Abandoning a child–and getting away with it?

Carol Luers EymanThe first question you’ll ask when reading We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is, Why did Rosemary Cooke’s parents abandon her sister Fern at the age of 5?

And the second is, How did they get away with it?

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves book jacket

“We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves” by Karen Joy Fowler is available from the library in hardcover and in large print.

You’ll get a pretty good answer on page 77, when a key plot point is revealed.

The New York Times review of this book revealed this secret, albeit with a spoiler alert upfront. But I’m going to keep you in the dark. I want you to read the book the way Fowler intended.

What I will tell you is that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is an engaging, inventive story told by its narrator Rosemary in a sometimes confusing and deceptive way. Only gradually does she divulge the details of her family’s life over the past 40 years.

The father is a psychology professor at Indiana University who studies chimpanzees and can’t control his drinking; the mother, who could be loosely called his research assistant, becomes distant from her remaining children. Once Fern is gone, the parents leave the others in the dark about her fate. Rosemary’s older brother rebels by running away to join the world of militant animal-rights activism.

So we are left to sympathize with Rosemary. She carries physical and emotional scars from the loss of Fern, and from being thrown into her parents’ experiments in a most unorthodox way. In the end, Fowler leaves us with some hope, at least for Rosemary, her mother, and Fern, as they begin to reunite and reconcile.

Pick up the book from the library today. And no fair peeking at page 77.

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

Murder most morbid

Jen McCormack My assumptions about The Black Country by Alex Grecian were quickly proved wrong when little Hilde Rose peeked into a bird’s nest and grasped what she thought was an egg but turned out to be a human eyeball.

I picked this book off our new-fiction shelf expecting it to be an ordinary “police procedural” set in England. I read many of these murder mysteries that follow the work of detectives in solving crimes. I like the comforting patterns of evidence-gathering and interviewing of suspects and the admittedly fictional view into the life of a detective.

That scene with the bird’s nest is the ideal opening for what turns out to be an eerie novel in which the reader is aware that the children know more than any adult about the crime and an entire village appears to be trying to thwart the detectives.

Black Country is available at the library in hardcover

“Black Country” by Alex Grecian is available at the library in hardcover.

Grecian’s novel takes place in the coal-mining village of Blackhampton in 1890, just after Scotland Yard struggled with the ultimately unsolvable Jack the Ripper murders.

Two detectives are sent to help the local police find the missing Price family members: both parents and baby Oliver have been missing for weeks, and the discovery of the eyeball leads everyone to believe the worst about what happened to them.

Tales of monsters
However, instead of welcoming the detectives, the villagers act frightened and offer nothing but vague threats and stories from a nursery rhyme about monsters in the mines. Throughout the book Grecian does an excellent job of letting the reader know secrets held by the remaining Price children, making them seem sinister and malevolent.

Grecian has written a marvelous detective story in the police procedural style that I love, made even better by including England’s first forensic pathologist, the real-life Dr. Bernard Kingsley, and his state-of-the-art techniques.

If you like this kind of mystery I also recommend anything by Ruth Rendell or Val McDermid, who set a similar spooky and eerie mood in their novels.

Looking for more recommendations? Leave a comment below or email me at Jennifer.Hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Bunch of Amateurs

NPLibrarian[Editor’s note: Today we welcome Rebecca Nugent to our roster of Next Great Read reviewers.]

What do Benjamin Franklin, Mark Zuckerberg, and the painter and birder David Allen Sibley have in common?

Bunch of Amateurs book jacket

“Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character” by Jack Hitt is available from the library in hardcover.

They are three examples of the amateur spirit that author Jack Hitt considers the heart of the American character. In Bunch of Amateurs, he argues that amateurism has been a driving force behind American progress since the nation was founded.

Hitt introduces us to amateur scientists and inventors of all types– astronomers, paleontologists, even DIY biologists. These characters may at times seem like eccentrics or even oddballs, but they are always defined by a single-minded obsession with the truth as they see it. In some cases, they are right.

At the center of each story is the push and pull relationship between amateurism and professionalism. Amateurs may see professionals as constrained by their own assumptions, unable to examine new ideas without engrained prejudices. Professionals may see amateurs as uncredentialed hooligans, not worthy of attention.

Hitt introduces this dichotomy through an entertaining and comic story about John Adams and Benjamin Franklin that illustrates the clash between those who value knowledge most and those who value inventiveness most.

You may recognize Jack Hitt’s name from his many contributions to NPR’s This American Life. You may also know him from his contributions to The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, or Rolling Stone. Readers who do know his work will not be surprised that Bunch of Amateurs is a funny and charming account, full of wonder, interesting ideas, and engaging characters. Check out a copy and enjoy!

About NPLibrarian

This is the bio of the awesome NPLibrarian. Who is awesome. And whose bio is also awesome. This is another sentence. And yet another sentence. So that this looks like an actual paragraph and not just one line or even two lines. It's a proper paragraph it is. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy K9.

Garth grapples with ghastly gods

Loren RossonOne of my favorite books in high school was The Seven Altars of Dusarra, by Lawrence Watt-Evans.

It’s a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, the second in a quartet called The Lords of Dus. The Lure of the Basilisk is the first, The Sword of Bheleu the third, and The Book of Silence the fourth. The third and fourth volumes are really good, too, but none so fired my imagination like the second.

The Seven Altars of Dusarra

“The Seven Altars of Dusarra” will soon be available from the library in paperback. Click the graphic to place a hold.

The story’s hero is Garth the Overman, who is sent to a faraway city to rob the temples of some nasty cults. Planning isn’t his forte. You wouldn’t hire this guy for secrecy or low profile. He stumbles blindly into situations and relies on hack-and-slash. He kills people and then regrets it. He calls forth a citywide manhunt and has to sleep in horse stalls to avoid arrest. He’s a morally ambiguous figure like Conan, and the world he inhabits is like those of the classic pulp fantasies–decadent and grim, full of shady rogues, evil priests, and self-serving wizards.

The city of Dusarra in particular reminds me of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, especially the Street of the Temples devoted to a variety of perverse deities. There’s Tema (goddess of the moon), Andhur Regvos (god of darkness and blindness), Sai (goddess of torture and pain), Aghad (god of hate and treachery), P’hul (goddess of disease and decay), Bheleu (god of war and destruction), and finally, the one whose “name is not spoken” (god of death).

The cults are chilling if not outright ghastly. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them.

Garth gets into big trouble with the priests of Aghad, who plot an ugly revenge that carries into the fourth book. In another temple he commits an appalling massacre–I’d forgotten how much blood he spills without a second thought to get what he needs.

I’d also forgotten how good these stories are; it’s been a treat to reread them.

In the post-Game of Thrones era we tend to think George Martin invented  “brutal fantasy,” but as I see it, Martin essentially took the dark amoral elements of pulp fantasy (also known as sword-and-sorcery fantasy) and brought them into high fantasy. Game of Thrones has the high epic sweep of Lord of the Rings, but it also has the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of pulps like The Seven Altars of Dusarra.

I need to revisit more of these pulps. I’m sure I still have them in boxes somewhere.

Check out the Lords of Dus series. If you like what you read, try these next:

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Sophie SmithIndia. The awe-inspiring crush of humanity. Roads crowded with every sort of vehicle and person and animal.

These are the images, I’m told, that stick with any visitor.

I have never been to India. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has traveled there for work or school or pleasure has described its overwhelming beauty, alongside its devastating filth.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers book jacket

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo is available from the library in hardcover, large print, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers delves deep into the muck of one slum in Mumbai and washes away the grime to expose the people eking out a life in any way possible.

Her story opens with the burning of a one-legged prostitute. The tragedy, as the story unfolds, is not just the death of the burned woman, Fatima, or the actions of the Husain family who live next door to her, but rather the culture of poverty and competition in Mumbai’s slums. Issues of caste, religion, money, and power set both real and artificial barriers among the residents of the slum.

Paths to survival
Boo’s narrative nonfiction follows a number of members of this community, each looking for a way to survive the slum either by beating the oppressive and corrupt system or by finding a way out. In all cases, this is much easier said than done.

For Abdul, it is making money by stealing trash and recycling it.

For Asha, it is gaining power through sex and corrupt government.

For Manju, it is continuing her education and escaping before being married off as a valuable commodity.

For many, the only way out is death.

All of this takes place in the slum that is literally on the grounds of  Mumbai’s international airport. It emphasizes just how oblivious visitors and people in successful social classes can be when it comes to the lives in urban slums. But even those in the slums are living complicated, full lives, with challenges vastly different than those around them.

As globalization spreads into forgotten areas of cities around the world, we need to remember the people whose lives are impacted, whose homes were displaced to allow our planes to taxi to the runway.

What fiction or nonfiction have you read lately that has opened your eyes?

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

The Interestings

Carol Luers EymanI don’t follow any celebrities on Facebook, but I do think authors are interesting people and so I’m nosy about their lives. Who’s in a writing group with whom? Which writers were classmates in what MFA program?

The Interestings

“The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer is available from the library in hardcover, large print, downloadable audiobook and (soon) audiobook on CD.

I love knowing that 2010 Nashua Reads author Elizabeth Berg is buddies with Jane Hamilton. (In fact, it was on her recommendation we invited Jane to the library in 2012.)

So I was thrilled to find myself, along with other members of the Friends of the Library’s Nashua Reads Author Committee, sharing dinner with Julia Glass after her visit to the library in October.

Books dominated the conversation, but I wasn’t going to leave without a bit of gossip.

“Do you know Meg Wolitzer?” I asked Julie on a hunch (juicy tidbit: Julia Glass likes to be called “Julie”). Based on my reading of her novel The Uncoupling, I had decided that Wolitzer was another interesting author.

“Oh, yes,” Julie said, and proceeded to give us her take on each of Meg’s novels. I decided to take her advice and read The Interestings. Wouldn’t it be fun to find out what types of characters this author-friend of Julia Glass found interesting herself?

The novel paints a panorama of the last 40 years, from the point of view of a group of friends who meet in 1974 at Spirit-in-the-Woods, a camp for teenagers passionate about the arts. The friends spend their evenings lying around the tepee talking about Günter Grass, Anaïs Nin, and other heady topics, so they dub themselves “The Interestings.”

Class tensions
The characters’ lives remain intertwined to the present day, when they’re in their fifties. The book is largely about class differences–Ethan creates an animated TV show that makes him and his wife hyperrich, but income inequality distresses them. They alleviate their guilt by offering friends Jules and Denis large sums of money and by starting an anti-child-labor charity.

This is also a novel of time and place. That first summer at camp plays out in front of a backdrop of President Nixon’s resignation. Jonah begins dating other men in 1981 New York City, just as AIDS begins to menace. Denis is incapacitated by depression in a pre-Prozac world.

For several of the friends, the aspirations that exhilarated them in their camp days are deflated in adulthood. In fact, Denis, who only married into the group later, calls out Jules on her obsession with Spirit-in-the-Woods, telling her that the exciting thing about it had been that they were young at the time, and if she’d gone to a different camp at that time, she’d have met different friends she’d have found equally exciting. Then, he closes with the most scathing observation in the book: “The fact is you’re not all that interesting.”

Well, to me they were interesting enough to read about for 481 pages. I loved Wolitzer’s narration–at once witty, omniscient, and gushing but sometimes timid and indecisive. If you can’t convince your book group to select this book, no great loss, because the author discusses it as she narrates, giving multiple takes on a character’s motivations or how events might unfold.

Julie Glass, thanks for the suggestion!

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

Do cowboys go to the dentist?

Doc is available from the library in hardcover.

“Doc” is available from the library in hardcover.

Jen McCormack In Doc, Mary Doria Russell takes iconic historical figures (Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson) and tells a fantastic story that gives them life and personality, making them seem like someone you’ve met.

Doc is a favorite for me because it combines history of the American West (Dodge City) with history of medicine. You may know that Doc Holliday was a gambler, a faro dealer, and a friend of Wyatt Earp, but you probably didn’t know he was a dentist by trade as well. If that thought seems ho-hum, just imagine practicing dentistry on men and women who have never seen a toothbrush, let alone floss, using barber stools in your exam rooms and whiskey as a painkiller!

Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday

But dentistry doesn’t carry the whole story (as fascinating as it is). Doc is truly a tale of a complicated young man and his friendships with the Earp brothers, his stormy relationship with the prostitute Kate Harony, and his unsuccessful struggle with tuberculosis. John Henry Holliday is a brilliant man, generous to the point of foolishness and a steadfast loyal friend: Russell will make you love him and hope for a better ending than you know is inevitable.

I should warn you that Russell’s novels are not light reading–they are thoroughly researched and rich with details. Every book opens with a list of characters and their background, something you’ll find yourself referring to frequently as you read.

And boy do these characters talk! Russell gives her characters plenty of dialogue, all in the dialect of the time and place, adding to the feeling that the reader has been transported to Dodge City in 1878.

Doc won’t be a quick read that you can sneak in during lunch breaks; he will invite you in for a leisurely visit to the Old West, and you’ll find it hard to leave when you’re done.

If Doc isn’t available I highly recommend any of Mary Doria Russell’s historical fiction. If you’d really like to read another novel set in the old west, leave a comment below and I’ll suggest some other great titles. Or email me at Jennifer.Hinderer@nashualibrary.org.

About Jen McCormack

Jen McCormack is the director of the Nashua Public Library. Previously she was director of the Tewksbury (Mass.) Public Library and assistant director and reference librarian at the Amesbury (Mass.) Public Library. She studied history at UNH and earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl

Lost Boy, Lost Girl by Peter Straub

“Lost Boy, Lost Girl” by Peter Straub is available at the library in hardcover and large print.

Loren RossonLost Boy, Lost Girl reminded me that I haven’t outgrown the horror genre, that I can still be scared in surprising ways.

This story of two boys who become obsessed with an abandoned house blends two genres that Peter Straub had previously kept distinct, horror and mystery.

Their obsession drives the start of the story, and the eventual look inside is dreadful: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives.

We have no idea what Jimbo saw, but it’s a terrifying scene regardless.

Pages later we find out:

“A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. I was so scared. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me. Like ball bearings or something, silvery.”

That may fall flat in the retelling (it could certainly pass for boilerplate formula in any work of horror fiction), but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.)

But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never really sure what’s going on.

Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question–the question of the whole book–is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter.

I’ll say no more, except that I finished Lost Boy, Lost Girl in only three readings. It’s a story that has stayed with me for a long time and has easily become one of my favorite horror novels.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

Bring back the death panel

Carol Luers EymanAs a soldier during World War II, Katy Butler’s father lost his left arm to a German shell in Italy.

He lost his dignity to a stroke in 2001. And his dignity eluded him until he died in 2007.

As Katy recounts in Knocking on Heaven’s Door, soon after the stroke a well-intentioned physical therapist taught Jeff Butler water exercises that led to a hernia. Without prompt surgery, it would become gangrenous.

Knocking on Heaven's Door

Click the graphic to reserve “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Katy Butler, available at the library in hardcover and large print.

But Jeff’s 80-year-old heart needed a pacemaker installed before he could tolerate the operation.

In the heat of the moment, his family agreed to it.

That was when the death panel should have intervened.

“Death panel” was an inflammatory term tossed around during the health-care reform debate a few years ago. It’s what opponents said we’d face if Medicare was allowed to pay doctors $200 to discuss end of life planning with patients and their families.

Installing Jeff’s pacemaker seemed humane at the time. But the family wasn’t aware that it could keep him alive until it was inhumane to let him live, or that if they withdrew permission for the device they would be fought tooth and nail by the medical establishment–two things they might have learned, if they’d had access to a “death panel.”

The human side of the story
Before opening Knocking on Heaven’s Door I already “knew” Katy Butler, having heard her interviewed on The Diane Rehm Show. As I read I became enmeshed in her family’s tangle of frictions and resentments, as well as their love, as she masterfully chronicled the human side of their story. But as disturbing to me were the sociological, political, and economic morals of her tale.

Katy Butler continually lays out Medicare’s perverse financial incentives, juxtaposing what the government was willing to pay for life-lengthening interventions and how much less it was willing to pay for allowing him a natural death. Thousands of dollars to the cardiologist to implant the pacemaker; next to nothing if the doctor instead spent time explaining alternative, palliative treatments–treatments Jeff and his family likely would have chosen and that would have saved them all years of anguish.

Medical progress doesn’t necessarily reduce suffering, as Katy explains:

“Each medical advance that fixes the body without helping the mind increases widespread survival into extreme old age and fuels the dementia epidemic . . . The democratization of longevity, which amplified the dementia epidemic, is also responsible for the caregiving crisis.” (p. 140)

And, she points out, caregiving contributes to economic inequality: People hang on to life, often beyond their own or their families’ wishes, requiring long-term care, paid for with the inheritances that could have helped their descendants keep a foot in the middle class. Or, if the family members provide the care themselves, they suffer economically from lost earnings as they give up their paid jobs.

Although truths like these may sound cruel, in Katy Butler’s case, bringing them out of the shadows is a final demonstration of love for the father she adored.

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About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

Sophie’s Top Picks of 2013

Sophie SmithI love end-of-the-year best-book lists. I get a great deal of satisfaction  going through them and finding which ones I’ve read on my own, which ones I’ve at least heard about, and which ones are brand new on my radar.

I went through the books I read this year (86 so far) and identified my top 10. Of those, six were written in 2013. Two of my favorites, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Gulp by Mary Roach, I’ve already talked about. The other four I’ll mention quickly, and then let you get back to your holiday festivities.

Tenth of December by George Saunders. This book is a collection of shortTenth of December stories that are beyond amazing. They all pivot on a slightly surreal interpretation of American dreams and American disenchantment. I read this book in early January, and it’s stuck with me all year.

Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. This book is a hilariWhere'd You Go Bernadetteous and touching account of a reclusive mother who disappears, and her precocious daughter who pieces together what’s happened. The book is a series of newspaper clippings, chat transcripts, emails, and other assorted ephemera which create the captivating and funny narrative.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. In an age where hackers are getting more and more Alif the Unseenattention, this book paints a fascinating fictional portrait of a young Arab hacker in an unnamed part of the Middle East. He’s working to take down the heavy hand of the government, and in doing so, codes himself into a fantastical world ripe with Gulf mythology and legend. It’s a different type of fantasy book, one that I highly recommend.

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This short book is a beautiful and haunting tale sitting on the edge between reality and fantasy. The language is beautiful and the story is tight. The world Gaiman creates is powerful in both its beauty and its terror, which you feel firsthand through the eyes of the narrator.

What was on your list this year? Which best book lists do you rely on for quality recommendations? Or, if you want to know any more of my favorites of 2013 or past years, feel free to email me at sophie.smith@nashualibrary.org.

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.