Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Nevermore: Little Tree, Nightwoods, Judge Crater & How Not to Be Wrong

The ever-lively Nevermore opened with a discussion of The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter.  The book was first published in the late 1970s as a memoir of a part Cherokee boy growing up in the Smoky Mountains region during the 1920s and 30s. Orphaned at a young age, Little Tree was sent to live with his grandparents who taught him how to live simply, respecting the Earth and its creatures.   It was a warm and loving story laced with humor, mountain lore, and more than a dash of spirituality.  As the book grew in popularity, it was claimed that the author was actually Asa Carter, a segregationist who wrote speeches for George Wallace.  This brings up all sorts of questions.  Can a reader separate the author from the work?  Who has the right to tell the stories of a minority? Does knowing that the story is fiction and not memoir change the work itself? And what of Asa himself—was this his way of conning the public or did he have a true conversion?  As usual, there were plenty of answers but no consensus but then that’s the fun of Nevermore!

Another book with a mountain setting is Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods.  Set in North Carolina in the 1950s, it’s the story of a solitary woman who is living in an abandoned lodge as a caretaker.  Her life is upended when she becomes the guardian of her sister’s children after the sister is murdered.  The book was compared to Lee Smith’s but the writing is darker.  In short, this isn’t a happy book but then not all good books are happy ones.  Frazier is best known for the novel Cold Mountain.

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress is a debut novel by Ariel Lawhon.  It’s a fictionalized version of  the Judge Crater case which mesmerized the nation back in 1930 when the famous (or infamous) judge got into a cab and simply disappeared.  Like the Jimmy Hoffa case decades later, theories abounded as to what happened. (No one ever dug up Giants Stadium looking for Carter, however.)  Lawhon spins an intriguing tale of political corruption, scandalous affairs, and the streets of New York in the Jazz Age.  Our reviewer enjoyed the book, especially the author’s notes as to what was factual and what was speculation.  

How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg really impressed one of our Nevermore readers to the point that he brought in visual aids to illustrate some points.  The idea is that mathematics is being taught incorrectly.  Instead of making it all about memorizing formulas, it should be about the philosophy behind math and how math actually touches our lives in many ways every day.  The book is fun and thoughtful, showing us how much math is real and not an abstract concept. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson

Reviewed by Meygan 

Today the headlines warn of the Ebola epidemic in Africa.  Towns are being quarantined. People are in a panic.  This has happened numerous times across human history:  just the names of the diseases change.  Smallpox, tuberculosis, Spanish influenza—the list goes on and on.  Another thing that doesn’t change is that when the danger has passed, people quickly forget.  How many folks now realize that just a few decades ago communities were closing swimming pools because of the fear of polio?

That’s the way it was with Yellow Fever too.  It spread quickly and claimed thousands of American lives within months.  I admit I hadn’t thought much about Yellow Fever until I came across Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. The cover is intriguing, yet chilling, and depicts a young girl with yellow eyes. The image is certainly haunting. I found myself picking the book up, a clear case of judging a book by its cover.

Fever 1793 is a young adult historical fiction piece that places us in the world of Mattie Cook, a fourteen year old girl who lives in Philadelphia with her mother, grandfather, and a cook named Eliza. Mattie’s mom, a restaurant owner and a “proper lady”, is ready for Mattie to follow in her footsteps, insisting that she drink tea with girls her age and hopefully find romance with a man that is “worthy”. But Mattie has no interest in making new friends or falling in love—she is too busy spending time with her best friend, Polly, and Grandfather. 

There’s a rumor in town that a fever has broken loose and is spreading rapidly. Even though Mattie’s mother warns her repeatedly, Mattie doesn’t realize the seriousness of the fever until the fever takes Polly’s life. Mattie cannot believe that someone as young and robust as Polly could die from a fever. As if things couldn’t get worse, Mattie’s mother catches Yellow Fever and she cajoles Mattie into leaving town with her grandfather. Mattie and her grandfather are offered a ride via horse and wagon, but are left in the middle of nowhere when Grandfather’s cough leads the driver to suspect that he has the fever. Mattie and her grandfather have no choice but to walk. While walking, it’s Mattie and not her grandfather who becomes ill and passes out. 

By this time I could not put the book down. Even though Mattie is a fictional character, I couldn’t help but feel for her as if she were a real person.  Anderson did a wonderful job with character development while exposing readers to a frightening time in American history.  I felt as if I were living in those times, because Anderson did such a good job of describing the time and places.  Besides Mattie, there were a number of important characters she brought to life, including one based on Dr. Benjamin Rush.  Rush was an actual doctor at the time and was well known for trying to “bleed out” the fever in his patients.  Needless to say, the results weren’t often what he anticipated. 

By the end of the novel, Mattie has changed. She has witnessed grief, loss, and despair, causing Mattie to become an adult before she wanted to. One of my favorite parts about Fever 1793 is the way the author blends facts with fiction, letting readers learn a lot about Yellow Fever; not just what caused it, but how it affected society.  

Even though this is a young adult book, I would recommend it to anyone who loves history and a good story.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons

Reviewed by Kristin

Summer may be almost over, but The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons is lingering in my mind.  Maddy, Rachel, Barbara and Melinda are the somewhat stereotypical doctor's wives who have been friends since medical school days.  Their tradition has been always to take a week in August for a beach vacation.  No husbands, no kids, just the women.

The problem with continuing the tradition is that Melinda was killed in a car accident a few years ago, and none of the other women have been able to bring themselves together to continue the beach tradition with such a vital character missing.  When Melinda's husband gets engaged to an extremely young woman who everyone calls Baby, the women are strongly encouraged to take advantage of Baby's family home on an isolated barrier island off the coast of South Carolina.

Maddy, Rachel and Barbara are all forty-ish with well established connections to each other and strong opinions on everyone around them.  Each of them is going through some major life problems and at first are reluctant to share their issues even with their dearest friends.  Of course, throwing a twenty-two year old into the mix may have something to do with the initial shakiness of their rapport on this trip.  At first, Baby is practically run over by the older women, but soon shows some backbone and maturity.

Now I have to admit that a girls beach vacation sounds like an appealing idea, although one that perhaps has been done previously in a book or two or twenty.  In fact, I reviewed All The Summer Girls by Meg Donohue earlier in the summer, and it was somewhat similar: title, plot, well—you get the idea.  Siddons' writing is so elegant that the business of reading was pleasurable, but there was just a little something missing.  At only 240 pages, the story felt somewhat half-hearted and underdeveloped.  I think part of the reason that the book is lingering in my mind is that there was so much potential for further character development and a longer story.

I have always enjoyed Anne Rivers Siddons as she evokes the very atmosphere of the South.  While this book was not one of her best, I would still recommend it for any reader willing to take it as it is: a short, poignant story of friends reunited after a tragedy, who find courage and strength in each other.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nevermore: Dracula, Romanov Sisters, Camelot's Court, Book Thief, and Purity of Vengeance

Our Nevermore readers choose books of all sorts: fiction and nonfiction, the newest books to the classics. It makes for an interesting mix. This time the first book up was Dracula by Bram Stoker, arguably the most influential vampire book of all time. While Stoker had his own literary influences (Camilla by Sheridan Le Fanu and Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer spring to mind), it was Dracula which stoked the public’s imagination.  Our reviewer had just started the book, but said that at 25 pages in, it was “very readable.”

A new non-fiction book about the ill-fated Russian grand duchesses was up next.  The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport uses diaries and letters to tell the stories of the four daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra who were executed along with the rest of their family in 1917.  Rappaport specializes in Victorian history and Russian history of the era, and has written several other books on the subject.  While for the most part the sisters have been treated as a group (except for books on Anastasia, due to rumors that she survived), this book seeks to present them as individuals.  Our reader found the book “really interesting” and recommended it.

Another new non-fiction history book discussed was Camelot’s Court by Robert Dallek.  This is a detailed account of the Kennedy White House with an emphasis on policy and advisors.  Dallek has written a number of books about modern presidents, including  titles on Roosevelt, Nixon, Reagan, and Johnson.  Our reviewer said it was well written and filled with quotations, and he thought the epilogue was especially interesting.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is narrated by Death himself. The title refers to Liesl,  a young girl in Nazi Germany who is sent to live with a foster family.  At her younger brother’s funeral she steals a book even though she cannot read.  After her foster father teaches her to read, she steals more books and finds that stories can be transformative, no matter the circumstances.  This is a compelling book, and our reviewer highly recommends it.

Jussi Adler Olsen is one of the “Nordic Noir” writers whose work has been translated into English following the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s books.  Set in Copenhagen, the books feature Detective Carl Morck of Department Q who specializes in solving cold cases.  Our reviewer had just read The Purity of Vengeance, the fourth book in the series, which finds Morck investigating the 1980s disappearance of  a brothel owner.  Our reviewer said this was another good entry in the series.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The World According to Bob by James Bowen

 Reviewed by Jeanne

Londoner James Bowen was a struggling drug addict, living in government housing, trying to find some direction in his life.  He earned some money by busking (street performing) and by selling copies of The Big Issue. One morning he finds an injured orange cat and offers aid.  To steal a line from “Casablanca,” it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.  

It also produced an international best-seller, A Street Cat Named Bob. (You can read our earlier review here.)  The story of a young man and a stray cat tugged heart-strings all over the world.  It was on the UK best-seller lists for 52 weeks and has been sold in 26 countries.

Naturally, this meant there had to be a sequel, hence The World According To Bob.  Actually, “sequel” is a bit misleading because it covers much of the same time period as the first book.  The difference is that Bowen goes into a bit more detail about the struggles he faced and more about his bond with Bob. 

 For the first book, there was more than a little concern about how the reading public would take to a book about someone who was, shall we say, not a member of mainstream society. In this second book Bowen is able to speak more honestly about his life. The result is a moving and memorable account of life when one is truly down and out.  Part of Bowen’s appeal is that, while he decries parts of the system, he is forthcoming about his own role in his problems.  He takes responsibility for his own actions.  Another part is that he gives us some insight into what it’s like to be without resources and at the mercy of authoritarian whims.  We can understand his frustration even as we can see the other side of it.

Bob the cat is as charming as ever, whether he’s checking to see if an ill James is still breathing or fighting off a mugger.  James is in awe of a creature so loyal, so loving, and above all so trusting.  Bob gives James back a bit of faith. More importantly, James finds he can care for something other than himself. He says, wonderingly, that it’s a bit like being a parent—and understands for the first time how his parents must have felt when he disappeared into street life.

Bowen does go a bit more into the process that produced the book, including a briefing on how to handle interviews with the media.  It also explains that, contrary to reader assumptions,the book didn't make James immediately wealthy.

In short, if you loved the first book, you’ll enjoy the second as well though you don’t have to have read the first book to appreciate this one. 

Note:  The library also owns a copy of My Name is Bob, a picture book version which imagines what life was like for Bob before he met James.  There is a third book planned for this fall, entitled A Gift From Bob:  How a Street Cat Helped One Man Learn the Meaning of Christmas.

James and Bob have a very active Facebook page at It’s a great way to keep up with their adventures.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan

 Reviewed by Meygan

When Tom Ryan learns that his friend is diagnosed with cancer, he is devastated. They had been friends for years and he can’t believe that her life is going to come to a premature end. After his friend passes, Tom wants to do something in her memory. He decides he and Atticus will hike New Hampshire’s 48 mountains twice in one winter to raise money and awareness for cancer.  

At this point, you need to understand that Tom is an overweight, middle-aged journalist and owner of a local newspaper called The Undertoad, and that Atticus is a 20 pound schnauzer. In other words, these two wouldn’t be anyone’s idea of typical mountain climbers or hikers.

When the people of the town learn of his plan, they love the idea and ask Tom if he will dedicate each hike in name of a person who died from cancer. His personal quest becomes a community effort.

Now, Tom and Atticus are certainly not new to hiking, but hiking 48 mountains twice in one winter is certainly a challenge! But Tom looks forward to the fundraiser because he believes so much good will come from it. He also knows how much Atticus loves the mountains. (Tom often refers to Atticus as “Little Buddha” because Atticus seems to “reflect” during their endeavors in nature.)

His father is another factor in Tom’s decision. Tom doesn’t have a close relationship with his father. In fact, there are many years of silence and anger between them.  Tom knows that one of his father’s regrets is that he didn’t climb mountains himself before illness took control of his life.  Tom hopes that, by sharing his adventures with his father via an article in The Undertoad, there will be some sort of reconciliation.

Following Atticus is one of my favorite animal stories because even though there are parts that tug at the ol’ heartstrings, the ending will not disappoint. Readers will follow Tom’s and Atticus’ journey of loss and grief but, most of all, happiness. You can still follow Tom and Atticus online! 

Tom often posts pictures of Atticus and gives a brief description of where their next journey will be. I would recommend this book to animal lovers and nature lovers. Not only will you fall in love with Atticus, but you’ll feel inspired by the glories of nature. In fact, after reading Following Atticus, you may yearn to go on your own adventure!

If you like Following Atticus, try these:

Comet’s Tale: How the Dog I Rescued Saved My Life by Steven Wolf
Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls—One Flying Disk at a Time by Jim Gorant
Katie Up and Down the Hall by Glenn Plaskin
Homer’s Odyssey: A Fearless Feline Tale, or How I learned About Love and Life with a Blind Cat by Gwen Cooper
Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron
Cleo- How an Uppity Cat Helped Heal a Family by Helen Brown
A Lion Called Christian: The True Story of the Remarkable Bond between Two Friends and a Lion by Anthony Bourke

(Note:  Meygan has just joined the staff and has volunteered to do reviews, so look for more of her work here!)