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.
Paul Harding's second novel, Enon, brings back the Crosby progeny in this not-quite-a-sequel to his stunning 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning debut, Tinkers. In this latest effort, the grandson of Tinkers' dying protagonist reels over the sudden loss of his only child in the same tiny New England town. It is a story not so much about death as it is about the physical and emotional spiraling into grief's crevasse and the slow, tentative climb out.
Charlie narrates this story with a hand-wringing anguish. His 13-year-old daughter Kate has been struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle to the beach. It's an unimaginable bond lost, not just for Charlie but for his wife, too, who promptly leaves her depressed husband to return to her native Minnesota. Life is at its lowest point for Charlie as he descends into a morass of drugs and alcohol. For him, grieving demands a continual rewind of the past: his time with his daughter, his memories of his clock-enthusiast grandfather, the history of Enon. Soon healing begins to seem uncomfortably overdue.
Harding delivers metaphor-laden prose and rich detail that relentlessly probe Charlie's grief through his hallucinations that are, at once, dreamy and remarkably lucid. At one point Charlie tries to capture "the function of loss'" through a mathematical proof he writes on a wall. "My thoughts quickly became confused as I tried to demonstrate the calculus of grief." Another time he digs out his grandfather's fly fishing rod he intended to show Kate and begins casting off the old oak stump in his overgrown backyard until he crawls, exhausted and defeated, back into his house. With its disquieting tone, this short novel of 238 pages oozes like a scab that will not heal until finally, a choice must be rendered: to heal or not.
Tales from the Holy Land, the new collection of short stories from Baltimore’s own Rafael Alvarez, former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, is equal parts time machine and atlas. The stories are set in Baltimore, but a Baltimore that both no longer exists, yet still lingers on in memories. As Alvarez’s characters make their way through the world, we get an intimate view of the landmarks, both physical and cultural, that made up Old Baltimore and haunt the new Baltimore like a legacy forgotten by a city unsure if it's on the rise or in the final stages of its demise.
The characters in this collection will be familiar to fans of Alvarez’s earlier works, and they are as welcome as old friends. Much like the physical landmarks that are so often prominent, these characters are highly representative of the many cultural backgrounds that made up Old Baltimore. Tales from the Holy Land is, in that way, like an atlas, denoting the patchwork of tribes — Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Germans, African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Spaniards, Greeks and all the rest — that made up the city, lived side by side and worked hard every day of their lives. Alvarez has written a paean to these people, to their cultures, their beliefs and to the incredible food that they brought with them and readily shared with their neighbors. Food is a common theme in these tales, and the sweet aromas of the dishes waft off the pages.
Alvarez’s stories are often bittersweet and dark, raw and gritty. They marvel at the monsters — crime, poverty and prejudice — which so quickly overtook a great American metropolis and sent waves of people streaming out to the suburbs. This is clearly a very personal book, intended for a mature audience. If you have wandered the bones of this city and wondered what lies beneath, then the place to start your excavation is Tales from the Holy Land.
The North Point Branch of BCPL is pleased to host Rafael Alvarez as he begins his tour for Tales from the Holy Land. Join us for an author talk and book signing on Thursday, January 16 at 7:00 p.m.
Pastry chef Serafina Wilde is a hot mess. Reeling from the cruelties of her celebrity chef ex and struggling to rebuild her reputation in the cutthroat New York City catering world, she escapes to Santa Fe to lend support to her free-spirited Aunt Pauline. So begins Bliss by Hilary Fields, a yummy debut about picking up the pieces and starting over in a place far from the epicenter of your past troubles.
Aunt Pauline has always filled many roles in Serafina’s life, including guardian when a teenaged Serafina lost her parents. Now Aunt Pauline needs her too, as she has just experienced the loss of her partner Hortencia. In Santa Fe, Pauline is offering Serafina the opportunity of a professional lifetime — to turn her business, “Pauline’s House of Passion,” into a bakery. There’s only one condition: the unconventional Pauline, who in the 1970s started an offshoot of the women’s lib movement, is determined to keep her back room of sex toys and all things Kama Sutra, suggesting to Serafina that it could be a business of both “sinful desserts and earthly delights.” Why not? As Serafina begins to rebuild her life and rediscover love, she learns that being a nonconformist in “City Different” has its perks.
Fans of Beth Harbison or Emily Giffin will love this wacky tale full of laugh-out-loud moments, mouthwatering descriptions of food and a carefree setting of well-developed quirky characters. Perfect as a remedy to post-holiday stress, or as a fun way to ease into the new year. Fields’ message is clear: Happiness awaits those who follow their bliss.
Last year was an incredibly good year for fantasy novels, especially debut authors. Django Wexler’s first book, The Thousand Names, was one of the best of the year. Like Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, this is another “flintlock fantasy,” a subgenre where the historical context is much later than the typical Medieval/Renaissance setting, with muskets and artillery replacing swords and bows. The Thousand Names is set in a world much like Victorian Britain and, in this first in a series, the location is an analogue for Egypt under British colonial rule. Just as the Mahdi’s Revolt and religious reawakening threatened British rule in Egypt, the Redeemer Rebellion in Khandar has pushed the Vordanai Colonial Regiment to the sea. The Old Colonials hang on to a miserable spit of land awaiting evacuation, instead they get reinforcement in the form of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, a character equal parts Field Marshall Wellington, General “Chinese” Gordon and Yoda. Vhalnich hasn’t come to organize a retreat, nor is his primary objective the re-conquest of Khandar, but something else entirely.
This incredibly well written military fantasy/adventure novel, full of deadly deserts and marauding horseman, harkens back to books like Beau Geste by Percival Wren and The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason and movies like Khartoum. It also breaks new ground in powerful female protagonists in gender-defying roles and romances. There are no damsels in distress here, as they are too busy putting cold steel to their enemies. Wexler has created a world that he can expand to a global setting or narrow to focus on court intrigue, as his next book seems to do. More importantly, the court intrigue and the excellently detailed battles never take primacy over character development. Waxler has given us a band of brothers — and sisters — that have depth and motivation, and are compelling to read about. The magic use in the book builds slowly and organically until the climatic end, which is a scene fit for the big screen. The Thousand Names delivers on all its promise and shows how a good fantasy novel can shake up old tropes and borrow and improve on tropes from other types of literature. It will leave you wondering why the second book isn’t already in your hands.
P. G. Wodehouse is well-known for his dry wit and ability to make readers laugh out loud. His Jeeves and Wooster series has spawned plays, movies and, most notably, a TV series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Fortunately, the series also inspired Sebastian Faulks to pen Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, based on the adventures of the hapless Bertram Wooster and his ‘gentlemen’s personal gentleman’ Jeeves.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Faulks gives enough detail in his story to get a good sense of backstory for Bertie and Jeeves. Wooster as the narrator is, well, perhaps not the most intellectually astute person, but one with a definite charm and sweetness that helps to soften the insipidity of the situations into which he often blunders. In the very stratified British class system, Bertie is a public- school-educated, old-money-type, with plenty of titled gentry amongst his relations and friends. Jeeves is ostensibly a servant, but he is much more than that to Bertie – and to everyone else he encounters. Head and shoulders above those he serves, Jeeves is the one who Bertie and most of his circle turn to when faced with crises of any kind.
The best thing about this new installment is that Faulks has emulated the characters so well that even a true admirer of Wodehouse will be impressed with the attention to detail here. The plot consists of Jeeves through a typically ‘Woosterian’ series of mistakes being forced to impersonate Lord Etringham in order to keep the peace among the aristocracy and to assist Bertie from accidentally becoming entangled with yet another well-heeled-yet-horrid debutante. As always, Bertie’s efforts to assist Jeeves in his orderly plans cause further complications, but the reader knows that Jeeves will set everything right in the end.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a sheer delight for those who have mourned the lack of Wodehouse- level writing since his death in 1975. There is no indication whether Faulks intends to continue writing further adventures with Jeeves and Wooster, but we can all hope that he does.
Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez discusses his new book, Tales from the Holy Land, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for The Wire recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his latest collection of short stories on the magic of old Baltimore.
Q. Your new collection of short stories, Tales from the Holy Land, comes out this month. If you had to choose one story that epitomizes the gritty resolve of your hometown, what would it be?
A. "Junie Bug," in which a man spends his life digging in Leakin Park for the body of his father; and "The Sacred Heart of Ruthie," in which an orphan raised by the Oblate Sisters of Providence grows up to be a heart surgeon.
Q. This is your third collection of short fiction. What makes you favor short stories as your literary medium? How did this latest book come about?
A. I write fiction every day – about a half hour to an hour a day – in between the journalism and screenwriting I have to do to make a living. When I have enough for a new book I string them together and because I always use the same cast of "Holy Land" characters – Basilio, Grandpop, Nieves, Orlo and Leini, Miss Bonnie – it reads more like a novelized "mural" than stand alone short stories. [As a] side note, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, works exclusively in the short story genre.
Q. As a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and former writer for the HBO cop drama, The Wire, you have witnessed a lot of Baltimore's heartbreak. How do you keep cynicism from overtaking your writing?
A. There are two, maybe three Baltimores within the city. I have lived in Baltimore for all of my 55 years – was educated here, raised my children here – and have never been the victim of a crime. I am thankful for that, but I'm not ignorant of how fortunate I am to have been born into the 1960s middle-class and not the entrenched underclass. I keep cynicism away from my art and my soul by means of hope, which I incorporate into both, by believing that the more you give away the more hopeful you become.
Q. Talk a little bit about your family background and its influence on your fiction writing.
A. The best answer to this question is found in the story The Fountain of Highlandtown, which won the 1994 Baltimore City Artscape fiction award and is included in Tales from the Holy Land. The story was my first real success in the world of fiction and, in many ways, is the provenance for all of the stories to come.
Dukes frequently appear as heroes in historical romances. These two new novels share that common plot element, but with their strong writing and fresh stories, they are far from clichéd. In Victoria Morgan’s The Heart of a Duke, Lady Julia Chandler decides to take matters in her own hands to bring her long-time fiancé, the Duke of Bedford, to the altar. She is tired of being a laughingstock, so she finds him and kisses him, ready to push for a wedding and soon. There’s just one problem: she mistakenly kisses his twin brother Daniel, who has just returned from 10 years in America. Daniel came home to find out who set the fire that nearly killed him after receiving a mysterious note from his late father’s solicitor that read, “It is time. Come home and claim your destiny.” Daniel doesn’t want Julia to marry his brother, but his attention may put her in his enemy’s crosshairs. Morgan is a talented new voice in historical romance.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, the third novel in RITA-winner Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels quartet, brings us the story of Temple, a duke marked by scandal. He’s known as the Killer Duke because 12 years ago, he woke up covered in blood in the bed of his father’s beautiful, young fiancée. Everyone presumed that he murdered her, though her body was never found. Now, a notorious fighter and co-owner of the infamous Fallen Angel gaming hell, Temple is stunned when Miss Mara Lowe, the woman he is believed to have murdered, shows up on his doorstep ready to bargain with him. If he forgives her brother’s gambling debts, she will show herself in society, proving that he isn’t a murderer. MacLean writes sexy historical romance with wit, warmth and a modern sensibility. The book ends with the revelation of a shocking secret about the identity of Chase, the fourth partner in the Fallen Angel. That secret will leave readers desperate to read the final novel in the series!
Sadness frequently visited Kamala, but seldom was there time to succumb to its undertow. Like the monsoon that wiped out her Bengali village and claimed her family, Kamala's turbulent life was an unpredictable force leading her to reinvent herself over and over. In Sujata Massey's eloquent new historical novel The Sleeping Dictionary, India's struggles to free itself from British imperial rule coalesce with one woman's efforts to become independent even as racial and class barriers stand in the way.
Kamala was not always her name. As a child she was called Pom, born into the lowest caste in India. After a wave destroys her village, the 10-year-old orphan is rescued, embarking on what seems like a lifetime of difficult transitions. Christened Sarah, she is now content as a servant at an all-girls boarding school, where she has her dear friend, Bidushi, and her love of language and books. When she is accused of a theft she did not commit she flees, only to disembark in the wrong city, where a degrading experience awaits. By the time she arrives in Calcutta in search of a reputable position and new identity, she is hiding many secrets from her employer, a kindly British Indian civil service officer who only knows her as Kamala, well-born and well-read.
Massey, whose father was born in Calcutta, calls upon lovely descriptive language and a strong sense of place to evoke the troubled peasant life and colonial society of the 1930s and 1940s Raj India that is the center of Kamala's bumpy journey. With astute social commentary of women's roles and layers of Indian history, culture and language, she creates an authentic voice in Kamala that is as complex as the identities she has assumed. Betrayal, love, espionage and tragedy all find their way into Massey's story. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, best known for her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, has more in store for readers with her new Daughters of Bengal series. Here's looking forward to the next one.
Oprah’s newest selection for her Book Club 2.0 is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Kidd, who’s The Secret Life of Bees remains a perennial book club favorite, is “thrilled and honored that Oprah Winfrey chose my novel as her new book club selection." The title, due out in early January, is sure to be a favorite among book clubs with Oprah calling it “layered and gripping.”
Inspired by the life of early 19th century abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimk, Kidd writes in her author’s note that her aim was to write “a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.” The result is this beautifully written novel with the dual portrait of two women bound by the horrors of slavery as its centerpiece. Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy Charleston plantation owner is desperate to break free from the confines of her time. She is denied the opportunity to pursue her passion of a legal career and struggles to find outlets for her creativity, intelligence and convictions. Hetty, nicknamed “Handful,” a slave in the household, is also keenly intelligent, brave and brandish a strong rebellious streak. Told in first person, the chapters alternate between these women’s perspectives as the reader follows them and their unique relationship from childhood through middle age.
Kidd will not disappoint her legions of fans with this masterly told story of fascinating women striving for liberation and empowerment during a devastating historical time. Check out Oprah’s announcement here to find out more about this exciting literary pick.