Joan 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.
Alice Munro is often described as “one of the best living writers of short stories in the English language”. While that may be said to avoid too many comparisons as to who is truly the best, the qualifiers are really not necessary. This is proven with her latest collection, Dear Life. In interviews, Munro states that a few of this set of stories are her most autobiographical.
One of the most striking aspects of Munro’s stories is the misdirection she frequently provides. Just as the reader is settling in on what is believed to be the main character or main idea of a story, a tangent takes one off into a myriad of different directions. Often taking place in the area Munro knows best, rural Ontario near Lake Huron, these are mostly slice-of-life stories about regular people. In “Haven”, for example, a young girl goes to live with her aunt and uncle, two very different people from her missionary parents. Her eyes are opened to another way of life, and her childhood ends. Another story, “Pride”, describes two small-town misfits who eventually forge an uneasy friendship. The male protagonist explains his female acquaintance as having a “strange hesitation and lightness about her, as if she were waiting for life to begin. She went away on trips of course, and maybe she thought it would begin there. No such luck.”
The author tucks those sorts of breathtaking lines throughout the fourteen stories. Travel, especially by train, takes on a large role, likely a metaphor for our lifelong journeys. The final, titular story, certainly one of the most autobiographical, has many interwoven themes. But above all, the wordplay of Munro’s own dear life, while she has witnessed so many holding on for dear life, leaves readers in awe of her writing powers.
In Becky Masterman’s chilling debut thriller Rage Against the Dying, heroine Brigid Quinn spent her FBI career hunting the worst sexual predators. She is tough and self-reliant. After Brigid was forced to take early retirement from the FBI, she left that world behind entirely. Now, she now lives a quiet life with her new husband Carlo and their two pugs. Former priest Carlo knows little about that life or the person Brigid was before they met. Everything changes when Brigid’s past comes crashing into her present. A man named Floyd Lynch is arrested, and he confesses to being the Route 66 Killer. That case was one of the worst of Brigid’s career, resulting in the disappearance of her protégé Jessica. Lynch knows some key details that were never publicized, and he leads authorities to Jessica’s mummified remains. However, Brigid has reason to believe that his confession is false. Soon, Brigid realizes that she is being stalked, and she must find the killer to save herself.
Rage Against the Dying, which Masterman originally titled One Tough Broad, brings an exciting new character to the thriller world. Masterman says that her debut novel is “in some respects like a coming-of-age novel for an older woman.” Although 59-year-old Brigid is very confident in her strength and abilities, she is still learning about being a wife and friend. Masterman, whose previous career was in forensic textbook publishing, brings a level of realism to the brutal crimes that Brigid has seen. Rage Against the Dying is the kind of thriller that keeps readers up late at night and might make them sleep with the lights on.
The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
In his first novel, Ghostman, Roger Hobbs creates an exciting world of double dealing, casino heists, crime bosses and an intriguing main character caught in the middle. The Ghostman goes by many aliases and stays separate from the rest of the world. He is careful not to live in one location for very long, has no close associates, and doesn’t maintain a phone line or a personal email. He refuses to use his real name, but when a message comes to him for the persona Jack Delton, he knows that someone is contacting him to collect a debt. Years ago, the Ghostman made a fatal error during a heist in Kuala Lumpur, and Marcus, the mastermind of the heist, was sent to prison. Now Marcus has discovered a way to contact the Ghostman and he demands to be repaid with a very dangerous proposition involving stolen money from an Atlantic City casino. The money was newly printed by the Federal Reserve and contained a dye pack that will explode within the next two days. Marcus needs to find the thief and the cash, and contacts Ghostman with the general schematics of the plan. But plans with criminals can easily go awry, and soon our hapless anti-hero attracts the attention of a crime boss known at the Wolf as well as a rather tenacious FBI agent. It will take a great deal of nerve and every trick at his disposal in order to come out alive.
The story is fast-paced and exciting. It unfolds in present day Atlantic City with the current plan of action, but interspersed are chapters told in flashback and the reader learns the history behind Ghostman’s debt to Marcus. Ghostman is a fantastic thriller that looks into the heart of the criminal world and examines what it takes to survive in such a hostile environment. Roger Hobbs is a new writer to watch, and is sure to please fans of nail-biting suspense.
The days are longer, the sun is shining, and flowers are starting to bloom. It’s time to get outside and get moving! Evan Balkan offers a multitude of opportunities for fun and interesting local adventures in Walking Baltimore: an Insider’s Guide to 33 Neighborhoods, Waterfront Districts, and Hidden Treasures in Charm City.
The well-known tourist attractions of Fells Point, Mount Vernon, and the Inner Harbor are of course represented, but this local author and CCBC professor also shares hidden gems that are spread across the breadth of the city. It is these lesser known corners of Baltimore which put the charm in Charm City, and these walks allow for a detailed exploration. Each area is presented as a 1 to 4 mile walk, and Balkan includes little-known facts, trivia, and stories about the neighborhood being toured. Forts, The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, and the Gwynns Falls are among the many sights included on these varied walks, which truly offer something for everyone from history buff, to sports fan, to nature lover. Balkan also offers tips on parking and public transportation, and rates the difficulty level of each walk from easy to strenuous so readers can plan accordingly. Finally, for a more customized look at the walks, Balkan separates them by theme in an appendix. Themes include American Firsts, Writers & Readers, Museum Madness, and Green Spaces.
Visitors and newly transplanted residents will appreciate this compact guide as a way to learn more about the city beyond the Inner Harbor. Old-timers will utilize this handy read as a way to rediscover Baltimore’s rich history, beautiful landscapes, and fabulous neighborhoods. All will enjoy the exercise and savor the sampling of culinary delights to be found on each walk.
It wasn’t merely a catchy slogan when the Lay’s potato chip commercial challenged you to eat just one. Like the rest of the food industry, Lay’s was banking on the fact that the ingredients in their products would make it difficult for consumers to stop crunching. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss’s new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us will make you think twice before you pick up another cookie or sip another soda.
Moss explores how the processed food industry uses key ingredients to make their products more addictive, and the negative impact that those foods have had on our health. The processed foods that we find at our supermarkets are carefully formulated and tested to hit the consumer’s “bliss point,” the precise amount of sugar that will make the product most appealing to the greatest number of people. Through both the ingredients and the companies’ carefully targeted marketing, consumers are manipulated to buy and eat more and more of these products. Moss goes beyond the nutrition of junk food. He also explores the science of food and creates a business history of the food industry. Salt Sugar Fat is an intriguing and sometimes terrifying, look at this one trillion dollar per year industry.
Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig also takes on the food industry in Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. After the US government recommended a low fat diet in the 1970s, the food industry responded by adding sugar to low fat products to make them taste better, which Lustig says has had disastrous results. Lustig, whose 90-minute lecture “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” has been viewed over 3 million times on YouTube, documents the connection between the added sugar in our food and the obesity epidemic.
Dan Champion was an undercover cop with the NYPD, on fire with ambition and with no regard for overtime caps or departmental boundaries. While combing through old case files, he discovers references to the “Fat Woman,” a mysterious, legendary monster, responsible for countless human trafficking purchases and subsequent murders. His obsession with finding her and the consequences of this personal mission are the driving force of A Killer in the Wind by Andrew Klavan.
A sting operation Champion has arranged to bring down the Fat Woman falls apart, resulting in the loss of his job and exile to a sheriff’s office in rural New York State. During his pursuit of the Fat Woman he took a street drug as a sleep aid, and he has since been haunted by ghosts and hallucinations. These visions raise many disturbing questions for Champion. How does he know the ghost boy’s name is Alexander? Why is the woman in his vision so familiar that he believes he could be in love with her? His life is turned upside down when a woman’s body pulled from the river turns out to be the very woman from his visions. The only words she utters before falling unconscious are “They are coming for us.”
Klavan is an international best-selling author, gifted in writing all things action and adventure. A Killer in the Wind is fast-moving and adrenaline-charged as the author utilizes bursts of short sentences and strategically placed repetition to create an effect that propels the story forward by matching pace with the action. This adult thriller is just a step darker than his teen series The Homelanders, the first of which has been optioned as a feature film. In both cases, he proves to be masterful at sweeping readers up in a mysterious suspense-filled novel and taking them on a wild ride to the stunning conclusion.
Lawyer Lina Sparrow instantly knew she was staring at a drawing that transcended time. The young African American man at its center stood in a Virginia field with his hands at his side, waiting. More than 150 years may have passed, but Lina knew that the charcoal put to paper that day said as much about the subject as it did about the artist who created it. In Tara Conklin's shifting, stirring debut, The House Girl, two worlds coalesce, as the winds of past sins expose the fight for freedom and family identity that reach from present day deep into America's past.
In the plush law offices of Manhattan’s prestigious Clifton & Harp, first year litigation associate, Lina Sparrow, has just been handed the class action case of a lifetime involving historic reparations for slavery. In locating a slave's descendant to act as lead plaintiff, she stumbles upon the story of artist Lu Anne Bell and her house girl, Josephine, who sometimes painted alongside her mistress. Josephine was seventeen in 1852 when she escaped from the failing Bell tobacco plantation. Now Mrs. Bell’s paintings are highly regarded for their sensitive portrayal of her husband's slaves, but recent speculation has questioned their authenticity. Lina, herself the daughter of artists, delves deeper into the searing plight of Josephine. In doing so, she begins to question her personal life and her own sense of place.
Conklin, a lawyer by training, exploits the double narrative as the means to weave together a historic time period with the legal perspective of twenty-first century restitution. As the prose expands, uncovered correspondences lay bare the horror of slavery. Readers of The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini will enjoy this moving connection to the troubled past.
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is Andrew Solomon’s exploration of the infinitely complex relationship between parents and children. He investigates the nature of parenting children who are exceptional in a variety of ways. Solomon interviews families with children who are prodigies, deaf, dwarfs, autistic, schizophrenic or are transgender, for example. He bookends these stories with his own experience at being both a son and father. There are common themes among parents whose children possess these unique qualities. The individual stories inspire every emotion—heartbreak, grief, anger and joy. Although very challenging, parents maintain their child’s “difference” is a gift. The families often gain incredible strength and resilience.
Solomon’s psychiatric and academic backgrounds add depth and context to the exploration of each “condition”. He examines big issues such as identity, culture and “nature vs. nurture.” He provides overall context, history, and the latest research. Thanks to his engaging storytelling skills, the information is readily accessible and truly fascinating.
Solomon is the perfect author for such a book. His previous work, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, was the winner of fourteen different book awards and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is a Lecturer in Psychiatry at Cornell University and Special Advisor on LGBT Affairs at Yale’s University Department of Psychiatry. He writes with clarity and warmth about extremely complex issues. This book is highly recommended to regular readers of nonfiction, parents, teachers, and anyone hoping to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to parent a child.