Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time

While spending a week at a house on a lake I decided to do some "nature" reading. I picked up "Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time" by Richard Conniff. The book is subtitled "My Life doing Dumb Stuff with Animals." That is an understatement.

Conniff who writes for Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic has won the National Magazine Award for his writing and it is not hard to see why. The book, which is actually a collection of short stories about his travels and adventures in the course of his job is just a fun read. Written in a style that makes you think you're sitting having a beer with the guy. Conniff takes you through the African bush and the U.S. doing, well, just dumb stuff with animals.

Think baiting piranhas and then swimming in the same water. Hiding in the bush trying to find the Yeti. Trying to watch a panther only to discover it is actually watching you - for a dinner treat. Going through termite mounds, being bitten by fire ants, stalking lions and so on through the animal kingdom.
It is not just the animals. You will meet people too. Justin Schmidt, who has developed something called the Schmidt Pain Index. This man actually gets bitten by things for a living. There are also field biologists who name their study animals after favorite beers and single malt whiskeys.
This book is an engaging read, easy on the brain and well written. The stories are interesting and sometimes you will find yourself laughing out loud and shaking your head. As a bonus you just might learn something about natural history.



Astrid and Veronika, by Linda Olsson

Astrid and Veronika, by Linda Olsson, is a beautifully written story of female friendship. The novel begins on a cold, blustery March night in a rural setting just north of Stockholm. Snow and ice still cover the ground. Veronika Bergman, a writer in her early 30s, has come to Sweden from New Zealand to recover from the death of her fiance. She has rented a house, and hopes to reconcile her grief through writing. But the scene around her is foreboding:

"The neighbouring house was a silent shadow, looming in the darkness beyond the tunnel of light where she walked. The air was dry and cold and her breath left her lips in whiffs of white vapour dissolving in the night. The sky was a black infinity without stars or moon. She felt as if she had dropped through a tunnel into a world of absolute silence." (p. 2)

The inhabitant of the other house, so hauntingly described, is Astrid Mattson, known as "the neighboring witch." An elderly woman, she sits by the window in darkness, watching Veronika. Gradually, she comes to know Veronika's walking habits, and watches her go out each morning. When Veronika does not appear for a few days, she breaks her lonely vigil and knocks on her door. Finding her unwell, she brings her food. From this, a friendship blooms. Tentatively, Veronika asks her along on her walks, and the two begin to confide in each other. Grief, stemming from different sources, weighs on them both.

Astrid and Veronika were raised by single fathers, having lost their mothers at a young age. But while Veronika had a close relationship with her dad, Astrid's was icy. Her father is described as austere and loveless, and the suicide of her mother is linked to him. Moreover, as Astrid reveals more of herself, we discover that she hides shocking secrets. Veronika does not flinch at these confessions. Because of her compassion, Astrid is able to forgive others as well as herself.



So Cold the River

So Cold the River is more than just the a story of a down and almost out film maker. Eric Shaw who has been hounded out of Hollywood is reduced to making videos for weddings and funerals to make ends meet. His wife has left him and his queue of jobs is very short. Alyssa Bradford approaches Shaw after she sees a film he did for a funeral. Bradford wants Shaw to make a film of her father-in-law Campbell Bradford. Bradford is a 95 year old, dying billionaire and his life is mysterious. The only facts known are his home town and that he was involved with a water business. He has kept a mysterious bottle of water with him.

Shaw decides to take the job. His first stop is the hospital where Campbell is. After setting up his cameras Shaw asks Campbell questions and receives answers. But when he reviews his film, there is nothing there. Just Shaw's voice. Undeterred and more than a little confused, Shaw travels down to French Lick, Indiana. There are 2 hotels in town: the French Lick Springs Resort and the West Baden Hotel. Both hotels have been redone after falling into disrepair. The area is filled with natural springs which were used to support the water company Bradford was involved with. Shaw checks into the West Baden Hotel.

Once at the hotel, strange things start to happen. Shaw starts having visions after he drinks the water from Campbell's bottle. People try to stop him from investigating Campbell and a local man really stirs things up when he starts to take on the persona of a dead relative.

While creepy things happen to Shaw and his friend Kellen, the book is not really creepy. Stephen King lite - maybe. The story moves along at a brisk pace. The strange things that happen just add another layer to the story. The writing is crisp and well done. You can almost see the same hallucinations Shaw does. This book is a great read for those who like a little paranormal activity in their books but not at the Stephen King or Dean Koontz level.



Great New Book for Beatles Fans

You Never Give Me Your Money is the title of a new book on the Beatles, and while ostensibly it focuses on the post-breakup years (thus the subtitle The Beatles After the Breakup) the first 100 pages describe the legal entanglements and personality conflicts between the Beatles in the waning days of the group.  You get the feeling that it was not a whole lot of fun being a member of the biggest rock group in the world in the late 1960s.  Following the death of their manager Brian Epstein and the establishment of Apple Records, the attempts to bring order to their business dealings only increased their hostility towards each other, as personal ambitions also were coming to the fore. 

This book is unique in Beatles biographies in that it mostly refuses to take sides and choose heroes and villains.  Allen Klein and Yoko Ono, who are often cast as the bad guys in Beatles lore (though Yoko's reputation seems to have been rehabilitated somewhat in recent years) are treated fairly overall.  Yoko takes some of the blame for John Lennon's low/low-quality output in the 70s, but he certainly had no shortage of other personal issues as well.  George Harrison perhaps comes off best even as the shabbiness of much of his post-Beatles output is considered.  Despite his willingness to work with other Beatles, he also seemed the most opposed to ever reuniting the band, largely because of personal conflicts with Paul McCartney.  McCartney, though, is perhaps the most confounding to consider.  He was the one (besides Ringo Starr) who was most opposed to splitting up the Beatles, but was also the one who announced he was breaking away first.  His reputation is that of a charmer but he also suffers major foot-in-mouth syndrome.  Lennon's realness fascinates people while McCartney's articificiality has helped him become a showbiz survivor.

Most tantazlizing though are the various near-misses of Beatles reunions.  Despite their insistence that a reunion would never happen, there are quite a few instances of possible one-off concerts and Lennon/McCartney writing sessions that would not come to be because of legal and/or personal reasons.  Lennon was starting to write again at the time he was killed and had plans to visit McCartney in New Orleans - could this have led to something previously thought improbable???

The final third of the book, after Lennon's murder, is not as captivating as the rest, as it covers the personal reconciliations and attempts to deal with the band's legacy.  Overall, though, this book is as well-written as any music biography I've read and was a real page-turner.




Take a trip (as in psychedelic) back to the 1960's. Think Castro, Cuba, Timothy Leary, CIA psychological testing, the Chicago mafia, sleeper spies and John F. Kennedy's assassination. This book has it all. Switching between Cuba, Washington D.C., San Francisco and Virginia the story weaves it's way through the CIA's plots of the 1960's.

Starting in Cuba just after the failed attempt on Castro's life, the book takes off. Castro is still alive and the Soviet Union has apparently stashed a nuclear warhead in Cuba along with all those missiles. A rogue CIA operative, Melchoir, one of the "three wisemen," is in the hunt for not only the nuke but control of something called "Orpheus."

Who or what is Orpheus? And what does it have to do with Kennedy's assassination? Plenty according to this story. Orpheus is a person but started out as a theory. The project is a mind control/ mind altering project by the CIA. LSD in varying amounts is given to 'volunteers' in the hope that it will allow a controller to take over another person's thoughts and actions. The program is a bust until the LSD is accidentally taken by the wrong person. Orpheus is born. Massive amounts of LSD allow Chandler to not only connect with someone else's brain, it allows him to hijack their thoughts and control their actions. He can actually create an alternate reality for someone.

Melchoir is now hunting Chandler. Chandler is searching for Naz. B.C. is looking for all of them. The story races through the U.S. and Cuba. Secret agents, double agents and people strung out on drugs all meet up in Dallas in November 1963.



The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

CoverSometimes a book comes along that delights and captivates. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is such a book. It is a coming of age story about a girl, Rose Edelstein, with the uncanny ability to sense the emotions of others through the food that they make. We come to love this quirky narrator, seeing life through her eyes and her very gifted sense of taste. After savoring a piece of the lemon cake her mother bakes for her ninth birthday, Rose's talent becomes apparent:

"...what I'd tasted had nothing to do with each bite absence, hunger, spiraling, hollows." (p. 10)

Rose is an especially sensitive child, and her abilities makes her prescient. She is able to look into her parent's marriage in a way that neither partner can. She feels protective of her brother, whose own preternatural gifts come at a great price. As a daughter, she is both loving and protective, acknowledging her parents' shortcomings without judgment.

Aimee Bender depicts a young girl's growth into adolescence with such skill that readers accept the fantasy elements as natural. The novel tackles themes of alienation, love, and acceptance. It also explores friendship, and loss. It is about marriage, and love for a partner whose remoteness makes communication difficult. It is a book about being different in a world that seeks conformity. Ultimately, it is about making peace with one's life, and utilizing the talents one has.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a gem of a novel. It reinforced what I know as truth: that reading makes all things possible.



Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

CoverLet the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida, is a lyrical Bildungsroman with a tough and sassy heroine. Clarissa Iverton, now 28, has come to New York to attend her father's funeral. Once home, she discovers her birth certificate, revealing that the man she believed was her father was not. Her fiance has kept this secret from her since they were children. Clarissa takes this as the second betrayal of someone with whom she has trust-- her mother has abandoned the family 14 years ago.

Distraught by grief and anger, she follows her mother's pattern and runs away. Clarissa travels to the Arctic Circle, and then, to Lapland, where she hopes to find the Sami priest named on the birth certificate as her father. She also hopes to find her mother.

The story follows the journey motif, and the surroundings are dark and foreboding. The descriptions of this frigid wonderland are breathtaking. The characters Clarissa meets are unique, each bringing another piece of the puzzle that comprises her life.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is a psychological mystery that explores questions of loneliness, alienation, and identify. It is about accepting the past in order to live in the present. It is a novel about self-discovery, about love, and ultimately, about forgiveness.



This Body of Death

Inspector Thomas Lynley is back after the murder of his wife. Called back to duty by the relentlessly in-charge acting superintendent Isabelle Ardery, Lynley is almost tricked into helping investigate a murder case.

Jemima Hastings' body has been found in a London cemetery. With suspects in both London and the countryside of Hampshire Lynley, Havers and the members of the murder team have their hands full. Ardery's nervousness in her temporary position and her abrasive personality add to the tension.

George adds in details of a much earlier seemingly unrelated crime (the true crime of the Bolger kidnapping and murder). The two plot lines move in a parallel order until they combine with a twist at the end. This is Lynley at his most diplomatic best.

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Little Bee

Always the last one on the bandwagon, I finally got around to reading Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I read it in one day. I could not put it down. And that rarely happens.

The story of Little Bee is told through the voices of Little Bee, a teen-aged illegal refugee from Nigeria and Sarah, an upper middle class white British woman. Alternating through Little Bee's past and the present the story unfolds in a manner sure to keep you reading. Starting off with Little Bee's release from a British detention facility we are introduced to a variety of characters and their back stories. Sarah and Andrew and their son Charlie, Sarah's lover Lawrence all make an appearance and add layers to the story.

Little Bee has arrived in England aboard a tea cargo ship. She is promptly sent to a detention facility. She has Andrew's driver's license which she retrieved from the Nigerian beach where she first met Sarah and Andrew. After her release, she walks miles to their house and arrives on the day of Andrew's funeral. Sarah takes her in and the story really starts. Sarah has turned her life upside down with an affair. Her husband Andrew has committed suicide for reasons she can't fathom until the end of the book. Her son Charlie believes he will be ok as long as his alter ego, Batman, keeps the baddies away. As Sarah and Little Bee come to terms with what happened on the beach in Nigeria, Andrew's suicide and the effects of these events on Charlie, the two women come to an understanding.

Little Bee's story is one of unimaginable heartbreak and the willingness of the human spirit to believe in good. She survives through sheer belief that she can. She touches Sarah and Charlie in ways that will forever effect their lives. This is not a relentlessly cheery book. Cleave gives details about the oil companies in Nigeria, the Nigerian civil war and all the attendant horrors. And there is a horrific rape scene. The book is well written, however. Both readable and a moving story, I highly recommend this book.