daughter’s onslaught of scorn by undressing, mortifying her into silence. Moore’s final note is one of hope and even love—not the romantic kind, but the kind that sees the whole world, flaws and all, and embraces it anyway.”

Kirkus Reviews, in another starred review, says:  “One of the best short story writers in America resumes her remarkable balancing act with a collection that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same paragraph. With the announced retirement and Nobel coronation of Alice Munro, Moore (Birds of America, 1998, etc.) seems peerless in her command of tone and her virtuosity in writing stories that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s. There’s nothing particularly “difficult” about her fiction–except for the incisive reflections of the difficulties, complexities and absurdities of life–nothing academic or postmodern in her approach (except perhaps for the deus ex machina motorcycle gang that inadvertently crashes the unusual wedding in the astonishing closing story, “Thank You for Having Me”). And there is no title story, though the two longest (and two of the best) stories suggest the dual reference of the word “bark,” to a tree or a dog. In the opening “Debarking,” a man in the aftermath of a painful divorce becomes involved with an attractive woman who is plainly crazy–and perhaps the craziness is part of the attraction? “Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane,” he ruminates. “Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people.” He is a man with a protective bark, and one whose ex-wife accused him of “being hard on people–‘You bark at them.’ ” In “Wings,” a singer involved with a musician who may be crazy, or just deceitful or manipulative, befriends an older man, who responds to the adage “his bark is worse than his bite” with: “I don’t know why people always say that. No bark is worse than a bite. A bite is always worse.” Every one of these stories has a flesh-tearing bite to it, though all but one (“Referential”) are also fiendishly funny. In stories both dark and wry, Moore wields a scalpel with surgical precision.”

Says Slate: “Moore’s tart, punny voice is identifiable from story to story, but her subjects and her style have evolved substantially over the nearly 30 years since her first collection, Self-Help (made up mostly of stories she wrote in the MFA program at Cornell). The reader-friendly forms and transparent structure of her earlier stories has given way to denser, more adventurous storytelling. Where once her stories were light breezes—albeit ones that would occasionally blow up into gales—now they are complex weather systems: swirling, variable, dangerous, and difficult to anticipate more than 36 hours in advance.”

When is it available?

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

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