Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center

happinessHelen Carpenter, first grade teacher, divorced, and washed-up at thirty-two, decides that a three-week group wilderness hike in Wyoming is exactly what she needs to jump-start her life.  She doesn’t realize that she’ll be sharing the experience with her younger brother’s best friend, beginning with the long drive from Boston to Wyoming.

By association, Jake Archer, as her brother Duncan’s buddy, should be as big a slacker as she perceives Duncan to be.  To be sure, he’s snarky and infuriating at first, but Jake grows on Helen – there’s way more depth to him than she expected.  They do slightly more than flirt, and then argue.

On their arrival at the trailhead, Jake agrees to ignore Helen as much as possible, and she is determined to make her time on the trail a personal transformation.  Helen doesn’t count on the remainder of her trail cohorts all being college age, or that Bennett, their director, looks like he’s barely started shaving.  Or that she hasn’t a clue what challenges in the great outdoors entail.

Through beating treks, weather extremes, and injuries, our group of collegiate misfits (plus Helen) learn how to click with each other and survive.  Jake proves amazingly resourceful, a renaissance outdoorsman skilled enough to pull Helen and others from the brink of peril more than once.  Unfortunately, there’s a pretty girl who’s smart as hell that Helen admires and Jake apparently falls for – and Helen finds that growing past her jealous tendencies is sometimes harder than dealing with foot blisters or snowstorms.

Happiness for Beginners is a feel-good/sad-in-places chick-litty kind of book that is a breezy read, driven more by dialogue than narrative.  It’s not high literature, but the book is still a good read.  I always enjoy fiction about arduous hikes and outdoor challenges, and Happiness… delivers in this regard.

(William Hicks, Information Services)



Passages in Modern Sculpture by Rosalind E. Krauss

Sculpture has always been an “unreadable” and opaque art form for me.  While I canpassages look at classical and figurative sculpture and appreciate the labor and skill that went into its making, I couldn’t tell you what the underlying meaning of the work was.  By the time you get to the non-figurative, conceptual sculpture of the 20th and 21st centuries, I am at a complete loss and feel like I have no idea what I’m looking at.

Rosalind Krauss’ Passages in Modern Sculpture was the first book to really teach me how to look at and think about modern/contemporary sculpture.

Chapter One examines Rodin, a sculptor many would consider “classical” insofar as he deals with recognizable human forms, and demonstrates how the conceptual and abstract properties of later sculpture are already at work here.  By treating Rodin as a transitional figure, Krauss helps the sculpturally illiterate (like me!) bridge the daunting gap between representational and abstract art.

Subsequent chapters tackle Duchamp’s readymades, Giacometti’s surreal constructions, installation art, and environmental sculpture.

In her introduction, Krauss points out that she wrote her book with student readers in mind, so the text is lucid and refreshingly jargon-free.  If you are up for an adventurous stroll through the enigmatic sculpture gardens of the past hundred years, Rosalind Krauss makes an excellent tour guide.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Slade House by David Mitchell

slade houseEvery nine years someone disappears inside sinister Slade House, a house no one but its intended victims seem able to find. The quest to solve the riddle of Slade House will lead several innocent characters to their doom, while a final confrontation with the evil that resides there threatens to unleash its malevolent force upon the world…

Slade House is a recent book from David Mitchell, author of such epic, genre-warping works as Cloud Atlas (adapted into a film in 2012) and Black Swan Green. This novel expands upon characters and situations first introduced in his The Bone Clocks, although it is not necessary to have read that work in order to understand this one.  As in his earlier works, Mitchell uses time as a structuring device, with each chapter narrated by a different character in a different time-period.  The author’s careful attention to period-appropriate slang and pop-cultural references in these sections helps plant the reader firmly in each character’s milieu, and the sympathy generated for otherwise unlikable characters through this technique is one of the major achievements of this book.

While Slade House is described and marketed as a “haunted house” tale, it reads more like a straightforward fantasy/speculative fiction novella aimed at a Young Adult audience. The villains of the book are revealed at the end of the first chapter as a set of telepathic twins who have mastered the occult arts and then created Slade House as a sort of immersive mirage to lure victims into their “time-bubble” where their souls can be drained by the psychic vampires. Their efforts eventually run into a snag which, in the interest of keeping this column spoiler-free, the readers will simply have to discover for themselves.

Ultimately, Slade House is a quick, well-written read that touches on the classic theme of good versus evil with a cursory examination of the ethics of revenge thrown into the mix. Those in search of scares, however, might find themselves disappointed.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

David Lynch : The Man from Another Place By Dennis Lim

David LynchWhen the Twin Peaks revival was announced a few years ago, a veritable cottage industry of Twin Peaks-related books, think pieces, and apparel appeared virtually overnight to cash in on the news.  Missing from this welcome deluge of material was a concise, accessible critical/biographical overview of David Lynch, co-creator of the cult TV show and arguably the reason most folks were excited about the prospects of the new season.

Dennis Lim’s The Man From Another Place successfully fills that void with a breezy, readable introduction to the life and work of David Lynch. Lim does an excellent job incorporating the many projects Lynch has been involved in, including his art work, “industrial symphonies”, songwriting, Transcendental Meditation advocacy, and even his four-panel comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World.

Lim’s book is saved from being a glorified Wikipedia page by the copious amount of interviews he conducted with Lynch and various artistic collaborators, so that someone who has read, say, the 700-page David Lynch biography Beautiful Dark, will still find new insights and information here. The author is also gracious enough to provide interpretations of Lynch’s films for the newly initiated, giving the perplexed a way into the labyrinths of these visionary works (indeed, Lim has me convinced I now “understand” Inland Empire.)

If you’ve heard the name David Lynch and never understood what the fuss is about, this book is an excellent place to start.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne

marsh kings daughterJacob Holbrook breaks out of prison and kills two guards doing so.  Helena Pelletier hears this chilling news on the radio as she is driving her younger daughter home.

Jacob Holbrook is her father, a sociopathic recluse who kidnapped her mother at the age of fourteen and took her to a remote cabin hidden in an impenetrable marshland in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  Helena was their child, born two years later.

As she grew up, Helena revered her father for his knowledge of the wild, and feared his unpredictable ire.  He would teach her valuable lessons about survival, and then viciously punish her for minor mistakes.

Her mother was not of much support initially to Helena – she had learned early on to keep her feelings hidden.

It is in remembering this brutal childhood that Helena understands the danger Jacob poses to her husband and children, and she is set on intercepting her father before he harms her family.

The Marsh King’s Daughter mixes Helena’s memories of her childhood and eventual escape to her present day dilemma, where Helena has to best her old man at his own game.  The book is a psychological exploration of 1) depravity, 2) the difficulties of adjusting to the modern world, and 3) how one can find solace from things appreciated during a time of suffering.

If you can get through the different time switches and the occasional interjection of excerpts from the fairy tale of the same name, you’ll find a worthy page-turner of exceptional grit and suspense.  Jacob Holbrook gave me some serious shivers.  His ruthlessness reminded me of the character of John Gload in the book The Ploughmen (and yes, it’s worth reading, too!)  I have to admit I had to put the book down from time to time – there are episodes where the author depicts violence without a flinch, so it’s not for the squeamish.

I imagine comparisons with this book will be made to Emma Donoghue’s Room and Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, if they haven’t already.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown

Lawton and Hunter Loggins are brothers in their twenties, one a Navy Seal, the other inriver of kings college.  After their father’s death, they set out on a kayaking trek, navigating the wilds of Georgia’s Altamaha River to a specific place where they intend to empty their dad’s ashes.

As we travel with Lawton and Hunter, two other tales intertwine with their story – that of their father in his earlier days, and that concerning the first French settlers of this area of southeast Georgia.

Hiram Loggins was a harsh man – unlucky with shrimp boats and the law, and in love with the wrong woman.  As the brothers grew up, he raised them hard and tender – hard with the physical abuse, and tender in the ways that he taught them to revere the Altamaha and its swampy terrain.  It is to this river that they fare, to do their unforgiving dad one last favor.

The third strand of the book concerns the settlement of Fort Caroline, begun by the French in 1564.  Varying alliances with natives and clashes with the Spanish ultimately spell doom to the settlement.  The main character here is Jacques Le Moyne, an artist charged with rendering the sights of the new world with his sketches.

Le Moyne was an actual person; facsimiles of his works illustrate the book.   The River of Kings plays on the proposal that Fort Caroline was situated on the Altamaha rather than the St. Johns River; a theory about this came out about three years ago.

The area of the Altamaha in all three storylines is rich with myth, including the accounts of a mysterious aquatic creature that inhabits the lower reaches of the river.  The French hear tales of it from the natives, and Le Moyne is obsessed with seeing the creature, if anything to sketch it.  The monster also plays into Lawton and Hunter’s story – Lawton especially believes that their father was aware of the creature.  Their leg of the book is its own odyssey, a hero’s journey of siblings and their discovery of each other, while keeping sharp eyes on the dangers of the river, should they be river monster or two-legged nemesis.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

killersIf you like to read about history and like true crime books, you’ll probably find this book a fascinating tale.

The time?  The 1920s.  The place?  The Osage Indian lands in Oklahoma.  The situation?  These Indians, after the discovery of oil under their land, were the world’s richest people per capita.

Then Anna Brown, an Osage Indian, disappeared.  Her body showed up in a river; someone had shot her through the head.  This was the first of many deaths among the tribe’s members – from gunshot wounds, from suspicious illnesses, and from an explosion in the home of an Osage couple.  Local investigators were unable to solve these crimes, and some of these investigators also met untimely deaths.

The FBI was rather new at this time.  J. Edgar Hoover, its young director, sent a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate the matter.  The FBI estimated a total of twenty-four murders, and later estimates are much higher.  White and his team were partially successful in determining the cause of the murders; later investigators, including this book’s author, have made more discoveries.

Grann also wrote The Lost City of Z; I have not read that book but did enjoy seeing the movie version of this true story about exploration in the Amazon region.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)