Book Reviews

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Talk about synchronicity. When I decided that I was going to re-read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time for the Library’s Building Bridges Book Club, I already happened to be reading Henry Louis Gates’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, a collection of profiles of prominent African-American men.

The first profile in Gates’ book is of James Baldwin, whose writing Gates fell in love with while in high school (Gates even got in trouble with his teacher for using too many commas in imitation of Baldwin’s architectural style) and whom he finally got to meet as an adult.

Baldwin had been so highly regarded as one of the voices of Black America in the early ‘60s that Time magazine featured Baldwin on its cover when The Fire Next Time was published. But by the time Gates met him, Baldwin had been bypassed in favor of more radical voices. 

Baldwin fell into the shadows in his later years because the time called for strong and strident voices, whereas he had always been very careful in his language and balanced in his thinking. For Baldwin, there were no easy answers – he’d likely do poorly in the current sound-byte political climate – and his style reflects that careful consideration and reflection on ideas.

Spectacular Now

Every now and then, we spend a little time doing something we know is wrong. Sometimes, especially if we get caught, we admit to the crime. But sometimes the crime feels a little too good to let go. Such is the case with Sutter Keely, a senior in high school on the brink of graduation. He has the world at his fingertips — and an ice-cold glass of 7&7 in his actual fingers. Constantly.

Through the expert recommendation of Central Youth Services Supervisor Jamie Mayo, I stepped outside of my reading comfort zone and gave The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp a try. It’s very straightforward and deals with very real issues, so that wasn’t necessarily a stretch. But I was also thrown an extra challenge — to listen to the book as an audio novel.

Only one word can describe it: Spectacular.

Reader MacLeod Andrews’ honey drawl brings the book to brilliant life, and gives an understanding and compassion to the characters that is unforgettable. Through the entire book, you’ll want to smack the self-titled "Sutterman" upside the head, hug him back in euphoric joy, and bite your nails at who might die at his hands.

And you’ll forgive him for all of it.

About the Author

Love warps the mind more than a little. In every woman’s past is a tale of a love gone wrong. These tales usually make for great conversation over brunch with the gals. “What were you thinking?!” “He was never good enough for you!” “Good thing you got out of that one alive!” For readers who want to avoid all the ooey-gooey-I-love-you-tooey sentimentality of the holiday of hearts, try one of these heart-shakers.

It’s one thing to fall in love with the wrong man, but what happens when the man wants to be the woman? This dilemma faces Allison Banks in Trans-Sister Radio by Christopher Bohjalian. With his distinctive grace and appreciation for ordinary people in extraordinary situations, Christopher Bohjalian plots the simple and complex changes endured when Allison’s boyfriend, Dana Stevens, confides his greatest secret—he longs to be a woman.

After reading The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir of her dysfunctional, impoverished childhood, you can’t help but have certain expectations of her latest book, Half-Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel. You want to know why her mother, Rose Mary Walls, turned out to be such a neglectful, bereft parent. You want to know why in the world Rose Mary would marry such a ne`er do well. Walls, however, holds these questions at bay with an almost unbelievable story of her grandmother, Lily Casey, told in first-person. 

Members of the Plaza’s Barista Book Group, which read this book in January, all agreed that Lily Casey was really something else. The opening of the book gives you quick insight into the indomitable spirit of Lily Casey, who at 8-years-old is ushering her siblings into a tree to protect them from an oncoming flood. Lily devises a game to keep them awake throughout the night until the flood waters subside.  

If God is good and loving, why does He allow so much suffering? Why does God let our loved ones die but allows others to live and prosper? Why does He remain silent and leave our most urgent prayers unanswered? These are the faith-testing questions posed in Lynn Austin’s latest historical-fiction novel, While We’re Far Apart.

Set in a Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in 1943, three characters’ stories intersect as World War II progresses and life on the home front becomes more and more difficult.

An elderly Jewish landlord, Jacob Mendel, grieves the death of his wife in a car accident, as his son, Avraham is trapped in a war-ravaged Hungary. 12-year-old Esther Shaffer is angry at her father, Eddie, who decides to enlist in the army right after the loss of his wife. Penny Goodrich, desperately in love with Eddie, volunteers to take care of Eddie’s children in hopes that he will eventually return her love and marry her.

Jacob isolates himself from the outside world, spending most of his time listening to the news and searching for the whereabouts of his son. Penny takes on the challenging responsibility of raising resentful Esther and Peter, while starting a new job as a bus driver. Without the presence of her parents, Esther experiences loneliness, the growing pains of a teenager, and the fear of losing her father to the war.

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