Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander, places him, once again, among the finest Jewish-American writers of our time. Like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Epstein, he captures the essence of living as a secular Jew under the shadow of the Holocaust. And he does so using allegory, magic realism in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the comic elements found in the films of Woody Allen.

The title story is a case in point. In it, two couples--one of whom is Hasidic--play "the Righteous Gentile Game." The object of the game is to analyze personal relationships and guess which people would save us should another Shoah occur.

To better understand the rationale for this story, it is helpful to refer to an NPR interview with Englander. In it, the author indicates that his orthodox, fifth-generation American family actually played this game. So poisonous was such a mind game that he reflects on it even today.

"We really were raised with the idea of a looming second Holocaust, and we would play this game wondering who would hide us," he says. "I remember my sister saying about a couple we knew, 'He would hide us, and she would turn us in.' And it struck me so deeply, and I just couldn't shake that thought for all these years, because it's true." (NPR, Fresh Air, February 15, 2012)

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The Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham by Lindsay Faye is an interesting story set in an interesting time. Set in New York in the mid 1840's when the Irish potato famine resulted in a massive influx of Irish immigrants that coincided with a horrific fire in New York City. Timothy Wilde is an Irish bartender who is in love with Mercy Underhill, a local Protestant minister's daughter. Mercy spends her days caring for the poor and sick Irish children of the city. Timothy and his brother Val were orphaned when their parents were killed in a fire. Val raised Timothy with help from the Reverend Underhill.

Timothy has been in love with Mercy for years but he loves her from a distance. He is about ready to tell her of his love when the devastating fire of 1845 intervenes. Timothy is severely injured, but survives with scarring from burns to his face. Val, a local firefighter rescued Timothy from under a pile of burning debris. Timothy hasn't seen Mercy since the fire.


Val is older then Timothy, physically larger, apparently smarter and definitely more politically savvy. He is on the move up the New York Irish political ladder. Val secures a job for the now homeless and penniless Timothy in the newly developed police force called the "Copper Stars." Tim is assigned to the worst section of the city - the filthy and crime ridden 6th ward. He dutifully walks his beat everyday from 4 am until 8 pm. Val meanwhile has been appointed a captain on the same force.

One night on his beat Timothy literally runs into a little girl in a blood soaked nightgown. She is mumbling about someone who is going to be torn to pieces, not making any sense. Timothy should take her to the police station but takes her home to his landlady instead. Birdy is 10 years old and experienced in worldly way a no ten year should be. Birdy is a member of a whore house and sold out to men every night. She tells Timothy many lies about what happened to her. Then the body of a male child is found and it does look as if he was torn to pieces. Timothy looks to Mercy to help identify the dead child and to Birdy for an explanation of what happened.

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The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, by Deborah Moggach, is a delightful
book, perfect for summer reading.  At the start of the novel, we are
introduced to Norman Purse, a 70-something rogue who has been thrown out
of his retirement home for "inappropriate sexual behavior."  This is
not the first incident of its kind.  Once again, Norman comes to live
with his daughter, Pauline, and son-in-law, Dr. Ravi Kapoor.

Norman
is quite a character.  He tells lewd jokes, talks about bodily functions, smokes in
Ravi's home office, downloads pornographic sites to his computer, and lacks all sense of privacy.  Ravi, who comes home exhausted as an emergency
room physician, feels he has no place to rest.  Ravi is pushed to a breaking
point when a patient, the elderly Muriel Donnelly, is left untreated in
the emergency room for 2 days after being robbed.  The media learn of
this and make Ravi's hospital and the NHS a lead story.  The truth,
however, is that Muriel would not allow "a darkie" to touch her.

After
Norman carelessly leaves his soiled handkerchiefs boiling in Ravi's
favorite curry pot, nearly burning down the house, Ravi is determined to
take action.  In a providential meeting with his cousin, Sonny, a plan
is hatched.  Sonny proposes they purchase a rundown hotel in Bangalore
(The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) that dates back to 1865.

Moggach
gives loving detail to the hotel, allowing it to become yet another
character in the novel. The Marigold was originally a large bungalow
built by boxwallah Henry Fowler.  After India's independence and the
departure of the British, it was turned into a guest house.  In the
1960s, an annex, some air conditioning, and "temperamental plumbing"
were added.  As Bangalore became a high-tech oasis, neighboring
bungalows were demolished and new hotels and office buildings sprang
up.  The Marigold began to languish from neglect and financial
difficulties.  Its owner, Minoo, kept it for sentimental reasons.

Once
Sonny is able to convince Minoo to sell The Marigold and hire him as
its manager, he and Ravi set out to get residents.  Norman is convinced into coming
by the allure of Indian women.  Others, including Muriel, are forced by
frailty and dwindling pensions to leave the homes of their birth and
venture forward.

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Taft 2012

Historical fiction? Political fiction? Time travel? However you categorize this short book about the return of William Howard Taft to politics, it is timely.

Former, and perhaps future, President William Howard Taft emerges from beneath the White House lawn in the fall of 2011, nearly 100 years after he has disappeared following the end of his term as president and the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. "You've been missing and presumed dead - one of America's great mysteries - for a very long time," the current president tells him.

Taft has a great deal to catch up on. "'What manner of witch is this Hostess?' he mumbled, putting down the plastic wrapper and peering at the creamy end of one of the half-eaten pastries." Taft has not lost his appetite for food. Neither has he lost his desire to serve the country he loves. He was "so honest a politician, he ended up infuriating every single interest group that had ever supported him." according to his biographer and one of his greatest fans, Susan Weschler.

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Gideon's Corpse

After finishing his job for the mysterious Glinn, Gideon Crew hoped that he'd never see the man again and that he could spend his few remaining months fishing at his cabin. His hopes and wishes were not to be. Before releasing him, Glinn had one more request - please go visit Reid Chalker, a man Gideon used to work with at Los Alamos. Gideon has a PhD in physics. When Gideon worked with him, Chalker was a mild mannered scientist who had converted to Islam. Now he was holding 4 people hostage and claiming that someone had exposed his brain to harmful waves. As if this isn't enough for Gideon, he has to cooperate with the FBI in dealing with Chalker. With less than a year to live, Gideon would rather go fishing.

Stone Fordyce is the epitome of an FBI man, ramrod straight, suit and tie and no sense of humor. He is not happy to work with Gideon and feels that Gideon is holding back the truth about Chalker. Chalker converted to Islam after some hard times. He has apparently had a psychotic break which is a bad thing for someone who knows how to build nuclear weapons from scratch. Chalker is raving about conspiracy theories and threatening to shoot the hostages. Gideon is not dealing with the situation very well as his father was killed in a standoff with the FBI. Gideon is afraid the same might happen to Chalker.

Then Chalker just dies. His body registers high doses of radiation - could his ravings be the truth? Gideon thinks Chalker had gamma radiation poisoning which would result in all the symptoms Chalker was displaying. But where and when would he ahve been exposed to the radiation? An even more bizarre discovery is found on Chalker's laptop - ties to a radical Islamic group. Is there a dirty bomb on the way to Washington, D.C? Is the cult in the southwestern US in on the threat?

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Following Atticus

Following Atticus (2011) is the story of the author's feat of hiking New Hampshire's forty eight four-thousand foot peaks in winter with his 20 pound schnauzer. What makes this book unique among its genre is that it is so much more than a tale of a man and his dog.

We first meet Tom Ryan as editor of his newspaper, The Undertoad. The paper's purpose was to expose political corruption in the small city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where Ryan lived. As he writes:

Depending on where you stood in town, whom you were related to or friends with, I was either a muckraker or a reformer. I took on the good old boys, refused to worship the long-existing sacred cows that the Daily News protected, and was helped in part because I didn't know the first thing about journalism...
(p. 8)

As the town's conscience, Tom made very close friends and equally dear enemies. He received death threats and had his tires slashed so often that the local garage kept a new set ready for him. He went to bed late and got up early. In essence, he lived a stressful and solitary life.

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Half-Blood Blues and The Last Nude

Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan, is a complicated, fascinating story about a group of Jazz men struggling to perform and record in Berlin and Paris just as the second World War breaks out.  "The Hot Time Swingers" have been forbidden to play live in Berlin in 1939, as jazz and blues have been deemed subversive by the government.

A contemporary story line, set in 1992 sets up the suspense.  The group's talented trumpeter, Heironomous Thomas Falk, who Louis Armstrong called "Little Louis" is being honored at an international festival to which other members of The Hot Time Swingers have been invited.  The honoree, Falk is presumed to be dead.

The author returns back to 1939, where we meet Delilah, a mysterious young woman with connections to Louis Armstrong who helps The Swingers escape to Paris in hopes of playing with the great Armstrong.  After meeting the music legend, the goup's bassist, Sid, is unwillingly replaced, and the group struggles to record with Louis amid blackouts, violence, and his failing health.

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Death in the City of Light

H.H. Holmes has nothing on Dr. Marcel Petiot. Petoit was a doctor in Nazi occupied Paris. Depending on who you asked, he either was a Nazi sympathizer or an extraordinary do gooder of the French Resistance. Petiot had a chaotic life as a child. His mother died when he was young and he and his brother were raised by their aunt. He enlisted in the Army during World Way I, served in some battles and when he was discharged he was declared mentally ill. Despite serving time in mental institutions, he still completed the schooling to receive a medical degree. He was a licensed doctor, married with no children.

Petiot's abattoir was discovered when neighbors complained about a horrible smell and strange smoke that was pouring from the chimney of his house. Petiot owned several properties around Paris, this one was close to a somewhat unsavory area. Police arrived, tried to find a key and finally broke in finding the source of both the smell and the smoke - a dismembered body in the furnace. The police missed the fact that the non-descript man on the bicycle who stopped to ask questions was actually Petiot.

Petiot's reputation was one of benevolence. He provided free medical care to patients who could not afford to pay for treatment and he instituted a protocol for weening drug addicts. He was also rumored to be "Dr. Eugene" a man who helped people escape Paris. He was also ultimately charged with 27 murders.

The story line jumps around - from the work of Massu, the chief investigator, to the narration of Petiot's past to the general political climate of Paris at the time. Paris was under Nazi occupation at the time. People suddenly disappearing, while not common, was not unheard of. With the Germans taking prisoners and people fleeing to unoccupied countries, a person could be missing for quite awhile before anyone would become concerned. Some of the victims were attempting to flee Paris. They had paid money to Dr. Eugene who would arrange transport out of Paris to an unoccupied country, most often in South America. These people were never directly heard from again. Some relatives received postcards purportedly from the missing people but it couldn't be verified they actually were from the missing person. What could be verified were the personal items discovered in trunks and suitcases in Petoit's attic and the attic of his brother. And these did belong to the missing people. Petiot had a large amount of cash and his wife had fine jewelry in a time when most people had neither.

The Gestapo suspected that Petiot was Dr. Eugene and involved with the escapes. At one point they actually arrested him, tortured him and interrogated him but then released him without explanation. It was for this reason some people thought he might be working for the Nazi's.

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Spiderweb

In her most recent novel, How It All Began, Penelope Lively highlighted the life of retired teacher Charlotte Rainsforth--an endearing character creatively coping with both retirement and a broken hip. In Spiderweb, published in 1998, we are introduced to another strong woman--this time, a retired anthropologist.

Stella Brentwood, now 65, reluctantly gives up her career to retire in a West Country village. There, she buys a cottage sight unseen, adopts a dog, and attempts domesticity for the first time in her life. Like foreign correspondent Claudia Hampton of the Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger, Stella has had an unusual career at a time when women had little place in the work world. The two women are similar in that they prefer the excitement of new places and new lovers to the comforts afforded by marriage. But comparisons end here. Claudia is a cold woman who never shows her daughter any sort of love. Stella is kind and empathetic; she is merely an adventurer who prefers to study linage and kinship as an observer rather than as a participant. In fact, she sets about her new life in this sleepy hamlet as a kind of social experiment.

She was sixty-five, apparently. This totemic number had landed her here. Having spent much time noting and interpreting complex rites of passage in alien societies, she now found herself subject to one of the implacable rules of her own: stop working, get old.

She had plans. There were articles that she intended to write for the journals of her trade. She would keep her hand in professionally. But she would branch out, also...

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