Book Bag: ‘Girl at War’ by Sara Novic; ‘Baby at My Breast: Reflections of a Nursing Mother’ by Cheryl Anne Latuner; ‘The Psychology of Abandon: Berserk Style in American Culture’ by Kirby Farrell

Last modified: Thursday, June 04, 2015


By Sara Nović

Random House

Sara Nović’s debut novel opens with a wonderful line: “The war in Zagreb began over a pack of cigarettes.” It’s 1991, and 10-year-old Ana, the story’s narrator, runs down to a corner market in her section of the Croatian city to buy some smokes for her parents’ friend, Petar, who’s visiting her family’s apartment. She’s run the same errand before. But this time the shop owner gives her a twisted smile and asks her if she wants Croatian cigarettes or Serbian ones.

It’s Ana’s first inkling that ethnic problems are brewing in the former Yugoslavia. And as what became known as the Yugoslav Wars heat up, she’ll find her life upended in unimaginable ways.

Nović, who is 28 and teaches writing in New York City, grew up dividing her time between Croatia and the United States, and she’s used that experience to shape a novel that’s part coming-of-age tale, part war saga, and part examination of love and memory. The first section of the story, narrated by young Ana, offers a child’s-eye view of the war in the former Yugoslavia, with soccer matches replaced by air raid drills and Serbian rocket attacks on Zagreb buildings.

“In the morning the police built sandbag walls. ... They were supposed to be strongholds we could stand behind and shoot from if the Serbs came to capture us.” But even if these flimsy barriers couldn’t really protect the city from Serbian tanks or soldiers, Ana and her friends could make use of them: “By the end of the week we’d absorbed the sandbags into our playscape.”

“Girl at War” later becomes the story of 20-year-old Ana, now a college student in New York City who, in the wake of the September 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., is increasingly haunted by her memories of the Yugoslav Wars and of friends and family in Croatia — and by the pain of loss. An insomniac, unsure of her identity, Ana heads back to Croatia to try to find her best friend from childhood and gain some understanding of who she really is.

Sara Nović will read from “Girl at War” Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Must purchase a copy from the bookstore to join book-signing line. To reserve, send an email to or call 534-7307.


By Cheryl Anne Latuner

Small Batch Books

Though her daughter, Lucie, is now 19 years old, Cheryl Latuner still has vivid memories of the first years of Lucie’s life and the tight bond she built with her through breastfeeding. Latuner, who teaches at the Hartsbrook School at Hadley, began writing about that experience at the time but has just completed the project in the last several months, in a memoir published by Small Batch Books of Amherst.

As it turns out, Latuner would nurse her daughter for four years — longer than she had imagined would ever happen, but in retrospect for good reasons, only one of which was for food. All of the others, she writes, “had to do with trust, security, comfort, affection, commitment, dependence and independence ... everything we might think of when we talk about love.”

Latuner, who has also published poetry, writes as well about her own background, growing up as the oldest child among six siblings, none of whom were breastfed. Yet, she says, she always believed she would do that with her own daughter, even though she did not become a mother until she was 40.

By documenting her experience nursing her daughter, and the many questions she had as the process unfolded, Latuner offers a window on the parenting of young children as well as a way to understand nursing both as a physical practice and a spiritual one.

Cheryl Latuner will read from her memoir Saturday at 11 a.m. in Piening Hall at the Hartsbrook School in Hadley, and on Wednesday at 4 p.m. at Cup and Top Cafe in Florence.


By Kirby Farrell

Levellers Press

“Going postal.” Taking things “to the edge.” “Running amok.” “Shock-jock” radio DJs.

As Kirby Farrell sees it, there’s a certain strain of extreme behavior running through contemporary American society, from mass shootings to the hatred and rage spewed by some radio talk-show hosts. In his latest book, “The Psychology of Abandon,” Farrell, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, looks at how such “berserk behavior” has become codified in our culture — and what that may mean for our nation.

Farrell looks at movies, advertisements, major events like the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 economic collapse, and various cultural touchstones to see how this idea is played out. One repeated theme, for example, is post-apocalyptic movies and TV series; by one estimate, he notes, Los Angeles has been destroyed 138 times in fiction and in film.

“In the new century, the American dream is as supercharged as ever,” he writes. “[It is] globally ambitious, morally ambiguous, technologically enhanced, and complexly in trouble. Anxiety about decline is in the air. ... Today the earth itself is a casualty in the headlines, and finite resources challenge scientific wherewithal to cope in time.”

Kirby Farrell will read from and discuss his book Thursday at 7 p.m. at Collective Copies in Amherst.


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