Posted on Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 5:58pm
This account of the Massachusetts Bay Colony is respectful and sarcastic, reverent and flippant. Sarah Vowell has a deep interest not just in the order of events, but in the hows and whys behind them; she examines Governor John Winthrop’s journals in great detail, and her efforts to understand his and the other Puritans’ motivations are unflagging. However, she’s not above poking fun at some of their more ridiculous beliefs and petty squabbles. For those whose knowledge of this early era of U.S. history consists of hazy memories of grade-school Thanksgiving plays, The Wordy Shipmates is a great refresher course, and Vowell is an entertaining teacher who strives to connect past to present. The audiobook is also excellent, with Vowell narrating and an additional cast for voices such as John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson.
Posted on Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 7:06pm
The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World is a real-life detective story where the detective is hunting down not a criminal but the cause of a disease. The “detectives” in this page-turner are Reverend Henry Whitehead and Dr. John Snow, who together investigate the outbreak of cholera in London in 1854. The way that they solve the case using mapping techniques is fascinating; Snow proved that the spread of the disease was due to contaminated drinking water, not a "miasma" in the air.
Posted on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - 5:45pm
A retelling of Jane Eyre set in Scotland in the 1950s and ‘60s, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is at once familiar and fresh. At first the story keeps so close to the original it seems that only the names have been changed, but at the character grows, so does the story; by the time the author really begins to depart from Charlotte Bronte’s original, the reader - whether a devotee of Jane Eyre or not - is on board. Gemma is a bit more outspoken and willing to stand up for herself than Jane is, though like Jane, she's often in the unenviable position of being the person with the least power no matter where she goes - her uncle's house, her boarding school, her job as an au pair in the far-flung Orkney Islands of Scotland. Margot Livesey has done a wonderful job of honoring Jane Eyre while also creating something lively and new.
Posted on Tuesday, March 27, 2012 - 7:35pm
From the author of A Northern Light and The Tea Rose comes another sweeping work of historical fiction. Andi, a senior at a prestigious Brooklyn high school, is suffering in the aftermath of her brother’s death, her mother’s breakdown, and her father’s absence; music is the only thing that matters to her. When her father checks her mother into an institution and drags Andi to Paris with him over winter break, she is furious – but then she discovers the journal of Alexandrine, who lived during the French Revolution, and becomes caught up in her story. This entangling of past and present is common enough in historical novels, but Donnelly creates a wholly original, unpredictable work – a page-turner for teens and adults alike.
Posted on Monday, March 26, 2012 - 12:39pm
At a boarding school in 1982, four boys go down to the river one day. Three boys come back: the fourth, Thomas Brougton, is dead. Of the remaining three boys, one admits to drinking and is expelled, but the other two – the narrator, Alex, and his friend Glenn – lie, and are allowed to remain. Unlike the narrator of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Alex has in no way caused Thomas’ death, but he feels responsible nevertheless. Glenn, who may in fact be more culpable than Alex allows himself to consider, is afraid that their English teacher, Miss Dovecott (on whom Alex has a crush, and who encourages his writing), saw more that day at the river than she has admitted, and wants to oust her from the school. Alex is drawn into Glenn’s plan reluctantly, all the while trying to work through his own grief and guilt through his writing, both in his journal and in poems.
Posted on Tuesday, March 20, 2012 - 7:37pm
The Song of Achilles is a vivid retelling of the siege of Troy, told from the point of view of Achilles’ companion Patroclus – himself an exiled prince. Madeline Miller, a teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek, expertly enriches Homer’s Iliad by imagining a personal story behind the original events. Throughout, human characters interact with the gods, including Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, Thetis, who dislikes Patroclus. Nevertheless, Patroclus and Achilles become close friends and then lovers. Together they study with the centaur Chiron, and together they sail to war against Troy, despite the shadow of the prophecy that hangs over them. Fame, pride, love, grief, revenge – The Song of Achilles bursts with all of these, and can be enjoyed whether or not one has read the Iliad.
Posted on Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 8:45pm
Unique in structure, Ursula, Under begins with two-year-old Ursula Wong falling down an abandoned mine shaft in Michigan. While the story of her rescue occurs in the present, the story of her ancestors – her mother’s family is Finnish, and her father’s family is Chinese – is told in alternating chapters, starting as far back as the third century B.C. and continuing forward to the present day. Ursula, Under is a marvel of storytelling; readers will find it nearly impossible to resist empathizing with Ingrid Hill’s characters, diverse as they are.
Posted on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 - 6:11pm
Musician Patti Smith evokes the New York City of the late 1960s and ‘70s, when she was just beginning her long career. She writes about her friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the process of creating art and music, and other (now well-known) people she met, including Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol. Her writing is honest, vividly bringing to life the atmosphere of the time and place – you don’t have to be a fan of her music to enjoy the book.
Posted on Wednesday, March 7, 2012 - 10:11am
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank is a compilation of stories chronicling what it means to be Jewish from both the Orthodox and secular vantage points. The stories cover a wide range of experiences - from Israeli settlers to Holocaust victims to modern day secularists in southern Florida. Nathan Englander knows what he's talking about too. He grew up as a 4th generation modern Orthodox Jewish American on Long Island. His mother was stereotypically overprotective, he attended a religious day school, and he experienced anti-Semitism first-hand. His life experiences, including living in Israel as a young man, color his take on what it means to be Jewish.
Nathan Englander is an amazing storyteller and a master at the short story. Despite their brevity, you'll end each story feeling deeply connected with the characters and invested in their lives. These stories will entertain you, enrage you, and on occasion, take your breath away.
Interested in more? Check out the Fresh Air interview.
Posted on Monday, March 5, 2012 - 10:04am
“I imagined everything. I never thought it would happen,” writes Keith Richards in his memoir, Life. And the book is full of life and energy; it may take a few pages to get used to the informal, conversational style, but then the reading becomes effortless as you become absorbed in Richards’ story of his youth and his long life with the Rolling Stones. He writes about songwriting, working with Mick Jagger, touring and recording, and personal stories as well. Richards remembers far more than one might reasonably expect, and has a fresh, humorous, matter-of-fact tone throughout much of the book. At times poetic, at times funny, Life is an excellent read full of new material for Stones fans. The audiobook, narrated by Johnny Depp and Joe Hurley, is also excellent (it won the Audio Publishers Association’s Audiobook of the Year Award in 2011).
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