September 1, 2014

Valentine’s Day Advice for ‘Late to the Party’ People

2-red-heartHappy Valentine’s Day to all our readers!  Our revered advice columnist Jennifer Petty Mann has some great suggestions for those who haven’t quite got themselves together yet for the big day … and don’t just want to go down the same old route of flowers and/or chocolates.  Read on!

Dear Jen,
Valentines day is always so generic.  Chocolate.  Flowers.  Hallmark cards.  What can I do that’s different?
Sick of same O

Dear Sick of Same O,
I hear you.  Excellent question.  Of course love is personal, but being a romantic goofball is never out of style.  Don’t be afraid to put it out there in your own way.

  • You can make cookies in the shape of your beloved a initials.
  • You can get kids washable crayons and write notes on the bathroom mirror.
  • You can get henna ( which comes off in a few days) and write stuff on your arms.  Like Melanie Griffiths huge ” I heart Antonio”* on her arm.
  • Make a David Letterman Top Ten list of reasons you love your beloved.
  • You can play 9 1/2 weeks with the fridge.  Take weird food in fridge, dip it in chocolate and make them guess what it is.  Kids would love this.  Hey, is that a vegetable?  No no sweetie.  It’s chocolate.

Anyway, have fun.  That’s the bottom line.  Good luck!

* seriously! who doesn’t?  It’ll be hard to explain, but I may do that anyway …

Jen Petty Mann

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‘Dear Jen’ Debuts Today with Interior Décor Advice

jennifermannWe are very pleased to debut another advice column today.  Unlike our popular ‘Dear Cammy’ column, which is targeted at middle-schoolers, this ‘Dear Jen’ column is for adults.  Our very own Jen Mann, who has been our incredible book reviewer for more years than we can remember, is turning her hand to yet another thing that she does extraordinarily well.  And that is dispensing advice … so read on and if you have a question for Jen, you can reach her at jpmann@sbcglobal.net

Dear Jen,

I need a change of décor in my living room, but I don’t want to hire someone or spend a lot of money. What small changes can I make that will make a big difference?

In A Rut.

Dearest in a Rut,

Not to worry.  This is not only an easy fix but a fun one.  Look around your room.  Take out 10 things.  Pictures, objects d’art, pillows, throws, plants, anything that moves.  Stick it in another room, better yet, put it on the dining room table where you can see it.

Now, look at the room.  Is there a difference?  If it looks noticeable barer, then you’re halfway there.  What colors stand out?  Walls?  A sofa?  The rug?  This is the color you want to work with.  Pick a color that you love.

If one doesn’t come to mind or you are having a panic attack, go to a paint shop.  Pull 10 colors you like.  Bring them home and stand in the doorway.  Hold them up one by one and see what appeals to you.

Then take that swatch or swatches with you around your house.  Do you have anything that jumps out?  You’d be surprised what you have.

If nothing grabs you.  Go to home goods with your paint chips.  Get a pillow or two.  Get silk flowers.  Get a throw.  A weird statue, a basket.  Anything that is this color is fair game.  Take your prizes home and place them around the room.  Move them around.  Nothing is set in stone.

Play play, play!

If you’re still in a panic, send me a photo and I’ll tell you where to put stuff.  The stuff you took out can be put elsewhere in the house.  Never be afraid to shake it up.

Hope that helps.

If not, there’s always the Monkey Farm Happy Hour…

Jen 

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100 … and Counting: Mann Completes a Century of Book Reviews

The amazing Jen Petty Mann continues her book review journey today with her 100th review!  So this is a good time to look back on her previous 99 – and if you see her about town or on Facebook (or anywhere else for that matter), take a minute to say a huge thank you to her for always delightful, witty and incisive reviews, which have graced these pages for many years.

The Good Nurse
A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder
By Charles Graeber

The Good Nurse_2Two questions.  If someone doesn’t see you commit the actual murder but turns a blind eye to the smoking gun are they culpable? If an institutions hands you the gun are they culpable?

Corporate America and organized healthcare have a lot to reckon for with regard to taking health care from personal aid, medicine and bedside  reassurance to a money making enterprise with the dollar as God.  In doing so they have opened the door to people like Charles Cullen.  People with a rage and a desire to hurt others and themselves but lacking the will to walk up to a stranger and shoot them in the face.  Murder is murder but a step or so removed may be easier to digest.

Charles Cullen was handed the means to exercise his demons and the means to keep on developing them by a network of people more concerned with personal culpability than the Hippocratic Oath*

The devil’s advocacy aside, there is a murderer who was allowed to operate in a multitude of hospitals with the ultimate outcome being the deaths of hundreds of patients.  Human resources ignored or removed evidence of suspicion and likely outright illegal activity to escape responsibility.  Subsequently Cullen was free to move on as he chose.

Charles Graeber is the only journalist he would talk to.  He is the only man who was given a firsthand view into the dangerously coherent psyche of a mass murderer.  Over 16 years, Charles Cullen murdered up to 300 patients in multiple hospitals.  He was investigated, he was terminated, he was promoted and demoted and scrutinized and in every case, until the very end, he was free to go.  To acknowledge his crimes was to admit fault in the system.  Clearly no one wanted to do that.

Graeber meticulously details the 16-year rampage.  He presents a mostly lucid, clever, occasionally compassionate father, son and boyfriend.  Many, many people turned a blind eye to something they surely suspected.  In frighteningly simple ways, Cullen administered fatal doses of easily stolen medicine to any patient he deemed fit.  Possibly his inability to kill himself manifested itself in the murder of hundreds of others.

Graeber does an excellent job analyzing not only the psychotic machinations of Cullen but the horrific culpability of these medical institutions. Criminal on all counts.  If it were not for a few brave people who fought tooth and nail to unveil the truth who know how much more Charles Cullen would have done.

An excellent book with a fascinating premise and a very clearly stated summation of event, The Good Nurse is a book you need to read.**

*  The Hippocratic Oath( or the updated declaration of Geneva)  is an oath historically taken by physicians and other healthcare professionals swearing to practice medicine honestly.There isn’t a legal obligation to take the oath but still as many as 98% of American medical students do.

** and personally, my next illness will be treated by a shaman and a bunch of squirrels out in my yard rather than some of these hospitals. ( I know, I know, im getting letters) sigh.

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‘House of Suns’ by Alastair Reynolds

hosue_of_suns_180OK. You know who you are, you purveyor of science fiction literature hereto unreviewed by me. You are now solely responsible for my little head wandering off to space. With a few exceptions (The Host (12/05/08), I don’t read a lot of sci-fi and I think that’s about to change.

Many, many brilliant minds (not pompously including myself here – just sayin’) write and read sci-fi for the same reasons theologians like Phillip Pullman write fantasy. Things that are inexplicable in our day to day lives may have an explanation that lies outside of the realm of normalcy.

Religion and science have long sought to face these conundrums. Funny they should fight against each other as often as they do because, with a few idiotic closed minded exceptions, they are both have the same goal.*

People want answers. Indeed we all lie awake in bed and ponder existence. Alastair Reynolds has a PhD in Astronomy. He trained as an astrophysicist. Now he tells us what he lay awake in bed thinking about..

Six million years ago a girl named Abigail Gentian wanted more. She wanted to explore and be free. She wanted power and love. We all do, but she had a means at her disposal that we do not. She clones herself. She actually “shatters” herself into one thousand male and female copies.

They explore a world, a universe … what even to call it? Of empires both human and otherwise. Intellectual capabilities are beyond reason. Travel is beyond reason. Virtually anything is possible but the existence of some human qualities we recognize — love, anger, betrayal, sorrow — make it relatable. Its really cool.**

Campion and Purslane are two “shatterlings” who have bonded. There are mysteries afoot. Someone is killing off the Gentian line. Do they know too much or have they missed the point and need to start again? The book can be a little verbose (don’t even…) and I caught my mind wandering, but hang in there. You need to get to page 565 on your own.

The ending is worth it.

The full circle, theological, scientific proposal is truly wonderful.

Really, really wonderful.

*I will restrain myself to saying that the best religions are the open-minded, exploratory, all-encompassing ones. Those that condemn, pigeon hole and exclude infuriate me.

**cool
The best way to say something is neat-o, awesome, or swell. The phrase “cool” is very relaxed, never goes out of style, and people will never laugh at you for using it, very convenient for people like me who don’t care about what’s “in.”
Homestar is cool. The Red Sox are cool. Twinkies are cool.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Boot_jkt-182Right now my toenails are pink. They look very nice and I enjoy smiling down at them, but I can’t help feel a bit like a total spank. Cheryl Strayed lost six of hers. I’m guessing the remaining four were not visions of loveliness. Frankly, it’s a small sacrifice to have made in light of the enormity of her accomplishment both internally and externally.

She was lost and she decided not to rely on someone else to pick her up, not to whine, not to accept her state complacently but to get the hell up and do something. Ninety percent of success is showing up.

Cheryl had a tough childhood with no fatherly support and made subsequently predictable choice regarding men. She pushes away one man who could save her – knowing deep down she has to do it herself, and remains attracted to other men who will only make her feel worse. The loss of her mother sends her over the proverbial edge.

She is not a professional outdoors person. She is not a skilled backpacker. She has virtually no money and lots of time. She decides to do something alone. Something tough. Something where she will be left to face her inner demons with no distraction. She decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Eleven hundred miles. From the Mojave desert up through California to Oregon to Washington state.

“When I had no roof, I made audacity my roof”.* It really is brilliant. I admire her audacity. She does too. Imagine the sense of accomplishment. The sense of pride in overcoming her own obstacles on her own terms. She just keeps on keeping on. She meets wonderful people (with the exception of the nasty old couple at the Whitehorse Campground.**). Everyone looks after one another in a way that is reminiscent of World Made By Hand. (1/09). I love that small community tenderness. It serves her well.

Not only is her trek worth discovery, but also her telling of her tale is quite well done. She has a natural ability to capture detail that makes wild an excellent book.***

Author’s Notes: * Robert Pensky “ Samurai Song”

**WHITEHORSE CAMPGROUND

Quincy, CA 95971-6025. Tel: (530)

Guess what, they closed. HA! What goes around comes around, meanies …

*** re read A Walk In The Woods, Bill Bryson (3/10) for a grand story of The Appalachian trail.

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Анна Каренина by Leo Tolstoy

Anna_Karenina_163x259First off, sorry to anyone who was excited for a word from my dear mother, but she is a bit preoccupied at the moment, so I’ll be doing the review this week. Some of you might remember me from our joint review of Hamlet (in which, to be frank, I wrote terribly.) but enough about me, let’s get to the book.

In a letter to a friend, Tolstoy wrote of Anna Karenina, stating that it would be his only ‘great novel’. And he was correct on it being great (but maybe not his only great novel, because I can’t imagine anyone would want to endure all 1,225 pages of War and Peace if it were dreadful.)

Our (sort-of) heroine, Anna Karenina, has seemingly everything she could want — beauty, money, social position, and a loving son. But then she cheats on her husband (who, by the way, is a total jerk) with the young officer Count Vronsky. This, to put it bluntly, ruins her entire life.

However, among the gloom and doom of Anna’s story, there is the love story between Kitty (another poor girl lured in by Vronsky) and Levin (Anna’s brother’s friend). If you can catch it, there is a great event of foreshadowing regarding our poor Anna’s fate, when Vronsky and Anna’s brother, Stepen, go to the train station to meet Anna and Countess Vronsky.

So, this book was a little depressing, but that’s the nineteenth-century Russians for you. It was beautifully written, although some translations are a bit musty (but if you speak Russian, you’re home free).

It’s worth all 819 pages.

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‘Explosive Eighteen’ by Janet Evanovich

Explosive_18_by_Janet_Evanovich_180x272Can you believe I have written almost 100 of these little buggers ( I mean, jewels)? You poor people. What have I put you through. Take note that the rest of my family * is in the paper this week too, so maybe I am not a total failure.

I have read so many things lately that its really is hard to choose which to write about. Hollis was reading Dante while I was reading Diane Mott Davidson, so that,s not good. Then I have the last Flavia DeLuce book, but I can’t bring myself to read it because I don’t want to finish it. Dilemma, dilemma. That leaves me with the newest installment of the Stephanie Plum books by Janet Ivanovich, which I think I must do because the movie of the first book comes out on Friday.

Janet Evanovich has really done well with Stephanie Plum. And vice-versa I haven’t reviewed one since June of 2009, but that does not mean I haven’t read and loved them all. “Explosive Eighteen” may not be Kafka, but why do we need to read smart stuff all the time? Who says humor and great fun aren’t smart? Reading is about entertainment too. What are we supposed to read? Textbooks?

Once again, Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter and native Jersey girl extraordinaire is kicking butt. And having the favor returned. I would seriously cry in the half the situations that don’t faze her. At the end of the 17th book, she took a little trip to Hawaii with some “ play money” and a guy.

We don’t know which guy.

Was it smoking hot Ranger – silent AND deadly or Morelli — the sexy cop? She loves them both and is going to have to decide eventually, but can’t. I’d pick Ranger if you want to know. Also Edward. Im sure that is wondrously interesting to you and you’ve lost sleep debating ( actually I’m a Gage girl – he’s my “go-to-guy” as you now know…)

So … Stephanie returns from Hawaii alone. What happened? I know, but wont say.

The usual suspects … Vinny, Lula, Connie, Grandma Mazur etc. … are all still fabulous.

They are an excellent background to the real trouble. Stephanie sat next to someone on her return trip, who was killed on their layover in L.A. He accidentally put something in her bag that every single FBI agent and ne’er do well thug on the east coast wants.

She, of course, doesn’t have it.

They don’t believe her, so she’s stalked, pummeled and annoyed. What else is new?

The real joy of these books is the fast-moving plot, the humor, Lula’s outfits and their readability. It’s like candy. You know it’s going to be great. You anticipate it and Evanovich never lets you down.

* David Gage.

* Campbell and Hollis Mann

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“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches is part one of a trilogy in progress about the human and non-human worlds of science, faith, and power.  Add a pinch of lust and some evil – lots of wine and Oh, what fun!  

Escapism is always best when it has foundations in reality.  Historical and scientifically-accurate (sort of) reality is especially appealing.  Throw in non-humans descended from human bloodlines, supernatural abilities and a hot french guy and I’m there.  This shocks you, I know. 

Deborah Harkness holds three degrees in history and specifically the history and science of magic in Europe. She has published books and received fellowships from many prestigious foundations (among them, the Guggenheim, National Science and National Humanities Foundations…)  It suffices to say that she knows of what she writes.  To mix fact and fiction with such cleverness is always deserving of kudos.  

I loved A Discovery of Witches.

Diana Bishop is an historian with impeccable credentials; Yale, Oxford and is also the progeny of a long startlingly-gifted and pure line of witches.  She renounces magic after the murder of her parents and fights against her innate abilities at every turn.  She tries, and fails, to squelch the extraordinary under piles of anal compulsive ordinariness.

Matthew Clairmont is an old, old, old geneticist.  And a vampire.  He also crawls the hallowed halls of academia at Oxford.  He is also rich as Croesus and french Nobilty.  Poor dear.

You’ll never guess what happens!  OK, yes you will.  They meet.  They fall in love.  It’s forbidden.  It’s so bloody familiar.  And yet … it’s more interesting because they aren’t love-sick teenagers.  No proms.  No sulking (… not that I didn’t love those books – you know I did).

Add some intelligently-original Darwinian plausibility to all that.  What if survival of the fittest is responsible for species other than human or animal?  Is it really so implausible that nature would create diversity outside of the known family, genus, species arena?

Diana and Matthew are possibly the end and the beginning of their own creatures’ survival.  How clever that one is a scholar of alchemy* and the other a gifted geneticist.  The answers will inevitably lie somewhere between the mind and the heart.

My only problem is waiting for round two.

*Alchemy is foremost the material transformation of chemicals but no less importantly, a discussion of philosophical and metaphysical transformation.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry

April 1, 2008, I reviewed the stand out self published book by Brunonia Barry.  I swooned.  Read it, so I don’t have to repeat myself- we all know how anathema THAT is to me. (Boyfriend will hurt self rolling eyes.) 

With very high expectations I read her second book – The Map of True Places.  At first I was not enthralled. I hoped for more and put it down and picked it up a few times.  Luckily I picked it up that last time.  Phew.  Pity the unbeliever.  I literally finished and slammed it closed saying Holy Crap –.  I had to re-read the last chapter to orient myself.

This is what I love about Brunonia Barry.  You  think  you know better (again with the eye rolling) but  you don’t.  As with Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog (9.4.09) you have to keep checking.  You are close and its in your periphery but you miss it.  I love being put in my place.  I love being wrong.*

Barry keeps you on the verge of figuring it out.  When she tells you can’t believe you missed it.  You are glad you missed it because the mystery is her talent.

Zee Finch is a therapist in Boston with a lovely office overlooking the Charles.  She grew up in Salem and spent an excellent portion of her childhood being a boat-thieving derelict.  Alas, morally she is sound so that ended before it could have made an equally enthralling story.  Her young bipolar mother marries a gay man and kills herself when her daughter is 13.  The father’s love, a wonderful man named Charles, moves in and it is hardly a fait accomplit.

Zee challenges her own demons by addressing those of others and thwarts her own progress.  When a case strikes very close to home and ends without resolution, Zee is forced to confront the obvious and come to terms with herself.  As with the Whitneys in The Lace Reader, the Finches are a fabulous amalgamation of drama and love.  The more you know the less you understand until the denouement, which has dreadful yet cathartic repercussions.

Quel coup de foudre alors!  Loved it.

*There are a veritable plethora of reasons this is not true, but you know what point I’m making. Yes, you do.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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“Every Last One” by Anna Quindlan

Anna Quindlan is such a good columnist (New York Times, Newsweek) that is constently thrills me that she also such a good and prodigious writer, Black and Blue, being my favorite among her novels…

Every Last One is her newest and … holy you know what.  I walked into the library to fight with their fax machine (I damned mine to the basement for insubordination) and Barbara Carlson hurled the book at me while muttering something akin to OMG.  Being naturally quiet people (not this bunch, but still), any time a librarian thrusts a book at you, you must take it.

Next image is me reading quietly at home while two sick children cough and gag in the background and the other three cough at school.  I sit.  I read.  I want to flip ahead to the part that made Barbara say OMG, but I can not.

Mary Beth Latham is a mom.  A wife.  She and her doctor husband have three children.  All at home.  I read.  They are normal and fairly happy.  Dinner, school, camp, boyfriends, the usual.  Mary Beth has friends and neighbors with varying degrees of involvement in her life.  The past has a few thorns as does, we assume, the future.  This is life after all.

What happens is staggeringly heinous.  Take the magic eight ball.  Shake it and ask a question.  Then, in lieu of an answer, throw it out the car window and watch a tractor trailer drive over it.  Now imagine that was your heart.

Now get up the next day.  And the next.  Repeat until the day you die.  This is the new world for Mary Beth Latham.

It is quite extraordinary how resilient mankind really is.  Things you can not imagine surviving are survivable simply because you have no choice.  You literally CAN NOT imagine them.  Thank God.  You can decide to act a certain way or not to act that way, but it really makes no difference.  You breathe in and out until life moves on.  It is actually merciful to be shocked and numbed because operating at full capacity with full cognizance is totally out of the question anyway. 

I certainly couldn’t have and neither can Mary Beth.  The testament to the power of Anna Quindlan’s novels is her grasp of reality.  She sees and hears and tells you a story that has happened.  It happens all the time.  Thankfully not quite like this, but horrifyingly often nevertheless.

It is a gift to feel another’s pain.  Empathy is far more useful than sympathy.  If you can for one moment be in Mary Beth’s shoes, you are a stronger, more understanding person.  If for one minute of one conversation when you meet or know someone who has been in staggering circumstances, you can choose the better thing to say — the more empathetic thing to say — then it is a gift for you both.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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“Anybody Out There?” by Marian Keyes

I know I should be reviewing something smarter, or more current, or hipper, but I can’t help myself.  I am reading everything I am supposed to – CleopatraUnbroken, some book about Voltaire’s mistress.  This book really got to me though, so I just can’t help but do this.

I went to the Book Barn (akin to Harry Winston in my opinion for sheer delight and fabulousness) and came back with yet another coal bag full of books.  Everything Marian Keyes has written was among them.  

There are five Irish sisters and there is a book about each.  Love, divorce, family trials, etc. … the Walsh Family is a riot.

What I am compelled to say about Anybody Out There is that the mix of humor and pain is notable.  How on earth, I thought, can this really be at all amusing when what I think has happened has happened?

Anna Walsh has a really cool, make-up PR job in the City.  She has moved to the States with her best friend Jacqui and her sister Rachel (Rachel’s Holiday) is also there with her fiancé Luke. The gang of their friends is a riot.  The “real men” absolutely will crack you up.  Anna is young and spunky and clever, and falls in love with her dream man.  Aiden is her life.

We meet Anna at her parents house in Dublin recovering from horrifying injuries that she has little recollection of getting.  What is going on?  You figure it before Keyes tells you and it makes you feel sick.

It’s just awful.  Interestingly, you don’t really see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel until Anna does.  It goes neither too slow nor too fast, and even though this is essentially a chick-lit beach book, it surprises you with its insight.  Keyes very deftly maneuvers through real pain with real humor.  I was compelled to comment … and so I have.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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“Isobel’s Odyssey” by Ann Blair Kloman

Ah, the fates have intervened again and a long misplaced email has called a book to my attention. Ann Blair Kloman wrote a wonderful suspense novel last year (… longer? Who knows?  I age without consent) and has now written another.

And to think I almost missed it.  Isobel’s Odyssey is a treat.  Wonderfully reminiscent of my beloved Mrs Polifax series (Dorothy Gilman), Isobel Van Dursan has broadened her horizons.

A sweet widow (do not believe this) from the picturesque coast of Maine, she decides travel and piles of caviar-type accommodations whilst doing so is her new future.  Why should she suffer in coach when the Admiral’s Club has such great chairs and champagne?  She is equally resolute in her inability to suffer fools.  Some less than others.

Certain people really have it coming and, if the two propensities can work together? … ahhh.  Isobel’s niece Chloe married a particularly obstreperous individual with whom Isobel has taken great umbrage.  What to do?  How about a small electrical problem?

Indeed.  Well, he asked for it.  Who else is behaving poorly and asking for it?  Quite a number of disreputable characters apparently.  And if something were to happen, who would suspect a sweet American widow?

See where this is going?  Just wonderful.  The unlikeliest of scenarios when written with humor and zest is going to be a fun book.

Ann has nailed it again.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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“Swamplandia” by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!  The reviews of Karen Russell’s last book, “Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” are enough to make you pick this new one up and clutch it to your chest as you race from the shop … “Run for your life. The girl is on fire.” (Los Angeles Times)

Not even a page in and I was captivated by the ease and grace with which she writes.  A pseudo-real Indian tribe on an island with beer and alligators and ghosts?  Really?  And I didn’t bat an eye.  It felt a bit like finding Harper Lee again.  The character of Ava Bigtree is so tangible, so familiar that it grabbed me.

I’ll digress a bit for the sake of clarity (hardly my forte as we all know).  The Bigtree family owns Swamplandia!, the alligator theme park where they also live.  Ava, her parents, brother and sister know little else but life with the “Seths” (as they name each and every alligator) on their island on the west coast of Florida.  The world outside is encroaching.  Cancer, theme park competitors, old folks’ homes,  love affairs.  They all loom on the horizon. 

There is a slightly off-kilter magical quality to Swamplandia! that makes all of this pain bearable.  It is reminiscent of Victorian goth or a dark fairy tale.  This lift keeps it just above the waterline of despair.  Some parts are hard to read.  Her brother Kiwi and her sister Ossie are teetering on a dangerous edge.  Her father, mother and grandfather have fallen over.  Ava’s narrative is just high enough to keep Swamplandia! afloat. 

The beginning seems strangely positive.  Campy, but exhilarating.  When Ava’s mother dies, the change is swift.  The darkness starts to flood in.  Ava’s father, Chief Bigtree, is gone.  Her siblings are too engrossed in their own struggles to cope.  Ava is left to pick up the pieces of their lives and their livelihood.  She has no support.  She has one to rely upon.  She has an island crawling with Seths.  She is 13.

And yet, she is no dummy. 

You hope right away that she will be fine.  She will fight long and hard to be fine.  Hell, her mother swam through alligator-infested swamps for a living … how weak could Ava be?  There is hope and dark humor and stalwart narrative that keeps you reading. 

And the symbolism of one red seth in the congregation is worth holding onto.

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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‘Room’ by Emma Donohugh

enterRoom_177x284It should be called ‘Floored.’ I am, completely. A 19-year-old girl is kidnapped and held prisoner in a shed for seven years. She has two babies by the gruesome, evil, sick bastard, who took her. One dies. One lives.

We see the story through the second child’s eyes. A boy, Jack, who is five. He and ‘Ma’ live in ‘Room.’ It is not ‘a’ Room. To Jack it, quite literally, is the world. It is ‘Room’. He has never left. He knows nothing but this 11 by 11 foot reinforced, one-skylighted prison. His mother has done the miraculous and created a world for him where he feels loved and is as safe as he can be given the circumstances. They have power, a bathroom, a television, books, and each other. The dreadful man comes in at night while Jack stays in Wardrobe.

The miracle that this world exists at all is such a testament to his Mother’s innate and adapted coping skills that I am ashamed to try to articulate it.

Because it is all they can have, Ma convinces Jack that this world is all they need. She tries not to over explain the horror of their containment. She makes and keeps a schedule. They exercise, eat as well as they can, stay clean and only watch an hour of TV. Jack speaks well. He has imaginary games with his few toys. He learns to read and write. They narrow down the basics of existence and survival to this one room.

However, a double-edged sword of joy arrives when they get out. How is the real world as seen through the eyes of a five-year-old who didn’t know it even existed. What is rain? Why do doors open and other people know his name? How can his young, tortured mother possibly cope with both of their re-entries to a world she’d lost and he’d never won?

The fact that you can read a book about this at all is amazing. The Shack made me sick and I did not enjoy it. You can read exactly why (Jan 16, 2009) Room is strangely rewarding. The level of hope and resiliency in humans is remarkable. This girl lives through this, raises a good son and still maintains empathy for the plight of many many others, who suffer far worse.

Compound all of that with brilliant writing and the world through the quite believable mouth and eyes of a small child and I have to recommend it.

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The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

I live on a little under 10 acres.  It’s fairly private and we all sort of behave the way we like without fear of public scrutiny.

Upon re reading Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent, I laughed so hard and so loudly and so often that I was embarrassed and waited for someone to come scold me or at least make fun.

He is bar (almost) none, the most amusing writer.  It may be my practicular brand of sarcastic, snide, clever, back-handed yet kind humor, but Im not the only one.

I am sadly now at the point where I can re-read a book from years back and have it be only vaguely familiar.  Sad but it also excitingly opens a whole new world of literature.

Maybe I’ll start re-reviewing. That could be fun.  You could all send in nasty, pitying letters saying,” You didthat one two years ago.”  Oh well, maybe I have different thoughts on it.  Take that!.

Anyhoo. The Lost Continent is a series of essays on Bryson’s travel and rediscovery of his native country upon return from years and years in England.  He ran from Iowa as fast as he could and is now pining a bit so he has returned.  He is searching for his childhood and memories shared with his recently deceased father.*

As he travels in his mothers Chevette, we follow him through small-town America.

He succumbs to road rage, idiotic directions, angry gravel and angrier waitresses.  He eats Wiffle Ball Surprise and sleeps on  mattresses that sap his will to live.  As we are laughing, we are agreeing that the idiosyncrasies and glories of small-town America are what make us all who we are.  It’s a wonderful journey.

* For more brilliantly written along this vein read, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt KId.  Maybe I will re-read that next …

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

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‘Overkill: An Emma Streat Mystery’ By Eugenia Lovett West

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

Without Warning (Stripped) is the first book.  Overkillis the second and a third is in the works.

Remember Emma Streat? ( review 5/03/08 ).  The woman who left the world of opera to arrange her Quimper china in blissful married motherhood?  She has come a long way since the brutal murder of her husband and her consequent forays into the world of death and espionage.

Her new life is keeping her on her proverbial toes as well.  Thank goodness she is sharp as a tack.  No little coup de foudre will send her scurrying under the bedcovers.

An intervention for her talented, but foolhardy, famous niece sends Emma to Venice.  A playboy has come between her niece and her music, which is not acceptable.

Not only does Emma have to nip the romance in the bud, but she ends up ensnared in chemical machinations as well.  Germ warfare won’t even be the least of her worries when her romance gets confused as well.  Is the new doctor a threat to our English favorite Lord Rodale?  Who will she choose?  If Will she even live to make the decision?

Does red wine ever come out?  How is the Ritz in Boston as a home away from home?  How will we know if Emma doesn’t beat us to it? ( … it has nothing on the Hyde Park Hotel, but that’s another story…)

West is a very good juggler of the mundane and the outrageous.  In Emma’s hands they hold equal play. Terrorist warfare or soup for lunch?  Which toile would look good in a weekend house, especially if it needs to cover bloodstains?

As with West’s first book, Overkill is a treat.  Emma is so likable that it almost wouldn’t matter if there were a good plot to swoop her along or not.  As an added bonus, the plot is so engrossing it is hardly significant whether or not you like Emma.  This is how the murder mystery series should be played and I am thrilled it continues.

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‘Faithful Place’ by Tana French

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

I really am getting behind here!  I have a few books you’d love, but as I just closed this one I’ll get to it first.  Good book.  Dark and clever.  Both in equal parts really, which makes for a good mystery detective, personal thriller, angst-ridden-type book.

You really can’t go home again, or really shouldn’t, as undercover detective Frank Mackey discovers. Well, first he discovers the suitcase and subsequently the  body of his long lost love.  Then he discovers that running off all those years ago was an excellent idea.

The night that he and his Rosie were to elope, she doesn’t show.  Assuming that he has been stood up, he says screw it and leaves anyway.

He becomes a police officer.  Marries, divorces and generally stays as far from Faithful Place in Dublin as he can.

His alcohol-fueled family has many, many issues and as they are seemingly unresolvable (or un-fixable), he saves himself at great cost to the other less self-reliant members of the family. Or was the cost due regardless?

It raises a good question.  Are you duty bound to attempt to save your family if it can not or will not attempt to save itself? Does familial duty (even if its guaranteed demise is self-destructive and inevitable) trump personal obligation? Saving oneself at the cost of others is unacceptable, but is it wasteful and defeatest to throw away your own potential to help people who don’t want your help?  Indeed, resent you for offering?

Frank gets deeper and deeper into a mess that is more psychological and sociological than mysterious.  I had a fair guess who dunnnit fairly early on … (Yes, I know, pat, pat on my back.)  The book goes beyond what you are expecting.

What I found most interesting is Tana French writing as Frank Mackey.  A la Memoirs of A Geisha, it is impressive for an author to pull off the other sex’s point of view.  She writes quite well as a man.  (Being a girl – one wonders how I would know this … good point, but ignore it.)

Faithful Place is interesting on many levels and, although a tad bleak, it has quite positive energy about it.  Love can close or open doors and Frank chooses to keep them open.

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‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

I am beginning to feel that I should just March myself down to the Headmaster’s Office.  You all must be a tad unimpressed with my lack of professional fortitude.  Possibly a detention or six is in order.  (May I nap? ).

Despite my myriad of excuses (and they are all doozies), I am here.  I am still reading and I still have the urge to ramble about it.  Also – all summer books are supposed to be done.  Let us know if you have read them all and we’ll see about that party…)

I am currently reading Ann Blair Kloman’s new book (Isobel’s Odyssey) and loving it so that will be next, but I just finished The Hunger Games and got a huge kick out of it.

Suzanne Collins is apparently giving Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) a run for her money so I had to check.

What a fabulous concept!  Reminiscent of the The Running Man (Stephen King 82); the country has transmogrified into 12 Capitol-run districts.  To remind and punish people for a failed revolt, each year a hugely celebrated, televised reality contest is held.

Each district send, by lottery, two children aged between 12 and 18. The 24 contestants compete to win by remaining alive.  They must kill each other and save themselves.  It is horrific and fascinating.

Katniss Everdeen is a contestant from District 12 (the coal-mining district) and she is repulsed and terrified to find herself fighting for her life at the sick whims of the Capitol.

What makes this book captivating is the originality with which Collins tells the story.  It is brilliantly paced and you never lose your place or interest.  The contestants, their mentors, and their visual retinue are all tangible.

I also just finished the second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire and am twitchily searching for a copy of the third, Mockingjay.

Read this first and I’ll give you an update after I have read all three.  I will say also, that this is a book I eagerly anticipate seeing in film when it finally comes out.

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‘A Blast From The Past’ by Kinky Friedman

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.” 

Blast_from_the_PastRichard S. “Kinky” Friedman almost defies description.

A renaissance man and possible hysterical realist* (think Tom RobbinsStill Life With Woodpecker); he is a singer, writer, columnist and ocasional politician.  (He ran as an independent for Governor of Texas in 2006 and received 12.6% of the vote…)

He is primarily known, by me, as a member of Don Imus’ irreverent entourage.  In an effort to force my better half to read my columns I capitulated to reading/ reviewing the male coup de foudre that is A Blast From The Past.

I admit to liking it and finding much of it to be enticing enough to read the other one I took out, but it is definitely male humor. Fart jokes are the least of it.  Jamieson Whisky, public sex, genitalia, drugs, and the other staples of male humor are accounted for in bulk.

Despite being a tad traumatized (I am truly a prudy girl no matter how much I try to overcome it ), Kinky captures the dark insightfulness I like so much in David Sedaris.  (10.10.08)

Looking closely at something is always going to provoke and subsequently educate, more than a glossing over can. Kinky is brave enough to look under the rug and face what he finds.

Kinky is obviously a smart man and I liked his casual usage of literary references, many of which he left to hang in the breeze rather than over-explain.  (Reichenbach Falls 12.20.08).

I wouldn’t liken Blast From The Past to L”Elegance du Herisson (9.5.09)  in its thoughtful asides, but it isn’t a horse of an entirely different color either.  There are many bits that give one pause and deserve closer attention.  Abbie Hoffman’s cultural detritus for one …

There are also small gems like his mention of an idiot drunk in the bar named Myers who thinks of opening a British food shop in the Village.  “Most ridiculous idea I ever heard … whole idea’s a pipe dream.  Never happen.” **

I also loved the bar they frequent called the EAR because two of the bars on the B burned out.

Actually, the more the think about it the more I realize how good it it.  Possibly my mamby-pamby attitude is altering?   Am I becoming more indulgent of bathroom humor and private parts?  Nah.

… but I am going to pick up A Case of Lone Star.  Let’s see how Kinky does with that …

*Hysterical Realism, also called recherche postmodernism and maximalism is a literary genre of strong contrast between elaborately absurd prose, plots or characters and precisely specific social phenomena. 

 **Myers of Keswick
634 Hudson Street (between Horatio and Jane St.)
New York NY 10014
Phone: (212) 691-4194
Fax: (212) 691-7423
Mail: info@myersofkeswick.com
MON – FRI: 10am – 7pm
SAT: 10am – 6pm
SUN: 12noon – 5pm
(One of the best little shops around. Truly.)

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‘FreeK Camp’ by Steve Burt

Jennifer Petty Mann grew up in New York City, moved to London, England, then back to Boston, and is now happily ensconced on the EightMile river in Lyme with three little ones.  A former teacher, window dresser for Saks, and designer, she is taking her love of books to the proverbial “street.”  Read her latest book review exclusively here on LymeLine every Friday.
OK, OK!  I have been remiss in my literary duties!  I have shamed myself.  My divorce is almost final and then I will try VERY, VERY hard to be more reliable.  Have you all been lost without me?  Doubtful … but I can dream.
Steve Burt is the minister at the Lyme Congregational Church.  He is man of the cloth and a man of sneaky creepiness.  This is, surprisingly, an excellent combination.  Take your old ideas of the clergy and toss them.  One can be wise, insightful, inspring, duty-bound, AND sepulchral.
FreeK Camp is Steve’s newest book ( I get to call him Steve bc I just do—you must call him Reverend Burt).  I previously reviewed his collections of short horror stories (see. 5.15.09) and this is his first novel.  It is intended for young readers but as we know this never deters me in the least.  Neither should it you.
FreeK Camp is the story of youngsters on their way to camp.  A “free” camp that enrolls kids with paranormal powers.  Thus the name transmogrified unofficially to “Freek “ Camp.
Two vans pick up these children and one is intercepted by a bad guy and doesn’t get to camp.  The other van of gifted kids must help the first and the first must learn to help themselves.  In traditional camp-like development they all bond and learn to rely on one another.
What sets it apart from other stories is a real dark undercurrent.  Not a happy-go-lucky Percy Jackson* type vibe but an evil that we as parents truly fear.
Steve takes it far enough that it completely disturbed me, but not too far that my 11-year-old was afraid.  She loved it.
Pick it up.  You won’t regret it.
And by the way, FreeK Camp just won the 2010 Beach Book festival Award for Best Teen Fiction.  See www.Beachbookfestival.com

*Percy Jackson is the main character in a wonderful series by Rick Riordan.

Editor’s Note: For more information about Steve Burt, visit www.Burtcreations.com Click here to order FreeK Camp 

 

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