Artist 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.
We 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.
Newbery Medal winner Clare Vanderpool returns with a coming-of-age tale sprinkled with magic and adventure in Navigating Early, set at the end of World War II. Jack Baker’s mother has suddenly died, and his military dad uproots him from Kansas to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. While feeling like a fish out of the very water so prevalent on this campus, Jack does befriend Early Auden, an unusual boy who seems to have his run of the school. Early is an orphan whose brother was a superstar at the school but whom everyone (except Early) believes to have died in the war.
As the two get to know one another, it is clear that while Early may be quirky, even obsessive; he definitely has a gift for numbers. He sees colors in numbers and fashions a story about the number Pi. Early shares his story of Pi with Jack, and Jack agrees to accompany Early on his quest for his missing brother and a legendary great black bear along the Appalachian Trail. Early’s Pi story is filled with pirates, volcanoes, and extraordinary escapades. Oddly, the boys’ journey parallels Pi’s story, as they encounter similar characters and excitement along the Trail. The two travel by land and sea all while overcoming obstacles and learning more about other and themselves.
As they complete this mission together and navigate dangerous paths, each realizes the power of his personal connections and that sometimes what you are looking for isn’t always what you find. Vanderpool masterfully weaves the story of the boys’ quest with the tale of Pi into a quickly moving narrative with beautiful language and mystical overtones. This stunning novel is homage to the power of stories, the importance of personal journeys, and the power of our individual constellations.
Light a fire under your young mathematician! In The Golden Rectangle, author Gillian Neimark tells the tale of a 10-year-old girl from Puddleville, Georgia, who wants to grow up to be a horse rustler (although she’s not sure exactly what that is). Unfortunately, her destiny may lie elsewhere. After finding a mysterious key in her secret hayloft hideout, Lucy Moon is visited by Square Man, a 4-inch, square–shaped wizard intent on removing all curved lines from the world. Square Man tries to convince Lucy that an evil wizard named Dr. Pi is trying to make spirals out of all of the rectangles in the world. Lucy is skeptical and uses what turns out to be her magic key to land in the closet of Flor Bernoulli, herself a magical 10-year-old in New York. The girls embark on a whimsical adventure as they try to prevent Square Man from “squaring” the earth. The story is light and fun while introducing the reader to the concept of the Golden Rectangle (a mathematical term referring to a rectangle with a specific ratio of dimensions which is considered to be the most aesthetically pleasing of all rectangles. It has some other nifty properties as well). This is a sequel to The Secret Spiral, by the same author.
The Number Devil: A Mathematical Adventure, by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, takes a more direct approach in teaching mathematical concepts. Robert, the main character, hates math. The Number Devil takes over his dreams to teach him mathematical concepts in his sleep, one concept a night for twelve nights. Using everyday language and very few technical terms, The Number Devil brings clarity to topics such as infinite numbers, prime numbers, and Fibonacci numbers. Using pictures, diagrams and clear examples, the Number Devil helps Robert understand the topics and shows shortcuts to quickly showcase the principles. Even readers with a mild case of arithmophobia will learn to appreciate math after reading these titles.
Are they bad? Or just drawn that way? Those are the questions award-winning children’s author Jane Yolen and her daughter Heidi Stemple debate as they take an entertaining tour through the lives of some of history's most notorious women in Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves, and Other Female Villains. Arranged chronologically from Old Testament barber Delilah to 20th century mob courier Virginia Hill, this deck of 26 dicey dames includes royalty (Bloody Mary, Catherine of Russia), wild women of the Wild West (Belle Starr, Calamity Jane) and out-and-out criminals (Moll Cutpurse, Bonnie Parker).
Each short (2- to 8-page) chapter opens with a lush, period-appropriate poster-style portrait by illustrator Rebecca Guay. The authors then outline each lady's dastardly deeds and point out the "aggravating or mitigating" circumstances that may influence the reader's opinion of their guilt. Yolen and Stemple speak directly to the reader, bickering delightfully about context and consequences as they model good discussion behavior (and shoes!), in a page of comics at the end of each chapter. The authors' enthusiasm for their subject is contagious, abetted by playful language that makes Bad Girls a rock ‘em sock ‘em read. Alliteration, rhyme, short sentences and a conversational tone combine with sometimes-challenging vocabulary to make this book readable but by no means dumbed-down. A hearty bibliography will give a girl a leg up on the further reading she is sure to want to do. Feminist, girl-powered, intelligent and open-ended - this book respects the reader as much as it does its subjects.
For Standish Treadwell, being one of the few remaining imperfect people in a society mandating perfection is beyond stressful. Survival means staying under the radar and following all of the Motherland’s rules—which is difficult when you can’t read. Echoes of Nazi Germany clash with the Space Race of the 1960’s in Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.
Part dystopian fiction and part science fiction, the action takes place in an unnamed society. Standish is nearly fifteen, and he is getting tired of the violence that surrounds him every day. People keep disappearing, including his own parents, and no one will talk about it. The enemy, known only as the Greenflies, has pressured the President to send men from the Motherland to the moon as a show of superiority to the rest of the world. Anyone not necessary to achieve this goal is expendable. When his best and only friend goes missing, Standish decides it is time to stop hiding and plans to find him. He knows where he has to look—beyond the wall that towers over the last remaining houses in the city. As he makes his plan, he discovers a truth that could lead to freedom from the oppression. Can one person’s small rebellion be the spark that ignites a revolution?
The action in Maggot Moon plays out in extremely short chapters. These are snapshots of Standish’s thoughts, full of the muddled spellings that mirror his dyslexic brain. Author Gardner is dyslexic and is a strong advocate for educational assistance for children with dyslexia. Slightly disturbing pencil sketches on the page edges tell a simpler version of the same story as the text, and they beg to be flipped like an early moving picture book. While the extreme bravery from this 15-year-old boy veers slightly near the edge of believability, Standish is a likeable and honorable character who you want to root for.
Across 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.
British 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.
Grab 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.
Steven 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.