Bostonia is published in print three times a year and updated weekly on the web.
Edgar Award–winning mystery writer Barnes departs here from her Carlotta Carlyle series to tell a tangled tale of jealousy, ambition, and murder from the point of view of an agoraphobic young woman forced by circumstance to emerge from her shell. The real talent behind a best-selling, charismatic celebrity biographer who dies in a Cape Cod car crash that may not have been an accident, Em is the ghostliest of ghostwriters. Mousy, awkward, and pathologically shy, she has remained invisible except for the fact, known only to her and Teddy, the biographer, that his pen name, T. E. Blakemore, is a composite of his surname and hers.
Set on the Cape and in Boston, the book’s events unfold through Em’s first-person narration, addressing the dead Teddy. Determined to finish her late partner’s interviews for an in progress “autobiography” of a famous and enigmatic film director, she talks her way into the great man’s waterfront compound, where, in spite of herself, she falls prey to the seductions of wealth and fame.
Barnes’ absorbing narrative is laced with police reports, interview and email transcripts, and even a fictional Wikipedia entry, which add notes of amplification and suspense and function as an objective counterpoint to Em’s version of events. This is a fun read, not only for its merits as a page-turner. Barnes has a field day with the culture of celebrity, from unsavory media stalkers to predatory directors to the Hollywood golden boy dwarfed and trampled by his own outsized image. Her dialogue and characterizations are spot-on, and the story is rich, but never overloaded, with Shakespearean references and insights into the crafts of both biography and screenwriting.
Barnes has a deft touch for description and is adept at slowly peeling off the layers of Em’s tormented psyche. She’s vulnerable and brittle all at once, a compelling and complicated creation. For most of the book we are inside her head, but that, we learn, might be a hall of mirrors. Susan Seligson
Set largely in Boston’s classical music world from 1987 to 2007, Kalotay’s novel is a narrative symphony in which lives overlap like fugues, variations dance around recurring themes, and dissonance resolves in harmony.
Opening with a chance encounter between Hazel, long recovered from the sting of being abandoned by her husband, Nicholas, a world-renowned conductor, and Remy, the gifted violinist he left Hazel and their young daughter for, the story chronicles the loves and losses of these women. We also follow Nicholas and his conservatory colleague Yoni, who turns his affections toward Remy after a succession of footloose student paramours.
In the decades the book spans, Hazel and Remy emerge as flawed, but vibrantly human, often admirable characters who win the reader’s respect and sympathy even when the decisions they make are self-sabotaging, petulant, or reckless toward others. Certain to hit a deep chord among readers for its unflinching, often lyrical examination of the nuances of marriage, parenthood, and divorce, this is a novel about hard-won wisdom, forgiveness, and the rewards of self-awareness.
But it is also a novel about music. As she did with dance in her novel Russian Winter, Kalotay writes about music not superficially, as is frequently the case in fiction, but profoundly and authoritatively. It’s a world most of us get to see only from afar, but Kalotay hones in so we feel the sweat on Remy’s brow when she’s mastering a difficult piece, experience Nicholas’ quickening pulse and awe as he listens to a triumphant composition by a tormented friend. For these characters, music is also work, and so we empathize with Remy’s weariness and self-doubt about her life as second-chair violinist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, playing audience favorites with increasingly less passion.
Through Kalotay’s pitch-perfect prose, the reader is drawn in not just to the intellectual demands of making music, but the physical and emotional ones. Here is Remy during an audition for a prestigious master class: “All week she had practiced Lalo’s Symphonie espangnole, really too much to learn (and by memory!) in just a few days. Her neck hurt from playing without a shoulder pad, and her fingertips were sore from having to press hard on the new gut strings, though her E string was still steel and the G wrapped in aluminum, the other two were fully lamb’s gut and heavier than what she was used to. But the pain was her reminder to do what Lesser had said: step outside of herself, think of the entire piece, not just her part, not just herself.”
Sight Reading is also a meditation on honesty, and the many ways that decent people lie to others and themselves, including the moral acrobatics typical of marital infidelity. But by the book’s conclusion, a sense of calm and clarity prevails, and Hazel and Remy seem to have become the women they’d been struggling to be. SS
Horan was unemployed and sitting in a WalMart parking lot when the seed for this book, his third, was planted. His idea was to travel around the country to help with the harvest of a dozen crops, sticking to small, organic, family-run farms “so that I could be sure to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of my labor” and not produce “another depressing muckraker,” à la Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. From July through October, Horan traveled, mostly alone, to such homesteads as Stephens Farm, in Kansas, to harvest turkey red wheat, Wiltse Farm, in New York, to pick blueberries, and Sierra Orchards, in California, for walnuts. Each family opened its home and pantry to this stranger for several days during the busiest time of the year. And each time he walked away with armfuls of fresh produce.
Besides learning how to properly pick Brussels sprouts and process wild rice, Horan discovered that working on a farm is backbreaking, sweaty labor—possibly not something he’s cut out for on a daily basis—and that at the end of a long day, a cold beer with fellow workers really hits the spot. “All around me the happy faces beamed with contentment,” he writes. “No one was rushed. No one was harried. No one was thinking beyond the moment.”
The farmers he met believe in their work, trust their product, and are fully invested in living sustainably on the slice of land that feeds them and their customers, and will, they hope, sustain future generations. Horan’s book often focuses more on his own mental space than on what is occurring all around him. He occasionally criticizes his hosts for their exuberance, mocks their housekeeping abilities, and bristles under the authority of experienced farmhands in the field.
Horan punctuates his travel memoir with tangential rants against a long list of hyphenated villains, including “global-warming pooh-poohers, omniscient freemarket fundamentalists, mountaintop-removal mountebanks, atomic-energy-is-safe beguilers.”
Describing the harvesting of certain fruits and vegetables, Horan at times uses sexual metaphors. On raspberries: “The sensual feel of those pulpy, hirsute dollops was soothing my savage breast. I was truly making love to those sexy little berries.” And on Brussels sprouts: “After a while I felt like I was participating in a kind of rough and tumble animal-on-vegetable lovemaking. I had to literally fondle and grope and yank and nose and hump my groin and legs as well as my hands around those plants.” Possibly he should have traveled alone less often. By Leslie Friday
On Halloween morning in 1999, allergist Dirk Greineder made a frantic call to police dispatchers. He and his wife, May, had become separated while walking their dog near their Wellesley, Mass., home; he later found her lying dead in the woods, brutally stabbed.
Police suspected Greineder from the start. The wealthy doctor’s bizarre, awkward behavior raised red flags. He kept asking to change into clean clothes, rather than volunteering to stay at the police station to answer questions. Then police found a knife, gloves, and a small hammer hidden near where witnesses saw the doctor emerge from the woods, contradicting his version of the chain of events. The final blow came when it was revealed that Greineder had been cheating on his wife for years with prostitutes and had solicited women on the internet.
Farmer, who covered the case for the Boston Herald, and Foley, a state police homicide detective who worked on the case, give the story plenty of jarring, sordid details, such as blood pattern interpretations, and a narrative laced with blunt dialogue from the interviews with the prostitutes Greineder regularly visited. But at the book’s heart is a sadder story of a manipulative, controlling husband and his unhappy wife. Foley and Farmer interviewed the friends and family of May Greineder, who loved her husband and three adult children. The book is dedicated to victims of domestic violence, and some of its proceeds are being donated to Jane Doe Inc., a Massachusetts advocacy organization for victims of sexual and domestic violence. By Amy Laskowski
In December 1997, Waterman visited her elderly parents at their home in New York. What she found startled her. Both her mother and father had grown physically frail in the few months since her last visit. Her mother appeared confused, her father exhausted. Their apartment was in disarray, and neither had bathed in weeks. They needed help.
As she recounts in her book, Waterman had advantages many of the 10 million Americans over the age of 50 caring for aging parents don’t have: a law degree and experience working as a geriatric and family psychotherapist. Still, as an only child living thousands of miles away, she was overwhelmed as she began putting together a plan for their care. Did they need a caregiver or a housekeeper? How many hours of care would they need and how many days a week?
This deeply personal book recounts the author’s decadelong journey caring for her parents as they went from living at home with a caregiver to an assisted living facility, handling their battles with depression and dementia, and finally, enlisting hospice care for her father and skilled nursing care for her mother. The book is designed, Waterman says, to help others “transform this remarkable challenge into a journey of love.”
Waterman writes eloquently about the bewildering “full-blown role reversal” that grown children experience as they navigate the complicated thicket of financial, legal, and health issues facing their parents. She offers practical suggestions on how to care for your elderly parents while still holding on to your own life. She stresses that this kind of caregiving isn’t possible for all grown children. For some, she writes, there’s simply too much emotional baggage to make that intimate level of care possible, and in that case it’s best to designate it to a sibling, a neighbor, or a professional.
Despite her background as a geriatric psychotherapist and her dogged research at every turn of her parents’ care, Waterman writes of encountering numerous roadblocks—most memorably the assisted living facility that instituted new rules and gave her only 48 hours to find a new place for her father. “The only predictable part about parenting our parents is continuous, unpredictable change,” she observes. John O’Rourke
“Humans are not naturally good at customer service,” asserts Toister, who begins his highly readable guide with the tale of a befuddled sales associate at a clothing store who responded to the query, “Do you carry Dockers?” with, “I don’t know.” That unhelpful employee was Toister himself at age 16.
Toister grew up to become a leading consultant and customer service trainer, and what he’s learned along the way has led him to conclude that difficult bosses, ineffective procedures, employees’ attitudes and emotions, and other “hidden obstacles” can all sabotage service. He doesn’t let customers off the hook, and notes the frustrating disconnect between the way companies and customers rate service quality. In fact, he says, customers are to blame for nearly a third of poor service experiences. Employees may not consider customer service their primary job, and some are actually motivated to deliver poor performance, he says, citing pandemic afflictions, such as “employee disengagement” and “learned helplessness.”
He believes that empathy can be taught, and he outlines ways employers can encourage employees to respect and understand customers. Overall, his message is a managerial version of the golden rule. Bosses can secure what he calls employee “buy-in,” not just by hiring whenever possible people who love their jobs, but by involving frontline employees in decision-making and problem-solving, aligning customer tips or commissions with “team goals rather than individual accomplishments,” and making employee recognition “an unexpected event” to be offered only after good performance.
The book is peppered with amusing tales of breakdowns in service and civility, such as the fast food worker who glared at the author when he couldn’t produce the correct change and declared, “I hate people like you.” And Toister doesn’t spare himself. He launches a chapter on “helping employees overcome their own emotions” by confessing that while working as a customer service manager, a job he ironically despised, he hung up on a customer, letting “a swirl of negative emotions” get the best of him. It could, he’s quick to point out, happen to anyone. SS
If sex is a banquet, too many of today’s “amazing” women are in starvation mode, says Resh, a sexuality counselor and nurse-midwife. A less-than-satisfying sex life, or lack of one altogether, “is one of the most painful manifestations of a loss of pleasure, and it’s also one of the touchiest subjects to address,” says Resh, who counsels women who have lost any sense of a balance between career, family, and what she calls “sustainable self-care.”
Her book is a direct, engaging pep talk and prescription reminding women of the rewards of heaping their plates high, and guiding them back to the table. In separate chapters she takes on the most commonly heard excuses for putting sex on the back burner or in the deep freeze.
She offers empathetic, encouraging advice to women who say they’re not having sex because they’re busy, exhausted, menopausal, or feeling fat or otherwise unsexy. Many women are in what Resh calls “a wrestling match with pleasure,” which is too often confused with happiness. “Pleasure by definition includes sensuality,” she writes. “Happiness does not.” She urges “asensualized” women to re-embrace not just sex, but other sensual pleasures women routinely dismiss or deny themselves.
Beneath the “shining exterior” of today’s multitasking women, she writes, are lives focused exclusively on “getting the job done—whatever the job is.” When she examines conflicts in heterosexual relationships (“Honestly, It’s All He Thinks About” is one chapter title), Resh is generous toward the male as well as the female perspective and doesn’t lay blame. She coaches women to examine their feelings and needs and become their own “activists.” An active and satisfying relationship with sex and life’s pleasures depends, she writes, “on constant monitoring of the state of our emotional health and its fortitude.”
Although it includes a chapter examining the very real challenges of maintaining a vibrant sex life in the throes of new motherhood, chronic illness, or grief, the book’s most vigorous refrain is that sex is important, and people in loving relationships shouldn’t live without it, because to do so “squelches one of the greatest sources of pleasure—being present in the moment and giving your undivided attention to yourself and your mate.” SS