Hysteria, hallucination or superstition? Stacy Schiff does not provide readers with the answer, but she does give us all the ammunition we need to come to our own conclusions in The Witches: Salem, 1692.
Massachusetts, 1692. The time and place should be immediately recognizable. It was arguably the darkest period in early colonial American history. The colony was dotted with small villages and towns that lingered on the edge of wilderness and the unknown. Harsh winters and Indian raids kept colonists wearily alert. Religion provided guidance, if not solace, in everyday life but did little to dispel the monotony of winter days spent indoors. Could all of this have led young girls to writhe and contort and then accuse others of causing their discomfort through witchcraft, which then led the accused to implicate their own families and neighbors? All in all, 20 people were executed for witchcraft. Nineteen were convicted of witchcraft and hanged while one refused to enter a plea and was crushed to death under the weight of heavy stones.
Little historical documentation of the Salem Witch Trials survived, either due to the shorthand of court transcriptionists or later loss from war. Much of what did survive comes from secondhand accounts or accounts written down years after the trials. Schiff thoroughly interpreted what little documentation survived from 1692 and 1693. Her take on the trials is heavy on facts with not so much narrative. The Witches is a well-researched book about the Salem Witch Trials that focuses on the leaders of the community.
If you want to balance your nonfiction reading of the trials with fascinating fictional versions, check out The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, both by Katherine Howe, and Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible.
Take one unemployed Yankee, transplant her to Mule Stop, Texas, dig up a job with an eccentric millionaire and you have all the delightful elements of Nancy Martin’s debut mystery Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything. Sunny McKillip moved to Mule Stop expecting to be an administrative assistant at a university. When the job disappears, Sunny is fortunate to land a position with the most influential matriarch in town, Honeybelle Hensley. Miss Honeybelle is president of the garden club and has the most beautiful rose garden south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Her unexpected death bestows her fortune to her dog Miss Ruffles, a Texas Cattle Cur with a Texas-sized attitude. Sunny, the housekeeper and the valet stand to inherit a million dollars each if they maintain Miss Honeybelle’s home and care for the dog for one year. Greedy relatives, university machinations, planned nuptials and garden club power plays abound. Under the watchful eye of Miss Honeybelle’s lawyer, Sunny must keep the incorrigible dog out of the rose garden while untangling the mystery of Miss Honeybelle’s demise.
Nancy Martin’s latest is no ordinary cozy. There are unexpected twists and turns as Sunny negotiates the culture of a small southern town — Texas style. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Martin throws you a curve you won’t see coming.
Nancy Martin is a winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award for mystery writing from RT Book Reviews and is the author of Foxy Roxy, Sticky Fingers and the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries.
“I fear that, one day, I’ll hear my mother’s voice calling for help from the attic, but on the way there, she’ll pull me aside, because she heard it too.” This is just a taste of what you’ll read in Fran Krause’s delightful Deep Dark Fears, inspired by his Deep Dark Fears Web comic series. Krause’s online readers sent him stories about their apprehensions. He compiled 101 of those stories, some hilarious and some downright horrifying, and made each of them into comics to create this graphic novel.
I’m just going to come out and say that Deep Dark Fears is the best book ever. It made me laugh out loud and shiver with fear while looking over my shoulders. Krause’s drawings are vivid, childlike and comical. He did a marvelous job translating his readers’ real life fears into comics. Bravo!
Deep Dark Fears is so cool, so funny and even scary. I highly recommend that you add it to your “must read” list. And who knows, you might just find one of your fears inside this book. For more, check out Fran Krause on Tumblr.
Film critic Owen Gleiberman, best known for his two-decade stint at Entertainment Weekly, reflects on his passion-turned-career in Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies. His movie obsession began in the late 1960s when his parents loaded him and his younger siblings into the family Buick for a night at the drive-in outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The experience held a “disturbingly sinister excitement” for the young Gleiberman, who was just seven years-old. Did his father choose wholesome family viewing? Oh, no — these were movies HE wanted to see, with no regard for whether they were appropriate for his young children. Gleiberman recalls many adult-oriented drive-in movies he experienced as a third-grader, most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Boston Strangler. Although they never discussed these films afterward, the experience made him feel closer to his distant parents.
By junior high he was addicted to monster movies, and then in high school he gravitated to scandalous films like Last Tango in Paris and A Clockwork Orange, which left a big impression. But the movie that shifted his entire worldview was John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, which he admits scared the “bejesus” out of him, and fulfilled his craziest drive-in dreams for the extreme.
His first forays into criticism came during college at The University of Michigan. He was obsessive in his film viewing, referring to it as “the religion that sustained me.” He muses that the true movie buff leads a solitary existence, even when they are with other people. Movies help you leave yourself behind, and the essential experience has almost nothing to do with the quality of what you’re seeing.
Readers who love pop culture will enjoy Movie Freak. Gleiberman has always been a critic who speaks his own mind, proud of the fact that he doesn’t go along with the crowd when it comes to his reviews. He isn’t swayed by the Hollywood machine — he calls it as he sees it, even when that leaves him as odd man out, as it did when he panned the Julia Roberts/Richard Gere romantic comedy Pretty Woman. He is proud of championing indie films like the documentary Crumb, and unapologetic in his general dislike of foreign films.
Digressions into his personal life could have been left out, but when Gleiberman sticks to the business of Hollywood and the changing face of film criticism in the time of relentless blogging and social media, Movie Freak shines.
The mother-daughter relationship is complicated at its best, damaging at its worst. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout deftly tells the tale of one such complex relationship in her latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. This beautifully written story is filled with hope, pain, love and understanding.
Life has come to a halt for Lucy Barton, a young married mother living in 1980s Manhattan. Succumbing to an unknown infection after routine surgery, she must convalesce in the hospital for nine weeks. Despondent and lonely, she wants nothing more than to get back to her family and her life as a writer in the West Village. To stave off loneliness, her husband flies in her estranged mother from the Midwest for a five-day visit. To say these two are not close is an understatement — they haven't seen each other in years and are barely on speaking terms. How and why did they become so distant? As Lucy tells of her mother’s visit, she also flashes back to her poverty-stricken childhood and forward to the future when her daughters are grown. We learn of her childhood, her college years and of her life in Manhattan. She attempts to forge a stronger bond with her mother during the visit, but she also hopes to get answers. Why did her mother not come to her wedding? Is she proud of her? Lucy soon realizes that as she learns more about her mother, she better understands herself.
Strout illustrates both the power and far reaching consequences of the mother-daughter relationship. You will empathize and perhaps even identify with Lucy Barton and her mother, feeling their raw emotion in spades. Check out Strout’s other works for more moving stories about relationships. My favorites are Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. Both great reads...and rereads!
Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of To Kill a Mockingbird, has died at the age of 89 in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama. Born on April 28, 1926, Lee was educated in Alabama and at one time thought about becoming a lawyer, but moved to New York in 1949 to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
It took nine years, but finally Lee’s manuscript was accepted and the book was published on July 11, 1960. Set in a small Southern town, Lee’s masterpiece tackles racial injustice and was met with critical acclaim and commercial success. The film adaptation starring Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus was equally sensational and only added to Harper Lee’s literary fame and expectations for her next novel. For decades, though, it appeared that Lee would never publish another book. That all changed in 2015 when a manuscript was mysteriously uncovered and Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, was the book of last summer.
Harper Lee suffered a stroke in 2007, recovered and resumed life in her beloved hometown which served as the model for the small town in To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, when asked by a radio interviewer about her small corner of the world, Lee said, “I would simply like to put down all I know about this because I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it and something to lament in its passing.” She continued, “In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.”
If you’re a fan of the whimsical highbrow movies of filmmaker Wes Anderson, you’ll love The Portable Veblen, the new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a compelling modern-day love story set in Palo Alto, California, with an appealing quirky cast of characters, including a persistent and possibly symbolic squirrel.
Paul and Veblen are engaged, but will the marriage ever happen? They come from such different worlds. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen does administrative work at a hospital. In her free time she dabbles in translating documents from Norwegian and studies the teachings of her namesake’s work. How can she possibly be comfortable wearing the ostentatious diamond engagement ring Paul was so proud to give her?
She lives modestly in a rented bungalow she lovingly restored from a dilapidated condition. Veblen is quite fond of the squirrel who has taken up residence in the attic, a point of contention between herself and her beloved, who has a goal of eliminating the rodent. Veblen sees the squirrel as a new friend who wants to tell her something. Paul embraces her many personality quirks, finding her endearing. But it seems as if he doesn’t really know her (it’s been a whirlwind courtship) and meeting her domineering, hypochondriac mother and enabling stepfather might be the thing that tears them apart.
Raised on a commune by hippie parents, Paul revels in his new money and status as a neurosurgeon. He wants to distance himself from his odd upbringing, especially his mentally disabled brother Justin, who gets all of the family’s attention. He’s most excited by the device he’s pioneering, the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, intended to help treat head trauma on the battlefield. But Paul has fallen in with the ruthless head of a major medical and pharmaceutical company that has its own plans for Paul’s invention.
The Portable Veblen is a storybook for adults. The over-the-top characters are all memorable, and author McKenzie sets up scenes that reveal as much about Paul and Veblen’s individual pasts as they hint about their future together. So much literature these days weighs the reader down with heavy plot lines and depressing circumstances, and although The Portable Veblen trades in dysfunctional families and relationships, it soars as a comic satire. This a book I looked forward to picking up and falling into, and now I’m sorry to leave Paul and Veblen behind.
In the small Kentucky town where the miner’s son grew up to be a miner and the bootlegger’s son grew up to be a bootlegger, no one was surprised when the writer’s son grew up to be a writer in Chris Offutt’s new memoir My Father, the Pornographer.
Imagine that your father dies and you, as the eldest son, are tasked with the responsibility of cleaning out his office. Now imagine discovering that your father, who passed himself off as a science fiction writer, also wrote hundreds of pornographic novels. After clearing out decades’ worth of garbage and searching the vents for hidden treasure that turns out to be nothing more than his father’s last practical joke, Offutt quickly realizes that his father’s writing career wasn’t merely supplemented by pornography — it was the bulk of it. In an attempt to understand his deceased father’s perverse obsessions, he packs and transports nearly two tons of his father’s work from his childhood home to his current residence in Mississippi.
But more than just a story of Andrew Offutt’s career as a pornographer, this is also the tale of Chris Offutt’s childhood and a meditation on his contentious relationship with his father. As Offutt acts as archeologist, reconstructing his father’s career and life, he realizes just how much they have in common. Offutt is struck by his father’s unique writing method: He kept a catalog of descriptions filed under various (frequently vulgar) categories and when writing a novel he plugged the passages in where needed. When the younger Offutt considered joining the military, he prepared for basic training by filling a notebook with amusing anecdotes pilfered from Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” divided into specific categories, that he could pass off as his own experiences in letters he wrote to his family back home. Although he himself is not a purveyor of pornography, Offutt is dismayed at the similarities he finds. He isn’t sure what he hopes to learn from immersing himself in his father’s “private and unfiltered fantasies,” but the deeper he digs, the harder it is to walk away.
For another memoir about the father/son relationship, check out Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
From its curious inception as an emulation of American postwar Ivy League attire to its evolution into countless worldwide labels, Japanese menswear has pioneered the world’s most popular looks of leisure. W. David Marx’s Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style is a fantastic look at the history of men’s fashion in Japan.
According to Marx, the concept of fashion was never prevalent in male life in Japan before World War II. Caring about one’s appearance was viewed as effeminate; instead, men dressed in functional, traditional raiment. After the bombs fell and the war ended, many people were forced to make their own clothes out of leftover military surplus like parachutes and fatigues. It wasn’t until the imminent arrival of the 1964 Olympics that men began to ponder their looks and shirked survivor chic.
Marx traces the origins of some of Japan’s earliest men’s fashions back to a couple of standout individuals who would all live on to create, control and influence the country’s leisure fashion industry throughout the second half of the 20th century. It began with the “ivy” look, Japan’s best attempt at manufacturing clothing reflective of what students at northeast American colleges were wearing. In the late 1960s, Ivy relaxed into the “heavy duty” look, which brought denim jeans to Japan and elevated American outfitter companies like L.L. Bean to cult status. Fueled by a bubble in the economy, fashion hotspot Harajuku popped up overnight and exploded into Japan’s most frenetic fashion district, housing imports and original brands men couldn’t buy quickly enough.
Over time, Japan’s fashion endeavors evolved from emulation into innovation, leading to greater exports and global brand presences. The story is incredibly interesting, and Marx’s research and presentation are as impeccable as his style. Readers who enjoy microhistories or are into lifestyle reading will find Ametora to be irresistible.