Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks


Christopher Stewart writes about his adventures in the Honduran jungle while searching for the last "White City." Stewart became obsessed with find this city after reading the journals of Theodore Morde, who had tried to find the city on 3 occasions. Morde who has some experience in extreme climates and jungle exploration was way ahead of Stewart who had neither. Stewart had traveled as a writer and heard about this lost city while researching an article about the Honduran drug trade.

Stewart sets out to find this city. He studies Morde's journal thoroughly, outfits himself and teams up with Christopher Begley, a real life "Indiana Jones," who has actually done a similar search. The city is supposed to be located in the Mosquita, a 3,300 square mile area of rain forest and swamp on the Honduras/Nicaragua border. Legend has it the city contains "gold, priceless artifacts, overgrown temples and buildings and monkey gods."

There is actually some history surrounding this area. Christopher Columbus mentions a city ( or rumors of it) he heard after he landed at Trujillo. Herman Cortes also mentions a hunt for the city of Hueitapalan (the old land of red earth) and that he didn't find it. Charles Lindbergh saw a large area of white ruins while flying over Central America in 1927. So, in theory, the city should be there somewhere.

Stewart and Begley head off. The jungle is a nightmare, the politics of the region are a nightmare and Stewart is second guessing himself. Pirates, drug runners, outlaws, treasure hunters, jaguars, and howler monkeys all have runs in with the Stewart expedition. As the journey goes on, Stewart becomes more morose as evidenced in his writing.



The Child's Child, by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine

If betrayal mixed with sex and murder is the type of cocktail you like in a book, then drink in The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine, a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell. Under the name Vine, Rendell is known for creating works that deal with family dramas and the problems caused by secrets kept and by secrets told.

The Child’s Child is the title of this book as well as the title of a book that Grace, the main character, is reading. Grace and her brother Andrew have recently inherited their grandmother’s London house. Instead of selling it, they decide to move in together. Soon afterward, Andrew’s lover James settles in too. He makes quite an impression as Grace observes: “James was very bright indeed. He was—well, is— tall, slim, dark, and seems to have a permanent, perfectly natural tan. His eyes are dark blue; his teeth are like Americans’ teeth and have apparently been looked after by a dentist from Boston. He’s a flawless man with perfect, long-fingered hands and feet, which I saw bare in the in the garden on a hot day.”

What could possibly go wrong with this trio living under one roof? Actually, probably more than you can imagine. But in the midst of this family drama, Grace starts reading a long-lost work from the 1950s called The Child’s Child. More than two-thirds of Vine’s story is devoted to this novel within a novel that was never published because its twin foci - unwed motherhood as well as homosexual love and erotic encounters - was too scandalous for midcentury 1900.

This inner tale also revolves around a sister living with her gay brother. When 15-year-old Maud becomes pregnant, her parents refuse to let her stay with them; however her older brother John offers to have her move in with him. Like Andrew, John is gay, but he lives at a time when most of society frowned on such an acknowledgement.

John has an idea: What if Maud moved in with him and they told people they were married? Then townspeople would think the baby had a father, that Maud had a husband, and that John had a wife and child? What could possibly go wrong with this trio living under one roof? Once again, probably more than you can imagine!



The Book of Salt

Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt,
is a gifted young writer born in Vietnam in 1968. Her parents
emigrated to the United States when Truong was 6 years old. The themes
of alienation and longing for the homeland are familiar ones to her and
play a significant role in this book.

When Truong was an undergraduate at Yale, she bought a copy of the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book
in search of a hash brownie recipe. What she discovered was an
unappealing recipe contained within a memoir. In a chapter entitled,
"Servants in France," Toklas complains about the unreliability of hired
help. She writes that she and Gertrude Stein, her life partner, place
an ad in a Paris newspaper seeking a live-in cook. A Vietnamese man,
Trac, applies for the job and is hired. He remains with the family for
the next five years. Christopher Benfey, of The New York Times, conveys the sense of whimsy that soon befell the Stein-Toklas household. As he quotes from the Cook Book:"(Trac)
would say, not a cherry, when he spoke of a strawberry and a pineapple
was a pear not a pear." "Trac's inventive use of negatives slips
directly into Toklas's prose: 'It was then that we commenced our
insecure, unstable, unreliable but thoroughly enjoyable experience with
the Indo-Chinese.' " (The New York Times, "Ordering In," April 06, 2003)

Truong takes this mere footnote and creates a living, breathing
character from it. Binh, called Thin Binh by Gertrude Stein, is the
narrator of our tale. We first meet him in 1934 in Paris, as he waits
with Stein and Toklas to begin their journey back to the states. He has
now been employed by them for the past five years. Binh must decide if
he wishes to depart with them or remain in his adopted homeland, France.
Or, should he simply return to his native Vietnam? The narrative weaves
from present to past as Binh weighs his options and tries to come to
terms with his life.

Binh was the youngest of four sons
born to a kind mother and an abusive Catholic cleric. He was taught
both French and the culinary arts by his eldest brother, a seus chef in
the home of the French governor-general in Vietnam. But after an affair
with the French chef, Binh loses his job and is disowned by his
father. He ultimately comes to Paris with nothing but poverty and



Where'd You Go Bernadette

I read this book in two days: it was that fun. Snarky, funny, sad, bittersweet - this book is all of that and more.  Bernadette is a wife and mother living in Seattle. She is not happy on any level. She is married to a tech wiz who works at Microsoft, her daughter is a near perfect student, and she is a mess. She was once a well respected architect. She has promised her daughter, Bee, that they will go anywhere she wants if she gets perfect grades. Bee does and wants to go on a cruise to Antarctica. Bernadette doesn't "do" people.  Anti-social boarding on pathological, she is truly afraid of having to deal with other people and a cruise would require her to interact with other people.

She wants to be disengaged from humans so  much she hires an assistant in India to deal with everything.  Bills, dinner reservations, planning and booking the trip, everything. Her husband, Elgie, is so immersed in his career he isn't really paying attention. After a series of increasingly bizarre acts, he finally starts to pay attention. He stages an intervention, during which Bernadette disappears. No one can locate her and it appears she actually went on the cruise to Antarctica and disappeared from the ship.

This story is told with different narrators; Bernadette, her daughter, the psychiatrist, Elgie. But the story line isn't disrupted. Plus the snarky comments add to this book. Semple skewers: Microsoft, Seattle,  private schools, social climbers, environmentalists among others. I think ending is wholly implausible, but I still really liked this book. A light easy read there are some laugh out loud moments. There are also some heartbreaking ones. I recommend this book.

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All Over Creation

All Over Creation (2003), written by Ruth Ozeki, is especially timely given the May 13th Supreme Court ruling protecting the patent on genetically modified soybeans. The case involves a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, Vernon Bowman, who harvested crops from seeds that Monsanto created and patented. These seeds were modified to resist the weedkiller, Roundup. As Justice Kagan wrote in the unanimous ruling: "Bowman was not a passive observer of his soybeans' multiplication; or put another way, the seeds he purchased (miraculous though they might be in other respects) did not spontaneously create eight successive soybean crops.)" (Washington Post, May 13, 2013)

While the ruling will encourage and protect innovation in developing new technologies, such as genes that identify disease, it none-the-less supports huge companies, such as Monsanto, who increasingly control agriculture. To quote Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety: "The court chose to protect Monsanto over farmers. The court's ruling is contrary to logic and to agronomics because it improperly attributes seeds' reproduction to farmers rather than nature." Article Link

All Over Creation fictionalizes this issue in a fast-moving and engaging novel. Cynaco Corporation is a Monsanto-like company that is aggressively marketing a pesticide-resistant potato to Idaho farmers. Lloyd and Momoko Fuller, now in their later years, have thus far refused to buy this product.

Both Lloyd and Momoko are very ill. Lloyd has had a series of heart attacks and is now battling cancer.  Momoko suffers from dementia, though she is physically well. Her days are spent cultivating the unique collection of seeds she has created throughout her long marriage.



The Black Count

The Black Count by Tom Reiss, is the biography of Alexandre Dumas. Not the author Alexandre Dumas, but his father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. The son of an interracial couple, Dumas had the fortune to grow up in Paris and the French sugar colony of Saint-Dominque at a time when racial prejudice was unheard of.

Dumas was born in 1762 in Saint-Dominque (now Haiti). His father was a French noble man who had renounced his family and run away, his mother was a black slave. Alexandre's father eventually reconciled with his family, sold off his other children and took Alexandre back to France. His father, Alexandre Antoine Davy was now the Marquis de la Pailleterie. After receiving the education of a French nobleman, Alexandre renounced his father, took his mother's name of Dumas and enlisted in the French army as a dragoon.

Dumas was a superb soldier. Tall for his time, dark skinned, intelligent, and extremely gifted athletically, Dumas rose to the rank of General. His military career is filled with escapades and exploits that his son (the novelist Alexandre Dumas) used in his novels. The three duels in one day in the Three Musketeers? True.  Betrayed and held captive on a deserted island for years as told in the Count of Monte Cristo? Also true.

This book was very interesting. General Dumas was an amazing person. He had the luck to live in a time when he could be successful and his race was not an issue. He married a white noblewoman and he had a son who was a writer who preserved the General's exploits for history. The book however was very heavy on French history - really heavy on French history. Which is fine for me as I don't know much about it. However, I do recommend this book. Dumas is a fascinating character who lived in very interesting times.



Bitter in the Mouth

Bitter in the Mouth,
a semi-autobiographical novel, is about a Vietnamese girl (Linda) who
grows up in a small North Carolina town. Linda is the only minority
child in all-white classrooms. Making life even harder for her is the
neurological condition she suffers from--synesthesia. Words evoke
tastes for sufferers of this genetic anomaly. "Incomings," as Linda
calls the speech she hears, can be upsetting because too many senses are
stimulated at once. Linda feels acutely different from
others--especially her white parents--and her feelings of isolation and
loneliness are acute. The only relative she truly bonds with is her
uncle, Baby Harper. Linda senses he is a kindred spirit from the moment
she sets eyes on him.

A quality that distinguishes
Truong's books is her descriptive language as well as her use of
food--literally and figuratively. In this passage, Linda is telling us
about synesthesia.

My first memory was a taste. For
most of my life I have carried this fact with me not as a mystery,
which it still is, but as a secret...There was something bitter in the
mouth, and there was the word that triggered it...It was bitter in the
way that greens...were often bitter. Or in the way that simmering
resentment was bitter.
(P. 15)

In an interview
for Lamda Literary (posted 26.Aug, 2010 by Jihii Jolly), we come to
understand that the author and her main character share past experiences
and past hurts. As Truong writes:



The Racketeer, by John Grisham

According to the dictionary, a racketeer is “one who obtains money illegally, as by fraud, extortion, etc.” In John Grisham’s latest legal thriller, the main character, lawyer Malcolm Bannister, was unaware the work he was doing at his law firm was dirty work, work that qualified him as a racketeer. Perhaps a more accurate title for the book would have been “The Unwitting Racketeer," but that's not nearly as catchy as Grisham's signature proper nouners ("The Client," "The Firm," and even "The Bleachers").

Even though he was unaware of any wrong-doing, Bannister was sentenced to 10 years at a federal prison camp where he is “the only black guy serving time for a white-collar crime. Some distinction.” Eight months into his sentence, his wife Dionne asked him for a divorce, and now his young son Bo is being taught baseball by Dionne’s new husband. Things indeed are bad for Bannister, who has lost his family and his friends, has been disbarred, and has no chance of an early release.

But then Bannister’s bad luck turns good because the Honorable Raymond Fawcett’s luck has turned awful. Dead awful. The 66-year-old married federal judge and his young secretary have been found murdered in the remote lakeside cabin Fawcett liked to frequent on weekends. There’s been no forced entry, no sign of struggle, no muss nor fuss save an empty metal safe and two bodies with bullets in their brains. The FBI is stumped by the crime, but Bannister knows who did it, why they did it, and what was in the safe. Or so he claims. That’s his get-out-of-jail card. He’ll trade the information for a new life on the outside, complete with witness protection, plastic surgery, and the six-figure reward money.

But in the bestselling, page-turning Grisham tradition, there is more to Bannister's agenda than just an early release, a new face, and a fat bank account. That agenda spins out of control, but the book is as fun (though not as much as “The Litigator”) as it is unrealistic. The verdict? A not totally guilty pleasure.



Two Graves

The last book in the Helen trilogy from Preston and Child begins where the last book leaves off. The title comes from a Confucius quote: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." This quote underscores the theme of the book.

Pendergast's wife Helen, long thought to be dead is actually alive. She is currently hiding from the Nazis who have been holding her captive as part of a horrific biological experiment started during the Second World War. She is scheduled to meet Pendergast in Central Park in the middle of New York City. Pendergast believes the open area will be safe. He is wrong and there is an ambush waiting.

Helen's brother is killed, Pendergast is wounded and Helen is recaptured. Pendergast is once again on the hunt. Meanwhile, Pendergasts friend, D'Agosta is investigating some bizarre murders. The suspect leaves clues - his fingerprints, some of his skin and he allows the hotel cameras where he commits the murders to photograph him both before and after he commits the crimes. But he is seemingly impossible to capture. Pendergast's investigation into Helen's disappearance leads him to some startling news about his relationship with Helen. This news will effect the way both investigations proceed.

Preston and Child write a great book. Thrillers to be sure but the story lines and the characters are very interesting. Just  what kind of human is Pendergast really? And this book reveals some of Constance's background as well.  Some characters from the previous books make a reappearance in this one. I love these books and read them as soon as I can get my hands on them. I am looking forward to the next Pendergast adventure.