Hair: A Human History proves the rule that even the most mundane topics become fascinating in the hands of an author who is passionate about their subject matter. A former professor of pathology and dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine and a once-director of skin biology at Johnson & Johnson, Kurt Stenn has particular expertise as a follicle man. His enthusiasm for the subject matter translates to the page in this engaging microhistory.
Hair offers what the author refers to as a “panoramic view” of the natural fiber, including whiskers, pubic hair and mammalian fur. Stenn provides readers with a modicum of simple science and lots of cocktail party-worthy facts and anecdotes worth sharing. He begins with a description of the follicle growth cycle, spending time on causes of extreme hair loss and explaining male pattern baldness. Hair follicles don’t disappear; they become smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. Who knew that bald men really do have hair?
The author shares the reason that Abraham Lincoln grew his famous beard, and explores how tonsorial choices reflected both beauty and power throughout history. Did you know that the iconic barber pole is a vestige of the time before the 18th century when barbers performed bloodletting? Barbers of the time doubled as surgeons, since hair and body care were seen as one and the same.
Hair touches on the history of hair styling, chemical processing and even hair removal. Stenn takes a look at depictions of hair in art, and at artists that make a statement by including actual human hair in their work. He points out the sentimental and spiritual value of a lock of hair, and describes the once-common custom of wearing jewelry made from a deceased loved one’s hair — a memento mori. Dozens of illustrations add to the book’s appeal. At just 169 pages (plus a glossary and extensive notes), Hair is a fascinating, worthwhile read.
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin audaciously challenges readers from the very beginning. Protagonist Milo Andret is a mathematical genius, a young man with an uncanny sense of direction and intrinsic awareness of geographical place. He visualizes complex problems and, to him, obvious solutions. His adult life becomes absorbed by the complex world of academic mathematical theory, in particular, topology.
What is topology, you might ask? And why would you spend your time on a novel that spans decades and devotes over 500 pages to a literary novel that seemingly centers on math? Credit the supple talent of novelist Canin for crafting a rich, relatable saga with universal themes of self-discovery, fulfillment, love, loss and the importance of family.
Although his path seemed obvious, Milo was never a good student, as he was prone to boredom. Five years after completing his undergraduate degree (he spent the interim working as an auto mechanic), he applies to graduate school at UC Berkeley. A latecomer to the field, it’s not long before Milo discovers the theorem that will define his career, the elusive young woman who will slip through his grasp and haunt him for the rest of his life, and the poet/mathematician who not only becomes his nemesis but represents the path not taken.
But like the real life mathematician John Nash, portrayed in the book and movie A Beautiful Mind, Milo’s brilliance comes at a price. His brain never quiets, and he lacks the coping mechanisms to relax and simply be happy — he’s constantly striving. He loves the company of women, but lacks interpersonal skills that allow for connection beyond the bedroom. Self-medication helps; Maker’s Mark bourbon bottles literally pile up. Milo reaches the zenith of his professional life early and manages to make a number of enemies along the way. He marries to escape, and his career falters as his frustration mounts.
Canin makes a smart choice by giving the narration to Milo’s son. Hans is brilliant in his own way but damaged by a childhood dominated by a mercurial, distant father and a loving, devoted yet unfulfilled mother. His sister, also a prodigy, is scarred by their father’s failure to recognize her. Hans makes a fortune by using his own mathematical skills in the financial markets. Wildly successful, he also self-medicates from his time as a young teen — first with the recreational drug MDA, later with cocaine. Hans and his wife keep their own children far from their grandfather.
Canin is a master storyteller, creating interesting, flawed characters that struggle to feel comfortable in their own skin; characters that long to connect in meaningful ways and leave their mark on the world. A Doubter’s Almanac draws you deeply into the lives of the Andrets in ways that stay with you long after you’ve finished this smart, intensely moving novel. This is literary fiction at its best, challenging and rewarding. A Doubter’s Almanac is the best novel I’ve read this year, deserving of the many accolades that are sure to come its way.
A war is raging over magic’s presence in the world. Exorcists and priests are pursuing witches and demons, purging them from the world until there is only one place left where the connection to magic remains strong — Ireland. In Mark Tompkins’s debut novel The Last Days of Magic, human and fairy politics collide as the war over magic comes to Ireland’s shores, and it's not always obvious who can be trusted — on either side.
Tompkins’s worldbuilding is detailed and well-researched, blending mythology, mysticism and historical fact together to craft a historical fantasy retelling of the 1390s. His cast includes people straight out of history, from Richard II to Saints Patrick and Brigid, and out of mythology, such as the Morrigna and the Sidhe. And Tompkins threads these together with facts and speculations from Vatican history, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and witch trials.
You might think that having all of these elements in play would lead to a convoluted or overworked plot, but Tompkins balances the historical and the fantastical to create characters that are flawed and intriguing and a plot filled with political intrigue. It leaves the reader wondering where historical fact actually ends and the myths begin. Fans of Morgan Llywelyn or Juliet Marillier might want to check this book out.
What happens when a little girl goes missing but doesn't know she's lost? Welsh writer Kate Hamer chronicles one such story in her debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat. Told with compassion and sensitivity, this riveting and thought-provoking mystery about a missing child will you keep you under its spell long after the last page. And if you’re concerned about the subject matter, don’t worry, because Hamer has produced an uplifting story filled with hope and optimism.
Beth is a single mother living in rural England. Divorced and estranged from her parents, her world is her daughter Carmel, a vivacious 8-year-old with curly hair and a penchant for drifting off into space. It's the two of them against the world — until the day Carmel disappears into the fog. Who took her? Why? Beth’s guilt and grief jump off the page and into your heart. How did she lose her daughter? Will she find her? Will her guilt ever subside?
But what happened to Carmel? Believing her family no longer wants her, she is living with a man she calls “Gramps” and his family. Carmel does not know she's lost. But who is this man called “Gramps”? Why must she go by the name Mercy? Why do they live in a big truck and not a proper house?
Told alternatively from both Beth and Carmel’s viewpoints, Hamer delivers a page-turner focusing on the strength of the human spirit. Beth and Carmel will captivate you with their determination and strength while keeping you reading into the wee hours of the night. Readers participating in BCPL’s 2016 Reading Challenge should note that The Girl in the Red Coat satisfies the challenge of reading a book with a color in the title.
In Second House from the Corner, Sadeqa Johnson introduces us to Felicia Lyons, a stay-at-home mom with three kids under 6 and a hard-working but somewhat imperious husband. While she loves her family, there are moments when the relentless drudgery of keeping house and dealing with screaming children are overwhelming, and Felicia wonders what life would be like without the responsibilities of kids and the demands on her time.
But be careful what you wish for! One night Felicia receives a phone call that turns her world upside down. The phone call is from Martin, the significantly older man who seduced her as a teenager and left her emotionally battered. When her husband learns of her illicit past, he is devastated and feels completely betrayed. Felicia is at sea, concerned for the future of her marriage and family, but also intrigued by Martin’s call and the reignited feelings she thought were doused so long ago. She returns to her childhood home in Philadelphia to face her past in an effort to secure her family’s future. But one bad decision leads to another, and everything she has worked so hard for is in peril.
Felicia is a strong, relatable woman with a compelling history. Part chick lit, part domestic drama, Johnson utilizes short chapters to quicken the pace of the narrative and keep the reader riveted. Felicia is not a perfect woman, which makes her all the more likeable in spite of her flaws and questionable choices. Johnson does not tiptoe around challenging topics giving a raw, realistic edge to Felicia’s life-changing journey.
Soloman and Jimmy are half-brothers and have been friends with Aleks since childhood. Having grown up imprisoned by a land made of asphalt and cement, the three men struggle and support one another in a vanguard against the inertia of suburban life. Each one is on a quest: Soloman seeks a purpose after his basketball career is destroyed by an injury, Jimmy tries to find someone to love and Aleks strives to give his family as much as he can. They are guided by music, “b-boy” (hip-hop) idols and graffiti. Here Come the Dogs is the first novel by Omar Musa, an award-winning Australian poet and rapper.
Musa has filled his book with mischievous wordsmithing, alternating between narrative poetry and lyrical prose. Heavily immersed in the Australian hip-hop scene, Musa references musicians on almost every page but readers do not need to be familiar with Australian rap to be moved by the passion with which Musa describes it. The stories within will appeal to anyone who enjoys dramatic fiction contextualized with larger themes, including fans of The Wire and Breaking Bad.
One focus in Musa's writing is the diverse makeup of Australian neighborhoods. He has written characters that are both within and outside of their society. Aleks, Jimmy and Soloman all have the ability to cross cultural borders, but each faces unique struggles that prevent them from ever feeling wholly integrated in their communities. While Australia's recipe for a melting pot varies from that of the U.S., the struggles of a post-colonial society are far from alien, and the undercurrent of race riots flowing throughout the novel is particularly significant here in the Baltimore area.
A ramshackle building in the heart of London houses the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a division of the London police force established during World War II to solve crimes that could have a detrimental impact on public morale. Author Christopher Fowler proves there is no shortage of peculiar crimes in his latest mystery Bryant & May and the Burning Man.
It takes unusual detectives to delve into the minds of unique killers, and none are more unusual than this pair. Bryant is brilliant, unconventional and possesses a biting sense humor. May is erudite, refined and equally gifted. This pair has been together since the war, cultivating a reputation for unconventional means and defying police procedure. They are just as likely to consult a clairvoyant as a forensic pathologist.
In the wake of an insider-trading scandal, thousands of rioters have turned London’s financial district into a war zone. A vengeful pyromaniac decides to cleanse the world of greedy graspers who prey on the working stiffs. Under the cover of the chaos, he stalks the victims, using their personal habits to exact revenge. Bryant insists the murders are linked to the financial scandal, but he is unable to convince the brass, who are convinced that Bryant has finally gone ‘round the bend.
Fowler brilliantly intersperses the history of the city throughout his work, providing the background for Guy Fawkes Day while simultaneously heightening the tension. The humor is smart, incisive and wry. While this is the 12th Bryant & May entry, these books are not designed to be read in order. Each book is a standalone delight. The relationship between the two detectives is poignant without being maudlin. We are left hoping that someday, like Bryant and May, we will not go gently into that good night.
In T.R. Richmond’s latest novel What She Left, speculation runs rampant when reporter Alice Salmon’s body washes up on the riverbank by a London university. Murder, suicide or an accident? Any explanation seems plausible to the multitudes of computer-chair sleuths competing for attention over Facebook, newspaper forums and Twitter. Delving into every word written about Alice is Dr. Jeremy Cooke, an anthropology professor who is making it his business to write a book about her life and death.
Told through a series of letters, texts, emails and social media posts, Cooke’s obsession with his former student Alice is detailed in his letters to his longtime friend Larry. He puts together a single hypothesis: whereas in the past, a person left behind a birth certificate, a death certificate and perhaps a few photos and letters, at no other time in human history does a person leave such a substantial and overwhelming media footprint. In the deluge of information, he seeks to put together a full picture of her short life and, in doing so, solve her death.
But Cooke’s research leads to some resistance, both from Alice’s family and friends, and from an unnamed, dangerously aggressive source who wants no part of the story to be unearthed. As the mystery of Alice Salmon’s death unfolds, both in real life and on the Internet, many suspects emerge as culpable, even Alice herself.
Part fascinating social experiment into what makes our 21st century existence exciting and part mystery, this new novel will keep readers engaged until the very last letter. Those who enjoyed Donna Tartt’s debut The Secret History or, more recently, Black Chalk by Christopher Yates, will find this twisting narrative a great read.
Memoirs are a popular form of bibliotherapy, not only for the authors who find therapy in sharing their thoughts and words, but also for the readers who are lucky enough to come across the right one at just the right time. This is the case for Reasons to Stay Alive, a kind of hybrid self-help/memoir by British novelist Matt Haig. Even if you’ve never experienced clinical depression, it’s certain that someone in your life is struggling with it right now.
Haig’s warm confessional tone and conversational prose makes this an easy book to pick up, despite its heavy subject matter. The author recalls a moment at age 24 when a thought led to a strange, tingling sensation in his head that was followed by an immediate, suffocating state of depression — anxiety and anguish so horrific that the only way he felt he could deal with it was to end his life. Haig lays out what it’s like to fight battle upon battle in your own mind, barely making it from one day to the next. He also shares the things that saved him, his own “reasons to stay alive,” which included his family and the dedicated girlfriend who eventually became his wife. Haig allows that while he has come a long way from this lowest point, he hasn’t completely gotten over depression, and never will. He shares his coping mechanisms, but is forthright in telling readers that depression is not the same for everyone, as minds are unique.
He informs readers that depression is one of the most deadly diseases on the planet, and that suicide accounts for over one in every hundred fatalities in the U.S. and the U.K. He speaks from personal experience when he says that, despite this statistic, “people still don’t think that depression really is that bad.” This accounts for various unhelpful directives he’s been given along the way, like “Chin up!” and “Mind over matter!”. These fall under a chapter entitled “Things people say to depressives that they don’t say in other life-threatening situations.”
Reasons to Stay Alive takes on its delicate subject matter with heart and humor, giving readers a sure-fire gambit for starting conversations about what it means to battle depression. Matt Haig’s honesty and candor are a welcome gift.
In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin delivers dazzling characters based on the real women who ran New York’s high society in the 1950s and 1960s. Babe Paley, the wife of CBS President William S. Paley, is at the center of this glamorous group of elite women who include Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Marella Agnelli. Enter Truman Capote, a lover of lavish lifestyles and good gossip. As he becomes a fixture in their world, all of the women are captivated with his wit and he in turn gains unrestricted entry to this influential coterie.
On the surface, Capote seems an unlikely candidate to serve as these women’s confidante. But he is a kindred spirit who exudes trustworthiness, prompting these lonely and insecure women to break down emotional barriers. Strong bonds are formed between these ladies who lunch and the lively writer, none stronger than that between Truman and Babe, who trusts her "True Heart" enough to reveal shocking secrets. But when Capote’s literary success stalls, he is desperate to climb back to the top. This despair leads Capote to betray his beautiful swans by publishing an article which reveals their hidden secrets. This selfish act destroys friendships and the repercussions from this article reverberate for years.
Benjamin’s breezy narrative captures the tone of the time and the historical details add interest to the stories of this cast of distinctly drawn characters. The juicy scandals and extravagant lifestyles are balanced by the real struggles of these women and the constrictions upon them due to their position in society. While readers may envy (or despise) their over-the-top lifestyle, Benjamin adroitly demands sympathy for each of these compelling women whose appearance of perfection is a carefully drawn façade. Readers who enjoyed Rules of Civility or The Perfume Collector will relish the historical ambience created by Benjamin. For more on the real swans, check out Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan.