December Non-Fiction Staff Pick

 Paleofantasy JacketPaleofantasy  by Marlene Zuk

This fascinating read puts into examination the fantasy that we need to return to our ancestral hunter-gatherer diet, and in its extreme expression to a life-style of hunting, making our own tools and sprinting barefoot.   Zuk, the author is a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota.  In her multi-disciplinary analysis of a growing popular trend which argues that our bodies and behavior are out of synch with our modern lifestyles, Zuk using the latest scientific research debunks the notion that we have not evolved since “caveman days.”  But this is no dry tome of the textbook variety but rather a lively, brilliant, and witty discussion of cutting edge science which shows that human evolution has continued along with  that of all life on earth including bacteria and viruses.
The examples of how our genome has progressed come from the study of diseases we have, and the adaptability we possess to our changing environment.   All in all it shows that survival is often a trade-off of one genetic  change (mutation) that brings another sometimes less adaptive change with it, such as in the case of those who have immunity to cholera being more subject to the modern disease of cystic fibrosis.
So if you are curious about how our ancient ancestors lived, bred, cohabitated, and survived check this book out.  Genetic research promises more fascinating information about how our body works and why we are subject to certain ailments and diseases.

 

November Fiction Staff Pick and 2013 National Book Award Fiction Winner

the Good Lord BirdThe Good Lord Bird  by James McBride    

     This book sneaks up on you and packs a wallop!  You won’t know how to describe it; you may think it is going nowhere… but once you get halfway through, you will be hooked. It is brilliant in its no-holds-barred tale-spinning, sense of place, and the use of colorful local language from the wilds of prairie states during their formative years.  At times you will find  yourself laughing  out loud  as a motley crew of characters allow themselves to be led, along with you the reader, right down a slippery slope into an impossible trap. Their charismatic leader known as the “Old Man” is  John Brown of Bleeding Kansas abolitionist fame.

     Though an historic figure, John Brown lives  in our imagination with the likes of John Henry and Pecos Bill, both tall-tale figures.   But in his portrayal of Brown, McBride actually brings him to life by developing the extremes of his character in a way that makes him human.  To capture this paradox of a man, McBride surely plays with us when he gives the narrator  the voice of an adolescent slave boy who is telling the tale almost 90 years later at age 103!  Liberated by the Brown gang, “Onion,” as he is dubbed by Brown recounts the last few years of Brown’s life and the dubious role he himself played as a gang member.  In the telling we hear the voice of a very confused youth,trying to figure out what it means to be a man, a recurring theme.  He thinks he can escape to freedom but finds himself captivated by Brown’s unconditional acceptance of him and at the same time is immobilized by his own slave mentality.  Hiding from rebel “red-shirts,” pro-slavers and slave hunters, he disguises himself.  In this  McBride delivers us a farce so ridiculous that we feel as if we are in on the joke. It is then we remember this is not a biography!  The tale that is told is as much about “Onion” as John Brown.  The layers are there waiting to be peeled away.

     But there is even  more here. For example, imbedded in the title, The Good Lord Bird, is a metaphor for what John Brown accomplished, but you won’t find out about that till the very end. So read it… if you get through it you are promised laughter, maybe some tears and definitely enlightenment, all within an almost slap-stick romp of a story.   John Brown did not succeed in his goal of eliminating slavery in his day, yet his enigmatic character has survived into our own time and consciousness.  McBride taps into this awareness and while entertaining us slips in a theme we hopefully will never tire of: the high cost of freedom.

October Fic-Pick

 The English Girl   by Daniel Silva

the English Girl

Worn and weary, Gabriel Allon has to take on another job he doesn’t want, but when the British Prime Minister’s secret lover is kidnapped and held for ransom, Gabriel relives the abduction his wife endured and just can’t say no.
He manages to get approval for the reinforcements he will need to do the job but it seems the operation is full of pitfalls. Without giving anything away, Allon is disappointed when things don’t go as planned but of course he can never
give up.
As usual, the settings are an important part of this series and we always wonder how Allon can handle so much jetsetting. Somehow he’s in London, Normandy, Israel, Moscow, Corsica, and several venues more than once. It really gives a feel for how world- encompassing the fight against terrorism is.
In the end, it looks like Gabriel Allon is being set up to take a new, more managerial job which he has mixed feelings about accepting…
time to move on, Gabriel.

September Fiction Book Review

Sweet Thunder  by Ivan DoigSweet thunder

As expected, Doig’s latest tale-spinning lives up to his reputation for being one of the best American West storytellers, reminiscent of the Mark Twain style:  Doig tackles the issues of the day, marbling clever word-play with his own brand of humor.  And, the well-drawn characters each add to the savory blend of  displaced misfits who all seem to have a  mysterious past.  Our main-man, Morrie Morgan (who debuted in Whistling Season) and his new bride, Grace, are returning to Butte, Montana  to take charge of an expansive “manse” bequeathed to them for reasons unknown… but all will be illuminated.

Butte, the home of Anaconda Copper Mining Company is a multi-ethnic mining town. Problems
ensue when locals realize that Anaconda, the main employer in the town hasn’t been sharing the tax burden.  Enter an ad hoc newspaper, the Thunder, set up with Morgan as the editorial wordsmith to help bring the giant to terms.  But, in 1920, organized labor did not have the clout to oppose wily corporations that held all the cards.  Quick-on-his-feet, Morrie is expert in his sparring with the Post, another arm of the copper Goliath, but his verbal equivalent of a good left-hook doesn’t work for dodging real bullets.  Lots of other unexpected events stymie Morrie whose verbal acumen may be no match for a shady past come back to haunt him.  The tension builds as we look over Morrie’s shoulder and around every corner wondering if he has any tricks left up his sleeve  to save himself and all of Butte.  Quite a tale, well-told!

 

Cathy’s Assorted Summer Reads

Here is a selection of the books I have enjoyed reading this summer including both fiction and non-fiction, some new, and some a bit older.  I hope there is something you might enjoy as summer winds down!

A Higher Call  by Adam Makos  (Non-fiction- 940.544 Mak)
“True story of two pilots whose lives collided in the skies that day (Dec. 20, 1943); the American 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown, a former farm boy from W. Virginia who came to captain a B-17, and the German- 2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler, a former airline pilot from Bavaria who sought to avoid fighting in W.W. II.”

      As old men they finally find each other face to face to ask their questions; the one, “How did you survive?” and the other, “Why did you save us?”    This is a remarkable story made even more fantastic by the fact that these two heroes who managed to survive the war were finally able to come face to face forty-six years later!  The incredible character these men possessed offsets some of  the horror of war.   In addition the total disregard for these young pilots by the German Air Force chiefs points out the ruthlessness of Nazi Germany for its own men fighting an increasingly hopeless war.  A fantastic read.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight  by M. E. Thomas (Non-fiction- 616.8582 T)
      In this memoir a young, bright woman explores what it means to be a sociopath, how it effects her relationships and what she does that may be different from the norm.  Chances are you know someone who can relate to this flawed personality type which in it’s extreme can wreak havoc in all manner of social interaction.  In its moderate manifestation, the sociopath may lead a lonely and erratic life trying to explain or undo hurtful actions but never fully succeeding.  Without the underpinnings of being able to relate to the feelings of others, sociopaths may be left alarmingly unfettered by lack of remorse and other emotions, the  consequence of which may be the absence of an intact identity, making a life of fulfillment  sometimes  inaccessible to them.  Still in the writer’s case, she has been able to be accomplished in several areas of her life thanks to her drive, intellect and maybe even her  sociopathy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane  by Neil Gaiman  (Fiction- Sci- Fic)
If you can remember the moment in time when as a child you felt that adults, maybe  even parents, could be bullies, using their power as grown-ups to lie or to make unfair demands, you will recognize the theme in this story as told by a seven-year
-old boy who is having a rough time coping in a world with many things to be afraid of.  Trying to be brave and independent is extra hard without having a safe place in which to seek refuge and for this unnamed boy, his special place was the rich heritage of stories and books.  As a middle-aged man he returns to the lane where it all happened that summer and tries to recall what actually took place.  His remembrance is fragile, more ephemeral than real but somehow what happened forever changed him.

     Reminiscent of  Celtic tales,  you will recognize the elements of dark and light forces that the Cornwellian storytellers such as Susan Cooper use and where mere  children work tirelessly and bravely to protect the world from ancient forces somehow let out to threaten the most horrible destruction.  Fear, sadness, guilt, regret and the loss of innocence all accompany these stories and so may also be considered coming-of- age adventures.  Gaiman’s is just a bit too horrific for a child to have to absorb and it also finishes with a not quite happy end.  For adults it offers a window back to the not so bucolic childhood  with long forgotten (or at least submerged) memories and possibly some realizations that may lead to better parenting or grand-parenting.
This is a good one for fantasy  fans.  The language is full of color with just enough description to create a real sense of time and place, albeit like that which sometimes comes to us in a quasi-memory  haze.

Survival of the Sickest  by Sharon Moalem  (Non-fic- 616.042 Mo)
Great explanation of why we may have certain diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol, hemachromatosis, sickle-cell anemia and much more.  These are survival adaptations and part of our evolution.  Also evolving with us are all kinds of bacteria, viruses and parasites.  Check out the Guinea worm’s life cycle if you are not overly squeamish!  Very interesting, and explains a lot about our genome but unfortunately doesn’t have the answers for what we can do about  some of the adaptations we possess that may no longer be useful given the different environment we inhabit!

The Sentry  by Robert Crais  (Fiction Cra)
      Another teaming up of renegades Joe Pike and Elvis Cole in the Venice, CA vicinity.  Lots of action with tough guy Pike, reticent and obviously coping with his own emotional baggage, yet not afraid to put his extreme abilities at catching the bad guys to work.  Brooding, careful and practically a health-food foodie, Pike is almost too much of a “man” for his own good: he has a super-ego that  just won’t quit when it comes to taking on the responsibility of protecting certain others.  Well worth the read. Think Bolivian drugs and money laundering cartel meets Mexican gang bangers.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand  by Helen Simonson  (Fiction  Sim)
     – A wonderful story taking place in a small community of villagers in the English countryside.  Major Pettigrew’s dry, often ironic sense of humor cuts right through to the heart of most matters and will give you many chuckles.  Trying to cope with loneliness, small-mindedness, aging, falling in love, as well as an adult son who does not appear to have inherited his heart and soul, somehow Major Pettigrew manages to save the day.
      At first the story seems a kind of “Jeeves” farcical classic but we are slowly pulled into the crux of issues on ethics and manners. Yet P.G. Wodehouse must have been a favorite author for Simonson. And in this, her first novel we find  intelligence, warmth, charm, and a delightful read.  I couldn’t help but be reminded also of the fiction being written by Alexander McCall-Smith which leaves you with the same warm feeling.

Brothers Emanuel  by Ezekiel J. Emanuel  (Non-fiction- Bio- Emanuel E)
     Zeke the physician and author; Rahm, the politician and Mayor of Chicago; and Ari, the Hollywood agent and prototype for the character Ari Gold on the TV show “Entourage,” are the three Emanuel brothers, each  totally different but  all high achievers, persistent, and full of energy.  Find out how a family can produce such an array of  high  achievement; is it nature or nurture…?  Even if these “bigger-than-life” characters are a bit over the top for you, perhaps the Emanuel family has something instructive to say about child-rearing.

Where the Bodies Are Buried  by Christopher Brookmyre  (Fiction- Brookmyre)
There are lots of characters here between various crime-stoppers and organized crime figures all at odds except for those special alliances where amnesty can be bought for a song.  We get the message… it’s a delicate balance protecting informers, keeping gangland slayings down,  building the larger case, and quietly disposing of the lucrative rewards.  In this setting, the Glasgow underbelly, there is an invisible line between the “polis” and the baddies with lots of crossovers on both sides…  all the better to keep you guessing who’s responsible for the previous night’s casualties.

Two gals, Jasmine Sharp and Catherine McLeod are trying to dig up the dirt so to speak: one to find her missing private investigator uncle, and the other to do her job as Inspector Superintendent.  Being on the same side of the law, their two paths eventually merge as they search for “where the bodies are buried.”  Lots of action, plot twists and baggage-heavy characters… what’s not to like? 
     The sequel When the Devil Drives has arrived and promises to be another winner with the pairing of the two female crime fighters from the first book.  Ready yourself for this clever, well-written thriller with a good share of humor to go along with the grittier elements, as the two enter a world of frightening secrets and decades-old crimes.

 

JUNE 2013 Tuesday’s Gone by Nicci French

Nicci French, a husband/wife writing team recently released  this second installment to their new mystery series starring  Frieda Klein for whom the series is named.  Left hanging, so-to-speak, in the last one titled Blue Monday, we are quickly reminded that there is still unfinished business left from that case.  Returning to the London setting,  Tuesday’s Gone  has a crime scene  in a flat in which a man is found propped up on the couch, cup of tea near-by but unfortunately quite dead.  If  Blue Monday captured the mood of something very dark, this one is enveloped by a chilling and wintry atmosphere and we share not only in a sense of suspense but also in a rising fear that Frieda is being watched by someone.

This time,  Chief Detective Karlsson has solicited Frieda’s help.  Sought after for her brilliance in understanding human psychology (she’s a psychiatrist), Frieda gets pitted against some insecure police workers who try to undermine her more intuitive way of working.  Even Karlsson misses the boat on seeing certain connections that may be crucial and which make us wonder if Frieda can depend on the police to back her up.

As a character Frieda also adds value to the  mystery for her night-time peregrinations around London;  her insomnia affords us the chance to get her “hidden city” tour descriptions of long buried landscape features which can’t be seen today.  Perhaps what lurks deep underground is a metaphor for the deep psychological scars so many of the characters bear, and not just the suspects.

This one is chilling, complex, suspenseful, and has another ending twist that may shock you along with a few more murders.  If each new sequel continues to “up the ante,”  we are promised one of the best suspense/thriller series ever….   Don’t miss them!

 

 

Stephanie’s May 2013 Fiction Pick

Starting Now by Debbie Macomber

Blossom Street is back!  This story is about Libby Morgan, an attorney trying to make partner in a high-pressured prestigious law firm.  She thinks she is finally there when she get laid off.  She must begin to rebuild and recreate her life – starting now.  Join Debbie as she brings Libby onto Blossom Street and into “A Good Yarn” where she begins to find friends, family and love.

April 2013 Non-fiction Choice

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead   by Sheryl Sandberg

Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg is using her influence to send a wake-up call to American society.  Sandberg’s hopes with this book to get a dialogue started that challenges us all to rethink how obstacles to success can be overcome if we understand it is for the common good.  Chapter by chapter, Sandberg tells us about the real world and also charges women to “lean-in”  and keep working towards the positions that not only males covet.

Taking a leap-of-faith that she will not be misinterpreted, Sandberg gives a huge pep-talk and lets women know they can succeed at leadership but more importantly tells them how to do it!  Written with humor and from her own experiences she lays out a plan for how to juggle job and family.  The conversation is clear and obviously heart felt and to her credit, Sandberg does not play the blame game.

My favorite sentence in the book stems from a two-year drive at Harvard Business School to get students to work together and come up with a “new communal definition of leadership”: ‘Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.’

And in no way is this point of view about limiting personal choices but actually it is about lending the support and encouragement to women so they can aspire to leadership positions and in so doing, pave the way for others to follow.  Just one sentence of encouragement can go a long way to open a new pathway towards an opportunity of a lifetime that otherwise might have been undreamed.  I think we owe a thanks to Sheryl Sandberg for her honesty.

Book of the Month: January 2013

No Easy Day: the Autobiography of a Navy SEAL

by Mark Own with Kevin Maurer

This is a behind the scenes look at the dangerous assignments around the world of Navy SEALs.  These secret missions illustrate the life and work of a SEAL and how Team Six evolved post September 11.  This elite team is the most vigorously trained and in this first-hand account you will be astounded by the selection process and the training of this special unit.  You will get a blow-by-blow of the most secret and memorable mission this hand-picked unit of twenty-four performed: the assault on Bin Laden’s hideout.
In this fascinating  account the dedication of these men to protecting our freedoms around the world will astound you.  You can’t help but appreciate the sacrifices they make  in service to our country.  A quick and eye-opening read you won’t want to miss.

The Shoemaker’s Wife by Adriana Trigiani

Book of the Month

 I laughed, I cried and I yelled at the author… that tells you how engaging this story is!

Take two star-crossed teens, Enza and Ciro and follow them from the    gorgeous Italian Alps to America where they build new lives, totally apart from each other until fate reunites them… only to separate them once again by war.  This novel of love, loss and destiny is a story built on a family history that Trigiani is heir to.  She makes the immigrant experience come to life as this epic love story reveals the ambition and tenacity that newcomers in their striving for the American dream all possessed.  As a drama this one is grand in scope with a cast of characters you won’t be able to forget.