By the Book @ Rogers Memorial Library

Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld

eligibleEveryone knows the timeless tale of Jane Austen’s most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice. There’s plucky Liz Bennet, who writes for a socially conscious women’s magazine; her beautiful older sister, Jane, who teaches yoga and is now giving IVF a shot in the hopes of having a child after having hit forty without marrying. Then there’s Mary, who barely leaves her room and is the proud recipient of not one, not two, but three online Master’s degrees! And who could forget Kitty and Lydia with their dopey, mindless devotion to CrossFit and the Paleo diet, along with their inability to look up from their smart phones for more than 30 seconds. Mr. Bennet can of course be found in his study, where he studiously ignores the management of his inherited estate, which has been severely depleted over the years by Mrs. Bennet, who would probably make a great subject for the show, Hoarders.

This doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe it sounds like an absolutely terrible attempt at making the brilliant Pride and Prejudice accessible to a modern readership. Why must authors try all these stupid gimmicks instead of writing their own original novels? There’s absolutely no way to maintain the lovely humor of the original novel in our world with all of its modern technology and independent women, right?

Trust me — this is exactly what I was thinking. I was determined to keep Ms. Austen’s tour de force on its pristine pedestal, where Darcy and Elizabeth (along with their frock coats and empire waistline gowns and fortnights and passionate love letters) could live on undisturbed.

But I hiked up my big girl librarian pants and fell immediately in love with the trials and tribulations of the Bennet family all over again. Curtis Sittenfeld‘s retelling of this classic has lost none of the charm and vivacity that marked Austen’s original creation. Yes, the language has certainly changed, but the witty banter bubbles through the narrative like fizzy champagne. Now Bingley is a former contestant on a Bachelor type reality show that his sister talked him into doing; Darcy is an asocial neurosurgeon; and Lizzy’s a feminist dating a married man.  Yet, if Jane Austen had lived today, I think this is the book she would have written.

What Sittenfeld does so well is to simply let Austen’s characters exist in our world. She’s not trying to shoehorn cutesy reasons for everyone to do the exact same things they do and say in the original — nothing about them has fundamentally changed from their regency counterparts, so she doesn’t need to. The Bennets do and say the things readers would expect them to say. Such an expertly handled retelling also lets readers explore the deep and sometimes crippling love that can exist within a family. We admire Lizzy’s unfailing devotion to her parents and siblings, while we recognize that this very devotion has kept her treading water in her own life. She knows, on some level, that her constant micromanaging of all her family’s issues only enables their poor behavior (she pays Mary and Kitty’s rent and takes on the herculean task of selling the Bennet family home) but she’s also deeply reluctant to stop, because that would mean looking for emotional fulfillment from strangers.

But it’s the deft handling of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship (and by extension Jane and Bingley’s) that really shines here. As the fulcrum on which the original novel turns, any modern retelling will rise or fall on the depiction of this duo. Clearly Elizabeth and Darcy’s tempestuous courtship can’t be based on the outdated circumstances of the original story. But rather than handicap them by just setting Lizzy and Darcy loose in 2016, Sittenfeld makes their loneliness and longing for connection all the more palpable by initially basing their relationship on nothing but physical attraction. It’s not until they begin to recognize in each other a person who views the world through the same sardonic and cynical lens, that the couple begins to develop the potential for closeness and understanding that transcends the physical stuff.  It’s a relationship that’s wonderfully old-fashioned and modern at the same time.

This book was a genuine delight from start to finish.  Sittenfeld has populated Eligible with wonderful characters who get into all the same scrapes and ridiculous situations you loved in its classic counterpart…and who sling witty barbs at each other with a gusto that would have made Ms. Austen very proud.


The Ex, by Alafair Burke

JacketIt’s a quiet weekend morning on the New York waterfront when shots ring out…and suddenly three people are dead. One of the victims is Malcolm Neeley, a multimillionaire and the father of the notorious Penn Station shooter, who massacred a group of commuters three years earlier. Jack Harris — the still grieving widower of one of the victims who’d just lost a civil suit against Neeley — becomes the prime suspect. Desperate not to lose her only remaining parent, Jack’s daughter, Buckley, calls his former fiancée, defense lawyer Olivia Randall, and begs her to take Jack’s case.

Olivia still carries an immense amount of guilt for the way she ended her relationship with Jack years ago. The Jack she knows would never have committed such a terrible crime. Against the warnings of her boss and even the prosecutor’s office (who assure her that they have a slam dunk case), Olivia agrees to defend Jack.

The Ex, by Alafair Burke, is a fast paced, white-knuckler courtroom drama, written by an author who has clearly done her homework. Burke never gets bogged down in legalese, and her tight storytelling doesn’t scrimp on the details. Anyone even remotely familiar with this type of mystery will know that there’s something rotten in the state of Denmark from page one, but getting to the who, what, where, when and most importantly, the why, makes for a tense, roller coaster of a ride.

Burke asks the typical questions readers tend to see in legal thrillers, but her answers feel more authentic than your average suspense novel. Yes, it’s true we never really know those closest to us, and that people wear masks to project the image they want the world to remember, but Burke’s characters have realistic motivations for the things they do. I could picture myself ending a relationship the way Olivia did, bad choices and all. I understood Jack’s grief for his wife, even while he questioned the worth of his marriage. People act like this.

High octane arguments between Olivia and her combatants in the DA’s office, along with sharp and witty exchanges between her team of investigators and assistants as they work on Jack’s defense all serve to heighten the tension as the story unfolds. But the dialogue never descends into the snarky platitudes that I think less talented authors in this genre sometimes succumb. In much the same way you would expect a clever lawyer to weigh the words of a legal brief, Burke clearly understands the importance of balancing great storytelling with solid writing.

Burke also possesses an expert’s handle on social media and the way people actually live. Buckley, the teenage daughter, makes the perfect conduit for explaining anything techy, but none of the characters are the stereotypical technophobe characters who grump, “oh I still have a flip phone.” and go cross-eyed as soon as someone mentions Instant Messaging. Burke cleverly invents a social networking site that’s part Reddit and part Facebook that feels like something people might actually want to be a part of. It’s a clever and well-executed device that I’ve never seen handled more adroitly.

This surprisingly insightful thrill ride was a great pleasure to read. Although I may have seen the end coming, Burke’s excellent writing and relatable, sympathetic characters meant that I didn’t mind this fact one bit.


Rosalie Lightning, by Tom Hart

rosalie lightning

Until you experience the loss of a child, there is no way to conceptualize what this might feel like. I think that’s because grief is the one emotion that is truly the most personal and thus, subjective. The way people experience and express loss strikes me as something as unique to the individual as a fingerprint.

Tom Hart, the author of this lovely, bleak graphic memoir, lost his beloved daughter, Rosalie, just before she turned two-years-old. One day he was reveling in the bright chaos only a toddler can create, and the next day, she was gone.

Hart and his wife spend the majority of the book in a gloom-shrouded quest for answers. Why was Rosalie taken? How long will they feel the pain of her passing? What do they do now? The fact that they know they will never find any answers makes their story all the more gut-wrenching for the reader. The couple travels to a grief retreat and spends weeks staying with friends around the country, but they do this all in a haze, like zombies going through the motions of a half-remembered life. Everything becomes a reminder of what they’ve lost, or a portent they should have recognized that might have saved her.

A great deal of the story’s impact derives from Hart’s focus on the little things. The frustration of trying to sell their apartment becomes a major arc in the narrative, and ends up being a powerful symbol of the helplessness and loss of control that they’re already experiencing. Hart notes what would otherwise be inconsequential moments: the first time he touches a child after Rosalie’s dies, the first night he doesn’t sleep with her picture under his pillow, the first book he brings himself to read. He writes about the dreams that he and his wife — and even their friends — have about Rosalie.

Hart’s art work is as bleak as the story he’s sharing; his grief is black and white and full of people with empty eyes standing in perpetual, inky shadows. Hart and his wife seem to almost disappear at times into dark, scratched-out portraits so distorted that it’s occasionally hard to discern their features. Rosalie is the only character ever depicted in a joyful way. Hart renders her as a plump, lively sprite, surrounded by light the way she will doubtless remain in the memories of her parents. There’s an unfinished feel to many of the scenes, like they’re being recalled from a dream, or as if they’re meant to convey the fading of memories over time.

This is not one of those books that you review and say “it made me want to hold my children and never let them go.” It almost feels like it would be insulting to say that when writing about such a raw and uncensored portrait of pain. Yet, the reader isn’t left with any sense of fear of losing a child, because the book isn’t about Rosalie’s death — it’s about surviving the pain left from her passing. Hart says himself that the worst thing that could possibly happen to him has already happened. It doesn’t get any worse for him or the reader, because it can’t.

This is probably one of the most profound books I’ve read in a long time. Hart has taken grief and turned it into poetry and goofy cartoons of a bubbly child with bright smiles who loved “My Neighbor Totoro,” watching turtles, and doing watercolors.

Can there be a stronger testament to how much this man loved his child, than sharing the pain her loss caused? Because that’s what this book is really about. This book represents the indescribable love of a parent for his child, seen through the sorrow of her death’s aftermath. The beautiful and brave Rosalie Lighting might just be the saddest love story I’ve ever read.


The Lake House, by Kate Morton

JacketSometimes everything and the kitchen sink is just fine. Kate Morton throws practically every possible element of classic women’s fiction into her latest novel, The Lake House, and the result is a melancholy and bittersweet saga that spans generations and offers equal parts epic romance, harrowing whodunnit and hard-nosed police procedural. That’s an impressive number of genres for one book, folks.

At its center, The Lake House revolves around three women. Eleanor, a devoted wife and mother to a loving husband and a gaggle of free spirited children, works to protect and rear her family in post World War I England. Then there is Alice, the wildest and in many ways most brilliant of Eleanor’s children: she navigates the tragedy and heartbreak of adolescence and becomes a world-renowned mystery novelist. Lastly we have DC Sadie Sparrow, a top-notch metro detective who’s left a scandal behind in London to ride out the storm with her grandfather in Cornwall.

All three women have secrets they are convinced would destroy their loved ones and all three women are — as is often the case in novels like these — connected by more than just their inclination to play things close to the vest. When Eleanor’s only son, Theo, goes missing in the midst of a family celebration, his disappearance sets off a chain of events that spans years and will eventually draw both Alice and Sadie together to solve the mystery, once and for all.

What distinguishes this novel for me was Morton’s outstanding ability to wring honest emotion and believable actions from her characters. We come to know these women and the people they love intimately. The things they do, even the awful things, never feel forced or out of character. It’s true that there are plenty of the sort of “Lifetime” movie clandestine meetings and characters misconstruing things they witness, but the book never loses its essential thread of truth. I can suspend a lot of disbelief when I feel like I’m reading about real people.  A need to protect the ones they love drives each these women. For Eleanor this means hiding a terrible, tragic secret from her family. Alice chooses to close herself off from the world and live within her books. Sadie gives up the one thing she loves and devotes her life to saving others.

Kate Morton has a great gift for setting the scene. She describes the titular lake house in wonderful, vivid detail. The house becomes a character in its own right as it moves through the years, from its heyday as a beautiful and beloved home, to a sad, dust-cloaked relic later frozen in time and abandoned. Morton’s Cornwall countryside becomes a living, breathing thing, juxtaposed with a colder, darker London that almost seems to consume her characters.

Readers will find plenty of mystery and romance here to keep any fan of women’s fiction and historical mysteries happy.  Kate Morton’s excellent turn of phrase will satisfy those who prefer more substance with their soap operas. No plot lines are left dangling in the breeze and the resolutions, when they come, will leave you with that satisfied and warm feeling that follows any well-told tale.



The Gap of Time, by Jeanette Winterson


And the story fell out, stone by stone, shining and held, the way time is held in a diamond.

In The Gap of Time, a rich and jealous husband suspects his pregnant wife has been cheating on him with his best friend. When the baby girl is born, he banishes her and leaves his wife.  His daughter, adopted and raised by a poor family, is later reunited with her biological family. Sound familiar?

Jeanette Winterson’s latest novel is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare Project, a literary mashup that combines Shakespeare’s timeless characters and plots with some of today’s most acclaimed authors.  The Gap of Time is a retelling of A Winter’s Tale — soon to be published is Margaret Atwood’s The Tempest, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, and Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth, among others.

In Winterson’s version, the King becomes Leo, a banker in a Hugo Boss suit who gets laid off during the financial crisis of 2008.  Leo proudly declares that he is “the 1%”.  His best friend, Xeno, designs video games.  His wife, MiMi, is a French ballerina.  Their family drama plays out in modern day London.  After convincing himself that Xeno and MiMi are having an affair (and that MiMi’s unborn child must belong to Xeno), Leo installs security cameras to spy on them. After the baby girl is born, Leo confronts his wife, then hires a landscaper to whisk the baby to the American city of New Bohemia.

Things do not go as planned, of course — there is a car accident, a murder, and a baby girl left in a hospital BabyHatch (a small, warm drawer on the outside of the hospital to drop unwanted babies in).  Shep, a stranger still grieving the death of his wife, and his young son witnesses these events.  Seeing a man dead in the street and assuming he is the father, Shep takes the baby girl and raises her as his own.

Shakespeare scholars will enjoy seeing these classic tales redesigned with a fresh coat of modern paint.  Those who have never read the play will find a short overview at the beginning of the novel, but fear not — The Gap of Time can be read on its own without knowledge of its 400-year-old literary ancestor.  Jeanette Winterson, the author of ten novels, as well as her bestselling memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normalwrites in her own distinct style: she is not trying to rewrite Shakespeare, but apply his genius to today’s world.  Readers who are fans of Winterson’s works, Shakespeare’s plays, or novels with themes of adoption and family will want to read The Gap of Time, and watch for other books in this new series.


The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, by Matthew Dicks

JacketCaroline Jacobs has a pretty good life. A husband she loves, a teenage daughter who’s a handful, though clearly smart and relatively well-adjusted, a nice house, and a rewarding hobby. She never complains, is always ready to lend a helping hand, and is the first person to say yes when anyone needs her.

So why exactly does she suddenly decide to tell the PTO president to “F#@%K Off” at their monthly meeting?

It turns out that something has been festering for a long time in Caroline Jacobs’ soul…and she can no longer keep it contained.

One long ago day in her childhood, her best friend, her only friend, took everything away from her with one heartless act. Caroline becomes convinced that if she can finally stand up to the girl that she hasn’t seen in twenty years, she’ll be able to regain control of a life that’s been ruled ever since by everyone but herself. So with a reluctant daughter in tow, Caroline returns to her hometown, only to discover what most of us already know: you can never go home again.

Her best-frenemy behaves like they just lost touch, her mother’s dating a blind guy named Spartacus, her husband has no idea where she is, and there’s a guy having a funeral for his cockatoo in her mom’s backyard, and look — her daughter is officiating the service!

Matthew Dicks‘ delightful novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, is hilarious and full of the kind of wisdom that I wish had been more readily available when the girls didn’t want to sit with me at lunch back in grade school.

Yes, this is a novel about a woman regaining her self esteem after being bullied. But she’s also confronting an all-around soul-crushing childhood, filled with much more heartache than the one moment that she’s chosen to focus on. Caroline has to face more demons from her past before she’s able to look to the future with fresh, wide-open eyes, unclouded by a lifetime of guilt and resentment. This is also a novel about the way we all see ourselves in relation to the people around us — how we lose sight of the impact we have on our loved ones, and how much tiny moments that we consider to be nothing special can impact someone else.

Dicks manages to convey some hard truths with a soft hand. Caroline gets the confrontation that she always thought she wanted, but it doesn’t solve all her problems. Dicks reminds readers that we are shaped by our relationships and experiences, but we aren’t defined by them. Caroline must take responsibility for who she is and be her own catalyst for changing what she doesn’t like. If she wants a more equal relationship with her husband, she has to make it happen. If she wants her daughter to open up to her, Caroline has to be willing to meet her halfway.

I finished this charming tale in a single night, because I was enjoying myself too much to put it down. Dicks walks that always tricky tightrope between razor-sharp humor and honest moments of love and grief, striking a balance that places Perfect Comeback… a cut above the average. He provides laughs just when they’re needed, but he also never lets the jokes get too ridiculous. His characters bubble over with witty retorts and snappy dialogue but I’ve known plenty of people who really talk like this. This is a perfect book for anyone who’d like a light read that leaves them thinking, and maybe reevaluating the mark they’re leaving on the world.


The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons: a Bernie Rhodenbarr Mystery, by Lawrence Block

“‘Case closed, BThe Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, by Lawrence Blockernie.  You’re a vanishin’ breed and you always were.'”

There has always been a timeless quality to Lawrence Block‘s Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries.  The more things change, the more Bernie remains — essentially — the same.  A bookseller by day and a burglar by night, Bernie keeps cracking wise in the eleventh outing of this eminently entertaining series set in Manhattan. In The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, a collector enlists Bernie’s help “retrieving” some rare documents and artifacts to add to his burgeoning…button collection.  The intrepid thief’s capers take him from the basement archives of a museum, to a wealthy agoraphobe’s tony Fifth Avenue apartment.  Along the way, readers can count on appearances by other MVPs in this series, including tough-talking NYPD cop Ray Kirschmann, and Bernie’s best friend (and dog groomer extraordinaire) Carolyn Kaiser, as they try to puzzle out the mystery of an elderly woman found dead in her ransacked brownstone.  And don’t forget Raffles, the feline mascot at Barnegat Books, who just happens to be named after another gentleman burglar.

In case you hadn’t guessed, sometimes the mystery plays a rather incidental part in this cozy series.  What keeps me eagerly returning to these books is the sheer fun of reading them.  Bernie’s boyish charm is infectious — this well-read rogue never takes himself — or anyone else — too seriously.  The same can be said for Block, who fills his book with playful, snappy banter and arcane tidbits about everything from F. Scott Fitzgerald to American Colonial silver.

Sure, there’s a denouement à la Nero Wolfe in which Bernie finally reveals the guilty party in a room full of suspects, but that’s not really the point of this gentle read.  Bend an elbow with Carolyn and Bernie as they have a beer at the Bum Rap. Speculate with them about the daily delectable “Juneau Lock” entrée from the Taiwanese take-out place, Two Guys from Taichung.  Roam the city that Block so clearly loves.  Readers who enjoy witty, character-driven mysteries with a strong sense of place should check out these enjoyable books.  Burglars Can’t Be Choosers is the first title in this series, but Block’s latest entry provides an excellent introduction to the Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries.


Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf“Who would have thought at this time in our lives that we’d still have something like this.  That it turns out we’re not finished with changes and excitements.  And not all dried up in body and spirit.”

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf, tells the bittersweet story of two elderly neighbors who live in a small Colorado town.  It’s been years since Addie Moore and Louis Waters lost their spouses.  Yet Addie still dreads the lonely nights that she endures, so she asks Louis whether he would consider coming over to talk (and sleep) with her in the evenings.  Because what she’s really yearning for at this stage in her life is companionship — that mysterious process of getting to know someone, and of being known.  It’s a simple request, but it also feels revolutionary.  When Louis takes Addie up on her offer, word of their arrangement spreads around town and the two experience a backlash from judgmental neighbors and family.  Despite this, a quiet intimacy develops between them, as they share the stories of their lives each night.  The sudden appearance of a troubled grandson brings them closer together, even as it threatens to permanently dismantle their new and tenuous relationship.

Our Souls at Night reads like a poem whispered in the dark.  Haruf’s prose is spare and eloquent.  It reminded me just how much I loved his widely acclaimed novel, Plainsong, which was also set in Holt, Colorado, and focused on a different set of plainspoken characters — and how sad I am that Haruf passed away in November, 2014.  This deceptively slim but powerful book makes a fitting coda to his literary work.


A Man Called Ove, by Frederik Backman

“Ove understood things he could see and touch.  Wood and concrete. Glass and steel.  Tools.  Things one could figure out.  He understood right angles and clear instruction manuals. Assembly models and drawings. Things one could draw on paper.

He was a man of black and white.

And she was color.  All the color he had.”

Each day Ove wakes up at the same time to make his rounds in the community.  It’s important to check that the neighbors are following the recycling rules, that no one has tried to commit any crimes and that his neighborhood remains free of graffiti and trash.  He glares at those who try to interact with him, cutting them off as he goes about his business.

The curmudgeonly main character of A Man Called Ove is an unpleasant old man, too intent on following the rules to care about other people.  Others call him bitter, but he does not understand why he must walk around with a smile on his face all the time like a fool.

Yet as the story unfolds, readers come to know a very different man.  Ove privately nurses a secret loss and actually has a bit of a soft heart.   When new neighbors move in and run over his mailbox, Ove becomes annoyed.  He just wants to get on with the end of his life.  But soon he’s involved with the heavily pregnant Parvaneh, her hapless husband Patrick, and their two daughters.   Then his life is further invaded by an overweight neighbor, the wife of his ex-best friend, a mailman named Adrian and a stray cat he has dubbed the “Cat Annoyance.”

As Ove’s life fills up with unwanted people and their needs, Backman reveals the curmudgeon’s life story.  The roots of the man’s strong moral character come from being brought up to work past his pain and to do everything for himself.  Readers witness Ove’s careful courtship of the young woman who will be his wife.  He may be painfully blunt at times, but he is not without kindness.  Ove knows what is right and what is good and cannot be shaken from his beliefs.  He marks the end of one  friendship based on that man’s purchase of a BMW — everyone knows that Saabs are the only car a sensible person should have.

The neighbors and friends that slowly infiltrate Ove’s life are flawed and funny.  Parvenah exhibits a brisk persistence in the face of Ove’s constant rejection.  Anita, his arch rival’s wife, deals with her husband’s dementia with a mixture of practicality and denial.   The Cat Annoyance slowly becomes a pet (and Ove’s animal döppleganger) with its insistence on routine and persnickety personality.

A love story lies at the core of A Man Called Ove.  Ove and Sonja, the most unlikely couple, faced great joy and crippling heartbreak.  Her death took the joy and color from his life and turned him into a sad and bitter man.  He tries to live the way she would want him to, but all Ove wants is to be with Sonja once again.  He slowly learns to find satisfaction in interacting with and helping other people.  Reflecting on his new found connection to life, Ove thinks, “One finds a way of living for the sake of someone else’s future.  And it wasn’t as if Ove also died when Sonja left him.  He just stopped living.”

This book will bring you to laughter and to tears.  Though it’s translated from Swedish, A Man Called Ove is a universal story.  Fans of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will find themselves drawn to the world of Ove and his neighbors.


The Martian, by Andy Weir

MartianThere are few things in the world that incite pure terror in the human mind more… than the thought of being the only person left on the entire planet.  Make that planet an inhospitable desert like Mars and it gets a bit worse.  The Martian, by Andy Weir, is a book that explores the possibility of what it would feel like to be inadvertently abandoned on Mars.

Mark Watney maintains a surprisingly good attitude for a man who has been deserted on a dead planet.  Six days into a mission on Mars, Watney and his crew must leave early, due to an unexpected wind storm.  In their hasty retreat to the shuttle, Mark gets injured and separated.  His space suit suffers enough damage that the computer shows Mark has no pulse, leaving his crew mates to think that he has met his demise.  Faced with losing the whole crew to keep searching for what they believe to be Mark’s dead body, the Captain makes the difficult decision to return to Earth.

Most of the story is told through Mark’s journal entries, but parts of the story are also written from the vantage point of other crew members and NASA officials.  This fast-paced novel develops quickly, without getting overly suspenseful.  I think Mark’s level-headed approach keeps things from getting too stressful, since the astronaut never gets overly despondent.  A born problem solver, Mark methodically sets himself tasks, while gamely maintaining his sense of humor.  I found myself grinning as I read lines such as, “I had to get something to stand on.  I used a geological sample container (also known as a ‘box’),” even as I simultaneously feared for Mark’s life.  I thoroughly enjoyed going from one issue to the next, waiting to see how Mark was going to tackle each problem.

This is Weir’s first book, but hopefully it will not be his last.  Weir gives readers a glimpse into what it’s like to be an astronaut without getting overly technical.  With echoes of Ernest Cline and Orson Scott Card, Weir paints an extraordinary picture of one man’s quest to survive.  I sincerely hope I will never be stranded on Mars, but if I am, I may have a fighting chance after reading The Martian.