Jill Alexander Essbaum on her striking debut Hausfrau. Described as a ‘modern-day Anna Karenina,’ it’s the story of 30-something Anna, an American living with her husband in Switzerland, who tries to pull her life together and find happiness through a series of new experiences, including German language classes, Jungian analysis and a series of sexual affairs.
Sally Hepworth on The Secrets of Midwives. Neva, a third-generation midwife, is pregnant and determined to hide the baby’s father’s identity. Yet her mother finds it impossible to let this secret rest. For Neva’s grandmother, the situation sends her back 60 years to a secret that eerily mirrors her granddaughter’s–which, if revealed, will have life-changing consequences for them all.
David James Poissant on The Heaven of Animals. Nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, named one of Amazon’s Best Short Story Collections of 2014 and recipient of numerous other awards and recognitions, this debut short story collection explores the tenuous bonds of devotion and family as each of Poissant’s strikingly true-to-life characters are in some way tested by the often-brutal power of love.
We’ll also help you get your read on for next week’s Boston Marathon! We talk with Rachel Cass, head buyer at the Harvard Book Store, about unforgettable running books–fiction, non-fiction and those ideal for children.
Hosted by Cindy Wolfe Boynton and featuring terrific book giveaways! Please join us tonight!
Reading #SiblingsDay Tweets recommending non-fiction parenting books, children’s books and others made me wonder about the books I’ve read about siblings, and 10 almost immediately came to mind as being among the most memorable. They’re all novels. And I’ve listed them here in no particular order, though I always like to give a shout-out for Tell the Wolves I’m Home, which in 2012 I marked as my No. 1-favorite book that year. It’s still among my all-time favorites.
My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The story of 13-year-old Anna, who decides to sue her parents for the rights to her own body, rather than undergo another surgery to help save the life of her older sister Kate. The product of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for Kate, who has leukemia. A powerful story about what it means to be a good parent, a good sister and a good person. My Sister’s Keeper was also made into a film, but the book and film are quite different.
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Lush, mesmerizing and written by The Master Storyteller, it’s the story of a destructive family relationship, where a violent father abuses his wife and children. The story is narrated by one of the Wingo family children, Tom, a former high school teacher and coach who’s out of work after a nervous breakdown. Secrets are slowly revealed as Tom tells about his growing-up years on an isolated Southern island and the fate of his older brother Luke, as well as he tries to help his twin sister Savannah, a poet recovering from a suicide attempt. It’s thick, rich and fantastic. Loved the film, too, but not nearly as much as this magnificent book.
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
A portrait of the late-‘80s AIDS epidemic’s transformation of a girl and her family. Before her Uncle Finn died of an illness people don’t want to talk about, 14-year-old June Elbus thought she was the center of his world. A famous and reclusive painter, Finn made her feel uniquely understood, privy to secret knowledge like how to really hear Mozart’s Requiem or see the shape of negative space. When he’s gone, she discovers he had a bigger secret: his longtime partner Toby, the only other person who misses him as much as she does. Her clandestine friendship with Toby—who her parents blame for Finn’s illness—sharpens tensions with her sister, Greta, until their bond seems to exist only in the portrait Finn painted of them. You’ll never forget this book.
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
Sisterly rivalry is the basis of this marvelously cinematic and sexy retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn. She, her sister Mary and brother George are brought to King Henry VIII’s court as players in their uncle’s plans to advance the family’s fortunes. Mary, the sweet, blond sister, wins King Henry VIII’s favor. But then her dark, clever, scheming sister Anne, insinuates herself into Henry’s graces, becoming his adviser and confidant. Soon she displaces Mary as his lover and begins her machinations to rid him of his wife, Katherine of Aragon. And that’s just the beginning. The Other Boleyn Girl was also made into a film. The film was OK, and I think I’d have liked it better if I’d watched it before I read the book. But when you put the film against the book, there’s really no comparison to which is better. The book won’t ever let you go.
We The Animals by Justin Torres
If you haven’t read this yet, drop everything and get a copy right now. Then sit down and read it. It’s only 128 pages, so you’ll be done in a couple of hours, and they’ll be hours you won’t regret. W-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l book narrated by the youngest son of a Puerto Rican father and white mother raising three young sons in upstate New York. The novel is comprised of vignettes that, according to one spot-on reviewer, “paints a large picture through diminutive strokes. … Torres’s prose is fierce, grabbing hold of the reader and allowing him inside the wrenching, whirlwind of a life lived intensely.” Yes, yes, yes.
The Girls: A Novel by Lori Lansens
Conjoined twins Rose and Ruby Darlen are linked at the side of the head, with separate brains and bodies. Born in a small town outside Toronto in the midst of a tornado and abandoned by their unwed teenage mother two weeks later, the girls are cared for by Aunt Lovey, a nurse who refuses to see them as deformed or even disabled. At age 29, Rose, the more verbal and bookish twin, begins writing their story. Through it and Lansens, we see the sisters’ contradictory longing for independence and togetherness. It’s as mesmerizing as the girls themselves.
The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
A tribute to du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” this gothic story tells the tale of a plain girl wrapped up in the dark, haunted ruins of a house that guards family secrets that are not her own, and that she must discover at her peril. Those secrets include two sisters, a governess, a ghost and more than one abandoned baby. Margaret, the heroine, is a little-known author and bookseller’s daughter who makes a romantic and compelling narrator. I was entranced.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Do I even need to describe it? One of the most beloved books of all time about sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy growing up in New England, and learning the hard lessons of youth and poverty, during the Civil War. If you haven’t read it, you’re really missing out. Run now.
Wildalone by Krassi Zourkova
Really enjoyed this dark, imaginative debut that the publisher accurately describes as “a bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre and A Discovery of Witches.” It’s the story of college freshman Thea Slavin, who leaves her home in Bulgaria to attend Princeton, where she becomes tangled in solving the mystery of her sister’s disappearance and the lives of two handsome, dangerous and secretive brothers. Her desires lead her into a sensual, mythic underworld that’s as irresistible as it is dangerous. “Irresistible” is a good word to describe this book, too.
I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
Julia is one of my all-time favorite writers. Loved, loved, loved her National Book Award-winning Three Junes and every book that’s followed, including this one about sisters Louisa and Clem and their complicated relationship. Louisa is conscientious and careful, while Clem is a rebel. Theirs is a vivid, heart-wrenching story about what we can and can’t do for those we love.
Yesterday’s 150th anniversary of the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to end the Civil War got us thinking about all the terrific Civil War-inspired books published over the last few several–specifically, those about women who disguised themselves as men to fight, or who went undercover and worked as spies. The result is this list of 10 books about these heroic women, including both novels and nonfiction.
We’ve featured some of these books and authors on the Literary New England Radio Show. Those books we haven’t read yet are definitely on our #TBR list–and maybe should be on yours, too! Check them out:
1. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott
Adult nonfiction. Best-selling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four courageous women–a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist and a widow–who risked everything to become spies during the Civil War. Abbott uses a wealth of primary source material and interviews with descendants to weave the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. Supporting cast of real-life characters include Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln and Emperor Napoleon III. Hear Karen talk about the book in the Literary New England Radio Show archives.
2. Wild Rose: The True Story of a Civil War Spy by Ann Blackman
Adult nonfiction. “I am a Southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in my veins,” Southerner and Civil War heroine Rose O’Neale Greenhow one said. Fearless spy for the Confederacy, glittering Washington hostess, legendary beauty and lover, Rose risked everything for the cause she valued more than life itself. Biographer Ann Blackman tells the surprising true story of a unique woman in history, which includes her pleading the Confederate cause to England’s and France’s royal courts.
3. Behind Rebel Lines: The Incredible Story of Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy by Seymour Reit
Middle-grade fiction. In 1861, when war erupted between the states, President Lincoln made an impassioned plea for volunteers. Determined not to remain on the sidelines, 21-year-old Emma Edmonds cropped her hair, donned men’s clothing, and enlisted in the Union Army. Posing in turn as a slave, peddler, washerwoman, and fop, Emma became a cunning master of disguise, risking discovery and death at every turn behind Confederate lines.
6. The Spymistress by Jennifer Chiaverini
Adult fiction. Best-selling author Jennifer Chiaverini’s enthralling historical novel inspired by the life of “a true Union woman as true as steel” who risked everything by caring for Union prisoners of war and stealing Confederate secrets: Elizabeth Van Lew. She pledged her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, and even as her actions threatened both her reputation and her life, her courage never wavered.
7. I Shall Be Near to You: A Novel by Erin Lindsay Mccabe
Adult fiction. An extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman, Rosetta, who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband. Inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who actually fought in the Civil War, Rosetta cuts off her hair, hems an old pair of her husband’s pants and signs up as a Union soldier. She drills with the men, proves she can be as good a soldier as anyone, and deals with the tension as her husband comes to grips with having a fighting wife. Rosetta’s strong will clashes with Jeremiah’s while their marriage is tested by broken conventions and constant danger, and the two fight for their lives together. Hear Erin talk about her book in the Literary New England Radio Show archives.
9. Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero by Marissa Moss
Middle grade nonfiction. A fast-paced, high-energy picture book that tells the true story of Sarah Emma Edmonds, who at 19 disguised herself as a man to fight in the Civil War. She took the name Frank Thompson and joined a Michigan army regiment to battle the Confederacy. Sarah excelled as a soldier and nurse on the battlefield. She was so heroic, leaders asked her to become a spy.
10. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Wike
“Albert Cashier” served three years in the Union Army and passed successfully as a man until 1911, when the aging veteran was revealed to be a woman named Jennie Hodgers. Frances Clayton kept fighting even after her husband was gunned down in front of her at the Battle of Murfreesboro. And more than one soldier astonished “his” comrades-in-arms by giving birth in camp. A lively and authoritative book on several of the women who adopted male disguises and fought as Civil War soldiers.
Colin Barrett on Young Skins. A multi-award-winning debut short story collection set in the fictional, rural town of Glanbeigh, Ireland–a desolate spot where buffoonery and tension simmer and erupt, and booze-sodden boredom fills the corners of every pub and nightclub.
Jonathan Odell on Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League. Inspired by Odell’s childhood in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi, two young mothers–one wealthy and white and the other poor and black–have only two things in common: the devastating loss of their children, and a deep and abiding loathing for one another. As their relationship and beliefs grow, so does an unexpected friendship.
Susan Wilson on The Dog Who Saved Me. After his faithful canine partner is killed in the line of duty, Officer Cooper Harrison finds himself jobless, on the verge of divorce and in a self-destructive rut. Then he becomes an animal control officer back in his hometown, where he works to rescue a wounded and gun-shy yellow Lab gone feral.
Hosted by Cindy Wolfe Boynton. Check us out here on Tumblr for more book giveaways, author talk, event information and to listen to past episodes – book-tatstic updates posted regularly!
The Witch House (left), home of Salem witch trials judge Jonathan Corwin, is the only structure with direct ties to the 1692 trials that still exists in Salem, Mass. It’s now a museum. Mary Silbley, the most powerful witch in the WGN America television series Salem, lives in a house (right) clearly inspired by Corwin’s.
In the WGN series (Season 2 premiers Sunday, April 5), Mary Sibley is a main character. But the real-life Mary Sibley was only a minor one. Historical records show that the real Mary, a neighbor of Puritan minister Rev. Samuel Parris, encouraged Parris’ slaves Tituba and John Indian to make a witch cake, which was believed to have the power to reveal witches. Parris’ daughter Elizabeth and niece Abigail Williams were among the young girls barking like dogs, screaming wildly and acting up in ways that villagers believed could only be the result of witchcraft.
As the video here featuring an educator from the Salem Witch Museum explains, a witch cake was a form of old European white magic made out of rye meal and urine from the afflicted girls. The finished cake would be fed to a dog, with the belief that as the dog ate the cake, the witch would cry out in pain as the invisible, “venomous and malignant particles” sent from her body into the bewitched girls were mashed by the dog’s teeth. When this occurred, the identity of the witch would be revealed.
As we know now, all kinds of false beliefs and happenings contributed to the frenzy that became the Salem witch panic. One of the more fascinating aspects is the possibility of a medical condition called Conversation Disorder, which the Literary New England Radio Show talked about with best-selling author Katherine Howe when her latest novel, Conversion, was released this past July.
Conversion disorder is when you are under so much stress that your body converts it into physical symptoms. And when it happens in a group the term for that is “mass psychogenic illness.” But the term we’re more familiar with, the term that’s an old-fashioned Freudian term is “hysteria.”
Learning about Conversation Disorder was part of the inspiration for Conversion, which is set at a private school in Danvers, Mass. There, teen-age girls are falling into uncontrollable frenzies. As the media arrives, and the community scrambles to find someone or something to blame, a student who’s been reading The Crucible for extra credit realizes what nobody else does: Danvers was once Salem Village, where another group of girls suffered from a similarly bizarre epidemic 300 years ago.
As Howe explains in our interview, the novel was inspired by several real-life events, including the Salem witch trials, of which she’s pretty much an expert. In addition to being a direct descendant of three Salem women accused of witchcraft, she is the author of The New York Times best-selling novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (about a young woman who discovers her ties to Salem) and the non-fiction The Penguin Book of Witches.
All of her books cast a spell 🙂
If you’ve enjoyed this article, check out the others we’ve posted as part of Literary New England’s 5-day Witch-A-Thon. Between now and Sunday, we’ve got witch book giveaways and lots of other frighteningly wonderful things going on!
Marisa de los Santos. Her newly released novel The Precious One tells the story of half-sisters Taisy and Willow, told from their
alternating points of view. Brought together by their father, it’s a
book about family secrets, lost love and dangerous obsession.
Mary Norris. A copy editor at The New Yorker for more than 30 years, her warm and humorous memoir Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen is not so much about a need for perfect grammar, but about a love for words and language.
Charles Finch. His stand-alone novel The Last Enchantments
came out in paperback earlier this month. In it, a Yale grad whose work
in politics leads to disappointment finds himself caught in a whirlwind
of unexpected friendships, and romantic entanglements, that threaten
his safe plans.
Hosted by Cindy Wolfe Boynton. Visit the Literary New England blog
for more book giveaways, author talk, event information and to listen
to past episodes – book-tatstic updates posted regularly!