Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pass the pasta and the spuds, please



"Gaelic and Garlic," set in mid-20th century Worcester, is author Michael F. Bisceglia's fictional memoir of a boy's life in the first-generational Italian and Irish clans of Worcester. Written in the first person, from the recollections of a youngster who grew up in Main South, delivered the Gazette faithfully, and bounced from Italian to Irish family rules every day, acquiring some bruises in the process, the book is full of entertaining bits.
Clearly, this is a past close to the author's heart, and it reads that way. Bisceglia has combined the old Irish sayings and ways of life, contrasting them with the relatively conservative ways of Italian relatives for one Lou Mangossi, scion of the Mangossi and Bresnihan families. Memories are long and tempers a bit raw each time there's a clash—which appears to be any time more than two relatives gather together. There are 60 cousins and all of the attached adult figures to the family, so any event is big. This includes wakes and funerals, weddings, family parties, the classroom and the streets of Worcester.
There's lively dialogue, albeit in a central casting kind of Irish or Italian voice. There are also a few tender moments within the family, but for the most part the book follows a pattern of quirky family stories, enabling the young narrator to introduce his relatives—all of them improbably hilarious—and let them do their thing. After awhile, there's a feeling of spinning around the family merry-go-round, witnessing humorous exchanges that are strictly for the family books. I began to lose interest due to its extravagant exaggerations; too many overhyped Irish stereotypes are interwoven in the story for wit's sake, not actuality. Not all the Irish carry on at wakes the way the Bresnihans do, though I do remember they were more fun in those days. It's clever writing but somewhat overdone in its tiresome witticisms and descriptions.
There are moments that sparkle. Bisceglia finds his narrative voice halfway through the book and forgos much of the forced hilarity for actual storytelling. Lou Mangossi Sr., instead of demonstrations of sympathy, teaches his son the right way to fight so he'll be safer next time he's mugged on the streets of Worcester while delivering papers to three-decker tenement houses. When young Lou comes home with so many Christmas tips that it outranks his father's weekly earnings, his mother gently dissuades him from sharing that information and humiliating his father. Enjoyable too is the description of a newspaper carrier's daily job:
"On any given winter day, a kid could be bitten by one or more dogs; receive a mild case of frost bite; slip on an unsalted walk and break a leg; have all of his papers stolen (sometimes more than once); fall down an unlit flight of stairs; step into a slightly frozen puddle and receive a full boot of slushy water; or  simply be robbed."
There were times when it all nearly collided at once in young Lou's life.
I liked the more subtle references to his Irish mother's bad cooking, having grown up with similarly gruesome Irish cuisine at home. If it wasn't burned, it wasn't done. Mangossi's mother, Mae, comes through as a strong matriarch, running the family admirably while her husband worked. She keeps all of the family's history—good and bad—and tempers her chores with old songs, as did my own mother. The author's storytelling rather shines as he recounts a tale of meanly tricking his poor mother into performing Irish songs for the combined eighth-grade classes at his Catholic school, only to find she is as good as her word when it comes to performing. He also nicely portrays an elderly retired school teacher on his paper route who takes the time to soothe a young boy's fears of growing up and making his way in the world; she reveals a personal tragedy in the process.
There are some good chuckles in the book, and a well-drawn narrator. Folks who remember the "old" days of Worcester may enjoy the places he recalls and the memories he recollects through his character.
The book is self-published. Bisceglia, a former teacher, lives in Hampton, N.H., but grew up locally. "Gaelic and Garlic" may be purchased online through Amazon, or at bookstores.




Friday, October 17, 2014

Hank Phillippi Ryan unleashes her latest






Hank Phillippi Ryan writes thrillers like a camera in fast motion. Click. Roll. Click. Roll. The scenes change and the plot, as they say, thickens as she focuses on characters and motivations colliding against one another in "Truth Be Told." Phillippi Ryan's latest novel was released in October, the second in a new series of Jane Ryland mysteries. Her 2013 novel, "The Wrong Girl," won an Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel and the Daphne award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense. It achieved best-seller status in the Boston Globe.
By chapter 4 of the newest book, Ryan manages to set a series of events, like tops, spinning across the novel's plot line, with multiple instances of criminal behavior gyrating across the horizon—a Boston horizon, I might add. Murder, an intricate financial scheme, a Robin Hood-like financial worker, false confessions and implications of more murders emerge with each page turn. Don't put it down and then pick it up again a few days later, or you'll be lost in the morass that opens before investigator reporter Ryland and her boyfriend, Detective Jake Brogan.
The story is well rooted in place, with descriptions of Boston streets and locales, but the novel is predictably couched within the world of good vs. evil and human weakness.
Her characters are rich: a news-mongering city editor, who doesn't mind stretching the truth, or twisting it a bit, for a good headline. A lawyer who takes on the bad guys for all the right reasons. A soft-hearted bank worker who tries to rescue delinquent mortgage holders. A crusty detective who doesn't trust media types, even if he's in love with one of them. A reporter who goes after the real story with everything she's got, even after she's given a stupid assignment to keep her busy. They collide in the wake of a slough of misdeeds leading to murder, and try to get to the truth with—or without—cooperation.
Ryan designs an interesting contrast in plotting, as police try to solve a 20-year-old case involving a possibly false confession while Jane discovers a multi-layered trail involving real estate fraud and murder. Are they connected? Leave it to Ryan to find the way.
Ryan's knowledge of journalism plants a realistic overlay throughout "Truth Be Told," as J-school ethics collide with real-world decision-making.
She appears unafraid to lay in a whole cast of characters, unlike the few found in many crime novels. And, as in real life, stuff happens to alter the plot: shifts change, strangers appear, assignments and personnel are switched. It can be confusing if one is not reading it all in one batch (which I recommend for that reason). Easy continuity is blurred by multiple scene switches in each chapter, which can confuse casual readers, but it also gives the story a lot of motion and freshness—and a lightning pace.
She's a skilled writer and mystery plotter. In short, dig in to "Truth Be Told."




Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Festivals top Fall Treats

Readers love to meet book authors. In this region, a nearby appearance frequently provides the opportunity to buy an autographed book and exchange a few words with favorite authors. Novelists David Mitchell and Joe Hill (author-son of Stephen King) stopped in at Porter Square Books during September. Colm Toibin appears Oct. 16 at Brookline Booksmith and John Connolly will be at Jabberwocky in Newburyport on Nov. 5. Garth Stein comes to Porter Square Books Nov. 15. You'll have to get friendly with the MBTA, but there are plenty of literary events to attend in this area.
Next month, I'll list new and noted authors from New England who say they'll gladly Skype or otherwise meet with book clubs. This month, however, two big regional events offer multiple opportunities to indulge in author meetings.
First is Boston's own verrry biiggg book show, the Boston Book Fest, Oct. 23-25.
Literally scores of authors in many subject areas and genres will read, debate, teach and speak during the festival—most of which remains free to the public around Copley Square. Included are journalists, illustrators, and such well-known writers and personalities as: WBUR's Tom Ashbrook; Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam; Dan Chiasson; gaming author Ethan Gilsdorf; romance-mystery writer Marian Lanouette; Christopher Lydon; "Wicked" author Gregory Maguire; "You Are Not Special" author David McCullough Jr.; author and AGNI fiction editor William Giraldi; children's author Laura Godwin; authors Steve Almond, Claire Messud, Sue Miller, Kate Flora, Jennifer Haigh, Susan Minot, E.B. Moore, ZZ Packer, Chris Raschka, Meg Wolitzer and many, many more. For a complete listing, go to its website.
The festival is held in churches, small auditoriums and the Boston Public Library, all of them around Copley. A book fair occupies the square, with many displays and offerings from publishers, printers, schools, etc. There are also musical and reading activities for children.
Special guests include historian/biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin (also from Concord), who is keynote speaker. Young Adult adventure writer Rick Riordan will be speaking, as well as novelist/short story writer Susan Minot, world-class architect Normal Foster and internationally famed jazz pianist Herbie Hancock (newly, a memoirist).
"One City One Story," the festival's group short story selection, is "Sublimation" this year, written by Jennifer Haigh. She will be on hand for the discussion of her story, now being distributed free at coffee shops and other locations throughout the Boston area (including the library).
Follow the festival website for details (www.bostonbookfest.org). Volunteers are welcome, by the way, and contributions are appreciated.

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The Concord Festival of Authors lasts between Oct. 16 and Nov. 2.
Activities begin with the first Festival Forum—"Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth?"—featuring Alan Weisman, author of "The World Without Us," at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 16 in the Harvey Wheeler Center, Concord. ; MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky ("On Western Terrorism") is the last of three forum speakers. Second is Walden Woods Project hosting Marc Dunkelman, author of "The Vanishing Neighbor"—about the disappearance of American community.
As there are many different events and locations, please refer to the festival website, www.concordfestivalofauthors.com.
Events include a panel on "true crime" writing; an award presentation to best-selling author Nathaniel Philbrick ("Mayflower," "Bunker Hill," "The Last Stand" and "In the Heart of the Sea"); a panel of new authors; David McCullough Jr. (son of noted historian David McCullough), author of "You Are Not Special: And Other Encouragements"; a panel about how to publish your first book; fiction and nonfiction author Ann Hood ("An Italian Wife," "The Knitting Circle," "Comfort: A Journey Through Grief"). There are numerous events, most of them free.

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Finally, paranormal pleasures: There is an unusual event planned for Nov. 5 in Hartford, Conn. Novelist Anne Rice ("Interview with a Vampire") and her son, paranormal thriller writer Christopher Rice ("A Density of Souls," "The Heavens Rise") will appear at the Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., at 7 p.m., sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum. Anne Rice has returned to gothic writing and has a new novel, "Prince Lestat." Cost is $35 to the public. Go to HartfordStage.org for details.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

From beach reads to fall club selections




Toss out those dogeared, water-stained beach reads. It's time to reconnect and talk of ... well, summer beach reads, among other things. No better way to get your head moving again than to share sips, treats and book talk. Doubtless some July and August choices will become selections for the reading year. My own recommendations to the Off-Track Bookies will be Colum McCann's "This Side of Brightness" and "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin.
To help "sell" your suggestion, bring along a copy of the book and print out a little information about it; you won't have much time to push your choice, so make it count. If you are really strong on a book, you might consider e-mailing information to group members a few days before the meeting.
Large groups are more tricky; many have a lead person on the process, like the librarian or group leader. Send your recommendation to them; it helps.
Not all groups choose a whole season at once. Ours breaks it up into increments, and some groups go month to month, allowing for flexibility as well as keeping up with books new to the market.   
If you are new to the idea and want to find out if a book club is right for you, start at the library, where you can get the book readily and there's a librarian there to guide the discussion.
Alternatively, if you think you'd like to start a group, contact friends (or coworkers you can stand) and invite them. You can also seek out people interested in a special writer or topic (you may have to list the group on www.meetup.com or at special interest meeting places—colleges, coffee shops, newsletters—to find similar souls). Then, dig up books about or by that author/topic. You can also post your prospective group on library bulletin boards, among your Facebook friends or in a community listing with the local newspaper and town website. Meetup.com is another handy place to find like-minded readers.
Meet at a book store, library or restaurant for starters, until the group sorts itself out. After that, consider home meetings if that's a group preference. Do NOT take advantage of a bookstore or coffee house without buying a little something from them. It's thoughtless and cheap.
To keep your new group going, set up ground rules for smoother meetings: no crosstalk or talking over others, no dominating the conversation; give everyone a chance to speak; try not to repeat what others have said, and stay on topic. Finally, respect other people's opinions. Failing to do these things will lose you members.

Wanted: By the way, if you would be so kind as to share your season's picks with us, I'd love to list them in a "what we're reading for 2014-15" column. E-mail me to the address at the bottom of the column.
This is also a GREAT time to update your meeting info and contacts for "Read It and Reap," as I often reach out to group members for feedback on issues related to book groups and reading. Again, e-mail me as below!

Correction: I erred in a mention of the Speaking Volumes book group last month. The group does not broadcast on WICM 90.5; it uses the sub-carrier of WICN's signal to broadcast. Listeners can catch broadcasts on special radios supplied by the group or on Public Access TV in many towns throughout Worcester County (channel 12 in Worcester). Others may want to listen through the group's website, www.audiojournal.net.

Upcoming meetings:
The C.S. Lewis Society promotes exploration of ideas from science, the arts, culture, and everyday life as they intersect with what C.S. Lewis famously dubbed “mere Christianity.” Its objective is to facilitate engaging discussion and reflection of topics of enduring value for Christians and non-Christians alike. All are welcome. To learn more, visit www.lewisma.org. Steven Barrett will facilitate the 9:15 a.m. session Saturday, Sept. 13 on the first half of "Miracles" in Auburn Public Library, 369 Southbridge St. A second meeting, on the second half, is on Sept. 27, same time.
Meanwhile, Auburn Public Library's Evening Book Discussion Group will consider "The Cuckoo's Calling" by Robert Galbraith at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 11.
Levi Heywood Memorial Library in Gardner will host its next book group meeting at 4:30 p.m., Sept. 24. Topic is "The Orchardist" by Amanda Coplin, a beautifully written novel about losses and unconditional love in a family created by hardship and need. New members are welcome; for details, call Ann Young at 978 632 7638
Several events happen in September at Leominster Public Library. The Brown Bag Book Discussion group will discuss Kristin Hannah's "Winter Garden," noon to 1 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 4, in the meeting room. Readers may drop by; contact the library to borrow a copy of the book. At 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28, author Stephen Puleo will speak about his book, "The Caning: The Assault that Drove American to Civil War." Puleo wrote about a congressman's attack on Sen. Charles Sumner—an incident that dissolved any pretense of civility between the South and the North on the slavery debate. The session is free; no pre-registration needed. Lastly, the Evening Book Group meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Sept. 29, to discuss Geraldine Brooks' "March," which follows the absent father in Louisa Mae Alcott's "Little Women" as he leaves his family to join the Union cause. Chris Cormier Hayes will lead that discussion. Request a copy of the book at the library's reference desk or online through the library's catalogue. For info, contact Edward Bergman at ebergman@cwmars.org.
The Douglas Library Book Group will consider Ray Raphael's "The First Amendment Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord" at 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 9. In the years before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, local people took control over their own destinies, overturning British authority and declaring themselves free from colonial oppression, with acts of rebellion that long predated the Boston Tea Party. In rural towns such as Worcester, democracy set down roots well before the Boston patriots made their moves in the fight for independence. Call the library 508-476-2695 for a copy of the book. New members welcome. Refreshments inspired by the title will be served.
The Women's Issues Book Club in Worcester has selected "The Heretic's Daughter" by Kathleen Kent for its Sept. 8 topic. The author, a tenth-generation descendant of Martha Carrier (who was hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692), personalizes the witchcraft trials in a fictional account.
In West Brookfield, members of the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library book group will discuss “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Meeting is at 4 p.m., Sept. 25. Call (508) 867-1410 for more information.
Northborough Free Library's Monday Evening Book Group has slated "Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. James on Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. The Friday Morning Book Group meets at 10 a.m., Sept. 12, to discuss "The Education of Henry Adams," by Henry Adams. This self-described "eclectic book group" considers contemporary fiction, nonfiction and classic fiction. Members also serve tea and the occasional dessert. The group selects books at the November meeting. "We vote and compile a list of 12 books to be read for the ensuing year—four in each genre," said Marie E. Nieber, facilitator. "Books scheduled to be read for the upcoming month are on hand at the library a month ahead of time."