Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

At Risk

I had never read anything by Stella Rimington when I saw a review for her new book, The Geneva Trap. I thought I should read the first book in the series before I read any other one so I checked out At Risk. Stella Rimington is an ex-MI5 officer who rose to be the first female director general of the organization. This gives her a great perspective from which to write these books which feature Liz Carlyle, a British intelligence officer. 

Liz Carlyle is a female intelligence officer - a woman in a male dominated and testosterone filled world.  She runs her own group of agents and has a pretty good record for solving problems. While at a joint task force meeting, it is announced that an "invisible" is about to be unleashed by a terrorist group. An invisible is a native of the country that is targeted. There are various view points about this actually occurring, who should be in charge and whether they will share information.  While this is going on, Liz finds herself receiving calls from another controller's agent who is giving her information about a people smuggling operation. When one of the smugglers turns up dead, shot with a specialized method, Liz starts piecing together the information.

Fast paced, with a great storyline, the book is timely. It deals with Islamic terrorists in western countries. While the book is not tech heavy (think Clancy), there is enough spy information to satisfy the espionage junkie. Definitely worth the read.

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Arcadia by Lauren Groff

This book came to my attention when it received a positive, full page article in Bookmarks Magazine. The author is known for her previous titles, The Monsters of Templeton and Delicate Edible Birds. Set in the 1970's on a commune in upstate New York, Arcadia has much to offer.

The book is divided into four sections.  In the first, we meet "Bit", the original child born of hippies in the Arcadia commune. Bit offers a wonderful, child's eye perspective on the positives of communal living.  As the book progresses, we meet more residents, and witness how the community changes from the founder's original intentions to a free love all are welcome anarchy.  By the last section, Bit is a adult in 2018, searching in his present life for the things that meant so much to him growing up.

Great insight into the communes and turbulent social times of the '70s and '80s, and well developed characters draw the reader through. An engaging read, Arcadia also has potential for good book club discussion. In fact, we will be discussing Arcadia at our book group on March 13th at 7:00!

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Fifty Shades of Chicken

This is a first for me - writing a blog post about a cookbook.  Fifty Shades of Chicken, by FL Fowler (a pseudonym) is a take off on Fifty Shades of Grey. I had my doubts. While basically a cookbook filled with 50 chicken recipes, there are some other draws to the book.  Every recipe comes with a full color picture and step by step directions on how to make the bird. There are also several pages, interspersed throughout the book, containing some tongue-in-cheek comments about the bird and its wants and feelings.

Taken in the right light, this book was very funny. The recipes are delicious, I know because I tried several of them. If Fifty Shades of Grey was not to your liking, check out this book for the recipes.  If you liked Fifty Shades of Grey then check out this book for the recipes and the literary snippets contained in it. In either case try some of the recipes, they are both easy and delicious!

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A Sunless Sea

Monk and Orme are on regular patrol for the River Police when they hear someone screaming. Following the cries they find a young woman standing near what appears to be a bundle of rags. The bundle turns out to to be the horribly mutilated corpse of a local woman. So begins the newest William Monk novel by Anne Perry.

Anne Perry's Monk novels have a central theme to each one. The theme here is the fallout from the opium wars on the general population of Great Britain. The storyline moves, twisting between two seemingly unconnected murders. It takes the skill of Monk, Hester and Sir Oliver Rathbone to show the connection between the murders and the Opium wars. Rathbone is particularly feeling the pressure, as he represents the suspected murderer and is still dealing with the backlash from his previous case involving abused children.

While this moral overtone can sometimes distract from the story line, the Monk novels are among my favorite reads.  Chock full of historical detail and full of interesting characters, Perry's Monk, along with his wife Hester, try to keep London free from harm. They also provide a quite enjoyable read.

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The Jew of Home Depot

While reading the stories in Max Apple's recent collection, The Jew of Home Depot
I couldn't help drawing similarities to the writing of Joseph Epstein. Both authors are from
the Midwest (Epstein from Illinois and Apple from Michigan) and both
come from traditional Jewish homes. Each depicts individuals struggling
with what life hands them. That I compare these two Jewish-American writers
and do not include Nathan Englander (What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank) is that Apple and Epstein are more
universal in their themes; being Jewish is not necessary to appreciate
the subtle nuances in their stories.

Take, for example, "A Loss for Words" by Joseph Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews) and "Strawberry Shortcake"by Max Apple (The Jew of Home Depot). 
Both stories deal with the sad realities of aging and the struggle of
children to connect with their once vibrant parents.  They also deal
with the heart-breaking realities of decisions made by those children to keep their loved ones safe and comfortable.

In
"Adventures in Dementia," Apple depicts a son helping his mother
remember his long-dead father.  He does so in a way reminiscent of their
mother-son school projects.  He calls this endeavor "Project Dad." As
the narrator recalls:


But even for this son, Harold Goodman was no
easy retrieval.  He had come to seem not so much a father as a business
partner who had made a miscalculation by cashing out too early.  Sidney
hung onto sales far beyond any statue of limitations.  yearly, Sidney
granted his father the lifetime achievement award, the Yizkor memorial
prayer as one rabbi after another droned out the same words, 'Our loved
ones live on in our memory.'
( The Jew of Home Depot, p. 125)

In
the end, Sidney consults a former Las Vegas hypnotist to reach into the
inner depths of his mother's mind.  The results are as poignant as they
are funny.

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Argo (the book)

The film Argo has been nominated for (and has been winning) all kinds of awards, with a potential Academy Award for Best Picture in a couple of weeks (and the DVD will also be available in February). Having seen the Hollywood version, why not read the book that the movie was based on? Antonio Mendez, the author, was a CIA disguise master.  Disguises of both the human and the document kind.  In his spare time he is an artist.

Mendez was following the news of the embassy take over in Tehran, when the call came for him to help.  With support from a variety of people, a plan started to form.  While there were several "official" plans in the works, the one Mendez decided to push was wholly unbelievable -   get the 6 hostages out by making them part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a movie.  While Mendez and his group were putting together an "ex filtration" plan (passports, cover stories, travel documentation, a film company to back up any background checks,  physical disguises, the list is long),  the 6 Americans were in hiding outside the American embassy.

At first the 6 escaped to the apartments of friends. They were in 2 separate apartments and not in any real communication with each other adding to the tension. As the situation in Tehran deteriorated, they began to look for a more secure location to hide in.  Enter the Canadians.

Without hesitating, the Canadian ambassador offered the Americans sanctuary in the embassy, keeping their existence quiet.  The unqualified help from the Canadian government helped ensure the plan would succeed. The 6 Americans waited for nearly 3 months while the plan was put together. 52 other Americans were held in the American embassy for 444 days.

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Destiny of the Republic

Destiny of the Republic was published over a year ago and has moved off of the bestseller charts but it's easy to see why demand for this book (and author Candice Millard's previous The River of Doubt) has continued to simmer. It is a wonderful history book that combines politics and medicine to tell the story of a man whom history remembers simply as a six-month president whose life was stolen by a lunatic.

The personal history of James Garfield is in itself enough to fill up a fascinating book. Born in poverty, he was raised by a single mother when his father died while trying to save the family farm. He returned home after working as a canal driver to a family that had scraped up enough money for him to enter college. In college he worked in exchange for tuition, eventually working his way up to become a professor. He then became a lawyer, led an infantry in the Civil War, and was finally elected as a U.S. Congressman. He was truly a self-made man.

Garfield was also a freethinker. He was progressive on the issue of slavery and had been known to have aided escaped slaves. Following an eloquent nomination speech for another candidate at the Republican Convention, Garfield was nominated to the Republican ticket as a compromise presidential candidate. It was a nomination which he had never sought for a position that he did not desire.

Unfortunately Charles Guiteau, a delusional preacher and lawyer, stole Garfield's life away by shooting him at a train station (presidents did not have security at the time - people assumed that since politicians could be thrown out of office there was no reason for an assassin to target them, with Lincoln's assassination viewed more as a war crime than a political act). The book then moves to the fascinating story of how Garfield's doctors "treated" him, which caused more harm than the actual bullet. It is speculated that had he received his wound on the battlefield and had been left alone, he would have lived. Unfortunately, due to unsanitary conditions, lack of x-ray and just plain poor knowledge and bad decision-making, the doctors left Garfield's body riddled with infection. After suffering for over two months he finally died.

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Care of Wooden Floors, by Will Wiles

How quickly and easily can things go from bad to way, way worse? For the
unnamed narrator of "Care of Wooden Floors", a tragically funny downward
spiral can start with a single glass of wine enjoyed without the requisite
coaster.

Oskar, a brilliant composer, has asked the London-based narrator to housesit his
beautiful apartment (where "taste and money" have met) in an unnamed
Slavic country for a few weeks. The two men have known each other since
university days when they were like the original Odd Couple, the narrator being
Oscar, and Oskar being Felix. "A room is a manifestation of a state of
mind, the product of an intelligence . . . We make our rooms, and then our
rooms make us," explained Oskar as a student. For the narrator, the years
that followed would bring other messy "rooms, then shared houses, then a
string of one-bed flats. I have regarded them all with the same
dissatisfaction. This was Oskar's gift to me," he ruminates.  (Note to self: hang up clothes piled on bedroom chair; be more vigilant hunting down dust bunnies).

As a house sitter, the narrator is deluged with notes from Oskar. In one of these, Oskar's script warns in all caps, "PLEASE, YOU MUST TAKE CARE OF THE WOODEN
FLOORS." Then in softer lower-case, he explains that "they are French oak
and cost me a great deal when I replaced the old floor, and they must be
treated like the finest piece of furniture in the flat, apart from the piano of
course." So once the narrator stains the floor with wine, can a calamity
with the piano be far behind? And how will the narrator fare with caring for
Oskar's cats, which run "full pelt" through the apartment? And what will transpire with the
stern housecleaner he nicknames "Batface"?

But leading up to true catastrophe,
the narrator spends a night out, drinking with Oskar's friend and fellow musician
Michael. It's a wonderful telling of a night too fueled by drink, when the two
men talk about Oskar's LA-ensconced wife and his plans to write a symphony
based on the Dewy Decimal System. Does that seem to you to be an odd thing to write a
symphony about? If your answer is 'yes', Michael would tell you, "You are completely
wrong. It is a system for the organization of all knowledge. It is educational,
dialectical. Every piece of knowledge that man knows, every fact, is given a
number, given a place. . . The Dewey system arranges everything. It is the
perfect muse for Oskar. He will arrange the world. A symphony of everything. A
Grand Unified Symphony."

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