Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Why write this post?  I don't want to spoil this book for you by telling you about it. But, I do hope to remind you of the particular delights of a book well worth waiting for.  So many reviewers have said such wonderful things about this book - all well deserved.  What more can I possibly write?

Do you know how you wait for a new book and finally you have it and then you don't want it to end?  Do you know how you follow an author on Facebook and read about the upcoming book and how the author is progressing and you wait with anticipation  for the book to be out and in your hands?  Do you know how a new book for which you have waited turns out to be all you expected and so much more?

Neil Gaiman's own favorite reviews: " The reviews I'm liking best are ones like this one from PopMatters that
tells you nothing about what happens in the book and everything about
what it felt like to read the book."
From that review:

"Put simply, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is
the best-written book of Gaiman’s career. It features a level of
craftsmanship, focus, and control that we normally associate more with
literary fiction than genre. The book is focused, lyrical, and
profoundly perceptive in its exploration of childhood and memory, and
it’s also quite frightening—like one of Truman Capote’s holiday stories
by way of Stephen King."



Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is the latest collection of short stories by Peter Orner. There are 51 stories in this relatively short book. The stories vary greatly in length from several pages to just one or two. In each, human emotion is crystallized into a precious gem.

Orner is at his best when capturing the dynamics of extended Jewish families, the love (or lack thereof) of married couples, the loneliness and price of leaving one's homeland, and always, the indignities of aging. His stories are windows into familiar rooms, for who among us has not experienced love or longing or dashed hopes?

Take, for example, "Horace and Josephine." Horace Ginsberg, son of an upholsterer, has made millions running a lucrative Ponzi scheme. His much beloved wife, Josephine, walks around the house like a princess, even after the family's disgrace. Her love for Horace never wavers, even when they go from summers on the Cape to summers on Horseneck Beach. "Oh, Mr. Onassis," she says. You're always taking me places. Today, the South of France." (p. 47)

The story is told by the nephew looking back on his childhood. The young man, now in college, recalls his brother's political conversations with Uncle Horace (the only Republican in the family). The humor in this story is outstanding, making the tragedy of the couple's fall from grace all the more poignant. Orner has succeeded in humanizing a man like Bernie Madoff, making him a comic character likened to an aging crab. But it is Josephine who steals our hearts. As the narrator recalls their eventual fates in old age, even the most righteous reader will shed a tear. Life has a way of exacting its toll, be it deserved or not.




Dan Brown's newest thriller once again has symbologist Robert Langdon on the run and in the company of a beautiful woman. Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Italy with no memory of how he got to Italy much less the hospital. What he does remember was that he was in Boston, some people are chasing him and he has been shot but survived. Sienna Brooks, an English speaking doctor is helping him in more than a medical way - she smuggles him out of the hospital after an assassin comes after him, killing another doctor. But Sienna has her own secrets.

The assassin, Vayentha, is from a secret world wide sect called the Consortium. And she is indeed trying to kill him.  Langdon and Sienna are off, hiding in her apartment before the Italian police and the people in the black vans find them. Off they run again, racing through Italy. The reason everyone is after Langdon, he is carrying a computer generated rendering of Botticelli's painting of Dante's Inferno. The picture contains a map and Langdon must follow the clues to help prevent world wide disaster set off by a bio scientist who belongs to a group following beliefs of trans humanism.

The story line starts somewhere in the middle. The back story, the scientist, trans humanism and what it means, Sienna's background and how Langdon came to be in Florence, Italy are revealed slowly through out the book. The search for the missing doomsday device and the deciphering of the clues drives the story. Written in Brown's short chapters the book really moves along. Spoon feeding information about Florence, secret world organizations and Dante's Divine Comedy the book just moves. Yes, it is filled with the usual bad guys, and double crosses and yes, once again, Langdon comes through in the end with the help of a beautiful, smart woman and his famous memory. But, I really liked this book. It has lots of really great information about Florence and Dante's Inferno not to mention paintings by Botticelli. I think this is his best. Definitely read this.

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Last of the Curlews

Fred Bodsworth was an esteemed ornithologist and the author of several non fiction books. In 1955, he published his first novel, Last of the Curlews. It is a fictional account of a five year old male Eskimo curlew, perhaps the last of his breed.

"As the arctic half-night dissolved suddenly in the pink and then the glaring yellow of the onrushing June day, the Eskimo curlew recognized at last the familiar S twist of the ice-hemmed river half a mile below. In the five hundred miles of flat and featureless tundra he had flown over that night, there had been many rivers with many twists identical to this one, yet the curlew knew that now he was home." So the story begins.

Last of the Curlews follows the male curlew from the breeding ground through an entire migration cycle, back to the breeding ground.  The migrations are described in detail - locations, feeding, flying, and other migrants on the route. Interspersed with the story of the curlew are excerpts from scientific reports of the early 1900's about the birds and their disappearance. Bodsworth tells the story of the curlew as a trained observer would, factually, avoiding anthropomorphism, rather describing the natural urges and instincts of the species.

In a recent issue of Ontario Nature, an article in tribute to Fred Bodsworth, who died in September 2012 at the age of 93, it was written of the book and the Eskimo curlews:"...shorebirds that once migrated in enormous flocks between the Argentinian pampas and their Canadian Arctic breeding grounds. Commercial hunting in the late 1800's decimated the species and by the middle of the 20th century, the birds were near extinction."



Swimming Home

Swimming Home,
by Deborah Levy, is an engaging novel whose sparse writing reads like a
play. Indeed, the author, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012,
is an accomplished playwright. The small number of characters make their
appearance two by two in each chapter much as actors upon a stage.

In a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mark Haskell Smith explains:

like in a play, Levy doesn't gently introduce the characters or the
setting, instead she stomps on the gas, peels out, and sets everything
in motion in one of the first scenes as the cast discover Kitty
skinnydipping in the pool. At first they think she might be a bear, but
it soon becomes apparent that she is a young woman in her 20s...It is a
grand entrance and sets the tone for the sexual tension that
underscores the novel like a throbbing techno track
("Always Raining: On Deborah Levy's 'Swimming Home,'" December 11th, 2012)

novel is set at a villa on the French Riviera. There are five main
characters.  Kitty Finch, the  woman described in the above quote, has
recently suffered a mental breakdown. She is a seductress, stalking Joe
Jacobs, a poet of Polish-Jewish descent who is staying at villa with his
wife and daughter. Joe is also a tormented soul. When the Germans
invaded Poland during WWII, Joe was just five years old. In an attempt
to save his son, his father abandoned him in the forest and told him he
must never return home. Joe survived in the forest alone. Although he
becomes a literary success, he suffers from disabling depression and had
difficulty with emotional intimacy.



Wash by Margaret Wrinkle

Margaret Wrinkle, who has won awards for documentary about her racially divided home town, has written a novel about the beginnings of slavery in the early United States. Wash is the story of Wash, slave owned by Mr. Richardson. Richardson, a self-made man, is now a plantation owner in Tennessee on newly settled land.  Short of money he follows the advice of his partner and manager, Quinn who suggests they hire the physically exceptional ("fine" as Richardson terms him) Wash out as a stud. Wash is lent out to other plantations to mate with the women who appear to be of the right temperament and physical abilities in order to build a good bloodline.

As crude as this premise sounds, the book is much more. It is really the story of Wash, his mother, Mena, and his love, Pallas. Richardson spots Mena at a slave auction. She has been brought over from her native Africa. Pregnant, Mena was in training to be a shaman. She never finished the training but she has some skills that make her useful. Richardson feels compelled to purchase Mena, and when he finds out she is pregnant, he feels he's made a good deal. Richardson heads off to the Revolutionary War and send Mena to live with a friend, Thompson, on the coast of South Carolina. There she gives birth to Wash. Thompson's sons take over Mena and Wash on the death of their father, abusing them. Mena, has been teaching Wash the fine art of protecting himself psychologically.

Back at Richardson's Wash has grown up and Quinn comes up with the stud idea. Wash, having no choice in the matter goes along with the plan, while thinking there has to be something better. Then he sees Pallas who has come to nurse him after a beating. Pallas has her own demons and tries to stay away from Wash.

The story line weaves back and forth from the different perspectives of Wash, Richardson, Pallas and the other main characters. More than a slave tale, although the book does have some interesting information about early slave practices in the new United States, this book is about saving your humanity in the face of unrelenting degradation. I recommend this book.



The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir

I'll start this review out by being as direct as William Friedkin is in this book - any film lover should take this book home and pore through it. While ostensibly a memoir, the book is actually more of a study in making films. I found myself riveted.

Friedkin is the Chicago-born director of The French Connection (which earned him a Best Director nod), The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A. and most recently, the violent little gem Killer Joe. While Friedkin sets the stage for the book with some anecdotes about growing up on the north side of Chicago he quickly moves to his professional career which started with filming documentaries for local television stations, after which he was quickly recruited to Los Angeles to begin a career in film. His rise was fairly quick, as once he got his feet wet directing his first film (a Sonny and Cher movie) it took only 6 years and 4 films before he won his Oscar.

The real meat of the book is the detail that Friedkin provides in his descriptions of creating the films for which he is best known. The section devoted to The French Connection runs 80 pages and that of The Exorcist runs 90 pages, and both parts of the book are fascinating descriptions of the creation of a film, from finding the source material and casting to finally setting it free for the audiences and critics. We learn that Friedkin had doubts about Gene Hackman's Best Actor-winning role in The French Connection as well as the variety of technical problems that plagued The Exorcist. He is also straight-forward about his dealings with the MPAA, studio heads and various underworld connections who were able to aid him in various settings.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the book for me was the section on Sorcerer, his follow-up to The Exorcist. Coming on the heels of Star Wars, Sorcerer was unjustly ignored by critics and even now only exists as a poor DVD copy (though Friedkin has supposedly worked through some of the legal ramifications that have stood in the way of his releasing a cleaned up copy). Starring Roy Scheider, Sorcerer is a remake of the French Wages of Fear and is a brilliant and intense film that is just waiting to be rediscovered. The film went way over budget after many problems with its multinational production and was a box office failure, while his next film - Cruising - brought protests from gay activists who felt that the film portrayed the New York gay clubbing community in a negative light. Ironically, one of his first big critical successes was a sensitive adaptation of The Boys in the Band, one of the first films to focus on gay characters and to portray them in a positively.



The Map of Lost Memories

First time novelist, Kim Fay has written a wonderful book about lost treasures of Cambodian history. Irene Blum is working for the Brooke Museum when she is passed over for the curator's position even though she has built the Indo-Chinese collection up into a world class collection. Irene decides to leave the museum without any plan of what she is going to do.

Meeting with her dying mentor Mr. Simms, a renowned collector, he tells her of a diary he found in her father's papers and the lost treasure of the 10 copper scrolls. The scrolls are supposed to contain all the history of the  Khmer people through their last king. Mythical, no one has ever seen  the scrolls however there are legends about where the scrolls are kept. But the diary contains map references and a partial map of the location.

Irene sets off to Cambodia. Financially backed by Mr. Simms, Irene tries to enlist the aid of Simone Merlin. Simone knows everyone and has been everywhere in the area. She and her husband are actively stirring up the local populations for a revolution to overthrow the French colonists and install a communist government. Simone agrees to help Irene and with the help of other equally colorful characters, the expedition sets off. Everyone in the party wants the scrolls for a different reason.  The longer they trek through the jungle the more everyone becomes wary of the others. The journey helps Irene come to know herself and her parents in ways she never imagined. The end was a surprise (at least to me!) but understandable given the story line.

I loved this book. It is well written (you can feel the sweat in the descriptions of the jungle), the characters are wonderfully drawn, each a very interesting person in their own right. It is set in an interesting time, Cambodia between the world wars, while France still controls most of the area. The characters play off against each other as well as the country and the politics of the time. I heartily recommend this book.