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Category Archive for 'US Regional'

This magnificent, accessible, humane, and thoughtful book by Alice McDermott concerns itself with the highest levels of universality for all people, not specifically the Catholic doctrine which sometimes permeates her novels. Following three generations of a single family, the novel opens with a handsome, thirty-two-year-old man named Jim, who sends his wife out to buy food one afternoon, then seals up the flat, turns on the gas, and kills himself in a fiery explosion. His pregnant wife is left devastated. She goes on to work in the laundry of the convent of sisters who have helped her, as the novel goes back and forth in time. Throughout the novel, as the past and present are revealed, the action keeps the reader totally engaged, but it also keeps the reader thinking, pondering decisions and outcomes and the position of the church in evaluating right and wrong. Here she treats the grand subjects of life and death, innocence and guilt, voluntary good works rather than unavoidable obligations, the rewards, if any, which come from leading a “good” life, the penances one self-imposes for actions which feel like crimes, and the decisions one sometimes makes with the most honorable of intentions, even though they may violate the boundaries most of us consider sacred.

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On the morning of August 4, 1892, Abby Gray Borden and her husband, Andrew Jackson Borden were found dead in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, both brutally butchered with an axe or hatchet. Borden was a highly successful merchant, maker of caskets, and owner and developer of commercial property, a wealthy man who nevertheless lived a frugal life and kept his daughters and his wife totally dependent on him. His body was found reclining on the living room sofa by his younger daughter Lizzie, aged thirty-two, and the body of his wife Abby was found shortly afterward. She, too, was hacked to death and was found lying beside her bed upstairs. The only people in the house at the time were Lizzie and Bridget, the maid, who was up in her room resting after having been assigned the task of washing the outside of the downstairs windows in the August heat, though she was still recuperating from a violent stomach upset. Lizzie claimed that someone must have broken into the house to kill her father. As Australian author Sarah Schmidt recreates this famous murder and its aftermath, she delves into all the psychological complications surrounding the individual characters, gradually providing other imaginative possibilities regarding the murder. An iintriguing structure and four points of view, including that of Lizzie, make this novel both inventive and memorable.

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Established in 1854 and billed as “the oldest bar in New York city,” McSorley’s, an Irish ale house, serves only dark and light ale. Owned and operated by only three families during its entire history, McSorley’s has existed continuously at the same location in the East Village since its inception, and many of its employees have been there for decades. Rafe Bartholomew, the author-son of Geoffrey “Bart” Bartholomew, appreciates the McSorley mystique which has attracted famous people from the arts. Poet e. e. cummings wrote a poem about McSorley’s, Dylan Thomas and Eugene O’Neill spent time there, Woody Guthrie sang there in the 1940s, artist John Sloan painted five scenes of McSorley’s in the years just before World War I. Abraham Lincoln stopped there in 1860 as he was campaigning for office, and an authentic WANTED poster for John Wilkes Booth from April 1865 is displayed on the wall following Lincoln’s assassination. Houdini left a pair of handcuffs there, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter from the White House, and a copy of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Babe Ruth upon his retirement from baseball appears behind the bar. A high point of the book is the strong relationship between Rafe Bartholomew and his dad, a story of love and good humor, especially during Rafe’s mother’s two difficult bouts of cancer, fifteen years apart. Despite its many episodes of humor, its quirky personalities, the loving relationship between the Bartholomew father and son, and its revelations about this old ale house, the book does have a down side. Bathroom humor and crude language spoils the mood in the first part of the book, but as the father-son relationship grows, the book takes off.

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Peter Turner, who befriended Hollywood Oscar winner Gloria Grahame in 1979, was then a twenty-seven-year-old budding actor in England, and Grahame was fifty-five, a four times married American actress who had won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1952 for “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Their twenty-eight-year age difference became irrelevant as they came to know each other and Turner found he was able to keep Grahame on an even keel and able to inspire her to perform her acting duties. The two traveled and explored New York, a place new to Turner, a resident of Liverpool, as Grahame showed him the places to go and the things to do there. When, after two years, she suddenly ended all contact with him, refusing to explain anything or answer any of his messages by phone or mail, he was forced to go on with his life, his relationship with Grahame just a memory. As the novel opens, Turner is suddenly contacted by Grahame months later about getting together, and he soon discovers that she broke off her relationship with him and ended all contact because she was seriously ill and did not want to be a burden. Now, however, he realizes that she needs help – and quickly. A physician is recommending that she seek hospitalization, but she is adamantly opposed to it. Instead she wants to move in with his large family in Liverpool and stay with them until she feels better. Book has been reprinted to coincide with the release of a film of the same name, starring Annette Bening, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jamie Bell.

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Escaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. After fighting in the Indian Wars, they end up fighting in the Civil War. Sebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Barry makes everything real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.

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