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2012 Staff Picks

December 2012

Book Cover for Creole Belle Burke, James Lee
Creole Belle

Fiction
As if good writing weren't enough, we have flawed but noble characters, ring-true dialogue, an exotic locale, and a plot that won't quit. Burke's 19th might be my first, but it certainly isn't going to be my last.
Recommended by Geo, December 2012

 
Book Cover for Ordinary Victories Larcenet, Manu
Ordinary Victories

Graphic Novel
In this action and adventure tale, our hero tries to find his calling in life while tending to a budding romance. We watch and listen as he processes his experiences through personal and professional analysis. You will witness the moments of realization that alter his perspective and allow him to genuinely evolve. Sometimes his vehicle spins out of control, but by the end of the story he's become a better and wiser person and so have you. This is a subtly powerful illustration of how strenuous an examined life can be—and how worthwhile.
Recommended by Geo, December 2012

 
Book Cover for Wolf Story McCleery, William
Wolf Story

Fiction
Originally published in 1947, and now republished after years in and out of print as part of the incredibly generous efforts of the New York Review Children's Collection to reinforce the indispensability of children's literature as a touchstone for a life enriched by the imagination, Wolf Story is, quite simply, the story of a man telling a story to his son. McCleery clearly draws upon experience, and this saccharescent little tale is saved from devouring its full weight in guilty pleasure by a warm but thoroughly biting sense of honest observational humor throughout. McCleery wrote a book for his son that is, essentially, about the narratives, explanations, and justifications told (or read) to children when they are young. The father in the story, patiently creating an entertaining whopper of a "wolf story" at the request of his son, is almost constantly interrupted by the young listener, put upon by the child to embellish, contort, alter, and otherwise have the story conform more to what the boy wants from the story, than what his father's imagination invents, including moral and practical editorial asides, for the sake of his child. The edification of the book lies within this tension, much to the merriment of the reader. Presumably, both (author / father and reader / child) emerge happily satiated, albeit in strikingly distinct ways. A glorious book: read it to yourself, or to another, but read it.
Recommended by miguel, December 2012

 
Villagers
Becoming a Jackal

Music
"Becoming a Jackal" is the debut long-play presentation of the songwriting of Conor J. O’Brien, an Irish singer and multi-instrumentalist with the band Villagers. Comfortable manipulating multiple harmonic forms integrated into deceptively simple melodies, Villagers plays to open minds while shifting sonic structures to demand attentive listening from even the most cynical listener. With ambiguous personal themes and fragile voice alternately buoyant and submerged, O'Brien understates microcosmic observations draped in dark metaphors – a musical analogue to Christopher Wool's stenciled text painting hanging inside the rear entrance to the Carnegie Museum of Art: both provide beautiful puzzles to reconsider those moments simultaneously past and anticipated.
Recommended by miguel, December 2012

 
Book Cover for Netherland O'Neill, Joseph
Netherland

Fiction
Up to a point, protagonist Hans van den Broek's trajectory mirrors that of his creator, Joseph O'Neill. Both men have led an international life, residing in the Netherlands as children, later in England, and then at the Chelsea Hotel in post-9/11 Manhattan. Hans' wife, for vague reasons, edges away from him and returns to London with their young son. Hans is left practically friendless, so he takes up cricket, a sport from his youth. While he is an accomplished equities analyst, his fellow cricketers are working-class folk from places such as St. Kitts, India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. The reader is introduced to one cricketer, a Trinidadian named Chuck, when his remains are dragged from the Gowanus Canal at the beginning of the novel. As Hans narrates the story, Chuck seems articulate and driven: an entrepreneur of sorts yearning to elevate cricket to professional status in the States. Chuck insists Hans accompany him on his stops along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, quickly revealing a shady side to his business dealings. This is not a murder mystery, however, nor a book chiefly about 9/11 or cricket, but a novel about immigrants of all stripes at a unique moment in New York's history.
Recommended by Rita, December 2012

 
Book Cover for The Light Between Oceans Stedman, M.L.
The Light Between Oceans

Fiction
Tom Sherbourne has survived the horrors of World War I, and now he returns to Australia to put the horrors of war behind him. He takes a position as a lighthouse keeper on an island off the coast, a job he believes will give his life purpose and the solitary existence he craves. But on a trip to the mainland he meets Isabel, a woman who will marry him and share the stark beauty of life on the island. Two miscarriages and a stillborn child seem to end their dream of starting a family, and then a small boat with two passengers washes up on their shore. The man is dead but the baby in his arms is alive. Tom is certain that as a government employee he must immediately report the incident to his superiors. But Isabel, in her profound grief, convinces Tom to put their own happiness ahead of the uncertain future the child might face. What happens when fundamentally good people make disastrous choices? What is the nature of forgiveness? Is it really more difficult to forgive than to seek revenge? And who deserves happiness? Beautiful descriptions of the Australian coast, fascinating – really – explanations of the inner workings of lighthouses, and deftly drawn supporting characters add dimension and realism to the novel. A wonderful, sad story that ends the only way it can – with broken hearts all around.
Recommended by Jane, December 2012

 

November 2012

Book Cover for The Darlings Alger, Cristina
The Darlings

Fiction
When the 99 percent learn about the Bernie Madoffs and Ken Lays of the world, we're justifiably filled with anger and disbelief. Those whose jobs, pensions, or life savings evaporated because of a single CEO may never grant forgiveness. But what if that CEO is your spouse, father, or best friend? Would you cut him out of your life or allow him to make amends? Would you become his confidante or a whistleblower? New Yorker and former Goldman Sachs analyst Cristina Alger imagines such a scenario in Manhattan and the Hamptons, playing out around the time of the actual subprime debacle. Carter Darling, a billionaire hedge fund CEO, is implicated in massive fraud, though speculation abounds about how deeply he was involved. His clan initially rallies around him, but as details of his dishonesty and adultery are revealed, family dynamics begin to shift. The unexpected death of Darling's good friend, another wealthy investor, will keep readers guessing until the last chapter. If you enjoyed watching the mortgage crisis unfold from the inside in "Margin Call," or if the Oscar-winning "Inside Job” leaves you yearning for a less depressing version of the financial collapse, try The Darlings.
Recommended by Rita, November 2012

 
Book Cover for Ordinary Victories Larcenet, Manu
Ordinary Victories

Graphic Novel
With Ordinary Victories and its concluding volume, Ordinary Victories: What is Precious, Manu Larcenet describes the common state of humanity in our contemporary moment. Ordinary Victories is a primeval and profound story of a young man whose wounds of anxiety – both psychological and physical – are both caused by and exposed to a world in which descriptions of reality do not satisfy sense observations, and the twisted rhetoric of reason opposes empty allegiances and convenient justifications. Marco, a young documentary photographer – struggling to bridge equivocal worlds between which lie the chasm of a profound insecurity witnessed in unpredictable panic attacks – and the son of a shipyard worker, presents the foil from which the conflicts arise, and those we meet through him expose the vulnerability of our own lives: with so many of our families separated by distance, Marco’s mother explains the root of rootlessness, as she unsentimentally divulges the necessity of workers to follow the money; with so many of our soldiers abroad, and many returning home damaged, Marco’s neighbor confesses the fathomless pain of political necessity, as he recounts participation in a futile war and its tortured aftermath; with so many of us thrown out of closing mills, factories, and corporations, the shipyard workers express frustration at economic realities, embodying the desperation of confronting seemingly anachronistic skills. Predictably, his psychoanalyst, and less predictably, his aging parents, his brother, his girlfriend, his neighbor, and his cat (named, appropriately, “Adolf”), are behind and around him, both supporting and forcing him to find a way of navigating a moral ambiguity that he’d until now been indulging in photojournalism, isolation, and medication. In art as sensitive as Marco himself, Larcenet depicts these battles and others, and in Marco offers a spark of hope. Larcenet is not exploitative in peeling apart the folds of skin to expose wounds; he allows the curious and vulnerable reader to appreciate both pain and sublimation by unsettling the eye with aesthetic nuance, as Marco’s tectonic states of mind and shifting realities are revealed in distinct graphic styles. The medium, a graphic novel, belies the notion that serious literature is strictly textual by capturing emotion in turns of attentive art. The reader’s glance is enraptured by the eyes of the characters, each betraying the honest expressiveness of which the heart is capable in the most desolate silence, beyond words. Larcenet illustrates the struggle in all of its various perspectives, and succeeds brilliantly: arguably, nothing has yet been published in the 21st century that so purely and transparently records the fragility of our decisions and lives as insecure individuals. This essential work of art successfully represents the tangling ambiguities of the sources of fear and love, attraction and repulsion, and unravels how these emotive responses cling to each other to create authenticity within the person. A beautiful story about all the colors of life, Larcenet illuminates and celebrates all of our “ordinary victories”.
Recommended by miguel, November 2012

 
Book Cover for Breed Novak, Chase
Breed

Horror
If you like to read in bed before sleeping, or if reading is your way to unwind at the end of the day, do not try this one. Or at least wait until daylight. Alex and Leslie Twisden live on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and have everything money can buy, except a biological heir to the family’s massive fortune. Desperate to conceive, they travel to Slovenia to visit the truly creepy and highly recommended Dr. Kis, who promises instant fertility. After an excruciating and gruesome session in the doctor’s office, Leslie is pregnant. The birth of the Twisden twins (or was it triplets?) is merely the beginning of the story. Ten years later the family is still living in New York City, but the once palatial Twisden mansion is now in ruins, family pets are constantly “misplaced,” and the terrified children sleep behind locked doors each night. Following a clever escape, the children must convince other adults in their world that their parents are the enemy. But Alex Twisden is smart, freakishly fast and strong, and anticipates their maneuvers through the city. This is a tale that is part Hansel and Gretel, part Rosemary’s Baby, and all horrifying.
Recommended by Jane, November 2012

 
Tesnohlídek, Rudolf
The Cunning Little Vixen

Fiction
The Cunning Little Vixen was originally written in 1920 in Czechoslovakia by Rudolf Tesnohlídek as a newspaper serial. In 1923, Leoš Janácek composed an opera (which until the 1970s was also known in English as Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears) based on the story. The source text by Tesnohlídek was “discovered” surprisingly late; finally translated into English and published in 1985, Tesnohlídek's tale is accompanied by the stunningly sweet illustrations that Maurice Sendak had done for the New York City Opera's 1981 production of Janácek's piece. This is a story for older children and adults. It’s a very earthy fairy tale that mainly tells the story of the antagonistic relationship between a young, female fox named Vixen Sharp Ears and the forester, Bartos. Bartos captures Sharp Ears early one morning and presents her as a gift to his wife, in order to avoid her wrath for the latest of many nights that he has spent drinking with friends in the village pub. The forester and his son treat Sharp Ears horribly, and she finally escapes. She comes back later for revenge and robs the henhouse, and later the pantry. The forester ensnares her in a brutal trap, and again she finds a way to flee… There are interesting side stories along the way involving the characters of this small village, and nice reflections on nature and time and love. I think this would be best read aloud this winter – in front of a fire if you can arrange that!
Recommended by Jude, November 2012

 

October 2012

Book Cover for Wild Flavors Carolla, Adam
Not Taco Bell Material

Nonfiction
Adam's story is reminiscent of that legendary species of crab that can be collected in a bucket and left unattended, for when one of them attempts to escape the others pull him/her back in. Only a real comedian could sidestep maudlin bitterness and make a childhood characterized by apathy, poverty, malaise, and contempt, both sympathetic and hilarious. In spite of bad DNA (his claim, not my judgment), Adam successfully climbs out of the bucket. He's no longer a crab. He's evolved into a caring husband and father—who still likes fart jokes.
Recommended by Geo, October 2012

 
Book Cover for Wild Flavors Emmons, Didi
Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Farm

Nonfiction
Nominated for an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award in 2012 in the “Food Matters” category, Wild Flavors will be of special interest to cooks who garden and especially to those who garden sustainably. Didi Emmons is a chef in Boston who makes the acquaintance of Eva Sommaripa, a Connecticut gardener who supplies the top chefs in the area with organic vegetables, herbs and greens. It is the quirkiness of Eva that makes Wild Flavors such a joy to read. Eva’s frugality is refreshing in this throw-away age: she takes tupperware containers to celebrity chef events so that leftovers don’t go to waste; she eats all of the apple, including the core; she saves everything: clothes hangers, plastic utensils; and wastes nothing: food scraps are compostable and weeds are edible. Naturally, this frugality rubs off on Emmons, who develops many recipes using the vegetables, herbs and, yes, even weeds that Eva grows on her farm. Emmons exhibits a similarly broad-minded approach to a recipe: if you don’t have the ingredient called for, substitute something that you do have; after all, these recipes were created to provide a tasty use for whatever Eva happened to be harvesting at the moment – that is why the book is arranged by season. Fortunately, the climate of Boston is pretty close to that of Pittsburgh, and so the herbs, greens and vegetables featured will grow fine here as well. Some you will not find easily in our farmer's markets: parsnips, lovage, anise hyssop, bronze fennel, African blue basil or sunchokes. But most of them you can grow yourself. In fact, I have some sunchokes in my backyard that are just begging to be cooked and served up with lovage butter. Or maybe I should try those Sunchoke Dumplings with Swiss Chard and Walnuts on page 278….
Recommended by Cathy, October 2012

 
Book Cover for Escape from Camp 14 Harden, Blaine
Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

Nonfiction
He was born and raised in Camp 14, one of the roughest of the labor camps in North Korea. Despite satellite photos that prove their presence, the North Korean government still denies these camps exist. No one who spent their whole life in a camp is known to ever have escaped, except for Shin Dong-hyuk. Shin grew up in an environment that none of us could even begin to understand. In order to survive, he was required to snitch on his family, classmates, and co-workers. Everyone around him, even his own mother, was competition for food, clothing, and shelter. Shin never developed the bonds with other people that most of us take for granted. There was no unconditional love from his parents or amusing times shared with friends. His life was all about back-breaking work and scrounging for food. Shin’s first memory, at the tender age of 4, is of an execution of a fellow prisoner. This book kept my attention the whole way through because even though I knew he would escape, I wanted to see what happened next. Shin’s story is hard to read and just because he escapes, it does not necessarily mean that his life gets easy. But this is an account worth reading and the continued struggle of the North Korean people is important for people to realize is still very much an issue.
Recommended by Melissa, October 2012

 
Book Cover for Budapest Noir Kondor, Vilmos
Budapest Noir

Fiction
Try this novel if you like any combination of the following: *Film Noir - because the fast plot and the sometimes seedy, sometimes altruistic characters will remind you of those old black-and-white mystery films, *Crime Fiction - because the plot centers around protagonist Zsigmond Gordon, journalist, solving a murder that the police are at best ignoring, *Budapest - because most of the book takes place there, and many famous Budapestian places are visited, including the New York Cafe, *World War II history - because this book takes place in 1936 and offers interesting insights into the political and cultural zeitgeist of Hungary leading up to War, *Politics - see above, *Trams - our fine protagonist rides them everywhere, *Boxing - because the sport figures somewhat prominently in the plot, *Cigarettes- everybody's smoking them, *Gutsy, Independent Ladies - because our fine protagonist is dating one.
Recommended by Holly, October 2012

 
Rolland, Romain
Jean-Christophe

Fiction
As we enter the fall months and look about for various means to defeat the isolating influence of the approaching cold winds and heavy snows, I wonder if readers might accept the testimony of a recent experience of mine in their efforts to abide. For a few months this summer, I closely followed the words of Romain Rolland in his novel, Jean-Christophe, about the life of a composer in the early years of the twentieth century. The geography of the novel is a large palette of Western Europe, and the approximately 1,500 pages offer the broadest canvas upon which a writer can manifest a description of his vision. In contrast to other novels of this epic length, Rolland does not overpopulate the text. He is more interested in exploring and sharing the vast spectrum of human experience from a microcosmic perspective: Jean-Christophe Krafft (born on the first page, he dies on the last). The relatively few actors are each revealed in all of their glorious complexity. Rolland's brilliance is demonstrated on each page, as his speculations, meditations, and interpretations offer a rebirth of the spirit. The narrative follows the mind of Jean-Christophe in his attempts to make sense of life, exploring the tension between collective existence and individual reason. In spite of his artistic aspirations and blustery personality, the empathic Jean-Christophe agonizes and celebrates a youth, an adolescence, and an adulthood that immediately resonate with any reader — not because the character is so immediately universal, but because through him, each reader will identify with the truths so profoundly described by Rolland. Rolland writes of a context that reflects, and a particular character who embodies, what it means to be alive to all people and at all times. A glow emanates from deep within the core of the story that slowly warms the heart with a dedicated sense of self-appreciation and -compassion, even to renewed respect and understanding. Jean-Christophe is an insanely detailed portrait of existence; while both brilliant and maddening, Rolland (and so the reader) considers everything. A reader cannot evade the effect of this book, but will be filled with a grateful humility towards the struggles and ambitions that life implies, and the worth and significance of hope and resignation, living and dying: passionate reading, from the highest pitches to the lowest depths of the soul. Rolland won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1915, "as a tribute to the lofty idealism of his literary production and to the sympathy and love of truth with which he has described different types of human beings" (so said the Scandinavians).
Recommended by miguel, October 2012

 
Book Cover for Hack Samarov, Dmitry
Hack: Stories from a Chicago Cab

Nonfiction
Cab driving is a profession that few people aspire to join. Dmitry Samarov needed the money, though, and it was a chance to earn a living without being under the constant gaze of a supervisor. Many hours of waiting for fares also allowed him to continue painting, which he had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. Night after night, year after year, Samarov ferried all sorts of characters across the Windy City and its environs. Some said nothing, some talked incessantly, while other customers smoked, vomited, or engaged in heavy petting. "Cabdrivers catch people at the most revealing moments," Samarov writes, "not when they have their game faces on, but with their guard down, unable to pretend." In a series of brief vignettes, Samarov gives readers a glimpse of these riders and their diverse personalities. This slender volume is a quick read - sometimes sad, sometimes funny - enriched by Samarov's watercolors and sketches of street scenes and clients.
Recommended by Rita , October 2012

 

September 2012

Book Cover for Catch Me If You Can Abagnale, Frank
Catch Me If You Can

Nonfiction
A terrific memoir by Frank Abagnale, who dropped out of school when he realized that he could make quite a living, and get the girls, by writing false checks. Because he looked so much older than his young age, he successfully posed as an airline pilot, a doctor (he was promoted to resident supervisor), a Harvard lawyer (he passed the bar!), a sociology professor at Brigham Young University, and a television script writer—all before he was 21! He managed to escape from the police and the feds over and over again, often in hilarious and daring ways. As he readily admits, he is "a man with the cojones of a billy goat." The most dramatic part of the book (for me) was his confinement in a French prison. I cannot go into the horrific details here—you wouldn’t believe me if I did—except to say that it made the solitary confinement scene in Shawshank Redemption look like a Sandals Resort. Hang on to your hat and buckle your safety belt—you’re in for a wild ride!
Recommended by Bonnie , September 2012

 
Book Cover for Burning Valley Bonosky, Phillip
Burning Valley

Fiction
Burning Valley is perhaps the most political novel of Southwestern Pennsylvania ever written. Published in 1953, the book is set in the depths of a hollow on the outskirts of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, in the years after World War I. Bonosky structures his story around the various ties that bind: a cat's cradle strung between actors. At issue is the character of Benedict Bulmanis, a son of Lithuanian immigrants. He desperately attempts to flee from the poverty and consequent degradation and disintegration of his community by withdrawing into the Church. Benedict grows increasingly despondent as the institution fails to provide him with the convenience of clearly drawn lines between good and evil. The adolescent obsessed with being worthy of the otherworldly salvation offered by the Catholicism of his heritage is unable to apply traditionally absolute moral tenets in a reliably predictable way and falls unceasingly short of recognized ideals. Benedict's ability to maintain the boundaries between worlds – moral and immoral – gradually weakens as the community in which he lives betrays the universality of the laws it professes. The letters that arrive in the houses of the hollow announce a threat by the bank (and the accompanying force of the police) – serving a company in its efforts to expand – to evict the diverse residents from their uniform homes. With justifications ripped from headlines past and present, the company advertises itself as the lifeblood of the community by providing employment, yet simultaneously adopts policies that destroy the land, the people, and their aspirations. Bonosky is most successful in underscoring the ambiguity of self-proclamations of institutions that insinuate their way into our lives surreptitiously. In conclusion, Bonosky illustrates a worldly salvation offered by a union leader; for the local reader, however, the story more immediately recalls an aspect of regional history guiltily fed down the memory hole of our collective consciousness as rapidly as the hollow of Benedict's birth is filled by the slag of the steel company. Ultimately, the question of identity remains the same: between the groups we are born into and the groups we choose, an individual reconciles the realities and falsehoods of social, economic, and moral fluidity; in our attempts at redemption, to Whom do we belong?
Recommended by Miguel , September 2012

 
Book Cover for A Bad Idea I'm About To Do Gethard, Chris
A Bad Idea I'm About To Do: True Tales of Seriously Poor Judgment and Stunningly Awkward Adventure

Nonfiction
Thanks to a prominent forehead and an unfortunate last name, Chris Gethard was the target of many a childhood joke. As he stumbled through adolescence in suburban New Jersey, his quick temper, lead foot, and fear of girls led to further humiliations. Many of us prefer to wipe such periods of disgrace from our memories, but Gethard bravely resurrected them and transformed heartbreak into humor. He became a comedian, joined the Upright Citizens Brigade, and now hosts his own TV show in New York City. Gethard (pronounced geth-ARD) chronicles many of his early growing pains in this collection, including stories about adopting a goat for college credit, and a brief but embarrassing stint in a semi-professional wrestling ring. This is not highbrow humor - there's too much pyromania, puke, and adolescent sex for that - but Gethard's knack at turning calamity into hilarity evokes catharsis.
Recommended by Rita , September 2012

 
Nichols, John
The Sterile Cuckoo

Fiction
I found a copy of the movie The Sterile Cuckoo at a thrift store recently and decided to buy it. I hadn’t heard of it, but saw that it starred a very young Liza Minnelli (the movie is from 1969) and was intrigued. I enjoyed the movie — even, or especially, in its darkness and awkwardness — enough to want to read the book. I completely agree with "Anonymous" from the DataLounge (where you can "get your fix of gay gossip, news and pointless bitchery"), who feels that "the movie, compared to the book, was very unfair to Pookie." In the movie from 1969, Pookie’s mother dies right after she is born, leaving her emotionally fragile and desperate for attention, while at the same time completely hostile and untrusting of others. Pookie’s mother doesn't die in the 1965 novel, and the decline of Jerry and Pookie’s love affair is slower, and due to preferences or issues that both of them have. I find both stories interesting as two very different ones. I’d recommend checking out both and not expecting, as I think is generally good advice, the movie to reflect the novel.
Recommended by Jude, September 2012

 
Book Cover for Bright's Passage Ritter, Josh
Bright's Passage

Fiction
Bright is a World War I veteran come home to West Virginia. He marries a close family friend and begins to farm the homestead built by his parents. Then the horse starts talking to him. Bright listens. It appears that horse has been possessed by the spirit of an angel who chased after Bright, from a bombed church in France to rural West Virginia. Bright and his infant son set off on a journey guided by the angel, fleeing vengeful neighbors and natural disasters. Accomplished songwriter Josh Ritter forays into novel writing in Bright's Passage, and the result is a narrative with precise prose and a taut trajectory, weaving in examinations of psychology and religion. Ritter's gift for storytelling certainly extends into novel form.
Recommended by Holly , September 2012

 

August 2012

Book Cover for Perfect Peace Black, Daniel
Perfect Peace

Fiction
May 17th, 1940, in Swamp Creek Arkansas, Perfect Peace is born. The name is recorded in the family bible, right below six older brothers. Perfect’s mother, Emma Jean had only ever wanted daughters. She prayed hard with each pregnancy that she would deliver a girl. The 7th birth would have to be that girl, whether delivered by the Lord or not. Emma revels in spoiling her daughter, for years and years. But on Perfect's 8th birthday, Emma Jean suddenly chops off Perfect’s hair and puts her in overalls. And then Perfect becomes Paul. Emma explains, first to her husband and six sons, and then to the rest of the community, that Perfect was always anatomically a boy. What follows is a careful and painful depiction of a young person forced to navigate a rural, impoverished community with a new and utterly unfamiliar gender.
Recommended by Holly , August 2012

 
Book Cover for Time and Again Finney, Jack
Time and Again

Fiction
Si Morley is an advertising artist in modern day New York City. He could spend an entire workday sketching a bar of soap for his next advertisement, or—after being approached to take part in a government project involving time travel—he could quit his job and have a terrific adventure. Naturally, he decides to join the project. With engaging historical detail, we learn about New York City circa 1882 as Si himself does—what people wore, how street lamps were lit, the way food tasted, and where old buildings stood as new. As Si makes the transition into the past, we could almost hear the horse-drawn carriages and see the city as it once was. The heart of the story is Si’s mission to undercover the mystery of his girlfriend’s grandfather’s suicide—and while Si goes on an adventure, we are brought along through remarkable storytelling and the inclusion of real sketches and daguerreotypes from the time period. If you enjoy books about New York City, history, time travel, or mysteries—then consider this a great combination of all of the above!
Recommended by Heather, August 2012

 
Book Cover for Joe Gould’s Secret Mitchell, Joseph
Joe Gould’s Secret

Nonfiction
From 1965 until his death in 1996, Joseph Mitchell never published another word for The New Yorker, the magazine that hired him in 1938 (and, importantly, never fired him). After the title story in this volume originally appeared in the issue of September 19, 1964, Mitchell would steadfastly continue to appear, daily, at his office, producing only an unnerving absence on blank leaves of paper. The silence was considered (at least by others) to be a profound case of "writer's block". Mitchell moved to New York City from North Carolina at the age of 21 to be a reporter, and from 1929 until 1938 wrote for a variety of newspapers; in 1938, he was hired by The New Yorker. His specialty was long-form journalistic portraits of the fringes of the social order, humanizing “characters” neither contemptuously nor out of pity. Mitchell offers no psychology, just friendly introductions. These articles and stories are now collected in two volumes: Up in the Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. He wrote for 35 years, and no more. Joe Gould's Secret is a collection of two articles, the first ("Professor Sea Gull") published in 1942, the second his last article from 1964, both about Joe Gould, the sort of individual a reader simply cannot imagine... he would have to be real in order to exist. Gould is a bohemian (enough to sufficiently embody and personify any conception of the word), an eccentric of tremendous acumen, and a writer – of what he calls "An Oral History of Our Time" ("already," Mitchell writes – in 1942, mind you, "eleven times as long as the Bible") – himself: seemingly, in short, Mitchell's ideal subject. In these pages, Gould manages to both define and destroy Mitchell's career as Mitchell unveils the titular "secret". An underappreciated and underacknowledged artist of nonfiction writing, Mitchell should certainly be considered a pioneer of the form now described as “creative nonfiction”. This book is a funhouse mirror... filled with reflections simultaneously enchanting and horrifying, and an opportunity for the reader living in a meta-post-ironic culture to experience at least some of the passion that comprises and confounds genius.
Recommended by Miguel , August 2012

 
Book Cover for Winged Obsession Speart, Jessica
Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World's Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler

Nonfiction
Butterfly collecting is big business. The black market players earn tens of thousands of dollars a month selling rare specimens to collectors, while species get closer and closer to extinction. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Ed Newcomer finds himself working deep undercover to catch one of the world’s biggest butterfly smugglers. But Yoshi Kojima is no fool. He is wily, distrustful of others, and demanding of his “business” partners. Newcomer has a hard time keeping up with Yoshi and he slips through Newcomer’s net more than once. Will Newcomer ever be able to set up the sting to bring down Yoshi or will he continue to evade authorities and contribute to the further decimation of the worlds’ butterfly population? This book is nonfiction but reads like a good suspense/thriller/crime novel. The protagonists, although completely real, are over-the-top characters, almost comical in their stereotypical-ness. If you like to read about environmental issues and like a good legal/police procedural, you will enjoy Winged Obsession.
Recommended by Melissa , August 2012

 

July 2012

Book Cover for Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House Hodgins, Eric
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

Fiction
In this light-hearted 1940s based tale, title character Mr. Blandings lives in a crowded New York apartment with his wife and two school-aged daughters. In the opening sequence of the novel, the family happens upon an advertisement for a country home in Connecticut; on a somewhat spur-of-the-moment trip with visions of a quaint country lifestyle in their heads, they decide to purchase the home. Hilarity ensues as everything that could go wrong definitely does! The affordable house that the family envisioned seems out of reach; when insurmountable issues arise with the mortgage, water supply, and more. Anyone who has endured home remodeling will easily identify with the challenges and (hopefully) the eventual contentment of completed repairs. Fans of Hodgins’ novel will also enjoy the classic laugh-out-loud film of the same name, which stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.
Recommended by Karen G., July 2012

 
Book Cover for I Am Forbidden Markovits, Anouk
I Am Forbidden

Fiction
In her English-language debut, Anouk Markovits paints a compelling multigenerational portrait of a Satmar family. Spanning two continents and six decades, we follow two sisters, Mila and Atara, as their paths diverge. Mila, adopted by the Sterns after her family is murdered by Hitler’s mercenaries, chooses the strict religious life of the insular Hasidic sect. Atara cannot cope with the crippling rigidity of the culture and cuts ties to avoid an arranged marriage and to pursue her education. As per tradition, she is considered dead to the family, and her name is never again uttered. After Mila emigrates to the Jewish section of Williamsburg, New York City, with her husband, Joseph, she finds herself unable to conceive. Faced with the perceived failure of her duty as a Satmar woman, Mila resorts to a series of heartbreaking decisions that have horrific consequences for her family. Reconnecting with her long-lost sister Atara seems her only hope for redemption. The writing is smooth; the prose is poetic. This is a story in which every character, regardless of flaws, is humanized and evokes empathy from the reader.
Recommended by Connie, July 2012

 
Book Cover for What is Stephen Harper Reading? Martel, Yann
What is Stephen Harper Reading?

Nonfiction
In 2007, Canada paid tribute to the previous 50 years of Canadian Arts with a reception and acknowledgement in Parliament of a select group of 50 Canadian artists who had achieved something significant in each of those 50 years. Yann Martel, winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Life of Pi, was one of the artists in this group. 27 of 306 invitees showed up for the reception. The acknowledgment ceremony in Parliament was sandwiched between everyday parliamentary business, and took less than five minutes. Martel said that he didn’t think that Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper even looked up. Harper describes Canadian arts funding as “bare bones”. He sees the lack of ability to be still and reflect as both a result and a cause of this lack of commitment. He decides to take action, and since the Prime Minister has a huge impact on arts funding and policy, he chooses to focus on him: "For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website [http://www.whatisstephenharperreading.ca]." Martel didn’t get one response from Harper in the four years that he sent him 101 books. The book What is Stephen Harper Reading? contains the letters that Martel wrote to go along with the first 55 books that he sent Harper. His letters contain some of the most interesting book reviews I’ve read, and they contain what may be some of the most powerful words I’ve read about the significance of books and of reading. Here are some: "Any book – trash to classic – makes us live the life of another person, injects us with the wisdom and folly of their years. When we’ve read the last page of a book, we know more, either in the form of raw knowledge – the name of a gun, perhaps – or in the form of greater understanding. The worth of these vicarious lives is not to be underestimated. There’s nothing sadder – or sometimes more dangerous – than the person who has lived only his or her single, narrow life, unenlightened by the experience, real or invented, of others." Or this, about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: "Some voices are barely heard. They are left to speak among themselves, worlds within worlds. Then someone listens, gives them artistic expression, and now the loss is lesser, because those voices have become eternal." The book list itself is a great one I think, mainly because of its breadth and depth. All books are under 200 pages so as not to overwhelm the busy Harper. There are a number of Canadian authors represented, but the author list is international. There are fiction, non-fiction and poetry books as well as a few graphic novels and children’s books. I am definitely going to buy a copy of this book to keep with my other reference books, and would love to participate in some form of a What is Stephen Harper Reading? book club with others. I feel very grateful for this book and for the way that it has moved and inspired me.
Recommended by Jude, July 2012

 
Book Cover for The Paris Wife McLain, Paula
The Paris Wife

Fiction
What was it like to be the first wife of Ernest Hemingway? Hadley Richardson married Ernest Hemingway when he was a journalist struggling to get his fiction career going. She's the one who saw him through the tough times and supported him while he worked on such classics as The Sun Also Rises. This historical fiction account tells the story of the Hemingways in 1920s Paris: the expatriate crowd and Left Bank artists (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, James Joyce), the excessive drinking, the literary discussions, and the support they lent each other, along with the personal life of the Hemingways, including the birth of their son, the introduction of Pauline (Hemingway's eventual second wife), and the end to his marriage to Hadley. A friend who read the book asked what's the purpose of taking a real person's life and making a fictionalized account. The author on her web page explains: "I'm hoping my novel will work to illuminate not just the facts of Ernest and Hadley's years in Paris, but the essence of that time and of their profound connection by weaving both the fully imagined and undeniably real. When I began to research my book, beginning with biographies of Hemingway and Hadley, and with their delicious correspondence, I knew the actual story of the Hemingways' marriage was near perfect; it was a ready-made novel, ripe for the picking. I didn't have to invent a plot for them, nor did I want to. My work would be to use the framework of historical documentation to push into these characters' hearts and minds, discovering their motivations, their deepest wishes." There are similarities here with Loving Frank by Nancy Horan -- the artist genius at work and the woman who supported him at whatever cost. Interesting reading and much to discuss.
Recommended by Joanne, July 2012

 
Book Cover for The Haunted Land Rosenberg, Tina
The Haunted Land: facing Europe's ghosts after Communism

Nonfiction
After Tina Rosenberg spent years in Latin America researching her equally provocative book, Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America, her second book, titled The Haunted Land, unravels as a kind of sequel set in central Europe. Both books investigate the various methods that societies have employed in confronting and condemning the actions of recently collapsed despotic regimes. As a journalist, Rosenberg explores the rather profound ramifications of truth extraction in a simple and direct manner – mainly through interviews with some of the most renowned dissident factions and deposed leaders of the various regimes – and triumphs in her reflections and conclusions. The Haunted Land is historically, politically, and philosophically revelatory, and the writing is crystalline. In illustrating the mechanisms of justice, Rosenberg details the relevant background, providing the necessary historical and cultural contexts, and exposes the vulnerability inherent to individuals obliged to the state. The kaleidoscopic interpretations of the past reveal an aspect of a present political reality merciless in its application: justice is a bitter pill to swallow; no one escapes the diagnosis of complicity.
Recommended by Miguel, July 2012

 

June 2012

Book Cover for Giovanni’s Room Baldwin, James
Giovanni’s Room

Fiction
Giovanni’s Room is James Baldwin’s second novel (the first being Go Tell it On the Mountain). When Baldwin showed his publisher the finished manuscript, he was told to throw it in the trash. I’m so grateful that he didn’t. This is a very powerful novel which moved me and made me think, the two things that I want from my reading. On a more superficial level, this is the story of an American man, David, who lives in Paris in the 1950s and comes to struggle intensely with his sexuality and his choices in terms of his romantic relationships. David’s American girlfriend has gone to Spain and they are both trying to decide if they should get married when he meets Giovanni, a young Italian bartender. David and Giovanni become involved and spend the next few months living together in Giovanni’s room. A Black author not just hinting at but truly depicting a homosexual experience in the 1950s is interesting enough, but the intelligent and gorgeous use of language, as well as the serious wrangling with what I consider very relevant and important questions about morality (Is moral behavior simply adherence to social norms? What is loyalty? What does real love look like?), make this novel truly great.
Recommended by Jude, June 2012

 
Book Cover for Dead End Gene Pool Burden, Wendy
Dead End Gene Pool

Nonfiction
I will be the first one to admit I have a thing for memoirs of dysfunction. The quirkier, the zanier, the better. Ms. Burden’s recent autobiography is easily in my top five favorites. Starting with a concise enumeration of her Vanderbilt ancestry, she peels back the layers of mental illness, inbreeding, eccentricity, and overindulgence surrounding her wealthy family. After her father’s suicide, six-year-old Wendy and her two brothers are juggled between their ego-maniacal, tanning- and diet-obsessed mother and their paternal grandparents in their posh New York City mansion. There are holidays in Maine and Florida, a stint in London, and trips to Paris. Any material thing they could imagine was theirs. However, none of this fills the void of a lack of attentive and supportive parenting. Even her doting (and chronically flatulent) grandmother cannot make up for the inherent WASP misogyny of her class and generation. Surrounded by drugs and booze, it was inevitable that the Burden siblings should succumb to substance abuse. It is a sad story, but somehow also hilarious. Much like Augusten Burroughs is capable of narrating heartbreaking events with humor as a survival mechanism, Burden has plenty of you-can- either-laugh-or-cry moments.
Recommended by Connie, June 2012

 
Book Cover for Good Poems Keillor, Garrison (editor)
Good Poems

Poetry
I hate poetry / (am not a poet, / nor do I want to be), / but this collection / is a stunning work indeed. / I read these selections / without worry of elusions; / in fact, just the opposite occurs / (I'm captivated, I suppose) — / my own life echoes / these textual inner intimations / of existence, often silent, / or crowed, or cursed, / writ large in verse. / In Keillor's introduction, / with refreshing honesty / you can sense / as he pelts with his two cents / of the poetic pretense a repudiation. / This book I show / to the amateur reader (like me) / who fears / lines too short to fill a page / or words that lend a rhyme. / Reassured now give it another go; / randomly, your brow will rise / in pleasant surprise. / Here you are welcomed / by some who simply insist / that life can be quite stunning / in its proud pedestals / in its humble crumbling / (and sometimes even in words / plain enough to praise): / in a book!
Recommended by Miguel, June 2012

 
Book Cover for I’ve Got Your Number Kinsella, Sophie
I’ve Got Your Number

Fiction
Poppy loses her engagement ring – a stunning and priceless heirloom that has been in the Tavish family’s possession for generations. In addition, someone steals her cell phone! She finds another and hangs on to it even though she knows who it belongs to, because when the hotel finds her ring, they have to be able to contact her. Plus, she has already given all her friends the new number. The phone belonged to the former personal assistant of Sam Roxton. Now Poppy has access to all Sam’s emails, which she won’t read of course! (Well, maybe just one or two.) She meets Sam but won’t give his phone back until her ring is found; he is quite charming and handsome, it turns out. When Poppy’s fiancé turns out not to be the man she thought he was can you guess what happens? This romance is full of laugh-out-loud humor in the Shopaholic style, and even though the reader must suspend her disbelief a bit, the payoff is worth it. A charming story, Kinsella’s latest will have you racing through the pages to find out what happens next! It’s obvious who will end up together, but getting there is half the fun!
Recommended by Terry, June 2012

 
Book Cover for EatingWell Fast & Flavorful Meatless Meals Price, Jessie
EatingWell Fast & Flavorful Meatless Meals: 150 Healthy Recipes Everyone Will Love

Nonfiction
Even non-vegetarians will enjoy the quick and delicious meatless entrees found in this cookbook. The book features clear instructions and mouthwatering photos — but the recipes are what really make this book top-notch! The black bean quesadillas are tasty and filling, and when paired with a side of rice can be a complete meal in 10 minutes flat. The vegetarian taco salad is another winner. Rice and corn stand in for the traditional meat ingredient. The tasty half-hour chili lives up to its name, as it is extremely easy to prepare. The roasted tomato-bread soup is also hearty and flavorful. Onions and tomatoes are roasted and then added to vegetarian broth, along with a few spices. This is poured over thick toasted bread with some parmesan cheese sprinkled on top. There are many other recipes I plan on trying in the future, including corn and basil cakes, Provencal summer vegetables, and packet-roasted balsamic green beans and peppers. This is a cookbook brimming with wonderful, healthy dinner ideas — for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike!
Recommended by Karen G., June 2012

 
Book Cover for The Collector of Worlds Troyanov, Iliya
The Collector of Worlds

Fiction
Sir Richard Francis Burton was an improbably larger-than-life British explorer and writer of the nineteenth century, of so many accomplishments and failures that any list attempting completeness would be a fool's errand and, anyway, too long to string out here. While the twentieth century effectively demonstrated that the stories that constitute "history" depend largely upon the narrator, Troyanov, writing in the twenty-first century, brilliantly demonstrates the subjective nature of reality (without resorting to post-modernist disorientation) by recounting Burton's life on three specific journeys from various perspectives: that of Burton himself, and those of three very different men who served his individualist whims. In South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, this fictionalized account of his life tells a tale, with both devotion and escapism, of the translucent boundaries between an anthropological curiosity and an imperialist hubris. Combining the best of travel literature and historical fiction, every reader will return from this journey altered in their appreciation of the various facets that together make up a world, unmistakably ours.
Recommended by Miguel, June 2012

 

May 2012

Book Cover for Behind the Beautiful Forevers Boo, Katherine
Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Nonfiction
Since he could walk, sixteen year old Abdul Hussain has reeked. He spends his days sifting through trash heaps to find recyclable materials to sell, as the sole wage-earner in his family of 11. The Hussains make their home in the Annawadi slum, situated just outside the Mumbai airport and next to a sewage lake. Along with their neighbors, the Hussains dream of a new life, new opportunity. In 'new' India, castes mean less as the economy grows, but not everyone can or will escape the polluted, crowded slums. According to the UN, nearly 1 billion people live in slums around the world. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of a few of such dwellers. This non-fiction title was written by a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, and her prose reads much like a fiction novel. I laughed, cried, and learned. You can't ask for more from a book.
Recommended by Holly, May 2012

 
Book Cover for A People Betrayed Döblin, Alfred
A People Betrayed

Fiction
This epic novel forms the first part of November 1918: a German revolution, a historical fiction of the failed socialist uprising in Germany of 1918. A spectacular exercise of the literary imagination of the long-neglected author Alfred Döblin, best known for his book Berlin Alexanderplatz, the story is told in a series of snapshots — photographic in idea, but purely literary in execution; a collage of portraits- and scenes-in-words builds a papier mâché wall upon which Döblin slowly pieces together a pointillist mural. The montage is an invaluable construction of one of those mysterious moments in history when the masses decide to take the reigns of power and pilot the state from the gutters of society. Döblin takes no pity on any of the characters who enter and exit the stage -- some fictional, some all too real -- and isn't attempting to toe a party line or remain faithful to any particular historical interpretation of the events. He merely wishes to preserve in a collective memory, utilizing a collective process, a series of specific events following the bitter and humiliating defeat of Germany in World War I, which led, eventually, to various of the most tragic and inhumane events of the twentieth century. The story is completed in its sequel, Karl and Rosa.
Recommended by Miguel, May 2012

 
Book Cover for Possum Living Freed, Dolly
Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money

Nonfiction
Dolly Freed wrote this book as an 18-year-old in 1978. At the time, her parents had divorced and she was homesteading and homeschooling with her dad in the country outside of Philadelphia. It was reprinted in 2010 by Tin House Books out of Portland, Oregon, publisher of another progressive homemaking book entitled A Householder's Guide To the Universe: A Calendar of Basics For the Home and Beyond by Harriet Fasenfest. Possum Living is chock-full of interesting information about living the self-sufficient life, including some fascinating but gross instructions such as those on skinning a rabbit. This is not a lightweight skimming-over of the now-fashionable topic; this is real, useful information shared by someone who actually did live this way and for a substantial period of time. I particularly like the drawing of their wood stove, constructed from a 55-gallon drum. Though I do find the book to be really informative, what I like best is the sassy way that this 18-year-old delivers the information. Her writing is bright and funny, and her political opinions are definitely food for thought or at minimum not boring to read about. Freed ‘s suggested responses to people who take issue with people who lead an anti-consumerist lifestyle: “I am too being useful! You can always use me as a bad example!” or “While I’m not contributing to economic growth, a dubious good, I’m also not contributing to pollution, a definite evil.”
Recommended by Jude, May 2012

 
Book Cover for The Descendants Hemmings, Kaui Hart
The Descendants

Fiction
Matt King is a Hawaiian businessman with a demanding schedule — and is consumed with the complicated matters of a land trust inherited by his family. So when it comes to his two daughters, he defers most of the parenting responsibilities to his wife, Joanie. But when a boating accident leaves Joanie in a coma with a grim prognosis, Matt must suddenly learn how to be a good father – amidst very tragic circumstances. He is, of course, unprepared for the force of his daughters’ personalities, especially in this time of extreme stress. Matt also learns some unpleasant truths about Joanie through his daughters and sets out on a two-day journey with them that both exhilarates him and breaks his heart. This book has already been made into an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, and fans of the film certainly won’t be disappointed by Hemmings’ original story.
Recommended by Karen G., May 2012

 
Book Cover for The Beekeeper's Lament Nordhaus, Hannah
The Beekeeper's Lament

Nonfiction
Honey bees have had a hard time in recent years, not just in the United States, but around the globe. Scientists aren't sure what's to blame for Colony Collapse Disorder, which has left thousands of hives empty, save for their confused queens and some honey. Some say mites, fungus, or malnutrition are the culprits, while others point the finger at pesticides and the stress of migratory beekeeping. Why are vanishing bees a problem, aside from making honey a bit more scarce or expensive? Bees and their keepers aren't just responsible for producing honey; they also help pollinate acres and acres of crops, especially almonds, apples, and other fruits. Over several years, Hannah Nordhaus treks around the country following John Miller, a migrant beekeeper and colorful character whose family's history of beekeeping goes back generations. In a detailed but engaging journalistic style, Nordhaus reports on how essential bees are to our economy and food supply, and how labor-intensive and heartbreaking their tending can be. She suggests ways the general public can help support bees, such as decreasing pesticide use and planting more native flowers.
Recommended by Rita, May 2012

 
Book Cover for Rules of Civility Towles, Amor
Rules of Civility

Fiction
“That’s how quickly New York City comes about – like a weather vane – or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.” Katey Kontent (pronounced like the state of well-being) may be young, female, and working as a secretary in New York City, but she is not naïve. She is sharp, witty, insightful. Katey understands how the world works and uses that to her advantage. Or does she? This novel about the ebbs and flows of friendship paints a picture of 1930's New York that is hard to resist. You see vivid landscape and buildings covered in the mist of evening light, like a black and white film, as you get caught up in Katey’s story. The main focus is a love triangle between Katey, her best friend, and Tinker Grey, handsome member of New York's elite. Just when Katey is about to get the upper hand with Tinker, fate intervenes in a dramatic way. The scenery, wardrobe, and snappy dialogue scream out to be made into a film. I certainly would see it. But first, I'd read the book again.
Recommended by Melissa, May 2012

 

April 2012

Book Cover for Once Upon a Secret Alford, Mimi
Once Upon a Secret

Nonfiction
“Everyone has a secret. This is mine.” In 1962, nineteen-year-old Mimi Beardsley lucked into a prime position as a summer intern in the White House press office. On her fourth day, she slept with President Kennedy and began an affair that lasted until his death in November 1963. It’s hard to imagine the effect this situation had on a naïve college girl from the upper-middle class. This secret made a lasting, devastating impression on her first marriage and her life. The author explains the choices she made and the reasons she made them, from the perspective that hindsight gives. One of the major insights this book provides is an insiders view of the 1960’s White House and the culture that supported the President, basically allowing him to do whatever he pleased. Prurient details are few, but they are juicy. This is a quick, thoroughly interesting read, which may also teach you a thing or two about the impact of decisions made and words left unspoken.
Recommended by Melissa, April 2012

 
Book Cover for The Harbor Poole, Ernest
The Harbor

Fiction
Ernest Poole won the first Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, awarded in 1918 for a second novel, His Family. Most critics, however, assumed that the prize was awarded to Poole in belated recognition for the excellence of his first novel, The Harbor, published in 1915. This "proletarian" novel doesn't merely tell another story of the working classes, but attempts to describe the education of a middle class boy growing into adulthood, and the simultaneous transition from an individual to a social conscience that this development should imply. Oftentimes, these revealing literary glimpses into the unpleasant living conditions of the poor directly pitted uneducated masses against an impossibly stubborn oligarchy. Poole succeeds here by writing the gray areas of the ambiguous humanity strung out between a desire for security and an inability to ignore injustice. A unique story, the reader is not made susceptible to an overly sentimental vision, but is slowly taken along a path immediately recognizable -- the definition of the individual as a member of his community.
Recommended by Miguel, April 2012

 
Book Cover for Roseanna Sjowall, Maj and Per Wahloo
The Martin Beck Series

Mystery
Swedish poet Maj Sjöwall and partner Per Wahlöö wrote a series of ten mysteries between 1965 and 1975 that have come to be known as the Martin Beck mystery series. Beck is the detective protagonist around which the series centers. I have never read a book labeled as a mystery, but had an inkling that the Martin Beck series would be less formulaic than I imagine traditional mysteries to be. The story lines are gripping, and the series grew more interesting as the authors delved further into the social and political context in which the various crimes took place and as they developed the main characters. Though the authors take socially critical stands on capitalism, social welfare, the Swedish police force and more, a somewhat creepy focus on women’s bodies in every book in the series can be read as a manifestation of sexism. The translations of the earliest book or two were not good, but the next seven or eight read very well. I enjoyed this series so much that I plan to read more Scandinavian mysteries, but also German, Austrian and Icelandic mysteries. We have a number of these authors in our collection including, among many others, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbø, and Arnaldur Indriðason.
Recommended by Jude, April 2012

 
Book Cover for Cooking with Italian Grandmothers Theroux, Jessica
Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

Nonfiction
If you like to read your cookbooks rather than cook from them, you will find this one particularly enjoyable, especially if you like Italian food and grandmothers. Theroux begins her travels through Italy in the urban north, first visiting a nonna her family had stayed with when she was a child. Interviews with these older women tell of their lives, their traditional cooking techniques, and highlight special recipes, many of which are simple and often unique. Theroux eventually winds her way down to the more rural and less developed South (during which travel her northern Italian friends are concerned for her safety). She is charmed by the people there as well. There are other “Italian grandmother” cookbooks but in this one you really meet the characters.
Recommended by Cathy, April 2012

 

March 2012

Book Cover for The Art of Fielding Harbach, Chad
The Art of Fielding

Fiction
An underdog baseball team at a small, liberal arts college on Lake Michigan sees a rise in their fortune after a nearly magical shortstop is recruited by the student captain. When these two meet another member of the team known as the Buddha, he introduces himself by coyly stating, “I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.” The remaining cast includes the college president, who is a renowned Melville scholar, and his prodigal daughter. As you cheer for the home team, you’ll root for the endearing characters. Though set in our era of cell phones, this 500-page novel is rooted in good old-fashioned story telling. A midlife crisis, quarter life crises, and illicit affair place it in the psychological fiction category. The Art of Fielding is spiced with literary references, but you don’t need an English degree or passion for baseball to enjoy this witty tale of love and friendship. If you enjoy the fictional worlds created by Jonathan Franzen or John Irving, give Harbach’s popular debut novel a try.
Recommended by Julie, March 2012

 
Book Cover for The Odds O’Nan, Stewart
The Odds

Fiction
A middle-aged couple ­heads to the casinos in Niagara Falls in a last-ditch effort to win the money they need to save their home. They decide to go all out and book an expensive hotel for Valentine’s Day weekend. This simple premise sets the stage for a wonderfully written tale about the highs and lows of married life. Flashbacks from both spouses’ points of view give intriguing insight into the dynamics of a 30-year marriage. This slim and savvy novel was written by Pittsburgher Stewart O’Nan and is sure to strike a chord with many readers.
Recommended by Karen G., March 2012

 
Book Cover for I Curse the River of Time Petterson, Per
I Curse the River of Time

Fiction
The Norwegian writer Petterson (author of Out Stealing Horses) again follows flashbacks of the narrator, in this case the 37-year-old Arvid Jansen, an introverted and somewhat ineffectual Communist factory worker in Oslo. In the present, his wife is leaving him, and his mother, a very strong woman with whom he has an unresolved relationship, is dying of cancer. This takes place in 1989 when the Berlin wall crumbles and the Soviet Union is falling apart. When Arvid’s mother abruptly leaves Oslo to return home to Denmark, where their family also spent their summers, Arvid follows her and this, naturally, stimulates more memories of the past. Petterson paints a vivid picture of their lives, of the rather bleak city and Danish coast, and of Arvid’s internal struggles.
Recommended by Cathy, March 2012

 
Book Cover for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Skloot, Rebecca
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Nonfiction
In 1951, an impoverished, African-American mother of five is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer never seen before. By the time she is treated, her body has been consumed. By the end of the year, she has died, leaving her children in the care of relatives. She is 30 years old. It is a sad story, but Henrietta’s demise isn’t the end. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital sampled tissue from the patient, without the consent or knowledge of her family. The cells this tissue produced in culture became the first “immortal” line of human cells that did not eventually die out. They became known as “Hela.” Something was very special about Henrietta’s cells, and they have been used by scientists all over the world to study and treat cancer, polio, AIDS, liver disease, infertility, and many other maladies. Her tissue has been used by space programs and weapons testing. Development of cloning technology and the mapping of the human genome owe a lot to Mrs. Lacks. But, as the author explores, what have been the ethical implications of the removal of these cells from Henrietta? She’s only anonymous Hela to researchers, but she was also a mother, wife, sister, friend, and cousin. Rebecca Skloot is a skilled writer, able to blend science, sociology, biography, and history to present the story of Henrietta Lacks, the human being, and Hela, her legacy.
Recommended by Connie, March 2012

 
Book Cover for Habibi Thompson, Craig
Habibi

Graphic Novel
In this beautifully illustrated graphic novel, themes of female sexual abuse and indifference to the plight of the poor are skillfully woven with parables and stories from the Qur’an. The artistry of the frames is dense. Symbolism abounds. The stories of Dodola and Zam also provide lessons in Arabic script, religion, and tradition. These lessons do not detract from the plot, which is focused on the development of their relationship, but allow the reader a deeper understanding of the context and meaning behind the choices the characters make during their time together and apart. This hard-hitting graphic novel may be difficult some for readers due to adult themes, but the masterful storytelling is well worth reading.
Recommended by Melissa, March 2012

 

February 2012

Book Cover for Foundation Asimov, Isaac
Foundation

Science Fiction
Isaac Asimov's original "Foundation Trilogy" of novels, consisting of Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, is an interesting meditation on building a society and civilization upon the collapse of a previous one. Inspired by Edward Gibbon's monumental The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Asimov plays an optimistic twentieth-century Hobbes, curious about the causes and interpretations of the fall of the Roman Empire. Perhaps more significantly, he investigates the ingredients that humans consciously and unconsciously select and neglect in their aspirations and inspirations for progress. While all this may sound too heady, Asimov's greatest success lies in couching profound macrocosmic considerations in conjoining stories, like dominoes, filled with action and intrigue, love and lust on an epic scale (centuries! galaxies! psychohistory!), involving all sorts of characters betrayed by their microcosmic perspective—one the reader can immediately relate to, despite the "science fiction." The trilogy eventually expanded to include a wealth of other books that take place within its universe, but these three are the only recipients (ever!) of the Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series" of fantasy or science fiction.
Recommended by Miguel, February 2012

 
Book Cover for The Plague of Doves Erdrich, Louise
The Plague of Doves

Fiction
In this masterful novel, characters intertwine after a murder and lynching on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation. Alternating narrators divulge family histories and contemporary events that unfold in an exquisitely complex plot that examines the crime over generations and culminates in a thrilling conclusion. The novel’s emotional effect is just as engrossing, as characters cope with the weight of historical events on their own lives. Each character, from the teenaged granddaughter of one of the lynching’s witnesses, to descendants of the murderous mob, to the smitten judge, delivers a sympathetic tale. Some passages are so gorgeously written, they’re transformative. Fans of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible will revel in Erdrich’s ability to incorporate deep social challenges with lush prose, irresistible characters and a riveting story.
Recommended by Renée, February 2012

 
Book Cover for Naked in Death Robb, J.D.
Naked in Death

Fiction
This first book of the series introduces Eve Dallas, tough, no-nonsense cop, and the impossibly handsome and fantastically wealthy Roarke. Love blossoms amidst grisly murder, suspicion and betrayal. Scenes of cosmopolitan sophistication and opulence vie with seamy characters and the sinister streets of Eve's milieu while Roarke and Eve connect through mutually tormented pasts. The year is 2045. Completely plausible technological advances are evenly incorporated into everyone's jobs and lives. Auto-Chefs have to be stocked, so grocery shopping hasn't been eradicated. Felinebots flit among garbage strewn in alleys seeking out rodents. People are transported off planet both for recreational and business reasons. Human foibles accessorized with a layer of future technology make for an entertaining backdrop to the dynamic pairing of two forces of nature. J. D. Robb's "In Death" series, started in 1995, consists of 33 books with more on the way. From what I hear, they never get old.
Recommended by Geo, February 2012

 
Book Cover for Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand Simonson, Helen
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Fiction
In the charming countryside of Southeast England, lives widower, pensioner Major Ernest Pettigrew. He is a debonair gentleman, looking only to mind his gardens, attend his golf club, and generally do nothing out of the ordinary in a simple, quiet life. Upon the death of his brother, however, the Major’s humble and quiet life is forever altered when he finds an unexpected friend in Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani shopkeeper from the village. But it isn’t so easy to befriend someone regarded as an outsider. The characters in this novel are an interesting assortment of the unpalatable (the Major’s son Roger is a narcissistic, materialistic urbanite) and the utterly heart-warming (Major Pettigrew’s uptight Britishness melts away as he dotes upon Ms. Ali’s great-nephew). The author somehow cleverly tangles up comedy, romance, and serious social commentary into one cohesive story. John Cleese would make an ideal leading man for the film version of the novel.
Recommended by Connie, February 2012

 

January 2012

Book Cover for Hypothermia Arnaldur Indridason
Hypothermia

Fiction
I’ve enjoyed the Swedish mysteries by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell so I thought Hypothermia by Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason might be a good follow-up. The audiobook version was a good choice for my daily commute because it is short (7 discs) and mysteries keep my attention and are easy to listen to. And it's read by George Guidall, perhaps my favorite reader (listen to his Lord of the Rings). The main character in Hypothermia, Erlendur, is a middle-aged divorced police detective (reminiscent of Mankell’s Wallender), privately investigating the suicide of Maria, a depressed woman who was intrigued by the afterlife. The friend who finds her hanging from the rafters of a lakeside cottage is convinced it wasn’t suicide and sets Erlendur off on a hunt that uncovers seances, the traumatic drowning of Maria’s father during her childhood, and the experimental death and revival of a university student. The topic of suicide also prompts Erlendur to find closure to two missing person cases which were presumed suicides thirty years ago. Throughout the novel, pieces of Erlendur’s own life surface, in particular a blizzard in which he and his younger brother were lost when he was ten, and in which his brother disappeared, and his estranged relationship with his wife, son and daughter. This is not a bloody action thriller but a thoughtful investigation of interrelated events from the past that are tied together by “hypothermia,” an appropriate Icelandic topic.
Recommended by Cathy, January 2012

 
Book Cover for The Necessity of Certain Behaviors Cain, Shannon
The Necessity of Certain Behaviors

Short Stories
The necessary behaviors in these short stories demand a lot of negotiation. In one, a woman struggles to balance relationships with both a boyfriend and girlfriend. In another, a divorcée manages a successful marijuana business and the demands of single motherhood. A cage cleaner at the Queer Zoo is the only straight employee, and his insistence on staying closeted is causing tension with his girlfriend. Obviously, moments of hilarious misunderstanding ensue in these stories—often via wittily sarcastic dialogue. Shannon Cain’s clipped descriptions convey poetic familiarity with the characters’ thoughts and settings. Characters often demonstrate their feelings for each other by proxy—accepting the gift of a puppy or compulsively cleaning an apartment. Beyond the pyrotechnics of these stories’ unconventional premises lie heartfelt explorations of loneliness and companionship. Cain portrays these situations with acceptance that allows as much gravity as humor. Characters tell their mothers wild lies, but they also call them for advice. They ponder functional parenting and family alcoholism while they try to prove the paternity of Bob Barker. The AAA travel agent intentionally remapping customers’ vacations is also coping with her parents’ sudden death in a car wreck. They each arrive at some realization about their lives and connection to others—thanks to whatever behavior they found necessary to bring them there.
Recommended by Renée, January 2012

 
Book Cover for The Sisters Brothers deWitt, Patrick
The Sisters Brothers

Fiction
Charlie and Eli Sisters are infamous assassins in the mid-nineteenth century Wild West. The brothers make their way to booming and frenetic San Francisco to kill a man. Their journey is not quiet or clean, but in the end the brothers take an unexpected turn that alters their career path. The novel is narrated by Eli, and his sparsely simplistic prose and descriptions render him unexpectedly human. While one character describes Charlie as being "simply too lazy to be good," we watch Eli try to act on the good in him, making himself vulnerable in the attempt. Did I mention that this book is funny? Nearly every page contains wicked dry humor, and this ox of a man is exposed as being witty and likeable. You never forget the fact that Eli is a feared killer, but you find yourself rooting for a better life for him, where his circumstances do not dictate his actions, and his simple dreams of shop keeping and clean teeth are realized. The Sisters Brothers was short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker Prize—it certainly had my vote.
Recommended by Sheila, January 2012

 
Book Cover for Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn Haeg, Fritz
Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn

Nonfiction
Have you ever thought of grass as a crop? It does require loads of water, lots of pesticides, tons of fertilizer, and much tending. But as crops go, it's pretty worthless and unappetizing for humans. In this collection of inspirational essays and practical garden examples, Fritz Haeg show us how to turn our thirsty lawns into lush, communal spaces that provide much tastier crops: juicy tomatoes, crunchy sweet peas, red raspberries, and the like. The regional planting calendars in the back of the book will have you drooling.
Recommended by Rita, January 2012

 
Book Cover for Silver Sparrow Jones, Tayari
Silver Sparrow

Fiction
The narrator’s very first line reveals the tipping point for every member of Jones’s well-developed cast. Dana Lynn Yarboro is the daughter of a bigamist. Her mother is the secret wife of middle-class entrepreneur, James Witherspoon. Dana is his secret daughter, who grew up watching her parallel sibling, Chaurisse, receive the finer opportunities and greater affections. Dana’s mother works hard to make up for the financial and emotional debt created by a frequently absent father, but intelligent and resourceful Dana rebels, and crosses the line into her half-sister’s life. What begins as Dana’s thirst for information becomes a genuine friendship, although naïve Chaurisse has no idea the true significance of Dana’s presence in her life. Inevitably, the world eventually crashes down on all of the major players. The characters are nuanced and rich, the story well-paced and smooth. I have high standards for domestic fiction, and this novel far exceeded my expectations.
Recommended by Connie, January 2012

 
Book Cover for The Girl in the Green Raincoat Lippman, Laura
The Girl in the Green Raincoat

Fiction
This short novel, originally serialized in the New York Times Magazine, will implore you to read the whole thing in one sitting! Private investigator Tess Monaghan is stuck on the couch because of pregnancy complications. In a plot reminiscent of Rear Window, she finds herself wondering about the various people she notices outside her window. In particular, she watches a beautiful blond woman wearing a green raincoat walking her similarly dressed dog at the same time each day. When Tess spots the dog running free, her inquisitive nature gets the better of her and she initiates a little investigation of her own. With the aid of her best friend, one devoted employee, and her ever-patient boyfriend, Tess begins her quest to find out what really happened to the “girl in the green raincoat.”
Recommended by Karen G., January 2012

 
Book Cover for Tintin in the New World Tuten, Frederic
Tintin in the New World: A Romance

Fiction
In this meditation on adulthood, Frederic Tuten describes the process of maturation as it might effect Tintin, the world-famous boy reporter. This book provides a timely and important foil to Steven Spielberg’s new movie. In flawless prose, Tuten attempts to describe an intellectual adventure, rather than another pedestrian exploit pursuing criminals that have won Tintin international acclaim. While the main characters remain (Tintin, Captain Haddock, and of course, Snowy), Tuten introduces a supporting cast of international types from Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, who alternately represent familiar ideas and entirely confuse any discussion. It is not easy to say what exactly is going on here. Ecology, history, sex, politics, art, economics, dreams (and much more) are at least briefly considered. This novel is, in a sense, "high" art (the rarified setting for much of the novel is Machu Picchu). Yet its original cover art by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein suggests an experiment in appreciating the unexpectedly profound depth of the most common terrains while highlighting a commonality of the most sublime: take a beloved character, known and familiar, and surprise us with how little we know.
Recommended by Miguel, January 2012

 

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