Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano


Francesca Marciano is an Italian filmmaker and a gifted, bilingual author. Writing in both Italian and English, her stories are crisp and poignant. They are thematically similar to those of Jhumpa Lahiri and it is fitting that Lahiri reviews her book on the back cover. Both authors explore the act of expatriation and its accompanying sense of dislocation.

The title story, "The Other Language," captures the book's essence. In it, Emma, an Italian adolescent of 12, travels to a Greek island with her father and younger siblings. She has recently lost her mother and is trying to sublimate her grief. She does so by immersing herself in the English language, believing she can become a different person in doing so. In part, this contributes to the crush she develops on one of two British brothers who are also summering on the island.

That summer forever marked the moment when she swam all the way to the island and landed in a place where she could be different from whom she assumed she was. There were so many possibilities. She didn't know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on. (p. 22)

This story is a coming of age tale. It is about a grown, now-married woman who looks back on her first crush and a particularly troubling period of her youth. "The Other Language" explores illusions and the differences between our young selves and the people we eventually become.

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An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Rabih
Alameddine is a Lebanese-American author who lives in both San
Francisco and Beirut. He is the author of three previous novels.

An Unnecessary Woman
is a departure from the others in that it features an older woman as
its first-person narrator. It is through her eyes that we come to know
other characters, and indeed, the city of Beirut itself.

Aaliya
is 72, divorced, childless, and living alone in an apartment once
shared with her husband. Now, her sole companions are the fictional ones
in the books she has scattered in her apartment. She was once
modestly employed as a bookseller, but when the bookstore closed, Aaliya
was forced into retirement. Her main occupation now is that of a
translator of literary fiction. She begins a new translation every
January. Yet her translations are purely for herself; the
manuscripts - all 37 of them - sit in boxes in her apartment, never to be
published.

This is a contemplative book, its story
composed of the inner reflections of the narrator. And like thoughts,
the prose weaves between past and present. Beirut is as much a character
as the other people who pass through Aaliya's life. War-torn Beirut.
Bombs from without and from within.

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The Lost Girls of Rome by Donato Carrisi

Monica is an intern doing a rotation with the paramedics. Tony is an experienced paramedic but nothing in their training prepared them for what they found when the responded to a call of a man having a heart attack. Not only were the words "kill me" etched into Jeremiah Smith's chest, in the corner of his room were mementos from female homicide victims. One of whom was Monica's sister.

Clemente and Marcus have been asked to look into the disappearance of Lara, an architecture student who has disappeared. Could she be one of Smith's victims? Marcus is missing most of his memory. He was shot in the head and survived but he doesn't remember anything. What he can do is "feel" things about people from their possessions and that skill will be helpful in finding Lara. Not police officers, Clemente and Marcus are actually part of a group called the penitenzieri. These are rogue priests who keep track of admissions made in the confessional and then they mete out their own forms of justice. Sometimes they just report anonymous tips to the police, sometimes they actually take care of the wrongdoers. Supposedly disbanded by the Vatican, they have gone underground.

Sandra Vega, newly widowed, is a forensic analyst with the Rome police department. She is actually a crime scene photographer working on another crime scene when she becomes involved with Marcus. Unknowingly her husband's death becomes of interest to Marcus.

This book is really a layered thriller. There is the penitenzieri, the disappearance of Lara, Smith's involvement in the other murders and the death of Sandra's husband. While this sounds like it would be confusing it's not. Each story line plays off the others until the come crashing together at the end. Each character is interesting in themselves. Marcus is the crux of all the threads. The book moves along and the end is well worth the read.

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All the Songs: The Story Behind Every Beatles Release by Jean-Michel Guesdon

The first thought that might cross your mind when you see the new Beatles book All the Songs might be "I Want You", which will soon be followed by "She's So Heavy". The book is an enormous, Long, Long, Long nearly 700 page coffee table book that tells the story behind every single Beatles release, which is a problem if you are planning on taking the book Here, There and Everywhere. You won't need Help to get through this book though, since it's a quick, entertaining read. It may seem that It's All Too Much but the fact that the library owns this book will make it easier for you to commit a major part of your living room to it (and it won't cost you a bunch of Money either).

Authors Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon cover all the Beatles albums from Please Please Me to Let it Be, providing facts and trivia for each of the songs on the albums. Especially helpful is the way that they credit all the co-credited Lennon and McCartney songs to the one who actually wrote the song. The authors cover the equipment that the band used, from their initial guitar/bass/drums lineup to their more experimental sounds, and also provide the outside musicians (mostly uncredited) who participated. It even lists the number of takes that each song required, from 1 for Hey Jude to 117 for Sexy Sadie.

This book is perfect reading for any Beatles fan's Birthday (or any other Day in the Life), and while it won't start a Revolution, Beatles fans should be sure to not Let it Be.

Good Night!

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My Mistake by Daniel Menaker


After graduating from Swarthmore (he wanted Dartmouth, like
his brother Mike - Mike of the "dazzling smile" - but his debonair father and
redoubtable mother insisted he go to Swarthmore where they had met), Menaker
started as a fact checker at The New Yorker in 1969. He soon moved on to the
position of editor, a job he held  for
over 20 years, in spite of the magazine’s legendary chief editor, William Shawn, advising
him early on to find a job elsewhere.

In addition to editing at The New Yorker, Menaker also wrote for the magazine and for many other
publications. Later in his life, he was
Editor-in-Chief at Random House, and he also published two books of his short
stories. So the man knows his way around
a sentence, and there are plenty of beautifully-crafted ones in this short,
simple, and very moving memoir about his life in publishing, his family, and
his cancer. That last bit made me sit up
straight certainly, but as he has recently had his fourth "clean" CT scan, he
is happy and hopeful, even pointing out the diseases’ good aspects ("It allows you to
dodge onerous commitments, it strengthens friendships"). His illness is also the reason he has written
this lovely book, in which he takes stock of his life.

And cancer aside (OK, it’s a big aside. . .) it’s been a much
better than average life, complete with a loving family, an interesting and
successful career, and a love affair with words; all this in spite of the pall cast
by his brother’s death after a family football game on Thanksgiving 1967. Menaker
usually had played backfield in the annual family game, but that year, he
goaded his brother, who had bad knees, into playing it. "My mistake," he writes of the switch in
positions, also taking those two simple words to be the title of his memoir. His brother tore a ligament in the game,
which resulted in surgery, which resulted in a blood infection that killed him
when he was not yet 30 years old.

His brother’s death haunts him over the course of his life, and he makes many references to it
throughout the book. He writes that he knows "that I didn’t take a vial of staph
bacteria and pour it into the incision during surgery, and I know that the
accident’s outcome was violently random and arbitrary, and I know that we all
tend to take responsibility for things we aren’t responsible for. But on the other hand, try not to tell me
that there’s no chance that my brother would be alive today if I had not done
what I did."

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The Last Animal by Abby Geni


The Last Animal is a collection of thematically linked short
stories - a debut collection by a young and promising Chicago writer. In
it, the relationship between humanity and the natural world come
together in elegant prose.

In the first story, "Terror
Birds," Lory Geni uses an ostrich farm as the background for the human
drama that slowly unfolds. The story is told in first person narration
by Jack, a nine-year-old boy, and his mother, Sandy. The story is
simple: Jack has seen his father making love to a young woman who tends
the ostriches - a woman he once adored. He also knows this woman phones his father when his mother is out and that they argue. The child does not understand what he is witnesses, yet he understands its destructive nature. Similarly, the
wild ostrich, a dangerous, unpredictable animal capable of killing a
human if aroused, serves as a metaphor for unleashed passions. As Jack
remarks: "I loved the ostriches - and all the other monsters - for what they
were: sheer brute force, untempered by either conscience or
consciousness." (p. 27) Although "Terror Birds" deals with themes of
adultery and deception, it has no real villains. Geni is merely depicting the
emotional damage wrought when love dwindles and restraint fails.

Another
story, "Captivity," explores a daughter's relationship with her mother
as she grieves the disappearance of her brother.  Lucy clings to hope
that he is alive; her mother believes him to be dead and wishes for
closure. Both women are held captive by the confusion their grief
causes. "I missed my mother more," Lucy confesses, "than when we were on
opposite ends of the same city...It broke my heart that two such
interesting women found silence easier than speech, standing side by
side in the kitchen as she grated cheese into the pasta and I chopped
the vegetables, or watching television with our heads cocked at the same
angle." (p. 73)

Lucy works at the aquarium (presumably
Shedd Aquarium) and soon takes refuge there.  She hides at closing time
and begins to roam the empty rooms at night. One of her daytime tasks is
to dive into the octopus tank and feed the octopuses before live
audiences. Now she seeks solace with the octopus, Falco. Geni's
passages of the museum at night are among the finest in the book. The
sense of loneliness the animal might be experiencing is juxtaposed with
Lucy's ability to empathize with it.

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Mr. Selden's Map of China by Timothy Brook

John Selden lived in England in the 1600's. Born in 1584 he died in 1654 leaving his considerable collection of books and papers to the Bodleian Library at Oxford. There were approximately 8,000 items including a map of China drawn by a Chinese cartographer. Selden was an orientalist and legal scholar specializing in the laws of the high seas. He was born the son of a fiddler and rose to join the House of Commons in 1621. He was also imprisoned in the Tower of London twice.

The map (now known as the "Selden Map") was filed away with his other papers and not looked at for years until 2008 until it was found in a storage room. Timothy Brook, the author,was asked to take a look at the map which had been deemed "just too perfect." At 63 inches long and 38 inches wide the map was made up of sections that were glued together because paper that large was not possible to make at that time.

Brook found some anomalies in the map. It covered more space that similar maps from the Ming Dynasty, so it was not a copy of any previously known map. China is not at the center of the map and all map making traditions from that time didn't allow for this. It also shows lands other than China. It has a compass rose and only European maps had those. Plus it is astoundingly accurate - it is very similar to what a map of the China coast would look like today. The Selden map is at least 500 years old, so these differences from the "normal" maps of the time are not insignificant.

This book is Brook's attempt to explain a map that doesn't fit in with the mapmaking standards of the time it was crafted. Brook's starts with a history of Europe at the time. The spice trade was in full swing by this time and the East India Company was trying to get more trade partners, especially in China. There were an estimated 10,000 trade ships circling the globe in the 1600's. Since Selden's international law expertise involved the  laws of the seas, it is not unusual that he would have acquired a map like this. There are gaps in the history of the map, but references to it surface throughout history. 

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Identical, by Scott Turow

My mother loved a good murder. She devoured anything by Dorothy Sayers, Sue Grafton, Ruth Rendell, and so many others who wrote about death by unnatural causes, disappearances, and other sorts of mysteries. But Mom especially enjoyed reading about such things in the Chicago newspapers. She had her theory (involving a meat grinder) early on about what became of candy heiress Helen Brach, but she was stumped by the vicious slaying in the Kenilworth mansion of Valerie Percy, one of the identical twin daughters of millionaire Charles Percy, then a Senate candidate. To this day, that murder remains unsolved.
 
In his latest book, Identical, author Scott Turow borrows some of the basics from the Percy tragedy, but spins them a little differently. There is an heiress, brutally murdered in the mansion of her father, a Greek millionaire named Zeus. She, however, is not an identical twin, but Cass and Paul, the two prime suspects, are. One was her beau, whom she intended to jilt, and the other is a state senator.
 
 
In addition to the Percy murder, Turow’s latest novel finds inspiration in the Greek myth of twin brothers Castor and Pollux, born to Leda after she was raped by Zeus. Turow also offers the reader a lot of information about the forensics of fingerprinting and DNA matching, and, in addition, his story includes a lawsuit for defamation of character and a lot of dirty politics. So, yes, there’s a lot going on in Identical, some of it pretty darn interesting, but, alas, some plot twists border on the ridiculous. I think Mom would have figured out who the killer was in the first 30 pages.

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A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante and Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante

Wow, this is a fast page
turner/psychological novel/ thriller/almost mystery from the author of the very
popular Turn of Mind (2011). Dr. John Taylor is a trusted,
respected plastic surgeon who devotes his life to reconstructing the faces of
damaged children.

When he is found dead in a
hotel room, the detective reaches out to his wife for help and discovers that
he has several...wives that is. Deborah,
his wife for several decades, is the one everyone knows: a local society
figure. She knew about - and gave her
tacit approval to - wife #2, MJ, an accountant. Then there is a third wife and each wife is in a different city. All
three wives are suspects in the mysterious death of Dr. Taylor because...(I
can’t tell you! Read the book!) The
narration moves from wife to wife with each chapter, building suspense.

I really enjoyed reading
this, and I could not put it down.

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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste (2014), by Valerie Martin, is a historical and psychological thriller incorporating different mediums - newspaper accounts, court records, ship's logs, and diary entries. It is written in both first and third person narration. The disparate voices all revolve around one event - the discovery of the ship, the Mary Celeste, apparently abandoned in the North Atlantic near the Azores on December 4, 1872. According to the ship's log, she had been floating unmanned for three weeks. There was no sign of violence aboard the ship, her cargo was untouched, and the ship's sails were up. What became of the captain, his wife and two-year-old daughter, as well as the small crew, has been an unsolved mystery for the last 142 years.

The Mary Celeste's master was Benjamin Briggs, an experienced captain from a respected, seafaring family. But the book does not open with his story. Instead, it begins in 1859 with the ill-fated voyage of another ship - that carrying his aunt, Maria Gibbs, wife of the captain. The spell-binding description of the turbulent, unpredictable ocean and what it means to be the lone woman on a ship of men, is rendered in captivating prose. The reader is hooked from the first page.

The author then draws us into the life of the future wife of Benjamin Briggs - Sallie. Sallie is one of two daughters - the rational and cheerful one. Her younger sister, thirteen-year-old Hannah, has become the substitute mother of the child left orphaned by the 1859 tragedy. Hannah is plagued by visions of ghosts, including that of Maria Gibbs. She believes the ghost wishes to reclaim her son and that she eventually does. The reader, from the very first chapter, is left to wonder if the ghost she sees is real or a figment of an unstable mind.

Later, the story shifts to the investigations of  Phoebe Grant, a female journalist and skeptic researching Spiritualism. Through her work, she meets Hannah (now called Violet Petra) and the writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, an ardent Spiritualist. Now a young woman, Hannah has become a medium, living in the homes of wealthy families and sponsoring seances for them. Over the years, Phoebe becomes her only true friend, albeit an unbelieving one. As she watches a group of people paying money to a "spirit photographer" who promises to capture the spirit of their deceased in the picture he takes of them, Phoebe's distaste for the charlotanism reaches its peak. She writes:

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