Men We Reaped
|Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for her fiction title Salvage the Bones, and she approaches this memoir in a novel way, telling her own life story through the deaths of 5 young men. The title is from Harriet Tubman: "We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped." If this sounds dark, know that it is. Growing up in Mississippi, there were many dangers in Jesmyn’s community: poverty, drugs, resignation. The young men in Jesmyn's life all died in different ways, and each grief shared is as agonizing as the next. The book does not read in chronological order, but the story works and comes full circle in the end, with the detailing of the closest death, that of her brother. You’ll find moments that are tender, funny, angsty and also terrifying – sometimes in the same paragraph. The sense of hopelessness in this rural community is defined deftly by Jesmyn: "We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing." Ward, with brutal honesty and beautiful prose, tells a story that needed to be told. Coming to the Drue Heinz Lecture Series Monday, February 9, 2015.
This novel is available to check out from the library in print or a book on CD and online through Overdrive as an eBook.
Recommended January 2015
|A literary sensation in France, Viviane was hailed as an inventive debut novel. Julia Deck cited Samuel Beckett as her inspiration, but I was also reminded of Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground and Kafka's Metamorphosis while reading Viviane. Our protagonist is introduced with a new apartment and a newborn, a pending divorce from a philanderer, and a fresh-faced intern threatening her prestigious career. In the first chapter, Viviane tells us that she has killed her psychoanalyst, and the story never slows down after this revelation. Through first-, second-, and third-person narrative, the author bounces around perspectives so that readers share the same discombobulating angles in Viviane's mind. You'll feel sympathy and antipathy for Viviane. The ending will shock you, and the novel will entice you to reach it quickly.
Recommended October 2014
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has Time
|If you feel like your life is crashing in on you, take
a break and read Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One
Has Time, by Brigid Shulte. The subtitle is a reference to developmental
psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory that “the richest and fullest lives
attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love
and play.” Brigid, a well-respected journalist for the Washington
Post, was living life in the “overwhelm,” running all over town
trying to keep up with her family and her work, when she set out to
write this book. Brigid begins by keeping a time use diary with sociologist
John Robinson, and continues her journey by visiting notable social
scientists in the U.S. and beyond. She includes research studies,
new investigations, and personal anecdotes to create just the right
mix of subjectivity and objectivity. This title is definitely written
from a working mom perspective, but anyone who is overwhelmed can
relate to much of the book.
Recommended September 2014
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know
|Nearly 40% of all U.S. homes have a dog inside, according
to the American Veterinary Medical Association. It's a wonder there
aren't more books about our furry friends! For what's out there, you
can't get much better than Inside of a Dog. The perfect antidote
to the "pack leader" mentality in dog training, this book is written
by a biologist who has researched extensively, while the language
is still accessible and easy-to-read for non-scientists. She makes
practical connections between science and real-life application. Learn
how we know about what dogs know, and pick up some tips to improve
your relationship with your own lovable pooch!
Recommended July 2014
Boy, Snow, Bird
|This is the fifth book by Helen Oyeyemi, and she continues
to weave in and play with themes of mythology and fairytales. From
the title, you will guess correctly that the novel includes tropes
from Snow White. Snow White, however, might not have had the guts
that our narrator, Boy Novak, does. After years of abuse from her
father, a rat catcher in New York City, at age 20, she steals his
money and hops a bus to Flax Hill, Massachusetts. The townspeople
don't know what to think of Boy. Why would someone leave the city
for this tiny town? Why is this woman named Boy? Boy sticks it out
though, and eventually finds a suitable job in a bookstore, some friends,
and an interesting romantic possibility. But, as in fairy tales, nothing
is always as it seems, and though Boy knows this, she eventually hurtles
herself at fate. There is an unsettling feeling that accompanies much
of this book - augmented by occasional wanderings into magical realism.
“For reasons of my own I take note of the way people act when they’re
around mirrors,” thinks Boy. Mirrors, identity, and secrets are themes
explored expertly by this talented author. Boy, Snow, Bird
will stay with you, and the twist ending will throw you for a loop.
Recommended June 2014
Leading So People Will Follow
|If you've been in management for a while, you've probably
read your share of management books. The advice starts to run together
after a while, so you might be hankering for something new. Try Leading
So People Will Follow by Erika Andersen. Joseph
Campbell is mentioned in the first few pages, so you are immediately
aware that this isn't your average MBA-produced book. Andersen uses
a fairy tale to illustrate 6 different leadership qualities: farsightedness,
passion, wisdom, courage, generosity, and trustworthiness. Andersen
offers easily digestible, practical tips for gaining these qualities.
For example, she gives some really great tips on how to delegate,
which is a skill that eludes many managers. This is a great title
for managers or aspiring managers who like to think outside the box
when it comes to leadership.
Recommended February 2014
The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood
|In The House at Sugar Beach, Helene Cooper tells
a very personal coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of Liberian
civil unrest. Many readers will relate to the aches and triumphs of
her adolescence and her attachment to her parents, while learning
much about the African country founded by freed American slaves. As
the book opens, seven-year-old Helene moves with her family to a huge,
isolated oceanfront home. Due to her ancestors’ role in creating the
country, Helene is brought up in a very wealthy environment and is
considered a “Congo.” The “Country” people, or original inhabitants
of Liberia, aren’t so lucky in most cases. The book reads like a novel,
as we are only provided with the narrator’s perspective. But because
our narrator is a journalist, we have scenes involving first crushes
and school dances juxtaposed with coups and riots. The bulk of the
book focuses on her time in Liberia, but Helene does eventually move
to the States, and we learn a bit about her life here: her less-than-perfect
assimilation into American high school and college, and her journey
into a career with the Wall Street Journal and New
York Times. Check this title out before Helene’s visit to Pittsburgh
Arts & Lectures Monday Night Lecture Series on February 10, 2014.
Recommended January 2014
|27-year-old Annie Friesen has used her powerful brain
to build a successful software company from the ground up. Now her
business partner and lawyer (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend are conspiring
to take it all away from her at any cost. To escape their evil plan,
Annie stows away in a lumber truck and lands in Colorado Amish country,
a place she would have never thought she belonged, but dreamy, blue-eyed
Rufus the carpenter might convince her otherwise. Now that she has
the chance to unglue herself from her smartphone and laptop, Annie
can finally see the world for what it is. Accidentally Amish
is a refreshing break from your everyday romance novel. This is the
first in a series, so you have to keep reading to find out what happens
with Annie and Rufus!
Recommended September 2013
|Adams, Tim (editor)
London: the Essential Insider's Guide
|In this travel book, novelists, art curators and other
talented people share their favorite places in and around London.
You can learn both secret things about familiar places, and familiar
things about secret places. In other words, you can look at the British
Library in a new light with Adam Chodzko, a multimedia artist, or
you can learn about Ravi Shankar Restaurant, one of a number of South
Indian restaurants tucked away in Bloomsbury, with Lucretia Stewart,
London native and travel writer. This is a great title in a not-run-of-the-mill
series of travel books: "City Secrets".
Recommended August 2013
How to Be Black
|Written by The Onion digital director, this book
is half-memoir, half-essay on contemporary race, and fully hilarious.
The alternate title for this book was Post-Racial America is Some
BS, and Other Thoughts on How to be Black. Thurston ties together
stories from his own life — growing up in DC, attending Sidwell Friends
School and then Harvard — with commentary on current events such as
Barack Obama's election. He writes: “Through my story, I hope to expose
you to another side of the black experience while offering practical,
comedic advice based on my own painful lessons learned."
Recommended May 2013
|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 October 2012
|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 September 2012
|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
Recommended August 2012
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
|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 May 2012