One of Shane Burcaw's biggest goals was getting people to see past his disability. It's fair to say he accomplishes that and more in his candid new memoir, Laughing at My Nightmare. Even the title suggests some of the self-deprecating humor that helps shape the amusing but bittersweet tone of Burcaw’s story. Saddled with spinal muscular atrophy at age 2, the 21-year-old has been in a wheelchair his whole life, but that's not what this young man’s story is about. It’s about figuring out how to live a life as close to normal and sharing his daily successes and failures along the way.
There is no cure for Burcaw’s condition. His body does not produce the enzyme necessary for producing and maintaining muscle tissue. His body is failing him, but he refuses to fail his body. Disease aside, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, native is just a normal guy. He hangs out with his buddies, admits to liking girls and goofs off playing video games. The difference is he depends on others to do everything for him, from dressing to toileting. He has a hard time when it comes to fitting in with others with disabilities. The fact that he doesn’t want sympathy comes through loud and clear.
Burcaw shares his experiences through his blog, (also called "Laughing at My Nightmare"), where humor is an integral component. He figured there were people out there who would want to know what life for a severely disabled person is like. So he starts writing about sex, fear of dying, questions about God. Before he knew it, he had several thousand followers and was soon embarking on a national tour to raise money and awareness for his disease. Burcaw’s story is not without its somber moments. With short chapters, black and white photos and text bubbles, he manages to strike just the right chord for what he is trying to accomplish. “What if we traveled to schools and talked about humor and positivity?” he says, “We could help kids see that life is what they made it.” Teens and adults will find much to like in Burcaw’s heartfelt journey.
Ethics and morality get trumped by passion and ambition in Saskia Goldschmidt's disturbing yet engaging debut novel, The Hormone Factory, translated from Dutch by Hester Velmans. Mordechai de Paauw is the Dutch cofounder and CEO of a slaughterhouse-turned-pharmaceutical enterprise. His new company, Farmacom, becomes a global success for its pioneering of hormonal treatments, including the contraceptive pill. However, it is deeply overshadowed by the flawed humanity of its owner.
Now on his deathbed, Mordechai reflects on his turbulent life, its towering achievements and its darkest failures. He revisits the early days of the family butcher business he and his twin brother Aaron inherited from their father. It is Mordechai who sees the pharmaceutical possibilities of extracting hormones from animal waste, but it is Aaron who pays a dear price. Mordechai seeks and forms an uneasy partnership with an equally ambitious German scientist, Rafael Levine. The two mount one breakthrough after another while Hitler charges toward Holland’s doorstep. World War II threatens Mordechai's interests, as do gross errors in judgment, personal and professional.
Goldschmidt, whose father survived the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, found material for this story while conducting research for another book. "I came across the file of Professor Laqueur, a famous pharmacologist and clinician, one of the founders of the pharmaceutical company Organon and the man who discovered testosterone. More important, he also happened to be my father's first father-in-law." Professor Laqueur’s collaboration with the Van Zwanenberg slaughterhouse owned by two brothers from the town of Oss, Holland, eventually resulted in one of the country's first multinational pharmaceutical companies. To be sure, Goldschmidt's imagined story of the real players sheds an unflattering light on a young industry on the cusp of discovering miracle drugs. An intriguing book club read, this story will resonate with anyone who has ever swallowed an aspirin.
Life has always been in the details for Addie Baum, the 85-year-old protagonist in Anita Diamant's new historical novel, The Boston Girl. When her youngest granddaughter asks her to tell her life story, Addie starts at the beginning. Born at the turn of the century, this daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants endures disappointments and obstacles along the way to living a full life defined by plucky resolve and passion. In Diamant's capable hands, Addie's first person narrative is a gentle and lovely rewinding back to the soul of another time and place.
Coming of age as a Jewish woman in the 20th century, Addie endures the endless harping of her suspicious mother who sees America as the wrecker of young women. Home is in a tenement in the north end of Boston, where there is just enough money for food and rent. Staying in school becomes Addie's dream despite her mother's low expectations. It's her love of reading that opens doors to the world she will eventually inhabit. When she lands an invite to join the Saturday Club girls at their camp at Rockport Lodge, she forms friendships along with opinions and new experiences. For Addie, it is time of Parker House rolls and keeping boys from getting "fresh." When she tries on long pants for the first time she can't believe how liberating it feels.
Diamant, whose previous works include the highly regarded The Red Tent, wades through a significant period in American history, including sweat shops, the flu epidemic, World War I, the Depression and feminism, just as Addie matures and exploits her own personal potential. While this latest novel may be a lighter read than Diamant's previous works, readers will enjoy the plot-moving short chapters that capture the intrinsic nature of the early 20th century immigrant experience in America. The Boston Girl should make an excellent book club selection for those examining the breadth of connections that sustain us.
Richard is going crazy. His 14-year-old cousin Malley doesn't want to go to boarding school. Now she has run off with some guy named Talbo Chock. Luckily for Richard, he crosses paths with Skink, the 72-year-old oddball protagonist in Carl Hiaasen's newest teen novel Skink: No Surrender. Skink has been around before. He is one of Hiaasen's most beloved characters first appearing in his adult novel Double Whammy over 25 years ago. Now he's back, just in time to dish out his own weed-whacking brand of integrity and justice.
Richard doesn't know what to make of Skink, the eccentric, one-eyed ex-governor of Florida. One minute Skink is burying himself in the sand waiting to catch Loggerhead turtle egg thieves, the next he's off to help Richard solve the mystery of Malley's disappearance. Richard and Skink’s swampy journey leads them into one white-knuckle situation after another, thankfully diluted with plenty of humor along the way. Road kill for dinner, anyone?
Hiaasen, a Florida native and columnist for the Miami Herald, has long been an advocate for the Everglades. This latest plot-driven adventure, told from Richard’s perspective, continues Hiaasen’s subtle brand of environmental awareness while skimming over the creepier aspect of the story: a teenage girl’s abduction by an older man. As with his previous books, nature — and man's disregard for it — pulse below the surface, as does the fact that imperfection is not, by itself, a bad thing. There's a place for even flawed superheroes, like Skink, when it comes to defending what's right. Marketed for teen readers, this latest effort, recently long-listed for the National Book Award, will appeal to the legion of Hiaasen fans who appreciate his popular brand of humor and zesty storytelling.
Stuck. That's what Nora Webster is since her beloved husband Maurice died. With four children, the 40-year-old widow is mindful of the hole in their lives while trying to eke out their existence in the small Irish town where everyone knows your business. Set 40 years ago amidst Ireland’s religious unrest, Colm Tóibín’s newest novel, Nora Webster, is a quiet and eloquent study of the power of transformative grief and the new way of living that only Nora and her family can define.
Protective and no nonsense, Nora knows it's now her role to run a household that includes two growing boys and two daughters on the brink of adulthood. Through the careful, keen observations of family and friends, we get to know and sympathize with Tóibín's stubborn and private protagonist. While people swirl around her, Nora can only ponder the course her life has taken, the decisions she has made, the actions she has regretted. She is not the only one grieving. All the while her children, especially her boys, Conor and Donal, wait with unmet needs. When she does unwittingly nudge toward a passion that stirs her, contentment is slow to insert itself.
A recurring Man Booker Prize finalist, Tóibín is the author of six previous novels including the provocative Testament of Mary. Here he offers up the richest of character portraits in Nora and her family while smoothly glancing the social, religious and political issues of the day. Complicated and contemplative, reflective and fluent, Tóibín probes Nora's mind with a subtle psychological deftness until we, too, feel as intimate with her as those in her orbit. It is confident, undramatic prose that takes us to Enniscorthy, Tóibín’s birthplace, and to the solitary effort of learning to live again. Fans of this highly regarded contemporary writer will not have to wait too long for his next book; On Elizabeth Bishop is due out next April.
Two young women connected through a painting and distanced by time are at the heart of Kristy Cambron's debut historical novel, The Butterfly and the Violin. In 1942, Adele Von Bron is the darling of Vienna society, an accomplished violinist and the doted-upon daughter of a high-ranking military officer. Her privileged upbringing keeps her removed from the Nazi killing squads until she meets Vladimir, a fellow musician and merchant's son. Eventually the couple's sympathies toward the Jews land them in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Adele is imprisoned to be "reeducated," and her beloved violin becomes her lifeline when she is conscripted to play in the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz.
Seventy years later, Manhattan art gallery owner Sera James is haunted by the one last link to her father. It is a painting she remembers from childhood of a beautiful Auschwitz prisoner, violin in hand. Escaping her own disappointing past, she embarks on a singular quest to find the girl with the penetrating blue eyes and learn her story. When Sera's journey takes her to California to the one other person equally absorbed with finding the painting, her life is about to change. The wealthy, handsome William Hanover may be just the person Sera needs to realize more than just one dream.
Cambron, who admits to being fascinated with World War II, brings to bear the human need to create art even among the battered landscape of war. With a double narrative and shifting points of view, she captures the historical breadth of the time period with an inspirational tone. Her research included a moving interview with an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. "The experience added such a note of realism to Adele's story that I almost felt as if she was real, that she'd actually been there and fought to survive alongside the rest of the souls in that horrible place," Cambron recalled. Her second book in the new Hidden Masterpiece series, A Sparrow in Terezin, is due out next April.
Former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills says she never expected to befriend Harper Lee, much less write a biography-memoir about her 18-month sojourn to Monroeville, Alabama, that included living next door to the reclusive author. But 15 years after Mills' first visit, her highly discussable new book, The Mockingbird Next Door, has ridden the literary wave for its jolt of homey, if not mundane, rituals of Lee's daily life. If a peek behind the curtain is what you are seeking, Mills does not disappoint. The comings and goings of the Lee sisters (Alice is older) are affectionately detailed, leading to the inevitable question as to why Harper Lee would allow herself to be portrayed so simply and unguarded after years of shying away from publicity.
For Mills, this assignment was intriguing for its possibilities, and an opportunity to prove she could still do her job despite a diagnosis of lupus. In 2001, she travels to Lee's hometown to speak to folks who knew the then 75-year-old Harper Lee (Nelle to friends) and to get a feel for Monroeville, the setting for Lee's fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, the instant classic about the 1930s South. With a reporter's eye for opportunity, Mills meets and impresses Alice, smoothing the way for a meeting with the famous Harper Lee, whose only book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was the subject of an Oscar-winning film. When Harper Lee called the reporter's hotel room, Mills recalled, "It was as if I had answered the phone and heard, 'Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.' I felt my adrenaline spike."
Mills injects a strong sense of place in her conversational writing, along with plenty of quaint colloquialisms. There are towns like Burnt Corn and Scratch Ankle, and fishing trips and coffee-sipping at McDonald's. She captures the Mayberry-like tone of Lee's voice with her frequent "bless her heart," "mercy" and "thanks a bunch, hon." Mills tenderly skims over rumored aspects of Lee's life, dealing with sexual orientation and drinking, although her exploration of Lee's intriguing relationship with childhood friend, Truman Capote, is one of the more interesting chapters.
Knowing Harper Lee's penchant for privacy, it is probably not surprising that Mills' book has come under scrutiny. The author has insisted she had Lee's blessing for the project. Harper Lee's released statement denies the 88-year-old ever gave approval; Alice recalled otherwise. Such matters won't deter readers who will relish this intimate look inside the seemingly uncomplicated life of one of the most complicated and beloved literary figures of the 20th century.
Great art "is capable of grabbing a person," explains one of the characters in Lisette's List, the equally enthralling new historical novel by bestselling author Susan Vreeland. Fans of Ms. Vreeland and her well regarded art-inspired fiction will not be disappointed with this story of a young woman's defining journey into the ordinary life of a rural French village and the power of art that beckons her amidst a world war. Recently, Susan Vreeland answered questions for Between the Covers about her latest effort.
Between the Covers: In Lisette’s List, you introduce readers to one of the most beautiful villages in France and to the organic nature of art in this sweeping story of self-discovery set around World War II. Unlike your previous art-related novels, this story explores more than one work of art. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea and the setting for this latest book?
Susan Vreeland: It began with a feeling that in terms of my development as a writer, I must not write another novel centered on one artist, bringing to literary life part of a biography, and expanding into the artist's friendships and associations. That approach has given me much joy for a decade, but recently I began to feel that it was too constraining. The new book came of a need to outgrow that mode and completely invent for myself, and to devote my imagination to creating characters who I wanted to embrace.
Enter a Provence-loving friend who insisted that I see the village of Roussillon in Provence on an upcoming trip across the south of France with my husband. I fell in love, recognizing this perch of harmonious houses high above ochre cliffs as a treasure of ultimate provincialism. I vowed to come again. And I did, with a novel swimming in my head.
BTC: Lisette tells her own story. What made you decide on a first-person narrator?
SV: First person was a natural choice. I wanted Lisette's realizations and discoveries to be revealed in her own voice. I thought that would lend an air of authenticity to the story if she would be the one to deliver it. Also, this point of view lent itself to her writing of her “List of Hungers and Vows.”
BTC: As a writer of historical fiction, how do you reconcile the facts of the time period with your characters’ development?
SV: One has to be careful with this. A writer of historical fiction cannot stray too far away from recorded fact. Integrating a fictional character is not hard when that character encounters events of history, as in this case, World War II. In fact, the wealth of information about that war helped me invent peripheral characters, like Bernard. An enigma for much of the novel, he ends up illustrating the conclusion that in war, particularly a long war, no one comes out unstained. That applies to Maxime as well.
BTC: Inspired to “do the important things first,” Lisette creates a list of vows to herself. Are you maker of lists yourself?
SV: I suppose I am: lists of ideas for novels and poems, lists of books to read, lists of things I want to learn, lists of places I want to go. However, I don't keep a superficial bucket list, as common parlance calls it, nor should we think of Lisette's list as a bucket list. I consider it to be deeper, at least most of the items on it. They are designed to show the inner Lisette to us.
BTC: At what moment did you realize the power of art could be conveyed through your stories?
SV: This happened very early on. Let's take my first art-related novel, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Lisette's List as examples. Both involve the Second World War, and large-scale pillage of art as well as small-scale theft. In writing the separate stories that comprise Girl, I realized that art could be coveted, that art could betray a secret, that art could exonerate bad behavior, that it could be seen as a commodity, that it could be loved by the unfortunate and uneducated as well as the fortunate and educated, and that it could be loved in a pure sense of awe at its beauty. If you reread Girl, you'll see that I have described each chapter this way.
Now, with Lisette's List, I move deeper in developing the theme of the power of art. While the uneducated (Pascal) also adores paintings, it is the educated (Maxime) who sees in them the scope of art history and for what they do for people. Great art, he says, “is capable of grabbing a person...and holding him in a trancelike state of union with the subject until he sees who he is or who we are as human beings more clearly...Being completely absorbed by a piece of art, he becomes minutely different than he was before, less limited to his previous, narrower self, and this equips him to live a better life and to avoid getting swallowed by the world's chaos.”
BTC: Of the works you have researched do you have any favorites?
SV: As difficult a question as choosing which of one's children one loves most. Certainly Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party comes to mind, for the joie de vivre of 14 of Renoir's friends enjoying an afternoon on a terrace overlooking the Seine, and so openly allowing me to tell their stories. From Lisette's List, I favor Chagall's exultant Promenade with Marc holding up Bella on one hand as she flutters sideways in the sky, too exuberant after the October Revolution in Russia to remain on the earth. And from The Forest Lover, Emily Carr's monumental painting of a Red Cedar, “…more than a tree, however noble. It was the manifestation of the attitude that brought her this far: reaching.”
BTC: Libraries have played a significant role in your growth as a writer and researcher. Can you share a favorite memory?
SV: Ah, libraries, my second homes from grade school to adulthood, and the groundwork of my fiction. It was a librarian who found for me a dissertation from the Sorbonne on 19th century boating on the Seine which authenticated scenes in my novel Luncheon of the Boating Party.
And it was a librarian who located for me Chagall's historic "Letter to the Paris Artists, 1944," a thrilling discovery. Reading this important letter led me to see that the novel I was writing, Lisette's List, was more than a narrow story of a woman retrieving her family's seven paintings, hidden and lost during the Occupation. Her experience was a microcosm of the vast and systematic seizure of Europe's art by what Chagall called "satanic enemies who wanted to annihilate not just the body but also the soul — the soul, without which there is no life, no artistic creativity." By focusing on one character's loss, I could represent the larger issue of vast art theft, hidden hoarding and threats to national patrimony which are still concerns today.
Books give birth to books, you see, and librarians are vital to that creativity. We don't know what important research is being done today, what projects are underway in our cities — in the arts, the humanities, the sciences — but librarians get glimpses, and that's what must make them so dedicated to helping their researching patrons.
Readers will know on page one that something terrible has happened to James and Marilyn's teenage daughter, Lydia. It will be the catalyst that splinters the family to its core and one of several throbbing undercurrents in Celeste Ng's emotionally complex first novel Everything I Never Told You. A Chinese-American family, the Lees stand out for the wrong reasons in their small town of Middlewood, Ohio; there just aren't many biracial families in the 1970s Midwest. With Lydia gone, the family now must reconcile the past with a present that threatens their tenuous ties to each other and to the life they thought they had built.
When James and Marilyn got married they made a pact to let the past drift away. A first-generation Chinese-American, James was used to being the Asian who never fit in. When he meets Marilyn, a pretty white pre-med student, while teaching as a graduate assistant, she represents the acceptance he's been seeking. They marry despite her mother's glaring disapproval. For Marilyn, her dream of attending medical school vanishes when she becomes pregnant. Now, the cultural divide they thought blended away has returned with their daughter's mysterious death. Middle child Lydia was the favorite, the one who would accomplish what they did not: be popular (dad) and grow up to be a doctor (mom). It's a heavy burden, perhaps too much so, not just for Lydia but for the other two Lee children who witness their parents' favoritism. The author, herself a first-generation Asian-American Midwesterner, deftly positions the youngest child Hannah as the astute observer to the family's unraveling and the mystery of her sister's death.
With confident, smooth prose, the Pushcart Prize-winning Ng (pronounced "ing") shifts readers back and forth over time to capture the sympathetic and sometimes frustrating portrait of a family betrayed by cultural expectations and personal loss. Ng's thoughtfully detailed writing and spot-on characterizations carry this literary mystery beyond the solving of a death to what it means to be a family of strangers, hoping to rediscover each other. Jhumpa Lahiri fans will find threads of familiarity in Ng's strong debut.