This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Defending Jacob by William Landay, 2012, * * * *

There are two types of suspense that run through Defending Jacob, a courtroom drama that hinges on the murder of a high school boy.  The first comes from trying to guess who killed him and the second comes from wondering whether the book's author, a former district attorney with two well-received novels behind him, has developed the ability to catapult himself into the Scott Turow tier of legal-eagle blockbuster writers.  The jury stays out until the books very last words.  The book opens amid a grand jury hearing, with Andy Barber, a former assistant district attorney, being grilled by Neal Logiudice who happens to have been Andy's protege.  The questions involve whether or not Andy should have been investigating the killing of a boy named Ben Rifkin.  The case fell into Andy's professional bailiwick, but the victim was a classmate of Jacob Barber, Andy's 14-year old son. Mr. Landay creates a clever blend of legal thriller and issue-oriented family implosion.  It helps that Andy is as ignorant about Jacob as he is savvy about courtroom theatrics.  Before the murder, Andy and his wife Laurie, just didn't know much about their son. Andy and Laurie are comfortable suburban parents who think they have done all the right things in raising their son and never questioned themselves.  However, the way that Jacob found Ben's body in the woods casts suspicion on Jacob as does the fact that Ben was a bully with Jacob as the frequent target.  Jacob's classmates, his parents learn, have also found Jacob a little strange. Landay delves simultaneously into Jacob's character and Andy's professionalism.  Andy was quick to assume that a sex offender living in the neighborhood was the prime suspect but on the witness stand has to defend that illogical leap. Meanwhile Andy discovers Facebook, "still largely a kids' paradise" in 2007, when the crime was committed and finds out what other students say about Jacob.  Mr. Landay writes: "suspicion, once it started to corkscrew into my thoughts, made me experience everything twice: as a questing prosecutor and anxious father, one after the truth, the other terrified of it." Jacob, who is largely inscrutable, is developed through the eyes of other characters, and at a slight remove, which adds to the suspense.  Is he a cipher? A typical teenager? A Sociopath?  The trial may settle nothing - either Jacob is a killer that the jury will set free or an innocent boy about to be sent to prison for life.  The book is difficult to put down. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Island Practice: Cobblestone Rash, Underground Tom, and Other Adventures of a Nantucket Doctor by Pam Belluck, 2012, * * * * *

Dr. Timothy J. Lepore (pronounced to rhyme with peppery) has earned a reputation as an idiosyncratic, contrarian family practice physician in his decades on Nantucket Island but as Pam Belluck writes in this highly readable book he is really a survivor from a not-too-distant past when family doctors were not as money-driven and impersonal as they have been forced to become in today's medical-industrial complex.  The American health care system works - when it works - by shuttling patients around a network of specialists. The highest obstacle to access is usually a lack of money.  The 10,000 permanent residents of Nantucket must also cope with the elements: routine fog or storms can put a stop of all transportation between the island and the doctors on the mainland, 30 miles away.   Pam Belluck, a reporter to the New York Times, has devoted her first book to a study of Timothy Lepore and his anachronistic approach to medicine.  Island Practice is a tale of quirkiness and peculiarities as well as nuanced reporting on moral and political issues like abortion, substance abuse, suicide and, in particular,  medical care as it has been practiced but may not be practiced in the future.  Belluck's description of Nantucket's only surgeon's behavior gives insights about his pragmatic dealings with real people in tough situations as well as showing this unique doctor plying his trade while holding onto his values and persona. The lesson is that medicine is a micro and macro issue and where you sit defines what you see.  Dr. Lepore and his special patients need a kind of care that is uniquely available because of his personality and the unusual characteristics of Nantucket. Anyone who is a patient wants a doctor to go above and beyond the crazy quilt of the insurance, hospital and malpractice "rules" to get us the care we need. Island Practice entertains with stories, yet leaves you wondering how well that care will be provided in the future -  not just on Nantucket but in other isolated communities.  If you loved John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, or Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief you will find great pleasure in Island Practice.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, 2011, * * *

Star crossed lovers are separated during WWII in Richman's fourth novel.  Josef and Lenka meet as students in Prague in 1936 and fall instantly in love.  Three years later, with Nazis crossing the border they rush to marry, but circumstances force them apart.  Lenka remains in Europe, and Josef flees to America.  For 61 years, each believes the other dead until they meet by chance at the wedding of their grandchildren.  The beautiful city of Prague with its elegant landscape and historical architecture was one of Hitler's conquests.  As in most European cities during WWII, the Jews were the scapegoats, and the Germans enacted the Nuremberg laws giving the Jews little freedom while removing all their worldly possessions to fill their illicit coffers.  Although Josef and Lenka marry Josef's family could secure exit visa only for their family and Lenka's family had no money or possessions to buy their way out of Czechoslovakia .  What follows is not the predictable ghetto/concentration camp horrors.  From the perspective of an artist, Richman provides beautiful images of Prague as well as portraying the grays, blacks, and odors of the camps.  Her writing evokes the smells of flowers and the stench of the train cars, barracks & illnesses prevalent in the camps.    There are secondary characters connecting the plot who are unique and serve to flesh out a balance of personalities.   The one weakness is Lenka's second marriage in contrast to Josef's second marriage.  Survivor's guilt seems to prevent Lenka & Josef from fully enjoying their continued existence.  Richman tackles the difficult subject matter combining undying passionate love with carnage and humiliation.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Unorthodox:The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, 2012, * * * *

Born into the insular and exclusionary Hasidic community of Satmar in Brooklyn to a mentally disabled father  and a mother who fled the sect, Feldman, as she recounts in this memoir, seemed doomed to be an outsider from the start.  Raised by her devout grandparents, who forbade her to read in English, the ever-curious child craved books outside the synagogue teachings.  Feldman's spark of rebellion started with sneaking off to the library and hiding paperback novels under her bed.  Her boldest childhood revolution was that she bought an English translation of the Talmud,which would otherwise be kept from her, so that she might understand the prayers and stories that are the fabric of her existence.  At 17, hoping to be free of the scrutiny and gossip of her circle, she enters into an arranged marriage with a man she meets once before the wedding. Instead, having received no sex education from a culture that promotes procreation and repression simultaneously, she and her husband are unable to consummate the relationship for a year.  The absence of a sex life and failure to produce a child dominate her life, with her family and in-laws supplying constant pressure, she starts to experience panic attacks and the stirrings of her final break with being Hasidic.  It's when she finally does get pregnant and wants something more for her child that the full force of her uprising takes hold and she plots her escape.  Feldman, who now attends Sarah Lawrence College, offers this engaging and at times gripping insight into Brooklyn's Hasidic community. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny, 2012, * * *

This is the eighth novel in the Armande Gamache mystery series By Louise Penny, a Canadian author. The premise is fresh and fully realized when Chief Inspector Gamache and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir venture into a world largely untouched by modernity but, regrettably, not untouched by sin. No outsiders are ever admitted to the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups, hidden deep in the wilderness of Quebec, where two dozen cloistered monks live in peace and prayer.  They grow vegetables, tend chickens, make chocolate -- and they sing Gregorian Chants.  Ironically, for a community that has taken a vow of silence, the monks have become world-famous for their glorious voices, raised in ancient chants, whose effect on both singer and listener is so profound it is known as "the beautiful mystery."  When their renowned choir director is murdered, the lock on the monastery's massive wooden door is drawn back to admit Chief Inspector Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvoir of the Surete du Quebec.  There they discover disquiet beneath the silence, discord in the apparent harmony.  One of the brothers, in this life of prayer and contemplation, has been contemplating murder.  As the peace of the monastery crumbles, Gamache is forced to confront some of his own demons, as well as those roaming the remote corridors.   Before finding the killer and restoring peace, The Chief must first consider the divine, the human, and the cracks in-between.  The plot, sluggish in the beginning while describing the abbey in great detail, quickens when Gamache's nemesis, Chief Inspector Francoeur turns up at the abbey's door, followed, in short order, by a young Dominican monk sent from Rome.  By its conclusion, The Beautiful Mystery transforms itself into an emotionally harrowing tale. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Stonecutter by Camilla Lackberg, 2012, * * * *

One of Sweden's most successful authors, Camilla Lackberg is already being hailed as Scandinavia's next big export.  The Stonecutter is an immense thriller, spread thick with autumnal chill and an astute exploration of a fragile small-town community.  Hemmed by forests and steely seas, the town of Fjallbacka broods with secrets and creaks with inter-generational tension - a winning choice of a stage on which to play out a murder.  The body of a young girl pulled up by a lobster-man is disturbing enough, but when the autopsy reveals that her lungs were full of bath water mixed with ashes, the story takes a turn for the harrowing.  As the police investigate, Lackberg presents a tapestry of characters, intricately stitched, each with their own hidden indiscretions, suspicions and grudges, as well as quieter struggles with grief, depression or estrangement. What is most impressive is the way Lackberg manages to give equal narrative heft to the mystery and to her characters' inner lives, without letting up on the fast-moving unfolding of events.  When the characters are well-drawn, this makes for compulsive reading.  When more superficial characters are given inner monologues, however, the narrative becomes heavy handed with key revelations standing out a little too starkly.  Attempts at psychological complexity have mixed results.  A young man with Asperger's syndrome is painfully stereotypical  while the slow, visceral revelation of the murderer's history is more convincing.  Told in fleeting flashbacks at the beginning of each chapter, this history draws inexorably closer to the present, showing just how poisonous deep-buried secrets can become.   By the time this novel concludes on a jarring note of violence, the wisdom of the old adage about one bad apple spoiling the whole bushel will be sadly proved all too true. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple, 2012, * * * *

Two days before Christmas, 15-year old Bee Branch's mother, Bernadette Fox, disappeared. Her Dad, a Microsoft guru working in the field of artificial intelligence tells the distraught Bee that (a) it's not her fault and (b) it's complicated.  "Of course it's complicated.  Just because it's complicated, just because you think you can't ever know everything about another person, it doesn't mean you can't try, says the intrepid teen, who puts together a record of her mother's life from emails, blogs, articles, and official government correspondence.   Before she was Bee's Mom, Bernadette Fox was a Los Angeles architect, winner of a MacArthur genius grant, who is a legend among college students even though her most famous work no longer exists.  After a project went terribly wrong, Bernadette and her husband, Elgin, relocated to a crumbling girls' reform school, the only non-Craftsman dwelling Bernadette could find, where Bernadette becomes a recluse who rages against the Emerald City's crunchy "connectitude", five-way traffic stops, and Canadians. The house they live in has deteriorated to the point where gardeners come in weekly to weed-whack the blackberry roots pushing up through the floor and Bernadette outsources basic errands to a virtual assistant in India.  Then Bee claims her reward for perfect grades through middle school - a family cruise to Antarctica -  and Bernadette finds herself panicking about everything from motion sickness to being trapped on a vessel with 149 other people.  After her disappearance Bee decides that Bernadette must have used the cruise to pull off her vanishing act and is determined to follow her mother literally to the ends of the earth. Semple used to write for the cult hit "Arrested Development" and she brings plenty of squirming comedy to this novel.  Her send-up of Seattle is hilarious, with its Victims Against Victimhood support groups, moms offering organic gardeners swiss chard in lieu of payment, and teachers who are so PC that fourth graders are expected to seriously debate the pros and cons of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. But the heart of the book belongs to Bee, who tests offf the chart for grit and poise and her mother, who for all her neuroses, did a bang-up job of turning out one terrific kid.