During the Byzantine Empire, the Greek district of Arcadia was famous for being a simple pastoral place where people, mostly herdsmen, lived at peace in nature. Later writers described it as a kind of Utopia. In Lauren Groff’s intriguing second novel, Arcadia becomes a place of both good and evil: a New York state commune where people share idealistic dreams but never fully translate them into reality.
Bit Stone, a tiny scrawling kid, is the first child born on the commune after visionaries and druggies complete a nomadic journey across the country from the west coast. This group decides to create an intentional community of shared work and dreams. And what an intelligent, enquiring boy this protagonist is.
Although the author was too young to experience the late 60s and early 70s, she does an amazing job of capturing the feel of the era (except for those cassettes which had not become popular yet.) Read more »
Rhoda Janzen has a gift for describing an ordinary life in ways that make it seem extraordinary. Humor is key as in this chapter opener, "How do you tell your PhD friends, far-flung across the world at their various academic postings, that you are attending church on purpose?" And it's not just any church that this feisty ex-Mennonite has joined, but a Pentecostal one.
Science has always appealed to me, but it’s hard to carve out enough time to keep abreast of all the new science books; that’s one reason I really enjoy the Best American Science Writing series. It’s always fun to discover trends and reconnect with intriguing topics in the field. One good aspect of contemporary science writing is that the authors really write well and can summarize complex subjects in easily understandable language. So what’s on science writing’s 2012 burner? Medicine, for one. The first four essays explore medical themes, among them: new heart vessels for babies born with weak hearts, and immune systems trained to kill cancer cells. As Denise Grady’s article about the latter reveals, after an experimental treatment one man suffering from leukemia lost over two pounds of cancer cells. And a year later is cancer was in total remission.
My favorite essay in this collection is Evan Ratliff’s “Taming the Wild.” It’s about a Russian research team that has been breeding foxes for over fifty years. Their foxes are now so tame that not only are they adopted for pets, but they share many puppylike traits such spotted coats, wagging tails, floppy ears and curly tails. A contrasting group of foxes has been bred for aggression and, believe me, you'd want to stay clear of their cages. Read more »
Every so often a novel comes along that takes your breath away. The Orphan Master's Sonremained unopened on my nightstand for a couple of weeks. But as soon as I dove into this literary thriller that also includes a love story I was hooked. It's set in North Korea, and amazingly, it’s written by an American.
Pak Jun Do grew up in an orphanage, yet he was no true orphan (as he repeats many times in these pages) since his father raised him, or more accurately, Jun raised himself near his father. Years earlier, his mother, a singer, had been whisked off to Pyongyang, the capital, where all the beautiful women of the provinces were sent, so he never got to know her. Jun Do's job was renaming each orphan upon his arrival--he named each boy after the 114 North Korean martyrs. Jun Do also assigned jobs, taking the worst for himself. But since even children in North Korea work Read more »
If you think for a moment that you had a hard childhood, read this memoir. Mrs. Winterson, as Jeanette calls her adopted mother throughout this account, was incredibly tough, and often cruel. Routinely, she locked her young child out all night, so that Jeanette sat frozen huddled on the front stoop until her dad came home from his overnight shift. Other punishments included being locked in the coal bin and forbidden food. Repeatedly, Mrs. W. told Jeanette that the devil sent her to the wrong crib when she chose Jeanette for adoption. Even food was a scarce commodity in the Winterson home. When Jeannette attended the grammar school for older kids, her mother never applied for the lunch program even though they were poor and ran out of food and gas (to cook it) each Thursday before payday.
Books were not allowed, and when Jeanette became a teenager and found a job, Heaven was a bookshop filled with thousands of books. She brought a few home every week and hid them in the only place her mother would not check—under the mattress. Alas, one night a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Loveslipped over the Read more »
Violence changes everything that happens after. This interesting novel covers family and friends in Chicago after a tragic event occurred at the end of a Wisconsin wedding. In 1983, a carload of friends and siblings leaves a wedding party in the middle of the night. Their car crashes into a ten-year old girl, killing her. Most of the 20-somethings were high that night from either drugs or alcohol. The driver, Olivia, gets a jail term; the rest suffer through a lifetime of guilt.
In Carry the OneAnshaw presented herself with a hard task: introducing five or six characters and following them over the course of 25 plus years: their relationships, their passions, their fears, their daily occupations. Luckily, she has mastered creating authentic and interesting characters. First there are the three siblings: Carmen, Alice and Nick. It’s Carmen’s wedding that they are celebrating that fateful day. Carmen is the political one: she runs a Read more »
Just after college I worked as a social worker at an agency for the blind in New Orleans. I remember one client particularly well. He was totally blind and deaf--an older fellow who spoke in a modified sign language and by spelling letters lightning-fast into your palm. Pat, who had worked there for years, was his favorite person to communicate with, but when she was gone, he'd come to me. Occasionally, while biking home from work, I'd see him from a distance crossing four lanes of traffic on St. Charles Ave.--usually against the light--his white cane held like a sword before him. He was always too far away for me to help, but my stomach would clench, and I'd hope that he'd make it across safely another time.
Reading Helen Keller in Lovegave me a fresh awareness of what blind people endure especially the deaf and blind. When I was young, The Miracle Worker played in movie theaters (with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft) and this movie painted Helen in saint-like tones. How refreshing and humanizing is this biographical novel. In her first novel, Rose Read more »
These days not many people are familiar with the work of Anne Morrow Lindbergh. During her life (she died in 2001) she was most famous for her relationship with her husband, pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly between New York and Paris, to cross the Atlantic solo. There was also much publicity and notoriety about her firstborn’s kidnapping and murder in 1932.
Against Wind & Tidebegins with Anne roiling with the news that she is pregnant for the seventh time. She’s in her forties and her whole spirit rebels against another pregnancy. Yet, unless she has a physical reason for an abortion, she does not feel that can be an option. Much of the book is about motherhood. Charles once asked Anne what she believed the most important relationship in life to be—he said between husband and wife--but Anne said the relationship between mother and child was paramount. However, even as a rich woman who could afford a housekeeper and a cook, she often felt divided between parenting demands and her own writing. Yet what a wonderful mother her letters show her to be. She relates to each child differently, extremely aware of his or her strengths and weaknesses, and always encouraging each to be his or her best.
Anne was an amazingly gifted writer and though she wrote extended book-length essays and fiction, she excelled at detailing the personal struggles and explorations of an individual. She did that throughout the 20th century. Anne’s writing is deeply contemplative. She does not skim the surface of life but burrows into it both seeking and answering some of the hard questions. Read more »
This terrifying book is based on the diary of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in a brutal labor camp in North Korea. In Escape from Camp 14journalist and writer Blaine Harden tells this young man’s story—the only person born in a labor camp to ever escape from one.
The writing in this book is mesmerizing, but warning: this is not a book you will want to read while enjoying a cool glass of lemonade or munching an apple. It’s horrifying on so many levels. The first being that camps such as these still exist where people are forced to do slave labor even as children, where torture is routine, and where almost everyone including the guards are starving. These camps have existed far longer than Soviet gulags but they are less well-known. Read more »
If you’ve been following the lovely No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries set in Botswana, you’ll be familiar with the detective guidebook that Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi have used for years as their guidebook. Whenever they are flummoxed in an investigation or when a particularly conniving criminal seems to be getting away with breaking the law and harming innocent people, they have always searched The Principles of Private Detection for advice on how to crack a trying case.
And now in the latest of the series, TheLimpopo Academy of Private Detection, guess who has just arrived in town? None other than Clovis Andersen himself, the esteemed American author of this detective manual. When Mma Ramotswe, the head of the No. 1 Detective Agency, asks her husband garage mechanic, J.L.B. Matekoni, to guess what famous person has come to town, he immediately (to Mma’s great disappointment) guesses Clorox Andersen. Despite the misnaming, how did he know?
Clovis, recently widowed, has been invited to Africa by a librarian who probably has a romantic interest in him. And when he drops by the detective agency both women sleuths are quite star struck. Read more »