Book Reviews

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Kansas City and its surrounding lands have inspired – and starred in – some fine fiction. Some of the authors in this roundup of locally grown novels disguise their native habitat, while others name it outright. Still other authors call KC home and drop their characters in foreign lands or challenging moral situations.

Readers who dip into the works of our local literati will not be disappointed and will be proud to say, “I know this place!” or “This author lives HERE!”

Dust off your spurs, slap on your chaps and saddle up your favorite reading chair to enjoy Patrick deWitt’s gritty and darkly amusing new western, The Sisters Brothers.

Set in 1851 in Oregon and California, The Sisters Brothers tells the dusty, violent tale of Eli and Charlie Sisters, sibling henchmen for a mysterious and wealthy man known only as The Commodore. Their mission is to kill Hermann Kermit Warm, a strange little man who possesses a mysterious formula wanted by The Commodore, and who was last seen behaving bizarrely on his gold claim outside of Sacramento.  

From Oregon City, Eli and Charlie set out on an unexpectedly life-altering journey across the western frontier to find and dispose of Warm. Along the way, the outlaw brothers instigate shootouts, prowl saloons, meet unique characters, and put themselves in settings and situations common in traditional western stories. 

At first glance, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen isn’t exactly a book that brings to mind toe-tapping, rollicking good fun. The cover portrays the skeleton of a dinosaur, and the margins of the book contain all types of diagrams, maps and charts that you must read to fully comprehend the story. 

The author has designed the book in a way that requires you to experience the world of his main character and narrator, T.S. Spivet, through his words and his science. This is a great concept, considering T.S. Spivet is an aspiring cartographer who synthesizes the world through the maps that he creates. However, while a great concept, it is an eccentric flair that often makes for an arduous reading experience.

Yet, surprisingly, I would not have removed any of the maps or sub-text. The maps and sub-texts do exactly what they are intended to do; they help you understand how Spivet sees and feels about the world around him. The maps also make you realize that there are limits to what science can explain. (For examples of what they look like, check out the book’s interactive website.)

Wicked Girls

Many of us are familiar with the story of the Salem Witch Trials. In 1692, a group of young girls accused several men and women in Salem Village, Mass., of being witches. The girls appeared to be equipped with a special gift for identifying witches, but what were these teenagers really like? 

Were they really tortured by unseen witches and saving the town from the devil?  Or were they merely unhappy teenage girls thriving on attention? In Wicked Girls: A Novel of the Salem Witch Trials, Stephanie Hemphill presents a fictionalized account of the events in Salem from the perspective of the young girls who accused so many.

The girls in Salem Village are often treated with disregard, if paid any attention at all.  Ann, Mercy, Margaret, Abigail, Betty, Elizabeth, and Susannah, all have interesting relationships. Ann and Margaret are cousins, Mercy is a servant in Ann’s household, and Betty is the Reverend’s daughter. They range in age from 8 to 17 years old, yet they are all looking for new games to play, new things to learn, and interesting ways to pass the time. 

Eugene O'Neill by Alice Boughton, Library of Congress

Hooray for the Summer of 1912!  For that summer gave us two of the greatest tragedies written in English: The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey into Night, both by Eugene O’Neill. That said, O’Neill wrote neither play in 1912, nor was either produced in that year. 

Long Day’s Journey into Night wasn’t produced until 1956, three years after O’Neill’s death. O’Neill had requested that there be no staging of the play until he had been dead 25 years, but his wife had other ideas, and so the play opened on Broadway 22 years earlier than O’Neill had expected.

But what’s all this about 1912? The dramatic date of both plays is 1912 (Iceman is set sometime in that summer and Journey more specifically in August of that year). And that year is significant for O’Neill himself, for in the first half of ‘12, O’Neill hit bottom in a dive very much like the setting of The Iceman Cometh, and later that year, as he vacationed with his parents and elder brother in Connecticut, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and entered a sanatorium, which is exactly what happens to Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey

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