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

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver, 2010, * * * *

In So Much for That, Lionel Shriver tackles large subjects — marriage, illness, and the failure of the American healthcare system — and dissects them with her astute and critical insights.  Since selling his handyman home repair business and netting over $700,000, Shep Knacker has fantasized about what he calls “The Afterlife”  - taking his family off to a faraway, third world country, where his savings will last them forever and they can lead the good life. This dream is shattered when his wife is diagnosed with cancer.   Lionel Shriver recounts the intertwined stories of several characters suffering from serious medical conditions  and, in the process, creates a harrowing picture of the fallout that the current health care and insurance system can have on middle-class people struggling to care for their families. There is one farcical plot development that is poorly woven into the emotional fabric of the story, but Ms. Shriver's understanding of her characters is so intimate and unsentimental that it lofts the novel over such bumpy passages.   She turns her schematic outline into a visceral and deeply affecting story, a story about how illness affects people’s relationships, and how their efforts to grapple with mortality reshapes the arcs of their lives. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick,, 2009, * * *

Seduction, marriage, money, sex, drugs, murder... Set in rural Wisconsin in 1907, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for a “reliable wife” However, when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the simple, honest woman that Ralph is expecting. She is complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Driven by a mix of emotions and simple animal attraction, Ralph marries Catherine anyway. The story of Ralph and Catherine is wicked and tense, presented as a series of sepia tableaux, interrupted by flashes of bright red violence. Robert Goolrick's novel purports to be a suspenseful seduction set in a world that has gone temporarily off its axis.  A Reliable Wife is a nearly forensic look at love in all its incarnations, damages, deceptions, and obsessions, run through with points of light and pinned with ruinous truths.  Although I read this book in one sitting, the story is not believable, least of all the character's "over the top" raging passions. At times it reads more like a "bodice ripping" soap opera.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, 2009, * * * *

Set just after the events of September 2001, the novel deals with anxiety and disconnection of a post-9/11 America, and focuses on the insidiousness of racism, the blind-sidedness of war, and the recklessness thrust on others in the name of love. Tassie Keltjin, 20, a smalltown girl weathering a clumsy college year in 'the Athens of the Midwest,' is taken on as prospective nanny by brittle Sarah Brink, the proprietor of a pricey restaurant who is desperate to adopt a baby despite her dodgy past. The novel is full of mordant humor in shades of gray to charcoal, a quirky, self-deprecating heroine who notices both too much and not enough about the people in her life, depictions of contemporary American mores and fripperies, and finally, a double examination of the fragility of love's intent. As the year unfolds Tassie's own life back home becomes ever more alien to her: her parents are frailer; her brother, aimless and lost in high school, contemplates joining the military. Tassie finds herself becoming more and more the stranger she felt herself to be, and as life and love unravel dramatically, even shockingly, she is forever changed. Moore's graceful prose considers serious emotional and political issues with low-key clarity and poignancy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, 2009, * * * *

Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world's greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong. Isolated by savage terrain, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico's deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author trains for a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder. Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body.

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman,1989,* * * *

Winner of the 1989 National Book Award for nonfiction, this extraordinary bestseller is still the most incisive, thought-provoking book ever written about the Middle East. Thomas L. Friedman, twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, and now the Foreign Affairs columnist on the op-ed page of the New York Times, drew on his ten years in the Middle East to write a book that The Wall Street Journal called "a sparkling intellectual guidebook... an engrossing journey not to be missed."  Friedman, although Jewish, has many misgivings about Israeli actions in their conflicts of the past several decades and is not afraid to tell the truth when detailing Arab atrocities. Friedman's account of Hafez al-Asad's massacre of his own people in the town of Hama, Syria, is one that should be read by every Westerner -- especially those who think the Jews, aided by America, simply "stole" a small plot of Arab land from an otherwise friendly group of people. Now with a new chapter that brings the ever-changing history of the conflict in the Middle East up to date, this seminal historical work reaffirms both its timeliness and its timelessness.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson,2009,* * * * *

Fans of intelligent page-turners will be more than satisfied by Larsson's follow-up to the phenomenal best seller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which introduced crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and punk hacker savant Lisbeth Salander. This time Blomkvist has decided to publish a story exposing an extensive sex trafficking operation between Eastern Europe and Sweden, implicating well-known and highly placed members of Swedish society, business leaders and government officials. On the eve of publication, the two people responsible for the story, Dag Svensson and his girlfriend Mia Johansson, are found brutally murdered in their Stockholm apartment. Salander, who has a history of violent tendencies, becomes the prime suspect after the police find her fingerprints on the murder weapon. Blomkvist plunges into his own investigation of the murders while Salander is drawn into a murderous hunt in which she is the prey. The two central characters transcend their genre and insinuate themselves in the reader's mind through their oddball individuality, their professional competence and, surprisingly, their emotional vulnerability These are addictive thrillers and everyone I know who reads them gets hooked. I can’t wait for the third and final installment: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

South of Broad by Pat Conroy, 2009, * *

Charleston, S.C., Gossip columnist Leopold Bloom King narrates a paean to his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina. In the late '60s and after his brother commits suicide, then 18-year-old Leo befriends a cross-section of the city's inhabitants: scions of Charleston aristocracy; Appalachian orphans; a black football coach's son; and an astonishingly beautiful pair of twins, Sheba and Trevor Poe, who are evading their psychotic father. The story alternates between 1969, the glorious year Leo's coterie stormed Charleston's social, sexual and racial barricades, and 1989, when Sheba, now a movie star, enlists them to find her missing gay brother in AIDS-ravaged San Francisco. Too often the not-so-witty repartee and the narrator's awed voice (he is very fond of superlatives) overwhelm the stories surrounding the group's love affairs and their struggles to protect one another from dangerous pasts. Also, given the incredibly ugly episodes among some of the characters in their teenage years, it is not plausible that as adults they were regularly socializing and calling each other "friends." There are also so many “high drama” episodes that the book began to seem like the plot of a soap opera as opposed to a story that one could imagine as true. I was looking forward to Conroy’s first novel in 14 years, and although mesmerized by the main character, I was not overly impressed.

Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom, 2010, * * * *

Love, in its many forms and complexities, weaves through this collection by Amy Bloom, the New York Times-bestselling author of Away. Bloom's astonishing and astute new work of interconnected stories illuminates the mysteries of passion, family, and friendship. Propelled by Bloom's dazzling prose, unmistakable voice, and generous wit, Where the God of Love Hangs Out takes us to the margins and the centers of real people's lives, exploring the changes that love and loss create. A young woman is haunted by her roommate's murder; a man and his daughter-in-law confess their sins in the unlikeliest of places. In one quartet of interlocking stories, two middle-aged friends, married to others, find themselves surprisingly drawn to each other, risking all while never underestimating the cost. In another linked set of stories, we follow mother and son for thirty years as their small and uncertain family becomes an irresistible tribe. Insightful, sensuous, and heartbreaking, these stories of passion and disappointment, life and death, capture deep human truths. As The New Yorker has said, Amy Bloom gets more meaning into individual sentences than most authors manage in a whole book.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Provenance by Laney Salisbury & Aly Sujo, 2009, * * * * *

A decade-long art scam that sullied the integrity of museum archives and experts alike is elegantly recounted by husband-and-wife journalists Salisbury and Sujo. In 1986, when struggling painter and single father John Myatt advertised copies of famous paintings, he never imagined he'd become a key player in one of Britain's biggest art frauds. Myatt soon met John Drewe, the consummate con man. Drewe told Myatt he was a lecturer in nuclear physics, a consultant to the ministry of defense, a descendant of the Earl of York, a weapons expert and an art collector. None of it was true. It could have been the basis for the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley. Soon Drewe passed off Myatt's work as genuine, including paintings in the style of artists like Alberto Giacometti, Ben Nicholson, Georges Braque and Nicolas de StaĆ«l. When buyers expressed concern about the works' provenance (the history of the ownership) Drewe used a painstaking process to ginn up receipts for prior purchases; created catalogs for exhibitions that never took place; and fabricated records for restoration work. In a master stroke, he smooth-talked his way into the files of the prestigious Tate Gallery in London, where he inserted some of his phony documents into the existing archives. The files remain tainted to this day.  Provenance reads like a well-plotted thriller, filled with unforgettable characters and told at a breakneck pace. However, this not fiction! Provenance is the meticulously researched and captivating account of one of the greatest cons in the history of art forgery.