Little Wolves, by Thomas Maltman

Is there actually a mountain on the eastern Minnesota prairie? Did a young man who lived near it intend to commit a murder? Did he intend to kill himself? Did he actually kill himself? Was the man he murdered saint or sinner? How and why did the young priest’s wife end up reliving her mother’s last act?

We wrestled with these and a batch of other questions as we discussed this intriguing book, and were mixed in our reactions to it. The myths of early Anglo-Saxon literature fit in nicely—the coyote (Maltman calls them “little wolves”) who rescued the human baby, the man who turns into a wolf—and become intertwined with the reality of lost souls in the tiny prairie town, where people still blame dark deeds on the ghosts of the Native American who settled here first.

But some of the themes work, some don’t.

Our overriding question was: Where have all the editors gone? This is not the first time we asked this question—many of the books we have read have suffered from the need of an impartial expert to cut unnecessary details and story lines, to help the writer focus.

This could have been a brilliant book—and with more time from an editor, it should have been. Much of the writing is beautiful and the imagery is elegant.  It was an enjoyable read, but not completely satisfying afterward.  Too many themes were only loosely resolved; others were  introduced then dropped, leaving us to wonder what to make of it all. Likewise, some of the characters were weakly drawn, including the teenager Seth, who is at the center of things; the newly minted priest Logan, who could have been fascinating with just a bit more focus; and Clara, who is looking for her own roots by studying ancient literature.

The setting was wonderfully imagined and Maltman makes the community itself a central character, which gives the book much of its strength. The father-son bonding throughout was compelling, especially in the ending, which was far lovelier than we could have expected.

We recommend the book, despite the above reservations, and would love to hear others’ reactions to it.

—Patricia Prijatel

Orange Is the New Black, by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman could be your neighbor, your daughter, your best friend, or you. After graduating from Smith College, Kerman longed for an adventure, and she found it as a courier for a drug lord. She was a small part of an international operation, but ten years later, her youthful lark landed her in prison in Danbury, Connecticut, close in miles to her friends in New York and Boston, yet eons away in the life she faced.

Stripped of her clothes, belongings, and dignity, Kerman learned what it is like to be a prisoner in 21st Century America.

Our favorite part of the book was Kerman’s acceptance of her fate and empathy for the women she lived with—she seemed to completely enjoy many of them, while acknowledging impatience with those who kept making poor choices and endangering their entire families. Kerman writes with wisdom about her own poor choices and how they not only hurt her and those she loved, but ultimately hurt the women she was living with, many of whom were caught in the drug trade she joined just to have fun.

She shows how dehumanizing and pointless prison sentences are for many of these women who were given minimal rehabilitation or education and treated like they were less than human, often because of crimes in which they were more victim than criminal.

As part of the discussion, we tasted Kerman’s version of prison cheesecake and agreed it was surprisingly tasty.

We recommend the book, and those of us who have seen the Netflix series recommend it as well, although it often wanders away from the storyline of the book. Seeing the filmed version helped us visualize the prison and its women.

— Patricia Prijatel