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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Roundup: Historical fiction

Watergate stretches fiction a bit too far, The Gods of Gotham exudes Manhattan fiction, The House I Loved opens a window on a fascinating era, and The Technologists collects calamities.

By Thomas Mallon; Pantheon, 448 pp., $26.95; *** out of four

The women of Watergate — first lady Pat Nixon, loyal secretary Rose Mary Woods and, most of all, Alice Longworth, the viper-tongued 88-year-old daughter of Teddy Roosevelt— steal the show in Thomas Mallon's surprisingly entertaining and warm-hearted Watergate. Mallon presents the story of the bungled burglary and cover-up that destroyed Richard Nixon's presidency through a variety of narrators. In this retelling, Nixon becomes a far more sympathetic, complex, far-sighted character than the moniker "Tricky Dick" would suggest. And wife Pat — who is patient, perceptive, exhausted — is the opposite of plastic. (Mallon gives her a secret lover, stretching fiction too far.) — Deirdre Donahue

The Gods ofGotham
By Lyndsay Faye; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 414 pp., $25.95; *** out of four

If your concept of paradise is popping in a DVD of Gangs of New York while rereading Caleb Carr's The Alienist, then put Lyndsay Faye's The Gods of Gotham on your to-buy list. Set in 1845, it depicts the cultural cataclysm created in Manhattan by the Irish potato famine. At the center of the story stands Timothy Wilde, an American bartender who loses his life savings to fire. Forced by his politically savvy older brother to join the new police force, the just-minted copper ends up investigating why Irish immigrant children are being savagely murdered. Faye's language is appropriately florid, even flowery, dotted with slang and research. A treat for readers obsessed with Manhattan history. — Deirdre Donahue

The House I Loved
By Tatiana de Rosnay; St. Martin's Press, 222 pp., $25.99; ** out of four

The House I Loved sounds like it could slide right in to a 9 p.m. time slot on HGTV. But despite its homey title, the latest from Tatiana de Rosnay (the wonderful Sarah's Key) is anything but cozy. It's the rather dreary story of Rose Bazelet, determined to cling to the last brick when her house is set for demolition in Paris in the 1860s. The format — letters to her beloved, dead husband interspersed with first-person narrative — grates, as does a rather contrived "secret" that taunts the reader. As historical fiction, though, this old House does open a window onto a fascinating era: the tumultuous period when Emperor Napoleon III ordered up a new "modern" city, longtime residents be damned. — Jocelyn McClurg

The Technologists
By Matthew Pearl; Random House, 480 pp., $26; ** out of four

Readers will learn some interesting factoids about post-Civil War Boston, the founding of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and tensions between science and religion while reading The Technologists. Author Matthew Pearl also includes real-life figures such as Ellen Swallow, the first woman admitted to MIT. As a work of historical fiction, however, it's a long, hard slog dragged down by a cast of predictable characters and overwrought prose. The story opens in 1868 when a series of freak accidents imperils Boston: glass suddenly melts, burning eyeballs; compasses go wacky, causing ships to crash. Meanwhile, students at the fledging MIT battle contemptuous Harvard snobs. A group of plucky young engineers secretly investigates what is causing the calamities. — Deirdre Donahue

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Friday, March 30, 2012

'Hunger Games' fans switch arenas from page to screen

What is it about The Hunger Games that has made it the hottest teen fiction series since Harry Potter and Twilight? We went to the source and found three avid and articulate fans — ages 17 to 74 — to tell us. They love Suzanne Collins' best-selling dystopian trilogy about a future dictatorship in which teens, primped by stylists and costume designers, are forced to fight to the death on TV. And they're just as excited about the highly anticipated movie version of the first book, starring Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen. It opens Friday.

Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games,' out Friday. By Murray Close, Lionsgate

Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games,' out Friday.

By Murray Close, Lionsgate

Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen in 'The Hunger Games,' out Friday.

'It's not so far-fetched'

On a recent Friday night in Westport, Conn., Melanie Mignucci has joined 120 kids at the Westport Public Library's sold-out Hunger Games tribute, a combination costume party/rock concert/trivia quiz/simulated survival game.

Dressed up as a "gamemaker," Mignucci, who works part time at the library, sternly dispatches bands of kids off to the book stacks, armed with cardboard shields and Nerf-ball weapons.

"It is amazing to see all these kids not only reading but spending their Friday night at a library, totally immersed in this fictional world," she says. "It shows how a book has the power to transport its reader into another world."

26 million: Copies in print of the trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) and movie tie-in books.

200,000: First printing of the first book in 2008.

191: Ranking on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list for The Hunger Games a week after its release in September 2008. It didn’t crack the top 50 until Catching Fire, the second book, was published a year later.

12: Consecutive weeks, starting Dec. 29, 2011, that The Hunger Games has been No. 1 on USA TODAY’s list.

9: Weeks in 2012 that the three books in the trilogy have swept the top three spots on USA TODAY’s list, including this week’s.

Mignucci, 18, confesses she discovered The Hunger Games belatedly this winter, more than three years after the first book was published.

She loves to read. She started Harry Potter when she was only 6 ("It's really not that complicated," she says) but thought the love story in Twilight was "infantile." As a high school senior and fan of writers like Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), she figured she had outgrown popular young-adult novels.

Then Mignucci met Katniss Everdeen, Collins' teen narrator and heroine who volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the kill-or-be-killed games.

"I'm so happy there's a female character getting stuff done in mainstream fiction," Mignucci says. "The plot revolves around her and her family's survival and sticking it to the Capitol," the seat of power in the dictatorship.

Mignucci was hooked by the dystopian world Collins creates.

"It's world that really could happen," she says. "Not that I see it happening, but you can imagine what if it did happen, especially how entertainment became a source of pacification for society."

To which she adds, "Brave New World, anyone?" a reference to Aldous Huxley's 1932 classic, which happens to be one of the 16 titles on the Westport Library's list of dystopian fiction. (Teen services librarian Jaina Lewis says kids are constantly asking, "What else is there like The Hunger Games?")

Mignucci, who hopes to join the Peace Corps and become a writer after college (she has been accepted at Bard and is waiting to hear from Barnard and Brown), sees the story as a blend of "gritty realism with a twist of the unthinkable. But in reality, it's not so far-fetched, considering today's oppressive regimes. The only real hint of fantasy is that the violence is gladiatorial in nature, and not a fact of life."

She acknowledges that the premise of the games — kids killing kids — could trouble younger readers, "but I'm 18. I've played video games more violent than The Hunger Games. I've seen a lot of war coverage on TV."

Her one fear about the movie: "I hope it doesn't facilitate a Team Peeta/Team Gale split," referring to the two boys (Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in the movie) who are rivals for Kastniss' attention and loyalty. "That would be so annoying. In the book, the romance is secondary. I love that. It's not just about finding the right boy."

A guy who can 'relate'

Rafe Singer, 17, a high school senior in Scottsdale, Ariz., discovered The Hunger Games a few months after the first book was published in 2008 when a friend told him, "You've got to read this killer story."

He fell for what he calls its "exciting pace," a "break from the slow books I read for school," such as Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Flaubert's Madame Bovary. (Scores of high schools have added The Hunger Games to their reading lists.)

"It's a well-known fact among my friends," Singer says, "that if you want to go to bed while reading The Hunger Games, you have to stop in the middle of a chapter, because if you finish one chapter, you have to start the next."

After reading the entire series, he says the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland in the movie) is "someone I love to hate." But his favorite character is Katniss, "of course."

She's "incredibly brave," says Singer, who's considering a military career in aeronautics and has been accepted to the University of Arizona and Arizona State and is waiting to hear from West Point and the Air Force Academy. "I think her drive to be the father figure and be strong for everyone around her makes her one of the few female characters I can relate to at all. Plus, any girl who knows how to use a bow and arrow is attractive." (No, he adds, he hasn't met anyone like that in Scottsdale.)

As a "guy," he says, "the violence is pretty exciting," but on a "deeper note, the implications of controlling governments and reality TV are more interesting than other themes in popular novels lately."

Such as? "Sparkly vampires," he says and laughs.

Singer and friends already have tickets for the midnight movie release. He's eager to see how the film, rated PG-13, handles the violence, as well as Katniss' "inner struggles. She's an extremely introverted girl, so portraying all her emotions and thoughts and planning will be hard."

Singer loved Hugo, Martin Scorsese's film adaptation of Brian Selznick's illustrated book The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But after reading The Iliad, he was disappointed by Troy, starring Brad Pitt. "If they actually just followed Homer's writing, especially with all the gods flying down midbattle, the movie would have been 10 times more intense."

Strong female character

Rosemary Shearer, 74, has always been an adventurous reader. In the summer before ninth grade in Ames, Iowa, she read and enjoyed Herman Wouk's 1951 military drama, The Caine Mutiny, to the dismay of her teacher.

"She was shocked I would read something with swear words in it," Shearer recalls. "I had to find another book …something dull."

So when her daughter, 49, an education professor; her daughter-in-law, 50, a former school librarian; and her 11-year-old grandson all raved about The Hunger Games, she decided to try it a few months ago. "I raced through all three books in one weekend," she says. "My husband and son-in-law experienced the same thing, to their surprise."

She loves the series' "strong female characterization." In fiction, she says, "women are usually a sidebar to a muscle-bound hero. Katniss did it all. She was willing to lay down her life for a loved one."

Shearer, the retired manager of a land trust for the Superstition Mountains in Pinal County, Ariz., writes book reviews, under the pen name Roz Shea, for, a website for book discussions.

As a critic, she thought some of the violence in the second book, Catching Fire, was "a bit gratuitous." As a grandmother, "I kept thinking that this was a bit too graphic for young readers." But she also notes that the "fictionalized violence is close to the reality during the Roman Empire." After all, "Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic version of gladiator games."

(Collins, in a 2009 interview with USA TODAY, said the idea for the series came to her one night when she was channel-surfing between reality shows and news coverage of the war in Iraq: "On one channel, young people were competing for money. On the next channel, young people were fighting for their lives. I was tired, and the ideas merged.")

Shearer has high hopes for the movie. "It seems to have a great cast, especially the adult actors. I'm counting on it to be a big-budget blockbuster entertainment — if they stick to the plot."

But "if they take liberties with the story line," she warns, "all the kids who've read the books will hate it."

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Thursday, March 29, 2012

This ‘Achilles’ is not the same old song

It takes a truly gifted writer to make a song this old feel this beautifully new.

That The Song of Achilles offers a different take on the epic story of Achilles and the Trojan War is not, in itself, anything particularly out of the ordinary. People have been putting their own spins on The Iliad from the instant Homer finished reciting it. What's startling about this sharply written, cleverly re-imagined, enormously promising debut novel from Madeline Miller is how fresh and moving her take on the tale is — how she has managed to bring Achilles and his companion Patroclus to life in our time without removing them from their own.

While this remarkable achievement makes Miller the latest heir to the legacy of the greatest of all historical novelists, Mary Renault, she has approached her epic tale from a completely different direction. Where Renault sought plausible explanations for such Greek myths as the Minotaur, Miller takes them at face value: The gods exist in her Song, and Achilles is the son of one of them, the sea goddess Thetis — Miller's most startling creation. Rather than explain away the gods, she uses spare language to convey the awe and, mostly, terror that humans might have felt in their presence.

Yet what's most impressive, perhaps, is her realistic treatment of those humans. She uses Achilles' demi-god "otherness" to explain his flaws and behavior — and in the process makes him far more sympathetic than he has ever been.

That empathetic effect is essential, because at heart Miller is writing a love story, wrapping adventure and tragedy around the discreetly portrayed affair between Achilles and story narrator Patroclus. To do so while keeping characters in period, she adroitly walks a fine line: They are not gay in our sense, but they're more than "companions" as the ancients might have understood the term.

As with any story where you know the ending, what matters is the journey — this one is fast, true and incredibly rewarding. A new song is born, and with it, an author we'll want to hear sing again, and soon.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

'Another Piece of My Heart': A satisfying read

By Jane Green Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Here is a warm bath of a novel that draws you in over any objections you might have.

At the advanced age of 37, Andi, an interior decorator, has met her dream mate in Ethan, a landscape designer. All that stands in the way of happily ever after are two nagging issues. Andi has long dreamed of having a child of her own with Ethan, but four years have gone by with no pregnancy. And Ethan has two daughters, the adoring and adorable Sophia and troubled teen Emily, who sees Andi as cramming a wedge between her and her father.

Because their mother is an alcoholic, the girls are frequently with Andi and Ethan. Stepdaughter Emily sulks, stews and lashes out, mostly at Andi. Guilt-tripped Ethan is unable to stick to his punishments for Emily, despite her repeated episodes of boozing, pot-smoking and liaisons with sketchy boys. When Emily is arrested in a drunken-driving incident, Andi has an eye on the exit ramp of marriage until she realizes that Emily's thickening figure is actually baby fat — the kind that only goes away after nine months and a trip to the maternity ward.

A teen's unwanted baby and a woman desperate for a child make for a potent combination, and this plot goes pretty much where you'd expect it to go.

But Green's sympathetic portrayals of Andi and Emily resonate, and so put this novel several notches above a Lifetime movie script. Supporting characters are just as engaging, especially Andi's gay neighbors, Drew and Topher, with an impeccably designed home and always-ready mojitos, cappuccinos and wise advice.

Another Piece of My Heart is a zippy read that satisfies, as tempting as a just-opened box of Girl Scout Thin Mints. Go ahead and indulge.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jonah Lehrer takes intellectual look at creativity

You've been there: In the middle of a hot shower, the solution to a problem that had been particularly vexing suddenly becomes clear, like a light bulb going off overhead.

But what quirk of your subconscious is responsible for that? What happens in our brains during that "ah-ha" moment — that shower-induced epiphany — and how does it differ from the type of creativity involved in writing a poem or inventing a new mathematical equation?

Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide, Proust Was a Neuroscientist) explores those questions in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, on sale Monday). Lehrer, 30, shared a few tips on how to boost creativity, even if you're no Picasso.

Q: What is happening in our brains when we create?

A: It's complicated. John Coltrane improvising a sax solo is not thinking in the same way as a graphic artist tinkering with a logo.

Q: So, start with that ah-ha moment — that epiphany. What happens there?

A: There is a sharp spike in activity in the part of the brain called the anterior superior temporal gyrus, in the right hemisphere right behind the ear. It's closely associated with things like inventing metaphors, hearing the punchline of the joke. It kind of confirms in an ironic way the cliché of the right hemisphere is central for creativity. Lots of neuroscientists have looked down at that truism as an oversimplification.

Q: Why does it help to be relaxed?

A: When we're not relaxed — when we're really vigilant — our attention is focused on the problem. That means we can't hear the quiet voice in the back of our head trying to tell us what the answer is.

Q: Some of the most creative minds are altered through either drugs or illness. Are they better at unlocking that answer?

A: A study came out last month that people actually solve about 30% more insight puzzles when they're slightly drunk. A couple of beers is relaxing. In terms of mental illness, that's complicated. No one would prescribe being bipolar in order to become more creative, but longitudinal study after study has found that there seems to be this correlation between some forms of mental illness — especially bipolar depression — and creative production.

Q: You argue that brainstorming, as we typically define it, doesn't work.

A: That surprised me. Brainstorming has become the most widely implemented creativity technique of all time. The first rule of brainstorming is "Thou shall not criticize." It feels good — we can all come into a room together and free-associate, fill up the white board. But people are much more productive when they work in groups following a very different set of instructions.

Q: By being critical?

A: This is a legacy of Steve Jobs, who advocated the practice of brutal honesty: He was president and CEO of Pixar during their formative years. They have a meeting every morning where they review the most recent footage of the film they're working on, and then they engage in what they call the "shredding process." They tear it apart. Over the course of four to five years of shredding, you end up with a really, really good animated movie. Criticism is built into their process at every step.

Q: Has reporting this helped your own creativity?

A: When I was stuck on a paragraph or figuring out how to structure a chapter, I used to chain myself to the desk. I'd stay up late. And I'd get up in the morning, and my fixes would not be fixes at all. Now I'm willing to take a walk or go play tennis to find some way to relax myself. When I'm stuck, I need to stop looking for the answer because the answer will only arrive once I stop trying to find it.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

'Mad Men' and women write real-life books about that era

It's been a mad, mad, mad, mad, maddeningly long wait for new episodes of AMC's Mad Men.

And as we count down to the premiere of Season 5 on March 25, fans of Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Peggy Olson can immerse themselves in Madison Avenue and the '60s lifestyle by dipping into a groaning cocktail cart of new books.

Among them: Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond (Thomas Dunne Books, $24.99), written by Jane Maas, dubbed the "real-life Peggy Olson" by Ad Age magazine.

Like the fictional Olson, Maas, 80, began working as a copywriter on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Her memoir and her workplace recollections indicate "there's a lot of stuff Mad Men gets absolutely right," Maas tells USA TODAY, including:

The three-martini lunch. "Absolutely true, although women did not in fact go out for three-martini lunches as often as men did. Women tended to brown-bag it a lot more. It was more work ethic and calorie control."

The sex. "Part of it was because of all the drinking. If you happened upon someone in the stairwell kissing an account executive, and you knew both of them were married to other people, you just averted your eyes and walked on."

The fashion. "There were no pantyhose then — it hadn't been invented yet — so we had stockings with seams you had to keep checking on. We had little garter belts, and over that, we wore little panties and these bras that turned your breasts into javelins."

Real-life Don Drapers. "The creative director who sexually harassed me for two years and pursued me relentlessly was incredibly handsome, very dashing and he knew it. Like Don Draper, he considered himself a great Lothario."

For a more straightforward history, there's The Real Mad Men: The Renegades of Madison Avenue and the Golden Age of Advertising (Running Press, $28) by British adman Andrew Cracknell, who says Mad Men is "spot on."

"I've viewed some episodes of Mad Men three times, and believe me, that's not a chore. It's extraordinarily good, and I think, from all the research I did, it's pretty accurate."

From the cocktail cart

If your interest is purely gustatory:

•How to Drink Like a Mad Man by Ralph Maloney (Dover, $9.95, April 19). Retitled reprint of the 1962 humor book The 24-Hour Drink Book: A Guide to Executive Survival.

•The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Sixties Cookbook: More Than 100 Retro Recipes for the Modern Cook by Rick Rodgers and Heather Maclean (Running Press, $20, April 24). Betty Draper would approve of recipes for Waldorf Salad and Onion Dip.

•The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men by Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin (Smart Pop Books, $16.95). Prepare Oysters Rockefeller and a martini good enough for Roger Sterling.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

‘Arcadia:’ A Novel That Grows On Readers

The main character in Lauren Groff's engaging novel, Arcadia, grows up to become a photography professor who knows that for most of his students, his classes are way stations into a hobby.

"But his job, as he understands it," Groff writes, "is to help his students see: to make them pay attention, slow down and appreciate what they're doing. This is something they can use in life."

In a way, that's what Groff does by way of lovely writing and memorable characters who are haunted by the past. She makes us slow down and pay attention to a story that at first doesn't seem promising.

Ridley "Bit" Stone, the generous and gentle professor, is the child of hippies. He grew up on a commune, which like most hippie communes, rose and fell on its own excesses

The premise seems predictable: how dreams of living "with the land, not on it" crash into economic reality and human foibles that are complicated by drugs and sex. And won't the children of childish hippies end up rebelling against their rebellious parents?

But Groff's novel grew on me from its opening, in 1968, and as it stretches, with periodic interruptions, into the future that is 2018.

The commune, Arcadia, in upstate New York, was once home to hundreds. Decades later, its demise is summed up by a neighbor, an Amish woman who knows the tensions between community and freedom.

"Too much freedom, it rots things in communities, quick," she says. "That was the problem with your Arcadia."

The story is told mostly from the perspective of Bit, who weighs three pounds when he's born in a hippie caravan.

At 6, he struggles to teach himself to read (which he does) and to understand the world that's Arcadia (that would take a lifetime). At 14, he sees the commune collapse. Internal struggles are more to blame than a violent police drug bust.

Decades later, he's teaching in New York, with a 3-year-old daughter. His wife, another child of Arcadia, has disappeared. And finally, in 2018, in a world threatened by an epidemic and global warming, Bit returns to Arcadia with his mother, who's dying, and his daughter, who's now 14.

But it's not so much the story as the storytelling that grabbed me. It builds on the talents Groff displayed in her 2008 debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, which re-imagined the myths of the author's hometown, Cooperstown, N.Y.

In Arcadia, Bit thinks, his parents were once happy and he was happy as a child. Or was he?, he wonders and concludes, "Best to distrust this retrospective radiance: gold dust settles over memory and makes it shine."

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Friday, March 23, 2012

CNN's Sanjay Gupta writes his first novel, 'Monday Mornings'

ATLANTA – It's Monday morning and Sanjay Gupta is in surgery on the sixth floor of Grady Memorial Hospital.

Gupta by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Gupta by H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

The operating room is quiet except for the sucking, gurgling sounds associated with surgery, along with some background music requested by one of the residents. Let the Good Times Roll by The Cars blends into the Talking Heads' Take Me to the River, all while blood silently flows through tubes attached to the patient, a 24-year-old man who broke his neck in a car accident the night before.

Standing on two orange risers with an overhead spotlight beaming down onto his hands, Gupta and his team are decompressing the man's spinal cord as quickly as possible, pulling his neck into alignment and then fusing it back together.

An assistant repeatedly wipes blood from the surgical instruments Gupta hands back, a process that quickly turns the white cloth pink.

Two and a half hours later, Gupta's team declares the surgery a success.

Born: Oct. 23, 1969; age 42

Raised: In Novi, Mich., suburban Detroit. His parents moved from India to work as engineers for Ford Motor Company in the 1960s.

Education: B.S. in biomedical sciences at University of Michigan; M.D. from University of Michigan Medical School, 1993. Completed his residency in neurosugery at the University of Michigan Health System in 2000.

Family: Married wife, Rebecca, an attorney, in a lavish day-long Hindu ceremony in 2004. They have three daughters, ages 6, 5 and 2, and live in Atlanta.

Television: Joined CNN in 2001 as chief medical correspondent. Special correspondent for CBS News and 60 Minutes.

Other experience: Served as one of 15 White House Fellows, primarily as an advisor to Hillary Clinton in 1997-1998. In 2009 offered the position of Surgeon General by President Obama, but withdrew his name from consideration, citing family and career.

Books: Two non-fiction titles, Chasing Life (anti-aging advice, 2008) and Cheating Death (miraculous recoveries, 2010), both best sellers; and Monday Mornings, first novel, pubbing on Tuesday.

"Looks good," Gupta says while looking over one final X-ray. "We have to do a little bit of gardening, but it looks good."

"Trophies for everyone!" someone yells.

Most Americans know Gupta as CNN's Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent, the one with the shiny black hair and dazzling smile, a smile that is hidden this morning behind his blue surgical mask. And yes, he's a real neurosurgeon, not just playing one on TV. He practices at Emory University Hospital and is associate chief of neurosurgery services here at Grady.

He is also the author of his first novel, Monday Mornings (Grand Central, 304 pp., $24.99, on sale Tuesday), a book Gupta describes as a "peek behind the curtain" at what really happens in a hospital. There are chapters that are downright chilling, with surgeons operating on the wrong side of the brain, for instance. More on that later.

Keeping up with Gupta is not for the weak of heart, or the weak of anything.

Always on the go

Gupta, 42, operates four or fives times on any given Monday, or 200 to 250 surgeries a year on that day. He also operates every other Friday and sees patients on Thursdays. He starts making his rounds at 5:30 a.m. and rarely finishes before 8 p.m.

Then there's his gig at CNN, with frequent reporting junkets to medical emergency hot spots like Haiti (earthquake), Japan (tsunami), New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina) and Iraq (war).

And don't forget his attorney wife, Rebecca, and their three daughters, all under 7.

So, why not write a novel in your spare time? (The man is also training for a triathlon in Malibu, Calif., in September; he does pull-ups daily on a bar attached to his office doorway.)

Can a breakdown be just a commercial break away? Not likely, says Gupta's CNN producer, Ben Tinker.

"You won't see any meltdowns," he says. "In fact, you're not going to find anything. What you see is what you get."

A driven man.

Immediately after surgery, Gupta is in the physicians' locker room, changing out of his scrubs and into a long white lab coat bearing his name. He also pulls up his bold green and black striped socks, just one pair from a large collection for which he is famous around the hospital and at CNN.

"I have a split career," he says, "and living here makes it a lot easier than, say, in New York." In less than five minutes, he's pulling his wife's sporty Jaguar into the CNN parking lot, where, like Superman, he strips off his white coat and throws it into the car's back seat.

A fresh start

He is now Sanjay Gupta, reporter. He says he keeps his two lives — surgeon and TV star — separate, not wearing scrubs on TV, for instance. He joined CNN in the summer of 2001, recruited by then-CNN chairman Tom Johnson. He had never worked in TV before. His first big story: reporting on the 9/11 attacks from Ground Zero.

"I'm a reporter here," he says, once he's in CNN's massive newsroom. "I'm informed by my background, yes, but I'm pretty tough on myself. I make sure I've got it right. I feel good about what I do. We're diligent."

Between constantly checking his iPhone — he has four e-mail accounts — and wolfing down a burrito from Moe's Southwest Grill ("they're the best"), he chats in his CNN office about his life on the run and his new book, a project he has been working on "for a long, long time."

The book's title, Monday Mornings, refers to when physicians at "Chelsea General" in suburban Detroit gather for their weekly "Morbidity and Mortality" (M&M) meeting — a time to discuss and analyze what went wrong in recent surgeries, a private meeting Gupta says is held at most hospitals. That operation on the wrong side of the brain? It's discussed there. It's like going before a jury of your peers, not a fun outing for the erring physician.

"It's unsettling to surgeons to realize they're not infallible. Operating on the wrong side of the head? It happens," he says, adding that no one is harder on themselves than doctors.

Gupta compares the "what-went-wrong?" meeting to Monday-morning quarterbacking. "I like the idea that it's a new beginning. A fresh start. A mistake is how we learn. That's why I placed (the novel) on Mondays." (Gupta attends "Thursday" meetings at Emory.)

The idea for the book came from his years as a neurosurgeon. "I write things down a lot. I take a lot of notes. And then I realized there were some unbelievable stories there," says Gupta, who also realized many of them were about the relationship between physicians and their patients. "I wanted people to understand what happens in a hospital when there's a mistake. Bad things can happen to good people."

If you think this sounds like a good TV show, you're not alone. Shooting for Chelsea General, a TNT pilot based on Gupta's novel and starring Alfred Molina and Ving Rhames, begins this week. Executive producer is David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Chicago Hope, Ally McBeal).

Gupta wrote much of his debut novel on planes: "It's kind of hard to do with three kids in the house." One time the story came so fast he wrote for almost 30 hours straight. "It was all there, and I wanted to get it out."

Having difficulty bringing his theme together early on, he decided to use the Monday morning meetings to bring the novel's five diverse surgeons together. He says he didn't show the novel to anyone for fear they would respond with the cliché "Keep your day job!"

Early reviews show he needn't have worried. Fellow author/physician Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone, sings the book's praises on "Hospitals are, after all, Gupta's turf. His insights into the craft of surgery combined with vivid storytelling make Monday Mornings a gripping and wonderful read right down to the wire."

So how much is real?

Deb Futter, Gutpa's editor at Grand Central Publishing, echoes Verghese, praising Gupta for the way he blends medical facts and storytelling.

"Everyone is fascinated, and terrified, by what goes on behind the scenes at a hospital. Dr. Gupta's novel takes you right to the heart of the medical world," Futter says. "He manages to make the doctors real people with real problems and also marries medical information with a riveting plot."

Will his fellow physicians see themselves as those "real" people in these pages?

"The characters are from earlier stages of my life," he says, then concedes he employed "various personality aspects" of surgeons he has known. "But I didn't want to implicate anyone." (And there is no autobiographical character, he says.)

Another novel is not in the works. At the moment, Gupta is "toying around" with the idea of writing a book on memory. His two non-fiction books, Chasing Life (anti-aging advice) and Cheating Death (miraculous recoveries), were best sellers.

Unlike the solitary writer's life, being on TV has brought Gupta high-profile visibility both around the world and at home here in Atlanta. He and his wife are often interrupted on the rare evening they go out to dinner. Someone usually has a medical question for the good doctor.

TV has also made him a bit of a pinup boy. People magazine named him one of the "sexiest men alive" in 2003, something that still makes him laugh. "I was very amused by that. No one ever said I was the sexiest anything back in my hometown!" (He grew up in Novi, Mich., outside Detroit.)

And with that the handsome novelist/physician/father/triathlete flashes his famous smile and is off once again — back to the hospital, where at least three more surgeries await this afternoon. "There are some mornings I wake up and feel besieged," he admits. "But I'm incredibly lucky. Sometimes I have to pinch myself that I get to do all of this stuff."

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

‘Enchantments’ makes Romanovs fresh

Author Kathryn Harrison is best known for her 1997 memoir, The Kiss, an eerie book, somehow both passionate and dispassionate, about a shocking subject: her love affair with her own father.

To turn to historical fiction after such impossible self-exposure, as she has now done several times, might seem like a retreat, but Harrison's new novel, Enchantments, a Romanov fantasia, bears the same fidelity to difficult emotions that The Kiss did. The result is a strange and slow-burning tale, hard to forget.

The narrator of Enchantments is Masha, daughter of the healer and monk Rasputin. As the book begins, her father has been murdered, and she becomes a ward of Russia's final tsar and, in particular, a companion to his heir, Alyosha. Hemophilia, in 1917 a catastrophically dangerous disease, has forced this son to bed rest, and to entertain him, Masha begins to tell stories, some real, some fantastical.

This is a static premise, and there is not much momentum in the early stages of the book. But soon Masha begins to recount the lives of Rasputin, the Tsarina and other characters, and these looping chronologies become immersive — and indeed come to seem like their own subtle commentary on historical fiction. Even better, they draw effortlessly (and therefore, probably, with a great deal of effort from the author) on the demi-Christian jumble of omens and demons to which many Russians of the 1910s subscribed.

Though Masha and Alyosha are compelling, the book's greatest strength is actually its secondary characters. We know the unhappy fate of the Romanovs — revolutionaries annex the palace essentially as Masha arrives — and await it with some dread. In particular, the tsar, Nikolay, is a moving figure: martial, dutiful, unimaginative and here — humiliated by his former servants, his actions mechanical, only manners keeping him afloat — he comes to seem more tragic even than his famous daughters.

Enchantments is flawed. Its writing is heavy, gleaming and self-serious, like a luxury good, and lacks the spring and verve from which historical fiction, already prone to dustiness, can especially benefit. And it is a book with alienating aristocratic sympathies, the peasants either loyal Borzoi or heartless turncoats.

But Harrison has taken a tired subject, the Romanovs, and offered a fresh vision of it. Perhaps because in their backward groping historical fiction and memoir are closer, to her, than they might seem to us: After all, Masha is a young woman in thrall to a magically charismatic father, who sketches her relationship with him in a series of stories. Doesn't this sound like The Kiss?

Harrison herself offers a cagey gesture toward the recursion. Referring to Rasputin's powers of healing, Alyosha asks Masha, "Did he ever do it to you?" Rasputin's daughter misunderstands: "Of course he didn't!" she responds. "What are you talking about?"

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In ‘Carry the One,’ trauma changes everything

Carol Anshaw is one of those authors who should be a household name (in literature-loving homes, anyway). There's a good chance that her latest novel, Carry the One, will make it happen.

It's her fourth work of fiction, and although her 1992 debut, Aquamarine, arguably remains her best novel, the more plot-driven Carry the One has great potential to bring her work to a wider readership.

In 1983, three Chicago siblings — Carmen, Alice and Nick — are bound together in trauma after a fatal accident the night of Carmen's wedding to Matt. After Nick's intoxicated girlfriend, Olivia, drives the car that hits and kills a 10-year-old girl, the siblings spend the next 25 years grappling with guilt, addiction, love, regret and obsession. Even though Carmen was not in the car at the time, she can't forgive herself for letting her siblings drive home that night.

Carry the One is no sappy tale about lives transformed and profound lessons learned in the aftermath of a terrible accident. Instead, Anshaw shows us how trauma changes everything and nothing. These characters are no wiser for having endured the accident. They don't transcend the past so much as wish they could erase it. There is no such thing as relief.

Carmen becomes a mother, then divorces — or rather, Matt leaves her for their 19-year-old babysitter — and marries again. Alice, an artist, is tortured by her love for Maude (who just happens to be Matt's sister), and knows their volatile relationship is doomed to fail.

Alice also can't stop herself from making paintings of the dead girl, a habit she keeps secret. "Everybody, she figured, had to coat the grain of sand in his or her own way," Anshaw writes. "Making these paintings was hers. How the others managed their own unwieldy burdens she didn't know."

Over the years, Nick fares the worst in overcoming the past, pulling down the entire family in his battle with drug addiction. Being sober, he feels, is not sustainable: "Drugs have mass and density. Thick and delicious, they fill every crevice inside you. They offer absolute comfort and well-being. In reverse, their absence leaves you empty and arid."

Ansaw understands that turmoil (and depression) can be evident in less dramatic ways. Carmen knows that "she really needed all new underwear, and had made a mental note of this," but can't motivate herself to buy some. Her refrigerator is filled not with meals, but "a hilarious number of jars of mustard." The messiness of Carmen's life is the boring kind, but feels no less overwhelming than Nick's addiction does for him.

Although the car accident is a trigger that sets the plot in motion, Anshaw is careful to avoid exploiting it as a tool for redemption. Throughout, the accident hovers in the background, a subtle but unrelenting and irrevocable presence.

By the end of this fine, eloquent novel, most of the characters manage to keep going in spite of themselves. In a casual yet consoling moment, one of the last lines uttered in the book is, "You're okay now." For these damaged people, it's the best they can hope to hear.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Jackie Hooper's 'Things' gathers words unspoken

Are there things you wish you could have said to someone (or even a dearly departed pet) but didn't have the chance?

Jackie Hooper's 'The Things You Would Have Said' is a collection of letters to people (or pets) who are not longer part of the writers' lives.

Jackie Hooper's 'The Things You Would Have Said' is a collection of letters to people (or pets) who are not longer part of the writers' lives.

Jackie Hooper's 'The Things You Would Have Said' is a collection of letters to people (or pets) who are not longer part of the writers' lives.

That's the idea behind Jackie Hooper's new book, The Things You Would Have Said: The Chance to Say What You Always Wanted Them to Know (Hudson Street Press, $21.95).

In March 2009, Hooper was vacationing in Hawaii when she heard that actress Natasha Richardson had died from a head injury she sustained while skiing. Haunted by the tragedy, Hooper decided to ask strangers to write letters about things they had left unsaid. The letters are hilarious, heartbreaking and uplifting. Some examples:

•Ruth, 76, writes to thank her nanny Mitzi for "restoring my faith in humanity." After Kristallnacht, Mitzi took Ruth, who is Jewish, to a Viennese amusement park on her 7th birthday before Ruth's family escaped to the USA.

•Dave, 51, writes to his mother, who dropped him off at the babysitter 46 years ago and never returned. He notes that "for some reason, I just don't trust the ladies."

•"Your stepdaughter," age 18, tells her stepmother that "you have really been the evil stepmother, like in the fairy tales."

•Julia, 9, writes to Lou Lou, "I hope you are having a good life in Kitty Heaven."

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Amanda Knox signs seven-figure book deal

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Amanda Knox, the 24-year-old exchange student from Seattle, whose murder conviction and eventual acquittal became a media sensation, has signed a book contract.

Publisher HarperCollins confirmed Thursday that it had signed Knox to write a memoir - as yet untitled -- based, in part, on the journals Knox wrote while in an Italian jail for four years. It's scheduled to be released early in 2013.

As is typical, financial terms were not disclosed, although one executive, speaking on background, confirmed that it's a seven-figure deal.

Knox has said little publicly, beyond a short expression of gratitude after she was released in October.

In a statement, HarperCollins promised that "Knox will give a full and unflinching account" and include "her harrowing experience at the hands of the Italian police and later prison guards and inmates. She will reveal never-before-told details surrounding her case, and describe how she used her inner strength and strong family ties to cope with the most challenging time of her young life."

Earlier this week, Italian prosecutors asked the nation's highest criminal court to reinstate the murder convictions of Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.

Prosecutor Giovanni Galati said he is "very convinced" that Sollecito and Knox were responsible for the Nov. 1, 2007, stabbing death of Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British student who shared an apartment with Knox in Perugia.

In October, the appeals court ruled that the guilty verdicts against the pair were not corroborated by any evidence, and that the court hadn't proven they were in the house when Kercher was killed.

A third defendant, Ivory Coast-born Rudy Guede, was convicted in a separate trial of sexually assaulting and stabbing Kercher. His 16-year sentence, reduced in appeal from an initial 30 years, was upheld by Italy's highest court in 2010.

A lawyer for Knox recently filed an appeal of her slander conviction in Italy. The same court that overturned her murder conviction upheld the charges for slander — for falsely accusing bar owner Diya "Patrick" Lumumba of involvement in the slaying.

Lumumba was freed after two weeks in prison for lack of evidence.

An Italian judge sentenced Knox to three years in jail on the slander conviction. That was less time than she spent in prison, which allowed her to leave Italy and return to Seattle.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Anne Rice’s ‘The Wolf Gift’ lacks teeth

If we're searching for someone to share the blame for Anne Rice's disappointing new werewolf novel, The Wolf Gift, we might have to take a hard look at Stephenie Meyer.

It was the author of the Twilight series, after all, who divided the world into Team Edward and Team Jacob. Perhaps it was inevitable that Rice — who completed Interview With the Vampire the same year Meyer was born — would be tempted to outdo her literary daughter. But many fans who cut their teeth on the vampire Lestat will be wishing she'd had the strength to resist joining the pack.

In The Wolf Gift, Rice offers the intoxicating promise of a reinvented, re-energized Gothic horror story. She gives us Reuben Golding, a young reporter researching an article about the impending sale of a magnificent mansion on the Northern California coast.

Soon he's bitten by an unseen man-animal, and before long, Reuben is sprouting lupine fur and fangs. He's one sexy beast, though — no protracted snout, more Chewbacca than Big Bad Wolf — and oh so caring. He hears the voices of people under duress and can smell the evil of their violent attackers, which provides him with the moral certainty he needs before slashing them into bloody shreds. Being a "man wolf," as Reuben insists on calling himself, is not a curse but a gift.

A werewolf folk hero? Why not?

Quickly, though, the book bogs down in aimless plotting, sluggish pace and a tendency to philosophize when it ought to be building suspense. There's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality to its themes and story elements — Catholic mysticism and theology, the ethics of vigilante justice and genetic research, even gay rights — as Rice tries to invest her hoary source material with contemporary relevance. As it turns out, you can't really teach an old wolf new tricks. No amount of references to iPhones, Wi-Fi and Facebook can throw us off this story's fairy-tale, pulp-fiction scent.

The book's most fundamental problem is its odd lack of dramatic tension. There are occasional obstacles blocking Reuben's path, but he leads a charmed life in more ways than one. (He loves the old mansion? It's deeded to him. He's lonely? A hot and understanding girlfriend appears out of nowhere.)

There also are a few stock-figure villains — a rogue werewolf, a sinister pair of Russian researchers nearly as cartoonish as Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle. But they are developed so sketchily, and dispatched so summarily, that they feel like afterthoughts.

And we can't blame Meyer for that.

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Sophie Kinsella's 'Number' leads the weekend book picks

What should you read this weekend? USA TODAY's picks for book lovers including chick-lit hilarity from Sophie Kinsella, a sympathetic take on crown-wrecker Wallis Simpson, and a multi-generational immigrant saga.

I've Got Your Number| Sophie Kinsella; The Dial Press; 448 pp.; $26; fiction

Fans of Sophie Kinsella's amusing Shopaholic novels won't want to miss her latest foray into chick lit. Ditsy heroine Becky Bloomwood may have taken a shopping break, but Britain's Kinsella brings us an equally delightful funny girl in Poppy Wyatt.

Poppy is a charming if insecure physiotherapist who is engaged to Magnus, a celebrity university lecturer. After she loses her emerald engagement ring and has her cellphone stolen, Poppy stumbles upon another phone in the trash that belonged to the former assistant of Sam Roxton, a handsome exec at a consulting firm.

Complications (and humor) ensue as Poppy convinces Sam to allow her to keep the phone until she finds her ring — promising to forward his messages, Poppy-style.

USA TODAY says *** out of four. "Delivers all the usual Kinsella hallmarks — sharp insight into the current state of relationships crossed with laugh-out-loud screwball situations — but with a digital-age twist."

That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor| Anne Sebba; St. Martin's Press; 283 pp.; $27.99; non-fiction

Wallis Simpson — the American for whom Britain's king famously abdicated — is everywhere these days. In Madonna's new movie, W.E. In a new stage drama in London. And in new biographies, including That Woman by Anne Sebba, who had access to previously unexamined Simpson letters. Her fresh take on a familiar tale concludes that this wasn't the "romance of the century" — just a pathetic muddle.

USA TODAY says *** ½ out of four. "This book is clear-sighted about but relatively sympathetic to the American woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne in 1936, shaking Britain and its royal family to the core."

A Good American| Alex George; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; 384 pp.; $25.95; fiction

In this heartfelt novel, Alex George depicts the immigrant experience — beginning in 1904 in Germany as a young couple flees to America after the girl's family discovers she is pregnant. Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furste end up in Missouri, where generations of the Meisenheimer family will flourish and fulfill the American dream.

USA TODAY says *** out of four. "Epic and lyrical …an honest and delightful story."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity | Katherine Boo; Random House, 256 pp., $27; non-fiction

The hit movie Slumdog Millionaire made viewers around the world aware of the poverty and slums in Mumbai, India. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, New Yorker staff writer Katherine Boo takes a microscope to that world, centering on a slum called Annawadi and its desperate, if resourceful, inhabitants.

USATODAY says ***1/2 out of four. "Outstanding. … Brings alive an almost unimaginably harsh world through the stories of people trying to make their way in a place few of us can imagine."

What It Was | George Pelecanos; Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 272 pp., $9.99 paperback original; 99-cent e-book until Feb. 27, then $4.99; fiction

Here's your last chance to get What It Was, George Pelecanos' terrific new crime novel, as a 99-cent e-book. The price, good until Monday, is a steal. And for those who prefer print books, there's a $9.99 paperback. You'll get a rip-roaring introduction to Derek Strange, a young black private investigator and the hero of a number of Pelecanos' earlier novels.

USA TODAY says ***½ out of four. Pelecanos is "the best crime writer you've never read. … Buckle up for one thrilling ride. For 99 cents, you can't afford to miss it."

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

'Charlotte's Web' and 99 more 'great' kids books

Charlotte's Web, E.B. White's 60-year-old novel about how a determined farm girl and a noble, vocabulary-building spider save a naïve runt of a pig, is No. 1 on a new list of the "100 Greatest Books for Kids."

'Scholastic Parent & Child' magazine ranks 'Charlotte's Web' as the No. 1 book for kids ever written.

'Scholastic Parent & Child' magazine ranks 'Charlotte's Web' as the No. 1 book for kids ever written.

'Scholastic Parent & Child' magazine ranks 'Charlotte's Web' as the No. 1 book for kids ever written.

The rankings, released today by Scholastic Parent & Child magazine, are aimed at "generating controversy and conversation," says Nick Friedman, the magazine's editor in chief.

In that spirit, why is J.K. Rowling's groundbreaking debut, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, only No. 6, chosen to represent the entire series?

It's "undoubtedly one of the greatest in history," Friedman says, but "it is only 15 years old and hasn't had time to be as firmly established."

Beyond literary merit and popularity, he says, the list was chosen to include a variety of genres for different ages — from infants to middle schoolers — and to be "culturally representative."

A team of literacy experts and "mom bloggers" nominated nearly 500 titles. Friedman and four other editors at the magazine made the final decisions.

Their toughest choice, he says, was between Charlotte's Web and Goodnight Moon, the 1947 picture book by Margaret Wise Brown, with illustrations by Clement Hurd, as No. 1. Charlotte's Web emerged as "a bit more sophisticated."

Friedman welcomes "comments and complaints." The list includes Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham (No. 7), but not The Cat in the Hat. It omits classics such as Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Stephenie Meyer's best-selling Twilight series was considered "too mature."

Scholastic, which publishes books as well as the magazine, has 14 titles on the list, including No. 33, Suzanne Collins' best seller The Hunger Games. Friedman says the judges looked at the books, not their publishers.

Also named are 10 "superlative award" winners, including (overall rankings in the top 100 in parentheses):

• Best Read-Aloud: Mo Willems' Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (28).

• Most Beautifully Illustrated: Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse (61).

• Most Relatable Character: Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid (38).

• Most Side-Splitting Hilarious: Dav Pilkey's The Adventures of Captain Underpants (97).

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New Voices: Sara Benincasa's 'Agorafabulous!'

In debut memoir Agorafabulous! Dispatches From My Bedroom (William Morrow, $24.99), author and stand-up comedian Sara Benincasa describes in hilarious and sometimes horrifying detail her struggle with panic attacks and the dark days when she was too terrified to leave her room.

Why the book is notable: Benincasa has a growing reputation in comedy. She hosts the popular podcast Sex and Other Human Activities.

Memorable line: "In simplest terms and most convenient definitions, my psychiatric diagnosis is that I'm afraid of the mall. Which, I can assure you, is untrue."

Quick bio: Benincasa, 31, grew up in New Jersey and went on medication for depression and anxiety at 16, finding the right ones at 21. Today, she writes, performs and visits colleges, where she explores issues such as suicide prevention in her routines.

The appeal of living in New York City: "I've always felt like such a weirdo and New York is full of weirdos."

Why she loves performing: "Performing is an affirmation of life for me. I am doing something that would have been impossible 10 years ago."

Up next: A young-adult novel based on F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is a girl, and the story is set among modern teens in the Hamptons.

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Put Sophie Kinsella’s ‘Number’ on speed dial

A Sophie Kinsella novel is like a box of Valentine's Day chocolates. A pleasurable if guilty indulgence that can be entirely devoured in a single sitting if one doesn't heed the clock — or the bathroom scale.

Kinsella (the pseudonym of British writer Madeleine Wickham) built her reputation on the best-selling series of Shopaholic books that began in 2000 and revolved around that formidable weapon of mass consumption known as Becky Bloomwood. By the time the toddler-gone-amok sixth volume, Mini Shopaholic, hit bookshelves in 2010, reckless splurging was not the same reliable hoot as it was in flusher times.

But devoted fans know they can get their Sophie fix by indulging in other tomes by their favorite scribe that feature equally delightful female characters. Such is the case with her latest, I've Got Your Number (three stars out of four), which delivers all the usual Kinsella hallmarks — sharp insight into the current state of relationships crossed with laugh-out-loud screwball situations — but with a digital-age twist.

Our heroine is Poppy Wyatt, an utterly charming if insecure physiotherapist who is engaged to Magnus, a celebrity university lecturer with academic parents who derisively mock those who can't pronounce Proust — including their future daughter-in-law. The whirlwind romance is endangered after Poppy first loses her emerald engagement ring during a pre-nuptial party and then has her cellphone stolen.

Lucky for her (and the plot), she stumbles upon another phone in a nearby trash bin that belonged to the former assistant of Sam Roxton, a handsome if socially averse high-level exec at a consulting firm. Complications ensue as Poppy convinces Sam to allow her to keep the phone until her ring is found while promising to forward his messages.

Once you buy into this contrived scenario, there is fun to be had in the awkwardness involved in strangers of the opposite sex sharing a communication device. Especially when the effusive Poppy (big on lots of XXX's) decides to help out the rather terse Sam (whose missives rarely go beyond two words) by replying to his personal e-mails.

As a bonus, Poppy insists on including footnotes in her account — 112 in all, an affectation she picked up from Magnus' dissertation-happy clan. If you need a last-minute gift today for your sweetheart, grab a copy of I've Got Your Number. Just don't expect her to put down the book and pick up her phone anytime soon.

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Writer Vince Flynn aims for a 'Kill Shot' against cancer

SUNFISH LAKE, Minn. – Vince Flynn looks great, which disappoints a lot of people these days. Maybe disappoints is the wrong word. Perhaps surprises is better.

Author Vince Flynn talks about his health and his new book at his home office in Sunfish Lake, Minn. Andy King, for USA TODAY

Author Vince Flynn talks about his health and his new book at his home office in Sunfish Lake, Minn.

Andy King, for USA TODAY

Author Vince Flynn talks about his health and his new book at his home office in Sunfish Lake, Minn.

Diagnosed with stage III metastatic prostate cancer in November 2010, the best-selling thriller novelist says people are shocked when they see him out and about. "They expect me to look like total crap," he says. "I guess I'm supposed to show up with no hair and no eyebrows."

Not today. Flynn, at 45, is the epitome of a good-looking man in the prime of his life and still producing best-selling anti-terrorism CIA page-turners that are the darlings of conservatives. His 13th novel, Kill Shot (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, $27.99), will be published Tuesday.

That said, Flynn acknowledges that his battle with cancer has not been a cakewalk.

"The road is far from over. … I had some problems last summer," he says, referring to the disintegration of his ischium (hip) bone because of cancer eating it away.

Kill Shot is Flynn's 12th Mitch Rapp novel. Rapp is on the run after a hit gone wrong targets him as a terrorist.

His medical roller coaster ride has included hormonal therapy and more than 40 radiation treatments, which made him " fatigued" but halted the advance of the cancer that had spread beyond his prostate.

He first knew something was wrong when he experienced extreme pain and fatigue on his last book tour.

"The first 48 hours of my diagnosis were hellish," he says. "Things just seemed to get worse and worse. We (he and his wife) were sneaking around the house, whispering so the kids wouldn't hear us. It was horrible.

"But I feel great now," he says, adding that recent scans have shown healthy bone growth and an 80% reduction of the cancer in his hip. He is no longer in any pain. "My doctors are very happy. We have this under control."

Flynn's can-do attitude isn't hurting things, either. It's evident in everything from his rapid-fire upbeat chatter to his easy laugh. He's beyond grateful for this new lease on life, although he acknowledges that surgery could be down the road.

"My doctors warned me repeatedly that if you don't stay positive, you don't do well," says Flynn, who dedicated his newest novel to them.

Fan club of presidents

Flynn's doctors at the Mayo Clinic would not talk about his case, citing patient privacy. But Philip Kantoff, who heads the prostate cancer program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says Flynn's prognosis is good if his cancer remains contained and spreads no further. "Assuming that's the case, it's a controllable and potentially curable entity. It usually requires a combination of more than one treatment."

Flynn has a lot to live for. A beautiful wife, three "great" kids (a stepson, 16, and two daughters, 11 and 9), and a sprawling suburban Minneapolis mansion on 5 wooded acres where today he is sitting in front of a fire in the smoking room.

"I'm a bit of a libertarian," he says of his cigar smoking. "But I rarely do it anymore. I'm enjoying it less and less."

Instead he recently hired a chef to produce all-organic meals, and he's taking better care of himself, all in an effort to continue living the good life of a wildly successful author, praised by presidents.

Among them are Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who has called Flynn "a little too accurate" because Flynn's books are often so true to CIA actions around the world. Once, while catching a ride in Bush's limo from Andrews Air Force Base, Flynn was grilled by the then-president on where he gets his information.

"I started to stutter," Flynn says with a laugh.

Friends in high places

His 2004 Memorial Day, for instance, describes a raid very similar to the one that killed Osama bin Laden last year. Often his books have been put on security review by the Pentagon before they are released, and they are even used by the Secret Service to identify possible lapses in their security.

"It used to astound even me," he says of his "clairvoyance." All he does, he says, is "connect the dots. I just look at what's going on in the world."

It doesn't hurt that he chats up the likes of Gen. David Petraeus, the head of the CIA, and Sandy Berger, national security adviser to Clinton. His conversations always remain confidential. "I can't go into details about them," he says.

It's a far cry from the days almost 20 years ago when Flynn, a Twin Cities native working in sales for Kraft Foods and then commercial real estate, began reading voraciously in an effort to conquer his childhood dyslexia. In the process he fell in love with espionage novels and decided to try writing one himself. His first book, Term Limits, was self-published in 1997 after Flynn received 60 rejection letters. After its immediate success, an agent signed him with Pocket Books. He has since moved to Atria.

Flynn says his books are "entertainment, educational and serve as cautionary tales." Heading the charge is rough-and-tumble CIA agent Mitch Rapp, who has been going about his covert anti-terrorism business since Flynn's second novel, Transfer of Power.

With 2010's American Assassin (which reached No. 2 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list), Flynn transported the rogue Rapp back to the beginning of his career. The new book, Kill Shot, is a second prequel. A third is planned but not yet written.

"I always wanted to go back to tell the story of how they turned Mitch into an assassin," he says. "But now I'm ready to get back to the here and now," he says. There's too much going on in the world today for Flynn to ignore and not work into his thrillers.

(CBS Films has optioned the rights to the Rapp character and will soon announce its plans to create an action-thriller movie franchise.)

Post-Its and power naps

Today Flynn writes in a second-floor office in the carriage house a few steps across a courtyard from the mansion. It comes complete with a fireplace, a daybed and enough counter space for Flynn to cover with note cards that he uses as reference when writing. The counter is bare today except for one Post-It. On it is written: DOUBT AND FEAR IS THE ENEMY.

"It's a good motto if you're going to fight cancer," he says.

Flynn's wife, Lysa, 45, once a model for the then-Dayton's department stores in Minneapolis, agrees.

"You have to have this great attitude," she says. "What you find out is that someone always has it worse than you do. It's life and we're all affected."

Flynn's longtime friend and editor, Emily Bestler, says Flynn's diagnosis put him behind a year, a fact that frustrated him far more than it did her. She understood his need for a year of intense treatment.

"It was no normal year," she says. "He was then writing with pain but never complaining. He was brave and had an amazing attitude. And he came through. It's his best book," she says of Kill Shot. "He only gets better."

Because Flynn had to stay close to home for treatment, Kill Shot was the first novel not written at his cabin on Deer Lake in Wisconsin.

"I'd go up there all week and work like a maniac." He'd pour himself a glass of red wine, get on his pontoon boat with a yellow pad in hand, and head out on the water. He'd then ask himself one question: "What's going to happen tomorrow?"

Now, when things aren't going well, he walks across the room to the daybed and takes a power nap. "It's what every writer needs: a daybed."

Friends on the right

At signings and readings, Flynn tends to attract men with conspiracy theories to share. "I'm always polite. I'm never dismissive with my fans. But it doesn't work to heat things up. I'm careful to not throw red meat to the crowd. I'm not talk radio."

But he does have a close friend in talk radio: Rush Limbaugh. He and his wife attend Limbaugh's annual winter weekend of golf and gab in Palm Beach.

"One of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. And one of the smartest guys I've ever met," Flynn says. Limbaugh sent his private jet to pick up the writer so he could attend the weekend during Flynn's recent cancer treatment.

Flynn's fans include a who's who of the conservative world, who often provide blurbs on the back of his novels.

Glenn Beck has even praised Flynn's books as "conservative porn."

Flynn says he has fans on both sides of the aisle. "But if the scales tip toward a more conservative audience, it probably comes from the pro-military, CIA and law enforcement theme of the books," he says. "And the idea that the United States is not the problem."

But unlike Limbaugh or Beck, Flynn is hesitant to jump into political waters.

Does he want to talk about the GOP candidates?

"Not really," he says with a laugh. "Some scare me. Some I like."

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Anthony Shadid dies, memoir published Feb. 28

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

A family memoir by Anthony Shadid, who died Thursday at 43, while reporting on the civil war in Syria, will be published Feb. 28, instead of March 27, as originally scheduled.

Shadid's publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, also says it will recruit the author's friends and colleagues to take his place speaking on behalf of his book, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family and a Lost Middle East, which was inspired by a 2006 visit to his grandmother's former home in Lebanon.

Shadid, an native of Oklahoma City who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting in Iraq for The Washington Post, died of an apparent asthma attack while on assignment in Syria for The New York Times.

He had been scheduled to return to the USA next month for a 20-city book tour for House of Stone, which has received advance praise.

Author Dave Eggers (What Is the What) called the book an "undeniable and instant classic," and wrote, "I have no idea how Shadid pulled all this off while talking about the history of modern Lebanon, how he balanced ribald humor and great warmth with the sorrow woven into a story like this, but anyway, we should all be grateful that he did."

In an e-mail to the staff of The Times, executive editor Jill Abramson wrote that "Anthony died as he lived -- determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces."

Read the New York Times full obituary.

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Author Lisa Yee embraces Linsanity

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

Even novelists are jumping on the Jeremy Lin bandwagon.

Lin, the Harvard grad who's become a National Basketball Association sensation with the New York Knicks, has special meaning for Lisa Yee.

Yee is the author of Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, a 2005 basketball novel aimed at kids 9 and up and dedicated to Yee's dad, now 80, who played high school basketball in Seattle.

The novel is narrated by a sixth-grade Chinese-American basketball star who flunks English, despite being named for his dad's alma mater, Stanford, the Harvard of the West.

In an illustrated post on her website - -- Yee, 52, notes that, "If I wrote Stanford Wong Flunks Big-Time, today, Stanford would have had a Jeremy Lin poster in his room, and a basketball hero who looked like him to aspire to. Although, unlike Jeremy, Stanford was not headed to Harvard ."

She adds, "Stanford believed that basketball is life-transforming, just as (another character in the novel) girl genius, Millicent Min, believed that books are. They are both right."

Yee, who lives in South Pasadena, Calif., see a larger meaning, beyond basketball, in Lin's sudden success: "It doesn't matter if Jeremy never wins another game, though I hope he does. In these past months with irate Americans mad at this and that, and various factions of country at each other's throats, we all stopped, for just a bit, to watch basketball, an all-American game.

"We stopped to watch a young man who pursued his childhood dream to play for the NBA, and against all odds, he made it. He is an inspiration to not only to Chinese Americans, Harvard grads, basketball boys and girls, and New Yorkers, but to anyone who has ever had a dream. Heck, if Lakers fans could root for a Knicks player, then anything is possible."

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

‘That Woman’: Wallis Simpson revealed

By Anne Sebba Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Wallis Simpson — why ever are we talking about "that woman" after all these years?

Blame Madonna, whose new movie, W.E., is about her. Or blame the new stage drama in London The Last of the Duchess, and the new novel Abdication set during the crisis. And blame the new biographies, including That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, by British writer Anne Sebba.

PHOTOS: The life of 'That Woman' - Wallis Simpson

In contrast to most British assessments of Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor, this book is clear-sighted unsentimental about but relatively sympathetic to the woman for whom King Edward VIII gave up his throne in 1936, shaking Britain and its royal family to the core.

And amazingly, after 75 years, there is new material to assess. Sebba has gained access to previously unexamined Simpson letters that reveal more about who she was, her fears and regrets during the abdication crisis, how she tried to prevent it and the marriage, and how she was nearly destroyed when the "romance of the century" was near universally condemned.

Simpson, in Sebba's telling, was misunderstood. The ridiculous things said and believed about her at the time would curl hair, and some of it came from the king's family. It was his sister-in-law, the Duchess of York, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who contemptuously dubbed her "that woman."

Sebba's book suggests Wallis would have been unsuitable as a queen even if she hadn't been a rather plain, 40-year-old, twice-divorced American with a brittle manner and harsh speaking voice, who looked like a man and was too old to bear children.

Simpson emerges in these pages as chic but also selfish, self-pitying and shallow. She was oblivious about what it actually meant to be the consort of a king in a constitutional monarchy. She thought, for example, that British kings could do what they wanted and no one could stop them. Wrong.

As President Kennedy's London-based sister once described her, Simpson was a crashing bore. She rarely thought seriously about anything except her next party, her next purchase of couture clothes or statement jewelry, her next cocktail. Her life after abdication was an endless effort to fend off ennui in the aimless, parasitic exile she shared with her little ex-king husband, now known as the Duke of Windsor.

But here's the sympathetic part: The ex-king was even worse than Wallis. He was a golden Prince of Wales, but it turned out he didn't actually want to be king. He became so insanely obsessed with Simpson — for reasons even his friends at the time could not understand — that he abandoned his duty, his family (especially his stuttering younger brother who had to take his place) and his country. Indignant that everyone was furious at him, he spent the rest of his life in querulous conflict with his family over the trifling (to an American) debate of whether Wallis should receive an HRH (Her Royal Highness) in her title. She never got it; he never got over it.

Wallis is the relatively rational one in this ditzy duo. Sebba documents that Wallis didn't want the king to abdicate and didn't want to marry him, even tried to break it off with him, in part because she still loved her second husband, Ernest Simpson. Even during the honeymoon she continued to write lovingly to Ernest, referring to her new, third husband as "Peter Pan" for his petulant personality.

But Peter Pan threatened suicide if she left him, and after he abdicated, Wallis was stuck with him. As Sebba reads it, Wallis was trapped, by a situation of her own making, for 36 years until the duke died. She survived another 14 years, spending most of that time barely conscious and bedridden in her Paris mansion.

How's that for a "great romance"?

Sebba dispenses with the silly stuff said about Simpson, such as the claim she learned exotic sexual techniques while living in China with her first husband and then used them to ensnare the king. Sebba also doesn't believe the Windsors were card-carrying Nazis, but they foolishly met with Hitler, socialized with prominent Nazis and British Fascists and were stoutly pro-German. Sebba also makes a case for the theory that Bessiewallis Warfield was born (in Baltimore in 1896) with a possible disorder of sexual development that gave her the appearance of a man and could explain her failure to have children with any of her husbands.

But despite being published on Valentine's Day, her book suggests this was no great romance — it was just a pathetic muddle.

"Few who knew them well described what they shared as love," Sebba writes near the end. Whatever it was, it left the couple in question adrift and unhappy for the rest of their lives, while placing a much more suitable couple on the British throne. The monarchy is better and stronger for it today.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kristin Hannah knows what women want in fiction

BETHESDA, Md. – With her best-selling novels about strong women facing down whatever life throws at them, Kristin Hannah makes her fans cry. And they love her for it.

Kristin Hannah's new novel, 'Home Front,' follows an Army helicopter pilot who must consider her duties to her family when she is deployed to Iraq. Toby Jorrin, for USA TODAY

Kristin Hannah's new novel, 'Home Front,' follows an Army helicopter pilot who must consider her duties to her family when she is deployed to Iraq.

Toby Jorrin, for USA TODAY

Kristin Hannah's new novel, 'Home Front,' follows an Army helicopter pilot who must consider her duties to her family when she is deployed to Iraq.

"Her writing literally makes me bawl," says Christy Enchelmaier, 29, a first-grade teacher in suburban Maryland. Hannah is one of Enchelmaier's favorite authors because "she doesn't sugarcoat things; she's very realistic."

On a recent frosty night in this Washington suburb, Hannah, 51, draws a crowd of nearly 100 like-minded women, hungry for the novelist's dramatic, issue-driven fiction, to a Barnes & Noble. It's the same female readership that has made Jodi Picoult a publishing superstar. Though there was the occasional husband in the audience, the crowd was overwhelmingly female and fanatic about Hannah, the author of 19 novels.

In her latest, Home Front (St. Martin's Press, $27.99), Hannah offers a heart-wrenching tale about a female Army helicopter pilot deployed to Iraq. The heroine, Jolene, is torn between her duty as a soldier and her obligations to her husband and their two young daughters.

Home Front made its debut last week at No. 7 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list, the first time Hannah has cracked the top 10. (This week, the novel drops to No. 25. Hannah's last novel, Night Road, about teen drinking and a tragic car accident, reached No. 13 on USA TODAY's list.)

Mother is always right

During her 2½-hour presentation and book signing, Hannah alternately charmed, amused and moved her audience. She made them laugh when she described how she didn't change a word in the first draft of the first novel she attempted. In one of the many rejection letters she received, one editor wrote Hannah, "You may have talent, but frankly, I can't tell."

She answered questions about how she writes: longhand on a yellow legal pad, often sitting in a lawn chair near the water. (She and her husband split their time between an island near Seattle and Hawaii.)

She also described how her decision to write fiction emerged from tragedy.

When she was 25, she was spending her days in law school and her nights in a Seattle hospital where her mother, then 46, was dying of breast cancer. To pass the hours, they decided to collaborate on a romance novel — a genre her mother adored.

The story, set in 18th-century Scotland, was just awful, Hannah says. But what she saw as a distraction for a dying woman, her mother saw as a vocation for her daughter. "She said I would become a writer."

After her mother's death, Hannah put the unfinished novel away. Two years later, it was Hannah's husband who suggested she make another attempt at writing fiction.

By then an attorney in Seattle, Hannah was put on bed rest for five months while she was pregnant.

Her growing fixation on daytime TV shows such as The Price Is Right made her husband desperate, Hannah says. After her son was born, Hannah knew two things: "I wanted to be a stay-at-home mother, and I needed to write." (Today, their grown son works in Hollywood.)

Hannah eventually did publish a historical romance novel in 1991, A Handful of Heaven, set in the Yukon Territory in the 19th century.

But she says she truly found her creative footing once she moved into contemporary women's fiction with 1999's On Mystic Lake. Her best-selling novels include Firefly Lane, which revolves around two best friends, and Winter Garden, about a Russian woman who hides her painful past from her daughters.

'Much more patriotic' now

Later, over dinner, Hannah expands on why she told the audience earlier that Home Front changed her more than any other book. "I was woefully uninformed about the daily sacrifices people in the military make," she says. Spending time with a female Army helicopter pilot in Washington state left her "much more patriotic."

But while it explores hot-button topics such as mothers in combat and post-traumatic stress disorder, the novel puts its real focus on the heroine and the emotional bonds she makes and breaks — as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend and a soldier.

Says Hannah, "I'm endlessly fascinated by the relationships that define us."

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Immigrant becomes ‘Good American’

The immigrant experience as seen through the eyes of those who settled in America's heartland is the honest and delightful story Alex George tells in A Good American.

Most Americans are immigrants or descended from them. This universal experience grounds George's debut in sentiment and nostalgia relatable to many.

A Good American starts in 1904 in Germany, where Frederick Meisenheimer and Jette Furste, a lovelorn couple, decide to flee to New York after Jette is disowned by her family for getting pregnant.

They hop the first steamer not realizing it's headed to New Orleans. From the coastal Louisiana city, they head north to Missouri, where Frederick hopes to find work.

They settle in Beatrice, Mo., where generations of the Meisenheimer family will flourish and fulfill the proverbial American dream.

Like most immigrants of that time, Frederick turned his back on Europe and "looked ahead into the bright lights of the young century."

Those lights shine brightly on four generations of his family in George's novel.

Like all families, they have memorable characters — Frederick's grandsons, who form a barbershop quartet; grandson James, inspired by P.G. Wodehouse, who yearns to be a writer; his aunt Rosa, who's a chess whiz.

What makes this epic and lyrical novel's characters so compelling is not so much their uniqueness as the ordinariness of their lives. And through good times and bad, we watch as they walk through history. World War I, Prohibition, the Great Depression and World War II come alive as does their All-American yearning to pursue a life abundant with happiness.

Music is a hallmark of this novel, too — through the songs coming out of the radio, to the ballads and blues sung in the family restaurant, to the arias Frederick's son Joseph sings to woo his wife. Do you hear me, Broadway? This story would make a delightful musical.

Readers also will be moved by this novelist's personal story. George was born in Great Britain but now lives in Missouri. Sometime soon, he'll be sworn in as a citizen of the United States of America.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

‘Darlings’ peeks into high society

Write what you know, the adage goes. Cristina Alger has learned that lesson early on.

Her first novel, The Darlings, revolves around an über-wealthy Upper East Side family whose wealth comes from Wall Street. Alger grew up in a wealthy Upper East Side family whose family business revolved around Wall Street.

The girl knows what she's talking about, from the posh high-society charity parties at the Waldorf-Astoria to weekends in the Hamptons. She has sat in the back seats of those idling and always-waiting Lincoln Town Cars and chauffeured Escalades she writes about.

If you're interested in this rarefied life, and the people who dwell there, this is about as close as you're going to get to the penthouses of Park Avenue. Library Journal has already called The Darlings "a financial thriller somewhere between the novels of Dominick Dunne (though not as flippant) and Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities (though not as serious)."

The premise is straightforward. A fabulously wealthy family — think billionaires — along with the rest of New York, is reeling from the 2008 financial crisis that brought down Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Things go from bad to worse when the Darlings find themselves in the media spotlight. Can that be the Feds at the front door instead of the florist? Yes, it can.

Alger (whose family firm is Fred Alger Management Inc. and whose father, David, died in the World Trade Center attacks) has written one of the first novels about the 2008 financial crisis (there are many non-fiction accounts), saying she wanted to get into the "hearts and minds" of the people who had a front-row seat on the world-changing crisis. She succeeds.

What happens to the Darling family in the course of a weekend is what carries this tale along, but it's Alger's description of quintessential New Yorkers, and how they survive, that adds the extra layer.

And so she writes: "The ones who stayed long enough to raise children were the tough ones, the tenacious ones, the goal-oriented ones, the gold-digging ones, the deal-closing ones, the 'kill or be killed' ones, the ones who subscribed to the philosophy 'whatever it takes.'"

Alger has what it takes, in the best sense of the phrase.

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