February 23, 2012 by Reader's Connection
Harper Lee and Stacy Schiff and Joseph J. Ellis and Annie Dillard have all won Pulitzer Prizes (not necessarily for the books listed here) and Ellis also won a National Book Award, and Andre Dubus III was a finalist for one, and Tricia Fields, who will be visiting the Franklin Road Branch, has won the Tony Hillerman Prize. We may be setting a record for prize-winners this month. And I may be leaving someone out.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is more than a literary classic; it’s a 50-year testament to the ways a well-told story can inspire readers and impact a culture. Oprah Winfrey has called it America’s “national novel,” and Tom Brokaw remembers the “electrifying effect” it had on the country the year it debuted. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1961, and in 1962 a movie adaptation garnered three Academy Awards (having been nominated for eight). Today, this treasured gem has sold more than 30 million copies. — BookPage
An escalating war between two rival Mexican drug cartels spills into the West Texas border town of Artemis, where Police Chief Josie Gray has only a three-person force (herself included) to confront it. There’s some help from a county sheriff she trusts, but the mayor has an active dislike of women in positions of authority and is far from having her back. When the leader of the Gunners, a Second Amendment group, is found murdered, with his arsenal of guns missing, Josie believes there is a cartel connection. But mostly she’s trying to protect her town and herself–after getting a frightening death threat, up close and personal–and wondering whether she has a future with the man she loves, accountant Dillon Reese. In this debut novel, which has already won the 2010 Tony Hillerman Prize, Fields builds suspense with a well-wrought cast of characters who deal with deadly violence that’s particularly frightening for being all-too-believable. And no one does it better than Josie Gray, who persists in the face of unspeakable danger. Readers will want to see much more of her. — Booklist
Bestseller Brown brings Depression-era Texas to vivid life in this poignant short novel. At the recommendation of Dr. Murdy Kincaid, Ella Barron, a hardworking woman whose husband deserted her, accepts David Rainwater, a relative of the doctor’s, as a lodger at the boarding house she runs in the small town of Gilead, Tex. As the local community contends with a government program to shoot livestock and the opposition of racist Conrad Ellis, a greedy meatpacker, to poor families butchering the meat, Ella grows closer to David. Meanwhile, David becomes a special guardian angel to Solly, Ella’s nine-year-old autistic son. Dr. Kincaid has gently suggested Ella put Solly in an institution, but she refuses to do so. Brown skillfully charts the progress of Ella and David’s quiet romance, while a contemporary frame adds a neat twist to this heartwarming but never cloying historical. — Publishers Weekly
Reeling from her husband’s abrupt departure, Kathy is living alone in the modest California bungalow she inherited from her father and has few material or emotional resources upon which to draw when a pair of sheriff’s deputies appear like creatures in a nightmare and evict her. It’s all a mistake, but before Kathy, a personification of fog, can straighten things out, Colonel Behrani, an exiled Iranian air force officer forced to work menial jobs to support his family, snaps up her home at auction for a third of its value, moves in, and prepares to resell it at a profit. Obdurate and full of fury and pride, Behrani is sand, and Dubus has set up a microcosmic conflict of profound cultural implication and tremendous dramatic impact. Narrating from both points of view, he renders each character utterly compelling and sympathetic. All Kathy wants is her home; Behrani cannot give up his dream . . . Dubus writes gorgeous prose with a noirish edge, holding his readers spellbound. — Booklist
Told alternatingly between characters and between time periods, The Beach Trees by Karen White is a beautiful story of two women, Julie Holt, and Aimee, the great-grandmother to Beau, the son of Monica, who left a beach house (and son) to Julie upon her death. The setting is Biloxi, Mississippi where we learn of the destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina and how that event touched so many lives through the eyes of the main characters. The story is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking, it is as mysterious as it is affirming and White expertly crafts the characters, all real and flawed in their own ways, while simultaneously transporting readers into the setting in nearly flawless descriptive language. I recommend The Beach Trees to readers looking for a heartwarming story of friendship, love and families with elements of intrigue, tragedy, loss, and redemption. — Jennifer Higgins at Rundpinne
A vivid and insightful portrait of John and Abigail Adams . . . From the beginning, Abigail was an intelligent and loyal partner, privy to every aspect of John’s involvement in the nascent Revolution; the author describes Abigail as a vital “ballast” to John’s excitability and mood swings. As his place in the new government strengthened, John was often called away from their Massachusetts home, a circumstance that brought much sadness to the couple but provides historians with intimate letters that the two sent each other throughout each separation. In these, John and Abigail discuss everything from domestic issues to politics to their relationship, displaying the unusually egalitarian and loving partnership they shared. John adored Abigail’s confidence and intellect, and Abigail was proud to support and advise her famous husband as he navigated his remarkably productive political career. This special connection lasted for more than 50 years and survived a litany of domestic hardships amid the political successes, including the heartbreak of witnessing their adult children (excepting John Quincy) devolve into poverty, depression and alcoholism . . . An impeccable account of the politics, civics and devotion behind the Adams marriage. — Kirkus Reviews
Change is threatening the little world of Edgecombe St. Mary. Lord Dagenham is about to sell off part of his ancestral estate to developers, and Pakistanis have taken over the village shop. Major Ernest Pettigrew is definitely old school, but he has been lonely since his wife died, and though he is is prey to various unattached ladies it is with shopkeeper Mrs. Ali that he forms a bond, nourished by their mutual interest in literature. Meanwhile, his ambitious son Roger comes to town with a sleek American girlfriend and starts renovating a nearby cottage. And the village ladies are busy hatching plans for the annual Golf Club dance, for which this year’s theme is “An Evening at the Mughal Court.” There is a great deal going on in these pages–sharply observed domestic comedy, late-life romance, culture clash, a dash of P. G. Wodehouse, and a pinch of religious fundamentalism. First novelist Simonson handles it all with great aplomb, and her Major, with his keen sense of both honor and absurdity, is the perfect lens through which to view contemporary England. — Booklist
Fifth-grade scholarship students and best friends Henry and Keiko are the only Asians in their Seattle elementary school in 1942. Henry is Chinese, Keiko is Japanese, and Pearl Harbor has made all Asians–even those who are American born–targets for abuse. Because Henry’s nationalistic father has a deep-seated hatred for Japan, Henry keeps his friendship with and eventual love for Keiko a secret. When Keiko’s family is sent to an internment camp in Idaho, Henry vows to wait for her. Forty years later, Henry comes upon an old hotel where the belongings of dozens of displaced Japanese families have turned up in the basement, and his love for Keiko is reborn. In his first novel, award-winning short-story writer Ford expertly nails the sweet innocence of first love, the cruelty of racism, the blindness of patriotism, the astonishing unknowns between parents and their children, and the sadness and satisfaction at the end of a life well lived. The result is a vivid picture of a confusing and critical time in American history. — Library Journal
In September 1957, Elizabeth Eckford attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School. One of what became known as the Little Rock Nine, she was prevented from entering the building and headed to a nearby bus stop instead, followed by an angry mob that included Hazel Bryan. Just as Bryan was screaming at Eckford, a journalist snapped a photo that came to define not only integration in Arkansas but, as Margolick shows, the lives of Eckford and Bryan. There are volumes of scholarly works on the Civil Rights Movement, but this book is different. By tracing the two women’s journeys from that moment until today, often in their own words, Margolick artfully lays bare the emotional and mental wounds and struggles of the participants. Both are presented as human, complete with flaws and weaknesses. Margolick also places the women in the context of the wider civil rights era and beyond. The ending is not what you would expect or even hope for but instead demonstrates how much pain is still felt by all involved and how far we all have still to travel. Very thoughtfully and sincerely written, this work is simply a must-read. — Library Journal
History is sadly neglectful of the supporting players in the lives of great artists. Fortunately, fiction provides ample opportunity to bring these often fascinating personalities out into the limelight. Gaynor Arnold successfully resurrected the much-maligned Mrs. Charles Dickens in Girl in a Blue Dress, now Paula McLain brings Hadley Richardson Hemingway out from the formidable shadow cast by her famous husband. Though doomed, the Hemingway marriage had its giddy high points, including a whirlwind courtship and a few fast and furious years of the expatriate lifestyle in 1920s Paris. Hadley and Ernest traveled in heady company during this gin-soaked and jazz-infused time, and readers are treated to intimate glimpses of many of the literary giants of the era, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the real star of the story is Hadley, as this time around, Ernest is firmly relegated to the background as he almost never was during their years together. Though eventually a woman scorned, Hadley is able to acknowledge without rancor or bitterness that “Hem” had “helped me to see what I really was and what I could do.” Much more than a “woman-behind-the-man” homage, this beautifully crafted tale is an unsentimental tribute to a woman who acted with grace and strength as her marriage crumbled. — Booklist
For those who think they know enough about Cleopatra or have the enigmatic Egyptian queen all figured out, think again. Schiff, demonstrating the same narrative flair that captivated readers of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), provides a new interpretation of the life of one of history’s most enduringly intriguing women. Rather than a devastatingly beautiful femme fatale, Cleopatra, according to Schiff, was a shrewd power broker who knew how to use her manifold gifts–wealth, power, and intelligence–to negotiate advantageous political deals and military alliances. Though long on facts and short on myth, this stellar biography is still a page-turner; in fact, because this portrait is grounded so thoroughly in historical context, it is even more extraordinary than the more fanciful legend. Cleopatra emerges as a groundbreaking female leader, relying on her wits, determination, and political acumen rather than sex appeal to astutely wield her power in order to get the job done. Ancient Egypt never goes out of style, and Cleopatra continues to captivate successive generations. — Booklist
The Spades Park Library will host a discussion of Jeffrey Zaslow’s The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and a Forty-Year Friendship on Thursday, March 22nd at 6:00 p.m.
The Girls From Ames grew in response to a piece Zaslow wrote about the enduring bonds of women’s friendships. He received an email from Jenny Benson Litchman that gave a few details on how the girls met (three were born within a week of each other in a local hospital), what growing up together had been like, and how they still keep in almost daily contact with each other.
Intrigued, Zaslow took a year’s leave from work to spend time with the “girls,” hoping, no doubt, to find the key to what has kept them so close for so many years. Instead, he discovered what many women could have told him: the friends of one’s youth are often the friends who matter the most. They are the ones with whom a million secrets have been shared, fragile dreams have been explored and countless pranks have been pulled. These are the friends who know the best and the worst about each other and, as English poet Robert Southey wrote, they are completely persuaded of each other’s worth. Still, it is extraordinary how these women (10 now, since the early death of one) have maintained such close contact with each other despite lives that have taken them all across the country (none lives in Ames today) . . . when asked why their bond remains so strong [one says] “We root each other to the core of who we are, rather than what defines us as adults by careers or spouses or kids. There’s a young girl in each of us who is still full of life. When we’re together, I try to remember that.” — BookPage
An anthropologist’s eye and a poet’s precision distinguish this superbly written novel, exploring the ritual complexities of life, love and death.In only her second novel, [Dillard] provides a portrait of a relationship as it weathers the decades and endures twists and turns both unexpected and common. In almost fairy-tale fashion, Dillard details the romance in Cape Cod’s Provincetown between Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree, who seem fated to fall in love. She’s beautiful, though as Toby and the reader learn, she’s so much more. He’s a few years older, an aspiring poet, and initially tongue-tied and dumbstruck around Lou. They marry and have a son whom they both adore. Life is perfect–perhaps too perfect. Maybe people who idealize each other to such an extent can’t know each other too well. Not only do Toby and Lou surprise themselves, they surprise their tightly knit community, whose quirky characters are themselves full of surprises. Little goes as Toby and Lou had planned when they were younger and enraptured. Twenty years after one of them betrays the other and moves to Maine, they ultimately reunite, on an even deeper level than what they had earlier known . . . The compact, elliptical narrative will continue to pervade the reader’s consciousness long after the novel ends — Kirkus Reviews