Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Early Stories of Truman Capote

By Truman Capote

(Random House, $25, 208 pages)

Who is this author?

Happy New Year, everyone!

As the year ends, let’s look back as well as forward, at some recently rediscovered work by one of America’s finest writers and most original characters, Truman Capote, who died at age 60 in 1984, leaving behind some of America’s most admired books, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Grass Harp, and the reportorial classic, In Cold Blood. Capote was born in New Orleans, lived for a time in Alabama, where his close friend was Harper Lee, and went on to hobnob with, and occasionally write about (with some unpleasant repercussions) the very rich, very famous and very powerful. He won the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize twice and was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

Hilton Als, who wrote the forward to this collection, is a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker who also writes for The New York Review of Books.

What is this book about?

Here are 14 short pieces, all written when the author was between 11 and 20 years old, before Capote achieved fame and fortune. They had been stored in the archives of the New York Public Library, all but forgotten, but were re-discovered and collected in this book. In them, a boy chases a convict into the woods, a prep school girl encounters jealousies, a young hobo is robbed by an older man and two society women plan something far more complicated – and cruel – than another game of bridge.  The lead characters are outsiders, typical for Capote, and the stories are set mostly in the South, but also in New York, where Capote eventually made his home. Together they offer an intimate look at a talent that would fully bloom later in the author’s life.

Why you’ll like it:

Even though they are not as good as his mature work, these stories show how his voice and vision as a writer took root and foreshadow his later flowering. As did his later work, they show Capote’s empathy for outsiders – as he himself was as a gay man coming of age in the Deep South long before acceptance was even considered to be a possibility. The stories deal with dark subjects, such as racism, violence, murder and jealousy, but Capote also displays the compassion and appreciation for the oddballs among us that we see in his later work. This book offers a rare opportunity to see how a writer sets out on the path to brilliance.

What others are saying:

“[Capote’s early] stories are special. Not just because they give a glimpse of an author finding his voice; or for the traces of his masterpieces. But also because they stand in their own right as lovely vignettes of the lives of the lonely, broken and troubled. . . . If you consider they were written when he was a child—aged between eleven and nineteen—then they become breathtaking in their precocity, craftsmanship, simplicity and the tenderness he became renowned for.”—The Independent (U.K.)

Library Journal says: “Discovered as manuscript pages in the New York Public Library Archives, often with Capote’s edits clearly in place, these ten-plus stories were written when Capote was a teenager and young man and will shed light on his subsequent work while remaining sharply observed pleasures in their own right. The settings seesaw from the rural South to sophisticated 1940s New York, and the characters range from a teenage girl awaiting a date to a little boy who finds his dream dog in Central Park to sadder-but-wiser types making their way in the urban jungle.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Gathering of the great American prose stylist’s earliest pieces, published for the first time. Some of those pieces are very far from Park Avenue. In the first, a teenage Capote serves up an odd vignette concerning a young hobo and his older, wizened friend of the road. “Ma an’ them don’t know I been bummin’ around the country for the last two years; they think I’m a traveling salesman,” the youngster says, just before the older man helps himself to a ten-spot his companion has been guarding against the day that he can wash up, buy a suit, and head home. The moment of their parting is worthy of de Maupassant. So it is, too, when Capote, Alabaman by upbringing if not inclination, turns in another Southern-fried piece, this one involving a gaggle of kids, a snakebite, and a chicken or three. “The ulcers were burning like mad from the poison,” Capote writes in a fine closing, “and she felt sick all over when she thought of what she had done.” Capote might have become another Flannery O’Connor had he stuck to his home turf, but instead he relocated to New York, and several of the later stories here reflect that change of venue. Now his characters are more urbane and decidedly more privileged: “The girl had had excellent letters from the Petite Ecole in France and the Mantone Academy in Switzerland.” Excellent letters or no, the story in question marks what will become a typical Capote ploy, a scenario of roiling jealousies and intrigue under a superficially calm cover. Another reveals Capote’s trademark strangeness, too: “It’s one thing to lose a leg,” harrumphs one character, “but it’s too much to lose an election because of someone else’s stupidity.” Amputations, petty larceny, and noblesse oblige: it’s all of a piece, and all that’s missing are the chameleons. Students of both Capote and the short story will find this instructive and entertaining—and, if somewhat unformed still, very readable all the same.”

Publishers Weekly’s far less generous review says: “This volume collects 14 tales that Capote wrote during his teens and 20s; most of them are set in his native South, and most are previously unpublished. At their underwhelming best, they reveal his adept ear for Southern vernacular and make a good attempt at atmosphere, though suffering from adjectival overkill. Early on, Capote’s imagination conjured Southern gothic dramas. An escaped convict with “cold, calculating, insane eyes” pleads for help in “The Moth in the Flame.” “Miss Belle Rankin,” considered “a witch,” is a starving old woman who dies under a japonica tree she refused to sell. The stories are earnest but predictable efforts. And though Capote was adept at posing imaginative scenarios, he seems incapable of producing satisfying endings. Thin characterization and inept narrative development in “Swamp Terror” (two boys get lost in a swamp while an escaped convict is on the loose) and in “Kindred Spirits” (two society matrons plan murder) mark them as puerile efforts. “If I Forget You,” a sentimental story about a girl in love with a man who is leaving town is a vignette without depth, and another, “This Is in Jamie,” a would-be tearjerker in which a little boy receives the dog he desires from a dead child’s father, falls flat. “Traffic West” is a facile version of the novella The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a story popular during Capote’s youth. These stories will be of interest mainly as a budding writer’s efforts to master the techniques of his craft.”

When is it available?

This book is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Park branch.

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


My Life on the Road

by Gloria Steinem

(Random House, $28, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Gloria Steinem, now a hard-to-believe 81, is one of America’s foremost and most famous feminists. Steinem is a writer, editor and activist who, in 1972, co-founded Ms. magazine and also helped found New York magazine. She is the author of bestselling books and has won many major journalism awards, as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. Her new memoir is adding to her list of honors: a bestseller, it was named one of O: The Oprah Magazine’s Ten Favorite Books Of The Year and one of the Best Books Of The Year By Harper’s Bazaar , the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Publishers Weekly.

What is this book about?

In My Life on the Road, Steinem looks back at her early years when she gained her first taste of fame as a reporter who did a stint as a Playboy Bunny and wrote about it, and where that brave-for-its-time act of journalism led. Beginning with her growing-up years in the Midwest with a wandering but fascinating father and submissive and often depressive mother, and following her career as an advocate for the rights of women who barely understood that they had them, she pairs her story of personal growth with that of the Women’s Movement.

Why you’ll like it:

Steinem is an American original, one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Outspoken, plainspoken, erudite and empathetic, she fills this book with anecdotes that illuminate why she believes what she believes and what she has accomplished. Whatever your views on the feminist movement’s history and future, she is well worth listening to.

What others are saying:             

An Amazon Best Book of November 2015 review says: “To women “of a certain age” – a euphemism the author of this book would surely abhor – the idea that Gloria Steinem is a revolutionary thinker, a wonderful writer and a practical activist is not, perhaps, news. (But there is something joyful in the rediscovery of same.) To those who didn’t know or don’t remember the Steinem story – founding Ms. Magazine, fighting for reproductive rights, waiting to marry until she was in her 60s! — it might be a revelation. Long before Sheryl Sandberg leaned in at work, Steinem was preaching the gospel of empowered women by, among other things, travelling the country and the world listening to people, gathering stories and insights, offering support of the intellectual and emotional kind. From the very first page – in which she dedicates her book to the British doctor who ended Steinem’s pregnancy, illegally, in 1957 – to the tales of a supposedly shy woman who admitted she wanted to nail her sloppy husband’s tossed-anywhere underwear to the floor, Steinem recounts a life well-travelled in every sense. Now 81, the woman who at 40 replied to a compliment about her appearance with “this is what 40 looks like,” Steinem can still raise consciousnesses, including her own.”

Says The New York Times: “My Life on the Road…is a warmly companionable look back at nearly five decades as itinerant feminist organizer and standard-bearer. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to sit down with Ms. Steinem for a casual dinner, this disarmingly intimate book gives a pretty good idea, mixing hard-won pragmatic lessons with more inspirational insights.”

The New York Times Book Review  says: “[Steinem's] new book, My Life on the Road, provides a lesson in how to stay relevant when your name is synonymous with a decades-old movement that has fallen in and out of popular favor: Keep moving. And keep asking questions…As an author, Steinem is best known for her essay collections published in the 1980s and 1990s. Though they all contain first-person anecdotes, none are as autobiographically comprehensive as My Life on the Road. Steinem’s life has been so remarkable that her memoir would have been fascinating even without a central theme, but her decision to use travel as a thematic thread was a smart one.”

“Steinem rocks. My Life on the Road abounds with fresh insights and is as populist as can be. . . . Honoring its title, My Life on the Road ranges around subject-wise. One minute Steinem is writing about stewardesses on the shuttle, the next women who taught Gandhi. Now she’s railing against Betty Friedan, whose focus on white middle-class feminism Steinem argues damaged the movement. Still later she’s celebrating her friendships with Native American women, whom she sees as guides into the future. . . . Go, Steinemite!” saysThe Boston Globe.


Publishers Weekly’s starred review says:  “If you want people to listen to you,” iconic women’s rights activist Steinem underscores in this powerfully personal yet universally appealing memoir, “you have to listen to them.” And that’s exactly what she’s done for the past four decades, crisscrossing the country in search of inspiring women and women—and men—to inspire. Steinem, a staunch advocate for reproductive rights and equal rights for women, long before either was fashionable in the public eye, writes candidly for the first time about her itinerant childhood spent with a father who itched to be constantly in motion and mother who gave up her own happiness for the sake of others. Vowing to distance herself from both her mother’s dependent lifestyle and her father’s peripatetic ways, Steinem ended up doing exactly what she never imagined: being a public speaker who’s constantly on the move. Highlights include her role in the 1977 National Women’s Conference—“It was my first glimpse of how little I knew—and how much I wanted to learn”—and her accounts of conversations with taxi drivers across the country. Throughout her travels, whether visiting small college campuses in the South or attending a 1971 Harvard Law School dinner where her equality speech was met with animosity, Steinem strives to create positive, meaningful change. Her inviting prose as easy and enjoyable to read, even when the subject matter veers towards the painful.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Steinem  weaves an inspired personal narrative by sharing stories of the places she’s seen and people who have galvanized her, which includes everyone from poet laureates to cab drivers; and how their influence transformed a young journalist with a palpable fear of public speaking to the face of the modern women’s movement. The author doesn’t shy away from her flaws and doubts, and her anecdotes—specifically those about her nomadic, cheerful, and kind-hearted father—are deeply moving. What’s touching about this work is its hopefulness. Anger sparks activism, but optimism fuels it. (If you don’t believe things can be better tomorrow, why would you fight today?) Steinem’s confidence and faith—in people, ideas, and change—make this more than a collection of retold events; it tells how people can be encouraged in unexpected ways, in surprising places, with only one caveat: you have to be listening. VERDICT Poignant, accessible, essential. Activism is a people’s movement, and this is a people’s memoir. Ideal for readers who are familiar with Steinem’s work as well as those who aren’t.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A respected feminist activist’s memoir about the life lessons she learned as a peripatetic political organizer. Until she was 10 years old, Steinem grew up following two parents who could never seem to put down roots. Only after her stability-craving mother separated from her restlessly migratory father did she settle—for a brief time until [Smith] college—into “the most conventional life” she would ever lead. After that, she began travels that would first take her to Europe and then later to India, where she began to awaken to the possibility that her father’s lonely way of traveling “wasn’t the only one.” Journeying could be a shared experience that could lead to breakthroughs in consciousness of the kind Steinem underwent after observing Indian villagers coming together in “talking circles” to discuss community issues. Once she returned to the United States, she went to New York City, where she became an itinerant freelance journalist. After observing the absence of female voices at the 1963 March on Washington, Steinem began gathering together black and white women to begin the conversation that would soon become a larger national fight for women’s rights. In the 1970s and beyond, Steinem went on the road to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment and for female political candidates like 1984 vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. Along the way, Steinem began work with Native American women activists who taught her about the interconnectedness of all living things and the importance of balance. From this, she learned to walk the middle path between a life on the road and one at home: for in the end, she writes, “[c]aring for a home is caring for one’s self.” Illuminating and inspiring, this book presents a distinguished woman’s exhilarating vision of what it means to live with openness, honesty, and a willingness to grow beyond the apparent confinement of seemingly irreconcilable polarities. An invigoratingly candid memoir from a giant of women’s rights.”


When is it available?

It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now and on order for its Mark Twain branch.

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


The Secret Chord

By Geraldine Brooks

(Penguin Publishing Group, $27.95, 320 pages)

Who is this author?

Born in Australia, now living on Martha’s Vineyard, married to journalist and author Tony Horwitz and solidly grounded by her own journalism background, Geraldine Brooks has published four earlier novels, which together have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. Her imaginative novel about the father from Little Women, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Caleb’s Crossing won the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Christianity Today Book Award. People of the Book, and Year of Wonders were also bestsellers. Her nonfiction includes Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence.

What is this book about?

One of the Bible’s most fascinating figures is David, slayer of giants, shepherd, soldier, beloved king and feared despot. Brooks here recreates King David’s life as seen by those closest to him, including Natan the prophet ,wives Mikal, Avigail and Batsheva and Solomon, his son. Mixing history with myth and using spellings typical of the times, she draws a remarkably complete portrait of this very complex man, known equally for the brutality of his war-making and the lyrical beauty of the psalms he wrote. Brooks has a deep interest in religious history and here has found a subject eminently worthy of her attention.

Why you’ll like it:

I once interviewed Brooks for a Courant article and was impressed with her deep knowledge of history, which I expected given her choice of subjects, and her wry sense of humor, which was a pleasant surprise. She is a deep and thorough researcher, traits crucial to writing impressive historical fiction about a figure that readers think – perhaps erroneously – they already know well. Brilliant book of this kind illuminate the past in a way that scholarly but often dry nonfiction simply cannot do. Even those who have studied the Bible for years may find new and startling insights in The Secret Chord.

What others are saying:

In The New York Times Book Review, Alana Newhouse writes: “There is nothing new under the sun, the author of Ecclesiastes emphatically noted: All inventions are reinventions, all new stories merely fresh costuming for age-old tales. It isn’t for me to argue with Scripture, but I will say that Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, The Secret Chord—a thundering, gritty, emotionally devastating reconsideration of the story of King David—makes a masterly case for the generative power of retelling…Some of the magic here has to do with the setting and time—for sensory dramatics, it’s hard to compete with the Iron Age Middle East…but [Brooks's] real accomplishment is that she also enables readers to feel the spirit of the place. What she has drawn in The Secret Chord is a world in which the opposite of pragmatism is poetry, where the opposite of rational isn’t irrational but romantic. And so, choices—whether about love or matters of state—are made not between good and evil but between often equally meaningful life forces, with the trick being to determine which one is better suited to the moment at hand. This kind of decision-making seems to belong to another realm entirely until you understand that it’s true of our lives as well.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Brooks’ interest in religious commitment accrues rich rewards in this ambitious and psychologically astute novel about the harp-playing, psalm-singing King David of the bible. A man of contradictory impulses, David was also a brutal and pitiless warrior living in “a culture of blood revenge.” In his younger years he was an outlaw and renegade, a raider and marauder. He was greedy, vain, intemperate, stubborn, and ruthlessly pragmatic. He loved his wives, however (at least most of them), and doted on his sons and daughter. His outstanding achievement was to unite the tribes of Judah and Israel to establish the first Hebrew kingdom. Brooks develops David’s complex personality and the bloody events of his tumultuous times through the narration of his prophet, Natan, of whom there is a tantalizing mention in the Bible (Chronicles). This format allows Natan to speak with various members of David’s family, his generals and soldiers, and even his enemies. Central to the narrative are a prediction and a curse. Through Natan, God (always called “the Name”) first promises David a throne, an empire, and a line of descendants. Later Natan foretells tragedy; David “will be scalded by the consequences of his choices” and will pay for the deaths he has caused “four times over.” These tragic events provide plenty of melodrama and considerable suspense. While most of the plot is fictional conjecture, Brooks evokes time and place with keenly drawn detail. Although her decision to use archaic language, including the Hebrew spelling of names (Solomon is Shlomo; Bethlehem is Beit Lethem; the Philistines are the Plishtim) sometimes slows the narrative, she compensates with the verve of an adroit storyteller.”

“In her gorgeously written novel of ambition, courage, retribution, and triumph, Brooks imagines the life and character of King David in all his complexity. . .The language, clear and precise throughout, turns soaringly poetic when describing music or the glory of David’s city. . .taken as a whole, the novel feels simultaneously ancient, accessible, and timeless,” says  ALA Booklist.

Library Journal says: “The Pulitzer Prize-winning author retells the story of the biblical giant slayer King David through the eyes of those around him: the prophet Natan, David’s wives, and Solomon, his son. Brooks takes her title from the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” (“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord that David played, and it pleased the Lord”) and skillfully reimagines this well-known tale.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “He was big enough, but no giant.” With that gently dismissive allowance, spoken by the biblical King David, continues to explore the meaning of faith and religion in ordinary life. And sometimes extraordinary life, too, for even David has to admit that it’s not every day one has to fight a Philistine hero. Goliath’s fatal error was that he underestimated David, who tells a young shepherd, “Sometimes, it is good to be small.” David’s God is most definitely the one of the Old Testament, the jealous and punitive one; as leader of his tribe, David’s hands are covered in blood, including that of the family of the shepherd boy. Brooks skillfully retells David’s story through the eyes of Natan, the shepherd, who plays numerous roles throughout the narrative; as Avigail, David’s knowing wife, tells him, “David will call for you often enough, be assured of it. He uses every tool that comes into his hand.” There’s plenty of action, some biblically bloodthirsty; there’s plenty of talk as well, including some psychologizing that rings a touch anachronistic (says Avigail, for instance, “I’ve come to understand that he is what he is because of his faults”). David emerges from Brooks’ pages as a complex, somewhat wounded man, dogged by trauma but mostly resolute all the same; in one of the most telling passages, Brooks imagines David eating a chicken leg calmly just after the death of a baby, reasoning, “Now he’s dead, why should I fast? Can fasting bring him back again?” Of just as much interest as her view of the politically astute lion in winter are Brooks’ portraits of characters who are somewhat thinly fleshed in their biblical accounts, such as Batsheva, Yoav, Avner, and even Avshalom—for, as Brooks sagely writes, “David, who so often saw so clearly, who weighed men to a fine grain, was utterly blind to the failings of the men he begat.” A skillful reimagining of stories already well-known to any well-versed reader of the Bible gracefully and intelligently told.”

When is it available?

This new telling of age-old stories 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!

West of Sunset

By Stewart O’Nan

(Penguin Publishing Group, $27.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Stewart O’Nan, who was born in Pittsburgh and after living in other parts of the country, including Avon, he has returned there. O’Nan studied for a career in aerospace engineering before realizing his true calling was writing. He is the author of two nonfiction books and 16 novels, with a 17th forthcoming in April, 2016. His nonfiction account of Hartford’s tragic catastrophe, The Circus Fire (2000), is set here (of course) as are two of his novels, The Night Country and Last Night at the Lobster. With his friend, Stephen King, O’Nan co-wrote Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. He has been selected by Granta magazine as one of America’s Best Young Novelists.

What is this book about?

West of Sunset is a historical, biographical novel about the last years of the great and greatly troubled American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Once hailed as the Jazz Age genius who wrote the classic The Great Gatsby and other important novels, by 1937 Fitzgerald had a severe drinking problem, health issues, a broken marriage to Zelda, who was institutionalized in an asylum and major money difficulties. Trying to resurrect his career by doing screenwriting in Hollywood, he falls in love with gossip queen Sheilah Graham, begins but never finishes his possible masterpiece The Last Tycoon and unsuccessfully tries to revive his relationship with Zelda and their daughter Scottie.  He memorably wrote in Tycoon, “there are no second acts in American lives,” but it seems there are, although Fitzgerald’s second act was a sad one. West of Sunset is set during his last three years – he died of a heart attack in 1940 – with flashbacks to his earlier glory days and cameos by famous American actors and writers of the time.

Why you’ll like it:

O’Nan is known for his deep empathy for his characters and a wizardly ability to create believable dialogue. Many of his novels involve people trying to overcome bad luck and worse decisions, and Fitzgerald’s life fits right into this pattern. O’Nan’s stories can wound your heart without ever going over the top, and this novel, while a departure from his purely fictional early work, will cause you to ponder whether the very once-rich and very once-famous are really all that different from you and me.

What others are saying:

“Fitzgerald’s orbit of literary fame and the Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. A sympathetic and deeply personal portrait of a flawed man who never gave up in the end, even as his every wish and hope seemed thwarted, West of Sunset confirms O’Nan as “possibly our best working novelist,” says Salon.

An Amazon Best Book of the Month review says:  “When an ambitious writer hops onto a high wire and strides across with grace, it’s a wonderful thing to behold. And I don’t mean this as hyperbole. Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, his glimmering fictional biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s troubled years in Hollywood, is simply one of the best books I’ve read in many months. In some ways, this is a portrait of the artist as an aging man. We see Fitzgerald, “like an athlete,” awake each day at 5 to write, then toil through long hours at “the Iron Lung,” MGM’s catty screenwriters’ wing, then scratch out a few more words at night (which would turn into his unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon). “When he was working, it worked,” O’Nan tells us. “It was when he stopped that the world returned, and his problems with it…” In truth, not a whole lot happens. Fitzgerald pops his pills, visits Zelda and Scottie back East, has a messy yet loving affair, and occasionally gets stupid drunk. We’re treated to sassy walk-ons by Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, and Humphrey Bogart. But part of the quiet, somber and entrancing appeal is how fully we become absorbed by Fitzgerald’s fight for relevance, or at least a few bucks. Ultimately, it’s quite heartbreaking to see the legendary creator of Gatsby cling to his literary dignity, his reputation and sanity slipping from his grasp, an outsider to the end.”

“Just as O’Nan succeeded in drawing readers inside the heads of such ordinary people as the elderly widow Emily in Emily, Alone, or Manny DeLeon, the hapless chain-restaurant manager in Last Night at the Lobster, he inhabits Fitzgerald’s very being and authentically depicts the writer’s fluctuating mind-sets during the final years of his life…an intimate portrayal of a flawed man who never gave up,” says The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Library Journal says: “Prolific O’Nan explores F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, when he worked unhappily as a Hollywood screenwriter. The novelist is on the skids after the publication of “The Crack-Up,” his mournful, self-deprecating essay that drew scathing reviews and may have ruined his career. His frustrations with the superficialities of Hollywood and autocratic studio heads planted the seeds for his uncompleted work, The Last Tycoon. We get zinging repartee from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Humphrey Bogart, but on the whole this novel is overlaid with sadness. VERDICT O’Nan taps into primary-source material on Fitzgerald to craft a realistic piece of historical fiction, inverting incidents from Sheilah Graham’s 1957 tell-all Beloved Infidel to Fitzgerald’s point of view and adopting the despairing tone of “The Crack-Up.” Fitzgerald comes across as a haunting, multifaceted, sympathetic character whose Midwestern morality leaves him duty-bound to daughter Scottie and his institutionalized wife, Zelda, even as he begins his affair with Graham (which is chastely described). The slide into drugs, alcoholism, and the heart disease that shortened his life is tragic to behold; Fitzgerald fans will mourn his loss all over again.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “In his final, booze-addled years, F. Scott Fitzgerald tries his hand at Hollywood screenwriting . . while his troubled wife, Zelda, languishes in a North Carolina asylum. . .  O’Nan places Scott back at center stage, with a sympathetic portrayal of a troubled genius, a kind but deeply flawed man trying to stay on the wagon while keeping the peace between his unstable wife and their teenage daughter. After a span of nearly 20 years, Fitzgerald comes back into contact with his first love, the rich, unattainable Ginevra, clearly his model for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, all while falling into an intense love affair with Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist many years his junior. Sheilah is a fascinating character in her own right, a wholly self-invented heroine who could have stepped out of the pages of one of Fitzgerald’s own novels. O’Nan has masterfully re-created the feel and ambience of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1930s, where Fitzgerald is hired to doctor scripts that might never see the light of day and frequently finds himself defenseless against overweening producers and back-stabbing co-writers. Meanwhile, Zelda remains at the mercy of the all-powerful Dr. Carroll, existing at the center of an emotional tug of war between Scott and his disapproving mother-in-law. O’Nan has crafted an insightful glimpse into a sad period in Fitzgerald’s life, as he fades into poverty, drunkenness and anonymity among a cast of notables, after his and Zelda’s reign as America’s literary golden couple and before his resurgence into universal acclaim.”

“A mesmerizing and haunting novel. . .O’Nan delivers – whole-body – the sensation that you are deep inside a living, breathing, suffering consciousness. . .Another triumph of the novel surfaces in O’Nan’s wily insinuation into Fitzgerald’s creative life, how it breathes through his everyday existence.  Movingly and believingly, the manner in which a writer works – thinks, processes, assimilates, envies – is given life.   And that is ultimately what makes the book so special,” says The Boston Globe.

When is it available?

This touching story is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

Absolutely True Lies: A Novel

by Rachel Stuhler

(Touchstone, $15.99, 323 pages)

Who is this author?

Rachel Stuhler moved from the East Coast to the West Coast to pursue her fascination with books and movies. She has been a script supervisor, a screenwriter and a ghostwriter for three celebrity memoirs (no, she is not revealing which ones). She also has written more than 20 movies for TV, including scripts for McBride, the Hallmark and Lifetime channels and Ion.  This is her debut novel.

What is this book about?

Drawing on her own experiences in Hollywood, Rachel Stuhler has written a funny yet cautionary tale about the inner workings of stardom.  Holly Gracin, a writer seeking but not finding success, gets a big break: ghostwriting the memoir of an 18-year-old pop star (think Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, though Daisy Mae Dixson is a fictional character.)  It’s not surprising, of course, that Daisy Mae’s virginal image is a poor cover for her wild-child behavior, posing all sorts of problems for Holly, who was not hired to write an expose. As Holly struggles to present Daisy Mae in a flattering way, her subject has a very public meltdown and Holly finds herself with a new task: fixing her soiled image. Can Holly pull that off, and at what personal cost?

Why you’ll like it:

Stuhler writes with insider knowledge and cutting humor, making this a very entertaining read and adding a layer of reality to the fictional fun. Here are some things she told

“. . . It’s an amalgam of my experiences both working on film sets and then later, as a ghostwriter myself. I took the jobs to make ends meet while writing my own projects and it didn’t always go well! I had a few lovely clients and a few who treated me less than humanely. I started writing the book as a way to deal with my frustrations. Beyond that, I wanted people to see that the Hollywood they “know and love” is quite different, for better and worse. There are very normal people here, but we’re paid to make things look shiny and larger-than-life; this sometimes warps our own perceptions, too.”

And here, to give you a sense of her style, is how Stuhler introduces Holly to her readers:

“The day I graduated from Sarah Lawrence with my degree in creative writing, my mother told me, “Holly, in a few years, you’ll be so famous they’ll be asking you to give the commencement address. ” She was wrong. Four years after graduating from college, I was twenty-five and writing for a magazine in Los Angeles that was so tiny they practically had to pay people to read it. It was supposed to be an insider view of celebrity life, but TMZ and Radar Online can pay top dollar for their inside scoops and we had an operating budget of about seventy-five cents. Meaning that no one wanted to talk to us. Not to mention, the readers Kragen Publishing so desperately sought were not the ones who routinely scoured newsstands for celeb gossip; everything the teen and twenty-something set wants to know about the latest scandals is up in fifteen minutes. Our site was perpetually down for maintenance, which was perfect for our sixty-five-year-old readers, who didn’t know the first thing about computers, anyway. My boss once told me that our magazine was purchased most by widowed housewives who also happened to be buying the National Enquirer. “

What others are saying:

Library Journal says: “One only needs to tune in to the evening news or check out the cover of a magazine to see yet another teen celebrity go from America’s sweetheart to a hot mess in no time flat.  Stuhler’s debut tells one such story. Tapping in to her personal experience working in Hollywood as a screenwriter and ghostwriter, the author crafts a salacious world in which Holly Gracin, mid-20s and struggling to make a name for herself as a gossip writer, is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of Daisy Mae Dixon, a teenage pop star who is nothing like the Goody Two-shoes she portrays in public. Despite the rampant corruption and evildoers in their Hollywood milieu, Holly soon finds out the truth behind Daisy’s manufactured persona and is thrown into a world of sex, drugs, and plenty of misery. When Holly flies to Italy for an on-location shoot, Daisy teeters on the edge of self-destruction and Holly must find the strength to stay true to herself. VERDICT An enticing glimpse into the celebrity lifestyle, this first novel is a solid beach read that will cause readers to feel sympathy for child stars. Stuhler’s personal experiences add an extra layer of intrigue that is sure to draw in readers.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: A struggling writer suddenly finds herself at the center of a young starlet’s world. Life in Los Angeles has taken a turn for the worse for entertainment writer Holly Gracin. After losing her job at Westside Weekly when the magazine suddenly folds, she briefly dedicates her life to self-pity and binge eating. She’s just about ready to pack up and move home to upstate New York when she’s offered an exciting and somewhat terrifying opportunity: the chance to ghostwrite the memoir of Nickelodeon teen star Daisy Mae Dixson. Though Holly questions her qualifications for this task, which is well outside her comfort zone, she’s easily persuaded by the promise of a payday that would dwarf her yearly income. Daisy Mae is famous for her squeaky-clean good-girl image, but the façade quickly begins to fall away as Holly is swept into her world. While it might seem great to live like the Hollywood elite, Holly begins to see the real Daisy Mae, who is struggling with overbearing management and impossible standards and has an attitude that would horrify most of her young fans. Still, Holly is supposed to write a cheery and vapid memoir, a job that becomes increasingly difficult the more she gets to know the Dixson family and staff. Soon, Holly, who couldn’t get past security with her press credentials for Westside Weekly, finds herself in the tabloids as part of Daisy Mae’s entourage. When Daisy Mae’s outrageous behavior creates a scandal poised to destroy her career, the memoir gains new weight as part of her packaged atonement. While Daisy Mae feels like a composite of some familiar Hollywood starlets, the novel, with its frequent twists and turns, still feels fresh. Stuhler uses her own experience as a ghostwriter for the Hollywood elite in this fun and satisfying behind-the-scenes debut novel.”

The Hollywood Reporter says: In what can best be described as a mash-up of Entourage and The Devil Wears Prada, Absolutely True Lies by Rachel Stuhler emerges as the kind of juicy read that is perfect to whittle away a summer day. . . [or a winter one!]  Inspired by Stuhler’s own experiences as a ghostwriter (she has three celebrity memoirs under her belt), Daisy bears traces of a number of troubled young stars, including Selena Gomez, Lindsay Lohan and even Justin Bieber. . . With over twenty TV movies and three ghostwritten celebrity memoirs under her belt, Stuhler is no stranger to Hollywood, and the book offers both that insider peek and a pretty sympathetic first-hand account of the personal costs of fame.”

When is it available?

No lie. It’s at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

A Wild Swan and Other Tales

By Michael Cunningham with illustrations by Yuko Shimizu

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 144 pages)

Who is this author?

Michael Cunningham is one of those fortunate authors whose work has garnered well-deserved critical praise and an enthusiastic following among readers.  He won a Pulitzer Prize and a PEN/Faulkner Award for The Hours, and his seven novels also include A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, Specimen Days, and By Nightfall.  He also wrote Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown, where the New York-based author spends a lot of time.

Yuko Shimizu is a Japanese illustrator based in New York, where she teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts. You may have seen her work in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, and she has also illustrated a book for children, Barbed Wire Baseball.

What is this book about?

No one is too old to enjoy a good fairy tale, and in A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham has reworked 10 classic stories for contemporary readers.  Here you will find old favorites in new guises: Rumpelstilskin,  Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Monkey’s Paw, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel,  a man with one arm and one swan’s wing and more. Here you will read the truth about happily ever after and the real motivations of the heroic or hapless characters that populate these stories.  Beautiful illustrations by Yuko Shimizu add power to his brilliant reinventions.

Why you’ll like it:

Cunningham writes beautifully, and wittily. Retelling stories that you thought you understood gives him the opportunity to delve into human (and not-so-human) emotions and decisions in a way that opens new doors into old tales. His version of Rumpelstilskin, which ran this year in The New Yorker, turned the tale of the manipulative little man inside out, causing an unexpected upwelling of pity for this poor deformed creature who only ever wanted a child of his own to love. In this book, Cunningham skillfully transforms the familiar into something rich and strange.

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “The novelist Michael Cunningham’s reimagined fairy tales in A Wild Swan, beautifully illustrated by Yuko Shimizu in a style that recalls Aubrey Beardsley with a touch of Maurice Sendak, are fractured in more ways than one…”I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters,” [Virginia] Woolf wrote in the diary entry Cunningham used as an epigraph to The Hours. “I think that gives exactly what I want: humanity, humor, depth.” Cunningham has performed a similar operation on the 10 tales he has selected for transformation. Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were notably sparing in character motivation. For the stories in A Wild Swan, Cunningham has dug out caves of humanity, humor and depth behind some well-known characters.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “The latest from Cunningham offers elegant, sardonic retellings of 10 iconic fairy tales, including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Rapunzel.” Using present-day details and distinctly adult observations to imagine what happens before, after, and behind the familiar narratives, Cunningham explores the often disastrous transformations wrought by love and need. Having expected “ruin to arrive in a grander and more romantic form,” the title character in “Crazy Old Lady” is undone by loneliness long before a tattooed pair of siblings (“those young psychopaths, those beaten children”) arrive on her candy doorstep. An unnamed but recognizable Snow White conducts a bedtime negotiation with a partner still erotically fixated on her past; in “Little Man,” a gnome spins straw into gold to win the child he desperately longs for, something “readily available to any drunk and barmaid who link up for three minutes in one of the darker corners of any dank and scrofulous pub.” Though grounded in the inevitable disenchantment of human life—“Most of us can be counted on to manage our own undoings,” the introduction notes wryly—Cunningham’s tales enlarge rather than reduce the haunting mystery of their originals. Striking black-and-white images from illustrator Shimizu add a fitting visual counterpoint to a collection at once dark and delightful. “

“Five out of five stars,” says The Independent . “While there was darkness in the original tales–blood, butchery and much else–Cunningham’s collection brings emotional light and shade where there was none . . . The comedy in these stories works brilliantly, but it does not uncut the tragedy of its lonely and quietly tormented outsiders . . .”

Says Library Journal: “It’s easy to imagine why an accomplished writer would turn to fairy tales for material: they offer strange, even peculiar plotlines yet are completely familiar to most of us. In this brief collection, with illustrations by Japanese illustrator Shimizu, based in New York, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cunningham modernizes a selection of tales, slanting the language toward modern life. For example, in the title story, the swan prince’s brothers “married, had children, joined organizations.” “The Monkey’s Paw” stays faithful to the fairy-tale genre (ageless, supernatural) but is hopelessly dark. In others, the usual perspective is twisted around: “Jacked,” the “Jack and the Beanstalk” tale, focuses on the misfortunes of the giant and his wife rather than on Jack’s luck. “Beast” is no saccharine cartoon “Beauty and the Beast,” but a succinct exploration of a marriage based on pity. Perhaps the best of the lot, “Steadfast: Tin,” touches on the story of the steadfast tin soldier but doesn’t inhabit it. VERDICT Cunningham’s sardonic prose can condense the story of a marriage, for instance, into a few powerful pages, reflecting on loss, commitment, separation, and the changing nature of love over time. A treat for adult readers.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “An assortment of fairy tales revised and thrust into the present day. Cunningham lightly touched on folklore for allegorical purposes in his 2014 novel, The Snow Queen, but here he approaches the genre head-on: these stories are each inspired by a particular tale, usually updated to add a dose of grown-up realism to its relationships. “Poisoned,” for instance, turns “Snow White” into a piece of flash fiction about pillow-talk role-playing, while “Steadfast; Tin” is a rewrite of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” that opens at a frat party. Cunningham clearly admires these stories for their flexibility, the way they can, with a twist or two, make room for mature observations about love and sex: his take on “Hansel and Gretel,” “Crazy Old Lady,” reimagines the witch as a much-married woman exiled for her sexual appetites, “a goddess…of carnal knowingness.” And in “Beasts,” he considers whether it isn’t so much the inner prince but outer animal that Beauty admires: “She wondered to herself why so many men seemed to think meekness was what won women’s hearts.” To that end, Cunningham embraces dark and sometimes-bloody characteristics of these stories as rendered most famously in the Grimm Brothers, but he also writes more open-heartedly about them, as in “A Monkey’s Paw,” which extends the original story (which ends with a couple wishing their zombified resurrected son to disappear) to a somber but compassionate conclusion. These rewrites are all elegantly told and nicely supplemented by illustrations by Shimizu, who gives each story a one-panel image that evokes Aubrey Beardsley in its detail and surrealistic splendor. But between the stories’ brevity and borrowed plots, this collection also feels like a busman’s holiday for Cunningham, who thrives in more expansive settings. A likable and occasionally provocative set of variations on kid-lit themes.”

When is it available?

Cunningham’s book is on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library, and that’s no fairy tale.

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 Love Object

By Edna O’Brien

(Little, Brown & Co,, $30, 544 pages)

Who is this author?

Now 84, Edna O’Brien, who grew up in the west of Ireland but has lived in London for a long time, is the much-praised author of The Country Girls Trilogy, The Light of Evening, Saints and Sinners, Country Girl and other books. In addition to being a consummate short story writer, she also is a novelist, memoirist, playwright and poet. Her many literary honors include a Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature in 2009 and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2011.

What is this book about?

The Love Object comprises 31 stories published from 1968 to 2011 and serves as a portrait of Ireland by one of its finest contemporary authors. Love, of family and in romantic attachments, coming of age, the effects of class differences on relationships, the need to escape the familiar and the homesickness that may result are among her favored themes, as this collection that spans more than 40 years clearly shows. The stories explore the ties that connect mothers and children, teachers and students, lovers and friends, and delineate the many forms of love: spiritual, nurturing, carnal, innocent. Thirty-one stories that explore the nature of love and of happiness are not too many – indeed, they may not be enough.

Why you’ll like it:                      

If you already are a fan of O’Brien’s writing, this book belongs on your shelves. If you are new to her work, it is the door to many hours of reading pleasure and stories that will stay with you. If you are Irish or love the work of Irish writers, it is a gift basket of insights and understanding. (And if you are not, it is still that basket of gifts.) O’Brien is a wonderful storyteller who uses humor and poignant observations to great effect. This collection confirms her place as one of the best of Ireland’s contemporary – and classic – writers.

What others are saying:

“The Love Object is less a catalog than a kind of humanist Rosary-and each bead, each story, is a prayer, a meditation, a supplication, a lament, a confession. We rub the hard beads between soft fingers, not as a gesture of intellectual decoding, but as an act of sensing, feeling our way into O’Brien’s created lives, the mysteries of common human experience, where the everyday is profound and gently affecting, and the profane becomes sacred,” says the  Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Near the beginning of “A Rose in the Heart of Brooklyn” there appears the sentence “Why be a woman.” This question punctuated as a declaration disorients readers; it challenges their expectations while underscoring a sense of resignation or even defeat. Such brilliant ambiguities lie at the heart of the 31 stories in this anthology from Irish author O’Brien, widely hailed for her mastery of description and characterization. O’Brien’s depictions of people and the social and emotional forces that define the relationships between them are subtly and surprisingly evoked. In the classic title story, for example, a professional woman describes a passionate affair with a married man that eventually cools into a sad, bearable friendship. Most of the early stories focus on women and the ways power manifests itself in their relationships, most profoundly between mothers and daughters. Later stories, such as the brilliant “Shovel Kings” and “Inner Cowboy,” reveal the complex social politics governing how men interact. VERDICT O’Brien’s reputation as one of the greatest storytellers in modern literature is only strengthened by this volume’s publication. Highly recommended.”

Kirkus’ starred review says: “A career’s selection of stories to savor. These 31 stories by O’Brien, spanning some four decades, are brought together in the sort of volume meant to establish a legacy and win prizes. The Irish-raised, London-based author hasn’t been praised for her short stories with the same reverence as William Trevor or Alice Munro . . .  Perhaps her novels, memoir, and persona have distracted attention from her mastery of short fiction, which reveals itself over the course of this generous selection as the focus moves from Irish girlhood to the literary life in large, cosmopolitan cities. Not that these stories are necessarily autobiographical or that it even matters if they are. The power of the first-person narrative in a perfect, and perfectly wrenching, story such as “My Two Mothers” rings truer than a memoir might, as O’Brien describes a relationship with a mother who is somehow both lover and enemy, the breach caused when “I began to write,” the story itself a meditation on life, literature, and “being plunged into the moiling seas of memory.” Hers is not the sort of writing that indulges in what one story dismisses as “clever words and hollow feelings”; her stories ask impossibly difficult questions about the nature of love and the possibility of happiness, and they refuse to settle for easy answers. As she writes in “Manhattan Medley,” a tale of infidelity in a city and a world filled with it, “the reason that love is so painful is that it always amounts to two people wanting more than two people can give.” Beneath the veneer of sophistication in a story such as “Lantern Slides,” the emotional ravages are as deep as in the hardscrabble stories of rural Ireland. . . . this collection positions O’Brien among the literary heavyweights, where it confirms she belongs. “

In The New York Times, Dwight Garner writes: “The confidence and authority of Ms. O’Brien’s writing, and the humor and sexiness that flow through it, mark her as a figure at the top of the food chain. The Love Object, a new volume of her selected short stories, written between 1968 and 2011, consolidates this position. It’s a book of deep and complicated and sometimes rude pleasures…It’s tempting to remark that sex and class and vanity and disappointment are Ms. O’Brien’s central themes, but that’s a hollow statement—those are all of our themes, mine at least, and probably yours, too. What matters is how consistently observant she is about them, how her sentences ring and ring again. There are echoes of James Joyce’s stories and of William Trevor’s, but the sound is unmistakably her own.”

Publishers Weekly says: “O’Brien, who introduced an Irish female perspective to the 1960s literary landscape, has produced stories over the last half-century that resonate with charm and acerbity, lyricism and terseness, nostalgia and brute force. Her early stories depict an Ireland of isolated villages and poor mountain farms where, in a moment, dreams turn to hopelessness, innocence to shame. Autobiographical tales feature mothers recalling days in America, schoolgirls bristling at convent education, and country lasses escaping to London. In “Irish Revel,” a farm girl bicycles into town for a party only to find herself moving furniture and cooking dinner. In “Sister Imelda,” the title character returns from university lonely and apart, an exile “in the mind.” Spirited Eily of “A Scandalous Woman” ends up trapped in a spiritless marriage, and the protagonist of “The Conner Girls,” like Chekhovian figurines, are trapped by their own lack of will. . . .Men are mostly observed by women, as in “The Love Object,” which details a London divorcée’s affair with a married man. “Brother” depicts a particularly vicious man through his sister’s murderous eyes. “The Shovel Kings” shows sympathy for Irish laborers in England. John Banville’s introduction . . . highlights O’Brien’s technique as well as her Irish roots. The stories validate his admiration—O’Brien’s self-described gallery of “strange” and “sacrificial” Irish women is indispensable.”

“When O’Brien ranges farther into the lives of women and men, married and single, beyond the borders of Ireland, she describes longing and desire and the intricacies of love and adultery as keenly and memorably as any modern writer you’ll read…. The lyrical turnings of her quest for truth, the deftness of her sentences and the clinical eye she turns on the imprisoning values of her country hark back to Joyce, modern Ireland’s old artificer. All together, they make O’Brien the first female bard of the place she bitterly names as ‘a land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of sacrificial women.’ O’Brien’s 84 now, and eventually she herself will be gone. But her stories will linger – not just smoldering, but burning as fiercely as when they first appeared,” says NPR.

When is it available?

O’Brien’s book is on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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

Avenue of Mysteries

By John Irving

(Simon & Schuster, $28, 480 pages)

Who is this author?

John Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears, appeared in 1968 and he has now published 14 highly imaginative novels in total. Best known is The World According to Garp, which won the National Book Award in 1980 and became a major motion picture. Other best sellers include A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules and The Hotel New Hampshire. Not only is Irving a much honored author: in 1992, he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

What is this book about?

It’s a dreamy, magical-realist look at creativity, employing many of Irving’s favorite and iconic subjects: orphans, the circus, transvestites, paranormal powers, the Catholic church and sex. In it, an aging, successful writer who grew up in a Mexican dump with a sister who can see the future and interpret the past (but not always correctly) makes a trip to the Philippines, where a mysterious mother and daughter inspire his lust and serve as his guides. Juan Diego Guerrero as a boy taught himself to read and write from discarded books; now he is looking back at his long life and literary accomplishments and trying to teach himself what it all really means.

Why you’ll like it:

Like Garp, which for good or ill spawned the instantly clichéd and sadly overworked “world according to…” phrase, Avenue of Mysteries is written with humor, deft lyricism and deep dives into the spiritual. Fortunately for the reader, the humor leavens the more challenging aspects of this complex novel. Reviewers are calling Irving’s latest book a return to his earlier mastery, and that is good news indeed.

What others are saying:   Review calls it an Amazon Best Book of November 2015: Juan Diego got his start in a Oaxacan dump, where he and his sister were self-described “dump kids.” Their mother Esperanza was a prostitute/cleaning woman, and in Avenue of Mysteries we revisit Esperanza, a pair of Jesuits who affected Juan Diego’s life, various circus members, Juan Diego, his sister, and others in a series of flashbacks. Having salvaged books in English and Spanish from the dump, Juan Diego taught himself to read and, ultimately, to write—he becomes a successful author, who eventually winds up in Iowa. Now in his fifties, he takes a trip to the Philippines, where he encounters a mother and her daughter, both of them fans, who insist on taking him around. If you’re a John Irving fan, some of the details to the story will sound familiar. It’s also likely you won’t have a problem with that. What I found most satisfying about Irving’s latest novel was a return of the feelings I remember from back when I first discovered his writing. This is an immersive read that delivers character, humor, and emotion.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Irving’s latest depicts Juan Diego, an aging novelist on a pilgrimage to the Philippines and set on fulfilling a promise he made in his childhood to a dying friend. Juan Diego was a “dump kid,” living with his sister, Lupe, in a shack in Mexico among the families who sort refuse for anything of value. But Juan Diego was exceptional, a self-taught reader who seemed fated for more. Through vivid dreams that Juan Diego has as a result of becoming confused about his medication while on a meandering journey to Manila, Irving relates his escape from his humble childhood. Irving fans will recognize similarities with past work: a circus, ambiguous parentage, a child with supernatural powers, various Christian churches, and a transvestite all play major roles. But while these elements may appear recycled, the protagonist’s journey does feel new. Diehard Irving fans will likely enjoy this latest, but those without such loyalties might be better served reading (or rereading) A Prayer for Owen Meany.”

Library Journal’s starred review says: “Successful novelist Juan Diego Guerrero is traveling to the Philippines to fulfill a long-ago promise. On his journey, he is taken under the wing of a mysterious mother and daughter, who seem to appear and disappear at opportune times and manipulate his actions. Perhaps owing to his misuse of his beta-blocker prescription, Juan Diego is haunted by memories of his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico, and his sister Lupe, who can read minds and predict the future (though not always accurately), and who speaks a strange gibberish that only he can understand. Irving’s 14th novel contains many of the ingredients his fans have come to expect: an intricate plot, troubled and quirky but lovable characters, and an examination of social issues that arises naturally without coming across as didactic. An orphanage, a circus, a transvestite, and Iowa City also make appearances. The “mysteries” in the title refer primarily to the religious sense of the word, particularly as manifested in miracles and visions of the Virgin Mary. Irving also makes sly winks at his own oeuvre and his life as a novelist, while taking a stand on the place of imagination in fiction.”

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Sex, drugs, and mariachi: Irving’s latest ventures south of the border and then back again, tracing the long road and unforeseeable turns that we travel in this world. The sex is constant—at least the desire for it is. (“Juan Diego had noticed that Miriam’s breasts were also attractive, though her nipples were not visible through her sweater.”) The drugs: well, do Lopressor and Viagra count? And as for the mariachi, it’s the soundtrack to a long dream in which “it was impossible to tell where the music came from.” When you come to think of it, life itself is pretty much an avenue of mysteries, though, per Irving, not without its comedy in the midst of tragedy and disappointment. Juan Diego, whose very name invokes the first saint of the Americas, has had an eventful journey over half a century from the landfills of Guerrero to Iowa and literary renown; now an accomplished writer, he nears the end of that journey in a faraway city, drifting in and out of a long dream in which he retraces his steps. Or, perhaps, a step and a limp, for, in good Greek tragic mode, Juan Diego nurses a crushed foot that reminds him of the receding past with every ache. Now in Manila, a place that shares the English and Spanish halves of Juan Diego’s self but adds its own exotic element, Juan Diego confronts his mortality while puzzling out questions of a theological and much more earthly nature: the mother-and-daughter team that he lusts for over 500-odd pages, for instance, may be more than ordinary mortals, just as everyone Juan Diego has met may be angels or devils in disguise. Irving works his familiar themes—Catholicism, sex, death—with a light and assured touch, and though the dream-narrative construct is a little shelf-worn, it serves the story well. Though not as irresistible as early works, such as The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire, a welcome return to form.”

“Juan Diego’s memories of adolescence around 1970 in Oaxaca compose some of the most charming scenes that Irving has ever written. He’s still an unparalleled choreographer of outrageous calamities that exist somewhere between coincidence and fate…. Those conflicting currents of spirituality flowing through “Avenue of Mysteries” add to Irving’s rich exploration of faith in several earlier novels,” says the Washington Post.”

Says Bookpage:  “In its early pages especially, Avenue of Mysteries is laugh-out-loud funny…. Yet as funny as the new novel often is, Irving’s reconsideration of earlier themes seems more somber here. The novel explores questions of belief and disillusionment, chance and choice, the mundane and the miraculous. Avenue of Mysteries is a provocative and perplexing novel.”

The Boston Globe says: “Irving has always been a consummately convincing realist, in matters both great and small…. While writers of later generations seldom come close to achieving Irving’s levels of verisimilitude, his realism is transmogrified by his general whimsicality and by his attraction to baroque extrapolations of the absurd. This sort of ambition… is part of what makes Irving such a prodigious entertainer…. This novel is not autobiographical, but it does present an aging artist with a sacred wound, tremendous desire, and an endless appetite for wonder.”

When is it available?

No mystery: the Camp Field and Park branches of the Hartford Public Library have copies of this book.

After Alice: A Novel

By Gregory Maguire

(Morrow, $26.99, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Gregory Maguire is one wicked storyteller.

The author of the mega-super-bestselling Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, which expanded  the Wizard of Oz tale and inspired several sequels and a mega-super-hit Broadway musical, Maguire has a brilliant knack for using well known fairy tales as the basis for clever and provocative novels for adults. These include Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, based on Cinderella, and Mirror Mirror, which sets the Snow White story quite believably in Renaissance Italy. Maguire, who lives near Boston with his husband, artist Andy Newman, and their three adopted children, also writes realistic fiction for upper grade school and middle school readers.

What is this book about?

Published as the literary world celebrates the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s immortal Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Maguire’s imaginative novel asks and answers the question of how 19th century England might have responded to Alice’s disappearance down the rabbit-hole. He takes the character of Ada, Alice’s best friend (who gets a brief mention in Carroll’s book), and sends her down that hole to find Alice and bring her home from her subterranean (and/or subconscious) adventures. At the same time, Alice’s older sister Lydia is searching for a young boy who is visiting and seems to have passed through their manse’s looking-glass to parts unknown, and she visits Wonderland, too. There they meet such timeless creations as the Mad Hatter, plus a few whipped up by Maguire, and the “real” world of the story contains cameos by such notables as the British royals and Charles Darwin. Adding to the enjoyment is the charmingly nonsensical language of Carroll’s creatures, as deftly echoed by Maguire.

Why you’ll like it:

After Alice is both an entertaining spinoff from the beloved children’s classic for adults and a thoughtful look at issues such as identity and the development of the imagination. Maguire’s book is witty and wise, and his take on Wonderland is a wonder in its own right. Readers who loved the original will be chortling, “O frabjous day!”

What others are saying:

The starred Kirkus Review says: “Alice doesn’t live here anymore—and Maguire  has great fun upending the furniture to find out where’s she gone. Continuing his tradition of rewriting fairy tales with an arch eye and offbeat point of view, Maguire turns his attention to Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice has dropped down the rabbit hole—”again,” sighs an exasperated governess, one of the story’s many bêtes noires—and now her best friend and confidante, Ada Boyce, is falling in after her, looking to bring our young Persephone, or perhaps Eurydice, back into the light. Well, of course, Ada finds all sorts of curiouser and curiouser things down below, from hookah-smoking caterpillars to mad hatters and pince-nez-sporting sheep, with Carroll’s original cast of characters plus a few of Maguire’s own imagining. Up on Earth, Maguire populates the scene with all kinds of folks from real life, among them Walter Pater, Charles Darwin, and various members of the British royal family, who fuss about doing serious and real-world things—including, in a nice, smart closing turn, a meditation on the evolutionary qualities of, yes, the imagination. Not that Alice and Ada aren’t (weren’t, that is) real, but Maguire leaves it to them, mostly, to enjoy the wackiness of the underworld and for the grown-ups to do the pondering. Still, some of the slyest moments come when the two worlds collide: “I have always heard that Queen Victoria was moderate in her tastes,” says Ada, confused at a subterranean knight’s alarm that the queen is likely to have their heads. And there’s no end to sinister possibilities along with the usual charming Alice storyline—after all, Lewis Carroll didn’t inscribe the entrance to Wonderland’s tiny door with the words out of Dante, “All ye who enter here, abandon hope.” A brilliant and nicely off-kilter reading of the children’s classic, retrofitted for grown-ups—and a lot of fun.”

The New York Times Book Review  says: “…a narrative that purrs with all the warm confidence of a Cheshire cat…Maguire confronts his weighty themes with a light touch and exquisite, lovely language…Maguire’s playful vocabulary may be Carroll-esque, but his keen wit is closer to Monty Python…Gregory Maguire has made a cottage industry out of reframing famous children’s stories to explore neglected side characters and misrepresented villains. He has tracked through all of the precincts of Oz and a lot of the landscape of Grimm’s fairy tales, and one would not be surprised if his heart was no longer in such expeditions. Furthermore, Alice’s Wonderland has been so often revisited…that it would seem everything worth discovering there must have been strip-mined long ago. Even that phrase, “down the rabbit hole,” is so overused that it now has all the life of a taxidermied white hare. But Maguire’s enthusiasm is intact, his erudition a joy, and his sense of fun infectious. What could have been a tired exercise in the familiar instead recharges a beloved bit of nonsense. By book’s end, most readers will be hoping for a sequel…”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Maguire turns his attention to Lewis Carroll’s Victorian fantasies, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, in this thoughtful and disconcertingly memorable novel. Ada Boyce, Alice’s best friend, also falls down a rabbit hole into a phantasmagorical realm where she too is tossed and bossed about by strange creatures who delight in clever, frustrating wordplay. She longs to shed the metal brace that both imprisons and protects her crooked back, but she also wants to reunite with Alice and go home. Meanwhile, Alice’s older sister, Lydia, disturbed by the death of their mother and her own impending womanhood, searches distractedly for a visiting little boy, Siam, who has climbed into the world on the other side of the mirror in the family drawing room. Maguire frequently pulls back from the action to offer a larger perspective as characters struggle to discover who and what they are—and, most importantly, why they are. This is a feast for the mind, and readers will ruminate on it long after turning the last page.”

Says Library Journal: “What happened above after Alice fell down the rabbit hole into Wonderland? That is the question Maguire answers in his latest novel. In alternating chapters we follow Alice’s sister Lydia, who was watching Alice but lost her, and Ada Boyce, Alice’s neighbor and friend, who also falls into Wonderland. Lydia is beset—by Miss Armstrong, Ada’s governess; by her father’s entertaining Charles Darwin that day; with being a newly motherless 15-year-old girl. Ada, free of adult scrutiny and her scoliosis brace for the first time, experiences the oddness of Wonderland as she follows in Alice’s wake. In one vexing day, Ada, Lydia, and Miss Armstrong must adapt to deal with their circumstances and find new facets of themselves. VERDICT Maguire fans should be pleased with his take, at turns clever and philosophical, on the Lewis Carroll classic. Other readers may find the slow build up of action and wrenching jumps between the two disconnected settings, one in stilting 19th-century language and the other in the nonsense of Wonderland, a bit too high a barrier to keep them reading.”

When is it available?

Don’t go down the rabbit-hole. Just visit the Downtown Hartford Public Library to borrow 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 Wonder Garden

by Lauren Acampora

(Grove/Atlantic, Inc., $24, 354 pages)

Who is this author?

Lauren Acampora’s name may not be familiar to you now, but the praise she has won for her debut story collection, The Wonder Garden, should make her very well known. Acampora grew up in Connecticut , has a degree from Brown University and now lives in Westchester County, N.Y. with her artist husband and their daughter. Her work has been published in various literary reviews, and The Wonder Garden was named an Indie Next Pick, Amazon Debut Spotlight book and Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.

What is this book about?

Acampora’s stories take us behind the prim and proper facades of a Connecticut suburban town to reveal the messy lives of those who live in the otherwise neat colonials and ranches. Old Cranbury is not exactly Stepford, but its wives and husbands suffer from disconnects between their outer lives and inner turmoil. In one story, an obsessed husband wangles permission to watch his wife’s brain surgery. In another, a husband heeds his “spirit animal” and abandons his career, much to the shock of his wife. An artist takes on a commission that turns risky; a home inspector grows resentful of the lucky young couple who have found their dream house. Many of the stories are linked and most involve old historic homes that function almost as characters themselves. Reviewers’ comparisons of Acampora’s work to that of Evan Connell, Edith Wharton and John Cheever herald the emergence of a fine new talent.

Why you’ll like it:

Lauren Acampora knows the territory: suburban Connecticut, where the homes have histories and their inhabitants have complicated lives. Local readers will feel right at home in the milieu she describes, and many may wonder what may really be going on in the clapboard-and-shutter houses in their own neighborhood. Her stories combine the familiar and the mysterious in powerful ways, giving readers a disquieting  and intriguing peek behind the curtains.

What others are saying: Review says: Lauren Acampora’s debut novel is a series of linked stories set in the affluent suburbs. The characters in one story might turn up in one farther along in the book, but each story stands on its own—taken as a complete novel, The Wonder Garden has an alchemical effect that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Working with precise language and metaphor, she peels back the suburban veneer, highlighting our wants and our weirdness, taking characters that might seem stock if you saw them in the local Whole Foods and drawing out their individual eccentricities. It is inevitable that some will generalize Acampora’s novel as dark or even weird, and some of the individual stories are; she is working in the same milieu as Cheever, examining how relationships are tested by the particular pace and expectations of suburbia, and exploring the unique individual’s relationship to a place that, on the surface, demands homogeneity. Her characters are far from normal, even if they exist in a world that seems that way. But maybe that is normal. This is a wonderful debut by a striking talent.”

In these linked stories, all set in the pristine Connecticut suburb of Old Cranbury, Acampora wields prose with the precision of a scalpel, insightfully dissecting people’s desperate emotions and most cherished hopes. A home inspector undergoing a bitter divorce tries to dissuade a couple from buying their dream home, unable to bear the sight of their optimism about the future. A disturbed businessman becomes obsessed with the idea of viewing his wife’s brain surgery while inside the operating room. A young, pregnant wife cannot believe the advertising executive that she married now wants to chuck his career and heed the call of his spirit animal. Acampora not only meticulously conveys the allure of an outwardly paradisiacal suburban community, with its perfectly restored Victorian homes and well-tended lawns; she also clearly captures the inner turmoil of its residents, homing in on their darkest impulses and beliefs. Some of the stories’ starring characters make cameos in others, adding considerable complexity to the whole. Like Evan S. Connell in his iconic novels, Mrs. Bridge (1958) and Mr. Bridge (1969), Acampora brilliantly captures the heartaches and delusions of American suburbanites, “says Booklist.

Publishers Weekly says in its starred review:  “Acampora’s debut creates a portrait of a fictional upscale Connecticut suburb, Old Cranbury, through a series of linked stories that are intelligent, unnerving, and very often strange. In “The Umbrella Bird,” a woman eases into her new life as a housewife in a stuffy neighborhood only for her husband to trade his lucrative job for a career as a spiritual healer. In “The Virginals,” a woman obsessed with the town’s early American history resorts to criminal measures to preserve it. The book’s best entry, “Afterglow,” centers on a wealthy businessman who pays off a doctor in order to gain a troublingly intimate glimpse of his wife’s anatomy. In each story, Acampora examines the tensions, longings, and mild lunacies underlying the “beady-eyed mommy culture” and sociopolitical “forgetfulness” marking Old Cranbury. At the same time, Acampora’s picture of the town—rendered in crisp prose and drawing on extensive architectural detail—is as irresistible as it is disturbing. . . “


“Acampora’s stories show that an Anna Karenina principle still applies: All happy families are the same; the unhappy ones are miserable in their own special way. Or to boil it down to modern terms: mo’ money, mo’ problems … Add well-drawn characters, interesting plots, cultural zingers and dead-on critiques of consumerism and Acampora delivers a page-turner,” says the Dallas Morning News.

The New York Times says: “I thought of Wharton when reading Lauren Acampora’s stylish debut collection of linked stories, “The Wonder Garden,” and not just because her characters — WASPy, upper-middle-class residents of a town called Old Cranbury — are contemporary descendants of Wharton’s own. Like Wharton, Acampora seems to understand fiction as a kind of elegant design. As characters reappear in one story after another, Acampora reveals herself as a careful architect, gradually building a group portrait of a place that is financially comfortable but otherwise ill at ease. It is a place of evasions and ambivalence, “this softest pocket of the continent, this deepest pouch of forgetfulness.”

Many of the stories revolve around houses — their renovation, preservation, decoration and sale. The opening story, “Ground Fault,” follows a grouchy home inspector as he meets a couple just out from New York City, looking to buy their first house. It’s a static story, not really indicative of Acampora’s flair, and I personally wouldn’t have put it first; but as I read further I came to understand that its theme — the importance of a stranger’s judgment of a new home — lays a foundation for the collection as a whole. The house as the locus of suburban identity and anxiety is more than just a motif in “The Wonder Garden”; it’s a structuring principle and focus of the characters’ lives. . . ‘

Says the Boston Globe: “Lauren Acampora’s debut collection, “The Wonder Garden,” is a weird, inspired, original collection of 13 interwoven short stories. It is reminiscent of John Cheever in its anatomizing of suburban ennui and of Ann Beattie in its bemused dissection of a colorful cast of eccentrics. But Acampora’s is entirely her own book, as it is self-consciously of its own world: Set in the fictional town of Old Cranbury, “a desirable suburb in a sterling school district, not too far from the city,” with a “historic pedigree” dating back to the Puritans. . . . Acampora is a brilliant anthropologist of the suburbs, keenly “aware of the hidden, parallel world beneath the mundane,” adept at uncovering unexpected parallels and interesting connections between ostensibly very different people. Although the situations she puts her characters in are extreme, verging on implausible, she repeatedly strikes universal chords.”

Kirkus Reviews says: “The odd interior lives of suburban Connecticut residents are unceremoniously unearthed in the interwoven stories of Acampora’s debut. On the surface, Old Cranbury is just another New England town: picturesque, soaked in history, full of unspoken class divides, and populated with people who have abandoned New York City for, presumably, greener pastures. But beneath its exterior are wishes, dreams, and choices as grotesque as anything out of Winesburg, Ohio, and Acampora paints the town’s web of relationships with lucid, unsettling prose. In “Afterglow,” a wealthy businessman becomes obsessed with touching a human brain in the wake of his wife’s tumor diagnosis. A pregnant newlywed watches helplessly as her husband becomes convinced he’s being poisoned by technology and abandons his livelihood to take up New-Age medicine in “The Umbrella Bird.” An aging gay couple struggles with the yawning gulf between them in “Elevations.” In “Moon Roof,” a real estate agent stops her car at an intersection on her way home and cannot bring herself to continue as the minutes and hours inch by. In “Swarm,” a retired teacher is given the chance to realize his artistic dreams when a couple commissions him for an ambitious installation project: giant insects obscuring every wall of their home. “If it is possible,” he wonders, marveling at his good fortune, “that a boy who sucked licorice on the sidewalks of Flatbush could be a millionaire now…then the world is a spooky and fabulous place indeed.” Acampora’s world is exactly this: spooky and fabulous. There are expected beats—affairs, teenage mischief, ennui, unhappy marriages—but woven through them are bizarre set pieces, unnerving hungers, and such weirdly specific desires it’s as if the author rifled through a local therapist’s filing cabinet.

A clear-eyed lens into the strange, human wants of upper-class suburbia.”

When is it available?

The Wonder Garden is on the shelves of the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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