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Blog: Staff Picks

staff picks

Casting Lots: Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World by Susan Silverman

SilvermanI first heard of this book when listening to Terry Gross interview its author, Rabbi Susan Silverman, sister of comedian Sarah Silverman.

The writer was only two years old when her infant brother, Jeffrey, died in a crib accident while her parents were away on vacation. Their marriage was never the same after that, marred by constant arguments and eventual divorce. Growing up, Susan suffered from such horrible separation that even going to school was pure agony. She still imagines the worst disasters when family members are delayed and fail to call. “Therapy and Zoloft have helped her life immensely,” she wryly comments in one of her many interviews.

In college, at Boston University, she met Yosef Abramowitz at an anti-Apartheid rally. He was a devout Jew and fervent activist for social justice. Susan was instantly smitten. The book is a moving depiction of Susan’s journey from anxiety-ridden child of liberal, atheist parents through her decision to go to seminary in Israel to be near her beloved and to learn about Judaism. Finally, it is the story of their marriage, the birth of their children, and Susan’s life-long yearning to adopt children from abroad.

Casting Lots is remarkable in terms of its heartfelt prose, its humor, and its realistic portrayal of marriage and family. The spirituality and love she shares with her husband allow them to lead a life filled with loving-kindness. “We are all broken,” she writes. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship—unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be” (Casting Lots, p. 97). Indeed, both she and Yosef quietly fulfill the Talmudic edict, “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”

Sara's Picks  Religion  Memoirs  Jewish Literature  Family Drama  Biographies  Adoption


Louise Miller's The City Baker's Guide to Country Living

MillerCBG<i>The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living</i> by Louise Miller is the perfect summer book! It’s just what you might want for an escapist read that has some, but not too much, substance.

Thirty-two-year-old Olivia Rawlings works as a pastry chef at a fancy Boston club ­-- that is, she did work there until she dropped a heavy tray of flaming Baked Alaska that lit the curtains, and then the posh club, on fire (oops).

Escaping to Guthrie, Vermont, to visit her best friend Hannah Doyle, Olivia starts to see the appeal of retreating to a quieter country way of life. The local inn, The Sugar Maple, is looking for a baker who can bake the inn’s way back to glory in the Coventry County Fair apple pie contest, and Livvy might be just the person to do it. Cantankerous Margaret Hurley, the inn’s owner, hires Livvy as the pastry chef on a trial basis after an interview in which she was required to bake sample pies (she scores big with a frangipane tart).  Olivia and her huge dog Salty move into an old sugaring house on the inn’s property, and they are soon the talk of the quiet rural town. Olivia’s unorthodox hair colors, love of bellying up to the bar, and insistence on doing things her way ruffle some very tradition bound feathers. 

I enjoyed this book so much. The author, a blogger and a pastry chef in Boston, writes so appetizingly about food, you will be hungry the entire time you are reading her debut novel. The book has a lovely small town feel, especially as the characters endearingly include Olivia and Salty into their traditions.   Add in some love, romance, banjo and fiddle music, and arch rivalry over pie recipes, and you’ve got a book you can’t put down. 

Romance  Nancy's Picks  Food and Drink  Food  Contemporary  Chick Lit


Alice Hoffman's The Marriage of Opposites

HoffmanMoOHoffman is the author of more than 30 works of fiction including The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Her latest novel, The Marriage of Opposites, published in hardcover last summer, was just released in paperback. Of all her many works, this is my favorite.

The setting of this multigenerational family saga is the town of Charlotte Amalie on the very lush island of St Thomas. The time is the early 1800’s. Rachel Pomié, the central character, is a headstrong daughter of a Jewish family, prominent in their community of refugees who escaped the Spanish Inquisition. Rachel is smart, speaks her mind, and doesn’t like to follow rules.  She is married off to Isaac Petit, an elderly widower who already has three children; this merger of families will save her family’s business.  After her husband dies, his family sends Frederic, Isaac’s handsome young nephew from France, to save what is now their business and to decide what to do with Rachel and the children.  The relationship between Rachel and Frederic becomes a scandal, as they fall in love, have more children together, and marry.  (One of their children will become known as The Father of Impressionism, Camille Pisarro.) The Jewish elders refuse to recognize their marriage for some time, as the pair is related – though only through marriage. Rachel is sustained throughout by her dear maid and friend Adelle, and her daughter Jestine. 

For me,The Marriage of Opposites got off to a bit of a slow start, as the first four chapters cover a great deal of history and descriptions of time, place, and setting. But once the story was set, I couldn’t put the book down.  Hoffman masterfully blends fact and fiction, adding in love and romance, business and travel, plus a dash or two of mysticism that give fabulous texture to her storytelling without overpowering the story.

This is a pleasure to read, and it will be fabulous for book club discussion.

Romance  Nancy's Picks  Historical Fiction  Art


Bill Broun's Night of the Animals

BrounLondon, 2052. The UK is an extreme surveillance state governed by Henry IX, a.k.a. “Harry9.” Inequality and substance abuse are rampant (the drug of choice is Flôt, a legal hallucinogen with ruinous withdrawal effects). The natural world has withered away and most of the world's remaining “natural” animals (i.e., not genetic clones) are confined to zoos. To add to unpleasantness, the sighting of the Urga-Rampos comet is causing cultists to come out of the woodwork. They're conducting mass ritualistic suicide, and they're bent on taking animals with them.

Enter Cuthbert “Cutty” Handley—a homeless “Flôt sot” of some 90 years (lifespan extending medicine and artificial organs are one positive of this future). As a child, Cutty's brother Drystan disappeared while playing in the woods one day. Drystan may or may not have become a sort of “Christ of the Otters,” as evidenced by the large mustelid Cutty saw in his brother's stead. Since then, Cutty may or may not have gained the ability to communicate with animals. His grandmother called this gift “The Wonderments.” His primary care provider, Dr. Bajwa, calls it a sign of mental illness. Either way, Cutty has taken it upon himself to free the animals from the London Zoo—especially the otters—as an act of atonement, and as a way of seeking closure with his long lost brother.

At the risk of sounding cliché, this book is unlike anything I have ever read. The story works together speculative fiction, magical realism, and world religions (Christian, Sufi, and Sikh faiths play important roles in the characters' lives). The writing is an interesting patchwork of “fading and emerging” dialects, slang, and jargon, with footnotes to help us out when needed. I would recommend this book to fans of science fiction, offbeat literature, and animal lovers. I’m definitely interested in seeing what first time author Broun does next.


SciFi  Magical Realism  Jake's Picks  Fantasy  Dystopia  Contemporary


Emma Straub's Modern Lovers

StraubModern Lovers, by Emma Straub, is a whimsical look at marriage and middle age. Elizabeth, Zoe, and Andrew were college friends and former band members. They are now approaching 50 and coming to terms with all that entails. Elizabeth and Andrew married after college and Zoe and Jane bonded over good cuisine and married soon afterward. While Andrew lives off his trust money and dapples in various careers, Elizabeth retires her guitar for a real estate license. She proves very adept at selling condos in Manhattan and homes in Brooklyn. In describing her job, the reader gets a taste of Straub’s quick wit:

<blockquote>No one was ever interested in the business part of Elizabeth’s job—all anyone ever wanted to know was if she found people’s sex toys and whether the sellers were getting a divorce. No one wanted to buy bad juju. Shopping for a new place to live was easier than shopping for a new husband or wife, and less traumatic than going into analysis. (p. 43)</blockquote>

But late middle age finds the marriages of both couples lacking passion. Similarly, the restaurant is zapping every ounce of energy from Elizabeth and Jane, Elizabeth is living her life through those of her clients, and Andrew is, yet again, seeking a challenge. Complicating life further is the romance between their teenage children. When an upcoming movie of the band and one of its now-dead members is about to be made, secrets from the past are revealed and change is imminent.

In the hands of a lesser author, Modern Lovers would seem trite. But Straub has written a delightful summer romp and captures the angst that is part of life at any stage.

Sara's Picks  Romance  Contemporary  Chick Lit


Jane Hamilton's The Excellent Lombards

HamiltonThe Excellent Lombards, by Jane Hamilton, is a poignant coming of age novel that accurately captures the angst of childhood and adolescence growing up on a 21st century family farm. The novel is told in first person narrative through the eyes of Mary Frances (Frankie) from around age 6 to 16.

The first chapter opens with a scene of haymaking just before a storm touches down on the field. Frankie’s father ignores the angry clouds and ominous signs and works like a man of 20, despite his 50+ years. He is akin to a mythological hero defeating the forces of nature. Later that day at dinner, Frankie remarks on her older brother’s skepticism during the adrenaline-filled adventure:

“You know you believe it,” I beamed to him across the platter of corn. “You know you believe the one pure thing!” …But that night of the hay baling he was reminded of the truth. He knew what we’d always known, that our father could outwit a storm. It was so. It had happened. He knew there was no point, not in anything, if our father wasn’t on hand, quieting the wind; and no point either, if we weren’t there to see it.

Set in Wisconsin, where the author lives on an apple orchard, The Excellent Lombards is a moving depiction of an extended family living on hundreds of acres of land owned by that family for four generations. But bad feelings between the brothers (Frankie’s father and uncle), as well as financial burdens and suburbanization, threaten to put an end to her hopes of inheriting the land.

Sara's Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary  Coming of Age