Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money

By Ron Lieber

(HarperCollins, $26.99,  256 pages)

Who is this author?

Ron Lieber knows a lot about personal finances. Lieber is the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times, and before that, he wrote The Wall Street Journal’s “Green Thumb” personal finance column, was on the reporting team for its “Personal Journal” section, and worked at Fortune and Fast Company magazines. He also has written (or co-written) three books, including The New York Times bestseller Taking Time Off. He is married to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor.

What is this book about?

Many parents famously avoid having “the talk” about sex with their kids, and a lot of them also avoid the other talk: the one about using money wisely.  Lieber, who really knows the personal finances territory, is also a father, and he understands the wisdom and necessity of making sure a child understands its family’s values when it comes to earning, spending, investing and donating money, from visits by the tooth fairy to handling college expenses. He has written a practical guide, enhanced by  anecdotes about how real families have encountered and solved money behavior problems. This book is meant to be a guide for parents, but it offers useful advice to people of all ages and stages.

Why you’ll like it:

Lieber uses a friendly and practical tone, which is a great help when discussing monetary issues that can be very dry. Besides offering sensible advice on everything from allowances to birthday money gifts to part-time jobs to charitable projects, he emphasizes that teaching children well from an early age about the uses and power and meaning of money, especially if the family is fortunate to have enough, is a vital part of preparing any child to enter the adult world.

What others are saying:

Barnes & Noble says: “In any casual gathering of parents, conversation will probably soon turn to an all-too timely topic: kids and money. In most cases, these chats rapidly degenerate into rants about “how different it was in my day.” With this book, New York Times columnist and author Ron Lieber  plans to change that verbal evasion with practical advice about getting youngsters involved with financial responsibility. In The Opposite of Spoiled, he achieves that goal with a combination of guidelines about discussions and motivational prompts; examples from real cases; and interviews. Real-world approaches to making boys and girls more modest, generous, and ready for the future.

The New York Times Book Review says: “ [Lieber] doesn’t offer a grand philosophy…His book is intensely pragmatic, relentlessly anecdotal—and that’s why I loved it. Lieber wants to solve the problems middle-class parents face every day: allowances, the tooth fairy, summer jobs, indulgent grandparents, North Face fleeces, car insurance. Mammon is in the details. Keeping his eye on specifics, Lieber covers all the biggies: earning, saving, giving, buying. He has an instinct for addressing the nitty-gritty…He has written a book that will start important conversations in a lot of households… “

Says Publishers Weekly: “Despite a smattering of practical advice, there’s more of the philosophical than the methodological to this primer from New York Times columnist Lieber  on helping children, especially those in the upper middle class, to approach financial matters with responsibility, generosity, and gratitude. Lieber makes a strong argument that money is something that children notice and talk about. He believes modern American parents’ reticence on the subject bypasses the opportunity to instill both good values and important skills. Lieber advises giving honest responses to children’s questions about family finances and encouraging even affluent kids to take after-school jobs. More specific and fun suggestions include divvying up allowances between Give/Save/Spend jars, establishing the “fun per dollar” test, and making the Tooth Fairy’s arrival less of a cash grab. Assorted motivational stories touch on both the mundane (collecting bottles for deposit) and the dramatic (parents who downsized their home, at their young daughter’s urging, to free up $800,000 for charity). Lieber’s easygoing style will encourage parents to raise a new generation that’s both confident and compassionate.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “Talking big bucks with the smallest members of your household will make the world a better place, argues New York Times personal finance columnist Lieber. Do you know the going rate for a visit from the tooth fairy in your neighborhood? . . .. So what do you put under your child’s pillow? Does it matter? Yes, these seemingly small family financial decisions matter a lot, according to Lieber. In his third book, the author addresses affluence, its effect on child-rearing and the lessons most of us are not teaching our children about managing wealth. As practical as the first half of the book is—it’s packed with suggestions on everything from allowance to college tuition—Lieber’s advice skews toward the upper-class family, leaving out the many families who make less than the $75,000 annual income he acknowledges as his base line. Later chapters get into tougher territory, and Lieber makes a good case for using early money management training to help children eventually tackle society’s bigger problems, such as homelessness and hunger. Humble stories of kids raising money for Down syndrome research or creating kit bags to give to people living on the street offer inspiration for those who do have money to spend it wisely in the world and to teach their children to do the same. Sound advice on managing family finances —  but only if you have sufficient finances to manage.”

When is it available?

You can borrow this valuable book of advice from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Albany, Blue Hills, Goodwin, Mark Twain or Park 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 Sister to Honor

By Lucy Ferriss

(Penguin Publishing Group, $16, 400 pages)

Who is this author?

Lucy Ferriss, who spent considerable time in Pakistan to research her latest novel, is writer-in-residence at Trinity College and has homes in West Hartford and the Berkshires. But her roots are mid-Western, specifically in St. Louis, as her memoir, “Unveiling the Prophet: The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante,” demonstrates. Her books include novels and short–story collections, literary criticism, poetry and essays and she has written for The New York Times, Shenandoah and the Georgia Review, among other publications. In 2000, she won the Mid-List First Series Award for “Leaving the Neighborhood and Other Stories.”

What is this book about?

Ferriss’ novel, set in Pakistan and New England, is about family, religion and loyalties, but its main subject is the seemingly unbridgeable clash of customs that divide Western and Middle Eastern cultures, differences so deep that members of each group find it almost impossible to understand how others believe and behave as they do. The story describes the plight of a young Pakistani woman, who enrolls at Smith College to begin a career as a doctor at the urging of her brother, Shahid, who also has enjoyed academic success in America. But when Afia, a modest, religious young woman who is a hard-working student, does something so common to Americans that it is hardly noticed here, she puts her life in danger. What is her transgression? Nothing more than being shown in a photo posted online holding hands with her boyfriend. This outrages her devout Pakistani family, especially her step-brother, Khalid, who then seeks a remedy through an “honor killing.” Will it fall to her beloved brother Shahid to avenge the dishonor, as the family insists?

Why you’ll like it:

Ferriss has tackled a timely, complex and very prickly topic in this book, and to her credit, she helps the reader understand both sides, without expecting them to approve of honor killings. The time she spent living in Pakistan exposed her to ways of thinking very foreign to Western culture and gave her knowledge that provides a strong underpinning to the story of Afia and Shahid.  As America grows ever more entangled with Middle Eastern nations, some as allies and some as adversaries, understanding mindsets so foreign to our own is crucial, and this fiction can help us deal with facts that alarm and astonish.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Ferriss’s latest novel addresses conservative Pakistani values and the immigrant experience and explores the many meanings of honor. Afia Satar is the daughter of a landholding family in northern Pakistan. Brilliant and ambitious, she is sent to college in America along with her brother Shahid, a rising sports star. While Shahid has no qualms about living amid American culture, Afia is held to a much different standard. After photos of her holding a boy’s hand appear on the Internet, her jihadist stepbrother Khalid begins to stir outrage. When Khalid shows up in America to restore the family honor, Afia is suddenly no longer safe, and Shahid is caught in the crossfire. VERDICT This stirring novel explores the psychology of honor killings and Pakistani family life. The swift-moving narrative traverses very different worlds, creating an exquisite tension that lasts well after the novel is over. Recommended for fans of Claire Messud, Jenny White, and readers who like a political slant to their fiction.”

“Ferriss fills one family’s story with the elements of a political thriller. The well-drawn characters and believable settings lead readers to some understanding of how these young people are torn between tradition and modern life, but there are no easy answers,” says Booklist.

“It’s tricky business writing about honor killing, which to our American mainstream culture is horrific and inexplicable. But Ferriss presents a thoughtful and nonjudgmental look through the eyes of a young woman for whom it is a reality. . . An insightful and though-provoking foray into a world so different from ours,” says The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Says Publishers Weekly: “Afia Satar is just another college student, studying hard on a New England campus and dreaming big dreams about becoming a doctor to help the poor village women in her native Pakistan. When she falls in love, she forgets that she is not just any other college co-ed, but a Pashtun girl from a village where the family’s reputation is tightly linked to the daughter’s purity. An innocent picture of her clasping hands with a boy on her college’s website catalyzes her jihadi step-brother to insist Shahid, her older brother who’s also in New England, remove the stain on the family’s honor. Honor is the heartbeat of this novel as the Satar family grapples with their responsibilities and expectations. The Americans—especially Shahid’s squash coach Lissy Hayes—have different ideas of honor. Tribal ties clash with individualism, as Afia and Shahid struggle to find the right path. Both are aware this may not end well. Afia and Shahid’s painful struggle is intricately crafted, and the cultural nuances are evocatively depicted in this thought-proving novel.

When is it available?

Ferriss’ new novel is 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!

All My Puny Sorrows

By Miriam Toews

(McSweeney’s, $24, 330 pages)

Who is this author?

Miriam Toews (her surname is pronounced “taves”), a Canadian author from a Mennonite family,  has published six novels: Summer of My Amazing Luck, A Boy of Good Breeding, A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, Irma Voth and All My Puny Sorrows,  and the nonfiction book, Swing Low: A Life, a touching memoir about her father’s depression and suicide.  All My Puny Sorrows also focuses on suicide, and was inspired by thesel-inflicted  death of the author’s sister. Toews has won many Canadian literary prizes for her work.

What is this book about?

Elfrieda (known as Elf) and Yolandi (known as Yoli) Von Reisen are sisters who were raised in a strict and religious Mennonite community. Elf is an internationally praised pianist who lives a glamorous, wealthy life and has a good marriage, but she wants out: she wants to die. Yoli, a not very successful writer, is divorced, has no money and has two children who are rushing into adulthood, but she has a mission: to keep her beloved sister from ending her life. As the story progresses, Yoli comes to understand her sister’s agony and grapples with the complex issues of assisted suicide.

Why you’ll like it:

A bill to legalize assisted suicide is being debated in Connecticut and elsewhere, as the population ages and people increasingly seek to control their manner of death. This book goes right to the heart of this profoundly complex issue, but though the story is sad, Toews writes with skill and provocative humor that invites readers to examine how they really feel about this difficult choice.

Here is what Toews told the website about her philosophical journey and her love of writing:

“The relationship between Yolandi and Elfrieda is certainly taken from my own life, my relationship with my sister.

“My sister attempted and finally succeeded in killing herself. There are parts of the book that are more fictional than others, it’s certainly fiction, but the major central relationship is informed by my life, by reality.”

“. . . .In writing fiction I can be free,” Toews explains. “I can use my life. The raw material is my experiences. (But in fictionalizing it,) I can set the tone, the voice, the pace. I can embellish. I can exaggerate. I can create. There’s just more freedom. It’s the direction I go in when I write. It’s what I do.”

Toews says she isn’t so much making the argument for assisted suicide, as she is “presenting certain questions to hopefully allow readers to think about things that maybe we as a society haven’t given much thought to.”

“. . .  “going back to my own experience and seeing my sister in such agony, and thinking of her having to die violently and alone; that there were no other options for her made me think, made me really think of the idea of assisted suicide, of providing a peaceful, good death to people who have decided for themselves that’s what they want and that’s what they need to get rid of the pain.

“. . . Writing helps me to create order out of chaos, and make sense of things. It helps me to understand what I’ve experienced, what I’ve felt and seen, so it becomes a little easier to handle.

“On the other hand, I don’t want it to be just a cathartic experience, an outpouring of grief or whatever it is. I want it to be artful, solid narrative that other people can enjoy and relate to.”

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review, novelist Curtis Sittenfeld writes: “…spending time in the company of Yoli, a 40-something woman alternately busy with the work of caring for various family members and screwing up her own life, was the main reason I loved the book… The flashbacks to Yoli and Elf’s childhood in a rural Mennonite community are vivid and energetic. In both the past and present, Toews…perfectly captures the casual manner in which close-knit sisters enjoy and irritate each other. The dialogue is realistic and funny, and somehow, almost magically, Toews gets away with having her characters discuss things like books and art and the meaning of life without seeming pretentious or precious; they’re simply smart, decent and confused…All My Puny Sorrows is unsettling, because how can a novel about suicide not be? But its intelligence, its honesty and, above all, its compassion provide a kind of existential balm—a comfort not unlike the sort you might find by opening a bottle of wine and having a long conversation with…a true friend.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-tuner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized.” This sentence, in the voice of the younger Yolandi, crystallizes the dynamic of the two sisters in Toews’s (Summer of My Amazing Luck) latest novel. While Elfrieda is the genius and the perfectionist, it is the practical, capable Yolandi on whom she depends. Over the course of this tender and bittersweet novel, Elf tours the world while Yoli stays put, has two kids with two different men but stays with neither of the fathers. It is Elf’s debilitating depression and suicidal tendencies that keep the two urgently close as Yoli, for decades, does everything she can to help Elf ward off her psychological problems. The prose throughout the book is lively and original and moves along at a steady clip. Though there are some underdeveloped aspects (their upbringing in a Mennonite household, Yoli’s experience of motherhood), the novel is a triumph in its depiction of the love the sisters share, as Yoli tries, just as when she was a page turner, to stay a few beats ahead. “

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Sisters should always want what is best for each other, but what if what one sister really wants is to end her life? This is the dilemma Yoli faces when her ethereal sister, Elf, attempts suicide. The beautiful Elf is a world-renowned pianist who’s in a loving relationship and about to start an international tour, but having it all doesn’t matter to her when she is drowning in despair. Yoli, as she rightfully points out, is the one struggling; she’s twice divorced, with children by two different fathers, and after having achieved some success as a YA series author (though she has nothing like Elf’s gifts), her career has stalled. But though she and Elf are close—the bond they forged while growing up in a conservative Mennonite town in Canada is central to the narrative—depression is hard to understand from the outside. VERDICT Despite the topic, this is not a dark novel. In fact, its gloom comes in the form of dark humor, and Toews does a wonderful job with her characters, none of whom are perfect, which makes them all the more real. It requires a talented author to take a serious subject and write such an engaging, enjoyable work.

And in its starred review, Kirkus says: “A Canadian writer visits her older sister, a concert pianist who’s just attempted suicide, in this masterful, original investigation into love, loss and survival. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” Yolandi Von Riesen says of her sister, Elfrieda. Toews moves between Winnipeg, Toronto, and a small town founded by Mennonite immigrants who survived Bolshevik massacres, where the intellectual, free-spirited Von Riesen family doesn’t share the elders’ disapproval of “overt symbols of hope and individual signature pieces.” Yoli looks back over time, realizing that the sisters’ bond is strengthened by their painful memories. The girls’ father baffles neighbors by supporting Elf’s creative passions and campaigning to run a library. His suicide and absence from their adulthood make him even more important to his daughters as their paths diverge. Elf travels around Europe, emptying herself into Rachmaninoff performances; Yoli writes books about a rodeo heroine, feeling aimless and failed. Elf’s husband appreciates her singular sensitivity as a performer, but this capacity for vulnerability dangerously underpins her many breakdowns and longstanding depression. Yoli’s men are transient, leaving her with two children. Toews conveys family cycles of crisis and intermittent calm through recurring events and behaviors: Elf and her father both suffer from depression; Yoli and her mother face tragedy with wry humor and absurdist behavior; and two sisters experience parallel losses. Crisp chapter endings, like staccato musical notes, anchor the plot’s pacing. Elf’s determination to end her suffering by dying takes the form of a drumbeat of requests for Yoli to help her commit suicide. Readers yearn for more time with this complex, radiant woman who fiercely loves her family but cannot love herself. “Sadness is what holds our bones in place,” Yoli thinks. Toews deepens our understanding of the pain found in Coleridge’s poetry, which is the source of the book’s title.”

When is it available?

The Downtown Hartford Public Library has this book.

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

The Hilltop

By Assaf Gavron

(Scribner, $26, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Assaf Gavron, whose parents were immigrants to Israel from England, grew up near Jerusalem and now lives in Tel Aviv.  He has published seven books and has won national and international awards, including the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, the Book fur die Stadt award in Germany, and the Prix Courrier International award in France and the Bernstein Prize, a prestigious Israeli honor.

What is this book about?

A trenchant, tender story, which some are calling “the Great Israeli Novel,” The Hilltop is set in a West Bank settlement in Israel, a tiny hamlet  the government officially says does not exist yet covertly supports. A Palestinian village sits nearby, watching as the residents of Ma’aleh Hermesh C plant crops and expand their housing and quietly dig in. Among them are a farmer, Othniel, who has the smarts to outwit government bureaucracy, and brothers Gabi and Roni, who grew up on a kibbutz before one became very religious and the other became very rich working on Wall Street but is now very poor. Roni comes up with a plan involving olive oil sales to the foodies of Tel Aviv, a Washington Post reporter discovers the illegal village and soon a major diplomatic kerfuffle is underway.  Can – should – this village survive?

Why you’ll like it:

Israel and its policies and prime minister are very much in the news these days, and increased (and some would say unwelcome) attention is being given to the issue of West Bank settlements, a major point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians and their supporters worldwide, and one that underlies the animosities boiling in the Middle East. From this thorny and perhaps impenetrable tangle of claims and counterclaims, Gavron has fashioned a smartly satirical tale that, though fiction, gets right to the heart of the people, provocations and political battles whose outcomes will not only affect Israel but also the nations who aid  or abhor it. That he makes this book as funny as it is serious is a tribute to this author’s skill.

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “Behind the headlines in the turbulent Middle East are ordinary people living their lives, raising families, and struggling to get ahead. Israeli author Gavron focuses on such individuals in a West Bank settlement. The novel begins when Othniel Assis stakes a claim on a remote patch of land and starts growing vegetables. Soon he is joined by others, among them brothers Gabi and Roni, whose personal histories are an important focus of the novel. The community continues to grow, babies are born, the years go by, but the settlement’s status as an illegal entity lacking the necessary permits continues to endanger its existence. At some point, a high-ranking minister declares that they must evacuate, an order residents ignore as they have all previous orders. Then the army arrives and precipitates the final conflict. VERDICT Gavron expertly works with a large cast of characters to create a resonant portrayal of life at the center of one of the world’s main trouble spots. His depiction of the community’s religious practices and the reasonably sympathetic portrayal of the neighboring Arab village and their age-old lifestyle and customs are particularly effective. Despite the highly charged political and cultural arenas in which it is set, this novel, an award winner in Israel, is very funny and entertaining.”

“In The Hilltop, Gavron’s unique gift is on full display in all of its eccentric, genre-bending glory. He treads the line between the serious and the absurd, the tragic and the comical, the sincere and the satirical, and creates a sweeping, complex story that raises more questions than it provides answers,” says Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner).

“Sardonic and engaging. . . . Gavron excels at unmasking the contradictions that characterize Israeli society. . . . His hilltop may be fictionalized, but it embodies, perhaps more than any journalistic or documentary attempt in recent years, the mechanisms by which extremism crosses over and adopts the bureaucratic language and signifiers of the officially sanctioned,”  says the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“A unique attempt to consider the phenomenon [of illegal settlements] not from a merely political point of view, but as a tale of human endeavor, in all its glory and its folly,” says The Jerusalem Post.

Publishers Weekly says:  “This memorable novel by Gavron follows the fate of a small, not-quite-legitimate Israeli settlement in the West Bank and its denizens. Othniel Assis and a few associates founded Ma’aleh Hermesh C in the recent past, both despite and with the aid of various Israeli bureaucracies. While the primary story line charts the course of the settlers’ fight against the inevitable barrage of eviction notices and subsequent reversals, Gavron moves beyond simple political farce by weaving together the stories, both simple and complex, of individual characters. He particularly focuses on the kibbutznik brothers, the spiritual Gavriel Nehushtan and businessman Roni Kupper, who arrive at Ma’aleh Hermesh C at different times and in different circumstances. “Longing is the engine of the world,” one character says. Indeed, Gavron’s novel is marked by its great depth of feeling and its disparate themes, which are united by the longing of its characters.”

Says a starred Kirkus Review: “Writing with crisp insight and dry humor, Israeli author Gavron tells a lively tale of life in an embattled Jewish settlement . . . Gavron’s sardonic yet sage story. . . focuses on an ever expanding community of observant Jews that populates the West Bank settlement Ma’aleh Hermesh C. Bit by bit—a new mobile home here, a spare room fashioned from a shipping container there, a new playground for the kids (funded by a deep-pocketed Miami macher), maybe some improvements for the synagogue or day care center (Jewish workmen only, please)—these settlers, who consider themselves modern-day pioneers, gradually establish ever more permanent footing as the government either looks the other way, threatens to evacuate, or (despite the fact that the settlement may not officially exist) boosts their infrastructure and provides protection, depending on the moods and whims of those in power on any given day. Through it all, Ma’aleh Hermesh C’s motley assortment of residents contends with the stuff of life—babies are born, marriages break up, business ideas bloom and die, teenagers come of age and struggle to grasp where they stand. Within the vast cast of characters, two brothers, Roni and Gabi Kupper, orphaned as infants, raised on a kibbutz, are central. . . . Slowly and incrementally, like those settlers on that craggy West Bank hilltop, Gavron’s story gains a foothold in our hearts and minds and stubbornly refuses to leave.”

Booklist says: “This many-storied, funny, shrewd, and tender satire dives into the heart of Israel, a land of trauma and zeal, fierce opinions and endless deliberation. From failed marriages to governmental dysfunction to the tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gavron’s spirited desert saga embraces the absurd and the profound and advocates for compassion and forgiveness, even joy.”

When is it available?

This timely novel can be borrowed from 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!

Single, Carefree, Mellow

By Katherine Heiny

(Knopf Doubleday, $22.95, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

When she was just 25, Katherine Heiny accomplished something most writers only dream of: she sent a short story to The New Yorker and got an immediate acceptance. And then she tried to write a novel and that went nowhere for years, although she did publish stories in such respected literary journals as Ploughshares, Narrative, Glimmer Train, and others. And she wrote Young Adult novels under the pen name Katherine Applegate. She married a former M16 agent – that’s British for spy, a la James Bond. They and their children now live near Washington, D.C., “Single, Carefree, Mellow” is her debut book.

Here is what she told about her husband:

“. . .For most of our married life he was undercover, and I couldn’t tell people what he did. We had to be careful about what we said on the phone. He was under death threats some of that time. So I think that because I lived with secrets being part of my life for so long, it’s kind of second nature.”

And secrets are a big part of her book.

What is this book about?

The 11 stories in “Single, Carefree, Mellow”  feature women who often are anything but.  They’re confused, possibly genuinely in love with several men at once, willing to cheat but not proud of it, needy in some ways, strong in others. In short: real people making the kinds of choices and decisions that seem inevitable at the time, but perhaps not quite so in hindsight.  Heiny “gets” these women and presents them to her readers with no apologies. They might be your cousins or roommates or neighbors, or you. They have beloved dogs that die (the title story will wrench the chilliest heart) and relationships that should die but have amazing resiliency. Though the subject matter of these pieces is often pretty disturbing, the telling is often extremely amusing.  One character, Maya, appears in several stories, but all the protagonists have similar traits and experiences in love affairs that break the rules and sometimes hearts. Single, Carefree, Mellow offers an unvarnished look at contemporary relationships, unsettling though understandable just the same.


Why you’ll like it:

Heiny writes with insight and sharp humor and an impressive grasp of how complicated love, or the pursuit thereof, can be. She captures the voice of young (or young-ish) women trying to navigate complicated situations: a mistress having a drink with her lover’s wife; a woman tangled up with  her male roommate; a child’s birthday party from hell with the world’s most depressing clown; the aforementioned loss of a dog. The depth she finds in these well-wrought tales is genuinely impressive.

Here’s what Heiny said about her writing in an interview on the website The Review Review:

“How to Give the Wrong Impression” was the first story I ever published.  I’d been sending stories out but never before to The New Yorker.   Then my friend Jennifer said I was an idiot, that I was supposed to start there, so I did, and they called to accept the story less than 24 hours after I mailed it and they published it with almost no changes and I thought, “Wow, this writing career stuff is really easy.” (It turns out I was somewhat mistaken about that.) . . .

“I don’t know why that story was selected.  Maybe because it’s about unrequited love, which is something almost everyone has experienced.  And I wrote it when I was very young and unrequited love was about the worst thing I could imagine happening to anyone, so maybe that earnestness set it apart from stories with a more cynical tone.  I do know that if I’d known then how hard it was to break into The New Yorker, I would never have tried.  It was an impulsive, uninformed, late-night decision – but maybe that’s the best kind. . . .

“Years and years ago, Evan Hunter told me that unless you get up and start writing in the morning, you’re not a writer, you’re just someone who plans to write something in the very near future.  At the time I thought he was crazy.  Write in the morning?  I didn’t even get up in the morning.  I got up about noon and generally started writing at about midnight, except that it wasn’t generally, it was rarely, because usually at midnight I was out drinking with my friends.  But eventually I took his advice and I went from being a writer who wants to write to one who actually does, and there’s no better feeling than that. And none worse, either.”

What others are saying:

“This radiant collection of short stories features a set of flawed yet sympathetic women in a whole mess of compromising positions . . . Many of the women in these beautifully wrought stories are single, but they are anything but carefree or mellow . . . First-time author Katherine Heiny takes great care to make her characters relatable even in their imperfections. She paints sweetly resonant moments that also can be very funny . . . Single, Carefree, Mellow is named for a story in which Maya ponders leaving her boyfriend of five years, then decides there is “such a thing as too much loss.” It’s a poignant moment that sums up this smart exploration of love and betrayal, and that fine line between happiness and pain,” says Bookpage.

“Funny and heartfelt . . . Few characters are single and even fewer are carefree—though most long to be. Instead, they are remorseful about their disloyalties, torn between spouses and secret lovers, and guilt-ridden over the betrayals they commit in the name of love . . . Maya, who appears in several more stories in various stages of life and love, is one of many captivating characters expertly imagined by Heiny . . . An exceptionally humorous collection by a talented new writer. “ says Library Journal’s starred review.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “ …something like Cheever mixed with Ephron: white, middle-class suburban discontent simmering below the surface, but treated with a light touch that keeps the focus squarely on the woman’s point of view…on the whole Heiny is very good at portraying the circumscribed landscapes, both literal and emotional, in which her characters live. She also gives credence to what is still a conundrum for many women: What role can I play in a world in which I am neither fully “carefree” and “mellow” when single, nor entirely “giving” and “content” when attached? A world in which I am still implicated in conventions of how women should be? “

Kirkus Reviews says in a starred review: “Heiny explores sex, relationships and the internal lives of young women in this charmingly candid collection of short stories. The women who populate the pages of Heiny’s disarming debut are girlfriends, mistresses and wives. They are best friends, roommates and lovers. They are intelligent but not always ambitious—keenly insightful but sometimes, perhaps willfully, blind to their own deeper desires—with loyalties and libidos that may be at odds and morals that may be in question.  . . “The Dive Bar” is the title of the first story. In it, we meet Sasha, an attractive 26-year-old writer whose boyfriend has left his wife for her. After a confrontation with the boyfriend’s wife, Sasha reluctantly mulls the morality of her choices, but for her, morality is really (boringly) beside the point, and she instead finds herself sinking sideways into the next chapter of her life, a happy one, from all indications. Heiny’s characters often find themselves propelled through life by circumstances: The death of a beloved dog can lead inexorably to marriage, pregnancy and secret affairs, as it does for Maya, the protagonist of three of these stories, and her kind, kindred-spirit boyfriend/fiance/husband, Rhodes. Not all the women here are as appealing as Sasha and Maya, and the less we like them, the less charmed we may be by their careless misbehavior. By the end of the book . . . we might not find ourselves overly reluctant to part company. These young women are sympathetic and slyly seductive, sometimes selfish and maddeningly un-self-aware, but they are beguilingly human, and readers will yield to their charms.”

“In the pantheon of very bad ideas, agreeing to meet your lover’s wife for a drink would seem to fall somewhere between sticking a fork in a toaster and walking blindfolded into traffic. And yet Sasha, the twentysomething protagonist of Single, Carefree, Mellow’s opening story, ‘The Dive Bar,’ decides to put on her favorite earrings and do exactly that . . . Refreshingly liberated and free of judgment . . . Single, Carefree, Mellow is a lot like the women who populate it: smart and sexy and a little bit ruthless,” says Entertainment Weekly.

When is it available?

This interesting book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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

Uncle Janice

By Matt Burgess

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Matt Burgess is not a well-known author –  yet. But he is on his way. His 2011 novel, “Dogfight, A Love Story,” got great reviews, and his second, “Uncle Janice,” is getting even better ones. A native of Jackson Heights, Queens, he makes the borough itself a character in his new book. But he hasn’t spent his whole life in New York City. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and the University of Minnesota’s MFA program.

What is this book about?

As Gilbert & Sullivan told us, “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.” That’s also true for a policewoman such as Janice Itwaru, a Queens-based, Guyanese-American 24-year-old undercover narcotics cop – they are known as “uncles” – who is trying to fight crime, her obnoxious bosses and the entrenched police bureaucracy, while also dealing with her dementia-plagued mother and other family issues. She’s in her 17th month on the job: one more good month and she will automatically make detective, something she desperately wants to achieve. But, sashaying around in her hoochie-mama outfits, can she lure enough potential criminals into making  drug sales so that her partner can collar them and pump up her arrest quota? And if she does, will she have sold her soul in the process?

Why you’ll like it:

Reviewers are unanimous in praising Matt Burgess’ s deft ear for the way real people talk and ability to express it in the many voices in “Uncle Janice.” The book’s hilarious dialogue and gut-punchy story has earned him coveted comparisons to such contemporary noir masters as Elmore Leonard (pretty high praise indeed) along with predictions that this one is his breakout book. Here are some thoughts Burgess shared in an interview by Tin House magazine:

“Well, the book is set in Queens because I grew up there and I can’t yet seem to get myself to daydream about anywhere else. Stoops, park benches, pool halls, alleyways: they’re these charged spaces for me. I grew up telling and listening to stories, and it’s almost impossible for me to segue to fictional storytelling as a novelist without taking those places with me. . . . We try to cope with all this craziness by turning it into stories, and that’s what my books are trying to do. . . . I’m going to borrow a line from one of my heroes, the novelist George Pelecanos, and say, “the most valuable research I do comes from just hanging out in the neighborhoods and listening.” I was talking to a friend mine who’s an undercover cop and I asked him what was the scariest part of his job. I’m expecting him to say getting shot at. Instead he tells me he’s constantly worried that his bosses might try to screw him over. Working the streets was less stressful than navigating office politics. That was a revelation for me. It’s hard for a lot of us to relate to police officers, but my friend’s most chronic problems—how do I navigate this massive bureaucracy while retaining some sense of self?—were things almost anyone can relate to . . .”

“Before I knew her name or anything else about her, I had her job. That was first. I wanted to write about undercovers. Statistically speaking most undercovers are people of color. Because it’s a fast track to detective—if you last 18 months in Narcotics without getting killed or sent back to patrol, you automatically get your gold shield—most undercovers are also young and ambitious, without any of the internal connections that might get them promoted via a less dangerous route. So I knew those things about her: young, ambitious, a person of color, in this case Guyanese, because I thought that was a culture that has been underrepresented in fiction about New York. And I say “her” even though in the first few months of writing this book the protagonist was a man. I made the switch after realizing a female character might face particularly difficult challenges working her way through the male-dominant culture of the NYPD. That’s how character construction tends to work for me. I start with a job, a vague idea of a person, and then I put them under as much pressure as possible. Chase them up into a tree and throw rocks at them to see what they’re made of. And it turns out Janice is made of some pretty strong stuff.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: The uncle of the title of this gripping, well-written book set on the mean streets of contemporary Queens is an undercover narcotics officer in the NYPD. “Uncle” Janice Itwaru, a New Yorker of Guyanese descent, poses as a drug addict to make “buys” of crack and other controlled substances; she is shadowed by a “ghost,” a fellow officer who makes the arrests. Burgess has crafted an urban picaresque, though Itwaru’s undercover identity and activities are potentially dangerous. But the relatively low level of narrative momentum (this is not a genre novel) is well compensated for by the rich, vibrant portrait of Queens’s vast underclass—from the suffering addicts and smalltime dealers to the cops who are more concerned with doing their job, surviving the tedium and drudgery, and moving their way up the NYPD food chain than making the streets safer from the scourge of drugs. Burgess (Dogfight, a Love Story) has a finely honed eye and a gift for rendering street-smart dialogue that is both credible and comic; he fully realizes Itwaru’s world and makes the reader understand just how futile most of the skirmishes in the war on drugs really are.”


Kirkus’s starred review says: “The multicultural stew pot that is contemporary Queens is served up steaming in this pungently uproarious novel about a frenzied young policewoman advancing her career one drug buy at a time. . . .This crime novel written by Queens native Burgess evokes some of that hurly-burly as it chronicles several tumultuous weeks in the life of Janice Itwaru, an NYPD covert op desperate to climb from the dreary if sometimes-hazardous swamp of petty street buys to a detective’s gold shield. In the process, Janice, who lives with her sickly Indian mom in Richmond Hill, must cope with the ribald taunts and elaborate pranks of her fellow “uncles” (as in undercover narcotics cops), whether on assignment or in their nondescript HQ labeled “the rumpus.” . . .  she’s also pressured by her superior officer to meet her shifting quota of buys and bullied by an Internal Affairs cop from Manhattan into helping him get the goods on a shady “uncle.” Less a conventionally plotted procedural than an anecdotal stream of harrowing encounters, scatological slapstick and polychromatic repartee, this is a multitextured chronicle of coming-of-age, or, perhaps more precisely, coming to terms with what it means to be a responsible grown-up struggling for truth, justice, love and value in a post-millennial urban universe where once-familiar boundary lines get blurrier every day.”

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “In Burgess’s outstanding sophomore effort, 24-year-old Janice Itwaru is an “uncle” for the NYPD, making controlled buys as an undercover narcotics officer, withstanding the good-natured ribbing of her fellow uncles, and counting the days until her 18 months comes up and she makes detective. But the Big Bosses have instituted a quota, and Janice, if she wants to earn that gold shield, needs to step up her game to include four buys a month, in an area where she is fast becoming a known face. As Janice attempts to scheme the hapless drug dealers of Queens in locations dank and desperate, while tending to her mother’s descent into dementia and generally avoiding her alcoholic father, she begins to crack under the bureaucratic pressures of modern-day policing—and Internal Affairs may be watching her every move. VERDICT This fresh take on the cop novel genre retains the madcap energy of Elmore Leonard’s best fiction while introducing the most irresistible police precinct this side of Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station.”

Barnes & Noble says: “ …. Burgess wrote Uncle Janice long before Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the riots in Ferguson and the mass protests in New York City. Yet the book, set in 2008, does allude to the Sean Bell shooting, and its thoughtful treatment of undercover work’s moral ambiguities suggests Burgess knew he would have to walk a fine line to avoid either lionizing and demonizing his heroine. Uncle Janice is in many ways a perfect book for our time, and our conversation about what we expect from the police. It reminds the reader just how dangerous and noble a cop’s job is, but at the same time it refuses to shy away from difficult questions about the compromises, missteps, and sometimes outright criminality that undermine the public’s faith in law enforcement.  . . . but it is also an awful lot of fun. Burgess has already earned comparisons to that king of comic crime writing, Elmore Leonard. Like Leonard, he has the lifelong eavesdropper’s ear for dialogue and a fine-tuned sense of the absurdity of life on both sides of the law. . . .Also like Leonard, and like all the great crime writers, Burgess takes a setting and makes it his own, his jealously guarded turf. Leonard had Detroit; Charles Willeford had Miami; James Crumley had the fastnesses of Montana; James Ellroy has Los Angeles. Burgess, who grew up in Jackson Heights, is well on his way to being the Hard-Boiled Bard of Queens, evoking the character of the borough as only a native could. . . .One of the joys of reading Uncle Janice is seeing a real place lovingly described, warts and all, with the warts a disproportionately large part of the appeal.”

When is it available?

Uncle Janice is waiting for you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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

On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s

By Greg O’Brien

(Good Night Books, $15.95, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

A respected journalist with more than 35 years of newspaper and magazine experience as a writer, editor, investigative reporter, and publisher, Greg O’Brien lives on Cape Cod with his family, and, as he heartbreakingly makes clear in his book, also “on Pluto,” where his early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease is inexorably taking him. His long career includes writing for the Associated Press, UPI, USA Today, Arizona Republic, Boston Herald American, Boston Metro, New York Metro, Philadelphia Metro, Providence Journal, Cape Cod Times, Boston Irish Reporter, and Boston Magazine. He was the editor and publisher of the Cape Codder and Register newspapers, former editor of Cape Cod Life, and a founding managing director of Community Newspaper Company in Boston. He has published other authors through his Codfish Press and runs national political and corporate communication strategy campaigns, and he is now dedicated to chronicling the progress of his disease and to making public appearances to educate people about it.

What is this book about?

Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.—and the only one of those that is rising. It’s estimated that more than 5 million Americans have it or a related form of dementia; about 35 million people worldwide are afflicted. Greg O’Brien’s mother and her father died of it, and he has inherited the disease. But he has not given up living.

With immense heart, surprising humor and dogged dedication, O’Brien’s book  inform people about day to day life with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and how he is fighting bravely to stave off its threat to the ability to communicate. O’Brien has the professional chops to fight this fight, and he does so with determination and his great gift for storytelling. The foreword to his book is written by Lisa Genova, author of the novel “Still Alice,” whose movie version, starring the Oscar-winning Julianne Moore, is mesmerizing audiences and raising awareness of this devastating disease.

Why you’ll like it:

It is never easy to read about a cruel disease and the havoc it wreaks on patients and their families, but O’Brien, however much he has been damaged, still has the reporter’s instincts and grace as a writer to bring readers into his rapidly diminishing world. Here is some of what he told Huffington Post about his book:

“. . . .For years I’ve taken detailed notes as an embedded reporter inside the mind of Alzheimer’s, chronicling my own progression of this demon of a disease ever since I knew that something was terribly wrong. Doctors say a serious head injury “unmasked” Alzheimer’s in the making — a death in slow motion, freeze frame at times, like having a thin sliver of your brain shaved off every day.

“Stephen King couldn’t have devised a better plot.

“The statistics are numbing; it’s a story that might be yours one day, or the story of a close friend or loved one. . . . So, should you be frightened if you frequently forget where you put your keys? Maybe it’s nothing, perhaps a “senior moment,” or maybe it is the start of something. There is a clear distinction between forgetting where you parked your car and forgetting what your car looks like; forgetting where you put your glasses, and forgetting that you have glasses; getting lost on familiar roads because you’ve been daydreaming, and getting lost because your brain’s capacity to store information is greatly diminished.

“Today, I have little short-term memory, a progression of blanks; close to 60 percent of what I take in now is gone in seconds. . . .

“. . . Pluto’s orbit, like mine at times, is chaotic; its tiny size makes it sensitive to immeasurably small particles of the solar system, hard to predict factors that will gradually disrupt an orbit — the perfect place to have a conversation that “never existed” or a conversation one can’t recall. In the past, I often have taken close family, colleagues, and clients allegorically “out to Pluto” to discuss unmentionables about life, revelations, and comments that need to stay in a place without oxygen. Many have been there and back with me. I want them to be familiar with Pluto.

“One day, like my mom, I won’t return from this dark, icy place, and I want my family and friends to know where I am.”

What others are saying:

“In On Pluto, Greg O’Brien has given us a priceless gift: an honest, funny, heartbreaking, and powerfully poignant look into the world of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, written by a man who suffers from it himself. Greg O’Brien is a brilliant observer and superb writer, and he is at the top of his game in this book. It’s as if he has willingly dropped himself into a mental tornado so that he can tell us what it looks like from inside. You have never read a book quite like it, and probably never will again,” says William Martin, New York Times best-selling author of Cape Cod, Back Bay, and The Lincoln Letter.

“Greg O’Brien writes with the consummate knowledge of a guide and the courage of a pioneer. In this important and transcendent book he serves both roles as he folds back the veils of fear and traverses the treacherous territory of early-onset Alzheimer’s. On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s glows with honesty, intelligence and compassion and, given the subject, is a surprisingly spirit-renewing book,” says Anne D. LeClaire, author of best-selling Listening Below The Noise, Leaving Eden, and The Lavender Hour.

“On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer’s is destined to become a vital resource that Alzheimer’s organizations and senior centers across the country will turn to in assisting those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Greg O’Brien’s personal battle against Alzheimer’s is an everyman’s fight; he is the quintessence of the lead character in the epic New York Times best-selling Alzheimer’s novel, Still Alice. O’Brien, through faith, humor and journalistic grit, is able, like the master artist, to paint a compelling, naked work picture of this progressive, chronic disease for which there is no cure, and a sickness that will swamp a generation. This is not a misery memoir; O’Brien bluntly offers the Baby Boomers and generations to come a riveting guide in how to live with Alzheimer’s, not accede to it,” says Alisa M. Galazzi, co-founder of Dementia Care Academy, former Executive Director, Alzheimer’s Services of Cape & Islands.

When is it available?

This moving and important book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills, Camp Field and 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!

When the World Was Young

By Elizabeth Gaffney

(Random House, $26, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Gaffney is a novelist and short story writer. Author of  the novel Metropolis, she also has contributed to such literary magazines as Virginia Quarterly Review and the North American Review, and she has been a resident artist at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony and the Blue Mountain Center. Gaffney was a staff editor at The Paris Review and now teaches fiction at The New School and is editor-at-large of the literary magazine A Public Space.

What is this book about?

Wally Baker, a girl growing up in post-World War II Brooklyn, loves Wonder Woman and science, but hates girly clothes and manners. She has loving grandparents and an emotionally troubled mother, a little brother who died, a father away at war and a black family maid who is like a second mother (and whose little boy is Wally’s dearest friend). Also on the scene is a boarder who seems to harbor a mysterious secret. The story begins on V-J Day, when Wally is 9, and as America grows and changes after the war comes to an end, so does Wally, who finds her place in the world despite her family’s troubles.

Why you’ll like it:

If you are, as I am, a lifelong fan of that wonderful novel, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” you will be drawn to this coming-of-age story about another young girl in that inimitable New York borough. Wally is an unconventional child, and as tragedy strikes her family, she finds the strength to adjust to a world where attitudes about women’s rights and racial issues are rapidly changing and challenging conventional wisdom.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly: “Gaffney’s affecting second novel (after Metropolis) charts the changing physical and emotional landscape of Brooklyn (and America) from WWII into the Korean War era, through a young girl’s coming-of-age. Wally Baker’s world revolves around her high-spirited mother, Stella, a doctor who gave up her profession for motherhood. Other important people in Wally’s life include her maternal grandparents, Gigi and Waldo, who live with them in their Brooklyn Heights apartment; Gigi’s African-American live-in maid, Loretta; and Loretta’s son, Ham. Wally can’t quite understand why her friendship with Ham so often arouses disapproval from outsiders. Two conspicuous absences are Wally’s father, who’s away at war, and her brother, Georgie, who died at age four. When a new boarder, mathematician Bill Niederman, arrives, Wally and Ham initially suspect him of being a spy. He becomes, however, a supportive father figure for Wally, helping with homework and encouraging her insatiable interest in the natural world. Wally’s stable existence ends after her mother’s death on V-J Day, marking the start of her journey into the uncertainty of post-WWII America. Themes of race, identity, and finding one’s personal destiny within societal expectations are all explored in this layered, delicate novel.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A 9-year-old Brooklyn Heights girl picks up some hard lessons about fidelity, race and family after World War II in this lively sophomore effort from Gaffney. Conventional wisdom dictates that American society in the years immediately after World War II was highly segregated and built on traditional nuclear families. Gaffney is determined to unsettle those assumptions by focusing her story on Wally, a girl whose home life is decidedly complicated. As the story opens on V-J Day, Wally’s father is stationed overseas while her mother, a doctor, has taken in a boarder with a mysterious government job. Wally loves her grandmother, who lives nearby, but the girl feels closer to Loretta, grandma’s black maid, and Ham, the mixed-race boy Loretta is raising as her son. Wally and Ham are the stars of the story, and if their dual obsession with ant farms is a bit metaphorically on-the-nose for a story about postwar society, Gaffney does a fine job of showing how they grow wise and slightly jaded as they experience more of the adult world. The two absorb racist taunts, dig up some family secrets and discover how easily apparently stable relationships can come undone. (The boarder Wally’s mom took in, for instance, was more than just a boarder.) The novel pivots on a tragedy in Wally’s life that occurred on V-J Day, and Gaffney expertly moves back and forth in time to show how much more sophisticated Wally becomes about that event as she reaches college age. A personal crisis involving Ham after he serves in the Korean War is relatively underdrawn, but it bolsters Gaffney’s thesis that America’s midcentury patriotism covered up plenty of emotional wreckage. None of it would work, though, without the strong central figure of Wally, an inquisitive child who becomes a world-wise spitfire. A smart coming-of-age tale that upends a raft of Greatest Generation clichés.”

“This compelling family drama features an intriguing cast of characters who are well drawn and realistic, while also being emblematic of their time. Gaffney’s writing is graceful and leisurely paced, flavored with nostalgia,” says Library Journal.

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!

After Birth

By Elisa Albert

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $23, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Elisa Albert, author of  the novel, The Book Of Dahlia,  and How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories, has written for NPR, Tin House, Commentary, Salon and the Rumpus. Albert comes from Los Angeles, but moved to the East Coast, graduated from Brandeis University and now lives in upstate New York with her family. She holds a MFA from Columbia University and is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts.

What is this book about?

Motherhood, as any honest mother would tell you if you promised her total anonymity, is not all adorable onesies and cuddling with a precious little baby. Elisa Albert makes this very clear in After Birth, her impressively candid novel about the overwhelming changes that envelope her main character, Ari, a young wife overwhelmed by trying to recover from an unplanned C-section, meet the normal but draining demands of her infant son, Walker, deal with her professor husband’s academic milieu, connect with local women, survive  a brutal winter and find a friend, a real, nurturing friend, who might help her make sense of her new and often frightening circumstances. Then Mina – also a feminist and about to give birth — comes to town, and Ari seems to have found that longed-for companion.  This is a novel with a lead character who will be off-putting to some, but refreshingly honest to others.

Why you’ll like it:

Elisa Albert is not known for pulling punches or creating easy-to-love characters, but all is forgiven when you immerse yourself in one of her fierce stories. Her writing voice is brutally funny, with equal emphasis on the bitter frankness and the comical.

Her debut collection of short stories, “Why This Night Is Different,” drew raves from many reviewers but disturbed some who found them irreverent. One of its stories stars a young woman with a raging yeast infection trying to introduce her non-Jewish boyfriend to her quarrelsome family at a Passover seder. Another ends with its narrator, an unhappy young wife, curled in a fetal position in a synagogue restroom, contemplating her life. But, Albert told me in a 2006 interview for The Courant, “That’s not me on the floor of that bathroom, in the worst imaginable position. I like to reach for the brutal, unflattering portrayal. Readers need to keep in mind that “my characters aren’t me,” she says. “The further away you are, the easier it is to write.”

She attempted the brutal/comical straddle in The Book of Dahlia, in which the title character is dying of brain cancer, with less success: Dahlia was more acerbic than many readers and reviewers could handle. But in After Birth, she succeeds: Ari has a sharp mind and an even sharper tongue, but she speaks the truth about the hormonal tsunami of feelings that can turn the supposed idyll of motherhood into an unexpected field of battle.

What others are saying:

“Coarse and poetic and funny as hell, full of the hard truths no one tells you beforehand, including just that: No one tells you the truth,” says Ellen Akins in The Star Tribune.

“As they bond, the women deliver themselves (if you will) of profane, cathartic, wickedly funny arias of anger about the shock of their experience. After Birth is complaint literature in the distinguished tradition of Philip Roth,” says Sam Sacks in The Wall Street Journal.

In The New York Times Book Review, Merritt Tierce writes: “…brilliant…After Birth cuts open the body of literature on mothering, birth, feminism, female friendship, female hateship…and wrenches out something so new we barely recognize it. Wet, red, slimy, alive: a truth baby…Its language is not only the scalpel but the flesh—it hurts, in both senses. It’s obscene, reckless, vicious, hilarious and above all real. Albert has inherited the house Grace Paley built, with its narrow doorways just wide enough for wit and tragedy and blistering, exasperated love…Paley found the seam where the important and the madcap are stitched together on the underside of life, and here is Albert working that same territory. Her Ari is bold enough to put motherhood up on a pedestal because its sanctity is as undeniable as it is dangerous. But she also wants to be sure you know the pedestal is made of excrement and tears and vomit and breast milk and the very selves of a billion unknown women…After Birth…ought to be as essential as The Red Badge of Courage. Just because so much of mothering happens inside a house doesn’t mean it’s not a war: a battle for sovereignty over your heart, your mind, your life—and one you can’t bear for the other side to lose.“

“Albert says everything women think, but don’t say, unless they are speaking to their best friend. I laughed out loud. A lot. As a mother of two, I loved how she explored this time, after the birth of a first child, with bare-bulbed honesty and an acerbic wit that gave way to humor around nearly every turn. This is the first book I’ve read that does this after birth period justice, and I’ve already recommended it to new, as well as more established, mothers.” Says Michaela Carter of the Peregrine Book Company in Prescott, Ariz.

Publishers Weekly says: Albert applies a blistering tone to modern motherhood in this cri de coeur of a novel. Six-months-pregnant Ari couldn’t wait to leave Brooklyn for the faded glory of Utrecht, N.Y., and its affordable four-bedroom Italianate with her supportive professor husband, Paul, 15 years her senior. Now, Ari has one-year-old Walker, a C-section scar, and an unfinished dissertation in women’s studies. Faculty life isn’t the “deranged orgiastic laser show” she dreamed it would be. About the women in her C-section support group she says, “A chore, trying to talk to these women.” So Ari pins her hopes for friendship and connection on Mina Morris, former bass player for the Misogynists, a late-’80s all-girl band. Mina is now a poet who is subletting from Ari’s friends while they’re on sabbatical. Into this thinly plotted story, Albert interweaves insightful portraits of Ari’s extended family, childhood friends, and frenemies. Our sarcastic and self-aware heroine never spares us her anger, her epic takedowns (“It had an addictive flavor, hating her”), and her attempts to parse her own internalized misogyny. In lesser hands, Ari might be unlikable, but Albert imbues her with searing honesty and dark humor, and the result is a fascinating protagonist for this rich novel.”

When is it available?

This newborn book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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