Where were you on September 11, 2001? Almost all Americans who were old enough to remember that fateful day will have a story. At first glance, The Woman Who Wasn’t There: The True Story of an Incredible Deception by Robin Gaby Fisher and Angelo J. Guglielmo, Jr. appears to be a tale of individual courage and triumph. Tania Head had one of the most remarkable 9/11 stories of all. She was working for Merrill Lynch on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower, and witnessed the first plane hit the North Tower. Badly burned, she barely escaped alive. She also lost her fiancé, who worked in the North Tower.
Head’s story was so powerful that when she shared it on survivors’ network sites, she quickly became an inspiration and a leader. She successfully lobbied to bring more recognition and funding to survivors, and led tours at Ground Zero. Shockingly, in 2007 a reporter uncovered that all of the information she provided, including details about her job and her fiancé, was false. But that was just the beginning. Why would someone go to such lengths to deceive?
Head’s story is presented as fact for most of the book, with her deception revealed only towards the end. Guglielmo directed a documentary, also called The Woman Who Wasn’t There, chronicling Head’s status change from heroic survivor to fraudulent imposter. This is an amazing story of vast deception and extreme irony. Although Head technically did nothing illegal, her falsification of information and betrayal of trust of the survivors was egregious. Her deception in the aftermath of such a horrific tragedy left many feeling further victimized. But ironically, in spite of the lies, her story led to more recognition and services for actual 9/11 survivors.
Summer is a time for fun. So, why not a few delightfully light reads to complement?
Easily Amused by Karen McQuestion is the story of Lola, an almost 30-year-old whose great aunt has left her a sprawling house on a street full of caring neighbors. Sounds perfect? Not to Lola, who just wishes for a little more privacy and a few less invitations to neighborhood events. The real catalyst comes when Lola’s frustrating younger sister, Mindy, announces her own wedding will be on Lola’s 30th birthday. Lola must have a date for this occasion – not just any date, but someone to show up Mindy and someone willing to go along with a (fake) announcement of engagement. Enter Ryan, who seems to just fall from the sky and could possibly be the answer to Lola’s problems. Lola is a funny, self-deprecating narrator, and McQuestion’s writing is smart and fast-paced with a clever plot.
Another book for summer entertainment is Point, Click, Love by Molly Shapiro. This fun tale follows four friends, Claudia, Annie, Maxine and Katie, in Kansas City. Where each of these women are in their lives and where they want to go makes for amusing stories about love, marriage, relationships and everything in between. This is Shapiro’s debut novel, and it has well-developed, likeable characters plus sophisticated writing. She also does a great job of adding context to a Midwestern city where not many stories are set. Comparisons have been made to Sex and the City – this book definitely celebrates women’s independence and exploration of choices.
Enjoy taking these two books to the beach or any other place (Kansas City?) you may find yourself this summer. Both provide a fun story with no additional heavy baggage.
Reflection can sometimes tell the whole story. In Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here, there are few characters, even less action, but plenty about how memory and evaluation of past choices occupy our present-day lives.
The story revolves around Jack, who came from a Devonshire farming family but was forced to abandon his family’s profession after fear of mad-cow disease forced them to put the herd down. As the story begins, the majority of the family members once close to Jack, those who helped define him, have passed. He is reliant solely on his wife Ellie, with whom he has co-owned a campground and vacation resort for several years. This has afforded them a more luxurious lifestyle than farming, but has set them adrift from the family and community connections of their childhood.
The real shift in the story comes when Jack belatedly learns of the death of his brother Tom, a soldier who has been killed in Iraq. Tom was already long estranged from the family, but going to retrieve his body and bring him home for burial proves a catalyst for Jack to reflect back on his life and choices. More overarching is the theme of the impact of war not just on his family but on the country of England as a whole, going back many generations.
Swift, who previously won the Booker Prize for Last Orders, spins a slow tale, bereft of suspense or much action. Yet the story he tells is beautiful and poignant. Readers will want to know how Jack reached his present state, and what the near future holds for him. Fans of The Shipping News or Olive Kitteridge will appreciate this understated tale about connections to home and family.
Trauma in childhood assumes many forms. This message resonates loudly through multiple characters in Amanda Coe’s debut novel, What They Do in the Dark. Two school girls, Gemma and Pauline, live in the same rough Yorkshire neighborhood but inhabit different worlds. Gemma comes from a financially stable yet broken family, while Pauline grows up in abject poverty with an abusive mother. Through a random playground encounter, the two girls become reluctant acquaintances and find a strange brand of stability in each other. As the story evolves, however, their partnership becomes more volatile. Other characters’ stories, including those of a child television star and a bullied classmate, become interwoven and, in Lord of the Flies-fashion, tragedy ensues.
A screenwriter, Coe does an excellent job setting the scene. Readers experience the grittiness of a working-class neighborhood in England, witness the cruelty that poorly supervised school-aged children can inflict on one another, and are confronted with the dangers facing any child who lacks a social safety net. The terse and plain-spoken dialogue between the characters also lends to the tension and instability that exist.
This book does take patience. The plot is subtle. The chapters are short and at first provide seemingly random snapshots into the two girls’ and other characters’ lives. But for readers who stick with the book, all of these pieces evolve into a darker and more complex tale. Much like Emma Donoghue’s Room or Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, both of which focus on children raised in violent and dysfunctional environments, this story leaves a strong and unsettling impression.
Looking for a little history to go with your true crime? Two recent titles provide thrilling accounts of historical murders. One is set in Chicago and chronicles the rise and fall of Al Capone’s chief assassin, Jack McGurn. The other is about a serial killer in World War II Paris. Both are thoroughly researched, emphasizing the mayhem and extremism prevalent in these time periods. In Deadly Valentines: The Story of Capone's Henchman "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn and Louise Rolfe, His Blonde Alibi, Jeffrey Gusfield opens with an account of the infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 Chicago. Known assassin Jack McGurn and his girlfriend Louise Rolfe are the likely suspects. But how does a boy from an immigrant family and a middle-class Midwestern girl end up embodying the Roaring Twenties’ hallmarks of excess, liquor, and grisly murder? By tracing their lives from childhood, Gusfield draws a connection between humble beginnings and a gangster lifestyle rife with crime and corruption.
David King’s Death in the City of Light follows the rise of Marcel Petiot, who was regarded as a kindly doctor of the less fortunate until multiple human body parts were found in the basement of his Paris home in 1944. His subsequent trial quickly devolved into a media circus. The Nazi occupation and government corruption further complicated matters and added to the train wreck of judicial proceedings, leading to a frustrating and perplexing conclusion.Perhaps most fascinating about both books are the unanswered questions. Was Louise cold-blooded, or just someone unable to live a conventional life? How did Petiot actually kill his victims? Those who enjoy historical accounts full of drama, danger and mystery (like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) will find these books to be satisfying page-turners.
She has a daughter on a reality show called Dungeon. Her Lithuanian maid just does not understand what it means to properly look after a house. And for some reason, her match- making skills amongst her fellow church bell ringers do not seem to be working.
So begins A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford. Constance Harding has lived a perfect sort of sheltered existence as a British housewife in Surrey, but lately modern-day life has not cooperated with her. She is forced to start a blog (suggested by her thoughtful son as an alternative to sharing everything with only him) and give daily updates to the World Wide Web about life as she sees it.
Get ready to relive 2008 day by day! Constance is a faithful blogger, even when her beloved parrot almost flies away. She struggles to find the perfect conservative woman for her son, puzzles about why her daughter wasn’t excited about her 19th birthday party (who wouldn’t like a magician or fairy cakes?) and continuously thinks up reasons for her husband’s erratic behavior. Her interpretation of life and events stays humorous and fresh, and it is all part of the charm of this clueless fifty-something narrator who is about to experience one big dose of reality from the modern world.
This amusing book is perfect for a light weekend or vacation read. It’s entertaining and straightforward. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith and Winifred Watson will love this delightful story.
Cranes really do dance. But instead of the bird kingdom, The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey explores the world of professional ballet and the relationship between Kate and Gwen Crane, two dancers who are also sisters. They have always had a “professional” rivalry – Kate more lively and dramatic, Gwen stronger on technique. When Gwen suffers a nervous breakdown, Kate scrambles to keep her own life on track and also to figure out where her sister’s life derailed. As the past unfolds, it becomes clear that the sisters’ story is also a “dance”: Kate tried to ignore the signs that all was not well, even as Gwen’s idiosyncrasies became more disturbing.
Why is this book intriguing? It’s straightforward but well written. Howrey, herself a professional dancer, adds plenty of details to the practical life situation of a dancer trying to make it to the top in New York City. Dancers crammed into studio apartments, putting themselves through punishing classes and instructors, constantly scoping out the competition in other students…it’s a tough existence. Yet even knowing more about the harsh realities of the ballet world and how slight the chance is of having a successful career, for dance lovers it still seems…magical. There’s still that pull.
Also keeping the reader engaged is Kate’s narrative. It is at times sarcastic, even abrasive, but also funny. As an added bonus, several ballet plots are outlined (complete with dry humor) and wrapped into the story. As the book evolves, Kate comes to her own understanding about the relationship between herself, her sister and her profession. For fans of the film Black Swan, here’s a story with psychological depth and a slightly more hopeful ending.
He really did deceive the entire world. In a moment’s time, thousands of organizations and individuals worldwide lost their financial savings when Bernie Madoff’s massive investment fraud was uncovered. The widespread public outrage was directed not only at him but also his family. Surely those closest to him knew everything and were reaping all the benefits, right? Two recent books tell otherwise.
The first, Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family, by Laurie Sandell, chronicles the lives of his wife Ruth and sons Mark and Andrew both before and after the 2008 revelation that brought the financial empire crashing down. Ruth, who was married to Madoff from the age of 18, had all property seized. Mark committed suicide two years to the day of his father’s arrest. Andrew struggled to rebuild his own reputation in the business community. The writing at times entertains frivolous details and inconsequential family spats but provides an honest look into a tightly controlled family whose trusted patriarch was their ultimate undoing.
While Truth and Consequences focuses more on family dynamics and less on the actual logistics of Madoff’s crime, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust by Diana B. Henriques gives a detailed recounting of the Ponzi scheme itself. Henriques, a financial writer for the New York Times and one of the few to interview Madoff in prison, follows a substantial “cast of characters” including family members, accountants, federal investigators and lawyers to examine how a respected businessman could carry out deception on such a grand scale. If her earlier narrative seems dry and overwhelming in places, the latter half of the book provides plenty of courtroom drama and emotional testimony to keep readers engaged. As both authors note, family members and outsiders alike had their lives upended by the “Wizard of Lies”, and the rebuilding for many has just begun.
Every family has a story. Three recent debut novels explore the unraveling of fragile families and the ever-present need for human connection. In Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers, twelve-year-old Florine is growing up in a small Maine coastal town when her mother mysteriously disappears. The disappearance has profound effects on Florine and her father and shapes the course of each of their lives. Beautiful and tragic, Rogers provides a realistic look at small town life and independent people who must regroup and forgive if they are to build anything.
In another book about familial relationships, The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis follows a Tennessee family from the 1940s to the 1980s. The main character, Zeke, is still haunted by the drowning which claimed his twin brother over a decade prior. Faced with divorce and strained relationships with other family members, he impulsively leaves town. His time away allows him to reflect and he eventually faces both the flaws and strengths of the family that shaped his life.
The most tragic and hardscrabble of the three novels is Tupelo Hassman’s Girlchild. Hassman presents the dangerous and lost world of a Nevada trailer park through the eyes of one fractured family. Rory Dawn Hendrix is seen by her family as their only hope. She is smart, resourceful, and insightful, a change from the previous generations of Hendrix women. Yet she is also still just a young girl, and the dangers of the community and its members threaten to engulf her and her plans for the future.
Any of these three books would be good to take along on a vacation or for discussion at book clubs. Enjoy, and look for more books from these authors in the future!
Halloween is long past, but readers can recreate the ambiance with Chris Bohjalian’s (Midwives, The Double Bind) new book The Night Strangers. Set in a small town in upstate New Hampshire, a community’s sinister secrets are gradually unearthed, creating a satisfyingly creepy tale.
The setting says it all. An isolated town with spotty cell phone reception. A spooky Victorian house with a mysterious door in the basement. Disturbing rumors about the former owners. Enter Chip, who moves his family to this house after a passenger plane he was piloting crashes and kills almost everyone on board. As they settle in, the family discovers unnerving elements about their new home, including hidden weapons and a heavily bolted door in the basement. They also meet some unsettling townspeople, the “herbalists”, who have taken a special interest in the twin daughters. As the story further unfolds, the reader follows Chip in his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder and his slow descent into a world of ghosts and voices from the beyond.
This is a refreshing read because it is, simply, a ghost story with plenty of psychological terror (think Stephen King’s earlier books like The Shining) and a subtly frightening cast of side characters. And like any good horror story, the family doesn’t see the danger until it’s too late. All the signs are there, questions are raised, but (sigh) the family stays. Although this book is a departure from Bohjalian’s usual style and lacks any real shocking twists or mind-bending ending, it is still a mature tale with a conclusion that leaves much room for discussion. Interestingly, the author himself lives in an old home with a strange door in the basement…