Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Requiem

Requiem,
by Frances Itani, is a beautifully-written novel that pays homage to
the Japanese-Canadian internment during World War II. During that time,
21,000 Canadian citizens of Japanese descent were imprisoned in
internment camps. The same fate befell American citizens in our
country.

Set against this backdrop, Itani focuses on
the plight of one family--that of the young and artistic son, Bin--to
explore the injustice a government inflicted on a minority. Like other
members of the Japanese Canadian fishing community on Vancouver Island,
the Okuma family was forced to abandon their home and boat, taking only
the belongings they could carry. They were moved inland from the
"Protected Zone" of the coast into the cold and mountainous region 100
miles west of their home. There they were given makeshift housing
without plumbing, electricity, or adequate food supplies.

The
book weaves from present-day (1997) to the years 1942 and those
immediately following the war. The narrator is an adult Bin looking back
on his childhood--a childhood marred not only by the internment and
later ostracism in public schools, but by a devastating action taken by
his birth father.  In a custom practiced by Japanese of earlier
generations, Bin's father gave him away to an educated man who had no
sons, and hence, had no way of carrying on his family name. This man,
Okuma-san, encourages Bin to embrace his artistic talents. But no amount
of kindness removes the sting of abandonment.

Now, fifty
years later, Bin has yet to make sense of his father's actions. The
sudden death of Bin's wife propels him on a journey to visit the 84 year
old father and the internment camp that figure so prominently in Bin's
life.

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The End of the Alphabet

Young Ambrose Zephyer explained to his father that "things don't always have to be the way you'd expect." How correct he turned out to be. An ordinary man, he is  married to Zappora Ashkenazi (whose nickname is Zipper) whom he met at work.  Zipper writes for the third most popular fashion magazine. He loves her, she loves him.

No kids, just a quiet, content life until the doctor tells Ambrose that he has an incurable, fast moving disease and would probably be dead within a month.  As a child Ambrose drew pictures of the letters of the alphabet - letters and images that began with those letters, but no A is for apple, B is for bear. For Ambrose A is for anaconda, B was for booby (a bird). So, entranced with the alphabet, Ambrose decides to visit 26 different places before he dies: one for each letter of the alphabet.

Zipper cannot understand why Ambrose isn't settling his affairs, planning his funeral. But he wants to travel and do things, so they start to travel. A is for Amsterdam, B is for the Brandenburg Gate. While Ambrose seems content or at least resigned to his fate, Zipper is struggling, afraid to show Ambrose her fear and sorrow.

This is a lovely story about love, death and dying. Well written it is actually charming even though the subject matter should be depressing. This book is anything but depressing. I recommend this book. 

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Elsewhere by Richard Russo

One
of the joys of reading a memoir by a favorite author is recognizing the
life story behind the fiction. Gloversville, New York, once the
capital of the glove-making industry, is now an economically depleted
ghost town whose inhabitants battle unemployment and factory-induced
illnesses. This is the town that appears in books such as Nobody's Fool and Empire Falls. This is the town in which Richard Russo grew up.

Russo's
parents divorced when he was very young. Raised by his mother and
grandparents, he developed a close relationship with his family. But
the Russo family had a dark side: his mother was wracked by anxiety and
what would later turn out to be obsessive compulsive disorder. She
thought of Richard as "her rock," and she always needed to live close to
him. She was wracked by self-doubts and inner turmoil. Living
"elsewhere" was her only solution to escape the demons within. With
age, her anxiety increased and panic attacks and unrealistic dreams
became the norm.


Elsewhere is a painfully honest look at Russo's
early and later life. It is a book about mental illness that is neither
diagnosed nor treated appropriately.  Most important, this is the story
of a son who remains a constant in his mother's life and for whom he
attributes his gifts as a writer.

It was from
my mother that I learned that reading was not a duty but a reward, and
from her that I intuited a vital truth: most people are trapped in a
solitary existence, a life circumscribed by want and failures of
imagination, limitations from which readers are exempt. You can't make a
writer without first making a reader, and that's what my mother made
me.
( p. 156)

If you are a fan of Richard Russo and have read his works of fiction, Elsewhere will be especially appealing.  The writer's talent and resilience shine throughout this touching memoir.

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A Question of Identity

Susan Hill's most recent Simon Serrailler novel takes place in Yorkshire in 2002. In the small town of Lafferton, 3 elderly woman have been murdered in their houses. Particularly gruesome crimes, the details are kept from the public. Alan Frederick Keyes has been arrested and is standing trial for them. Keyes is a self employed builder from a nearby town. His wife testifies against him, afraid for her life. The townspeople are convinced he committed the murders, then the jury returns its  verdict. Keyes is taken into police custody and his life changes dramatically.

Flash forward to 2102. In a new public housing project elderly women are again being murdered. The same type of murders as in 2002. So similar are these murders they contain elements from the 2002 crimes - details not released to the public. Has Keyes returned? Possibly, but all attempts to get current information about him indicate he doesn't exist.  Simon Serrailler is assigned to investigate. Simon has his own personal problems going on. His relationship with Rachel is strained, and his sisters and father have problems that are intruding into Simon's life.

Susan Hill is a Man Booker Prize nominee and it's not hard to see why. She writes compelling mysteries with interesting characters. Yes, this is a long running series, but the books are still fresh and the characters keep evolving. I recommend this book and all the others in the series as well.

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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Part fantasy, part
adventure, and total love letter to both old-fashioned typography as well as to
modern-day Google (I think the company’s name is mentioned more times than even
Penumbra’s), this book is an interesting and provocative read that raises a lot
of questions about technology’s impact on humanity and about immortality.

The main character, Clay
Jannon, is a recent art school graduate. He’s an even more recent laid-off web
designer in San Francisco, which is why he takes the graveyard shift at Mr.
Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a shop that’s odd in countless ways. Its shape is
long, narrow, and tall; its customers are few and eccentric; its stock features
books written in code; and its owner—Penumbra—tells Clay, “Prior experience in
the book trade is of little use to you here.”

Although you meet a lot of Clay’s friends, roommates,
and other associates in the book, the story is plot-driven, rather than
character-driven. Everyone Clay seems to know, from his nerdy childhood friend
Neel who has become a software genius, to his new hot-looking, data-loving
crush Kat, has a skill or connection that advances the storyline. The search to
unravel the meaning behind the bookstore’s encrypted books takes Clay, Neel,
and Kat to New York City. There they find a black-robed cult of secret scholars
also looking to crack the secret language of the books in Penumbra’s store.
It’s at this point the story becomes an intriguing cross between Harry Potter
and The Da Vinci Code. But this geek fantasy ends back in San Francisco, where
Clay learns that the true key to everything that’s important is friendship.

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This is How You Lose Her

This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz, is a collection of linked
short stories about a group of immigrants from the Dominican Republic
and their struggles in the lower rungs of American society.
The
memorable tales are strung together by those involving Yunior--a reckless nerd
whose infidelities are matched only by his longing for connection.

We
first met Yunior in Junot Diaz's debut collection, Drown (1996), and he
later appears as the narrator in Diaz's Pulitzer Prize winning novel,
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
(2008).  Now middle-aged and a
professor at a Boston university, Junior is still self-absorbed
and devoid of insights into himself or the women in his life.  "I'm not a
bad guy," he reflects in the first story.  "I'm like everyone else:
weak, full of mistakes, but basically good." (p. 2)

As
the stories go back and forth in time, the reader comes to understand
how Junior became the misogynist that he is. We are introduced to his
mother, who along with Junior and his brother, Rafa, are brought to an
East Coast tenement by the father. Both father and older brother set
poor examples for the young Yunior.  His father, when he is at the
apartment, makes the family stay indoors and severely punishes the boys
if they are not silent. He leaves for days on end and eventually
abandons his family altogether. Similarly, Rafa objectifies women and
goes from one relationship to another. Yet Diaz makes him a sympathetic
character--a young man struck down by illness who refuses to
acknowledge his losing battle with death. Diaz also highlights Yunior's
thwarted efforts--since early childhood-- to emotionally connect with his brother. 
Instead, Yunior finds his advances are met with verbal aggression and
hurtful blows.

Diaz paints memorable characters
throughout this collection. The women portrayed are all colorful, but
none stand out more than Yasmin--the Dominican woman who  manages a
hospital laundry.  Her boyfriend, a married man whose wife and children
are back in the D.R., wants to buy a house with her. We never know if
she truly loves this man, or if she and he are driven together out of
loneliness and alienation. Yasmin knows that she is usurping another
woman's love and the moral dilemma troubles her. Yet she cannot bring
herself to leave him.

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After the Armistice Ball

This book, first published in 2005, is the first in the Dandy Gliver series by Catriona McPherson. The time period is just after the first world war has ended and the location is Scotland. Dandy Gliver is a high society woman, married to Hugh. They have survived the war relatively unscathed, both survived and they can still afford their properties. Dandy and Hugh live in Perthshire in their manor house along with Dandy's maid, Grant. Dandy is bored now that the war is over and her nursing duties have come to end. She's tired of the social circuit already.

After the Esslemont's ball celebrating the armistice Dandy learns that the famous Duffy diamonds are missing, allegedly taken from Lena Duffy's room after the ball. She knows that Lena Duffy had them on the night of the ball. Lena, her husband Gregory and their 2 daughters (Clemence and Clara) were all at the ball. Clara is engage to be married to Alec. The girls are as different as two sisters can possibly be.

Dandy is called by her friend Daisy Esslemont to find the diamonds. It seems that Lena has demanded that the Esslemonts pay for the diamonds even though no police report has been filed. Hints at blackmail start. Dandy is invited to another dinner to start her investigation.  There is the theft of the diamonds, dark pasts of some of the characters and a murder to all deal with. What she discovers is not what she was hoping for.

This is a nice little cozy mystery. The story moves along, nothing too earth shaking and the time period and the location are interesting. Big country houses at a time when the families who owned them had suffered devastating losses in the war. It's not just the returning soldiers who have mental problems. I liked this book and have continued on with the series. If you are looking for a new set of cozy mysteries to read, I recommend these.

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Peter Criss' From Makeup to Breakup

About a year ago I posted a review of Ace Frehley's memoir No Regrets. Apparently Kiss bandmate Peter Criss was inspired (or felt challenged) to write his own memoir, entitled Makeup to Breakup. It's going to be hard to sell either of these memoirs to you if you're not a fan of Kiss, but if you are a fan then you'll certainly be satisfied by reading either (or both). I'd say that Criss' memoir is the better of the two since he seems to remember a lot more, though at times his level of detail is a little too much.

Criss was the eldest member of Kiss and after drumming in a number of  New York bands he was brought in to the band before it had recorded an album by an ad in Rolling Stone magazine. Criss is excellent at offering portraits of the band members as they changed through the years. He seems to have some affection for Gene Simmons, though he mostly portrays him as arrogant and ultimately cutthroat. Some of the details of Simmons' lack of hygiene must be read to be believed. Ace Frehley, who entered the band at around the same time as Criss, is shown to be a lazy drug addict and drunk though he was perhaps the one that was Criss' greatest friend in the band in the early days. Paul Stanley remains enigmatic (as was the case in Frehley's biography as well) and in love with his own reflection.

Criss also does a good job giving credit to Bill Aucoin who managed Kiss in its earliest days and even paid for their tours with his own American Express card before the band was able to make it to the big time. We also get stories of seemingly every girlfriend that Criss has had, including multiple ex-wives (and one current one).

It's pretty clear that Criss feels betrayed and cheated by his former bandmates and much of the second half of this book is dedicated to clearing the air about how he was treated on later reunion tours. We also learn about his drinking, his depression and his medical issues, including a late bout with breast cancer. As far as rock star biographies go, this is a pretty entertaining one with much credit going to Larry "Ratso" Sloman, who has co-authored a number of other musician biographies. Unfortunately, at times it also feels like Criss needs to fit in every single anecdote that he can remember, so it does occasionally feel wearying. But if you are the audience for this kind of book there is no reason why you won't enjoy it.

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A Thousand Mornings: Poems


In A Thousand Mornings (2012),
acclaimed poet Mary Oliver once again transports us to the beauty that
surrounds her coastal home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Her poems pay
homage to the myriad forest creatures--birds, foxes, snakes,
opossums--and examine her relationship to them. Take, for example, her
title poem, "A Thousand Mornings:"

All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties, but only until night
meets and then is overwhelmed by
morning, the light deepening, the
wind easing and just waiting, as I
too wait (and when have I ever been
disapointed?) for redbird to sing.

Throughout
the book, Oliver takes a bemused stance toward her own tendency to
over-analyze. She is always aware of how small her life is compared to
the vastness of the ocean or the eternity of nature. Consider her poem,
"The Gardener."

Have I lived enough?
Have I loved enough
Have I considered Right Action enough, have I
      come to any conclusion?
Have I experienced happiness with sufficient gratitude?

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