Friday, December 20, 2013

Books: My Favorite Books of 2013 - Nonfiction

FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL: LIFE AND DEATH IN A STORM RAVAGED HOSPITAL by Sheri Fink  (Crown Publishing, publication date:  September 10, 2013)

This extraordinary nonfiction book isn't merely a thorough piece of investigative journalism.  It's an exploration of decency and principle.    Dr. Fink is a physician, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and she is heroic. While the United States has made many amazing medical advances, it is no revelation that the state  of health care in this country is full of quagmires.   Fink examines the implications of the choices made by medical professionals during one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the United States.  She offers a horrifying window into who did and who did not receive patient care during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  I cannot recommend this book enough, especially since our country has seen and will continue to see more natural disasters. Determinations must be made in advance of such crises.

THE GIRLS OF ATOMIC CITY: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (Touchstone Books, publication date:  March 5, 2013)

Author Denise Kiernan has written a remarkable book about a little-known piece of  U.S. history. In 1943 young women, most of whom were recruited from small towns throughout the South, came to Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on the most classified enterprise of the war:  the Manhattan Project.  Ms. Kiernan's account of this fascinating piece of American military and civilian history is enthralling.  Reading this was like sitting down with  the actual "girls" and hearing their stories about this incredible time and place--the dawning of the Atomic Age--from their own mouths.  This is a most welcome addition to the canon of World War II history and of women's history.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Book Review: SPARK by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

Book Review:  SPARK by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk
Engine Books, January 29, 2013   ISBN:  978-1-93-812604-8 (trade paperback)

Andrea Simon, age twenty-nine, is like many millennials, the generation born between the early 1980s and 2000’s.  She lives in the millennial mecca of Brooklyn. Andrea and her lover/fiancĂ© Jack, an artist (with a beard) have been together for two years.  Due to a bad economy and an unclear sense of personal direction, she supports herself as a dog walker.  She has some interesting friends, and sometimes she drinks too much and takes long walks at night.  Andrea, however, is no two-dimensional character.  She has a very complicated relationship with her mother (now sixty-three) and an even more complex connection to her older brother Delphie (now thirty-six).  Delphie is a pyromaniac; a fire he set resulted in the death of a family.   After serving a twenty-year prison sentence, Delphie has just been released into Andrea’s care.  Jenny coerces her daughter Andrea into this set-up, but Andrea is only too willing to take on this anxiety-ridden responsibility.  Andrea’s self-esteem is entwined with her actual reason for existing.  In order to proceed with her life and go to her future, she must deal with the past.

Courtney Mauk’s novel is so well-written, and with such a high degree of proficiency, that it is hard to believe this is Miss Mauk’s debut.  Her prose style is delicate yet also luscious. The story is told in the first-person narrative, from Andrea’s point of view, which serves equally to reveal and to conceal many different truths.  Andrea is an unforgettable character.  While Delphie is the one on parole, Andrea is imprisoned by her inability to confront and let go of her history.  While Andrea struggles with her issues, she meets and befriends two very fascinating women.  Rain is an actress who doesn’t get many film or stage roles any more. 

“My favorite client is Rain Carmichael.  In the 1950s, she was an ingĂ©nue.  Now she is seventy-four and lives in a Park Slope brownstone with her fat, thirteen-year-old bulldog, Sammy.  Unlike my other clients, who are usually at work, or out running errands when I arrive, Rain is always at home.  Still, she has given me a key.  I used to ring the bell anyway, not wanting to disturb her, but she admonished me, her red lips pursed, her penciled eyebrows rising.  ‘Just come right in, my darling.  Sadly, you’re not going to interrupt anything torrid these days.”

Although elderly, Rain has more gumption and ambition than the much younger Andrea.  The other woman is Sally, a Russian national whom Andrea meets while out walking one night.  Like Andrea, she suffers from insomnia.  But while Andrea walks the streets at night to escape her problems and worries, Sally is firmly ensconced in the underground nightlife of Brooklyn.   Eventually, Andrea gains hold over her life—as much hold as any of us have.   While Andrea clearly is unsettled, the reader is allowed to enjoy the journey and not worry about the destination. 

SPARK is a beautiful work of literary fiction.  Courtney Mauk possesses vast wisdom, deep insight into the self-deceiving human heart, and tremendous talent. I look forward to reading her second novel, ORION'S DAUGHTERS, which Engine Books will publish on May 13, 2014.    

Book Review: DEVIL IN THE HOLE by Charles Salzberg

Book Review:  DEVIL IN THE HOLE by Charles Salzberg
Five Star Books, August 7, 2013   ISBN:  978-1-43-282686-3 (hardcover)

On November 9, 1971, John List carried out the carefully planned murders of his wife, their three children, and his mother in Westfield, New Jersey.  Then List disappeared.  The bodies of the List family were not found until a month later. List wasn’t caught until the television show America’s Most Wanted featured him on a broadcast in May 1989.  He was arrested in Virginia (where he created a new identity and new life for himself); extradited to New Jersey, tried, and found guilty of five counts of murder and served five consecutive life sentences.  While there is no excuse for the murders, List, an accountant, seemingly succumbed to financial and family pressures.  He had lost his job, and his wife Helen had been suffering from tertiary syphilis for nearly two decades. 

Charles Salzberg, a former journalist, had wanted to write a book about John List for years.   DEVIL IN THE HOLE is an extraordinary crime fiction novel due to the unusual conceptualization.  In the novel, John List becomes John Hartman, and Westfield, New Jersey is Sedgewick, CT.  The other details from the true crime are included although somewhat altered as well.  Since it’s based on a true crime, the reader already knows “whodunit.”  Salzberg, then, addresses all of the “who’s.”  Each chapter is told from the perspective of over twenty different characters:  the neighbor across the street, the first officers on the scene, the Chief of Police, the state police investigator Charlie Floyd, Hartman’s girlfriend, people who meet Hartman while he is on the road, and John Hartman himself.  The chorus of these characters drives home just how abominable Hartman and his crimes are.   

“It was, for all the care, neatness and obvious planning that went into it, still a gruesome sight.  Maybe it was the sheer meticulousness of it all that made it so gruesome.  Somehow the bloodier the murder is, the more understandable it is…It’s these damned malice aforethought things that really get to you.  I believe we’re all capable of crimes of passion, given the right circumstances, but it takes a special kind of human being to commit something as cold-blooded as this.  And to murder your own?  Well, that’s just incomprehensible.”

The novel would merely be a neat party trick if Charles Salzberg weren’t such a master of crime fiction writing.  Salzberg’s prose is so crisp and elegant, and his ear for how people truly speak is unerring.  Each character, no matter how minor nor how brief an appearance, is distinct and original.  John Hartman doesn’t speak until nearly half-way through the book.  Of course the reader wants to know this man, and try to understand how he could meticulously plan and then execute such a heinous crime.  Salzberg manages to make even such a monster deserving of sympathy, or at least worthy of pity.  (The other character who is most compelling is Charlie Floyd, whose hunt for John Hartman consumes his life.)   This novel was an original and exhilarating reading experience, and that comes along all too rarely. Luckily, this reader can now dive into Salzberg’s Henry Swann Detective novels (the latest, SWANN DIVES IN, was published on December 4, 2013).