Who’s the fairest of them all? Is it Snow, with her fair skin and hazel eyes? Maybe it is Bird, with her cap of dark curls and golden skin. Nigerian-born Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel, Boy, Snow, Bird, takes classic fairy tale themes of beauty, stepmothers and sibling rivalry and reworks them around a 1950s New England town and a family’s secrets.
Eighteen-year-old Boy Novak lives in New York City with her sadistic father who works as a rat catcher, using blinded rats as bait. To escape her father’s abuse, she buys a train ticket for the far-away stop of Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The fine-boned, flaxen-haired Boy meets and marries Arturo Whitman, local professor-turned-jeweler, widower, and father of Snow. Boy slides right into her role of benevolent stepmother and daughter-in-law until she and Arturo have their own baby, Bird, who is “born with a suntan.” Unbeknownst to Boy, her new husband and his family are African-American passing for white. Bird’s arrival pulls back the curtain on their carefully constructed public lives.
What is fair, either in beauty or in deeds? Arturo’s mother wants to send the darker-skinned Bird away to live with relatives; Boy views stepdaughter Snow as the interloper who needs to go. Oyeyemi uses a conversational writing style and alternates characters’ narration, including letters sent between the sisters, to explore issues of identity relative to race and gender. Boy, Snow, Bird warns us of the danger in allowing our reflection, whether in the mirror or eyes of the beholder, dictate who we are.
British author Laline Paull is setting the book world abuzz with her debut novel, an imaginative and gripping tale which takes place in a beehive. Paull began studying bees after a beekeeper friend died; the fascinating societal structure of the hive inspired her to write The Bees.
Flora 717 is a worker bee living in a hive valuing conformity. Born “obscenely ugly… and excessively large,” Flora is saved from immediate execution because a ruling class priestess wants to use her in an experiment. The hive’s rigid caste system relies on mind control and strict job divisions, which keep the hive operating for the good of the group, but its totalitarian mindset allows no individual freedom. Flora defies the limitations of her Sanitation class: She is able to speak, block other bees from accessing her thoughts and use her abilities to forge a unique role for herself when the survival of the hive is threatened.
In creating the intricate life of this honeybee colony, Paull did everything from attending beekeeper classes to watching nature unfold in her backyard. She blends factual bee behavior, like building honeycomb nurseries or the “dancing” and antennae touching which bees perform to communicate information, with elements of goddess worship, Catholic prayer and the British monarchy in her creation of a detailed parallel world. As in nature, The Bees is sometimes chillingly violent. It is also surprisingly funny, with its swaggering Drone class reminiscent of any Animal House frat bro collective hopped up on testosterone.
The Bees is being compared to the modern classic Watership Down by Richard Adams for its thrilling adventure and social commentary wrapped up in an animal story. This story makes a perfect book club choice or escapist summer read as Flora 717 takes the reader on a wild flight. Is Flora a traitor or a savior? The bees in your garden will never look the same again.
Easter Quillby is a caregiver despite her tender age of 12. She takes care of her little sister Ruby as well as her pill-addicted mother, who mostly wanders around in a fog when she’s not passed out. Brady Weller is a disgraced ex-police detective who works for his ex-brother-in-law installing home security systems. Mostly alienated from his ex-wife and daughter, Weller volunteers as a court-appointed guardian ad litem. Finally, meet Pruitt: He’s a bodybuilding, former minor league baseball player recently released from prison, and he’s also a facially disfigured psychotic contract killer. (Is there any other kind?) Easter, Brady and Pruitt take turns narrating author Wiley Cash’s new novel, This Dark Road to Mercy.
Easter and Ruby end up in a children’s group home after their mother dies from an overdose. Weller is assigned to look after the girls’ interests. Easter’s master plan for life, which is college and a career as an FBI agent all the while raising her sister, is at risk when she overhears her foster mother discussing the sisters’ maternal grandparents’ plan to move the girls to Alaska to live with them. When Wade, the girls’ sad sack estranged father, himself a washed-out pitcher, shows up in the middle of the night toting a gym bag filled with ill-gotten gains, Easter impulsively grabs her sister and they take off with not-so-dear-old Dad ... only to find that Weller, Pruitt and the FBI are all in hot pursuit.
Set against the backdrop of the 1998 Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire race to break Roger Maris’ home run record, Cash explores the unbreakable ties of family and the sins from the past, just as he did in his first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home. Easter’s voice is especially engaging as she tells her story with a clear-eyed realism. This Dark Road to Mercy will leave the reader rooting for the Quillby sisters and hoping for a grand slam ending.
“Give me your tired, your poor…” beckons the Statue of Liberty, its words a siren call to immigrants with an implied promise of the American Dream. The idea is that, in the United States, anyone can succeed through hard work regardless of the circumstances of their birth and background. But is the deck stacked? Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, analyze this notion in their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.
Chua and Rubenfeld are not looking at what makes individuals succeed but rather the overall success of cultural groups defined by religion, ethnicity or country of origin. Chua is no stranger to evaluating success; her previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, examines the child-rearing customs of Asian immigrants, which are at great odds with western notions of parenting but often result in astoundingly high-achieving children. In The Triple Package, the authors review at least eight distinct and seemingly disparate groups that have attained great and disproportionate financial success. Successful groups studied include Mormons, Nigerians, Persians and Cubans. The three traits shared by all the groups are a collective belief in their own group superiority, a contradictory feeling of insecurity resulting in the need to prove oneself and a well-regulated impulse control. Group members influenced by this trait trifecta are well equipped to run – and win – in the rat race.
Chua’s Tiger Mother attracted critics appalled by Chua’s mothering techniques, and The Triple Package is drawing controversy for what some readers see as the espousal of alarmingly elitist social theory. Chua and Rubenfeld do acknowledge a darker side to the package that can feature anxiety, depression and bigotry. The Triple Package provides an alternative slant on achievement in America.
Be careful what you wish for: a reminder that sometimes wishes are fulfilled in a way not quite anticipated. The desire to turn back the clock or proffer up a desperate bargain in order to keep a loved one with us is universal. Two new novels, The Returned by Jason Mott and Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield, explore the consequences of cheating death and getting a second chance.
Lucille and Harold Hargrave are watching a riveting television news story reporting what seems to be an ongoing resurrection of the dead. A knock on the elderly couple’s door reveals a federal agent holding hands with a boy who calls Harold “Daddy.” The child is their eight year old son Jacob who drowned 50 years prior. The Returned explores not only the Hargraves’ reactions to the reappearance of their child, but also the complex societal and governmental responses to this unimaginable and unexplainable global phenomenon. Mott hit the author jackpot with this debut novel. In addition to climbing up The New York Times Best Sellers list, ABC developed the story into a television series entitled Resurrection, which is set to premiere in March.
In Bellman & Black, handsome Will Bellman is viewed as blessed. He’s inherited the family fabric-making factory where he’s introduced the principles and technology of the Industrial Revolution to great success. He adores his wife and young children and is a beneficent country gentleman. A man in black dogs Bellman, however, appearing at the funerals of his friends and family. When a diphtheria-like illness plagues Bellman’s village and takes the lives of his family, Bellman cuts a deal to save the life of his remaining child, Dora. Who is this man in black? Is it wrong to profit from death? Setterfield, who also wrote the popular ghostly story The Thirteenth Tale, delivers another atmospheric story that looks at the price one pays for a deal with the devil.
Bestselling novelist Gary Shteyngart is a really funny guy. He is a master of social satire and self-deprecating humor, reminiscent of Woody Allen or Phillip Roth. In Little Failure: A Memoir, Shteyngart turns to his own life and skewers himself, his family and two countries with a razor sharp wit.
Shteyngart (What kind of name is that? Keep reading, he’ll tell you, and good luck not laughing out loud when he does.) was born in the former Soviet Union. The only child of Jewish parents who affectionately called their asthmatic son Soplyak, meaning “snotty,” or Failurchka, which needs no translation, the family immigrated to the United States when Shteyngart was 6. Life for poor Russian Jews was not easy under the Communists, but America is fraught with opportunities for humiliation too.
Reading Little Failure is, at times, like listening to a clever borscht belt comedian: badda bing, badda boom, with a zinger in every paragraph. Whether comparing his after-school time at Grandma Polya’s house in America to “being fed like some pre-foie-gras goose,” describing Black Sea vacations Soviet-style or recounting his time as an Oberlin College student, Shteyngart has an eye for the absurd. With his deft blend of humor and pathos, he can relate family history under Stalin and the complex relationship with his father or his family’s glee upon receiving a pseudo-check from Publisher’s Clearinghouse with equal panache. On the The New York Times best sellers list, Little Failure will appeal to readers with an intelligent funny bone.
On March 11, 1948, a fire raged through the main building of North Carolina’s Highland Hospital, killing nine female patients trapped in a locked ward on the fourth floor. Victims included Zelda Fitzgerald, a dancer, artist and writer like her husband F. Scott Fitzgerald. Highland was a residential treatment facility for the mentally ill and considered quite progressive in its treatment methods. Author Lee Smith takes inspiration from the hospital, the tragic fire and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own life in her newest book Guests on Earth.
Smith’s narrator is 13-year-old New Orleans native Evalina Toussaint. Evalina refuses to eat after the death of her mother and is packed off to Highland for a cure. Now an orphan, the resort-like hospital becomes Evalina’s home, and its caregivers and patients her family. Fresh air and exercise, music and art: Evalina thrives under the care of the enlightened psychiatrist Dr. Carroll and develops into a talented pianist. Swimming and songs aren’t the only therapies employed at Highland, though, and as Smith reveals the darker secrets in the lives of Evalina, Zelda and other patients, she also explores the more invasive and seemingly barbaric treatments employed upon the mentally ill.
Smith, winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, imbues her writing with the atmosphere of rural Appalachia. She draws upon both the folklore of the mountains as well as the culture of southern high society in creating compelling characters and an absorbing story. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” Guests on Earth allows a few of the guests to share their memorable tale.
In September of 1944, in the final year of World War II, a B-24 bomber piloted by Jack Arnett and carrying 10 servicemen plummeted into the western Pacific Ocean near the Micronesian islands of Palau. The wreckage of the plane disappeared, and the men were presumed dead though no bodies were found. Baltimore author Wil S. Hylton examines the quest of the man who worked to unravel the mystery of crash and the fate of the men on board in Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.
In 1993, middle-aged medical researcher Pat Scannon was a novice scuba diver, so when an invitation came to search for the underwater ruins of a sunken Japanese hospital ship supposedly laden with gold stolen during WWII, he was hesitant to accept. While diving on the trip, Scannon saw a wing of a different submerged American plane and became determined to answer the question of what happened to Arnett’s aircraft and crew. He assumed that, due to the massive size of a B-24 bomber, he’d locate the crash site fairly quickly; instead, his detective work spanned more than 10 years.
Hylton documents the details of Scannon’s research utilizing books, government documents, archival material and networking with veterans and military contacts. Yet, Vanished is far more than a paper trail. Particularly compelling are the parallel stories of Scannon, the crew members and their families who had been waiting for nearly 60 years for information about the fate of their loved ones. Vanished is a moving account of one man’s determination to lay to rest with honor a forgotten crew of our country’s airmen.
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews and Walt Disney: for most of us, the three are linked together with supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, tea parties on the ceiling and Jane and Michael Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane. The name P.L. Travers, however, is recognizable by only the most diehard of Poppins fans, as she is the author of the Mary Poppins children’s book series, as well as the subject of the biography Mary Poppins, She Wrote by Valerie Lawson.
P.L. Travers was born in Australia and christened Helen Lyndon Goff; she later adopted Pamela Lyndon Travers as a pseudonym. Travers valued her privacy, and felt protective of the Mary Poppins characters and stories. Lawson explains that each contained elements of Travers’ own rather peripatetic and often difficult life. Initially, Walt Disney encountered resistance from Travers when he approached her about adapting her Poppins books to a film version. The “real” nanny is sharp-tongued, mysterious, controlling and a bit vain. Travers felt Disney would “replace truth with false sentimentality” and called Disney’s movie-making “vulgar.” In the end, Disney’s coffers trumped Travers’ misgivings, and the Julie Andrews version of Mary triumphed on the silver screen.
Expect to hear more about P.L. Travers after the December release of the new movie Saving Mr. Banks which follows Disney as he woos Travers for the film rights to the now-classic movie Mary Poppins.
Aminatta Forna sets her newest novel, The Hired Man, in a rural Croatian village in the summer of 2007. As she did in her Commonwealth Writer’s Prize-winning book The Memory of Love, Forna again examines people living in the aftermath of conflict and the insidious influence of violence which lingers long after the war has ended.
Duro Kolak is a middle-age man; small, quiet Gost is his hometown. He lives alone since the rest of his family, like many of the villagers, has moved away. Duro picks up odd jobs, hunts with his dogs, Kos and Zeka, and occasionally visits the pub. Change comes to Gost in the form of an English family who buy a shabby vacant house as a summer retreat and a real estate investment. Duro knows the house well, as it belonged to childhood friends, and he offers to help Laura and her teenage children repair the house. Duro also becomes the family’s guide to insular Croatian culture.
Forna, through Duro, alternates the contemporary story of Duro, Laura’s family, and the house restoration with the tangled back story of Duro and the Pavić family who were the previous owners of Laura’s vacation home. Duro’s reminiscing begins with his friends Krešimir and Anka Pavić with whom he swims and shoots pigeons. Idyllic memories these are not, and as the roof is repaired and an exterior mural uncovered on the Pavićs’ old home, the reader is gradually led into the dark dynamics of altered friendships, a Gost before and during the disintegration of a country and the horror of ethnic cleansing.
Forna paces this elegiac work deliberately, allowing the two storylines to slowly coalesce into a narrative of love and war and a search for the truth. The Hired Man is a beautiful and brutal tale, built on the rotten foundation of war crimes barely plastered over by the new peacetime.