Laird Hunt
Published September 9, 2014
243 pages (hardcover)

A typical Civil War Union solider in fatigue uniform looked like this: sky-blue trousers tucked into ankle-high shoes (called brogans), a sky-blue greatcoat with a standing collar and French cuffs, a dark-blue sack coat, and a forage cap with a floppy crown. He carried a musket with a bayonet, a knapsack, and a haversack and mucket.

Take a gander at Private Albert D. Cashier, the smallest soldier in the 95th Illinois Infantry: Continue reading

My Sunshine Away

22367526My Sunshine Away 
M.O. Walsh
Published February 10, 2015
306 pages (hardcover)

With its first paragraph, this book makes it clear that it won’t be three hundred pages of sunshine and rainbows:

There were four suspects in the rape of Lindy Simpson, a crime that occurred directly on top of the sidewalk of Piney Creek Road, the same sidewalk our parents had once hopefully carved their initials into, years before, as residents of the first street in the Woodland Hills subdivision to have houses on each lot. It was a crime impossible during the daylight, when we neighborhood kids would have been tearing around in go‐karts, coloring chalk figures on our driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters. But, at night, the streets of Woodland Hills sat empty and quiet, except for the pleasure of frogs greeting the mosquitoes that rose in squadrons from the swamps behind our properties.

(You can read the rest of the first chapter here.)

The unnamed first-person narrator, we find out soon thereafter, is one of these four suspects. The book is his retelling of the events surrounding the rape (some are very obviously related, others simply provide helpful background about the suspects or other characters). Continue reading

A Spool of Blue Thread

UnknownA Spool of Blue Thread
Anne Tyler
Published February 10, 2015
358 pages (hardcover)

The cover of this book reminds you that author Anne Tyler is a “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.” But it’s funny: despite the fact that everyone has heard of Anne Tyler, no one seems to remember when or for what she got her Pulitzer. While I was reading the book, no fewer than three people said to me randomly, “I can’t remember—what did she get her Pulitzer for?” (For the record, it was for Breathing Lessons in 1988. But she was a finalist two other times—for The Accidental Tourist in 1985 and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in 1983.)

It doesn’t surprise me that people don’t remember off-hand which of Tyler’s twenty books won the Pulitzer. She cranks out some solid books, but none of them is especially unique or noteworthy or memorable in subject matter. They’re about regular American families and the day-to-day struggles they face (loves and jealousies and conflicts and senses of duty and rivalries). What is memorable about her books are the characters and their complex, realistic relationships.

Her latest novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is no different.  Continue reading

How To Be Both

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Ali Smith
Published December 2, 2014
372 pages (hardcover)

Pick up Ali Smith’s latest award-winning novel, and you have a choice: you can begin reading at the beginning (Part One) . . . or you can start the book about halfway through (in my version, that was page 187, which is also Part One).

The book was actually published two different ways. In one version, the story of a teenage girl, George, who is dealing with her mother’s recent death, comes first, followed by the story of a fifteenth-century Italian fresco painter (Francescho del Cossa). In the other version, the two stories are flip flopped. Continue reading

How to Build a Girl

457768-a847d076-160e-11e4-8b83-8df6d69c6921How to Build a Girl
Caitlin Moran
Published September 23, 2014
352 pages (hardcover)

Caitlin Moran is like a real-life William Miller from Almost Famous. Remember him? He was the high-school kid who diligently sent in stories from his school paper until Rolling Stone hired him to write for them:

When Moran was sixteen, she started writing for Melody Maker, a weekly British music newspaper. Since then, she has had multiple television shows, written a best-selling memoir/feminist manifesto (How to Be a Woman), and has received British Press Awards for Critic of the Year and Interviewer of the Year. Continue reading

The Strange Library

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Haruki Murakami
Published December 2, 2014
96 pages (paperback)

My introduction to Japanese literature in translation occurred during my last year in college. For fun, I took a class entitled “Sex, Love, and Deception” (or something like that), which involved reading a lot of (mostly creepy) Japanese books. The works we read spanned centuries–ranging from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, which was completed in the early 11th century, to contemporary fiction like Junichiro Tanizaki’s phenomenal The Key, which remains a favorite of mine to this day.

It was also in this class that I first ventured into the bizarre world of Haruki Murakami’s fiction, reading Norwegian Wood. (If you haven’t read any of Murakami’s stuff, his short fiction is frequently published in The New Yorker, and you can get a taste of it online here. His most recent short story, “Kino,” about a man who opens a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo and his strange regular customer, was just published on February 23.). There are lots of common themes in Murakami’s writing, loneliness chief among them. But, while his writing is sometimes tragic, it doesn’t come across as completely depressing. His books often have a dreamlike cast and surrealistic bent. They’re weird in the best possible way.

Continue reading

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
Caitlin Doughty
September 15, 2014
272 pages (hardcover)

Caitlin Doughty is on a mission. She wants to change how we, as a society, view death (“A culture that denies death is a barrier to achieving a good death.”). She seeks to rid the world of the dirty, dark “death stigma” and the fear-mongering, up-charging funeral industry as it now exists. She wants death to have “its own moment of truth”:

We can wander further into the death dystopia, denying that we will die and hiding dead bodies from our sight. Making that choice means we will continue to be terrified and ignorant of death, and the huge role it plays in how we live our lives. Let us instead reclaim our mortality, writing our own Ars Moriendi, for the modern world with bold, fearless strokes. Continue reading

All the Bright Places

18460392All the Bright Places
Jennifer Niven
Published January 6, 2015
400 pages (hardcover)

My dad and stepmom live in rural Indiana in a quaint ranch house on a lake with a massive vegetable garden in the backyard. It is the proverbial middle-of-nowhere, and they love it.

Having visited many times, I can say with authority that small-town Indiana is not a hotbed of traditional excitement. That said, Indianans are quite good at fabricating their own excitement. A few examples: Continue reading