Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Brooklyn Follies

The Brooklyn Follies, unlike many of Paul Auster's books, is a warm
and upbeat story of a 59 year old man - a cancer survivor -who believes
his life is essentially over. Nathan Glass, divorced and estranged from
his daughter, comes to Brooklyn to end his days. There he discovers
his nephew, Tom, working in a rare bookstore. Since the death of
Nathan's sister, he has lost contact with the intellectual Tom. When he
rediscovers him, Tom has dropped out of his PhD program, has scarcely
any money and even less ambition. Like that of his uncle, his life is
at a crossroad.

One wonders if Nathan is a side of the
author himself. He is a cynic and a bit of a curmudgeon. Yet we sense
his vulnerability when we glimpse him dining in the same restaurant day
after day, energized by the attention of his favorite waitress.

The plot takes a mysterious turn when Tom's nine-year-old niece, Lucy,shows up.  Her mother - Tom's sister - ran away from home when she was a
teenager and has led a sordid life. Lucy's appearance, and her refusal
to discuss with Tom and Nathan the location of her mother, Aurora,
sounds an alarm for the two men. Nathan determines to find Aurora and
bring her safely back. He also decides to find a "proper" temporary
home for the precocious Lucy. Along the way, he discovers a unique collection of unforgettable characters.

In a sense, the novel follows a quest motif in which our existential hero discovers genuine meaning in his own life. 

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The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox

Did you ever wonder how languages came to exist and how we know about the ancient languages today? Why we have some ancient words still in use today and just where did these words come from? How about the symbols we use to create these words?

The Riddle of the Labyrinth discusses how Linear B was decoded. Linear B is an ancient language from a society in Crete that was literate a thousand years before the classical Greek age - traditionally thought to be the start of written language. The book is divided into 3 parts, each part dealing with one of the scholars who cracked this code.

Arthur Evans was a well-to-do amateur archaeologist who became interested in languages when he saw some engraved "seal stones." Seal stones are gems with stylized marking on them (similar to hieroglyphics). He noticed that there were the same markings on different stones and these markings were done in groupings leading him to think that they were probably some kind of language but he didn't know which one. Every time he bought one of the stones he was told it had come from Crete. So, in March 1894 he went to Crete. There the stones are called "galopetras" or milk stones worn by nursing mothers. In 1894 Evans published his theory about the stones. There were actually 2 types of carvings on the stones - one hieroglyphic/pictogram and the other linear/quasi-alphabetic. He decided a full scale excavation was need and in order to secure the land he wanted to look at, he bought it.

Evans picked a good spot - Knossos. There he found more than 2,000 tablets he labeled Linear B. (Linear A tablets had similar markings but they were not ruled like notebook paper is today.)

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The Lowland: A Novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is much beloved for her books and short stories detailing the immigrant experience. But in The Lowland, her reach is more expansive. In many ways, it reminds one of Great House, by Nicole Krauss. Both books deal with themes of isolation as well as the guilt felt by survivors of horrible tragedy.  In Great House, the Holocaust provides the historical backdrop. Loved ones find everything taken from them, or worse, believe they have unwittingly participated in a horrible deed. What is the psychological impact?

Jhumpa Lahiri explores similar concerns in The Lowland. The historical context is India in the 1960s--a time when the Naxalite movement was active on college campuses. The Naxalites were part of a Maoist political party that rejected Ghandi's nonviolent principles. They believed that the huge disparities between rich and poor in India could only be resolved by overthrow of the government. Bombs were set off; innocent people were killed. Two brothers - Udayan and Subhash - once inseparable, become ideologically divided. Subhash leaves Calcutta to attend college in Boston; Udayan, attending college in Calcutta, becomes increasingly involved with the Naxalites. At age 23, he marries a bookish girl named Gauri. Gauri's love for Udayan is passionate and absolute. But like all zealots, Udayan's first allegiance is to the revolution. He sets off bombs. He participates in the murder of a policeman, knowing that the young man is a father. He involves Gauri in this act. And then, when he is caught, his family is forced to watch his execution.

In an interview with Lynn Neary of NPR, both Neary and Jhumpa Lahiri explain:

Lahiri says the character of Gauri was key to her exploration of how these events haunt and shape her characters for the rest of their lives. "I wanted to understand what it might have been like to witness something like that, and what the consequences would be of witnessing something like that," Lahiri says. "I mean, she's a 23-year-old woman. She's in love with her revolutionary husband. She watches him shot in cold blood. She discovers after the fact that she is carrying his child. How does one move on from that?"  
(NPR Interview, September 23, 2013: Political Violence, Uneasy Silence Echo In Lahiri's 
'Lowland,' by Lynn Neary)

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Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight

This is an engaging thriller, but Gone Girl II it is not. One reviewer wrote Reconstructing Amelia reads like "Gossip Girl" meets "Law and Order" and that's not far off.

The story begins when attorney, New Yorker, and single mom Kate gets a call from her daughter's prep school. Amelia, who is a model student (or is she?), is involved in a "disciplinary issue" and must be picked up from school right away. Kate says she can be there in 20 minutes, but she ends up taking an extra hour to reach the school. When she does arrive, it is moments after her only child went off the school roof and did not survive. Weeks after Amelia's death, Kate is still holed up in her brownstone, alternating between feelings of grief and guilt, because she feels "it was Kate's fault, of course, that Amelia was dead. That she had killed herself. It was a mother's job to protect her child, even from herself." 

But then the anonymous text messages start coming. The first one simply says, "Amelia didn't jump."  The next one adds, "You know it and I know it." Soon Kate is obsessed with learning everything she can about Amelia's final weeks, reconstructing her life by talking to her teachers, her friends, and their parents; pouring over her Facebook page, her photos, her emails, and her texts. Was her daughter the person she thought she was? Was she engaging in bad behavior? Was she being bullied? Did Amelia really jump off the school roof, or was it an accident? Or could she have been pushed!

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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

A Tale for the Time Being,
Ruth Ozeki's latest book, is a fantasy whose themes mix coming of age,
environmental awareness, social and moral consciousness, and filial
love. The story has two main characters: Nao, a 16-year-old Japanese
girl who lives in Japan and Ruth, a writer of Japanese descent who lives
on an island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Their lives
become intertwined when Ruth finds Nao's diary along with that of her
uncle - a kamikaze pilot during World War II.

Nao is an
adolescent weighed down by responsibilities. She spent her childhood in
Silicon Valley, where her father was a software designer.  He lost his
job - and hence his visa - before the economic downturn in 2008. After the
family relocated to Tokyo, her father was unable to get a job. Becoming
increasingly depressed, he attempts suicide. He fails but becomes
increasingly remote and agoraphobic. Similarly, Nao mother is
emotionally distant. She keeps long hours at work and copes with her
husband by physically removing herself from the situation. Nao is left
in charge and watches her father with trepidation.

Nao
also endures bullying at school that borders on sadistic. Her body is
riddled with scars. She is both ostracized and tormented. She seeks
solace in a coffee shop in which the waitresses dress up as French
maids. There she writes her diary, addressing the future recipient who
will find it. The imaginary recipient is her only friend. It is not
clear if she tosses the diary into the ocean upon its completion, or if it is
swept up in the devastating tsunami that hits Japan in 2011.

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Countdown City by Ben Winters

This sequel to The Last Policeman starts with only 77 days until the asteroid 2011GV1 hits earth allegedly to obliterate most of it. Henry Palace has been relieved of his duties as a police officer but he can't seem to let the job go. Henry has agreed to help Martha Milano, his old babysitter, find her missing husband Brett Cavatone. By all accounts Brett is a stand-up guy. He would never leave her just because the world is about to end. Martha believes he is off doing something noble. But plenty of people are just leaving to complete bucket lists or commit suicide, so Hank's promise to find Brett may be unfulfilled. And what defines a noble act has changed dramatically with the asteroid.

Henry starts with Martha's father and Brett's employer. Rocky has turned his bowling alley into a gun range, and privately help guns are now illegal. Henry ignores this crime because he is more interested in helping Martha. Henry seems to be the only person trying to keep some sense of normalcy. His sister Nico returns along with her conspiracy theorist friends to rescue Henry from a group of anti-immigrant activists who are connected to Brett.

When Henry finally solve this disappearance, he is left with more questions than answers. In a world headed towards chaos is Henry the only sane one? The storyline is interesting not just because of the mystery part but because the storyline shows humanity's response to an unimaginable reality. Complete with government conspiracies and human foibles these books are well worth reading.

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The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer

“From this day forward, because we are clearly the most interesting people who ever f’ing lived," said Ethan, "because we are just so f’ing compelling, our brains swollen with intellectual thoughts, let us be known as the Interestings. And let everyone who meets us fall down dead in our path from just how f’ing interesting we are.”

In addition to Ethan, a brilliant but goofy-looking teenage cartoonist who will later create a famous TV show, the Interestings are comprised of gifted guitarist Jonah; the wealthy and beautiful siblings Ash and Goodman; dancer Cathy, as talented as she is voluptuous; and frizzy-haired Julie. Julie, from a middle-class background, begins the book as an outsider, but when invited to join the Interestings clique while at an upstate New York arts camp in the summer of 1974, she is reborn and rechristened as the more adventurous Jules. “She was Jules now, and would be Jules forever,” she determines.

Jules has her shot at Ethan, but she turns him down because she pines for another member of their group; besides, Ethan is no looker. So it comes as a surprise to her, and to the reader, when he wins the heart of the lovely Ash. The two of them go on to enjoy a wildly successful artistic life together, although they keep a few key things secret from one another. The author writes beautifully about how the extraordinary success of some and the corresponding jealousy of others can alter friendships. She also writes about how it feels to have once been interesting, if only in your own mind, and to not be interesting anymore. And she questions if being interesting is the most important thing you can be.

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I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place

Howard Norman is best known for his books, The Bird Artist, The Museum Guard, and The Northern Lights, two of which were finalists for the National Book Award. So to read his new memoir, I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place, was to be privileged to see something of his early life, to vicariously experience the beautiful Vermont habitat, and ultimately, to glimpse into the author's inner landscape.

The book is divided into five sections-- each ending with an event that seminally marks Norman. The book opens in 1964 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The author is 15. One gets a sense of the precocious adolescent as he watches his drifter father through the window of the town bookmobile. The reader has an equally strong sense of place as he describes the principals in Dykstra's Apothecary--Mr. Dykstra, Marcelline, the soda jerk, and her boyfriend, Robert Boxer, the mixed race son of Mr. Dykstra. There is something almost Huck Finn-like about the young Howard cutting school and watching his English teacher skinny-dipping with her fiance in Reeds Lake. That he dares to write about it in an essay for that same teacher only shows the chutspah of that adolescent.

In the same understated manner, Norman tells of the misadventure in which he tries to trap a swan.  Using methods explained in an interlibrary loan book he snags from the book drop (North American Indian Waterfowl Traps, Weirs, and Snares), he accidentally kills a beautiful swan. When Pinnie Olner, the librarian and his boss, tries to get him to admit to the crime, Norman tries to pin it on the person who initially checked the book out. Still, the memory of watching the swan drowning stays with him even now.

I hadn't meant to kill the swan.  It was a beautiful, mean bird, and spent nights in my secret haunt.  Nearly fifty years later, I still hear its strange guttural exhalation; fifty years of hapless guilt and remorse.  So often I close my eyes and picture the water closing over. (p. 36-37)

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The Black Country

The Black Country is Alex Grecian's newest book. Taking up where The Yard leaves off, this book has Inspector Walter Day and  Sgt. Nevil Hammersmith traveling to Blackhampton in March 1890 to investigate the disappearance of a man, his wife and one of their children, Oliver, an infant. Blackhampton is a small mining town falling into ruin and filled with secrets and superstitions. The black country of the title refers to the nickname of the coal country area the town in located in. It is also an apt description of the tenor of the town.

Anna, Pater and Virginia Price are all living with their housekeeper since the disappearance of their father, stepmother and youngest brother. Their mother disappeared years ago.  Anna and Peter have a secret and Virginia knows what it is. The town constable, Grimes, has asked for Scotland Yard's help after he has searched and cannot find any trace of the missing family. Under the town runs a warren of tunnels used for mining coal as well as for hiding the monster from the Rawhead and Bloody Bones children's rhyme. He is rumored to live in the tunnels, kidnapping and murdering little children.

When Day and Hammersmith arrive they are met by Calvin Campbell, a drifter who is staying in town.  He seems very concerned about the missing infant. The town has secrets which are hinted at by the vicar, the barkeep, the local teacher and Campbell. No one will say exactly what is going on. In addition to the missing family, an epidemic seems to be sweeping the town.

The story line follows several different paths: the disappearance, Campbell's past as a Civil War prisoner, the illness of the townspeople and the secret the Price children are keeping. All threads come together in a calamitous way.

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