Feature

At Buffalo’s Summer Reading List

Reviewed by Holly Atkins, Andrew Coddington, Michael Flatt, Sally Jarzab, Jeff Klein and Lauren Newkirk Maynard

Conceptual illustration of Baird Point

Illustration by Barry Fitzgerald, MFA ’90

Beach reads? Maybe not all of them. But our featured selection of eight new books by UB alumni has something to interest everyone, from the fearless traveler to the would-be detective to the history buff—and their kids, too. Find a shady spot and dig in!

Cover of A Cold Day in Hell

LISSA MARIE REDMOND (BA ’98)

A cop’s life can be complicated, especially if you’re Detective Lauren Riley of the Buffalo Police Department’s Cold Case Homicide office. The fictional gumshoe is investigating a vicious sexual assault and murder, conducting a guilt-ridden affair with her ex-husband, raising two daughters as a single mom, risking her job by butting heads with the district attorney and trying to solve a pair of decades-old killings—all while being stalked by an abusive ex-boyfriend, who also happens to be a cop.

“A Cold Day in Hell” is a taut police procedural from a woman who knows the job well: Redmond was a detective in Buffalo’s cold case unit who retired in 2015 after a 22-year career with the force. (She took the police exam as a UB student and finished her degree while on patrol duty.) Her debut novel takes the reader on a grand tour of the legal system from squad room to jail cell to courtroom, with atmospheric stops in South Buffalo, the West Side and various leafy suburbs.

Redmond’s memorable characters include an assortment of Buffalo’s Finest, from the brightly idealistic to the exhaustedly jaded, as well as crafty defense attorneys, scheming sex offenders and, of course, Riley herself, who is tough yet vulnerable and always self-sufficient. “She’s a cold case homicide detective, but she’s nothing like me,” Redmond said in an interview with WIVB-TV. “She’s a lot tougher and smarter and stronger than I am in some ways, and a lot more flawed in others. If she were a real person, we wouldn’t even be friends.”

Add to all that a twist of an ending—and glowing reviews from the likes of Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist—and the setup is complete. With “A Cold Day” slated as the first of a series, we should be hearing more from Redmond’s Lauren Riley for some time to come.

(Midnight Ink, 2018)

– JK

Cover of Alexander Hamilton and the Development of American Law

KATE ELIZABETH BROWN (MA ’10)

The explosive popularity of the hit musical “Hamilton” has sparked renewed interest in the nation’s first treasury secretary. While many think of Alexander Hamilton as some combination of soldier and statesman, politician and patriot, this new analytical biography by Brown, a professor of early American history at Huntington University, argues that his greatest achievement sprang from his often overlooked role as one of America’s most influential lawyers.

During the founding period, as now, lawmakers struggled to articulate the nuances of the Constitution, so it was informally left to bureaucrats to fill in those gray areas as they applied the law in day-to-day practice. None, according to Brown, had as large an impact as Alexander Hamilton.

While revolutionary figures like Washington, Adams and Jefferson lent the new laws of the nation their foundational ideals, Hamilton’s accomplishment was in actually applying and shaping them to real-world cases encountered in the work of governing. His legal arguments not only accomplished his political goals of bolstering executive and judicial authority in the federal government; they also served to underpin the philosophies of many of the bureaucrats, lawyers and even Supreme Court justices who followed him. Hamilton’s legacy is in the legal precedents that he established, the influence of which reverberates throughout American history.

Over the course of the book, Brown dispels centuries-old misrepresentations of Hamilton by analyzing legal briefs, essays and policy reports written by him and others. As such, the book may appeal as much to legal scholars and lawyers as it will to those interested in the early history of the United States. Even casual readers can benefit from Brown’s revised portrayal of the man who came to forge American law.

(University Press of Kansas, 2017)

– AC

Cover of World War II Buffalo

GRETCHEN E. KNAPP (PHD ’95, BA ’80)

Bond drives, food and gas rationing, dancing with GIs at the USO—that’s pretty much how we picture life in the U.S. during the Second World War, in Western New York as elsewhere. But in “World War II Buffalo,” historian Knapp goes much deeper, combing through archives and interviewing veterans, factory workers and others on the home front to paint a portrait of the wartime city that consistently surprises.

Knapp opens the book with FDR’s 1940 visit to Buffalo’s gigantic Curtiss-Wright and Bell aircraft plants and the Bethlehem Steel mill. The area was already producing massive amounts of arms for export under the Lend-Lease program, and that effort redoubled after Pearl Harbor. As factories started operating 24/7, an influx of new workers filled hastily built government housing—racially integrated in Niagara Falls and Lackawanna, sharply segregated in Buffalo. Suspicion of enemy saboteurs also brought odd results: In Rochester, the FBI shut down Italian-language newspapers, but Buffalo’s Italian, German and Hungarian papers continued to publish.

All men had to register for the draft, but some did not. Many Senecas and Tuscaroras argued that as part of sovereign nations they were not subject to the U.S. draft. (The courts eventually ruled against them.) With so many men in the military, women took up Buffalo’s assembly line jobs: from 4,000 in 1940 to 43,000 in 1943. Yet black women in the city were consistently left unhired. “It isn’t fair,” one wrote to Gov. Herbert H. Lehman.

Knapp chronicles many other social upheavals in wartime Buffalo: the spread of brothels and juvenile delinquency; a simulated amphibious invasion, complete with flamethrowers, at the foot of Michigan Avenue; the grateful throng of 110,000 in Delaware Park that celebrated the Japanese surrender. She looks back and wonders: If we had to, could we bear sacrifice on the same vast scale as the Greatest Generation?

(History Press, 2017)

– JK

Cover of This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back

KEN ILGUNAS (BA ’06)

After famously living in a van to afford graduate school (documented in his first book, “Walden on Wheels”), Ilgunas hit the open road, hiking 1,500 miles north to the Alberta tar sands and then 1,700 miles south along the proposed Keystone Pipeline extension from Alberta to Texas, a journey he recounted in his second book, “Trespassing Across America.” Now, in his third work, he dreams of restoring a rapidly diminishing landscape once freely traversed by fellow literary ramblers Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and John Muir.

“This Land Is Our Land” finds Ilgunas meditating on the iconic Woody Guthrie tune as he explores how, and why, Americans lost their “right to roam.” A concept legally and culturally protected in Europe, the right to outdoor recreation is largely ignored here in the U.S., where a history of wilderness exploration has given way to increasingly aggressive private land ownership. “There are more than a billion acres of grassland pasture, cropland and forest, and miles and miles of coastlines that are mostly closed off to the public,” he writes.

Even while a politically divided country grapples with rollbacks of progressive land-use policies, such as those protecting parklands, more Americans than ever visit those parks, he notes. Property values and even public health benefit from connections to “the commons,” whether that be an urban green space, rural swimming hole or interstate hiking trail.

Ilgunas contrasts “the closing of America” with the more enlightened approach in countries like Sweden and Scotland, eventually using his research and personal experiences as a “trespasser” to draw a bold line in the sand. It’s time, he says, to demand action to open private American land, as nature intended. If we don’t create legal and social contracts that protect our public spaces, and not just landowners, we risk more than a walk in the woods, Ilgunas warns: We lose a prime source for collective well-being.

(Plume, 2018)

– LNM

Cover of Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies

LYNNE VALLONE (PHD ’90, MA ’88)

Whether we wish to admit it or not, one of the first things we notice about a person is their size: tall, petite, skinny, stout. Body size, says Vallone, is one way humans create cultural categories for normalcy. But when individual frames fall “too” far outside of those norms—say, from such conditions as miniaturism, giganticism or obesity—they can be treated as objects of fascination, disgust or a combination of the two. And the impact is huge, so to speak, both on the people who embody these deviations and on the societies in which they live.

Vallone measures the dimensions of that impact in this fascinating and sometimes disturbing work that continues the cultural history approach of many of her previous titles. A professor of childhood studies at Rutgers University, Vallone was led to her current topic by children’s literature, wherein tales of tiny fairies and towering giants exist in abundance. She articulates how folkloric characters, as well as the real lives of famous figures like P.T. Barnum’s General Tom Thumb, were shaped by the assumptions of their time and place—regarding not just physical size but also intertwined conceptions of beauty, gender, race, even humanity. In the particularly horrifying case of Ota Benga, a Congolese man and Mbuti pygmy, both his small stature and racial identity led Americans to take him from his homeland in 1904 and feature him in a primate exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. (Benga would eventually leave the zoo but never recovered from the experience; he took his own life in 1916.)

Vallone’s work documents the varying responses our cultural predecessors have had to body size and illustrates how those responses carry into the present, revealing all the ways “in which big and small have been made to explain the mysteries of life, to create categories of beautiful and monstrous, us and them.”

(Yale University Press, 2018)

– HA

Cover of The Golden Coin

ALAN FELDMAN (PHD ’73)

This new collection of narrative poems has that combination of you-are-there imagery and reassuring though melancholy insights that will attract readers of poets like Billy Collins and Louise Glück. Feldman, a professor emeritus of English and the award-winning author of numerous collections dating back to the 1970s (he has also published a book on the work of the poet Frank O’Hara), is an avid sailor, and the life aquatic plays prominently in his reflections on the dynamisms of place, time and fortune.

“The Golden Coin” is divided into four sections that move from the youthful optimism of the book’s title (“The sun rises out of the broad river— / ‘We’ve each been given a golden coin!’”); to negotiations of unrest, political and otherwise; to questions of memory and mortality. In his best moments, Feldman acknowledges that his speaker resides at a comfortable distance from turmoil, thereby lending irony to the book’s sunny title. It is of course easier to see each day as a gift from a position of privilege.

That wry sense of humanity is coupled with technical grace to create poems that are intricate and informed, but not impenetrable. In a sonnet that doesn’t formally announce itself as such, “Waterfront Property,” Feldman mentions a Chekhov story in which a man longs for the opportunity to grow gooseberries as a show of dominion, or as the author phrases it, “Just another way to live for things, but not / for the soul.” But as in any good sonnet, there’s a shift. The speaker takes that most coveted of modern earthly accumulations, waterfront property, as “the margin / that divides one’s possessions from the inexpressible.” Our own metaphorical gooseberries, the speaker tells us—be they property, some sought-after job or other acquisitions—are always standing in for the inexpressible, and may be the closest we will ever come to finding it.

(University of Wisconsin Press, 2018)

– MF

Cover of The Boy With the Rainbow Heart

WILLIAM S. MASON (MSW ’13)

The town of Gray is a somber place, its inhabitants grim and fearful, but the boy with a rainbow heart (visible to all, like a glowing badge on his chest) doesn’t let it bring him down. He literally beams with joy and good will, and soon the town and the townspeople become filled with more light, more color and more happiness. The moral of the story is clear: Kindness wins.

In this sweet and simple children’s picture book about a young boy who changes his world just by being himself, the backstory is part of the real story. Mason, who holds a master’s degree in social work, says he created the book to foster more acceptance for children who may feel “different” in whatever way. Dedicated to the author’s sister, who was bullied in school for years because she was openly gay, the crowd-funded book delivers its message of accepting difference in oneself and others in an inclusive way that doesn’t speak explicitly but does unabashedly advocate for the power of love.

Fitting to its young audience, the book has companion K-3 lesson plans, created with input from teaching professionals, that are in line with Common Core learning standards. Mason has distributed hundreds of copies to public city school districts across the country, including those in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Cleveland, and recently donated hardcover copies to GLSEN, a national education organization that works to ensure safe and affirming schools for LGBTQ students, for use in professional development workshops. Thus, a line from the story sums up the book’s plotline as well as its grander objective: “The boy’s love for all people changed their hearts for good.”

(Mascot Books, 2017)

– SJ

Cover of Bunny’s Staycation

LORI RICHMOND (BA ’98)

“Show, don’t tell,” that time-honored rule for good writing, is in full effect in this children’s book about a young bunny whose mother leaves for a weeklong business trip. Even with fewer than 200 words in the slim volume, a rich and engaging story unfolds on each page.

Bunny, as the young protagonist is called, is unhappy about the prospect of Mama’s absence. When Bunny’s musings about how to prevent Mama’s departure (flushing her suitcase down the toilet, for instance, or hurling it away on a giant slingshot) don’t pan out, Papa plans an itinerary of imaginative expeditions to distract the tot. Using a giant box of arts and crafts supplies as their vehicle, they visit the tropics, the Arctic and the savannas of Africa. Their dreamed-up destinations are almost enough to get Bunny through the interval without a meltdown. And when Mama finally returns, all is right again with the world (though maybe not with the living room, strewn with the construction-paper trappings of their adventures).

Richmond lets the tale be told most vividly through her bold but breezy drawings, with clever details that keep young and old readers alike searching images for fun incidentals (like the carrot emblem on the mother rabbit’s smartphone). With an academic background in graphic design and a professional background in parenting media, Richmond has adeptly managed to make a charming picture book for children that will also tickle the grown-ups reciting it. The storyline, she says on her blog, is meant to fill a void in the genre, in which depictions of working mothers are scarce. “Bunny’s Staycation” (on the book’s cover, this title playfully crosses out alternate text that reads “Mama’s Business Trip”) captures the joyfulness of family life without denying the messiness of day-to-day living—or of living rooms.

(Scholastic Press, 2018)

– SJ

Calling alumni authors

Send us your latest nonfiction or creative work! Last two years only, please. Mail to At Buffalo, 330 Crofts Hall, Buffalo, N.Y. 14260. Please note: Submissions are for consideration only. We do not guarantee inclusion in At Buffalo and are unable to return copies.