Feel Good Fiction Times 2

There is nothing like reading a novel that shows you a good time and then leaves you feeling good about life. The kind where you finish the last page and flip to page one again. Well, this is that:

WhoWho Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? A Novel
Brock Clarke
Hardback, $26.95
On Street: August 27, 2019  / Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Meet Calvin, a 49-year-old adult child living in his parents’ home. His ex won’t stop badgering him; he just became an orphan, and he soon discovers a mysterious aunt. Bravely abandoning his job blogging for the pellet stove industry, he embarks on the journey of a lifetime. Calvin Bledsoe will never be the same.

Why its Worth Choosing

  • If you are drawn to the quirky, the comic, and the unpredictable as I am
  • If you enjoy allegory, and the blending of the absurd and the profound
  • For fans of John Irvin and the director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tennenbaums, Grand Budapest Hotel)

And new from February, I also love:

ObjectThe Object of Your Affections: A Novel
Falguni Kothari
Paperback, $16.99
On Street: February 19, 2019 / Graydon House (Harper Collins)

Paris and Naira are best friends. When Naira leaves Mumbai after her husband’s death, she knows Paris will help her make a fresh start in New York City. There’s nothing they wouldn’t do for each other. But Naira wasn’t expecting to be asked to be a surrogate mother for Paris and her husband. Does their friendship have what it takes to defy society, their families, and even their own biology?

Why its Worth Choosing

  • One of the joys of reading fiction is that sometimes, it delivers a powerful, validating message in a way that non-fiction can’t. This novel’s message is that when you forge your own path, magic can happen.
  • The author is a self-described writer of “unconventional love stories and kick-ass fantasy tales”, who is also an award-winning Indian classical, Latin, and ballroom dancer.




Of Slime and Minimum Wage

Of Slime and Minimum Wage, to Say Nothing of How the Brain Lost its Mind.

(With apologies to Jerome K. Jerome.)

Slime.jpgSlime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us
Ruth Kassinger
Hardback, $26
On Street: June 11, 2019 / HMH Books

When I lie awake at 3 a.m. worrying about my life, I can’t say that algae has ever “plagued” me. It isn’t on my gratitude list either. But maybe it should be. Algae is not just the gunk in your fish tank or the slimy leaf wrapped around your Japanese rice cracker. It’s actually a multi-billion dollar industry, with algae innovators working toward a sustainable future. According to this author, algae are responsible for Earth’s:

  • abundant oceans
  • beer
  • chocolate milk
  • coral reefs
  • crude oil
  • oxygen-rich atmosphere
  • paint
  • sushi
  • toothpaste and shampoo

On to the future: The men and women innovating with algae are South Korean seaweed farmers; entrepreneurs like Canadian-educated Paul Woods who founded a company to bring algae fuel and plastic to market; and scientists in Florida using algae in an effort to save the coral reefs.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • Slime Candy.jpgThe author takes what could be a dull subject and makes it just as fascinating to you as it is to her.
  • For those who love Susan Orlean, Mary Roach, and Michael Pollan.
  • Seriously, who doesn’t love a nice package of slime? (Ironically, note that this product is being marketed as “toxic waste”, when algae at least is kind of the opposite.)

On ClockOn the Clock: What Low Wage Work Did to Me and How it Drives America Insane
Emily Guendelsberger
Hardback, $28

July 16, 2019 /  Little, Brown

Content Warning: This memoir contains scenes of condiment violence. As in, the author working at a San Francisco McDonald’s where vengeful customers pelted her with condiments. She also worked in an Amazon fulfillment center near Louisville, Kentucky, where the vending machines were stocked with…painkillers. In her job at a North Carolina call center, her bathroom breaks were timed to the second. Forced to these desperate measures after the local newspaper folded, this reporter takes a good hard look at the lengths that half the country will go to in order to earn a living. But it’s not all laughs–she also offers surprising solutions to make the America workplace more humane.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • The author obviously has a good sense of the absurd, having worked as a staff writer for The Onion–as well as the sense of social  criticism that comes from reporting for the Washington Post and other heavy hitters.
  • Like all good comedy, the tales of low-wage work woes are much more entertaining to read about than to suffer through.
  • Like any decent reporter, the author knows that you never pose a question without at least proposing possible solutions.
  • For fans of Barbara Ehrenreich, Stephanie Land and Matthew Desmond.

How Brain

How the Brain Lost its Mind: Sex, Hysteria and the Riddle of Mental Illness
Allan H. Ropper, MD and Brian David Burrell
Hardback $27
On Street: August 20, 2019 / Avery Books

These two authors look at how syphilis and hysteria shaped our current misunderstanding of brain disease and mental illness.

  • 1882: Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot establishes a neurology clinic in Paris, where he struggles to tell the difference between brain disease and disordered psyches.
    • Eventually Charcot brings hypnotism into his clinic to treat “female hysterics”, abandoning a biologically-based approach to mental illness.
  • Sigmund Freud brings sex and neurosis onto the analyst’s couch, splitting the human psyche into mind/brain.
  • Today, neurology and psychiatry are separate branches of medical science. But should they be?

Dr. Ropper and Mr. Burrell explore the ways and means by which the two specialties may converge.

Why Its Worth Choosing

  • They know what they’re talking about.
    • Dr. Ropper is Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, a deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, and the main  author of the textbook Principles of Neurology, now in its 11th edition.
    • Mr. Burrell is on the mathematics faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is an authority on elite brain collections (whatever that means), and has written several books, including Postcards From the Brain Museum.
  • The text, which could have been fairly dry, is larded with juicy anecdotes from the lives of real patients (names changed for privacy, of course).

Note: If you enjoy this book, check out Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole, co-written by the same two authors.


3 Beach Reads

What is a beach read, anyway? A gracious book, that will probably incite pleasure. A delightful, relatively risk-free story. Reading that encourages you to indulge in escapist fantasies, preferably of island life. While several authors ponder the meaning of the term over at our friends’ electric lit blog, I will present 3 books I think are promising beach reads.

MeetMeet Me in Monaco: A Novel
Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
Paperback, $16.99
On Street: July 2019 / William Morrow (Harper Collins)

Movie stars and paparazzi flocked to Cannes for the glamorous film festival. But Grace Kelly, the biggest star of all, just wanted to escape the flashbulbs. When struggling perfumer Sophie Duval sheltered Miss Kelly in her boutique, fending off persistent British press photographer James Henderson, a bond was forged between the two women, who quickly become life friends.

But James hasn’t been able to forget about Sophie. Despite his guilt about leaving his daughter, he finds himself sailing with Grace Kelly’s wedding party on the USS Constitution from New York. In Monaco, James and Sophie–much like Princess Grace–must ultimately decide what they are prepared to give up for love.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • There are times when two heads are better than one at writing a book, and this is definitely one of these times. Both women are best-selling authors in their own right.
  • One of the authors lives in Ireland with her husband and children, and one lives in New England with her family and “one feisty bunny”.  Aw.

Electric HotelThe Electric Hotel
Dominic Smith
Hardback, $27
June 4, 2019 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux 

In the spring, a person’s thoughts allegedly turn toward love–in the summer, they may turn toward entertainment. Like the first novel featured in today’s blog, this book is a work of historical fiction centered around the film industry. This time the protagonist is a French silent-film pioneer. The book deals with his relationship to his muse and the masterpiece film that upends their lives.

There are cameo encounters with celebrities, like Marilyn Monroe who meets Claude in an elevator, but remembers him as a mushroom hunter. Claude remembers the time Elvis recorded “Love Me Tender” in Room 1016, and the seance Houdini’s window held on the rooftop of the Knickerbocker Hotel.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • Metaphors like “Claude felt his mind slacken and go blank, as if someone had lowered an awning over his thoughts”.  And “A director once said that her voice sounded like a burglar creeping down an old wooden staircase.”
  • Quirky characters like Susan Berg, the famous silent film actress who whispers a lot and makes “treacherous soups”.  And the Knickerbocker Hotel, itself a quirky character that contributes to a sharply-honed sense of place
  • The writing is delicious!

CarnegieCarnegie Hill: A Novel
Jonathan Vatner
Hardback, $27.99
On Street: August 20, 2019 / $27.99

Deception is just another day in the lives of the elite. In an elegant Upper East Side neighborhood, Penelope “Pepper” Bradford is having second thoughts about her financier fiancé. As Pepper casts about her building for advice, she learns about the secret lives of the other wealthy residents and the staff that serve them–as they suffer, deceive each other, and fumble their way to honesty. This richly-imagined story has been described as charming and hilarious.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

Sometimes I feel like the glowing blurbs on books’ back covers are the equivalent of Shakespearian teacup storms: full of sycophancy and bluster, signifying nothing. Not for this book.

  • “You won’t envy these people for a second, but you’ll have a great time watching them undo and fix themselves,” says Joan Silber.
  • “A shrewd comic tale of old lovers, young lovers, and the blanket of privilege that both warms and binds them all,” adds Jonathan Dee. Sign me up!









Ebony and Ivory on 3 Pages

All three of these books tackle the topic of race relations between blacks and whites in America. There are two novels and one work of non-fiction.

BlackBlack Card
Chris L. Terry
Hardcover $25
On Street: August 13, 2019 / Catapult 

For fans of the hilarious TV series Black-ish: Race is fake. Race is real. Well, in Africa they say all stories are true. This is what I thought about when I first grabbed a copy of Terry’s novel, Black Card. Like the painfully self-effacing girl in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, this young, biracial narrator is never named. Symbolism intended. The offspring of an African American dad and a white mom, our hero loses his “Black Card” when he fails to speak up during aa racist incident. The rest of the novel is him trying to get it back, winding up entangled with a white police officer after the narrator’s black female coworker is attacked.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • Because when a book is listed as “wickedly funny” on the dust jacket, I can’t wait to rip into it. Although the phrase “daringly smart” doesn’t hurt either.
  • The author’s debut novel, Zero Fade, was named a Best Book of the Year by Slate and Kirkus Reviews so you know the man can write.

LinesThe Lines Between Us: 2 families & a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide
Lawrence Lanahan
Hardback: $28.99
On Street: May 2019 / The New Press

Mark is a devout white Christian man who sells his suburban home to move to Baltimore’s inner city. Nicole is a black mother determined to leave West Baltimore for the suburbs Mark has just elected to vacate. As the two pack up their lives and change paces, award-winning journalist Lanahan examines the enormous disparities created by race in access to safe housing, good education, and decent jobs.

Lanahan asks the tough question of what it will take to save our cities: Do we put money into poor segregated neighborhoods? Or do we try to move families out into areas with more opportunity?

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • The author is not only a recipient of the Carey Institute’s Logana Nonfiction Fellowship, and the Columbia University duPont Award, but he lives and works in Baltimore.
  • As a journalist for NPR’s Morning Edition, Lanahan knows how to capture and hold a listener’s interest. And that is to tell a large story through a tiny lens.
  • For folks who are drawn to popular social science books like Evicted, Just Mercy, and The Master Plan (also by a Baltimore native).

And Last, But Definitely Not Least

DifferentA Different Drummer
William Melvin Kelley
Paperback: $16
On Street: June 4, 2019 / Anchor Books 

The New Yorker calls this classic “a lost giant of American literature”. In print since 1962, the fierce and imaginative novel enjoyed a recent rediscovery by the reading public after the author’s death. The plot: In the Deep South, a young black farmer named Tucker Caliban decides to burn down his house, salt his fields, shoot his horse and head north with his wife and child. This departure sets off an exodus of the state’s entire black population, throwing the state’s white residents into confused disarray.

Why it’s Worth Choosing

  • Even though this is a first novel, it got comparisons to James Baldwin, William Faulkner, and James Joyce.
  • The tone is ultimately both sympathetic and sorrowful; blistering and spirited.
  • The alternative world of this book is complex and imaginative, like that of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, or Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines.