When I was a child living in Boonville, N.C., a town of 600 people, my mother would load us into the station wagon twice a year — at the start of each new school year and at Christmas — and drive 25 miles to the Sears store in Winston-Salem. That store was dinky by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of enchantment. The parking deck was on the store’s roof, and we would descend the stairs into a palace of delights: the odor of roasted peanuts from the confectionary stand at the bottom of the stairwell; the toys calling to us from the shelves off to the left; the racks and racks of clothes in which my siblings and I, to my mother’s chagrin, played hide-and-seek.

bookMark Helprin drives me crazy.

Helprin’s novels — he is the author of A Soldier of the Great War, Freddy and Fredericka, and a half-dozen other works of fiction — remind me of my great-grandmother’s engagement ring, which I took to a jeweler for assessment before giving it to my daughter. The jeweler examined the diamond through her loupe, pronounced the gem chipped and somewhat flawed, then declared that it nonetheless was of excellent value because of its size, its old-fashioned, European cut and its character.

bookIn Creole Belle (ISBN 978-1-4516-4813-3, $27.99), novelist James Lee Burke returns to a territory he now owns in the literary sense: New Orleans, the Gulf, and Southern Louisiana. Dave Robicheaux, ex-drunk, ex-member of the Big Easy’s police department, returns to a world of murder, mayhem, money, and mobsters. He and his best friend and former police partner — the hard-drinking, stand-up private detective Clete Purcel — find themselves battling a host of underworld figures, ranging from low-life sociopaths out to collect a debt from Purcel to corporate villains involved in fraud, kidnapping, torture, and murder.

bookA distracted mother off to the store forgets to shut the door from the kitchen to the garage, puts her car into reverse, and drives over the two-year-old who has followed her into the garage. Late for work, a father intends to take his napping 18-month-old to daycare, receives a call from his boss that he is urgently needed, drives straight to work and comes out at the end of a long, hot day to find his infant dead in his car seat.

bookBy early September in these mountains the markers of autumn are very much with us. The cool nights diminish the whirring of air-conditioners; the raucous August chorus of tree frogs and crickets softens its music; a few stray leaves on the lawn remind us to have the furnace inspected or the chimneys cleaned. For many of us, the fall brings a heightened sense of bustle and purpose, quickening our blood and rousing us to ambitions muted by summer’s more languorous pace.

bookIt’s that time of year when yellow buses roll down country roads, when children disappear from the stores and streets between the hours of eight and three, when teenagers can be seen entering school buildings bent forward like soldiers beneath packs crammed full of books, notepads, computers and calculators, and various drinks and snack bars.

bookIn her latest novel, Starting From Happy (ISBN 978-1-4391-02185, $24), Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him and a staff writer for the New Yorker, gives the reader an off-beat comedic look at relationships, work, marriage and children.

The story is simple enough. Wally Yez, a laboratory scientist, meets Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer. Quickly, Wally becomes infatuated with Imogene, certain that she is the woman of his destiny. He breaks up with his long-time girlfriend and pursues Imogene, who is equally certain that she is happiest just as she is: devoted to her career, blessed by several friends, involved in an affair with a married man whose benign neglect pleases Imogene. Eventually, Imogene, charmed by Wally’s unrelenting pursuit, gives in to his romantic notions that the two of them should become a couple together.

op minickIn his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Today the challenge posed by Kennedy might read: “Ask not what you can do for your country — ask what your country is doing to you.”

bookSome years ago, a local artist mounted a painting in a local art show in which he painted Christ with pink paws and Easter bunny ears. “This is going to upset some people around here,” the painter told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, having heard of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered with cattle dung at a New York show and of Andres Serrano‘s “Piss Christ” – this piece of art entailed putting a crucifix in a jar of urine – most Americans would find a Jesus Easter bunny about as controversial as a piece of broccoli quiche. Had he wanted to ignite a real firestorm, he should have depicted the founder of Islam with a nine-year-old girl in his lap wearing a wedding dress.

bookWhat would you do if your teenaged daughter was assaulted, beaten and shot almost to the point of death, and raped? Would you hunt down the assailants? And what would you do if you were a physician and an ardent pro-life advocate and found that this same daughter was pregnant? What would you do if you were a Miami cop — a good one — and suddenly found yourself being ordered about by fools and politicos? And how do you go on defending a system that seems to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime?

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