Havaa’s father once told his young daughter that a true chess player thinks with his fingers. The eight-year-old girl would remember his comments when a year later her father's fingers were savagely cut off by government security forces in war ravaged Chechnya. It is one of the many atrocities in Anthony Marra's beautifully realized literary debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, where the spiral of murder and torture is as much a part of the landscape as the myriad of landmines, checkpoints, and disappearances in the night.
Spanning a decade of war with Russia from 1994 to 2004, Marra exposes the underbelly of his complicated Caucasus region by weaving together the lives of the damaged souls in its wake. At its core are two doctors whose pasts must be reconciled as they cycle toward their fates. There is Akhmed, a neighboring doctor who rescues Havaa, now being hunted by the "feds" after her father is kidnapped for aiding the rebels. Akhmed flees with the girl, careful to avoid a neighbor's war damaged son who is now an informant. They end up at a nearly abandoned hospital heroically run by a brilliant, sharp witted ethnic Russian doctor named Sonja. She reluctantly agrees to hide the child in exchange for Akhmed's help. An artist at heart, Akhmed would rather be drawing his patients than amputating their mangled limbs.
Marra enriches his compelling, richly-detailed writing with surprising bursts of humor, sidebars, and characters whose stories are plentiful and achingly poignant. It is a place where death is prevalent but hope is instinctive. It is about being ready when the time comes; just like Havaa's "just in case suitcase" her father had her pack, waiting by the door. Readers of The Tiger's Wife or The Cellist of Sarajevo will recognize here the challenge of living with dignity at the greatest of costs.
Two years ago, sisters Margot and Gwen’s lives were dramatically changed by the departures of their husbands. In The View from Penthouse B, Elinor Lipman shares the story of these sisters whose marital situations were altered by wildly different circumstances. Gwen’s husband Edwin died suddenly but peacefully in his sleep. Despite the best intentions of family and friends, Gwen has not felt the need or desire to start dating. Margot’s husband, Charles, an OB/GYN, might as well have died when he was arrested and jailed for fraud. His crime: providing infertility treatments the old-fashioned way. Margot immediately divorced Charles, but managed to secure a good deal of his money. She bought a beautiful Village penthouse and started living the high life. Then Bernie Madoff happened, and with it came Margot’s reversal of fortune. Younger and bossier sister Betsy took one look at her two floundering sisters and recommended they share the penthouse. This cohabitation would provide companionship and also made good financial sense.
Margot and Gwen are compatible roommates, but their ever-tightening wallets dictate the need for a third roomie. Margot finds Anthony, an unemployed financial analyst, single, gay, and in his twenties. He’s a breath of fresh air in their stagnant lives, and boy does he bake fabulous cupcakes! Gwen finally decides to venture back into the dating scene and places online personal ads. The responses she receives from prospective suitors headline subsequent chapters and are just one example of Lipman’s sharp wit. At the same time, Charles is paroled and moves into an efficiency downstairs for the sole purpose of winning Margot back. The sisters’ lives are finally getting interesting with dates, dinners with Charles, and an introduction to Chaz, the son from his scandalous “treatment.” Lipman creates another comedic and poignant gem with this sister story about love, forgiveness, and renewal in middle age. Once again, Lipman makes it clear why so many have dubbed her our modern Jane Austen.
Everybody makes mistakes. Most folks get to learn from their errors and move on. On occasion, poor judgment leads to ruinous, far-reaching consequences, examples of which author Bill Fawcett examines in Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing: 100 Mistakes that Lost Elections, Ended Empires, and Made the World What It Is Today. Starting with the dynasty-destroying actions of the first Chinese emperor in 229 BC and travelling through history to end with the 2011 post-tsunami nuclear reactor meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, Fawcett analyzes the decisions which eventually led to disaster. Some scenarios analyzed by the author are readily familiar to readers, such as the epic failure of 1920’s Prohibition legislation banning booze; instead of routing out poverty and making “hell…forever for rent,” brutal organized crime activity skyrocketed thanks to the lure of the lucrative black market for alcohol. Other examples offer food for thought, such as the premise that President Eisenhower’s support of the tyrannical Shah of Iran paved the way for the current adversarial relationships between Middle East countries and the United States. Each situation presented by Fawcett provides an interesting retrospective on some of history’s seminal events.
Edward Steers also mines history in his book Hoax: Hitler’s Diaries, Lincoln’s Assassins, and Other Famous Frauds. Unlike the unintended consequences revealed in Trust Me, Steers deals with the intentional deceptions of forgers which are foisted upon a sometimes all-too-willing-to-believe public. Steers presents perpetrators who are sometimes motivated by money, as in the “discoveries” of the infamous Hitler diaries or sacred Mormon text. Other times, the finger is pointed by political rivals like those who wanted to taint President Roosevelt’s reputation by claiming he knew about Pearl Harbor prior to the attack but failed to act. The Shroud of Turin? The missing link? Steers weighs in on both outright cons and more subtle mysteries with careful detail and scientific evidence, making both convincing arguments and a fascinating book.
Anyone who has had annoying neighbors or lived in an apartment with thin walls can appreciate the level of irritation that led Charlie McDowell to begin tweeting comments that he overheard from his upstairs neighbors Cathy and Claire at all hours of the day and night. His tweets have now been compiled and expanded in his new book Dear Girls Above Me: Inspired by a True Story.
After breaking up with his girlfriend, Charlie found himself at home more often. He soon discovered that he could hear every word his neighbors said to each other, but they were blissfully unaware of the noise coming from his apartment, even when he screamed at them or blew an air horn. He began sharing his observations in 140 characters or less, all beginning with the phrase “Dear Girls Above Me.” His tweets soon gained the attention of celebrities and major media outlets like the website Gawker, and magazines Glamour and Time. In the book, he expands the stories about his life and his neighbors, but there are still plenty of tweets included. They are at the end of each chapter and organized by topics like "The Girls on Singing and Lyricism", "The Girls on Dieting", "The Girls on Drinking", and "The Girls on Current Events". The girls’ vapid comments combined with Charlie’s snarky responses create a hilarious pop culture commentary. He is, as actress Lena Dunham says, “a very skilled, and freaking funny, anthropologist of the Kardashian era.” For more updates on Charlie and his neighbors, visit his website or follow him on Twitter.
Appearances can be deceiving. Author David Levithan has explored identity before in such highly-praised books as Every Day and Will Grayson, Will Grayson. He has teamed up with another celebrated author, Andrea Cremer, for Invisibility, a fantastical tale of those intangible somethings that make people attracted to one another. Sixteen-year-old Stephen is alone in the world. His father abandoned him long ago, and his mother died nearly a year ago. He is also invisible, the victim of a mysterious curse at his birth. He makes his way, day by day, on the very edges of existence. One day he meets Elizabeth and is astonished to discover that she can see him. As she attempts to help him find a "cure", they grow closer, inevitably since she is the first person who has ever been able to truly see Stephen. Will they be able to lift the curse, and will they still love each other when nothing is hidden?
Invisibility is a mash-up of two dissimilar styles that works because of these talented authors. Levithan and Cremer have created an extremely likeable and sympathetic character in Stephen, and readers will root for him in his quest to find his identity and reveal himself to the world. A magical urban fantasy masquerading as realistic fiction, Invisibility will appeal to fans of both genres.
Fifth grade is difficult to navigate as Genie Kunkle finds out in Elisabeth Dahl’s Genie Wishes. Genie lives in Baltimore with her father, brother, and grandmother. She is about to start the fifth grade at Hopkins Country Day School and is thrilled to learn that Sarah, her BFF, will be in her homeroom. But Sarah is thrilled that Blair, her new friend from summer camp is also in their class. And Blair is not thrilled with anything Genie does – from her name (Haddock is her unfortunate middle name), to not shaving her legs. As Genie notes, the transitive property she learned about in math does not transfer to friendship.
Fifth grade progresses and Genie makes new friends since Sarah and Blair are now a package deal. She also tries new things, like running and winning the election for class blogger. Using the name Genie Wishes, she voices the wishes and dreams of her class. Her posts are popular, but sometimes it’s hard to think of things to write and she also worries about expressing her opinion. Change is afoot at home as well and Genie finds herself dealing with a moody older brother and a dad back in the dating pool.
Dahl does an excellent job of conveying the struggles of a realistic tween learning to accept change and make decisions, both fluffy and weighty. While the loss of her best friend is painful, it is not a major betrayal. As she finishes the year and heads for middle school, Genie realizes it’s important to stand for something and let her voice be heard. Tweens everywhere will relate to Genie’s genuine conflicts and appreciate the quick resolutions. Kids from Charm City will love all of the Baltimore references from the National Aquarium to dressing up in Ravens’ colors for Spirit Day.
It has been six years since Khaled Hosseini’s last book, but for lovers of literary fiction the wait has been worthwhile. And The Mountains Echoed begins quietly, with a father telling his children a story on the night before a long journey. A monster comes to a village steal a child, and a father must choose which child will go or else the monster will take them all. He does so in agony, discovering years later that the chosen child has had a better life away from the poverty of the village. The story is meant to illustrate the heartbreaking choices we make for the ones we love. Unbeknownst to the children, their journey the next morning is to Kabul, where their father will give his daughter up to a wealthy family so that she might have a better life. As the novel moves forward, each chapter brings a new point of view, often in a different time and place, yet all are interconnected. Stories of family members, servants, and friends ripple outward like water rings from a rock tossed into a pond, each bringing new truths to the tale before it.
As expected, Hosseini’s characters are multi-dimensional and rich, full of love, longing and regret. This book is very personal to him, and he describes it as “a story that speaks to the experience of someone living in exile, as well as that of refugees coming back home.” The novel moves across the globe, beginning in Afghanistan and touching down in places such as San Francisco, Paris and the Greek Islands. The largest of his books in terms of scale and story, And The Mountains Echoed is a long-awaited gem sure to appear on many award lists in the future.
Leave it to Joyce Carol Oates to pull together several unusual elements, well-known historical figures, a dash of the paranormal and tremendous historical detail. In her new novel, The Accursed, we meet the Slade family, who seem to be suffering the effects of a terrible curse. The daughter Annabel falls under the spell of a smooth-talking Southern gentleman named Axson Mayte, who may be more than he appears to be. Annabel’s brother Josiah will go to great lengths to protect his sister from harm. Wilhelmina Burr, their cousin, is plagued by visions of serpents while away at school. While the Slade family suffers, Woodrow Wilson, the current president of Princeton University, struggles to keep his post from a keen usurper bent on knocking him from his pedestal. But there are other figures lurking around Princeton as well. Grover Cleveland, suffering terribly from the death of his child, sees visions of her in dark hallways. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, is convinced that the shadowy figure he spies leaving in a carriage with a man is his wife. Murder and mysterious deaths are plaguing New Jersey. There is talk of the legend of the “Jersey Devil,” but most residents remain convinced it is only a story to frighten children. But as 1905 becomes 1906 and the strange events continue, more questions are raised as to the validity of the curse.
Joyce Carol Oates is a literary writer with a tremendous love for language, so The Accursed is not a quick read. The plot often meanders and you discover much about the characters living in the area. Many of the historical figures are not looked upon kindly and readers will see an unfavorable side to many of them. Oates creates a sinister atmospheric tone that runs through the novel, and her very detailed text offers footnotes as the narrator/historian weaves the tale. The use of diary entries and letters help to round out the novel and make it a very thoughtful read.
The veil has lifted on the young woman dubbed “Foxy Knoxy” by the media. In Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, Amanda Knox recounts how her promising start as an American exchange student in Italy quickly spiraled into a nightmare and kept her abroad much longer than anticipated. Barely two months into her study abroad program in the city of Perugia, Knox found herself at the center of an international media frenzy when her roommate, British exchange student Meredith Kercher, was found murdered. Within days, she was ensnared in the Italian police and justice systems, having little understanding of the language, much less their laws and politics. She and two others were convicted of murder in 2009. Her conviction and that of her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was overturned on appeal in 2011. The Italian courts are currently reviewing the case.
Knox is studying creative writing, and did pen the entire book. Although it can be burdened at times with staged-sounding conversations and details that fall into the “TMI” category, it is an honest reflection of a young woman who grew up very quickly during the four years she was imprisoned. Knox has recently given several high- profile interviews in conjunction with the release of this book, including with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. Other sources which provide insightful perspective about the case are Nina Burleigh’s The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox and John Follain’s A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case, previously written about here. However, for anyone following the case, the perspective you don’t want to miss is from the person at the center of it all. Finally, Knox herself has her say.
How far would you go to get out of debt? Would you sell your car? Move out of your house? Take a minimum wage job scrubbing toilets in Alaska? Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom, was willing to do almost anything to free himself from the burden of his student loans. Living as frugally as possible, he worked as an Alaskan janitor, hitchhiked his way across the country, and lived in a van to pursue his dream of a debt-free life. With the ideals of Thoreau and the heart of Kerouac, Ilgunas’ journey from loan-ridden student to financially-independent ascetic is in turns humorous, touching, and inspiring.
Ilgunas started his college career similar to many millennials in the mid-2000s, largely oblivious to the quiet specter of loan debt that would slowly accrue over the course of his degree. Purposeless and skill-less, he graduated with a liberal arts degree, no job prospects, and a burning desire to pay off his debt as quickly as possible. But unlike other students who begin a traditional career, Ilgunas set out on a haphazard, occasionally reckless, and strangely successful quest to live as cheaply as possible while earning money in low-wage jobs in very odd circumstances. After working himself out of debt, Ilgunas vowed to remain debt-free forever while also trying to go to graduate school, a feat that seems impossible until he stumbles on the idea of eliminating housing expenses by living secretly out of his “creepy red van.”
Part social experiment, part return to the wild, part ultimate road trip, Walden on Wheels blends idealism and practicality into a remarkably effective solution to the increasingly pervasive problem of coping with a suffocating amount of debt. Millennials, parents of millennials, and those longing for financial freedom will rally around this account of a unique approach to a very common dilemma.