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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny, 2011, * * * * *

This is the 7th novel in the Armande Gamache mystery series. In this book, Clara Morrow, now aged 50, is far beyond the age when most artists are discovered.  Yet, on the evening that the novel opens, she is about to enter the prestigious Musee d'Art Contemporain on Montreal for a gala solo show of her work.  Art experts and critics from the local scene and from as far away as New York, Paris and London are at the vernissage and Clara's party afterwards at her home in Three Pines, the lovely village near Montreal that is so small it does not appear on any map. However, the celebratory mood of the Three Pines party does not last,  as early the next morning there is a discovery of a murdered woman's body Clara's garden. Three Pines may seem like a picture perfect postcard-of-a-place but it is a microcosm for the world outside.  Usually evil arrives in town by traveling the road from the outside, but not always. The body is identified as Lillian Dyson, Clara's childhood friend who cruelly betrayed her while they were in art college. Clara claims that she has not seen or heard from her in over 20 years and there is a wide field of suspects.  In addition, Clara's new-found success and Lillian's murder bring to a boil the problems of envy and lack of understanding that have plagued her marriage with Peter for several years.  Louise Penny's mysteries are not about forensics, timetables, alibis or violent action --they are about the human heart and spirit; about envy, resentment and fear eating away at people, threatening friendships, marriages, partnership and other lives.  They are also about love, forgiveness, and redemption offering hope for change and a forging new stronger bonds.  Ms. Penny is a master of characterization; a genius at creating a world that we enter into and fully live in, and want to return to.   A Trick of the Light  exposes the soul-destroying anger, disappointments and rancor that can eat a person up from within and specifically examines the mind-set of alcoholics, who are capable of doing extensive damage before they are ready to admit that they need help. As a murder mystery, there is little suspense and most readers will not be shocked when Gamache unmasks the culprit. Penny is a stand-out for her eloquent use of language, analysis of people's psychological foibles, and her beautiful and sometimes humorous description of life in a place so tiny that everyone is intimately acquainted with everyone else. Penny also explores what makes art memorable and what it is like to struggle creatively.  A Trick of the Light is both fascinating and, at times, poetic. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, 2011, * * *

Amor Towles stylish, elegant and deliberately anachronistic debut novel transports you back to Manhattan in 1938, just before the sharp lines between social stratification were smudged by the leveling influences of World War II and the G.I. Bill.  Rules of Civility takes its title from young George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, all 110 of which appear in the novel's appendix. Like the literary touchstones he evokes -- F. Scott Fitzgerald,  Edith Wharton and Louis Auchincloss -- Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change. Towles uses the somewhat contrived device of a long flashback to tel his story, but it works.  His starting point is the 1966 opening of Walker Evans' "Many Are Called" show at the Museum of Modern Art, attended by his then middle-aged urbane narrator and her husband. Among the photographs -- in which Evans captured New Yorkers on the subway with a hidden camera in the late 1930s --the narrator recognizes two shots taken a year apart, of a man she used to know named Tinker Grey.  See these photographs send her back to reminiscences of the year she met Grey, a turning point in her life. Towles novel follows three main characters, Tinker Grey, Katey Content and Eve Ross and is about the randomness of chance and how most of us "have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options" which will determine the course of the resty of ouir lives . It is also about maintaining integrity and the capacity for wonder in the face of insidious monetary sway.Filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and an array of terrifically drawn characters with names like Dicky Vanderwhite, Mason Tate and Wallce Wolcott, Rules of Civility  takes the readyer to Gatsbyesque parties on Long Island estates, jazz dives, lushly appointed Conde Nast offices, deluxe suites at The Plaza, posh restaurants and flop houses.  The book reinforces the kind of improbable-but-true serendipity that plots the lives of people in their 20s - in whatever epoch - before they kow the weight that decisions made in a moment might have.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet by Melissa Fay Greene, 2011, * * * * *

In 1991, age age 4,  and with four children of her own, author Melissa Fay Greene ("Praying for Sheetrock,", "The Temple Bombing," "There Is No Me Without You," was struck by "a sudden onset of longing and nostalgia" for another baby. When her next pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, she and her husband, Don Samuel, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney, decided to adopt. No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is her new book about adopting a boy from an orphanage in Bulgaria (Jesse), and then a daughter and three sons from HIV/AIDS ravaged Ethiopia (Helen, Fisseha, and brothers Daniel and Yousef), absorbing each into their upper middle class Jewish Atlanta home. Post-adoption life proved to be challenging at best  with language barriers, bed-wetting, raging tantrums, separation anxieties, and more. Greene sank into "post adoption depression syndrome" (something she'd never even heard of) convinced that she had "wrecked my dearest treasure, my family."  Miraculously Greene recovers, her family repairs, and bonds thrive.  The sprawling family journey is not without its pitfalls.  The children fight - even come to blows - give each other the silent treatment, lie on occasions, break rules, and figure out how to download porn on their cellphones.  The teenage boys also bypass Net Nanny and then get caught charging up the cable bill with XXX-rated movies.  Ready with a band-aid box in hand, Greene is a culturally sensitive, boldly human antidote to the Tiger Mother. As too many of today's parents are caught in the blinding fog of over-achievement  "No Biking in the House Without a Helmet" is filled with water balloons, newborn gerbils, dead chickens, spicy foods, baseball stats, frequent flyer miles, endless extended family and an unlimited supply of laughter and love.  It is a sprawling, imperfect, courageous and joyful account of the adoption process, warts and all -- the heart wrenching trips to orphanages, frustrating delays,  living parents, as well as the inevitable homesickness and culture clashes and sometimes rocky emotional terrain. Greene captures the family's triumphant shared delight in one another's differences.

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, 2011, * * * *

Erik Larsen has written a compelling book which takes its ominous title from Berlin's Central Park, the Tiergarten, which means "animal garden" and hearkens back to the days when it served as a royal hunting preserve.  In this nonfiction saga, the verdant terrain plays a significant yet totally different role.  It serves as a focal point for the horrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich and is the site of a dazzling social life, furtive trysts, plots, meetings, and machinations that took place within its secluded and leafy confines and in the lavish homes and embassies scattered along its perimeter.  The story deals with a naive American family, William Dodd, a low-key history professor from the University of Chicago who becomes the first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933, and his flamboyant and sexually charged daughter, Martha, who are thrust into the dangerous and strangely glamorous world of the "New Germany" and succumb to its eerie charm.  Martha, a would-be journalist is fleeing an unhappy marriage and becomes totally smitten by the provocative allure of the volatile atmosphere, flagrantly indulging in numerous affairs with members of the diplomatic corps, the SS and the Gestapo and several high-profile American reporters and authors - Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg among them.  She, like many others, wore blinkers as to what Hermann Goering, Heinrick Himmler, Hitler and their ilk were really up to, and though they realized it was a scary time, they either downplayed, ignored or simply accepted the brutality and dictates of the increasingly repressive regime and partied on. Dodd's assignment from President Roosevelt was to maintain the status quo in U.S. relations with Germany in order to placate a growing group of isolationists at home and an elite cadre in the U.S. State Department who were in denial over Jewish persecution  and the threat of a looming war.  Many of these men were anti-Semitic and pro-German. Culling through Russian and German archives, letters, diaries, memoirs, cables, newspapers, and interviews, Mr. Larson re-creates the decadence and peril of the period and details and diplomatic minefield facing the inexperienced, exasperated ambassador.  Even Maratha eventually saw behind the shiny black uniforms, swastikas and Mercedes.  She became a communist and Russian spy and ended up living alone in Prague for several years until her death in 1990 at 82.  What is astonishing is how passive and clueless everyone seemed to be, assuming that Hitler and his entourage were childish puppets. This is a cautionary tale not to be missed.