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WAMC Reviews 29th August 2017

I wanted to start today with a book that’s not on the list I sent it. I just picked it up this morning: Before You Know It, by John Bargh, released in October. I read the first chapter, and I wanted to share an amazing snippet I discovered. You know, those unexpected treasures you sometimes find when you read a book out of your usual genre. Anyway, do you remember the story of Oetzti, the iceman, whose body was found high in the Alps near the Italian-Austrian border? He died more than 5000 years ago, shot in the back with an arrow. Anyway, just a few years ago, back in 2013, researchers made another amazing discovery. They analysed blood samples from nearly 4000 people in the area of Austria where Oetzti died – and found 19 people who were actually related to Oetzti! The things you find in books! That just blows my mind.

 

The Fortunes
Peter Ho Davies
Reviewed by Phil

Peter Ho Davies lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan. In his latest book, The Fortunes, Davies documents the Chinese American experience through the lives of four people at different times in history. Three of the stories involve actual historical figures, but the book is a fictional rendition of their lives.

The book begins at the time of the California Gold Rush and the building of the first transcontinental railways. This story, titled Celestial Railroad, relates the life of Ah Ling, who ends up working for one of the big railroad barons. The second piece, titled Your Name in Chinese, tells the story of the life of Hollywood's first Chinese movie star, Anna May Wong (Wong Liu Tsong in Chinese) and the isolation born of her exoticism. Next, in a story titled Fast As Lightning, we are asked to remember the life of Vincent Chin, mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death on the eve of his wedding. The final piece, Disorientation, tells the story of a modern-day couple visiting China to adopt a baby. There's a sense of foreboding in this story - you just know something awful is going to happen, you're just not sure what. It's beautifully told.

The stories are absorbing, the writing deft: This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, with deep insights into what it's like to be "other." Thoughtful writing at its best.

A Hundred Small Lessons
Ashley Hay

Released December 2017
Reviewed by Phil

Ashley Hay is an Australian writer, currently living in Brisbane in Queensland. If you hold your right arm up above your head, bent slightly, you can imagine the shape of Australia’s east coast. Brisbane is about where your elbow is. But enough calisthenics!

Hay’s previous novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, was a great favourite at The Bookshop. I remember looking for a copy for a customer once and not being able to find any of the three copies the computer promised me we had in the place where they were supposed to be. All three copies were in the staff picks section, each selected by a different member of staff! Anyway, if you haven’t read anything by Ashley Hay, you’re in for a treat! Her language is lyrical, the lives she creates are authentic, and… I don’t want to gush too much, but her words are a delight to read.

A Hundred Small Lessons is set in Brisbane. Hay says the inspiration for the book comes from her own move from Sydney to Brisbane 9 years ago, and her imminent transition to the role of motherhood. Hay says she had to learn to navigate a new location and a new occupation at the same time.

One of the main characters, Elsie Gormley, lived in the same Brisbane house for 60 years. The house provides a focus for her memories: of marriage, of motherhood, of love… Worried for her safety, her family moves Elsie to a nursing home and sells her beloved house. Recent arrivals from Sydney, Lucy Kiss and her family snap up Elsie’s home and make it their own. Over the next few months, the two families’ stories crisscross in unforeseen ways as Hay weaves this rich and heart-warming story.

Hay says her book is an attempt to make the most of the tiny points of being and doing and connecting that make us who we are, and make us human. I think she has largely been successful at her attempt. This is another delightful book from a very talented writer.
 

Tangerine
Christine Mangan
Reviewed by Phil

Alice Shipley and Lucy Mason first meet as roommates their first semester at college. Their friendship develops quickly, to the exclusion of almost everyone else, until Alice meets Tom. Shortly thereafter, Alice starts to lose things, then there’s a tragic accident, and Alice’s life falls apart.

Years later, Alice has moved to Tangier with her husband John. Lucy arrives unannounced one day and moves in “for a few days”. Alice’s new life slowly unravels as she begins to remember some of the events at college.

The telling switches back and forth between the two women, to the point where they almost blur… This is a dark and compelling novel. Sinister. The book has already been optioned for a movie by George Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures. For Bennington readers, there’s an added draw: The college campus in the novel is none other than Bennington College. Tangerine will be released in March 2018.
 

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
Roxane Gay
Reviewed by Linda

 

This is a book about weight, trauma, shame, and a woman's relationship with her body. It is bold and haunting -- the "most difficult writing experience of my life" -- Gay writes in the memoir's beginning pages. Gay is a prolific author of essays, short stories and a novel, and often provocatively explores issues of race, gender, and sexuality. This memoir is much more personal and raw -- she shares horrific details of a gang rape at the age of 12 and her desire to protect herself from further harm by making her body as large as possible. Gay also explores the cultural norms and expectations imposed on women's bodies and the resulting harassment and microaggressions directed at women who do not measure up to those norms. 

This is not a book about a woman who would like to lose 20 pounds; this is a book about a woman who has been 300 or 400 pounds overweight for all of her adult life. Gay was interviewed recently by Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air and Gross asked Gay where she is now in her relationship with her body. Gay responded, "I would definitely like to tear down this wall I've built around myself, because I don't need it anymore."

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body is not only a candid exploration of trauma and its aftermath, but also a reminder of every person's right to be present and respected in public spaces.

 

Trace
Archer Mayor
Released September 26th, 2017
Reviewed by Phil

When Archer Mayor came to Bennington last year for an author event, he told the audience that his next book would be different. He said that in most crime novels, the investigators just have to manage one crime investigation. “It’s not like that in real life”, he said. Instead, detectives juggle evidence from several cases at once, following leads in different directions. Mayor said he wanted to write a book that more accurately reflected the reality of detective work. His latest book, Trace, attempts to do that.

All our favourite characters – Joe Gunther, Sammie Martens, Willie Kunkel and Lester Spinney - make a comeback, but their circumstances are quite different, with Joe called away to help his mother with her recovery from a spell of Lyme disease. Sammie is left in charge of the office, which tests her relationship with her partner Willy, who, true to form, is off pushing the boundaries of professionalism in his investigation of an attempt to sabotage military equipment. Lester Spinney investigates a cold case, discovering that the fingerprints on a gun used in a double murder were planted. Why, and by whom? Sammie investigates the murder of a young woman newly moved from Albany to Burlington: what was she running from, and why was she followed?

This is Archer Mayor at his best. The characters are rich, the cases realistic, and the telling superb. He just keeps getting better. I read the book in one sitting.

Note: Trace is released on September 26th. Don't forget to join us at the Bennington Free Library on October 2nd when Archer will talk about his latest book!

The Child
Fiona Barton
Reviewed by Phil

While working on a new development in London, a workman uncovers the skeleton of a baby, left untouched for years. Tired of the internet-generated news that seems to make up reporting these days, journalist Kate Waters is desperate for a real story and jumps at the chance to investigate. In the process, she uncovers more than she bargained for: A new-born baby stolen from a hospital crib decades earlier. Is the recently unearthed skeleton that of the missing baby? Or of someone else? As Kate delves deeper into the mystery, we see the impact of a long-held secret on the lives of three women, each somehow connected to the missing baby.

I enjoyed Barton's earlier book, The Widow. It took an unusual perspective on a killer. This new book is also unusual and a good, page-turning read.

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