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And DOWN the Stretch They Come

EclipseKentucky Derby DreamsDrive around Maryland’s thoroughbred horse country, and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque scene than the mare and her foal romping in a shamrock green field. It is equally hard to imagine the carefully orchestrated breeding and the trials of their short lived careers. Just in time for this year's Triple Crown campaign, two new books take an in-depth look at these storied animals whose equine feats define the sport of kings.    

 

In his well-researched biography, Eclipse: the Horse that Changed Racing History Forever,  journalist  Nicholas Clee brings to life the greatest horse of all time and his roguish owner, Dennis O'Kelly. Clee vividly describes mid-18th century Georgian England as a gambler's paradise. In this milieu, the Irishman wheels and deals, until he has purchased the undefeated Eclipse, the freakishly fast chestnut thoroughbred whose astounding number of progeny includes this year's Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another.  How O'Kelly and his brothel-owning companion, Charlotte,  manage to reap the benefits from their chosen activities and turn a racehorse into a breeding stallion for the ages is what makes this historical narrative fun to read.  

 

Fast forward 250 years to Susan Nusser's Kentucky Derby Dreams: The Making of Thoroughbred Champions.  Nusser deftly records the behind-the-scenes pulse of one of Kentucky's elite horse breeding operations as it readies for a new crop of foals. It is an exhausting schedule of barn rounds, meetings, crises, x-rays, and runway-like parading, all in the hope of getting to the yearling sales. Nusser's prose is fast paced and heartfelt. A prime example is when she describes a mare's anguish over the death of a foal: "her wail is steady, coming in waves, one right after the other."  Making it to the finish line is never taken for granted.

 

Horse lovers and historians, including fans of Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit and Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven, will appreciate these revealing glimpses inside the racing world and the fragile four-legged athletes who run their hearts out.

Cynthia

 
 

Must Read TV

Imagine a world without DVRs and streaming video.  Go back to a time when half the country watched the same television shows which became mandatory water cooler conversation the next day.  Former NBC executive, Warren Littlefield brings such a world to life in Top of the Rock: The Rise and Fall of Must-See TV.  NBC was in its glory days in the 1990s with its “Must-See TV” lineup which included shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, and Frasier.  To capture the essence of this heyday, Littlefield, with assistance from novelist T.R. Pearson, interviewed more than fifty actors, writers, producers, agents, and executives. The actors include Kelsey Grammer, Sean Hayes, Lisa Kudrow, and Jerry Seinfeld, but the network head honchos are represented as well.

 

Littlefield offers the perspective of an insider and the interviewees are frank when talking about both the good and the bad memories of this time. Readers who enjoyed the sitcom Friends may be surprised to hear that Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) was rejected for the role of Ross. Lisa Kudrow had originally been cast as Roz on Frasier, but was luckily for Phoebe fans, she was fired and replaced by Peri Gilpin. Before settling on the name Friends, the creators called their show "Six of One".  This entertaining, quick read is for all those who love a little show business scoop and for those who miss cozy Thursday nights at Central Perk!

Maureen

 
 

A Voice for His Generation

A Voice for His Generation

posted by:
May 29, 2012 - 6:01am

PulpheadAs a contributor to many publications such as GQ, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Southern editor for The Paris Review, is an accomplished essayist. His collection, Pulphead: Essays, brings together fourteen of his best long-form works from the past decade. Sullivan writes on intriguing topics, including a visit to a large, annual Christian rock festival in Kentucky. There he meets a group of young men from West Virginia who he connects with and learns their varied motivations for being there. A strong sense of place and emotion is stirred when he places himself among the throngs of believers, many of whom come to this event year after year. A supporting “character” is the RV that Sullivan rents to attend the occasion; he explores the benefits and foibles of having such a vehicle there.

 

A more personal essay describes Sullivan’s experience after his brother Worth is electrocuted in a bizarre accident, and the resulting aftermath of the coma that follows. As in many of the essays, humor worms its way into otherwise sobering events, such as recounting how many details of this incident were remembered because it had appeared on reality show Rescue 911, hosted by William Shatner. Perhaps the most fascinating of his subjects is Mister Lytle, the last of a scholarly group known as the “Twelve Southerners”. Sullivan spends some months living with the 92-year-old man, and the experiences that they share are captivating. A window into the Old South that still existed not too very long ago is opened and strikingly examined.

 

Other topics include the Gulf Coast of Mississippi just days just after Hurricane Katrina; the experiences of reality show characters after "their" season has passed; and one essay each on Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a writer who captures the longing, introspection, and world-weariness that exemplify the feelings of his Gen X contemporaries.

Todd

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A Ride in the Blistering Sun

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to KashgarArdent convictions entwined with bewitching messages of faith can be a stormy mix, especially when boundaries blur and cultures clash. Two British sisters face this predicament. Their efforts to help establish a Christian mission in rural China extract a high price in Suzanne Joinson's impressive, multi-layered debut novel, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar.  

 

The story begins in 1923 in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, where new missionaries Lizzie and Eva English join their aloof, determined leader, Millicent Frost. While Lizzie appears passionate, Eva is suspicious of religious conversion and is basically along for the ride, literally. Traveling with her trusty BSA lady's roadster bicycle, Eva hopes to publish her guidebook, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar. Meanwhile, another story unfolds in present day London. Frieda Blakeman is feeling alone and dislocated in her life when she meets a homeless man from Yemen who appears one day sleeping outside her door. Their eventual friendship leads the pair to an abandoned flat Frieda has inherited and to a minefield of family history. 

 

Joinson's alternating narrative style sets the stage for what is to come. The parallel storylines share symbolism and metaphors that link together the characters' connection to their world and the ability to escape that connection. It is no coincidence that birds feature prominently in both stories as a symbolic "sense of freedom" or that Eva's bicycle is a "shield and my method of escape."     

 

Drawing on her considerable travel experiences, Joinson transports her readers to an exotic locale, rich with authentic voices and evocative prose. Readers of Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) and Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar) may enjoy this tale of the traditions and challenges of a world at large.

Cynthia

 
 

The World’s Greatest Crime Fiction Writer?

TakenAccording to The Huffington Post, it’s Robert Crais. You can judge for yourself with Taken, the most recent in his Joe Pike/Elvis Cole series. Taken features a multinational cast of bad guys who buy, sell, and steal one another's kidnapped victims. When professional kidnappers capture a college-age couple who venture into the desert south of Palm Springs near the Mexican border, the young woman's mother hires Cole to find them. Initially, Mom thinks it’s a hoax to get at her money, but Cole quickly realizes that it’s for real and the danger is serious.

 

Through a series of undercover efforts, Cole, Pike, and their sidekick Jon Stone begin to unravel the power balance controlling this web of cartels. As they move to infiltrate the smugglers’ group, Cole himself becomes a kidnap victim. Pike and Stone must find a way to use his capture to aid their investigation and bring justice to the victims. This quickly moving story and realistically sharp dialog will keep readers up past their bedtime. Fans of Crais as well as general mystery readers will enjoy this latest effort. For series newcomers, it is not critical to start with the first title. Crais himself even recommends starting with a title in the middle of the series: L.A. Requiem. The good news is once you’ve polished this one off, there are 14 others waiting in the stacks.

 

While the titles in this series would make a fabulous fit for the big screen, to date Crais refuses to sell the rights to Cole, Pike, and his other recurring characters, preferring to allow his readers to keep their own personal conceptions of the characters.

Maureen

 
 

Indian Nation

Rez LifeRez Life: An Indian’s Journey Through Reservation by David Treuer is part memoir, part history, and part cultural study of Indian reservations. There are approximately 310 Indian reservations in the United States today; Treuer says reservations are as “American as apple pie.” Americans are captivated by Indians yet many people will go through their entire life without knowing an Indian or spending any time on a reservation.

 

Life on a reservation or “rez life” is often associated with poverty and alcoholism. Treuer does not shy away from these realities. There are heartbreaking stories of unimaginable poverty throughout the book. Numbers also reveal a bleak existence: no running water until the late 1990s, 80% unemployment rates and a median household income of $17,000. This does not sum up “rez life” completely, though. Treuer writes, “What one finds on reservations is more than scars, tears, blood, and noble sentiment. There is beauty in Indian life, as well as meaning....We love our reservations.”

 

Rez Life is not a dismal book, by any means. There are touching (and often very humorous) stories of family life throughout. Treuer reminds us that not all Indians are poor and not all reservations are poor. The wealthy Seminole nation is the current owner of the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. This proves, as Treuer puts it, that the Seminoles have been “kicking ass and taking names for a very long time.”

 

Treuer is the perfect writer for this book. He is a journalist and creative writing professor who knows how to synthesize a massive, complicated subject into personal, engaging stories. He has a keen attention to detail and is a master storyteller who also grew up on a reservation. Treuer is an Ojibwe Indian, raised on Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota. His father is an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, his mother a tribal court judge. Indeed, his personal story (interspersed throughout the book) makes for a fascinating biography. Readers who enjoy biographies, modern history and cultural studies will not want to miss Rez Life.

 

Zeke

 
 

Rise of the Third Reich

Rise of the Third Reich

posted by:
May 24, 2012 - 6:01am

HitlerlandWhy? How? Who hasn’t posed these questions when learning about Adolph Hitler, Nazism’s demonic agendas, and the passivity of world powers like the United States in the face of Germany’s aggressive militancy? In Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, author Andrew Nagorski provides insight into the ascension of  Hitler through  first person accounts of American reporters, foreign service officials, and other prominent US citizens living and working abroad.

 

Comparisons between Hitlerland and Erik Larson’s bestselling In the Garden of Beasts are inevitable as both books concern themselves with Hitler and his National Socialists’ power grab in the period leading up to World War II.  While Larson’s book focuses primarily on viewing history through the eyes of the US Ambassador William Dodd and his soon-to-be infamous daughter Martha, Nagorski documents his story with varied voices such as author Sinclair Lewis and his journalist wife Dorothy Thompson, historian William Shirer, reporter Edgar Mowrer and diplomat Truman Smith.  The cast of characters named in Larson’s book, such as self-avowed half-American Hitler confidante Putzi Hanfstaengl, reappears in Hitlerland but Nagorski fleshes out their stories and places them into the bigger picture. Nagorski excels at explaining the back story of Nazi Germany, looking at the humiliating German defeat in WWI, the conditions imposed under the Treaty of Versailles, the deterioration of the Germany economy, and the decline of moral standards a la Cabaret. He also details the casually anti-Semitic attitudes of the times both in Europe and in the United States.   The book’s timeline is a rather straightforward chronology which contributes to an ease of understanding the events in context and the cumulative effect of primary source material conveys the horror building in the fatherland. Hitlerland is an excellent choice for history buffs and neophytes alike.

Lori

 
 

Summer Thrills

Summer Thrills

posted by:
May 23, 2012 - 4:01am

Thriller 3: Love is MurderAre you looking for a thrill this summer? Love is Murder is a new anthology of romantic suspense short stories that haven’t been published anywhere else. This volume, which is edited by Sandra Brown, will be released in time for summer, and it’s a great way to try out some new thriller writers who you may not already know. The anthology brings readers a mix of stories written by some of today’s best known writers along with some up-and-comers. Some of the authors included in the anthology are Allison Brennan, Heather Graham, Carla Neggers, Brenda Novak, and Lee Child.

 

Love is Murder is the third anthology produced exclusively by members of the International Thriller Writers, a group of authors who write fiction and nonfiction that is broadly categorized as thrillers or suspense. The organization’s goal is to promote and recognize the thriller genre, and its membership is a who’s who of bestselling authors.

 

This anthology is being published in time for the International Thriller Writers’ annual ThrillerFest. This year, the event will take place July 11-14 in New York City.  ThrillerFest is a four day celebration of thriller books, the writers who create them, and the fans who love them. The event will feature Lee Child, Jack Higgins, John Sandford, Catherine Coulter, and many more! All of the details on the event are available here

Beth

 
 

Jennifer Lawrence Takes on Southern Gothic

SerenaFew audiences can think of The Hunger Games without picturing Jennifer Lawrence, the talented young actress who portrays Katniss Everdeen and who also earned an Oscar nomination for her performance in the 2010 film version of Daniel Woodrell’s novel Winter’s Bone.  So what’s next for the famous “girl on fire?”  According to Entertainment Weekly, Lawrence will soon be starring in yet another page-to-screen adaptation, this time as the title character in Ron Rash’s 2008 thriller, Serena

 

Set in Depression-era North Carolina, Rash’s story introduces us to newlyweds George and Serena Pemberton as they stake their claim to a lumber empire deep in the Appalachian Mountains.  The two rule over their territory like feudal lords and Serena quickly proves herself to be a survivor in the harsh wilderness, an equal to any of the men.  But after Serena learns she cannot bear children, she unleashes a murderous plot against George’s illegitimate son to secure her power and plunges into madness rivaling that of Lady Macbeth.  Hauntingly written, this is a gothic tale of greed and corruption driven by an unforgettable female character.  Jennifer Lawrence is definitely no stranger to visceral leading roles, but Serena promises to be a dark and exciting departure from the good-hearted protagonists the actress usually plays.    

  

Serena was a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and is a highly recommended pick for fans of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Frazier.  While the film adaptation (co-starring Bradley Cooper) doesn’t hit theaters until 2013, you can check out your copy of Serena today!    

Alex

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Mysticism, Opium, and Titanic

The House of Velvet and GlassHave you ever wondered what it must have been like to stroll through the elaborately appointed rooms of the Titanic on its maiden voyage, or dine alongside extravagantly dressed women and some of the wealthiest people in the world? Did you ever consider what Old Shanghai may have been like for a crew of sailors after months at sea, or speculate about one of its infamous opium dens?  What about envisioning how it must have felt to be alive during the early days of the twentieth century in affluent Boston, where social standards defined every aspect of your life?  The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe is a masterfully woven tale that encompasses all of these settings and more. 

 

The story is set in the years preceding World War I and revolves around lives of the Allston family.  The mother and youngest daughter have perished on Titanic’s ill-fated crossing 3 years previous, and the eldest daughter Sibyl continues to struggle with their loss.  Her mother’s death has forced her into the role of family caretaker.  She and her father are residing in the family’s brownstone in Boston’s wealthy  Back Bay region when her younger brother abruptly returns home from school under mysterious circumstances.  Sibyl has taken to attending séances hoping to contact her Mother, seeking both comfort and advice regarding her brother.

 

This story moves between different time periods, telling the back story of Mr. Allston when he was a young sailor and the account of the Titanic passengers.  Howe effectively weaves all of these plots into a complete, cohesive, and interesting story. Her thorough descriptions and authentic flare make each scene come to life.  No details are spared in this enchanting historical novel that will capture your imagination and your heart.

Jeanne