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Sheila's Picks



 
The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet Su, Bernie
The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

Fiction
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."
Yes, this is another reimagining of Pride and Prejudice: nearly all of the same characters; same plot; current-day setting — it has all the elements of a complete disaster. And yet... and yet, it works delightfully. The above quoted first line from Pride and Prejudice is also the first line in The Secret Diary..., but this time it is printed on a T-shirt that Mrs. Bennet bought for Lizzie. This "secret diary" is based on the award-winning YouTube series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which is filmed from the bedroom (in her parent's home) of 24-year-old Lizzie Bennet, a struggling grad student. Her best friend, Charlotte Lu, and her sisters, Jane and Lydia (with her cat, Kitty), make frequent appearances and, as expected, Mrs. Bennet is all aflutter when a young and single medical student, Bing Lee, buys the biggest house in the neighborhood. The book version is the private diary of Lizzie and, although it is a fun companion to the vlog series, it very enjoyably stands on its own. What I found to be the most interesting aspect of the book is that the old-fashioned issues that seemed so remote while I was reading Pride and Prejudice have been transformed into situations that the modern-day reader can comprehend. We see some of Lizzie's faults, and we are both sympathetic (Charlotte) and shocked (Lydia). The Secret Diary... conveys the exact same emotional responses that I'd imagine our girl Jane was eliciting two hundred years ago, and it was a pleasure to laugh out loud with some of my old literary friends.
Recommended December 2014

 
Book Cover for The Last Summer of the Camperdowns Kelly, Elizabeth
The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

Fiction
I have struggled as to whether or not I can give this book a full-blown endorsement because it was uncomfortable to read many of its pages. The main character's frequent interactions with a certain malicious presence -- felt from almost the beginning — consistently unsettled me. However, the intelligent and quick-paced dialogue throughout the novel won me over. Set in the early 1970's, twelve-year-old Riddle James Camperdown is the only daughter of Greer, a former screen legend, and Camp, a rising star politician. The acerbic wit of her mother and political passions of her father haven't created much of a nurturing environment for Riddle, but she is settled and content in her ultra-privileged life, until, that is, she witnesses a terrible act of violence in a nearby horse stable. Her anguished decision to stay silent has dire consequences that prove to have lifelong ramifications. Adding to Riddle's personal turmoil is her introduction to Harry Devlin, a swoon-worthy college student who happens to be the son of Michael, an enigmatic piece in the confusing puzzle of her parent's marriage. The Last Summer of the Camperdowns has left me thinking "What if ...? What if ...? What if ...?". This title would provide for many great discussions in book groups.
Recommended February 2014

 
Book Cover for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Marra, Anthony
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Fiction
The novel takes place over five days, beginning when Akhmed, a village doctor, spirits Havaa, his eight-year-old neighbor, to safety after her father is "disappeared" and her house is burned to the ground. In this modern-day Chechnya, political disappearances and violence are daily trials, but because federal troops are also looking for Havaa, the success of her escape is crucial. Akhmed takes her to the only place he feels she can be safe: a mostly abandoned hospital miles away from their village where he implores the only doctor at the hospital to protect Havaa. Sonja is a skilled but jaded surgeon whose life was filled with glorious potential until she gave it all up to return to Chechnya in search of her missing sister. Flashbacks illuminate the lives of the complex characters who are struggling for survival during these brutal and harsh times. The magic of this novel is that each character is so well-rounded that we are able to understand why some do the despicable things that they do, while it is also clear that the altruistic ones have had dark times in their past as well. Despite the bleak prospects for these individuals - with the fear and violence that they live through, a glowing light of hope keeps them afloat, and each finds something that is so worth preserving that the vitality of hope and connection becomes his or her strength. This outstanding novel would be perfect for book groups, and also appeal to fans of Khaled Hosseini. My favorite book of the year.
Recommended December 2013

 
Book Cover for Norwegian by Night Miller, Derek B.
Norwegian by Night

Fiction
Norwegian by Night has a most unlikely cast of characters who work so beautifully together. Sheldon Horowitz is a recently widowed octogenarian who reluctantly agrees to move from his lifelong home of New York City to Norway, where his beloved granddaughter, Rhea, is beginning a life with her new husband, Lars. Sheldon is a surly curmudgeon who may or may not be delusional, yet both Rhea and Lars treat him with such respect and kindness that you can't help falling a little in love with them both. There is humor in Sheldon's point of view and in his outspoken delivery of his granite opinions, yet there is a difficult depth to the memories of both his own experience in the Korean War and his son's final days during the Vietnam War. When Sheldon witnesses a terrible crime against a woman who lives in their apartment block, he secretly flees with the woman's young son in order to protect him from the violent intruder. Sheldon and the young boy have no way of communicating, but Sheldon instinctively understands that it is imperative to shield this child from the larger violence that the criminal represents. Sheldon's small acts of kindness toward this stranger-child is profound, with scenes so simply moving in their quiet joy, that it made me pause to savor the picture in my mind. Adding to this eclectic mix is the practical and dry-witted Sigrid and Petter, the police detectives hoping to find the duo before Enver, the Balkan war criminal, tracks them down. Norwegian by Night has the exciting elements of a suspense novel, mixed with humor from its clever characters but ultimately, it is a novel of family and how you deal with the choices you make throughout your life. Two thumbs up for this eclectic little gem.
Recommended November 2013

 
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 January 2012

 
Book Cover for Mr. Chartwell Hunt, Rebecca
Mr. Chartwell

Fiction
Watch out for the twist at the end! OK, not really, but that leads me to explain that reviews are both precarious to read and prickly to write. The purpose of a book is for readers to enjoy, in their own time, the unfolding of the story in all its literary glory. Mr. Chartwell does not keep the reader perched in ambiguity too long, but I appreciated the brief mystery of Mr. Chartwell's identity. In the summer of 1964, Mr. Chartwell is a looming presence in the lives of both Sir Winston Churchill and Ester Hammerhans, a librarian at the House of Commons. At times companionable and other times fiercely objectionable, Mr. Chartwell is inextricably linked to the two main characters during this momentous period in Churchill's life, his retirement from Parliament. Fluid prose and a small cast of quirky, amiable, and ever-loyal characters bring humor and hopefulness into Churchill and Esther's unsettled paths. If you liked The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (and I know you did), then Mr. Chartwell will charm the anglophilic trousers off of you.
Recommended April 2011

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

Fiction
Oh Per, you've done it to me again. I become mesmerized by your beautiful writing and complex characters and then, WHAM! You leave me clamoring for more. Immersed in the imposing Scandinavian landscape, I Curse the River of Time explores the complicated relationship between a dying mother and her grown son. Petterson does not coddle these characters with sympathetic renderings. Sometimes you want to cry with them, sometimes you despise their selfish actions. The Los Angeles Times described Petterson as "a master at writing the spaces between people," and these vast expanses leaves the reader as bewildered as the characters themselves. Choose I Curse the River of Time for your book discussion group—you could talk about it for hours.
Recommended December 2010

 
Book Cover for The Lonely Polygamist Udall, Brady
The Lonely Polygamist

Fiction
Everything about Golden Richards is exceptionally large. Physically, he's a towering giant of a man with an enormous family - four wives and twenty eight kids to be exact. But whereas many people may look upon the patriarch of such a grand polygamist family as domineering and forceful, Golden is no such thing. In fact, it is quickly apparent that his life is completely run by his quartet of competent wives. He drifts from bedroom to bedroom according to a pre-determined schedule decided upon by the women. Children, house repairs, church functions - all mapped out for him. The only choices he seems to make for himself (very poorly) in his god-fearing life are the decisions to construct a brothel in a neighboring state and to fall in love with a mistress. There is much comic relief in this tale, but there is also a poignancy that is heartbreakingly real. Satisfying wives is one thing, but how do you give twenty-eight children the love and affection they need? You don't. You try to avoid any cause for comparison and jealousy that may disrupt the family equilibrium. It is easy to feel sympathy for Golden because he seems to not have the ability to alter his course of existence, but that tolerance gets put-upon mightily when his passivity becomes perilous for those around him. Golden's need to desperately love in the singular makes it very apparent that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.
Recommended October 2010

 
Book Cover for Olive Kitteridge Strout, Elizabeth
Olive Kitteridge

Fiction
Olive Kitteridge is a grouchy former teacher who keeps those around her feeling intimidated, put off, or antsy. She snaps at her husband, dominates her son's life, and exudes an air of unfriendliness. So why in the world do I like her? Because Elizabeth Strout has brilliantly given us a 360 degree external view of this iceberg while matching it with Olive's own straightforward view of life. The novel is told in a series of 13 chapters, each from the viewpoint of a different character. In some, Olive merely appears as a brief memory or as a seemingly insignificant passerby, but each shows us a subtle but telling piece of the puzzle that forms Olive. Many times I read a passage, just a blip of observation on a character's life, and later found myself pondering its poignancy, and admiring Strout's acute precision in looking at the mundane moments that make up our lives. Olive Kitteridge won the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction. I'm only disappointed that they got to the recommendation before I did.
Recommended July 2009

 
Book Cover for The Lace Reader Barry, Brunonia
The Lace Reader

Fiction
"My name is Towner Whitney. No, that's not exactly true. My real first name is Sophya. Never believe me. I lie all the time." Don't you love a completely unreliable narrator? So begins The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. Towner's disclaimer faded from my mind as I was introduced to the inhabitants of her hometown, Salem, Massachusetts. Some of these characters are endearing and some utterly despicable. Towner and the other women in her family have the ability to read lace in order to see the future, although this mystical ability feels more like a curse than a gift to Towner. After many years trying to live an independent life across the country, Towner returns to Salem to deal with an imposing family matter, and she is forced to confront her past and the loss of her beloved twin sister. You'll call your friends and insist that they read this novel, because you'll want to discuss it, dissect it, and wonder at it.
Recommended May 2009

 
Book Cover for The Gargoyle Davidson, Andrew
The Gargoyle

Fiction
I was taken from the first by this edgy story with its unlikely mix of historical flashbacks. The novel begins when our narrator, a slightly unlikable man with a morally questionable lifestyle, rockets his car off a cliff while incredibly intoxicated. He survives to face an agonizing recuperation in a hospital burn unit where he dreams up an intricate plan to commit suicide once he is discharged. His all-consuming desire to die begins to melt away when he meets Marianne Engel, a presumed schizophrenic who is convinced that they were lovers in 14th-century Germany. Marianne, a sculptress of gargoyles, weaves intimate tales of love throughout the ages, from plague-infested Italy to the Vikings of ancient Scandinavia. While our narrator listens to the marvelous tale of their centuries-old bond, he gradually acclimates to his post-burn reality, and falls in love with Marianne. Like the narrator, we have the pleasure of deciding if these tales are mere fabrications of her altered mind or (if we're willing to take a faith-filled step) if they are exciting, intangible possibilities. The Gargoyle would appeal to those who liked Life of Pi. This unique, intelligent, and humorous novel was one of my favorite books from the past year.
Recommended April 2009

 
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 June 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 May 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 April 2008