Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gifting the Voracious Reader

Readers are often happy to receive a bookstore gift certificate, but if you'd like to choose the genuine item as a Hanukkah or Christmas gift, these are some newer possibilities.
Die-hard Harry Potter fans are probably alone in continuing to read everything J.K. Rowlings publishes (two e-books of short stories about Hogwarts and a hardcover "rehearsal script" for the first Potter play, all during 2016). But if your older fan read the first seven, then number eight may be the right gift. Titled "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," this play takes readers into the grown-up world of Harry Potter, father of three. I haven't read it, and don't know what to expect, but hey—it's out there, and shouldn't be ignored.
Readers with a social change interest may want to delve into a book I've mentioned before, "Hillbilly Elegy." It's a memoir from former Marine and Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance about his impoverished upbringing in Appalachia, outlining the struggles of a white, working class family. An engaging history, this memoir has humor, but also a deeply researched portrayal of what it's like to be a member of the disappearing "hillbilly" community.
Jodi Picoult has a facility for choosing hot news issues and turning them into fiction. She's right on track this year with "Small Great Things," the story of an African American woman who is rejected as a hospital nurse for their baby by a white supremacist couple. But that, of course, becomes complicated during a medical crisis, leading to troubles for the nurse's whole family. Picoult is a strong writer, a born storyteller, and a dedicated researcher. Get it for book club members and people with an interest in Picoult's writing.
Millions of readers love Jane Austen. The Austen Project asked six authors to write a new take on one of her famous novels: "Sense and Sensibility," "Northanger Abbey," Pride and Prejudice," "Emma, "Persusasion" and "Mansfield Park." They are being published as finished—number four, released this year, promises to be a very enjoyable read. "Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice" by Curtis Sittenfeld, centers around the famous Bennet family and Mr. Darcy, transformed into a modern era.
Along the same "project" vein, a series of fictional retellings of Shakespeare this year featured "Shylock is My Name" by Howard Jacobson. His  version of "The Merchant of Venice" includes Nazi football players, in a dramatic reflection on the grasping power of anti-Semitism. Vital for the times we're in.
On my would-be Christmas list is Colson Whitehead's "Underground Railroad." Whitehead was keynote speaker at this year's Boston Book Festival. For this book alone, he's won more than a dozen top awards—an impressive accomplishment. In the book, a young couple attempts to escape slavery aboard the Underground Railroad—this time a real, functioning transportation system. But it's far from a fantasy, as readers will discover. There's adventure and high tension, with richly drawn characters.
Epic series fans are likely to enjoy a newly released, photo-infused book, "The Making of Outlander—a good gift for fans of the series. Though the lush Diane Garabaldon series has a ways to go in production segments, all the books are available, starting with "Outlander."
Those who have loved either version of the series "Poldark" may enjoy Robin Ellis's "Making Poldark," a newly released, updated version of his memoir about the original 1970s series (Author Winston Graham hated the slutty Demelza portrayal in the first). Gifts of an entire series are always fantastic to receive, if a little pricey to provide.
Thriller fans may enjoy a book that mesmerized Sue Grafton: Sheri Lapena's "The Couple Next Door." With a dozen unexpected plot twists and taut writing, Lapena's mystery—surrounding a couple who leave their baby at home while attending a party next door—is called riveting. Writers like Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Lisa Gardner are recommending it.
Finally, for lovers of symphonic music, comes "Absolutely on Music," released in November. It's a special book of conversations between author Haruki Mirakami and his friend, former Boston Symphony conductor Seiji Ozawa. From recorded conversations, their discussions of music and writing cover everything between the adored classicists to more contemporary greats, like Bernstein and Glenn Gould. Look to this for insights into the broader world of music.

Trying Timesin Literature, before Trumpian Politics

OK. There are lightning rods up our spines this month, in the wake of an election no one expected to turn out as it did. Some fear the future at this point, while others are sanguine about the result. But questions about race, poverty, immigration and human rights have been raised, and this is a good time to seek perspective through the experiences of other people, other places and times. It's also a good practice to keep up with what current historians and experts say. But in the meantime, book groups may find much to consider in this list of books.
There have been equally trying times, terrifying experiences, and countless books reflect them. I can only refer here to a few—some of it fiction but mostly nonfiction books spanning the world. This is a good time to understand others' struggles, and no time at all to live in a vacuum:
— "A Fine Balance" is Rohinton Mistry's novel about a woman cast out of her brother's home for refusing to buckle to family and societal expectations, during a time that Indira Gandhi is ruthlessly cleansing India of its own "deplorables," the untouchables. An amazing glimpse into a world of rules and losses, and unfathomable courage. Fiction.
— "First They Killed My Father" is a heartbreaking story, told a few decades later by Houng Ung, separated from her family in Cambodia during 1975. In Pol Pot's ruthless Khmer Rouge slaughter, Ung, a child of five, searches without success for her brothers and sisters, only to be placed in a work camp. She persists, she lives. And in the end, she finds life and family again. Memoir.
—"Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight" is a surprise. Alexandra Fuller is the daughter of a white family in Rhodesia during the Civil War. She combines the winsome details of a child's life against harrowing changes to the world she inhabits, as they cling to their African home amid the terror of war. Memoir.
—"Lakota Woman," Mary Crow Dog (aka Brave Bird) married Leonard Crow Dog, a leader in the American Indian Movement. She died young—58. She wrote of the cruelly impoverished life she led on a Sioux reservation, and of her education in a school which forbade Sioux language and force-taught Christianity. She continues her story into the time of the second Wounded Knee conflict, in an autobiography made into a profound documentary on PBS. Memoir.
—"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, one of our times' most striking voices. Her words feel more pertinent this month: "We may encounter many defeats but we must not be defeated. That in fact it may be necessary to encounter defeats so we can know who we are what can we overcome, what makes us stumble and fall and somehow miraculously rise, and go on." Memoir, poem.
—"Love Medicine" by Louise Erdrich is the first of her many novels about contemporary Native American life, in all of its aspects—humor, loss and violence, family. It was, for me, an open-eyed look into the soul of the Native experience in America and an entry into the work of an amazing American writer. Novel.
— "Men We Reaped" by Jessamyn Ward ("Salvage the Bones") is a stark recollection of growing up in Mississippi and watching five young men she knew and loved as they encounter violence, drugs, hopelessness and, ultimately, death. Not the easiest subject, but certainly an important one, and beautifully written. Memoir.

Monday, November 14, 2016

American, through an immigrant's eyes: Okey Ndibe

Okey Ndibe, who participated in Clark University's Book and Author Dinner in April 2014, has released a memoir, "Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts and the Making of a Nigerian American." The title may give you an indication of Dr. Ndibe's wit—one of the traits that helps immigrants adjust to this country successfully.

Author of the novels "Foreign Gods, Inc." and "Arrows of Rain," he is co-editor of "Writers Writing on Conflicts, and Wars in Africa."

His latest work joins previous publications in receiving critical praise.
"Okey Ndibe brings a keen eye to his delightful and insightful new memoir. His vision is clearer than 20-20. A writer who can arrive in America, be falsely accused of bank robbery in just 10 days, and still manage to keep his sense of humor, is a man with a story to tell. He writes it beautifully," said Sally Denton, author of "The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World."

"Powerful insights into the trials, prospects, and triumphs of being an immigrant in America. In a style that is impressively skillful, Ndibe masterfully conveys the odysseys of his early life in Nigeria as well as his immigrant life in the US," wrote the publication Sahara Reporters.

A former professor at Brown University, Providence, and Trinity College, Hartford, Ndibe lives with his family in West Hartford. He co-founded the journal African Commentary with noted author Chinua Achebe ("Things Fall Apart"). He writes with insight and wit about early struggles in Nigeria and his life as an immigrant. In fact, his essay, "My African Eyes," won him widespread attention for its detailed recollection of his childhood within Biafra's war, from 1967 to 1970.

This memoir, published Oct. 11, tells of Ndibe's move from Nigeria to the United States. He recounts stories of his relationships with Achebe and other writers, compares Nigerian and American etiquette and politics, and takes an insightful look at American stereotypes about Africa (as well as the reverse).

Roy Blount Jr. onboard:

Road trip: The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford will host humorist-author Roy Blount Jr. at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 17, in the museum's Lincoln Financial Auditorium, West Hartford. Blount will read from his latest, "Save Room for Pie," a collection of poetry, songs, essays and "news" about food. Count on it being funny.
A panelist on NPR's lively "Wait, Wait ... Don't Tell Me," Blount is well known to radio fans. But he's also well known in the literary world and even serves as a consultant to at least one prominent dictionary publisher. He's a wit and a word geek: he's lampooned the Pittsburgh Steelers and written about the Marx  Brothers' war satire. He's even written about our common English language in "Alphabet Juice" and "Alphabetter Juice."
Area book groups:
Local author Jim MacIntosh talks about his new thriller, "Witness the Trees," at the 6:30 p.m., Nov. 15, meeting of Leicester Library Book Club. The book concerns a murder among friends camping in the New Hampshire woods.
Members of the book club at Heywood Library, Gardner, have slated "I Am Malala" for their 4:30 p.m., Nov. 30 meeting.
On Tuesday, Nov. 29, members of the Bannister Book Group in Brookfield will meet at 7 p.m. to discuss Kathleen Grissom's "The Kitchen House," the story of an Irish child working alongside slaves on a tobacco plantation.
In North Brookfield, Haston Library Book Group meets at 7 p.m., Dec. 6, to discuss the November/December selection, "Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling).
Also on Nov 29, members of the Thayer Memorial Library Book Group will meet to discuss "After the Falls," a memoir by Catherine Gildener, at 6:30 p.m. in Lancaster.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Marcello, Sherbrooke reading

Richard Marcello, whose latest novel is being released Oct. 25, will read from that book on Oct. 28 at "Upstairs at The General,"—a new venue for authors and readers in Harvard's General Store, 1 Still River. Katherine A. Sherbrooke, author of "Finding Home" and "Fill the Sky," will also read.
This is the third gathering at The General; sessions feature new and experienced authors in a great setting, with food and beverages available. Marcello is the author of "The Color of Home," "The Big Wide Calm" and "The Beauty of the Fall." He teaches a 10-week fiction and memoir writing course through Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative in Lancaster.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Another topic for book groups to explore: Poverty

The "haves" may say, why give them benefits, higher pay, health care? They buy drugs and steal from us. They abuse the system. Liberals throw money at them, with no improvement.
Both sides disagree on the best approach to poverty, but not on its scope. Preserving economic inequality through callous ignorance creates cultural blindness, which in turn allows those who "have" to ignore those in need.

Plenty of people on every economic level, however, seek to end the cycle of poverty and hunger. Futurists and cultural anthropologists write abundantly and knowledgeably about inequality. Their books may give rise to heated discussion in your group, even stimulate some form of action.
Here are a few popular books suited for general readership.

"Nickel and Dimed," Barbara Ehrenreich—This 2001 account of an "experiment"—in which a woman works alongside others earning minimum wage in three U.S. cities—has become a college-level requirement. It shares the strained lives of people Ehrenreich met. The author never loses sight of her task or her luck: she gets to return to her life and write a book after leaving the struggling class. It's a readable account of how people live when they can't make ends meet.

"$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America"— Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer combined research and economic calculation to expose sharply increased levels of poverty. Many Americans live on the equivalent of $2 a day, skipping meals and other basic needs while resorting to various unconventional ways (like donating blood) to obtain what they need.

"White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America"—Nancy Isenberg questions whether life in the U.S. really is as "equal" as people may like to think. In "White Trash," published in June, Isenberg evaluates economic, political, cultural and scientific arguments to reveal how much the idea of class plays into our thinking. (One might comprehend why those with little but class history cling to bellicose braggarts who promise a huge future.)

"Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City"—This much-praised work by Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond portrays real poverty—from eviction to homeless shelter. It's likely to have a deep impact on the way we look at deprivation in this country. Set in Milwaukee—a city now burning with rage—it relates the stories of eight families in poor neighborhoods. To understand, we need to feel, and Desmond's work provides that. It's desperation time. From the New York Times: “Written with the vividness of a novel, (Evicted) offers a dark mirror of middle-class America’s obsession with real estate ... where evictions have become just another part of an often lucrative business model.”
"Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America"—C. Nicole Mason's memoir brings readers into the heart of poverty, as a girl born to a 16-year-old single mother learns to navigate between crazy home life and the school where she finds herself. She struggles to find a better future. Mason reveals the reasons poverty is nearly impossible to escape and rejects the notion that the poor don't help themselves enough.

"Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis"—J.D. Vance's book provides a paint-by-numbers look at what's gone wrong with America's middle class to create such dysfunction and confusion. His Appalachian family should never have produced a Yale Law School scholar, but it did. An eye-opening look at the legacy of abuse and addiction, told with love and humor.

"The New Trail of Tears: How Washington is Destroying American Indians"—Naomi Schaefer Riley wrote this newly published account of poverty, suicide and violence on American reservations. Riley talks about the federal policies behind Indian poverty, which have created a third-world reality for them in America.

Ann Connery Frantz writes about books, authors and book groups for the Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette, and is a co-founder of the Seven Bridge Writers Collaborative, offering writing classes, workshops, critique and writing groups, and author presentations.