There are some books you just do not want to end. Paula McLain's new historical fiction novel Circling the Sun is just that kind. Richly atmospheric and thick with romantic nostalgia for 1920s British colonial Kenya, this literary treat is like eating a ripe peach over the kitchen sink: satisfying and juicy with just the right amount of messiness.
It is the story of aviator Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly solo from east to west across the Atlantic. But McLain feels Markham was just as noteworthy for her sometimes scandalous earlier on-ground adventures.. This lesser-known past comes to life in a dialogue-fueled, first-person narrative set magnificently "before Kenya was Kenya."
Irreverent and unsettled, the former Beryl Clutterbuck is a trailblazer. She was one of the first successful racehorse trainers of her era in a time when male trainers dominated. She bucked tradition at every turn, owing her independence to her upbringing. Abandoned early on by her mother, she was reared by her horse-training father and influenced by the local Kipsigis tribe. It is not surprising that this independent and fearless young woman's natural ambitions are at odds with the times. Her relationships were often rollercoaster, unhappy affairs. Even the love of her life, Denys Finch Hatton, is not hers alone. She shares the seductive safari hunter with her friend, the hospitable, aristocratic coffee farmer Karen Blixen, who would go on to write Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen. It is a perilous love triangle that is the heart of the story.
McLain, whose previous book was the hugely popular The Paris Wife, about Hemingway's first spouse Hadley Richardson, deftly recasts Markham as avant-garde if not ethically suspect. The ability to make us care about this heroine from the other side of the world almost 100 years ago is testament to McLain's richly textured storytelling and smart supply of interesting characters from drunks and expats to tribesmen and royalty. If it makes you want to read Markham's own superb memoir West with the Night or revisit Dinesen's Out of Africa, McLain has done her job.
Fans of Toni Morrison will find the new and not-so-new in her latest novel, God Help the Child. The new: This is Morrison's first book to be set in present day instead of the historical past. The not-so-new are the issues Morrison is known for tackling, such as sexual abuse, betrayal and race perceptions. Each is accounted for in this slim, spare novel about the ways in which people revive themselves from life's early trauma and rejection.
This story of a mother and her daughter stares down a heartrending path, punctuated by cruelty and denial. Sweetness, the mother, is a light-skinned African-American woman who is repulsed by the midnight blackness of her own daughter, Lula Ann. “She was so black she scared me,” says Sweetness, who calls herself “high yellow.” For Lula Ann, growing up with a distant mother meant that she would do just about anything to gain her attention, including telling a devastating lie that will haunt her. As an adult, Lula Ann changes her name to Bride. Successful, with a soon-to-be-launched cosmetic line, the stunningly beautiful young woman embraces her fashionable blue-blackness, dressing in accentuating white. She falls apart when her lover leaves her. Her search for him leads to more discoveries about herself and the man she may not know at all.
Told from shifting points-of-view, God Help the Child exudes characteristic Morrison prose with its powerful imagery and subtle emotional probing. There is also a bow to the author's canon of previous works, including a spell of magical realism that readers may recognize. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Morrison is widely considered one of the world’s superb storytellers. And while the length of her novels may be shortening (this is her 11th and one of the leanest at 178 pages), the 84-year-old continues to mine the black American experience for lessons from the past. In her latest work, a breach of trust in childhood becomes the conduit that shapes all that comes later, making forgiveness and reconciliation necessary but daunting.
Stephen Kurkjian is a man on a mission. The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist from The Boston Globe revisits what remains the largest property crime in U.S. history in his new book, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist. It's a detailed accounting of the events, suspects and stalled investigation that has mired Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in a 25-year-old mystery. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kurkjian has his own theories on who-done-it and why, after all these years, the crime remains unsolved.
The FBI’s website calls art theft “stealing history.” Indeed, the 13 stolen works taken in the wee hours on March 18, 1990 by two men wearing fake mustaches and disguised as police officers represent a distinct and priceless collection by a few of the world's true masters, including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Degas.
Kurkjian, with his fast-paced narrative and plethora of research, aims to crack this case. There are brief descriptions of all the players at the beginning of the book. Readers will need the list, as Kurkjian lays out a web of who’s who in the Boston underworld, from low level crooks to mob bosses. And just when you think the author is getting repetitive, Kurkjian offers up intriguing bits of the sometimes strange efforts to recover the paintings. He also expresses pointed frustration over the FBI's mishandling of the investigation from the get-go. He notes that there hasn't been a single confirmed sighting of the works. He calls it a "disgrace."
For those who enjoy the logistics of the chase, Master Thieves has plenty to offer to both nonfiction and fiction readers. Written in an accessible journalistic style that includes several interviews with key figures, Kurkjian brings his 20-year obsession to his readers, who will ultimately form their own opinions on why this crime remains unsolved today.
It's one thing to be able to describe a debilitating chronic illness; it's another to do so in language so contemplative that the words seem to hover over the page for their raw honesty. Anna Lyndsey (pseudonym) has written her illness-inspired memoir Girl in the Dark about living with a rare light sensitivity so severe it plunges her into a self-imposed darkness. "How do you write about having to live entirely in the dark?" she asks. Lyndsey does it by sectioning her narrative thoughtfully, giving readers a brief cast into her physical and emotional daily, personal life that is as candid as it is hopeful and full of love.
To say Lyndsey's illness has isolated her would be an understatement. The former British civil servant was fine until one day about 10 years ago she realized she could no longer tolerate light. It starts with the computer screen, which makes her face burn like “someone is holding a flamethrower to my head.” Eventually, her whole body is affected until she is left with no choice but to make her footprint smaller, something easier said than done. She refers to her bedroom as her lair. “I slipped between the walls of my dark room with nothing but relief,” she says. Life is a constant adjustment. Doctors can’t help, nor can her supportive mother and brother. Her rock is her companion-turned-husband Pete who never wavers, bringing her talking books and melding into the new normal.
Lyndsey’s story is not so much about the unusualness of her illness as it is about living as humanely as possible with it. Eschewing strict chronological order, Lyndsey instead delivers up short, poetic essays on various subjects. For readers drawn to the fragility of the human condition, Lyndsey’s remarkable storytelling becomes a fertile ground for resiliency when the impossible becomes possible.
For Lady, Vee and Delph Alter, suicide runs in the family. Now, the clock is ticking for the three sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell's dynamic turn-of-the-century family saga A Reunion of Ghosts. The Alter siblings believe their fates are sealed and have selected midnight, December 31, 1999 as the date they, too, will end their lives. But first, they want to chronicle the story of four generations of Alters in a sort of tell-all group memoir that is also their suicide note.
The Alter sisters come from a long, complicated line of suicidal tendencies going back to their great-grandmother, Iris. Iris was married to Lenz Alter, a Jewish Nobel prize-winning chemist who ironically developed the poison gas used by the Germans in World War II. Eventually, the scientist, their son Richard and his children (including the sisters' mother), also killed themselves. (Readers will find it helpful to refer to the detailed family tree included in the front of the book to keep track of who's who.)
Now, the Alter siblings are stuck. "The truth is, we all fell through the cracks, and that's where we've stayed," they said. They even live in the same inherited Upper West Side apartment, complete with a "death and dying room" no one has slept in for years. Lady, divorced and miserable, has already attempted suicide once. Vee, whose husband died, is facing a cancer recurrence. The youngest Delph contemplates what being cursed really means. They want to hasten what they feel is the inevitable course of events.
Mitchell has crafted here a stylistically complex, intertwining narrative through the unified voice of the three protagonists. It is their pragmatism and wry, dark humor that lend this family portrait its memorable quality. While Ghosts is about an imaginary family, Mitchell does use some historical material. The German-Jewish scientist Fritz Haber and his first wife, Clara, were the inspiration for Lenz and Iris Alter. Readers interested in Mitchell's research will find a thorough bibliography at the end of this achingly elegant story.