Monday, October 4, 2010

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

One of the most appealing qualities a person can possess is curiosity, and Bill Bryson has it by the bucketful. Which of course, makes him one of the most delightful and insightful writers around. Not only is Mr. Bryson insatiably curious, but he draws us in through his enthusiasm, his wit, and the pure beauty of his writing. Not since discovering P.G. Wodehouse during my freshman year of high school have I laughed out loud simply at the way a writer rubbed two words together.

In his latest outing, Mr. Bryson has given us the entire history of private life, without ever leaving the 150 year old rectory he calls home located in Norfolk, England. Moving from room to room in his house and discussing the contents, the development of its purpose, the architecture, the servants, the lighting, the furnishings, and the people who used the room, we learn about the development of the heart of a people: the homes of the people who live there.

One of the gifts of the book is its many small segues. One never knows where Bill Bryson will take you, but it’s always an amazing ride. One such example is the Nursery. The discussion of the nursery involves a look at infant mortality, child labor laws, domestic missionary work and the reforms of the Poor Laws, children’s place in society (even the wealthy ones), public schools and Charles Darwin.

And then there is the humor. In a typical passage describing Clergymen who made significant contributions to history, Bryson writes:

"In Dorset, the perkily named Octavius Pickard-Cambridge became the world’s leading authority on spiders while his contemporary the Reverend William Shepherd wrote a history of dirty jokes. John Clayton of Yorkshire gave the first practical demonstration of gas lighting. The Reverend George Garrett, of Manchester, invented the submarine. Adam Buddle, a botanist vicar in Essex, was the eponymous inspiration for the flowering buddleia. The Revered John Mackenzie Bacon of Berkshire was a pioneering hot air balloonist and the father of aerial photography. Sabine Baring-Gould wrote the hymn “Onward, Christian Solders” and, more unexpectedly, the first novel to feature a werewolf. The Revered Robert Stephen Hawker of Cornwall wrote poetry of distinction and was much admired by Longfellow and Tennyson, though he slightly alarmed his parishioners by wearing a pink fez and passing much of his life under the powerfully serene influence of opium."

If The New York Review of Books had a Sexiest Man Alive issue, Bill Bryson would be on the cover every year.

Many readers are familiar with Bill Bryson through his earlier works: A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. For them, a new book by Bryson is always a cause for celebration. A chance to spend a few hours in the company of this charming guide is an opportunity to be savored.

Publisher: Doubleday (October 5, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0767919388

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Small Death in the Great Glen by A.D. Scott

A Small Death in the Great Glen is the debut title by A.D. Scott, and I am eagerly awaiting the follow up to be released next summer. The story is set in the Highlands of Scotland in 1956. It’s already intriguing from an American point of view: the accents, the atmosphere, and the customs. Then we have a great cast of characters, many of them working at the weekly gazette of the small village all of them live in: Joanne Ross, the battered wife; McAllister, editor and keeper of secrets; Rob Mclean, eager young investigative reporter; Travelers; runaway Polish exiles; expatriate Italians; priests and policemen; gossips; and rogue politicians.

Of equal weight, are time and place. The setting is so beautifully detailed and lovingly drawn that it is a character in itself: the gray stones of the village, the vast sweeps of the glens. And a small village in Scotland in post war 50’s: the missing young men, the damaged ones that returned, the dour conservatism, the importance of music, the sly Celtic charm.

When a small boy is murdered, the staff of the paper becomes involved in an investigation to uncover the murderer, each for his own reasons. Ancient superstitions and modern prejudices as well as greed and corruption all interfere with finding the truth. But along the way, the characters, especially Joanne and McAllister, find out what they are made of, and what is critically important to them. Their pasts, their present, and what they want from the future finally become clear as they work to right the wrong done to a small boy.

Ms. Scott creates a colorful, fascinating world and a suspenseful story. Richly developed characters, and a tautly plotted adventure make this novel hard to put down. I am anxiously awaiting the next installment in the series (and I do hope it’s a series). Ms. Scott is to be congratulated. I find it difficult to believe this is a debut novel. It has the feel of a very seasoned writer. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Publisher: Atria; Original edition (August 3, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1439154937
ISBN-13: 978-1439154939

The Whisperers by John Connolly

Charlie Parker is one of my favorite characters. Mysterious and melancholy, he is surrounded by violence, yet not violent himself. Otherworldly, and haunted by his past, he can be funny and irreverent.  His friends are both lethal and loyal.

For those unfamiliar with Charlie, his back story is this: an ex NYC cop, now a private detective living in Maine. His wife and young daughter were killed some years ago in a gruesome way while he was out getting drunk. Nothing new so far.  Charlie tracked down, and killed the murderer, and discovered a gift for ridding the world of a particular breed of serial killer. Along the way he has acquired the friendship of Angel, a scruffy ex-thief, and Louis, an elegant and deadly hit man, who are partners in crime and in life. The exchanges between Louis and Angel are often hilarious, and occasionally, heartbreakingly sweet. They are unswervingly loyal to Charlie, and their intercession often saves Charlie’s life. Louis’ marksmanship and flair for drama reminds me of Harlan Coben’s Win Lockwood, in the Myron Bolitar series. Recently, Charlie has fallen in love with Rachel, and has had another daughter named Sam. Rachel can’t take the violence that surrounds Charlie and has taken Sam and moved to Vermont, leaving Charlie bereft and alone.

This may seem like typical detective drama so far, but Connolly has added another layer to Charlie’s story. When I say Charlie is haunted by his past, I mean literally haunted. His murdered wife and daughter appear to him and others. And Charlie, through his investigations, comes to understand that he is a little different than other people. We don’t quite know how yet, but the figures he battles aren’t quite human, and he is followed around by characters that aren’t quite human either. One, The Collector, so named because he takes a souvenir from those he rids the world of, sees himself as “ridding the world of evil”, yet one feels as if he will one day be a threat to Charlie, even though they have an uneasy peace for now.

In The Whisperers, Charlie is again battling unseen foes. A group of soldiers has brought antiquities home from Iraq that they are selling to help each other with medical expenses. One of the antiquities is a Pandora-like box that contains a power causing them to commit suicide. "The Collector" ( from a previous  case) makes an appearance, as well as the rather gruesome "Herod". Particularly interesting is the insight into the soldier’s hardships once they returned from Iraq. Tired of empty promises, abandoned by the government they served, the soldiers are forced to band together to survive in a country that has forgotten them, and the promises made to them.  Crimes are committed in the name of compassion, blending the ethcal lines.  iParticularly good was the therapist’s conversation with Charlie about his own Post-Traumatic Stress and the affect it has had on his own life. Connolly  A unique blend of crime fiction and the supernatural, Connolly creates an eerie world and a tormented hero who battles inner and outer demons. 
Publisher: Atria; 1 edition (July 13, 2010)
ISBN-10: 143916519X
ISBN-13: 978-1439165195

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

One of the great pleasures of this year is discovering a few authors I haven’t read before. Tom Franklin is one of these. I can’t believe I somehow overlooked this writer. He is everything one hopes for in a writer, especially a Southern writer: an unerring ear for dialogue, compassion, a poetic sense of the absurd, and courage. Above all courage. The power of this little book just stunned me.

The story is just heartbreaking. An awkward little boy, dorky and friendless, meets a black boy and they become uneasy friends. Later, the boy lands a date with the sexiest girl in high school. He is the last person to see her alive. Her body is never found and the lonely little boy grows into a lonely man, a pariah in his small, southern town. Treated with so much contempt that he is grateful when a creepy little admirer, who is sure he murdered the girl, starts hanging around Not much of a friend, but a friend.

Now it’s twenty years later, and Larry the loner, and Silas the black man, who is now the local constable, cross paths again when another girl goes missing. And Larry is the first person who is suspected. Betrayal, old secrets, friendship and the simple needs of the human heart are all laid bare as the story of what happened twenty years ago emerges. The story is both brutal and unutterably sad, as a sad as a wasted life. Larry has accepted his lot with such stoicism, the same uncritical acceptance of his father’s sadistic cruelty towards him, or the other children’s unthinking mockery, or Silas’ betrayal. The only innocent in the story is the most harshly treated, as is so often the case in Southern literature.

Tom Franklin is one of the few writers I know that can so perfectly capture a true Southern accent (Rick Bragg anyone?). As a Southerner, I know. And he is dead on. It’s not the Scarlett O’Hara Antebellum Southern. This is true redneck cracker-speak. And it’s essential to these narrow-minded; small-town; easily-led; prejudiced; malevolent hicks. And at the same time, there is great poetry in this book. Franklin creates a perfect sense of time and atmosphere.

Beautifully written, cleverly plotted, Mr. Franklin shows us again why writing is an art, not a science. I highly recommend Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. The redemption at the conclusion of the book is all the sweeter for the outrage one feels at the harm done Larry. The book has a lot to say about the way we treat those on the outskirts of life, and our prejudices. The message is a good one, and delivered by a master.

Publisher: William Morrow (October 5, 2010)
IBSN-13: 978-0060594664

Buy This Book

Saturday, June 19, 2010


It’s hard for me to put my finger on one thing that sets Tana French’s novels apart from others of the “police procedural” genre. It’s a combination of a lot of things: less CSI-like detail, and a lot more psychological insight; a moving back story with quirky, touching relationships; flawed protagonists; an exquisite eye for detail; and a fast, punchy writing style that builds suspense quickly and holds there. She gives us superb plotting, and as an American, I’m just knocked out by the dialogue.

Is that enough superlatives for you? It’s honestly hard to get them all in. Tana French burst onto the scene with THE WOODS in 2007 for which she won the Edgar Award. She followed that with THE LIKENESS in 2008. which was selected by as the Best Book of the Year. And the list of awards goes on. As it should.

Ms. French’s books are linked by characters working for the Dublin Murder squad. FAITHFUL PLACE focuses on Frank Mackey, who readers will remember as Cassie Maddox’s mentor in THE LIKENESS. Frank works in Undercover, which makes the case more fascinating, because this book is almost all psychological, without any of the forensic elements of most murder investigations. Frank also has to protect his undercover status throughout, so he is the shadow investigator, never having official status on the case. He works behind the scenes for a number of reasons.

Twenty-two years ago Frank was to meet his love, Rosie Daly, to leave Ireland behind and start a new life in England. Rosie did not show up, leaving instead a note, asking him to understand why she needed to go. Frank waited the night, then started walking, and never looked back. Now he gets a call from his sister telling him that Rosie’s suitcase has been found behind the chimney in a derelict house at the top of Faithful Place, the street he grew up on. It looks like Rosie may not have left for England after all. Frank is once again in the middle of the family, the neighborhood, and the life he promised himself never to return to. Even worse, now his daughter is involved, and may be in danger herself.

Frank is a wounded soul…bitter about Rosie’s desertion, ashamed of his origins, furious at his father’s drunken brutality, and at war with his brother Shay. He does care for his other siblings, particularly his sister Jackie, and younger brother Kevin. He has an awkwardly sweet relationship with his ex-wife, and one of the most adorable father-daughter relationships I’ve ever read. He is isolated from his fellow cops by the nature of his job, and well, by his nature. It’s the tangle of all these relationship that are the heart of the story of what happened to Rosie Daly.

FAITHFUL PLACE is one of those books you will not want to put down once you have started in, so schedule your reading for a nice restful weekend. Or better yet, buy all three books and take them to the beach with you. Bring lots and lots of sunscreen.

Publisher: Viking Adult (July 13, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0670021871
To Buy This Book

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

CAPTIVITY by Deborah Noyes

Captivity is one of those books that you find maybe once, or if you are lucky, twice a year. A haunting story, exquisite writing, compelling characters, and a really interesting plot question. In this case, did the Fox sisters have a gift, or was it a hoax?

The story centers around a true incident in western New York in 1848: two sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox claimed that the dead were trying to communicate with them through poltergeist activity and “rapping”. A dig in their basement turns up the body of a peddler who had died years before, as predicted by the girls. A move to Rochester, to their older sister Leah’s home (and management) soon turns them into a sensation, and creates the birth of the American Spiritualist movement. Despite a number of grueling and humiliating tests, the sisters are never revealed as frauds.

The middle sister, Maggie, is bold, fresh, and extremely likable. She strikes up a friendship of sorts with a local recluse, Clara Gill, and through their friendship the story unfolds. The sister’s story is told going forward, Clara’s is told in flashbacks.

Clara was living in London some twenty-odd years ago, illustrating a naturalist catalog with sketches of animals when she fell deeply in love with the “beast keeper” of the London Tower’s Menagerie. Will Cross is absolutely charming, and irresistible for a carefully brought up young Victorian lady: unsuitable, of course, full of poetry, life, and laughter. He is self-educated, and as exotic as the animals he loves. Their love story is as tender and awkward as every first love and every bit as moving. Anyone who has ever loved and lost can understand Clara’s withdrawal from the world when in ends terribly.

Captivity is very much the theme here. The animals of the menagerie are captives, of course. Will is a “beast keeper” and she a naturalist. She asks him “does it pain you? To see them here?” “Here with me” he says cheerily, “They might be here anyway. They might be here without me”……”They’re going to be shut up anyway” he explains. the world runs it’s course.” But it is her uncle and his naturalist friends who serve the exotic animals at a dinner designed to raise money to study and collect them. They gobble up the very thing they claim to prize. A point that is not missed by Clara. The freedom of birds too, echoes throughout the book: Maggie’s love gives her a canary in a golden cage when he asks her to give up her “rapping” to marry him. She frees it, and he sends it back, saying that he had caught it again. An interesting touch of metaphor in that this bird is a bit of a fraud. Clara sketches birds repeatedly. Maggie gives Clara a nest with a girls hair ribbon in it. Will’s mentor is a gypsy seller of “nesties”.

Clara is a captive of her love, and her past. She has barely left her room in 22 years despite her father’s quiet appeals to do so. She only starts going out when Maggie enters her life and she becomes curious again. Maggie is a captive of her “gift”, her mercenary family, and her need to better herself. And of her own love when he comes along.

Woven throughout the story is the question of the Fox sisters “gifts”. Do they really communicate with spirits? Is it a hoax? Noyes slyly teases and provokes without giving too much away. Maggie loves to drop hints, and Katie seems to actually be a mystic, while Leah is openly mercenary. And if they are fraudulent, are they giving hope or doing harm? And how to they make the rapping/poltergeist activity happen? These are questions the reader must answer for him/herself. It’s a fascinating puzzle.

I highly recommend Captivity. I knew any book about the Fox sisters would be interesting. To this day the controversy continues as to whether they were fact or fraud. I did not expect the tender love story at the heart of the book. Clara is such a wonderful combination of fragile and strong that you just can’t help caring deeply for her. Deborah Noyes has the ability to make all of this very real with a delicate, ethereal beauty. She perfectly captures mood, description and the poetry of love. A marvelous writer. A marvelous book.

To Buy This Book

Publisher: Unbridled Books; 1 edition (June 1, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1936071630

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern

Rabbi Eliezer Ben Zephyr, the Boibiczer Prodigy, is surely one of the most charming characters ever to grace the pages of a book. And the story line of this novel is as delightfully unexpected as its characters.

The story begins when young Bernie Karp of Memphis, TN comes across the body of a rabbi frozen in a block of ice beneath the pot roasts and chickens in his family freezer.

When he asks his father why they have a dead man in their freezer, his father replies that the dead man is a family heirloom: “Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition,”. Completely intrigued, Bernie is delighted when a power outage frees the old tzaddik, and hides him in the rumpus room for several weeks. These weeks are important for each of them. Bernie quickly learns the mystical Rabbi’s secrets, while the Rabbi obsessively watches TV and learns about the modern world. One observation: “ If a man to other men will sell his wife, is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?”

Through a series of flashbacks, it emerges that the rabbi, who lived in the village of Boibicz in1889, was in the habit of meditating near a small lake. While meditating, the holy man would leave his body and commune with the angels and God. While out of his body one day, a dreadful flood filled the area, and the body of the Rabbi was lost. A few years later, an ice cutter and his son found the Rabbi sleeping peacefully under the ice. His followers, in a flurry of indecision over his mortality, cut the block of ice from the lake and kept it in the local icehouse, run by Bernie’s ancestors.

While the block of ice and Bernie’s family travel through time, war, pograms and countries, always caring for their icebound charge, the modern story continues. The Rabbi, now thoroughly modernized, creates a New House of Enlightenment and almost overnight becomes a spiritual celebrity. Bernie, on the other hand, embraces the Rabbi’s old Jewish mysticism and starts leaving his body, often at inconvenient times. The kids at his school take advantage of this, and take to stuffing him in lockers, etc. until he is befriended by another loner, Lou Ella. Then his out-of-body experiences become inconvenient for another reason: “If you can’t take me with you, at least bring me something back”. The moral dilemma of the book comes from Bernie’s deepening faith as the Rabbi becomes a spiritual con artist. Yet Bernie believes in the old man, despite appearances. And in the end, they are united in a bizarre twist.

Funny’ absurd, and whimsical: of course. Full of Jewish history and traditions: naturally. Moving and often profound: sometime surprisingly. I loved Bernie’s family, and why each took on the care of the terribly inconvenient frozen charge. This is an absolute charmer of a book, and often asks some hard questions of faith. I haven’t read Steve Stern before, and that is an oversight I intend to rectify immediately

To Buy This Book

Publisher: Algonquin Books (May 11, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1565126190

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Daughters of the Witching Hill and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

Purely by coincidence, (or….was it? insert maniacal laugher here ) I read these two fascinating studies of witchcraft and politics back to back. Although set nearly a century apart, and in different continents, they make terrific companion pieces. Both are works of fiction, set against real events, and ask the question “What if the witches, hanged at Salem and elsewhere, and long presumed innocent victims of hysteria and superstition; what if at least some of them really were witches?”

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt, is the story of a true incident in Lancashire, England during the 16th century. A family of “cunning women”, or Blessers, is accused of witchcraft in order to further the ambitions of a nobleman. The protagonist of the story is Elizabeth Demdyke, who lives during a time when doctors/barbers bled the humours out of starving patients, midwives put knives under beds to cut the pain of child birth, and life expectancy of a nobleman was about 42 years old. A noblewoman was lucky to make 30 after 10 or so pregnancies.

And Elizabeth and her family were no noblemen. Keeping starvation and homelessness at bay were the task of the entire family, and they did what they had to to survive. Bess discovered early on that she had a gift for blessing animals well, potions, and healing. Aided in this by her spirit friend, Tibb, she keeps strictly to light magicks, and wholesome arts. Until the day she is begged by her dearest and oldest friend, Anne, to help her protect her daughter from the son of the local landlord. With no protection, no rights, and no justice, the women do what they must. But the taste of power goes to Anne’s head, and she and Bess part ways over Anne’s dark path.

Bess’s granddaughter Alizon, is the narrator for the latter half of the book. All her life she has run from her families gift, and she lives in terror that Anne’s malice, or her brother’s lunacy will expose the family to ruin. In a time when practicing Catholicism is a capitol crime, her family’s adherence to the old religion is enough to see them hung, never mind the whispers that hang about the two families like a miasma. When Alizon loses her temper and shouts at a local peddler, resulting in a stroke, the innocent suffer with the guilty when the local landowner steps in to curry favor with the devoutly Protestant King James.

Mary Sharratt brings these characters to life in their flawed, sympathetic, bawdy, rich, colorful detail. I particularly like the names of the familiar spirits of the witches: Tibb, Fancy, Ball. The vivid glimpse of a maypole dance in rural England; the dark, heavy glare from the pulpit of the Reformed Faith, eager for the scent of the old religion’s idolatry and incense. The powerlessness of starvation; when parents feed their children mud so they can sleep with a belly that feels full. Who is guilty in such a world? And who is truly innocent?

Beautifully written, a story of tragedy and misused power, I highly recommend Daughters of the Witching Hill.

Oh, and as an amusing aside…while recovering from a migraine the other night, and channel surfing, I heard the name “Elizabeth Demdyke” coming from the television. I found the station again only to discover that the British Spook Show “Most Haunted” is claiming to be followed around by the “Pendle Witches”, featuring Elizabeth Demdyke. On this episode, she had apparently followed them to Wales. Odd coincidence, that.  The old girl really gets around.

Daughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN-13: 978-0-547-06967-8

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane by
Katherine Howe

Connie Goodman is a graduate student at Harvard working on her thesis in American Colonial History. As she searches for the subject of her thesis, she come across the name Deliverance Dane, and gradually comes to realize that Deliverance is one of the Salem Witches, thus far undocumented in history. As the mystery unravels, Connie finds herself drawn into the past in a very real way through visions. Fascinated, Connie goes on to discover that Deliverance is a distant relation to her. And that Connie herself may have inherited some of the gifts that Deliverance, Connie’s grandmother, and mother share. As Connie’s powers grow, so does her ability to sense those who do not have her best interests at heart. Eventually Connie’s search leads her to the search for the grimoire, or the “Physick Book”, the book of recipes, Deliverance handed down to her family as the key to understand the mystery.

A very sweet and tender love story also develops with the story of Deliverance Dane. A local steeplejack named Sam helps Connie solve the mystery and face down the danger that the search for the Physick Book brings. Connie’s mother, an endless source of irritation for Connie, also becomes a source of inspiration as the pieces fall in place.

An interesting note about the author, Katherine Howe, is that she herself is the descendant of two of the accused Salem Witches: Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the panic, and Elizabeth Howe, who was condemned.. She is a gifted writer who brings the past alive in a way that makes it just as real as the present. The two existed side by side in a natural, although mystical, way. Howe has the historian’s fine eye for detail, and brings the 17th century world of woman alive with wry humor; her characters are bold, fresh, and just plain likeable.

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane is Katherine Howe’s debut novel, and I’m already looking forward to the next one. I predict a brilliant literary career ahead.

The Physick Book Of Deliverance Dane
Katherine Howe
Hyperion Books
IBSN: 978-1-4013-4133-6

Sunday, May 16, 2010

STILL MISSING by Chevy Stevens

I read Still Missing by Chevy Stevens in one day. That’s not too surprising for me, I often do that. What is surprising is that a friend gave me the book at about 11am, I started it on my first 15 minute coffee break, my 45 minute lunch and when I left work at 8pm, after an hours drive home I stayed up to finish it.

Gripping. The word is gripping. I was mesmerized by this story. We have all read a similar headline: a woman realtor goes missing from an open house. Despite a massive search attempt, she is never found. Her family and friends have to go one with their lives.

And one year later, she reappears.

Annie has been held by a madman in a remote cabin for a full year. Waiting for rescue, unable to escape, dependent on only her wits for her survival, she has stayed alive, borne her captors child, and waited for her chance. And when she finally takes it, she comes back to a world where in many ways, she is, still missing.

Her trial has just begun. How do you come back from an experience like that and start to live a normal life? Her captor has so brutalized her that she can’t even urinate when she needs to, she has to wait for the bizarre schedule he set for her. She sleeps in the closet more often than not. Surrounded by well-wishers who have no idea what she needs or wants, she is adrift in a sea of rage, despair and grief. They want her to “get on with her life” and she is unable to move, paralyzed by fear.

The story is told first person, Annie to her psychiatrist. Stevens perfectly captures the “who gives a damn” of a depressive to the “I don’t need anybody” rage of the desperately alone and frightened. Like a shell-shocked war veteran, Annie is unable to escape the war already won. Or the ghosts of the already dead.

This is Chevy Stevens debut novel, and I am looking forward to more. Her characters are complex, fascinating, unusual, and gutsy. I really liked Annie. She is a heroine to be proud of.

Publisher: St. Martin's Press (July 6, 2010)
ISBN-13: 978-0312595678

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Once A Runner

Once a Runner, by John L Parker, Jr. is one of those books that has taken on a mythos of its own. Originally self-published by the author, and sold out of the trunk of his car at meets, it gained a cult following and tattered copies were passed from hand to hand. Out of print for years, Simon and Schuster has reprinted it as an introduction to Parker’s new book: Again to Carthage. My friend Tim, aka Book Dude at (there ya go, Tim!) who kindly lent me this copy, told me this was the one book he was unable to find for one of his customers who requested it. When he finally found a battered copy, the price tag was $237.00. So I’m sure this book is going to be greeted with jubilation in many circles.

The book is written by a man who clearly loves his sport and the discipline that goes into training. But the protagonist, Cassidy, is no mere jock. He and his cohorts address each other in a courtly manner, and engage in sophisticated pranks. This is a group of men who considers sports to be a “gentlemen’s” arena; there are rules of conduct; of, dare I say it? of sportsmanship. Running is a philosophical pursuit, as much as a physical one. It is a refreshing change in a day of overhyped, egomaniacal, commercial “products”.

As one quick glance at my physique will tell you, I am no runner. Yet I was completely caught up in this young man’s heroic struggle towards excellence. And that is how the author sees these athletes…as the decedents of the warrior/messengers of old. And they train like warriors. These are the elite runners, the milers, the two-milers who routinely run 18 miles a day, and measure success in a second shaved off their time over the course of a year.

“Why would anyone do that?” is, of course, the question. The pain; the schedule; the lack of social life; the single minded pursuit: all for a race that takes less than five minutes. This book gives us a glimpse into the reasons why, and they are beautiful. I will never look at a runner the same way again.  I await Again to Carthage with great pleasure.

Simon and Schuster, April 2010

IBSN 978-1-4165-9789-6

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Where' My Wand?

Where’s My Wand? By Eric Poole is subtitled: One Boy’s Magical Triumph over Alienation and Shag Carpeting. This should give you some insight into the charm, wit, and pathos of this novel. There is any number of creative- kid-triumphing-over-nutty-parents-school-bullies-and teenage angst, but this one has a number of things going for it: 1) an adorably goofy protagonist, 2) a mother who irons the tongues of tennis shoes, and 3) magic!

The author/protagonist of this memoir is Eric Poole, and a more likeable kid would be hard to find. He lives in a world dominated by a mother who gives Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a bad name. A few of her quirks: waxing the garage floor, Ajaxing the patio, alphabetizing the Christmas ornaments, and ironing the bath towels. Although Eric’s father is kind, he is totally dominated by this virago, and tries to keeps the peace at all cost. Eric and his sister live in a constant state of fear that they will either die at her hand (perhaps for walking on the freshly raked shag carpeting), or of embarrassment.

Eric is also the target of every school bully ever minted. One suspects they are actually bussing them in to make his life miserable. He is poor at sports, sensitive, good at color coordinating, and spends a lot of time on his hair. See where we are going with this? Eric is so sweetly naïve (and sternly Baptist) that he is the last to suspect that he may be gay. An hilarious “exorcism” results.

Eric’s attempt to control his world takes the form of using magic. As a fan of the TV Series “Bewitched”, Eric sees people who can actually manage life, instead of being pummeled by it. He chooses the mother on the show, Endora, as his model, partly because of her cool caftan, and partly because of her dramatic hand gestures. See where I’m going with this?

Hidden in his basement world, draped in an old bedspread, Eric practices his flourishes and his magic. And it works! Flushed with his success, Eric achieves some sense of order in his world. He is befriended by an armless girl, who literally kicks the shit out of his bullies (oh, were that a metaphor!), saved himself from some trouble at home, and learned to play the trumpet. The magic gets away from him though, when he thinks he may have given a family friend cancer, and he is eaten up with guilt.

He later realizes that the magic of his youth was in reality God’s power working through him, which gives us some delightful moments as a Royal Ambassador for Christ. He ultimately grows into the knowledge that he has the power he needs within himself, and always has.

Part of the fun of this book is all the seventies references. I had forgotten so much of the day to day minutiae of growing up in the seventies: Sun-In, Fresca, Ironing my hair, Platform shoes. I was enchanted at how innocent and fun it all seems now, regardless of the fashions.

Mr. Poole is to be congratulated on this gem of a book. I wish I could sit next to him at a dinner party. He must be a most delightful companion. I can’t wait for his next offering.

Putnam Adult
27May 2010
ISBN 9780399156557

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Every Last One

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen is an absolutely stunning work of fiction.  It's meticulously crafted, beautifully layered, and written in Quindlen's signature warm style.  It's the story of a family, a normal, endearing, ordinary family. 

The momentum Quindlen builds is key here.  The first half of the book is just getting to know this likeable family:  Mary Beth Latham, her husband Glen. and their three children, Ruby, Max and Alex.
I found Max particularly endearing.  A bit of an outcast, depressed, creative and alone, he feels totally alientated from his popular twin, Alex.  Their older sister Ruby is engaged in prom dresses, her friends, and plans for college.

And there is where I will leave you.  

I urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to ignore every review out there that could reveal any of the plot of this story (including the back of the book) and just go out, buy the book, and start reading.  The plot and the pacing have been so artfully crafted that Ms Quindlen, and you, deserve the full impact of the story as it unfolds.

Having said that, I am so looking forward to the day when everyone on the planet has read this book, (I hope) so I can finally talk to someone about it without wrecking it for them.  I am dying to discuss this book with somebody!! 

Publisher: Random House (April 13, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1400065745

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Executor

The Executor by Jesse Kellerman has one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time: “I used to own half of Nietzsche’s head.” I hadn’t read Mr. Kellerman before, and that is something I intend to remedy. He is one hell of a writer.

The story is this: young graduate student, who can’t seem to graduate, notices an ad “Conversationalist Sought. Serious Applicants Only” Intrigued, and desperate for some quick cash, he answers the ad, only to meet one Alma Spielmann. Part philosopher, part Santa Claus, and all charm, Ms. Spielmann quickly welcomes Joseph, our protagonist; into her life, her home, and her will (although Joseph is initially unaware of the last item).

As I read, I kept thinking “how does he do it?” I even reread a few pages to see if I could catch it and couldn’t. Without ever resorting to obvious foreshadowing gimmicks such as “little did I suspect….” or, “if only I had known what lay beyond that door….”, Mr. Kellerman manages to convey an atmosphere of intense creepiness and menace even when there is nothing to fear. And when there is something to fear, the tension is almost unbearable. Or quite a ride; depending on how you look at it.

Mr. Kellerman has Joseph speaking in the first person, which is brilliant. Joseph considers himself a “man of the mind”, and not concerned with material possessions. Because we see the world through Joseph’s eyes, it takes a while to pick up on the clues he is leaving. Is that a bit of superiority there? A spot of self-pity? A load of rationalization? Why isn’t that dissertation finished, anyway? It’s fascinating to see how quickly this “man of the mind” is corrupted to “mineminemine”.

And we see where the menace is coming from.

Kellerman’s writing is superb. I especially enjoyed the voice of Alma Spielmann, whose slightly formal, witty, and well-educated conversation is a delight. Even more of a delight for me is in knowing that there are several more books out there by Jesse Kellerman just waiting for me to explore.

Publisher: Putnam (April 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 039915647X
ISBN-13: 978-0399156472

Monday, April 19, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel is the hot book this week, so I’m going to start with that one to show how up-to-date and “with-it” I am. Yeeah.

I’ve got to preface this with a disclaimer…I find Martel very difficult to read. He’s too good. He can be brutally descriptive, and I both recoil from it and find it very effective. This works to great effect in Beatrice and Virgil. A second disclaimer: I don’t want to spoil anything for the gazillions who will read this book, so if I’m a little mysterious, bear with me.

The story is narrated by an author, Henry, who is contacted by a mysterious stranger asking for his help. Assuming the stranger to be a fan who wants some help with a manuscript, or an autograph, Henry arrives at a taxidermy shop whose owner (another Henry…. hmmm) is writing a play featuring a donkey and a howler monkey. They are named Beatrice, and Virgil, respectively. (Another hmmm… anyone read Dante’s Inferno lately?)

Henry the Taxidermist (or Henry the T as he will henceforth be called, to differentiate him from Henry the N) wants Henry the N’s help with his play, but will only reveal scenes one at a time, which he reads aloud, and in the order he chooses. Henry the N, despite himself, is intrigued, as much by Henry the T’s wonderful shop as he is by the taciturn Henry T.

As I was meant to, I was enchanted by Beatrice and Virgil, and increasingly protective of them. Their behavior is fearful, and the reasons why are slowly revealed.

The astute reader (as we are) figures out pretty quickly, as does Henry the N, that the play is really an allegory for the Holocaust…a story that Henry the N has also been trying to tell in a new way. This is the help that Henry the T is looking for. And yes, Beatrice and Virgil are guides to Henry’s hell, with Henry the T as Charon, as yet another allegorical aside.

I think Martel’s brilliance lies in his choice of animals as the victims. In using animals, Martel brilliantly captures our sentimentality for our furry friends, while revealing our callousness to the suffering of human beings. As a society, we are sometimes more protective of our pets than of our neighbors. The shock I felt at animals being treated brutally shamed me. Are they somehow more innocent than innocent people? Are they more defenseless? I realized that brutality to animals seems worse to me, more unfair; crueler; than brutality to people.  And I don't think I'm alone in that.  Hello, PETA.

Once he has made his point, Martel drives it home with a series of questions that will haunt you for weeks.

Beatrice and Virgil is incredibly powerful, beautifully written, wise and compelling.

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; (April 13, 2010)

ISBN-10: 1400069262
ISBN-13: 978-1400069262

Monday, April 12, 2010

Imperfect Birds

Imperfect Birds by Anne Lamott

I’ve got to tell you. I flat out love Anne Lamott. She was there when I was getting sober, cost me my (ha!) dignity while reading in public by causing snorting, giggling, and once, weeping. She just seems like someone I would love to have as a friend, and someone who is like many of my friends. I’m lucky that way.

Elizabeth Ferguson is a recurring figure for Ms Lamott. One can be forgiven for suspecting that she is a fairly thinly disguised version of Ms Lamott herself, having some of the same flaws, and endearing vulnerabilities already confessed to by the author.

Elizabeth is surrounded by a circle of friends that anyone would envy: her friend Rae, who is warm, wise, generous, and pees a little when she laughs…what could be better than that? Rae’s husband, Lank, invented a ministry just for Elizabeth called “Seeing the Light Ministry”. The main tenet is WAIT or, “why am I talking?” when dealing with teenagers who are trying to provoke a fight. “Lank provided Elizabeth with Seeing the Light responses to everyday demands, such as “ The instructions are inside the lid of the washer”. And finally, there is James, Elizabeth’s second husband and Rosie’s stepfather, after her natural father died when she was young. James is supportive, funny, loving, open, and importantly, less vulnerable to manipulation than Elizabeth.

Elizabeth and her daughter Rosie have now reached Rosie’s 17th year. Rosie has been, in many ways, an exceptional child…tennis star, smart, beautiful, and wise beyond her years…sometimes having had to be the parent to Elizabeth in the wake of her father’s death, and Elizabeth’s alcoholism. Rosie has become that most feared of all creatures: the human teenager. And who among us has not been on the receiving end of that look;the one that reduces us from fully functioning adult to the lamest organism ever to stain the tiles of the mall.

But worse than the attitude, is that the evidence keeps mounting that Rosie is using drugs. She is lying; she is manipulating; her friends are not good for her. All textbook parental terror bells. And it just keeps getting worse the more James and Elizabeth try to step in and control the situation. A major contributing factor is Elizabeth’s vulnerability and secret guilt about her own alcoholism. She knows that Rosie has seen her drunk on numerous occasions, and recently in a couple of emotional meltdowns. She secretly fears she doesn’t have any credibility, or even the right to demand more of Rosie. She fears she was a poor parent, and is over lenient as a result. More than anything, she fears the loss of Rosie’s love, and Rosie knows that, and uses it to her own advantage. James sees this underplay and is powerless to stop it.

This book can be difficult at times because it is so frustratingly real. I found myself wanting to slap some sense into Rosie, and yes, into Elizabeth as well, even while my heart broke for her. She stumbles a bit, and bumps into the furniture, but makes the right decisions, aided by James and her friends, and ultimately by Rosie herself.

This is the story of facing your deepest fears and doing what you know to be right, despite what it may cost you, because you may face a greater loss if you don’t. It’s funny, and sad, and sweet, and heartbreaking, and inspiring, like so much of Lamott’s work. Her honesty, the reverence she has for everyday courage, and the beauty she sees in the flaws that make us individuals are as refreshing as her humor. Ms Lamott seems to genuinely appreciate people and I’m glad to say that we appreciate her back.

Imperfect Birds, Anne Lamott
ISBN 978-1-59448-751-4
Coming in April 2010 Riverhead Books, Penguin Group

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Heresy by SJ Parris

When I first saw the title, and read the description for Heresy by S.J. Parris, I thought “Fabulous! Another work of fiction portraying the Catholic Church as a fanatical bunch of self-flagellating creeps in hair shirts with overly-complicated plots to mislead the faithful. I just can’t get enough of that!”

Alas, I was doomed to disappointment. For while there is a self-flagellating, hair-shirt wearing priest in the offing, the creepiness and the over complicated plotting is pretty evenly spread around between the Catholics and the Protestants in this absorbing crime caper set in Elizabethan England. In fact, the only men of reason are the men of science and er, reason: the heretics of their time.
The hero of the novel, Giordano Bruno, is a former monk, ex-communicant, heretic, and on the run from the Spanish Inquisition. (And really, aren’t we all?) He finds himself enmeshed in a series of really nasty murders in Oxford, and is forced to help solve them in order to protect himself, his mission, and some people he has come to like. He is in Oxford on a sectarian mission, to smoke out secret Catholics, the faith he once embraced. And while he professes a loathing for his former faith, he gets glimpses of not only his former transcendence, but the ugliness that mars both the old and the new faiths when martyrdom becomes a prize.
Parris does a wonderful job of evoking Elizabethan England, particularly Oxford. The ugly irony of sectarian violence is echoed in the descriptions of time and place: the filthy, wet scholar’s gowns dragging through the mud; drinking fine wine out of oily wooden cups. And the slowly drawn tightened web of tension: the smell of a candle snuffed out just before one enters the room; footsteps on the cobbles behind you in the dark; dust motes in the air when an old velvet curtain is opened; a tableaux of horror carefully arranged in an ancient church.
Heresy has an intelligent and thoughtful protagonist, a skilled author, an absorbing storyline, and even a romance which was a surprise given most of the cast was clergy of some sort (and no, it did not involve any alter boys!).

I highly recommend this book. It is richly drawn, suspenseful, well-researched, and often witty. I hope we see more of the resourceful Dr. Bruno. I suspect he has quite a career ahead of him.

Random House
Format: Hardcover, 448 pages
On Sale: February 23, 2010 Price: $25.95 ISBN: 978-0-385-53128-3 (0-385-53128-1)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The House of Tommorow

Ah…what a beauty of a book…..

House of Tomorrow, the debut novel by Peter Bognanni, is the story of hearts: broken hearts, damaged hearts, lonely hearts, and disappointed hearts. These hearts are simply gorgeous in their expression: shaky, angry, righteous, and lost.

This is the story of Sebastian, a young man who has lived his whole life in a Geodome with his grandmother, Nana. Homeschooled and isolated, Sebastian is taken in by the Whitcomb family when his grandmother’s health begins failing. An argument over his fascination with the outside world leaves him adrift, and he joins the Whitcombs in their home. At the center of the Whitcomb family is Jared, an angry, frightened young punk-rock wannabe. His sister, Meredith is a girl with a reputation, and their mother, Janice lives in terror of losing a child. The absence of the father/husband is bitterly felt by each family member, and they compensate for his betrayal in isolation from one another, rage, and taking on roles.

Enter Sebastian: naïve, open, and on the brink of discovery. His grandmother has raised him to believe that his destiny is to save the world through the metaphysical teachings of E. Buckminster Fuller, the creator of geodisc architecture. He suspects his destiny is something much less grand. His relationship with each of the Whicombs is full of charm: snarling musicianship with Jared, a tender first romance with Meredith, and as a godsend for Janice, who sees him as a way to pull Jared out of his isolation.

And in the background is Nana, quietly re-creating the world to deal with her sense of loss. Sebastian suspects his grandmother of telepathy, and tries to shield her from his thoughts and deceptions. But he also longs for home and safety as he explores a whole new life. The dichotomy between the two leaves Sebastian touchingly funny, and endearingly lost.

Bognanni has created rich, sorrowful, and fascinating characters. He has a true ear: each character’s voice is as unique as he or she is. Some of the funniest moments of the book come from Jared trying to teach Sebastian to curse.

In the end, Sebastian may not save the world. But as he says, he may have saved just one family. And that is something.

House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
ISBN 978-0-399-15609
Amy Einhorn Books , published by GP Putnam’s Sons
Release date March, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon is the story of one man’s exploration into his past. Exploring one’s past is a fashionable pursuit, but Justin Fisher’s explorations lead him to the story of another man, another family, and another past entirely.

The novel begins with Justin, his wife Amy and their son Zack moving to the West Coast after a prolonged stay on the East Coast and London. In a moment of nostalgia, Justin visits the graves of his parents, and finds a small grave next to theirs, with his name on it.  The ensuing mystery unravels through the story of two families; point and counterpoint to Justin’s most cherished memories.

Justin’s journey takes its toll on his own family. His wife is baffled and hurt by his withdrawal. Their crisis echoes that of other family, decades past. One crisis is resolved in a horrifying betrayal, one that has consequences far beyond its intended goal. Can one family’s love erase the bitter fruit of years of secrets?

Dixon explores The Language of Secrets in  tautly written, compelling prose. The action moves forward quickly, yet she retains those moments of sun-dappled promise, in both the yesterdays and the present days. She never forgets that people are complex, and their love for each other is more complex still. The expression of that love can lead to joy, or secrets, sometimes simultaneously.

The Language of Secrets
Author Dianne Dixon
Doubleday, ISBN 978-0-385-53063-7
Tentative Release Date 03/23/10

Saturday, February 13, 2010

One Amazing Thing

One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, is just that: an exquisite jewel of a novel. Divakaruni, the award-winning author and poet (Palace of Illusions, Shadowland), has crafted a novel of deep compassion and hope; one that shatters the boundaries of age, experience, and ethnicity.

The story is deceptively simple: Nine strangers are trapped in an Indian Visa Office by an earthquake. Beset by danger, hunger, fear and pain, they each tell the story of the one amazing thing that has happened to them. Each tale, we come to understand, reveals the secret, defining moment of each life. The urgency of their situation causes each person to at last share their innermost self. To be truly seen, at what may be the end of their own personal story.

As the stories progress, the characters are inexorably forced together. The physical space they share shrinks in proportion to the revelations they share emotionally. Finally, they are stranded together on literal and metaphorical life rafts, clinging to hope

Fascinating stories of passion, injustice, loss, and wonder emerge. Interwoven in each is the story of India; her diverse culture, ancient traditions, and enduring identity. But these are ultimately the stories of everyman and everywoman revealed by the hand of a master craftsman. The beauty, the wonderment, and the yearning are universal. Our choice, we see, is in how we use these moments of transformation.

Divakaruni draws her complex characters with a loving hand. We desperately begin to hope for the deliverance of these people. The novel ends with a stunning twist, one that left me longing for more.

The magic of this book resides in the gifts of compassion the characters share. One Amazing Thing may have defined their pasts, but the present moment they share will define their future.
One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni will be available from Voice Hyperion Books in February 2010.