And for those of you celebrating today, Happy Mother’s Day!
In our family, Mother’s Day was celebrated with my Grandfather, who managed to be both a mother and father while my Mom was growing up. As a result, I learned early on that “Mothers” could embody any number of identities–in fact, I’ve had any number of mothers in my life, both literary and physical. From Marmee in Little Women, who told her daughters to be angry (as long as they used that anger to good purposes) and to be happy to Carson Drew, from the early Nancy Drew mysteries, who let his daughter think for herself…to my own Moominmamma, who gives the best hugs, and always has her purse on her arm. I hope each and every one of you, literary and real, have a lovely weekend.
And now, on to the books!
House of Names: Colm Tóibín is one of the finest story-tellers working today, and in this work, that re-imagines the story of Clytemnestra, he puts all his talents to use. Judged, despised, cursed by gods she has long since lost faith in, Clytemnestra reveals the tragic saga that led to her infamous, bloody actions: how her husband deceived her eldest daughter Iphigeneia with a promise of marriage to Achilles, only to sacrifice her because that is what he was told would make the winds blow in his favor and take him to Troy; how she seduced and collaborated with the prisoner Aegisthus, who shared her bed in the dark and could kill; how Agamemnon came back with a lover himself; and how Clytemnestra finally achieved her vengeance for his stunning betrayal—his quest for victory, greater than his love for his child. Clytemnestra’s tale has become something of a feminist touch-stone recently, and here, Tóibín brings a modern sensibility and language to an ancient classic, and gives this extraordinary character new life, so that we not only believe Clytemnestra’s thirst for revenge, but applaud it. The Washington Post echoes this in their review, which praises the book, saying “Despite the passage of centuries, this is a disturbingly contemporary story of a powerful woman caught between the demands of her ambition and the constraints on her gender…Never before has Tóibín demonstrated such range, not just in tone but in action. He creates the arresting, hushed scenes for which he’s so well known just as effectively as he whips up murders that compete, pint for spilled pint, with those immortal Greek playwrights.”
Cave Dwellers: Richard Grant’s new espionage novel is billed as “an eleventh hour attempt to overthrow Adolf Hitler”, but there is so much more going on here, and much more emphasis places on these unique characters’ identities, secrets, and connections, that even those who aren’t big into spy thrillers will find plenty to enjoy. In late 1937, the young lieutenant Oskar Langweil is recruited to this cause while attending a party at the lavish home of a baroness. A high-ranking officer in Germany’s counterintelligence agency brings Oskar into the fold because of their mutual involvement in a patriotic youth league, and soon dispatches him to Washington, D.C., on a perilous mission. Despite his best efforts, Oskar is compromised, and must immediately find a way to sneak back into Germany unnoticed. A childhood friend introduces him to Lena, a Socialist and fellow expat, and they hatch a plan to have Oskar pose as her husband as they cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship filled with Nazis and fellow travelers. But bad luck follows them at every turn, and they find themselves messily entangled with the son of a U.S. Senator, a White Russian princess, a disgraced journalist, an aging brigadier, and a gay SS officer as the novel races toward an explosive conclusion. Kirkus Reviews gave this book a starred review, praising it as “An understated, entertaining [and] exceptional period thriller focused on homegrown opposition to Hitler. . . . Grant builds tension slowly, then ratchets it up with fine pacing. The main characters are well-drawn, but the minor ones are also memorable, from a White Russian princess in an ancien régime Berlin salon to a cabaret mentalist.”
The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: The subtitle of this book will probably give you the best insight into what’s between the covers:Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian. But if that isn’t enough, let me describe some of this book to you: It’s a humorous, well-informed take on the world today, tackling a wide range of issues, from race relations and the state of law enforcement today to comedians and superheroes; from politics and failure to Bell’s interracial marriage; from his up-bringing by very strong-willed, race-conscious, yet ideologically opposite parents to his own adventures in fatherhood; from his early days struggling to find his comedic voice to why he never seemed to fit in with the Black comedy scene . . . or the white comedy scene; and how it took his wife and an East Bay lesbian to teach him that racism and sexism often walk hand in hand. Those who have enjoyed Bell in his wonderful show United Shades of America will love these essays, and those who have yet to discover his unique voice will find much to enjoy here…or, as Publisher’s Weekly put it: “Those unfamiliar with Bell’s work or expecting a lighthearted read from a popular comedian will be surprised by the book’s breadth and depth…This informative read will be illuminating and worthwhile for aspiring comedians and general readers.”
The Song and the Silence: In 1966, Yvette Johnson’s grandfather, Booker Wright, who owned his own business, and also worked evenings serving white diners at a local restaurant, appeared on the NBC documentary Mississippi: A Self-Portrait, and explained what life was truly like for Black people in the segregated world of Greenwood. His act of truth and courage became a beacon for the civil rights movement; but Yvette herself was born a year after Wright passed away, and grew up in a wealthy San Diego neighborhood. As such, she never had to confront race the way Southern Blacks did in the 1960s. Compelled to learn more about her roots, she travels to Greenwood, Mississippi, a beautiful Delta town steeped in secrets and a scarred past, to interview family members and townsfolk about the real Booker Wright. As she uncovers her grandfather’s compelling story and gets closer to the truth behind his murder, she also confronts her own conflicted feelings surrounding race, family, and forgiveness. An astonishing work about history, identity, and the potentially hopeful future we can forge, Johnson’s memoir is a fascinating and heartfelt piece that won a starred review from Booklist, which stated, “In addition to beautiful, evocative descriptions, a great strength of Johnson’s writing lies in her unique ability to absorb and relay several dimensions of conversations about painful and emotional topics.”
Less Than a Treason: Readers of Dana Stabenow’s mysteries featuring native Aleut Private Investigator Kate Shugak will know by now that very little can stop Kate in her pursuit of the truth. For those who don’t know her, Kate Shugak is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5’1″ tall, carrires a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat, and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine—and she needs to be, to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her. In this, her 21st adventure, Kate is recovering from a gunshot wound, enjoying some hard-earned solitude when some unwelcome visitors pass by, begging for Kate’s aid after discovering a heap of human bones on their trail. The intrepid Kate packs up the scanty remains, which a variety of animals have picked clean, and heads for the nearest town. But this case is much more deadly than a simple cold case. 2,000 people go missing in Alaska’s inhospitable terrain a year–is Kate about to become one of them? Booklist loved this one as well, saying “Starting a Kate Shugak book is like going somewhere everybody knows your name, given the warmth and familiarity of the Niniltna cast, even to readers new to the series. The twenty-first series installment…maintains Stabenow’s reputation for concise prose, pithy dialogue, full bodied characters, and intriguing plotting. Crime fiction doesn’t get much better than this.”
Until next week, beloved patrons–happy reading!