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Between the Covers / Shhhh... we're reading.   Photo of reading after bedtime
Lori Hench

As a child, Lori Hench fell in love with Beverly Cleary's books and has had her nose in a book ever since. Now an adult, she finds saying "but I have to read this for work" is a wonderful excuse for avoiding housework and other distasteful chores. When she's not reading, she works at the Randallstown Branch and enjoys recommending literary fiction, memoirs, and current nonfiction. She admits to still liking children's books and, in a pinch, will read absolutely anything.

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Not Your Mother’s Miss Marple

The DollTuesday's GoneThe literary world has never lacked for crime-solving heroines who cleverly and genteelly solve all manner of conundrum. There is, however, a new breed of women in town and they are also cracking cases but in a decidedly angry, messy, and bloody way. Meet Vanessa Michael Munroe in The Doll by Taylor Stevens, and Frieda Klein in Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French.

 

Raised in Africa by her American missionary parents, Munroe is tough. She likes to go on missions disguised as a man, has an amazing facility for languages, relishes physical combat, and harbors a rage which drives her to tackle the seamy international underworld of human trafficking. In The Doll, she is working for the independent security firm Capstone when she is abducted by minions of the creepy Doll Man. She must match wits with him in order to save herself and the next “doll.” Author Stevens was raised in the Children of God cult, infamous for its alleged sexual practices involving the children in the group’s care. This is her third book in the fast-paced Munroe series.

 

British psychotherapist Frieda Klein finds herself working with the police once again in Tuesday’s Gone. Called in to analyze both a bizarre crime scene and the nearly catatonic probable perpetrator of the murder, Klein believes the solution isn’t as easy and obvious as the chief of police would like it to be and is drawn into the investigation. French (actually a husband/wife writing duo) is skilled at creating complex psychological thrillers, and as Klein works to untangle the clues and prove one suspect innocent, she can’t shake the feeling that she is being watched and manipulated. Look for Klein to make repeat appearances in this days-of-the-week series which began with Blue Monday.

 

Lori

 
 

A Tale of Many Strengths

The World's Strongest LibrarianLibraries are often thought of as quiet places, with librarians acting as shushing gatekeepers, bespectacled and soft. Josh Hanagarne, a Utah librarian, doesn’t quite fit the stereotype. At 6 feet 7 inches tall, he lifts weights and can bend horseshoes with his hands. He can have trouble with the quiet part, too; he has struggled with Tourette Syndrome since elementary school. Hanagarne writes about strength training, Tourette’s, his Mormon faith, dating, and his urban public library experiences in The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

 

At six, Hanagarne’s parents noticed him repeatedly touching his lip to his nose while onstage during a school play. This initial involuntary movement bloomed into a variety of motor and verbal tics as he entered his teens. Encouraged by his father, he started gym workouts in an effort to exert control over the disorder as well as combat some of the hopelessness he feels when the tics are particularly troublesome. Here, “troublesome” can mean self-injurious, drawing blood, and he notes that his neurologist states that Hanagarne’s case is the most severe he’s seen.

 

Hanagarne, however, has not written a pity party. He is both an avid reader and a gifted writer and while parts of his story are heartbreaking, much of it is insightful, fascinating, and downright funny. His chapters are named with the Dewey Decimal classification numbers of the subjects contained within. Chapter 7 is "646.78 Marriage", which bodes well since Chapter 3 is "305.31 Lust Religious Aspects Christianity". He shares his evolving views on religion, his fears for his son, and his involvement with weight lifting and body awareness as a means to control his uncontrollable movements. His trenchant observations about public libraries and their patrons illustrate both the diversity of library users and his beliefs that enrich the lives of all those who walk through their doors. He also shares his thoughts and offers bookish advice on his blog also named The World's Strongest Librarian.

Lori

 
 

A Jury of Her Peers

A Jury of Her Peers

posted by:
April 25, 2013 - 7:01am

NWLife After LifeMay We Be ForgivenSince its launch in 1996, the London-based Orange Prize has recognized the achievements of women authors around the world. Organized partly in response to a perceived bias weighted towards male-authored books receiving literary awards, this prize is judged by a committee of women, issues long and short lists of book contenders and ends with one grand winner. As it undergoes a change in sponsorship this year, the 2013 prize is known as The Women’s Prize for Fiction.

 

The 2013 short list was announced on April 16, and includes several titles familiar to Between the Covers readers. Probably the least surprising title to appear on the list is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. The second in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, it focuses on the final year of Anne Boleyn’s life and has been heaped with awards and accolades including the Man Booker Prize and the New York Times’ Top Ten Books of 2012. Previous Orange winner and American author Barbara Kingsolver is also named for her book, Flight Behavior. A financially strapped southern family is ready to sell their land to a strip-mining company until they find an immense roost of migratory butterflies has unexpectedly made their mountain a home. New to the prize scene is author Maria Semple, honored for Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A comically satirical look at Seattle and privilege, wife and mother Bernadette has disappeared and it may be up to her daughter to find her.

 

Another Orange Prize winner, Zadie Smith, is back on the list for her book NW. Described as a “story of a city,” Smith writes about friends from northwest London and examines their progress, or lack thereof, on the ladder of social climbing and upward mobility. The final short-listers are Life After Life by Britain’s Kate Atkinson and A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven. Garnering glowing reviews, Atkinson’s tale begins in pre-WWI England and is centered around a character who dies repeatedly only to return to live her same life again with the ability to alter her choices. DC native Homes introduces the brothers Silver.  First-born George’s life is the definition of success--fame, money, a lovely wife and prep school children; younger Harold is a history professor at a community college who moves in on George’s family when George starts to unravel, triggering a calamitous series of events. The complete long list of nominated books can be found on the Women’s Prize website and the winner will be announced on June 5, 2013.

Lori

 
 

A Family Rent Asunder

A Family Rent Asunder

posted by:
April 22, 2013 - 6:55am

Ghana Must GoTaiye Selasi’s debut novel, Ghana Must Go, begins with an end. Sai family patriarch Kweku lies in the dewy grass before dawn, slowly dying in his garden amidst a riot of African color and beauty. Get up, call for help, the reader wants to shout at this Hopkins-educated physician; instead, Kweku passively waits for his heart to stop beating.

 

Selasi’s title refers to the forced expulsion of Ghanaians from neighboring Nigeria as well as to the distinctive, cheap carryall bags in which they stuffed their belongings. Dr. Kweku Sai is from Ghana and his wife Fola is Nigerian. They meet in Pennsylvania where he is completing surgical training and she is in law school. They marry, have four intelligent and driven children, move to Boston, and continue to rack up professional and personal accomplishments. The Sai family epitomizes immigrant success until one unjust and cataclysmic event causes the foundation of the family to crumble and collapse. Written in three sections, “Gone,” “Going,” and lastly “Go,” Selasi allows her characters to reveal the insecurities which enabled their family bonds to stretch, break, and perhaps reform. Recollections, some of which are poignant and others shocking, are integral to understanding each of the family members.

 

This is a story of Africa and of America, of third world attainment and stellar achievements by anyone’s first world standards, and of a family unraveled and lives destroyed. It is a story of putting one foot in front of the other when one foot is in Africa and the other foot stateside. It is a story of leaving and of rebuilding. With its image-rich prose, acidic observations, and perceptive take on family relationships, Ghana Must Go is also very much a story to enjoy.

 

Lori

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Thinking for One’s Self

Going ClearBeyond BeliefWhen the average Joe hears the word “Scientology,” Joe might think of celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Perhaps Joe thinks of founder L. Ron Hubbard and remembers the vast array of sci-fi pulp fiction stories authored by Hubbard. Does Joe, however, know what Scientology is? Is it a religion, a philosophy, a science or a cult? Lawrence Wright, in his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes an in-depth look at Scientology’s founder, Hubbard, and his successor, David Miscavige, the history of the organization, and its beliefs. Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, has a turn telling her story in Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, which she co-authors with Lisa Pulitzer.

 

In Going Clear, Wright begins with an overview of Hubbard’s erratic early life, which includes stories of bigamy, psychological disturbances, and the near-death experience in the dentist’s chair which led to his formulation of the Scientology doctrine and the publication of what may be its bible, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Wright explores the growth of the movement, its appeal to the Hollywood crowd, and especially looks at the elite, highly committed and rigidly controlled Sea Org corps members.

 

Hill opens Beyond Belief by describing how she, at seven years old, signed a contract binding herself to “the Sea Organization for the next billion years...” As a Thetan, a sort of immortal soul, she would continue to inhabit bodies to fulfill the contract terms. Living on a ranch with other Sea Org children, she saw her parents only on Saturday nights. Her dedication to Scientology remained strong but as the demands of the group worked to increasingly both isolate and punish Hill, she broke ties with the community, as did her parents. Hill’s book is a very personal account of her Scientology experience, while Wright’s take is more scholarly, but both books examine the dichotomy of an organization espousing independent thought as essential to enlightenment while using coercive and intimidating tactics to maintain its membership base.

Lori

 
 

The Thorn in Your Side

With or Without YouJoan Crawford, move over. Kathi Ruta is here, and her daughter, Domenica “Nikki” Ruta, has penned a memoir every bit as disturbing as Christina Crawford’s. In With or Without You, Ruta recounts a childhood devoid of innocence, as she is both witness to and victim of numerous crimes. Nikki is the only child of single mother Kathi.They live on the Ruta family compound in Massachusetts. Unlike another family compound in wealthy Hyannisport, the clannish Rutas reside on marshland in blue-collar Danvers in dilapidated housing. Kathi is a manicurist, at one point a prosperous car service owner, but most regularly a drug dealer who liberally indulges in her merchandise.

 

Ruta shares horrifying tales of growing up with Kathi. The squalid living conditions are punctuated by a revolving series of drug-buying customers who serve as surrogate family; one “uncle” is a known pedophile. Kathi promotes drug use, providing Nikki with her first Oxycontin and stuffing her Christmas stocking with a nickel bag. She keeps Nikki home from school to watch classic movies on TV (ironically, a favorite was Mommie Dearest) and harangues her daughter with language that could blister paint off the walls. Yet Kathi knows her intelligent, book-loving daughter deserves more and cobbles together a private school education which includes boarding school and college, partly funded by drug money. During an especially flush period, they travel to Europe.

 

Dysfunctional parent-child relationships are complicated.  Ruta conveys her mother not as one-dimensional, but larger than life and complex; intensely loving and capable of pushing her daughter to succeed conventionally while simultaneously sabotaging her efforts. With her mother’s demons dogging her along the way, Ruta struggles to launch her own adulthood while deciding what role her mother can continue to play in her life.  Recent memoirs in this same vein include Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok.

Lori

 
 

The Precious Ordinary

The Precious Ordinary

posted by:
March 8, 2013 - 7:01am

BenedictionArtist Grant Wood’s work evokes the essence of the Midwestern United States, especially as depicted in his iconic painting American Gothic. Wood’s equivalent in the literary world must surely be Kent Haruf, who conjures up the same quiet and steadfast spirit in his novels of small town living. In his newest book, Benediction, Haruf once again uses the fictional setting of rural Holt, Colorado.

 

Old “Dad” Lewis is dying. A fixture in Holt, he has owned the downtown hardware store since he was a young man, and has been married to Mary for just as long. Mary and Dad notify their middle-aged daughter Lorraine of her father’s terminal illness, and Lorraine returns to her childhood home to help and support her mother as they care for Dad in his final weeks. As Dad deteriorates, Lorraine and Mary must figure out a new footing for their own relationship as well as determine how Dad’s death will figure on their future. The descriptions of the matter-of-fact yet tender care Mary provides for Dad as he becomes increasingly incapacitated are a beautiful testament to the deep love between the couple.

 

Haruf has two themes running through Benediction. Not surprisingly, one involves Dad’s reflections on his past, with an emphasis on choices made by Dad in pivotal circumstances. Dad ruminates on wayward son Frank who broke contact with his parents years ago; the widow of a former hardware store employee discovered by Dad to be embezzling funds; and Dad’s own hardscrabble parents who never met their grandchildren. At the same time, Haruf highlights different kinds of love found in daily life, including platonic love between friends, erotic love stemming from passion, and unconditional love between man and God. As a disgraced preacher in the story explains, it is the ordinary life of good people which is most precious and Haruf illustrates this tenet perfectly with his spare prose.

Lori

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For the Love of Google

For the Love of Google

posted by:
February 21, 2013 - 7:01am

Mr. Panumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreA riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma:  Mr. Churchill’s quote applies neatly to author Robin Sloan’s debut novel, the charming Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Originally published as a short story in 2009, Sloan says “it gathered a following and ultimately grew” into his first book. Imagine a story about an ancient and secret society, one which involves puzzles, complicated codes, handmade typeface, and the quest for immortality. Now imagine a thriller which involves computer-hacking geeks, advanced cyber-technology, trademarked font, and big business. Finally, try to imagine a book combining these disparate elements and the fascinating result will be Mr. Penumbra.

 

Clay Jannon is a twenty-something laid-off web designer living in San Francisco. Financially desperate circumstances and newspaper help-wanted ads land him a job as the night clerk in Ajax Penumbra’s store. While Clay is able to satisfy the job requirement of scaling a ladder three stories high to retrieve books from the skyscraper-like shelves, he quickly develops a problem following another workplace rule: he is never to look inside the books. Before long, Clay cracks open a forbidden spine and falls into a world of codex vitae, Festina Lente, and a members-only chained library, all  while hanging out with the Googlers at their compound-like workplace campus, harnessing the on-line research superpower of Hadoop, and tapping into a digital database of museum inventories worldwide.

 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both engaging and clever. Sloan splices together old-fashioned intrigue and modern computerized marvels using a mix of real and imagined constructs. Ultimately though, the true Holy Grails and miracles which Sloan is offering in this story may turn out to be the power of friendship and the amazing technological wonders of our times.

Lori

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Blood or Water?

Blood or Water?

posted by:
February 11, 2013 - 7:45am

yBooks about children in the foster care system tend to be a largely grim bunch. Fiction or fact, they are often filled with requisite accounts of, at best, benign neglect and frequently tell a far more horrifying tale. In her debut novel, Y, author Marjorie Celona explores the concept of family ties that bind both by blood and by choice.

 

The headline reads “Abandoned Infant: Police Promise No Charges” after a newborn baby is found in the early morning on the steps of the YMCA. The revolving door of foster families grinds into motion as baby Shandi gets shuffled about, her name changed to Shannon and her arm broken by a foster father. As a preschooler, Shannon lands in the loving home of single mother Miranda and her daughter Lydia-Rose who is the same age as Shannon. Miranda’s home is modest and her income small, yet she is determined to form a family which includes loving Shannon as her daughter, as Lydia-Rose’s sister.

 

Could the story end here? Instead, Celona goes on to explore the effects of abandonment and subsequent feelings of alienation on Shannon as she grows up in Miranda’s home. At the same time, she alternates Shannon’s story with that of her parents and grandparents, revealing the trajectory of events which led up to the morning at the Y. Celona uses Shannon as an omniscient narrator and allows her to completely relate her own story; this includes her search for her “real” parents. At the same time, she is recounting her biological family’s history, chronicling incidents occurring long before her birth. Ultimately, Shannon must figure out what constitutes “family” for her. For more about growing up in the foster care system, try Janet Fitch’s White Oleander or Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s biography, Three Little Words.

 

Lori

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Culture Clash

Culture Clash

posted by:
January 14, 2013 - 7:50am

Back to BloodTom Wolfe is back. Eighty-one years old, a controversial player on the literary scene since 1965, and still decked out in his hallmark white suit, Wolfe’s newest book proves he is ever a master of pointed social commentary as he skewers Miami and its denizens in his novel, Back to Blood.

 

Miami: it isn’t just for snowbirds anymore. Officer Nestor Camacho is a young and buff policeman out on patrol on the Biscayne Bay when he is pressed into service to bring down a man clinging to the apex of a 70 foot boat mast. Camacho, in a Herculean show of strength, “rescues” the man, according to accolades heaped upon him by the Miami Herald. Or rather, make that the “Yo No Creo El Miami Herald,” (“I don’t believe the Miami Herald”) as it’s known in the large and influential Cuban population. Camacho is now a pariah among his Cuban family and community for taking down a Cuban refugee before he reached dry land, destroying his chance for asylum.

 

Wolfe writes his cast of characters with a politically incorrect and sometimes sordid pen. A WASPy newspaper editor thinks he’s found relevance in his association with the Russian benefactor filling the city’s new art museum, who instead may be foisting forgeries into the collection. A gorgeous but naive Cuban nurse thinks she is movin’ on up by having an affair with her Americano employer, a publicity hungry sex-addiction doctor for whom the phrase “physician, heal thyself” seems to be tailor-made. A Haitian professor is ashamed of his heritage yet earns his living teaching Creole while obsessively hoping his sweet daughter can “pass” for white. Nestor is the hub around which these stories turn, presented in Wolfe’s trademark frenetically vivid style. In the same vein as Wolfe’s earlier take on New York in The Bonfire of the Vanities, fans of social satire should enjoy Back to Blood.

 

Lori

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