Blogging for a Good Book
LOVED this book by Linda Barnes! It’s the first I’ve read by this author who has 16 previous novels, including the Carlotta Carlyle mysteries. You can be sure I’m checking to see what else the library has by her.
Em Moore is the silent, timid-but-talented writing half of a biography team. Her partner, Ted, is the charismatic, outgoing personality who handles the interviews and book publicity.
When Teddy dies in a car accident, Em needs to suck up her courage and convince her agent that she can handle finishing their current project, a biography of film director Garrett Malcolm. We are led to believe that Em needs the money, and she’ll face her fears of being in public and talking to strangers in order to keep the advance on the book.
Barnes does a fantastic job in having me feel sorry for “poor Em” all the way through the book. She has to travel to Cape Cod on her own, and the only way she makes it out of her apartment is to pretend there is a bubble protecting her from the outside world. Her first meeting with Malcolm had me cringing — his assistant is patronizing and keeps her waiting long after her appointed meeting time. Malcolm himself is self-important and intimidating. And then there’s the police detective investigating Teddy’s death. Em avoids his phone calls because she just can’t deal with one more thing on her plate.
Em has small successes facing her fears, that include surviving a confrontation with Teddy’s wife and recovering interview tapes that Teddy hadn’t sent her. And as unlikely as it seems, she and Malcolm hit it off. They begin an affair, and she is able to start writing the book in the comfort of his large Cape Cod mansion. And that’s when the story of this famous director and the tragedies in his life start to come together. All is not as it seems on the surface, however, and Em keeps digging to figure out what happened all those years ago to Malcolm and his family — and what exactly Teddy was working on before his death.
Engaging writing, clever plot twists — a recipe for a book I just couldn’t put down!
Check the WRL catalog for The Perfect Ghost
After “the Decline,” religions are licensed and monitored; there is an entire unit of government that is responsible for investigating supernatural claims and making sure that no faith-based movement gets a powerful following.
Justin March was a successful government investigator who saw something he couldn’t explain, except through unwelcome words that hinted of a higher power. He included his experiences in a formal report, then was exiled from The Republic of United North America (RUNA) to technology-starved Panama. He desperately wants to return home, but has no clue as to how to get back in the government’s good graces.
Mae Koskinen is a praetorian, an elite, enhanced soldier of RUNA who is reassigned from her usual security duty following an unfortunate incident at the funeral of her lover. Her new assignment is to help bring an exile back to RUNA for a special case. Of course, that exile is Justin March.
Justin and Mae are given a limited amount of time to investigate a series of five ritualistic murders. Despite the efforts of the best technicians to explain the situation with science, it looks like someone materialized out of smoke and killed unrelated victims. Justin’s skill and his willingness to explore the supernatural possibilities make him the perfect person to lead the investigation. In the course of the investigation, Justin and Mae develop a grudging respect for one another.
There are a lot of elements to keep your attention in this book: the hints of what happened to cause this anti-religion environment, the supernatural involvement of gods in the mortal world, the back-story of the main characters, and the developing relationship between Mae and Justin. I must say it took me a little while to get hooked, but when I did I couldn’t put the book down.
If you want everything tied neatly together at the end, don’t start this book yet. The mystery of the serial murders is solved, but there are many issues left hanging – you’ll just need to keep reading the “Age of X” series to understand it all. Next in the series is The Immortal Crown due out in May, 2014.
Check the WRL catalog for Gameboard of the Gods
After a brief introduction where she argues, “Geek is the new cool,” Simon breaks down girl geekdom into several categories: Fangirl, Literary, Film, Music, Funny-Girl, Domestic Goddess, and Miscellaneous Geek.
Each chapter highlights broad characteristics of the category of geekdom with a brief history, quizzes to assess your geekiness, short bios of important figures (called Geek Goddesses), and must-see websites and books/films/television shows/music to be a true master of your passion.
For the geek wannabe, it gives a great starting point to understanding the canon of the geekdom. For those that are already immersed, it’s a fun way to compare what you know with Simon’s research.
There’s also a very funny section on “Frenemies” – a brief list of characteristics to watch out for that identify the posers against the true geeks. You’ll want to make sure you aren’t making any of these faux pas!
This book came out in 2011, so I’m a little worried that as years go by, the references will be less timely, and the links to other resources will stop working. I hope Simon is working on updating the book…
Whether you read it from cover to cover, or just dip into your favorite obsession, embrace your geekiness and read this book, I think you’ll walk away with a good feeling.
Check the WRL catalog for Geek Girls Unite
This novel reveals its story through letters. Glory, a 23-year-old, very pregnant mother of an energetic two-year-old son, picks Rita’s address from a hat at a 4-H meeting. The intent was to have women select an anonymous pen-pal to help ease the stress of their “situation,” that is, being at home while their husbands are at war. Glory introduces herself in January, 1943, and tells Rita that if they are going to correspond, they should get to know each other.
Rita replies to the letter a few weeks later and we discover she is a middle-aged professor’s wife from Iowa who loves to garden. Her husband as well as her newly turned 18-year-old son have both volunteered to serve in the war.
Both women seem to understand the same loneliness and feelings of not fitting in with their community – and they develop a deep friendship through their correspondence.
I enjoyed the intimacy of the letters. The annoying neighbors, the new friends, what grows well in the gardens, the recipes that stretch the rations, the gossip of their community, the good memories, the very ordinary details of life fill each letter. I was almost as excited as the characters to start a new letter and find out what would be revealed next.
There is also a bit of romance, lots of family drama, and heartbreak of celebrating holidays without loved ones. Be sure to have some tissues handy because some of the letters will surely break your heart.
Pick this book up if you enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Plot-wise it is very different. But I was reminded of “Guernsey” while reading I’ll be seeing you – I suppose it’s the glimpse of what happens on the homefront and the fact that both books are written through letters being passed back and forth.
Questions for discussions and a conversation with the authors are included at the end of the book. The conversation was particularly interesting — co-authors Hayes and Nyhan wrote the book without ever having met in real life! They only knew each other through phone calls and emails. Perhaps this is what gives that sense of authenticity to Glory and Rita’s letters.
Check the WRL catalog for I’ll be seeing you
It may be difficult to believe, but September 10 marked 20 years since the television premiere of The X-Files. For nine seasons, FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) traveled the country investigating cases involving UFOs, the paranormal, and government conspiracies.
Over the course of the series’ run, audiences were introduced to a memorable supporting cast of characters including Mulder and Scully’s supervisor, Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), and the main villain, the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Although agents John Doggett (Robert Patrick) and Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish) were added in the final seasons of the show, The X-Files never strayed too far from the central pairing of Mulder, a firm believer in the unknown and supernatural, and Scully, a rational skeptic.
Instead of reviewing the series as a whole, I thought I’d try a different approach and celebrate the 20th anniversary of The X-Files by reviewing my favorite episode: Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.’
Originally broadcast during the third season, this episode revolves around author Jose Chung (played to eccentric perfection by Charles Nelson Reilly) who is writing a book about a case investigated by Mulder and Scully involving the possible abduction by aliens of a teenage couple out on a first date. As part of his research, Chung sets out to interview: Mulder and Scully; the couple, Harold and Chrissy; and several local witnesses to the abduction and its aftermath. Mulder is reluctant to participate, but Chung is able to interview Scully, the couple, and the witnesses. Each interviewee gives Chung an entirely different and contradictory account of what happened that night. With each account, the events of that fateful evening become more and more outlandish, culminating in the filming of a video purportedly showing an alien autopsy. A baffled Chung ultimately concludes that, “Truth is as subjective as reality. That will help explain why when people talk about their ‘UFO experiences,’ they always start off with ‘Well, now, I know how crazy this is going to sound… but…’ ”
This episode can best be described as a clever homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon mixed with a hilarious satire of the 1995 alien autopsy video hoax. Unlike most episodes of The X-Files, the tone is definitely more tongue-in-cheek, but the humor serves to underscore Chung’s growing sense of bewilderment as the stories become increasingly unbelievable. By the end of the episode, like Jose Chung, I wasn’t quite sure what really happened that night, but I enjoyed seeing the different accounts of the incident unfold.
Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’ is a well-acted episode with a strong narrative structure and great, quotable dialogue. It is a highlight of the third season and worth revisiting by fans looking to commemorate the anniversary of the show.
Check the WRL catalog for first season of The X-Files TV series.
“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”
Doctor Who has clocked almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.
November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.
The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.
The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.
The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.
Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.
As a librarian, ”Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them,” may be the best advice I have ever heard. This sterling counsel comes from children’s book author Lemony Snicket. His slim volume of silliness, Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid, is full of similar useful admonitions. Lemony Snicket (or his alter-ego Daniel Handler) is most famous for his bestselling Series of Unfortunate Events, where his humor is also off beat, and always unexpected. I thought at first that this was a book of quotes from his other works, but he seems to have created original aphorisms, such as, “After you leave home you may find yourself feeling homesick, even if you have a new home that has nicer wallpaper and a more efficient dishwasher than the home in which you grew up.” As a person who tends to get left with the dishes, I judge my many past homes on the remembered quality of their dishwashers, so I consider this quite germane.
The book is arranged into thirteen chapters of advice pithy or wordy, starting with “Chapter 1: Home” and “Chapter 2: Family” and going on to “Chapter 12: An Overall Feeling of Doom that One Cannot Ever Escape No Matter What One Does.” There are many truisms to pop in and visit, no matter how you are feeling. The back cover of this book promises that its contents will not help with life’s “turbulent journey” but I beg to differ; life is always helped by laughter and a fresh perspective and Lemony Snicket can be relied upon to provide both. Try Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid if you are in the mood for some frivolous fun, or you want an axiom that is more apt than usual. And remember, ”A library is like an island in a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrounding area has been flooded.”
Check the WRL catalog for Horseradish: Bitter Truths you Can’t Avoid.
Things have changed. Even crickets don’t chirp like they did in the old days. If you think the beat of the summer insects doesn’t sound like it used to, you could be right because the high-pitched songs of insects become inaudible to aging ears.
This is where The Songs of Insects comes in. It is a gorgeously illustrated visual guide to crickets, cicadas, katydids and grasshoppers, with each insect photographed on a natural surroundings and also on a white background, making them very easy to see and differentiate. It also promises to “shower you with auditory pleasures untold” and it lives up to this promise very well through the enclosed CD with the songs of almost eighty species of insect. The authors’ system of “electronics and sensitive microphones” that they used to record the insect songs means that we can listen to insect songs that we can no longer hear in the wild.
Before the guide portion of the book there are several pages of enlightening information about the classification of singing insects and the biology of insect songs. It includes some fascinating tidbits, for instance that some insects are left-handed vs. right-handed singers and their handedness (or wingedness?) is determined by species. Although we call them “songs,” insects have no lungs, so most rub wings or bumps or other modified body parts together to produce their chorus. Cicadas are different because their sound producing organs or “tymbals” resonate like drums, which explains how they can be so loud.
Each insect’s page includes sonograms or “sound pictures” for the technically minded. I was delighted to learn that “each species has its own distinct song, which is recognized by all individuals of the same species” and that pulse rates of songs vary by temperature and songs tend to speed up as the temperature rises so you can use the song to estimate temperature! But the best tidbit of all is discovering that there is an insect enchantingly called the Slightly Musical Conehead (Neoconocephalus exiliscanorous).
The Songs of Insects is a must-read for nature lovers, especially those who like to use books to identify the wildlife around them, like Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, or more quirkily, Magical Mushrooms, Mischievous Molds, by George W. Hudler. If you aren’t on the East Coast of North America you won’t necessarily be able to hear all these insects in the wild, but you can enjoy them on the CD. The authors’ ongoing project can be found at http://www.songsofinsects.com/
The Songs of Insects is also a wonderful book for photographers. The authors explain the equipment they used and how they photographed a living creature that isn’t interested in a modeling contract and may hop away at any moment (the answer is to use a custom made “whitebox.”)
Check the WRL catalog for The Songs of Insects.
Everyone knows that the phrase “David and Goliath” means big vs. small. And everyone also knows that in this Biblical story, against all odds, small won. Malcolm Gladwell famously likes to stand things on their heads and look at them from a new perspective. He starts his newest book with a historically detailed retelling of David and Goliath, and uses his wonderful storytelling skills to take the familiar and make us look at it in another light, so we see that even this well-known Biblical story has been interpreted incorrectly for thousands of years and sometimes being small or weak is a big advantage.
Malcolm Gladwell interviewed and features an assortment of ordinary people who fought their own Goliaths in a variety of ways, such as a middle school girls’ basketball team in Chapter One. They were a weak team in terms of height and usual skills, so they changed the way they played rather than trying to be better at standard basketball play. I don’t understand the strategy, being ignorant about basketball, but it involved more running than usual so the players had to be very fit and put in more effort, as Malcolm Gladwell says, ”Underdog strategies are hard.“
In another chapter he controversially argues against affirmative action in college admissions, describing how getting into a difficult college can make a student perform worse. He argues persuasively in the cases of the individuals whom he interviewed that they would have been better off in a less prestigious school because they would have been able to continue studying science, because in a prestigious college, a formerly outstanding student can become overwhelmed and discouraged. Colleges are the perfect example of big vs. small ponds and “Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside.” Apparently this is especially common for science students as “more than half of all American students who start out in science, technology and math programs… drop out after their first or second year.”
Malcolm Gladwell’s books are best selling but have been criticized for making overly-broad and simplistic conclusions from single scientific papers. David and Goliath is a series of personal stories, so each story carries the authenticity which each of our own stories necessarily carry–maybe what happened in my life isn’t likely, but it did happen. But in some cases it seems he has extrapolated a personal story to too general a conclusion. For example, the story of the development of a cure for childhood leukemia is an astounding and moving story, but it seems a stretch to claim that it depended on developer Emil Freireich’s tragically early loss of his father and grueling childhood. Most people with difficult childhoods don’t excel the same way.
Certainly try David and Goliath if you enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s other books, but also try it if you like to be challenged by ideas that you won’t necessarily agree with. Even try it if you are usually a fiction reader, because, as always, Malcolm Gladwell, brings together disparate, and sometimes dry, facts in a very readable and entertaining way.
Check the WRL catalog for David and Goliath.
Sometimes only cosy* will do. On occasion I feel like action and excitement from my literature, and I am willing to put up with violence and despair to get it, but sometimes life requires a more moderate gait. When you need a gentle tome, then Miss Read will deliver.
I am new to Miss Read, despite her first book being published in 1955. I was creating a “Curl Up With a Cozy Tale” display at the library and felt drawn to The Christmas Mouse. Being slightly obsessive, I have branched out into her other titles in myriad formats; as ebooks and as audiobooks on CD. Her basic postulation seems to be that nothing in life is so bad that the sadness can’t be lessened by time, a cup of tea and the warmth of family and friends, with special emphasis on the cups of tea.
For my commute, I grabbed the first CD that was checked in and plunged into the middle of her Thrush Green series. I discovered that there are a lot of characters, like when my Great Aunty Judith tells me long and involved stories about the internal workings and external marriage problems of distant cousins, and I am expected to keep them all straight. After negotiating a tricky intersection I’d hear something such as, “Betty, Maggie and Dotty all sat down at Betty’s scrubbed kitchen table for a nice cup of tea. Outside the birds hopped among the spring flowers and chirped cheerfully. ‘Tell me all about it,’ said Betty.” I would suddenly realize that I had no idea of the identities of Betty, Maggie and Dotty, but for the enjoyment of the story it doesn’t matter because it is like meeting real people; I am introduced to them as they are now, and then slowly learn about their pasts and how they interconnect to other people we know in common.
The Christmas Mouse tells the story of Mrs. Berry who lives with her widowed daughter and two small grandchildren. Despite the tragedy of the daughter’s young widowhood, the book gently and with quiet wit paints a portrait of a close and stable family. On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Berry must face her fears–of mice and other stray creatures. The line drawings by J.S. Goodall add to the warmth. The little boy in the frontispiece exudes contentment, sitting in an overlarge armchair, wrapped up in a voluminous coat and slippers, and eating a warm bowl of bread and milk.
Try The Christmas Mouse if you are in the mood for cosy. Try it if you are tired of the commercial fuss in the lead up to Christmas, as The Christmas Mouse’s characters don’t have much material stuff, but still make Christmas a warm, loving family affair. And just in case you think this sort of book isn’t intellectually stimulating, I learned a new word, which doesn’t happen frequently in my fiction endeavors: wayzgoose, which is a printers’ outing. Literary quotes at the beginning of each chapter, from Robert Burns to William Wordsworth add to the appeal.
* And this is definitely cosy and not cozy because this is a Very British Book.
Check the WRL catalog for The Christmas Mouse.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and by that I mean 1980, most of us were shocked to find out that (gasp!) Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father and Princess Leia was his sister. Now that spoiler is such a ubiquitous part of culture that I don’t even feel nervous about dropping it on you in the first paragraph, but back then it was kind of mind blowing, especially for those of us who thought Luke and Leia were going to get together despite the attentions of the brooding Han Solo.
Graphic artist Jeffrey Brown takes the idea a step further, imagining Vader as the struggling parent of the two moppets in two small but wonderful comic collections Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess. The result is precious but droll, a keepsake that would make the perfect Christmas gift for any parent or any Star Wars fan.
In Brown’s imagination, Vader tries to use his Jedi tricks to get Luke to eat his breakfast and go to bed, but young Skywalker is having none of it. He’s even more exasperated when teenage Leia wants to go out in her gold bikini. His dark manner and high-blown speech patterns are no match for a child’s inquisitiveness or tantrums. Faced with his children, Vader really isn’t such a bad guy. It’s a testament to the power of the original design of Vader’s dark costume that despite his unchanging mask the reader can see Vader rolling his eyes, giving into frustration, or unable to do anything but smile at the antics of his little ones.
These little books only take a few minutes to flip through, but you’ll want to share them with everyone you know who knows Star Wars. And who doesn’t know Star Wars?
Check the WRL catalog for Darth Vader and Son
Or try Vader’s Little Princess
First-hand knowledge of a novel’s setting can be a double-edged sword. If the author portrays the location ineptly, the reader that knows the place may find it impossible to enjoy other aspects of the book. On the other hand, if the author brings that setting to life, the local reader may be willing to forgive other flaws.
Such is the case for me with City of Saints, a mystery novel based on a once famous but now forgotten historical murder in 1930s Salt Lake City. I lived in Salt Lake for almost ten years myself, and although Hunt depicts a period long before my birth, I could picture my grandparents rubbing shoulders with Sheriff Art Oveson as he tried to solve the killing of an adulterous socialite.
At first, this Salt Lake City may surprise you. It’s grittier than one might expect, especially for the 1930s, but I always found the Utah capital to contain more cultural diversity and more big city problems than its squeaky clean Mormon image might imply. With mines and railroads in full flourish by 1930, and with the glitz and controversy of Southern California a day away, it makes sense that Salt Lake City has contained that diversity for a long time. That’s the tension that underlies Hunt’s story: Oveson is a practicing Mormon, but he comes from a law enforcement family. He knows there’s a darker side to his town. His partner is about as rough as men come and may have different allegiances than Oveson. Departmental politics and powerful men trying to protect clean public personae taint his case from the beginning.
As a mystery, Hunt’s tale is average, but because it captures an unusual place in a complicated time so well, I think you’ll enjoy it, even if Salt Lake City is new and exotic to you.
Check the WRL catalog for City of Saints
As Beautiful Ruins opens it is 1962, and tourists have begun to find the beautiful towns of Italy’s Ligurian Coast, but in a quaint village called Porta Vergogna, Pasquale Tursi has inherited a seldom-visited hotel from his father. He’s laboring to carve a sand beach out of the rocks and create a clifftop tennis court that he’s sure will draw visitors to the Hotel Adequate View (named via an awkward translation). He can see his dreams beginning to come true with the arrival of a beautiful American starlet, only to discover that she has been sent away from the set of the epic film Cleopatra with a cancer diagnosis.
The story jumps forward to the present day, where Claire, a young production assistant, has had her fill of the inane pitches for films and television shows that she screens in her work for Michael Deane, a once-influential producer now sunk to backing lower fare. She promises herself that if she doesn’t hear a good pitch today, she’ll quit her job and take a position as an archivist in a new film museum (even if it is run by the Scientologists). Her last meeting is running late, and her fate seems sealed when two mismatched men finally arrive, one a young man pitching an unfilmable historical adventure called “Donner!” and the other an Italian who can’t speak much English… Pasquale Tursi, now much older and in search of the lost piece of his past.
Walter’s story continues to jump from episode to episode, key moments in the lives of his vivid characters. This kind of story only works if almost every scene is vivid. Otherwise the reader resents giving up a vivid section for one that is more drab. Walter makes it work though, as he stops in with an American singer trying to make a comeback on the fringes of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; with a community theatre production in Northern Idaho; with a cynical American soldier in a Catch 22-like WWII Italy; and on a manic day with a drunken Richard Burton. Like a jigsaw puzzle, each set piece adds a little to the mysterious picture, and the sad but beautiful lives of the protagonists are revealed, the beautiful ruins of the title.
Someday someone will make a beautiful film from this book with great characters, beautiful settings, and equal touches of comedy and drama. You don’t need to wait. Read the book and you’ll soon have a lovely movie vividly screening in your own head.
Check the WRL catalog for Beautiful Ruins
Enjoy Beautiful Ruins in large print
Or try it as an electronic audiobook
In Matt Haig’s The Humans, the aliens are watching us, and when a Cambridge math professor makes a discovery that will lead to the advance of the violent and unstable human race, they send one of their own to intervene. Professor Andrew Martin is removed and his life subsumed by an alien who is equal parts arrogant and bewildered. This narrating alien is from a collective society (think Star Trek’s Borg and you’ll have the general idea). He doesn’t even have his own name, and so the interpersonal communication and self-motivated actions of humans are largely a mystery to him, but he’s a quick study, especially after a trip to jail for indecent exposure. Besides, the man he’s replacing wasn’t exactly beloved or normal, so while his wife, son, and other contacts notice a difference, they don’t find his eccentric behavior completely unexpected. In fact, they find it an improvement on the old, self-absorbed Andrew Martin.
The alien’s job is to eliminate anyone who might have come in contact with the breakthrough, and driven by his idea of the collective good he at first has no qualms about ending the lives of innocents. Over the course of the book, however, encounters with human pleasures like peanut butter, the Beach Boys, a dog, and (strangest of all) emotions, leave him torn about what to do and baffled by the first strange stirrings of feelings toward others. As one might expect, the results are hilarious in a daft English way, but on a less expected level, the story is also insightful and touching.
I recommend The Humans to science fiction fans, humor lovers, or anyone looking for a fast-paced book that is unusual and diverting.
Check the WRL catalog for The Humans
Charlie Huston is an Elmore Leonard for a new generation. Or you might think of him as a writer like Carl Hiaasen or Tim Dorsey, but with occasional influences from other pulp genres. Like all of these great noir writers, he writes fast-moving, violent stories that make readers laugh at the dark comedy at the same time he makes them understand how regular folks with basically good intentions take a tumble down the moral staircase. I’ve written previously about his Joe Pitt series, in which a fixer works New York City’s streets in an alternate future overrun with vampires. Now let’s turn to his first series of books, the noir trilogy that begins with Caught Stealing.
Hank Thompson is a sympathetic narrator, a former baseball star who felt his whole life change when the weight of a third baseman came down on his ankle during an attempted steal. Now he’s tending bar on the Lower East Side and working on a second career as an alcoholic. Fate isn’t done with Hank though: with a few more bad decisions, he will find himself left with one working kidney, with himself and his loved ones in danger, and on the run from criminals and cops alike. Huston shows how with some small mistakes and some bad luck, a regular guy gets pulled into a life of minor crime, then even murder.
Caught Stealing is a clown car that opens to reveal one eccentric character after another: Tweedle-dum and -dee Russian mobsters, an extravagantly crooked cop, a pair of sadistic but self-improving bank robber brothers, a bevy of low life friends and other thugs, and a cat named Bud who uses up several of his lives during the course of the narrative. Everyone’s in search of a mysterious key, and New York City becomes a pinball machine where all of these crazy characters careen around, slamming into each other until only a few are left on the table.
Hank is both believable and entertaining because in the middle of all the disaster and violence, he can’t help but let normal thoughts intrude: What will his mother think? Will his beloved San Francisco Giants make the playoffs? Just how cool is this cat?
If you don’t care for language or violence stay away, but if you read this series, I guarantee quick reading and an equal share of laughs and moments when you think about the potential consequences of life’s smallest bad choices. The series finishes with Six Bad Things and A Dangerous Man.
Check the WRL catalog for Caught Stealing
Or try Caught Stealing as an audiobook on CD
Edith Wharton is undoubtedly one of the great chroniclers of American society, as Alan noted in his blog post. Although she was part of the class she wrote about, she was fully able to assess the standards and identify the weaknesses inherent in that class, and to limn them for readers of all backgrounds. Her characters, supposedly protected from the vagaries of the world by money and dynastic position, still suffered the anguishes of human emotion that could never be expressed. Most allowed themselves to be thwarted in their personal desires by the rigors of their class and reputation; hence the tragedy.
Until she was forty-five, Edith Wharton’s emotional and physical life was also stifled by her upbringing and the expectations of her social peers. Married far too young to a man far too old, she established a life apart from her husband Teddy. A devoted Francophile, she immersed herself in Parisian life and culture while Teddy isolated himself in their Paris townhouse. She created a web of friends—artists, writers, and poets (including her mentor, Henry James)—and a deep intellectual life, while Teddy longed to be at their Massachusetts home as a gentleman farmer mucking about in his wellies. Their marriage was also widely recognized as passionless, and it seems Edith thought herself incapable of sex. Then Edith left her Age of Innocence for a new Age of Desire.
An encounter with American journalist Morton Fullerton awakened in Edith both an emotional life and a desire that made her risk her position and reputation to be with him. Although Fullerton himself told Edith that he was sexually adventurous and morally questionable, his seduction of her left her helplessly enthralled. She even found a way to ship Teddy back to the United States after he suffered some kind of breakdown, which enabled her to fully consummate her relationship with Fullerton. But what started in a rapture of intellectually challenging romance and sexual awakening quickly devolved into what could only be called a tawdry affair as Fullerton’s true character emerged. When Edith had to return to the United States to look after Teddy, Fullerton dropped his contact with her. Although heartbroken, she still searched him out when she was able to return to Paris, only to find her ardor dampened by his fecklessness and greed.
The details of Edith’s relationship with Fullerton only came to light about 30 years ago, when Fullerton’s cache of letters to and from Edith showed that their perceived friendship was, for two years, a tempestuous romance. Only recently has another collection of correspondence emerged, and author Fields has made full and sympathetic use of both to add a richer element to Edith’s story. Edith’s constant companion, a slightly older woman named Anna Bahlmann, comes to life as a silent witness to Edith’s new world. As Fields depicts her, Anna had started as Edith’s tutor but remained as her secretary, the first person to read, comment on, and possibly correct Edith’s writing. She was an essential constant in Edith and Teddy’s nomadic lives but so self-effacing that Edith never fully appreciated her presence, and in Age of Desire shifts between treating Anna as a friend and as a servant. In the fiction, Edith sees Anna as a conscience which must be banished so Edith can pursue her newfound needs; only belatedly does she realize what she has sacrificed. Anna also takes on her own emotional life, as this restrained woman conceals her own ardor towards Teddy, is baffled by Edith’s treatment of her, and falls into an unexpected but unfulfilled relationship.
Edith’s public biography and writings have been known for more than a century; her private story is now well-known, and Jennie Fields’s fictional biography faithfully follows these events. But she rounds out those facts with intensely atmospheric settings, and conversations plausibly created from diaries, letters, and published writings. From the salon gatherings where reputations were made and broken to the tête-à-têtes where confidences were shared, and even in interior monologues, she maintains a tone of sophistication and wit. Gilded Age New York, the thrill of travel in Edith’s beloved Pope-Hartford automobile, ocean voyages, the atmosphere of privilege and reflected privilege among the servants—all are brought to life in Fields’s wonderfully rendered language. Edith’s first sexual encounter with Fullerton is an erotic scene that renders in deep hues what other authors can only achieve in variations of black and white. Since she tells the tale in present tense, the unfolding of these intricate relationships seems immediate. Historical biography can be difficult to achieve, but Fields does a wonderful job in Age of Desire.
Check the WRL catalog for Age of Desire
A Gab Bag for Age of Desire will be available in January 2014
Check out the images of Edith Wharton’s life (alas, with only one indistinct photo of Anna) in Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life
It’s a big debate, no pun intended. When a person goes beyond fat to obese, beyond obese to morbidly obese, beyond morbidly obese to super obese, is it someone’s fault? Is it genetics, a moral failing, addiction, enabling? How do people around the morbidly obese see them, and see their own responsibility to them?
That’s the background against which Jami Attenberg sets the Middlestein family. What could be an ordinary family, living in the middle of the country, in the middle income bracket, middling careers and a middling set of unexpressed ambitions is distinguished by their wife and mother. At 300 pounds and growing, Edie plainly has an eating problem and it has taken its toll. Husband Richard, now in his sixties and presiding over a slowly declining family-run pharmacy, is surprised by his continued sex drive, but his distaste and her festering contempt have destroyed what little intimacy and attraction they ever had. Daughter Robin, who has her own addiction and relationship problems, is confronted with her own distaste and dismay over the surgeries that Edie’s weight now necessitate. Rachelle, their daughter-in-law, thinks that with her husband Benny’s help she can change Edie’s eating patterns.
So when Richard leaves Edie and tentatively starts dating again, all the family problems burst into plain view. Edie dredges up and recites her many grievances against Richard to Robin. Robin’s visceral anger puts her squarely in Edie’s corner. Benny internalizes the whole thing, stressed by his love for his wife and his obligations to his father to the point that he begins losing his hair. And Rachelle becomes a control freak, forbidding Richard contact with her children on the eve of their b’nai mitzvah ceremony and changing her family’s diet to kale and beets. She also decides that she can create a new diet for Edie, but in one painfully funny scene, she follows Edie from one fast food drive through to another, only to end up at restaurant where she heads in for a full meal.
With all that, you’d think the book is about food, but it isn’t. It’s about the relationships that ebb and flow, that start with sparkle or end with nerves exposed, that surprise everyone and astonish no one. The links among family, friends, and community at large may be built around meals, but they are sustained in between, and those are the times that Attenberg’s real sympathy arises. These aren’t bad people—Richard put himself on the line to found a temple in the new Chicago suburbs; Edie volunteers her time and skills in fundraising and in helping a family keep their restaurant. Robin carries scars and conceals emotions run so deep that they might destroy her if released. Benny is a good man who has found success, and Rachelle is fierce in her love for her family. Sure, they make mistakes, and yes, Edie and Richard probably should never have been together, but that’s the point. These are ordinary people—the middle, if you will—and Attenberg makes them real in every way.
Check the WRL catalog for The Middlesteins
We’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work. (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.) With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.
War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels. (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.
Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.
Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.
The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events. Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.
Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog
Jimmy Hoffa. Ambrose Bierce. D.B. Cooper. Amelia Earhart. Chances are anyone you ask can identify these famous missing persons. But have you heard of ”the most missingest man in America?” Once upon a time, Judge Joseph Crater’s 1930 disappearance captivated the country, and sporadic developments have still made news since. Ariel Lawhon doesn’t know what happened to Judge Crater, but her new book sure takes what we know and extends it just a little into a plausible and entertaining solution to the mystery.
What we know: Judge Crater had barely started his new job as an Associate Justice of the New York Supreme Court and was at his summer cottage when he got a phone call. He returned to New York City, and did some work in his chambers. On the evening of August 6, Crater had dinner with a friend and a showgirl, set off to see a Broadway play and >poof<. It took a month for an investigation to start, because everyone thought he was somewhere else, but when he was officially reported missing on September 3 it became national news. Lots of tips, a grand jury investigation, and countless police hours trying to trace him turned up nothing. Whispers of corruption in the judiciary, of Tammany Hall politics, and of gangland involvement came out of the rampant speculation, but nothing was ever proven.
As you can tell by the title, Lawhon’s story revolves around the women in Crater’s life. Stella Crater’s money financed the Judge’s rise in the world, but he expects that she will comport herself as the political wife, representing her husband in public and keeping her nose out of his business in private. The Mistress is Sally Lou Ritz, a busty long-legged showgirl with a secret past and serious current problems. Despite the glamorous whirl of Broadway shows and speakeasies, Ritzi also learns to be where Crater wants her and to be gone when he doesn’t. Then there’s the Maid, Maria Simon. Maria works part-time for the Craters, and the Judge got Maria’s husband Jude his new job as a detective for New York City’s Finest. She, too, learns that keeping Crater’s secrets is the price she will pay for her husband’s advancement.
The story develops along the web of visible and invisible relationships created by these people. All of them dance on the strings pulled by the infamous gangster Owney Madden. Madden is Ritzi’s sponsor in the not-so-glamorous Broadway backstage world, where interchangeable showgirls often double as courtesans. He holds the mortgage on Stella’s family cottage, which Crater sold him in exchange for the cash the judge needed to run his election. And he’s the guy who tells the NYPD how and when to conduct their investigations, and it’s no accident that Maria’s husband is one of the guys chosen to look into Crater’s death.
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is set in the quintessential New York City depicted in the black and white movies of the era. It’s 1930, and the worst of the Depression hasn’t really become visible to these characters, although they see men in bespoke shoes selling apples. New Broadway shows are opening up all the time, speakeasies are thriving, the life and livelihood of the City is settled in the chophouses where the rich and powerful eat. Underneath that lighthearted bustle is the worm of the Big Apple – the flow of money and patronage through the political clubs, bribery from the station house to the courthouse, and the muscle to silence anyone who stands in the way.
Lawhon uses a bookend plot to set the stage for those not familiar with Crater’s story. Stella Crater made an annual visit to a Greenwich Village bar on August 6, where she would buy two cocktails, raise one in a toast, drink it and leave the other untouched. In the book, she invites Jude Simon to meet her there for one last drink, and presents him with a sealed envelope, the final word that explains everything to the last detective remotely interested in the case. The modern-day conversation makes an occasional reappearance in the story, as do flashbacks that establish Crater’s character or create a timely link between two characters. Added together, the three plotlines make a deeply satisfying resolution to one of the 20th century’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
Check the WRL catalog for The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress
I wrote earlier about The Whistling Season and the singular character of Morris Morgan, the erudite and cultured man who wound up in the rough Montana town of Marias Coulee. Morrie was a memorable character from the start, and though the events of that story sent him away from Marias Coulee, Ivan Doig brought him back in Work Song. As important as he was to the first book, we still only saw him through Paul Milliron’s eyes; now we get to see the world through Morrie’s.
Ten years after the events of The Whistling Season, Morrie gets off the train at the go-go town of Butte, Montana, thinking he’ll get an accounting job with the Anaconda Copper Mining Company and start the path to his certain fortune. But little in the town is as direct as the railroad tracks coming and going from the depot. In Butte, you are on one side or the other and even outsiders have to pick, as Morrie learns when he takes a room at Grace Faraday’s boarding house. The sides? Anaconda, which runs the town, or the union, which struggles to represent the miners.
Grace, the young widow of a miner, has two boarders, Griff and Hoop, both veterans of the mine and stalwart union men. They quickly set Morrie straight about “wearing the copper collar”, so he stoutly declares that he won’t work for the Company. Which leaves him jobless and mostly broke, because the trunk with his possessions vanished on the train.
After a brief stint as a professional mourner, Morrie discovers the Butte’s true prize: the public library and its priceless collection of exquisitely bound first editions. As intimidating as the Anaconda Copper Mining Company can be, though, they have nothing on the head librarian, Samuel S. Sandison. Former cattle rancher, book collector, and professional grouch, Sandy is also swayed by anyone who believes as he does in the narrative genius of Robert Louis Stevenson. Morrie easily talks himself into a job, and winds up doing anything Sandison doesn’t want to.
But trouble is coming to Butte. Wage cuts and safety issues put the miners on edge, and Anaconda puts their thugs to work on anyone who might be an outside agitator. Before long, Morrie finds himself dodging strikebreakers and helping the union with an essential job: finding a work song.
In a community subdivided into different nationalities with their own musical traditions, finding a tune that can inspire the miners to pull together is no easy task. Morrie can go into an unconventional classroom (think 3000 feet under the surface), teach them about rhythm, rhyme, and melody, but if they are to be as effective as the Wobblies Little Red Songbook, the words have to come from the miners.
As he did in The Whistling Season, Doig seems to go right to the edge of creating an unwieldy cast of characters, but manages to have each one precisely delineated and in the perfect place to play their roles. Along with a lively young teacher from Morrie’s past, a young union leader toughened in the trenches of World War I, and the towering and haunted Sandison, he includes a starveling boy nicknamed Russian Famine, the fastest thing on two feet in Butte. But Doig is most tender in developing Grace Faraday, the young woman trying to survive on her own in the face of company harassment and her precarious status in a town where unattached females are usually prostitutes. Measuring his worldly ambitions against such people makes Morrie a (slightly) better man, and we are pleased to be along for his self-discovery. And though I haven’t read it yet, Morrie’s journey continues in Sweet Thunder. I have a feeling I will be reviewing it in the near future.
Check the WRL catalogue for Work Song