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The 2015 Pulitzer Prizes

April 20, 2015 by Reader's Connection

Hot dog! Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction has won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. I’m happy because I actually read the book, and I’m usually so out of touch.

Here are some categories whose winners are currently owned by the library. Go to the Pulitzer Prize website for winners and finalists in all categories, including drama, poetry and journalism.

 

FICTION

 

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot SeeA novel to live in, learn from, and feel bereft over when the last page is turned, Doerr’s magnificently drawn story seems at once spacious and tightly composed. It rests, historically, during the occupation of France during WWII, but brief chapters told in alternating voices give the overall–and long–­narrative a swift movement through time and events. We have two main characters, each one on opposite sides in the conflagration that is destroying Europe. Marie-Louise is a sightless girl who lived with her father in Paris before the occupation; he was a master locksmith for the Museum of Natural History. When German forces necessitate abandonment of the city, Marie-Louise’s father, taking with him the museum’s greatest treasure, removes himself and his daughter and eventually arrives at his uncle’s house in the coastal city of Saint-Malo. Young German soldier Werner is sent to Saint-Malo to track Resistance activity there, and eventually, and inevitably, Marie-Louise’s and Werner’s paths cross. It is through their individual and intertwined tales that Doerr masterfully and knowledgeably re-creates the deprived civilian conditions of war-torn France and the strictly controlled lives of the military occupiers. — Booklist

All the Light We Cannot See is also available as a downloadable e-book, a downloadable audiobook, and an audiobook on CD.

 

HISTORY

 

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan PeopleIt has been decades since the Mandan, who inhabited the Northern Plains in what is now North Dakota, were the sole subjects of a scholarly study, probably owing to the dearth of pre-19th-century documentation. Using data-culled records across such diverse fields as anthropology, archaeology, climatology, and epidemiology, Fenn has succeeded in reconstructing the history of the Mandan from approximately 1100 CE to the mid-1800s. She reveals their central role in the Native American trade networks of the Great Plains over centuries. During that time, they were usually very adaptable to their evolving surroundings, including to climate change and to invasive species (e.g., Norway rats) from Europe. But they also confronted introduced diseases, such as smallpox. Fenn vividly illustrates how the Mandan managed to thrive until the end of the 18th century and then explains how disease, rats, and American westward expansion led them to near total societal and population collapse over approximately 50 years. VERDICT This is the finest study on the Mandan available and is a must-read for those interested in Native American studies or American history. — Library Journal

Encounters at the Heart of the World is also available as a downloadable e-book.

 

BIOGRAPHY

 

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in EuropeThe 2002 public release of the archives of Pius XI’s papacy revealed a trove of historical treasures that Brown University professor Kertzer found “irresistible.” He brings to life an intriguing and unlikely alliance of two powerful individuals, using extensive primary sources from both sides. Whether or not it was truly a partnership is suspect, but they undoubtedly needed each other’s cooperation. The reader is taken inside the papacy in incredible detail, exposing the Vatican’s inner workings, from the Pope’s schedule to what he kept on his desk, to the knife’s-edge particulars of dealing with Mussolini. The insidious way that Il Duce was able to create his dictatorship predates the rise of Hitler in Germany, though their stories possess remarkable parallels. Mussolini’s numerous love affairs offer interesting asides as the myriad intricacies of world-historical events like the Lateran Accords–which ended decades of antagonism between Italy and the Vatican, while establishing the latter’s sovereignty–play out. Kertzer unravels the relationship between two of 20th-century Europe’s most important political figures and does so in an accessible style that makes for a fast-paced must-read. — Publishers Weekly

The Pope and Mussolini is also available as a downloadable e-book and a downloadable audiobook.

 

GENERAL NONFICTION

 

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

 

 

Why settle for a mere review when you can click here and read my blog post about this book?

 

The Sixth Extinction is also available as a downloadable e-book, a downloadable audiobook, and an audiobook on CD.

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Smoke and Fire

April 18, 2015 by Reader's Connection

Smoke and Fire

Nicole McMillan is the head honcho of McMillan Suppression, a company that hires out to extinguish oil field fires. She was once out there herself, suppressing the fires, but was injured on the job. She is terrified of fires, now, and feels that her scarred body prevents her from being intimate with another woman. Her love life is over.

Brady Stewart is one of McMillan Suppression’s fire-fighters. When she and Nicole meet, they are immediately attracted to one another, and when I finished Chapter Two of Julie Cannon’s Smoke and Fire, I knew how the book was going to end. So do you.

 

I wanted the second love story I read this year to be different than the first, not because I disliked Beth Kendrick’s New Uses for Old Boyfriends, but for variety’s sake. And Smoke and Fire covers more ground than the Kendrick book.

 

I assume that Julie Cannon did some research, and that the “blowout” suppression techniques at the oil fields are described more or less authentically.

 

And Smoke and Fire is more adventurous in human terms. The two women with financial problems in New Uses are a lovely one-time TV personality and her mom, a lovely ex-model. Brady Stewart, while attractive, is sometimes mistaken for a man (doesn’t bother her) was brought up to think of herself as trash (didn’t work), and will be risking a lot if she makes a pass at her boss; and Nicole’s disfigurement has, to her way of thinking, locked her away.

 

Also: the supportive side characters in New Uses felt to me as though they’d been molded from chick-flick putty. I suppose Brady Stewart’s supportive landlady is made to order, too, but I find her endearing. Here’s Mrs Coughlin, grilling Brady when she returns from an encounter with Nicole.

“A rental? You rent a fancy car and drive all the way to Morgan City to take this woman out to dinner, and you still mean to tell me it’s nothing special?”

“I couldn’t pick her up in my truck.”

“Why not? It’s been good enough for all your other women.”

“Well, she’s not like all the other women.”

“I knew it.” Mrs. C slapped her hand on the Formica tabletop. “I knew it. You haven’t been yourself since you got back from that safety award. Is that where you met her?”

“Yes,” Brady said patiently.

“Well, it’s good that you two have something in common. Other than the fact that you both like girls.”

Brady didn’t try to hold in her laughter. At seventy-eight Mrs. C was more liberal and un-homophobic than women half her age. She wasn’t shy. She’d asked Brady all kinds of personal questions about lesbians when she first moved in because “it’s just something I don’t know anything about.” Mrs C was very concerned about keeping her mind active in her retirement years.

Having said these things, I should point out that Beth Kendrick is a better writer than Julie Cannon, and probably has a better editor.

There’s more explicit sex in Smoke and Fire, and Cannon hasn’t developed a new language for writing about desire, so we spend more time reading things like the nerves under her skin were firing on all cylinders. Kendrick may have included stuff like that, too, but I don’t remember there being so much.

POP QUIZ: Which of these is weirder?

1. Still fuming, Nicole changed her reservation and caught an early flight out, and the next evening sweat dripped off the tip of her nose.

2. Edward looked at his red beard in the tableknife. Then Edward and Pia went to Sweden, to the farm.

Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts

The first one is obviously from Fire and Smoke. The second is from Donald Barthelme’s story “Edward and Pia” from Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. Barthelme is playing games with our expectations about the way narrative information should be dispensed, as in: New developments like going to Sweden deserve at least a new paragraph.

Julie Cannon may have meant her sentence to be a dramatic fusion of times and places, but I think it’s goofy. (The sweat isn’t dripping from the tip of Nicole’s nose during a love scene, FYI.)

More importantly, we have this, when Nicole has accepted an invitation to dinner from Brady:

As much as Nicole didn’t want to, she was attracted to Brady, and she had a strong suspicion that attraction went both ways.

Brady has asked Nicole out to dinner, the two women have been dancing twice, Nicole has seen “the burning desire in Brady’s eyes” and has told her shrink that there’s a mutual attraction. What is this strong suspicion crap doing on page 170?

And on page 160:

The conversation had shied away from being personal, and Brady wanted to know what was behind the sadness in Nicole’s eyes. She leaped. “What about a girl friend?”

Nicole’s eyes shot up and Brady felt like she’d crashed and burned. She didn’t give up, even though this could be a career-limiting move. “It’s common knowledge you had a girlfriend.”

“And is it common knowledge that she walked out on me?”Nicole asked angrily.

“I don’t follow or believe gossip.”

Nicole’s ex-girlfriend, Gina, who ditched Nicole after her accident, has appeared in the novel thirty pages earlier. Brady has had a look at her, and has told Nicole that Gina “is an idiot if she let you go.” The above passage makes no sense where it’s placed.

I have the uneasy feeling that Cannon wrote passages which were wadded in as needed, to give readers cooling-off time between erotic moments.

Bleak HouseBut I’ve already indicated that I enjoyed the book. Each woman grows up a bit, as is appropriate in a romance. Or at least the main woman grew up in New Uses for Old Boyfriends. THIS SPOILER ALERT IS NOT IN REGARD TO SMOKE AND FIRE, SINCE YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN. IT IS IN REGARD TO A CHARLES DICKENS NOVEL. AND BE WARNED: THE GHOST OF CHARLES DICKENS WILL PROBABLY HAUNT ME AFTER I WRITE THIS, AND HE MAY HAUNT YOU, TOO, JUST FOR READING IT. Smoke and Fire‘s inevitable ending worked for me. The closing scene reminded me of developments at the end of Bleak House, though of course Dickens was less explicit. END OF ALERT.

Smoke and Fire is also available as a downloadable e-book.

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2 Poems by Jennifer Michael Hecht, with an appearance by Patti Smith

April 16, 2015 by Reader's Connection

Who Said

I seem to have been neglecting National Poetry Month, but here goes: Jennifer Michael Hecht’s “Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Spider” appear in her collection Who Said (©2013 Copper Canyon Press) and are reprinted by permission.

Many of the book’s poems are “in conversation” with poems from the past. For readers who can’t figure out which poems are being echoed or celebrated or turned on their heads, Ms Hecht has provided a set of cryptograms. Solve the puzzle, solve the poetic riddle. At first I thought it was an asinine idea, but now I’m loving these puzzles.

The sources of the poems reprinted here are two of the easiest to trace, at least for me.

 

Not Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening

I

Promises to keep was a lie, he had nothing. Through
the woods. Over the river and into the pain. It is an addict’s
talk of quitting as she’s smacking at a vein. He was always
going into the woods. It was he who wrote, The best way

out is always through. You’d think a shrink, but no, a poet.
He saw the woods and knew. The forest is the one that holds
promises. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, they fill
with a quiet snow. Miles are traveled as we sleep. He steers

his horse off the road. Among the trees now, the blizzard
is a dusting. Holes in the canopy make columns of snowstorm,
lit from above. His little horse thinks it is queer. They go
deeper, sky gets darker. It’s the darkest night of the year.

II

He had no promises to keep, nothing pending. Had no bed
to head to, measurably away in miles. He was a freak like me,
monster of the dawn. Whose woods these are I think I know,
his house is in the village though. In the middle of life

he found himself lost in a dark woods. I discovered myself
in a somber forest. In between my breasts and breaths I got
lost. The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I’ve got promises
to keep, smiles to go before I leap. I’m going into the woods.

They’re lovely dark, and deep, which is what I want, deep lovely
darkness. No one has asked, let alone taken, a promise of me,
no one will notice if I choose bed or rug, couch or forest deep.
It doesn’t matter where I sleep. It doesn’t matter where I sleep.

 

The Spider

Spider, spider, spinning tight
against the darkness of the night,
what inspired geometry
is wonder at your web from me?

On what different leads or lies
could my sympathies arise
if, instead of these aspire,
I had but gone out there entire?

In the purpose of your art
twist the neurons of my heart.
For having lost a rhythm’s beat,
I dread my hand and drag my feet.

What the knowing? What the chain?
In what furnace burns my brain?
Where’s the Advil? What’s to grab?
I’ve got your heartthrob in my bag.

When I’m the witness and the fears
fat and lean, bread, pills and tears,
and spider winding, watched by me.
And nature’s this made all of we.

Spider, spider, knitting white
against the blackness of the night
what wacky-strange geometry
could frame our sweet-ass symmetry?

 

Click to hear Patti Smith sing the poem with which “The Spider” is in conversation.

If “The Spider” sounds familiar, and you can’t quite place it, and you can’t deal with cryptograms, you can click on this picture of Patti Smith and hear her sing the poem which “The Spider” echoes.

I sang along with Patti, using Jennifer Michael Hecht’s lyrics, and it was a satisfying experience. My family was out, so Patti & I didn’t scare anyone.

Hecht surely wouldn’t be annoyed with me for letting the cat out of the bag (or the fly out of the web). She has written about “The Spider” elsewhere. Click here to read her comments on the Poetry Society of America website.

If you like Patti’s performance, you might want to look at Book Riot’s collections of Famous Poems Recited by Famous People.

I should say before closing that in addition to being in conversation with great poets of the past, Jennifer Michael Hecht is sometimes in conversation with herself. I can’t read “No Hemlock Rock” without remembering her wonderful book against suicide, about which I raved in February.

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You call this the Justice League? Where’s Aquaman? Where’s J’onn J’onzz?

April 13, 2015 by Reader's Connection

Justice League 3000. Volume 1, Yesterday Lives

I loved the Justice League of America when I was a kid, and when I saw Justice League 3000. Volume 1, Yesterday Lives on the shelf at College Avenue Library, my heart filled with joy. This could be one of the comic books or graphic novels that I read to satisfy Book Riot’s 2015 Read Harder Challenge.

But holy bibliometrics! This Justice League has only five members: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash. There were seven super-powered crime fighters in the Justice League of my youth. Aquaman was in there, and so was J’onn J’onzz, also known as the Martian Manhunter. (And sometimes Green Arrow.) I learn on Wikipedia, though, that the membership roster for the JLA was always in flux.

And I see that on the first season of the television show (which I haven’t seen), the Martian Manhunter was included, but not Aquaman. (Hawkgirl, whom I’ve never met, was a JLA member.)

 

Another Wikipedia discovery: the Martian Manhunter’s name was pronounced John Jones, and he went by “John Jones” as a secret identity. I guess J’onn J’onzz was the Martian spelling. I always thought the name was unpronounceable, and that maybe it helped make him invulnerable.

 

wonder_womanJustice League 3000, Yesterday Lives takes place in that year, and the five superheroes have been brought back to life by unseemly scientific means that are described in more detail as the story unfolds. They’ve been recreated in the hope that they could battle The Five, a quintet of villains who have taken over the universe.

 

flash

But their recreation has been imperfect. Superman can’t fly. The Flash can’t run too fast without hurting himself. Green Lantern doesn’t have a ring.

 

superman

And they don’t get along. Batman wishes he had “just one tiny piece of kryptonite.” Superman keeps hitting on Wonder Woman, which annoys her.

Judging by the language use and the gore of exploding bodies, I would say that the target audience for this JLA is more mature than the audience of my youth.

 

batman_gl

Yesterday Lives is a collection of seven serial magazines, and they track for us the continual bickering of our superheroes; the not entirely coherent plottings of the evil Five, some of whom adopt secret identities themselves; and the misadventures of the human beings who brought the Justice League back from the dead.

Justice League 3000. Volume 2, The Camelot WarVolume 2 in the series, which incorporates books 8-15, has just gone on order. Justice League 3000. Volume 2, The Camelot War can now be requested.

And I, ReadersConnectionman, just requested it. I’m not a graphic novel convert, but I’m curious to see where the story is going, or, strictly speaking, whether there’s a story at all. Reader interest is largely dependent on the graphics, and on the use of enjambment in dialogue. That is, a character starts speaking on one page and the reader must turn the page to read the completed thought.

rc_man_capped_patterned6In poetry, enjambment is the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next, as in these lines about the horse in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

The first & second lines are enjambed, and you might argue that the third & fourth lines are more enjambed, since the third line is so dependent for its sense on the fourth–you don’t know what “sweep” Robert Frost is talking about until you read on.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The dialogue in Justice League 3000 is hyper-enjambed. The reader is yanked from page to page like a fish on a hook. Are all graphic novels written this way?

ReadersConnectionman won’t give up!

And he always gives credit where credit is due: Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis are the writers. There are a number of artists and colorists, but Howard Porter gets the main credit.

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Don’t underestimate a mob of preteen girls.

April 8, 2015 by Reader's Connection

What's Left of Me

I’ve finished reading The Hybrid Chronicles, a three-novel series by Kat Zhang, and I loved it. I’ll start here with part of my 2012 review of the first novel.

What’s Left of Me is narrated by Eva, the recessive soul that is still hiding within the girl called Addie.

All children in this alternative world are born with two souls inside them. But at an early age, the recessive soul is supposed to go away. The process is called settling. Addie-Eva hadn’t settled when they reached the first grade, and a guidance counselor told them, “You know, dearies, settling isn’t scary . . . The recessive soul, whichever one of you it is, will simply . . . go to sleep.”

 

Once We Were

Eva loses motor control after a while, but she’s still in there; and at a certain point, to avoid institutionalization and the other horrors that await “hybrid” children, she and Addie just begin pretending that they’ve settled. So the novel is written in the first person, except that the first person here isn’t the first person: Addie crossed the room, our nightgown gleaming white under the moon, our bare feet whispering against the ground. Just wait until one soul wants to kiss a guy and the other soul doesn’t.

I’m not sure how much I should tell you about the second and third novels in the series, Once We Were and Echoes of Us, because I don’t want to give away too much of what happens in What’s Left of Me.

 

Echoes of Us

Suffice it to say that Addie & Eva travel around and encounter many characters, lots of them hybrids.

Author Zhang makes wonderful use of everyone’s hybrid personality. A conversation among five companions is really a conversation among ten, and Eva’s descriptions of these encounters are great reading.

The second half of Echoes of Us–the last section of the trilogy–makes too much use of coincidence. Gears mesh too neatly. Even so, I was involved with all the characters–was concerned, for example, about the well-being of the institutionalized hybrid girl who, while outlining her breakout plan, speaks the line that I’ve used as a blog post title: “Don’t underestimate a mob of preteen girls.”

And don’t underestimate a teen author. I was caught up in what Kat Zhang was doing, even when things seemed a bit implausible.

What’s Left of Me is also available as a downloadable audiobook.

Once We Were is also available as a downloadable e-book and a downloadable audiobook.

Echoes of Us is also available as a downloadable e-book and a downloadable audiobook.

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