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The Black Snow: A Novel
The Black Snow: A Novel
by Paul Lynch
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.14
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3.0 out of 5 stars Author Paul Lynch writes with incredible feeling.... [W]hile beautifully written, it can be an agony to read, June 2, 2015
A fire. Then a funeral. So begins a bleak story set in the cold Irish landscape as winter turns to spring and a war rages on the Continent, 1945.

Irishman Barnabas Kane and his wife, Eskra, are working to make a life in the stark, brutal beauty of their fields outside the town of Donegal. But after their barn burns with all of their cows trapped inside, Barnabas comes very near to giving up. The agonized cries of his cattle torment him for weeks afterward, as does the memory of his farmhand and friend, Matthew Peoples, who perished trying to free the cows. Barnabas can still smell the stench of the dead animals. Their bones litter his land, for he cannot muster the strength to clear them away. He rages at the acrid stink of smoke that permeates the walls of the Kane house. Eskra has washed and cleaned and scrubbed, and knows the odor has been banished, but for Barnabas it still lingers.

The Kanes have a son, though, young Billy, to worry about. He seems to be a good boy, if a bit troubled. Billy has made some friends, albeit odd ones, and they might get up to some mischief now and then. In fact, Billy has a dark secret gnawing at his conscience. But Barnabas and Eskra are busy with their own problems just now, what with their livelihood threatened.

It has not been long since the family came to Donegal, but Barnabas desperately wanted to return to his roots, and Eskra agreed. So, for him, rebuilding is the only option, and he is confident that his good neighbors will help as they always do when tragedy befalls another neighbor. Barnabas, though, has become what the townspeople call a “local stranger,” a man who left and came back, now no longer one of them or worthy of their good-natured assistance. In fact, little that the Kanes’ neighbors do could be described as good natured. No, to the contrary, Barnabas and Eskra meet obstacles at every turn. Why? Surely it can’t be their status as outsiders. What else has caused the villagers to look so bitterly upon them?

As the town turns its back on the Kane family, the time is ripe for them to pull together. And it seems, for a while, that they will. But just how much disaster can people be expected to stand up under? Where does the breaking point come? And when does love finally let go?

Author Paul Lynch writes with incredible feeling. He dredges up the torment, anger and despair Barnabas cycles through after his cattle burn in the fire and his investment goes up in the flames. He instills in Eskra the understanding and tenderness she needs to help her husband get through the toughest of times. And he breathes into Billy the self-centered scorn of an adolescent called upon to carry an already unwelcome burden.

The writing here is undeniably good, but, without the usual conventions like quotation marks and normal paragraphing, I found the rhythm awkward and the thread of the story hard to stay focused on. And, while beautifully written, it can be an agony to read. The tone is gloomy and brooding, the language rough. That said, Paul Lynch is an author to watch. He has a unique talent. Just maybe something with a wee dram of happiness next time?

Reviewed by Kate Ayers

Coup de Foudre
Coup de Foudre
by Ken Kalfus
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.26
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3.0 out of 5 stars COUP DE FOUDRE is a mixed bag, but the best pieces in the collection reward careful reading, June 2, 2015
This review is from: Coup de Foudre (Hardcover)
Few American writers have mastered the trick of incorporating detailed descriptions of science into literary fiction without overwhelming the reader or turning the material into sci-fi. One is Richard Powers, the author of such powerful works of science-based fiction as THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS and last year’s extraordinary ORFEO. Another is Ken Kalfus. In the novel EQUILATERAL, he wrote of a scientist who wants to build in Egypt a triangle with miles-high equilateral sides as a way of connecting with Mars. His previous story collection, PU-239 AND OTHER RUSSIAN FANTASIES, was an intellectual feast of works about 20th-century Russia, with a title novella about a nuclear engineer who is the victim of an accident at his plant. Now, Kalfus gives us COUP DE FOUDRE, which mixes experimental works with longer stories that borrow from recent news items. The result isn’t as satisfying as his previous work, but it still offers provocative explorations into contemporary culture.

The story that will probably receive the most attention is the title piece. The protagonist of this novella is David Lèon Landau, head of the International Monetary Fund and an all-but-declared candidate for the presidency of France. If that sounds familiar, it should: He is based on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the story is a fictionalized retelling of Kahn’s infamous 2011 visit to New York, during which he was arrested for an alleged sexual assault of a chambermaid at New York’s Sofitel hotel. Kalfus doesn’t try to disguise the parallels --- Landau, notorious for his many “sex parties,” stays at the Sofitel before he travels to Germany for a meeting with Angela Merkel --- and he describes Landau’s sexual encounters in vivid detail.

Landau, an arrogant man, revels in his ability to buy $400 scarves for attractive women with his “anodized-titanium Black Card, an advertisement for sexual prowess if there ever was one.” But, as Kalfus depicts him, he’s also a man out of control, someone who knows he needs to rein in his seamier impulses, his hunger to bypass seduction and get right to the coup de foudre (thunderbolt) of passion. The novella doesn’t excuse Landau’s behavior, but it suggests that he is like a lot of people who crave power and abuse it, only, in his case, for sexual rewards as well as political.

The rest of the book is comprised of 15 short stories. The best include “Mercury,” in which a bored 24-year-old elementary school teacher (who, in a wonderful detail, wears his solid-blue tie unclipped “as an assertion of my independence”) loses his job when he asks a second-grader named Sammy to bring “a jesting, cryptic note” to a male fifth-grade instructor. The story is a compelling tale of one man’s reckless behavior and a powerful portrait of the lasting damage that the taunts of older kids and the indifference of their teachers can inflict upon a younger student. “Mr. Iraq” is the story of a journalist who, despite his earlier liberalism, supported the invasion of Iraq and now has to help his ailing 81-year-old father, who has been arrested for protesting outside the Bush White House. The 11th-grade physics teacher of “Laser” has glaucoma surgery that doesn’t succeed as planned. The story is about human fallibility and the difference between a belief in science and a belief in doctors. In “v. The Large Hadron Collider,” a judge in Hawaii retires to his chambers to decide whether or not to issue an injunction to halt the start-up of the particle accelerator, which the plaintiffs in the nuisance lawsuit claim “could produce a small black hole that would swallow the planet.”

Alas, many of the stories in COUP DE FOUDRE, especially the more experimental tales, are clever ideas rather than fully fleshed-out narratives. “The Moment They Were Waiting For” has a brilliant premise: a man executed by lethal injection puts a curse on the town’s residents by making them aware of the date on which they’ll die. That’s the type of plot José Saramago had great fun with in books such as BLINDNESS and DEATH WITH INTERRUPTIONS, but, although Kalfus plays with the possibilities of this idea, the story is missing the richness of Saramago’s work. Other stories, such as “Square Paul-Painlevé,” in which people sitting on a Paris bench can’t get up until someone sits next to them, or “The Un-,” a cynical piece about an aspiring writer, lack dramatic tension.

COUP DE FOUDRE is a mixed bag, but the best pieces in the collection reward careful reading.

Reviewed by Michael Magras

Girl in the Moonlight: A Novel
Girl in the Moonlight: A Novel
by Charles Dubow
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.76
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4.0 out of 5 stars GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT works as a whirlwind insider’s account of the intoxicating lifestyles of the rich and famous, June 2, 2015
In the opening scene of Charles Dubow’s second novel, GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT (following INDISCRETION), set in the latter half of the 20th century, a man is busy rummaging through boxes in a nearly empty house. Most of the furniture inside has been sold off, and the knickknacks and tchotchkes have been either boxed up and donated or thrown away. An unrolled painting of a beautiful and naked woman is one of the only items that remain; it’s put aside. “The secret, they say, is not to regret --- but that, I have found, is impossible,” says our narrator, Wylie Rose, as he discards the last loose odds and ends. “The most one can hope for is to forget. Memory, though, is a poor servant. It bursts in on you when you least expect it.”

Wylie, it turns out, has spent most of his life trying --- but failing --- to forget the woman in the painting. Ever since he first laid eyes on her when he was nine years old and fell out of a tree on her family’s sprawling East Hampton compound while trying to impress her, Wylie has been obsessed with Cesca Bonet. A long-legged, dark-skinned, half-Catalan beauty (think Penelope Cruz), she is the epitome of perfection to him --- and practically every other man she meets.

Yes, this is a novel about privilege. Cesca and her three younger siblings from their heiress mother’s first marriage to a Spanish artist --- Aurelio, a gentle spirited painter; Cosmo and Carmen, a flawlessly talented and aloof set of twins --- are a well-cushioned part of New York’s cultured elite. They flit from the Hamptons to Barcelona to Venice to Paris on a moment’s whim, while their mother and stepfather (and often their respective lovers) throw lavish parties and entertain celebrated painters like Jackson Pollock on their mammoth Long Island estate. “They’re beautiful, talented, rich. It’s all very seductive,” Wylie’s father says of the Bonet clan. “But they’re like spoiled children. They’ll take everything and give nothing in return.”

That description couldn’t be more accurate, especially with regard to Wylie and Cesca’s “relationship.” For most of the book, Cesca thinks of no one but herself, despite Wylie’s incessant adoration. She burns through lovers on different continents, abuses drugs with Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City, nearly gets married to different men more than a few times, and has an abortion because it inconveniences her hot-to-trot lifestyle, all while stringing Wylie along. Cesca tells him more than once that her policy is never to apologize or give an explanation for her actions. But though he should know better, smitten Wylie crawls back to her every time, even it means busting up the few bona fide relationships he manages to cobble together with worthier women (one of whom is the daughter of a count).

At times, Wylie’s outlook on life seems not only infuriating, but also one-dimensional. Sure, as Dubow writes, “there is a monstrous selfishness about love…especially in its primal stages, when nothing else matters, when lovers create an artificial world which only they inhabit.” But because Wylie’s feelings are so one-sided and he keeps making the same mistake over and over again with Cesca, what we are left with is a frustrating reading experience. Just as though we’re apt to see less of our own friends who refuse to move on from an unhealthy relationship, so too are we likely to put aside a book filled with characters that don’t evolve.

But Dubow has more luck when writing about Aurelio’s passion for painting. He movingly depicts a portrait of an earnest yet fragile boy who develops an early love for drawing (and men) and works tirelessly to become a famous artist throughout most of the book. When Lio moves to Barcelona, shunning his family’s fortune and lavish lifestyle in favor of cultivating his true love --- art --- it’s easy to embrace him as the novel’s moral compass.

Dubow spent his childhood years in the Hamptons surrounded by his parents’ artsy friends (many of whom were well-known painters). He has also traveled to many of the settings in the book --- Paris, London, Venice --- so the descriptions have an extra element of authenticity. Despite its flaws, GIRL IN THE MOONLIGHT works as a whirlwind insider’s account of the intoxicating lifestyles of the filthy rich and fabulously famous. If flipping through celebrity gossip rags, keeping up on Kim Kardashian’s latest antics, or drooling over back seasons of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” are your thing, this book might just be the one for you.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling

The Subprimes: A Novel
The Subprimes: A Novel
by Karl Taro Greenfeld
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.76
49 used & new from $12.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Greenfeld has created a dark, funhouse mirror reflection of our current world, June 2, 2015
This review is from: The Subprimes: A Novel (Hardcover)
Some people may have already forgotten about Occupy Wall Street, but Karl Taro Greenfeld certainly hasn’t. In his biting, satirical second novel --- dedicated to the 99% --- he’s envisioned a near-future America where the gap between the haves and have-nots has become a chasm. The migrant poor, or subprimes, live in squatter’s camps called Ryanvilles or are shipped off to modern-day debtors’ prisons known as “Credit Rehabilitation Centers.” Virtually all government functions have been privatized; one character’s son attends the Subway Fresh Take Paul Revere Charter Middle School. Minimum wage? Outlawed under the National Right to Work Act. Environmental regulations? Abolished. It’s an exaggerated but not entirely unbelievable version of the current political and economic landscape, where the 1% just keep getting richer while the rest of America suffers.

Perhaps the biggest casualty of “this climactic age of American capitalism” is political dissent, which is virtually nonexistent. The few who don’t like the way things are going have either retreated into cynicism or have, as in the case of one character, “withdrawn, totally, into her own self, via yoga and juice cleanses and shaman therapy and picayune specificity of the foods she will put into her body.” The subprimes, who have the most reason to revolt, are totally cowed. Their main concerns are avoiding the credit police and scraping out a meager existence as day laborers for powerful corporations like those owned by Dottie and Dorrie Pepper, twin sisters who are like the evil siblings of the Koch brothers.

Still, a few subprimes hold out hope for a better life, coming together to build a tiny settlement among the abandoned tract homes that dot the Nevada desert. Valence has communal agriculture, free schools and dance parties. And soon, it has an unlikely resident messiah. Sagram has “been wandering her whole life,” ever since fleeing a foster home as an adolescent. She rides a motorcycle, dresses in white leathers, and is unsure of her race and exact birthday (“Thirty?” she responds, when someone asks her age). Most suspiciously, she doesn’t have a credit score. But her apartness gives her the freedom to speak truth to power. “She said she was everything, all of it, people and countries and ideas and dreams all rolled into one so that she could dream bigger and talk louder and fight harder than all the rest.”

Sagram’s foil is Pastor Roger, a celebrity preacher whose mega-church has taken over what used to be the Dallas Cowboys stadium. In his sermons he spreads an extreme version of the prosperity gospel, twisting the tenets of Christianity to serve capitalism. He urges his followers to “fight the forces of repression and regulation and socialism and progressivism who would seek to usurp God’s will by cutting off his invisible hand.” Sagram, in contrast, offers a return to a purer form of faith. Her message is not explicitly religious, yet her words seem more in line in with Biblical teachings than Pastor Roger’s sermons. “We do not want to fight --- we only ask of the government to be treated as all people should be treated,” she says when an army of private security forces arrives to evict the residents of Valence.

Given the dystopian setting of THE SUBPRIMES, it seems like the novel should be bleak and depressing, and at times it is. The dozens of whales who have beached themselves on the shores of both New York and California serve as a powerful, if obvious, sign that all is not right with the planet. But the novel’s serious message is leavened with humor and hope. Greenfeld takes great joy in envisioning the logical yet absurd conclusions of certain current trends in American politics and culture. A preteen boy brings a switchblade comb to school and is sent to “Shooters,” an afterschool program for violent youth. The super-rich zoom around on elevated highways and private jets, while the impoverished majority are stuck in gridlock on crumbling roads or flying across the country in “upright class” (no beverage service, naturally). You can call an ambulance, but the paramedic will check your credit score before he takes you to the hospital.

Greenfeld has created a dark, funhouse mirror reflection of our current world --- a sobering vision of what America might look like if certain right-wing elements had their way. Yet he’s optimistic enough to predict a way out of this mess, showing how a return to traditional community and mutual support might break “the fever spell of greed.” We may not be living in the world of THE SUBPRIMES just yet, but Greenfeld’s novel is a pointed warning that such a future may not be all that far off.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott

The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America's Liberties
The Bill of Rights: The Fight to Secure America's Liberties
by Carol Berkin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.20
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5.0 out of 5 stars THE BILL OF RIGHTS is informative history that makes the debate surrounding the creation of the Bill of Rights easily readable, June 2, 2015
The citizens of America love and revere the Bill of Rights, but their ardor is tempered by several ironies. While most citizens express their respect for the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, they are often unaware how those amendments came to be part of the document. Perhaps more troubling is the ultimate irony that many of the professed believers in the Bill of Rights are unfamiliar with the specific provisions and their meaning. This leads to the final paradox of “love” for the Bill of Rights. If the document was put to a vote in America today, it is extremely unlikely that it would garner the approval of a majority of our citizens. Americans want the protection of the Bill of Rights for themselves but not necessarily for others.

THE BILL OF RIGHTS is a concise and vivid history of how the bedrock principles of our Constitution came to be part of the document. Historian Carol Berkin has chosen not to write a detailed discussion of the specific amendments and their provisions. Instead, she focuses on the political strategy executed by the founding fathers to preserve the Constitution as a political document, creating a federal government that would exercise authority over the individual states that struggled to become a nation under the provisions of its original founding document, the Articles of Confederation.

The Articles of Confederation, America’s first Constitution, was formally ratified in 1781. But within a few years, the document and its governing provisions were proven inadequate. The separate colonies struggled to pay national debts, defend the borders of their young nation, and establish any viable commerce and trade with foreign nations. The 54 delegates who met in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 agreed that something had to be done to save their country. Their original goal was to propose amendments to strengthen the Articles. But that proved to be unworkable. So James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and others went further, abandoning what they saw as a faulty government and creating a new one.

However, the opponents of the new Constitution demanded protection against a too powerful federal government. Their first goal was to defeat the Constitution itself. Securing the people’s liberties was one stated goal that opponents of the new Constitution sought. But their true objective was to maintain the supremacy of the states over the proposed federal government.

Berkin portrays Madison as a brilliant political tactician who used the Bill of Rights to defeat those opposed to the Constitution even after its initial ratification. Opponents of a strong federal government had many reasons for their opposition. Some believed that the states should remain sovereign, while others were worried about the possible tyranny of federal government leaders. Madison believed that a strong statement recognizing the rights of the people would calm popular fears, even though the new federal government lacked any power to enforce those rights. He eventually won the struggle, and the new nation was formed.

THE BILL OF RIGHTS is informative history that makes the debate surrounding the creation of the Bill of Rights easily readable. Berkin also includes an interesting addendum to the book --- biographies of all the members of the First Federal Congress who enacted the Bill of Rights. Of course, they were all men, but in many ways their experiences and background are no different from contemporary politicians. Perhaps that is why, even today, many of the provisions of the Bill of Rights are still debated in political venues across the land in the same manner as in 1789. The document that serves as the foundation for America’s freedoms has come a long way, but there is still room for substantial debate around its meaning.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman

The Making of Zombie Wars: A Novel
The Making of Zombie Wars: A Novel
by Aleksandar Hemon
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.77
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's much less than the sum of its parts, June 2, 2015
Readers familiar with the work of Aleksandar Hemon only through his 2013 essay collection, THE BOOK OF MY LIVES, a book that included the heartbreaking story of his infant daughter's death from a rare form of brain cancer, are in for a surprise with his novel, THE MAKING OF ZOMBIE WARS, a dark comedy about stunted ambition and the consequences of unchecked desire. Though it shines at times with Hemon's wit and benefits from a quirky supporting cast of characters, its brightest moments only serve to spotlight its shortcomings as a coherent work of fiction.

Hemon has taken a risk in choosing a protagonist who is more likely to grate than endear. Joshua Levin, a 33-year-old graduate of Northwestern University, can't do better for himself than teach a sullen handful of students in an ESL class in Chicago and participate in a weekly screenwriting workshop whose members seem doomed never to produce a finished script, let alone land a movie deal. He uses the workshop to flesh out his screenplay-in-progress, Zombie Wars, a script that features the inartfully named Major Klopstock in gruesome mortal combat with an onslaught of undead foes. "What he wanted to do was nothing, every day, all day long, until the glacier of time ground everything back into its smooth shape" is Hemon's apt summary of Joshua's slacker personality. Magnifying Joshua's discontent is a prickly relationship with his father, Bernie, whose abandonment of his wife for a younger woman still stings, even as the son learns his father is suffering from prostate cancer.

As inert as he may be in confronting life's demands, Joshua has managed to fashion a committed relationship with a Japanese-American woman named Kimiko. His "beautiful Zen mistress" is a child psychologist specializing in divorce trauma, whose attraction to him is as inexplicable to him as it is to us. But when the voluptuous Ana, a married Bosnian émigré and one of his ESL students, signals her availability, it doesn't take much in the way of predictive ability to know that Joshua's romantic life is headed for serious complication. Though "indelible sorrow" is something Ana "constantly radiated," she has no difficulty communicating her sexual desires to someone as willing to receive them as Joshua.

Some of Hemon's most effective characterization involves Ana and a small cadre of Bosnians that includes her grim second husband Esko, her teenage daughter Alma, and Esko's carefree friend Bega, one of the other students in Joshua's screenwriting workshop. The Bosnians, survivors of the 1990s war that devastated their country, have fled Sarajevo for America, but almost a decade of life in the United States hasn't allowed them to forget "how sad and displaced they really were." At the seedy bar where he and Joshua hang out after a typically unproductive workshop, Bega brags that he and his countrymen have learned to "surf catastrophe," a boast that seems to have the ring of truth as we watch their messy, complicated lives intersect with Joshua's.

Hemon's inventiveness and wit shine as he peppers the novel with cullings from Joshua's laptop, "brimming with script ideas, none close to being actualized." Among them are "Script Idea #99: A foxhunt from the fox's point of view" or "Script Idea #144: A man saves the life of his comrade, which impresses his girlfriend so much that she suggests a threesome." Hemon often uses these bizarre gleanings to add an ironic commentary on the plot.

In the final 40 pages of the novel, Hemon unfurls scenes of gratuitous violence that involve some characters even less likable than Joshua and his vengeful, drug-drenched landlord Stagger, a Desert Storm veteran wielding a samurai sword, getting their just desserts. But these episodes are more squirm-inducing than satisfying, and leave us with the uneasy feeling that Joshua finally has dug himself a hole from which no amount of imaginative screenwriting and repentance will allow him to escape.

Scene to scene, THE MAKING OF ZOMBIE WARS vibrates with energy and madcap humor, but in the end, and most disappointingly for a writer of Hemon's unquestionable skill, it's much less than the sum of its parts. Hemon can be brilliant at setting up promising scenes or in firing out dialogue that sizzles with wit. It's too bad his prodigious talent wasn't better deployed in what could have been a black comedy classic.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg

Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense
Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense
Price: $10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Fans of Edgar Allan Poe are sure to recognize some of his story plots woven through the novel, June 2, 2015
Andrew J. Rush writes popular mystery novels and has a huge following. His books, which aren’t scary or grotesque, are just middle-level crime fiction. But Andrew has a nasty secret: he writes gory, misogynist mysteries using the name "Jack of Spades." He keeps these books hidden in a special closet built in the basement of his rather beautiful home. His novels have been translated into many languages, and two movies have been adapted for the screen. Still, he has moments of doubt about himself.

Then one day, Andrew receives in the mail a summons to appear in court to answer a lawsuit against him. He’s in shock, and reading the court document does not ease his anxiety, especially when he sees that someone named C. W. Haider is accusing him of an act of theft. Andrew knows this is ridiculous but also is cognizant of the fact that a person unknown to him has invaded his life, and he has no idea why. He begins to unravel, and his psychopathology simmers to the surface.

Andrew contacts the court and speaks to the woman who signed the summons, trying to find out what he is supposed to have stolen. She has no idea but explains that he is dealing with civil court, which does not demand criminal charges. Nevertheless, Andrew keeps bothering her and complains that she spelled his name wrong, on top of everything else, until she finally hangs up on him. He then makes a decision he probably will regret: he phones C. W. Haider, convincing himself that this individual will like him for the sound of his voice.

When the call goes through, Andrew at first thinks he is speaking with a child, as the voice on the other end is so high. When he asks why she took out a summons for him, she inexplicably does not answer right away. She plays with him, telling him that he knows what he stole from her. Of course, he knows no such thing. When she calls him a plagiarist and continues to scream at him, also accusing him of entering her home to steal her work, he realizes she is a mental case.

JACK OF SPADES continues in the first person narrative style that Joyce Carol Oates presents. The book is a very good read that is neither long nor complex. Fans of Edgar Allan Poe are sure to recognize some of his story plots woven through the novel. Readers experience all of Andrew's angst and may want to shake him back to reality. Oates adds some murder and bloody scenes to keep those who expects such things in a mystery happy. And this surely is a twisting maze of what seems to be reality. As one of the most prolific writers of the day, Oates does not let her fans down --- and she undoubtedly will pick up new ones with her latest effort.

Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum

The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964
The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune, 1915-1964
by Zachary Leader
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $28.30
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5.0 out of 5 stars Masterfully tracing Bellow’s growth to his eventual status in the 1960s as perhaps America’s greatest living novelist, June 2, 2015
I like to imagine that when Zachary Leader published his biography of English novelist Kingsley Amis in 2006 --- appropriately, and quite literally, titled THE LIFE OF KINGSLEY AMIS --- potential readers took one look at the volume, immediately about-faced, and broke into a dead run. The 1000-plus-page monster of a work provided an exhaustive portrayal of Amis, who, in the United States, is likely better known as the father of fellow English novelist Martin Amis than a writer in his own right. Those potential readers will be pleased to know that Leader’s latest volume, THE LIFE OF SAUL BELLOW: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964 (sensing a pattern here?), is only 650 pages --- provided, of course, that you’re the sort of reader who ignores the additional 115 pages of endnotes and the promise of a second volume covering the remaining 40 years of Saul Bellow’s life. It may also please those readers that Leader’s first volume is a masterpiece, and practically a free seminar in the art of the life study.

To be fair, Bellow gives Leader quite a lot to work with. The “most decorated writer in American history, the winner, among other awards, of the Nobel Prize for Literature, three National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prize,” and on, Bellow’s personal life was as juicy as his fiction --- the latter, unsurprisingly, having borrowed a great deal from the former. “In some novels and stories,” Leader writes, “people he knew, including friends and relations, were not only bound to see themselves depicted but they were meant to do so.” He used his fiction to praise and paint, to expose and condemn, and in the end, even the author questioned his own methods. On his deathbed, Bellow turned to a friend and asked, “Was I a man” --- a mensch, a worthy human being, a man of character --- “or was I a jerk?”

Like Bellow biographers before him, Leader attempts an answer. Unlike them, he had the advantage of writing this biography after his subject’s death, and thus the freedom to conduct his research and form an opinion without Bellow’s interventions. When mentioning the struggles of his predecessors, Leader describes Bellow as “wary,” “prickly” and “evasive,” and his effect on previous biographer James Atlas as enough to help “produce the note of resentment some have heard” in his book.

These stories may have led a lesser biographer to vote “jerk” from the start, but Leader’s assessment is remarkably level-headed and, in the end, all about the art. From his introduction: “What makes Bellow a bird not an ornithologist is his ability to transform facts or experiences into great literature, thus changing them. This view of art as new creation is often invoked as a defense against the accusations of slander or defamation. Art can be viewed in other ways; for example, as imitation or mimesis, the oldest of aesthetic aims and pleasures. Mimesis, too, involves touching experiences or facts with the imagination. Bellow was a famed noticer and his novels and stories are packed with things perfectly seen.”

Leader’s noticing, too, deserves commendation. An academic’s biography of a fiercely intellectual author (also an academic) could easily go the way of… well, the academic, and many a plodding tome has been written detailing the life of a difficult 20th-century white male American novelist. Thankfully, this book, despite its length and subject, is anything but plodding. Masterfully tracing Bellow’s growth from precocious youth to his eventual status in the 1960s as perhaps America’s greatest living novelist, Leader fleshes out even the smallest details, yet all of these seem carefully chosen, deliberately unpacked: Bellow’s infancy in Canada; his childhood and adolescence in Chicago (no, he was not “Chicago-born”); his Russian-, Jewish-, immigrant-raised upbringing; his many marriages, flings and affairs, friendships and fallouts; his progressive yet often problematic politics; and, of course, the writing.

The moment that serves as the climax of Leader’s book amounts to the springboard moment for Bellow’s writing life. Bellow was in Paris, and it was 1949. He had written two books by then, but writing hadn’t been easy --- his first story was published only after he had turned 25, and he would not succeed in making a living from writing alone (much more common then than now, I’m told) until near the end of this volume. Walking down the street one afternoon, sustained only by grant money and lamenting his state, he walked by some Parisian municipal workers cleaning out a hydrant.

“I suppose a psychiatrist would say that this was some kind of hydrotherapy --- the flowing water freeing me from the caked burden of depression that had formed on my soul,” Bellow told his friend and fellow Jewish-American mega-novelist, Philip Roth, in a New Yorker interview in 2005. “But it wasn’t so much the water as the sunny iridescence…. I remember saying to myself, ‘Well, why not take a short break and have at least as much freedom of movement as this running water?’”

That freedom resulted in THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARCH, an oft-cited candidate for that ever-elusive white whale, the “Great American Novel.” For Leader, Bellow proves quite the catch himself: a Great American Author with a life as big as his work. Lucky for us, we have a whole second volume to live it alongside him.

Reviewed by John Maher

Be Afraid (Morgans of Nashville)
Be Afraid (Morgans of Nashville)
by Mary Burton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.47
66 used & new from $2.23

5.0 out of 5 stars Be afraid to miss this riveting, sizzling, terrifying new novel, June 2, 2015
Mary Burton, queen of the modern-day romantic thriller, pulls us into the vortex of a whirlwind battle centered on the age-old dichotomy between good and evil in her latest release, BE AFRAID. The duality begins in her opening line: “Reason and Madness, like Jekyll and Hyde, were two sides of the same coin.”

Burton defines the character of her hero in the first line of chapter one: Detective Rick Morgan’s nickname was Boy Scout. The bestselling author’s avid fans will recognize the alpha male detective since he is a member of her crime-fighting Morgan family dynasty of Nashville.

Following a near-fatal shooting and medical leave, the newly reinstated Morgan is paired with Bishop, an outlier partner depicted in symbolic black, from his jet-black hair to the polished black cowboy boots. Although Bishop is referred to as a good cop by others on the force, Rick knows Bishop is waiting for him to screw up so he can step into his position.

When decade-old skeletonized remains of a naked child wrapped in a pink blanket are found in Centennial Park, Morgan and Bishop move into action. The difficult task of identifying the little girl forces Rick to deal with Susan Martinez, a reporter he doesn’t trust.

To make matters worse and ratchet the tension, Rick’s sister, Georgia, a forensic photographer, recommends that he turn to forensic artist Jenna Thompson to give the tiny victim a face. Jenna is on a six-week leave of absence from the Baltimore Police Department, following a traumatizing case involving a little girl found in a closet. Rick wants to know more about the woman whose memories have drawn her to Nashville. Why would a young, healthy cop walk away from the job and end up drawing pictures in a honky-tonk? Shadow eyes dance on the edges of the innocent portrait artist’s mind and canvas, and Rick sees the strangeness in the eyes on her picture.

Will Jenna’s affinity for the damaged and the lost allow her to turn to Rick for comfort as she remembers more and more of her past each day?

Inspector Dean Murphy draws Rick’s attention to the word Faithless, which the killer carved into the headboard of the victim’s bed. He also tells Rick the woman appears to have been tied spread-eagled, obliterating any doubt that her death was accidental. Is the word Faithless a clue to the motive for the killings?

Someone in a red truck is watching and stalking women. Burton treats thrill seekers to another serial killer, but is this one a dummy being pulled by the strings of a puppet-master arsonist? What connects the women? Does the doll’s head left on Jenna’s back patio indicate she is next on the dastardly murderer’s list, or has she gotten his attention with the spot-on portrait?

Toni Morrison once said, “Evil has a blockbuster audience; goodness lurks backstage.” If we believe Morrison’s statement to be true, and I do, then BE AFRAID will occupy center stage on the bestseller list. Be afraid to miss this riveting, sizzling, terrifying new novel by a master storyteller with more tricks up her sleeve than Penn and Teller.

Reviewed by Melody Dean Dimick

No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII
No Better Friend: One Man, One Dog, and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in WWII
by Robert Weintraub
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.46
45 used & new from $16.31

5.0 out of 5 stars Weintraub’s paean to a remarkable dog will be seen by animal lovers as affirmation that all pets deserve our respect, June 2, 2015
Judy (1936-1950) was a large, sober-faced English Pointer, the only dog to have official POW status in World War II. She saved many lives by her canine wiles, and became the best friend of British Aircraftman Frank Williams after they struck up a friendship based on survival, in a Japanese interment camp. Her incredible saga has been painstakingly pieced together by Robert Weintraub (THE HOUSE THAT RUTH BUILT, THE VICTORY SEASON) from news stories and personal recollections, and from the press attention that Judy ultimately enjoyed in the United Kingdom when she "moved" there, smuggled in by Frank after the war.

Nothing in her early life indicated the distinctions she would eventually garner. She was just an orphaned pup living in a kennel in Shanghai, her animosity towards the Japanese military probably ingrained early on when she was beaten by Japanese sailors. Adopted as a mascot by the HMS Gnat before she was a year old, her life in combat began. All of her adventures can never be known; despite occasional disappearances in the midst of chaos, Judy many times simply danced back, spirited as ever, when all hope of her survival had been relinquished.

The descriptions offered here of conditions in the Pacific theater are harrowing. Almost every page of that portion of Judy’s life and that of the men with whom she served chronicles the "mud, slime, insects, rain, and soul-killing humidity" of the jungles, and fierce sun, flies, lack of fresh water, constant bombardments by the Japanese on the beaches, and, once interned, that army’s cruelty toward their captives. Judy miraculously hung on, somehow managed to give birth to two litters of puppies, saved men from drowning, warded off poisonous snakes on the shores, and even once discovered and dug out a small well of fresh water. Frank and Judy met in 1942, when he shared his rice with her. After that, they became foraging partners. She barked at the Japanese when they harassed her allies, narrowly escaped being executed, and was given an official prisoner number.

When Frank returned home, Judy’s story gained purchase in popular lore (and tales of her courageous exploits continue to inspire). Frank was awarded the White Cross of St Giles for his service, and Judy received the Dickin Medal, a sort of canine Victoria Cross. She was even “interviewed” by BBC radio, barking on cue. Tales of her exploits encouraged returning soldiers and comforted families of those who did not come back.

But civilian life was too cold and boring for Frank, so with Judy in tow, he set out for Tanganyika, where his beloved pet died at age 14. He composed a lengthy biography and affixed it to a marble monument he had laboriously shaped “that he thought equaled her love and extraordinary devotion.”

Weintraub’s paean to a remarkable dog will be seen by animal lovers as affirmation that all pets deserve our respect, because any one of them might save a life (or many lives) and inspire a nation, as Judy did --- given the chance.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott

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