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The Precious Ordinary

The Precious Ordinary

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

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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Writers Behaving Badly

Writers Behaving Badly

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

Literary RoguesWe often think that modern rock stars and actors have the market cornered when it comes to bad behavior, but the list of authors who achieved notoriety is long and distinguished. Andrew Shaffer reveals their stories in Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors. From the Marquis de Sade to James Frey, Shaffer brings us true stories of the vices, scandals, and exploits of well-known authors from Western literature.

 

At the height of his addiction, Thomas De Quincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, took 8,000 drops (80 teaspoons worth!) of laudanum a day. Lord Byron was known to drink wine from his ancestors’ skulls to help ease his depression. He also had a love affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Although she began as a teetotaler, Dorothy Parker eventually became an alcoholic. She smoked three packs of Chesterfield cigarettes a day and used tuberose perfume to mask the smell of the scotch that she habitually drank. When she was warned that her behavior would send her to an early grave, Parker replied, “Promises, promises!” While entertaining friends, Joan Vollmer, common-law wife of William S. Burroughs, challenged him to prove his marksmanship by shooting a highball glass off the top of her head. Both were drunk. Burroughs obliged but missed, killing her instantly. In 1969, Hunter S. Thompson ran for sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, on the Freak Power Party ticket, a high-profile stunt that Thompson hoped would gain attention for his “freak power” message.

 

Shaffer brings us all of the outrageous details and salacious gossip in this compilation of the bad boys and bad girls of literature. Chapters are separated by literary period, and discuss the authors from that era. Readers will be struck by the interconnectedness of these great authors’ lives. Infused with Shaffer’s dark humor, Literary Rogues amuses, saddens, and sometimes shocks.

Beth

 
 

Hope Adrift

Hope Adrift

posted by:
March 4, 2013 - 8:55am

White Dog Fell from the SkyAcross the border it is a different world. Cruelty is not harnessed. A man’s limit is not tested. The line between life and death is not drawn in black and white. For medical student Isaac Muthethe, the brutality of apartheid is never so evident as when he escapes from its grasp in Eleanor Morse’s observant and beautifully crafted new novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky.

 

Forced to leave his family, Isaac is smuggled into Botswana after witnessing the brutal murder of a friend in South Africa. His only chance of survival was to flee the secret police. In the Naledi shantytown where he finds himself, Isaac encounters a mysterious white dog. The dog’s refusal to abandon him comes to symbolize hope amidst grief and suffering. While walking house to house in search of a job Isaac meets Alice Mendelssohn. The well-educated American woman, whose husband works for the government, does not care that Isaac is black and she is white. Isaac becomes her gardener. As their lives entangle, each travels a path toward their own heartbreak. For Alice, it is her crumbling marriage and regret at not fulfilling her own dreams. For Isaac, it is the knowledge that with each step he is shedding his old life and the family he left behind. When Isaac meets and briefly stays with an old classmate who works for a violent anti-apartheid group, it is an association that will nearly destroy him and changes the lives of Alice and Isaac forever. 

   

Morse, who lived in Botswana for several years in the 1970s, juxtaposes the political and racial turmoil of the period with an African landscape that is as alluring as it is austere.  Teeming with evocative observations about the country’s conservation practices, people and culture, Morse's multi-themed narrative leaves readers to ponder the price of betrayal and the capacity for friendship. Readers of Abraham Verghese, Edwidge Danticat, and Khaled Hosseini may find much to like here.

 

Cynthia

 
 

Love Unexpectedly

Love Unexpectedly

posted by:
March 1, 2013 - 9:01am

Me Before YouBritish writer Jojo Moyes’s latest novel, Me Before You, is a beautifully crafted story about a 26 year-old woman who leads a monotonous life in a small town in England. After losing the job she’s had for six years, Louisa Clark, better known as Lou, begins the difficult task of looking for employment. Not knowing what she wants to do with the rest of her life and frustrated with her job prospects, Lou eventually applies for a position as a caregiver. Despite her lack of experience, she is offered the job because of her upbeat and quirky personality.

Enter Will Traynor, a former high-powered executive, who became a quadriplegic following a severe accident. Will has been forced to give up his adventurous lifestyle, and to rely completely on others, which has sent him into a deep depression. His mother hires Lou in hopes that she can make him reverse the decision that his life is no longer worth living. Their relationship begins shakily; however, as they grow to know each other better, Lou finds ways to reach out to Will and to help him find some things to enjoy in his world as it is. Meanwhile, Will teaches Lou to live her life more fully, and to try new things.

Moyes draws readers in with the novel’s sense of intimacy, as most of the book is told from Lou’s unique perspective as Will’s caregiver. However, scenes with the extended cast of characters, Lou’s family for example, offer levity. Me Before You raises many philosophical issues, while also being a funny, heartbreaking, and unconventional love story.

Laura

 
 

Irish Holiday

Irish Holiday

posted by:
February 28, 2013 - 9:15am

A Week in WinterGrab your afghan, a cup of tea, and A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy for a delightfully cozy transport to the west coast of the Emerald Isle. Binchy, the grand storyteller of Éire, returns with another fabulous cast of characters. Hailing from far and wide, their paths cross at the Stone House, a hotel in a remote town on the coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr was raised in Stoneybridge, but left for America to follow the man of her dreams. Her family was disappointed and predicted disaster, so even though the romance quickly fizzled, Chicky pretended the two had married and were living the good life. When her niece wants to visit New York, Chicky has to think fast and sadly tells her family that her “husband” was killed in an accident and she is returning to her home town. Chicky decides to take a decaying cliffside mansion, Stone House, and turn it into a holiday hotel offering weekly vacations. Although the residents think she’s crazy, she finds help for this project in her childhood friend’s troubled son, Rigger and her niece Orla. Their hard work pays off as the building is returned its former grandeur and the first week’s guests arrive, including an aging American movie star, a psychic librarian, and a Swedish accountant who yearns to be a musician.

 

Chicky, her staff, and all of the guests are dealing with varying degrees of disappointment, doubt, and unhappiness. After a week of bracing sea walks and newfound relationships however, nearly all have found peace and rejuvenation. In her final novel, the beloved Binchy again provides a beautiful tale of rediscovery, friendship, and love peppered with characters from past novels in a sparkling setting.

Maureen

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The Baltimore Plot

The Baltimore Plot

posted by:
February 28, 2013 - 8:01am

The Hour of PerilSteven Spielberg’s Academy Award-nominated film Lincoln has created renewed interest in our 16th President, and author Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln before the Civil War brings to light a little-known episode from Lincoln’s life. In 1861, President-elect Lincoln made the 13-day journey from Illinois to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., by train, stopping to make appearances along the way. The nation was on the brink of civil war, and emotions ran high. Lincoln, a symbol for the Union, was an obvious target. Famed detective Allan Pinkerton was asked to help ensure Lincoln’s safety on the journey. A credible plot to assassinate Lincoln, led by an outspoken Italian barber in Baltimore named Cypriano Ferrandini, came to light. They planned to kill Lincoln when his train made its stop at the Calvert Street Station. As the train drew closer to Baltimore, Pinkerton and several of his agents raced to save Lincoln, and the assassination conspiracy, which is now known as The Baltimore Plot, was foiled.

 

Stashower, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland, skillfully weaves elements of true crime and history together in a story that author Harlan Coben calls “history that reads like a race-against-the-clock thriller.” The political turmoil of that time is palpable, and Stashower makes historical figures come alive in this character-driven story. Readers who enjoy narrative nonfiction like Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America or Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President will want to read The Hour of Peril.

 

Beth

 
 

Modern Macabre

Modern Macabre

posted by:
February 25, 2013 - 9:15am

RevengeThe Beautiful IndifferenceTwo new collections of thrilling and even horrific tales are waiting to send shivers down the spine. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa is a twisted series of interlocking short stories which tighten as you delve deeper into its pages. A beauty sorting dirty lab coats, a curator of a torture museum whose collection consists solely of used items, a reporter covering a dolphin-themed resort--the unlikely connections between these and other seemingly isolated characters are dexterously exposed in escalating tension.

 

Each desperate life has an unrelenting passion, from the man skilled in the art of designing specialty bags who receives an unusual request from a lounge singer, to the woman patiently waiting for a pair of perfect strawberry cupcakes in an unattended bakery. Although each tale is an enthralling standalone, it also subtly reveals the indirect truths of its companion stories. Throughout the book, aggrieved lives gradually become both the architect and the victim of emotions like jealousy, grief, and infatuation. Eerie scenes such as a garden of carrots shaped like hands, a street covered with ripe tomatoes, and an abandoned post office filled with kiwis create a world that is both familiar and foreign at the same time. Stephen Snyder’s exquisite new translation of Ogawa’s 1998 Japanese work, Kamoku na shigai, Midara na tomurai, is fragile yet cuts like a knife.

 

Another mesmerizing collection comes from British novelist Sarah Hall with The Beautiful Indifference: Stories, which explores the grace and the agony of the modern woman. In “Butcher’s Perfume”, a young English girl befriends the schoolyard bully, Mary Slessors, and becomes enthralled with her mysterious family of horse trainers. In the “Agency”, a woman is referred by an acquaintance to an unusual business that provides a tempting yet undefinable service. These stories are engrossing and sensual, investigating the rich complexities of the female psyche in a way that only Hall can.

 

Sarah Jane

 
 

Two for the Price of One

Two for the Price of One

posted by:
February 25, 2013 - 9:01am

The Child's ChildIn the novel The Child’s Child, Ruth Rendell (writing as Barbara Vine) creates a novel within a novel that looks at two very different issues. In the present day we meet Andrew and Grace Easton, brother and sister, who are sharing a London home they call Dinmont house. Grace is working on her doctoral thesis, writing about the plight of single mothers throughout history. She has recently acquired the manuscript of a lost novel written in 1951, The Child’s Child, chronicling the story of a brother and sister in the 1920’s. In this manuscript, John is a closeted homosexual hiding an illegal relationship with a man and living in constant fear of the law. His sister Maud is fifteen and finds herself with child, only to be cast out of her home when the truth is revealed. These details coincide with many in Grace’s own life. Her brother Andrew is also homosexual and has found love with a rather handsome young man. When one of Andrew’s friends is murdered outside a London nightclub, his boyfriend begins to fall apart. What follows is an event that will change Grace’s life forever.

 

Most of The Child’s Child consists of this novel within a novel and really encapsulates life in the 1920’s for two types of minorities. A three-time Edgar Award winner, Barbara Vine is known for psychological thrillers, and her latest falls into this category. It is not an easy read, as John and Maud had a difficult life and the novel highlights some of the difficulties that people in their situations may have faced. The addition of Grace and Andrew in the present day adds a nice comparison, and there are some thrilling moments housed within their story as well. Barbara Vine continues to create memorable characters in this readable and suspenseful story.

Doug

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A Room of One's Scone

A Room of One's Scone

posted by:
February 22, 2013 - 9:01am

Vanity FareHer husband left her for a newer model and now he’s lost his job, which means no more child support. This leaves Molly Hagan up a financial creek and emotionally still at sea in Vanity Fare: a Novel of Lattes, Literature and Love, a debut from Megan Caldwell, a regular blogger for the popular romance site Heroes and Heartbreakers. When an old friend offers her a freelance project writing marketing materials for a new bakery headed up by British celeb pastry chef Simon, Molly jumps at the chance. Thus begins the familiar balancing act between work, her son, Aidan – a six year old still dealing with the fallout from his parents’ split, and her financially strapped mother who has moved in with her.

 

Out of the workforce since Aidan was born, her lack of experience increases her self-doubt as she tackles this creative assignment. But her fears are assuaged as she comes up with a unique idea playing on the proximity of the main branch of the New York Public Library to the new storefront. She creates stories tying each scintillating treat to a great work of literature and even comes up with the bakery’s name – Vanity Fare. Her self-confidence is further boosted when the sexy Simon shines his romantic spotlight on her. Unfortunately, she must deal with his business partner, Nick, who is suspicious of Molly’s abilities, but does show a softer side when Aidan is around.

 

The clever marketing copy opens each chapter and readers will find themselves longing for "A Room of One’s Scone" or a "Tart of Darkness". For the more adventurous, the epilogue includes select recipes to bake at home. While the mouth-watering descriptions create a framework for this story, it is ultimately the realistic, yet still humorous, story of one young mother trying to start over again professionally and find lasting love.

Maureen

 
 

Touched by the Bizarre

Touched by the Bizarre

posted by:
February 22, 2013 - 8:01am

The Miniature Wife and Other StoriesHow do you think you would respond in the face of something truly strange?  With horror? With amusement? With speed, by running as fast as possible in the other direction? Or would you adapt, until what once was so strange is now just a new way of being?  In his collection of wonderfully imaginative short stories, The Miniature Wife and Other Stories, Manuel Gonzales and his very human characters take the latter course, exploring the incredible malleability of the human psyche. 

 

In tales ranging from just a few pages to nearly thirty, bizarre, often frightening, and occasionally gruesome events and people make appearances. A musical genius is physically crippled by his gift to the point that he must develop a way to speak through his ears to communicate. A zombie adept at hiding from discovery convinces himself to give into his homicidal urges because of a secret workplace crush. And in the title story, a scientist accidentally miniaturizes his wife and must then deal with the increasingly violent consequences to his marriage and his life. Often mysteries are unearthed, but never completely explained. Gonzales focuses on the internal dialogues of his characters, who respond to the weirdness around them with painfully human emotions and according to familiar--often petty and selfish--motivations.

 

At times tender, disturbing, amusing, and eerie, The Miniature Wife is perfect for cold, wild, stormy nights filled with hints of thunder and an air of possibility. Fans of gothic literature, the paranormal, and the short story format will devour this compilation of oddities and enigmas.

 

 

Rachael