Archive for the ‘Gab Bags’ Category

closeThere’s no easy way to put this. Chris Bohjalian has written a book that is almost too difficult to read. Not because of the language, which is spot on. Not because of the characters, which ring true. Not because of the structure, which easily shifts between past and present. Not because of the plot, which is both frighteningly plausible and the everyday experience of too many people. When you add them all up, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands becomes unbearable even as Bohjalian demands that you bear witness.

The setup is simple enough. A 16-year old girl, rebellious and unfocused, has nonstop fights with her parents and well-meaning but ineffectual teachers. She’s fairly new to the area, having been dragged to northeast Vermont by her parents’ jobs, and she hasn’t made the transition well. The only thing she’s got going for her is her love of Emily Dickinson. (Side note Emily shares with us—take any Emily Dickinson poem and sing it to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. Perfect match!) Then the nuclear power plant where her parents work suffers a catastrophe, and Emily Shepard, with thousands of others, is forced to evacuate. Unlike them, she carries the burden of her name, because her father is blamed for the disaster.

Emily makes her way to Burlington, where she stays on the edges of the relief efforts, unable to make up a coherent story. Eventually the aid runs out and Emily is forced onto her own. She has few options, so her life quickly spirals out of control. She finds shelter wherever she can, stealing clothes and food and turning tricks at the local truck stop for cash. Other homeless girls give her advice, but one especially changes Emily’s life when she teaches Emily how to cut herself. The catharsis that this self-punishment brings doesn’t last, but razor blades and Bactine are cheap and plentiful.

Emily experiences an awakening when she finds a nine-year-old runaway boy and takes him under her wing. Cameron has been shuffled from one foster home to the next and suffered one beating too many, so he’s set out on his own. She makes it look like he’s in the company of a responsible adult, and helps provide little extras, like food, to him. In turn, he teaches Emily how to build an igloo out of trash bags stuffed with leaves, and the two live together on the lake ice with other homeless people. But the lake won’t stay frozen forever; nor can Emily keep Cameron forever. Eventually Emily is drawn home, traveling into the radioactive zone that surrounds the plant.

The meltdown offers a metaphor, a reason why a seemingly privileged kid would set out to live in squalor and degradation. It unfortunately stands in for the conditions that cause so many teens to run away from home and cast themselves into a world where no one ultimately cares if they live. Bohjalian doesn’t spare the reader any of the details of that life. It is a life he is too familiar with, working as he does with community agencies that serve homeless teens in his town. It’s a life he opens our eyes to, even when we want to close them.

Check the WRL catalog for Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

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Shadow DiversNearing its first decade in print, Robert Kurson’s Shadow Divers is a nonfiction classic that will be read for many years to come. That’s because Kurson finds an elegant way to combine so many subjects of interest: the exciting adventure of deep-sea diving, the poignant war history of the German U-boat submarines, the detective story of how the divers figured out which wreck they were exploring, and the interesting character portraits of the divers involved, some who sacrificed relationships and even their lives in the pursuit of their obsession.

The story began in 1991, when a boatful of recreational divers explored a new wreck and discovered something that wasn’t supposed to be off the coast of New Jersey, a U-boat. Even that first dive seemed to be shrouded by bad luck and mystery, with the death of one diver, but two men in particular, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, began a six-year adventure as they tried to identify what they found.

The diving scenes are spectacularly exciting in Kurson’s tale, but he finds a way to make the library work that the two men did just as riveting. Both the U.S. and German governments still classified some of the information they needed, and many documents that Kurson found turned out to be inaccurate historical cover-ups that had to be disproved before the hunt could progress.

Adding one more fascinating level to the tale, Kurson recreates the last days of the men aboard the submarine, following them from their selection into the U-boat corps (at a time in the war when such duty was nearly the equivalent of a death sentence), researching journals and interviewing family members to discover their decidedly non-fanatical political beliefs, then telling the tale of their last farewell from families and what can be recreated of their final journey. This is a marvelous blend of diving ethics, deep sea adventure (and sometimes terror), strong personalities in clash, and historical mystery that should please almost any reader.

Check the WRL catalog for Shadow Divers

Or listen to Shadow Divers as an audiobook on compact disc

WRL also has Shadow Divers in ebook and audio ebook formats


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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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orphantrainOrphan Train caught my eye on the New Books shelf. I had not heard about the orphan trains before and enjoyed gaining some insight through this story.

According to PBS’s The Orphan Trains, the Children’s Aid Society, a precursor to our modern-day foster care, arranged trips between 1854 and 1929 to relocate thousands of orphan children from the streets of New York to the Midwest.  The organizers believed that farmers could use these homeless children as laborers, but hoped they would also treat them as part of their family and make sure they got an education.

Kline’s story is told through Molly and Vivian.  Molly is an angry, misunderstood teen about to age out of the foster care system.  She is arrested for stealing a book from the library and has to perform community service or go to jail.  Her foster mother is fed up with her and doesn’t want to put any more effort into the relationship.  Molly’s boyfriend helps arrange a service project for an older woman, Vivian, who employs his mother.

Vivian has Molly help her downsize her belongings.  But as they open boxes in the attic, Vivian  is reminded of her past and the experiences she had losing her family and being relocated by the orphan trains.  As they talk, Molly and Vivian develop a strong bond from having had similar experiences trying to fit in with foster families.

I enjoyed Vivian’s saga, though my heart ached for all the ups and downs of her life. I especially liked the way Molly’s present-day life and Vivian’s past were similar.  The story was an enjoyable, quick read for me.  My only criticism of the book is the ending — and I love happy endings!  I just felt that everything tied up too neatly.

This book seems to be a popular selection for book groups; in fact, we have the title available as a Gab Bag.  If you want to use it for your own discussion, questions can be found on Christina Baker Kline’s web site. In talking with others who had read the book, we all agreed that it inspired us to look into the real-life events of the orphan trains.  Tying the historical fact to the fictional story would make good talking points.

Check the WRL catalog for Orphan Train

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CallTheMidwifeCall the Midwife is a fascinating mix of social history and medical memoir, as well as a vivid portrait of a time and place, but that description (glowing as it is) hardly does justice to a book that made me laugh out loud one minute and sob in sorrow the next, and even look forward to my commute so I could enter the book’s world and hear what happened next.

Jennifer Worth (known as Jenny) was a young nurse in the 1950s and she became a midwife with a order of nuns in the slums of the East End of London. Her memoir was published in 2002 so, from the distance of five decades she is in a good position to talk about how medicine and the world have changed. Some of the changes are bad, like the breakdown of families that she has seen among poor people in London, but so many things changed for the better, like medical knowledge and standard of living (plumbing for one thing!). When she started as a midwife most births were at home, attended only by a midwife and as a 23-year-old nurse who was often the only professional present. This was a great step up from no antenatal or birth care, which she says was common prior to 1950 for the poor people of London.  If you are squeamish, this may not be the book for you: many births are described in detail. A glossary of medical terms is included at the end to help the uninitiated.

The humor throughout comes from the hijinks of young nurses and foibles of the nuns, several of whom had nursed through World War I. Worth expresses deep sorrow at the devastating conditions of the workhouse or the fourteen-year-old Irish runaway who is manipulated into working as a prostitute. Jennifer Worth is a memoirist who doesn’t put herself at the center of her story, but tells the stories of others who she came to as an outsider: a non-Catholic living with nuns and a middle-class woman among the Cockneys. She always strives to understand their lives on their terms, rather than imposing her views and even creates a 14-page appendix “On the difficulties of writing the Cockney dialect.” Her talent is capturing the diverse characters on the page, and making the reader care about them.

This book should appeal to watchers of Downton Abbey for the historical domestic British connection. For those like to hear about the lives of real and everyday people it will grab readers of Below Stairs, by Margaret Powell; Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming; or a new book, Minding the Manor: The Memoir of a 1930s Kitchen Maid, by Mollie Moran. I also recommend it for anyone who is interested in memoir, medical history, women’s lives or social problems.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife.

Check the WRL catalog for Call the Midwife on CD read wonderfully by Nicola Barber.

I haven’t had a chance to view the BBC series adapted from the book, but it has great reviews, so it is on my list. Check the WRL catalog for the BBC adaptation of Call the Midwife.

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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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leopardsHow much more unreliable can a narrator be than one who doesn’t even tell readers his name?  One who frankly confesses throughout his story that he steals identities, forges work for other people, cheats his best friend, and writes a novel about an unreliable narrator who frankly confesses, etc., etc.

Kristopher Jansma sustains this difficult literary trick throughout his first novel.  Our nameless guide tells us the tale of his thwarted literary career from his first completed story (thrown in the trash by a detective investigating the death of an old man) through his final manuscript.  Along the way he commits a series of petty criminal acts that keep him questionably employed and replete with material he just can’t form into a book.

His life is overshadowed by frustration: there’s the flight attendant mother who leaves him in the care of various shopkeepers on the concourse of the Raleigh airport, a sports career and college opportunities stifled by a lack of resources, a lack of contacts and resources to support himself as he tries to develop his talent.  He has two chief frustrations, though: his best friend/literary competitor Julian McGann, who has everything he lacks, and Julian’s friend Evelyn, a beautiful and talented actress with the world at her feet.  Evelyn toys with his love for her, while Julian drinks himself into a stupor and an endless series of one-night stands with strange men.  When this unlikely triangle collapses, he is thrown out on his own.

Stumbling out into the world he practices his only skill – writing fiction – on other people, taking up and discarding identities to move himself from one tenuous living to another.  Staying barely ahead of his collapsing lies, he travels across the world until destiny seems to take a hand in his affairs.  The novel ends on a high note, bringing the reader right back to an odd message printed in the front material.

Jansma has written a stellar work of metafiction, with enough sleight-of-hand to make the reader wonder if somewhere along the way he has misread some aspect of the events or characters (Was it golf he played, or tennis? What was that person’s real name?).  Some of the settings border on the fantastic, making us wonder if they actually existed.  And there is at least one character we pity, because she is not privy to the truth of the narrator’s world.

That is not to say that the work is some self-conscious experiment in LITERARITUDE.  It is an engaging, often funny, and sometimes tragic story told by a man who is upfront about his dishonesty and lies, but who has no intention of causing harm. Despite his flaws, he rises to the occasion and proves himself heroic in his own small way, and as the book ends, I guarantee that you’ll turn back to the first page.

Check the WRL catalog for The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

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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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SuttonJ. R. Moehringer first came to the attention of readers with his 2005 memoir The Tender Bar. In 2012, he returned with a novel, Sutton, which chronicles the life of the American bank robber Willie “the Actor” Sutton. The two works might be closer in nature than that summary first suggests: told from Willie’s perspective, and dependent on his memory (his fictionalized memory: the real life Sutton didn’t talk much to reporters about his exploits, and when he did, as in his 1976 ghostwritten memoir, the information was often questionable), this historical novel reads like one of those contemporary memoirs that leaves readers wondering if they’re getting the whole truth. In this case, however, that’s not a negative, it’s kind of the point.

The novel opens with Sutton’s surprise parole from New York’s Attica prison on Christmas Eve, 1969 at the age of 69. Willie is on death’s doorstep with emphysema and weak arteries in his legs, a bit bewildered by the world’s changes, but he makes a deal with the New York Herald to tell his story. So on Christmas Day, a cub reporter and a beatnik photographer drive him around the city, visiting the sites of all of his life’s major events in chronological order. Arnold Schuster, the young man who spotted the heavily disguised Willie and turned him in to police, was killed by the mob. The question that hung over Sutton’s head was whether he had somehow ordered the hit. In the book, this piece of information is all that the reporter really wants from Willie, but Willie refuses to talk about Schuster until he has visited all of his old stomping grounds. The narrative alternates between Willie’s remembrances and his reactions to what has become of his former haunts and accomplices.

Sutton was born into an Irish Brooklyn neighborhood at the start of the 20th century. As he tells his story, the cycle of economic depressions, a lack of opportunities, and a desperate attempt to win the wealthy girl who was the love of his life away from her parents’ control were the key elements in his descent into a life of crime. He ultimately became famous for nearly one hundred nonviolent bank and jewelry store robberies, made successful mostly through disguises. While highly successful, Willie was always tripped up by undependable accomplices (at least that’s his story, perhaps the largest conflict of the book is deciding whether Willie is a dependable narrator). He went to prison often, but also became famous for his daring prison breaks. Sutton was on the FBI’s first Most Wanted list when it was released in 1950.

This novel should have broad appeal to crime fiction fans, historical fiction lovers, and literary fiction buffs. Willie makes a likable and fascinating narrator, even as one questions his veracity. Moehringer admits up front that he had to create most of his narrative with imagination, but the historical settings feel accurate and just when you think the plot is getting predictable, a surprising twist is always at hand.

I can highly recommend the audiobook, which actor Dylan Baker reads in fine style, switching deftly between many character voices. Baker is one of those great character actors whom everyone recognizes but few recognize by name. He attended college at William and Mary and acted in many local theater productions before making it big on the stage, on television and in films.

Check the WRL catalog for Sutton

Or try Sutton as an audiobook on compact disc

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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.

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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

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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.

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Something about this debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker looks like a Young Adult novel, but it’s not. However I can see this appealing to teens or adults of any age who enjoy speculative fiction like Gone by Michael Grant, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, or One Second After by William R. Forstchen.

The Age of Miracles is a disaster story told through the eyes of a middle school-aged girl, Julia.

It starts out as a normal day. Julia’s best friend, Hanna, had slept over the night before. As they were getting ready to eat breakfast, the news broke that the earth’s rotation was slowing.

Big deal, right? Who wouldn’t welcome a few extra minutes in every day? Only the slowing didn’t stop with a few extra minutes. Fairly quickly the slowing began to add hours to the day and night cycle. And no one could figure out how to stop it.

The added hours of daylight and nighttime affect when school starts and ends. People stop wearing watches and try to base their day on when the sun rises and sets. When the governments step in two weeks after the slowing and suggest that everyone keep to a 24-hour clock, Julia sees how the concept of “day” becomes unhooked from “light.” When a few neighbors decide to forego “clock time” and stay on “real time,” Julia witnesses how they are singled out for senseless harassment.

The story focuses on details of everyday life, specifically, how Julia observes people around her managing to carry on in the face of the growing changes—as birds die; crops fail; homes flood; radiation increases. And meanwhile, Julia feels abandoned by her best friend, falls in love with a boy, and watches her parents’ marriage falter.

It is both redeeming and disturbing how normal things are for her as the earth slowly, slowly, slowly rotates around the sun.

This isn’t a book that will leave you with a smile on your face—but  I guarantee you’ll be thinking about it long after you finish the last page.

The Age of Miracles is another book I read as well as listened to on CD because I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next.  The audiobook is seven discs long (9 hours) and was well read by Emily Janice Card.

Check the WRL catalog for The Age of Miracles.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Age of Miracles.

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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.

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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.

Check the WRL catalog for The Family Fang

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