Big Brother

Big Brother is my first exposure to a Lionel Shriver novel.  My first impression, one that hardly changed for most of the book, was that Shriver is a good storyteller who populates her novels with a cast of interesting, well-developed characters.  Her characters, flawed human beings that they are, are all the more realistic because making them “likable” is not a goal – rather, Shriver wants the reader to understand and remember them. I had a feeling that I would be exploring Shriver’s earlier work soon.
And then it happened.  I reached the book’s final few pages and got a surprise that made me see Lionel Shriver and Big Brother very differently.  It was one of those “aha moments” that made me realize there was a lot more going on here than I thought.
Successful businesswoman Pandora Halfdanarson has made a nice life for herself in Iowa where she lives with her husband and his two teen-aged children.  Pandora, who spent summers in the area with her grandparents when she was a child, enjoys the relative simplicity of her lifestyle there.  Her big brother, however, has taken the opposite approach with his own life.  Edison, a talented jazz pianist, enthusiastically adopted his television-actor father’s screen-name, becoming Edison Appaloosa in the process, and moved to New York City to make his name.  And, especially to hear him tell it, Edison has done quite well there.
But, as Pandora learns when Edison pays her a long-delayed family visit, all is not as it seems.  The handsome brother she expects to collect at the airport is nowhere to be found.  Instead, Pandora finds a morbidly obese version of Edison she barely recognizes as her brother.  Edison is so big that, strictly for the convenience of complaining passengers, he has been carted to baggage claim in a wheelchair.  When she gets him home to her family, Pandora and her husband are dismayed to find that all of Edison’s numerous bad habits have grown in proportion to the rest of him.  He is the houseguest from hell.
Lionel Shriver
Big Brother is most obviously about the obese and how they are perceived and treated by others – despite the fact that obesity is so common in this country.  Shriver’s portrayal of their self-esteem problems and physical limitations is blunt; she does not shy away from any aspect of their daily lives, including cleanliness issues.  She is equally blunt about the callous reaction to the grotesquely overweight that so many of us do not even try to hide from “big” people when we see them.  But that is just the beginning of what Lionel Shriver wants to say.  Big Brother is also about family loyalty, bad parenting, personal courage, blind love, depression, dieting, and chasing fame for fame’s sake.
And then there’s that surprise that I can’t tell you about. 
Bottom Line:  This one, particularly because of one or two memorable scenes, might not be for everyone, but those who stay with it will most likely consider themselves to have been well rewarded for the effort.

The Other Typist

Suzanne Rindell’s The Other Typist, the author’s debut novel, is a highly atmospheric book set in New York City in the midst of the Roaring Twenties.  As seen through the eyes of Rose Baker, the book’s narrator, however, nothing much is really happening.  Certainly, for Rose, a young police stenographer who was raised by nuns in an orphanage, this is pretty much the case.
Rose sees herself as somewhat of a groundbreaker when it comes to women in the workplace.  As one of the few women working so directly with the NYPD, she takes pride in her ability to stomach even the goriest details contained in the confessions she transcribes for the official record each day. But at the end of the workday, she is content to haul herself back to her boardinghouse, where she shares a room with a rather unlikable young woman, for dinner and another evening of reading.  Rose Baker is a sober, responsible young woman vey much formed by her childhood. 
Everything, though, changes the day that Odalie, a beautiful and charismatic young typist, joins the office pool.  Be it for entirely different reasons, Rose is as taken with the new girl as are any of the men in the department, and she almost immediately begins plotting subtle ways to gain Odalie’s attention – and, ultimately, her friendship.  As the story progresses, and Rose, Rindell’s  narrator, reveals more about herself, what she is able to learn about Odalie’s past, and the unusual nature of their evolving friendship, it seems more and more likely that none of this can end well.  Now it becomes more a question of how badly damaged Rose will be by the process of reaching that end. 
Suzanne Rindell
But it is precisely at this point that The Other Typist becomes something other than what the reader has come to expect. Rindell shows us that she has more than one pitch in her arsenal.  She, as it turns out, also has a pretty decent changeup, and she saves it for exactly the moment she has her readers expecting just another fastball.
Bottom Line: This one, although it begins rather slowly, soon enough becomes enough of a mystery to keep readers turning the page.  Rindell’s writing is likely to remind readers of some of the genre’s masters – but this might be seen as a bit of a negative when the book’s ending leaves the reader with at least a sense of déjà vu.  

The Bookman’s Tale

Reading novels about books, bookstores, and book collectors is something that I have a long history of enjoying, particularly those novels that immerse the reader into the world of antiquarian book collecting.  So Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale seemed like a perfect choice for me.  But because I also have a history of not enjoying conspiracy theory novels, especially those that depend heavily upon coincidence to make the plot work, this one did not work out as well for me as I had hoped it would.
Peter Byerly is a recluse by nature.  Because he has preferred his own company since he was a child and has always felt awkward in one-on-one conversations, Peter is both shocked and thrilled to finally meet his soul mate.  Amanda is the perfect woman for Peter, someone who brings out the best in him and completes him in a way he never dared dream possible.  And then she is gone.
Still stunned by his loss, Peter moves back to England to ease his way back into the rare book business he has been so badly neglecting.  There, Peter is contacted by a man hoping to sell some of the books that have been in his family for generations.  While assessing the value and collectability of the man’s books, Peter makes what could be the discovery of a bookman’s lifetime.  He may, in fact, have just stumbled upon the “Holy Grail” of the book-collecting world: indisputable proof that William Shakespeare was truly the author of all the works attributed to him.  Some scholars still argue that a man of Shakespeare’s education and background would not have been capable of such complicated and distinguished writing.  Peter knows that by ending the “did he or didn’t he” debate once and for all he can link his name to Shakespeare’s forever.  His discovery could be that big.
Charlie Lovett
But first he needs to prove that his documentation is authentic and not the work of one of history’s master forgers, an investigation that seems to get the attention of someone willing to kill in order to make Peter go away for good.  Peter Byerly has inadvertently involved himself in a multi-generational two-family feud he could never have imagined when he stumbled upon what appears to be a Victorian era watercolor portrait of Amanda inside a nineteenth-century book.  Now, getting to the truth might be the only way he can save his own life.
Bottom Line:  The Bookman’s Tale is fun for a lot of reasons.  It offers in-depth insight into the closed world of rare book dealers, the techniques and history of document and signature forging, and the whole Shakespearean authorship debate.  But, while the premise of the book and its main characters are intriguing, the book’s plot relies too much on coincidence to make it plausible.  I was unable to suspend my level of disbelief to the degree required of a reader to buy into the book’s ending – and that disappoints me.

One Second After

Probably because I was a child during those dark days during which teachers still had students climb under their desks as practice for what they should do when the Russians nuked our little town of 12,000 people, I have been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction for as long as I can remember.  As it turns out, there is still plenty of it out there, and it does not always involve nuclear bombs falling from the sky.  This time around it takes only a split second for every electrical device in what appears to be (at least) most of the United States to be fried into permanent uselessness.
The premise of William Forstchen’s One Second After is that a hostile government or well-funded terrorist organization manages to explode a nuclear device over the United States at precisely the correct altitude needed to unleash an enormous electromagnetic pulse that will do just that trick.  All anyone in John Matherson’s little North Carolina town knows is that they are instantly off the grid: no radio, no television, no telephones, no anything electrical – including all of their computer-chip-controlled cars and trucks.  It takes a while to hit them, but when people finally realize that no one is coming to help them, society begins to break down.
After the initial panic and scramble for available groceries, medicines, cigarettes, booze, and anything else still on store shelves, someone has to bring order to the chaos if any of the townspeople are to survive for more than a few months.  John Matherson, a local college professor with years of military training, calling upon the help of dozens of his former students, is the town’s best chance.
William R. Forstchen
The threat of electromagnetic pulse warfare does not exist just in books; it is a very real possibility in the real world, one that Forstchen does not believe authorities in this country takes seriously enough.  One Second After (which includes a forward by New Gingrich) is the author’s attempt to place the topic into mainstream awareness and conversation.  One can only hope that this 2009 novel caught the attention of a few people in the right places.
Bottom Line:  Readers will be fascinated by the ingenuity of the novel’s characters as they attempt to reconstruct the things they were taking for granted only a few days earlier.  At the same time, they will be appalled by how quickly the elderly and those with certain chronic illnesses begin to die off when life-sustaining drugs are no longer to be found.  But most disturbing of all is the realization that there are people out there who desperately want to turn One Second After into reality.  This one will scare you.


Bootstrapper, Mardi Jo Link’s new memoir, threw me a bit of a curve.  The book’s subtitle reads this way: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm, leading me to believe that its focus was on the difficulty of eking out a living from one of today’s small American farms – a topic that intrigues me, especially as seen from the female point-of-view.  Instead, Bootstrapper is more the story of one woman’s struggle to survive the breakup of her marriage to a Weak Ass from Northern Michigan – a much more common and less intriguing topic.
Link’s husband, when the couple first split up, moved only a few hundred feet away from the mortgaged acreage and family home in which Mardi Jo continued to live with their three sons.  This made it easy for Mardi Jo and her soon-to-be ex-husband to hand the boys off so that they could spend time with each parent.  But Mr. Ex, for the most part, was surprisingly invisible even as just across the road from his new place, it should have been obvious to him that Mardi Jo and her boys were struggling to put food on the table. 
Mardi Jo, though, saw life on the family farm as “living the dream” and refused to give it up even when she and the boys were largely living on peanut butter and the free bakery goods they won in a zucchini-growing contest.  She had one huge problem: she really knew very little about growing her own food, raising the meat that would sustain her family over the long Michigan winter, or keeping the chickens that would supply the family with fresh eggs.  Eventually, she learned these things, but she learned them the hard way.
Mardi Jo Link
The best thing about Bootstrapper is meeting Mardi Jo’s three sons, each of whom seems to have a unique personality and a different set of life-skills that combines perfectly to help their mother keep things together just long enough for the family to survive their near-disastrous first year of single-parenthood.  Mardi Jo, determined to save her farm despite the numerous sacrifices this will require from her and her children, is lucky to have these boys.
Bottom Line: Bootstrapper is an interesting memoir about a woman who, despite the tremendous odds stacked against her, refuses to give up her dream of living on the family farm.  Regardless of its subtitle, however, this is a book about a writer who happens to live on a farm, not a book about making a go of a twenty-first century small-time farm.

Double Double

Having one alcoholic in the family is bad enough, but it seldom stops there.  Sadly enough, alcoholism is a never-ending problem for many families, one that can devastate them for generations.  In Double Double: A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism, popular mystery writer Martha Grimes and her son Ken very frankly share their own struggles to get, and remain, sober.
The pair, in alternate chapters and several “conversations,” look both backward and forward in their lives, revisiting the times and events during which they became addicts, their struggles to survive their addictions, the manner in which they finally got themselves sober, what their lives are like today, and what their hopes are for the future.  Despite living in the same house during the worst of all of this, Martha and Ken managed to hide their problems from each other, or were so caught up in their individual struggles with addiction, that neither was much aware of what the other was experiencing. 
Ken, in particular, appears to have been a master of deception, the rather typical teenager who easily managed to hide his real life from his mother.  Martha, on the other hand, made alcohol such a constant part of her everyday life that the lifestyle seemed perfectly normal to her and her son.  There was no need for Martha to hide her drinking from Ken because it really did not seem to be all that unusual to either of them.
Martha Grimes
Despite the similarities in their stories, what are likely to intrigue readers most are the pair’s different approaches to attaining and maintaining sobriety.  Ken is a true believer in AA’s Twelve-Step approach, while Martha seems to have been so put off by the program’s more overtly religious aspects that she could not tolerate the meetings.  She preferred, instead, the clinical approach but is frank about that approachs limitations and the ease in which some alcoholics manipulate both their therapy and their therapists. 
Double Double, despite Martha’s assertion that its readers are all likely to be wondering whether they themselves are alcoholics, is filled with revealing insights that nondrinkers and social drinkers will find useful.  Certainly, some readers will realize that they are on the brink of similar problems – and others will find that they have already crossed that line.  But even nondrinkers who have only experienced alcoholism second-hand via observation of a distant family member or friend will come away from the book with a better understanding of the problem (Martha only reluctantly calls it a disease) than they had going in. 
Bottom Line: Double Double is a very readable and honest memoir in which its two authors are not afraid to embarrass themselves and each other.  What they have to say about alcoholism is important, and their willingness to expose themselves this way will help others to solve, or even avoid, a similar experience in their own lives.

She Left Me the Gun

For most, it is difficult to imagine the lives our parents lived before we were born.  We (with a bit of luck) bonded with our parents when we were children, and no matter how old they live to be, to us they largely remain the people they were when we were growing up.  We are forever their children, they our parents.
Although her mother sometimes hinted at some rather dark secrets in her past, She Left Me the Gun author Emma Brockes was never curious enough to press her for details.  Paula, her mother, only offered the occasional hint, immediately shutting down the conversation if Emma asked even the most innocent question – and Emma never pushed her hard enough to learn anything new.  She did know that her mother had immigrated to England from South Africa in 1960 and maintained only limited contact with her South African family and friends from her new home.
Then, when Emma was 27 years old, her mother died and she was surprised to learn that her father did not know a whole lot more about her mother’s past than she did.  Determined to learn the truth about her mother’s first thirty years, and regretting that she had not insisted that her mother tell her more before it was too late, Emma decided it was time to visit South Africa.  What she would learn there turned out to be more tragic than anything she ever imagined.
Emma Brockes
She Left Me the Gun (subtitled My Mother’s Life Before Me) is the story of a dysfunctional South African family whose family-dynamic seems to have crippled the emotional lives of at least two generations.  Old grudges seem to die hard in this family, and Emmas relatives were generally eager to share the worst tales of the family’s past with their British visitor.  Unbeknownst to Emma, her mother was still somewhat of a hero to the rest of the family, someone who, after displaying the courage to fight the pure evilness that was such a part of her daily life, had the equal courage to begin a new life for herself thousands of miles away from everything, and everyone, she knew.
Bottom Line: one gets the impression that, despite learning that her mother had lived two very different lives, Emma still has a hard time emotionally connecting that first life to her mother.  To Emma, Paula will always be the British mother with whom she grew up.  To her, it is almost as if her mothers first thirty years happened to someone else.  Fans of frank, unusual memoirs will want to take a look at this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

The Burgess Boys

The Burgess kids lost their father in a freakish accident when Jim was eight and the twins, Bob and Susan, were four.  They were too young to be blamed for what happened, but each of them, in their own way, would be traumatized by the collective guilt associated with that tragic day.  Now, decades later, they are still paying the price.
The boys both practice law in New York City and have left little Shirley Falls, Maine far behind.  Their sister, on the other hand, has never even been to New York City and still lives in Shirley Falls with her troubled teenage son.  The Burgess family, while not quite estranged, is most certainly not a close one.  Zach can barely remember his uncles.  And when Jim and Bob are together, Jim still takes great joy in belittling his brother, something he has done since at least the day their father died – behavior that the good-natured Bob seems hardly to notice.
But suddenly, all the way from Shirley Falls, Susan frantically reaches out to her brothers for support and legal help.  Zach is in trouble, big trouble, and neither the boy nor his mother is emotionally prepared for what they are about to face.  For the first time since their mother died, the Burgess kids are together in their old hometown, and they can barely stand the town – or each other.
Elizabeth Strout
With remarkable insight, Elizabeth Strout, beginning with the trauma they suffered as small children, moves up and down the Burgess family timeline to explain how they became the people they are today.  Bob and Susan, neither of whom can handle stress or confrontation, are the most obviously emotionally stunted of the three, but the outwardly successful Jim is only better at hiding his problems than they are.  Layer by layer, Stroud develops their distinct personalities, and when they are finally forced to confront their past, it is only a question of which of them will crack first.
The Burgess kids did not grow up to become likable adults, and Strout does not pretend that they did, but it is hard not to be sympathetic as one observes their efforts to cope with their lives.  Their father, after all, was only the most obvious victim of the accident that claimed his life – there were three other victims that day.

Driving Mr. Yogi

I suspect that Driving Mr. Yogi will almost exclusively be read by baseball fans, particularly fans of the love-them-or-hate-them New York Yankees.  And that’s a shame, because the book is actually a rather beautiful portrayal of love, respect, loyalty, and the powerful impact of mentoring by one generation of another.  Yes, as its subtitle makes clear, this is a book about two of the greatest Yankees ever to play the game: catcher Yogi Berra and pitcher Ron Guidry, two men with little in common other than their outstanding ability to play the game of baseball.  But playing baseball is the smallest part of this story.
Yankee owner George Steinbrenner was not known for his social skills, and Yogi Berra was a man with a long memory and the ability to hold a grudge indefinitely (neither of which make it easy to work for someone like Steinbrenner).  Baseball managers are “hired to be fired,” of course, and Yogi never objected to the fact that Steinbrenner fired him.  Buthe took offense to how Steinbrenner handled the firing – and refused to return to Yankee Stadium, or speak to Steinbrenner, for fourteen long years.  It was the vain Steinbrenner who cracked first, and decided to visit Yogi in New Jersey to work things out.
Ron Guidry, Yogi Berra
So when Berra arrived in Florida for his first Yankee Spring Training in fourteen years, Ron Guidry, a Berra protégéand sometime Yankee pitching coach, was eager to meet him at the airport to help his old coach get settled in.  Little did Guidry know at the time, that this would be the beginning of perhaps the most beautiful friendship he would ever experience.  What began as a courtesy on Guidry’s part, one stemming from his immense respect for Berra, would evolve into a deep friendship that made the lives of both men better.  If the truth were known, it probably made them both better men.  But over time, as Berra aged and became feeble, the relationship evolved into one in which Guidry was his friends protector, always there to ensure that Yogi did not suffer a crippling fall or otherwise endanger himself.  Theirs was almost a father-son relationship.
Driving Mr. Yogi might be specifically aimed at baseball fans, but it is also perfect for anyone interested in the aging process or in dealing with an aging parent of their own.  The bookis filled with insights beautifully presented via the many little personal moments that Ron and Yogi shared with author Harvey Araton.  We can all learn something from their story.

Yankee Miracles

I cannot remember a time I was not a baseball fan – and as a kid growing up in a small town in the ‘60s that meant I was a Yankee fan.  No other team was on television as much or got as much national press coverage.  Those were the days of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Tony Kubek, Whitey Ford, Clete Boyer, Bobby Richardson, etc. – a classic Yankee lineup.  Although my keenest interest in the team would only last another decade or so, I could never resist keeping up with all the drama associated with a George Steinbrenner team. 
As it turns out, a guy I never heard of, Ray Negron, had a front row seat to all that drama all his own – right in the dugout.  Negron’s story is an inspirational one, one that he shares with the rest of us in a book he has co-written with Sally Cook called Yankee Miracles (Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers).  His story can be characterized as a fairy tale with a very unexpected “fairy godmother” by the name of George Steinbrenner.  Who would have thought Steinbrenner had a heart?  Not me, I confess, but something was going on here.
Steinbrenner and one of his security people caught the then 17-year-old Negron spray-painting graffiti on Yankee Stadium one day.  Abandoned by his quicker cousins, all of whom managed to escape, Ray Negron had no idea that the man holding tightly to his arm was about to change his life forever.  But, after throwing a real scare into the teen by letting him stew for a while in a holding cell inside the stadium, that is exactly what Steinbrenner did.
Instead of immediately filing charges against him, Steinbrenner offered Ray the chance to work in the Yankee clubhouse until he had worked off the damages he owed the team.  Ray jumped at the job for two reasons: one, to stay out of jail and, two, because he was an avid Yankee fan (something Steinbrenner didn’t know).  The next time Ray saw his quickstepping cousins, they would be in the stands (after sneaking inside the stadium again) and he would be walking the field among his heroes.
Ray Negron
Yankee Miracles is about the “Yankee miracle” that Ray Negron personally experienced; it is the story of his chance encounter with a notoriously egocentric man who stepped out of character long enough to save a boy’s future.  Ray Negron would go on to make baseball his career, most of it as a member of the New York Yankee organization, a life that a young boy headed toward big trouble the way he was could have never otherwise achieved.
Along the way, Negron and Cook tell of the close friendships between Ray and some of the most famous, and infamous, players ever to call the Yankee clubhouse home: Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, Dwight Gooden, Mickey Mantle, and Derek Jeter, among them.  Do keep in mind that Ray Negron is a Yankee-lifer and that he tends to see the Yankees a bit through rose-colored glasses.  However, despite the feeling that much of what he reveals about his years with the Yankees is sugarcoated, Yankee Miracles will definitely appeal to readers who miss the likes of Mantle, Munson, Maris, and Martin.  They don’t make them like those guys anymore.

License to Pawn

 There are fewer less-likely television stars than the Harrison family (known to their fans simply as Rick, “The Old Man,” and “Big Hoss”) and Austin Russell (the loveable walrus-shaped guy everyone knows as “Chumlee”).  But that is exactly what they are these days, and their television show, Pawn Stars, is the main reason that The History Channel is thriving to such a degree today.  Now Rick Harrison, who first conceived and nursed the idea of a pawnshop-based television show years ago, has co-authored a book telling how it all happened.  That the history of the Harrison family is not always pretty only makes the level of their success even more remarkable.  Rick, with a little help from his three co-stars, tells us all about it in License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and My Life at the Gold & Silver.

The Old Man, it seems, was a hustler from the beginning, always on the lookout, even during his navy days, for ways to bring a few extra bucks home to his family.  The family, after the San Diego housing market crash crushed its real estate business, moved to Las Vegas where the elder Harrison opened a “gold and silver shop.”  Rick, largely a self-educated man, suffered from epilepsy as a teen and was a serious drug abuser.  Corey (Big Hoss) one-upped his father when it came to drug addiction, and he is lucky to be alive.  Even Chumlee was heavily involved with drugs at one time – but he wised up long before Corey did.  Although Rick tells most of the story, his father, son, and Chumlee each get a chapter of their own to personalize their individual experiences.  And, in frank detail, that is exactly what they do.
Pawn Stars Cast
Perhaps most interesting are Rick’s accounts of how the business and the television show actually work.  He includes numerous stories reminiscent of the show about some of the most interesting customers and deals that he has seen over the years.  Pawn Stars fans will certainly enjoy the stories but might be surprised to learn how much things have changed for the guys since the show became such a hit.  (Hint: huge crowds, combined with limited floor space, do cause problems.)
Like so many first-person narratives of this type, License to Pawn has more the feel of a transcribed and edited tape recording than of a written narrative.  But, as is often the case, the style works perfectly for those whose voices and deliveries are as familiar to readers as those belonging to the Pawn Stars cast.  No, this is not great literature, but is fun – especially for fans unlikely ever to get any closer to the Gold and Silver than the pages of this book.

Kinsey and Me

Sue Grafton is justifiably famous for her long-running Kinsey Millhone series, a series that is rapidly approaching a major milestone as it approaches the end of the run for the alphabetically christened novels.  Because “V” Is for Vengeance was published way back in 2011, fans of the series are certain to be pleased with the release of Kinsey and Me, a collection of nine (1986-1993) Kinsey Millhone short stories and a bonus section: the “and Me” portion of the book encompasses another bunch of very personal short stories closely based on the author’s own childhood and dysfunctional family.
Along the way, Grafton also explains the mystery/crime genres and discusses why she enjoys working within the limitations of the short story format.  Unfortunately, the Kinsey Millhone stories, precisely because Grafton fails to overcome those limitations, are not nearly as effective or impressive as the Millhone novels.  The nine short stories are cleverly enough plotted, but only one or two of the cases require Kinsey Millhone to break much of a sweat.  It is just all too easy for her.
Sue Grafton
Some of the stories, though, are fun.  “Falling Off the Roof” has a nice anti-Stepford-wife twist to it that had me chuckling, and “Full Circle” builds the tension nicely considering the number of pages the author allots to it.  Others, particularly “The Lying Game,” are just too clever for their own good, when read in a story collection.  They would probably be more effective when read as single stories in a magazine or in a collection encompassing several authors.
I admire Grafton’s courage in publishing the “and Me” stories.  What these stories reveal about Grafton’s background and childhood is sad, but they explain the origin of the author’s fascination with the mystery genre and her general love of books and reading.  She is to be applauded for sharing the stories, but be warned: they are rather depressing and are not at all like anything from her that fans have read before.  Grafton’s personal story is worthy of a full-fledged memoir, something her fans would, I think, appreciate.  Let’s hope something like this is in Grafton’s future writing plans.

A Land More Kind Than Home

Southern fiction often reminds us that evil exists where we least expect to find it and that we let our guards down at our own risk.  Wiley Cash’s disturbing debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, set deep inside the rural North Carolina of the mid-eighties, takes this approach.  There is plenty of evilness in Cash’s story, and most of it is buried in one charismatic preacher’s heart.
Sometimes nine-year-old Jess Hall, even though he has an older brother, feels like he is the oldest child in the family.  His brother, who carries the unfortunate nickname “Stump,” is severely autistic and has never spoken.  Jess loves Stump dearly and has routinely assumed the burden of watching out for his brother when the two of them are outdoors on their own.  But one day Jess cannot protect Stump from the evil that has entered their home.  And, although Jess curses the momentary cowardice that led him to run off and abandon Stump to his fate, he will fail Stump one more time – with tragic consequences.   
Wiley Cash
A Land More Kind Than Homeexplores the power of deeply held religious faith to blind true believers to the evil within those whom they trust the most.  Pastor Chambliss, whose church the boys’ mother attends, has a criminally checkered past and is not a man to tolerate people spying on him.  Unfortunately, Jess and Stump, who greatly enjoy the thrill of spying on adults, inadvertently do spy on the preacher one day, with lasting consequences that will impact their entire community.
This is a story of good vs. evil, one that explores what can happen when evil is allowed to have its way unchallenged.  It is about a community’s responsibility to protect its children even when their mother fails to do so.  It is about secrets, the kind that can get people killed, ruin marriages, or allow one man callously to exploit for decades those who trust him most. It is Southern fiction at its best, and Wiley Cash has claimed a well-deserved spot for himself within the genre.  

Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

If I asked for the names ten authors, I am sure that most of you could almost effortlessly give me a list from the tops of your heads.  But if I asked for the names of even two editors, unless you are a publishing insider, I would likely get a very different result.  That is part of the reason that Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction makes for such interesting reading.  The book, part writing manual, part memoir, was co-written from the points-of-view of author Tracy Kidder and his editor of more than 40-years collaboration, Richard Todd.
The pair met in 1973 when Todd was assigned by The Atlantic Monthly to work with young freelancer Tracy Kidder.  Todd was the slightly older, wiser writing practitioner who would walk Kidder through the process of getting published in one of the country’s oldest, and most prestigious, magazines for the first time.  But that would be just the beginning for these two because that Atlantic article would ultimately evolve into Kidder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul of a New Machine.  The memories of those early days shared by Todd and Kidder make for some rather intriguing (and heartwarming) reading as their work relationship develops into a more enduring one of respect and true friendship. 
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
But, as the book’s subtitle, Stories and advice from a lifetime of writing and editing, suggests, it is also filled with good advice and instruction pertaining to writing narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and essays.  The chapter on narratives, for instance, covers details like point of view, characters, and structure.  There are also whole chapters on accuracy, style, and “being edited and editing.”  The authors also offer practical business advice based upon the current state of the publishing industry (a glimpse of the art vs. commerce part of the business) and encouragement to the novice writer.  Too, there is a more “nuts and bolts” section tiled “Notes on Usage” that addresses things like the distinctions between “which and that,” “who and whom,” and “may and might.”
Bottom line: don’t expect a complete, detailed manual on writing because Good Prose is not that kind of book.  But, on the other hand, readers will enjoy, and benefit from this one, as much as any budding writer out there.  

May We Be Forgiven

Harold Silver has learned to live with the fact that his younger brother, George, lives a more glamorous and outwardly successful lifestyle than he is ever likely to attain.  But living with that knowledge, and accepting it, are two very different things. 
The two men are nothing alike.  George is a television executive at the top of his game, an aggressive man whose size allows him to be physically intimidating when he wants to be.  Harold is a “Nixon scholar” who has been working on a Nixon book for years and has just lost his small-time teaching job.  In contrast to George’s life, Harold’s future is completely up in the air at this point.  But George is a ticking time bomb, and after his violent temper finally gets the best of him, the two Silver families are changed forever.
Almost before he knows it, Harold is living in George’s house and has shouldered sole parental responsibility for his brother’s young son and daughter.  Everyone around him is suffering, and it is easy to blame George for all of that pain.  But Harold knows what really happened on the horrible night his brother destroyed their families.  And he feels guilty.
May We Be Forgivenis the blackest of comedies, a satirical look at contemporary American culture and what is happening to our families, especially to our children.  And, when it is not going completely over the top (something it does way too often), the novel is both funny and insightful.  At almost 500 pages, May We Be Forgiven is almost twice the length of the average novel, and reading it is much like reading two separate novels under one cover. 
A.M. Homes
The first 200 pages, or so, encompass an intriguing look at two very different men who have had a difficult relationship since childhood.  It is about a man willing to take responsibility for his part in something that could destroy the next generation of his family.  It is about redemption and forgiveness, and as improbable as the story is, something like it could actually happen.  The rest of the book is a farcical, slapstick comedy, so over the top that the book’s message is lost amid the absurdity of the story.  All sense of realism is gone, and the novel suffers for it because May We Be Forgiven becomes overcrowded with minor characters and subplots that do more to distract the reader than to add to the book’s central plot. 
This is a case where less would most certainly have been more.

Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces

I had never heard of John Kennedy Toole the day that the cover of A Confederacy of Dunces caught my eye on the Harvard Book Store bargain table. That cover was so different from everything else there that it was the first thing I picked up, and I had the feeling the book was going to be special.  And, it turns out that I was correct.  A Confederacy of Dunces is a brilliant novel, and it started my thirty-year fascination with its author, a man who committed suicide at age 31 in 1969, eleven years before his Pulitzer Prize winning novel was even published.
But, largely because of how Toole’s mother solely controlled the documents pertaining to her son, destroying those that did not support the image she preferred, knowing what to believe about the author’s life has not been easy. Butterfly in the Typewriter, the new John Kennedy Toole biography by Cory MacLauchlin, goes a long way in separating the myth created by Thelma, Toole’s mother, from the reality of the man’s brief life. 
The cover that caught my attention

 Toole is, of course, a New Orleans native, and the city was as important to him as anything else in his life ever would be. Despite working and studying in places as varied as New York City and rural Louisiana, the city was forever in his blood. Although it provided him with real-life representations of what would become the key characters of his literary masterpiece, living there with his parents into his thirties was also a constant reminder of his failures. And, finally, after a row with Thelma, John Kennedy Toole ended the last road trip of his life on a deserted road outside Biloxi, Mississippi by inhaling the exhaust fumes from his car until he was dead. 

John Kennedy Toole

Butterfly in the Typewriter follows Toole’s brief journey from birth; through the school years that culminated in degrees from Tulane and Columbia University; to his jobs as an English teacher; and, completing the cycle, back to living with – and financially supporting – his parents in their New Orleans home. Along the way, we meet his friends and colleagues, and learn much about his family, including its history of mental illness.

Toole’s story is complicated by his mother’s unfortunate habit of editing it for her own purposes (and glory), but it would have been complicated enough even without her meddling. To Thelma’s everlasting credit, there is no doubt that, without her efforts, the world would never have heard of A Confederacy of Dunces. She even, with $100,000 of royalty money from the book, established the John Kennedy Toole scholarship at Tulane, a fund that, according to MacLauchlin, is worth more than $1 million today.
Cory MacLauchlin

Butterfly in the Typewriter is an evenhanded biography, one that tries to tell all sides of the story while minimizing speculation and rumor (or at least pointing them out as such). Sadly, though, it appears that we will never know the whole truth of John Kennedy Toole because all we have left is Thelma Toole’s edited version of who he was.  We know that she destroyed his suicide note and other documents that would have certainly offered insights into her son’s mind. And, now that all existing documents have been studied, and most of those to whom Toole was closest have taken their secrets to the grave, Butterfly in the Typewriter may just be as good as it ever gets.  

Dear Life

Dear Life is my first experience with Alice Munro’s fiction – but it will not be my last. 
Munro was born and raised on a “fox and poultry” farm in Ontario and she now lives in Clinton, a little town of approximately 3,000 residents about twenty miles from that farm.  Pure and simple, Munro is a short story writer – even her one novel, Lives of Girls and Women, is in the form of a group of interrelated short stories. Dear Life, the thirteenth original short story collection that she has published since her first in 1968, is her first since 2009’s Too Much Happiness.  Interestingly, all of her stories seem to be set in the region of Canada in which Munro grew up and lives today. 
The stories in Dear Life are not so much plot driven, as they are character driven.  They feature strong, but complex, women whose lives are often changed or pushed in entirely new directions by spur of the moment decisions or chance encounters.  The reader is reminded that even what appear to be the simplest of lives are not ever so simple to the ones living them.
Strong as the women of Dear Life are, when it comes to men, many of them seem to be attracted to the “bad boy” type – and they usually suffer the consequences.  One woman, married and the mother of a little girl, has a sudden fling with a younger man while on a train trip to Toronto to housesit for a friend; a middle-aged woman living alone on remote, broken down farm takes in a soldier who decides to jump off a train near her place; an elderly woman runs off when her husband’s equally elderly old flame re-enters his life; and a rich woman has a long affair with a married man whom she figures out way too late. 
Alice Munro
In addition, this fourteen-story collection include stories about little girls and one about a confused old woman akin to the kind of tale often found in the classic “Twilight Zone” television series.  The collection’s final four stories are set in a separate unit of their own, and are described by the author as “autobiographical in feeling, though not, sometimes, entirely so in fact.”  These four stories are intriguing snapshots of incidents, one must suppose, that are based on something from Munro’s own life, but rather surprisingly, they do not carry the emotional impact of the earlier stories. 
Dear Life is an excellent introduction to Alice Munro’s fiction, to her unforgettable characters and the sheer power of her stories.  She is not a novelist but, somehow, her best stories read like mini-novels, and they say as much about the human condition as will be found in most full-length novels. 
Alice Munro is a true short story master.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Most avid readers are, I suspect, at least somewhat fond of that fictional subgenre in which the world of books is intricately incorporated into the storyline.  When this is done well, there is no greater reading pleasure to be found.  And there is something out there for every reading taste: literary fiction, mysteries, thrillers – and in the nonfiction field, true crime titles about book thieves, forgeries, and the like. 
Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is a worthy addition to the genre – a novel at which booklovers will definitely want to take a look.
Young Clay Jannon, the book’s narrator, is a recently unemployed San Francisco web-designer who is not having any success finding a new job.  Clay, like so many of us, gets online with good intentions and specific goals in mind, but finds himself, hours later, wondering how he managed to waste so much time aimlessly browsing the web.  Most importantly, he remains unemployed – and has no new leads – at the end of each day of his “job search.” 
So, when he stumbles upon a “help wanted” sign in the window of a 24-hour bookstore, Clay is all over it.  After a quick job interview (that largely consists of climbing a tall ladder to the store’s top shelves and acrobatically retrieving the specified volume) Clay is installed as the bookstore’s overnight proprietor.  But, as Clay soon learns, this is no ordinary bookstore.
First, he is lucky if he sees more than one customer during any given night.  Second, the only books actually for sale are kept on just a few shelves right at the front of the store.  Third, the several thousand books housed on the bookshelves that line the bulk of this tall, narrow bookstore are only there to be loaned, one-at-a-time, to specific customers (a rather strange lot) who exchange a previously borrowed book for a new one. 
Something is up.  And Clay wants to find out what it is. 
Robin Sloan
Soon, using his programming skills, intimacy with the Internet, and a select group of similarly skilled friends, Clay begins to unravel the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.  And, what a fun ride it is – especially if you love books, conspiracy theories, and unlikely quests.
Interestingly, the world created here by Robin Sloan is one in which even the most adamant advocates of the printed book and those who ardently embrace the digital world of e-books do more than just co-exist. The story focuses on a “best of both worlds” scenario that results in the discovery of a basic, but beautiful, simple truth about life.
Sloan’s writing style lends itself to a relatively quick reading of this little book, and that’s not at all a bad thing because most readers will be eager to solve the book’s inherent mystery.  I should note, however, that one of the book’s side-plots did, in my estimation, more to slow the story’s momentum than to add anything useful, or all that interesting, to the story.  Most readers, though, will easily forgive this.