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2008 Staff Picks by Genre

Fiction

Book Cover for Mansfield Park Austen, Jane
Mansfield Park

Fiction
Make room on your book shelves, fans of Pride and Prejudice. It’s time to expand your Jane Austen horizons with her darkest and most non-traditional (and in my and many critics' opinions, best) novel, Mansfield Park. First-time readers of this book will immediately be thrown by Fanny Price, the unlikely heroine who proves a polar opposite to the more traditional aspects of Austen's other leading ladies—such as Lizzie’s sharp wit, Marianne’s eccentric speeches, and Emma’s extreme confidence. Fanny is introverted, pious, and always right. In fact, many readers may at first think Mary Crawford is the heroine, as she is clever and never stagnant, unlike Fanny. However, as the story makes unusual twists and turns, readers come to adore Fanny for her morality and honesty, and to sympathize with her silent sufferings in love and in her lot in life. Different than any other Austen heroine, Fanny never has to change herself—she is already the person she wants to be and is in fact the one who must teach others. This book is recommended for anyone who thinks they know Austen-style books after reading her more famous Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, or for anyone who is interested in reading a first-time Austen novel and wants to delve right into her most brilliant piece.
Recommended by Amanda, August 2008

 
Book Cover for An Invisible Sign of My Own Bender, Aimee
An Invisible Sign of My Own

Fiction
This novel requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief. If you haven’t read within the magical realism genre, the extreme quirks of character and plot may surprise you. One definition of magical realism includes “heightened reality in which elements of the miraculous appear while seeming natural and unforced.” An Invisible Sign of My Own offers large doses of heightened reality as well as miraculous events that defy expectations. Though the protagonist is an obsessive counter, knocker-on-wood (or paper if no wood is available), and a compulsive quitter, it’s easy to sympathize with her as she teaches math to second graders, worries about her ill father, and tries to avoid emotional encounters with the attractive male art teacher who has a few quirks of his own.
Recommended by Julie, April 2008

 
Book Cover for Leaving Home Brookner, Anita
Leaving Home

Fiction
On the surface, Leaving Home is about a woman trying to reach a decision about her future and is typical of Anita Brookner’s writing. Brookner specializes in real people, unheroic and almost insanely normal. Their outer lives may appear dull, possibly pathetic, but their inner lives are rich with observation, imagination, and projection. They turn the minor events in their lives into adventures and the major events into only temporary excursions away from their practically unassailable equilibrium. The life of the mind makes these people rich and shows up the pursuits of their more active and adventurous counterparts as being shallow and futile. Read Brookner for her character development and a break from writers that try too hard to stimulate only to exhaust or at best provide only a temporary escape. You will think about her characters long after you've finished her books as if you'd actually met them. Her people think and analyze; perhaps a habit we could all benefit from developing.
Recommended by Geo, April 2008

 
Book Cover for The Yiddish Policemen’s Union Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Fiction
Chabon’s book begins with the premise that following WWII, Jews established a settlement in Sitka, Alaska. On top of that, you can count on Chabon’s mesmerizing writing abilities and an intricately plotted murder mystery. Meyer Landsman is the noz (yes, there’s a dictionary of definitions at the end) who unravels the consequences of the demise of a former boy wonder chess champion. At each turn, Landsman finds more layers of plotting that will keep you busily turning pages until you reach a very satisfying ending.
Recommended by Noufissa, July 2008

 
Book Cover for Hold Tight Coben, Harlan
Hold Tight

Fiction
Don’t open this book unless you have a few hours to spare­­. Once you start reading this action-packed thriller, you won’t be able to stop! A murder kicks off the action, but then a swift turn of events leads to a seemingly unrelated story about parents of a troubled teenager. Other characters and plots are introduced until the reader is left slightly dizzy, wondering how they can all possibly fit together. But rest assured—they all do, in a very satisfying conclusion.
Recommended by Karen G., September 2008

 
Book Cover for 42 Cooper, M. Thomas
42

Fiction
I was attracted to this book not only because of its title (an homage to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) but because Booklist's review described it as "Highly recommended for adventurous readers willing to expand the boundaries of genre fiction." It starts off at the apparent cliche--end of a marriage; two people married to each other and each experiencing discontent, hohum. George married a painter and ended up with Martha Stewart. When George comes home to find a cryptic note from his wife stating the obvious while invoking Murakami--she's left with their child, a subtle and yet relentless decline begins in George and consequently the life they'd built together. As George becomes more obsessed with finding his family the pace of the narrative becomes downhill-rollercoastering breathtaking. You will rush to find the answers to all his questions, dodging falling debris and careening events. While the end leaves a lot of questions unanswered, this is truly a fun reading experience. You might just be tempted to hop right back on and take this ride again. I can't wait to see what Cooper is going to do next.
Recommended by Geo, September 2008

 
Book Cover for The Saffron Kitchen Crowther, Yasmin
The Saffron Kitchen

Fiction
A young Iranian woman, Maryam Mazar, doesn’t want the married life expected of someone from a wealthy family like her own. Her head-strong ways eventually lead to trouble, and her father forces her to leave her home following an incident with Ali, a close friend and confidante of Maryam’s who works for the family. Once she is sent away, Maryam becomes a nurse, moves to England, marries, and has her own family. When her nephew comes to live with her, Maryam's long-forgotten feelings about Iran and what happened to her so many years earlier are shaken up. Maryam is compelled to return to her Iranian village to face the unresolved issues of her past, leaving her family in England in the dark as to why she left and when she would return. Maryam eventually convinces her daughter, Sara, to join her in Iran where Sara learns what her mother endured, what she sacrificed and what she gained along the way. An interesting cast of main characters shows what life is like for the women, servants and outsiders in different cultures and settings who are virtually powerless.
Recommended by Joanne, April 2008

 
Book Cover for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Diaz, Junot
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Fiction
Oscar is a precocious and overweight nerd who lives with his mother and rebellious sister in a New Jersey Dominican ghetto. While he lives with his traditional mother, he periodically visits relatives in the Dominican Republic where he finds out more and more about his father and also about Fuku. Fuku is the curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, misfortune and star-crossed love. Oscar is the current casualty. Diaz provides us with an intriguing and most readable entry into Oscar’s life and the history of his family. He gives us warmth, humor and a window into the Dominican-American experience, as well. Underlying this, Diaz shows the reader how to persevere and go on. Read this novel. You will remember Oscar and his plight for a long time.
Recommended by Noufissa, December 2008

 
Book Cover for Getting Rid of Matthew Fallon, Jane
Getting Rid of Matthew

Fiction
Getting Rid of Matthew has all the ingredients for a perfect romantic comedy film. Helen is tired of the limited time she has with her older married lover and demands that he make a choice between his wife and her. When he surprisingly chooses her, Helen soon comes to realize that a terrible mistake was made and tries to "get rid of Matthew." After turning herself into a very unattractive roommate doesn't motivate Matthew to leave, she resorts to more outlandish and comical attempts. Helen invents a second identity as Eleanor and then befriends Matthew's wife for the purpose of bringing the married couple back together. And of course she meets a wonderful guy while under her Eleanor guise, which throws even more complications into her plan. A great ending tops off this funny and touching novel.
Recommended by Karen G., January 2008

 
Book Cover for Lenny Bruce is Dead: A Novel Goldstein, Jonathan
Lenny Bruce is Dead: A Novel

Fiction
Public Radio International’s This American Life contributing editor Jonathan Goldstein writes a fractured novel capturing snapshots of a young man mourning the death of his mother and a succession of failing relationships. Mostly written in the style of stream of consciousness, Goldstein injects occasional incisive moments of literary wisdom. Josh, the novel’s protagonist, is solitary and undoubtedly romantically awkward as the plot fluctuates between Josh struggling with his newly widowed father and impending disaster with every girl he falls in love with. Lusty, poetic and nuanced, Goldstein brilliantly forces us to grip each paragraph at a time.
Recommended by Lisa, April 2008

 
Book Cover for Monsters of Templeton Groff, Lauren
Monsters of Templeton

Fiction
Willie Upton returns to her hometown in utter disgrace and is left with the choice to either sputter and fail, or to allow the town's essence and its mysteries to get her back on her feet. The day she returns to Templeton, a huge water monster is found floating dead in the lake. While an investigation into the beast's origin is carried out, Willie begins to investigate her own family history in an attempt to find her real father -- there are skeletons galore in these closets. Groff deftly weaves Willie's present day dilemma with rich and intriguing characters from the past. Ghosts, secrets, and eccentrics abound in both the past and present, making this well-written novel one to put on your "Read It Soon" list.
Recommended by Sheila, June 2008

 
Book Cover for The Book of Air and Shadows Gruber, Michael
The Book of Air and Shadows

Fiction
Mystery meets literature in this thriller surrounding the possible existence of an unknown Shakespeare manuscript. The story begins with a wealthy intellectual property lawyer hiding out on a lake in upstate New York while he awaits the arrival of the thugs who are after him and the manuscript. Is the manuscript real? Where is it? Who owns it? Who wants it? Who’s after it? Who’s on whose side? Along the way, we learn the story of the Bracegridle letters, ciphered seventeenth-century letters which give the details of a conspiracy involving Richard Bracegridle and William Shakespeare, a play about Elizabeth I, and the whereabouts of this hidden manuscript. But details are not always what they seem in this story that includes a cast of characters including the daughter of a Nazi officer married to a Jewish businessman, a criminal turned priest, an aspiring young filmmaker and his family in Queens, a mysterious young woman with a sketchy background, several Shakespeare scholars, Israel gangsters and Russian mobsters, and our lawyer friend. Great fun for summer reading.
Recommended by Joanne, June 2008

 
Book Cover for The Other Guterson, David
The Other

Fiction
The Other did not receive the critical acclaim of David Guterson’s first and most famous novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, but it is an excellent story nonetheless. The Other is about the friendship between level-headed, working class Neil Countryman and eccentric, trust funded John William Barry, who decides to leave behind the world of brilliantly portrayed 1970s Seattle and become a hermit in the Hoh Rain Forest. Countryman devotedly helps Barry survive in his hermitage, until disaster strikes and Countryman finds himself the heir to his friend’s 400 million dollar fortune. No spoilers here; you learn all of this in the first few pages of the book. Most of the story afterward is an examination of John William Barry’s motivations behind his withdrawal from society, and Neil Countryman’s meditations on choosing the “other,” mainstream path through life. The story is interspersed with beautiful scenes of the Pacific Northwest wilderness, which lives and breathes in Guterson’s prose. Otherwise, the novel is less about wilderness adventure and more about discussions of philosophy, theology, and literature, which may wear on some readers. If, however, you are a fan of philosophical, soul-searching novels that take place in beautiful settings, The Other will not disappoint.
Recommended by Wes, December 2008

 
Icaza, Jorge
The Villagers (Huasipungo)

Fiction
Arguably Ecuador’s most famous literary lion, Jorge Icaza shines a light on the horrific living and working conditions of Ecuador’s most vulnerable citizens, its indigenous Indian population. Reviled upon its publishing and the subject of an attempted ban within Ecuador, The Villagers (Huasipungo) is as illustrative of the horrors of workers, who never will be able to make a living, in the same way that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was in our own country (both books were published in the 1930s). Icaza places the blame on many shoulders – the wealthy landowners, government officials, the police, and the Catholic Church, all part of the larger social problem of racism. Icaza follows the story of ruthless businessman Don Alfonso who makes a deal with wealthy foreign investors to build a road through a forest which contains the hovels of his native workers. By supplying the workers with alcohol during a religious celebration, Don Alfonso assures that the workers won’t be paying attention as rising flood waters force them out of their homes. When workers, women, and children drown, it’s all in a day’s work. Yet there is great beauty in this land, and the novel shows us this beauty as well.
Recommended by Jane, December 2008

 
Jones, Lloyd
Mister Pip

Fiction
Matilda is 13 and lives on a tropical island in the 1990s. War has broken out. School is cancelled because of the fighting, and the natives are living with minimal resources. Mr. Watts, the last white man on the island, decides to teach the children. They go to the school building each day and learn about Mr. Watts’ favorite book, Dickens’ Great Expectations. Through listening to part of the story each day, the children are transported to another world where there is no fighting. They live the life of Pip and travel where he travels, learning words for things they've never seen, like “frost”. But eventually, their imagination puts Mr. Watts and themselves in trouble with the invading army. Even so, Jones’ tale shows that the power of imagination can help humans thrive in unbearable conditions.
Recommended by Terry, October 2008

 
Laxness, Halldor
World Light

Fiction
World Light came to me as a recommendation because of my interest in Hermann Hesse, and reading it was a truly revelatory experience. First, because it is an amazingly beautiful story, and second, because it was a great introduction to the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness. Like Hesse, Laxness is not afraid to explore the very heart of the human spiritual condition, and both are great at exploring this condition from the perspective of individuals who find themselves standing apart from the rest of society. World Light introduces us to Olafur Karason, a hapless boy who is orphaned and then fostered by Icelandic peasants. At a very young age Olafur physically experiences the beauty of the world, the “world light” of the title, in something akin to spiritual revelations. Olafur’s ability to experience the world in this way gives him a unique vision that sets him apart from others, for better or worse, and he dreams of one day becoming a famous poet. Unfortunately, Olafur’s dream is often met with the brute force of lesser individuals, such as when his foster brothers beat him until he is physically incapacitated and bedridden. On the other hand, some are drawn to Olafur’s poetic worldview, such as the strange mystic who heals Olafur and rescues him from his foster home. Either way, Olafur always seems to be the prisoner of other people’s whims, which ultimately drives him into a life of poverty and, eventually, scandal, while never finding the greatness he longs for. Despite this, to the very end he remains inspired by the beauty he sees in the world around him. And it’s this theme that makes World Light so wonderful. At times the book is brutal, bizarre, and slow, but by the end everything clicks, and you are rewarded with the insight that “beauty shall reign alone.”
Recommended by Wes, October 2008

 
Book Cover for Fruit of the Lemon Levy, Andrea
Fruit of the Lemon

Fiction
A young woman of Jamaican descent, Faith Jackson, grows up in England. She has spent her entire life around white people, even living with white friends, and never learned anything about her heritage. Faith starts to become depressed about the racism she begins to realize is all around her, although she never seemed to notice it before. Hoping to bring her out of her depression by illuminating the family’s past, her Jamaican-born parents send her to their homeland to visit. Levy’s story about Faith and her family is heartfelt and warm and she paints each character colorfully and lovingly. As Faith learns to fit together the branches of her family tree, she sees how rich her heritage is with ancestors from all over the globe and realizes their hopes and desires are universal to all, regardless of ethnicity. The storytelling is generous and detailed. I couldn’t wait for each new character to be introduced.
Recommended by Terry, March 2008

 
Book Cover for The Senator’s Wife Miller, Sue
The Senator’s Wife

Fiction
Newlyweds Meri and Nathan buy the house on the other side of the wall from Delia Naughton, wife of the former senator, Tom Naughton. They soon learn that Tom doesn’t actually live there, but he visits from time to time, sometimes spending the night. Delia, on the other hand, goes to Paris alone for part of the year. Intrigued by this seemingly odd marriage arrangement, Meri finds herself searching through Delia’s personal items, including letters from Tom, while she housesits for her. She feels a longing to know who Delia really is inside, as she offers very little of the details of her life to her new neighbors. What Meri learns about Tom and Delia’s marriage from those letters shocks her. How could a woman keep forgiving a man like Tom? During Delia’s next trip to Paris, Tom has a stroke, and Delia agrees to come home and take care of him despite the protests of their formidable daughter. Delia is happy now at finally having Tom as she always wanted him--hers and hers alone--despite his compromised state. But can this new arrangement really be what Delia wants?
Recommended by Terry, May 2008

 
Book Cover for Passion Morgan, Jude
Passion

Fiction
There's something about Mary...Shelley, that is. See also Caroline Lamb, Augusta Byron, and Fanny Brawne, the women behind the men of Romantic poetry. Sisters, wives, lovers, and intellectual sparring partners, these women's experiences are dramatized in Morgan's tony, yet not stuffy, novel of 19th-century England. Stifled by their times and circumscribed by their passions, these women of wit and promise appear both strong and poignant when viewed through Morgan's lens. While the narrative style wobbles in places, the characters' voices are strong and distinct, with Caroline Lamb's calm, yet chilling, descriptions of her Byronic obsession taking center stage. Readers besotted with 19th-century poetry should definitely take a look; lovers of historical fiction in general will want to try it on for size, and those who like reading about women's issues and problems will find fertile ground here for discussion and debate.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, January 2008

 
Book Cover for The Gravedigger’s Daughter Oates, Joyce Carol
The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Fiction
The Schwart family came to the United States as refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Rebecca, their only daughter, birthed in New York harbor, was the family’s only American born member. This gripping novel tells the spellbinding story of how Rebecca transcended a horrendous childhood growing up in a cemetery hovel and her gritty life in an upstate New York factory town. The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a tribute to the difficult choices people must make in their lives – some with positive outcomes, some not. After this compelling read, you will long remember Rebecca Schwart, also known as Hazel Jones, Niles Tignor, Chet Gallagher and Zack.
Recommended by Noufissa, September 2008

 
Book Cover for Sister Mine O’Dell, Tawni
Sister Mine

Fiction
Western Pennsylvania author O’Dell weaves a haunting and original tale of a woman, her sister, and the coal mining life, set in the region she calls home. Shae-Lynn lives in Jolly Mount, PA, home of five miners who nearly lost their lives when trapped underground for several days. Her sister, thought to have died, returns to town, nine months pregnant and using a fake name. Several people follow her to Jolly Mount as her past begins to catch up with her. Shae-Lynn’s own past is looming as well, as the father her son doesn’t know decides to reveal his identity. Will she lose her son, the only part of her life that has remained constant? In addition to the main storylines, several secondary threads run through the novel. Glimpses of Shae-Lynn’s coal mining relatives and neighbors include the details and dangers of their jobs, the emotional and financial struggles they face, and the affects of the mining culture on everyone in the town. O’Dell’s characters are colorful and amazingly realistic. The novel is suspenseful with plenty of drama, as well as O’Dell’s own brand of black humor.
Recommended by Terry, September 2008

 
Book Cover for Out Stealing Horses Petterson, Per
Out Stealing Horses

Fiction
Out Stealing Horses is a wisp of a novel narrated by sixty-seven-year-old Trond who has recently decided to live a reclusive life. His thoughts very often return to the seminal summer of his fifteenth year when his relationship with his father and his friendships form the centerpiece of his life to come. The story is poignant and powerful, but Petterson does not allow this novel to feel sorry for itself. While the writing is simple and functional, its staggering beauty draws you so convincingly into Trond's world that you clearly experience events through his senses. This two hundred and fifty page book could easily have been much longer, but Petterson's expertise and profound talent pares down the tale to its essentials without insulting the reader by spoon-feeding each twist and turn and inviting us to capitalize on our own imaginations. This would be a great pick for book groups because the threads of discussion and interpretation are endless. Was I left wanting more? Absolutely! But I savored every minute of this gorgeously-told gem and have not stopped thinking about it since I closed the last page.
Recommended by Sheila, April 2008

 
Book Cover for Gods Behaving Badly Phillips, Marie
Gods Behaving Badly

Fiction
Oh, what fun! This original romp takes place in modern day London where the entire pantheon of Greek gods are alive and well....and bored. They are all finding it a bit difficult to cope in a world where no one believes in them and where they are reduced to taking on everyday jobs: Aphrodite is a phone sex worker, Artemis is a dog-walker, and Dionysus owns a sleazy night club. There seems to be no excitement or pleasure left in life, so they create their own by tricking and tormenting one another. Unfortunately, the gods' housekeeper and her friend become caught in the crossfire of these lightning-wielding egomaniacs. Can these mere mortals save each other and ultimately save the world? I give two thumbs up for this entertaining and clever look at the gods and their humans.
Recommended by Sheila, May 2008

 
Book Cover for Straight Man Russo, Richard
Straight Man

Fiction
Discovering a new author is exciting. Recently, I discovered Richard Russo, whose name you may recognize from his Pulitzer Prize winning book (and subsequent HBO miniseries), Empire Falls. My first Russo book wasn't the prize winner, however, but a slightly earlier work called Straight Man. Straight Man is the story of William Henry Devereaux Jr., the aging chair of a quarrelsome English department in a mediocre small-town college in, of all places, Pennsylvania. Devereaux's approach to life is "don't take things too seriously." When Devereaux applies this approach to administrative funding cuts, the possibility of being ousted from his job by embittered colleagues, and the indifference of his family, hilarious situations ensue one after the other. Honestly, I think this is the funniest piece of fiction I have ever read. Straight Man isn't all laughs, though, and in the end it turns out to be pretty heartwarming. Throughout the story there is serious soul searching on Devereaux's part as he reflects on missed opportunities and wonders how he got to where he is. His conclusion is not bitterness, however, but rather a kind of grateful submission to life's vagaries that comes from his refusal to stop seeing the joke in everything. Overall, Straight Man is a good introduction to Richard Russo's writing and his favorite themes, such as small-town life and missed opportunities. Straight Man is also absolutely required reading for anyone walking the precarious path of academia, as Russo's descriptions of the wackiness of academic life are pricelessly spot-on.
Recommended by Wes, August 2008

 
Book Cover for The Art of Racing in the Rain Stein, Garth
The Art of Racing in the Rain

Fiction
First of all, let me say that (with the glowing exception of Bugs Bunny, lapin magnifique) I don’t appreciate anthropomorphism in film or literature. Secondly, I am not a dog lover, but a dog liker under only the most well-controlled circumstances. Well, now I’ve found another exception to my no-talking-animals rule – Enzo, the wonder lab, the narrator of this quirky story about love, death, auto racing, and what we all might learn from those who never speak to us in words. As Enzo ponders his life on the eve of his final trip to the vet’s, we see how he has learned more about living as a human than most of the humans in his world. Fully prepared to be reincarnated as homo sapiens the next time around, Enzo convinces us that he deserves to be a real live boy. Of course, perhaps life as a dog will always be superior to that of a person, but he knows that part of the joy of life is to love so well that you are guaranteed to have your heart broken. He also knows that promises are meant to be kept, and he is a faithful friend to Denny, Denny's doomed wife Eve, and their daughter Zoe. Hilarious, poignant, and chock full of inside information about how to handle a race car, you’ll be recommending this book, too.
Recommended by Jane, November 2008

 
Book Cover for Certain Girls Weiner, Jennifer
Certain Girls

Fiction
Currently, there are 174 people in the Allegheny County library system waiting for Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner. I would certainly suggest getting on that list! This is a great book—the kind you never want to put down. A sequel to Weiner’s earlier Good in Bed, the story centers on Cannie Shapiro, a 42-year-old married writer and her now 12-year-old daughter Joy. While planning Joy’s bat mitzvah, Cannie tackles some common mother-daughter squabbles over the dress and the after-party. With Joy’s perspective in alternating chapters, though, the story takes on a more complex tone dealing with family secrets. Finally, a heartbreaking turn of events turns Certain Girls into an uplifting tale of motherhood, love, and growing up.
Recommended by Karen G., August 2008

 
Williams, Tad
Tailchaser’s Song

Fiction
In the same vein as Watership Down by Richard Adams, Tailchaser’s Song is an adventure story featuring talking animals. Please don’t write it off as just another childish talking animal fantasy. If Tolkien had written about animals instead of people, this would be it. This is the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a young feline approaching his adulthood. Part of a culture that values meditative silence as well as rich storytelling, our hero is yet unsure of where he fits into the world. He knows well the creation story of his clan, as well as the grand mythology that makes up his history. When a sudden, mysterious and ancient evil begins to slaughter and steal, Tailchaser becomes a part of his own heroic epic. Full of poetry and action, this novel easily captivates the imagination. The author went on to write several series of fantasy novels involving human characters, but this early effort begs for a sequel.
Recommended by Connie, August 2008

 
Book Cover for The Story of Edgar Sawtelle Wroblewski, David
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Fiction
Edgar Sawtelle is a young Wisconsin boy born with a handicap - he can hear but cannot speak. For three generations, his family has been involved in raising and training dogs. As part of the story, you will learn a lot about the science of raising dogs the right way. For example, Edgar's mother explains that there is a huge difference between selling puppies and placing yearlings that have been fully trained. The Sawtelles don't sell dogs - they place them. Wroblewski, in an amazing way, not only gets into Edgar's mind but also gets into the mind of the dogs. Edgar cannot speak but he signs - and the dogs learn his sign language and respond. To hear the dogs work through problems and situations is just remarkable, and especially noteworthy for any of us who perceive our pets as thinking and feeling beings. This is a moving and compelling story of great dimensions. You may be compelled to read it in one sitting!
Recommended by Noufissa, November 2008

 

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Nonfiction

Book Cover for Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain! Adams, Scott
Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: Cartoonist Ignores Helpful Advice

Nonfiction
Having loved all the previous Dilbert books, I didn't hesitate to pick this up. It is at first a disorienting read since this book does not adhere to a business theme, but finding out how brilliant Scott Adams can be in his take on the world from globe to doorstep was startling and satisfying. Adams is a very funny and wise man and writing this review makes me just want to pick the book up and read it again. Anyone who has read Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 thinks about what book they would commit to memory to preserve for generations to come. This would be the one for me.
Recommended by Geo, June 2008

 
Book Cover for Seeking Enlightenment, Hat by Hat Barr, Nevada
Seeking Enlightenment, Hat by Hat

Nonfiction
Barr, best known for her Anna Pigeon mystery series, speaks candidly of her journey from agnosticism to faith in a series of short, simple essays on topics such as forgiveness, sin, prayer, and belief. Barr writes like a subtler, dry-witted Anne Lamott: you can just imagine the sound of her voice, wryly commenting from the sidelines while the world hustles and bustles all around her, calmly stating the principles of what makes sense to her, and the roads she traveled to get there. The fact that those roads were often not pretty underlies Barr's credibility, and saves her spiritual journey from the pitfall of excessive sweetness and light. Described by her pastor as "still a heathen, but no longer godless," Barr is the perfect companion for an early-morning cup of coffee and a quiet hour in which to think about one's own relationship to the divine.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, June 2008

 
Book Cover for The Secret Byrne, Rhonda
The Secret

Nonfiction
The Secret received Oprah’s stamp of approval. And why shouldn’t it? It’s an easy read of 180 pages and extols the benefits of releasing positive energy to make good things happen, both for you and to you. Ms. Byrne has put together a compendium of the best thoughts from a “Hall of Fame” group of positive achievement gurus. The added bonus is that after you read it, whenever a thorny situation arises, Ms. Byrne suggests that you randomly open the book and words of wisdom, appropriate to your situation, will be on that page. The Secret espouses no particular religion or philosophy. If it helps get you through the day, what is not to like about it? Maybe you will start noticing nice things happening to you!
Recommended by Noufissa, June 2008

 
Book Cover for Birth: the Surprising History of How We are Born Cassidy, Tina
Birth: the Surprising History of How We are Born

Nonfiction
To be clear, this is not your mother’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Tina Cassidy’s gripping and sometimes stomach-turning exploration of the history of birth is honest, unbiased, and very well-documented. She carefully takes into account many of the physical, anthropological, political, and religious issues that have influenced human birth rituals and customs through recorded history. Hideous and miraculous practices that have governed the lives of women are seldom talked about in such frank terms. From the days of women-only birthing huts, to the ousting of midwives in favor of learned male medical practitioners, to the recent trend to have births scheduled around doctors’ business hours, Cassidy’s dry wit and accessible language make this sometimes harsh topic absolutely fascinating. I would recommend this book to anyone, even those of us who don’t foresee ourselves experiencing childbirth firsthand.
Recommended by Connie, January 2008

 
Book Cover for Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper Cody, Diablo
Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper

Nonfiction
Screenwriter and blogger Diablo Cody, known for her Academy Award-winning script Juno, delivers an intelligently sharp memoir of her experience as an “unlikely” Minnesotan stripper. Bored with the monotony and dullness of cubical dwelling, on a whim Cody decides to dabble in stripping at an amateur night in Minneapolis. Embedded with snarky pop culture references, Diablo Cody’s healthy cynicism and feisty attitude is the core appeal of her candid memoir. Candy Girl is strides away from simply depicting a superficial glance into the world of stripping. Clever and hilarious, Cody gives us an insightful behind-the-scenes look at the industry.
Recommended by Lisa, August 2008

 
Book Cover for Jim Cramer's Stay Mad For Life Cramer, James J. with Cliff Mason
Jim Cramer's Stay Mad For Life: Get Rich, Stay Rich (Make Your Kids Even Richer)

Nonfiction
Cramer focuses on successful investment strategies that investors can take advantage of over longer periods of time. He cites specific stocks and mutual funds that he feels can be excellent long-term investments based on the previous successes of their managers. Cramer also identifies several mistakes that investors can make that could substantially impact their retirement objectives. He recalls his personal experiences as a hedge fund manager and identifies other top money managers such as Ken Heebner and Eddie Lampert and the strategies they employed to be successful. I highly recommend this title as it is a very interesting and informative read for both the novice and experienced investor.
Recommended by Noufissa, March 2008

 
Book Cover for The White Album Didion, Joan
The White Album

Nonfiction
Joan Didion’s White Album is not unlike the Beatles’ White Album in a number of ways. Some of the similarities are obvious. Both objects are white (the first edition of Didion’s book is white, anyway). The album was originally released in 1968; some of Didion’s pieces in her book were written in 1968. A less obvious and more interesting similarity is that Didion wrote about the 1969 Manson Family murders and Charles Manson was supposedly obsessed with the Beatles’ White Album (the misspelt song title “Healter Skelter” was written in blood at one of the Manson Family murder sites). Paranoia runs through both works, evident in the song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” or in Didion’s account of her struggles with mental illness and irrational fears. They both critique at least some of those in power, in “Piggies” and “In Hollywood”, as well as social movements. Didion’s White Album is harder to swallow, though, since it definitely does not contain any love songs. It’s worth a read, nonetheless, as a smart account of those years. I suggest reading it while listening to the Beatles' White Album for a dose of hope and emotion as counterbalance.
Recommended by Jude, May 2008

 
Book Cover for My Father's Secret War Franks, Lucinda
My Father's Secret War

Nonfiction
From a small child who felt safe and important in Daddy’s arms, to the adolescent and young adult of the 1960s who protested his conservative ways, Lucinda Franks always had strong emotions regarding her father, Tom Franks. As a middle-aged woman and parent, Cindy becomes a caregiver for Tom—something she tries to avoid for a period. When sorting through her father's belongings, she learns that not only was he overseas during the war, he was a secret agent sent to spy on the Nazis—something he never talked about and continued to deny after being confronted. In learning about some of his activities during the war, including a visit to a newly discovered concentration camp, she realizes why her father grew apart from her mother during the first years of their marriage, and why he held certain beliefs. She gathers information from research, as her father does not freely give up the details of his service. Caring for him in his final years as his mind begins to fail, she finds the love she felt for him as a child. This poignant memoir is written straight from the heart. The author was also the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
Recommended by Terry, August 2008

 
Grahn, Judy
Blood, Bread, And Roses : How Menstruation Created The World

Nonfiction
This book changed my entire worldview. Anyone who’s ever felt left out of history class by the prevalence of masculine pronouns has been waiting for Blood, Bread, and Roses. Grahn, celebrated feminist poet and writer, approaches anthropology from humanity’s very inception with the perspective that menstruation was the mother of invention. She argues that menstrual seclusion rituals, widespread among early societies, established human understanding of separation and synchronicity, and that they conveyed that understanding through metaform, behavior that communicates social mores and shared belief. Scholarly, but readable and stimulating, Grahn draws from prehistoric and modern cultural comparison, etymology, and poetic inference to detail the roots of religion, law, mythology, mathematics, science, clothing and eating. While readers may not agree with all her theories, the book is indispensable for anyone who has wondered about the other half of historical gender bias, and longed for more balanced alternate theories.
Recommended by Renée, July 2008

 
Book Cover for God’s Middle Finger Grant, Richard
God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

Nonfiction
This is the rollicking true adventure of a British writer with a death wish who ventures into Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountain range and mixes it up with mafiosos, Mormons, forgotten Indian tribes, and finally murderous coke-crazed Mexican hillbillies bent on hunting him for sport. Grant finds himself in a series of precarious situations and writes a well-documented, honest look at various facets of the sociology of the Sierra and his own inability to make sense of it. Grant’s account is fascinating, hilarious and thought-provoking. This rough-and-tumble read is for those seeking a great adventure who either don’t have the guts or the vacation time to enter this forbidding land themselves.
Recommended by Bonnie, May 2008

 
Book Cover for Trespass Irvine, Amy
Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land

Nonfiction
As if the intriguing title weren’t enough, the book captured me immediately with its first line: “My home is a red desert that trembles with spirits and bones.” Irvine’s arresting prose continues throughout this unrelenting memoir that chronicles the period of turmoil in her life following her father’s death and preceding her marriage to a man she describes as the “lion man.” She structures the book into sections named for archaeological terms that summon the symbols and archetypes of the Southwest’s prehistoric inhabitants. These terms gather increasing weight as Irvine relates them to her own life, continually adding and peeling back layers, as though excavating an archaeological site. As she refers to the past to inform her present struggle, she summons not only the Anasazi and Basketmakers, but her own ancestors, including her great-great-great grandfather, who was among the founders of Mormonism. The history and doctrine of Mormonism also add dimension, as Irvine outlines its place in the history of San Juan County, Utah, part of the Mormon promised land called Deseret. The most acute source of conflict in the book stems from Irvine’s opposing desires to both establish community with her neighbors, and to identify with her belief in wilderness protection and the land’s sacrality—convictions that place her at odds with the rest of the population who are largely religious and culturally conservative ranchers. Trespass is a narrative infused with tension, as Irvine details the internal pull she feels from the conflicting lifestyles and beliefs of the centuries of inhabitants who share only the land in common. Ultimately, the desert is as much the focus as the author herself, and she conjures its images with fierce passion and intimacy, unafraid to implicate herself among those who inhabit it, living imperfectly and seeking transcendence.
Recommended by Renée, October 2008

 
Book Cover for The Reluctant Communist Jenkins, Charles Robert with Jim Frederick
The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea

Nonfiction
This is the autobiography of an American soldier who defected to North Korea during the Korean War and was a prisoner of this bizarre land for 40 years. Jenkins gives a repentant account of his desertion and the description of his time there would convince anyone that he has paid his dues several times over. He lived a nightmarish existence of never being able to trust anyone and was forced to memorize propaganda, work for almost nothing, and live under the constant watch of fake "wives" and "leaders" who observed and reported every aspect of his life. Yet strangely, Jenkins' life is nowhere near as terrible as the citizens of North Korea who starve and work themselves to death in labor camps. Eventually Jenkins married Hitomi Soga, a Japanese citizen who was kidnapped from her home country by Kim Il Sung's communist regime, for the purpose of teaching Japanese to spies. After many years the U.S. discovered that Jenkins was still alive. The Japanese government confronted North Korea and Soga was returned to her home country.
Recommended by Bonnie, May 2008

 
Book Cover for Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me edited by Karlin, Ben
Things I’ve Learned From Women Who’ve Dumped Me

Nonfiction
Co-author and co-editor of America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy in Action contains a collection of essays by recognizable names such as Dan Savage, Stephen Colbert and Nick Hornby, as well as some new authors to add to your repertoire. The advice offered is 10% practical and 90% hilarious, and 31 contributors wear their fervent hearts on their sleeves for the reader's amusement. Lessons in this anthology span from “Women Are Never Too Young to Mess with Your Head,” and “A Grudge Can Be Art,” to “Nine Years is the Exact Right Amount of Time to Be in a Bad Relationship.” It’s unlikely you’ll actually gain any practical or sensible advice about love from these personal essays, but they might improve your sense of humor about break-ups, past, present, or future.
Recommended by Lisa, October 2008

 
Book Cover for A Short History of the American Stomach Kaufman, Frederick
A Short History of the American Stomach

Nonfiction
Americans seem to be obsessed with dieting, health, and nutrition, while at the same time the incidence of diseases related to over-eating are increasing. I’ve been reading food history books, both old and new, searching for how we arrived at this schizoid state. A Short History addresses these questions in a new way. Though Ben Franklin and Cotton Mather are prominent characters, this is not a dusty history of food. Employing hip language and humor, Kaufman’s revelations surprise and even shock. Kaufman contends that the American Puritan practice of fasting is the clinical ancestor of anorexia nervosa, and goes on to explore our “separate-but-equal urges to stuff and starve ourselves” (as the book jacket copy puts it). He backs up his thesis with enough evidence to convince me.
Recommended by Julie, May 2008

 
Book Cover for The Dance of the Dissident Daughter Kidd, Sue Monk
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman's Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine

Nonfiction
This compelling memoir documents Sue Monk Kidd's journey from a successful inspirational writer, devout Baptist and model conservative woman to her discovery and quest for the feminine side of divinity. In the process, she jeopardizes her marriage and career, confronts internalized patriarchy, fosters deep female friendships, analyzes her personal mythology, studies the history of goddess worship and its conflict with Judeo-Christian theology, and creates her own rituals. As she does so, she makes her own path to connecting authentically with divinity. Rich with vivid anecdotes, dreams and enlightening passages from theory and research, the book is as emotionally powerful as it is culturally fascinating. Kidd recounts her awakening in a voice that is irresistibly honest, casual and bright.
Recommended by Renée, September 2008

 
Book Cover for The Knitting Sutra:  Craft As A Spiritual Practice Lydon, Susan Gordon
The Knitting Sutra: Craft As A Spiritual Practice

Nonfiction
Today's DIY movement is more than just a passing fad. In fact, knitting, crochet, embroidery, and other handicrafts have roots in a variety of cultures, and have been revered as a form of spiritual expression throughout history. This short, gentle exploration of the healing power of handicrafts revolves around the author's obsession with knitting, what it has taught her, how it has helped her mend (literally and figuratively), and the spiritual experiences to which it has led her. A swift, yet powerful read that will embrace you like a homemade sweater and, perhaps, inspire you to bring your own needles and thread out of hiding.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, March 2008

 
Book Cover for Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East Orbach, Benjamin
Live from Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East

Nonfiction
A fellow Pittsburgher, Benjamin Orbach was a graduate student living in Jordan following 9/11 and prior to the Iraqi war. In this book of letters and emails home to his family and friends, we see real life in the Middle East through the friendships and conversations he has with everyday people – barbers, college students, cooks, roommates, drivers, and teachers. As he tries to serve as an unofficial ambassador for the American people, shedding light on American culture and sometimes policies, he learns to view the Middle East from new perspectives. A Jewish American, he speaks Hebrew and has studied in Israel. Now he finds himself learning Arabic and living among Palestinian people. His insightful look at Jordan as well as Syria, Israel, and Egypt goes a long way toward helping us understand life, culture, and thought in the Middle East.
Recommended by Joanne, November 2008

 
Book Cover for Thriving On Chaos Peters, Thomas J.
Thriving On Chaos: Handbook For A Management Revolution

Nonfiction
This book definitely deserves a reread in 2008. First, it shines a mirror on how far the approach to customer services has come in the past 20 years. Second, it contains many valid observations and strategies for the road still to be traveled. Chapters are divided into well written commentaries and include strategies and next steps. Major units cover customer responsiveness; innovation; empowerment of people; learning to love change; and building systems for a world turned upside down. Read it all or read a chapter or two. You are sure to find a concept, an idea, a tidbit to add substance to your day and improve your own work process.
Recommended by Noufissa, August 2008

 
Book Cover for Learning to Drive Pollitt, Katha
Learning to Drive

Nonfiction
Yikes this book is interesting. A lovely patron told me how much she likes Katha Pollit and made me want to give this book a try. Among other things, Katha Pollitt is a thinker, writer, feminist, mother, wife and poet. She’s probably most well-known for her pieces in a column called “Subject to Debate” in The Nation. In this collection of essays, Pollitt writes about the personal, the political, and the intersections between the two, touching on very relevant topics like communism, women and aging, motherhood, pornography and web stalking. She expresses herself so clearly and with so much feeling that I felt that I was gaining some good insight into the topics while also being moved and having fun. These essays reminded me of a warmer, happier Joan Didion. I’m taking out her Virginity or Death next.
Recommended by Jude, October 2008

 
Book Cover for The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family Schenone, Laura
The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family

Nonfiction
By shining a light on both the joys and pains of her multi-generational family's history, Laura Schenone attempts to understand her own passions. These take the form of multiple research trips to Liguria, the region of Italy from which her great-grandparents emigrated, honing painstaking techniques for handmade ravioli, and raising two sons while pursuing her writing career. Her sorrows are affecting, her successes triumphant. She also shares recipes, so you can delve into the mysteries of ravioli.
Recommended by Julie, July 2008

 
Book Cover for Bob Schieffer's America Schieffer, Bob
Bob Schieffer's America

Nonfiction
Over the course of forty years Schieffer has hosted the weekly CBS television program Face the Nation, occasionally closing with short commentary. This collection contains 171 of these essays. They are divided into chapters on such subjects as campaign spending, journalism's role in politics, and who we really are as Americans. He shares his political opinions with a bit of humor that we can all relate to, whether we agree with him or not. His overall view is nonpartisan, as he is not afraid to side with either Democrats or Republicans, and actually declares himself to be Independent. In addition, he certainly has a lot to say about each of the seven presidents who have been in office during his career. Schieffer's special insights into all aspects of journalism, politics, and even war are informative and entertaining, and if you have even a small interest in current events, you won't want to put this one down.
Recommended by Terry, December 2008

 
Book Cover for When You Are Engulfed In Flames Sedaris, David
When You Are Engulfed In Flames

Nonfiction
Where else can you read about an assault with a cough drop, an abduction by a spider, and the boy scout motto, which isn't be prepared to ask people for stuff? David Sedaris does it again, globally.
Recommended by Geo, July 2008

 
Siegel, Lee
Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob

Nonfiction
Despite its compelling title and slew of vehement arguments, Against the Machine doesn’t really deliver. Lee Siegel, a prolific author and cultural critic, adopts the premise that all Internet interactions, whether via online marketplaces or social networking sites, equate to commercial transactions. He argues that the Internet extends capitalism into our most intimate moments, reducing all participants to “prosumers” whose leisure time is dominated by the continuous urge to create and consume further product. Also, user-generated material and its multi-media offspring blur the distinction between fact and fiction, truth and lies, art and self-expression. These combined factors, Siegel argues, compel us to “perform our privacy” in a culture increasingly homogenized by conflicting impulses to both express our individuality and market that uniqueness. Against the Machine makes an interesting and seldom-argued case, even if it is one that requires a healthy dose of skepticism, since Siegel is too dismissive of opposing views to present a balanced argument. He does an excellent job of contextualizing the Internet in pre-Internet economic, social and psychological philosophies, and of warning against the Web’s commercial agenda and tendency for commodification.
Recommended by Renée, May 2008

 
Book Cover for Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening Sorin, Fran
Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening

Nonfiction
If I were categorizing this book, I’d invent the term, “garden therapy.” Sorin is a counselor who wants to help gardeners (including indoor gardeners) think about their gardening wants and needs, while understanding and accepting the limitations imposed by their garden spaces. Though the chapters include instruction on actual plant cultivation, the reason to read Digging Deep is for its lessons in creativity. Your garden is a perfect place to imagine, explore, play, work, risk, share, and celebrate.
Recommended by Julie, May 2008

 
Book Cover for Proust and the Squid Wolf, Maryanne
Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain

Nonfiction
We take reading for granted; it probably feels totally natural to read this sentence without a second thought of why you are able to do so. But did you know that alphabets and our ability to read them are only a few thousand years old, and that some of the greatest thinkers in history, such as Socrates, feared the influence reading would have on the mind and society? These are some of the topics Maryanne Wolf discusses in her excellent book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Maryanne Wolf is a neuropsychologist who studies reading development in children. Her research eventually led her to study the history of reading and the ways in which reading influences the development of the brain. In one of the more fascinating parts of her book, Wolf discusses the fact that reading actually changes what parts of the brain we use, and that the parts used vary depending on which alphabet is being read. (Someone reading Japanese, for instance, would use different parts of the brain than someone reading English.) Wolf also spends a good deal of time discussing reading development in children, including reasons why reading fails to develop properly, particularly in cases of dyslexia. Wolf offers an especially interesting discussion here, mentioning at one point that dyslexia is strongly related to high activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, and that a surprising number of creative thinkers throughout history, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, were dyslexic. At times Wolf can be heavy-handed with her use of technical jargon, which might slow you down a little. Despite this, Proust and the Squid is overall a fascinating read, and should interest anyone curious about the history and importance of reading. I also highly recommend it to anyone interested in reading development in children, as there are a few golden facts presented that are as useful to know as they are intriguing.
Recommended by Wes, September 2008

 
Book Cover for The Road Washes Out in Spring Wormser, Baron
The Road Washes Out in Spring: A Poet's Memoir of Living Off the Grid

Nonfiction
It starts as a familiar story. In 1970, a young couple longs for an authentic life in the Maine woods. With construction help from a neighbor who can see that these outsiders are unprepared to erect their own house, they make a home miles from town, foregoing indoor plumbing and electricity. Kerosene lanterns light the darkness, forty-eight treed acres supply fuel for heat and cook stoves. Garden produce put up in late summer becomes minestrone soup in February. What’s unfamiliar is the passionate perseverance evident in the twenty-three years Wormser and his wife live off the grid while raising their daughter and son. Wormser is a devoted high school librarian who mindfully carries out the daily chores that make possible living without a furnace, running water, or refrigeration. He thrives in the woods’ quiet, the place that nurtures his rich development as a poet. (In 2000 he was appointed Poet Laureate of Maine). Neither preachy nor defensive, in calm prose Wormser reflects on reading and writing poetry, “first-hand” cooking and eating, old time Maine farmers whose livelihoods are waning, troubled high school teens, and the desperation and violence in the local community that keeps romantic ideals of rural life in check. Employing neither chapter divisions nor linear time, Wormser explores questions such as, “What does it mean to be a poet in the United States?” “What kind of work can a man do in a suit and tie?” “What do the trees say?” “What are we doing and why are we doing it?” A thought provoking, satisfying read, highly recommended.
Recommended by Julie, October 2008

 
Book Cover for Giving--the Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity Wright, Lauren Tyler
Giving--the Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity

Nonfiction
As the world grows increasingly more complex and, well, crazy, people with good intentions sometimes throw up their hands and say, "I want to make a difference, but where and how do I start? And will anything I do even make a dent in all the need and craziness?" Wright is here to gently assure you that yes, you can make a difference, and yes, the little things do count. The tone is gently encouraging, the chapters are short (to accommodate our hectic lifestyles, perhaps?), and the content includes lots of practical tips on giving, including strategies for gradually increasing the amount of time, goods, and money you can donate. An overview of the giving traditions, customs and regulations in the major monotheistic religions is helpful, too, as Wright grounds giving within the context of a faith-filled lifestyle. Be warned, however: this is not a slap-dash, "Do these ten things and be a more generous person" handbook. Wright gently, but firmly, calls for a complete lifestyle makeover, one in which we still take care of ourselves, but also think critically about just how much we need, and what we can afford to give to those around us. Recommended for people who want to save the world without losing themselves, or who just want to learn more about the contemporary Christian perspective on giving.
Recommended by Leigh Anne, October 2008

 
Book Cover for Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen Yearwood, Trisha with Gwen Yearwood and Beth Yearwood Bernard; foreword by Garth Brooks.
Georgia Cooking in an Oklahoma Kitchen: Recipes From My Family To Yours

Nonfiction
Trisha Yearwood has had over 17 years of success in the country music world and has sold millions of country singles and albums. Now, she turns her attention to writing a cookbook along with her mother and sister that features old-fashioned Southern recipes. I tried six different recipes from the book and am happy to report that they were all delicious. I haven’t had pineapple upside down cake in years, and it was just as good as I remembered. The vegetable dishes as well as the blueberry muffins were quick and tasty. The chicken pie was pure comfort food and the stuffed pork chops were a big hit. I would warn others to stock up on plenty of cream and buttermilk; you will need these items to complete many of the recipes. Also, it may be important to note: most of these calorie-laden Southern treats are not for those watching their weight!
Recommended by Karen G., November 2008

 

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GBLT

Book Cover for Baby Remember My Name Michelle Tea, Editor
Baby Remember My Name: An Anthology of New Queer Girl Writing

GLBT
Whether their essays, stories and comics depict a poor trailer park resident's birthday, an acid trip in San Francisco, or a gender-bending six-year-old on a bike, the contributors to Baby Remember My Name: An Anthology of New Queer Girl Writing seethe with exuberance. The collection's numerous highlights particularly include the bookends. (Both of whom have Pittsburgh connections.) In Paige McBee's "Keep Your Goals Abstract," poetic interludes of photographs transition between the character's setting and reflections on a cross-country road trip. In Beth Steidle's "Stay," body parts voice disparate opinions, narration slides from a painful breakup to an aquarium scene, and style alternates between confrontational and hallucinatory statements. Michelle Tea's own writing celebrates honesty and wildness, and her skills as a selecting editor are equally vivacious. Each piece segues gracefully to the next through common style or subject matter, and the pace rarely drags or stutters. (For further proof of Tea's editing prowess, read Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class.)
Recommended by Renée, April 2008

 

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Graphic Novels

Book Cover for Dogs and Water Nilsen, Anders
Dogs and Water

Graphic Novel
On one family vacation, we ended up in the emergency room, waiting for doctors to remove a large bead from my three-year-old sister’s ear. When she emerged, hearing clearly again, she had only one explanation: “The bear did it.” We never met the imaginary bear, but we never figured out how the bead got in her ear, either. Anders Nilsen’s Dogs and Water is a little like that. Nilsen renders his landscape in sparse black and white drawings that limit details to the most suggestive elements, wildly shifting perspectives when it suits the surreal mood. Emphasizing the tone of uncertainty, he doesn’t frame his panels, so scenes blend into each other via common walls, ground, and clouds. Dogs and Water’s plot is sporadic and symbolic rather than linear. (After I finished it, I looked up “dog” and “water” in dream interpretation guides.) The hoodie-clad main character walks along a deserted road into a desert. But does he stumble into a war zone? Or is he actually drifting far from land in a boat? Or is he underwater? Wherever he is, the character has only his teddy bear—with whom he’s apparently very angry— strapped to his back pack to talk to. Apparently, the bear put him up to all this.
Recommended by Renée, January 2008

 
Book Cover for House of Clay Nowak, Naomi
House of Clay

Graphic Novel
Naomi Novak weaves a dreamlike narrative with clear mythological influences in this gorgeously illustrated graphic novel. The story, loosely linear and highly symbolic in a manner reminiscent of a Catherynne M. Valente novel, follows Josephine, a hemophobic woman who takes a job in a factory to save money for nursing school, as she confronts a shadowy past conflict with a member of her distanced family. Nowak arranges panels with wild artfulness, combining manga-influenced layout with the distinctly European flavor of the story. The dusty, muted colors and sprawling tangles of hair and amorphous plant life depict a sensual mix between imagination, reality and subconscious reverie. Stunning full-page dream sequences drive the plot and motivate Josephine’s actions. House of Clay’s delicious visual and literary appeal will stimulate any reader’s imagination.
Recommended by Renée, June 2008

 
Book Cover for Blue Pills:  A Positive Love Story Peeters, Frederick
Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story

Graphic Nonfiction
This is a beautiful memoir about Fred, Cati, and L’il Wolf. And HIV. Living with HIV, medicating one’s HIV, raising an HIV-positive little boy, sexually evolving with HIV, and forgiving HIV. Peeters’ style consistently and intimately depicts everyday life for his unique family with honesty and intelligence. Cati’s big, sweet eyes and L’il Wolf’s huge, toothy smiles are just the beginnings of how the reader comes to know this lovely woman and her small child. Peeters’ dialogues with his family, friends, a doctor, and also a wooly mammoth provide insight into what it is to live and love with this disease.
Recommended by Laura, April 2008

 
Tanaka, Veronique
Metronome

Graphic Novel
Metronome, watch, fly, telephone, painting, lava lamp, piano, plant, fan, a man, a woman, and a tribal mask comprise the bulk of the repeating imagery in this experimental, silent, black and white graphic novel. Each page features sixteen equally sized panels, which set a rhythmic pace. Tanaka’s focus shifts from object to object, frequently switching to circles, abstract shapes or blacked-out panels. Close-ups and varied scale blend objects together or compare them to each other, as with the opening scene that switches between the metronome and the watch’s second hand. Tanaka uses her format not only to set pace, but to explore the space of the setting, the mood of the characters, and the possibilities of the panel as a unit of expression. While the story is not as compelling as the technique, the many surprising moments and visual tricks make this graphic novel well worth the read.
Recommended by Renée, December 2008

 

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Horror

Book Cover for The Vanishing Little, Bentley
The Vanishing

Horror
The Vanishing is written almost as a series of vignettes or short stories that traverse time and introduce what, at first appearance, seem to be jarringly unrelated characters, victims, and manifestations of dark and brutal forces. The individual stories are fascinating in their own right, but it is the juxtaposition of past and present, ancestors and progeny, and the karmic play of justice that makes this much more than just a scary story and a bumpy ride. Bentley Little is my new favorite horror author.
Recommended by Geo, January 2008

 
Book Cover for I Am Legend Matheson, Richard
I am Legend

Horror
Richard Matheson’s original story of a man who finds himself alone in a world overrun by the “living” dead is a misanthrope’s fantasy. The plot has been done over and over again since without improvement. Matheson’s version is so practical in its details, it is almost a how-to book for an apocalyptic event. (I found myself taking mental notes just in case I ever ended up being the “one.”) However, if you read this as a simple story of what could go horribly wrong, you will be unseated when the narrative segues into the philosophical side of what it means to be the “other.” This novel could be a truly refreshing interlude for those who need a break from the turmoil of modern life or a timely read for a world threatened by the not so unrealistic consequences of power shift. You will want to read more of Richard Matheson.
Recommended by Geo, May 2008

 

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Mysteries

Book Cover for Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death Beaton, M. C.
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death

Mystery
Agatha Raisin's dream is coming true. She has sold her PR firm in London in order to begin early retirement in a quaint cottage in the Cotswold countryside. Once ensconced in her carefully chosen new setting, she realizes that her personal life has always, in fact, been professional. Nor is she inclined domestically. No one asks her to tea. The vicar's wife does not call. Entering a quiche in the village baking contest purchased from her favorite London bake shop seems like the perfect solution-a sure way to win friends. But her entry kills the judge, and the embarrassing truth that the quiche was purchased spreads quickly. Agatha's dreams are turning nightmarish. Published in 1992, The Quiche of Death is the first in the Agatha Raisin series by M.C. Beaton. Number eighteen, Kissing Christmas Goodbye: An Agatha Raisin Mystery, arrived last year. And the fun continues: September 30, 2008, is the release date for A Spoonful of Poison: An Agatha Raisin Mystery.
Recommended by Julie, June 2008

 
Book Cover for Death of a Charming Man Beaton, M. C.
Death of a Charming Man

Mystery
This is number ten of the Hamish Macbeth series and I can honestly say, since I am reading the series in order, that these never get old. Instead, I have a new favorite country: Scotland. I have a newfound respect for the unambitious--albeit one probably confined to Hamish. I revel in the descriptions of the smells and dank weather and always-threatening storms, mists, fogs, and even the occasional sunny day. The characters are maddening, and Hamish's on-again-off-again relationship with the love of his life is always intriguing. I have avoided series my whole life as being too much of a commitment, but I have to say that these and M. C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin series (I'm alternating between the two not having been able to choose between them after having read the first of each) are a constant delight. I'm serious! So enter if you dare. Guaranteed: the well-written Agatha and Hamish series will become not only a welcome, but necessary part of your life.
Recommended by Geo, October 2008

 
Book Cover for At Bertram’s Hotel Christie, Agatha
At Bertram’s Hotel

Mystery
In the past few years, many of the Agatha Christie classics have been rebound in sturdy hardcover. This makes it a perfect time to revisit the best selling fiction writer of all time, whose mystery novels have sold over two billion copies. One of the best selections is At Bertram’s Hotel, featuring Miss Jane Marple. While vacationing at a classic hotel, she notices that the staff is perhaps a little too perfect and accommodating. When a man is murdered, Miss Marple, utilizing her acute listening skills and ability to disappear in the background, helps the police uncover the truth. I read this book for the first time many years ago, but still thoroughly enjoyed it the second time through.
Recommended by Karen G., May 2008

 

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Poetry

Ferlinghetti, Lawrence
Poetry as Insurgent Art

Poetry
Part desiderata, part manifesto, this quotable book is a prose poem about the importance of poetry. In four prose poems and a brief essay, its quips vary from rebellious: “Strive to change the world in such a way that there’s no further need to be a dissident”; to patently Ferlinghetti comparisons to classic art and canonic literature: “Poetry can be heard at manholes, echoing up Dante’s fire escape"; to koan-like statements. Also, there are lots of birds. For anyone who needs to be convinced of the vitality of art’s resistance or to be encouraged to pursue the struggle for vitality in life and expression, this little book of poetic affirmations will be a joy to read.
Recommended by Renée, August 2008

 
Book Cover for Book of Sketches, 1952-57 Kerouac, Jack
Book of Sketches, 1952-57

Poetry
More a companion volume to Kerouac’s recently released Book of Haikus than the bottom drawer material one might expect all these years after his death, the Book of Sketches is for every Kerouac fan who loves his poetry as much as his prose. Written between 1952 and 1957 and culled by Kerouac himself from fifteen handwritten notebooks, this volume is an endless stream of imagery studded with brilliant flashes of poetry and insight that can only be described as vintage Kerouac.
Recommended by Don, January 2008

 
Book Cover for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy : Poetry Lin, Tao
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy : Poetry

Poetry
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy might be better than any $200 per hour session. Tao Lin’s self-deprecating humor, heartbreaking loneliness and profound insights are quirky and moving. Lin uses clever devices like incorporating phrases and punctuation unique to Internet chat, but avoids a gimmicky effect. Instead, the phrases accumulate subtle weight with each use, like the often repeated “i’ll be right back.” His use of straightforward declarative sentences makes the emotional impact of his statements more powerful, even when he expresses confusion. Seemingly stoic accounts of emotion, behavior and morality come across as humorous and slightly sarcastic, but they also increase the impact of lines that reveal loneliness and confusion. An example of his oscillation between tones is in the opening lines of “eleven page poem, page three”: “my favorite motions include ‘brief calmness / in good weather’ and ‘i am the only person alive’ / without constant reassurance I feel terribly alone and insane.” Recurring motifs (depressed vegan hamsters, his blog, energy drinks, head butting, distance and the process by which thought influences emotions and behavior) illustrates the humor and intelligence of the collection. At once revealing and distant, the poetry reveals the tension present in Internet socializing, where it is possible to reveal deeply personal information to total strangers, or to foster long relationships without meeting in the flesh.
Recommended by Renée, November 2008

 

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Science Fiction

Book Cover for Storm Front: Book 1 of The Dresden Files Butcher, Jim
Storm Front: Book 1 of The Dresden Files

Science Fiction
The first book of The Dresden Files introduces the series' protagonist, the modern day magic-slinging, duster-wearing Harry Dresden, and his antics as a wizard-for-hire in Chicago. In Storm Front, Harry faces a mysterious black magic-wielding foe who’s been murdering people in gruesome ways. Harry must use his magic and his wits to track down the evil wizard before he becomes the next victim, all while dealing with the Chicago Police Department, a mobster, a bordello owning vampiress, and an angry group of wizards who blame Harry for the murders. Frankly, the book can be a little cheesy (as can Harry himself, offering lines like "I adore children. A little salt, a squeeze of lemon--perfect"), and it doesn't offer a lot in terms of a complex story or shocking plot twists. Despite this, it’s a fun read that is a good distraction while you’re deciding on which mind-expanding novel to read next. This is Jim Butcher's first book, and I suspect that The Dresden Files have gotten better as he's written them. After all, if Storm Front offers anything, it's the potential for bigger and better things for Harry Dresden and his adventures.
Recommended by Wes, November 2008

 
Lackey, Mercedes
Reserved For the Cat

Science Fiction
Ninette Dupond's father died when she was very young. In order to secure Ninette's future, her mother encouraged her to become a ballerina -- not just so that she would have a career, but in the hopes that a rich older man would become her patron. Ninette grew into a talented young woman, and her income, combined with her mother's, was just barely enough to survive on. Then Ninette's mother died, too. To make matters worse, she upstaged the prima ballerina of her company and was fired. When Thomas the cat revealed that he could speak mind-to-mind with Ninette, she was desperate enough to stake her future on his plans. Thomas managed to get them to England, but their troubles were only just beginning.
Recommended by Denise, January 2008

 

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Short Stories

Book Cover for Willful Creatures Bender, Aimee
Willful Creatures

For a collection of allegorical stories whose characters rarely even have names, Willful Creatures is powerfully emotional. Bender writes the whimsical tales so fluidly that their fantastic inhabitants-like a boy with keys for fingers, a woman with potato children, and a pumpkin family-seem natural and immediate. Her language consists of stark imagery rendered into gorgeous, clever prose infused with humor and wonder. Bender groups the stories into three sections with loosely correlated themes. Part One features unlikable villains, Part Two, characters who make mistakes in surreal situations. In Part Three, protagonists confront impossible, absurdist challenges with noble resignation. Robert Coover fans will appreciate Willful Creatures, as will anyone in search of a heart-piercing bit of magical realism. "Job's Jobs," in which God systematically denies a man his every source of creative pleasure, and the closing "Hymn" are the collection's most moving highlights.
Recommended by Renée, March 2008

 
Book Cover for Best American Non-Required Reading Series Eggers, Dave ed.
Best American Non-Required Reading Series

Short Stories
I was sooo excited to discover this series, and also sort of ticked off that no one had told me about it before. But since I’m an unusually and extremely nice person, I will let you in on it. This series is awesome. It’s awesome because each volume has such a wide variety of things to read. It has short stories in it, and non-fiction pieces, and each volume also has a graphic novel excerpt. There’s a great excerpt from Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons in the 2003 volume. Lynda Barry is so funny and touching. The fiction is so varied that it never bores. Also from the 2003 volume is a piece by Jonathan Safran Foer called “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease." In it, he uses a symbol like a square or maybe three periods, to represent a way that his family does or doesn’t communicate. Some silences are peaceful, some silences are heavy and angry. Some questions are really commands. His symbols beautifully illustrate the many things that happen in conversations that are wordless, how big our desire to connect with each other is, and how painful our bumbling attempts at it are. Other writers include David Sedaris, Sherman Alexie, Chuck Klosterman, J.T. Leroy, and Michelle Tea. The series starts in 2002 and a 2007 volume was just published. It’s part of the larger Best American series, and according to Houghton Mifflin, it’s now the most popular of the series. So get to it!
Recommended by Jude, March 2008

 
Book Cover for No One Belongs Here More Than You July, Miranda
No One Belongs Here More Than You

Short Stories
Careful. Miranda July will disarm you into feeling as attentive, sensitive and lonely as her characters. Their honest observations of daily interactions are full of humor and heart-wrenching loneliness. They narrate self-absorbed fears and longings with strangers and partners, and put themselves in beautiful, painful, absurd situations. A secretary takes a sewing class with an ulterior motive. A woman in love with Prince William cheers on Potato, a runaway dog. July's voice is so clear, natural and clever, it becomes a second internal voice. You may never recover your former defenses.
Recommended by Renée, January 2008

 
Book Cover for Birds of America Moore, Lorrie
Birds of America

Short Stories
I took a humor writing class once, and the instructor’s main premise was that humor bubbles up best through the morass of personal sadness and even tragedy. Of the model stories she handed out, my favorite was one of the short stories in Birds of America. Lorrie Moore’s characters are familiar folks, people you know, your relatives, you. They act in familiar ways, but they react in ways that are funnier than in my familiar world. These stories offer little lessons in constructive humor. Birds of America is a stunning collection, dark yet lit brightly.
Recommended by Julie, November 2008

 
Pollock, Donald Ray
Knockemstiff

Short Stories
Knockemstiff is the kind of tiny hamlet in southern Ohio that, if you're smart, you don't stop in for food, gas, or lodging. It becomes quickly apparent in this spare, precise set of thematically linked short stories that the hell you've always feared is just a waiting room for Knockemstiff, Ohio. As noted in a recent New York Times review, Knockemstiff is a Winesburg, Ohio for the trailer park set, all accelerator and no brakes. Roll up the rugs and push the furniture to the walls, honey, 'cause this is Chuck Palahniuk territory and daddy's coming home.
Recommended by Don, May 2008

 
Book Cover for The Unsettling Rock, Peter
The Unsettling

Short Stories
I first discovered Peter Rock when I read Carnival Wolves(reviewed Sept. 2006). He reminded me then of the "grotesques" of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and this short story collection is also populated by the subtly awry. Rock’s stories beg the question “what if?” His characters are just lost enough to pursue ghosts of temptation. The message throughout this collection seems to be: if you don’t seek, you are never going to find. The quest is its own reward; a variation on the theme that the journey is more important than the destination. Rock doesn’t do anything crass or rude or violent, but he does keep you teetering on a brink that somehow you’ve imagined. Perhaps the title says it all.
Recommended by Geo, May 2008

 

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