Reviews by Cathryn Conroy

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A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them
by Timothy Egan
An Extraordinary Book: A Sordid, Scary Slice of History Transformed into a Page-Turning Thriller (9/11/2023)
This book is terrifying. It is the stuff of nightmares. And it's such an extraordinary and important history book that it should be required reading for everyone.

When you think of the Ku Klux Klan, you likely think of the deep South. Think again. This is the story of what happened in the early 1920s in Indiana, the quintessential flag-waving, apple-pie center of America's Heartland, which had more sworn Klansmen than any other state and three times as many as Georgia.

Lawmakers, from the governor on down, as well as police officers, industry leaders, newspaper editors, and even ministers were all Klansmen and under the control of the KKK and specifically the Indiana Grand Dragon, David C. Stephenson, a grifter, psychopath, and charismatic conman from Texas. Their hate-filled, horrific activities extended not only to Blacks, but also Jews and Roman Catholics.

While Stephenson was the public face of Klan "values"—most notably abstention from alcohol and protection of the sanctity of women—he was something quite different in private. While leading Indiana citizens kowtowed to him, Stephenson had a sexual secret: He enjoyed raping and torturing women through cannibalistic sex where he would chew their skin, almost trying to eat them alive. None of his victims ever reported the crime. After all, almost every cop, prosecutor, and judge in the state were part of the Klan and under Stephenson's iron fist. Where would they find justice?

Written by Timothy Egan, this is the story of Stephenson's sadistic reign of terror in Indiana from 1921 to 1925. He thought he was the reincarnation of Napolean, hoodwinked everyone, telling lies about his life that he uttered so often that he even believed them. He was an expert at planting fake news—from whispered suggestions to outright lies—that soon were treated as the truth. With the enthusiastic backing of the Republican party, Stephenson built a white-sheeted organization of hundreds of thousands of Hoosiers who pledged to support white supremacy. If you weren't part of the KKK, then you were an outsider and not to be trusted. He even formed KKK organizations for women and children. Stephenson had plans to close the borders to immigrants, and he had his eye on the White House. Just think what he could do as president or manipulating someone else who served as his puppet in the Oval Office.

But then, quite suddenly, the all-powerful Grand Dragon was stopped cold by a 28-year-old woman named Madge Oberholtzer. A college graduate, schoolteacher, and member of Pi Beta Phi sorority, Oberholtzer was Stephenson's last victim of cannibalistic sex, rape, and torture. In the middle of the two-day excruciating experience when Stephenson kidnapped her, Madge tried to commit suicide by ingesting a poison, but it was a very slow-acting poison. She died 29 days later from a combination of the injuries inflicted by Stephenson and the poison. That was enough time for her to tell her tale of horror to her parents, her best friend, her physician, and her family's attorney as they surrounded her deathbed. It was Madge—well, the ghost of Madge—who brought down D.C. Stephenson when no one else could. It was Madge who exposed the Klan and its Grand Dragon for what they really were.

Oh, what a chilling and compelling tale this is! While Egan is a born storyteller, he is also a prodigious researcher, turning this sordid bit of history into a page-turning thriller.

A small warning: Many of the details in this book are gruesome and graphic. You'll need a tough stomach to read these parts.
Olga Dies Dreaming: A Novel
by Xochitl Gonzalez
A Big, Weird Novel! A Remarkable and Powerful Book That Is Also a Really Good Read (9/8/2023)
This is a remarkable and powerful story that is also a really good read, but the best description of all comes straight from author Xochitl Gonzalez: It's a big, weird novel.

It is a novel about a lot of things: Puerto Rican politics, political corruption, the close-knit diaspora of Puerto Rican communities in New York City, and a bit of Puerto Rican history. But more than all that, this is a very human novel—a story about breaking free from social restraints and family expectations and fully realizing your dreams…of becoming who you were meant to be.

This is the story of Olga Acevedo and her brother Prieto Acevedo. It's the summer of 2017, and the two are part of a large and loving Puerto Rican family in Brooklyn. Still, their lives are grounded in a deep and abiding heartache. They were abandoned by their mother, Blanca, when Olga was 12 and Prieto was 15 when she left the country to follow a fringe figure to fight as a revolutionary for an independent Puerto Rico, while their father left them for drugs, becoming a heroin addict who eventually died of AIDS.

Ivy League graduate Olga, now 41, is the wildly successful owner of an upscale wedding planning business, while Prieto, who is recently divorced with a young daughter he adores, is the U.S. congressman for their Brooklyn district. Olga may plan gorgeous weddings for New York's upper crust, but she has no love life of her own beyond meaningless sex with a series of men she never allows to get emotionally close. And Prieto may be a political wunderkind, but he is being blackmailed as he harbors a personal secret that he is terrified could erupt in a devastating, personal scandal at any time.

Just as Olga meets a wonderful and loving man named Matteo who may change her life in ways she never imagined, Prieto is so consumed with his own secrets that he shuts out those who love him most, especially Olga. It is Matteo who forces Olga to examine all the secrets and lies that have consumed her family's past and present. But Olga and Prieto can no longer hide in the emotional armor they have erected around themselves because Blanca comes roaring back in their lives days after Puerto Rico is consumed by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. What their mother asks of each of them after all these years of separation is astonishing in an eye-popping horrifying way, and their reaction to her is equally astonishing in an eye-popping gratifying way. (Oh, this is good!) That said, the ending is a bit unsettling…and maybe a portent of things to come.

I so enjoy reading books about cultures that are not my own because I learn so much. And because this is a novel with a compelling story and vivid characters, I seemingly became part of that culture while I was immersed in the pages of the book. That is the magic of reading. It allows us to embrace an empathy and understanding we wouldn't otherwise have.
Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
Hilarious! A Short, Quick Read That Had This Old English Major Laughing Out Loud (8/31/2023)
In a word: Hilarious!

This is a witty, snarky, and comical skewering of modern-day college English departments, many of which are suffering from a lack of allocated funding from their universities as the number of English majors declines in favor of STEM majors. If you were an English major or have taught English at the collegiate level, treat yourself to this book, the first in a trilogy.

Written by Julie Schumacher, it is an epistolary novel, which I have to say made me reluctant to read it. I was so wrong to be concerned. The entire book is a series of letters of recommendation written over one year—September 2009 to August 2010—by the disgruntled and cantankerous Jason T. Fitger, a professor of creative writing and English at the fictional Payne University located somewhere in the Midwest. A second-tier school, but a first-rate story.

Schumacher is incredibly creative in carrying a novel plot (well, sort of a plot) throughout these letters, which range from recommendations for graduate school and retreat-style writing seminars to such employers as Avengers Paintball, Catfish Catering, Gropp's Liquor Lounge and Winemart, and Flanders Nut House—the kind of jobs English majors are forced to take if they skip grad school.

This is what makes it so much fun: Some of the letters are not only recommendations, but also a kind of personal diary and vengeful confessions that are improper at best and wildly inappropriate at worst. Fitger sometimes discusses in these letters of recommendation his sexual liaisons with various women, the torment of his divorce, and the physical state of the English department as it is engulfed in fumes, possibly toxic smoke, and construction dust while the economics department one floor above is lavishly renovated. Meanwhile, Fitger is obsessed with one student in particular, thinking he may be the next literary novelist wunderkind. He repeatedly tries to get the kid funding and placement and repeatedly fails. It doesn't sound funny, but in Schumacher's hands, I was laughing out loud—until suddenly I wasn't.

As the academic year progresses, Fitger's letters become more and more unhinged, revealing his dismay, anger, and angst with both the profession in general and his own career in particular as both seemingly spiral into freefall. Still, while he may be sullen and grumpy, he's got a big heart. He adores literature, teaching, and shaping the next generation of writers—all of which are priceless qualities in an English professor.

The novel won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. It's a short, quick read that will improve your mood just because it will make you laugh. Winner! Winner!
Malibu Rising
by Taylor Jenkins Reid
The Literary Equivalent of Eating Ice Cream for Breakfast: Sexy, Entertaining Summer ChickLit (8/29/2023)
This book is the literary equivalent of eating ice cream for breakfast. Wickedly fun, but not something you want to do on a regular basis. It's entertaining, engrossing, and sexy summer ChickLit. Nothing more. And sometimes that's just what you want.

Written by Taylor Jenkins Reid, this is the story of a house party for 200 guests in a beachside Malibu mansion taking place on the last Saturday in August 1983. By the end of the wild, out-of-control party, the house will be on fire. (That's not a spoiler. It's revealed within the first few pages of the book.)

The party host is Nina Riva, the daughter of the famous singer Mick Riva (think Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler) and the wife of the international star tennis player Brandon Randall. But that's no way to define Nina, who is a wildly famous model in her own right. Besides, Mick abandoned his wife and four kids years ago and they haven't seen him since, and Brandon just left Nina, his wife of one year, for the tennis player Carrie Soto. Once again, Nina is on her own.

The novel takes place over a 24-hour period with lots of flashbacks to the past. Nina is the oldest of the four Riva kids, followed by Jay, a surfer; Hud, a photographer; and Kit, who is still trying to figure out who she is. The children's mother is June, who Mick married and divorced twice, leaving her with no money the second time. June had a tough time of it, eventually dying and leaving the kids—all minors—to fend for themselves. It's quite the tale. Lots of tears and drama, but riveting reading.

The house party, which is an annual event, draws beautiful, wealthy, and famous people from movie and TV stars to writers to athletes to musicians. It's the kind of party where the guests come to see and be seen. At this event on August 27, 1983 they are on their worst behavior. (It's shocking what they do to the house!) The party itself ignites (figuratively) hours before the actual fire.

This is a book about what it means to be a family—the good and the bad—as well as what it means to have fame and fortune. It's also a book about surfing, so get ready to hang ten. And while the dialogue is cheesy at times and rife with expletives, the story is imaginative, albeit a bit like a soap opera, with obvious themes of destruction and renewal. Overall, it's an enjoyable escapist read.
The Brutal Telling: Chief Inspector Gamache Novel, #5
by Louise Penny
This Is a Marvel of a Murder Mystery: A Clever Whodunit Filled with Life Wisdom (8/25/2023)
I never read murder mysteries until I started reading Louise Penny, and now I am an avid fan—of both the genre and (especially) this author. Like the other four books that precede this novel, this is expertly written with a compelling whodunit plot, bold and vivid characters that pop off the page, and descriptions of food that will have you hunting down gourmet recipes for tonight's dinner.

In this, the fifth of the 18 (and counting) books in the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series, we find the brilliant and endearing Armand Gamache back in the idyllic Canadian village of Three Pines to solve (yet another) murder. (Maybe it's not so idyllic, after all.) Just before daybreak over the very busy Labor Day weekend, a dead body has been found lying on the floor of the bistro that is owned by Olivier and Gabriel, partners in business and life. No one knows the victim. At first glance, he looks like a homeless vagrant. He died after a blunt force blow to the back of his head, which should have resulted in copious amounts of blood. But there is no blood on the bistro floor. Who is this man? Who killed him? Where did the murder take place? Why was the body moved to the bistro? And why are several Three Pines residents obviously nervous, telling lies and guarding secrets? Gamache and his crew are on the case, and nothing is as it appears to be. Oh, I couldn't stop reading this one!

This is a literary murder mystery. The plot is grounded in references to art (painting, sculpture, and totem poles), poetry, literature, music, and history. In between the storyline of the murder investigation, you'll learn a lot, too!

Here is the wonder, the joy, and the marvel of Louise Penny's books: Life wisdom. These books are SO much more than riveting murder mysteries. Not only are there numerous short lessons of how to live life better, but also the books are packed with psychology—psychology that examines the human psyche better than most psychology books, baring the soul of the characters to understand the how and why of all human interactions.

The only caveat and it's an important one: You must read the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series in order beginning with the first one, "Still Life." Subsequent books reveal big hints and little spoilers that occurred in the previous titles. Don't ruin it for yourself! Read it from the beginning and enjoy and single one.
Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O'Farrell
A Brilliant and Captivating Novel About a Family Built on Shocking Secrets and Devastating Lies (8/19/2023)
This is the story of a family that is—on the surface, at least—picture perfect. But underneath that surface there is trouble—big trouble in the form of long-guarded secrets and outright lies that can only be described as shocking, astonishing, devastating, and even earth-shattering.

Masterfully written by Irish novelist Maggie O'Farrell, this is the story of the Riordan family of London, England. It takes place over three days in July 1976 during a massive heatwave and drought. It's London, so there is no air conditioning. And it is SO hot! The heatwave is making people act oddly…it's getting on their nerves. And (brilliantly) the heatwave is a metaphor for all that is heating up in the Riordan family.

The characters: Gretta and Robert Riordan, both of whom are from Ireland and are devout Catholics, have been together for more than 30 years. They have three grown children:
• Michael Francis, a history teacher, is unhappily married to Claire. They have two children, Hughie and Vita, and live near his parents.
• Monica, just 10 months younger than her brother, is divorced and now remarried to a much older man who has two (difficult, surly) daughters from a previous relationship. She lives about 80 miles northwest of London in an old farmhouse in the country—the same house her husband's ex lived in when they were together.
• Aoife (pronounced ee-fah), who is a decade younger than her siblings, has always been the black sheep of the family. She has escaped to Manhattan where she works as an assistant to a famous photographer. She and Monica had a terrible row years ago that Monica believes ended her first marriage, and the sisters haven't spoken since. Aoife's boyfriend, Gabe, is a draft dodger, who is living in plain sight in New York City rather than escaping to Canada.

The story: Robert recently retired as an assistant bank manager. Early in the morning on Thursday, July 15, he tells his wife he is going out to buy a newspaper, something he does most days. Except on this day, he doesn't come home, and he has cleaned out much of the bank account. Gretta is frantic. She calls Michael Francis and Monica. Michael Francis calls Aoife in New York. Come home! And all three do. While they try to figure out what happened to their father, the hurt feelings, misunderstandings, arguments, and grudges from their past come roaring to life. Each one of them has a deep, dark, extraordinary secret that is eventually revealed.

This is a superb and captivating novel with a multilayered plot about a family that is falling apart and somehow, against all odds, puts itself together again thanks to love, truth, and forgiveness. Our past mistakes don't have to haunt us forever. But we have to learn to forgive each other.

The secret sauce that makes this book so compelling and magical is the writing. Many of the descriptions, especially the quotidian elements of life—how things look, feel, and smell—are so beautiful, so imaginative, so spot-on that I had to stop and reread whole paragraphs over again just to fully savor the writing. What a treat!

My only complaint is that the ending is too abrupt.

I devoured this exceptional book. Highly recommended.
by Claire Keegan
A Pitch-Perfect Story of a Parent's Love—of What Could Be and What Isn't. It Will Break Your Heart! (8/15/2023)
Oh, this is a masterpiece in just 62 pages. Every word is perfect. And when all those words are placed one after the other on the page, the result is a novella that just wrapped its way around my heart and wouldn't let go.

Brilliantly written by master short story-teller Claire Keegan, this is the story of a little girl, around 7 or 8 years old, who is one of many children in a poor Irish family living in County Wexford. In order to have one less mouth to feed, her parents lend her out for the summer to the Kinsellas, a gentle, compassionate childless couple who yearn for little ones. They embrace her fully, nicknaming her Petal. She has never had so much to eat, so much kindness, and so much attention. Like her nickname, Petal blossoms with all this love, care, and thoughtfulness. On her first night in the Kinsella home, she is told there are no secrets in this house. But that's not quite true. There is one, and before the end of the summer the little girl figures it out.

The ending is heartbreaking, but it's the right ending.

This is a pitch-perfect story that is profound and haunting. It is a story of love—of what could be and of what isn't.

As I was reading this, I knew I had read it before, but it was published less than a year ago. And then it hit me! It was featured in "The Best American Short Stories 2011," edited by Geraldine Brooks, which is where I first read it. Originally, it was published in The New Yorker in February 2010. Both were abridged versions from this standalone book.
Las Madres: A Novel
by Esmeralda Santiago
A Fierce, Touching, and Insightful Intergenerational Novel About Heritage, Memory, and Secrets (8/8/2023)
This is a fierce, touching, and insightful intergenerational novel about heritage, memory, and secrets, but most of all family, especially the family we create with our dearest friends.

Written by Esmeralda Santiago, this is the story of three mothers—Luz, Ada, and Shirley—and two daughters, Graciela and Marysol. The five are bonded for life, even though Luz and Marysol live in the Bronx, while Ada, Shirley, and Graciela live in Maine. All hail from Puerto Rico, and even though the daughters were both born in New York, they feel Puerto Rican.

The novel switches between two pivotal years: 1975/1976 and 2017. In October 1975, Luz is 15 and living with her parents, Federico and Salvadora, both accomplished scientists, in Puerto Rico. She is a gifted ballet dancer with high hopes of dancing professionally. But those dreams are shattered when tragedy strikes, leaving her disabled and orphaned. After months of hospitalization and rehab, her grandparents—one on each side—step in to care for her. It is when she is living with her grandfather, Alonso, that her life improves thanks to a loving tutor, Ada, and new friends. But Luz has brain damage that greatly impairs her memory, and this lasts for the rest of her life. Something may happen now, and in five minutes she has no memory of it. It's as if Luz is reborn every day.

Fast forward to 2017. Luz and her daughter Marysol (who is in her 30s), live in New York City. Along with their dear friends Ada and Shirley and their daughter, Graciela, Luz and Marysol visit Puerto Rico to celebrate Shirley's 70th birthday. The mothers (las madres) left in 1977 and have never returned, while the daughters (las nenas) have never been. Their timing couldn't be worse. Hurricane Irma just passed, fortunately skirting the island, but unbeknownst to them when they land for several days of partying and fun, Hurricane María is headed to Puerto Rico for a direct hit.

The story is slow to develop, but it hits its stride about two-thirds of the way through. Stick with it! It's worth it because what was once somewhat plodding becomes a riveting tale as the five women experience not only the full force of Hurricane María, but also lean on each other as long-held secrets are revealed, threatening to tear them all apart.

This is a novel that examines the importance of memory. After all, it is our memories that give us our sense of self, but it is our friends and family who become the rock of our lives—especially when those lives are shattered.

A note on the text: There is a lot of Spanish woven into the story, and I found the Kindle translation feature essential for understanding the narrative. In addition, Luz and her parents are quadrilingual in English, Spanish, French, and German and mix and match the four languages—sometimes combining two languages in a single sentence. The Kindle translate feature was indispensable!
Tenth of December: Stories
by George Saunders
A Spectacular, Special, and Brilliant Collection of Short Stories (7/31/2023)
I read this book now in preparation for being in the audience when author George Saunders is presented with the 2023 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction at the National Book Festival on August 12, 2023. While Saunders is receiving this award for the body of his work, this collection of short stories is so spectacular, so special, and so brilliant, it is almost enough on its own to warrant such an honor.

I enjoy reading short story collections, but typically only about half the stories in any given book are what I would rate as excellent or very good. In this collection, eight of the 10 are stellar and the other two are excellent—so highly unusual. While some of them take place in a near dystopian future, most are mind-twists about life today and how we react as human beings. It's social satire at its absolute best.

My favorites among the favorites:
• "Victory Lap": Kyle Boot, a sheltered, overprotected teenage boy whose parents control his behavior with strict rules, is alone at home after school. He witnesses his 14-year-old neighbor Alison Pope, a childhood playmate on whom he now has a big crush, be abducted. If he were to help her, he would break many of his parents' inviolable rules. He is caught in a moral conundrum.

• "Escape from Spiderhead": Young people who have been convicted of the worst crimes can be sent to a facility conducting mind experiments instead of going to prison. Jeff is one of these, and he endures a series of experiments using powerful drugs that test his sexual prowess, his ability to fall in love, and his ability to be the cause of irreparable physical and mental harm to others. This story is disturbing and powerful.

• "The Semplica Girl Diaries": The ultimate status symbol for the suburban lawn and garden is something so outrageous and cruel it boggles the mind. But that's not how the characters in this startling story see it. The story is told in a father's diary entries, written in choppy, incomplete sentences—and it's brilliant.

• "Tenth of December": The title story is a haunting tale of two people—Don Eber, who is a scared and terminally ill middle-aged man who has decided to die by suicide, and Robin, a creative little boy with an inventive imagination who stops him. The story is told from the two characters' inner dialogue—the running thoughts of what each is thinking.

Collectively, the stories are a challenge to the reader: Who are YOU as a human being? How can YOU be a better human being?
Lone Women: A Novel
by Victor LaValle
Adventure, Historical Literary Fiction, and Horror Mixed Up in a Blender and Spit Out in 282 Pages (7/28/2023)
This is quite the genre-defying novel written by Victor LaValle, mixing traditional historical literary fiction with a demon/monster that transforms it into a farfetched horror story.

It's 1915. Adelaide Henry, a 31-year-old Black woman is living with her parents on their farm in California's Lucerne Valley, which is part of a community settled only by Black families. But Adelaide's family has a deep, dark secret—so deep, so dark, and so secret that they purposefully isolate themselves from the rest of the community. It is said that they are "queer folk." When Adelaide's parents are brutally murdered, she escapes the only life she has known by fleeing to the wilds of Montana where "lone women" are legally allowed to own land if they homestead and cultivate their assigned acreage within five years. Escaping with a small bag and a cumbersome trunk, Adelaide begins life anew in Big Sandy, Montana where she makes good and trustworthy friends but also incurs the wrath of vicious enemies. Secrets have a way of following us, and this one is no exception. When the secret is revealed, Adelaide's new life begins to implode.

This is such a mixed bag of a book! The writing and the historical fiction are excellent. It's a truly well-told, well-researched story that had me riveted from the beginning. But when it morphed into a demon/monster-horror story, it lost me because it was just too unbelievable, too farfetched, and too outrageous a plot twist.

This book is adventure, historical fiction, and horror all mixed up in a blender and spit out in 282 pages.
by Hernan Diaz
A Brilliant, Highly Imaginative Literary Puzzle About the Power of Money, Ambition, and Greed (7/26/2023)
When it comes to reading novels, who do you trust? I'm not sure I ever before thought about this question in such direct terms, but that's the underlying premise of this remarkable novel by Hernan Diaz, which won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Literature (shared with "Demon Copperhead," by Barbara Kingsolver) and longlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize.

Set in the 1920s and 1930s in New York City, this is the story of (fictional) tycoon Andrew Bevel, a man who accomplished the most amazing financial feat: He beat the market just before October 1929, turning his stocks and bonds into cash weeks before the crash that led to the Great Depression. He spent his entire adult life beating the market, figuring out nuances and tricks to always come out on top—nuances and tricks that no one else could copy. But he is a cold, uncaring man who avoids society, has no real friends, and who is only made more human when he marries Mildred. This is not only a novel about Andrew Bevel's life and work, but also it's a novel about money—the ways it serves, benefits, and corrupts.

The book, which is described as a literary puzzle, is written in four distinct parts:
1. "Bonds," a novel by Harold Vanner that not only ruthlessly tells the story of Bevel and his wife (using different names), alleging that Bevel's wife went insane and he had a role in her death, but also reveals the secrets of how Bevel accumulated his money.

2. "My Life," the rough first draft of an unfinished and unpublished memoir by Andrew Bevel that sets the record straight after Vanner's hateful, hurtful, and fabricated novel.

3. In "A Memoir, Remembered," Ida Partenza, Bevel's private secretary who was the ghost writer for his memoir, writes her own memoir of that experience 50 years later.

4. "Futures," by Mildred Bevel, Andrew's wife, who finally gets to tell her side of the story after being maligned by Vanner and sugar-coated as a quiet aesthete by her husband. In this diary that she kept in the last weeks of her life she makes a big confession…one that would horrify her husband if it were ever made public.

Which one of these is the truth? Which one should the reader trust? All four pieces and parts have one thing in common: They focus on the meaning of family, the untold power and pain of extraordinary wealth, the moral devastation of greed, and the ultimate price of unfettered ambition.

This masterfully written book is highly imaginative and creative with a multilayered plot that I found riveting. But it's so much more than that as it expounds ever so stealthily on all the things money can do—from benefiting those who need it most to corrupting one's very soul.

And when it comes to telling our stories and reading about others, who is telling the truth? Is the truth the persona revealed to the public? Or is the truth the story only you can tell about yourself?

Who would you trust to tell your story?
Now Is Not the Time to Panic: A Novel
by Kevin Wilson
A Fun, Albeit Odd Book. The Story Drags in the Middle and Sputters to a Disappointing Ending (7/25/2023)
This short, coming-of-age book by Kevin Wilson begins with an imaginative and snappy plot…but then just starts to draaaaaaag out until it finally sputters to a disappointing ending.

It's the summer of 1996. Frankie and Zeke are two 16-year-olds living in Coalfield, a rural, out-of-the-way town in Tennessee. Frankie lives with her mom and older (wild, uncontrollable, almost feral) triplet brothers; her dad left her mom after he got his secretary pregnant. Zeke, who is from Memphis, is living with his mom in his grandmother's house just for the summer after his dad had multiple affairs. Both are lonely and insecure, and neither Frankie nor Zeke has ever had a best friend, so when they find each other, life is better. And more fun. Frankie is a budding author, while Zeke is an artist.

Out of sheer boredom they jointly create a poster. Frankie writes the bizarre saying: "The edge is a shantytown filled with gold seekers. We are fugitives, and the law is skinny with hunger for us." Zeke creates an equally bizarre drawing to accompany it. They make hundreds of copies and post it all over town. Then they wait to see what happens. They tell no one it is their creation. But both are shocked and horrified at the viral reaction that causes a wild chain of events—some deadly—that can be traced back to the poster in what becomes known as the Coalfield Panic of 1996. Fast forward to 2017, and Frankie, now a successful novelist who is happily married with a daughter, gets a phone call from a reporter who has figured out that she is behind it all. Will this deep, dark secret that she and Zeke have kept for more than 20 years upend her perfect life?

There are several problems with this book. Most important, the story is told exclusively in Frankie's voice, and I think that is what makes it drag. The novel would have been greatly enriched if we could have heard something from Zeke's point of view and possibly something from the point of view of a Coalfield resident caught up in the "panic." In addition, I feel like author Kevin Wilson is trying to offer profound insight and philosophical contemplations about everything from teen love to family dysfunction to the power of art circa the 1990s, but much of that falls flat—just like the second half of the book.

This is a fun, albeit odd, little book for a quick summer read but even at a scant 250 pages the story seems to stall about midway through until it sputters to a most disappointing ending.
Good Night, Irene: A Novel
by Luis Alberto Urrea
Imaginative, Authentic, and Haunting: A Masterfully Told World War II Story Unlike Any Other (7/10/2023)
This is one of those novels that sneaks up on you, dear reader. The first half is good—actually, quite good—but not what I would call riveting. Or compelling. It's more interesting than engrossing. But hang on to your hats because the second half is unputdownable. The story sweeps into overdrive, and I just couldn't tear myself away.

Written by Luis Alberto Urrea, the novel is loosely based on his mother's experiences in World War II as a "Donut Dollie." His mom, known as Phyllis McLaughlin then and later as Phyllis de Urrea, served with the American Red Cross in Clubmobile Cheyenne where she and two other women made donuts and coffee for the soldiers serving on the frontlines. Phyllis (or "Phyl") is a very minor character in the book, making several cameo appearances.

This is the story: It's 1943. Irene Woodward is a 25-year-old New York City socialite engaged to the son of a wealthy and prominent political family. But he's far from ideal as he has this unforgivable habit of hitting her. She does the only thing she can think of to escape: Throws her engagement ring down a storm drain and hops a train to Washington, D.C. to join the American Red Cross as a Donut Dollie on the frontlines of the war. She is assigned to work with Dorothy Dunford, a tall, gangly Indiana farmgirl whose brother died in the Pacific Theater of the war, whose father died of throat cancer, and whose mother died of heartbreak. Dorothy is filled with hurt and rage and wants to extract revenge for her brother's death.

Irene and Dorothy are shipped to England first and then Europe on the Western Front. Their job in the Clubmobile Rapid City—a 14-foot GMC military truck—is to pass out coffee and donuts, but also to listen to the soldiers when they need to talk, joke with them, hug them, and give them a taste of home. This is the story of Irene and Dorothy's friendship, experiences, romances, heartbreak, and shocking secrets as they serve in General Patton's 3rd Army. Irene falls in love with a handsome American fighter pilot named Hans (and nicknamed Handyman) and dares to imagine a life together after the war. But first, they must all survive.

Urrea is an incredibly talented writer, and this is especially true in his vivid, bold, and wrenching descriptions of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the Battle of the Bulge, and the harrowing and horrific evils of war. The sounds, the sights, the smells—it's all here. Extraordinary…truly extraordinary.

And the ending? It's magnificent. I wept tears of sadness and joy.

This masterful and brilliant World War II story is told from a different point of view than usual about the little-known women who made donuts but doubled as heroines. It is an adventure story. It is a romance. But most of all, it is imaginative, authentic, and haunting.
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer
by James L. Swanson
A Nonfiction Book with a Tale So Riveting and Enthralling It Reads Like a Thriller Novel (7/3/2023)
Even though you probably know at least the basic facts about the beginning, the middle, and the end of this story about the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in cold blood during a play at Ford's Theater on April 14, 1865, you may not know the details. The gory, gruesome, intriguing details.

And it is in these prodigiously researched details culled from primary source materials that author James L. Swanson weaves a two-pronged tale of intrigue and betrayal that is as riveting as a well-written thriller or murder mystery.

Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth was a famous stage actor, and many people nationwide knew well his handsome face. How did he manage to elude authorities for so long—from April 14 to April 26, 1865—with only a horse while suffering excruciating pain from a broken leg? This is the enthralling story, told from his point of view as the hunted prey, but also from that of the often hapless hunters.

This book not only details the fascinating, frustratingly slow, and often fruitless search for Booth and his accomplices, but also gives an hour-by-hour account of the assassination and Lincoln's activities that day. The details are so vivid—the sights, the scents, the sounds—that I felt as if I were there on the scene, from the ill-fated box in Ford's Theater to the wilds of Maryland as Booth valiantly tried to escape. The writing and the research are truly exceptional.

Find out:
• The detailed planning of Lincoln's murder, including the conspirators' plot to kill Secretary of State William H. Seward and Vice President Andrew Johnson at the exact same time Lincoln was killed.

• How Booth viewed the entire event as a perverse kind of Shakespearean drama that he scripted and performed as the leading man.

• How Booth escaped wearing dress clothing and carrying no supplies while galloping through the streets of Washington, D.C. on a skittish horse and was never stopped.

• How Booth broke his leg, who fixed it, and how much pain he suffered.

• Where Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, hid for days on end and who tended to them. For years, this was a mystery—a lost week. Now we know what happened and where, and it's an astonishing story.

• How Booth's escape both incensed and thrilled the country, as well as the horrifying penalty for everyday citizens who said anything against Lincoln after his death.

• They may not have been able to find Booth and Herold for 12 days, but authorities rounded up, arrested, and threw into prison more than one hundred suspects, including Booth's brother Junius and his brother-in-law John Sleeper Clarke, as well as a strange Portuguese sea captain, Confederate sympathizers and agents, and anyone else who expressed disloyal sentiments.

• The surprising way Booth was finally found after 12 long days and the bizarre details of his death.

Bonus: After you read this book, treat yourself to the historical novel "Booth," by Karen Joy Fowler that brilliantly and creatively explores the personal life story of John Wilkes Booth.
Poverty, by America
by Matthew Desmond
A Stunning Book That Will Shock, Anger, and Quite Possibly Change You (6/20/2023)
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, this book will make you think. It might make you cry. It might make you angry. But I can almost guarantee that you will have some visceral reaction to it.

Approach it with an open mind, and it could very well change how you view poor people and—are you ready for this?—your own guilty role in keeping them poor.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, this book examines not only why there is so much poverty in the United States, but also how to eliminate it. It is filled with facts and footnotes, but it is also a bit preachy in parts—and that righteous preachiness is exactly what it will take for most of us to sit up and pay attention.

Think poverty isn't that big of a problem? Think again. The United States is the richest country in the world with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. Almost one in nine Americans (and one in eight children) live in poverty. And while Desmond details the surprising figures, that is only the beginning.

The real shocker of this book is the answer to two big questions: WHY is there so much poverty? WHO is to blame for it? The answer is me. And you. Are you scoffing at that? I would have, too, before I read this book. Desmond lays out clear, concise, and tough-to-argue-against assertions about how some lives are made small and poor so others may grow big and rich.

He also offers real and thoughtful solutions to poverty that are both innovative and obvious—and just might work. And even though his ideas will not raise the federal budget deficit, they will require new policies, renewed political movements, and a real effort from each of us, all of which will be difficult to enact in this polarized political environment in which we are living now.

Find out:
• How wealthier people benefit from poverty in myriad ways.

• How most big companies seek new ways to limit their obligations to workers. Exhibit A is the growth of gig jobs that come with no benefits and often come with expenses the worker must bear.

• Who receives the highest amount of money from the government in entitlements, tax breaks, and subsidies. (Spoiler: It's not the poor.)

• Why so many poor people do not take advantage of government programs to which they are fully entitled. Billions in dollars of allocated aid is never claimed.

• How giving choices to poor people is the antidote to exploitation.

• Specific things you can do to become a "poverty abolitionist." Warning: This isn't easy.

Read it if you are brave enough!
The Silent Patient
by Alex Michaelides
Read This Psychological Thriller Just for the Explosive Ending. It's THAT Good! (6/19/2023)
This novel is like an onion. Author Alex Michaelides very deliberately and very slowly peels away the layers, creating a psychological thriller that teases and tantalizes the reader right up to the explosive ending.

This is the story of Alicia Berenson, a talented artist living in London. She has been married for seven years to Gabriel, an in-demand fashion photographer. They have a seemingly happy marriage until one night several shots ring out inside their home. When the police arrive, they find Gabriel tied to a chair and dead after having been shot five times point-blank in the face. Alicia is just standing by the fireplace. The gun is on the floor and only her fingerprints are on it. Instead of being found guilty of the murder and imprisoned, Alicia is sent to the Grove, a secure psychiatric facility in Hampstead, a residential community in North London where she refuses to speak. Six years go by. The crime is largely forgotten. But Theo Faber, a criminal psychotherapist, remembers it. He maneuvers his way into employment at the Grove just so he can treat Alicia. His goal is to get her to speak again and find out what really happened on that fateful night. But Theo has personal problems of his own when he discovers that his beloved wife, Kathy, is cheating on him, a revelation that leaves him distraught and heartbroken. But his important and innovative work with Alicia must continue…

This is more than a murder mystery or a page-turning thriller, although it is both of those. It is also an intellectual thriller with pertinent and fascinating psychological facts offered throughout, as well as a literary thriller in that Alicia's case is loosely based on the tragedy "Alcestis" by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides.

Bonus: Do read the section at the end of the book titled "A Book Club Conversation with the Author," but DO NOT read it until you have finished the novel. It's filled with spoilers—and lots and lots and lots of information of the whys and hows and whats that Michaelides was thinking when he wrote this book. Fascinating!

Bottom line: Read this novel just for the ending. It's brilliant and may be one of the best endings ever!
Our Country Friends: A Novel
by Gary Shteyngart
This Is an Intellectual, Erudite Literary Novel: Compelling in Parts and a Real Slog in Others (6/6/2023)
This is an intellectual, erudite literary novel that is compelling in parts and a real slog in others.

Written by Gary Shteyngart, this is the story of Sasha Senderovsky and Masha Levin-Senderovsky, who invite five of their closest friends to come live with them and quarantine from the rest of the world on their country estate in upstate New York. It's the start of the Covid pandemic, and the world is in an upheaval with the many uncertainties, the tragic death toll, the overcrowded hospitals, and the grim insecurity of not knowing how this virus is transmitted.

The friends—Karen Cho, Vinod Mehta, Ed Kim, Dee Cameron, and a man who is only identified as The Actor—come to the estate, which the Russian hosts think of as their dacha. The Senderovskys, along with their eight-year-old daughter Natasha, who is a troubled and precocious child enamored by a Korean K-pop boy band, live in the main house. Each of the visitors lives in a very small bungalow surrounding the main house. They eat dinner together, take walks, have lots of sex, drink copious amounts of alcohol, share their emotional torments, and seem to thrive on troubled interactions. They resurrect old wounds, recall their younger days, and analyze what is most important to them in life. They love one another. They betray one another. The virus may be raging out of control somewhere out there, but on this country estate, temperaments and emotions are also raging out of control.

Organized as a play in four acts, but written as a novel, this is a philosophical and almost scholarly book with numerous references to classic Russian literature, especially Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" on which the novel is very loosely based.

The writing is sharp and witty, and sometimes quite funny, but too much of it drags on—especially the fever dream of an ending—for me to call it an enjoyable read.
When We Were Sisters: A Novel
by Fatimah Asghar
A Brilliant, but Devastating, Novel Written in Fierce Prose That Sings Like Lyrical Poetry (5/31/2023)
This is a brilliant novel written in fierce prose that sings like lyrical poetry. It is heartbreaking, shattering, and overwhelming.

Written by Fatimah Ashgar, this is the story of three Pakistani-American sisters, who are orphaned at a young age after their father is murdered and are sent to live with their only living relative, an uncle in New Jersey they have never before met. Divorced from his White wife who is living in a big suburban house with their three sons, the uncle only agrees to take the girls—Noreen, Aisha, and Kausar—for two reasons: Money and religion. He will not only get monthly government checks for their support, but also their father's money. In addition, Muslims believe that taking care of orphans is a straight ticket to paradise. While his sons attend private school, the orphan girls are mired in poverty. Clearly, the money isn't going to support them.

Noreen, who is mature beyond her years, is pretty and smart. Aisha is confident but also angry and hostile. Kausar is the baby, who is devoted to her sisters but also filled with an anger that is so hot she describes it as a scorpion stinger. Kausar is questioning her gender identity, adding a new layer of confusion and angst to an already confused and angst-filled life.

The story is told in the first person by Kausar, who is only five when her father is killed. (Kausar is 27 when the book ends.) She has no memory of her mother. She carries her abiding grief throughout her life, as it touches everything she does. The uncle houses the girls in a shoddy, filthy apartment and pretty much leaves them alone. They have no supervision and regularly run out of food and money. Except for school, they are told to stay inside. The sisters take care of each other, surviving—even while arguing, as sisters do—as best they can.

This is a story about the meaning of family and the heartbreaking quest for mother love. It is about the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood, of love and arguments, of staying together and leaving each other, of surviving neglect.

It is a thoughtful but emotionally devastating and inherently sad novel.
I Have Some Questions for You: A Novel
by Rebecca Makkai
A Complex Literary Mystery: A True-Crime Whodunit with a Brain That's Also a Page-Turner (5/26/2023)
This is a literary mystery—a true-crime whodunit with a brain—that is a gripping, masterful novel written by the award-winning author Rebecca Makkai.

It's 2018. Bodie Kane is 40, a film scholar, adjunct film professor at UCLA, and the co-host of a successful podcast on women in film titled Starlet Fever, when the Granby School, her New Hampshire prep school, invites her to teach two two-week classes in January—one on podcasting and the other on film studies. Leaving her two children with her soon-to-be ex-husband, she flies east from Los Angeles and returns to a place where she was once unhappy, conflicted, and an outcast.

Being on campus on these dark winter days dredges up the horrific memories of the murder on March 3, 1995 of student Thalia Keith in their senior year. Hours after the school production of "Camelot," Thalia was found floating in the pool with severe head injuries inconsistent with drowning. Bodie roomed with Thalia as a junior but was never close friends with the popular girl. Thalia's murder was blamed on 25-year-old Black athletic trainer Omar Evans, but Bodie is convinced the wrong man is in prison, serving a life term for something he didn't do. When one of the students in her seminar decides to do a podcast on Thalia's murder, Bodie is intrigued and assists in the background. What they discover is chilling, but too much of it is circumstantial. Still, is the real murderer walking free all these years later?

The form of the book is clever. It is written in the first person from Bodie's point of view but penned as a kind of letter to the man Bodie suspects to be the real murderer, whom she addresses throughout the novel as "you." That person is Denny Bloch, a favorite music teacher and the drama coach, whom Bodie believes was having an affair with Thalia—an affair that went drastically wrong and had the power to upend Bloch's marriage and career. Is Bodie right? What kind of nefarious coverup is still going on years later? Who else is being protected? And what does Bodie know about that tragic spring that she may not have told anyone else?

In addition to being a complex murder mystery that simmers with tension, this is a coming-of-age story as Bodie and her Granby classmates as adults recall those formative years. This is a story about memory—the good ones that make us happy and the dark ones we have relegated to a deep part of the past. It's also a story about the abuse so many women suffer at the hands of men who supposedly love them, making this a inspired entry in the literary #MeToo genre.

This novel excels on so many levels: an extraordinary multilayered plot, believable characters that pop off the page, and masterful writing.

Best of all, it's a page-turner, as any good murder mystery should be.
Victory City: A Novel
by Salman Rushdie
A Fantasy of Epic Proportions—A Fable, Fairy Tale, Allegory, and Parable—with a Formidable Warning (5/13/2023)
This book is fantasy—a completely made-up world where the main character possesses extraordinary magical abilities and lives to be 247 years old. And while fantasy is my least favorite genre, I am enamored of Salman Rushdie. After all, any author who has a fatwa placed on his head because of his books deserves to be read. And so I read Salman Rushdie, although this book, like most of his, is difficult.

This is more than a fantastical tale. It is a fable, a fairy tale, an allegory, a myth, a parable, and (most of all) a formidable warning against religious fanaticism. It's a lot of things. (Of course, it is. It's Salman Rushdie.) Suspend your sense of reality and get ready for a literary roller coaster ride.

It's early in the 14th century in India. Pampa Kampana is nine years old when her beloved mother followed the other women of their village into a massive, flaming pyre and burned herself to death. Bowled over in grief and totally alone in the world, the goddess Pampa spoke out of Pampa Kampana's mouth giving her magical gifts and the ability to age and never look old. She prophesized that Pampa Kampana would spend her (very long) life ensuring that this kind of mass suicide never happened again. After spending the next nine years in semi-seclusion with a religious fanatic who repeatedly raped her, she emerges when two brothers, Hukka and Bukka Sangama, find them. They are carrying bags of bean and okra seeds, and in Pampa Kampana's hands they become enchanted seeds that she uses to create a new city—Victory City or Bisnaga, as it is known. The rest of the novel is the story of this city, created from seeds with people Pampa Kampana also conjured up, whispering their memories and stories into their ears. She chooses Bisnaga's king, and she creates a life for herself where she freely loves and has sex with two men. This is a city where women are equal to men, no one religion is paramount, and the rulers are fair. Until it's not, and it all comes tumbling down.

Pampa Kampana may be magically powerful and nearly immortal, but her tragedy is that she will be left alive when everyone and everything she loves is gone. Ultimately, her fate is horrifying (as in gruesome and grisly). What began as an idyllic land conjured by magic ends in the kind of brutality only humans can visit on one another.

Highly imaginative with colorful characters and a convoluted, ever-changing plot that defies description, this is a remarkable and majestic novel about the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries with a powerful message for the 21st century.

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