Several decades ago, George Saunders and his wife were visiting Washington D.C. when their cousin mentioned that anecdotal evidence indicated President Abraham Lincoln had surreptitiously visited the tomb of his 11-year-old son, Willie.

For years, the story of Lincoln, so overcome by grief, that he stole into the monument where his son was interred, nagged at the edges of Saunders’s mind. But Saunders, who teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University, had never written a novel and besides his writing was mostly satirical in nature.

“But this material has been calling me all these years,” says Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House 2017; $28). “It’s like their story was a stalker, it kept showing up at my window and it needed to get out.”

Justifying his foray into a new literary form by telling himself he’d had a nice run regarding his career—Saunders is an acclaimed short story writer who is included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people the world, he decided why not try “this Lincoln thing.”

Saunders still had doubts about his ability to tell the story in the way the way it needed to be told. But having grown up in Chicago as part of a devout Catholic family and now having adapted some of the tenets of Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition, he has written a book that though just recently released is already garnering great reviews.

Bardo is a Tibetan concept–a kind of transitional zone says Saunders.

“We’re all in the bardo right now that goes from birth to death,” he says, noting that Buddhists would call these transition stages reincarnation and noting that the book takes place just after that, in the bardo that goes from death to whatever comes next. “Now is the time to live–knowing that death is coming—if we can accept ourselves as a mess.”

With all his research, Saunders has come to see how Lincoln persevered despite the immense weight of the Civil War, the deaths of so many Americans and that of his son as well.

“We had a president back then who bent,” he says, “when others would have broken.”

Good Neighbors

There goes the neighborhood.

Set in a town on Long Island not unlike the one where she grew up. Sarah Langan’s  Good Neighbors, an Amazon Best of February Pick, is formatted like a sociological study exploring a crime that happened in the past.

“My roots are in horror and I thought about making this a slasher book,” says Langan, who projects normalcy despite having written award winning horror novels.  “But that seemed too simplistic for a book about our culture and themes like mob mentality.”

Photo credit David Zaugh.

But the foreboding of horror books is prevalent here as we watch the neighbors on Maple Street turn on the Wildes, the newest family on the block.

It all begins with the falling out between two moms—beautiful, compliant and overwhelmed Gertie Wilde, an abused child grown into a beauty queen who is married to a once-almost famous rock and roller named Arlo. Their two kids have issues too. Julia’s vocabulary is profane but even more oddly, their son seems to believe he’s a robot. That’s quite a contrast with Rhea, an ultra-successful academic who seems to have the perfect everything—job, husband, and family that seems typical of all the families in the neighborhood.

The Wildes want to fit in but if there’s an unwritten rule book about how to act and what to say, they don’t have a copy and their differences set them apart from everyone else. But beyond that, climate change is wreaking havoc adding its own sinister atmosphere to Maple Street when a huge toxic sinkhole opens up in the neighborhood’s  green space. But this is no ordinary gap in the ground.  Instead it’s an ever growing  malevolent force taking over the neighborhood. Evil, it first sucks up a family dog and then Rhea’s daughter who gets too close.

“Most horror writers are gentle people who are outraged at how people are treated and what is going on in the world,” says Langan.

For Langan, that outrage in Good Neighbors focuses on climate change and the toxicity of neighborhoods that occurs when people treat those who are different unkindly.

The Hunting Wives: The Ultimate in Girl’s Night Out

            Southern belles behaving badly is the premise of The Hunting Wives, May Cobb’s new mystery-thriller about an elite circle of wealthy women in a small Texas town. Every clique has its queen bee and in this privileged hunt club it’s the oil-rich, manipulative, and magnetic Margot Banks who leads the group who are doing much more than just shooting skeet. The club’s other activities include downing pitchers of mojitos and martinis, barhopping, and indulging in serious flirtations. The defining membership rule drills down to the basic what happens amongst club members stays within the club. After all, they’re all happily married—wink, wink.

May Cobb

            Sophie O’Neill, a life-style journalist from Evanston, Illinois, is struggling to adjust to small town life and being a full-time mother when she’s invited to go skeet shooting and then to join the club. At home, she has an adorable young son and an equally adorable—and adoring– husband, but she’s restless and looking for something though she doesn’t know what. It doesn’t take long before she’s adopted the club’s values including Margot’s penchant for handsome, hunky, and much younger men.

            Soon, she’s lying to her husband and coming home way too late. But that’s not the worst of her problems. When a young woman is found dead on the grounds of Margo’s large lakeside second home where the club members meet, Sophie becomes the number one suspect.

            “There women are very complicated and messy,” says Cobb in what is a major understatement.

Cobb, who lives in Austin, Texas, returned to her home state after graduating with an MA in Literature from San Francisco State University and working in Hollywood for Rob Shelton, a writer and director known for such movies as Bull Durham, Bad Boys II, Tin Cup, and Cobb. She says the inspiration for this novel came about when driving the back roads of Texas and listening to her mother tell a story about her high school days when some rich boys invited her to their hunting club.

“They sat on their cars and shot little rabbits and I thought this could go so wrong,” says Cobb. Sophie and Cobb have other similar characteristics besides both being young mothers.

“There’s a fair amount of Sophie in me, the restless part,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s the writer in me but there’s a part of me that wants to move places and do things.”

But Cobb, realizing that her days of going out to bars and listening to music were over at least for the time being, didn’t join a hunt club but instead started writing. It was a good choice as the book has already received great reviews.

“I really did have a blast writing the book,” she says. “I wanted to write a story about obsession and how a person’s life goes off the rails.”

Cobb, who thrived on mysteries like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys when growing up, didn’t plot the book but instead let it evolve as she wrote. Sometimes she was surprised by the twists and turns of her story line and what her characters did.

“Stephen King says that he doesn’t plot as he believes the story is already out there and we just have to tell it,” she says. “I really tried to get into Sophie’s head and feel her boredom and that’s what drove her to make the decisions.”

Whenever Sophie is faced with making a decision, she opts for the bad. She’s oblivious, at least at first, to all the conniving and lying going on around her until finally realizing, as her marriage breaks down and more people associated with the club are found dead, that she’s being set up to take the fall for the real murderer.

Hour of the Witch

“Hour of the Witch,” Chris Bohjalian’s well-researched and chilling new novel, takes us into a past where, just by trying to exercise her independence and desire to lead her own life, a woman could be castigated as a witch.

Bewitchingly beautiful with delft blue eyes, porcelain skin and blonde hair, Mary Deerfield has a handsome, wealthy husband, a lovely house, and bruises on her face that she tries to hide under her linen cap. Thomas, her husband, is almost twice her age and given to drunken rages, particularly as time goes on and Mary does not become pregnant.

Mary’s parents are respected and well-to-do but can’t protect their daughter. There are no organizations to help battered women, no social workers or psychologists to dispense advice, nor can Mary just leave her home, move to another city and get a job. After all, this is Boston in 1662, and women have few, if any, rights. Ironically, Massachusetts, one of the most liberal states in the 21st century, was back then the kind of place where they burned women as witches.

Hour of the Witch,Chris Bohjalian’s well-researched and chilling new novel, takes us into a past where, just by trying to exercise her independence and desire to lead her own life, a woman could be castigated as a witch.

“When we think of New England’s history of hanging people for witchcraft, we beeline straight to Salem in 1692,” said Bohjalian, a New York Times bestselling author of 22 books whose works have been translated into 35 languages and three times made into movies. “But in 1656, the governor of Massachusetts had his own sister-in-law hanged as a witch. And the first real witch hunt was Hartford in 1662 — three full decades before Salem. One thing many of the women executed as witches had in common was that they were smart, opinionated, and viewed as outsiders; sometimes, they saw through the patriarchal hypocrisy that marked a lot of New England Puritanism.”

Mary puts up with a lot; after all, she has little choice. But when Thomas drives a three-tined fork into her hand, she’s had it and files for divorce. Bohjalian said he was looking for a way into writing a suspense novel about the 17th century and found it when he came across the records of a woman named Nanny Naylor in the 1600s who successfully sued for divorce and won.

“I was off and running,” he said.

Bohjalian enjoyed studying Puritan theology at Amherst College, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude.

“Puritans lived with anxiety and dread — just like me,” he said. “Of course, for them, Satan was as real as your neighbor and they fretted constantly over whether they were saved or damned. My anxieties were more of the 1980s ‘Breakfast Club’ sort.

“I think ‘Hour of the Witch’ is very timely for a novel set in 1662,” he said. “And that was by design. When a magistrate on Boston’s all-male Court of Assistants calls my heroine, Mary Deerfield, ‘a nasty woman,’ I knew the reference would not be lost on my readers. Now, I never want to write polemics, but yes, there is a political undercurrent to the novel that will resonate.”

Bohjalian said it wasn’t difficult getting into the Puritan mindset.

“If you’re the sort of person who always questions your motives and has a healthy dollop of self-loathing, it’s actually rather easy,” he said.

What, of all the research he did, surprised him the most?

“The fact the Puritans didn’t use forks and drank beer like they were at fraternity parties in 1978,” said Bohjalian. “Their table manners must have been atrocious.”

This review previously ran in the Times of Northwest Indiana.

The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Chicago Cubs

         Carrie Muskat, who started covering the Chicago Cubs in 1987, has written The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Chicago Cubs (Triumph Books 2021; $16.95).

         “Really there are more than 50 moments because it was hard to limit them so it’s 50 plus,” Muskat tells me in an early morning phone interview. “I always say I’m bad at math.”

Totally immersed in baseball and the Cubs, Muskat’s latest book has an introduction by Anthony Rizzo, the first baseman for the Chicago Cubs and a three-time All-Star who in 2016 helped the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908. Her other books include Banks to Sandberg to Grace: 5 Decades of Love & Frustration with Chicago Cubs.

Carrie Muskat

Described as “the perfect primer for new Cubs fans and an essential addition to a seasoned fan’s collection,” the book recounts the living history of the team and features such greats as Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Anthony Rizzo, and Ernie Banks among others.

 Muskat, who has conducted numerous interviews with players, at times takes a different approach in her book by not only relying upon her own interactions but also by talking to people who worked behind the scenes about the moments included in  The Big 50. It was a way to gain a new perspective on some of the players such as Sammy Sosa that she knew so well.

“I talked to broadcaster Craig Lynch about Pat Hughes, the radio play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs and got his insights,” she says, as a way of giving an example.

In some ways, the those decades covering the Cubs was like being part of a large family.  In her time writing about Major League Baseball—she started in 1981—Muskat says she’s watched players like Kerry Woods, the two-time All Star former Cubs pitcher who is now retired, grow. The same goes for Anthony Rizzo.

“I’ve enjoyed talking to people’s families, like Anthony’s, just talking about things,” she says. “I covered Shawon Dunston and then his son.”

In her book, Dunston shares his insight on Andre Dawson in Moment 16 of  titled “The Hawk.” Dunston recalls having a locker between Dawson and Ryne Sandberg, who he describes as the quietest guys in the world. “Combined, they didn’t say more than 20 words a day, and I’m not exaggerating.”

At the time, Dunston says he was “talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.” But by being between them, he learned to be quiet and think about the game before the game. “I learned how to be a professional because of Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg.”

These scenes from the book support Muskat’s contention that players are really just people.

“That’s one of the biggest things,” she says. “Even if they’re superstars, they’re just people when you get to know them.”

There have been changes. Reporters used to sit in the dugout but not anymore.

“It’s not as relaxed,” she says. “My favorite time is spring training which is more relaxed.”

Muskat is freelancing now but she still is on the sports beat.

“There’s always a story, every player has one,” she says.

Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing

Lauren Hough’s parents were members of The Children of God, so she told people they were missionaries instead of belonging to that infamous cult. A student at a conservative Catholic High School, she hid her sexuality. As a member of the U.S. Airforce she visited gay bars using the name Ouiser Boudreaux, taken from the character Shirley MacLaine played in “Steel Magnolias” so that no one on the base would learn her real identity—and sexual orientation.

In other words she was always someone she wasn’t, trying to be what others expected of her.

“I’d learned to survive by becoming what they wanted me to be, as best I could,” Hough writes in her collection of essays, “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing.” “And when I couldn’t, I hid, erasing those parts of me that offended.”

The collection includes an essay she wrote for HuffPost titled “I Was a Cable Guy.” I Saw the Worst of America” which went viral. One reader reached out to Hough to tell her how much she liked it. That person was Academy Award winner, Cate Blanchett. The two struck up a friendship and when “Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing,” Hough texted her to ask if she would read several of book’s eleven essays.

“Surreal is also a good word to being able to text Cate and ask her is she’s ever considered doing an audiobook,”  says Hough describing the entire experience not only of partnering with Blanchett in producing the audiobook but her life’s journey and how she ended up as a published writer corresponding with a movie star. As for Blanchard, she said yes.

“My conversations with Lauren over the last several years have been honest, raw, and sidesplittingly funny, and I treasure her friendship and penmanship beyond measure,” she writes.

Hough says she wrote many of her essays in the dark, just hoping to connect, if only to yourself. Growing up, her family had moved frequently, and she lived in seven countries including Switzerland, German and Ecuador, and Texas just to name a few placed, experienced violence and been abused. In adulthood, she’d worked a series of jobs—bartending, bouncer in a gay bar, livery driver, U.S. Airman, barista, and, of course, a cable installer.

Describing Hough as having hypnotic power as a storyteller, Blanchett says when she spoke Hough’s words in the audiobook that in “speaking her words, I truly understood the rhythmic heartbeat alive in every phrase. Aching to connect. Aching to be heard.”

In her long search for belonging and being connected, Hough’s writings seem to have forged the connectiveness she sought.

Mark Bittman: Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal

          Mark Bittman never does anything in a small way. His cookbooks typically run some 600 pages and have titles like “The Best Recipes in the World,” and his ten-book “How to Cook” series such as “How to Cook Everything Fast,” “How to Bake Everything” and “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.” They’re so pack full of recipes that just five of Bittman’s books take up a whole shelf in my bookcase.

          But Bittman’s latest book, “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, from Sustainable to Suicidal” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2021; $16,80 Amazon price) isn’t a doorstopper tome. It doesn’t even have recipes. But what it lacks in size—though it is over 300 pages–it more than makes up for as a call to arms about what’s wrong with our food system and how dangerous it is to both our health and also our planet.

          “Big Ag has a huge role in greenhouse gas emissions, even rivaling those of the oil and gas companies,” says Bittman talking about the impact of emissions on global warming. “The top five meat and dairy companies combine to produce more emissions than ExxonMobil, and the top twenty have a combined carbon footprint the size of Germany. Tyson Foods, the second-largest meat company in the world, produces twice as much greenhouse gas as all of Ireland.”

          Bittman, who recently founded The Bittman Project with the ultimate goal of creating a road map that leads us to a healthier food system, says he can envision a positive way for us to go forward. But first he explains how we got to where we are and how deadly it is.

          Junk food, born in America, has spread throughout the world and though Bittman, who has written 30 cookbooks, says he doesn’t typically like to use statistics, he offers some whoppers. Two-thirds of the world’s population lives in countries where more people die of diseases linked to being overweight than ones linked to being underweight.

          “The global number of people living with diabetes had quadrupled since 1980, and since 1990 deaths from diabetes-caused chronic kidney disease have doubled,” he writes, adding that both global sugar consumption and obesity have nearly tripled in the past half-century.

          American fast food chains increased their international sales by 30% from 2011 to 2016 and the international fast-food market is expected to approach $700 billion dollars by 2022.     

          In all, it sounds depressing, particularly when you realize that as far back as the early 1900s,  Upton Sinclair, author of “The Jungle,” was also warning about our unhealthy food system.

          It’s essential,  says Bittman, that we have a just food system, one ensuring everyone has access to nourishing, wholesome, sustainable, and affordable food.

          He points to the President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the benefits it still provides us today including Social Security. We can do the same with food, he says.

          “Food needs to be grown in a way that’s sustainable and protects the land,” says Bittman. “And that the industries that involve food provide more dignified and well-paying jobs in food and farming.”

Watch Mark Bittman’s Book Event: “Animal, Vegetable, Junk: A History of Food, From Sustainable To Suicidal” at https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/academics/departments/health-policy-and-management/news-and-events

%d bloggers like this: