Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton

This new novel by Brian Payton is set in the Aleutian islands during World War II. Did you know that the Japanese army occupied several of these islands during the war? I didn't but I do now.

John Easley is a Canadian journalist who was on assignment in Alaska when he heard about the Japanese and the Aleutian Islands. He and his fellow journalists are sent back by the military who want to keep this part of the war under wraps. He decides to make his way back to see what exactly is going on. He cons his way onto a military plane as an observer from the Canadian Air Force and it crashes on the Japanese held island of Attu. John survives along with young Airman First class Karl Bitburg, a 19 or 20 year old from Texas who is trying to escape his life. John was rejected from the military because of medical issues, but his brother Warren was in the Canadian Air Force.

John and Helen parted on bad terms and she becomes obsessed with the idea of finding him. She knows he wanted to go back to Alaska but she doesn't know where he is. The newspapers don't really report what is going on in Alaska and her few inquiries have turned up no information. She decides to go find him by securing a job with a USO show that is heading to Alaska.

While Helen is trying to find John, John and Karl have moved into a cave to get out of the Alaskan weather. They are barely surviving but they haven't been found by the Japanese. 



All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I was so sorry when this book was over. Beautifully written, with very real and likeable characters, and set during World War II, it's historic fiction at it's best.

The author brings the reader fully into several story lines, which intertwine and overlap, while writing about the war through the character's eyes. Main character Maure-Laure lives with her father, a skilled locksmith for the Paris History Museum. Creator and holder of all the keys that secure every door and exhibit, he brings his daughter to work with him to learn from the curators. Maure-Laure is blind, and her loving father creates intricate, scale replicas of all the buildings in the vicinity, so that she can memorize them and become more independent.

Another story line focuses on Werner and his sister Jutta, orphans living in a German children's home.  Werner, from a young age, is fascinated by the radio broadcasts he hears from abroad.  His skill with building and fixing radios (a new invention) brings him to the attention of the Nazi party, which recruits him for their elite training school. He is encouraged to develop his skills with the radio, then ordered to locate clandestine radio transmissions detected after all radios have been confiscated. 

Still another layer of the story involves a priceless gem (said to carry a curse) which had been housed at the Paris museum under many locks and keys until it, and three copies of it, vanished during the Nazi occupation of Paris.



How About Never - Is Never Good For You? by Bob Mankoff

Before I met the man who would become my husband, I had a
few dates with a guy I did not want a few more dates with. Whenever he called, I would say that I wasn’t
free. Finally one time when he demanded
to know just exactly when I would be free to go out, I blurted, "Never. I can never go out with you."

Remembering my outburst, I laughed when I read the title of
Bob Mankoff's book. A cartoonist as well
as the cartoon editor for the New Yorker for the last 17 years, Mankoff took
the title from the caption of one of his most famous drawings for the magazine. In that cartoon, a businessman who is on the
phone talking to someone with a terrible case of the "can't-get-the-hints" says, "No, Thursday’s out. How about never - is never
good for you?"

The ratio of cartoons to text in Mankoff’s book is about
70/30, similar to the narrative split between information about the New Yorker
and autobiography. The illustrations, of
course, are very funny, but so is the text, such as when it recounts Mankoff’s
boyhood as a Jerry Lewis wannabe, or when it details the efforts of Seinfeld’s Elaine
trying to crack the code of a New Yorker cartoon that she doesn't "get" (the
editor just "liked the kitty").

The author pays homage to numerous famous cartoonists at the
New Yorker, and his book also serves as a wonderful guide to anyone thinking about
a career in cartooning. Some
cartoonists, Mankoff says, are "head cartoonists" who have great ideas, while
others who are wonderful draftsmen he calls "hand cartoonists." The goal, of course, is to be both, as most
of the magazines' cartoonists are now. Mankoff reviews about 1000 submissions a week that come in by hand,
mail, e-mail, and fax. "Very few arrive
by sea these days,” he says. When will
the submissions end and the evolution of cartoons at the New Yorker end? "How about never? Never is good for me," Mankoff proposes.



The Rhino Records Story by Harold Bronson

Chances are pretty good that if you've purchased popular music CDs then you've purchased a CD released by Rhino Records. Leaders in the reissue market, Rhino was responsible for revitalizing the Monkees and Turtles catalogs, as well as those of many other bands forgotten or ignored by the labels that originally put their music out. It can be argued that Rhino essentially created the reissue market for CDs. The Rhino Records Story, written by Rhino co-founder Harold Bronson, is both a business book and a history of the company as seen from an insider's standpoint.

This book is subtitled "Revenge of the Music Nerds", which pretty much sums up how Bronson and Rhino co-founder Richard Foos approached their business, as compared to many of the bigger labels. Initially launching a record store, Bronson and Foos eventually expanded their business to novelty releases by artists such as Wild Man Fischer, Barnes and Barnes (of Fish Heads fame) and the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra. They were then able to start gathering material (much of it forgotten) from major labels in order to create anthologies of hits from the 60s, doo-wop and more that were major successes, therefounding the market for CD compilations and box sets. Rhino expanded its business into film, with the Johnny Depp-starring Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as one of its major releases.

You can tell that much of what Bronson and Foos approached was done with a sense of humor and joy. Their love of music seems to be what drove their label's releases and their attention to the mastering and packaging of the CDs is what also contributed their success. However, much of this book also reads as a grudge list, as Bronson is very straightforward about artists and executives whom he felt betrayed him. Luckily he also shares his favorites, as he maintained friendly relationships with many of the musicians that he helped. While Bronson's end at the company was not a positive one as he was let go by Warner Music Group which bought Rhino, one has to believe that considering where the CD market has gone in the 10 plus years since Bronson was let go perhaps he was lucky.

The way the book is organized is a bit of a mess as he jumps from chapters about the company to histories of musical acts without rhyme or reason. The histories of the Turtles and Monkees are good reads but they seem to belong to a different book. I also found that some of Bronson's chapters would be repeating information from earlier chapters. This is a book that isn't quite sure what it is and which needed a stronger editor. However, for anyone interested in the music business or anecdotes about rock bands, this book will be one that you'll want to pick up.



My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki, is a thoughtful writer who tackles diverse issues from food production to time travel. All three of her novels focus on sympathetic female personas who are challenged by outside forces. In My Year of Meats, her first novel (published in 1999), Ozeki exposes the meat industry in a way rivaling Upton Sinclair.

Jane Takagi-Little, a documentary film maker, lands a job coordinating a television series promoting meat and "wholesome" American living. The series is to be broadcast in Japan. On each assignment, Jane spends a few days filming an American family. Each show ends in the kitchen with the family cooking a favorite meat recipe.

On the other side of the globe is Akiko Ueno, a former office worker who is now a stay-at-home housekeeper. She is married to Jane's boss - an abusive tyrant whose disdain for women is shockingly apparent.  Akiko watches each program religiously and becomes drawn into the lives of the families portrayed. The programs become her escape into a safer world than her present one.

As Jane travels through the American heartland, she is welcomed into the lives of a number of families. Other than the family with two moms, they are seemingly conventional. But the "traditional" families harbor dark secrets that Jane is forced to confront. When she does so, she must face the truth about her own life as well as the tragedy of unsafe food production and illegal use of hormones.



Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

There is a plethora of books about Jack the Ripper. Most deal with him, the Ripper himself. Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough not only features Jack the Ripper's deeds but also the lesser known Thames Torso Murders that took place at the same time. The Thames murders went on for a longer period of time and caused as much fear as the Ripper murders. In 1873 a portion of a woman's torso was found in the Thames River. Shortly thereafter more body parts were found in other areas of London. The police were tasked with reassembling the body.

Pinborough's book opens in November 1886 in Paris. A woman is murdered and her body dismembered and the pieces hidden. Fast forward to London in May 1887. Jack the Ripper is out and about but so is another killer. While the Ripper victims are found in alleys and streets, the other victims are found in pieces in the river. Two distinct types of murder victims are being found.

Dr. Bond is a surgeon who frequently helps out the London police. He, along with Inspector Morse and Dr. Charles Hebbert are looking into the Thames murders. Hebbert's daughter has become engaged to James Harrington.  James has recently returned from his "grand tour" of Europe during which he became deathly ill after drinking from a river in Poland. He has changed since he came back from his tour. Shortly after Harrington came back to London his parents died from an apparent food poisoning. James became sick as well and in fact seems to become sick at regular intervals.

Bond a restless soul has taken to frequenting the city's opium dens in order to relax enough to sleep. The opium makes him hallucinate - see things his rational conscious mind doesn't believe exist. While in the dens Bond encounters a mysterious man who appears to be looking for someone among the opium smokers. This man turns out to be a Jesuit priest on the hunt for the Upir. The Upir is a legendary demon who feeds off of humans. Could this really be what the Thames killer is?



A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by Susanna Calkins

Susanna Calkins says of herself on her website " educator, historian, faculty developer by day...writer by night". She lives outside of Chicago with her family. Her first mystery novel A Murder at Rosamund's Gate was published in April 2013. Her second novel From the Charred Remains will be published in April 2014. 

To quote from her website:
"I've had a morbid curiosity about murder in seventeenth-century England ever since grad school, in those days before I earned my Ph.D. in history. The ephemera from the archives - tantalizing true accounts of the fantastic and the strange - inspired my historical mysteries."

Calkins' knowledge of her subject shows clearly in the details of history and of place and setting in her novel. Lucy Campion is a chambermaid serving in the London household of a local magistrate. When another servant in the household is killed and someone Lucy is close to is charged with the murder, Lucy becomes involved in solving the murder and in resolving some other mysterious and disturbing situations.

Among the interesting historical specifics that add to the novel are politics and religion during the time of the Restoration, the plague, the Great Fire, London's markets and its foul streets, Newgate prison, gypsy camps, and the art of the period - including miniature portraits and popular ballads.



Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon

Norman Mailer's seven decade writing career produced a dozen novels, nonfiction on a wide variety of topics including sports, politics, history and religion, plays, films (in which he served as director or actor) and essays in a variety of publications such as Esquire, Playboy, Dissent and The Village Voice (which he helped found). He ran for mayor of New York, stabbed one of his wives and became an important enough cultural figure to be credited by The Simpsons for writing Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie: The Novel. It seems appropriate that J. Michael Lennon's new Mailer biography is both massive and quirky, like the man himself.

Lennon is an English professor at Wilkes University and both an acquaintance of, and one of our foremost experts on, Norman Mailer. Much of this book is based on interviews with Mailer, who requested that Lennon write his biography, as well as Mailer's friends and acquaintances. I feel like it would have been easy for Lennon to slip into overanalytic academese so I was pleased that Lennon kept to the basic plot of Mailer's life and influence, with analysis of his individual books kept to a minimum (and often provided by Mailer himself, in his correspondence and responses to critical reception).
Mailer's love of his adopted hometown of Provincetown, MA is well documented in this book, but while Lennon tries to analyze Mailer's relationships with women, the variety of long-lasting affairs that he had over his six marriages seem indefensible as anything other than the work of a womanizer. His longest  and final marriage, which Mailer seemed most committed to preserving, seems to have only barely persevered through its affairs, which Mailer ended only after the threat of divorce. The best parts of this book are devoted to Mailer's relationships with other writers, many of which were as stormy as his marriages. He was critical in public of his colleagues and often drunk, which provided for many public confrontations.
Lennon seems to have some strange fixations in this book, such as outlining Mailer's running feud with a critic for the New York Times, which comes across as trying to resurrect an old grudge. But overall, Lennon gets much credit for keeping this book moving. Weighing in at nearly 800 pages, the book, while hefty, was not a burden to get through. This is largely due to both the variety of incidents in Mailer's life and Lennon's unwillingness to dwell on any particular events. I walked away from the book without a clear idea of how skilled a writer Mailer was (I've read perhaps four of his books) and frankly, many of his ideas seem off-the-wall when articulated. But the book does an excellent job of making Mailer's cultural impact clear and should be an enjoyable read for both those who are already fans and others who might be only slightly aware of Mailer's career.