Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Olive Kitteredge,
has once again written a complex tale with unforgettable characters. The
story is set partly in Shirley Falls, Maine, which is the childhood
home of the two Burgess brothers as well as a sister who still resides
there. This fictitious New England town is probably modeled on the real
Lewiston, Maine, once bustling with textile mills and abundant
industry. This affluence began to change after World War I. The mills began
moving South seeking cheaper labor and newer technologies. Chain stores
such as Woolworth's W.T. Grant, S.S. Kresge, J.C. Penney and Sears
Roebuck soon abandoned the vibrant downtown and left it deserted. By
the 1970s, there were few jobs to be had and the town's young were
fleeing for employment elsewhere. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewiston,_Maine)

But in 2001, a family
of Somali refugees moved to Lewiston. They beckoned others to come and
start businesses and raise families in the quiet surroundings. They
populated the once crime-ridden and abandoned downtown. Soon many
families of Somalis came, followed by Sudanese, Congolese and other
Africans. This previously all-white town in a state that is the second
whitest in the nation (Vermont is number 1) had to accommodate people of
a different race, culture and language. As of 2009, 4000 new immigrants
had moved to Lewiston since 2001, and dozens arrive each month. They
have re-vitalized the town with restaurants and shops and contribute to
the town's economy. ("The Refugees Who Saved Lewiston," Newsweek Magazine, January 16, 2009)

But
in those early years, racism simmered. Resentments were incurred by
fears that the new residents would take the few existing jobs in town. Working class families who themselves were facing hard times begrudged
the Somalis the government subsidies they were receiving. In July of
2006, a young man threw a frozen pig's head through the door of a
make-shift mosque, setting off a chain of events that is fictionalized
in Strout's book.

There are a number of parallel themes in
The Burgess Boys. Alienation and the question of what constitutes
"home" are two such motifs. Brothers Bob and Jim have both left rural
Maine to attend college on the east coast. Bob is an attorney
who works for Legal Aid. Jim is a prosperous lawyer who took on a case
very similar to that of O.J. Simpson's. He is, however, disillusioned
with himself and the glitzy life he leads. By contrast, Susan has not
gone to college. Indeed, she has never left her native state. Too poor
to even heat her house adequately in winter, she lives as a divorced
single mother of a quiet and disturbed teenage boy, Zack. This is the
very boy who commits the hate crime.

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Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

The book jacket blurb of Little Known Facts
  compares the main character, Renn Ivins, to Harrison Ford. But seriously, how could he be anyone but a
clone of George Clooney? Renn is a 52-year-old handsome movie star who
also directs significant films, is loved by women (and probably men as well) of
all ages, is generous to friends and to causes, and has homes in L.A. and
Italy. Where the match-up fails is that unlike Clooney who has no children, Renn
has a pair of grown offspring from the first of his two failed marriages, and those
kids are giving him trouble.

Though his daughter’s love interest is causing
Renn stress, it is his son Billy who gives him true distress. Although trust-fund
Billy (now trying to reboot as "Will") has never quite found his purpose in
life, he has identified stealing his father’s girlfriend as a potential goal.
Complicating matters is that Billy’s own gal pal has eyes for his father.

Each chapter of the book is told by a
different character, and like pieces of a mosaic, they add up to an interesting
and relatable piece of art. The writing is graceful and witty and the author
really seems to have insight into what it’s like to be famous. If you liked last year's popular
Beautiful Ruins, you’ll probably also enjoy Little Known Facts.

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The Ashford Affair

Set in England, the US and Africa, The Ashford Affair spans the years from the early 1900's until present day. Clemmie Evans is a woman on the move. A devoted senior associate at a large New York law firm, she is on the partner track. Her personal life is a mess, having just been jilted by her fiance, but she is sure of her career. Jon, her cousin, has returned to New York after his divorce to accept a professorship at a NY university. They have always had a love/hate relationship.

They meet up at a birthday celebration for their Grandmother, Addie. Addie is in her nineties and dying, but she has some family secrets that need to be told. Clemmie's mother and her aunt Anna know some of the secret but not all of it. The secrets have driven a wedge between the sisters.

Addie, the daughter of a "younger son" was orphaned when she was 6 years old. A poor relation, she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle after he parents died. She was raised with her cousins and was especially close to Bea. Bea was the darling of the family. Her mother had great aspirations for the "debutante of the year" and indeed, Bea married well only to have it end in divorce. Addie, meanwhile was mostly left to fend for herself.  Bea marries Frederick Desborough and they move to Africa to run a coffee plantation. Addie comes to visit and the threesome has a difficult time.

In the present time, Clemmie is dealing with ever more work pressures and the loss of her fiance. When she discovers that Addie might not be the person Clemmie's thought she was, Clemmie feels that her world has been turned upside down. Add to this the fact that John is a historian researching the time period of Addie and Bea's young adulthood and Clemmie is thoroughly confused.

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The Golem and the Jinni


The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, is an amazing debut novel
that blends fantasy, fable and historical fiction. The author combines
the cultural legends of both Hasidic and Arabian lore as she spins a
tale about a golem (a creature made of clay) and a jinni (a being made
of fire) who meet in New York in 1899. The year is significant because
it marked one of the peaks of European immigration to the United
States. The area of New York where the story takes place (now the
financial district) contained both Jewish and Syrian enclaves. These
sections were insular and Yiddish and Arabic were spoken exclusively. Peddling was the most common trade.
English was learned by the children of these immigrants, who, like all
first generation Americans, helped their parents navigate the ways of a
new world.

Wecker has written a fable that is as much about religious and cultural identity as it is about Jewish and Arab folklore.
Like many immigrants around them, Chava (the golem) and Ahmad (the
jinni) are new arrivals to this teeming area of New York. Chava was made by a rabbi in Prussia who was attracted to the dark side of Hasidism. Wecker does not spare us scenes of blatant and violent anti-semitism that in part created this evil rabbi. The
rabbi was paid handsomely for the golem by a man who was going to be her
master and husband. But he dies on the ship to New York and the golem
is left on her own. Not only is she new to New York, she is new to human
life. She is additionally burdened by the gift of sensing the desires
of others. 

Likewise,
the jinny was captured by an unscrupulous wizard and imprisoned in a
bottle for a thousand years. He is accidentally released by a smith
while repairing an heirloom. Unlike the golem, the jinni is capricious
and free-spirited; living in one place is abhorrent to him. Both share a
sense of alienation and loneliness aggravated by the fact that they
require no sleep. What does one do while everyone else sleeps? Wandering the streets is one solution which proves to be the literary
device Wecker uses to bring her two protagonist together.

What
is unique about The Golem and the Jinni, aside from the whole book, is
the way its author deals with themes of time, multiculturalism,
immigrant experience, and freedom vs. self-determination. Throughout
the book, Wecker grapples with the concept of free will. After all, a
golem lacks a free will and a jinni lacks a conscience. But can these
qualities be acquired through the experience of human kindness?

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The Hour of Peril

There is an abundance of books about Abraham Lincoln this year, both fiction and non-fiction, to take your pick from. Most rehash the same events of Lincoln's life. The Hour of Peril by Daniel Stashower deals with the time when Lincoln leaves Springfield, Illinois to travel to Washington D.C for his inauguration. But the book is really about Alan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and the plot to murder Lincoln as he passed through Baltimore on his way to Washington.

Born in 1819, Pinkerton was a hard working man from Glasgow. He was connected with the "Chartists" a working class labor movement seeking equitable pay and democratic reforms for the working man. During one of the protests, the group was met by a contingent of police men who used force to end the demonstration. People were killed and Pinkerton fled, hoping to survive to protest another day. This is interesting because later in his life, Pinkerton was known as a strike-breaker. Pinkerton was aggressive and had a hot temper, traits that he exhibited his entire life. Pinkerton married a bar singer and moved to America. She was 15 at the time and there was a bounty on him from the demonstration.

By 1847 Pinkerton was living in Dundee, Illinois and working as a cooper. He was an abolitionist and a friend of John Brown and his house was a stop on the underground railroad. His first detective experience was finding a group of counterfeiters who had descended on the town. Because of this success he was asked to help out with other investigations for the town. A new career was born.

Within a few years Pinkerton had moved to Chicago as the deputy sheriff and then within a year he was appointed the city's first detective. His reputation was that he could not be bought and he had a very strict personal code of ethics. The criminals loathed him and he survived a shooting. While working for the US postal service, Pinkerton developed his undercover techniques. He would change his looks by altering his hair or growing a beard and he would insinuate himself into the very criminal element he was investigating. At this time no FBI or Secret Service existed.

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Tapestry of Fortunes

If you like and are familiar with bestselling author Elizabeth Berg's books, you will like Tapestry of Fortunes. If you have not read her works, this book is a good place to start.

The tapestry of fortunes is woven from the lives of four women, sharing a home and friendships. Each is at a different age and stage of life. Each is undergoing or considering a life change. Through their regular daily life together and while they are on a "road trip", they form deeper bonds with each other, learn new truths about themselves, and open themselves to new friendships and to love.

Some specifics of this particular Elizabeth Berg novel include a Minneapolis setting, gracious older homes and gardens, cooking, quilting, fortune telling, delightful minor characters, and the pleasures of the road trip. Some readers' reviews indicate that Tapestry of Fortunes is a quicker and lighter reading experience than some of Berg's prior works and, while I agree, it is still a reading treat.

Elizabeth Berg writes beautifully of women, friendship, love death, and new life. The details of setting add to the mood she creates. Her characters are interesting and well described. This book, as are her others, is quick and easy to read, yet it is textured with a depth of life experience and emotion that leave the reader thinking and feeling after reading is done. 

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The Cutting Season

Set in the parishes between New Orleans and Baton Rogue, The Cutting Season is a fast paced thriller. Caren Gray is a former law student who is the manager of Belle Vie, a restored plantation. Thinking herself somewhat underemployed, Caren left law school when she ran out of money. With a young child to support she took whatever job she could and as a result is now the manager of the plantation. The plantation where her ancestors were the slaves.

The land is owned by the Clancy family and has been since the reconstruction. Leland (the father) is near death, Bobby is the son who has myriad personal issues and a drinking problem and Raymond is in charge and wants to run for public office (nd he needs money and a clean reputation to do so). Caren's mother was the cook for the Clancy family and Caren grew up on the plantation playing with Bobby.

One morning as Caren is making her rounds she has some strange feelings, like the area is haunted. Returning to her office, she receives a phone call from the groundskeeper - there has been a body found near one of the far fences. Just outside this fence line is a sugar cane field owned by a large corporation. This corporation wants to buy the plantation. The dead woman was a migrant worker employed by the sugar cane company. The police arrive and seem strangely unconcerned.

The story line revolves around the murder, but the side stories are what makes the book so interesting. Will Raymond run for public office, is the plantation really being sold, what happened to Jason, Caren's ancestor? Caren's back story (her child, her ancestry, her jobs, her  ex-lover) is the real story here. While the murder solution gradually unfolds so does Caren's life story and it's effects on the current situation. 

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Led Zeppelin: The Oral History

It seems like the last few years have been a treasure trove for those who love all things Led Zeppelin. Beyond the DVDs and CDs, for many years all we had to occupy ourselves with on the literary front was a worn copy of the 1985 biography Hammer of the Gods. Recently there have been both a Jimmy Page biography (which I reviewed previously) and this new massive oral history compiled by Barney Hoskyns.

There has always been a bit of mystery around Led Zeppelin, which is why a book like this is so invaluable. In it we hear from the voices of the many people surrounding the band throughout their career - from childhood friends and early bandmates to secretaries, groupies and record company executives. For the most part Jimmy Page still remains the biggest enigma, though one also gets the sense that there is not much to understand about the man.

If one were to divide the band in half at the start it would be an axis of the longtime session musicians Page and John Paul Jones (whose importance in creating the band's sound is finally being recognized) on one side and Black Country (West Midlands, near Birmingham) mates Robert Plant and John Bonham. Originally launched as The New Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin was originally seen mainly as a vehicle for Jimmy Page. Critically lambasted, they were immediately accepted by the fans who appreciated their loud volume extended jam approach to the blues. They first broke big in America despite refusing to release singles, and as their sound changed their fans followed.

Of course the stardom that the band quickly experienced brought along many problems. John Bonham, who is portrayed as a gentle working class man - more content in a garden than on a stage - descends into the alcoholism that will later claim his life. Page becomes a heroin addict and recluse, and while Jones and Plant escape relatively unscathed substance-wise, Plant nearly lost his wife in a car accident that took both of them many months to recover from and eventually his son died while he was on tour in America. One gets the sense that even if Bonham hadn't died the band was at a point where it was splitting and would have had to have made some massive changes to continue. It ends up being slightly ironic that Jimmy Page has been the surviving member to have done the least musically following Zeppelin's collapse, considering that the band was originally a showcase for his talents.

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The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

In this novel, a young woman named Julia tries to unravel the mystery of what happened to her father.

Julia Winn was born in New York City in 1968 of an American mother and a Burmese father. Although her father grew up in Burma, he came to the United States to go to school, got married here, and became a powerful and wealthy attorney in Manhattan. On the morning after Julia graduated from law school, he woke her to say he had an appointment in Boston and didn’t know when he would return. In fact, he never came back, and he never even went to Boston. Flight records showed that he flew to Hong Kong instead. Hotel records indicated that he stayed at the Peninsula and ordered in a dinner of chicken curry. The next day he flew to Bangkok, and four weeks later a construction worker found his passport near the airport. Julia and her mother learned of no further trace of him.

Four years later, Julia’s mother finds a box of her husband’s appointment calendars and similar items behind a dresser. She sends the parcel to her daughter, noting, “I’ve included the last picture of us. I don’t need any of it anymore.” Among the things in the package is a love letter her father wrote in 1955 but never mailed to “My beloved Mi Mi.” The address on the letter’s envelope is a residence in Burma. With so little to go on and against her mother’s wishes, Julia heads to Burma to find out what happened to her father.

But where to begin her search? The address on the unmailed envelope is now nearly 40 years old, but that would be her start. She then makes a list of things she needs: a car and driver, a tour guide, a local map, etc. Unexpectedly in a teahouse, she meets an old man whose eyes are deep in their sockets, and who cannot stop staring at Julia. He says he has been waiting for her to arrive for four years. And then he tells her the story of her father, a story she has never before heard of an abandoned child who became blind, who fell in love, and then who had to leave behind his beloved Mi Mi and go to America.

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