Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Oleander Girl

Oleander Girl (2012), by Chitra Divakaruni, is a Bildungsroman that combines many themes.  The story is set in the year 2002 - a year in which Hindu/Muslim violence is occurring in parts of India (Gujarat Province) and ethnic intolerance is evident in post 9/11 America.

The book begins in Kolkata, India - the birthplace and childhood home of the author. Here we meet the chief protagonist, Korobi Roy. Her mother, she is told, died in childbirth and her American father died shortly thereafter in an auto accident. Nineteen year old Karobi has been brought up in a traditional Hindi home by her beloved grandparents. Indeed, the mansion she grows up in is a character in itself, housing a century old temple and surrounded by beautiful grounds.

Karobi has led a sheltered life. She is both doted on and held to high standards of conduct by her grandfather, Bimal. He is depicted as a loving tyrant determined to maintain Karobi's childlike qualities. Not surprisingly, she falls in love with the handsome and worldly Rajat. Rajat is a complicated and tormented young man whose family is among the nouveau riche. Like many young men of his class and generation, he has been associating with a fast and non-too-savory crowd. Attempting to get away from a passionate affair with the duplicitous Sonya, he proposes marriage to Karobi. He loves her for the very things he does not have - innocence and a revered family name. 

When a family tragedy occurs - the death of Bimal - her grandmother confesses a dark secret about Karobi's past. As a result, Karobi embarks on a month long exploratory trip to the United States to discover the truth. Using the mythic journey motif, Divakaruni weaves an engaging mystery around Karobi's adventures. Along the way, she learns the meaning of friendship, forgiveness, and love.



Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton

You might not be be able to place Harry Nilsson's name but you'll definitely recognize some of the music that he created. He wrote songs that were hits for the Monkees (Cuddly Toy) and Three Dog Night (One) while also producing his own successful covers of other artists in Without You (his first number 1 hit) and Everybody's Talkin' which was the theme song of the film Midnight Cowboy. He became good friends and drinking mates with multiple Beatles and was in fact referred to by some as "the American Beatle". Unfortunately, at the height of his fame he squandered his talent by giving in to his alcohol and drug vices.

Alyn Shipton's new book Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter does a commendable job at shining a spotlight on this incredibly talented musician. Nilsson's childhood was a troubled one in which his father left the family, a fact that Nilsson constantly alludes to in some of his earlier work. His family moved around, giving young Nilsson plenty of opportunities for mischief, though ultimately he started writing songs on the side while working as a computer programmer in a bank. After the Monkees recorded his song Cuddly Toy he was able to quit the bank job and concentrate on writing songs for himself, many of which were also recorded by other artists. While his first few albums and his soundtrack to the movie Skidoo were not chart successes, the Beatles declared him their favorite artist and his cover of Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin' was a big success, leading to his more successful albums Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman (on which he covers another up-and-coming singer-songwriter, Randy Newman).

However, it was 1971's #3 album, Nilsson Schmilsson with its hits Coconut, Jump Into the Fire and the #1 Without You (a cover of a Badfinger song) that showed Nilsson at his recording peak. He changed producers, brought in a rock band and moved away from the more piano-based sound of his earlier recordings. Unfortunately, while this album was a massive success it also seems to have sent Nilsson on a personal downward spiral, with heavy usage of drugs and alcohol leading to weekend long benders with friends such as John Lennon (living in L.A. as part of his "lost weekend" spent away from Yoko Ono). The Pussy Cats album, recorded with Lennon, while a great album also seems like the work of a desperate man.

Much of Nilsson's post-Pussy Cats work seems uninspired, with songs rescued from the dumpster and Nilsson's sweet voice of his earlier years only a distant memory. His late album Knnillssonn was an unheard masterpiece that was unfortunately released around the time of Elvis Presley's death, causing the label to focus on Presley's back catalog instead of Nilsson's album. Nilsson's later years were spent fighting for gun control following John Lennon's murder, as well as occasional musical projects such as the soundtrack for the film Popeye. He would die of a heart attack at the young age of 52.



The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

I will admit that I judged this book by it's cover - it's beautiful. I was also intrigued by a small blurb in a selection journal, so I was happy indeed to receive a copy of The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara. The book is the story of a Dr. Abraham Norton Perina, an immunologist known as "Norton." Norton discovered something called "Selene Syndrome," a physical condition where the victim's body remains youthful (for decades longer than the average lifespan) while the mind degrades. The story line starts and ends with Norton's conviction for child sexual abuse. This is not a spoiler alert just a warning. The book is divided into 3 parts: the Preface, the Memoirs of A. Norton Pereina  (written while he was in prison) and the Epilogue. While Norton writes the biography his notes are edited by his lifelong friend and colleague Dr. Kubodera.

Norton was born in a small town where he lived with his "dreamy" mother, uninterested father and his twin brother Owen. Norton and his brother thought their mother was worthless and spent time playing tricks on her to the point where she thought she was losing her mind. When his mother died at at young age, from a mosquito bite according to the local doctor, Norton's interest in diseases was born. Norton's father was also unremarkable according to the brothers, but his Aunt Sybil was just the ticket. She fostered Norton's interest in science which propels him on to medical school.

At graduation, Norton is invited to join a research project under the direction of Philip Tallent, a famous researcher. The project will be done on the remote Micronesian islands of Ivu'ivu. There are several small islands in this group including an island that is forbidden. The mythology of this island is that it is filled with people who are immortal. All the islands in the chain revere the turtle, whose flesh is said to contain the property to confer immortality. There are some instances of behavior by the tribes during their ceremonies that are considered illegal in the US. This is the heart of Norton's problems.

The storyline winds it's way around the study of the indigenous people, their customs and the problems that occur when a group of people who think they are superior come to the island: first Norton and his various studies and then once the news of his finding goes public, the pharmaceutical companies and the other less disciplined groups arrive. The book is well written. I had to remind myself several times that I was not  reading a nonfiction work of any kind. (I actually started to look up information on the main characters!)  The book has a feel of a nonfiction work, but definitely reads like fiction. There are footnotes galore, which are used as asides to the main text.



Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley

When I started this novel, I assumed that the marriage being remembered was the narrator’s long and happy union to his Parisian wife - the now deceased Bella, whom he had first encountered at a party when he was a young man (“My thoughts and gaze were fixed on Bella; it was a coup de foudre: lightning had stuck, I had fallen in love”). But soon the story turns and concentrates on the marriage of Lucy de Bourgh, trust fund party girl and daughter of one of Rhode Island’s first families, and her brilliant but socially-beneath-her husband, Thomas Snow.

Thomas was killed in a freak accident years earlier, and also years after he and Lucy got divorced. Time, however, has not softened Lucy’s opinion of the man she calls “that monster.” But was it Thomas or Lucy herself who was the demon in the marriage? Thomas remarried and had a happy relationship the second time around, and the child he had with Lucy -Jamie, who Lucy calls “a loser” - is closer to his step-mother than to his own mother.

Perhaps because he has too much time on his hands, maybe because he is vaguely interested in a romantic relationship with Lucy, or it could be just because he can’t reconcile why the Lucy/Thomas union turned so sour, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding out what really happened to the marriage of two friends he had so very long ago. Whatever the reason, the reader benefits; learning more about Lucy often makes one sit up straight and raise an eyebrow.

"I’m still quite rich,” she says. “Richer than you think. And I’m not really a bitch. I’ve told you so much about myself that you must think I am, but that’s not the truth. I’m in good shape now—in my head and in the rest of the body. I could give you a nice life—sex included," she added. Our narrator takes note.



The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is an epic tale that chronicles the life of a fictional 19th century botanist--Alma Whittaker.  The scope of the book spans much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which faith and science intermingled and ultimately, collided.

Alma comes from a long line of botanists.  Her father, Henry Whittaker, was the son of the "Apple Magus"of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. A simple man, Henry's father was the chief caretaker of the king's trees in the 1770s.  Henry acquires his love of plants from this humble man, yet he assumes none of his scruples.

Henry considers his father a fool. He notes that his father has earned neither wealth nor position for his loyalty and devotion. Thus he scoffs at his father's amazing gifts at cultivating fruiting trees.  In Henry's eyes, his father is a mere servant to the king and the gentry. In particular, Henry compares his father to his dad's employer, Sir Joseph Banks, chief botanist for Sir Captain Cook's HMS Endeavor. By the age of 23, an inheritance made Banks one of the richest men in England. Aside from wealth, Banks was a fearless adventurer, collecting plants from all over the world in the hope of making Kew a national treasure.

Henry is only 13 when he begins stealing rare plants from Kew Gardens and selling them to collectors whom Banks has turned away.  Finally, after three years, Henry is caught.  Rather than press charges, Banks decides to make use of Henry's knowledge and fearlessness. In 1776, he arranges for Henry to work as a hand on Captain Cook's third voyage around the world.  He is to work under the tutelege of botanist David Nelson, a competent gardener at Kew.  The next three years at sea will prove pivotal to Henry's knowledge of plants and trees. Gilbert's descriptions of life at sea are depicted in graphic detail.  Elizabeth Gilbert is truly Dickensian as she describes Henry's experiences and their effect upon his moral development.

When Henry returned from his voyage, he is spurned by Banks. Henry breaks off all contact with him and journeys to Holland. There, he marries a Dutch woman, not for money (which he now has) but for social position.Soon afterward, he leaves Europe and settles down in Philadelphia. "By 1800,  Henry is "the richest man in Philadelphia and one of the richest men in the Western Hemisphere." (p. 47) In that year, his daughter, Alma Whittaker, is born. Gilbert tells us, " was as though she was born to a new kind of creature entirely, such as the world had never before seen: a mighty and newly minted American sultan." (p. 47)



Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS 1972-1975

This is the third KISS-related review that I've produced for this blog and probably the most enjoyable book of the three. While the first two were Ace Frehley and Peter Criss memoirs (while Paul Stanley's is on the way) this one is a huge oral history focusing on 1972 - 1975, the first four years of KISS's existence. Ken Sharp has done an excellent job at pulling together a variety of voices into this massive tome.

KISS emerged out of the same 1970s music scene that produced the New York Dolls, though despite playing together and wearing makeup and colorful clothing the two bands had almost nothing in common musically. As far as music critics were concerned, the New York Dolls were the band to love. But KISS, with its outrageous stage show that included fire breathing and pyrotechnics, started to accumulate a massive fan base for its live shows over its first two years of existence. The commitment that KISS showed to its show and its makeup are one of the things that really stands out in this book. Even from the earliest days playing in front of a few hundred fans, KISS never let people see them without their makeup on. They felt they had an image to maintain and wanted to stay mysterious.

Eventually KISS was the first band signed to fledgling Casablanca records, a label set up by Neil Bogart, a former head of Buddah Records. KISS's reputation as a live band preceded them and they often found themselves being kicked off of tours by more well-known bands because of their ability to upstage the headliners. However, despite their abiliy to bring fans in to live shows they remained critically despised, their first three albums barely sold and they were hardly ever played on the radio. Their manager Bill Aucoin had to pay for one of their tours with his American Express card since they were in such dire straits financially. It wasn't until the massive success of KISS Alive!, which was finally able to capture their live sound on vinyl, that they were launched into the stratosphere of successful bands.

This book does a great job at collecting the voices of the bands that toured with KISS, and while many of them disagree on the quality of the music produced, most of them respected KISS for their ability to put on a show that the fans could remember. Probably most striking for me are the examples throughout this book of KISS's ability to connect with fans (the chapter on their adoption of the Cadillac, Michigan high school football team is a particularly nice example that I had been unaware of) and their support of the bands that eventually opened for them on tour. They certainly had musically rivalries (Aerosmith being one of the big ones) but most of the other bands contributing to the book have nothing but compliments about the way that they were treated by the members of KISS.



Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

Will Bellman is a ten year old outside playing with his friends, Luke and Fred and his cousin Charles. Will has a new slingshot that is the envy of the group. On a dare, Will takes aim with his slingshot and kills a rook. On finding that the bird has died the boys leave but not before hundreds of silent rooks arrive to where the dead bird is. Will is sure he sees a boy all dressed in black near the bird. No one else sees the boy.

Will is the poor relation of Charles whose father owns Bellman Mills. Will's father has abandoned his family leaving them dependent on Bellman's charity. Will's grandfather ("old" Mr. Bellman) hates Will and his mother, believing them responsible for his son abandoning the family. As the boys grow older Charles's father takes Will on at the mill. Will wants to learn all aspects of the business and Charles, who is set to inherit the business, has an interest only in art. Charles heads off to Italy while Will stays at the mill gradually taking on more responsibility. As the boys grow older, each one dies, leaving Will the only survivor of the group who killed the rook.

Will's fortune grows as he takes over and expands the mill. His life is good, he marries and has children. Then the unspeakable happens - his wife becomes ill and dies. His children start to die as the disease spreads among them. With only his daughter Dora left, Will makes a deal with the mysterious Mr. Black. Dora survives but is disfigured, looking something like a newborn bird.

Will and Mr. Black launch Bellman and Black, a business providing funeral apparel and accouterments. Will grow ever more successful but can not find Mr. Black to discuss business plans with. Will begins to wonder just who he has made this deal with. As he becomes more successful, Will starts to loose his soul...and quite possibly his mind.



How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

--Leonard Cohen

The latest Inspector Gamache mystery takes place
during snowy December in Three Pines, a Quebec mountain village secluded by
heavy forests. It’s a place where Wifi and cell phones don’t connect, and
“where phones are still attached to the walls.” But now this snow-globe pretty
place is shattered by a crack, and that crack’s name is murder.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté de
Québec is asked to go to Three Pines by a friend to check on an elderly woman
who has not shown up for an arranged holiday visit. The septuagenarian, named
Constance Pineault, is found dead, head bashed in, on her bedroom floor. But it
turns out that Pineault was not always her name, it was Ouellet, and she was
the last surviving member of the famous Ouellet quintuplets. The author modeled these quints after the real-life
Dionne sisters, who were born in Ontario in the 1930s and who were the first
quintuplets known to survive their infancy.



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