I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, and it did not disappoint. Romie Futch is a middle-aged taxidermist in South Carolina, obsessed with his ex-wife, deep in debt. He is surfing the internet in a drunken haze one night when he sees an ad seeking participants for an “intelligence enhancement study” in Atlanta that promises $6,000. All he has to do is “undergo a series of pedagogical downloads via direct brain-computer interface.” Romie signs up.

At the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience, he’s a little creeped out by the downloads, and a little concerned that he’s signed away permission to access his brain. But he goes through with the experiments, and soon, his head is full of humanities and a “sense of postmodern self-reflexivity.” Flush with cash and full of dreams, he refurbishes his shop, pays off bills, gets (mostly) sober, and starts planning a return to his first love — art. Rumor has it that there are mutant squirrels in the woods near his home, which is also near “GenExcel, a subsidiary of Monsanto and BioFutures Incorporated.”

Romie hunts some squirrels and creates taxidermy dioramas enhanced with animatronics, which he eventually shows at a gallery under the title “When Pigs Fly: Irony and Self-Reflexivity in Postnatural Wildlife Simulacra.” But he also realizes that his brain is still vulnerable to the Center’s interference as he experiences migraines and blackouts and strange dreams in which he is being made to perform tasks. And BioFutures not only owns the company responsible for the mutant wildlife nearby, but also funded the Center’s work.

Soon after getting out into the woods and swamps, Romie gets caught up in the search for Hogzilla, an allegedly winged wild boar, reputed to weigh around a thousand pounds. I don’t want to reveal the whole plot, but suffice to say it’s a rocky road for our hero as he veers between success and self-destruction. Will he get a show? Will he bag Hogzilla? Will he spiral into a haze of drugs and alcohol? Or become the remote-control agent of a powerful biotech conglomerate?

Hilarious and wicked smart, The New and Improved Romie Futch is a delightful read. Like many of my favorite authors, Elliott mixes a good story with social commentary and plenty of humor. It was bittersweet to get to last page, because Romie’s adventures are clearly not over. I sincerely hope he’ll be back for a sequel.

Denise Kiernan‘s book is subtitled The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII. No matter what you think of the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the story of the thousands and thousands of people who came to a huge tract of muddy land in rural Tennessee to work at the Clinton Engineer Works is fascinating. I admit I did not know about Oak Ridge,  or site X, and only vaguely knew of Hanford, WA, because when we lived near Seattle the extent of radioactive contamination there was big news. But I never realized either site was part of the Manhattan Project. I knew the bomb was built and tested in New Mexico, and that was about it.

The Girls of Atomic City really illuminates the massive size of the Project, the web of protection the government wove around the work at Oak Ridge, where uranium was enriched, and the impact the Project had on ordinary lives. The women Kiernan interviewed and writes about are examples of how much independence women gained when they entered the work force in support of the war effort, and of how fleeting it was for most of them, when marriage and motherhood often meant the end of a woman’s work outside the home.

I enjoyed reading about the sociological aspects of life in a top secret community — where workers were warned that spies and informants may be afoot, and their fellow workers were drafted as “creeps,” who watched and listened for anyone spilling secrets. It is remarkable that the majority of the thousands of workers also had no idea what they were making; each knew how to do their own work and did just that little bit. Disturbingly, most didn’t even know what were working with. Only on Aug. 6, 1945, did it become apparent.

Kiernan’s structure, however, made the book less enjoyable for me. There were chapters about some of the individual women she interviewed, and chapters about the Manhattan Project and the scientists whose work made nuclear weapons possible, and these alternated. There was some chronological order, but otherwise the story jumped around. Perhaps because I did not read in long sittings but a few pages at a time, I frequently felt a little lost. Maybe this is a narrative device employed to recreate the sense of secrecy? If so it worked; personally, as a reader, I prefer more straightforward storytelling, especially for nonfiction. An interesting read, nonetheless.

In this week’s column I review Concord native Warren Zanes‘ new biography, Petty. If you live nearby you can hear Zanes read from the book this week at Gibson’s Bookstore.

Here’s the beginning of the review:

Concord native Warren Zanes first met Tom Petty when Zanes was a member of the Del Fuegos. He describes the event in his new biography, “Petty,” a little awestruck by his own 20-year-old audacity:

“Every evening from the stage we informed the audience that we wanted Tom Petty to come down to a show. During the days between the gigs, in every interview we did, we said the same thing to journalists. We figured someone out there had to know more than we did about how to get Tom Petty out of the house.” Zanes casually adds that, after the word started to spread, he got a call in his hotel room at 3 a.m. It was Tom Petty.

Read the rest here.

This short novel is from Europa Editions, a publisher I’ve praised on the blog many times for bringing terrific international fiction to American readers. When I ordered The Red Collar for my library’s collection I tagged it as a book I was especially looking forward to and it was just as I’d hoped. If you had to explain to someone what it means to be human you could give them this book.

Jean-Christophe Rufin is one of the founders of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières. He’s also a diplomat, who served as France’s ambassador to Senegal and an accomplished novelist who has twice won the Prix Goncourt, one of France’s major literary awards. I’ve never read his work before.

The Red Collar is about Wilhelm, a briard sheepdog mix, who followed Jacques Morlac when he was mobilized to fight in the French army in 1915. When the book opens, Morlac is in prison and Whilhelm is outside “baying relentlessly.” Major Hugues Lantier du Grez is the officer investigating Morlac’s case. When he arrives in the village to question Morlac and determine his fate, Lantier is taken with the dog’s loyalty.

Through his interviews with Morlac, we learn that Lantier witnessed an extreme act of canine bravery and loyalty in his childhood, that predisposed him to admire Wilhelm. Rufin writes of Lantier, “He had joined the army to defend order against barbary. . . .It wasn’t long before war came along and showed him that the opposite was true, that order feeds off human beings, that it consumes them and crushes them. But deep down and in spite of everything, he was still bound to his vocation. And that vocation had its origins in the actions of a dog.”

We also learn that Morlac feels respect for Wilhelm but no particular affection, even though the dog followed him all the way to Macedonia and is responsible for the events that led to Morlac’s Legion of Honor, the highest military commendation in France. Lantier finds out that Valentin, Morlac’s pre-war love and the mother of his child, has not seen him since his return from the war, and has a connection to Wilhelm as well. Through these three lives, and Wilhelm’s, Rufin compares human and animal nature, explores the hopes and disillusionment of the people sent to fight in WWI and the civilians they left behind, and most of all, dissects the concepts of faithfulness and pride.

This compact, beautifully written book is a gem. Rufin manages, in a very entertaining story, to distill the human heart. He gets to the essence of human experience as manifested in philosophy, politics, and love. And he pays tribute to dogs’ faithfulness. All in 150 pages. A terrific read.

In today’s column, I review Howard Frank Mosher’s God’s Kingdom and Castle Freeman Jr.’s The Devil in the Valley. Mosher’s book is a historical novel set in a village in Vermont near the Quebec border and Freeman’s is a re-telling of the classic story of a man selling his soul to the devil — with a decidedly different outcome than readers may expect, and also set in rural Vermont.

Here’s a taste of the column:

“God’s Kingdom” by Howard Frank Mosher is set in 1950s Vermont, in a village near the Canadian border called Kingdom Common. It’s a novel about Jim Kinneson, son of the local newspaper editor, and his family, who have lived in the Common for generations. Through a series of stories about Jim’s teen years, Mosher touches on concerns of the time and illuminates the past. And there is plenty of past in Kingdom Common — from troubles between Native Americans and settlers, to the Underground Railroad, to the burning of a settlement of former slaves.

In Castle Freeman Jr.’s “The Devil in the Valley,” a stranger named Dangerfield visits retired teacher and frustrated writer Langdon Taft to offer a deal: Taft can enjoy “talents” for seven months and then belong to Dangerfield’s “firm. But Taft is different from other clients.

You can read the rest in today’s New Hampshire Sunday News or online at the paper’s website.

The heroine of Everybody Rise, if you can call her that, is Evelyn Beegan, whose social climbing mother has done her very best to teach Evelyn to fit in with her prep school peers. When the book opens, Evelyn is 26, living in New York just before the Great Recession, and working for People Like Us, an exclusive social media site targeting the rich and well connected crowd she so desperately wants to belong to. She’s convinced if she can deliver the old money members PLU is looking for her life will be perfect. So she learns everything she can about Camilla Rutherford, the alpha girl of New York’s socialite scene, and her circle, pretends to be a part of their world, and begins to get invited to parties and benefits and even the committee organizing one of New York’s debutante balls. She can sense she’s “being seen” and is finally, happily — or so she thinks — one of “them” at last.

But weekends in the Hamptons, expensive tickets, designer clothes, “three-times-a-week blowouts” and “just the right toiletries” are massively expensive. Clifford writes, “The prices struck her as high at first, but she found that, freeingly, the more she spent, the less she cared.” Evelyn finagles money from her parents, stops opening her bills, and instead opens more credit card accounts. By the time her friend Charlotte tries to help her get organized, she’s $65,000 in debt on one card alone. And then her father is indicted for bribery and sued by the other partners in his litigation firm. Evelyn’s carefully curated life begins to fall apart. All the lies she told to seem privileged and respectable catch up with her. When she realizes her parents are about to lose everything and her father is going to prison, she makes one last stab at leveraging her “position” to try and save herself and her parents from disgrace.

I won’t give away what happens but I’ll say that if you think Evelyn sounds ridiculous, you’re not far wrong. It’s hard to like a victim of her own pretentions. And yet, readers know she’s going to learn from the error of her ways, like heroines of nineteenth century novels of manners. I enjoyed the book, but didn’t love it. The greed and excess Clifford portrays is hard to take and the redemption seems half-hearted; I got the impression at the end of the book that given the chance, Evelyn would bag a banker and live the way she was trying to on her own.

Everybody Rise is an interesting, entertaining read but one that left me feeling slightly sick. I guess that’s because this novel is a socioeconomic horror story.

This week, a fellow librarian’s debut novel in The Mindful Reader Column.

Here’s the beginning:

“Concord resident Max Wirestone‘s debut novel, The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, is a “geek” mystery.  As library director in New Durham, he noticed many geeks (devoted, possibly even immersive fans of gaming, the internet, comics, and/or related topics) also liked mysteries. So he decided to write a book for both geeks and mystery lovers. I don’t know if Wirestone invented the geek mystery sub-genre, but I can say The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.”

Read the rest here.


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