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Ayana Mathis’s poignant debut novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is set against the backdrop of the Great Migration during the 1920s, when African Americans began moving in large numbers from the southern United States to the North. The reasons behind the Great Migration of African Americans to the North were twofold: to escape the racial terror of the Jim Crow South and to pursue the supposed better opportunities in the North.

The titular fifteen-year-old Hattie moves from Georgia to Philadelphia in 1923 with her family. Soon thereafter, young Hattie marries a man named August and gives birth to twins. Hattie then loses her newborns in 1925 when she is just seventeen years of age. Hattie’s tragic loss sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Following the death of her newborn twins, Hattie gives birth to nine more children, but finds neither the time nor the emotional wherewithal to outwardly express love for them. Hattie feels that it is more prudent to withhold her love so as to prepare her children for a world that will not love them.

The tragic cycle of life continues as Hattie’s children go on to suffer tragedies and hardships of their own, at least in part due to the emotional absence of their mother and the sometimes physical absence of their father. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie prompts us to think about the ways in which our parents affect who we become.

The novel also asks us to consider the effects of the Great Migration on African Americans and the ways in which the promise of a better life in the North became for many, to borrow a phrase from Langston Hughes, a “dream deferred.” For Hattie, the promise of a free and more prosperous North seems to die along with her twins Philadelphia and Jubilee. Hattie struggles with an unfaithful and disappointing husband and finds herself and her family in dire financial straits.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is organized unlike any novel I have read prior in that each chapter focuses on one or more of Hattie’s children (the last chapter focuses on a grandchild), at different points in their lives. Each chapter could stand alone as its own short story and only occasionally will characters reappear in later chapters.

I enjoyed the uniqueness of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie; the various “stories” kept my interest. Admittedly, I found myself wanting to know more about certain characters in the book after their chapters had ended; and I was left questioning what happens to Hattie’s last child Ella after Hattie makes a heart-breaking decision regarding her future.

Hattie’s children include Floyd, a traveling musician with a “wild” lifestyle and a burdensome secret. Six is an angry young man who reluctantly embarks on a preaching tour of sorts after a traumatic childhood accident seems to leave him with some divine gifts. Bell, resentful of her mother’s ways, enacts revenge against Hattie that will leave you shaking your head.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is an important book that explores race, class, gender, sexuality, war, religion, mental illness, addiction, disability, and more. Although full of heaviness and heartbreak, there are moments of hope, humor, and levity that help to break up some of the harder stuff. All in all, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a satisfying read. I look forward to reading more works from the promising Ayana Mathis.

Check the WRL Catalog for The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is also available as a Gab Bag

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lynnExcoriating. Funny. Philosophical. Cynical. Crude. Lyrical. Obnoxious. Charming.  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk manages to be all of these and more in a powerful story that encompasses about five hours in the life of one nineteen year-old boy/man.

It’s Thanksgiving Day, and in Texas Stadium eight enlisted men are sitting in the freezing rain waiting for the biggest moment of their young lives.  Along with Destiny’s Child, Bravo Squad (which isn’t its real name, but that’s what everyone calls them) are to be featured in the Dallas Cowboys halftime show.  Why this particular group of eight?  Because they were involved in a brief firefight in Iraq, Fox News caught in on videotape, and they are now bona fide All American Heroes, complete with medals pinned on by President Bush himself.  A two-week national tour to build support for the war, a few hours with their families, the halftime show, and Bravo is headed back for the war zone.

It’s hard to think of these men as men – they indulge in the timeless adolescent male hobbies of insults, play wrestling, lusting after women, and eating and drinking everything in sight.  There’s no question that Iraq has changed all of them, but Billy in particular has matured beyond his nineteen years.

A restless, somewhat rebellious and indifferent student, Billy was no star in high school, and when he committed an act of vandalism he was told to join the Army to avoid prosecution.  But whatever it was – training, maturing, innate courage – Billy was a leader in the firefight and was awarded the Silver Star.  But he also lost a friend and mentor, and while the fight itself seems unreal he remembers every detail of Shroom’s death.  Now Billy is questioning everything he sees in his country.

Because there’s no question that Bravo is being used.  Used by politicians looking for a cheap way to bolster their troop-loving images, used by the Cowboys’ owner to prove his patriotism, used by a movie producer looking for a big score, used by a megachurch preacher looking for street cred (this guy? Fountain doesn’t exactly say), used by ordinary people to demonstrate their love of country.  All this, as Billy points out, for a bunch of guys making under $15,000 a year.  It’s hard to tell which is the most insidious, but Bravo rolls with the attention in their best All American Hero fashion, revealing their true selves only in front of each other.

In some ways, Billy’s interior monologue sounds a little too mature, but I doubt he’d be able to articulate the things he’s thinking.  He’s observant and aware, understands that there is much he doesn’t know (like how someone can just up and buy a professional football team), and understands just as well that there’s no way he is ever going to move in the rarefied circles of people who attend state dinners with Prince Charles, own huge corporations, or even those who will pay $700 for a leather jacket with the Cowboys logo on it.  He’s also hungry for relationships that mean as much as the love he carries for Bravo’s dead and wounded, and there’s a remote possibility that he may have found it in Texas Stadium.

Billy is an unforgettable character, partially because he has an uncomfortable way of looking at his fellow Americans and partially because the reader wants so much for him to survive and succeed.  Ben Fountain gives him some wonderful lines (“Somewhere along the way America became a giant mall with a country attached.” And of Texas Stadium, “Give bigness its due, sure, but the place looks like a half-assed backyard job.”).  Fountain also renders the conversation of the people Billy meets in a phonetic shorthand offset from the regular text, just as the flow of cliches must sound to someone who hears them ad nauseum.  The story’s pacing makes it difficult to put down – it’s as fast a read as any thriller – but Fountain’s language deserves close examination, or even multiple readings, to catch his observations and intentions.  One warning for those who might mind: Billy and his comrades are pure id – all those insults and all that lust is as crude as you can imagine.

Check the WRL catalog for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

It will also be available as a Gab Bag in April 2014.

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imageI hadn’t meant to write about The Monuments Men, which, thanks to a movie starring the dapper George Clooney, already has an impressive reserves list. But I keep running into folks who say, “I had no idea there was a book!”—a statement that brings out the evangelical librarian in me. So: there is a book! And if you’re at all interested in the intersection of art and WWII, then you’ll enjoy learning where history and the movie overlap, and where the truth has been stretched to fit a different story.

Nazi art thefts during WWII were meticulously planned and immense in scope. After the war, 400 tons of artworks removed from museums and private collections were found in salt mines and castles, the best of them earmarked for Hitler’s proposed Führersmuseum, never built. But while the scale of art plundering was unprecedented, so were the preservation efforts of museum curators and the military, especially the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives unit, known as the Monuments Men.

Eventually, 350 men and women from 13 countries served, but at the beginning, there were only a handful: as of D-Day, eight men to inspect every important monument between the English Channel and Berlin. They expected to do conservation triage—follow after the front-line soldiers, survey liberated towns for damaged sites, and organize emergency efforts to protect works from exposure or keep Roman ruins from being used as parking lots for tanks. They didn’t expect that so many masterpieces would be missing completely. As the war drew to an end, their mission morphed into a treasure hunt for artworks and other valuables stashed in hiding places throughout Europe.

Possibly the most bizarre of these was at Bernterode: underground, in a sealed room, a circle of regimental flags surrounding the coffins of Frederick the Great and former German President von Hindenburg. The most exciting cache was at Altaussee, where the paintings were a survey of Art History’s greatest hits, and the mine was packed with bombs.

Edsel’s account follows several of the Monuments Men, drawing on their writings and interviews with surviving officers. It was lonely work, each man improvising on his own without much support or even assigned transportation. The work of identifying and returning artworks continued until 1951, while questions of rightful ownership concern the courts to this day. (For a taste of postwar Monuments work, the National Archives has a fascinating article about the myriad political and logistical issues raised by those coffins alone.)

Check the WRL catalog for The Monuments Men.

The Monuments Men in Italy had a slightly different chain of command, and Edsel covers their exploits in a second book, Saving Italy.

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whartonEdith 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

Age of Desire is also available as a Gab Bag for book groups

Check out the images of Edith Wharton’s life (alas, with only one indistinct photo of Anna) in Edith Wharton: An Extraordinary Life 

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middleIt’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

The Middlesteins is also available as a Gab Bag – which you can now reserve up to a year in advance!

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guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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confidantFor a country that won their most recent war, France in the 1920s and ’30s was in bad shape, not least because they were facing an existential crisis. 1.4 million of their men had been killed in World War I, and according to contemporaneous demographers, 1.4 million babies that should have been born weren’t. Pumping up the birth rate to replace those 2.8 million souls became a matter of national security, and it suddenly became every woman’s patriotic duty to have children. In Hélène Grémillon’s debut novel, that history creates a tragic, even ominous, setting against which the lives of the four principal characters will play out.

The story actually begins in 1975, when Camille Werner opens what she believes to be a condolence letter in the wake of her mother’s death. Written in the first person by a man named Louis, it introduces her to Annie and to their childhood friendship in an unnamed town in rural France. As subsequent letters arrive, the story of their lives, and of Annie’s relationship with the childless mistress of the local chateau, unfolds. When Annie agrees to have a baby for the couple to raise, the story deepens into a web of betrayal and misunderstanding.

Camille, an editor, is at first convinced that the letters are part of a writer’s scheme to catch her attention. With each letter, though, she becomes increasingly aware that there is another motive, until a final revelation shows her that everything she thinks she knows is a lie. But the letter writer also discovers that he doesn’t know the full story, and sends Camille one last missive. In a long and detailed confession, the childless woman reveals an alternate picture, one which recasts the first story into a dark and possibly murderous plot.

The immediate drama culminates in spring 1940 as the German blitzkrieg overwhelms France. In the chaos that follows, communications go astray, people appear and disappear, unimaginable compromises must be made, and the dangers of occupation swamp all other considerations. The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. But those problems don’t go away, even with the passage of time, and in 1975 they come home.

The Confidant is shot through with lies, misdirection, concealment, and misunderstanding. Grémillon details those in nuanced, sensuous, and beautifully evocative language, and creates a historical novel without requiring readers to understand the history. Readers will want to savor this, and to watch for subtle clues about the ripple effect these betrayals have.

Check the WRL catalog for The Confidant.

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag

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This post illustrates the wonderful community of readers. This book was recommended to me by Cindy in a comment to my October post on Plague: A Very Short Introduction. I don’t know Cindy except through her comments, so thank you Cindy! I thoroughly enjoyed Year of Wonders. I checked it out on CD to listen on my commute, but had to scramble to find the book because I couldn’t wait over the weekend to find out what happened. It is the first book by Geraldine Brooks that I have read, so I will be looking for more of hers in the future.

The year is 1665 and Anna Frith is a widow, less than twenty years old with two young sons. She was married to a miner who was killed by a explosion in his mine.  She supports herself by working at the rectory and the local manor house as well as managing her garden, sheep and chickens. The rector recommends a lodger for her to take in and she jumps at the chance for extra cash. The young tailor who comes to stay is a wonderful man and a romance is brewing until he suddenly takes ill, develops an excruciatingly painful, apple-sized  buboe on his neck, and dies with “plague tokens” all over his body. The plague spreads, and decimates the village, while some people react with kindness and some lash out in fear. Even the kind people react in ignorance, because no one knows what causes the plague and how to fight it. With disease, death, love, loyalty, betrayal, romance, sex and history, Year of Wonders is a compelling read.

Geraldine Brooks says that Year of Wonders is based on a real village in Derbyshire, England called Eyam. When this “Plague Village” was struck with plague in 1665 it shut itself off from its neighbors. No one can now say with certainty how the plague arrived and how many died, but the sacrifice recorded in the scant facts still echoes down the years. In the Afterword to the book Geraldine Brooks says she was drawn back to Eyam and its history for years; “it was this story above all others that I longed to tell.”

This book is rich in well researched historical detail and will appeal to anyone interested in history, particularly of  the Middle Ages.  It is also wonderful women’s fiction as Anna is an incredibly strong woman who faces unbearable loss, but grabs life and lives it to the full. She is an imaginary character, but certainly one who feels real. Because of its basis in a disease, I also recommend this emotional read to people who are interested in medical non-fiction that examines the historical impact of infectious disease like  Plague: A Very Short Introduction and  The Ghost Map

Check the WRL catalog for Year of Wonders

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag.

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Two years ago, all my siblings were gathered together for the first time since 1989.  Those old easy ways quickly fell into place and we were soon laughing and arguing about who was going to do the dishes.  We also reminisced about past gatherings, trips, and our frequent knock-down-drag-out fights over the TV program we were going to watch. Then other memories started cropping up. A conversation with the daughter of slaves during a trip to Colorado. The road trip when the youngest got left behind and we didn’t discover it until we were 90 minutes away. The ski trip to West Virginia where one brother slipped and knocked down Gerald Ford.  In other words, the stuff that never happened. At least, I know they never happened, though some of my siblings swear that they did.  It just goes to show that no two people grow up in the same family.

That’s the way it is with Sheila McGann.  Her brother Arthur Breen (their mother’s first child) is several years older but she and Father Art, a Catholic priest in Boston, talk frequently and know each other’s secrets.  Her younger brother Mike never really knew Art, but he and Sheila are close enough that they can still finish each other’s sentences.  Art grew up in a single-parent urban household, Sheila and Mike in a working-class suburban home ruled by their devout mother and alcoholic father.  Art was a devout boy who left for seminary when Sheila was still very young;  Mike and Sheila did the Catholic school thing, but she’s now agnostic and he’s not a particularly observant churchgoer.

Then a seismic shift tests the bonds between them.  Art is accused of molesting Aidan Conlon, the son of a recovering addict he’s been helping.  Caught in the midst of the rising tide of priest-abuse accusations and lawsuits, he is summarily removed from his parish (on Good Friday, no less).   He is exiled to a generic apartment complex, and blocked from contact with his friends.  He can’t even speak with Church officials to defend himself against the charges.  His parish is divided between those loyal to him and those who retroactively remember something odd about him.  All Father Art has left is his family.

Sheila flies to Art’s defense, returning to Boston from her Philadelphia home.  But she finds that Art’s last refuge is compromised. His mother is ashamed of the accusations and deals with it by withdrawing.  His stepfather, memory stripped by his alcoholism, is no help.  And Mike immediately accepts the truth of the accusation, egged on by his wife.

As the story progresses, though, the characters slowly begin to shift places.  The more Sheila learns the more doubt she begins to feel.  And Mike, driven by a need for a definitive answer, begins insinuating himself into Aidan’s mother Kath’s life.  He succeeds in coaxing Kath to tell the story of her relationship with Art, but at high cost to himself.  And when he knows the truth, his faith in Art is complete.

Sheila is looking back as the sequence of events unfolds, foreshadowing, guessing, stitching together the facts she knows and filling in the blank spaces to recount this story.  In doing so, she keeps the child abuse scandal in the background and focuses on the McGanns as they try to come to grips with—or avoid—dealing with the enormity of the situation.  She also keeps the reader wondering whether or not to sympathize with Art as Sheila releases details through the narrative the family is constructing even as events transpire.  This is not, however, a story that will be shared over the dinner table.  It’s more likely that it will join the deeply hidden secrets that have governed this family from the first.

Check the WRL catalog for Faith

Or place a reservation for the Gab Bag

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Summer camp, notwithstanding Bill Murray’s view of it, is supposed to be a quintessentially formative experience, both for the campers and the counselors.  How then to deal with a summer camp that begins with the hasty dispatch of the trained counselors and ends with a murder?  No, it isn’t Friday the 13th, but a well-drawn, sensitive, and shocking novel by John Dalton.

Three characters dominate the story of Kindermann Forest Summer Camp: owner Schuller Kindermann, camp nurse Harriet Foster, and counselor Wyatt Huddy.  Kindermann has been in charge of the slowly-failing camp since its founding, but always at a slight remove from the daily operation.  A narrow and judgmental man, his ideal is the manufactured and manageable world of model railroads and paper sculpture.  Harriet Foster and her five-year old son James are the only African-Americans in camp.  An outsider by virtue of color, age, and professional background, Harriet is the person with perhaps the clearest view overall of the camp’s operations.  She does have a serious blind spot–she continually second-guesses her understanding of white people.

Wyatt Huddy, along with most of the other counselors, is a last-minute hire.  Born with Apert’s Syndrome, Wyatt hides himself away from people as much as he can.  When the camp job comes up, he and his friend/employer, Salvation Army Captain Throckmorton think working with non-judgmental children is the best way to build Wyatt’s self-confidence.  So off he goes.

Little does he, or any of the new counselors, know what is in store for them.  For the first two weeks of their season, Kindermann Forest hosts the residents of the Missouri state institution for profoundly mentally disabled people.  Even before he’s unpacked his few things, Wyatt is given charge of four men whose need for individual attention would try a saint.

Not that these counselors are saints–some are ordinary teenagers, some have serious troubles of their own, and some just don’t think they can deal with the 24-hour responsibility of these campers.  But as the summer begins shaking out and everyone adapts to the routine, Kindermann Forest looks like it might just turn out to be, if not idyllic, at least a good place.  But trouble lurks, and when it strikes, one character will die, two others will have their ordered lives upended, and Kindermann Forest will be forever changed.  The story doesn’t end there, but to say more would be to reveal the most wonderful section of Dalton’s novel – a sequence of sacrifice and redemption that closes the story.

Dalton used a line from a fictitious poet created by JD Salinger in a 1947 novella -

Not a wasteland, but a great inverted forest with all the foliage underground

for his title, and the novel is filled with those reverses of perception.  It seems obvious in two principal characters, but his deeper reading of all the characters shows each of them presenting one face to the world and another hidden underground.

Check the WRL catalog for The Inverted Forest

The Inverted Forest is also a Gab Bag.

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Psychologists call it “family of origin“.  Really, they’re the people on whom you imprinted: those who gave you your adult world view or against whom you rebelled.  But if you believe there’s such a thing as a “happy family“, you were born in a test tube and raised in a cave by wolves.  Some families are less weird than others, that’s all.

Setting aside all physically abusive families, the Fang family is perhaps the weirdest one I’ve ever read about.  Caleb and Camille are artists, MacArthur Geniuses, grant winners, gallery darlings.  Their medium? Human confusion and anger.  Their canvas–any place they can set people against one another or cause distress.  Like Sasha Baron-Cohen, they find the outer limit of what people will tolerate, then push them past it.  Unfortunately, they decide to use their children to create the chaos they engender.

Annie and Buster, or “Child A” and “Child B” as they were known in the art world, are now grown.  Annie is a successful actor on the verge of her breakthrough into Oscar contention when a director calls for an unexpected topless scene.  Annie’s response puts her on the Web and into the tabloids, and her response to that causes her to flee Hollywood.  Buster is an unsuccessful novelist working as a freelance writer.  When he’s severely injured in the course of writing an article, he reverts to a Fang-style escape and runs for cover.  Both wind up at their parents’ home, the one place they swore they’d never return.  But.

Well, Camille and Caleb have a project on their calendar, so they take off to the big city.  And on the way they…disappear.  Their bloodstained car is found at a rest area, but no sign of them.  Bitter and suspicious, Annie spots it as another panic-inducing art piece.  Buster wavers between Annie’s view and believing that Camille and Caleb are dead,  Together, brother and sister grope their way through the following days, uncertain how to continue their own lives.

Interspersed in the current-day stories are titled pieces from the Fang family’s career, giving the reader a picture of their methods and results.  The projects become stranger the deeper the story goes, and as A and B become more integral to the work, the projects become more manipulative of them, to the point that Caleb and Camille become passive bystanders in the situations they force the children into.  With each revelation, Annie’s fierce independence and Buster’s uncertainty become more understandable.

Kevin Wilson is scarily creative when it comes to envisioning the Fang art, perhaps even more so in developing his storyline.  He also raises a lot of questions that make excellent fodder for contemplation and discussion.  What is Art?  What is an Artist?  What is a family?  What is child abuse?  At what point can a person be described as “grown up”?  So much packed into a beautifully written, imaginative book that it’s no wonder it made so many “Best Book of the Year” lists.

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The time has come to forever mark New York’s grief and loss from the September 11 terrorist attacks.  5000 blind submissions, all trace of the artist’s identity removed, have been sorted through by a jury of political appointees, academics, artists, and a representative of the families.  The field is winnowed down to two entries – one, a ten-story high black boulder thrusting up from the ground, with the names of the dead engraved up and down its sides.  The other, a walled garden divided symmetrically by canals, with living trees interspersed with steel trees sculpted from Twin Towers’ beams, and the names of the dead inscribed on the walls.  After debate and lobbying, the jury selects the garden, which was designed by…

Mohammed Khan.

Or, as the governor’s representative says, “Jesus f—–g Christ!  It’s a g—–n Muslim!” (This is a family blog.)

The selection is supposed to be confidential, but it’s no time before second-rate reporter Alyssa Spiers gets her scoop on the front pages of the tabloid New York Post and all hell breaks loose.  Suddenly the memorial is the sole property of the understandably angry families.  Or a cause celebre for liberals rejecting knee-jerk hatred.  Or the target of right-wing rabblerousers who proclaim it only lacking 72 virgins to make it a complete Islamic paradise for victorious terrorists.  A chance for Muslim activists to reach a broader audience.  A headache for the committee chair.  A political liability.

A personal and professional triumph for its creator, who demands recognition for his achievement without any need to defend his heritage or his design.

Mo Khan considers himself a plain vanilla American—born to non-religious parents who immigrated from India, raised in Alexandria, Virginia, trained as an architect, promoted for his skill.  No different from any other ambitious single-minded young man.  Now he finds himself treated as a stranger in his own country, interrogated by the FBI on his first post-9/11 flight, his career derailed, and now his breakthrough achievement threatened.  Mo now draws the line at sacrificing his vision, and the irresistible force of public opinion meets the immovable force of a proud man.

Amy Waldman does a terrific job exploring the needs and sensitivities of all the people with a personal stake in this controversy.  Some are confused, unable to distinguish between their sorrow and their anger.  Others are struggling with the balance between doing what is right and doing what is realistic.  Still others cannot see a reason for the collective emotions, insisting on keeping the memory of their own loved one independent of the memorial’s politics.

If the premise of The Submission sounds familiar, you may remember Maya Lin’s controversial design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.  You may remember the hoo-hah over the Park51 project. (Waldman’s work on the book preceded that episode, and could even have been the blueprint for how it played out.)  You may even know that the real memorial is not without controversy.  As Waldman shows in a very effective epilogue, Americans tend not to hold grudges, even when our social progress is made in fits and starts.   If only there was a way to speed up the process.

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A young pregnant woman is drowned.  An ambitious young man is accused of killing her to clear the way for an advantageous marriage.  Sounds an awful lot like An American Tragedy (or its film counterpart, A Place in the Sun), right?  And like Theodore Dreiser, John Milliken Thompson based his story on a true story.  But where Dreiser used the circumstances to explore the American drive for advancement, Thompson focuses more on the psychology of the event’s key players, making this a more intimate and personal story.

In 1885, the year Lillian Madison was found dead in the Richmond city reservoir, Virginia was overshadowed by the Civil War but beginning to make the painful transition towards a more modern society.  Still, the divisions between rich and poor, educated and illiterate, black and white, and rural and urban are evident in Thompson’s rendering of this complicated time.  But one element has not changed: Bible-based morality still publicly governed society, and inevitably the lowest person on the social ladder is the unmarried pregnant woman.

There is a sort of foursome at the heart of this story – brothers Tommie and Willie Cluverius, Lillian Madison, and Nola Bray.  Willie and Lillian have had a playfully romantic relationship, but free-spirited Lillie wants more than the staid Willie is going to give her.  Willie isn’t certain whether Lillie is trustworthy, wondering if the dark stories she’s told him about her father are true.  Nola is the daughter of one of the wealthiest and best connected families in the community, an asset for Tommie’s ambitions.  However, “her beauty was the kind that would not last much beyond her youth,” a trait that keeps the libidinous Tommie from pursuing Nola with ardor.   Tommie also has a wild streak that both young women recognize, even if he himself doesn’t.  Nola wants to control it; Lillie responds to it, and the foursome is reduced to two people who eventually give in to their desire for each other.

When Lillie tells Tommie she is pregnant, he dithers and delays until eight months have gone by.  At an appointed time, he meets Lillie, accompanies her to the reservoir and is present when she dies.  While we know from the start that Tommie was at the reservoir, we, along with the public, must wait to discover how Lillie drowned.  We do know that Tommie lies throughout his trial, taking the tack that he didn’t know Lillie was in Richmond that night, but his conviction – built on the flimsiest of evidence – is still a surprise.  Like most of the onlookers, commentators, and prosecutors, we know he is guilty.  The difference is that readers aren’t sure of what.  Tommie even offers competing versions of the night’s events to his brother, but the stories don’t add up to a definite answer.  After Tommie’s death, with so many loose ends left, Willie has a revelation – “that it doesn’t matter what he believes, that the only thing you can count on in faith, as in love, is that the ground is going to shift under you.”  Readers of this book are well advised to keep that in mind.

Thompson also evokes the feel of a definite time and place while constructing this tragedy.  In a rural community, the arresting officers sit down for dinner with the accused and his family.  People gather on a street corner to listen to a fire-breathing preacher.  Two young couples drowse in innocent familiarity on the banks of a river, listening to poetry and cicadas humming in the trees.  And refined alcoholism, brothels, discreet indiscretions, and child abuse are all kept well beneath the surface of public appearance.  We might think those were simpler times, but Thompson has found a way to remind us that the human heart is never simple.

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My colleague Connie from Outreach Services provides today’s review:

As a born and bred Easterner, I find something alluring and mysterious about the American West. This book transported me there, with a look back at at the western home front during World War I.  Molly Gloss did a great job of capturing  small town, rural life in Oregon ranching country in 1917.

The story follows Martha Lessen, a 19-year-old horse wrangler, who travels a circuit  from ranch to ranch gentling wild horses. The reader meets and gets to know shy Martha as she uses her own sweet way of communicating with horses, and as time goes on, we get to know her neighbors’ stories, too.

It begins with Martha’s theories of how best to work with the horses, which stem mostly from her own rough childhood.  We see her slowly forming relationships with her horses, her neighbors, and finally with one man in particular.

Along with Martha’s story we learn about life out west during the early 1900s: the dangers of diseases that had no treatment, and societal problems such as abuse (of both animals and humans) and addiction.  Gloss also raises the issue of bigotry and prejudice against people deemed “our enemy” during times of war. There’s a lot for book groups to discuss.

I am not a “horse person,” but I enjoyed the sections of the book where we see Martha relating to and training her horses. And, I found it interesting that the main character, like many pioneering and rural women, followed her own path, and not the stereotypical one.

This story would be enjoyed by anyone who likes historical fiction, animals, and even a little romance.  I listened to the audio version and although some may not like the narrator, I enjoyed it more and more as the story went on.

I highly recommend this book.

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“Like most people, I am conflicted about our ethical obligations to animals,” writes psychologist Hal Herzog. “I oppose testing the toxicity of oven cleaner and eye shadow on animals, but I would sacrifice a lot of mice to find a cure for cancer.” Herzog is an anthrozoologist—one who studies human/animal interactions—but though he devotes his time to studying the moral, philosophical, and practical nuances of humans and their treatment of animals, at the end of the day he is just like the rest of us: inconsistent.

This book is about those inconsistencies, and it is fascinating.

The biggie, of course, is meat. There is only one strong argument in favor of eating animal flesh: it is tasty. There are several arguments against it: you have to kill the animal; the animal suffered continuously during its dismal life, if it came from a factory farm, which it probably did; meat production is terrible for the environment; meat causes obesity, cancer, and heart disease.

“You would think it would be easy to convince people not to eat flesh,” says Herzog. “You would be wrong.” There are far more former vegetarians than current vegetarians, and even the omnivores are terribly inconsistent. No one wants to eat a Patagonian toothfish, but re-name it as a Chilean sea bass, and suddenly it’s a sophisticated entrée. Most Americans wouldn’t eat a dog (“No! Not Mr. Fluffers!”), nor would most Kenyans (“No! Dogs are vermin!”), but Koreans view dogs as neither pets nor pests. Bon appetit!

Or consider cockfighting, a sport that has finally been criminalized in all fifty states. Most people think it is repulsive and barbaric to force two chickens to fight to the death, but we inhumanely slaughter 9 billion broiler chickens every year. For every one gamecock who dies in a fight, there are something like 10,000 to 20,000 chickens who die in factory farms—and those chickens live without ever seeing the light of day. Gamecocks live long, pampered lives, right until that final night.

And why pick on cockfighting? Could it have something to do with race and class? Cockfighters are mostly Hispanics and poor whites, while horse racing is a pastime of the rich. Most Americans oppose any ban on horse racing, never mind the 5,000 horses who died at racetracks between 2003 and 2008. Herzog includes a quote from comedian Chris Rock, who sums it up nicely: “[Sarah Palin is] holding a dead, bloody moose. And Michael Vick’s like, ‘Why am I in jail?’”

Herzog teases out the oddities of the relationship between humans and animals in a wide variety of contexts. (Gentlemen, next time you’re trying to meet women, bring a dog. Your chances of success will triple.) He relies on quirky personal anecdotes as well as very-heavily-endnoted scientific research, and he delves into the philosophical underpinnings that govern, or fail to govern, our actions. And because Herzog readily admits his own hypocrisies toward animals, the tone throughout the book is informative rather than strident, making this an excellent choice for people who want to know more about animals without being preached at.

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Since this is a mystery story, I must be somewhat circumspect in my description, lest this review provide too much information.  I apologize in advance.

The Murder of My Aunt, though not widely known in this degraded age, is considered a classic murder mystery. When published in 1935, it overturned every convention of the genre, not least starting with the audience knowing who the murderer is and being forced to read on to find out if he will be captured and if justice will be restored to the world.

Richard Hull’s character Edward Powell is an aristocratic young man stuck in the wilds of Wales where he lives with an aunt, whom he not-so-secretly loathes. She, despite her substantial fortune (which includes a bequest from Edward’s grandmother), will not bankroll Edward’s relocation to Europe, where he can seriously continue his study of French literature. Isolated from any form of intellectual stimulation, his only outlets are his diary (which we are reading), his French novels, and his pampered Pekingese.

Denied his birthright, Edward resolves to take matters into his own hands. He will kill his aunt, sell the farm on which they live, take his legacy, and begin his world travels. Murder is hard for a first-timer, though. How does one arrange an accident that will prove fatal for a tough old bird? Can it be plausible enough to satisfy the nearby villagers? Once embarked on, how does one maintain one’s nerves and see the feat through? Edward meticulously records his various attempts and the frustrating ways in which they fail, until the question becomes, “How will he succeed?”

He explores a number of methods by studying their advantages and disadvantages, until he decides to use his aunt’s car as the vehicle of her demise. Unfortunately, he is an intellectual, and his efforts require a more mechanical bent, which he attempts to acquire through subtle questioning of the village mechanic. With the information he assembles, Edward sets his plot in motion.

As the story progresses, the reader begins to find Edward’s accounts increasingly unreliable, even at odds with the events he’s part of. We even begin to wonder whether he’s capable of carrying off the murder of his aunt. Hull successfully misdirects us by playing up comic elements, but at its heart the story is filled with a deadly intent which carries us right up to the last surprising page. And that surprise makes the whole story well worth reading. Looking for a light mystery that offers both a quick read and a clever premise?  This is well worth your time.

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Short story writer Peter Ho Davies’ debut novel got me thinking about the meaning of surrender, and the many different forms that it might take.  In one fashion or another, each of the characters in The Welsh Girl surrenders during the course of the novel, but the nature of those capitulations varies greatly from one to the next.

The Welsh Girl is set in a small village in the mountains of Wales in the period between the summer and fall of 1944, after the Allied invasion of Europe.  Like many rural communities, life centers around pubs, and in this story the pub that employs 17-year old Esther that becomes the focal point.

The pub is a gathering place for both nationalistic Welsh and a unit of English engineers working outside the town, but relations between the two groups are tense at best.  Esther, who serves as a bridge between the two groups, is attracted to one of the soldiers, but he rapes her and leaves her behind when his unit is transferred.  When she finds herself pregnant, she gives up thoughts of leaving the small town that she’s always longed to escape.  Is that surrender?

The real purpose of the English building project camp is soon revealed, to the chagrin of the Welsh: it is to be a prisoner of war camp for Germans captured during the invasion of Europe.  Karsten, a young English-speaking man who had only recently been promoted to sergeant, is one of those who surrendered.  A machine-gunner stationed above the beach at Normandy, his bunker was directly hit and one of the crew members killed.  With his gun out of commission, did his responsibility for the two survivors under his command call for surrender?

The POWs themselves are divided between those who ‘surrendered’ and those who were ‘captured’, with ridicule and ostracism attending the first.  Men go to great lengths to create narratives that allow them to claim the honor of the second.   The ‘captured’ are most fanatically represented by the crew of a submarine caught on the surface – but how does their inability to fight against a superior ship differ from Karsten’s motive for surrender?

A third strand of the story takes place in the fall of 1944, but its narration is interspersed with the summer ’44 events.  Captain Rotherham, a German who always thought of himself as Lutheran despite his Jewish father, is now serving as an interrogator for the British.  At this late date, he is assigned to question Rudolf Hess, the high-ranking Nazi who flew to England under murky circumstances and was captured.  Rotherham fled to England when it finally became apparent to him that he and every other person remotely considered Jewish was targeted for attacks.  Was Rotherham’s flight to England a form of surrender?  Was Hess’s?

The same question could be asked about the Welsh villagers, whose turbulent history with the English is buried by their economic need for English money, and about the refugee boy living with Esther and her father.  At what point does accepting reality become surrender?  Is surrender a mental condition, or merely physical?

This is not a theme that the publishers promote in their discussion guide, but it is one that interests me in light of Louis Zamperini’s story in Unbroken. If anyone has thoughts on the topic, I hope you’ll share them.

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As I wrote in an earlier post, I’m lucky in that I get to look at lots of books in my quest to buy titles for the Library book groups.  Some have been terrific, almost all have given us good discussions, and a few have been real dogs.  Every once in a while I come across one that everyone in the two groups really digs into and adopts as a new benchmark for both great reading and great discussions.  This year, I’ve found two.

The first is Annie Dunne.  Annie is in her late fifties, hunchbacked from a childhood bout with polio, and completely dependent on her family for bread and bed.  In exchange, she works from before dawn until after dark doing every kind of house and farm work that needs doing.

Annie grew up in privilege and position, the daughter of a senior official of the English government in Dublin; but, following the establishment of the Irish Republic, Annie’s family lost its status.  As a hunchback, Annie had no marriage prospects, and became the live-in housekeeper and nurse for her ailing sister.  Now she lives on her cousin Sarah’s little farm, selling eggs for the little spending money she is able to eke out.  She and Sarah work and sleep side by side, relying on each other for support in their ongoing tasks.  They also agree to take in the young daughter and son of Annie’s nephew, so for the second time in her life Annie becomes the surrogate mother of a relative’s children.  Between the children and the suspicious attention of an area laborer towards Sarah, Annie’s life is turned upside down.

Although the year is 1959, few aspects of the 20th century have penetrated to Sarah’s hilltop farm—no electricity, no automobile, no telephone.  The rhythms of life could be those of any pre-industrial age and place, and Barry describes them in glowing detail without forgetting the toll they take on the human body.  Annie’s first-person narration not only recounts those toils, it also lets us in on the hopes and disappointments, resentments and fears she carries as a kind of psychic counterpart to the hunch on her back.  She speaks, as do all of the characters, in the cadences of people who love the sounds and structures of language, and everything we see of their physical setting comes through Annie’s observations and conversations.  Knowing Barry’s background as a playwright, it is easy to imagine this on stage, but reading it as a novel makes Annie accessible to many more people.  I hope they find her as unforgettable as I do.

And the second great reading/discussion book?  Check out my October 29 post.

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