If you are a cultural snob who only spells literature with a capital “L” and who only reads works of high literary merit, the following book is not for you. If, however, you have a passing familiarity with current popular fiction and enjoy a good laugh, I highly recommend Who’s Killing the Great Writers of America? by Robert Kaplow. The plot, in a nutshell: bestselling American authors are dying, one after another, in mysterious circumstances. Tom Clancy calls Stephen King to say he thinks someone is trying to kill him and then he disappears. Stephen King, who has been living as a recluse since the car accident that almost killed him, becomes rightfully paranoid. Despite his paralyzing fear of the outside world, he manages to get himself out of his mansion to investigate the murders before he becomes the next victim. As you can see, the storyline isn’t really the point; Kaplow has a lot to say about the cult of celebrity, the elitism of book critics, the difference between highbrow and lowbrow culture and a multitude of other issues. Ordinarily, I hate books in which the plot is secondary, but the scenes skewering the soon-to-be-missing authors are screamingly funny, and the guest appearances (Gerard Depardieu, Steve Martin and Ann Coulter, to name a few) add to the madness. You can read this for fun or read this as a scathing commentary on our celebrity obsessed society, but either way you’ll enjoy it. And who knows, you might be introduced to authors whose books you’d like to try.
Lovers of Erik Larsen’s, The Devil in the White City, and those who can’t get enough of Chicago will be fascinated by Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott. Minna and Ada Everleigh were sisters, both madams, from Omaha, Nebraska. Tiring of the limitations of their small city, they moved to Chicago in 1899 to start the most exclusive, high-class brothel in town. Long before the Mayflower Madam and Heidi Fleiss, the Everleigh sisters knew what it took to sell prostitution to the wealthy and respectable. Their house was beautifully appointed, with different themed rooms, including a gold piano in the Gold Room. The girls were held to strict standards of behavior; drinking and drugs (at least for the girls) were not tolerated and instruction was given to the uneducated on how to converse intelligently with a gentleman. Soon the Everleigh Club was a popular destination for wealthy visitors to Chicago, and in 1902, Prince Henry of Prussia, brother of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Emperor of Germany, visited the house. While its high profile reputation was a boon to business, it also made it a target. Such infamy couldn’t be allowed to exist unchallenged, and the good citizens of Chicago began to grumble about the blatant vice being tolerated in the red light district (the Everleigh Club wasn’t the only bordello in town; it was just the most famous one.) Soon, the ministers and politicians began to fight back. The struggle between virtue and vice provides the framework for the narrative and it was a fierce battle. Progressive movements were burgeoning all over America, striving to eradicate alcohol, prostitution and gambling. In Chicago, the Everleigh Club was the symbol of the rewards of sin, and as such, its elimination was the first goal of the reformers. This is an amazing story, all the more so because it is true. Read this and be amazed at the Everleigh’s daring business!
Diana Abu-Jaber is the acclaimed author of Crescent, a novel, and The Language of Baklaza, a memoir. This month brings us her newest novel, Origin, which differs from her previous works in its lack of ethnicity. Lena, the novel’s protagonist, was orphaned as a child and adopted when she was very young. She has vivid memories that she can’t explain, of living in a jungle, swinging through the trees with her ape mother. When her job as a forensic fingerprint examiner brings her the challenge of a series of seemingly unrelated crib deaths to investigate, her past comes back to haunt her as she realizes there is a killer who knew her as an infant who has come back to conclude unfinished business.
This literary thriller is beautifully written, and its Syracuse setting will appeal to those who live in upstate New York.
Susan Taylor has been in the book business, in one aspect or another, since 1982. She recently returned to the Capital District after 14 years in the Boston area (which included stints at the Harvard Bookstore and the Wellesley Booksmith), and is happily re-employed at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. Stop by the store if you are looking for a good book—she’s read a lot more than she can talk about here!