Authors Go Back to Back at Birmingham Borders

Lift by Kelly Corrigan: Book CoverNo Apology by Mitt Romney: Book CoverIf you’re seeking literary events, Borders has back to back author appearances scheduled this Wednesday and Thursday night at its Birmingham location. Mitt Romney and Kelly Corrigan will both be offering signings of their latest works which will be available for purchase at the store.

If you’re into politics, Mitt Romney will be on board to discuss and sign his latest work, No Apology:  The Case for American Greatness on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 7:00 PM. Even though the Borders site casually lists this appearance, my insider source tells me that this is a wristband event (which leads me to believe it will be crowded) and they will be given out Wednesday morning starting at 9:00 AM.

On the softer side, Kelly Corrigan will offer a reading and signing of her latest title Lift, a sort of deeply personal essay written to her two daughters. Corrigan is well-known for her previous title, The Middle Place. Ms. Corrigan’s appearance is scheduled for Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 7:00 PM.

-As always, it’s a good idea to call prior to events to confirm dates and times in case schedule changes have been made.

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters!

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Bad Things Happen

It’s true that bad things happen, but are we supposed to enjoy them so much when they do? In Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen, half the fun is waiting out the next “bad thing” (of which there are plenty) while the other is enjoying the ride.

Bad Things Happen is…well…sexy. From the alluring, yet solitary main character David Loogan, right down to the seductive college vibe of Ann Arbor itself, Mr. Dolan hooks you up with a delicious murder that fills you with a sweet, edgy unease. As his sultry characters glide in and out of focus, you are left exponentially wondering who in the world you can trust.

After David Loogan becomes inadvertently involved with the mystery magazine Gray Streets, his quiet low-key life somehow slips into a sea of complicated suspicion. However, Mr. Loogan’s appeal lies in his subtle, easy dialogue and blithe manner towards all things homicidal.

As Loogan makes his way through the maze of Gray Street personalities in hopes of solving his friend’s murder, he encounters one Elizabeth Waishkey. Elizabeth is a cop who is also intent on solving the murder, but is saddled with the snag of distancing herself from the ambiguous Loogan, who is a promising prime suspect with each turn of the page.

As Waishkey works on Loogan, and Loogan works on his own, this shadowy tale is spun on pure Ann Arbor background, bringing about a well-deserved nod for this progressive midwestern pocket. Matched in sophisticated tones, Ann Arbor provides the perfect setting for Dolan’s sleek, hard-boiled fiction.

“Ann Arbor has the street life of a much larger city,” writes Dolan. “When the weather is fair, and sometimes when it’s not, the sidewalks along State Street and Liberty and Main bustle with people:  hip, arty, confident people who walk to theaters and shops, bookstores and coffeehouses, who gather at sidewalk tables that spill out of restaurants.”

Bad Things Happen brings in the sharp, classic styles of other noir lit authors such as Raymond Chandler, who is mentioned more than once in the book. But even if you are not a seasoned mystery reader (like myself) Harry Dolan’s seductive style easily translates. Mr. Dolan’s work is fun, and mentally unspools itself in close-up, pan-back fashion. Like a smooth, smoky Hollywood flick, Bad Things Happen definitely has movie rights potential but for now I highly suggest kicking back and enjoying it just the way it is.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

The PUSH for All Things Precious

When I heard about the novel PUSH and its subject matter (poverty, incest, illiteracy, obesity) I simply had no desire to read it. Certain it would be another negative account of the African-American experience, I decidedly moved on in hopes of more uplifting material.

But then I heard an interview on NPR about PUSH’s upcoming film adaptation Precious. And subsequently read the New York Time’s feature The Audacity of Precious. Then there were the raves from the critics at the Festival de Cannes and Sundance And of course the interviews with PUSH’s author Sapphire. From these varied sources, I gathered PUSH was an emotionally difficult and complex work that warranted a reading. I wanted to find out just how all of this raw, wretched material could possibly transmute into something so emotionally grand.

One would have to be obese to take on the full figure of humanity, and PUSH’s main character Precious consumes us all in both our glory and our horrifying shame. Precious embodies societal contradiction, and it is to author and poet Sapphire’s credit that we grow to love this hugely unappealing, illiterate, indigent, pregnant girl.

PUSH is beyond tough and has been called “relentless”, “brutal”  and “redemptive”. Call it what you will, but PUSH is one of the most difficult pieces of work I have ever read. Intensely graphic, PUSH does much more than that with its in-your-face, hard-core details of incest, ignorance, and the struggle to survive.

To excerpt the book would be futile. This work is so contextual, that any citing would appear pornographic and nonsensical. It is not a pick-up-put-down piece. Though PUSH is written in splintered English and phonetic slang, Sapphire’s words have been carefully selected and each carries its own penetrating weight. Through Precious’s simple poetry it is clear she is not simple-minded. It is through this medium that Precious is recognized as a stand-in for anyone who we as a society are quick to dismiss.

While the back cover carries this quote, “A fascinating novel that may well find a place in the African-American literary canon…” there will be those who won’t see its merit. It could easily be misunderstood. However, I feel PUSH is an important examination of prejudice on a grand scale. More importantly, PUSH reconstitutes our sense of understanding as we bear witness to the Precious flowering of potential under simple acts of kindness.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Burn Baby Burn

Upon finishing Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, I promptly went to Borders in Birmingham last Friday night to hear him discuss his most recent book on yet another environmental disaster. Following his 2006 National Book Award winner The Worst Hard Time, Mr. Egan has moved from the Dust Bowl to the horrendous  forest fire of 1910 that pounded through the forests of Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Devastating everything in its wake, this raging behemoth ignited not only the fury of the forest, but also the bigger political machines who vied to control it from their pulpits of hubris far outside the fray.

Having just relished The National Parks series by Ken Burns, I feared a tedious familiarity as I started The Big Burn. Already introduced to Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and John Muir as key players in the National Parks game, I thought this might simply hint as a refresher course. However, what I thought might detract actually enhanced the book as my overall understanding of Egan’s history behind the fire broadened in scope.

Broken into three parts, the first slowly assembles itself through the introduction of personalities, politics, and background information pertinent to the understanding of the  fighting of the fire. Part two picks up as it moves into the eccentric characters residing in the mountains as well as the ranks of the fire-fighters, noting the utterly respectable Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment and the desperate immigrants who lost their lives fighting alongside them. Part three is the collective fury and expansive aftermath of the fire which ultimately devoured the Bitterroot Mountain Range and inhaled some “three million acres in barely two days”.

The Big Burn is full of conflict. Having taken our national parks for granted, I found it quite remarkable to step back and marvel at the incredible foresight shared by Roosevelt, Pinchot and Muir. With near divine innovation, these men constructed the entire concept of Conservation in the face of political resistance and animosity; and all for the greater good of the common man. The range’s rich natural resources made it a hot spot for what Egan calls a “plunderer’s buffet”, yet as the usual Gilded suspects and timber industrialists pushed for full development of this magnificent land, these married minds held firm in their belief that this “geography of hope” was destined to be held pristine for the public.

Mr. Egan has covered many natural disasters and events as a national reporter. His process is to “research and research and try to find the story” by looking for real life characters that he would like to follow. Researching the Big Burn in the national forest archives, Egan shared his awe of the early days of forestry and is drawn to the “clash of human being versus nature”.

When I asked Egan if he had planned the book’s release so close to the National Parks PBS series, he admitted that was definitely not the case. Quickly confessing his initial fear that the series would pull from his book sales, Mr. Egan is now enjoying the happy coincidence that seems to be drawing even more interest in his latest endeavor. Tackling histories of immigration, racism, elitism, and the spark of the progressive agenda, The Big Burn is an informative and compelling read.

-Review by Megan Shaffer

Messer Comes Home With ‘Grand River and Joy’

Having grown up in Detroit, it’s no wonder Susan Messer was drawn back to her roots for the setting of Grand River and Joy; she clearly knows her old stomping grounds well. From streetlights to schools to museums and waterfront views, Ms. Messer takes us back to a Detroit simmering with indignation and urban unrest. Packed with social and political detail, it is impressive she was able to flesh it all out in just over two hundred pages.

Riding shotgun as shop owner Harry Levine attempts to navigate the racial turmoil of Detroit, we peer out the passenger side and straight into the boiling pot that ultimately spills over into the race riot of 1967. Through the characters of Harry, his wife Ruth, and the tenants residing above his store, we bear witness to the Jewish/Black relationship and their respective points of view as they move around each other at this juncture in history.

Through sharp dialogue, Susan Messer tackles the origins of the impending riot while revealing her characters’ varied angles of perspective. By fitting the jagged  pieces of economic inequality, housing discrimination, black militancy, police brutality, and white flight into the larger puzzle of Detroit’s race relations, Messer brings her readers closer to the frontline of understanding.

Brimming with Detroit’s colorful history, Grand River and Joy holds plenty of “I did not know that” points of interest. Not only does Messer lift by touching on the finer arts and culture of both Judaism and the city, but also doesn’t fear taking us into darker territory with her chapter “Boiler”, which educates on the angrier art of the racial epithet.

Despite the heavy nature of the novel, it achieves in its examination of conscience. Providing each character with a distinct point of view facilitates Messer’s goal of “getting to emotional truth.” Raw and insightful, Grand River and Joy is a literary journey of understanding as it covers this seminal time in Detroit’s history.

*Freelance writer Megan Shaffer hosts the blog Night Light Revue and reviews for the online publication BookBrowse.

Lehane’s “The Given Day” Hits in Paperback

The Given Day
The Given Day

The Given Day is a treat; not only does Lehane tell a great and thorough story, but  tempers the hard-edged personalities of both his characters and his settings with a smooth, soft touch. Through the central characters of Danny Coughlin and Luther Laurence, the reader is taken aboard a fast moving train into the pulsing heart of Boston circa 1919.  If you ever thought history was boring, it’s time to think again.

Danny Coughlin was was born into Boston Police Department (BPD) royalty.  Irish, tough, and committed to the brotherhood, Danny joins the ranks as his father and godfather did before him. Though his relations maintain top positions within the BPD, Danny is given no preferential treatment and opts to live within the confines of his Italian beat in the South End of Boston.  It is in this neighborhood that we are introduced to the world of the immigrant. Poor, hungry, and full of discord, Danny listens to the daily soapbox rants of the dissidents and their increasing cries of inequity as he walks the streets that have become his home.

Luther Laurence, a smart, young black man, arrives in Boston on the lamb from the thriving city of Tulsa. Tossed around by fate and tethered to the social constraints of the time, Luther finds himself living in the home of a prominent black family where he is welcomed with open arms.  Luther’s benefactors provide him with a job at the home of Danny’s father, and it is in this capacity that our characters become intertwined.

When Luther is hired on as a houseman for the Coughlin family, an unlikely friendship forms when he and Danny cross paths. At a time when blacks and whites did not intermingle, and was dangerous to do so, Danny and Luther manage to forge an unbreakable bond. It is through this bond that we are exposed to the tyrannical workings of the race and class systems of the early 1900’s.

As the cries of the immigrant radicals escalate, so do those of the BPD. With ghastly wages, hours, and living conditions, the heat in the BPD is rising, calling for a unionized movement.  Forced to handle the radical terrorists (Bosheviki, Reds), provide safety through the Spanish Influenza pandemic (horrific), and deal with the internal corruption of the political workings of the department (enter Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge), the BPD becomes a pressure cooker on the verge of explosion.  The amped up volume and actions of both the radicals and the BPD injects adrenaline into the vein of Boston, setting the city into a perpetual state of anxious and volatile agitation, ultimately placing the reader atop a cresting wave.

Lehane’s sensitive prose permeates what is an otherwise gritty, bloody-knuckled epic tale. Rebel Federico wistfully utters, “Music speaks for the soul because words are too small,” or Danny reflects on his father as “a giant in the BPD, yes, but he wore it lightly…displays of vanity, after all, were the province of minor gods.” Waxing poetic of the rough hewn passion of the Irish,  Danny speaks to his little brother Joe of his friendship with Luther-

You can have two families in this life, Joe, the one you’re born to and the one you build.  Your first family is your blood family and you always be true to that.  That means something.  But there’s another family and that’s the kind you go out and find.  Maybe even by accident sometimes.  And they’re as much blood as your first family.  Maybe more so, because they don’t have to love you. They choose to.

Such rich nuggets appear throughout the book and cumulatively lend credence to Lehane’s craft as a writer and a storyteller. Lehane doesn’t disappoint.  By the end of The Given Day, the reader finds they have unexpectedly amassed a wealth of historical information and garnered a fresh sympathy for the immigrant experience as well.  As the reader stands in Luther Laurence’s shoes, you are  forced to take a hard look at the black experience and comes out  richer for the read.

*Note:  Both of Lehane’s parents emigrated from Ireland.  He was raised in the Boston area and obviously knows it like the back of his hand. As we are swept through the story we absorb every morsel of the scenery causing it to play out like a movie in our minds.  Is it any wonder that the film industry snatched rights to The Given Day? (Columbia Pictures) Here it will join Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island (Lehane also wrote for The Wire).

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Annie’s Ghosts – Made In Detroit

Annie's GhostsI first heard about “Annie’s Ghosts” on NPR.  A Journalist Uncovers His Family’s ‘Ghosts’ was both an interview and a book promo with author and Washington Post editor Steve Luxenberg. Half-listening while  driving, it was interesting enough for me to scribble down the title and subsequently reserve it at the library… and I’m so glad I did.

Annie’s Ghosts – A Journey Into a Family Secret must have been an extremely difficult book for Steve Luxenberg to write. It is honest in the face of dishonesty and loyal where he could have turned away. Digging into the dark corners of his family’s past, Mr. Luxenburg exhumes the complicated history of his ancestors in hopes of revealing a family secret once mentioned by his now deceased mother.

I don’t know how I was born in the Detroit area and never heard of “Eloise”. The psychiatric hospital which closed its doors in 1979 would have at best been historical information, and at worst a schoolyard jeer. One would think that an institution that once housed “nine thousand mentally ill, infirm, and homeless people” from the state of Michigan would have caught my attention at some point. However, it wasn’t until I read about Annie that I learned of its existence.

Having always eagerly described herself as an only child, Beth Luxenberg (the author’s mother) did her best to conceal a sister long hidden away at Eloise. However, after her doctor mentioned a mysterious comment to Mr. Luxenberg, the author felt compelled to prove the existence of an aunt he’d never met. With the deftness of his trade, Luxenberg tempers his unyielding journalistic skills with empathy and sensitivity as he coaxes his older relations into pasts best left forgotten.

“Pursuing the secret would ultimately lead me back to the beginning of the twentieth century, through Ellis Island to the crowded streets of Detroit’s Jewish immigrant communities, through the spectacular boom of the auto industry’s early years and the crushing bust of the Depression, through the wartime revival that transformed the city into the nation’s Arsenal of Democracy, through the Holocaust that brought a relative to Detroit and into my mother’s secret, through the postwar exodus that robbed the city’s old neighborhoods of both population and prosperity.”

And  this is exactly what Steve Luxenberg does.  As we move back in time, the anticipation builds as more pieces fall into place ultimately bringing us closer to solving this mystery. At times horrific, Luxenberg holds your hand as unbelievable truths come to light. Poignant yet informative, this is the gift that keeps on giving. Full of Detroit’s colorful history, this true mystery is without a doubt destined to be a  Michigan Notable Book.

A NOTE: When I began asking people if they had heard of Eloise, they usually talked about it as a sight for paranormal activity. When I tried to look at footage of Eloise, YouTube seemed to back that up. However, there are legitimate sites and some pretty cool information on Eloise and its remaining structures. My condolences to those of you whose relations remain nameless and faceless in the mist of Eloise.

-Post by Megan Shaffer


Angels and Sweet, Sweet Pie

There are two books that I recently finished which are listed below with my brief review attached.  They are newer titles that currently sit on or very near the latest best seller lists. Friends will often ask me if I have read a particular title, or for the suggestion of a solid personal or book club read. Because it takes a lot of time and thought to do a detailed review of each book, I am posting these “quickies” for your reference and perusal.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I did not read The Shadow of the Wind, Zafon’s first novel which was a biggie with the book clubs. However, if it is anything like The Angel’s Game, I think I’ll pass. This bizarre mystery reminds me more of a Harry Potter meets Dante’s Inferno, and seemed to me a poor attempt at chills and thrills.

Dating back to the early 1900’s, The Angel’s Game spins the tale of David Martin, a struggling author who takes on an eerie writing project which ultimately throws him into the depths of his own personal hell. An abundance of dark alleys, secret doors, and hidden rooms left me both confused and exhausted as it stretched out over the span of its 531 pages. The word plodding comes to mind and a finger must be pointed at Lucia Graves for what is, in my opinion, a weak translation. I find it hard to believe Ruiz-Zafon’s original version would have a hooker in the 1900’s ask someone to “invite me in for a snack.”

*Take a pass on this one

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Unless some sweetness at the bottom lie,

who cares for all the crinkling of the pie?

This book is so different, so engaging, and so much fun that I can’t stop suggesting it to people.  After a stretch of hum-drum fiction, I was pleasantly caught off guard by this Debut Dagger Award winner. I’m typically not a mystery reader, but this is not your average mystery as it holds one of the most plucky, winsome main characters I have ever met.

Flavia de Luci is only eleven but trust me when I tell you, she’ll keep you busy for 373 straight pages. An aspiring chemist, Flavia’s intellectual capabilities might be a bit of a stretch, but author Alan Bradley had me clearly convinced that this girl can do it all. As Flavia dukes it out with her two sisters, Bradley’s hot, literary knowledge tucks itself neatly into the family discord adding serious prose to the dialogue. The biggest treat… life through the eyes of an eleven-year-old.

*This witty, sharp, and charming novel is a must. A quick read, I would suggest it as a great personal choice and an entertainer for any book club.

My Sister, My Love

*I felt compelled to offer a review after yesterday’s post “The Doctorow Is In” for those of you who might be interested in Joyce Carol Oates. This is one of many Oates offerings, but will give you a good idea of the many squeamish subjects on which she chooses to pen.

If you are new to the works of Joyce Carol Oates, I strongly suggest that you choose something other than My Sister, My Love on which to cut your teeth. Oates loves to walk on the dark side, but this is a Stygian piece even for her. My Sister, My Love: The Intimate Story of Skylar Rampike, is a novel surrounding the murder of six year old figure skating prodigy Bliss (nee Edna Louise) Rampike.  Ten years after her murder, her story is told in the voice of now nineteen year old Skylar Rampike, Bliss’s brother.  Through his “unique personal document” he takes us on a hideously freakish journey of the events leading up to and following Bliss’s death.

“Ladiez ‘n’ gentlemen here is a little-girl skater who is truly little no word but exquisite! angelic: fan-tas-tic!  there is a gasp from the audience what a luscious sight: platinum-blond cotton-candy hair cascading in curls..she’s wearing a black-lace Spanish veil mantilla d’you call it?  qui-ite a dramatic costume for a five-year-old…left shoulder daringly bared tight black-sequined bodice black taffeta skirt very very short black lace matching panties peeking out beneath black eyelet stockings and sexy black leather high-top skates like boots…”

If images of Jon Benet Ramsey come to mind, you are correct.  The Rampikes are merely a thin veil loosely shrouding their Ramsey counterparts. The Rampike family resides not in Colorado, but rather in upscale Fair Hills, NJ.  With philandering, head-honcho, ex-jock “Bix” as the Rampike patriarch, and neurotic, social climbing, ex-skater wife Betsey at his heel, we sit uncomfortably on the sidelines and watch as Skyler rewinds and plays back his scarred and drug hazed (prescription) childhood.

Bix (corporate monster) and Betsey (insecure parvenu) Rampike move us through the grotesque world of the quintessential self-absorbed parent. Washing their hands of any parental responsibility, Skyler rehashes the outsourcing of their love through nannies, tutors, and a barrage of pediatric specialists.  Between Skyler’s school (Bliss is privately tutored due to skating practices) and Betsey’s micro-management of his personality, Oates goes to town on today’s grandiose culture and specifically the frightening trends of pediatric psychopharmacology exposing the raw truth (though exaggerated) that we live in a medicated culture.

A self declared “vulgar accident of history” and a child born unto tabloid hell, Skylar (Burke Ramsey) represents the sickening world of the tabloid and its power over public opinion, so much so that Skyler catches himself wondering if he actually did kill Bliss.  Through his character, Oates gives painful insight into Skyler’s (Burke’s) forgotten life, left in ruins by the media circus surrounding the death of his sister.

Not for the faint of heart, reading My Sister, My Love feels more like an extreme sport than a literary venture. Laced with footnotes, footnoted footnotes, malapropisms, and intentional solecisms, My Sister, My Love is a tough read.  Combined with themes of pedophilia, pediatric pharmacology, the educational system, hazards of the media, consumerism, religious fanaticism, infidelity…you get the picture, it is simply too much.

Disturbing on so many levels, one does have to concede that this must have been an extremely difficult book to write. The seductive images of Bliss literally make you squirm as does the deeply disturbing character of pedophile Gunther Ruscha whom Oates attentively weaves into Skyler’s story.  No doubt Ms. Oates must have spent countless hours in the vast world of cyberspace researching America’s most notorious unsolved crime and the dark side of human nature; a place where Joyce Carol Oates never fears to go.

-Post by Megan Shaffer