Kate Braithwaite, The Girl Puzzle (Crooked Cat Books, 2019)
In 1887 Elizabeth Cochrane—a young reporter from Pittsburgh desperate to land a job at New York City’s The World, owned by Joseph Pulitzer—agrees to impersonate a madwoman and investigate conditions at Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum from the inside. Twenty-three years old, Elizabeth spends ten agonizing days among women branded insane and treated as inhuman, who may be no more than burdens their families are all too eager to shed. As her stay drags on, Elizabeth has to wonder whether Pulitzer really intends to keep his promise to free her, never mind hire her if he does. Release from the asylum becomes a distant dream.
Thirty years later, Elizabeth—now known as Nellie Bly—writes out the full story of that first assignment in installments for her secretary to type up. This fictional look at the life and career of a courageous, committed woman not only revisits a largely forgotten true story but asks difficult questions (and offers compelling answers) about what Nellie revealed and chose to conceal or distort about her stay on Blackwell’s Island.—CPL
Allie Larkin, Swimming for Sunlight (Atria Books, 2019)
This lovely book is perfect summer reading. By that, I don’t mean that it’s lightweight, but that it will take you on a thoughtful journey in a way that will enhance a sunny day by the pool. There’s a lot of swimming in the book—some happy swimming, some therapeutic, some tragic. And mermaid costumes!
Kate Ellis is recently divorced. She and her rescue dog, the neurotic mirror of Kate’s emotional devastation, return to her grandmother's home in Florida to recover. Kate’s demons follow her, and given the importance of water to Floridians, and the family history around it, the desert may have been a better choice. But her sojourn with her grandmother, the reconnection with an old friend and a lost love, and her return to creativity all bloom as her terrors recede.
What makes this book special is its treatment of the older generation. The author doesn’t condescend; she treats the grandmother and her friends with the due care that any characters deserve. The prose flows, the characters grow, and the book blossoms.—CHL
Richard Powers, The Overstory (W. W. Norton, 2018)
Recipient of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize while it sat on my bed table waiting to be read, The Overstory is the monumental telling of nine characters in different eras and parts of the country, each with an intense connection to a tree.
A fictional scientist working with actual data finds evidence that trees are social beings, which allows the narrative to be packed with fascinating information that could seem preachy at times, except for being mystical in its truth and lyricism.
Midway through, the independent stories converge and coalesce around the 1990s eco-wars against worldwide deforestation. On the premise that we share 24% of our gene pool with trees, Powers shows that our future depends upon their survival. The sympathetic characters are individuals but also recognizable as types that turn to the same survival tactics as trees; yet the true heroes of The Overstory are trees.—AA
Richard Price, Lush Life (Picador, 2009)
In Lush Life, Richard Price once again demonstrates that he has dialects and mannerisms nailed down—lazy insults are traded between the boys in the hood, cops joke with each other to defuse tension, wannabe artists make grandiose plans. Price’s gifts go beyond setting and dialogue. He also knows how to tell a suspenseful story. Lush Life is a tangle of fascinating narratives that culminate in an unplanned murder.
One evening a young bartender, Ike, and his friends are up very late, drinking in the fashionable part of the Lower East Side, when they’re held up. Ike, whom we get to know better through the recollections of his grieving father, is an optimistic and enthusiastic young man. His response to the mugger, “Not tonight, my man.” The mugger’s response—a bullet.
Our main heroes, the weary detective Matty Clark and his partner Yolanda, are flawed in their own ways but still trying. Matty, who is divorced, is an indifferent father to his own children but impacted by the effect Ike’s death has on his extended family and friends. He shows unexpected compassion to Ike’s grieving, unstable father. Yolanda, a Hispanic woman from the projects, has a way of coaxing out a story from the damaged kids they encounter, offering them understanding.
Lush Life follows them through a maze of trendy bars, shabby apartments, and the nearby projects, as they try to solve the crime while keeping Ike’s father under control. Both a “whodunnit” and a masterful social commentary, Lush Life is hard to put down.—GM