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6 Books to Read in November 2021

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Last Updated: 11/01/2021 1:22 am
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The Collective

Alison Gaylin
William Morrow, 2021, $27.99

This riveting psychological thriller from Edgar Award-winning author Alison Gaylin (If I Die Tonight), tells the story of the ferocity of a Mother’s love for her child and the unbearable pain, solace, and vengeance she seeks after her daughter’s violent and senseless death. Camille Gardener, the devastated and grief-stricken narrator, has to live with the reality that her daughter Emily’s murderer, a fraternity member from Brayburn College in upstate New York, remains free and thriving. A young man who plied Emily with alcohol (at a party she attended as a 15-year-old), brutally raped her and then left her in the woods to freeze to death.

Five years after Emily’s accused killer, Harris Blanchard, was acquitted at trial
Camille attends a ceremony at the Brayburn Club in Manhattan. Through her relentless stalking she has discovered that Blanchard is receiving a humanitarian award that evening. Enraged and unable to bear that he will never suffer any consequences for his crime and boosted by a bit too much alcohol, she disrupts the ceremony with her cries of “Murderer!” before being wrestled to the floor by a security guard.

From the holding cell of the 13th Precinct she calls Luke Charlebois, a successful character actor whose current television role is as a tough-as-nails Sergeant Edwin “Sarge” Barkley on the network crime show “Protect and Serve.” He’s also her best friend. Luke is recognized everywhere he goes and is the most important person in her life or, as her ex-husband Matt, who has started a new life in Colorado used to say, “obsession” in her life. And how could he not be? The heart beating in his chest and giving him life is Emily’s heart. It had been Camille’s decision to donate Emily’s organs and Luke was the only one of the organ recipients who wrote her a letter and wanted to meet her. They developed a deep friendship, and for Camille, the only way to find a moment of comfort is to listen to Emily’s heart beating in his chest.

As they are getting into a cab, a woman, who they think is a fan or reporter, approaches Camille and presses a card with the word Niobe written on it into her hand, “It’s a group. For people like us. I know who you are, I know how you feel,” she whispers. Later, when Cammile joins the Facebook group, she is greeted by a banner with the words “don’t let your pain turn you to stone.” A clear reference to Niobi, a Queen of Thebes in Greek mythology whose 14 children were taken from her because of her hubris. Niobi “was so destroyed by grief that she turned to stone and became a part of Mount Sipylus, known in Turkish as Aglayn Kaya (the weeping rock).”

Camille can relate and so can the other 132 members of this surprisingly large, private group. As she begins to scroll through the “tales of heartache and sleeplessness and agonizing grief,” all from grieving mothers, she has crossed into a world that will change her life and challenge her fundamental values and beliefs. It is a space where “none of the stories are told in the context of time, as if the deaths could have happened yesterday or last month or 20 years ago.” A story from a retired school teacher whose daughter died of a fatal fentanyl overdose at the hands of her rich, privileged boyfriend “who subsequently checked into rehab and served no time behind bars.” A nurse from Texas whose unarmed son was shot in the back by a man “who successfully claimed in court that the boy was behaving suspiciously” and on and on.

Soon there is another invitation—this one to an anonymous collective of mourning mothers who want revenge. Assuming that the forum is a safe space to share violent revenge fantasies, Camille posts one of her own and is privately messaged by the site’s administrator asking, “Did you mean it?” What ensues is an engaging, complicated and twisty plot full of scary but plausible scenarios that exist in the world today. Gaylin, using a skillful balance of tension and intimacy, pulls us in to consider the implications of using vengeance and vigilantism in seeking justice and to find solace for overwhelming grief.

—Jane Kinney Denning

Neglect

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Kim Wozencraft
Arcade Publishing, $26.99, 2021

Erin Hill is a soldier and mother who moves back to fictional Granite County, New York, following her deployment to Afghanistan. She struggles to leave the war behind, entering into a new battle with consequential bouts of PTSD, despair, and cruel bureaucracies that threaten to take her twin daughters away. Following Wozencraft’s first novel, Rush (1990), which explored the impact of drug addiction on a female detective, Neglect touches on mental health struggles, how the government can fail those it seeks to help, and a mother’s unwavering love.

In the Catskills and My Boyhood

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John Burroughs
SUNY Press, $95, 2021

Described as a “more sociable Thoreau” by Henry James, John Burroughs (1837-1921) was one of the preeminent naturalists of the 19th century, known for writing about the Catskills. With a new introduction by Burroughs biographer Edward Renehan, this book compiles some of Burrough’s best essays on the streams and mountains of the region. The collection concludes with My Boyhood, a work not included in previous editions. The eight works, including “Speckled Trout” and “Phases of Farm Life,” cover a range of natural phenomena that reveal the charm and wonder of the mountains Burroughs called home. 

On the Ropes

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Neil J. Smith

Austin Macauley Publishers, $30.95, 2020

The story of Percival Jones, a young Black boxing champion vying for a spot in the 1968 Olympics, in this fictional account of his journey away from and back to the ring. Smith weaves landmark events of the 1960s into the story, which follows Jones through his reaction to Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s and Robert F. Kennedy’s deaths and his subsequent involvement with the Black Panther Party. In the midst of gripping, high-stakes fighting scenes, Smith, a Greene County resident, also recounts the careers of Black men in boxing, touching on themes of racism and American cultural and political issues.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets Among His Private Friends

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Edited with commentary by Carl D. Atkins
Small Latin Press, $30, 2021

Shakespeare scholar Carl D. Atkins’s book, published by East Chatham’s Small Latin Press, reimagines the way that readers learn about the Bard’s sonnets. Atkins treats readers as if they are part of Shakespeare’s friend group, sharing each sonnet followed by his written explanation of their meaning and possible storylines. All 154 sonnets are discussed, and each contains line-by-line translations designed to further aid in understanding. Through Atkins’s commentary, readers see the love triangles Shakespeare intertwined into his works, how he strayed from typical gender roles of 16th-century men and women, and his use of meter to enhance his writing’s emotions. 

The Best of Jamming!

Edited by Tony Fletcher
Omnibus Press, $36.99, 2021

Tony Fletcher, one of the region’s preeminent rock journalists, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the production process behind one of Britain’s most popular 1980s-era fanzines, Jamming!, which Fletcher started in 1977. In this fully illustrated collection, Fletcher takes readers through some of the best work that came from the publication’s 36-issue run, including interviews with members of U2, the Smiths, and Paul McCartney. With a foreword by Billy Bragg and other author contributions, The Best of Jamming! offers a glimpse into the magazine production process, as well as a snapshot of music and fan culture during the 1970s and 1980s.

—Kerri Kolensky

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