Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Violet Kupersmith, the author of this compelling collection of short stories, is the daughter of an American father and a Vietnamese mother. Her mother's family came to the states in 1975 - one of many boat families escaping the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Like the author Karen Russell, Kupersmith weaves fantasy into realistic settings. The stories are a modern re-working of Vietnamese folktales - folktales told to her by her grandmother. Ghosts inhabit all of these tales. As she explains in the blog of the Huffington Post:

Vietnamese ghosts aren't that scary as long as you know what it is that they want. If it isn't staying dead then there's probably a reason, and all you have to do is give the ghost the thing that it's seeking - revenge, redemption, a resolution...(But) it's the ghost without a clear purpose that frightens me, and those are the ones who tend to populate the stories that I encountered during my solo travels around Vietnam after college.

Aimless ghosts likewise inhabit the stories in this collection. The title story, "The Frangipani Hotel," takes place in the historic hotel that still operates in downtown Hanoi. The narrator is a young woman whose grandfather owned the hotel and whose family still owns and runs it. The story employs wonderful humor and a thrilling ghost story into tightly woven prose.



The Secret Rooms: A true story of a haunted castle, a plotting duchess, and a family secret by Catherine Bailey

Secrets. Every family has them, but maybe not to the extent the family of the Duke of Rutland has. An old aristocratic British family, the title was created for Thomas Manners in 1525 and it's been a direct line ever since. Catherine Bailey was at Belvoir Castle (the Duke's home) to research a book. The current Duke had given her permission to look at the private family papers kept at the castle which were kept in the Muniment Rooms, locked up for years. There were hundreds of boxes containing the family's private letters and papers, ledgers, files, household records, rare manuscripts. Bailey was there to research a book about England and World War I and finds family information about the war that certainly wasn't what she was looking for. She realized there were distinct gaps in the documents. One gap dealt with the time surrounding the death of a child and the largest gap included the time John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, who would have been serving in the British Army during World War I. John had sequestered himself in the rooms and was culling the documents when he died.

Bailey has written a book about the family during the time of the 8th and 9th Dukes. John Henry manners was the 9th Duke of Rutland. His mother was Violet, his father, Henry and he had several siblings. His father was a non entity while his mother was a force majeure. What she wanted, she got. She got her way by subterfuge, giving and calling in favors and by being socially indispensable. John was the second son of  Henry and Violet. Robert Charles was the oldest son - the darling, the heir. A year older than John, he died when he was 9. Shortly after the death, which officially was attributed to TB, John was sent to live with his uncle Charles.

John was fine with Charles and then World War I happened. All over his father's estate men were volunteering for the army. Henry was actually encouraging the men to enlist. John enlisted and Violet objected strenuously. She made a plan to protect John, who was now the heir, never telling John of her plan but bringing Charles in on it. She had to keep John away from the front. She called in favors from men she knew in the War Department, spoke to generals, lied and made up stories, called in favors and basically orchestrated John's life.

The secret rooms of the book title are the Muniment rooms - forbidden to household staff and visitors until Bailey was allowed in the rooms held all the family secrets. The haunted castle comes from family legend that a curse exists that makes the oldest male child (and heir) in each generation die without inheriting the title. The plotting Duchess is Violet but the family secret is John.



A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern

A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home by Sue Halpern is the true account of Sue and her labradoodle Pransky, a therapy dog. Sue, a writer who lives in Vermont, has a husband who traveled a lot for work, an adolescent daughter who went away for school, and a dog in her late adolescence who was bored and needed a job. Pransky has a very calm and sympathetic temperament and became an excellent therapist.

Sue describes the process of training Pransky to be a therapy dog and the testing process which qualifies him. In most of the book she tells of the years they spend in the County Nursing Home and the wonderful people they meet.

Sue has subtitled the book Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher.  She writes delightfully and thoughtfully about situations that are difficult to handle. Pransky is a natural. Sue, especially at the beginning, is less so, and what she learns about the people she meets and their life situations is helpful for anyone with friends or relatives in a care facility. A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home is a mix of psychology, philosophy, life stories, end of life situations, and dog training. It is a special book about special people and a special dog.

For more information on Sue and on Pransky go to Sue Halpern's website:



The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin is a vibrant, young novelist who recently published  In the Age of Love and Chocolate (2013), the first book in the Birthright Series for young adults. She is best known for her young adult novel, Elsewhere, published in 2005 when she was only 28. Translated into 20 languages, it received an American Library Association Notable Children's Book award and was nominated for a Quill Award. To date, Zevin has published 8 novels, 5 of which are for teens.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an adult novel whose themes are universal and would appeal to good readers at any age. It is set in a fictional New England town and the action takes place in and around a bookstore. The main protagonist of the story is A.J. Fikry - a bookseller who is both a curmudgeon and a literary snob. He has recently lost his beloved wife, and at 39, has alienated all around him. His tastes are academic, at best, and definitely not suitable for a successful bookseller.

When a new publisher's representative, Amelia, visits the store, she asks A.J. what he likes.

Like, he repeats with distaste. How about I tell you what I don't like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where there shouldn't be--basically gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful--nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.  (pp. 13-14)

A. J.'s list of dislikes goes on for another page. What he does like are short story collections which, of course, sell few copies.



Graveyards of Chicago by Matt Hucke and Ursula Bielski

I picked up the recently revised edition of Graveyards of Chicago (originally published in 1999) expecting to give it a quick skim and move on. Instead, I found a very readable chronicle of Chicago history filled with anecdotes of famous, infamous and obscure now deceased residents. This is not surprising since the book was published by Lake Claremont Press which publishes all kinds of fun and informative local history books.

The book is structured by geography, focusing on Chicago cemeteries first and then the suburban ones. It gives the history of each cemetery, offers up their most interesting architectural features, lists famous residents and destinations and provides lore, which in the case of Bremen Township's largely deserted but supposedly haunted Bachelors Grove Cemetery is the main offering. Legendary dead denizens such as Resurrection Mary, who haunts Justice's Resurrection Catholic Cemetery and Graceland Cemetery's girl in a box Inez Clarke are profiled and you'll discover less well known but still interesting ones as well.

There is no shortage of buried celebrities to be found in the Chicagoland area. A trip to Hillside's cemeteries will let you explore the graves of Al Capone and many of his gangland colleagues and competitors. Musician Howlin' Wolf, Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, mayors Richard J. Daley and Harold Washington are among the recognizable names whose markers can be found in the area. There are even Indian burial grounds and pet cemeteries to be explored in a day trip.

If the book were just a collection of recognizable names then it would probably get old very fast but for me, the real pleasure to be found in the book is the Chicago history that the authors stuff into the chapters. The section about Emma Goldman's grave is also about the Haymarket riot, famous Chicago names such as Marshall Field, Philip Armour and George Pullman are all here and the sections about the Jewish and other ethnic cemeteries are often more interesting for their history than for their residents. Possibly the least appealing part of this book is that you may find yourself dedicating too many future summer weekends exploring the graveyards of the area and who has time for that? But seriously, this book is definitely worth a thumb-through and possibly more for anyone interested in local history.



Reproduction is the Flaw of Love by Lauren Grodstein

For there was that law of life, so cruel and so just, which demanded that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.
Norman Mailer (The Deer Park, 1955)

Reproduction is the Flaw of Love
is an engaging first novel by Lauren Grodstein. It explores the
responsibilities of parenthood while portraying the limits of love.

Miller is twenty-eight and living with his girlfriend, Lisa, in
Brooklyn. They have been together for two years. Lisa is holed up in
their bathroom waiting for the results of a pregnancy test. She is
stalling for hours and unable to face the truth. Meanwhile, Joel is
waiting for Lisa to emerge. While he is doing so, he reflects on his

On the surface, this seems like a simple
plot. As the story unfolds, we realize that Joel's fear of commitment
is shaped by his relationship with his mother and the marriage of his
parents in general. He is a good son and feels responsible for his
mother's well-being. His father is an average guy who once aspired to
success but is now middle-aged, over-weight and plainly irresponsible
about his own well-being.

The characters in this book are
all sympathetically drawn. There are no heroes and no villains. This
is a tale of what it is like to be in one's twenties, governed by
passion and possessing little insight into oneself. Ultimately, it is
about the decisions we make before and after self-awareness.



The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Don Tillman is a genetics professor at an unnamed university in Australia. Some people say he is brilliant. He may be but he is horribly, laughably socially inept. He decides it's time to find a wife.

Don has had some relationships with women: his mother, his sister, an elderly woman he met, so he is not entirely unaware of  females. He designs the "Wife Project" to facilitate his search. He doesn't want to waste any time as his schedule is tightly regulated. This works for him. The consistency from day to day, week to week, and his literal view of the world is what he believes allows him to function. Don consults his married friends, Gene and Claudia. Claudia is a therapist and Gene a psychological researcher. The are outwardly happily married. They revise the 14 page questionnaire.

Don's lack of social nuance is about to cause some problems. He creates a profile on an online dating site and provides links to his questionnaire. He attends speed dating sessions, using the questionnaire as a guideline, he attends parties designed to facilitate relationships. Don winds up with 304 responses. No one matches completely although some women come close.

Gene steps in and sorts through the responses. He sends Rosie to meet Don. Rosie appears not to meet any of the criteria the questionnaire was designed to find. Rosie is 30, a bartender, doesn't exercise, smokes and has red hair in spikes. She also has a rather laid back outlook. But as Don and Rosie are forced into spending time together, Don begins to realize he needs to rethink his methodology.



Chose the Wrong Guy, Gave Him the Wrong Finger, by Beth Harbison

Sometimes you’re not in the mood to eat a meal at a fine-dining restaurant. A fast-food cheeseburger will satisfy. Sometimes you’re not in the mood to read a book by a brilliant literary author. Beth Harbison will satisfy.

Harbison’s When in Doubt, Add Butter was a fun read for me last year, and its title has become
my mantra. While I can’t say either one
those statements is true in regards to her latest book, I felt compelled to
find out which of two brothers main character Quinn Barton awarded the wrong
finger to.

Ten years earlier, Quinn left groom Burke Morrison at the
altar when his best man pulled her aside to say her intended had cheated on her
multiple times. To complicate matters
further, the best man was Burke’s brother Frank. And to kick the craziness up another notch, Quinn
becomes a runaway bride and heads to Vegas with Frank. But that relationship didn’t work out either.

After she returns from her version of "The Hangover," Quinn
ends up solo, working in her family’s Middleburg, Virginia, bridal shop for nearly a decade.
Then the Morrison boys' grandmother decides to marry a younger guy she met
online. The upcoming nuptials in
Middleburg bring both Burke and Frank back to town, and bring their grandmother
to Quinn’s bridal shop for the perfect dress.



Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses by Chris Nashawaty

Glancing at some of the titles of films that Roger Corman has produced over the six decades that he has been an independent film producer, one might think that the idea of a book celebrating the man might be a little strange, to say the least. Films like Attack of the Crab Monster, The Young Nurses and The Brain Eaters were all made on the cheapest possible budgets and their posters often promised much more than they delivered. Many of them were filmed in a weekend on recycled sets or with footage "borrowed" from other films.

However, if you take a look at some of the actors, directors and producers who have come out of Corman's "school" then you might reconsider his importance and admit that he perhaps deserves the honorary Oscar that he received in 2009. Directors who were given an early career boost creating films for Corman include Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorcese and Peter Bogdanovich, while young actors appearing in his films include Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson, who worked with him for a decade. Pair this with the fact that nearly all of Corman's hundreds of films ended up making money and you have a pretty strong argument that he is among the most successful and influential film producers of all time.

Chris Nashawaty's book is an oral history celebration of all things Corman and includes snippets and anecdotes from most of the important Hollywood types who got their start with Corman, as well as many whom you may not have heard of. The book is a fun, chronological journey through his career and includes anecdotes about his production and negotiation style and his willingness to provide young filmmakers with a chance to show what they could do (as long as it fell within a certain budget). This book also points out Corman's willingness to hire women as directors, in an industry in which they were often shunned.

Don't let description above lead you into thinking that this is a dry book since it's actually a breezy look at the drive-in/straight to VHS/Syfy channel fare that Corman and colleagues have been pumping out through the years. It has glorious poster reproductions and film stills and is a quick read that you won't want to put down. Kudos to author Nashawaty for taking Corman's career seriously...but not TOO seriously.